Some say Louisiana Purchase
Why not a stretch between the wide Missouri
and the smooth prairie
before it starts to bunch up into cliffs?
No whys or ifs,
only the geographic definition
of an omission—
no mention of the old
and laws rewarding it
with land, for some (not all) with fortitude.
My own ancestral brood
clung to the harbor, toiled so they could feast
in what you call Back East.
We hardly ever thought of pioneers
except in grade-school years,
while sitting in a movie
on a dim Saturday
too hot or cold or rainy for the beach.
There, we would reach
for popcorn, see the cowboys' big blue sky
and watch their bullets fly.
And maybe we considered Hollywood
a next-door neighborhood.
After they cracked beneath
my feet in wet brown-sugar sand,
I dropped them in the color pail:
white as my fresh new
tan as my summer face and hand,
smooth as a new-filed fingernail,
blue as my eyes or brown as
These were for Mommy’s mosaic.
I know now she thought hard
but also lightly about
to place them so she'd make
the shape of every shard
cling to a lovely pattern
too simple, or complex,
or obvious, but still
detectable. And what she
without a word or text
merged with the ocean’s thrill.
R.I.P. Norton Juster, author of The Phantom Tollbooth
Norton Juster was right
that the Senses
can be taken by numbers and tenses.
But even a
can be a
sometimes when the counting commences.
Your stress will not remain
within your pores.
It creeps across floors,
makes inhospitable the welcome mat
that will not remain flat,
stuck between sills with each hail and farewell
while balky knobs say Go to hell;
finally alerts the dog never to play
but reprimand the wide world Keep away.
When you're no longer
riding the tiger,
where will you sleep?
Boat on a river.
Arms of a lover.
Here at my desk.
As you jump off
the tiger's back,
what will you see?
Only the new
wonder of slowing
body and breath.
Once you have crept
out of the brush,
what will you do?
Watch his dread feet
as he continues
Now that your beast
hunts on his own,
what will you eat?
Bird, rabbit, fish,
each has its chances
to elude me.
Since he must prowl
here and abroad,
how will you live?
Don't ask me that.
He may be watching,
“Some of the [New York]
subway cars... are deep underwater now. The retired
cars have been used to create artificial reefs up and down the eastern
—Jen Carlson, The Gothamist, Oct. 23, 2015.
Before this was a quiet
room for you
it clattered over borough boundaries
toward the museum. Inside, Mother taught me
to look at human faces and
painting or drawing them. But I changed trains:
poetry, music, anything but pictures.
The subway rumbled on,
and dingy till, steam-cleaned and streamlined, this car
was dumped into Atlantic coastal waters.
There is no clatter now
unless a boat
of scuba divers visits to record
silver or pink striped fins propelling you
through and around these
unbarred doors and windows.
Seaweed enrobes passenger seats, poles, walls,
strap-hanger straps, floors, ceilings. Welcome, fish,
to urban decay. As you ride
darting about for food or spawning grounds,
your images flow through my eyes and mingle
with memories in a now-open
There is no barrier left to stop your likeness
from swimming onto watercolor paper.
One thing I
never could get right is grief.
It comes to me not at the proper time
or with the proper face (a bas-relief
with a handkerchief
covering eyes). I fail that paradigm
when called upon to get it right. My grief
air-filled waves from underneath
a tropic sea. Do I lack an enzyme
to form the proper face, a bas-relief?
waves I’ve found a coral reef
and rearranged its jagged surface. I’m
unequal to the surface of this grief,
myself until the moment—brief—
of neap tide, when the buoyancy of rhyme
is proper. Can I face the bas-relief
ferry across disbelief
with ritual? Or must I learn to climb
through the cold gate of never-right, where grief
assumes its proper face, a bas-relief?
striking my window glass, the branches
whispering, stirring, parting, closing back
to seal the view—a tiny forest against
eyes in some other window—these all blend
with cotton flannel gowns or, as today,
a long-sleeved T-shirt, worn-out baggy sweatpants,
in which I move from bed to desk to coffee
and back to desk, occasionally startled
by low moans of a wind that brings a new front
from the north, or the midwest. Days are swallowed
by a pandemic and its troubled dreams
of no wind, no breath, no stirring or whispering—
where branches part but cannot close again
though rain will stay, and strike, and wash, and wash.
voice, you have no choice
but to discern and locate
obediently my prison’s key
to bring each cell its inmate.
eyes, you recognize
they’re filled with tiny numbers
that narrow down my tedious town.
Where is your will? It slumbers.
Then back you
climb to conquer time.
But does the time you spend
belong to you? Time’s what you do
within these walls, my friend.
After these last few years
of my neglect,
his work is lost — the young man who once scaled
this tree to prune it, telling me his father
would make him choose a willow switch whenever
he needed flogging.
Here is the hefty bough
severed by wind,
left dangling till I figure out its center
of gravity. Imagining it as
shoulder, arm, wrist, palm, fingers, now I tug
outward on one rough finger till the bough
slips down the trunk.
Its carcass, larger,
heavier than I am,
is flanked by dregs of autumn and last night’s
tentative snow. I gather the culled branches
toward a sheltered space, leave them to winter
close to their source.
They’ll be in no one’s way.
What of the young man
and all the punishments he once selected?
Maybe he has a family now. Must they
choose switches too?
Some things you thought
you’d never buy again
(since thrift and luck allowed them to abound)
are missing since the move: a fountain pen
and all its ballpoint
friends. O denizen
of habit, you are at a loss! Unfound
are things you never thought to buy again.
Commerce has no allure for
of clever charms, it calls with sight and sound:
“You miss that since the move? Why not this pen?
“Forget the old and buy the
new!” But then
you check your list and fear you’re losing ground.
The things you vowed you’d never need again
include bowls, flatware,
You hyperventilate, darting around,
worrying, frowning for your missing pen.
Oh, never mind. Enjoy a
and make the new place old. Let it resound
with thoughts you’ll never lose, ever again.
Don’t miss the fountain when you move the pen.
Close to the end of June,
here is the first
bottle of wine I've opened since the fight
on New Year's. Corks he had removed, dispersed,
still turn up in his wake, not watertight
but buoyant. Can I winnow out the true
from the synthetic, use them in my craft?
How to redeem this drunken residue—
discard? Repurpose? (Coasters, trivets, raft...)
Does rearranging substance justify it?
It's peaceful now, no chattering TV.
Can there be such a thing as too much quiet?
At least no one's misunderstanding me.
Unwittingly he reinforced the vessel
I've learned to steer, the hull in which I nestle.
The sun draws a horizon on
I hold a camera overhead to make
my eyes more present; the chin I allow
a partial absence for aesthetic’s sake.
There will arrive a time
when no known face
is recognizable. Now evanescent
shadows approach the west, soon to outpace
your longitude. It is for you, this present.
Discovering the brain’s nightly “rinse cycle”
NIH Director's Blog 3/5/2020
On waking, there are hints
we sit front row
to a horror show.
In sleep, the brain’s on Rinse
to marinate and mince
of toxic woe
that leaves its dirty prints.
Not brainwashed, though,
I’m laying low
to dodge the psyche’s glints.
Even as slow
I leave my brain on Rinse.
I stood nearly an hour while the welder
sliced the battered front end off my mailbox,
then the perfect backside off a new one,
brazed them together in a gold-toned line,
doors on both ends so I'd be safe from traffic.
Glancing at the number stickers, he named
my home's original owners, who had built it
just after World War II. Yes, he had known them.
The husband was town postmaster; the wife
used to give haircuts right there in my basement.
The welder spoke of things that can and do
go wrong—in hospitals, on backroads, elsewhere:
A local doctor, who had flipped his sport car
on a hairpin turn, was found sorting through
stuff that had flown out of his glove compartment.
The same doctor's one hypodermic needle,
which grew duller each year of his long practice,
is now on display in the town museum.
The welder then remarked (did not complain)
how few young people can imagine driving
without GPS or living without debt.
How even our language may soon be lost.
How his mother, with Alzheimer's, inquired
last week about the health of that old doctor,
who finally had died decades ago.
How his own family has lived and worked here
for generations with no telephone.
How flame-retardant treatments can dissolve
a washing machine's agitator, which
explains the burn-marks on his overalls.
You'll find them (I'm not telling where they're stashed).
And when you do, you'll know that what seemed silly
a generation back, fit to be trashed,
was quintessential to your grandma's frilly,
close-stitched, pink-patent-leather style of love.
I know when you discover them, unlace
soft uppers, flex the soles, you will think of
her hands pulling them on you, her bright face.
Now that you, too, have seen how children grow,
how fast they run, and some of what they step in,
you've seen how difficult it is to know
who starts a fight, how pride works as a weapon.
Go find your shoes. Try not to pull the thread
connecting heel to instep, toe to tread.
you shout from above the chimney,
warning, scolding, flaunting your height, haranguing.
What could be so serious and for so long,
crow on the chimney?
he cries by the basement window,
first attempt at using his wings like Mother's
failed. He's angry, hungry and scared, defeated,
chick by the window.
Caw! you now interrogate me
from on high:
Why this stupid house where there once were arbors?
Why that trench, the window-well trap I can't reach?
Crow on the rooftop,
here I go to offer your
chick a tree branch.
Will he climb it? Oh, but he trembles, backs up,
turns around and presses his beak securely
into a corner.
I withdraw and hope he'll
escape in secret.
Out in front, three lavender plants have withered.
Prying up their brittle gray roots, I toss them
into a corner.
Next day there's no cawing,
no wind, no cheeping.
Lost? Survived? I may never know, but someone's
found the lifeless lavender stubs and placed them
back in their garden.
Mother crow, you've left me
a gift! But what for?
Caw! C-caw! A mockery? Grieving? Thank-you?
Thanks for what? For trying? Succeeding? Failing?
Seeing things your way?
R.I.P. Fred Feirstein
I dream I’m on
the telephone with Fred—
a landline, and I’m buried in the land.
He’s sitting in his office, pen in hand,
Manhattan’s silhouetted skyline spread
behind him; says he’s writing poems instead
of all the dramas, essays, he had planned.
“Is that a problem? I don’t understand,”
I’m scolding him. Oh wait — he’s in my head.
It was a trade: I’d give him one more day,
he’d give me one more angsty conversation
about how short life is, and how his play
will be produced, though in a different nation
and city. How I miss him now! It seems
his carnival keeps winding through my dreams.
Judges say travelers can sue TSA over screener mistreatment
—WTOP Radio, August 2019
morning, as smoke surrounded,
my toast was burning. My plane was grounded.
The radio said air traffic was snarled.
Some zero was dead in the software world.
But I didn’t
kick it. I rushed right here
for a standby ticket. Your face is severe,
and a blinking square on your screen commands
you to recheck—where you have placed your hands
tender skin too close to my bra,
then X-ray my vitamins, honey bear claw,
and gulps of coffee. To help them go down,
a massage would be very nice, around
blades—there! Don’t get any closer!
You think I’m a terrorist? Me? Oh no, sir.
I’d better bail; your system won't start.
Equipment failure? Nah—it’s only your heart.
“To my darling, I love you, from Mommy”
She tried to
teach you all she knew
of art. She was your queen.
You watched as she imagined new
arrangements for this scene.
You saw her dab the milky glue
to make all edges clean.
heart on paper, gold
corners and frames embossed,
die-cut, elegantly controlled,
assert that nothing’s lost
in Mommy’s domain. Did she hold
a mirror to the cost
of making all
She needed it, of course,
because her love was volatile
and distanced from its source.
Besides, all things were possible
if one could apply force.
Her beauty was
against the prison of
your learning how to suffer
for beauty and for love.
You never seemed enough for her
perfection from above.
each robed in pink or blue,
around her cursive blather.
Or could the words be true?
Of course that’s what you’d rather
believe. A little you
in an oval frame
on which a butterfly
leans in to greet you, say your name,
assure you she will try
to make her love real, stanch your blame.
She asks you not to cry.
Let me not forget the
when we wandered from your kitchen
to a stairwell, mostly vertical,
a challenge after wine
though easy in the morning.
At the top, you’d fetch a
from the cozy servant's room
you'd made your favorite station
for dozing, reading, writing,
examining the world.
I can see its stark
the bookshelves you had crafted
to fit each odd-sized corner,
the view from hooded windows
invisible to neighbors.
In the end, you climbed the
of your wood-spindled orbit
in dim light, long exposure,
deep field, small aperture,
memory's narrow portal.
Your mother learned to keep
men in their place,
to slap one who's impetuous or rude,
especially if she wasn't in the mood.
Then why not slap a daughter? Leave no trace,
no broken bones, no scarring on your face,
certainly no internal injury.
What better way is there to make you see
she's still the boss and you've fallen from grace?
Today is different. You
have had enough
and vow to let her know this slap's her last.
She's not the only one who can play rough.
But your strength scares you, and you draw back fast.
Not for her sake, but
yours, your snap decision:
You just don't want to spend your life in prison.
He lived across the street,
was ninety-two years old.
I never knew his name
or spoke a word to him.
They empty out his cottage,
leave boxes at the curb,
drive off with what they value.
In the driveway his white
For Sale sign in the windshield,
will linger for a while,
soon to be gone, his avatar.
We waved and exchanged smiles
back when he still could hobble.
One morning as I watched
an ambulance arrived.
They entered as I watched.
He was too weak to hobble
or wave or exchange smiles.
He leaves an avatar
that lingers for a while,
For Sale sign on its windshield.
Relatives load their trucks,
drive off with what they
leave boxes at the curb.
They've emptied out his cottage.
I spoke no word to him
nor even knew his name.
At ninety-two years old,
he lived across the street.
OF THE DASHBOARD
I can't believe you've
asked me what to do
as if you thought I understood earth's clutter.
You both are human; you can think it through.
Jarred by the swift intrusion, noisy flutter
of wings on my arrival, you go numb,
searching for signs and omens while I shudder
and flee the other portal. You succumb
to spring's confusion: roll the windows up,
turn on the air, the news radio's hum--
easier to ignore. An envelope
of many questions, fewer answers, holds
your shaken forms intact. Tentative hope
for clarity and peace of mind unrolls
to cloak you, amateurish as wax wings.
One of you, blushing, stares at the controls
with no clue where to drive. My partner sings
to me; I spot him, bid farewell to you.
I can't believe you've asked me all those things.
*First published in Trinacria
A COMPUTER FILE
You thoughts that never
were infused with ink,
never embodied, never quite committed
to this world but allowed to shift and blink
in electronic ether, where you flitted
between “I will,” “I may,” and “I will not,”
depending on the weather and the news—
you had already died, started to rot
and disappear, by opting not to choose.
But it was she who never placed to paper
your ghostly images, who was to blame.
Existing on your own you might escape her
even if firmly wedded to her name.
With you in print, earthbound and on display,
how would her life be different today?
*First published in Trinacria
The presence of paint to
denote a void
or turn it into an abyss, despite
an odd-angled caress of orange light,
was a backdrop on which his spirit toyed
with drama: four-dimensional, decoyed
eloquently in two. It is midnight.
The artist plays Apostle Paul, whose sight
illuminates the scene he has deployed.
His palette poses as a scripture, bound
at his left, less imposing than the orbs
through which he scrutinizes our attention.
Light from his forehead radiates around
its furrows down to where his name absorbs
a value poised to outlive time’s suspension.
*First published in Trinacria
time and with regret
water deserts the brain.
You learn how to forget
with grace, to ignore pain,
to let each moment pass.
Here in this landlocked place
time alone flows. The glass
does not contain your face.
The basil plants grow thinner now
where once a green and white
fragrant lace curtain filtered out
stray looks and excess light.
They barely live, no thanks to you
and your dead-leaf disguise,
your vagrant gait along the stalk,
your pseudo-bloodshot eyes.
A rusting, rotting Sherman tank
is what you most evoke,
although your ammunition brings
no fiery blast, no smoke.
Your breed's passive-aggressive stance
took eons to perfect.
(But I'm not sure what maimed these
your need, or my neglect.)
A BABY BOOMER
Dear Parents: Yes, kids were a good idea.
Your optimism wasn't a mistake.
You were the best, and yes, I'm taking
of what you gave me -- mostly while
but sleeping, too. I rummage for pain's
rather than popping pills. I avoid
recycle, eat right, protest crazy wars
both hot and cold. (We still could turn
What else? Oh yes, that business about
you said it was a gift from (fill the
and must be used for good. This is a
challenge. They wouldn't take it at the
originally appeared in Trinacria -- by author's