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.

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.

Epithalamium: A Southern Ohio Wedding Poem

Image of Bridge of Sighs in Southern Ohio
It is truly breathtaking, this man-takes-mate-and-
mate-then-takes-him-too stuff. And, sure, I tear up—
teardrop fountains at the vows, that hopeful poetry
spoken alongside abject awareness of the awful
because the job is to balance the bad with Joy.

And, sure, I understand why we need hope
to challenge despair—when you hope you hear
Time lecture on the epistemology of the grave
but don’t want to crawl into a grave. Hope
is the forests in Ohio, Hocking County,

and so: a plaited garland in a bride’s hair.
Some days, Time says, Watch what is passing.
And it says: take courage if, and while, you can—
even here where parking is bad and the hillside
tattooed with the markings of past treacheries.

Photo of Bridge of Sighs by Roy Bentley.

When the Emperor Has No Clothes: A Life Poem about Donald Trump, Revealed at Last, from the Buckeye State

Image of Donald Trump's emperor-has-no-clothes statue

Not Nothing

I wonder if it matters to a working man
figuring dimensions in August-Ohio heat,
doing the math and rounding off, this fence
and how easy it makes letting the dog out.
Because I don’t say any of that right off.
He says he had a stroke. Almost died.
After the epiphany of a recent brush
with death, he says, “Donald Trump
isn’t the asshole that we think he is.”
As if, by not quite dying, he tunneled
out of a warren of the Forgotten to say
what he says. Before that, he has said
death isn’t something as much as not
nothing. We’re standing in the yard.
And he thinks this is wisdom. Stuff
you don’t hear every day. But he is
here to estimate how much he will
charge to paint the backyard fence,
my fence. “Both sides?” he asks—
as if there are worlds where painting
one side is nothing, especially the side
of your choosing, a beacon of bare wood
visible in all directions. From streetside
or next door. He doesn’t flinch or smile,
but I’m sure he’s kidding. Waiting on him,
I had read an article on artificial intelligence.
And the whole sick run-off about Trump now
strikes me as funny. Until he launches into
what it’s like, or what he says he thinks it’s like,
on The Other Side—having recently passed over
the big-yikes Metaphysical Fence, not the one
for the US-Mexico border. That not nothing.
He thinks he is the only person who can speak
of what he has experienced as a living, breathing
Ohioan. I’m listening how I suppose a painted
fence listens to silence. Yes, both sides, I say.

Donald Trump, God and Guns in Appalachia: Poem

Image of Donald Trump sign in Appalachia

Flood Carries Burning House

Whose spirit is this?  we said, because we knew
It was the spirit that we sought and knew
That we should ask this often as she sang.

—Wallace Stevens, “The Idea of Order at Key West”

The headline says that the story and pictures, a video, were
some editor’s wet dream: not only does a fire floridly trump
everything, there’s an effing flood in one of the dirt-poor places
that believe in a God and guns because, well, what else is there?
My genes are these places. And not in any all-in-your-mind way.
My parents and my grandparents are Appalachian—Kentuckians—
and helped settle the same coal town where Want is a cry sustained.
Sure, I swell with pride when I think of them. But then that passes.

Where is the good in an emblazoned house doing a busted figure-eight
on what you would’ve called a banal creek yesterday and the day before?
Wanting to think of time just after suffering as the source of feelings you
wish wouldn’t pass quickly—is that something we can imprint and pass on?
Maybe it’s chemical, wanting a whole lot of love and sunshine to befall us.
Maybe the vagaries of a life cause recombinations at the level of the DNA
so that what happens next, or doesn’t, alters the gene. And if a whole lot
of such alterations define us as “body wholly body,” to quote Stevens,

then I wish this sort of change a medicine that works in my body,
if not in theirs, to still the voices of the traumatized-for-generations.
On the video, we see the house engulfed. Floodwater is having at
what fire isn’t making short work of, absolutely black smoke
an indicator of nothing. Next time I’m born to people like these,
I’ll complicate things. A hillbilly will challenge Authority. Hill folk
are nothing if not there-is-good-in-there-somewhere types, each
swept along—thank you, Jesus!—by the will-of-God deluge.

for Stevie and Jack

Life Poems by Roy Bentley

 Image of scene from the 1969 movie Easy Rider

Poem for Charlie Potter

If you can believe in reincarnation of the soul,
this time around you’re a man who drinks whisky.
You’re homeless and walking by a river in Ohio.
After weeks—many years, really—of drinking.
All you want is to rest out of the wind and finger
the black-stamped exacta ticket from a lost race
on a morning like any other, an odor of fish-rot

coming off the Olentangy River. You’re there,
and minding your own business, pulling together
your coat as you sit on a bench. This time around,
in this body, you are someone’s uncle brother son.
You don’t note the approaching man until too late
to put up much of a fight. He’s stabbed you so fast
that you don’t so much see a blade as feel it go in.

Nothing noble in your unchoreographed falling.
There’s breathing then much less of it as he goes
through your pockets, his cold hands turning them
out, the pockets. Maybe he kicks you on principle.
Maybe you’re remembered for more than the hour
it takes to slice you, a medical examiner narrating
the elegy of undefended flesh into a microphone.

Venutians Made Me Do It

“Venutians have contacted people in all walks of life—all walks of life.”
—George Hanson, Easy Rider

The L & K isn’t Madame Tinkertoy’s House of Blue Lights,
but it’s where you go to drink coffee until midnight in ‘69.
Maybe you had to be there back in the day, in Ohio, talk
turning from the war in Vietnam and the whole Getting
the Weak to Have a Go at the Slightly Weaker blather.
Which, come to think of it, is the definition of power:
describing our one-big-black-and-white-movie America
as having the right to reach into the flowering madnesses
at the heart of the whole world. Now the subject switches
to Easy Rider: George Hanson/Jack Nicholson getting high
for the first time on pot. He pronounces the word marijuana
with a Southern accented drawl. Starts talking cosmic crapola.
It’s cause for smiling, George saying it’s common knowledge
that the Venutians are among us. If we’re the slightly weaker,
and the Venutians the weak—like the Vietnamese, maybe—
then, it’s no joke. Maybe why no one laughs about Vietnam.
Now, in unison, two announce, The Venutians made me do it!
and enact some superstitious ritual against bad luck and evil.
No one thinks about evil and good half as much as Ohioans.
Ohioans know about hell but want to be talked into heaven.
Whatever the case, in our booth at our restaurant in Ohio,
we’re asking whether John Lennon might be calling for
open insurrection and bloodletting on the White Album
including an “in” after “Don’t you know that you can
count me out”—we’re reaching for rationality where
there is no rationality. We’re talking about the War
when someone spins a stool en route to a jukebox,
every stride premised on false hope that finishes
as the stars-and-stripes-painted Harley chopper
crashed and on fire by a roadside in the South.

Whatever Small Form of Joy Likeness Equals

Sometimes a thing can seem star-like
when it’s just a star, stripped of whatever small form of joy
likeness equals.
—Carl Phillips, “Stray”

If displays of affection could light up lives,
a bioluminescence, then what I witnessed as
tenderness in the aisles at a Kroger this evening

should have lit up sizable portions of central Ohio
if not the whole of the Northern Hemisphere—
the couple with garrulous offspring brushed

hands in Produce as something like sparks
flew for a sad 60-something pushed along
in her not-quite-handicapped shopping cart.

Not to mention, those separated by geography
or shared failure lingering in Pizza & Desserts
then by the cold light of the milk and butter aisle,

unsayable and indecent truths resplendent in carton
after carton of eggs that are not the estivation of hope.
Which is what I thought, buying tuna to feed my share

of the winter-exhausted feral cats in the neighborhood:
that kindness begets kindness. And hope. Instant karma.
I bought a case of small cans. Went home and forked

the piscine contents into plates at the western edge
of the unglaciated Appalachian Plateau. Not hope
or faith or love exactly but what I could manage.

 

Walking to Fleming Hospital: A Life Poem by Roy Bentley

Image of Franklin Delano Roosevelt

Walking to Fleming Hospital

In the land where coal is king and queen there is a bar,
a big room where miners fight for something to do. Inside
is a framed image of Franklin Delano Roosevelt—
by the Men’s Room where discerning Republicans spit,
though never at the face in the frame. Which is what I do.
Because he died, the President, and left me at the head
of a column of miners, striking miners, who faced down
an army that Harry S. Truman called out by executive order.
And so of course there’s someone takes issue with my politics.
Someone “built like a brick shithouse,” as they say. A giant.
The giant is just some unlucky miner who I don’t see coming,
who has made his way past the barstools and two rows of tables
to land a first you’ll-feel-that-tomorrow punch. Which I answer.
I’m holding my own until I hear pop! and then hear myself say,
Sonofabitch shot me! and That damn Johnny Belcher shot me!
Simple miracles, and most family myths, are made of walking
alone at night like this, and to a hospital where a pretty nurse
you went to high school with won’t ask since she knows you,
knows the sort of man you are: how the Potters have done
their share of bar-fighting and dying in eastern Kentucky.
It’s no miracle a man like me wants to live. Enough so
that he drags himself to assistance. Walks in, bleeding.
And I don’t know when I collapse, but I’m on the floor
looking up into lights that pass for Heaven’s gate and
then seeing the nurse hovering, her breasts like hills,
small white hills, the maybe-last-thing I’ll likely see
as a consequence of hawking up and letting fly one
huge you-guessed-it in a dead president’s direction.
I’d have preferred being shot over the pretty nurse
who asks for my next of kin as I whisper Mary.