Of a Painting Titled “Winter Sunset at Duxbury”

I bought it with my tax refund, a rendering in violet blues, greys,
deep greens and indigo of the winter sun going down over a hedge.
It gave me peace to look upon it, especially on those hopeless days
when I’d leave home and return in the dark, fulfilling my pledge

 

Duxbury

 

to wife and child; there’d be a time when I’d have a salt marsh view
down on the Cape, away from the city, the madman’s cry
each morning as I came out of the station, I thought. I called to
track the guy down–last name “Holmes”–and found him, first try.

 

salt marsh

 

I told him I liked his work and asked if he had anything else to sell.
“I gave it up,” was all he said at first. There was silence which I tried
to coax him out of. “There’s no money in art,” he said. I could tell
he was bitter, so I let it go. I figured something within him had died

 

but its ghost haunted him. I said “If you change your mind, call.”
He said “Sure,” we said goodbye. I wondered if I worsened his pall.

Maisie Dear

Maisie dear, I can’t forget her–
I only wish her poems were better.
If they partook of lyricism
there’d be no reason for our schism,
but it’s too bad, that won’t be happening
because her lines are all quite sappening.

Me, by contrast, I write junk
to lift a poetessa’s funk;
the kind who loves her stormy weather
and sips tea in the altogether
because she’s too depressed to rise
and pulls the covers to her eyes.

But Maisie, she likes unicorns–
she sees the rose but not the thorns.
She dreams of fairies, elves and sprites
when she retires for the night.

So when I write a poem in jest
she holds it closely to her chest
and there against her blouse’s yoke
she doesn’t get my feeble joke.

We could, if she had half a mind,
become as one, enamored, kind.
We’d stay indoors as rainstorms raged
and write our poems page by page
and when the sun perchance did shine
we’d go outside where she’d read mine
and then she’d say “Now it’s your turn,
here’s one about a Grecian urn
that fell and broke, from where it sat
quite high above a welcome mat.”

No Maisie, we must sadly part
for I possess an antic heart
while yours is pure, and sweet and simple–
as naughty as a cupid’s dimple.

I’ll miss your lashes and brown eyes
until the very day I’m dead;
I do not mean to criticize
but jokes of mine fly o’er your head.

Stuff Smith’s “Cherokee”

The opening strokes of Stuff Smith’s bow
across his strings as he launches into
“Cherokee” are low,
but soon they drift higher,
like birds flying off a wire.

Stuff Smith 1

I’ve heard it a hundred times before
and yet it always sounds fresh
as new-baked rolls, even though
he was fifty-eight at the time, just
weeks away from death, in Germany,

Stuff Smith 2

far from Ohio where he was born.
The best ones seem to leave us
that way, unsung , more welcome
elsewhere than here. A few steps from
the grave and he could still out-swing his

Stuff Smith 3

young rhythm section. He was a pothead
in his youth, a “viper,” so-called
because of the hiss a hit would
would make as you toked. And he
sang about it plenty. Makes one think

there’s hope for aging dope fiends yet.

Cavafy’s Double Helix

 

The store was closing for good, and so I purchased a book of poems by Cavafy,
that poet of ruins and tombstones, and fragments from disintegration.

In some cases they recalled a double helix,            two strands coiled around an axis
like this; he led a double life, clerk by day,                      Captain of Pleasure by night,
bemoaning a beautiful boy of whom                     no statue was made before he died,
and another, consigned to a grim shop,          never to taste the pleasures of the city.

He lived upstairs from a whore house,             across from a church, down the street
from a hospital–poised between flesh,                         forgiveness and death, he said.
The bookstore is being picked clean,                    like the rotting carcass of an animal
on the road by carrion birds.                       I can only imagine his lust for young men

like himself, their legs entwined like               his columns of broken lines, like ruins.
Cavafy died at age 70 to the day, neatly                completing his three score and ten.
He loved discreetly, knowing the stigma         there is in scandal, laconic to the end.

Among the Young Aesthetes (for Ted Cohen)

We sit at rectangular tables, formed into a square.
The others, more women than men,
have woolen coats, frizzy hair,
spiral notebooks, felt-tipped pens.
We wait for the professor of aesthetics
to tell us how to spot the beautiful when we see it.


Ted Cohen, 1939-2014

 

He hurries in, kept late by a student entranced
by his talk or starved for attention.
Breathless, he begins: The first art was dance
according to Collingwood.
He mentions movement and gesture–a woman squirms;
I hope to know her by the end of the term.

I think of Plato’s cave, and how the light
from outside cast shadows against the wall.
It is January, and what sun we get is bright
but we are shades who walk the halls.
He’s a skeptic, bearded and short;
like Socrates, a questioning sort.

To Croce, he says, art is the expression of emotion.
This does not come as a revelation
To the woman beside me who looks on with devotion
That borders on veneration.
He distinguishes sentiment from sentimentality,
She scribbles on, tracing a shadow for reality.

The progress out of the cave is tedious and slow.
By hour’s end the yearning for beauty is dispelled
and in its place distinctions invidious are all we know,
among mind and soul, and the body where they’re held.
She stops to chat him up afterwards,
earnest furrows across her forehead.

I found him on the internet the other day,
His air laconic, the beard now ashen grey.
Three decades hadn’t doused the fire, only banked the coals,
His look facetious under heavy-lidded folds.
I saw within the dark of his eyes’ squint–
Dry tinder that needed only a flint.

He Asks an Indifferent Irishman to Sign His Petition

I ask if he can spare a minute and he says yes.
This is about your ancestors and mine, I say,
how, forced off the land, they sailed west
to Boston where, if they didn’t die on the way,
they and their faith were scorned in the schools.

He listens, a bit distracted I can see.
He has work he’d rather do
than listen to a lurid history
told by a man too full of rue.
He lumps me with the zealots and other fools

who have yet to learn that the fight is done;
they won, but so did we, and a truce was called.
We have the jobs they kept us from
if we want them; why should history be recalled
when there is now a fair if tenuous set of rules?

He hears me out and signs the sheet;
it costs him nothing but a moment’s scribbling.
He hands it back, I sense his need to be discreet
with one who holds a grudge–there’s no use quibbling.
What would his forefathers say, the fierce O’Tooles?

She Was Once a Dancer

Laura & Sydney
Laura Young and Sydney Leonard of the Boston Ballet

 

We stood at intermission, sipping wine from plastic “glasses”
As the crowd surged, some urgent, some aimless, around us.
We hadn’t much to say as we watched the passing scene;
Enough vanity for a king’s court, enough jewels for a queen.

A woman who by rights should have been bent by age
Stood at the bottom of the stairs, as if to enter a stage.

She strode, her carriage erect, across the hall with a presence
That suggested youth and denied her senescence.
I asked “Do you know her?” and came the answer:
“That white-haired old woman? She was once a dancer.”

 

Anthologized in “Bliss.”

Mary Agnes O’Keefe

You always said you’d put a brick on my head
to stop me from growing;
this, even after you were confined to bed,
grandfather long since dead,
and the youngest of us knowing
you’d gone round the bend,

accusing him of having an affair.
To you I owe what Irish I have;
your wit, the crooked smile from here to there,
irony beneath a head of white hair,
that said it’s a complicated thing, a laugh;
part truth, part jest, best kept between friends.

You were buried in your Altar Society dress we were told;
it was a long way, not a trip for children.
What sins, I wonder, did you confess to the priest
at bedside for last rites, as he blessed you.
Was there one last quip as your life came to an end?

Telling Colleen the Truth

Walt Whitman reserved particular scorn
for the members of that accursed race,
the Irish-born.

“A filthy rabble” he asserted,
he who celebrated all races and kinds
couldn’t find it in his heart to tolerate thine.

He envisioned America as a great big goulash
into which all should be mixed
except me and you, lass.

I can’t imagine what we did or said to merit
his antipathy; we apparently gave him
a case of sympathetic paralysis.

And then there’s Freud, who said the Irish were
the only people unsusceptible of psychoanalysis.
Maybe we just don’t like nosy questions.

Perhaps some drink and talk or, for the writers,
some solitary gloom is all it takes to chase
away the blues, or get them down on paper.

It seems self-pity and truculence are our lot,
my dear, and we’ll just have to stand apart
from the world.   Sing a too-ra-loo-ra-loo-ra

for your old Irish great-grandmother, who
would have told you “Don’t break your arm
patting yourself on the back.”

The O’Keefes who you come from also said
if they’re going to call you a horse thief
you might as well steal some.

And we might as well love
each other if they won’t.

The Woods Where I Last Saw My Cat

The woods where I last saw my cat
are white today.  The snow’s begun to thaw
upon the ground where he likely
met his end, by tooth and claw.

The woods where last we heard of him
are quiet now.  There was a noise that night,
my wife said, she didn’t give it a thought;
no point, even, in turning on the light.

He’d triumphed over every mouse
that dared to winter in our house.
In spring he’d lay in wait to kill
chipmunks hid in walls of stone.
He’d chase wild turkeys up the hill
who bothered him, and him alone.

He’d lost a step or two or three
by the night he met his end;
too much leisure, too much food
will do a fighting cat no good.

The woods where last my cat was seen
are bare of leaves, the pines still green.
I think, as I lift snowshoes over stones,
Perhaps in spring I’ll find his bones.

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