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.

Do I Hear an Alarm, or is Someone Reciting Free Verse?

Evelyn Waugh gave Edith Sitwell a pocket air-raid siren, which she would set off when people asked her whether free verse is more truly poetic than rhymed.

The Letters of Nancy Mitford & Evelyn Waugh


Edith Sitwell

 

As I turned the lock on the vault at the First Third Short National Bank, I could tell I was thisclose to realizing my dream; rolling in piles of dough, rifling safe deposit boxes for jewels and rare baseball cards, maybe even finding a pen in a bank that worked.

“You’re a freakin’ master,” my getaway car driver Mitch said. “It’s like watchin’ Einstein play the piano or sumpin’.”

I smiled at him and said “Thanks,” but held my finger to my lips. “I’ll need absolute silence.”

“You got it pal.”

Click-click-click I heard through my stethoscope. One more turn to the right and the tumblers would all fall into place! I held my breath and eased the dial ever-so-delicately with my fingers, but jumped back startled when I heard an alarm!

“What did you do?” I asked as I turned to look at Mitch.

“Nuthin’–I didn’t do nuthin. Except . . .”

“Except what?”

“Well, I did mumble a little sumpin’ to myself . . .”

“You fool!” I screamed, packing up my safecracking tools. “What was it?”

“Roses are red, violets are blue, I like chocolate, and you can’t skate.”

……………………………………….

The sky was dark and foreboding. There was a stillness in the air, an eerie calm that seemed to presage an unseen, unknown calamity.

The wind picked up a bit–I could tell by the way wisps of grandma’s hair were blowing where they came loose from her bun.

And then I heard it. The tornado warning siren from the National Guard Armory. There was no time to lose!

“Papa-daddy!” I shouted to my father. “Tornado’s comin’!”

My mom emerged from the kitchen, where she’d been canning okra and rhubarb for the winter. “Gramma!” she shouted, “into the root cellar–tornado’s coming!”

Grandmother turned her face to the wind and tilted her head towards town, the better to hear.

“We’re all gonna die!” my little sister Baby Elizabeth cried.

“No,” my grandmother said, slowly and thoughtfully. “That’s not the tornado alarm–”

“It’s not?” I asked as I tried to pull her out of her chair.

“No, sweetie,” she said. “That’s the siren they blow when a surrealist poet commits the pathetic fallacy.”

…………………………….

It was time for our monthly “duck and cover” drill, a routine we were all growing a little tired of. Yes, the Russians had the atomic bomb, yes Nikita Khrushchev had threatened to “bury” America, but still, the silly routine of getting down on the floor and covering our heads to protect ourselves from nuclear fallout had grown tiresome. We were all hooked on phonics, and would have much preferred to practice our “th” and “ph” sounds. Besides, I was tired of looking at Timmy Rouchka’s butt.

And then we heard it. A low moan at first, rising in pitch until it became a horrid scream–this time it was for real!

Sister Agnesita drew the blinds, the better to keep out radioactive isotopes such as strontium 90, the secret ingredient that enabled kids who wore Paul Parrot shoes to run faster and jump higher. “Hit the floor, kids!” she yelled as she comforted Susan Van de Kamp, whose show-and-tell presentation on the dikes of Holland would have to be postponed for the nuclear armageddon.

Just then the classroom door opened and we saw the principal, Sister Mary Joseph Arimathea. “Back to your multiplication tables,” she said brusquely.

“What happened?” Sister Agnesita asked with a mixture of relief and confusion.

“Some dingbat named e. e. cummings tripped the alarm.”

 

Available in print and Kindle format on amazon.com as part of the collection “poetry is kind of important.”

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.

His Hanging Nailed in Agony

          Modern man . . . thought-riddled, could not share their belief in others’ discharge through his hanging nailed in agony.

                                     T.E. Lawrence, Seven Pillars of Wisdom

 

Lawrence, playing at being a Bedouin, came to conclude
that the use of flesh in redemption of others was a reef
upon which many—perhaps he—had come to shipwreck.

He felt that he had cheated himself of himself–
avoided himself—in bearing the vicarious for
his own sake.  The self-selected victim robbed

those who stood round watching of the chance to
sacrifice.  It was a sin of pride to take from them
the joyful evil they might have suffered from.

To become the savior was to take from your fellows
their ration of due hurt, their fair chance at manhood;
suffering for all was a step that gave a man perfection,

to which no one was entitled.  The man who did so
thought he saved others, but they became lesser men,
imperfect, if they took this gift of release.  They were

accessories to the crime and ignoble for having lived
at the expense of one who died.  Left only with
the poor part of copying, they learned that the lowest

things are done by following another’s example.
Unlike one who died by hanging nailed in agony,
he had borne his suffering as a badge, too willfully.

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