Author of two book-length narrative poems, THE ADVENTURE and HAPPINESS, both published by Story Line Press. Other poems in print and online journals. Adjunct professor creative writing George Washington University.
You needn’t say hello, feel
you should, be afraid –
or not afraid exactly, no,
only startled as you round
a sidewalk curve, bringing
your long bare legs, arms, navel,
breasts into shadow.
Sublimely blond, unaware
of the heat or its grateful
momentary drop. But here,
briefly, an approaching mortal
takes up space. You mustn’t be afraid;
the mansions of your class surround you –
not mansions exactly, though
they will seem so to the future.
And probably, beneath his keratoses,
he smiles. As you pass
you speak to your cellphone – a new type,
inscrutable to the old;
always on, with someone always on the line.
At the beginning of the protests,
while foreign cameras were still
allowed in the city, a young man
on a park bench caught the eye
of one of them. He looked starved
or, as the producer thought, intense,
and his English was good. “For three thousand years,
through paganism, dualism and later idiocies,
this culture has been about
the sacrifice of sons to fathers.
It’s they who have ‘perfumed beards,’
if you can imagine that, whose hands and feet
you kiss. Mine is a case in point.
Though impatience with my studies and
employment also led
to my position here. When the militia
drive by, I look down, humbly;
they’re my age, but not students, not rich, and one must
be humble. Sometimes I look crazy,
for the mad are left alone.
If need be, I hold the right kind of book,
a religious one. I work and eat
where I can. I sleep on the floors
of friends. We discuss women:
sensual, bold, and as unreal as God.
Tomorrow I’ll march for a man
who is really a lackey but now seems
an angel of reason and freedom – you know
such men, I think. Perhaps I’ll die;
which doesn’t matter, for you shall broadcast
my essence to the world.”
– But he was still naïve; he thought they’d use it.
You have to feel you were wronged somehow.
They hand you forms, you fill them in,
receive a card that covers rent and food.
There’s always something to complain about –
the heat, the a/c. Elevators smell
but work. Somebody cleans
the corridors (police-station green
carpeting not quite worn through), the
lobbies. There are lots of places to eat
nearby if you can’t stand your kitchenette.
Gangbangers, druggies misbehave,
yet they too feel they have a beef
and wait. Case-workers make it clear
it will be a while. They’re cool;
most of them also live here in the projects.
(People who don’t feel they were wronged
get little tract homes in the middle
of nowhere and tend to be assholes.) Lately,
a foreign element has been moving in;
they’re very noisy about their cases,
bad to their wives (who may
surprise them by having grievances too), and
unclear on the concept. For my part
I have my unwritten unpublished works
on CD and in files, and wait
in patience for the downtown guys
to wipe the tears forever from my eyes.
She works in the mother-in-law apartment,
he upstairs in the den.
Both, and the backs of both computers, face
the lane. 24/7.
Her face is that of a … centurion, his
a blur. Behind them
color – they had the idea of color:
aqua on his walls, salmon on hers –
and above her a fixture:
red plastic hemisphere with purple blobs.
That took thought, but
otherwise boxes, empty shelves and boxes;
four years now.
I’m sure they mean to finish the place
when they succeed at whatever it is.
Only fetishized bureaucracy
could outweigh, at that moment,
that purpose, but he was let out
of a gas van. There by mistake:
not Jewish; listed
as useful though incurable.
The guards unbarred the door, a doctor
called his name. Instead he was chained
to a shovel, by the end clearing rubble
and corpses from bombsites.
Receiving, thankfully, no further treatment,
and never, despite orders, forgetting.
He discovered that he who can say
Only I alone am escaped
to tell thee goes generally unheard.
Especially when he has,
under any regime, been called mad,
and when what he wants to describe
is part of what everyone knows
but doesn’t discuss. Among
the other mental defectives
in the van was a woman. Before
the door was shut, he saw
her expression, contemptuous, calm,
and her gesture:
a hand beside her face
impatiently brushing away
a world that contained such things,
dismissing it. He also
antagonized people, priests especially,
by saying he wasn’t grateful for
his escape. It wasn’t deserved,
any more than her death. If that
was grace, he said, it’s typical
of God, Who, I’ve learned,
is the same one that Hitler said he served.
Know It When You See It
One would have to go very far back, or down,
or in, whatever those terms mean,
for peace to come this way. Like spring.
No announcement: nothing to talk on.
The guns not suddenly silent, only
a noticing that they are, a breath.
No treaties or parades; vines seconding
the motion of a shattered wing.
The tranquil hulk a platform only
for coral. Coral returning.
And the men, still mostly men, who return
will be wrong somehow. The type
that women said they wanted,
but now they must decide,
women I mean, if these men
who never raise a hand to them
or a voice, and are terrifyingly
good with the few new children –
weeping for hours by the cradleside –
are men, and strong.
Even their stories, veterans’ lies
upon which any civilization
is based, are strange. No boasting,
even about terror. But the gung-ho
commandos who were found
changed into topiary. The retreats
from enemy bodies who looked too dead.
The sardonic figure who emerged
from jungle, impervious to bullets,
and had never been named or expected.
Mings and Trivs
To imagine a language is to imagine a form of life.
A form of life is a poetics.
It’s never true that poetry is a minor,
superfluous art; all poets walk point
for immense collectives.
But the many schools that contended in my youth
have dwindled to these two.
Mings are sophisticates. When they meet
they one-up, respect, and resent
each other like sportsmen. Their words
are tangential to each other, each other’s, and facts,
which only means that facts
are tangential to them; and each invites the other
to live in a wing of his palace, whose rooms
connect and corridors end
weirdly. Mings send
each other shrugging into battle, and
invest each other’s money in vast poems.
When either is lost, their apologies show
triumphal whimsy as they edit.
Some powerful ones take on, like a personal trainer,
a personal savior; then, gay or adulterous,
get exposed on TV, so that
aporia rise like stratocumulus.
Others who behave this way
are Trivs. Their tears are sincere,
for tears and sincerity
are the whole wealth of Trivs.
They start each sentence with I
whatever someone else’s sentence was,
and preface beliefs with I think, thinking thus
to exorcise dogma.
Whenever they’re cruel they cry
and so are never cruel;
wherever they go, they’re home,
where Mom prepared casserole
and Dad the strap, martinis, his death,
or dreadful midnight visits. Despite
distinctions, all these houses seem the same
when Trivs, as is their role
(for all of them are poets), write a poem.
Often, confronting disdain or indifference,
I too recall childhood.
Beleaguered, enraged, I yearned
for acceptance, even at the cost
of being meaningless or trivial.
©2014 Frederick Pollack