Monthly Archives: May 2020

Ghazal For The Definitions

there are words that make a difference to people — say “violence,”
watch faces change as people open their thinking to “violence.”

some folks will see there a burning body and say, this is violence.
some folks will see there a court of justice and say, this is violence.

a brick falling from a facade into the street? some say, violence.
a brick falling from a facade into the street? some say, no violence.

there’s a blue knee on a black neck over there. that is violence.
blue knee on a black neck right here, though? law and order, not violence.

history red in a flag, holy red on sacred ground, memorial red in a poppy: our violence.
vile red in a word, terror red on a street corner, spilled red on a tossed-off shirt: their violence.

ceremonial planes built for war overhead in formation? call it a tribute, not violence.
war planes over a neighborhood? think first of profit, not violence.

did you imagine when this began that it would end in something other than violence?
you see in our beginning how it led us here to this smoke, these hands, this violence.

A Learning Process

Exhausted by the pressure
to keep up with the news
I chose instead to listen
to the birds and squirrels
cheating each other out of
hanging feed and stray seeds.

I drew no relief from that so instead
I went to the park and lay on the grass
as far from all other beings as I could
but still the clouds warred above me
and struck out the sun.

Back home I opened a novel
and the words danced and wrestled
so fiercely I could not follow them
where they were going. 

I opened a blank book
to try and tame my own words.
There were only a few at first
which soon enough followed the others
into the tangled woods where I lost them.

There was a guitar on the wall. 
There were my hands out on the ends of my arms.
There was something to do now
that I didn’t need to understand.

There I was, inside a badly played song
with all the room I needed there to breathe.

A Lovely Day

It was, as they say,
a lovely day. One of those
you’ll look back to and say
who could have guessed
what was happening on such
a lovely day? Not that anything
that followed negates the beauty 
of the light on the street that day, 
the angled shadows between
apartment buildings at six PM,
the words of people in the street
unaware of how sorrows were rising
even as it seemed like hope was rising
high enough to drown them. 

It was, as they say, a perfect day —
and to be honest it was,
because it did not hew too closely
to some impossible standard
where nothing bad happened at all.
Instead we got the perfect mess of 
lovely stewed with horrible,
not that we knew what was coming
that day. It took a while to show. 

It was, as is said in the books, 
a perfect day. They teach it
to this day as such;
they do not sugar coat it,
they make it mythic and exacting
in its impact — but the light,
the temperature, the chill in the breeze
that kept it all comfortable?
It’s at the center of what I recall,
and the reason I’ve not trusted
such clear daylight
ever since.

Getting To Tomorrow From Yesterday

Getting to tomorrow
from where we are now
is like preparing to take
an overseas trip on
a small old ship 
in hurricane season;

we don’t know
a thing about sailing,
it’s been so long since we
had to leave our country
to seek safety
we can’t imagine
it’s more than
an afternoon away,
and we certainly
aren’t dressed
for the journey,
but we’re going anyway

since staying here
in yesterday 
is terrifying 
and impossible

and the only shot at joy
we may left
is, possibly,
over there on 
the storm-crushed
far shore.

The War

This war being what it is,
a long time will likely pass —
too long, sadly —

before one side will realize 
they are facing those
who will kill and are ready
to do so;

under the misconception
that love is enough,
that what this war demands
is a tsunami of love 
to overwhelm hatred;

even as the ridge
above them fills
with snipers and artillery,
no one among them has the power
to raise that wave
and wash the hills clean

so they vote, they talk, they cry,
they laugh at the war; they mock,
they gossip, they pray — and down they fall.

On the other side of the ridge,
ignored by the killers,
some people are building
a new world within a fortress,

and of course
they have gun slots in the walls,

high above the gardens,
the nurseries, and the homes
they’ve prepared for peace
without assuming it as a given.

I’m Not Machiavelli

I knew a man who used to say,
“I’m not Machiavelli but…
there are days when the old guy
makes a lot of sense.”

I didn’t want to listen to him.
Maybe I should have paid him more mind
when he said things about ends
and means and how to play the game.

He’d say, “You don’t fight Evil from a distance.
You have to take it where it lives.
You have to go where Evil goes
to take it to the ground.

“Your face may set a little harder.
Your hands will not stay clean.
You will get dirty and it will show — 
but dirty is cleaner than filthy.”

I should have listened harder.
I should have paid attention.
It would have made it easier
to look at my hands today.

Tomorrow, another run
to where the Evil lives.
Every day I care less
about the stain and stench.

You can’t do this from a distance.
Can’t do it with words alone.
Can’t do it without feeling
grime beneath the nails.

But someone has to do it
even if, after it’s done,
the ones you did it for 
wring their hands about it.

Your face will set a little harder.
You won’t say much until you see
the one who needs to hear you say,
“I’m not Machiavelli, but…”

A History Of Masks

In many cultures throughout the world, a judge wore a mask to protect him from future recriminations. In this instance, the mask represents a traditionally sanctioned spirit from the past who assumes responsibility for the decision levied on the culprit.

— from an article in the Encyclopedia Britannica

Sunglasses may be worn
by a poker player or peace officer 
to conceal their glances, their tells,
eyes grown wide in pleasure or surprise.

Judges may hide their faces
from the people they judge.
Fear of recrimination, they say, or maybe
it’s performative impartiality;

there’s a reason
Justice is shown blindfolded,
though we assume these days
that Justice has always cheated

and peeked at who is to be judged
before going to verdict; likewise,
riot cop helmets are there
for saving face as much as for 

any other reason. There are reasons
executioners wore hoods.
There are reasons the condemned
wear them too.

Plague doctors strolled,
flower beaked and fantastic,
through the streets of 
cadaver cities into 

popular misunderstanding —
they weren’t medieval,
they weren’t trying to scare
diseases away; they were trying

to save themselves. But 
they look good to us now
as we mask up and creep
our own half-empty streets,

thinking they could
lend some elegance
to the fear
we are wading through,

seeking some spirit from the past
to inform us about the spirit 
threatening us: not only the sickness
but the now-unmasked dangerous men;

the judges,
their rogues,
their hired and self-appointed

Greed (The Blood Window)

To look through a window and see
pedestrians as coin
and imagine them

going about their business
or carefree, 

draining from your pocket
instead of filling it
it is to forget who you are.

To look out 
your blood window
onto a flesh world

and see only metal people
is to think flesh and
skin are blast-hardened.

Is to be blind to
the way all flesh
tears itself open

under enough pressure,
is to be oblivious to
how a bullet splashes it.

How a machete 
pries it apart.
How a bomb spreads it

across a room. Looking out
your window of blood
and imagining that’s

moneyworld out there,
you have forgotten
you aren’t made of steel, either.

Incantation For Silence

silence to you,
voice of the end.

silence, I command you to 
silence, to your ears
opening wider than your maw
of a yapping face. 

silence I tell you,
silence from your
cottonmouth brain,
your self-important
hemlock breath,
your falsely righteous
gas chamber
world view.

free speech,
you scream, give me my free
spew. as if you’ve ever
paid for any of what you’ve said.
as if there’s ever been 
much if any cost to you
for being this loud.

I hear what clatters 
out of your body
and I cannot call you
by your given name
and feel clean. 
you don’t sound 
like a real person. you sound
possessed, or gone
from your shell, supplanted by 

this stench. this is not sound
you are speaking. this is
odor. this screams in all my parts
that hold history. memory

of hangings, massacres.
of camps and reservations.
of the rule of thumb and 
the machinery of rape. the land
drained. the people drained.

if I were to give you a name 
it would be cristoforo colombo.
it would be bull connor.
it would be aristotle.

if i had magick I’d say:

silence, then.
silence, you voice of 
end all, be all, screaming for 
obedience to the dead and gone.
I bind you to silence.
I cast you into it.
silence, I say.
you are now made historical,
caught in the pages of a book
which can be closed upon you.

we will always know you’re there.
we just can’t know you now.

Waking In The Dark In These Challenging Times

It’s not from a fear
of death; I’ve been in love
with the line between 
for decades now and 
to finally step over would be 
a relaxation more than
a terror. 

It’s not from
a fear of the dark itself
as I know there’s light
beyond it, even if I never
see it again myself. 

It’s not from something
bodied within, no clock
or silent alarm
that burns through me
till I sit upright in the night. 

I can’t name what awakens me
in the dark almost every night,
but it feels new and ancient at once;

the scent of a tomb
that has just been opened;

that old stench
on a new wind.

Everything Not Here

Can’t explain
what we long for
beyond the shrug that says, 
“Everything not here.” 

The presence of 
having company and of how
we used to long for them
to go home.

The joy of going out to eat
and saying afterward,
“next time, let’s just
stay home.”

Frenzied sex followed by
falling asleep, waking up
late for work, deciding to be
naughty and stay right there
in bed all day at home.

Home sick, home
with a sick child, home
exhausted after a road trip,
boring Sunday afternoon
at home. 

Can’t describe it completely —
for some it was hell,
for some it was peace, 
for some it was just a place
to sleep, to eat, to fuck or yearn to fuck;
a laundry room, a tub and shower,
a toilet bowl wobbling on a bad floor;
landlord making false promises,
off-street parking, garage, good yard,
curb appeal, transient housing
on the path to a dream palace.

What we long for:
pastel light in bay window home;
view of the ocean mountain desert home;
proximity to the hot new neighborhood home;
childhood rhyme home — 
home again home again jiggetty-jig.

Home is where you end up,
that place to stay that feels like home
after you are done being elsewhere;
anywhere but here because
call here whatever you like but

we’re done with here.

Silence And Roar

I am going to sleep now
not because that world is better
but because it is quieter.

I will put everything aside
and let myself down easily
into that world.

It is as dangerous there 
as it is here, but if you are taken
in that world, you go quietly

to whatever comes next.
No screaming, no tears,
not a news story to be heard.

When and if you wake up,
it will be a moment
before you know you’re back

in the Noise. Hanging there
between the Silence and the Roar;
that’s its own world, I think; Lord,

how I want
to pursue certainty
about that

Hating My Words

Hating my words today,
my failing words.
This time demands more
than ill-shaped breath
but it seems that’s all
I have left. Interior 

of the body longing
for the exterior,
spewing words,
trying to make words fit
into places 
they’ve never gone.

I can’t see anything
through the words
stuck to my eyes,
can’t hear anything 
through the words
plastering my ears,
and don’t I just I long
to cut out my tongue — 

if I could stop the flood
I would
for the benefit of all,
for the benefit of me
most of all.

But this is all I have:

this and hope that somewhere
there will be a place and time
where I can love this again;
where it feels 
like it matters

that this is all I can do,
and it is enough.

To Sit In the Sun

I will sit in the sun
for an hour someday soon.
Eyes crunched tight, fists 

squeezing and relaxing,
trying to act. Trying to make amends.
I know what the odds are that it will work

but still, I have to try.
It’s the only chance I have
to be remembered the way I’d like.

Even as I try
to choose the right hour,
the best day for the last

and most important thing
I will ever do correctly, a change
at the place of self-definition — 

for my originating definitions
got me here, and have proved
to be worth nothing.

This isn’t me, I tell
myself.  I’m not this
level of failure. By doing this

I will redeem and erase that —
it’s literally selfless action. And then,
we’ll all be free.  All of us, all of you.

I would have liked 
one last minor triumph
of my own choosing, of course.

Would have liked one last
modest glory of the sort I’d come
to accept as my lot — but

this is my lot. To sit in the sun,
thinking about how good it feels
even as I plan to reject it

in favor of the dark. Is it a failure
if I stay, or a failure if I go?
Is there really any way to change?


When the architect passes
you still have the building.

When the musician passes
you still have the music.

When the person passes
you have what you remember — 

when Fats Domino passed,
when Little Richard passed,

I remember how their hands
looked on the keys.

I remember how I knew
from watching them that the piano

was not for me. I remember
nonetheless imagining

how it might have been my path 
in another life. I remember 

my own long years of lessons
and how I struggled. When

I heard of their passages,
I fell back into those struggles

and recalled the flash of sequins
from one, the explosive chords;

the strong steady rain of notes
from the other, the sideways smile.

But it’s not about me today.
It’s about gratitude and about

new holes in the air
around the building.

The building’s
still standing.

The music’s
still playing.