As I explore a rare and old collection
Comes Ella from a record swept of dust:
“Embraceable You,” a song my mother loved
And long before my birth – on alien earth,
Recovering from a war that stretched across
The planet and embraced my father’s youth.
I keep on pulling ancient vinyl when
That song’s from Sarah Vaughn (when I was ten),
Same lyrics, but more urgent then. And thus,
Her wave breaks through my shoreline fantasies.
My heart grows tipsy?Many charms? Alarms!
A voice beyond a gesture or a mouse,
And irrepressible, her arms about me,
From Gershwin’s own to her original
Now irreplaceably in memory.
A drunk man, rising from
the curb at last,
Looked out upon us passersby and cried
An interrogative that stopped us cold.
“What had the dear Matilda realized?”
Was not a question one of us would pose.
We didn’t know Matilda then (or now)
And waited for further words, a declaration,
A meaningful explanation. Not a sound
Escaped him. We picked up our pace again.
Slipping by the drunk (and silently),
We looked upon two vacant eyes that glowed
From passing headlights, and yet found no clue
Of who Matilda might have been. That night,
She lingered in a dazzled vagrant’s mouth
Awaiting further definition, but,
The while we lingered, did not further speak
Through this wretched ventriloquist in rags.
How often real communication lags!
Time had escaped. Of that I
now am certain.
What safety and security I’d felt
Within a box of years and months and hours
Had fled each corner – shaded or in sun –
To leave me floating naked in the stars.
A hurtling object I’d become, a stone
Flung toward an atmosphere where I would burn
A trail across the sky. As seen or not,
My moment would be gone but for the ash
Adrift above the city – not much pity.
Despite my frantic
scribbling, words were blank.
Reluctant ghosts of language I’ve employed
From year to year had left me with pale shadows.
I wrote and wrote but not a phrase appeared.
Small wrinkles on the sheet implied intention;
A fingertip revealed the cartridge full,
Emitting ink, my ready tool, but not
Allowing me to set one word on paper.
I complained aloud but no one heard a word,
My voice then filtered of its meaning too.
Around me though, my friends assumed me happy –
My hand moving the pen with rhythmic, steady strokes
As if eternal lines to time had been invoked.
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From yellowed newsprint
scanned to well-screened text,
The sentences set down by Margaret Fuller
Seem closer than the history suggests.
One hundred eighty years or more are gone,
The tombstones for the dead now thick with moss.
And yet her sharpened righteousness is loud,
A trumpet calling readers into action –
To save the new republic based in Rome.
Mazzini’s alive; the lying French have come.
The Pope is plotting from a distant city.
The Austrians are battering the north.
That doesn’t stop the Romans going forth.
No real surprise this close
to New Orleans,
A demon watched us from the river’s edge,
Apparently a shoreline denizen.
Its large white head well-wreathed with blackened horns,
Survivor of a grim but unseen fire,
The monster hadn’t lost its squealing voice.
“A pig’s soprano, but without the charm,”
You said. I took your words as literal
And raised my oar as current swept us past,
A useless threat to one so far away.
But the monster did respond in kind,
Shrieking a loud and pointless warning – gone
That instant in a brilliant flash. We looked
But couldn’t find a single, living trace
Of who or what had shown that hideous face.
A moment of derangement,
His fall arrested by a granite wall…
Then consciousness and strong control returned.
Jack stood a moment, searching for a reason:
A bicyclist who’d knocked him off his stride;
A TIA of unknown origin;
A dog whose bark had drawn him off his path.
He gathered in the local cityscape,
Hoping to find a clue, or even proof
To settle questions still not fully formed.
He checked his phone to see the day and year,
Still shocked the 80’s had been done for decades.
Beyond that screen, familiar neighborhood...
Fall leaves, piled close to curbs, lay sleek with rain
That spotted his coat and spattered his floppy hat.
Above, long rows of plane trees, maples, oaks
Still formed green clouds despite fall’s growing gaps.
He recognized a postal clerk and waved.
The young man smiled and quickly passed him by.
Jack thought of a reply but chose to sigh.
Their intimacy progressed
to peeling socks
But stopped when Edgar tickled Sandra’s toes.
They had no covenant for such an act,
No signed agreement on the range allowed,
No state or mob approval. What to do?
Fidgeting while Sandra pulled up hose
Young Edgar looked askance at his bare feet.
The distance traveled on this sultry night
Seemed miniscule to what the evening cost.
They took on postures, both completely lost.
I chase the echoes of my
And find familiar rooms are strangers now:
Bare wood, where carpet used to lie; bare walls,
Where photographs and prints presented truth
That visitors were sure to smirk about;
Bare wires where chandeliers once hung; one lamp
Without a shade and set upon the floor.
Such empty spaces grow past measure when
A friend, or aunt, or grandmother moves on.
Today, a spider wanders through the hall
And bedrooms, searching for its web and prey.
The cleaners, though, have swept them all away.
A name, a dark stain in a
Has drawn me toward its author. Now long dead,
This name, who in his features, dress and look
(His large eyes’ whites revealing shades of red),
Still threatens from the desert’s boiling sand.
A ghost who’s leading beasts against our lives,
His purpose is to sever every strand –
Kalashnikovs and rockets joined with knives.
What love can be so strong as to persist,
To come again despite the stain of blood
And stink of death? And how can we resist
When his parades become a killing flood?
His new disciples race into our flames,
Invulnerable to weapons or our aims.
The pinup fluttered in the
wind, then ripped –
Its tatters loose and wild as severed wings.
Harvey, the old mechanic, laughed a bit,
Then shut the door. “She’s been there far too long.
They do get stale, you know.” He grinned at me,
Then shook his head when I gave no response.
He pushed aside old tools to get his book
And set down thoughts about my aging car.
Writing furiously, he stopped to talk.
“Your tires are far too old. They’re hard as bricks.
By Tuesday afternoon I’ll have a set.”
From Monday evening, six o’clock, not bad…
I nodded. Ride and handling had declined.
Harvey detected a trace of doubt from me.
“They’re ten years old.” I nodded once again.
“And Johnny, when the brakes begin to scrape…”
“I know. I know.”
“Another week, they fail…”
My neck was sore from nodding. Tires and brakes,
A battery and wipers too. “Say, Johnny,
Where’s the lady – been a while, you know?”
I couldn’t nod or speak to that just yet.
I hadn’t made adjustments for myself,
So how to change what others might expect?
I lied. “She couldn’t come today.”
And last week when you filled her up?”
Family visit – out of town.”
He didn’t. Amy may have gone to someone,
But who it might have been I’d no idea.
“Johnny, this will take at least a day.”
I took the cue. Tomorrow I would pay.
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History is a nightmare…
If Shelley’s grave
contained a set of fangs,
Would memory hunters steal them from those jaws?
And would they find a stake in the poet’s chest,
A proof he’d been unable
once to best
A virtuous Quincey and his moral laws?
Would fiction prove to be the real’s deep pangs,
The author’s soothing words
To knock us back to death’s sharp needled claws?
“Inevitability again, no rest,”
A cranky prophet shouts
outside the house
Where even bugs are running from a mouse.
The sight of the stars makes me dream.
Vincent Van Gogh
My radio was blaring –
A postage stamp of glow across the street
Suggested eyes without attendant ears.
I only had to reach across the bed
To touch a button and reduce the noise
To one less hard intrusion
from the boys
Who occupied the night. More like the dead
In some dark mission to unleash our fears,
The RF ghosts that offered us the treat
Of using our imagination, few
Remained from what had been
a raucous crew
When I first tuned. Art Bell suffered defeat
At last by dying. Truckers mourned for years,
Their cabs still echoing from what he’d said.
I hunted frantically for other joys.
Somewhere, I knew, hunting
across the nation,
I still could find some mystery-solving station.
When I look at my old pictures, all I can see is
what I used to be.
Aleksandar Hemon, The Lazarus Project
A rose, diminished by an
Made no attempt (and was no pioneer)
To slip between fresh-painted bars and flee
To someone else’s haunted prison yard.
To my old eyes, it had the look of fate
(Already wilting at a rapid
Its petals browning and no faithful guard
To bring it water). I could only see
Its future as a loan now in arrears,
And bankrupt properties collect no rents.
Plant or animal, we’re left
Along a road that’s paved with winter fears.
This fading rose (I think some might agree),
While distant analysts might well discard
Its message, represents for us a late,
And so far uncollected,
bill of sale
For what we’re driving toward – a fatal trail.
A reactionary is a somnambulist
The pastor was a throwback.
He made threats
If we did not obey his quotes of blather
Extracted from a long forgotten text.
The rumor was he’d cited Calvinists
Who raged against such hapless, guilty fools
Whose only value was to
play the tools
For Satan’s march against we optimists.
I sat below him in a pew, quite vexed
To be addressed by this new Cotton Mather
Who treated us like misbehaving pets.
This blessed teller
wouldn’t forgive our debts,
Nor even indicate which form. Rather,
He dressed us down, and shouted out “who’s next?”
He seemed to be a gruesome copyist
Of scriptures left behind by hateful ghouls.
At the end I wondered who
The ones who sat, or those who took the wafer.
A strange thing is memory...memory is a painter…
A level grade paved
straight across the plain
Of west Nebraska suffocated talk,
And flattened our singing to regretful hums.
The kids’ back seat fracas ended. They
Ignored my pleas to keep their seatbelts on
And stood behind me, silent
The headrests, seeing then, though far away,
The rising, jagged Rockies. Who keeps sums
Of moments such as these? Behind the block
Of things more current, not to mention pain
Inflicted by too many years
Why do we reach so far to just unlock
An image lost in time? What finger strums
That chord that we might sing of yesterday?
Or are we merely history’s hapless pawns?
“Imperative’s a word
I wouldn’t use,”
My young interrogator said aloud.
Her previous remarks had been asides
She’d whispered in a sleeve, not meant to hear.
No matter how I tried to read that hiss
(Which sounded more like
someone’s silent kiss
Than words of an assessment I should fear)
And might show more than her loud bona fides,
She gave me nothing till that statement. Proud,
Enounced with mild fury – not a ruse,
It bordered on a
A single witness would have been a crowd
To change her tone (as prejudice subsides
In cocktail parties mixed with practiced cheer).
I felt that, next, there might be an abyss
Into which I’d plunge,
But no! She smiled. For I had borne the cost.
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Now showing buds, the rose
bush bore new wounds
From pruning. Flowers would erase all traces
Of melted winter. Soil about lay bare,
Still much deprived of future plants and grass.
Six well-shod footprints and a rake’s deep lines
Gave proof of human interest in the season
But had been dotted dull by recent rain.
The gardener, though bald and gray as clouds,
Had lived to see another working year.
I nodded slightly to broadcast my cheer.
The old forsythia, a sloppy
Its bloom-filled branches sprawled across a fence,
Flowers already forming yellow splashes
To paint the dirty brick of a neighbor’s house,
Had let us know for years that spring had come.
In celebration of this change of season,
Arriving birds were going at it now.
And I could not prevent a robin’s beak
From snatching worms I’d better used for bait.
But – truth! I’ve not gone fishing now for decades.
The robin’s stomach and its hungry chicks
Were better served. That red breasted bird
Showed little interest in our flowering plants,
Brushing aside what petals had been lost
In last night’s late March wind. That howling blast
Had stripped magnolias across the street
Of half their swelling buds (become pink sparks
To light reluctant kindling – rising grass).
Now, if I had a rocker, I might nap,
Well-sated by the rising season’s sap.
After feigning death
through winter months
The trees are now unmasked by swelling buds.
Soon canopies of pink and white will spread
To bring new light to shadowed skeletons
And push the park’s old denizens toward spring.
There had been casualties of winter’s acts.
That fatal run convinced some innocents,
Converting what had been their natural joy
To artificial sorrow. They will learn,
Regardless of an errant sense or teacher.
New lessons will be showing flowers soon,
A panoply arising from what soil
Some had imagined held but browning bones.
But give them room and breath. We’ll cast no stones.
A crocus presses up to
A brown veneer of long since fallen leaves.
That sodden mass, already part-dissolved,
Slides greasily aside but will be holed
By rising tulip shoots. They’ll show no care
For preservation of what artifacts
Remain from last year’s now forgotten fall.
It is that way with history. Beyond
The heavy pulse of nature’s industry,
The casual skeletons of plants and people
Are only found beneath a crumbled steeple.
IS A DREAM
The kids have their
I like to draft new stories as I walk.
Today’s was similar to many others –
Events uncovered somewhere in the past,
Then forwarded in consequence till now.
These side trips can be dangerously distracting
(As, when driving, watching out for beauty
Can lead to dreamers wrapped around a tree).
Avoiding a car with squealing brakes, I stopped
And realized with a start that I’d reached home.
Then Mrs. Costello waved as I walked by.
Her dog, a setter, growled and whined at me.
Then Marty Smith held up a fist to pump.
And Joe, the critic down the street, looked out
From what he had been thinking as he walked.
No one acted any differently
For all my drafted story had achieved
In character, plot and witty dialogue.
No one familiar with me saw a thing
Of how some might have changed those morning hours.
I felt a trace of sorrow from this fact.
My moment’s fiction passed without a spike
Of interest from the local audience,
Their attention seized, as by the throat,
By lurid moments of reality
(Described as such in someone’s daily blog).
I felt wounded – foolishly of course,
For no one in the street had any notion
That I had lived a second life that morning.
I guess that I should put aside regrets
Recalling what the best some days forget:
These days, the inner life requires adorning.
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short sequence from the new collection Margie's
The old man had gone
missing since the day
We’d just resolved a fight by giving up,
Both white-flagging arguments we’d posed.
A fellow drinker nodded, thanked us both,
And signaled all the others at the bar.
Complainers too, they had raised up one voice
From time to time requesting us to stop
Our old dispute, or go outside and fight.
Can you imagine such a spectacle,
An old man and one middle-aged to box?
More likely wrestle until one had dropped…
Weary of war the two of us stood down.
He sacrificed convictions held for years
Through tears and chaser beers, while I stepped back
From a system of protected trenches where,
Whatever shot I tried to make, I missed.
We each gave up superiority,
Our airy, sober arguments set down
Upon a field where only drunks prevailed.
In short, we both surrendered, bringing peace.
The barkeep said she might renew her lease.
The two of us were regulars
And usually together at the bar.
The old man was consistent – never missed
Until just after peace had been declared
Between the two of us and other drinkers.
The evening that I noticed he’d gone missing
The rumor mill was oddly quiet, but
The crowd at Margie’s stared at me all night.
Their looks seemed sympathetic but suspicious
As though I was about to do real time
For some deep crime they nonetheless approved –
The murder of an enemy perhaps,
A targeted assassination done
To save their necks or mine. The barkeep, though,
Refused to talk. My tab was up to date,
My conversation casual and sane.
She wasn’t satisfied; she’d found a stain.
“I don’t believe our Adam
will be back.”
Hearing the old man’s name from Margie’s mouth
Reached low beneath the surface of my mood
To stir up bottom sand and chase what fish
Of thought were cruising near my quiet beach.
“What’s wrong?” I blurted after drawing breath.
(I’d been submerged, it seems, for several days.)
The barkeep/owner shook her head and turned
To serve another customer, my Liz,
Who’d just arrived to keep her love from drowning.
“He doesn’t want to hear the news.” Liz nodded
And reached to hold my shaking hand. I smiled
But closed my eyes until she bent to whisper:
“You know he can’t come back this time, not ever” –
A task she had no need to undertake
For we had both had attended Adam’s wake.
Delays caused by one’s death can last forever.
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Arthur Mortensen EPO Poems
Published Prior to 2023