Category Archives: prose poems

What It Will Take

1.

Not words, as they know what to do with those: no listening, no answers, no acknowledgment that anything of value has been said; when you own the definitions you do with words whatever you want and they’ve spent culture and treasure on gobbling them up.

Not marches as they simply set a frame around them, a proscenium, a monumental arch; they’ll call them theater, showpieces, paid spectacles of acting out; in extraordinary cases they will call them war and blow them down as soon as they look like they might catch on.

Not votes as they see every last one as an impending joke with the punchlines in waiting years away in the desert of the future where they’re already been paid for on the installment plan.

It won’t take words or marches or votes. It won’t take shame or mockery or public scrutiny.

2.

It will take pain.

A willingness
to bring pain that they have never felt,
an ability
to offer and then provide pain,
mercy
to pull back once an aim is achieved.

3.

Afterwards
we can wash up and then
lie awake and imagine ourselves
pure again, 
sweet as Spring,
generous and forgiving as
any river ever

that broke its banks
when overfull, raging
with the runoff from
a winter’s worth
of cruel snow

and then returned
to its bed to roll on,
steady and calm
in its knowledge
of its power,
to the peace of the sea.


The Chastisement Of Christopher Eggplant

Christopher Eggplant — so called because he always seems tightly skinned and shiny, and because in the right light when showing his usual level of vague expansive derision at all things not Christopher appears also somewhat purple in flesh tone — Christopher Eggplant may have just given his final lip to a dangerous man; as usual not knowing when to apply the brake to his wit, he has decided to tease a large and surly pale laborer at the next door construction site, a man who having finished work for the day is sitting in his silver Buick with the door open chugging a tall Colt 45 and loudly singing the hook of a popular song in a surprisingly thin and pitchy tenor voice; to which apparent provocation Christopher Eggplant has responded by calling out to the man his sarcastic appreciation of the tune, calling him by a brutal parody of the name of the heart-throb who has made it a hit; the man’s comrades upon the job are starting to trot from their own cars and drinking spots toward Christopher Eggplant even as his target rises himself from the Buick no longer singing but with a strange blank look upon him, almost as if he has become some kind of machine, almost as if there’s something inside him that has turned off any sense of irritation, almost a contrast — although more of a goad — to those who are approaching with anger on his behalf, or fear for Christopher Eggplant as they seem to know that something deeply awful is about to happen, something that only the most depraved among us would be so excited to observe, and as I am excited to observe from a distance I feel thus depraved but will not lift my own finger to help Christopher Eggplant as none of us who know him from the neighborhood will, as time slows to a crawl, as the danger surrounds him, as we take a deep and uneasy satisfaction after taking years of his abuse at the prospect of watching him fall so awfully, so wetly, to the infertile ground.


Two Sentence Horror Stories

Revised from earlier this week.

I was first introduced to the concept of the two sentence horror story by poet Jeff Stumpo.  He may not be the originator of the concept, but he gets the credit for getting me into them — or the blame, depending on your point of view.  

Here are ten such stories…or perhaps it’s only one twenty sentence horror story. 

1.
I wouldn’t drink the charcoal-filtered whisky they serve here if I were you, friend; the distillery is next to the crematorium. May I suggest instead a blood-orange Margarita?

2.
The poet Rilke once said that every angel is terrifying. Based on your expression, I must be an angel indeed.

3.
The four teenagers warily approached my stray pug, unaware that they had little to fear. Daisy had just eaten and wasn’t feeling threatened — lucky for them as they’d barely be a small mouthful to a hungry, anxious Devourer.

4.
Dark brown stains developed on the blade of the hunting knife as it lay in the Justice Machine’s chamber. I smiled, pressed the button that would cause Maria’s fingerprints to form on the hilt, and started to think about where to plant it when the process was complete.

5.
I raised my head from the battlefield to see hundreds, perhaps thousands of shattered faces doing the same — each in an enemy uniform, each one looking directly at me with hatred as they rose from their own places of dying. Each one murderous, each one ready to die again — and as if this were a field of mirrors, each one could have been my twin.

6.
My dirty little secret isn’t that I know what it feels like when a knife enters a human body. My dirty little secret is about which end of the knife taught me that.

7.
I stared at the painting, hoping something in that dark puddle of black pigment on the upper left corner would move and reveal itself as The Meaning. Then something popped, and I saw it — a crowd in a museum gallery, shrugging their shoulders and turning away from my gaze.

8.
There’s nothing new under the sun, friend. Last week, though, something new developed behind it, and it doesn’t like us.

9.
I woke up.  “Damn,” I thought.

10.
“I…I don’t know what I’m doing,” I stammered. I agreed, then continued doing it until I couldn’t deny it anymore.


The Pig Tattoo King

Originally posted 9/21/2010.

I’ve met someone who spends his weekends liberally applying bacon grease to his arms and drawing swirls in it.

Wipes them off, draws them again.

He’s a map of bacon labyrinths.  

Calls himself the Pig Tattoo King. Says these are the maps to his domain. 

He leaves stains on everything. He stinks a bit. 

I’ve also met people who swill money like chocolate, coat themselves in dirty metals pulled from the ground, smell like rare flowers crippled with salt, build small honesty into huge lies to keep people guessing and off balance.

They leave stains on everything.

I place my faith in the Pig Tattoo King.  I honor his Kingdom of Making Do.  And I prefer the perfume of that place.

 

The Saints Of Our Household Shrines

New poem (draft — just getting it out there; it’s been in progress for a while.)

The saints of our household shrines are banding together to form a political party. 

Throngs of our beloved dead memorialized in table altars in gently shabby homes and clean-swept humble cubbyholes are massing to stand against officially canonized hypocrisy regarding who we should honor with supplication and offerings.

They refuse our tithes, saying we’ve paid enough in loss and pain to fund any campaign.  

The platform?
Chase down and face down the Founding Fathers, the missionaries of genocide, the greed-slurping apologists for bad acts that make a profit, the prophets of compartments, the sky-godmothers of assimilation, the go along get-alongs.  

The slogans?
“Behold the dead to understand the living.

“Behold the living who come to make you understand, 
but know we do not need you to understand 
before you stand aside.”

The saints of our household shrines march before us carrying no signs, wearing no buttons, adorned only in scraps of family photos, funeral cards, locks of treasured hair, newspaper clippings, the stains of generations of tears.

We will not lose. We cannot lose.

We, and they, have nothing to lose.


The Sheepdog Klezmer Orchestra

Originally posted 7/21/2010.

A klezmer band purchases a sheepdog to act as band mascot.  They change the name of the band to the Sheepdog Klezmer Orchestra.

The Sheepdog Klezmer Orchestra begin to travel widely and soon achieve a degree of acclaim.  Everywhere they go, they bring the sheepdog (known to the audiences only as The Sheepdog) with them.  He lies on stage during their sets, perking up for the dances, then dropping his sad head to the floor for the vocal lamentations and slow songs, peering out at the audience through his fringe of fur, looking right and left.

The Sheepdog is in private life named David. The band keep his real name to themselves, as they keep their own names private from the audiences they play for, using stage names — Aaron Out Front, Judith Judith, Ronaldo Star, Jonathan Regretful, Felix the Cat, Sam The Fiddler.

Sam The Fiddler, in particular, loves The Sheepdog and is David’s closest companion in the band, walking him during breaks, petting him for long hours in the privacy of hotel room, brushing his thick coat until it shines before every gig.

In their hometown south of Detroit, the Sheepdog Klezmer Orchestra plays weddings so often that the sound of a clarinet in the street would lead to proposals and engagements.

I only have ever seen them play once, as I am not a fanatic for klezmer music in general.  But at a wedding of close friends from college, The Sheepdog Klezmer Orchestra played for hours, and I danced and wept as much as the families did for their offspring, and I have not forgotten.

Tonight on the radio, in the early dark of pre-dawn, I heard a recording of The Sheepdog Klezmer Orchestra and thought of you again:

how your hair fell before your eyes so often
that I was always brushing it back
to see them more clearly;

how I used to dance and weep with you
and called both things
a celebration of us;

how it seemed that a band was playing
whenever we spoke or loved together;

the air itself blurred into song.

This is not to say that remembering you reminds me of a sheepdog, or of The Sheepdog Klezmer Orchestra, or of weddings or dancing.  

This is to say that when I think of joy and sadness mixed, and of the caring that demands the constant brushing of hair from soft eyes, of hours of travel and the rewards of keeping private what is most your own,

those moments
have a soundtrack

in which you still sing to me

like a clarinet,  like Gershwin;
like klezmorim singing the music of names
used gently and only in confidence.


Rules Of Thumb

Originally posted 9/11/2010.

When it comes to popular proverbs,
laws of physics, rules of thumb, common knowledge,
sensible notions, and given assumptions,
exceptions are becoming more and more the norm.  

Geometry is shifting.
Angles, never before provably trisected,
now regularly fall into neat triplet piles. 

Shelter is losing its place in the hierarchy of needs.
Soon, it will be forgotten entirely. 

It appears to knowledgeable observers
that knowledgeable observation is becoming a lost art
akin to alchemy and divination by gut of pigeon and pig. 

If there are ghosts, they wear visors
and lean deep into ledgers
with our very dimensionality at their calculating mercy. 

Nymphs, fauns, and revenant Pan himself establish Websites
and collect scores of followers
who fondle tokens of their avatars while staring at doorknobs,
thinking of the potential for rattling entries in the dark.

There are suspected reserves of container ships laden with butterflies
who are waiting to change the world’s climate.  

My love, this world is slipping away into an immeasurable mystery.
Nothing we have known to be true is certain.
We should sleep with our eyes open now, scanning the dark for signals.
When we think we have seen enough, it will be up to us how we choose to live.
What we choose to measure.
What we count on.
How we refine and define the terms.

If a butterfly comes close, hold your breath.
If a god possesses you, count rapidly to one hundred seventeen.
If the door rattles in the night, we’ll cast a cold eye on it,
pass through the walls,
and escape carrying nothing with us —
not even the meaning of love, or of home.
We will come back for them later,
or make new ones
while holding up our thumbs to plead for rides to new places.

Our thumbs —
once the measure of punishment, as the story goes —
will become our transport.
We will have to depend on each other to carry each other.

Eventually, we’ll forget the evil source of the term and say:

a “rule of thumb”
measures the distance you were carried from your point of origin
before you decided you could live where and how you are living right now,
and is only fixed until the next departure.

And then we’ll say:
Love is the vector of human travel. 
We’ll say:
Home is the fare humans paid for the transport. 

And when we say human,
what we will see is aluminum pie plates — 

when full,
flaky and soft centered;
when empty,
easily flung into flight,

shining as they fly.


Gunstock

Originally posted 4/10/2008.

The word “gunstock”
sends the listener into a maze,
evoking as it does
everything

from the anticipation of a fast run 
down the New Hampshire mountain which bears that name, 
powder surging around the tips of your skis,

to the feel of oiled walnut against your shoulder.

There’s anticipation there too
of the sound coming a split second late,
the long whoosh of the bullet drawn out into the air 
just ahead of the punch of the blow to your shoulder.

You cannot know much of the reality of either of these things
until they have happened to you,
so if you have not skied or shot, 

the word “gunstock” is a theory at best.

It is a gate that may lead you to contradictory places,
or at least to places that bear little resemblance to each other
until you decide to cut through the walls of the maze 

and see that in truth,
“gunstock” always means
“rapid movement”
with a related meaning of
“potential death.”

That “joy” is also operative in each of those meanings
may not be apparent until you cut through the green walls
that define the maze established by the presence of the word.

Learning which of the meanings is operative
changes the nature of the maze.

Holding all of the meanings to be true in all situations
is a key to cutting the maze down.


Cryptozoology

Originally posted 4/14/2008; original title, “Cryptids.”

So, there’s this website where you click to spin a wheel
and it tells you how to make a life decision
based on you doing what a unicorn would do
if a unicorn was in the same situation you’re facing.

I spun the wheel this morning
and it said i should
“whinny and rear.” 

Well, I do this all the time so it didn’t seem to be a huge stretch.
I was glad I was not advised to nuzzle a newborn or frolic in a meadow.
I was hoping that I’d be told to impale evil things 
but I confess I’m not really in shape for that — 
good call, wheel.

So: out the front door on my hind legs,
waving my arms around.
My voice has too much tobacco in it for a solid whinny,
but I made some sort of approximate noise
as I went forth.

At the gas station, the pump refused my credit card. I whinnied at it.
There wasn’t much space to rear since I’d parked too close to the pump,
but I managed something that didn’t look too un-unicorn-like
and fulfilled the prophecy.
I was becoming mythical!
Certainly, the pump’s refusal to honor my credit made that belief credible.

I drove out to the Tower Hills, just outside the city.
I knew I’d be the lone unicorn out there, since it’s not the season for the regular unicorns —
while they equally adore frolicking in meadows covered in snow or wildflowers,
the mud of a Massachusetts spring is something they’d rather not touch.
They go to Arizona, I think, in winter.

I pulled off the road by the reservoir
and found a trail there,
which I followed to a bar
in a clearing.

The bar was better furnished than I would have expected,
and the drinks were well made and cheap.
The bartender greeted me with a nod;
apparently I had been there before,
though it all seemed new.

I knew no one else,
at least by their faces,
though I recognized them by their traits —

gryphons whose wings had been stolen,
chimeras with odd parts from random plastic surgeries,
basilisks who could turn you to Corian with a single glance.

I joined my fellow cryptids there
and we indulged in our fortunes
for many, many hours
until I was drunk on the dizzying rhythm
of my whinnying and rearing.

I came home flecked with sweat
and exhausted. I dreamed of virgins 
seeking me, I dreamed of eluding capture —
and then I woke up — here. Again.

I’m going to return
to that website with its majestic wheel.
It tells me old stories 
that make me feel like I’m not alone 
in believing that there’s a greater purpose. 
I know it’s supposed to be for amusement only,
but it’s a joke
that has led me to the place 
where I feel most justified,
and most at home.


Two Crazy Kids, An Old Man, And A Host Of Lizards

Originally posted 3/31/2011.

We called him “the Old Man” because of our lack of imagination.  
He was usually seen smoking a fat tube the same color and size as the ubiquitous local lizards. 
We assumed these were cigars, mostly because it seemed unlikely that he possessed the requisite igniter to get a lizard to burn.

We were there because of our lack of imagination. 
Our art was escape, not arrival. 
We had been on the run so long, place names seemed superfluous. 

The relationship between us, if you can call it that, was superfluous.
On the rare occasions we fell into sex in those days it was usually due to losing our balance versus our having been open to abandon.

As the days wore on, we surrendered to a lack of definition.
We lost entire weeks in the calendar grid.
Began referring to the Old Man as the Lizard Smoker, having forgotten our earlier decision that this could simply not be so.

He taught us that the trick to smoking a lizard is to put the tail end in your mouth and use the dry skin around the eyes as tinder. 
Once you’d learned the trick, they were remarkably easy to light.
The hardest part was learning to coordinate the biting of the tail end to create a vent for the draw.
It had to be timed perfectly with the ignition of the blowtorch.
That first drag was a doozy — all the gut and blood bubbling inside made for a strange if not entirely unpleasant taste.  
It was not unlike that recalled from the factory air of our youth, with a trace of bewilderment in the aftertaste.

That were were torturing animals never occurred to us. 
We’d been tortured animals ourselves, after all, and casual death seemed natural. 
Organic. 
Accustomed, in some ways; I’ve already testified to our lack of imagination, after all.

Weeks turned into days. 
Instead of marking the passage of time (however poorly we’d done at it) we simply rose, lit up, and passed the day in the company of the Old Man.
He told odd stories of bureaucracy and petty intrigues, then fell into bed at dusk to await the next sunrise, the next smoke. 
That there were names for the days seemed superfluous.

We awoke one morning to the Old Man’s death rattle. 
That one of us might have killed him did not occur to us until we saw the blood, the knife, his blowtorch bubbled skin. 
We thought at first it might have been the lizards, but there were none to be found anywhere in the village.

The local constabulary arrested us, charged us with various types of extinction. 
There was no trial, and we were incarcerated in the flimsy local jail to await transport to the regional prison to serve life sentences. 
Fortunately, the bribes required to get us out of town were small enough for our meager savings.

On the road back to our long-abandoned homes, we realized how long it had been since we’d had to think of schedules, itineraries, names. 
We had little imagination, but managed to concoct a story to explain our absence to our loved ones.

We told them a story of exploration and suffering, of the smell of desperation and bewilderment.
We told of the kindly Old Man who’d taken us in and showed us the way of the indigenous culture. 
The story was bogus-sounding, but as we came from places where lack of imagination was endemic, it was accepted with little hesitation.
Of course, it was all but true, though we’d left out the lizards and the mystery of the Old Man’s murder in consideration of the delicate sensibilities of our simple homefolk.

We sat on a hill outside of town, staring into the curls of autumn smoke above the plain chimneys. 
We made love again as we once had, stable and grounded. 
This was a temperate climate, after all; no lizard temptations here, and we knew the names of all the old men and women there below us. 
It was almost good.

The next day, we left for Los Angeles; bought blowtorches before we left, betting on the possibility of lizards. 
The memory of the taste and the bubbling of the blood and fragile skin was so strong…maybe there was a movie to be made of all this. 
Something to fire the imagination. 
Something not to be seen as superfluous in scant years after it was made. 
Something we’d be remembered for.


Giving Russell Edson The Finger

Originally posted 4/26/2007.

If I scratch the back of my left index finger long enough a genie will pop out.
 
He’ll be fat and awful with three wishes to offer but I’ll turn the first two down flat, holding out for the last one.

He’ll shake his head and sigh and when he agrees to roll them all into a single ball of heart’s desire I’ll tell him I’m looking for a cure for the finger itch.

When the finger stops itching I’ll wonder what I’m supposed to do next.

I will regret that I didn’t make the cure the second wish, leaving an answer to my current question for the third wish.

A few minutes later I’ll think of how I should have asked for clairvoyance right up front and avoided all this.

I’ll be damned if I’m going to scratch that finger now…but ah, if the right one itches…


Not A Poem For The Golden Age

Here is a thing
that is not a poem, not a song.

Call it a jeremiad
or a crazy man’s despair;

dismiss it as you will, it’s just as well
you don’t go mad along with the writer.

But it needs to be said: there are golden people, 
there have always been golden people

who have allowed you
to see their gold, if not its source,

and the light around it creates the illusion 
that you might join them if only you can get yours.

They’ve convinced you that someone is keeping you from it, 
because the notion of “enough for all” 

isn’t useful to those interested
in consolidating the power they’ve taken from you.

The golden people believe it’s in their best interest
to make you hate someone else for robbing you.

Your battling each other is their best defense 
against your sudden awakening to the truth.

You don’t need a conspiracy theory
to explain this — just look around.

Some have, some have not.
Those who have, keep;

those who do not have
do not know they likely never will.

Occasionally (to maintain the fiction)
someone who doesn’t have will be allowed a taste —

all it takes is a lottery number, a great throwing arm,
a singing voice that pleases the greatest number of you.

They know just how to market it
to let you think you can get some too — 

hard work, they say, hard work
will do it and anyone can rise;

but it’s not anyone who rises.
It’s those allowed to rise who do,

and those allowed to rise learn how to keep
the little they’re allowed to keep.

Meanwhile you think yourself peaceful,
when the tooth and nail are in fact your daily bread.

Your job is made to leave you jealous and striving.
Your leisure is a stunted ration of your small time here

and when you come home to cradle that son or daughter,
you whisper that it will be better for them —

but it likely will not be,
because all that gold

will blind them as swiftly
as it blinded you.

Everyone thinks they’ll be rich someday.
Everyone thinks it’ll be better someday

even as the oil runs out, 
as the seas lift from their beds,

as the bridges fall sooner rather than later,
as the whirlwind is twirling a noose over our necks.

Some of you still think love
will make it better,

but when the poorest of you
have more than most of the world

and you still call yourself poor
in the face of all that misery,

you are going to be fooled again and again
into believing that love will win.

Love cannot win
in the long sunset of this age.

We have exhausted ourselves,
and love is nothing more than a gesture now.

You’ll still sit back and say it was better once.
You’ll imagine a time when love was enough.

But love has never been enough
to conquer this illness; 

what’s always been needed
is a terrifying justice. 

Gaia is preparing
terrifying justice — 

the swiping of her mighty hand across us,
as if we were (and we are)

gnats full of blood
who cannot rouse themselves to fly.

If you want a golden age,
get rid of the gold before you.

Ahead of that sweeping hand,
you will have to learn to fly for your life,

and land in something new.
It will not be called America.

If when you land you want to try love,
then by all means try it — 

but do not expect it to grow in this soil
so full of gold, and blood, and lies;

not without
a cleansing fire.


911

Our scene held a man
whose nickname was
“911.”

He strutted pills
like pinky rings,
lived by the motto
“open mouth
insert internal decor,”
washed resulting suds away
with a cocktail,
suffered or enjoyed
impossible comas weekly.

Perhaps or perhaps not unexpectedly

911
emergency married
a big winner,
local starfire,
bump in the path of the scene libido

who said
in response to our frightened questions
something about wanting
to keep the chaos
alive as long as possible
before REALLY settling down.

The happy couple
took turns burning up and freezing
in our once climate controlled social gatherings
for a few cough-splinted years
before 911 finally
rooted up the wrong truffle and
dusted on out of here.

His partner?

We see the partner, not so much
a desirable sight now,
quite often in the supermarket,

proclaiming
that after the shock wore off
it was like high school
had finally ended
without a graduation  — and

tossing a cap in the air
he says:

“I’m still waiting.”


Sitting Around

Mostly, people are sitting around waiting for it…It’s not going to be like a tsunami you know.  Or a war.

 No one wants to admit that we peaked at Lascaux.  No one wants to admit that we were pretty much at our apex right before the first grain was planted, the first lamb was tamed…that it started to fail with the first surveyor who confidently said “this plot’s yours, this plot’s not.”  

 No one wants to admit that we were OK about the God thing right up to the moment we shook God loose from a particular geography, the one outside the hut door.  Get up every morning, yawn, stretch…hello, God.  Turn another direction, there’s another God.  Say hi to that one, too.  It kept them small.

 No one wants to admit we knew something back then we don’t know now, and we don’t even know what it is that we knew.   

 I have some friends — oh, I cannot call them that as it’s untrue now and will be even more so after this — there are people I know  who are activists.  

 They think they’re doing something.  They think…I like them because they move now that everyone’s mostly sitting.   But do they do what’s needed?  No one can do what’s needed now.  Not on anything but a small scale, no matter how grandly they practice.  

 Because when it comes, it won’t be much different than it is now — a slew of abandoned houses, a lot of rootless people.  They’ll leave because their wallets betrayed them; they’ll leave looking for work; they’ll leave looking for food.  And the lawns will recall their heritage and swallow houses, making jungly noises…

 We don’t know what we’ve lost;

 we peaked at Lascaux;

 all those hunter-gatherers knew it;

 we sit waiting for what’s coming;

 we ought to be moving though it won’t come as tsunami or war, not at first…

No. It will be as it is now. 


Sitting Around

Mostly, people are sitting around waiting for it…It’s not going to be like a tsunami you know.  Or a war.

 

No one wants to admit that we peaked at Lascaux.  No one wants to admit that we were pretty much at our apex right before the first grain was planted, the first lamb was tamed…that it started to fail with the first surveyor who confidently said “this plot’s yours, this plot’s not.”  

 

No one wants to admit that we were OK about the God thing right up to the moment we shook God loose from a particular geography, the one outside the hut door.  Get up every morning, yawn, stretch…hello, God.  Turn another direction, there’s another God.  Say hi to that one, too.  It kept them small.

 

No one wants to admit we knew something back then we don’t know now, and we don’t even know what it is that we knew.   

 

I have some friends — oh, I cannot call them that as it’s untrue now and will be even more so after this — there are people I know  who are activists.  

 

They think they’re doing something.  They think…I like them because they move now that everyone’s mostly sitting.   But do they do what’s needed?  No one can do what’s needed now.  Not on anything but a small scale, no matter how grandly they practice.  

 

Because when it comes, it won’t be much different than it is now — a slew of abandoned houses, a lot of rootless people.  First they’ll leave because the house-wallets betrayed them; then they’ll leave looking for work; then they’ll leave looking for food.  And the lawns will recall their heritage and swallow houses, making jungly noises…

 

We don’t know what we’ve lost;

we peaked at Lascaux;

all those hunter-gatherers knew it;

we sit waiting for what’s coming;

we ought to be moving though it won’t come as tsunami or war, not at first…

 

no, it will be as it is now.