Message in a Bottle

As a kid in the 1970s, I was addicted to reruns of ’60s sitcoms. Shows like Bewitched, The Flying Nun, and most especially I Dream of Jeannie featured magical women whose mischievous powers seemed rooted in their femininity. The men they loved were always trying to control or suppress these powers. A queer boy like me could identify with the predicament of having to hide one’s sexual magic.

Jeannie’s hiding place was her bottle. An ornate Arabian decanter housing her miniaturized bedchamber, its interior was opulent yet intimate—a rich Orientalist fantasy of velvet cushions and curvaceous walls. Whenever Jeannie turned into smoke to enter the bottle’s narrow opening, I desperately wanted to follow. Her magenta lounge looked so chic and fun, so different from my drab suburban world, so safe from judgmental eyes.

I drew countless pictures of Jeannie’s bottle in a stenographer’s notebook, always adding slight variations to its design. (I could never get a close enough look at its details on our black-and-white Zenith). The bottle became my talisman: a jewel-toned objet d’art with mysterious intricacies, whose erotic significance I must have intuited, so obsessively did my imagination return to its suggestive shape.

In a way, those drawings were my first poems. They were early attempts to share the instinct for beauty, love of form, and earnest playfulness that continue to motivate my writing. I want every poem to become a little world of layered meanings for its reader—a decorous, sparkling haven from which to contemplate even painful realities. There, taking refuge from the moral police, my imaginary reader and I briefly come together through the magic of words—in the one theater where every wish can be granted.

I’ve chosen three poems from my new collection, Bachelor’s Buttons (Kelsay Books 2020), to represent both my formal and free-verse moods. “Macramé” looks back to a weaving fad that every kid of the ’70s remembers; my math-teacher father quickly became something of a master at it. “Nipples of Men” celebrates the diversity and absurdity of those overlooked organs. And “Working (It) Out with Teena Marie,” a gym reverie in terza rima, pays homage to a pop/R&B legend who left us too soon—and whose signature hit made an indelible mark on my teenage psyche.


Mom enrolledin an evening class,botched a butterfly on wood blockand muscled throughhoursof gnarled yarndangling from a driftwood stake,before giving up.But you,Dad, discoveredyou had a knack for macramé.Looping her leftoverjuteround a hookin the ceiling, you braided coarsehelixes that split—taperinginto bored cornersof mahogany (shelves for our unlitincense and pottedDieffenbachia);then tied it all togetherwith a graduate’s tassel. Your multilevelEiffels filled our housewith mathdone strictly for pleasure.From the carpet I salvaged scrapsto make a nooseor lasso.

Nipples of Men

Not quite titsor teats, just pectoral pointsof interest: a torso’s eyescaught staringat the beach; pinpricksdisturbing a taut Oxford’scotton; coppery beaconsappearing through sheer Ts.Aureoles varyinglike fingerprints—in diameterfrom clamshell to dime, in tintfrom plum to pink—each with its own punch codeof goosebumps. Sensitiveto the barest hintsof coolness in bloodor air flow, they shrivellike witches in water, hibernatein whorls of hair. Whether hubsof ecstasy or indifference, bashful paps or rubbery dugs—pierced, thickas toothpaste—they areunmistakably a man’smost naked part. Impractical glands, sore remindersof what he can’t give,they are the clenched petalsof him—harmless and endearingas embarrassmentshe pretendsaren’t happening.

Working (It) Out with Teena Marie

She whoops into my ears; the whole gym whirls.I turn the volume up to shush the clinkof my elliptical machine. Like joyous squirrels

her scatted oohs and shoop-pops leap in syncwith youthful biorhythms now gone slack.And she’s been dead how long? Five years, I think,

letting the iPod’s witchcraft take me backto summers in Ft. Myers: bored, sixteen,racing my bike down streets whose hot shellac

exuded waves of harsh, phenolic steam.Clipped to my shorts, a tape player filled my headwith pop sensations. Warnings to come clean

pursued me through desire’s infrared.I saw the manly shadows moving nearer;I pounded harder, like a thoroughbred.

These boys who curl their biceps in the mirror:what are they after? Strength won’t make them freerpullers of Beauty’s drawstring. Do they fear her

because they sense how good it feels to be her?Fanned by an AC vent, I bounce and hurtlepast them through time—a stationary skier

for whom the trails of memory unfurlthis chorus, like a plaintive reprimand:I just want to be your lovergirl.

About David Southward

David Southward teaches in the Honors College at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. His chapbook, Apocrypha (Wipf & Stock 2018), reimagines the life of Jesus in a series of sonnets. Bachelor’s Buttons (Kelsay Books 2020) is his first collection. David lives in Milwaukee with his husband, Geoff. Read more at

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Bachelor’s Buttons available at:

Boswell Book Co. in Milwaukee | Kelsay Books | Amazon

Apocrypha available at:

Wipf & Stock | Amazon

BMP Celebrates National Poetry Month

For this year’s National Poetry Month at BMP Voices, we seek to celebrate the ways in which we’re interconnected — highlighting community, gratitude, and the ways in which creativity redounds upon itself, fed by collective energy and goodwill. Our fee-free contest is open to all styles and forms of poetry, with an eye toward our mission of discovering voices that are immediate, immersive, and urgent. Poems inspired by the work of others are welcome. We also welcome poems written to other poems or poets.