Monthly Archives: May 2017

The Service

Putting out trash for pickup;
as much of a ritual
as anything
from my churched days.

More so, in fact.
I was never as devout then 
as I am now with careful separation
of recyclables, compostables; with
the regular observance of
timed placement of offerings
at the curb. 

It is a measure of 
the times we are in 
that this mundanity
feels like a bulwark 
against apocalypse.
In this is the hope

that I am doing something,
that this will matter beyond
not having the house smell
of whatever’s in the single bag
and half-crate of plastic and paper
I put out there. Our remnants, our losses,
our surrendered bits and pieces
given up to an effort
to green the world; they
look a little like a future 
if you squint.

When I am back inside
and see the news, 

I tell myself
that might have to hold me
till next week.  


Poppies

In my neighbor’s yard,
red poppies.

Scrape a bagel, they say, and you
can grow some flowers.

On the next table over in the cafe,
bagels dotted with black.

Eat a bagel, they say, and you may
fail a test for opioids.

You can’t escape
the prevalence 

of such things.
My little hometown

has both a bagel place and
overdoses. They sell

cream cheese and Narcan
in the strip mall. 

In Afghanistan, 
there are fields of poppies.

In the US,
there are fields of dead

killed around and by
the poppies.

Read the fine print.
You’ll see

I’m right. Policy 
and breakfast and 

poppies, lovely
and filling and deadly,

side by side to greet us
in the morning light. We need

so many drugs
to get through to the next day.


Mean Streak

Got a mean streak
when it comes to
self-preservation.

I approach hazards
with a megaphone
and holler, “Yes, Yes,” 
then plunge ahead.

No hesitation,
no measured response;
just drop everything
and jump from
every edge 
that presents itself.

No matter 
how long the fall,
no matter how sharp 
the rocks at the bottom.

No matter who’s watching.
Someone has to be watching;
if no one’s watching, 
how will I know
the perfectly wrong thing to do
when every foolish act
has always felt so much like 
worship?

Seek wisdom in my wreckage.
What brilliance may be found
in the twisted mess of my life
as if this crumpled random
were as planned as any sculpture.
The splatter 
at the bottom of the cliff
can be read
as Rorschach for now 
or as divination, a painting
of the future;

I give myself to that oracular mission.

As for those times when
I play an ordinary man
who puts on pants in the morning,
goes to work, comes home
tired, secure in 
his living?

I’ve got a mean streak
when it comes to him.
He’s adequately
successful and not at all
troubling,

poor thing. Messing him up
feels like a service, 
like art, even as he passes,

screaming, into the void.


Surrendering Miracle

At the center of
the airburst that
has all but cleaned me
of most of
my memories

is the vision of 
a white bison calf
on a Wisconsin farm

a white calf
named Miracle
claimed as sacred
by some

I recall how She came
to the pasture fence
and stared at me
when I spoke to Her

and how an old man
tending to cars parked
in the spring mud of 
the farm
asked me if She
had spoken to me

and I said yes 

I did not know for certain
until now
that She 
did not

All these years since
I have imagined a message
that was not there
for me

Now 
emptied by fire
I know I was not
blessed by Her

Things have become
so dull with

no Miracle left in me

I fall to earth

An ash
white as 
pale horse or
ghost folly

This has been
a life of
legendary 
mistakes

A life centered on 
one in particular

A life of mistaken belief
in my own 
mission

All ash now
Silent drift
to muddy ground


Horror Song

I have lately dreamed the words
“stuck pig”
so often they’ve turned
into music
I cannot stop humming
asleep or awake

Accompanied by
triangle or tympani
and now
and then
the sound of stones
rolling down a hill
into a river from
their former spots
in a castle wall

If this is a metaphor
what does it mean 
that on a recent night
I received
the second verse
in a new dream
of fields and flowers

and the words were

“bleeding out
means
the meat will be 
sweeter”


Dyingly

Some children in a store laugh
at my “Standing Rock” 
T-shirt, tell me I’m stupid
for wearing it after I explain it.

Adults I’ve known for years
forget who I am, forget
how I identify, forget
it matters to me that they remember.

Other adults insist
I’m not what I am, am not
what I know I am, am not
getting it, am lying about it.

I’ve never denied that what I am
is not easy for me to be:
I know damn well
where I seem to fit on first glance

and what I get from that;
I know damn well what I grew up with
doesn’t show on first glance;
I know I’m supposed to have both sides

all together now. I don’t.
I should have relaxed into my mix
a long time ago, and instead
all I am is dyingly angry — “all I am,” 

as if I exist with any completion
outside of my skull at all.
I should fall from a bridge
before you all, crack it open.

You’d call me crazy and peer
into the gray and red and meat and
jelly of my brain and say
there’s nothing there to build on

and eventually let me go. Some of you
will call me the crazy old Indian then,
some the crazy old White guy,
and so the cycle will continue.

In death,
by reputation, I will be 
as divided
as I am in life

and damn those children
who laugh and laugh,
who become adults
with no clue,

who end up happy
and whole in ignorance
they likely never had to choose,
a ignorance I wish

I had myself been born with.


About Them

Who are they,
the ones you call “them?”
It’s hard to explain, other than

they decide, not you — unless
you find yourself on the side
of consensus. 

Some jump back and forth,
into and out of it. Some join
and never look back,

some are born there, some
look up one day and find
somehow they have become “them.”

How immense they are
depends on how small you feel
yourself to be.

If there is a
visible horizon before you,
they are the vanishing point.

Your descriptions of them
have a plasticity of form,
though rarely of intent.

Their mouths
are bound over
to the service of ghosts.

In their hair the ashes 
of torches, pyres, stakes
in piles of pitch-soaked wood.

They may choose to soothe
if you agree, snip and snide
if you are mildly out of line,

rap knuckles and slap down
if you are more recalcitrant,
beat and slay if they see the need,

or so they want you
to believe. They are
avatars of what

you are supposed
to believe and the forms
must be preserved

or else there’s nothing
to be preserved and
things fall apart and

even if that is something
to be desired
it does not happen

without pain and
the circle remains
unbroken as long as 

they hold you close;
as long as you let them
hold you. 


Resistance Poem

It is not that the ocean
itself is evil: far from it.
The ocean out there

makes us here on shore
what we are; indeed
there would be

no shore without it,
but now and then
great storms rise and

send death tides,
death waves,
death.

To disrupt
such deadly waves
coming ashore we must

wade out,
become stone, 
stand still

before it, understanding
that we cannot
stand forever

but while
we do, we
break it

at least a little,
more if we
go in numbers,

more still
if we do not try
to block it

completely
but instead seek
ways to divide

its energy, 
to cause it to dis-integrate
in that narrowest

sense of the word.
It will seem
impossible

because in
any permanent sense
it is, waves

of Evil
will come again
to our shores

as the very nature
of such Evil
is that

it works
through waves, it works
through repetition

and wearing down,
through broad strikes
across wide beaches

and deep harbors, 
it sweeps and swamps
and erodes and 

those who stand
against it must
always stand against it,

for life, for all
the time we have,
and also must teach

the ones who come after
how necessary is
the stand, the breaking

of those waves, the willingness
to break ourselves as a way 
to hold the shore in safety.


A Performance Note: the Rip-Up Reading

About 17 years ago (as near as I can recall — sometime in late 1999 or early 2000) I did a reading in Worcester, MA that started as a kind of artistic challenge and turned into something much larger, at least for me.

The concept: do a feature that consisted of a set of poems that would only be read once and never again. Seemed simple enough at first, But as I worked on the set for that first feature, I began to learn something about the nature of what we do as poets and the idea began to expand.

It became something I call a “rip up reading.” After it was done, I didn’t think I’d ever do it again.
 
In 2009, I did it again in Manchester, NH.
 
Last night I did it for what I am pretty sure will be the last time ever in Portland, ME, for a gathering of storytellers.

 
The Format:

1.
Keep the nature of the show secret. Don’t share the poems with anyone, or the nature of the show itself with anyone but the host prior to the show. Nothing online, no workshopping — nothing. 

2.
Write the set. This takes a while, because if you’re going to do this, you need to have poems that you have a significant amount of blood and investment in — they have to be at least good, and hopefully it’s the best work you’re capable of. In all three cases, it was a set of eight or nine poems. Already, I don’t recall for sure. Age has made the porosity of my memory worse than ever; usually a curse, in this case a blessing.

3.
Before the feature, print one copy of the set, then wipe out the file for it on the computer, so there’s only one copy of the poems in existence.
 
4.
At the start of the show, ask for everyone in attendance to shut off anything they can use to make a record of the performance. Cameras, cell phones, video, etc. Gotta keep up with the technology. There was some sketching last night, but I let that slide; no good reason, just felt somehow OK.

5.
Ask for an audience member to volunteer to help you during the set. Don’t explain why, but assure them they don’t have to do anything on stage; they just need to sit up front.

6.
Explain what you’re doing (I’ll explain the rationale below in more detail) — that you’ll be reading a set of poems that no one’s ever seen or heard before, or will again. The set last night addressed the political moment — but more in a sense of the spiritual aspects of the moment. I’ll not say more than that about it.
 
 
In all three cases, I opened and closed the set with poems that didn’t fit the bill, as a way of ritually easing in and out of the actual rip-up set. Last night I opened with the poem “Our Dragon” that appears in the “Trumped” anthology, and closed with “Radioactive Artist,” an oldie that just seemed to fit (and felt timely as it references the Hanford Reservation, site of the recent nuclear waste accident).
 
7.
Explain the volunteer’s role — that as each poem is completed, the volunteer rips the copy of the poem into tiny pieces and puts them into some receptacle — a bag or an envelope (last night, a Ziploc bag) . At the end of the night, the host gets the ripped up copies to do anything with that they want — as long as they don’t reassemble the poems.
 
8. 
Explain, very briefly, the rationale as given below. I use an Ani Difranco quote to help make the point, from “Fuel:” “People / used to make records / as in the record / of an event / The event / of people / making music /in a room.” It’s a way of introducing the idea that the event is precious, the moment is precious. I don’t go into huge detail.

9.
Do the feature.

10.
Last night, we actually did a Q & A with the audience afterward. Never did that before. Most of what we discussed is covered below.

11.
Collapse internally if you’ve done it right.

The Rationale:

The rationale behind the rip up reading is two fold.
 
First and foremost, it is to create a heightened, ritualized sense of the fundamentally ephemeral nature of a live performance. (Hence, the secrecy beforehand and the volunteer, the no recording, etc. It’s a ritual process and requires ritual boundaries to work.) To emphasize that these moments between poet and audience are irreproducible, and that no amount of chapbook reading, video viewing, or listening to a recording can truly recapture what happens in the moment of the night, and that we need to seize the moment and give it our attention — and that goes for performer and audience.

Second, it’s to illustrate the importance of being willing to bring it all out there and then leave it all onstage — both for poet and audience. By its very nature, if you want to do this right, you have to deliver a set of work that has blood in it — personal, revealing work that stretches your own boundaries as writer and as performer. If you’re going to do this, you can’t bring weak shit up there to be destroyed. It has to hurt you to see it go, or letting it go means nothing at all. The audience needs to recognize that hurt in you without pitying you — a fine line to walk.

Why did I include poems that weren’t destined to be ripped up in both cases? To create an entrance out of and an exit back into the “real world” outside the ritualized space of the night. To give people something to hang onto in a more tangible way than just in their heads. Touchstones. Beyond that…let’s just say it seemed like the right way to do it. Not everything is subject to rational thought.
 
Reactions:

The introduction and explanation garnered gasps and shock.

You could hear a pin drop in the room as each poem began. No chatter during the poems. Total attention to the moment.

Afterwards…gratitude. That was the big one. Anger, too…in some cases. Not a bad anger, just a “oh, God, don’t rip that one up!!!!” now and again. But it wasn’t a deep anger, more a frustration at having the pieces disappear into the ether.

A audience of storytellers, versus poets, lent a different flavor to it (part of why I did it there). Less anger, more appreciation. Hard to explain. (Also, a much older audience than ever before — average age was probably closer to 60; the other two readings were the usual, younger poetry crowd.)

And then it was done. And now, we all move on…

Thanks to all who participated in this.

I am deeply, deeply grateful to the Maine Organization Of Storytelling Enthusiasts (MOOSE) for asking me into their space to do this.


Transformation

I was
unexceptional,

in chronic pain
from the blistering
inattention

of those 
I admired
and longed
to befriend,

until one day
I passed beyond caring
for such things, 
laid down
and slept 
still alone and
unattended;

woke to find

I’d become 
a gem, uncut
by other hands
yet faceted nonetheless
by

the process
of loneliness
curing into

solitude,

and thus transformed
became

sought after,

what I had once longed for
and what I no longer

desired
to be.


Rocks In The Rain

Rocks falling
in the rain:

wounding pebbles
ticking into me,
killing boulders
looming not far behind.

Reading the news

feels like that most days,
like the air itself
is getting harder
and more dangerous.

There are those who say
we should all get inside
and stay out of this
if  we know it’s going
to kill us. For me at least,

I think not.
I think

if I’m going to die
of something
let it be from 
such steady stoning
as long as

I’m trying to stop it
from happening
to anyone else

in such a mean time
as this.


Event coming up…

On Wednesday night, May 10, I’ll be performing a special set of my work for the Maine Organization Of Storytelling Enthusiasts (MOOSE — get it?) at the Portland, ME Public Library.  The event will run from 7-9 PM and will be in the main branch at 5 Monument Square.  

If you are a regular reader of my work here, I’d love to see and meet you there.  I promise I’ve got something special planned and I hope that if you can be there, you’ll leave saying that you experienced something unique and worthwhile.

Looking forward to Wednesday!


Leftover Hope

If I am to be 
one hundred per cent honest,
I have little hope
of anything for myself.

As often as I suggest
to others that there
is hope to seize
if one seeks it,

I do not seek
for much beyond 
what keeps me together
each day from 

moment to moment —
sometimes each moment
stretching to an hour, sometimes
shrinking to swift-changing

seconds of certainty that
then turn to doubt. I see
so much in me that is
weak and helpless when faced

with the work that needs doing
on myself, my loved ones,
my city, my nation, my people,
my world. So little time

ahead; so little energy stored within;
so much agony in the way
of stepping to it, and so much 
guilt at being forever in my own way.  

Keeping it one hundred per cent:
hope is not a commodity 
I am willing to spend

to repair this wretched scaffolding.

I leave it in
the hands of those
who will not squander it, or
those I hope will not squander it.

It’s all I’ve got, really; the leftover hope
that I will be of some small use 
to someone who is 
of more use than I have ever been.


And They Said

First
I was a moody child
and they said I’d grow out of it
Next
I was a moody teen
and they said it was normal
Then
I was a troubled young adult
and they said it might be a problem
Truth was
I felt from birth that I’d swallowed a dragon
and all they said was that I needed to buckle down
Later on
I could feel the dragon growing huge in me
and they said I needed to “man up” somehow
Of course
I began to sample all their pills to kill the dragon
and they said prescribing was an art not a science
In addition
I talked about it incessantly in offices to chase it out
and they said it was a slow process
All the time
I kept bouncing from dragon love to dragon rage within
and they said don’t worry it smooths out after you hit 40
As 40 approached
I felt the hollow of the cavern the dragon had gnawed out of me
and they said there are some cases that are just stubborn
As 40 passed 
I felt now and again pure flame spouting through my pores
and they said there’s a chance you are one of the unlucky ones
As 45 passed
I had a moment where I thought the dragon was gone
and they said you seem happy
As happy passed
I pulled and tugged on the dragon to make it go
and they said oh come on grow up this again
Now is the moment
I assume I am mostly dragon now
and they shrugged and said we’ve got nothing
and they said you’re a shell full of monster
and they said if only there were still swords and heroes
and they said are you even listening
and they said
and they said
and they said


Plain/Ornate

To begin
make a study
of plain and ornate
Of how the former
becomes the latter
and of how the former
houses the clean
and the latter
invites the filth

Then
see how his words
emerge from his gut
how his face
shifts in their rhythm
how he begins
to turn from one lie to another
how he ends
all thought at the utterance of each

See his ornate fumble
through language
filthy with syllables
and grime
See his disdain
of plain

Once
there was a child here
and a parent and
perhaps a lover
but plain speaking 
says no more
This is no more

In rococo twists
of tongue and style
something wicked now hides
in less than plain sight
just as the crannies of
gilded rooms with
their deep carved cornices
and intricate curls of decor
may conceal 
long-dormant plagues

Listen long enough
and become
infected
Look long enough
and become
desperate
Sit with it long enough
and become
resigned or
enraged enough
to tear this
all the way back

to plain