Click to listen… https://youtu.be/C53vVIfxwdk
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 plane’s stairs,
on their way to Canada
and to second lives.
Plane load after plane load,
week after week, four 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 survivors of unimaginable horror.
We delivered them 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 the cabin lights dimmed,
hearing their guarded whispers to one another
sharing late night confessions in the dark,above the ocean,
these people for whom nothing on earth
could be surprising.
Even when I urged them up the aircraft stairs,
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 unimaginable freedom.
I see their faces clearly now and I ask:
Who among us could possibly measure
the courage we asked of them.
Click and listen here. https://youtu.be/6ujj9r1Ywho
Here is the poem’s text.
The Once and Future Beauty Queens.
At the A&P in my first part-time job
it was the full time cashiers I studied most.
They seemed savvy and
at 16 I was looking for ways to be.
I watched them on breaks from my corner perch
in the crowded airless lunchroom, upstairs in the back,
all smoking roll-your-owns, laughing nervously at the men’s crude jokes,
carefully picking stray flakes of tobacco off their crimsoned lips,
in this small northern town looks their only currency.
The older women like Evelyn were quiet, would light one off the other,
eyes on the clock, sullen,
counting down their moments of freedom
and how many they could power through before time was up.
Laughing the loudest was Shirley, the head cashier, smarter than the rest.
Her lipstick bled all day on a slightly trembling mouth,
her deep well of sadness pouring forth even as she laughed,
this one-time looker, this prom queen gone wrong.
The story went her husband beat her,
but never where the marks would show.
I can still smell the place,
the filthy overcrowded fridge packed with
meatloaf sandwiches and last night’s chili,
Dutch the butcher’s apron soaked in blood,
his cuticles caked red.
The sounds come back clearly too,
breaking apart our folded white cotton uniforms stiff with starch,
the click of the pricing guns resounding up and down the aisles,
the funereal clunk of time cards being punched at the top of the stairs,
the defeat in Evelyn’s voice over the crackling p.a. system,
calling wearily “All parcellers to the front.”
And how there was a pecking order to everything, even this:
How the prettiest girls were the first to get help at their tills,
young boys rushing into their stalls behind them,
as horses into gates,
eager to package groceries every Friday night
for the current beauty queens.
There is no glory in suffering.
Father Blackwell got it all wrong.
Ask the young martyrs
How much good ever came from their deprivation,
Their unspeakable deaths.
The suicide bomber looking up at a cloudless blue sky on his final walk.
What is his family’s honor to him then.
My father, grasping at air for his tissue paper lungs,
What greater good was ever served.
The faithful dog who licks his master’s hand
Only to be beaten again.
The teenage mother who surrendered her baby girl from her hospital bed,
When she passes a young woman in a stairwell years later,
And stares into a face hauntingly like her own,
As her heart breaks yet again,
Who did as she was told,
Where is the glory now?
This is one in a series of pandemic poems I’ve written since my initial quarantine. Many of the pieces that have resulted are unlike anything I’ve written before but it’s entirely understandable, of course. These times are unlike any we’ve known before.
The title of the piece is “Captive Audience” and stems from a dream I had a few nights ago. My dream held the seeds of the ideas and images I express here but as ever it is an inexplicable combination of elements that conspire to inspire. I wish it was as simple as just recording a dream I’ve had, which has happened to many writers. Amazingly, Kubla Khan came that way to Samuel Taylor Coleridge.
Here is the text of the poem:
The world is sharing a recurring dream.
Every night we fall asleep
and take up the very same challenge.
All of us are running for our lives
across a parched landscape,
shoulder to shoulder
in an endless line.
An elusive shape pursues us from behind.
We know not why.
All we hear as we race forward is the person next to us,
and the thunder of our thousands of feet
pounding the ground beneath.
Some of us tire more easily, falter, rest,
We are united in a common purpose,
In knowing there is nothing for us
but the outrunning of this,
Every time we glance backward
the specter looms closer,
changing shape with each turn of our heads.
One minute a tumbleweed six stories high,
made not of brush
but of thick snarled barbed wire.
Next, feral beasts snarling at our heels,
then, above our heads, out-sized birds of prey filling the skies,
circling ever closer.
Tomorrow night our predator will reappear,
In this same dream
all of us share a wish.
To awaken in our beds tomorrow morning,
having returned to the world
we once so blithely shared,
each of us knowing
all of it,
only a dream.
Michelangelo said the work of art awaited him beneath the slab of marble, the task for him being merely to uncover it.
In my own small way I understand that mentality as I write these days. The poem I know is “possible” waits patiently beyond the first tentative lines of a succession of drafts, across a murky divide, and with luck and patience perhaps I will reach it, reveal all that it might be. But it is fleet footed and elusive and a task master, each and every time.
Here is one I wrote recently that felt exactly like that.
I should have bought gold.
Written that idea down.
Paid more attention.
I wonder lately where everyone has gone.
Why the most important never
quite makes the list.
And why enormous changes are so often required
at the very last minute
with no chance to catch our breath.
I wonder lately where everyone has gone
and why I stood by.
and this most of all
if even for a moment
I made someone happy.
She was impossibly beautiful, astoundingly poised. She was, on that summer evening as she stood by the camp fire, perfect.
There are moments in our lives that change us and how we see ourselves forever. There are also people that have that same effect on us. Yvonne who I write about here, was one of those people in my life.
Here is text of the poem:
A barbecue and swim after work had brought us together
around the campfire that summer evening,
An impromptu thing teenagers do best:
You bring the beer. I’ll bring the chips.
I watched her run up from the water laughing.
As I write this her name comes back to me: Yvonne.
Fresh from her swim she stood close to the fire
in her tiny yellow bikini
drying her waist-length sheet of onyx-colored hair with a towel.
She seemed so utterly assured of herself in the task at hand,
so composed for a young girl,
tossing her head languidly from side to side
then taking a large hounds tooth comb and slowly
pulling it through
that glorious hair of hers.
She must have known we all followed her every move,
couldn’t help but know it by the silence
that had enveloped her ritual,
the flames casting an unreal glow on that hair,
that perfect form and face.
The men particularly stared in awe
at this goddess from Okinawa
who’d ended up in our backwater
of all places,
in their midst.
I watched the men’s faces watching her
knowing even at 16 I would never possess the audacity
that was Miss Yvonne Tsubone’s that night,
and for as long as it lasted,
that which comes from sheer and absolute
a calling card that says,
I am perfect just as I am:
what I am is
What is this world of yours you speak of,
Where people touch, without reserve,
Stand shoulder to shoulder,
Dance cheek to cheek,
Join hands in circles at weddings,
Share spoons and pieces of cake,
Whisper secrets up close,
Hold elevator doors.
Share with me
This world you speak of.
You must tell me more.
Spare no detail.
Help me to imagine.
Here is text of the poem –
The Things I Learned as a Bartender
There is no such thing as the perfect martini.
Jazz musicians make lousy tippers.
A couple can walk in fighting and after two shots of tequila
hold each other for dear life on the dance floor
like they did in high school.
A woman doesn’t notice her date’s drink order
as much as how he treats the waitress.
No matter how cool the pickup line
women want kind.
Even with nothing to gain
people can be small and mean.
A table of plastic surgeons
can be more obnoxious, abusive than
a convention of professional wrestlers.
The plain girl alone at the end of the bar
has an achingly beautiful story
no one will hear.
The busboy with the bad skin.
His will also go untold.
Some people cannot be reached.
The hulking cab driver
who climbed the back stairs for his double cheeseburger
every night at 8:30, month after month,
stayed mute, no eye contact. He’d pay with a twenty
and wave away the change.
Leave without a word.
From him I learned
it’s impossible to imagine
all the damage done.
The sun was hotter:
You can tell.
Look at the people squinting against it in photos then.
Everything washed out by glare:
Faces, thoughts, nuance,
all detail surrendered.
We could be anybody.
The backyards are parched,
Look at them.
It hurt to walk on the grass.
We lay in barren backyards
chain-smoking and eating fluorescent cheesies,
swilling scarlet soda.
We slathered butter on our chests.
Everyone was burned raw.
Everyone looked happy.
Nothing could go wrong.
Caution was ahead of us,
Men were above us,
landing on the moon.