CUPS OF KINDNESS

Guy Lombardo’s orchestra played
while the black and white crowd waltzed
the ballroom, and folks swayed
in overcoats snowy outside
on Times Square singing Auld
Lang Synge after the countdown
to end or begin another year,
ghosts of themselves on our Sylvania
TV. I remember those sweet moments inside
after sledding all day into the night, then
waiting for that grainy ball to drop
and interrupt Monopoly
or Yahtzee with cups of cocoa
to toast the wonder of hope
and nostalgia we held so dear—back
when we knew each new year would be
even better than the last.

Do you remember
when that started to change? Was it the first
hangover? Those stalkers shadowing
you under the mistletoe? Maybe
one to many failed peace accords. Or
was innocence lost with Dick Clark’s microphone?
The first time you hurled Tom & Jerry’s
in the snow?

I’m not sure, but I know
I can recapture some of that sentiment
standing outside after dark in the cold,
whether sledding or skiing or staring
at a fire, being close to the frozen
ground, and it doesn’t matter if I’m alone
or with family or friends, it seems to me
the key is being out and cold and wet,
a little closer to death, then going in
where it’s warm and dry, knowing
that I’ll survive tonight, and by
repeating this formula,
we may grab the time to dream
big enough for luck
to find us next year.

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Plastic Jesus

The plastic crucifix draped

with my grandmother’s rosary

hung above the dresser

in our parents bedroom,

 

Jesus glued to the cross

he’d been knocked off

after a drunken tumble

my father took the night

 

his forehead caught the corner

of the cedar chest and bled

a mess like a wine bottle broken

on a Jackson Pollack canvas.

 

My dad had found the crucifix

hanging on the only wall left

standing from a bombed-out

house in Belgium, 1944,

 

and brought it back home.

They survived the war

and the trip across the ocean

much like his Irish mother had

 

with her rosary beads in 1916.

Today what’s sacred to me

are my family’s stories

of conflict and hope nailed

 

in these Christian totems,

their struggles with fear,

their yearnings to live free,

to know, to trust, to be

 

honest with, loyal to one

another. Like my Old Man,

I refuse to buy that

pie-in-the-sky bullshit

 

designed to keep us in line.

Not blood, but glue drips

from Christ’s feet and wrists

(my father’s blood wiped clean

 

long ago). The Virgin Mary

and The Son were rubbed away

by my grandmother’s thumbs

on that old wooden rosary, now

 

faded as my dad’s faith in

the afterlife. My Old Man’s

“after life” is me, as my own

afterlife belongs to my sons.

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CHRISTMAS, HELL

I can’t even find time

to write the irrelevant,

irreverent form letter,

for Christ’s sake,

let alone wax

poignantly about peace

& joy, chestnuts

or snow, those memories

in slo-mo of dark

mornings we danced

across freezing wood floors

to dig for socks & long johns

in dresser drawers,

bedroom windowpanes

glazed in ice—

we’d run to the living room,

smell coffee, bacon

cooking in the kitchen,

listen to larch kindling crackle

& the trash burner roar,

Mother’s slippers scuffling

the linoleum floor—dishes

clattered as we buttoned

& tugged, pulled on our clothes,

hypnotized by the glow

of icicles & colored bulbs

silhouetting the fir tree

we’d cut down

up Madison Gulch,

the literal presence of wonder

in our black & white eyes—

an evergreen rainbow

topped with a blue star—

it was our chromatic

invitation to dream.

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The Glass

warps our reflections

we keep on eating

more or less

drink more

sleep less

pay attention to

the dirty truth

the word success

dancing to the tick

talk of the wind

the prattle chatter

of animal wisdom

a party line

on the food chain

gain-link-saw

slave to the clock

consciousness of all

lost in the march

woods of time

gray blues the jazz

we can’t explain

articulate again

we seal who

we smear chew

those sounds sustained

to complain

make sacred

the profane

and smile when

the glass shatters

cup your hands

sip the dark

light mystery of

breathing in

here again

we still linger

like garlic

or a thorn

ungone

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Larva

 


I.

They hang in the dark

corner of a room, three black

duffel bag sized sacks

like giant eggplants, upside down,

wrapped in a woven membrane

like a nylon sock. The face

pressed in the bottom of one pouch,

eyelids closed, is a girl I knew

from high school, her hands

still puffy, clammy & cold.

Though always small in stature,

she is the largest of these

intruders — slick bat-like larvae

who wait with me this night to be born.

Lazily she unfolds her almond eyes.

I can’t decide if she recognizes me.

II.

My mother has come to visit, now

eighty-three. She wears the winter

coat I remember from the fifties,

carries her snap-lock pocket book

over one wrist, & a Kleenex in her hand

that she uses to dab at her nose.

She looks tired & old as she fights

back tears. When I ask what’s wrong,

her voice cracks to a whine.

Her mother’s gone. She watched

her die. Slowly & gently

I pull her into me, hold her softly

& rub her back. I kiss her hair

to soothe us, to open our eyes,

so we can bear the uncertainty

of form — our ongoing metamorphosis.

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GONE

 

Photo of Susan Carlson's collage art piece "Gone to the Birds"

Photo of Susan Carlson’s collage art piece “Gone to the Birds”

cemeteries and ghost towns

abandoned buildings

the dilapidated evidence

of lives lived and gone

 

broken glass and missing doors

some swollen and jammed

to the floor

the rank smells

of mildew and stink pigs blend

like ant hills littered

with larch needles and rat shit

mounding along the baseboards

 

below the gaping chimney flue

a yellowed-stiff pile

of catalogs and magazines

have welded

over time

 

the outline of a cabinet

torn-down scars one wall

another is scrawled with F-U-C-K

in all caps

and illustrated

with a scratch-drawn cock and balls

 

one tube sock lies on the floor

of a dim bedroom

the windows boarded-up

a single cot-spring

rusted to a metal foot-board

the wood-grain face

pierced by three bullet holes

and hung in the wall by one leg

punched through beaver board

 

out back the old wood shed

stands dramatically close

a frayed rope still hanging

from a rafter inside

and a broken claw hammer

lies half-buried in weeds

beside the railroad tie stoop

 

the outhouse a one-holer

has lost its roof and reek

the Hills Brothers coffee can

holds no spare roll

no one shits here anymore

 

one story has it

the young woman drown

bathing in the Clark Fork River

pregnant with her third

it didn’t take her husband

a full year to follow her

off the Rock Creek Road

everyone knew he’d drown

in a bottle

the girls were farmed out to

next-of-kin in the Midwest

taken in like little birds

fallen

from the nest

 

but who knows

these headstones

are almost a hundred years old

 

so it must be

a fairly safe bet

the daughters are gone now too

 

—inspired by Susan Carlson’s “Gone to the Birds”

 

 

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Cape Neddick

Red light flashes right

White light flashes left

A buoy bell clangs

Out in the darkness

Somewhere in between

 

The surf roars breaking

Against the rocks below

And underneath this constant

Percussive Maine song

Evening crickets fiddle along

 

While Polaris directs

This coastal symphony

And the Milky Way assures

All foreigners they are

Welcome here as home

 

for Aunt Pam

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Shit Happens

 

Young lady, Luna

Diane, this shitty gift

of a black-assed poem

upon the birth of your baby

 

girl, is sadly the best

I think I can do. Of course

my sister wouldn’t agree.

Your grandmother

 

began parenting

as a teenager, too.

It was what she wanted

to do, raise babies

 

on slobber and hope.

Now the prevailing wisdom

is to wait until you’re forty.

I believe it is most wise

 

not to advise, but to live

and let live, empathize,

realize everybody loves,

works, and dies.

 

My Old Man used to say,

“You can shit me, but

you can’t shit yourself.”

He didn’t believe life

 

had any meaning, really,

at least not in the crowd

pleasing dogma of the church.

He figured we were here

 

for no particular reason

we could comprehend,

that our lives mattered

only to us. He was awed

 

by the miracle of existence.

It was the damnedest thing,

from the Grand Canyon

to the birth canal.

 

He was a pragmatist,

a self-taught historian

and scientist. He questioned

everything, the devil’s

 

advocate. Your great-grandfather

was a pain in the ass, a truth

teller who believed in justice

and unions—be fair or fight.

 

He taught me the best we can do

is take care of each other,

and that’s what mothers do best.

My mother, your mother,

 

your grandmother, my wife,

all mothers never leave

their children, and fathers

remain long after they’re gone.

 

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Quest

That flat-tired bicycle chained to the fence and rusty wheel barrow propped against the side of the house, like me flopped in this plastic lawn chair (though you better believe my wheels are spinning) are going nowhere while chickens cluck and strut, finches chitter and flit, leaves flutter in the breeze while songbirds celebrate this backyard ease of a sunny afternoon accompanied by a neighbor’s table saw whine, the drone of a lawn mower and intermittent automobiles passing by blocks away, all for my ear-pleasure on this feathery Sabbath day-off, Joe Campbell’s heroes riding with me driving (or driving me to ride) these mountains to mole hills, these rumors to lies, Ed’s deer still navigating for me, black bear lounging in my sleeper berth and smoking reefer with coyote both laughing and singing to crow dancing on top of the cab, the noisy bastard can’t get a caw in cross-ways to save his heckled ass, so give it the gas and pass the mustard, Dr. Jekyll, throw another sausage on the fire and let me get back to my dream behind the wheel of basking in the sun, a bookworm beach-bum, Mr. Yesterday’s youngest son sneaking into the Golden Years’ Shuffle-Foot Club without invitation or KKK Trump-the-Nazi affiliation because I’m a white male over sixty and my words are your bonds, you’ll never be free as me, don’t take it personally, equality is an egalitarian myth, rest assured, death cures everything, but nothing can keep up with something and often exceeds anything’s wildest schemes of whatever the lusty-fuck we want we dream, just the basic breath of today, tomorrow’s steam, more of the same keeps turning the wheels down here and way up there in the middle of the air.

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BLACK LAKE

Don’t go down

to the edge

of Black Lake, they say

there’s no story

beneath the surface,

no moral midst the chaos

of mud and weeds,

no answers pulled from its depths,

just a mirror of plate glass,

a sheet of black marble,

the pool of nothing

but heartaches for the lost

and dead.

 

Don’t go down there.

They say it will pull you in

if you try to see

what’s below the reflection. Believe

it’s time to break camp, move

on. Still, the calm, the quiet,

the serenity of night

invites you there, whispers

jump in, home is a space

you know in the dark.

 

So don’t be frightened

of Black Pond,

it’s the beginning

of Black Falls,

headwaters of this stream

you float and fish,

drink and swim.

That mysterious universe

that underlies the rest of it,

tests the limits

of artistic stimulation.

 

So what the fuck

is going on here, and

is anyone arrogant enough to answer

that question? The problem

with language is it

assumes comprehension’s

a possibility, that my reading

of your experience

can somehow make it mine.

As much as we try

we cannot get away from ourselves,

there are too many of us—

all connected microscopically

and all uniquely alone.

 

All in all, all the more reason

to go down to the edge

of Black Lake and listen, watch,

pay attention, maybe sit down and wait,

wait till something happens,

know there’s a reason you’re here.

Don’t be afraid

to test the water,

don’t be afraid to swim or bathe,

do the dead man float,

feel it fully

before you walk away,

take the trail back down

into the valley of death, of people

and shadows, of poems

depressed, following that

familiar well-worn path

back into the breath

of laughter and light.

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