The Poetry Fixer

 

A self-published poet who focused on homelessness in her work has resigned after only a week on the job as North Carolina’s poet laureate following criticism of the governor’s appointment process.

                                                              Associated Press 

poetry

As I sat staring out the window, wondering how to jump-start my career as a poet, I automatically, involuntarily lapsed into verse:

I think that I’d feel more secure
If I could get me a cozy political sinecure.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m doing . . . okay.  Since my first poem–Thoughts on Waking After Spending the Night in a Kosher Vegetarian Commune–was published by plangent voices, I’ve been anthologized twice.  It’s not as painful as it sounds, really, you just get jammed between the covers of a book with a bunch of other poets, sort of like the Green Line at rush hour.

But there seems–and I don’t want to come off as paranoid–like there’s a conspiracy against me, led by my high-profile poetess and ex-girlfriend elena gotchko.  She and I parted amicably enough–she dumped my stuff out on the sidewalk, I graciously carried it away–but I’ve been troubled by a pattern of commenters with suspiciously anagramatical names lighting into me with vituperation on-line and in print.  NeLa K. Chetogo, Klanee Gootch, Cheona Kloget–the natural wit that continually creates the world anew was always missing from elena’s poetic makeup.  That’s why she’s become more of a poetry professional than a professional poet.  Editing little journals, pontificating about the importance of poetry, charging high three-figure sums to schmoes who think, if they take a course from somebody who spells her name without initial caps, they’ll magically be transformed into poets.

state house

No, if I was going to get anywhere, I needed juice.  There’s an old saying–it’s not what you know, it’s who you know–and that applies in spades in Boston, a town where, as a slightly newer saying goes, the three major industries are politics, sports and revenge.  So I dropped in on my state rep and asked him if he could get me on as Massachusetts poet laureate.

“I got a long list of people who wanna be poet laureate,” he said, looking at his watch after we’d been together for ten seconds.  “Tell me why it should be you.”

“Well, I’ve self-published a book of poetry, and I’ve written a book about poetry.”

“That meta-stuff don’t cut it.  You can’t write that kinda junk until you’re at the top of the poetry heap.”

I jabbered on about the one poem I’d actually sold, to The Christian Science Monitor–just like Sylvia Plath!  I told him how I’d won a poetry prize, only to see the publication that awarded it go under before they ran my poem.  I started to tell him how I’d won honorable mention in the Somerville Press poetry contest.  “Somerville!” I exclaimed.  “You can’t throw a brick without hitting a poet over there!”

He looked at me as if I was a pack of cold cuts that had passed its freshness date.  “You’re goin’ about this all wrong,” he said with a glint of cynicism in his eyes.

poetryslam
Actual un-PhotoShopped picture of poetry slammer.

 

“But you’re my elected representative,” I said.  “Aren’t you supposed to . . . you know . . . pull strings for people in your district.  In the name of ‘constituent services.’”

He shook his head slowly from side to side, apparently amused at my naivete.  “You’re in the big city now,” he said, then he reached in his desk drawer, pulled out a business card and handed it to me.  “You need to call this guy.”

I looked at the card.  Francis X. Shaughnessy.  “Who’s he?” I asked.

“A registered lobbyist.”

“What does a lobbyist do?”

“He comes to talk to me about good things I could do for people like you.”

“But . . . I’m here trying to talk to you about good things you could do for people like me.”

“It ain’t the same.”

“Why not?”

“If you give me money, it’s a bribe.  If you give him money, it’s compensation.  If he throws a ‘time’ for me, that’s everybody’s free speech petitioning government.  You give to his PAC, he gives it to me.  It’s in the First Amendment–you could look it up.”

Irish
“Is everybody here Irish?”

 

“So–I have to pay money to get somebody else to say things to you I can say myself for nothing.”

“On the nosey.”

“Why’s that?”

“He’s ‘well-connected.’  It’s in the papers.  Every time they write his name they say ‘The well-connected Francis X. Shaughnessy.’”

“And me?”

“You’re just an ordinary voting schlub.”

Dawn broke on Marblehead, as we say here in Massachusetts.  “Nice talkin’ to ya,” I said, with a trace of bitterness.

“Nice talkin’ to you!” my rep said.

“Where can I find this Shaughnessy guy?”

Piersall
Jimmy Piersall:  Certifiable.

 

“Down the hall, out the State House door, cross the street.  His office is right above Guertin’s Bar and Grille.”

“How . . . convenient.”

“Ain’t it though?”

We shook hands and I took my leave, which I’d left by the door.  I was across the street and walking up a flight of stairs to Politico Strategies LLC in less time than it would take you to recite the Miranda Warning.

“Is Mr. Shaughnessy in?” I asked the receptionist, who was holding her hands out at arm’s length to let her nail polish dry.

“Whom shall I say”–she began.  Apparently she went to Katie Gibbs Secretarial School on Marlborough Street.

“Mr. Chapman,” I said, interrupting her.

katherine gibbs
Graduation Day at Katie Gibbs!

 

“Who’s he?” she asked.

“Me.”

“Not you,” she said, clucking her tongue.  “Whom shall I say sent you?”

I was losing my innocence with every tick of the clock.  “That would be Representative O’Kiley,” I said.

She smiled for the first time and said “Have a seat.”

The reading materials available in the reception area consisted of a big picture book of Boston, so that those in the Athens of America who don’t like to read would have something to look at; the two daily newspapers; and a selection of recent magazines.  Newsweek seems to think Howard Dean has the Democratic nomination sewed up, but Time likes John Kerry.

Shaughnessy emerged from his office, his hand apparently attached to the back of someone whose deserving cry for help was next in line in front of me.

“So I think if we came up with a Nuts of the Red Sox series, with one each devoted to Bernie Carbo, Jim Piersall, Bill Lee, Gene Conley and Pumpsie Green, it could be a real winner.”

“I’ll talk to my colleagues on the Joint Committee on Vanity and Commemorative License Plates and we’ll see what we can do.”

Pumpsie
Pumpsie Green rookie card:  I used to have one!

 

“Thanks, thanks an awful lot,” the guy said.  He looked hopeful, so I figured he wrote a big check.

“What do I have next,” the guy asked the receptionist.

“This man here–O’Kiley sent him.”

“Well in that case, come on in Mr. . . .”

Again, I felt humbled by my lack of importance.  After introductions, I was shown into the inner sanctum, where I was offered a chair and initial cup of coffee, gratis.

“So,” Shaughnessy began.  “What can I do for youse?”

“I’m looking for a job,” I said.

“As are so many of my constituents in this dreadful economy brought about by greedy Wall Street bankers and mean old Republicans.  What kind of work were you lookin’ for?” he asked, but before I could answer he finished the sentence for me.  “Indoor work and no heavy liftin’ I presume?”

“I guess you could say that.  I want to be the state’s poet laureate.”

“Jeez Louise–that’s a tough one.  The pay is lousy but the hours are good.”

“It’s an important position.  Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.”

“That’s a great line,” he said as he gazed wistfully out the window.  “Who said it?”

“Yogi Berra.”

“I thought so.  So what’s your angle?”

“My . . . angle?”  I had passed through 19 years of schooling without ever being told I needed an “angle” to be a poet.

“Sure.  Are you . . .”–he picked up a laminated sheet that listed the currently favored racial/sexual/ethnic/gender categories of the Commonwealth and began to tick them off starting with “Aleutian Islander.”

“No, can’t say that I am.”

“But O’Kiley sent ya, huh?  Okay, well, let’s think about it.  Can you give a bunch o’ money to my friend Mr. O’Kiley?”

“Not since my wife found out political contributions aren’t tax deductible.”

“Okay–can you raise a bunch?”

“Don’t think so.  My friends tend to be apolitical.”

“Okay, well it’s gonna cost you then.”

“How much?”

“A $2,000 a month retainer, and a $10,000 success fee . . .”

“I thought that was illegal.”

“Excuse me.  I meant if you get the job, you hire me as a consultant to the State Office of Poetry for $10,000.”

I glared at him with eyes that I narrowed to grim, little slits.  “You don’t look like a poet.”

“You’d be surprised,” he said.  “Tell me a little bit about your verse,” he said as he leaned back in his chair and made a little church-and-steeple with his fingers.

“Well, I’ve self-published one book of light verse about women–The Girl With the Cullender on Her Head.

“Is that like ‘chick lit’,” he said without contempt, just an air of honest appraisal.

“Not really–it’s more like anti-chick lit.  It’s dedicated to my wife and it’s a bunch of poems about the women I dated before I met her, and how they compare unfavorably to her.”

“Smart husband, dumb poet.”

“Why do you say that?”

“You gotta have a sympathetic political theme, like that poet laureate who got hired in North Carolina the other day.”

“What was her–angle?”

“Homelessness.  Very sensitive.  That’s the beauty of political art.  You pick the right topic, anybody who criticizes you looks like jerk.  Some critic pans you, you get your friends to write angry letters to the editor sayin’ ‘Oh, so your hotsy-totsy poetry editor don’t like that chapbook, eh?  I guess the cruel son-of-a-bitch don’t like homeless people, neither.’  Pretty soon the guy’s busted down to writing about the spring performance of Lion King at Miss Cynthia’s School of Tap and Ballet.”

baby seal
“These poems have got to be good–they’re about baby seals!”

 

It was as if the clouds had parted and rays of light shot down to give me inspiration.  “Okay, I’m gonna write the most poignant, sensitive, morally unassailable collection of poetry the world’s ever seen.”

“Whatta ya gonna call it?”

“The Don’t Club Baby Seals to Death Poems.”

Bats at Twilight

The bats are out tonight,
I said. She looked up and there
they were, silhouetted against the dying light
to the west. Over our shoulders
to the east it was dark, but from where

bats2

we sat, we had an intimate view of the two,
engaged in some sort of courtship ritual
I surmised after a while; the urge to do
as lovers everywhere do. They dipped
and soared; I assumed it was very traditional.

“If we had more bats we’d have fewer bugs,”
I said. She shrank back into her sweater,
and gave me a look, then a shrug.
“I don’t care,” she said. “I don’t like bats.”
I knew, no matter how I tried, I’d never get her

bats1

to agree to let me put up bat houses.
It was a little thing, nothing I cared about much,
just at the corners of our lot. One’s spouse holds
the veto vote on such matters, over
all the earth and every creeping thing and such.

Abide by this rule, or find her colder
once under the covers you have slipped:
As to animals other than dogs and cats,
forswear them all, and love her.

The Pine-Woods Golf & Poetry Club

For most of the 20th century, the poetry world resembled a country club.

The New York Times Book Review

It was a Sunday afternoon, and I just wanted to get out of the damn house. I decided to head over to the club, see if I could squeeze in a round before dinner. I threw the old sticks in the trunk and, as I drove into the parking lot at Pine-Woods, saw Lowell, Berryman and Roethke heading down to the starter’s hut. Lowell had on those god-awful madras pants of his. What a preppy doofus.


Robert Lowell

 

“Hey guys,” I yelled out to them. They were absorbed in a deep discussion-probably talking about the club By-Laws, which had been under revision since Allen Ginsburg walked onto the putting green without a collared shirt.


Allen Ginsburg

 

I caught up to them as they were paying for their golf cart. The starter—a guy named Skip Derosiers—was giving them a hard time.

“Which one of you knuckleheads left the tracks on the seventh fairway the other day?


Theodore Roethke

 

“Not me,” said Roethke. Or course not—Mr. Nature Poet.

“It was me,” Lowell and Berryman said together. Figures—two confessional poets, two confessions.


John Berryman

 

“Do you guys mind if I make a fourth?” I asked.

“There’s a guy on the list ahead of you,” Derosiers said.

“Who?” Lowell demanded.

“The Old Man—Wallace Stevens.”

“Oh, God,” groaned Berryman.

“Can’t you do something?” I asked.


Wallace Stevens

 

“He’s one of the club’s founders.” He pointed to the left breast of his polo shirt, which featured a bantam rooster before a stand of pines.

“You know he’s going to walk the course, hit the ball thirty yards every time and compose poems between shots,” Roethke said. “The course will be backed up for a week.”

“No can do,” Derosiers said.

“Do you know who I am?” Lowell asked imperiously.

“Let me see if I remember,” he said, a sardonic gleam in his eye, and began to speak in a taunting, sing-song manner:

And this is good old Boston,
The home of the bean and the cod.
Where the Lowells talk only to Cabots,
And the Cabots talk only to God.

“What’s your point?” Lowell asked, a bit defensively I thought.


“But I don’t even like fishcakes and beans.”

 

“When you talk to me, you ain’t talkin’ to a Cabot—you’re talking to a God,” Skip said, as he clicked the remote to see who was on the leaderboard at the Buick Open.

I tried a different tack. “What if we made it worth your while?”

Derosiers looked us over, one by one. “Talk to me.”

We looked at each other. Thankfully, Berryman had brought a six-pack of Budweiser with him. He tore two cans off the plastic yoke and, after checking over his shoulder, handed them over the counter.

“You know, some golf industry publications say that bribing a starter can backfire,” Derosiers said as he handed us scorecards and pencils. “Don’t believe everything you read in the papers,” he added with a smile, as he waved us onto the course.

“What if old man Stevens catches up to us?” Roethke asked.

“Humor him,” Derosiers said as he popped the top off a twelve-ouncer. “He’s really quite whimsical.”

That didn’t sound good, but we forgot about it as we waited the standard six-minute interval for the foursome in front of us to clear the fairway.

“You want to make it interesting?” Lowell asked. “Five dollar Nassau?”

Easy for him to say with all that old money to burn.

“No automatic press on the back nine,” Berryman said. On his second beer, he was already beginning to slur his speech, but like his verse, he remained in technical control and rooted in the conventions of his time.

“Sure, John, sure,” Lowell said as he made his way to the back tee. ”Okay, ladies and germs, hide and watch.”

“Grip it and rip it,” Roethke said, egging him on. I personally think trash-talk has no place in golf, but ever since Karl Shapiro said Marianne Moore was “never more beatable,” suddenly everybody’s doing it.


Marianne Moore throws out the first pitch at Yankee Stadium—I kid you not.

 

The big guy shuffled forward, tall, slightly stooped, ran his fingers back through his dishevelled grey hair and stuffed it under his cap. He took a few practice swings, set himself, and—scorched a worm-burner into the rough! I stifled a laugh.

“I call Mulligan,” Lowell said without even looking back, as he pulled another ball out of his pocket.

“No way,” Roethke said. “Mulligans are allowed only when expressly agreed upon by all partners in advance.”

“Too late, Bob,” I agreed. “We’ve all got skin in the game.”

I knew what was coming. A manic-depressive temper tantrum.

“God damn it to hell!” Lowell screamed as he threw his driver into a water hazard and stormed off to look for his ball.

“Ooo,” Berryman said in a mocking tone. “Huffy Bobby hid the day, unappeasable.”

Roethke stepped up next. He’s a deliberate player—it took him ten years to write Open House, his first book of poems, fer Christ’s sake.


Walt Whitman: “Hey—that’s my line!”

 

He plucked some leaves of grass and threw them up in the air to see which way the wind was blowing. He fiddled with his gloves, his visor and his left shirt sleeve. He took in the natural beauty of the course, with all its mystery, fierceness and sensuality; the ball washers, the spike cleaners, the liquid refreshment stand at the tenth tee.

“While we’re young, Teddy-boy,” Berryman said, shaking his head, “while we’re young.”


Contrary to popular belief, beer does not help one’s short game.

 

“I don’t have to take that from you, Mr. Yips,” Roethke said out of the side of his mouth. Always lyrical, I thought with admiration.

Finally he took his stance, wig-wagged his butt a bit, then weighed into the ball–a nice clean stroke, the solid thwock, if I maybe allowed just one little onomatopoeia.

His ball sailed down the fairway where a tall, austere man had wandered out of the rough. It was Stevens, and Roethke’s shot hit him square in the temple!

We jumped in the cart and tore off down the fairway, coming to a stop where Stevens lay on his back, apparently dazed.

“I’m so sorry, Mr. Stevens,” Roethke said, distraught at the thought that he had nearly killed one of the major American poets of the 20th century. “Are you all right?”

The great man propped himself up on one elbow, shielded his eyes from the sun and began to speak, a big groggily at first.

Call the smoker of big cigars, Stevens began,
The muscular one, and bid him whip
In snack bar cups, concupiscent frozen custard.
Let the wenches dawdle in such pink culottes
As they are used to wear, and let the caddies
Bring the clubs to the bag drop.
Let be be finale of seem.
The only captain is Walter Hagen,
captain of the Ryder Cup Team.

 

Lowell dropped his ball alongside the fallen poet.  “Winter rules,” he said—after Stevens’ stanza was done. “He’s fine,” he said, as he took his four iron out of his bag.

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

The Circumcised Heart

 

“. . . if then their uncircumcised heart is humbled . . .”

Leviticus 26:41

For long years, there was no way in
to that four-chambered house
through which, we are told
(but don’t know) all emotions go.

It took something more than looks–
your wit, or carriage, or the things
you held to be true
for me to open up to you,
as you did for me,
as you never had before.

Maybe the time was right, I don’t know.
I do know this; we pierced each other
without wounding, and common tides
between two seas now flow.

The swimming’s no good when the tide is low;
let us take our chance at the flood,
and when we are done, your head will
rest against my chest, a mound of flesh
through which blood flows, through which
you shall hear, against your ear,
the beating of a circumcised heart.

Bike Gangs Show Sensitive Side With “Baiku”

MAYNARD, Mass. It’s Wednesday night at the Sitting Duck Pub, a biker bar in this Massachusetts town of 10,000. A reporter asks Darlene Rivers, a thirty-something woman in a tube top, whether anyone is sitting on the empty bar stool next to her. “Not right now,” she says after blowing cigarette smoke out of the side of her mouth, “but if my old man comes in and sees you sitting there, you’d better have good dental insurance.”

Darlene is here because of her self-proclaimed “artistic” side, which she says finds expression in the many Harley-Davidson tattoos on her upper arms and her love of poetry. “I’m here every week for the verse,” she says as she flips her long hair back over her shoulder. “‘Oh what a tangled web we weave’ and all that jazz.”


“If you even so much as touch my hog, I’ll come to your house and poison your dog.”

 

As she takes a sip of her beer, Gene Dominici, the first performer of the evening, takes the stage to read a sampling of his biker poetry, a gas, chrome and rubber genre of folk poetry that has become popular as a result of the publication of the anthology “Rubber Side Down,” a collection of poems written by bikers.

Domenici leads with a “baiku,” a variation on haiku, the Japanese short-poem format.

 

Full tank, old lady
on the saddle. I turn, she
says “Let’s go, Pig Pen.”

 

A murmur of appreciation rises from the crowd. “Sweet,” says Oran “Big Dude” Swartski, who has ridden his 2006 Indian Chief Roadmaster over 150 miles to be here tonight. “Give the man a Slim Jim,” Swartski calls out to the bartender, who tosses one of the convenient beef jerky sticks that many bikers subsist on over long road trips onto the stage.

Next up is Floyd “Hard Times” Daniels, whose Harley-Davidson Low Rider FXRS announces his approach from several blocks off whenever he has a new poem ready to read to the Sitting Duck aficionados. He takes a swig of his Pabst Blue Ribbon beer, clears his throat, and adopts a pastoral tone that reveals the beauty of the world as seen through the bug-splattered goggles of a biker:

 

Some guys ride hills up and down,
Then stop to terrorize small towns.
Me, I’d rather have my fun
On a summer day for a poker run.

 

“That was so–freaking–beautiful,” Darlene says, and it is clear that she has been touched by the emotions that Daniels has so skillfully evoked by the image of a biker with his girlfriend picking up the winning hand at a motorcycle club’s fund-raising event.


“I promise I won’t call your bike a scooter if you won’t refer to my breasts as hooters.”

 

Daniels graciously cedes the microphone to Jim “B.S.” deJong, a symbolist whose bike of choice is a Kawasaki ZX-6R Ninja.

deJong is a devotee of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and like the author of “Kubla Khan,” he’s not above a little chemical stimulation to get his creative rivers flowing:

 

Whose hog this is, I think I know
His straightpipes have that healthy glow.
He will not see me stopping here
To deal a little high-grade blow.

 

Last, but certainly not least, is last week’s winning poet Carson “Mudflap” Poquette, who honed his literary skills while incarcerated for aggravated assault in a medium-security prison. His style is edgy, fueled by rage and the ravages of social diseases he’s picked up over a long life of drunken one-night stands.

 

When down I bring my pool cue (maple)
Upon a roadhouse bumper table.
Be sure upon the felt of green
Your head ain’t sitting, or your spleen.

 

The crowd is quiet for a moment, then the sound of applause is heard, soft at first, then building to a crescendo as the audience absorbs the delicate tracery of Poquette’s four-line, a-a-b-b rhyme scheme over the subtext of a not-so-thinly veiled threat.

“You’ve got my vote,” yells Dominici as he heads for the exit.

“Mine too,” calls out Daniels, who quickly settles up with the bartender.

The only poet to stand his ground, however unsteadily, is deJong, who rises and staggers to the stage with menace on his face. “You call yourself a poet,” he fairly spits out.

”You got a problem with that?” Poquette snarls back at him.

”Yeah,” de Jong says. “You put a period at the end of the second line–it should have been a comma.”

 

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

Her Stars

Doretta taught eighth-grade English, and lived alone, a block
from the school. She was “Miss” Hay to everyone, and
even though the boys never thought twice about it, the
girls in her classes knew that meant she was an Old Maid,
a figure on a card in a game that you didn’t want to end up
holding in your hand. And so they knew she was something
they didn’t want to end up being, not if they could help it.

She would walk home each night to her little apartment,
grade papers for awhile, then make dinner for one or
maybe have another teacher over, either a spinster like herself
or a woman whose husband was out of town or who took
pity on her; an evening not unlike that of nearly every other
household in town, with or without a family, until night fell.
As others turned on their TVs, Doretta turned out the lights

and looked out her window at the stars—her stars!—which
had provided the human race with peaceful and sublime
entertainment for eons, since the Greeks and before. She
couldn’t understand why people would spend good,
hard-earned money on a television when they could look
up at the sky every night—for free!—and trace the images
that had inspired poets, that had transfixed astronomers

and physicists. The stars—that gave man a sense of how
insignificant he was, and yet how there was a grand design
to the universe. She counted herself fulfilled if, out of each
year’s eighth-graders, she could awaken a sense of wonder
at the heavens, if she could cause just one idle or errant
young boy to step outside at night and look up at the skies
and lose himself, as she did, in the infinity he beheld there.

When winter arrived she told her students to look for Orion,
the hunter, with his tri-starred belt and his sword and club.
With his two dogs, Canis Major and Canis Minor, behind him,
and Taurus the bull advancing towards him, and Lepus the hare
escaping detection at his feet–that, she always hoped,
would interest the boys, who would sometimes come to class
sleepy-eyed from a night of coon hunting with their fathers.

And yet she was lucky to catch the fancy of even one of them.
The girls would dutifully hand in their reports, with neat drawings
of the constellations, but the boys were a different story.
Some would nod off in the late afternoon, others
would stare out the window, thinking of football or basketball practice—or girls.
Some would hand in nothing, others just a half-hearted stab at
the assignment—incomplete, illegible, incomprehensible.

One day walking home from school she noticed a bulldozer and
a truck on the lot next door to her building, where a small
home sat, fallen into disrepair. What, she wondered, was in store?
Each day as she passed she saw progress in the form of demolition,
then the lot cleared, then a concrete foundation, then a garish
hamburger restaurant—little more than a metal shack–rising
from the dust, its walls bright white and glass and shiny metal.

Then the lot was paved, and lines painted, and an enormous sign
erected. Well, she thought, it might be nice to drop in there at
night some time and pick up dinner instead of cooking.
Sometimes she was tired, and just wanted to close her
eyes at the end of the day before she turned them towards the
heavens. And so she waited for the grand opening, and decided
to treat herself to a hamburger and some French fries and a

milkshake the first night. She took the food up to her apartment
and ate them at her table and thought it wasn’t bad—
not something she’d do every night, but a nice break when
she didn’t want to cook. She finished and cleaned up
and, as usual, turned off the lights and took
her place at her window to look at the stars and saw—nothing.
The lights from drive-in and the sign had turned the sky above to a
milky white instead of a deep blue, and the stars—her stars—were gone.

From “Town Folk & Country People.”

The Living Lay it To Heart

In that spring there were three of them—
young men, foolish as they all are.

Two went the common way,
drunk in the front seat of a car. The only

consolation to any of us was that
they hadn’t killed anybody else,

graduates

just hit a tree or run off the road,
coming to a dull thudding stop.

The third, more absurd; he’d
dropped his phone from a train platform in

the dark, and climbed down to find it.
You can imagine how

train

that ended, but he couldn’t,
they can’t when they’re that age.

He might have been laughing as he went,
doing it on a dare, for the thrill.

You wonder what to say to the
families when you pass the cemetery.

We, the ones who don’t need it,
who know better, get all the learning

there is to be had from such messes;
we, the living, lay it to heart

while ours are still beating.

Behind Art Blakey, Boston Harbor Cruise

As the crew of the cruise boat made ready to sail,
I took my place behind Art Blakey
determined, like the tree in the
spiritual that’s planted by the
water, not to be moved.

Blakey

As he settled into his kit, I looked at his
graying hair and thought of the
greats who’d played with him;
Clifford Brown, Cedar Walton,
Lou Donaldson to name a few.

Brown

All were as green as he was when he
started out, playing piano, then
giving it up when he figured he’d
never be better than Errol Garner,
and so he turned to the drums.

Garner

The crowd pressed from behind, all standing
because there were no seats, just the
open deck. “Down in front,” somebody
yelled from the back and a man, a gin
and tonic in his hand, simply said

“We all paid the same price, but some of us
got here first.” The boat wheeled about,
the newest Jazz Messengers began to play
Blakey keeping time, rolling a little behind
his young sidemen, like the waves in our wake.

The Civil War Between Mother and Son

 

When I was a boy I had a board game of the Civil War
that I would play, spread out on the floor.
It was “educational,” unlike Monopoly or Clue,
so it wasn’t easy to find someone to play with you.

 

But my mom would; she’d even agree to be the Grey
every time, because I always wanted to be the Blue.
The nuns at school taught that each child was, like you
yourself, made in the image and likeness of God.
That, I thought, was mysterious—odd;
a thing I wonder about to this day.

To them, though, all innocence cloaked in black and white,
it explained everything.  The South was wrong;
perhaps, they implied, that’s why God made the North strong.
I went along, thinking only one side could be right.

 

But my mother didn’t care; her people, she told us, were “f.f.v.”–
first families of Virginia, she’d leave the North to me.
She’d rack up early victories at Fort Sumter and Bull Run.
I had the factories, she had only the farms.
Every time I’d wear her down from the strength of arms

or else she’d let me win.  Either way, it was a sad sort of fun
to beat your mother’s people and all they stood for, wrongly.
In Catechism class a lay teacher told us you had to be
baptized in the one true church,
which would have left my mom in the lurch.

 

So I asked, what about the souls of those who’d never see
a baptismal font, who’d never feel the flow of holy water
on their foreheads? What about those slaughtered
in holy wars, who never knew Christ died for them on Calvary?

 

 

meaning to say, without speaking it aloud, what about my mother?
These things will be answered in heaven, came the indifferent reply
of one unable to unravel the knots in dogma that reason ties,
in the strings on which we play mystic chords of memory with each other.

This is That Girl I Was Telling You About

 

“This is that girl I was telling you about at lunch today.”

 

Wallace Stevens to a colleague about a summer employee,

cited as an example of the poet’s oblique humor that could be either “amusing or distressing” by biographer Peter Brazeau

What kind of man could say such a thing
of a young girl, who wouldn’t know it was a joke
at her expense; wouldn’t know what was meant,
whether she’d done something wrong, was being
complimented or had incurred an older man’s displeasure?

A poet, I suppose, for whom words were all,
for whom the parade of people passing before him
every day were nothing but a spectacle, a cattle call,
a sign that the dismal circus of life hadn’t left town yet.

His own daughter, Holly, was kept in a cocoon by his
wife Elsie, who would worry about scissors lying on
tables in other rooms, long before Holly could get
to them. Maybe he wasn’t allowed to tickle or tease her

and so took it out on someone else’s daughter.
What a father! There is no voting for the office of
The Emperor of Ice Cream; if one is to the manor
born, it must chafe mightily to be an office drudge.

At work they knew he was a poet, at least the
employees of long standing. They’d seen his picture
in the Hartford Courant, or read of prizes he had won,
but not that young girl. She wouldn’t have known

of the great man’s standing among the literary gods.
She must have thought it odd, and blushed, and after
Stevens had signed the checks and dismissed her,
gone back to her cubicle and tried to puzzle it out

for a while, then chalked it up to the boring world of
grown-ups, another mark against the hot, hushed confines
of the office,as she thought of a young man on a porch swing
who the night before had tried to kiss her.

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