Theology of Carrots
We hide our best
plumed by ornamental
allowing the wisdom
“Theology of Carrots” first appeared here in September 2017.
I was a military brat. My return to the U.S. after attending high school in Italy was, well, interesting. Junction City, Kansas was definitely not bella Napoli. This poem came from that experience, albeit a few years after, and was published in the mid-80s in the Allegheny Review, a national journal of undergraduate creative writing, and was republished by Silver Birch Press in 2017. The kid who wrote it still exists. Somewhere.
Letter from Kansas
Driving the stretch to Junction City,
I look for familiar faces in the cars
we pass, but see only strange grasses
gliding by. Three weeks ago
I slept on a stone-littered hilltop
overlooking the Bay of Naples.
Now the prairie laps at our front door.
A mile from the house two corralled bison
munch dull hay thrown daily
from a truck’s flat bed, and past that
the Discount Center’s sign
spells America. What I wouldn’t give
for a deep draught of Pozzuoli’s
summer stench and the strong
yellow wine that Michele’s father
makes. We mixed it with the gardener’s
red, creating our own bouquet,
remember? And here they say
I’m too young to buy beer and wine.
Without them the food is flavorless,
like the single language spoken.
I understand it all,
and miss the difficulty. Maybe Texas
will be better. Ci vediamo. Bob
This was one of my first posts on the blog, and as you might expect, very few people saw it. I wrote the poem in the summer of 1983, when I was new to poetry, still tentative, exploring. A few weeks later I attempted the sonnet form, and, well, everything changed. Everything.
Feeling Squeezed at the Grocery Store I Conclude that the Propensity to Ignore Pain is Not Necessarily Virtuous, but Continue Shopping and Gather the Ingredients for Ham Fried Rice because That’s What I Cook When My Wife is Out-of-Town and I’m Not in the Mood for Italian, and Dammit I’m Not Ill, Merely a Little Inconvenienced, and Hey, in the 70’s I Played Football in Texas, and When the Going Gets Tough…
I answer work email in the checkout line. Drive home, take two aspirin.
Place perishables in refrigerator. Consider collapsing in bed. Call wife.
Let in dog. Drive to ER, park. Provide phone numbers. Inhale. Exhale.
Repeat. Accept fate and morphine. Ask for lights and sirens, imagine the
seas parting. On the table, consider fissures and cold air, windows and
hagfish. Calculate arm-length, distance and time. Expect one insertion,
receive another. Dissonance in perception, in reality. Turn head when
asked. Try reciting Kinnell’s “The Bear.” Try again, silently this time.
Give up. Attempt “Ozymandias.” Think of dark highways. Wonder about
the femoral, when and how they’ll remove my jeans. Shiver uncontrollably.
The events in this poem took place seven years ago. A lifetime ago.
Something Lost, Something Trivial
Another word, another bewildered
moment in transition: the phrase
barely emerges from your mouth
before crumbling back into a half-opened
drawer in the loneliest room of a house
that died seventeen years ago.
I nod as if in understanding, and stoop
to pick up a crushed drinking straw,
the kind with the accordion elbow
that facilitates adjustment.
From a rooftop across the street,
a mockingbird warbles his
early morning medley of unrelated
songs, and you say left oblique,
followed by matches, then
collapse on a bench,
winded. I sit next to you
and we both enjoy the warmth
and birdsong, though I know
this only through the uplifted
corner of your mouth, which
these days is how you indicate
either deep pleasure or
fear. I have to leave soon,
I say, and you grab my wrist
and stare into my eyes.
Broom, you reply. And more
Though I cannot follow you
directly, knowing both path
and destination, I pick my way
carefully through the years
stacked high like cardboard
banker’s boxes stuffed with
papers and receipts no one
will ever see. I know, I say.
I love you, too. Broom.
* * *
“Something Lost, Something Trivial” was published in January 2016 in the first issue of MockingHeart Review. Many thanks to founding editor Clare L. Martin, for her multiple kindnesses.
Letter to Harper from the Edge of Sixty
Dear Stephanie: Some distances, some lives, can’t be quantified.
Knowing that two-thousand miles separates us offers slim
hope for a quick cup of java at a local cafe, but the gape-mawed
dragons lurking below those map edges are at least discernable,
and their fires have no doubt been doused by the confused oceans
corkscrewing over the rim; I detect steam, but no smoke.
The ruler measures in inches, never minutes, and certainly not in
emotion. Saying I miss you is easy and true, but how do those
words evoke the rocks under the surface? I turn sixty in six
days, and what I wouldn’t give to crumple some of those ancient,
wasted hours and toss them into the burn pile, to watch them rise,
transformed into winged smiles and realized dreams of what never
happened to both of us. We could hold hands and observe the odd
little phoenixes fluttering into the past, where they’d patch damages,
circumvent losses and scour clean those close corners in the lost
rooms where memories go to die. I miss you is shorthand for
the atmosphere is too transparent to conceal my longing, and naps
are a poor substitute for the real thing. How do we hide what
is evident even to those who don’t know us? I admit failures and
improprieties, and, facing, open-mouthed, what I desire most, hope
to mitigate misbehaving parts and even some misunderstandings.
I am both the man I thought I was and one whose scars remind me
of someone I might have become, if only. The magic eight ball
spins out signs point to yes, no matter the question, so I’ve mastered
the art of cautious phrasing and willful optimism. Two nights ago
we lost ourselves in a dream in Nowhere, Texas, which seems
apt and is hardly a metaphor if past experience indicates anything.
Even GPS couldn’t help us, but frankly I don’t want guidance.
Being lost with you beats the hell out of any other reality, and might
offer us more time together, and I’m already teetering on the losing
side of that equation. I love being your old man, and want nothing
more than to be just that, at noon, on that rickety bench in Nowhere’s
square, guitar in hand, crooning “Wild Thing” and swigging cognac
while ignoring the perplexed onlookers awaiting their court dates.
I’m contemplating these colliding strands of time and cartography,
wishing for a past that never was to ease the burden of this
present. And there’s the future, which bends to no one’s whim and
seems fraught with scaled fire-breathers and sharp-toothed crags.
But we knew that going in, and stepped forward because there is
no other direction. More brave than stupid, ya think? You are
my true north, my everywhen, my night smile and contented belly.
Let’s keep sculpting our day, a piece at a time, chipped here, rounded
there. It’s taking shape, Babe. Love, Bob.
“Letter to Harper from the Edge of Sixty” was a finalist for Slippery Elm’s 2020 Poetry Prize, and was recently published in the 2020 issue, alongside “Answer” by Stephanie L. Harper, also a finalist. Many thanks to the Slippery Elm Literary Journal’s editorial team, and especially EIC Dave Essinger, whose professionalism and personal kindness place SELJ at the top of the ladder in the world of literary journals. If you have a chance, take a look at SLEJ‘s offerings – they’re a print journal – or consider entering their Deanna Tulley Multimedia Prize, now open for submissions.
Morning Covers You
it out one
Finger the results.
You arrange our bodies to greater effect,
presuming lesser horrors
to be less.
A list emerges.
Ecstasies of failure
Morning covers you
like a blue
shroud, so pale.
This originally appeared in Boston Poetry Magazine in April, 2014, and on this blog in October 2015.
The supplicant’s desire:
mornings sliced into perfect pieces, afternoons
dipped in honey, evenings freed.
A gift of absence.
To gather and bear, shaping
the resultant minutes,
she takes yeast from the air, adds
flour, water and salt.
Matched with the ripening
hour and the sweetened bitter taste,
I recall how blood
seeped through the towel, and
observe on the table the
cheese, plums, the harvested day.
* * *
This originally appeared on Bonnie Mcclellan’s International Poetry Month website. A recording is also available there: https://bonniemcclellan.wordpress.com/2015/02/17/giving-time-by-robert-okaji/
Home: Living Between
My younger self dwelled in shadows propelled by light.
Indigo to ebony, in variant shades.
Concealed in language and skin, surrounded by shelved words.
Departed friends. Grass grown tall or baked to a brittle yellow.
The central order of a life arranged in sequence, orbiting through mother,
father, sister and passers-by glancing through our windows.
A parachute of discomfort billowing in the blue.
Distance and uncertainty beyond the nuclear family.
Acknowledging the new, still I looked inward.
The house as structure, as symbol, but always impermanent, unattainable.
Not rejection, but a liminal sense of being, of place.
Faces changed, but books carried me from city to state to country.
Translated from three views and speaking in brushstrokes across the wall,
slowly filled from edge to center, layer upon layer.
Containment, conjunction, circumstance. Triangle to circle.
No headstones mark my locus, no place bears my name.
Borders, the threshold of shared lives.
* * *
“Home: Living Between” was originally published at Allegro Poetry Magazine. Thank you, Sally Long, for taking this poem.
While Looking Up at a Working Wasp, I Trip
How do these things I once barely acknowledged
now snare toes or twist ankles, causing me to stumble,
spill coffee and curse. Steps, rocks, pavement, curbs.
Door sills. No matter which, without provocation.
Solitary wasps mate not in flight but in the vicinity
of their nesting area. Three years ago a female
violated our unspoken agreement of mutual
existence; my arm purpled and ballooned
to twice its normal size, and I demolished her nest
for fear that attacks would become habit. Today,
another builds in the same spot. I stoop by,
beneath notice, as she labors to make room
for eggs fertilized with stored sperm from a single
drone. Such diligence should earn rewards.
I stroll to the mailbox and marvel at their ability
to manufacture wood pulp for nests, how
certain species avoid mating with siblings
on the basis of chemical signatures, and that
they voluntarily control the sex of their offspring.
Ah, the wonders of nature! Approaching the door,
I look up and observe the growing nest with
admiration, enter the house without stumbling,
and inhale the fragrance of the perfectly arranged
lilies. The books on the table entice me, so I
pour a glass of malbec and thumb through them
with great pleasure. Soon, after sunset, she will die.
* * *
“While Looking Up at a Working Wasp, I Trip” was published in MockingHeart Review in May 2018.
Confession to Montgomery, Asleep on the Church Steps
If I walk quietly by
it is not to avoid disturbing you,
but rather myself. What
could I give you
but another bagel, the
boiled dough of nothingness
rising in cloudy water,
delaying, perhaps, another
guilty twinge. You have no
answers but when you
speak to the air, sometimes
a smile creaks through
the broken words, and I
think even in this cloistered
darkness we may close
the circle between halves
an understanding, if only
in the language of bread
and coffee and the
disregarded. But today I stride
on, without pause, counting
on nothing that can’t be
pocketed or spoken aloud,
my steps echoing down
the alley and its secrets,
along the crosswalk’s painted
guides, under the sagging
power lines and through
your streetlight’s dim halo.
This first appeared on the blog in January 2016, and was published in Compassion Anthology in March 2019. I have not seen the man who inspired this poem in over three years. I hope he has found shelter and kindness.