“You’re a poet. Who are your muses?” a friend asked me recently.
My muses have always been male. For me, the word “muse,” thanks to my early readings of Robert Graves’ The White Goddess, means a human being inhabited by a spiritual presence that inspires in an artist longing, love, and the creative impulse. Graves had in mind a goddess inhabiting a female muse who inspires a heterosexual man—he consigns male muses and homosexuality to the realm of “morbid pathology”—but I’ve blithely ignored that heterosexist bias. Other books I savored in college—Ian Young’s anthologies The Male Muse (1973) and The Son of the Male Muse (1983), and May Sarton’s lesbian novel Mrs. Stephens Hears the Mermaids Singing (1965)—all allowed me to “queer” the concept of the muse.
My spiritual path, Wicca, encourages me to see the divine as immanent, God and Goddess inherent in all human beings, while homosexual desire encourages me to see the bewitching presence of the God flickering inside the erotic power of mortal men. Thus my own set of muses have been men who, for me, for a time, embodied Eros, Pan, Apollo, and the Horned God. I wanted them, pursued them, briefly possessed them, revered the beauty and divinity they distilled, then, losing them, wrote lovelorn poems as a way of coping with their loss.
My heroes have been as male as my muses. Most of the historical figures I venerate are men. A few notables would be Confederate soldiers like Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson, Jeb Stuart, and Turner Ashby. (Only the ignorant would equate this regional pride with racism, I feel compelled to add.) Then there are the contemporary celebrities who serve as erotic icons for me, actors and country-music singers I’d love to spend a BDSM-drenched weekend with. Think Gerard Butler, Colin Farrell, Tim McGraw, Jason Aldean et al.
I’ve never understood the fascination with “divas” that so many gay men share. Joni Mitchell and Sylvia Plath would be as close as I get: creative women whose work I admire, who’ve been role models of sorts. Female celebrities like Cher, Reba McIntire, Dolly Parton? All fine ladies whose music I enjoy, but nothing to wax obsessive about. Men have my full attention (except for the few women who stoke up my inner bisexual with their beauty: Jessica Lange, Jane Seymour, Lucy Lawless, and Nigella Lawson).
“You’re a dyed-in-the-wool Southerner. Surely you have a favorite female icon from the South?” the same friend asked me. Again, I’m at a bit of a loss. Belle Boyd, Confederate spy? I don’t have time for the research. Paula Deen, butter-loving cook? She’s already overexposed.
One woman comes to mind. My sister Amy is an excellent embodiment of that mix of contemporary and traditional that makes the New South. She’s as close to a contemporary Southern heroine as I can get. Few folks outside of Summers County, West Virginia, know her, but she’s one of those women who, despite my devotion to male beauty, male deities, and male energies, remind me of how splendid and multifaceted female power and female caring can be.
* * *
I did not always find her such a gift to the world. Though I was thrilled to receive a baby sister—the family story goes that I danced around the room, a four-year-old dervish, when my father called from the hospital with the news—soon enough the sibling rivalry began, first in Covington, Virginia, my mother’s hometown, then in the environs of Hinton, West Virginia, my father’s native ground, where we moved when I was around eight. My family is like many: grandmothers and mothers dote on sons, and grandfathers and fathers dote on daughters. I reveled in female attentions—my mother cherished me, and my paternal grandmother, Nanny, adored me more than anyone has before or since. Still, my father was the great power in our family. Everything revolved around him, his interests, needs, and enthusiasms. I suppose I might have been the apple of his eye till he brought Amy home (it’s hard to remember much about my first four years), but once she arrived, his attentions shifted to her almost entirely. Or at least that’s how it felt.
No amount of female loving could make up for the removal of my father’s focus. Amy was his “little doll-baby.” He punished me for minor infractions. She, on the other hand, could get away with anything. She put sugar in his lawnmower’s gas tank; she poured water in his boots. Sometimes I was blamed for such wickedness and punished with a doubled-over belt. Sometimes, if she were found guilty, she had only to cry and Daddy would hug and console her.
This inequity maddened me. In fact, I vaguely recall keeping a journal of such unfair events—budding writer that I was—so that I might report them to my ever-sympathetic grandmother. My father seemed infinitely more interested in my sister and in himself than in anything I might do. To this day, I think my hunger for male attention (usually unfulfilled) is rooted as much in this emotional history as in my homosexuality. I am fairly sure that my literary ambitions and lust for recognition (also pretty much unfulfilled) have very much to do with trying to prove to my father and, by extension, to the world, that I am remarkable, magnificently talented, worth making a fuss over, etc. No attention, no acclaim is ever enough. Only my mother’s coaching in good Southern manners keeps my narcissism from being more ravingly apparent than it is.
Such family tensions and resentments are rarely clear in photographs. A few years back, Amy and I discovered an old cache of black and white photos my parents took of us as children at Touchstone. (Touchstone was the solid structure of knotty pine my father built by hand and ran as a popular roadside diner before transforming it into a residence in which my family lived for our first five years in West Virginia.) In one photo, Amy and I are sitting on a fallen elm by the Greenbrier River. Since my father was always trying to save money, he often dressed us in hand-me-downs and cut our hair at home. Thus, we have on baggy, mismatched (well, honestly? hideous!) clothes—plaids, paisley, polyester—and are wearing bowl-cuts. Amy’s tow-headed and, despite the aforementioned fashion handicaps, adorable; I’m awkward, long-limbed, with black nerd glasses. Our heads seem oblong, like aliens’. We look like urchins. I don’t think any orphanage would have had us. “The Children from Mars,” we dubbed our past selves, flipping through the pictures and laughing till our sides ached.
Those children in the photos were country kids, though we didn’t know it at the time, since Appalachian rural and small-town life was all we knew. We helped my father with his innumerable chores around the farm, weeding gardens, digging potatoes, picking green beans, gathering firewood, carrying zinc buckets of “sugar water” to the great vat where it was boiled down to make maple syrup, feeding the pigs, and herding cattle (a task Amy found frightening, small as she was). We played on the shale pile—a rocky road-cut topped by exposed tree roots, a fine place to “pretend like” we were Tarzan or assorted comic-book superheroes. Once Amy fell and bloodied her knee on the sharp shale. I carried her up the road to Nanny’s—perhaps the first expression of a protective instinct for friends and kin that I’ve since developed in spades.
One spring, we picked and sold so many damned strawberries that Amy and I were able to ride the Greyhound with Nanny to Daytona Beach, where my father’s sister Doris lived. It was our first big journey into the outside world and our first sight of the ocean. The trip stimulated me but made Amy anxious. As I recall, whenever the bus stopped for a meal break, all Amy would order was stewed prunes, since they could be eaten fast. She was terrified that the bus would leave without us.
This anxiety highlighted a difference between us that was to grow more obvious, one that paralleled a glaring and inconvenient disparity between our parents. My father—an intellectual, nonconformist, and iconoclast—has always had a vigorous detestation of cities and has had next to no use for the world beyond the borders of West Virginia in general and Summers County in particular. Since his preferences were all-important, we almost never traveled. (The concept of “family vacation” seems oddly foreign to me even now.) My mother, on the other hand—much more “normal,” much more eager to fit in—always had a hunger, usually unconsummated, for the larger world. One of the many regrets of my life is that she died before I became financially comfortable enough to treat her to the travel she dreamed of.
My father’s suspicion of—even contempt for—the outside world is common to small-town and rural folks, I think. I have a strong streak of it myself; travel is very stressful for me. The presence of strangers and noise and, most especially, everything I can’t control makes me wary, irascible, and, well, fearful. Nevertheless, I’ve taken after my mother when it comes to “Out There” far more than Amy has. Though I don’t want to remain in any city long, I enjoy brief visits, and travel is one of the few things I’ll spend money on. I’ve seen most of the American cities that interest me, and I’ve been to Europe many times. But we Appalachians are known for our devotion to the home-place, and Amy illustrates this better than anyone I’ve known. Other than her college years and infrequent vacations, she’s almost never left Summers County. She seems entirely content there, and sometimes I envy that. My sister’s always seemed more easily satisfied and far less in need of variety than her perpetually restless, tormented, and discontented brother.
Amy’s heterosexuality made Summers County far more palatable to her and made her far more palatable to Summers County. Another major difference between us cropped up when I was sixteen, when I made close lesbian friends and discovered what my confused interest in certain boys meant. Amy was the first family member I came out to. She was, I think, nonplussed for only about twenty-four hours before we started comparing notes on the “hunks” we craved: Billy B., Billy G., Robbie B., etc. This shared secret and the co-conspiracy it engendered brought us closer. Both of us were convinced that knowledge of my homosexuality would horrify my father and downright kill my mother.
Our high school years couldn’t have been different. I was a shy, socially awkward bookworm, with a pudgy body, bouts of acne, shaggy dark hair, stilted manners, and thick glasses. Other than the aforementioned lesbian friends, I was a loner. Amy was shapely, gregarious, and attractive (even briefly a cheerleader), with a slew of friends, parties, and other social activities to keep track of. I envied her. She seemed golden, blithe, and free of the fears, despairs, insecurities, and neuroses that plagued me.
She had her own streak of protectiveness, however. Once, after nerdliness and regular association with a butch/femme lesbian couple had garnered me a reputation as queer, a little bully, in Amy’s presence, inadvisably called me a faggot. She started screaming “Fuck you!” at the kid till he fled, then followed him down the hall continuing to assault his ears with obscenities. I’m still grateful.
One irony of our shared youth was her frequent success at courting the aforementioned Hinton “hunks” I frustratedly hankered after. In high school, she briefly dated Robbie, Keith, Steve, Billy, and Randy. Once, in the Summers County Library, we encountered Randy together. She and he flirted, while I rounded a shelf so I could ogle him through a gap in the books. At one point, as he scratched his torso, a shirt button came undone, giving me an ample glimpse of his smooth brown chest. Amy confessed to me later that she was half-tempted to say, “You’d better button up fast. My brother gets excited easily.” As blasé as she was about the erotic, we often joked that I’d gotten my sex drive and hers too. This fact was to make my life often complex and miserable, hers uncomplicated and relatively content. I envy her that, as well as her dates with all those small-town studs. When I got to college and heard Billy Joel singing “Captain Jack”—“Your sister's gone out, she’s on a date. / You just sit at home and masturbate.”—I could painfully relate.
As popular as she was with boys, she took no disrespect from them. Her size helped; she was five foot nine and solidly built. Not fat or even plump, mind you; just not a “celery-eater,” as we both contemptuously referred to fashionably emaciated girls. Once a potty-mouthed brat, passing Amy in the high-school halls, said, with unbelievable effrontery, “You look like you have a nice juicy cavity. Let me enter.” She seized him by the shirt collar, threw him up against the lockers with a bang, and shook him till his teeth rattled. That take-no-shit warrior spirit that I’ve seen in so many of my lesbian friends is something I mightily admire in my sister. Often my inveterate politeness hampers that impulse in myself, but Amy has always been less tentative on such occasions.
I was so lonely, so starved for a meaningful relationship or even simpatico sex for so much of my youth while she enjoyed flirtations and dates that, remembering those years, I tend to simplify, to exaggerate my own suffering and to forget her sorrows. There was a boy in high school she was very fond of, even involved with to some extent. One foggy night, a car accident occurred along the Bluestone Reservoir. The boy was permanently paralyzed from the neck down. My guess is he still haunts her. She lost several friends—to car accidents and overdoses. Small-town kids are hard-pressed to find entertainment. Sometimes the entertainments found prove fatal.
Despite her losses, she and I continued to embody extremes: she seemed happy, fun loving, and optimistic, with many a male admirer, while I was over-sexed and perpetually single, struggling with depression and anger. I had yet to make peace with my identities as a country boy, a mountaineer, and a Southerner. Instead, I was hungry as hell to get out of Hinton, to find some kind of gay life at West Virginia University, three and a half hours away, and then move on to a queer-friendly city.
Our college years only emphasized our differences. I took to university life and Morgantown’s urban diversity with enthusiasm. Amy, like many other Hinton kids, found WVU too big, too intimidating. Homesick, she returned to Hinton every chance she got. While I studied, she and her friends partied, encouraging me to scold her with the Tennessee Williams line, “You’re not young at thirty when you’ve been on a goddamn party since you were fifteen.” At one point, she developed a strange rash and had it examined at WVU’s Student Health Center. The doctor proclaimed, “This is either Rocky Mountain spotted fever or the tertiary stage of syphilis.” Imagine that! It took her a few days to discern that she’d borrowed a friend’s medication and developed a violent allergic reaction to the ampicillin. That scare was the last straw, I suppose. She transferred to Concord College in Athens, West Virginia, much closer to home, only a forty-five minute drive across the county line from Hinton.
It was during her time in Athens that I began seeing the traditions of our family emerge in her. One year, she shared an apartment with a lesbian friend of ours who was a less than apt cook. (Once Amy woke from a nap to discover that Leigh had taped paper bags above and around the stovetop to protect the walls from spaghetti sauce spatter; the recipe, Leigh explained, had said not to cover the sauce.) Amy and I were accustomed to very good and very plentiful Appalachian food at home, so she responded to this less than ideal roommate situation by learning how to cook. I remember visiting her in Athens and being amazed: the dinners she prepared were always delicious. The insouciant, popular partier was following in the steps of my father and Nanny by becoming a top-notch country cook. My little sister, I realized with a start, was an independent adult, one who was taking care of me as my elders had all my life, by providing me with a remarkably flavorful home-cooked meal.
She was becoming a traditional Southern woman in this respect, much to my gourmandish delight. At about the same time, she did something less traditional: she became involved with a black man.
Michael was from Talcott, a little community at the other end of Summers County, home to the legendary folk hero John Henry. His mother, Joyce, was a grand matriarch; he had eleven siblings. My mother, Clara, was horrified. She’d discovered my homosexuality while I was in college and had taken it hard. (Every time I went home, I regaled Mommy with outrageous tales of drag queens and other extreme queers just to remind her that my leather/Levi’s look was tame in comparison and that she’d better count her blessings.) But Amy’s sin was infinitely worse to a woman who’d been raised in Virginia in the 1920’s and 30’s. “Nigger lovers and queers, that’s what our parents raised,” Amy and I used to joke. Our co-conspirator status deepened. Now we both were outside the pale. “Chicks what loves niggers is pigs,” we used to chant together, borrowing an illiterate slogan she’d seen on a bathroom wall somewhere.
I liked Michael just fine. He was quiet, polite, and possessed of a dry sense of humor. His family was welcoming and lively, and they provided spreads of food mouthwatering in their quality: homemade rolls, fried chicken, potato salad, deviled eggs, rum cake, and cream pies. Once again I envied Amy—she had the solid relationship I’d yet to find—but I was glad she was content. One evening I got into a horrible shouting match with my mother when she objected to Michael’s race. “Do you know how goddamn lonely I am? Be thankful at least one of your children is happy!” I screamed. From our mother, my sister and I might have learned a deep appreciation of Southern manners, but from our father we’d inherited a profound disinterest in what other people might think.
That individualistic defiance was to serve us well. Amy and Michael got next to no public disrespect in Summers County, since my father had been the prosecuting attorney for years and later a prominent lawyer. But when Amy and Michael traveled together outside of Summers County, she’d return with tales of the scornful, hate-filled looks they got, at gas stations, in restaurants. I had no problem equating that hostility with the homophobic jeers my friends and I sometimes heard as we exited gay bars. Some miserable old racists glaring at my little sister? I wanted to kill them, to feed their uncoiled guts to dogs.
I had a brief sojourn in the big city, decided it was definitely not for me, and came back to the mountains. Amy graduated from Concord, worked as a substitute teacher in Summers County, grew tired of the unmannerly brats, and ran a little restaurant in Hinton, The Upper Crust, which served lunches to local community groups like the Kiwanis and Rotarians. Then one night, despite my father’s position of power in the county, Michael ended up in a scuffle with some local cops. Clear racist motivation. That was a turning point, I believe: Amy decided that she needed to be in a better position to protect herself and her own. After a stint as my father’s legal secretary, she married Michael and then returned to Morgantown, tolerating the absurd traffic and mall-sprawl long enough to receive a law degree from WVU in May 2002. By then, I’d met my partner John, and one day he and I found ourselves, for the first and probably the last time, in the odd position of shopping for pearls. We bought Amy a strand for her graduation present.
For years, Daddy, Michael, and I have had to some extent vied for Amy’s attentions, but on December 24, 2004, someone new entered the scene who put us all to rout, her son, Michael Ferrell McCormick Mann. As John and I drove to Lewisburg, West Virginia, after the delivery to see Amy and my new nephew, we passed the John Henry statue on the mountain above Talcott. Someone had spray-painted “Nigger” across the statue’s chest. My first reaction was fear for my new kin’s future, but then I thought of Amy: her protectiveness, her position in Hinton. I gave a grim chuckle. “Well, one thing’s for sure,” I drawled, “long as that boy stays in Summers County, no one’s gonna fuck with him.”
I’m not much on children. To use the Misfit’s line from Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” “[c]hildren make me nervous.” Especially noisy ones and badly behaved ones, of which there’s a plethora these days, which only encourages my tendency toward agoraphobia. (Cf. my previous comments about travel: what I cannot control makes me anxious.) But Ferrell, as we call him, approaching age seven, is a pretty cool little monster. He possesses the same enthusiasms I did at his age—superheroes and dinosaurs—so much so that, when John and I want to buy him Christmas presents, John drags me to Wal-Mart long enough to lead me through the toy aisles and ask me what I like, knowing that what I choose Ferrell will also relish. My nephew is, apparently, so much like me—his smarts, his willfulness—that Amy has even said to me, “You didn’t need to have a child. I had a little Jeff for you.” I wonder sometimes what my mother—who died in 1998, six years before he was born—would think of him. Despite her lingering objections to interracial relationships, I know she would have been irresistibly charmed.
How can I not approve of a kid who’s so much like me? He has his mother’s genial nature, which helps me hope that he’ll be spared my darker moods. He has her good looks too. The line I use to describe him is, “He makes Obama look homely.” The boy will be a mocha-colored heartbreaker. I just hope he’s kinder to his admirers than the men I’ve admired were to me. And I’m hoping that a nation that had the sense to elect Obama for president will prove to be a kinder place for him to live than it might have been in the past. On his father’s side, he’s the descendant of Southern black folks. On his mother’s side, he’s the descendant of a Confederate soldier. Talk about a living embodiment of reconciliation, a melding of the South’s multitudinous pasts.
Amy has since followed in my father’s footsteps and become the prosecuting attorney of Summers County, the first woman to hold the position. What with work and raising Ferrell (who recently got “Most Polite” in his class; my mother would have been proud), Amy’s incredibly busy, so, despite the fact that we live only an hour and a half apart, we see one another no more than four or five times a year.
Sometimes, in summer, my sister comes over to Pulaski, Virginia, where John and I live. We take Ferrell to the nearby water park; afterwards, we grill hamburgers out on the back deck. Sometimes John and I drive over to Forest Hill, where Amy and Michael live, out in the West Virginia countryside, near the site of my father’s gardens. She always makes huge, fattening, and thoroughly delicious meals that make me feel as happy and cared for as any food can: pork roast, country ham, biscuits, deviled eggs, hash-brown casserole, broccoli casserole, all the comfort foods that Southerners have lavished on their loved ones for generations. Over dinner and stiff drinks, we share gossip and amusing stories, our shared sense of humor a mix of our mother’s supercilious, scathing wit and our father’s bawdy vulgarity. “Lord, there she was, in a halter top! Poor thing, she really should have covered up. And that girl’s big butt was eating her shorts, I tell you. It was just nasty!”
There is a delicious sense of camaraderie in mocking the same things. While Ferrell displays his new Spider-Man pajamas or T-Rex toy, or runs out to see how his pet bull is doing, Amy and I are excoriating the Christian Right and the latest moronic Republican politician. After such a visit, she always sends John and me home with fresh vegetables in summer, or canned goods she and Daddy have put up: hot peppers, green beans, lime pickles, corn relish, or chowchow.
Mythology helps me see depth and divinity in the daily. Just as I’ve glimpsed Gods in the men I’ve loved, so I clearly perceive in my sister Hestia, Goddess of the hearth; Cerridwen, Goddess of the cauldron; and Athena, Goddess of wisdom and war. As with many of my lesbian friends, in Amy there’s that combination of Mother Goddess and warrior I so appreciate. As with many of my bear friends, there is in her a wonderful amalgam of strength, nurturing, and protectiveness. Amy’s as close to the ideal woman as any I’ve ever known. She’s one of a few folks in my life I have absolutely no desire to outlive.
I tend to give backhanded compliments. In Ferrell’s case, I’m always telling Amy that he’s a freak, because he’s so good-looking, smart, and thoughtful for a kid his age. Only a few weeks ago, she called to tell me about his latest amazing statement. Home from kindergarten, he’d hugged her and said, “Mom, I wish you were my sister instead of my mother. Then I’d have more time with you.” She assured him that she’d be around for a long time yet.
I must admit I choked up. What I thought was, “Well, kid, you beat me out. You’ve got most of her attention now. But, in this respect at least, I win. She’s my sister. I got all those years with her that you didn’t, and they’ve been a privilege and a delight.” What I said was, “My God! He’s a monster! Enough about him. If I come home next month, will you make me a bunch of fried apple pies or a batch of those delectable buttermilk biscuits?”
Jeff Mann has published four books of poetry, Bones Washed with Wine, On the Tongue, Ash, and A Romantic Mann; two collections of personal essays, Edge: Travels of an Appalachian Leather Bear and Binding the God: Ursine Essays from the Mountain South; a book of poetry and memoir, Loving Mountains, Loving Men; four novels, Cub, Fog: A Novel of Desire and Reprisal, Purgatory: A Novel of the Civil War, and Salvation: A Novel of the Civil War; and two volumes of short fiction, Desire and Devour and A History of Barbed Wire, which won a Lambda Literary Award.