EXPANSIVE POETRY ONLINE
A Journal of Contemporary Arts 

 

POEMS  

by

ARTHUR MORTENSEN

____________

BELL'S GHOST 
    
(a brief sequence)

     R-R-R-R-R-i-n-g...

The tavern’s phone, a Baekelite antique.
Began its noisy ring behind the bar.
Margie ignored that sound so well we thought
She might be going deaf. It rang again,
An electro-mechanical – a clanging bell…
Leaning on the wide, mahogany bar,
She should have felt the damned bell’s ring by then.
Vibrations through her wrist and elbows, gifts
From Mama Bell a century ago –
The Volunteers* insisting everyone
Should hear that ring, and those who can’t should feel.
We did, but Marjorie turned back all signs
Of having noticed someone reaching out.
She only glared when I began to shout.

           *The Bell Volunteers, formally named The Alexander Bell Association
                   for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing, founded 1890

FREQUENT CALLER

“I thought the phone was a collectible.”
She closed her eyes and sighed. I turned away.
Apparently I’d asked forbidden questions,
Such queries Margie’d heard so often that
She thought the questioner should move along –
For nothing would be seen or answered there.
Today our barkeep didn’t disappoint:
“I display collectibles on shelves.”
Indeed she did: old Sam’s abandoned wallet;
Gold pumps from Eleanor; a pair of gloves
Without a name or circumstance; my own
And best umbrella; Jason’s manuscript;
A further list too dusty to read out.
The Baekelite telephone jangled once again,
Unanswered, a sound to measure with Big Ben.

PILGRIM'S PROGRESS

At noon, her opening, I sat alone.
Then Margie asked me to look after things
The while she went to prep the lunch time chef.
She wouldn’t serve me with a drink just yet,
Thinking me sharper with a cup of coffee.
Her area behind the bar was stocked
(Sliced limes, oranges and lemons, ice,
With glassware hanging brilliant overhead).
The endless bar awaited oily elbows
And credit cards from those who had no cash.
Two short, black scars remained from cigarettes
Some drunk had carelessly abandoned back
When smoking was a habit seen in public.
I don’t know why she trusted me to watch
As I’m well-known as lackadaisical.
As well, I was the only customer
(Had she appointed me to watch myself?).
But then, startling me so much I jumped,
The ancient telephone began to ring.
Electromechanical jangle, never answered,
Ignored as long as I’d been drinking there,
It had become an object of obsession.
The while I turned those thoughts about my head,
The regulars were filling up the place.
My time as watchman was about to end.
The phone kept ringing -- on and on and on.
Who could be making all these futile calls,
Each one concluding with unanswered rings?
I reached across the bar to grab the handset,
Then pressed the earpiece hard against my ear,
The microphone as close against my mouth.
But finding me in such a dangerous show,
“No, no!” screamed Margie, but I said “Hello?”.
 


THE CONSEQUENCES OF SCIENCE

Obsessive, but informed by doing good
(Oliver Cromwell but without the bloodshed),
My act established that the constant caller
Was neither ghost nor other avatar.
The number in the tavern had belonged
To tenants from a prior era, a shop
That specialized in selling wholesale coffee.
Her store brand new, its inventories lists
To be fulfilled by telephone and shopping,
She’d found our number in a Yahoo search
And wished to order fifty bags today.
I disappointed her as best I could,
And when the now-known caller said “goodbye”,
A pleasant hint of kindness in her voice,
I employed my best in my response: “All right,
That’s good, Lizbeth. And don’t hesitate...”
By then surrounded by old regulars,
Whose looks suggested I might better die,
I filled the ebony cradle with its handset.
Eleanor P___, somewhat recovered now,
Put one gold pump upon my barstool’s base:
“My God, you thought to solve a mystery!
You think that now you’re ringing freedom’s bell?
Young man, you’ve brought new light to our sweet Hell.
We ought to hang you from the nearest tree.”


   EXILE AND RELIEF

Certain that old friendships were destroyed,
I stayed away from Margie’s bar for months
And found a local on Ninth Avenue
Where, as an unknown, I was left alone.
One early morning, one a.m. – last call –
I came back from the Men’s (old-fashioned bar)
To find a pretty woman by my stool.
At first I thought that Fred arranged her presence.
He was that kind of barkeep – unlike Margie
Who left the lonely to themselves. But no,
My latest confidante was not involved.
Old Sam, long lost from somewhere down the street,
Had brought a lovely woman to Fred’s bar.
And as she sat beside me, Sam just left
Without a word, sweeping through the door.
My new neighbor swept back her red hair
And looked at me. Such bright green eyes she had!
“I’m Lizbeth H___,” she said. Her voice said that.
I didn’t need the words. “I think we’ve met,
But on the telephone for bags of coffee.”
She stretched a hand across the narrow space
That separated us. Our fingers touched.
I thought that summer’d dressed her very well,
With little left to the imagination –
No need for twists and turns, just admiration.

 

_________________________

 

THE ARTIST'S ELECTION

J_ started whitewashing at 4 a.m.
Presuming rightly none would be awake.
By civil dawn, at just past 6 a.m.,
He’d painted all the road and street signs white.
Two hours later, as the traffic jams
His work inspired had stopped most businesses,
Town schoolbuses, just starting out, were blocked
Before their drivers found a single child.
Police were called but couldn’t find the street
Where J_ had now progressed to painting buildings,
With City Hall the first. Now Mayor D_,
Who’d stayed the night to fight for someone’s rights
(Or so the actualities reported),
Emerged at 7:03 to find his car,
Official black and big enough for six,
Now painted with a brilliant white enamel.
His driver, Marvin K_, was also paled,
A whitened garden statue holding the door.
“Well, M., at least you are more visible.”
The driver had been suffocated though;
And drying paint was all that held him up.
The Mayor heard a sound, a squishy wet,
Then turned and instantly felt deep regret.


K
EEPING THE PEACE

In Margie’s Bar one lonesome Saturday,
At half past 2 p.m., midafternoon,
With March winds whistling through a bathroom window,
Our sole mixologist retreated fast
Confronted by a drunk who knew her business.
“Don’t think that you can fool me with cheap booze,”
The loser moaned as he approached the bar
(Chasing patrons with his rotten breath –
“An open coffin left out in the sun”,
Someone parenthetically remarked).
“Ten dollar scotch in fifty dollar bottles
Might fool an amateur, but not this guy.
I’ve been here far too long to play that role,”
The toper told those tipplers not yet prone.
Much used to issued challenges at work,
The barkeep skillfully escaped this jerk
By feinting left, as if to use the phone.

FALLING SHORT

A dopplered screaming crossed the morning sky,
Its source tracing dark blue with streaks of white.
A brilliant flash of light, a heavy thump,
And then a silence through the neighborhood
As birds and animals, including people,
Assessed both light and sound, trying to sense
Some indication marking what would follow.
Believers in doom might say “a tidal wave,
Or worse, a supersonic shock and blast.”
But disappointing them, including me,
No waters rose, no roaring wind, no fire,
Just drifting contrails remnants of desire.

 

_________________________


MODERN BALL

“A kiss once cost me dinner and a club,”
The storyteller said – not playing dead
That morning. “Standards’ve surely slipped, I’d say,
For nowadays a friendly invitation
Seems more than adequate.” His time was past,
Of course, his Nehru jacket an antique,
His thoughts of love as a commodity
More dated than his high-top tennis shoes –
Two relics from another age of sport.
Driving toward the basket’s now passé;
One turns at thirty feet to take a shot.
Close contact’s now regarded as a plot.

RIVERSCAPE

The Dedekind cut between the air and water
Will shimmer underneath the grayest fog;
Photographers will say: “...ah-hah! I’ve got her!”
Recording incidental light – a log
They’ll publish without thanking God or nature.
Their prints will show appearances of mass,
The river or canal a captured creature
Released from prison on a one-day pass.

But we know nothing’s there but what divides
The realm of fish and crabs from that of men,
A glitter molded by the atmosphere
Above and currents just below. One glides;
The other surges, trading oxygen,
A whispered scent, but not as might appear

PANDEMIC CAMOUFLAGE

He thought he must be Agnon’s dog, cast out
Because a label that he couldn’t see
Was painted in ill words across his back.
What other explanation could expose
The reasons friends and relatives employed
To justify expelling him from life?
For that is what had happened. Standing there,
Corner of Smith and 9th, amid a crowd,
Not one familiar face acknowledged his.
He waved; he smiled; he shouted out “hello!”
He tried a somersault but landed badly.
Passersby in masks looked on him sadly.

SAFE HAVEN

This room’s preserved for hours we want alone.
The desk disordered heaps -- important paper;
The socket empty where we plugged a phone:
No crenellated castle could be safer.
Beneath two blankets and a well-stuffed quilt,
Atop a mattress, wrapped in silky sheets,
We know we’re safe inside the space we’ve built;
No message of despair, once heard, repeats.

Don’t look about for artificial life;
The television hasn’t worked in years.
Besides, the programs always were a bore
Between the soaps and manufactured strife.
In here we put away our arty tears,
But keep our feet above the flooded floor.

 

OLD BOY'S TALE

Claiming I’m right to wrong you every day;
I prove I’m clueless to restrain a heart
That’s loyal to betrayal; beg you stay
When what I’ve said demands that you depart.
Standing on principle when you lie down
I rage at purse-lipped silence when I shout.
And, when you try to laugh away my clown,
I weep my makeup off and call you lout.

After, in darkness then, I see a glimmer,
A boy’s ghost light, and hear my father’s song
Echo beneath a stage I will not climb.
And, in a shadowed mirror, I see shimmer
Reflections spilled by one who’d rather wrong
His love than make that man a voiceless mime.

 

 

_________________________

STAR TURN  

When stars explode, their agents suffocate
Beneath a rain of superheated plasma.
Rebranding spills across the heavenly sphere
And audiences melt into their seats.
All tantrums carry risk, but these outbursts
Explode the publicist’s claim that this will pass.
Alas, the universe itself will follow,
Leaving all of space a vacant hollow.

FATHERS AND DAUGHTERS

Out front of Henry H_’s house – the 4th,
A flag waved slowly in a quiet breeze,
Unfurling, filling up, unfurling again.
As onlookers across the wooded street
Stood up to shout a warning to the owner,
A little girl, clutching a burning twig,
Reached out to set the nation’s flag on fire.
A well-armed neighbor set aside his rifle
And shook his head. An angry mother wept
And tried to beat the flames away. Too late!
The empty heat consumed the stars and stripes.
The girl’s father, there to pick her up
(That half of custody that she preferred),
Said nothing while he snatched away his daughter.
The owner of the house came out, prepared,
It seemed, for any small contingency,
Unpacked another flag, and hung it proud.
Some days a protest isn’t very loud.

IN HIS DEBT

The poodle seated on the dais barked,
Extracting from the seated diners moans –
A low, collective groan, for they all knew
Their guest of honor had become impatient.
The poodle struggled upright on two legs
And, twisting back and forth, barked louder still.
“There’s little worse than an impatient Mayor,”
Someone not in touch with politesse
Remarked outside the circle marked for FRIENDS.
But FRIENDS of whom, this writer thought in a silence
The Mayor had bequeathed as his best gift
To those not known to be constituents.
The poodle leapt up on the table, snarling,
Its hind legs knocking teacups to the floor.
A woman not its idle mistress shrieked.
A lady not in waiting hurtled out,
Clutching her peeled off heels, and on bare feet.
“I suppose you’ve all been wondering what I’ll say,”
The poodle said, now masked as New York’s Mayor.
In spite of honor, pride and place, all bowed
While someone closer to the dais wept
And filled his new-pressed handkerchief with tears.
This is the life of cities in arrears.

THE SPY

A rag of paper, blown across the street,
Was caught by leaves and held for idle readers.
And there one came, whistling some old tune,
With eyes gaped wide with foolish expectation.
He snatched the tattered sheet and held it up
For close examination. Wrinkling brows,
He stretched the crumpled paper out a bit,
Put on a pair of reading glasses, read
What couldn’t be more than a hundred words.
Then such a look of shock transformed a face
That heretofore had been as blank as paste,
Creating a facsimile of startled.
He balled the message up, then looked about
To find a garbage can, then carefully,
And thoughtfully, and purposefully, stuffed
The souvenir of what had frightened him
In some recess beneath the orange peels, grinds,
The fly-attracting chicken carcass, cans
Not quite relieved of beans and other slop,
And one now fat-and-oil drenched New York Times.
His mission accomplished, and waving off the flies,
The only one of us who knew what words
Had been imprinted there walked down the street,
His secret safe beneath some rotten meat.

MASCOT

A condor immigrating from the Andes
Glided across the park’s expanse to land
Beside the Delacorte. What lines he’d say
Lacked relevance before an empty house,
The humans chased away by viruses,
Unruly rioters and politicians.
The great bird strutted and fretted about the stage
Where not a scrap of carrion lay cold
And bloody. Even squirrels and rats had fled –
That long before the condor’s mighty entrance.
Distracting the performer altogether
Some other spectre haunted this old theater,
Its dust adrift from distant continents
Where powers debated how the play would end.
Uncertain and afraid, and as an actor
Unable to invoke a heard response,
The big bird’s wings began to sag and pull
The creature down. An onlooker could see
(If onlookers had been allowed to watch)
A struggle tearing brain from body, voice –
To leave a heap of feathers, not a choice.

 

______________________________


COMBERS AT REST

A toppled marble column in tall grass;
A long abandoned temple on the bluff;
A partial torso of a well-draped goddess:
Antiquity still littered renewed nature
To where ten thousand bathers filled the beach,
Not one aware of who had gone before.
My dear and I reclined beneath a cypress
That spilled its cone of shade past our cabaña.
Three seagulls angled toward an onshore breeze
Pressed inland by a front still miles away.
My love had packed the leftovers from lunch
And I, reluctantly, had carted trash.
We were prepared to leave despite the sun,
Which still warmed skin and cleared our aging eyes
Of captivating daydreams and regrets.
Persistent giggling and then shouting filled
Our ears as children swirled about like birds.
We filled the space between us with sweet words.

 

DEALER WINS

If ‘X’ can turn toward ‘Y’ before a ‘Z’
Can intercept, what chance have we to spell
Relief for some great champion of letters?
One has to recognize the strength of bettors
In their good play on odds to cover Hell.
We’ve shelved the notion that we can be free.

We brush away the kibbitzers who’d help
Us win a trick, while in another suit
We bow and scrape without a sigh or yelp
To anyone who wears a polished boot.
And thus, without support from any rule,
And confident that we will bear the loss,
We happily submit to any fool
Who offers us the proof that it’s a boss.

 

IMAGE MANAGEMENT

A stylish beard weighed down his fragile face
To keep it well-secured upon his skull.
Sadly, he found this method could erase
All trace of his appearance. Once a dull,
Too woundable, pale, and easily broken plate,
The presence of a well-trimmed, black Van Dyke
Converted weakness to new power’s trait
To overcome a general dislike.
Then all he stood for in his recent past
When a bare, pathetic face could rouse no votes,
Returned to overpower even vast
Regimes of gossip and advice. One notes
With sorrow the loss of a familiar friend,
Who sacrificed weak looks to win his end.

 

BREAKING QUARANTINE

If apples had wings, could Satan still tempt Eve?
In lonely isolation speculation
Can invent new stories to believe,
A troublemaking kind of ideation.
With that in mind I used my telephone
To pierce a shield that had concealed a friend
For months. He answered with a verbal stone:
“You’re far too late. I’ve gone around the bend.”
I tried to bend his ear with sweetened words,
As “nice to hear,” and “glad you’re feeling well.,”
But he responded with mass of sherds,
“The ruins of my life, cast up from Hell...”
Invoking sociability, I’d brought
The opposite of everything I sought.
 


DENIZEN

A large gray rat sat quietly, exposed
Beside the subway tracks, reading The Times.
What article the creature chose to read
Was blocked from view. A beach umbrella, red,
And floating on a metal mast, obscured
The text that drew those beady eyes away
From lunch time morsels scattered by commuters.
A loud arrival forced the rat to leave,
First folding its umbrella and its paper,
Then scampering underneath the crowded platform.
I looked at the single person whom I knew.
And she gazed back. We shook our heads. We sighed,
Though no one heard above the screeching train.
When underground, such sights still shock a brain.

JUNE 2020

Arriving overnight on spring’s fresh air,
The sixth month presses us to stay outside,
Forsake May, April shelters, scorn the rain,
Enjoy last, fading blooms of early flowers,
And settle into summer’s advent now.
Cool temperatures, however, minor plagues,
And rioting that’s staged across the country,
Restrict temptation’s life to twilight dreams
Of summer nights upon a quiet beach.
There, shells suggest what lies beyond our reach.
 

FLATTENING THE CURVE

To spite high wind that howled throughout the night,
The twisted branches crossing my front window
Shattered no pane, and barely scratched the frame.
The most disturbing sound, a rattling chain
That kept the screen door safe from swinging wide,
Kept me awake – kching, kching, kching.
I hunted for Bob Marley’s latent image
But literature was not my source of dread.
It was the sense that I had passed this way
So many times throughout a quiet life.
That’s how my passage through was seen by friends –
A beach untouched by hurricane or tide.
Ha! But how little we expose in speech.
The thoughts behind and underneath our acts
Are like the branches scratching my screen door,
A shadow play that twists from an abyss
That will not yield its depths to any kiss.

______________________________

 

ESCAPING QUARANTINE

Escaping notice from those slipping by
(Pretending that they were not really there)
A group of daffodils began to crowd
A still bare tree – no other yard so blessed.
But a sunny corner by a shuttered shop
Exposed forsysthia – a single shrub.
Each dared to challenge our fragility.

NO FRESH START

“Remember the ancient times, for they were best,”
The old man said, forgetting one detail,
That ancient times for him were not my own.
Arising from the glut of memory
They roadblocked conversation in both lanes.
The language that he slurred – the one I knew...
I rode a bicycle, and he a truck.
And neither one could pass the other stopped.
What could we do but turn off our own paths
And head in new directions aimlessly?
Pretending then to be original
I could ignore his path while he declared
My late invention on the map a fraud.
Some said we weren’t unique, just slightly odd.

MEMORIAL, MARCH 15TH, 2020

A birthday comes and goes. I do remember.
It all began in 1925,
My father springing forth to start a life.
A noisy hour, a quiet year, an age
So far departed from our messy time
It more resembles dusty paintings hung
For decades on a wall obscured by shadows.
While some of us might come to see or learn,
And possibly reflect on one who’s passed,
When moss has reached the unknown subject’s lips
The curator no longer finds the magic
That patrons want to sense from modern art.
The works are taken down, cleaned off, and stored.
Their only life will be as artifacts
That mark the dated years of this or that,
As when a grandmother had worn this hat.

HIS MOMENT

Abstracted from a church’s silent tower,
And aged to show a century of use,
A clock face leaned against the upstage wall,
Suspended from a batten overhead.
The hour, set close to one, would not be seen
By members of the audience until
The second act. He had to fly it first.
The stage was far too small for permanence.
While actors pled each other’s cases near
The first act’s noisy end, our flyman loosed
The knot to free the line, whispering “heads,
And lineset four is on its way in one...” –
A strict formality. He stood alone,
A solitary figure hoisting time.
This single moment in a coming act
Would hold position less than thirty seconds
Before, his hour passed, it sank from sight.

 

______________________________

 

THE FALL OF A SPARROW

The engines, rumbling beyond the fog’s frontier,
Invisible but felt in every rivet,
No longer offered pulsing reassurance.
Their roar had come to terrify the crew:
The navigator, still without a drop
To bring him consolation; and the pilot,
Untouched by one hard shot. She didn’t doubt
With engines silent, she would look outside,
Assure the props were slowly winding down,
And hear a gliding song of whistling, hissing.
Emerging at a shallow angle, she’d
Expect but modest seas, a living island,
A ship, a whale, a seagull, something floating,
Yes, something fixed and solid, real and hard,
An object recognizable at last --
All this a fantasy of course. She groaned.
“Goddammit, Fred, where are we now?”
                                                               “Don’t know,
Still plotting. Keep a lookout; don’t be scared.”
She shook her head. Fred’s plots had put them here,
Where all the air would offer now was gray;
And in that sameness motors drowned out hope.
What had this odd condition risen from?
The sun had blazed upon the sea since dawn,
But then the sky closed in; the ocean vanished.
The radio didn’t work; they couldn’t see.
With some assurance that she knew the way,
She’d flown on instruments for many hours.
And yet she couldn’t stop her anxious fretting.
Fred’s reassurances seemed soaked in gin.
Who’d ever heard of fog out here so far?
She didn’t know how long they’d been aloft.
Clocks stopped at 20:14 GMT.
They had no understanding as to why.
The cycle of the engine sounds was not
Sufficient as a substitute for clocks.
To overcome anxiety and dread,
She hunted RDF but -- nothing there.
Her navigator tried to count out seconds,
But just as Fred reached minutes, he gave up,
Although he shouted that he was still there.
Amid faint glows behind the extra tanks,
He sat before a navigation table
Firmly grasping his trade’s small tools. A sextant,
However, cannot sight a hidden sun.
She banked a little; then she straightened out.
“The compasses responded!”
                                            “Exactly so.”
His voice was briefly reassuring, but
In truth, they were not speaking very much.
Of conversation topics they’d explored
Few better fit their current circumstances
Than silence. Radio only buzzed and hissed,
While engines, rumbling still beyond the fog,
Spoke nothing but a lack of reassurance.
Invisible but felt in every rivet,
Their roar had come to terrify the crew.
The rushing sound outside the fragile glass
Would likelier put them both to fatal sleep
Than stir up intimations of the hour.
She tapped the artificial horizon’s glass;
She flicked the tach, a clock, altimeter.
Their indications didn’t change at all --
Fixed for many hours, or so it seemed.
The autopilot had its strengths, but this
Perfection made it seem that they had landed
So steady was their progress, still their flight.
The slipstream rushing past said otherwise.
Thick condensation from the heavy fog
Streaked windshield, windows, and the fuselage.
Straining to find some evidence of life,
She looked beyond the windows, port and starboard.
But there was nothing new for her to see.
The Electra’s silver wings had gotten dull
As though they’d flown across the wide Sahara,
Where clouds of sand had ground away the polish.
A thundering voice intruded on her thoughts.
“Try radio again!” She twitched and turned.

“You’re still back there?” 
                                        “And where else then?” He laughed;
She smacked the Bendix hard; a light came on,
And then she heard a loud and crackling sound.
She didn’t hesitate to try their call:
“KHAQQ to anyone.”

The Pratt & Whitney Wasps continued roaring.

“KHAQQ to anyone.”

The Hamilton Standard variable pitch propellers
Kept spinning without a change of speed or angle.

“KHAQQ to anyone.”

The motors, pulsing still beyond the fog,
No longer offered rumbling reassurance,
Invisible but felt in every cell,
Their roar a source of rising terror now.
And worse, she’d had no radio response.
Suspecting some unusual effect,
A sunspot’s static, or a lightning strike,
She took them further down, then further still
Until their altitude was just 2,000.
“Show me something! Just one metal mast
That’s sticking up above the surface clouds!
The bridge of a passing ship, another plane” --
But still the fog persisted. “Goddam radio!”

“What is the problem now? Be honest, Em.”

“We’ve got no ears to listen for a ship.”

“Who sold the Bendix?”
                                     “He said it was the best,
And that they were a sponsor and entitled.”

“In other words, the usual horseshit.”
                                                          “Yes”
They always had to shout above the noise,
But conversation now was more like screaming.

“What about fuel?”
                             “Empty, desert dry....”

“Then what?”
                    “Be quiet, Fred. Be quiet now.”
That laugh again -- found himself a bottle?
And what to say about the fuel gauge readings?
The needle bounced against the pin marked ’E’
Where it had lingered now for many hours.
And so, what else to say? Her only comfort:
The Sperry held them level, straight, and true.

Still, the engines, rumbling beyond the fog,
Could not offer pulsing reassurance.
Invisible but felt in every rivet,
Their roar could only terrify the crew.
Try sitting eighteen hours or more; try twenty.
Everything hurt; she couldn’t even pee.
The only help was from a lack of water;
She hadn’t touched the new canteen. And yet,
While one restriction helped with continence,
Her lips were cracked; her mouth was cotton dry;
And speaking had begun to hurt her throat.
“Goddammit, Fred.”
                               “What now?”
                                                   “Are you still drunk?”
That laugh again -- was that a heavy bottle
He slammed upon his table? “Not a chance.
The object is to find our way to Howland.
If I’m not straight I can’t do that, my dear.”
She laughed as best she could; it wasn’t shared.
Perhaps the noise had made her partner deaf.
A crackle on the radio, a word?
She grabbed the microphone and shouted out:

“KHAQQ to ship Itasca.
We must be on you, but we cannot see you.”
And still more incoherent crackling sounds,
A monster hiding in the fog, she thought.
Her navigator handed her a chart
Across the bulkhead of the narrow cockpit.
He’d marked a north/south course.
                                                        “You ought to try.
I’m sure we’re just about to cross this line.”
Switching off the Sperry, she banked left,
While dropping lower still. She straightened out,
Then grabbed the Bendix microphone again.

“KHAQQ to ship Itasca:
On line -- point five seven dash three three seven.
We now are running this line north and south.”
The Bendix whispered static, nothing more.
She harshly slapped its metal case and groaned.
Her partner shouted from the rear again.

“Let’s hold that course!”
                                      “I’ve got it now.”
                                                                “Hold tight.”

The engines, rumbling beyond the fog’s frontier,
No longer offered pulsing reassurance,
Invisible but felt in every rivet.
Their noise had come to terrify the crew.

 

 

 

______________________________

 

BREAKTHROUGH

Outside the hall where both of us taught classes,
With fall's new darkness heavy on the quad,
And though we barely knew each other past
The confines of our shared profession, still
I tried to comfort her in her distress.
The only symptom that I knew about:
She'd sobbed for hours, though I knew not why.
I felt a little helpless in the effort.
Addressing sorrow as a state of pain
Falls short -- a cure for cancer where the cause
And location of the tumor are unknown.
Attempted cure -- she kept on sobbing there,
Just inside the portico's protection
From rain far heavier than copious tears.
Eventually I couldn't hold her longer,
And far from sensing what aroused her pain,
In lacking comprehension of what hurt,
I fell upon my own disturbances:
Those fevers of abandonment and loss
That I had never treated with a pill
Of sour complaint, then washed away with weeping.
It wasn't long before I felt the need
To drift away from such unpleasant thoughts,
Thus leaving her without her new umbrella.
I noticed as I pulled the black door wide,
And just before I slipped inside to safety,
She looked at me as though she'd made a new,
Significant discovery. I paused.
We shared another glance. I closed the door,
Noting my footprints' track across the floor.

 

___________________

 

 

CLASS CLOWN

Now most of us loquacious birds resolved
To hold our own against the thugs who’d rule
Our nests by right of what they own. But some --
I’m thinking now of our friend Andrew B --
Act out the role of intellectual jester.
While teasing tyrants, he adores them more.
And Andrew has what my love calls the gall
To manufacture rationales for power --
We sometimes call him Machiavelli’s parrot.
And when we have the glory of his visits,
He chats and caws away all day until
The only choice for hearing something else
Is move away. But he pursues us still,
And by his ranting hoping to impose
The fantasy his masters hold about
Themselves, that they alone originate
The words we say. And if we disagree
We are revanchist gangsters, fascist pigs
Whose only gift is to repeat what villains
Release outside the normal chain of chat.
But who, save them, can match with that description?
Because they have the power to dominate
The room with noises from themselves (or Andrew)
They do precisely mirror what they hate,
And by their screaming do illuminate.

 

WITNESS

The fall of a sparrow, unremarked, drew close
Attention from a passing nun. Her dress
Proclaimed her secular. A dangling cross,
However, called to mind a distant vow
When few who witnessed shared her firm belief.

We knew what was expected, for the brief
On managing the fallen did allow
Us moments to consider such a loss.
We stared, but, to relieve her own duress,
She knelt and pressed her palms, to juxtapose

Her observation with our own, dispose
Our doubts against her faith, and thus to press
Her now against our future. Then, to gloss
Our sketchy choices, and perhaps endow
Our presence with a measure of real grief,

We offered her an unstained handkerchief
To wrap the feathered dead. She touched her brow,
But otherwise remained an albatross,
Soaring above our hapless heads to bless
Before she hung about our necks. A rose

Uprooted from a church's garden spent
Last moments trying to cover up her scent.

 

 

 

Visitor

I heard a tiny noise, the click of claws
On furniture. I wasn't startled, no.
A window open with no barring screen
Was invitation to a visitor.
I caught a glittering eye and switched on lights
To be confronted by a silent crow.
I rose in bed to look more closely but
My dark companion neither moved nor breathed.
I don't keep birds, alive or dead, or know
A taxidermist with a sense of humor,
But crows are rarely known for brooding silence.
Although its stalwart stance and brilliant eye
To me suggested voiceless watchfulness,
A silent crow was much more likely dead,
Although -- standing by my bed, unlikely.
And so, without a laugh, or trace of knowledge,
I dared approach; the black thing didn't stir.
I reached, fingers extended, to touch its bill
Which did not open, snap or otherwise
Respond as if my touch would not be welcomed.
Its eyes lacked blinks or any other movement.
I stroked a single feather on a wing.
Its jet black barbs and barbules didn't quiver,
Nor did its square-cut tail wave up and down.
Its deep black claws remained precisely locked
As though the bureau's top were made of glue.
I watched a while but, growing weary, sat,
Then slumped, asleep against a heap of pillows.
At sunrise, when I started from a dream,
My bureau's top stood empty, clean and dry,
A proof the avian dead can sometimes fly.

 

The Shunning Game

 

The club's reunion meeting started late.

I noticed that our unelected leader

Had got herself all twisted in a speech.

She stuttered futures she could not define

Without resort to thick and dull abstractions.

This course of rhetoric convinced the man

Who stood inside my suit to step aside.

In this it looked to me I was unique,

For the members gathered hadn't doffed their suits

Confronted by conformity. Instead

They pleaded for acknowledgment by voice,

As if locution set them each apart.

I did raise mine at once, a clear, fine sound

Articulating nouns and verbs in order,

And aimed at answering every question posed.

Despite these merits, no one seemed to hear.

An old friend smiled but then she turned away.

In fact, I noticed many backs were turned.

I wondered if my tongue had gotten burned.

 

 

PUBLIC CONFESSIONAL

One thing Moira did; she paid attention,
Watching each move the Senator would make
Whether in the office or on tours
To greet constituents and major donors.
She watched his hands and arms as he campaigned.
He didn't hesitate to hug the men,
But for the women he would always bow,
Clasping his hands together, never crossing
A barrier as strong as ferro-concrete.
When called into his office, she saw much more:
His ground floor office was exposed to view,
The curtains open -- passersby would wave;
A gate on either side of his oak desk;
A line of chairs set carefully back from that;
And a door that never closed. The latter caused
Her some distress when she had failed a job,
Embarrassing both office and its holder.
She wanted to discretely tell her story.
"Don't close the door," he said, and stepped inside
His little fortress, stopping to acknowledge
A Pinkerton guard who paced the walk outside.
"So what's gone on?" he asked in normal voice,
I.e., one heard throughout the busy office.
An equal volume was her only choice
Lest some might hear in whispers proof of guilt.
"Well, live and learn," he said, turning to take
A call that loudly beeped his yellow cellphone.
She told me later she had felt alone.

 

Abandoned Out

A baseball streaked across the sky, and I,
Sensing a change of climate, chased that arc
Until it ended in a cracked old mitt
That someone'd dropped beside a heaping dumpster.
Nestled in that glove's unoiled pocket,
A prize awaited my acceptance of
Its accidental nature: how it fell
To gravity, not will; and then was caught
By no one visible. That called to mind
A question: if a fielder dropped his mitt
And that was all that kept a batted ball
From landing fair, would there be an out?
The only answer was a distant shout.

 


 

 

 

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