While Reading Billy Collins at Bandera’s Best Restaurant, Words Come to Me

 

While Reading Billy Collins at Bandera’s Best Restaurant, Words Come to Me

And having no other paper at hand,
I scrawl on a dollar bill, “I want to speak
the language of smoke.” My invisible friend
interrupts. That is a white man’s dilemma.

 At least you have a dollar and a pen.
“But I’m only half-white,” I reply, “with half
the privilege.” Then you must bear double
the burden,
he says. This version of math

twists my intestines into a Gordian knot,
as does the concept of half equals twice,
or in terms I might better comprehend,
one beer equals four when divided by color

or accent and multiplied by projection.
The unsmiling waitress delivers my rib-eye
as I’m dressing the salad, and the check appears
just after the first bites of medium-rare beef

hit my palate, certainly before I can answer the
never-voiced question “would you like dessert?”
Cheese cake, I would have said. Or cobbler. And I
seldom turn down a second beer. This too, I’m told,

is another example of my unearned entitlement. I
contemplate this statement, scribble a few other
phrases on bills, drop them on the table, and walk out,
wondering which direction to take, which to avoid.

 

* * *

“While Reading Billy Collins at Bandera’s Best Restaurant, Words Come to Me” was a finalist last fall for the Slippery Elm Prize in Poetry. It was published in Slippery Elm (print only) in December 2017. You may be amused to hear that shortly after the winner was announced, I had lunch in Bandera with one of the other finalists in this competition, D.G. Geis, but not at the restaurant featured in the poem. The photo is of a local bar, not the eatery, but it offers some of the flavor of the town.

What Are You Going To Do?

 

What Are You Going To Do (Cento)

Not everything can be set to music,
you have to understand that.

If I went to the end of the street,
would I be at the center of myself?

Now ends. Now begins.
Still, we sing the same songs;

we live in the sound – no love
of miracle or numbers helps.

I wonder if my body
is outline. A far point rendezvous.

A smoke plume taken, but not
into a hot, dark mouth.

Or perhaps it never had a name.
Bruising’s not the end of it.

 

* * *

Credits: Maggie Smith, Michael Chitwood, Carol Frost, CM Burroughs, Aimee Nezhukumatathil, Dan Beachy-Quick, Willis Barnstone, Lauren Camp, Ruth Ellen Kocher, Maggie Smith, Lawrence Raab, Natasha Saje.

“What Are You Going To Do” was drafted during the August 2016 Tupelo 30-30 challenge, and was published in the February 2017 issue of Taos Journal of International Poetry & Art. The lines used were taken from Tupelo Press publications.

 

Thirty-Five Years Later, I Raise My Hand

Thirty-Five Years Later, I Raise My Hand

In spring 1983 I enrolled in a poetry writing course thinking it might help improve my short fiction. I was a history major by default, had never taken a course in poetry, but believed, with absolutely no evidence, that I could write fiction. At the time I would have been hard-pressed to name five contemporary poets, even counting my professor. To be honest, the class struggled to hold my attention. Only about a quarter of the students seemed interested in writing, and the instructor was a bit, uh, tired. But for the first time in my life I read, really read, poetry. I fell in love with Galway Kinnell, Ai, James Wright and Carolyn Forche, to name just a few of my early enthusiasms. I wanted to write like them. So I wrote. And wrote. And wrote. Most of it was laughably bad, but somehow I managed to win an undergraduate poetry contest, which suggested that hope existed. Maybe someday, I thought, one of my poems will be published. This radical idea had never occurred to me before. Publication seemed to be the privilege of special people, and a lifetime of gathered fact revealed that I was unequivocably nothing special.

Early on in the semester, perhaps even in the first class, the professor asked how many of us thought we’d still be writing poetry in twenty years. I didn’t raise my hand. I didn’t know where I’d be in six months, much less what I’d be doing in twenty years. Since I’d realized late in the game that teaching was not for me, I had no job prospects, and few marketable skills, despite experience in chugging beer, manning sound-powered phones on a ship’s helicopter tower, scraping barnacles and bending rules. The world was limited. The world was limitless.

Another gray day

dividing the old and young

Oh, this aching hip!

 

* * *

A song from that time:

 

 

With Guitar in Hand

 

With Guitar in Hand

for Stephanie

With guitar in hand I observe the green beetles bumbling about,
the way they careen and crash and flail aimlessly, but to a purpose.

Sometimes I attempt one note, only to strike another, or plucking
three strings simultaneously, focus on the discordant one,

which is, of course, me. How do we live the right song?
Which casual arrangement sends us plummeting to the grass,

hearts racing? I recall thinking “this cannot be,” yet could not,
would not, turn away. I bang out a minor seventh, sing a few

words, adjust my arthritic grip. Yesterday I couldn’t form
the chord shapes I desired. Today the hands float along the

fretboard, unimpeded. I wish you were here. I wish
I could shift time signatures with neurotransmissions,

that we were somewhere else, out of the way, alone
but for birds chirping in the branches by the window.

I wish my flawed tunes could merge with moonlight
and compose pearlescent pieces, and that you would

sing them to me from the threshold of our shared lives. I want
everything, but cherish what we can hold in these wondrous

times. I think of your hair and eyes, how my heart
flutters to the floor and refuses to rise until your smile

unwraps the day’s gift to me, defying Newton’s third law,
offering unheard chords. I listen to your silences, as I do

your words, knowing the value of each. Gazing at your
photo, I speak your name, set down the guitar. Make music.

 

 

“With Guitar in Hand” was originally published in the print anthology Epiphanies and Late Realizations of Love in February 2019.

 

 

Letter from Insomnia

image

 

Letter from Insomnia

Accepting Li Po’s tragedy,
apocryphal or not,

we embrace her imperfect
reflection
rippling in the breeze,

but manage to surface.

I once thought I would name a child Luna
and she would glow at night

and like Hendrix, kiss the sky.
But that was whimsy

and only candles light this room
at this hour
on this particular day
in this year of the snake.

And what fool would reach for a stone orbiting at
1,023 meters per second?

There are clouds to consider, the stars
and the scattering rain

and of course wine
and the possibilities within each glass
and the drops therein.
We must discuss these matters

under her gaze, where smallness gathers.

 

* * *

This originally appeared in Middle Gray in October, 2013. It was written in response to a poem my friend Michael sent me, replying to this poem.

 

image

 

Chill (Cento)

silhouette


Chill (Cento) 

I shiver a little, with the evening,
and you print a shadow like a thin twig.

Wait for my death, then hear me again.
He believes a pomegranate is a thesaurus,

the thundercloud, tomorrow’s puddle. Is
this hunger unlike that of others?

When a drowning man calls out,
his voice follows him downstream.

Why am I grown so cold?

 

 

A cento is composed of lines borrowed from other poets. “Chill” owes its existence to: James Wright, H.D., Ingeborg Bachmann, Eduardo C. Corral, Blaga Dimitrova, Forrest Gander, Yusuf Komunyakaa, and Adelaide Crapsey.

pom.jpg

“Chill” first appeared on the blog in March, 2016, and was subsequently published in Long Exposure in October 2016.

 

Sleepless

 

 

Sleepless

One night exhausts another,
layering sheets and blankets,
wrinkles and folds. Oh, the
body wants to still the mind,
and shedding this weight,
float freely through the night.
Your memory of sleep’s touch
withers as you lie there,
absorbing the fan’s pattern.
How wonderful, then, to finally
drift across the room and settle
in that relaxed corner, among the
cobwebs and shadows and those
frustrated hours now set aside.

 

“Sleepless: first appeared here in October 2017.

 

 

Which Poet, Which Beer (4)

 

I come here to sit quietly, emerging from my shack, if only briefly, to eavesdrop and observe, to sip beer and participate in the world of commerce. Ah, yes. The grocery store. If only all of them housed craft-beer bars. I place cilantro and shallots in my basket, add arugula, asparagus and a lime, and wander over to the fish case where two small fillets of Chilean sea bass, the commercial name for Patagonian toothfish, catch my eye.

Finally at the bar, I order Lone Pint Brewery’s Zeno’s Pale Ale, and overhear a disquisition on hydration and landscaping, and a conversation on war and snipers and gratitude. The ale arrives with a light, lacey head, exudes a bready malt profile upfront, and a pine-citrus punch at the back. I can’t quite uncover the truth of the flavor, but enjoy the search, and amidst the swirling combination of voices and beer I somehow think of Veronica Golos’ “Snow in April,” a ghazal in her stunning book Vocabulary of Silence.

“Has my flock of flowers died? An ambush, a bullet-shot
of cold. Undone beneath the snow, what’s truth, in April?”

What is the sniper’s truth? What gratitude might we find within April’s layers? I have no answers, only more questions, and with more questions comes thirst.

My second beer is a curious blend of old and new – a Belgian-style quadrupel that, don’t laugh, smells a bit like a cola, but in a good way. Unibroue’s Trois Pistoles is dark brown, let’s call it mahogany, with a fruity but mellow flavor and a toasty malt finish. And well balanced – with an alcohol content of 9%, it’s strong, but not too strong. Historical undercurrents flow through this brew, yet it also brings with it an appreciation of the new and popular, which leads to thoughts of one of my favorite poets, Frank Bidart, whose work often refers to and resonates with historical figures (in the book at hand, Watching the Spring Festival, Tu Fu and Catullus come to mind), and his poem “Sanjaya at 17,” referencing an American Idol contestant:

“There is a creature, among all others, one,
within whose voice there is a secret voice
which once heard
unlocks the door that unlocks the mountain.”

Today the mountain does not swing open for me. Perhaps a second Trois Pistoles might have done the trick, but instead, knowing I have to prepare dinner, starting with a compound butter of shallot, cilantro, garlic and lime zest, I request a mere taste of Founder’s Breakfast Stout, because, well, the idea of stout for breakfast has a certain appeal, though in my case would not be practical, as it would likely put me to sleep. And yes, it contains both chocolate and coffee (Sumatra and Kona), tastes a bit smoky, is smooth and luxurious in the mouth, and makes me long for a lonely, cold winter’s night in a far-off country, a fire crackling with just a hint of madness, and the full moon leering down at all of us, but particularly the dead genius that was Thomas James, whose poem “Wild Cherries,” from his one and only book Letters to a Stranger, ends:

I watch you eat, tasting yourself perhaps,
Some bitterness that is a part of you,
And I accept it gratefully. When you smile,
I see you dying in that single instant.
Walking back home, into ourselves, we enter
A far-off country neither of us wanted.”

Oh, those things we want and don’t want. To feel. To write. To cook, to sing. To share. To love. To be alone. To be numb. To do nothing. To do everything…

 

This first appeared on the blog in September 2017.

 

Yellow, Lost (with recording)

 

 

Yellow, Lost

The forgotten poem, existing in title only: Yellow.

Which is a bruise at three weeks, or memory’s shade in autumn.

In what black folder does it hide? In which blinding light?

I take comfort in primaries, lose sleep at the edges.

Where fraying begins and annotation dwindles to scrawled lines.

Above the bones and flesh of the Egyptian gods. Above my books.

Within these lost minutes. Those moons, bereaved. The hours.

Desire germinates even after our rainless decades. Yellow, again.

The color of sulfur (the devil’s realm) or the traitor’s door.

Of cowardice and warning. Of aging and decay.

How to recover what’s sifted away, the residue of our loves?

Each day more bits break off, never to be reattached.

But you, I blend with the sky, perfecting trees, the grass.

 

* * *

“Yellow, Lost” was published in wildness, Issue no. 10, in October 2017. wildness is an imprint of Platypus Press, which published my work Interval’s Night, a mini-digital chapbook, in December 2016 in their 2412 series. If you’re not familiar with wildness, check it out. In fall 2016 Poets & Writers named it in their article Nine New Lit Mags You Need to Read.

 

Awaiting Thunder, He Dreams

 

 

Awaiting Thunder, He Dreams

If all our voices were to meet in the atmosphere
what could the rain achieve?

When we give nothing we have nothing.

Is it enough to listen?

Wisps and heaps, ripples and sheets.

Accumulated, dispersed, fingers
unknotting death’s
grip, steps taken around the flames,

in caution, in delight,
imagining the greatest undoings.

 

 

“Awaiting Thunder, He Dreams” was first published in Red River Review, in August 2018.