STRIPPER AT THE FUNERAL: The First Sixty Poems Published

Here’s a home for the 60 plus poems of mine published over the past three decades, from most recent to the first.    –Lee Patton, Denver, CO

OUR HOUSE:

A Century of Unspeakable Unremarkability

“Unremarkable,” quoth the visiting professor,

though we didn’t ask him for his opinion

of our old house’s style–we were just lucky,

having the verdict confirmed by academia.

Yep, it’s a story and half of Early Crackerbox,

around long enough to have seen Gibson Girls

and suffragettes, doughboys and flappers,

Depression mothers in Mother Hubbards,

bobby soxers, Brando imitators on Harleys,

and one species our older neighbors can verify–

hippies, who once tossed a burning mattress

into the alley. The professor was unmoved.

He rapped our plaster walls, listening for

hollow spots–”Their lives were boring

here, you can be sure. Unspeakably so.”

So what else was new? I’d made a point,

for all my years here, of boring out

our house’s tradition of unremarkability.

When sleeping alone, I once multiplied

its years by its bedrooms and wondered

about the dull love made here over time,

and if any of these lovers also rose at dawn

in mid-summer in my odd-cornered attic room

whose balcony overlooks the yard to see

anything similar to the lilies, iris, phlox

there now, common cuttings from friends

who themselves are garden-variety types

who try to ignite weenie roasts with

predictable phallic humor–anyway,

I wondered if those past residents,

after all that love, stumbled to

aromatic coffee down too-steep steps

in strange foot races with the cat

which inspire human competitions

to reach the back porch first to watch

the coffee steaming in sunlight

while the mock-orange petals drift

in the pools of a fake-terra-cotta fountain

given to us in hopes it would help dispel

the long century of unremarkability

settled in our house.

Heirlock Magazine, Summer 2020

ON THE MONEY

by Lee Patton


The Harriet Tubman $20 was a redesign plan, advanced during the Obama administration, that was supposed to have rolled out in 2020 to mark the centennial anniversary of the 19th Amendment granting women the right to vote. That plan, like so many others for the year, has been shelved.

A genocidal maniac stares back at us
on our twenty dollar bill—native killer,
ethnic cleanser extraordinaire. Plans to put
a slave liberator in his place got erased—

Miss Tubman, ever poised for glory, will
not suffice. Our leader admires the killer,
even placed his portrait to grace his office.
Franklin and Hamilton, our currency’s

sole non-presidents, were at least fun guys—Ben,
teenaged runaway, Alex, Caribbean bastard—
but unlike civilized lands, we have no artists,
no philosophers, no scientists on our cash.

Our basic buck poses an honest slavemaster—
zealot of forced labor, profit, and the lash.

Urban Renewal

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Summer’s lease expired six weeks ago,

so night falls like a cartoon piano

from some third-floor balcony

while we’re stuck on the street going,

“why’s it so damn dark all of the—?”

Six weeks ago, wasn’t this a parking lot?

Weren’t shopping carts overturned where

that Lexus slinks into concealed garage?

Didn’t lonesome condoms congeal where

marble fountains spurt on the breeze?

Couples smooch on wrought benches

lining street after street of luxe condos

stacked three high and packed tight

behind brick facades, faux-antique,

every quarter-paned window still taped.

Even though a quarter-century gapes

between you and me like a bulldozed lot,

I feel fearless even under the threat

of steep, black grand-piano nightfall.

Instead of smash and squelch and silence

I hear the first chords of a prelude,

simple and sure, from an open window.

In warm fall breeze, on fresh-poured curb,

we mark our first six weeks with a kiss

freshly-planted as these autumn trees.

Impossible Archetype 7, Winter 2020

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I was in the wrong clothes, too pressed,

wrong hair, too combed, too poufy,

ordering the wrong drink, vodka plus tonic,

not straight whiskey or draught beer,

doing the wrong thing, typing on my laptop

minding my own damn business

in a stab-wounded red booth.

I heard one of the young punks

hovering near the bar stage whisper

“fuckin laptop!” then his buddy

sotto voce, “fuckin faggot.”

The other young punks played pool

in a silence sometimes broken

by a lowdown wail, “fuckin wife.”

Answered by a nod and sympathy:

“Can’t be worse than my fuckin bitch.”

I was fresh from the plane. Wrong,

I thought I might seek liquid refreshment

while I waited for my friends, my hosts,

to get home from work, just a few doors

down from this nondescript pub.

One punk, emboldened by beer, skirted

my booth. I said, “How ya doing?”

The punk said nothing to me, just staring

with fury. When he got back to his buddy,

he unloaded his heavy grievance:

“fuckin faggot with his fuckin laptop.”

I was in Yonkers for a week

that October but that’s all

I ever remember.

Impossible Archetype 5, 2019

 

Another Dead President


Just wait,
another long week of non-news—the demise itself,
long expected, the prepackaged obits, the lugubrious
commentaries on the long-gone context of his single term,
all of it muted in longing for “better days than ours,”
because the bar for presidential behavior is now so low
that all the deceased had to do was act the decent rich guy—
anything but behave like our intimate casino gangster.

But wait—
it’s just begun. There’ll be videotapes of stilted appearances,
recountings of his public service over and over and over—
with no such tributes to nurses, teachers, roadway flaggers,
restaurant servers, farmers, or home caregivers, no—
that’s not service. No, service is being vice to a treacly phony
who lied and lied to us. It’s voting against civil rights, demon-
izing minority prisoners and gays.  It’s staging bogus wars.

But wait—
there’s more, the body flown from Houston to DC
with solemn militarist salutes, the body lying in state
in some solemn capital venue, tearful attendees
and glimpses of best-forgotten dignitaries, then finally,
finally, for sure, the deposition of the body at a military
cemetery. Please, at last, let’s just bury the poor old guy
to rest in peace.

New Verse News, December 2018

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TOY DRIVE MORALIST SEEKS MR. POTATO HEAD

                 

The upper shelves belong to Barbie,* mostly arrayed in pink,

the lower to Disney princesses in even deeper pinker pinks, all of whom

face shelves full of glitter eyelashes, fingernail gloss and bubblegum lipstick.

Another section showcases Transformer-Kill-A-Thon black-and-blue weaponry

that every boy seems to know judging by the rugrats’ pawing at rocket launchers

and weaponized trucks and nuclear drones and warrior robots with electric sabers

and bladed fingers like daggers and fighter jets with blood-red-laser-flesh-penetrating

aerial explosives. And speaking of weaponized, what the hell happened to Legos,

now a whole subspecies of dark superhero monster-killer devices that’ve usurped

those little fitted plastic rectangles in primary colors?

It’s so obvious the beauty goop is for girls and the killing contraptions for boys

that the good women shopping for some institution split the sprawled lists

and multiple carts heaped with plastic-wrapped toys: “Louise, will you please concentrate on princess stuff while I do what I can to stock up on the boys’ artillery?”

So we’re stuck in some hyper-mechanized shrink-wrapped gender-patrolled version

of 1953, plus terrorized by everything deeply fucked up about the new century?

Never thinking I’d be forced to study sociology in the toppling aisles of Target,

I grow ever stiffer and dismissive as if I’m too good for all this shit, but really,

the little boy who still occupies most of my heart is heartbroken.

In a friendlier aisle of plush toys (though by now I’m expecting endangered

species, oil-splattered seabirds and bloodied baby seals) this big clatch of siblings

and cousins scour the shelves with a list of their own for the clan’s little kids,

a few years younger than this cohort, but they can’t proceed because they’re laughing

at every memory of every furry animal they ever loved. “Remember that rabbit,

Joey, that you wouldn’t let go? God it was so gross, old peanut butter stuck in its fur.”

“Mark’s too little for Wookies, Mom’s crazy. He doesn’t know a thing about Kashyyk.”

When they move on, I toss a wooly Wookie in my empty basket and proceed, asking

this teenage clerk if he’s ever heard of Mr. Potato Head. His partner perks up,

abandoning his stocking of Fatal Shot T-17’s. “Yeah, I know just where!”

The three of us roam the no man’s land east of Barbie, joined by two more clerks

who also seem to heed the siren call, that spellbinding Potato Head charisma.

The four kids form a red-polo’d cordon around me, proud, as I tremble to snatch

the last Potato Head and drop it in my cart. “What about Play-Doh? Have you ever heard of Etch-a-Sketch?” Heck yeah, we love that old-school stuff, the quartet assents and we’ve off, searching and seizing Silly Putty, Duncan yo-yos, Tonka trucks,

matchbook Chevys, 48-Crayon Crayola boxes, coloring books devoid of princesses,

inscrutable puzzles of imperial Chinese gardens, Scrabble, Bicycle playing cards, soccer balls, softballs, nerf balls, multicolored slinkies, plastic baseball bats, and Frisbee.

My four wave me off as I wobble toward checkout, then to clutch my sack of toys

over ice and uneven flagstone to the church basement, a vast toy drive consolidator.

The ladies scold me for not following the list, “We need Transformer-Fatal Shot 17’s

for our older boys!” but accept my humble goods with the tolerant reluctance

of good Christians. I smile, though, because I hope somewhere on Christmas morning,

some kid is going to unwrap Mr. Potato Head and love him, too, for the next fifty years.

*All product placement placed over objections of author.

Winning Writers August, 2017

Drunk on Heavenly Florida

A case of Dixie brewskis, a pair of jet skis

barricade the way to my cousin’s open door.

Dark shadow flaps across the screened porch.

On skinny pole, a Rebel flag traps the breeze.

Jimmy-Roy was a handsome if whiney guy,

loved camping, fishing, canoeing the Glades.

For the last thirty years, though, he’s carried

whiskey all day in a Big Gulp cup. He’ll buy

a microwave burrito not for lunch, but to show

his crew he still eats solid food. Thin as a nail,

the face of eighty-five at fifty-eight, he abides.

Jimmy’s wife? Left him. He’s the boss, though,

of Mexican guys keeping his business “on task.”

Behind his place, wild hogs root, snort, and trample

what’s left of the oaky woods. Jim tours his holdings,

pissed-off. Points out a wallow with plastic flask–

see where the hogs ripped up palmetto bogs? Jesus.

His damn kids took off, too. It’s all right, Jimmy-Roy,

I tell him, our branch of the family’s just as broken,

orphans, ex-wives, drunks and ex-cons. Seems like

our clan stretches coast to coast, a Trail of Tears

of Irish-Catholic dysfunction. Don’t mind if I do

have a sip from that Big Gulp. In honor of the family.

What do you say, Cuz? Me, I’ve sworn for years

we suffer some curse. Jimmy-Roy’s land eases east,

up sandy rises, into orange groves in perfect rows.

Sweet blossoms scent even hog tracks, dug-up paths

to Heaven that dead-end beside a condo-complex

pool, mobbed today. Jimmy staggers to the fence

to spy old folks in spandex, souls that ought to bob

on the water’s surface. But they sink and lumber

through Water-Roebics. Still, they laugh and sway,

josh their instructor, and misbehave. Jimmy says

it’s a hoot that these banged-up old codgers get

baptized, resurrected, every pool-time noon.

Think my sins’ll wash off when I’m an old coot?

You are an old coot, I think, but know I oughta

keep my trap shut. Geez, but that pool looks cool,

forgiving, lovely, no matter how full of old fools.

Jim smiles, passes the big cup: “Our holy water.”

Good Men Project, July 2017

 

Zombie Candy at the Civil War Cemetery

Past the tended lawns of miles of monuments,
the angel-spangled pillars for the 54th Virginia Infantry
and the First Ohio, past the rusted artillery blinds
and the humping green remnants of trenches,
past the sole remaining farm cabin and slave shack,
past the pocked field lined by tanglewood next to a creek
that blasted blood all day, mixed with storm-strewn mud,
then up the solitary hillock here where Georgia
meets Tennessee, a sentinel spot overlooking
the acres of cemeteries and memorial marble,
where undead old cars from Chattanooga line the lane,
Mustangs and Camaros and Firebirds and Corvettes,
posing for a photo shoot with the salon Zombie Candy,
whose employees pose atop the top-down cars,
the girls’ tops barely up, their hair fluorescent,
peppermint-red striped, yellow swirl, cotton-candy pink,
all laughing fake hauteur, soaking in the autumn sun
where the only unspoiled public place for miles
is this site of two-day anarchy, fist-to-fist
brother-to-brother rural rampage, deadliest
in the South, preserved as backdrop
for all these pretty human lollipops.

Birds of Oklahoma

Another April 19 Commemoration

We don’t know what the hell they are,
sparrows, we guess, swallows?
Anyway, they cantor and spree
over the oaks and native pines.
They keen overhead, melodies
made up on the spot, unraveling
ribbons of song.

Kids take to the podium above
the memorial’s reflecting pools–
ponds to heal a wound, to respond
to the wind, the sun, the rain,
to whatever comes next. The wound
is Fifth Street, cratered to oblivion
two decades ago. Certain grandparents
were killed. Anti-government bomber.
The words are grandparents’ names.
The sound is a tender tongue
each trying out one name:

Christi Yolanda Jenkins, say.
They say she worked in the credit union.
Or Michelle Reeder, worked in federal highways.
Maybe one of the water resource guys,
Robert N. Chipman, or agriculture,
Olen Burl Bloomer. The Enemy,
you know, Gov’mint. The Enemy,
you know, bureaucrats. Which bureau,
we ask. Social Security?
Child Development?

We want to know about Peachlyn Bradley,
learn the story of her fruitful name, and why
no one’s placed a wreath on her memorial
chair. But us, you and me? Wreathless,
don’t know our hearts from a hole
in the ground–Jesus, we can’t tell
a sparrow from a swallow.

On the Veranda, Issue 1.8, 2016

Image result for gold king mine blowout

EVERLASTING TRESPASS

Slag Pile at the Source

As wilderness, the top of this glacial valley
was pretty hopeless. Stunted spruce,
tortured at timberline, lined a two-track
path into defunct mining camp. Hunkered
under the Great Divide, 1850s shacks
collapsed side by side with 1950s steel
outbuildings. Silver mine, we guessed,
then uranium. Rusted warning signs,
Cold War symbols, dark triangles within
black circle: DANGER. RADIOACTIVE!
The wire fence beaten, ignored. KEEP OUT.

Of course, we let ourselves in, tamping down
the wire with our boots. Sandwiches on a dead
miner’s imploding porch. Vista of the whole
valley, subalpine fir giving way to lodgepole
and aspen, woods punctured with orange slag,
mine tailing piles wherever some seeking
soul with a shovel thought to punch a hole.

We spotted a slag pile just down the path.
A snowpatch seeped orange-brown slush,
a trickle spurting who-knew-what, arsenic,
uranium juice? The slag heap fed dead pools,
cascading into toxic stream then coursing
down valley. “The stinkin’ source,” one of us
knew, “of the South Platte River. The wellspring
of the water we drink down in the city”–
source of the rapids feeding pine canyons,
fresh with everlasting trespass, tainting
the mess we have made.

Weatherings, Futurecycle Press,2015

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“The solace of geology

arises from everything getting pulverized.”
Eventually, he meant, in geologic ages’
patience and the fury of tectonic rages.

“Everything?” I challenged. The geologist
and I stared upwards, sharing my whiskey,
seated on his log. Sheer slabs, multi-

colored in wedding-cake layers of granite,
sandstone, and shale–each an epoch of
metamorphosis, erosion and grit slough-

ed, buried, rising again to be sunk again
in flood and drought and lava catastrophe–
climbed in our sights from redbud canopy

clear up to canyon rim. “Everything? Won’t
humans’ layer consist of polyester, chrome,
diapers, lard, petrified sewage foam–

won’t our short human episode be a stain
of garbage between great layers of schist
and gneiss?” “But nothing human’ll persist,”

the geologist insisted. “You must accept
the grinding power of sheer tonnage and time
versus the gunky waste and tuneless rhymes

of humankind, our flicker of futile acts
in the vastness of a volcanic, fiery planet’s
endless energy and urges. Geology’s a bandit

who commutes its loot back to raw material.”
Maybe I confused whiskey haze with blind hope,
but his words soothed. Was I a misanthrope?

“Everything? Meaning all orange traffic cones?
Cadillac and Lincoln SUVS, No Money Down?
The undeserving rich? Scary burger clowns?

The bones of officials who send young citizens
to die in far, endless wars?” “Yes, their bones,”
the geologist affirmed. “And mine. And yours.”

Going Down Grand, Lithic Press, 2015

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FIELD STUDY IN DISTURBED SOIL

The new science teacher stresses “disturbances.”
He fingers wispy whiskers meant to disguise
his youth, then cautions the Biology kids and me,
“We may not find a true vestige of native biotics.”

Invited to his field trip above our bursting school,
I’m sun-blind in September noon. String squares
mark biosphere samples, disturbances older
than these kids’ parents, fields still unhealed–

toxic invaders took root after we scraped away
our old skin of buffalo grass. A kid strolls up,
twirling string: “Sir, I think I’ve found it–” He points
past invasive weeds. “There. Oak. Native grasses!”

Each team leaves off stringing the weeds to follow
their teacher to hidden patches of wild. Cool, he hides
his ardor: “Class, notice the mounting size and health
of the grasses and oaks as they amble upslope here.”

Surviving scrub oak seeks the rampart s of tract homes,
clipped by mown lawns. Now we find spiders weaving.
Mice dart from chipmunks. Wings sweep and thrust,
chirps and warbled songs spin rhythm thicket to thicket.

In thrall of birds’ music on the breeze, the kids quiet.
Teams of flax-haired sophomores note first gilded leaves.
Past distant pioneer graveyards, bulldozers bury pasture,
heaving earth for parking lot. I note how the golf green

slithers toward the new jail. When I started teaching here,
deer scored the track, cattle studied the library windows,
and antelope high-jumped where Deer Run Drive sprints
past Antelope Ranch Estates, but I keep it to myself. We’re

fated for overpriced boxes dropped into disturbed soil, so
why let the past interlope? The teacher holds up wheaten
stalks, like banners of a doomed flamboyance, their fig-
like leaves cover enough for our expulsion from Eden.

Weatherings, Futurecycle Press,2015

SHOOTING AN ELEPHANT

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The younger tourists were laughing, drinking
beer by the elephant wallow, so just the ranger
and I waited for the herd to show trunks
and tusks. But the sun went down before
we glimpsed the elephants, now in retreat.
The ranger pointed to a lonesome set of ears
rising above acacia scrub. “Only that old one.
He’s hiding, by himself, many paces behind
the herd. Molars gone, that’s his life now.”
The Botswana horizon went dark too fast. Bugs
clackered in the thorn brush, as if feasting
on nightfall. “When old ones lose their molars,
the females kick them out. Even other bachelors
abandon them,” the ranger confided to me.
“They wander alone through old age, eating
only the most tender shoots until the rest
of their teeth fall out. Then they die.”
“Isn’t that what we should do, we humans?”
my travel mate asked in Johannesburg
at a hotel buffet fruit-medley. “Die graciously,
then leave the fray when our teeth are gone.”
I didn’t really agree, but I was busy munching
a pineapple chunk. In a chomp, the fruit
became hard, unyielding, which turned out
to be my lower right molar, severed
from an ancient root canal.
Back in the States, my dentist tsk-tsked.
“Nothing can save it. We’ll do extraction
and implant.” Would this be the first
of many amputations from my being?
Unstoppable, my dentist launched another
big game hunter’s tale, the private shoots
he conducted in Namibia and Zambia.
Elephant kills were “easiest of all to arrange.
We shoot old ones out of their misery.”
These days, I guard my empty molar socket
from public scrutiny, especially any females
inquiring with feigned concern. Concealed,
stealthy, I survive among the toothy youth,
keeping well behind and hoping, if I can chew
the tenderest leftover shoots, avoiding pineapple,
and keep hiding far from my dentist’s sights,
I may survive a while more, gracious, I hope,
banished, I fear, solitary in the wild.

–Good Men Project, February 7,2014

blue armchair

The blue armchair

waits in the heart of Atomic, Colorado,
its velveteen arms worn to clumped nubs, sitting
where County Road 573 meets Electron Street.
It’s free—complete with hand-lettered sign,
TAKE ME PLEASE. Donna’s dad gave up work
in the mine, his arms once deep in discarded
uranium, then gave up the chair after he got sick
and took to the front bedroom. Donna tries
care-taking on her days off, driving home
from Montrose, her arms propping Dad up
so he can swallow ice cubes. She tells him
some jokester put a naked-lady mannequin
in the discarded chair, striking an arms-out,
legs-up pose, both defiant and pliant,
half-fighter, half-lover.

Overdue at City Market for the evening shift,
Donna cries leaving town, her arms shaking against
the wheel. She can’t stand that small, pleading sign
on the blue armchair after the weeks of no takers,
and now, that obscene mannequin. Or the big sign—
the billboard from her girlhood at the town’s edge,
the bunting tattered, the red, white and blue paint
chipped: WE FUEL ARMS FOR PEACE.
She would haul the blue chair herself, right now,
take it around the whole Uncomphagre Plateau,
if she could find anyone strong enough
to lift it in his arms.

-Poetry Quarterly, Winter 2014

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RUMOR OF GRIZZLY BEAR

This all ends in a glacial valley, walled like a trap,
jagged peaks its savage teeth. Still, the steep trail
seemed worth hard breaths in flimsy air—meadows
through spruce to higher meadows, clogged,
agog with fall color–sun-gold to hungry red
as if every shrub, every leaf, every blade, every weed

were squeezed from a palette of last-gasp divinity.
Now, where I rock-hop the scree above the ice-blue lake,
there’s only granite-gray and stunted trees’ black-green.
In rocky chaos the summits seem just-born, still unformed,
naked. Lake spawns no fish, no algae, pure element—
as if water itself just got dreamed-up, news to Eden.

A couple rise from their picnic to head down-valley.
But not before they share the rumor of grizzly—
a teenager, hiking alone, saw it drinking at the lake.
“That girl hustled right down the trail.” The man laughs.
The woman bites her apple. “But when we reached
the lakeshore, the grizzly was nowhere to be seen.”

They take off, and I’m the only soul in sight. Great.
No beast that size could hide in these tiny trees,
but I’m sure it’s somewhere in this rocky jumble, eyeing
me. It could even be invisible, like God, whose power lies
in how fear inspires belief. The bear does seem omnipresent,
no matter how unseen—or more real because unseen.

I’m a new convert plagued by heresies, faithlessness—
did that girl, teenage drama queen, improvise the bear?
Was that couple lying, a dumbass prank to scare me,
skunk my hike? On my way back, I curse all russet bushes
for their bear-hiding efficiencies. When a grouse squawks,
I’m even more squawky—what’s that bird sense that I can’t?

Raspberry thorns prick my fingers and fruit stains my skin.
Nice. A sweet blood-red mess to tempt that grizzly into sin–
if eating me counts as animal crime. Wilderness hikes
always seem to rise into purity. But, down, down, this one’s
creepy. I’ve dropped where I don’t belong, into deep woods’
feral laws, where the path leads to the omnipotence of claws.

Poetry Quarterly,Summer,2012

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GUNSIGHT PASS

On my way up, a tearful little girl, bruised head on hands.
A slightly panicked mom: “Are you a doctor, by any chance?”
I regret that I am not but offer my first aid kit. Bandage,
disinfectant, and pain pills help the kid feel healed
and the mother calmed. As I start up, they head down:
“Careful, sir, of jagged rocks. Careful of those sheer drops.”

The trail, like them all, lures with promise of some scenic goal,
a lake, a crag, a vista. This one’s got a rock poised on ridgeline
shaped like a gun sight (or an anvil, or a predator’s flat head?).
I struggle, cairn to cairn, up a steep skirt of tumbled boulders.
At the top, if I named it, it’d be Keyhole Pass– it squeezes me
into its fitted slot, then turns me so I’m hopped onto a rock ledge

barely wide enough to steady on. Under my feet, a thousand-foot
drop into scree and catastrophe. Beyond, a tundra expanse
spreading clear to the Elk Mountains and the Maroon Bells,
then snowfields in a Mother-Earth womb of bare granite.
I cling to the ledge like a newborn too stunned to budge,
tamping panic, no remedy from any mother under me.

Poetry Quarterly, Summer,2012

AMERICAN PASQUEFLOWER

Almost Easter at 7,000 feet,
70 degrees along this burned-out,
re-borning bank of Buffalo Creek.
Snow’s stubborn in shade
and drifts choke streams
so water tunnels under,
gushing to a blind date
with spring.

Snowmelt seeps into gray-
white meadows, still singed
from last summer’s flames.
Charcoal snags and snaps
scatter where paquesflowers
pink the dormant field.Leafless,
shameless, saloon-girl
pasques herald the sex-
ing, the birthing that awaits
from today all the way to November.

Yellow tongues flick the breeze,
soul-kissing the sunny sky
in a meadow orgasmic
with bees’ nectar-sucking,
sexworker fecundity.

Pasques raise a six-fingered
crown of triangular petals,
their cup-runneth-over
chalices pouring eternal
life that’s bound to sink
to withered stalk,
to colorless retreat
even as this dormant grass
goes green, dies brown,
then grieves in gray-white
dormancy till next spring’s
brazen tongues and brief-
raised crowns.

Poetry Quarterly, Summer, 2012

footlighers 2

FINAL ACT AT FOOTLIGHTERS HALL

My dad the dying retired janitor
rests in a chair marked “Director,”
grand under silver-white hair
but only from a distance. Under
his direction I clean this old
music hall. He calls this “his job.”
His last job–all other custodials
long given up. Mom says, “He needs it.
Makes him feel like he still got
his hat in the ring.” He dozes there,
saving breath, swallowing his pain.
I swipe the beer rings, the pretzel
debris, then jump onto the stage,
bearing the broom like a melodrama
sword, to push around little tufts
from actresses’ Gay Nineties tails–
this tourist play’s about whores
much misunderstood, golden-hearted
gals who play in love-for-pay
until they reveal angel feathers
in the final act.

When my brother starred in these plays
my father dragged us to this venue
every time we had out-of-town company
so they could applaud our glory.
My dad would rig getting picked
by the mock-lewd ladies in the revue.
They’d haul him on these very boards
and flatter his virility, combing
fingers through his strawberry waves.
The push broom sweeps me stage left
beyond a catacombs of false walls
to the soiled doves’ dressing room–
scents of caked makeup, perfume bombs,
feathered hats dangling on metal rings.

Parting a racked wall of undergarments,
my dad, lost, has wandered back-
stage. Slinking between Carmela’s
girdle and Bernice’s breastplates,
he’s rigged another cameo with the gals–
the stage harem titillates with silky hips
and well-projected breasts.
He’s as much ghost as man, the star
of his own bafflement, caught
in a curtain of quaking costumes.
“Feeling restless, Dad? Where ya goin’?”
“Just lookin’– making sure.” Of what?
“Remember when your brother…” He stalls
before the mirrors, quoting again
what the little girl down the street–
by now a cop or cosmetician–said of Joe:
“He’s as beautiful as Prince Charming.”
“Yep, the dude had stage presence, Dad.
Especially with stage powder on his zits.”
Half deaf, Dad can’t hear me anyway.
Did he expect to find Joey hanging out
behind plyboard walls, between the braces,
pausing for his cue? Tomorrow, Memorial Day,
we’ll visit Joe’s grave and shoo away
the hungry deer from fresh-flower vases.

Never his Prince, Dad’s half-reluctant
drudge, I’m sad we’ve never been pals.
Wary, suspicious of each other’s role,
we walked bloodless through our parts,
passionate only when we stepped
on each other’s lines. Dad buries his head
on his splayed hands, a faded star
with a killer exit scene. My hand drops
the broom and flies to his famous hair,
high-lit in make-up lights.
“You gonna be okay?” Dumb question.
Driving him to treatments, I’ve seen pain
dispatch him howling to the brush, to shriek
from his guts–and all I could think of, waiting,
pausing without a cue, without a script,
the engine idling, my father weeping in the trees:
The poor old guy
God where is your goddamn mercy?
Then he’d shuffle to the car, stumbling, old,
pissed off. Now–he answers my dumb question
by raising his hand to clasp mine.

When Carmela and Bernice arrive
to primp and powder for tonight’s show
I’ll ask them to sidle over and prop up
the old man, to close my director’s final show
with amateur improvisations of love.

Memoir Journal, Summer 2012

2521702

SCARECROW SOUTH OF DELHI

Old, holey silk stuck on a stick
in a field of winter wheat, wraith-
like in the mist. Silk too worn, stretched
to obscene transparency, too creased
for any more chores for the family—
slicing the mustard flowers,
bearing the fire wood to and from
the copse across the creek; not even
good enough to carry bricks daylong
to the in-laws’ barn repair site, just
old fabric retired to winter wheat.

Golden, spangled still but faded,
sagging, she joins the old-men sticks—
those ragged wraps topped by turbans—
fog-dripped and still in the chill, her caste
below even the dressmaker’s dummy.

One scare-sari scares no pests
as her spine snaps under the the claws,
the sudden heft, of landing crows.

Ellipsis, Spring 2012

vineyard-wedding-photos

MIDLIFE VISION

Checking maps to a wedding, it happened—
I lost sight of highways inked across wine country
like secondary vines. Newly blurred, blind to California’s
paper topography, I couldn’t focus on the tiny numbers
of county lanes. I lost the poetry of village names. My
weak eyes married scenic dots into a single blot.

The groom’s teenaged son pointed mid-forties magoos
to the hilltop grove where the bride prefaced her vows.
She tried to justify why now, first time, at forty-five:
“I never believed I’d marry until I found this wonderful man
in my sights.” The bride, gorgeous in white, grew
indistinct in my back-row squint.

Next day, I brought blossoms to our recent dead.
I shoe-swept fallen petals from my aunt’s new grave-plate
and strained to read her life span and postmortem: “Wife
and Mother.” Giovanna’s high heels wouldn’t ever hobble
down the Italian cemetery’s sandy lanes again,
but she would always glide through my mind’s eye
(still 20/20 when sighting hind), always about forty-five,
big-smiled, hands wedded to a Lucky Strike and cocktail.

Beside fresh concrete, our family’s unclaimed sites.
Even though I couldn’t spy the time pulsing
on my watch, how sharp I saw the future,
resting at my feet.

1st Place Award Clarity Poetry Contest, Fall, 2011
Lucidity, Winter Issue, 2011-12

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GIVING THANKS

This sky seems to write no promises–
its gray sheet stretches taut, papering
over the sun. Turkey gravy and pie juice
bleed on my clients’ blotted-ink addresses,
but I know ‘em by heart. The streets deliver me
again, with meals for the homebound.

Opposite Freedom Park’s drained fountain
an old lady totters to her next meal in robe
and sneakers. Every other citizen braving this
chill seems to be on crutches or skinny wheels:
“Could you hold that door for me, Sonny?”

In her room near the emergency exits,
Judith cries at the offered goods–enough
for the long weekend, with pie and cake
besides–and I beg off her gratitude,
I who only brought and did not buy,
did not package, did not bake.

Through his door-chain’s widening wedge,
Mr. Gomez forgets his reserve and shinnies up
the IV of his dormant self-delight, then frees
the door and offers his arms to me.

At the icy crack of noon, feeble shafts
of sunlight tender a greeting to the street,
throwing the chimneys’ steam into blunt relief
against faint blue haze.

Life, I want to tell Judith, has kissed me
on my sweet ass for so many years
that I’ve forgotten the need for wishes on bones
and lost track of any promises, kept or broken,
scrawled in disappearing ink
across November skies.

NOVEMBER 24, 2011, New Verse News

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The Health Club

“I’ve been sick,”
you explained, as if
that phrase dismissed
how you’d aged twenty years
in the months since I’d seen you

here in this place of worship
where great exertions produce
no products, no prayers
where rituals and regimens
get practiced with monastic discipline
for no transcendence,
to no god

All those years you rode
the stationary bicycle
Sweat saturated your back
as you gripped handle bars
that couldn’t be steered
So often I followed you
gasping toward the measured miles
bearing down on computerized hills
toward that destination
in the mirror

Years ago
you and me between
my sheets laughing
kissing hands exploring
all those hardened curves
earned on those bikes to nowhere
For no particular reason
I remember refusing
just a momentary perversity
a little detour on
our ride to nowhere
which may account
for why I’m still alive
I think as I hug you
goodbye

Q Review,  December 2010

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100 VITAMINS AND THE FALL OF THE SOVIET UNION

Purchased at a California Safeway
one hot October night–they’re gone,
today, One-a-Day, vanished like
the autumn itself. Fast as this–
his phone number’s alive on my bill,
the last long-distance call to my brother,
just before he died in late October.

I shake the last capsule in the bottle
against my ear like it’s a magic rattle,
an earphone to some supernatural portal.
Less than a hundred nights ago, I could
still speak to him, on that warm shore
before winter wailed our way for good.
I scan the bill for its other killing
details–that number’s the hospital.
That one’s the undertaker’s.

Meanwhile, as I consumed a hundred pills,
an empire vanished in the East.
One poor cosmonaut, circling the earth
for whole seasons, can’t return to land
in his mother country, which lost is name
on Christmas Day. The Confederation
of Newly-Independent Former Soviet States?
Only the Lonely? He’s still up there
while I spin down here, wondering where
my orbit really ends, clutching
an empty bottle and an unpaid bill.

Q Review,  December 2010

image294-1

168 WORDS : 

Across Oklahoma, April, 1995

Pastures, green spears
in standing water
NATIVE AMERICA
EXPIRES 4/95
“We gotta put that sticker on, Addie”
Cherokees in a Cherokee at 7-11
Pigtailed girl craves a Slurpee
“No, honey, later, okay?”

Headlights blur through rain
OKLAHOMA IS OK
A little copse north of Sallisaw
already in full leaf

Clouds abate over Tulsa
In fleet sunshine headlights
guide the statewide procession
through vacant downtown streets

Down at the capital’s airport
the President deplanes
Rain pelts tarmac like static
in the broadcast’s live feed,
eulogy that twangs against emptied
city canyons, his accent
like those of the silenced

On the river, the rain resumes,
each droplet a sting
for the swollen surge
to bear, clear down
to the all-accepting sea

At river’s edge, a grandma
sings out, “Tom! Mandy!
Let’s hurry back, now,
we’ll catch our death of–”
As if evaporated from sight,
the kids don’t answer.

The downpour gentles.
Grandma slips downstream
through shrubbery. Lilting, pitched
high, her voice still free of alarm,
she cries their names

APRIL 19, 2010, New Verse News*

(*Published on the 15th Anniversary of the Oklahoma City terror bombing)

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MY LIFE WITH CESAR CHAVEZ IN THE HYATT REGENCY

When he slipped beside me
in the elevator’s glassed hush
we talked about grapes, what else?
Distressed that the latest boycott
was unknown back in my town, he vowed
to get the word out. Now it was poisons
killing fieldworkers that ripened his protest–
what could I do but agree? My whole life
had been adorned by bumper stickers
demanding BOYCOTT GRAPES–the Valley
a boiling California Judea, with Cesar
leading endless charges on the big growers’
money-picking Jerusalems in Fresno and Delano.
And now, here stood this tiny grandpa at my elbow–
it was like finding Marilyn Monroe picking
through the lettuce at Safeway.

The glass cage set us smack
into the Hyatt’s breakfast buffet,
so we passed among the gleaming trays
of grapes and cantaloupe and strawberry.
Not one diner voiced thanks for the safe,
tasty fruit that somebody’s mom
had to pluck in that fertile inferno
where it’s a hundred-ten in the shade
on harvest afternoons. But I understood
that Cesar never expected gratitude from strangers.
He strolled, a free man, without commotion,
to deliver the keynote address to our union,
and as I left him at the podium, I thought,
when I get home, I’ll stay off grapes
and do my best to get our table manners
back in shape.

MARCH 31, 2010 New Verse News

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A VISIT WITH THE QUEEN

I keep thinking of that grandma
in the Royal Arms projects, in D.C.–
who, chosen to receive the Queen
of England, laughed a welcome
and yanked Elizabeth Windsor into a hug,
so that the Queen, much flustered,
had her Chief of Protocol kindly insist that
the Royal Person must not be
touched, most surely not by commoners.
The grandma had another laugh at
that—dry British wit—and grasped again,
enfolding Her Highness in her
plump black arms until Royal bodyguards
restrained Grandma with gentle
force. Chastened, she realized that she
and Elizabeth were the same age,
and came to pity her peer for all those hug-
less decades, not to mention
the spiteful in-laws, the pointless wars,
the worrisome children, wild
and/or daunted, and offered Elizabeth
a stay in her cramped quarters—
amidst the framed school pictures and fridge
drawings, and Elizabeth nodded,
and duly noted her host’s lovely grandchildren
and apartment, so tiny and clean,
whilst Americans everywhere came to realize
that we, too, possessed a queen.

APRIL 08, 2009, New Verse News

OCTOBER FOLDEROL

“It peaks, crescendos
for about a minute—we’ve
got to hike there now.”

But you couldn’t, so I
hustled there at day’s end,
hoping for scrub-oak groves’

gilded yellows, amber-greens,
oranges, orchestrated
in this redrock amphitheatre.

But a blot of cloud, stuck
in the western sky, silenced
all color. What’s the sound

of brown? A stain, a discord,
whistled in secret by Cain’s
children, kicked out of Eden?

The sun slipped through once
before setting, brief, bruised
strains of scrub-oak glow.

Hell, I got here too late.
True love’s nothing more than
a naked minute—this one—

nothing to count on plan for—
hard to set a tempo for—nothing
to seize, a slip of tender light,

a lusty, lucky suite played
for a minute on wild ridgetops
before the dark sets in.

Improv 2008: Anthology of Colorado Poets

AFTER ST. PATRICK’S DAY

The green dye’s already cast
among plastic beer cups, trashed.
Steel wind lacerates, a lenten
knife slicing all pleasures.
Crows chase robins off branches
barren as paper accords unsigned,
dropped on hungover lovers in the park
who rend remnants of loyalty and regard:
“You’ve become a vulture, Patrick.”
“And you, Megan? A parasite.”

The two played Irish last night, lucky,
shamrocked, plucked from contention
into Guinness and joshing and sentiment.
The bar hummed with dancing leprechauns
and shameless tries at broad brogues
from those Kevins, Mollys, and Seans
whose only Emerald Isle is a green-crepe
aisle at Safeway pitching dyed daisies.
Swilling from the passing pitchers,
innocent of Bloody Sunday, Falls Road, Brit
bombardment, fungal famine, indentures–
they raised mugs and pinched the greenless,
then bore homeward real Irish drunkenness.

Every holiday breeds its afterbirth,
sterile tomorrows–say, March eighteenth.
Like a fertile island waking to hunger,
the day’s vector’s lost, its tide out,
its pantries empty, its final treaties sunk.
Pat and Megan prowl the park, ache-headed,
locked in civil combat, when–begorra!–
where clouds abate over the foothills,
skeins of snow sift like trigger fingers
unclenched to sprinkle sugar over the bliss
of a union too sweet for rancor. Across
a border long wired and mined,
they reach to risk a kiss.

MARCH 18, 2007 New Verse News

ITALIAN REMEDY FOR SUICIDE

Since you’re determined to kill yourself
before the credit bill comes due,

1) charge a first-class flight to Rome.

2) Head straight to Parma on second-class train
with a cast that switches every stop
as if Fellini mis-directed disobedient extras–
grotesquely busy little kids, a toothless grandpa,
overmodest local beauties, and a matron
given to fainting spells who offers you a pear
as overripe as a star fallen
from the erotic cinema.

3) Carry her baggage–the matron’s, not the fallen star’s–
while she melts into her son’s skinny arms
and kisses you and raises hands to Parma, benvenuto!

4) Book a Vegas-style suite at the Parma Hilton,
spa in the zucchini-shaped tub, then bolt
(as soon as you’ve changed) to a family pensione
on a cobblestone side street; find a funky room
under back stairs draped by the maid’s stockings
dangling from the windowsill above.

5) Pretend to be an American millionaire shopping
for parmesan cheeses to import for your supermarket chain
so as to spend the whole afternoon sampling slices,
chunks, and grated flakes while Parma fawns over you,
offering sparkling water and wine to whet and rinse
and abet your choosy palette. Promise to have
your people call their gente, but

6) bolt again for a day trip to Modena, where you join
a tour sampling balsamic vinegars with the Sisters
of the United Convents of Southern Indiana.

Back at Leonardo Da Vinci Airport, just say, niente da
dichiarare,
since you’re a determined suicide, remember,
and you have nothing–nothing–to declare.

Back home, it happens to be one of those hot days
that melt like a faint-prone Parmigiana into the arms
of a soft, half-wilted evening. Your friend happens
to have prepared a salad of pears at perfect ripeness,
drizzled in balsamic vinegar, to celebrate your arrival.
Pavarotti intones rhymes of home through someone’s
open window, e una bella citta. You find yourself,
exhausted, leaning, arm around your walnut tree,
your cheek scored by its warm, wrinkled trunk.
Unbidden, a vision seeps up, under your jetlagged feet,
of tree roots sipping from deep below to slake
the drooping canopy–which shelters a table
heaped with sliced cheese. So

7) stop hugging trees, traveler, and

8) have some more to eat.

Divide: Journal of Literature, Arts, and Ideas Fall, 2006

She Belongs to Us,

the exploded contents of her toy purse
as well as what remains of her brains
after her skull got hammered

She belongs to us,
plus videos of her prances at family picnics,
plus dances at pageants and recitals, plus
that dollar she saved from the tooth fairy

She belongs to us,
privacy pulverized like her tiny sex–
“left-over meat loaf” the reporters said–
“The right to know is sacred, sovereign,” so

she belongs to us;
her mystery spices our loafin’ staff lunches
our theories about family secrets
salt to season strangers’ wounds

She belongs to us
because we felt so violated, so victimized
No, we never knew her, not in person
No, we weren’t there, exactly, but

she belongs to us
Why, we could snap the necks of our kids
we could fuck our own flesh and blood
but we’re not that kind of people, no

Not even the killer gets final possession
She remains with us
Gimme that dollar, doll

AUGUST 30, 2006 New Verse News*

(*Published just after Jon Benet Ramsey’s “killer”
surfaced in Thailand. It was a false confession.)

THE LOST HACIENDA

I thought I was the lost one,
pacing a faint track on a volcano’s
flank, just into the pines,
above the manzanita and cactus,
the century plants’ tight spikes.
My slow ascent flipped random pages
of the botanic joke book altitude recites
to latitude. Tantalizing above treeline,
the crater brewed, inside a snowy alp–
in tundra, I supposed, Mexican ice
laced with lava.

As the trail grew more green,
grassy and leaf-strewn under my feet,
I knew soon I’d have no new pages
to turn, that the trail would decline
to be any intruder’s guide book and hide
its text in vines, underbrush–amid
the squawks, the yelps of unseen life,
yowls and indecipherable songs.
Still, a faint impression, a whisper
against the high grass led forward
like English phrases scattered
among dying native tongues.

Neat as a row of teeth, prickly pear
appeared to line the upward route.
Aloe spread their spears in clusters,
rows fringing a grove of coffee trees.
A tile roof asserted between palms–
whatever the trail had to say ended
at the steps of an abandoned house.
Along the windy terrace, pronouncements
of family–jungle gym, swing set, plumbed
trough for the animals, working spout.
Through broken glass I spied a hall scored
with clean squares, phantoms of photographs.
Encyclopedias stacked, askew as if someone
had just sought Volume E., for “Ecologia Tropica.”
How about Volume Q., for “Que Pasa?”

As if to answer, then not answer,
one deck chair seemed turned toward me
among a close-knit circle perched
above a vista of wild ravines.
The vanished family must have coffeed
here in the evening, kids’ sun-scorched
skin salved by aloe. They must have savored
conversation, citing Volume E. to season
disputes. Here on the volcano’s spine
in intimate company with doom,
they’d spelled the human phrase of reason
into vine-tangled ground, their lost
words like seeds deep-planted
in this howling surround.

The Innisfree Poetry Journal, Vol 2., March 2006

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ARMED RESPONSE

ARMED RESPONSE
–warns every alarming sign
planted in each front lawn,
metal petals of SecureHomes,

Inc. Disarming, how only brown
arms tend empty yards to provide
the only motion, the only sign

that Beverly Hills bears life.
Brown arms guide the tools
and the whining, snippy machines

that manicure ever-green lawns
in February, tangerine-sweet.
Fruit’s a nuisance, though–

“Pablo,” Mycki wails, “that pulp
on the walkways? Clean, please?
Comprendes? Okay? I’ll be back.”

Sweeping uneaten fruit, does Pablo
recall his predecessors, braceros?
“The arm people,” whose manos never

knew manicures. While Mycki
day-spas her fingernails, Tanya
complains about “illegals–”

thinks they ought to be shipped
to Mexico “in manacles.” Mycki
says nothing, afraid of what

would jungle into her garden
without Pablo’s shears, so…handy.
Her Benz slips plush and silent

home, down the alley, swallowed
by garage. Someday, she’ll visit
her front lawn, she’s sure. Now,

though, Pablo mops up ripe pulp
and Mycki must write that overdue
check to SecureHomes, Inc., which

will plant a squadron of riflemen
front and back if any brute dares
pluck her Eden’s surplus fruits.


JUNE 19, 2006, New Verse News

CHAGALL IN CALIFORNIA

Donkeys and angels peer
round-eyed, sly smiles innocent.
They know cunning and sweetness
coexist in real flesh. Chagall
might compose the figures
peeking above a breezy strait’s
span, a golden gate, whose gilt
paint rusts and chips. The bridge
must bear the endless traffic
of strangers in suicide
and exaltation, must guide
the driven arms of natives
offering embrace or exile–
who comes, who goes.

On Chagall’s canvas, donkeys
impersonate wealthy men,
detailed down to watch fob,
sash, necktie, and vest. Then,
angelic, donkey goes afloat
over steeples, over the stucco
houses stacking up the hilltops,
into the naked refuge
of a bride’s curving arm.

“You’d think a grown man
could walk his own dog,”
scoffs the housepainter
as the master slinks away
behind tinted glass, knotting
his tie, smoothing his vest.
His dog exerciser attempts
to ballast five terriers, moor
them to a lamppost, but, yelping,
they’re aloft over Pacific Heights,
a dogged clump in flight
to the school’s rooftop play-
ground. The dog exerciser’s
clients’ children cheer the pets’
arrival and pluck each panting
terrier from the breeze.

A native daughter, an old lady
now, claims she’s tired, content
to keep watch on the school
across from her window, to catch
“who comes, who goes,” but
Chagall sketches her drifting,
unbound, adazzle, all across
the golden state, all across
the old century, those picnics
by the wild streams, those chores
in the vineyards, those tangles
with riptides and all the men
who rose in her sights golden
with promise–jackasses whose
hearts proved sweet in seeking,
then cunning in the retreat
as each one came and went
in her open, naked arms.

Country Mouse, Winter 2006

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MY CONFESSION TO LUCY

African Eve, I’m glad to meet you.
You’re smaller and more stooped
than I expected, and much hairier.
How fast could you have sprinted
through tall-grass habitat,
a world innocent of Slurpees
and suicide bombs and dioxin?
You precede the United States
of America by several thousand millennia
and can’t give a damn about flag-waving
or flag-burning or Deep-Discount Jesus
or abstinence education or absent education
or Viagra. That’s why we think your savanna’s
Eden. It’s like a vast blank chalkboard on which
no one’s learned to write any cruel ideas.
Lucy, when I ask what you’re thinking,
you just gaze as if to say,
“Of you, my child.”

I sought you here, at your museum diorama,
to confess I’ve given up on humankind, Lucy–
we’ll always embrace war and ravish our habitat.
A violent backbeat drums in every modern heart.
Our brief spell here’s just a gasp in Eternity,
while we learn the world’s capitals at gun point–
Mogadishu, Port-au-Prince, Sarajevo, Belgrade,
Pristina, Kigali, Kinshasa, Kabul, Baghdad–
places that mean nothing to you. You precede
even the concept of consolidated power–
your capital was your head. Your brains bred
your rough survival. You outwitted the beasts
and the men who craved to devour you. You ensured
the fact of my presence here. I admit I haven’t
amounted to much, maybe tempting you to wonder
if I were worth all that trouble. I can assure
you that I wasn’t, Lucy, but I tried, sometimes.
I search your expectant, simian face while I plead
for my penance,any Hail Lucys you require of me.
They’ve set you knee-deep in fake grass cover.
Please, forgive me while I kneel
on this fake slate floor, eye-to-eye
with you, my mother.

Country Mouse, Winter 2006

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THE LOVE SONG OF J. ALFERD PACKER*

[*A 19th Century Colorado cannibal, Packer is reviled and/or celebrated for having
eaten all four of Hinsdale County’s Democrats]

For soft visitors from sultry Texas
it’s just one long day in Range Rovers
to Colorado valleys, passing sego lily,
fireweed, and cow parsnip blooming
so thick we still cache our gold
under the blossoms, and hide slag piles
behind aspen hatched in nurseries
to screen the gravel graves
from Texans’ soft, shaded eyes,
then guide their thick thighs, juicy,
jiggling, toward the local barbecue,
to coax open their purses and wallets
packed with golden credit cards

For soft refugees from Oklahoma heat
just one long day in cooled Cherokees
to this town up a far gulley
(not a month in steamer cargo
Adriatic to Atlantic to New York Bay,
not weeks among trains and carriages
and walks up rutted mountain paths,
life’s possessions in a canvas rucksack),
no, soft Sooners shop on spruced planks
(hewn by a Bohunk immigrant
who dreamed of gold finds
but labored in coal mines,
who bought an egg for a buck
and a girl’s company for a dime),
just a little winded from the altitude
yet healthy overall–good teeth and nails–
so plump and pink we want to squeeze ’em

We herd the soft meat down the gangplanks
wending through the gussied town,
prodding them along corraled fences,
fattening them at the Feed Lot–
how much coal in their souls
keeps them digging, digging
for their golden cards?

VS: Critique, Vol. 4, July 2005

V.J. DAY

In a flash
above our unsuspecting city
I surrendered to the lush, ignited
deliciousness of your kisses and forgot
every battle I’d ever fought,

our healing flesh
entangled, our rucksacks tossed.
After we’d spent interminable years
reconciled to solitary scraps amid strife,
we land here face to face in midlife,

the rough miles,
the forced marches erased like tactical
plans scratched in surfline sand. Beyond
your balcony the city lies asleep under August heat,
dreamless, deaf on its soft sheet

to our elders’
victory, oblivious to the sacrifice
that birthed this preposterous prosperity.
We the inheritors seem peevish, wavering–small;
too dull to be grateful for it all.

So let’s dance
for remembrance, just you and me, and keep
on kissing under pacified moon, freshly enlisted
for slow embrace. At midnight’s strike, August 15,
in sweet peace: let this love convene.

The Neo-Victorian/Cochlea, Summer-Fall 2004

MY CONVERSION

When I was little I held the common belief
that all was fixed. The old were old forever,
and had always been. Even my own bones,
no mattter how my relentless body stretched,
seemed steel-forged sticks cast in concrete.
My elders held bone-deep belief in static
hierarchy–the Father, the Son, my dad, me–
and diffused all doubt with the miracles
that punctuated the fixed, eternal text.

Now that I’m grown, bones slowly shrinking
toward my own demise, abashed, I’ve converted
to the faith of flux. Nothing has ever stayed
unchanged, especially the things I loved,
but also the things I despised, and, in fact,
the vast substratum of all I barely noticed.
The novel inscribed by my high-school love
sits, yellowed and brittle as the muzzle
of my brother’s stuffed chimpanzee.
The chimp scowls on, ancient icon fixed
on his childhood bed with its moth-munched
cowboy spread. That boy, however, is dead.

My new faith grows rich, its body of worship
dense as those delusional concrete bones
but lightened, ignited by live-blood marrow.
I waver in the visible vapor of a snowdrift,
my arms upraised to praise the stratus born
in deep noon’s blue, my shoes sinking through
to green grass in khaki mud. Later I jog
along the logging road until it crumbles,
chomped to a h alt by the hungry tsunami tide–
still, I stagger on, down the newborn shelf
of exposed earth, stumbling onto the dunes,
drifts of sand smothering the chunked asphalt’s
corpse. The road ahead disintegrates into fog.
In this faith of flux, every breath makes a prayer.
In its shrinking bones, the body of evidence
grows.

Above Us Only Sky, Michelle Rhea & Anita M. Barnard, Eds., 2003

HOLY WEEK IN THE MOJAVE

Random geology, sure,
but rocks piled with such
seeming design and deliberation,

a clean-swept uproar
without any swathe of green
to disguise the wind’s erosion.

Chollo and yucca
and Joshua tree form simple
trinities everywhere; bleak fruition

of some invisible
gardener whose divine ingenuity
makes beauty out of driest devotion

to life itself where
water’s as rare as heat
is certain; life like silent elation

where lizardly flicker
of tongue and tail between
hot stones is testament to jubilation
of a survival

never assured, neither stray nor
deliberate but hungry; in habitation

tough as an upheaval
of desert stone offering
shadow’s refuge, a savage exaltation.

Switched-On Gutenburg, Vol. 6, No. 1, 2001

http://www.switched-ongutenberg.org/archive/vol6no1/v6i1p13.htm

HERESY AT THE 7-11

The clerk finished her words
with the prior customer,
“I wish it were over, Edna.
Just come to a stop, right now.”
She caught my eye as mine caught
hers going to the clock, 10:49.

I thought, well, it can’t be easy
working so late when she’d rather
play cards with her grandkids
or soak in the tub with a hot toddy.
Maybe schoolgirls at the pay phone
reminded her of her own girlhood
and all the boys and all the kisses
and she wanted to get home to Fred,
and fast. But I was strange here,
with no business but my purchase–
I never should have asked her what,
exactly, she wanted to stop.

“Why,” she said, “the whole thing,
dear,” vague eyes following Edna out,
or imploring mine toward those phone-
giddy girls. “The whole horrible world.
I want it all finished, now. I want
Jesus to come and put a stop to it.”

Through the canyon, under moon-lit
red-rock cathedral spires and pines
looming like saints against star -lit
grottos, not two miles west of that store,
I wondered what birthed the clerk’s
malice against creation. Maybe Fred
was mean, or her grandkids got stranded
in juvey. Maybe those girls scared her,
outside in the mocking, hilarious dark,
brittle against arrested dreams.

I was driving home accelerated by kisses
waiting across the Great Divide, the novel
I had to finish, the poems I had to teach,
the old seduction of a song new when I was
in school, my car smooth on a concrete ledge
so scooped I could only praise the pavers
who sped my way across this whirled-blue orb.
The canyon walls opened and the far taillights
wavered on the horizon as if held–
votive–ignited–by pilgrims alive
under the bright wreckage
of long-finished worlds.

ER: Exquisite Reaction, Parker A. Towle, Ed., Fall 2000

DISMANTLING HELL AT THE OLD DUMP

We swerve toward the sea bluffs
laughing about when this park was the dump
and we’d be stashed in back of Dad’s pickup–
itself a candidate for the scrap-heap–
hunkered among the week’s trash
as if we ourselves were candidates
for expulsion over those slimy,
guano-topped rocks.

Tidied in the hands of wary heirs,
the beach of broken glass, of beer-bottle
ambers and sea-greens, rough edges
soothed by twenty thousand tides,
has smoothed into local attraction,
“Glass Beach,” where tourists
rove barefoot over a crust of shards–
our parents’ and grandparents’ discards
too worthless for the penny deposit.

As if in crusty mockery,
twisted, rusted almost through,
stubborn fingers of scrap metal
stretch like old men’s claws
from the tops of sea rocks. Fat seals
doze on the lower ledges. Today,
locals yammer about the seals
“taking over”–transmitted on the AM
feeding-frenzy of fact-free disdain, callers
equate “environmental law” with Satan.

But Hell was actually dismantled here
when the eternal trash fires were doused
among smoldering rags and cat carcasses
jumbled down bluffs to trash tides
of shoe-polish tins and condoms, seasoned
by a fresh stream of raw sewage, puked
airborne into the Pacific like talk-radio spew,
the shuck of unpolished families
who didn’t know from Shinola
not to defile our home.

The Kerf, Fall 1999;
Re-published in Hunger Enough:Living Spiritually in a Consumer Society, Nita Penfold, Ed., 2004

FOR MR. PORTERFIELD

Only weeks before your retirement
you’d already dug deep the bedrock
of California Geology before one of us
found the voice and nerve to ask,
“Sir, are you sure you’re not
giving the wrong lecture?
We’re World Geography.”
Stunned into slapping your gray head,
you first thanked the front row’s
“courageous spokesman,” then apologized
with a courtesy hardly known anywhere
in our rugged, uncourtly hemisphere:
“I’m afraid I’m quite lost! But not, I hope,
hopelessly.” With flustered flourish
of note cards, your reliable twice-weekly
expedition was once again on schedule,
back upon the world’s great cordilleras,
breathless in the Himalayas, charmed
in the Alps, but not overcharmed:
“Don’t let anyone fool you into thinking
Switzerland has anything over our Sierras.”
Your smile urged us to love those distant,
snow-shuttered barriers to interstate speed.
Without you, we might still be lost, heedless
in the fast lane, not charmed by landforms
blurred in our windshields,
not finding our sights
by taking your lead.

Nebo, A Literary Journal Fall, 1998

COMET-CRASH REUNION

Now–July–wild nasturtium adulterates
your father’s garden, dooryard invader
between the paving stones, sexy
sun weed decorating the impression
no one’s tended the place
for twenty years.

But inside the rooms clatter, raucous
as ever. Your boy begs me to play “Speed”
then suckers me to easy victory.
In the computer room, updating
my star chart, your stepmother shouts
a warning. My love sign’s in Jupiter–
and “Jupiter’s besieged this week.
Certain comet crash!”

Your dad says he always feels thirty-five,
then groans when “that puffy geezer”
surprises him in the mirror.
You and I have reached the age
when we talk all day, under plum trees’
shade, about stupid mistakes we’ve made.
You embellish sagas of days when you traded
cheap wine drunks for Benzedrine–“speed”–
before you rose from narcotic slumber
to a keening alarm, spouse and son crying
“dry-out or ship out!” You decided
to harbor yourself, moored
in their arms.

Not mine, for sure.
Our old love is second-growth today,
durable and valuable but not–as ever–
quite grown ready for plunder.
That sly restless urge pulled us
to recline side by side, legs touching,
under the plum tree, but all the kids,
and the spouses, and the parents
take turns as chaperones while the trees
shake off fruit like a sweet rain
of asteroids.

All the old light revives in your sober
eyes. After dark deepens, we scheme to get away,
alone, “a walk, just a walk,” under stars,
sure that games and jam-making fatigue
will allow us an hour of privacy.
But no–the family
follows us.

Jupiter’s bright despite the moon glow,
and we all dream to see the comet collide.
Halfway down the lane, a rowdy parade,
we laugh when a midnight fog overtakes
the sky, etherizing the firmament
in gauze: “That’s nightlife
on the Coast!”

“It’s better to have loved and lost,”
your father always said, “than never
to have lost at all.” I have no other
way to explain my steady joy, rising
like a comet’s arc, fixed on collision
course with certain, lonesome obliteration.
I stand here, ecstatic fool, hugging myself
as the fog erases the moon and Jupiter
is extinguished.

Wormwood Review January 1998

STRIPPER AT THE FUNERAL

No one thought to read “To an Athlete
Dying Young,” while tearful orations
crackled the speakers in the overflow room,
though homely poems of youthful philosophy
plucked from Mark’s midnight scrawlings
gave voice to the dead athlete himself.
I strained to concentrate on Mark’s words
in a church game room where I’d been ushered
with later arrivals and found myself lost
among two epochs of boys I’d taught.

A morning’s teaching called to sudden halt,
still dusted in chalk, I’d fled into an October
noon trailing clouds of blackboard quotes
and now I faced a suited line of linebackers
all twenty-five, like Mark was—multiplying
their high-school selves to the third power,
wider shoulders, stronger jaws, their eyes,
narrowed by years of midterms, scrimmages,
love agonies. The tallest, directly in my line
of sight, wrote memorably of his sojourn in Hell
for my Creative Writing class and now journeyed
famously as “Chazz,” the headlining stripper
in jack-off spas, masturbating on stage
for the men who’d pay to watch. I refused
to meet his gaze, across the rows of younger
boys, the ones Mark had coached, the ones
who’d just sat in the same plastic desks
as Mark and Chazz had, enduring my pre-funeral
lesson, skinny kids of fifteen, their beardless
faces all screwed up from trying not to cry,
their manly stances betrayed by twitching knees.

But Chazz kept staring, as if to strip
me of my chalky cloak of normality—
for years we’d traded glances in the gym
and all the bars, and I knew that he knew that
I knew what his ex-classmates might ever know.
I’d never seen his jerk-off act—the huge fact
of his body embarrassed me—he was supposed
to remain a schoolboy in plastic, chaste.
Standing there, cornered by my students
of fifteen and twenty-five lined up among
ping-pong tables and croquet mallets, I bore
the surest fear that Chazz would strip right there—
shimmy hard and naked while Mark’s ex-history teacher
eulogized Mark’s grasp of ancient civilizations
and modern civility.

I gripped the pool table
behind me, then altered the angle of my gaze,
over to a jumbled line of third-grade boys,
tiny critters in stiff suits—Mark’s own students—
who’d long before given up all resistance to tears.
Their strong, laughing new teacher died of a weak heart
and now one little boy surrendered to his loss,
fainting and falling full-force forward.
A grasping circle of grown ups surrounded the boy
while Chazz hustled across the linoleum void
to cradle Mark’s student in his arms, stripping
off his jacket to make a pillow for the boy’s head.
Chazz unbuttoned the kid’s dress shirt, exposing
the baby-flesh chest, and leaned in, his jeweled ear
meeting every beat of the boy’s broken heart.

XY Files, Poems on the Male Experience, Judith Rafaela and Nancy Fay, Eds., 1997

POKER ON ST. VALENTINE’S DAY

Losing is the surest bet I’ve got–
I want to hold close this flush
of hearts, splayed in disorder,
and treasure bare-faced royalty.
But when desire stares back
at me in that smoky mirror
I laugh, spilling my whiskey.

Before the game I called my love
and got my love’s new lover:
“How sweet of you to call!
Sure, I’ll pass on your
Happy Valentine’s Day.
Sorry–got to run–we’re late
for a candlelight dinner…”

But that beat the Valentine’s Day
I was expelled, left for dead,
a carcass frozen on a foreign street
because my charms had expired
before my visa. Even that beat
the Valentine’s Day my love and I
were cast from our cafe table–
a scandal over funny money
had followed my sweetheart
to our candlelit repast.

One of my poker buddies is certain
that St. Valentine was a hoax,
invented because Anglo-Saxon dolts
couldn’t pronounce “will-you-be-mine?”

This noon I delivered lunch to the dying,
most casualties of desire if not love,
the meals packed with Valentines,
construction-paper I LOVE YOU’s scrawled
in schoolkids’ big unsteady letters
which I bore over barren yards,
across wire barricades, to pass
to fleshless hands and effaced faces.

Now, tonight, after I wipe the whiskey
from the face of queen and benighted Jack,
the joker and humble two’s twin wild hearts,
I reach in my pocket for the ante
and, finding only a card asking
WILL YOU BE MINE? in a child’s hand,
I fail to disclose any change of heart
and poker-faced, hold close my question.

Metrosphere, 1997

METAMORPHOSIS IN MARCH

The crocuses, as breathless as condoms,
expired, emptied under this hard March snow
remind me once again of what?–the love?–
felt when I planted these, sure of each bulb
I birthed in hand and cradled deep in clay,
along with sprinkled phosphorus, instilled
in hope its powder cast a spell for us.
Beware, though, these illusionary energies,
of nature’s heedless immunity to desire.
Mere snow smothered each flopped blow,
their silken skins metamorphosed–latex
mass-infused into artificial hues,
deflowered dooryard debris of what?–sex?–
discarded with the love I held for you.

Metrosphere, 1997

SPRING WITHOUT BLOSSOMS

The dandelions, beautiful but dumb, stay brave,
surviving to decorate a weak winter’s grave.
April freeze, heedless as fertilizer terrorist,
just blasted every waking bud. To mark this,
I guess, a harvest of thistles–blow the seeds
and you’re midwife to a generation of weeds.
God’s jokes grow trite: a roiling shroud
fitted to the city’s limits spits from clouds
not to nourish, just annoy, while the suburbs
bask in sun. We long for lilac, an ambrosian urge
denied, along with orchards re-born in pink–
it’s past time for that. Black blossoms sink
from weight of too-early birth. We cultivate
the wish that, like spring, salvation’s only late.

Metrosphere, 1997

BLIND BOY IN THE RENAISSANCE GALLERY

Too loudly he says, “The problem is girls.
Those fickle bitches won’t marry the blind.
They think we can’t make the money they love.”
Of course, girls may have other reasons: this boy’s
slouched, fat, unshaven, and cockeyed, peer-
ing past Giotto into empty space.
“Can’t they see? The blind can do anything.”

Demonstrably untrue: this boy can’t see
the swarm of nuns being ushered round
Michaelangelo’s Pieta, five seconds flat
per sister. “Please to notice illusion
of suffering,” says the guide, “now please to follow
me to the Mary Magdalene.” Nor can
the boy see even one of the forty-seven Last
Suppers, thirty-five Annunciations,
twelve Depositions–nor the twenty appearances
of Saint Sebastian, stabbed and serene.

Knocked, Fall 1997

The middle-aged people are sleeping

over a Midwest which looks nothing
like the wine-stained airline map
the woman to my left studied before she turned
from her low-cal lunch to Redbook’s diets
and a column on the delicate art of living alone.
She made sure my tortellini survived the turbulence
before she fell into shallow, upright sleep.
What does she dream in the shrine of her kind, plump heart?
Her fingers, squeezed by jewels, fan out
ever closer to my arm.

The man to my right exhausted the business pages
over Columbus and sleeps, arms crossed, neat as his briefcase.
His reading, “The Delicate Art of Staying Afloat,” flaps gently
in the airjet almost in time to his breathing.
I try to read his dreams, but receive nothing–
not a more erect Dow Jones, not boardroom intrigue.
Beyond his bald pate and across the aisle, a father sleeps
under earphones, his hand resting on his baby’s belly.
He’s a bearded new-millennium Madonna, haloed over Indianapolis
by floating grandstands of cloud.

We’re past the turbulence, serene, high into the indigo,
but my own magazine quakes with the turmoil below,
where the Princess of our TV childhoods confesses
to abuse and booze and whoring while fame urges felons
to vie for mass-murder world records, each boast
unearthing more bones from Ohio ditches.
Up here we slide smoothly from the impervious blue
into a cloud glacier which conceals all the evil in Iowa
as it nurtures all its corn, ripe for harvest and a destiny, maybe,
vacuum-packed in at Three-Course Sky Chef Luncheon Deluxe.

The whole hop-happy blooming blue Midwest is being butchered
and picked: summer’s over. There’s still sand in my sneakers
which I half-believe will spell the end of my youth
when I spill it into a backyard clump of wilted yarrow.
I submit to sleep’s seductions as the middle-aged woman
finally grasps my naked arm, as if tugging me gently into life’s
next phase. Dropping over Kansas, the pilot aims
for an Oz of distant haze.

California Quarterly, Spring 1997

CUSTODIAL

At seventeen, half-deaf janitor’s third son,
I lowered the flag according to strict rules.
I fought the north wind kicking up at dusk
around the courthouse, praying no school fools

might cruise down Main Street right now to jeer
at my benighted task. In ‘Sixty-Nine
no flag felt casual in American hands;
red stripes meant fresh blood, maybe mine,

meant massacres of Asian villagers.
Patriotism drifted by on Cadillacs–
compliance, I thought, not love of country.
Pointing at her car’s flag, this old battleax

honked, as if my folded flag pledged allegiance
to her war-lover’s confederacy. Growing up
among such casual killers! Bad enough
disinfecting toilets without throwing up

on linoleum floors I had yet to sweep.
After stashing the flag, I emptied ashes
from Selective Service office desks. Yes–
while Dad was sick I had access to caches

of draft-board assignments for my classmates,
in Asia, consigning boys to slavery.
Yet worse fate restrained my sabotage:
Dad’s wrath. Was his sickness really worry

from pondering his clumsy son’s bloody
rice-paddy demise? Or worse, that same son’s
sympathy for flower-power traitors?
My father hadn’t instilled love of guns

in any of his sons, each a volunteer
for peace. Dad failed at breeding violence–
we only studied his creed of love and labor.
I swept on, in furious compliance.

Neo-Victorian, Winter 1996-97

CHRISTMAS AT RUSSIAN GULCH

Like tombstones for buried deities
the campground’s outhouses lean
into ragged grass. After half a century
the lawn still seems smashed into tanglebrush,
California State Parks’ old bulldozer victory
slowly eroding into fantasy.
Beyond, the old road’s closed
to all but feet and claw.

After I hop over rusted gate,
I’m entangled in the earthbound topple
of alder tops. Freeing myself, I conceive
how this place practically incubated me,
where my dad, the baker’s hand,
met my mom at a CCC dance.
They fell in love right here
while, fueled by my father’s biscuits,
the Civilian Conservation Corps carved
this park into a wild fern canyon
deep in the Depression’s
dead dark heart.

The life abreed
in this five-degrees-from-deadly
frigidity keeps astonishing me.
Fans of fern waver on canyon walls,
first green of newborn grass alchemizes,
gold under charcoal skies, red fungus
imitates blossom on rhododendron,
a bloodburst. The orange rot
of fallen redwood erupts
in time-lapse rapidity,
fertile with decay.

The road’s rotting too–
damp earth reclaims chunks of asphalt
while the canopy drops ever more leafmeal
over the disintegration–here, at least,
human hegemony’s some ungodly joke.
Mildew and maggots undo the work of hands.
An oncoming Pacific storm howls, offshore–
the road seems to dissolve as I sprint
back to the safety of a seaside shelter
built by Depression boys.

Northwesterlies raise whitecaps
horned and ornery as mountain ranges.
Too young for swimming lessons,
my mother got dragged out by a riptide
here, bruised by driftwood, saved
by one breath from a tangled death.
She always feared the sea would take one
of her reckless sons, and, just up
on the next bluff, when we spilled
my brother’s ashes into the waters he loved,
I realized–not what the coast had claimed,
but reclaimed–how puny our creation is,
even the concrete span over which traffic
roars to ignore the gulch below,
how almighty the microbes, how inscrutable
the sea, how slow my progress
from the black womb of blank infancy
to the shelter of this drenching light.

Hawaii-Pacific Review, Spring 1995

MORNING EDITION

From London this morning, evening commuters

Sheep on the pillowcase, dancing into the jaws
of tulips. Hell, the sheet’s come loose.
Sun’s already piercing the blue spruce.

disembarked from automated subway trains
and climbed unsuspecting onto escalators
in London’s deepest underground station,
King’s Cross, where an inferno trapped

Red petunias on the balcony
seem to shake off sleep, and bees.

victims midway between platform and street.
Charred remains were conveyed on the escalator
which inexplicably continued to operate.

Thousand of birds chant that undersong.
Lisa’s dog growls over the fence, scattering jays.
A squirrel tightropes along the telephone wire,
poised between the perils of dog and compost bog.

We can be certain they died of suffocation
before they suffered any severe burns

Bees continue doing kamikaze
landings in that glass of flat beer.
Jan must be frying bacon next door.

although the computerized cars continued
to deliver passengers automatically
to the gas-fed flames.
That report courtesy of BBC.
Now, good morning from Denver

Poets On: The News, 1996 Ruth Daigon, Ed.

WASHED-UP

Suddenly we’re all huddled, familiar
at the surf. A skinny kid says it’s a forgotten mine
from World War Two. But no. A sleeping,
infant whale? Yes–we agree–some creature,
imperiled in rough sea and rock walls.
Two surfers swear to save it, swim out,
and find it past salvation:
“It’s just a tortoise, a big one!
And dead.”

A surge spits the corpse
near all our close-packed feet.
Upside down, its fat arms still flail–
illusion, from surf’s tug and pull,
that sets a dog to barking, i ncessantly.
Intestines trail beyond the conquered shell
back to sea, gleaming, a train of veins,
humiliating.

“What could’ve killed it?”
the kid asks. “That shell’s so thick.”
He sets it upright to reveal its perfect armor.
None of us answer.

Silent, we disperse,
lost to separate blankets and rival radios,
sudden boundaries of old and young, thin and fat–
our preposterous flesh unarmored, helpless
against the sunshine, let alone the sea.

Turning back to paperbacks and bickering,
we try to ignore the dog’s barking fury,
fury at this being that looks invincible,
that seems to reach out, then sink,
then reach–surging, helpless,
against the tidal breach.

Hawaii-Pacific Review, Spring 1995


STOPPING BY FOR EVENSONG

In a Time of Plague

We had an hour before the train,
and it kept raining, so we stumbled
in for service, each handed a Book
of Common Prayer. We sat in back,
too tall, too wet, foreign among
the scattered score of faithful.
I planned to move my lips to hymns,
eyes heavenward–for the architecture–
but the pages, the words intruded
on golden stone six centuries old.
Stone-rib buttresses formed the merest
shelter, the framework for the voices,
the words.

Faith bewildered me–I visited cathedrals
awestricken by the human effort spent
to deny the simple fact of certain death.
Tonight, though, the book’s weight, its
freight of words felt alive in my hands–
its cover living skin, the same texture
as your fingers gazing mine as they traced
the words.

When the pastor rose to say the sermon,
I meant to share a groan with you–
it took me back to those back-pew
evening Masses wi th my brother,
how we’d roll our eyes. But I knew
you believed in a God of some kind,
just like he did before he died, so I
kept my peace and eased back to receive
the words.

The theme was my favorite: grace,
how we didn’t need to deserve it.
The leitmotif was unjustified suffering–
those sweet souls strangled by disease
or knifed in alleys–and how grace was just
the other side of this, unjustified
salvation. The refrain: “He set His heart
on us.” His tone intimate in the over-
grand space, the pastor chose his words
with sumptuous reverence for our presence,
we few on a workaday night–what had
we done to deserve his eloquence?
It was as if he had set his heart on us,
and I braced myself to absorb
each word,

even when I felt you crying softly,
leaning against my shoulder. I knew
you thought of the friends you’d lost
to this ten years’ plague, that its knife-
in-the-alley had been the slowest and cruelest
of bloodlettings, over and over repeated,
grace long withheld along with brute luck.
I knew because, new friends, we’d confessed
the fear we shared of making new friends
only to witness their agony helplessly
then lose them, gracelessly. A question
formed our temptation: was it better to live
without love, that damnedest, that merest
of words?

Strange to our New World eyes, late
light blinked outside, the nine-thirty
sun of the English July, cool raindrops
glinting like a blessing for blazing night.
While we hiked up the golden Georgian street
to the train, a smile dried your eyes
as you praised the view, and I
decided, after all, to set my heart
on you.

Hawaii-Pacific Review, Spring, 1995

Achill

IN A GRAVEYARD ON ACHILL ISLAND

Kildownet, Ireland

The abbey had been roofless
for centuries, but some graves
were recent, their shining slate
memorials alive with my surname.
None of the names really connected
to me–we survived along a severed
branch of the tree, my great-grand-
father’s antecedents blank, a mystery.
So–who, and what, was I? Idling in
whiplash wind, yet another intruder
in sight of yet another pirate castle,
I’d hit the point in travel where
it’s all too damn picturesque, every
green reek and high-colored cheek
a parody of expectations, Ireland, Inc.,
a Kodacolor hoax. Where the directory led
to Famine Victims I expected some noble
monument, solemn beside the gray-slate bay.

Yet on a soft slope edging an inlet,
the inscribed tombstones scattered,
disappearing in a field of rocks, nothing
more. No marker, no signs–just stones
heaped like dug-up potatoes until I saw
that each marked a single mound of
uneroded sod, each gravesite still
clotted with stubborn integrity
after a hundred-fifty years. Some
of the mounds writhed, crooked,
as if corpses had restless sleep,
some sank, sucked-in like stomachs
eager to devour the sentinel stones.
Some were stunted, shrunken–whoever
had the strength to dig infant graves
left too weak or wordless to scratch
names into these bald rocks. Here
silenced stones told me I belonged
to this untenable cropless place, barren
in everything but catholic fertility,
exporting only excess humanity–
flotsam like me–from an engineered
catastrophe: allied with a fungus,
famine had been social policy. Where
evil was borne, rocks disclosed my
noble birth; one severed branch rotted,
nameless in the hungry earth.

Hawaii-Pacific Review, Spring, 1995

sutter-buttes-sunset

TERRA INCOGNITA

This should be the way home
but where the Mother Lode flattens,
the landscape’s alien, altered.
Those foothills were never anybody’s
mother–how could these drought grasses
have sustained us? This almost Ethiopian
October heat breathes wildfire
all across California. Beyond
plowed-under farms, the lion-colored Buttes
claim to be the seat of gods. Piles of ash,
mute erosion, what strike can they make
against evil? What stake in good?

Shadows linger in the dying
shade of oaks or lurk barely seen,
just ahead across the highway.
Predators? No, don’t lie with metaphors–
it’s a virus. God, please,
what the hell’s become of Eden? Is that Eve
setting the table in that farmhouse window?
Or is she the one, miles and miles farther,
leaning toward her dying son? She’s had so much
to grieve: his sight, half his hearing, all
his mobility, the company of his laughter,
and finally, tonight, the presence of his mind.
And yet, for the love of God, her grieving
hasn’t even begun. Where the highway
finally unravels into darkness,
my high beams scan redwood ridgetops crazily
as lost brothers’ flashlights, switchback
after switchback dropping me closer to the shore, home
to harbor where in the morning my mother’s on my arm
at Mass and the sermon falls like ashes:
“You’re not good enough.”

After lunch, my father takes me to his church–the river–
where the blackberries still cluster over his dock.
I haven’t been home in blackberry time for years,
feasting as I clamber down to take my brother’s place,
helping my father move the boat to its winter mooring.
We jump–the summer dock’s towed out from under us.
I fumble with the knots. My dad doesn’t mind:
“You’re doing good enough.”

Blackberries spill on my brother’s tray.
Can’t get his mouth around the damn spoon,
so I help him shovel in the last mouthful,
then yank off his sticky t-shirt and help carry him
to his daybed. “Those berries…I picked ‘em for you,”
I mutter, wondering how much he can hear.
“They were good,” he groans. “They were good.”

What’s Become of Eden, Stephanie Strickland, Ed., 1994

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THE DECLINE OF SERBO-CROATIAN ON MC PHERSON STREET

For all we could see, our mother’s old language
garbled a jumble of j’s and too many z’s.
Where the hell were its vowels?
The Slavic society insured each of our lives
but its newspapers stacked by the woodbox,
j’s and z’s silenced, recipes uncooked, deadlines
expired.

Did all the old Slavs always whisper
because they’d grown so worn out?
Or was it out of shame—as if mouthfuls
of consonants suited only displaced
peasants, whose missing teeth disgraced
the Land of the Free’s expensive dentistry?
When the gap-toothed old Slavs whispered
their last, Old World recollection died, too.
The Adriatic Sea flooded no one’s
memory.

We grew up facing fogbound Pacific
which absorbed all immigrant idiom, first ours,
then Finnish and Portuguese. Even Italian.
Bewildering consonant clusters just evaporated
like tidepools off Pudding Creek Beach,
marooned.

Today immigrant houses hugging the harbor
shelter only tourists, Driftwood Inn,
Wayfarer Lodge…coy, serene, urbane.
I can see why none would keep the family names—
Sverko House? Zmac Hotel? –but I’d love to hear
that old cacophony in desk clerks’ mouths,
constant commemoration. Because it’s gone—
even my mom’s losing her Slav, and she’s
the last.

When we go home we tease Ma with locu noc,
“goodnight.” And we’ll still cry out,
Stretna Nova Godina, “Happy New Year.”
But we’ve all failed to memorize
“goodbye.”

Poets On: Forgetting, Ruth Daigon, Ed., 1994

DRIVING YOUR MERCEDES-BENZ TO STORAGE

That was you—a honky-tonk cassette
left behind on leather seats. I slide
it into the slot, wondering how long
this twangy singer’s been silenced.
Long months’ salty dust on the Mercedes’ hood
scatters when I steer this steel
from carport’s dark onto open road.
I’m supposed to follow Dad to the garage
in town, but out of the woods, now—
on the raindashed coast highway—I have the urge
to unleash this horsepower, to fill the empty
passenger seat with your company and cruise
Main till we pass north of town all the way
to Abalobadiah where the road’s suspended
high above surf, carved into sky, nothing
between us and death but our brakes
and the hulk of the latest car to plunge
on the slick switchbacks. We’d have burgers
from Stoney’s in our laps, a basket of fries
balanced between us, the Okie song about lost love
graphically equalized and rattling windows way up
in Rockport. I’d picture for you the newborn
green in the pasture land, February’s flowering
plums—and you, the only mostly blind guy
who owned a whole fleet of automobiles—
would smile and nod, verifying my report
with a blank gaze out. “Yeah,” you’d say, “I see
what you mean. It’s sure pretty out there.”
Hurtling to the headlands where you taught me
to drive, I might just keep accelerating
until the final twang. But I won’t. I’m part
of this procession, just behind our father,
and my route is fixed. At the garage,
he signals carefully, helping me guide
your last car into this sightless,
narrow box.

California Quarterly, Fall 1994

JUST AFTER THE COLD WAR

Whidbey Island, Washington

This trail promises a pond with lily pads,
a “walk through four distinct ecosystems”
in this wooded headland above the strait.
But after the fir grove, the fern bog,
freshwater pond, and grassy bluffs,
dead hands erected an unnatural fifth:
the U.S. Navy light station, unmanned
but thick with threats. Its concrete walls
front the thicket under coils of razor wire,
each barb anvil-shaped, sharp as a stiletto.
Casting cold beams over waters innocent
of war, megawatts transmit an eternal circuit
beyond grove, bog, pond, and bluffs to spy
on fish, ferries, and the far, undefended shore.

Green Fuse, Fall 1994

Without Love, Sex

is like the ecstasy of insects
the static thrill of stinger
against shell, the electric
confusion of ovipositor, cercus,
and gaster; two delirious
bugs humping in a bed
of fresh manure.

Without love, sex
is also mammalian, the sweet
heat of another warm-blooded
one, an ecstasy of invasion
in the barn’s soft straw,
the hot forgetfulness of other
hungers; nerve–endings between legs
genetically plotting thoughtless rapture,
a “little death”
for the brain.

Without love, sex
reminds me of your room,
all my long lonesome
studies of the orange dried straw
you like to call decorative
hung on your sheet rock walls
and that bloodstain where
you once reached out
from under my ecstasy
to smash a flea.

Men As We Are, Summer 1994

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HEARTLESS

They adore me for my misplaced heart.
It’s even lured the radiologist
from her lacquered nails. Doc arrives,
all beard, reciting surgical litanies
like an unctuous Messiah. He positions me
sacrificially on the torn paper sheet.
The nurse reminds me a little of you
before you left me, before I could leave you
and like you, distains my veins:
“He’s awful young for coronary pains.”

I came in for a chest cold—
they skinned me down to my secret.
She had me in X-ray, stripped me half-naked,
then bore my portrait, proud of my flaw:
“Strangest thing I ever saw.”

“What have you done with that heart of yours?”
If I could find it, I would hide it, proffered
but forbidden, a glass-locked alarm.
But the glass is busted—my heart’s vanished—
that’s the picture. They shake their heads,
scrawl instructions to Cardiac
and ask again, curious, in chorus—
it’s almost the refrain of a bad song—
“How’d you survive so well…so long?”

Mediphors: A Literary Journal of the Health Professions Spring 1994

CRADLE TO GRAVE:

Notes on an Excavation

In the deepest layer, settlements are simple,
ample homes of equal size. The few goods–
clay cradles, tools, carved toys–
lack evidence of ownership or tribute.

Royal quarters dominate the next layer,
ringed by smaller dwellings. We uncover gold
jewelry and a crude, embellished shield.
An elaborate code in clay, genesis of all writing,
compels repayment and exacts taxes.
Upon tombs, the deceased in bas-relief
each bear some individual likeness: baldness,
a mass of curls, a less-upturned archaic smile
beneath a warrior’s helmet.

In the most recent layer, weaponry grows
more elaborate and richly decorated
while all civilian ornament vanishes. Gold
is stacked in bricks. Grave sculpture,
too, has disappeared, as if identification
were deeply feared. This impulse for security
spurs a regression in design:
depressed bedchambers without windows,
armored cages for doors.
The vaulted architecture at this late stage
so favors subterranean rooms
we can no longer distinguish their homes
from their tombs.

We Speak for Peace Ruth Harriet Jacobs, Editor, 1993

A BLACK AMERICAN IN PARIS

Dear Gerri,
you’ve come to this:
leading your fat Parisian “client”
to American cafes overlooking Notre Dame
where you remark on whole wheat’s virtues
and how much you love the willows
while Fatso grumbles and wonders why
he should care. He thinks America’s
sprouts, sunflower kernels, health breads
and even her self-exiled beauties
are existentially silly.
This plump toad who pays your bills
is unworthy even to touch your perfect earlobe
yet you treat him gallantly—what would he like?
Nothing.
Well, isn’t it good to try new places?
Hell, he doesn’t care.
Why let his heavy fussy corpse lead you
back to that battered Peugeot?

Oakland misses you.
It lost Miss Stein to Paris, too,
and look what happened to Gertrude:
she turned mean, and European.
Geraldine, please come home—
you’re still alive,
and all is forgiven.

Massachusetts Review, Fall 1991

jucuzzi

EMERSON’S JACUZZI

Sure, he would’ve had one.
There’s the perfect spot
behind his big square house
in a stand of maples.
Emerson would’ve dared Thoreau
to drop in–and laughed as he hopped out,
naked and refusing as a half-boiled frog.

Summer nights, under that cathedral
of trees, steam would rise
as if from the cauldron
of Concord’s long-silenced witches.
Carlyle, watching from upstairs,
would wonder if his pipe smoke commingled
with the steam from all that hot air
and whether Emerson expected him
to roil again tonight
in his damn overheated pool.

Emerson would’ve invited us, too,
and despite his preaching
on self-reliance,
would’ve met us at the station
in a fat General Motors car.
We’d be asked to join the ferment
beneath unconquered stars
for tonight’s open question,
“Have we not yet wakened
from American dreams?”
punctuated by jet streams.

Massachusetts Review, Fall 1991

When Everything Is Goneril

what wouldn’t you give for something Foolish,
for blazing double-entendre and illuminating wit
as sharp as a servant’s truth? What wouldn’t you give
to weave a garland in your young daughter’s hair
and spend the whole day under the wide sky
in a field where wildflowers beckon, unpicked?
Then, tired, giddy, all you’d yearn for’s home.

But there stands Goneril: hospitality has claws,
duty’s barbaric with ancient grievances, and
she does, after all, hold the deed by birth, by law.
Though love is often declaimed, it’s really disowned,
houseless in this ungenerous land–sent to wander
in bald lots, sent to sleep under cardboard punctured
for a glimpse of smudged and savage stars.

Threepenny Review, Summer 1990

Re-published in In A Fine Frenzy: Poets Respond to Shakespeare, David Starkey & Paul J. Willis, 2005

HUMAN SACRIFICE IN MEXICO CITY

At midnight, the boulevard’s floodlit Aztec
raises his arms to the taxis, a plea:
hey, this rain is killing me!
Lovely, cool, the shower penetrates
the monoxide haze, ever more deadly
as it drops into the city’s heart,
a toxic bath on the hanging garden,
on the dancers at the Plaza Insurgentes,
on the special Blue Police
assigned to enforce the local illusion
of polite order. They smile–and fail–
and run for shelter.

Steam rises in the early morning, mingling
with fumes so thick old senoras bring gas masks,
like revived, smooching lovers, to their lips.
At Chapultepec, rowboats glide over mucky water.
But the sweethearts paddle and laugh.

The capital floats in foreign money like a lover
ignoring the sewage. Beggars, spying blue eyes,
yen for me, raising cupped hands for dollars
or pounds. A baby sleeps, naked, face-down
on concrete. The Revolution only seems remembered
by street signs, Reforma, Insurgentes.
There’s Shirley’s Cafe, but I’m lost, under
the influence of collapsing cars with Jesus
bumper stickers. Christ must have guessed
he’d end up on that Chevy
when they nailed him up
naked as an Aztec.

Review Interamericana, 1984


CROSSING THE MISSILE ZONE

In the Last Chance Casino, in this town
where all the children have birth defects,
you poke at your queasy square of hash browns,
certain only toothpicks are free.

The cross-eyed cashier calls her kid a “mutant,”
deaf, one-armed, slapped to life for this:
to exist, drugged, mute, drooling, blind.
This momma’s your age, born the year
her momma watched the Army Corps detonate at dawn.
“Hell, they spit south Nevada across the sky.”

The billboard Indian rusting on the ridge
points east, aiming you over two lanes of tar
rising to Nevada’s slice of paradise:
God’s dawn behind a pine summit where Basques
still tend sheep on green gashes in eroded hills,
once islands in a prehistoric sea where nothing
swam but brine and doomed, golden women.

All you can get on the radio’s a prayer
for the Prince of Peace brought to you
by killers, Jesus,
killers.

Nuke-Rebuke: Writers and Artists Against Nuclear Energy and Weapons, Morty Sklar, Ed. 1984