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