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


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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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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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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The Return

I fell in love

with the wounded animal

in you. I recognized it

across the room,

and I wanted to hold you,

soothe you, and reassure

myself we’d be

okay as a team.

Which meant a friend

in the fifth grade.

That gauge I used

on everyone I met.

It was part of the initial

size-up, the risk factor

for entering truth.

Sometimes I see it

in someone’s eyes,

sometimes it’s body posture,

or I hear it in their voice,

a surrender, a letting go,

the desire to know

love, another, the other.

We both knew

the exhilarating joy after pain

and how to comfort

the sick, the dying, ourselves.

It starts in the dirt

and is totally present

in animals, but people

never often find the time

until the party’s over.

To have been there

and returned is the metaphor

of Christ, and Christ knows

I came back for you.

for Pam

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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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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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