Category Archives: poetry

The Little Table

A fat old man sits and writes at a little table
in his living room for a few hours
nearly every single day:  
most Sundays, most holidays, even on
his annual birthday, which he
always assumes will be his last
and therefore whatever he writes that day
will carry special poignancy for others,
even if it’s just a list of grievances,
even if it’s never published and only shared
among the few who knew him.

That fat old man, they’ll say,
shaking their heads before naming him:
he couldn’t get past this even in sickness and 
in death. (They will be correct, but then again
he never aspired to be anything, really,
except a poet — not a writer but a poet,
and we all know what cautionary tales they are
at heart,)

Fat old, stupid old man, they’ll say.
Dumb bastard could have done
so much more than dying broke and 
insufferably devoted to how to set
complaints to music.  Fat old
sickness-sodden man, they’ll say.
He had love and honor 
and all the rest of the beauty of the world
to pick from when he wrote
and this is what he left.

The fat old man sits and writes
at his little table, knowing
“fat” and “old” and “man”
and even  “poet”
mean nothing, really. He
means nothing either: all that matters
is the light in the tunnel
from here to the shaman’s world,
where the dragons at the far end
of the long hall wait in ecstasy
to welcome travelers upon arrival
and later to bid them grand farewells 
when they turn away to go back and speak
of what they’ve seen. You’ll be back,
they say, and this is why he sits
at the little table every day he can
for at least a few hours, even on Sundays,
even on holidays, and will until
he passes.


Ein Jeder Engel Ist Schrecklich

Revised.  Original post, 2007.

Ein Jeder Engel Ist Schrecklich (Every angel is terrifying). — Rilke

Close a door, open a door.
Write a letter, burn a letter.
Endings are as easy as beginnings
when there’s little potency attached.

What makes it hard to end or begin
is the Angel of Possibility
who hovers on the margin 
of each decision. 

Her scarred wings, her fruit-toned breath. 
Each time I have flown with her
I have been scared of the height
from which I might fall.

Tonight she floats at the edge of vision,
near the door, beckoning to me.
I pray for my feet
to remain on the ground — 

yet she is an Angel, after all,
and I begin to rise,
attended by all the terror
I can bear.


Wednesday For A Change

Heat’s off. Sun’s way up.
Just planted tomatoes and eggplants
are looking right
and upright, for a change.

Trash bagged and on the curb.
Recycling bins full but intact. 
Nothing got at anything left out
overnight, for a change.

Not a single dead opossum
or skunk on the road
in scent or sight, for a change.
The neighborhood can-hunters

banter pleasantly
as they divide the homes between them,
and everything gets put back 
in the right place, for a change.

It’s nothing out of the ordinary
when the ambulance arrives for
someone in the green house
across the street. But this time

someone is stretchered out — 
it’s been a while since that happened.
At least their face is showing this time,
for a change. Right up the street

await the tow trucks to move the cars
that block the path of the street sweepers
who finally have come to fulfill the prophecy
of the signs hung so long ago, no one

still believed it would happen; least of all
on a Wednesday trash day, can picking day,
garden getting started day, save the life of my child
day. All happening at once, for a change.


Happiness Above Angel Fire

The brand name
of a new psychiatric medication
floats in the commercial air
over a valley on the TV

I think I recognize
from a long ago trip
to the Enchanted Circle
of New Mexico.

Under that in parentheses
a generic name like a second,
awkward bird overflying the green valley 
in the bowl of the mountains.

It’s probably not
the valley I remember
of course. Too long ago
to be certain. Too many

prescriptions of my own
between the enchantment
of that place and these latest 
pills to promise more. 


Settlers

They settle.
It’s what they do.
“Colonial” now is just
a settled style, a label
for what to them is 
a quaint moment
in their past. “Frontier”
is a counter spell
they’ve settled on
to counteract
the miasma around
“genocide.”“Antebellum” prettifies
their mouths and settles
raw old acid in their stomachs,
and “settler” itself is now nobler
and sweeter than history
would suggest. 

They tell me to leave it alone,
say it’s just a way of speaking,
aren’t you tired of talking as if
it’s so damn deadly out here?
Settle down and look at the lovely eclipse
or something more or less not
killing you or those you love right now.
So much beauty in the world. So much
to be said for that, you one-note note taker
on the warped order of the settled places;

try speaking instead of what you think
of the sparrows and starlings. Speak of how they settle
on the feeders or the ground to eat and eat 
and shit and eat some more, of how they do it all
so natively you’d think they were here all along.
Settle in, half-breed; after all, you look like you could belong.
Find some beauty round here and act like 
you are the poet we know you can be and watch 
the sun come up over the old farm pastures
where the surveyors and diggers have yet to roam.


Magellan Song

revised from 2015; original post 2009; poems originally written 1994 or so

when I speak to you
of the way this is 
your eyes widen in surprise 

(or astonishment – the right word
makes so much difference
when one tries to describe the way this is)

it seems sometimes
that there are no right words 
to carry my full meaning

do you think 
I would speak to you
of hearts or say forever

that I would use tired words
remotely resembling
those dry and familiar forms

if I instead had language
that could make
how I feel more clear

all I have for you is known and common
a few small words
offered too early and too often 

I promise you
if I had been alive in mythic times
I would have invented language 

that would have
the syllables
I need

every word would have been a nail 
in the ark that saved
all the couples of the world

the covenant bow
that was revealed 
after the rain had dried 

would have colors
only you 
would be able to see 

I would have been clear enough
to have torn Babel down
all on my own 

if I had the right tongue 
I could reform history 
with improbable, impossible words — 

if I had the tongue
I need to speak my mind today
I swear I could remake the world 

hold it in the corners of my mouth
then offer its fresh contours to you
in a song of Magellan – 

a circumnavigator
now just barely remembered
but once his name

was the leading edge of a legend
an arc of hope
from known to unknown

if I could speak the words I need
I would conjure him
spell him into life this morning

put him to use as we sink our toes
into this cold Atlantic sand — 
look at all that horizon out there – 

its dark line
the promise
of unseen shores –

to reach it we will need new vocabulary 
but for now this is all
I can bring myself to say: 

come closer
stay close to me
sunrise can’t be too far away


This City Is A Garden

Inspired by Worcester journalist Bill Shaner’s phrase describing the city’s attitude toward the unhoused.

This city is a garden
and they are the weeds 
who keep popping up

in the cracks
of what we want to believe
is true 

about the state of
the heart
of our common wealth

This city is a garden
and they are the weeds
who keep showing up 

in places we pretend
we want to protect
and preserve

This city is a garden
and they are the weeds
we say we are willing to replant

in better beds somewhere else
in tiny pots somewhere else
Maybe they’ll be OK then

but in the meantime 
let’s have a mean time
and find them however we can

This city is a garden
and they are the weeds
disrupting our postcard campaigns

What we really want 
is a more manicured view
of who we are

than the one we see
when they show up
on corners

with cardboard signs
forcing smiles toward us
to make their empty hands seem

less a reflection 
of who we really are
and more a cartoon we can dismiss

This city is a garden
and they are the weeds
we long to uproot

and toss even farther aside
until someone else can figure out
how to fix the soil against their return

This city is a garden
They are the weeds
as are roses in a cornfield

if their presence
gets in the way of power’s idea
of progress or profit or propriety

This city is a garden 
being readied
for harvest 

Who knows who will have the say
on how soon today’s roses
will become tomorrow’s weeds


Opportunity

We believe
you should know
that you could become
the face of the moment 

like a green-eyed girl
in a refugee camp
on the cover
of a magazine

or a girl kneeling over a boy
shot through the mouth
in a newspaper story
about an antiwar protest

You could be even be more
A whole country’s heart-sized hole 
A tear-trailed staring mask 
A death-flecked dirty suit of clothes

hovering by a mass grave
full of black plastic bags and flies
in the wake of a conflict
we’ve chosen for all to see

We think you have 
what it takes to be
the specimen needed
for such a time

We can even leave your name
out of it if you prefer — trust us
Ever hear of Sharbat Gula
or Mary Ann Vecchio

Just think it over
Sleep on it 
We’ll get back to you
when the time is right


Wires Got Crossed

Third floor neighbors 
had a lovely cat
who went nuts one day
and attacked and drew blood
from all who came near.
No disease, no injury
was found after they put her down;
no one could explain, the vet saying only
that no one knows, sometimes,
how wires get crossed.

I got up to pee last night
and grandmothers,
none of them mine,
were everywhere
in the house —
musty old aprons a-flutter
as they thronged the rooms
silently disapproving of 
everything. I came out
of the bathroom and they
were gone, with only the scents
of lilac water and disdain
left behind. I went 
right back to bed as if nothing
had happened, as if no sacrifice 
or offering could or should be made
in response.

It’s faintly ridiculous
to hear all this talk from all sides
about saving “the country”
when “the country” in question
is as dead as a roomful of 
broken disappointed grandmas
and as savage
as a cat in a third floor walkup
who hasn’t been
outside for years and
chooses violence and death 
as a worthy way to go. 

I don’t know why
any of this has happened
or why I don’t keep sage
in the house against such things
any longer, as I once did,
as if no one knows
how wires get crossed.


Fox On The Run

I don’t believe in this lyric Muse
everyone talks about

Swear we’ve never
had a conversation

I’ve listened for her voice
in the corn by the river

Always ended those nights
running home frightened and alone

If believed in the Muse
I might have heard her

chattering in my ear
at some point

second hand news
of a second hand band

Instead I had to 
run from the silence

and here I am again
on that river bank 

panting and hungry
Full of nothing

but my voice wondering out loud
why this endlessly feels 

like I am built to be
alone — a poor boy bereft

surrounded by tall dead corn
and thoughts of plunging in

to this river that could take me
to hear what I do not believe exists

here or anywhere
but I’m willing to be convinced

I’m ready to listen
to any mythology now

having had the practice of decades
straining in silence

to hear my country 
speak to me

as if I were worthy
of nodding along to its voice

that instead sounds like nothing
as much as a snapping flag on the wind

that rattles through this dry dead corn
whenever I stop running away


The Norway Maple

In a strong box buried
under a Norway maple
brought from Europe
when they first came here

they keep the old education
they refuse to acknowledge
in daylight. Knowledge
they leave to you to hold

as they smash away at your hands, 
ways of thought they turned off
and stashed in the box they claim
holds so little that it’s not worth opening.

Anyway, the box isn’t yours, they tell you.
The box holds Atlanteans, aliens,
Templars and old ones from 
everywhere else but here. Go forth and be

mascot, crisis actor, crystal-waving 
smudge idol for a generation of fakes. 
When we need you, we’ll let you know.
When the box rises from the ground

like a coffin displaced in the next great flood,
we’ll let you know. When the Norway maple
dies and falls upon us, we’ll let you know.
When it’s too late, you’ll figure it out.


Whatever You Do

whatever you do
don’t stumble

they’re listening
for that

if they sense
weakness — oh

shhh
none of it makes sense

in any human way
unless you think

predator in place of 
human 

whatever you do
don’t be you out loud

messy you tripping 
exuberantly through

what should be safe
except they are there

listening and claiming
you — shhhhhhhh

don’t even breathe
they sit there gills out

in shallow water or
perched in crooked trees

with ears open
with claws for the likes of you

SHHHHH
you know better — don’t have to do

a damned thing to be prey
except exist out loud and 

maybe stumble or not but
it’s what they do

the men in the water or trees
that’s what they do


The Barbarians

Don’t ask how it happened 
that they were raiders by birth 
or education — it’s not worth
the effort to understand it now,
this late in the game. Enough to say
they were raised and whipped
to be descendants of such people
and such ancient habits, once ingrained, 
are the hardest to kill. Somehow 
their homes are still castles
in their eyes, no matter how flimsy;
to them their big windows up front
are still the mouths of cave shelters, 
no matter how shallow they’ve made
the space behind them, the rooms 
where they live.

Most of us out here in the fields below
are targets, serfs, or lackeys; no exceptions.
It’s been folly to bet against them for so long
we fall in as rigidly as they do to our roles —
or we have for generations now. Sometimes
we stir and wonder about how this all happened
but once again, what matters more is how swiftly 
today can become tomorrow, how they seem now
to quiver for real at last as they look out upon us
from the caves they cannot help but call home:
the aging holes, the sagging walls, the coming
of a storm or a war they will not admit
is theirs to forestall.


Custody

That we do not understand 
how much of
each of us 
is already in custody

is the great triumph of an Enemy
we cannot see as an Enemy
because we have such
a broken definition of that word.

Each day that passes
is tacked on to our sentences,
even though we see
neither walls nor gates.

It’s all
in our heads, they tell us,
as if the bars and locks
are less effective because of that.

All night the screaming
elsewhere, but still in here.
Is it getting closer or is it all
in our heads, as they’ve said?

All night inside our heads, as they’ve said.
We wonder where it’s coming from.
It sounds so close. So familiar, close enough
to catch us by the throat and squeeze.


But Hey, We Did Get Out And Vote

In the beginning,
after the collapse became
inevitable, no alien hand
reaching in to stop it,
we kept using words like
“awakening” and “rebirth,”
but no one really wanted that
if it meant things would look 
truly different.

In the beginning,
after the birds fell silent
and the seas turned gray
and hopeless, after we began 
to notice the voice
of flatline in the wind, 
people said that was a song,
a new song, and it would be
alright sooner or later —
but none of them were singing
and that should have been a clue.

In the beginning,
once it had become clear
that hope would be a mistake
unless it was a hope of complete
erasure and restart, we kept at it
with chants and the like 
for a time. We did all
the small things
we were asked to do even after
it became obvious it wasn’t going 
to be enough. 

In the beginning,
we sat in the ruins 
of the time before
and did all the same things
and hated all the same people
and shit in the same holes
we’d always filled with our shit
before. We looked with disfavor
upon what we’d wrought and then
wrought it again in a slightly 
cleaner form until the true beginning
took us away from it and put us
in the garbage by ourselves
to dwindle as the new day began
to brighten and there we stayed until
finally we were gone.