Verses of imaginary times, places and personas.
Contents

Spending My Living

Double-Cross

Blues Paradelle: Noir

At the Vertical Smile

Rondeau: Duel

Never Closes Cafe

Enlightenment

Kafka at Disneyland

In the Country of the Blind

The Light Age

Future Space Suit

Aesthetics

The Immortal Speaks of Beauty

The Necromancer

Devices

Castle-in-the-Air Down

Lost Mirage

At the Millennium

Phfft!

Chicken Little Hawking

Twilight of the Prom Kings

Praise the Lord and Pass the Remote Control

Apocalypse Can Be Fun

Working Graveyard

Oleander Tea

Elegy for Lillian (1942-1973)

Bolgia 11: The Plagiarists

Apocalypse Can Be Fun

Spending My Living

Well I'm gonna be forgiven

If I wanna spend my living

With a long cool woman in a black dress.

    — The Hollies, “Long Cool Woman in a Black Dress”

 

The universe can only cool and sprawl

the minute after the Big Bang goes boom.

So, even as I pulled the muzzy doll

behind the bar as bullets swept the room,

dealt out a few myself through dried, black hearts,

and carried her — the velvet of her dress

slipping like old snakeskin — from Mozart’s

as it burned behind us, brusque and pitiless,

I felt the heat on my neck begin to fade

before we reached the DA’s barricade.

 

After the questions, doctors, and triplicates,

I drove her home, a loft apartment nest

in the poor-but-trying part of town; her glitz

unnoticed there, just like back home: midwest.

A cathouse parlor once, the front room was red,

but along one wall were snow white furs in cages.

“My pop believed in rabbits, sir,” she said,

as if those rats could be the rock of ages

of some frank faith of flat-horizoned fields

where God’s own mercy’s measured by the yields.

 

Her roommate was a nun long out of habit

who worked a shelter kitchen down the block,

and by the look of her, could take a rabbit

from coop to soup in seconds on the clock.

This Sister Earl stuck out her hand to shake,

gave me a look that said, another one,

but not too bad, then lied, “For Heaven’s sake,

I’ve got to get to work. I’ll see you, hon.”

She scrambled out to give us room and time,

like unwilling witnesses scurry from a crime.

 

She burned some coffee on the sullen stove

the way she would each morning after that:

she sings twice nightly now at The Secret Grove,

and me, I’ve been assigned to doing combat

with the bad guy late shift. Both back home by three,

she rattles battered cups and spoons around,

still wearing that black dress, and sings to me

some childhood verse while pouring grounds.

No need to speak, the dishes in a heap,

the coffee cooling fast. We wait for sleep.

 

 

Double-Cross

 

The gun's cold metal pressed against

the place where neck meets skull.

"You'll know it all, the whole damn deal."

The voice was cool and dull.

 

"The all or nothing, all at once."

He smelled of smoke and rain.

"Just one last piece of information

delivered to your brain."

 

I heard him lift a fifth of gin

and pour himself a jigger.

"A simple operation, yes."

And then he pulled the trigger.

 

(First published in The Formalist 10.2 1999)

 

 

Blues Paradelle: Noir

 

I haunt the empty street that has her name.

I haunt the empty street that has her name,

and I alone but for the corner street light.

Alone but for the corner light and the fog.

Alone but for the corner light and the fog,

the empty fog, the haunt that has her name.

 

My trench coat like a weary face, I stand.

My trench coat like a weary face, I stand

in a fallacy like my trench coat

in a pathetic fallacy of rain,

in a pathetic fallacy of rain:

A weary face of rain, I stand, pathetic.

 

Just some true-blue cliché or B-movie,

just some true-blue cliché or B-movie

hero who's down and blue, or just gut shot.

Down and gut shot, so who's big hero, now?

Down and gut shot, so who's big hero, now?

Some big B-movie cliché, now so true.

 

So light the shot: a blue. Some movie rain.

The street. That corner. Big trench coat. And a

pathetic hero, weary and alone.

But I just stand, for down true in my gut,

haunt-like, I face the fallacy of has.

Who's B—? her name now empty fog, or cliché.

 

(First published in anthology The Paradelle ed. Theresa M. Welford, Red Hen Press, 2005.)

 

At the Vertical Smile

 

Yeah, I was at the Vertical Smile when

the order came down. One or so, I guess.

The regular offenders sat around

and drank, played cards, or lied about some job

a month ago, or coming up real soon.

We waited. Saint Vanessa had just poured

rum shots for Crazy Bob, the Cowboy and me,

when Bobby swanked by tipping a C-note.

Vanessa’s face went tender then, I think,

but in a blink she showed her teeth a flash,

let loose a drawn-out cow-girl “yee-haw” whoop,

then twirled pearl-handled pistols from her belt,

snapped them snug into her palms and pumped,

bang-slam, two smoking slugs into the floor.

 

Now me, no matter how alert, will flinch

at bangs and such, to Bob's demented glee.

But when the Cowboy, as the sawdust settled

back to the floor, jerked breath all death-like rattly

and nearly blew the moustache off his face

with a sneeze, I tell you true, there weren't one

drunken, no good, desperado killer

in the place not hooting their booze-rotted guts

right out onto their aces, eights, and bluffs.

 

There was a silence after, lingering

even when the talk resumed. We waited.

Vanessa had done her rounds of drinks,

and so had stepped onto the stage again

to do her thing, dream dancing to a song

in her own head, the juke long since gunned down.

Despite the bloodshot eight balls lining up

bank shots to the corner pocket, she moved through

the routine like she was at home, alone.

The chaps, the vest, the bra and panties slipped

and twirled onto the floor.

 Then something changed;

she looked past us, and pulled her hat's suede brim.

No head turned back, but we all saw the flash

of rings in that side vision that's saved more

than one of us in darkened streets and bars.

Mr. Flint paused, fingered a diamond cuff link,

and sauntered, cool and smooth as silk, right out.

We knew his waiting limo, dark and low,

would blend like wind-blown fog into the night.

The order had come down, had been received

by someone in the smoke and stink and sweat.

 

Vanessa jingled spurs on her boots, gun belt

still resting on her naked hips, drew fast

and fired, twin shots made just one ringing pop.

The Cowboy caught one in his heart, and Bob

drooled blood from his left eye and slowly slumped

as if just settling down to childlike sleep

until his head lay lightly on the table.

 

The room thinned out, but slow, just one or two

at a time, like citizens who’ve had their drink

and have a home to get to — nothing fishy.

I waited, figured I ought to stay with them

at least till Mr. Graves, the cleaner, showed.

They weren’t my friends, exactly, but seemed right

to sit and drink with them that one last time.

 

 

Rondeau: Duel

“Let’s play,” he says, his angry blade

held up to glint before one eye.

The other twists a smile unafraid

and then as if to carve the sky,

his knife cuts air in quick charade:

the wounded air lets out a sigh.

The sun is high, there is no shade,

and today one of them must die.

“Let’s play,” he says.

 

Life’s pleasures one will live to drink,

the other will become death’s slave,

but now there is no time to think.

Between them is an open grave:

the first moves, edges to the brink.

“Let’s play,” he says.

 

 

Never Closes Cafe

1:23: it's early, or late. A step

from Dinah Shore's first star — the one on Vine,

the one she got for radio — I've paused

to check my watch; that's when I see the sign.

 

Across the street, faux neon struggles, flashes

a "Never Closes" and goes dark again.

I wait and see it snap on hard, and hold,

as one, near death, remembers oxygen.

 

I had been eager, after the film, to find

my car, drive home, the radio turned up.

Instead, beneath the sign, through greasy glass,

I stare; God coolly holds a coffee cup.

 

In the cafe, sitting quietly, there’s God,

drinking coffee, eating key lime pie.

The neon sign resumes its brawl against

oblivion. I try to focus my eyes.

 

I see my hands, my empty plate and cup;

I blink and feel as if the room's been spun.

I’d seen myself in the glass. I check my watch

which, like a countdown, reads 3:21.

 

Enlightenment

after “Reptilian Suitcase,” neon artwork by David Svenson

Gresham Art Gallery, San Bernardino Valley College, May 2018

 

The customs agents, jaded by years of smuggler’s ploys – baby snakes concealed

in bras, marmosets in thermoses, bioluminescent fish in Ziploc bags stashed in

colons, endangered mantises woven into wigs, poisonous frogs in prosthetic legs –

were hardly prepared: The opened suitcase erupted with neon lizards, sparking and

crackling like old Eat at Joe’s signs, flicking electric tongues, glowing green as

radioactive jalapenos, blues that seemed to eat light at the edges, and reds as hard

and brazen as a strip club sign in the shape of a woman kicking a leg, up and down,

up and down.

 

 

 

XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX

 

 

Kafka at Disneyland

Disneyland will be featuring the newest generation of “animatronic” characters this year.

Figures from history have been recreated with amazing realism.

— Los Angeles Times, May 17, 2055

 

Kafka awakes one morning, finds himself

at Disneyland. He stands a bit beyond

Main Street, with It’s a Small World’s clock just tolling

behind him now, each cog in full-tilt joy.

A crowd surrounds while Mickey Mouse stands close,

one giant white-gloved hand upon his shoulder,

the other one presents him to the throngs.

 

Mickey, two smiling men in suits, and Steinbeck

(on loan from California Adventure)

show Franz the park, though he already knows

the rides, the shops, and every other detail.

They stop for photo-ops, reporter questions

in front of midway games, the Haunted Mansion,

the monorail, and wave from flying Dumbos.

 

The tour concludes when Kafka cuts the ribbon

at the freshly painted door to his new home

while someone in a bug suit harries the crowd.

The house, a faithful replica, is set

within his neighborhood in Prague,

abridged into a tidy city block,

just past the Pirates of the Caribbean.

 

But soon he settles into his routine.

Two hours each afternoon, from 2 to 4,

he’s writing in his room, while tourists peer

through the wall of smudge-resistant glass.

He spends another hour or two each day

to answer emails, or rare old-fashioned letter,

from students, journalists and curious readers.

 

Some part of every day, he walks the park.

The name tag on his coat proclaims, “Franz Kafka,

Writer.” But he often wears a mouse-ear cap

with “Kafka” boldly stitched right on the front:

few visitors could read the tag’s small type.

Some guests will chat, but most just want directions

to a restaurant, or ride, or nearest restroom.

 

He makes some friends among the cast, like Doc,

a college kid whose real name is Trong:

his five-foot frame just right to wear a dwarf suit.

And Isabel, who plays Snow White on weekdays,

is nice and asks advice about her stories.

His best friend Raj is the imagineer

who shuts him down at night for maintenance.

 

Kafka goes on tour a month a year

to high schools, festivals, and book store readings.

The worst are conferences where scholars speak

as if he isn’t in the room, or mock

Disney’s “plagiaristic simulacrum.”

When he objects, they argue on the ethics

of hurting feelings he’s just programmed to feel.

 

He likes the high school students best; they’ve read

The Metamorphosis in English class

and want to know how he thought up the thing.

He tells them change is always strange, but happens

all the time, slowly; it’s just we notice all at once.

They nod, but Kafka knows they still don’t know

they will awake and find themselves adults.

 

One morning, Kafka wakes in his familiar room

from dreamless sleep and finds that he is happy.

 

 

In the Country of the Blind

 

If a gang of men – no matter what it’s slogans, motives or goals – were roaming the streets and gouging out people’s eyes, people would find the words of a righteous protest. But when such a gang is roaming the culture, bent on annihilating men’s minds, people remain silent.

    – Ayn Rand

 

It’s true that some unstable activists

have, now and then, attacked a citizen,

restrained and beat them, crudely gouging eyes

with knives or spoons or, in their madness, fingers.

We don’t condone such acts; they sicken us.

Our principles do not permit such deeds;

we work within the law, and common mores.

 

The doctor who, with clear consent, removes

a septic appendix, saves a life with skill.

The thug who rips the organ from your belly

in some back alley gutter, commits a crime.

For we reject all force, compulsion, threat;

we plead, obtain consent, persuade free will.

 

And when our converts know they need no sight,

the surgeons operate, though methods change.

A decade past, the optic nerve was cut,

or the entire eye removed; today,

a laser’s used to burn the retina.

And then we’re free from vision’s tyranny.

 

Now future generations may be spared

the light, the need to have their eyes removed.

For mothers can elect to take a pill

before the thirteenth week and eyes are formed.

Like moles, or eyeless fish in cavern lakes,

they’ll know no light, or the absence that is dark.

 

 

The Light Age

 

The age of stone, the age of steel are past,

when weight and density were signs of strength.

Though buttresses and alloyed skeletons

propped up cathedrals and spined the glass-faced towers

to thrust their way into respective heavens,

the rocks and metals moaned while far above

an eagle soared, sustained by air and feathers.

 

All that is past. This is the Age of Light.

We have detached the ponderous from virtues,

philosophies, and all such architectures.

 

We live in gems a hundred stories tall:

inverted pyramids that smooth the clouds

but balance easy on a single point

and, top-like, turn so every window views

in turn the lake, the park, the cityscapes.

 

The fashion now is fabric fine as silk,

impervious to fire, wear or stain.

Each thread can mystify and humble light;

we seem to wear mere rainbows for our clothes.

 

Our cars, which will not dent in any crash,

fold up with ease to fit into a pocket.

We glide on moth-like wings of thinnest film

and fly to island edens in the sky.

 

Though gravity remains — as jugglers know,

it’s necessary for the show, and all —

we study now the law of levity.

 

(First published in Illumen,  Autumn 2006.)

Future Space Suit

after art piece “Retro Future Space Suite” by Alexander Kennedy

Gresham Art Gallery, San Bernardino Valley College, May 2018

 

The suit, with bubble helmet, silver trim,

atomic sign belt buckle, indicator

lights flashing, vaguely indicating fate or

02 levels, klicks to the crater’s rim,

 

is a dream from Flash Gordon, when style could rule,

or covers for Amazing Stories, twin

to a spaceship all late-50s caddy fins

that travels faster than the speed of cool.

 

Before we actually went there, space was fun.

We’ve met the horror of the vacuum, vast

and empty, ionizing radiation.

Perhaps one day, long hence, when space is won,

we’ll play, not just in our imagination,

in groovy one-piece space pajamas at last.

 

Aesthetics

 

There is no longer beauty except in the struggle. No more masterpieces without an aggressive character. Poetry must be a violent assault against the unknown forces in order to overcome them and prostrate them before men.

 — Tommaso Marinetti

 

I'm crucified, impaled in my machine

while wires and tubing snake beneath my skin

and electrodes in my brain stem start to screen

my body's input out till I begin

to feel each gun, each ammo magazine,

each metal limb my own, the throbbing twin

reactors my new heart's chambers. I am machine:

a thought and barrels will bloom jets and spin.

 

I wake, a titan on a wasted plain

with limbs of steel and weight of metal flesh.

I wait, then charge and hurl a fiery rain

upon the bristling city, breaching the thresh

of batteries and mines, ripe fields of pain.

 

Then pitched, brief battles in the broken streets;

among the buildings hide and seek and kill:

the launch of rockets, gatling bursts, and sheets

of flame, the shatter of concrete, glass and will.

 

The scatter of light within the smoke reveals

the stab of lasers between the glassy towers.

I lance my beams, another rival reels,

explodes, and metal crumples under showers

of flame and spark. "Cease fire," my earphone squeals.

 

I stalk through ruins to head for higher ground

and step through flames, hear crunch and clang, debris

beneath my tread, and distant wailings sound.

Atop the low, scarred hills, I turn to see:

 

And beauty is a burning city, there,

in infrared and slightly magnified,

beneath the cratered moon and rocket flares,

behind the crosshairs grafted on my eyes.

 

(First published in Illumen,  Spring 2007.)

 

XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX

 

The Immortal Speaks of Beauty

 

She is a whirl of dust,

a cloud that seems a shape,

and for a moment holds.

The blush in cheeks is rust;

I muse upon her nape,

how ash can form such golds.

The force will wane, the gust

will fail, the sand escape

as soon her life unfolds.

 

The Necromancer

The one to whom I prayed on thorn-slashed knees

has left her absence in the aching plains:

the flowers, epileptic in the breeze;

the streams convulsed, engorged by distant rains.

 

The crystal lens of night shivers and warps,

no longer hid behind her form’s eclipse:

the emptiness a sleek, titanic corpse

I kiss, though they are raw, with blistered lips.

 

Among my books, the scraps of ancient craft,

I bargain with the dark, arrange the inks

and brush the stylus through the air to draft

and bind each need to thought with leaden links.

 

Configurations of the hand, in turn,

are posed and held. It’s no mere elegance

breaks time and truth; the charcoal script must burn,

the words compel my tongue and lips to dance.

 

 

Devices

Some people call it a one night stand

But we can call it paradise.

 – Duran Duran “Save a Prayer”

 

It is agony to be precise,

to wring the ache, the screw just so,

but we can call it paradise.

 

Your lovely face within the vise

is pallid, eager for the next blow.

It is. Agony, to be precise,

 

demands: to shock the blade is ice,

but not to soothe or numb – limbo –

but we can call it paradise.

 

While caged in flesh and this device,

you seek escape from what you know:

it is agony to be. Precise

 

I am; you chose me thus to splice

the strap to wrist, to brace, to sew.

But I can call it paradise,

 

my love. You swallow breath once, twice,

surrender to the undertow.

It is agony, to be precise,

but we can call it paradise.

 

Castle-in-the-Air, Down

 

“Bad dreamer, what's your name?”

 — ELO, “Showdown”

 

I found her in a Dumpster, in an alley

behind a burning Chinese restaurant,

the Golden Drag, the lit part of the sign spelled.

The tossed egg rolls just laughed.

She tripped, once, over her shoelaces, off

an office tower into a lake of fleas.

So, bad, bad dreamer – worst I ever met.

I fell too, in love, of course. I tried to help.

There are some ways to take control, to shape.

 

We tried. But after bouts with falls and fleas,

attacks by flying fez-wearing volcanos,

and endless naked dreams (but not the sort

I like), the tests which caught us unprepared

about 11th century desserts,

or how to spell our names, and that one dream

in which a body part of hers fell off

at random intervals, I had to stop.

 

For when I quenched those style-conscious fire mounts,

and put some clothes on, aced those tests with verve,

and reassembled her, popped in each eye,

secured those all-too-lovely lips again,

the eyes went wet, the lips relearned the pout

as if a child called in before a rain.

I was just another funk, another fear she wanted:

the saddest dream I ever had.

 

Lost Mirage

No clock could keep the time right here;

the days lose minutes, hours, a year.

There’s evening’s starry chandelier,

then the sun beams up from her corsage.

They welcomed me, a skeleton,

a curious phenomenon.

No one knew how long since anyone

arrived in Lost Mirage.

 

My hands betray I had some skill;

the rags I wore of silken twill

suggest some wealth; the broken quill,

a diplomat san entourage?

A crushing dome of lazuli,

gilt chains of dunes, a butterfly:

that’s all that I recall; then I

arrived in Lost Mirage.

 

The town is sheltered in a cove:

some fields of grain, an almond grove,

in hills above wild herds still rove,

and, swarming gulls can’t sabotage,

the fishing boats net food for days

in half a morning. Each day I praise

the gods that I, through desert maze,

arrived in Lost Mirage.

 

 

XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX

 

At the Millennium

The day the nothingness got up and walked

away like the paralytic cured by Christ

we watched the television as experts talked

and politicians thanked "all who had sacrificed."

 

"The Human Race Is Won!" "All Problems Solved!"

"All Known That Can Be Known!" the headlines sang.

And since very few equations were involved,

"a seventh grader could grasp the whole shebang."

 

Philosophers did squabble for a while,

and the religious found truth "insolent,"

but they were few and had to reconcile

because the proof was so "self-evident."

 

But soon, too soon, we learned we'd lost the gift

of doing things without the knowing why.

It was impossible to dream or drift

through mall or life. It was even hard to die.

 

Before, it seemed our thoughts were sparks that pressed

against a dark not just big, but infinite.

But now our thoughts (our souls, too) are, at best,

brief candles in a room already well lit.

 

(First published in Tucumcari Review,  October 2000.)

 

Phfft!

 

In the parking lot, a man is loading sacks

of groceries into his Honda Civic's trunk.

A purple flash, and then he's gone. "Relax,"

I tell myself. "You're tired. Go home, get drunk."

 

I pull into the drive; a neighbor waves

as he is watering his lawn. Then phfft!

A livid flare, a wisp of smoke, and Dave's

gone off to meet the wide blue infinite.

 

Has rapture come? Though Dave was not a saint,

he was a decent guy. But on tv,

there's dirt on Honda man, more than a taint:

evading taxes, lewd acts, larceny.

It could be global warming. I feel faint:

Does it seem hot in here? Is it just me?

Chicken Little Hawking

 

“I am convinced that humans need to leave Earth.”

 — Stephen Hawking, keynote address to

      Explorers Club, March 15, 2017

 

The sky is falling, so we better fall

on it before it gets the chance. Quit stalling,

says Steve. Our backsides are against the wall.

The sky is falling.

 

So there’s that greenhouse we have been installing,

or solar flares — forget that parasol.

Could be some nations might go nuke brawling.

 

Or you could catch some virus at the mall:

a GE super virus! Quit your bawling.

Escape to space (BYO alcohol).

 

Steve thinks that evil robots might come calling:

a quantum chip AI with wherewithal

to terminate our foolish Facebook lolling.

 

And now the doomsday Higgs comes to appall:

“catastrophic vacuum decay”. It’s galling.

For years now, Steve-o warned about it all:

the sky is falling.

 

 

Twilight of the Prom Kings

 

The revolution ended badly; I,

for one, believe impaling those four heads

on the goal posts was immature and gross.

Biology Club volunteers did do

good work on them. There was no blood or gore;

those handsome heads were always photogenic.

And some of us did try to stop the kids

from chucking flaming pom-poms at Denise

and the other varsity cheerleaders. Dude,

she wouldn’t have got burned so bad and died,

but she just had to try to save that dumb

boom box with that lame-ass cheer disco music.

 

A girl in the Literary Club told me

it was because we had to "totally

express emotions, like, get it all out."

She said it was "catharsis": she was cute.

 

The history geeks keep saying that its weird

that no new hierarchy has yet formed.

But pretty much, the kids just want to do

what’s cool to them. The Young Republicans

and Democrats are banished, dead, or hiding.

And no one else gives politics a crap.

 

I hear the Math Club’s writing virus software

to control computers everywhere to prove

some way-out theorem. The dining hall

is run by Junior Achievement now.

And, pretty much, the Chess Club just plays chess.

And someone told me that The Drama Guild

is putting on a show about it all

that’s titled “Twilight of the Prom Kings.” Cool.

 

Praise the Lord and Pass the Remote Control

An angel's popping the seals on the doomsday scroll,

And Brokaw's talking 'bout the Judgment Day.

Well praise the Lord and pass the remote control.

 

The Four Horsemen tally the mounting toll

For the nightly news; Rather recaps: "By the way,

An angel's popping the seals on the doomsday scroll."

 

And Springer’s got a scoop, he's sold his soul,

to get the Whore of Babylon in lingerie.

Well praise the Lord and pass the remote control.

 

A dragon's just escaped from a sulfurous hole

And hovering above that media fray,

An angel's popping the seals on the doomsday scroll.

 

Satan and Michael clash from pole to pole,

ESPN's got the play-by-play.

Well praise the Lord and pass the remote control.

 

Locusts are swarming around the popcorn bowl,

And a friend of mine just called me up to say,

"An angel's popping the seals on the doomsday scroll."

Well praise the Lord and pass the remote control.

 

(First published in Harp-Strings, Winter 1998.)

Apocalypse Can Be Fun

 

It does one good to contemplate the end,

to laze in this bright, red-tinged autumn

before atomic winter, spend

an hour or six, while we still got ‘em,

 

to watch extinction-level meteor

streak down in HD 3D from space.

(Hey, should the pizza be meaty or,

like, veggie? Oh, should we be saying grace?)

 

Magnetic poles reverse, solar flare,

super volcanos: what is nature’s deal?

Fear robots, aliens from way out there,

or satanic dragon, seventh seal.

 

Though global warming’s hot right now,

we prefer a zombie-lypse, timequakes.

So much to think about, but how?

Oh yeah, we’ve got commercial breaks!

 

We’re back: perhaps an accident at CERN?

The heat-death will be here before we learn.

 

Working Graveyard

When introduced to someone new, we smile,

then pause and say, "And so what do you do?"

Then with the answer we compare them while

we posit, "Must be interesting for you."

 

And mostly we and they are satisfied

by the answers; it's a game, a small enjoyment

derived from how they aptly coincide

(or rarely, don't) with their declared employment.

 

But when I'm asked, I deadpan this: "Most nights

I work security at the graveyard.

My days are free; it gives me time to write."

It's job, not art, lifts me in their regard.

 

They often ask as twilight wakes their faces

if I've felt fear among the graves and stones.

I tell them, "It's only scary in such places

if you are frightened to know you are alone."

 

(First published in Harp-Strings, Winter 1998.)

 

 

Oleander Tea

It's two in the afternoon, and summer

by the smell in the desert air, and we,

the two of us, are the sole inmates

of this earth, the sun's old anarchy.

 

We walk along the desert freeway

and pick the leaves of deepest green

from oleanders as they sway

in gusts tinged with smog and gasoline.

 

We sit in the shade of an overpass

as the leaves are left to steep in a kettle;

on a box we set a pane of glass

and play slow chess with bits of metal.

 

And when the sun's gone down we play

almost forgotten games with stars

that range across the sky's parquet,

the wind as soft as distant guitars.

 

All through the night and morning hours

we add new leaves to the infusion,

flavor it with desert flowers,

and boil it down to pure solution.

 

I pour the tea into each cup

of chipped bone china to cool a bit,

and then together we lift them up

and drink the bitter to sandy grit.

 

As the nauseas ascend and wane,

thoughts twist and flare like fleeting gleams

on the dying embers of the brain

and throw the shadows we call dreams.

 

It's two in the afternoon, as if

that mattered now, the arbitrary

two-beat of time a solemn riff

on the melody of eternity.

 

 

Hoaxes

 

 

Elegy for Lillian

(1942-1973)

 

Turn to page 1,850 of the 1975 edition of the New Columbia Encyclopedia and you’ll find an entry for Lillian Virginia Mountweazel, a fountain designer turned photographer who was celebrated for a collection of photographs of rural American mailboxes titled “Flags Up!” Mountweazel, the encyclopedia indicates, was born in Bangs, Ohio, in 1942, only to die “at 31 in an explosion while on assignment for Combustibles magazine.” If Mountweazel is not a household name, even in fountain-designing or mailbox-photography circles, that is because she never existed. “It was an old tradition in encyclopedias to put in a fake entry to protect your copyright,” Richard Steins, who was one of the volume’s editors, said.

 — “Not A Word” by Henry Alford, New Yorker, August 29. 2005

 

The waters loved the shapes you had them play

in fountains built of brick or river stones.

But now the chiming froths of splash and spray

seem somber, ring in ever flatter tones.

 

And now on rural roads across the states,

the mailbox objects d’art, in autumn light,

or fields of wheat, or nailed upon worn gates,

stand empty and agape through starless night.

 

You drafted pen and camera for the war

to build morale on the homefront stringing stories

for magazines from farm to factory floor,

the hush before the fireworks burst to glory.

 

For imagined losses there’s no good salve:

you never lived, though you could have, should have.

 

 

Bolgia 11: The Plagiarists

a lost fragment of the 8th Circle

(translated by Joel Lamore)

 

A decade ago, a fragment from what appeared to be Dante’s Inferno was discovered among unrelated papers at the Vatican Library. Dozens of tests and scores of experts later, the work was authenticated as Dante’s verse, possibly in his own hand. The fragment described one of the “bolgia” or stone ditches in the Eighth Circle, Malebolge (where those who committed the sin of Fraud are punished). In the final version of The Inferno, there are ten bolgia. The fragment, which describes the punishment of plagiarists, would have made an eleventh. Given that ten is a neater and more meaningful number, it is theorized that Dante perhaps felt that the plagiarists were covered in, or could be folded into, bolgia 10, which covers a wide range of falsifiers, including perjurors, alchemists, counterfeiters, etc. This suggests Dante may have made finer distinctions before lumping these groups together, something he may have done elsewhere in the Commedia. This fragment allows us in a limited way to learn something about Dante’s writing process, though it perhaps will generate more questions than it can ever resolve.

    — M. Xavier Serotin, “Dante’s Fragment: Insights into Dante’s Creative Process” (paper delivered at the Dante Society conference, Boston, April 1, 2010)

 

And so we crossed the arch that spanned a moat

in which low walls were built to form a maze.

A thousand murmurs echoed as though one note

 

as frantic runners stumbled through a haze

of shifting stench and ever changing smokes

so that at first I could not meet a gaze.

 

And then two figures scuttled close in cloaks

of ashen cloth with mirrored shards affixed;

they seemed a painted glass in fractured strokes

 

of all the walls and fumes in angles mixed.

Their mouths were like the mouths of biting flies

that sip the blood of men or beast, play twixt

 

the dead and dung, and sting to vex the wise.

In a corner of the maze, denied escape,

the closer runner fell, his rolling eyes

 

in terror saw the other’s looming shape.

The second’s face displayed a mindless thirst,

and with his hollow beak began his rape:

 

the foul proboscis pierced the skull and burst

into the brain. With sounds like breaking wind

and choking deathbed phlegm, he sucked and nursed.

 

My Guide spoke then to me: “How he once sinned,

now ask, for he is known to you, and one

who shared your trade before his talent thinned.”

 

The creature spoke before I had begun:

“I know you, sir, though memory is mist.

And you know me: say then if my fame’s undone.

 

My fevered verses to Love were often kissed

by sighing maidens love-sickened by my lines,

and, swooning, led so easily to the tryst

 

as fervent pilgrims to invented shrines.

By beardless swain and wealthy lord,

a juicy verse or two was plucked from vines

 

of my poetry as though from their own hoard,

as though they plowed the fields of word and thought

or pruned and trained, or picked the fruit adored.

 

And yet I was content, for I was sought

by patrons rich and wise. With gifts of gold,

or leave to walk a grove of apricot

 

or loiter through sweet garden paths patrolled

by swan-like belles, my verses were repaid.

And in the winter’s fading light and cold,

 

beside a fire, I feasted with food arrayed

in heaps on silver plates, with magic glass

refilled with endless wine. A serenade

 

or sonnet, or some trifle that would pass

to entertain the host was all my toll.”

The one whom he attacked awoke. “Alas,

 

he moves again; his hunger for my soul

returns. So tell me if my fame still endures

for I must hide myself within some hole

 

or corner of the maze.” Of troubadours,

this sinner’s history I knew and spoke,

“Aurelio Falsafama: by the contours

 

of your account. A power to revoke

all semblance to the form you had in life

distorts your form as the mirrors on your cloak.

 

But know, if it can comfort in this strife,

your name is known, your verses still recalled.”

The other rose, beak shining like a knife,

 

So Falsafama fled into the walled

commotion of the maze and did not hear.

The sounds that boiled from that ditch could scald

 

the ear and mind. As if the Sage could hear

my question, though I did not speak my doubt,

he said, “To wine and sloth this sonneteer

 

grew fond, and love of plenty led to drought.

The fertile vineyard of his verses dried.

He had a student, gifted and devout,

 

indentured though: a family name of pride

though petty wars and intrigues took their lands.

With trifling coin, and praise, and threats beside

 

he took the student’s poems in his hands

and read them at the feasts to please the guests

and answer Falsafama’s patron’s demands.”

 

My Master said, “Our time is short, we rest

too long . . .”.

 

© 1990-2019 Joel Lamore