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 Monterey Peninsula and John Steinbeck’s Myna Bird

Image of John Steinbeck sculpture in Monterey

Although I think he eventually changed his mind, in 1972 I was able to empathize with John Steinbeck’s dislike of being interviewed when a writer from National Geographic magazine came to California’s Monterey Peninsula to do a cover piece on the region. His name was Mike Edwards, and he phoned me to set up an interview. I had been a reporter for the Monterey Peninsula Herald, as it was called then, and had left there and was now working over the hill for the Carmel Pine Cone. Interviewing people was the same for both newspapers and I felt at ease with it. Being on the other side of the desk, being interviewed myself instead of doing the interviewing, seemed a natural, so I said yes when Mike called.

National Geographic Captured “Interesting Times” in 1972

Image of hippie near MontereyThese were interesting times in our region. The hippie movement was in full flux and kids were getting in trouble smoking weed and running away from Cleveland or Denver and hiding out from frantic parents on the Monterey Peninsula or down in Big Sur. I did a story for the Herald about a local mayor riding with the police to root out the hippies. The next day I encountered the mayor and, his eyes big, he said, “My God, that story you did on me—people are furious with me!’’ That reflects the way Monterey Peninsula people could be in those days. There was a lot of conservative money, yes, but most of the citizens believed in individual rights. They didn’t want a mayor to be a cop hassling hippies. When an oil company threatened to drill in Monterey Bay, protestors included hippies and others from the left, along with marchers from the right, joining in common cause. The oil company backed off.

When I met with Mike Edwards at my desk at the Pine Cone I was surprised to discover that, while interviewing others was easy, being interviewed made me uncomfortable. Though Mike was a gentleman, polite and professional, I was a nervous wreck. I was used to asking the questions, not answering them, and I was relieved when the November National Geographic appeared and I saw that Mike had been merciful. I was neither quoted nor mentioned in “A Land Apart – The Monterey Peninsula,’’ though I hoped I’d at least provided him with some decent background for his story.

Cover image from November 1972 National Geographic

Mike had come to the Monterey Peninsula deeply interested in the region through reading John Steinbeck. He wrote in his piece that he was drawn to the “derelict sheds – part corrugated metal, part masonry, part rusting clutter – that stand along the seven blocks of Cannery Row’’ by reading Cannery Row. Steinbeck’s friends Bruce and Jean Ariss helped him understand the area even more. The Arisses were on their way to becoming local legendary figures themselves, in part because of their friendship with Steinbeck and Ed Ricketts, but also because they were talented artists of great strength and character. Bruce was a painter and writer. Jean was the author of two novels—The Quick Years and The Shattered Glass.

“Being Quotable” About the Title of The Grapes of Wrath

Cover image from "The Grapes of Wrath"“I spent an interesting afternoon in the company of Jean,” Mike wrote, “and her husband, Bruce, a writer, editor, and artist well known for his murals,” explaining that “they saw Steinbeck often in Edward Ricketts’ laboratory on the Row.‘’ After describing Steinbeck as “a large, thickset man, usually wearing jeans and a shabby sheepskin coat,” Jean told Mike about spending a day in 1939 with John Steinbeck, his wife Carol, and Ed Ricketts, going over the manuscript of John’s new novel, not yet titled. “She remembers Ricketts saying to Steinbeck, ‘This is a fine book – your best. It will win you the Nobel Prize.’ . . . The group spent the afternoon trying to think of a title, finally agreeing on ‘The Grapes of Wrath.’ “

That’s what you call being quotable. John Steinbeck gave Carol credit for the title, so perhaps it was on the day Jean recalled in her interview with Mike Edwards. I wish Jean had been more specific. If she were, I’m sure Mike would have reported it. He went on to a distinguished career, writing 54 articles from around the world for National Geographic. He was honored by the Foreign Correspondents Association for his writing on the nuclear meltdown at Chernobyl—something Steinbeck would have admired, the courage to cover that story—and he retired as a senior editor at National Geographic in 2002. He died last year in Arlington, Virginia.

Cover image from "Conversations with John Steinbeck"Why do I think John Steinbeck eventually changed his mind about being interviewed? Because of a collection of 26 articles, all quoting Steinbeck, titled Conversations with John Steinbeck, edited by Thomas Fensch and published by the University of Mississippi. At times Steinbeck comes across as taciturn and uncooperative. At others he really seems to be enjoying himself. My wife Nancy and I picked up a copy several years ago in a little shop on Lighthouse Avenue in New Monterey, which used to have a half-dozen bookstores specializing in collectible editions. At the time I was working on a play about Steinbeck, setting him in his New York apartment at night, the only other characters a ghost, a talking myna bird, and a whirring tape recorder.

I got the idea for the myna bird from a Steinbeck letter I traded for some years ago, a handwritten missive to Fred Zinnemann, the director of High Noon, From Here to Eternity, and other fine films. In the letter Steinbeck is giving the myna bird to Zinneman, and describes the bird’s character and required care. The tape recorder in the play was, I think (one can never be quite sure about these things) my own invention, perhaps inspired by reading that Steinbeck liked tinkering and “gadgets.”

The Imaginary Myna Bird With the Meaningful Name

Nancy and I took Conversations with John Steinbeck home, sat down on the couch, and opened it. One of the first interviews we read was a 1952 piece by New York Times drama critic Lewis Nichols interviewing Steinbeck in the author’s Manhattan apartment. They seemed to get along well as Steinbeck discussed work on the book that would become East of Eden. Steinbeck proudly mentioned having a writing room, something that—echoing Virginia Woolf—he considered of paramount importance. “This,” Nichols wrote, “is the first room of his own he ever has had.’’ Then: “It is a very quiet room. For companionship, Mr. Steinbeck would like to get a myna bird. With a tape recorder he would teach this to ask questions, never answer, just ask.’’

Representational image of myna birdWhen we read that, Nancy looked at me and we laughed. We felt we were channeling John Steinbeck, though to this day I still haven’t finished the play. Neither have I given up. Someday. And someday I’d like to elaborate on Steinbeck’s charming myna bird letter to Zinnemann. Steinbeck, incidentally, called the myna bird “John L.”

For the fighter John L. Sullivan? Or the labor leader John L. Lewis? Either one would be meaningful.

 

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

Image of dugout from Cave of Dreams

Dugout

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.

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.