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Revised from February 2022. 

I’ve been birch,
the definition of bent.
Look me up. See how weight
falls from me. It is how I am 
able to hold myself intact
within my pock-scarred,
inconvenient bark.

I’ve been oak,
stubborn unhollowed pillar.
Hear the rain of acorns denting what’s below me.
I am seen as somehow admirable 
until I fall and crush others,
or until someone else falls and is broken
while trying to pass over what I leave behind
year after year.

Now, I wish I had been sawgrass or perhaps
wild oats or purslane, enduring, closer to the soil;
or maybe some weed I cannot name now,
less obvious, more or less scarce or extinct;

but instead I’ve been
more than once
one of the trees we lean on
to provide us with metaphors
for falling and breaking,
ending and beginning again
in the breaking that follows a fall. 
Whoever can say it ends here
will free me from a cycle
built from splinters.

Praise Poem Against The Grain

Revised from 2009.

There are people who think we should all write more,
one poem a day, one thousand poems a day,
five hundred fifty five thousand poems a day,
one for every thought that slips along our nerves — 

excepting only poems about poetry.
The belly full of meaning poetry offers should be emptied.
The places it lives should be cut out of us.
We should never write of it or speak of it.

What nonsense — to go into church
denying that church is worth discussing in church. 
To refuse to cry ecstasy when ecstasy is upon us,
to refuse to explain what it’s like to those all around.

I’m ill informed tonight, and half asleep.
I haven’t watched the news for a week.
I’m alone with no one but the cat
curled next to me on a fleece blanket. 

A documentary on Crohn’s Disease
plays unwatched in the next room. 
I could get up, or I could stay here
until spring.

All the poetry I have tonight is the poetry of poetry itself — 
a right whale inside me, dangerous, endangered,
rising island within my body reminding me of marvels
that could slip away and never return.

There may be something else to write about someday
and the poem I write then may be fibrous, luminous,
may hold together on its own
and pass from me without pain.

Tonight I write one poem about poetry,
write it over and over again, 
one poem for the blessing of knowing
that poetry still exists in me,

even if
it’s hanging
by a thread. Even if
it hurts.

Coal Tar Blues

Revised, from June 2022.

As if to spite my being human, 
I’m rusting. 

Age, diabetes,
long lack of self-care —

I soak myself in coal tar
for flaking on the surface,

the scent filling every space
in all my rooms; then

take pills and talk for
my internal disrepair,

each breakdown with unlikely odds
for repair.

Nothing about any of this
is temporary or acute.

Chronic is my name,
now — we speak of conditions,

not illnesses; talk of status quo or
increase and not of progress.

Coal tar and skin creams —
odors of one failure

to treat myself
correctly, or so I tell myself.

Others say buck up, it’s not
a fault or a punishment, you

needn’t club yourself with that one,
no matter how good it feels

to feel that bad at times — 
and indeed, there is a sort of blessing

in the hours after
I step out of the shower

onto an apparent path
to normalcy;

but then I lose my way as I start
the day. I tell the others, 

you think so? Then come live in here
and tell me I’m not right

to feel such guilt for becoming hollowed.
I need something to come alive 

in my old center, to build
there as I fall apart.

Comes a point when everything done right
is still not enough, and hope

becomes not a right but
a privilege, just a way

of passing time before time laughs
and then kills; as the scent

of sulfur becomes so strong
you can’t tell

whether it is coming from inside, 
outside, or both. 

Talking About The Night

Originally published in 2002 in my chapbook, “In Here Is Out There.”
Original title, “Talking To My Son About The Night.”

I have been thinking:
what do I tell my children about the night?

Something wicked these days
stirs in the night,

and I cannot lie to them
and say shh, be still,

all is well, 
we are safe.

Instead I will tell them the night
contains both darkness and light.

I know the light may also hide darkness,
but I shall hold back on that, at least for now —

so what shall I say to them
of darkness in the night?

I will say darkness is a young man
holding a knife to a lamp.

He adores how it may separate 
skin from flesh, sinew from bone.

He knows
that when it is sharp enough

he shall see the body’s coherence
fleeing before its edge.

Darkness is a woman
leaning out of her window on her elbows.

She sees something she does not favor.
She slips out the back door

to carry her gossip
to the slaughterhouse.

Someone there will take the news
to the mechanics who will adjust

the wheels of the juggernaut
for maximum kill.

On her way home
she will wipe her face with a stolen liver.

Behind her she will leave a trail
of rumors and cartilage.

Darkness is a gaggle of children
trapped in a dream

where they are made to suckle straws
filled with their own blood.

They purse their pale lips,
draw the red up, columns red rising,

red cresting in their mouths,
falling red into their stomachs,

such sharp nourishment,
such a simple lesson:

living through the night
requires such a meal,

a simple meal for a simple terror.
They have learned to devour themselves.

We stink of rich meats, phobias, fires,
restless pride, secrecy.

We inhabit our stereotypes,
slowed to the speed of custom,

houses crawling with indignation,
ferocity unbridled by logic,

atomic proverbs to live by —
a man decides to force himself
on the next random passer-by,

a boy slits an ancestor’s throat;
we shake our heads, we cry out

for the light and get the darkness,
violent, clean cut, simple, fast:

darkness is thinking that we can live forever
by living this way.

And after that? After that,
what can I possibly say of the light?

I will say to them that it is slander
to speak of the night and only note the darkness.

I will say to them: children, my children,
look at the stars.

I will say to them: children, my children,
whenever you despair of this world,

lie back
and look at the stars.

I will say yes,
there is horror afoot in the night,

but always, always,
we have the stars.

I will say that one star
may singly pierce the darkness

but that one star cannot cut through
the darkness alone.

I will say that there is
light beyond the darkness.

I will say, children, my children,
if ever you despair, remember these words:

I am a star, and I do not
shine alone.

Owner’s Manual: Preface

Revised from 2009.

To build a defense
against insomnia
and enjoin it from
canceling you out,

you may purchase drugs, 
or just forget how it feels
to be awake just long enough that
you trick yourself into sleeping

and thus render it
harmless. You will have to do this
often. Relentless and vigorous
defense is required.

To choose a tattoo
that will not be an
shortly after its application

you may need to look at
how it feels to lack a thing
you’ve never had. It is
often difficult to imagine

how a patch of your hide
could be improved so deftly
that such a lack 
could be erased.

To reject a parent
is to demonstrate
a certain respect
for their historic presence or absence.

It is usually easier
to maintain some contact
even if only on
the highest holidays;

declaring that any bridging
of the distance between you unsafe
is a way to honor the place they have made,
even if that place is a hole or a wound.

To own your life
is a responsibility that demands
a certain acceptance of folly
in your self-care.

What may seem on the surface
to be harm may in fact be logical
(if not always comfortable) adaptations
to facts and environmental factors.

You will choose often.
You may not always choose
wisely or consciously,
but you will choose.

Being Neither, Being Both

from 2013, revised.

Being Indian
and White
on Thanksgiving

means being tired
of plowing the six weeks of stupid before this day.
Tired of explaining. Tired of walking on Pilgrim shells.
Tired of having to justify marking the day
as painful or joyful or neither

or both. Being Both on Thanksgiving
means I get to give myself the ulcer
I richly deserve. Means being hungry
in every sense of the word. Means
I want to give thanks for something
I stole from myself, or perhaps I did not;

being Both on Thanksgiving
means nothing is simple. I am thankful
for the tightrope, thankful for the mash-up
problems, thankful for looking like
I ought to be oblivious, thankful for
a good talking to. Being Neither, fully,

on Thanksgiving means I ought to give me
a good talking to. I am angry enough
to ignore much and fantasize more
over the boiled onions only my Dad eats
and the meat stuffing with chestnuts only my Mom eats,
angry enough to lose my appetite in public,
angry enough to be redder than the damned canned
cranberry sauce. Being Me on Thanksgiving

means I sit down to the table and eat like a fat man,
a continent’s worth of overkill, filling my dark gut
till I have to shed something to be comfortable
by the fire in the too-warm house of my parents
who are long past caring about anything but making sure
that the peace holds till night falls and we all go home

carrying the leftovers with us to feed on
for another whole year. Another harvest festival
passed, no guarantee of one next year, maybe
we’ll starve over the winter while being Indian, being White,
being Neither, being Both, being the kind
who thinks it matters when you are choking on
so many bones.

An American Poem

Revised from November 2021.

To write an American poem
nature image here;

purple up those mountains,
you god.
Then chew

the scenery
until there’s nothing left
to suck from it. The

American poem,
a rigged dance
of myth and cynicism.

Right outside the poem
is where we step on

until the pain becomes so strong
they cannot help but kick at us. Inside
the poem is where we apologize.

An American poem
should be brimful
of exuberantly shaded ghosts

and their decorative babies,
crying, screaming — playing dead. 
If you write it someone will say

no no, not the babies, please.
Leave the babies out of it.
So precious, so beautiful. 

Bah, humbug, you say, 
though it’s not Christmas, it’s
the Fourth of July and the Fourth

of July is built on dead children.
Uses fireworks to justify
a war everlasting.

What’s that about the ghosts? You
don’t recognize yourself in there?
Still cheering, still writing,

strangely inverted? A good mirror
shows you your other side.
A better one shows you more than one.

An American poem
usually holds an America over half
of its readers cannot recognize.

See the babies
before their mirrors,
either clapping and laughing

or screaming, wondering
where we went wrong
that this is how we look now

from wherever
you find yourself
when you come near

an American poem.
The fireworks are done.
Sulfur and sizzle hang in the air.

It Used To Be Summer

Revised, from 2016.

I thought all day about summer
If it were only summer again
Thought about summer and not about work
Grabbed just enough hope to live on

I thought all day about summer sunset
How sunset opens the door to night
I like nighttime as it hides what scares me
All my terrors look worse in daylight

That fear of being part of the crowd
Nameless, faceless, brainless and numb
Stuck thinking all day how it used to be summer
Looking busy and staring at the clock

I keep thinking, if I were only eighteen again
When I knew nothing and everything too
To be eighteen in summer with sunset approaching
Was heaven until I blinked and it passed

No lie, adulthood has been terrible
Traded passion for wisdom and I surely regret it
I keep waiting for sunset to swallow it all
But damned if dawn doesn’t follow every time

With that fear of being part of the crowd
Nameless, faceless, brainless and numb
Stuck thinking all day how it used to be summer
Looking busy, staring at the clock

Peppermint Schnapps

This is a very old poem, also a Duende Project track from our “americanized” album from 2007.
Link to the recording below the poem.

August 16, 1977:
it was pissing rain the night
Elvis Presley died

I want the night back anyway

the way I want the switchblade back
I threw in Thompson Pond that night
that German switchblade
with the brass shoulders and ebony scales
I want it clean I want it shiny
and I want the tip to be back to the way it was
before Henry Gifford snapped it off
trying to work it out of the floor
after we’d played drunken chicken for an hour or so

I tossed it in anger
as far out into the water as I could
and then I hit Henry Gifford
in the mouth when he called me a stupid fuck
for tossing such a beautiful knife so far away
and even after he apologized
I hit him again and again
until I saw his sister watching me

I want to take it all back
so Henry Gifford’s sister Diana
can see me again the way
she used to see me
and furthermore
I want to kiss her right this time
I want to kiss her the way I could kiss her now
not like the sloppy teenage drunk I was that night
all on fire with weed
and schnapps
and inexperience
I want her to not turn away from me
without knowing that I had just tossed
my beloved knife out into the nighttime lake
I want her to know what passion can do to me
I want my passion back

because I think I lost it that night
I tossed the knife into the lake
then let Diana run from me
when she saw me beat her little brother bloody
without having a chance
to make her understand why it was all so

and though I have had
many knives since then
even another German switchblade
just like that one
and though I have kissed
so many people since then
in love and friendship
and lust and grief

and though I‘m so much better
at all of this stuff now
because control is everything
and control is all I have at 47

still there are times – rainy summer nights –

when I get up late to use the bathroom
and while I’m standing there
I look out my window across the manicured grass
I can just taste
a ghost of peppermint schnapps on my lips

then I fumble for the light
I pick up a pen
and I write myself back
toward August of 1977
when the radio played the songs of a dead man
while I nursed
my bruised and tender fists
and cried like a baby
for the very last time


The track from the album.

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.

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


Revised from Jan 2021.

I’m not sorry to use the word
as it’s the only way I can describe it
that also explains in fetid detail how it works:

it is an odor that strangles sometimes,
merely distracts at others, but always sets
my teeth to grinding.

Walk into a discussion where it flavors the air; 
soon enough, I’m choking so much the others
couldn’t understand me if they had been able to try.

I turn to art for solace and it rises from between
pages, stings my eyes till paintings blur;
even the music reeks. That job interview

stank with it; this online forum — how is this
even possible? I cannot see words on a screen 
through the miasma.

The halls of Congress,
the trading floor of Wall Street, every tower
where a titan of industry schemes: all

are thick with it; they might as well be tombs —
one whiff of the air in there recalls
dead generations piled upon dead generations.

Now and then I pick it up on a breeze
through a forest that must have passed
over a mass grave, a lynching tree, a pipeline.

Sometimes I can smell it on a friend’s breath 
or loved one’s skin. I step back
and never close in all the way again.

Sometimes, too often, I can tell it is coming
directly from me — mouth,
clothes, being. Half of me wants

to flee myself; the other half
holds my breath, pinches off my nose,
resists the urge to let myself drown.

When I’m at my best it makes me duck,
get close to the ground, look into myself
for better air.

Boudin Noir, Boudin Blanc

Revised, from 2019.

It’s not enough
to just say sausage
in a world with
boudin, andouille,

sujuk, saveloy,
bratwurst, kielbasa, 
chorizo, linguica, 
mortadella, and more;

not enough to speak of booze
in the presence of
arak, poitin, tiswin,
pulque, Calvados,

lager, pilsner,
Henny, MD-2020, aquavit,
absinthe, corn liquor,
and whiskies galore.

This world is built
on specifics, motes 
of savor and flavor
and all manner of tastes

pulled from local waters, 
land and legend. To condense them
leaves you wanting.
To turn away from soft words 

toward ones
with gristle
is to humble yourself
so you can sit

at rough tables
with tough people
listening to them
speak of joy and pain

as they suck the burn
of andouille, or
debate, laughing, over
boudin noir or boudin blanc;

as you all wash a thick meal down
with strong bock followed
by shots of schnapps or korn;
perhaps hear someone tell

of how they came
from some place
where the old folks
made one thing

that put all else
to shame, and
hear in that
a cry for a lost home

where the right words
opened the right doors
to where the world 
was right.

The Game Preserve

Revised from 2012.

When some people hear
I’m a poet they expect

that words like
French hummingbirds
will fall from my mouth:
flashing subtleties, gems
suspended on a crimson string
for them to pluck.

I want to say to them,

it’s not going to shimmer like that,
not always, not often.  Sometimes
there are no hummingbirds —
sometimes it’s just
one Worcester robin
doing its drab and wormy job.

Sometimes I’ve got 
a whole game preserve
inside me.  Hosting
a whole wilderness —
apparently that is so important 
it has become my vocation.

If you want to know
what poetry I have in me,
know three things:

one, beyond the
instantly arresting beauties 
I can introduce to you
there will always be some
that are hideous and you will
draw back and some so plain
you will not see them
at first;

two, among the
plain and ugly
will be some that are venomous
and some that will heal —
there will be the same among
the beautiful ones,
of course;

whether peacock or slug,
three-legged dog
or most unexpected unicorn,

understand that I have to live with them
and I am the walls and cages they loathe.  

These aren’t pets.  
They don’t love me.
They all growl, claw, bite.

When people hear I’m a poet and ask to hear more
they need to be prepared for the blood.

Fire Sale Artists

Revised from 2014.

I’m down
to my last hundred bucks
waiting for 
a late paycheck
and thinking of Sal Paradise
who (disguised as
Jack Kerouac) used to
wire back east from Denver
for twenty dollars
and consider it
enough money with which
to see the country
traveling across the continent
screwing women over
romanticizing the hustle

I will grant you
it was the 1940s
Money and hustle went farther
back then
but now I can’t even go
to the grocery store 
with less a hundred bucks

I sit at home 
fuming and sobbing
counting pennies
trying to do right by 
the woman I love

The only thing I share with Sal
and his friends 
is the whole suffer for art thing
They claimed more joy and less care
than I do
the feckless bastards

I don’t envy them
They mostly all died
drunks or fossils
They were fire sale artists when alive


I’m just the opposite
I wanna hang on to something
but a hundred bucks isn’t enough
in 2022
to buy much that will last

Anyway if poverty
kills so much around me
that I have to hit the road
at some point
I won’t last long because
in 2022
they just shoot the mad ones