Melancholy

I don’t know if kids are still made
to take them, the Iowa Tests,
of course I could look it up,
not beyond googling, but Wiki
has no memory of this echo.

I was in the 8th grade, yellow
#2 black bile pencil at the ready,
desk cleared, humors silent.
This one was a vocabulary test,
and one word from it sticks

in memory still: melancholy.
Four choices, and I pick
happy, reasoning based
solely on sound – I thought
the tinkling mellow, jolly

joyful
and cock-a-hooped
filled the circle C and
moved to the next word.
Later, I happened to ask

Sister Mary what it meant,
melancholy, and whadayaknow,
I was veracious
and ran out to recess
happy as a clam at high tide.

Drowning Amid Waves

That swimmer Stevie Smith mentioned
the one “not waving but drowning”
off Muscle Beach that cold morning
still the iron ones sweating
considered neither waving nor drowning
men but lifting they carried one another.

He was too far out for his cries
to be heard and from under their
umbrellas they waved back at him,
but he wasn’t waving, Stevie said,
he was drowning, but how did Stevie
know – ah! the lifeguard poet

who drowning waves not to be
saved but to say here I am
and goodbye, goodbye
my loves goodbye
I am too far out for you to hear this
this wave to all along the shoreline.

Poem Quick Start Guide

Relax. You can do this
anywhere, any time
on a bus, in line
in church, in a lurch
alone, in a crowd
or in the clear.

Make a list of things
you see and hear
& from all the sounds
isolate one
give it a name
& write it down.

What do you smell?
Fill in the blank:
smells like _______.

Lick the back
of your hand,
what do you taste?
Give it a name
& write it down.

Keep in mind
you’re making a list,
don’t write
sentences,
use punctuation
only if you feel the itch.

Reach out
& touch
something:
wood, plastic
paper, glass
a blade of grass
your wife’s sitzfleisch
(it might help
to keep a dictionary
handy – but don’t
get lost in it).

Add a bit of word
picture to your list
not too much
just a pinch
pebbled, smooth
cold, humid
sweat –
that’s enough
for now.

Then answer
the only questions
you know
about one of the things
you just named:
what does it look like?
what sounds is it making?
what does it feel like?
what does your mouth
do when you taste it?
& does its odor cause you
to shrink or come closer?

He’s No Good

He can’t deal with a spider
permits it to crawl away
and he won’t listen
to the talk of the day.

He’s no good at fixing things
and can’t swing a hammer
but makes up more rules
than the Code of Hammurabi.

He’s moody as the moon
and his back goes out
monthly when it’s time
to take out the compost.

His idea of sport
is TV from a couch
but he’s too busy
to empty the litter box.

He smokes drinks
goes out with the guys
never fires up the barbecue
and doesn’t like poems –

well, I guess that’s good.
He’s not much under the hood
dribbles on the floor and can’t
get up to answer the door.

His name is Bromide
he’s a politician
a judge and legislator
blames it all on the exec

who tricks the will
of the people
into thinking just
like him.


After the Rodeo

One who behaves bears
want and likes we hear
called a good neighbor

not so with old friends
whose schisms gone
seeded of bickernesses

the aplomb the plums
you ate so cool and self
defining the sad clown

you know well long
after the greasepaint
has worn to raw down

and now we can laugh
at the one who slipped
and fell unexpectedly

but it’s canned laughter
the harmful joy
of this rodeo

where the cowboy
limps away to lick
his wounds

in the trailer
behind the tavern
plays a country song:

“I don’t know why
I married you.
I like you, but
I don’t love you.

It was just timing,
really, and I still
thought of you and
your friends as boys,

not men, the mean
characters my mom
went out with, and boys
could take you away

from the messiness of home
at least for a little while –
it wasn’t until later and
too late I thought

maybe I did love him
but by then I found out
it doesn’t take long
for most boys to become

men and now wonder
how and who is going to
take me away from
this old song again?”

The Urge

To bed, to bed, but quietly said,
with a quaint taste of ardour
and a slight touch here and there.

To wed, to wed, a bug to brush
away this so called love
of the troubadour,

whose quick amour
one does not miss
nor that tremendous bliss

of crushed roses steeped
in the gooey remains
of a Holy Grail lost,

whose love for itching
broke out in hives
along the flushed skin.

Temperature about the same
as yesterday,
rhyme outlook low.
Appears tropical
depression here to stay.
10 day forecast
too far out to say.
One never knows,
near or far,
but no one seems
in jeopardy tonight
who sleeps alone
in a bed of stone.

A War with a View

These are two very different books, but so close in flavors and effects. Both concern a soldier recently returned home from World War One duty. Rebecca West wrote “The Return of the Soldier” when she was only 24, living with her three year old, in 1916, the war still on and in some of its deadliest and darkest hours. J. L. Carr’s “A Month in the Country” was published in 1980, when he was in his late 60’s, WW1 at that time superseded by a number of other high and mighty events.

This is not a book review, that lockstep genre one learns in literary basic training. War narratives often exaggerate plot and action. The truth is action, if it comes at all, stops time, stops waiting, lifts the soldier off the ground or water, suspends. There is no plot to that moment. If he remembers anything of the action the memory stirs smells, sounds, touch, taste. World War 1 is memorable for its suspension of progress, the soldiers on both sides stalemated in their trenches for days, weeks, months, years, the most significant action perhaps a slow moving cloud or fog hugging the ground and when it gets to you takes the skin off your face. And of course in any war for every soldier that experiences what I am here calling action there are several others who experience only the waiting. Both experiences take their toll and can leave soldiers, whatever their experience, broken machinery.

In any case, for the most part, these books avoid that portrayal of action, and take place in beautiful natural settings, far from any action of the war. Both returned soldiers suffer from emotional trauma, but are able to enjoy life returned away from the front. They don’t suffer from anhedonia, usually the result of not enough action. Both books are necessarily novellas, because so much has been left out. Both concern a small cast of characters in a little window of time and action out of view of the mainstream. Rebecca West has her character Jenny narrate, so it’s a first person but not the soldier returned who talks, while Carr’s book is told first person by the returned soldier, Tom Birkin. Both books are love stories surrounded by nature in lovely landscaped settings mostly unspoiled. The writing is clear and concise, natural and unaffected but poetic, impressionistic, descriptive. Both books touch on class as a theme, work, and all the trappings and dressings of diversions and social nakedness.

“Penina’s Letters” too touches on those themes and uses some similar techniques to get its soldier returned story going and told, but I suppose its author may not have seen enough action, and so had to substitute satire for reality, or maybe should have relied on someone else to tell his story, Penina perhaps.

A Swimmer

When selfishly young
swimming up the waiting
tree the melons hung out
short tongue patient
and the bird pauses
in flight the voice unhooked.

Tongues burned for fun
and born with a bit of wit
at last fall off
into the bottomless pit
where the seafarer goes
to taste the fleshy fruit
and with a lick of luck
lives on but never
tells the tale.

We lived across a dusty tracks
(to make a quick cliche of this)
with the others who solely minded
their own one on one business
looking the other way
and waiting the proper time
to mow the ready hay
and bale for the coming fall.

Now older and just aging
a bit here and there
watered down and humbled
in a room in Opportune Pass
it’s all I can do
to bite my own inflamed
tongue when the urge comes
to untie me undone
turning and turning
on the moontide spit.

Displacement

Adrunk
he becomes
the drinker
who drank him.

Take this cup
all of you
and drink
its whine the engine

of the cat
contemplating
her contempt for her
need for you.

Adrift
on a sea street
starry eyed
night
ears black holes
no sound
escapes.

And the nose tastes
hours of laundromat fuzz
falls a third time
near the blue dumpster
behind the fishmonger’s
by the cold chain links
in a bed of weeds gone to seed
spreading like a hatch
of artificial flies.

One he swallows
caught
hooked through the lip
jumps pulls and runs
down the path
to where the deep water
creeps awake
in the darkness
its thick jelled
mass motions.

Out of Season

Barely visible
the cat acting
like a tourist
out of season.

Breeze so soft
blow & rain shifts
the other way
out of season.

In the grass melan
choly whose happy
sound the birds
squirrels

coyotes laired
late in the park
talk in their sleep
out of season.

This too out
all up to snuff
toffee nosed
pretension

a pretend friend
bends to expose
truth its own pretense
out of season.

Nothing in its Proper Place

Nothing is the proper place of poetry
the nothing that is and the nothing
that is not, to slightly misquote Wallace
Stevens, now nothing but a book on a shelf.

Things seem round, but close reading
show oblong, egg shaped, ellipsoid,
particularly in the topological poem,
where nothing expands and retracts.

The universe is a closed knot
the poet tries to unknot
to pull his shoe on without
twisting his tongue.

Think pretzel, which is non-trivial,
while the poem is a wild knot,
unable to untie itself,
non-rational, but linked within.

What a mess, and I can’t find
the beginning of the thread,
nor the ending, for that matter,
but incomprehensible I am not.