Tag Archives: poems

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

The High Road

You sit up all night
watching the trenches from
the high road,

pretending that directing 
love at the enemy 
is helping.

Save your love
for the lovable. 
The blood 

you’re collecting
on your other cheek
is crusting over

and your gentle smile
is becoming ghastly
and stuck in place.

If you want this
to end, get down
from your lofty perches

and fight where and how
they fight. Fight them
on their ground —

it used
to be yours,
after all.

Las Lloronas

A very old poem, a popular Duende Project piece, and one for Bastille Day and all of us who suspect we might need to protect ourselves against predators very, very soon.

 years of watching

 nature shows

 and I still can’t answer this question:


 given the opportunity

 will a predator

 kill two at once?


 imagine: somewhere

 in central america

 a jaguar is striving for a personal best


 and prays (in whatever way

 that big cats pray) that the kinkajous

 fooling about on the forest floor


 will stay still long enough

 for him to take both with one

 velvet razor swipe


 but he is thwarted when

 one sees him waiting and lets out

 a quavering cry


 (this is why they call the kinkajou

 la llorona

 the weeping woman)


 and when the two

 scratch their way up a tree

 leaving the jaguar behind to curse


 (in whatever way jaguars curse)

 they weep with joy and perhaps

 snicker at the loser below


 imagine at night that las lloronas

 the weeping women

 honey bears of the canopy


 tell stories to each other

 of all the death they’ve avoided

 at the jaws and paws of would-be overachievers


 pausing now and then to whisper

 of the ones who fell alone

 and unwarned


 there is strength in numbers

 they tell each other

 the jaguars can only kill us when we forget that


 so can a predator

 kill more than one at one time?

 las lloronas say si


 but only

 when we
 let it happen 


Link to a Duende Project recording of the piece with Steven Lanning-Cafaro on guitar: Las Lloronas   

A Sweet Plum

You are planning a murder
when you are interrupted by sunlight.

Predawn, post-sleep had been devoted to 
a revenge fantasy; it’s gone now.

It would have been so sweet,
and so cold.  A true plum

of an execution, a person
richly deserving, someone whose absence

would make your presence whole.
Your fingers are still itching to think of it.

But there you were mid-plot
and the sun rose above the house next door

and came in through the window
like a damned angel, and you woke fully up

and there you were, fat old snoozer
emerging from your avenger dreams;

your old nemeses long dead
or as infirm as you are now;

you’ve had a pretty good life
so far as well and as searing as

the old days were, doing this would be 
either a crown or a crash; no guarantees.

Anyway, with your hands and body 
you’d likely couldn’t handle the work.

So: here’s the sunlight. Remember how
you’ve always been a good boy, a very good boy.

You’ll be a very good boy today,
all the way to dusk. All the way through

to the night and the bed. Tomorrow
is another day and between now and then

there will be more fantasy of opportunity and motive;
after all, even a very good boy can dream.


I cannot trust anything,
so I set myself on fire.

I’m burning now
and a crowd gathers.

Someone calls out,
“Is there nothing we can do?”

I can’t talk with lips this crisp
so someone else says,

“he must prefer it, let us
leave him to the flames.”

Of course, I prefer this
to help from anyone saying 

such a thing. I did it because
of my lack of trust. I’m 

a whole nation of distrust
in a single body

and this fire is how I tell you
you weren’t worthy of me —

how I show you my arrogance,
my horrid willingness

to start bigger flames. 
“Is there nothing we can do?”

Maybe water, maybe
smothering, maybe just

bury me in sand or under
a dome of concrete.

You could paint a flag
over it later — it’s what

I would expect of you:
glorifying me and my 

narrowed, stunted life.
You’ll pick the flag

that works best for you,
I trust. I know you that well.

Hence the flames,
hence the greasy bitter ash

I am now. Hence the memory
of what I once thought I was,

curling away
in smoke.


originally posted 2/19/2019.  revised.

Wouldn’t you love the look of barnwood
in your home?

Wide boards dented
from hooves and heavy boots, or (more likely)
from chains dragged and slammed upon them
in industrial furniture mills until they meet
a mythic standard for anything made to look
as if it once had harder, honest use. 

Wouldnt you love the smell of incense
in your home?

in the nostrils
of your pampered guests
in your barnwood home

instead of perfuming the temples
in praise of Lakshmi and Shiva,
rising from soft flame. 

Wouldn’t you love a dreamcatcher
in your home?

The Assiniboine net
framed perfectly on the charcoal wall
over the bookcase; centered, empty of ghosts
as far as you know; 
merely there to let folks know
you appreciate authenticity,
found some on that last trip out West,

and brought it into your perfumed,
barnwood home.

Wouldn’t you love sleeping 
in your home?

Lying at night on the cotton sheets, on the
bamboo pillow.
Your partner
a shadow on the other side,
more memory 
than solid figure in the dark.

Wishing they’d wake up
and touch you.
You wish on invisible stars
for that to happen.

You cannot wait 
for the day to begin
and fill the barnwood house with light
so you can dismiss bad dreams
in a puff of smoke

while looking
at the pretty things
you truly own.

What I Will Miss Most

after the fall

chrome face 
of a restored GTO
rumbling by
a flash of sun points
in my eye

silver pink street lights
their glow
their dulled hum

the doppler effect
of a truck approaching
then passing on the street
below my open window

a car apparently doing the same
but instead slowing
and turning in to our driveway

bass the only thing to be heard
from that new club
until the doors open
to push everyone home
at closing time
and then the laughter
and then the shouting
and then no more

until the stores begin to open
and commutes begin
and voices and 
scraps of car stereo music

bass the only thing to be heard

turning from the streets
I will surely miss

the tap working
the power on
the words on a screen
the diseases staying far away
from me and mine

I do not know
all that exists right now
that will not exist
after the fall
there will be something 
I will not miss but 
I cannot know

I watch the streets
for comings and goings

because there is so much
inside and within
I desperately want
to remain unknown

Living At The Movie

We focus too much
on opening credits.

Character development,
plotting, how the optics

are arranged and changed;
all that is set aside.

The writing of it — how
the arc is presented, where

one must suspend disbelief,
what makes no sense, what

is left unsaid and left to dangle
out there unanswered — shit,

even the who and when
of the writing are ignored — 

those who stay for the the last crawl
of all those behind the scenes

are few, those who understand
all the roles and occupations

as they are assigned on screen
are fewer still.

We’ve unapologetically loved
the movie, though:

the lights; the special effects;
the heroes and the villains —

but damn people, damn.
This is no way to run a country.

Guidelines For The Summer Of Corona

Admit that we are stopped cold
Say that and acknowledge the pain of cessation

Turn away from one another and into ourselves
Resist the longing to touch and hold

Fall to your knees and demand something from above
Speak as if nothing was needed except a bluff to survive

Run with the smallest beings in pursuit
Act bewildered with the first cough, fever, moment of fear

Ask and ask for certainty from fog
Dismiss fog as a hoax from behind a bitter mask

Hold a gun and imagine it will be enough just to hold it
Put it down to take a shovel and lay an elder to rest

Roll dice any number of times and boast of your glad numbers
Pretend snake eyes are not as powerful as boxcars these days

Remember scenarios with strangers, historical figures, family
Demand of your mirror that it say something unexpected

Stand at the window crying for the ten thousandth time 
Turn from the window and square your shoulders again

Forget and remember and forget and become aged
Spring up new but then again still be your old failed self

Hold your breath
Hold on to your breath for as long as it takes

Loosen your tongue
Loosen your tongue until this hard moment breaks

Morning Departure

Old poem, heavily revised.  Late 90s, perhaps?

Dew burdening a distant lawn.
Sudden crow drops from grey sky.
Chilly air gooses our flesh.

Last hardy songbird on the wire.
An old dog on point.
Yellow grain waving.

The city is so far away 
we have forgotten
it exists.

She turns left,
away from the sunrise.
Autumn does this –

turns a body
to face the cold
as astringent,

as protection,
to build immunity
for what’s coming;

she says, “I know it’s early
but we ought to think about
heading back.”

I swallow hard, disbelieving.
The rhythm of this day
slows down, swaps

waltz time for
funeral march.
I can’t think of what to say.

We will have to be
on the road
for hours. She is

right in that way, 
but I can’t imagine
leaving this place

that’s glowing
beneath a halo of almost icy

Looking across the fields
for a tree with fruit that,
once eaten, 

will let me hold my knowledge of her
after we’ve left
this perfect place –

but she knows that story,
gets a jump
on its ending:

“You can always come back,”
she says, brushing something
from her eyes.

“You.” Not “We.”

She is wrong. I’ll never be back:
I know what a sword
looks like

and there’s one now,
burning its way up
over the horizon.