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Saturday, December 31, 2016

December 31

Sitting on the balcony
of this old brick building 
on a gray Hogmanay
I finger blue glass beads 
& whisper to cold clouds
bless the Lord o my soul.

I'm waiting for Mom
to come over so we can go 
to Shanghai Village 
for a cheap but hearty lunch.

My forty-eighth new year.
I'm weary from bad sleep 
but grateful for my family
and grateful for my friends.

Monday, December 12, 2016

Making Things Happen: An Essay

I

I am in love with words. Language, to me, is as water to the fish: in it, I live and move and breathe.
     I love poetry. I revere Dylan Thomas, guiding star of my adolescence. There are others: E. E. Cummings, Theodore Roethke, Seamus Heaney, Marianne Moore, Mary Oliver, Ted Kooser, Countee Cullen, Hart Crane, W. H. Auden – and these are only the recent poets! I cannot neglect Shakespeare, Campion, Catullus, Keats, Novalis, Hopkins, Owen, Dickinson, Longfellow, Tennyson, Whitman.
    
For the first two and a half years of my life, I didn’t speak. I made no sounds that were recognizably English. Well, once I started! People who know me have had a devil of a time ever since in getting me to curb my babble.
     I talk to myself. It’s almost constant. I have done it for as long as I can remember. An only child, I needed something to fend off loneliness. What better than the sound of my own voice? I wonder if there’s an element of clinical disorder about this habit. But I am reassured by the example of British actor-writer Stephen Fry, who tells of his lifelong tendency to repeat “Stephenese,” gibberish phrases, out loud when alone:

It was the journey from consonant to vowel, the tripping rhythm,
the texture that delighted me. As others get tunes on their brain,
I get words or phrases on the brain. I will awaken, for example,
with the sentence “Hoversmack tender estimate” on my lips. I
will say it in the shower, while I wait for the kettle to boil, and
as I open the morning post. Sometimes it will be with me all day.1


     At school, I rarely cared for what I was supposed to read. But I have always read on my own, often with more enthusiasm than understanding. At an early age, I’d take American Heritage into quiet corners, and try to learn as many new words as possible. And at Mass, I’d follow along in the missalette, enchanted by the gentle cadences of the 1970s liturgy.
     Words to me were mysterious, magical. They had charm—whether they were the words of pop songs like “A Horse with No Name,” or “Brandy (You’re A Fine Girl),” or “American Pie”—or the hallowed formulae of the Eucharist. Prayers and AM-radio songs were perhaps my first “poems,” the earliest specimens of what Auden called “memorable speech.”

Neither Mom nor Dad have a literary bent. To be certain, they “have a way with words”: colorful turns of phrase which I have inherited. Dad once said of someone, “If he had two brains, one of ‘em would die of loneliness.” And Mom once delighted me by pointing to a Maxwell House container and saying, “That coffee’s got coffee in it.” Mom sometimes has a Yogi Berra-ish twist to her speech, as when she spoke of the Red Sox “leading way behind” in an important game. Mom likes to read a good love story, and can still—half a century after St Peter’s High School—recite a few lines of Mrs. Browning’s famous sonnet “How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.”


II

The motto of Boston Latin School is Sumus primi, we are first. BLS is the first public school in the nation, dating back to 1635. Illustrious alumni include Benjamin Franklin, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Phillips Brooks, Leonard Bernstein, Theodore White, Sumner Redstone, and others. It was an all-boys school until 1972. I arrived in September 1980 as an under-aged seventh-grader.
     It didn’t occur to me until then that I might be a poet; or, indeed, that poetry was a thing that living persons did! I can’t recall any books of poetry among my childhood reading. And so it was in Mr. Robert G. Waldron’s English class that I first encountered poetry in any meaningful way. At the front of Mr. Waldron’s Room 214, there was a handmade poster of a tree beside a forked rural path. This picture was captioned with the final stanza of Frost’s “The Road Not Taken”:

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less travelled by,
And that has made all the difference.2


     We “sixies” (as 7th-graders are called in Latin School, being sixth in line from graduation) met other poems under Mr. Waldron’s tutelage: Poe’s “Annabel Lee”; Burns’s “Of a’ the airts the wind can blaw”; Shakespeare’s “All the world’s a stage”; and Frost’s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.” In fact, Robert Frost may have been the first poet -- apart from Messrs Lennon & McCartney -- whom I enjoyed outside the classroom. Even if the georgics and pastorals of Frost seem less lustrous to me nowadays, I am nonetheless conscious of a great debt to him. He inspired my first efforts at rhyme. And while my verse of 1981 would strike even the most indulgent reader as unpromising, I had found something at which I was confident -- if not yet competent!

                                    Widespread destruction throughout the town
                                    The gutters and streets are unclean
                                    Cars blow smoke for miles around
                                    The city cannot be redeemed


Rhymes were “doable.” They were fun! They didn’t require a helmet or shoulder-pads or teamwork. I had no poetic rivals (yet!). It was a solitary pursuit -- fine by me, an only child accustomed to as much solitude as school and parents and city would permit.

III

Before Latin School, there was Salesians.
     When I was ten, I became a member of East Boston’s Salesian Boys Club. I recall the friendly staff: Dave, Wally, Brother Pat, Brother Kevin, Father Sid; and Jim, a fellow in his late teens who helped the staff on a volunteer basis. Jim was literate, musical, creative, progressive. He strongly encouraged my creative side. He was very kind about my fledgling efforts at poetry.
     As my appreciation of literature grew, Jim would always recommend something by which he believed I’d be edified or challenged. He got me to try James Joyce. He was remarkably patient when I’d thrust into his hands my latest pastiche of Finnegans Wake. Pretending comprehension, I had read excerpts of the Irish novelist’s masterpiece via the Viking Press’s Portable James Joyce.
     As Jim went on to Suffolk University, he’d always share with me the items on his English curriculum. He sensed that I’d be stimulated by the literature he was reading, even if it was a bit “over my head.” Jim pointed me in the direction of T. S. Eliot, if only to show me that poems need not be written in ballad stanzas! The first book of poetry I ever bought was Eliot’s Four Quartets. I still have the yellow paperback, priced at (can you believe it?) $1.95. Between Jim’s helpful nudgings and my Latin School studies, I was developing an addiction to the written word, to any writer who would use language in an innovative way.
     Jim was one of the souls who helped make my adolescence in rough-and-tumble East Boston fairly tolerable. A wise guide, a mentor. (And he was alert to new music. I believe that he was the first to inform me of an up-and-coming Irish quartet named for a Cold War spy-plane: U2.) I have rarely found a more calm, temperate, measured, intelligent, perceptive, kindly soul. His influence on my undisciplined, intemperate self must be gratefully acknowledged.

IV

I do not know the names of birds or beasts or flowers. I don’t know a bougainvillea from a bumbershoot. I can tell you the names of Blue Line subway stations. I can distinguish farfalle from orecchiette, pappardelle from capelli degli angeli. But I’m hard-pressed to tell a gladiolus from a goldfinch, or a hummingbird from a heliotrope. In Eastie, triple- deckers were more plentiful than trees. So, what little I know of nature comes at second hand: from Theodore Roethke or Mary Oliver, or from the poems and photographs on my friend Elena’s blog.
     At college, I lamented the lack of natural beauty on the UMass Amherst campus. I began to miss Boston’s attractions: the Esplanade, the Charles River, the Emerald Necklace. I like seeing butterflies and sparrows and bluejays and cardinals. (Who doesn’t?) I like mountains. I like the ocean, especially in winter, under a slate-grey sky. But as a city boy, I am most familiar with the beauty of the human person, with the diversity of human faces: the grandeur, the grace, the weariness, the pain, the joy, on the faces of my fellow MBTA commuters.

V

When I was fifteen, Mr Waldron urged me to read a contemporary Irish poet whose name I did not know: Seamus Heaney. Apparently, Mr. Waldron thought that my creativity would be energized by Heaney’s verse. Soon afterwards, I went to a Harvard Square bookstore and bought the thinnest, cheapest book of Heaney’s that I could find: Field Work ($5.95). It was the beginning of an abiding love!
     Heaney’s poetry was unmistakably poetry. It was passionate, violent, elegiac, forthright, worked-on, hard-fought. It was crafted. It was art. Soon, I had the last few lines of the first Glanmore Sonnet committed to memory:

                        Old ploughsocks gorge the subsoil of each sense
                        And I am quickened with a redolence
                        Of the fundamental dark unblown rose.
                        Wait then … Breasting the mist, in sowers’ aprons,
                        My ghosts come striding into their spring stations.
                        The dream grain whirls like freakish Easter snows.3


I started writing what I thought were imitations of Heaney. These knock-offs were wretched verses making bold to analyze the events of a maternally ancestral homeland I knew nothing about. But it was around this time that I had my first go at writing pentameter, clumsily counting out syllables until they added up to ten.

VI

Dylan Thomas found me when I turned sixteen. I had already seen two of his poems in an anthology: “Fern Hill,” which I loftily deemed stodgy and uninspiring; and the deathless ode to his dying father, “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night.” I admired the villanelle: a tour de force in a difficult form, built on a pattern of binary repetition and only two rhymes in the space of nineteen lines. Though vexed by obscurities of diction, I felt that this was more potent stuff than the mistily bucolic “Fern Hill.”
     One day, in the Poetry section of WordsWorth, Cambridge, I picked up New Directions Paperbook 316: Dylan Thomas’s Collected Poems (as the ample selection was then wrongly called). I began to read the Prologue and was helplessly magnetized. In Thomas, I found kinship with the mud-tongued poems of Seamus Heaney. I also found resemblances to the turgid, disorienting idiom of French symbolist Arthur Rimbaud. (Neat trick, to resemble both!) It was as if I were encountering the English language for the first time.

                                    Seaward, the salmon sucked sun slips
                                    And the dumb swans drub blue
                                    My dabbed bay’s dusk, as I hack
                                    This rumpus of shapes
                                    For you to know
                                    How I, a spinning man,
                                    Glory also this star, bird
                                    Roared, sea born, man torn, blood blest.4


My reaction to Dylan Thomas illustrated Rilke’s aperçu that works of art cannot be reached by criticism, that only love can grasp and hold and judge them. Even “Fern Hill” – once I grasped its syllabic patterns and detected the skillful parallelisms – acquired a certain grace. But being sixteen, I preferred the early poems of adventurous (reckless?) diction, of crash and welter harnessed by iambic:

                        Altarwise by owl-light in the halfway house,
                        The gentleman lay graveward with his furies.5

Or:

In the beginning was the mounting fire
That set alight the weathers from a spark,
A three-eyed, red-eyed spark, blunt as a flower,
Life rose and spouted from the rolling seas,
Burst in the roots, pumped from the earth and rock
The secret oils that drive the grass.6


     After reading Paul Ferris’s fine biography of Thomas, I got the dangerous idea that strong drink might have something to do with poetry. But dear old Dylan wasn’t the first to plant this notion in my brain. It was Heaney, in his elegy to Robert Lowell (which paraphrases Lowell’s translation of Pasternak to great effect): “You drank America/ like the heart’s/ iron vodka.”7
     I drank Dylan Thomas like firewater, like moonshine, like oceans of Cymric ale. I spent a year locked in my room, writing imitations. Among these apprentice efforts was “The Holy Season,” an elegy to two girls whom I remembered from elementary school. Within months of each other, they had taken their own lives. I speak of them in the poem as sisters, but they were not related, except inasmuch as they both attended Mansfield Elementary, as we’ll call it, and both died by their own hand.

THE HOLY SEASON

Despite the weather
(the orange winds of fall
and green of April),

God's children safely stay: the savior's hands
protect the small towns from the blizzard tides,
prevent the ark's timber from rotting
and keep the just-born babies, golden, asleep.

Never forgotten
(blessed by the raindrop)
is the landscape

where the youngsters learned to grow and fight
against adulthood creeping in from all sides.
Their wishes whispered to the dark have never
gone ignored, unanswered, wished in vain.

Words reach heaven
unseen through today's cry
of love and rain

but where is the saint or sage who can explain
the adolescent pair of sister suicides?
This question will echo long past the holy season
for the answer lies nowhere on this landscape.

The hilltop cross
sheds artificial light
each evening, despite.


Blameworthy, perhaps, to use the double tragedy as an occasion to test poetic rhetoric; but I must say I was deeply affected. I liked both girls when I was in grade school, though I did not know them well.
     The poem is flawed in other ways. I don’t know what I was thinking when I wrote of “small towns”; East Boston was (and is) unmistakably an urban community. And the sudden introduction of the tragedy into the poem was not a conscious parallel of the shock of the girls’ deaths, but rather an instance of my ineptitude at poetic orchestration.

VII

My language was obscure and dense, in imitation of Dylan Thomas and other midcentury poets whom I discovered in old anthologies: Hart Crane; Wallace Stevens; George Barker. I had “the fascination for what’s difficult.”8 Combine the Dylan Thomas influence with the Symbolist influence coming via French class, and it led to poems such as the one that follows.
     In early drafts, I called it “Apostasy of Love.” I have revised it over the years; it is now called “This Unbidden Love.” If it seems a mature poem for someone of sixteen, please keep in mind that any alleged maturity can be attributed to years of revision!

THIS UNBIDDEN LOVE

The most unthinkable
Flower that ever will have grown
Is the explicit lilac with its lurid scent,
With its vivid hungering and tremulous lips,
A breath alive, a flesh unknown,
A world springlike and full.

The ripest sweetest fruit
Turned liquid on the swirling tongue
Becomes a wine-drunk whisper tasting loud,
Revives forgotten midnights in the gut
And bitter sinful saccharines
Stimulate the tooth.

Two souls, four lungs: each nerve
Breathes fulfillment of its dream
While this unbidden love, the tide's great surge,
Turbulent ecstasy of rapturous urge,
Makes live, in one climactic rhyme,
Epitome of sense.


     I always over-wrote. But I was learning to make verbal music other than the jingly four-three of half-mastered ballad measure. I learned to cut weak or hackneyed phrases and replace them with strange new phrases! Rather like jigsaw-puzzling: trying to find the word that fit best. My standard was a gut sense for the right sound.

Envoi

Thirty years later, I am still writing poetry, inspired by ancestors, contemporaries, friends. It is a sustaining and vitalizing art. It may be true, as W. H. Auden once claimed, that “poetry makes nothing happen”9 in the arena of politics, but in the realm of Art, every poem is -- at least ideally -- a mini-genesis, a co-creation with God, a participation in the hallowed grandeur which helps the soul breathe and the heart live.


NOTES

  1. Stephen Fry, Moab Is My Washpot: An Autobiography (New York: Random House, 1999), p. 89

  1. Robert Frost, “The Road Not Taken,” The Poetry of Robert Frost, ed. Edward Connery Lathem (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1979), p. 105

  1. Seamus Heaney, “Glanmore Sonnets: I,” Field Work (New York: The Noonday Press, 1979), p. 33

  1. Dylan Thomas, “Author’s Prologue,” The Collected Poems of Dylan Thomas (New York: New Directions, 1957), p. xvi

  1. Thomas, “Altarwise by Owl-Light,” ibid., p. 80

  1. Thomas, “In the Beginning,” ibid., p. 27

  1. Heaney, “Elegy,” op. cit., p. 31

  1. W. B. Yeats, “The Fascination of What’s Difficult,” The Collected Poems of W. B. Yeats: A New Edition, ed. Richard J. Finneran (New York: Collier Books, 1989), p. 93

9. W. H. Auden, “In Memory of W. B. Yeats,” Collected Poems, ed. Edward Mendelson (New York: Vintage Books, 1991), p. 248

Thursday, November 24, 2016

Autumn Leaves

Some cheer fresh green instead of autumn leaves:
Me, I'm enchanted by the red
of autumn leaves.

You're so lovely, so fire-bright, so vivid!
(All the things I said
to autumn leaves.)

It's such a good feeling to know you're alive
sang Mister Rogers, the Fred
of autumn leaves.

If I were sleepy, I'd bundle up, lie down,
ensconce me in a bed
of autumn leaves.

I bang the keyboard in a righteous fury,
commenting on the thread
of autumn leaves!

Floridians sojourning in New England
are struck still by the dread
of autumn leaves.

The first Saturday night of November
we fall back (we don't spring ahead!)
with autumn leaves.

High-priestess of code-writing, tech-whiz,
hit me with hex-colors! Embed
the autumn leaves.

Dylan Thomas wrote "In the White Giant's Thigh"
-- beery and brash in the shed
of autumn leaves.

A tawny tomcat slinks between the trees,
sleek furry quadruped
of autumn leaves.

In Hyannis it's football with the Kennedys:
Jack and Bobby and Ted
in autumn leaves.

I love these mornings lively with bright chill;
Mount Pleasant garlands the dead
with autumn leaves.

Thomas, old rake! You'll live to see the day
when Xanadu is carpeted
with autumn leaves.

Saturday, October 1, 2016

Guess What

Against the cracked asphalt
of the parking lot,
it's raining
with a persistence
much like the chatter
of a three-year-old child
pulling at sleeves, impatient
to have us grown-ups
guess what.

Sunday, September 4, 2016

Suburbia, Briefly

September, and a squirrel's tooth
works on an August nut;
a spandex-suited bicyclist
rides his accustomed route.
St Lucy's bells at nine o'clock
ring out their hallowed chime;
old men remember when the bus
to Boston cost a dime.

At Annabella's Coffee Shop,
we find both sage and fool:
teenagers text and yawn and pout
(next week, they're back in school).
Sheila who brings the morning mail
is whistling happily --
a tardy blossom might admit
that rascal bumblebee!

Thursday, August 25, 2016

Opening Act

Surreal anthems from the fire escape.
He mends his mind with ribbons of Scotch tape.

He wrote "Apostasy" at age sixteen --
Flushed with the blood of Baudelaire's grape.

Brooding lad from Eastie, precocious tippler,
He wrapped himself in Superbard's cape.

Young and difficult under the triple-deckers,
He got himself into more than one scrape.

He learned the right words for all the wrong things
And sang mellifluously as any ape.

Nursed his wounds by the cramped bedroom's window.
A breeze from the back would startle the drape.

He carried The Map of Love wherever he went.
His dream (dark Beatrice!) took shape.

Saint of the city.  Columbus of the Blue Line.
Sage subway litany, blighted landscape.

He cracked sarcastic jokes.  More tame than Wilde.
He was the victim of his own crude jape.

Tommy's performance during the opening act
Left friends and enemies speechless, agape.


[2012]

Friday, August 12, 2016

Harvard Square

You gluten-free philosophers,
post-punk mathematicians,
riot-grrl scientists
and fair-trade historians,
with your organic tote-bags,
bi-curious Birkenstocks,
vegetarian poetry-slams,
existentialist gelato,
quinoa bike-helmets,
and free-range skateboards,
how I love the lot of you!
from your arugula buzzcuts
down to the soles
of your espresso-soaked socks.

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Alive in the Dead of Night

Bifocals lie on the kitchen table
with the left earpiece broken off.
I'm wearing drugstore cheaters--
better for the laptop screen.

Mr Coffee recites
his litany of drip
in black Latin.

Air conditioner hums
in the next room.
TV intones
its bland Nunc Dimittis.

At 11 this morning,
I'll see Emily the Excellent
(as I've dubbed my therapist).
This afternoon,
I'll clean the apartment.

Coffee's done.

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

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Maturity

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

Sunday, June 12, 2016

The Book Rack

I walked to 13 Medford Street
and popped into the Book Rack.
It's always an inviting atmosphere.
There's a bunch of smart ladies (plus Mike).

I popped into the Book Rack
to say hello and talk summer reading
with a bunch of smart ladies (plus Mike)
familiar to me from years of browsing.

I said hello and talked summer reading
with Brenda and Ann and Roxie
familiar to me from years of browsing.
I even bought some second-hand books!

With Brenda and Ann and Roxie,
you can make special orders
and even buy some second-hand books:
Seamus Heaney, Nora Roberts, Pema Chödrön.

You can make special orders;
they'll arrive within the week--
Seamus Heaney, Nora Roberts, Pema Chödrön--
they come from vast warehouses!

They'll arrive within the week
from places close by and far off;
they come from vast warehouses
with thousands of hardcovers and paperbacks.

From places close by and far off,
people walk into 13 Medford Street.
With thousands of hardcovers and paperbacks,
it's always an inviting atmosphere.

Sunday, April 3, 2016

Boston, You Kill Me

Boston, you kill me! You’re raucous! You’re reckless!
You throttle my throat with an emerald necklace.

You're making me stumble, you cause me to spill,
As I walk the brick sidewalks up steep Beacon Hill.

You sap me of strength and you drain me of power,
I'm a pane of glass falling from the John Hancock Tower.

You're an in-fernal flame, an insidious spark,
You're a lout in the bleachers of loud Fenway Park.

You're a wicked fast driver (you’re faster than me!)
In the Ted Williams Tunnel to Terminal B.

You slug me by night and you sock me by day
And you rob me of money on the MBTA.

You're a Dorchester gas tank, a frenzied commuter.
You growl like a mad dog the vet's gotta neuter.

You're always demanding, "Hey, gimme a buck":
You get pissed when I tell you, "I'm down on my luck!"

You abandon me, leave me marooned, in the lurch:
I'm a mouse in the basement of Trinity Church.

You tell me I'm worthless, I don't mean a thing,
You send me to Mass General's critical wing!

You starve me, with nothing to drink or to eat;
I'm a mannequin hobbling down Newbury Street.

You're a drunk at the Red Hat, a big fatty liver,
You're just as polluted as the famous Charles River.

Boston, against me your heart seems to harden:
You hip-check me into the boards at the Garden!

You’re as cold as the ice in a Westinghouse fridge:
You’re shoving me off of the Len Zakim Bridge.

You shout at me, swear at me, make people stare,
You're a lunatic ranting in old Copley Square.

You bludgeon my skull with a really hard rock:
Keep it up, Boston -- I'll move to Noo Yawk!

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Frankie's Rosary

I was looking at my rosaries
not too long ago,
all of them, twenty at least--
but this one in particular:
this pearl-colored one,
inexpensive, made precious
by time and memory.
It’s been mine
since I was thirteen.

It used to be Frankie's.
It was a gift to me
from his mom Concetta
for my Confirmation.

Frankie must've gotten the rosary
for his First Communion:
it's a child's rosary,
with beads too small
for my full-grown hands.

Concetta cared for
and prayed for her son
after the accident.
He was fourteen
when the car struck him
as he biked down
Woodland Avenue.

My mom was Frankie’s
home health aide.
And Frankie was at home,
in his bed, in his room
made holy by a crucifix,
by images of several saints,
by the love of family,
his mother and father,
two brothers, a sister,
dozens of visiting cousins.

Concetta would hold
her son’s hand
and talk to him
for hours, every day.
My mom would feed Frankie
through the feeding-tube,
would keep him clean,
would change the sheets.

Frankie's rosary
has stayed with me
from Latin School to Chestnut Manor,
from John Paul to Francis,
from Reagan to Obama,
from Pac-Man to the iPhone-6,
from Laura Branigan to Adele.

Throughout my years of truancy
from holy Mother Church,
it waited patiently
in a small desk-drawer
until I came back.

I keep the rosary now
in a small diaphanous pouch.
Sometimes, I pray with it,
large fingers moving
with extra care
through the pearly
and luminous decades.

Frankie’s gone, it must be
twenty years now.
His parents, too,
Concetta and Giorgio.
His older brother Carlo
just last year.

When I die,
this rosary will pass
into someone else's hands,
someone who never knew
Frankie and his relatives.
But that person, too,
will be part of this history,
this mystery in which
souls are bound together
into a garland of grace,
into a family of faith.

Sunday, March 27, 2016

An Easter Poem

(for Elena, whose much-better Easter poem inspired this effort)



A surfeit of lilies
and a large congregation
(not quite madhouse
as it's early in the day)

Music at the 7:
cantor and organ
and the hymns
of Charles Wesley
with their rolling alleluias

Beside me
an elderly woman
reverently clutches
a crystal rosary

I am dressed
for Easter Sunday
but my soul's unready
needing more
than the sprinkling
from the aspergillum

I do not receive
the Blessed Sacrament
but stay in my pew
as virtually everyone
else goes up

my neighbour's example
leads me to the beads
and I go to my pocket
and take out my rosary

Christ is risen
he is risen indeed

And have I
risen with him
or am I still
in the tomb?

I hear the words of Isaiah
in which Divinity
upbraids the doubter
Are my arms too short
to save you?

Sometimes I wonder

but then St Ignatius
chimes in Discouragement
is not from God!

his fellow Jesuit
Fr Hopkins tells us
Nothing is so beautiful
as Spring but warns
that spring can sour
with sinning

let me take my stand
with Papa Francesco
and with St Faustina
who trust that Mercy
(like the truth) is great
and will prevail

Thursday, March 17, 2016

I Write Because

I write because Mr Waldron had a poster of “The Road Not Taken" at the front of his classroom, complete with bare brown tree and forked black path.

I write because I needed to fill up the time in study hall and didn't feel like studying.

I write because of Don McLean, The Looking Glass, America, Lennon & McCartney.

I write because what else was an only child to do who couldn't throw a football or shoot baskets or hit home runs or score goals?

I write because of Erin, sage therapist, and Reverend Peggy, wise guide of the spirit.

I write because of autumn in New England. Because of brown eyes and blue eyes in tired faces on the Red Line.

I write because of black coffee and Dylan Thomas. I write in memory of the mixed grill special at Barney’s Bar.

I write because Brother Pat played guitar in the Salesian chapel. I write because of calamity. I write because of resurrection.

I write because of Hart Crane, because of mountains, because of cold water and ambidextrous crushes.

I write because of Saint Lucie’s Day, the yeares mid-night.

I write because of Wishes, Lies, and Dreams. Because of Seamus Heaney and Juan de la Cruz.

I write because Tracy Chapman smote my heart at first sight. I write because Cardinal Bergoglio became Pope Francis.

I write: broken glass, skinned knees, hard fists. I write because the streetwise kids called me maggot, wimp, pussy, queer.

I write because of insomnia and even more black coffee. I write to praise the immortal Wystan Auden.

I write for the woman who looked at me funny when I said I wasn’t married. I write for the tenements of Eastie. I write for the group homes of Chelsea.

I write because Dr Macmillan made me better. I write because Dr Naidoo made me worse.

I write because E E Cummings grew up in Cambridge. Because Uta Pippig won the Boston Marathon.

I write because of ravioli and beer. I write because of the Blessed Virgin Mary.

I write: Simple Minds, the Smiths, New Order, Depeche Mode, the Cure, Dexys Midnight Runners.

I write because nobody's stopped me yet.

Monday, February 15, 2016

Struck Dumb

Struck dumb
longer than Zechariah:
to write, to sing, to pray --
for four bleak years
impossible.

Afterwards,
no benedictus comes;
instead, at best,
a stunted lament:

a scratch on silence
(not speech, not song);
forced, discordant note
cracking the voice

that once could much but now
can nothing do

Afraid

I never leave the room
On crisp fall days
When squirrels scamper among the dead leaves of the promenade
And pumpkins squat stoutly on porches
Of Arlington's neat side streets

I never turn off the TV
I can’t pry myself away from Facebook
I never stop fretting about the state of the union
And indeed the state of the world

I never ask the pretty girl out
I never audition for community theatre
I never take guitar lessons or pottery classes
I never paint bright splotches of colour
Just for the fun of it

I never laugh at silly jokes
Or drink apple cider in October
Or make snow angels in the snow
Or dance around the maypole when flowers awaken
Or dive into the ocean fully clothed

I just sit here like a wart on a plug-ugly frog
A two-bit Horace lamenting the fleeting years

Freckled Lily

I remember you:
the smiling blonde of twenty-one
in the psych ward of Snowden Hospital.
Outwardly OK, friendly and easy-going,
healthier, it seemed, than some of the doctors,
your only apparent problem
a fondness for smoking pot.
Maybe you tried some pills,
maybe some coke.

When the counselors would lecture
on gateway drugs, on sober living,
on coping strategies,
you’d roll your bright and mischievous eyes
from beneath the black bill of a baseball cap.

I saw you exactly once more
after our stint at Snowden.
You were walking with friends in Central Square.
You waved hello at me and smiled
a soul-softening smile I wish I could have
stored in a jar for safe keeping.

It was two Septembers later,
you went to a bar on the North Shore
and found a guy who seemed harmless,
someone to spend a few hours with—
smoke, do some lines, whatever.

You went back to his place
and got into a fight.

You tried to leave.

They found you in the marshes,
beaten, stabbed;
the papers spoke of "multiple
blunt force trauma."

You’d be in your forties now.
I’d like to think you’d be all right,
that you’d have quit messing around,
you’d have found a program
where you’d learn good living:
Easy Does It, One Day at a Time.

But that's not what happened.

Reckless womanchild,
this poem can’t undo your brutal end.
It can’t go back and protect you,
make you as happy as birdsong in April,
domestic and safe as laundry.

Freckled lily,
trampled, crushed,
I pray that you might flower once again
where wrecked petals unwither and freshen,
where degredation’s alchemized to light,
where wounds break into blossoms.

Friday, February 12, 2016

Donahue Field

We name Little League parks
and street-corners after you
(for whom the honour
seems too small a thing)
but few take notice of it:
relatives, friends, the VFW.
Still, I often walk past your plaque
at Donahue Field, Lieutenant,
and I pray for you every time,
killed in action, aged twenty-seven,
half a world away from home
the week of Christmas 1969.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Saint Joseph's Abbey

Spencer, Massachusetts
visited 30 March - 6 April 1992


Here, no television
to put forth candidates
for the distracted multitude,
no advertisements to entice
the urge for acquisition:
here, nothing but space,
peace, and monk-built walls.

The grass of the hill
south of the guest-cottage
accepts what weather comes
(chill rain, warm beam,
white flake, clear sky),
and does not complain.

A rabbit scampers
across the landscape of Lent.
By day, bluejays gather
on cemetery branches.
Night's alive
with the menace of owls.

Three hours before dawn,
leave the fieldstone house;
let night's chill scorch
soul and skin; walk the path
unlit but for one light
near a statue of the Virgin;
enter the cloister, fear-
fully, wonderfully dark.

The atmosphere of Spencer
is electric with angels!

Cistercians file churchward
to chant their wonted psalms:
With subtle fire, with cordial flame,
the brothers' gathered hearts
are inexhaustibly enkindled,
by grace made one.

Friday, January 8, 2016

Year's End

Two dead leaves, brown, serrated,
almost elliptical, insipid kisses
from autumn's ghost, lie in state
upon a small ice-glazed puddle
in the untrafficked asphalt
of Wyman Street, Arlington.

Without You

Without you, life's a hole without a sock, A fruitless rind, some coffee-grounds (no brew): Sarcastic stars can only jeer and mock. ...