Category Archives: Poetry

Why I sometimes loved to teach

I taught English Comp for a couple of years at a community college in New Jersey. Right, I was an Adjunct. Mostly it was drudgery done in the name of not enough money.

But every so often a miracle occurred. Something marvelous happened.

I don’t recall why I did this, but I know I wanted to see how the students handled poetic form. I handed out two poems, two sonnets, and asked the kids to respond to one of them in one page of their own devising. Sometimes I got what I call the Duh Response. Sometimes I got one sentence (grading those was too easy). And then I might be amazed. These kids figured there had to be a right answer, but there really wasn’t…except honest reactions, even if they were confused. This was one of the poems, by Ted Berrigan:

PEARL HARBOR DAY (Ted Berrigan, 1934-1983)

Seurat and Juan Gris combine this season
to outline Central Park in geometric
trillion pointed bright red-brown and green-gold
blocks of blooming winter. Trees stand stark-
naked guarding bridal paths like Bowery
Santa Clauses keeping Christmas-safe each city block.
Thus I, red-faced and romping in the wind
Whirl through mad Manhattan dressed in books
looking for today with tail-pin. I
never place it right, never win. It
doesn’t matter, though. The cooling wind keeps blow-
ing and my poems are coming.
Except at night. Then
I walk out in the bleak village and look for you.

I didn’t expect explication. I don’t even know what the poem “means,” word by word, image by image. I wanted honest reaction. Juan Gris? Georges Seurat? Pourquoi?

One of the kids, a girl in her late teens or early twenties, wrote feverishly. When I read it over…let’s say I’m sorry I had to hand it back to her. It was glorious. She wrote (I paraphrase): “I was confused by it. But I got to the last lines where he says he went out looking for a woman. I could see him. And I felt like he was looking for me.”

I was as close to tears as I’ve ever been in a classroom. She didn’t understand the poem but she got it at a visceral level, probably the level Ted Berrigan, that sacred madman, was at when he wrote it. I wrote down her grade and a comment: “He went out looking for you, and it was you who he found. And most of all, you found him.” She’d written the most beautiful and heart-perfect response I could imagine. Or could not imagine.

We put so much stock in parsing lines. We rarely weigh feeling and reader response. Response has been my obsession for years. I responded to need by learning to write poetry. And I sensed a need in this young lady, a need Berrigan met. And a need in him that she could satisfy.

That’s why I had moments when teaching was an almost physical act, a form of lovemaking. Damn, but I could love it!

Mothers remembered

I don’t know what got me onto this…oh, I’m lying. Teaching a poem by e.e. cummings about his mother, then following it up with one I wrote shortly after my mother died. No particular occasion for this, I just felt like it.

if there are any heavens my mother will(all by herself)have
one.  It will not be a pansy heaven nor
a fragile heaven of lilies-of-the-valley but
it will be a heaven of blackred roses

my father will be(deep like a rose
tall like a rose)

standing near my

(swaying over her
silent)
with eyes which are really petals and see

nothing with the face of a poet really which
is a flower and not a face with
hands
which whisper
This is my beloved my

			         (suddenly in sunlight

he will bow,

& the whole garden will bow)

It took me forever to be able to read that aloud without breaking down. It's one of the most beautiful evocations of filial and marital love I've ever read.I recalled that after my mother died in February 1992, I tried to metaphorize
her death, not as a garden, but as part of a high-wire act. It's not cummings,
but I can live with it.

APPARITION OF THE ASCENT, FEBRUARY 26, 1992:
MY MOTHER METAMORPHOSES TO BECOME A TRAPEZE ARTIST

In spite of the rain and the stench of the mud,
in spite of the howling of beasts in the dark
in this sideshow where flesh dissolves from the bone,
my mother responds to the call for her moment:
ascends the swaying trapeze ladder past the noise
and rancid darkness, and emerges at last, alone,
in the violet spotlight, quivering on the ledge,

clutching the bar, staring out at the vastness,
ignoring me, my neck craned upward, seeking her eyes
that only contemplate the leap she now must make:
then hears my voice, calling out through the dark
that this is her moment, the air and the violet light,
and plunge into the darkness, take the light with her,
feel for the hands that will reach out to keep her
from the fall back to earth where she has left me:

and hearing me, launches herself outward, upward,
the light upon her, rising high, beyond the darkness:
then, at the last second, releasing her grip, floats free
--she who feared the free fall, and doubted the waiting hands--
and is caught by my father, aglow in his own light
who sweeps her to a distant platform where they stand together:
and the air and the mud are cleared by the wind
and the violets she carries, set now before her face:
her bridal bouquet, held out to my father,
that sweetens the scent of earth, that perfumes the air

that lifts them both anew, above me, afloat
in violet-petalled air and a rain that washes clean.

March 1992

Someone Called Me By Name

It is hard to figure out when
you are on a street at noon and
there is the apparition that is
me and the voice that is
not you but someone who knows
and I'm not at all sure I really want to
know who it is because if I find out
I will need to answer.

12/7/08

Generations 2: “My Father’s Big Fat Jewish Funeral”

Today when I tell people the story
they do not believe me, so I let myself suppose
uniqueness among the pedestrian and insane,
that my family had the gilded qualities
found in the wholly sociopathic who used
religion, politics, any blunt instrument at hand
as a weapon.

The fact is that my father, pace (pace, mio Dio!) his
protestations to the contrary, was a Jewboy,
gift of Attorney Street and Brooklyn to the world
of women and clothes he could afford
only if he took them off frequently.
Jew was my mother, and Jew was I, am I yet
despite my best efforts to change the inscape.

So when my father died while on the road to ruin,
his funeral was planned not by my sock-in-the-mouth
puppet mother but by her brother-in-law
the Reform dentist, first and only to that time
who’d gone to college and therefore could pronounce
on anything.  In other words, a thoroughgoing prick.

And so my father’s body, after its one day transport
back from the final bed-down in Camden, Maine, reposed in
Hirsch’s Funeral Home on Jerome Avenue,
the West Bronx, where Jewish funeral legalisms
generally (but not always) are honored.  And so
my last memory of my father is of a man in
an open casket wearing a tallis he probably
could not have put on unless he were recumbent,

an open casket that violated with The Finger everything
in Jewish law or at least tradition,
laid out with everything but a Missal and Rosary beads,
’til the the rabbi showed up and hit the roof, someone
in the room with some integrity to the Letter since
the Spirit hadn’t bothered to show up,
and he yelled to screw down that lid or else
he would not do my father’s funeral.

And that I saw, that that I still recall, eleh ezkerah:
my father at a rest I never saw in his lifetime,
relaxed into the arms of what he’d courted
from the first day he knew he could court anything.
It eluded him in the battle already ended in France,
it fled him in the fur markets, it laughed at him in two marriages,
it mocked him through the worthlessness of the child
(or is that children?) he fathered, but here, here,
he was brought to ground, enveloped in silk and wood,
kissed goodbye when he could have cared less.

September 2007

Poem: “Un Bacio. Un Altro Bacio. Ancora un Bacio.”

I have never worked harder on any poem or gotten to nowhere with it more expeditiously.  The germ came in early 1996.  I wrote a page and a half and stopped.  What do I do now?  I took it to a workshop at a college in Arkansas.  It was for me a troubling problem I could not solve.  I showed it to several people there to instruct, and the last was C. D. Wright who read it over and said "This is a poem."  I was shocked.  Everyone else said "fragment."  C. D. gave me a reading list: William Bronk, David Antin, and Eliot Weinberger.  I wasn’t sure why until 2002.  Then she made the whole thing fall into place by writing about a poet she’d not mentioned: Frank Stanford, whose long (God, is it ever) poem The Battlefield Where The Moon Says I Love You she’d originally published long ago.  Stanford’s poem is hard going: it’s 360 pages, one sentence, no breaks.  It makes Edmund Spenser’s Faerie Queene sound like Sarah Silverman telling her version of The Aristocrats. Some of it is totally confusing, other parts (e.g., the Crucifixion story told in Arkansas black dialect) are hilarious.  But I could discern a connection between me and Sanford’s even crazier and more gifted style: discursiveness, reflexiveness, seeming irrelevancies that added up to an unforgettable legend.

“UN BACIO.  UN ALTRO BACIO.  ANCORA UN BACIO.”

1. De Doctrina Christiana

A friend admonishes: you sexualize everything.
Yes.  Everything except sex itself.
Incest-mad Ferdinand, the Duchess of Malfi’s brother,
hunts the badger by moonlight,
his dreamed deed of darkness does haunt me still,
makes me wish I’d stayed a virgin—

for the first cunt is the baptismal font of misery
and physical love stomps on trailing ganglia indiscriminately,
you cannot tell yourself from your victim.

Catholics with reason sanctify the Holy Cherry: once popped,
the Masque of Love reveals Rappaccini’s garden,
soft colors where the flowers waft poison.

2. I Walk Through the Garden of Love

Eros is Agape’s rape-made bastard son by Cerberus.
He is depicted in Orthodox Church-suppressed Greek friezes
as Ronald McDonald sporting a titanic boner worthy of Lysistrata.
Configurations of Erotic joy turn vicious, dark.
Ronald is the clown of a child’s circus nightmare
the clown who will eat him if he falls asleep.
Machinating in the House of Dr. Moreau,
this clown of secret desire—the lover acting the beast
in a black leather mask atop spiked fetish boots—
his love becomes the reductio ad verum.

Yet these are only words:

for now that Age has begun its work within me,
I am supposed to Know Something I can pass along,
especially after what I have done—
young girls call me “Sir” and I want so much to say
“Don’t call me that when I am picturing you undressed.”
All my knowledge is fraudulent for I still burn!
I have become at last what I once despised but welcome now,
a vision of the Dirty Old Man
(Deo Gratias I have lived long enough despite myself to get here).

I share the middle-aged man’s common dream
a world engorged with erectile blood,
semen gushed maculate, without latex,
skin to skin squirming, slippery as heat,
the (joyous) dangerous game played for keeps
even when you think it is not,
this game of emotions raked like knives over unprepared skin,
forever giving the lie to notions that sex can ever be Safe.

Love and be destroyed.  Write your despair,
your passion that tears into you with spikes.
Get holy cards made of your patron saints
Paolo Malatesta and Francesca da Polenta.
Imagine “Lord Randall” or “Donag Og” born from joy alone,
from coupling without the agony that is all that remains.
Remove the “and” between Love and Death.
Witness a woman you loved die never knowing, mercifully,
that you, married to her daughter, were cavorting
with another woman, two faded figures on a crumbling frieze.

Alles ist Liebes-Tod.

3. A Night At The Opera

Passion, even when spent (a waste of shame) remains,
elemental, irreducible, reformable to solidity
from the gaseous mess of decomposition, memory’s vault.
Even when it has passed into faux time it is no less real.
It is simply memory’s abîme de foutre, the black hole
where ghosts have weight. It is mockery
through parallels and refractions, and it will not go away.
It is constructed time, endlessly repeatable, insidious lies like truth.
It is tuned to what we need to call Art.

In that world of faux passion, a theater curtain
rises on a storm on the island of Cyprus. The air
reeks not of ozone but of sizing and greasepaint.
A 19th century orchestra hails up the curtain
with a chord that once jarred even Verdi’s most devoted groupies,
who could not believe that by Otello the old man
had so much blood left in him.
Accept you are in three centuries at once: 21/19/16.
It is all one, in this way changeless.
Singers throughout the evening simulate by acts
of voice and body the consequences of passion:
exultation, jealousy, fury,
terror, despair, madness,

and finally the pointless—except to reach faux closure—
moment of clarity, of the face seen at last in the mirror
bringing only death.
Faux no.  Faux giammai!

Real life, operatic and cheesy, is multi-leveled.
In the moment remembered, it still drips from the mouth,
rib juice and whiskey saliva.
Illicit heat evokes the monster born full-grown
in a strip mall chain restaurant in Asheville, North Carolina.
The date is precise, an unholy cross in time:
Friday, 17 June 1994.
Between sessions of passion a couple, each married to others,
never the sum of their interlocking body parts,
eat and drink at a table near the bar,
clutch to themselves their teenaged lust.
The woman is naked beneath her skirt
and the man knows it because he tossed her silk underpants
on the motel room floor with his teeth,
and she’s left them back there because this weekend is
their private Medieval Faire and that is her token pledge
of My Faire Laide’s return to the motel.
Their kisses are not yet an art but a cannibal’s banquet,
consuming the other through teeth, tongue, and slobber.

There is a crowd at the bar, waves of laughter swell then mute.
Over the bar the TV trumpets like Verdi’s brass:
for OJ is in flight to the ground bass of jokes from the good ol’ boys–
That nigger could run the sideline faster’n he kin drahv that fuckin’ Bronco!
seeing lack of speed but not the driver’s powerlessness,
one hand on a pistol the other on the wheel
neither of which matters, this is a game, a ritual.

This spectacle is stylized, a Medieval screen-capture of Fortune’s Wheel,
where OJ is frozen at the mercy of the spokes to which he’s bound
and the couple observe, smile cluelessly, turn back to themselves:
for participants and observers are often one in the same.
There are elements, perceptions that suck images into a black hole,
fix them in what Cartier-Bresson called a Decisive Moment,
wholly meaningless save what we impose by creating a frame
around what we perceive.
Take away one part, shift it,
remove a person from the cast,
the structure will never again
be what we thought.

4. House Rules

If we get lucky we can pretend to transform meaninglessness
into something we call Art, deal it out of a metaphoric deck,
set it in the pantheon above the random horrors of life itself.
We can try, like James Joyce, to make ourselves The House
and perhaps but not always we can set ourselves up to win.

The pack of lies.

What is on the matchbooks of our smoky youth?— a picture
of Irving Wallace, a hot babe, and this provocative question:

“Do you have what it takes to become a famous author?”

Think of our most noted examples: Arthur Dimmesdale and Hester Prynne, how Hawthorne might have written the details of their trysts if he’d been Irving Wallace and was out to make a fuckbuck, called it perhaps The Minister and the Mad Housewife, because The Scarlet Letter wouldn’t have been enough of a tease.  But why tease, let’s keep the lovers in the deck, get them back into the bed they’d be in—were in—anyway, turn this to a game (art or adultery) where the bones are showing as though they’re fractured and protruding.

Remember the woman’s underwear?  It is still in the cheap motel,
only a sense of Irony reorders Chaos and

it’s true it’s really true what we’ve always heard, amor vincit omnia, and
that beyond time and space there is a continuum that breaks the frame
especially if you can have your characters act like they’re freewheeling or
control them out of real life,

because maybe OJ’s the famous one with the high-end shyster but the
lovers are also out of real life and therefore grist, I’ve tied
weighted sashcords around their necks, stuffed them in a bag and
dropped them into the river along with OJ, the hungry ghosts of Nicole
and Ron, Ot(h)ello and Desdemona, Leontes and Hermione, a real-life
betrayed wife and husband, and a few feral cats, so what comes out is
pretty disgusting, a spiritual blood-sausage conceived in the name of Aht.

Deal, then, OJ King of Knives, he too is a transportable emblem
of love gone mad, a ghost among many sewn into the bag,
he can park the Bronco by the Hertz rental cars in the motel lot,
enter the lovers’ room with an operatic flail, find them
in flagrante consummatio, her legs and their voices raised
in a Hallelujah Chorus of intermingled fluids, hack and slash his way
through the juridical world of double jeopardy to the core
of a universe of offense, teach Shakespeare to high school students
(every Othello his own Iago), take lessons from Verdi’s singing Moor,
bewail at the top of his vocal range the death of Love, a living emblem,
oxymoronic, exposed each day on the front page of supermarket tabloids
“Nicole Haunts OJ’s Dreams!”
“Desdemona seen walking Cypriot battlements!”

The bag is infinitely expandable, the ghosts fill up weighted æther
—not our weight, no, mine—think of it as the chain Jacob Marley
forged in life and drags behind him afterwards,

so stop the artsy-craftsy bullshit, cleanse life of toxic metaphors,
there is no OJ no cats no Nicole and no Ron,
OUR LIVES ARE THE TABLOIDS WE TELL ON OURSELVES,
not tragedies imposed from without,
nobody chronicles them, turns them into plays or operas.
Placido Domingo does not portray OJ though he probably
hit a few golfballs with him they are not even brittle
simply like being inside a lava lamp hot oil colors electricity
twisting them like some Rolling Stones song

She comes in colors she’s like a rainbow

and did and oh God she was

5. Whirlpools

You’re amazing he says to her that night back in the motel room but
it is not simply admiration in the words there is something aghast in him,
she is like the mirror in the bathroom into which he peered
to shut out the sound of her voice while she spoke to her husband
on the telephone, why? she asks laughing kissing him, your husband
he says I mean you were talking to him I had to call my wife from a pay phone
when I was sure she’d be out

she has that enigmatic laugh and he wants her again
passion overrides even knowledge in that moment
but not the faux moment time rebuilt and owned

she knows his mother-in-law is dying in a hospital
in upstate New York but there is no thought to keep him from this
she tightens around him you don’t care she taunts
this is what you care about, this! yes he says.

My galleon is not chargéd with forgetfulness

it is pitched by the constant storm at sea
not Otello anymore, harmony torn and drowned,
the ground bass synthesized through Alban Berg,
hopeless, trying to remain upright oblivious to caring,
the swirl of air like whirlpools.
The Renaissance cosmologists lied even if not by design
in their divisions, air and water are not separate you
can be sucked into the air sucked in by it, walk into your own
bloodstream and drown there, Berg’s Wozzeck drowning
in guilt and water transubstantiated to blood,
drown in your delusions quickly as a water whirlpool drags you down.

At her bedside a few days later in the hospital room
where the woman you obliterated nevertheless has awaited you,
now she lays before you speechless, and dying in the twilight
stares into your eyes, you speak idiot reassurance:
See You Tomorrow.
And her eyes see into your soul where you read
Only If You Are Prepared To Follow Me Tonight!
you are both in pain but she is ready
you are not.
There is no cheap Grace, no simple expiation,
only having to live with what you have done
and with the wish to repeat your violation
even as you are present in the place where death
has grabbed you and forced you down to smell its breath her breath
the slow and patient movement, it has cruised its Freeway waiting for you,
it has come for you in the presence of inertness,
this woman you loved, this mother loved more than the wife she bore for you.

Ora per sempre addio, sante memorie!

What is holy here? nothing, graven images from memory,
a sky lit like Breughel’s Triumph of Death,
a sky lost, a song replays, stuck as it was the week before
in the car to the Asheville airport, Luther Ingram singing
“If Lovin’ You Is Wrong I Don’t Wanna Be Right.”
This is ending badly more like “Just One of Those Things”
mixed through Berlioz’ Witches’ Sabbath, every second before
her departing plane becomes a rack-drawn agony of not daring
to look at the other, if we’d thought of it of the end of it
no of course not: inarticulacy is born of soiled passion
in the departure lounge, in the anti-Pentecost
only tongues of fire, only the whirlwind, but no voices

We know how the 19th century tragedy is supposed to end

The tenor smothers the soprano
discovers his fatal error
sings again his farewell to glory and to ego,
knifes the ego-cancered self,
crawls animalistic for his final kiss
but the music shapes the human end
of this beast on all fours
the package is neatly tied
not tired or averting our eyes
we can look at pain
our ears can hear it,
we achieve catharsis
but not as we reach orgasm
in a Holiday Inn noisily scandalously,
and ours is not heroic desperation,
all are taken:
we, OJ whacking golf balls at midnight,
we pretending life is restored
through pain that leaves ganglia
trailing on the ground like a 727’s fuel cables
and us smoking near the fuel lines,
sparks are dormant
this tragedy is not neat,
OJ performs his literary duties
according to the old book,
he is a sad domestic profile
from a police blotter
another song of clichés

   you always hurt the one you love
   and the waiter with the forgotten eyeglasses

look in the mirror one morning and study the face
of this almost-resurrected soul-suicide,
self-ghoul who has lived to tell thee,
a subject of hope outside this purview,
as chords slide downward with the velvet curtain.

Bow before yourself in the mirror,
but the bow is surly, snotty, graceless:
You here still, you prick?
how wonderful for us all….
and there is no one to applaud
except the cat who sits on the bathtub and stares.

1996-2007

Poem: “Fog. No Amphetamine. No Pearls”

(after Frank O’Hara)

It is 8:00 AM on a Saturday morning in my shore town and
I am drinking coffee in the kitchen against the morning chill,
for I have just come back from my own movieless version
of Footsteps in the Fog, trying to run again
after a long, far too long, layoff because Poor Baby
was just Oh So Depressed that he could not get up.
I do not know even now if I can get up three mornings a week
at 4 AM to do this insane thing merely because
it makes me feel better.  Who is entitled to feel better?
I have a friend of sorts who had a friend of sorts
who said that man was put on this earth
to suffer misery and be vouchsafed a glimpse of joy
as a tease as though life were a burlesque show
and the glimpses were like pasties and a g-string.
So this I gather is a definition of Faith,
that on Monday morning I will begin my day
with stretches and even a short run, at my age
a compound and arrogant absurdity, before I leave for
New York to have my soul abused even worse
than I have abused my legs and lungs, and
to think as I thought two years ago that it would be
better to die on my feet crossing the bar of Sandy Hook
than to live behind a desk on my ass.  I would rather
meet that shape as I shall, like Cyrano, on my feet,
swinging wild, feeling my feet connect hard to concrete,
sniffing the smell of earth I refuse to let to swallow me yet.

4-12-08

“Bodas de Sangre: The Divorce Poems”

I wrote these from mid-2000 until the end of 2004.  I added, subtracted, changed them.  They will never be published.  I don’t know why unless they really suck and I just don’t see it.  I take them very personally and I love them still, even though they memorialize a season of pain I didn’t think I would survive.  There are poems and an introduction.  Enjoy.

Introduction: What This Is

The two sons mentioned here, Jake and Ben, are quite real.  On November 28, 2004 they listened to me recite–really perform–these poems at a public reading in Montclair, New Jersey. The poems were in a slightly different form. I omitted one because it was so ugly and mean-spirited that I could not read it aloud.  Now I understand it belongs there.

Reading in front of my children was one of the most terrifying experiences I’ve ever had, far scarier than a rejection slip. Two characters in search of their author, and they found him and found him out. At the end of the reading they hugged me.

These poems are of course dedicated to them.  They may not thank me for that but I like to give credit where it’s due.

I wish I were the first to do this. Chana Bloch and Kim Addonizio both bury me with poems in this sub-genre, The Song of the Crashing Marriage.  It seems to me that fewer men than women do this.  But Larry Mallory has written from a man’s experience of the death-in-life that divorce represents.  However, I am the first one to do this for myself. Many writers may have a Crash-and-Burn marriage story but this is mine.

The sequence is politically incorrect and at moments seems misogynistic. “I know not seems”: they are. People who get divorced usually don’t like one another a great deal. Ugly things are thought and sometimes said. Sometimes they are said in law offices, in courtrooms, and sometimes even in jails.

The speaker here is the husband who sometimes pretends to be a third party. He sees things through ugliness of spirit, drunkenness, mania, depression, and a sense of irrecoverable loss.  Some things may leave but the last remains.

He perhaps begins to recover. But that also is a fiction because divorce, like any traumatic loss, finally delivers wounds from which recovery is impossible.

Kenneth Wolman
Sea Bright, New Jersey

1. Opera Night in the Zoo

The woman lays sideways on what was once their bed     she
has been reading The New Yorker

      watching Waltons reruns
the man is pacing     strutting and fretting     hissing at her
his stomach is knotted     he lurches before her
self-justifying     monologizing     voice a stage-whispered fury
operatic     oiled with frustration     O rabbia immensa!
She will not speak     only laugh silently
he performs in shadow     rants from darkness
her face is sidelit by the one reading lamp
what do you want of me you goddamned bitch
his genius for whining released through the bottle in the freezer
fortifies     envisions    he wants no more
the plaintive whine for pity      respect     love
but all the magic spells there are     on earth and in Hell
charms to kill them both     invocations of dragons and serpents
they are here in his nightly spell
summoned anacondas     black mambas     hooded cobras
crawling over the wife’s body he has forgotten     waiting for him
on his narrow mattress     across the hall     slithering
beneath the comforter     his sleep holy damned Dormition
wished on them both     dreams not even of love lost     only
of the skin     peeling scabrous from them

2. Wary, The Children

Wary, the children watch the ritual of silence,
the family dance of death.
After the shouting there is always
this silence: expanded motion
even in small gestures,
magnified intensity,
so even the breeze of a passing body
walking through the kitchen
feels like a slap across the mouth.
“Why are you doing this!” the elder shouts at us,
his brother pale, nodding or maybe shaking.
“People argue,” she says quietly.

3. “Everything is Beautiful at the Ballet”

After the decision,
the movements are choreographed,
gracefully timed, as though
we were a pair of dancing swans
circling on a mist-covered lake.
But the lake is dry,
the swans are dying.
You are in a room
I quickly skulk across;
I am by a window
and you slide through silently,
at an oblique angle,
to go from one room to the next.
We have long since learned
the arts of silence,
of how not to touch.
The swirl of our separate motions
counter each other,
create a whirlpool of air.
The music of the dance
is sucked into the silence.

4. Cello Sonata: An Interstice, March 1997

False warmth of a cold room     bubbling of hot water through
the baseboards     coffee and cigarettes at six AM
brief solitude of nothingness     isle of rests and
sad tones at dawn     the hiss of sleet against the lakeside window,
the world beyond     dark largo of a Bach cello sonata

suddenly snapped to agitato when she drops a paper
on my desk, says “This is from my lawyer, it’s
a separation agreement, you will really need a lawyer, you will
want to check this over before you leave the house.”

The tuning mechanism fails again     pegs and strings creak
wood expands, contracts in a room     gone from heat to cold
the cello plays sharp and snarling     snow
begins to swirl now beyond the rattling plate glass window.

Life ends here.

This is my wonder-wife, my envy and dismay     a miracle.
I have heard the music of our marriage’s funeral,
but she has dropped the score into my lap     summoned me
to play notes beyond my range.

I cannot ask how she has found this place of ideal form.
Tell me as my parting gift the charm of the adagio perfected,
cool, unemotional      our partita of dismemberment
that plays only its own icy lines, lifeless.

 

5. Imminence: The Last Morning

1

The wife, about to go food-shopping,
reviewing her list, her checkbook balance,
moving swiftly through the kitchen, gathering.

The son, just turned sixteen, set to go with her,
staring at the father, his face a mystery,
a mask: therefore (perhaps) benign.

The husband, as on any Saturday morning, moving
quietly across the dining room, passing a finger
thoughtlessly over the tabletop.

2

After years sunk into time there is this     at last,
the vast numbness of About To Happen,
of leavings and enterings:

this present becoming the old life     la vita nuova,
a dead marriage-house     an apartment in wait,
its phone number still-unlearned,

a still-empty mailbox awaiting inevitability,
circulars and bills.  A life
pressed between two doors.

3

The wife stands at one door, shrugs,
car-keys in hand, half-smiling.
Well, she says, see you around.

The gaze of the departing son
penetrating the husband’s glassy eyes
like light through a lens, burning an image.

Now: both gone.  He, for a moment left alone
in a place in which memory is strangling,
stares at the overloaded briefcase,

a box of laundered shirts.  He waits
for his inevitable forward impulsion,
the inexorable footfall.

6. Final Decree: Consuming the Precious Blood

It is a foreign language movie     plotless
its language twisted     gibberish
undercurrented with iron
I find just cause for action here says the Judge
and leaves the bench and I stare at my lawyer     and at her
and her lawyer     and then I ask     what the hell just happened here
it means you’re divorced my lawyer     overpriced translator     snaps
her briefcase shut     and my newly-made ex and I don’t look
at each other     only this is a lie     because I can’t remember
what we do     except I shake her lawyer’s hand     and am out
in the parking lot leaning against my car     I feel drunk     I
can feel the kerosene filings of vodka at the back of my throat
but I’m still sober     drive home     a black-out
send our sons an email note: it’s finally over     the way I phoned
my cousin six years before to let her know     the night my mother died
and end the note “I love you both”     and I do but am I a liar
because     right then I don’t love anyone     except maybe my cat
who stares at me     knows all my dirty secrets     and then
from the freezer comes the Blesséd Pierre Smirnoff
who really is the Corpus on the Crucifix on the wall,
my empowering God who kills me that I might live     and I raise
the glass of His clear and Precious Blood, both hands elevated
toward the figure on the Cross     to you, my wife, my ex,
mother of my children     Mother of God!—28 years, gone,
the trumpets of the lawyers sound and Time shall be no more!—be happy…
and belch a laugh     drink day into night
because the demons won’t be divorced     I can drink
with them but they will not consume with me     only from me
through me     no liquor
just precious blood.

7. How Jake Handles Divorce

Home from college for winter break
he calls me from his mother’s,
too early on a Sunday morning.
“Let’s go out to Queens, to the bone orchard,
when should I pick you up, about 10?”

Call it indeed an orchard where
bones live and memories ripen.
But like the city of the living,
there’s not a tree in sight, nothing
to break the monotony or stop the winds.

Jake sets stones on the graves,
observant for those moments of his history,
unshifting, carved, and gleaming:
reverent of the grandmother he knew,
venerant of the grandfather
whose name he bears, who died
before he was born.

“So guys,” he whispers to them,
looking back at me,
“you’re in the place where
your son has finally grounded you.”

My parents remain, consistent here
as they never were in life.
They will stay ‘til we return.
I drive Jake home to his mother’s house.
I may roam there still, unquiet spirit,
while his mother cooks leftovers.

8. A Wishing Well For The Divorced

Cardboard carelessly stapled     crêpe and ribbon glued
a soft wood frame     the first good wind will have it down
this outsized party favor     well with a dry bottom
well with no bottom     all that is missing is the clown
who works adult parties     twists day-glo long balloons to genital shapes
but who needs clowns     the banner ‘cross the top
reads A WISHING WELL FOR THE DIVORCED     this is perfection
don’t screw with it     no professionals need apply     amateurs do
just as well     toss in your coins     wedding bands     children
the Divorce God is not picky     he sucks up all offers made
to His holy name     rejects only prayers
written at this Wailing Wall to slip between the bricks
for they are cardboard     trompe l’œil
no charity here     no water     just the dark nightly blind harvest
blinded selfhood     Self     draw clown faces on Make-A-Wish kids
with pediatric AIDS who want to meet Derek Jeter     hear only
the clank of offerings sucked up by the well of the impoverished
cardboard soul     buy a stethoscope and seek
the unwanted proof your heart beats still     curse God but live

9. Spitball, High and Inside

“Hi Ken,” curls the voice into the phone,
“this is your ex-wife!” and today it is another
of her litanies of things I’d overlooked     filings
on medical coverage for our kids, another peek
into my checkbook.

A major league batter has perhaps half a second
to compute the type of pitch     fastball curve change-up slider
where it will be     inside outside up down
whether to swing away or take it

and I have just swung through a spitball in my face

for it has taken me that half second to register
she’s never called herself that before     my first thought
Who the hell is my Ex-Wife?
it’s not like we’re still married I’m not
that perfectly delusional     my delusions
are mercifully imperfect like everything else about me
I’ve even called her my ex-wife     like a campaign ribbon
I acquired     but I’ve never heard it from her mouth
this confirmation of my darkest failure
my survival to be haunted     now as I was before
we broke the seal on the box and
loosed the demons     of imperfect freedom.

10. The House Of The Spirits
(On Learning She Is Moving From The House We Lived In)

1

First me, then our sons, now you.

2

The first day we were there I left
to buy new knobs for all the bedroom doors–
for Ben, our three-year-old son, immured himself
cackling in his brand-new room, and I, with
the instincts of a housebreaker,
had to use a screwdriver to pick the lock.

3

Years beyond that marriage house, memories
still flood the spaces.
They fall like grand pianos in a shipwreck.
Boilers crash into the prow,
harps jangle and steam scalds.

4

The fall was bottomed long ago.  Serene now,
the hulk rests in the silt, destined for the bottom
by its makers’ arrogance.
Fish swim through it, past extinguished chandeliers.
Life continues somehow, at its own depth.

5

Hawthorne blessed the pure emotion, dreaded a life
where perfect good or evil are in short supply.
Impurity was everywhere, secrets—mine, ours—buckled the walls,
concealed like whiskey bottles in a briefcase,
breakable as locks on bedroom doors.

6

“I hope,” Ben says, “no one ever lives there again,”
and my mind runs to riot as it always has.
In medieval Europe villages sat emptied by the plague.
Houses where no one would ever live again
were unprotected from starving dogs and feral cats,
doors swung back and forth while the winds
blew through the empty space.

7

Ben can dream.  I can nightmare.
We will both be disappointed.

8

I do not believe in curses upon houses.
No Unholy Spirits will penetrate the brickwork.
No Anne Boleyn will wander the downstairs hall
carrying her severed head across the ratty carpet.

9

You will leave and strangers will live in the house
that was a house of strangers.
The house will look like grade schools we attended,
turn from reality to a place we could not believe
ever contained what happened there.

11. Night Prayer From the Garden State Parkway
(for Ben)

It is dark in the car, so our voices
are purely airborne, strobed by headlights
catching broken words like spooked deer.
I want the grandeur of resolution, but
I am halting, trying to speak amends from some
scorecard of hurts I have inflicted,
of years of time lost to time.

But no need to hear forgiveness for those
last days passed in the house of strangers:
our words after years themselves are repair,
pardon in speech and hearing, and in the tape
you press into my hand as I leave you at
your mother’s door before my drive back home.

So here is this third voice, singer
and poet you have become.
I am unprepared for these words, their
uncanny tenderness sinking into me,
words of hurt and love written to someone
I may never meet and do not need to.

God help you, beginning this journey,
I want to say, my form of prayer, but
this voice pulls me back: not mine, not
your voice of speech in the car, but this third,
completing you, completing us, a wholly spiritual
voice that came from me, from your mother,
and from the part of you that is you
alone and must live there.

12. Subject in a Bonehouse Mirror
(Ash Wednesday 2001)

What if she wrote about me
as I’ve written about her?
Then one day I would pass a bookstore
and see it, the book, with her picture,
and curious of course go in, irresistibly drawn,
because I carry in me the cat-gene
that cannot resist the hot griddle,
stand in the poetry aisle, and read.

And there would be this man drawn there,
perhaps a distortion: mis-sized, chiaroscuro’d,
observed as in a faded, darkened mirror–
his rages, withdrawals, flights
into places she knew but stood frozen
to prevent, watching the life they lived in
burn around us until we cindered.

But is there love, too, written there?
Does the mirror shine in places
where once we gleamed, perhaps early,
sometimes even late–if not with love then
care that might endure, history ineradicable
like an artist’s India ink stain, permanent
on white cloth, call it mark or merely blotch?
Am I there beyond mere bastardy, or
was Milton right, are the colors of decay
more interesting than the monochrome,
the happiness perhaps misnamed Goodness?

I glimpse us as bones in ashes, charred.
Poetry is the carbon-dating of broken hearts
growing scar tissue.
I stand reading compulsively as
I write compulsively, it is my act of contrition,
amend and repair.

13. The Dance

It has taken me years to come
to my personal Center of Indifference.
My ex points her accusing arm,
and I feel I’m in the lower right corner
of Brueghel’s “Triumph of Death,”
embraced by the bony arms
and starved-dog grin of
a shared past from which all flesh has fallen.

Yet now I throw my arms around it,
this bony-raggy figure, and dance with it,
take away its power with a shrug,
a silently-voiced song of my ascent.

But when our younger son comes to my car,
about to be transported south, away from us
to begin the life he will make better, we hope,
than we made ours, my ex and I look at
each other in a moment of a shared Unnameable:
perhaps no more than knowing history and
the memory of broken hopeful parental flesh.

Epilogue: “The Ruines of Time”
(March 16, 1969)

Somewhere in your house that once was ours
there are the snapshots your father mangled
on our wedding day     his jolted Instamatic tilted us
at bateau ivre angles     your veil blowing like a sail in a hurricane
your gown cindered in a warehouse fire     my suit outgrown
all lost     merciless bastard Time     all ruins
a home movie mangled on the floor     O Christ what

a crock of shit     tune up the fiddle, My Ass-tro     I’ll start crying next
this hindsight is only self-willed pain     it fears to look to that day
it dares not live the memory made green     the re-heard laughter
that moment when another couple     now themselves divorced
grab us by the arms     drag us giggling
to the dock on Peconic Bay     pass joints     drink champagne
I am 25 you 24     some might say we choose that day
some predestined path     our slippery slope toward doom     but

that day we are happy     there is no future     no fat kine
devoured by the lean     nor feast nor famine     no children
no darkness     descent into the pit     insomnia cures
loneliness     strange embraces     lawyers and decrees
not even this, not poetry     mythology of life
no need that day for hope     it is there on the dock that afternoon
as we hold each other     all that is
are our feet beneath us on the planks     the sea is far away

July 2000–November 2004