by Michael Gregory Stephens || Author's Links
for Susanna Banana
That's a dove,
I am not so much concerned with the faces
that the old master painted, but the dark
around the faces that draws me into
them like a black hole sucking matter out
of existence and into the darkness
beyond kingdom come. In that sense, nearly
every painting that the old master
did was a theological statement
about the world beyond this knowable
universe in which we all find ourselves.
Perhaps the only thing that grinds me down
more than the master's sense of darkness are
the carbuncles on the noses, chilblained
skin, the ruddiness beyond the seasons.
In Memory of Annie Hopkins
I look for your face in all the faces
of Mayo and the streets of Westport, but
you're a Hopkins from Castlebar, really
Snugboro, just outside of that old town.
Yet as I walk along a privet row,
I first see it like it was homecoming.
Because I have spent my life dreaming about
this greeny hill near a meadow, the lone
tree in a nearby field reminds me that
you came and went in the blink of an eye,
and when I drove from Westport to that home
where you had once lived, I no longer was alone.
You seemed to guide me along the hedgerow
where your girlhood unfolded so long ago.
When I looked up, I saw her face up there,
almost as if it were another moon or planet
maybe or perhaps a second coming,
or like I were on Inishmore, Aran
Islands' largest stony, damp outcropping,
facing back toward land and the great hills
of Connemara, only this was her
there, and me looking up through her body,
belly like the sea, breasts Connemara,
and I am licking salt air from my lips
as the groan of ships at anchor calls out
in the dark like a bird calling for help.
Everything undersea, here wave is all.
Lift, sea, with salt-life, wind-drift, and roil.
If you peel away layers of onion,
you will come to its core, and once that is
done, there is nothing, not even essence
of what once was the onion. Peer Gynt led
such a life. He peeled away the layers of his
existence, hoping to discover his
essence, but he found nothing, or worse than
nothingness, he found the empty center
of the human dilemma, a moment
that was filled with terror, not unlike the
old Jews, some of whom, it was claimed, stared
at the face of God, and were horrified.
Whom did you expect, Alec Baldwin?
Was it written God had to be handsome?
I had to excavate self from myself,
and that meant I had to dig and dig, and
peel away the layers like a stinking
onion on the kitchen table, rotting
from disuse and neglect. Who was I when
I took away the "I," and left nothing
but this essence of humanity, this shell
of what I had once been? I prayed to God
for help because I was as helpless as
a naked baby on that kitchen table
where the onion once had been. Illusion
had become self delusion, this sea of
despond, this misery of self, centered
in fear and weighted down by it forever.
No one ever said that God's face had to
look good, did they? No one ever claimed God
looked like a moviestar. All I had to
do was to peel away the layers of
self from myself, almost like peeling paint
from a wall with a putty knife. Easy,
I thought. But it was more like stripping old
wallpaper from an old wall in an old
house. It was an archeology of
the self, and I had to become, a saint
in my pursuit of this history, judging
nothing, praising or damning nothing but
stripping away the layers like an old
floozie, kidding herself in the mirror.
She showed her old rump, exposed her old breast,
and gulled herself into believing it was
all still there, only none of it was there
anymore. Instead, the paint scraping, the
filing away, the chipping and peeling
showed what was underneath everything, the
old architect's first intention, and near
the doorways it was old wood, as a poet
friend turned carpenter once discovered
in his own apartment on the Upper
West Side, birdseye maple, a wood of such
fine beauty. That is what finally is
revealed: old wood, fine maple, birdseye.
You see yourself as yourself, eye to eye.
Flowering Cherry Blossoms in December
Cherry blossoms flower in December:
pale pink bud in the gray of day,
sky dull overcast and rain expected
by noon, only joggers and dog walkers
out this early in the morning, mountain
bikers also out riding and homeless
and crazies hiding in corners, behind
trees, the ground in Riverside Park muddy
and slippery, and two aberrant cherry trees,
one in blossom, the other just expired.
I remember Korean cherry blossoms and
snow falling on the ground in wintry Seoul,
so I guess there is a cherry tree that
blossoms in winter, even in New York.
Scarlet Tanager Near Clay Courts
I return from tooling around the park
and doing miscellaneous errands
(really this is an errant ride without
destination to speak of), though I may
have a weak cappuccino with a friend
before heading back home from Riverside
Park, anything to avoid sitting down
and writing once again, and again blank
pages, blank verses, blank walls and blank doors
without door knobs, not to mention door-frames
without doors, so that to speak of this day
as miscellaneous is to miscount
the blessings, mistaken facts for a bird.
Was it really a scarlet tanager?
Fallen White Birch by Stillwater Pond
Up-gutted from the earth, its roots taken
to the air: Danger Thin Ice, the sign says,
but there is no ice, no water even
only mudflats and aftermath of storm,
neither blizzard nor hurricane, "freakish
of lows and nor'easters, killing all trees,
and whipping people through the park ninety
miles-an-hour a few days ago, though what
remains now of the storm of '92
are the uprooted trees, broken branches
on the ground and the look of wonder on
the faces of the joggers and walkers,
and listen how quiet are the talkers.
Mike the Butcher
Mike the Butcher talks about Descartes and
all of the life of the mind when he works
in the slaughterhouses of New Jersey
or in the rare kitchens of the Palisades,
severing arteries and boning chickens for
meals at four-star hotels. Sometimes, when I
see Mike the Butcher, I am reminded
of Prince Wen Hui's cook who practiced
the Tao of cutting up an ox, not just
by mass but by distinctions, as he said.
Finally, he saw nothing with his eyes.
The cleaver found its own way by instinct,
if not of the steel blade and wood handle,
then the intuition of the butcher.
Other cooks needed a new cleaver once
a year when the blade became dull with hacks
made at the sinews and bones from oxen.
Not Wen Hui's cook who had the same cleaver
for nineteen years. Cook slaughtered a thousand
oxen with that Taoist cleaver, you know.
The secret: look for the spaces between
the joints. When tough joints came, he felt them, slowed
down, sensed where an opening occurred, and went
right for those sinews. Meat fell away like
a plot of earth breaking in the cracked hands.
He withdrew the blade from the ox. He let
pleasure of the moment slip over him,
wiping bloody cleaver on white apron.
Weeping CHerry Tree Blossoming in April
In that little courtyard on Broadway near
115th Street by the side
entrance to Columbia, this startling
pink blossoming tree weeps, its branches hang
over a fence and onto the concrete
streets of the city in Morningside Heights.
I imagine her to be as pink and
red and full of life as this tree is round,
and as heartbreakingly beautiful, too,
cork-screws of tendrils falling from her head
like trestles in an arbor. At least, that
is how her boyfriend saw it as he weeps
for her there, letting his life be wrapped up
in the cascade of Columbia's pink branches.
Chuang Tzu's Monkeys
Yes, there were nine children I grew up with,
but years later I asked my mother how
many children she had, including those
who died in infancy or right out of
the womb, and she paused before answering,
then mom asked her literary son,
"Are you going to write another story of
us?" and I said, no, but I was lying,
and so she told me then, "Sixteen in all."
Back when there were only seven of us,
we had to share one giant-sized bed, and
so my father let us sleep in shifts of
three at a time in the bed, and later
the last four got their turn. But they balked.
So my father, usually a man
who had no sense of compromise, even
though he had gone to Georgetown for a year
to study to be a diplomat, came up with
a novel idea of letting the four
sleep first, and the other three children last.
The four complainers, though still four to the
bed, never complained again, and the three
others waited, if not patiently, they
waited and waited, until it was their
turn to sleep, sometimes falling off asleep
standing up, homework falling all about
the bare wood floors of our little old house,
and no one stirred, except a fat old mouse.
Letter from a Model Minority
"I went up the long wooden stairwell to
the top floor of the dormitory where
I hoped to look at the winter sky,
the heavens, and many stars on this clear
night, but when I got up to the top floor,
the door was locked, and instead of stars and
the vault of heaven, I saw clear ceiling,
the glass ceiling that allowed me to
go no further than I had come until
now. I am lost about what to do in
the land of the slam-dunk and McDonald's,
Kentucky Fried chicken and burritos,
go home or stay, knowing that where I have
come to is as far as I am to go."
KO'd in the First
I didn't come out jabbing, didn't listen to
my corner (Jesus, Joe and all the rest
warning me to keep moving), and I didn't
use the angles--in fact, I was artless
and open for the knockout, treating it
like a walk in the woods--and I forgot
the last warning from the referee to
"protect yourself at all times," but instead
I waltzed out to the middle of the ring
as if it were a picnic, I never
thought of it as a fight or even as
a blood sport, and instead wanted to give
my opponent roses and talk about
how're you, family, how's your corner?
I knew how to slip and slide, knew the
drill about ducking the jabs and slipping
the power, and never dreamed it would be
a sucker punch that deadened my senses
and made me cockeyed like Popeye after
Bluto ran off with Olive Oil. They say
that the punch you never saw is the one
that will get you, will floor you, turn you all
around, and they are right about that one.
I never saw it coming, thought this dance
would go on forever and a day, but
this guy danced me into a corner, then
he hit me with a kidney punch that put
me on Christopher Street, lights going out.
My head was full of flickering black light
and my head full of black lights, flickering,
I told myself later, you should have seen
it coming, everyone saw it but you,
the angles, the deception, the sly tip-
toeing, pitty-pat of those graceful feet,
the dreamy sweet nothings, everything
one big fix, you big shmuck, the cornermen
shouting. How could you not see it coming?
The roundhouse to the head, the short body
punches, hard and painful, to the liver.
The heart punch stopped your heart from its beating.
His two-punch combination to the head
stopped me from ever thinking again, friend.
This mesclun, so colorful and healthy,
reminds me of hallucinatory
days of my youth when mescaline also
was so colorful but so unhealthy,
at least, being crazy, it never helped
me to understand myself or the world
around me, but only bred a kind of
insolent grandiosity fueled by
low self-esteem and great paranoia.
Crazy, isn't it? It reminds me of
listening to Van Morrison's "Crazy
Love" or reading Yeats' Crazy Jane poems.
All this explained the violent moods, said
I. Or it was something in the salad.
This is not like passing ships in the night,
but rather it has become like random
neighbors passing in the halls, the random
electrical current unmistakably
sensuous and unmanageable. I'm not
exactly berserk with love, only anxious
as if I were about to step onto
a stage and perform. Love is a nail in
the head, a friend once said, and I laughed at
his exaggeration, telling him that
love was not war, was as soft and kind as
a warm blanket on a cold night, which made
him laugh scornfully, calling me naive.
What makes the relationship out of sync?
Tin-Knockers on Church Steeple in Spring
Some tin-knockers hang from the church steeple
of Holy Name on 96th Street near
Broadway, shouting insults to one another
on this the second day of spring and all.
"Tonio, dumb-shit, where is my hammer?"
and Tonio, the first in command of
the tin-knockers, what a brilliant man,
answers, "In your fuckn tool belt, Shorty."
But Shorty, perhaps the most challenged
academically, tin-knockered, asks:
"Where did I leave my tool belt, dirty shit?"
Mother of God, you wouldn't believe the words
That the head of the tin-knockers unleashed
upon the head of his challenged partner!
Yet it is remiss not to recount the
face of Tonio, a Sistine angel.
And this angelic man tells his good friend:
"You're wearing the fuckn thing, Shorty."
Ah, but spring is in the air by the sound
of their tin-nail hammering, yammering
voices everywhere, and rain forecasted
by afternoon, so they need to argue less
and work faster, because the steeple of
Holy Name leaks, and there will be Hell to
pay with the Franciscans, if they don't get
the work finished soon, or at least before
the next great deluge that may encompass
the steeple and the tin-knockers up there.
The Day Before That is the First Day of Spring
Quick! I've only hours left to write a poem
to welcome the new season, equinox this and
that, and just this morning, after running
at daybreak in Central Park, ice on ground
like a thin membrane around a flower,
snow on around the trees, hardly a glimpse
of it, spring, I mean. But later in the
morning, I heard a pretty young woman,
oh the shoots burst upward at the sight of
her, who talked of the first daffodils in
her yard, poking through the canker of snow
in her city garden, and her cat purred
by window, dreaming of mice and summer.
Now the Earth's crust needs to melt away fast.
If we live, just live a life, we become
heroes and heroines, just living life,
because to be human is a tragic
condition, the hero and the heroine
need to suffer to achieve the glow of
recognition, the illuminating
moment at which their lives become lives of
significance, so that death turns even one's
enemies into good people. Am I
right about that or am I kidding myself?
Aren't there exceptions to this rule always,
some villainous cad who warrants no grace
or respite from the awful deeds they did?
Repeat: living life is heroic enough.
Meditation Before Medication
I raised my hand and was called on, and so
I asked the therapist this question
from my seat in the back of the long room:
if prayer is speaking to God, and we say
that meditation is listening to
Him, I wanted to know what they called it
if this Higher Power--oh Great Spirit!--
spoke back to us. What was that response called?
I thought of statues in a Franciscan
monastery on the Hudson River
where I had gone for a spiritual
retreat, and how I was so anxious
I thought they might speak to me then and there.
A patient called out: "Schizophrenia!"
Air Guitar Virtuoso
If you listen to Aaron Neville sing
just about anything from bayou stuff
to Ave Maria, you understand
that our envy of birds is not because
they are able to fly, but their singing.
For this reason, I have always fallen
for--in love, flat on my face from--women
who were singers. In fact, I often have
fallen for them in the act of singing,
before that crystal moment being either
indifferent or simply taken with
them, but not sure why, until their vocal
chords vibrated, and then I was gone. I flew.
I married a singer, though I shouldn't have.
II. (Lyric coloratura soprano...)
Today, I still fall in love with the song
because of the singer. And I'm able
to forgive Frank Sinatra his politics
because his voice is so good, but as I
told William Kennedy in a letter
once, I prefer Tony Bennett to Frank,
Chekhov to his Tolstoy, and Kennedy,
a lover of song himself, told me I
was nuts. I am. He was right. I am nuts.
Often music is what makes me less so,
crazy, I mean, just as it is music
which makes me calm. Music is not sound then,
like Wallace Stevens said, but feeling too,
or only just that. It is life itself.
Life itself: you could tear out my brown eyes,
stuff my mouth with dead leaves, and leave me for
dead on the roadside with my hands sliced off,
but if there were a song on the radio,
if I had a rhythm inside the head,
or if my mood had its own hard cadence,
and I still had a beat left in my heart,
I would hum along with it, being a
poor singer myself, though people often
have said that I had a musical way with
words, but for the life of me, I don't know
what the hell they mean by that, I am so
talentless when it comes to real music.
Life is music and music is life, friend.
What Eve Said
I am tired, Eve said, I am oh so
tired of these plums, Adam, and
Adam said to Eve, Then what is it you
want, woman? and she told him, I want, I
oh so want something different, and he
asked, Like what? Like, like, no more plums, Eve said.
Okay, Adam answered, No more plums, but
what else do you want, my dear? and she said,
Tired of plums, want apples, Adam, want them,
these apples, oh so badly I can taste
them on the tip of my tongue, Eve told her
significant other. She said: Tired
of plums, want apples, want apples, want apples.
Tired of plums, want apples, want apples.
Landscape burnt umber and amber and brown,
winter in the air, but not snow on ground
yet. Sky pearly. November in New York.
Destitutes cold and edgy, hungry and
lonely. Lose your mind on the crystal train.
Light a candle in the skull. Remind you
of Norman Rockwell, does it? Kind of feel
like a Hallmark greeting card, the hollow
eyes of the poor following your coattails?
If only Charlie Chaplin were here to
render it into cinematic art.
Umber and amber and somber and brown.
Maybe Walt Disney has some mistletoe.
Even the white people look miserable.
"If I don't hate the homeless, I hate that
word 'homeless,' and I really hate it when
the very homeless refer to themselves
as 'homeless.' That's really hopeless, isn't
it? Seems to have more to do with being
a dope-fiend than a homeless person, you
ask me. But who's asking me as I'm one
of them these days, begging for food and coins
you can spare or shelter anywhere but
the shelter itself which isn't that safe.
I am not going to bullshit you, though.
If you give me money, chances are I
am going to use it to buy drugs and
alcohol, not food or shelter or help."
"Stated another way, it makes all and
everyone feel bad for our own bad
attitudes, blaming everyone for
where we are, which is on the street, and where
they are, which is on their fat asses, life
of assets in the bank, big car, fancy
home, on top of the world, without a care,
and certainly not giving a shit about
me or anyone else out on the street,
who are only waiting for enough scratch
to get a bag of dope or a rock of
cocaine, that old crack. I lived on the street
without a home for close to ten years, back
when, charming my way into their bedrooms."
"I slept from one girlfriend's place to another,
charming my way into dinners and beds.
Free love, some might call it. Others might say
it was a free lunch. I still am not sure
if I ever was free of anything,
certainly not the fleas and mites, bughouse
visions on wine. Then I settled down with
one person, then with another, I settled
into a domestic life, living years
in one place, I married and even raised
a child. Went to college, got some degrees,
and even worked full-time teaching at a
university. By the nineties, I
was homeless once again, back on the bum."
"I was back to being what my father
used to call a bum. I had no work to
speak of. I had not been employed for years.
All I had were my books and papers which
I had to put in storage or sell, I
couldn't keep them with me on the street or
at my friends' apartments, though I had less
and less friends as time went by, so I became
a street person once again, begging for
meals, shelter, booze, and drugs. I wrote great books
in my head. I solved all the world's problems.
I made great speeches to the United
Nations, and came up with solutions to
war and famine everywhere. None cared."
"Technically, I was not homeless, just
broke and without a place to live. Cash flow,
I think they call it. No visible means.
But I was sober, and had not had a
drink in years. My marriage broke up, people
stopped talking to me, I lost my teeth and
all my books and papers, and started to
talk to myself alone. I thought I was
King Lear or someone majestic, tragic,
and misunderstood. A great singular
light, a beacon of humanity amid
these callous, inhuman inhabitants
of the urban world, and I recalled
the time I charmed people out of their socks."
"I would tell some young student who stopped
to talk with me out of compassion or
curiosity another out of
the experience of talking to a
homeless person, I would tell them, I once
was a teacher, a writer, too, oh I
published volumes of poetry and prose,
even got a bunch of reviews, journals
and little magazines, and once in a
blue moon in the New York Times. Really,
I did. Then I fell on these hard, hard times.
Marriage ended, couldn't find work, contracts
dried up, and even though I hadn't drunk,
I lived on the street again, like a bum."
"Sleeping in the doorway of old churches,
I waited for my meals on the soup-line.
I told whoever would listen my hard-
luck story--social workers, passersby,
priests, students, professors--I spoke to all
and any who might listen to my tale,
my sorry-assed narrative about my life.
Most listened politely, then moved on.
There but for the grace of God, I muttered,
and then moved on when the police told me
to get moving, looking for new places.
I told myself to be kind to the unkind.
They suggest that I go to a shelter,
I kindly suggest that they go to hell."
Lefty, I wish that you and Paulie and
me were taken, as if by sorcery,
and put on a ship, that with every wind
sailed upon the sea at our whims.
Seeking fortune, even in adverse weather,
nothing would stop us now from leaving home.
Also, living always by our wits alone,
we'd believe that decision to be together.
And that woman Dolores, or that other one Trish,
and the one who lives at number thirty (What a dish!):
Such enchantment would be ours.
Each of us would be happy for hours.
And there would be reason to love; moreover,
I believe we would be happy and beloved forever.
The Hat-Gray Mice
Out jogging in Riverside Park, sun not
yet up, chill in the air, I run until
I come to the viaduct, and then go
back around Grant's Tomb, jogging through the wet
leaves and old scumbags and broken beer bottles,
crack vials and wet girlie mags, and then before
going into the park, I notice a
mouse-gray fedora, probably blown off
a head because the wind around the park
near Riverside Church can be awesome, and
I realize that a colony of mice
resides inside the hat, little mice the
color of a fedora, mice as gray
as the hat which they have made a household.
The False Dane
O flaxen hair, o curly wheat-straw hair,
o legs like a girlie-show in Toulouse
Lautrec's paintings of the green Paris night:
I can't sing, can't paint, can't drink, can't
call. So I shout to your spirit, your lips
of crystals, your tongue of northern legends,
o dame, no, no, I did not call you Dane,
but rather a gatherer of reindeer,
o ass of magnificent curves. The o of your joining
legs, o and the bulging calves, the hands and
feet so delicate, o dame, no, I did
not call you a Dane, and know that you are
not Ophelia or even Hamlet
in drag, but rather flaxen and wheat-straw.
The Lazzi of the Weeping Crackhead
How cruel we have become in this season!
I walk past the weeping man on the corner
as if he were a gargoyle on the side
of a building. Yet I have passed him too
many times this winter, and he's always
weeping like that, deeply and sickly
pathetic, his voice lunging at you as
you pass, begging and weeping, please, please, please
he says, just a morsel, just a crumb, just
a penny, I'm starving, I have no food,
not eaten in days, I have not slept in
a bed in weeks, I have fallen on bad
times. Promise: I'll get back on my feet soon.
The college students usually fall for
him once or at most twice, but lately I've
noticed that even they walk past, looking
the other way as they go by, indifferent
to his routine, his shtick, his comedy,
this commedia of the wailing homeless man,
his little bit of comic business,
a lazzo of the weeping drug addict,
and once he has enough money in hand,
he goes down the block, where he does not buy
food but drugs, and then he whistles, smiling
and saying hello to everyone who
knows him on Amsterdam. Bravo! I want
to shout. Encore! Encore! Do it again!
He is like Harlequin, only better,
and he is like the Cooks and Servants, a
kind of poor man's Pagliacci, he sings
for a bit of rock, though, instead of tears
that cry out, Figaro! Figaro! he sings
for crack, a bit of rock, some crystals in
a plastic vial with a colorful top, the
street littered with the vials, and he becomes,
once again, strung out, and he goes back to
Broadway to weep and cry, "Help me, help me,
don't walk by and ignore me! Where is
your sense of humanity? I am a
human being. I am not a dog or a rat.
I'm like you, only for me it's bad times."
When you go, I am not down, I am not
down on the world, and I'm up on you, so
when you finish, I'll go down, too. Waking
in the morning with a huge hard-on and
putting it right inside of you, but not
moving, rotating it or thrusting about,
but simply being there in that warm space
inside of you. That's like heaven itself.
Finally, what is the third best choice in
these intimate matters between lovers
would be a letter from you, a couple
of poems (I don't care how lousy or good,
just write them). I'd die and go to heaven.
Tonight is the night ghosts come out of their
cracks in the walls to hool and gravel down
long stumbling empty alleys with chains
following after them. But I am not
haunted by ghosts, but dark, wild memories;
it is the living who spook me, woman
who is there and not there, who flits in and
out of shadows in my life as if she
were a ghost. Still, it is not unpleasant,
this evanescence of spirit, how I
am captured and released, pulled close and then
flung out into the cruel universe, like
a, well, almost like a human yo-yo.
All week I think of her, not letting go.
The Bell Curve
The world is an evil place, said Batman
to Robin, and since both of them were strung
out on drugs and alcohol, it seemed
to be a truism of the comic-book
trade. All their love's in vain. Professors in
loden coats and new corduroy pants with
smart penny loafers on their feet agree:
born poor, born black, you might as well kiss your
ass goodbye. Yet I know a guy who sails
through the sky on Amsterdam Avenue
in Goat Park, backward dunking in ways that
Michael Jordan never imagined.
Love is in vain, though. But that's not the point,
is it? I have friends to contradict it.
I have a friend in New Jersey, quiet,
smart, creative as all hell, a black man,
yes, he's black all right, a professor and
a writer, a wonderful man and friend,
he is going to be surprised to learn
what Professor Murray has to say of
his chances of getting ahead, even
having a head on his shoulders in this
terrible, white world. Then, too, I put my
arm around a person I know, touching
the exquisite curve of the body where the
hip rolls, not solid muscle but all love.
All my love's in vain. Oh, love, careless love.
Chivalry and Chives
Lady, the old heart still has a few beats
left, and right in front of you this carcass
pulses with dirty thoughts, and with sins of
word and deed as well as those of commission
and omission, not to mention actions
from the pelvis (oh, Elvis!), a fraction
of which is reserved for you as is the
greater bulk, wholesale or retail, I'll
come through the mail or into your female
kingdom (gender specific pig, hungry
to eat you good), oh fair damsel, this damn
windowsill is stuck. I bought cream cheese but
forgot to ask for chives. I know that is
not chivalrous of me, but there you go.
"The popular Southern Weekend newspaper now carries a regular column on
sex, which this month posed the question: 'What do women need from sex?'
In Mandarin, the answer is a 'high tide,' or orgasm." from the New York Times
-The next wave is another high tide
Shanghai: sex is in the air in the streets.
Sex is in the air tonight, and I am
going through the streets of Shanghai with smells
of sex in the air and my love down the
street in her tiny hovel standing over
a pot of squid and an old rice cooker
anticipating my arrival with
flowers and poems, condoms and conundrums,
for this is the new China, not like
the old China where only Chairman Mao
was allowed to get laid and spread herpes.
This is the new China where all of us
may give and receive communicable
diseases and get laid when we damn please.
Goddamnit comrade, we can even frig
ourselves into high tide because it is
all right, okay, Confucius is back,
and he walks around the Middle Kingdom
with a Sony Walkman in his ears and
he snaps his fingers to the sound of Lao
Tsu rapping about the here and now or
Ice Cube damning the white race into Hell
for all eternity for their sins of
commission in that Gold Mountain outpost
known as Los Angeles, land of the free
and the brave while the ghost of a courtesan
past checks e-mail on a Compaq laptop
which she bought for a cheap song in Gwangdong.
City shuts down for Dr. King, fallen
black leader and American saint, equal to
Elizabeth Seton, equal to any
of our heroes, Lincoln, Washington, Walt
Whitman. Dr. King was a leader and
a great orator, but I come here to
celebrate my mother, Rose Frances Drew,
born and raised in Bedford-Stuyvesant in
Brooklyn, high yeller and haughty as if
she came from the Mayflower, not Brooklyn,
not the outer borough, really nowhere,
except it was home for her, and us, too,
all of her sixteen children, though I was
the only one not born in St. Mary's.
The hospital in Bedford-Stuyvesant,
St. Mary's, though I was born in D.C.,
right in downtown Washington, Providence
hospital, the only one in my family
not born in Brooklyn, in the old ghetto.
Dr. King, my mother loves living into
old age, well into her eighties, spending
her blue days in Clearwater, Florida,
counting her blessings, not her losses, please
set her free, set her free, Martin, set her
loose in the universe, for my mother
slaved over her children, suffering her own
hazardous life with alcohol (gin and
wine), and so pray for her sobriety.
Dr. King, you and my mother were born
on January 15th, and she has
lived deep into old age, and you were cut
short in this life, though I know your spirit
lives forever on in peace in heaven,
because you were a saint, and my mother
was called a saint, only she was only
very humble, very human, but like
you, she was a decent human being,
and I'm not just saying that because she
is my mother, though she is my mother.
Like yourself, my mother had a dream, too.
She dreamed that all her living nine children
might live humbly in peace and serenity.
When she went out the door and left him for
good, he had no idea it had ended,
thinking instead--oh vanity that is
called a man--how nice it had been or
close they were with each other, and even
that the way they had made love that
evening was more special than any
time he had made love in his life ever,
and though she was not his wife, he thought of
her as the closest human being on
this earth, comparing her legs to his own,
her shoulders to his, and even dream off
that their breasts matched and fit perfectly.
But then she went out the door, and he's free.
When she went out the door and left him there,
she left for good and ever, and was never
seen or heard from again. There is a moral
to this tale, only I have not fathomed
what it might be or mean. Some days you win
all the monkeys in the barrel; some days
the monkeys are all dead in the stagnant
water, flopped over each other like coats
in a room on a bed at an all-night
wild party. If I said, I never want
to see that woman for as long as I
live, you know and I know that I am not
telling the truth, in fact, I am lying,
and yet that is just what I said, sweet sting.
Of course, she is no better off; she heard
voices in her head, castigate and be-
rate her esteem, calling down her easy
behavior. After all, she was not a
married woman but did live with another
man, and that man loved her dearly, sweetly,
or so she claimed to her ex-lover
in a protracted telephone talk with
him. To hell with you, he thought, saying that
she was nothing special, just another
woman. I never want to see that one
again for the rest of my life, let me
(Thing! Slur! Nuisance! Slut!), before I, yet worse,
have to lay eyes on her again, die first.
Saying good-night to her poet, she dreams
herself the victim of a violent crime,
and all her life scrawled across the news,
tabloid headlines and on court tv, too,
unfaithful, two-timing, a bitch, a cunt,
a fucking whore, the fair-haired adult
turned adulteress, her own kind of cartoon,
Jessica Rabbit, let's say, only loon-
ier. It was at lunch with a troubled
colleague that she confessed to this new friend
from the old desk across from hers at work
where they administer for a real turd
of a guy, indiscretions with another
man, and instead of sympathy got snookered.
Her co-workers vilified her with names,
calling her disloyal to her good beau,
and immmoral, and a lunatic dame.
That is when she called him up, not speaking
to him directly, calling his voice mail
to tell him, not that they never would see
each other ever again or that she
never never wanted to talk to him
for the rest of her natural life, but
that she herself did not want to have sex
with him from that time forward, and instead
they now would be good friends, even cohorts,
confidantes, only he walked around at
weird hours for a month, a neutered housecat.
And each time he called he felt more and more
like a second cousin bothering her
for her precious time. That's when he decided
that, like her, enough was enough, he could
make ultimatums and proclamations,
this one having to do with the fact that
he never wanted to talk with her for--
if not forever, then a long, long time--
and that is where it stands right now, my love,
he wears his gloves and hat to leave for now,
and keeps thinking, maybe, maybe, she'll change
her web of inaction, though nothing more
--and him there with ideas about courage--
than these feeble old words to hide his rage.
Dark Green Monday in a Blue Holler
I'm so sick of hearing about Mondays
that are blue that I've declared this a green
one, though if that doesn't work for you, let's
make it a yellow Monday, in turn to be
followed by red Tuesday, then a blue
Wednesday, because I'm always bluer
in the middle of the week then at the start of
it, bluer in media res than at
the start of week when my mood turns fatigue
or an Impressionist's loden, moody
and shimmering with ambiguity.
If I'm feeling blue, don't know what to do,
it's really Sunday, my baby left me,
head hung low, shuffling, humming a blues.
Study with Joggers
A bright extinction of magnolias
after the early precipitate
freeze bred havoc among the romantics,
the west side, uptown, this side of river,
where joggers infuse the landscape with new
vitality and life as prolix as
adverbs. Nights get chilly around seven
o'clock. The scribe orders pizza with some
peppers. Magnolia blossoms shrivel
and turn black. Romantics hover over
the fire in a discarded oil drum. Dawn
turns fog into chalk. People move through it,
jogging. The pizza-maker orders some
books to read in the prolix blue night air.
Out Walking on Sunday Morning
I was out walking on Sunday morning
when I heard someone whistling,
not just whistling, but doing it beautifully,
and when I turned to look who was doing it,
I saw an old white-haired man on a tandem
bicycle, first with an older woman
who wore a bonnet, and later along Broadway,
him alone, whistling, not like a maniac,
but like a consummate musician, really
the most beautiful whistling I ever heard,
and him slowly moving up Broadway
on his tandem bicycle, only now alone,
whistling and moving slowly along,
I saw and heard and felt him as I walked.
Raptor on Winthrop Street
I was to meet Richard at the Chinese
restaurant on Mass Ave off Harvard Square,
and I'd just come from the noon meeting at
the Lutheran church. This was not Eliot's
midwinter thaw, but a ravaging winter
day in January, wet, raw, and cold.
Snow mounds piled sky high, I heard a peep, then
an incredible silence, its wing passed
over me, and I looked out of the edge
of my vision, and I saw a raptor,
small but tough, snatch a sparrow in its claws,
talons like hooks, and then glide through backyards
and behind apartment houses, flying
away to eat. I was hungry now, too.
Crazy in America
I thought that W. B. Yeats was insane
over Maud Gonne, but I was young then, and
did not know what a crazy old fox he
really was, saying to myself that I
would not be so nutty for a woman--
until I met you. You were different.
You were not a spaced, wacked out type
politico like the Irish poet
obsessed about. But when you stood there
naked before me, I wept for joy in
that empty room which did not belong to
either one of us, and yet was like home,
its gray light a beacon of hopefulness,
the gray walls not obscuring its beauty.
You were not a spaced, wacked out type
politico like Yeats, great Irish poet,
obsessed about. You were different.
(I thought that old W.B. was insane
over Maud Gonne, but I was young then, and
did not know what a crazy old fox he
really was, saying to myself that I
would not be so nutty for a woman--
until I met you.) When you stood there
naked before me, I wept for joy in
that empty room which did not belong to
either one of us, and yet was like home,
its gray light a beacon of hopefulness,
the gray walls not obscuring its beauty.
Bottom and Titania Dance in Spring
The forgeries of jealousy, Titania thinks,
are nothing compared to the smell of this ass,
fart-filled, mechanical, blooming like a rose.
The smell of him makes me weep aloud for joy,
she says, O stable-scented Bottom, come to your
fairy queen, make me want to cry out loud
for the ecstasy in my thighs, with Bottom
on top, Titania on the bottom, though under him,
Bottom, that is, oh Bottom, she says,
she moans, grasping for his donkey ears,
his braying-breath a heaven-scented lozenge.
Oh, fart in my face, beast, say it is you,
the joiner, the one who puts us together,
low-life hardon on this summer's dream.
The Hoffman House on Gladstone Street in Cambridge, Massachusetts
This house of wood and nails and love and pain,
This house of rice and bread and oil and eggs,
Of jam and tears and cheese and red onions,
Of blinds and chairs and tables and rules and cares,
This house of trees and bricks and bugs and rulers,
Of barbecues, Susie Q's, cue tips, bikes,
Of books, manuscripts and notebooks, more books,
And even more, this house of spirit, sprites,
Earthly delights, wild nights, calm days, after
Noons under the trees in the backyard shade,
This house of wood floors, of showers and towels,
Of oatmeal and dry cereal and toast,
Coffee in the morning, coffee at noon,
This house of drama and love in June.
What I want, I want when I want it, want
it even sooner than that, I want it
yesterday or the day before it is,
faster and in larger quantities, heaped
in mounds on my doorstep, bundles of love,
oh thing of beauty, whore of eternity.
Meanwhile, back in the world, life goes onward,
oblivious to the point of my need,
this dry heave, this night sweat, this hollow ache
at the center of my being, lovely
rose petal of snot, and misfortune's child
goes ever onward in a downward way.
The person I was will always be drunk,
the one I am today did not yet drink.
Prehistory of My Ancestry
I've left the dirty Irish bars, furtive
lit with slantwise faces in the dusty
mirrors behind the bartender, tender
light of New Jersey calling me home to
the sleazy motels that seem better than
these memorable saloons, shot and a
beer joints, or I am dreaming of wind off
the Atlantic, and Brighton Beach's shore
off the old boardwalk filled with Russians
reminiscing about Primorsky, their home
far off in Siberia, even if
half their lives are spent already, who cares
about tomorrow, for tomorrow will
never come, so let's dance, my friend, let's dance.
What I have left then is a life, not a
half-life even if more than half my life
has been spent and even wasted, though each
breath I take is precipitated on
that everything from here out is a
gift and nothing more nor less, simply a
tiny miracle grown vast in my eyes
and head and even some days in my heart,
so that the light I crave is inward, air
I breathe is outside, the friends I make are
free of the old plague of booze stalking us
like a cloaked and hooded assassin.
The romance is not about booze but you.
What you don't understand--and what I am
trying to say--is that the romance is
not for alcohol anymore but for us
people in the world who meet each other
face to face and find a real dialogue
with another human being, not the
shapeless, faceless Zeitgeist of kingdom come,
and maybe that's all this craving for booze
was, a low-grade search for human links, not
another party, but an end to the
party forever and again to make
this connection at the cellular level,
and end the awful terror of the night.
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