Mothers of Invention: New Life Poem by Roy Bentley

Image of women working in German factory

The Fan

They are coming out of the factory walls—
those who might like to take her upright fan.
Hard young women winging through the hanging
strips, the rubber talons moving on conveyors.
And not all black women, but the one who
takes hold of it, claiming its positioning
in the air-freighted heat—she’s black.
And at least as fierce as my mother is,
or so my mother tells the story everafter.
Since she is from Neon, Kentucky, Nettie,
my divorced mother, the n-word starts flying.
And they set a time to meet to settle things.
After the shift. In the Inland parking lot.
And the other women show up to witness
the fireworks of a pissed-off Womanhood
this scorching August, their vulturey heads
bobbing as if to say Fuck her up! and Show her
who’s boss! to the American capitalist enterprise.
Which every night feeds on fear of depredation
until the sun unleashes its talons of gold and
red then even more gold, spiking morning
machine noises with pugilistic talk and
the threat of worse. My abandoned mother
kept the fan and she kept it blowing its fixed
or oscillating breezes her way that summer.
She had the job because ex-brother-in-law
William “Big Bill” Hensley was president
of the United Autos Workers Local 696—
Bill adored Mother, and called her Nettie
Dolores whenever he stopped by the house,
a brick 3-bedroom house my father left her
to pay for. And so she didn’t have to fight,
didn’t have to call the other woman names
and eventually reach in and get her a handful
of afro, though she would have. Instead, Nettie
Potter Bentley said she would requisition two fans.
One to blow away constant sweat from having
to cut and hang and send on the rubber strips
for 1964’s General Motors cars and trucks.
One to blow away the heat of resentment.

On Recollecting Our Parents In Tranquility: A Life Poem

Image of Roy Bentley's parents

As Much Ours as Not Ours

is an exhumation story my mother and I enjoy together,
a tale of my father’s unending prodigality regarding cars,
new and used, a passion, which she says kept them broke.
“And you went through the world shoeless,” my father says.
Prodded like this, he can defend the logic of his acquisitions
for hours. He leans in a doorway between the house and pool,
a Florida shirt blooming white blue red above his khaki shorts.
She is dealing a hand of solitaire, snapping the King of Hearts
between lines of cards I can’t make out from where I’m sitting.

They’re in their 60s. Happy as they will ever get, winter
breezes rippling the surface of one end of the pool. Waves
rebound beneath an enclosure curtained with bougainvillea.
The story of swapping a Mercury station wagon for a Cadillac,
the Cadillac for a ‘61 Impala with a shot-to-shit water pump,
has her glancing up to say I hated the Cadillac then smiling—
it’s Christmas—before snapping the next card, low to high.
Outside, bugs try the kingdom between nothing and light,
the ragged volley of trials aglow in his, and her, laughter.

Remembering Paul Newman In Donald Trump’s America

Image of Paul Newman in Cool Hand Luke

When Paul Newman Was Alive

All night, wind, a pelting of rain, then sump pump songs,
so that by morning I hear the clock of my life as off-then-on
machinery against the backdrop of August rain and everything
about being here now rounded off to the gold of first light in Ohio.
No one is out yet but a neighbor, who retrieves a New York Times
from a driveway. The asphalt is shining about the way it did then,
when Paul Newman was alive and the United States of America
was a good dream we were having about a country, this country.
If last night’s tempest was an army, divisions spent themselves
farther off in the east, over the shallow Licking River; beyond,
white lines of wood smoke emphatically rise into blue-black
like the prodigal smoke from cook fires in a Western movie.
My neighbor is at his door. He closes it, that door he lives
his life behind, as if one storm isn’t the end of the world.

Ku Klux Klan Freak Show in Canon City, 1925: Life Poem

Image of Ku Klux Klan in Canon City, 1925

Ku Klux Klan at the Carnival in Canon City, 1925

Klansmen in hooded regalia commandeer a Ferris wheel.
3 to a car, 12 cars. As if visionless hate, rabid nationalism,
and 1st Amendment freedoms share the same carnival ride.

And this isn’t the South. It’s any given Sunday in Colorado.
By an awninged ticket booth, a handful of white sheets loiter.
They’re looking this way as if someone had said, Say, Cheese.

These 40-odd men stare back at our staring as if it’s a nice day
and they have stopped talking Wall Street or Yankees baseball,
whether their wives and daughters should have the right to vote.

Of course there is the fallacy at the heart of democracy that says
when the mob does what it does, it’s right. By simple arithmetic.
A face is said to have hovered over the waters during the creation

of the world. God’s face. If truth were the light certain mornings,
this midway would be a burning cross opening a door in the air.
If an aubade is a morning love song, this Sunday sky isn’t one,

though the noise the Ferris wheel sends up approaches singing.
Factoring in the ubiquity of folly and the capitulation of the sad,
isn’t it always Assholes Get in Free Day somewhere in America?

Trump-Age American Life And Victorian-Era Madness

Victorian-era image linking train rides to mental illness

The Victorian Belief That a Train Ride
Could Cause Instant Insanity

Somewhere in Appalachia, a woman
is telling her oldest son not to strike back
at a fugitive father for having abandoned them.

The standard unit of pain is hers to call whatever
she wants since she wears the bruises like the son
wears Goodwill Levis and a t-shirt saying Tramps

Like Us, Baby, We Were Born to Run. The son isn’t
showcasing what he is, in his father’s cast-off t-shirt,
because Springsteen is the last word in Suffering. He

puts it on, the t-shirt, because what changes the way
we breathe is what we believe—though the Victorians
believed train rides could drive you mad. The riders

were rescuing themselves from the insanity of others
just by boarding. Just now, this one knots his leather-
and-scrap-wood tchotchke crucifix around his neck—

the cross is hollow and carries a powder they say
will kill you. I say what kills you isn’t the drug but
the hopelessness puts it there. Saying that, though,

is like floating on the wind through sainted hillsides
where row-house chimneys are censers distributing
God’s breath as coal smoke. The smoke is bruised

gold. It says how, even if there is no God and all
the days from Then to Now have handed us no
reason to hope, we still have a train to catch.

Inspired by an Atlas Obscura item linking Victorian-era train rides and mental illness.

Homeless Man in Central Florida Finds Body: Poem

Image of human skull

Homeless Man Reports a Dead Body
by Carrying a Skull into a Florida Publix

—Colin Wolf, Orlando Weekly
Imagine him in the act of crossing busy US 1,
a silver shopping cart to slow the murmuration.
See the heat shimmers above the road surface.
See a Maserati swerve. Hear a Bentley brake
hard enough to make the muscles of the heart
speed up. In no time, he is parking the object
on a trash can by a double-door to a Publix.
By the pink-flamingo-themed lottery posters.
Why did he take it? Maybe the eyes called up
long rows of tombstones. His own dear dead
or their histories. One witness says he used it,
the skull, like a hand puppet. One said it stank.
Which is why cruisers pull up and spill a cargo
of sheriffs in their Ray Ban Aviator sunglasses.
Later that day, another part of the neighborhood,
a van is parked in drifts and mangroves bordering
a strip club. Under night-marching moon and stars,
the doorjamb of the van hemorrhages arterial-red,
the factory-painted truth that this rough home
is limbed with death in the best of weather.

The Mind Is a Cave of Dreams—Life Poems by Kathleen S. Burgess

Image of dugout from Cave of Dreams


Felled by a stone axe, and burned hollow,
a ninety-foot pine rides the water reincarnated
as a dugout vaguely redolent of its fiery formation.
Three thousand years since Bronze Age Britons

sat athwart—poled through swamps, rowed lakes.
Registered signs: bird trill, antler, planet, moon,
clouds singed by the sun. They fished the depths, cooked
on deck the thrashing silvers.

From the roots of sound and trunks of words, language
feeds images that buoy our dreams. Awakened we craft
metaphors, from the Greek metaphorá, “transfer, or carry.”
Transoms, lifted from sterns, allow vessels to be sunk

for the winter in a bog as nourishing as poetry. Hidden,
then dug out, similes and metaphors also float, fresh
or fossilized—tongue of flame, or eye of a needle compass-
bound—so similar, the insensible ear does not tell them apart.

At Florida’s Pithlachocco Lake, Seminole for “the place
of long boats,” a folksinger and a teacher lead students
to discover canoes by the dozens. Archaeologists spoon-lift
from mud the shards carbon-dated to five thousand years.

In time, the people of six continents piloted dugout canoes
over oceans—some with outriggers, some with sails.
Like squirrels we cannot remember where the vehicles lie
though they branch and leaf and flower before our eyes.


Image of family photo from Cave of Dreams

Family Photograph

A satin patina of light hovers over the sofa leather
where they sit—the grown-up daughter and son, home,

together. He, cross-legged between his sister,
her scarf ornamented by a gold gift bow as corsage,

and Dad, who smiles in a wool shirt, Christmas red,
festooned by a tangle of green curling ribbon as necktie.

The father’s left hand lies snug in a brown leather glove.
The son’s lips close in amused concentration, as,

from one blue sleeve of a Santa Express party sweater
to Dad’s bare hand, he extends the four-fingered cardboard insert.

The easy grip and shake say humor’s an art between them.
In the photo we can’t see what’s done: a breakfast of pancakes

with berries and syrup, cups of coffee, espresso black.
Nor can we hear the daughter’s grin blossom into the next quip,

or the silver ornament from Lazarus, now Macy’s—a falling
portamento followed by the stutter-chirp of a mechanical mockingbird.

The same gurgle-spurts their parents had made with forefinger
tommy-guns blazing at Nazis from perches in neighborhood tree forts.

Behind Dad, a photograph of two girls. Sad little Pearl, grandma
of the siblings on the sofa, has cut her own bangs. Younger sister

stormy-eyed Nevada is tethered to sissie’s arm. They’re in button shoes,
twin shapeless dresses of mattress ticking. Pockets quiet their fists

where they stand on a porch in a southern Ohio flooded by rivers
of misfortune years before the Great Depression—a photo in grayscale.

Nothing much to suggest sentinel evergreens on a hillside of snow and stone
where the living stoop to lay flowers, and the grace note of light moves on.

Image of flying from Cave of Dreams

I Believe I’m Sinking Down

from Cross Road Blues, now known as Crossroads
—Robert Johnson

At the horizon a drowning sun,
powerless to float the graphite sea,
casts rays like grappling hooks into her chest.

Onboard, hundreds of screens flicker.
Should she watch Big Fish

or reel out her misgivings? Stage them:
wings unhinged, the fuselage and tail
thundering into an ocean too shattered to reflect?

Storms and wind shear terrify,
but she doesn’t pray the airbus through

a sky star-stung, scythe-hung. Clapton
shreds the blues of Robert Johnson, an afterworld
of resurrections in a set of loaner earphones.

By its wingless tongue, her pencil articulates
the frictions as she belies a lack of faith in last acts.

His Parents? Poor Kids from Eastern Kentucky: Life Poem

Image of "Men, Death, Lies," painting by Linda Holmes

The Bright and Unforgettable Scent of the Fruit

At 30, my father drove a Cadillac in all weather.
Seeds spat down onto the wax job of its black hood,
black being his preferred color in cars. And he owned

two Cadillacs, which he forfeited divorcing my mother
and selling Roy’s Shell, his gas station, though she saw
not one Lincoln-headed cent. For a man or woman then—
after the Cuban Missile Crisis, talk of bomb shelters—

the best thing about going broke was you had time.
Time to try and love again. To take a son for a walk.
And he took me on that walk. By a river in Dayton.

He said, Five rivers converge here. And named one
by a botanical gardens of flowers gemmy with rain.
He said, the Great Miami River. And then looked off
in the direction of where the bright and unforgettable

scent of the fruit of one orchard is the definition of loss.
On a bank of the Great Miami that day was a rotted boat.
And someone said every boat, new or old, is looking for

a place to sink. He said something similar, my father,
no fan of boats. Maybe he thought the boat we saw
was as useless as oars to row its gray decrepitude.
My parents were poor kids from eastern Kentucky.

Like any refugee, they had problems. Divorced.
Later, she went to work. In a factory. It was all
she could do. Working like that. But she did it

and survived. Meaning her face shown brighter
than anyone else standing over the shiny hood
of the next car he kept so spotless you could
see yourself in every black inch of it.

“Men, Death, Lies,” oil painting by Linda Holmes, © 2017 Linda Holmes. All rights reserved.

Following the Leader in the Age of Donald Trump

Image of Dorthea Lange's photograph of Japanese internment

The Leader

I believed the leader
when he said I wasn’t free
all because of the people
who didn’t look like me

I followed my leader and became
his tool and helped break the
back of the golden rule

I did nothing when the truth
was murdered by lies and silent
when the children screamed and

I did what I was told
I took down names not
knowing someone else was
doing the same

I followed my leader when I
knew it was wrong because I was
afraid of not going along but now
in this room with no door or light
it is me they accuse of not being right

I followed my leader until today when
they walked me up to my freshly
dug grave

Socrates had it right, Will and the Buddha did
too, follow no one, question and to thine own self
be true

Photograph of Japanese internment during World War II by Dorothea Lange


A Poem of Self-Discovery

Image of "I Am What I Am"

I Am What I Am

I am the money that talks in the bank,
a flaw in the mirror, a check that was blank,
the tip of an iceberg, the liner that sank.

I’m the isle of the blessed and the pirate who’d plunder it,
the veil of the night and the lightning to sunder it,
the boy in the bed and the monster who’s under it.

I’m the sum of a part and the karmic subtraction,
the paralyzed thought and the frenzy of action,
the bile in my throat and a low satisfaction.

I’m the past I have checkered, the devil’s detail,
the promise of love and a check in the mail,
rebellion in heaven, the quest for the grail;

I’m the grave of my death and the air in my head,
the puzzle I question, the answer I dread –
each shadow I’ve thrown, and the life that I’ve led,
the monster below and the boy in the bed.

Illustration by Russ Spitkovsky courtesy of Ed Shacklee.