Negative Canon

Think of it, all

the great poems

we will never read,

the uncollected gems

no one tried to publish

or those groundbreaking

verses submitted to fall

on ears that couldn’t hear

their music or genius

since no one had ever written

it before, smiled at or

applauded the blue

discomforting new,

odd aberrations evoking

miraculous celebrations

that grew into the norm

of the comfortable few,

those modern post-wandering

spontaneous rangfoo

we now crave, that anxious

reach of ghostly poems,

so edgy-honest in their silence

and loss, guaranteed to be

packing their necessary

form—the unsaid, the beautiful,

the queer—a poem.

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BUTTE RAT

Dan Lavelle was a poet

with impeccable credentials—

he was a wild-ass Butte rat

bound to a wheel chair

after a mishap behind the wheel

involving speed, involving age

and rage and alcohol, of course.

His curse (our reward) was surviving

the wreck, recovering, incurring,

uncovering, and insuring

slurred speech and immobility

for the rest of his days.

They called it “brain injury.”

He called it “scrambled eggs

and ham—no toast.” Dan had trouble

being taken seriously,

and he was a serious guy

about pulling your leg,

copping a feel, or making you laugh

at yourself. He knew how

seriously funny human beings could be

when they were being seriously human—

did I mention he was a Butte guy?

A working-class knucklehead.

An aficionado of the big mustache,

blood brother to the Hells Angels,

all those post-war, po-boy,

testosterone fueled assholes, outlaw

boomers living fast, dying hard,

and not giving two Helena fucks for

the prudence of governing suits

or the tough talk of John E. Law.

Danny Boy perfected his “Elephant Man”

imitation—don’t laugh. For all

the distractions, his bare-assed

dependence, those shocked glances,

expressions of pity, repressed horror,

and masked disgust at his slump-n-moan,

his drool-n-leer—the eyes

were alive on the stage of his face,

pushing and pulling his heart

across the page like Mick Jagger, Marty

Robbins, Johnny Rotten and Jimmy

Reeves. Dan Lavelle was a poet

who wrote love songs that crooned

desire and despair. No one

struggled to understand him

there—he spoke clearly . . .

he was a man . . . of letters—

well, a sort of “poetry” man,

maybe a little frilly, more

of a “ladies” man, which was

exactly what he wanted to be. Dan

Lavelle was one Hell of a poet—

one mess of a bag-a-bones.

He was a prankster, a pain in the ass

who could make you laugh,

make you cry, a tough little guy,

a fuckin’ Butte rat who lived longer

than he should’ve perhaps (given

the fact that he died and lived

dead too long) but who ain’t guilty of that?

We’re all hangin’ on till the pit comes

for us, that nightmare poison

dawning on our lust. So, Girls, you can

keep your panties on ‘cause

Dan the Man has left the building—

the richest hill on Earth hangs on

for the punch line . . . so sue me,

Danny swallowed a gaggle of toxic geese,

opened the floodgates of the maze,

released the rats to dance with the piper

who plays Blinded by the Light

on blues guitar, growls like Howlin’ Wolf

holdin’ the keys to a ’73 Camero

Super Sport—mag wheels still spinnin’

in the middle of the air, revved up

like a deuce in his Springsteen ear,

the rats are loose tonight in Walkerville

and runnin’ down the mean streets of Butte.

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The Billiard Bones Blues

old school photographer, pool player, bar tender, not to be fucked with or caught on digital camera.

Lee Nye played the sticks last night,

Brought his musical pool cues he’d designed himself

To demonstrate on my basement table. His bones,

As he called them, were works of art, and as you might guess,

The son-of-a-bitch could play. Like a jazz musician,

He’d roll them on the felt, wobble thumping the table,

His ID bracelet jangling on a skinny, tanned wrist,

Leathery foosball fingers coaxing notes

From his kit, delicately lifting each stick.

One was simply warped, the tip curved in a long arc,

But the other was handcrafted, a voodoo wand,

an artful snooker/tambourine/Maraca bass,

Its butt skewed at an angle of fifteen

Degrees to get that Whump when he’d roll

His totem pole on the slate. Halfway up the shaft

It was bracketed with rollers and beads

Pinned to swiveling rings. A latticed cylinder

Of caged marbles, six drilled and tethered dice

Adorned the tip to dance beneath two tiny cymbals.

He maneuvered his bones mostly with one hand,

Not that he had to—it was just his style.

So he played, those gloriously warm pool hall tones:

Balls clicking, knocking, slamming and dropping

Into pockets, smacked and thudding bank shots,

Occasional cue balls launched and bouncing the floor,

Clattering sticks, clinking glass, all woven under a cloud

Of cigarette smoke, the ganked scratch and curse,

The squeak of shooters re-chalking their cues

Then tapping tips against rails, tables and stools—

Butts thumping the floor before calling a run—

Nye conjured up all this fun in a sweet percussive song,

His bushy brow relaxing was the coda-de-creme,

And I applauded, hailed him the inventor of an art form.

He laughed, bowed. You could tell he was proud

And loved the praise, loved playing for me, but tough-

Brusquely insecure, he waved it off, reminding me

Of Clark Gable, arms crossed, leaning against the table,

A cocky grin, his cap tipped back like a leading man,

A guy who could’ve been in The Hustler,

Could’ve rattled Fast Eddie or racked up Fats.

Believe me, you would’ve loved Lee Nye’s table act—

Dreamy beat-jazz genius of the cue stick melody.

 

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The Old Poet Sees the White Man

                       for Vic Charlo

Two stools down, two white guys

rebuild – sheet rock and tape – the house

they’d worked on all day, tossing

back pints of Miller beer. Beyond them

an elderly couple sit chewing

on burgers, still collared up warm

in their polyester coats – two cigarettes

burning in the ash tray between them.

Not a regular, but not a stranger,

the old poet orders a burger and glass

of Guinness, props his cane between his knees,

cracks open a peanut and nibbles

on the fruit, lets the shells fall

among the husks piling on the floor.

 

The door opens and an Indian woman enters.

All heads turn, pause, and return.

She walks past them, the length of the bar,

her gait smooth and sure as a cat’s,

disappears in the direction of the rest rooms

or the alley exit. One bartender washing

glasses nods knowingly at the other guy

flipping burgers. On TV, Dallas, America’s

Team, battles the Redskins for bragging

rights – top dog of the NFL cellar.

 

The old poet recalls a sweat he took years ago

up Spring Creek, catches himself humming

a song – Charlo’s Walking Bear.

The polyester smoker points out to his woman

an all-Irish Butte baseball team in the gallery

on the back wall, laughs, coughs and rasps,

“Down in Finn Town we hammered those Micks.”

The dishwashing bartender grins, pours

the Finn couple free beers on the house.

One of the carpenters kills his pint, raps

the empty hard on the counter, and stands up

to stretch his legs, “No shit,” he says,

“every fuckin’ board – twisted as a cork screw!”

The bartender laughs, grabs a fresh glass,

tilts it under the tap, and draws another brew.

 

The Indian woman comes back, appears

headed out the door, but pulls up

next to the poet – who gives her a smile

she doesn’t return. She digs in her pockets,

drops coins on the bar, and unwads two

crumpled bills. The bartender keeps rinsing glasses.

His ears, then his eyes acknowledge the money.

 

He wipes his hands, asks flatly, “Whatta ya need?”

The old poet sees smoke, bleached bones,

black wings cross her face, framed

in the back bar mirror. “Ya got cigarettes?”

she asks quietly, “Marlboro menthols?”

He pulls a box of regular filters from the case.

“Menthols,” she says. Slowly, he grabs another

brand, shows her, says, “Four and a quarter.”

Her hands close on the mound of cash.

“Four and a fucking quarter?” she asks.

Holding the pack up, halfway over the bar,

he warns, “Hey! Watch your mouth.”

Grabbing her change and mumbling, “Goddamn

robbers,” she turns and lunges out the door.

 

The bartender returns the pack of smokes

to the case, blank faced – his one eye twitches.

Nobody’s talking. Then the Cowboys score.

Happy Hour begins, and the bartender

pours. The poet’s burger is up. The old couple

moves over to the keno machines. America’s

Team pulls out an overtime squeaker.

As the carpenters get back to nailing it down,

the old poet chews slowly, nurses his beer,

and glances at the white man

eating crow in the mirror.

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MY FELLOW AMERICAN

Oscar Wilde, 1882. LEHTIKUVA / EVERETT COLLECTION / Jerry Tavin

i do appreciate you

my friend

and your poems too

 

your directness

is the key

that honesty

 

will get your ass

in trouble

 

dancing in the bullshit

bubble of decorum

 

but you’re a poet

just doing your job

making the world

 

a little more

uncomfortable

with its comfortable

 

judgments

and tidy conformities

 

it’s up to us

to write it down

 

not let it go

it’s up to us

to speak

 

out against or for

it’s about freedom

and love my friend

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AFTERMATH

The Rolling Stones

In concert

Was no excuse

But since I couldn’t

Get stoned

For the show

Risk pot in my piss

I decided I could

Drink whiskey instead

I don’t know why

I thought I could

But I did

And I did

 

What hurts the most

Isn’t the broken glass

In my head

The sickness

Or the lumps and bruises

It’s knowing

I ruined your night

Front row seats

To the biggest shebang

We’ll ever see

And you were stuck

With a drunk

Asshole like me

Who mauled you

And worse

Embarrassed you

 

How can you

Forgive me again

The wild turkey

I promised to kill

Nothing frightens me more

Than knowing

I’ve disappointed you

I am lost in those woods

A worthless

Piece of shit

Again the fool

The sad fool . . . again

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rose hill blues

    chorus 52

funny you should mention

them ol clickity-clack blues

i been rollin round with dr. sax

searchin for my walkin shoes

 

so its funny you should mention

you got that hobo moan a-goin

cause ol master jack he cracked

them railroad blues stoned

 

and he spun it for the ding-dang-dung

punny fun of it, spent his dues

pulled his daisy with bowery bums

who dug his high-ballin blues

 

it’s funny how it rattles the panes

and slam-bams you to sleep, switchin

trains, bells and whistles in your black-rain

dream, empty bottle in hand, fingers twitchin

 

i’ll be damned if it ain’t funny how

that beat-hip trip rolls round again

and the bluesmen join up singin

in boxcars robert johnson hymns

 

brother we’re all takin for a ride

we’re all born to sing a kind of blues

that’s why we love trains in the night

that’s why we refuse to choose

 

just lay down, listen and snooze, lose

ourselves like kids tucked-in on rose hill

listenin, schemin to hitch and sing

bobby mcgee or maybe woody guthrie will

 

set us free as reds in the land of white

kerouacian mimics tippin back a pint bottle  

like blue-black runners powderin the night

and casey jones speedin dead at full throttle

                for Jack

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A Jug of Cranberry Juice

today’s a day to celebrate

don’t give a fuck

open up those pearly gates

do something really stupid

poke the bear

push your fucking luck

buy a bottle of irish whiskey

and a quarter ounce of cocaine

pretend you know shit from shinola

lebanese from moroccan hash

be alf that big-mouthed

alien cowboy on the town

hog-head machine operator

raised by outlaw wolves

a zappa-joe gigolo

giddy-up-gimp on rubber toes

a dead ringer for

ray charles in shades

asshole extraordinaire

the king of pain

navigated the vodka train

after too many whiskey derailments

so i raise my voice a glass

to one of a kind

a bitter pill and true friend

finally on the move again

traveling at the speed of light

for Keith

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MY JESUS

Is a gay black man

Who loves women and Muslims and Jews.

My Jesus got off

That slivered cross some

Two thousand years ago, rolled away

His stone and went back to smoking

Behind the Salvation Army thrift store.

Sometimes my Jesus is a Dick

Like Richard Nixon,

“Don’t do as I do. Do as I say.”

Grab your boot straps and get along

Little Commies. My Jesus

Thinks Christmas is an obscene

Consumer orgy. If he believed in Hell,

That’s where the richest

Assholes would be.

My Jesus swears

That churches are heartless as nails

Or stone, pinched claws

Determined to line out wild souls.

My Jesus believes

In freedom, balloons, and hypocrisy

Some of the time. He walks

The talk and like my sister

Falls down a lot, but

My Jesus gets up again

Because he’s a man,

And getting up is what men love to do.

My Jesus has balls

Enough to call bullshit

On all that whack he’s credited for—

Like walking on water

And rising from the dead.

My Jesus knows the power of story,

He’s seen it deployed with guns

And grins again and again.

My Jesus dreams we’ll grow

Tired of killing each other,

Grow tired of feeling afraid

And learn to live gently

Until we retire, until

We return to our subatomic selves.

My Jesus knows

The kingdom of Heaven

Is inside my head

Next door to the serfdom of Hell.

And sometimes some days

He rides my melancholy tsunami

Over steeples and freeways,

Funerals and white sales,

Hurtling bruised and broken

Onto stinking mudflats, bankrupt

As the American Dream,

Tears blurring the blue moons

Of his eyes, the stars in my night

Sky—bright rimmed puddles, dark

Rings of light. My Jesus

Celebrates the mornings I wake

Up. We both imagine he dies

With me. My Jesus doesn’t pretend

To know what will happen.

He’s just happy to be. My Jesus

Is the king of vulnerability—

He’s all about love and service,

Responsibility, for him

There’s no judgment day.

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ICARUS FLIES AGAIN

In Butte

Clouds hang low

As Wobbly agitators

Suspended like saucers,

Whole plates of mashed potatoes,

Or maybe platters, paint palettes

Your mother might have dreamed up

To mix the dark oil she splayed

Across nightmarish canvas . . .

 

Like the cigar smoking mule

That suffocated you while

He rhymed in the caved-in

Stopes of your mind,

The repeated promise of

Eternal harps and gowns, blind

Hopes spun by heavenly clowns

Who claimed they saved Evel

From burning. Joe Hill

 

Still waits at the pearly gates,

St. Peter is a company man . . .

Frank Little’s playing poker

With Clarence Darrow out front,

Sees you trying to sneak by

With your prayer shawl on.

Recognizing your long ears

And Bowler hat, Joe Hill coughs up

The blood of Christ, refuses to go

 

To Hell. No cigar, Frankie smokes

Like a presto-log, pulls two jokers

From his sleeve, so Darrow raises

Hell—tells Pete to kiss his ass.

He knows who holds the kings

Of copper hostage, but the fools will trade

Their teeth for rosaries, booze,

Or dentures that don’t fit. The lowest level

Keeps changing like clouds—now bowls

 

Of oatmeal topped with Sweet and Low.

Today everything smacks of you,

Ed, in this blue sky above me. Like Daedalus

Or Marianne Moore, toads croaking

In their imaginary gardens, this blue

“Bird” is winging it, singing it

Because he can, because he’s flying high

Once again over the labyrinth he sees below.

Unfortunately . . . he cannot land.

 

            In memory of Ed Lahey

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