Complete Poems of Dr. David B. Axelrod

 

THE FORMAT FOR THIS COLLECTION is being perfected regularly:

  1. Yes, typos. If you would be so kind, email me (axelrod@poetrydoctor.org) when you find them. Clearly, they should not be there, but just as clearly, they are quite hard to correct in such a lengthy manuscript. Please tell me the title of the poem and/or show me the line. Thank you.
  2. Eventually, clicking on each book title will bring you down to that specific section of the complete poems. For now, if you see a book or poetry title, you can use the search utility Magnifying Glass clip art Free vector in Open office drawing svg ... in the upper right of the website to find that title specifically.
  3. Several of these books are still for sale. If you Google the book title, you will find them. Please support my publishers. They were kind enough to publish my work. I don’t want to stymie there book sales!
  4. The bad news: Brace yourself. As things appear now, this is a string of hundreds of poems. The good news: There will be no test on these poems after you read them.

POEMS HERE ARE SELECTED FROM THE FOLLOWING

Stills from a Cinema (1968, 1971)
Starting from Paumanok (1972)
Myths, Dreams and Dances (1974)
A Dream of Feet (1976)
A Meeting with David B. Axelrod
and Gnazino Russo (1979)
The Man Who Fell in Love with a Chicken (1980)
Home Remedies: New and Selected Poems (1982)
The End of the Universe (1987)
White Lies (1988)
Resurrections (1989)
A Perpetual Calendar of Poems (1989)
Love in the Keys (1991, 2001)
The Universal Language (1993)
The Chi of Poetry (1995)
Random Beauty (2001)
Another Way (2005)
The Impossibility of Dreams (2007)
Deciduous Poems (2008)
How to Apologize (2009)
The SPEED Way: NASCAR Poems (2012)
Rusting: Ways to Keep Living (2014)CONTENTS
RUSTINGRusting
The Horrible Mind
Gothic
Why Some People Don’t
Go to Horror Movies
La Vie Noir
Faith and Prejudice
A Reason for Everything
Blind, Deaf and Dumb
Screwing Up
After I Caught My Girlfriend
Wedding Vows
Reading Old Love Poems
For the Old Flame I Located Online
Keeping an Open Mind
Longing
Solstice
April Fools
How to Win Friends
My Mother’s Prophecy
Burning
Your Nature
The Savior
Saying Goodbye
On Being Safe
The Art of Captivity
Betrayal is Better Served
Waiting to Be Anxious
Out to Sea
Clorox Clean
Misjudgments
Bird Understandings
I Wish I Were
Recriminations
Some People Think
A Thing or Two
The Buddhist Bird
The Sailor’s Dream
Commander of Crabs
Coming to Rest
Guilty
No Big Deal
Regime Change
The Politics of Promises
The Impending Election
The Other Facts
Happy Meals
Way Down Upon
In the Airport
At the Rest Stop
To Be Somewhere
The Chilean Woman
The Doctor Who Brought the News
ICU Waiting Room
I Want to Love Your Wife
How Suddenly
Real Men Don’t Smell Gardenias
The Persistence of Flowers
The Live Oak
The Snowbird’s Sonnet
In County Kildare
Why You Eat Fish Eyes
The Magician
Four Shots
Peace Prizes
Taps
Declaration of VictoryTHE SPEED WAY

NASCAR and the Track

Time Trial
Fathers and Sons
For Richer or Poorer
Dale Earnhardt, Jr.
Shootout
Danica Patrick
To Be Completely Honest
The Politics of Ethanol
“Ain’t That What It’s All About?”
Scoring
Ray Fox
At the Legacy of Speed Banquet
Autographs
Demolition Derby
When Not to Tango
A Sonnet for NASCAR
Bumper to Bumper
In the Garages
Body Man
What’s on the Hood
It Ain’t Just “Old Boys”

Speedway Haikus

Pit Crew
In the Old Days
Love Bugs
Fan Graffiti
Manqué
NASCAR Camp Grounds
New Bald Tires
Ears
Scanners
Richard Petty’s Promise
Picnic by the Rig
Tandem Racing
Still of Use
In the Fast Lane

Working at the Speedway
The Horse vs. the Race Car
Souvenirs

A Dozen Fan Poems

Fan Participation
Ronny and Jan
I’m So Happy
He Says It’s for His Son
Young Dad
Elegant
The Go-Kart Kid
Enthusiasm vs. Gravity
Two Brothers
A Lull in the Action
Sheer Joy
The Magic Number

The Suits
Milkshakes
Disappointment
Thanks to Doppler
The Ballad of the Stock Car Races
To Die For
Sneaking
How Granny Learned to Love NASCAR
Cars, Motorcycles and Man Caves
In Perspective
There’s Always a Pigeon
Out of Gas
Old Drivers Never Die

Growing Up With Cars and Racing

A History of Speed
On My Own
Rocky
Ma’s Mystery Noise
The Extinction of the Grease Monkey
Sand Soap
Cars
Frame Up
Fortunate
The Restoration
Accents
But Will He Die?
To the Junkyard
All Sales are Final
ANOTHER WAY: POEMS DERIVED FROM
THE TAO TE CHING

(Eighty-one numbered parts.)

1. This Moment Is Unlike Any Other
2. The Surf is Only Calm
3. If This Lot
4. Being Requires No Real Effort
5. The Exact Tide
6. Why Fret?
7. There Is No End to Being
8. One Need Only Be
9. Too Much of a Good Thing Isn’t
10. Sitting in the Perfect Moment
11. Good Teachers
12. Light Is a Spectrum
13. You Want to Mess With Me
14. “I Don’t Get It”
15. A True Lover
16. Okay, It Was Confucius
17. If You Apologize First
18. By Now, It May Seem
19. No One Has Ever Believed
20. Someone Added an Admonishment
21. It has to Be a Good Life
22. Teaching By Paradox
23. I Want to Make a Pact
24. You Have to Be In It
25. When Lapsing Philosophical
26. For All the Jokes
27. If It’s Recognition You Crave
28. Not Many Men Want to Be
29. Pete Seeger set Ecclesiastes
30. Stephen Hawking Said
31. I’d like to Think
32. For All Our Technology
33. I’d Be Content
34. & 35. A Small Girl,
36. Overall, It’s True
37. Being Punished
38. No Good Deed
39. You Can Medicate Yourself
40. Aging
41. I’m Learning the Art
42. What You Sow
43. If We Were Rocks
44. The Key to Love
45. Refrigeration
46. Quiet
47. Sit Before the Wood Stove
48. & 49. A Million Oak Leaves
50. The Ghost Can Not Escape
51. Be Careful Not to Tell
52. The Womb
53. I’m Wearing
54. Show me Your Utopia
55. She’s Well Into Her Nineties
56. Professing
57. Parenting
58. Tell a Kid
59. The Single Rule
60. The Boss
61. A Good Marriage
62. Stay Flexible
63. Hey, Give It a Break
64. A Fellow Told Me Once
65. My Idea of Being the Boss
66. If You Want Someone
67. Did You Reach This Page
68. He Wrote But He Couldn’t Read
69. In Love, Some Say
70. This Style Is Not for Most Folks
71. I Was a Hypochondriac
72. Anyone Who Thinks
73. I Asked the Dali Lama Why
74. It’s Stupid to Be a Terrorist
75. Taxes Are a Trick
76. Why Would the Meek
77. A Rich Man Spends Millions
78. Never Underestimate the Power
79. Our Skin Thanks Us
80. There’s a Virtue
81. Now It’s For You
DECIDUOUS

Deciduous
My Finger Split Open
It’s a Happy Man
Alone at Night
Empty House
For the Valentine I Don’t Have
Good Company
Getting Free
Only Happiness
Conversion
Exhilaration
DNA
So What About Superbugs?
Beach Countdown
Reclamation
Erosion of Power
The Groundskeeper Who Stole an Early Spring
The Idea of Order at Long Island
The Case Against Weeding
Camping
Lotuses
Crocuses
Spring Flowers
Black Ants
Termites
Heat of Day
In the Market
His Office
A Rock and a Roll-Off
Basement Duty
Getting Worms
Home Sick
First Cousin to Die
The Last Time My
Father Beat Me
My Father’s Pacemaker
His Gift
My Father’s Ashes
I Talk to the Dead
Survivor
My Mother’s Hum
Killing My Mother
Stopping Her Medications
My Zayde’s Wine
My Nanny’s Gloves
Big Knuckles
Liver Cancer
You’ve Made Your Bed
My Inner Child
Who’s That Kid
Little League
Nickel Pack
Splendid Splinter
Einstein
The Store of Knowledge
The Classics
Brains and Talent vs. Persistence
The New Language
Performance Poetry
Spam
Clichés
What Older Means
Abs
Where to Call Home
Need to Know
You Say Visit More Often
For His Son Who Totaled
the Car Again
Walking Her to the Bus
Sleeping Beauty
Three Days
Clearly White Socks
Girls’ Track Meet
Big Boy on a Bicycle

Nine Haiku, Six Tanka

January
Wet Smile of Early Spring
First Practice Boy on a Boogey Board
Gray Summer Weekend
Embarrassment of Riches
Peconic Bay September
Leaf Soup
Busy Street
Eighty Degrees in October
Black Cat
Fall Northeaster
Recycle
My Daughter
Beggar

Ups and Downs
Give Me Liberty
Florida Flora and Fauna
Princess of Lake Ronkonkoma
Money in Property
For George Wallace
For Max Wheat
On Not Being Famous
Adriana
Energy Farm
Sonnet for Sandy
Mushrooms
A Bench in the Park
Stephen Hawking Floated
Five Thousand Up Front
Centered
Leo
Ada
Your Father
Your Fiftieth Birthday
Richie
David, My Namesake, My Father
The Old Expatriate
For All the Sons of Prophets
How Dotty Saved the Day
For the Constable
of Belle Terre
Early Quitting Time
Blockbuster
Breakdown
Late Train Out of Manhattan
Ited We Stan
September Ceremony
Preparing for War
Duty
Abu Banana
Politics
We Have a Right to Know
Approach-Avoidance
Veterans Day
Wal-Mart
C-Span Senate Hearing
Statue of an Orator
Jimmy Carter
Black and White
The Relativity of Tragedy
They Have Begun Blasting
When Is a Door a Jar?
Things We Shouldn’t Do

Two Poems Studying Gerard Manley Hopkins

Dandelion Rewards
For David

Man-Eating Blackberries
The Gravity of Emotions
Morning Songs

HOW TO APOLOGIZE

Something Beautiful
Some Things Should Be Dead
Eleven People Dead
Searching for the Light
Riopsis
Mythologizing
If I Had a Magic Wand
Litany
Imitations of Life
I’d Like to Think that I Could Kill
Patriotism
The Art of War
Cousins
You Love Me
Kenst Gornicht Helfen
No Worst, There Is None
Jews Don’t Get Tattoos
Juden Werden Nicht Tätowiert
In Munich
In München
Why You Have to Have It
Giants With Mini-Cameras
Quintessence of Beautiful
Extrasensory Perception
Life at Sea
Love and Marriage
Bedroom Farces
Google Sex
How to Apologize
Summer Lovers
The Woman with the Loud Voice
Teaching My Children
Flower Lessons
More Light
Dating Us
Catch
The Pilot Sets Me Free
Cry Babies
Give Him the Bird
How We Survive
But For You, Child
THE IMPOSSIBILITY OF DREAMS

The impossibility of Dreams
Happy
Thanks
Bad Thoughts
Weapon of Choice
Lightening
Empty
Searching for an Honest Man
Looking for Love
Living in His Own Head
I want Logic
All’s Well that Ends Well
Treatise
Broken
Heart and Soul
Ineluctable
On the Dead List
Outlasting the Bastards
Preservation
Much Melon
If It Isn’t True Why Write It?
Abstractions
Money and Dying
Non Cogito Ergo Sum
Cut Out the Bull
Reason
Surrender
The Infinite Lever of Life
Betrayal
Exquisite Burning
The Harmful Effects of UV Rays
Crabgrass
Death to Nihilism

RANDOM BEAUTY

Random Beauty
The colossal Accident
What Philosophers Don’t Know
A guide to Urban Birds
Anger
Lassitude
Global Warming
The Dead of Kings Park
December 31, 1999
January Thaw
The God in the Details
Disease
Mushrooms
Mill town
The Full Moon
Waiting
An Honest Stranger
Last Rose
Objective Correlatives
Thanatopsis
Learning
march in Red Square
Working Tides
Beach poem
The Lecture on Inner Peace
Soccer
People Who Can Watch TV
Without Feeling Guilty
Once in a While a Protest Poem
Radovan Karadzic
A Happy Slave Is Still a Slave
The China Daily
The Cricket
Strawberries
We Live
The Heat of Day
Apologies
Boycott
Cover Shot
Equitable Distribution
Rock People
Mighty Joe Meets Lopez De Vega
For Doctor Fourman
Walking to Montauk
Poor-Girl Ways
Retired in Lakeworth
Simple Blessings
At the Piano
We Do Dan
Suicide
Nanny’s Garden
Uncle Harry
She Visits Me
My Old Man
The Old Marrieds
My Father’s Pacemaker
Stupid Pills
Seder in the Jewish Nursing Home
Pilgrimage
“Why Remember These Things?”
Home
White Carpets
A Please for Confessional Poetry
Small Press Publishing
Near Death
Banyans

Four Tankas, Four Haiku

Camouflage
For Kathleen Who Dislikes W.C.W.
At the Institute for Sleep
Tough Kid
Gray Summer Weekend
Gall Shower
Peconic
Bosnian Children Playing

Poetry Garden
Desire for Lawn
Robert Frost
Sprinklers in a Bookstore
Children’s Blessings
Writing Paper
The Lifetime Channel
The Toy Creation
His Golden Child
The Kiss
He Visits Her
Negativity
Censorship
At the Open Reading
The Workshop Exercise
Shy
Your Knee
The Scam
Alone in Bed
Negative Energy
Dinner in Silence
Flowers
The Territory
Custody
Time’s Child
Trophies
When Is It Ever Over?
In her Dreams
Torture
Flashbacks
The Substitute
To the Junkyard
The Monk
Someone’s Husband, Someone’s Wife
Every Baby
Suffering
For My Friends Who Try to Cheer Me
Quiescence
Marry a Dancer
Bachelor Song
Courtly Love Revisited
Her Name
She Peels Corn
Old Flirts
A Fog
Furnishings
Lovers Sleeping
The Body Shop
Gratitude
This Poem Is Your Gift

THE CHI OF POETRY

China Journal

The Chi of Poetry
Early Morning, Beijing
Regular Days
Gong Fu in Little School
The Practice Room
Wan Nian Qing
The Great Leader
Nothing Without an Official Chop
The politics of Trash
Dream Interpretation
The Couple Who Protested
Circle Within Circle
Within the Forbidden City
Fresco at the Summer Palace
Climbing the Great Wall
The Lao Tsu School of Journalism
The Discretion of Cedars
Dissident Cats
A Visit with Mao
So I’m Here
The business of China
In the Small Village
The L-Shaped Man
Building the Night
How Cold Was It?
Beyond the Terrace
Subversive Verses
This Washing Machine
Fung Shui
Poetry Reading, Sichuan
The Poor Man’s Nightclub
Victoria Bay
The Politics of Dragonflies

China Poems

The Children of Shenzhen
Who Will Remember the Six Men?
Rain Dances
Heaven’s Land
A Dream of His Return
The Art of Chinese Street Crossing
Li Bai
Cash Flow
The Mud is Red
Invocation at Deng En
Where Lovers Meet
The Hunger Artist

New Poems for My Family

The Pro
Mommaholic
Your Azaleas
Aileen
Heroics
Teaching Techniques
My Colleagues Don’t Come
Just as George Bush Experiences Irregular Heartbeats
The Logic of Assassins
Poem on the Occasion of a Reading
Protesting the Persian Gulf War
The Sentence
On Reading A Brief History of Time
The Upstairs Tenant
Young Mothers
The Man Who Said “Maybe”
Diogenes in the Diner

Eight Divorce Poems

Guilt Fuck
Plans
You Don’t Have
Single Again
Invocation Before Custody
The Ex-Wife Who Swam
I’m Not Ready
Moving Sale

Waiting for the Commutation
Lenore
At Simpson’s Reading
Changing of the Clocks
Spring the Age-Old Question
Long Island Spring Haikus
Canticle Along County Road 58
Someone Explains
The Poet as Still-Life Photographer
THE UNIVERSAL LANGUAGE

Chinese Puzzle
Before the Gates of the Sun
Sicilian Pieces
In My Friend’s Village
Yearning for the South
Black Dream
White Sun
Village Portrait
The Translator
Truth & Justice
Interpreting the Four Quartets
The Girl from Medjugorje
Tourists’ Guide to Montenegro
Etymology of Love
Dumb Show
The Girl Who
Some Said
Particulars
Jeanne Died
The Universal Language
He Asked If I’d Written Poetry About Him
Real Poetry

LOVE IN THE KEYS

Love Poem for a Woman I Haven’t Loved Yet
The Macho Myth of the One-Night Stand
Plantings
Aureole
Whose Are We?
“Aftermath”
The Slaughter
Eating Their Hearts Out
Watching You
This Warm Air Wrapping Us
Visiting the Hemingway House
How Many Cats
No Denials
The Cleaning Women
Poolside in the Keys
Beeping In
Kissing in Front of the Microwave
The Case of Oranges
Duet
Somewhere You Dancing
Letters to My Love
What We Expected

RESURRECTIONS

The Closest I’ve Come to Being Normal
Resurrections
Code Blue
For Gail, Who Called Herself “Charlie”
Steve Comes Back
Pickling
Seeing the Specialist
Cat Walk
Toy Maker
You’ve Changed He Said
The Critical Weakness
A Guide to Suburban Birds
Torrey Pines, California
Midwinter, Stony Brook Harbor
Speech Therapy
If
Irina Ratushinskaya
For Kathleen
The Swimmer
Out on Her Own
For Sonia, Reading
You
Small Claims
The Marriage Contract
He Lists His Complaints
The Escapist
After Your Accident
Self Reliance
Why I Carry a Pocketbook
Toenails
Balloon Poem
Change of Seasons
Before the Gates of the Sun
Counting My Good Fortune
Spider Wishes
Industrial Park
Willimantic, Connecticut
Getting My Rocks Off
Aware of Who We Are
The Way Miro Distresses Some People
The Humanist

A PERPETUAL CALENDAR OF POEMS

January: For the New Year
February: Winter Rondeau
March: One Gray Gull
April: Resurrection
May: Wetlands Off Porpoise Channel
June: First Season’s Swim
July: It’s July and I’m a Yankee Doodle Dandy
August: A String of Pelicans
September: Tanka
October: Indian Summer
November: Paints in Gray
December: Northern Pine

THE END OF THE UNIVERSE

The End of the Universe
The Milkman Cometh
Deus Ex Machina
Artificial Sweeteners
Kids Soup
A Lesson in Friendship
The Wet Nurse
A Wise Move
The Bellybutton Quest
The Naming of Things
The Ichthyologist’s Reply
Spiritual Love
Trouble in China
High Fashion
Why Stock Reports Are So Hard to Understand
The Swimming Pool Adventure
Plastics
Domestic Problems
Boy Attacked by Killer Chicken, Loses Pecker
Dinner Out
The School Bus Sacrifice
WHITE LIES

White Lies
Holocaust
The First Day of School
Heaven
Kid Killers
Crib Bars
The Pile On
When We Were Ten
The Chesnutt King
The Favorite
Lynch Park Summers
Renovations
Catharsis
The Prisoner
Buggy Racing
Zayde
Consent
How Winter Ends
Prejudice
Summer Sundays
Faith
Year of the Tomato Worms
Junk Food
Still Life in English 7-C
The Way It Was
Grown Ups
One for My Father
Another for My Father
What’s in a Name

HOME REMEDIES

Home Remedies
The Vandal
The Poets Against the Scientists
The Odds Makers
Through Sickness
The Energy Crisis
At 5:58 a.m.
Wind Cycle
Port Jefferson, Long Island
White
Career Guidance
Recovery
Weather Patterns
I’m Telling You
The Suffering Goes Both Ways
Fragments of This Relationship
The Media Makes Note
Eulogy for the Gung-Ho Officer
Virginia Soil
The Backward Glance
When I Listen to a Concert I Want to Move
Everyone Is Always
The Meter Reader
The Missions We Are Given
Familiarity
The Spot
Triste
In the Learning Center
The Lawyer’s Lawyer
All Day the Men with Brown Envelopes
Tests of Love and Strength
Poem in Our Honor
Sense of Place
On the Long Island Expressway
Follow My Wishes
Poetry Reading in America
Matters of Life and Death
The Speed Freak
Summer Vacation
The Town House
Casualties
Only Son
The Rites of Passage
Campsite, Eraclea-Minoa, Sicily
Suburbia, of Thee I Sing
Suffolk, Virginia
To Thine Own Self
Keepsakes: For Marianne
Who Is the Poet In the Bathroom?
Vos Darfs Du?
Curiosity
Explaining
Zayde and Me: Two Cripples
The Healing Arts
My Father Never Won
Short Story Poem
Aunty Lil
Jogger
Why You Should Get a Nose Job
Describe Joan
Lock-Step
Emily
The Holidays: A Jewish Cycle

THE MAN WHO FELL IN LOVE WITH A CHICKEN

The Man Who Fell in Love with His Chicken
The Frightening Thing about DNA
The Desk Job
The Working Man
Tongue Hotel
Forgetful Oedipus
Civilization
The Alcoholic
Conservation
How to Prepare for the Coming Monetary Crisis
Concert of Dreams
Art Auction
The Sunburn

A MEETING WITH DAVID B. AXELROD
AND GNAZINO RUSSO

Single Heron
Night Swimmers
Stealing
A Moment in History, or There Will Always
Be Another Position
We Are all Hit and Runs
Elegies: For my Family

A DREAM OF FEET

Short Course on the Holocaust
Diner Still Life
Harry Houdini on His 100th Birthday
Questions
A Dream of Feet
Voyeur
Capitalism
Stealing
Stones: For Josh and Jeanne
My Two Women
The Liberation of Ms. Walker
Who Will Go First
Poem on My Retirement
Horticulture
Hobbyists
Spider Hunting
Smell My Fingers
Autumnal
Speech Therapy
Ernie Celebrates
Earth Mother, High Father
For Joan, Writing
Betty Block
Reversals
Winter Won’t
Instant Replay
Once in a While a Protest Poem
Fortune Telling
Teething
Chronometry
The Face
Pat Pulls
A Lone Runner on the Beach
Tag Teams Forever
Float Parade
The Riddles We Are
Irony Ward
Bug Litany
Friday Like a Metaphor
Consolations
Surgeons
The I’ve-Got-to-Get-Published Poem
Jungle Hunting
A Prayer to Brokenness
Highway Robbery
Poem Happening
Contact Myth
Bioenergetics
Subliminal Perceptions
Method Acting

MYTHS, DREAMS AND DANCES

Rites and Practices
Diagnostic clinic
Yuba County Incident
Hocker
Americans Are Sentimental
Fourth of July at Rocky Point
Killing Time
Making Love for Emily
Alone in Your Rouse
Sic Transit Gloria
Pranayama: Exercises of Control of Breath
For Joan in Love
Au Clair de la Lune
Anniversary Poem
What We Have Now
Word Ending
Myths, Dreams and Dances
Ennui
On the Virtues of Being Alone Again
Weinberg with Racial Heart
Snow Poems: Made Fresh Every Hour
March Flowers
Into Spain They Came
The Dead Have No Respect
Missing You
Comes the Revolution
Runner
“We Need What We Want”
I Say, You Say Poem
Meprobamate
Mother and Child
Voices Behind the Professor’s Door
How the Barker Ended
Potatoes
Carrots
Train Passing Close
March 1st and I Forgot My Jacket
Two Young Teachers
As She Grows Older
The Order of Things
7 p.m. and Mr. Risley Gets the Bananas
Constant
Out of the Basements, Excelsior
Linguistics
January Moon
Sad Song
Metamorphoses
Population Dynamics
Racial Still Life
Perennial
Time Pieces
Petite Danseuse
Realities
Pumper
Dianna
Vows of Silence
Poem for Martha
Affirmation of Old Truths
Port Jeff to Bridgeport
Recoveries and Losses
Tour Arriving
On My Birthday
Specific Poem
Gimme Culture
Hand-Me-Down
He Was Calm
½ Scientist, ½ Woman
Strawberry Picking,
Staying Power
Victory by Attrition
The Lost Contemporary
But Oh Baby, What We Do to Each Other
You Put Pies
Para psychosis
Isotope Lab
Off to the Glue Factory
Night Syndrome
The Second Coming,
Analytical Poem
Watching the Fat Girl
Cursing the Boss
Accidental Death and Dismemberment
Donne, You Dog
Dress Rehearsals
The Serious Case of D. B. Axelrod

STARTING FROM PAUMANOK

Ancient History
To Leave Is Like Dying
Visions in a Cooperative Complex
Malignancy
Existence and Beach Days
Attempts to Pass
Home for the Aged
Old Age Can Be Heroic
World Poem
Searching for Absolutes
Nice, Stupid People
Paradigm
Analogies
Steps
The Twentieth-Century Tiger
STILLS FROM A CINEMA

Subject, Object, Time
A Poem for Luli
Widows
One Day Once Upon
Joan and David
Peter
Drafts in a Clean, Well-Lighted Place
Climbing the Water Geyser
You Saw Down
Stills from a Cinema
A Strange Dream
Alone, He
Godiva of the Stoplights
Ho pe
Relativity
Reflections in the Glass
Dreams to Interpret
Bei der Zeider See
Two Prepubescent Girls
Gulls Jumping
Nod
Squirrels
A House on Lothrop Street
Girl at a Sidewalk Cafe
July in the Hospital
The Wedding of Two Greats
That Way of Looking
Killing Grandma
I Want to be with You
Strangers in Ubangi Land
A Few Words for Leroi
Putting Out City Lights
Notes Toward a Final Lecture
Cadences for All Hallows Eve
Three Determinations

RUSTING
RUSTING

Rust populates
those parts of things
that are not touched.

Others are oiled by
fingertips or polished
by the brush of cloth.

Deeper crevices decay.
Even the thickest
iron will grow porous.
For ships, there is
comfort in dry dock,
welders’ arcs of light.

For me, just waiting
and wasting. Unlike
love, entropy is slow.

THE HORRIBLE MIND

Frank Zappa asked “What is the ugliest part of your body?”

His first thoughts were often unmentionable—
knives to pare away the pain,
forks to extract apologies.
On second thought, he was aware he
saw things through a specific lens that dis-
torted the world, rendering it a war zone
where Geneva Conventions were ignored—
a torturous place beyond victory
or revenge. “Why do I always hurt
the ones I love?” he asked,
and he could answer without thinking,
“The enemy is hardwired into me.”
Some people play computer games
committing endless software murders.
He felt he was under attack. On better
days his mind played word games
called poems, or he resorted to gallows
humor. But the mind loves dirty tricks,
as anyone hiding in his bedroom
could attest—night terrors.
GOTHIC

“The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.”
—Henry David Thoreau

Who needs the clanking
chains, the squeaking stairs
and inexorable footsteps?
There’s a cancer ward
in every hospital where
the excisions are torture.

Who needs the bony hand
reaching from the curtain;
the gaunt and bloodless face?
There’s a nursing home around
the corner where those who
remember sit waiting for death.

No need to dress in black,
dark makeup, black lipstick,
affectations. There’s a girl
in her bedroom cutting herself,
contemplating her own end
before she turns seventeen.

Hollywood works too hard,
rubber masks, 3D effects,
blood squirting everywhere.
Turn on the lights and film
your neighbors. Face
the camera, film yourself.

WHY SOME PEOPLE DON’T GO TO HORROR MOVIES.

The abused don’t need
Fritz Lang or Alfred Hitchcock.
The images replay like TiVo:
freeze frame, slow motion.
They don’t have to build
dark scenery. It’s etched
into their mind. There is no exit,
front and rear, in their theater.
Imagine waking in your
own bedroom so lost
you can’t find a light that
you wouldn’t dare turn on
lest you realize it isn’t
a dream. You are there
and it is happening.

LA VIE NOIR

Before we married,
my first wife and I,
walking a moonlit
street in Baltimore,
simultaneously turned
to each other and said,
“Those row houses look
like coffins.” We knew we
were in love. The marriage
of two nihilists is dark enough.
Add fits of depression
and you have the perfect
formula for “Noir,” cynically
sexual, dangerous if not
criminal, though I always said
if we owned a gun, one of us
would be dead. Instead, we
spawned three talented kids—
each a paradoxical light
in our dark philosophy.
Later, Hollywood taught us
how to make horror movies.

FAITH AND PREJUDICE

Faith begins where reason leaves off.
Someone’s child is shot dead by an
angry man. “God has taken that child
to do his work in heaven,” a mother says.

Prejudice substitutes for reason.
All so-and-sos are criminals or lazy.
He was wearing a hoodie and looked
suspicious. I stood my ground.

Faith and prejudice go hand in hand.
Because you do not worship my God,
you are not worthy. Kill the infidel.
Drive out the nonbelievers.

Faith is the prettier name for prejudice.
I do this in God’s name. I do this in
the name of your security. Surrender
your human rights to me.

Nothing can prove that your
religion is the one true faith.
God is great. God is good.
God lives in my neighborhood.

If it is built on a lie, it cannot
by its nature, ever be true.

A REASON FOR EVERYTHING

It isn’t my business what you
believe or if you stand to pray
or kneel and stick your tongue
out. It’s fine that you donate
goats to save Africa, even as you
pay a fortune to buy your stupid
dog his pills or board him in
a kennel. It matters not a fig
who wins our arguments. But
when you tell me, “There is
a reason for everything,”
I worry I could hate you. Sooner,
say you worship Satan because,
then, all the Jews who died,
died for a reason. All people
crushed in earthquakes, children
starving with swollen bellies—
suffer for a reason. All the abuse,
beatings, rapes and wars—
for a reason. What, woman,
could possibly possess you
to believe in such a thing?
It’s not for me to forgive you.
I can’t forgive myself so
don’t ask me. And if there is
some God who planned all this,
I hope you meet Him. Those
who believe in “a reason,” deserve
to suffer eternity in such a heaven.

BLIND, DEAF AND DUMB

Romantic love
lays siege to reason

Love is blind.
Do tell?

making summer
of any season.

Must we be deaf
and dumb as well?

SCREWING UP

Lovers screw up
thinking that love
will conquer all.
They think that
love can change
old habits—the cap
will magically
screw back on
the toothpaste
because, “He loves
to please me.”
Instead, the cap
stays off and screwing
up, beyond metaphor,
grows tedious. Couples
drift apart and, with that,
screw around.

AFTER I CAUGHT MY GIRLFRIEND

After I caught my girlfriend
in bed with another man—
worse, a fellow writer whose
talent made me jealous—
I took to my car and drove
two hundred miles in no
direction. The engine did
not overheat or fume. Only
I emitted odorous epitaphs
and curses no catalytic
converter could capture.
Jilted lovers learn to burn
their sorrows into raptures.

WEDDING VOWS

Some see marriage as
a sweet confection but
an honest love does not
conform to rules, absent
of “My way,” offering
“Whatever you like.” No
obfuscation, no competition.

No gentle greeting
card in my needing you.
Ours is a sacrifice, trading
liberty for imagined pleasures.
You will dress me as
your devoted husband.
I will have my private way.

We will merge our small
finances, make room in
our house for each other’s
tastes, all for comfort
through abhorrent aging,
to dance one last dream
act and be complete.

READING OLD LOVE POEMS

“When two divorced people marry,
four people get into bed.” —Jewish Proverb

Koheleth said there’s nothing
new, but under a brilliant sun
with my lover, even warmth
is reinvented. Then, I think of
poems for my first love, written
that first summer. The body
memory so real—a gritty blanket
on a private strand; we two,
rolling in joy. That was fifty
years ago and now I’m here
with you. Why, much as I love
you, do I still remember her?

FOR THE OLD FLAME I LOCATED ONLINE

In the group shot taken on a lawn
at a summer conference, your smile
is framed by thick red hair. We squint
into the sun—just kids, though we
thought twenty was grown up. We were
instant boyfriend and girlfriend, away
from home and ready for adventure.
The romance lasted a few months,
commuting between two states,
and your reticence to entangle.
All these years I’ve kept that picture,
following your career—publishing
children’s books, a media professional.
I wondered why you never
published a photo I could see—
no public image. I didn’t harbor any
fantasy, just curiosity—what became
of you? Until a search told your story:
chronic systemic lupus, from as far back
as when your children were young.
Now, any thought of you as an aging
beauty shining at me if we met
transforms to my sympathy
imagining how you have suffered,
and how I dodged a bullet.
If our romance persisted, if we had
married—professionals, city dwellers,
a cultured family—we would have
spent more time in doctors’ offices
than salons and symphonies.

KEEPING AN OPEN MIND

1.
A circular bone saw
buzzes a door
to the brain.
The scalp
bleeds profusely.
How they peel it
back is a surgeon’s
job. Within, there’s
the gray matter of
changing one’s mind.

2.
The brain surgeon
operates, and I’m
awake to report what
neurons do. He removes
my bad habits, replacing them
with more loving ways.
A plate is placed and glued,
the scalp sewn back. After
the gauze unwraps, after
the hair grows long enough
to cover the seamy scars,
no one will know but me.

LONGING

Some things go on too long:
the dentist for more than
a minute; the homily when
you are hungry; the lecturer
who never wears a watch.
Some things could last longer:
our biweekly pay when we
buy groceries and gas;
the cello concert by Yo-Yo
Ma; your caress of my hand
as I pass. Some things should
never stop—this sunshine on
the moist curve of your back.

SOLSTICE

That day breaks should warn us
life is a struggle, wind aimed
over the Atlantic, waves heaving
toward shore. Sun struggles
a shorter day toward winter
while we watch branches bare
their limbs for battle. What
will not bend will break, so frozen
people make the same mistakes:
a daughter of abuse, an alcoholic
husband. Demeter wanting
warmth, asks her daughter, “Why?”

Sunset is a gentle and welcome
state, colors welling in streaks
of cloud, flat strands of sand
at ebb tide. Night rejoices
that it is stronger. We creep
inside, an end to toil, comforted
that darkness lasts much longer.
We need not mourn the death
of flowers: let the tulips have
their rest; wrap tender trunks
to save them; accept what will
not last. Even the sun must die.

APRIL FOOLS

We wait for April, rebirth
programmed into us as surely as
trees are skeletons until sunlight
sets them free from their
dark closets and we, reassured by
a first warm day, open a closet
to put our heavy coat away.

The green of St. Patrick’s Day is
inflated to importance by myths
and beer. Spring in northern
climates can be insincere —long
nights and snow that lingers near.
Only when we turn our clocks ahead,
can we see hope for warmer sunsets.

Those who worship Christ,
forgetting he was born in spring,
resurrect him. In April, even poets
begin to sing. Animals unfold
in new-green pastures. Children
come visiting parents who are
glad to pay for trips and tickets.

And the ill, their cancer, for
the moment quelled, postpone
surrender. Facing winter, deaths
climb—January, particularly fatal.
For whatever cold we must endure,
death rates drop in spring.
HOW TO WIN FRIENDS …

… and Influence People was a book
my mother always recommended,
but her philosophy was inconsistent,
perhaps because she’d lived through
a depression and the Holocaust. “You’re
lucky if you don’t give a damn,” she’d also
say, “Look at your brother. He’ll do
just fine.” And who is to say he hasn’t
though I can’t stand anything about him—
his racist, Rush Limbaugh point of view,
flash temper, homophobic, but somewhat
useful life. He works hard, pays taxes,
has helped raise his wife’s family. He’s
never so much as collected unemployment.
A successful bastard. Then, there’s my
own kid. The youngest, knowing it
offended me, just got a tattoo. Between
whining about money and spending
ceaselessly, you’d think she’d be
respectful of my wishes, but no,
within hours of eighteen it was off
with friends to disfigure her body.
She’ll do fine. Not caring about
others’ love and feelings should be
the key—much better than a break-
down over some bastard who
ditched you just before your prom.
As for me, I just need to not care,
not treat everyone to dinners, not
squander a hundred hours volun-
teering to help this one’s career
and that one’s health or heart. Then,
maybe I wouldn’t awake with the birds
on a sweaty summer morning wondering
why life is so damned hard and I don’t see
the point of loving, or trying, or caring.

MY MOTHER’S PROPHECY

“There’s nothing we can do,”
my mother would say, and it
angered me. An abdication
of what parents should be.
Leaving me undefended before
the vehemence of anti-Semites.
“There’s nothing we can do.”
The only answer for my older
brother’s temper even as our
mother loved and cared for
both of us. But what about
the attacks he frequently unleashed
on me? “Nothing we can do.”
The answer for all things political
or simply screwed up to the painful
point of surrender. I strove
to prove her wrong—studied,
wrote, created a public face
to prove myself. Until now,
her words soothe me—
a “nothing” that trumps
all other fates. My strivings
diminish. My vanity, though
it persists, is humorous—leaving
“nothing” to console me,
“nothing” to assuage me
and relieve my guilt.

BURNING

1.
It was the morphine they gave her
that focused my mother on the ceiling
tiles in parallel above her bed. “When
those lines meet, they are going to burn
me,” she insisted. “Don’t let them
burn me before I’m dead.” After
the holocaust, my mother didn’t believe
in God. She had no place for heaven,
though she did think earth was hell.
After she died we committed her,
lovingly, to the fire.

2.
“That was then. This is now,”
only works if you’re superhuman.
Some memories are seared so deeply,
every synapse directs us back to the abuse.
Try rituals, writing the bad thoughts on
slips of paper tossed into a fire, smudging,
incense, exorcism. Nothing short of
immolation can end the pain. Still,
on a May 1st, at some Feast of Beltane,
or perhaps just at a beach bonfire,
it may be possible to purge the past
and bask, instead, in the warmth
of present friendship.

YOUR NATURE

Choose me or not, but the rose
should not resist the bee.
Take me to your center.
There’s honey in it, but
first I must have my way.
I don’t feel guilty and I
will not sting. Though
such probing can seem
painful—let me tickle.

Or do you prefer to be
my keeper? Restrain me,
spread me to find how,
deep inside, I thrive.
There’s no harm in
owning me, your faithful
servant—pollen gatherer,
wax maker, protector
of my queen. Or,
sting me your once
and fatal sting. You
will survive. It is I who
will be sacrificed to
your stubborn nature.

THE SAVIOR

You ask me, “If the house
were burning, what would
you save?” Would it be
my photo albums? Odd how
taking pictures has all but
stopped. I don’t own jewelry,
though I imagine gold melting
nuggets in someone else’s fire.
The cat can save itself with
a leap when the door is opened.
I’d see to that, and my wife
is similarly fleet of foot. Yes,
I’d shoo them out. Important
papers? I’d want my kids to
have my will—odd word,
with many meanings, first
asking what we want to do
with life, then how to dispose
of it. My safe, I’m told, is
fireproof to fifteen hundred
Fahrenheit, which will cremate
me, should I linger to breath
in smoke and choke. Lately,
I wonder if I’d save myself?

SAYING GOODBYE

Saying goodbye to friends
feels easy. It’s missing them
that’s hard. A colleague
who moved away blogged
for two years—merciless
in his confessions, “I don’t know
a soul here. I’m miserable.
I’m lonely.” Then, of course,
we mostly stopped hearing.
I’ve seen him once since,
living with a woman he met
who’s driving him crazy.

Family is another story,
good at guilting. “You are
abandoning us. You won’t
even see your grandkids.”
They’ll find a time once
a year to travel down—
but only if I buy their tickets.
Some advice connecting
to them online but that’s
like loving a limb that’s gone—
phantom sensations. Ether
is a substantial filter.

What interests me is that
simple word, “Goodby.” I
always have to type it, then
pause to add the “e” which
seems to me a spelling an-
achronism. But etymologically,
it means, “God be with you.”
I’m not even a believer, which
leaves me looking for foreign
alternatives: ciao, arrivederci,
do svidaniya, zài jiàn, zbogom.
“Shalom,” could work. I settle
for, “See you later.”

ON BEING SAFE

His mantra starts out,
“Warm, clean, comfortable.”
He’s had his share of troubles—
health, work, relationships.
He’s never been consoled to hear,
“Others have it so much worse.”
Why would that make him feel
better? How many people go hungry,
combing dumpsters for food,
or sleep in cardboard boxes
in freezing weather? Others
may see him as a “kook.” At least
he’s not a criminal, eying what
others have, ready to pounce.
Nor is he filled with ethnic hatred.
In the darkness of his bedroom,
a cover pulled over his ear,
for a moment, he’s grateful he is
not in danger and he can
safely fall asleep.
THE ART OF CAPTIVITY

1.
Who has kidnapped me,
captive, naked every night,
waiting for the beating,
and why does this excite
me? I sweat, pulse racing,
aware I will be forced
and forced again to profess
my love. From this comes
my art, always tightening
around me, even as I
am frighteningly glad.

2.
Those who cast a bronze
know the lost wax must
go somewhere—a vapor
that gives way to form.
When the heat of creation
replaces me—when I give
way to some new shape
awaiting paring and polish,
will anyone remember
that which was me or
all my years of sculpting?

BETRAYAL IS BETTER SERVED

Cold. I know you are thinking, “revenge,”
or perhaps you believe that a good twist
of a knife deep into the back produces
a searing pain. Not so. Those who make
friends lightly, break the trust like thin
ice cracking suddenly beneath one’s feet.
Imagine the illusion of solidity, the silly
confidence that one can walk on water,
though winter should be a hint not to
trust. Skate out, do a figure eight, smile
until the sudden crack and quicker fall
beneath the ice. That’s betrayal for you.
Just when you think you can trust a fellow,
all that you know lets go. You’re left
wondering if there are really air bubbles
trapped under the surface or if you’ll die
of the brutal cold before you drown.

WAITING TO BE ANXIOUS

Those who are prone are
always waiting, but I’m not.
Two things in my favor—
I’m not an addictive person-
ality and I don’t get anxious,
though lately I’ve thought
I ought to be. So many bridges
burning—retirement,
a house sold, a major
move. Now would be
a good time to feel
that tightness in
the chest, shortness
of breath, flush across
the face and oh, that
ceaseless pulsing. Not
remembering minor facts—
names of old neighbors, places,
dates not even Google can
recover—can keep me up
at night, somewhere between
frustration and fear of Alzheimer’s.
Tonight, I’m just awake
with me—mildly curious
to see if I will live through it.

OUT TO SEA

There is a monument by
the sea, commemorating
TWA Flight 800, shot
down off Long Island’s coast,
two hundred thirty people
lost. None I know chose
to die, so my walking past it
to commit suicide seems
like a sacrilege. A March
wind pummels me with sand
and salt. I descend eroded
dunes, trek far enough,
past walkers yearning
for spring, to an empty patch.

I once made the perfect plan:

Buy a big accidental death
policy; wait months. Then,
at some remote location, dial
911, “Someone is in the surf.
Come quickly.” Put the cell
phone, car keys in your shoes.
Swim out and just let go.

My body would be found
fairly soon. My children
would be left rich. I might
even appear to have died
a hero. I never bought that
policy. Pity, but I have stowed
my ID in the car, taken off
my shoes, placed my keys.
The incidence of waves is
frequent but not violent,
wearing broken shells into
tourist amulets. Gulls have
spotted herring a hundred yards
out and circle wildly. The beach
is littered with brittle bits.

The water is cold enough
to turn my ankles blue.
There’s a break in the dunes
that could shelter me, where
I retreat to lie on the softest,
wind-scattered sand. After
an hour spent between
reminiscence and regret,
I stir, put on my shoes,
and, keys in hand, hurting
as if I’d been beaten by
a two-by-four, I trudge
past the monument where,
soon, the flags of thirteen
countries will cling to poles
for those who perished. I return
to the car where a simple
note explains my demise.

I’ve saved it as a draft—
not badly written.

CLOROX CLEAN

The most effective mix is
ten to one to kill whatever germs.
Overdosing, I pour it straight from
the bottle to the floor. I don’t wear
clothes I value. Alone, I might
wear only underwear, spreading
the liquid with a rag as my eyes
tear. I’ve burned off my fingerprints,
bleached my knees and soles.
Lungs scorched, I cough as I
cry for all my blemishes.

MISJUDGMENTS

The bird, hovering a moment,
slowing, misses its branch.
The squirrel who leaps from
its high perch, crash lands.
The raccoon miscalculates the car.
This is my natural state,
falling, crashing, crushed.
Yet, simply human, I lack
the dumbness of other animals,
with not so much as a mask
to cover my eyes.

BIRD UNDERSTANDINGS

Birds know how to die, anonymously,
only occasionally violating their code,
found mauled by the neighbor’s
cat or crusted with gravel along
a road. We nearly never see them
perish, find no trace, though
thousands flock. They do not
trouble us for a funeral.

Imagine bird bone fields
where slight, white skeletons
bleach in beds of feathers,
a thousand wishbones awaiting
our hopeful tug. Or do they simply
fly so high they disappear?
Birds know death doesn’t matter.

I WISH I WERE

I wish I were smart.
A smart man can even out-
wit a cheetah who, itself,
runs seventy miles per hour,
its haunches huge springs
releasing energy. I plod along
making my catty comments.
Chimps do somersaults.
I’m often, told I’m flippant.
There are those who can
remember vast texts, reciting
them at will. I’m more like elephants—
who truly don’t remember much—
perhaps a few commands,
not even old injuries. Well,
I do remember all those
injuries—by my brother, best
friends, even an ex-wife. But
all that just clouds my judgment
and I keep running after brilliant
people, admiring them, asking
if I can be a friend. Why do I
mistake intelligence for moral
fiber? A Ph.D. doesn’t guarantee
a bit more kindness. So many
geniuses act monstrously. I’m
left grateful. I’m just smart enough
to love you and dumb enough
to trust you’ll kill me quickly if
I’ve misjudged.

RECRIMINATIONS

Rape victims may blame themselves,
as if just walking home at night invites
attack. But those who were abused,
the earlier in life and longer, are
wired differently. Lying on some
couch for therapy can’t keep away
night terrors. There was the boy,
brutalized from birth until his older
brother left, who wondered why
young children, smiling as they passed,
were happy? Those little pokes that
siblings give each other? He knew
only a fist between his shoulders
that knocked him down, breath-
less. Victims may yearn to dup-
licate their agonies, but there’s no
excuse for cruelty. If the machine
is that badly broken, junk it.
But how many fathers, brothers,
priests or trusted friends walk free
while their victims suffer silently,
jealous of the joy they never had?

SOME PEOPLE THINK I’M DANGEROUS

Allow me to be dangerous,
my front tooth chipped, my
left molar missing. Maybe
the mercury in my fillings
is dangerous. My hearing,
dim, I’m hardly a proper
snooper. Maybe I’d listen
in on you, but, “Huh? What?
Could you repeat that?”

I was only, briefly, good
at wrestling. My last couple
rounds with gloves on made
me throw up. I don’t know
karate, don’t own a gun.
Dangerous? I’ve shrunk
two inches in height since
my first license. It’s been
ten years since I could
press two hundred pounds.

If they think I’m a danger
I’ll take that as a compliment.
All I have are my words
and they, mumbling fools,
are scared to death of me.

A THING OR TWO

I’ll tell you a thing or two about happiness
which, if it is a warm puppy, should be
cooked and eaten. There are absolutely no
absolutes, the consequence of which may
make the religious queasy but will certainly
save on C-4 and martyrs. There may be
a season for everything, but the rich can
go south for the winter. As for book learning,
most textbooks are wrong. The classics are
overrated. Looking too closely is myopic.
Buddha’s middle way, Jesus’ turned cheek,
the wisdom of so many other sages, is lost
in the translation—of time, of place, of
tongues tied with bad intentions. Between
the first and last tick, some folks think they
have figured it out and thus smile broadly.
If you cry all the time, they will take you
away, but if you laugh all the time, you’re
an f-ing nut case. Get out of your aphoristic,
self-styled head and live. In a hundred years
nearly every one of six billion souls alive
now, will be dead. No matter. Happiness is
an illusion, not even worth the price
of a movie ticket. The reviews are in.
The critics are all thumbs up. It’s a life,
whatever that is, and millions more are
lining up, scratching at the door to take
your place. You might as well be happy.

THE BUDDHIST BIRD

From its unseen perch it
calls to me, “Right here.
Right here.” It’s voice
is clear, it’s message
in the moment.

Bayberries are daily
strewn across my
concrete walk. They are
the elderly surrendering
to spring blossoms.

There it is, a cardinal,
red plumage as urgent
as its call, “Right,
right, right here.”
We eye each other.

Today, the hickory tree
has resurrected, draping
new leaves, just shy
of flowers. A neighbor
told me it was dead.

I’m not one for bird calls,
but I do my best to answer,
“Now, now, right now.”
Cloudy-bright, moist
air. Exquisite.
THE SAILOR’S DREAMS

1.
We could breathe underwater
swimming ever deeper
in a sunlit, emerald sea

unencumbered, naked
skimming hands over wriggling
bodies, kicking feet

until the water darkened
with the depth and we grew
quiet as we floated

slowly upward, hugging
tightly, eyes closed
until we surfaced

to a giggling salty kiss
that signaled our time to dive
still deeper in our love.

2.
The sea speaks patient sibilants
to a softly rushing breeze.
Sometimes a whoosh of a larger
wave warns a wading man.
The sea is an ancient grandma
shushing a rowdy child.

Sit silently to listen—
a distant car, an ice cream
vendor’s song, the squawk
of heron gulls dispensed
a snack by a giddy girl.

All sounds are subsumed
by a lesson taught us by
the sea—hush hush
your thoughts. Shh shh
your aspirations. Breathe
softly the salt air.

3.
The air divides with our slow
movement through the room.
I follow in your steps, liquefied
by anticipation. Each article
of our clothing slides up
or down and off, a matching
advance of energy—a dance
of electricity between us.
We turn to hug, joy in our
eyes. I’ve seen how swallows
slip air currents to soar
curves across the skies.
So I rise toward your
warm sighs, moist currents,
slipstreams for me to ride.

4.
Be my north and I will
be your compass, finding
you steadfastly. Be my
south and I will bend
to your warm breezes.
The west of you makes
me wild. Your east
remains inscrutable.
Encircle me. Be my
world, and I will
delight in exploration.

COMMANDER OF CRABS

At the mouth of the Tomoka
River, a thousand fiddler
crabs line the shell-strewn
shore. I approach slowly,
herding them in columns
to battle each other
in the marshland. They
bob their light purple
shells, menace one large
white claw. Except for
my firm footsteps they
would do only a slightly
sideways shuffle. But I
am their Caesar—
rallying my legions
to die in defense
of their land.

COMING TO REST

1.
A southwest wind sweeps
through the saw palmetto.
The surf massages
a thin stretch of sand.
Pelicans have spotted
a school of whitebait.
The sploosh of their
headlong dives reminds
me of my appointed rounds.
I’d start the car but wait—
the breeze has begun
to stroke the whiskers
of a single sabal palm.

2.
The forest that blurred
at interstate speed now
beckons at the rest stop.
Push through the dusty
underbrush. Disappear
into pines. Observe
lichen-covered stones
strewn amid hackberry
and loblolly. Breathe
deeply of turpentine
air. Sink slightly into
years of pine straw.
Allow yourself to root.

GUILTY

A salt mist rises along the shore.
A steady winds renders sunrise
cool to the skin despite the warmth
of summer. Who first noticed
the horizon curves or mused that
the sun does not sizzle rising
from the sea? We live in this
fortunate land where others lived
long before us. As far down
the beach as we can see, were
tribes we met and murdered,
then scraped from the curve
of memory. Oceans matter,
lasting longer than aristocracy.
Salt pounds to vapor, rising in
the swells that break on the beach.
What we have now was stolen.
Shouldn’t we, witness to such
beauty, feel guilty?

NO BIG DEAL

Reading the New York Times
over a plate of leftover rice and meat
for brunch, I try not to cry. Somewhere
between oil-soaked pelicans and Uzbek
children bleeding, I want to be inured.
If I cry, let it be for little things like
illness and mortality. The daily cruelty
is no big deal. Only a month ago, I
contemplated suicide—failing finances,
failed love, the usual flighty things.
Since then, I’ve found a panacea,
treating friends and family to dinners.
At least I’m still of use. But given
the demise of print journalism,
who will investigate the sins?
Who will remind me of the world
beyond my variable gut, my silly
jowls, or the way a habitual meal
is not all there should be to life?

REGIME CHANGE

Thirteen-year-old Hamza’s parents
have posted pictures of their
dead son on the internet
to prove the torture instituted
by the Syrian regime. His knees
are crushed, his body mutilated.
His father fainted when he first
saw the corpse of his son.

Some say it’s time for action,
pretending to champion
democracy. Instead, another
chance to kill for peace—
the peace of broken knees,
peace that pumps life
out of the poor and money
into the pockets of the rich.

Hamza lies, shattered, on
a cotton blanket. Make yourself
look. War, torture? Pleasure
people feel when power
transcends reason. In the streets
people are chanting, “Kill
the child killers,” but
the battle to win is within.

THE POLITICS OF PROMISES

If they were favorite china
dishes shattered on kitchen tiles,
we’d sweep the shards
with a bristle brush,
sigh for what can’t be fixed
and whisper our gratitude
that nothing cut our foot.

A bone when broken,
for all the sudden shock
and searing pain, the possible
surgery and pins, will heal
with the consolation that
fractures mend stronger
where they were broken.

But the economy is ephemeral,
nothing a poor person can
grasp when just getting
to the job costs an hour’s pay
and forty hours doesn’t
cover basics—assuming
the boss lets you work full time.

We were promised the American
dream. As if. Then, there’s
what we call “the party system.”
A broken dish we know is gone.
The broken promises just go on.
What kind of party only allows
the rich and powerful to celebrate?

THE IMPENDING ELECTION

Here are your choices. Vote
for the candidate who steals openly or
secretly, who lies plainly or with a coy smile.
Vote for those who promise more or less
knowing there’s no chance to deliver.
Vote—our American privilege,
franchise, duty. Vote, to promote the illusion
of freedom. Vote, to assuage your sorry
conscience which, otherwise, would
keep you sleepless. Get up from
that comfortable couch, go out
even in heavy rain, bravely
trek to the polling place ignoring
the clear omen of the storm,
the near-gale winds splattering
campaign fliers into gutters where
last-ditch volunteers beseech you to
vote. For a drink. Vote for a cigar.
Vote for a pretty haircut. Vote for the one
who kills in defense or the candidate who
kills to win. It’s the American way.
Pick the lesser of two evils.
Or don’t vote and pick no evil.
THE OTHER FACTS

Red has a frequency between
430 and 480 Terahertz. This is
indisputable for me, though I see
red when someone won’t listen.
It should be easy to convince
a person with facts. I could say,
“That’s a lovely red sweater
you are wearing.” You might
blush, and call it flattery
but you couldn’t say, “I
disagree. It’s blue.” We
can express our tastes—
whether one color is
prettier than another.

But on physical facts we
must agree. Not so in our society.
Not so in the classroom, where
every student is a customer.
“The professor is preaching
red ideas and they offend me.”
And the professor, there to
please, must relent or change
the facts to a different frequency.
Or in politics, a candidate
for president says, “I know it
isn’t true but I can say it
anyway. In politics, that’s
just what we do.”

Ordinary folks think, “My
opinion is as good as yours,”
but not all opinions are factual
or true. And that, good sir
or madam, is why someone
is going to kill you, fully
convinced his cause is just
and you, misinformed
and miscreant, should perish.
Much as you try to reason
with him, you can’t win.
Everything is just “your opinion.”
For the people with the guns,
only their facts are true.

HAPPY MEALS
First out the drive-up window
comes a Coke with ice, glistening
with moisture, long straw sticking
from its slightly open lid. Then,
the box, bedecked with images
from the latest kiddie film.

Eat half the cookies, followed
by small fries, three of the four
chicken nuggets. Open the plastic
toy—an LED figure made in China.

One more squeeze of ketchup
on a lingering fry. Then, out
the car window it all goes, littered
along the roadside as the kids
complain, “I’m bored. There’s
nothing to do at home.”

WAY DOWN UPON

The sign reads, “Welcome
to the Historic Suwannee River”
where a State Park features
dioramas depicting happy slaves.
Is Stephen Foster even still allowed?
Amos ’N’ Andy is long gone.
Who really misses Sambo or Uncle
Remus? And while Bill Cosby
didn’t really buy “Our Gang”
to banish a singsong, “eeny
meeny miny,” gratefully we
don’t catch anyone who rhymes
with “moe” the way we used to.

But colleges now recommend
we drop Huck Finn and “Heart
of Darkness,” lest we offend.
Textbooks must be PC. There is
token progress everywhere,
and yes, we need to be on guard.
We shouldn’t just teach old,
dead white guys. Prejudice is so
enshrined, when they play “Dixie”
at Stone Mountain, some people still
shout, “The South will rise again.”
But censorship, like stupidity is
the cause, not cure for prejudice.

IN THE AIRPORT

1. Rocking Chairs

Tall, white, with wood-slatted bottoms—
rockers facing the tarmac. A kid kicking
like he’s pumping on a swing. A woman
with an aluminum walker, motionless
with a glassy grin. A mother nursing.
Comfort for the nervous traveler who
stayed awake all night in his motel.

2. The 15’ x 24’ Flag

For all its size, people barely
notice the 15’ x 24’ flag hanging
motionless from the ceiling
of the atrium. Beneath it, three
soldiers in desert camouflage
kill an hour before flying
home for two weeks of leave.
Then, it’s two more years
of active duty and IEDs.
Three soldiers look up
longingly at their flag.

3. Saxophonist in an Airport

He’s scored an airport gig
playing mellow jazz over
a computerized rhythm section.
His riffs are virtuous,
short of virtuoso, but
he’s earning his tuition —
a music major aimed at
teaching high school.

He must admire Grover
Washington, gliding over
the backbeat, phrasing
a well-practiced “Simply
Beautiful.” The airport
management thinks he’s
a touch of class, but his
tip jar still has only
five dollars he put in
to cue folks and so far,
from eleven to one,
he’s sold only one CD.

4. Waiting at the Gate

The three-year-old jumping jack
boy tugging toward the plane.

The hoodied teen with pants
at half-ass jiving to an iPod.

A pink sweatsuited twenty-
something female athlete.

A thirty-or-so male executive
judging from his black attaché.

The forty-plus woman reading
her romance novel with her lips.

The cashmered first-class woman
whose perfect makeup hides her fifties.

A late-sixties intellectual
writing his observations.

The seventy-ish Humpty Dumpty
man taking Tums.

The mid-eighties woman trembling
as she is wheeled aboard.

AT THE REST STOP

There’s a state map
with a red pushpin
reassuring us, “You
are here.”

The display case is
filled with posters:
“Have you seen … ?”
“Missing since … ”

Fifteen children,
ages one to seventeen,
some gone for years.
Age-progression imaging

a baby who would be three,
a five-year-old, now ten.
“Missing since … ”
“Have you seen … ?”

An attendant cleans
the glass, dusts the cases.
Motorists, relieved,
hurry on their way.

“Have you seen … ?”
“Missing since … ”

TO BE SOMEWHERE

(For Henny Youngman.)

“Everyone has to be somewhere,”
the man in the closet said. He was
hiding across from the bed when
her husband came home.

What else can we do, looking
for people who don’t tear us down,
or better, offer a decent meal,
a soft bed, a little nooky?

Along the highway, signs mark
little towns where aging mechanics
keep aging cars in suspension. Houses
need paint but no law compels it.

Except for a stiff wind or some
nagging, fixing a broken window
is optional. What must we do,
nestled five or ten miles off the inter-
state, in a place hard to remember
or pronounce? It is, at least, somewhere.
THE CHILEAN WOMAN

The Chilean woman turns
the pages of Forbes like
a picture book, fixing her
eyes on gentlemen in blue
three-piece suits and women
with attachés. She wears
a scarf from the Andes
and dungarees. Names
are slowly called into
the mammography clinic.

Maybe she won’t need surgery.

The doctor’s name is
snipped from the address
tab on the magazine cover.
His Lexus is parked in
the free doctors’ lot. Her
husband’s old pickup is
angled at the edge of
the patients’ parking.
$2.50 an hour. Medicaid
may not pay for her procedure.

THE DOCTOR WHO BROUGHT THE NEWS

He arrives as grim as a reaper,
hovering over his patient’s bedside,
covers half his face with
the test-bearing clipboard
and prefaces his slow revelation
with, “I’m the one who has
to bring bad news.” He
pauses to let that set in
as the man who had brain
surgery squeezes his pale
wife’s hand. “But this time
I’m surprised to say the
tumor is benign.” Who
told the doctor he had to
build suspense. They
ask him, “Please repeat that.”

ICU WAITING ROOM

The eyes say “I’m going
to cry,” though the clenched
jaw says not to. Tears grow
in her eyes but not enough
to drop. She lets out a sigh
and that is all it takes.

He lingers in a corner,
seated on a sofa, his body
stiff in resolution. He reads
a year-old copy of Sports
Illustrated noting how they
got the predictions wrong.

She is the one with religion,
but prayers aren’t much
consolation. He is the rebel
who moved out early. “No
more church for me.” Now,
their mother is eighty-three.

Her shoulders slump
in the big stuffed chair
and she relaxes into sobs.
Hearing her, he rises
to pat her heaving back,
and lies, “It’s up to God.”

I WANT TO LOVE YOUR WIFE

(For women’s studies pioneer, Merlin Stone, née Marilyn
Jacobson, 1931-2011, author of When God Was a Woman.)

I never met her but
I want to love her
at least a little, for you,
my new friend, were
her friend, her fan, her
worshipper, married to her
for thirty-four years
before illness first
weakened her, rendered
her mute, then stole her
from you. When I
search her name
four million links appear.
She was famous,
gorgeous, brilliant,
which you can prove
to me with clippings
in albums, books she
wrote, even her resonant
voice responding to
an interviewer on CD.
I have to love your wife
or we can’t be friends.
Not that you’ve compelled
me. Not that you’ve
aimed some figurative gun,
but, in fact, her studies of
Goddesses are what I
might read for fun
and also, when I learn
to love your wife,
it will teach that
male-chauvinist bastard,
Death, that he can’t win.

HOW SUDDENLY

You aren’t senior to me enough
that I can call you old, but what
seized you? Suddenly you are
a wheezing skeleton, white hair
combed back to emphasize your
frailty. Someone whispers,
“cancer,” and another, “stroke.”
We’ve both been prodigal though
you were better at it—weed, whisky,
long, late nights. Nothing that really
warrants punishment. We’ve both
survived our arguments but how
can we stay friends if you
consort with mortality?

REAL MEN DON’T SMELL GARDENIAS

I know you are not a phony
because, in the midst of an
earnest to intense round of golf,
clattering along a path
between the fifth and sixth holes,
you stop the cart, pick two
white gardenias, breathe
deeply, and hand me one,
the aroma of which perfumes
the afternoon. From such
unabashed joy—from such lapses
in the order you otherwise impose—
a real friendship could be built.

THE PERSISTENCE OF FLOWERS

1.
The gardenia grows
scrawny, too-tall thin
branches, barely a leaf
left. Yet, its tight, white
bud has opened to offer
a perfume purer than
any Parisian luxury.

2.
The overgrowth of honey-
suckle vines, reaches
above the chain link fence,
obscuring the backyard
clutter, uncut lawn—
so sweet it makes up for
a neighbor’s other sins.

3.
The profusion of small,
white trellis roses,
a hundred blossoms
woven over the front
walk, force us to duck
their thorns as they
welcome with their aroma.

4.
An eighty-year-old
Linden tree’s blossoms,
dangling from vast arms
all of June, imbue the streets
and every passing stranger
with the pungency of summer.

THE LIVE OAK

(The Old Moody Homestead Oak in Bunnell, Florida,
is estimated to be four hundred years old.)

Those who have split wood
know not to wedge where
limbs branch. Nature builds
stronger than steel.
That juncture supports five
tons or more, has held
for hundreds of years.
Weather never mattered—
wait a decade, the drought
will ease. Even its ferns,
curled brown across its bark,
are classified, “Resurrection,”
opening green with just
a little rain. Resistant
to any natural force—
dozens of hurricanes—
avoiding the stupidity
of saws, the old oak
survives in silent solidity.

THE SNOWBIRD’S SONNET

The promise of an endless summer brought
me here. Daytona Beach, with hard, flat sand,
green surf, an amphitheater where a band
performs for free on summer nights. I thought
the warmth of Florida would compensate
for all the ice and snow I had to clear—
an end to winter doldrums and the fear
I’d never leave that endless, frozen state.
I hadn’t calculated how far north
I picked, or how one summer thins the blood,
so nights in forties, days just sixty would
require a jacket when I venture forth.
It isn’t freezing. Sure, I’m glad for that.
I wear a bathing suit and woolen hat.

IN COUNTY KILDARE

1. Old Man Fishing

The old man fishing for pike
in River Barrow, has walked
a mile out of town to where
the weeds along the bank are
cool and buggy enough for a fish
to take a holiday. He casts a fly
only ten feet out and draws it
slowly in at least two times
a minute. “They can be this big,”
he says with hands spread much
too wide to believe, but why
correct him? The conservation
sign nearby says, “All fish must
be returned live back to the river.”

2. Desmond Egan at the Irish Music Concert

He’s seated but
he’s dancing a reel,
heel and toe under
his seat. The audience
surprised as he shouts,
“Lovely, lovely.”
Smiling broadly,
as if just listening
were not enough,
he calls the fiddler’s
name, “Malachy, Malachy.”

Later I ask, “Why
did you keep calling out?”
“You wouldn’t think it,”
he says, “but musicians
are the meekest souls.
They need our reassurance.”

WHY YOU EAT FISH EYES

“My mother ate the fish eyes,”
you say. Not just the little white
meat in the cheeks which is sweet,
but the yellowed eyes, which
squirt a bitter gel. And you
eat them, too, but why?
Out of duty to mom—
who told you how she starved,
a war orphan forced to accept
any scrap of food and the affection
of the older man they made
her marry. Your mother,
for all her suffering, felt
justified to beat you.
Staring straight ahead, you
declare, “My mother loved these,”
biting, chewing thoroughly
before you swallow with
a determined grin.

THE MAGICIAN

You must be adept to do magic—
clean moves, perfect palms, pulls
that confound even colleagues.
Then, there are the prop makers,
so clever their wooden boxes
dissolve their contents. Careful
examination doesn’t always
reveal how. Stage magic or
close-up, it isn’t all just tricks.
It’s the persona—the cynic,
the clown, the whiner and
the bold show-off. Clever
in my own way, I’ll play
the perfect straight man
smiling as I’m sawed in half.

FOUR SHOTS

1. The Death of Them

She had a vagina
like a slaughterhouse.
He had a penis
like a sword.
Was it a suicide
pact or love?

2. Gallows Humor

The trick is knowing
when to step aside before
the trapdoor opens.

3. Love Shows

Man in Speedo suit.
Woman in a bikini.
See what he’s thinking.

4. Double Books

He fears the IRS, living
a sub rosa life as if his extra
earnings were hard crimes.
She keeps a set of double books:
writing love poems
with no one to read them.

PEACE PRIZES

1. A Man and a Woman

I want to be a feminist
but anatomy is destiny.
I don’t have breasts so
maybe that’s why I
eye them — not so directly,
just glancing at women
as they pass. Each has
what men need more of —
the capacity to nurture.

2. Peace Anyway

World peace would be
a catastrophe: unemployed
soldiers, weapons makers
out of jobs, bases closed.
The banks would fail if
the military goes bust,
and trust me, world
population will explode.

And what of poets? Who
will want their odes to peace?
What will we protest? But, rest
easy, it’s highly unlikely
the killing will cease, though
I’d chance it anyway.

TAPS

If you see my fingers tapping
it’s a mantra not a disease.
I’m counting syllables—om
mani bêmê hum—the way some
count their Rosaries—a chant
for peace. Or, om mani padme
hum, a chant for health. Tapping
at odd moments, to stay calm,
to ward off pain, or find quiet
in a chaotic world. At night,
in bed, it only takes eight
repetitions before I fall asleep.
DECLARATION OF VICTORY

If you think this is a suicide note
then every door marked exit is
a tragedy. The push-bar required
on public doors is simpler even than
a doorknob. Hit it with a hand or
throw yourself against it in a panic.
The door bursts outward, and if
it’s day, a sun may greet you
brighter than you’ve ever known.
If night, a blackness envelops you
closer than ever under the covers
where you hid as a kid. Warm
breath of death. Expiration
that is an inspiration. What is
sad about an end to pain? Eyes
that aged sooner from all the bullies
poking at them. Throat strangled
from my birth to this day. The stress
in my neck and shoulders.
The constant rotting in my guts.
All that sexual conflict. A body
not to be trusted and a mind that suffers
more than any organ. For those who
believe death is an ending—fini.
For those who want death to be more
— an opening to other realms—fine.
For those who wish hell on me,
I love my weather hotter, hotter.
Victory!

THE SPEED WAY
TIME TRIALS

No great clamor—rather,
the steady hum of auxiliary
generators keeping the oil
warm, attached to 48 cars
stretching along the pit row,
awaiting 2 timed laps.
Singly, they start their engines,
growl, then roar out onto the track.
With this burst of energy
an order will be set, from
inside and outside pole spots
to the back of the pack.
It’s a week before the race,
a world away from a checkered
finish. First in line is Blue 2,
Brad Keselowski, racing since
he was a kid, who says his goal is,
“win anything and everything.”
But for now there’s that restrictor
plate to change; the new release
valve; which tires to use and an
infinite list of details before
speeds are measured to within
a thousandth of a second.

FATHERS AND SONS

(From Allison to Earnhardt, Foyt to Petty, over 2 dozen families,
brothers, sons, grandsons, great grandsons, and yes, daughters,
too, have competed in NASCAR races.)

If dad does it, and if he brings you
there, chances are you’ll want to do it,
too. So imagine Richard, watching
his dad, Lee, powering sideways
through Daytona’s north turn, wheels
digging into sand and shells,
defying the corner’s reputation
as “The Junkyard.” A son would
have to hold his breath and hope
he’d grow up just like dad,
not to mention, grandson Kyle.
Bobby Allison will be hard to beat
with 84 wins over 22 years.
Then, there’s brother Donnie,
who’s in the Motorsports Hall
of Fame. Imagine, Bobby lost
two sons, Davey and Clifford,
as they pursued their passion
for the sport. Photos show a love
of family and racing so strong
the next generation will surely win.
But for NASCAR, no one beats
William Clifton France, senior,
and Bill, Jr., founder of an empire,
whose entire family now shepherds
NASCAR, the Speedway and the sport.

FOR RICHER OR FOR POORER

At first it was a rich man’s sport.
In 1903 or 4, about all a common
man could do was pick dead fish
off the beach before the races.
Vanderbilt brought a beast
of a Mercedes that could do 92.
Later, he’d put $6 million into
paving the Vanderbilt Motor Parkway
to speed him from NYC, 45 miles
out on Long Island. In 1910,
Rockefeller, for all his Standard
Oil, loved watching Barney
Oldfield gassing up his Benz
to hit a record 131. Handsome
young men of daring could
do little without the money
to buy $6,000 worth of tires—
the price of 4 race treads,
even in the Depression. When
he came to town in the ’30s,
a guy like Bill France was
the opposite of a fat cat. He didn’t
have a dime enough to call
a sponsor and ask for money—
just fiddled with cars, opened
the throttle and let loose,
paving the way for generations
of working stiffs to not just watch
but enter their cars. Take Russ
Truelove, a heartthrob on
the track in the mid ’50s, out 7
there in his souped-up Mercury.
He could run flat out for a $5,000
purse, tearing up the beach, racing
north toward Junkyard Turn,
then south on A1A toward fame
and that small fortune. Fast cars,
at last, were for any good man’s
pleasure. “If we were lucky,”
Truelove waxed poetic, “we’d
hear the faint whisper of the surf,”
a siren’s call to speed as we
risked it all racing along
the beach. Later, he admitted
a driver couldn’t hear a thing
over the roar of the engine.

DALE EARNHARDT, JR.

1.
It’s the 10th anniversary
of his dad’s death, 1 lap
from winning the 500.
“That changed the sport,”
says everyone—better belts,
barriers, neck braces, safety
a major factor; an outpouring
of grief that made NASCAR
even more popular. But
what does it do to a son?

2.
At the time trials, he draws
applause for opening it up
to 186.364—good enough to
win the inside pole. It’s not
just a record, it’s a way
to say, “I’m me, not just
a legacy.” He wants to be
as dependable as the color
guard that marches before
the national anthem.

3.
“I had to hit the brakes
and he hit me from behind.”
So much for the pole position.
He’ll race, but regulations say
he’ll start last in a car that
didn’t run the time trials.
Not to worry, it’s still plenty 10
fast. By mid-race, the crowd
rises to cheer as he takes
the lead, if only briefly.

4.
“This should be called
the Lotto 500,” says the race
announcer, “It’s so unpredictable.”
So Jr. dodged and trained,
duct-taped and pit-stopped,
survives to darned near
the last lap, only to get bumped
into the wall—not even able
to finish—but given the odd
calculations of the sport, he’s
listed 24th among 48 starters.
Yes, the crowd rose as one on
lap 3 to hold 3 fingers
up in honor of his dad, but
nothing is guaranteed.

5.
Now, Jr.’s nearly 40, still
waiting to win the big one.
Often bearded, still looking
young, he’s won NASCAR’s
Most Popular Driver title but
as drivers go, he’s running
out of “wait ’til next year.”

SHOOTOUT

Maybe they aren’t guns,
but these cars are weapons—
hundreds of horsepower
burning through a gallon
in 2 minutes. Slap a wall—
you’re lucky to shower
the track with sparks,
or spin and pray the cage
protects you. Straight
out, floored, pushing
cars nearly 200.
“Too dangerous,” NASCAR
says and restricts the air flow.
“Just too fast.” But fans
want a real race, flat out
toward the checkered flag.
All that skill, all that power—
no room for yellow here.
Only the flash of a green
flag, then hell-bent
toward victory, a show-
off lap, back slapping
and media hoopla.

DANICA PATRICK

1. Political Correctness

Let’s get the leering out of the way
right away, but it doesn’t hurt that
she’s really good looking. Still,
if a woman is going to race in what
is still a man’s world, she’d better
be plenty tough about the comments.
We aren’t that far from sexy pinups
on every mechanic’s garage walls.

2. Ethnicity

In Serbian, it’s DAN-ee-tsa.
Americans could probably learn
that, although she, herself, says,
“Dan-i-ka.” Maybe because
in Serbia, they also still say,
“Jena i jena”—a woman is
a woman—as the caption for
a scantily-clad centerfold in
the daily news. That’s a good
reason for a name to get
Americanized. 14

3. Winning It All

True, she didn’t go low to try
to win, afraid she’d be freight-
trained if she took the chance,
but Danica got herself 100
million to race exclusively for
NASCAR, capturing the pole
at the Daytona 500, and beating
all those men—finishing top ten!

4. Breaking a Few Rules

Used to be green was an unlucky
color for a race car. Used to be
women weren’t good enough
to race. Now, she’s breaking
all those superstitions. Even her
sponsor is techy and new. Go-
Daddy. Do it, Danica; do it
for us all. Go Momma!

TO BE COMPLETELY HONEST

“Don’t bet on this sport,” says Dale, Jr.,
who ought to know. “It’s a lottery.
You just can’t predict who’ll win.”
They’ve regulated so much about
the cars that they all look alike.
No wonder every bumper and grill
are a match—with templates enforced
to within 1/8th of an inch. The air
restrictor plates, carburetor settings,
the tires, suspension, not to mention
weight and fuel. All that’s left
to chance is who’s going to crash
out in the Big One. It’s hard to hear
a driver say, for all his pluck, the sport
comes down to just dumb luck.
For all the talent and showy colors,
for all the pairing up for the dance,
you could be clever as a fox and
still lose. But hey, that’s what we
love about America—just about
anyone has a chance.

THE POLITICS OF ETHANOL

(NASCAR’s official fuel contains 15% ethanol.)

Let’s burn food for fuel.
We have too many hungry
people. Some can starve—
economic survival of the fittest.
Turn corn into ethanol.
Push food prices up.
Pay no attention to that
man behind the screen
or all the studies that say
even large-scale production
isn’t cost or energy efficient.
It isn’t lack of oil forcing
us toward biofuel. It’s
too much of it—too much
oil—industry power distracting
us from better batteries,
solar chargers, cheap,
powerful electric cars.
Don’t get me started on
the lack of good mass transit
that would get people to work
without cars, so folks could make
a few dollars, feed their families
on cheaper food, the price
of which wouldn’t be inflated
by making ethanol.

“AIN’T THAT WHAT IT’S ALL ABOUT?”

(For Waddell Wilson.)

“Speed never bothered me
none,” says Waddell. “I
won me some pretty purses
before I figured engine
building was my niche.”
109 wins later, 3 at
the 500, he’s earned
his Legacy award. Over
200 mph? Sounds pretty
good to the old guys,
“Speed is what it’s all
about.” But NASCAR
wants it family friendly.
It’s tough to bring
the family to the track
to see a fellow hit the wall
and die. “I haven’t built
a flathead in years. That’s
what I used to race … I won
a few but building them
is a lot safer than drivin’ ’em.”
Ah, but would he take the wheel
in one of those fancy cars?
“Guess I’m a bit past doing it now,”
but still strong-voiced and glad
for the Legacy honors.

SCORING

“So, if you win you get all the points?”
“No, you get extra points.”
“And if you crash, you don’t get any points?”
“No, you can get even more points than the guy who wins.”
“But if you come in last, do you get any points?”
“A few.”
“So, you get points if you crash or lose?”
“That’s true.”
“For pity’s sake, tell me how they score.”
“Any driver who leads a lap during a race receives
one bonus point. The driver who leads the most
laps receives an additional bonus point.
The race winner receives 3 bonus points.”
“I guess I get it. If you run first for
lots of laps, then even if you crash
you can get a ton of points.”
“Not quite. The winner gets 43 points
plus 3 bonus points, plus an extra point
for each lead lap, plus an extra point if
he leads for the most laps so he could
get a total of 48, or not … ”
“Or not? But if there were a big crash
and the guy who was leading and a bunch
of others close behind couldn’t finish … ”
“Then, if the last-place guy somehow
got to win, he’d get 43 points plus
3 so he could get more than
the car that ran upfront for the race
and almost won.”
“And this is the new scoring system
NASCAR says they’ve simplified?”
“True. Now, let me explain the other
rules about who gets guaranteed to start
or the way they pay out purses.”
“Excuse me, but I’m going for nachos
and some aspirin.”

RAY FOX

He doesn’t think of himself as a pioneer,
though others say so. “We just had lots
of extra parts from Chevy so we built
3 cars”—in 1963 the first to race
3 at once at the 500. And as for inventing
drafting, “Jr. Johnson figured that out
when he raced for me.” Ray Fox, at
95, is just a gentle giant, admitting
only that, “We sat on the pole and we
won a lot.” An interviewer would like
him to reveal some secrets, remember
old grudges. “I only wish we had better
parts,” says Ray, “If we turned over
8,000 rpms those valve springs would
break and that was it. We’d be
out of it.” In those days, it was Ford
vs. Chevy. It must have been fierce—
somewhere between enemy camps
and corporate war. But Ray just says,
“We were competitive but we were
friends.” His daughter remembers
some squabbles, but Ray is content,
“I don’t want an old friend to hear
me going over that, and I don’t want
any trouble with NASCAR.”
It’s men like Ray who built the sport,
and he’s stayed with it to found
the Living Legends of Auto Racing
Museum. “He’s always been a motorhead,”
his friend says. But nowadays, with
young drivers bragging and even
brawling, the way Ray sees it
sure sounds like wisdom.

AT THE LEGACY OF SPEED BANQUET

The collectors are out
with glossies, NASCAR
jackets, even model cars
to be signed. The old-timers
are glad to slap each
other’s backs. Those
500s left you exhausted
and sore. Now it’s a soft
seat and a slide show
you can pick your young
self out of, or shout,
“There’s Billy! Gawd,
he was handsome!”
These are easy times,
showing up for kudos
and autographs. 3 drivers
from the ’60s stand
close for a photo—
but this one is for themselves.
You can tell by their gentle
hands around the shoulders,
this one is sincere. Speed was
one thing. Now, they
take it all in stride, glad
they have survived.

AUTOGRAPHS

The principle is called “contagious magic.”
Someone or something has special powers.
You touch and the powers transfer to you.
It’s worked since you caught that homerun
ball at the big league game and touched it
before you batted on the little league team.
The rabbit’s foot—another story. Not
so lucky for the rabbit but an ancient sign—
where there were rabbits, with luck you,
too, could find lots of food. So, you stand
in line to get the autograph. Others may
see it as a quick way to make a buck
selling on eBay, but you know better.
If you get a NASCAR champ to sign, it
has to bring you better luck. Your car
will always start. You’ll get to work on time.
If you get a picture of you two shaking hands,
frame the photo for your desk. “Is that you
with Earnhardt?” You’ll get promoted, a big
raise and finally you can buy those Daytona
500 Tower tickets that cost a fortune but
come with the chance to meet more
drivers, get more autographs, good luck,
and like magic, you are sure to win.
In a demolition derby, the last car
still driving wins. The same rule
often applies when cars exit
the speedway parking lots.

DEMOLITION DERBY

Okay, admit it, you race nuts,
for all the speed, you love
the crashes. Not that anyone
wants a guy injured badly
but a broken bone is the price
athletes can pay, and when
6 or 10 cars begin to spin,
it’s better than a pinball game
keeping those impacts going.
That’s why the demolition derby
is my favorite event. No guilty
waiting for the crashes. Wham!
And wham again, and again,
toward the single objective—
to ruin your opponent’s car.
Circle ’round to catch him broadside.
Cream him. Bash him. Mangulate
the sucker so you, steaming radiator,
stove-in doors, dragging that rear
bumper, are the last car still moving.

WHEN NOT TO TANGO

Training, pushing,
love bugging, drafting,
synchronized racing,
the old bump and push,
the new style, teaming,
partnering, the NASCAR tango.
“We don’t know what
to call it yet,” says
the sports announcer
when bumper to bumper
driving sweeps into the 500.
Faster, for the lack of drag;
faster, for 2 engines doubled up;
faster than NASCAR wants them
to go, and so—restrictor plates,
a smaller grill, a release valve
(a.k.a. trick radiator cap) that
blows if the engine gets too hot.
Eventually, NASCAR notices
the driving style is somewhere
between dumb and dangerous.
Why not just ban tandem racing—
no 2 cars can double up and push?
Get back to the real sport where
speed is what it’s all about,
daring drivers in ever-faster cars
conquering endurance, speed
and curves to win the race.

A SONNET FOR NASCAR

It’s not a sport that smacks of intellect
but auto racing still deserves respect.
Let’s face it, most of what an athlete does
is masochism or just dangerous.
The symbolism, racing ’round a track,
is that there is a chance we’re coming back.
It may be that we lose and try again,
or maybe it’s a record time and win.
Ecclesiastes speaks of vanity
but also hope. It tests our sanity
to sit for hours enduring noise and smoke
to see our favorite driver crash or choke.
Don’t overthink the sport. Participate.
To be a NASCAR fan requires faith.

BUMPER TO BUMPER

They haven’t quite named it
yet but they’re doing it—
closer than lovers or at least
faster, pressing so close it’s
dangerous. Waltrip, Logano,
Busch and Biffle—in one race
10 in all—going over 200 mph,
pulses racing toward record speeds.
Once, air resistance called for stream-
lining and spoilers that conquered
unwanted lift. Train-drafting
cut more off the time. No more
high-seated, goggled, grinning
show-offs racing out ahead
of the pack. Now, drivers
couple up and tunnel through
straightaways and curves.
But this new pavement,
asphalt that grips back
at tires like a lover licking
skin—the closer you can follow,
bumper to bumper, the more
speed, and the more likely
you will win.

IN THE GARAGES

1. The Talent and the Crew

He arrives in his gray sweats, a Coke
in hand, his logo—hat tilted sideways—
the talent—as if showing up were work.
8 crew members have sweated all day,
pushing the car from inspection
to inspection. He’s here to say hello,
sign a few autographs, take photos
with fans and friends. Tomorrow,
he’ll drive for glory, but right now
he has to rush off for an interview.
The crew, dressed as a team,
go back to work as usual.

2. Exhaust

It’s all you can do to hold
your breath but why would
you want to? A wave of hot
exhaust catches you and you
breathe deeply. They say
the monoxide that can
kill you has no odor.
Ethylenes cause cancer.
But for real race nuts,
that smell is perfume.

3. Recycling

A member of the pit crew leaves
the garage, walking all but on
tiptoes, balancing 2 quarts
of spent oil in a deep pan.
Notice, there’s not a spot
on the garage floor, nothing
vaguely greasy under the hood,
as a white-shirted official inspects
the car. The oil is bound for
the recycle station. If a drop
hits the ground, the EPA will
declare a state of emergency.

4. Tire Man

You only get 6 for the whole race—
that’s for practice, blowouts, the whole
week. They regulate them so carefully
you don’t get much choice:

Left Front Right Left Rear Right
Rollout 87.9 in. 88.5 in. 87.9 in. 88.5 in.
Weight 24.3 lbs. 24.4 lbs. 24.3 lbs. 24.4 lbs.
Width 10.6 in. 10.8 in. 10.6 in. 10.8 in.
Life 250 mi. 125 mi. 250 mi. 125 mi.
BODY MAN

I’m working this rubber hammer,
thumping like a bass drum in a marching
band. It was that brush against the wall
a race ago. Now everything is out of kilter.
I could have changed the bumper, but
I thought I had it right in the shop.
So they let us out of the inspection line
to whack at it. First, there was the template
over the roof. We passed that fine.
There are 20 officials measuring me
down to 1/8th of an inch. They got us
on a quarter panel but I’m the guy
they call the interrogator because I
turn the thumbscrews and torture
a car back into shape. Then, they
get us on the front bumper. Man,
it just won’t line up for the template.
Funny thing is, later, we’ll be squirting
WD-40 on it so we can slide right up
and push. At 190 mph you sure don’t
want any friction so, just as well
we fix it here and now.

WHAT’S ON THE HOOD

1.
Landon Cassill says, “Thank a teacher.”
His apple-red car could be the gift
that raises him a grade.

2.
Who can argue with Danica?
“GoDaddy!”

3.
Tony Stewart’s racing for Burger King.
His crewman wears the emblem on a big
pot belly. Too many Whoppers?

4.
Missing, a mother and daughter,
Diane and Tammy, just 16.
Gone since 1979.
Call if you have any information.
Kevin Conway put it on his car
because the family never got
an answer about what happened.
“They went out the door
and we never seen them again.”

IT AIN’T JUST “OLD BOYS”

Sure, you can shout about the stereotypes,
pickup trucks and gun racks, folks who
won’t stop fighting the Civil War, but
sports broke more color barriers than
people know and NASCAR isn’t only
lily white. Elias Bowie went first,
granted, in 1955; then Charlie Scott,
finishing a respectable Grand National
in Daytona. Wendell Scott (same last
name but no relation) ran 495 Cup races
over 13 years. So don’t tell me it can’t
be done. More recently, Tibbs and Lester.
It’s the 21st Century, folks, just waiting
for initiative—and a big-money sponsor
because let’s face it, racing isn’t cheap.
Then, there are Hispanics—nearly 1 in 10
of NASCAR’s fans, not to mention
a Spanish-language website. Grow up
sports fans—it’s America, land of the free—
where race relations only have to do
with your not pushing your fellow driver
into a spin on any given curve.

SPEEDWAY HAIKUS

1. Pit Crew

taco in toolbox
waiting with one large bite mark
carburetor failed

2. In the Old Days

we ran till we were
out of money, out of gas
and our tires went flat

3. Love Bugs

vegetable oil
on our front and back bumpers
next KY jelly

4. Fan Graffiti

Dale Earnhardt, Jr.
you can call my wife Sue Ann
she’s got permission 39

5. Manqué

pictures of headlights
paint-on grills replace real parts
cars left blind and mute

6. NASCAR Camp Grounds

plastic wading pools
phone ringtones playing Dixie
barbecue and beer

7. New Bald Tires

racing tires are bald
as a baby’s ass except
for those rubber hairs

8. Ears

old mechanics go
without large orange ear plugs
they’re already deaf

9. Scanners

like an old party line
you listen in on 10 guys
bragging who they’ll date 40

10. Richard Petty’s Promise

he promised his ma
he wouldn’t endorse liquor
so no Busch Series

11. Picnic by the Rig

20 pounds of ice
a case of beer but don’t cook
too near the race fuel

12. Tandem Racing

they head in the pits
together like women go
to the powder room

13. Still of Use

serious damage
put him 4 laps behind but
he’s pushing someone

14. In the Fast Lane

laps like clock hands turn
50 seconds per minute
drivers live fast lives.

WORKING AT THE SPEEDWAY

1.
It’s been nearly 2 years since the shop
closed. I haven’t had regular work since
but they hired near 500 of us and trained
us locals for race week. If I stand, my
back hurts but if I sit, my circulation’s
so poor my legs go to sleep. I ought to
lose some of this weight. But I can
do this—checking tickets for the tram.
Maybe I can come current on my rent.

2.
I played golf with some raceway fellows
and they said, “Hey, you’re a photographer.
We can use you.” Now, it’s been 6 years
and I’ve got this great gig. Look at me,
walking around with a hot pass, big lens,
and I get all these great pictures of cars,
drivers—all the race action. Who would
have thought golf could do that? But hey,
it’s a game presidents play.

3.
I’m here as a volunteer. We are a fast-
pitch softball travel team and every cent
we take in goes to the team. They gave us
this vendor cart. I know $4 is a lot for just
a Coke, but it’s for charity. Sunscreen, sun-
screen, sunscreen and at least I get all I
want to drink for free. It’s really fun for me.
Oh, I’m not a pitcher. I play right field.

THE HORSE VS. THE RACE CAR

There are still men who wear
livery, walking their snorting
steeds slowly from the paddock,
tugging firmly on the bridle.
Jockeys mount confidently
for an exercise run.
There are stable hands
for mucking or just
walking behind the horse.
Here it’s 6 guys in uniforms
silently rolling a car toward
the long wait for time trials.
Later, their driver slips through
a window, revs it up, screeching
for a pole position.
Then, there are the men
who run out to clear
the debris and clean
the mess that cars make.

SOUVENIRS

1.
After hours in the steaming
heat, the store air conditioning
tempts even the brokest fan.
Just walk in, cool down,
take a stroll around. Then,
bam, it’s, “I’ve got to
have it,” and you’re all
grown up, so you don’t even
have to beg your parents.
Just step out a moment
to check the ATM, wipe
the condensation off your
sunglasses, punch in your
PIN. The credit card is
already maxed but, “Yup,
I’ve got some bucks in
checking,” so ka-ching—
cash money to go back
in and buy that NASCAR
cup and T-shirt.

2.
There’s something about the
square Miller Lite hat that sells.
It looks like a 6-pack on your head.
Or the pink, collared Speedway
shirt that mom could wear. Hot
as it is, the authentic driver’s jacket
would look so good when you
wear it in the fall. Or, how about
at least a beer mug and RACE CAR
PARKING ONLY sign? Sure,
you’ve got to carry them around
for the whole race. But heck, you
paid a fortune to get here.
Bring something back to
show your friends.

A DOZEN FAN POEMS

1. Fan Participation

“Southern Pride,” tattooed
atop his shoulders under
his muscle shirt. A square
Miller Lite hat gives him
a 6-pack head. He’s up
on stage to play for prizes.
“You know what to do?”
asks the emcee. “Haven’t
got a clue,” he drawls
straight from the hills
of northern Georgia.
But he’s got a knack—
balancing 6 chocolate
cupcakes on his forehead
so he can spin a wheel
of fortune and win
a Diecast metal race car.

2. Ronny and Jan

They were married on
the start-finish line
right after the Daytona 400.
Took their vows, crossed
over to start their later
lives as surely as Coke
Zero replaced Pepsi. Both
had been around before
but this one would be
the charm. After the ceremony
all the Earnhardts greeted them, 48
“Treated us like family.”
They come back every July
to celebrate. “This way we
can’t forget our anniversary.”

3. I’m so Happy

There he is coming out
of the men’s room. I make
a beeline right up to him
and pull off my hat. He
doesn’t stop but takes it
right out of my hands
and signs it. Dale, Jr.
signed my hat. Oh,
my God, I’m so happy.
Look at me. I’m shaking.
Let me dial, “Mom?
No, I’m okay. Dale,
Jr. signed my hat.
I’m so happy. Look
at me, I’m shaking.”

4. He Says It’s for His Son

“I get to take trips with him.
We’re collecting racetracks.
Been doing it since he turned
8 and now he’s 16. A trip
a year is all we can afford.”
They’ve worked their way
across the states nearer to
Colorado. Now, it’s the East,
starting with Daytona.
“I think this is our favorite,”
he says, forgetting to ask his son.

5. Young Dad

He’s pushing one son in
a stroller, another is tugging
at his hand. The 7-year-
old needs keeping an eye on.
But dad is sliding through
cell phone photos as he walks.
“Look at this one of pit row.
Isn’t it cool?” His 3-year-old
isn’t interested and the bigger
boy is way too far ahead.

6. Elegant

She looks well into her 70s,
well-styled, short white hair,
matching pink pedal pushers
and blouse with NASCAR
emblems. White NASCAR
tote bag over her shoulder.
A driver’s mother? An official’s
wife? Her credentials say, “HOT.”

7. The Go-Kart Kid

So this little kid—maybe he’s 8
and weighs 50 pounds—comes into
the 7-Eleven all done up in his driver’s
suit and carrying a 10-pound helmet.
He’s there for his Powerade and
some beef jerky for energy while
he waits for his heat. I ask him,
“Who’s your favorite driver?”
The kid’s no fool. “Me,” he
says, “and I’m going to win.”
8. Enthusiasm vs. Gravity

he lady in the powder-blue
tank top keeps standing to cheer
her driver every lap. For all
the rolls of dappled flesh
pushing from under her shirt,
she sure could use the exercise.
Between cheers she swigs her
beers, leaving fans to wonder
which will win out, enthusiasm
or the drink. By lap 20, she’s
slower to stand. At 30, she
hollers maybe every other
lap. By 50 it’s clear she’s done,
rising only to make a pit stop.
It’s probably the beer, or
maybe that her favorite
car is running 41st.

9. Two Brothers

2 young brothers, built
like tanks, in matching
Truck Series shirts, hold
big bags bulging with souvenirs.
The older bumps his brother
out of the way. 10 and he’s
already learned how to race.

10. A Lull in the Action

Halfway through the race
the crowd grows quiet, glad
for full speed, no long cautions.
400, 500, 600 miles takes so long
to run. This way the race may
end sooner. All the drivers say
it really comes down to the last
laps, except, a big crash would
sure wake things up again.

11. Sheer Joy

“This is it,” the M&M fan declares,
standing, turning to face the gathering
fans. “This is wonderful,” he shouts.
The weather is gorgeous. The stands
are quickly filling. He’s bought
himself a fancy seat, 10 rows up
near the start-finish line. Of course,
he’s in full regalia, looking like
at least a member of the Busch
team, if not Kyle. “Don’t you
just love this?” he shouts, tossing
his arms up. Folks catch his joy,
answering, “Hey M&M, you rock.”
He rises again, to take a bow.
Later, who knows who planned it,
a half dozen small bags of M&Ms
rain down on him. And what does
he do? What else? He shares them.

12. The Magic Number

171,000 in attendance
for the Daytona 500.
Need we say more?
THE SUITS

Young marketing execs
in suits stepped in but
they forgot their roots,
big on building new
markets. See them
sending their limo drivers
to park in the executive
lot while they dine on
caviar and steak, looking
for the next big marketing
break. Maybe negotiations
for what—an opera presentation?
The fans drive their RVs
from the Carolinas, stopping
to eat at truck stops and diners.
They’re what NASCAR is all
about, giving their favorite driver
a rebel shout, loyal to the core.
Hey, marketing boys, better go
back to the Grand Ole Opry.
MILKSHAKES

(In memory of Dan Wheldon.)

When I was a kid, they told us
drink a quart of milk a day
and you’ll grow up big and strong.
Rich men drank scotch and most
guys drank beer, but for a race
win you celebrated with a bottle
of champagne popped open
at the finish and shaken to spray
the head, face and everyone.
Now, there’s Dan Wheldon
dumping milk on himself,
jumping up and down as if
he were some kind of milkshake.
Yes, there’s the kid who won
the 500. He just turned 20,
so he had no choice. Hershey
may put his picture on their
chocolate milk. But victory
lane without champagne?
Whatever they do at the Indy,
at NASCAR it’s not the same.
If you drink all that milk as a kid,
you should have something with
a kick to celebrate your new fame.

DISAPPOINTMENT

It’s a sport for real men, brave
men. Don’t lose your cool. Don’t
let it show. But all that work.
For what? Stress in the garage—
just a fire under your skin.
Anger when it isn’t ready yet—
awake at 2 a.m. waiting for daylight.
Nerves before the race—
adrenalin, that makes you ready
for the fight. The green flag,
then, not half way through
the race, some fool ahead of you
hits his brakes and you bump him,
crash out. You’ll ache tomorrow,
a belt bruise across your
shoulder like a tattoo.
Only now, that tightness
in your chest, just where you
swallow, and you know what
it is—disappointment. Okay,
anxiety. It only hits you when
there’s absolutely nothing
you can do. Helpless as
a novice. All that time,
effort, money; all those
hopes. It’s like picturing
the perfect finish and then,
instead, getting to see
what your end will be.

THANKS TO DOPPLER

Nothing passed ancient observers
rapidly enough for them to notice
a change in pitch. Sounds came
at them as if the air were angry,
signaling something likely
dangerous, and once past,
one could heave a sigh of relief.
We had to wait for fast conveyances,
sirens blaring, or trains with obligatory
whistles sounding, before Doppler
noticed: first, a rising pitch; then
as quickly, a falling off.
He calculated the compression
of waves, the consequent higher
frequency, the corollary stretching
out and lowering pitch of objects
moving away. He even applied
this to the movement of the stars.
Thus, reassured, when blaring
somewhere raises our attention,
forcing us to calculate whether
it is coming or going, or when
a race car roars by us, its fierce
shriek subsiding, we can thank
Doppler, not to mention that
the monster did not eat us.

THE BALLAD OF THE STOCK CAR RACES

Some say it takes real skill to win.
Some say it ain’t worth trying.
I say a bit of each is true
plus there’s a chance of dying.

The sport is more a rich man’s game.
The cost is stupefying.
If you want to form a race car team,
the poor are not applying.

There’s licensing and packaging
and who will be your sponsor.
I’ll spare you all the business stuff.
Let legal give that advice, sir.

Some say it takes real skill to win.
Some say it ain’t worth trying.
I say a bit of each is true
plus there’s a chance of dying.

Think who will build and race the car,
the driver and pit crew.
Think long and hard about how far
your choice is going to get you.

You could go with some old codger who
built good straight-8 engines
or buy a fancy engineer
who’ll come up with new inventions.

Some say it takes real skill to win.
Some say it ain’t worth trying.
I say a bit of each is true
plus there’s a chance of dying.

I’d look for that combination, rare
but clearly something doable—
a natural born mechanic who
makes every bolt unscrewable.

He’s got to know an engine well
and also be tech savvy.
The days of monkey grease are gone.
It’s gotten pretty fancy.

Some say it takes real skill to win.
Some say it ain’t worth trying.
I say a bit of each is true
plus there’s a chance of dying.

I have a feeling folks will laugh
but let some color splatter.
Publicize a cause or 2.
What’s on your hood can matter.

Sure, the sponsors cover the cars.
Sure, there are lucky numbers,
but if you’re racing for your dad
there’s more between the bumpers.

Some say it takes real skill to win.
Some say it ain’t worth trying.
I say a bit of each is true
plus there’s a chance of dying.

Once your mission has been set
and once you bring the crew on,
once you reinforce the car
and drop in that big engine,

there’s still the driver you will field.
What’s in his heart does matter.
A bragging brat may also win,
but there’s more to a race than chatter.

Some say it takes real skill to win.
Some say it ain’t worth trying.
I say a bit of each is true
plus there’s a chance of dying.

I’d pick a driver from midrange
who’s wracked up points to prove things—
5 or 8 years of driving hard
but never quite the top wins.

That makes him hard and hungry so
he’ll drive like hell but listen.
Give him a car and spotter team.
He’ll find the groove and glisten.

Some say it takes real skill to win.
Some say it ain’t worth trying.
I say a bit of each is true
plus there’s a chance of dying.

Top speed’s a matter of building right.
Your shape is predetermined.
Pit crews can practice until they break.
Your driver should be unswerving.

If he waits a second in a curve,
or goes high instead of dropping,
it’s a game of chicken on the track
and fenders could be popping.

Some say it takes real skill to win.
Some say it ain’t worth trying.
I say a bit of each is true
plus there’s a chance of dying.

“Go high, go low, there’s a spin, go slow.
You’re talking in his helmet.
There’s a calculator in his brain
and that’s what’s got to help him.

You don’t get that from school or talk.
It isn’t from a textbook.
That’s where his guts and instinct rule
and winning is just hell bent.

Some say it takes real skill to win.
Some say it ain’t worth trying.
I say a bit of each is true
plus there’s a chance of dying.

Open throttle, heart and mind—
it may sound sentimental.
For all the metal and the cash,
winning is something mental.

You’ve got your sponsors, marketers,
mechanics and the pit crew,
the fuel, the tires, the special struts,
and who will drive for you.

Then there’s dumb luck. To win a race
it’s equal skill and fate.
A favorite spins and hits the wall.
Fast cars can’t keep the pace,

or time it wrong, run out of gas.
Pole cars can finish last.
For all the planning and the tasks,
history is just the past.

The driver has to be first class
to win in it all in NASCAR.

Some say it takes real skill to win.
There is a chance of dying.
I say a bit of each is true
but winning is worth trying.

TO DIE FOR

(The Richard Petty Driving Experience lets regular folks drive
a NASCAR race car.)

Just the sound of it—that roar
that could kill your hearing
when you open it up on
the track; even taking a minute
and a half for each lap makes
your head spin and heart
jump. This is not for chickens,
curves happening faster than
any normal driver can react
and you with your hand on
the shift, a foot poised over
the clutch but barely time
to downshift. Imagine 200
laps of this with 30 or 40 other
cars close enough to touch
but touching could be fatal.
You heard your driving coach:
“Don’t screw around out there.”
But just once you want to
drop down like a pro on
that inside turn, head into
the straightaway floored.
They’ve put a governor on it
so you can’t do something
stupid, but for what you paid,
what the hell. When will
you ever do this again? It’s
something a fan could die for.
SNEAKING

(For Bruce Moran, who watched them build the Speedway.)

Before the track got built
my dad was on to Bill France’s
tricks. Sure it scared me when
he brought me to those thick
saw palmettos along the beach.
There was that sign, clear
as day, saying “Danger!
Rattle Snakes.” “No such thing,”
dad said, “It’s to keep the dumb
ones out.” So we pushed through
to a great spot to sneak to
watch the races.
When they opened the Speedway
in 1959, my buddies and I were
ready. We drove an old Ford
pickup, with a wheelbase wide
and high enough to get through
swampy spots and make our own
little road to the pine trees outside
the southwest curve. For days
we climbed the trees and built
a platform where we could see
out across the back straightaway.
France and his friends were
doing big business by then.
But not everyone had $20 for
a fancy ticket and we watched that
first 500 from start to finish, free.

HOW GRANNY LEARNED TO LOVE NASCAR

Granny—we call her Grams—
never was a fan of racing
but she was curious why
we all got so darned excited so
when the track offered a free
go-see before the big race, she
up and said, “Bring me.”
We gave her a boost into
the pickup and drove her
there on a day so sunny
it’d make a mole smile.
Grams walked real slow.
She never was one to want
a wheel chair—said it would
be like a mule in mud which
wouldn’t be so bad for most
mules, but she had this mule,
Agnes she called her, after
her mother-in-law, Agnes,
who died cause she was
so stubborn she wouldn’t
wear shoes in any weather
so when a cotton-mouthed
water moccasins bit her big
toe she never even told no one
so she just lay there and died.
Anyway, Gram’s mule, Agnes,
she was a mule wouldn’t
get her hooves muddy
no matter what, so Grams
wasn’t going to use no
wheelchair. She just made
her own way slow to the stands
with her hickory cane knocking.
Grams has trouble hearing.
It’s somewhere between asking,
“Huh what?” till we’re crazy
or her not giving a darn what
we say—but there was such
a heck of a roar from the track
it did make her walk a little faster.
When she got up that ramp
to the edge of the 4th turn,
she fixed her face to the fence
to watch and even the fellow
whose job it was to make folks
“Stand back,” didn’t have
the heart to chase her.
Then, from way back around
the curve comes this red Monte
Carlo screaming like a charging
pig—wildest thing—probably
near 200 mph. Gram stood right
up there, eyes fixed straight on
it coming right at her. She never
nearly even ducked. Then, she
turns to us with a giddy grin,
and says, “Get me a ticket
to them races.”

CARS, MOTORCYCLES AND MAN CAVES

Say what you want about equality of the sexes,
you don’t have to be Sigmund Freud to know
there’s something going on with men and cars.
They aren’t “hidden persuaders”—big engines
roaring down straightaways, drivers entering
an apex—that’s just a turn-on. Then, there’s
the sheer abandon—beyond an actor’s
butterflies or some bungee-jumper’s nerve.
Even on a 31° embankment, at close to
180, if you go wide, it still feels like
you’ll fly off the curve. Take away
all the protection—straddling a 1000cc
bike, knee puck extended to graze
the ground—that’s a bigger high than Everest.
Then, there are those days just working in
the garage, the ultimate man cave, bedecked
with posters of hero drivers, legendary cars,
and yes, those pictures of scantily clad girls.
IN PERSPECTIVE

The Goodyear blimp
circles the Speedway
while fans hurry to
the track and stands.
In empty lots for
miles, campers cue up
for spaces. Even trans-
port trucks, unloaded,
convert to homes
for crews and fans.
A crowd for time
trials pins them-
selves to trackside fences
despite “No Stopping
Along the Fence” signs
warning of ever-
present danger.
500 feet above,
in a gondola slipping
smoothly through
a bright blue sky, folks
could wonder, “What’s
the big hurry?”

THERE’S ALWAYS A PIGEON

This one is undistinguishable
from a million others except
it’s perched on a pole by
the flag tower overhanging
the track and, as cars roar
by below, it barely ruffles
a feather, accustomed
to these objects flying by.
Only a spill of Nachos
sets it in flight as a fan
loses $8 worth of goodies
and a 4th-place car
makes an inside move
into third on a curve.

OUT OF GAS

1. Dale Earnhardt, Jr. at the Coke 600

It’s longest race that NASCAR runs.
You’ve been driving nearly 5 hours
and it comes to this. You’ve chased
down 2 leaders in the final 20 laps
to take the lead. You’ve argued
with your crew chief over whether
to pit for fuel. You got a great jump
off a late-lap pileup that put you
into first. 150 gallons of 98-octane
gas, guzzled in a grind that tested
strategy as much as nerve, letting
others burn their maximum as you
laid back, coasted, waited for them
to pit—even for a few seconds so
you could win this. It seemed like
a good gamble. “I just did what my
dang chief said,” you tell us later.
But a half lap from the finish—
as your fans are jumping up
and down that you will win—you
run out of gas, letting 6 cars race
by as you coast in for 7th, which is,
you say, “better than crashing out.”

2. When I was a Teen

First you picked her up at her house
and heard her father’s rules:
“You kids be good. None of that
nonsense. Just see your movie and
get her back on time. 11 p.m., that’s
it.” Then it was McDonalds, a zombie
movie and just enough little kisses
and tickles that you were both
turned on. Sure, it was an old trick,
but driving home the long way,
you’d sneak a hand to the key
and turn the engine off, declaring,
“Oh darn, I think we’re out of gas.”
And if she believed it, you could
just sit there in the dark, sigh
loudly and see what happened.
Or at least that was how it used to
work. Now, before you could even
move closer to her on the seat,
she’d be texting her girlfriends,
“OMG he says we’re out of gas.
Does he think I’m dumb.” Then
its all over Twitter. She’s posting
you looking stupid on Facebook.
She reaches for the key, starts
the engine. You drive home wishing
for the good old days when girls
were innocent or pretended that
they were fooled.

3. Anywhere U.S.A.

Nothing sadder than a man
on the roadside, gas cap open,
staring uselessly into that black
fill hole. No great quest to strike
oil, drill rig churning while
a crew and investors await
the gush, as in some old film.
Just a gray-faced man, annoyed
he’s let his AAA lapse. His buddy
says he’ll be there with a can
of gas, but when? He scowls
at his cotton jacket—too light
for a chilly autumn night.
Nothing to do but wait. A car
is nothing to hate, though
it does feel good to kick it.

OLD DRIVERS NEVER DIE

They just need more pit stops.
They just slip their clutches.
They just join the pit crew.
They just lose their sponsors.
They just run down to flat.
They just sit and idle.
They just run out of gas.
Gas cans and tires
GROWING UP WITH CARS AND RACING

A HISTORY OF SPEED

When I was little, I wondered why
my father didn’t speed. We’d go
on errands and he’d let so many
cars go past him. Weren’t we
supposed to win the race?
Then, there was that silver
door handle and something
told me to pull on it. When
the rear car door swung open,
it took half a block for my
dad to stop after I fell out.
Ever since I can remember I
wanted to drive. I’d sit on
dad’s lap and steer while he
worked the pedals. I knew
you didn’t have to pull on
the wheel—just hold it
steady—but I sure liked
those loops we made
in the parking lot.
When we visited the farm,
at least I got to start
the tractor—even roll
into the field. But what
good is a big engine if
you don’t get up speed?
Going to driving school
was required to get a license.
I guess hearing all those
safety things was okay,
but all I wanted was to get
behind the wheel—not
talk about it.

14. Florida still gave a kid
a license at 14. How cool
was that? But mostly I still
drove with a parent in the car
so no chance to wind out
or see what the numbers at
the top of the dial felt like.
16 and I got the keys to solo.
Even took it on the highway
but I was more scared of tickets
than crashing. My father
would have killed me for
speeding. So, just 55.

18 and the new interstate let
us go 65. That meant 70 or
even 75 except that new radar
detector thing made it easier
for troopers so my first long
trip was pretty tame. Besides,
the Studebaker Lark showed
120 for a top speed but it
felt like it would come apart
if I tried to hit 90.

Oh, but my new Cutlass could
really fly, and there I was
alone, out in the passing lane
in Georgia, when a local cop
got me: “Doing 92, son.
You’re under arrest so
just follow me up the road
to the court house.” It didn’t
matter to me that his brother
was the judge. He had me
dead to rights so I didn’t argue.
I just paid the fine and limped
off in my yellow, targa-top
Olds with the New York plate.
And I wonder why he
picked me to ticket?

After I solved some wiring
problems, reworked and tuned
the engine, I took my 442 out
for a test drive. Finally! Triple
digits. I’m going to guess 135,
though its speedometer
topped off at 120. You figure —
a 451 engine in a lightweight
car. I guess I got the jones for
speed then—or maybe it was
just sitting in the back seat
while my daddy drove and I
thought every time we went
somewhere it was a race
not just driving to get there.

ON MY OWN

I tag after my dad, hoping
not to get lost among
the throng of strangers
at West Peabody Speedway
where he greets friends
and admires modified stock
cars. He’s ready to grab
a wrench, ready to crew.
I’m sure I’d like to be like him—
able to fix engines and everything,
Only, he says tonight is too
hot for a 5-year-old to hold
his dad’s hand. I’m standing
on my own amid revving engines,
short bursts of spinning wheels,
men swearing and hollering.
It’s that same night a car
throws a wheel into the crowd
and I see a spectator get killed.
My dad hurries me home
after that, holding my hand
all the way to his truck
in the parking lot.

ROCKY

It was my older brother’s Soap Box
Derby racer, but I went along to
watch him compete. He’d smoothed
his wooden hood, painted 4 coats
of shiny red lacquer and planned
where to put his trophy.
The official starter was Rocky
Marciano, the “Brockton Bomber,”
and a model for any poor kid who
wanted to fight his way to the top.
Rocky had won 43 in a row,
undefeated and new world champ.
I was maybe 8 or 9, a little kid
with not much muscle, so when
he stopped to shake my hand
as I shoved it toward him walking
toward the starting line, he
scared me when he reached to grab it.
His hand was the largest I had
ever seen—disappearing mine in
a massive squeeze of knuckles.
He smiled and walked along. I
looked at what was left—my
wrung-out, small white paw—
and promised I would never
wash that hand.

MA’S MYSTERY NOISE

Mechanics joke about noises
customers make to say why
they brought their car in.
My mother made her noise when
my dad came home from his
garage. He’d have laughed at
her but there was that day
the steering wheel came off
in her hands as she pulled out
in traffic, so he figured this time
he’d better listen. He was the one
who had worked on the steering
column and then sent her off
on errands. “So what does
it sound like?” he encouraged.
“It’s a rapid tapping, tapping,
tapping,” ma said, clicking her
nails on the kitchen table.
“Probably the tappets,” dad
said, and my mother got angry.
He disappeared downstairs to
test drive; came back an hour
later and declared. “Fixed.”
Next day, when he came home
from work she gave it to him
good. “Not fixed,” she said,
and you spend hours doing
jobs so everyone else’s car
is perfect. What about
mine?” Another hour before
he could sit for supper—dutifully
out in the yard, leaning over
a fender on an old army blanket
so he wouldn’t get grease on ma’s
white convertible. “Fixed,” he sighed
when he came back in. But,
do I have to tell you this went
on for 2 more days? Until,
ma declared him either deaf
or dumb because he said he
couldn’t hear any noise and
she said he hadn’t fixed it.
“Everyone up,” my dad
hollered. “Everyone into
the car.” Which was just my
brother, my ma and me,
but we 3 marched with him
to the car and climbed in. He
started the engine, pulled out
quickly from the driveway and
took us to a smooth road nearby.
“Hear that? Hear that tapping?”
my mother insisted. None of us
did. Then, as my mother turned
to enlist us in the back seat, I
saw my dad put it in neutral
and turn off the engine. “I think
I hear the engine tapping now,”
he said. “Yes, yes. That’s it,”
my ma said, “Now fix it.” What
my dad did under the hood
when we got home, I’ll never
know, but my mother was so
pleased he finally fixed it, she
baked him an apple pie.

THE EXTINCTION OF THE GREASE MONKEY

Dad used to dump his old oil down
the big slate sink in the garage.
At the junkyard, he’d cut up cars
on dirt so packed with grease it
was like blacktop. Sure, we loved
the earth and sea. They were big,
welcoming, and endlessly forgiving.
Except for that canal by the leather
factory that stank of sulfur and death,
but a pan of old black oil? That came
from caring for your car, giving it
its new lifeblood. If dad gave me
the job, I’d even dip a finger in
to smear a black spot on each cheek
like war paint. Then, I’d pour it
down the drain, returning it to nature.

SAND SOAP

That grime gets in your skin,
not to mention into the cuts
on your knuckles skinned pulling
on a Snap-on wrench that popped.
A palm reader could predict
a gusher with all the oil soaking
your lifelines. Get out the GoJo
with its fine pumice and degreaser
and, okay, a little lanolin to smooth
away a day spent fiddling with
the carburetor, fighting with hoses,
tweaking the suspension. But
nothing can get the grease out
from under those fingernails.

CARS

Long before Disney made the movie,
cars could talk when I was little—
metal, Diecast, my best friends
as I lay on the carpet, building
race tracks and ramps with blocks.
The station wagon would defend
itself to a sleek Mercury, “I may
look like a box, but I can haul it.”
My dad would visit buddies
who owned junk yards, as likely
looking for a car to soup up
for the races, or maybe as
a sacrifice for the demolition
derby. I’d go console the Studebaker
rusting in the rear, or open a large
shed to find a 1937 Buick,
well preserved but dusty. Seated
at its wheel, I’d ask it for a ride,
my legs still not long enough
to work the clutch and pedals.
In my still-vivid memory their voices
are really there, the cars, grateful
for the push I’d give them to speed
them down my ramps, glad someone
came to visit them in their old age
and illness. Now, I wonder who
will tend my car as I grow old.

FRAME UP

The kid I bought it from didn’t know
how to get it running. It was drivable
but stalled when you’d least expect it:
a 1968 Olds Cutlass 442 convertible,
in what you’d call “restorable” condition,
except someone had swapped out
the engine for a rebored 451 so
for purists, the numbers didn’t match.
I got it to my friend’s body shop
without a flatbed. Then, the dissection
began — piece by piece to strip it,
cure the rusted wheel wells, weakened
bumpers, and clear the interior to re-
upholster. We got it pretty close
to frame up. This was not your
granddaddy’s car, kept mint in his
garage, only driven on Sundays.
A series of owners—mostly kids—had
fudged the Bondo, messed with the engine
and, most of all it turned out, screwed up
the wiring so we had to rip the harnesses
out and just replace them.
A metallic, forest-green Imron paint job
later, a new white top and new interior—
it looked as buff as that blond guy who
pumps iron at gym. And then the engine,
not just tuned to roar, but chromed
to show off in all its 4-barreled glory
when I opened the hood. But where
to test it? I got it up to about 135
one night on a deserted parkway,
mist rising from pine barrens
around me. I’m not sure it was fear
of spinning out or the size of the ticket
that made me let off the gas,
but it had lots more to go.
That was some car! Stop at a light,
race the engine, plant a left foot on
a brake and wait for the green.
Leave rubber for a half the block
with a cloud of smoke and a squeal.
I gave an old friend whiplash and he
was duly peeved! But best of all,
driving to the local 7-Eleven, I could just
sit with the top down by the front door
waiting for kids to come out of the store
and tell me, “Nice car!” I know I
looked much older than them, but
that made me feel about their age.

FORTUNATE

The autograph line was long for 4
medal of honor winners celebrated
at the Daytona 4th of July races.
Each had his story read aloud at
the opening ceremonies. Each sat
patiently to sign a booklet—free
for the asking. We live in a fortunate
land, where folks can pay small
fortunes to see races, buy corn
dogs and fried chicken, souvenirs
and beers. What God has to do
with it, some question. Others
aren’t big on patriotism. Still,
the bravery of men under fire
could be celebrated. A man
firing wildly at the designated
enemy to save his friends is
the stuff of movies. But what
rote loyalty is doing at a racetrack,
like commandments at a courthouse,
could be questioned. Even
in this land of the free, such
moments of celebration should
also provoke introspection.

THE RESTORATION

It starts with not much more than
a sorry hulk. Somewhere there is
a gem hiding. Cars from the ’30s
are solid steel, worthy of grinding
the rust off. Unbolt each fender,
detach the doors. Remove the seats.
Get ready to rumble. What you
can’t fix, there’s a hunt for at Carlisle
and in Hemmings. Lift out the straight-
8 and rebore. There are a thousand
parts to polish or rebuild. “Obsessive”
is required. “Compulsive” can’t hurt
and you’d better have a big wallet.
Take a break to search for original
showroom booklets, magazine ads.
It’s nice to make it look original, but
indulge in metallic paint and a good
clearcoat. “Commander:” a person
in authority. “Coupe:” an enclosed
carriage for two passengers. 1935
Studebaker Commander 8,
convertible coupe with a rumble
seat—Best in Show.
ACCENTS

(Or, where do you park your car?)

If you were listening you already
made me as a Yankee, but that’s
not accurate. I grew up just north
of Boston where my father built
stock cars for West Peabody
Speedway. Folks from where I
come from don’t like New York
and hate the Yankees. Clearly,
I’ve never lost my accent and
I’m proud. I have even parked
my car in Harvard yard, though
when I went to college, at
the University of Massachusetts,
some folks still called it Mass
Aggie. So, when we talk NAS-
CAR, if not poetry, don’t cross
your arms and take 2 steps back
’cause, “You ain’t from ’round
here, are yo’ boy?” Better, let’s
make a deal. You teach me to
drawl and I’ll do my John F.
Kennedy imitation for you:
“Ask not what NASCAR
can do for you, but what you
can do for your speedway.”

BUT WILL HE DIE?

I put the hose in the tank
and suck. I’m siphoning
some gas from here to there.
Out comes this rush and I
swallow a big mouth full.
By the way, it doesn’t burn.
It goes down smoother than
my grandfather’s homemade
vodka. But geeze! Help!
So, I rush to the phone
and call the poison hotline.
“Oh, don’t worry,” says
a reassuring voice, “It won’t
kill you. You’ll just burp
and smell gas for a couple
days.” Cue the friends’ jokes.
“Don’t light that cigarette?”
“Come by for the barbecue.
I’m out of charcoal starter.”
Oh, and, “That ought to put
some octane in your
sex life.” Not. Have you
ever sucked a gas hose?
or “only the oil companies
get to screw us.”
or “when was the last time
you kissed a gas pump?”
or [you fill in the blank].

ALL SALES ARE FINAL

There is no lemon law that covers lovers.
You shop around, go for a test drive.
You pay your money and take what
you get. Divorce is the junk yard.
If only we could return to confront
the dealer, “The rear end is noisy
and the transmission leaks.” No
way to get your money back
when you fall in love. But what
a ride, tearing out of that parking
lot with a giddy smile, that shine
that says everything is new—even
that new smell, which most agree
is carcinogenic, but who cares?
What you are buying are
new roads to travel, dreams of
immortality. Only, when the parts
fail, there is no turning back, no
bumper to bumper warranty—just
the wrecker, someone you give
your title to, and one last look
for small change under the seat.
ANOTHER WAY

POEMS DERIVED FROM THE DAO DE CHING

One

This moment is unlike any other moment.
Don’t even say how it is similar.
Differences are our strength.
Similarities are ten thousand reasons not to try.
Without meaning, one sees the possibilities.
Logic only leads to longing why.
Just being completes what came before—
the present and the past,
now without before,
the opening of our future.
Two

The surf is only calm after one
sees the fierceness of a storm.
Clouded skies, our atmosphere,
a swim in the sea, then dry,
rained upon or sheltered,
roar of thunder or quiet breeze,
approaching front goes passed.
The practiced tourist needs no travel plan.
Itineraries constantly change.
Going need never be arriving.
No postcard moments to preserve—
travel as moving on,
endless journey.
Three

If this lot overlooking the sea
were not posted “Private,”
if there were no threat of being towed,
if we didn’t need to own the very air,
would not everyone be free to breathe?
Best to leave a little even for the least.
One less rib on a plate, less not all
you can eat. Yes, piggy is as piggy does
but a modest person is less likely slaughtered.
Four

Being requires no real effort.
To relax, relax—
as easy as it sounds,
all effort dissipates.
No anxiety.
Observe, imagine every
thing one needs already there.
Don’t ask me why we are here.
It is so
is why so.
Five

The exact tide is always
neither full nor low but
at this line where the wave
lands. The tide’s clock is
always an illusion. Your
feet in the water are the only
when and where. Predicting
the tide or weather wastes
time. People who worry
about forecasts
lack a love of now.
The more we plan,
the greater our surprise.
Predict the unexpected.
Six

Why fret? Sunshine will never end.
Who’ll be left to say this is a lie?
The sun’s closest in winter.
It is our moon, our night—
a woman who holds a man.
As surely as all light is sunshine,
one can’t see completely dark.
Seven

There is no end to being.
How can you never disappear?
Know Now keeps birthing
its pure energy.

Leave nothing behind as a legacy,
the present will be the richer.
Less mess to carry,
immortality.
Eight

One need only be by the water—
the sea as ceaseless as the shore
is steadfast. Sit witness to being.
Find a comfortable place.
It need not be an expensive chair.
If someone says, “move along,”
just find another place, don’t argue.
Attribute to them a good reason.
Don’t blame on malice what
lack of thought explains.
Don’t overstay your welcome.
Being is no big deal.
Nine

Too much of a good thing isn’t
My brother takes “all you can eat”
seriously. Three plates of crabs are
just an appetizer; four more dishes
for his main course and four deserts.
Will he complain if he is ill in his old age
or heroize his escapades? Can it be just
how many helpings?
Know how not to be too full.
Surely Monsieur can have
just one more little mint
before the great explosion?
Ten

Sitting in the perfect moment
and writing about it, must be strange.
Quickening the senses, recording,
can you be honest? Observing
changes the very moment.
Can there be goals without guile?
Are you guilty of caring too much
simply by caring at all? Why does
wisdom seem like surrender?
To create and share
poetry without ego,
to be well-known without fame,
to use language without lying,
that is pure poetry.
Eleven

Good teachers, given good students
un-teach all they know—
so both leave empty.
Some seek to fill an empty vessel,
others provide openings.
What we can teach ourselves is original.
Presented with myriad facts,
synthesis is what matters.
A head full of stuff is fine
but what can you make of it?
Twelve

Light is a spectrum.
Any sounds in time are music.
There’s no accounting for taste.
What you call art drives me crazy!
It’s like throwing money away.
Let’s agree on the virtue of diversity
but please, not too rigidly.

Thirteen

You want to mess with me,
be my guest! Who hasn’t
been screwed over? Sounds
good: “My enemy is my teacher.”
I don’t even care if I’m your enemy.
As if your friendship were a great
gain or loss. But shouldn’t I care
that other people are being skewered?
Stop telling me, “All it takes for evil
to triumph is for good people
to do nothing.” Evil
is its own punishment.
It’s up to you to be good.
Fourteen

“I don’t get it,” my ten-year-old
daughter says—watching TV,
at a movie, listening to me
with my friends. And she admits
it freely, asking hopefully, as if
I could ever explain. I have
a website with a twenty-page CV.
It lists three graduate degrees
but they don’t help.
My daughter needs an answer.
Should she buy that fry pan
as seen on TV?
1. Buy it, use it, love it.
2. Buy it, it’s crap. Pity.
3. Don’t buy it and you’ll never know.
4. None of the above.
5 is the correct answer. Get it?
Fifteen

A true lover, says the Tao,
is “subtle, mysterious,
profound, responsive,”
Be real! Ask a stand-up
how deep love is,
he’ll tell you this many
inches. Beware the line
between love and obscenity.
That is why true love
keeps its mouth shut,
holds something back,
has much to say but
mostly only answers.
How to find Mr. Right
or Ms. Exactly? Luckily,
life is long but just in case
there is divorce.
Sixteen

Okay, it was Confucius not Lao Tsu
who said “The secret to a happy life
is in a good bowel movement.”
Try going without and you won’t
think clearly. There’s no end
to suffering when it comes to one’s
body. That’s why, when it works
it’s such a joy. Good sensations—
bliss. A day without pain—heaven.
If you are well, act it.
Wellness breeds wellness.
Making others feel good is it.
Don’t be a pain in the ass.
Seventeen

If you apologize first, then
use a cliché, it only makes it worse,
but: the best is yet to come.
You know it’s true because
you’re always complaining
about the past, which is why
people aren’t so glad to see you.
It follows, if you’d just shut up
and get on with it, you’d see
how, even inadvertently,
better things will come.

Eighteen

By now, it may seem I’m trying
to tell—or worse, tell you—
right from wrong.
That would be pretentious.
I could pull rank, say
I’m Dad, Teacher, Boss,
God. Who knows? I
might even attract
a following.
Nineteen

No one has ever believed
I have healing powers.
So what? No good deed
goes unpunished, but I
still try. Why? Stop
trying so hard, I insist
to myself. Of course,
I don’t listen either.
With me, it has always
been a paradox
unloved for loving
striving not to strive
caring who doesn’t care
but does it help to say so?
Shhh!
Twenty

Someone added an admonishment
to Ecclesiastes to set all books aside.
Here’s the great sage of China
saying “give up learning.”
The sententious memorize great lines.
People quote Polonius and miss
the point. Like duh, he’s an idiot!
It makes me feel better not saying
anything (as if). That’s why
poets are the biggest liars.
Of course you can’t believe me.
God help me, I love this phony baloney.
Twenty-one

It has to be a good life
perspiring in a small rental car
by the sea, the gnats
nipping at me as I watch
the nearly empty beach.
A life of images is pretty pure—
here and now, real or imagined.
Only “imagination” used to be
the sister of insanity. I see truth
in that, glad to record my pleasure
and discomfort as just the same.
A dot at the end of a sentence,
a tiny insect, my creation
Twenty-two

Teaching by paradox feels
like Stalin’s “Less is more,”
but can empty be more full?
An empty belly has more pain.
If a child is hungry,
philosophy is empty. Wanting
too much, I see the danger:
wear gold jewelry and fear
every stranger. Be ostentatious?
Ask my aunt. Her credo—
money is the report card of life.
Her house sports a shelf of books
selected for the color of their spines.
I understand I’m not superior
to her. My needs exceed most
expectations—”the peace of mind
that comes with fame.” I’m
still looking for the way.
Twenty-three

I want to make a pact with every stranger,
but it’s unnatural to talk so much, as if
a professor’s lectures must go on and on.
Lately it’s an unspoken pact.

Let professors profess. I’ll be the poet
collecting my pay for being there.
The bosses don’t appreciate sincerity.
Show don’t tell. The less said the better.
Twenty-four

You have to be in it to win it.
Pace yourself.
Keep a low profile.
Platitudes! I prefer
details to big ideas—
pictures are more convincing.
You’ve seen babies learn to walk
on tiptoe, dancing their unsteady
dance from mom to dad to applause.
Later, à la tutu, that may pass
for art, but for most of us
it’s dangerous. Or I could
say, “Keep your two feet
firmly on the ground.”
Twenty-five

When lapsing philosophical,
never turn your back
on the master. The king
is demanding; throw him
a line. Poet laureates
writing for an occasion are
only occasionally good.
Look up Sir H. J. Pye,
Laureate from 1790 to 1813,
whose poems haven’t been
reprinted since. He got
a good paycheck, was
popular, but wasn’t
very good. It’s reassuring
to see the parity—we do
what we must to survive
but quality is bigger,
lasts longer, and longer
is where it’s at they say,
or perhaps quantity.
Twenty-six

For all the jokes, absurdities,
airports still ask if anyone
but you has touched your bags.
Sure, a recently-released con-
victed felon who skipped
a week of Prozac. Or perhaps
just me and my demonic laugh.
When checking in on trips,
no jokes allowed, aloud.
Do standup in an airport
and you will lose, but keep
your sense of humor to survive.
Twenty-seven

If it’s recognition you crave,
you’ll have to be sneaky.
Do you really want to screw
friends, plant lies, beat
the other guy? Suppose you
were content to praise
your opponent’s strong
points, conduct an honest
game? Losing to a cheat
isn’t losing; it’s the higher
ground. Okay, you’ll have
to trust that this isn’t bull.
Poke someone in the eye
who steals your dinner.
Yes, you have to survive.
But a corrupt prize just
smells wrong.
Twenty-eight

Not many men want to be
Mr. Mom. For me it’s natural.
Animus, Anima, big deal.
Besides, it keeps me young.
I know I’m doing it well
whatever the bitch from hell
says. It’s the same as poetry:
good work should prove itself.
One or the other, the kids or
the art, is all I’ll taste of im-
mortality. More likely it will
be her, humbling me with her
talent. Kids are meant to get
the last word. Good. Better
to let them dance lithely
on our grave. That’s why
all that driving to ballet lessons.
Twenty-nine

Pete Seeger set Ecclesiastes
to a sweet song even as he
tried to change the world.
“Peace, I swear it can be so.”
As he grew old and short
of breath, he still sang on.
For all his struggles, we
should love him. (Of course
there is still war.) Fighting
the good fight isn’t about
winning. People say, “That’s
Pollyanna. It’s painful to take
the beating.” Then run an arms
race, win a skirmish (but not
the war). Turn, turn, turn.
Thirty

Steven Hawking said never shake
the hand of antimatter or all
existence will explode. I have
a genius cousin, an atomic scientist,
who refuses to be practical. He’s
a loud mouth, an alcoholic and morbidly
obese but he won’t destroy the world.
He says, “The last guys made the bomb.”
Hawking himself is so profound
it protects him—he’s hardly ever
fully understood. Einstein’s famous
photo with tongue stuck out proves
silly is really smart. Better invent
a way to smile—maybe using your
elbow—than blow us away
with your brilliance.
Thirty-one

I’d like to think that I could
kill, even as I never want to.
Left-wing liberals, Right-wingers,
the NRA know killing sucks—don’t
like to. Ah, but killing for good
reason, some say (I do) it’s okay.
I don’t think I’d laugh over it.
If I can, I put killing out of my
mind, trying not to be perverse.
Let’s face it, those who know
how to change, enjoy life more.
It’s a pity to fear new possibilities.
So, sometimes people see a way
out when the leader doesn’t.
A holy war has to be stupid.
All you win are all you’ve killed
and I can forgo that prize.
Thirty-two

For all our technology, who knows?
Even light is only a theory: particle or
wave? If we could tell the Truth
we’d be a guzillionaires. We’d be
be bigger than Gates, and he gives
twenty million a month to charity.
That kind of science could become
religion, but what would we name
the company? Macrosoft? Then
they’d accuse us of running a monopoly,
de facto: The One True Way. Just
when things were working fine,
bang! It would fall apart, unless
not knowing is answer enough
and to not know, we are already
in good company.
Thirty-three

I’d be content if I weren’t attacked.
I’d be delighted if I stopped attacking myself.
It’s an effort to keep the bums away.
Conquering one’s own demons is real work.
I’m delighted to say I don’t need more stuff.
I’m simply amazed I’ve survived.
I’m okay where I am.
What else is there, really?
Thirty-four & five

A small girl, perhaps four, lets her
six-year-old sister stand in front.
The water is warm but there are waves.
So natural—not love or trust—just
letting another go ahead she knows
she’s safer. A parent has to push
a child ahead, even as it’s a parent’s
job to die first. The little girls’ mother
watches, ten yards back, with the bored
detachment of a hundred-dollar-a-day
vacationer. It’s tedious even having fun.
There’s a lifeguard so it feels safer.
The shrieks of the littler girl quicken
as her older sister swings her into a wave.
Mom smokes a cigarette. The life-
guard is talking to some blond.
Thirty-six

Overall, it’s true things could be worse.
So far the sky isn’t falling, the earth
keeps turning. People are still having
babies and give or take millions starving,
people have enough. Who cares if we have
a dolt for a President? The sky doesn’t need
official protection to survive. We don’t
need a highway for people to move.
We don’t even need prayer in order
to have hope. Human nature persists
even when the boss has no idea.
So, short of a total con, just carry on.
Small miracles are still miracles
even if doubters holler, “Fraud!”
Don’t get all anxious.
Don’t go hog wild.
Thirty-seven

Being punished for good intentions
is better than punished for bad.
Not that it matters if your conscience
is clear. Ask for anything but gratitude.
You get the same results
with less complaining.
Thirty-eight

No good deed will go unpunished.
Ask for anything but sympathy.
Try to help, you’re meddling.
Don’t offer. You could be sued.
Ah, but still, you have to try!
Take those charity ads for starving kids:
The camera is not a sandwich. Why
are they filming a kid crying? Feed him!
The answer, of course, is no one
gives a damn if they see a happy child.
Here’s little Kaka after we wiped away
the dust and slime, fed him for a month.
Like, you’d donate if he looks fine.
So we love reality, relish all
suffering except our own.
Don’t complain or try to change it.
Get over that bleeding heart
need for perfection. Enjoy
the smug moment of being
better off. Sometimes you are.
Thirty-nine

You can medicate yourself or accept life.
As if it took your smile for the sun to shine
or your happiness for plants to grow.
A depressed man is not the end of joy.
Observe a playground.
See ten thousand possibilities.
Power brokers may smoke their fat cigars
but goodness goes beyond smoke and mirrors.
Feel the sun’s warmth even in winter.
Accept the meal prepared for you.
Enough sadness.
Forty

Aging is like leaving
the pull of gravity:
time speeds faster
as the earth
falls away.
Forty-one

I’m learning the art of paper
mâché, pulp paper bleached
off-white, shaped to a great
eggshell. I’ll climb inside.
I’m learning to exude a palp-
able aura, to walk inured
to others. Floating is
easier than walking.
Don’t lecture me on being
grounded. It’s a closed system,
clouds moving with the sphere.
Insulating one’s home in
a cold world is not
hiding: per ardua
ad insulation.
Forty-two

What you sow, so shall you reap?
I’ve planted gardens enough to know
it ain’t always so. How the moles
ate my ornamentals, the sun burned
the lettuce, blight killed the roses.
No platitude can save the starving
in a long drought. For those who
hire migrant workers, profits are
attacks. What do the migrants
ever get back? All good things
don’t come to those who wait.
There is no bus stop for parity.
Forty-three

If we were rocks we might
outlast adversity. If we
were rain we might wear
the rock away. I’ve waited
sixty years and I’m still
supple—bending with
the breeze of bodies
passing. I’ve read Milton
on his blindness. I also
serve but life’s not
long enough for us to wait.
Patience is only a virtue
for a paleontologist.
Forty-four

The key to love is knowing
when to stop, but what kind of love
can’t stop? No-respite, no-choice love.
Quick test. Try to stop:
 nagging
 needing
 picking
 poking
Stop that! and if it stops:
Love. What a blessing—
being big enough to conquer
a world by doing
nothing.

Forty-five

Refrigeration requires first
creation of pressure. A paradox
that heats us till our heart thumps,
our brow runs furrows of sweat.
So you grow agitated with the clerk
who hasn’t learned to kowtow
for his dollar. Walking away, you
heat yourself with your own gas,
swollen, angry. Wait, it is re-
frigeration not your angst
we should be studying here—
the release of pressure
creating ice at a narrowing point.
Stop this pumping, pumping.
Relax, release. One long
breath in; one slow breath out.
Cool!
Forty-six

Quiet makes the least sound loud.
Noise overpowers. So symphonies
have largos; opera, sotto voce;
concertos, pianissimo.
Those cars passing
with music thumping—
who’s that driving toward
what? Better ride in silence.
Listen, is that a small child’s
bicycle bell?
Forty-seven

Sit before the wood stove.
Let the heat warm your face.
Soothe your closed eyes.
Granted someone cut the wood.
Someone will clean the ash.
Now is a time to not move.
As much is done in mediation
as in war. Remember the moment
of silence need not come only
for the dead and energy
conserved gives heat.
Forty-eight & Forty-nine

A million oak leaves
await within one forest.
One needn’t command.
A rustling wind, a cold,
hard rain will do it.
Appoint gravity as
master of war.
No hard prongs,
no grinding machine.
Some time and mulching
and then there’s
the rich soil.
Fifty

The ghost can not escape,
still contemplating flesh
and bone so it can’t make
it’s way. We imagine it is
demonic but statistically,
no more ghosts are bad
than people. To help a ghost,
let it exist near you—
under a stair, in a closet—
until it can balance corporeal
with spiritual. Best it see you
naked, wet from a shower,
hurrying to answer the phone,
dressing for work, rushing,
skipping breakfast. Then
a ghost can be glad the body
is gone and the spirit is willing.
Fifty-one

Be careful not to tell right
from wrong. It starts with
punishing children and leads
to executions. Parents who
require submission, teachers
who issue Fs, masters who
demand virtue? Full jails
don’t work. Little Johnny
comes home with low
grades in math? Buy
him an ice cream. Don’t
punish him, cheer him up.
When does suffering
plus suffering equal help?
Permit good, don’t impose it.
Fifty-two

The womb is a door to the universe.
Enjoy turning the knob.

Fifty-three

I’m wearing a plaid, hooded shirt
given to me in Hong Kong years ago
by my now-ex-mother-in-law.
Why am I being so specific? Perhaps
you are a clothes horse or just spent
hundreds to buy the latest style.
Neither you nor I chose to be naked.
The draft is uncomfortable and then
there are the stares. There’s no sense
arguing style. But when I read that
some people make pennies an hour
manufacturing our apparel, then
I’d rather go naked.
Fifty-four

Show me your Utopia, I’ll show you
mine. I’d like to see everyone have
just enough. Too much is just
too much. Extreme, extreme.
Not Karl Marx, not Mother Teresa.
(What a couple they would make.)
Make a modest budget and live by it.

I’m okay without redecorating.
I’m fine with thrift-store clothes.
If a roof leaks it’s good to have
the bucks to fix it. Accidents
are, by definition, unexpected.
Clearly, leave some extra room …
but what’s with the mansion?
Fifty-five

She’s well into her nineties
and needs help now but everyone
who ever worked for her, cheated her.
The carpenter bent too many nails.
The housekeeper didn’t clean in corners.
The meals on wheels weren’t cooked right.
Luckily, an endless supply of young
folks keeps showing up to do chores,
even call her “Grandma” though
they don’t last long. If “knowing
harmony is constancy,” she is
a symphony of cacophony:
“He charged me for three hours
when he worked two!” She may live
to be a hundred, proving again
that sweetness and light
aren’t the only path to longevity.
Fifty-six

Professing—what a job.
To be a professor you must
pretend. Breath in through
the nostrils. Breath out while
moving the mouth. Stand
with feet shoulder width
apart, knees slightly bent.
Point a finger, raise a hand
shoulder high. “You, Sir.
What do you think this
means?” A truly pro-
fessional professor
can answer any question
with a question: true wisdom.
Fifty-seven

Parenting should be letting
one’s kids alone. Yes, a smack
on an ass when there’s cars
whizzing by may save a child.
But letting the kid alone lets her
grow. The more it has to be
one way, the crazier for
parents and kids. Hitting
makes hitting possible.
Try whacking someone
to give them peace of mind.
“Live by my rules,” is
the prelude to, “Leave.”
So she comes home with
an idiot—loves his drool.
You see a big belly,
abandonment. If she doesn’t
know by now, too bad.
Better buy diapers and place
them on your eyes and ears.
Fifty-eight

Tell a kid, “I don’t want
to hear about it,” and you
won’t or only lies. Mind
games are games:
“Where have you
been,” requires an out.
There are rules. “Who
were you with,” is
trumped by, “My friends.”
If you don’t know where
or why by the time
they’re old enough
to ask—forget it.
They’ve already won.
Congratulate them
and get on with
your own life.
Fifty-nine

The single rule is “Safety,”
which includes sustenance,
food, shelter, love. Keep
the kid safe and she’ll
notice. No one who sits
in their own kaka for long
is going to be happy.
Hungry, will lead
to crying; crying to mis-
chief or, rather, self-defense.
If you screw it up by two
or three, it’s almost over.
After that, it’s catch-up,
compensation. Consider,
if you can’t live with her,
you can’t kill her, do you
really want another?
The way is eternal
but life is just very long.
Sixty

The boss is small potatoes.
Longview, he’s got nothing.
The boss can clock you,
sock you, dock you, but
he can’t rock you. You’re
solid, you’re cool.
The more his “BS” bounces
off you, the more he thinks
he’s winning while you
smile.
Sixty-one

A good marriage
is cosmic—puts it
all together.
He lets himself
get soft and fuzzy.
She assimilates
his hardness.
It’s like sharing
the same bed,
bending here,
merging there.
Don’t snicker.
It takes some
getting used to,
sleeping together
until you’d feel
empty separate.
In a good marriage
two people are lost
without a complaint.
Sixty-two

Stay flexible, you’ll be better off,
body and mind. You know folks
who love to argue. Some play
devil’s advocate. Others are like,
“Now that I’ve made up my mind
don’t bother me with the facts.”
Either way, shut up, listen.
But then talk. It’s one thing
to be humble, another to play
dumb, and then there’s just plain
stupid. “Flexible” can tell
the difference—which is so
much better than an unbending
self-righteous stiff.
Sixty-three

Hey, give it a break. You
don’t have to be “on” all the time.
Take a day off. Nurse yourself.
So maybe you aren’t sick.
Who’ll know? I know
a family—father, kids,
uncles, grandpa—who’ve
never missed a day of work
or school. Like what’s that
about? Who wants to be
that fastidious? Beyond
spreading germs, better
stay at home. What
could possibly be that
important? If you have to,
play sick. Give me
a break!
Sixty-four

A fellow told me once,
“Let’s wait until the crime
is committed, then we can
deal with it.” Trouble was,
he was the criminal. If you
see the glint of a knife,
maybe take a step away?
It’s the “duck” thing:
Looks like one, walks
like one, talks like one.
Don’t get all paranoid
and hyper, expecting
trouble. Just remember
if someone says “No
problem,” you’re auto-
matically warned.
Sixty-five

My idea of being the boss
was to call everyone
together, tell them,
“Do a good job.
I trust you,” and let them.
Damned if it didn’t
work as well or better
than threats and promises.
Sixty-six

If you want someone
to whack on, it ain’t me.
Beat yourself up. It’s
not my philosophy.
Carrot or stick? I vote
carrot. See, I haven’t
noticed people are
happier or living
longer with bruises.
A parent says,
“This hurts me
more than it hurts
you.” Excuse me?
I don’t think so.
Sixty-seven

Did you reach this page
reading in order, or find it
randomly? This book will
certainly be hard to sell.
You can toss it off as ketch
or ask, “Who is this guy?”
Or you can read it as written,
wanting to know. I make
no pretense. You, in turn,
haven’t paid that much.
It would be a pity if
something herein wasn’t
true for you and truth
after all, is all that matters.
Sixty-eight

He wrote but he couldn’t read.
He spoke about silence.
His was the clearest paradox.
What do you make of it?
Sit with these words and smile.
Better, paste on a silly grin.
Be sure that the book cover
is visible to others and upside
down. Then they, too, will
understand and smile.

Sixty-nine

In love, some say “Go for it.”
Others say, “Go slow.”

Some have expectations,
others fantasies.

A woman learns to show
only a little. A man
lets it all hang out.

There’s no greater sin
than insincerity. If
you care, it’s love.
Seventy

This style is not for most folks.
Modern poems should show,
not tell, but I’m not just
writing poetry. These are
a life’s work.
Okay, see
that scar on my leg,
that bump on the bridge
of my nose?
I could tell you
where they came from but
then you would say they’re
just symbolic.
Let’s not
screw around. Whether you
laugh or not, these are the jokes.
Seventy-one

I was a hypochondriac
until I got sick of it.

Seventy-two

Anyone who thinks
“shock and awe” will win
is an idiot. That firebomb can’t
win hearts or convert minds.
As if folks will dance amidst
the rubble when they see you.
Not attacking, that’s a miracle.
History is longer than dictators
and stronger than bombs.
Seventy-three

I asked the Dali Lama why
we shouldn’t eat meat. He
said there was no rule
against it. “Just try to
do it in the least cruel way.”
The audience was stunned.

Is there a rule that is
absolute? Absolutely
not. “Cruel,” is the rule
that can’t be broken.

Improvise. Rise
above the expected.
That’s my meat and potatoes.
Seventy-four

It’s stupid to be a terrorist
or at least sad. You make
yourself the slave of death.
That’s what’s terrifying.
Building the bomb is a bother.
Bringing it is a job.
The bang could kill you.
Causing death is as stupid
as torturing someone.
As the pain intensifies,
death becomes more powerful
than life. Is that your aim?
Seventy-five

Taxes are a trick played on the poor
by the rich—not even a practical joke,
just a dirty trick. Taxes only work
with threats and fear or else
the money would be a donation,
as kind as charity. Teach giving.
Taxes are a taking by force.
There is no such thing as
a gentle rape.
Seventy-six

Why would the meek
want to inherit the earth?
They’d only have to fix it,
and who would collect the rent?
I’m not saying go naked, be
homeless, but if you are
disenfranchised, be glad.
The fewer rules you have
the less harm you’ll do.
Smile at the people
rushing by.
Seventy-seven

A rich man spends millions
to run for office? The same money
could pay for food or tutoring.
To get wealthy too often
requires deceit. To get elected
politicians lie. That’s why
the rich run for office. That’s
why the poor are always left out.
If we can’t test intelligence we
should at least require a person
to be poor in order to hold office.

Seventy-eight

Never underestimate the power
of a good nap: Power napping
for fun and profit. Close your
eyes, shift your breathing to
deep and slow. In minutes
you are transformed. Don’t
do this while driving but do
pull aside and try. If you
oversleep and are late
arriving, that’s also fine—
better than a speeding ticket.
Better than falling asleep
at the wheel.
Seventy-nine

Our skin thanks us by covering
our wounds. It doesn’t ask
us why. That’s what pain does
and who likes pain? Skin
forgives us quietly even as
it heals, only to be sure
we do remember,
it leaves a scar.
Eighty

There’s a virtue to living
in a small town. True,
you are stuck with who
they think you are. All
the more reason to live
carefully. If it’s dangerous,
you might consider moving.
But in a small town
your family are molecules
in a compound social order
making you the atom
in each periodic count.

Eighty-one

Now it’s for you to reread
and better yet, rewrite these numbers.
They’ll keep you busy trying.
In the days before electricity,
when we had to watch TV
in the dark, this was what
we did. We lived our hours
as if we were writing
and revised for fun.
DECIDUOUS

DECIDUOUS

You left and even though
new leaves are shouting green
the chill is here again. Leaves,
homonyms of clever you, my
twig, my branch, my tree.

If love were evergreen, you
would be my root and trunk
and never leave. Spring
sends a sap like me running
fools’ errands, missing you.

We fall in love. That should
be the tip-off. A sudden drop
in temperature and love is gone.
Without you the trees are bare
and I can’t bear it.

MY FINGER SPLIT OPEN

My ring finger, only I don’t
have a wedding ring. I beat it
flat with a hammer after we split.

I was reaching for a splitting awl,
hammering two-foot logs to save
on oil bills that would bust my budget.

It’s a fourteen-pound hammer which,
if I don’t learn to swing lefty, is building
the muscles on my right side into a hump.

When I bent down to grab the splitter
a sharp shard knifed me to the bone,
a gash that bled so much the log turned red.

I wrapped the wound tight in a pocket tissue,
ignored the pain, but if I hadn’t split up,
I’d have money enough to heat the house.

IT’S A HAPPY MAN

It’s a happy man who can
make love on a Monday morning.
So many pieces to the heart:
the right woman of course,
who desires not just to lie abed
pretending Sunday, but lusts
for love, ready to smile, humid with
the thought. And work, whatever
tools await, skillet or screwdriver,
computer with its tactile grin—he
would need at least a forgiving boss
who didn’t stand pointing at a watch,
grimacing at lateness. Then, there’s
the very bed, a sea of slippery silk,
though hay alone is legendary.
The clock need not alarm. Instead,
a gentle hand wrapping around,
stroking a belly, arriving at a breast.
You can imagine the rest.
This poem is about a happy man
not sex. And he, floating on his lover’s
raft, sights a misty island where they
both can live without deadlines,
bosses, traffic that strangles or mon-
etary chills that freeze the best
man’s assets. Not a word, just love
with a happy woman who sends
her man to battle satisfied.

ALONE AT NIGHT

In the queen-sized bed
without the queen, I’m
wrapped incongruously
in what dreams are left—
my dark blue sheet,
my heavy quilt, old pillow
foaming at its mouth.
On a cold, rainy night
I drift warmly in
and out of sleep.
The clatter of
an approaching truck,
the instinct to pull
the cover up and duck.

EMPTY HOUSE

All invitations are off.
I’m staying home alone
walking naked through
my empty rooms. You
don’t have to picture it.
Take my word. You
wouldn’t want to be
there and I don’t want
you. I like the quiet.
The clock ticks, but
that’s it. No one talks
if I don’t. They say
cats can entertain
themselves all life long
in one room. I’m a cat.
I’ll curl in a beam
of sunshine on my
living room floor.
At last the house
is empty. Life
feels fuller now.
FOR THE VALENTINE I DON’T HAVE

Life without that special someone
is just fine. The sun still shines,
the crocuses find their way to spring.
The house is warm. Out walking
through the mall, I don’t need anything.
Grown kids are plenty to contend with—
even if they don’t ask, I buy them gifts.
There’s a grandchild, a sign of hope.
But I’m no dope. Perhaps it’s the happy
arguments I’m missing, perhaps
the kissing. On days like this,
I find the lack of you distressing.
GOOD COMPANY

Misery loves company
so much she invites lots
of friends. Barbecue,
potato-salad salmonella. Hot
dogs—rats’ feet, droppings.

“I’m no fool, I’m an idiot
instead,” he says, coleslaw
hanging from his chin. She
laughs and pushes him
into a hostile dependency.

Manics should never ask
depressives to marry—
a fatal combination. Divorce
inevitable. Misery loves
no one, never should.

Better live alone. Only late
and dark and lonely, Ms.
Misery sometimes cries
at how pessimists are
never disappointed.

GETTING FREE

Some people speak of being
“clear” of memories that
haunt them. It’s “freedom”
I crave and cry to get it,
attached to electrodes,
interrogated for whatever truth.

Don’t they know I’ve nothing
to confess? The hostage can’t
be guilty if the crime’s coerced.
The Stockholm syndrome:
how I love my captors.

Take me out and shoot me.
Anything to stop this suffering.
How can a man love with
nails under his nails?

Over the gates, “Arbeit
macht frei.” I’ve worked
my life away. By now,
you’d think that I’d be free.
Murderous bastards.

ONLY HAPPINESS

The mind listens, the body
follows. Say you are well, you
feel better. The smell of honey-
suckle on a humid night. Hours
of lingering daylight well into
evening. Warmth without heat.

A compliment that comes in the mail,
unsolicited, sincere. Save it like
a pressed flower. Her hand caressing
the back of your neck, drifting toward
arousal. Love that is mutual.

The softest, finest sand, stirred
at its edge by a slowly advancing
tide. Nearly no one there, save two
coconut-scented bathers wearing
less than the law allows.

All pleasure is proof of meaning.
All pleasure is proof of meaning.
It’s a mantra. Repeat and believe.

CONVERSION

Who believes that energy is real,
that hands together can release
and heal with warmth and light?

A mother, friend, a lover touches
and we are comforted. No one
denies that fact. But if I ask you

to “cup your hands together
to hold your energy,” half
the audience is skeptical.

Now, readers, listeners give
one vigorous clap and feel
the tingle in your palms.

Those who train to focus
create that glow and send it
on a healing path.

Who hasn’t seen a dancer
raise her hands in rapture
and just dance? Give energy

that same chance. Call it chi,
holy spirit, life force—all the same.
The good it does is real by any name.
EXHILARATION

Sticky warmth tucks you in
like a cotton sheet, wraps you
in gauze of sleep as drops
of perspiration creep
in crevices across your skin
and all your nakedness
in the dark of night
lets you dream
that you are light enough
to float up when you step
down, then higher
so you don’t descend—
rather, rise up and fly.
Summer’s leafy tree-
tops brush your belly
as you soar. Clouds mist
your shoulder blades—
and you are amazed
that this is not a dream.
It feels so real.

DNA

When I lick a stamp
or emit that small spit
bubble as I emote
or even when I drop a tired
hair here or there I’ve left
my evidence: a billion to one
it can’t be anyone but me.
My DNA spells immortality.

If I step off some curb
in front of that semi,
I’ll still be here even if
I’m only flakes on a pillow
or a drop of blood on a tissue
left when the kitchen
knife got angry.

It’s not like I’m preparing for
a trial. I’m not a candidate
for cloning. I’m just admiring
the genome you’ve deciphered
that reassures me that I’m me.
SO WHAT ABOUT SUPERBUGS?

Twenty people in a Centers
for Disease Control seminar room
watch a new Public Broadcast video
on multi-drug resistant diseases.
Administrators, science nerds, a few
politicos assemble to discuss: TB
in Peruvian slums; skin-eating
viruses; American poor, poorly
medicated. One says, “The film
is hokey. The point is not clear.”
Another says, “That’s all we can
say if we want to sell the public.”

Sell them what? The truth is,
for every bug we try to treat,
a mutation could evolve to kill
us all. So what? Should we spend
millions more for research? Vaccines?
Cures? Billions go for wars while
illness and poverty endure.

BEACH COUNTDOWN

Four boys with buckets
digging a sand foxhole,
a barricade for a war
the tide will win.

Three bathers wading
waist high in light chop—
hard to tell a he from a she,
so shallow so far out.

Two lovers on a Disney
towel, his hand on her
behind, her breasts
pressing on Goofy’s face.

One patient fool,
back erect against
his beach chair,
ogling.

RECLAMATION

The scalpel sea excises land
leaving only stones. No warm flesh
of summer sand left to caress us.
Only shattered bones of beach
stairs, tendril roots like veins
where truncated dunes, like amp-
utated hands, no longer reach
to sandbars at low tide.
No surgeon can reconstruct
what’s gone. No army corps
is strong enough to save us.

EROSION OF POWER

A foot above the sea
my friend resides, awaiting
disaster with a jaundiced eye.
As for seafront, they aren’t making
any more, the shore of every fancy
home, hotel, estate eroding more
quickly than Ozymandias.
I lived one hundred feet atop
a bluff, reminded of quixotic
sands, each gale lifting a fine
patina of quartz crystals
to my open windows. One
northeaster scalped twenty feet
off the base, houses sliding
into Long Island Sound
within weeks. Then, there
are the oblivious—who
build on barrier beaches
like monarchs heedless
of impending doom.

THE GROUNDSKEEPER WHO STOLE AN EARLY SPRING

Who’s the fool
who took away
the tennis nets?
As if a January
thaw is not reason
to celebrate.
The court is clear,
its red epoxy
surface radiant
in winter sun,
windswept dry.

No nets.
Not even poles.
Some people play
the air guitar.
Others dance
without music,
but there’s no
tennis without
strings attached.
Somewhere in
storage, wound
neatly, there’s our
new season, waiting.

THE IDEA OF ORDER AT LONG ISLAND

In the suburbs, we have ordinances
about cutting the grass. Then there’s
my neighbor, who despite all codes,
lets the scrub grow, the sassafras
burgeoning into thin trees, wild
grapes curling up his chain-link
to embrace a nearby lamppost.
I fire up my sit-down mower,
eying his lot. Nothing about
law and order can stem it.
Nature will win out: it’s his weeds
that will inherit the earth.
THE CASE AGAINST WEEDING

First the weeds take charge
of the ornamental borders
obscuring even the gladiolus
until a perfect, green
grasshopper, two inches
long, emerges to sun.
Then, a praying mantis
pauses with a headless hopper
to remind me how wildly
beautiful nature can be.

CAMPING

You can have your woods
and mountains, sleeping on the dirt.

Bears shit in the woods.
Birds make feasts of mosquitoes.

People are meant for
better than a tent.

We’ve spent thirty thousand years
perfecting mattresses, hot showers.

My idea of camping is a motel
if it has regular, not HDTV.

Who made deprivation fun?

LOTUSES

Why aren’t lotuses indigenous
to Long Island? It isn’t climate.
Beijing sprouts lotuses
in every little pond despite
heavy snow and spring sand-
storms barreling off the Gobi.
What we call water lilies only
make them laugh. Lotus:
stately, artistic, medicinal, food.
Here on Long Island, where
we need detoxins, where
beauty is eaten faster
than farmland, wouldn’t it
be grand to grow lotuses,
if only to await
enlightenment?

CROCUSES

Crocuses
aren’t fools
nor heroes,
just steady
soldiers
marching
toward spring.
Asleep in dirt,
they hear sun’s
warm reveille,
rise to do
their job,
ranks and files
of color, ready
to outlast even
heavy snow.

SPRING FLOWERS

late bloomers
ladies in flounces
girls giggling
pretty young things
knickers green
tendrils
open tulips
yum
kiss your
knees
old man’s wheeze
who is he to
covet her

en garde
touché
open arms
swarms of flies
across the sky
kiss and die
pastel purple
wisteria
pungent
in the breeze
ninety degrees
BLACK ANTS

The black ants are here,
parading on my counter,
up the trash container,
marching toward my
living room. Not really
eating. Just dashing around
the blender, toaster, microwave.

I wet a tissue and grab them,
apologize and squeeze, but
nothing stops them. I spray
every crack, plant bait.
They keep coming like
Thoreau’s ant armies.

I’d let them live, but if
it’s nature’s job to pester,
it’s only human to destroy.

TERMITES

“Termites,” the carpenter
reports. “I took the wall
apart and there they were.”

He says, “I’ll tear the bad
wood, patch and spray.”
He estimates a thousand dollars.

My neighbor let it go.
Years later, there wasn’t
a house inside his walls.

So I know this won’t be
the end. If they’re in one
spot, it takes an all-out war.

When my neighbor died,
his widow tried to fix one wall
and the house fell down.

HEAT OF DAY

A dry energy drains
winter’s anxieties.
What slept in earth
has risen, day lilies—
variegated proof of miracles
beyond the singing parish
and ministrations of cheerful
priests. Nothing more sure
than the heat of midday
and traffic cued at stop signs
after midmorning mass.

IN THE MARKET

The only place I spend money
without feeling guilty is
the supermarket, walking
the wide aisles, happy for
old habits—hunting, gathering.
I cruise through fruits and veggies
misted by cool spray, recalling
countries where I’ve lived
with chaotic stalls and question-
able produce. Armed with my
credit cards, free of shopping lists,
I surrender all inhibitions,
smiling widely, willing to buy.

HIS OFFICE

As a kid he built clubhouses
from old cartons—secret longings
played out in refrigerator crates.
He’d invite a friend. “The Broken
Arrow Club.” They’d sit in cowboy
costumes, staring through cracks
at the bright sun on the lawn,
holding the cardboard flaps
closed, laughing. Now it’s
an office—a dark room
beckoning for a key late after
hours. He can come in, wave
at a janitor, sit in the half-light
of a street lamp all alone. Where
the friends went is another story.
The arrow was broken off.
If he pulled it out—the bleeding
would have killed him.
A ROCK AND A ROLL-OFF

(Or, how my brother always got away with
beating me up even if I told my parents.)

I’m driving east on the Sunrise
Highway when a rain of little
rocks strikes my minivan. It’s
the twenty-yard roll-off just ahead
and though I drop back, one solid
stone strikes the windshield with
a bang—a pockmark like a BB gun’s.
I reach for a pencil, get the plate,
then pull close enough to the truck’s
door to copy the company name
and number. The driver towers
over me, staring with a stupid grin.

Next day, I call and tell on him:
“Rocks from one of your drivers
struck my windshield.” “That ain’t
my business,” a gruff voice states.
“It was your truck,” I miss the point.
“Do you know how many people call me
every day? That’s called a road hazard.
You can’t prove it was us.” It’s more
threat than explanation, and he hangs up.

“Yes,” my insurance agent says,
“that’s how it works,” and “Yes,
it counts against you on your policy
if you claim it.” Why did I imagine
this would be any different?

BASEMENT DUTY

Was it a law or custom
that only unwed women
were proper teachers?
Only, more and more,
young marrieds
appeared in school.

Among the old maids,
there was a steady
competition for
basement duty,
supervising us as we
pulled it out to pee
in a long slate trough.

They watched us
carefully, arms folded.
I only remember
once, when Billy
got caught in his
zipper, that they
were ever needed.
GETTING WORMS

“If you bite your nails,”
my first-grade teacher said,
“you will get worms.”

Worms as long as snakes,
wiggling through your belly.
Worms that suck up all
your food so you get skinny.

“How’s your tapeworm?”
we would ask the skinny
kid in gym who also
bit his nails. Proof positive!

Later, in science, the teacher
said, “If you cut a tapeworm
it grows back its head.” We
never proved that.

How do you get rid of tapeworms?
Hold an apple by your ass
and when it sticks its head out,
hit it with a hammer.

HOME SICK

In the third grade I missed
forty-four days, home sick.
There was the sleeping
late, the meal in bed,
the loving touch.
Grown up, I thought
a hospital was a vacation.
I was a hypochondriac
until I got sick of it.

But sometimes, when it
isn’t a blizzard or a hurricane,
when there’s no national
emergency or holiday,
sometimes when
things are actually
going well, I just wish
I could stay home sick.

FIRST COUSIN TO DIE

You were my second oldest cousin
so, little as I was, I only understood
in snippets why you threatened
to kill yourself at college. My uncle
would run to save you, not knowing
he was part of his daughter’s problem.
You were the first cousin I heard
whispers of, daughter of a puritanical
father and a genius-if-under-achieving
mother. They forced you to marry
to keep up appearances;
bony more than beautiful,
different not just smart. But you
knew Christopher Street
and the Village were more you
than a small New England town.
When you divorced, you finally
declared that you loved women.
Cousin, you became the model for
us all to live on our own terms,
even as, with cancer, you gave
us lessons on how to die.

THE LAST TIME MY FATHER BEAT ME

The last time my father beat me,
he was eighty-eight. He’d hit it
straight, one hundred twenty yards
to the green of his short course.
I’d spray one left or blow one well beyond.
His one sure putt accomplished
without squatting to align. Once
it was a chase into my bedroom where
he’d swing his leather belt. Now he
smiled, squinting into the sunset.
Stiff as he was, I’d never been so
glad to see him swing that arm.

MY FATHER’S PACEMAKER

They told me it had to be removed
before cremation. Not that dad
wanted the attention. He said
“No ceremony,” but the funeral
parlor insisted. Batteries explode.
Then there’s a question of burning
toxic waste. I thought of all the oil
he’d spilled in backyards after
changes, the gas fumes breathed in
with heady pleasure at the pump.
What mechanic hasn’t ingested
chemicals, heedless of carcinogens?
At eighty-nine, dad had outlived
predictions—a man who loved
machines and fixing. “Go ahead,”
I said, but they refused to let me
keep it, though it seemed only suitable
to display the gadget that outlived him.

HIS GIFT

The gift was his going
so quietly he pulled me to
within a pause in breaths
that approached true quiet
and so easy it tempted me.
All the struggles mask
that truth, that it is easy—
to let go, float, stop,
pay attention at last
to one’s breath so completely
it disappears. And I wanted
to go, but the living are
denied the pleasure
at least until they realize.
Then all the struggles will
belie the pain and I will
float up as easily to be
renewed in his truth again.
MY FATHER’S ASHES

My father didn’t want his ashes scattered,
but my brother suddenly felt sentimental.
He claimed them from the funeral parlor
in a small cardboard box with a white
label bearing dad’s name. He kept them
on a basement shelf, until I, the younger
who’d moved away, could drive back
to do a ceremony on a windy winter
day. We walked out on the jetty
into the harbor where dad docked
his boat. We’d have used the dock,
but someone said the EPA required
permits. We didn’t calculate
the tide, dead low so we couldn’t
throw dad in. Chancing a fall, we
climbed down icy granite chunks,
treading the mussel beds to a shallow
tidal puddle. “Here,” my brother
declared, opening the box to tip
it toward the wind. Dust on our
pants and shoes. A pile of ashes
on the blue-black shell bed, my
brother pushing them toward
the water with his wet shoe.
“You’re kicking dad,” I told him.
Later, he said he’d keep the box.
I took a little ash, left in its corner,
buried it in my backyard where,
to my surprise, I talk to it.

I TALK TO THE DEAD

A habit my mother also has,
she who says, “If there’s a God
he is a bastard.” We both consult
my father, three years passed,
she for whether she will outlast
predictions of a burst aorta.
I ask dad if he likes my poetry,
though always ironically,
as even on his deathbed he
told me he never understood it.
The dead make good consultants
charging only a small fee—
the price of vanity, imagining
there’s a life after. They listen
to both sides, compared to
a living judge who hides
his biases in black as if in
mourning. My grandmother,
who died in 1962, says the reason
death is plentiful is because it’s free—
about the only thing the poor
can do for nothing. She gave
all her money away, then
cried for her poverty.
I won’t make that mistake.
Even now she tells me, “Wake
up, live life for yourself.”
It isn’t selfish, just dead right.

SURVIVOR

She’s gained weight,
not the suffering look she
had when dad was dying—
bony cheeks with thin,
freckled skin drawn
in a frown. Now, she
smiles with a round face,
lips pursed to kiss
and the eyes, always
the test of a real smile,
still can clown, cockeyed
for a moment, before I snap
her picture. “You must
miss him,” a friend says.
“Of course,” ma says,
“But I haven’t had
a migraine since he died.”
MY MOTHER’S HUM

She hears it running
through the walls,
vaguely electrical,
maybe mechanical.

My mother hums more lately
late at night, a high-pitched
stream of notes.

She has complained
to management—
who sent workmen
walking through
her condo.

Watching TV she’ll close
her eyes and hum louder
than she thinks.

She heard it when
they bought the condo,
but it got louder
after dad died.

I’ve asked her who she sings for.
“Sam. Since he’s gone
I write him songs.”

“It drives me crazy,
but why complain?”
she says, “I’ll only
have to sell soon.”

The words shaped
in her head, hummed
in place of sleep.

She knows.

KILLING MY MOTHER

Her legs are swollen, purple,
the skin thin, crusted wounds.
Weak circulation. She can’t
catch her breath. Weak heart.

“Could you get me a hundred
valium? That and a bottle
of Dom Perignon?”

Not hard to see her point. We
don’t own a gun. It takes a while
to get a permit. A shooting would
be a genuine catastrophe.

“But I’ve lived ninety years.
I have good memories. I just
don’t want to suffer.”

Maybe a pillow over her face
while she’s sleeping? If her heart
gives out, the cause of death
wouldn’t show up as suffocation.

“I could try assisted-living,
but if I get sick they’ll ship me
to a nursing home.”

She doesn’t have a garage, so
there’s little chance she’ll take
the gas pipe. She says what she
wants quite clearly.

“I’d rather die.”

Oh Jack Kevorkian, saint and martyr,
where are you now?

STOPPING HER MEDICATIONS

She told me plainly she’d
rather die than live with
me. It wasn’t meant
as an insult. Ninety-one
years of independence
don’t die easily. Just
a clear expression of her
philosophy—that death
is natural and need not
be postponed. All her
life she loved to walk,
now unable to go ten
steps without panting.
Her heart congestive,
her legs swollen
and sore. She says
it would be an indignity
to use a walker. “Don’t do
anything with my ashes,”
she quips, “Just what
you need—me blowing
back into your face.”
A friend keeps telling
her, “You’ll be with
your husband again
after you die.” My
mother is no fool.
“As if,” she says.
“Besides, sixty-four years
together were enough.”

MY ZAYDE’S WINE

Amazing how so many otherwise
anti-Semites converted during
prohibition, my Zayde making
good money selling Kiddush wine.
And then there was the legend
of the bathroom still—that aunts
and uncles joked about at parties.
“Don’t open the bathroom door!
People might see.”

As a kid I got honey cake
with a glass of wine that
made me tipsy. All my
friends were jealous when I
told them. Or the cask we
cousins opened and drank
enough to get really sick,
groaning in the coal bin.

After he died, we divided
the last bit, saved to savor
on a rare occasion. A crystal
glass, a rush of memories:
Zayde with his big hands
stained purple by the concord
grapes, a pungency permeating
the darkness of his basement,
a sweetness finer than
the most expensive sherry.

MY NANNY’S GLOVES

Do women still wear white
cotton gloves, crocheted trim
lace? Or carry gold-clasped
pocketbooks of patent leather?
She donned her black fur coat,
a felt hat with veil. Her gloves,
flexing to grasp my hand—
a command to walk with her.

She covered hands that made
her village notorious for a genetic
defect—thick skin accumulating
for lack of sebaceous glands.
She lived a meager life in Russia,
where Jews weren’t allowed to feel
at home, fearful of pogroms, until
her future husband sent for her.

Now, a michel that a woman
whose family lived with a dirt
floor should have fine clothes
and be driven in a fancy Buick
to her children and their parties,
where at every birthing she
checked the hands, hoping.

All my childhood spent in her home,
and every formal engagement, she
would don the same white gloves,
summon me to her side to see
her to the car. I’d close the door
and watch her drive away,
wishing I were old enough to go,
glad to see her smile, who
mostly sat, impassive or with
a frown, babysitting me,
stroking my hair with
her thick-skinned hands.

BIG KNUCKLES

My cousins wouldn’t get my
uncle surgery. He was eighty.
His arthritis was so advanced
he couldn’t flex his fingers.
His knuckles were like doorknobs.

My mother stopped playing piano
not just because she couldn’t trill,
not just because it hurt to stretch.
She was afraid folks would
notice her big knuckles.

I do all I can—glucosamine,
chondroitin, flexes, Tiger Balm.
Still, I can see that calcification
coming, struggling with morning
stiffness so I know it won’t be
long before my bones sprout
stones to replace my knuckles.

LIVER CANCER

When I was thirty-three they
told me, “We think it’s liver cancer.”
I drove an hour to the hospital
thinking I’d never see my
little kids grow, or go to all
the places that I’d like to see.

The dizziness I felt was
like looking from unguarded
heights. I could barely hear
the specialist explain,
“The tests are inconclusive.
We’ll have to do them all again.”

I took that as an omen,
declined any further probing
and drove home. Either they
were wrong or I’d die anyway.
They called me nearly every
week, “Come in for treatments.”

Years later, at a dinner I met
the doctor who said, “I thought
you died.” “I did,” I said, “I’m
resurrected. I’m immortal now
without your diagnosis.” I heard
he only lived to sixty.

YOU’VE MADE YOUR BED

Even as a little kid, I always
made my bed. Something
about neat sheets must have
reassured me. My mother
tucked me in each night,
the tighter the better,
but once my father came
and said, “Good night,” so
I had to ask him to tuck
me in. The way he fiddled
with a corner—the first time
I ever saw him not know
what to do. As if smooth
covers soothed troubles.
As if hospital corners
could heal. As if I’ve ever
been able to sleep in it.
MY INNER CHILD

My inner child deserves to die.
Don’t give me any crap about
embracing him. He’s suffered
enough. Death would be mercy
for that whining, wheezing brat.
My own brother who lived
with him, would testify,
“He deserves it.”

I’ve set a trap behind
my therapist’s couch.
He’ll creep there
eventually, and “snap!”
His neck will break
like the little rat he is.

WHO’S THAT KID

Who’s that kid on the worn
velvet couch wearing half
his Cub Scout uniform—
a beanie cap, blue military shirt?
He’s being asked to repeat
the oath, raise two fingers
and his right hand—”On my
honor I will do my best to do
my duty to God and country,”
only he won’t say the words.
Is he too shy? Is he an eight-
year-old communist? He
sobs as he walks home;
would rather be with his
friends except for those stupid
words he doesn’t want to say.

LITTLE LEAGUE

Little League was never
far in spring, only we
weren’t just trying
out, we were reporting.
Maybe not Winter Haven
or Sarasota, but we saw
all the pros beside us who
could win one in the clutch,
save one with a leap,
homer into the upper deck.
But we would show them.
One winter dreaming could
shape a kid into a star.
Last season’s fatal strikeout—
a game transforming double;
the missed hard grounder—
a quick turn around the horn
retiring the side. The coach
steps up to an ungroomed plate,
tosses high the first white ball
for fielding and crack, it’s coming
at you. Spring! Spring at last
toward your chance to make
the team. Except for that one
wet spot along the baseline—
the slip, the fall. And then
the long walk home, slapping
the mud from your dungarees,
swearing, “Next time, next time,”
the newness of the season
already gone.

NICKEL PACK

“Take a quarter from my bag,” ma would
tell me, “and get me some cigarettes.”
At six, happy to walk two blocks on my own,
I’d head for Woodsy’s Variety Store where
Mr. Woods handed me Chesterfields
without asking me what brand. Good days,
I’d get that extra nickel for chocolate cigarettes,
the box a perfect knockoff of Lucky Strikes.

I’d stand on the corner, the cig hanging from
my lip until some adult would double take.
Then the proof that I wasn’t really lighting up,
unwrapping the chocolate stick to gulp it in.
Only ma did light at least a pack a day
from when she started hiding her own
packs in a tin where she could sneak
and smoke them after grammar school.

Ask me if tobacco kills and I’ll brag for her
and her school friend, sixty years didn’t
hurt a bit, though she did quit as a gesture
when she turned seventy. (Her friend,
at eighty-six, still smokes like a chimney.)
Then, there are the dozen friends she misses,
each choked to death.

SPLENDID SPLINTER

(September 28, 1960.)

Funny, I remember
being there when
Ted Williams hit his
last homerun, circling
the bases—the miracle
he was—his last at bat
a homer, and how
he circled but never
tipped his hat, until
he turned third base
toward home, looking
straight up at the press
and spit. He spit.

EINSTEIN

(“Imagination is more important than knowledge.”
—Albert Einstein.)

As a kid, I saw your
white-haired halo
as my inspiration.

“What are you, some
kind of Einstein?”
bullies baited.

They meant it as
a taunt. I took it
as a compliment.

THE STORE OF KNOWLEDGE

When I went to graduate school it was
understood that a Ph.D. would “add
to the store of knowledge.” It started
with seminars, led to a dissertation,
culminated in papers published over
a long career. Walking behind two
graduate students in the quad at The
Johns Hopkins University, I heard one
ask the other, “Who are you studying
with?” “Dr. Z. He’s the world’s greatest
expert on thirteenth century Venetian
bills of lading.” “Wow!” What could be
purer than that, I thought—knowing
everything there is to know about
something so obscure? I would be
a scholar adding some fact or theory
to raise the value of all our stock,
a process as familiar as my father’s
store where I watched the register,
loved its ring. Now college jobs are
mostly adjunct. Just teach. So much
for the admonition, “Publish or perish.”
But somewhere students must still
ply the shelves, or access digital libraries
to synthesize ideas, furthering careers,
enriching the world with thought.
Or is the academic store of knowledge
closed, bankrupt by too many Ph.D.’s?

THE CLASSICS

“When you are older,” my world
literature professor said, “You’ll
go back and appreciate the classics.”
I had just finished Proust’s
trilogy and wondered, “Why?”

The same rubric filled college
days with all of Shakespeare,
Plutarch’s Lives, Bunyan’s
Pilgrim’s Progress. Now, I’m
clearly older and my Harvard
Classics are just as hard to read.

There is another wisdom
that defines enlightenment
as freedom from thoughts.
I’ve sold most of my library—
two thousand books.

I feel immensely lighter,
if not smarter. The Classics
may be the next to go.

BRAINS AND TALENT VS. PERSISTENCE

If I had half his brains,
I always thought I could
be somebody. And that one—
what talent! But my genius
friend never could fit in—
drinking, drinking until
he shrunk his brain
to ordinary and my
truly-gifted friend
couldn’t focus, bumping
into thing after thing,
leaving me, “Axelrod-
the-poet,” still doing
what I have to, still
hoping I will win.

THE NEW LANGUAGE

here’s how the new language
will be spoken

[a series of silent twists and turns]

and poems will be read like so

[silly hand gestures, hopping]

let all language have
a single common sound

[an infant crying]

affixed to every word
or much like a patient

[wheezing]

waiting for a last breath

know language is always changing
listen carefully to each
steer bleating before
the butcher’s knife

accept this small greeting

[two hands make a bird flapping]

as my sincere apology
for any words I’ve ever said
and allow me please to end
this on a happy note

[one finger pointing definitively down]

PERFORMANCE POETRY

Maybe rap is poetry. It certainly
rhymes—clever, rhythmic. It’s
beyond me. I can’t do it. Then,
there are Slams and Smack-downs.
Ouch. They sound so violent.
I know, I know, the lyrics are—
full of insults, violence, misogyny.
It’s not as if I want to censor.
It’s just the same for me with
poetry as music. If all it is
is loud, I don’t find it charming.
I’ll go with sotto voce, andante
(non tropo). It’s performance
enough for me if the words
express sincerity.

SPAM

Eddie Goss tells me “You
don’t have to spend more.”
Rolando Clinton “Is deep.”
Doggy Steps offers “Special Pricing.”
Then there are Theresa and Melissa,
neither of whom will say RE what.
Brenda Coleman says she’s “No. 1
for penis enlargement.” Mrs. Gifty
J. Abavana has told me “URGENT!
Please respond.” TheGrantNowCenter
says there is “Money for you as soon
as today.” Wow! I’ve won a free
Toshiba Laptop. Seventeen
of these in just an hour since
I last checked. A way for lonely
men to wile away their days.
Alternately, there is Brain Power
offering to “Upgrade your brain
with Brain Bullets,” or Timothy
or Johnny if I want to swing that way.

CLICHÉS

Let a smile be your umbrella,
but bring a change of clothes
as you will still get wet, which
leads to pneumonia, death
and the realization that
there is no afterlife
and then where is a smile
when you need it?

Waste not, want not,
except when it comes to
those little batteries in watches,
calculators and kids’ toys, which
cost more to replace than
the item itself so you just have to
throw the damn things out.

A penny saved is a penny earned,
until inflation, which is much higher
than most savings account interest
and then there are those banks that
take a maintenance fee
below a certain balance.

Old saws cut true,
but only if you keep them
sharpened and preferably oiled
or else they’ll bind and bite you
so badly you’ll be at the Emergency
Room for hours where they charge
four hundred fifty dollars for
stitches and the tetanus shot,
which could have been avoided
if you replaced the stupid old saw.

A friend in need is a friend indeed,
but then you owe them back,
and don’t you know they’ll call you
every time they have problems:
“He’s screwing someone behind my back.
I’m leaving him. Can I stay with you?
Come help me move my stuff.”
Geeze, with friends like that,
who needs enemies, but that is
a different cliché.

WHAT OLDER MEANS

Waking up is like
“recovery.” Nurse,
more strong tea!

The mirror wants
its hair tint. Whose
wrinkled eyes are those?

Younger women are
other people’s daughters.
Older women, all too old.

AARP discounts
are an entitlement.
Sixteen imaginary.
Seventy becoming real?

ABS

My abs are hiding somewhere
under the speckled belly
I’ve let accumulate. I’m not
fat, but not fit. Gravity is
to blame as much as
gluttony. Things just
hang, stretching over
a belt buckle so I
must master the pants-
button polka—a clever
step to undo my belt
so no one notices
my great relief when
my stomach is released.
Embarrassed, I take
to doing leg lifts,
stretched across my bed
in my underwear each
morning, with legs dangling—
nothing you really want
to see in imagistic poetry.
And it is working. Things
are slimming down, tightening
up, maybe even producing
ABS OF STEEL. Only
it’s too much work compared
with just buying the bigger sizes.
WHERE TO CALL HOME

My kids bragged “Grandma
lives in England. We take
a ferry boat across the sea.”
After all, Grandma had
that funny accent. No
difference to them that
it was New England.

Forty years and I can’t
say where I’m from.
Long Island doesn’t do it.
Never New York, though
that’s not about geography.
I grew up north of Boston
so there’s no way I fit in
Yankee territory.

What is this place,
unlike my dreams
where I’ve logged
most of my years?
There’s sea and sand,
but it’s not vacation
and rarely warm
enough to feel at home.

NEED TO KNOW

“I farted,” my daughter says
with a grin bigger than the air.
I tell her, “I don’t need to know.”
What people tell me is only as
important as a flea. If truth
creeps up on me, I’m inclined
to swat it. Perhaps it’s age—
my sagging jowls, visible
if I’ve shaved my beard,
the aching when I do work
that used to feel like play.
Lately, I don’t want to know.
She’s only ten, but she knows
everything. “I just farted,” I
tell her. Her nose, freckles
and all, wrinkles automatically.
The science of truth is
called scatology.

YOU SAY VISIT MORE OFTEN

Once a month or so I see the baby
crawling, standing, walking—
a developmental chart of changes
and that bright red hair longer,
longer, long enough for ribbons.
But not often enough for her
to come to me or say my name.

Even the four-year-old grows
more clever, bargaining “conditions”
if I ask her to do something. Her
face takes on the early you
that scrunched in our back yard
with pads of paper drawing everything
you saw with sun-softened crayons.

You, who won’t even hang a clock
because ticking is always toward
an ending, are also someone else—
older, skin drier, moving stiffly,
speaking through teeth that broke
before their time. Parents don’t
celebrate their children’s aging.

Your husband limps home
from work, victim of a job
that keeps him outdoors even
in the coldest weather. His grip
is hard. How long can hands
endure before they’re damaged?
He caresses you and the kids.

If I visited more often, the changes
would be masked the way even gross
deformity becomes familiarity.
But these gaps in time between us
are greater than a daughter marrying.
I’ve learned not to mention what
I see. Be glad. Don’t encourage me.
FOR HIS SON WHO TOTALED THE CAR AGAIN

He calls at 5:23 a.m. from Hancock not saying
which state. “Dad, I totaled the car.” Good
news, bad news. He is, after all, speaking.
“Closed my eyes a moment on a curve.”

Only two years before, that beautiful
old Lincoln totaled—an impact so fierce
the frame bent in a V. He also walked away
with only bruises, even partied later.

They say trouble comes in threes. Cats have
nine lives. Men aren’t friends until they’ve
fought over money and women. What is
the wisdom for fathers? Apples falling?

If he survives the next crash, let him not call me.
Rather, bring his bruised body home, which
I will prodigally hug—being an errant son
myself and clearly a major role model.

WALKING HER TO THE BUS

(March 3, 2004.)

K through 6, dutifully if not always
joyfully, her hand in mine, and I
in sweatpants with half-closed eyes,
grumbling that school starts too early.

But kids can disappear even a block
from the house. And then, there was
that eleven-year-old, abducted
and murdered in Florida.

Lately she’s asked me to hurry
away as the bus turns the corner
down the street so other kids don’t
tease that her father still walks her.

Finally, it’s, “Can I go alone?”
“I’ll watch you from the window.”
She slumps under her heavy
book bag, ignoring me waving.

I watch not just until she climbs
aboard, but until the bus completely
disappears. She’ll ask to be away
much more now.

SLEEPING BEAUTY

(The average yield on passbook savings accounts, in 2007,
was about .4% while inflation was at least 4%.)

She stays up all night with pay-per-view
then sleeps past noon. Can we go
to the mall? Can I go to a friend?
Can we do something?

“Make her get a job,” my friends
say. Even her friends tell her she
has it too good. “I have to
work. What about you?”

Seven summers I wasted working
junky jobs. All I earned and saved
didn’t pay for a year of college. What
was that about? What a waste.

“They learn the value of money,”
I keep hearing. Not. Inflation
Unteaches that. As if a penny
saved were a penny earned.

“Working a lousy job will make
you want to stay in school.” Bogus.
Any fool knows digging ditches sucks.
You don’t need to suffer to be smart.

Let her lie abed. A lifetime
of work will follow. For now,
if dad can afford it, let her be
spoiled.
THREE DAYS

“There are only three days left,” she says.
She’s been moody and argumentative
for days, but now she’s serious. Her
shoulders slump, dark rings around
her eyes, “School is over in just three days.”
I remember busses full of kids throwing
their papers out, screaming from
the windows. Summer was a cauldron
called “freedom” and I could stew in it
forever—all the heated days on bikes
and freezing dips at Dane Street Beach
and staying up late for fireworks,
stinking of salty sweat in playgrounds
where dust was dessert after hotdogs
and beans. And she is sad—that school
will end? “Why is that bad?” I ask. “It’s
going by too fast,” she says and the fifty
years between us disappear. We are peers.

CLEARLY WHITE SOCKS

He’s a big boy now—full-grown
if baby-faced—walking across
a parking lot in white sweat
socks. His mother waits
in the old red Hyundai. Clearly,
she’s soccer-track-baseball mom.
Clearly, he’s earnest about
practice—holding his white
cross trainers in one hand,
his book bag with the other.
Maybe he’ll get a sports
scholarship—except how bright
do you have to be to know
you are ruining your socks?
Clearly, he’s not the one
who’ll try to wash them.

GIRLS’ TRACK 400-METER

These girls lined up in
columns waiting for
their turn. Grandparents
squinting into the sun.
“Is that her?”
“Looks like her.”
The “Ready. Set.”
The gun. The dash
to make it to lane one.
The ambitious little
one in glasses.
The long-legged, lanky
plugger. The fast
blond passing
down the stretch
as grandpa hollers,
“Meghan! Meghan!”

BIG BOY ON A BICYCLE

The big boy on the bicycle
pedals standing. The blue
dirt bike fit him for thirteen
not sixteen. Hurrying to hand-
ball behind the high school,
hanging out, talking girls.
The bike’s small frame
renders him a circus clown,
but learners can’t drive
on their own. He’s lucky
he’s alone except for one
person taking notes.
If I were a photographer,
he’d be snapped, or if I were
a painter, I’d render him
a modern Icarus pedaling
too close to full-grown.

NINE HAIKU, SIX TANKA

JANUARY 31

Bright sun on ice slicks
crocuses through thawing ground
January thaw.

WET SMILE OF EARLY SPRING

Gales laughing at my
window, light ripples of rain
down the glass. Open
the window a crack, a gust,
brash as a sneeze in the face.

FIRST PRACTICE Baseball field, wet dirt
drilled with spring worm holes not spikes. Two budding players.

BOY ON A BOOGEY BOARD

Boy on boogey board
gravity liquidity
speeding along waves.

GRAY SUMMER WEEKEND

On sunny days it’s
mandatory barbecue,
kids whining for beach.
Gray Sunday, threatening rain—
skip this week’s yard work. Sleep late.

EMBARRASSMENT OF RICHES

Trellis roses grow
so dense they close the pathway.
I don’t fertilize.
Who’d believe too much beauty?
It’s stern pruning or grow wild.
PECONIC BAY SEPTEMBER

A million jingle
shells, currency of warm bays,
not just for children’s
pails. String them to play tunes in
light breezes, gold in bright sun.

LEAF SOUP

Gusty southern breeze
moisture mixed with maple leaves
mashed by passing cars.
BUSY STREET

Bedroom an island
cars passing are waves washing
ashore on wet nights.

EIGHTY DEGREES IN OCTOBER

Indian summer
maple tree sheds yellow leaves
I take off my shirt.

BLACK CAT

Nature made the black
cat softer, invisibly
slipping through moonlight.

FALL NORTHEASTER

This is just a test
drenching rain not snow, two months
from now a blizzard.

RECYCLE

Food scraps rot beneath
a blanket of new fall leaves—
mulching creates life.

MY DAUGHTER

She holds my hand, leans
on my shoulder, says, “I’m not
sleepy.” Her eyes close.
I held her when she was two.
Teenagers need comfort, too.

BEGGAR

Sprawled on the sidewalk,
he taps a paper cup, coins
rattling. Ragged shirt,
stained shorts, greasy hair. He looks
in each tourist’s guilty eyes.

UPS AND DOWNS

Down south the sun works
harder, conscious of its
reputation. Back north
the sun barely tries.
If some ice melts by mid-
day it just refreezes by late
afternoon. Down south
the sun can tempt you
to nap all afternoon.
Back north a windchill
converts even strong sun
to a deep freeze.
Down south the sunburn
index is called a tanning scale.
Back north it’s UV glasses
against the glare of snow.
Down south …

GIVE ME LIBERTY

I’m standing in the Liberty Tree Mall
with a fist full of twenties from the ATM,
which always feels like magic to me,
putting in plastic and getting real money.
I’m early shopping for the holidays
and every little kiosk is filled with
things for five, ten, fifteen dollars,
made in China. I’m saying to myself,
“Balance of payments,” and “There goes
America.” These things are made
in sweatshops by workers glad
for their forty cents per hour.
I’m thinking, “What the hell?
Spend money,” drifting from store
to store, accumulating plastic bags,
themselves non-biodegradable,
as if I or the kids or anyone needs
more stuff. People in Afghanistan,
in Africa—heck, people everywhere—
are starving, dying, as I buy my
carved Omphalos (made in India),
place it where it jiggles next to
the Pakistani leather pouch,
the Chinese checkers, the Korean
ginseng tea. It’s not for me to save
us from the global economy.

FLORIDA FLORA AND FAUNA

1.
Hibiscus blossoms—
crepe-paper flowers—
upon inspection,
real.

2.
Palm trees
wear their rings
with pride, unlike
deciduous who only
reveal their age
post mortem.

3.
Pelicans
in feathered
strings along
a thousand miles
of coastline.

4.
Schizophrenic weather—
pouring on one
side of the street,
sunshine the other.

5.
Old men
dressed as dandies
for the women in
their dreams
who never age.

6.
Old women
rejoicing when
kids fly down,
but only if their
tickets are sent
free.

7.
See them sitting
swabbed with sunscreen,
smelling of coconut,
sucking sugarless
candies.

8.
Some see rainbows
in the brackish
sprinkler mist.

PRINCESS OF LAKE RONKONKOMA

I’ve seen her swimming out
beyond the ropes to cross
the lake, her flowered
bathing cap bobbing
above brown water,
her towel on the sandy
shore, anchored by beach
sandals and a net bag.
When she was in her twenties,
they labeled her a feminist.
By forty, never married, she’d
landed a job in middle-
management. Now she’s
over sixty, but she can
still outswim even much
younger guys. Legend says
one drowned just trying
to catch up with her.

MONEY IN PROPERTY

He purchased a wreck
of a house on a small,
wild lot, but in the best
of neighborhoods.
A summer bungalow
where fancy homes
abound. Location,
location, location.

Only the architect
screwed up the plan.
The contractor doesn’t
show up to finish work.
The costs are going up
and up. His stomach churns.
He sits on a stump of an old
oak they had to cut to build
a second story. The palm of his
hand is bleeding where he
just removed a splinter.
He could dump out, but
this is his investment.

Drawings of the finished
house are on a table left
by the previous owner:
bay windows, cedar siding,
rhododendrons and roses
for the landscape. If he dies
doing it, he’s going to
finish the place.
FOR GEORGE WALLACE

(… who writes a poem a day.)

He wakes at sunrise
and by 06:18:51 EDT he’s
written another poem. How?
Today about revolution
in South America.
Tomorrow, a crack
in the linoleum
and the next day
and the day after that.
Is it the family home
he’s reoccupied with
little renovation, the lawn
where the brick paths are
obscured by grass, the stream
reemerging in wet weather
at the low point of the yard?
Perhaps it’s the teenager
whose name will preserve
the line, his gear gradually
enveloping the pine den.
Or the wife among whose
talents she counts staying
with him? Something
nurtures poetry. Maybe
just Long Island and
the steady reaching of the sun
toward land, sea, land.

FOR MAX WHEAT

(Poet Laureate of Nassau County.)

Yes, we want immortality,
want to believe in life
after anthologies,
still hope to write that one
immortal line to assure
we will never be forgotten.

Six billion people inhabit
this earth. Six billion people
will die within one hundred
years, each death a mystery.

Yes, some poems outlast
their authors. For others
a kind life is good enough.
I’ll testify for you, good friend,
whom I’ve never known to do
a cruel thing in all creation.

ON NOT BEING FAMOUS

(For Aaron Kramer.)

Rabindranath Tagore, it’s said, wrote ten
thousand poems, but on his deathbed
sighed he’d still not written the one he wanted.

Emily Dickinson left two thousand
jewels to sort and weigh, and all the critics
amazed she’d kept her poems secret.

Bill Stafford didn’t turn to verse
until mid-forties—no juvenilia—
leaving us just five hundred poems.

Once a student asked Aaron Kramer:
“You’ve written so many books, won
so many prizes, why aren’t you famous?”

Shoulders drooping, he explained,
“I’ve stopped trying to be famous.
Now, I just try to write the perfect poem.”
ADRIANA

That much talent and so young
not to mention the push of artist
parents. Careful gal, it’s too
amazing—and that little twist
of your head when you perform
like a shrug at how you got here.
Already friends of yours are lost
to prescriptions or a smoky haze.
You’re feeding on poem-blossoms,
tossing off sugar-shot, every
line sweet—hard to miss.
Caution! I’ve seen it before,
the kid full of talent, too much
too soon. Only you’re too practiced,
the mic pressed to your lips
like a lover, the black costume,
the wide-eyed stare at anyone
who would dare to doubt.
Maybe the real “beware”
is for the old guard,
witness to your coming.

ENERGY FARM

(For Tom Stock at his Pine Barrens home.)

The lettuce knows and the basil, green-
housed, encouraged until they are ready
early for a Long Island spring,
put to bed in rich mulch as a reward,
cultivated just enough to draw the juices
from a deeper aquifer pumped upward
through sandy soil toward sun. Give
this man an old deer bone, a turtle shell
and he’ll make art of it. Give him a rusty
railroad spike, a bent pitchfork,
a frame, he’ll make art. Even weeds,
dried grass woven, set in a paper slurry,
without a word, become his poems.

The black walnut grows wiser watching
him as he recreates his land. Not that he
owns it, though he has traced back through
chain searches to king’s grants, to native
hands. The strawberries know, sniffing
damp straw in their own beds, reddening
in their time to taste like poems.
What he creates, what he grows, is better
than a grocery with its truck-worn, over-
processed foods. For him, it’s food for
the spirit—an energy farm, a channel
for chi, a meditation in the moss, a pine
knot, all that’s left after an ancient tree.

SONNET FOR SANDY

You scare me or perhaps I scare myself.
Intensity—who runs five miles a day
at fifty, goes to work at six and stays
till six, then dancing class? No magic elf
could keep that pace. And I am glad to stay
in bed till noon, where I have everything
I need except a lover. Still, I cling
to being single firmly as you say
he’ll pay who cheated—thirty years undone.
We both are from a place we’d rather change.
We’re careful not to date someone deranged,
agreeing that our visits have been fun.
I watch you spin through your activities.
Am I your latest hobby or a tease?

MUSHROOMS

(For Jozo.)

1.
You leap from
your car, run
into the woods
shouting “Chicken
of the Woods.”
Laetiporus sulphureus—
sliced, diced, fried,
a meal for days.

2.
I saw an Alfred
Hitchcock show
where grow-your-own
mushroom kits were
a Martian plot
to conquer earth.

3.
You pick them from
your lawn—rinsed,
boiled in beef broth.
You swear you know
every one that’s edible.

4.
For me they’re only
stark protrusions
in verdant lawn,
a ring where an old
oak stump is buried.

5.
For you they are
seats for fairies,
food for thought.

6.
I wash my hands,
afraid of illness
after I touch them.

7.
For you it isn’t even
“magic mushrooms.”
A free meal for a man
who has known hunger.

A BENCH IN THE PARK

(For George Zimmerman, Romanian photographer.)

I reached what some called a pinnacle—
Chief of Cinematography—but for whom?
Ceauşescu, the tyrant of Romania. To party
with a butcher one must love meat.
So, I would take my camera, walk off
alone to shoot a roll of film—of random
things, snow drifts, a lamppost, empty
streets. One night, I framed a circle
of benches in the park with one bench
pulled out of line to sit akimbo in
the center. I took care to do the work
through the lens, my hallmark, so
I could print the perfect shot without
the slightest cropping. Back in the lab,
bathed in the red light of my preoccupation,
I printed “Park Benches,” and showed it later
to a friend. “Destroy it,” he whispered,
“They will say it advocates nonconformity.”
And so I did, and vowed that very night
I’d flee, leaving status, power, carrying
only a few gold coins, the clothes on my
back and the negative of a park bench
that was not in its proper place.

STEPHEN HAWKING FLOATED

(As reported in the New York Times, April 27, 2007.)

British physicist Stephen Hawking
floated yesterday inside a jet
[though all predictions said
that he would die twenty years ago]
during a flight from Kennedy
Space Center in Florida that
[made real the relativity of time
for one who, writing its history]
allowed him to experience
weightlessness. Dr. Hawking,
[so skinny his brain weighs more
than most other parts of him]
sixty-five, who has Lou Gehrig’s
disease, said before the flight
[using the voice amplifier that
reduces him to a robot’s tin]
that it would be a relief from
his life in a wheelchair
[If anyone should be allowed to escape
the gravity of things, it’s he, who]
afterwards, said “It was amazing.”

FIVE THOUSAND UP FRONT

(For my attorney.)

She sits in the wooden chair,
hands on each arm like Elizabeth
ruling England—her leather attaché
a puppy at her feet. Now
that she has described herself
to the stenographer, she speaks
in short, tight syntax, barely
reading from the yellow pad
balanced on one bare knee.
She’s waiting for the chance
to fire her practiced quips,
reassuring her client in
a whisper, “We’ve got them.
They can’t live through this!”
Later, her secretary can
gauge excitement by
the frequency the ballpoint
tore her courtroom notes.
The first “thou” buys her
next designer suit.
centered

[This poem should be published centered on the page.]

(for j.d. aka rabbit)
a master once ordered
his disciple to stand on one foot
tell everything you know
i know i need you even now
that you are gone you
strange girl
long-haired, old jeans sixties signal
for rebellion ny girl who never
could love just one

with your theory of expanding love
free love love-in
if you can’t have the one you love
then love the one you’re with

if i thought of you you’d call
psychic connection heart connection
loving you who
were too far out crazier than anyone
patron saint of lsd
keeper of the pharmacology
seeker of thrills

old flame i miss you who
couldn’t or wouldn’t remember
half of what you did like
realism and reality in the works
of alejandro casona your

senior college paper proving
you bilingual and a genius

small town minds
couldn’t expand enough
for you who loved the whole world
more than any one man

there’s not much to say
at sixty-four or five you
fighting that good fight for years
wondering if a mosquito bite
would bring on the long-fought end
the doctor telling you be ready
you are dying just as you
booked a tour and climbed a mountain

some commit a psychic suicide
look fine one day
give up and die the next

you had more than a will to live
a love of life
one foot high in the air
balanced waiting
the ball of the left foot
tender after so long
but if you put just one toe down
it would be over

you didn’t plan to live
forever you cried as i held you
but you said you’d like
a few more years

you up in vermont on a mountain
you bought in a castle you built
you balanced carefully
for as long as you could
then found a quicker way to go
as if any of us know
as if anyone is centered

what’s ever the secret
it’s well kept
if anyone knows it’s you

LEO

(For Leo Connellan, Connecticut Poet Laureate.)

He was as poor as a lobster pot
and had no mother-love at six
or seven when she died
and the aunt and cousin
he lived with didn’t care
much either, which probably
accounts for how he grew
so tough for a poet. Tough
as the hands of shell shuckers
in the oyster factories or men
who pull up the traps
from the impenetrable
waters of his native Maine.

ADA

(For Patti Tana and her mother.)

You sit with a quilt across your lap,
raiment for a queen whose reign
at ninety-four includes a world
of wisdom. You’ve lived from Alaska
to Florida, teaching by your good
example even if it took till your sixties
to get a formal degree. Once, when
a man appeared at your classroom
door, you asked, “Can I help you?”
“You did,” he said, “I was one of them,”
nodding toward the class and he told
your students how wonderful you are.
Now your seven-windowed room
looks across your daughter’s pond
to distant tracks. “I bless them all—
the men, women, children on the train,”
you pronounce, holding up a hand
in benediction. “My father said,
‘Keep love in your heart.’” You
carried your infant daughter in
a basket on your lap cross-country.
You lived his words so sixty years
later you could watch her be
a poet and as good a woman.

YOUR FATHER

(For Paul Agostino.)

No, I never met him, but
I picture Paul and feel
like I did. He loved to cook,
made his own wine, grew
tomatoes. Those details
I think I remember though
they may be just Italian
associations. Paul spoke
of him with love. What
more testimonial for a man
than that from a son?

Then there’s the son—
bold, irreverent, macho,
but with that long wild
hair, the Jesus beard,
and oddly quite religious.
It took some fathering
to build that character.

One detail I do recall,
boasted as Paul walked
out of the bathroom at
my house: “My father
actually invented a stink-
proof toilet.” That’s genius
enough to impress other
fathers, other sons.

YOUR FIFTIETH BIRTHDAY

Your mother said she never
wanted you, called you names.

“Dark chicken. Your skin
is too dark. Ugly girl.”

Now you slather sun block.

“I could kill you if I wanted.
No one would care.”

You tremble as you place
your duty call to her.

“Who wants girls? Your
brothers are my children.”

Fifty years of trying
to succeed for mom.

“You can’t be my child.
They gave me someone else’s.”

Living with a Mom-God
required you to be perfect.

Now you’d rather be
alone than wrong.

RICHIE

(For Racin’ Rich Johnson, who died
April 1, 2006, at Mountain Speedway.)
They say, “Tell your priest and lawyer
the truth,” but who you really need
to trust is your mechanic. “Do whatever
it needs,” I’d say and leave the key.
My car, more so, my kids’. It’s one thing
to confess, another to be stranded on
the roadside. A man who can save you
from that truly works miracles.

Of course I felt a kinship for him. My
father was an auto mechanic. Richie felt
like family. But more than that, he loved
his work, laughed it, played with it, took
the kind of pride few ever do, to see a car
pull out with problems solved. When he
raced, Enduro cars, he’d help his
competition fix their cars and win.

Old cowboys say they’d like to go out
with their boots on. Richie, we wanted
you to live, but what a way to go,
racing toward the front on some
mountain speedway. All the folks
you helped, all the ones who loved
you, rooting for you to win.

DAVID, MY NAMESAKE, MY FATHER

(For Dave Ignatow.)

Rose said the closer you were
the crueler, and wept that you
publicly declared affairs. She
gave my daughter her first gold
crayon and a love of art. You
gave me a shot—as a poet
of reckoning, but not without
a price—living by each pro-
nouncement of what you thought
was proper poetry until I just
rebelled at your advice and put-
downs. Why didn’t I accept a father
could be flawed? I loved your wit,
welcomed your kindness, burned
your books and sent you ashes,
stating, “I won’t be abused.” My
bad. Our loss—you a loyal son,
me a benefactor. After that,
of course, we didn’t speak
though for a moment—when
you sat in repose just before
one reading—I approached you
to apologize and we both knew
it would be meaningless.

THE OLD EXPATRIATE

He sits with his Chinese wife
watching their three-year-old boy
swinging in a Hong Kong park.
No need to hide his pride—
she’s half his age and their
boy is gorgeous. Granted he’s
living halfway around the world
and barely speaks the language.
He’s a joint-venture specialist
who’s made a buck on property,
but when he pulls out a Hong Kong
thousand-dollar note for her
to shop while he goes back to work,
she slaps his hand. An Anglo man
shouldn’t give a Chinese woman
money publicly. Someone might
think that she is a prostitute.
FOR ALL THE SONS OF PROPHETS

(For Dr. Robert Schenck.)

Abraham, you created Samuel
Brandwin, One of Earth’s Children,
a novel that polemicized, and Robert
who feared and loves you still. Abraham,
you thought the Party was your party
to celebrate your anger at aristocracy.

With thin gray hair, your bony hand
on a bedrail, you waited for your end
without embracing him. Abraham,
we know fathers as reflected by their
sons—Robert, large of heart, a doctor
of mind, doctoring what a father did.

Abraham, your son has lived with
ponytail and without. Abraham,
we know our sons are deflected off
their fathers, but who told you
to make that sacrifice? When you
were called, who said you had to answer?

HOW DOTTY SAVED THE DAY

She always fancied she was a beauty
and Bucky, her hubby, had to agree.
She’d have killed him if he didn’t.
It was, however, a beautiful match.
So when he collapsed in the hallway
outside their door, she ran for
the toilet plunger and thumped
his chest until the paramedics came.

They carried him to the ambulance,
but she said she had to get dressed
up so she’d look good when she
went out in public. A neighbor
leaned in to tell her, “Bucky’s gone,”
meaning they’d taken him
to the hospital. She called
everyone to say, “Bucky died.”
She would have been gorgeous
for the wake, but instead they stayed
married for many years, proving
she had a real talent if she had
tried out for Miss America.

FOR THE CONSTABLE OF BELLE TERRE

You could have called to us. We
were seated on a rock just steps away
from the car, hugging by the harbor.
Or you could have walked over to share
the sun and breeze, the lapping
brine along the pebbled shore.
You could have just smiled at exactly
3:45 p.m. on a Tuesday when two aging
interlopers broke a rule and parked
where only residents are allowed.
Surely, you also ignore some rules.
The ticket was a disappointment,
but the kiss was worth all
seventy-five dollars.

EARLY QUITTING TIME

The Hispanic man in the black
tank top looks grateful when
I slow to let him cross,
jaywalking from the 7-Eleven
to the lawn-service truck
with his twelve-pack of Heineken
dangling from a tattooed arm.
Three friends wait in the cage
of a two-ton truck. It’s Friday,
dusk and a quick thunder storm
cut short their work. Now, wet
and pungent from the day,
they’ll down their brew outside
the group apartment, calling
to young women strolling
past their perch.
BLOCKBUSTER

The girl
clerking is round
as a beach ball, boy’s
short black hair, a noticeable
black shadow of beard populating
her chin. She comments on every movie
she scans, “Oh that’s a good one.
You’ll like the way this ends.
Are you sure you want
that one for kids?”
Clearly, she must
watch a lot
of movies.

BREAKDOWN

Nothing sadder than a man
on the roadside, car hood
open, radiator steaming
as he paces. This is not a sauna,
no towel wrapped around a neck,
no relaxed jowls or paunch—
mute tribute to a rich life.
Just a gray-faced man,
annoyed he let his AAA
lapse, his buddy on the way,
but when? The scowl at his
cotton jacket, too light for
a chilly autumn night.
Nothing to do but wait.
A car is nothing to hate,
though it does feel good
to kick it.
LATE TRAIN OUT OF MANHATTAN

(September 11, 2001.)

They stopped taking tickets
when the LIRR resumed
late afternoon. Just ran
the trains out of NYC
for those who hadn’t walked.
Earlier, the bridges swelled
with unaccustomed walkers—
a marathon of frightened men,
saddened women reminding
themselves to not look back
at columns of smoke, at what
was no longer there. By one a.m.
exhausted rescuers sitting
in stunned silence. At each station,
parking lots still too full of vehicles
waiting to confirm their owners lost.

ITED WE STAN

says the torn bumper sticker,
the red faded to a phantom pink
on its flag. Fraud and duplication
reduced the tally of the dead this day
to 2752, though three names more may
be fictitious. The flags that cropped
up everywhere are tattered rags
tacked on fences, dangling from
antennae. Tragedy isn’t meant
to last—just an evening show,
a good cry, then back to life
in all its detail. All those who
made a profit, raise your hand.
All those who died, don’t.
The clothing racks still hold
some T-shirts, “We Will
Not Forget,” 50% off.
SEPTEMBER 11 CEREMONY

(First anniversary at Ground Zero.)

As the list of names is read
dust from the cavernous floor
blows into faces, into eyes.
Dissonant violins play pop
music. Pols spout platitudes.
A nine-year-old girl blows
a gigantic bubble as her
father’s name is read—
ponytail, bangs, a new
American Girl dress.
She’s not aware she’s
on TV. If she weren’t
half an orphan, today she’d
be in school where you
aren’t allowed to chew
bubblegum. Whose
dust is blowing?

PREPARING FOR WAR

It’s best to practice drills
before the crisis. My daughter
says she knows this from the fire
that destroyed her school.
Her book bag was charred
when we retrieved it.

War is rarely as immediate.
That’s why they make her
salute the flag. But I design
my own test:

“Which would you rather be,
a dead hero or a dead coward?”

I ask my daughter hoping
she’ll think past their training.

“A dead hero,” she responds.
“Better answer, I’d rather not
be dead,” I say, but she dis-
agrees with me. I ask her:

“Suppose you passed a building
engulfed in flames, and, unthinkingly,
you rushed in and were killed trying
to save, perhaps, a kid?”

“You mean you wouldn’t try
to save me?” she asks. “You’re not
a hero for doing something stupid,”
I say, but now I have to think.

DUTY

It’s not just the medals on your Marine
uniform, or your shaved head, or even spit-
polished shoes. It doesn’t matter disciplinary
officers at your college don’t understand
that swearing like a Marine in class is
not your problem. Screw them for not
understanding. Your father
was a Marine, your grandfather,
and you say you’d do your duty even
if you knew the orders were wrong.
Semper Fi! Do or Die! A sheepish grin,
confounding your professor’s logic,
who asks you, “Why?” You went
to Iraq, he didn’t. You saw a best friend
die, so who is he to ask you? Now they
are paying for your education and you
want it, quickly, easily. The hard part
was getting here. Why are these civilians
trying to teach you something?

ABU BANANA

The banana is discovered hiding on a shelf together with others
green and hard who protest they mean us no harm. Separate the
banana from its bunch. Wrap it in a plastic sack until it turns soft
and bruises easily. Give the banana air, but give it no hope. Banana
you have no rights. No one knows you are here. You will be here
until you rot. We will strip you, taunt you with our mouths wet
and open. We will photograph the banana lubricated and near
a woman. Banana, your mother was a floppy-leafed tree. Your
father was a broken stick. We will hang you for all to see, keep
you and all your kind in pain until you surrender totally. Tell us
everything about bananas, confess your bananahood. Don’t deny
who you are.

Banana, why are you motionless and limp? Quickly, classify this
report. Let no one see these pictures. Blame the man with the machete
not the exporter. Lie if asked. What banana? I was only following
orders. No, there was no policy to torture bananas. This is an isolated
incident involving at best just a few low-level pickers. No, it won’t happen
again unless we have to. When might we have to? That too, is secret.
Secret. Wipe away all traces. Hail to the Top Banana and all his staff.
Truly our country, our United States, has gone bananas.

POLITICS

(For Adam Fisher.)

“Politics is the art of the possible,”
you say, working phone banks,
canvassing neighbors, contributing
what you can to a candidate we
both know is lacking, “But electable,”
you say. I’ve never voted—vowed
never to pick the lesser evil. You
risk arrest at protests, wince at my
inaction. Max Planck, the linguist,
said language is really meant to hide
our feelings. Given the impossibility
of truth, we’re left with haircuts,
wardrobe, a pretty face. You’re
a good looking fellow, very smart.
Why would you vote for
an ugly guy like that?

WE HAVE A RIGHT TO KNOW

We have a right to know
what books you read even
if the thought is not the deed.
We have a right to know
whatever you plan—about
the bags of nitrates in your
van. You’re buying diesel
in large cans. We have
a right to know. Your grass
is getting much too green.
You drive that truck. You
own that boat. Whatever you
are importing it doesn’t float.
We have a right to know, for
security’s sake, who you’ve
emailed. There’s a lot at stake.
Do you own that home? How
big is the loan? Who else lives
with you or do you live alone?
We have your medical records.
We know about the disease.
We’ve got a bug that hears
every sneeze. You can’t pass
off those packages as cheese.
There’s something in them
and we have a right to know.
We’re making a list and checking
it twice. Homeland security has
its price. It’s not just who’s
naughty and who’s nice.
We have a right to know.

APPROACH-AVOIDANCE

All right, do it. Start
a damn war. I’m ready
to root for smart bombs.
A missile a minute
for how many days?
There’s the plan. Kill
everyone. Let’s roll.

Paratroopers en route
to drops behind the Nazi
lines knew the grave danger,
sweated, chafed until
at last they sank to quiet
resolution—a classic example
of approach-avoidance.

But why give up? Enjoy!
We root for hurricanes.
No shame in wanting
total devastation. Fire-
works for an awestruck
crowd, nonstop until
the final boom.

VETERANS DAY

1.
The first time the Cossacks
came for Eliezer, his father
split his trigger finger,
rubbed the wound with dung.
That was all the physical
they gave—if you could pull
a trigger they’d drag you off—
so there he stayed until
the next time, when a horse
was waiting at the edge of his
village for him to gallop as far
from Vilna as a horse can go
then sail to a safer shore.

2.
His son, Sam, knew that Jews
were dying in Germany and the U.S.
truly didn’t care. 1940, and we
still weren’t ready for a war
so he made a plan in the form
of a son who would make him
the family’s sole support.
By the time that boob Roosevelt
saw big money wanted a war,
Sam had found a critical occupation
to ply at home. No need to run
toward or from some Hitler;
safer to work for peace at home.

3.
And his son, David, figured out
Vietnam just in time to avoid
the draft, counseling younger
students on ways out as simple
as wetting a bed, or feigning
migraines. Better not to carry
a picket sign. Protesting risked
a cracked head or even a bullet.
Just smile and meet in a secret
living room advocating peace.

4.
So when David’s little daughter
brought home a Veterans Day
sheet asking her father to tell how
he and his family before had served,
the story unfolded with perfect
harmony, succinct, and captioned:
“How the Axelrod Family
Never Served the Big Lie
Dulce et decorum est pro
patria mori.” Of course,
the teacher never asked
the little girl to read it.

WAL-MART

“Don’t take yourself so seriously,”
Sam said, but he had eighteen
billion then so he could afford
to laugh, dancing the hula in
his grass skirt on Wall Street.
If money can’t buy happiness,
at least you can suffer in
comfort. 1.2 million souls
work for the biggest box
around; someone has to suffer.

Imagine a country where you
sleep on hay while chickens
walk around you. The effluent
from the outhouse runs into
the drinking pond. Work lasts
sixteen hours every day. Why
not leave the farm for ninety
cents an hour? That’s more
than peasant pay. Third
World luxury—a bunk
bed in a workers’ dorm.

C-SPAN SENATE HEARING

Hillary reads her opposition
statement into the record.
Ashcroft grins like a fool,
hates her openly. This is
no debate and whatever they
call it, he isn’t hearing.
From what she outlines,
he’s either full of contra-
dictions or just lying.

She finally asks a question,
“Do you think your policies
need to be revised?”
If he could have her muti-
lated publicly then killed,
he would. He settles for
ignoring everything she’s
said—repeats his party line,
“The war is going fine.”

STATUE OF AN ORATOR

(Thomas E. Watson, 1856-1922, Georgia
State Capitol Building.)

He holds his left fist
in the air over his head.
His right fist is so low
it tempts us.

What words curl
on his bronzed lips?
What cause demands
this stance?

Academics call
an argument a debate.
Barrooms reduce
a disagreement
to a fight. He
strides forward,
shoulders stiffened.

Famous statesman,
frock-coated senator,
white supremacists.
The real argument
would be why
his statue still
stands here.
JIMMY CARTER

The statue of the Honorable
Jimmy Carter is casual,
collar unbuttoned, a relaxed
if tired face, lips pursed,
hands palms-up, held out as if
to ask, “How come?” He wasn’t
dumb—the opposite, in fact—
smarter than almost any other
president. Was he set up
to look bad? A Georgia boy,
a farmer, clearly a charmer
who rose to one term that
didn’t end well. His knees
bend slightly in a waiting
stride. Now he’s bronzed,
an icon or a peanut joke set
by the Georgia State Capitol.
BLACK AND WHITE

The last Confederate veteran died
in 1958. Georgia’s legislators fought
the removal of the Stars and Bars
from their state flag in 2003.
It’s everywhere, but not just Deep
South. In Virginia they troop out
the Gray for every holiday:
Thanksgiving means Confederate
uniforms; Christmas, put on the Gray;
Easter and the South will rise again.
Yes, Armenians still despise the Turks
for the genocide ninety years ago.
The Jews swear “Never again.”
For Native Americans there is Wounded
Knee. But these heroic feelings
for “Dixie” crawl on the skin—
akin to hearing Germans sing
“Die Fahne hoch.” We rail
at the Japanese for honoring war
criminals. We say we’ve outlawed
hateful words. The Gray, they say
isn’t just black and white, but why
shouldn’t we want secessionists
and slavers damned or just forgotten?
The South thinks it’s a captive nation.

THE RELATIVITY OF TRAGEDY

Journalists are taught
to localize the news.
700 Sudanese killed by
the Janjaweed—a two-inch
story, page 22. Make that
one American, it’s page 10;
change that to a local hero
and you’ve got front page.

The eleventh victim
killed by the D.C. sniper,
what a woman, a saint,
a tragedy. She survived
cancer, turned her life
around—bless her,
repeatedly on page 3.

Eleven people found
dead in a grain car,
cooked by the heat.
Their door latched
from the outside,
they never had a chance.
Just Mexicans. Page 43.

THEY HAVE BEGUN BLASTING

They have begun blasting
the small ridge across
the road from where he lives
having scraped eons of top soil
into a mound to apply like a poultice
later. It’s drill all morning, blow
three shrill whistles, then a low
rumble more than a bang that shakes
the foundation of his apartment house.
After the tan dust settles, a hive
of workers, weathered dozers,
trucks transporting boulders,
leaving a view he didn’t know
existed. So many years he never
saw the other side of this small
mountain. Soon they’ll be only
more people staring at a flattened
land from more apartment windows.
He wonders if amid the soil they
will re-spread, an arrowhead from
a more adventurous time will be
revealed to a person brave enough
to walk out and get dirty.

WHEN IS A DOOR A JAR?

The door is a jar when it holds
us in, warm against the surface
of the night while winter’s wind
winds around the house,
attempting to loosen the lid.

The door is ajar and nowadays,
with strangers curious, nefarious,
with stories of home invasion,
we’d better close it, lock it,
watch out we don’t invite
trouble—even as we live like
the insects kids keep in a jar.

When is a door a jar? When you
slam it so hard it jars the picture
frames of us holding hands
when we were in love, only now
one strides out furious and
the other bars the door.
THINGS WE SHOULDN’T DO

There are things I wouldn’t do
if you paid me. Too difficult,
dirty, dangerous. I wield a mean
chainsaw, the motor spewing toxic
fumes, the blade hungry for my
bones. But something sly inside
me would rather die than pay
the price of heating oil so I’m
out in the cold, runny-nosed,
sweating under layers of old
clothes, cutting, stacking. If
I were compelled to do this job
I’d plot my escape, but
on my own I’m glad.

There are things we do we
wouldn’t tell a soul. Too seamy,
selfish or sad. I once burned
a book, but only after I took
too long to read it. Marquis
de Sade, with all his madness—
the suffering of men, women,
tormented children. I avoid
horror stories, having suffered
enough myself. If I were
assigned to read them, I
would protest, but I’d fight
for our right to own them.

There are things we leave
undone, dangling like Damocles’
sword. Too troubling, too trying.
Procrastination is a guilty art
practiced by hand-wringers,
brow furrowers, but beyond
dalliance, some jobs should be
postponed. Debriding a wound
requires scraping, but left undone,
chance of gangrene and later
amputation. Burial or burning
are better quickly done, but I’m for
letting nature take its course.
What we do can make things worse.

TWO POEMS STUDYING GERARD MANLEY HOPKINS
DANDELION REWARDS

As I dandelion dawdled in my deadwood-cluttered
yard where dried branches from winter-pummeled
trees crosshatched the greening lawn, I found
a wounded bluebell, barely three bright
blue shells; a stunted daffodil, broken partial
yellow blossom—both damaged from their
foolish pushing upward when a too-mild
February tempted them to bloom.
And then, the tender tulips that you
tendered me last autumn I tucked
into moist-mulch beds trusting them
to color-cultivate, cup-comfort my slow
spring heart, now found near dead,
numbed buds never to bloom. Then I
stayed my knife hand, stainless plan
overruled. There amid profuse dandelion
blooms, I stood, armed, ready to cut them
only, but for them, no bright sun, stored green
spring scene, flower fields, bountiful yields
and I who had shunned them as a damned
breed, paid heed to their resilience,
a quintillience of yellow-luster spike-headed
bounty-blossoms. How arbitrarily, con-
trarily we praise some, damn some, even
kill some. So, I sat among them, sang
to them, thanked them for surviving
a taunting, flaunting winter so they alone
could bloom profusely cheering my
too-long cold heart.
FOR DAVID

David why keep grieving
over asters’ stems bent, leaving?
Flowers broken face down, you
holding a hand for comfort, could you?
Now, even sixty years older,
cruelties much bolder,
buildings blown up, bodies
pulverized, in God’s name. Please
tell me why I still recall asters cleaved?
You’d think they weren’t the same,
but cruelty is cruelty by any name
so when a bigoted neighbor broke flowers,
that memory, just like the Towers,
makes me cry for all that’s broken.
The death of innocence should be spoken.
MAN-EATING BLACKBERRIES

As he wandered in the woods he remembered
how he fished for perch in streams with a willow
pole and simple hook. A worm could lure him
a supper. He picked blackberries from wild
vines and they were sweeter than kisses.
Kisses when he was nine were from aunts
with sour breath. Blackberries under a hot
sun, despite little thorny branches, were from
heaven. When he reached for the branches
he didn’t expect them to pull back. The fish
gave in without a fight. A perch was never
more than a half-pound, at least the ones
in that little stream. The tug didn’t dislodge
him. He just stood wide-eyed. When the vine
kept pulling, it seemed more like a dream.
He let it lead him into the deeper patch.
What could happen? There was a sprig
of poison ivy, but he sidestepped it. Only
when the vine wrapped his neck was he
alarmed, but that only lasted a short time.
Then the blackberries themselves began to nibble.

THE GRAVITY OF EMOTIONS

(“Gravitation, so far, is not understandable
in terms of any other phenomena.”
—Richard P. Feynman, author of QED.)

Gravity is emotion, thus
a form of motion. I’m drawn
to you, not randomly, but by
your eyes, lips, thighs—
a body that attracts me.

Gravity, like love,
requires density. So we
ask, “Why me? Why do
you love me?” A universal
glue holds us together.

Call that “gravity,”
the need for us to
hold onto each other,
What seems inert is
infused with energy.

MORNING SONGS

Songs through your windows
are tires on rainy streets
already rushing to where
you need to be, like a desk
in an office where you poise
all day at a keyboard.
But there’s your bed
and a fleeting thought
of calling the boss with
some song and dance
that you can’t come in,
a euphemism for won’t.
You sing in the shower,
let the towel whisper
to your skin. A damp
breeze from an open
window coaxes you
to leave. A glance back
at your pillow, still
impressed by your
sleepy head, and it’s off
to the song of industry.

HOW TO APOLOGIZE
SOMETHING BEAUTIFUL

There’s a copper taste to a heavy cough
though more often that describes one’s
blood when a cut says “clean me,”
and, animals we are, we push a bleeding
finger into our mouth. There’s a heaviness
akin to the colonial tale of Giles Corey,
pressed to death for what sin? “More
weight,” he cried, to hasten his own death.
Drag the breath in through clenched teeth,
there’s a tingling in the gums, tightening
of tendons in the neck. They say strangulation
heightens sex. Remember the young
girl murdered in Central Park? “Beautiful,”
is that lifelong struggle for our breath,
ten each minute, resting, fifteen thousand
breaths each day, thirty-three million
before we die, unthinking, autonomic,
except this wheeze, which makes each
puff specific as a hip thrust. Yoga
teaches control of breath. Lovers pant.
Runners work to maximize the oxygen
in their blood. This cough, this need
to spit out life. Passionate breath,
sustaining breath, for which we
work, the taste of which we savor.

SOME THINGS SHOULD BE DEAD

Things that are in the wrong place—
bugs, particularly roaches. Ants if they
pester. Less so, spiders, unless they won’t
be let out when shown the door. Things
living in the way or, worse, carrying illnesses:
ticks, fleas. You do agree, then, some things
should be dead. Now let’s negotiate what
and when. We keep our poison in bags,
in bottles, aerosols. They shout us their
warnings with crossed bones and skull.
Euphemism 101: Not for internal use.
May injure the skin. Do not give to children.
But sometimes kids creep under a sink,
or open a medicine closet door.

So, children shouldn’t be dead. What about
adults? The recidivist rapist? The serial killer?
A terrorist—kill him. No big deal. By injection.
Watching the Oklahoma City bomber die,
a witness complained he looked too peaceful.
Watching an ant that walked through poison,
struggling to clean its antennae. Watching
the sprayed wasp curl into a ball and die
in seconds. Watching by the bedside
the of a friend whose eyes are so unblinking—
they have dried to yellowed paper. Waiting
for him to die. Wishing someone would
just kill him. Watching heaven
for a sign of how and when,
and who should die.

ELEVEN PEOPLE DEAD

Found in a grain car in Iowa,
names, gender not mentioned,
probably Mexicans. This day,
the D.C. sniper kills his eleventh
victim, shot to the front page,
her name, her life held up an
American tragedy.

“I’m sick from it,” says
our president, who lived
in Texas, helped arm the border,
speaks Spanish, pumps oil, Viva
Zapata! He’s upset about the sniper.
No one mentions eleven Mexicans.

Eleven is a lucky number,
but it’s hard to throw. Seven is
a one and six, a five and two, a four and three.
To roll eleven there’s only one way to go.
The sniper, knowing this,
already is reloading. The president
wanting a sure thing, rolls into
Baghdad to drink a cup of oil.
The Mexicans found dead
in an Iowa grain car may
or may not be deported.

SEARCHING FOR THE LIGHT

1.
Loneliness is my light.
Late at night I read by it.

2.
It’s one a.m. and the mercury
of street lights bleeds through my blinds.

3.
When you leave, a light goes out,
leaving me to fight the darkness.

4.
A little sleep and sunrise
slaps me awake.

5.
Relativity tells us
time and light are one.
6.
The ancients had sundials.

7.
She said her name meant light
that she had seen a vision
that she had a mission
to do only what was right.

8.
I said to her light and she put her hand
on light and we kissed light drew each
other down light to make light each
weeping light at the joy of touch
which made us light ever so
light floating higher still light
to merge with white light
of a searing noon sunlight.

9.
I need no other light than
your wide, dark eyes.

RIOPSIS

(The Egyptian god of punctuation.)

I saw Riopsis once on
the Arthur Godfrey show
but no amount of apology could
save him from those clichés.
The old red head turned out
to be a rampant anti-Semite
for all his pretense of humanity.
You’d think that would
have sunk him but it took
Julius La Rosa, pink-faced
boy, to topple old gravel
voice. I still watched him,
even after I learned I wasn’t
welcome at his oceanfront hotel.
We still had Pumpernicks
and the Miracle Mile. He’d
sing with the lung that worked,
and smoke and smoke and squeeze
another cup of tea from a Lipton
teabag that lasted fifty cups,
still coloring the water. “Brisk!”
he’d growl, touching the cup’s lip
to his, like a polite lover, pinching
the china handle like a nipple.
What a waste—all that attention
on a man not worthy. That’s
the nature of fame, though
there was revenge. Gloria—
though it was never clear
why she had to suffer on a bus
because of Arthur Godfrey.
Sic transit,

MYTHOLOGIZING

Call them flashbacks—
a street outside the Tianlun
Dynasty Hotel, Beijing,
a beggar boy pushed forward
by his father; a terrace on Mt.
Erice where the sun bakes
the prickly pear sloping
toward Trapani. Call it
post traumatic stress
remembering the Christian
brutality that bloodied
my brother and terrified
me: “Christ killer! Kike!”
delivered with a blow.
Call memory a hard
drive, its ones and zeros
not so easy to erase. Fossils
and bones, collectibles
and artifacts. Animal terror,
sexual pleasure—mythology
and art.

IF I HAD A MAGIC WAND

What would I do? I could turn
you into a bunny, but they aren’t
au courant. Hugh Hefner
hasn’t aged well—for all
his ogling, his eyes are
pouchy and his wit is flat.
Magic should be transpersonal—
healing the world, tikkun olam.
World peace would bankrupt
America—armies unemployed,
weapons-makers begging.
An end to illness—overpopulation.
True freedom—too
much responsibility. I’ve seen
what masses do: Picture a crowd
of rowdies tossing beer bottles
into the air to see who’s hit
when they come down—
typical. If I had a magic wand,
I’d shove it up the asses of
the gods—a cosmic enema—
payback for their false promises.

LITANY

I wish I could tell you life
is joyous, but those punished
for too long do not believe.
Pain is a faithful companion.
Who needs love?

Drugs can make one sicker.
Failure? Get used to it.
Then, there’s the paradox—
up worrying about sleep.

Suicidal? Not quite yet.
Hanging, too painful.
A gun—what a mess!
Perhaps the gas pipe’s
warm breath.
Despair is an incantation.
Despair is artifice. Despair
is a coal miner trapped
as his air runs out. Hear
the faint tap, tap, tapping
that signifies existence.

IMITATIONS OF LIFE

Traffic backs up at a broken light.

“It’s broken. What should I do?
If I drive through, a cop could
ticket me.” Maybe creep slowly?
There’s danger in the unfamiliar
role of leader. “What should I do?”

If someone doesn’t move soon,
the line will be dramatic, stretching
blocks, annoying the convenience
store patrons who slipped into
the lot for a quickie, a Slurpee,
a six-pack. Think! What to do?
You’ve come to a complete stop.
You’ve waited for four minutes.
No green for you. Someone is
honking. Take responsibility.

Slowly, edge to tum right. Don’t
go straight through. Let another,
braver person run a red. Make that
vast circle to find your way back
to where they say you need to be.

I’D LIKE TO THINK THAT I COULD KILL

I’d like to think that I could kill.
“When?” would be the question.
Not the boss, though he deserves
to die, or my neighbor who’s
an idiot. More likely anyone
who hurts a kid. “Thou shalt not,”
doesn’t cut it when a kid is killed.
Someone should pay. Not that
capital punishment deters, but
revenge feels good, and the bastard
who killed the kid wouldn’t
kill again. I’ve not decided how
I’d do it. Hanging would be quick.
Perhaps a knife, serrated; but if
time allows, the killer could be
drawn and quartered. Such a thing
should not be done for pleasure;
just suitably dramatic. I’d just
like to think I wouldn’t
kill too often.

PATRIOTISM

(Nearly no members of Congress
have children fighting the war.)

I’m for patriotism—
other people’s kids going
to war. It’s their country,
right or wrong. Let’s cheer
the smart bombs landing
as close to military targets
as they can, give or take
the killing of civilians.

I’m for dying for the U.S.
on any soil, particularly
where there is oil. Raise
that flag. Old gory, ’t is
of thee, sweet spot called
liberty, a target on the chest
of my enemy. Here’s the flag
that draped the coffin.

I’m proud to be an American,
glad to live where we
are free, except the ones
questioning the war. I saw
one beaten to the ground
but he should have known
not to protest around our
president who says we’re
winning.

THE ART OF WAR

Thirty-three pieces of art
in the Community Room of
the Locust Valley Library:
Mother-child portraits;
a child with two koalas;
an abstract evoking
“What do you see in
this ink blot?” Someone
who’s mastered the darkness
of a Rembrandt.
This poem
is not a list. This poem is
not a poem that makes you
“Wish I could just see
the painting.” This poem
is a description that sets up
a question: With all this talent—
library exhibits, galleries;
café song nights, choirs;
poetry readings; craft shows
full of invention—why is it
always war when there is
so much creativity?

COUSINS

Even the ones I don’t like
are still continuity, attesting
to how I grew up and who I am,
like cousin Lorna who once
blurted out, “Look at you,
all married up with children.
I always thought you were queer.”

I go home to taste the iodine
in the ocean air, to crunch
across muscle beds where
I wade in shallow, freezing
waters, remembering the time
I’d rather have drowned than
let that fat phony, cousin
Peter, swim out to the raft
and leave me alone on shore.

There are only five cousins
left that I visit anymore.
The others are like a pain
encapsulated deep inside,
so old, so integral that I
can push it with secret
fingers, reassured.

YOU LOVE ME

It isn’t just the classic
Sally Fields blurting
her insecurity, “You
like me. You really,
like me.” It’s just
that you keep doing
things for me that
others would never
do. There are vows
like “Till death do us.”
Some even promise
“to obey,” though
the diagnostic manual
says bondage is
pathological. For me
love is loyalty, not
sworn but born
of actions, like your
soft hand that finds
the tension in my
neck, softens the chords
that strangle me,
leaving me relaxed.
You stick by me,
and that’s what
love should be.

KENST GORNICHT HELFEN

(An idiomatic Yiddish translation of
G. M. Hopkins’ poem, “No Worst, There Is None.”)

Kenst gornicht helfen, a klog iz mir,
tsoris und gehakte tsoris, wilde kvetschen.
baqMutter auf uns, wu ist zeine rachmones?
Meine schrein heibn, der ganze schpeel, kneitched un iker,
oy ve, ve auf der velt; farzeitiker hamer aroismeid unt sing—
Oib triest, oib oifer. Zorn schrei, shtup mer nicht!
A sof! A sof! Hoc mer nicht in karnik.
Feh auf mein kopf, ve ein loch in kopf; wilde feldz
fafallen, gezunter, gut tsedreyt.
As der schmeis ist nicht auf deine toches,
der sorgan nicht. Tut mer ve, oysgeshplit. Do! kreech,
Nebechl, unterern triest derlmyn toomel: ale
lieb toit oislosn un jeder tag hagart mit scholft.

NO WORST, THERE IS NONE

(By Gerard Manley Hopkins.)

No worst, there is none. Pitched past pitch of grief,
more pangs will, schooled at forepangs, wilder wring.
Comforter, where, where is your comforting?
Mary, mother of us, where is your relief?
My cries heave, herds-long; huddle in a main, a chief—
woe, world-sorrow; on an age-old anvil wince and sing—
Then lull, then leave off. Fury had shrieked ‘No lingering!
Let me be fell: force I must be brief.’
o the mind, mind has mountains; cliffs of fall
frightful, sheer, no-man-fathomed. Hold them cheap
May who ne’er hung there. Nor does long our small
Durance deal with that steep or deep. Here! creep,
wretch, under a comfort serves in a whirlwind: all
life death does end and each day dies with sleep.
JEWS DON’T GET TATTOOS

Sounds like a funny rhyme but
the only people with tattoos when
I was growing up all hated me—
tough guys, anti-Semites, wearing
their black marks like signs saying
I’m not one of you. Now body art
is everywhere—wrapped around
the waitress in her cotton summer
dress, a mural of forest creatures.
The young student with a flower
on her breast (and I’m not
supposed to look).
It was serious.
My grandparents’ friends with
numbers on their wrists—long
numbers so you knew how many
others died. My brother, who
came home with a black spider.
My own daughter with a black
cat on her ankle. I still cringe
when I see a tattoo. Others
see art, a personal statement.
I think it will be the death of me.
JUDEN WERDEN NICHT TATOWIERT

(Translated by Herbert Kuhner.)

Die Tätowierten, als ich aufwuchs
haben mich alle verhaßt –
üble, antisemitische Typen
die ihre dunkeln Zeichen
mit der Botschaft trugen:
Ich bin nicht einer von euch!
Jetzt ist Körperkunst überall:
die Kellnerin in ihrem Baumwollsommerkleid –
eine Gemälde von Waldkreaturen.
Die junge Studentin mit einer Blume
auf ihre Brust (und ich soll nicht
hinschauen).
Es war ernst.
Die Freunde meiner Großeltern mit
Nummern auf ihren Handgelenke—lange
Nummern, so daß man wußte, wie viele
andere starben. Mein Bruder der
mit einer schwarzen Spinne heimkam.
Meine eigene Tochter mit einer
schwarzen Katze auf ihrem Knöchel.
mich schaudert’s immer noch
wenn ich eine Tätowierung sehe.
Für andere sind sie Kunst—ein Ausdruck ihre Individualität.
Ich denke, daß sie mein Tod sein werden
Es hört sich komisch an,
aber als ich aufgewachsen bin,
haben mich die Leute mit
Tätowierungen aIle gehaßt.
Das waren harte Burschen,
Antisemiten, die ihre schwarzen Zeichen
trugen, als würden sie sagen:
“Ich bin nicht einer von euch.”
Heute ist Körperkunst allgegenwärtig—
Auf der Kellnerin in ihrem Baumwollkleid,
eine Wand mit Waldgeschöpfen,
die junge Studentin
mit einer Blume auf ihrer Brust (und ich
darfnicht hinschauen).
Es war ernst.
Die Freunde meiner Großeltern
mit den Nummern auf ihren Handgelenkenlange
Nummern, so daß man wußte, wie
viele schon gestorben waren.
Mein Bruder kam mit einer schwarzen Spinne heim,
meine Tochter mit einer schwarzen Katze
auf ihrem Knöchel.
Mich schaudert es noch immer,
wenn ich Tatowierungen sehe.
Andere sehen darin Kunst,
den Ausdruck von Persönlichkeit.
Ich glaube, fur mich wäre es der Tod.

IN MUNICH

(Gunter von Hgans’ Korperwelt’s vastly successful anatomical
exhibition of preserved bodies first opened in Munich in 2003.)

Plasticized corpses are on display in a museum.
“I must be doing something right,” their creator says,
injecting the bodies of volunteers with a solution
that hardens into statues. “200,000 people
have viewed my work in just one week.”
Art critics say it’s art. Theologians argue
if it’s disrespectful. No one mentions
how the murder of 6,000,000 souls
also became an art.
IN MÜNICHEN

Plastifizierte Leichen werden in einem Museum ausgestellt.
„Ich habe sicher das Richtige getan,” sagt ihr Schöpfer.
Er injizierte die Körper von Freiwilligen mit einer Lösung
das so hart wird daß eine Statuen entsteht. “200.000 Besucher
haben meine Arbeit in nur eine Woche besichtigt “
Kunstkritiker sagen, sie sei Kunst. Theologen sagen
sie sei respektlos. Niemand erwähnt
wie der Mord an 6.000.000 Seelen
auch Kunst wurde.

WHY YOU HAVE TO HAVE IT

“Wipe that smile off your face,”
your mother snarled and smacked
your ass to mean it. “Don’t you
dare move,” the bully growled,
and punched you if you tried to.
“Sit there and be quite,” your
teacher screamed and shoved
you to your desk. “Who gave you
permission?” your boss would bark.
But who says you shouldn’t have
that speedboat, fiberglass hull,
two-hundred-horsepower Evinrude
roaring off the stem? Or that
chromed-out Hummer with
the trailer, waiting to tow it
back to your McMansion?

GIANTS WITH MINI-CAMERAS

The tourist with a camera is nothing new.
If you go to a gorgeous gorge, the sun will
glint on a camera lens, as if the eye weren’t good
enough. That desire for permanence, the glib
remark, “Take a picture. It will last longer.”

But here’s a parade for players who won
the Super Bowl, celebrated through the city
streets, the moment recorded by thousands
of cameras—major TV, truly mass media.
There are the players, waving with one hand,
holding their mini-cameras in the other.

What could they possibly record that won’t
be available on endless replays and DVD?
Why reduce reality to a three-inch screen,
or cell phone image, as if their memories,
damaged by too many blows, need focusing.

QUINTESSENCE OF BEAUTIFUL

1.
If it is a baby, describe any part.
The fingers, tiny feelers.
The ears, pink prawns.
The mouth a perfect “O-ring.”

2.
In Thailand stretching necks.
In ancient China, binding feet.
A bone in the nose in Indonesia.
Your belly button ring and cat tattoo.

3.
Those intimate parts and acts
that Lenny Bruce was arrested
for mentioning. Those who never
mention or do those acts.

4.
Jesus, bleeding on a cross.
Moses, staunch in his commandments.
No idols at all for Islam.
Buddha, smiling.

5.
A six by ten foot Rauschenberg, all
white, with six black lines. John Cage’s
four minutes, thirty-three seconds
of silence. The Emperor’s new clothes.

EXTRASENSORY PERCEPTION

He hasn’t thought of his old friend
for years, then says his name aloud.
That evening the friend calls,
“Just felt like reminiscing.”

She’s at work when she knows
her son is injured. She rings her phone
at home, just as the babysitter
reaches to dial her.

He couldn’t think of his
old flame without finding a letter
from her in his mailbox. “A heart
connection,” is what he called it.

Thirty-four percent of Americans
believe in ghosts. Eighty-two
percent believe in God.
Most people say there’s no
such thing as extrasensory perception.

LIFE AT SEA

(There’s a myth that any man who captures
a selkie—a seal that transforms itself into
a woman—can keep her as his wife.)

My first wife was a selkie,
born in the sea, captured by
me. Sad, reticent woman,
she said she was afraid of me.
“The only time I breath easy
is when I swim,” she said,
and I always knew she
loved the water more.

My second wife was a horseshoe
crab, an ancient soul,
obstinate, predictable.
Our bed became a strand,
ineluctable as sand
in the Vaseline.

Now, I am a single heron,
poised on one foot, pulling
my white underpants up
over my boney knee. I’m
alone most days but still
keep an eye out, hoping
for pretty fishes.

LOVE AND MARRIAGE

Love
ain’t always sweet,
saccharine isn’t sugar.
A little powder, a little
paint makes a lady what
she ain’t.
Pleasure
rubbed turns into
pain. I’m not going
there again. Then,
there is compulsion.

Loneliness
is practice for the grave.
Except for accidents, it takes
a pact to die together.
That’s why there is marriage.

BEDROOM FARCES

This morning you
push my hand away,
tell me the Blue Jays
are cawing
for more sunflower seeds.
“It would be uncharitable,”
you say, “to disappoint them.”

I empty a small sack
into the feeder.
You bring cold toast
and bitter marmalade
on a glass tray and say,
“You love ‘love.’ You
don’t love me.”

How can I deny it?
“I’ll burn my best work
in our old brick barbecue,”
I say. You say, “Your
melodrama is weak and pale.”
I say, “I’ll fly naked at thirty thousand
feet over seas to find you.”
“When you land,” you say,
“it won’t be on me.”

GOOGLE SEX

Google “sex,” and in one tenth
of a second, eight hundred fifty
million links appear, the first
of which, unfiltered, offers porn
a teenaged boy would kill for when
I was a kid. You’d have needed
lots of money and courage
to go to where they sold it.
It was against the law to get it.
And yes, I did the research,
clicked the link and wondered
whose sons and daughters were
spread out like that for everyone
to see. It didn’t appeal to me.

All my fantasies are born
of negativity—abuse forced
on me for years as a little kid.
They say abuse will make
someone abusive but my bad
thoughts are not my deeds. I’ve
fought to find a better nature,
though nature keeps fighting me.
All that sex stuff, from pony gags
and handcuffs to rape fantasies,
ubiquitous. What’s missing
from pornography is love.
It all looks painful, forced
smiles or outright grimaces.
Implants, nipple clips, things so big
they vibrate on the Richter scale.
You know it can’t be true love when
he’s named “Hitachi Magic Wand.”
HOW TO APOLOGIZE

How shall I apologize
for asking you to be me?
It’s not for the butterfly
to become a caterpillar,
encased in hairy skin,
patient in its shroud,
hardened, then cracked.
Yet, I ask you to morph
back to me—not unfurl
but remove your wings,
be naked, unadorned
for me, and know my
unfaltering ugliness.
There’s the pupa
with its promises,
and there’s paralysis.
Stasis should not be
restraint. Or am I,
rather, a spider?
My trap is set.
The strings are strung,
soft but sure, to hold you.
I apologize as I devour you.

SUMMER LOVERS
The backup beep of a town
truck alarms the humid air.
A growing crunch of trash cans
interrupts our dreams. Sounds
are louder when it’s hotter.
We grow hotter as the sounds grow
louder. Six a.m., so we make love again.

Faint scent of honeysuckle
on this the seventh day of summer.
The recognition that there is
someone else in bed and we are
grateful. No more incongruities
of spring: eighty degree days
and forty degree nights. There’s
certainty for summer lovers.

THE WOMAN WITH THE LOUD VOICE

In the dentist’s office,
a woman with a man’s
haircut, a smoker’s
hoarse voice, finds
a neighbor, plunks
down next to her, shouting,
“Hello,” then launches:
“I gave up smoking. I’ve
gained fifteen pounds. I’m
pissed with myself. I still
need a CAT scan every
three months. I’ve been
clear but you know, early
detection. I miss my boob.”
The neighbor blinks. We
strangers listen. “I was
home three months
and glad to go back
to work. I think if I won
the lottery, I’d still work.”
“If I won,” her neighbor
says, “I’d buy the factory,
fire the boss.” The loud lady
says, “The lottery is up to
one hundred twenty million.”
We strangers are ready to run.

TEACHING MY CHILDREN

Last night I erred again,
telling my daughter, “Death
is no big deal. For me, it
would be an escape from
suffering. “ Worse, she
agreed. Pain can be taught,
just as my other daughters
remind me of how they
learned there was no
tooth fairy. Don’t laugh.
For years, I penned notes—
a dialog for them with their
imaginary friend;
all the questions they
left with each tooth.
Now, they blame me
for the lies. What we do
is irreparable—a chipped
tooth, crooked scar,
shrinking cartilage.
Next time, maybe I’ll
honor the ancient saying:
“Don’t complain.
Don’t explain.”

FLOWER LESSONS

The peony can’t
support its giant,
petalled head.
The stem’s too skinny
for that much joy.
The roots are woody,
thick and constant.
Well before the warmer
breezes, the stalk
unfreezes, growing
until the weight
can snap a neck.
Better to find
a stick to lean on.
Let your blossom
face the sun.

MORE LIGHT

(June 11, civil twilight, 4:27; sunrise, 5:20.)

What do people do with fifteen hours
of daylight that they couldn’t do in the dark?
Good that it’s hot by midmorning, better
sweltering at midday, okay to the muggy
bedroom for the short, dark toss and tum.

It’s rumored people rise at dawn, swill
coffee, commute to work. This I’ve escaped
for nearly all my years, able to complain
if I’m awake so early. Only, seeing
the unfamiliar slant of light,
the edges softened by shadows on
the opposite side of sunset, I’m almost
glad to sense the approaching solstice.

There are thousands, indeed millions,
running out of light. Too little energy,
entropy, a dying sun in each of us, as surely
as every battery runs down. This lengthening
of day allows a promise. Plants grasp each
ray, as surely as weeds multiply and my
tasks beckon. I’ll drag this sleepless
husk up out of bed and get to things.
Lights out. Sun’s up.

DATING US

New Year was March 1st, until the English
Calendar Act of 1751, but in Colonial
cemeteries, reticent colonists didn’t want
to heed the king and carved two dates
of death for those who died in January
or February. “Here lies Mary,
Loving Wife and Mother,
died January 21, 1751-1752.”

Christ’s birth was in the spring,
as was Attis’ and Adonis’, until
early saints saw the Son’s birth
must coincide with when the Sun
was born. The Chinese New Year—
Be well, grow rich—varies, as does
the Jewish date. My birthday.
Your children’s birth. Our
anniversary, over forty years
since we met, fifteen since the divorce.

What are these dates, clearly,
not carved in granite, though
at the Museum of Natural History
we can walk the wall and chart
earth’s anniversaries—millions
of years of molten stone, weather-
etched, heaved upward, polished?

Born-agains, creationists say
we were spoken into existence
only a few thousand years ago. But
that can’t be true. The world started
on my birthday and will end with me.
Hopefully, that myth, preserved
in poetry, will be immutable.
CATCH

l.
He’s three
hundred fifty pounds
shaking his fingers in
frustration as if
the game depended
on him.
like a Venus flytrap,

2.
She’s done up
in a string bikini,
coconut oiled, and spread
ready to catch the first
strong guy who eyes her.

3.
His baggy pants sag
to show plaid boxers
sagging to show white
underpants, sagging
to show—just who
would want to catch
the top of his ass crack?
She’s four and her
daddy’s caught a hermit
on a five-ten frame
and when his teen son
throws the nerf ball,
the father trudges
not quite long enough,

4.
crab in a pail. It pokes
out a tentative claw.
She smacks it with
a shovel. She’s a dumb
little creature, but
at least the crab
knows what to do.

5.
Summer, you aren’t
supposed to catch
a cold, but the weeping
eyes, faucet nose … Yup,
he’s caught something
probably a nasty case
of irony. All winter,
ducking sneezes,
and just when it’s
hot, he gets a fever.

6.
Two men on a dock
with a dozen snappers—
catch of the day—smiling
at the string of them
sagging on the rope
through their gills.
They put up a fight,
bend a fiberglass pole
into a “U.” There’s no
empathy for fish,
caught, gutted, eaten,
if at least put to use.

7.
She’s seated on
the bumper of her car,
in bulging dungarees,
a cigarette waiving
in her left hand as she
hollers into a cell phone.
You’d think she’d
catch on to a brilliant,
blue sky, startling white
surf, a breeze across
a mile of sand. No, just
intermittent smoke
signals as she argues
with some guy.

8.
The old man has a catch
in his giddy up, dipping
his left hip as he walks
briskly, nonetheless.
Could he be a tryout for
the Department of Funny
Walks? He’s lean, even
a bit muscular for mid-
seventies, clearly all
but recovered from
the stroke.

9.
It’s catch as catch can
in the tourist shop
where an Israeli fellow
sits at the register, eyeing
a young man who looks
like a future shoplifter.
Sure enough, a few
pearled turbo shells
disappear into the kid’s
pocket. At a buck a shell,
the markup isn’t the point.
This store is a chance
to escape a land where
suicide bombers creep
across borders. He’s not
going to let some little
punk steal from him.

10.
She’s fallen behind so
now she’s playing catch-up,
piling buckets of sand
where the waves are
eating away her castle.
The principle isn’t sound.
Each scoop she dredges
from inside to dump
in front, just makes
the walls collapse
toward her. She
worked a couple
hours to encircle herself
in this castle but her
reign is over. The tide
has caught up with
her now.

11.
Catch a falling star
and put it in your
pocket. That’s what
the song advises. I’d
try it, but I’m not up
for hyperbole. I’ll settle
for catching some sun
now, and leave the stars
alone. Metaphors aside,
lately a good tan is
all I hope for.

12.
I’m still charmed when
I can catch that last
sliver of sun just before
it disappears into the sea.
One day I’ll see the hiss,
the steam when flame
meets ocean. There—
there it is, about to
disappear, a diminishing
red arc, dot, afterglow.
No steam this time. Just
Orpheus and I, standing
awestruck if a bit worried
what to do next.

THE PILOT SETS ME FREE

“You are free,” he says,
“to move about the cabin.”
I unsnap my restraints
and clamber over a passenger
reading The Audacity of Hope.
She grimaces, expecting me
to wait for her to rise but
I want my change now.
No months of promises,
no hard landings. I’m six miles
closer to heaven and free at last,
skipping down the carpeted aisle
in my socks. The stewardess
smiles, pointing me aft,
believing I need the WC,
“Please don’t use the First Class
restroom.” “The pilot has
set me free,” I say, “and I
just want to thank him.”

CRY BABIES

If adults cried like babies,
we’d be much better off.
We’d wet ourselves while
wailing, weeping while we
rock. No complicated syntax,
just guttural sobs and
sounds, coughing cries
and sighs. If adults stopped
trying to explain, realized
no one cares if they complain,
just reframed their thoughts—
like tiny tots, who let loose
and cry-Socrates himself
wouldn’t have had to die—
who should have wept
instead of questioning.
Grownups don’t get it.
Babies do. Breast milk,
clean butts, all for the
asking, raising the age-
old question: If we learn
language to keep from
crying, why are people
always lying?

GIVE HIM THE BIRD

Open the blinds
to a starling clinging
to the 220 line by your
bedroom window, wind gusts
heightening a spring rain.
One eye glances at you,
a twist and then the other.
A spy or a portent of spring?

There’s all those leaves
unraked; a lawn turned
brown, and tufts of weeds
enough to sprain the greenest
thumb. But this dumb bird,
stuck to a wire, as if neither
fire nor ice could move him.

You’ve got your nest, your
cozy lover beckoning from
your king-size bed.
What, about a starling,
presses you to hurry
to your chores? Guilt?
A flutter of feathers,
and he’s gone.

HOW WE SURVIVE

How we survive is beyond
reckoning. It takes a clock
hand sixty seconds just to make
its rounds even as we are worn
rounder with each fall, bellowing
lungsful twenty or thirty times
a minute, panting as we run
ourselves ragged. Rain takes
the edge off rocks, so why
such surprise that we have scars—
from the swing fall, the screen
door’s slam, the car crash.

After so many years, we’re left
to light a candle and remember how
that other driver, blinded by the sun,
rushing twice the limit at our van,
embedded in our lives so violently
we were left to sweep up the shards
of you and me—pieces as little as
the glint of quartz sand, a single
grain of which can crack a tooth.

It’s a paradox that our skin gets
thicker as we are worn down, just
trying to survive: the impending fall,
the thickening colon wall,
the short circuit in the brain,
the chronic, stiffening pain.
Just surviving takes all our energy.
Barely a flicker of time to recall
and the minute, the exact anniversary
has passed. That’s all.

BUT FOR YOU, CHILD

But for you, we’d have slept
late in Iowa—an easy escape
from turmoil and pollution
that made the river foam near
our small apartment. You were
a surprise, though we decided,
quickly, love was reason
enough to keep you.

Colicky, crying night and day,
but with that soft patina
of red fuzz. The warmth
of your small head was our
reward, and you fit so well
into that borrowed bassinette.

But for you, I’d have had
no one to hide with in dark,
deep closets as your manic
mother raged for no reason.
The door I’d wired with
a refrigerator switch would
burst open, the sixty-watt
bulb, a blast in our un-
prepared eyes.

But for you, I might have
left her then, though you
were a joy, wanting only
paper and crayons for toys,
drawing every cartoon
character in perfect
likeness, despite the screaming
outside your room.

But for your patience,
watching over your little
sister, I’m sure she would
have been hit more. How
stupid was I to think
the rage was reserved
for me—endless verbal,
intermittent physical assaults?

Did she beat her head
against you and your sister
the way she’d come at me as
if trying to purge her
brain of demons?

But for your successes,
I couldn’t endure the suffering.
Yes, we are all sick—none
of us a pretty picture,
though you are still
gorgeous in my eyes.

What more can I say
when I see your infant
smile even in the forty-
year-old eyes. But for my
unqualified, my fumbling,
my never-well-enough
expressed love for you,
I might not live as I do
now, wallowing in my
unremitting pain,
but for the gift of you.

THE IMPOSSIBILITY OF DREAMS
THE IMPOSSIBILITY OF DREAMS

4 a.m. gnaws at our guts,
exhausting all possibilities.
By 6, we surrender
to the certainty
of dawn.
Nightly, people
pray. Assuming they can
change their fate—their pain
will go away. By daybreak
we’re on our own. No
need for alarm.
Yearn
for something warm
and loving. Settle for
breakfast and the morning
news. If only an honest
report. Instead a presidential
paean.
Gray sky dodges
between Venetian blinds.
Grackles migrating south
drown out the other birds.
It’s hard to imagine life
as other than absurd
after a sleepless night.

HAPPY

There are people who wake up happy
even though the alarm is jarring,
a deejay shouting the temperature,
traffic entering the City backed
up an hour on the lower GWB.
Imagine, if that’s all you can do,
they’re happy with the house
set back a mile off the Palisades,
but close enough to walk
the precipice on Saturdays,
lean over the lookout with
a giddy feeling low and deep
inside; not anxious for their
helmeted kids riding off-road
bikes and squealing “watch me.”
Monday to Friday pays the bills,
overtime will buy more frills—
HDTV, home theatre. Sunday
is microbrew and sports.
It’s America! What’s there to complain?
Wait long enough, some crisis may
bring them down—an accident
despite the tank-like SUV.
Something in their water could
explain their cancer. For now,
why trouble their contentment
by telling them “The unexamined
life is not worth living?”

THANKS

To my enemies. Anger makes
good poetry. Thanks to my
persecutors. Anxiety
is the cutting edge of art.
Thanks to my ex-wives.
I’m free at last. Thanks
to the crushing depression
of the last five years
for birthing a new book.
Thanks, the way we are
glad for one more breath
when it feels like the last
and for all the bitching
and moaning, a sudden
urge to live seizes us—
call it instinct—and every
pore struggles not to die.
Please just give me
a little more time. I’m
not quite ready to go.
BAD THOUGHTS

Bad thoughts are not
bad deed though we
sometimes we obsess.

In traffic we wish
mayhem on the slow,
sudden death for those
who cut us off. A plow
to push aside the traffic.

For surly clerks a palsy.
For cops paralysis.
For the boss a plague.
Piss on the cheats.

Forgiveness is for preachers.
Forgetting is a blessing.
Who has the fortitude
to turn the other cheek
when a fist in reply
would feel so fine?
WEAPON OF CHOICE

I admire guns
their finality;
the vociferation
of a blade, too long;
the bludgeon’s
argument diffuse.
A gun, point
not to be argued.

I admire the bullet,
proof that less is
more; not
the perturbation
of poison, nor
vagaries of accidents.
A bullet, end
of story.

But most, I admire
the target;
predestination
a question; the gods
aloof; concentric
circles, truth.

LIGHTENING

It strikes you one day you
should get lighter, clean the attic—
every composition since you
were a kid; tax receipts since
1964. You could rent a roll-off,
buy a shredder, sort or go through
like a whirlwind. What’s the rule?
“If you don’t use it, lose it.”
Clean the closet—the suit you wore
in court—Brooks Brothers
pin stripes, only fifteen dollars
in the thrift store. The favorite
shirt missing a button. A pair
of psychedelic 70s pants.
The shed—full of tools from friends
who emptied their garages when
they moved. The perfect storm
washing away all memories,
the planned catastrophe wiping
out your past. Call FEMA,
calling all charities, call a shrink—
donate that emotional baggage.

EMPTY

the dishwasher and fill it again. I push
the lever and start the cycle. Empty
the washer, the drier, the mailbox,
grocery bags. Empty everything
and fill it up again: waste basket,
oil tank, the gas tank. Empty.
Running on it. A little bell sounds
and I’m on notice. An alarm that
orders me to do whatever is required.
“Empty,” the feeling you won’t be
thanked, you are not loved, you’ll
never get there. Are we there yet?
Are we there yet? No, the landscape
is empty as my heart—a deserted
island, a dreary metaphor.

SEARCHING FOR AN HONEST MAN

Somewhere in a manual they say
here’s how to tell a liar
though studies show that experts
score only 50-50, watching for
the fleeting smile,
the raised eyebrow,
listening for a miniscule
pause or stammer.
But he lies better than a prophet,
so sure of his righteous ways
he even wins converts.

In court we raise our right hand
to promise, scouts honor,
as god is my witness,
on the grave of my mother.
The Romans made each man hold
his testicles and swear—clear
on the consequence of false testimony.

Want an expert? Call Diogenes.
He spent a lifetime looking
for an honest man.
He’s retired, now sits
by a pool in West Palm,
reminiscing.
In court he’s glad for the attention,
tries hard to judge the truth.
Studying the speeches, he tells us,
“His respiration,
pupil dilation
don’t even change,
but notice how his fingers
fumble for some phantom lantern.”

Really, it doesn’t take an expert.
If he says “Victory is ours.
Mission accomplished,” and we’re
looking at death and destruction,
we’d have to be fools to believe him

LOOKING FOR LOVE

It’s easier to hire someone,
perhaps a third-world servant
who’s learned just enough English
to work here. She could live in,
do every chore—cleaning daily,
cooking native. One day off
a week. Minimum wages. Very
cheap. No emotional attachment.

Or internet dating, odd summaries
online of who you are, full-face
pretending to be slim, profiles
that don’t reveal the scars. Serial
searching, online chatting.
First meetings at Starbucks,
a mocha latte, a quick look. A few
bucks a month for Matchmaker.

What if it turned serious?
Would you invite her to move in,
clear out some drawers, empty
half a closet? would you hang
her pictures on your walls?
No days off once it begins.
Don’t go to bed without knowing
where there’s an exit.

LIVING IN HIS OWN HEAD

Like coconuts, their brown hair
straggling off a skull scraped dry.
A pick through an eye to
drain the milky fluid.

Then mallet blows, crack.
The shocking whiteness.
Hollowed out, it makes
a place where lonely people hide.

His neck is a wilted lily’s—
not a peony’s weighted by
bright flowers of thought,
but over with, collapsing.

His shoulders are humps
of carrots so long in the ground
they’ve grown obscenely
large, no longer pliable.

There he’ll reside, like Sponge Bob
in his pineapple, or the breasts
of native women dancing hula’s
with coconut shells for bras.

I WANT LOGIC

On any given day I want
to perform miracles.
That ’84 Lincoln, bedecked
with rust, resistant to shifting
from first to second, incontinent
and filthy. I want it new again,
shining through it’s pitted beige
paint, ready for a highway trip.

The house that hasn’t been
cared for, for all of twenty years
so the pipes leak when you flush
and when you wash your hands
and even when you don’t and
the windows won’t open and
the wood is rotting. I want it
to be a neighborhood showpiece.

The kids, after what we adults
inflicted, ill and ill-spirited,
creative if unemployable,
laughing at their pale past.
I want their faces flush
in health, rich and glad.

I want it all to come
out right even as I punish
myself each night keeping
one eye open to the dark. I
want a warmer climate,
a well-kept path. Though
cars are junked and houses
suck up money; though
complaining about your kids
is admitting your own faults,
I want logic at the end
of every premise.

ALL’S WELL THAT ENDS WELL

“Once upon a time … “ What kind of a way
is that to start a story? Why only once?
If the peach-colored rose I planted when
I married bloomed only once, I would
feel cheated. All these years it give me
double-petalled pleasure from spring
to fall. And how can we say it is
upon a time? Unless I’m dancing on
a sundial, I’m not “upon a time.”
My shadow, as I’m bearded, doesn’t
even tell me when it’s five.
And then,
there’s, “All’s well that end’s
well.” She used to holler, “Why
all this talk of endings?” Her voice
went up an octave, grew louder,
so it seemed she meant it. English
was her second language, so I told her
it was an idiom and she thought
I called her stupid.
Well, once
upon a time I loved that woman
but it didn’t end so well. I got
divorced and when I said I’d
wed again, a friend told me, “You
have an Ex. The next one will be
your ‘Why?’” I’d never heard that
said before but he was right—
proving again that if you want
to tell the real story, you’re
better off avoiding clichés.

TREATISE

We fight over who will treat
for dinner, diverting the waitress
to hand us the bill. “My treat.”
”No, mine.” It’s really more
affection than who will win.
Or, more than that, it’s Biblical—
the only commandment we need:
”Treat each other nicely.”
How hard is that? Clearly,
not cheating, not stealing,
not killing all come down
to “Treat each other nicely.”
As for honoring a father
and mother or loyalty
to one particular god,
that goes without saying
but only if you’re treated
nicely. Then, there’s
ice cream and candy—
sweet treats we succumb
to despite warnings, so we
may worry about calories
but what the hell. Friends
are hard to come by—
real friends who will do what
they promise even if it costs
them. None of this promise
and not deliver. That’s not
how friends should treat
each other. I know plenty
of people who say they
love you, then do the nastiest
things when you look away.
That’s no way to treat people.

BROKEN

There is no reason for me to strug-
gle on despite the existence of my child-
ren. Flowers bloom, if left abandoned, wild.
An iris’ root if torn or even dug
half out will thrive among the rocks
and weeds. Daffodils require no cultiva-
tion, flashing their yellow protesta-
tion that spring will succeed,
untended. An oak, as solid as a fort, to i-
vy slowly will succumb. An IV can’t
sustain a man in pain whose lost
a love of life. If we don’t want to live we
ought to die. I’m cool with that. You
ought to be. This bro-
ken stem has bloomed e-
nough to just let go.

HEART AND SOUL

Of all the foolish things I know
there’s none more useless than
the notion of a soul. As if life’s
meaning could be kept on a pantry
shelf with the cereal, canned corn
and bottled hearts of artichokes.
All science says it ends here, whether
with a grimace or a sneer, a long
deep sigh or rattle. There’s neither
cause for weeping nor exultation.
It’s just an end, yet people bend
all logic, kneel and pray their spirit
will outlast the day they disappear.
I pray I won’t. What crueler joke
than waiting in the grave for trumpets?
I’ve waited all my life for the pain
to stop. As if I’d want to push aside
some top stone of a granite mausoleum
and rise again. But soul and resur-
rection shouldn’t be confused.
The nicest people tell me energy
passes to a higher plain. I think
believing we don’t disappear
is one more defect of the brain—
the inability to comprehend life
without ourselves to clutter it.
But, if seeds are “souls” I’ll
give you that. There’s no denying
DNA. If symbols last beyond
the grave, I’ll grant you your
salvation. Only a sadistic god
could sentence a person to
damnation. I crave evaporation—
await my making way
for new creations.

INELUCTABLE

Some say “birth.”
“Death,” for sure.
But don’t believe
“taxes” –-the greatest
con a government
ever cultivated
placing grains
of pain exquisitely
between our teeth
to grind us down.
The fix is not
complicated.
Just spit.
ON THE DEAD LIST

Once you are on their
dead list you’re done.
There are folks like that
with iron wills, completely
righteous. Do anything—
wrong look, wrong word,
wrong god and you’re
banished. Damned.
you don’t even get a replay,
no video review. It’s just death
to all and death to anyone
who tries to mediate. You
are off the list, the earth,
infinity. There you are,
begging for forgiveness
and you don’t even know
what sin you have committed.

OUTLASTING THE BASTARDS

Perhaps it was my finely tuned
sense of injustice that set me apart
from the clique that ran things
but I never fit. They’d go to lunch
and as Ike felt toward Nixon, seeing me
They’d say, “It’s one thing to work
with him, another to socialize.”

I, in turn, was more at ease
kidding with the janitors.
Screw the power-wielding,
pretentious pack. Years of that
and enough cruelty, real and
imagined, and I simply left—
self-exiled to a distant building
glad if I was never noticed.

Now I count who’s left in my
Department. Only four more
senior to me, two of whom
weren’t so bad. Truly, I could
creep in and out, persist—a legend
in my own mind. “Who is that?”
some young hire would inquire.
“He’s one of them. The old
crowd,” someone would say,
“I wonder why he won’t
retire?” Perhaps it is because
I’ve actually outlasted the bastards.
PRESERVATION

This happenstance, this odd
existence—our radiating toward,
hence, away from each other;
the violets so dense and purple,
now too lush and swallowing
the garden; the dying rose,
persistent with new leaves,
and we, pumping out our
decibels, lumens, Richter,
any stimulus for a response.

Oh yes, we rationalize with
god or gods and propagate
to save our souls, our planet,
our marrow, but chemo
first or finally, formaldehyde
can’t preserve us. When those
we know and those who
know them are gone,
not even our reputations
will outlive us.

MUSH MELON

Sure your head is a melon
brain seeds thick rind skull
a hairy melon but the stem’s
too skinny who designed this
plant call OSHA send inspectors
chiropractors not shrinks structural
engineers someone with a bean pole
make that a melon holder this skinny
feeding tube little bones stacked
tinker toys in a calcified row easily
displaced with a sneeze or pinching
nerves under stress as the melon
crushes down so life gets lived
in a perpetual shrug huddled
head down ducking the pickers
aiming their dirty fingers at every
idle smile or thought you think
until someone with a carving
knife goes whack and splits
your mushy melon once and for
all scattering your seedy thoughts
on a newspaper to discard
with the trash while a wasted
vine waits for winter and plowing.

IF IT ISN’T TRUE WHY WRITE IT?

Fiction isn’t making things up,
it’s making them better.

If a large, stone retaining wall
suddenly falls—for lack of maintenance
or proper inspection, or just because
nothing we build will last—and you
are driving upstate in your
heavily-financed SUV that still
smells brand new is crushed
and buried by the collapsing
wall, that is just an accident.

Knowing that, we arrange the facts
into a story with good intentions:

You wanted to visit a dying friend.
You knew heavy rains would
make a trip dangerous.
Despite your fears, you set
out to help. There’s a plot, high
purpose and a moment when
you say “I’m fine,” though
the gods think otherwise.

Some are content with just artifice,
others with clichés. But then there’d be
no catharsis, no immortal truths.
ABSTRACTIONS

Beginners think saying “I love you,”
is enough, as if “it’s new to me” means
it’s new for you. For practiced poets
love is in the details.

Some think a ring must
must be pure gold though
jewelers know it quickly wears.

Beginners think if it rhymes it must
be poetry, a greeting card refined
like sugar for every palate.

Some take the pledge “to have
and hold,” as if possession
were nine tenths of love.

Not every poem has to follow
rules. Rough edges create pleasure.

MONEY AND DYING

and dying for money
killing for it
waiting for people to die to get it
standing in ice water dripping wet
chancing pneumonia
cursing for money
warm blankets of green cash
calculating your net worth
calculating strategizing
watching the market reports
spending all day day-trading
the chill fear of the market dropping
dropping that doesn’t stop
there goes all the money
and you may as well die
it’ll be forever before you recover
if ever so you’re ready to quit life
but wait it’s the door bell
John Beresford Tipton sends his man
to say I have a check for you
for one million dollars no
it’s the lottery and you’ve won
oh it’s The Donald to share his
wealth. It’s Publisher Weekly.
Hope springs eternal
fountain of youth
city of gold
money money money
all for you
you poor fool

NON COGITO ERGO SUM

Who is ever old enough for wisdom?
It sits silly on little kids, often
just a “Wow,” or “Ooo.” No,
age does not command respect
and we don’t grow too soon old
and too late wise. Lao Tsu,
the Old Boy, said what we can speak
is not what we can know. So
much for all linguistics. Why
does enlightenment feel like
surrender? Withdraw,
say nothing.
CUT OUT THE BULL

Bullshit to those left behind.
Be glad that the pain has ended.
It isn’t all that inglorious. A death
by one’s own hand has nothing
to do with another person’s life.
Get over it. Now you’re being
selfish, thinking, I should have
heard his cry. I should have
been there. No way. It isn’t
anybody’s business but
the body that died. Not one
word about how tragic.
Bullshit.
REASON

Is it reason enough, this warmth
two months a year, the lawn
crackling for lack of moisture?

Is it reasonable to lie alone,
descending into sleep, hot, humid
uncovered, restive not resting?

Don’t ask for reason. It isn’t offered
to the poor who expect only to be
told how to behave. Bow respect-

fully or better place your forehead
to the ground and say Allah Akbar
Boruch a’toh , hail Mary.

Reason leaves off where faith
begins. Reason begins with the screech
of brakes or simply the word “cancer.”

Is it reasonable that the body is un-
predictable, able to sprain, tear,
wear out more quickly than a car?

Reason is for philosophers. All others
shave, stand up straight, say nothing.
No immortal questions for you kids.

Coca Cola is reasonable. Cocaine is not.
Or vice or versa. Any company big
enough can purchase things reasonably.

We ask you, Mr. President, be reasonable.
Do not screw us to pad the pockets
of your friends, however they humor you.

Who is to say what raison d’etre for man.
Mankind, be a man, fight like a man. No
reasonable woman should take it.
The capacity to reason makes us uniquely
human. Try reasoning with a chimp. About
like asking the boss to be reasonable.

The reason they said they wouldn’t let
the old man die was he was depressed
and had asked them to let him die.

The reason they said they wouldn’t
stop the unjust trial was an unjust
verdict had not been reached.

The reason they stopped the car
and searched was the man was
driving while black.

Give us this day our reasonable pills.
Understand that injustice must occur.
Surely it’s not racist to suspect crime.

We see the world as through
a glass, darkly. If truth is relative,
reason is just a distant cousin.

SURRENDER

That feeling one can hide
behind the cheap sheathing
of a spruce fence despite
the din of passing cars.
As if they’d miss him, who
built and unbuilt family,
art, untold edifices for what?
Some call it depression,
others wisdom: Surrender
to the now. Don’t plan.
But every time he settles
onto the wrought iron chair
its weight gradually sinking
into the blacktop of his patio,
he notices another project,
perhaps a bush to prune,
or a bulb pushing its impromptu
head out of a chill ground,
and he feels the pull of life
once again. Pity, the long
warm fall has fooled the flowers
whose buds are also bound to die.

THE INFINITE LEVER OF LIFE

It’s a seesaw, life. I’m still
a little kid in my head, sitting
on the tip of a splintery plank
with an older kid at the other
end who’s weighed me down.
Only on a seesaw, down means up—
higher and higher as he threatens
to drop me at anytime. I’m getting
those elevator feelings when he
half jumps off, never quite slamming
me to the ground. My screams.
His laughs. Only now he’s old
enough to die and so am I but
not as soon as he will. All
the old bullies preceding me
in death, their images raising me
up as they’re plunked into the ground.
Yes, I’ve outlasted the bastards,
except that I’m not religious.
Their demise does not let me
rise closer to god. Here’s a victory
that only brings me closer to my death.

BETRAYAL

I didn’t pick my parents
and my parents didn’t pick me.
Meconium-spattered, I
stressed into a world,
helpless as a baby.

A man in his late
twenties, black hair,
tortoiseshell glasses,
well-muscled, rough-handed,
promised to beat me
with a belt if I misbehaved.

A woman, mid-twenties,
flaming red hair, freckled,
soft skin, soothed me, saying,
:there’s nothing I can do.”

I met a boy, by definition
my brother, who wanted me dead.
My earliest memories are
his chubby, grinning face
as he choked me
until I passed out.
Why didn’t they just
name me, “Betrayal,”
instead of “Beloved”
and “Blessed?”

EXQUISITE BURNING

Rain forests are being ravaged.
“No consequence,” you say.
You don’t smell the smoke.
It’s too far away. They’ve
banned our fall leave fires—
the pungent smell that once
rewarded us for raking.

Trees breath in our remnants,
carbon dioxide synthesized
to lush, green leaves. Burned,
they give us back our gasses—
more CO2 than earth can use.

Why think of the forests
disappearing, diesels clearing,
fires blackening endless acres?
Already, we ignore our own
internal oxidation—exquisite
burning toward our end.
THE HARMFUL EFFECTS OF UV RAYS

So much for the giddy lightness
of being. The blackout shades drawn,
the heavy curtains closed and the bedroom
darker than when she slept with him.

Sunshine blinds. Wonderful paradox
of too much light. Polarized lenses
understand better than an iris about change.
Walk into the light and poof! You are
protected. There’s a plan.

If we could rig that to the mind—protection
from too much hope. You’d see her, lips
full, smiling come hither. Zing! A filter
would reveal that darker side demanding
obedience but never satisfied.

In the half-light of the bedroom, at nearly
10 a.m., he debates whether to go out.
Spring, 72 already. A ten, the weatherman
prated as he predicted the day. Or,
much as he loves the sun, he could
remain unblemished by staying in.

CRABGRASS

crabgrass knows about survival,
spreading tendrils across a lawn
to outgrow bluegrass and rye.
Not that other varieties have to die;
they just make way for fat, flat
weeks that suck the joy from
lawn freaks. Let suburbs pass
ordinances about cutting grass.
Nothing, including poison, can
stem the spread of weeds. If I
come back, I want to be like
crabgrass, prolific if undervalued,
dreaded but for a reason—not
the delicate flower I play now.

DEATH TO NIHILISM

Can he resist the happiness of a too-bright sun?
The thaw drips ice water over a spongy eve,
there is a chance the termites are still brooding
deep beneath his slab and there’s hardly any
appliance that isn’t on the brink of quitting.
Even far north they’ve cleaned the bore holes,
tapped in the spouts to catch spring’s sweetness
so he shouldn’t be embarrassed to admit his
mood’s changed. There was that automaton,
the shrink who prescribed Paxil. He deserves
at least some credit for saying no, even as
a friend, he never expected to, succumbed
to pills. Lasting through a long, mean winter
has earned him an unapologetic smile.
Must spring be a contradiction of a dark
philosophy? No need to cry for the crocuses.
Bruised by yet another snow, they still bloom.
And the snow, the brilliance of the snow;
the steam eddying from the steady splatter
of drain-off; the odd detritus on the driveway
as the snowbank withdraws. Alright,
he admits that these are signs of hope. Anyone
can deride the haste of drugstores and super-
markets placing Easter bunnies out in February.
Anyone can march in protest but there’s relief
in saying “Yea.” Under the blanket at 6 a.m.
we all have choices. It’s up and at ’em even
if it takes till 10. There are intimations
of life in the yet-dormant forsythia.
The longer light allows some fixing to be done.
“I remember one March when we could
forget our jackets,” his neighbor brays
through the gap in their collapsing fence.
One holds while the other swings a hammer.
“I remember two friends who didn’t live
to see this spring,” the other says, promising
to accept life whether or not there’s meaning.
RANDOM BEAUTY

RANDOM BEAUTY

Some can’t admit the randomness of beauty,
as if a clover’s perfect crown should need
a reason. Others see gods at work in every
season, heroes personified in stars.
I have a quarrel with religion, imposing
order on things better left alone.
Honeysuckle is its own revelation,
its sweetness the perfect perfume.
I’ll take chaos over counting angels—
Columbine, clematis, abundant
at roadside. Who needs Deuteronomy
or Numbers? Beauty transcends all laws.

THE COLOSSAL ACCIDENT
The colossal accident of
our existence makes you,
asleep in a bunk bed
across the hall, all
the more a mystery.
I half believe a Buddhist
monk who died just
when your heart began
to beat has been reborn
in you. I half believe
only the very dumb
think there’s a soul.
Your small cry for “Dad”
stirs me from my sleep
like the trumpet that
will raise the dead.
All you need is my
quiet shout “I love you,”
to fall back to sleep.
Now I’ll stay awake till
moonset, meditating
on life’s meaning.
Not to worry—we all
catch up on sleep.

ANGER

“Handle your anger,” they say,
as if I’m into Buddhist virtues
or anger is a pot with a wood
dowel for a handle waiting
to cook soup. Well brew me
some anger stew. Haven’t you
heard: “If you’re not outraged
you’re not paying attention?”
See, I’m not talking angry,
frustrated, fist-pounding,
fuck ’em all. I’m talking
productive, give ‘em hell,
do-something-about-it angry.
I’m talking get-these-idiots-
out-of-my-life angry. That’s
what I want. Fewer fools
who cut me off after
a half hour’s hold. Fewer
sympathetic bureaucrats saying
“You’re absolutely right
but there’s nothing I can do.”
Fewer people who think
they know what’s best for me,
telling me “Go placidly amid
the noise & haste.” Give me
200 Watts and mega-speakers.
Blow those bastard off the map!

LASSITUDE

For stupidity there is no excuse.
Insincerity is a sin.
But lassitude, shouldn’t it
be understood? Slow clerks,
sullen sales persons,
sorry waiters serving
thumb in the soup.

The rich have
vindictiveness.
The poor, revenge.
But for middle class,
lassitude is justice
exacted slowly, slowly
like a leaking
tire and no spare.

Let the clerics deal with
matters of the soul.
Phenomenologists phenomenologize.
Lassitude is all that’s left
for the eviscerated common man.
EVERY BABY

beckons, its cry my need
to see the helplessness
in me set free. No matter
someone else’s kin,
I want the child to smile
carry everything from candy
and toys to tricks to make
a baby sleep. Open
a nursery, study pre-
school, adopt, I should
be someone’s mother
but am just by myself.
THE DEAD OF KINGS PARK

The dead of course remain,
in unmarked graves in obscure
corners, those who died
from neglect, experiments,
a fellow patient or attendant hands.
If you deny it, I’ll say I’ve seen
their bones in dreams,
can lead you to them.

But what of others, driven out
for lack of love, to save a buck,
to prove a point, pills in hand.
No honeymoon weekend home,
the iron gates opened to a world
of ironies: panic, longing for
the institutional lives they lived.

See them on a corner
in the once-rich neighborhood,
redlined, SSD checks in hand,
wondering what. The lifers,
the walkers, the ones medicine saved,
but in their minds as forgotten
as the dead of Kings Park.

DECEMBER 31, 1999

I am trying to make something
memorable of this sunset
for my daughter Aileen,
just seven. This is the last
light of day of year of century.
“Millennium?” She doesn’t
understand that word,
a thousand times too big
for her. But she indulges me
as I explain, forced to consider
things like Christ’s birth and who
made the calendar. She is more
sure of her two-wheeler, perched
just too high on the twenty-inch
pink frame trying to balance
and I root for her on her
wobbling path. Look!
She’s doing it just
as the sun disappears
behind a pink edge of cloud.

JANUARY THAW

Matted grass thaws
in my backyard, where soon
I’ll tune the sit-down mower
to start my acre trek, complaining
how fast the lawn grows even
as I water, fertilize and lime.
For now, all gardeners can rest
as January turns a path to mud.
What optimist imagines
emerald green? What fool
envisions tulips budding
months before it’s spring?
I am mulching clippings
in my mind, the warmth
of their decay my winter fuel.

THE GOD IN THE DETAILS

the god that looks
out for you is the part
of you that knows
there is joy in life
the structured details
of redecorating the house
in blue, in cleaning
for company so thoroughly
you move the couch god
is in the specifics the devil
doesn’t care lets laundry
pile up doesn’t brush hair
eats mostly junk food
smokes rationalizes drinks
god plans the day doesn’t
need a shopping list buying
red white and blue dahlias
in early March to bloom
by the 4th of July your
god (and mine) doesn’t
sweat the small stuff
as if any moment is small
so that when you spill
soup hurrying to finish
and the stain is even in
an embarrassing spot
on a thigh the sudden
heat is a blessing the blush
is a blessing the fleeting
thought of what strange things
(incontinence) others may
think is a blessing and you
laugh to your god and give
thanks for this humorous existence

DISEASES

What better than a body,
the fleshy joke in which
we all reside, to remind
the mind that nothing lasts.
Six billion souls will leave
their corpse behind all
in the next 100 years—
peacefully or by violence,
by illness, accident, as if
some cosmic puppeteer
really has a plan. Poets
and scientists are trained
to see disease as natural
and predictable as festering
produces toxins or penicillin.
Honey, garlic, ginger;
nature or nurture;
Western or alternative—
it isn’t a contest. Wait
long enough, wellness,
disease are just the same.

MUSHROOMS

These things that pop up
variously where you haven’t
even spread the compost,
perhaps the last sign
of the oak stump cleared
for the house. Startling
white, bulbous and yellow,
disturbingly gray fingers
clawing out of earth,
a mechanism vaguely
viral, growing where it
shouldn’t, asking for ex-
cision—a fear that
rot will be revealed: fine
shards, coarse meat,
a tiny spot that might grow
back. No chemo required,
just a stiff kick that spreads
their innards across the lawn.

MILL TOWN

They’ve made malls and condos
from mills where the girls
worked seventy-hour weeks,
weaving. Those who left
the farm and milking only
escaped spindles and gears
if the manager picked one
to marry. How many toiled
where the shops now peddle
latte and Gucci? But do not
scold the gentry. There,.
by the parking lot replacing
the tenements, by the docks
where cotton arrived and cloth
shipped out, children are
in a playground, laughing.
WAITING

There’s always another excuse
waiting for life to begin
the lawn needs mowing
(assuming seeding
was the first excuse) then
the garden weeding once
the spring is squandered
on annuals (because perennials
mean hope). Let’s not mention
having kids, nonstop feeding
and a sentence, sixteen to twenty-six
hard time, depending on your
progeny’s asserting independence.
Procrastination is a momentary
fascination, finding a way
to blank out the screen
or break the printer.
Postponements are inevitable.
But hardcore waiting is an art,
a philosophical stance
akin to Sartre or Beckett.
Waiting for a quiet moment
can pass for meditation.
Add a smile and patience
is a virtue. Holding one’s breath
is clearly spoiled and a Mexican
standoff now has uncomfortably
anti-Hispanic connotations. Wait-
ing is what I’m into now, even
as I speak. Eventually (a word
we waiters enunciate with fervor)
inspiration will come followed
surely by success. Until then
I will content myself with
surly customers and hope
for a suitable tip.

AN HONEST STRANGER

(For the Port Jefferson town fathers and fire chief.)

When the cop awakens me
banging on the front door
below my bedroom
he asks angrily why I
didn’t answer my phone.
“Get dressed,” he says
“A house you own is burning.”
“Why?” I ask. “I can’t put out
the fire.” “Don’t you care?”
he nearly grabs me.

Ah, but there’s a history:
It was left vacant, gasoline
contamination from
a nearby station. The day
they confirmed it, the fire chief
said it could explode, then drove
away saying “Hire a guard.
It’s your problem.”

No one could live there.
The authorities didn’t care
even after they pumped
20,000 gallons of unleaded
gas from the front lawn.

“I’ll deal with it tomorrow,”
I tell the cop and go back to bed.
Later, the insurance company
uses my “indifference” to say
I torched the place. It’s dangerous
to be an honest stranger.

THE FULL MOON

The full moon maddens the blue jays
squawking good morning at one a.m..
If birds can be fools, what chance for me,
hot with hopes for a peaceful summer
unable to dream or sleep? There, on the lawn
the largest grub I have ever seen,
its fat, white body fully fueled.
No one feeds more voraciously than I,
finding the secret insects burrowing
in my backyard, sucking them passionately.
Does a bird have a choice? Can nature
resist? This heat at last, ninety degrees in May
after so many cold nights, lusterless days.
Come on you crazy jays, scratch with me
in the moon-shadows of my back yard.
Let’s devour these delicacies while we can.

LAST ROSE

Peach colored, double petals
open to a bright Long Island
noon, blooming from the bush
we bought last Pesach glad
for winter’s passing soon.
Bring it in before it freezes;
place it in a crystal vase.
Watch it crown by candles
kindled praising a miracle of light.

OBJECTIVE CORRELATIVES

The alltoocasual siren rush volunteers
to car crash fire whatever harries us
pitythepoormonster mankind
and we at tea at piano cellphoning
phonating through our days
interpolating into Icarus scenes
theskyisfalling the skyisfalling
as if it would matter to be mindful
to what purpose pay attention
rubberneck the couple bleeding
at a rearender keep the scanner on
to follow EMTs where but to our own
penultimate hour where we watch
triage the insertion of an IV the popup
of a gurney wheeling us away
as someone else weeds dandelions
on at last a warm spring day.

THANATOPSIS

What calls the title
to mind as I walk
on a mild March
afternoon—
the sound of a jet,
the rush of cars,
hushed voices
of couples passing?

Was the poem about
life or death, vanity
or fame? They tell us
literature
is important.
Brushed by
this warm, damp
breeze, I wonder.

LEARNING

Some things learn
not to grow:

the goldfish
in its two quart bowl,
never the golden carp
coveted in the fishpond.

a small deer
in the Florida Keys
hiding among bent pines
by little quays.

that philodendron
in an eight inch terra-
cotta pot, never to dominate
buttressed trunks of banyan.

Still, stunted
celebrates survival.
WHAT PHILOSOPHERS DON’T KNOW

Today a freezing sky
contradicts itself
with too-bright sun.
A pencil line of jet
trails five miles high.
A quiet rush of wind
moves leafless maples,
wintered black pine.
What we can see,
says Aristotle, can be
quantified and named.
What we can see,
says Plato, is but a dream.
Into this picture, introduce
a big belly, freshly showered;
warm breasts ready to nurse—
a landscape of shiny skin,
forests, caves. If I were
a philosopher I would say
what matters, but for now,
before this moment passes
let’s make love.

MARCH IN RED SQUARE

Okay, I was never
next to Khrushchev looking
on, but always close
to him, ogling big missiles,
oohing with great pride.
See, there in the second row,
almost close enough for our
hands to clasp as the official
bulbs were popping. I wanted
the world but he gave me
only his bare, balding head
and bad breath all night in bed.
Cranky old men don’t make
good lovers except, dying,
he whispered my secret name:
Rosebud. Now I am a faded
footnote in history: Madam
Rusheskorva, consort, KGB,
and rumored lover of him.
Only, on May 1st, I still
daydream of big missiles,
slumped in my lawn chair
here in West Palm.

WORKING TIDES

Water rushes
to fill the marsh:
a circlet of salt
along the reeds,
the rejuvenating
scent of iodine.

BEACH POEM

The erratic strut of an infant
with blue plastic shovel.

The halting stride of an old man
brown wood cane pushing through sand.

The erotic sway of a young woman
red rubber raft on hip.

The lazy pan of a middle-aged man
astride a straw beach mat.

THE LECTURE ON INNER PEACE

It’s a nickel a minute as I sit,
my parking meter ticking.
I’ve paid to hear a talk
on inner peace. “In life,”
the master says, “more
is less.” My house, even
empty, also has its price
(twelve cents a minute
average for a month).
The master says “Material
things are nothing.”
The mystery for me is how
the phone, silent so much,
adds up. “Listen
to the silence within,”
he tells us, encouraging
us to feel our breath. It’s
the electric bill that scares
me half to death. I’d like to take
this fellow out for drinks,
a burger, talk, but I’m sure
he’d be too busy. Then,
there’d be the ancient
question: “Who’s paying?”

SOCCER

What genius invented soccer?
Hefty calves plying muddy fields.
Any sport requiring the head
to stop hard flying objects—duh!
And who is the fool screaming,
“Goal! Goal! Goal!” Imagine
a couple hours and a 1-1 tie?
Duh times two.
We’re stuck
with baseball, the boring boys
of summer. We’re hooked
on basketball, a hyper-
glandular parade. Wrestling?
Stupidity. Hockey? Stupidity on ice.
Football? Steroids in uniform.
But soccer? Exceptionally dumb!

PEOPLE WHO CAN WATCH TV WITHOUT FEELING GUILTY

I’m jealous. For me it’s this compulsion
to do something, not just watch—
like mend a broken pot or roll
spare pennies. With boxing
I miss the knockout, reading.
Talk shows, I never look
the speakers in the eyes.
Then there’s the 101 cable channels
for which I pay umptididdle bucks
per month for what? Reruns,
some news, the local weather?
Or could it be TV inspires me?
Sure I could love Lucy but
right now I’m writing you this poem.
RADOVAN KARADZIC

(Found guilty of crimes against humanity.)

I sat with you over
Turkish coffee,
strategized poetry,
translation, literary
tradition. How could I
miss the slaughter
in your eyes? Your
tweed jacket, the briar
pipe clenched in your
teeth. A psychiatrist,
gentleman, poet.
Perhaps when you
introduced a colleague
as an Albanian though
he lived and worked
his lifetime with you.
Perhaps when you
checked the diacritical
marks on every name:
Ĉ = Serbian
Ć = Croatian
Ċ = Macedonian
a phonetic list of who
should live or die.

A HAPPY SLAVE IS STILL A SLAVE

(China receives permanent most-favored nation status.)

Money can’t unmake a tyrant:
Deng Xiaoping declaring “It’s
honorable to grow wealthy.”
Now a billion souls are slaves
and we trade decency for dollars.

They have no free speech or press,
no workers’ rights or freedom
to associate. No right to assemble
or worship or even travel.
No rule of law or rights in court.

Ask young students—they’ll say,
“We’re just like Americans.
All we care about is money.”
Maybe that’s all they’re taught,
but we should know better.

THE CHINA DAILY

The readers of the China Daily
bend in the breeze like ripe rice stalks.

As darkness descends on crowded streets
requiring retreat within small cells,
still some bring home the China Daily
pronouncing to wife mother father kids
reassuringly, beneath a smiling image of Deng Xiao Ping,
the China Daily tells us, comrades,
“To be rich is glorious. It’s China’s time.”

THE CRICKET

With a preemptive leap
through my front door
the cricket is singing
in my study. Hopeless
lover, he doesn’t know
it’s his last song, and I
won’t be sad.

Who asked him to visit?
Who’ll pay for his room,
his critical care as he
expires by the radiator?

Shall I hirer a shrink
to find the cricket child
within his hardening
carapace? I can’t stand
whiners.

I understand
suicide but am not
inclined to risk assisting.
He’ll chirp to death
soon enough and I’ll
sleep better.

WE LIVE

we live ordinary lives denying
they are flying over them
six miles high every inch aspires
to be owned acres of egos
gardens of roses double petals
kennedy roses mine are
better mine are mine

try to ground them
you’re accused of being
too perfect your mmpi score
says you think you’re always
right what if you are always
right what if you are
that’s pathological

try teaching better un-
teaching everything you know
they know it’s useless even
as you try and their eyes
glass over and it’s time
for a break give me a break
give me a break a break

if you know the secret of
life don’t tell genital vegetable
mineral for gods’ sake don’t or
you’re punished with a torn
liver or a large rock to roll
branches withdrawn no fruit
if you have the answer answer

take my word for it honestly
the truth be told here’s how
it is i know if someone settling

a pillow or throwing off a shawl
we’re back to that beginnings
endings all been done before
done before before

but as surely as pain is
pleasure pleasure is
pain it’s still worth
doing again.

STRAWBERRIES

Cow manure was all it took,
and a soft bed of straw
surrounding each plant.
By mid-spring, the tendrils.
Late May, simple white flowers.
July in New England,
strawberry month and I
in business, picking
for five cents a quart,
sunrise to nearly noon
when I’d change from
dungarees with wet
brown knees, and wash
the red juice from my
hands. I’d rush to the triple
feature where I passed
on salty popcorn, jelly
beans and coke, a quart
of perfect berries already
churning in my belly
before the final chase.

THE HEAT OF DAY

A dry energy drains
winter’s anxieties.
What slept in earth
has risen, daylilies
variegated proof of miracles
beyond the singing parish
the ministrations of cheerful
priests. Nothing more sure
than the heat of midday
and traffic cued at stop signs
after midmorning mass.

APOLOGIES

(For Robert.)

We’ve lugged all day down to
the last. We’ll leave the old
cabinet, the chandelier sans
several crystals. You hand me
the big framed mirror, kept last
for the rented van. “That was
my aunt’s who raised me,” you say.

I place it carefully atop the load.
But when the tailgate opens,
no more aunt, no other kin, all
prematurely gone. No more
mirror, only fragments on the wet
blacktop and me saying I’m sorry
for all the things we promise but can’t do.
BOYCOTT

The cafeteria women are
waiting for us at the gate
with “Boycott” signs.
I’ve seen them for years
at work with a kind word
if I’m tired, some extra
fries when I pay. Now
their contract is up and
the boss has replaced them.
“No one cares,” one says.
“I’m fifty. Who’ll hire me?”
It’s one thing to give
sympathy, another to go
hungry. But when I
enter the lunchroom,
the new help looks nervous.
They should be. I leave
the food trays steaming,
go out to walk the line.

FOR LINDA OPYR

All my joking about you
topless in the photo of you
and your older brother
at five and nine in a backyard
kiddy pool and how cute
your grin, barely noticing
him—Gregory, squinting
into a bright July sun.

I didn’t know—that he
was dead a year from then
at ten. How you must be
post-traumatic even now,
the photo on your book
cover, an act of bravery,
the poetry unapologetic
therapy. No wonder

you win prizes when
your hero, your heart
was driven off to hospital
to die. How your words
mean more to me now
studying the sepia photo
of you at five and your
lost brother Gregory.

EQUITABLE DISTRIBUTION

(For Raz.)

He videotapes her leaving—
in case, for evidence—after
seven years of mostly arguing,
except for the uncontested divorce.
Her father pulls up in an aging van.
She packs every dish and pot
and towel and sheet until the van
settles to one side on tired springs.
He doesn’t care, and doesn’t
have to hold her hand once more
but does, putting down the video
camera a moment to grasp her thin
fingers, wish her a safe trip “home,”
acknowledging theirs wasn’t
for all those years. Then he resumes
taping with one eye aiming as they
drive off. The eye not looking
through the lens surveys what’s left.
When he re-enters his twice-mortgaged,
mostly rundown house, the echo
of uncarpeted floors is louder
walking alone. The video player
is also broken but he doesn’t need
a replay to be glad she’s finally gone.

ROCK PEOPLE

He brings a bottle of fast-
drying glue and searches
for faces, bodies among
small beach stones,
fixing them into statues.
If it has two eyes or just
a wink. If it has a dot
of nose or pitted mouth.
Misshapen head, seaweed
hair, crab claw for hand.
These creations from
what could be a nuisance
at any tide. Some bake
under a dangerous sun.
Others acquire oyster
ashtrays. Beach-glass
aficionados yearn
for well-cooked glass.

MIGHTY JOE MEETS LOPEZ DE VEGA

A five o’clock shadow was like high
noon next to your face. “Lopez
de Vega,” you’d tell me. “Now there’s
a real guy.” What did I know,
me a freshman, and you
an ageless Grad Dog.

In those days, there were
the undergrads, the hangers on
and graduate students—like you,
who seemed eternal. We coined
a term for all the talent in the world
who never focused, never finished:
“Despies,” Short for “desperados”
who stole through life,
the consummate underachievers.

Did you know you were a Despie,
destined to be borderline famous,
like the great Lopez himself?
Somewhere grad dogs, to this day,
still study de Vega, when he was born
when he died, the plays he wrote.

There have been billions of souls
who have lived and died, forgotten.
Perhaps some Ph.D. will write
his thesis on you and title it
“Dark Vision: Desperados
in the drama of Lopez de Vega
and Joseph Krausman.”

FOR DOCTOR FOURMAN

Even interning he was known
as the one who talked. Now,
seated, knees akimbo,
on a low stool, he’s bubbling
about his own son after
examining the eyes of a worried
father. “You won’t go blind.”
The line in the waiting room
grows longer. Patients
who haven’t met him yet
check their watches.
“Tell me what you want,”
he coaches. “I want
to see my boy grow up.”
“Don’t worry, we can fix you.”
There are miracles of modern
medicine, pharmaceuticals,
well-trained hands. But it’s rare
when the doctor listens,
rarer still when he knows how
to cure with reassuring words.
Leaving, his patient whispers
to those seated, “Don’t worry,
he’s worth the wait.”

POOR-GIRL WAYS

Eunice McMullen, you lived
on Mill Street where
four-story wooden walk-ups
housed hundreds like you
in your pleated skirts,
white blouses, brown hair
banded by a single ribbon.

Your father was one
of the drunks, off work
from the factory, but your
mother was famous for
carrying home the bacon fat
from houses she cleaned
to make Mrs. McMullen’s
Lye Soap, ten cents for each
grayish-green brick.

You’d sell them when you’d
go on evenings to babysit.
Forgetting how your mother
had just scrubbed and swept
you dropped crumbs on
the owner’s carpet.
“There’s pie in the cupboard.
help yourself.” A wedge
of apple, a glass of milk;
watching brand new TV.

The little ones tucked in,
you could explore those
secrets in the drawers.
And when they woke,
when they were wet,
you would change them.
A little wiping with a cloth,
a finger to probe where
girls should not,
a little penis to place
between your lips.

RETIRED IN LAKEWORTH

1.
The very little lady on the large
concrete bench on South Ocean
Boulevard, a three-wheel walker,
V-handlebars with bike brakes,
her hands high, still holding on.
Her husband used to ride her
on his big motorcycle. She’d
hug him round the middle,
close her eyes and fly.

2.
The gangly old jogger, hands
dangling hip high, hardly
faster than a walk, not just
huffing, wheezing toward
the condo where his girlfriend,
just sixty-eight, awaits—
a real looker! He stayed strong
for his wife through her last year
of cancer. Now she’s two years gone.

3.
The retired barber by his ’88
Fleetwood he polishes daily—
more a massage; cream
on the upholstery; whisk
broom in his pocket. His shop
would shine with the latest
equipment for forty-six years
until it closed when his wife passed—
but how he loves that car.

4.
Grandma paddling in a gray
one-piece and rubber flowered
cap. The grandkids splashing
so wildly she winces. For her,
68° is freezing but they insisted.
At least the pool is heated
and she wants to please.
How often do they visit and now
they can brag “I swam on Christmas.”

SIMPLE BLESSINGS

(For “all those who keep the earth in orbit.”
—David Leavitt, Family Dancing.)

Bless Connie Townsend
who, visiting when
a cousin’s son fell,
climbed the twenty
basement stairs to dial,
“His neck is probably broken.
These things happen.”

Bless her husband,
George, a Ph.D., Divinity,
Master of Psychology,
who told the girl, sixteen,
“1 to 99, the marriage
will not last. Get
an abortion.”

Bless the Townsends,
married for eight years,
and tow-haired Johnny
seated in his walker
as they serve the meal.
“His leukemia is in remission.
Who will say grace?”

WALKING TO MONTAUK

(Another of Paul Agostino’s spirit quests.)

The roadside is littered
with fast-food wrappers,
cigarette filters. Recycling
opportunities abound
but you didn’t bring
a plastic sack, only
beef jerky and a change
of underwear in your nap-
sack, and a walking stick
carved from a cedar branch
from a bulldozed lot.
Sixty miles is not Bataan,
nothing monumental,
but you learn a dozen wild
flowers by name and
the virtue of arch supports.
No one notices you
walking—except a dog.

WE DID DAN

We did one for Dan last night
who died about a month ago
but no one told the local news
which listed him still reading
Poetry Tonight 8 p.m.
Chancellor’s Hall
Dan Murray
and it was duly somber
duly weird. Tell me he’s
knocking down shots
coughing his cigarette cough
in heaven. Like hell. He’s
gone and we do this
for why anyone does a wake
or funeral—for us. Willis
was honest enough to say
how Dan got screwed
hanging out with the famous
who never helped him.
His aging former students
thanked him for their own
nonmeteoric lives. But we
knew this Dan better than
contest judges, better than
the gods who seldom invite
mere mortal to dine. We,
sagging fellow poets,
thinning hair, heavy max-
illary lines, stiffening slowly
toward our own last strophes
marching to the mike to read.
Then off in a crooked caravan
to the local bar where a few
folks bought shots and left
them on the bar for Dan
until the wee hours when
we couldn’t pretend anymore
bullshit and we drank them
ourselves and staggered home.

SUICIDE

(Zorg zich nit. Du nicht vermissen es.)

“I want to die ,” he’d say.
“Don’t worry,” my
Grandma would answer
one or another of her
depressive sons,
You won’t miss it.”

She didn’t, though
fading, fading was
no way to go.

When even warm
sun, sweet ocean’s
scent doesn’t work,
you may be ready
but wait, wait.
Why kill yourself?
You won’t miss it.

UNCLE HARRY

It didn’t take the Pope
to tell folks Harry was a saint.
He hit it off with everyone
of all religions: more than just
the perfect salesman.
Among the brothers
he was the gentle one
(another, clever; a third,
ambitious). Harry, in their
furniture store—fine blue
suit, black hair slicked back
with style—could coach
a couple into a complete
living room after their
bedroom was set. (Harry
gave them the ottoman.)
Even after he retired,
no one could stop his hand
from reaching in his pocket
to give his wife and kids,
relatives, even strangers
money. Unlike King Lear,
he traded his kingdom
for love. His only complaint:
“I’m just too busy. The kids
call all the time.” Some say
he’s gone now, but somewhere
Harry’s enthroned on a velour
credenza, blue suit swapped
for a cardigan his good wife
made. See him fidgeting
in his pants pocket to give
some little angel
a twenty dollar bill.

SHE VISITS ME

As I sleep in the bed above
where she slept, the bell
she’d ring for help awakens me
though even the hole for its wires
is now long gone. “Why don’t you
remember happy things about me?”
she demands. “Remember how
I’d hug the letter my soon-to-be
husband wrote saying
come to America?”

Indeed she’d dance a frailech
even at eighty remembering
how a three-piece klezmer band
bragged from the synagogue
to her sister’s that Esther
and Philip were married.
“I lived a Kosher life,
cooked for everyone.”
Good enough to fuel
five children to successes.
“And how I loved my children!”
Her pride! Even Uncle Charlie
who died at birth she secretly
remembered. “I only cried
because I wanted even better
for them and maybe to live
to see you married.” I’ve told
a hundred laconic stories
about her last years, her
catalog of regrets, her fear
of pogroms even in this country.

Forty years since she is gone
and now I see more clearly
Nanny, you’re right,
it was a good life,
alehoshalom.
NANNY’S GARDEN

In the side yard beside
the banking you fenced
off the neighbor to plant
tomatoes. Made dowels
like pikes to defend against
their racial slurs—”Dirty
Jew.” Tied thick stems
with terry cloth against
hands that pushed them
down. Planted zinnias
which grew from seeds
to heady beauties though
fingers reached to pinch
some blooms. You could
have fenced higher but
something about chain-link.
Instead you circled each
plant with small mud dams
to assure watering.
With an old tin spade,
you made fruit grow.

AT THE PIANO

Every piano I play first elicits
“Yiddisha Mamma,” which is what my
own would play and sing in the accent
she otherwise never had so that I
grew up respectful of the mother
tongue if not great music.

Eight years of piano lessons
harmony chords classical repertoire
and I got to playing a brisk
Turkish Rondo, nailing the left
hand like a drum and thinking
concert hall while friends smiled.

Then the summer of serious study—
Beethoven’s first Piano Concerto.
Hours and hours and of course hours
until my debut before my mother
who said “I haven’t played that
for thirty years” and sight read it
better than I could.

MY OLD MAN

Ma says my old man is slowing down,
doesn’t insult his brother-in-law
the way he used to. No more
“We’re leaving hungry.
Cheap son of a bitch, you
didn’t even feed us.”

And sometimes he’ll sit a while
without jumping up, no TV,
not a word, not even sleeping.
That’s how it works, entropy.

Even the ones born all wound up
wind up loose springs. “I never
thought I’d miss him swearing,”
Ma says.

THE OLD MARRIEDS

He lies sleeping,
head on her lap,
not less than eighty,
She, too, is old
and could not care
but she does,
caressing his hair
as he shifts, sighs.
The sun warms
his eyes. He smiles.
Sixty years
if a day, together.
Somewhere in
the next world
a house of love …

MY FATHER’S PACEMAKER

looks like a lighter in a pocket
under his very silky skin
there below his clavicle.
I imagine wires to his heart.
I could heroize him: how
he passed out alone at home,
awoke, dressed, drove
to his doctor, only to be rushed
to the hospital. “No one
ever walked in with a heart
rate of fifteen,” the doctor said,
installing my father’s pacemaker

which isn’t susceptible
to microwaves, he says,
though we joke about a jolt
that could cook him.
The marvel of micro-
circuitry, the incredibly long-lived
battery. Will they have to cut
to change it eventually or
will my father’s pacemaker

outlive him? Oh Ronson,
fire of life. Oh medal of honor,
oh ultimate personal computer,
do your job well.

MILDLY SUICIDAL

is like half an execution
or half an abortion.
“You’re depressed,”
she says in her helpful
nursing-home voice.
“I’m not depressed,”
he says, “I’m unhappy.
Who would want to live
like this?” The catheter
that drains him, the bag
full. The rash from sitting
sitting sitting sitting sitting
and the hand that should
reach, paralyzed. Who’s
there to scratch? Barely
able to speak, to move.
“You aren’t dying of anything,”
she thinks she’s reassuring,
“We can give you something.”
“To kill me,” he hopes but
instead it’s stupid pills so
he sits with a grin.

AT THE SEDER IN THE JEWISH NURSING HOME

Why Passover? We want you angel
to stop this very night for mercy
do not forsake those in nursing homes
first born or not, take them.
We are waiting for you old dependable,
doer of God’s work, to set us free
of choking fits and catheters,
of recalcitrant attendants, of waiting
every day for you. So don’t pass over,
rather come quickly, as we’ve
let the lambs live and scrubbed
the doors to our rooms and will laugh
at your countenance and welcome
you even as you prey. We pray
for you let our people go.

“WHY REMEMBER …

(… these things?” people ask.)

Dusk deepened into
umber illuminating
the new fall sky.
It could have been
a happy moment—
returning from
the playground,
supper waiting—
but he was bleeding,
a pattern of droplets
on his new brown
coat—ruined—
and the sun setting
over the factory,
smoke from a high
chimney catching
a last glint. Even
hurrying didn’t
stop the bleeding
or the shouts
of the boy who
hit him: “Dirty
Jew. Kike Bastard.”
It could have been
a time machine like
the ones he read,
a scene from Germany
a few years before.
No, it was his home-
town, now, and even
a perfect sunset couldn’t
stop the bleeding or
the boy shouting
at him, “Chicken shit.
Dirty Jew,” as he
hurried home to tell
his mother knowing
she would say “There’s
nothing you can do.”

PILGRIMAGE

If I were going to Mecca
and the ferry sank
it would be destiny
but boarding here
by tourist shops
and Bayle’s Dock
overbuilt with
convention rooms,
the trip is hardly holy.

Still, it is to home
and the aging folks
who, if they don’t
believe in a deity,
did live good lives,
worthy of a pilgrimage.

An aging traveler
wants only to nap
on the hard benches
of the Cross Sound Ferry?

HOME

If I were asked where’s home
I wouldn’t hesitate: Massachusetts—
cold, old, austere at least for
the Cabots and Lodges whom
I was asked to admire if not
emulate, coming, as I did from
the wrong kind. New England’s
winters are less charming
for me now. The old estates—
the Hydes, the Lynches have
crumbled, castles built on sand.
Thirty plus years on Long Island,
when I dream it’s still not home.

WHITE CARPETS

My friend in third grade’s parents
put in brand new white wool
carpets and we had to take off
our shoes even in the kitchen.
Of course we weren’t allowed
in the living room. So we’d
venture to the edge to hear
“I told you, stay out
of the living room!” A push
that propelled my friend
toward the plastic-covered
couch evoked a rush
of steps, a grab, a shake
and a shout, “Didn’t I
tell you to stay out
of the living room?”
so that we began to play
outside in any weather
even in the frozen world
of a New England winter
where one wants only
the warmth of a radiator
and a soft chair in
someone’s living room.

A PLEA FOR CONFESSIONAL POETRY

I’m waiting for the poem
about his daughters, already
grown, worlds away. DNA
connects them. He must
feel the pull. And the son,
the golden boy he had later
in life with a woman we
thought he’d tricked.
The precocious son—
after three fine daughters—
enough to make a liberal
sound sexist just describing him.
Where is the poem for his son?
And what about the wife,
so frail we worried, what
with money in her family…?
Some said he was a “digger”
but it’s stayed together.
I want the poem about the wife
(and the son, and daughters)
that tells the secret—of how
he creates new poems every day—
keeps creating—so maybe
I can do it myself.

NEAR DEATH

(A sonnet for Aaron Kramer.)

“Do not go gentle?” Dylan missed the mark;
as if we all must think of death as dark.
I think that death’s more gentle than a birth.
I’ve seen a light that glows beyond the earth;
but not a heaven, not Elysian Fields.
One needn’t find salvation; rather, yield
to that same light that little children miss
in nurseries where doting parents kiss
their fears away indulgently. But why?
Suppose it isn’t fear that makes kids cry
but yearning for the prebirth light they left.
Then go, good journeyman, gently cleft.
Greet death as quietly as candles burn.
From light you came. To light you shall return.

BANYANS

Banyans drop slow tendrils,
grounding to vast trunks.
The literati gather at Ernest’s
house, the guest list ex-
panding with his reputation.

Wrought iron chairs,
shade of arbutus, elephant
ear. Ernest, thinking he’d
prefer stevedores, fisherman
rollers of big cigars.

The Gulf breeze bothers
the wicker blinds.
A flowered skirt whistles
as she leans over
a black metal rail.

Stoking the black cat with
extra toes, Ernest foresees
his end, as surely as he will go
from port to port and mangroves
weave an island out of nothing.
FOUR TANKAS
CAMOUFLAGE

When choosing extra-
marital lovers, careful!
Pick one similar
in coloring to one’s spouse
so your longings look like her.

AT THE INSTITUTE FOR SLEEP

we grow tired. Some
have the strength to cry. Others
lie awake, dry-eyed.
The wise rest easy under
warm light, sleeping with a smile.

GRAY SUMMER WEEKEND

If it were sunny—
mandatory barbecue,
kids whining for beach.
Gray Sunday, threatening rain—
skip this week’s yard work. Sleep late.

PECONIC

After glaciers, storms,
slow flux of tide reshaping
quiet arc of beach
persistent horseshoe crabs play
their joyous game of coupling.

FOUR HAIKUS
FOR KATHLEEN WHO DISLIKES W.C.W.

Thirty-five pigeons
roosting on high tension lines
glow in late sunlight.

TOUGH KID

Ten-year-old, punk hair
square-shouldered swagger transformed
with Dad—little kid.

FALL SHOWER

Stainless steel sky sifts
rain through sunlight, colander
for mums and maples.

BOSNIAN CHILDREN PLAYING

In a world so cruel
a child could think a grave
is a playground.

POETRY GARDEN

I’m hauling peat moss,
sowing seed, creating
a garden from chaos.
I tear open bags, dive
elbow deep, scooping
dried cow manure.
Look at my hands:
whose are they? Dirt
under nails, calluses
like scales, cut knuckles
like stigmata. Where
are the poet’s delicate
fingers grasping
a cut rose or pen?
Planting begonias.

DESIRE FOR LAWN

Suspend disbelief. Purchase
only the best seed, high
in bluegrass. Miniscule
in weed. Water, water,
water. For fertilizer
endless handfuls
of hope until the green
sprouts root deeply enough
to mow. Roll carefully
wearing nothing. Enjoy
the salad illusion.

SMALL PRESS PUBLISHING

“This poetry thing,” she says, “just
keeps happening,” and she also says
she is one in whom a lump was detected
and excised. He knows four personally,
who died. He fears she will flare as five.

Ask what makes us fester and die.
He has his own theories, tells
his two pale daughters, even
strangers, never drink tap water.
More likely, it is a cruel god.

“Poetry,” she says, “is so much
a part of life for me.” He measures
his words as if counting iambs,
doesn’t reply. The last poet
he promised a book had no kids,
wanted “just to finish this work
to leave behind.” He managed
to string the job out an extra
year hoping to keep her alive.

ROBERT FROST

would sit with his liver-spotted,
thin-skinned hands resting
on his polished cotton slacks,
and I’d sit at his feet on a carpet,
young poet at a workshop,
Amherst College lounge.

We’d read our work, talk liberally
while he smiled silently
except once I slipped a poem
over his bony knee for him
to grasp, and watched until he
pushed it back to me, silently.

Later, I asked him “Did you
like it, Sir?” His face
composed of mostly rock and
Maine potatoes, his voice hoarse
as frost, he answered, “You don’t
find your voice until you’re forty.”

HOLDING THE BABY

Holding the baby,
a sleeping head close
to my lips, aroma
of shampoo, powder,
light pulsing of dia-
phragmatic breath,
a dance beneath
eyelids, a shift
of weight across
my chest, a baby
sigh, a closeness
emitted through
the skin.

THE LIFETIME CHANNEL

(For Aileen at age 7 ½.)

Lately, you’ve watched
“The Baby Story” day
after day, barely better
than home video, with
couples attending Lamaze,
seeing the OB-GYN.
You sit through every
midwife talk until,
twenty minutes in,
after the quick yelps,
push-pushes, there’s
a crown and, at last,
a birthing. If I sneak
my own peek, you’re
leaning toward each
final scream. “Why
don’t they show the front?
What’s happening?”
“I don’t know,” I say,
to duck. “You do too,”
you holler. But when
you also watch
“A Wedding Story,”
with its blond Barbie
brides, its Ken-ish blue-
eyed grooms, its token
interracial couples, you
believe me when I say
I don’t know what makes
a perfect marriage.

THE TOY CREATION

Her toys are continents
on the carpet, impossible
to navigate—tectonic plates
drifting ocean floors.

I sink them into closets,
only to see them reappear,
her creations more powerful
than mine. I’m just an archangel

with a message: “If you don’t
clean up, these toys may
disappear,” but she is
god of all Barbies.
HIS GOLDEN CHILD

“I’m God,” she declares
snatching a doll from a bath-
tub drowning. Later, she
blocks her ears and hums
when she is reprimanded.
“Stupid Daddy. Crazy
Daddy. I don’t have
to listen. You do.”
Sometimes she sings
little litanies of revenge.
“I’ll do what I want.
I don’t need sleep.
Who needs bed.”
Faced with such powers
I surrender, brute force
no answer. Reason,
language, fail.
Only slow and patient
worship will do for me.

THE KISS

My daughter wants to kiss me
on the lips, thinks it’s naughty,
something vaguely about sex.
I push her over-zealous lips
away. She’s wet with super-
saturated spit, giggling
her seven-year-old giggle.
This new weapon, lips, is
fun enough but add her
breathy hiss, “Just one kissss”
and it’s a scene from some
steamy cinema.
I’m always
glad for love, but never
liked wet kisses, preferring
a touch of lips, a brush of cheek,
but there’s my daughter,
grinning broadly, double
dimples that were cute
when she was littler. Now
she’s just annoying, pushing
her pucker at my face
and she won’t quit. If only
she understood.

NEGATIVITY

“All your poems come from
negativity,” she pronounced
when I showed her my newest
on the plane to China.

She always had powers,
said she came down from
the mountain to marry me
and only wanted a baby.

Is this the curse heaped
on me, another poem
written from negativity ?
What is creativity?

My father, already dying,
blurted out, “I hate
poetry,” even as we love
each other uncontestably.

Somewhere between therapy
and confession, between
image and revelation
the muse abides with me.

If she had seen the sun
devouring the tops of clouds
beyond her shoulder as we
flew toward opportunity …

If I had not let her words
tick as toward some terrorist
attack, we might have landed,
we might have lived.

Now I have only this screen,
these words, this fulfillment
of her prophecy for company
and yet I’m glad.

CENSORSHIP

Each day I tear articles
from papers—today
a naked child, burned,
crying. Her photo,
it says, helped stop
the Vietnam war.
An army lieutenant
called in the strike
to flush out peasants
hiding in a temple.

Now they’ve found
the little girl, all grown,
and want to honor her.
She says that she
forgives them, though
their uniforms still
frighten her and she
still feels the pain
of them cutting
the dead skin.

I tear an article on
Wal-Marts, Kmart,
Blockbuster—how they
remove anything that
may offend their
customers—no dirty
words, no sacrilege,
no politics, sanitizing
album covers, lyrics,
softening their videos.

I fold these articles
to show my classes,
aware some blockhead,
conservative, anyone
empowered by the myth
he’s right, could ask:
“What does this have
to do with English?”

I’m not teaching literature,
I’m teaching empathy.

AT THE OPEN READING

I’m reading poetry for myself
not you. You know it’s true.
You’re not listening, thumbing
your manuscript, thinking what
to read. And I’m not listening
either, thinking “Look at me!”
and “Am I grand?” So
what are we doing here
on folding chairs in a barn
with a guitarist in the wings
who isn’t listening either,
tuning up, mouthing
lyrics to his new song?

I’m writing poetry for myself
not you. You go to book parties
to be seen, eat the cheese,
drink cheap wine, and then
you read one—open mike.
I’ve done it all, folks,
done it all, been author,

sponsor, publisher.
So don’t tell me you’re
too broke to buy a book.
I know why you are here.

Put a hundred poets in one
room. Call it an open reading.
Don’t even charge a cover.
See how they show up only
for their reading time,
leave right after. Where’s
the charm? They say, “For love
or money.” If you aren’t
getting paid and I’m not,
listen, it must be love.

THE WORKSHOP EXERCISE

After nearly thirty years
you’d think he’d learn
there’s nothing in a college
classroom worth describing
but he’s telling them again,
“Turn on your senses: listen.”
To what? The hum
of fluorescents, dull rubber
tread of sneakers, voices
from a farther room?
Oh, they’re willing enough
and so is he. “See, even
the grit accumulating on
newly waxed linoleum
can tell a story.” But
after all, it’s just a two-year
school. Why think, “describe
the classroom,” important?
Will Shakespeare emerge,
or T. S. Eliot? Who?
What good could this do?
Still, something, for all
the heat of a September evening;
somehow, for all the effort
to attend; some way,
these lines must mean,
as surely as this dim
light that leaves
our windows travels
forever outward searching
for a single sympathetic
mirror to send it home again.

SHY

She says, “I’m shy,”
sits next to me all term,
says nothing. “I’m shy,”
in a workshop isn’t good.
I prod her to participate.
Take a chance, telling her,
“You’ve got talent.”
She’s not dumb. Could she
think she’s ugly. “Talk,” I say.
No go. She sits next to me,
chews gum, seems to listen.
No makeup, plain jeans,
long hair without so much
as a hair clip. Sometimes
we both sigh. At her grade
conference, she finally talks
a little. I reach to shake her
hand, noticing for the first time,
instead, a shriveled bird.

YOUR KNEE

is an engine
pumping piston
for a solid hour sitting
in my classroom
that plump polky
bouncing what could
you be thinking or
are you running
from, toward me
while I talk and talk
pretend to teach you
yearn to flee through
that jiggling knee only
if you slept you’d dream
and wet the bed or screwing
you don’t have to imagine
wetness but here
in this dry institution
you generate just enough
sweat jouncing mostly
your right knee so quickly
(I’ve timed you) three times
a second all but enough
to redline on the tach-
ometer of our hapless
existence.

WRITING PAPER

Paul Blackburn
beat his old shirts
to pulp to make
paper for his poems.

Douglas Howell,
papermaker,
said “It takes
300 years tell
good paper.”

I’ll settle for
rice paper,
a touch of oil,
and dash of salt
a meal if not
the test of time.

THE SCAM

If I’m supposed to be working
why am I having fun? This
is a college. Three credits. Be serious.
They even want me to catch them:
spot quizzes, short answers,
final exams, mental gymnastics—
no pain, no gain. Now I know
I’d better whisper so the Dean
won’t hear: they pretend
to pay me. I pretend to work.
If the student is an empty vessel
it’s not my job to find a cork.

ALONE IN BED

It’s 2 a.m. in a Holiday Inn
and I’m alone in bed
which is another story
and the proverbial train whistles
have awakened me. I realize
I’ve got pain deep in my chest.
My left hand has gone numb.
I’m nearly sixty. So it’s time
to make a few decisions—
me dialing 911, the EMTs, et cetera.
Or dial that pudgy woman with
the sallow skin, early twenties,
at the night desk. If she comes
to my room, something might develop
but I’m not dying to be in her arms.
I recall the suitcase I lifted
checking in, the chest pull.
I’ve got a hundred more reasons
I could be in pain, and how dying in bed
would be rather pleasant. I roll over
and sleep the night soundly with a smile.

NEGATIVE ENERGY

She shows up with enough pills
in her to rattle when she walk;
looks toxic; talks nonstop,
asking the same dumb question.
“Why did you leave me?”
Baby, if you don’t know,
who’s going to tell you now?
Sometimes I wish I could take
those pills, but I relax—I’d zombify.
She leaves with a spin of pebbles
from my driveway. Luckily
or not, we won’t go on
this way forever.

DINNER IN SILENCE

She sets the dishwasher
though he hates the noise—
complaining she has to clean
this mess—and churns on
about her fate: no job;
the kids don’t need me;
no value to my intellect.
I meditate on headlines,
pretend to read; disappear
into ink and paper. Dinner done,
the dishwasher steaming sanitary,
I rise like an adolescent, guilty.
She raises the telephone receiver,
unaware that no amount of talk
can cleanse us.

FLOWERS

He thinks of sending flowers
though she hates him,
secret bouquets of lavender
and baby’s breath.
They had a child they
called their precious
orchid. Creating life
the gods never mistook
for love. He’s neither
god nor man enough
to know he’s beaten.
She wants to tend
her garden by her-
self. Alone at night
he dreams they’re
reunited, roses
awaiting the new light.
When he awakes, well
into morning, the sun
has burnt the petals
like a blight.

THE TERRITORY

Divorcing the kids
goes with the territory
everyone says
but his small voice
cracking on the phone
is more revenge for her
than she could ever plan.

Once he and I were
pals, first names.
Now I argue
with her for
an afternoon
bickering over
what time
to pick him up—
at school, at home?

“What will we do
today?” he asks.
“Anything you’d like,”
I say indulgently.
He whispers just
loudly enough for me,
“I want to go back
in time and live with you.”

HE VISITS HER

framed in the dark
of his meditation. No one
believes he leaves his body.
They see the husk—his placid
smile, the whiskers, whatever
incongruities clothe him. He’s gone,
arching over Canada, the Rockies,
rolling, icy wilderness, then 3,000
miles of sea to Hong Kong where she
sleeps in a slide-out cot by her mother
who stole her from him. Carefully,
he alights—his shoes left
with his body in New York.
Playfully, he tickles her baby chin,
coaches a sleepy smile. Then,
with a lurch he’s back in his body.
Talk about cheap tickets. Astral
Airlines! Or, sometimes he just
talks to her photo in its brass frame.

CUSTODY

In the theatre he sits
a row away from me
as if to make the point:
his parents have separated.

He holds back tears
at all the silly jokes
other kids make that his
mom and dad are different.

At dad’s he sits in the old
brown recliner, TV on mute.
“What do you want to do?” I ask.
“I just want some quiet.”

The court rules by law not logic.
Unless the kid is bleeding
there is no child abuse.

TIME’S CHILD

How can he let her go,
his littlest child? Each day
he wishes time would slow
so she won’t grow
away from him.
To make time stop,
he thinks of pain—
the headache that
wouldn’t go away:
exquisite, imprinted
vellum, buckram
leather binding,
a book to last forever.

He could contract
an illness and malinger,
an injury so slow to heal
time takes forever.
Rather, he decides
to shave his head
knowing how slow
his hair will grow.
That look, a friend
confides, is ugly.
Good, he thinks, why
keep the pain within?

TROPHIES

Every year married
another trophy
to wow our friends
even ourselves
and our son—
so much younger
than two daughters.
Strangers ask,
“Is this your
second marriage?”
“No, and he was
planned.” Some plan,
reduced to a divorce
statistic and all
that’s left—arguing
who owns the trophies.

WHEN IS IT EVER OVER?

How grateful he’d be to never
see her again—though she
mothered his three kids.
Divorce should be an end.
They linger near from circumstance,
the youngest still joint custody.
Love lost is a leaden thing.
Her accusations, his regrets,
and the truth reduced
to “two sides to every story.”
Say how she raged,
she beat the kids,
it’s sour grapes. Say she’s
crazy—no, really crazy—
and she’s “the poor thing.”
Don’t explain and don’t
complain: hard wisdom
to heed. Only, let there be
one paycheck free of alimony.
A thousand a month for life?
How come? Because when
I got my divorce they didn’t
have the death penalty.

IN HER DREAMS

If she awakens it won’t be
as a cockroach but a fine
silver bug darting amid
trails carved under rocks.
Even as a child she carried
a great weight. Now
she fears light, runs fast
as a centipede to catch up
for all those years as if some
thumb and pincer will grab her
just as the stone is lifted.
Imagine living so long
never to feel fresh air.
Run, you frantic bug.
It’s one last chance
for the high grass
before you disappear.

TORTURE

“Torture” wasn’t in my vocabulary
before you. It rolled from your
tongue to my surprise in the Blue Jay
restaurant, an early date with you
complaining, “That professor tortured
me.” And I was sympathetic.

Later, an editor would torture
your creativity. A dean tortured
you when you were teacher. At last,
I earned the honor, as sadist
and psychological abuser:
“Why are you torturing me?”

After twenty years I
became your Grand Inquisitor,
only to swap my title for
someone who abandoned you.

FLASHBACKS

The pain pops up
at odd moments,
driving, the window
down, a fresh breeze
and even though I
am happy, a wave
of images working
toward what?
I only meant
to shop, a quick
stop at the post,
lunch with a friend
and here are the old
haunts, scary enough
to make me scream.
I keep driving,
won’t pull over.
If I crash at least
the memories will die.
THE SUBSTITUTE

“Being with you is a substitute
for love,” he said, sorry
he was lying—trying to avoid
eye contact because eyes
are always arrows
and she, the archer.
He could have told her,
“Mine is a father’s love,”
but she was not his daughter,
leaving just “love,”
both spiritual and sexual.

She trusted him, though
both shivered in the icy waters
of sexual sublimation. So
he resolved to tell her
she was all a young man
could ever want and then some—
smart, talented, attractive—
even if the words weren’t poetry
and he was hardly young.

TO THE JUNKYARD

The love that’s left—
old crankcase oil
that just won’t drain.
I clean the plugs,
put on new wires.
The spark just
isn’t there.

If there’s an honest
body shop, tell me
where. But this
was no accident.
I went at it head-
long and now I
have to pay.

The engine races,
idles, quits. Rust
everywhere. In the end
it’s the salvage heap.
There’s barely a part
worth saving before
the crusher.

THE MONK

For days I’d assign myself not speaking,
hiding in the house a thousand miles
from home where I could
not speak if I wanted to.

She talked endlessly
usually blaming.
The kids were too small
to speak, only saying words.
Adults know how to aim.
I stopped talking to her
and that was the end.

Later I considered the virtues
of silence enough to want
to be a monk. Then, I bought
the OED and got on with my life.

SOMEONE’S HUSBAND, SOMEONE’S WIFE

She parks her sport car,
by the bay, steps out—
short skirt, quick-open
snaps—then climbs
in the cab of a pickup truck.

His plaid shirt signals
turning the corner,
right tail light out.
Their look says
motel, hourly rate.

The sea drains slowly,
low tide revealing
a muddied channel.
Gray gulls squat, mindful
of the lessening light.

EVERY BABY

beckons, its cry my need
to see the helplessness
in me set free. No matter
someone else’s kin,
I want the child to smile,
carry everything from candy
and toys to tricks to make
a baby sleep. Open
a nursery, study pre-
school, adopt, I should
be someone’s mother
but am just by myself.

SUFFERING

It’s such a comfort to suffer,
choosing physical pain for starters,
optional surgery, bleeding, facial
swelling, trouble breathing,
swallowing and even speaking
which leads to silent suffering,
heroic in appearance and then
there’s psychological suffering,
exquisitely subtle if concomitantly
unheralded, beginning with a little
thought, perhaps an “I love you,”
or a more pedestrian, “That
looks like a good stock,”
and wham, you’re hit
and run, sturm und drang,
though no one really gives
two shits for someone else’s
suffering. Next to, “You’re
right but there’s nothing I can do,”
“The shmice wasn’t on my ass,”
is the greatest glimpse into
human nature. But I do love
my suffering, there eternally,
for as long as I chose to live.

FOR MY FRIENDS WHO TRY TO CHEER ME

Please let me wallow in self-pity.
I don’t need sympathy or un-
derstanding. I was married
twice. Now I’m wedded to pain.

My first “X” says I wronged her.
I never should have left. I say
I ran for my life. In court, such
he-said she-said is a joke.

My second “X” was more a “Y”
as in, “Why did I ever marry
her?” Of course I’m totally
to blame. Worse, she says
I’m the devil. So tell me why

you think that I’m not happy?
We don’t chose our parents;
our siblings are accidental;
but wives are conscious constructs.

I’ve built these buildings.
Don’t tell me to tear them down.

QUIESCENCE

Some men enjoy
floating in the heat
of a woman’s anger.
I don’t.

Science teaches
even hell must freeze.
Entropy, the slow
surcease of energy.

But this waiting, waiting
for the cooling.
I never did
excel at physics.

MARRY A DANCER

It doesn’t last long
first love as lithe
as Martha Graham
and oh so flexible
but soon not
as spontaneous
and occasionally
painful as a pulled
ligament.
The half-
life of a dancer like
American marriages
short and if you stay
together the body goes
leaving only aging
promo shots and an
uncontrollable urge
to choreograph.

BACHELOR SONG

Lately I have discovered
the strangulations I mistook
for love are nearly gone.
The rare woman who might
chase me I turn away,
not even because her body,
as old as mine, has lumps
that even kneading will
not soften. I’ve had enough
of love, enough of enemies.
The insults an errant stranger
wields aren’t insults anymore.
I used to think immunity
meant ingesting poison.
Now, I simply diet.
Pain in the neck? No need
for a CAT scan. Change pillows.
If people knew the virtues
of an empty bed, they’d
marry mattresses. Not
that I foreswear pleasure;
rather, I have discovered
the leisure of silence,
the intensity of being free.

COURTLY LOVE REVISITED

Dying in you is my biggest fear.
I’m drifting in your river,
drowning thinking of you,
your skies, your seas.

A capsized ship, my heart
buried in the cool waters of your hell.
You, who killed me, poisoned me
with my never forgetting

loving your destructive eyes
behind that pretty mask.
You write your killer’s script
of me burning in the hell of you.

Our tryst a bullet you fired
from your .38 caliber heart.
You pulled the trigger
looking into my eyes.

HER NAME

When her name
is mentioned
a lower chakra
opens—a tight-
ening of ligature
between anxiety
and desire. I
shudder recalling
our intimacy.
“Get over it,”
folks counsel,
but memory
is so erotic.

OLD FLIRTS

These intimations of love
must stop: sideward
glances at a meeting;
the calculatedly casual
brush of clothing as we
leave; the extra moment
of silence balancing be-
tween strides before
we part. Soon, conscious
will become obvious.
We’ve both been there:
the exquisite falling,
every regular detail
relit by you. The tea
will need less honey;
the table talk, eloquent;
even diner cuisine will
excel. Oh, and the bedroom,
it will have the hauteur
of a Bronte novel—
so pent-up, so grand.
Neither of us wants this
even as we finally allow
ourselves to stare,
to reach for a hand;
hold back that step to ask,
“Are you doing anything
next Friday?” “Yes,”
you say and instantly
destroy me. “But Saturday
is free.” And so it’s started.
A FOG

I remember a fog
more like another
world where even
our hand disappeared,
held out to feel the way.

A fog we licked
off our lips, acidic
from the breath of a city.
And I remember

the house where we
stayed warm by a stove
with whatever to eat.
No way to shop,
we fed on love.

FURNISHINGS

That night in Zdanic
the empty walls
begged for furniture.
We had only a mattress
on the floor, a box
of belongings doubling
as a nightstand. We found
each other for the first time
though not so willingly,
as if it were your fear,
my fever that made
the moment real.
Early morning’s buses
dieseled past. The tick
of a windup clock.
Your hurt cry, my cough.
At last, our sighs.
SHE PEELS CORN

She holds
the sweet corn
between her
legs pink
cotton shorts
long blond hair
knock your
breath out
so unconscious
of the moment
stretching the ear
peeling back its
outer skin
to reveal
the succulence
within, licks
a finger wet
with corn juice
waiting for
the rolling boil
then butter
butter
salt.

LOVERS SLEEPING

You are
the gentle
nudging at
my back
late at night
under silk sheets.

Real love
takes us
as we sleep,
wraps us
in subtle peace
of someone there.

Cold feet,
clearing throat.
A light caress,
a waking blink.
A conscious tickle—
who needs sleep?

THE BODY SHOP

He keeps a can of WD-40
by the bed. If it squeaks,
oil it. If it’s rusty there’s
the body shop, Bondo
and a paint job. Just when
she’s looking good again
he hits that low abutment.
There goes the front end.
Drag her in for an alignment.
Get her fixed and hope
there’s still life in the old
engine. Used as they are,
you know how men
can love their cars.
Better put some sawdust
in the differential.

GRATITUDE

For the rush of tears
at precisely 8:07
your time, cleansing me
of fear so I can sleep.

For your filling me
with pleasure
in a world so cruel
even children weep.

For joy and health
though we both know
they’re slight.

For brightening
the darkness of my night.
SPRINKLERS IN A BOOKSTORE

Suppose the books did catch fire,
frayed wires or even censorship.
These iron flowers abiding evenly
along rows of cold pipes will protect us.

But those who remember Noah
know what water can do.
Best to memorize or
be prepared for recreating.

THIS POEM IS YOUR GIFT

I can’t buy you anything.
In stores, where jewelry glistens
gold, silver, amethyst. I can’t
guess your style. When I buy
you a scarf you smile and hang
it in the closet, never to be worn.
Why are some women easy,
others so hard to please?
I bought you roses but they
only made you sneeze; sent
a greeting card with humor
but you wanted romance.
At movies I haven’t got a chance—
you hate my films, glance
at the popcorn and wish
aloud it had no butter. So,
in resignation, here’s my poem,
addressed to you with thanks
for being you. Late, dark, abed
when you lie next to me,
utter, “I love you,” I know
at last I’ve made the perfect choice.

THE CHI OF POETRY
CHINA JOURNAL
1. The Chi of Poetry

(Mt. Auburn’s peak, Hong Kong.)

Energy that rises
from granite floor of sea
through ancient stone
to peaks deep green with pine.

City heat that rises
from a hundred concrete streets
past man-made flats
strained through banyans’ strands.

Balance point in time
when dark and day agree
to celebrate their merger
with a portrait tinted amber.

2. Early Morning, Beijing

Overcast quickens to rain
across wide boulevards,
cleanses Beijing cobblestones,
washes willow and pine.
With the slow extinction
of street lights, a city
awakens with a long,
low groan of thunder.

3. Regular Days

The sun descends through a coal-smoke sky,
diminishing to a dim drop-light over darkening
factories. Blue-coated workers pedal home
along gray boulevards, stop to buy bok choy,
white rice, perhaps one piece of meat.
The concrete walk-ups wait with little
rooms, fewer niceties: steel chairs,
bed frames; a gilded Guanyin smiling
her ceramic blessing. Slowly the buildings
light with the blue of strip fluorescents,
gas flames beneath ancient iron woks.

4. Gong Fu in Little School

Twenty-three small boys
in red tee-shirts laughing
in their rows. The master
stands them straight, feet
half-meter spread and
shows them Posture One:
Right hand attack, left hand
defend. Then faster right out,
left fend, right, left, right left
pumping so fast a train
accelerates downhill
as children laugh
learning to kill.

5. The Practice Room

A concrete classroom so empty
that it echoes. The studio grand
fairly tuned if slightly flat. One
small girl strug¬gling with her scales.
If she outlasts the drills, accomplishes
what a million can’t, it’s whirl¬wind
tours and foreign lands. For now,
her hands aren’t doing what they’re told.

6. Wan Nian Qing

The 10,000¬-years-green vine
entwines the white l0,000-¬
layer trunk with tendrils
climbing higher than the tree.
Sometimes though love seems
equal your heart can over¬power me.

7, The Great Leader

Gradually he learned
to sleep with his eyes
open and was promoted.
Later, he learned to talk
in his sleep and became
a great leader. Finally,
he slept forever and people
cried “God!”

8, Nothing Without an Official Chop

He had his
buttocks print
reduced to
an official
seal.

9. The Politics of Trash

A peasant points a bamboo stick
into the trash, selects scraps of foil,
plastic; stuffs them in a sack.
What he won’t take the wind will,
rats or roaches. In America, we guard
junkyards with mean-¬jawed dogs,
outlaw trash picking and the homeless,
would rather waste than care.

10. Dream Interpretation

In my dream
I am speaking
fluently in Chinese.

When I awaken
there is no translation.

11. The Couple Who Protested

She wears a white lace skirt, teddy bear
tee shirt, sits at a teak table serving
Celestial tea. “Beijing is changing,”
she confesses in a whisper. “I think
our bookstore proves this,” her fist
tightening, her face a prison white.
Behind her, mostly empty shelves. “Before,
when we protested, my husband spent
seven years in jail.” He enters, as if on cue,
a chubby face, an American-style handshake.
“My wife spent fifteen years black-listed.”
The new Bohemians? But other writers
fear a set-up and won’t buy there.

12. Circle within Circle

(Strolling at Beijing’s Temple of Heaven.)

Square within square
dragons devour the sun
disappearing behind
the Temple of Heaven.

Row upon row
cedars filter the sound
invading from
the city traffic.

Strings, flute & drum
speakers consoling
the people drawn into
the belly of night

13. Within the Forbidden City

Where the rare endl trees,
dappled bark a muted purple,
white and green, lean across
an inner court, a dozen
people sit. A dozen more

angle to take their picture.
It is an average Tuesday.
Most people must work
or starve. But who
are these people wielding
cameras like scepters
while a billion others toil?
14. Fresco at the Summer Palace

On the 179th step of the interior stairs
ascending to the Temple of Buddhist
Virtue, among the thousand panels
depicting cats and butterflies, cherry
in bloom, crickets, golden carp and
ladies gossiping, a courtier leans
to view, perhaps, a procession up
Longevity Hill, or allow a summer
breeze to billow the sleeves of his
silk gown, while behind him, half
hidden by a white marble pillar,
an assassin draws a dagger.

15. Climbing the Great Wall

It’s said “You aren’t a man until
you’ve climbed the Great Wall.”
Of 5,000 kilometers, even a small
section by cable car, if not on foot,
will do. I’m here atop it at this very
moment, posing with the fellow
costumed something like Genghis
Khan for a picture that would make
my old drill sergeant glad, who told me
“No one can make a man of you!”
Legend says one worker died for
every meter. Others claim the wall
contains their bodies. Imagine
a stone snake asleep atop
a ledge of mountain.

16. The Lao Tsu School of Journalism

News flash
a white moth
alights
on a sun-¬bright
yellow mum.

17. The Discretion of Cedars

(At the Hall of the People, Beijing.)

The cedars still grow
if thinly, escaping
the concrete courtyard
new growth over old
office walls. One can
only guess how quickly
they’d be cut if they spoke
of love, of truth or other’s lies.
Aging bureaucrats stoop
to their jobs, too sure
they are the root
to see the branches rising.

18. Dissident Cats

(In Chinese, “Mao” can mean “cat” as well as the “People’s Hero. ‘‘)

See the stray cat scamper behind
a tree to eye a straw-hatted beggar
who tears each trash bag open with
a bamboo stick. Someone whispers
“In America, even cats have special food.”
See the thousands waiting to stand
for 30 seconds by Mao’s crystal casket:
fat, smiling, you’d swear he winks.
Someone whispers, “He always
ate the finest food.”

19. A Visit with Mao

Ask a peasant why he’s there,
he’ll say, “Admission is free.
Why not go in and see?”
But in alley ways and paddies
where people must compete
for scraps, they pay a fortune
to get out.

20. So I’m Here

In a city whose name
I can’t pronounce
and so I can’t remember;
where they light up their
few tall buildings
like Christmas only
that is banned;
and no one cares
what they say in
front of me because
they know I’m short
on language, why,
when I say anything,
am I surrounded not
by admirers but cops?

21. The Business of China

is business now. Just say,
‘‘joint venture,” wealth appears.
If apples proposed a merger
with bananas here, a hundred
foreign corporations would
pay to plant the garden, build
the loading docks, manufacture
boxes. Only who can guess
what shape the fruit will be?

22. In the Small Village

Where a year before
they had no road,
only hardened footpaths
climbed the gentle slope
toward Bread Mountain,
now villagers stop their hoeing
or let down the leather tethering
their cow to stare at a 4-wheeler
bobbing over crushed stone.

They’re building a guest house
by the mountain. Ask if they’re
glad to see a car, happy with
the progress. “What good
is a road that goes nowhere?”

23. The L-Shaped Man

emerges from the public toilet
like a dark odor, his own face
parallel to earth. If he was ever
young he may have been four
four—blue jacket blackened,
filthy pants but now, a broken
jackknife opened to the twilight
of a city park.

24. Building the Night

All night cement trucks
diesel into place the base
of a new skyscraper pouring
concrete forms. A hundred
shovels, scrape and tamp until,
4 a.m., the street crews clean
trailings, close the gate to let
the concrete cure. All day a guard,
a fence a story high to hide
the work. In Beijing, even
progress is secret.

25. How Cold Was It?

(In Harbin, a northern province.)

So cold you forgot your feet
had toes. You wished you
didn’t have a nose. People
chopping sooty snow wore
so many clothes they looked
like big blueberries with shovel
handle stems. Even the famous
ice sculptors protested it was
too cold to carve.

26. Beyond the Terrace

early light attacks the mist
on Bai Yun Mountains
locked iron gates protect
the foreign expert’s sleep
beyond the compound laborers
already flood the streets
who says our natural
state is freedom?

27. Subversive Verses

Today we will overthrow the artist
who painted this sky. Too much gray,
too little definition for the White Cloud
Mountains. Awake and protest for warm
sun, the humid hues of summer.
Down with dingy spring!

28. This Washing Machine

is made by the Guangzhou Nautical
Instrument Company and when it churns
we are lost at sea—groaning passengers,
wrenching machinery. But when it spins—
Oh Christopher Columbus, oh Magellan,
oh Marco Polo—even the round earth
can’t compete with the wild turning,
turning under its smooth, green skin.

29. Fung Shui

(An ancient science of “wind & water, “ seeking
a natural balance between people and the universe.)

Hong Kong planners
have tamed the seasons
with high tech-smart buildings
etched in stainless steel,
protected from typhoons.
But as winter’s cool, dry
breeze wears out, a warm
spring mist brings fung shui
back to Hong Kong where taxis
are red-eyed tigers prowling the night.

30. Poetry Reading, Sichuan

By the door a wide-eyed fellow
looks like a Beatnik with a goatee,
turtleneck, disheveled hair.
What’s he doing in Mian Yang,
PRC? He disappears into my 1959.
Who was that masked man?
Ferlinghetti? Ginsberg? Corso?
Look, he’s left a silver poem!

31. The Poor Man’s Nightclub

Shirt of cotton, coat of wool,
soft silk underwear. (Beneath,
the skin still wears. A sudden tear.)
So-cheap razors tempt a life¬long
beard to shave. (Hide the sagging
chin, the deep mouth lines.)
Hong Kong’s “Poor Man’s Nightclub,”
a street of stalls. (Bring small change
to bargain. Don’t buy the mirror.)

32. Victoria Bay

A hydrofoil unties
a long white ribbon
as it carries tourists
toward gambling halls
in old Macau. A sampan
slips across the silver surface
of murky waters. Those
who gamble now on Hong
Kong might consider how
jealousy runs deeper than generosity.

33. The Politics of Dragonflies

Dragonflies mating
above Mount Auburn
slide through
a buttery breeze.
Below, people
chase rumors
along the variegated
oil of gutters. Beyond,
a different dragon
vies for power. Here,
only translucent wings
aimed at pure procreation.
CHINA POEMS
THE CHILDREN OF SHENZHEN

He sees the children
from a distance, playing;
no, begging. As he nears,
an infant lying asleep—
it looks unconscious—
on newspaper; a cup for coins.

The children—toddlers
to maybe five—some naked,
all blackened by filth,
but smiling, noisy,
asking for change. So thin,
so painfully thin, he
must avert his eyes.
Turn to look at what?
The tourist junk in booths
on either side? The border guards,
olive uniforms starched stiff,
their brass shined bright?

He sneaks another look—a girl
who could be older, very naked,
very dirty. “Don’t give her anything”
another tourist says.
“It just encourages them.”
He wants to scream. To punch
one of the laughing guards
who lights a cigarette, oblivious.

He wants to take off
his own fancy, raw-silk coat
and place it over her. And what?
Take her home? Feed her?
There’s no helping it, he thinks,
nothing I can do. A dozen more
kids calling “Hey, hello,”
from the other side
of a chain-link fence.
At least they’re clothed.

Furtively, he takes a Hong Kong
dollar coin and drops it in her cup.
The hollow, metal sound
embarrassing, as if he’s caught.
It’s an alarm! Hurry,
hurry toward the crossing point
to another life, where beggars
at least are clothed, where
social welfare pretends to care.

Inside, at immigration,
the passport line moves slowly
and he is glad. For this damn
inconvenience, he vows,
he’ll never bother
coming back again.

WHO WILL REMEMBER THE SIX MEN?

(Killed when the Hong Kong-Canton Ferry ran them down in their small boat.)

The overnight ferry to China charges
the dark waters under a half October moon.
Long gone, the tourists snapshotting Hong Kong
skylines. Well past the line where New Territories
merge with The People’s Republic’s special
economic zone. Now there’s an off-key Karaoke,
the clatter of Mah Jong tiles in a smoke-filled
room, a slouching crew on standby. The murmur
of patrons in the top-deck bar can’t convince
the Captain this is fun. Full speed his diesels
spewing fumes, he aims to be on time.

Six unseen men are not his business. Six men
who fish. Six men who’ve nothing inside their
small sampan just starting out to make their living.
Even when seen, it’s “Sound the horn but don’t
slow down.” The ferry presses on, draining its
kitchen grease and bilge into a warm, black sea.
The thud of collision barely rouses passengers
asleep in second class; private cabins unaware.
Already four men have disappeared into the wake.
A fifth is spotted floating. Pulled aboard, bleeding,
he soon dies. A sixth will wash ashore where cranes
peck steel boxes from cargo ships down-river.

The matter takes two hours. A small news story
notes: “Six men were killed or presumed dead when
they failed to yield the right of way to the Hong Kong-
Canton Ferry.” The Ferry, undamaged, sails again
at nine p.m. next evening. Who will remember these
six men¬, four never found or bodies not reported.
Who were the passengers, who the crew, who
the Captain so bound from here to there that life
was cheap, that life so unimportant?

RAIN DANCES

1.
the little girl
in the rain
raises her arms
folds her hands
atop her head
imagining
an umbrella.

i see her
frightened face
a concentration camp
and hear a hail
of bullets

2.
the bike pursues
a rivulet
toward me, rider
covered in pink
plastic poncho

what’s this
extra legs
her child behind
her hugging or
a very strange
small lover

3.
the young man
striding ahead
turns suddenly
eyes me under
my fancy umbrella
resumes his
brisk pace,
stops to turn
eying me again

am i famous
a curiosity
or does he
think he sees
his own long-
lost umbrella

4.
a young woman
oblivious to increasing
rain walks straight
and tall, her yellow
sweatsuit soaking
singing a high
sweet song

5.
my blue umbrella
kisses your pink
umbrella each time
we pass on this
narrow path
if this rain
keeps up we’ll
make a match

i remember
gregor mendel
picture one baby
blue one pink
one polka dot
umbrella
cradled
next to you

HEAVEN’S LAND

(The region of Chi Gong Healer, Yan Xin.)

Wild cotton flowers dot the farmland
near Yan Xin’s home. People can
plant two crops a year. It’s
heaven’s land, most fertile soil,
warm climate. Only, there,
on a hillside, where they
carved a cave in red clay soil,
someone says “Yan Xin
played there.” On a small
mount above lettuce and cabbage,
“Yan Xin spoke and 3,000 stood
in rain to listen.” There’s his
school—a mud-walled building
where, now, a photo shows a U.S.
President shaking hands with Yan Xin.
Is he their next great hope?
The corn drying by a farmer’s
door knows not to answer.

A DREAM OF HIS RETURN

Yan Xin, protect your family.
Build walls and fences to keep
from faces of people who would
steal the energy. Yan Xin, your
bashful sister, meek old mother,
troubled younger brother. Protect
your father though he may protest.
Protect your house, dark now
only for lack of a strong bulb.
Brighten it with your own light.
Yan Xin, protect your village
from artificial present, plastic past.
Too many people poison a well.
Protect your kin, your kind,
your country. from blood shed
for changes ¬what some say they
do to heal. Protect us from bad medicine.

THE ART OF CHINESE STREET CROSSING

It’s not that drivers want to kill-just maim.
Here people at the wheel don’t steer, they aim.
Just like the Army, safer if you find a crowd:
stand in the middle, keep your mouth shut and obey.
Beside the monument for martyrs of the Revolution:
Here lie the victims of the Huangshi Automotive Factory.
To build a car in China: make a big horn.
Attach the frame and engine.
Lethe has no charm, Jordan not so wide,
the Ganges no greater power, not even the Nile
surpasses a Beijing boulevard aflow with evening traffic.

LI BAI

(Born, 725. Drinking alone, he died in 762, when
he tried to embrace the moon in the river.)

The fingers of the willow
draw their endless V’s
in the river drawn toward
the spot where Li Bai drowned.
A whirlpool forms by the small
island where he drank alone.
Now, a woman bends to kiss
a man, his head resting in her lap.
The willows stroke the water
where Li Bai drowned. Two lovers
leave only one reflection of the moon.

CASH FLOW

The Pearl, edging
its way from Guangzhou
loading cranes, smoking
stacks saluting cargos
moored off shore.

The Pearl, flooding
bargain bins, tourist traps,
Chicago to Champs Elyse
with good as quickly
broken as bought.

Pearl, irrigating
local crops with
waters so polluted
farmers will sell
not eat the vegetables.

A Pearl, luster
so long gone it flows
now, sickly green,
the color of currency.

THE MUD IS RED

(Across much of China.)

Churned by boots, sticks to the soul.
Glorious red muck, clay for bricks,
play for kids, work of art awaiting
the right hands. Red warrior paint,
mud facial, grit for teeth, food for plants.
Slower of quick steps, humbler
of ambitious hearts, lubricant
for heels to slip and fall. Chunks
of red mud cleft from cliffs,
rolling randomly to roadsides.
Red mud, delta slime evolving
upward to mountain tops only
to descend again in downpours
to widening streams. Rain runs
off with red mud. A scandal!
Can’t hide, is found reddening
a murky local pond.
“Mud,” my Grandma said,
“is all we’re made of. If someone’s
stuck up, snubs you, spit a little
in your palm and rub until
a little skin turns into mud,”
reassuring all they’re not so grand.
Red mud: dust in disguise.

INVOCATION AT DENG EN

(A village of twelve families in the mountains of Sichuan.)

May your spirit be wild cotton flowers
blooming where people work freely
in the fields. When back tires mind
troubles find this small beauty—
purple petal, yellow corolla—
nearby or within.

WHERE LOVERS MEET

Blue neon paints false moonlight
on a hotel wall. Two people yearn
to have it all—one, fame the other,
fortune. “Perhaps we were lovers
in another time,” he muses.
“If we were lovers it was
in no land,” she sighs. Today,
he didn’t find his name in
a major library. Today, she
priced condos on the phone.
He seeks her slowly under covers.
“When lovers meet,” he says,”
it doesn’t matter where they roam.”
“No one,” she says, “finds
love without a home.”

THE HUNGER ARTIST

Mistaking his lack of appetite
for a statement, people joined
his cause: freedom, peace, justice,
war-a menu of intense intents.
As he thinned, their numbers
swelled, until he became a wisp
and they an avalanche
careening toward a nation.

POEMS FOR MY FAMILY
THE PRO

(For Dan, age 6.)

He stands before
a hundred grownups
(“Adults,” he’s say.
“Don’t baby me.”)
reciting poems better
than any kiddy rimes.
“I hope you wont
let my size fool you.
I’m small but I’m serious.
All I want is
to inspire you.”

MOMMAHOLIC

(For Aileen.)

She sleeps with one eye open,
her bottle still resting
in her lips. A fist
clutches her mother’s
cotton nightgown.
Mommaholic! Momma’s
superglue. How she
won’t let go of you.

And I am disoriented.
A wife before, my other
three clung to me—after
a fall, after the bump
in the night, when they
were nauseous—so strong
a love it was unexpected
but always welcome.

Now, you hold her
all day, won’t let her
cry herself to sleep,
insist on serving fresh
not bottled baby food.
There’s no rule for this,
I know. She’s eight months,
ready to walk, but her
grip on you tenacious.
Why do I, fifty
times as old,
feel jealous?

YOUR AZALEAS

Azaleas arranged in pots,
the gardener watering the rows—
pink, purple, white, for sale.

Once you wrote of being
rootless, “nowhere a home,”
and how, alighting one spring
day, azaleas bloomed by your
rented door; bushes so undistinguished
they’d gone unnoticed, exploded red,
violet, double petals. You cut
branches and, hugging them,
brought them inside.

The gardener adjusts
a pole supporting one thin shrub.
If no one else will buy it,
I will take it in, remembering
your springs and how fragile
beauty is.

AILEEN

When he remembers, it is
not just her body’s warmth,
tucked in a blue, cotton sling
pressing against him, but
her smell, somewhere
between milk and powder.

Perhaps her mother still
dresses her in bright, flowered
prints, takes her to the botanical
garden. Before she was his
precious orchid. Now,
The crystal vase stays empty.

HEROICS

(For a 16-year-old amputee.)

After he’d stolen fire
the Gods chained him
to a rock, tore him apart.
And Roddy, after he’d
made his leap toward light,
touched the high voltage transformer,
his hands, his mother explained
“Were like this.” She made two
welded fists, “Two chunks
of charcoal, and his arms . . . “
They had to cut them off.

A month they kept him chained
in sleep until, still on a respirator,
he awoke. ”Why can’t they
put them back?” he asked.
The day nurse pecked
at the charred skin
where his coat and shirt
burned off inside the fence
where no one dared to help him.

“At this point,” his mother says,
“it hasn’t gotten any easier.”
And the Gods—it’s never
mentioned whether once
they bound him to the rock,
once the bird beak began,
they simply left
or stayed to watch him.
TEACHING TECHNIQUES

“I love you, “ he tells her
right in his class. Her head
snaps back. She blushes.
Tonight it’s 80 degrees. humid.
No one would stay willingly.
“It’s just a trick to wake me up,”
she figures. ”You might say,”
he says. The din of crickets
outside the window dulls the mind.
“But perhaps,” he whispers to himself
“we’ll get to know each other.
Then it could be love.”
Soon enough they’ll worry
about icing on the highways,
tell each other “Safe home.”
If caring is love
no one will have lied.
MY COLLEAGUES DON’T COME

An easy pun. Freudian slip.
But they don’t come to readings—
not even meetings with fine writers
interest them. A circuit through
drab, overheated halls, reveals
doors opened, unabashedly.
One at his desk grading,
another on the phone: “Yes,
it is required reading.”
A third stares blankly out a window,
while nearby a poet chats
enthusiastically with students.
Lord, let all writers remain
ignorant of the malaise
or malice of academics.
Once, while hurrying
to a Stafford program,
I called naively, “See you
at the reading,” and good old
So-and-So said, “Sorry, I can’t come.
I have an academic standards meeting.”

JUST AS THE PRESIDENT EXPERIENCES IRREGULAR HEART BEATS

Watching the softball flung
at him, his son behind
the backstop calling his
name, he feels a faint
flutter, then adrenalin.
A few hundred miles away,
the President slows his jog,
bends forward to catch
his breath. The man
with the briefcase
holding the launch code
smiles. The bat cracks.
What startles father
and President both—
just those few seconds.
The flight of a sphere
or missile, the target
unimportant. Rather
the clarity of the air,
and making contact. JUST AS THE
Later, the President
breathes more easily,
reassured, and the father
is proud of his single.

THE LOGIC OF ASSASSINS

That night he paid them
back for all his pain.
All the years a peaceful man,
patient sufferer,
he dreamt and drenched
his night clothes.
Out of body, he rose
to kill: the abusive boss,
insulting attorneys,
petty clerks, hirelings
who took pleasure in the hurting.
But not alone. He enlisted
other hateful people:
Hoover, Nixon, Noriega, Bush,
the local Goodyear dealer,
his ex-wife and Pirate Jenny.
One to move his legs.
Another to hold his hand.
Another to aim the gun
until one squeezed
his finger on the trigger.
If a dream, he prayed not
to awaken. If he awoke
would he be one of them?

POEM ON THE OCCASION OF A MEMORIAL DAY
READING “REMEMBERING WAR”

Frightened, we meet to plan
a reading, a protest of the war
and we are frightened. As if never
before, a word could bring broken glass,
a storefront vandalism, public condemnation.
As if yellow ribbons were tied to stones.
Tug one and you’re bleeding. Frightened,
of this shadow President—“The Perfect
Gentleman,” they call him—

Who trades in cocaine, backs butchers,
Who invokes Hitler to hype his war,
Who points with secret police finger.

We are in a back room, frightened some red neck,
some ordinary citizen, some mother-cousin-friend
of someone sent to the Gulf will accuse us
of not loving America:

Not loving Bob’s Big Boy breakfast 3 eggs, bacon, toast.
Not loving Lotto Pick Six, smoke shops.
Not loving buck-twenty-five-a-gallon gas.

We live American dreams of suburbs where you aren’t fright-
ened to walk a street but picture the four of us—
2 poets, an artist, a bookstore owner—
debating how we can protest and pass it off
as something else. God, not a peace rally.
Lord save us from being labeled antiwar. So frightened!

What happened to “group complicity?”
What happened to “refusing to take the ticket?”
What happened to the guilt of Hiroshima & Nagasaki?

This is what happens when power corrupts, leads us
to the Big Lie, told, retold, mediated, mediarized.
A lie so BIG we’re frightened. But wait just a minute!
No one was frightened!

Not a single soldier on the front.
Not the airmen ejecting over Baghdad.
Not even the one who sold out his country on Iraqi TV.

He wasn’t frightened. Do you believe it? He beat his own face
hoping he wouldn’t be used. Sure, he wasn’t frightened,
after dropping enough bombs on civilians to be a candidate for
at least a bullet if not a stick of dynamite stuck up his own ass.
He wasn’t frightened. We had no cowards,
no dissenters, no defectors who, at the risk
of being beaten, swollen-faced, misdirected,
might have told the truth:

That we we’re not bombing cockroaches but men,
women, children.
That we we’re only doing it for money.
That we shouldn’t be there.
That we should not have been there.

Yet, we four were so scared of speaking out,
so fearful we’d be chased, caught, beaten, made to profess their
brand of loyalty, we were too frightened
to call even a reading of poems for peace
other than “Remembering War,”
or we’d be called kooks, crazies, cranks,
rotten un-Americans. But do you blame us?
Who here has the courage to say, plainly,
the enemy is us, U.S., is Bush,
the Seven Sisters, the Bankers, Oil, their Hierarchy,
that Oligarchy that has choked us into silence
so frightening, even now we only
dare “reminisce about war.”

THE SENTENCE

(“We do what only lovers can—make a gift of our necessity.
— Leonard Cohen.)

Blindfolded by night
we discover love.
Clothing debrided,
we await the shot,
the slow release
of energy, a gift
of our necessity.

Mr. President,
we beg your pardon.
General, grant us
amnesty. Honorable
Governor, show
mercy at this
our eleventh hour.

Behind the light
the source
grows dim.
Behind the bullet
the consequence
of the gun.
After love, what?

ON READING A BRIEF HISTORY OF TIME

(For Steven Hawking.)

1. Ancient Wisdom

(Hawking says, “If you meet your anti-self, don’t shake hands.
You would both vanish in a great flash of light.”)

To name the beast is to know it.
If you meet a monster, call it
by its name. Offer it your hand.
Better to create that flash
of light than slaughter and decay.

2. Old Time Religion

(In quantum physics, the speed of light is absolute.)

Aquinas asserted there is a god
and then said that he’d proved it.

Einstein declared light was absolute
and no one could destroy it.

Koheleth whispered
the vanity of human wishes.

3. Same Story, Different Day

(The term “quark” derives from a cryptic passage
from James Joyce: “Three quarks for Mr. Marks.”)

Call heaven “quark,” hell “antiquark”
their meeting “annihilation.”
So Armageddon is retold
and physics explains creation.

4. A Doppler Love Poem

(By the Doppler Effect we can tell the universe is constantly ex-
panding. However, there are “singularities” wherein all logic
fails.)

As I view you through this telescope
of time, your hair becomes more red—
your waves less frequent and as
your distance from me grows,
I am more blue, as if rushing
toward you. Doppler knew
that both of these could not
at once be true but we all know
in love there is no logic.

THE UPSTAIRS TENANT

Hans in his stained underwear
at the door thanking me
for my kindness. His red eyes
half closed, no clothes—
just urine stained underwear,
a walking suicide. Hans
holding forth a hundred dollars
for being “such a great guy
to me. You’re a wonderful fellow.”
“No, Hans, I don’t want
your money. No, Hans, I’m not
your shrink or mother.”
Definition of a good tenant:
someone you see once a month
on the 30th with the exact
amount in cash. “Hans,
I turned down a 23-year-old
waitress so you could have
this place.”
YOUNG MOTHERS

Young mothers
in blue jeans
wait by the roadside
their kindergartners
toeing a b c’s
in winter sand.
Women about 25
(still ID-ed
if slightly fatter
bellies, thighs)
watch their kids
board yellow buses;
wander back inside
their rented houses.
THE MAN WHO SAID “MAYBE”

Jozo said a trip
to the U.S. took less time
than returning because
the earth was turning
favorably. Try
to explain the world
as a single entity—earth
sky and sea—he’d
listen patiently.
Next time he’d mention
travel, his theory
of anti-gravity
was there again
more steadfast than
Galileo’s pendulum.
“Jozo, if a helicopter
hovered over a city,
would he next city
come along eventually?”
“Maybe.”
DIOGENES IN THE DINER

(Long Island, New York, is famous for its elaborate
diners, often managed by families of Greek decent.)

Beside a plate glass wall,
a faint reflection of me
for company, I’ve paid
for breakfast, lunch
and dinner, been here
so long I own this diner,
sipping Lipton from
a detergent glass.
When she appears
I’ll know her.
She’ll look through
the window, passed my smile,
pause a while, come in.
Only then will my life
begin. Till then
I wait, a lantern
and a sandwich in my hands.

EIGHT DIVORCE POEMS

1. The Guilt Fuck

She addresses it with more care
than usual, coxing him hard,
caressing. Always a pretense
of wanting, of it feeling good.
Even a surprising wetness.
But then, annoying whispers—
“Hurry. Finish.”—so that
his coming, like her fucking
becomes an obligation.

2. Plans

She makes a net to thread
across his bed while he’s away.
He’ll raise the covers,
creep next to her not knowing.
She’s sharpened the words
she’ll say, softly, until he comes.
She’ll lie there, as always, pretending
until the string begins to tighten
more than her legs squeeze
when he tells her to. How she
will squeeze him into darkness
as she waits for him.

But he sings praises to his empty bed
where he levitates above the flowered sheets
until a hand reaches for his throat—
hers waiting for his dreams to choke
with the weight of two dozen years
wrapping his limbs, tugging
with a tear that leaves him manless.
Awakened, he sings praises to his lonely bed,
to a world let loose. No dropping back
to earth now, no need for the mattress,
the artist’s rendition of flowered prints.
The net is cut. He’s diving for the light.
3. You Don’t Have

You don’t have my long hair
anymore, to run nails through,
finding the small wounds it hid,
soothing my cries for love.
I’ve cut it, razored myself
to whitewalls like some punk.
And you don’t have me to argue
with when you overheat your winter
rooms where secretly I’d lie awake
alone long after you fell asleep
(or fell asleep to dream of hell).
Nor do you have power to summon me
or even call. The courts protect
us from each other and ourselves.
You haven’t a husband called “him”
in endless calls to family
and friends, nor a husband
to call any name at will.
You’ve only you now
and I have me.

4. Single Again

Late at night he reads the Pennysaver
personals, seated cross-legged
in pajamas on a newly-purchased
queen-sized bed. He could have
moved with his old mattress
but this was the clean start.
Only it never seemed hard to sleep
before (it was the days with her
that hurt) and he didn’t
realize how much a new bed cost.

5. Invocation Before Custody

Take this child
cast in sunlight
scintillation of gold rings
melted now for amulets.
Tend the open hearth,
a surgery reducing
all to ash.

Take this child,
censured for living,
saved like embalming salves
for the belly that
bore him, the loins
the bear the blame.

Take this child to fire.
If cracked in kiln, destroy,
as potters dissatisfied
with their wares.

Take this child.
Who wants him?
Hair combed by revenge,
feet fettered by love,
eyes focused on
what is left.

6. The Ex-wife Who Swam

If there was water she swam—
an ocean in all but winter
a summons to appear
in plain tank suit
white bathing cap, as if
it weren’t vacation but a job.
A pool meant a sunrise plunge—

one hundred laps or more.
I remember the chlorine taste
of her muscular, cold shoulder
when she returned. Even now,
when I see a motel pool
I feel unloved.

7. I’m Not Ready

I’m not ready for my dreams,
shut them out with drugs
that lock me in stony sleep.
I’m not ready to lie awake
conversing in my mind;
not ready to answer for
my sins, my crimes.
That I accuse myself means
I’m not ready. Nor do I
wish to contemplate or plan
for all my plans of comfort,
a lifelong family man,
are gone. I’m not even ready
for the half-sleep moments
of solitude before one sleeps—
the gratitude we owe for living
every day or confidence
they’ll be another. But most,
I am not ready for the truths—
the terrible inventions of my sleep
which, listened to, are no more
terrible than who I am or want to be.

8. Moving Sale

What will you give me
for this oak desk,
refinished, only slightly ink-stained?
This etching by a fellow
who may be famous? Why
is it when I go to sell
it’s 10 cents on the dollar?
This fancy stereo? No, not CD.
How can I keep up with technology
when I can’t even cope with me?
“Simplify. Live in the woods!”
It’s not as simple as it sounds.
Maybe you’d like to buy my car?
My bed? Now take my wife . . .
What is the net worth
of a human life?
These days are it’s
a psychiatric yard sale.
WAITING FOR THE COMMUTATION

Winging it over ramps
through Queens to Long
Island, suddenly all
traffic stops.

It’s 4 p.m.
It’s been a warm fall.
It’s getting dark early.

We idle, ignore the endless
cemeteries beside the road,
creep inches toward
someone’s bumper.

Only, nothing is moving.
After an hour,
there’s no reason
to run the engine.

Better roll down the window
or get out of the car.
Somewhere, word passes,
the conjugation of two
trucks must be cleared.

The sun is setting:
a child’s orange drawing
over gray tombstones.

Comradery overwhelms us,
sitting on hoods,
leaning on fenders
to confess, commiserating
worried wives,
fretful husbands,
troubled kids at home.
The high cost of living.

Dark envelopes those
who have stopped their labors.

As suddenly, traffic
moves ahead. Embarrassed
we retreat to cars,
yearning for a commutation.

LENORE

1.
Her books on DreamWorks counseled:
“Record what you have seen.”
Lenore kept journals of her
inner beings, sure that she
could tame them.

2.
Lenore saw her cancer
as a vine, a green
and growing thing and when
it flowered, it had wings,
took flight. She lay supine
beneath its beauty.

3.
Her poems were fences
protecting flowers.
“When I told my doctor
about the pain, he said
‘Of course. You
weren’t supposed
to live this long.’”
Leave it to a doctor
to break the garden gate.

AT SIMPSON’S READING

(In the library reference section.)

In his poems he says:
“There is no such thing
as a bad life.” Today
he laughs as he read.
Over his shoulder
on library shelves:
Encyclopedia of Social Science.
Statistical Sources.

Louis, who can be at least
two people: writing
his marvelous poems or
fussing that he isn’t loved:
Womanlist.
Judaica.

For now all’s well
the audience adores him.
he’s loose, personable,
ready to tell the truth:
The Complete Astrology.
Holy Bible.

But who will we meet
at the reception,
kindly poet
or angry kid?

THE CHANGING OF THE CLOCKS

You wake up unexpectedly
at 6 a.m., sun barely
in the sky, think
it’s your heart
but no tightness
in the chest.
Anxiety? no
cold sweat.
Not even a worry
what price or
can you get it
when you want it.
Only the birds
that woke you—
Blue jays, wise guys
and thieves, joking
as they steal your sleep.
They call each other
to remind the changing
of the clocks. Sun’s
up. What about you?
Scream at them from
the window, “Can’t a guy
go back to sleep?” They
slip to a further branch,
start their calls again.
At least there’s no need
to remember what you
were trying dying from.

SPRING THE AGE-OLD QUESTION

(For Adam & Eileen on their 25th.)

If pine weren’t wisp,
linden a late spring
festival for noses;
if oak weren’t a graduate
complete with tassel,
would we have hope?

If earth weren’t a washer woman
with a sponge, the sky
a window cleaner,
would our lives be bright?

If zephyr weren’t zither,
birds a reedy chorus,
the distant din of cars
a section of scratching strings,
could we know love?

Cold spring becomes
the sudden heat of summer.
Longer days remind us of
long nights we touched.

LONG ISLAND SPRING HAIKUS

1. Rocky Point

How slowly the oaks
revive, ignoring April’s
sudden flashy green.

2. Stony Brook

May, and sea breezes
hold at sixty. Long Island
resists its summer.

3. Port Jefferson

Late June, deep breaths can
make you high. The Linden tree’s
in bloom on Main Street.

CANTICLE ALONG COUNTY ROAD 58

queen ann’s lace
queen ann’s lace
queen ann’s lace
thistle.

goldenrod
goldenrod
goldenrod
thistle.

snapdragon
heather
clover &
thistle.

milkweed pod
milkweed pod
milkweed

away!
THE HUNGER ARTIST

Mistaking his
lack of appetite
for a statement,
people joined
his cause:
freedom, peace,
justice, war—
a menu of
intense intents.

As he thinned,
their numbers
swelled, until
he became
a wisp
and they
an avalanche

SOMEONE EXPLAINS

Someone explains “psychosomatic”
as “the body’s answering the mind.”

Gurgling to breath despite his asthma,
he wonders why, if ontogeny recapitulates
phylogeny, he wasn’t born with gills.

Another explains that “healing
is the human spirit smiling.”

The doctors once told him
he was dying, though
their test results were inconclusive.

Beyond all modern medicine
there is the human will.

Then his breathing stops
and he drowns, watching his life
flash as vivid color pictures.

Revived, they ask what he saw.
Recalling them he knows.

careening toward
a nation.

THE POET AS STILL PHOTOGRAPHER

No long shot needed—
no establishing view—
only a small, black thread
forming a perfect G clef
on a grout seam of a marble floor
so that when one notices
so small, so very particular
an object, there is
nothing more to say.
THE UNIVERSAL LANGUAGE

CHINESE PUZZLE

(In the Ionian Sea.)

On my back, I become a great turtle
treading water with finned fingers
webbed feet. head back, ears below
the water, I hear ships as distant
as the poles, a hum that teaches me
all sounds are there for those who
listen. Deeper, immersed, I sense
all flowing things in layers of salinity
and light, undercurrents through
a vast cold space of sea. What if
I am only in a bowl on the back of
a turtle carrying me? Emerging, tired
from my swim, my body lies land-
heavy on its blanket and I imagine
a hundred soft, new-hatching eggs,
turtles rushing across sands to slip
through a surface lacquered
with the endless gold of sunsets.

BEFORE THE GATES OF THE SUN

(For Nat & Nina Scammacca, 14 July, 1988.)

At 92˚ a soft sirocco
dries the skin, drains
tension from my chest
as the din din din
of an evening Mass bell
calls out to Trapani.
Mist over the Egadi Islands
masks them like a veil
over a young woman’s breasts
and the hurry of a car
ascending to Mount Erice
penetrates the hiss of pines
shading the villa. Slowly,
the city expands to embrace
its neighbors, suburbs: Paceco,
Xiti, Marausa. Modernity
blended with antiquity, huts
with condos, supermarkets
with windmills combine
to make an American
poet feel at home.

SICILIAN PIECES

1. At the Fishermen’s Market

Whether to buy scungilli
or calamari,
needles or devil’s fish,
the black ink sauce,
the rubbery texture,
the long, bony body
or poisons lurking
within. Whether to buy
or not, the question—
whether to eat!

2. Along the Roadside

The farmers’ fires blacken
spruce, cook prickly pears,
make incense of the pungent
eucalyptus. Revenge
for the highway separating
their present from the past.
3. Atop Mt. Erice, at the Temple of Venus

The little boy standing
at the edge of Venus’ well
where six thousand years
of humankind have worshipped
utters the ancient words of awe,
“Ahh, quanta lire dove ecco,
Mamma mia!”

4. At the Gates to a Garden

I stand at a balistrarta,
admire a well-kept garden
in a courtyard below, when
a cake-top bride and groom
arrive, assume a statue’s
pose, ask me to move out
of their picture. Once married,
I oblige, noting their business-
suited photographer bustling after
to beat them to the next pose.
When will they see my view,
trade in the photos
for solitude, the fondness
for a life of quiet travel?

5. The Latin Lovers

By the steps of the church
of Milo, small mountain town
in Sicily, a movie poster:
“LOVE WITHOUT LIMIT.”
Between Trapani’s Hall
of Culture and the office of the Mayor:
‘THE ADOLESCENT SINNERS.”

6. Lost

One turn of a narrow way
in Erice and I am lost.
Motorbikes echo between
stone and stucco walls.
I call you but am not heard.
On this mountaintop of myth
and history, for all the screams
and cobbles have heard,
I’m rendered dumb
and I am lost.

7. At the Mountain’s Base

On a mound of shale a soldier
with a basket searches for snails—
babalucci—his brown uniform a post
raise among the slabs of white
and gray. He could have carried
a rifle. He could have mounted
the pillbox still standing
on the hill near the road. Instead,
he is on guard for his supper,
returning with a basket and a smile
to present them to his girlfriend
at the station. Supper with her family.

8. Geraci Sicolo, Sicily

In a voice half boast,
half accusation,
the fruit vendor
negotiates the narrow
cobbled street
of Geraci Sicolo:
“Frutti fresca!”
My fruit is like
the coolest breeze!”
Morning, mist wraps
round this Greco-Norman
town a half-mile high
in the heart of Sicily.
By noon, the summer sun
burns away the clouds,
revealing pastures
parched brown
and olive trees
resilient as the people
who have clung
to their mountain
for two thousand years.

IN MY FRIEND’S VILLAGE

(Jozo Boskovski was born in
Dimir Hisar, Macedonia.)

In Dimir Hisar sits a gap-
toothed boy, face already
tanning into wrinkles.

Next to him, a barrel
of fermenting plums
gathered not by climbing
but off the ground
where nature dropped them.

He feeds branches to a fire
under a copper kettle
cooking plum mash. A coil
in a water barrel cools
what he’s distilling.

Tomorrow, he’ll rise,
unbathed, and gather plums,
kindle the fire from its ash,
smile his gap-toothed smile
squatting by the kettle
that he watches.

He’ll offer you
the sweet, warm cut
of schnapps if you ask him.

YEARNING FOR THE SOUTH

(Title of a poem which speaks of the love
Yugoslavian’s have for their land.)

Stay only a week or two
and you’ll say the land
is pristine, driving
a mountain pass
passed Kicevo toward
Skopje, clusters
of red-tiled roofs
under a slate-blue sky.
But the people yearn
to burn the sky
with the acid
rain of industry;
are happy to afford
an oil change,
spilling 10W-40
into storm drains
that rush to the river
Vardar. See them
watching from bridges
where the water emerges
blocks later to spread
like a rainbow promising
its pot of gold.
BLACK DREAM

Here, by a river called Black
Drim, I think of calling you.
I could say, “I love you,” in six
languages. The moon is three-fourths
full. A four-piece band blends
Balkan songs and American pop.
I could say, “I miss you,”
six different way.
The music fades to faint applause
on the veranda by Lake Ohrid.
Thirty kilometers across moonlit
waters, the mountains of Albania
lie roadless and unreachable.
I could call and say, “I want you
here in so many ways.” But here,
where waters swirl to whirlpools
rushing from the lake, the sound
is sweet and calming. At home,
“black dreams” are frightening.
At home, there is too little
patient listening. I could call
you but in any language, I’d fear
our arguing. By this dark lake,
black river, I relish the silence
of all languages.

WHITE SUN

A white sun sets over the mountains
of Macedonia: a statement of purpose.
As surely as the waters of Lake Ohrid
let sunlight penetrate to depths
of thirty feet and more,
this sunset needs no filigree—
only the whiteness of mist
borrowed from Lake Ohrid,
heightening a deep green crest
of mountain. The sun,
most ancient clockwork,
measuring the pace of a donkey
bound home after bringing pears;
the white sun, deepening the tan
of tourists on a hotel shore;
the ancient sun, ripening
into shadows over this ancient land.
VILLAGE PORTRAIT

The sun rises over Ostrilici
long after the first light of day,
clearing the mist from the valley
as old women string tobacco
by their stone steps; heating
the brow of the maestro kneading
brown mud and clay to cement
the stone of a new hay house
as his helpers set the fresh-hewn
beams. For traffic in and out,
a small brown horse and cart,
a city car to buy honey
or a truck delivering a new TV
to tempt the folk toward city ways.
Midday cackles and squeals,
merging by 3 p.m. with shouts
of a dozen kids released
by a school bus, rousing
a sheep dog’s bark or donkey’s
bray. By the time dark
envelops Ostrilici the sun
has long since dipped behind
the Iron Mountains. Lights
dapple the small village
together with the last glow
of ash beneath a still,
the flash of a just-lit fire-
place soothing a family
into a cool fall night.
THE TRANSLATOR

(For Enzo Bonventre.)

The translator bends close
to the page of the original,
thrusts back in his chair
to gloss a word; wet a finger
to turn a page and peck
at the keyboard, rendering
American into Italian.
No computer can perform
such magic. Only a blood
missing with blood transforms
foreign into familiar—
as man and woman become
one to make a family,
as men draw a drop
of blood to become brothers.

TRUTH AND JUSTICE

(For Bob Schenck, the explorer.)

A man walks
to an Indian River
finds the night shade
pleasing, drawn by fire
in four red berries
swallow the bella donna
realizing water, too
can explode into fire

In Pakistan a court
sentences a robber
to lose his right hand
and left foot.

The man awaits
darkness with a smile
as when, a child, he leaped
from granite
cracked ribs
and skull because
only a fool tells
air from light

The amputation is
performed humanely
the robber tranquilized
administered a local anesthetic.

The man converses
with death, saying
knowing you will die
you need not
but knowing you will die
you will asking
did you hear the one
about the explorer?

Witnesses grin as hand
and foot are lifted
to show fingers and toes
white and curled.

Seated in his easy chair
he relates how
frighteningly he died
then how is it you’re
here now one doubter
asks and still alive
you call this living
the man smiles.

INTERPRETING THE FOUR QUARTETS

He hands me Four Quartets
translated to Albanian.
He’s thin, looks Indian,
loves my poetry and wants
to translate. He wears
a long-sleeved flannel shirt
despite hot weather. Drugs?
His voice confident if low,
a slightly British accent.
If he lives long enough
he’ll have me published
in his country, happy
to do this favor.
But he’s weakening,
dialysis isn’t forever.
He makes copies of my poems
returning the originals,
a medical evaluation on top:
acute renal failure
of undetermined etiology.
Terminal. Critics
reading this account
may say poems should not be
mere reportage but even
at the prestigious
Struga International
Festival of Poetry Evenings
there’s more to life
than poetry.

THE GIRL FROM MEDJUGORJE

After mother went mad—
in India, alone at the Ashram—
we flew her home to a private ward
and helped her find reality,
combing fingers through her hair.
Life for me was bare despite
university, friends, family.
Someone suggested Medjugorje.
I climbed the steep stone hills
until I sat on the dry earth
immersed in shadows of a boulder.
No one told me what I’d see:
A sudden diffusion
of white light.
A heady brightness.
The parting of a cloud.
Perhaps a natural phenomenon.
My mother’s gray-blond hair?
Why should I care exactly what?
It saved me. Weak-legged,
I struggled down to find a nun,
asked for refuge, received a cup
of water and an admonition
that I was meant for this world.
I tell you this so you may wonder.

TOURISTS’ GUIDE TO MONTENEGRO

(For David and Anna Maria Parks.)

The mountains of Montenegro aren’t black;
rather, varicolored bands of limestone—
whites, seams of red clay or gray peaks
which bear the weathered look of the widows’
faces who walk the narrow streets
of mountain villages, themselves dressed
all in black. The coast drops cliffs
into crescents of green Adriatic
where small, walled cities draw
tours, so that each medieval town
now guards itself against the diesel
roar of buses—within the walls
reserved for walkers through cobbled ways
or shoppers always ready for copies
of ancient wares. Someone says
Nikolai and Melina, last King and Queen
of Montenegro, recently moved back—
though dead for forty years or more—
the people of this neo-socialist
Republic massing for the pageantry
of putting royalty into gilded tombs.
But Montenegro, from its name up,
thrives on contradictions
(its famous Lake Skalar
nearly disappears depending
on the season) and there’s
far more life in Titograd
than may first show
in a tired store clerk’s eyes.

ETYMOLOGY OF LOVE

They say the English language
grows one hundred words a day—
already 100,000 ways to make sense—
so why, when I try a simple
“volem te,” in Serbian, should I
expect you to believe me?
Ten thousand poets have never
said what love is. In bed, touch
was our grammar, transforming
sin to sentences., the body
paragraph, the gentle art
of punctuation. Apart, we only
have these letters and the hope
that love is a language of its own.

THE DUMB SHOW

Suddenly, I’m dumb.
No chance for puns or clever
comebacks. Even small
talk is too big for me. The man
behind me coos to his infant,
“Bella ragazza, bella ragazza.”
I strain to hear, try to mimic him,
hardly more able to respond
than she. Later, when I utter
the Berlitz string of foreign
sounds at customs, they let me in.
I don’t know why. I’ve only learned
to say what I must—a catalog
of needs, place names,
perhaps some private things:
Io sono Americano
(as if they didn’t know).
Io vistaro Sicilia
(which is where I’ll go).
But first,
Dove la gabinetto?
I really need to go.
Mi scusi, Io parle
Italiano male.

THE GIRL WHO

The girl who wanted to be one
with me, knew I carried a history,
still thought it was an easy
mystery to solve. Few enter
the furnace willingly.
Burnt once we view love
chillingly. You’d think
I’d know when someone’s
burning
me. She says
that we can both be free,
that she is living energy:
“In the moment it came to me
I felt the cosmos deep inside.”
Whatever it is she sees,
she’s charged with passionate
intensity. And who am I to doubt
sincerity who for a dozen years
mistook his pain for ecstasy.
SOME SAID

Some said he’d break her heart,
seducing a dark-haired foreign girl.
Other said it was a classic case
of dominant personality syndrome.
But she had an agenda of her own,
trading favor for favor
until she’d had enough of him.
A telephone, “Goodbye,”
long distance, as personal
as the opening of a bomb bay.
Some say he played the user
but he’ll tell you he was
shamelessly a midlife fool.

PARTICULARS

(At the end of my first marriage, 1989.)

Somewhere it’s 2 a.m., and my house
sleeps through a first October night
of rain with the spring-loaded
windows open just a crack
(because, since you broke
your back, it’s a struggle
for you to close them),
and perhaps the heat is on
more than I’d allow (so you
are comfortable at least
until I’m home); where my son
sleeps between his books
and remnants of babyhood
(stuffed toys); and my daughter
amid the clutter (which is
at least, a chaos
of her own creation).
There is also an empty bed
(mine, of course) perhaps
already discovered by one
of our house cats.
And I am a world away,
unable to even say when,
exactly, I’ll return;
my presence here becoming
more particular (shopping
for white lacquer spray,
a plug extension cord,
India tea and lemons),
so that my absence
(for us all) is just
another thing.

JEANNE DIED

just when I had finally transcribed
her new address into my phone book.
Jean, whom I saw six or eight times
a year, but for twenty years
so we could recess a conversation
for two months and complete
a sentence next time we met.
Jeanne died while I was seeking
honor as a poet in some distant
land because even Jeanne, laughing
in the grip of death, joked
that they only honor a poet
when you’re dying. Jeanne,
whom I will look for in corners
of cocktail parties when our crowd
gathers, only to recall she died
while I was gone, only to hope
the writing of this may
yet keep something of her alive.

THE UNIVERSAL LANGUAGE

1 topic no matter where you go:

2 young mothers by the swings,
cotton blouses unbuttoned
by the wind, watching their
kids run rings around a Palermo
playground.

3 Romano busmen, uniforms
bulging in the sun,
their diesels sputtering,
perspiring on benches on their
lunch breaks.

4 topless women lying
in a row, arms slung overhead,
eyes shielded from the sun,
beach banter by the seashore
in Dubrovnik.

The words, the themes may vary
but the 1 topic is the same:
My husband/wife just
no one understands.

HE ASKED IF I’D WRITTEN A POEM ABOUT HIM

(For Jon Connelly.)

In Yugoslavia your letters
were like stand-up:
“Remember you’re a hero.
People just want to bathe
your genitals in their tears.”
When I returned, you made
your home mine:
“You can do anything
that has no cooking smells.”
Occasional poetry is
hardly ever good—
like camera-carrying
tourists compelled to snap.
Not ever decent person
passes into poetry.
Rather, they rise
immensely higher
in a later Karma.

REAL POETRY

doesn’t dwell in the universities
it’s in the torn cotton jumper
of a village carver seated
on a low oak stool he’s hewn
this day carving spoons
poetry fills the red clay jugs
each balance by a woman
fetching water at the spring
it’s the leather-faced herdsman
his walnut-blackened hands
holding a staff of smooth
yellow wood.

the poems of the university
require study, entwined
with myth, mottled
with meanings but real poetry
is the slaughter man and the calf
its body still jerking
as its coarse-haired hide
is skinned, revealing
a glistening whiteness.

LOVE IN THE KEYS

LOVE POEM FOR A WOMAN I HAVEN’T LOVED YET

If we met it was unknowingly
in a distant land perhaps
by a spring-fed lake whose waters
spawned dark rivers rushing
endlessly beneath a white-railed
concrete bridge.

If we did speak it was only
casually perhaps with friends
at dinner etching minor details
of our native lands a brother
a sister a marriage not working.
We saw each other with different eyes.

And if we thought of loving
then it felt like loneliness
expressed in poems we wrote
ourselves about a person
we hardly knew and the faint
hope wed meet again.

THE MACHO MYTH OF THE ONE-NIGHT STAND

Suffice it to say
I never was a pickup artist.
A one-night stand for me
would be a business failure.

Like a hotdog cart with no takers
Id be broke in just a day.
Lets say I never had
that way with woman.

Now nearly fifty
its not much different.
At a bar I leave the fast-talk
to others who score a woman like a kill.

I’m slow to anger slow
to know when I’m in danger
slower still to love. But when
it happens for me it lasts.

PLANTINGS

Perhaps he will stay celibate—
a solitary palm rising
above all others. Or perhaps
hell plant nocturnal orchids
to bloom in the moonlight
of his bedroom. Perhaps he
will prosper bougainvillea
clinging to a wall with
inconspicuous if crimson
flowers. Or not a flower
at all a wandering jew
he can stretch upon the land
like the fingers of a loving hand.

AUREOLE

We are chained to darkness
or locked in light.
Catgut stitches
our silence.

Walk the world until it sleeps
Who’ll place a poultice
on our wounds?

There are plate glass comers
where people sit—times bakeries
with shelves of dreams.
Factories lowing in the night.
Chambers of horror
some call bedrooms.

After work summer
two-week vacations
secret afternoons
cant fill the emptiness
gaping like an open heart.

Stitches burst
oozing light.
Darkness manacles
the night. Ties it
to a bedpost
tapes its jaw shut
taunting Now talk!
Then sentences it
to boil to clarify.

If its healing we crave
let Buddha dance
Chassidim Seraphim Tao.
Love honor and obey.
Take this voice to be
your very own.
The embrace of an ice age.
St. Elmo St. Vitas St.
Christ’s Offer.
Besainted or berserk
fanatic energy—aureole.
Hear the faint
lost cry
before conception.

WHOSE ARE WE?

Ourselves rust. Axiomatic:
only you can make yourself happy.
Each others. Not dominance
nor subservience to say
Ill do anything for you.
Ask me. I’ve practiced
satisfying a woman who
could never make herself
happy. What can I do?
Satisfy you—who smiles
and laughs often
spontaneously: So love
does not command
it suggests is not
a force but a caress.
So gently does it touch
that one need only
feel love.

AFTERMATH

(Etymologically: after mowing but also
from the better second picking. )

They say first cuttings
of tobacco are not best
last hand rich
with oil and smoothest.
Peach trees pears
and apples thrive
if pruned or they will
tantalize us with few
good fruit too high
for easy picking.
And so we grow—
love more painful—
then finer strains and sweeter.

THE SLAUGHTER

Rains gentle revolver riddles our sleep.
Wet tongue of lightening
dark growl of thunder
bullets through our dreams.
A hand to find a crease of flesh
unconscious fingers probing.
a skinning that starts with a slit.
And no one minds the trembling limbs
as the hide is peeled. are born
for love others for the slaughter.

Penitent rain. Cleansing rain.
Sorry rain. Satiating rain.
All these things we do that lovers do:
begging you licking you
bathed in tears chilling fears.
Wake with a rapping at the window
an arm in a clinch around you.
Tonight there’ll be no recriminations.
Only the soft spatter of water
as the flesh is trimmed from the bone.

EATING THEIR HEARTS OUT

She day. She said she hadn’t
made love to her husband
for a year (half portions
of plain fish for supper
no potatoes) who’d gone
into mourning for his
mother and even before
wanted no children.
She said she was content
with abstinence.

Her lover ate voraciously:
steak and fries and bacon
for breakfast. His marriage
he said even his friends
called heroic (all
afternoon sweets supper
seven courses) and his wife
made love like a ritual
so even when it was good
it wasn’t. That’s why
he said he could
never get enough.

Together for a tryst
they tried the local bistros.
He cut down on desserts
She bucked up and ate.
They made a feast of love.

WATCHING YOU

I spent till sunrise
watching you your
restless breaths
your high-boned face
your nakedness
defined in blue-gray
light of quarter moon.
You sighed and turned
and still I stared
the thick curled knot
of jet-black hair
tied up to bare
a soft strong neck
supple shoulders
the outline
of small breasts.

Until you turned
again toward me
eyes flickering
in half-surprise.
I spent till sunrise
watching you
protector of your
dreams and sighs.

THIS WARM AIR WRAPPING US

This warm air
wrapping us
a comfort for loss
of love in our own climate.
This moist warm air
a familiar hand but one
we’ve forgotten after
the slap of winter
makes us smart.
This textured air
palpable even as we
breath filling
our willing lungs
with a moments
relief before
we cry.

VISITING THE HEMINGWAY HOUSE

Though you play at being
innocent you are
seductive in your plain
cotton skirt and kept-loose
blouse like
an unconscious kid.
Leaning on the black iron rail
smiling into the bright
Key West sun Papa
would have loved you.

HOW MANY CATS

Exactly how many cats
official residents
or sometimely strays
live on the grounds
of the Hemingway House
we don’t know but Ernest
said they wrote his stories.
Curled in ficus extra paws
soft in dappled sun stretched
on low rooftops above
the Masters coral pool
sliding between wrought iron
bars that now keep
tourists out of Ernest’s
study. Cats an industry.
Cats an abiding symbol—
though its unclear
if a guides tale
of Hemingway practicing
big-game hunter at them
with his pump gun
debunks a myth or if
Ernest embraced them
as survivors of imagined wars.

NO DENIALS

Byron said he’d seen
for the first time
the ghosts of his
own imbecility.
Ernest glimpsed
his failing self
and pulled the trigger
on all metaphors.
For years after
his third wife insisted
it was an accident
but some poems
cant be denied.

THE CLEANING WOMEN

The women who clean rooms
at this southernmost motel
gather outside our windows
by 8 a.m. to gossip about
a husband gardener
or house boy. In rapid Spanish
they discuss their kids
the abuses of the boss
and, “¿Dónde están los toallas?”
Middle-income guests
annoyed to be awakened
we pull the curtain meet
a woman’s eyes as she loads
her cart with freshly-laundered
linen. Her look apologetic
she shouts, “Férme la boca,”
to her friends a floor below.
Shut up again in English
to assure they’ll be more quiet.
The damage done we lie wondering
what life is like for those
who stayed behind in Cuba.

POOLSIDE IN THE KEYS

The slow drift of fair-weather clouds
shading us in our canvas lounge chairs.
Rum punch brought by a cotton-shirted girl
a sandwich with banded toothpick on demand.
New blossoms of red & pink hibiscus bobbing
in a light sea breeze. The shadow
of a solitaire palm crossing the deck—
a hand reminding us of time.

BEEPING IN

My machine reminds me
that pipes freeze
the tenant has destroyed a carpet.
Collection agents threaten
in vindictive singsong.
I tug at the receiver
tied to its black box.
Enter your code now
to erase your messages.
I play one high-pitched tone
grateful for long distances.

KISSING IN FRONT OF THE MICROWAVE

Kissing in front
of the microwave
set on high
for two minutes
your arms around
my waist
mine
curled behind
your back
a buzzing
in our ears
the temperature
rising
one loud bell
a rapid boil.

THE CASE OF ORANGES

Oranges she wanted sacks
of oranges to carry home
from Florida. So through banyaned
boulevards they drove slowly
toward Miami Airport searching for
Indian River Sunkist Orange County
with no success until
with only half an hour before
departure after ticketing after
a long silent pause seated
by the gate she leaped up
took off down a carpeted
concourse only to return
minutes before to give him
an orange-juice flavored kiss
and rush toward final boarding
her arms laden with sacks of oranges.

DUET

Late afternoon Your jet flew over
slant of sun just a day ago

red maple buds a straight path
already swelling. Newark to Heathrow

Long Island along the same Gulf Stream
tempered by the sea that warms the Keys.

Straw lawns teeming In London you’ll light
with green tendrils. your cottage stove.

Intimations of I miss the warmth
an early spring you bring.
SOMEWHERE YOU DANCING

Somewhere you must be dancing
naked in a castle at night
though this city is built in a valley
where the earth runs a river for spite.
There are spires that rise in the sunset.
There are caves where our mysteries dwell.
Which we chose is the business of no one.
We can live life or make it our hell.
As I picture you whirling and naked
darkness your lover tonight
I could slip into silk and come take you
but you’d only dissolve into light.
And its stay by the phone I will call you.
Its wait by the door I will come.
Keep the screen on the message will follow.
But the right words have all been undone.
In a dream I can picture you dreaming
and the picture you dream is of me.
We are both silvered glass just reflecting
until light fades to dark and were done.

LETTERS TO MY LOVE

1.
The touch of you
the long massage
the gentleness
of your caress.
My touching you
your quiet sighs
the perfume of your
quickening breath.
The loving you
the energy—
perfect conductivity—
until we merge identities.
Your presence is
like something blessed.
Your absence
fills me with emptiness.

2.
Its not proper to think
of you every hour
thinking the sand would be
softer lying by you
the sea warmer
the surf calmer. No one
forces another to be lonely.
Only I find your eyes
in the bright sunshine
your singing in a sudden shower.

3.
Writing love letters like a kid
sneaking late at night
with a flashlight. Writing
this letter to you who
pointed out I’m nearly
old enough to be your father
(but saved me by saying
I don’t look it).
Writing this letter!
Imagine me smitten
needing constant reassurance
sending pictures poems
love by letter dreaming
when well be together.

4.
Walking the windy shore
striae of clouds approach
a setting sun. I pretend
that distances don’t count
that memories can warm.
But the wind transforms
the dunes to a cold desert night.
Salt spray stings my face.
Safe home again I’m lonely
as the years before we met.

5.
Sun bleeds day to death.
Blood ends a woman’s cycle
signals another chance
for life. Sunrise
fires the passions of lovers.

WHAT WE EXPECTED

If I had said, “Please stay,” if I had said,
“I’ll go with you,” would you have then been pleased
or quickly run away? Each time in bed,
I said, “I want to care,” you only teased,
as now you sign your letters cryptically,
“X K,” so I am left to guess it means
you send your love. Or are you scripting me
in lines so hard to read the words are dreams
and I, fool, wanting love, fill in the lines
with longings long held in a breathless creams?
We thought our brief romance beneath Key pines
would never last. We fooled ourselves it seems.
You say my leaving you has left a space.
For me, you are a love time can’t erase.
RESURRECTIONS

THE CLOSEST I’VE COME TO BEING NORMAL

“Crap shoot. Life’s a crap shoot.”
Her soft eyes fix on me for sympathy.
“Once I wanted to be dead,” she says.
“Tried to snuff myself.” The pancake
makeup over what beard is left shows
the slight beads of sweat. Mascara
dilutes with tears. ”How long did you
feel this way?” I ask in a voice
trained neutral by year of interviews.
“I’ve known I was different since
I was three. I suffered till twenty-seven.”
Trans-sexual, a woman with balls, saving
for an operation. ”The world is whacky,
anyway,” I say, “Look at me.” ”Oh no,”
she reassures me, “I’m comfortable with you.
You’re probably normal.”

RESURRECTIONS

In my dream, I put my hands up,
my head back, dive toward the sky,
rising to the other world, thinking
“This is the magic we all have,
the power that we seek.”

The unshaven man, standing on the corner
dressed in filthy dungarees, ragged
work shirt, a strip of greasy towel
to assault the window of a car
stopped at a light; he seeks the power.
The old man lying on the tight-sheeted
hospital bed, bare skin exposed beneath
a half-opened cotton johnny, bony hand
pressed to his temple; he seeks the power.

The sixteen-year-old girl, panicking
on the birthing table, crying as they
prepare her, her ankles tied,
a mystery inside; she seeks the power.

I rise slowly, press my back against
smooth plaster walls, raise my hands to dive,
see the light above and yearn for it.
Suddenly, terrified, I fight to keep my feet down.
“Hold me,” I call my wife, asleep beside me.
“Hold me down or I will die,” Awakened
by my cry, she reaches round me:
“I’m here, I have you.” Anchored
fast, I remember what I’ve dreamed
and watch my wife; listen as her
breathing deepens.
Next day,
I tell my friend my dream—my fear
of disappearing. He says the right hand
holds the power, sends it to the left.
Circling his palm over my head,
he calms me. He is Abenaki, native
American, grows his own food,
studies the seasons.
It’s late March
and he asks me to watch him tap
the sugar maples on forty acres
passed to his hands, ancestral lands.
Standing behind his house, we feel
the syrup flowing through thawing
roots and leave the earth, welcoming
what is sweet within us.
That night,
my wife says she is sick, stomach
uneasy. I place my right hand
over her belly, my left just at her
side to make a circuit; tell her what
I’ve learned. Does she believe me?
No need to hear her say—the energy
a rush of heat between us an she
is cured.
This is the medicine
we all seek, the power that we have.
We dream to find it.

CODE BLUE

So the doctor left it written on my chart:
“pain killers on demand”—a junkie’s dream.
I’m in the hospital—a skin graft on my leg.
It’s in 9 p.m. I’ve read 100 pages of Saul
Bellow’s Herzog. I’ve watched TV. I’m bored.
I push the button for the nurse and ask
for something. What harm in getting stoned,
drifting numbly off to sleep? I roll over,
pull a corner of my pajamas down
the same I’ve gotten all the other shots.
“No,” nurse says when she returns.
“Here’s where its done,” and she rolls
me back to grasp my arm, find a vein,
sting me as she pushes the needle in.
She leave me with a wad of alcohol-
soaked cotton compressed in the crux
of my arm.
So what happens then?
I die. I feel myself fading—
can barely push the button
for the nurse. All I remember is
floating in the room, looking down
through a circle of heads, people
in white robes, wondering if they
were angels. Someone ashen white
is lying on a stretcher. Someone
is counting, “60 over 40, 60 over
40. Damn! We’ve lost his pulse again.
He’s dead.”
I realize
the person I see is me.
“Wait a minute,” I say. ”I’m here,”
and instantly I’m on the stretcher;
hear them counting “30 over 10,
40 over 20, 60 over 40. We’ve
got a pulse again.” I sleep for fifteen
hours.
When I awake, I ask
a different nurse what happened.
“We went code blue with you,”
she says. ”You should have seen
them running from every corner
of the hospital. ”You mean I
fainted?: I ask. ”Oh no”, she laughs
we gave you up for dead. We tried
adrenaline, the paddles. Just when
we quit your heart began to beat again.

FOR GAIL, WHO CALLED HERSELF “CHARLIE”

You say you are an exotic
dancer, brag how good you are,
rubbing yourself against
the wooden rails that separate
your bright spot of stage
from the small Formica
tabletops where guys
mostly in their twenties
chug beers and cheer you on.
“I tease them, let them
tuck 5s and 10s in my
G-string. If I go bottom-
less, I get them good
and hot. That’s when
I really get a lot.
I drive them wild;”
your shoulders stiffening
as you talk, your jaw
thrust forward like an
angry child. ”Come down
and watch me.” Your eyes
dance in a sideward glance;
the open buttons of your
baggy shirt an invitation.
And now there is no chance
to see you on the circuit,
your hips pumping frustration
into every bastard
in the bar. Your long
brown hair, that whipped
you as you whirled,
is stilled. Your try-
to-catch-me eyes are
closed; your half-smile,
a tight-lipped, eternal
grimace. OD-ed at 21
How far away from everyone
you’ve danced, as if death
alone could be exotic.

STEVE COMES BACK

Your bull neck through the back
window of a beat up Cadillac,
seated half a head above the steering
wheel your white painter’s cap.
but you died a year ago, outside
Tampa where poverty and hope
had brought you for a short try
again at home improvements.

When your wife was dying
you needed 3 thou a month
for shellfish serum someone said
would save her. Every job half done.
Get the check, pay the doctor,
run to the next paper-hanging,
partitioning, paint job. In no time,
twenty years of reliability
ruined and your wife dead.

You told the judge “What you want
me to do?” ”Pay your bills,” he
reprimanded you. ”The doctors take
everything. I can’t pay no more.”
When the judge threatened to lock
you up for contempt you laughed and left.

They never came to get you,
though one troubled daughter
got herself arrested. You dreamed
of native Naxos, Greece; packed
for Florida. In your mind you felt

the pressure building.
They found you early in the morning
slumped over the wheel, the hood
of the ’74 Caddy wrapped around
a Southern Pine.

The coroner skipped the alcohol
in the blood, the accident trauma;
listed the cause of death as a cerebral
hemorrhage. How could he know
the bubble had burst long before?

PICKLING

(For Lyn Lifshin.)

You salt your food
layers thick
spoil a fancy steak
disguise home fries
preserve yourself in brine
washed with coffee through
your stained teeth.
Too many tastes to mask—
Too many kinds of flesh
lovingly toned until
their flavors sour
swallowing poison instead
of life:
spoiled fish
tough bird
rancid meat.
Handshakes of salt
across your plate,
finger-pinches like
surprises, slow inverted
streams of salt.
A poultice complete
with crusted edges
drying, applied
inside you,
heating you in your
thirsty sleep.

SEEING THE SPECIALIST

And then there was the Nazi doctor
who struck the child between the eyes
and struck the child between the eyes
and struck the child between
the eyes, and I wait,
and I wait, and I wait—
each moment another blow
so my eyes cross or close and I
stagger in my pain, and the doctor
comes again to visit for just the moment
that he chooses, with a ball peen hammer
and a smile. Reaching to shake
my hand, he pulls me toward him,
his vice grip on my wrist. I struggle.
He is smiling all the while. He wears
a wool tweed suit and smells of pipe
tobacco. I see his hair is thinning,
receding to reveal a vast, unwrinkled brow.
For a moment I feel his smile—believe it.
There are no degrees on the pastel walls.
He is not in his own carpeted office.
This is the examining room. Suddenly,
I remember for one painful second
before he strikes, and I know I will
be seen again and again by the doctor
and I will be told, “Be glad. He
is an expert in his field.”

CAT WALK

(For Emily at eight years old.)

The cat walks into the study as if he
owns its, turns on his motor (a delight
of snores and groans) and does a cat-
walk on my desk before he settles in my
lap. My daughter, seated on the floor
is doing homework—History and English,
Math and Science—a bag of books
that builds her biceps
and her mind. The cat jumps down
to nose among her papers, whack
a soft paw at the pencil filling
workbook blanks. We watch him at his
mindless play. Wishing we could
waste our time that way, I say,
“I’d like to be a cat.” My daughter
sighs, “Daddy, do we
believe in reincarnation?”

THE TOYMAKER

Emily asks if dolls really come alive
at night. ”Why not?” I answer,
“They need to play.” She does not know
the prayers other children say, thanking
god, who gives them back their soul
each morning so they can awaken.
I sit with her until she falls asleep,
her toys arranged and ready. ”Play people,”
I ask them—mother, wood with painted curls,
father with plastic fedora, baby
with red cheeks, “Were you once alive?
And did you believe in god until
one day, asleep, he stole your soul,
reducing you to things stored in someone’s
toy box?” ”But Daddy,” Emily startles me,
sitting up in bed, “why won’t they talk
to me? Don’t they know I love them?”

YOU’VE CHANGED, HE SAID

“You’ve changed,” he says,
“gotten fatter.” ”I’m
in therapy,” I say.
“Not half so pale, unlike
before; you had an Auschwitz
pallor.” ”I’m in therapy,”
I say. ”You seem much calmer.
Have your relaxed? You were
a boxing glove in every face
“Therapy,” I say. ”And broken
noses still received your smell;
not that I’m hinting you weren’t
well-liked, but like a boxer,
waiting for the bell, I’ll tell you
people used to reel away from you.”
“Now I’m in therapy,” I say.
“Oh really? Therapy? And does it help?
I’m told those shrinks can’t cure
a cold!” ”In therapy,” I say.
“and in times like these I need it.”

THE CRITICAL WEAKNESS

I know it is a weakness to believe
everything one sees in dreams or reads
is true, but I do. I fall in love
with every heroine who asks
me to love her gently, with slow
hands around her waist. I’m just
a sucker for a cheap romance.

Once, I listened as a student read
a story in my workshops. It must
have been a dream she’d had,
though she said fiction:

She was a teller in a bank
only there were mirrors on
every wall; the carpets,
furnishings were fire-engine
red. A bandit entered, dressed
sleekly, all in black, demanded
that she take him to her vault.

And though she knew it was wrong
she longed to lead him there,
past crystal chandeliers,
mirrors reflecting red around
their faces. Only after he had
entered did she scream in fear.

I never told her that her dream was true;
only reassured her that some men
yearn equally for a gentle lover.
A GUIDE TO SUBURBAN BIRDS

1. Parking lot Gulls

They preen beside puddles
squawking over dumpster tidbits.
Mother gull astride a paper nest.
Young gulls defending their territory
defined between white parking lines.
Old gulls like sailors too tired
to go to sea.

2. Highway Hawks

The crows may leave the meadows
to pick at a recent roadside
kill. Why should they bother
with field mice, harder now to find?
Here’s fast food for any bird.
Only, a hundred feet above,
just at the edge of the pine
barrens, a hawk still spans
the sky, waiting for a movement
he can identify.

3. Dump Swallows

Yes, gulls, circling noisily
above a dozer as it spreads their
dump truck dinner. And yes, pigeons,
perhaps refugees from city streets,
cooing in a quieter corner.
But also, two swallows
on a chain link, trying to decide
which home to buy.

TORREY PINES, CALIFORNIA

Atop Torrey Pines State Park
where the sun warms a spring
sea breeze, no one cares
that four phantom jets
just turned south toward
tumultuous Panama. Surfers
450 feet below are idle dots,
and hikers passing prickly
pears, chemise, black sage,
know only that the beach trail
is not just a walk down
but back through 50 million
years of history—strata
of iron-rich sandstone,
fossil oyster shells—
so that for those emerging
from crevices carved
patiently by infrequent rains,
the passing fighters—high
as they fly, fast as they
disappear—are not half
so important as how
their sounds merge,
finally, with soft surf.

MIDWINTER, STONY BROOK HARBOR

The man in the Agway oil truck
parked by Stony Brook Harbor,
eats lunch, drinks on Orange Crush.
52 degrees at midday in February
on Long Island and the weatherman
promises more. The oilman tilts
his plastic bottle, one last swig,
but does not hurry, as if
to confirm that winter’s over,
I’m-out-of-oil-burner-stopped
emergency calls are far behind.
Stretching elbows out
behind his head, bright sun
illuminates his face.
The tide rushes from wetlands
leaving mudflats oozing black—
surprisingly free of trash.
He reads his Newsday, watches
a moment more,
starts his route again.
Cold lingers in these waters
into July. Beyond
his truck, twelve or twenty boats,
cocooned in blue plastic or graying
canvas, await the subtle Sunday
afternoons of summer.

SPEECH THERAPY

People can say what they want
with words like windows
rattling in the wind
and what they say
is air articulated
through screens
and frames, fricatives,
sounds hanging like innuendos
stretching knotted necks,
shades like coatings on the tongue,
curtains of conspiracies
to silhouette the dead.

We break the glass, keyless, open the windows
wide with promises of familiar
things but find the house
is empty, robbed
before we came.

People say “love”
like glass shattering.
But is there ever
anything to steal?

IF

If this were the last time I could write,
I’d tell you that the red begonias
are still blooming in the Indian summer
sun. People live, suffer, are healed or
die, even as the frost will finally wilt
the succulent stems of flowers.
Some people think death is an ending.
Others believe a move to warmer climates
will save them—as if there were a sun
belt that could hold their belly in
or that the sun could tan away their
wrinkles. Dear wife, when I’m gone—
sooner burnt than buried—keep still.
Sell what you need to live. Be happy.
Complain that summers are too short,
that the privet hedges grow faster
than our yardman cuts them.
Don’t go south. Rather,
take the begonias in.

IRINA RATUSHINSKAYA

Imprisoned, March, 1983, for writing
poems, you stare at me through
a clouded photo, your mouth poised
in half-smile, your eyes staring
at a spot just above the camera.
And though a letter about you says
you are 29, in the picture you are
just a schoolgirl with a bob of dark
hair lit from behind, a uniform
white blouse, the dark shoulders
of a school jacket.

The P.E.N. Freedom
to Write Committee has reproduced
one of your poems on the postcard
next to you—about monotony and a verdict
against someone (perhaps prophetic?)
in the Soviet Union: the last line
envisions a disheveled angel abiding
in a cloud of cigarette.

Irina,
who at this writing has spent
more than five months of a seven-
year sentence in prison. Irina,
who looks to me like family;
Irina who reminds me of a girl
I loved. I study your face, imagine
that I can help you, offer you safety,
see that you have what you need.
But the Freedom to Write Committee
has reproduced a note of protest
against your imprisonment on the reverse
of your picture and poem, asking that
I mail it to Kiev, Ukraine, SSR,
demanding your release.

Oh Irina
of the wistful eyes; Irina, who wishes
for a small angel to save you. How
can I send them back your picture
that I fasten it over my desk to study
so each time I think of you I may
appear as your disheveled angel
with a promise that you’ll be free.

FOR KATHLEEN

Since Dad called you a bitch,
a small black-haired girl
in farm-country Ohio, you
believed him. Later, when
you learned to please men
it meant marriage, dressing up,
letting him drive. People
where you came from never
analyzed their dreams:
farm images seemed to fade.
Twenty years of “he, him, his”
later and one divorce, you
remembered how, though only
six, if you squeezed hard,
you got milk. Dad made it
your job. Only now, you choose
your own car, your own work,
when to take time off;
choose to be a bitch or not.

THE SWIMMER

(For Betty Hand.)

One wrong step forward into waves
and you’re caught a sea-push stronger
than any swimmer. Instantly you know
trouble, remember lifeguard films
on rescues, working an angle toward
the shore. The tide’s rip carries
you through wind-whipped sea.
Later, you’ll say the water, though
extra salty, tasted sweet. On any
other swim you wouldn’t want to stop!
Now, something drives you, catching
the air between crests, sinking
to bounce off the bottom. You think
of quitting, staying under until light
narrows to darkness. A half mile
down shore you regain your footing,
watch for a curl of wave and ride
to safety. Sick from swallowed water
but on solid ground, you turn to see
your adversary smiling with teeth
like sharp-edged shells.

OUT ON HER OWN

She had her own place—
two and one half rooms
in an old house upstate
at college. Wide-board floors,
remnant carpet. Mom’s Melmac
plates, some stainless.
But a B.A. isn’t worth much
anymore. Chipped cups,
grease-singed pots again
in storage. In some ways
it’s more comfortable
in her old bedroom.
If she gets rid of
the stuffed animals,
there’ll be space
to put the stereo.

FOR SONIA, READING

As you read I roll
off my chair under
the table inconspic-
uously gnash my teeth
on the carpet tasting
the tongues of those
who came before. Still,
your voice attacks all
surfaces. I bury my
head under the carpet,
enjoying dusty odors.
DO YOU READ ME?
DO YOU READ ME?
Everything done is
at another’s undoing.
Words you force on me
could have been mine;
stealing my breath
you shout for my attention.
I make you pay eating
your lectern. Reality
splinters.

SMALL CLAIMS

That some things disappear—
a glove, a notebook, money
left on the red Formica table—
makes me think of thieves or
poltergeist, but makes you angry.
A tortoise clip, a paperback,
phone numbers weekly penned,
not enough to get excited—
minor losses, you scream
in rage. In mysteries
of things misplaced you see
our passing. In things inevitably
found you apologize before communion

YOU
The you
you do not
let me know
the you
you are is
not for me
to know I
know you
as you seem
to be a woman
who can charm
a crowd
snake dancer
charmer. You
hold another
beneath
your
breasts
as if the nipples
were switches
that you can
make pushed to
let the real you
lose. But
not for me.
You give your
word to me,
the dance to
someone
else.
THE MARRIAGE CONTRACT

In case you’ve wondered, I am still
planning to spend my life with you,
though I hope the pains between my
shoulders go away. The reason
is not what you may think; certainly
not because I compare you to other
women when I go away. (Perhaps
I know enough already.) It’s not
our three children—the oldest
frighteningly beautiful; the middle
daughter still protected from life
and so, a good girl; our little son
so innocent “good” doesn’t even matter.
I could easily keep loving them
without you. What makes me smile?
What makes me picture us together
at 50, 60, 80? Fear? Habit? No.
It is you, dressed in old dungarees,
a ratty T-shirt, sneakers, gray
specks creeping into your hair;
just you, the way you are—never
pretentious, never intentionally mean.
That seems enough to love you.
HE LISTS HIS COMPLAINTS

Some mornings I think of leaving you,
so I don’t have to play the teasing older
brother to your whining little kid,
like the days when I wake to find you
in the bedroom looking for a lost
sock, a panic in your eyes I would
reserve for cancer or a stroke.
Or, at breakfast, when you are
talking, talking, talking—
about what? It is then I am resolute,
sworn to silence, scared my first words
of the day will be “Shut up!”
and then it gets worse after that.
So I’ve made this list, I’ll pass
off as a poem. I will place it like William
Carlos Williams, “Forgive Me”
on our refrigerator door:
1. When I wake, don’t tell me
that you’ve lost your this or that.
2. Instead, when you first see me,
say you love me, then ask how I am.
3. If I answer, please listen, but
if I don’t you may assume I’m happy.

Love,
Your Lunatic Husband.

THE ESCAPIST

The good whiskey from the basket
of cheer I won is unopened, the vodka,
rum, even the wine (except for the bottle
brought to a friend’s for supper).
It’s twenty-five years since I drank a fifth
at a college picnic and lost three days
of memory (except the flashing taillights
of a car I heaved by and slashes
from brambles rushed through going
nowhere). I hardly drink—can’t.
It kills my stomach; and the good grass
I bought for $200 an ounce stays safely
hidden. I’m scared to use it; fear
the sinking, helpless feeling just
as it takes hold (always unexpectedly,
when you’ve waded in too far—like an undertow
it grabs you, forces you to swim for your life).
Valiums make me a zombie. Codeine
isn’t hard to find but somewhere,
even as I flush with warmth and feel
my body numbed, I’ve had it drummed
into me, “Don’t get hooked on pills.”
I’ve never tried cocaine, though friends
have praised it. What do I do?
Work and worry, fight or make love,
dream that I am where I want to be.
AFTER YOUR ACCIDENT

Washing my wife, I know
what love is, sudsing the face-
cloth to scrub her shoulders,
her neck. She stands in the tub,
girdled by a plaster body cast—
a broken back. I go softly over
and over her thinner arms and legs,
remembering her in the hospital
where intensive care meant tubes
down her throat, an IV, a catheter.
I care for her as gently as I can,
admiring how she can now flex
her knees, move when I ask her.
No one really knows what will heal
until it’s mended. Watching Joan
smile as I move the cloth closer,
I know what love is and I scrub her.

SELF RELIANCE

With the eye of a lumberjack
I drop an eighty-foot maple between
the house and ornamental fence.
No sweat! My long-barred chain-
saw barking ahead of me, I attack
what was the top, lopping off the leafy
branches at two-foot lengths, working
backward: two-inch, four-inch widths,
ten, twelve, twenty inches across.
What took forty years to grow,
I mow down in half an afternoon,
lugging all but some twigs home
in my van. On Long Island,
it takes three cords to heat
the average house. Pretending
home economy, I play the macho
woodsman with my new toy.

WHY I CARRY A POCKETBOOK

(The only rational reply.)

A pocket book
is a pocket and a book
is a student with a box
or oranges in a pack
is the monster behind
your back as you wheel
round as a watermelon
sticky with legs and hairy
as a caterpillar
crawling in your bed
with pits on your linens
or a hole for your thumb
like Jack in his corner
you’d have to be dumb
or horny to stick it in
a pie or wake from your
dreams with a spear
in your eye. That,
my friend, is why.

TOENAILS

1.
You said my toenails looked
like grandpa’s, yellow-
ridged—a turtle’s shell
or skeleton’s bones peeking
through the toe of socks.
At 45, I’m withered by tell-
tale toenails.

2.
Baby nails, so small they’re
instantly sentimental.
Beware, young parents, the baby’s
nails that scratch at eyes
and flay the skin. Be brave
and forceful, cut or be cut,
but pray, don’t cut the baby.

3.
Kid’s nails like French soup
simmering in an iron pot forever
over the hearth—always something
to toss in. Under their nails their
way of life.

4.
Unliberated lady
paint your toenails red
file your fingers sharp and bladey—
protect your maidenhead.

BALLOON POEM

o o n
l m
l a
a n
b b
a a
l l l l
o
o
n
m a n
dances
on streets
of air
light-footed
breeze-catcher
selling
the wheeze
& the sneeze
to please
kids flying
back
for another
when they
hatpin on
mother
accidentally
or fake it
when hey
break it

his jowls
s s s t r e t c h
blowing them
up for a living
he bags air
and sells it
capturing
the wind

CHANGE OF SEASONS

Another day has passed away
and in my overheated office
I mourn for it. Late, after
night school, a new guard
slams locked the doors
of empty offices, gazing
at me unrecognizing
until he sees by my tired eyes
that I belong here—and I do,
twenty years preparing me
for this moment; with my
aching neck and shoulders,
my rasping voice, my graying
60s beard. I survey a desk
of dusty trivia: photo cubes
with baby pictures of daughters
now 16 and 20; a poster
of a friend, once famous,
then stricken, now eight years
dead (or ten). Resolved to straighten up
before vacation, I sort through
yellowed papers—the evidence
of too much or too little effort.
Heaving exams, reports, out-
dated catalogs, a wastebasket
symphony—until, seated silently
amid the settling dust, the distant
roar of a jet departing MacArthur-
Islip Airport, brings me back
to earth again. Lighter,
I drive slowly home.
MALLARDS IN THE MILL POND INLET

The mallards in the Mill Pond inlet
reappear from nowhere when the ice
has gone, doing a duck dance with their
heads, dipping into water or cruising
smoothly with green feathers high—
live originals of paddle wheels,
but more efficient. Aided by the tide
of a salty river, they peck for dinner
amid the matted stems of salt grass.
They don’t look thinner after months
of fighting subfreezing winds
for food and warmth. When late-winter
vacillates between mild and cold,
it is nice to think that someone,
albeit a duck, has figured out
a formula for survival.

COUNTING MY GOOD FORTUNE

Ten waves a minute surge
across the long hard shore—
almost a single steady roar,
breaking on the beach.
No one but I to count the waves
at midnight; no one to hear
me ask the largest breaker
what it’s like to drift the sea.

I calculate the waves per minute
every hour, every day: 5 million
pulse beats of ocean in one
windy year. I’ve heard one
Rockefeller earns that much
a day—2 billions bucks a year.
A number inconceivable
even to him. Soon, by math
alone, the man will own
the oceans, the only vessels
large enough to hold his wealth.
I breathe deeply of salt mist,
count waves, dream of fortunes.
At least for now, the air is free.

SPIDER WISHES

Clever spider, sits two weeks waiting
beneath the basement stairs where three
spider bodies already sway. Another
business failure. One more costly
suicide, leaving dusty skeletons
in corners where they sleep themselves
dry, dropping in pieces, legs
and hollow bodies, onto the concrete
floor. Again new nests are hatching.
Spindly, green-veined spiders weave
intricate inventions for the hope
of an easy life: striking it rich
with more bugs than any one could handle,
hiring other spiders to work the nets,
spin the prey; bugs beating a path
to their doorwebs. The vanity
of spider wishes! They leave
only dust-catching dangles, washed
away with sponge mops, vacuumed away,
wasted.

INDUSTRIAL PARK

1.
Yellow Pages delivery
truck – orange “YELLOW”
logo – at its docking,
diesel flapping exhaust-
pipe cover in gray sleet.
Headlights ablaze,
wipers beating,
a Mack ready
to champion
a mission.

But the cab is empty,
the driver waiting
for lists to be
complete.

2.
Every building, stressed concrete.
Every window, closed mini-blinds.
Every door & sill alarmed.
Black block letters
announcing every firm.
Only a random visitor
searching a half-full
parking lot on a cold
midwinter day.

3.
Lights, camera, action
at JHD Productions
where the tick of super-
eight video transfers
surrounds a soundproof
editor synchronizing
high-resolution graphics.

Pinned to eggcrate
foam that lines the walls,
the boss’s motto:
“Whatever you do,
make ’em look good!”

4.
A punch press punctuates
a telephone sales pitch
at Novelty Bias Binding Co.
“We have holiday key rings
for your special friends.”

The twenty-year-old
typist-receptionist
yearns for her teens
when headphones played
Bon Jovi—not the boss’s
dictation on endless mini-tape.

5.
Office art rivals
the Holiday Inn: blue-green
vase bearing forsythia.
Double green border
painted within the frame.

We have canvassed the staff
at lunch but no one can go
beyond “some flowers” if
they remember a painting
in the reception room.

6.
The Executive Bathroom
could be a doctor’s:
an antiseptic smell,
a working shaving light,
a ground-fault outlet.
One slightly wet
beige towel neatly hung
Mennon aftershave and Brut.

7.
At 4:43 p.m.
The lot’s astir
with hopes of beating
traffic, but it’s 5:15
before they reach the on-ramp
where trails of expressway
tail lights are red berries
glistening from dark,
wet branches.

WILLAMANTIC, CONNECTICUT

(For Rick Spencer & Bob & Judy Thurston.)

At the 12th Anniversary Celebration
of the East Brook Mall, two folk
singers intone chanteys in front
of incredulous buyers—a bit
of whaling history mixed with Blue-
grass. Bob & Rick and Bruce’s
Shoe Store advertising “Mystery Sale!
Come in and discover our prices.”
The pet shop has a special on
“Cutthroat finches.” The toy
store says “You owe it to the kids.”

Back on Main Street, the old Thread
Mill may go bankrupt if they can’t
pay one creditor twenty thousand
dollars. People in Willamantic don’t
like obfuscation. The Hotel Hooker
is pretty much what it says. But
this Mall idea—12 years and it
just keeps growing!

GETTING MY ROCKS OFF

Late, hot California afternoon,
I’m trying to photograph
the perfect rock on Del Mar
beach. Old conglomerates,
they won’t cooperate, mugging
for the camera, showing me
50-million-year-old teeth.
Perhaps, if I lie flat
on these black pebbles,
I can snap a candid:
There! A female boulder
showers her crevice
with salty spray
I’ve caught her!

AWARE OF WHO WE ARE

A piece of meat
unpackaged
skin removed
air dries our moist
parts, scabs us
with failures.
Label off,
trimmed of fat
tenderized by falls,
bruised, a spot of blue
tattoo, an ugly memory of our
trying to make the grade.
Cooked, stewed in our juices,
rotisseries of anxieties
hot flashes deep inside
tightening of flesh
muscles seared loose
from the bone.
Carved, a knife
in our shoulders
a sandwich of lies
with ketchup as a compliment
condiments of smiles spread
on paste-white faces
food for thought.
Gnawing stomachs,
sucking meat from bones
gruesome organs eaten
odors ignored—to hell
with hygiene. Something
to give us pleasure
when it hurts.
Sweetbreads.

THE WAY MIRO DISTRESSES SOME PEOPLE

(Joan Miro at the Guggenheim, Spring, 1987.)

Joan Miro, they say, had a sense
of humor, giving up a Harvard MBA
to hustle dreams he called paintings
with personages and their whatsits
with bright colors. This, we know was
the start of a movement—
Yes twice in Russian. No one
but a bird could haunt us
like Miro, so that an elderly
couple from Cape Cod (originally
2nd generation Chelsea, Massachusetts)
can walk in spirals in distress
and once more utter as they gaze
longingly from the 6th ring
of Solomon’s Temple, “Das
felt mer.”

THE HUMANIST

Here is my home phone
number. Call any time.
Let me know if I can help.
386-337-4567.
Anything I can do
to stop the pain.
I’ve got a message machine
on another line so you can’t
miss me. 386-492-2409.
Don’t be afraid to call.
Only, I have troubles
of my own so
you’d better
be prepared.

A PERPETUAL CALENDAR OF POEMS

1. January: For the New Year

One year overtakes another
like a shadow across the moon
Tired or not, we stay awake
singing out of tune.

We watch the fall of a giant
ball, the TV picture flickering:
Janus, that two-faced Roman,
leads us in the ritual.

2. February: Winter Rondeau

It’s snowing
sheets of paper—
flakes parachuting down.

(4 p.m., they’ve forecast for two inches.)

Late winter cold
front moving in—
a metrological “happening.”

(8 p.m., five inches in the forecast.)

And though I’m
truly tired of winter—
would kill for spring
(12 midnight, a foot or more.)

This Northeaster
is a captivating thing—

(8 a.m., snowed in!)

3. March: One Gray Gull

One gray gull
brave March gusts
in a tar lot by the river.
Head cocked, he eyes me
as I throw him crumbs.
His feathers—light gray
of wing, white and black
tail struts, head whiter
than snowflakes punctuating
the afternoon—assure me
he’s a new bird, but already
wise to ways of getting lunch.
And I know, as surely as the wind
catches him lofting the narrow
Peconic to find another soul
bearing him bread, that I, too,
can survive into a better season.

4. April: Resurrection

One long, cold day of rain
and spring resists no longer—
the young chartreuse of maples,
the calve-high saw grass
beside the road. Now
skeletal remains of oaks
flesh out with drooping
blossoms, vernal promises
that our spirits,
like the temperatures
will also rise.

5. May: Wetlands off Porpoise Channel

(Stony Brook, New York.)

On a marshy point a half-mile out
toward Porpoise Channel, a couple
picks their way through colorless
cord grass toward a tidal pool.
Silently, they bend and disappear
in hip-high thatch, looking for what?
Are they two naturalists on a spree,
out to discover the roots of spring?
Or, City people unaware how deep
they could sink in? Water rushing
past them, surrounds them
with cold, gray mud. The man,
emerging from high grass, reveals
iridescent orange hip boots—
two jewels shining in the midday sun.

6. June: First Season’s Swim

You rush the water ignoring
rocks, in your no-frills
tank suit and rubber cap
designed for less resistance.
No pause to acclimate to cold—
your launched with a flutter
of kicks, strokes as smooth
and rhythmic as a paddlewheel,
so low in the water you are
nearly hidden, so fast
you are a speck in minutes,
visible only with an effort
by those you’ve left behind.

7. It’s July

(And I’m a Yankee Doodle Dandy.)

In America, where we don’t
believe in public nudity
women compete to wear
smaller and smaller strips
of cloth and call them
bathing suits, I admire
the all-but-naked young
woman buying ice cream.
“What are you staring at?”
she snaps. ”Excuse me,”
I say, “but your vanilla is
melting down your sun tan.”

8. August: A String of Pelicans

A string of 10 gray pelicans
glides a straight line south
on AIA along Daytona Beach
where a placid sea edges up
hard sand to cleanse the beach
of car tracks, compete with gulls
and pipers to erase all signs
of snacks, embracing a single,
evening bather. 92 degrees,
dusk, late summer and the motor
of a beach bike heading for late supper,
simmers the evening in sounds.

9. September Tanka

Through prosceniums
of clouds a followspot sun
shines on maples costumed
red and orange—
a fall extravaganza.

10. October

For roses, yet another bloom—
October warmth beneath
a harvest moon.

11. November

November paints in grays,
midafternoon a patchwork
of low clouds silhouetting
leafless maples, filtering
the green from pitch pines.
Along the roadside, concrete
and stucco, house boards
even bricks turn gray,
as if fall has passed away
and November is in mourning.
A cold rush of air disappears
the last remaining oak leaves.

12. December: Northern Pine

No need to decorate you.
Your green is enough.
You’ve stayed alive
to grow—all as the house;
taller than the chimney;
taller, even, than the TV
antenna (by one spindly branch).
Evergreen thank you for staying green
and for not having flashing Christmas lights.
THE END OF THE UNIVERSE
THE END OF THE UNIVERSE

A boy with a glandular disorder grows taller than God. “You’ve done it
now,” he shouts at the Deity, gazing down at God’s balding head. “A
mere boy and I’m already taller than my Father.” “Why do children
always expect perfection from their parents?” God laments. “You
made me, didn’t you?” the boy insists. “You’re a big boy, now,” God
says, “Fix yourself.” “If I could do that,” the boy cries, “I would be
like God, knowing the secrets of life and death.” “Yes, of course, we
couldn’t have that, could we?” says God. “I don’t imagine you’d consider
just kneeling before me so you’d appear shorter?” “Not on your life,”
says the boy. “It’s bad enough to grow up and see the defects of one’s
parents; it’s another thing to grovel and kneel.” “Besides,” the boy points
out, “I’m still growing. I’m so tall, now, if I kneeled I’d look you in the eye
and that’s not decent. You are the Deity, after all.” “I’m glad you still know
your place, “ God says. “And what is that?” the boy inquires. “A mere speck
in our vast universe,” God replies. “Well,” says the boy, “You’d better expand
the universe because my head just bumped the end of it.”
THE MILKMAN COMETH

(With apologies to all chickens.)

A man and cow are in love. “It’s not right for me to love you,” the man
says. “Freud would not approve. “ The cow looks on, brown-eyed and
moppy-tailed, uncomprehending. “Clearly, you are not a Freudian,”
the man laments. “Every time I see you,” he explains, “I think of
mother.” From his tone, the cow discerns distress. Perhaps he won’t
visit her again. She’ll miss his rubber glove and fist. She grows anxious,
lowering her head, lowing in utter despair. “How now brown cow,” he
tries to soothe but her bovine tears begin to flow. “I will not let you milk
this for more than it’s worth,” the man complains. “If my love for you
has soured, you mustn’t blame your milk.” The cow still churns with
passion. She yearns to take him in her hooves once more and roll amidst
the hay. “Cow,” the man insists, “I’ve always been sincere. Even now
my heart is filled with the milk of human kindness.” The cow stamps
her hard-bottomed feet and cries. “You have no beef with me,” the
man retorts. “It’s over, now. Don’t try to butter me up,” and he slips
out of the barn. The cow, seeing at last, that he has skimmed the best
from her and left the rest to go its whey, swallowed a bottle of purple ink
and mooed indigo.

DEUS EX MACHINA

A nuclear physicist sits in a small tin trailer inside a large hangar.
Outside, which is still inside the building, a profusion of lead shields
protects him from his own work, which it seems is the explosion of tiny
pieces of matter in order to discover the tiniest-ever piece of matter from
which all other matter is made. A two-mile long tunnel accelerates an
electron beam toward the helpless bit of matter at a speed nearly as fast
as the light you read by now (unless, of course, you are a slow reader).
In the physicist’s mind this is neither dangerous nor cruel. The collision
produces a printout lasting several minutes on a computer screen.
“What we are looking for at this time, “ he says, can best be described as
a piece of nothing with a hole in it.” “Just so,” God says. The lights
flicker and the physicist is gone.

ARTIFICIAL SWEETENERS

He lived with a crazy woman. She was crazy in the morning, crazy in
the evening, crazy in the afternoon. “That sounds like a song I’ve heard,”
she said. “That song is about ‘sugar,’” he cooed, stroking her behind.
But she reared. up at him, still screaming. “Is that all you think about,
you beast?” “No,” he replied, “lately, I’ve been dreaming about
artificial sweeteners.”

KIDS SOUP

A man who is unhappy swallows his children. “I ate them swiftly,” he
tells the press, “so they felt no pain.” “They must have made a tantalizing
dish,” a reporter remarks. “Are you suggesting that there are mythic roots
to my action?” the man objects. “Only that your recipe is not original,”
the reporter retorts. “I defy you to find a single instance in which the cook
used garlic and wine sauce,” the man asserts. “Wasn’t it bad for the children
to give them alcohol?” a reporter pursues. The man answers by displaying
the middle finger of his infant son’s right hand. “What are your views on
curries,” a foreign correspondent asks. He answers with the matted scalp
of his four-year-old daughter. “This protest has gone far enough,”
the restaurant sheriff shouts, shackling the man to his hat; but the man
offers two fibulae of his eldest son and slips away, leaving the sheriff
with a bone hat. Later the same man slaughters a flock of sheep except
for the virgins, which he gives to those who have been his loyal followers.
“Having addressed the problem of world hunger,” he explains, “I felt
it was time to work toward world peace.”

A LESSON IN FRIENDSHIP

A lonely man leaves his window open and his light on. Soon, his room is
filled with moths—hairy brown, delicate white, tints of tan and yellow.
“Now I have friends,” he says, “even if they are only the souls of the
dead passing on to heaven or hell.” He deals a hand of gin, pours
drinks, serves pretzels. Aside from their dust, he finds them agreeable.
“I hope you don’t think of his as purgatory,” he says. “No, not at all,”
a Virgin Tiger Moth replies, “I think of this as a last fling before the
flame.” “Excuse me, “ the man informs his mothy friends, “I must go
potty.” But when he returns he catches an Eight-spotted Forester peeking
at the cards. “Really,” the man shouts, “If you are going to be my
friends, couldn’t you at least try to transcend the caterpillar.”

THE WET NURSE

A man installs bottles in his chest. “I will be father and mother to my
son,” he says. To fill the bottles he must lie on his back and pour, then
screw on the nipples. “This is demeaning,” he complains, “flat on my
back like a woman. I’ll have to teach my son to use a glass. Then he can
drink with all the other boys. But then, I’ll have all those glasses to
wash. Unless I buy throw-aways the kind with the screw-off tops. Less
trouble than sterilizing too. Maybe flip-top cans? My boy could practice
eye-and-hand coordination whenever he’s hungry. Now, there’s a real
boy,” the father says, sipping beer with his son. The baby burps.

A WISE MOVE

A man’s bowels move. “It’s crowded in here,” they complain. “And
drafty,” they bellow. “And who’s the asshole who designed this
place?” they contest. “There’s a hole at one end and a crack at the
other. “We’re not going to take this sitting down, squeezed into some
dark, stinking sewer. The sanitation here is obscene. “Indeed, the board
of health arrives in time to condemn the place. “Where will you go from
here,” some schmuck calls out, “now that you’ve been wiped out?”
“There’s nowhere to go from here but up,” the bowels reply indefatigably.
“True,” a friendly esophagus agrees. “It’s like the army. Why speak to
the asshole when you can go to the head?”

THE BELLY BUTTON QUEST

Pursuing the linty, dark spaces of his own navel a man falls inside,
following his mother weaving the lint into a string tied to a lintel at the
head of the tunnel; leading to a chamber where every crust of scab he’d
picked or clip of nail or hair he’d lost were stored on red velvet, kept
dust-free by monks who visited them once each year on Shrove Tuesday.
Beyond the chamber, the hirsute meeting with the Holy Father,
himself ensconced between two giant pillars, his pelvic realm aflame
with light, who initiated him into the Royal Order of the Anus, which he
promised to uphold, learning each ritual trumpet call and spell. Guided
in his flight by Old King Colon, he kissed his mother goodbye, hurrying
to escape through a splintered portal, released into the world new and
clean as a baby dreaming.

THE NAMING OF THINGS

Once having read that knowing the name of something makes it less
fearsome—even a friend—he went at it, naming things. “Here is my
‘zitzbee,’” he said, pointing to a protuberance between his seeing holes
(which he had not yet named). “Here is my ‘mimna,’” he asserted,
displaying a grasper at the end of his “frompas,” from which extended
five “mimnums.” But suddenly and without warning, a creature
unknown to him leaped up and nipped him on an-as-yet-unmentionable
part: “Proving once again,” he cried, “that the things we don’t know
can hurt us.”

THE ICHTHYOLOGIST’S REPLY

A goldfish goes mad. Actually it is white carp with a patch of gold.
Closer inspection reveals a small lump on its head. It leaps out of the
tank whenever it can. “It got the lump when it landed. Allow me to
adjust it,” says the fish chiropractor. “A brain tumor,” says the fish
neurosurgeon. “It may be a sign of some deeper problem, “ says the fish
psychiatrist. The fish is placed in an observation tank but it leaps from
the rounded porthole. Thereafter it is kept in restraints. Soon it lolls on
its side, listless, only to resume its thrashing if anyone comes too close.
A fish court is convened to consider the question: “Is the fish capable of
caring for itself or must a guardian be appointed?” The fish judge calls
upon an ichthyologist to testify. “Is the fish crazy?” the judge asks, his
large jaw gaping. “Crazy, yes, but from captivity,” the ichthyologist
replies, whereupon the judge orders the fish flushed down the toilet to
set it free.

SPIRITUAL LOVE

(With thanks again to Russel Edson.)

A man married a ghost but she would not allow him under the sheets
with her. “You think you are holy,” he said, “because you are a spirit.
You are only the shadow of who you were,” and he wiped his nose on
her. Such an act offends the dead. His house was filled with linen, his
yard looked like a white sale. His garage was a laundry convention. His
attic was a klan-destined meeting place. So many in-laws wearing sheets
he felt like an outlaw. Thrice round him they circled and chanting,
divorced him from his bride. “You won’t get away with this,” he cried,
yanking the sheet off the bed to reveal the blood where their passion
had, indeed, been consummated. There is a moral to this spooky story:
there may be more to marriage than sex but there isn’t a ghost of a
chance without it!

TROUBLE IN CHINA

Housing is so scarce, several families of dishes must live together in one
cupboard. The dinner plates are forced to share their shelf with soup
bowls, often giving rise to insults. “You’re too flat and thin,” bowls
holler. “You’re fat and sloppy,” plates protest. The situation cracks
when a fragile, young serving dish is caught on the dining room floor
with a chipped old pitcher who is, himself, the Minister of Waters. He’s
carted off to jail for subverting the five-year plan for modernization.
Months later he is released, a broken man.

HIGH FASHION

I bought this down jacket at a discount and now I’m molting. Never
could I pay full price. The coat looked good, the latest style. So maybe it
would fit better if I leaned a little bit and hunched my shoulders, but
what the hell, only forty bucks! That’s less than half the normal price.
But when I lift my arms to wave, I think I’m flying. Feathers appear
from I don’t know where—tiny, little white feathers as delicate as snow.
Contradicting Newton’s laws of gravity, they drift up into my face to
settle on my beard or disappear-perhaps to some goose heaven where
they are reunited with their mates. Gradually, if this goes on, I will grow
thinner, not to mention colder. Only I have heard the newest fad, now,
is tinsellated clothing, jackets lined with foil. I picture myself like a
Christmas tree—strands of tin foil dangling from my arms.

WHY STOCK REPORTS ARE SO HARD TO UNDERSTAND

(“Industry Discovers Philosophy” —Headline of a feature in a Sunday newspaper.)

Engineers study ethics: the morality of materials selected for each job.
Architects debate the existence of the deity. Religion becomes a big
business. A towering office is proposed to reach to the heavens. “God’s
headquarters require no less,” it is said. An environmental study
condemns the plan but a consortium of philosophers and engineers
begins to build. Meanwhile, God, Himself, incorporates and makes a
public offering. Stock prices soar only to have trading halted when the
S.E.C. investigates the prophets for insider-trading deals. The tower is
abandoned as industry and philosophy once more drift apart.

THE SWIMMING POOL ADVENTURE

Once upon a time, a child was lost under the sea. His parents would not
believe he was dead. They constructed a swimming pool to reach the
secret entrance to the sea. Then, the mother dove in. “You’ll drown,
too,” father cried as she sank, but as she sank she shrunk and was
surrounded by a bubble. “This is my homunculus,” she told him. “You
come, too. You won’t drown.” So, he jumped into the blue-green waters
and sank deeper, into the clear depths of the darkening pool. Together,
they followed a tunnel into the heart of the sea where, lit by a warm half-
light, they heard all the sounds of the world. The man was scared but the
woman protected him. Safe in his bubble, he found his son, who had
become part fish and was pleased with his new home. “Please follow
me,” the father said, but the boy didn’t want to. “I will protect you,”
the man said, but the little boy didn’t believe him and he stayed with his
mother forever. The man cried like a baby and they took him away.

PLASTICS

The world was becoming plastic. Bird watchers found their jobs
easier—plastic finches never flew away. Their taped bird calls were
easier to classify and there was no worry of endangered species.
Botanists found plastic trees structurally stronger. Homeowners,
already delighted with plastic grass, were pleased that they had no
leaves to rake. Soon, plastic dogs were perfected—a vast improvement,
guaranteed not to bite, unless programmed to. And their mating habits
would no longer scare old maids and children. There was, of course, a
short-lived anti-plastic protest but it was beaten back (with plastic clubs)
and the movement was quickly laminated into the histories. Fast-food
families welcomed plastic food, which made up in added vitamins what
it lacked in taste or texture. Its consumption solved the sewerage
problems of the world—plastic feces could be reprocessed, as edible as
new. Plastic never dies. As a petrochemical, the cost was high, but what
price immortality? The last remaining rose was put on view (the animals
had long since disappeared). On its petals, a single plastic beetle did
what it was taught to do.

DOMESTIC PROBLEMS

A man has called the police to lodge a complaint of assault against his
house. “While showering, I was attacked by the massage,” he says
tearfully. “I may never see.” “Perhaps you should restrict yourself
to a tub and tap,” Detective Battery quips. “It is not a laughing matter,”
the man protests. “Yesterday, when I reached over my African violets
to water them I sustained a muscle tear in my chest.” “Are you suggesting
that the violets made sexual advances on your breasts?” Detective
Battery inquires. “No, no,” the man retorts, “only that I am no longer
safe in my own house.” “Then are you suggesting that because African
violets are of a different nationality and color, they mugged you?”
Detective Battery charges. “I only said that because of the plants I
sustained a very painful injury,” the man explains, but to no avail.
“I will have to arrest you for violation of the anti-defamation laws,”
Battery advises the man. “Go ahead, “ the man confesses. “At least
that way I will finally be safe from my carpets.”

BOY ATTACKED BY KILLER CHICKEN, LOSES PECKER

A boy is attacked by a killer chicken on his father’s farm. At first he
responds to treatment but he lapses into a coma when a nurse mistakenly
brings him eggs for breakfast. “He has multiple lacerations of the groin
area,” says his doctor, “and his pecker is just plain gone.” “I’d give
anything to see my boy restored to normal,” the father says as he keeps
a bedside vigil by his son. “It was self-defense,” feminists protest.”
The boy made improper advances toward the chicken. When she
refused his bestial affections, he tried to force himself on her.”
Marching outside the hospital they carry placards: “DOWN WITH
PIGS, UP WITH CHICKS,” “POLICE PLAY FOWL!” A cop called
to the scene of the chicken attack retorts, “She had him like you’d pull
a worm from the ground when I got there. It was awful! Blood
everywhere! Then, when I told her to drop it, she pulled even harder,”
he says stretching his own hands at least four feet apart. “I had no
choice but to barbecue the chick on the spot.” What the boy was doing
with his pants down in the chicken coop may never be known as his
brain is too scrambled to question him. Preliminary results of an autopsy
conducted on the chicken indicate she may have died from multiple
injuries to her egg pouch caused by the penetration of a large blunt
object. Or she could have died from a 44-caliber bullet which ripped her
plucking head right off.

DINNER OUT

He spends his evenings in a cup, waiting for the waiter to pour him a
drink, trying to decide if he will drown in milk—the chill revenge of a
mother cow kept pregnant, nursing a machine, her calf gone to cutlets,
not even the loving fingers of the farmer on her breasts. Or, should he
select a delicate imported tea—the blast of boiling water bleaching the
tan from his skin? Perhaps he should choose a mixed drink, a pina
colada? The chipped ice could buoy him, a cold alcoholic mist
anesthetizing his arms and legs so death would be the irony that
those who freeze record—of feeling, in the last moments, a reassuring
warmth. Day after day, he lives only for the nights when he can climb,
again, over the slippery china lip, first leaping to catch the rim, then
swinging a leg up, catching his heel on the edge to hoist himself.
A moment balanced between life and forgetfulness, a tugging in his
groin-half & half in the cup. Then, the quick slide to the bottom.
Through a night of winking half-sleep, of solid sleep, of dreaming,
always a prescience that this moment may be the last—the tremor of
the waiter’s footsteps, a glimpse of the spout, the startling hot water
or frigidity of ice or suffocating milk. Only the service in this diner
is terrible. “I am trapped in another, tedious, absurdist play,” he laments.
“Tomorrow I must try the toaster. “

THE SCHOOL BUS SACRIFICE

“Yellow goblins are gobbling up our children,” a father tells a mother.
“No need to worry, dear,” she reassures, “This is the first day of
school.” “But mother,” he insists, “the monster has opened its folding
jaw and sucked them in.” “Posh,” mother scolds. “Today they will
receive the cumulative wisdom a local school board can give.” “But
mother,” the father gasps, “now the monster is trudging off on terrible
black feet with our sweethearts screaming from its pores.” “No, no,”
mother chastises, “this is as it should be. School must devour everyone
of their own thoughts so that they can become strong men and women
and send their own young darlings off to school.” “Too late,” father
sighs, “the monster has digested them.”

WHITE LIES
WHITE LIES

There was a lie about it
not hurting and another
about all the ice cream
you could eat. They
told me they’d see me soon
and left me with a nurse.
They never told me
about the mask
or the terrible
counting backward
from ten, until
I heard, through blinding
white-mirrored light: 9
(I couldn’t breathe.) 8
(I couldn’t even cry.) 7
(His eyes, his mask.) 6
(Pressing on my face.) 5
(Hands holding me down.) 4
Dimmer, swimming lights.

HOLOCAUST

There were these cardboard-backed
pictures, with sepia photos of young
men in uniform, swords at their sides,
mustaches, side whiskers—handsome.
My Nanny, Esther, would let me play
with them. I memorized each face,
each medal and brass polished button.
When World War II was over, I know they
disappeared but only half remember
whether Nanny burned them in front
of me or if I learned she did, later
when she realized that all her
five brothers were surely dead.

THE FIRST DAY OF SCHOOL

First day of school I knew I would
cry, but I didn’t The teacher’s name
was Miss Puritan, and she screamed
a lot and said we didn’t listen.
When the boy who sat across from me
raised his hand, she screamed at him
for interrupting. Later, he let a small
yellow stream run from his desk to puddle
under another kid’s next to me.
But I was too terrified to even pee
and never thought I’d get home alive.

HEAVEN

My brother would run ahead
and hide somewhere between
home and Charles Street.
As I walked to school
I’d know he was there
behind the big elm tree
or between the Welden’s
and Howard’s houses,
behind a fence.
When he leaped out,
sometimes walloping me
between my shoulder blades,
or with a whoop that made me scream,
I’d run for my life. Some days
my mother let me stay home
from school because of what he did,
so heaven became a place to play
after you’d been scared to death.

KID KILLERS

Johnny Santa Maria
lived across the street from me,
but he was two years younger
so he was a real little kid.
I knew he was kind of sick
because his skin was yellowish brown
and he was very small.
Not that it mattered because
he was only five, so no one ever
had to pick him for their team
at recess. When he didn’t come
to school at all, we barely missed him.
One day I was playing cowboys
in our driveway with the silver guns
and leather holsters I got for my birthday,
and a big, black Cadillac limousine
pulled up next to his house.
When his folks came out, they told me
Johnny was dead from something
they called leukemia.
Up till that time I thought
only a car could kill a little kid.

CRIB BARS

In the hospital,
I remember the cage of crib bars,
the sound of crying, crying,
not my own; a tan, fur teddy bear
I’d never seen before; the touch
of my mother’s hand as she left me
and how scared I was she went away.

THE PILE ON

We’d play tackle football after school
a range of ages, littler kids like me
to maybe eleven. The yard by the high
school gym was foot-worn smooth, hard mud.
We’d choose up sides. I was small but sneaky;
could sidestep bigger blockers, blitzing
the quarterback, catching his arm or leg
until another kid finished the tackle.
But once they threw the ball to me
and when, to my surprise, I caught it,
first one kid caught me and then another,
until everyone piled on so that I lay
on the ground, unable to move or breathe,
and it wasn’t fun anymore. After that
I learned to wrestle, squeezing
my opponents in a deadly scissors.
Once you know fear, you can inflict it.

WHEN WE WERE TEN

When we were ten, my friend Dickie
and I would climb out the attic window
of his house, four floors above the slope
of Prospect Hill, to perch on an eave
just flat enough to stretch our backs
down on the cooling grit and tar
and feel the pull of gravity in our groins.
We’d watch the sky turn orange-blue, then black,
a crack of moon and Rigel rising over
maple tops and roofs, the sunset birthing
more stars as light waned. We didn’t talk,
aloud at least, but shared in gestures:
sweeps of arms across the sky, fingers citing
planets, hands cupping constellations,
our feet aimed at the nothing of the edge.
If either of us ever prayed, we learned
to then, when, defying danger, we
surveyed the earth from four floors high,
imagining that we would never die.

THE CHESTNUT KING

Early fall we collected chestnuts,
their auburn shining from spiny shells,
almost oiled, sleek and solid,
a miracle for the taking.
Sure, they told us only horses
ate them; but at ten, out on our own,
we’d sneak the greenish half
of a peeled nut to our lips,
grimacing at their bitter truth.
How beautiful they were for a week
or two before they shriveled—so dry
and dull we felt we’d killed someone.
But when my friend’s mother dumped out
his prizes—an entire A & P bag full
of chestnuts that had established him
for at least that season as the Chestnut
King—he found a five-foot chestnut tree
growing on the banking behind his house
just one year later complete with its
crown of white flowers, so he’d forever
have a supply of chestnuts all his own.

THE FAVORITE

We had a contest to see who’d last the longest,
barefoot on the brick walls one broiling afternoon.
Used to pain from earaches, I got to fifty,
counting each second off loudly,
“one-thousand-one, one-thousand-two.”
No one could get much past that
until my cousin Paul. Late summer,
thick-soled, every grown-up’s favorite,
he lasted one hundred fifty seconds
on burning coals. Not even Bradford
Hughes, whose father used a horse’s harness
to punish him, could beat that.

LYNCH PARK SUMMER

Two miles over hills to the ocean,
towels draped round necks,
bathing suits chafing under dungarees,
past granite gateposts, we coasted down
a long, tar road to reach a formal garden;
stash the bikes and clothes behind
ivy trailing over tall brick walls
to enter a concrete gate complete with gargoyles.
Inside the walls, where paths hang low
with morning glories clinging to marble
arches, we formed squads of twos
and threes to play war, chasing each other
with fingers cocked like guns until
someone was corned in the parapets
peeking out of honeysuckle vines
to say that they surrendered.
Then, the slow death march of prisoners
down to the shore, through ankle-deep
water, until, on the order, “Halt!”
the screams of the those who couldn’t
endure the shock of sixty degrees on
sweaty bodies confirmed the execution.

RENOVATIONS

The door to the basement demands
that it be opened, chips in thick
layers, revealing ancient wood.
A bent nose for a handle, lifted,
leads to an aging furnace
hissing clean the gray cement.
Should I descend, a hand will reach
to clutch my ankle through the 2 x 4s
pulling me down with a cry
to the concrete hard enough
to crack my skull. There is the door
to be opened. Whether I descend
or not, I live in fear.

CATHARSIS

And he took a knife …
In my childhood fantasies
that phrase repeated endlessly.
And he took a knife …
I said it to myself as I slipped
between tightly tucked covers,
covered my ears, constructed
foolproof illusions of affection.
And he took a knife …
and he cut to the cyst of my dreams
where all the rage had gone because he
couldn’t cry it out; because he was never
big enough to fight it out; because
there was never a voice to talk it out.
So he took a knife,
a stainless, sharpened blade, and he
laid it close to his throat,
pressed it into the flesh, the strands
beneath the skin, cutting the carbuncled
fear from him with the slow soft hiss
of water washing a knife blade clean.

THE PRISONER

In the prison of my childhood
I waited for hours until I
was alone, my brother
not home to tease me, my folks
out, the house quiet
except for the constancy of passing
cars, the tick and chime of my
grandfather’s clock, bought for him
when he was nearly blind.
No one to boss me, hear
what I said, care what I did.
I would lie completely still,
shallow breathing, on the flat
wool nap of our old gray rug,
the painted-flower table lamp
shadowing the walls. I was
the sickly kid, always promised
someday I would be better.
That meant I must be bad.
I would pretend that I was dead
and wonder why it didn’t frighten me.
Only when steps echoed up
our long back hall, did I cry.

BUGGY RACING

Memorial Day, my friends, Al, Bion
and I sat on the stone wall in front
of my house on Cabot Street to watch
the big parade that started just
blocks from us at Balch Playground.
It was a brilliant, sunny day,
reminding us of school’s end
less than a month away.
The holiday was not to remember
soldiers who had died. In 1953,
we thought of all the heroes we knew,
who’d fought in WWII in the Pacific,
like Buzzy Branch’s father, who kept
a bottle on the mantel with 2
enemy ears afloat in formaldehyde.

The Beverly High School Band led off,
followed by the National Guard
with polished shoes and hup 2-3s,
artillery and jeeps. Then, St. Mary’s
Crusaders Marching Band, prized
throughout the State, with premier
twirler, Linda Towers, at the front
tossing her baton 20 feet
into the air just when she saw us.
Her brother, Bobby, told me she
practiced 6 hours every day
to learn it—a double spin-around
and blind catch behind her back.
Her hair in blond banana curls,
her pink underpants showing
as she spun, her fur-tufted boots.
After the parade, we ran to our
backyards to build new buggy —
our versions of Soap Box Derby racers,
only we used orange crates for hoods,
each pine board and blue-steel
flathead nail carefully removed,
saved for reuse. The labels,
with their bright designs—too-orange
oranges beneath a California sun—
we peeled away to shape the end boards
into rounded hoods; a winged Mercury,
stolen from the local junkyard,
ornamenting our accomplishments.

Up the Welden’s long tar drive
we pulled them to test their rubber
baby-carriage wheels, bearings
packed lovingly with thick, black
grease. To steer, we tied a clothes-
line to a 2 x 4 bolted to the front,
the axle held on by big, bent-over
spikes. For brakes, a stick
to drag a tire or the ground.

Just then, we heard the sirens
rushing to somewhere near our street.
We might have run to see what,
but it was dusk, a school night
and we had to go in. Next morning,
the Beverly Times headlined,
TOWERS GIRL KILLED INSTANTLY
when a car struck her bicycle
on Cabot Street. The driver
said he couldn’t see her, lost
in the glare of a large, red,
setting sun. In school, they
asked us to say a special prayer.
Friday that week, the paper
said her funeral had 100
cars but my friends and I
couldn’t attend. We had to
stay in school.

By the weekend, it was off to race
our buggies on the perfect hill.
Not Swan Street on the corner
where I lived—a contradiction
of its name, unsleek, unsmooth—
or other streets near ours,
their tar-and-bluestone surfaces
retarding speed. Not Welden’s
or any of the driveways of my friends,
which, if smooth, were only modest
slopes that let us listen for any
grinding in the wheels. We sought
the longest, steepest, smoothest,
newly blacktopped hill and found it,
2 miles away—the private road
right through the Catholic cemetery,
tucked safely away from traffic,
well worth a long, hot walk
with car in tow.

It was hot that Saturday—
just one week past Memorial Day
and already 80. We took the shortcut,
a back road over Reservoir Hill,
past the dirt embankments
and artificial pond where we caught
golden carp or perch on wooden poles
with rusting hooks—a dirt road
that brought us to the rear
of the Saint Mary’s Cemetery.
The front gate, we knew,
was almost always locked.
We climbed over the old stonewall,
avoiding clumps of poison ivy,
and lifted our buggies over.
If the gardener were there
he’d chase us away, but no one saw
his car or heard the mowers.
Before us stretched the hill—
so much like a Soap Box Derby
course we used their rules,
marking a starting line in chalk
on its short, flat top:
No pushing off. No rocking
forward in your car to boost
your speed. Just a clean coast
down, eyes peering up from hood-level,
head tucked low to cut your wind resistance.

I got off first as Bion counted
“Ready, set … ” I knew he always
took one long, deep breath before
he hollered, “Go!” So I was ready.
But Al’s car streaked by me
by midhill, his white wheels
gleaming. I might as well have
dragged my brakes the way he won—
by 20 feet or more, crossing
the finish line between 2 graves
with a victory whoop loud enough
to wake the dead. He jerked on
his brake before the iron gate
and I coasted around a corner
to the one tar road across
the cemetery’s front, along
the Herrick Street Extension.

It was then I saw her grave,
replete with gladiolas, wreathes
of roses bound with black ribbons,
a mound of freshly cut flowers
and the newly engraved brass plaque:
Linda Towers, b. 1938, d. 1953.
The hot sun soaked me with sweat.
My throat was dry from exercise
and shouting. I sat in my wooden
buggy, feet along the plank
under the rounded hood.
And I realized, then, that she
would never see the sunlight
or perspire in the dry heat
of June; that she would never
toss her baton high and flash
her smile at multitudes applauding
at the curbside because her head
had smacked against the long, hard
quarry stones that line old
Cabot Street, even as I stood
admiring Al’s car just blocks
away from where she’d fallen,
and Dr. Girsch, the town’s emergency
squad doctor and, also, coroner,
pronounced her dead.

ZAYDE

Ma told me when I came home from school
that my Zayde had had a heart attack
I pictured him seated by the kitchen window.
(It was winter—too cold to rock on our
front porch.) The afternoon sun streamed in;
the steaming, silver radiator by his side.
His wicker chair, maroon seat-pads tied
at each comer, gave way as he rolled
forward and slightly to the side,
slumping to the floor. My Nanny
was there to see it all but my uncles
had to come to call an ambulance
and rush him to the hospital.
Just two days later, he was dead.
I felt numb; or was I too stubborn
to cry? Zayde could always raise
a smile, even when it hurt him
to just sit. A man was supposed
to keep control. But if I had known
his death would start my Nanny dying,
too, I couldn’t have stopped my tears.

CONSENT

In the hospital, she still spoke to me,
even near the end when she only screamed
at her children that they wanted her dead.
She’d whisper about girlhood in Russia,
cry for her mother she never saw again
after she left Rostov. She even said
she wished she could live a little longer
though her life had been so hard.
But she lapsed unconscious, lingering
a week at least, her arms black and blue
from intravenous. The last day I saw her,
the nurses had tied her to the bed to keep
the needles in. The next day, her children
made the doctor stop all heroic measures
and in a day or two they had killed her
just as she had said they would.

HOW WINTER ENDS

Were the snow piles really as high as
mountains along the edges of the parking lot
when I was young? I’d walk the ridges,
survey the frozen world of shoppers
hurrying for groceries far below.
On the way home from the Prospect Street
School when I was six, seven, ten,
when I wasn’t home sick with earaches
because I stayed out too long
in a storm or didn’t wear the red
wool hat with earmuffs my mother
told me to, I remember there were
mountains plowed up in front of
the A & P on Cabot Street, snow
packed so new and solid it shown
blue-white and brilliant for healthy
climbers. Or was it like so many lots
I visit lately, with soot-specked
snow in piles, chest-high and melting,
caked with road sand, retreating,
revealing the litter accumulated
through the season to be
disposed of when the winter ends.

PREJUDICE

Aunty Rose and Uncle Roy
lived in his mother’s house
all of their married lives.
The attic beams were pegged
not nailed and Mother Clark,
herself, looked old enough
to be Colonial—a face
of wrinkled smiles, a hairnet
holding thin, gray strands.
Roy looked the same for all
the years I knew him—a tall,
skinny, white-haired gent
who hardly ever talked to me.
Everybody knew he’d told
my Aunt they’d have no kids
because Rose and Roy weren’t
of the same religion.
Perhaps that’s why I didn’t
visit much, though Aunty Rose
I counted as a favorite.
If I spent a day with her,
she’d cook plain hamburger
and boiled potato, careful
to peel away the skin
and serve it whole. (“The way
the goyim like it,” I heard
my mother say.)
Once, Uncle Roy let me watch
him in the basement while he
planed a dowel to fix a chair.
On dusty shelves that lined
old granite walls, cigar boxes.
I opened them to see a feast
of nails; a set of knobs;
a handful of the hugest
stove bolts; a stack of hundred
dollar bills? Another box,
another boodle—all stacked
brand new, gold-sealed
and paper-banded. When Uncle
Roy looked up, his face paler
than I’d ever seen, he whispered,
“Those are mine. Our little
secret, yes? Promise you’ll
never tell a soul.”
At nine, promises were hard
to keep, but something
frightening and exciting
silenced me. All through
my childhood, teens, I kept
the secret. Mother Clark
died when I was ten and Uncle
Roy when I was in my twenties.
Rose had stopped inviting me;
later she said she had
no patience for my own kids.
Some folks called her rich
but Roy put it in his will
the house could never go
to anyone on her side.
Sometimes, when I think
about the prejudice and those
stacks of hundred-dollar bills,
I dream of larceny.

SUMMER SUNDAYS

Summer Sundays meant Lynch Park
with my family. We camped with blankets,
canvas chairs and overflowing ice chests
by the hundred-foot weeping willows.
My Zayde (who came all the way from Russia)
walked gingerly, the hundred yards across
what only years before were private lawns
to a crescent beach called Woodberry’s,
rubbed a few cupped handfuls of cold,
salt water into his graying fur,
and without a moment more of hesitation
waded up to his chest, laughing,
“A mecheieh!” which even I knew
in Yiddish means, “A pleasure!”

FAITH

In the third grade
the new girl’s name
was Faith Bigalow.
She had long brown hair,
brown eyes and though
I know she never wore
lipstick or rouge, her
cheeks had little blush spots
and her lips were very red.
Faith was the minister’s daughter
but that didn’t stop me
from loving her. At nine,
I didn’t dwell on ethnic prejudice.
Often as I pulled her pigtails
at recess, she barely looked at me.
In junior high, I sat behind her.
We were joined by the alphabetical
proximity of our last names.
Through the pledge of allegiance,
the principal’s announcements,
home-game pep talks and the Lord’s
prayer, I watched the way she’d shrug
her shoulders, smooth her hair,
smile as she turned to receive papers
passing from the back of the room.
For our eighth-grade graduation,
I told her that I loved her
and asked her to the prom.
She said her father was assigned
to a new church so she’d
be moving soon. If you meet
her, or her sister Prudence,
please let Faith know I miss her
and for thirty years I’ve wished
that I kissed her goodbye.

THE YEAR OF THE TOMATO WORMS

My friend Bradford Hughes’s parents farmed
five acres just up the street from me
where everyone could get the freshest
eggs, strawberries, com, tomatoes.
I could make fifteen cents an hour
weeding when rainy days made chickweed
grow like Topsy and Brad’s three brothers
and two sisters couldn’t catch up
on all the chores. One year
I got a nickel bonus for each
tomato worm I caught: fat green,
black-spotted tomato caterpillars.
A single one could eat a large plant
bare so quickly you could hear it
crunching. They’d swell so full
of pungent juice from leaves they’d
eaten, they couldn’t even curl up
in your hand to hide the way most
caterpillars do. We’d stroke their
smooth, solid skins, drop them in
a bottle, bring them in for bounty.
Mr. Hughes would count them twice,
shell out our nickels, wring open
the bottle covers we’d carefully
punched with air holes to let our
prisoners breathe, then tip the bottles
gingerly into a tin dish of kerosene.
Sometimes, as I watched a matinee,
if I heard a monster screaming, pursued
by a village of torch-bearing citizens,
instead of guzzling the coke and popcorn
purchased with my hard-earned pay,
I’d remember the tomato caterpillars
writhing as they burned away.

HEALTH FOOD

For lunch, white bread spread thick
with peanut butter, marshmallow,
Welch’s grape jam. Chocolate
milk redolent with syrup. Dessert,
a frozen Charleston Chew to strain
your jaw: first, a terrific crack
to break a piece and then you’d swear
your teeth were stuck forever.
An hour later, for a snack,
a lemon popsicle that turns
your tongue to wintertime.
You suck the sugared ice
until your forehead hurts
right here between your eyes.

STILL LIFE IN ENGLISH 7-C

Above the teacher’s desk
there floats a half a torso,
the bust of Shakespeare,
his pupils little holes.
Stacked on shelves beside
the teacher as he writes
“Homework” on a dusty blackboard:
Stories to Teach and Delight.
“Do pages 101 to 113 tonight.
English Grammar, 5th Edition.”
The wastebasket gapes wide
its round gray jaws.

THE WAY IT WAS

Push the swinging lavatory doors
open to a black leather jacket
back, a comb through long
greased hair. My guts tighten.
I’m fifteen again:
chess whiz,
high school intellectual.
He’s a shop boy—tough kid—
could put me through the wall
with one well-muscled arm.
He turns to say hello,
respectfully, acknowledging
that I’m college staff, he’s
just another student. All day,
I walk nervously through the halls.

GROWN-UPS

The clock sucks in its breath,
shouts its alarm. I wake up
hoping school is canceled;
realize my daughter, not me,
must make the bus. Amazed
at being grown-up, I help myself
to coke and donuts for breakfast;
tell my daughter, “It won’t do any
good to beg. Just eat your oatmeal.”
Later, behind the wheel, I revel
in the looks of little kids,
remembering how long it took
to age from five to sixteen
when I could finally drive.

ONE FOR MY FARTHER

It was in a car he said he loved me,
plainly, for the first time, driving
with him from Long Island
to a second house I’d purchased,
down in Florida He had already
made clear that he objected:
“What do you need it for?” he asked.
“You’ll never get your money back.”
I couldn’t tell him but I knew it was
another way to say, “Father, I am a person.”
I tried to tell him, “I want to do something
for you.” Of course, my offer to set him up
turned into his traveling to help me
fix the place. Of course, he told me he
didn’t want me to: 1. make the property
a shelter to cut his taxes; 2. provide
a haven for his old age; 3. look after
him. But in between his bigshot son’s
financial statements and his own meager
sense of what he needed, he reassured me
he did not want a fancy funeral, no year
of prayers, no Kaddish, no carrying on.
After all, he lived a simple life.
He was always sincere. And somewhere,
I think about Exit no. 3
on the New Jersey Turnpike,
he insisted that he really loved me
so I didn’t have to prove anything anymore.

ANOTHER FOR MY FATHER

Of course I have always loved him
if a part of me still shivers
at his rage, the belt he wielded,
or how I could cry at his insistence
that he’s not special (and therefore
I am not). For me, he is special,
even if I give you an example
that seems small. In all
the winter nights he answered calls
from relatives and strangers:
“My car is stuck.
My car won’t start. My car
cracked up.” He’d get up from
a warm seat and go to aid them.
Even now, he’s fixed every car I’ve
ever owned. How could I not love
someone who keeps me going?

WHAT’S IN A NAME?

I always knew my uncle Maynard’s
name was Meyer, and while the family
joked, it seemed to me quite reasonable
he changed his name. But one day,
walking with my father down Main Street,
whom did we meet but his old high
school crony, and he called my father
Robert! I thought my father’s name
was Sam. Now, I can understand
my mother-in-law changing Barshie
to Betty and her sister transforming
Brina into Bert; but when I learned
my mother abandoned Ida for Irene
it made me wonder—who am I, anyway?

HOME REMEDIES

HOME REMEDIES

(For Alan and Carol.)

One pound of carrots, give
or take a beet for coloring.
A centrifugal juicer, stainless
steel container. Thick, pulpy
fluid, downspout to fill
a 6 oz. cocktail glass. “Only
$200 for the machine,” he brags.
“Taste it! It’s terrific!”
One swig and all my mouth
cries out for artificial flavors,
sugar, additives. Seeing my face,
he seizes the drink and downs it
as quickly as an alcoholic.
Later, discussing what things
can kill, he says that nuclear plants
and DC-l0s are dangerous, citing
statistics, quipping: “Chicken
Little only has to be right once!”
I point out that dying is easy, less
than a minute and you are gone,
unconscious of any pain. “It’s thinking
about dying that fills one with fear.”
“Oh no,” he says, “I’m not afraid.
I have my health foods.”

THE VANDAL

He creeps to the edge of the hedges
on the darkest night, his bee bee gun
beneath a surplus army jacket.
This is where he went to school.
He’s older now and knows the rules
and how to break them. Raising
the polished butt beside his chin
he fires, pointing at the room
where he was kept—one quick
report of well-pumped air and
runs for it. The pellet
punctures 3/8th inch glass,
a burst of silver petals through
the other side, one violent glass
flower for the teacher.

THE POETS AGAINST THE SCIENTISTS

“Grasp the frog firmly, a finger bending
the head down,” the lab assistant said.
The speckled skin taut across the neck,
the flippered legs swimming in midair.
“Insert the needle at the base of the brain
to sever the spine, rendering the animal
alive but helpless for dissection.”
I listened, watched others, saw
the hind legs jump straight out for one
last time, tremble, hang limp. Not that I
am a pacifist; would like to think that
I would kill. But even then, lab science
and four college credits aside, I couldn’t.

TWO SONNETS IN FEAR OF CANCER

1. The Odds Makers

Awakened simultaneously at one,
we argue who’s to blame, whose cough resounds
percussive, whether health foods help prolong
one’s life; count careful people still struck down.
We quote the facts, make odds and place our bets:
In WWI, one out of four was killed.
Now one in four will die a cancer death.
An hour—no sleep. The bottle rattles, pills
half gone; we drink a glass of tepid juice.
Our terrors slow their ticking, numbed by drugs
that stop diurnal clocks. At noon, transfused
with sugared tea, we slump behind our mugs,
ignore the nitrates bursting in our guts,
the table strewn with bacon rinds and butts.
2. Through Sickness

Crises, you never let me comfort you,
would rather sit alone in dark and cry,
as if we hadn’t been together through
ten years of births or watched our close friends die.
To show your rage at life you call the cops,
phone threats of self-annihilation, 9-
1-1. I wake when the receiver drops.
Dazed, I find you flushed with fear and blind
with tears. You only asked them for protection
a guard with gun to keep the cancer out.
“Don’t call again,” I beg. “The cops will come
and get you.” Then who would drive me crazy,
shout my fears away, or with her madness, fight
to wear me out enough to sleep at night?

THE ENERGY CRISIS

A man has found a cheap alternative source of energy.
He rolls his junk and newspapers into logs to burn.
He calculates The Times is worth more as fuel than
he paid for the news. He marvels at the small pile
of white ash when the combustion is complete; plays
with the crusts of charcoal sometimes left, leaded,
sulfurous. He burns an old book. The pages are read
off one by one by the flames. The words go up in smoke.
He burns a photo album, watches the silvered nitrates
flaring out one last bright image. Soon, he runs out
of books, of photos, of scraps. He burns his clothing.
His hair. At last, his skin. He is left by the old heat
stove, cooking himself on a slowing flame. He hopes
his carcass will be done in time for supper.

AT 5:58 A.M.

The wind sounds the house for cracks.
Under my bedcover I picture your car
careening home through rain showers
at sixty I a mile a minute closer to me.
In half-sleep, I calculate time, rate
and distance: problems I can’t solve.
At 26 m.p.h. the water breaks
to white-ridged caps. Jets
shatter the air enough at 750
to outrun their sounds. I pull back
the covers to stand in total darkness,
imagine the highway’s wet sand
a shock as I touch the floor. White
lines rush toward me, reflective.
Wind, rain, plane crash, car wreck
excluded, in an hour you will return.
In the stillness of my bedroom
all distances converge through wind-
thrust vehicles, across highways
of sound and seas of air.

WIND CYCLE

1.
The wind carves a figure
from the dark, hollows the ears
to let it hear; the orifices open,
breathing. The wind marks out
the hollow eyes.

2.
Wind create me.
Wind inspire me.
Wind enter my body
where you can.

3.
Cracks are “The Enemy,”
letting drafts of notices
in to bother us. What can we do
to stop the wind, man? Wracking
our crickety necks with notices
we dare not read, old Windman
moves to us in dark. He’s like
steam on the windows, growing
larger. Hold your breath; he’s
entered the envelope of you.

4.
Tell us about Uncle Sam, Windman.
Move like an anthem; your hiss
is our salute. Wave the flag. Blow
our brains out with a gush of blood.

5.
Windman is the whistler who draws us
to his car, drags us in, drives us ten
miles away and beats us, only to make
peace when he licks and cools our wounds.
Windman, the gentle killer, moving through
crowds, leaving no traces like the practiced
wife beater beating his wife.

6.
What does the Windman eat for dinner?
A swallow of air.
A burp as a compliment.
But what does the Windman do for a living?
Drives a fast car with an air-cooled engine.
Where does the Windman rest (if he does)?
On the edge of his bed
with his feet in the air.
How does the Windman treat his lover?
What goes lightly all over
like sweet gas makes giggles.
But what does the Windman do about death?
When the ashes are scattered,
the wind cleans them up.

PORT JEFFERSON, LONG ISLAND

For Sale: Captain Conway’s mansion
(divided into two small rental units)
complete with widow’s watch (hung
with a tenant’s ivy). Regard the wide-
board floors, tipped by nearly two
hundred years of settling and wear
(and termites hiding beneath
the basement stair). There
(in the uninsulated attic) are
the hand-hewn beams of a ship
sunk at its dock in the hurricane
of 1822, hauled here to build his
house by the good Captain. The price
(resold to you by a local real estate
investor), only 750 thousand
dollars. For nothing, the historical
society will place a plaque outside
the door to document it’s true.

WHITE

A white saltbox house beneath a bleached
white sky; white shingled roof reflecting
sunlight; white asbestos siding still damp
with haze; a white Pinto hatchback in the driveway
with a white Virginia license plate and CB #KAFW-
9802. White concrete walk to the street
and neighborhood school where all the white
kids are learning about the world.

CAREER GUIDANCE

First, it rains and rivulets wash
the face of white cliffs to collect
in chalky puddles. The sun appears
drawing the water back to the sky,
leaving a fine mud finish, baked
until it curls to form crude plates
and saucers. A man happens
upon these, and lifting a plate, finds
it a pleasing shape but too easily broken.
He remembers the hard clay by the rocks
when the cooking fire cools and the mud
pies his kids make, punching clay balls
with their fists. And then, a wheel,
multicolored paints, delicate designs
and pictures of athletes, acrobats, women
dancing. After that it’s all easy:
exhibitions in the finest galleries,
top-dollar prices, and finally—after
about a thousand years or two—
the national museum of antiquities.
RECOVERY

Marilyn, b. 1947, nearly died, 1979,
a regular day early spring, thirty-two,
an accountant for a heating and plumbing
firm, rushed to the hospital, coronary,
the ambulance sending its early warning;
they saved her, despite the kind of chemistry
that blocks the arteries. Now, her clothes
don’t fit, and she has twenty pounds to go;
no salt, no sugar, no fat, no stress,
no heavy exercise, no job, no cash,
no relatives who give a damn.
At thirty-two, there must be something
to say yes to. Her boyfriend has left her.
The doctor says she’s doing fine.

WEATHER PATTERNS

(For the Scammaccas.)

With the subtlety of a pickpocket
a finger of cloud reaches for the sun,
a gold watch over the seasons.
One barely notices the cold slight
of hand which follows,
so suddenly the summer
has been stolen.

I’M TELLING YOU

Grief is a formality.
It greets you at the door,
astrologer, teller of truths.
Grief is a throbbing in the blood,
a pulsing headache, a cheap TV
commercial promising a cure.
I am asking you, why can’t grief
be a scream or a cry? Why
should it be that any stranger
can offer sympathy? People
are paid or pay: business is
business. Grief is also
a commodity, a future to be
traded, a transaction made in tears,
barreled like oil to bring you a share
in someone’s misery. So I am
telling you to buy from me,
buy from me—and I’ll pay you
back for all my grief.

THE SUFFERING GOES BOTH WAYS

(A “Swastika Poem” for William Heyen.)

The German-American boy of six,
what could he understand of war or pain?
His father, scraping the swastikas off
where they’d been smeared on the front door
the boy was only six. His immigrant father
worked in a defense plant on Long Island
riveting the fuselage of Douglas DC3s.
What could a boy know of Bergen-Belsen,
Buchenwald? When the news came that
Roosevelt was dead, the boy cried because
he couldn’t go to the picture show his mother
promised. But Hitler, hidden deep within
the bunkers beneath Berlin, stamped
and screamed the gods had sent a sign
his Reich would rise again from ashes
and bombed-out cities.

When the boy was twenty-three
he visited Germany and the family
who’d stayed behind. One older aunt
served tea and strudel which he savored,
but he had to ask her, what was she doing
during the war? How could it have happened?
It was then she dropped the smile the fond
expression for this brother’s son and in a voice
like testimony at a trial, she explained:

Your Uncle Max and I, we had
our camera store. He was alive then.
We had a family and our business.
So, I would walk from work, past the train
tracks and the depot, and I would hear
some voices moaning, and once I think I saw
a hand sticking out of a boxcar.
But it was the war. That wasn’t
anybody’s business. What could I
do? Only once … once I was walking
home and the smoke—you know,
the smoke—I smelled it and I shouldn’t
say this. It was late, supper time
you know, and I couldn’t help myself
from thinking it smelled
like pot roast cooking.

So very human her response, he finally understood.

FRAGMENTS OF THIS RELATIONSHIP

(For an associate comatose since an auto accident.)

You either sneered at me or faced me
like a back turned when I walked by.
And why? We both were artists, even
landsman. (Your face shattered
by glass, spread out in pain. Your broken
neck.) Deadened to me for no reason,
now I wish you dead for good reason—
the justice that doesn’t often come
to bad guys. (You are playing out
your last, slow bars of music.
You’re through. Who needs you?)
Jews rush their dead into the grave,
except that you deny them, dying slowly.
They sit on boxboard, orthodox, in burlap,
brooding in dark rooms, cloth covering mirrors.
I’d throw you in your grave, box, board and all,
un-blind the curtain, scrub the mirror of your
face, remove the stain of sneer. May you
never hear or see again—a suitable revenge.
THE MEDIA MAKES NOTE

(Spring, 1977—The New York Times reports the 1,000th victim of
violence in Ireland since British troops were sent to keep peace in
1969.)

This was no accident or else it wouldn’t count.
John Gallagher in ’69 was the first.
Now Corbet is the thousandth, the bullet
holes punched in the skull, the clotting
blood) his eyes as wide in terror as a suffocating
fish. In the Irish countryside, as with any war,
people till their fields under fire, wincing
as explosions irrigate their plot; or wounded)
they water the crops with blood. In cities
the alternatives come clad in steel—tank cars
not tractors, discovering mines hidden
in the streets. A street sweeper cleans
Mr. Corbet’s blood away. Another milestone
in the aging war, a Catholic funeral;
another marble tombstone in the churchyard
placed in headline as casually as a clerk filing forms.

EULOGY FOR THE GUNG-HO OFFICER

(Killed in action, December, 1972.)

And when the missiles came to greet you
over the DMZ with “Go get those
Yankee Mothers” written on their warheads
in Chinese, how much like
the textbook glory you were taught?
Your un-dropped bombs destroying you
for spite, your flesh dispersed
in clouds of gas and shattered weaponry;
did you rejoice that though the blood
was vaporized, bits of your body
decayed to spoil their rice?
As you saw the red flash swallowing
the plane, Lieutenant, did you cry
for Mother, God and Country? Did you
cry for all the airmen you’d commanded
and how much less they were than you
because they’d only landed? We have
only questions to ask, while you have been
awarded, posthumously, the silver cross.
May you never rest in peace.
VIRGINIA SOIL

Beside a sweet gum tree grown so fast
it covers a rusty wire fence with bark,
lies Lenwood Gray, son of Carrie and W. S.
Goodrich, having lived too little—from July
to just September—remembered by a small
white-marble stone: “Our Darling.”
Where cedars rise to symmetrical heights
only to dwindle, crack, and stand
bleached white, jagged perches for juncos
trying to sing: John Hunnicutt and Sarah
together with a stone like a long
gray pillow on their bed, and at their feet:
John Lee, October 6 to June of the next year,
and sister Bessie, August 1 to September,
1893, their head and feet also marked
by polished stone.

Beneath oaks, growing in slow deliberation,
pushing a branch first north, then south,
building their fortress toward the sun,
thick at the roots, outlasting the loss
of limbs, hiding illness in dark crevices,
rotting in secret places, a dozen Holts
and Bells have met, married, finally settled.
Where a wrought-iron fence now forgets
its gate, the plot overgrown with ivy I
no flowers in a lichen-covered marble urn,
brown oak leaves, crisp as the mid-December air
collecting in the dark green vines,
barely legible on a granite slab: “In Memory
of James Wallace Simpson, born at Ellerslie,
Surry County, died at the same place, July 8,
1860. He was generous, noble, and true.”

THE BACKWARD GLANCE

You think that it is hidden
because your front lawn is frosted
neatly as it was raked last fall;
things put away, the Christmas
lights set to blink at dusk,
but out back it is still summer,
deck chairs askew where the wind
has edged them up against your
leaf-filled pool, the water churning
browner; a cracking snake of hose,
a rusting grill. A half-deflated
raft floats limp as someone’s body
waiting to be boxed and buried.

WHEN I LISTEN TO A CONCERT
I WANT TO MOVE

(For Aaron Kramer.)

Who is the fool dancing
in the concert aisles
giving the conductor competition?
Over the footlights he lofts
spinning amid the cellos
(his favorite instruments).
Where did this idiot learn
to drive his semi-
conscious through an orchestra?
Always, one moving in
the audience, a drumming
in his blood, a need to dance
what others only dream of.

EVERYONE IS ALWAYS

(Offen der mohl, zol nisht kahken oif dern kop:
Don’t let them shit on your head, open your mouth.
—Yiddish Proverb.)

Everyone is always telling
someone what to do, breaking them
in to what’s up like the sky itself
telling those hills to keep it down,
let some horizon show—like so, and
place some pines across that ridge
to catch the color of my sunset. See,
you’ve got it now, so I can spread
myself all over you, and don’t
give me any trouble.

Everyone is always breaking someone
in and here’s how says the yellow-shifted
house-girl to her new assistant-take pitcher
A and pitcher B to Mr. X and Mr. Z and watch
you keep your fingers off your pimples. Do
what you are told.

Everyone is always sure to learn
the facts. The wisest crack’s the boss’s
and everyone must learn to smile and kiss it.

THE METER READER

The meter reader waves to me outside
my kitchen window, disappears
into my basement: the back of a brown
linen jacket; the flourish of a clipboard
in his hand. The light
meter reader, his lantern lit,
visits my basement to whisper
to me, truths. Love is
the meter reader but will he
love me with my broken seal?
The electric man, eyes glass
bubbles, his brain a-spin,
making my connections.
The utility company clerk,
penciling my numbers in each
little box, imagining computer
puncher fingers on the buttons,
the satisfaction of making little
holes.
Dear Electric Company:
You say my bill was estimated in the office.
I will not pay until you send your man.
Signed,
Lonely.
THE MISSIONS WE ARE GIVEN

George visits me like an ancient
martyr, his hair unkempt, eyes
blackened from lack of sleep.
He talks till 2 a.m. for fear
of stopping. Others have slept
on slabs of stone, bricks for pillows.

His wife, at 38, is dying—
a lump as heavy as clay.
They say they cannot operate.
When he rests his head on her
he says he hears it.
George is proficient at filing
papers. His fingers move him
through details of the day. To dress
each morning he imagines consent forms
for surgery printed under his buttons.

Out in the garden, where she sits
blankly in the sun, the vegetables
have wilted from an early frost.
She planted them before the hospital
and diagnosis. Now it is a question
of whether the aunt who does canning
will think it propitious to pick
the green tomatoes.

You who question marriage and its worth,
who wish for trains at night to chase
your mate and crush her to release you
an accident less gruesome than an illness,
hear George’s cry at night and give him
license. Perhaps your love’s outlived
its usefulness, a car that’s not
worth fixing. He only asks that he
can still go shopping, bring home
strength and hold her in his arms.

FAMILIARITY

How their hands have become
the hands of lovers, finding
each other softly, slipping
onto an arm at an unexpected
moment, caressing a neck
at a concert, chancing
a tickle under a table.
Even apart, touch can fill
the void, through the ivory
scrimshaw pendant: fine
detail to trace in darkness,
a talisman to tell the loneliness
“Be gone.”
When I was a stranger
I took your hand.
Now I reach to touch
inside you.

THE SPOT

The spot
exists where you place it
is spirit and substance both air and gold
the spot is between the eyes henna
a reddish brown at the V of veins
that swell in temper, feed the eyes
making light.

Paint the spot to worship.
Touch it to pray.

The spot is a gold piece, double eagle
on a dead man’s eye, lasting longer
than the flesh to drop with a ring
to the back of an empty skull.

The spot is sexual, can be massaged,
swelling with blood, crowned purple.

The spot is a pimple on the tongue,
sucked to make hurt, controllably
we pretend.

The spot is there to bump an elbow
against the corner of the kitchen
table—with an anesthetic laugh.

X MARKS THE SPOT.

There is a spot where I hide
in the blackness of my closet, waiting
to see the patterns of my lids, rosettes
of iris, refractions
red black orange halo of green
that shrinks or spreads.
Opening my eyes, the visible invades me
a millimeter of light
inquiring of the darkness:
enough to separate my life from fantasy.

There is a water spot slowly growing
on my ceiling, swelling with water,
soaking until a single drop can slip
off to the floor. Under it, I have tied
myself to the bedpost, waiting. If
this leak is not fixed soon, someone
must be punished.

Each of us has a spot
we hide: the birthmark
blush across the thigh; the wart
astride the shoulder with its hair,
the secret scar. Each of these spots
cries out, “Conceal me!” until one night,
perhaps on a subway, before a perfect
stranger, we must reveal it, opening
our raincoat slowly … so:
My pet, you see my pretty
squirrel, Here are the nuts.
Come feed it.

There is a spot where gamblers meet
to make their pitch and hustle; where
it’s spot me ten points, Billy,
and put a ten-spot on Big Bill.
It’s take three pitches for a dollar
hit the spot and win and spot the ball
behind the line, pretending
chance is skill—an arm that arches
upward, fingers that release the ball
that circles over airy distances
to strike like a blow on the chest.
Only those who know the gravity
of carnivals can win.

See Spot.
See Spot run.
Run Spot
Run Spot, run.
Outrun your spot.
Try.

Where the mask slips, the shoulders
droop, the body’s energy creeps
to the edge of the eye as if it would
tear from you like wash hanging in
the back yard, white, bright,
granulated laundry soap, leaving
you spotless and clean.

TRISTE

You are the pain I carry
in my chest, there to finger
when I am alone, press in,
breathe deeply or move my arm
just so to stab me with your
sorrow. But I am learning
to take care of myself and feel
with slow and soft-tipped
fingers to my center
where the pain, the rending
of the flesh, to my surprise,
I know already that I can bear
and leaving you, or perhaps
staying, I will not have
to carve my heart out
to escape it.

IN THE LEARNING CENTER

Diagnostic test:
Mark a spot on the board.
Fix your eyes on that spot.
Hold a chalk in each hand.
Draw circles on both sides.
Lateral perception,
A basic test. Why does it
shame me to know my daughter
can not do it?

THE LAWYER’S LAWYER

(For Alan Pomerantz.)

It’s not that you can’t be read,
arriving in your gray suede hat
and cashmere coat—saying, “Success
has a language,” and, “l am here
for a reason.” You are a careful
set of signals ready to transact
hunched forward, squinting
at every word. The other lawyer
eyes you—your vested suit, a stylish
cut of brownish hair, a straighter line
of mustache as you purse your lips
before you speak: “I won’t be rushed.
I’m worried about that. Let’s see
the papers first. We want to make this
deal but not until it’s right.”
Only, the color comes back
to your cheeks when the names
are on the line—a poker player
who only flushes with a victory.
And when the edges of your mouth
curl up, the squint lets go, your eyes
are crescents. You lean back,
hands behind your head, and shine
a grin like you were twelve again
in your old black polished chinos
and flannel shirt, embarrassed
that you beat your old man
at a game of chess.

ALL DAY THE MEN WITH BROWN ENVELOPES

(Entering Rockefeller Center.)

All day men with brown envelopes
leave the Associated Press Building,
arm atrophied, fist white-knuckled,
clinging to their envelopes frozen
to them as hard as the wind blows,
stuck to their sides hot as the sun
shines. They mumble, dragging one
foot, or bound chin out, knees
pumping below their raincoats,
hugging their brown envelopes,
hating the unwrinkled skin.
Until the envelopes, clasped,
sealed, glued in an armpit,
are delivered to their source
and the men, bereft of all envelopes,
collapse until tomorrow.

TESTS OF LOVE AND STRENGTH

Unfaithful in a thousand fantasies
I cling to you; stave off exotic plans
for one-night stands as I walk the beach
remembering how you keep me happy.
The sirens lure me, bikini clad,
breasts full, bottoms up. I taste
them between their legs, spread
like track stars at their blocks.
(I wish I had a bushel full of cocks
to visit all of them.)
Sex makes objects of us all, concentrating
on each part. Before I lose my heart
[ steel myself against the onslaught,
zippering up my dreams (they creep
out at the seams) and test
the strength of amour.
POEM IN OUR HONOR

“Go clean the moisture off the walls.
Your long, hot shower stalls the air
with steam!” you scream. I toss
my towel at your face and say,
“1 live at my own pace, and you’re
a nuisance.” One idiosyncrasy
we share, another leaves us tearing
hair: I’m left to close each bottle
top you’ve opened. Whatever
arguments we have, me sitting
stone-faced in my chair, you
throwing things from here
to there, somehow we are
the perfect pair, and glad
for what we’ve chosen.

SENSE OF PLACE

The underside of the house
hums in its sleep and I
am glad to find it human,
all dark inside like you
asleep upstairs dreaming
of more babies; the motors
in the furnace moving parts
like fingers to make fluids
flow. You are the inner workings
of my life. In fetal
daydreams, I enter the basement
of our house to hide.
In you I find the light.

ON THE LONG ISLAND EXPRESSWAY

(For David Ignatow.)

We are waiting for the fellow
in the red Ford to die and get
it over with. This traffic is
killing us. No one can spread
junk around these days and not
get fined. The oil, the blood
and antifreeze—they ought to issue
a citation, order the wreckage
off the road! A person barely
gets going these days when
some crank screws up the works.

FOLLOW MY WISHES

(A notarized poem.)

The oak clings to its leaves,
a lover unwilling to let go its dead.
We pay too much for mourning I have
read, so here are my wishes:
November—the crisp leaves chafe,
and I am writing to save you money.
Turn me quickly into clay—cremate me
and mix my dust with water, mold me
into any shape for kids to play. Or,
let me, simply blow away, like oak
leaves, hard to let go, but soon enough
forgotten. No expensive plots or stones
or coffins—just the fast escape of energy
and little matter. Less effort than a tree—
dispose of me.

POETRY READING IN AMERICA

(For X. J. Kennedy.)

In America poets can read
with their backs to the windows
with no fear of official bullets. They
can read with windows open, blinds up,
their voices carrying over the traffic
moving red green red past their
perches. This is not so, we
know, in some countries
where one must close the windows,
draw the blinds and whisper to small
groups of people who later find friends
to whisper what they hear. There,
poetry is held dangerous and dear.
In America, poets can read with
their backs to, or facing a window—
imagining an audience was there.

MATTERS OF LIFE AND DEATH

Meeting under covers
like secret agents
you and I hold each other
infrared, trying
to sense the light
our bodies shed,
our limbs combining
like some coded language.

We cling for comfort,
do sexual things to forget,
or throw the covers off
to find the light beside the bed;
read our papers or just talk,
trying to find sleep—
our practice game
with death.

Imagine Death,
who lives on the other
side of the wall we call
infinity, darker
than our room
or creatures moving
deep inside the womb.
Imagine life.

People are like their
languages we agree,
their meanings hidden
carefully within:
blood in designs,
inner eyes,
the sound of the heart
which stops.

Nights we hide in
the darkened
storerooms
of our lives,
our bodies yellowing
like newsprint,
images stolen
by secret agents.

THE SPEED FREAK

I have driven this road so many times
my passengers throw their hands
across their faces, gasping at curves,
but tonight I am alone, and while it is
to p.m. on a late May night, it is so dark
I know the road by instinct only.
A sudden cold shower rising as dense mist
from the concrete, I test my courage,
accelerate toward the clouds, taking cues
from either side for what I can’t see
ahead. At sixty-five, I feel the tires sliding,
the rear begins to fantail. In another
moment, I’ll centrifuge out of control.
My pulse races, my hands tight on
the hard rubber wheel. What we know
of death we learn in these moments
and I laugh through the S-curve
certain that I have triumphed.

SUMMER VACATION

Workmate, let cicada sound
the warning, it is summer.
Stilled is the laborer, camouflaged
by beer, playing baseball with a molded
mitt brought out this once a year,
burping his cheers. Undershirt mornings,
searing barebacked July afternoons,
hammocked evenings on the screen porch.
Workmate, beware my not working.
Watch me quietly watching you eat
alone in your kitchen, while I, caged
by new-found time, live on demand,
sleep late, keep no set schedule, creep
up behind you to pounce and ride you
barebacked beneath two weeks of holy
sunshine just this once a year.

THE TOWN HOUSE

(For Pat Bizzaro.

Who lives in the house attached to our life?
We share a wall, a sliver of grass and faded
orange numbers in sequence in the parking lot.
Sometimes your guests knock at my door, missing
a digit, stammering apologies, hastening
in a gown or vested suit to find your door.
How could they think I was you? My latch
is broken, my steps a-clutter with kids’
toys, the potted ivy and stunted geraniums
harassed by the dog. Who lives with immaculate
pride and no conception of the art I hang
on my side of the common wall? (I imagine
your Walgreens reproductions, wide-eyed Keanes
whose eyes fix on the neatest house I’ve ever
seen—yours.) And though I’ve barely seen you,
upstairs in my town house, I sometimes dream
that I lie between you and your wife, on your
designer sheets, their geometric patterns
aimed at your thighs. Transported
from my covers soiled with sand and cracker
crumbs to the soft textures of your bed,
I join you unobserved, to tickle your marriage
in ways you never could but have sometimes,
amid night frights of 9-to-5 and bills
come due, dreamt I would.
CASUALTIES

(Written on the sixtieth anniversary of the Titanic,
which sank at 2:20 a.m. on April 15th, 1912, with
the loss of 1,513 lives.)

We round off casualties to the nearest
handy number, with our mouths full
of water and suffocating, we round
and make neat the death of 1,500
(forget 13) who perished, not all
from drowning: some from exposure,
a suicide or two, some crushed
by others, some attacked and murdered.
Time and the waters wash our histories,
blotting out details, treating the past
like a hit-and-run victim sprawled
face down in a puddle, unable to breathe.
We recall events as casually as water
rising below a placid deck, as relaxed
as bubbles from the corners of mouths.

ONLY SON

(For Glen Scammacca.)

Going for the big one in an underwater
cave, his net gets caught
and then a flipper. Flashes of his
father who makes him work toward
a career: “Don’t waste your life
like me. Attend the University.
See through the crap. Go into
radiology. You can’t even earn
a living doing what I do.” (Incredible,
the thoughts when someone’s running
out of air.) He sheds his gear, unsnaps
the tangled net, frees the flipper
from the foot, and rushes for the surface:
3 minutes, maybe more! Clear of danger,
he faints. Later, for Dad and Mom,
he paints the event in details,
colors it with bruises there and there,
where he didn’t even know he’d bumped
himself. A great adventure! And on their
faces, the knowing smile that covers fear.
THE RITES OF PASSAGE

(For Peter and Jeanne.)

Grandpa Meinke, of old German
stock, smoked fat cigars,
smudge pots saved for after supper
and he fumed about the troubles
with the world, or on this occasion,
the slight and questionable appearance
of Peter’s fiancée. She sat
beside Grandpa, and Peter gave her
eye—cues to comfort her. But Grandpa
wanted it to be a contest. To flaunt
his patriarchal power, he chided her
on the cigarette she reached to light.
“You touch those stink sticks? A girl
like you? Try this!” and he aimed
a brownish missile at her strudel
plate and coffee. Without a blink,
Jeanne stabbed her pastry fork
through the cigar and lit it;
sat cool as whipped cream puffing
brackish smoke, the tiny streams
leaking from the punctures. Grandpa
inflated, red-faced, forced to witness,
finally answered: “She’s all right,
this girl of yours, Peter. All right,”
and rose to give his grandson’s
bride-to-be a kiss.

CAMPSITE, ERACLEA-MINOA, SICILY

The couple who played jumping
jack in the water, nude, both
giggling; after, tangling waist-high
intimate at a farther extremity
of the beach; who kissed like Neptune
and his water nymph, writhing in brine;
walked proudly out of the water to eyes
aslant, glancing at them out of curiosity
or lust, sit dressed in dungarees now,
T-shirts loosely fit, not even leaning
close to talk over the supper table;
looking quite usual, but feeling
secretly naked.

SUBURBIA, OF THEE I SING

(For Marlene Leaf.)

Open a car door in Centereach, Long Island.
It is mid-September but you’d never know.
No oaks, an amber rustling punctuated by
acorns bouncing off the hood; no maples
shedding red blankets over yards.
This time, you pull up from sticky
leatherette to step out onto hot-top
Modell’s shopping center, Rustlers
Steak House, Radio Shack; Texaco,
Mobil, Shell, Chevron, Power Test,
McDonald’s, Junk-in-the-Box, 7-come-ll.
Let the multinationals make it
on Middle Country Road. The suburbs
are what we really mean by strip mines.

SUFFOLK, VIRGINIA

Where the money is is in peanuts;
enough Planters to replace
the uglier apartments, stores downtown,
to build modern banks, polished steel,
one-way glass mirroring an autumn sun,
reflecting antebellum mansions
on Main Street turned antique shops,
a Village Hall, Civil War Museum.
Where Stone’s family grocery and supply
stood on the corner of Constance Road,
a shopping square: Winn Dixie,
brick offices, a jewelry store.
While the Norfolk & Western freight
whistles through or stops, the ladies
of the Riddick’s Folly Restoration
track down the cash to bring Suffolk’s
history and culture back. On a wintry
Sunday, the hardwood ablaze, heating
high-ceilinged halls, they gather to sing
carols and recall prolific Mr. Riddick,
for whose fifteen children he first built
these walls; warmed by spiced cider,
candle-lighted, suddenly the past
and present unite and rural Suffolk,
redeveloped Suffolk is alive.

TO THINE OWN SELF

With a drunken urge I take you,
ask you to undress, feeling sophomoric;
want to be obscene but conditioned
to asking polite questions. I slip
in sooner than expected, notice
little of how you look or how
I feel until the climax. You age.
Before I’ve even gotten out
you have grown gray-faced,
wrinkled, an antique Janey Jukebox
who wants to rock ’n’ roll, rhyme
slang, suck my tongue
to turn me on again. But sex
is a line Polonius might speak
and deserve his stabbing; the thing
that lovers do to desecrate
the language—talking until
they come, coming until they
have no need for words.
Wipe up and leave, penetrated
by deep sighs and dreams of death
larger than phalluses or fertility
gods finely carved in marble.

KEEPSAKES: FOR MARIANNE

(The doctor’s first moral duty is to beg forgiveness.
—Ingmar Bergman’s Wild Strawberries.)

To grow old is to fear breaking.
Children running on the beach hear
the zing of rocks beneath their feet,
pitch shells like fragmentation bombs,
burst kelp bubbles between their fingers.
We feel the tension of our flesh,
birthings less durable than day
which is always born broken.
We make laws to rule our fears,
splitting loves like muscles:
cut the cord that fastens, feel
the flesh smooth within.
Testing our frailty, we go half
starved and sleepless, seeking
a second love to pull like a tug
against the current of our present lives.
Rub on expensive oils, bend and turn
to exercise the pregnant fat away
until unknowing in the night
an embolism bursts like a kelp bubble:
We break the heart to prove it.

WHO IS THE POET IN THE BATHROOM?

Here I am with a big black
bowl-shaped plunger in the illegal
basement rental of a house I own,
spattering myself with murky water
and bits of pink toilet paper.
“Landlord, my toilet doesn’t work.”
Muttering, plunging the pink
ceramic bowl until the water sputters,
the level drops. I push the lever down,
watch the water rising. Rising!
Nothing in all my arts and sciences
prepares me for this flood, rushing
down the sides, over the bathroom
tile, inundating my shoes. I am
the poet in your bathroom, mopping
the floor with images, rooting
for a reason for my existence.

VOS DARFS DU?

My grandmother used to say it. I see her
in her old, shapeless dress, trailing after
my mother in a Miami department store.
Vos, darfs, du! Born 1882, transported
from the shtetl, aza mazel!
My mother, her red hair needing no tint,
younger, in a plain white blouse,
cotton skirt, handling clothes on the sale
rack. Vos, darfs, du! And Nanny always
won. We’d leave empty handed. Only
after Nanny died and after the children
counted seven thousand dollars,
after the hospital, the doctors, the funeral,
my mother said, “Vos darfs du,” and one
year later to the day, she wore designer
slacks, a multi-colored top of velvet,
crowned by a golden scarab.

CURIOSITY

My mother liked to look
in other people’s windows
as she went walking. “Just
curiosity,” she would say, “to
get some notion of how my rooms
could look.” She’d put me in the stroller,
or older, I would march along with her,
stretching to see: a man in the kitchen
elbowing a metal table, his kids’ toys
spread across the linoleum, supper
a greasy odor) not something
to be seen. But in richer neighborhoods
(not ours), she’d hesitate a step or
stop—a slight hop on one foot, higher,
to see above the sill: the Louis Quatorze
loveseat, the couple on their crushed-velvet
couch, blanched colorless by TV light,
their beige wallpaper printless in the shadows.
Curiously, as she got older (and so did I),
my mother still looked in windows and her
house was never redecorated in all those years.
EXPLAINING

My grandmother’s living room was dark
when I sat with her, except for the glow
of the Emerson TV, round twelve inch
screen. We were pressed together in her
old, velvet chair, the coarse blue pile itchy
where my pajamas parted between my
shirt and bottoms. The glass doors
were shut to stop the drafts. Over our
laps she pulled an old black fur, worn
so thin I could feel the backing, grown
brittle though lined with silk. The show
was probably Amos and Andy or Manasha
or Mrs. Goldberg, and Nanny somehow
never quite understood. I was eight
or nine. I would explain to her
in detail until she said she knew. But,
as I think of her, her hard-skinned hand
squeezing my arm, her sometimes sour
breath, her very soft loose skin on her arms,
I remember she never laughed no matter
how the joke was told or retold, and in
the dark, I sat ashamed and lonely.

ZAYDE AND ME: TWO CRIPPLES

He was seventy-three, crippled
from accidents on the job, arthritis,
high blood pressure, diabetes,
half-blind from cataracts and partly
deaf. He sat in a weathered rocker
on the front porch. I stayed in
a lot and wouldn’t eat, which leads me
to the story—Mother told it to spur
my appetite—about my hero, the Crosley
in the junkyard who the other cars
picked on. Its windshield smashed,
body full of dents, it grew daisies
from its front seat, the prettiest
wrecked car in the junkyard.
But Zayde, blind and weak-bladdered,
pissed off the side of the porch,
thinking no one could see him.
The cop the neighbors summoned,
called him a dirty kike and our family
apologized. Zayde also had a joke
about a Crosley that got stuck when
it stopped on a wad of gum—the only
American joke I think he knew.
I used to laugh at that, despite his
grizzled cheeks against my skin
as he kissed me. Zayde’s dead now,
of course, and Crosley’s cars are
out of business; but I still drive a small
car and watch my diet carefully.

THE HEALING ARTS

When I was a little kid, Ma
took me to specialists who couldn’t
practice in Massachusetts—chiropractors.
We’d drive with Uncle Harry (who
could have been a doctor but got
spinal meningitis) forever to New
Hampshire. It was always late
and dark when we’d arrive and go
right in. We never waited except
after I took off my shirt and sat
balanced on his table to hear
my list of allergies related.
Then, he’d begin to rub me firmly
like a father should, until I trusted
him. I remember the white flash
and pain when he’d snap my neck.
After a year of that, there was the doctor
who x-rayed my head for asthma,
the dietary therapist, the doctor who
prescribed the dozen pills a day.
What made her think there was a cure?

MY FATHER NEVER WON

(Remembering e e cumming’s uncle sol.)

My father never won—a finger in
an auto fan at fifteen, sewed back
without feeling; a motorcycle
up the bulkhead balancing loop-
the-loop in midair to land him
a bad back. His youth prophetic
and he kowtowed to the family image
of black sheep. When he opened
a rubber heel plant, the World War
closed him off, only to bounce back
in business selling fruit from five a.m.
till dark with a drunken partner who
only helped him once, when their warehouse
caught fire—beating the flames with a straw
broom, he nearly burned. Always the holocaust
outside the door—and that was the day,
by coincidence, they opened Dachau.

My father opened a gas station after that,
twelve hours a day, on call all night,
a junior partner with another hustler
friend who this time drank up all the profits
in clever deals he made with my dad’s money.
Fifteen years behind the pump and parts
counter with a bookkeeper who also stole
him blind. My father sold the business
to work for his brother—the younger one
who made it big in plastics—and began
to worry about enough for his retirement.

Me, I’m the second son and poet
whose father’s losses have defined me:
inside, these lines are burning to be done
and written, but outside there is nothing
to be won in competition. My father
will never listen, if only he could know:
to grant me my small victory he
would not lose his son.

SHORT STORY POEM

My brother was thirteen when he caught the mumps
and blew up like a dirigible and at the same time
turning toward manhood he seemed to recognize
the real fact of life watching McCarthy conduct
the purge and despite his early consciousness she
talked fluently in sentences at ten months old from
then on nothing they told him about society
or success sank in though he turned his love
for science into bombs in the basement for some years
making picric acid crystals and nearly lost his thumb
to nitro glistening in its heated vial and making
a violent end to that promise to change it all.
Not that he was an anarchist or an Earth Angel
either but at sixteen he had already published
poems in Beat magazines and soon was using
sex like drugs and drugs when sex wasn’t around
as if the bombs were not the answer until he
and by then his gang got busted for of all things
running fireworks into the state and he opened
his smart mouth to the fuzz and got his ass kicked
for his effort only to wind up in the Army so the judge
would let him off. The psychiatrist at the hearing
who tested him because you’d have to be crazy
to shoot your mouth off like that to the local fuzz
said that he was brilliant and perfectly sane
whatever he did and the Army placement tests
confirmed he ought to be an officer, he showed
such a high aptitude for military affairs
which he certainly did in his own peculiar way
to the extent that he could get himself
cashiered whenever they pinned a stripe on him
so he never rose above private or PFC, shipped overseas,
learning to drive big trucks banging through
twelve gears like they were Volkses and drinking
German beer, speaking several languages including
Southern American. When he came home he married
a retard, got a gas station job and settled down.

AUNTY LIL

You’ve moved so many times there are only
a few mementos, neatly dated tins—reel boxes:
“1945, Maynard on leave,”
“1948, Peter at camp,”
a dozen others and Andy Panda
for the grandchildren who are already
too old for it. Lights out, years spliced,
time flickers back to you as beautiful as ever,
hair in a bun, long coat with fur collar & sleeve,
red lipstick—glamorous young mother.
At the end, the lights on, the room is empty.

JOGGER

(For Maynard.)

Sure that he loves life
he soaks his sweat shirt, headband;
sunrise patterned by his steps,
knees lifting high, his private
thoughts formed with the cadence
on concrete: Do this cold morning
task, and you will survive. At forty-
eight, he wastes his face with diet,
letting the skin that held his
extra chin droop down despite
his new-found hardness, and declares,
“It’s never too late to buy a new
pair of sneakers.” Sure that he
fears death, he runs away.

WHY YOU SHOULD GET A NOSE JOB

Cousin I don ‘t be so proud,
a nose is no one to be loyal to.
Mind you, a nose has its charms,
so often open to emotion, a flair
of its own, only your nose—I don’t
want to blow this—seems fine for someone
else’s face; perhaps a camel’s or
at least a sultan’s. Listen,
it’s like one day it walked in,
liked your face and plotzed there,
a perfectly incongruous appendage.
Why not have it mended? A little nip
and tuck, a ceremony like the snipping
of the shmuck, a rite of nasal passage.

DESCRIBE JOAN

Joan is small but sneaky enough
to get around the crowd. At 5’ 2”
she cuts through the longest line
in her army-blanket brown coat,
her collar up, hunching,
not against the cold but close
to the calves of six-foot men,
& stacked-heel women. When the usher
unfastens the velvet gate she rushes
in. I saunter slowly with the throng
alone until I see her face,
a flashlight beaming from theatre
center, saving the best seat for me.

LOCK-STEP

(For Jessica.)

Daily, I surrender you in pigtails,
pleated skirt, to the school bus,
rationalize the system that takes you
away: you will be stronger after
their trials, surer of their faults
if you endure. Over tea at breakfast
I see you at your desk, head bowed
in prayer, thanking some Creature
for your milk and cookies. Sorting
silverware, I hear the jingles
that you learn, substitutes for something
sensitive and fine: seasonal songs
or patriotic music. In my study,
I picture you with Dick and Jane,
their will-less ways; compliant.
I stay home, a low-paid lehrer.
You board a school bus to return,
screaming for thirty minutes out
the window in a language as crude
as commands. Quietly, as I greet you,
I grow bitter at my poverty.

EMILY

Uses everything
we cook with
to play with
a kitchen crook
pie plates in
her pillowcase
cups in the carriage
a coarse salt trail
from the cupboard
to her room.
Peek around
the corner
catch her
frying her favorite
marbles. She will not
lie: “[ took this pan
to cook for Daddy
and here are the apples
of my eye.”

The Holidays: A Jewish Cycle

(Growing up in a small Massachusetts
town in the early Fifties.)

1.
Chanukah, my Zayde summoned us
and we were glad enough to go downstairs
‘cause this was all we had
instead of Christmas. He always put
the candles on the linoleum counter
top beside the well-scrubbed sink.
He was always very old, slow,
and said the Hebrew with only
a slight quaver instead of singing.
Then he’d lift one knee and then
the other in a leadened dance, drumming
his feet to sing, ta tum, ta tum, ta tum tum tum!
and give us each a crisp five dollar bill.
The other Zayde gave us three dollars
but Bubba baked honey cake and we
got a glass of homemade wine. We’d laugh
with him about the goyim, Kratz mer en taches!

2.
What I could tell you about Purim
could fill a thimble: Something
about a wicked King Haman and triangle
hats (alas for five years of cheder).
What I wondered was, “Why poppy seed
pastries? Why filled with prunes?”
In the basement of the shule we twirled
our graggers noisily for an hour until
the minyan hollered sha! and shooed us
out into the early sunset. I think
we had a gambling night about that time
of year and that the shule always made
money, but somehow I never woo.

3.
Pesach they took our picture
for The Beverly Times. In Beverly,
there weren’t too many Jews so Zayde’s
house was chosen. All the cousins
were there, the aunts and uncles
and big cousin Judy brought yet another
boyfriend. The cameraman has schnapps
and a glass of wine. It was a struggle
to fit us all in the picture. Everyone
seemed to know it though they never said so
before—until The Beverly Times published
“The Axelrods gathered for Passover.”
We were the Jews who lived next door.
And my friends, when they weren’t
calling me, “Hey Jew!” all flattered me
about that gorgeous girl I was with
(who was my cousin).

4.
Rosh Hashanah was a day off from school.
Sure it was tough to sit for hours
at shule but we didn’t have to stay
all day. Dad would push us up to the front
to shake our Zayde’s hand, L’shana tova
tikatevu (the only Hebrew we ever understood),
and we’d be through by two.

I remember going to the Prospect School,
standing in the playground outside
my third-grade window, hearing Miss Crowel
intone the times tables with the class.
The service was a painful thing, but
surely any boy who could stay home
from school would be glad
that he was Jewish!

THE MAN WHO FELL IN LOVE WITH HIS CHICKEN
THE MAN WHO FELL IN LOVE WITH HIS CHICKEN

(For Russell Edson.)

A man and a chicken were in love. The man said, “I love you,
Chicken. I love your spindly legs, your feathered ass, your hard
lips.” The chicken could tell false flattery. She wasn’t going to
be had. “Pluck,” she said. “Chicken,” the man said, “why do
you withhold your charms? Take me in your arms. I do love
you. You know I do, for my heart is light as a feather and it
sings.” “Pluck, pluck,” the chicken said batting her wings, and
“pluck” again for emphasis. But now the man was angry. “You
plucking chicken,” he said, “I know the truth about you and so
will the world. The egg came first. You aren’t the pure young
thing you play at. You’ve been laid before.” The chicken paled
with fright. All night feathers flew. She grew old before her time
and bald, plucked from her youth untimely. And the man, seeing
her so naked and frail, reaffirmed his love and ate her.
THE FRIGHTENING THING ABOUT DNA

He wondered if madness were a bird and whether it had flown
into the red nest of his daughters’ hair. They were each in their
own way crazy, with streams of complaints like strings of egg
yolk clinging to their noses. Adults may hide, but children like
to pick their noses, being more honest. They sit for hours with
one finger flitting from the nose to the lips, a slight peck at the
pieces, a swallow. So it is with chicken children, tearing each
other apart. This is normal for chickens and is called a pecking
order. Even the pieces of child-flesh—as they are torn from the
cheeks, scalp, the belly—are assigned a priority before they are
thrust into the mouth, until only a nose is left. And this is
particularly true of red-headed chickens.

THE DESK JOB

A government turns into furniture. The President becomes
a permanent fixture. All day she sits with her cabinet, but
the cupboard is bare. “As Chair of the top board of the country,
I must do something.” she laminates. Soon, everything is covered
with Formica, and hope once more surfaces in the land.

THE WORKING MAN

A working man is painting a sign which says MAN WORKING.
On it there is to be a picture of a man working. He has completed
the lettering but has not decided what picture he should place
above MAN WORKING for those who can not read so that they
can tell this is a man working. He considers a picture of a man
working on a sign that shows a picture of a man working on
a sign that shows a picture of a man working and has just placed
the mirrors in front of his MAN WORKING sign to pose in front
of the sign as a self-portrait of a working man when he notices
the lettering on the sign now reads GNIKROW NAM. This
means he now must paint over the letters MAN WORKING
and write them correctly so that he can complete the sign soon.
“Time is running out,” he says, working furiously. “Even now
the average working man cries in the street, ‘GIVE ME A SIGN,’
and the revolution is close at hand.”
TONGUE HOTEL

(For Emily.)

Pancake, don’t cry. Come into this fine mouth hotel with carpet
tongue and gum-ridged bar with ivory teeth for seats and warm
pools for you to soak your feet. Pancake, don’t fear that tunnel
you face, winding down to darker places. Once you were a whole
big piece, but someone has cut you into littler pieces. I’ve poured
this syrup over you to ease the pain. Don’t you wish you were
whole again? Follow my tongue, I tell you-there is where to
enter. Your family is waiting.

FORGETFUL OEDIPUS

He had no recall for things—a terrible memory! Whether he was
supposed to kill his mother or his father. Or marry them? How
did he let himself get talked into this blind date? What a beast.
“You’ll love her,” old Tiresias had said. “A real she-cat!” Love
her? I can’t even tell which half is which. And that supercilious
smile! “What are you smiling at?” “That’s for me to know and
you to find out,” she said. “Egad!” he screamed. “How unoriginal.
That’s been around since the classics.” But she kept on smiling,
so he kept on screaming, loud enough to melt the sand in
the desert congealing to crusts of opaque glass. Opening his
briefcase, he grabbed for a silver stiletto and an antique gun.
This is where he forgot what he was supposed to do. Perhaps
it was to kill his marriage and marry his sister. “That’s it!” he
screamed. “How could I have missed it? I’m on a date with my
own sister! I’m disgraced.” At that moment, the gun discharged
accidentally, and he limped off with a wounded foot.

CIVILIZATION

The tourist bureau orders a prefab landscape with cellulose
trees, plastic hibiscus in Styrofoam casks for sidewalk
decoration. There will be cages clamped on light poles with
lifelike geraniums. Red, white, and blue trash bins. Astroturf
between the village hall and parking lot. Only no one has told
the dandelions between the cracks, which must be poisoned
so the scene can be complete.

THE ALCOHOLIC

He decided to bore a hole in his head to find his mother who he
knew was trapped inside. She entered when he listened to her as
he left home. She said the usual things: “Put on your rubbers.
Keep your private parts dry. Don’t forget to write.” But this
time she got stuck, as if his ears were vacuum cleaners and she
was sucked into his head bag. There she had lain with the dusty
memories of Father who had long become just dust and old Aunt
Pearl who never liked him but whom he liked enough to get stuck
in his throat whenever he met her. So he went to the basement
to find a suitable drill to make the hole that would let his mother
out who had become stuck and whose sneezing from all those
dusty memories was causing him no end of allergies and medicines.
What he chose instead was a favorite corkscrew, easily inserted
in the very ear she had entered. When the bottle came uncorked,
all his memories disappeared, and he washed the dust away.

CONSERVATION

In a matter of days all the major hospitals have signed
a pact agreeing to turn their fetuses into a fruit. A canning
company picks up the option to process them: Red-eyed Fetus.
Grade-A Fetus. Fresh Young Fetus. Large Ripe Fetus. The label
design presents a problem. Should it be a silkscreen, quality
reproduction of the fetus as it was in life, with inky impressions
of the fish-like eyes, the stem-like tail? Or should the label simply
say, CANNED FETUS, and give, of course, the requisite weight,
contents: packed in amniotic syrup, sugar added, artificial color
and flavor? State law prohibits the packaging of food without
a health inspection at least once a year. The hospitals refuse
the inspections, and the whole deal is suddenly aborted.

HOW TO PREPARE FOR THE COMING MONETARY CRISIS

The envelope man lives in a Number 10 envelope. It is crowded
in here, he says, and drafty. Licks of air enter the seams. The
flap is cheaply glued. The paper is too thin, and people can see
me. They mock me, sticking out their tongues. He decides to
move to a manila envelope, 9 x 12 on Park Slope, and fix it up as
he can. The place is four times as big, but now he laments that he
can’t afford to furnish it. Besides, the neighborhood isn’t as safe
as the stationer who sold him the envelope had said, and he has
to have an extra clasp installed. Soon postal inspectors are asking
questions, and, at the same time, the rates for first class go up
so high he can’t make the payments. The post office forecloses.
He’s reduced to an old greeting card envelope left over from
a birthday. Times are tough, but the envelope man can’t be
contained. He writes a manual on surviving the crash, sells it to
top executives in handsome velour folders. Soon, he has a top
spot with the attaché cases at a major firm and is looking for a
duplex folding file in one of the best neighborhoods.

CONCERT OF DREAMS

A yawn gets loose in a large audience. At first only a few
see it, gaping with surprise. Soon the front rows are overcome.
When the conductor turns to bow, he is swallowed whole into
its cavernous jaws. By then, the yawn has reached the last row
and no one is awake to watch. One clever bassoonist steals
the gold from the audience’s teeth as the harpist who had
hidden in her case now plucks their tonsils.

ART AUCTION

An artist sells his children. “They are my finest creations,” he
says. Bids are opened and his Little Girl With Flowers brings
the lowest price. She is only five, red-headed with freckles,
and her dress, blue crinoline, also has pink embroidered flowers.
Critics complain of a cliché (but the public loves her). The artist
finds his Older Son costs dearly. He is the rebel, getting even
for a father’s self-indulgence. He wears a leather biker jacket
with a chain across his chest, and his smile is slightly crooked.
It took years of bailing him out to get him to this moment.
Of course the Artist’s Wife is presented as a symbol of human
sacrifice. It is, in fact, she in a designer dress—a Gucci in silk
with a V cut to her hip—who wins the highest price. The artist
is left flat on the canvas as she goes off with the very man
who wields the gavel.

THE SUNBURN

A man’s skin begins to peel. His wife sends him out of the living
room. “You’ll get skin on the carpet,” she says, “and skin on
the velvet couch. Get out of the kitchen! You’ll spoil the supper
with your skin.” “What are we having for supper?” he asks.
“Stuffed derma,” she replies.

A MEETING WITH DAVID B. AXELROD AND GNAZINO RUSSO

A SINGLE HERON

There is a single heron,
tilts in the night waters
a foot poised
an eye for silver to flash
down—a patient fisher
after supper; teaches
me that balance counts
as much as speed, grace
an equal for any force.
From it I learn to swallow
life whole and down the gullet.
NIGHT SWIMMER

We descend at midnight, long flights
down the bluff, ominous in ½ moonlight
to black Sound water. You doff your
pants—a flicker of white butt—launch
in fearless enough to pull me, too.
Amazed—bioluminescence—green sparks
alive in eddies off our bodies,
flecks off our fingers with every
stroke. We pat ourselves like babies,
dive to see our limbs irradiant.
Exploding to the surface in streams
of light, we stroke toward each other
slowly, drawn together in delight.
STEALING

A peek at the empty aisle
a twist to tuck my shirt in
and a box of flash bulbs down
my pants. All the camera sees
as I pass is me scratching my lumps
to adjust the contraband. No store
fuzz. fat-faced and sweaty-palmed
to grab me. Passing the register
I pay for paper clips. mug
at parabolic mirrors. see store
eyes staring back at my flushed face.
I take my change. run mentally away.
walk slowly through automatic doors
to feel a light that burns as If it were
the sun—a burst of freedom.

A MOMENT IN HISTORY, OR
THERE’LL ALWAYS BE ANOTHER POSITION

(A poetry melodrama written for performance.)

Each day suburbing home I hear the news
a stew of history stirred by lugubrious
announcers juxtaposing global occurrences
like clockwork with the same commercial:
Cousin Brucey dialing up the dreams of every
housewife that she may one day be called.
rrrr rrr “Hello?” (the poet reads, falsetto)
“Mrs. Myra Murdock of Shawnee, Oklahoma?
Cousin Brucey here to ask you if you can sing
THE CAMPBELL SOUP JINGLE?”

“Oh yes, yes, I’ve waited all my life to …
mmmmm mmmmm Good.. etc.”

(The poet encourages the audience
to join in for several choruses.)

And at that moment, precisely, the news has said
the Air force will launch—for the first time ever,
from beneath the aircraft belly, and for two billion
dollars—an Intercontinental Ballistic Soup Can.
Just as Mrs. Murdock hits her high, at 40,000 feet
the aircraft bomber bursting through the clouds,
the silver tube shoots its load, a white plume
vaulting from its oxygenated rockets!

(The poet releases several crepe paper
streamers he has concealed.)

And the soldiers—always somewhere
down below embattled—the soldiers witnessing
these feats—a cloud of noodles
drifting down to drape their hills—run screaming
noodles, noodles, slipping, fast as they can
in joy and terror—the ultimate weapon ever
tested, Intercontinental Ballistic Soup Can—surrender.

(The poet pauses, having worked to a crescendo.)

And Mrs. Myra Murdock, softly mmm-ing how
good it is. Her vision monumental; her
reward apparent. For this and moments like it
they will ship you a free box … of Campbell’s Soup.

WE ARE ALL HIT AND RUNS

1.
The deer startled, head lighted
at the roadside: I remember Jackknife,
his wife hugging him on their super
black Harley outside North Hadleyville.
Nearly midnight the coroner guessed
when the full buck leaped from the roadside
impaled on the handlebars.

2.
A heavy rain: I am riding full-throttle
down the highway when the road ahead
comes alive with small white flashing
frogs, jumping unsyncopated; hundreds
and unavoidable—plowed through
and I swear I hear their rubber skins
popping beneath the wheels.

3.
Tommy my friend, touring England
with his new wife out on a fling
turned a corner In the countryside
head on Into coma.

4.
Mr. Katz, surviving twenty years progroms
fifteen days an Atlantic crossing,
sixty years a cobbler, at 80 years old
he met a fender of a Mustang
in Miami Beach.

5.
I tuck the seat belt around,
a harness, a way to hang
onto life; but the reins
are loose behind me. On Impact.
where do we go?

ELEGIES: FOR MY FAMILY

One man bursts his liver with a bottle
the alcohol fine slivers rushing
through the blood. He bleeds until
it kills him, colored yellow for
the wake, a bit of rouge for emphasis.
He is still forty when they bury him.

Then the woman with the tumorous
brain moves in. Somewhere, she thinks,
she is pregnant, cells growing in her mind
in spherical, thin-layered zygote, pulsing
with life, displacing her vision (it blurs
and she is crying); making her left arm
numb (her fingers clutch and release
the yellow cotton nightgown). She
is concerned about her hair, a glossy
black; it will fall out from radiation.
The coffin closed, they save themselves
a wig. She was a comely thirty-eight.

But the old man, ninety-three, is loudest
when he pisses; congestive –his kidneys
lazy and his heart –a catheter to drain
him; a surprise for the nurses when
he gets it up as they adjust him.
A character he is and old enough
you’d think but never satisfied.
He dies in his sleep with a smile,
his fingers on his peep.

What is all this clockwork ticking
In our bodies stuffed like pipe
bombs with crude electric fuses?
The alarm is set, a ring that wakes
and kill us. We live however long

just waiting to explode.

 

A DREAM OF FEET

SHORT COURSE ON THE HOLOCAUST

You see, my dear readers, I hesitate
to write this down and will
only do it if you promise to believe me.
I was reading poems until late
one winter afternoon, in the Egyptian
Room of the Brooklyn Museum, and when
I finished a woman I’d been warned of
greeted me with a banal rhyme about poetry
itself and thanked me cockeyed for my reading.
All the while she talked, we stood
before the massive sarcophagus of an ancient
Pharaoh; behind it, because it was sunset
a Hasidic Jew stood davening facing
the wall, bent and unbent in prayer,
his black hat bobbing, his peyas
curled to his cheeks. Believe me,
life itself is strange, and we are
always in danger. It’s a wonder
with all this madness
who survives!

DINER STILL LIFE

When I enter, the waitress
is telling fortunes in the corner,
reading dreams: Calm water means
he’ll come home alive. Picasso
profile—out of one large eye
she sees me, comes to take my order
blinking, red-rimmed and ruined,
a gypsy forced to take a job.
But, as I’m eating, she resumes
her calling, casting spells
on my spaghetti: The horse
in your dreams is the ambulance
you will ride like a scream.
Supper is self-fulfilling but what
we eat in restaurants is not
what it may seem.

HARRY HOUDINI ON HIS 100TH BIRTHDAY

Locked in your trunk
naked, trussed up
in your left nostril
a locksmith’s pin
freedom a sneeze away.
Tossed in the river
chained in a strait jacket
you curl up beneath the icy crust
cut your way out with a blade
kept in your mouth
but it is cold enough
to turn vodka into syrup.
You would have died except
for your pride. Now, in the grass
at your gravesite, you rise
into the sunshine laughing.
In the air you fume at us
for not seeing your escape.

QUESTIONS

You ask me questions
when we should
talk by touching.
Language presumes
there is an answer.
I speak to you
with the textures
of our skin,
the willingness
to lie down,
the answer of not
needing to speak.

A DREAM OF FEET

Feet walked into the room last night
saying, “Whachadoin’ with them fingers, Man?
The thing you want is me—Feet.
Hug me, Honey. Hold me. Lick your tongue
between my toes.” “Feet,” I says,
“feet ain’t my thing,” I says it gravely-voiced
like crushed rock from driveways
crinked between your fingers when you
take a fist full, “I’m all feeling
from the knuckles down. It’s touch,
Baby, prints on things that turns me on.
Feet, you don’t get half the action
fingers do.” Then Feet kicks up a storm,
“’pon my soul, you don’t know half nor whole
’bout anything. You ever hear a person
say, ‘Put your best hand forward,’ or
‘keep your two hands firmly on the ground?’
Just walk around. You’ll see, outdoing me
is no mean feat.” We’ll, I give in
on any argument, you know—don’t
like to step on anybody’s toes. So
I reach down to touch them, real friendly
and I hear, “Don’t do it! Don’t you
lay a hand on me. Kiss me quick
or not at all. Love me
or you’ll never hear another foot fall.”
Now feet are ok from a distance, but lips
on blue-veined, bony feet with hairy
tops and rough-skinned bottoms—no way
I’m going to kiss feet. And I told them so.
Out they walked, like I was wrong.
Not a word of refutation. Just like theirs
was the only stand a guy could take.
I tell you, a guy’s got to believe
he can carryon debate and dialogue
without putting his foot in his mouth.
But out they went—gone, made tracks,
scampered away like I was a fungus
in a locker room. Now, I’m not asking
you for sympathy, but HELP! Do some
footwork I tell you. Ask them to come back.
I haven’t had my head tacked down
since those feet tripped out on me.
See, my hands are trembling.
I’ll sign anything. I’d walk a mile
just for a couple feet!

VOYEUR

In the dark, warm drizzle
standing outside the house,
I duck from lights of periodic
cars to keep from being seen,
and watch the details clear within
as if magnified by window glass.
You drink your coffee, pull your
lip (a habit I can’t stand).
I watch you clear the table,
stare dumbly at the window,
unaware, then climb the stairs
unfastening your slacks as you
disappear, legs graduating
from my sight. Lights
define the upstairs bedroom,
you undressing, naked, more erotic
than I know you as my wife.
The voyeur hides in shadows
squinting through the fog.
Fifty feet beyond the house
where I’ve escaped you,
as the lights are extinguished,
I wonder who you really are.

CAPITALISM

(For all the poets who are paid in copies.)

The minute I got out here on Long Island
I wanted to make it in business;
looked around from Smithtown (where
I thought of bull farms to stud out
suburban housewives) to Riverhead
(converting potato chips to gold)
and all along the ganglia of roads
they call the Jericho, prophetic businesses
were failing quicker than Joshua’s walls.
Up and down Nesconsett like a J.D.
turned Jaycee, I looked for opportunities;
on Middle Country road I searched
the eyes of plain folks for what they’d buy:
opened donut shops in my dreams, punching
holes with Poles who’d sold their farms
out East in search of faster foods.
My own appetite was stranger than the Lone
Ranger eating Tonto—I wanted money
pronto; would sell anything for cash.
I thought of hash but lost my stash
in a flash fire (couldn’t even collect
on my insurance). I opened a package
store but was out-boxed; sold pornographic
groceries behind the A & P (French
postcards with green stamps) until a fruit man
named Whitman had me raided to kill
the competition. I filed a petition
of bankruptcy but was turned down,
archetypal clown—I never owned enough
to be insolvent. In a final thrust
I sponsored topless tellers at a Bankers
Trust—they were a bust. Out-rhymed,
outwitted, even white bread had more crust
for doing business, I turned to poetry.
Will you buy this poem, baked today?
And will you, my dear reader,
pay me in copies?

STONES: FOR JOSH AND JEANNE

Outside, Long Island Sound lets
the north wind get a fifteen mile
run up before it collides with
our walls. An orange halo marks
New Haven straight across.
Whatever smoky world it brings,
for all our distances we breathe
each other in. Lips cracking
with heat, eyes tearing we draw
closer to get stoned, whispering
gray secrets on too-long-held breaths.
Inside, we are air
and vanity, and rolled
against the window we
press our glassy smiles
against the pane, but close
our eyes to see reality.

MY TWO WOMEN

My two women
sit reading
aloud downstairs
and I love them,
one big and bony with
large breasts and thighs,
the other small and flat;
they own me.
When we hold our bodies
stiff to say hello
no one is “mine”
but all together fingers and flesh
senses and stroked hair
and alive again where alone
we were dead.
Proudly we own
up to our possessions
our legs and arms,
our stomachs, orifices all
our own and often
we compliment them
on their beauty. Listening
to you talking, I feel
the pull of energies,
the gravity that exists
between our bodies.
Satisfied by the sound
of your voices,
I let you go.

THE LIBERATION OF MS. WALKER

After four years of young marriage
and two red-haired boys with alliterative
names eleven months apart you separated;
he, back to a bachelor pad, and you
on welfare in the old apartment.
Your dresses stretched their seams,
your body fighting to get out
until you stuffed the kids into the Ford
and, fueled with tears and curses,
started driving. One hundred miles
into New Jersey sprawl you stalled out
at a light and changed your mind nowhere
to go—but took the side roads
home to see new places.
Now you read Tillich and Fromm
on being alone, eat yogurt lunches,
take college courses muttering,
“the kids are a pain,” or with a violence
of wishes, “maybe they’ll be hit by trains”
(followed by a nervous, throaty laugh).
At twenty-four you open your own door,
a liberated woman; but in bed, alone,
the darkness grips you.

WHO WILL GO FIRST

(A Miami Beach fox-trot.)

The ladies do their hair silver gray
to match their foxes hung out on cooler
evenings to nip their sagging breasts, demonic
children—and make up like red-cheeked trappers.

On a concrete pavilion—clarinets, accordions,
a percussion of hips persuaded by loneliness
to shuckle—they take their prey to muscle out
some dance space. Married again, should they
be so lucky, or sharing an efficiency,
the elimination dance goes on to the tempo
of blood pressures, diabetes, a choleria!
Dusting his collar, she is his keeper.
Squeezing her knee, he is a suitable
replacement. Once, long ago, this
would have been a shandeh. Now,
sex or no, she’s glad he won’t let go.

POEM ON MY RETIREMENT

(Ratner’s was a famous milchikeh restaurant
at 111 2nd Avenue in N.Y.C.)

When I retire I’ll work at Ratner’s
shuffling, grumpy through the aisles
a milchikeh existence and dish
out rolls like favors to the crowds.
I’ll time my mannerisms perfectly
turning away just as they try
to order or clear my throat with relish
as they are speaking. Bull-necked,
swollen-faced, slump-shouldered
I’ll do an ancient pirouette
into the kitchen, bring back a quest
of tea in a glass, and for me
a break with a boiled potato,
one crumb left dangling to invite
my customers.

HORTICULTURE

Building the kitchen, you screamed to put
a plant shelf on the sun-side, piled it
with a dozen plants before the work was done.
Now, I am building a study in the back room
for myself, you want a plant shelf there, plan
to hang a plant above my desk, right
by the window. I’m paneling the door
to keep your tendrils out. Your plants
grow mean and stringy, doused one day,
too dry the next. The pregnant plant
smothers us all with children, a hundred
sprouts dropped in every other pot.
The snake plant wilts with dusty leaves.
The azalea has never blossomed. In my
study there will be no green, no chances
for disappointments. When I close the door it
will be on your dried flowers.

HOBBYISTS

Does it matter that one
of every two fish we put
in the tank dies? Slowly
a change of color, a list
to one side, a white spot
where scales are missing.
Fish the remains out
cut and nibbled even by
its mate. Flush them
down the toilet with a guilty
glance, a sacrilegious piss
feeling that some prayer
should be said like kids
might wish for fishes
in their heaven. Brought
to our home things die
routinely as journalists
reworking obits for a job.
Still we buy new fish
with coral colors, neon
luminescent, long swords
and fins, fandango dancers
in a swirl of filtered
bubbles, and pour in purple
medicines that stain our fingers,
imprint us like arguments
and good intentions.

SPIDER HUNTING

Spider hunting in my daughter’s
room to keep the new hatch
off her ceiling—an A-frame
slant that spiders seem to dream
of—she sleeps, breathing loud
webs of air. I rush the corners
with wads of wetted tissue;
catch three. Standing sentinel
for several minutes more I leave
satisfied I’ve caught the night’s
worth of intruders, but in my own
darkened room I imagine spiders
rising to revenge their dead.
There is no road to coexistence.

SMELL MY FINGERS

(For Jessica.)

Smell my fingers my daughter
says and thrusts them
at my nose. I back dive off
my chair as if the air were
poisoned. Where have they been
those sweaty things with six
years of sticky places
scenting their past? She laughs
and chases me around the room
with germicidal weapons,
insists on my surrender.
Caught, I find a pine cone
in her fist. She tells me
it is spring and that means perfume.
AUTUMNAL

Our love is like October
cold mornings that deceive.
Over-dressed, we start with shivers,
sweatered in the cold side
of the house. Sweating
by afternoon, the temperature
delivers us from autumn,
wraps our limbs in prickle
until we want to scream
the clothing off, unhinge
the windows, widen the openings
of doors to let the wind in.
We love like late October
with cold that heats
and stings. All our
loving brings are night frost
things, the chill
of cold-snap wings against
the windows, the promise
of unseasonable afternoons
and too-honest nights.

SPEECH THERAPY

People can say what they want
with words like windows
rattling in the wind
and what they say
is air articulated
through screens
and frames, fricatives,
sounds hanging like innuendoes
stretching knotted necks,
shades like coatings on the tongue,
curtains of conspiracies
to silhouette the dead.
We break the glass,
keyless, open the window
wide with promises of familiar
things but find the house
is empty, robbed
before we came.
People say, “love,”
like glass shattering.
But is there ever
anything to steal?

ERNIE CELEBRATES

On check day Ernie
does eight or ten
Seconal to celebrate
collapsed in only
underpants across his
dirty linen he catches
up a new prescription
black-eyed from lack of sleep
gray-faced from staying in
obscenely thin he dangles
one arm off of the bed
lies death-like
or rises, lids loose
and flimsy over yellowed eyes.
The pills his welfare pays for.
They are storing him.

EARTH MOTHER, HIGH FATHER

That Ernie does eight
or ten Seconal (black-eyed
and obscenely thin,
collapsed in only underpants
across the dirty
linen) or that you trounce
with breasts loose and shirt
half open to entertain your
company—all the guests
ignoring Ernie as if it were ok—
makes madness seem a daily trip.
But once upon a time your mother
raised you differently, in dresses
and blushes for your monthly
show, admonishing tablets
were only for the flu. While Ernie
lies like death or rises, lids
loose and flimsy over yellowed
eyes, you giggle and your breasts
jiggle in a nervous time.
Somewhere inside you
haven’t given up
your past.

FOR JOAN, WRITING

When you put on Baroque
sonatas, clapping hands
to numbered measures,
you grow back three hundred
years, a fine white wig,
a blossoming dress
with flounces at the shoulders,
tight cuffs to hold your hands:
A lady of the court crocheting
intricate patterns in lace.
Typing, your fingers create
castles, the music your estate,
fenced by fine iron work of harpsichords,
stuccoed with flutes, wood carved by winds.
Antique and fragile music moves your hands,
creates a modern fugue in words.

BETTY BLOCK

Betty Block would sit for hours
before her books and table, a light
uncurling her long black hair,
and tap the dust off pages
with her fingers. She would
linger on a line marked as important,
memorize it, forget it, look at it again—
a set of letters—sensing the sound of lovers’
voices (the whore who I lived above her
trouncing with some sailor). Betty
Block was brilliant, Phi Beta Kappa,
Radcliff and twenty-two was long enough
to have only thoughts and scholarly
successes. But even in her prettiest
dresses, bony, big, unsure,
always a moment out of style,
Betty never got men to make their passes
or knew to try her own. Alone with her
typewriter, fingering the keys,
she concluded her career with a note
her parents still own—a dissertation
on ruined expectations, written before
she walked slowly out the door.
REVERSALS

The day your husband dropped
like a pigeon, arms aflutter,
to the ground, old age
attacked you like a rapist.
Using muscles you’d forgotten,
you caught him, falling
as he dragged you down.
Dazed under his dead weight,
you watched his eyes glaze
and lost your breath screaming
for help. But he wasn’t dead,
a dress rehearsal for your sake
that let you practice makeup:
your hair grayer within days,
tension wrinkling your cheeks,
lines drawn toward your eyes,
and a limp, a ligament pulled
in the fall. Your husband,
recovered from a simple faint,
beats his chest, feels better,
eating with relish to cure
a sugar complaint, but life
for you has lost its sweetness.
You make him sell the house,
simplify! Move to Florida.
As if death could take
a holiday.

WINTER WON’T

Winter won’t get started,
playing the paradox of longer days
and colder nights, instructing us
in sweaters, pulling the wool
over our eyes with warmer midday
temperatures. Barely a sign of winter
creeping away like a second-story
man—fingerprints of frost, a thin
cracked film of birdbath ice
melted before most people rise.
No heraldic snow, though an inner
clock commands all things that grow
should cease. Clever detectives
sense the roots preparing.
There will be no early Spring.

INSTANT REPLAY

You fall
down stairs
become
a body
on a landing.
A grab
for the railing
a panic cry
the fast lurch
sideways.
Trained
stunt men
travel staircases
with
superhuman
confidence.
One flight down
you groan
like a brakeman
after
the wreck.
Watching
yourself catch
your heel and fall
you wince
in surprise
defenses paralyzed.
Replay this
moment
in your dreams.
Awake sore
with memory.

ONCE IN A WHILE A PROTEST POEM

Over and over again the papers print
the dried out tit of an African woman
holding her starving child. Over
and over, cropping it each time to one
prominent, withered tit, the feeble
infant face. Over and over to toughen
us, teach us to ignore the foam turned
dusty powder on the infant’s lips,
the mother’s sunken face (is cropped)
and filthy dress. The tit remains;
the tit held out for everyone to see,
reminding us only that we are not so hungry
ogling the tit, admiring it and in our
living rooms, making it a symbol of starving
millions; our sympathy as real as silicone.

FORTUNE TELLING

Afraid of death, you fight
your body, striking matches
with wet palms, lighting
cigarettes, you feel the warmth,
responsive to the quickened
heartbeat as if to a lover.
Afraid of love you strike
a balance between beauty
and a frantic disregard:
a fall of chestnut hair across your brow,
a frightened child within your eyes.
The words you speak
in silence ask for counsel:
A black eagle brings you comfort
in your dreams. He could be
love or death, but isn’t either.
Safe on his feathered wing, you
do not fear him but still
you cannot fly.
The man who reads your mind,
is he a danger? In a touch
of a hand, a brush of minds,
some truth revealed:
Do not make death your lover.
Set him free. He is not
loyal but will take you
when he wants and never sooner;
possess you wholly then.
Talk to the man who knows your secrets.
You need not say anything
but set your feelings free.

TEETHING

(For Emily.)

The pain drives
every object into your
mouth. Sufferers
of wisdom teeth, we
try to understand what
you cannot say, pressing
fingers into rum to rub on
gums. Decaying old
ladies drawn to your carriage
crying, also understand, hanging
their fingers from corners of their
mouths. More careful than you what
they chew, they commiserate
your swollen tongue.

CHRONOMETRY

The snow is my
time piece.
It counts my hours
in inches.

THE FACE

The face of the student watching
in the dorm TV room is always
the same gray-eyed gray-faced
pallor the jaw set
channeling the autonomic
signals back to the body.
The body of the student watching TV
is the same, always flaccid
hung arms and legs over
plastic cushioned chairs
foam rubber form
compliant, always an understated
color under
badly adjusted skin.
And the student locked
in the TV lounge while
parts are carried in and out
repairs are made, the picture
sometimes slightly altered rolls
over, flops, crackles or, in a final
fit, implodes to send shards
of his glassy-eyed exterior
across the room as if to make
some desperate statement.

PAT PULLS

Pat pulls down her pants
with one rum coke and what
she does could make a eunuch
have a stroke; pulls down
her pants for me to place
my hands on her sweet
pants go sliding like
they never were
there hiding her
and heavy as a half-sipped
bottle I come
as her pants come
quickly pants
come.

A LONE RUNNER ON THE BEACH

A lone runner on the beach
spreads his strides deep in the sand
dividing time in doubled heartbeats.
Sweatsuited against the wind,
he rushes the surf, draws away,
swerves at it again, flirting
with a sea cold enough to kill
in 30 seconds. Will he be
stiff tomorrow, muscles
bound by unfamiliar strain?
Or is he a regular jogger heading
home to stretch before the mirror,
his buttocks hard and tight?
Adolescents know no other
exercise than running. Ready
too early, nowhere to go, they
circle fantasies of gyms, punch
shoulders, run naked at showers
to wash away some sin. But
the runner, halved by perspective,
is some dimly remembered athlete,
at forty-two and paunchy, getting
back in shape; his wife’s affairs
a secret to him, his own fears tucked
to his belly by tight elastic. Does he
run to feel his body bursting or to flee
from feeling, playing tag with life,
touch football with his partners,
a barstool hopscotch to escape his fate?
Let the runner hit the waves like a wire,
arms flung overhead, his body steaming,
his clothing soaked through to mix
his salts with ocean. (Automatically,
the shock contracts his chest.
In minutes he is dead, floating
ice-crusted.) Let the runner
break stride to argue with the surf,
tossing rocks into its foaming mouth.
Let the runner disappear behind
a sand dune. Who is he and how
he disappears? No. Whether he is
always running fast or if his sneakers
fill with sand.

TAG TEAMS FOREVER

Darkness, The Phantom,
hammerlocks the sun,
trips it to the mat,
the colors pinned.
A streak of light
sneaks to the fringe
to stop the match.
Time is suspended
in an orange
bowl.

Moonlight steps in
to tease the night
like a man on a diet
weeping for wine and cheese
cheese and wine, darkness
wanes.

The sun pokes morning
in the eye. The referee
is with the crowd
and daylight wins.
“For now,” The Phantom
vows.

FLOAT PARADE

I parade past you,
a color guard walking backward
pole in hand, do headstands,
raise the flag and you
drone on asleep.
With company, I’m a kid
with a cut that needs kissing,
setting up jokes with the punch line
missing—standing on the trap
door of my own gallows humor.
My body is a bill collector.
You lock your door.
At the movies, I devour
popcorn, lick my fingers,
suck my cheeks. At sunrise,
I fantasize honey across your
thighs; the taste would make me weak.
My body is a clock beating
its time for you. Set my alarm, awaken.

THE RIDDLES WE ARE

Because I didn’t speak my mind,
because I didn’t speak
my mind goes back to you
for all the words that are a ritual
and who you are a mystery.
Because you are a mystery
you are the singing of the words,
turning inward and I want you
to understand. The turning
of words, speaking is not
enough to make a person understand.
And so I reach for you
in the brush of a hand over
your hand, meek and not the man
I could be; still, I see
through you, see you
through that single touch.
If words hide meanings more
than create them, lacking words
we are more honest. But leaving
you unfulfilled, I know I’ve lied
and lie awake in bed dreaming
of more, yearning for meaning.

IRONY WARD

They have converted this ward
maternity to geriatrics,
incubators stored
in the nursery like hours
of the aged.
Old men hum to themselves,
a wordless incantation,
rock like infants who
bang their heads against
crib bars for comfort;
bony fingers pressed
to temples. Old people
have an understanding in dark
and swollen veins bulging
across their fetal skulls.
Tongues scrape cracked lips,
hoarse exhalations, worn
flags and signal horns,
sounds that define old age:
from the first cry
we are trying to explain.
Now the respirator’s rhythm
lulls the terminal to sleep.

BUG LITANY

Bugs collect on the lights
like disgruntled customers, insistent
on their rights and guarantees,
the lights dimmer as they fry,
drying they die with frantic arguments.
The bugs are there in darkness,
the living and the dead,
cheating us out of electricity,
shocking us when they appear
with tufted bodies like vaginas
to be stroked and opened.
The bugs are diseased organs
to be cut, bloody edged, blotted
out with never a satisfied customer,
no one cured, never a bill paid on time
just swattings at life, wrist cuttings
like rituals, the pulling off of wings.
The Ladies Auxiliary declares war
on bugs; old ladies sorting rags,
women washing them clean, girl
scouts folding bandages, a circle
knitting for the war. They vote
to send a virgin to lure them out.
No bugs. No black bugs crawling anywhere,
even in the wounds. They are hiding.
They are waiting until everyone runs out
of things to say. (Black bugs don’t talk;
are quiet types except for crickets—
the black sheep of bugdom, chirping
family secrets with renegade delight.)
Bugs like Thoreau had known at Walden
where he got along with them as neighbors;
with bedbugs and lice for company.
He taught them to live simply
on a drop of blood a day and help him
gnaw the balls of tax men. Subversives!
What bugs are there in every corner hiding?
Bugs behind doors—no privacy. Imagine
anthills squirming, larvae beneath
the surface. Ant canals, bomb shelters,
nations dragged below in fear with their
possessions, stuck between sticks of furniture
and eggs, tasting each other’s sweat
in darkness to tell who are friends.
What victory is ours? Bugs dried and dead,
bug funerals with tiny thimbles, silvered
coffins, precious bugs petrified in amber.

FRIDAY LIKE A METAPHOR

At a time when everything
is poetry, even the student
sloughing his long hair over
the men’s room blower, which
becomes a metaphor, I rush
toward classes of unbudging
faces to pretend to teach.
They breathe in unison
in time to the click-clock,
a breathy chorus of Friday wishes.
I live them through their befogged
eyes, the local bar, nickel beer,
bottles breaking, smoke like warfare,
music like cannon, the near-freezing
night, their dates’ breath steaming,
soon their thighs. Out of class,
I stare into the eyes of other
faculty members, look for verses,
see only chapters of textbooks,
Saturdays spent grading papers
in front of football on the tube.
But the poetry is electric
in the student’s frying hair.

CONSOLATIONS

MaryAnn, mother, her mother
lost her husband, her son, her father
her baby brother crucified, killed in action,
gone when the radio fell in the tub,
dried out and blew away, rubbed out.
Consolation, condolences without
words, sympathy cards, blank mortuary
tags, coroner’s reports. A check
as compensation, insurance, workmen’s
benefits, a fifteen thousand dollar
prize included with a coffin, pine
or hardwood, silver handled, marble
tombstone, slate, unmarked, crossed
sticks, lonely grave, public monument,
excavated ruins and reclaimed bones.
Sentinel star, point of mythic
journey, center of the universe,
spot on the forehead to mark a holy
place. A kiss on the cheek to say
goodbye. Recorded in death bills,
the Bible, City Hall, the Honor Roll,
ancient history, immortal literature.
The ancients made constellations
of their grief or saviors for the dead.
SURGEONS

(For Marvin, who has a profession
that makes him a million a year.)

1. The Hack

He carries a yellow chain saw
and chops off limbs
counting lifetimes by rings
on swollen fingers.

2. To Become a Surgeon

Tie a knot inside a tiny box,
dexterous and clever.
Probe the rivers flowing
through the body with fingers
like alligator clips.
Find the femur and the vena
cava in a cadaver without
getting sick.
3. Fee Splitting

He cut for what it was worth.

THE I’VE-GOT-TO-GET-PUBLISHED POEM

My wife is rushing to write
her novel. We are running out
of trees. All day she chops
at sentences, roots for the right
word, axes at her IBM on paper
recycled from our daughter’s
third grade class. The cost
of novels is growing prohibitive
despite reforestation. Carving
words on her paneled walls like hearts
on trees; writing on backs of envelopes,
Lincolnesque; jotting chapters on her
skin—penned lines like wrinkles stretching
as she walks. Her agent says they sell
the author with the work—push a literary
package if it’s pretty. My wife is blessed
with a modest nose and skin as smooth
and white as birches. But the cost
of paper lurches ever higher
and the publishers would rather
bark than bite.

JUNGLE HUNTING

We enter each day
like a cat in a paper bag—
comical, scratching,
and inside, fight
to turn around, see lighted
seams, claw at what
contains us.
Our bodies streaked,
we seek reflections,
out to spot ourselves.
Pinpointed, we make a trap
to catch the light (as if
a mirror holds it).
Out of the sack we walk
with furry masks, clothed
feelings, or in the bag
another morning we can’t get up.
Hairy, we face the world
like a mirror, pushing one
paw out to catch it: ask
ourselves what animal-
kind we are.

A PRAYER TO BROKENNESS

Pray to things that break
unexpectedly, slipping
into pieces with no common sense.
Pray to bottles broken,
slivers mixed with milk
a deadly cereal. Pray
to electric motors that start
and stall, smoke for seconds
only—dissected, they reveal
a blackened core. And marriages
made of lies like love and kisses,
climaxes like mirrors breaking.
There is always the opening
and closing of a door; always
a finger to be caught and broken.
Always some god to curse and blame.

HIGHWAY ROBBERY

(Outside of Fayetteville, NC)

Fate comes like a trooper
to steal my hard-earned cash.
Job, I’m robbed without justice.
The Bible says God talks to those
who are righteous. No way
was I doing seventy; hence,
I have been chosen.
As I pay, I blacken the all-seeing
eye on the back of
the twenty dollar bill.

POEM HAPPENING

She’s driving an MG midget
tiny car—metallic blue,
double pipes and above her
chromed bumper: SAILORS HAVE
MORE FUN. She’s blond
and stylish from behind,
a leather jacket,
and when she turns off
my fantasies it’s at La
Bonne Vie Apartments.
Now I’m parked on the roadside
in front of the Sixth
Precinct Police Station,
writing this poem just
as it occurred, wondering
if a cop will ask me what
I’m doing; feeling the subtle
push of bodies with the wind
of every passing car.

CONTACT MYTH

Once there was a girl who loved
rubbing: forehead on cold windows,
fingers through shag rugs, feet
across hot sand, tongue over salty
pretzel’s crystals. She wanted
contact, rubbing her cheeks on velvet
pillows and, when no one looked, she
leaned to press them on bold Formica
tabletops. As she grew, she rubbed
her knees against the legs
of tables, her bottom, bare, against
hard, slippery chairs, and once
herself against the bathtub.
She rubbed everything in life,
a lonely woman, until her fingers
stopped asking questions. Now,
her body arches, spins—a golden
thumb and finger, grasping at stars,
rubbing the universe to keep it warm.

BIOENERGETICS

All our lives we know
each other dying
shrinking back toward
what we were, but in the movement
of our arms and legs, a flailing
of our rage; the flexing
of our knees, a balancing
act with life—so much for
infant rage, the body thrown
as if from windows, all stops
out and reckless until, adults again,
we are headless corpses on the street.
In the energy of activity
philosophers and physicists
regard the body relatively:
All things are simply molecules
in motion. We are forces we cannot
see. But for you and me the world
is static, fixed on a block, the rage
of cells, the energies of life held back.

SUBLIMINAL PERCEPTIONS

In the basement, I am always
making bombs—under my mother whom
I hate with a heavy throb like a rod
pump; moving cautiously, afraid
of the sudden whirring of machinery.
I am powdering charcoal, blending
sulphur, adding saltpeter: the simple
recipe for volatile black powder
packed into copper tubes, ends bent
gently, fuse inserted in a pre-drilled
hole. The pause with a match lit;
the sparkle of the nitrate-soaked
string, a ringing bang, copper
fragments splintering the wooden
cubicle, and for you, the lovingly
painful question of whether I was still there.

METHOD ACTING

Think baboon, he said, hairy
with big lips, mouth
working, hands hanging from bent
wrists, obscene pink loins. We
are all baboons, shaving daily
& discreetly to hide it, deep
inside we fight it but it shows.
Tired, we draw our lips back to expose
our gums, growling a yawn, or let our
bodies flop in slouch-chairs to rest
in cages. Baboons. Baaa boooons
the syllables taste silly, sounds
an idiot might utter. Baby baboons,
cling to mother, suck gray, tight-skinned
nipples, look like ugly infants except
for slightly looser skin and longer bones.
Father baboons, who are our fathers,
beating the dust with dominant feet,
commanding respect with feats of strength,
shrinking from their wives. Women baboons
go back to basics, matriarchal, plain,
the feminists of any zoo, unpainted,
no messing around unless they want to.
We are baboons, leaping at the bars to ask
forgiveness for looking human,
setting our keepers free.

MYTHS, DREAMS AND DANCES

RITES AND PRACTICES

You place my finger across
your veins, say it is a subtle
blade and that your blood is
both your spirit and your will.
To marry me you draw it slowly
until you spill your strength
into my hands.

The marriage bands
that hold us follow a different
form. Some think to burst the
hymen is the mystery that
joins and welds. Who was it
that first held you in his arms,
his body pressing you, frightened,
beneath a sweat and rage; took
little more than fear from you,
forcing his painful memory into
a suffocating girl.

These years we have dreamed
and spoken, in cold sweats we
have awakened with visions
of some sharpened beak or silvered
blade about to strike, and with a magic
word removed each other’s fears.
Each of us makes a ritual of our
dreams: take each other’s bodies as
gross as they are clean and place
them in our mouths, giving what
others have, in blood, to
prove our love.

DIAGNOSTIC CLINIC

The X-ray
technician clips
her film close to her
groin, smooths her apron
and smile in place to greet
the first gastrointestinal
ailment. “Take a deep breath.”
And peeks from behind the leaded wall
at graying men in shoes and socks
that leave them, if not de-balled,
completely sexless. “Hold it.”
After hours, the film unclipped,
there are dates with doctors, all
experts on the effects of long-term
exposure to low-grade radiation.
“Breathe.” A job is a job.

YUBA COUNTY INCIDENT

(In June, 1971, Juan Corona was arrested for the
mass murder of bums and transients.)

Where were you when in
Yuba when the old men were
turning into peaches.
their grizzled jaws softening
to fuzz and bones turning
to pits? Pulled from
the earth they wept their
flesh off to return and
chase their Karma up
the roots of trees.
On the street the newsman
asks about the murderer
and hears. “He ain’t so
bad, just killin’ bums.”
Somewhere in irrigated
mud an old man gives up
his juices to please the
world at last. Death
has its logic if not
justice.

HOCKER

Pitch black and windy
I think about you lost
in summer squalls off
Plum Island, the sixteen
foot boat, your son with you.
A dance of images over the water.
You bail and get scared sober,
steer for any land and blindly
run aground. Ruined, you are
saved, suffer the surf as it
throws you to the ground,
saying thank you with mouths
full of sand.

AMERICANS ARE SENTIMENTAL

Americans are sentimental
about the Tsar, feel bad he
got it in the basement and for
all the peasants and their
potatoes, wasn’t it nice before
the revolution? Royalty is
not so good but riches are and
the Tsar was rich as hell (he,
must have been doing something
well). Americans, when they are
tired of fighting and/or bored,
enjoy a book with pictures of
the Tsar, pity the bullet
holes like dimples in his head
and whisper “Better dead than red.”

FOURTH OF JULY AT ROCKY POINT

The beach ignites
with Galliano and hot
dogs at the Annual 4th of
July Picnic, spread out on
barbecue hot sands. The kids
tear up and down the bluffs
doing a year’s erosion with
every kick and shove.
The evening brings a sour-
mouthed brass band with cherry
bomb percussion. A ring of
flame-spitting red flares
illuminates the dumb-faced clans
united in a midnight Star
Spangled Banner.
In the morning
only the trash stands at attention.

KILLING TIME

A shadow in the room I
enter turns me to face
myself hanging
globe-eyed from the
ceiling, saliva
spattered on the stool
across my shadow.
I dangle before me, a
delight of horror, dancing
out my death again with
every throb of wind.
(Galileo found the motion
of cathedral chandeliers was
the same as the earth’s. Even
a hanged man admits that
time is passing.)
I cut down my broken form,
cover the neck before my
company arrives. Who
does more with life than
worry for appearances or
fight to keep from choking
in a crowd. Sweet
Jesus. try not to bother
friends with trivia like
mortality.

MAKING LOVE FOR EMILY

Much as you needed human contact
we stretched ourselves across your grave
all to embrace with mortal passions.
Pressing forward in the grass, we
touched your headstone with our heads
drawing deep breaths to drown
in memories of you.
(Imagine her pressing toward
some musty garden corner observing
each grub as it achieved coitus,
her passion set only on death.)
Cold on our earthly mattress,
we push our horny parts together,
working to realize the constant ec-
stasy of pain, and hear you cry
out at the final thrust that
sets us free.

ALONE IN YOUR HOUSE

I open drawers like Hawkshaw
the detective, careful
not to leave a clue that I’ve
been there, searching for who
you really are: I note the tranquilizers
in your medicine chest, the hair
dye for your wife, a pint of Kaopectate.
But in the bureau you give yourselves
away, not in the bank book tucked in
the back (four hundred sixty dollars
left of all you’ve ever earned) but
in the diary your wife has hidden in
her underwear, the days checked off
infrequently when you have been
successful; and in the nightstand
drawer, left beneath the gap-toothed
comb and dirty tissues, a dozen
prophylactics safe in their hygienic
seals. I close the door on the same
tragedies I know, sorry to see you
like myself—promise to say something
erotic to your wife to turn her
on for you when you two return.

SIC TRANSIT GLORIA

I dreamt Diogenes turned in
his lantern—laid it, lit,
beside the miles of unread
volumes people write, and told
me, “Honest, man, no one is
happy. Some go from wife
to wife, to the Bohemian
life in bellbottomed wanderings.
I am pursued by household furies—
rent receipts in ugly script,
phone accounts taxed extra
for the war, doctor’s bills,
pills in cottony quantities
swallowed without water.

“The wind rushes my window
with a violence that brings me
visions of birds with broken
necks. I lie sleepless in
lines of moonlight, sigh
last lines of poems, as virulent
as consumptive breaths, and see
the number of people I have loved
die in half-lives of months and years,
inked away in letters, seasonal
cards, seasons missed. Try to
find the metaphor for life.

“The future careens toward me,
a Cassandra crying out
unheeded. And shall I turn,
enraged, to strip her of her
prophecies: rape the darkness
to find light? We see the world
in flashes only. Our blindness
becomes the source of art.”

PRANA YAMA: EXERCISES OF CONTROL OF BREATH

(Prana pervades the whole organism, from the tip of the
big toe through the navel and heart to the lip of the nose.)

Lying in bed, I dissolve
myself slowly from my toes
through an anatomy of parts,
reciting a Yoga chant
until my ears alone float
in darkened seas of sound,
cacophonies of breathing:
cricket breaths of my
littlest daughter, half hidden
under quilts, my wife’s
nasal inhalations, my own
sounds as distant as dust
sifting onto dresser
tops. The rhythms roll
against the humming of
the electric clock,
competing to be master
of the night. And Time is
an idle mathematician,
calculating his volume
in molecules of gas,
blanketing the earth,
a high priest who knows
that even bodies can
become air.

FOR JOAN IN LOVE

You leave me,
running toward the bluff,
the surf a hundred feet below,
climb a frail steel staircase
down to mate with fishes:
dangerous their jaws,
snappers, after your nipples
as they flail you with their fins.
Freed from land, you move
with them, crawl, stroke them,
roll on your back, kicking;
one arm strung overhead,
the other, and let them take you
without fear of breaking promises.
As if one lover were not enough.

AU CLAIR DE LA LUNE

The hiss of leaves
shuffling
like slow energy
escaping
from sun-stored
cells
making songs
in the wind
like moonlight
awaking us
to dreams
of lunar seas
galactic journeys.
Men’s energies
suspended:
one leaf falling
through space.

ANNIVERSARY POEM

(For Bob & Shari.)

Hot as it is
we swallow pain killers.
Asleep, we cling and perspire
and sleeping, walk wet streets
naked under mercury lights,
our flesh wasted and blue.
I say people who have
the same dream are too much
married. You talk of colder
times and tell me to be
together with and without
pain killers is marriage.

WHAT WE HAVE NOW

The reality of you swollen,
tits blue-veined and ready,
abdomen distressed, is not
that you will bear a child,
is not the life we will
surrender—that long-morning
sleep and freedom—or the
sickness you endure, or pain;
the costs after insurance,
the gynecologist (his
finger in you); not the baby
blues or even pinks, but
the unbearable pressure
stretching you and me apart.

WORD ENDING

Your world splinters
words become
stuck, need
probing, embedded
meanings you cannot
express you cut
to expose. They
bind your hands
nail feelings
deeper in: they tear
from your wild eyes
blinking with no
code at all. Unable
now to speak, move
to violate yourself
you surrender to
attendants who
do their needle
tricks on you
trading sleep for
madness. Awake
again, you give
God back his word
to live in your
own creation.

MYTHS, DREAMS AND DANCES,

(Done in an ancient Greek meter.)

At fourteen, Morpheus
carried you away
you were dancing
dancing with him
the Gods were watching
you were climbing
higher toward the summit
breathing deeply until
he touched you
held you dancing
all were watching
your body whirling
in his arms
your heart beat faster
as you awakened
your body bleeding.

We are breathing sounds
and pungent smells
our bodies moving
round me you wrapping
our last days passing.
Lying wet with steam
I think of you at fourteen
and your dream.

The Greek Gods were
peeping Toms you say
watching men and women
in their beds, they
came down to try it
one by one you tell me
as I take you to my bed
laughing Zeus is not dead.
Just as the afternoon
has seeded sunset
giving birth to dark
we go from hard to soft
to sleep Morpheus watching.

Later we wake up
mythical and hungry
I fetch you lusty
fruit. You tell me
how Ceres was your mother
how she left you to buy bread
and Pluto found you.
I seat myself cross-legged naked
tear the fruit.
You go on speaking:
He brings you to his palace
you are not hungry
your flowers wither
he asks for oysters
caviar and fine
champagne.
Night flower he says
see how I stalk you?
you must be hungry
won’t you take this fruit?
You won’t be tempted.

He consults his servants
stalks you laughing
you cry for mother
who cannot reach you.
he pounces on you
but you will not please him
his servant enters
he bears a platter
the red fruit on it.
Pluto takes it
he sits before you
cross-legged naked
breaking the fruit
the juice is pungent
he moves you to him
six seeds inside you
he dances with you
your breathing quickens.
Suddenly, you are cold.

September and mountain weather
I sigh and rise to close the window
it is sunrise we naked
the afternoon and evening
are odors left around us
we have slept the blackness
and the heat away
the cold embraces us
but across the covers scattered
the seeds I fed you.

The ceiling lights have shrunk
to circles with the sunrise
I flick them off
so goes the summer.
All the heat that furnaces create
is not enough to save us winter’s fate.
We have spent our last night
of summer love together
I surrender the fruit
rinds to the crevice
behind the cabin
e descend the mountain.
Winter will block the road
with snow but in summer
pomegranates grow.
ENNUI

Baudelaire, you dark
and bawdy beggar, you
were right, sorting
your symbols like a florist
making wedding displays
and funeral wreaths alike.
You breathed “ennui,”
and what is left?
Now, we are waiting
for the novels and the tea
cups to turn into truths.
for a woman president
who’ll have big tits
and an abstract concept
hard as a cock to
stick into the crux
of all our problems.

ON THE VIRTUES OF BEING ALONE AGAIN

(A short poem with stage directions.)

If I chose to make noise
I make it and it is my noise.

(HOWL.)

But I am running out of noises.

If I chose to be silent
it is my choice.

(TEN SECOND SILENCE.)

But I will speak enough
to beg you to come back.
BLAIBERG WITH RACIAL HEART

(With thanks to Drs. Barnard and Blaiberg.)

“My boy, they are like children,”
Dr. Weinberg says (and flashes
an ivory cap job) forgetting his
own Warsaw dead, “You have to
treat them so. You know,
my boy, they really love us
as we care for them, providing
civilized restraints. We make
them comfortable.” Then,
“Excuse me, I feel faint.”
The Dentist, opening his mouth
in pain; and red-faced Dr.
Blaiberg, at the men’s club
for a chat (always a bit too fat),
slouches in his chair like
a victim of his own sweet gas.

Blaiberg in the hospital:
the surgeon who examines him
(a courtesy, and in exchange
for future dentistry) says
he will not be free of
his heart failures unless,
to do his part—he would
let the surgeon fit him with
a better heart. “So be it,”
says the sage and somber
Dr. Blaiberg.

The team attending him,
all white, and sterilized.
extracts from the nearest
human a healthy heart,
leaves gaping the ribs
of a Mulatto whose head
was crushed. Using fine
German instruments
and with a Swiss precision
movement, the English surgeon
stitches his patient up.

“Now feeling fine,” quoth
Blaiberg drinking beer,
and not a bit surprised to hear
who was his donor. “After all,
we treat them well, and why
should they not be grateful?”
“I am,” the Mulatto purrs.

SNOW POEMS: MADE FRESH EVERY HOUR

1.
Snow plow sounds scrape my dreams
of first heavy accumulations:
percussion symphonies of cars,
tires iced, whining; wind-
winged snow against the windows
and persistent neighbors hacking
at their walks. Moments of silence
that begin to creak a counter
point of footsteps and a shovel
dragging behind. I awake, blinded
and disillusioned by a lightshow
of sun refractions through
a frosted pane, the ground as
bare and plain as when I’d bedded.

2.
Back from sliding, snow
melts in our boots as we
walk, wet-skinned, to our
houses, caked and crusted
with snow on our pants;
snow in our crotches, in
our hair, on tongues, freezing
us in all our favorite places.
In the house, we thaw our
wrinkled asses, dry our
shorts and sidle up to
radiators set by windows
to see, for sure, we haven’t
brought the cold inside (the
blizzard beyond the glass
convinces us as we begin
to feel our feet again).
After supper, chasing down
long halls to slide in slippery
socks, we imagine well-packed
hills and polished runners:
become both sleds and snow again.

MARCH FLOWERS

(For Elliott Coleman.)

Stripes of forsythia
grow randomly
toward the sky:
yellowed handouts
from a dying
winter.
Wear these flowers
carefully: a badge
for those who have
kept alive.

INTO SPAIN THEY CAME

When the Moors fought
and raped the burly royal
wenches, invading all the royal
property from cunt to county,
whom did they offend?
The poor were always
being invaded. The rapes I
speak of surely were not
done for spite. When the Moors,
black as night, were stuck
up in the royal ladies. who
would not say they had a right?
The poor are always raped
and pay high taxes.
The ladies of whom I speak,
surely they only got
what was coming.
THE DEAD HAVE NO RESPECT

When she died he
had her decked
out better than she’d
looked in life, only to
have her run away with
some sailor they
called Charon.

MISSING YOU

You occur to me as a shrill scream·
over the phone, a disembodied cry
like an excised organ refusing to
die, a violence asking to be extinguished.
The phone rings back your rage in

half articulated arguments.
(You make me unhappy.)

Old New England families walled in
their cemetery plots to stay together,
clinging as shoots along stone walls,
building roots beneath the earth
in slow and sweet cohesion.
(I don’t know why.)

Three couples out of ten today
will be divorced, but our marriage
is made of a brute force long
distances can’t change.
(I miss you.)

COMES THE REVOLUTION

The bubbas dreamt of children
more than five feet tall and saw
their vision stretched by grandsons
six feet and more. The idea was
to meet Goliath at even odds.
But the kinder grew wise beyond
their years as well, rapping on
politics and revolution, marching
in Washington, radical young Jews,
forgetting the virtues of being
inconspicuous.

RUNNER

The night you tried to get
away from Central Islip
you were a track star in your
white shorts until they spotted
you at peace among the trees
in motion, and chased you like
Mounties to knock you down,
drag you in your tracks,
you screaming the mud and cinder
from your mouth. Alone at
night you brood in darkness
with cracked, lips and broken
teeth, coagulated grief. Alone
and rocking in the darkness,
you feel a rhythm running
through your body, beat the
cadence on the walls with
bloodied fists.

“WE NEED WHAT WE WANT”

(An observation by René Dubos.)

We need each other to holler
at or slowly drive each other
mad, repeating lists of things
to do and all we want: Like you,
ticking the piano off to an irregular
Anna Magdalena Bach; getting
minisculely better every day
you drive me from the house to
let you practice. Or me
practicing poems on the IBM,
impossible to speak to before,
during or when I’m done.

We need what we want: We
want a single day the garbage
cans empty themselves, groceries
are shopped for automatically.
We want the earnings of Getty,
uncorrupted; a list of things
that reads like poetry; the carefree
life; sex without responsibility;
the way to live with grace and art;
a graceful way to die. We
need each other.

I SAY, YOU SAY POEM

I say, “My mattress
makes noise
like walking on
snow,” as I
disappear
under a cold
blanket.
You throw
the covers back
and say you’ll melt
my images
with passion.
I pant at your torrid feats
and tell you, “Now
the mattress sounds
like lovers groaning
with the heat.”
You say, “Your movements
could make blizzards boil.”
I say my mattress springs
need oil.
MEPROBAMATE

generic name
for Miltown
takes the edge
off the mind for
eight hours
acts in ten minutes
central nervous
system depressant
designed to keep
the patient clinically
efficient. One to
five a day @
400 milligrams. The
poet on them tends
to write like
labels leaving
little to imagination.

MOTHER AND CHILD

I kiss your belly
button bursting out like
a silver dollar for your
sixth month. Sleek and
fat you sway before me,
lure me to our conjugal bed
to use each other gently before
the final layoff.

I kiss your thighs, see
eyes staring at me from
deep inside, that wink to
say we are captured and must
pay ransom for twenty years
before we’re free.

You are too sexy to be
pregnant. I am too young
to be a father. We are
too sure we need each other
to let go.

VOICES BEHIND THE PROFESSOR’S DOOR

Passing through the halls
I hear a woman’s muffled laughs
coming from behind his door.
First take: sexual. Her on his
lap, skirt lifted. But their
voices in punctuated conversation
change the scene: He primes her
first with witty talk, his gray
hair tossing, his fat form
lithely mobile in his swivel
chair. Old so and so,
who would have thought him
debonair, performing his
verbal tricks before more
serious conversation.
Another laugh, the opening
door, his familiar presence
seated there as the young
skirt disappears. Connotations
can’t make up for years.

HOW THE BARKER ENDED

Intro-
ducing that
most remarkable of
creatures, the human
heart seat of all emotions,
center of all bodily communi-
cations, sending signals auricular,
ventricular, eighty times each minute
every hour every day for eighty years
or more, or less. Watch it wiggle,
watch it bend and bounce with
every blow it’s dealt, never
ceasing, barking, beating,
banging out at life be-
fore your very eyes.
Step right up the
next show’s a-
bout to …
stop.

POTATOES

Fat, scarfed women
their woolen bags bulging,
bosoms large as
the potatoes they feed
their hungry kids.
Bubba’s bulvas
cooked with prunes
two helpings clean
out all the tubes.
Scrawny fries immersed
in oil, salted to a fault
20¢ a helping. Drive in,
pick for corners at the
bottom of the bag,
get laid.
Home fries, redeeming
an otherwise undistinguished
diner, cut and cooked just
right despite the flaccid eggs.
Instant mashed potatoes.

CARROTS

(To go with the potatoes.)

Large as wrists,
a fight to pull them
from the ground, given
up only after fingers
force the dirt off
half way down,
and wriggled out
with a thwop!
Pop! Bugs Bunny
shot by Elmer Fudd,
plays dead until the fool
comes close enough to
stick a carrot in
his ear and scream
“Th th th th, th th th th
That’s all folks!”
Dainty, pleated carrot
sticks, caterer-cut,
circled into cute designs,
dry from sitting overnight,
soft as the groom after
his wife; they throw them out.
Big tsimis.

TRAIN PASSING CLOSE

Double wheels cut away
my sanity leaving ideas
of self-annihilation:
the limbs severed clean,
the softness of flesh against
a greater force, the silvered
edge of death. One fast lurch
forward, a faint interruption
of the unending
rhythm, punishable
by death.

MARCH 1st AND I FORGOT MY JACKET

March 1st and just like spring
he laughed and Frost rustled
beneath the hard New England
earth like the granddaddy of
all groundhogs, sending his
early shadow across her path
to restore midwinter blizzards.
The weather is a lizard, as
changeable in hue as poets
and their wives, as me and you.

TWO YOUNG TEACHERS

You comb your hair back
fifteen years, D.A., T-shirt &
cigs rolled in your sleeve;
and become 1955: Jimmy
Dean; Elvis Presley,
Ike and G.I. Housing and
still-new TV. But you
were ten and I fifteen and Allen
Ginsberg still kept his hair
clipped clean across his neck;
so long ago we both feel dated.
What fifteen years ahead, of
Freshman classes will do to
make us histories as
relevant as Liberty
Bonds and Gold-Star Moms
to us. We clown at growing
old and laugh at the new
slang we learn each year to
speak their language. By
forty, we will begin again
to think of Freshman girls as
pussy; put on the latest style
to make a kill.

AS SHE GROWS OLDER

(For Sandra.)

As she grows old, wide-cheeked,
hair streaked, lips once wet and wide
kiss only filter cigarettes and her
passions become plain print dresses,
educator glasses, grade-school gestures.
She is the lover of nursery-school children
who feared to have a child.
As she grows old, wide-cheeked,
and hair streaked, lips once wet
with passion kiss only filter
cigarettes. Idealist’s idealist
now in checkered prints,
conservative, accredited,
the leader of a nursery who
feared to have a child.
Revolutionary lover of freedom
and a dozen men, now mother
to three dozen kids a day.
As she grew older, tired-cheeked,
habituated to forgetting
what she had done; where all
their touches drove her wild,
when all her fears cried out,
she had destroyed her one-chance
child, ripped from her young affairs
to leave herself alone and in some
way atone: the maker and the made.
as if some debt were paid.

THE ORDER OF THINGS

You who married the church
and then divorced, now seek
to marry. Gowned and waiting
they took you, sisters and
brothers kissed your thinner
face and sent you, dry-eyed.
into the convent. But late
that night, as you were
taken by your God you cried
and begged for mercy.
And did they, then, unbolt
their iron doors like clenched
legs opening; you breaking your
vows, excluded from womanly
companions? On your first date
you petted like a pigeon but
thought of Mary and the Dove.
Say who lives in anything
but a cell and tell me how,
after those vast and barren
years, at thirty-six and virgin
you plan to break the spell?

7:05 P.M. AND MR. RISLEY GETS THE BANANAS

The old Irishman who
fell, alone, amid his tumblers,
can’t remember, for the life
of him how, when he came to,
he was not in his house but
hospitalized, or how,
by God, he cut his knee
(at eighty-three, drinking off
four ounces of straight whiskey).
He asks for anything to
see him through—something
fruity like the ladies drink.
Gets only a banana.
“Sweet Jesus, you’d think
that I was two,” he cries,
dreaming of his charcoal-filtered
ryes. 7:05 p.m., the sun is barely
in the sky; the old man is craving
for a drink before he dies but
the nurse is bound to save him.

CONSTANT

(Arbeid slave, i graven du kan hvile:
Work slave, in the grave you can rest.
Norwegian folk saying.)

The old man shatters
the stillness, flinging
his hoe into the air
to celebrate his death.

In the earth he loved,
the weeds grow back
to clothe him.

Some spirits persist
despite the double
edge of death.

OUT OF THE BASEMENTS, EXCELSIOR

In elementary school, the old-
maid schoolmarms competed for
basement duty, watching while we
wiggled our parts at long, gray-
slate troughs or squatted into
ancient china pots.
Put out to recess, we never
saw them retreating to their
rooms to dream; only the heavy
glances they cast as we passed
with spattered shoes and pants.
We bowed our heads and washed
our hands and prayed we’d never
drip again. They wept for us.
By junior high, the stalls had
doors and the women teachers
had grown noticeably harder.

LINGUISTICS

If
a child
learns language
to keep from
crying
why do you
say those things
that make me
cry?

JANUARY MOON

wolf moon, we
tear and fight:
fangs in midwinter
rend me like a she wolf;
be animal and
hunter too. Devour
me in rage and love.
Fill my winter soul
with blood.

SAD SONG

(For Rosanne & Ken.)

Walk
like winter-
thin feet over hot
tar lots to be with you
& walk
like bastinadoed
souls to
see you & walk
the sharpened stones
to see you
to bathe and be
with you and cry for
all the blood-shod dreams
we have seen pass.

METAMORPHOSES

Change comes to us
in years of Salvation
Army bags of clothes
discarded, retired
and replaced,
contributing our memories
before they fade or die.
Rags that wipe the window
dry, the underwear
slipped slowly off
to make desire real.
Now the wind
washing away the lint
is our lubricant.
Time reclothes us
knitting patterns,
counting stitches,
casting a styleless
garment without
sleeves.

POPULATION DYNAMICS

For sweating in bandanas,
the grime baked into pores
in cane, you get your beans
and bread the honest way;
every week some multi-colored
notes embossed by Americano
presses.

In New York City
you can collect $200 every
month plus beans and flour
free with cab fare to the
distribution center. In Puerto
Rico or Pensacola, poverty is
proud, works the day, collects
its pay. In N.Y.C. poverty
has a certain logic.

RACIAL STILL LIFE

The rain beats down faster
than a mugger’s feet across
the pavement and no one hears
the cries above the landings.
Out of gray corners of the sky,
jets instrument toward Kennedy,
black plumes descending:
white sneakers daubed.
with blood.

PERENNIAL

I am waiting for summer
watching the changing shadows
6:00 and not yet sunset
(save me from spring snows).
Higher-getting sun, stretch
promises of beach days and
leisure across my path. I
am lighting matches to the
wind and waiting for the drift
of barbecue smoke or wave driven
inner tubes across the Sound.
Round, dark-cornered evening,
I am sitting, counting pulse
beats for summer to come (and
save me from landslides of
turning leaves or thoughts
too far ahead).

TIME PIECES

The first decades of our lives
last longer. The future sleeps
on the calendar under a blanket
of months and days. Gyroscopic
time turns to past; turns like
a grade-B film device, the pages
sloughing off to indicate the years.
Aging is the transfer of energy
from weight to weight: the days
shorten as the years grow long.

PETITE DANSEUSE

(For Jessica.)

She spins to baroque
recordings seeking to lose
herself in motion. Dancers
and poets know to dance one
must become the music.
At three she masters gravity
and time, loosed of all dimensions.
Quick-step, heel to toe, turning
she is all the world one needs
to know, petite danseuse.

REALITIES

(For Jessica.)

My daughter plays with
my hands like people, calling
them by name.
We play a sleight-of-
hand game with the world.
The finger-people become
men and monsters.
Even she
is not fooled.

FOR RICHARD AND JERROLD

At thirty-two and single, a man
can be spinster-like for all
his balling. For my friend
who keeps a cat named Mutzy
(Hebrew: dear) keeps changing
beard and hair, clean-cut one
day or stubbled, stays the same
and single, has lost a dozen
women, let another dozen go,
while bakers’ dozens more still
go untasted. He loses his young
form to sweets but never
eats of marriage pie. At thirty-two,
he dreams of abstract beauty
and climaxes. Late at night,
he passes forty. rubs his fat
behind, calls his Mutzy dear
for company, but somehow
stays intent on his old ways.

PUMPER

With braid behind,
your long hair hidden,
you look straight,
wear a garage man’s coat
yellow script embossing.
Behind, entrailed in
your hair, are poems.
Behind, tuned, are your
synaptic sparks,
your incredible fine
poems. Checking the oil
with a cosmic stare,
you know a language
the average jobber never
hears and could not
understand. In public
you smile wryly, breathe
deeply of leaded gas.

DIANNA

Dianna no longer lives alone
as she did from eight when she
raised herself, her father drunk
as a cliché and home later than he
could beat her. Only she lays
awake and lays for every local
guy whose breath—like prices
fixed in package stores—is
always the same, who leaves her
tips. She cleans up after, discarding
what remains of human contact;
knows what it is to force life
into the dead. Dianna never drinks
and has turned down two abortions.

VOWS OF SILENCE

I am the good friend.
I carry your boxes when you move
(know the contents of your house).
I lie to you upon request
(suck the blood back from my
bitten tongue). I tell you
what you need to hear, am
the seer not the sayer, seeing
the broken dreams (Tiresias, never
to be believed). I am the friend
who stores your meanings when
you move. I do not approve
(I remain silent).

POEM FOR MARTHA

Your face, fair-featured
more than pretty, asks to
be studied until the first
tanned features reform, reveal
their Nordic past—faces
to the wind, touched with color
by the frost, wide-cheeked,
and strong blue eyes.
You are, more than a girl,
a woman projecting her
subtle self into scenes,
as vital as the land.
Alluring child and woman,
containing every man: quiet
self that holds much more by
hiding than giving all too free.

AFFIRMATION OF OLD TRUTHS

As the storm forces its wet flames upon us,
you, asleep to the dangers of the night,
speak confusedly as I close a window,
snap a light; the rumble of billions
of droplets energizing sound and seizing
cloudy spaces—lightning flashes.
The sciences I’ve studied are as tired
as you, my Love, asleep beneath some
smooth, synthetic cloth. Touching you,
I am fanned by an electricity of witchcraft.

PORT JEFF TO BRIDGEPORT

In their twenties and college,
mop-haired men breathe
the air over the railing,
deep in romantic swells,
silently. Four times each
day the ferry crosses Long
Island Sound, carrying
a band of deck-chair sailors.
Each wind-whipped smile reveals
a Melville, confirms a Conrad,
tells of a mind-reach far
beyond the carrels that
contain them in their
studies. At midpoint in
the crossing, lost in mist,
they disappear, only to be
called back, like Lord Jim,
to stand examination.

RECOVERIES AND LOSSES

My wife and daughter and I
cooped in with flu for days:
naps become a habit like TV,
We add medicines to our meals,
live slow, chemical lives as
regular as mercury in graduated
tubes—take temperatures, rub
backs, enjoy our mutual in-
carceration.
Short of groceries
and sick of winter, we ration
ourselves like stranded hunters.
When two rounds of antibiotics
have washed us clean, we steam
ourselves under the shower,
change linens and pajamas to
sleep one last night with
the vaporizer transporting
us to tropic shores; then wake,
and break our winter isolation.
Back to our daily cares, we
breathe in February’s air but
taste the memory of illness
in our lungs, recalling a
lost closeness.

TOUR ARRIVING: DAUGHTERS
OF THE AMERICAN REVOLUTION

(At Fort William Henry.)

Bless your good gray heads
and Greyhound bus. Are you
come to view the wonders of
your land? Will blasts of
muskets brace you and make
your slowing pulses race?
You may enjoy accounts of
men whose hair, like yours,
was white or wig-like blue,
Or perhaps some distant
kin to you, the soldiers in
their burying grounds, bones
broken by the cannon blasts,
eschew thoughts of your
grandson’s draft deferment.
With martial music sifting
past, you stand on the very
rum-soaked ground where men
were killed. For a dram a day,
some blood and amputations,
you recall what men can
build, smiling in your
patriotic grandeur.

ON MY BIRTHDAY

On my birthday I broke
my ribs chasing you with
a chair to call attention
to your not remembering
my birthday.

I haven’t
told you yet, but thank
you for the pain which
is constant and reminds
me of how we grow old
and that all things are
slowly cracked and broken.

Somewhere there must
have been a culture that
counted its hours on its ribs.
Like Adam, broken
hearted, I’ll live an hour
less because of you.

SPECIFIC POEM

(Done for exercise.)

This poem admires the aim
of a well-stroked short iron:
Begin with the idea that the
arm and club are one, extending
from shoulder to a spot beside
the right instep. Anticipate
the angle of the club which,
swung evenly, will loft the ball
predictably with arc and spin.
Accomplish a computation of
geography and roll, the force
stored in the wrist times
the distance to the pin.
Concentrate only on the perfect
product and keep your head …

GIMME CULTURE

(The New York Times reports average Americans
will watch TV for nine years of their life.)

After the third year the feeling
was mutual: we needed each other.
You setting quietly with a glow
on, me seated warm by your side.
I paid the bills, kept regular
hours, liked to see you turned
on. You never said you were
addictive. Only, after five years,
you broke down. “It was you
that failed,” I cried into your
unforgiving face. I pictured
you when you were young—
memories of a colorful
reception, your faded features
bright again. I got you fixed
up and you seemed to promise
not to leave me. But even
a comfortable habit has to end.
Your funeral was rated fair
for the number of viewers
and the early hour it
was on. I’ve tried it with
others since, but in their
image I only see the ghost
of you. I’m dreadfully alone.

HAND-ME-DOWN

(For George Limon.)

It fit him like an elephant
skin except it was an olive-
colored, tent-cut raincoat,
thick, lined, but in it
he remembered the dead
uncle whose girth and love
for vodka became the coat
as the coat became him.
Uncle George, his taste
for radical departures
and midnight oil clogging
his arteries, after sixty
years, slipped his poker
deck and shot glass aside
and died. Tom Lehrer sang
at his funeral, Paul Robeson
and Pete Seeger with the original
Weavers, a tribute to his convictions,
echoes of the Thirties, life membership
with the Wobblies, hard labor with
leather men in the mills. A man can
take off a coat but not forget his
past. Outside, in the hand-me-
down, he breathed deeply enough
to know he was not himself, and turned
his steps to the left in memory.

HE WAS CALM

(A MacArthur air controller describing the pilot of a small plane
lost off Fire Island, February, 1972: “He was calm almost until the end
when he began. asking for his wife.”)

Asleep with the automatic
pilot on after an extra hour
in the air, darker
when you awoke than ever
the sea had seemed
and infinitely cold and empty.
You talked to the tower, asked
for coordinates, believed
in landings. Small planes
on overland routes don’t
carry floats; you didn’t have
a flashlight; you thought of home
and where you’d left it. A light
to aim at—a ship—six thousand
feet of altitude to average
over fifteen miles of ocean.
Your calculations broke your
faith, ringing in the air controller’s
ears and couldn’t they
do something to preserve the human
voice, phone-patch you to your wife?
Instead, a claxon signal of the crash,
the hiss of water.
½ SCIENTIST, ½ WOMAN

The breast came back to
question her on weekends
as if asking for a date,
demanding what could have
caused her to grow so
strange . “A cancer,” was
the only answer she could
muster, “and I’m glad you’re
gone!” But lying pillowed,
late and dark, as other parts
debated their revolt, she felt
a hollowness around her heart
and wondered if the breast
might not be right. Better
stay whole than slowly dragged
apart. When several organs
celebrated their independence
with a fireworks of tissues,
she solemnly declared and
issued “No further surgery.”
Subsequently, she remarried
to the breast in a quiet
ceremony. (The specialist
insisted that he might
have saved her.)

STRAWBERRY PICKING

Dividing the leaves to find
the berries, we kneel and pick;
pull the reddest, biggest and
spare the green, only to see them
swell and ripen before we’ve moved.
Picking in ninety degree heat
we rise to wipe the red stains
off our knees, see our bodies
bent and martyred before our
eyes: the heat refracting across
the fields, a barrier between
reality and what we see. A cloud
passing over the sun distills
the darkness, concocts us sun-wracked
dreams of shelter. At home,
the quarts we’ve picked will
boil all night, refined to things
man-made. Know that very little
matters more than art: transforming
all into uniform reflections
of ourselves. Because the unseen
things kill faster, we seek
the shapes we know. Parting
reality from illusion, we wipe
the blood stains from our knees.

STAYING POWER

Sex is a hairy animal.
We cat about, complain
about the difficulties
of deciding to have children,
tease each other without courage.
But when I say I’ll never do it
without protection, you squirm
away, play Earth Mother, as if
each drop contained your child.
I am a sky-god, wild and bullish.
Sacred Cow, I mount you in hay-sweet
orgies. But what archetypal men
and women battled, we pop a pill
to stop, and all the chance
that spun the world is gone.

VICTORY BY ATTRITION

(For Dominic Colaneri.)

Your successes fell on you
like slates, causing you
winces of contentment.
War wounds brought medals
and made patriots of your
sons as you smiled, unashamed.
Three fingers of the right
hand to a land mine delivered
you a meditative way, careful
to perceive another’s slight
of hand. The slip on a low
roof traded your hip for
an appreciation of fine balance—
a cane to dally with, charting
your schemes in the sand.
The first and second heart
attacks that brought stark
white hair, put you on speaking
terms with Death, impressed him
with your composure. You
told him your secrets until he
traded you his kingdom for them.

THE LOST CONTEMPORARY

“Bad news,” says Old
Joe, calling to clue me in,
“Early Spring and rioting already.”
The black mouthpiece can’t
convince me. In my darkened
room I hang him up.
Can I tell him, “When
the fire burns the skin black,
only then will we be brothers?”

Friends who tell me news of things
are checkerboards of time;
the black and white of them
are playing off. I say
“Read little. Know only
what you feel and see.”
My only news is an extension
of me. But Joe calls back to say,
“Bad news, King is dead in Mississippi.”
In death alone we share reality.

BUT OH BABY, WHAT WE DO TO EACH OTHER

The Hair cast visited a prison and sang
“Let the sun shine in,” to an audience
of burnt-out, toothless women. Cast
members contorted with the beat while
others pointed fingers pleading for
a sing-along. Excited inmates straddled
the stage with bumps and grinds, but one
young girl danced slowly like an all-night
waitress before the jukebox, dreaming
of stardom. The Hair cast cameras
got their publicity shots and left,
but oh, baby, what we do to each other.

YOU PUT PIES

(For Bill.)

Putting pot pies in the oven,
frozen, in your hasty, pasty
life: no taam, no spice, save
for the wife you have at times
since four times—two boys,
two girls. Family comforter,
you catalog all deaths and illnesses,
the only one to care for Dad and how
he has lost all interest even in TV
and dinners. A drink of fancy booze
divides the day for you, one luxury
despite two thousand dollars
for your daughter’s braces.
Daily life yields little poetry
as lyric as you appear at the oven
door, preparing all that’s left
for nourishment; but the frozen
dinners, Bill, opening like strophes.

PARA PSYCHOSIS

The first time I found
I was locked inside myself, I
screamed for breath and felt my
sides cave in. Sleep released me
like a drowning man’s salvation
and I dreamt in hallucinated peace.
Realize each second is a trap
snapped shut on life—inevitable,
irretrievable. In this sentence we
are locked, now and forever. No one
is ever paroled.

ISOTOPE LAB

In the waiting room we
take turns turning our eyes
down to let the other stare,
studying the pallor, the lines
that make our illness visible.
Behind the leaded wall we
endure alike a silvered
needle thrust into the vein
introducing elements doomed
to decay. In radiology, they
measure us in half-lives,
counting us out with phantas-
magorical speed. We are
this dust they’ve made us.
After the injection, waiting,
we seek relief from dog-eared
magazines, watching each other
to understand: men ask for
company not cures.

OFF TO THE GLUE FACTORY

When my glue stuck up
in you and eggs started
hatching off into a circle
of disparate cells all racing
toward life in darkness, looking
for a winner at the track you bet
and lost a month’s pay waiting for
your colors to show (’cause you
never know the name or get the number
straight and only bet on the livery)
and didn’t win, then you sent
the old bastard horse off to
the glue factory and stuck
around until the product
bubbled, the hot, acrid smell
set deep inside, the new substances
ready to make amends for coming
into being.

NIGHT SYNDROME

Four years old and wakeful
infrequently enough for us
to know there’s something wrong
and yet you cannot put it into
words; whine, complain of unspecific
pains, bugs in your bed or stomach
aches. beg for our company and receive
our threats until it hits us that
you too have some vision—of empty
rooms or crowds of callous people;
of nebulous losses, worlds
without reason. As we sit
with you, swallowing our parental
pride, we see the madness die
in your fluttering, half closing
eyes and we are saved
again by the lie of momentary
comfort. After you fall
asleep, we two lie sleepless.

THE SECOND COMING

(Sixty-one- year-old former acrobat, William Frick, a double
for Adolf Hitler, acting in Germany, drew crowds of kissing citizens.)

The people kept coming after
he came, with garlands of
children for him to kiss
and caress with his leathered
palms. In Bavaria, he signed
his autograph but used the pseudonym
of “Frick.” The fainting,
aged concierge where he stayed,
assured him she’d never tell
the world his secret but
“Maybe the government will
change. You’ll get another chance.”

ANALYTICAL POEM

Freud emerges
from the surf
to lecture me
on bodies
thrusting
in the sea,
the beating
of the waves.
But the casual
tug of a sandy
suit riding
up a young girl’s
thigh defies
associations.
Even Freud was once
a gawky kid without
a jock, afraid
to jiggle. I scoop
the sand out
for my groin,
lie down to sun
my id.

WATCHING THE FAT GIRL

Watching the fat girl cry,
her rolls of flesh throbbing
as she sniffs, it occurs to me
that ugliness is not forgivable
and all else is a lie. Watching
the fat girl light her cigarette—
her oily, tear-stained face behind
a mask of smoke—reality hangs
from her double chin. To say
the beauty is within embraces death.

CURSING THE BOSS

From the great unconscious deep
I draw up memories of carnage,
instant disembowelment, dragon
fire to burn your puffy flesh;
sons of agony remembered in
your eyes, an awareness of man’s
eternal pain. At 2 a.m., feel
the hot flesh beneath your shriveled
breasts clawed and recall the button
missing from your vest. I will
press it through your chest.
I will seize you from your sleep.
ACCIDENTAL DEATH AND DISMEMBERMENT

Precipitously,
the day after
sending in my
insurance form,
I am killed at
90 on a curve
and the Company
calls in a critic to
read these lines
in court to prove
premeditation.
Luckily, no one
ever understands
poetry.

DONNE, YOU DOG

Now that Donne’s called
the sun a busy fool, very
little is left to say at
dawning, save for yawning
a cottony-breathed,
“Good-morning,” as I roll
across your thighs to
enter you.

Poetry, even if it’s done
correctly, isn’t always true,
and so I push the blinds
closed and let all metaphysics
screw. We’ve got
our “Songs and Sonnets”
by the bed, but no one can
make the sun stand still
or restore your maidenhead.

DRESS REHEARSALS

I say to begin with “I”
is impolite (my high
school English teacher said)
and in the complimentary
closing one is bound to
be sincere. Here in the green
and leatherette office, at
the console electric, echoed
by a hundred simultaneous
keys, I clear my throat
and read aloud, “Dear
Boss, Please kiss my ass
goodbye. Sincerely … ”
Even my anger is pro
forma, decorous, polite,
like a dress rehearsal done
before the D.A.R. Revisions
of the letter take the day.
At five, fully prepared,
I punch out the Boss, but
recite a paragraph of standard
rhetoric in honor of my retirement.

THE SERIOUS CASE OF D. B. AXELROD

Critical and contagious if not confined.
The whole town was inoculated
when discovered, but too late.
Spread like a simile over all,
people leaving everything they
owned to flee. A band of seven,
bottling up in a farm just out
of town, told stories we still read,
great tales of sexual amusement.

Caused demographic charts,
affected trade and customs,
got blamed for starting research.
Tests conducted long after
the danger passed, revealed little was
to keep a second epidemic off unless his
habit of dumping raw verbiage
was curtailed.

Prophesied by many and deadly when he came,
the event remains duly recorded
and recurrent wherever
he is reported seen.
STARTING FROM PAUMANOK
ANCIENT HISTORY

Sunday morning in the co-op
the Jewish boys are playing baseball
in the compound. Cut off from main
streets by high wire fences, they
pitch and swing, bend and throw
in uniform, numbered against
a cloudy sky. One generation
back the fringe atop the fence
was barbed, the bending was
to bury dead, and their numbers
were tattooed. Strange philosophy,
living the nothingness of life
for what it’s worth, while
others feel compelled to
conquer earth. Sunday
morning, while the Jewish
boys act out their ancient
story, playing with the might
of every arm, the outer world
kneels praying that they
once more may be armed
for truth and glory.

TO LEAVE IS LIKE DYING

We carry laden boxes
down to the van with friends
who tum to face us, saying
words with feeling, handshakes
goodbye. In this very hollow house,
my world becomes my boxes,
packing into cartons all I am,
material, destructible.
Bear me from these walls,
bury me in new worlds,
enshrouded by my household
goods. The soul echoes as it
forsakes its once familiar woods.
Place we have known, faded
Kem-Tone greens and pinks,
we are leaving you and all
our entourage behind. We
have watched the seasons
cross the tar lot toward our
door and yearned for greener
days, only to find our lives,
like these emptied rooms,
now have no season.

VISIONS IN A COOPERATIVE COMPLEX

Nights in my tenth-floor
apartment, amid soap ads
(how much cleaner our world
is getting) and network news
eight million people watch TV
with me. The Mets are winning
in the eighth. G.I. Joe is turning
his amputations into sagas on
the talk show. I tum off, push
through my fish-bowl door
to leave my perfect floor plan
for the terrace. A futility
of lights arches like life
across the field defined
between two iron rails.
The streets are filled randomly
with cars, close on or miles
from me. Manhattan is rising
distant in the darkness.
I tum my perch into a fort
(me sneaking cinder blocks
and armor plate, acetylene
and cold-rolled steel
to reinforce each wall).
Guns and grenades, food
and fuel, me and murder
from ten flights up: The U.
of Texas tower, the rostrum
of every dignitary, the dictator
on his piazza, the mother below
me, crossing the plaza, the fruit farmer
driving from Long Island—
every distant headlight smashed,
the gradual extinction of man,
my handiwork. Man’s
meanness grows in anonymity.
In solitary sameness, I dream
that I may someday die and see
the violent infinity of life.

MALIGNANCY

Everything sweats! Not hot,
but five days of high humidity,
wetness becomes a way of life.
The body, like the weather,
can hold water in, lose the shape
of ankles, feet: wait anxiously
to see the sun again.
In cloudy-bright respites from
rain, I walk the yard, kicking
mushrooms, their ugly meat
separates stark white inside,
the substance greasy
flakes between the fingers—
also like disease.
The house is at sea.
The rigging of it takes
all the time a sailor has.
Yesterday welds itself into
another gray and windy day.
Comfortable and tranquilized,
I move beneath the covers, caring
little for the thunder crashing
at my head. Like an egocentric
child, the storm turns only
toward my bed and all
the outer world is dead.
Disease, unlike men,
often shows mercy,
dulling senses as it
asserts itself, making
the strength that still
remains seem special.
I sit or stretch, hasten
my balding by pulling out
each strand like checks
from ledger books, lie back
in bed again. If one lies
perfectly still in silence,
he can feel the body
rotting in its place.

EXISTENCE AND BEACH DAYS

Life is a function of shapes
and buoyancies. One
boney old man bobs
in the surf, in chest-high
water, his body a drum
beaten by each fist of wave.
On days like these the sea
itself seems fleshless, gray
against the salt-colored sky.
One careful old man picks
his way across the waves
toward shore. Life
is a balance of
fragile parts.

ATTEMPTS TO PASS

(For Wes Honey, d. November, 1969.)

Pastels flesh out the early morning
gray. I’ve watched the night turn
into day. The night before trips
we stay awake, indexing all we’ve
learned. Review the sounds
the travel guide lists for jets
about to land: the thud of wing
flaps, suspension of power,
the squeal of tires,
the tests we put on life.

Once, while landing at a smaller
strip, we swooped up suddenly
to keep from piggybacking
with a plane not yet in flight.
A matter of mere seconds!
We are travelers in the dark,
students of some ancient
fortune-telling art, studying
our lessons carefully as we
embark, with illusions
of answers only.

HOME FOR THE AGED

The volunteer girl talks
in singsong to her patient
as if she patronized the dead,
says his visitors are at his
bed. A slim, well-suited son
adjusts his father’s tube and
talks of swimming in midwinter.
The grandchild, thrust into
unseeing hands, struggles to
be free of stale embraces.
Ten minutes and the family
is gone, the girl returns
to raise his bars and lower
his hospital bed. Confused,
he first inclines his head,
seeking support, collapses
backward. Pain is constant,
only the voices modulate:
eighty years tapped out
by bony fingers against
the sterile bedrails.
OLD AGE CAN BE HEROIC

(For Philip Kransberg.)

My grandfather, when he was young
and working as a junkman, could
carry cast iron stoves across
the room, his arms spread-eagled,
the weight across his shoulders.
As he grew blindly older,
walking itself became a matter
of carrying a great burden.
Crossing a street, retired,
he passed men working
and fell until he spread
his arms to catch himself
at the armpits, into an
open grate. The men who
lifted him complained
of his weight, but he,
bruised and embarrassed,
said that he forgave them.

WORLD POEM

It is zero but hot
inside our house and I
am absorbed in a jet of
cloud created by the vaporizer
we have bought. I aim it at
you across the dim-lit living
room and you complain, call me to
the screen. Plugged in, we watch
men circling in space two-hundred
thousand miles away. Picture
the earth full-blown, swirling
in darkness—the cloudy globe
we see in color from Apollo
and the serene vacuum that
surrounds three captured men.
Picture their vital signs
detected and transmitted to
us across decaying darkness.
Zero outside; we keep within
our capsuled world, gazing
at the lunar sea, or across
the icy fields where
the fence posts are fangs
devouring the moon.

SEARCHING FOR ABSOLUTES

Buying steak
I tease the bloody textures
on the plastic wrap,
admiring the droplets behind
their drip-proof seal.
Lugging my life through
self-service aisles, I
see Walt and Allen, both,
among the bargains: marrow
and meal, greens and glassware,
coffee spoons un-metaphoric,
five cents off the price as market—
euphoric. Intensity among
the canned goods and sweetly
scented sprays.

I wait with cart amid
the patient hoards
to make my declaration.
The freckle-faced girl,
her fingers bouncing over
my private things, pushes
me into double bags. Keeper
of the gate, she calls me to account.

In haste I pay, wiping
the bloody scent onto my
pants, and haul myself away:
it is not for men to ask
for love or justice.
Tonight, I will think of
her freckled thighs as I
fry my meat and potatoes.
NICE, STUPID PEOPLE

(In the hospital, December, 1969.)

Nice, stupid people come
into my room to clean,
make beds, offer all
their sympathy in a slow
“Hello, how are you?”

In their broom-closet
brains the world is
locked in clear, un-
thinking patterns.

I lie alone in bed,
hear only voices crying
to be led, knowing people’s
kindness, like their wash-
cloths, comes like an order.
If I were called “the enemy”
they would rush to see me dead.
PARADIGM

The earth does it
at least once a day
rolling over
like a tired whore
to let the sun
rise over her.
His passions spent,
he leaves her dark
and sore. Turning
still, she
waits for more.

ANALOGIES

The whale,
caught on tidal bed,
its blubbering, white flesh
torn on craggy rocks,
squints its pain at the masses
crowded round its bulk,
like you, pregnant, all
flattened out and spread
to bear your child
and soon to be exploded
by some expert, then
washed out to sea.
Your child will burst you
open to the world and men
will strew you, startled
into a sea of sterile cloth.
That whale, as it shakes
its bloodied sides,
reminds me of you
birthing, as it dies,
the fierce flesh bleeding,
blasted from its sides.

STEPS

(For Jessica: In the tradition
of Rabindranath Tagore.)

Nothing to promise her but my
empty palms held saint-like upward,
open, offering a false security.
If you will walk, my baby,
I will teach you how to run away.
If you will tremble toward me
I will show you how man must end.

THE TWENTIETH CENTURY TIGER

Sirhan Sirhan
today 5,000 men
attacked our President
as he declared,
“Violence will never solve
a thing,” the image on the
screen dissolved, a war
emerging from his chin.
Sirhan Sirhan they murdered him.

Sirhan Sirhan
unfurl the hardhats,
guardsmen, cops, their
Violence and gore—splitting
heads all nation wide while
the public cries for more
Sirhan Sirhan.

Sirhan Sirhan
what the war
and what the fire
the world explodes with rifle
fire. What the hell and what
the Blake, nursery rhymes
that teach us hate:
Ba ba black sheep have you any power
Yessa, Yessa, the riots any hour
Sirhan Sirhan.

Sirhan Sirhan, when will they chant it in the streets?
Sirhan Sirhan, when will they stop star spangled lies?
Sirhan Sirhan, when will the huddled masses,
yearning, murder me?
Sirhan Sirhan.
STILLS FROM A CINEMA

SUBJECT, OBJECT, TIME

Looking at you
the sunlight in your hair
like past illuminating
present. More than in memory,
the sun’s light is older, dear,
than you by minutes.
Taken now as tokens of
a broken love, the photographs
and spectrographs of
old flames remind me how
time and you are one and
always changing.
You tum your flowing red
hair aside and face my
camera. The sun behind
my back clicks. You
are a new addition
to my catalog of days.
Reality at night is seen in
light one hundred million
years or more
old considering the source.

A POEM FOR LULI

my wrists scarred
stitched to crisscross patterns
you cut just deep enough
to scare life a little
blood red-carpets Death
he walks the runner toward you
only to be closed out again

mad d mad d
say the word d word d
it loses sense—all lose if
repeated

what hand holds my pen
it loses sense
that extension of me
the current snaps your
head back like a startle
and reality
is that the shock
to hide they make hurt
more than to live
shock cuts my flesh

the eyes they say are weapons
kill like x-rays
peel flesh and sterilize
man
the looking glass moves
me—someone understand
that is you dear
comb your hair

today he carne
and brought a
cake with blue polished
razor blade baked inside
he wants me to go home
wrist t wrist t
the word say
the word d

local anesthetic makes
stitches feel tingly like
electric as the current is
increased
perceptive they say
I like the colors red
and blue

today the poplars held
their spiny fruits to me
and so, reality
poem m
poem m

when will you let me
go home to him
again the white world all
sharp and clean
and blue and cold and warm
as blood spraying

WIDOWS

Widows
left with only tinted
portraits of the past
and tinted
hair combed thin
as life to frame
their worn complexions
keep
their homes by
taking strangers into
memories-of –children-
haunted
rooms.
Left to feign
the youth that withered
long ago, they
wheeze
a friend hello
while walking to the store
or talk on porches
to impatient tenants
just to hear a human voice.
Lonely women
cobwebs in their wombs
live by taking strangers
into their rooms.

ONE DAY ONCE UPON

You said your tooth ached
and it was snowing so I
made a big white pack from
powdered snow and pushed it
up against.
Fluff on you!

And then you
jumped yourself
face first into a snow
patch and cried because
you’d disappeared.

Walking in snow was
like in sand only
it was winter, silly.

I’ll squash my
snowball up if
you’ll squash yours …
gotcha!

Once it snowed so
hard they
called off
all the colors except
white.

JOAN AND DAVID

There’s something to
nude breakfasts
they agreed
other than the fearless
attitude they must take
when frying bacon—the
fat splattered at them.
They settled and stuck on
pink plastic kitchen chairs
and punned on pouring
milk; her nipples were
cooled by morning air.
When they returned, the eggs
too, were marvelously cold.

PETER

peter
dreams of lotus
petals opening to
release him from their
clutch his
hair sandy
with pollen his
breath humid and
new

DRAFTS IN A CLEAN, WELL-LIGHTED PLACE

Joan, my wife, thinks death
and loneliness are one while
I fear closets, associate
the doors with lids, the clothes
inside with shrouds. Joan
and I and everyman are told
the things that follow you are deeds
no matter how you’ve loved.
Some comfort there, but
with the darkness coming earlier
in day and longer, sleepless
nights, all the deeds parading
past the mind—some staircase
wisdom here, a pang of
conscience there, some praise—
it seems too much to bear,
the ending. The living
know death as the closing of a lid
packaging the dead, one on top,
standing, kneeling, or powdered
into urns. We see the bone or
bracelet and see all, until
the ash is on our brow
and all our deeds are nothing.

CLIMBING THE WATER GEYSER

Pressurized water bubbling
dumped on heads and gushed
across tight-thighed bathing
britches, twinkling at their ankles.
Several colors of them toyfully
in the fountain one hot day in D. C.,
they clawed the solid fluid, faces
sparkling, fingers bobbing, trying
to climb the water geyser.

YOU SAW DOWN

You saw a disk of orange
roll over the city horizon
from ten floors up and you
rolled over after it, hanging
for a moment like the sun
before it loses itself in
darkness—just for a second
gasping larger, then pulled down
by forces men and women know.
You were high and drugged with
touch, you gave birth to an orange
disk, hot and burning in his arms.

STILLS FROM A CINEMA

Like a motion picture i
watch your image form
in strips of light
at sunrise in our
darkened room

1.
your mouth is there
for my tongue to touch

2.
you are like one i knew
once and worshiped
at pedestal distance

3.
your face is round and un-delicate
but each feature has its virtues
4.
god, let me stop
the human voice

5.
she was there to some but
others knew she was
just the caterpillar fluff
after the butterfly

6.
it is possible to speak
illegibly

7.
how can a man
humble on his knees
reach to any height

8.
there comes a time
the prophet rubbed his beard
and dreamed
when every word becomes
association
when reality no longer
means and so
the prophet rubs his beard
and dreams

9.
it is very late at night
call it early morning
that i miss you most
and feel the drunkenness
of sleep sweeping away
your image only after
many conscious moments
torn by you at my side

10.
the love within could
rend the chest
separating bone and flesh
and stubborn jellied cartilage
erupting scarlet at tube-ends
sinew and fiber
tissue and skin tear
from body
with a dying cry

11.
monks, i thought, priests
and brothers (before i learned
the clinical facts) must
tum to jelly in their sacs
similarly old maids have
maidenheads as tough and
browned as leather

12.
the human animal
was not made
to be single

13.
there is a red bulb
in my ceiling
light that
turns and bums
me on

14.
your face as i remember
is not quite beautiful enough
for poetry

15.
catatonics lecture me on
the virtues of being silent
they are maddening
their quiet can be
interpreted in too many ways

16.
several things are on my mind
he said: the difference
between black and white
how we are alone just as
the light goes out although
we are together; why talk
turns gray when it is being
talked by large numbers of people

17.
cats sometimes regurgitate
a ball of mouse hair and bones
poets write

18.
the silhouettes are smiling but
the people framed in light
are crying ask me for me
sometimes and see who
you can get

19.
poplar tree
let your spangled
fruit hang down
as final image
of a bitter season
fall and kiss her feet
you climber of the
tree and
fruit of thy
womb jesus

20.
love is a pure white maggot

21.
she satisfied him
he lounged in
just dungarees letting the
rough cloth rub his tired
skin when he moved
and closed his eyes
curled cat-like at her feet
and let his head be stroked
she satisfied him

22.
wide-eyed she wondered
if her fingers
were his hair or her self
and thought of one and two
and one of two

23.
the lemon crescent
moon sours
the crystal sky
a ring around the moon
a rind—a droplet dangling
is a cloud yellow with reflection

24.
my love her fingers in
my hair is tender
is she then love yes
rubbed hair becomes electric

25.
some can only dream of closeness
but i am not yet used to life

26.
when light
clicks dark
men at least can
see the blackness
sometimes i see
the flashing
after-image
of you

A STRANGE DREAM

A strange dream:
everything in low gray tones, slowly.
Three nuns walking a main street,
followed by groups of parochial
girls. Sister Superior
asking, “How many men on our walk
today?” “None.”
“Good.” Praying poses,
pious girls in maroon uniforms
eyes rolling back; their colors
fading, pressed palms parting
to smooth long, loose gray smocks.
They wear helmets of a sort,
weathered crowns with prongs
shaped cone-like upward.
Fingering the prongs or pulling
taut their gowns, they giggle.
An old aunt of mine (Aunt
Frumma, alehoshalom) saying sternly,
“Shtay mit en unterer,” repeating,
“Shtay mit en unterer,”
which I interpret, “ Stay
with your own kind.”

ALONE, HE

Alone, he clicked
his glass with
the window
pane and drank
as he pushed from
the ledge. Falling
he found Manhattan
very sweet.

GODIVA OF THE STOPLIGHTS

Naked on the city street
she lay, all hot it was
blazing red her hair her
flag showing the traffic
blowing sensually to get
on with it.

HO PE

Ho pe rises from dusty
tin blinding
the darkness it
shrivels fear openly
splits perfectly
the past and present
bifurcating ho pe
you fork-
ed tongue of my
existence your face
ops at me
cheshirely juxtaposed
with the orange
and yellow
illusion of your
skin—no
smoke—
after nerves
colors
clocks clotting
on highest
steeple points
the mind goes on forever
dialogue with myself
monologue for two
am i really here with you?
hold my
hand i am
frightened again
ho pe

RELATIVITY

People walking are
the people seated on benches:
staring I am the person seated
staring at me walking.
The world changes in stop
motion the bodies
stay in place
the faces move
from form to form.
Your face and my mask
are not different. My mask
and your face. Three of me
walking were stripped by
my stare, knowing I knew me.
You and I have intercourse
in my eyes and climax
when I cry.

REFLECTIONS IN THE GLASS

In the aisle a figure walking
and my wife beside it talking
as she always does and the street
heat welled up outside the train
reflecting in the window pain.
Soon we are twilight air conditioned
coach car a dimension of bridges
in a valley with a river winding
beyond the window a face staring
translucently over all.
Two empty seats across
from me two figures
are reflected there
in the glass
motion
stationary
visionary
rolling
motion
There! There is Allen
Ginsberg standing silently
behind me. I turn and see
Hart Crane!

DREAMS TO INTERPRET

Come to the doorway with me.
This is my dream. Do as I say.
It is almost dawn.
You have washed me.
I am walking into a sunrise
and you watch my naked form
silhouette on a pink horizon.
The compulsion fulfilled,
you enter the hollow room.
I am a silhouette,
washed, pink and black,
alone at dawn.

BEl DER ZEIDER SEE

I will give you my red claw
for a tail a fin and gill
the sea is blue today
and the pickles are quite dill
the clam has put his best foot out
to trip the ocean floor the cod fish
talked for hours and
the evening was a bore.

TWO PREPUBESCENT GIRLS

Two prepubescent girls
wet their boots in surf cold
midwinter beach
Out of books I’ve
read the sea gave birth
to man. Two prepubescent
girls seated
on wet rocks now cold where
motherhood will be
laughing we love the sea

GULLS JUMPING

Gulls
jumping
currents of air
three red-clad kids
fly after them.

NOD

I have seen rivers of quick
silver
streaming in the street
as if a hundred silvered light
poles suddenly
had melted
or the chrome of every
passing car went into gutters
dripping with the heat of speed
all only rain reflections
across my path
the street that flows beneath
my feet within the drug of night

SQUIRRELS

That’s right, squirrel tails,
I mean the way they speak
the squirrel’s mind. Like
the querulous squirrel looking
you long and hard and with his
fur pointer accusatively cocked;
or when you’ve chased one
up a tree, he’s hanging at you
nearly upside down just looking
like you must be some
kind of nuts
and making a gray question mark.
Squirrels chattering in cold are
curled in tail, and squirrels
at play have a certain
freeness flowing behind them.
What do you think? Just answer
yes or no, or gesture
with your tail.

A HOUSE ON LOTHROP STREET

The old man
meticulously
painted his seascapes
on the screens of his windows.
Then, too old to row,
he sat inside to take
the pleasure of the passes
as a reward.

GIRL AT A SIDEWALK CAFE

(A picture that Renoir might paint.)

You sit with sunlight
through your hair.
The sailors eat their cockle
stew. The sailors sit and look
at you—the accent of the light
and dark across your legs held
just apart, your chest exposed
until breasts part, the sunlight
streaming through your thighs.
The sailors with their fishy
sighs, their passion dilating
their eyes; they climax as they
look at you (schools of fishes
cross their thighs). They pay
the waitress for the stew.
The sunlight playing with your
dress accents the contours of
your breasts. The sailors eat
their mutton pie and wait until
the sea is dry, and so you sit
and satisfy a hundred tourists
passing by, and every sailor seated
there, netted by your sunlit hair.

JULY IN THE HOSPITAL, 1965

if i could talk to someone
roll over look into their eyes
saying something
how much alone with yourself
can you be, closed in
with all your unsocietal
thoughts
what do you do for a week
flat on your back in bed
she said not really asking
passing time, someone stopping in
sleep i said not caring
about her not caring
why no TV she asked me
asking me this time
can you talk to the eyes
she did not understand
four walls a ceiling a floor
a cool beige and white and me
regrouping physical strength
weighing mental cases
myself and others
to see whose balances
THE WEDDING OF TWO GREATS

(Special to the New York Times.)

She is Bernstein, Radcliffe,
magna cum, and he is Heineman,
Harvard’s crimson son, flushed
with his Great Neck pride.
Side by side beneath
their velvet sky, who
can deny they are
bred by the gods to wed?

THAT WAY OF LOOKING

The ceiling of The
Johns Hopkins University
Library is
a waffle of concrete.
Any engineer might say, “For strength.”
I say, “For sandwiches.”

KILLING GRANDMA

Chasing grandma down
the street she caning
frantic we caught her slowing
with breath sucking past her
gumless mouth fluidy spittle
slopped on our hands across
her face. She’d shook her hand
across the books she’d given leaving
leaf tracks on their snow. She
had to die to make them mean. We
kicked until the cane-end twitched
once and twitched no more. Ah,
now the shelved volumes
sadly penned some value have
with grand
ma gone.

I WANT TO BE WITH YOU

(For Harold and Dolores, April, 1966.)

I want to be with you
in all times of day:
cool pink milkmanned mornings
when streets are disguised
by the angle of the sun;
and days when the air is
sliced by rain we can
chase the currents
sluicing over streets.
And then, I want to walk
exactly straight across
deserted parks guided by
a parallax of lamp poles
when the ground is frozen
to the vasting sky by absolutes
of cold. I’ll steal a grocery cart
and you climb in. I’ll push you
to my world and you’ll come in.
I want to make a list of hours
we can share and search for them
forever.

STRANGERS IN UBANGI LAND

(Subtitled: A few words in a universal language.)

Picture them standing
there worried all around
them natives wallowing in
their brickety brackety
mumblely jumblely way and
them feeling
eaten up at
every move so they
take one last embrace
as in clarkgable bettygrable
their silverscreen lips meeting
fervidly beyond all bingo bango bongo
and the natives shaking
and taking and doubletaking
it all in
begin jumping and jiggling
and miraculously wiggling to
say that they take them
for friends.

A FEW WORDS FOR LEROI

(Leroi Jones—later to become Amari Baraka—stated in a radio interview
that he was in favor of the extermination of the White race.)

Leroi
don’t murder
me
Leroi
I’m sorry if
I’m white but
can I help
what I was born?
Leroi
everyday I watch my ideals
murdered by the great
white, middle class, but
I’m not one of them, Leroi.
My trouble is that
I’m a writer so I love
my fellow man. But aren’t
you, too, Leroi? What are you?
What I really mean is
I have skin rashes
so I’m polka dotted.
You can’t kill me ’cause
I’m polka dotted and I write.
Leroi, I’m imitating Allen Ginsberg
so you’ll understand (all them
minority groups speak alike).
What I really want to
say is some of my
best friends are white men,
Leroi, but I love them anyway.
And though I’m white (with polka dots)
I sometimes wear bright
clothes and once in a while I
eat watermelon. I sing and
dance. I play sports.
I’m conforming to your codes,
Leroi. Leroi
when you’re killing off
all the white folk,
couldn’t you spare just me?
I won’t be much trouble,
honest, and I promise
I’ll turn tan each summer
just like you,
God save us.

PUTTING OUT CITY LIGHTS

There you go, Ginsberg, howling again,
sitting there, pen and genitals in hand,
telling us what it’s all about.
You, Allen Ginsberg, with your crazy,
second-generation Semitic complexes
in your I-centered world,
tell us something about poetry and men.
Bay at the moon.

I knew a plain woman
(what’s the difference if it was my mother)
who asked me once, “Who wants to read unhappy things?
Can’t someone write a happy poem?”
And how can you argue with that, Ginsberg?
That could solve everything.
And who are you to wave your genitals at me
shouting, “Touch and be healed?”

One night, soon after, I sat down seriously
to write a happy poem, with my music,
tea, sweets, incense, soft cushions,
carpets, my typewriter before me
stocked with easy-erase paper to mask
my mistakes.

“Artifacts! All monuments to consumerism,”
my friend huffed across the shopping plaza,
crossed through Jordan’s river of goods,
unseeing, and left.
The intellectual dismissal of it all,
and she’s not happy either. And he’s not happy,
and so-and-so just had an abortion,
and joe blow is blowing it again,
all, kneeling in the aisles of bookstores
flaunting their beatitude.

And always Ginsberg intoning Kaddish
to the gods of his solution
oh absolute confusion
absolute
con
fu
sion
a be se oo ul te con fu si on
But we will beat you, Allen Ginsberg.
We will write a happy poem,
even if the public won’t read
150,000 copies of it.

NOTES TOWARD A FINAL LECTURE

1. A Bit of Imitative Life

I have seen them drying
in dry offices, leaning
together in porticoes, at coffee,
talking, sounding
“Hollow Men” and “Waste Land”
at every sound—scholars, all.
A footnote to their ways,
annotated, useless days of
pedantry. Alas!

2. Texts Consulted

You, Professor, turning your
written notes; you, student,
your hand wagging like his tongue,
mind wandering elsewhere; you,
young instructor, calling
the questions taught you;
crusted mouths, edges of ideas,
long lessons researched across
linear ages of library shelves,
an infinite edition of unending
nothingness.

3. Office Hours as Posted

Here is Harvey, the scholars’
favorite son, up to work on
Milton’s “engine” as a pun.
Here is Elmer, golden boy,
with letters longer than his name,
who bought his fame by proving
writers are insane.
Here lies Henry
his heart full of dust
whose salary never came
up to his lust.

4. An Interview with a Famous Literary Figure

J. Worthington Croop
slipped a cracker in his soup
and with a scoop, made a slooping
sound. Round him sat the critics
collecting all his witticisms.
Amazed by his creative eating,
they all but took notes on how he was breathing.
They rushed to embalm
the print of his palm
that he left
when he shook them
goodbye. Published
recently: Supper with
Worthington Croop: Comparing
His Style to His Soup.
Exchanges of Liter-aria in
Siberia with annoted
connoted, denoted, remoted
distorted replies by America’s
famous historian Dorian Gray.
Buy it today. Harvard Book Company.
$12.95. Gesundheit!

5. Bibliographical Note

Where the door is,
where the shelf ends,
where the stacks part,
where the red dust jackets stay,
in the fifth book,
on the twelve-hundredth page,
near the bottom of the close
textual notes, you will find me mentioned,
and so, forever preserved.

CADENCES FOR ALL HALLOWS EVE

(For Joan.)

pumpkin eyes
don’t tell
another
you are mine
secretly
our love a
trick or treat
let it always be
so sweet
run with me
run with me
little witch
bewitch my
heart
your look is
magically
so right
fly with me
fly with me
kindling our love
with smiling light
let it always be

THREE DETERMINATIONS

1.
There my grandfather ripened in twenty
peasant years of fear and death
dreamt of strength and land,
took his few belongings
and crossed over.

2.
There my father, taught to kill,
fought for freedom and a Jewish star,
shook death from the butcher’s hand,
and built a monument to replace
the twisted cross.
3.
There my brother draws up his breath
and courage, whips across the street
amid a song of bullets, leaps the wall,
draws in breath and blows out blood
and dies, crossing over.