EXPANSIVE POETRY ONLINE
A Journal of Contemporary Arts 

 

POEMS

by
 

JOSEPH S. SALEMI
____________

THE LILACS ON GOOD FRIDAY

Tumult of noontide long ago dismissed—
The rent veil unremembered, and the sun
Relit, though shrouded in a new eclipse
Of rainswept sky. The garden seems to shun

That spectral agony of blood and bone;
Consigns itself instead to placid sleep
Untroubled as the moss upon a stone
And heedless while the three Marias weep.

Four decades’ growth of lilac by this wall
Stretches its shallow spiral to the sky.
Clustering blossoms, soon to swell and fall,
Gather themselves like nimbuses on high

Out of my hand’s grasp, yet I still can bend
The pliant osiers downward to my face,
And sniff the buds that already distend:
Late April lilacs, delicate as lace.

Unlike that rigid tree, untenanted,
And red with memory of three hours’ grief,
The thornless lilacs summon up no dread,
Demand no witness. Flower, branch, and leaf

Are only what they are. They have no words
For us to ponder, though we sometimes feign
To speak for them, as augury of birds
Construes an omen of impending pain.

The book is shut, the candle snuffed, the bell
Rings the finale of a troubled day.
Did lilacs grace the garden where we fell,
Or scent Gethsemane? I bade you pray

And watch with me a little while this night—
Could you not watch one hour?
The world’s bereft
Of that which once gave stomach for a fight
Or certitude to vision. I have left

The Office of the Holy Cross unsung
But patient on the rubricated page:
Open my lips, O Lord, and let my tongue
Announce thy praises—in some other age.

Here in this garden how could it displease
To let the lilacs offer up my prayer—
Sweet censers that, when shaken by the breeze,
Scatter their fragrance in the evening air?

And in that garden where a sepulcher
New-hewn from rock awaits the mourners’ tread,
Where cerecloths, unguent, aloes mixed with myrrh
Will soon enshroud the lacerated dead,

There is some solace from the thought of how
Late April lilacs, coming into bloom,
Shall dance the currents of the air, and bow
To shed their flowerets on an open tomb.

 

           —from Formal Complaints (Somers Rocks Press, 1996)

 

 

 

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____________

THE TELEVANGELISTS

If you’re lookin’ for salvation
Prove it with a big donation.
Down in hell there’s souls a-writhin’
’Cause they didn’t do their tithin’.

Remember what is owed to Caesar—
Amex, Mastercard, and Visa
Will work fine, but cash is dandy,
Or your checkbook, if it’s handy.

Christ expelled the shekel-changers
Claimin’ they were total strangers
To the house of prayer—but honey,
Tabernacles run on money.

Send your hallelujahs over
To the throne of High Jehovah
Decked out in His lordly raiment—
He takes prayers, but we take payment.

                   —from Trinacria

 

           ____________

 

FOUR BRIEF AESTHETIC OBSERVATIONS

CRITICAL JUDGMENT

Young Wordsworth was an egotistic twit
Who thought the cosmos turned upon his soul.
I’m glad I never met the little git
But still he wrote good poetry, all told.


ALEXANDER POPE COMMENTS
          O
N "BEACH BLANKET BINGO"

I wrote of man, and ravished locks,
Englished Homer’s battle-shocks,
Recording every slash and cut
And heroic outcry, but…
There’s not much chance of bedding Gidget
When you are a crippled midget.

 

 

To Dorothy Parker,
             
on Behalf of Men

You’re wrong—we’ll make passes
At girls who wear glasses
As long as they’re lasses
With cute, curvy asses.
 

 

ABOUT SHELLEY'S "TO A SKYLARK"

If you’re gonna write an Ode
Please make sure it has a load
Of simple, plain, and common sense;
If it doesn’t, get thee hence—
I can’t stand it when you spurt
Gab of birds that “never wert.”

___________________

 

MYTHOLOGICAL LIMERICKS ON DEFLORATION
VENUS AND ADONIS
Adonis was cute as a berry
And Venus was sexy and merry—
The boy said “No dice”
But without thinking twice 
She jumped him and popped the kid’s cherry.
HADES AND PERSEPHONE
Hades was hot for a missus
And longed for Persephone’s kisses.
Instead of seduction
He tried straight abduction
And widened the place where she pisses.
ZEUS AND CALLISTO
Callisto flamed Zeus’ desire
Igniting a lust-driven fire—
And when she bent over 
To pluck up some clover
He thought “Well, I might as well try her.”
HERA AND ZEUS
When Hera makes love with her lord
Her husband will never be bored.
Through magical powers
Whenever she showers
Her hymen is freshly restored.
CUPID AND PSYCHE 
Psyche and amorous Cupid
Made love in a manner most stupid.
They mimicked the habits
Of oversexed rabbits
And screwed till exhausted and poopèd. 

 
PROFESSIONAL HANDS
The direst problem in Western culture today is the collapse of
full-blown unapologetic masculinity, and the public celebration
of that collapse.
                                       —Derek Burgoyne 
Alone and silent at his tidy desk
He serves as stopgap in the day’s routines,
Riffling through pages of a dog-eared text
With hands soft and anemic, ghostly pale.
An angled knuckle, pensively at chin,
Denotes strength held in check, or in reserve.
These hands make only necessary moves
Or—infrequently—a minor gesture.
The Spartans held Thermopylae, and died
Obedient to their orders, and repelled
Vile Persian hordes.  The hands that gripped those spears 
Saved Greece from the defilement of Asia.
The hand of Caesar, raised before the Rhine,
Sent legions into battle, slaughtered foes.
The Viking oarsmen pulled with roughened hands,
War-tempered, calloused from the axe-haft’s wood;
Such hands as held the standard when our knights
Stormed the Holy City.  Other hands
Strummed citterns in the castles of Provençe
Or limned vermilion on the vellum page.
Professors sign the papers placed before them
Without a second thought.  Their hands might well
Be mere clockwork appendages that move
Solely to the pull of puppeteers.
Who turned men into dead unthinking dolls
Devoid of will, imagination, life?
Who made their hands as limp and epicene
As broken wings on Icarus, the drowned? 

___________________

 

THE VIRGIN AND THE SIEVE

During the Roman republic, the Vestal Virgin Tuccia was falsely accused of unchastity. To prove her virtue and silence her calumniators, she filled a sieve with water from the Tiber and carried it back to the Temple of Vesta without losing a single drop, thus showing that the virgin goddess Vesta still favored her. Her story is mentioned by St. Augustine in The City of God, and also by Petrarch in his I Trionfi.

Their vicious tongues required silencing.
And what was I to do? What shift was left?
Not even the High Priestess would speak up,
Lest dishonor cling to her fine robes.
All drew away from me, as if I were
A leper, or a prostitute who sells
Her favors in the dark, and in back alleys.
That is the strength of gossip and false rumor—
We women have no refuge or redress.
And so I prayed to Vesta of the Hearth,
The patroness who keeps the sacred flame
Alive, and free from foul pollution’s filth.
I begged her: Goddess, you know I am pure…
What may I do to show myself untouched?

The small lamp at the altar flickered twice
As if the oil in it, nearly gone,
Had left the wick to crisp into dead ashes.
I thought: This omen promises no good…
The flame of Vesta chokes and sputters out.

But then a voice within me spoke, it seemed,
As if in answer to my plea. I heard
The gentle voice of Vesta, hesitant,
And whispering as if she were embarrassed:
You do not need the help of any flame.
Fire is not the proper element.
Go to the Tiber, take with you a sieve,
Gather up water in it, and return.

It seemed insane, ridiculous, absurd—
Carrying water in a sieve? And yet
I was obedient to divine command.
I took the sieve. I went. I scooped up water.
I came back to our temple and no drop
Had fallen to the ground. I had outfaced
The liars who impugned my spotless virtue.
And so I still breathe air, and have escaped
The death-decree of living immolation
For Vestal Virgins who transgress the law.
A burning oil lamp, a sieve of water
Have saved me from the suffocating earth.
Domina Vesta, gratiae tibi sunt.

 

 

___________________

 

HONI SOIT QUI MAL Y PENSE
       Hug me, kiss me, suck my juices
      Squeezed from goblin fruits for you.

                      —Christina Rossetti, “Goblin Market”

Fruits are like a Siren call
That lures me to the produce stall
Stacked with all that tree-grown stuff
Of which I cannot get enough.

I hunger after Anjou pears;
Firm apples can dispel my cares;
Citrus globes of every kind
I’ll devour to the rind.

Cantaloupe and watermelon,
Blush-red grapes with juice a-swellin’,
Mango, guava, and papaya—
Strum their praise on lute and lyre!

Figs and kiwis get my vote:
Bananas raw or in compote;
The nectarine, the quince, the damson
Leave me helpless as bald Samson.

And yet, if I could have my druthers,
There’s one more luscious than the others,
Sweeter than the peach or berry,
And that’s a nice ripe tight-skinned cherry.


A TRIBUTE TO WOMEN IN THE HAMPTONS
        Prostitution is now a major growth industry in
        some exclusive parts of Long Island.

                         —News item

I found, as I traversed New York,
That people varied in their talk.
In Queens they had a word for girls
Who rented out their public curls.
This sort of dame was called a hoo-er
To make a perfect rhyme with sewer.
In Harlem she was called a
(With macron on the lengthened o)
And Brooklynites, both rich and poor,
Denominated her a hoor.
I heard the same thing in the Bronx
Drawn out with aspirated honks
While Staten Island had a mix
Of labels for commercial chicks:
Ho and Hoo-er, Hoor and Hoe-er
Some said faster, some said slower.
The double-u I never found
Except on the Long Island Sound
Where ladies of the upper classes
Get the best price for their asses.

 

___________________

SICK TRANSITION
         Sic transit gloria mundi.

The tended garden, where a fountain’s grace
Unfolds in shimmering crystal rivulets,
Waits upon what is highest in the soul.

Well-pruned fig trees and a lilac bush
Umbrella the baroque wrought-iron chairs
That whisper of a century long past
Tapestried in choice amenities.

Today, caged in their walls of cinderblock,
Consumers sleep through base, surrealist dreams
While cheap clocks tick like metronomes, or bombs.
Outside, on a patch of littered earth,
A mindless cricket chirps in perfect time.

 

MORTE D'ARTHUR
…and if thou hear never more of me, pray
   for my soul.

                   —Sir Thomas Mallory

I did not wait so many years, it seems;
The days and hours fell like rain and snow,
Now fast, now slow,
But ever downwards, always to one end.

Where were the swords-in-stone, the ghost-borne Grail?
I had not thought to wait so many years,
Shed misplaced tears,
Hope for the crucible, find the chamber-pot.

So many years to fill Siege Perilous…
“Come sit at the round table,” said Annette,
Savante-coquette,
And drew my portrait (pen and ink with wash).

I said “Without my glasses I am blind;
Impressions, colors, vague uncertainty
Are all I see.”
So have I been, these quickly vanished years.

 

                                            _____________________________________________

THE FLAYING OF MARSYAS

The satyr Marsyas was flayed alive by the god Apollo,
after  being defeated in a musical contest with the god.

Apollo was lord of the lyre—
His touch went beyond human skill.
Deft fingers that strummed the taut wire
Made ravishing music, until

Some fate-driven madness compelled me
To challenge the god at his craft—
The stakes he proposed nearly felled me;
Agreeing was stupid and daft.

The cold-hearted god had suggested
The victor be given free rein
To inflict on the one who was bested
The maximum measure of pain.

I lost, and the god—unrelenting—
Then flayed me alive with a blade:
The price of my foolish consenting
To gamble on how well I played.

Divinities, proud and all-seeing,
Take challenges as deep offense—
Much more from some mere mortal being
Hubristically lacking in sense.

 

            ____________________

 

 

THE DEATH OF SIR HENRY DE BOHUN

       Bannockburn, June 23, 1314

Two armies poised for battle, and arrayed
In all the rainbow-hues of heraldry,
Stare at each other in stark expectation.
Spears and swords, ten thousand waiting arrows,
Mace and morning-star, tall pikes and halberds—
The instruments of death are primed to work,
And soldiers on both sides breathe silent prayers.

Robert the Bruce rides forward in the field,
Mounted upon a small yet graceful palfrey,
And cantering before the serried ranks
Of Scotland’s line of heavy cavalry.
He carries just a simple battle-axe—
A lightweight, one-hand weapon, not designed
For heavy combat with well-armored foes.

Out of the English line there rides one knight:
The proud Henry de Bohun, Earl of Hereford,
From an illustrious family that can trace
Its blood back to the Conquest. Henry sees
The Bruce but lightly armed, and on a horse
More suited to a maiden than a knight.
He levels his long lance, and spurs his steed.

Sir Henry charges straight—should he kill Robert,
The Scots may flee, the battle may be won.
He trusts his heavy lance, backed up by speed,
Will send a weak opponent to the earth.
Robert sees him coming, and stays still,
As if set to receive the fatal spear,
Making no move of defense or escape.

Just as de Bohun’s charger brings him close,
The Bruce swerves sideways, slightly out of range.
Before Sir Henry can turn back, or aim
His long lance in a steady new direction,
Robert stands in his stirrups, and brings down
His axe in one fierce mighty blow that splits
Sir Henry’s helmet, and explodes his skull.

A mounted corpse with dripping brains, de Bohun
Sways in his saddle, while his unreined horse
Trots aimlessly in circles, as the cheers
Of Scotland’s army resonate like thunder.
On the English side, there is dismay—
An omen of the battle yet to come,
And how a single blow can be a triumph.

 

            ____________________

 

TEN MYTHOLOGICAL LIMERICKS

ARACHNE AND MINERVA

Arachne was proud, and a fighter
As strong as a keg of hard cider.
But it’s best with Minerva
To honor and serve her,
Or else you’ll wind up as a spider.

 

DEUCALION AND PYRRHA

Deucalion and Pyrrha were faced
With a world where all folks were erased.
But then they took stones
(Metaphorically, “bones”)
And raised up new people in haste.

 

DANAË AND ZEUS

Poor Danaë was locked in a tower
By her father, a king of vast power.
She was seen by great Zeus
Who, like rain down a sluice,
Gave Danaë a nice golden shower.

 

ULYSSES AND THE CYCLOPS

Ulysses, the Ithakan joker,
Took a hint from an engine-room stoker.
He didn’t need eyedrops
To blind the poor Cyclops—
He used a hot log as a poker.

 

DAPHNE AND APOLLO

Young Daphne was chased by Apollo—
Wherever she fled, he would follow.
To stay pure and free
She was changed to a tree,
And now she’s ensconced in a hollow.

 

THE TROJAN WAR

The fights for Briseis and Helen
Had the Greek army screamin’and yellin’.
The wrath of Achilles
And two stupid fillies—
Was all of this story worth tellin’?

 

VENUS AND VULCAN

Though Venus was married to Vulcan,
The dame preferred lovers more hulkin’.
The warrior Mars
Made the lady see stars,
And Vulcan was left behind, sulkin’.

 

KING OEDIPUS

The king’s fate could not have been sicker.
His troubles grew heavy and thicker.
He did stuff quite bad
To his mom and his dad,
And then lost his sight as a kicker.

 

ECHO AND NARCISSUS

Echo was hot for Narcissus.
She hoped that he’d make her his missus.
But when the guy found
That her voice was unsound,
She didn’t receive any kisses.

 

PENELOPE AND THE SUITORS

Penelope hated the suitors
Who acted like arrogant looters.
When hubby came back
He went on the attack
And used them as targets for shooters.




 

                                                        ____________________

 

 

SEPTEMBER 11, 1541

To the honored memory of Inés de Suárez, the Spanish woman who in 1541
saved the Chilean city and garrison of Santiago de la Nueva Estremadura
from Indian attackers by personally decapitating seven hostage chieftains,
and flinging their heads over the ramparts at the enemy. ¡Viva Inés!

The garrison and military station
Seemed on the brink of grim annihilation.
The Indians in savage howling hordes
Surrounded it. The Spaniards bared their swords,
Primed their matchlocks, whetted their long spears.
But lancers and a troop of musketeers
Could not hold off the thousands that attacked.
The soldiers retreated, yielded, slowly backed
Into the fort of Santiago, where
They crossed themselves and said a final prayer.
But then one woman, Inés de Suárez,
Speaks to them all, and here is what she says:
“We have one chance, provided by kind heaven—
These Indian chieftains. Let’s behead all seven
And fling their bloody heads into the squalls
Of native scum who dare besiege our walls.”

The men demurred. They thought her plan extreme.
“These hostages are royal, and the cream
Of their nation. Alive, they promise hope.
Inés, we’re at the end of our poor rope!”

Inés replied, “True men don’t weep and squawk.
They know that action’s stronger than mere talk!”
With that she seized a sword, and with one slash
Struck off a chieftain’s head, and from its gash
A spurt of hot blood pooled upon the ground.
Then six more times she swung the blade. Its sound
Was an invigorating rush of air
That blew away all terror and despair.
The soldiers seized the heads, and with a yell
Flung them across the ramparts, where they fell
Among the foes, whom horror struck so deep
They fled in panic like a flock of sheep.
They thought “If Spaniards do this to our kings,
Their anger may provoke them to worse things!
Better to obey our Spanish Dons
Who harness thunder into tubes of bronze
And hack off heads, and show no trace of dread.
We are defeated, and our leaders dead.”

Such is the way when savages rebel—
Give them a taste of unforgiving Hell.

 

                                                        ____________________

 

 

MNEMONIC DEVICE FOR MILITARY PRO-SIGNS A-Z

Pro-signs are an alphabetical coding system used by the military for radio
transmissions or for the naming of various units, to insure complete
clarity of reference.

ALPHA is a top-notch male, the chief and number one—
BRAVO is the thing you shout when arias are done.
CHARLIE is a nickname that is used quite frequently—
DELTA is a plug of land where rivers meet the sea.
ECHO is a sound that comes reverberating back—
FOXTROT is an old-time dance for couples dressed in black.
GOLF is just a boring game that Scotsmen love to play—
HOTEL is a resting place where travelers stop to stay.
INDIA is a teeming land of sacred cows and caste—
JULIET is a Capulet whose first love was her last.
KILO is a metric weight that’s somewhere near a pound—
LIMA is a city where Peruvians abound.
MIKE is short for microphone, which amplifies your voice—
NOVEMBER is a winter month when voters make their choice.
OSCAR is a name that goes with Hammerstein or Wilde—
PAPA is your father when you were a little child.
QUEBEC is up in Canada, and English it is not—
ROMEO is a lover-boy whose plans all went to pot.
SIERRA is a mountain range that rises to great heights—
TANGO is a silly dance for hot Hispanic nights.
UNIFORM is what you wear to show you’re in a team—
VICTOR is a winner who’s unbeatably supreme.
WHISKEY is a potent drink that might go to your head—
X-RAY lets you see your bones although you aren’t dead.
YANKEE is a player in the dugout or the field—
ZULU is a warrior with assegai and shield.

 


THE GREEN MOSS ON THE COAL

               All coal deposits were at one time living plants.

Hard anthracite, as black as jet,
Darkly lustrous gem of coal,
With live moss clinging, green and wet,

Collect the unremembered debt
That life owes, as the eons roll.
Hard anthracite, as black as jet,

Hacked out by a miner’s sweat
Expended in some shaft’s dark hole,
With live moss clinging, green and wet,

You’re bone-dry, like some old coquette
No gaudy garments can console.
Hard anthracite, as black as jet

From carbon seams compressed and set
You come to us, an ancient dole,
But live moss clinging, green and wet,

Proclaims there is no finish yet.
Both must play the selfsame role:
Hard anthracite, as black as jet,
And live moss clinging, green and wet.

 

 

The Breathers

Breatharianism is a dietary cult that preaches complete
abstention from all food and drink, permanently. Serious
adherents to this cult die after about a fortnight without
sustenance, but the cult still manages to attract converts.

I’ll call them breathers. That’s about correct.
They think that air and sunlight, by themselves,
Provide you with the nourishment for life.
All else is dross and roughage, worthless stuff
That no one needs to take into one’s guts.
Where does this nonsense come from? Don’t they see
Their fellow cultists shriveling like leaves
In the late summer’s turn to browning fall?
Can’t they remember photos from death camps
Where inmates walked as ghostly skeletons
Until they fell, like string-cut marionettes,
To be stacked up like cordwood for the fire?

Thus does fanatic impulse crowd out thought.
These breathers have a notion—what I call
A sick fixation that a fevered brain
Uses to tyrannize the helpless flesh.
Visions, ideas, conceptions, foggy dreams;
Fancies, delusions, goofball fantasies—
These are infections of the human mind,
The plague of our existence here on earth.
When someone affronts me with “a new idea,”
I want to put a bullet through his brain
And hang his bleeding corpse up by the heels
As warning to others who might do the same.

But breathers are the sickest of them all—
Persons whose new idea propels them forth
To final and irrevocable ends.
They think that air and sunlight make them live,
And, loyal to this key mistake, they fast
Until they are transformed to nothingness.
It’s not like prisoners who refuse their meals;

It’s not like mystics focusing their minds;
It’s not like Buddhists longing for the light;
It’s not like faithful on their holy days
Commemorating sacred past events—
It’s just the wet dream of an anorectic.

 

 

 

 

 

Browning M-2 Heavy Machine Gun
                       
 (.50 Caliber)

A knife may open envelopes, spread butter,
Cut a length of string, carve wooden toys,
Slice meat at table, or de-bone a fish—
Serve other simple, salutary tasks.
So does a rifle, when it brings down game;
Helmets might be planters; ammo cans
Serve as convenient tool chests, and recall:
The scriptures say a sword becomes a ploughshare.
Most combat gear can be turned round and used
For purposes nonviolent and benign.

But you have one aim only: to deal death
Impartially to all within your range—
You send your heavy bullets to rip flesh
As dogs rend helpless rabbits limb from limb.
Incendiary rounds spat from your mouth
Tear vehicles apart, make them explode
In flaming fragments. Those inside are scorched
To lumps of charred and blistered meat. You smash
Great holes in concrete walls and armor plate.
Nothing withstands the hot blast of your muzzle.

Browning M-2 (called “Ma Deuce” by the troops)—
You were conceived to do this single thing:
Kill, and kill as fast and brutally
As an unthinking engine does its job
When stitching cloth, or punching index cards,
Or minting coins from rows of shiny planchets,
Or striking cancellation marks on stamps.
You swallow endless belts of ammunition
While empty cartridge cases fall in piles
As thick as corpses heaped up on the field.

You are the emblem of our modern wars:
Mechanical, impersonal, devoid
Of honor, chivalry,
esprit de corps,
Or any martial swagger of
beau geste.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

               

 

 

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