For awhile now I’ve been self-publishing at least one new poetry collection per year. I’m not planning to do that this year: plan on waiting till January 2020 at the earliest. In the meantime, I’ll post some current poems I like on this blog, with a few remarks about each.
- From January, by way of taking stock. When I read this at Hugo House’s Works in Progress reading, the superb poet Christian Downes was nice enough (or hyperbolic enough) to say he thought it was the best thing ever read there.
Under the dry life
my body parts are furniture,
Hands lose their way through the air.
Thoughts are jelly in the shotholed brain.
this same squat noise,
is a wave of surpassing.
Days, as days will,
each have their gleam
as I thumb-flip through them.
force the calendar open
and treat the days like sidewalks
and the sidewalks like flower boxes.
Sun, a growling dog,
sits on the calendar like
the weeks are bones.
On the same square, can
steady love and love-spawned affliction
rub chapped skins?
You think not, but
rain and sun are similar partners,
blindly passing, keying
each other. Each other’s little path.
The future has fists
but I have found a way to walk
using only my eyes
and when I have to bleed
and cover earth with
a will to be melted.
- Here’s a photo of me reading this silly thing at Screwdriver Bar’s Assembly reading. (They caught me on the “One, you live!”)
I climbed a hill I hadn’t climbed in years. Right after my operation it was too daunting, but I’d kept up my exercises in the ensuing year and today it seemed not only doable but desirable.
When I got to the top, not that winded, I recognized it as the spot where the alderman used to stand when he said his “One, you live! Two, you live! Three, you live!”
It was popularly believed—though no one would own to believing it if asked—that whenever the alderman uttered these words, three random people in the city below who’d been about to die would miraculously go on living.
This was an embarrassing belief because there was never any way to verify it. However positive doctors and relatives might be that a patient was about to succumb, people did often suddenly take a turn for the better for no reason anyone could see. However certain witnesses were that two cars were on the point of colliding, that certainty didn’t always prevent them from being mistaken.
By Ockham’s Razor, there was always a simpler explanation for why someone continued to live than that the alderman had been addressing them with his chant.
Equally by Ockham’s Razor, though, the belief in the alderman’s talent was the simplest explanation for why he kept getting elected.
This was a city of unshakable beliefs in any case: everyone knew—and didn’t hesitate to use the word—that a rocket launched on this side of the planet would travel in a counterclockwise circle before returning to the launch pad, whereas in Australia it’d go in a clockwise circle. Everyone knew that, for every citizen, there was exactly one toy store she couldn’t discover, no matter how hard she looked for it. Everyone knew there was more than one such toy store, and that all of them existed downstairs, lower than street level.
The hunt for the unlocatable basement toy store was the main topic broached in psychiatrists’ offices, according to a survey.
Psychiatrists were mostly volunteers on welfare. They had the reputation of being either selfless or corrupt, depending on what day of the week they’d first crossed a street. Parents held celebratory or dismal parties, depending.
The law against rigging the day when your child first crossed a street was strictly enforced and the penalties for it were terrifying, if only hinted at in whispers, involving high steel girders and oatmeal.
By association, breakfast cereals of any sort were objects of dread. I remember being threatened with them when I wet my bed.
I usually wet my bed by opening a can of alphabet soup and pouring it onto the sheets. I was trying to get the tiny noodle letters to spell out “One, you live! Two, you live! Three, you live!” but they hardly ever did. I gave it up when I retired. It seemed a pastime for a carefree young man.
- Visited by the spirit of a college roommate I barely knew, I wrote him this.
I can’t recover his name after a couple occasions of trying
but think of him as John, and maybe that was it:
a delicate boy—not delicate in the direction of effeminate precisely
but finicky and artificial, easily displeased, demanding.
He had very pink skin, a lot of acne,
odd dancelike hand and arm movements, graceful and clumsy at once.
We rented an apartment together one semester, with Randy,
all three students and Christians, though Randy had sexuality problems,
John reporting with horrified fascination he’d been seen at a gay bar—
but I remember wondering how John knew.
Then there was stuff about money, late rent, dishwashing rotation,
roommate stuff, John wanting more control than seemed appropriate,
Randy disappearing finally toward the end of term,
I accepting a housesitting gig for a month,
John feeling left in the lurch. Don’t know who was last in the apartment
or how things stood with the landlord at the end.
We weren’t friends at all, and I didn’t see him for four years
till he showed up outside the church on my wedding day,
not dressed up, no idea how he found out,
to hover beside me a minute on the sidewalk,
bashful, flickering like an old film (I think of it now)
and leaving with nervous congrats, hushed voice.
It was, somehow, the first of three definite moments in our acquaintance.
The second was running into Randy not long after that
and Randy telling me John had killed himself.
Again, how and why did Randy and John keep in touch?
The third was tonight, forty years along,
when I wept for him suddenly, for no reason in the world.
- From February: a note from the trenches of nighttime Bremerton, addressed to my aspie spouse.
In bed beside me,
you’re laboring through a far place
and your voice comes from there,
something that wants to be a word
but can’t decide on one.
All day you needed the tv on,
a show you’d seen so many times
you wouldn’t need to concentrate on it,
because you couldn’t concentrate on anything.
You cried quietly, steadily.
One of us got up to close the curtain
whenever the fridge clunked on
and open it when it clunked off.
The web of routine noises
rocked me to sleep
and held you awake
above the deep dangers you’re made of.
Now another sigh,
not reaching for language but letting it go,
tells me you’ve found a footing somewhere
and are the size of the story you’re dreaming.
On the street
some kind of alarm
croaks a few times like one hesitant frog
testing for fellows,
then frightened still.
- Someone asked me at Works in Progress whether the last paragraph was part of the poem. Yes, but I wanted people to wonder.
The Faraway City
When I was eight, living in a nasty secondfloor apartment in one of the nastier Boston suburbs, where the typical greeting between boys was “Wanna fight?,” I could see a city on the horizon always lit by sun. I didn’t mind the “three-family” building because my own family was together again for the first time in years—eight of us at once, my sister from California visiting my brother from New York who was here for chemo with his wife and child, mom, dad, my baby brother and me. Frank’s bed in the living room was the center of our days and nights, as he wisecracked his way toward death at thirty. I understood that things had to be the way they were, that dad couldn’t work, or not for long, because he was what was then known as manic-depressive: that mom was a young resident on the psych ward at Boston City Hospital and didn’t make enough for us to live in a better place: that I was sent to the Jewish Y after school to get me out of the apartment because I was a disappointment to dad and because mom didn’t want me to hear the screaming matches between him and my sister who still regarded him as an interloper, unworthy to replace our father: that I kept my underwear on under my swim trunks at the Y because I was ashamed that I was not Jewish and could prove it. I understood, but I always looked away from the dismal present to the sunlit, suncolored city in the distance, my symbol for a place where everything would be solved—solved for someone, though I might never go there (and I never did). It never changed, never failed me the two years we lived in the nasty suburb, and even when we moved to a nicer one and could afford a “one-family” house again, it remained my dream of escape and perfection. That city was Salem, where they burned the witches.
Not really: you can’t see Salem from there. It was a town called Saugus.
- From March: My granddaughter is growing up in a world without sweets. Her first birthday cake was made of broccoli. She seems quite content. This was during lunch at a Bremerton Chinese restaurant.
Horn of Plenty
Her father orders broccoli and rice
and the little girl who eats no sweets
keeps calling toward the kitchen
“Come, rice! Come, rice!”
- From May: rather mysterious to me, but people like it. If I had to take a stab at its “prose” meaning, it’s a meditation on gender and its failure to achieve a balance between human life and nature. The “male” is too separated from nature to achieve balance, the “female” too immersed in it: and the fluid “neuter” never gets beyond the mere concept of balance. The narrator voice probably satirizes the idea that creation requires conflict.
Society Islands: A Masque
You wake on the clay,
Cracked shells, piercing birds.
Taste of watery sky like dying metal.
Seaweed bladder bracelets, necklaces, crowns.
You squint against some immovable day.
Tide is onedimensional, that far out.
Clay is still with dancing,
still with bodyparts overlapping
and musically ordered.
Three of you:
and the one that condenses into clouds
and falls back down as rain.
Comes time now to stagger upright
(you’ll carry the clay tangle with you)
and leave in separate directions.
you know how it is to have an iron head
knocking moon-dark on the air,
an iron brain bent inward,
staring down the giddy tube of the torso.
I take the light in my mouth.
I am the land where it slaps the ocean,
I am the road where it hisses at the hill.
I enter the white wall through the black door.
Now I am paint
where it opens in the morning and closes at night,
deep and lordly.
Desktops and laptops
mimic the lilt of ballpoints on pads.
The dead and the living
are identical pets of money.
Today is money’s birthday.
The cake is cold flesh frosted with chest hair.
My coworkers are short green shadows
suffering polar rotation.
Sometimes the break room is undersea,
then miles above the ground.
Talk is dry and easily crumbled
like fall leaves.
We plan out the next several wars,
taking special care with the production of ashes.
The minute hand survives each notch on the clock,
its breathing squeezed.
those birds are your eyelids flapping
open and closed, and the daylight
crowded by their wings.
I am halfway up the tree before I know it,
looped around it or wedged within it—
orientations have become hungry for each other:
tresses of the river spill over the top of the tree
which lies facedown in the river.
My hands and heart guiding the slick spiced
hands and heart of the tree, it moves and
measures the sky. River, golden muddy,
is clean and beating on bark, on fruit,
panels and corridors of fruit, of flower,
pursuing all the meanings of the trunk.
I am a scramble, a settle.
My skin flares wood, leaf, river pebble.
Muscles are clouds upsidedown in flow.
Blood though, blood is always daylight
and the diving whisper of bugs.
I am halfway up a half that is the whole,
inside and out, supporting and lifted.
Time is only long.
Death is a moment in building.
The stars themselves are the ends of my arms
and legs. I summoned nothing with my voice.
My voice is the song it sings.
the whole world is two worlds
when you roll your tongue along it
and the pits you dig in the clay
brim with your hurrying hands.
The leaves of the mind
are a thin book really,
teetering on the now,
all its memory
only a single word
in a darkling sentence
where the notions huddle
with gallant faces
waiting their shifts.
Guilt and love
are never far apart,
but each sees the other
Could either stand
a dreadful solitude,
each would burn sleek
with the force of the other,
love become liberty,
guilt become thanks.
It’s what I watch for
and also where I watch,
turning the leaves
of the mind and reading.
You twisted here, three of you breaking off,
laying these disruptions, this open secret,
on the hurt thrilling clay. And of course
the tide is nearly in and no one else will find
the nursery of the three bodies, the blood-game
you owe yourselves to, because I will go to
another place, once I watch this drown,
and start new dances on another shore.
- From June: Christian was talking, in an email conversation, about a transcendent purpose for poetry. I wrote back that I didn’t think I’d be much good at prying secrets from God, if that was what he was after. He replied that “prying secrets from God” should be my next poem. Here it is.
Prying Secrets from God
The man with rage stuck in front of him like another belly
breathes hard, tears off ahead of us when the light changes,
turns the corner I want him to. Yesterday at the clinic
you picked up a brochure called Understanding Metastatic Prostate Cancer,
shot me a sideglance and said “Understanding the future.”
As you slept your pale sleep last night I thought how
you were pretty much the only really interesting thing in my life.
We go straight past the street the angry man took,
ducking the gentle rain for Thai food, overpriced, delicious.
- From July: an occasional poem, maybe one that won’t survive to be published. The ferry Chimacum has darkened seats at bow and stern from which you can watch the approaching destination and receding origin. This was written in the forward seats.
10:30 pm Ferry, Seattle-Bremerton
The top of the night is night
but the bottom clots with red smokes of day.
Venus looks at the earth,
one whole eye.
West Seattle is a long march of gritted lights.
Bainbridge is black gulfed humps.
A dusting of towns swims near,
We bore past it into the sightless seaway.
Beacons blink, ghosts of a path.
Night weighs on the water.
Houses show dwarfed,
Gatsby’s green light shouts over everything—
tasty green, the first of many.
Houselights extend below the houses,
along the glass of the water.
Bremerton is a rude glare,
hearts of hot white button beams,
the red neon of a restaurant, a hotel,
red flashing towers back into the dark,
pearls of the arch bridge,
another ferry empty, lit up, docked asleep,
the roar of the crawling ship as it crescents in.
- Finally, a poem lamenting the momentousness of youth (but also being pleased at its demise), written in the same section of the same ferry, the night of an Assembly reading.
In another kind of time
the night could’ve come to a point,
a point that was, in an unemphatic way, circular
and hovering a few inches before my forehead.
It would’ve drawn up toward it
the spangles in the glass tabletop
guarding from spills its collage of Elvis photos,
and drawn up toward it the breath of my drink
in its glass, and breathing along with my mouth,
and drawn up the fine cheekbones and statuary lips
of the stranger at the mic giggling through solemn poems,
and drawn me up into a next minute and next hour and next month
when action would only be a stepping forward
and a bestowing and training of the eyes;
but it isn’t that kind of time
and the night slides along past that point and others,
and we stand in line for the ferry
and trade smiles in the eyes
like so many same lines and smiles.
All that rises up out of the night
(but doesn’t) is the family ahead,
tall pimply shorthaired girl
who’d have burnt teenage me at his own fat stake
and her dumpy jokey mom,
dead ringers for each other plus and minus twenty years.
They’re with a church outing returning from a ballgame
and their night may have come to a point
but I doubt it, watching their yawns and doubtful eyebrows.
Nothing has called any of us to any act.
Oh I’m glad I don’t drink anymore,
but it means those calls get fewer and fewer.
I stand. I don’t step forward
but I look and it’s this minute, this hour, this month.
[I’ll be back with more, hopefully, in a few more months.]