Author of two book-length narrative poems, THE ADVENTURE and HAPPINESS, both published by Story Line Press. A collection of shorter poems, A POVERTY OF WORDS, just published by Prolific Press (available at Amazon). Other poems in print and online journals. Adjunct professor creative writing George Washington University.
The Twilight of Irony
A telepath working for the police
began to pick up his own thoughts, not
They washed away the snail-trails of subversion,
which frantic attempts at self-censorship
His thoughts too were often
critical of the regime
(one expects that in the police), but more
of the illness, whatever it was,
the static clouding his talent.
He sat on a park bench. Suspects
passed on the way to or from the office or lunch.
His arrest quota
had not been met. Even now, meetings were being held.
But for the moment,
unknowingly, his public
were safe in the private mind, that sullen hamlet
in the shadow of their faces;
as alone with him and each other
as in the morning of things.
your inner museum for metaphors
of frail, ambiguous meanings.
It saves time, flatters you, flatters the client.
But I forget who did
that painting in the Prado (some Spanish master)
of Christ in Purgatory.
Purgatory is a room
with a window high in the wall. Outside
is Hell, a flying lizard-like demon,
mouth agape, as silly
as any toothy mouth before it bites.
Christ has a little flag and drapery
and seems not unfamiliar or unexpected.
His affect is somewhere
between that of a young executive
who has flown to this meeting on the redeye
(so may be excused for being late)
and a process server.
I recall I was not
in the picture, or not invited out,
and roamed the other
grey high-ceilinged rooms
of the Prado, weirdly editing
(as I typically do) religious themes.
In Bosch the only truly human face
is that of Christ, in Ensor that of death.
We parked, and climbed the rest of the way
beside the other cars there for the party,
held together by wire and debt.
The street had what passes for a view
its bungalows will someday slide into:
disused rails, a freeway,
the river in its sarcophagus,
a million square feet of warehouse,
and on the far slope, apartments
relentlessly beige. The smog, variously brown,
surged, revealed, concealed; the heat was steady.
You whined. You hadn't wanted to attend
this party. Didn't know and wouldn't like
the people. I thought about conventions
like walking on ahead, ignoring,
and poems telling someone
things already known
in a portentous tone
as if vile heat and minor contretemps
were history. Thought of
warehouses full of self-conscious
reflexive postmodernist gestures
whose function is to cheapen everything;
of how brilliant
the people coming to the party were,
a potential renaissance, and how they would listen
to me. "A little farther," I said,
"we will see the almond trees blossoming
the marble gleaming in the sun
the sea breaking into waves
a little farther,
let us rise a little higher" (quoting Seferis).
Black white and Asian,
hair breeze-stroked to the waist,
which was bare
above low tan shorts, beneath
the high pink halter.
more than conceivably
in murky life to the ardors
of ads. Fighting thirty balloons
from PartyPlace into a minivan, no
hatchback. One popped.
"Fuck!" clear, compelling.
The warden likes to pretend
his office is an office like another.
Framed family photos; a meek
abstract, or a schooner battling wind.
A cautious unbrutalism
that makes the guards look out of place, not feel it.
He likes to think the prisoners think he's fair
but cons don't use that word, as he's aware.
Is sure there's no way
he can be taken captive here
in a riot; should he visit
the blocks, they'll have a chance, which is perhaps fair.
He ponders the nature of justice, of
the Just Man who tells
unpleasant, ultimately helpful truths:
"As long as you think
this is about you,
your guilt, the innocence you proclaim (and
in which I believe!), your life, you'll
depends on the existence,
somewhere, of gold. Lovers
meeting, in malls, on lunch break,
at parties, that first cool glance,
the subsequent warmth you have famously missed, and even
age with its tolerable evenings
depend on you violating each other with razors.
The gracious though demoralizing wars
of offices require your
unrest, soldiers without leave.
You have become gold, you see.
A godly people need a concrete heaven
not in the clouds but on this stony ground,
and their direction
of striving isn't upwards but,
as when you flush a john, a circling round."
Though he contrives (his lips seem to be trembling)
these statements only to impress
his pen set, window, or hidden bottle,
the warden likes to believe
they too are commensurate
the manner mild, the burden merciless.
In the last film about the Living Dead,
they win. They eat all living flesh,
struggling limbs and screaming face
first, but then the brains (for choice,
and because if they don't
the corpse will become one of them, unattractive, inedible).
Then they eat all the mammals, reptiles, insects,
lab rats, whatever survives,
untended, starving, in zoos. (It's
unclear if they can assimilate
veggies.) Then they sit around,
suffering the paradox of victory:
peace and equality,
the implied miserable consequence
of zombiedom. It seems intuitively right
that they never attack each other, however
hungry. (They're always hungry.)
Rain falls, a decaying building falls on one
whose remaining arm, half-jaw and torso try
to eat. That breathy groan
the only sound. We're at
an impasse. If they had taken thought
and preserved breeding stock … but zombies
can't think. One recalls the original source
of the plague was a virus from outer space.
Perhaps it will mutate,
at least enough for them to make a sequel.
She has no features; hands
without fingers, folded;
head raised facing left;
back very straight; seated
in a suggestion
Bought in a junkshop
in Baltimore. The man had
"She used to come by
a lot … we had maybe five things.
I guess that's the last." A foot high.
In summer at 7:30 when
the sun hits
that lozenge face
beneath its hair or bonnet, the kind
of sentiment that can't be expressed
in poems, but which, suppressed,
recalls the hurt, the failed,
the completely alone,
the Nameless Liberation Front, the true
a fleeting touch on my shoulder once.
When I die, let
the American Visionary Art Museum
in Baltimore put her
beside the calm head made
of individually blessed matchsticks
by a man who was hurt,
the jacket embroidered with names
of imaginary friends till
a nurse tore it away.
It's strange that, nowadays,
it's largely at that museum
I remember what art is, what I am.
"I have come," says the Sheriff,
"to tell you I have caught
the man who raped and killed
your wife. I have come although
it's very late; since the event,
you haven't slept. You are the man
who blessed this town, among a thousand towns
in this state equally dying, equally
eager to free you
from taxes, by-laws, and unions. The work continues,
temporarily without you; your corporation
is kind, and you remain their trusted point-man.
I see the weeds overthrowing your lawn,
buckling your driveway. Inside,
doubtless, the dishes, shirts
and empties rise, like dust upon the mobile
above the unused crib, all as they should be." –
"I look at you," says the young manager,
"confused (for I was horribly asleep),
but not attempting an impossible
game-face. Even before the event,
as you call it, you had earned my trust, as I
with equal professionalism gained
at least the show of yours.
Among these young-old drudges
for our sister firm that sells them mutant seed,
their dispossessed uncomprehending heirs
and other children who have fled
(as far as the bars which alone light
your streets at night), and of whom
we shall employ at most eighty,
you alone struck me as rational;
though not impractically, not enough
to doubt the interwoven local faiths,
which I professionally share,
especially now, in despair." –
"I lead you unresisting to my car,"
says the Sheriff. – "I follow unquestioning,"
says the manager, "and it's only once we're off
that I hear what you said: you've caught the killer." –
"We drive away from the lights
of your nicely remodeled yet, it turned out,
unsafe house," says the Sheriff.
"Among possible routes
I choose without you noticing
the one through the most rotted
lightless district. You have seen them
in daylight, in passing, while talking
to contractors and the mayor: our relatively few
blacks, our Spanish-speakers,
and others now whom the chances of war
over religion, oil, narcotics, and above all proper
here amidst garbage,
if not the sewage they remember. They
(it is tacitly understood)
will be a token presence
among the token workers in your plant;
but how large a presence
remains a point on which
you are professionally vague. Now I,
to your questions about the suspect, the arrest,
say little." – "And truthfully
I somehow don't expect or even want
answers," says the manager. "We park at the jail,
go in through a side door you
unlock. The hallways are empty.
For a moment, confronting this
austere male squalor, I want to
cry, can't move. I needed
softness, and I found it for a while
beneath the chatter about shared ambitions,
life-schedules ... but you guide me forward. Is it
a cell? A grey-green room; a table. Handcuffed
to it, a man, already bloodied, blood
crusted on dark skin. (Why do I think
'already'; why resentfully?) He mumbles,
snarls, laughs, whines inscrutably.
You draw from an envelope and show me
a garment and a jewel I recognize.
'He had them,' you say, and hand me,
after a moment, the club that hangs from your belt.
Then you vanish from my sight,
though you are only leaning by the door,
and, tentatively at first, then
with absolute release I club and kick
his head, face, elbows, back and groin,
too briefly, till with effort you restrain me,
retrieve and wipe your club and say (at least
I think I hear you say) I'm one of you, now."
Red, they have stolen red from me – red
of hope (which, unlike trust,
cannot be betrayed),
now imbecile religiosity. And
blue (formerly Toryism!)
become irony, undead hope.
There's less of it. It hugs the coasts. Has edges
like those of childhood, the square
of sidewalk beyond which one couldn't go;
crossing it later
affords no new perspective.
border is a block in Arlington.
A pawnshop fortress
("Since 1933!"), a stripmall with
the usual chain café; then,
the border. The expression of gnomes
in the yards of residual shacks between
apartment buildings. Stickers on pickups.
A church offering "Full Gospel"
(which always brings to mind food additives).
We sat at one of the green steel tables
of the café, overlooking the parking lot, scattering
butts. Three bikers at two other tables laughed
largely, about something which, however much
I listened, I wouldn't grasp.
I developed the concept of "lateral prayer,"
as useless as the other kind but more
humanistic. A subtle ray
undeterred by people or buildings,
stopping in, absorbed by
whoever, living or dead,
was sufficiently alienated
to entertain a similar idea.
important. A time before dying, between threats.
A gritty unwalked sidewalk. Cars,
money. Now that I'm old
it is the unaesthetic, boring,
normative places that fascinate me,
the ones you can do nothing with. The patchwork
figure on the corner may have been
a colleague or a homeless schizophrenic,
yet again his shifting enemies
or trumpeting a hymn to the night.
The party was disappointing. How couldn't it be
after such expectation?
A spy, quite transparent,
hogged the canapés, read minds:
a parlor trick, under the circumstances.
There was in fact a substantial police presence,
but that is only to be expected.
A spectacular girl appeared from a better time.
She was at the wrong party; was held.
Insisting on being valued for her mind
as well as her looks, she proclaimed
a Goddess or female aspect of God
who is less concerned with distinctions and hierarchies.
By definition, we couldn't understand her,
so she freed her remaining balloons.
Transfigured, the prophet descended.
His face glowed absurdly, unobserved.
You had walked on ahead
to wait by the car, and seeing what
he had thought was a lover, he realized
you were only the reader,
and that LA, that
immense desired insult, was also a metaphor,
of globalization or whatnot. And so you
smiled at each other weakly
with the beginnings of acceptance,
and drove somewhere, and parked, and were lost in the crowd.
©2015 Frederick Pollack