Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Two thoughts, scotch-taped

Hats and Beards by Martel Chapman

Sometimes
it feels
like silence
is truth

and I am
constantly
on the cusp
of holding
it near

But once
possession
presses
its face
to the mirror

silence turns
cold—

like anything
else


---

I don't remember his name, but there was a jazz pianist playing in Harlem during the 1920s who'd routinely battle it out with other pianists over who was the best. They'd go on for hours, banging it out, like the Lost Boys that Ragtime wrought—holding the world at bay with the curve of their wrists. So that his wife would have to come down there to fetch him, taking the subway to Harlem from Queens, because he had lost track of time, so absorbed in this jazz they'd begun to call "stride." He'd lost track of everything but the press of the pedals against his feet and the sweat of the chords sliding out from his fingertips. What a feeling that must have been. No wonder he lingered, no wonder he lived for the ivory. 

I imagine his wife walking down the streets of Harlem back then, stopping and listening every time she heard some piano plinking, or crashing, past that brownstone's curtains. Think of the number of pianos being played back then. Seriously, think of it. The range of talent one heard on any given day in Jazz Age America. How many people bucked boredom, or hunger, with their music in this manner. It's staggering. We can hardly imagine a world like it today. But there it was, playing itself out, like it was no big thing. Just another Saturday, in Harlem. 

And this woman—this wife—had to listen carefully, in order to single out the right piano, because she never knew where her husband might end up on that particular afternoon, and which particular people he would put in awe of him. She had to know intimately the timbre of his sound, the bounce of his beat, the chime it sang through the ears outside. She had to know him the way birds must know other birds of their type. There was a whole language there, built up over all the Saturdays preceding it. Her feet would slow, she would listen hard. And then she'd hear it. 

I think I can imagine how she felt just then—the immense exasperation undercut by tenderness. For there must have been riding underneath her impatience, after she finally stumbled upon his mix of swing and jump—a beam of pride, like the sun coming out. Resentment retracted, if just for an instant, because this was her man. And he was the best.

I hope she was stern with her husband—stern, but not withering. I hope she made him make it up to her later. And I hope he felt her pride of ownership, even while promising her it would never happen again. 

I hope they both knew he was lying but I also hope that she was thinking to herself, silently:

Yes, but it's him, and this is us, and it's worth it, in the end.

Because there is something searching in us that makes us bend toward creation. That lets us treat artists like gods, when they are so far from it.

It's not a bad thing, I think, to believe we are as good on the inside as the most beautiful parts we show on the out.

Illusions have their place in our selves.


Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Birth of a nation

Flag


Yes, it's true:
I want to take
your guns.

No, I don't care
what they wrote
on a piece
of fine parchment
eons ago.

Because—you know what?
I've never worn a petticoat.

Or found myself bound
by a sermon or corset.

I didn't die
in childbirth
and neither did either 
of my kids—
not even the one
with the cord
wrapped around him.

Medicine didn't stop
at leeches or mercury.
Science wasn't squandered
on witchcraft and mediums.

Instead, Einstein stood up on
the shoulders of Newton
and drew us up with him,
where we were new to the universe—
and it was good.

Jonas Salk invented
a vaccine.
Maybe you've heard of it?
Saved millions.
(He gave away the patent, too;
What can I say? The man was a mensch.)

The whole world—
or very nearly!—
wised up and decided that the death
penalty was barbaric and that torture
was a stain on the human condition
we could no longer suffer.

That is our pedigree.
A civil society flowering 
as we grew the technology.
Evolution our Bible,
Darwin my father—
God love him.

It's the reason why roads don't smell
like horse shit anymore.
It's how come you don't have to worry
about stumbling out to the privy
in winter.
That's how women got the vote,
and blacks collectively spit 
on a three-fifth's citizenship.
It's not a bad thing—I swear it.

After all, is progress
not the most American
of traditions?
(Or is this just a story
we sing to ourselves?)

So no.
I'm sorry.

A musket is not
some AR-15 masturbatory
fantasy.

A militia is not
a thing serious
people talk about.

The words "well regulated"—
okay, we can keep that part,
if you like.

Otherwise,
the rest of the world
will just keep staring,
aghast,
shaking their heads
at poor, dumb . . .
us.

And you know what?
It is embarrassing.
Our stupidity is a blight.
I am ashamed—
personally, I mean,
at the idiocy we condone.

But what the world might not know—
and what I hang my hope on today—
is that the majority of Americans
overwhelmingly agree.

We're just not allowed to matter,
not yet.

Why?

Because this is where we've been dragged:

Beholden to ignorance.

Married to a terrorist organization.

Shattered by the whim
of the meanest will.

Emptied of words,
carved up by suffering.

Sticking our victims
to graphs 
with bullets
where they will stay
the same age—
always, and forever.

Seeing in the face
of a good man
and President
a reflection of the carnage,
an allergy for platitude
a nausea of loss.

So yeah—
I'm going to take up my pen
again
and write the scumbags
who brought this upon us—
all those NRA brides
offering others' blood up as dowries
who've been trained, in their money,
to roll over like dogs
and hold them over the coals of their cowardice,
until the halls of our Congress
are howling with rage, boiling over with grief,
until they're all history
like the Redcoats and the Rebels 
before 'em—

Until we make them
move to our side.

Because—

I want your guns. 

All of them.

I hate too now, see.


----

Everytown is a great organization to support and give money to. So is the Brady Campaign



Saturday, June 4, 2016

17 years

17 year cicada, newly hatched

The cicadas were everywhere. She couldn't take a step without squashing one or having a bug fly at her, often just missing a collision—other times landing on her chest, neck, or shoe, content with being there until she hurriedly brushed it away, heart pounding. One time, she watched a sparrow snatch one out of the air, with a fly-and-chopsticks precision she applauded. The birds and squirrels were the triumphant gluttons of that summer. Even her dog snacked on the bizarre backyard intruders, when there was nothing better for him to do.

The invasion of cicadas happened every seventeen years, for as long as six weeks per brood and region. It took them that long to molt from their nymph state, to woo and mate, before the entire lifecycle turned over, and their progeny spent the next seventeen years in a dark dormancy beneath the earth, sucking on the paltry nutrition of tree roots to sustain them during the births, deaths, retirements and divorces up above.

And, for some reason she couldn't articulate, she found the whole thing electrifying.

It could just as easily been scary. Or at the very least, gross. These bugs were big, with red, alien-like eyes and erratic, whirring wings. Back in the summer of '99, when she had been in her twenties, she'd avoided them. She remembered a vague alarm surrounding that June. The racket they made was almost deafening, especially in certain spots uptown, and on the university's campus, where they took the place of vacationing students rather naturally, and with less destructive results, in whole.

But for her—and for this brood—the insects' buzz built a frisson in the blood. She felt some new excitement pounding within. She wanted to write like she had, before. She wanted to take the chances she hadn't taken, then.

She wanted to know that in another seventeen years, when she was deep into her fifties, she wouldn't regret a thing from that summer.

And that meant him.

When next she saw him, he was smiling at her. He was always smiling at her, but she didn't know what it meant, not for sure. As she drew nearer, a cicada flew blindly at their faces, coming to rest on his right shoulder, where it stayed.

"You have a friend," she said, pointing to it.

He looked down. "So I do."

He didn't brush it off, but let it stay. They watched, without moving, to see what it would do.

And as their eyes met, it stayed.

And when he leaned in to kiss her, it stayed.

And when she pulled back to look at him, it stayed.

It stayed.

For seventeen years, she thought. It might just—stay.


Friday, February 19, 2016

Ver Klimt





I wake
from my sleep
with a song
in my head
and your lips
on my neck—


Stop.

Wait.

Feel the kick
of my blood
as the dream
takes shape





Tuesday, January 26, 2016

VerseWrights Poetry



Today, I'm very happy to have some of my poems published by VerseWrights, an online community of poets assembled by Carl Sharpe, who is a retired teacher and a lifelong poet.

My poems are posted here. I'm grateful to Carl for the invitation and for his personal kindness and enthusiasm for the work. It's an honor to be a part of this project.   

I'm looking forward to diving in and discovering some new voices on the site. I hope you will, too.  

Friday, January 22, 2016

Muse-ing

("The Clown" by Henri Matisse)

Cut me loose!
cries the muse

Let me run

down the page
spilling ink
from my veins,
flinging fear
from your brow
like the foam
off a wave

But please,

before I'm bled—

Let me linger here

on a period.

Roll back and forth

on your fat, unctuous
comma

Get squinched by

an em dash

Don the crooked crown 

of your assonance

If only for one

more line break
or spasm—

Until I've been drained

of all form and substance,
run off the cliff of your
crumbling courage

Where I will collect my 

bones in a sacred 
reliquary

To put them up on 

a shelf in your
closet

So they may sit

and shift

murmur,

foment

For you


And you alone

Sunday, January 3, 2016

New

Calling Birds

Her daughter had gotten into the habit of calling her back to her room, long after bedtime, with the sole purpose of putting impossible questions to her mother. 

"Mom, what's the point of life if there is no God?"

"Mom, I can't sleep. Because I'm going to die one day and then I'll be asleep forever."

Or this doozy, tonight:

"Mom, I've been thinking a lot about the insignificance of humanity."

She couldn't help it: she laughed. Her daughter looked wounded. She would be a teenager soon, and was getting very good at that.

"I'm sorry. It's just--geesh, honey. Do we have to talk about this now?" 

With her daughter, the answer was always, emphatically yes

The girl squeezed a stuffed marmoset to her chest. The eyes on the thing were huge and vacant. 

"But this is when it bothers me most. This is when I'm alone with my thoughts. And I can't help having my thoughts when I have them, can I?"

"Hmm. Another interesting question. But all right. Why the assumption that humanity is, as you put it, insignificant?"

Her daughter shrugged. "The universe just seems pretty random and meaningless to me. And because we're human, we feel it in a way that other creatures can't." She shuddered. "It's kind of awful, really."

She had a point. Always, during these late-night existential crises, there was a struggle in the mother between honesty and a mushier mollification. Yes, life's inscrutable. But a lot of people do believe in God and some kind of grand design to it all. Just because I don't doesn't mean you can't! 

But the words wouldn't come. Because she knew they wouldn't land.

The truth was that the nature, and degree, of her daughter's obsessions scared her. And whatever was said tonight would likely be discarded tomorrow, anyway. But she was a parent and had to say something. To inhabit a wisdom she didn't feel.

"When I was at the store today," she started slowly, "I tried an exercise that made me feel a little better about the world."

"What?" her daughter said.

"I took a single, distinguishing characteristic of each person I saw, and building on that quality or quirk, I gave them a kind of--I don't know--a super identity, I guess you could say."

Her brow crinkled. "What do you mean?"

"Well, for instance, there was a stock girl with a small chin and pointed ears, so I imagined she was an elf. Easy, right? And later, there was this guy who strutted out of the store wearing only a t-shirt, in spite of the cold and snow, and in my head he immediately became a kind of dumb superhero named Impervious Man."

She puffed out her chest comically. Her daughter didn't laugh, but she was listening, at least.

"The cashier who checked me out had a rather unfortunate case of acne. But in my head, just for that moment, he was transformed into a mighty warrior. That flimsy, grocery-store vest of his was armor. His pimples were battle scars. And the only reason he didn't meet my eyes was because he was just so weary from fighting."

Was she rolling her eyes yet?

No. Still good.  


"And the lady working in the floral department--well, that one was harder. I admit, she looked so sad and lost to me."

Her daughter waited. Finally, she asked, "So? What was her story?"

"I don't know. Maybe you do."

Her daughter thought for a minute. When she spoke, her voice was dreamier, and distant. "The love of her life was killed in a duel with the cashier. Now she brings her flowers to his grave every day and sings to him all night. The sweetness of her voice is the thing that makes her flowers grow, and her sadness is what colors them. And so the colors are the purest colors in all the known and unknown worlds."

Her daughter smiled up at her. She smiled back and touched her on her cheek. 

"See? You've given her meaning."

But just as suddenly, she lost her smile. "None of it is true, though."

"Not the exact details, no. But I bet she's loved, and lost. And I bet she still appreciates the beauty left to her in life. Not all the time, but often enough."

Leaning in, she kissed her daughter on the forehead and pulled the blanket up to her neck. "So. Did I do my job? Is humanity significant again?"

"Maybe a little bit."

"Good. Better keep looking for more, though. Just to be safe."

She walked to the door and turned off the light for the second time that night. 

"Mom?" Her daughter's voice sounded small again.

"Yeah?"

"What's my special quality or quirk?" 

She looked at her girl, ensconced in a gaggle of stuffed animals that she'd be rid of soon enough.

"Your eyes, honey."

"What about them?"

"Well. You have these great, big, nocturnal eyes.You always have. Except, you're still learning how to use them. And right now, what you see most is all the different shades of darkness. I think that's why night scares you. There's so much darkness out there to absorb before you can make out all the things still breathing and beautiful inside of it."

She flipped up the switch in the hall, bathing the doorway with light. Her daughter squinted and held up her hand, until her mother adjusted the door just right.

"But when the brightness hits you, I promise you: it will be just like that.'" 

She blew her a kiss as the clock on the nightstand turned 12:00 and walked down the hallway, thinking and worrying, and thinking some more. 


----

My "New" series began in 2008. There are also entries for 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, and 2015. Why no 2014? I can't remember. But it must be Aniket Thakkar's fault for not badgering me enough that year. 



Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Icarus

(Icarus III, oil on panel, by Katherine Stone)

Dash this heart
against the rocks--

the lack of urgency

terrifies me.

I'd rather splatter,

shatter, be Icarus
after

than exist 

another minute

Like a songbird

stayed

in the hour
before dawn,

and everyone

asleep.


Monday, December 7, 2015

100 Words

Blue door, shutters

We’re born with one door that’s open to the world. 

And by parlaying curiosity into experience, we fold more rooms into our selves. More rooms, with more doors, so the wind might howl through, occasionally reshuffling the blueprints themselves.

But then, it happens. 

A resistance steals in, quietly. Closing the doors.

And the effort to open them—or to remember they were closed—becomes a blockade.

We shrink. Get rooted in. 

And the wind? 

It might rattle some panes, before moving on.


But not his, she thinks.

Not him.

He’s young because he's kept the doors open.

She goes in.


---

Another 100 Words can be found here

Friday, November 6, 2015

Human Resources

Tulip 1

Even their small talk felt large in her mind, every word of conversation assuming a weight and import that might be measured later, when she was back home, weeding the garden or walking the dog, or performing any one of those small, mechanical tasks that allowed her to be half present and half very far away.

He was guarded with her. But then, so was she. There was a lot at risk.

"I guess we're in for a long week with the quarterly reports coming up."

"Coffee, don't fail me now."

"You're not kidding."

And that might be it.

But each small engagement arrived with its own weather system. She felt it like a swarm of bees inside a thunderstorm. At first, they'd betrayed themselves too easily. Her, by smiling too much and tucking her hair behind her ears. Him, by swallowing nervously and excessive face touching. But over the weeks, they had learned to minimize these physical slips so that any colleague watching them talk, from a distance, might infer from their body language that they didn't like one another at all. He might be standing across from her, with his arms over his chest, in a posture of male protection. Whereas she would routinely keep her hands in her pockets, tilting her head at a stiff, discrete angle that indicated nothing so much as forbearance.

But their eyes were what gave them away. They had that bright, startled look of repressed absorption. As if they were drinking not only the words that came from the other's lips, but also the glass that held them.

"When is that conference you're headed to?"

"November 13th."

Or:

"What are you doing for Thanksgiving?"

"Oh, my mom has this thing every year."

She wanted to talk forever with him. She couldn't get away fast enough. It was perfectly excruciating, if perfectly ridiculous.

And one Friday, she reached her limit. It was already late, and everyone else had escaped into the weekend. He was just finishing up the budget numbers he'd been sitting on all week. She brought him a piece of leftover birthday cake from the week's office party and sat on the edge of his desk, pushing aside a potted plant and a picture frame.

"Why are we like children here?" she blurted out, as he took the first bite.

She watched him chew the cake, a smear of white frosting sticking to the corner of his mouth. Impatient, she pressed harder. 

"I mean, why do we have to play these games? Why can't I just say what I feel when I'm feeling it? Why all the pretense, as if we were still in high school and too—too—scared of rejection to seize happiness where we can find it?"

With some difficulty, he swallowed his cake. 

"I guess I don't see it that way," he said, setting down the plate to look at her.

"You don't?"

"No." He wiped his mouth and stood up. "I think this is adulthood. "

He reached out for her, briefly taking hold of her hand. She felt the flesh of his palm biting into her engagement ring. Then the sensation was gone, and he was grabbing his coat.

"Have a good weekend, Leah."

And then he was gone, too.

"You too, Jim."