Thursday, November 26, 2015

My submission to "La Familia"

("La Familia" is the nationwide collaborative epic poem for which the United States Poet Laureate, Juan Felipe Herrera, is soliciting contributions through the Library of Congress website. Contributions must not exceed 200 typed characters. I do not know if this submission will be accepted! But it can't be accepted if it isn't submitted, correct?)

I finger these words, like
beads of an ancestral rosary:
Buona sera, signorina!
Céad mile fáilte! Muito obrigado.
So many voices flow into
the sea of who I am,
my heart beats polyglottally,
many-tongued and joyful.

Full Moon

    Full moon, you don't mind
that I am often churlish.
    You still shine on me.

A Thanksgiving

November, you're all right. A bracing breeze!
Piles of dead leaves. Trees like stark black shocks.
I actually look forward to First Freeze!

You will not pander. You won't aim to please.
You spurn all popular, all wicked works.
I love your honest chill, your sharp-tongued breeze.

Allergic to July, I curse and sneeze:
Arrest that pervert Summer who sneaks and lurks
Around September. Hands up, buster! Freeze!

When frosty air brings beach bums to their knees,
When gusty winds strip oaks to their tough barks,
Those are my days. November, you're a breeze!

You're blighted slightly by Dimocracy's
Leap-year prostration to self-worshipping jerks.
I beg you, still their snake-tongues: make them freeze!

Hot days oppress me like a dread disease.
Autumn, you're bliss with your 4:30 darks.
November, how I cherish your cold breeze!
I dance for joy each year at the first freeze.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Don't Listen

Tall thin pale girl
with dark straight hair,
not more than sixteen,
glasses set on a studious nose,
don't listen to them--

those blunt-witted boys,
those callous girls.

For you are lovely
beyond the stale prettiness
of What Everybody Likes.
You are the beautiful
music of youth,

mellow, resilient,
subtle and smiling.

You are that first
questioning day in March
when a tentative breeze asks, May I?
You are earth, timid at first,
tiptoeing toward spring—

you are that better tomorrow
when hearts will be wise and kind.

Baked Potato

You are the baked potato
in my Thanksgiving dinner.
Gruff and blunt,
you're my favorite part of the meal.

I dress up your plainness
with boatloads of real butter
(none of this Smart Balance stuff!),
with golden ounces of turkey-gravy
ladled onto your open-faced halves,
with a fine black sleet of ground pepper—
and yes, enough salt
to give Health Fascists an aneurysm.

But at root, you’re as basic
as a burlap bag,
warm and honest as fresh bread;
you're more straightforward
than cornbread stuffing,
wiser than the overly cheerful orange
of the unglazed carrot.

Earth-apple of my eye,
my parcel of starch, my pomme-de-terre,
my ace of spuds, my super-tuber,
my tough old broad,
what makes you so good?

Monday, November 23, 2015

Folgers Instant

Ten-ounce dose of Folgers Instant, black;
Poor man's Keurig, microwaved cup of mud:
From mug to gut in just three minutes flat.

Stop & Shop's brand, pardon my French, is crap.
Cigarette ash meets dustbin lint. Not good.
But you, my Folgers Instant, taken black,

Perk me awake with crackle, pop, and snap!
Send those brain-waves racing through my head!
You're polished off in just three minutes flat.

My second cup, right here. I'm keeping track.
(Should I be drinking herbal tea instead?)
O ten-ounce dose of Folgers, lady in black!

Dark-eyed dominatrix! Whip that crack!
Humble my pride beneath your punishing tread:
Demolish me in just three minutes flat.

I love you, Coffee. Do you love me back?
Want you, need you, crave you! I've got it bad:
Ten-ounce dose of Folgers Instant, black:
Down the hatch in just three minutes flat.


You were a son-of-a-bitch bastard.
You were the Celtics losing in overtime
on a dirty play by Bill Laimbeer.
You were worse than Buckner
flubbing that simple grounder.
You were worse than the gas lines of the '70s.
You were worse than Tom Petty
duetting with Stevie Nicks.
You made Mr Akeson seem charming.
Hell, you made Stalin seem charming.
You were just plain ugly.

Dismal year, abysmal year, you can eat dirt and die.
You sank my battleship, you wiped out my bank account,
you left me in the lurch with four flat tires
thirteen miles from the nearest garage.
You were an unlucky number, a shattered mirror,
a terrible fall that broke my back.
You were the Scottish play, you were toil and trouble,
you were “Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now,”
a morning sick as the day of doom,
a surly drunk.

I got kicked out of college
for threatening my numbskull roommate.
It was the last time I saw Leah.
My parents split up.
I drank fiercely. I saw movies with Bragdon.
I turned twenty-one and did nothing for my birthday.
I lived in East Boston on the noisiest street
with that hellshrike of a neighbour blaring hip-hop
and screaming abuse at her kids.
I published atrocious poems in Mudfish.

I got into fights with Catholics.
I became Catholic--again. I worked in Brookline,
if you could call it work, sitting at a desk.
I still loved Leah, madly, passionately,
I would never see her again. No matter.
I figured I'd apply to Fordham,
to Dartmouth, to Bard.
Then I thought the better of it.
I heard radio blowhards pummel the Left.
I read Bill Buckley, and loved the haughty syntax.
I read Miss Moore, and loved her peaceful wisdom,
I who was neither peaceful nor wise.

You were peanut butter in the mousetrap,
cyanide in the Tylenol, arsenic in the tap water.
You were bombs over Baghdad,
swarms of hornets in my noggin.
You were 38 degrees and heavy rain.
You were Mesto, stanco, e spirante.
You were "Love Will Tear Us Apart.”
You unbloomed the best hope ever sown.
You were an insult to the brain.
You were joy found dead at the side of the road,
stripped and skinned and slain.

Letter to Myself

You've made it this far. Doing something right.
You haven't checked out early, like Uncle Dylan
Or met a bad end like a movie villain.
You won't go gentle into that good night.

You're Number Six in a line of Thomases.
You've outlived every Tom except your dad.
How are you doing these days? Not bad?
Has middle age kept all its promises?

What keeps you going? someone asked Miss Moore.
"Surrender of life has not yet been demanded."
What gives you hope? That's what I want to know.

O scintillating wit! O crashing bore!
(You're a little of both, if I may be so candid.)
You're all right. Keep your chin up. Take it slow.

Unsent Letter

With knife-blade wit and acrobatic brain,
With humor barbed and biting, self-directed,
You've stolen laughter from the house of pain.

You've managed to stay reasonably sane,
But can't elude the years that crime infected,
Or fake them out with a quick athletic brain.

You can't flush certain memories down the drain.
You nail them dead, they're quickly resurrected.
Can laughter break free from the house of pain?

A snake-oil faith, a cheap hope, is the bane
Of your keen mind. When sacred trust is wrecked, it
Gives jagged edges to the bright young brain.

Abel gets murdered by blood-brother Cain.
Bruised reeds get broken. Children must expect it:
They stifle laughter in the house of pain.

No Cheer or Tide can wash away that stain.
Traitorous grace is slow to save the wretched.
Your sawtoothed wit, your swift resilient brain
Steals bitter laughter from the house of pain.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Letter to L.

It was October of '89 when I first saw you. At college.
At once my cold world brightened and warmed,
And my heart, that sluggish lump, became exultant.

The first time I spoke to you -- oh, that was memorable!
How I embarrassed myself with my babbling elation!
A nervous ninny, and (did you know?) deeply lovestruck.

I would like to praise your voice, but I need help from the poets:
A hand laid softly on the soul. Slow-fluting like a reed. The ice
About my heart melts as the snow on mountain heights.

When Alvin Ailey's company performed on late-night TV,
You stood in the student lounge and watched, entranced by the dancers' agility.
I sat and watched you watch the dancers. I, too, was entranced.

"Are you hungry?" you once asked me, at some unlikely hour.
"I have spaghetti," you explained. I was, indeed, hungry.
And we sat in your room and ate spaghetti together.

One time, we were chatting in the doorway of my dorm-room.
I looked down and I noticed you were barefoot.
My knees went weak. I almost knelt to pay you homage.

You wore t-shirts with slogans of pride and defiance:
"Imported from Africa," read one across the front;
And on the back: "I didn't ask to come!"

I often imagined, in my sillier moments,
That were you to walk across desert sands,
Flowers would spring up from your kissable footprints.

I remember the name of the play you acted in:
Unfinished Women Cry in No Man's Land
While a Bird Dies in a Gilded Cage.

I would wake up each morning at five-thirty
And go to the common room and pretend to study,
Knowing that you'd be shortly passing by.

And sure enough, I'd see you each morning just after six
In a white robe and furry brown slippers, en route to the showers,
Your hair in a glorious explosive tangle of blackness.

Sometimes I'd ask you a slappably dumb question.
You were so gentle, so charitable to my awkwardness.
You knew that I didn't know as much as I thought I did.

One afternoon, you were sitting at a desk, seething,
Lately subjected to some racist disdain.
I wanted to comfort, to ease the pain. But all I could do was listen.

I did, however, venture one timid question:
"How often does something like that happen to you?" --
"About twice a week." -- My eyes widened in stupid surprise.

I once heard you tell off some arrogant jerk.
A modern-day Magnificat! The strength of your voice
Thwarted the proud man in his heart's conceit.

We had so much in common, you and I!
You admired June Jordan, Spike Lee, Public Enemy;
I was mad for Dylan Thomas, Spencer Tracy, The Smiths,

And you. But I was convinced of the impossibility
Of anything beyond polite conversation, small talk.
Had you known of my idolatry, you would have been aghast.

I'm forty-six. It's been twenty-five Decembers
Since last I saw you in the flesh. But how many times
Have we met in dreams since that painful sundering?

Your honeyed voice, your jet-black hair, your kindly eyes.
They seem so real ... a cruel and insubstantial mockery,
Phantoms bred by a sleeping brain.

You live a quarter-century away. You have your world.
Would you approve of the fellow I have become:
More even-keeled, church-going, still bookish and wordy?

Or would you deplore my failure to forget you,
My blameworthy urge to raid the unraidable past
To steal just one more glimpse, just one more word?

Sunday, November 15, 2015

She's So High

Thirty years old. At Chili's Copley Place,
where Catherine and Katrina tended bar,
I was midway through my third Sam October
when "She's So High" came on the radio.

And a few weeks back, I was at the Scollay Pub
where Lady Elizabeth reigns in heavenly splendour,
and the same damn song (Tal Bachman, 1999)
blared from the jukebox, catching me unaware.

O Cleopatra, Juliet, Beatrice, Aphrodite,
you open up the wounds of memory
and pour in the salt of sentimental pop-songs.

It's been twenty-five years since college, since
last I saw that lovely face. Those days are dead.
But there is now, this moment, and the next.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

A Paraphrase of Goethe

(Wandrers Nachtlied II: "Über allen Gipfeln")

Over all the hills,
A hush:
You sense
Among the trees and brush
Hardly a breath:
The small birds still their song.
Wait. You too shall be still
Before too long.

Saturday, November 7, 2015

Lines for Sue

you’d listen to Episcopal liturgies on the radio

you loved your Charles Dickens martinis ("olive or twist?")

you read May Sarton and painted seascapes at Chatham

you taught mathematics to the women of Regis College

you would have loved Pope Francis I feel certain

you called me C-33 I called you The Bishop

you would take Mom and me to Henrietta's twice a year

you would talk to your younger cousin on the phone
about everything from Seamus Heaney to Ted Kennedy

you especially loved the poems of Mary Oliver

you loved art and family and peace and the Regis nuns

you sympathized with Hans Küng’s progressive theology

you disdained the narrow mind and the grudging soul

you died of cancer seven Julys ago

you live in my heart O most unorthodox saint

Patriots' Day

(April 21, 2014)

Patriots' Day. We watch the Marathon
(switched from the Sox, down big to Baltimore)
at the Scollay Pub, sequestered from the sun.

Liz is quite busy. Lunchtime has begun.
Some noontime souse would like a little more
this Monday of the yearly Marathon.

Coffee for me. It seems I'm not alone:
Beside me is a fascinating bore,
a barfly favoring shade instead of sun.

Rita Jeptoo achieves a record run.
Meb for the men! Star-spangled voices roar!
Today, Boston's reclaimed her Marathon.

Liz winsomely puzzles over all this fun:
the merest thought of running makes her sore!
She keeps us regulars from the April sun

until they've crowned and medalled those who won.
I call her over: "Check, please, mon amour!"
Patriots' Day. I've watched the Marathon
at the Scollay Pub. Once more, I face the sun.

My Belly

My belly
is the mayor
of Chubbyville, USA,
the abbot
of Amplegirth Abbey.

My belly is always in a hurry:
it walks into a room
before the rest of me!

After a cup
of Folgers Instant
and an English muffin
with peanut butter,
my belly is a dulled, lulled tomcat
on a shaggy sun-porch rug.

My belly once dated
Catherine Zeta-Jones
(in the same dream that featured
President Dwight Eisenhower
walking the tightrope
with Janelle Monáe).

My belly is erudite and polished,
slovenly and scruffy.
My belly got double-promoted.
My belly repeated a year.

My belly is connected,
from way back.
My belly knows some people.
My belly takes care of business.

Some people say
that if my belly had two brains
one of ‘em
would die of loneliness.
But my belly
knows the score.
There are no flies
on my belly.

My belly got up
on the wrong side of the bed.
My belly is feeling its oats.
My belly
is supporting Edison
by leaving all the lights on.
My belly goes
gallivanting and calooping
where no man, woman, or child
has ever calooped
or gallivanted before.

My belly is a player.
My belly is the greatest dancer.
My belly is Casanova.

Chicks dig my belly.

My belly is running
the Franconia Scramble,
and is "leading way behind."
(There are good and bad advantages
to leading way behind.)

My belly plays all the hits
of the ‘60s, ‘70s, and ‘80s.

My belly’s got the right stuff.

Spiro Agnew

Spiro Agnew was hilarious.
Not the man, but the name.

I was four years old
and showing signs of precocity,
so Mom began teaching me
the basics: how to read a clock,
how to spell Saratoga Street
and Woolworth's, and our own name,
days of the week, months of the year,
and the names of the President and Vice President.

I laughed for ten minutes at what I felt
was Agnew's outlandish name.

Now I myself was unaware
that my own name was a bit odd.
Soon, schoolmates would make me aware:
DeFritos, DeFraidycat, and so on.

Forty years later,
I live in an America
where no name is stranger than any other—
where ethnicities are splendidly unpredictable!
where Polish surnames
have African-American faces,
where a girl from Bangladesh
could be called Caitlin or Bridget,
where Scandinavian handles
attach themselves to Asian adoptees.

I apologize to Spiro Agnew's ghost
for my callous laughter of 1973.
I'm wiser now, I hope—
and glad to be in a place where everyone,
at least theoretically,
fits right in.

Friendly Discussion

I always feel a twinge of wounded pride,
A slight sharp pain of anger and offense,
When somebody dispraises Dylan Thomas.

His poems were my Bible at sixteen:
He taught me that anything could be done
Within the frame of the ten-syllable line.

I think of him, weirdly, as family --
A year before she died, his daughter came
To Cambridge and read her own poetry.

I missed the reading. When I found Aeronwy
On YouTube, at the very first word she spoke,
I started crying, mourning the lost chance.

And now I see the respectable Mr McClatchy
Has called the work of Dylan Thomas "bunkum."
Permissible opinion, but has old J. D.

Written a line as lasting in the mind
As Do not go gentle into that good night?
Or This sandgrain day in the bent bay’s grave?

Has he enlivened English so that passionate youth
Want to make poetry their life-work, their life-love?
No, nobody touches Dylan when I'm around

Or we're going to have a friendly discussion.

The Widow at Ninety

Brian was a good man. Born
in Tipperary, he came here with
his parents when he was thirteen.
Served in the Navy during the war.

We got married in ‘48, at St Ann’s
on Holcomb Road. It’s closed now.
He died of a massive heart attack
when he was forty, leaving me

at thirty-nine to raise four boys by myself.
I had to learn how to pay the bills.
Would you like another cup of tea?
It’s no trouble. Oh, how I miss him!

He always did the shopping, not me.
He was a better cook than I was—
and believe you me, I'm no slouch!
Not once did he ever hit me or the kids.

Arch Street Candles

(Arch Street: the popular name among Bostonians
for the St Anthony Shrine and Ministry Center,
a Franciscan friary at Arch Street, Downtown Crossing)

They're fake,
these candles by the saints’ statues,
these frail electric flickers glassed in red plastic.

Red as the blood of martyrs:
Becket, Romero, good St Lawrence.

Red as the lettering
of old Latin rubrics.

Red as the strawberries
sold by fruit vendors on nearby Summer Street.

Red as the Downtown Crossing subway sign.

Red as the dresses
in the red-light district.

Red as the Passion,
red as the Precious Blood,
red as the Five Wounds,
red as the Sacred Heart
exposed and blazing from the chest
against which the beloved disciple leaned.

Red as the nail-polish
on the toes of the Haitian housewife
plunking down her bundles with a heavy sigh
to station herself in a stiff wooden pew,
to take out her beads and whisper the Rosary
into the ear of the Queen of Heaven.