From The Bottom Of A Slot Canyon

I feel like I owe the world some explanation
for the breakdown where I live.
In truth I owe it nothing more
than to live as if I was whole
while not forgetting I am not,
but the feeling remains.

When I tell my story in public
I don’t mention feathers or powwows
or drums. I don’t speak of my old regalia
still hanging stiff with age 
in my parents’ basement,
or of my memories of a late night fire
that was never left unattended. 

These things are not for you to know;
they are all I have
and living here and now
has left me unsure of holding even those
long enough to take them to my grave.

When I tell my story in public
I do not speak Italian either.
Raised with that tongue till school 
erased it. Much as my father lost his
when they took him away to school.
That is all there is to say to you
about Italian and my tongue;

there are more things to say
but they are not for you to know; 
living here and now has left me unsure
of holding even those
long enough to take them when I go.

I feel as if an explanation is owed to someone
for the breakdown where I live
though I know there’s nothing owed to 
anyone, really, on this side and possibly the next;
the feeling is strong nonetheless
and it drives me to speak in riddles such as this one
so let me say this:

when I tell my story in public
I am forced to shout it from the bottom
of a slot canyon.  It does not carry well
to the top of the opposing walls. 
I hold back more than I release
to keep from bringing the half-informed
to where I am, knowing how seldom
they arrive ready to listen.

In spite of the isolation here,
I believe I’ve done 
right by myself.
I feel I’ve done right 
by myself,
as right as I can,

but I still feel like an explanation
is owed to someone.


Play By Play

Tune in twenty-four
seven for the melody
of the moment. Explosions

and big deaths,
laws broken and hard weather
all get sung the same.

The newsreaders sing
the cadence of sport, sing
like play by play reporters.

They throw it to the sidelines 
where generically
handsome people
add touches of color to

their black and white
depictions of struggle
made simple and easy to

swallow. Every
story reduced
to winning and losing,

even if all there is
is loss. There is rarely
any story where

all are winning. That’s
not American enough.
Can’t be number one

without there being
a number two. They sing
that song in spite of

the fire behind them:
lullaby, fight song
for the last quarter.

Enough to make you turn it off
and go wail in a corner
waiting for silence to take over

and make you forget.
Make you want to stop caring
for any of it. Almost

as if 
that was the plan from
the starting gun.


This Sudden Rest

This sudden rest is
unexpected:

so used to being agitated
and unable to relax that 

the collapse, when it came,
was almost as welcome as it was

frightening. After all the wailing
from the floor, all the rolling

back and forth in anguish,
I’ve ended up feeling almost

as if I have been reprieved from 
the weight of living, though

my body’s a bruise journal 
from the hard surfaces

where I’ve flung myself
so many times. The pains,

reminders
of what has ended;

my scrapbook
of what I’ve survived.

I wouldn’t give them up 
if I could. I have tried.


RV Nation

Going
as a lifestyle
has its perks.
One needn’t 
be transfixed
on “home” if
you carry it 
everywhere.
One needn’t 
fret about
the changing
neighborhood
or how the
property has
depreciated
since, you know,
all these people
moved in. And
one needn’t worry
about all those
stationary problems —
sinks backing up
and the like. One
may just go and
buy something 
house-like on wheels
and go, go, go.
It’s historically 
healthy too to 
regain the pioneer
spirit — open road,
living off the land,
campgrounds, blue
skies, see this big 
country at last before
it’s overrun with
the Others. Maybe
one could outrun 
it all. Maybe one
could even
cross a border
the right way and 
keep going. No place,
after all, like home,
home with a range,
a pump out bathroom,
a pull out bed,
and all the gas
one can guzzle. 
Keep going until
the end and then
be burned and scattered
wherever the end is:
keep going a little while longer
on the wind,

end up soaking into 
the soil somewhere,
the green grass

of home or something 
like that recalled from
the past before
the call of the karmic wheel.


Red Onions

The red onions are trying to kill us all
with germ tricks they learned from the lettuce
the chicken and beef
and poisonous canned shrooms
The next door neighbors are in on it too
They’re nasty people 

Everything is trying to kill us
I ate a whole pizza by myself last night
The pizza made me do it
It is trying to kill me

It’s scary out there
and in here too 
I took my blood glucose reading this AM
and it wasn’t as high as you’d expect
after a whole pizza
and a night of sloth 
It’s killing me slow
the bastard disease
of my bastard pancreas

Not like the neighbors who want me 
gone quick
those 
diseased bastards

I wear the mask of the moment
but it’s more so the killers don’t recognize me
in some unexpected moment when I am alone
than in the belief that it will save me from anything
in this place where everything is trying to kill us
even the red onions and the bad fats in the good food
and the sugar and the Nazis and my own head-sauce
full of bad things and all the flags that mean anger
is going to win today instead of any single moment of joy

I never trusted the chicken I admit
My neighbors keep chickens
so I’ve seen them in action
The eggs are suspect as well
but it is the betrayal of the red onions I feel most 
How I once loved their transparent skin
and the full bite of the first bite in my mouth
I loved that more than I have ever loved my neighbors
I expected the worst from them but not you
my produce my food my sustenance my flavor

I will hunker down with Oreos and pure white sugar
I will maintain my diligence
Keep a watch on my neighbors with new glasses

At night I will eat white onions in spite
Rip off my mask and breathe on their doorknobs
Smear red onions on their car seats when they are asleep
I will die before I let them not die as I am dying
Betrayed by the food and the air
and the eyes peering through the near-closed blinds
of all the neighbors watching to see who will fall

You can hear a recording of this piece with music here: https://soundcloud.com/radioactiveart/red-onions


Words And Guitar

I wrote my first poem 
when I was almost too young
and marked by that
went on to write only poems
for an entire lifetime;
that was music to me.

It was always music I sought
in words, how they butted up
to song, slope of one line into
another, beat of syllables
against my teeth and tongue.

When deep in later life
I touched my first guitar
I thought of all those poems
and as my fingers built chords
I recognized what was happening;
it was the same.

All of that is vanishing now.
The need to play is slipping
from me. I sit and think
of my dusty guitar
on the far wall. I sit
and think about the dust
on the seams of this poem.

There’s fantastic music,
clouds of it in fact,
still playing clearly 
outside somewhere;

none of it 
is meant
for me to play.


On Rare Days

On rare days
I can still pretend
(as I always have)
that I am desirable
in the crass and crude sense
used in daily parlance,
although when I am more sensible
I recognize both
the falsehood
and the idiocy
of such pretense.

I understand
that such considerations
should be beneath me
and that my self-worth 
ought to be far less concerned
with conformity,
status quo, or conventional 
beauty; desirability
can ride any horse,
after all;

nonetheless, now and then
I try to pretend 
that from the corner of my eye
I see a head
snap back toward me
walking by; that I can hear
a swift horse being reined in
and turned around; 
that attention is being paid,
and it fills my pockets
with good warm gold.


By Default

I wear the name
“American”
by default only.

It’s not a name
that feels like
a good fit, but in truth

that ill-fit feeling
is as American
an experience

as feeling snug and comfy
when you put the name on.
In fact

the entirety
of American experience
is the history of 

the party of the Snug and Comfy
telling the party of
the Ill-Fitting Name

that one name
fits everyone when in truth
the party of the first part

is only snug and comfy
because the party of the second part
has been made uncomfortable,

and of the discomforted
striving to make the name
fit them as well

when in truth
it wasn’t made
to do that.

I call myself
American 
by default

but I keep trying
for a better fit and 
I see all my fellow

uncomfortable
Americans pushing 
the seams and taking in

the loose fabric
because it’s either do this,
keep living lives of noisy

desperation, or
die of exposure — but  
since that’s what 

the snug and comfy live for,
I swear by the bodies
of all who went before and

will come after, as well as
those here now,
that whatever it takes

to make it so, 
they cannot win and this suit
is going to fit.


Your Past Is Looking Up

Underfoot,
past stories
still being ground into dirt
to grow 
a new narrative.

Today’s news
sounds like old news
but reads faster, looser,
chaotic, derailed.
We still call it new.

We have
a luxury

of hindsight
we don’t engage

until it suits us,

choosing our speed of 
recognition.
As for learning

from history?
Forget it, we’re told.

Everything new
is new

and what is old
is cherry picked
to keep us rushing forward.

Be afraid of that, say
those pushing us to run.
It might catch you
if you look at it.

You could turn into a pillar

of worse than salt — now, there’s
a piece of legend worth 
picking up. Never look back.
Never give up. Never stop,
or risk turning into dust.

At night, though, stars. 
A curtain
of ancient light

flung sky-wide.
All you see there 
is past.

Some of those stars
are gone
and we
will never know it.
They remind us

of how much we owe
to our past. It’s all you can see
of heaven. It’s all heaven
can see of any of us.
It’s in this dust underfoot.


I Feel Petty (O So Petty)

Had I been
more attractive
in a conventional sense
I would have meant 
so much more to me,
I’m sure.

But as I was not
I had to fall back upon
my broken brain
and its sad companions
my torn-up heart and soul.

I did what I could
with these and somehow
was lovable enough to some
but if I could have been
more lovable to me?
Who knows
what might have happened?

This is less complaint
than a field note,
something to leave for 
a researcher to ponder.

But it would have
been something

if I’d felt
that I’d turned a head
just casually, if I’d felt
a glance burn in
a touch longer than usual —

petty longings,
trivial regrets,
a notion I’ll shake off
the second I’m gone.


School Days

They are praying
to the god of gambles,
offering children in tribute.

Never had any of my own,
but still not willing to risk
losing anyone else’s. Tell me:

to what stronger god
may I pray to try
and get them a better deal?

Give me their name,
the place of their shrine,
the preferred sacrifice,

and I will make a pilgrimage
and an offering of my own
on behalf of yours

and mine —
the ones
I never had,

the ones I know
I would have died for if
I had.

Maybe that is why
I am here — to strive
on behalf

of the normalized
path I was not
healthy enough

to take. To offer
a hope I never had
to others

more equipped for it.
To be at last of some use
in a nearly useless life:

to take
the divine gamble,
offer myself to the odds.


A Nation Fulfills Its Promise

it looks into
the eyes of its beloved
demigoddess 
and explains itself thus

look
my darling liberty
we have
repaired our  
repulsive pancakes 
and disturbing butter
we are busy renaming
our war gamers

isn’t that enough
at least for a good start
I mean 
we still have to preserve 
our borders 
while opening our factories
and how will we live without
circuses to go
with our sad breads
our white breads and 
flatbreads
our wheat breads and
trend-sponsored 
sourdoughs

right now we’re a little
under the weather
so we’ve told everyone
to wear a mask
to protect everyone except
those we are used
to killing and who 
cares about them so
mandatory takes on 
a new meaning
for us
as in suggested
as in contemptible
but why not try it

anything more than that
will cost us plenty and make us
different 

so
with all
deliberate speed we will
dig into our thick authentic
red label
blue jean pockets
for small change
and spend it 
on small change

liberty
you sweet old girl

take off your blindfold 
and see me
I’m making an effort
put down the scales
and hold me
I’m cold

if you read the papers
they will tell you something else
but if you know the history

you will know we’re still
your darling
your favorite 
your same old used to be


Sneer Boy

Three words —
BLACK LIVES MATTER —
printed on a banner,
painted on a street,

and you saw fit
to tear it up, light it up,
spill paint on it,
burn rubber on it.

I want to seize you, 
drag the sneer off your face,
and ask you to explain
which of those three words

hurt you the most, 
tore you up so much 
that you had to do 
what you did.

I suspect you
will be puzzled 
and unable to answer
whether it was the word

BLACK because it isn’t
about you, LIVES 
because, after all,
it’s not like your own

feels much like a life, 
or MATTER because,
of course, in your eyes
they don’t. Maybe you

can’t tell me which one word
but you can say
you are insulted or
disturbed to think of

someone daring to say
the phrase as if it was
a truth held to be self-
evident when it

isn’t and wasn’t ever
supposed to be and now
that it’s out there you might 
have to behave.  Whatever.

The point is,
they do — and now
that I have you here,
sneer boy, cocky lump

of plain dumb, 
big old red hatted 
cracked rung on the
evolutionary ladder —

now that I have you,
I’m going to turn you out
onto the places where you thought
you were safe from having

to consider your actions
and see how you fare
walking down the street,
wondering who hates you,

who might want more of you
than I took from you, who might turn
the other cheek if you act up
again, and who might not.

Welcome to a cracked door, 
buddy. Welcome to a door
slowly opening, welcome to learning
about all that’s been locked away

so that you could
sneer in comfort.
Welcome to the place
of your definitions,

where all the words
you can’t stand to hear
will either change you
or drown you out.


Stilled Life With Fig Newtons

Today I speak neither
of my parent’s
first languages.

I did speak
Italian, my mother’s
tongue, until I was five

and sent to school.
Lost the ability 
to speak it, although

I still understand
a bit, as long as my mother
is speaking. 

As for my father’s language?
Gone; tossed upon
a boarding school’s trash heap;

can’t even pronounce it
when I see it written
as I’ve never heard it but once

in a reservation store
on a visit there; someone
was looking for Fig Newtons,

the only words I understood;
I assume he found them. 
I didn’t stick around to find out.

My only authentic voice
speaks nothing but English:
all my truths must be drawn

in an occupier’s medium,
a colonist’s artifact. How I work this
when I feel so robbed by history:

strive to turn the tool
toward mastery of the house
where I live. There must be words

I did not learn
or have forgotten
that I can reincarnate if I try,

and I must try. 
Tired unto death
assuming that there must be

enough words already 
for all I know
when I can’t even

speak the full truth
to myself which is all
I’ve ever tried to do,

the only reason
I write, the only reason
I’m still here.


Them And You

He lives four doors down
from you.

She rides the elevator daily
with you.

They went to high school
with you.

On her wall in the FaceTime background,
a suspect flag designed to scare you. 

On his truck, a bumper sticker
for someone who hates you.

In the conversation you left, stifled laughter
about some joke aimed at those like you.

But they’re so damned nice
to you.

She now and then has lunch
with you.

He had pizza one day and held a slice out
to you.

You know why they role play cordiality
to you.

You don’t like to think about how it plays
you.

You try not to think about how they’re shrinking
you.

They prefer that smaller, quieter, less present
you.

It makes it easier to demand more and expect less
of you.

One day they’re going to look at 
you 

and see 
you

and scratch their heads and reimagine
you.

Beware that day when they finally see 
you

because on that day — yes — what could happen to
you:

you being you at full height and strength; could be curtains
for you

or them, or they’ll change and see you
for you;

not an excuse not
to be you —

if anything, it’s a bell ringing
for you,

an alarm 
for you:

they are who they are no matter how nice and you
are you.

Learn them for who they are
and then do you,

do you, do
you.