The Mortician in San Francisco By Randall Mann Summary, Notes And Line By Line Analysis In English


‘The Mortician in San Francisco’ by Randall Mann is about the time when Both Dan White (on his first attempt) and Harvey Milk (on his third attempt) were elected as Democrats to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, despite the social conservatism of White and the social liberalism of Milk, a prominent member of the city’s gay community.

White joined the Board after serving in San Francisco’s police and fire departments. A new supervisor might change the balance of power on the Board of Supervisors after Supervisor Dan White announces his departure. Harvey Milk is overjoyed by the information.

Dan subsequently changed his mind and requested a withdrawal, but Harvey put pressure on the mayor to not re-appoint him, thus he wasn’t. Dan kills Mayor Moscone and Harvey Milk as a result on November 27, 1978.

About the poet

The complaint in the Garden (2004) by poet Randall Mann won the Kenyon Review Prize in Poetry. Other works by Mann include Breakfast with Thom Gunn (2009), which was a finalist for the California Book Award and the Lambda Literary Award for Gay Poetry, Straight Razor (2013), which was a finalist for the Lambda Literary Award, Proprietary (2017).

Which was a finalist for the Northern California Book Award and Lambda Literary Award, and A Better Life (2021). Additionally, he is the co-author of the textbook Writing Poems and the author of the book of criticism The Illusion of Intimacy: On Poetry (2019). (2007).

Themes of loss, attraction, cruelty, and anticipation are explored in Mann’s poetry, which draws inspiration from Philip Larkin, Elizabeth Bishop, and Donald Justice. Mann’s poetry is simultaneously vulnerable, unflinching, and brave in its ambivalence.

Stanza 1

This may sound queer,
but in 1985 I held the delicate hands
of Dan White:
I prepared him for burial; by then, Harvey Milk
was made monument—no, myth—by the years
since he was shot.

The poet is reminded of the tragic event that led to the murder of Harvey Milk, a prominent member of the gay community in San Francisco. In 1985, the poet prepared Dan White for burial while holding his delicate hands; at that point, Harvey Milk had become a myth due to the time that had passed since his shooting. The poet notes that this may sound unusual.

Stanza 2

I remember when Harvey was shot:
twenty, and I knew I was queer.
Those were the years,
Levi’s and leather jackets holding hands
on Castro Street, cheering for Harvey Milk—
elected on the same day as Dan White.

Twenty years ago, when Harvey was shot, it was when the poet became aware of his sexual orientation. Back then, people wearing leather jackets and Levi’s stood together on Castro Street to support Harvey Milk, who was elected on the same day as Dan White.

Stanza 3

I often wonder about Supervisor White,
who fatally shot
Mayor Moscone and Supervisor Milk,
who was one of us, a Castro queer.
May 21, 1979: a jury hands
down the sentence, seven years—

The poet claims that he frequently thought about Supervisor Milk, a Castro LGBT coworker, and Supervisor White, who assassinated Mayor Moscone and Harvey Milk. On May 21, 1979, a jury handed down a seven-year prison term to the defendant.

Stanza 4

in truth, five years—
for ex-cop, ex-fireman Dan White,
for the blood on his hands;
when he confessed that he had shot
the mayor and the queer,
a few men in blue cheered. And Harvey Milk?

When Dan White acknowledged killing the mayor and the “gay,” some law enforcement officials even hailed him for his good act. In truth, he was given a five-year term for the blood on his hands. The poet continues by asking a rhetorical question: What about Harvey Milk, who was murdered? By applauding White, it would be disrespectful to Milk, as if it were OK for White to have killed him and been praised for his candor.

Stanza 5

Why cry over spilled milk,
some wondered, semi-privately, for years—
it meant “one less queer.”
The jurors turned to White.
If just the mayor had been shot,
Dan might have had trouble on his hands—

Some people pondered this question informally for years: crying over spilled milk meant “one less queer.” The jury members looked at White. Dan might have been in danger if only the mayor had been shot.

Stanza 6

but the twelve who held his life in their hands
maybe didn’t mind the death of Harvey Milk;
maybe, the second murder offered him a shot
at serving only a few years.
In the end, he committed suicide, this Dan White.
And he was made presentable by a queer.

The death of Harvey Milk, however, may not have bothered the twelve who held his life in their hands; perhaps the second murder gave him a chance to serve only a little time. In the end, Dan White committed suicide. And a queer made him look presentable.