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
died

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.

A Trio of Animal Poems for The Age of Donald Trump

Image of the Slink

The Slink

Charming as a flophouse with a bathtub full of adders,
it flouts the laws of science, slickly climbing social ladders
by trickling antisocial thoughts like urinary bladders.

Its tongue’s a snaky shadow. A disruptive syncopation
of moves behind the scenes forecasts its leapfrog ambulation.
Its hunting cry a subtle, slimy, sly insinuation,

it’s scoped us out as birds to pluck, but first it plans to fatten us
on patter slathered lavishly with compliments gelatinous
and up to seven deadly sins to tempt the inner brat in us;

yet larger Egos love a Slink, and never feel alarm
till one has stabbed them in the back while walking arm in arm,
selling Brooklyn bridges while it’s buying them the farm.

Image of the Ankylosaurus

The Ankylosaurus

Observe this early turtle, one of myriad
herbivores from the Cretaceous Period,
short on intellectual propensity,
since armor’s not his only form of density,

who doesn’t have a brain, but has a pair,
and isn’t very smart, but doesn’t care;
which seems a way of thinking that illumines,
given how much thinking does for humans.

Image of a Joust of Narwhals

A Joust of Narwhals

Little longer than its horn,
part cigar, part unicorn,
the narwhal frolics, disinclined
to use a sword to speak its mind.

Men have always found it odd
peace should flourish in a pod,
flummoxed that these placid creatures
won’t employ their martial features,

inciting fights on what their use is
amongst the apes on arctic cruises,
till decks are swarmed with skewered corpuses,
alarming the disarming porpoises.

Illustrations by Russ Spitkovsky courtesy of Ed Shacklee.

Mourning What We Thought We Were in Trump’s America

Image of 1963 civil rights action in Greensboro, N.C.

Frank Bidart, a three-time Pulitzer Prize poetry finalist from Bakersfield, California, recalls The Grapes of Wrath in a poem about Donald Trump’s America published this week by The New Yorker. James Franco, Bidart’s fellow Californian and Steinbeck aficionado, adapted Bidart’s poem Herbert White for a 2010 film starring Michael Shannon, Franco’s co-star in The Broken Tower, Franco’s Hart Crane bio-pic. Read “Mourning What We Thought We Were” and listen to Frank Bidart recite lines that will resonate with readers of The Grapes of Wrath who share the poet’s anger about the past and his anxiety about the future.

Photo by Bill Ray from the collection of the International Civil Rights Center and Museum.

Life Poem: Steinbeck’s Boat, Port Townsend, Washington

Image of "Sailboat with Furled Sail," oil on canvas by Martha Gallagher Michael

“Steinbeck’s Boat, Port Townsend, Washington”

In all the years I have been near lakes and oceans
I have never seen such blue
water
pushing gently against invisible shores,
like a lover pushes the soul to want more,
or as calm can influence a wildness
we cannot see but always are ready to feed on.
And I wonder as I look at the huge docked carcass of his boat,
if a simple remembrance
of riding a current of words that bound us together
could survive better if he had had a smaller boat, one to furl up a sail and catch
another kind of stillness.

It is then I hear a series of sighs
grey and bleak from the molded wood of this giant,
like Gregorian chants in palpable drones
emitted out loud, over and over.
They reach in unison as my organs
twist them like the Loose Strife that take over
the freshness of a Great Lake to make it treacherous,
and remind occasionally of
Ophelia.

Time may know no limit here,
this ship moored forever in ill repair,
unable to move again
in its silky sauce of decay,
and I am part of what he began in writing
and boating,
and momentary salvation is open
to the right page.
Steinbeck made sure of that
in each and every phrase,
as he is there at my shoulder
when I right the words’ direction
or float the bow into
an unsuspecting bay.

Sailboat with Furled Sail, 16″ x 20,” oil on canvas by Martha Gallagher Michael.

Childhood’s End: Life Poem On the Eve of Donald Trump

Image of Donald Trump as Time's Person of the Year

Childhood’s End

Back then, I followed my mother around
looking for approval and was shortchanged.
What is a life if not learning the difference
between enough and not nearly enough.

I recall that she had a hillbilly-simple rage.
Which, most often, she might aim at herself;
but, sometimes, at anyone nearby. And me.
I learned, later, that she’d been a hired girl

for a bed. Meals. Clearly, she was ashamed.
Still, she was proud of what she had learned.
That you overcome poverty, maybe anything,
by working for what is, always and repeatedly,

less than you need. A bedside table was books:
Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell and
scholarly works on the antebellum South. She
was born in Letcher County, Kentucky. After

the War of Northern Aggression, and Slavery.
She read to forget. We’d climb in the Chevy,
drive downtown. Into the city. To the library.
And she’d be patient (then less so) as I chose.

Maybe Childhood’s End by Arthur C. Clarke.
Aliens have landed. Taken over. Have hooves,
horns, a reptilian tail. And attitude. Like my
mother who knew what it takes just to live.

Christmas Eve, with Owls: Poetry by Robert DeMott

Image of great horned owls by John James Audubon

Christmas Eve, with Owls

“I rejoice that there are owls. Let them do the . . . maniacal hooting for men.”
—Henry David Thoreau

In deepening shades of rose and magenta,
evening steals across Appalachian foothills
in this little tucked-away corner of Ohio we call home,
and a slivered moon, like a nail filing,
catches itself in the bare limbs of backyard trees
where last night in our grove of pines and oaks
a pair of great horned owls kept up their hoo-hooing,
the beat-beat of their bass drum carrying way beyond
our wrapping presents and offering holiday cheer,
finally echoing at the margins of our sleep,
that moment before the moment after,
when the last stirrings of children in our house—
eager for what they hope dawn will bring—
settled to quiet, and my love and I entered at last
a room inside a room, where we wondered if
our life on earth was ever-blessed as the good books say,
or only a brief dream, fearful and uncertain,
laden now by chill winds and more news
from our feathered pair, their dirge traveling
oceanic distances and blue-black star roads
this night of all nights, in this year like no other,
toward us, toward you.

In memory of Bob Bertholf, Helen DeMott, Jim Harrison, Mari Lyons, and Thom Steinbeck.

“Great Horned Owl” from John James Audubon’s Birds of America. Designed by Textual Healing.

Think It Can’t Happen Here? New Poem by Roy Bentley

Image of flag of American fascism

Black Transport

“Even a meadow in harvest with flights of crows and grass fires . . . can lead to a concentration camp.”
Night & Fog, 1955

The Germans who ran the trains
to the death camps
made sure they arrived
in night and fog—
they wanted the boxcar
cargo to disembark
in a state of confusion
so they would be easier
to manage. First, the lie
of resettlement. Then
the off-loading to camps
and the blue-striped uniform
of the doomed. Do you think
it can’t happen here? Do
you imagine you can
forever avoid such
black transport? Do
you trust countrymen
not to show you to a place
on a platform and say, Wait
here and point the machine gun
in the general direction of smoke
as it floats black then a gray-white
as quiet as the sheets on a clothesline.
It begins with respect for uniforms
and loaded guns. Then the fear
that what is happening
is our fault. Then those lies
we consent to in order to live
for a while longer, God help us.
It is already the case—isn’t it?—
that these amber waves hide bodies.

John Steinbeck as Nude Model: Life Poem

 Image of "Naked John Steinbeck" by Martha Gallagher Michael

Naked John Steinbeck

On the brocade couch, long and lean he looks beyond you
past the fact you are drawing him
and he is being drawn
past the awkwardness of his being naked
past any feelings between you two

Then he opens his mouth with a deep sigh
and a drawl only a westerner could possess
and politely, if not somewhat shyly, asks
“when will you be done?”

This impatience, like a rock thrown through an otherwise smooth clean glass
just polished with fervor,
breaks through to the flow of
in-the-moment mindfulness of seeing and transposing
the thingness of John Steinbeck naked on the couch.

As you listen to Tom Waits singing “Pony”
and the scene suddenly turns red,
then back to white on black
staying incarcerated there
in the moment
you see the dual nature of everything.

Steinbeck is grinning now, having found
his whereabouts to be comical
and your tentative nature
like another unanswered question
he forms:
“Is that what I look like without a stitch on?”

“Naked John Steinbeck,” acrylic and ink on black paper, by Martha Gallagher Michael.