Saturday, July 23, 2016

Mount Pleasant Cemetery

(54th Letter)

A green and peaceful place, where potholed roads
make quirky pathways in between the stones,
where a wooden footbridge spans a trickling brook,
where broad elms whisper in the summer wind:
these acres keep Aunt Brenda and Cousin Michael;
my mom's parents, Nana and Grampa Mel --
thousands of Arlingtonians whose names
(Italian, Greek, Armenian, and Irish)
have taken on a quite familiar ring
from often seeing them as I walk through.
It's likely I'll be buried here beneath
God's clement gaze, beneath unjudging skies--
be shaded by an overhang of branches,
my pulseless limbs compounded with the earth.

Sunday, July 17, 2016

Postcard Poem

At 1.30 am, I find myself praying
The Mysteries of the Heart,
my own selection of Gospel events,
on a rosary of blue-painted wood
fashioned by a Texas prisoner
out of discarded pencils.

Our Blessed Lord pledged heaven
to Dismas, the crucified Good Thief.
May Henry or Daniel or Leonard,
maker of my rosary, also hear
at the end of his life: This day
thou shalt be with me in Paradise.

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

53rd Letter

I'm alive in the dead of night.

Bifocals on the kitchen table
folded up, as hands in prayer.
I'm wearing the drugstore cheaters.
They're better for the laptop screen.

Mr Coffee recites
his litany of drip
in black Latin.
Enough for three full mugs.

Air conditioner hums
in the next room.
I slept in the recliner
with the TV intoning
its bland Nunc Dimittis.

Looking ahead
to the morning's doings:
Emily the Excellent
(as I've dubbed my therapist)
and an Arlington errand.
This afternoon, I'll
clean the apartment.

I've just watched the 3 am
Rosary broadcast on CatholicTV:
Fr Frank McFarland
at Halibut Point in 1997
before he was named a monsignor.
He's been gone for fifteen years.

Coffee's done.

Down sleepy Route 60
a lone truck rumbles:
resolute, industrious,
headed toward sunrise.

Saturday, July 2, 2016

52nd Letter

Birds of Mrs Álvarez --
sun strong through slats
of venetian blinds.

Late riser I am,
eight o'clock and still
in pajamas, unshaven.

I recall Roethke's line
I'm odd and full of love --
I've got that first part down!

Begin the day's doings,
I urge my old slow self
but linger at the keyboard.

Wednesday, June 29, 2016


It's my misfortune to be going gray
Before my childish thoughts are put away.

Dear God

Are you the overzealous traffic-cop,
or worse, the Jonathan Edwards bogeyman,
fearmonger, dictator,
and am I one misstep away
from being hurled into
a burning fiery furnace?

Or are you harbour for the seafarer,
shelter for the homeless,
safe haven to those in danger,
refuge and strength and hope?

Are you the draconian Lawgiver,
permanently vexed off
by the antics of your ungrateful creatures,
Lear thundering at Cordelia,
Nothing will come of nothing!
Mend your speech
lest you may mar your fortunes -- ?​

Or are you the Source
of Light and Love and Life --
Sustainer of the weak,
balm of Gilead to the wounded,
sweet Silence
healing our souls
in a world of noise and bruise?

Are you the rules-obsessed canon lawyer
poring through the catechism
for reasons to indict?
Are you Big Brother,
ever-vigilant spy,
keeping track of our browsing history,
our private conversations,
our thoughts, our dreams, our journal entries,
looking for something double-plus ungood,
searching for incriminating evidence,
eager to entrap?
Can you be
so ruthless, so small of heart?

You are, I hope, I pray, that Mystery,
that Love surpassing human love,
that magnanimity, that mercy,
always greater than our wretchedness,
rushing to embrace us --

I saw a hint of your glory
when I was twenty years old
in the eyes of that lovely woman
whose name you doubtless remember.
Through her, you spoke to me
and sought to thaw my icy heart,
and make my soul supple and humble.
And though I shall always cherish her memory,
she is not the only one who speaks of You.

All I have to do is look around
and listen.

From Last Spring

This poem, originally the 23rd Letter to a Poet. On the vital importance of "humor and mercy."

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Tuesday Morning Notebook

Feathered pennies
spilt from a change jar,
these sparrows.


Her soul smiles,
the lady in Denver
who makes prayer-beads.


Not every moment
will have its poem,
but every day
will have its grace.


Papa Francesco
preaches the importance
of leaving the door of our heart
just a crack open
to let the God-light in.


Make a rosary
of verbal beads
on a string
of asterisks.


Three vital rules:
Stay calm,
stay supple,
and keep your
sense of humour.


Coffee at one in the morning,
I am not confident
of getting back to sleep
anytime soon.


Relentless force
of propaganda.
Sometimes one feels
too weak to push back,
yet push back one must.


Mockery versus compassion,
hell versus heaven.


Love permits the Other
to explore, to stumble,
to fall, to get back up,
to discover for herself
how the world works.


Twenty-two minutes
of chair-prayer, a
needed balm after
a wounding day.


My friend,
your face
is a grace!


Just before sleep,
with glasses perched
on the CPAP mask,
a salutary dose
of Uncle Wystan.


Faith has nothing in common
with the rancid complacency
of unbending partisans, be they
of the Right or of the Left.


"Do you have
a mission in life?"
the psychiatric nurse
inquired of her client.

He thought for a moment
before he said,
"To make people glad."


"Can you tell me the name
of the President
of the United States?"

"I slept through the last
few elections. Did anything
important happen?"

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Sister Mary Matthias

You were 85 when I met you.
A five-foot-tall engine of love
in a sky-blue cardigan,
with a modest silver cross
over your heart. A face
of grandmotherly joy:
short white hair curling a bit,
glasses like happy octagons
in a face of laugh lines
and old-age wrinkles.

You'd hug anyone at a first meeting!
A hug like home cooking,
telling the soul You are valued,
cherished, loved.

You knew me during my days
as an East Boston kid, troubled in mood and mind,
volunteering for the church in Roxbury.
You'd smile at me on my glummest days
and my distemper would dissipate
like an ice cube in hot coffee.

You'd preside over bingo with the St Patrick's seniors.
One day, you had me call the numbers!
Unused to the task,
I rose to the occasion
calling out "N-38!" "G-54!"
with gusto and theatrical precision.

Every March 17th
you'd wear the customary green
and join the parish stalwarts
(Cape Verdeans, Latinos, African-Americans)
in singing Irish songs
like "Harrigan" and "Molly Malone."

My dear friend Deborah would have loved you.
You would have taken a keen interest
in the story of how she and I first met
at Latin School in our teens;
in tales of her travels to Hyderabad
and her several years in Seattle and Portland.
She might have even knitted you a scarf
for the bitter winter walks from the convent to St Pat's!

Elena would have loved you.
And you would have loved this midwestern poet,
this Christian soul--
artist, singer, lover of music,
bright capacious heart!
You would have loved her poems
praising the "ebony alleluias" of crickets,
and the "frailty and faithfulness" of family.

My neighbors at the Manor--
some of them not much younger than you!--
they would have delighted in your company.
I think of devout Mrs Kelly,
who'd doubtless remember the same old songs,
"I'll Be Seeing You"
and "When Your Old Wedding Ring Was New,"
the same war-stories,
what things were like on the homefront
as our boys fought the Axis,
the same preconciliar Church
where Cardinal Cushing
said the Rosary on the radio
and Bishop Sheen was a TV star
who lightened the mood a bit
and always signed off with
"Bye now, and God love you!"

You once met a saint, you told me:
St Katharine Drexel, who founded your order,
the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament.
Some saintliness rubbed off!

Now you're with St Katharine and all the holy ones
with the anawim, the poor souls
whom the Lord so loves:
you're with the God who called you, Colette Gallagher,
an Irish-American girl,
to travel to New Orleans and Boston's inner city
as Sister Mary Matthias,
bearer of Christ-light, Christ-love.

It seems impertinent to wonder:
Were you ever unsure? Did you ever doubt?

As with all religious,
you gave up much in the way of worldly ease
to become a channel of mercy
(for close to a hundred years!)
to those of us who waver and who fail.


No magic number, forty-seven:
you are aching bones,
sleep apnea, gray hair,
two hundred fifty pounds,
shortness of breath,
sluggish lumbering gait.
You are Dad's face
in the bathroom mirror.
You are lust and gluttony
undiminished (fortified,
in fact, by years of practice).
You are Boston Latin School's
30th Class Reunion,
a couple of dozen months away
from AARP mailings.
You are flirting with barmaids
born when you could drink.
You are rust in the muscles,
creaking in the joints,
Atenolol, Simvastatin,
glucose levels, finger-sticks,
beerbelly, five o'clock shadow,
crushes on women
twenty-five and sixty-five.
Your quick mind mocks
your body's disrepair.
No doubt you've passed
the halfway point,
but you're a mellow bastard,
you greet the world
with crusty compassion,
gruff tolerance,
manly mercy.
The flash in your eye
from behind the bifocals
lets the world know there's
life in the old boy yet.