Category Archives: poetry

Appropriation 2

A friend, a chef,
uses the same secret ingredient
in anything they make, and all they make
are acclaimed masterpieces.

Naturally, they have told no one what they use
and just as naturally we try to guess,
as much for the game of it
as for the gossip or theft

since no one believes that using any one substance
is all it would take to replicate any of their dishes.
We suspect they are in fact
using some magic for their results

as opposed to a tangible spice for what else could explain
the signature spell of their food
from first course to last bite of dessert?
I will not say we are transformed by it,

instead will say we are transported.
So we needle and wheedle and bug them: tell us,
we say. Don’t try to laugh it off and say
it’s all about the love, either; we can tell it’s more.

We know esoteric when we taste it. This is
esoterica. You got your hands on something
and we will leave you to your own use of it
once we too have it on our hands,

even if it’s blood. So tell us. All we want
is the flavor. If it demands a sacrifice or a torture
we already know you took that pain, and thank you
for that — but it’s over. Why should anyone else suffer?



Sitting Up In Bed Soaked And Desperate

I’m trying to convince myself,
not for the first time,
that if I can just get all my ancestors
to stop warring against each other
inside me, I will get better.

That until I make a truce happen,
I will be at their mercy.

That if I can calm them
and put them to sleep
they will never again make me
sit up straight in bed
soaked and desperate,
wondering who among them
from which side of the family
had spoken the death-spell
that roused me: “here you go with
that stupid half-breed shit again.”

That I have healed myself
from history and its consequences.

I’m trying to convince myself
that if I somehow put them together
to talk out all the violent years among them,
they — and I — would be OK.

That they would throw a party
to honor me.

That they would gather in a hall
somewhere to mingle and laugh,
to smudge the air and toast
the better days ahead,
waiting for the healed me
to make a great entrance
down a broad staircase.

That after everything
we’d gone through together,
I would not fling myself down the stairs
to die at the bottom among them.

See, I’m trying to convince myself
I won’t fuck it up.

That all my pain
comes from my past
and fixing that
will save me.

It’s that stupid half breed shit again,
I tell myself. The need to become
the site of the peace accord.
The broker between the factions.
The broken one who heals all
and himself in the process —

but once again
I’m sitting up in bed
soaked and desperate
with no one but myself
to blame, and I don’t even know
who that is.


The Sacred

Any time at all, the sacred.
Over the moon with that which calls.
Behind the diner, making God.
All night. Staring at the ceiling. Unable to breathe.
Break syntax in case of emergency, is what the doctor said.
Pick up after. Leave it as good as it was.
Did you wash? Are you clean enough to be jewelry now?
Want to see you, sparkler. Want to see you, altarpiece.
I require nothing from you, sacred. I take you whole.
Whole and puzzled and here we are at church everywhere.
Profane left behind, mundane made sacred. You’re the priest.
Also, the deity. Also, the adversary. (Also, no adversary, no deity.)
I am coming to look you in the eye and beg you to stand up.
Stop pretending you are anywhere else.


The Change In Us

At the drop of this season’s
first red leaf

I was no longer
what I had always been

and appeared
to those looking on

as something other than
surely human,

a figure obscured,
backlit by evening-slant glow.

Dear friends, fellow citizens
of this hard-changed world,

know how far we have come
and how far is left to travel;

know as well that I see you as
more or less the same way.

I assume we are still
the same as we were before

but, tempered now by isolation,
shifting light and cooling air,

we have somehow
moved closer to becoming

implacable, pure spirit; humans still
but now grimly enhanced

by a sense of how little time
we have left

before all around us
grows terminally cold.



A Pot Of Coffee

I am not a fancy man
Just a man bound
in service to
necessity

To stay there
I drink
a pot of coffee by sunrise

and by this I mean
neither a pot
of French press
nor a pot of artisanal brew
poured from some new invention designed to extract
the floral flavor from some ancient strain
of mountain grown wildcat shit bean

I mean instead
that I drink a pot of coffee
made in a Mr. Coffee using
whatever decently farmed bean
is on sale in whatever market
I went to on my way home last night
from whatever
last rideshare I gave
or long return commute I made
from some far too far away
per diem contract job
I just completed

I drink a pot of whatever coffee I can get
that will pull me awake before sunrise
after too little sleep

then sit down to steal some time
for trying to tell the truth
about beauty and justice
and all the good abstractions
we live for
before heading into the concrete

terror at unpaid rent
nagging pain in my teeth
worry about every stranger
I let into my car
who might carry not one
but every virus
the memory of
every sugar shock
that laid me out
for lost days unplanned

I drink a pot of coffee
not for its flavor but its effect
and ritual
I can’t afford flavor
I can afford effect
and can make some comforting routine
out of the gurgle and hiss
of the old machine

All I look for from each day
is not to curl into a ball
or end up laid out
on a cold bed
to never write again
or work again
or love again

Flavor is a luxury I can’t afford
to seek

though I do remember it

Behind Mr. Coffee on the counter
is my grandmother’s stove top
Bialetti moka pot
and behind my regular drip grind
is a can of Lavazza espresso grind

for someday
some afternoon respite
with a blank screen
and a free from worry hour or two

When I see these things I tell myself

Soon


The Unwelcome Poem

Not for the first time
an unwelcome poem arrives
and demands your attention.

Perhaps it is the one you’ve always avoided
about your hometown, how it’s like all others
except where it is unique, one that insists

on pushing you
toward extravagant words
you have no time or energy to spend.

Maybe it’s the one that explains
how you believe in God but fear
the response of your atheist friends

because they’ve shown no mercy
to others in the past and while you are
not at all insecure, you know how rage goes

when you are enraged, and they
have enraged you — but you’ve held back the poem
and cannot attend to it now,

because God stopped talking to you
more than an age ago and you are trying so hard
to get along without counsel.

You don’t write poems any more.
You mostly take notes for poems
which keep nudging you: your time

is running down, your energy is
trickling down, your attention is
grinding down.

Today’s poem is knocking, not for the first time.
It refuses to introduce itself. Go away,
you scream at the door. Go away, I’m done…

and just like that, it’s gone.
One day it won’t come back.
Already the gaps between its appearances

are growing
and you are forgetting
it was ever here.


Morning Rites

Newly added to the ritual:
hanging freshly washed
air-dried masks on
the back of the front door

so it’s easy to grab one on the way out.
You stack them in a certain order: on top
the favorite, then back up to the favorite,
back up to the back up, fancy dress, then last resort.

There they hang, playing their role,
reminding you of a danger
out there that you can’t see coming;
here is armor,

a hook full of cotton prayer. You’ll see them
the second you lift your favorite hat
from the neighboring hook and say to yourself,
“can’t forget this,” and then go on your way.

It’s now as much a part of your ritual
as clipping your knife to a pocket, tucking
pepper gel into a hoodie. Those
also sit close to the door when not in use,

reminding you of where you live
before you get out into it.
The phone, with its camera
and list of emergency contacts.

The car keys with the panic button
and the handy bottle of sanitizer.
The wallet that these days
offers no help at all.


Places To Look When You Are Trying To Find Yourself

The junk drawer in the kitchen.

Behind the microwave cart.

Under-the-counter, in the cabinet
where you store your mother’s
battered stockpot.

In the roots of that immense oak tree
near the high school — not the old one,
the new one where there used to be a sandpit
where you partied, where you learned to fuck
without killing yourself on the stick shift.

In the depths of a pond
where you think someone must have drowned;
it’s so dark, so cold; keep diving, resurfacing.

In a group photo on a travel brochure
for a place you may have passed through
on your way to a conference for some job
or another back when you were working.

As you search, if you find little
to give you hope of success, go non-linear:

is there a sitar in your name? A
giant zither, a sidewinder’s hiss on sand?
Were you ever in a Cave
where the shadows looked like home?

Start at someone else’s beginning and try on
all their varied history of names. If any of them
resonate, perhaps yours rhymed with theirs
at some point; sit up all night practicing,
interrogating your tongue as to what feels familiar.

You were somewhere once.
You might still be there. Retrace
your breath. Your first atoms, long ago
shed, have not disintegrated. Someone’s
got them. Look in someone else
for yourself. Tear them apart
until you are satisfied you aren’t there.

Are you certain
you are not in the junk drawer?
Look again.

Did you move the razor blades
in the medicine cabinet
to see what’s back there?


Colorway

Police have just announced
their symbolism will change
from blue to purple
in an effort to connect more deeply
with the bruised people
they’ve created.

Elsewhere, bankers dress down
to tout the green hue of money.
Get you some, it’s good for the planet,
they say, as they bury heaps of their own
in the holes left from others
working the black seams of the earth.

Don’t have a color of your own?
Someone’s out there with a straitjacket
that’s perfect for you. If you don’t see it on the rack,
ask. It’s likely in the back, the mythic back
where all the good stuff is held in secret,
the back you never see.

They keep changing their colors, you keep yearning
for your own. “Kaleidoscope” doesn’t really cut it
as a description of their colorway world. “Rainbow”
holds it all but they bought that too.

Out in the hot light of broad daylight
they try to leash you to their vision.

Makes you long for something
easier on the eyes.
Makes you long for the simplicity
of black and white.

They have something for that, too.


My Life In The House Of Music

Born sheltered under country,
opera for a roof, walled in by popular crooners
on a street where Lawrence Welk might live.

Only dug the classical wing of that house
now and then. I preferred to take that
small: string quartets, solo guitar.

Later, rock music compacted me,
helped me fit better into tight rooms
full of other people.

Later, I felt funk as earthquake
cracking a back wall I thought
would be too thick to fall. I was wrong.

Jazz, though: jazz kicked open a locked door
in a stone wall in the little rock room,
got me past the classics to the open air.

I had to leave the house I grew up in
to grow up. It took flamenco palmas
to lock the door behind me, Afrobeat

to help me turn the corner
into the broad boulevard
headed out of town;

there has been so much more since
I cannot name. I’ve lived
in so many places since then

that I can listen to anything now
and not go home again because
I know so much of what the world looks like.


Where Is The Neighbor’s Cat?

It’s silly to be bothered at a time like this
about not seeing the neighbor’s cat for several days
when she normally lies in wait for slow birds
under the bush in my front yard
right around dusk every evening; nonetheless,
when I see the old man who owns the building
out on his porch I ask and learn that the cat’s
doing fine as he knows, still on the third floor,
still leaving dead mice on his back stoop almost nightly.

I shift into an alternate silliness around my concern
that it’s something I’ve done that keeps her away
from my yard, scratching my head almost to raw blood
trying to determine what ritual I must have altered
to shift the balance and drive her away: did my cursing
of her near-unerring aim for dullard sparrows
and unthinking mourning doves have an effect
beside making me feel better as a defender
of the sanctuary I thought I’d made here?

When I think of how little I recall day to day now,
when I think of how much I forget, I’m nearly certain
this is my fault. That it is the natural order of things
that some lapse of mine made the world change. That
the rest of the world goes on — safer birds still feeding,
still-deadly cat having moved on to steadier hunting ground.
What I thought was the way of the world is fading, moving away
from me.

Silly? It is likely. But prove me
wrong, please. Please,
prove me wrong.


Let’s Not

because to go there
is to put your bare hand
on a contaminated doorknob
and yank on it till you fall backwards
into pig shit then lie there exposed
to whatever comes through
from the other side.

because to go there is to get naked
and take a huge swing
at a hornet’s nest the size of
your own ego.

because to go there
is to eat a bowl of sorrow
twice a day for weeks and then
open a circus in your belly
for all to attend.

how do you not see this?
it’s so obvious.
it’s not good there.
I was born there
and have lived there
off and on
for my whole life.
I am intimate with this need
to be cursed
with ferocious curiosity
about the adventure of
disastrous judgement
and I am telling you,
begging you: let’s not.
let’s not go there.

don’t twist that key.
let go of that handle.
the teeth around the doorframe
will rip you
before you even get through
and tear you
if you manage to come back out.

there are so many better things
here. the wind can be strong
but it is always fresh.
when it rains here, it cleanses.
when the sun rises, it strengthens you
long before it can burn you.
believe me when I say
you do not want to know the forecast
for what’s on the other side
of that door.

in spite of all this I know
your hand is still reaching
for it. I know because
mine always has. so I’m begging
again:

let’s not. to go there
is to suffer. is to starve
on a meat pile. is to drown
in dank urine and thick old blood.
is to never die completely.
is to warn warn and warn
and never be heard.









Enough, Enough

Enough with beating my head.
Enough with breaching my body.
Enough with inflicting low-burn pain
that never ends. Whatever
I’m supposed to be learning from this
I’ve either learned it and forgotten it
or can’t learn it and all you are doing
is for nothing. I already understand enough.
You can stop now. It’s enough, I get it —
stop offering lessons. I’m stubborn, dull,
stupid and terrified about how it all keeps growing.
I’m not going to use all this teaching anyway.
I’m going to drop out soon enough
so enough, more than enough. I see all of myself
in your pained eyes when I can’t remember
what you just said so enough with the
exasperation. I see the writing on the wall;
my name is at the bottom of the list
Enough with the understandable
second guessing. Enough, enough.
Enough with the drilling and the practice.
Way past being made perfect here. Enough.


Art (Mud)

Playing in noise like it’s mud,
joyful childhood mud, hard construction
even in rain mud, slog through
because home is on the other side mud.

Knee deep mud holding on to your waders;
that deep suck then rushing sound
when you pull free, almost falling on your face
with the effort.

You know you could could just go around.
You could just stop playing in mud,
give up the call of dark soaked clay
and grow up like they’ve been telling you
for years. All your friends did it — climbed up
and out and cleaned up and joined the world
of hard surfaces and silent journeys —

but that mud, that impromptu playground mud,
that naughty slop, that flying up splat landing sound
of mud being mud while you get in and get dirty?
Playing in noise like it’s mud because it is mud — earth
and water singing? You know you want in. You know
you were born for going back in with both feet.


A Woman In A White Dress

The strangest moment
I’ve ever had: there was
a party going on. A woman
in a white dress sat on my lap.
It was likely obvious
what we were doing — you know
what I mean. But people
were oblivious to it.
We were there and not there at once
in some way. We had made a shell
out of our indulgence, a wall so thick no one
could see through — or they could see,
and the wall was between us
and their awareness of us.
It doesn’t matter. It was so long ago.
It could never happen to me again,
and I don’t recall her name. I can barely
recall mine some days, let alone
any memory of how we managed to become
so invisible we could make love in public
without fear of discovery
or failure to perform. It doesn’t matter,
it was so long ago, it could never happen
again, and I refuse to tear myself open
recalling her name.