From: Running the Voodoo Down (Elixir Press, 2003)

 

Black Ice 

                    Those stories of an entire life

flashing by in seconds – lies – all the stories

are lies. What you remember when the black ice

on the black asphalt of Route 87 levitates

your car, offers it to the dead stars, and leaves you

confused between the air and wild rock face

of Upstate New York, what you remember

 

is the train station in Cuernavaca. You’re standing

next to Roceria. Diesel fuel,

roses, and vanilla tangle in your nose as her black jungle

of hair brushes goodbye across your face. What you think

about as the car bounces off the guardrail

and marches backward down the cliff to the cadence

of metal shredding, what you think about

 

is your last breakfast in Mexico, the way her tiny wrist

sprinkles chili powder over grapefruit

while the sunrise falls in red grains through the green trees.

You’ve never seen anyone do that before and you wonder

how the memory of spice can ripen

the memory of sweetness so much

that six thousand miles and thirty years later,

when the car finally stops spinning,

all you can taste as you bite through your lip

is the warm, metallic flow of regret. 

 

 

           Generation Gap

 

When the moon is full my son transforms

himself. He and his friends leave

white suburbia behind by simply driving

their Levis four inches down below the waist,

steering stocking caps over straight hair,

and playing rap songs through devices they mistakenly

call “sub-wolfers.” Our neighbors, unaccustomed

to loud thumps accompanied by strings

of words that rhyme with bitch, cock, gat, and clit,

have called the cops four times.

“What makes you want to be someone you’re not?”

I asked my son right before

shutting the circuit breaker to his room down

and chasing his friends out.

His lips made sounds like bees buzzing – ism –

ism – ism – ism - Schism my gism.

But, misplaced Ebonics won’t answer the same question

I couldn’t answer for myself on a spring night in ‘66.

          After I throttled one recalcitrant burst of acne 

into submission and wiped it away with Stridex,

after my parents handed me a set of vinyl luggage

and a bus ticket to some faraway private college

and after Mona refused to jack me off in the driver’s seat

of my ’57 Belair because she was left-handed, I walked

into darkness with that question, like plasma, pulsing

          through my mind. Before the night ended my friends

          and I stole a case of beer from the Humphrey’s

          back porch and drank till the stars exploded

                     in bursts of pepperoni pizza over Converse high tops.

          We screamed “get fucked” at a State Trooper

          as we sailed past the old refinery on Highway 41

          in a ’63 Dodge Charger borrowed from my father,

          top-ended and almost sobered by the wind at 110 mph.

         We swam the White River naked, each one daring

         the others to go first. And I did, as if the habit of being led

         had suddenly become my own desire and the distance

         between this shore and that one might be measured

         in breast strokes and ragged breath alone, without regard

         for current, snags, or a tricky undertow. I wanted

         to be someone else if only for a moment, to scream at the world

        “You don’t scare me” and show my friends

         that slight tilt of the head, the arrogance

         of young manhood that threatened to drown us all.

 

 

THE MEMORIAL WALL

 

- Of what benefit to me is the multitude of your sacrifices?

says Jehovah.

I have had enough of whole burnt offerings and the fat of

well-fed animals; and in the blood of young bulls

and male lambs and he goats

I have taken no delight. - Isaiah 1:11

 

 

 

                                            1 - ARRIVAL

 

            You said Quang Tri was quiet when compared to Detroit

            on Saturday night. I, being corn fed, believed you.

            “Quiet as an old whore’s bedroom,” you said,

            until the first whistle exploded and spilled

            a mouthful of Tiger beer down my chin,

            spraying the bolt on my new M-16. You grinned.

 

            That smirk calmed all my fears

            born in a place where ten seconds was a lifetime.

            We lunged into a bunker when the next shell hit,

            puppy clumsy. Like kids playing football,

            chasing a fumble, we laughed, tumbling into darkness.

 

                                        2 - HALFWAY HOME

 

            Rice wine burned us both, but opium seared the marrow

            from your boyish conscience.

            Disappointed, you asked why I’d fired too far left.

            The kid was pulling up his pants, an easy target

            in the twilight. He reminded me of a robin I’d shot

            with my BB gun, squatting, pecking the wet ground

            unaware of my existence, or its own thin mortality.

            I was ten then and crying.

 

            Your smile froze after six months in that country,

            hiding a heart hardened by a dozen firefights

            and memories sewn into body bags.

            Those eyes, glistening with assurance,

            connecting us as brothers, barely flickered

            through Thai stick smoke and a Dexedrine haze.

            Reeking of white phosphorus and cordite,

            you swore that only housecats killed for pleasure.

 

                                        3 - SHORT TIME

 

            It seems Monsoons came each day those last weeks

            just to wash the blood away.

            When our mortars hit the marketplace,

            the barber’s child died. Some stains

            don’t wash, like the memory of a sobbing man

            whose only crime was cutting hair.

 

            That’s when I knew you were going home early.

            The child’s charred flesh made you unholy,

            and the shortest distance from Vietnam to Detroit

            was through blood atonement - your life for our sins.

            When the shot popped, like a pricked balloon,

            I realized you had fired it.

            But, I screamed SNIPER to the corpsman,

            so your parents could be telegrammed – HERO - stop.

            Prying the rifle from your suicidal fingers, I thought,

            you should have squeezed the trigger, not jerked it.

            A clean headshot, instead of my right palm,

            could have closed your eyes.

                                        

                                        4 - AFTERMATH

 

            We both flew home as casualties,

            you in your coffin, me with my guilt.

            You still deny me absolution

            because you took the easy way back, Rick.

            The dirt that covers your body now

            fills my mind.

            Each time I reach for some liturgy

            to chant, some Eucharist to swallow

            to understand your sacrifice, to bring sanity

            inside the empty sound of a spring rain, I gag.

 

            Here, in my kitchen, drinking cheap whiskey

            like my mom sent us years ago in shoe boxes,

            I grasp for some boundary.

            If only I could leave you there in Washington, D.C.

            on a black stone scarred with carved letters

            and the tears of your children, unborn and unnamed.

 

 

 

From: When the Stars Go Dark (Main Street Rag Select Poetry Series, 2009)

 

   In Memoriam: Hunter S. Thompson

 

Time held me green and dying

though I sang in chains like the sea.

 

--Dylan Thomas

 

After all, it was HST not JFK, so I graded freshman essays

the day he put a bullet through his cruel, drug-crazed gonzo genius,

 

and sipped bourbon from a square glass while birds and barren trees

mocked the passing of a generation that wanted to get life right

 

but never did, that fought a war then fought a war to end the war,

that blessed and cursed itself as caretaker of its own mortality.

 

Then, I imagined Hunter alone, the wind lifting the skirt of his mind

to expose his hope, numbed and withered by the constant wash

 

of chemicals through his addled blood, his hope that if misery fuels

self-destruction, then so must love. You know, the kind of love

 

forcing children to stick their hands in beehives and grope for honey,

driving men to wander river banks late at night, counting stars, listening

 

as the waves from coal barges break over frozen stones on the cut bank

in the warm rhythm of a young woman’s heartbeat, the kind of love

 

that brings a boy to the front of a moving tank in Tiananmen Square,

a girl to give up her child, a soldier to fall on a grenade, the feeling

 

hidden in us all that something exists somewhere more worthy

than the self. This is what finally killed Hunter Thompson, not bullets,

 

                      not drugs, not even the indifference of new generations. It’s the same

                      cross that Jesus chose to hang on, the same need to fuel the myth

 

of love that grants us grace beyond our own humanity, if only in shadows,

like a moonflower opens its petals and bears its soul to the darkness. 

 

 

 

               The Pursuit of Knowledge

 

                        It begins by counting ceiling tiles during a lecture on fossils.

                           Semouria is a reptilomorph named for a town in Texas.

                           Winged lizards nested on the ground, unlike bats.

                        Straight-ankle thecodants evolved into crocodiles,

                            then humans.

 

                        I’m learning these facts because I want to become

                        a civilized man. In fact, I knew a thecodant

                           in Okinawa with perfect ankles.

                           Her neck smelled like jasmine and vanilla.

                        For an extra dollar, she whispered the name of my first love

                           when I climaxed. I think I chose Karen.

           

                        Anapsid, synapsids, and diapsids may have been warm blooded.

 

                        The professor’s voice flutters along the walls,

                            a disconnected shadow in fluorescent light

                            and the girl sitting in the chair next to me is warm,

                            is no fossil. She smells like honeysuckle,

                           her hair, the laces of vines in my mind

                           that must be gently parted to reach a thought.

                          Her sighs distract me. They sound like spring rain

                          kissing a small lake.

 

                          Vocalization among different groups of dinosaurs

                           would strongly suggest some kind of social interaction

.

                        Beside the blackboard, the professor chants his mantra.

                        I hear the NVA in the streets of Hue

                        during Tet of ’68 before their immolation.

                        I can still smell the cordite and feel the heat

                        as we marched the tracer rounds up the pavement

                        in perfect cadence with the screams.

 

                        Some cataclysmic event ended their reign over earth.

                        All we have left are fragments of their bones.

 

    I’m learning to keep some knowledge from myself,

    pretending, as it creeps back into my consciousness,

    I’m someone else, an actor in a play

    inspired by neither character, nor plot as much

    as the numb vacancy in my own voice and my skill at being

    what I’m not, perfectly.

 

 

 

                       When the Stars Go Dark

 

                       There are no stars out tonight

                       in the alley behind Maidlow’s liquor store.

                       Here, Charley Waters used to lean

                       against another old veteran of WWII

                       way back in the 60’s when I’d come

                       down the block after high school

                       civics class and give him my allowance.

                      “You ain’t old enough to drink,” he’d say,

                       buying me a quart of Sterling beer and himself

                       a fifth of Thunderbird to quench his guilt.

                       They’d sip the wine, he and his buddy,

                       without saying a word, staring upward,

                       waiting for stars to pop through

                       the dusk like white kernels of kettle corn.

 

                       I’m in this alley decades later to piss

                       on the whitewashed wall and look

                       for those same stars. I’ve done it before,

                       bought bourbon and snuck out here

                       always to wonder, going to my car

                      as those blooms, some ice and some fire,

                     flowered somewhere in the distant darkness,

                     what Charley found in the vacuum

                     of the universe that caused

                     tears to swell in his blank eyes.

 

                     I almost had it once when I first came home

                     numb from Vietnam, a shadow in the primal brain

                     forming a vague shape,

                    gathering substance as it seeped

                    through me like hot tar,

                    that connection we've all had and lost

                    with our one beginning.

 

                    Tonight, it’s possible to imagine again

                    when all that’s above me is a black

                    well of nothing hung on nothing.

                    What connects us is our loneliness

                    tearing through the endless sky,

                    arms outstretched begging the darkness

                    for a glimpse of those same stars

                   that always made Charley Waters cry.

 

From: Breakfast at Denny’s (Ink Brush Press, 2013)

 

Interstate 24

 

I’m forty-nine miles from Chattanooga

stumbling through the radio in my pick-up truck

searching for noise to take away the ceaseless buzz

of tread bare Goodyear tires. Like a shark,

inertia drives me crazy. I decide a burred bearing

sounds better than Michael Buble & settle on a female

preacher who whines, “Beer is the real problem”

& I think of Jesus, his blanched bones scattered,

his soul in a make believe place, flesh desiccated

so our apathy matters. Jesus - wanting

only a draft or two of Pabst Blue after a hard day

with hammer & nails & blisters trying to carpenter

something solid, yet knowing nothing

of how to build paradise. Then, cousin John

coaxes him to a stream, holds his head under water,

deprives his brain of air till god appears as a dove.

That’s when Jesus ends up hung on a stake, a carcass

of transubstantiation  so the rest of us can feed on his misery

with our Inquisitions & Crusades, jihads & dead Jews,

televangelists who love meth & priests who love little boys.

Hell, we can’t get ourselves born without originally sinning.

Then, a revelation comes in a blinding flash of lights

from a semi in the wrong lane, kinda like that time

when old apostle Paul fell off his mule on the road

to Damascus. Bang! This radio lady’s bat-shit crazy

and no lady, beer ain’t the real problem.

 

 

A Savage Cup of Coffee                     

 

This barista brings out the animal in me. You might think it has to do with the way her nipples stretch the red tee shirt or the precise cross hatching of her braided hair. Sure, her glide between the coffee machine and the pastry case, like a ballerina in sneakers one second and a stripper on a pole the next, flogs my old blood into adolescent frenzy. When she breaks and sits next to me, knees tucked beneath her chin as calyx for the blossom of her face, cinnamon overwhelms the room. But, this is all romantic crap – really. When I admit to savage lust not romance, the owner of this faux-beatnik coffee house full of unread books and strange paintings takes offense at my use of the word “savage” and deems me racist toward Indians – not the kind of Indians who design rocket guidance systems or own all of America’s motels, but rather the kind with buckskins and buffalo or feathers and arrows, the Lone Ranger’s Tonto kind and HBO’s Squanto kind, the Indians that suffer from the detritus of Manifest Destiny. It seems this person grew up on a reservation. You know, one of those sterile, hopeless, desert prisons where we white folk cage the ugly part of our history. Yet, my urge to pluck this innocent – or maybe not so pure – barista from her seat and run my lips across her silken neck until her breathing gets heavy and rapid does not seem to me reserved for red men. My ancestors lived in Ireland before time. With blue painted faces and feral cries they clubbed enemies to death and laughed at the lamentations of their women. I want my own savagery respected.  

 

An Ordinary Man Goes Shopping at Kroger’s

(no more to use the sky forever but live with famine and pain a few short days.)

                                                    Robinson Jeffers from “Hurt Hawks”       

 

Between the basmati rice and the garbanzo beans

an urge for chaos nested in his brain waiting

to hatch a scream. What drove this need

that would embarrass him and frighten shoppers?

Was it the woman who dropped the ketchup bottle

and left the floor bleeding or his own image

in the angled mirrors above the shelves?

Reflection is the mirror’s way of dreaming.

Once he dreamed a white tiger in Vietnam, a sign

his whole patrol claimed was only fog until the roar.

 

From the seafood aisle the stench of fish forced him

to the produce section. Even there, the sweet scent

of overripe Kiwis and organic oranges felt tragic

in a feral wake of swarming fruit flies and housewives.  

The idea of screaming filled his mind

with  inner consistency. He could prove

all that he believed, and believed

all that he could prove. When does the habit

of pretending faith become the habit of faith?

 

Intoxicated

Trees list left

When they drink the wind

 

He had a student who wrote haikus and joined the army.

Her favorite poem they read in class was “Hurt Hawks,”

she confessed in an email from Iraq on the same day

shrapnel severed her spinal chord. Her smile among

a group of teens hoping to buy a case of beer

paralyzed his quest for sound. Hushed by memory,

he filled his cart with cottage cheese and frozen dinners.

 

What is left over

Is carried

In math and in life

 

A stirring in the ancient sea, where he had come from

nothing and all, where the currents connected him to life

before and after time, almost gave him voice.

The line from a poem took it away.

 

 

http://bittersoutherner.com/bitter-southerner-poetry-vol-2#.U-fX_st0yM8

 

http://www.greenbriarreview.com/McGarrah--Jim_3-Poems.html

 

http://poetryofrecovery.blogspot.com/2013/01/poem-from-jim-mcgarrahs-new-collection.html