The Debate

I keep waiting for this place
to prove itself worth saving.

I pace the floor imagining
I’ve missed something

redemptive, something
of the frame work that hasn’t

gone rotten.  It sounds half-good
on paper, but how to separate the words

from how poisonously they’ve been used
and turned to awful ends so far — that’s

what puts the twist in my gut.
Maybe if we kill all the money 

the living words will dig out from under
that pile of death. Maybe

if we drive out the magicians
all their secrets will be laid bare

and no one will be fooled again.
Maybe, maybe, maybe. Maybe

if the whole unbalanced tower
wasn’t built on stolen land

and labor it wouldn’t be falling
on so many right now.  Maybe

it wasn’t built to stand this long,
no matter what the framers thought?

I keep waiting to find an argument
that it’s worth saving. I find

that the only person I’m arguing with
is myself, and I am losing; I can tell

by the sick joy I feel
that is starting to drown my fear.


A Quiz

1.
Go to where you keep silverware
and pull out all your forks.  Which
was the last one you used
before hearing Michael Brown
had been shot?

2.
How many times
have you washed your sheets
since you first heard the words,
“drone strike?”

3.
True or False: 
you have showered
with greater frequency
since September 11, 2001.

4.
a.
How many times 
has a single tear
rolled down your cheek
as if in homage to
those icons of your childhood films
who were depicted as 
stoic but for that one 
brief moment of humanity?

b.
Which eye has served you best 
in this regard?

c.
If this has never happened to you,
is it because
you cry such plentiful tears
that there has never been just one?

d.
If this hasn’t happened to you,
is it because you remain
unmoved, even now?

5.
Identify on a map
all the locations
where you brought
your A-game,
where you really
came to play,
where you showed up
in a big way.

When you’re done, 
connect them with a ruler
and a pencil.

Look at the polygon created
by the borders you’ve drawn.

a.
Who lives in there?

b.
Have you been there?

c.
If you’ve been there,
why didn’t you bring your A-game
there as well?  

d.
List five reasons
you left it behind you
at the border.

6.
Go to your desk and find a pen,
then write your name
thirteen times.

Imagine you are signing 
executive orders.

Would your third-grade teacher say
that your current signature
resembles the one you had then?

7.
Give yourself away. Do you miss it?

8.
(NOTE:  skip this question
if you’ve never had an orgasm.)

a.
How have your political beliefs
affected the orgasms
you’ve had so far in your life?

b.
How have they affected
the orgasms
you’ve given to others?

c.
What has changed the most
since you first became sexually active:
your beliefs or your orgasms?

9.
If you own a gun, does it feel
better or worse
to hold it than it used to?

10.
Think about the room you were in
the last time a news report gave you hope.

Has its decor changed at all since then?


Here

born here
clutched in a nation’s hands

not clad
in that nation’s favorite colors

not clad
in that nation’s preferred skin

born here
then pushed aside for counterfeits

replaced for this nation’s needs
by mascot and magic act

replaced for this nation’s mythology
by drunk, savage, earth maiden, elf

born here
in one nation imposed upon many nations

then rooting into 
what lies below that shroud

they thought
their nation had smothered all

they did not understand
they do not understand

they will never understand
what it means to be 

born here
not of this one fleeting nation

but of those
many still here

from before that one
was ever dreamed 


I End Up Talking

I will end up talking.
I always end up talking.
I end up talking when I shouldn’t.
I talk like I’m going to die if I don’t talk.
I’m going to die anyway but not silently.
I’d like a listener but talking to myself is ok.
I don’t listen to myself when I talk.
I don’t expect anyone else to listen. 
I’ve never been afraid to slow down and stop when unheard.
I keep talking in my head.
I keep a talk or two in my head like I’d keep extra bullets.
If my mouth were a gun I’d be locked on full rock and roll all the time.
I have a gun as well as a mouth but I don’t know where it is.
I left it in my parents’ house when I moved out.
I should have left my mouth there too.
I should have swapped gun for mouth or both for two more ears.
It’s been said that you have two ears and one mouth to show you should listen more than you speak.
It’s never been proven.
If someone really said that it was someone who never saw or heard my mouth.
I told you I would end up talking.
I always end up talking.
I tell you so much when I talk.
I tell you so much I never intended to tell you.
I tell you again and again it doesn’t matter if you are listening.
I only do this because I’m trying to bail away what’s always rising inside me.
I only talk to keep my lungs from filling.
I only talk to inflate myself.
I only talk to keep afloat.
I only talk so as not to drown.


A note from the poet

I’ve said this before, but I will say it again.

Over the years, I’ve been very open about having bipolar disorder (bipolar II, for you detail-oriented folks). I’ve been treated, had therapy for years, been on meds, spent a little time in-patient, etc.  I’ve had suicidal ideation since I was a kid, and have made a few attempts. I’m open about it, and I do on occasion deal with the subject in my poetry.  It’s a chronic condition that has played a large part in defining the parameters of my life and my world view.

However, taking any poem I write as a sign that I am at that moment in some kind of distress is really, really not conducive to understanding how I work, and is in fact pretty reductive of my work as an artist.  Something you can be sure of is that if I’m writing, I’m NOT suicidal, and I’m likely not at that moment in any self-destructive mood at all.  

I can’t write when I’m ill.  I may write about illness, but it’s ALWAYS in retrospect, or to illuminate something I may have thought about when I was in the middle of an episode.  I try to be upfront about how scary that sometimes is, and I hope that now and then someone in a similar state looks at my work and sees someone who “gets it,” but I do not write as therapy for myself.  I don’t write when I’m that disordered.

If you typically read poems thinking of them as autobiography, as impassioned outbursts of a tortured or ecstatic soul, I’m asking you to suspend that mindset when you read mine.  I’m a professional creative writer who’s been at this for close to 50 years now. I don’t write when inspiration hits or when I need to “let it out.”  

Last point:  I am not a Christian.  I don’t share the source of my personal spiritual belief system with the public; maybe you can discern something of it here and there in the poems, but I don’t make my personal practices and beliefs explicit. 

While I appreciate and accept with genuine humility your blessings and prayers when they are offered — gifts are gifts and always welcome — I am uncomfortable with the occasional bit of specifically Christian proselytizing and Bible-based advice that I sometimes receive, especially when people perceive me to be in some distress.  (I’d be similarly uncomfortable with anything from the big monotheistic religions, to be honest, but I only ever see this done by Christians, for some reason).  Just needed to let you know.

Thanks for listening.

Tony


Tracker

What they thought
was benediction
in solidarity with all
was in fact
valediction, a farewell
to the march as it
moved past.

When it had passed
he stepped into the dust
that still mumbled of all
who’d just been there.

He bent to the carpet
of tracks and looked 
and listened and even
touched his finger to it
then put it on his tongue
as he’d seen trackers do
in old Westerns.

He had no idea 
what he was supposed to learn
from any of that, except

that there was no trace
of himself there in that relic trail.

He’d known that before
he made that elaborate show

of seeking knowledge there.

So: here it was revealed.
A misinterpreted show,
all of it: the speech, the life,
the effect he’d had. They 
were gone, he was left 
standing in the dust behind.

Squaring his shoulders.
Wiping his eyes.

Picking a direction
other than theirs.


Asking For A Friend

1.
If you own a switchblade,
that iconic weapon of despair,
are you honor bound
to use it 
when you suicide?

2.
Would pills
or other medications
be more sensible
or potentially easier
on the survivors?

3.
How much are you liable
for what arguments for and against
self-harm you inflicted upon
a friend before you acted?

4.
Does any of this feel like more
than a social media art project?
Does anything posted online
move you anymore?

5.
Don’t you wish right now
you’d never breathed at all?


Boss Land Blues

I grew up in Springsteen territory
dreamed early that I was born to do something
somewhere else
but when it came time to leave
the highways were pretty empty
they weren’t
jammed with heroes
either broken or whole
because no one ever left my hometown so
I went on alone to the next town
just like it
and stayed there pretending
I was one of those aforementioned heroes
when in fact
I was 
promise
unfulfilled and 
in my boots and jacket I knew deep down
I had just posed and then posed and then
posed some more and now
I’m stuck in the pose
the bones ripped out of my back
my tender exterior hardened to a shell
I can’t move 
but I look
like I used to

look good
standing still


Sleeping

is better than waking.

This needs no proof
in these parts. When I sleep
the sink doesn’t leak and
the cat is no longer
destructive.

The mice
move to Florida and 
the dim universe of the news
is silent.  My wallet

holds everything I need
when I sleep — I’m most wealthy
when I’m unconscious.

If I dream at all
it will be only rarely, 
only fleetingly, and
it will be in the language
native to those who shrug off
the unreality
one must plow through
when awake. In dreams I become
fluent in that tongue and
it’s easy to live
when that happens

but it happens rarely.
When sleeping I mostly
am nothing at all,

and that is best.


What, Exactly, Are The Bosses Doing?

Contemplating the distance
to their planned shining city on the hill.

Calculating what it would take to build
a broad road to it, broad enough
for all manner of comfortable vehicles
(and a very small amount
of super ambitious and lucky foot traffic
just to make it seem accessible to all); 

trying to determine how much gas 
will be needed, how much coal 
will be required to power it once
all who will fit have arrived;

then,
once the numbers are firm, 
putting all their plans into 
the passive voice. 

Roads will be built, walls will be built, 
coal will be mined, oil refined; 
order will be established and maintained
and if threatened will be defended and
enforced.

Not bothering to ask the unspoken question
behind those circumlocutions:
who will do all that?

Knowing the answer already.

Looking directly at you with a cold dare in their eyes.


Great Again

You thought
it could all be done 
without bleeding,

and you were right, 
of course; you never bled,
not once. You never once got

your hands red. With 
a little effort you missed seeing
every story printed in red ink

and every color photo
of small rivers running 
and pooling in the street.

When you did hear
of such dreadful things
you were able to

wring your hands
loudly enough
to drown them out.

Fortunately
it worked out
to your benefit.

Gladly, you turned
to friends and family
and said so

and no one spoke up
to contradict you because
benefits like these 

rely on silence for their
existence, and that
was enough reason

not to speak up; that
and the faces outside the door
leaking blood and brain

into the gutters, the faces
that stare mutely into your window,
having forgotten how to scream.


A Gift

Sitting with
a gift-glass of excellent
Scotch, a Glenmorangie
Nectar D’Or aged in 
Sauternes casks…yes,
an indulgence, yes, expensive
and rare; that’s the point of it,
it was a sacrifice, 
it was given in love
and I drink it with love on
my mind. Lemony
start, honey on the tongue
with dark burn, a finish 
built on notes of
regret at its ending and 
joy that it was here and I 
had this chance to taste it:
I’m not going to be ashamed
at this, you see, not while 
so much wrong needs righting,
not while there’s so much need
to assuage 
pain and trouble;
for a few minutes
I’m going into this glass
to understand it as a golden
taste of an expression of love,
a trace of what a pure future
might be once we get past
this dim moment.


Something You Made From Nothing

Glass bead bracelet
in left hand, bag of
black stones in 
right hand, in mouth
spring water lightly salted.  
Empty pockets.
Belt of cloth with
no metal.

At appointed time, 
spit water into fire.
After it has ceased
sizzling, slip on bracelet;
kneel upon a cut log
to count out ten black
stones from that bag.
Line them up on
a hot stone.

Stand and
remove your clothes;
burn them while marching
counterclockwise around
and around flames
ten times. When done,
put stones back in bag
and walk away naked.

What appears behind you: 

ashes:
you call them
ground
of being,
source
holy of holies.

There is also there
a meaning you didn’t have before,

a god running cover for your passage,
something you made from nothing.
Something as good
as any other 
ever made.

Then you realize

you are naked and cold
and when it starts to rain you
puzzle yourself into thinking
you missed something,
did something wrong
or backward.  But — 

a ritual done wrong
or backward that didn’t destroy 
the world? Is it possible
that you have so little power? 

The rain, as always,
comes straight down,
drenches you into
atheism.


They Are Coming

Maybe what we need is bells
on the front door,
the back door,
the windows.

Maybe
hang them in the trees 
along the path leading here,
too.

Maybe a gate or seven
gates and bell them too. Build 
rings of gates and bell them all:
signal bells on each, larger and louder
the farther away they are from 
us. 

Maybe build a beacon fire
on a far hill
and put a standing guard there
ready to set it ablaze
to let us know.

Then, of course, we’ll need
to be very quiet all the time.
Sit silently in the dead center
of the house, equidistant from
all the bells, with vigilance
for the near-certain fire
on the far hill;

have to stare
out the window at that, 
constantly, waiting, guns
in our laps, in every corner,
a knife on every hip;

our children
in the soundproofed basement
hidden away,
learning defensive trades
at forges and anvils,
stabbing practice dummies, 
shooting practice people;

growing up in the dark
for their own good
as out there offers only
the dangerous chiming of bells
in the rank wind coming
over the borders.


Westerns

The Westerns
always had us calling
the President 
“The Great White Father.”

My dreams so far this night
have all been Westerns
but nobody called anybody
great, or white, or father.

My early evening Western
was of a snowglobe
being shaken close to my face.
Milky background, inside
brown bits like clods of earth
swirling, irregular sizes;
perhaps these were oil clots,
or the rotted organs of the dead,
but they were just out of focus 
and I was too afraid to squint
and make them clear.

My midnight Western:
nothing to see, my ears
filled with chanting: 
broken, broken, broken…
Did this mean the snowglobe had broken,

or did the fact that this was
a different dream
mean the earlier one
had never happened?

The next dream, I think,
will be another Western.
Fear of it is keeping me awake.
I expect a great White father
waits there, shards of glass
in his hands, ready to embrace me,
to open me from groin to throat,
to fill a snowglobe with my grease and guts,
to ride with my pieces into the sunset.

I can’t imagine what could follow that one.
I’m certain it will make sense to someone.
All Westerns run together into one long story,
after all; I don’t expect I’ll be in the next chapter,
or that any of us will, in fact — not as we are,
not as we ever were. He was never our real father, 
you see.