sometimes, on the very first day of fall, the angle of late afternoon light starts to slant, almost imperceptibly. No more than a ghost shiver along the nape of the neck. A shimmer at the brink of wherever you find yourself looking. Almost as if a whisper of wind were rustling the leaves of the trees that autumn set on fire—but there isn’t even a breath of a breeze. It’s one of those instants that, nevertheless, feels like a forever. Somewhere between an already forgotten inhale and exhale, the daylight is dying. No, failing. No, falling. And I would swear on the Bible I once believed in that even in San Antonio, Texas, where I live—a far cry from the North Carolina of my undergraduate years—I can actually feel the cascade of light’s fading slipstream through my body. I call this inkling, with a nod to Gerard Manley Hopkins, the fell of fall.
A psychologist would no doubt call this being “seasonally affected,” but I like to think Wallace Stevens might call it seeing the aurora of autumn, a fertile but often languorous season. For years I felt the season portended nothing but the doom and gloom of endings, but this past September I began to think, instead, about beginnings, about origins. Because I am beginning my M.F.A. thesis this spring, I returned to those poets who first taught me what was possible in poetry, whose words watched over my fledgling attempts to sing on the page, and whose books stood guardian over my desperate attempts to reconcile how a preacher’s son and a gay man could inhabit the same body without ripping it apart. I still carry these books as if they were talismans: Adrienne Rich’s The Dream of a Common Language, Joy Harjo’s She Had Some Horses, and Lorna Dee Cervantes’s From the Cables of Genocide. These women reached me in a way that Whitman or Ginsberg couldn’t have at the time. They are my literary lineage, as are books by three other writers gone beyond the veil. Audre Lorde’s The Black Unicorn, Gloria Anzaldúa’s Borderlands/La Frontera, and Lucille Clifton’s Blessing the Boats changed my life in a way I can only describe this way: I survived; a fact by no means guaranteed—as their writing makes piercingly clear―if you are born not white, or not male, and/or not straight in this country.
This past November, as I observed El Dia de los Muertos for the first time, I gathered my cherished, well-traveled and worn copies of books by Lorde, Anzaldúa, and Clifton. I lit three candles. And as I read their words aloud, I gave thanks for the gift of company their words gave to the confused queer white boy I was in a small south Texas town when their words first found me.
And I want to ask you, who read this, whoever you are: Whose words were bread for the hunger you didn’t know how to name? Whose words have you slept beside at night? Whose words combed nightmares from your hair? Who stole fire from the gods and placed the ever-burning coal of language on your tongue after touching it to your lips? Who first whispered in your ear something like this?
This belongs to you you have the right
you belong to the song
of your mothers and fathers You have a people
—Adrienne Rich, “Poetry: II, Chicago”
John D. Fry