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A poem by Tricia McCallum entitled Hard Won. Photo of a woman from behind climbing subway stairs.

Hard Won

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,
Graciously succumbing,
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,

Ask her
As her heart breaks yet again,
Who did as she was told,
Where is the glory now?

A poem by Tricia McCallum May 11, 2020. A parched windswept landscape in sepia tone with a large bare tree in foreground.

Captive Audience

 

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:

Captive Audience

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,
breathing,
and the thunder of our thousands of feet
pounding the ground beneath.

Some of us tire more easily, falter, rest,
start again.
We are united in a common purpose,
In knowing there is nothing for us
but the outrunning of this,
together.

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,
transformed,
yet again.

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
it was,
all of it,
only a dream.

A poem by Tricia McCallum. May 8, 2020. P{rofile photo of a young ginger haired girl.

Reset

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.
Slept less.
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.
I wonder
and this most of all
if even for a moment
I made someone happy.

I read my poem “Enough.”

 

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:

Enough

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
that night,
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
physical beauty,
a calling card that says,
without words:
I am perfect just as I am:
what I am is
enough.

 

 

 

Pandemic Poems: A series.

Imaginings

What is this world of yours you speak of,
Where people touch, without reserve,
Or caution.
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.
None.
Help me to imagine.

Reading my poem “The Island Dog.”

 

The Island Dog

He is everyone’s;
Yet he is no one’s.
Vacationers arrive, discover him,
Dote on him for two weeks,
then disappear.

He is their holiday project
A story they’ll tell over dinner at home.
Some allow him in, to sleep at the foot of their beds,
to guard their front door,
Some even toy with the idea of a rescue,
Could we, should we? Shots? Papers?
Questions asked,
with the exuberance of the relaxed and the happy,
but as the time to leave draws near,
Reality encroaches, the idea stalls.

A new band takes their place,
The island dog waits,
Knowing it will take only one,
One, to give him a name that won’t change,
One, to call it out in the dark
should he wander too far.
One, to call to him
and him alone:
Come home.

The Things I Learned as a Bartender: My video.

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.

 

 

Hear me reading my poem “Thirst. “

 

Thirst

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.

A poem by Tricia McCallum. Entitled Once Trite, Now Wise. April 2020., A tightly wrapped peony bud with aphid atop it.

Once Trite, Now Wise

The everyday extraordinary
Abounds.
As it ever did.
Biding its time until we stop,
Until we notice.

The tiny unheralded jewels nested within our daily lives
That we rushed past, cavalier,
Oblivious.
With no time for the smaller movement,
The goal-less.

We were hell bent on destinations.
Headed to the best seller, the top ten.
There were judgments to render, texts to send.
None of which we remembered
Five minutes after.

Now,
Pause to discover
It is not only the peony in delicious full bloom
That deserves our attention.
Bend down and inspect the tightly wrapped, sleeping bud
Just as it is,
Soon to swarm with the manic aphids that will allow it to be
All it can be.

Watch the dog watching the squirrel.
How the clouds above change shape even as we look away.
The sad supermarket cashier who will remember your smile.
It’s not the goal, it’s the journey.
Once trite, now wise.
Did you know Margaret Atwood also wrote poetry?

a poem by Tricia McCallum. April 12, 2020. Old photos in a shoe box.

Easter Morning, Once

A new dress, even if it had been my sister’s.
Helmet-like perms, and all of us
in soft white cotton gloves, with vertical ridges stitched in
above each knuckle, so they stood up,
like Mickey Mouse’s on Saturday mornings.
The matching hats were courtesy of Jackson’s Department Store’s bargain bin,
Fill a basket, five bucks out the door,
their out-sized pink and blue plastic daisies haphazardly attached,
head wear designed for the deranged.

Our conspiratorial looks as we were herded together
for the obligatory snapshot, sentries,
shivering,
on the stone steps after Mass,
the sunlight harsh on a still-frigid April morning,
our flimsy ethereal dresses of Swiss dot, atop stiff crinolines
lofting in the wind.

Embarrassed by my sturdy white knee socks,
I yearned for the silk stockings
worn by my older sisters, who flanked me.
The three of us stationed solemnly behind
our younger brother, happy to form his own line,
quietly proud of his clip on bow-tie and tartan vest
and perfectly pressed little wool trousers.

Chins up! Stand straight! came the reprimands,
but not one of us listened.
At least one child would turn her head away that day
just as the shutter clicked.
Another would squint unbecomingly against the glare.

And the third, the face of the third girl
would show to the camera a look of such sadness
as is unimaginable in one so young.

Now the photo retrieved, scrutinized,
one of dozens piled haphazardly
in this battered shoe-box,
the sorting job no one ever took on,
these celluloid witnesses to our lives.
Its edges scalloped like icing on a cake,
bearing hairline cracks, some of our heads and limbs
torn asunder,
the truest chronicle of those years,
forensic in its revelations,
bringing with it the simple message
that each of us might have done better
if we’d only known how.

Writer and Poet

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Tricia McCallum

Always be a poet. Even in prose.
Charles Baudelaire.

In essence I am a storyteller who writes poems. Put simply, I write the poems I want to read.[…]

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