Gary's first book of poetry, The Cardiff Giant and Other Poems, is now available on Amazon. 99 pages of poems, including Explaining Picasso, Mother Burned the Paintings, Palestrina Time, Waiting for My Real Life, and Dick Fosbury Re-invents the High Jump. Cover illustration by Bjoern Arthurs. Author photo by John Haugaard. Illustration above by George Evelyn, from Daemon, 1978.
I have the letters.
Five months pregnant, she thanks God
For blessing her. By steamer, she sends
The news from Shek Lung home
To Santa Cruz. Alden,
the missionary, writes with joy
To his parents in Pasadena,
His elegant cursive still clear
As the California sky,
Giving all the credit to God, although
he may have had something
to do with it. His wife,
my grandmother, asks
her parents to send baby clothes.
Meanwhile, in France, another devout
Believer, Wilfrid Owen, lies in a muddy field,
his body shredded, blown out
Of his trench by a mortar.
He survives to write
“Anthem for Doomed Youth”
With dripping scenes of slaughtered men.
He stands witness for two more
Years and is killed by
Friendly fire one week before
The peace is signed.
Direct hit. The fog of war.
Back in Shek Lung, the baby clothes arrive.
The baby girl is baptized by her father and
contracts a strange illness. The American
doctor is mystified; the baby, Rose,
Lives for two months and is buried
in the tiny Christian cemetery
In the village. Jiang, my grandmother’s
housekeeper, whom they are trying
to convert, asks why Jesus did not
protect the little baby.
“Maybe you should have also
prayed to the household gods.”
Ninety-eight years later, at my kitchen
table, I read the letters.
People said she
Was never the same
After Rose. We were never
Stunned by time, we walk
into the pale room blinking,
as in a dream, and find
Who are these strangers?
Where is my locker?
What time is the game?
Blue and gold balloons
sway gently; some of us
use canes. The room is
spinning slowly, like an old
“Be my…be my baby.”
Everyone looks faintly
familiar, as if, perhaps,
they might have been friends.
Forty-four of us have passed
on, but we still know them
as kids: the fullback,
the cheerleader, the
quiet girl, faces smiling
on the memorial wall.
In eight years the rest
of us will reach the average
lifespan for our birth year.
Eight more chill, clear
Octobers. If we make it
I still have dreams
about wandering the halls,
lost in the shuffling crowd,
looking for my history
class, but the room
numbers are always out of order.
I wake in a sweat.
We try to recognize each
other, stealing glimpses of
name tags with yearbook
photos. But we have turned into
different people, bags under
our eyes, carrying some weight.
Entranced, we walk the halls;
slip through passages, past
the lockers with their secrets;
our footsteps rebound.
Some people shout
incoherently. We may all be
hallucinating, or at least, disarmed.
That day in November when they
killed the president; we wound
our way home in slow motion;
the boys tried not to cry.
Then came the wars, the blood,
the draft board,
the shootings, the losses.
We got married, had children,
or not. We went on;
we grew old.
Some of us survived
to walk the beach
at Avalon, see children grow,
or watch the leaves
turn against an October sky
of shocking blue.
Inside the chrysalis, we
grew wings, opened
up, found something
hidden, almost learned
to speak in sentences
Some of us can’t seem to
shut up, spraying machine
gun bursts of words
round tables. We don’t mind.
You don’t need
To justify your life to us. We were
here then, long ago, together,
in this small cocoon,
and we went out into
the world: Saigon, Geneva,
Palo Alto, or just down the road to Darby,
class rooms, diners,
board rooms, factories,
churches, and, somehow,
we grew up.
We stumbled, we loved; maybe
we learned to hear
the tanager’s song
or to unfold
the coiled scraps of being
in our tattered brains into a soul
that can listen, that
won’t pretend, that can
sit under the dogwoods in late
afternoon and see
the sun slip behind the clouds,
that can know we are home.
Listening to twelfth century chants
as a storm approaches from the sea,
it is almost possible to forget
Like Hildegard in her abbey,
we cling to a few
shreds of beauty in our
People pretending to be dead
become famous. Killers roam
the countryside. Sirens wake
us in the night.
I recommend the noise
and the twelfth century chants,
Unless you have access
To an abbey. If you have trees
where you live, watch
the leaves sway as the storm
Do not look at your phone.
You may have visions.
Do not be disturbed.
Soon enough, it will arrive.
Practice over, dark already,
cold as hell outside,
February 1964 before
we head out into the snow.
We’re in the shower
howling our teenage
boy inanities as the hard
water caroms off
our tired shoulders
and washes away
the algebra test
for now at least.
Out the door and
into the daunting wind,
lashing our faces,
stinging our flesh into
life. This is it;
this is real, the
the pumping heart,
our breath pouring
out like smoke
in the wild night,
our souls flying out
over our little town.
We make it home and kick
the snow off our boots; we
think we know something.
Rich Cling to Life to Beat Tax Man
--Wall Street Journal, Dec. 30, 2009
Through a quirk of Congress
Or perhaps for the amusement of the gods,
The estate tax for the richest 5,000 Americans
Disappears on Jan. 1 for one year
Before rising again like a zombie accountant.
“I have two clients on life support,”
Says a New York lawyer. Families
Of the taxable soon-to-be-deceased
Could not be reached for comment.
Next year, of course, they will have
The opposite problem. The IRS
Receives some discreet inquiries: Denmark
Allows assisted euthanasia. The IRS announces that
The Danish Solution will not
Disqualify Americans from a tax-free exit.
Copenhagen, the famed winter resort,
Expects a surge of first-class
reservations for next December. Air tickets
One-way only; return as freight.
The Journal neglects to address
The next obvious question: why
Do the poor cling to life?
Economists receive a federal grant and
Send terrified graduate students
To find these “poor” and give
Them surveys, construct
Multivariate models and search
The literature. After two years, they
Determine it is not the estate tax.
Maybe it’s a song, a rainbow,
French fries with ketchup,
Dancing in the street; more research
Is required, if funding can be found.
In the century of noise,
at a late age,
I discover silence,
swinging, like a scythe,
through the clangor.
Of course, I still hear
the ringing in my ears,
ghost waves from the cherry bomb
or perhaps passed on
from my father. Perhaps
of the Bofors guns bursting
in the tattered sky
over Naples in 1943 or
the blood pounding
as he pulled up after
diving 10,000 feet.
Or my ear drum might
be still vibrating from
the back beat on
“Johnny B. Goode”
late at night
on my bedside
radio in 1958.
My phone beeps, alerting me
that something has happened
in Syria, someone’s dog
can sing “Over the Rainbow,”
the Braves’ bullpen has
Everything is ringing,
ringing; everything has
a buzz. I discover
silence, the scythe,
leaving me wide-eyed,
to my heart pump.
Now you can’t remember
what day it is
Or if this is just a dream
Tis a consummation
devoutly to be wished.
And you wish
to go home now,
to be scattered
in the meadow
with the leaves.
These years, the five
and ninety, I wonder
if they seem like just
a few weeks at the lake
when we were small.
Who are these people
in the room,
saying words you cannot
hear, giving you pills,
cleaning you up?
Where is everyone?
When will the war be over?
Who is this child?
For in that sleep,
what dreams may come?
I’m worried that you
Forgot to feed the cats.
My son is getting
Married next week
On Destin Beach. A small
Wedding, twenty people
At most. I couldn’t get
Your mother to pick up
The cell phone. I don’t want to
Hear what you’re going to say. Feel
Free to go up and ask
The gentleman that.
Well, the nodes are
Cancerous. We will proceed
With more surgery and/or
Chemo. I get upset
Sometimes. Did you
Feed the cats? Call
Me back and let me know.
Christ, you own half the
Airport out there. The fire
Alarm has been activated.
Remain calm. Wait
-Gate B19, Hartsfield-Jackson Airport
The Memory of Love’s Refrain
Reading his love poems
To you, written in 1940,
Makes you blush. We
Have crossed the threshold
Of your privacy. Outside,
A doe and two fawns
Emerge briefly from the meadow,
Cross the back yard, and vanish.
To divert us from love poems,
You bring up the Depression
And say that your father
Voted against Roosevelt in 1932.
Shocking, but we
Are not diverted.
The poems say that his love
For you will last forever, like stardust,
And if his plane goes down in flames
Over Naples you will be together
In paradise where roses bloom.
He survived for sixty more years
And never wrote another poem.
You said he wouldn’t want
A funeral. So there was nothing.
And now, in purple dusk of twilight time,
We discover the love poems,
240 of them, on faded paper,
Written before you were married,
Sent from Mobile, Tunis, Sicily,
Saved in a box
For seventy-two years.
We never knew about them
While he was alive.
He just went to the office
Day after day while
We played out our little scenes.
He once took a correspondence
Course in painting. Landscapes,
Meadows, moonlight and gardens.
One year, he tried to learn piano.
Why did you keep them hidden?
What else is locked
Away? You see, in this century
Everything is laid bare. We are all
Ourselves. You say maybe
We should scatter
His ashes beside the garden wall.
And maybe you
Could be there, too.
Aug. 17, 2012
Mother Burned the Paintings
Matisse, Picasso, Monet,
Gauguin, Lucian Freud,
I stole them from the Kunsthal
In Rotterdam with its broken
Alarm system, which went off
Only on our way out.
Thank you, stupid Dutch curators!
It was so easy that I, a two-bit
Romanian crook, could do it
In daylight and escape
Like an invisible man.
You were probably lecturing
On structuralism or some
Other horse shit while we were sneaking
Out the back door. You can call it
My performance de-installation.
But then, thanks to my stupid partner,
They traced us back
To Carcaliu, my humble village
Near the Black Sea, so I
Gave them to my illiterate mother,
Who in desperation burned them
In her little bathroom stove.
Or perhaps she didn’t. This
Is my post-modern defense;
This version is just
One of several possible realities.
You’re familiar with string theory,
Of course? There may be a universe
Where the paintings still exist,
A universe right next door
To this one, where birds
Can talk, and no one is burned
At the stake, and the paintings
Are still there, in the gallery,
And I am still an innocent man.
Living here in the empire’s last days
Waiting for the next act of terror
The next friend to discover a lump
The next insult to civil discourse
I listen to a Palestrina mass
Descend slowly from 1569
To the desolate summer of 2008.
Stunned by its beauty,
I learn that 635 copies
Of the compact disc were sold last year,
A year when 31 million people a week
Watched “American Idol” and 10 million more
Hoped for blood on “Ultimate Fighting.”
I long to meet the other 634.
It’s in Latin, of course, which I
Do not understand. And there are
No drums, even though in modern times
Everything must have drums.
My heart is keeping its own beat
Roughly in line with Palestrina time.
A new history of Rome informs me that
In the fourth century senators and
Citizens had no clue the end was near.
Just the usual gripes about taxes and foreigners.
A poet, Prosper of Aquitane, wrote:
“Everything rushes headlong to its end.” The Senate
Responded with more gladiator shows.
In Florida, students, inspired by their pastor,
Announce they don’t believe in evolution.
They bring their own books inspired
By faith. Their music thumps
Like a boot to the chest:
Thus, it begins.
The classroom door is locked
(the firemen and I keep odd hours)
They offer to break it down with axes
I find the custodian playing cards in the alley
With an unemployed Ph.D. who is trying
To stay close to academics
And we all tumble in
To watch fuzzy blue slides plastered
On a bleak green junior college wall.
The snort and cavort at “Girl Before A Mirror”
They’re used to more literal dismemberments
“Is she pregnant or just fat?”
Asks the wise-ass fireman.
“She’s pregnant with meaning,”
I slyly rejoin.
“My kid could draw that good,”
Growls the football-playing fireman
Who wants to go shoot pool.
The economically cynical fireman asks,
“He gets a million bucks for this?”
And the neo-Marxist fireman replies,
“It’s all fixed.
They choose great artists at random
Or through bribery.”
For firemen, reality has only two levels:
The raw and the cooked
And this strange, broken picture seems to them
I try to explain the liberation of form,
The influence of modern physics and African art,
The multi-dimensionality of color
But they keep asking, “what is it?”
I finally give in and say
“it’s a woman looking in a mirror.”
The brutally honest social realist fireman says
“I see five boobs and a broken nose.”
We talk (I talk) about ideas of reality
Angles of vision, dreams, levels of reality,
But we keep coming back to feeling:
They don’t have any for this painting.
Firemen are creatures of immediacy:
Answers to the ever-popular question:
Athletes in action
Staring at a message from Paris, 1932
Which might as well be from another universe.
With authority, the literary critical
“It’s like a cartoon that’s not funny.”
The tabula rasa fireman asks plaintively then,
“Why is he good?”
The question is not simple.
It hangs in the fuzzy blue air
And I wish he had asked the same
About Fran Tarkenton or Mick Jagger.
I gulp and look out the Venetian blinds
Wishing I was hitting two soft yellow tennis balls
With that girl strolling by in the twilight.
Like these students of fire science
She never sees another person in the mirror
Always the same solid pre-medical
I wonder if I can skip directly to Andrew Wyeth
Or perhaps to a discussion
Of “The Towering Inferno”.
“If Picasso’s good, then the world is crazy,”
Says the radical phenomenologist fireman.
He’s good, all right, and the world
Is not as it seems.
The burnt stairway does not hold;
The doused embers still smolder
Until drenched to the core
Hollowed out, emptied, laid bare
The blind fireman has been listening
Eyes covered with huge white bandages
Where he splashed lye last week.
“I don’t think the woman
Likes what she sees,” he says
A glimmer of fireman feeling
Enough, at this point
Too much analysis can lose the world
And maybe I
Can use some fireman eyes.
Class dismissed. “Watch yourselves
This week,” I add
“Don’t break any mirrors
To save the walls.”
But they are already halfway
To their game of pool, and I’m
On my way home to smoke in bed.
Published in Daemon, 1978 (Illustration by George Evelyn)
The phone interrupts me
While taking sleeping lessons
From my cat
It is an invitation to a stampede
Which I decline.
Distracted from Cat-mind
I transcribe some television commercials
For therapeutic purposes
Then spend a few minutes juggling feathers.
Down below the old woman
Is playing the vibraharp again
And singing her adaptation
Of Molly Bloom’s soliloquy.
I throw another economics book
On the fire
And regard the cat.
She has sealed herself off again
Impervious to modern art
And free verse.
The phone is ringing
I am studying the cat
Catching on, perhaps,
But it is a long way back.
It’s a Monday morning in September,
Leipzig, 1735, in the coffeehouse
Of Gottfried Zimmer. With no instrument
Except a quill pen, Bach is working
On his Concerto for Harpsichord in D Minor,
Second movement, the Adagio.
Having not slept well again, he is sipping strong
coffee mit Zuckre und Milch, unaware
That in 275 years it will change the life
Of a banker in America working in a tower
On land that, while Bach sips
His coffee, is a vast, silent forest where
Deer graze not far from a trail
Occasionally used by the aboriginal people
Of this country. In fact, he is not thinking
About the near future at all. It’s eternity
And counterpoint he has in mind as he steps
His measures deliberately down the page.
The morning light slants through
The heavy glass. He can hear the
Slow clatter of horses’ hooves
On cobblestones as they haul apples
From the country to market. In the small shop,
Away from the wretched choir school,
He can rearrange time and space.
Much later, after three hundred wars,
The banker sits on the ninth floor,
With 26 items on his to-do list, a
Whirlwind of electrons firing messages at him,
And struggles with next year’s budget,
Which will pass through two managers
A department head, and two committees
Before being changed completely
And returned to him to start again with
Different assumptions. As an unexpected benefit
Of two centuries of capitalism, he can plug headphones
Into his computer and listen to Bach’s Concerto
Played by a Russian orchestra.
The Adagio begins; the banker pauses. It proceeds
To gently unwrap the items and the e-mails
From their hold on the hemispheres
Of his brain. His breathing slows;
The Adagio lasts for nine minutes,
During which he can almost hear
The stately procession of horses’ hooves
In Leipzig and the scratch of a quill pen
Reaching out in time, note by stunning note.
Suddenly you are washed
With gratitude for waking
With the sun and a light breeze
One morning in July.
Seven pains, originating
In various organs or perhaps
Your imagination, ascend,
Like Jesus, into the sky.
The flowering apricot,
Whose blooms appeared
Like a miracle in February,
Runs the keyboard
Like Jerry Lee Lewis
On "Great Balls of Fire."
You close the door
On your library of regrets,
Do seventy sit-ups and step
Outside to a choir of birds
Informing each other
Of their continued existence
On this planet hurtling through
Empty space and the remnants
Of "I Love Lucy" sent out
Into the universe in 1957.
A three hour meeting about
Human Resources waits for you
Tomorrow, but the breeze lifts
You up and carries you to an oak branch
Where you look down on the neighborhood
And realize you can fly. A robin floats
Down beside you and says:
"What took you so long?"
Atlanta, July 3, 2010
In March you are diagnosed with a tumor
And a ruptured meniscus.
Since you are already ten years old,
We choose not to treat.
Your thick blonde coat
Always made you suffer in summer,
And they tell us to be prepared
For a rapid decline in spring.
We consider letting you go
Before the southern heat strikes,
But soon you have figured out
How to climb the back steps again.
Nine months later you are still
Doing fine. You are delighted
When November brings the
First freeze. You sit out
By the gate at six a.m.
And listen to the birds;
You can’t wait for your walk;
Each new smell on the block
An amazing symphony,
A gift of God or some
Other brilliant composer,
Deserving wags of thanks.
One cold morning I am
The one who is sick.
I know you want to go out
For your walk, but you see
Me still lying in bed. Your winter days
Are precious; I only have the flu.
You sigh and curl up next to the bed.
You only want to be near.
Nov. 7, 2010