[This year is the 20th anniversary of Cape Cod Light by Michael Hattersley. The other parts of this series are here.]
Michael’s understanding of the female half of the human species was shaped by competing forces. He was very close with the women in his family—his mother and his sisters. It is because of that close family bond with my mother that we came to live with him, and that his sister Vanessa lived in the mother-in-law apartment in the Provincetown house for years.
He had great esteem for many of his women colleagues, and there were plenty of women academics, writers, and artists he admired. The political and social alliances between gay men and lesbians are complex, especially in a gay mecca like Provincetown, but he always respected lesbian activists and recognized and appreciated their common cause for equality and justice—he was the one who taught me about the Frank Kameny/Barbara Gittings partnership as an effective template for gay rights.
But his closest friends and his lovers were all men, and this meant that many aspects of women remained mysterious to him. For instance, after I started seriously dating it became clear to me that his understanding of even basic facts of women’s biology was comically underdeveloped, an ignorance which he apparently never had any particular interest in remediating.
Michael’s mother Val started showing signs of Alzheimer’s in the ’80s, and by the time we arrived in Boston it was getting obvious. She developed emphysema from a lifetime of smoking, and she had to be hospitalized for a heart condition shortly after we arrived. Alzheimer’s is a fatal illness, but despite it and all of her medical conditions she hung on until finally succumbing at age 78 in 2001, 5 years after Cape Cod Light was published and almost a year after Van died of congestive heart failure at 84.
The nineteenth poem in Cape Cod Light is Lady. The title, the reference to Lot’s wife, the phrase “across the Atlantic”, and the sense of a women losing herself make my mother and I suspect it is about Valerie. “He would have liked calling her a lady,” says Mom.
You say: you are coming apart like an old doll,
Cards scattering across the Atlantic.
We say: you are sticking and spilling on things
And rush together to preserve some surface,
But as surely another drips
Off a counter or down the drain.
What mouth is opening, what words
Like musical notes might emerge
To evaporate some cherished piece
Of furniture, or melt
The entire poised figure
Like water hitting a statue made of salt.