Category Archives: prose poems

Not A Poem For The Golden Age

Here is a thing
that is not a poem, not a song.

Call it a jeremiad
or a crazy man’s despair;

dismiss it as you will, it’s just as well
you don’t go mad along with the writer.

But it needs to be said: there are golden people, 
there have always been golden people

who have allowed you
to see their gold, if not its source,

and the light around it creates the illusion 
that you might join them if only you can get yours.

They’ve convinced you that someone is keeping you from it, 
because the notion of “enough for all” 

isn’t useful to those interested
in consolidating the power they’ve taken from you.

The golden people believe it’s in their best interest
to make you hate someone else for robbing you.

Your battling each other is their best defense 
against your sudden awakening to the truth.

You don’t need a conspiracy theory
to explain this — just look around.

Some have, some have not.
Those who have, keep;

those who do not have
do not know they likely never will.

Occasionally (to maintain the fiction)
someone who doesn’t have will be allowed a taste —

all it takes is a lottery number, a great throwing arm,
a singing voice that pleases the greatest number of you.

They know just how to market it
to let you think you can get some too — 

hard work, they say, hard work
will do it and anyone can rise;

but it’s not anyone who rises.
It’s those allowed to rise who do,

and those allowed to rise learn how to keep
the little they’re allowed to keep.

Meanwhile you think yourself peaceful,
when the tooth and nail are in fact your daily bread.

Your job is made to leave you jealous and striving.
Your leisure is a stunted ration of your small time here

and when you come home to cradle that son or daughter,
you whisper that it will be better for them —

but it likely will not be,
because all that gold

will blind them as swiftly
as it blinded you.

Everyone thinks they’ll be rich someday.
Everyone thinks it’ll be better someday

even as the oil runs out, 
as the seas lift from their beds,

as the bridges fall sooner rather than later,
as the whirlwind is twirling a noose over our necks.

Some of you still think love
will make it better,

but when the poorest of you
have more than most of the world

and you still call yourself poor
in the face of all that misery,

you are going to be fooled again and again
into believing that love will win.

Love cannot win
in the long sunset of this age.

We have exhausted ourselves,
and love is nothing more than a gesture now.

You’ll still sit back and say it was better once.
You’ll imagine a time when love was enough.

But love has never been enough
to conquer this illness; 

what’s always been needed
is a terrifying justice. 

Gaia is preparing
terrifying justice — 

the swiping of her mighty hand across us,
as if we were (and we are)

gnats full of blood
who cannot rouse themselves to fly.

If you want a golden age,
get rid of the gold before you.

Ahead of that sweeping hand,
you will have to learn to fly for your life,

and land in something new.
It will not be called America.

If when you land you want to try love,
then by all means try it — 

but do not expect it to grow in this soil
so full of gold, and blood, and lies;

not without
a cleansing fire.


911

Our scene held a man
whose nickname was
“911.”

He strutted pills
like pinky rings,
lived by the motto
“open mouth
insert internal decor,”
washed resulting suds away
with a cocktail,
suffered or enjoyed
impossible comas weekly.

Perhaps or perhaps not unexpectedly

911
emergency married
a big winner,
local starfire,
bump in the path of the scene libido

who said
in response to our frightened questions
something about wanting
to keep the chaos
alive as long as possible
before REALLY settling down.

The happy couple
took turns burning up and freezing
in our once climate controlled social gatherings
for a few cough-splinted years
before 911 finally
rooted up the wrong truffle and
dusted on out of here.

His partner?

We see the partner, not so much
a desirable sight now,
quite often in the supermarket,

proclaiming
that after the shock wore off
it was like high school
had finally ended
without a graduation  — and

tossing a cap in the air
he says:

“I’m still waiting.”


Sitting Around

Mostly, people are sitting around waiting for it…It’s not going to be like a tsunami you know.  Or a war.

 No one wants to admit that we peaked at Lascaux.  No one wants to admit that we were pretty much at our apex right before the first grain was planted, the first lamb was tamed…that it started to fail with the first surveyor who confidently said “this plot’s yours, this plot’s not.”  

 No one wants to admit that we were OK about the God thing right up to the moment we shook God loose from a particular geography, the one outside the hut door.  Get up every morning, yawn, stretch…hello, God.  Turn another direction, there’s another God.  Say hi to that one, too.  It kept them small.

 No one wants to admit we knew something back then we don’t know now, and we don’t even know what it is that we knew.   

 I have some friends — oh, I cannot call them that as it’s untrue now and will be even more so after this — there are people I know  who are activists.  

 They think they’re doing something.  They think…I like them because they move now that everyone’s mostly sitting.   But do they do what’s needed?  No one can do what’s needed now.  Not on anything but a small scale, no matter how grandly they practice.  

 Because when it comes, it won’t be much different than it is now — a slew of abandoned houses, a lot of rootless people.  They’ll leave because their wallets betrayed them; they’ll leave looking for work; they’ll leave looking for food.  And the lawns will recall their heritage and swallow houses, making jungly noises…

 We don’t know what we’ve lost;

 we peaked at Lascaux;

 all those hunter-gatherers knew it;

 we sit waiting for what’s coming;

 we ought to be moving though it won’t come as tsunami or war, not at first…

No. It will be as it is now. 


Sitting Around

Mostly, people are sitting around waiting for it…It’s not going to be like a tsunami you know.  Or a war.

 

No one wants to admit that we peaked at Lascaux.  No one wants to admit that we were pretty much at our apex right before the first grain was planted, the first lamb was tamed…that it started to fail with the first surveyor who confidently said “this plot’s yours, this plot’s not.”  

 

No one wants to admit that we were OK about the God thing right up to the moment we shook God loose from a particular geography, the one outside the hut door.  Get up every morning, yawn, stretch…hello, God.  Turn another direction, there’s another God.  Say hi to that one, too.  It kept them small.

 

No one wants to admit we knew something back then we don’t know now, and we don’t even know what it is that we knew.   

 

I have some friends — oh, I cannot call them that as it’s untrue now and will be even more so after this — there are people I know  who are activists.  

 

They think they’re doing something.  They think…I like them because they move now that everyone’s mostly sitting.   But do they do what’s needed?  No one can do what’s needed now.  Not on anything but a small scale, no matter how grandly they practice.  

 

Because when it comes, it won’t be much different than it is now — a slew of abandoned houses, a lot of rootless people.  First they’ll leave because the house-wallets betrayed them; then they’ll leave looking for work; then they’ll leave looking for food.  And the lawns will recall their heritage and swallow houses, making jungly noises…

 

We don’t know what we’ve lost;

we peaked at Lascaux;

all those hunter-gatherers knew it;

we sit waiting for what’s coming;

we ought to be moving though it won’t come as tsunami or war, not at first…

 

no, it will be as it is now. 


The Fellowship Of Christian Drunks

There we are, all together with our thick hands swollen around our bottles, the knuckles purple and white and brown like the rutabagas we sometimes gather from the ShopRite dumpster for making the rotgut that we don’t prefer but will on occasion settle into when all else is out of reach and one of us has found a place to set up a still.

We call ourselves “The Fellowship Of Christian Drunks.”  It amuses us, as most of us have only a couple of uses for the Bible.

Our motto is “When Hell starts freezing over, we’ll be the ones gathered around that last flame.”

Our first use for the Bible:

We seek certain Bibles in old flophouses and churches, in thrift stores.  Not the new editions, and no Gideons, but the good old King James and Douay versions with those thin, thickly-inked leaves…Tear a section from a page, stuff it with tobacco. Spark it, inhale, exhale. I have always found the Old Testament burns more slowly than the New.

People love our windy pronouncements, our crusty prophetic faces, our beards full of crumbs…They keep their distance because of our rutabaga hands, potato noses.  No one likes their vegetables.

Our second use for the Bible:

Our name amuses us because it promises redemption, but the truth is, we don’t know from redemption…truth is, most of us like having that Bible close at hand for its potential.  If Hell ever does freeze over, we’ll tear the pages from the bindings and start that last fire from the last embers of the Inferno…what pages we have, that is.  Most of us burned through Leviticus long ago; some of us have only Revelation left because we groove on the metaphors.

The Fellowship Of Christian Drunks!  Is there any other kind?  We don’t trust a non-Christian drunk, never let one in; how can you sink into vice without a ballast of guilt to make yourself heavy?

Rutabaga hands, potato noses, and in our chests the last beets of hope.  The ruby flesh, the pure blood of what once was healthy and growing…When Hell finally freezes, we’ll be gathered ’round that barrel full of quick-burning visions, rapt in our ragged hymns, sucking down the dregs of the poisons we’ve lived by.

At the finale, you will at last love us, if only for the sound of our singing as we fade into the ruins of the only warm place we were ever permitted to live.


Greener Grass

The shade
blesses the blocked sun
for making it so.

All the great white
knows of flying
is that it is beyond its reach
and yet looks
so much like its own swimming 
that on occasion,
it will dare to break surface
and make an attempt.

I am always
longing to be 
what I’m not, though I know
what I’m not
is nothing I’d be happy 
being:

the rock in the shoe
that defines comfort.
The misery
that sweetens living.
The lens that makes the grass
greener
over there.

 


Subduction Zones

the largest quakes 
roar forth from where
one tectonic plate
slides under another

let’s do that
dance
geologically

shifting positions 
wrecking our puny house
tearing the roads apart with
sonic booms in the bed-
rock

the axis of the earth
a few inches askew

spins oddly
and the stars
not quite the same —
do it
again and again 
until we have to change
the myths we make to explain
the pictures in the night sky

 


Ten Poems You Could Be Writing

1.
The one where you are speaking to one person you’ve never met in a dark room.

2.
The one recited from behind a white screen.  You’re backlit in Yankee Stadium on a small stage.  There’s no microphone, no public address system; the stadium is empty.

3.
The one like the previous one except you have the greatest sound system in world history.  The stadium is still empty.

4.
The one where you ask the audience to harm you.  

5.
The one where you speak through a gag — a sleeve cut off a fresh corpse.

6.
The one in which you speak English but are trying to imitate the sound of another tongue, the one your grandmother spoke.  Not a translation; English words that sound like the words she used.  (Can you hear her?)

7.
The one in which you are completely fictional — you were never born, all the memory you’ve got is false, and your audience will be surprised to discover you’re not a beloved character from their favorite childhood book.

8.
The one in which the pen suddenly leaps out of your hand and stakes a territorial claim like a bear.

9.
The one in which the detective has not eaten for hours under the single white bulb, there is sweat, you are about to confess and it dawns upon you that lying or telling the truth doesn’t matter as long as you can’t smell your body emptying itself into this ill-fit suit, this outfit made for a coffin outing.  You can’t tell where you are, but it’s a city you should have been born in.  Your grandmother’s coming to throw your bail.  (Can you hear her? She’s looking for you.  Calling you.  Asking for you by a name you never heard before, but it’s yours.)

10.
The one where you are finally in a full stadium. There are lions.

 


Valleys Of Black Stones

I grew up in Massachusetts, south of Worcester on the Rhode Island line, in a town called Uxbridge, named for a town in England; we called our region the Blackstone River Valley.

Never thought of this before: why that name?  The stones in this valley are mostly whitish gray and pink flecked granite; at least the dry ones are.

Once they’re wet, of course, it’s a different story.

Everything’s blacker under water; the stones, the bodies of Nipmucs, the remnants of mills, the memories of millworkers.

I romanticize, of course: I’ve learned today the river was named after a white man named Blaxton, AKA Blackstone, who magically moved from the coast to build his house along these banks in 1635.

The dead Nipmucs called it the Kittacuck, meaning  “the great Tidal River.”  It once was full of salmon and lamprey.

No one remembers any of that now; most of the Nipmucs and all of the fish are gone.

After white guys had been here a while, some of them built mills that filled with Scottish and Irish and French Canadians and Polish and Italians.

That’s half the story of how I got here.

I don’t often mention it. I romanticize, of course: I tend to focus instead on my descent from New Mexico, where in 1635 white people were already killing and being killed, as were the natives I call my own.

In that high desert lava and obsidian are plentiful; black stones are everywhere.

Think of it now: how parallel the stories, how unlike the geologies — think of  all that killing, thousands of miles apart: dead Indians, dead fish; some dreams slaughtered in spirit if not in the flesh.

Others had their dreams came true in these valleys of black stones.  Big houses in both places testify to success, even a I stare at the land and try to hear the cries of those who lived and died there.

I romanticize, of course: mostly, I hear nothing now in either place.

I drive through highway cuts that gleam black under the intermittent streams that flow after intermittent storms. I go to work or play tourist and don’t think much about changing names,

or about unchanging black rock filled with old light that was sucked into the ground and held fast in basalt or volcanic stone, light that leaks like radon and keeps on killing as it always has.

I’m dying here, people — eh.

Perhaps I romanticize.


La Cosa Nostra

Death to that thing! Life to our thing! 
We’re the Mafia for our causes.
We like to keep it in the family
and don’t mind a little blood.

We don’t like to talk much.
Someone’s always listening. 
Or maybe they aren’t but it’s best
to be safe.  They might be.

We claim legitimacy.
We have cover stories,
fronts, deniability — but still,
Death to their things, Life to ours!

We are the worst sort of people
except for all the others.
They say it too, we know,
but they’re wrong to say it.

Death, death, death!  Love
the sound of it — how soft
it ends.  It’s like saying life, life, life —
it’s exactly like it.  Can’t have them separated

by much.  One means the other,
at least in our thing, and death
to the things not ours, life
to ours! This is how
we got here, saying that, being that —

bones in the dirt, blood on the sand,
eyes leaking or picked by the crows —
death is that thing that is also life,
death to their things is life to ours.

So call it brightly family, call it strong.
Call for some to die that others may live
as sensationally well as they possibly can —
death to some things, life to the other ones,

that’s our thing.  It’s everyone’s thing.
We live making the others die for their things
so that ours may live, yes, the ultimate yes
made stronger by the ulitmate no.

 


Two Crazy Kids, An Old Man, And A Host Of Lizards

1.
The Old Man, as we called him because of our lack of imagination, was usually seen smoking a fat tube the same color and size as the ubiquitous local lizards.  We assumed these were cigars, mostly because it seemed unlikely that he possessed the requisite igniter to get a lizard to burn.

2.
We were there because of our lack of imagination.  Our art was escape, not arrival.  We had been on the run so long, place names seemed superfluous. 

3.
The relationship between us, if you can call it that, was superfluous. On the rare occasions we fell into sex in those days, it was usually due to losing our balance versus our having been open to abandon.

4.
As the days wore on, we surrendered to a lack of definition; lost entire weeks in the calendar grid; began to refer to the Old Man as the Lizard Smoker, having forgotten our earlier decision that this could simply not be so.

5.
He taught us that the trick to smoking a lizard is to put the tail end in your mouth and use the dry skin around the eyes as tinder.  Once you’d learned the trick, they were remarkably easy to light. The hardest part was learning to coordinate the biting of the tail end to create a vent for the draw; it had to be timed perfectly with the ignition of the blowtorch, and that first drag was a doozy — all the gut and blood bubbling inside made for a strange if not entirely unpleasant taste, not unlike that recalled from the factory air of our youth, with a trace of bewilderment in the aftertaste.

6.
That were were torturing animals never occurred to us.  We’d been tortured animals ourselves, after all, and casual death seemed natural.  Organic.  Accustomed, in some ways; I’ve already testified to our lack of imagination, after all.

7.
Weeks turned into days.  Instead of marking the passage of time (however poorly we’d done at it) we simply rose, lit up, and passed the day in the company of the Old Man listening to odd stories of bureaucracy and petty intrigues, then fell into bed at dusk to await the next sunrise, the next smoke.  That there were names for the days seemed superfluous.

8.
We awoke one morning to the Old Man’s death rattle.  That one of us might have killed him did not occur to us until we saw the blood, the knife, his blowtorch bubbled skin.  We thought at first it might have been the lizards, but there were none to be found anywhere in the village.

9.
The local constabulary arrested us, charged us with various types of extinction.  There was no trial, and we were incarcerated in the flimsy local jail to await transport to the regional prison to serve life sentences.  Fortunately, the bribes required to get us out of town were small enough for our meager savings.

10.
On the road back to our long-abandoned homes, we realized how long it had been since we’d had to think of schedules, itineraries, names.  We had little imagination, but managed to concoct a story to explain our absence to our loved ones.

11.
We told them a story of exploration and suffering, of the smell of desperation and bewilderment, of the kindly Old Man who’d taken us in and showed us the way of the indigenous culture.  The story was bogus-sounding, but as we came from places where lack of imagination was endemic, it was accepted with little hesitation. At any rate, it was all but true, although we’d left out the lizards  and the mystery of the Old Man’s murder in consideration of the delicate sensibilities of our simple homefolk.

12.
Sitting on a hill outside of town, staring into the curls of autumn smoke above the plain chimneys.  We made love again as we once had, stable and grounded.  This was a temperate climate, after all; no lizard temptations here, and we knew the names of all the old men and women there below us.  It was almost good.

13.
The next day, we left for Los Angeles; bought blowtorches before we left, betting on the possibility of lizards.  The memory of the taste and the bubbling of the blood and fragile skin was so strong…maybe there was a movie to be made of all this.  Something to fire the imagination.  Something not to be seen as superfluous in scant years after it was made.  Something we’d be remembered for.

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Rules Of Thumb

We sit over the end of a comfortable dinner and discuss the state of all things.

A study has shown that exceptions to popular proverbs, laws of physics, rules of thumb, common knowledge, sensible notions, and given assumptions are becoming more and more the norm.  Geometry is shifting.  Angles, never before provably trisected, now regularly fall into neat triplet piles.  Shelter is losing its place in the hierarchy of needs.  Soon, it will be forgotten entirely. 

It appears to knowledgeable observers that knowledgeable observation is becoming a lost art, akin to alchemy and divination by gut of pigeon and pig. There are suspected reserves, not measurable, of container ships laden with butterflies who are waiting to change the world’s climate.  If there are ghosts, they wear visors and lean deep into ledgers with our very dimensionality at their calculating mercy.  Nymphs, fauns, and revenant Pan himself establish Websites and collect scores of followers, who fondle tokens of their avatars while staring at doorknobs, thinking of the potential for rattling entry in the dark.

My love, this world is slipping away into an immeasurable mystery.  Nothing we have known to be true is certain.   We should sleep with our eyes open now, scanning the dark for signals.  And then, when we think we have seen enough, it will be up to us how we choose to live.  What we choose to measure.  What we count on.  How we refine and define the terms.

So if a butterfly comes close, hold your breath.  If a god possesses you, count rapidly to one hundred seventeen.  If the door rattles in the night, we’ll cast a cold eye on it, pass through the walls, and escape, carrying nothing with us.  Not even the meaning of love, or of home.  We will come back for them later, or make new ones while holding up our thumbs to plead for rides to new places.

Our thumbs — once the measure of punishment, as the story goes — will become our transport. We will have to depend on each other to carry each other.

Eventually, we’ll forget the old origin of the term and say: a “rule of thumb” measures the distance you were carried before you decided you could live where and how you are living right now, and is only fixed until the next departure.

And then we’ll say: Love is the vector of human travel.  We’ll say: Home is the fare humans paid for the transport. 

And when we say human, what we will see is aluminum pie plates — when full, flaky and soft centered; when empty, easily flung into flight, shining as they fly.

We polish off the last of the dessert, and leave the clean up for tomorrow as we hurry off to bed.

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The Sheepdog Klezmer Orchestra

A klezmer band purchases a sheepdog to act as band mascot, and changes the name of the band to the Sheepdog Klezmer Orchestra.

In their hometown south of Detroit, the Sheepdog Klezmer Orchestra plays weddings so often that the sound of a clarinet in the street would lead to proposals and engagements.

The Sheepdog Klezmer Orchestra begin to travel widely and soon achieve a degree of acclaim.  Everywhere they go, they bring the sheepdog (known to the audiences only as The Sheepdog) with them.  He lies on stage during their sets, perking up for the dances, then dropping his sad head to the floor for the vocal lamentations and slow songs, peering out at the audience through his fringe of fur, looking right and left.

The Sheepdog is in private life named David. The band keep his real name to themselves, as they keep their own names private from the audiences they play for, using stage names — Aaron Out Front, Judith Judith, Ronaldo Star, Jonathan Regretful, Felix the Cat, and Sam The Fiddler.

Sam The Fiddler, in particular, loves The Sheepdog and is David’s closest companion in the band, walking him during breaks, petting him for long hours in the privacy of hotel room, brushing his thick coat until it shines before every gig.

I only have ever seen them play once, and am not a fanatic for klezmer music in general.  But at a wedding of close friends from college, The Sheepdog Klezmer Orchestra played for hours, and I danced and wept as much as the families did for their offspring, and I have not forgotten.

Tonight on the radio, in the early dark of pre-dawn, I heard a recording of The Sheepdog Klezmer Orchestra and thought of you again:

how your hair fell before your eyes so often,
I was always brushing it back to see them more clearly;

how I once danced and wept with you,
called both things a celebration of us;

how it seemed that a band was playing whenever we spoke or loved together,
the air itself blurred into song.

This is not to say that remembering you reminds me of a sheepdog, or of The Sheepdog Klezmer Orchestra, or of weddings or dancing  This is to say that when I think of joy and sadness mixed, and of the caring that demands the constant brushing of hair from soft eyes, of hours of travel and the rewards of keeping private what is most your own,

those moments have a soundtrack,
and you still sing to me on that soundtrack
like a clarinet, like Gershwin,
like klezmorim,
like some few weddings I have attended.

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Monkeys And Apes

1.
Apes are notorious gossips.  Monkeys, at least, will tell you off to your face.

2.
Many years ago, the apes of the East talked badly of the apes of the West, and vice versa.  Any time the subject of the other apes came up in either region, it was filled with suspicion and mythology, but in the vast middle of the continents, between the dissenting camps, the native apes who warred with them both just said, we don’t like any of you.  The monkeys thought this was hysterical.

3.
Monkeys and apes don’t get along.  Something about tails, the story goes…Gibbons sidestep the issue by having long arms.  They wave them like tails.  Some of the apes refuse to believe the gibbons are apes as a result.  So what, say the gibbons.  At least we aren’t baboons.

4.
It’s simple biology, say the apes.  Put a monkey in a room, the monkey will climb the walls, peel the paper off the walls.  That’s the beginning of literature, though, say the monkeys.  The apes sneer.  It’s just a mess, they say.

5.
Monkeys are cultured, dig boobies, drink milk by the gallon, watch Mel Gibson movies for tips on survival.  Apes prefer motorsports and bourbon, and the films of Ingmar Bergman, but only if they’re dubbed and not subtitled.

6.
A monkey sat on a couch and dreamed of airplane food.  An ape woke him up. I’m hungry, he said.  Cook me something.  Fuck you, said the monkey, piss off.  Do I look like a flight attendant?  I’m just a damn monkey, and I’m hungry myself.  But you don’t hear me asking you to cook for me.

7.
Apes and monkeys alike think humans ought to give up the evolution thing and get over it.  We’re insulted at the insinuation that we’re cousins, they say.  There’s no way we could be all related.  Except for the damn gibbons, maybe.

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