Monthly Archives: July 2020

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
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
by default

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

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

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 
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
and explains itself thus

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 
our wheat breads and

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

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

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 —
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 try not to think about how they’re shrinking

They prefer that smaller, quieter, less present

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

One day they’re going to look at 

and see 

and scratch their heads and reimagine

Beware that day when they finally see 

because on that day — yes — what could happen to

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

Barbaric Yawp

(with a nod to Billy Tuggle)

America’s too in love
with Whitman’s barbaric yawp
ever to offer honor soft words
spoken kindly.

This is why I’ve almost
stopped offering the latter to anyone:
it left me feeling almost
un-American to do that

and what I’ve been called 
for daring to care about 
others, there is no need to repeat;
I’m sure you know the words.

The single cry over
the collective voice.
Barbaric insistent
bastardization of language

toward selfish ends.
Not communication
but announcement, 

America, barbarian
nation, founded on
conquest, enslavement,
and plunder. And yet

somewhere here
are communities where people
speak quietly 
under the Shadow,
in spite of it,

and only raise their voices
in amplification of what was said
while the nation wasn’t listening,
or in song. That’s part of 

America too, although I think
it needs a different word than American
to describe where it comes from:
human, perhaps.  Civilized, maybe.

Gardening At 60

The fence along the downhill side of the house
is white and old with ragged points
on some of the slats but it holds up well enough
to prop up cucumber vines and shield
tomato plants from too-strong wind and sun.

For years now I’ve lined up
containers — scavenged totes long without tops
and pickle bucket from behind a fast-food joint — 
and made a garden along this fence 
that runs along the sidewalk that runs
from street to the back stoop. Eggplants,
tomatoes large and small, squash and beans,
cukes and sometimes herbs and more; 

I have somehow become my grandfather,
who died inside for the most part
when he could no longer get outside
to plant and grow and tend.
I do not yet walk with his bent frame
and my knees still move fairly well 
though the stairs slow me down
and my hands are stiffer than they once were,
stiffer than I ever thought they’d be. 

I thought I’d die before I got this old.
When I was young there was a song
that wished for that to happen
and I understand it now —

each day I wake up filled
with the fear of death
for these plants;

each day spent warding off bottom rot and vine borers,
losing patience with the weather, growing anxious
about that just glimpsed ground hog and where he went
after running through the front yard 
like some portly reaper of the fruits
of my hard work —

it’s all anxiety now: disease and theft,
my body not strong enough

to match my will, and will I have the resources
to make any of this work until harvest time?
I stand up from the couch to go outside and try;
creaking like Papa did, I go out to try while I still can.

My Presentation

All I did
was touch
the reddening tomato on the vine
and it fell
into my hand

I took it inside and washed it off
Sliced it thin
and ate it like that
just this side of ripe but still
first fruit of the summer good
I thanked the garden for providing
it to me

and then stopped

It still had a day or two to go
I robbed the plant
of its fullness

What if another had come by
one with more need
than I

What if its destiny
was to fall and re-seed
for another season

I assume so much
of the world
for I am American

from the land of no obligations
beyond the ones
we have for ourselves

We ride rough here
and alone
Take what we want 
Slogan our way forward

It’s my right
and no one can take it from me
I am owed this
and no one can take it from me
Kind words
are for others to speak
and no one
can force them from me
The world owes me its fruits

All I did was touch
the tomato on the vine
and it fell into my hand

Any pressure I put upon it
was unconscious and innate

Something in my presentation
keeps me dangerous
to everything that grows

Something I’ve learned
to use without thought

Something I trust 
I can unlearn

in spite of the fact

that the tomato was delicious

Behemoth Wants To Die

wants to die

It flings the curtain
from its face
so we can see it
snickering as it tries
to choke itself 
It scolds us for saying
it could live if it changes
It sneers at changes
It loves its burglary records
It loves its murder tributes
It loves its most vile deeds
even as it sobs that it’s changed
and why are we
so mean

wants to die

It sucks poison air
drifting through
its shops and taverns
and calls it good
It spits raw bile
while laughing at the discomfort
of those upon whom it lands
It insists it is God-chosen 
and Heaven made 
even as it longs to die
even if it is removed upon death
from here to Hell

wants to die

Wrapped in a blood flag
over a camouflage suit
A pair of sunglasses 
and a salesman’s smile
A fat wallet in its hand
blocking the sun
Singing its anthem
and rolling like an infant
on the floor
in the muck of its stall
while claiming
it never knew
and so what
and so what now
and so this is how
and won’t we be sorry
when it at last is gone

We look down
at Behemoth
in shit on the floor
while holding
mops and shovels

We’ve bided our time
for a long span
We can bide our time
a bit more

A Declaration

When there is a beginning
worth mentioning, I will
mention it. I will tell you
that I have returned to the source
and after a proper interval has passed
I will tell you that I’ve moved
onto a fresh path. That I’ve dressed myself
in clean clothes and washed myself
deeply for a change. That I’ve cut my hair
to the scalp, that I’ve trimmed my beard
to the chin, that I’ve razed my shanty
and set up a small tent where it stood,
that I’ve cleaned the ancient campfire pit,
relined it with new flat stones and 
rebuilt the tumbled walls. That at night
I tend the fire with great care,
my new face warm before it,
my backside cool behind me
as I turn it toward darkness unafraid
for the first time in six decades,
the first to do so in many generations.

When there is a beginning
worth mentioning, I will tell you
I’ve forgotten
where my family graves are,
what events sparked
my long suffering, where 
desecrations took place.
I will tell you I’ve forgotten
boarding schools,
that smallpox blankets
must have indeed been a myth, that
all those heroic statues
just look like stones with clean hands
and faces, that I can see
how to you any mountain
with such monumental outcroppings
certainly begged for its own carving.

When there is a beginning
worth mentioning, I will tell you
that I’m ready, that I’m
healed at last. I will tell you
that the slurs I’ve heard, the ones
I’ve carried with me everywhere,
are all packed away and dropped,
that the half-measure 
I’ve always taken
of my half-breed self
is brimful now, wholesome
and complete, that I’m together
and at peace;
no longer merciless,
no longer savage.

When there is
a beginning worth mentioning
I’ll let you know. Until then 
I will sit by my fire alone
in these new clothes,
body clean, half warm 
and half cold,
waiting to see
what you do next.

No One Writes Me Cool Letters

Experimentally yours

A letter I received yesterday
from someone I barely remember
bore this signature
I did not recall the name at first
but then it came back to me
that we’d been in college together
for two semesters before I dropped out
to pursue a life of drugs

The rest of the letter was mostly illegible
What was not was incoherent
Reeked not as much of experiment 
as of utter incompetence at language

This is something
I am somewhat of an expert at
as being a writer

qualifies you for a life
of deeply felt incompetence
perpetually chasing proficiency

Charles however
had raised this to a new level
I fell in awe before the paper
upon which was scribbled either
a recipe for pineapple-glazed sofa cushions
or a scathing critique of barber shears
or perhaps a combination
with an added sprinkle of a conspiracy theory
regarding the true origin
of blue pancake batter in a secret lab
at Fort Detrick

I whispered
you have bested me
at the game of artist inscrutability
and began to mourn

Shortly after that I realized
that the letter wasn’t meant for me
The name and address
were for the house next door
where a perfectly normal
and consistently coherent guy lives
and as always
I’d received a communication
intended for another
from the Muse
totally by accident
and in fact 
I’d just committed a crime
opening the envelope

So I did what I could
I stole as much as I could
from Charles’s letter
Grew jealous of
the perfectly normal
guy next door
Wondered how he got 
such a strange friend
Took some doctor issued drugs
and shrank
just a little more