The Upstairs Lounge Fire


The Upstairs Lounge, New Orleans, June 24, 1973 (poem)

At the corner of Chartres
and Iberville Streets,
in a city that burned
to the ground twice,
the Upstairs Lounge was
both gay bar and church.
An uneasy mingling for some,
a holy blend of desire and hope
for others. You had to ring
a bell to be admitted:
a friendly bartender, a white
baby grand piano. After the
Sunday afternoon beer special,
when desire had run its course,
the hope came round and church
began once a few chairs were moved,
new music found for the piano.
They sang like they deserved to.
They prayed like they meant it.

Someone poured lighter fluid
onto the stairs that rose
from the sidewalk to the bar,
then anointed those slick stairs
with a match, creating a Pentecost
of fire and wind
that ascended the stairs
and flattened the door
at the top, exploding into the room
of worshippers, friends, lovers,
two brothers, their mother.
The holy spirit was silent.
No one spoke a new language.

Some escaped. Many died with
their hands covering their mouths.
One man, George, blinded by smoke
and sirens, his throat gagged
with ash, got out and then
went back for Louis, his partner.
They were found, a spiral
of bones holding each other
under the white
baby grand piano
that could not save them.

Then came the jokes.
A radio host asked:
What will they bury
the ashes of the queers in?
Fruit jars, of course.
One cab driver hoped
the fire burned their
dresses off.
Some thought
they heard laughter
from a cathedral.

Thirty-one men died
and one woman,
Inez, the mother of
Jimmy and Eddie.
The three of them sat
at a table, when this
upper room exploded
into flame and panic.
Four others, though their bodies
were identified by police,
went unclaimed by their relatives.
It is a shame those families
didn’t know Inez and her sons.
Now all their sons are
orphans of smoke.

After the whipping flames
and the choke-black smoke,
after the screams were singed
into silence, after the sirens,
the hoses, the arcs of water
strung from truck to roof,
after the water dripped
from charred beams, after one
man’s burned body was
pried from a window frame,
and thirty-one others
were gathered and lifted
or swept into identifiable
containers, no church
would bury them, every
house of God, a locked door,
curtains drawn tight.
Save one: a priest from
St. George’s Episcopal Church,
who received hate mail
for opening his sanctuary
to this congregation of ash,
now transformed into
clouds of incense,
rising like praise into the air.

by Joseph Ross
Source: © Joseph Ross
from Collective Brightness: LGBTIQ Poets on Faith, Religion & Spirituality; edited by Kevin Simmonds; published by Bryan Borland with Sibling Rivalry Press, 2011. Reprinted with permission.
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