Life

Contents
A Black Poem

And Death Walked a Few Steps Behind
The Gold Miner’s Industry
The Heat
Hope
The Hopeful and the Damned
The Housefire
The Poet’s Qualifications

The Prison
The Rope Fence of the Pastel Houses
Salted
The Stars Above

Steady Winds and Blooming Flowers
Thinking on Thought

Torture
Washington, D.C. at Dusk

What Happened by the Half-Light
When Your Back is to the Wall


A Black Poem
There are many things that go bump in the night:
Monsters and coal stoves can cause us some fright.
There are creaky old floors and loose attic fans,
Leaves in the wind, and tumbling garbage cans.
But sometimes you’re sleeping and a missile will roar,
Like those over England in the Second World War.
And that, my darling, is when I’ll come for you,
When the night is stygian, colored deep black and dark blue,
You’ll see, my friend, by the light of a bomb,
My grin broad and lethal, my eyes full of calm,
And I’ll crook a green finger for you to come here,
And when you reach my side, then it’s Death for you, dear.
For that is my name, my ancient job, my old trade,
I’m the one who waits by the road in the glade,
I’m the one who whispers your one and true name,
The one who ignores both your money and fame,
I’m the one to watch out for, by town or by cave,
I’m the one to spirit you along to your grave.


And Death Walked a Few Steps Behind
Well, I walk hand-in-hand with Life,
And Death walks a few steps behind,
And wherever I go, and wherever I lead,
Death is sure to follow.
So I had a few words a few years ago,
With that reaper known as Death.
I said, “So long as you’re coming wherever I go,
I’ll go wherever I want.”
He said in reply, “That’s a very fine view,
Just keep in mind, my friend:
When your time comes,
I’ll take you away,
You cannot run too far or too fast.”
So I nodded and considered,
And I went on my way.
And Death walked a few steps behind.


The Gold Miner’s Industry
Under the naphtha torch’s light lie tailings of ore.
Shadows flicker on a collapsed mine shaft
Which fell one night like a melancholy piano score
On men whose lungs tore each time they laughed.

And here the mercury man’s shop stands on mud.
His skin’s peeling off. His ankles are deathly thin.
He washes gold in a mercury-filled pan of wood
Then sets that metal in fire to burn away its silver skin.

What will become of him?
He will work for little, until he dies.
He will lie, cold and grim,
Amid the gold that draws our eyes.


The Heat
In this heat,
With the cicadas buzzing
Like chainsaws
And the dogs panting
Like lovers
There is nothing to do
But sweat
And sleep
Sweat
And sleep
Sweat
And sleep
Until you wash yourself
In the warm ocean
Until the rain falls
And turns the land green
Until the moon rises
And the heat
Like a cat
Curls up for a nap.
And then, only then,
Can you breathe.


Hope
He’s got nowhere to go
Nothing to live for
Nothing left to show
Nothing in his core

He walks like a ghost
Silent, unseen
Like something from the past
That might never have been.

Now the wind in the alley
Blows paper in the gutter
There’s shadows in the valley
And a dark rumbling mutter.

It’s another cold night
In this cruel broken place
With unlit street lights
On each haggard face.

Now arrives dawn
The treacherous night ends again
We start with a yawn
Then hurl ourselves in.


The Hopeful and the Damned
We are some of us moths flying into flame,
Burned and burning yet unable to give a damn,
Propelled by a force we cannot name
To escape, to wander this wondrous land.
We set off, in uneven times, with a strangled cry,
despite a prudent fear of the unknown,
There is sure loss of life for those that will not try
To flee the far, far greater peril of the known.
There’s risk in staying still: yawning to death,
Softening, or miserable suffocation.
Such hope for new life and free breath,
Brings us, panting, to the platform of a station.
And God knows we miss some things left behind:
The work unfinished, the plans unstarted,
Sentimental things, a cherished friend so kind,
The people and the animals, the heavenly departed.
But life is short. It is astoundingly, unflinchingly short.
It is but a blink in the universe, here and then gone,
It flashes by so quickly there is little time to sort
The nursery from the hospice, the sunset from the dawn.


The Housefire
She had skin
As smooth
As a watermelon’s
And eyes
As bright
As butterflies.
She stood,
Frozen for a moment,
With her mouth open,
So that her round white teeth
And the tip of her pretty
Pink tongue
Were just visible.

Her arm was outstretched,
Like a medusa
Under a deep sea.

I could understand her.

I suppose that’s
How
I might stand too
If I came home,
And I, like her,
Found my home
Burning.


The Poet’s Qualifications
An able word-smithy
Should be quite pithy
And must write well
For his clientele.
He ought to feel deep sadness,
understand madness,
And have some humor
For his consumer—
Because nothing beats levity
Except, of course, brevity. 


The Prison
It was just a little prison,
But its walls were hard as iron
And its jailers were resolute bastards.
They hung men, day and night,
Hung them even in my dreams
So that as I lay sleeping, fearful,
I watched ghostly rebels
Swinging by their necks,
Dozens of them,
Swinging through the mists,
From nightmare gallows.

It was just a little prison,
But it kept me from being free.
It stopped me from doing
The things that I wanted to do.

It was just a little prison,
But I made it bigger
With bricks of fear
And mortar made of doubt.
The bars were of ignorance,
And I paved the floor
With missed opportunity.
I roofed the ceiling
With a broad sheet of discomposure
That covered up the sky.
Because why the hell not?
I thought I might as well.
I can’t see any distance anyway,
When I lose my temper.

It was just a little prison,
But at least I was my own warden,
And my own jailer too.
I could deny those visitors,
Courage and wisdom.
It was just a little prison,
But I made it
All by myself.


The Rope Fence of the Pastel Houses
I pass a seashell of no significance
as I follow the curves of a whitewashed fence
and the uneven coastline of the sea.

The fence is jagged, hardly even, somewhat ragged,
with braided rope in place of slats,
stretching further than I can see.

Above my head, squawking shrilly, are hoary seagulls on the wing—
circling, circling, flitting, snatching, snatching at a crust of bread
then aloft again to form a ring.

And in the distance, softly scratching their stemmed backs upon the posts,
are coastal grasses, likely latching their seeds upon white painted posts,
for the wind to blow and foster breeding.

To my left are pastel houses, built on stilts with reading nooks
and oriels for those with books
to put their backs to while they thumb through pages of Of Mice and Men.

While from a cattail, singing sweetly, warbles warmly the gentle wren
Brown and round and barred so drably, yet still considered very fair,
The pleasant wren makes moving music then flies upon a gust of air.

I continue on my road, whistling with the wandering wind,
Going just as quickly as those folk who have in mind no certain end,
And speaking with an amiable neighbor, I’m kindly told a thing or two
That when traveling over any distance, it’s but common sense to enjoy the view.


Salted
There’s no place I’d rather be
Than here by the sea
Where the birds are singing all day.
All my worries and cares
Drift away on sea airs
And I’m left to do nothing but play.

The world may be burning
And it’s certainly turning
But here every day feels the same.
I wake and I write
From morning to night
And at times I forget my own name.


The Stars Above
And when I to suit my fancy lie
Beneath the tree and darkened sky
And watch with wondering eyes the stars
That glimmer through the night’s short hours
And find there the constellations bright
With Grecian myths of astral light
I wonder if in the twinkling air
There might be other life up there
For while I lay thinking on our great world
One not much larger than an azure pearl
I send my thoughts to a far, empyrean shore
Where no manmade craft has gone before
And stretching out my hand and mind
I hope to greet one of like kind
One whose curiosity about space
Extends beyond the limits of their race
And lets them dream of far-off lands
With quiescent oceans and rocky sands


Steady Winds and Blooming Flowers
To be convinced of the strength of far-off powers—
Of deities and entities and potencies—
Is to stick and wallow for wasted hours.
Better to trust one’s own competency,
Or to steady winds and blooming flowers.


Thinking on Thought
An unhappy mind
Makes the day unkind:
It ties our thoughts
In the strictest knots
And makes the soundest plots
Come to noughts.


Torture
Listen! Listen. The voice was once tenor:
now, soprano.
Imagine—yes, and just consider—yesterday he was silent.
Our clips snap tightly, our pliers are handy,
our clamps are unforgiving, our machines
well greased.
Some things are working right around here.

We don’t even have to be too cautious.
As with all open secrets there is a
wink, a nudge to the vacillators, a cold
hard ethical argument to the protestors, and then
the show goes on.
The show must go on.

On the one hand we sit at a round table
and discuss the pros and morals of
torture. This, while people’s
worlds are being unraveled, a skein of
yarn held by a thread, dropped from a
tall building.
The demolition of a sturdy warm home,
tall, distinguished, memories in every cranny.
All that is left is the thread, the
foundation.
The skein, the home, the soul—deconstructed.
It is the metamorphosis of butterfly—
vividly colored, light—into caterpillar.
From caterpillar to cocoon. Cocoon to seed.
It is a human eclipse.
It is a vanishing.


Washington, D.C. at Dusk
In April when the cherry trees bloom,
City folk are reflected in the spring rain’s puddles,
By water that serves as mirrors for impressions.
Wind whips billowy clouds into an approaching eastern gloom,
While upon the shiny street, a poor wayfarer huddles
Beneath imposing windows that reflect metropolitan professions.
The sunbeams leave long, plum-shaded shadows beyond buildings
Whose western walls are washed by beams in apricot and tangerine
While in this gleaming twilight, a black cat’s lime-gold eyes glint,
And hazy rays catch the rich institutions’ burnished gilding.
Night falls abruptly upon folk fat and merry, lonely and lean.
The cat leaps, and houses’ windows glow with a lemony tint.
People’s reflections disappear.
Darkness washes the edifices in shades of coal and emery.
In the night, people’s luminous private lives appear,
And the recollection of the day disintegrates to circadian memory.


What Happened by the Half-Light
For but a short while has she lingered in the gloaming
Standing careless by the blooming hyacinths
Whose delicate petals sway in the easy wind by the door.
The filtered air and haze of autumn twilight
Send warm zephyrs to churn the crinkling leaves
And rustle the golden wheat in the harvest store
While her soul rests easy in the faltering marbled light
And the men and women make their labored ways slowly home
Through clusters of fragrant lilacs and fields of ocher brome.


When Your Back is to the Wall
When your back’s to the wall
And guns point at your heart
Then show them all
You won’t fall apart.

They’ll do their worst
So now you should spit,
Give them a curse,
And the hell with it.

Curse all their mothers
And die with a sneer,
For they are not brothers
And will not die here.