Gerry LaFemina: 23 Below
Copyright © 1994 Gerry LaFemina.
For permission to reprint contact the author at email@example.com.
For Bill & Nancy
We are tired of winter. The bite
of frost has left its mark
on flesh, minds, mud, and wood.
Let the thaw come and melt the memory
of last year's snow.
On a snowy path--
Seeing what the light gives, and darkness takes away,
Salt seizes my eye.
What are you carrying?
For the sake of what? through such hard wind
--And you look out to me,
and you say, "Only the same as everyone; your breath
your words, move with mine,
under and over this glass; we who were
and lived on the living earth."
The Long Drive Home from Club Soda to Comstock
Variation after a First Line by Garcia Lorca
What the Gypsies Know
Perparing for Game Seven of the Stanley Cup, 1994
Old Man Seeking the Aurora Borealis
After the Cherry Tavern Closed, New York City, 1988
Another Guy My Age Kicking Stones
On Seeing the Ghost of My Adolescence
The Book of Days
I've heard this is how all stories end:
a guy drives home through the snow
while the woman dances in a bar. His car
has one headlight
and a heater with a tickle
in its throat. This doesn't have to be
a story about loss or love. We've all heard
about the boy who saves a snowball
in a freezer until school's out and summer
cracks its knuckles one finger at a time;
how he removes it with wool gloves and an opportunity
for revenge. He misses his target:
the classmate who teased his lisp,
and his planning becomes cobwebs of snow
in the wake of a passing truck.
Love exists of its own reticence and
memory too. I once loved a woman in winter,
the first snowfall of inches we wrestled
in the powder, cold moisture skiing beneath our clothes
until the streetlights exhaled their breathy light
and neighbors stretched their necks past window curtains
to witness her snowball kiss my face. Sometimes
I can still feel the burning welt of ice
rubbing my cheek. At the end of Modern Times
the Tramp and the Gamin walk along a road
until they become silhouette--faceless, nameless,
you, me. This must be a function of remembering.
The first grade girl a six year old longed to hit
with a snowball in July grew into a teen he desired
and she sprouted up again like a storm front as he knelt
by his mother's grave in late November
forty years later. A galaxy of flurries
falling from the garden of sky. The bar bands
might jam all night, and the woman will keep
dancing dancing dancing while I try to decide
between a U-turn and the drive home.
Again, an evening of snow, the roads slick
as a seducer, slick as the hair of my early teens.
Tonight I read Gerald Stem while my speakers pulsate with the bass
of Steel Pulse, and all I want is a plane ticket or a car that can make it
all the years back to my adolescence. Maybe
I'll hitchhike: drop me off in Greenwich Village
or by Madison Square Garden, I'll walk the rest--
I've done it before: December nights,
snow melting into rain at the roofs, the buildings
becoming walls of a wind tunnel for the wailing bay winds
by the Battery. I've seen skyscrapers sway during storms
reminding me the world spins. I saw a grown man
cry and kick at the thick air while cursing the breeze
that kited his cardboard protection among the pigeons.
I remember--it was 1984 and I wanted to put my hands
on his shoulders, say sentences full of consolation
and understanding, and maybe give him some dollars
or my hat. I wanted to... now it seems so futile;
now I can pity my inability to help him;
now I can think only of the pigeons of that city
so different from the pigeons of Kalamazoo
or Chicago or Detroit. On the streets of New York
in the tiny parks and squares where old Jewish men
and old Italian men play chess, on the rooftops of offices and brownstones,
amputee pigeons squander their months, hobbling
one footed and broken winged; the beheaded bird at the ferry terminal....
Back then the way its body still rocked and pitched
on its claws fascinated me, and I stood transfixed,
curious because energy can't be created
or destroyed so where did the charges locked between the synapses
of that bird'snerves escape to? No one knows.
That was April, 1984;
that was the year my mother wrote her children's book,
Petey the Pigeon--who had one foot and lived
in the ferry terminal, the year the body of a jumper
landed inches from my big toe. That was the year
I loved Sherrie from Negril and learned
her brother wanted to break my neck because I was white
or punk rock or for no reason. That year Steel Pulse
vibrated the Beacon Theatre, Peter Tosh skanked on stage
at Radio City and I wrote poems for girls in school,
took them to concerts and tried to seduce them later and failed
or succeeded, I can't recall. That was the year my last umbrella
whipped inside out so I flipped it in a garbage can
and chose to ignore the Jamaican and Korean sidewalk salesmen,
chose to ignore them for good,
chose for the wings of precipitation to strike me
as they fell, failing to defy the gravity of the world.
On the bus stop where I once stood
daily, I notice the exercise place
has closed; no longer
can I watch women in tights
shimmering jello-like in its windows
one flight up. I don't mind. Heading
uptown to meet a bus that'll never come,
I walk back the calendar to days I could watch a woman
each morning, workbound
and was unable to say anything
about wanting: my words were buried
in the sand of my throat as my pick-up lines crashed
against beach-wall teeth. I can see these strangers more clearly
than girls I dated. And isn't doting
over women I desired and never took out
somehow American in the same way
the boy who tugs his mom by the hand,
finger-pointing through a department store
after Christmas is American. And my father's father
coming to this country from Italy
discovered the streets weren't paved with gold, weren't
paved at all, and, as an immigrant,
he was expected to lay asphalt over cobblestones.
His disappointment and his willingness
to work were also American. His dreams
were bags full of Coney Island and the Brooklyn Bridge.
Here, in that city where I no longer live,
I've learned the stores I shopped, the clubs,
the old acquaintances, the women
I loved or didn't love and wished I had
are gone, and the gap their absence creates
can't be stuffed with letters, photos,
phone calls. I march streets of strange landmarks;
my memories make turns: years pass as storefronts
and when I choose to forget the bus,
wedge my way through vacationers and business throngs,
I see two women in a boutique's window
changing a mannequin's clothes: cotton pastels
despite the January date.
That five year old, having unwrapped
the new year begins writing a list of birthday wants
four months away. It's made of race cars
and electric trains like the set my grandfather gave me
which never worked
which rusted in the corner as I played
with dolls, holding each fate that may have been.
Forgive me, I was only learning
the lives I might live.
Variation after a Firts Line by Garcia Lorca
So I took her to the river.
We strolled west along Christopher Street
beyond the brownstones and sex shops and piano bars
where drag queens sang torches that weren't for she or me.
Beyond even the West Side Highway we walked
onto a concrete pier that stretched like her boyfriend's accusatory finger
over the Hudson, and the lights of New Jersey
burned low one at a time, so that the other couples who held hands
like drowning men, recognizing their despair
without comprehending it, they seemed larger, darker.
We clutched each other closer
and tried guessing which window in one of those buildings
would go out last. When neither of us were right
we laughed, and that laughter pulled us tight
and the sound of our clothes rubbing seemed loud as a car wreck
but there were no cars
nor a moon
incessant, incensed by a scow moving its cargo of refuse;
only our tongues and a desire we couldn't refuse.
only wavelike ripples rapping the pier,
It was the feast of Saint James
and I could hear the ancient bell of a neighborhood church,
cranky as a crone; she led me from the water
past the brownstones and the piano bars and the all-night cafes
where oldermen seduced young women or young men
depending on their fancy; she led me, both of us young
and full of chance, up the stairs of a walk-up to the roof
where I took off my boots. She took of her dress.
I removed my belt and watched the glow of a street lamp
rise above the edge of the roof. In that light her hair became a thunderstorm
and we felt like rain. I could hear the church bells barking like market sellers,
and I knew of her boyfriend whom she'd call tomorrow.
I knew too that I didn't love her
despite the lightning, despite even this poem.
From that roof I could have seen that pier and its fistful of lovers
and the Hudson with its barges and garbage scows.
In New Jersey one lit window in a building dim with contentment.
Like platelets the road crews ride the avenues;
truck backs open, they sporadically stop
to scab a pothole with hot asphalt and back up
traffic for five minutes--
one guy sliding from the cab,
cigarette between pinky and ring finger,
a shovel pivoting in the other hand.
Scoop Drop Pat Scoop Drop Pat Pat Pat
Such a simple process.
Two or three decades back and still in some films
convicts did this work, but since Checkered Cabs closed
and with the paper mills slowly donating
less and less saw dust to the sky, it's become a wage,
a way to buy another pack of Marlboro Reds
and another Bic the last one lost a couple miles back.
Why do thirty degrees in April seem warmer
than the same thirty degrees in February?
Every love I've lost I lost in spring
or in some bar or classroom.
Scars on my back from passion scratches,
scars on my arm from knife wishes, the white line
along the back of my hand where I slalomed
a razor between hairs
and spent the next seven minutes watching blood clot--
I can't imagine anymore the soldier's life
I once wanted, can't imagine the boredom of waiting
for action, the cold nights of bunkers
wanting only to smell the flowers of home: pansies
and creeping phlox which might, just now, be blossoming.
Early April and I'm still impatient;
waiting for a day not impregnated with mow, a day
when I'm able to take Alex to Milham Park
for more than half an hour.
Only last February I watched a man
standing at the rim of ice before the warming mud
of the playground. His daughter swung oblivious
to anything but the sun which held her hand
like she wished he would.
And oblivious to even this wish.
That year winter left early,
an insulted dinner guest no one missed,
and that man stood there, grateful
he wouldn't be called to salt the roads that night
while the cigarette burned like the desire to be nothing
like his father.
What I think about now:
slam dancing those nights
when 300 of us massed in the pit our bodies red
and ripe with adrenalin and three chord guitars by bands of initials:
X, DOA, TSOL.
The old Rock Hotel on Jane Street
right by the Hudson and the drag bars. I once rented a room
four flights above the stage
and spent the night staring at the shadowy barges on the river
while cockroaches played fag in the bathroom
and a young woman lay passed-out on the thin mattress.
When she woke the next morning she asked if we--
before she finished but
said nothing because I had wanted to.
That night was the last night of shows at the Rock Hotel
although we didn't know it then. Some neighborhood group
closed it down with complaints
about the proliferation of graffiti on nights bands played:
I shook my head
spray paint cancer of New York Hardcore and
Black Flag and illegibility--a pseudonym,
a chance at immortality.
The lattice work of cracks on a windshield
--a shard of gravel jumped from a road crew truck
and bounced again onto the car hood
before mating with the glass, an embryo for the shoots
like the body of a crushed roach, its eight legs sprawled
or a band's atlas-the towns of its tours
moored to its home city by lines of black ink.
Out of town the silos have all shrunk:
grain levels lower this April
than history. On the road shoulders
possum corpses, raccoon pelts, sometimes a house pet or strayand always
the puddle of dry blood.
Some days road crews come and pull these
from the highways, other days a group of boys
too old to play war
too young for bars
take them, shoving all that matted fur into a brown paper bag.
And later, for fun they'll throw the body back and forth
in their school's parking lot
or in the long cool field of a city park.
the time of year for construction
and destruction. In Kalamazoo three buildings
are going down.
The crews don't use dynamite
or a wrecking ball like the crowd anticipates, but
the way steam shovels and bulldozers attack
makes it more melodramatic--
with every hit rises a geyser of dust.
Did the Rock Hotel go down this way?
My last visit driving the West Side I saw
only a vacant lot in its place. I had to pull over
and walk Jane Street again. It was only then I noticed
the spray paint fading with age on neighboring walls;
a galaxy of phlox and mums straining in the filled-in foundation.
What the Gypsies Know
Despite seeing them all my life, I couldn't recognize my fingerprints
if you carried their whorls and swirls to me
having found them on a glass or on a woman's body.
I'd have to believe their cursive signature,
finger the ridges I've touched all these years and try to decipher
like the psychic I visited
who grasped my wrist and fingered the lines of my palm
annotating a stranger's biography. He had me ringered for a painter,
said I suffered some blow to the ego, believed I should work
with my hands seeing an absence
of calluses and blisters. Remember the lemon juice writing
I learned in fifth grade magic books
or the black light ink some clubs use
or the braille typewriter in the library where I worked--
how I could never read its pellets scattershot in lines on the page.
I can't reclaim what else he said
so contained was I by thoughts
about the signs we carry in our pockets or might see in the sky.
Was he right?
Three years later it seems insignificant
or indistinguishable as braille pages held at arm's length.
Perhaps Garcia Lorca could tell me if the gypsies really know,
but Garcia Lorca's dead,
and no one foresaw the revolution, his murder,
and the wind above his grave is dry and quiet
as the wind running the streets of Kalamazoo
or the streets of Staten Island.
The wind always wordless.
I've heard a woman once heard voices in the wind
and tried locking it outside, stuffing old underwear
into the cracks of the doors and around windows.
For nights her fifties stereo rattled the house with song.
Then silence. Neighbors began to miss her
standing among the weedy lawn; all the curtains now shut,
they couldn't see the platoon of cats
she barracked. Finally some teenage boys found courage....
The smell in the foyer: cat dung and something staler,
more pungent. They'd never smelled decay before.
That was on Ross Street by the store where I bought comics;
the cops came, the paramedics;
the photographers from the papers flashed her walls of red paint words
and paperboys delivered them to the neighborhood
with daily installments of her diary entrees: cats and nonsense words.
Whether these stories were true I'll never know---
so many unanswerable questions. I know friends
who can go to sleep with a stray inquiry roaming the alleys of consciousness
and wake to it tamed by an answer. I knew the definitions
to the scrawled glyphs on handball courts and subway walls
Now the language has changed. I believe some people
can read cards, I believe some people know the dialects
of the dead, the statements backwards masked on old L.P.s,
the tongue of the breeze which even now howls
through my driveway, its volume loud
trying to make itself understood.
Preparing for Game Seven of the Stanley Cup, 1994
New York Rangers vs. Vancouver Canucks--the Rangers haven't won the Stanley Cup in fifty-four years.
I believe in the curse of 1940.
I believe in the stone stumbled over that starts a streak of bad luck,
how we try to trace our days back to it, following
our misfortunes the way we might follow a spiral of crows
down to the corpse of a small doe at roadside. And my brother
can't watch a Ranger game anymore
without wearing a fifteen year oldjersey, its tattered stairwell of letters
up the front now dull, the once royal blue more peasant-colored,
like the face of a young woman who's been crying off and on
for the last forty-eight hours. Her boyfriend stole her checkbook
and credit cards while leaving his identity behind.
She's so embarrassed
that She's called no one but her mother and the police
answering their inquiries with yes or no and sometimes
only shaking her head. When the phone rings
she crosses herself and the seconds before she lifts the handset
from its cradle become an interval of hope.
Then time goes awry,
and the moment between the first trill of the phone
and the next is room enough
for their seven month relationship:
their initial meeting in a laundromat one block
from where she now stands, then how she sawhim again
at the newsstand in the building where she works. He asked her name,
offered to pay for the paper, and finally
mentioned dinner. He was a restaurant critic
so their meals were free
although now she can't recall ever seeing his name
in print. She suddenly realized he never paid for anything.
Tomorrow she'll call the papers in town....
What we discuss when we discuss luck--
how my family divvied dollars among the lotteries but me; I looked, instead,
to get lucky, smoked Lucky Strikes and stubbed my cigarettes silent
then relit them to please the divine: a sacrifice
a ritual of singles bars and punk bands. Why? I can't say,
but my mother keeps playing birthdays and anniversaries
for the lotto, Michael still hand-washes that shirt after each loss,
as if detergent could remove such a stain.
You don't understand, I saw thirteen games in 79 wearing thisjersey, and they didn lose
one. They tied two. They made it to the finals. I know it crazy to believe,
but you don't understand.
But I do.
as does that woman who, up late, has stopped sobbing and regained
her wonderment with the world. On the news
the sportscaster flirts with her
as he scrolls through the scores,a roll call of leagues
and seasons, all this time freeing memories because he didn't like sports.
She becomes a tomboy again. She's able then
to appreciate her mother's support, and can hear her mom
cluttering the kitchen with sound. Distraction and distance must
be close: all this action helps her forget.
Then the phone rings again.
The miles home become months of my life,
become nothing. Along the highway, raptors traipse skyward as I approach,
singing their chorale of caws and complaints.
Sometimes I make each traffic light
right before it blinks red or as it just shines green, so I never have to brake.
Such days I know my fortune's good--
I could talk my way out of a traffic ticket,
find a ten spot in a pocket or in the parking lot--
but tonight the signals all wink their yellow eyes,
letting me know my home will roar hollow with a televised crowd eight hundred miles away
and I have no jersey to wear, no protection whatsoever.
I draw hard on my cigarette and ash it out.
Light it again.
In her apartment of noises that woman crosses herself as the telephone sounds.
We do these things for luck.
My son loves me.
An address book full of friends
and lovers who some nights call my name.
A few Fridays each year I suffer
through bad hands of seven card stud, the freak
four kings that demolish my full house,
and I shake my head later in the rear-view mirror.
Would I be happier if I won?
No. I long for the unmitigated grace
of the squirrell balancing on the phone wire
or on the thinnest branch of the backyard sycamore.
Now I want the ease of that branch’s sinewy movements
in the easterly breeze of evening.
No; I want nothing less
than to be that wind, empty and entirely of the world.
Men as Trees, Walking
In 1914, Sir Ernest Shackleton led the crew of HMS Endurance on a transantarctic expedition; however, the ship was imprisoned by winter's ice in the Weddell Sea until the melting ice floes of spring finally crushed The Endurance. The men struggled to Elephant Island. Then Shackleton and five others, without even a compass, continued for the whaling station on South Georgia Island--over five hundred miles north. With little provisions, the six men made it to the wrong side of South Georgia. Without food, water, or sleep, three of them struggled across the unexplored island's mountains to the station which launched rescues for those left behind. Nobody died.
What it had to be like: Shackleton and two of his crew
facing the glaciers, the crust cracking
beneath each step, the gale's mouth spitting
a spackle of sleet and hail. Fifty feet of rope
tethers them together. They've driven screws
through the soles of their boots, makeshift cleats
No maps. No paths. Only duty, a fine drape of snow
and South Georgia's alpine geography.
Hungry and hallucinatory, they know they're the only hope
for twenty-two crewmates marooned and counting
penguins on another stony island: they must continue,
Shackleton leading until he steps into the limbo of air
beneath a sidewalk of ice. If the world is similar
to cartoons, he may have hung there a minute
in mid-air, spinning in the grip of cold wind
like a nine ball spinning in the space above the pocket
before dropping. The other two follow, dragged
through twenty feet of air and prayers to mountain side
on which they slide--a 900 foot toboggan ride,
their ragged coats and pants their only sleds.
As usual I've begun in the story's middle
despite the new year and talk of new beginnings.
Here, the heater stutters its one forgettable line
and neither of us wants to walk to the car, storebound.
The wind mutters like a young schizophrenic who would just as soon threaten
as bless you with the mercy of his savior,
but truly all he says is this is the coldest winter in history.
On the west coast the fault line shimmies, and on the bible network
another mouth of apocalypse
reads the weather report of ages.
The inexact sciences: physics, emotology, meteorology.
How the innocent attempt of a penguin to fly
influences rhe inflections of the wind a hemisphere away and the wave-size
at the ocean's far shore. What I know
This frost can slur the world's axial fluency,
the traffic slows, honking the slush, and in frozen rivers
ships mimic The Endurance
barnacled by ice among the floes.
Its crew works for warmth, daily shoveling ice
from the hull; still, it creeps back each evening
like a nightmare Shackleton brushes away
harking orders or reciting Shelley, Byron, Keats
and same days Dante to his men, the darkness now
twenty hours long, so cold they almost expect shadows
cast in the dim glimmers of the galley to freeze and the smoke
climbing the ladder to heaven from the stove to get stuck
somewhere above the rigging and the masts.
Winter cast? its phenomena of cold; Shackleton records the past
months in his journal. Soon they must abandon ship,
the crew salvaging supplies, making camp on an ice slip
surrounded by wreckage, dead seals, the Antarctic Circle.
Worsley and Shackleton surveying this ghetto could well be Dante and Virgil
at Circle Three. Months later, orders to trudge the slushing
floes, their flotsam melting into the camp's ice, the men mushing
the dogs that must someday become dinner, the sledges useless
for pulling their salvaged boats--vessels of a fragile promise:
rescue or at least dry land. They're heading: barren Elephant Island
One hundred miles due north. Thirst their biggest threat and water all around.
Perhaps what they missed the most:
the swell of a woman's breast in winter,
her skin almost colorless hut for the shade of her bodice.
It's at this moment need and desire blur,
an hallucination of want made real by the two of us.
How easy it is in the solitary confinement
of ego to lust, how easy to forget
pain and tenderness and the temptation
of the blood. But outside the pulse of the wind
rushes, adrenalized and loaded with lymphocytes of snow.
If we were other people or younger we might
drop in the drifts, side-by-side
and leave in our wake the hollow shell of angels.
Instead we do nothing. The civilized world glows
saffron on either side of the street, and one of those lights
sneaks inside to throw our mortal silhouettes on the wall.
Last year a youngman forgot to look both ways
when shortcutting down the ravine and across the tracks
and he was smacked by a train
although I don't believe an Amtrack could actually sneak up
on anybody. I wonder what he thought the tremor
of the rails was; the steady clack of those four cars
might have become the whirr of a june bug
strafing the roof of a childhood porch
and amplified by years and a phobia. The one he recalled
flew big as an ear
and he stood there for only a second
loking at the bug light which soon became the sole eye
of a diesel engine, and he survived.
And nine years ago I might have stood one footed at the sight
of a rat on a subway platform, could hear more of them chattering
late nights after CBGBor the Mudd Club
waiting for the six train below Bleecker Street.
And when it arrived, Mark and I would scan the cars
for our graffiti; perhaps he'd produce four colors
from his knapsack, and we'd paint our tags through the tunnels,
one of us checking for transit cops.
That time he tried to cheat a fare at Twenty-third Street
we were both chased
until there was nowhere else to go but down
so we did. The dark air around us
hummed electric, and the occasional express
fumed sparks as it passed, lighting our way
for a moment. Then I tripped
and in a second of instinct I tried to grip
the third rail to break my fall.
I failed, spraining my ankle on a cross tie.
With me crippled the rest of the way, we'd never make it
to the next station seven blocks South
before the next local accosted us.
All the emergency exit Signs died of loneliness.
That day we discovered the Eighteenth Street station,
long abandoned to the homeless and the few teens
who thought it was a great place to bring a girl
or a dime bag. While the next train chanted by,
I sat with Mark, both of us panting, our hearts
restless birds beneath our rib cages.
If this is the only foolish thing I've done, I'm blessed,
but even Christine who tunes her mandolin in the next room
knows it's not, tallies my mistakes and misdemeanors
in a notebook and reminds me of them when we fight.
I try to understand this as I understand why Mark
didn't part with a buck of lunch that November afternoon
why that kid paused
atop those rattling tracks,and why we have totake
the shortcuts sometimes, despite the danger,
despite the voice within us saying, There a safe route, please take it:
we got to test the angels that save us.
I can't see them behind me though,
see only the sparks of iron wheels against rails
burning the dark air briefly.
Old Man Seeking the Aurora Borealis
His cobwebbed face exhales and cumulus
puffs of carbon dioxide explode in silence
within the arms of arctic winds. He stands
still, head raised, gazing for the Northern Lights
tattooed on the February sky. A few years back
he might have counted the constellations, recognizing them
on his fingers, Orion, Draco, Ursa Minor....
Last night the swollen moon burned sullen,
painted shadows on the street dark and long as if
it were morning, and he stared at the black form
unfurling from his toes onto the fading asphalt.
It's name sat at the edge of his tongue
like the name of another who's long gone
and whom he imagines he saw one day among the faces of pedestrians
in a crosswalk far from this suburb of cyclone fences
and pedigreed dogs. Tonight, those names
are pointless; the hypnotist wind beckons him,
Forget.... There's a treasure buried above the clouds--
he can still envision the almanac pages for today
even if he's surrendered the titles of the stars
their fanciful rage, even if his shadow has left him
there's still this curb, his house behind him
with its windows lit by end-table lamps, the photo albums
beneath them suffering their comas of disinterest. Rings of breath
stagger from his mouth and dance the stage
of atmosphere below the streetlamps. He can almost see
a name spelled as he exhales,
he can almost hear it whispered into his ear,
the cool tongue of wind licking his lobe.
The breaths rise into the dark sky
After the Cherry Tavern Closed, New York City, 1988
That year, the city finally silenced
my adolescence by downing the power to stages
all over New York. The clubs darkened, and bands
parked their vans in front of rehearsal spaces and allowed them
to rust away or be stripped by vandals. That year
I squandered hours befriending whiskey sours and imported cigarettes
at the Cherry Tavern with its jukebox of Jamaican reggae and ska,
and its dollar-a-rack bar table--a thin green sheet of felt
stretched transparent atop potholed slate.
My faith in fate can be traced to that table
and the eightball I bet my wages on there; the dates I met there
after signing out.
How I slipped the silver moon of a quarter
into the juke and called forth 165-the sole record
with a scratch, entrapping the bar crowd
in the same three chords until someone kicked the machine, frustrated.
Was it me?
I think it was
the night Laura stoodme up. I think
it was the night my angles weren't right,
and twice the eight ball balked at my orders,
my cue rebelled and stole the fold of bills from my wallet,
dispersed it among my opponents and the waitress, a veritable car bomb
of generosity. There's a ferocity in fortune turning its back to you
a rage so great you have little
but the echo of your own footfalls in the hollow
canyon of a Lower East Side street, in the cantankerous fluorescence
of your building's corridors. Oh spirit-who-flips-the-coin of chance
and skill, of love and disappointment,
I lit the novena of my cigarettes for you, sitting on a fire escape
following the movement of gulls above the East River
as they fell toward the grey canopy of water, cawing with vigor
and summer lust, the heat rising from Manhattan
splaying their gray feathers
and holding them aloft.
No signs. No phone calls bold with apologies
or explanations. Nothing but a crumple of bills
left on an end table,
and the crooked legs of stubbed out butts
in an ashtray. Not even a band to play
one song to give me back that youth.
At seven when I moved to a block full of Irish
and Italians, their houses brilliant with middle classness,
brilliant with basketball hoops and swimming pools,
I wanted what mom couldn't give, and who doesn't want
what's out of his grasp--Tommy Tierney, the Crupi brothers, Trisha McKeever
I laughed at their Polish jokes and Black jokes
and my Eastern European roots
and the Jamaican friends of my old neighborhood,
I just forgot.
I saw a UFO once. I remember it.
I sat on a parked Volvo, avoiding our empty living room;
late Saturday night, no babysitter;
I was nine, and above the woods up the block
a flat green strip of neon like a wayward bar sign
hovered, and I stood on that car's hood to get a better look.
Then I ran to get binoculars,
but when I returned it rocketed heavenward while I remained,
shaking because I believed I saw it, just like I believe
an angel fluttered in my Chevy once
when it rode a flying carpet of ice through an intersection.
I just watched the woman's face in the approaching car
as it changed from singing along to astonishment
and then shock at impact. My body tried to escape
the seat belt, and my head pivoted--something small and white
flipped in the air. I know it was a styrofoam coffee cup
somersaulting, acrobatic and hot,
but at that moment, adrenalin erupting into my blood,
it seemed alien, it seemed too graceful;
it seemed personal, protective, judgmental.
To count my sins should I begin with the skin's
or the spirit's? with abundance or want?
In the cemetery around the corner lay my mother's father,
and in its courtyard we played baseball,
the Crupi brothers always captains. One afternoon I stayed with their sister;
she dared me to kiss her breasts.
Sweat abandoned my nine year old body;
as she brought my head to her tits I kissed them chastely,
mouth unopen until my penis stirred its preadolescent smallness,
and she squeezed....
That night I moved among the mausoleums,
restless and rustled with lust so even the sculptured Mary,
granite white in the moonlight, was sexy.
The cemetery I haven't mentioned
buried only blacks, lay buried for the neighborhood kids:
the secrecy of prejudice. Tommy always rattled the phlegm
in his throat when we scuttled by a Black man on the streets,
one of the others might've muttered, Nigger or Afroturf
an old joke, so everyone would laugh
and I wouldn't look at the passing man
out of embarrassment.
One morning we saw a hearse followed by its battalion of mourners,
mostly Caddies or jalopies, motor into the Frederick Douglass Memorial,
and we decided to spy, struggling through the wrought iron,
down low behind headstones and statues until we were close
to the pit, close enough to see the family,
a handful of whites among them, close enough to see no one
wept as the reverend spoke in a voice soft as siren lights.
Then everyone sang, and it shocked us,
this collective voice of love for life; I leaned closer still and noticed
a girl my age, her skin the color of the overturned autumn earth,
her eyes spotlighting the entire cemetery
until someone behind me summoned up spit, someone else sniggered
but before anything could be spoken or done, I hissed, No, she's beautiful
or wished I had because nothing mattered
but the girl, the marble angel looming above us,
and that song ascending from our grief.
Another Guy My Age Kicking Stones
I believe the world is small. Look
the stone I just kicked down this street
has gotten further in its journey;
before this it was pulled down the road
by the skid of a car
and earlier brought by dump truck from a foundry.
It jumped off here, in Constock, by either bump
or its own gravel volition.
There must be another guy my age
kicking stones in his path even as I write this.
This poem is for him
and the person he loves who isn't
with him. He might be anywhere
on either coast. Overlooking the Pacific
a young woman putters in her kitchen. In New York
my mother shifts her typewriter to capitals one more time.
I want to hug them both but can't:
no matter how small I believe the world to be
I'm smaller, and even the extensions of telephones
makes them impossible, at times, to hold.
Last time I was in New York, Kermit and I laughed memory
and college stories until I missed him
and missed all the names we mentioned.
This poem is for everyone I've loved.
This poem is for no one.
It's for the teenage boy who washes cars
each day for a Dodge dealership in Akron, Ohio;
he walks along a state road for half a mile
to work and kicks the loose stones sometimes.
Listen, gravel scatters on the surface of the small world.
On Seeing the Ghost of My Adolescence
The ghost of my adolescence dyed
his hair blue and grew it long and heavy.
He hovered by the garbage cans, scavenging
like my mother's insane brother
who picks through dumpsters for stale bagels,
who stole into my father's office years ago
asking cash and later tried
to set the building on fire with a mouthful of gasoline
syphoned from a United Parcel truck.
I saw the ghost of my adolescence pissing in an alley
off Grove St. I didn't think he saw me.
He pissed, zipped up and disappeared into the darkness
down the way, maybe looking for the Rastaman to score
coke. Later, I heard him laughing
with a brunette girl I'd never seen before;
when they surfaced in the orange aura of New York nights
--his arm around her shoulders, hers a python
at his waist-they whispered to each other
and kept laughing. It shocked me, such intimacy.
I heard him again beyond the window separating a friend's place
from the persistent conversation of Seventh Avenue.
She and I'd been lovers once, five years before,
but that night we lay on her mattress fully-dressed,
and as she papered the walls with wants and mistakes,
I stared at the book titles on her shelves
until they became headlines or bold new constellations
of letter-stars. I believe that ghost wanted me
to want her again as it watched through the glass,
squatting recklessly on the fire escape,
but in the end she and I just lay there
in the memory of our own respiration until she moaned in the voice
of that ghost, possessed by what I used to be,
what we used to be: this city, 1985.
And if I believed we could converse then, this ghost of me
and me, I might have asked how I could free it
from this island, from sanding the floor of a boarded up brownstone
each night as he trespassed and slept on East Fourth Street. We said nothing.
The blue and red tears of an ambulance entered the room,
high-lighting the biographical spines of fascists
in its glow; below, a radio danced its hip-hop,
and when this passed we heard only the whispered sentences of traffic,
her breathing, mine.
Then the clatter of the ladder
falling to cement, a tympani of garbage cans:
the ghost of my adolescence sprinting,
each square of the sidewalk another calendar day backward,
the stars rattling in the wake of the spirit's exhaust.
The way the stray fragments of asphalt ice
grasp the filaments of street lights
as if they were the only means of preventing thaw
might well be the emberous tip of a birthday
candle's wick after the wishing and the breathy push
of hope. On my sixteenth birthday I pocketed
my hands and desires and dined alone. I didn't feel young
or old; I felt just the dull pulse of adolescence
which beat its drum like a shaman in the distant
prairie of my unconscious. Later, I followed
taxis by foot and when I lost one to velocity or traffic,
I chose another, and in this way I unwrapped the neighborhoods
of Manhattan, one unfamiliar block at a time,
rows of shops darkened with steel grates and early hours,
stunted saplings bent under night's dark thumb.
And the people--a beat cop, a woman walking
her Golden Retriever, a couple holding their bodies closer
than usual. It was a cool evening for August and the earth
already lusted autumn's erotic touch.
No, I didn't feel lonely or sad
but I believe I might have said something about melancholy
which means I lied or didn't understand,
which means, really, that I hefted an adolescence
similar to millions in this America, where the ice currently
is abundant but melting, where a young girl
struggles above the sixty-fourblack-or-white squares
of a chessboard before deciding to move her rook,
the piece she believes looks like an ashtray.
She has no opponent. She sits
with a strategy book, its spine broken
so the cover remains forever open in mute surprise
or indifference. Some people might call her attractive,
even lovely. If there are spirits that watch over
the young they must blink their eyes rapidly in the night sky
and repeatedly. They've been spying us for millennia
and witnessed this world when it still lay shrouded
by clouds and dust. They don't tell us this. They don't whisper
to that girl, push the pawn. No, their voices are more quiet
than a windless day on an abandoned blueberry farm where I dreamt
I stood: the black sky a chalkboard for lessons
I forfeited when I turned away to face the silent flatlands
and the column of flailing red lights atop a distant radio tower
on the dusty horizon, warning airplanes away
and letting me know other people were out there,
waiting at home, tuned in, and wanting for news.
As sea water freezes, the salt flees
erecting itself a ladder toward some unseen landing,
seven or seventeen feet above the impatient ice.
Angels might climb to it. In the fading sunlight
of a two hour day, you can see them through the scaffolding of snow,
pirouetting and coiling on those saline sculptures,
Jacob's dream gone awry.
The first sprig of spring-like weather
and I'm tethered to IV tubing, a new scar
extending across my abdomen like an unfinished turnpike
through the hills and curves of flesh. Outside, the main drag
unspools like a long grey scarf a child dropped
and I watch it spill beneath a rag of cold in the distance. The traffic flashes
its gold teeth in the sun of its business while I whittle
hours into syllables until little by little time regains definition.
And in the mirror at night
I see a younger me, one who doesn't want
to look me in the eye, a spiked prairie of hair
all he'll show.
The reluctance of nostalgia or regret--
I think of Jo who wore one of these green backless gowns
just four months ago, how the nurses searched to find a vein
sturdy enough to support a needle, the nourishment of tubes. By the end
she must've been straw frail, pale as that nurse's skirt
but stained with scabs and lesions.
Jo who fired artillery with her eyes
armed with desire, her pink hair like a struck flare
in the strobes and floodlights of the Mudd Club,
gorgeous but for the garden of violets that blossomed on the stems of her arteries,
the needles she kept taped to a looseleaf binder.
Had I known, nothing would differ.
Had I returned and learned she was renting a bed
at St. Vincent's, her only conversation the IV pump's hum
and the old community volunteers with spun sugar hair, I would have visited,
the whole time thankful with guilt that we hadn't fulfilled our adolescent lust.
But no, just a phone call late,
a remnant's voice muddy with long distance lines saying only pneumonia and services.
What went unsaid was a wind from the Northwest Territories.
Outside the snow falling like angel suicides.
If it's true--no two snowflakes are alike
and the helix of DNA forbids the duplication of fingerprints
then no reflection in a mirror can truly be me.
I saw a young girl lying in a backyard, her legs
spreading, then closing, arms arcing
overhead before sledding back to her sides.
She did this a dozen times, imprinting a platoon of angels--
no two of them identical
but close enough for her human eyes.
An hour later how she's changed,
unaware of the chapped skin of her cheeks and fingers
as she stares from her window, those figures glowing in the porchlight's glare.
And although she believes them perfect, she won't recall them
twenty years hence, won't even notice
the impression she leaves on the sheets of a lover's bed.
76 Degrees more than a morning only a month ago.
On a day like today I first saw Lake Michigan gyrating its hips,
the force of melting ice a kind of intercourse
between the seasons, and I saw water and frost to the earth's curve; that's all.
The scent of sand, the breath of fresh water, the sweat
of my own weakness rising.
And Grand Haven's great concrete piers vibrated in the waves,
like blaming fingers toward Illinois
while the one light house erect, watchful,
and obsolete, stood firm--perfect for postcards and photos
in the manner of lighthouses seeded along the Eastern Seaboard
and the Pacific Shorefront. Still
water is different from other water; no two bodies the same--
I only kissed Jo once.
Tompkins Square Park. Early Spring.
The drums of handball games a few yards away--
four rubber balls meeting a concrete wall rapidly
--could've been my pulse.
How long might one want for a body,
years? decades even? Behindme there's just a series of calendar squares
like a sidewalk I've traveled.
The horizon all shadows and cumulonimbus like the abdomen of a procession.
Even the best of men second-guesses himself. The prophets.
Crane in the water, his lungs fighting, longing for the Lower East Side again,
or Shackleton, below deck on the Endurance
which lay shackled by ice to the Weddell Sea: did he wish the ship
had been commissioned to beat the U-boats
rather than this failed transantarctic trek.
Spring in the Northern hemisphere, already winter
by the South Pole, bay water freezing and the ice...
A garden of gargantuan crystalline chrysanthemums.
No, those salty growths from the ice floes
aren't attractive: gray masses mostly, although when the crystals
collect the doubled light of sun and sun-on-ice, even a place abandoned
by grass, city lights, and lovers may seem full of grace.
And as the silver shroud of evening gets pulled across the sky
what an improbable museum those salt sculptures must make--
a brigade of Lot's wives.
whose only sin was looking back.
The lines by Primo Levi appear in "The Thaw" from The Mirror Maker as translated by Raymond Rosenthal and published by Schocken Books, Inc.
The lines by Allen Grossman appear in "A Snowy Walk" from The Woman on the Bridge Over the Chicago River, published by New Directions Books.
The lines by Jean Valentine appear in "Snow Landscape in a Glass Globe" from Home Deep Blue, published by Alice James Books.
"The Long Drive Home from Club Soda to Comstock" is for Beth Staub.
The first line from "Variation on a First Line by Garcia Lorca" is from his poem, "The Faithless Wife" as translated by Stephen Spender and J.L. Gili in New Directions International’s The Selected Poems of Federico Garcia Lorca.
"Preparing for Game Seven of the Stanley Cup, 1994" is for Thomas Lux and my brother, Michael.
The information about Captain Sir Ernest Shackleton and his crew in"Endurance" and "Improbable Museum" comes from his published diaries of that Antarctic expedition, South: The Story of Shackleton's Last Expedition 1914-1917, Trafalgar Square Publishing. "Endurance" is for Alison.
I would like to thank the editors of the following magazines in which some of these poems have previously appeared: American Letters & Commentary, New Laurel Review, Sarah Lawrence Review, Seneca Review, and West Branch.
I would also like to thank the Irving Gilmore Foundation of Kalamazoo for a generous fellowship that made many of these poems possible, and I'd like to thank Thomas Lux, Cornelius Eady, Stephanie Strickland and Kate Knapp Johnson for their support and their vision. Lastly, all my gratitude goes out to Stuart Dybek for his support, advice, editorial help, and friendship.
Originally published by Back Porch Press, 1994.
ISBN # 0-9642273-2-0
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