Poetry of Sorts

Funhouse Vardøger1

Kierkegaard, the story goes,
While writing Sickness Unto Death,
Or maybe it was Either/Or2,
Watched the Danish village clock outside his window
And, like a foolish robot, emerged every 15 minutes
To stand in the village square, looking, for all the world,
Yet another layabout, with no better place to be.

In the sunlight,
Everybody knows
She is smart and funny (and pretty, of course, always pretty),
The center of all attention, yet as organized as matryoshkas3
No wasted space, no skulls left table-bound
Focused as the snap
of the optometrist’s new, stronger, better lens.

In public,
Everybody knows
He is smart and funny, little else.
Dripping jackassery, he jollies passersby,
Only the ozone smell of mysticism leaves an invisible question mark–
That and his ego, his ego, his ever-expanding ego4.

To herself,

She wrestles doubts, not pinning them,

But playing for time, waiting for the ref’s

Whistle to call an end, a blessed end.

Inside,

He dips balls of sorrow

Into joke-chocolate,

Waiting to pop them into the abyss.

In Kierkegaard’s doorway,

One foot transcendent, one stuck in here-now-ness

They kiss.

Their doppelgängers embrace, meld.

One walker departs, holding its own hand.

_________________________

1A Scandinavian spirit indirectly related to the Gnostic notion of “doubleness,” or the spiritual existence of both a Platonic ideal and its Fleisch und Blut representation.

4Howard, a former seminarian when this poem was written, enjoyed making reference to theological works he had read but not understood.

3Depending on the translator, this can be rendered as either “Russian nesting dolls” or “buttered cucumber.”

4Howard appears often to believe his poetry was to be paid for by the word, and repeated phrases for no particular reason.  No reason whatsoever.  None.

 

For the LH Fallen

In 1675, the Indians assaulted another house at Oyster River . . . meeting with a good old man, [William] Beard, [and] killed him and cut off his head and set it upon a pole in derision. Not far off they burned another house and barn.”—A History of the Town of Durham

In my backyard, when I was young

Were half a dozen stones

With funny words carved into them

And underneath them bones.

 

The smallest one said “Little Fanny,”

Which always brought me laughter

She died before she drew a breath

Or just a little after.

 

The first girl that I ever loved,

At seven, Sheila Draves,

Gave me a kiss then slapped my face

While sitting on some graves.

 

And in my youth I never wondered

About the bodies, dank and rotten,

A foot or two beneath my feet

Humanity forgotten.

 

Today we’ll talk about today,

And let the past have yesterday

But let us take a minute now

For those cast off along the way.

 

“And of the dead, speak only good”

May be a Latin serum

If art’s a higher truth though, then:

De mortuis nil nisi verum.

 

And speak with truth I’ll try to do

Of four who didn’t make it

Success is like a burning light

And some folks just can’t take it.

 

Etymology (for GP)

Yesterday, as I write this,

I talked with a con, a lifer, a jailbird, a felon

Whose crime was

Innocence.

 

He seems too good,

Or trusting

Or sincere

To have really done

 

The things I know he did.

He should have a name like:

Soapy or Cakes or Mugsy or even Doc.

Instead,

He is

George.                                 Go figure.

 

We talked etymology, George and I did,

The origins of “Casing the Joint.”

 

(Did I mention George did hard time,

Alone    in   a     cell        Isolated     from    other     Cons?)

 

He’d considered this question during his daysmonthsyears

And his best thinking told him

Casing the Joint

Derived from looking

At window casings

Before a burglary.

 

Logical?  Yes.                        Creative?  Perhaps.              Accurate?  Absolutely not

 

Because of a wasted college minor in linguistics and a near-autistic reading of dictionaries as a child, I could give you the true etymology.

 

But I won’t.

I’ve not spent yearsmonthsdays

Considering anything,

Turning it over and over in my brain

Only to find

I didn’t know more

Than when I began.

In general,

My ignorance                       Cost me no time at all.

 

The First Thing You Need to Understand (Never Leads to a Last Thing)—(for MG)

It’s hard:

  1. To be the smartest man in any room any where
  2. To keep quiet about being that man

It’s hard:

  1. To find the way to riches without work
  2. To acknowledge the gaps in that mental road map.

It’s hard:

  1. To accept the Times Crossword in pen signifies nothing
  2. To know, in the bones, proofs of the impossible don’t make them possible

It’s hard:

  1. To keep from proving it anyway. To wit:
  2. Nothing is better than having a good job.
  3. A piece of moldy cheese is better than nothing.
  4. Therefore, a piece of moldy cheese is better than having a job.

 

Quod Erat Demonstratum

It’s hard:

To keep from walking out the door when pinheads like Keith and Becky

Make me look for a job,

When the cheese is just starting to discolor.

He Loves Her Very Much

He loves her very much.

He knows that.

She knows that.

Who knows what she feels?

Not he.

Not she.

He feels so empty, pouring himself out for her,

Exposing his joints, his bones, his marrow.

Knowing she may smile.  Then say,

“Thank you.”

And walk away.

She says she only wanted sex.  And maybe she did.  Or does.  Who knows?

Not he.

Not she.

He isn’t built that way, the way she needs a man to be.

Not built to fuck and fly away.  He wants to hold her,

Stroke her, love her.

And she’s been as honest as she can be:

I just want sex.  And you’ve wrecked that.

He loves her very much.

He knows that.

She knows that

And wishes he would just shut up.

 

His Double

 

He gazes into the mirror.

She looks back, her eyes downcast.

He reaches a hand out, palm forward

And watches her imaged fingers come to join his

Tips touching, electrical charge.

Her eyes remain hidden in plain sight.

He doesn’t want to bother her,

The woman in the mirror.

She will not look, so he will leave.

As he rises, shakes his head to clear it,

The mirror speaks.

“Please sit down.  Please.”

And in that second, split like an atom,

She looks into his soul.

And that’s enough

For now.

 

I don’t know what you know about gardening

(But you’ll know less when I am done with you.)

 

They did not eat an apple in that garden.

They swallowed the word ‘apple’ instead

And we continue tasting letters,

Wondering why they are not sweet

And juicy and made for pies.

 

I have no more words for you, my friend,

To show the way you make me feel

About you        and me            and life.

 

Pick me up, bite hard and taste me

And feel the juice run down your chin.

 

Frog Pond I

In this life,

the choice, ultimately,

is what size frog

in what size pond

do you want to be?

Then ribbut like hell

until the gig impales you

or the snapper crushes you.

Frog Pond II

Some frogs are too small

for even the smallest pond.

They need a creek,

a swamp,

a puddle.

In even the ugliest family,

there is the prettiest girl.

In even the stupidest family

there is the family scholar.

In even the smallest pond,

there is a largest frog.

Frog Pond III

Control is not the issue,

although it is always an issue.

Power is not the issue,

although it is an issue.

Freedom to have an impact on the world,

no matter how small an impact,

or how small a world,

is the issue.

Life Sucks.  So What?

I was sitting with a teenager who was really in a funk.

Her father was psychotic and her mother was a drunk.

She had no friends, she failed at school, she told a lot of lies.

And the truth was she was empty, which should come as no surprise.

 

Although she was just a babyww, her face was lined with pain.

Years of abuse from those she loved may have driven her insane.

The tears poured down her pretty face, said “That’s not how life should be.”

She seemed to expect answers, I said, “Whaddya want from me?”

All I know is:

Chorus

            Life sucks.  So what?

            Life sucks.  So what?

            Life sucks.  So what?

            Life sucks.

            So whaddya wanna do about it?

 

I said to her crestfallen face, from the Cradle to the tomb,

Life isn’t fair.  For instance, I was hated in the womb.

The woman who got knocked up with me knew she couldn’t take no more,

Though her city had a million souls, she was known as the town whore.

She’d learned that:

Chorus

Yanked out of that unfriendly cave, I became a ward of the state,

And was placed with a foster family, who received the standard rate

For cleaning me and changing me and making sure I ate

I’m not sure if they loved me, but they couldn’t have cared enough to hate.

Deep down they knew:

            Chorus

Eventually adopted by nuclear family

Who were no more dysfunctional than anyone else I see,

My grandfather had a breakdown, my uncle was a thief,

My father made a living, making ill-fitting false teeth.

They’d learned:

Chorus

By the time I was a teenager, I was just as shattered as you.

Shooting dope and telling stories that couldn’t be true.

Now I’ve thought about it, I stared down in the void,

And seen the answer written there, that will always fill me with joy.

And that answer is:

Chorus

 

Pus Theory

 

You just wait for the pressure to build up, you just wait for the build-up to  to blow,

Then what you spew out of your mouth, mind, or hand, can be called a piece of art you know.

Whatever pops into your mind and plops out on a page

Artistically represents your joy, sorrow, loss and rage.

 

Art is art when an artist has found it,

Take a blank wall, put a frame around it

Don’t waste time trying to master your craft

Just set sail on the ocean of art with your ego as your only life raft

 

You don’t have to be that clever, you don’t have to have much soul

Jackson Pollock didn’t know what he’d get when he poured that paint out of a bowl.

You don’t have to study your craft, you don’t have to be that clever

When you subscribe to the pus theory of artistic endeavor.

 

Art is art when an artist has found it,

Take a blank wall, put a frame around it

Don’t waste time trying to master your craft

Just set sail on the ocean of art with your ego as your only life raft

 

Artists of a feather gotta hang together so they won’t hang separately,

Vision is a tired anachronism; you want marketability

Money is really what matters; vision is really quite garish

Never mind what the Bible says; it’s without mammon that people perish

 

Art is art when an artist has found it,

Take a blank wall, put a frame around it

Don’t waste time trying to master your craft

Just set sail on the ocean of art with your ego as your only life raft

 

 

Christmas, 1996

(for Becca)

 

The kid, they say, was born in a manger.

Frankly, I have my doubts.

 

The boy, they say, astonished the scholars.

Frankly, I have my doubts.

 

The man, they say, had a huge midlife crisis

and decided that he was God’s son.

 

The prophet, they say, could walk upon water.

Frankly, I have my doubts.

 

The messiah, they say, could bring back the dead.

Frankly, I have my doubts.

 

The man, they say, offers a model

of humility, kindness and love.

 

The Lord, they say, could multiply fishes.

Frankly, I have my doubts.

 

His blood, they say, has washed away sin.

Frankly, I have my doubts.

 

The man, they say, was a poor carpenter

who laid down his life for a cause.

 

The anointed, they say, can offer salvation.

Frankly, I have my doubts.

 

The Son, they say, is living today.

Frankly, I have my doubts.

 

Jesus, they say, gave good for ill.

Frankly, this I believe.

 

Jesus, they say, said heaven’s within us.

Frankly, this I believe.

 

Jesus, I say, resonates meaning,

and he never intended to lie.

Looks

I.

I never mastered the art

Of not giving a shit,

Although

I had the look

Down fucking pat.

Always behind the sneer,

a thought that last remark

might have gone too far.

The look distracted any pain.

II.

They all had looks, the rebels did:

James Dean, Elvis and Marlon Brando

Looks flowing from their leather coats

Up through their pompadours

Oozing “fuck you” like Brylcreem

My look showed nothing of their cool

Disdain, perhaps,

A sense of

Looking down

From on high

To keep

From feeling low.

That look

Of mine

Could wither friends,

Poison neighbors

And strangle lovers.

And yet,

That look of mine

Was never mine at all.

It just kept people from being mine.

III.

Caring is creepy,

So I crust myself in a coating of

“I don’t give a fuck”

but the caring keeps showing through.

Icarus Revisited (for BH)

You know my story—or think you do.

Out of love or whatever, and feathers and wax

My dad made wings to fly me away

From Crete and back to the mainland

And on to the cover of* the agora’ gossip rags.

We dreamed of the headline:  Father, Son Defeat Gravity; Marry Twin Courtesans

A dream, of course, denied existence.  You know my flight.

Dad never found a wife

And I’m still married to the Mediterranean.

 

That is the story, or a part of it

Stories have points (or did in my time)

And the moral here?  You’ve been taught:

I flew too high out of pride, the wax melted and I died.

 

But think.

Think about.

About this,

This:

If a father gives a boy the tools of his own destruction

Why is this my story

Instead of my bastard father’s?

 

 

 

Drowning in the Fountain of Eternal Life (for EW)

A psychiatric ward, that’s where I was.  I think.

And when I think I get confused

Because of the kicks.

I’d do anything for kicks.  I think I remember.

And when I remember I forget what happened.

Heroin-Kicks.  Prison-No kicks.  Release—Time for kicks.

But this time to my head.  Two guys.  Four boots.  One six-month coma.

And brain damage.

It’s zero degrees.  Tomorrow will be twice as cold.

And confusion.

My mission is to refuse the mission.  Do I accept?

And forgetting.

I’ve tried to forget the pain.  I don’t remember if I have.

Anyway, a psych ward was what I think I wanted to say.

That’s where I first met Keith.  He’s my friend.  I think.

I don’t remember what happened to those pills.  I really don’t.

But I don’t remember forgetting, either.

The cops say they know.

It’s confusing.

I do know:  Keith brings my money to the jail to buy me cups of soup.

He’s my friend.  And that soup is good.

Bloom Where You’re Planted;

Rot Where You’ve Buried Yourself (for JT)

I’ve never left prison

Planning a crime of

Passion

Necessity

Stupidity.

Each time, I’m aiming for straight time.

 

I’ve never left prison

Intending to

Drink (at least not the way I want to drink)

Steal (unless I really, really want it)

Lie (except when the truth would hurt me).

Always, I’ve changed and I’m going to do better.

 

I’ve never left prison

Dreaming of

Working hard for a month

Getting a thirty-day chip

Throwing those away for a six-pack and a toothless girl.

But I always do.

 

It’s always the same—It’s going to be different.

But I never am.

I’ve never left prison.

 


Zu gescheit ist dumm (Too Clever is Stupid.)

The poet’s sultry voice nudges the novelist awake.  What he’s called poetry is vertical prose.

The poet creates an ecosystem, shining images virally playing off each other, infecting the listener.

The novelist’s poems are flowerpots with a single bloom, a hose hidden to soak the reader’s face.

Each poem is a set-up for a gag.

 

“Walking on water wasn’t built in a day.”

“If I don’t see you in the future, I’ll see you in the pasture.”

“In a city of a million souls, she was known as the town whore.”

“Quaker erotica:  Be still and let the Spirit send you dirty thoughts.”

+      +      +

The Bulgarian music ice-picks my ears

The singer wearing, I suppose, a traditional white dress

Piped with red and green.

“I suppose” because my ignorance

of Bulgarian tradition

is near limitless.

 

The tune,

A dance number in 5/8 time

Is punctuated by her shriek,

A fifteenth-century wail lacking tonal center.

The song is, I believe,

an ode to the courage of resistance fighters

During Bulgaria’s five century long occupation

By a variety of powers

Bent on spoiling the spoils of war

Or, perhaps, an account of the marriage

Of a hedgehog to a rabbit.

I know no Bulgarian

Although it sounds a good language

To organize either a war or a wedding.

 

Beside me, a heroically ugly man,

Nods his head without connection to the music.

His face,

A bag of melted caramels

Pummeled by a golf shoe,

Breaks into a smile

When the hedgehog,

After saying, “I do,”

is killed as a collaborator.

+       +       +

The novelist constructs gags,

Searches for one-liners

And spray paints humor

On the miniature he’s created.

Just don’t call it a poem.

Call it a dispatch from clever-clever land.

 

The novelist will never sit at the grown-up table.

He’ll bide his time

Trying to capture the poet’s attention

By putting beans up his nose.

 


A Gift

 

“I am an alcoholic.

My name is Legion”

 

Familiar unheard stories flow

Laughter at self-destruction

Nods at idiocy

Winces at the few instances

Of fruit-fly lived joy.

 

Jung, or somebody emerged from his pool,

Spoke of doppelgängers–our spirit doubles.

In a meeting, that spirit, that ghost, that phantom

Of our Thirst

 

Hovers over each head.

 

Unable to clasp spirits,

We grab hands

And chant

 

The rhythms of an old prayer

Made new by repetition

 

 

  1. X. X.

 

Tonight, my friend,

Engaged in the gymnastics of love,

Let that ghost of each of our best

–and worst–

Selves

 

Become

Momentarily

A true monogänger.


Beauty is a Guillotine . . . as heavy, as light

 

He stares, discreetly he hopes,

For his heart is thrombotic. His face a Buddhist statue,

At the side of her face

In the harsh office light

And wonders                        where desire resides.

 

Is it in the tempestuous whirlpool eyes?

Or is it the mouth?

Of course, the mind.

 

Desire, decanted in secret,

Stored in an emerald carafe

To be drunk not often,

But always in the deepest of draughts.

 

He gazes a while longer

Turning the possibilities over in his mind,

Like so many coins at a Turkish bazaar,

Then shakes his head

And watches the snowflakes swirl, then settle down on

The sleepy town

Of a cut-glass ornament at his grandmother’s house.

 

+       +       +

 

Love that is incomprehensible

Does not cease to exist

 

+       +       +

 

Lying awake nights, staring at the back of his eyelids

He wonders why.  Just why.

She’s beautiful, he thinks,

And witty, bright, charming

And all those other words

Made meaningless by repetition

And it amazes him she’s attracted.

 

He is so unworthy . . . not, however, incapable of being made worty.

 


I am not a Whore

I.

Are you sure we’re alone?

Completely alone?

No eavesdroppers?  No bugs?

God, I was kidding!  This is hard for me.  (and it wasn’t then

–an example of distancing through foreshadowing.  I’ll hide

in the darkness away from the slow-motion explosion.)

But I digress.  Before beginning

1978. A lifetime ago.  Not my lifetime,

but, for instance, Jesus’.  Thirty-three years old

and they got him for practicing

magic without a magician

while today we have

magicians and no magic.

But I digress.

Approaching this thing takes stealth.  Like mice

Sneaking up to bell a cat.

1978.  Hitchhiking.  Home on leave.  Army.

Me—New Hampshire.  Girlfriend—Connecticut

Her name was Kristen.  Nanzig, France the spring before.

Sophomore.  Wesleyan University.

Way outta my league except for my

Proletariat status.  Working class hero.

I can tell I’ve gotten off track.

Let me begin again.

1978,  Hitchhiking in love and on the interstate.  To see Kris.

And give her tickets to the Springsteen show from the night before.

Darkness Tour.  She was a Vivaldi fan, so Bruce tickets

A sign of my class, which is to say lower-middle.

A car pulled over, late-model.  Nice car.  Driver dressed well.

Man in his 50s, scarf thrown sportily over his shoulder.

(No, this isn’t that kind of story—it’s much worse—not a gay Penthouse Forum tale (“I never thought this would happen to me! . . . Unzip, slurp, slurp).  I’d been hit on by a lot of guys before and after, in 10 states and three countries.  I knew the casual hand to my knee, the shy smile with just-too-long eye contact, the casual mention of being horny.)

(Once, outside Indianapolis, I’d gone to a guy’s house so he could change his clothes.  We smoked a lot of weed and, while I was listening to Deep Purple, the guy came out of his bedroom, naked, erect and with industrial vibrators strapped to his hands.

I knew how to talk

my way out of the situation,

offending no one

and getting out with my pecker untouched.

Call it a gift of the hitchhiker.

Goddamn.  Three steps on the journey and I’m so far off course

The goal has hidden itself behind me.

Scary, this.  And that.  That goal.

Back to the beginning.

Does this show

I am not a whore?

1978.  The man in the car.  Joseph, I’ll call him, and that may well have been his name.

Abort.  Start over.

In list fashion

II.

1.    Nothing happened.

2.    Something happened.

3.    A man touched me.

4.    I let a man touch me.

5.    I planned to let a man touch me.

6.    I went to a place where I planned to let a man touch me.

7.    I went to the apartment of a man I thought might touch me.

8.    I went to the bedroom of a man I knew wanted to touch me.

9.    I took off my clothes for a physical examination in the bedroom of a man I knew wanted to touch me.

10. I lay down naked across two beds in the bedroom of a man I knew wanted to touch me, my cock hanging straight down only because of gravity.

11.

Before I get to 25, I’ll lose my goddamned voice and tear this building down.

III.

Let me begin again.

More softly.

Shhh.

As a story

For children

Of a lesser god:

Once upon a time, a boy was hitchhiking, something you must never ever do, and he was picked up by a man, a doctor.  The boy was a fast runner, the fastest in his town, one of the fastest in his state.  The boy had joined the army when he was a big boy and now he only ran two miles a day, first thing in the morning.  The boy was stationed far away, across the ocean, but he loved a girl in his home land.  He had come home to visit the girl.

The doctor asked to watch the boy run.  They went to a park and the boy ran.  He ran fast.  The doctor watched, and liked what he saw.  The doctor told the boy he was the doctor for the army track team, and that he could get the boy on the team.  The boy was happy.  The boy would be with the girl he loved.

The doctor drove the boy to the college the girl went to, and the doctor told the boy he wanted to see him in two days for an examination at the doctor’s office.  The boy was happy.  The girl was happy.  The doctor was a motherfucking liar who was out to destroy the boy and leave him a shell of himself, so that he’d spend the next 35 years sleeping with women he often didn’t care about and trying to erase the goddamned doctor from his memory.

IV.

Hold on, there, Tiger.  The tone has changed.  Let’s go back.

Tell me what happened.  Just what happened.  No feelings.  No assessment.  Just what happened.

I wanted to be on the team.  I wanted to run track for the army and be with Kristen.  Joseph the doctor picked me up, and we went to a VA Hospital parking lot.  Joseph the doctor said the lot was full, and we could go to his home for the examination.

I knew what was happening.  I wanted the fruit.  I wanted the fruit so goddamned bad.

We got there.  I knew it was all bullshit—the doctor, the track team, the promise—but I couldn’t know that.  I had to sort-of-believe.

I stripped naked and lay across the space between two twin beds.  The doctor got down on his knees and started stroking me.  I didn’t get hard.

“Don’t you get an erection from stimulation?” he asked.

“With a girl,” I said.

“Stimulation is stimulation,” he said.  “There’s something wrong with you.  Get hard.  Get hard!  Think about a girl, but get hard, you little faggot!”

I laughed.  God help me I laughed.

“What are you laughing at, faggot?” he hissed.

I said nothing.

Irony is a hard lesson to learn with your pants down,

V.

The truth.  The nub.  The point.  The touchstone?

I don’t know