Arthur Mortensen EPO
Poems Prior to 2023
A tiny, artificial jungle,
With phlox; enormous, wilting irises;
With waves of cleome still partly blooming
(Delicate tendrilled flowers dangling, loose);
And ranks of sunflowers, heavy with seedy blooms,
Now largely stripped of fringing yellow petals –
A vast interior in a tiny plot
Contained what summer souvenirs remained.
While all about green leaves began to turn
From harvesting the light to changing color,
This single yard retained last days of August.
But even sentimentalists began
To turn away to face the coming season.
They had the evidence, if not the reason.
The joshua plants, full
flower now, ten feet,
Are whipped about by fall’s rough, morning winds.
With plunging temperatures and thinning light,
Already stretched-out shadows cross the street.
The garden’s jungle growth will start to dry
And soon to melt away in drying soil.
The cleome will shrink and blow apart
While phlox turns brown and grass begins to gray.
What’s coming next month no one wants to say.
New thunder rips the air –
five seconds off,
A mile or so. A boiling cloud hangs there.
It’s slipping through a sky-wide field of gray,
No surreptitious current but a swath,
Our promised drench of rain this first fall day.
Old leaves, still green, hang strong enough to hold
Against hard rain and swiftly rising wind.
But with fast-dropping temperatures, the day
Of reckoning approaches just behind
Today’s loud storm, with fragile leaves to fall
And whirl across the park like clustered flies.
A whisper overheard beneath
Echoing amid loud honks and thumping tires
(With the occasional squealing skid and crash),
Can turn a jaded eye toward watching out
For ‘bangers looking for an easy mark.
For those with keener ears, the words reveal
No kindred soul, but someone’s city Siren.
Filling the space between the shouts and traffic
With phrases culled from movies and the News,
Occasionally the voice will slip her mask
And wail for passersby her city blues.
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A nightingale lay dead upon
From warm-brown body to its rufous tail,
From gray-green beak to pinker feet, it lay,
Its wings outspread, its voice an emptied echo,
Its eyes a murky black, forever blind –
Excruciatingly dumb and stinking now.
Across the wrecked room’s shattered furniture,
A wounded Russian sergeant tried to laugh.
An enemy had holed his chest and leg
Exactly at that moment when he found
The little corpse inside the blasted coppice –
A murderous haunt for flies this summer eve.
Was it the nightingale that kept a vigil
Over a mother and her young asleep?
Reeling in pain, but getting off a shot
Before he fell to what he thought was death,
The sergeant put the bird inside his pocket,
That just before the medic raced to help
(And empty some dull opiate to the drains).
What happy songs to cheer the peasants now?,
The sergeant may have thought, gasping a little.
His mate, the corporal, was more disturbed
By what could only be a gurgling sound –
A rising flood inside a tattered lung.
The sergeant may have thought about the darkness
That settled around the edges of his vision,
About a bird’s song he had never heard –
But of his mother’s tender voice no word.
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No cause having been found, we decided to search
for evidence of the war's passage.
One dead father and a slave
To this old day a thousand years ago,
And now it holds a celebration for
A saint who stopped a storm and healed a wound.
But no one celebrates today. Outside,
Old men, gathered beside the ancient church
Where they had not attended Mass in years,
Were shouting at each other that the young
Must learn to die for what the old believed
But did not practice. One youth tried the door
But mandates from the old had locked it tight,
This rule enforced to keep real worshippers
Immune from forces tempting them outside.
“Well, damn it all,” a youngster said aloud,
Then swung an ax that broke the lock that kept
The several worshippers within too safe
To notice that they might one day be dead.
The priest did not respond, already fled.
Dark, empty silos marked
the old regime,
That, and stapled tin foil search radars
In which reflective surfaces showed birds
Avoiding sudden death, but found no missiles –
A comedy inspired by a fight
In which contestants could not throw a punch.
The show especially charmed those younger folks
(Such as a younger cousin and her husband)
To find employment in inspecting proofs
Our adversary’d played us for a dunce
By filling missile fields with empty holes.
But that was once. Today, our fear is real,
A witless enemy upholding threats
With terrifying racks of modern toys
For boys to smash and burn competitors.
A modern Peter seeking greater fame
Won’t substitute for war a table game.
Winter’s last day, an
Arctic gasp, cheap thrill
I’d do without until November – late,
I pray, with roses for Thanksgiving day,
No snow before the New Year’s festival.
Surprises, though, abscond with casual hopes,
And tropes designed to fit a season’s plan
Will often slip and fall on frozen ground.
With rumbles east evolving into screams,
What chance have we to live out our best dreams?
“I’d like to start a fire
before I die,”
The old man said, a forbidden cigarette
Inserted just between his lips (unlit).
He’d disappointed hundreds, maybe thousands,
Spending his time in signing documents
Already stamped with someone else’s “Yes”.
One day, two dozen years ago or more,
He’d promised action on important fronts.
Some dunce believed until advised to stop
By someone more in tune with what was real,
Who knew such striving’s all designed to steal.
Some days, he woke up to
the sound of bombs
And thought it must be someone’s comedy,
Moss Hart alighting on an eastern stage,
The sky lit up by Klieg lights and a plan
To cure a sleeper’s exit from bad dreams.
Some days went by with nothing but applause
For acts he wished he’d never had to do.
Some days, the urgent ride from street to alley,
The hurried traipsing underground to say
To someone that a living hope remained
Beyond the dull perimeters of death,
Was written far outside the lines he’d learned.
Those writers, he could see, were dead and burned.
Some days he didn’t care to draw a breath.
An apple a day, a phrase
that rocked and echoed
Along the emptied, shattered corridors
Of what had been the last best hope for many,
Was now a risible phrase to cheer the dead.
Inside Command, surrounded by his staff,
The Great One’s finger traced a photograph
An air force general had offered him
To counteract bad news from on the ground.
There tanks once called invincible lay burning,
Their dead and injured crews some local’s trophies.
The hospital, knocked down by safer rockets,
No longer offered comfort to such foes
As those left down and broken, dead or dying.
Instead, a mound of rendered steel and brick,
Stained gray by ferro-concrete atomized,
Marked out the boundaries where care could sing
Until the war had overthrown their king.
I’m Rodney Dangerfield,
he thought. Alone,
He had escaped from poorly knotted ropes
That tank crew 34 had tied to keep
The colonel’s orders from their dainty ears.
“I don’t get respect,” he said aloud,
Amusing someone who looked on his state
While she explored the wreckage for a prize
(Her fingers black with soot), a useful toy --
The Makarov he’d lost while fighting back
Against a tiny corps of his own men.
And there she had it, something to exchange
For cigarettes, a loaf of bread, a cheese.
But no, she turned to look at him, then aimed.
The angel hadn’t visited
An appearance easing many seniors’ fears.
In those now reaching past
Where faith and doctors kept them still alive,
Who still could quote
Of Russia’s thugs, whose bloody heirs still rule,
The slaughter sent by
rockets, bombs and tanks
Was cutting deeply into elder ranks.
pharmacies set fire,
Bicyclists killed for sport, a tumbled spire:
The orcs were
shooting everything in sight,
With propaganda claiming a fair fight.
The arrival of the
warrior’s patron saint,
A harbinger of hope, made killers faint
But raised the wounded from
their bloody sheets
To pray and struggle for the Beast’s defeat.
trees, the pond
Still held its water, but the thirsting saw,
Across the way, a crumpled piece of wreckage,
A burnt-out APC still leaking fluid,
Its melted tires and broken wheels half-drowned.
The rainbow of forgiveness they had seen
Across the surface of the little lake
Was diesel oil, poisoning what they’d drink.
The leader of the little group pulled back
From where she’d knelt beside the ashen shore.
To somber questioning she shook her head:
“Anyone who drinks here will be dead.”
The bedroom’s eastern wall
was missing now,
Its fragments littering the court below.
The tenant had been visiting a friend
She’d met in 1945 in camp
(A smoking horror they’d survived together).
And then, in dismal weather they were out
Trying to make a feast of rice and beans
On someone’s wreckage-littered patio.
As such, she missed the rocket’s glancing blow.
It left her dressers and her bed intact
As if they had been welded to the floor.
The mirror on the wall, however, shattered –
Across the floor, beneath the bed, a field
Of glitter stretching to her untouched bathroom.
And when the firefighters let her in
To see what she could find to carry off,
The ancient woman saw her scattered image –
“In broken glass, a hundred lesser faces...”
Across a carpet that her husband bought
In 1968. He’d died in ‘90,
Just short, she thought, of liberation now
In jeopardy again from eastern cousins.
(Adjacent to the grocer’s, you’ll recall)
A solitary table has been found,
Its green paint chipped, or burned and blasted off,
Its iron bent in places, pieces missing,
But whole enough to place between two chairs
(Wrought iron frames we found across the street).
There you and I can sit and chat about
The politics we’ve learned to share these days.
We’ll have no coffee or a plate of pastries.
Our waiter Peter died last Sunday night –
A fight out east, his partner told me Tuesday.
For us, and what we want, it doesn’t matter.
He’d only have a notion of a kitchen –
The battered rectangle just past the crater.
I hope one day we’ll need another chair.
A fugitive, emerging from a
Where she’d found shelter for at least a month,
The woman called the men to sit together
While she served food untouched by fire or blood.
She offered little more than salt for taste.
For drink, she poured each hooligan a glass
Of water rescued from an oily pool.
Each smiled appreciatively and smirked
Before taking a swallow, then another.
Despite what looked to be her flickering hope,
They didn’t drown or choke, but lifted forks
And excavated something edible
From plates that she’d assembled from the shards
Left scattered from a long and hard bombardment.
They each found scraps of meat to mouth and chew.
Still nauseated by their slaughter, she’d
Not stand to pour a second glass of water.
The lane is closed by now –
of that I’m sure,
For when I toured the town two years ago,
Although the path above the Aqueduct
Lay open, not a blade of grass was bent.
Late summer growth grew up an unkempt foot –
No trace of walkers or of bikers there,
The lane apparently venue for fear,
Not children’s transport, whether wheel or feet.
The driver, friend for over forty years,
Said “no – it isn’t closed or cordoned off,
But everybody rides a bus to school.
These modern parents, terrified of life
Beyond the back yard fence – and I’m one too.
Our Angela would never come down here...”
I shook my head and smiled in thinking back
To days where every morning I would streak
Down Sunnyside Lane with my big, clumsy Schwinn
And, without slowing, turn upon the ‘duct,
Joining with friends as we rushed off to school.
Unaccompanied, smart enough to watch
For trouble (there were strangers even then),
We’d ride our own expressway, passing by
More waking houses, crossing many streets,
And just before the school, we’d cross the gulch,
Our path unfenced, steep drops on either side
(They plunged, my friend tells me, some forty feet),
And on to final, Dow Lane’s parking lot
To where we’d park our bikes, grab up our bags
(Of books and writing pads and pencils, comics
For some, Mad magazine for smarter kids)
And, slowed by teachers in the hall, reach class.
I don’t recall a single accident.
And even early, when I biked alone,
I never met a stranger with a stone.
We’d shared a name, but
there was little else
That we agreed upon. He played the clown
To get his way sometimes, but not with me.
The last I see of him in memory,
He’s torquing bolts, locking what he’d attached
Upon an old John Deere. The tractor’s paints
(The bright green fuselage; the yellow wheels
That held enormous stained and treaded tires);
A sprung and partly rusted metal seat;
A stutter-thumping vertical exhaust,
Its rain cap dinging with a choppy rhythm
That silenced grasshoppers and birds for miles;
Above a vast and cloudless Western sky:
Impressions left by one late summer day
I’d spent across the South Dakota line
A half a century ago...the Deere,
Which served three generations, now is parked
Inside a barn I helped to paint one August
When I had just become a nasty teen.
That uncle’s dead for thirty years by now,
His son, like me, a grandfather in tow
Of children who would like for him to play
A game that they invented just last week,
A version, much advanced, of hide and seek.
The month’s exhaled its thirtieth breath, the last
Before October’s ill winds wrestle in
To squeeze late summer’s thorax cold and dry.
Later, dark rains will fall to wash the streets
Of everything but newly rotting leaves.
As yet oblivious pedestrians
Withhold assessment of the coming sport.
They pray instead for summer’s overtime –
Perpetual green, perpetually clippered grass,
Eternal youth for August’s superstars.
But fall’s upon us, bringing fading scars.
Had hammering nails disturbed a sleeping ghost,
A carpenter thus acting as a host
To spectacles that troubled half the night?
Our handy Joseph T__ swore that he’d fight
With each accuser, that no spirit’s sleep
Had been disturbed by building. “That’s no leap
“Of faith,” he sneered, preparing further tools
While issuing to sleeping spirits rules
They should obey when he was on the site.
You can, I think, imagine’s Joseph’s fright
When from this new foundation, at a tap
Upon a pipe, a spook emerged to zap
Our expectations that the dead stay down,
Not lift themselves to dance about the town.
It glowed and moved about, a shapely spectre,
And hooted, laughed and hissed, as if to Hector
All non-believers with such evidence
Of life in death that some bowed low. And hence,
In a season of fall weather, darkly cool,
Our ancient ministers went back to school
To see if they could find a written God
Who could explain a circumstance so odd.
COCKPIT FLIGHT RECORDER
The 747, drifting east,
Its crew asleep, its passengers at least
Awake, its autopilot disengaged,
Echoed with noisy arguments. These raged
From deck to deck, from first to business class.
The navigator thought it strange and crass
The captain had switched off the GPS.
He only answered with a giggly “yes”
When challenged on another strange decision.
When, possibly in tones of some derision,
The copilot suggested someone steer,
In his quavering voice there quailed a fear.
The pilot answered “I am confident.”
In what remained a mystery. To vent,
A flight attendant, Maggie Pearson J__
Complained about “our passengers today…”
While somewhere in first class, a baby’s crying
Suggested to a seer they’d soon be dying.
Bob looked outside and saw himself instead,
From pink-striped shirt to newly shaven head.
How could a duplicate live life so near?
Now conscious of each other, how to steer
Two lives no longer viably unique?
How not to see one’s mirror as a freak
Who only waited for the other’s action
Before he acted for his private faction,
That unknown network on the other side?
How could either man sustain real pride
While knowing he was nothing but a copy?
(It seemed that Providence had gotten sloppy).
Surely they would tear each other’s hair,
Reduce the other, choking off his air
Until, beneath a solitary sun,
There would be but one Bob having fun.
A LATE EULOGY
With her soft light extinguished, we went dark.
For each of us she’d been for years the spark
That started our poor kindling toward a fire.
New shadows that swept over us loomed dire,
As if we’d never feel that bright again.
But she had left an ember in each brain
That could, with modest inspiration, snatch
A flame from suffocating smoke – a match
To play the arsonist and torch our doom,
A presence that would never leave our room.
(a brief sequence)
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
for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing, founded 1890
“I thought the phone was a
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.
At noon, her opening, I sat
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?”.
Obsessive, but informed by
(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.”
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.
J_ started whitewashing at
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.
In Margie’s Bar one
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.
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
“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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
When stars explode, their
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.
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.
The poodle seated on the
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.
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.
A condor immigrating from
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.
A toppled marble column in
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.
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.
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.
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.
A large gray rat sat
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.
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.
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 notice from those
(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.
“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.
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.
Abstracted from a church’s
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 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?”
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!”
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
“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
They always had to shout above the noise,
But conversation now was more like screaming.
“What about fuel?”
“Empty, desert dry....”
“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.
“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.”
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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
Last moments trying to cover up her scent.
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 club's reunion meeting
I noticed that our
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
For the members gathered
hadn't doffed their suits
Confronted by conformity.
They pleaded for
acknowledgment by voice,
As if locution set them
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.
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.
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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