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.
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,
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
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.
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.
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)
First me, then our sons, now you.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
Ben can dream. I can nightmare.
We will both be disappointed.
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.
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
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