1916: China, France

 

 

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

the same.

Reunion (October 2015)

 

 

 

Stunned by time, we walk

into the pale room blinking, 

as in a dream, and find 

ourselves transported

to 1965.

 

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

Ronettes 45:

“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

to average. 

 

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,

more assassinations, 

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

about something 

besides ourselves. 

 

Some of us can’t seem to

shut up, spraying machine  

gun bursts of words 

randomly across  

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.

 

Forget All This

 

 

Listening to twelfth century chants

as a storm approaches from the sea,

it is almost possible to forget

all this.

 

Like Hildegard in her abbey,

we cling to a few

shreds of beauty in our

shattered land.

 

People pretending to be dead

become famous. Killers roam

the countryside.  Sirens wake

us in the night.

 

I recommend the noise

canceling headphones

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

grows near.

 

Do not look at your phone.

You may have visions.

Do not be disturbed.

Soon enough, it will arrive.

The Pumping Heart

 

 

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

bruises, aches,

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

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.

 

 

The Discovery of Silence

 

 

 

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

 

the reverberation

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

collapsed again.

 

Everything is ringing,

ringing; everything has

a buzz. I discover

silence, the scythe,

leaving me wide-eyed,

breathing, listening

to my heart pump.

 

What Dreams May Come?

 

 

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?

Rain Delay: Cell Phones at the Gate

 

 

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

For instructions.

 

-Gate B19, Hartsfield-Jackson Airport

Atlanta 2010

The Memory of Love's Refrain

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

Infatuated with

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

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.            

Palestrina Time

Palestrina Time

 

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.

 

Explaining Picasso To Sixteen Firemen

 

The classroom door is locked

(the firemen and I keep odd hours)

Desperate men

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

Of reality

“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

Only half-baked.

 

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:

roof-walkers, heart-starters,

Flame-killers, smoke-breathers,

Answers to the ever-popular question:

“Save me?”

Athletes in action

Staring at a message from Paris, 1932

Which might as well be from another universe.

With authority, the literary critical 

Fireman concludes,

“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 

Technologist body/mind.

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)

 

Cat Roshi

 

 

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

Presidential campaigns

And free verse.

 

The phone is ringing

I am studying the cat

Catching on, perhaps,

But it is a long way back.

Adagio

Adagio

 

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.

 

            

One Morning in July

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 

You Only Want to Be Near

 

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