The gulls circle above the lake,
searching for supper. They eye
the clear waters below, spot
fish, pause, turn, empty the air
from under their wings in a fall
that looks as if their wings
have suddenly broken, hit the
water beak-first, dive to catch
their meal, come back up and beat
their way back into the sky,
shaking the water from their wings
in a quick shudder as they go.
It rained last night.
(This is not the weather report.)
Current conditions: the sun is soon
to rise and the cardinals chirp their high,
metallic, scrapy chirp that sounds like an effect
from German techno-pop of a generation
ago (Trans-Europe Express! First In, First Out!)
There is a man who goes every morning
and every evening to the lakeside park.
He has a black fuzzy-furred dog
who goes with him. The dog sniffs around
as dogs will do while the man walks slowly
and pensively, his head down to watch the lawn
he’s walking on, or up from time to time
to look out at the lake and its deceptive
horizon. Is he watching the lawn? When he’s
looking down, is he watching the lawn?
What does he look for out on the lake,
what does he see, is he looking for anything,
or is he looking for nothing, or is he
looking for the sky to open and show
him the way out? There’s no denying
he has about him an air of the sad.
I could ask him.
Why do you seem so sad?
Did your wife die? I might be sad
if my wife died, at least for
a little while. I’ve never been
anything other than alone, so I suppose
I’d be fine after a while.
did you lose a child?
Did you lose your fortune?
Did you miss all the best chances?
Is your time running out?
Were you awake when it rained last night?
Do you know why the police cruiser
was stopped at the corner this morning?
(Neither do I, but I saw it and decided
to throw it in here with all this other stuff.)
I could ask him? Could I ask him?
Then what? If he tells me his truth,
is this still my poem?
I’m going to put you in my pome
you and your dog
right here in my pome
where I can call all your shots
and get them every one
right here with the techno-chirping birds
and the rain and the cops
it’s—oh, and my wife, she’s not dead,
and not all my children are lost,
not all my fortune’s been pissed away,
not every opportunity has been blown—
here is the one place I can call home.
Fat boys with the breasts
of pubescent girls
take off their shirts
do cannonballs off the dock.
Toddler soils his pants
squeals on the beachfront.
Auntie strips him down
washes him in the lake.
Devil’s darning needles
stitch the fading sky with
random dancing patterns
of appetite and death.
I’m Kelly. It’s an Irish name.
I’m black Irish. I’m not from
here. I’m from farther south,
from that part of town where
five people were shot in front
of the church last night. On the steps
of the church, they were just
standing there. Not hurting anyone.
You don’t have a gun, do you?
I don’t, either. People with guns
need to take lessons so they shoot
who they’re aiming at and not just
anyone. (I won’t mention it, but
I want to thank you for not saying
anything about how you can smell
the liquor on my breath. And the
sun’s just barely up.)
I come here and I sit and I look
at the lake and the sky
and the sun and it’s my peace.
It’s how I get my peace.
Are you a therapist? It’s going
to be hot today. My sister
tells me bring a bottle of water
with me when I go out. Ice-cold
water, a bottle. I’m very
religious. I have to start
my day soon. Go home and shower
and get dressed. Clean clothes.
I like the lake. The sky and
the sun. Bright yellow sun.
He told his wife,
When I scratch my face
I am scratching my face,
not making secret baseball signs.
When I say I’m going to clean the couch,
it’s not because I think
you “did something dirty” on it or to it
(no one says you did), it’s because
the generous people who gave it
to us—religious friends of
your sister’s—gave it to us because
their cats had ruined it by pissing
on it and it stinks. And I am
tired of the stink.
When I set up my stereo it’s to hear
my favorite music, not to spy on whatever
you are not doing—you are not doing
anything but staring out the window—
and certainly not to broadcast sounds
of screaming children. The screaming
children live right next door
and need no amplification by me.
There are other things
he might have told his wife,
but after he had told her these things,
he had had enough.
Evanston is a town that sits
on the left shoulder of Chicago, facing up
(right shoulder if you’re facing down).
It is protected by an asphalt moat patrolled
by civilian traffic, a vast cemetary where
fog twists around large monuments to people
barely otherwise remembered, and a train track
fatally electrified and lined by deciduous jungle.
Once the visitor passes the city’s defenses
he (or she if she’s a she) finds himself
in a pretty little city almost as pretty
but not as fragile as the words “pretty
little city,” complete with tall trees,
three-story buildings, squirrels, rabbits,
university professors and students, joggers,
dog-walkers, cyclists, all sweating, some
discussing topics of interest. The cars are
all relatively new and not ostentatious,
though the same cannot be said
for the houses. Construction is underway
in front of shops whose windows hold signs
reading, “We are still open.” Sunday mornings
find the pretty little city very quiet.
There’s a party in the alleyway every night.
It’s August, it’s hot, what’re you going to do?
Sit in your stuffy apartment, puny wall-unit
wheezing a lie of cool, refreshing air?
Watch some fast-food brain shit on the box?
Drink thin beer from cheap cans, scream at the wife
who screams at the boy while the baby
screams at everyone? Fuck that. Get your ass
downstairs and out back to the alleyway. Bring your
30-pack of cheap beer and share it around.
Bring the wife and the boy and the baby,
the neighbors are grilling burgers and dogs
and the cars are idling, their doors open
and their sound systems thumping loud.
You didn’t ask—no one has asked
but this is why I’m afraid of black people:
I’m afraid of black people
because television shows, movies,
newspapers, magazines, and popular songs
have taught me that black people
hate me and want to hurt me
because I’m white and because being white
makes me guilty both of injustices
being committed now and injustices
that hang from our nation’s history
like a stinking dead albatross around
a maddened, decrepit mariner’s neck.
And I’m afraid because
I cannot understand
what it means to be an American
and be black.
The weeping man lied to God.
He—the weeping man, not God
(who may well be a she,
or an it, or all three, plus…)—
he is in the basement laundry room
pulling the clean, wet clothes
from the washer to put them
into the dryer, where they will
spin around for sixty minutes
and he is weeping, doesn’t matter
what he lied about.
Five dollars’ admission.
All the neighbors (who can pay) are there.
Canvas folding chairs (bring your own)
line the curbside along green parkways.
Dogs crap in those parkways.
The new kids on the block
are in attendance. They are middle-aged
and are me and my wife.
We are shy but determined,
frightened of people but resolved
to make our new beginnings here.
We set our canvas chairs
on the parkway behind some of our neighbors.
Introductions are made. We are all middle-aged
(the younger ones and their children
are down the street, closer to
the inflatable fun castle and the quoits).
There is a line of buffet tables and a
griller grilling meats (burgers, dogs) on a charcoal grill.
Canned and bottled beverages (non-alcoholic)
in an ice-and-water-filled tub.
A P.A. system, a host, a raffle (my wife
wins a bottle of wine), pre-recorded music
(late 60s to early 70s, the pinnacle
of post-war American culchuh).
The music is too loud. Conversation
is difficult. Later there’s a singer
backed by two electrified guitarists.
Early on, I stepped in dog shit.
Three times went down the street
to try and scrape it off my shoe.
Even a little bit of that stuff stinks,
and there was no hiding that this
new kid needed to learn
at least one new thing.
She doesn’t have
her great-grandmother’s childhood book
of stories and verse
her grandmother’s cast-iron skillet
her grandfather’s favorite glazed blue bowl
or even her mother’s hand-knit afghan
collection of imperial stamps and coins
rocks from the Garden of the Gods.
Her father collaborated with the enemy
fled with her mother and older brother
he was a baby
the battle was behind them
to either side in the middle distance
it sparked and spat.
The baby, her older brother (let there be
no confusion) died in the swamp.
Another child came, a sister
born in a refugee camp.
She blames herself for all of this
she knows it’s not her fault
she knows there’s nothing
she could have done, it was all
before her. She sits in her house,
it is quiet now,
just another day to journey
from sleep to sleep.
Boys gone wilding in the night
have torn these branches down.
Beat each other bloody with the splintered ends.
Beat their girls, their lovers and their children.
Broken bones, bruises, contusions, lacerations, punctures,
abrasions. Branches litter the breakwater.
Leaves surf the waves. The lake is churning
this morning, waters muddy.
The north wind is a hand
it pushes at the Great Lakes freighter
moving along the horizon
The freighter pushes back
its bridge and forecastle all that can be seen
from the beach where the hand
pushes waves up the sand
washing away the castles the children built
Gulls stretch their arms and stand aloft
the breeze is stiff, they contemplate breakfast
the sun rises so far away
it makes distance meaningless.
The Great Lakes freighter slowly moves north.
The lake is never still.
It can calm to the point where
it’s glassy over the shallows, and the waves
barely ripple onto the beach, their sloshing
easily inaudible when an airliner
flies over on its approach to O’Hare.
The sky is overcast, the clouds a low, quiet jumble
in blue and gray and even white. The elevated train
clacks by a few blocks back of the lake.
The finches are fat and hop about the beach.
Down the breakwater, a man in a bright orange
jacket faces the lake and speaks with some fierceness.
He may be rehearsing or he may be having a breakdown
or he may have already had it and be hopelessly lost.
Another jet flies over, another train passes by,
three more finches land on the beach.
We hit the beach under heavy fire.
The first wave reached the seawall
and they were all killed. Their bodies
fell back on the second wave, and the following waves,
and all the soldiers in all the waves
were shot down. They fell back on those of us behind
so fast, we were being buried in corpses.
We couldn’t breathe, we couldn’t move.
The people near the station have a game
they play it when the day is light
the sun high and sky clear.
The train is coming and the players—
not all the people play—the players
gather by the tracks. The object
of the game has to do with
the train hitting the players.
It’s simple and it’s complicated.
If you get hit and killed, horribly mangled,
you win, but obviously don’t get to play again,
so you’re not a big winner. If you get
hit and injured and survive—for instance,
your arm is broken in three or more
places—you are a lesser winner.
The lowest winners are the players
who jump off the tracks in time and only
get sprayed and spattered with blood. The biggest winners
are the ones—and there’s never more
than one or two per train—who jump
up from the tracks onto the station platform
and are drenched with the blood of those slain
and who turn and look at the spectators
and have phony looks of surprise on their
faces, their eyes wide open and blood
running down and half-smiles playing.
We spectators gather in the cool darkness
at the back of the station and we look out
at the platform while we smoke illicit
cigarettes. I, for one—and I tell the others this—
have had enough of bloody trains and body parts.
The noon train pulls into the station and stops
just beyond the platform. Behind it, the biggest
winner stands on the platform and pretends
to be surprised.
We are all sinners, craving a forgiveness
we know we don’t deserve.
We are all exiles, forever expelled
from our homeland—it was only ever a dream.
We are all vagrants on the hot, dusty road,
telling lies to the border guards.
We are God’s children,
orphans in bloody rags.
Most of the people who get shot in Chicago
don’t die of their gunshot wounds.
Gunshot wounds are always painful,
usually almost immediately.
Incoming rounds puncture skin, tear into muscle,
rupture organs and even break bones.
They can blind, deafen, maim, disfigure, cripple for life.
As many as a dozen people
may be shot in Chicago on any given day.
Telephone pole in the alley sports a poster–
rats have been sighted nearby. Poison
has been buried. Keep your pets away.
Keep your children away. No digging!
In an emergency, call for help and pray.
The old woman of the shoreline
sits in her wheelchair in the sand.
I am leaving soon, she says.
I am leaving in two or three days.
I’ll not be back.
We’re having a party, she tells the young man of her dreams.
Everyone will be there, you must be there.
I can’t come, he says. He kneels in the sand at her feet,
touches her leg, wonders if she can feel his touch.
I have a previous engagement, he says.
Her eyes are blue, though it’s said by some they once were brown.
She takes his hand. He whispers to her.
The maidens of the lake are at work.
The sun rises behind them,
the sky clear of all but blue and gulls.
The maidens ceaselessly dump tub after tub
of lake water on the beach.
The water is green where they work,
the sun shining through it as it pours out
onto the pebbles and the sand.
Farther out, the water is blue.
The maidens rinse the beach.
People keep warning me about the winters up here.
Oh, the winters…, they say.
Just wait till the winter.
My wife, I asked her (she’s from here),
What is it with the winters?
You people make human sacrifices to the ice gods?
Just you wait, she said.
Just you wait, desert rat–
your tail’s going to snap right off.
The smell from the fire escape today is root beer.
Broken glass litters the sidewalks atop the breakwater.
In one direction the lake goes on forever.
The screaming woman is quiet now, she sleeps.
The morning sun shines on her blinded bedroom window, she sleeps.
In her sleep she never screams, though she moans and begs.
She never tells her dreams.
People in Chicago are not full of shit.
In New York they’re full of authentic shit
real, hardened, know-your-shit shit.
In the Southwest they’re full of blustery shit
gassy, hot, noisy shit.
In Chicago, no, it’s strictly business. No shit.
No time or point for it.
I am in Chicago but I’m still full of shit.
I’m not a very nice person.
As a person I am not very nice.
The diary I kept while I was in my teens
shows me a person I don’t know
and don’t want to know
and he was the source of me.
He was a little shit.
A petty thief
molester of girls
he called it love.
He was never thrashed
within an inch of his life.
That woman screams.
Behind this window
that woman screams.
This window opens over the alley back of the building.
It opens and that woman screams.
She goes to the lake and listens to the lake.
No one hears her scream at the lake.
Reality is looking for a job.
The money won’t last.
This idyll won’t last.
The northeast breeze rolls the waves onto the beach.
Where the sun reflects from the water, I cannot look.
What fresh heaven is this?
The green flag means the lifeguard is on duty.
The lifeguard sits in a rowboat a few yards off the beach. She wears sunglasses and watches the children splashing in the shallows.
She steadies the rowboat with its oars. It is work. She is young and thin and very tanned.
Children hold hands along the beach. They stand in a line and jump over the crests of small waves coming in.
On a bench in the park just above the beach, a boy writes in a notebook.
I am new here.
I am new here.
This week I’m posting copies of the poems I had published in the first decade of the Third Millennium (by the reckoning of the Christian Church and the Western post-industrial democracies). These poems were all written between about 1998 and 2005.
This is pretty much the end of my previously published work, which I’ve been posting to this site since March of this year. I have a poem, “love poem,” in the Lyrotica anthology published by Vagabondage Press, but that came out just a few months ago so it falls outside of the date range of the batch of poems I posted today. And I have a story, “Lawn,” which should be coming out in Thema magazine’s “One Thing Done Superbly” issue any day now, if it hasn’t already. I’ll probably post that to this site next year.
Next week I’ll probably begin daily postings of a longer work, High Street, which is a book-length manuscript that confused people such as myself might characterize as creative nonfiction. So much for the probabilities and the confusion, then (I could be a derivatives trader).
In November of 1975 I was 17 years old and began writing poetry. The following year I had four of my poems published in two very obscure magazines. In 1978 I had another published in another very obscure magazine. It was another ten years before I had another poem published, again in an obscure magazine, this one in the United Kingdom. And in 1990 I had another poem published: magazine again obscure.
Those seven poems are the previously published works I’m posting this week. They were all written before I was twenty years old. Nearly everything else I wrote in those early scribbling days when the Vietnam War was still freshly lost and the nation was anesthesizing itself with drugs, sex, rock-and-roll and King Disco, has long since been thrown away and good riddance to it. I would hate to think someone would have to wade through that garbage to sort it out after I die.