My Mother’s Ghost Sits Next to Me at the Hotel Bar (with recording)

My Mother’s Ghost Sits Next to Me at the Hotel Bar

Blue-tinted and red-mouthed, you light a cigarette
that glows green between your lips and smells of
menthol and old coffins, burnt fruit and days carved

into lonely minutes. I mumble hello, and because
you never speak, order a tulip of double IPA, which the
bartender sets in front of me. Longing to ask someone

in authority to explain the protocol in such matters,
I slide it over, but of course you don’t acknowledge
the act. The bartender shrugs and I munch on spiced

corn nuts. I wish I could speak Japanese, I say, or cook
with chopsticks the way you did. We all keep secrets, but
why didn’t you share your ability to juggle balls behind

your back sometime before I was thirty? And I still
can’t duplicate that pork chili, though my yaki soba
approaches yours. You stub out the cigarette and immediately

light another. Those things killed you, I say, but what the hell.
As always, you look in any direction but mine, your face
an empty corsage. What is the half-life of promise, I ask. Why

do my words swallow themselves? Who is the grandfather
of loneliness? Your outline flickers and fades until only a trace
of smoke remains. I think of tea leaves and a Texas noon,

of rice balls and the vacuum between what is and what
could have been, of compromise and stubbornness and love,
then look up at the muted tv, grab your beer, and drink.

* * *

“My Mother’s Ghost Sits Next to Me at the Hotel Bar” was first published in The Lake in December 2018.

Dispatches from the Pandemic: This Old Desk

Dispatches from the Pandemic: This Old Desk

This old desk whispers hints of lives lived in separate peripheries, of unseen treasures and thoughts and deeds. Whose fountain pen scrawled love notes on the inlaid leather pullout, which daughter broke a crystal finger bowl and wept for a lost pet? What books rested behind these glass doors? What curiosities? Old pocket knives, polished stones? Spent cartridges? And in these slots? Perhaps perfume bottles and note pads. Or unanswered letters and a worn deck of playing cards. A tin box of regrets, another of joy.

Haiku and Whitman
mingling behind beveled glass
Look: my mother’s ashtray

The desk and I are slowly making our acquaintance. I pledge that I will never take its untold history for granted, that I’ll respect its presence and do my utmost to fill it with purpose, with cherished objects and the satisfaction of good work. In turn it offers me solidity, an altar at which to sit and think, to rearrange words, create lists, read, conjure fantasies, breathe. I’ve only just realized that I’ve lacked such a base since abandoning my Texas shack fifteen months ago.

Another window
frames the distant crow
Home at last!

Scarecrow Dreams

 

Scarecrow Dreams

If by night I move without aid,
what then? Precious flesh, precious
bone, never mine to lose – the difference
between nothingness and no thing. A
pity that my friends fly at the merest
movement, but when the air’s breath
stills, they sing and rattle among the
grain, scribing their days in song
and footprints, seeking the available
on the ground. And what scrolls lower
than the sound of sunflowers turning?
The laughing daughter runs around
my lattice spine, scattering joy like so
many seeds, and when my hollow
fingers clench, the earth quivers, or
so it seems. Then midnight returns
and I disengage and stalk about,
scaring rodents and their predators,
hooting in harmony with the owls
reveling in the night air, remembering
the holy shirt, a yellow glove, corn
silk’s gleam at noon and the warmth
of your fingers against my burlap skin.
I do not breathe, I say, but I exist. By
morning what joins me but the tune
of yet another bird, unseen, melodious,
the pulse of morning’s dew. Eternity.
How my straw tongue longs to sip it.

 

“Scarecrow Dreams” first appeared in the summer 2017 edition of Eclectica. Many thanks to poetry editor Jen Finstrom, for publishing several of my scarecrow poems.

Untitled from the 80s

Another untitled poem from the 80s…

wood and water
the wave of
fragrance so perfect

we seek to
obtain it as
if we could

be windows open
to a light
the gentlest cloud

would obscure still
spreading like one’s
final exhalation which

travels only to
disperse and become
at last another’s

This first appeared here in June 2017.

 

Obsession: Books, or, Poetry Finds Me

photo 2

In another life books framed my days. I slept with them, dreamt about them, woke to their presence stacked by the bed and in various corners throughout the house, read them, handled them, discussed their merits with friends, co-workers, beer-drinking buddies, bartenders, customers, strangers, relatives, and even enemies. Traced my fingers slowly down their spines, identified some by odor alone, others by weight and feel. Bought, sold, cleaned, lent, skimmed, traded, gave, borrowed, collected, repaired, preserved, received. Traveled to acquire more, returned home to find still others languishing in never-opened, partially read or barely touched states. There were always too many. There were never enough.

The relationship began innocently. I’ve been an avid reader since the age of five, and over the years developed a knack for uncovering uncommon modern first editions. I’d walk into a thrift shop and spot a copy of William Kennedy’s first novel, The Ink Truck, snuggling up to Jane Fonda’s workout book, for a buck. Or at a small town antique store, something especially nice, perhaps a near-fine first edition of Cormac McCarthy’s Outer Dark, would leer at me from a dark shelf – $1.50. John Berryman’s Poems (New Directions, 1942) found me at a garage sale, for a quarter. Good Will yielded Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow. There were others, of course. Many others.

I partnered with a few like-minded friends and opened a store, and when that didn’t work out, started my own home-based book business, which eventually expanded into a small brick-and-mortar shop, a true labor of love. And I mean labor. The forlorn space we rented was cheap and had housed for years a low-end, illicit massage parlor. Cleaning it out was, oh, shall we say interesting? I’ll never forget the furry massage table, the naked lady lamp or the various implements left behind after the joint was finally forced to close. But we hauled out the filthy carpeting, stripped and refinished the hardwood floors, fixed, painted and patched what we could, and hid what we couldn’t. It was exhausting, but well worth the toil.

My work schedule ran from Monday through Sunday, a minimum of eighty hours a week – in a seven-year period, I took off only two long weekends. It consumed me, but in the end I emerged mostly intact, a little more aware of my proclivities, of an unhealthy tendency to immerse myself wholly into an enthusiasm, to the detriment of family and friends. When we sold our store’s wares, I embraced the change; some dreams simply deplete you. But the itch remained.

Just a few weeks ago I found myself perusing an accumulation of books in a storage facility across the street from a junk shop in Llano, Texas, a small county seat an hour’s drive west of my home on the outskirts of Austin. The shop’s owner had purchased an English professor’s estate, and judging by the collection, the professor had specialized in poetry. My first thought was “I want it all,” but reason set in (I could very well imagine my wife’s reaction were I to arrive home with a trailerful of books) so I glanced over the criticism, fiction, drama, essays and biographies, and concentrated on the poetry. In the end I walked away with thirty-one books, including H.D.’s Red Roses for Bronze (Chatto & Windus, 1931), Randall Jarrell’s Little Friend, Little Friend, Elizabeth Bishop’s Collected Poems and Questions of Travel, a brace of Berrymans – His Toy, His Dream, His Rest and Homage to Mistress Bradstreet – both the U.S. and U.K. first editions, which differ – and Love & Fame. A good haul, to say the least, but one that left me only partially satisfied and contemplating a return. But I remain resolute. So far.

As I said, the itch remains…

* * *

This first appeared here in April 2015, and yes, the itch is still there. The pandemic has prevented me from haunting used bookstores as I’d imagined I would. But someday…

photo 1(1)

In the Fifth Chamber Lies the Hour’s End

pump

 

In the Fifth Chamber Lies the Hour’s End

To fairly allocate irrigation resources, the Persians measured time with water,
sinking a bowl in a larger vessel and tallying the count with pebbles.

And what is time but counting, determining the number of units within a set?

The sum of beats between silences and their diminishing echoes?

Its symbol in the West grew from fig and ivy leaves, while early medical
illustrations depicted pine cone-shaped organs.

In most reptilians, the aorta receives only oxygenated blood.

Qanats pump by gravity. The hagfish’s second resides in its tail.

Recognize the empty as full. Squeezed shut, we open.
Contraction and flow, ejection, inflow, relaxation.

Emotion as electrical impulse. Murmuring valves. The color red.

The fifth chamber remains silent and undetected.

The primitive fish’s chambers are arranged sequentially, but in an S-shape.
Ancients believed arteries transported air through the body.

The Buddhist figure, too, originated in leaves, symbolizing not love

but enlightenment. The ache of failure confounds us.

 

mechanical heart

“In the Fifth Chamber Lies the Hour’s End” was first posted here in May 2016.

 

While Blowing on the Shakuhachi I Think of Birds

While Blowing on the Shakuhachi, I Think of Birds

Yesterday’s sorrow
dissipates in joy.
Though you are not here, I hear your voice,

blow a solitary note in response.
Your philosopher bird carries it to you,
two-thousand miles away,
as the wren brings your song to me.

This is love today
and tomorrow, 
embodied in birdsong and faith.

Next week I will know your touch
as you will mine.

We’ll follow our lists,
starting with lips, while the universe
surges around us, filling the voids we never saw.

Needs, answered.

Perhaps the world will end.

Perhaps the red-tailed hawk will follow its nature.

Perhaps I will stand on the roof and shout your name.

But today, this little bird nesting in all the unsaid spaces,
is all I have, little mouth flickering, forming moons and

new mornings, new shadows, new light.

* * *

“While Blowing on the Shakuhachi I Think of Birds” first appeared in Voices de la Luna in March 2020.

The Art of Flight

DSC_1050

 

The Art of Flight

What wings accumulate is not air
but space, an exemplar

of restraint defied. I listen
and hear feathers

ruffling in the shadows,
a vibration that swells

until it becomes flight or
regret, the retrieval of our

bodies from this dream of ascent.
The art of flight is one of

disturbance, of angles and lift
and touching what can’t be seen.

What we hold carries no meaning.
The beauty lies in the gathering.

 

file000141329806

 

I wrote this piece in the mid-80s, and posted it here in 2015. I’d forgotten about it, until I found the original moldering in a box of old papers. It’s okay, for an artifact from another life…

Cardinal

 

Cardinal

Question: what is air if not
the means by which we

see and feel? Sound creates only
itself, another version of the original

sense. I move from shadows to a deeper
darkness, hoping to find that point where absence
ends. But there is no end, only

continuation, a cry for those
who offer their hands in ambiguity. Sometimes
a cardinal’s call fills our

morning with questions. So
little of all we touch
is felt. We are the air. The air is.

 

 

Another poem from the 80s. I was obsessed with birds even back then…

As Blue Fades

 

As Blue Fades

Which defines you best, a creaking lid or the light-turned flower?

The coffee’s steam or smoke wafting from your hand.

Your bowls color my shelves; I touch them daily.

Sound fills their bodies with memory.

The lighter’s click invokes your name.

And the stepping stones to nowhere, your current address.

If the moon could breathe would its breath flavor our nights?

I picture a separate one above your clouded island.

The dissipating blue in filtered light.

Above the coral. Above the waves and ocean floor far below.

Above the space your ashes should share.

Where the boats rise and fall, like chests, like the waning years.

Like a tide carrying me towards yesterday’s reef.

Or the black-tailed gull spinning in the updraft.

 

 

“As Blue Fades” first appeared in Underfoot in October 2017.