4

A Birth, a Flag, and My Introduction to Military Erotica




***

From: Rebecca Lachman

Date: November 2, 2012 2:22 PM EDT

To: Mann, Jeff

Subject: Our intertwined books


Greetings, Professor Mann.

My name is Becca J.R. Lachman. I'm a poet and composer who teaches writing at Ohio University in Athens, Ohio. I've been meaning to email you for awhile because it seems we share a unique connection. Here's the story in a nutshell:

Last spring, my first collection of poetry The Apple Speaks was published. While visiting my hometown in NE Ohio, I distributed a few author copies among family members. My 83-yr-old Mennonite grandma handed me her copy for my signature. To my surprise, while this copy had the correct cover and author page, another text was inside: what turned out to be most of your novel, Purgatory(!).

Now, I sincerely wish that an Anabaptist-affiliated press was publishing Civil War gay erotica, and even more so that my Mennonite grandma would read it! Even so, you can imagine all the emotions swirling around in my head at that moment. According to my publishers, it was a mistake at the printers, and this single "rebel copy" is the only one we know of out there (though I am very curious whether you've heard of someone getting a copy of your book with poems about Mennonites inside!). The printers let me keep the copy, and I've been telling this story and reading excerpts of Purgatory at my readings—which has been a big hit, and I hope you've sold a few more copies of your book because of this.

Another strange dialogue between our books is that The Apple Speaks includes a few poems about conscientious objection/alternative service.

I hope you get a kick out of this email and that your book is selling well. I'd love to meet you in person sometime in the future, perhaps at AWP.

All the best, and happy writing~

Becca J.R. Lachman

***

It's not just humans who carry a birth story—every book has one, too.

The news that my first poetry collection would soon be in the world came halfway through my second graduate degree in creative writing. I wasn't sure back then whether professional artists, let alone female ones, could also be practicing Mennonites. The fact that my first book was being published by an Anabaptist-affiliated press felt like an appropriate layer in my evolving breakup/makeup story with Mennonite cultural and denominational ties.

It's been nearly 13 years since I first stepped onto a campus as a creative writing graduate student. When I attend grad readings now, whether in the college town where I live or at conferences or coffee shops, I often have a strong urge to walk up to many of the students afterwards, take their faces in my hands and proclaim 1) You are enough and 2) I want to meet you again... in 10 years.

Let's be clear: I had been one of the students I longed to approach like this. And all these years later, most days I still hope a re-rooted belief in my gifts, God, and voice can overpower the shards of any overly anxious, needy, envious, testing, demanding ego that may be left over from my first tastes of the writing and publishing life.

But in 2011, my prestigious-MFA-graduated self was the one giving birth, so to speak, to this first collection of poems, a book that had asked me to grow my craft, yes, but also to begin grappling with some of the unspokens of white missionary work (and though I'd never have used these exact words back then, of quiet misogyny and white supremacy sometimes present in local pews and pulpits). All I wanted in 2012 was for my More-with-Less-loving, historic peace church to wrestle with the same intersecting questions about gender, sexuality, race, leadership, and violence that wouldn't leave me alone.

In other words, for better or for worse, I'm one of those people who genuinely believe poetry can change us.

So when the first box of my first-ever author copies arrived, I drove them across the state of Ohio one weekend to my hometown of Kidron, a quaint Amish Country destination still refusing to get a stoplight. I was both terrified and elated to imagine my closest relatives holding this new part of myself for the first time.

Carrying the box of books into my family's 1840s farmhouse kitchen felt particularly powerful. There, the family matriarch who'd lived in that house for over 55 years reached in and chose a copy for my signature.

I opened the cover, eager and grateful and humbled. But then, I froze.

There was a different title page inside.

"PURGATORY" it read in large, unfamiliar font across the page.

I didn't breathe. I turned the page and read again "Purgatory: A Novel of the Civil War." Then I was frantically flipping through the pages, slowly realizing that while the cover and back author page were mine—complete with a photograph of me looking as poetic as I possibly could—there was another book, someone else's book, inside.

What was happening? I scrambled to flip through the other 40 or so books in the box. My grandma stood by, perplexed and trying to calm me. I stammered that I needed to go, ran across the field to my parents', and called the publisher's office, leaving a message of desperation.

It was only then that I slowed down enough to notice the Library of Congress keywords listed in the intruding publication's copyright page: "gay military personnel; soldiers; erotic stories; fiction."

After I'd gotten assurances from the publisher and printers that this was the only known dueling-contents copy out there, I researched Purgatory's author and the book itself. Jeff Mann's Amazon page revealed that he was a creative writing professor in Virginia, and an award-winning author, not only of novels, but also essays, poetry, and short fiction. Purgatory's online description reads

...two young soldiers on opposite sides find themselves drawn together. One is a scholarly, war-weary Southerner who has seen too much bloodshed, especially the tortures inflicted upon the enemy by his vicious commanding officer, his uncle. The other is a Herculean Yankee captured by the ragtag Confederate band and forced to become a martyr for all the sins of General Sheridan's fires. When these two find themselves admiring more than one another's spirit and demeanor, when passions erupt between captor and captive, will this new romance survive the arduous trek to Purgatory Mountain?[1]

In my "cross-dressing" copy (which I'd asked to keep), Mann's novel stops in the middle of its fourteenth chapter. The narrator, a Confederate soldier named Ian, is ruminating on the Yankee prisoners he's been forced to guard, then mend after each torture session. His thoughts and regrets about his current prisoner, Drew—whose character hails from a part of Pennsylvania where many Mennonites settled—are interrupted by the second half of a poem, a poem about my husband Michael working with Christian Peacemaker Teams in Colombia on our first wedding anniversary. One of Michael's duties that summer was to accompany a man facing death threats, and to listen with his whole self to others who'd been tortured, lost loved ones, or whose land had been taken from them.

Three more poems follow before my author page and photo, my notes and thank yous, then my back cover. Most of the poems after the bulk of Mann's novel are from the point of view of family members whose loved ones have chosen—you could say, have enlisted in—international, unarmed peace-building work.

The Holy Spirit had a strange sense of humor, or else someone working at the printers did.

After some urging from my MFA classmates, I reached out to Jeff Mann through email, and his reply arrived the next day. He was kind and jovial, admitting he "didn't know whether to be amused or mortified" and that he'd sent my note, which had given him a "big grin," on to his publisher.

He thanked me for highlighting his book at my readings, and shared that his collection of memoir and poetry, Loving Mountains, Loving Men, had coincidentally been published by Ohio University Press. He'd been to Athens, Ohio, and thought it pretty cool. He mentioned the hotdog joint where my husband and I had spent one of our first dates. He referenced all the Mennonites in Virginia's Shenandoah Valley, a location that comes up often in his books.[2]

More connections.

***

From: Rebecca Lachman

Date: May 5, 2018 7:58 PM EDT

To: Rebecca Lachman in 2012

Subject: What were you thinking?


Dear Rebecca in her early 30s:

When you first discovered that other story accidentally (?) printed inside one of your poetry book copies all those years ago, did you never think to actually sit down and read it? At the time, you skimmed chapters, highlighting a few passages to come back to or to perform at readings, but—who knows why now—you never truly did a proper close reading.

Was it because the characters reminded you of those closeted high school and college boyfriends who dated you and won your heart? Was it because you're still ashamed that non-hetero identities weren't even on your radar then as a possibility? Or that people still can't be fully open and whole-hearted about their sexualities in the restaurants and schools and sports fields and churches of your youth? Or was it the author's strong preference for bondage?

Here's what I want you to ask, luv: Why is it you were most aghast that it was gay erotica you almost gave your grandma, followed only by the concern that there seemed to be a lot—a lot—of cursing in it?

Why didn't you also feel equally troubled at the dedication page, where the author describes himself as a "Confederate sympathizer"? Or how about that relationship between a military guard and… his prisoner?

With love,

Your older self

***

***

From: Rebecca Lachman

Date: May 4, 2018 11:02 AM EDT

To: Rebecca Lachman in 1994

Subject: That musical you wrote about slavery


Dear 8th-grade Becca:

I know that you feel most alive when you're writing or singing, and I know, more than anything, you want to write musicals about VERY IMPORTANT THINGS when you grow up.

However, it's come to my attention that maybe you could have chosen a topic other than slavery for your first full-length musical premiere. You were so surprised and proud when the cast got to perform it for the whole county. And maybe you felt like you were doing something to TELL THE TRUTH and MAKE CHANGE HAPPEN, especially since you were playing a greedy FEMALE SLAVE CATCHER MOBSTER named Agatha Crooke who got to boss around her male employees. But honey, honey— you didn't go to school with one person of color after the 5th grade (and only one boy you can remember before that).

What made you think you could ask your white classmates to perform a show where half the cast portrayed enslaved black human beings? What made the adults around you think this was also a good idea? Did you think California Jesus, all golden-haired and serious on your church wall near the nursery, would be proud of you or cool with it? There's photo evidence—your classmates posing with shovels and rakes in local alfalfa fields. They're wearing shawls and torn dresses, coveralls, and yes—I will say it now—brown make-up to make them look "dirty." Or something. And in another picture, you're beaming as you receive a large bouquet after curtain call, complete with unpicked cotton pods still on their stems.

You will spend a good deal of your 20s and 30s thinking about this show and your privilege and, well, ignorance. You will want to think and write about these things a lot more.

Start thinking, start asking—I promise to start writing.

Yours,

Your almost 38-year-old self

***

Purgatory Mountain Lookout in Virginia is approximately a five-hour drive from my house, a route near the one I took last fall on a family vacation on our way to the shores of North Carolina. To get there, we passed signs for—even stayed in—places mentioned in Mann's novel, such as Charlottesville and Staunton. As we travelled, four white people in a Prius, we didn't have to think about much of anything except what we were going to eat for dinner, and maybe what show we'd watch at our hotel that night.

The growing number of Confederate flags in yards, on vehicles, used as front curtains, or even donning the new president's name by major intersections unsettled us, sure. But we didn't have to keep thinking about them. I occasionally passed them in rural Appalachian Ohio, too. My husband was the only one who left shop after shop at the North Carolina shore because they were selling Confederate flag sunglasses, hats, mugs, dishtowels.

We came back to our everyday lives more relaxed in some ways, more shaken in others. I'd later learn that Michael's last action on that trip was to drive out to a popular beach and scrawl Black Lives Matter as large as he could in the sand, knowing it would be destroyed by humans or tide or wind, but doing it anyway.

When you Google "Purgatory Mountain," Mann's book comes up immediately and most often. But so does a Purgatory Mountain ghost story site. This mountain's in North Carolina and also has ties to the Civil War, supposedly getting its name when a group of captured Quaker teenagers, refusing to fight and being held for significant reward money, decided they had no choice but to murder their captor, who'd sworn to kill all Quakers after they tried to escape, including their families. His ghost is said to haunt the mountain today.[3]

Another link takes you to the Facebook page of the Purgatory Mountain Chapter of ABATE (A Brotherhood Against Totalitarian Enactments) of Virginia, Inc., a motorcyclists' rights organization. The emblem on their logo features a bald eagle flying in front of a Confederate flag.

Two weeks after our vacation, we'd take off work in the middle of a Thursday afternoon to attend a public hanging of the Confederate flag on Ohio University's Athens campus, a performance piece by the artist John Sims. Just like many lynchings of black people (of which there was at least one in Athens, Ohio, recorded in 1881[4]), a potluck picnic followed.[5]

The evening before, Michael and I watched in awe as Sims calmly interacted with two white men who'd come to his artist talk to defend their Confederate soldier ancestors and culture. They sat in the front row. They brought signs. You could hear the genuine pain in their voices. But within minutes, they were all three nodding their heads about what the flag stood for at its historic and emotional core, and what black people might feel when they see it in public today. The two men stayed for the entire talk.

Bill Burke was one of the local activists on site that evening, helping to look out for any concerning or threatening behavior from those in attendance. Burke had been seriously injured in Charlottesville, Virginia, that past August when a fellow white Ohioan, James Fields, Jr.,used his car as a weapon on anti-white supremacist demonstrators, killing Heather Hyer.[6]

At a Mennonite church in Kidron less than 10 years ago, Klu Klux Klan-themed Christmas cards appeared in a few church mailboxes. On July 16, 2011, two nooses were left on the transitional pastor's desk, along with a threatening note. The leaders of that congregation—my congregation at the time—decided to work things out among themselves, without assistance from law enforcement.[7]

In both The Apple Speaks and Purgatory, variations on war and violence surface as major themes: war within ourselves over our truest identities and desires, violent systems we help to support, and trauma that's carried by future generations.

Chewing on this connection, I decided to write a cento—a form of poetry that uses exact material from other pieces of literature to create a new poem. In it, I utilize phrases from Purgatory and from my four poems that follow it in that now infamous, intertwined copy. Mann's words are italicized, mine are not:

"Cento for the Prisoner of War and the Kidnapped Christian Peacemaker Team Member"[8]


This late in the war a bullet sings in the air
between us. The river valleys glow;

we pour fire down the mountain. Peace needs husbands
from everywhere. Two chosen hands reach out, dare you

to choose. Two enemies side by side, as if they were brothers
packed deep into the ground. Come back and see next year

what stands: morning prayers, a cardinal's cry, the creek's purl.
Had we known, would we have ever...? We pray to anything

that answers "Come home. Come home." God knows
when we'll be marching midst the gunfire and missing.

There's a Bible in his hand, but he doesn't seem to be reading it.
He learns not to flinch. Leave him. Leave the flag

wrapped around him. I'm feeling what most of us are feeling,
I suspect. What it all comes down to: I could do nothing.

Or, rather, I did nothing in the midst of war. If they knew
whom I loved. Far in front of me, my heart's still unclenching. My mouth

opens, answering guns as if they were brothers. Come back. Come home and
see. I have no one to touch, could die tomorrow. You're alive

like a poem. Let's discuss something safer. We are the ones left
to carry some of that old desire.

***

From: Rebecca Lachman

Date: May 5, 2018 10:35 PM EDT

To: Rebecca Lachman in 2041

Subject: The artifacts you'll need


Dear Future Becca:

Way back in 2012, I asked to keep the rogue copy of my first book that introduced me to Civil War gay erotica, and, years later, helped re-introduce me to bigger questions I needed to look in the face. I'm still looking, and I'm assuming and hoping you are, too.

Every writer I know has a collection of artifacts that reminds them that they are, indeed, writers. Photos, signed book copies, ticket stubs, good luck charms, worry stones, rejection letters, acceptance notes—we need them all visible and within reach, perhaps perched in our writing nooks or among our bookshelves.

During your 30s, you realized you also needed an artifact collection to remind you that you're half Anabaptist and half feminist, two stumbling identities that can't be separated for you, and both fueled by the life example of a troublemaker named Jesus.

In her book Living a Feminist Life, Sara Ahmed talks about the "feminist toolkit" as a collection of artifacts and whimsies you need in your life to pursue the full value and possibility of being an unapologetic feminist in today's world, "reminders of connection, shared struggles, shared lives."[9]

Because of this passage, and because of the promise you made to yourself in 2018 to keep making and to keep going, despite the world's roar, I very much hope that you still have the strange and wonderful copy of Purgatory by Jeff Mann/The Apple Speaks by yours truly.

I hope you've finally learned some things in your psyche, but mostly your body—how there are purgatories and heavens only you can stack into place and keep rebuilding like cairns.

And finally, remember: You are enough—and I hope I get to meet you again in 10 years.

Always,

B

***



[1] https://www.amazon.com/Purgatory-Novel-Civil-Jeff-Mann-ebook/dp/B007INO45E/ref=asap_bc?ie=UTF8.

[2] Jeff Mann, email message to author, November 3, 2012.

[3] http://northcarolinaghosts.com/piedmont/hunter-purgatory-mountain/.

[4] https://www.athensnews.com/news/local/report-details-lynchings-in-ohio-including-one-in-athens-in/article_46b1c654-6fd5-11e7-88d9-8795786bcfb1.html.

[5] https://www.athensnews.com/culture/arts_and_entertainment/visiting-artist-at-ou-plans-to-execute-the-rebel-flag/article_a4bb6ac4-b74d-11e7-be22-5b9d91be3ae0.html.

[6] http://abc6onyourside.com/news/local/athens-county-man-injured-in-charlottesville-speaks-out.

[7] Originally noted in The Mennonite, the brief article "Kidron pastor threatened with note and nooses" is no longer available anywhere online. An original July 25, 2011 post can be found on The Mennonite's Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/search/str/Kidron+pastor+threatened+with+note+and+nooses/keywords_search.

[8] This cento is entirely made up of phrases from Jeff Mann's novel Purgatory: A Novel of the Civil War (Maple Shade, NJ: Bear Bones Books, 2012) and four poems from Becca J.R. Lachman's poetry collection The Apple Speaks (Telford, PA: DreamSeeker Books, 2012),including "The Piano in Barrancabarmeja," "Blood Tonic," "The Apple Speaks," and "New Marriage, a Barn Raising."

[9] Ahmed, Sara. Living a Feminist Life (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2017), 241.

About the Author

Becca J.R. Lachman

Becca J.R. Lachman works in the magical world of public libraries. She’s the author of Other Acreage (Gold Wake Press) and The Apple Speaks (Cascadia Publishing House), and the editor of A Ritual to Read Together: Poems in Conversation with William Stafford (Woodley Press). She’s a grateful MFA grad of the Bennington Writing Seminars.