poem-a-thon 30: at the wake

Last day of April. Ye gods, I did not think I would get here in one piece.

I’ll write a happier poem after this one I guess, but the NaPoWriMo prompt was to write a “farewell” poem, and all I could think of was Nicholas. But then it spun into thinking about his ex, who I won’t name, from whom he acquired what killed him. There are few experience more surreal and rankling than sitting at a memorial for someone with the person who was, in some indirect way, responsible for their death, and knowing that it was almost you who could have been the victim.

That’s about all I can muster to say about that. I think this will take a lot longer to fully melt and unpack.

At the Wake

The last time I saw your murderer,
it was the crowning of September.
All reddening oak and piano damper.
We met in a courtyard paved with brick,
and your murderer– he didn’t look sick.
Mouth unmoving. Beard grown thick.
I couldn’t bring myself to do it,
to spit in his eye, though we all knew it:
how he didn’t even try to push through it.
You took the bullet I dodged, in the head.
You shared his quiet murderer’s bed
and were the one who died, instead.
I want to announce this to everyone–
but we don’t discuss the bullet, the gun.
We talk of doing, not of what’s done.
He’ll pass too, one day– I want to say amen
but I unearth only grey. I’m only certain
of this: I won’t see you, or him, again.

poem-a-thon 25: survivor’s guilt

Trigger warning on this one, which I almost never do. NaPoWriMo wanted a poem with anaphora, and for whatever reason, my brain kept turning “repetition” into “litany” which turned into “hate crime victims”. This isn’t what I want to say about the subject: it’s just the raw first stirring of some emotional complex about it, spilled out onto the page. The whole reason I’ve been doing the charity Poem-a-thon is to help unpack some thoughts about the plight of queer youth, because of all this right here. It hasn’t really done much good, though; to quote a song by VAST, “They’ve been killing children and nobody seems to care.”

Survivor’s Guilt
(for Matthew, Teena, Tyler, Carl, Steen, Scotty…)

On the full-length mirror I have painted
the figure of a boy tied to a fence with salt roads
tracing through the bloodscape from eye to chin
and the figure of a boy opened up in the chest
whose jeans concealed a girl’s manufacture
and the figure of a boy with glasses plummeting
two hundred feet into the Hudson chill with autumn
and the figure of a boy with numbers carved
large and dark across his forehead by his father
and the figure of a boy with an extension cord
wrapped tight around his eleven-year-old neck
and the figure of a boy with his head hanging loose
over shoulders still smoking and peeling
and the figures of other boys to remind me
what good fortune is and what the world is and
how thin a step separates one from the other.

oulipost 8: trickster god

Ah, the best laid plans. I’d intended to get ahead a bit on the poems for the month tonight, since it’s my freest night of the week (and I likely won’t get another this free for a while), but instead I just goofed off all evening. I did meet my quota for today (four), but so much for getting ahead of the curve a bit. This is for Oulipost, prompt the eighth: to write a beau présent poem, that only uses words made from the letters of a chosen name. The first proper name I came across in the paper was “Tom Hiddleston“, so I had a decent set to work with… here’s what I came up with, in my addled, sleep-needing state.

Trickster God Discusses Eschatology

Most destinies end in demolition:
no stone is stolen, totems melted,
losses on most hostiles. The demons
tithe hedonism to someone
to sit on the demolished hill,
toss some lemon-lime Stoli shots,
hidden in time’s slitted middle. Noontide,
tell the middlemen, slide the loose shot
to the noiseless tents stood in omission.
Inside, the middens on the lines
host mementos, denied modesties,
the Deeds Not Mentioned. Some
is set to one side to see its old edition;
most is led onto the sled, soon to
the sentiment mills, then deletion.

poem-a-thon 7: paraphernalia

I had trouble writing this one for a number of reasons. Obviously, the subject matter is pretty heavy and I don’t feel like I have a right to tell it, even though it connects with the other poems I’ve been writing for the challenge. I don’t want to get too preachy with said theme, even though I think I should. (I just don’t think I do preachy very well.) And I worried about pairing this with the NaPoWriMo prompt about love of an inanimate object, even though I think that’s the kind of twisted relationship that users have to their drugs, sometimes. But ultimately, it is a topic I want to address, and if I weren’t so tired/honestly kind of needing a pause from this month of writing, I’d try to project a bit more and do a better job. As it stands, consider this a preliminary, while I go pass out for eight hours.

In the meantime: please donate!


The headshakers avert their eyes
and wonder how someone so young started
doing what they do, courting undertakers
with a rubber round the elbow, as though they
had never been broken-hearted, too.
Maybe they hadn’t, for long, maybe they had
a place to wait while the welts faded
from where the belt kissed their bared backs,
while these ancient children with no such luck
fled into the night. Every needle starts
with need, and at least the venous pump
never tempered its love with the nosebleed,
the open hand and the motherly sneer.
The headshakers drop a dollar here and there
when they walk down the runaways’ gallery,
which will give them something to talk about,
quietly, for days. And their glimmer of love
refolds and returns, peeled back from these
kids called sinners whose hearts might burst
from the sudden drop in airborne pressure.
But the past is all cigarette burns
and the souring of pleasure. Who said
these kids mean to last?

poem-a-thon 3: prayer for an easy death

A quick update, as it’s been a busy day at work… the NaPoWriMo challenge was to do a “charm” poem as a nursery rhyme/recipe. Honestly, I did not have much time this afternoon, and won’t this evening, so I threw together this simple and depressing (and simply depressing?) little thing. It doesn’t particularly tie into anything else, but I suppose once in a while one needs something simple to stretch out the fingers and the tongue.

To anyone who worries about such things: this is entirely fictive, and I’m fine. Though it doesn’t sound like such a bad way to go.

Prayer for an Easy Death

Saltwater bless me
and candlelight rest me
with sleep again.
Let my solution
to bloodborne pollution
sound in the rain.
Cedarwood in the fire,
come finally unwire
the failing brain.

renovation thirteen: first mourning

OK, I’ll admit that it’s gotten cold now. I’ve been sleeping on a couch under, at last count, five blankets (because we’re trying to keep the heat off if possible; energy saving!), some of which I managed to kick off during the night, which meant I woke up freezing. But a brilliant morning it was; none of yesterday’s mystique, just orange and blue everywhere. It fills one with a grim determination.

Here is the prompt for today. I have to say “hrmpf” about the 2nd option, since that was the entirety of Poetry Foundation’s daily poem today. But, one works with what one must.

1. “I’ll snort your mulling spices.” (Becca Klaver, “Fall Parties”)
2. “Thicker than rain-drops on November thorn.” (Samuel Taylor Coleridge, “Fragment 8″)
3. “And all of it trimmed with wires…” (me, “Pra São Gonçalo”)
4. a violet blanket
5. Refer to an event (perhaps in the title) without giving any details about it.
BONUS. Each line must have a different number of syllables from the one directly preceding it, and the one directly following it. Break this rule up to three times.
ALTERNATE (1). “The chimney is fifty years old and slants to one side.” (Wallace Stevens, “The Plain Sense of Things”)

Again, I ended up doing something very fanciful and spare, where the elements of the prompt barely show through, for the most part. For workshop yesterday, I wrote this mammoth narrative poem, so I’m striking my balance.

(first mourning)

The fog was so dense
against the windowpane.
From my bed, it seemed
the day had been
hung in the darkroom
to dry. Old bricks
rebuilt one by one in
the grey. And the eye,
reddened, hooked
onto every shape
with a thrill of recognition
until it slipped away.
Each tree demanded rope.
Each rose called for earth.
The wet glass forbid
the chipped white sill.

I tried to be clever with the title, and to tell a story that would be universal while seeming specific. I’ve been thinking about how it’s been a full year since I’ve submitted anywhere, and all of this drama happening in my life right now, and how tired I feel with all the priorities I have, none of which are simply seek joy. I would rather have that be my priority. I’d rather shovel through the detritus and get to the other side, particularly with writing, because I feel as though I’ve come through infancy and childhood in terms of poetic development; now is the chaos of writerly adolescence. The voice cracks most before it settles into itself.

renovation two: ceromancy

Well, let’s see how this second one goes, shall we?

I am now officially moved out of my apartment; the last 20 hours have been a whirlwind of trucks and storage units and bars and sleeping on couches and trains and suitcases and not-quite-tears. Mostly I’m exhausted; but not too exhausted. Which is good, because I’m treading a whole lot of garbage to stay afloat. (Not least of which are grad school applications and work things.)

Since I am not too exhausted, but dashing into Philadelphia for a bit, I thought I’d take some time to put together another prompt. It’s All Souls’ Day, which I think affected what the poetry websites I’m trawling had on tap, and combined with my grumpiness, created a morbid mood for my poem, at least. But I encourage you to break the mold and try to do something completely different. What would our world be without a bit of variety?

Here’s the list of elements this time:
1. “Smooth the few silver threads out of my hair…” (Elizabeth Akers Allen, “Rock Me to Sleep”)
2. “Have you died? Then speak.” (Katie Ford, “Speak to Us”)
3. “…all candle wax and cold water…” (me, “Fabric”)
4. an antique compass
5. Name a trick you use to get to sleep, even (or especially) when it’s noisy.
BONUS. Break the poem into three stanzas, each with two complete sentences, each sentence having a punctuation mark you haven’t used yet in the poem.
ALTERNATE (5). Name a trick you use to get yourself out of bed, even (or especially) when you really don’t want to.

And my invention for it (which is not based on anything except getting all of these, however thinly, into the poem as inspiration):


At the fair: the old fortune-teller’s tent
hangs purple and melancholy over the wet field
like some forbidding bird. She offers the usual
read your palm sir? read your cards?
but I see red candles thick as wrists dripping
into copper bowls.

Not many want the candles, she says, tips one
into the water with a withered hand.
The drippings knot into a brownish ribbon–
hard and roped like a piece of sick coral–
someone has passed recently, she says, you must
learn to move on.

I didn’t need to pay five dollars for this wisdom,
since I’ve come here (for the first time) alone.
I already know what I must do;
the question is how, when I’m so desperate,
from the sky to the mud to my rubbed-raw skin,
to think of other things.

Do your worst! Or… no, sorry, I meant the other one.


Had a weird experience at the café tonight, where they played a particular song (Cranberries, “Zombie”) that comes up rarely enough that it always reminds me of a certain deceased classmate of mine from high school. We were never the closest of friends, though I suppose we could have been; sometimes I think we mirrored each other in some ways. But then I feel guilty appropriating his memory like that, and I know there are people much more strongly affected by his passing than me. What is the line? Where do we know where we stand, in relation to the dead? I would feel strange saying “my friend who died”, but I can’t deny that I felt for a minute that he was sitting there across from me, just like the last night I ever saw him. And so this poem kind of spilled out of that into a shape I don’t like, but I’ll cope.

Meanwhile, happy birthday to Tessa!


Is there a word in any language for the dead
we did not grieve for? Not to say they were not dear,
only that others have better earned the right to say
I knew him, I knew her. Such a phantom
may appear and sit with you at a dimly-lit café,

and suddenly you remember– the song they’re playing,
the last time you heard it was when you were out
someplace with this ghost brushing hair from his face.
Drinking a tropical drink and smoking a cigarette,
and being alive. Now, it is only the air that passes

between the rungs of a chair, the breeze blown
through the door to bear the musical echo, the smoke
over a cup, or the aftermath. What do we call them?
We do not feel bereaved. What is their noun,
and anyway, who would such a word be for?


And you know what, here’s a poem. We Write Poems is nearly done their series of protagonist-poems, but once in a while the prompts are just fine for stand-alone works as well. This week’s is to a “sky dream” poem, which may get spiritual. With tongue firmly planted in cheek, I ended up doing a catechism thought experiment or something, so here you go.


How long does it take for the dead to get
over each other? When they’re crawling
that upturned china bowl
and buzzing their wings,

once in a while they must encounter
old enemies, also dead. Sometimes,
it must happen before they’ve fully grown
into their angelhood, all acceptance
and understanding. Then you have
the deodorant stink of ozone, heat crackle,

sky piling up on itself. How they must
seethe. Eternity is for mending fences:
but first, the slash of accusations. Heaven
full of broken dishes.

reading: bryan borland, “less fortunate pirates”

Probably my favorite thing about this time of year, aside from the, erm, fauna strolling around town, is the fact that the sun doesn’t disappear until 9:00 or so, and that dusk can last even longer. I’m sitting right now in the Starbucks on the corner (which doesn’t close until midnight: more marvels!) watching the sky over the west side of Chelsea fade cleanly from orange to dark blue, which is quite nice after getting all the usual evening errands and things done during the day. And the air outside is just the right temperature, and the rain has taken a break… this is what I call an evening well-spent.

But I don’t want to spend an evening without doing something productive, so I thought I’d share some thoughts about the other book I managed to get done over the weekend, Bryan Borland‘s Less Fortunate Pirates. I’ve known Bryan almost as long as I’ve had this blog, and he’s one of the few blogosphere people I’ve met on a few occasions in person, thanks to his frequent New York trips. I’d almost hazard that he has become better known in recent years for his spearheading of Sibling Rivalry Press, producing the magazine Assaracus, and putting Arkansas back on the poetry map (unless there’s some secret contingent of Arkansas poets I don’t know about). However, he is a fine poet in his own right as well, and his first book, My Life As Adam, makes for a scintillating debut. (And lastly, he is a Southern gentleman. Très important.)

Less Fortunate Pirates bears the subtitle, “Poets from the First Year without My Father”, so you know right away that this collection will gravitate heavily towards family, loss, and memory. I remember the hints on Bryan’s blog surround his father’s passing, but to see it articulated from so many angles and with such a deft hand deepens not only the experience of shared emotions, but also digs deep into all the other dimensions of this father figure. Elegiac poetry can function as a kind of resurrection: it’s easy to bury ourselves along with the departed, à la W.H. Auden (and don’t get me wrong, “Funeral Blues” breaks my heart every time I hear it, it just doesn’t give me any idea why I should care about its subject), and it’s hard to keep the deceased person talking, moving, having an impact on our lives. The conceit of Pirates is how it traces that exact year, chronologically, from the time of the father’s death in a car accident. I am no expert on the stages of grief, but if the cycle created here is a representative case of the complexity of emotions involved in losing a parent, then certainly there are more than five, woven together, repeated and reflected, moving between anger and denial, but also the extremes of love and dedication.

There is an aspect of automatic writing as well in here. I don’t mean in the James Merrill Ouija board kind of way, but in the sense that in several poems, the father figure seems to insert himself into moments where he would not be expected otherwise: family barbecues, meditations on business, relationship angst, etc. (Of course, there are poems overtly about death as well, but those are the ones we expect.) In my limited experience with losing loved ones, and seeing how others are affected as well, it does seem to me that one of the key elements is the way they make their presence known in the quotidian. Maybe in this sense, the book owes something to Marie Howe’s “What the Living Do”; Bryan’s work also carefully blends direct address to the departed and narrative whose orbit continually brings him closer to his father’s flickering star.

And there are some cutting moments as well, when the bitterness shows through: “My friends are divided / into two camps: / those who’ve lost a parent / and those who will lose a parent,” says one poem. Another talks about the necessity of staying with a lover because they are the only one, moving forward, who will have known the absent father; I remember a friend of mine saying the same thing about her boyfriend. (Perhaps because knowing a partner’s father goes a long way to understanding that partner?) There are all the bad movie trappings happening in real life — inability to choose a headstone, “vultures” circling the widowed mother — and then the minutiae that one doesn’t think of until they arise, from dream journals to inherited joint pain. One poem in the collection has what might be the most subtle nod to the idea of death and incarnation: “The possibility of a stranger’s memory / breaking our skin / is no more unrealistic / than stigmata.” Even when the father’s presence is not spelled out, he lingers on the edge of the page.

Generally speaking, I am not a fan of “therapy poetry”, the most introverted parts of the confessional genre where people exorcise their own demons and emotions about family, love, self, et cetera. I find it difficult to relate to unless, you know, I’m the one writing it; I prefer to do poetry that’s meant to be shared. But I don’t think Pirates falls into that camp at all: rather, there is no question in the author’s mind that the father is loved and missed. There are no conflicted feelings about him as a person which need to be resolved. Rather, the questions surrounding the circumstance of his passing, the weight of What Comes Next, and the relentless sorrow under the surface like a constant beat inform the poetry in the collection. An appreciation and joy for the time that the father and son did manage to spend together darts through all of this like a web of light, holding it all together and keeping the speaker from falling apart. I don’t claim to know whether the book was written as a form of closure, an exploration of other avenues of understanding, or just a reporting of all the assorted thoughts and feelings that rose up in that year, but I think perhaps that unity, the silver lining of grief, is the most valuable takeaway from the book.

And it wouldn’t be much of a review if I didn’t include a few excerpts I found the most moving, would it?:
It is Memorial Day again. The neighbors
fly a flag from their front porch. Our family
visits, my in-laws, my mother. And it dawns
on me that I can no longer use the word 
in the present tense. These are our holidays
~ “Memorial Day”

I remember the time a roman candle
exploded in your hands. The blood
launched like patriotic sparks
across our paved driveway, your pain
another lesson.

~ “The Fourth of July”

I am ready, she is not, so we are not
ready. I think it is her own mortality
she cannot face, her name etched
beside his, one date known, the other,
and everything else, unknown.

~ “The Day We Do Not Choose Your Headstone”

One last note: I have not mentioned the significance of the title, because I think it’s best if you, the potential future reader, find it out on your own. I will say that it appears once near the beginning, once at the end, and its one of the sweetest father-son bonds, and ways to honor a lost father, that I can think of. And there is a lot of sweetness, humble and not over-adorned, in these pages. Someone else can judge whether it’s a suitable primer for those of us who fall into that second camp of people waiting with unmixed dread the day we’ll have a book like this to write. For me, it was a helpful prelude: not a warning, but a thorough journey through how we come out the other side all right.

The dusk has given way to night. Here’s the book’s home, if you care to purchase it. Pax!