series of curtains blowing in wind

Escape Hatches

Escape Hatches.

A writer has to get out of the way of a great poem.

It can barrel down your brain at three in the morning, announcing itself, demanding brashly that you wake up, pay attention.

It can arrive with less fanfare, creeping stealthily into a corner of your brain when least expected, while you’re on the expressway or in a fast food lineup, wholly intact, ready to deliver itself.

Some may be difficult to hold onto, like children running ahead of you in a playground. You can see them but they will not be corralled.

Others visit you fleetingly for but an instant, offering up a potent word, a loaded image, deftly uncovering a long forgotten moment.

They all ask the same, merely this: Take heed. Do it now. I  am already planning my escape.

 

vietnamese girl

If This Is Your Final Destination, Welcome Home

If This Is Your Final Destination, Welcome Home.

Always the smell of tiger balm
takes me back to Kuala Lumpur in 1980,
the sweltering airstrips,
the sea of expectant upturned faces
of the refugees waiting en masse
at the bottom of the airplane stairs,
on their way to Canada
and to second unimaginable lives.

Plane load after plane load,
week after week, three years running,
we ferried them across oceans.
After days and sometimes weeks
in crowded buses
they waited to be next in line,
these survivors of Pol Pot and
his merciless Khmer Rouge,
these witnesses of unimaginable horror.

We delivered them to Gander, to Montreal
and to Toronto,
away from all they had known,
everything they owned in small tidy bundles
at their feet.
We chose our words carefully
for the interpreter,
Trying to prepare them in some small way
for what lay ahead.

Where do you begin?
How do you tell someone how cold feels?
We played them music
we wanted them to hear,
hits of the day, Blondie, REO Speedwagon,
handed out sandwiches and Pampers
and wet naps.

They in turn watched our every move,
accepted anything given to them,
suspiciously at first,
then with vigorously nodding heads,
pouring forth their thanks,
holding up their solemn, silent babies proudly
for us to hold.

When we dimmed  the cabin lights,
hearing their guarded whispers
to one another,
sharing late night confessions in the dark
high above the ocean,
these people for whom
no sadness had gone unknown.

It was boarding them I remember most.
Even when I urged them
up the aircraft stairs, off the blistering tarmac,
beckoned them toward me,
they held back, tentative,
and only when I descended the stairs
took the first of them by the hand,
would they dare take the first step
toward this wild and inconceivable freedom.

I see their faces clearly now and I ask:
Who among us could possibly measure
the courage we asked of them.

olive garden

At what cost?

I’ve been thinking about social media a great deal. It is an unequaled tool for writers, manna from heaven actually as a way to connect with readers, old and new. But at what cost, I wonder? In its formidable wake, what is it that we are relinquishing?  

Are we forsaking the art of conversation? The glorious handwritten letter that flutters through the mailbox? The relaxed, cozy, stop and chat????

Here is a poem that resulted from my musings:

 

Bowed in Prayer.

At the Olive Garden on a Friday night, on my own,

I have just ordered the Tour of Italy and

notice the family huddled into a booth across the way,

six of them, three each side,

their heads collectively bowed over a cornucopia of glowing electronic boxes,

their fingers tapping away at microscopic keys,

the light reaching up to their faces at speeds

impossible to imagine.

So enchanted is the group with the cavalcade of data

pouring forth beneath them that I count a full two minutes

before any of them notices the waitress,

standing waiting at the head of their table.

Shall I come back, she asks graciously,

exhibiting a patience far above her pay scale.

 

Yeh, the one nearest to her finally pipes up,

the closest he’ll come to a conversation all weekend, 

and he didn’t even lift his head to say it.

schoolhouse sepia

So It Begins

So It Begins.

If I’m looking for the seeds of
my intolerance of injustice
I need look no further
than a Grade Nine girls’ only Health class.

Sister St. Cletus calling us up to the front,
two or three at a time, those still seated
charged with critiquing, in turn,
on a scale of one to ten,
each of the girls’ personal grooming.

The plump unkempt Rosario
newly arrived from Sicily suffered most.
The bookish pale Margaret also paid dearly.

It wasn’t just that the exercise was callous, arbitrary.
It was its pitting girl against girl for reasons entirely inconsequential,
the time and sheer energy it exacted,
the pitiful tears shed privately after,
when those same girls
could have been banding together and begin to
change the world.
I asked my friend Chuck what the boys did.
Turns out their Health class was held outdoors.
They ran the city streets in all weather,
he said proudly,
in matching shorts and tees,
a pack, cohesive,
strong
and growing stronger.

sea glass.

I Am a Poem

I was thinking about the sheer power of a poem this morning over my third coffee, watching the ebb and flow of the sea from my perch here in the main room. Ruminating on all that a fine poem can do, exactly what it can deliver to us. And this resulted.

 

I Am a Poem

 

I remember when you’ve long forgotten.

I return to you the details that still matter,

The ones that got lost along the way.

 

I tell your story.

My lines are your lines.

My words, entirely yours.

 

Exactly what it feels like to not be chosen.

That time you felt like giving up

And almost did.

Under a leaden sky one long ago winter morning

When he bid a cavalier goodbye.

Your saddest songs, your deepest regrets,

I hand them back to you, intact.

I resurrect them all.  

 

I hold fast to the anguished moments you find

too painful to remember.

I speak the words you are afraid to say.

I lay them bare.

 

I am holding fast to them all.

I am ready when you are.

I am a poem.

 

 

 

sky-2836161__480

And Something Else the Priests Never Mention

I get the feeling this is a way station.
Especially on days like this one when I think
this can’t be as good as it gets,
when I am 24th in line at the DMV
(I count to torture myself)
or when the robot’s soulless voice tells me my wait on hold
will be approximately 33 minutes.
But on the way to where exactly?
If it’s to wander mindlessly from cloud to cloud,
footless to boot, it would appear,
in shapeless generic shifts that by the way
do nothing for anyone unless they provided a belt
and even then,
I’m not exactly delighted with the quid pro quo.
Who among us would forsake a life of debauchery
for a reward that doesn’t include a simple flat screen,
let alone feet.
And wings that probably hurt, stuck on our back like that,
not to mention how do you clean them.
Don’t get me started on the whole halo thing.

I mean,
think about it.
crumpled paper

I Want Those Words

It’s one of those nights. Those nights when a poem I am struggling to write is just out of reach. The frustration lies in sensing its potential, the piece it might become, if I can only find the exact words. Through a series of drafts I look for the words.

And wrote this meanwhile to try and express how it feels…

 

I Want Those Words

Sometimes the words are not enough not nearly
enough and the language stalls right there in front of me
like a runner,
gasping and giving up. If only I could
tease out another alphabet that would carry in it what
I yearn to say, struggle to say about the way the nurse
dismissed her cavalierly that day in mid-sentence
as if she didn’t exist,
my mom.

Not the road-weary dog-eared chewed-up
chewed-over words. Not the tried, true, tired ones.
Other words, so much better, pitch perfect words,
incandescent spellbinders that strung together
make the reader nod her head and lit from within
with that magical moment of understanding, say:
Yes that’s right, I know now.
I want those words.

The ones behind invisible iron curtains and years of
Catholic school and Catholic guilt and my own fear.
The ones I cannot summon to describe meeting him that day,
how even the way he walked toward me told me everything.
The ones muscular enough to tease out,
commandeer the most elusive of feelings.
I want those words.

The words I don’t know. The ones I don’t even know
I don’t know.
The words just out of reach. The finest words.
The sublime.
I want those words.

bride

Clearing away the detritus…

Among my favorite poets writing today: Tony Hoagland. Few do it better. Who else could unearth a parallel between a blossoming dogwood and a bride ripping off her dress? He inspires us all to dig down a little deeper, to not be complacent. And asks us to pay attention to the things that truly matter after we clear away all the detritus.

 

A Color of the Sky

 

Windy today and I feel less than brilliant,

driving over the hills from work.

There are the dark parts on the road

when you pass through clumps of wood

and the bright spots where you have a view of the ocean,

but that doesn’t make the road an allegory.

 

I should call Marie and apologize

for being so boring at dinner last night,

but can I really promise not to be that way again?

And anyway, I’d rather watch the trees, tossing

in what certainly looks like sexual arousal.

 

Otherwise it’s spring, and everything looks frail;

the sky is baby blue, and the just-unfurling leaves

are full of infant chlorophyll,

the very tint of inexperience.

 

Last summer’s song is making a comeback on the radio,

and on the highway overpass,

the only metaphysical vandal in America has written

MEMORY LOVES TIME

in big black spraypaint letters,

which makes us wonder if Time loves Memory back.

 

Last night I dreamed of X again.

She’s like a stain on my subconscious sheets.

Years ago she penetrated me

but though I scrubbed and scrubbed and scrubbed,

I never got her out,

but now I’m glad.

 

What I thought was an end turned out to be a middle.

What I thought was a brick wall turned out to be a tunnel.

What I thought was an injustice

turned out to be a color of the sky.

 

Outside the youth center, between the liquor store

and the police station,

a little dogwood tree is losing its mind;

overflowing with blossomfoam,

like a sudsy mug of beer;

like a bride ripping off her clothes,

 

dropping snow white petals to the ground in clouds,

 

so Nature’s wastefulness seems quietly obscene.

It’s been doing that all week:

making beauty,

and throwing it away,

and making more.

sheep

Why I love children

I love their whimsy, how they abandon themselves to fun and are able to find it in almost all things. And how they have not the slightest fear of judgment or disdain.

In Tongue years ago, way up in the northernmost reaches of Scotland I popped in to a local shop. While browsing I spotted a wee lassie there with her father, dressed up in her lovely kilt, a matching tartan tam perched at an angle on her head.

She was curious about me – and watched me, as children will do – her eyes following me around the shop.

Standing alongside her I pointed to a tiny toy sheep displayed on the shelf, which was dressed comically in a full perfect tuxedo.

I asked her, quietly: “Now what would a sheep be doing dressed in a tux?”

She thought about it and then announced, seriously:

“Maybe he’s goin’ tae a weddin’.”

rotary phone

Missed Calls

I remember even now how it would feel

when you wouldn’t call.

Cursing the ugly faded pink rotary phone

sitting mute at the desk on the landing.

I grew to hate that phone. Its insolence.

Its deadness.

 

I left the light off on the desk to lessen expectation,

tried not to listen for it

not ringing,

lifting the receiver every ten minutes.

Maybe a power outage, a felled tree limb,

slamming it down again.

 

I hated you for all of it,

for this stranger I had become,

saddling me with a rejection so deep

I can still hear the deafening sound of that phone

not ringing.