oulipost 24: neighborhood boys

Getting my Oulipost on this lovely afternoon. Today’s prompt was to do a homosyntaxism, taking found text and converting words to other words with the same part of speech: nouns become other nouns, verbs become other verbs, etc. I decided to adapt the prompt a bit and call it a slow burn, where the poem applies these changes to the same sentence one iteration at a time, as you’ll see below. I’m sure there’s a better name for it, but I like “slow burn” because it applies to the content of the piece. The original sentence is the first one, and it’s from the Voice, and it’s a throwaway line whose provenance I can’t recall.

Neighborhood Boys Exchange Difference of Opinion

The conversation turned to us talking about the people and things that made our local spots great.
The conversation turned to us talking about the people and things that made our local spots deadly.
The argument turned to us talking about the people and things that made our local spots deadly.
The argument turned to us talking about the speedballs and things that made our local spots deadly.
The argument led to us talking about the speedballs and things that made our local spots deadly.
The argument led to us talking about the speedballs and switchblades that made our local spots deadly.
The argument led to us talking about the speedballs and switchblades that made our usual spots deadly.
The argument led to us talking about the speedballs and switchblades that left our usual spots deadly.
The argument led to us showing off the speedballs and switchblades that left our usual spots deadly.
The argument led to us showing off the speedballs and switchblades which left our usual spots deadly.
The argument led to us showing off the speedballs and switchblades, which left our usual day deadly.

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 4: plagues of egypt

Two poems done before 2:00, woooo! Now I just need to get the Oulipost one done this evening… for now, should probably get back to work, aye?

This one is for the Poem-a-Thon/NaPoWriMo combination; the NaPo prompt today was to do lunes, the “American haiku” in verses of 3-5-3 words. I tried to get a little bit Ryanesque with the sound, and a little bit preachy with the topic, and ended up with something that doesn’t really work as well as I’d like. I think I need to stop trying to force the prompts onto the subject matter, or vice versa; we’ll see how the weekend goes, when I have more time to consider how I want to craft these. I never expect wonderments to come out of the April frenzy, but anything generative is good; I’ve written more new drafts in the last week than the preceding month, I believe.

Plagues of Egypt

Even here– now–
there’s blood in the water.
How many hearts
could be hardened?
Broken needles for their sons
and daughters sleeping
along the streets–
then awoken into more darkness,
faces grown scabbed,
hands weak. Something
unknown has mistaken its purpose.
The lambs suffer
the slaughterer’s curse.
Shaking with cold, begging change,
their backs bending–
still these plagues
multiply. Strangers pretend to forget
this story’s ending.

renovation twenty-four: christopher, three years later

It is so bloody cold out there today, that I couldn’t feel my face when I got in a little while ago. I need to find a new apartment ASAP, but if the one I’m supposed to go see tonight doesn’t get back to me to say it’s okay to visit… well, I’m okay with not going back out there at all tonight. And since I was getting everything together to head back to New York, I did not get to do this prompt until later than intended, so I apologize:

1. “Every afternoon the people one knows can be found at the cafe.” (Ernest Hemingway, “Montparnasse”)
2. “All day I’m giving a name / for what isn’t there.” (Liz Beasely, “Snakeskin”)
3. “Donna Summer starts up on the speakers.” (me, “The Gospel According to Helena”)
4. an empty birdhouse
5. Think of a person, and the last time you saw him or her.
BONUS. No bonus! Go nuts with the structure.
ALTERNATE (2). “Commuters arrive in Hartford at dusk like moles…” (Robert Bly, “The Executive’s Death”)

I couldn’t think of anything for the bonus. By all means, if you want to do form stuff, you should; but I just was too tired to dredge up any clever things about it. Go where the words take you. Lazy Sundays all around.

(christopher, three years later)

Several seconds passed before I recognized
those eyes like cigarette burns, perfectly round
and dark, and full of a desperate history.
I was working, and he asked for a cappuccino
the way he might have on a November morning
three years ago, the two of us clasped
on a mattress in someone’s West Village hallway–
the way you might ask someone to save you.
Maybe he recognized me, maybe not.
We met in a club. We only ever knew each other
by touch, and anyway, three years can change a lot.
It can draw lines through veins under perfect skin,
grease the hair, narrow and crack the lips
and tremble the fingers. If I awakened anything
in him, it was a feather of blue candle flame
you could call regret, bending towards the corners
emptied of a person, a shuttered gallery
dragging itself out the coffeeshop door.

renovation twenty-one: vincent

I know I say this every day, but I warned that I’d be giving my least for these monthly prompts, didn’t I? (I’ve tried to give more than that as the occasion arises, but still, it’s been busy this month. It’s always busy.) Not much ado to be given, I feel. Here is the prompt (with two bonuses):

1. “I have watched you through windows and keyholes…” (Josh Bell, “One Shies at the Prospect of Raising Yet Another Defense of Cannibalism”)
2. “When I arrived, the elms had been shaved.” (Ruth Stone, “Romance”)
3. “Observe how we made a mess out of this.” (me, “(escondig at dawn)”)
4. a budget piece of modern art
5. Invent or relate a short narrative where you give away the end at the beginning, and then do not end at the end.
BONUS. Start every sentence (not line) with the same word AND/OR choose one vowel, and keep that vowel out of your poem entirely.
ALTERNATE (3). Use a line (either as a direct quotation, or just as inspiration) from another poem you have written in November.

…and here is the totally depressing narrative I invented out of it. Consider yourself forewarned! I kept repeating “the” and noticed I had left some a’s out, so I rolled with it. That, and I wanted to pick out some line from an earlier poem this month and make an implication out of it. The title is a maybe-too-obvious implication too.


The week before he committed suicide,
our fired neighbor broke up with his girlfriend,
drove up to Bennington one more time,
sold off on our stoop everything he owned
which would not be left behind in the will.
The money he collected in the pewter urn
would be sent to his mother for the plot
next to his brother, who drowned young.
The rest (the will instructed) would go
to the Vermont Forest Service, up north.
The morning he moved in, he’d sketched
our block in colored pencil: every grey,
peeling elm with their tissuey crowns,
the people hurrying in edgeless blurs.
The hour before he shot himself, sun
going down over the street, with nothing
left to give, he let the picture go for twenty
when we promised to mount it in our home.
The first moment we sensed something
might be wrong: his fingers clutched
round the corners of it, couldn’t offer it up
even with his will resolved, his eyes
set with their hopeless blue.

renovation eighteen: storms, november

I kept turning this one over trying to do something with it, but dammit, it’s just not sticking. Here’s the prompt:

1. “Please God, or whomever, get it over with already…” (John Gallaher, “In a Landscape: IV”)
2. “Because the eye has a short shadow…” (Naomi Shihab Nye, “Fundamentalism”)
3. “Water is cello music.” (me, “Little Kanawha River”)
4. a pile of wet leaves
5. Consider how your life has been improved or complicated by a certain piece of technology.
BONUS. Include five internal slant rhymes, four internal full rhymes, three end slant rhymes, two end full rhymes, and (optionally) a partridge in a pear tree.
ALTERNATE (1). “That was until I realized I was American.” (Ken Chen, “Child of Immigrants” from “Brief Lives”)

And I wanted to write about the strange disconnect between seeing the destruction in the Midwest yesterday vs. the very placid post-blown-out-storm front this morning. It was beautiful here, really, and the peculiarity of that is not lost in me. Damned if I could get it into words though, let alone an(other) unseamed sonnet. Crazy days at work don’t help much either.

(storms, november)

The spent storm rolled through, shaking the sky,
and morning was all frail light. The yard was gilded
with leaves, and the wells were cold with water.
Someone will take up the blower, the rake,
and discard the evidence. It will hum in the gutter.
Soon each part of this part of the world will dry,
save yesterday’s paper left out in its plastic sack.
Ink bleeds. But the photos of ruin remain clear
from the front’s tornadoes out west: people take
what they can, and no longer trust the air.
Someone will talk about seeing the bigger picture,
which seems so senseless. There is some cruelty
up above. It must seem we’re ripe for the picking,
like we’ve doubted the earth, its teeth, its curvature.

renovation sixteen: handsome strangers

I must jump up from this and go cook things. There’s a Thanksgiving potluck tonight that will be attended by people with various dietary restrictions, so I am making two dishes. One, the dessert, is a sweet potato and apple crisp that will satisfy the vegan, gluten-free, and corn-free contingents all, I hope; the other a cornbread by which I’m going to say fuck it, if you can’t eat it, it’s all for me. (I might just slather some bacon grease on top to make it extra off-limits, for additional counterbalance.) (OK, not actually.)

But I could not tumble into the second half of the month without a prompt. I rolled my eyes a little at the Adelaide Crapsey poem on Poetry Foundation today — I’ll admit that cinquains are one of the most, in my snooty opinion, obnoxious poetry forms — but rolled with it.

1. “A hand’s width of clear gold, unraveled out…” (Lizette Woodworth Reese, “A Violin at Dusk”)
2. “…like steps of passing ghosts…” (Adelaide Crapsey, “November Night”)
3. “No two are alike, except in their color, and their hunger.” (me, “Carlos Amorales, ‘Black Cloud’ “)
4. a pair of kitchen scissors
5. Mention a recent occasion when you were disappointed in yourself. Do not make it the theme or focus of the poem, at least not outwardly.
BONUS. Any enjambed line must rhyme (or near rhyme) with another line in the poem.
ALTERNATE (3). Use a line from one of your own poems that is ekphrastic, inspired by another work of art. If you have never written an ekphrastic poem (or just if you want to), use a line that makes a statement which is immediately contradicted.

And here’s a take on most of these that I hope most of us can relate to. And it ended up being something of another unseamed sonnet again.

(handsome strangers)

Each time I think of the boys that came before.
Now they too are standing in the kitchen,
looking over my shoulder. They listen.
They are spoiling for a miscommunication.
And nothing would please them more:
I have been spending too much time growing fond
of just the wrong kind of intellectual boys.
Here, I am preparing lamb with a strawberry blond
discussing philosophy and gender equality
and all the usual sorts of white noise.
I have my repertoire of come-ons to say–
but those boys from before demand honesty.
They murmur and shift behind my hearing.
They pluck at my collar with wicked dismay.

renovation fourteen: lunch atop a skyscraper, 1932

Maybe you know this famous photo by Charles Ebbets?:

If not, this is from the middle of the Great Depression, as the GE Building (now more popularly known, maybe, as “30 Rock”) was being built. There’s something strange and poignant about all this New York Deco history happening in the middle of economic disaster. Probably the starkest example of this, in this photo at least, is the fact that these are men eating lunch (actually, posed to eat lunch) nearly 1000 feet above the ground, with no safety harnesses. The pulley in the foreground caught my attention, as did the man on the far right, who does not appear to share the camaraderie of the others. Since this was the prompt list I put together…

1. “…understanding what touch meant / for the first time…” (Roger Bonair-Agard, “Because I cannot remember my first kiss”)
2. “The desires falling across their bodies like blossoms.” (Stephen Spender, “The Truly Great”)
3. “I bled sweetness across the outside of my teeth.” (me, “Treasure Hunt”)
4. an artistic photograph of something mundane
5. Give an example of the usefulness of a simple machine.
BONUS. Give your poem a prime number of lines (prime numbers being those that can only be divided by themselves and 1, such as 2, 3, 5, 7, 11, etc.)
ALTERNATE (2). “We pretended to know nothing about it.” (Cleopatra Mathis, “Dead Fox”)

…I thought of the photo pretty quickly, and the poem grew from there. There’s probably a lot more to be written just from this photo (and indeed there’s even a documentary about it, particularly about how nobody knows the identities of these men for certain), but this will have to do for now.

(lunch atop a skyscraper, 1932)

The man on the end frowns at the camera
while the rest pass cigarettes, discuss baseball,
trade gristle and hard-boiled eggs for red apples.
He drinks his lunch from a half-empty flask
to take the edge off, to help him forget that he is
one sharp breeze away from death.
Most builders have forgotten to envy the beam,
held in its web of pulley and rope, except this
scowling man pulling a rosary around the hand
tucked in his pocket. Life has gotten
so cheap these days. He, at least, is still
not ready to give up on it, even when shivering
on the bread line, or riveting these new cathedrals.
Or even now, when the bosses tell their men,
walk out on that girder– sit– smile for the camera–
and he does not smile. Tenacious as a bull.
Staring at the crowd who waits for him to fall.

renovation eight: notes for a disaster

I’ve been reading about this Typhoon Haiyan stuff in the Philippines, and I always feel really awkward about it. One must be aware of the privilege one holds in order to mitigate it for the sake of others; but in situations where you feel truly powerless in the moment, you can’t do much except feel guilty. That, and the fact that we just got through our Sandyversary round here, was on my mind while putting this together. (Also, the poetry culling from websites didn’t do me much good today for breaking out of the melancholia. Sorry!)

1. “the last minute / fumbling one does” (Todd Boss, “I Love the Hour Just Before”)
2. “…bad news is set in distant places.” (Lisel Mueller, “In November”)
3. “There are two kinds of places where night comes quickly.” (me, “The Yards”)
4. a bottle of red ink
5. Name some feature(s) of your handwriting that you’re proud/ashamed of.
BONUS. Pick a part of speech (noun, verb, adjective, adverb). Do not use it.
ALTERNATE (1). “No dog knows my smell.” (Robert Lowell, “Homecoming”)

Here’s what came out of it for me:

(notes for a disaster)

Propped against the bowl of pears and avocados
is the note which says, in red letters, Remember to
donate at the office. What he meant was,
drop some money in the echo jar sitting at work
they’re using to collect for the disaster we’ve been
watching. Every hour describes some worse death.
After hearing about the jar with its film of green,
he got very quiet, but it was clear he was thinking.
He didn’t sleep that night; or if he did,
all of his dreams were sudden and saltwater-logged.
The note has been there all morning. At the bottom,
small colliding letters add a PLEASE
to the wide field of the page. He might’ve thought
they looked like fruit dropped into the first snow,
beautiful and necessary. Some things are so
untouched they feel guilty, and bury their heads.

Not sure what to make of it, but there it is. It’s been kind of a crazy hectic day for a variety of reasons, so I have hopes that there will be better cogitation on these poetic issues over the weekend. That, and some decent grub.

renovation seven: what blood

Sorry for the delay today, you guys; it was kind of a hectic Thursday. I’m a little bit paranoid about saying why on the blog, but if the near future goes well, perhaps I will be able to eventually. How delightfully cryptic of me, n’est-ce pas?

Anyway, here is today’s prompt:

1. “Beyond the carrots and blind white worms…” (Rachel McKibbens, “deeper than dirt”)
2. “Bloody hell, the world’s turned / upside down.” (Cally Conan-Davies, “Ace”)
3. “One of these houses cannot be found on maps.” (me, “Moving Day”)
4. a long, broken zipper
5. Describe as best you can the palpable feeling of nostalgia in a particular place.
BONUS. Make the poem a series of grammatically complete sentences, each of which is no shorter than four lines.
ALTERNATE (5). Describe the palpable opposite of nostalgia: the anxiety at confronting something from your recent past that you haven’t had to deal with lately.

And here’s what I came up with, which kind of keys off a discussion I had a friend the other day about going back to the first house you lived in and doing the whole “excuse me, I used to live here…” thing. I imagine this doesn’t happen in situations where people grow up in apartments, but I could be wrong. And what do people feel if their building is just gone? My mother and I were talking about nostalgia last night; that informed part of this too.

(what blood)

When the city children return with children
of their own years later, to spell their own prologue
over a sagged thing of brick and wire and
a butternut-colored jalopy, what must they think
to see the old corner lot wrapped in yellow
plastic tape and COMING SOON signs.
The porches have all been ripped off like scabs
and replaced with people flashing by
going from this place to that, and the doormen
will not let these children with children in.
What blood must rush to their head after coming
all this way to draw a line in the dirt with a sword
and upturn a wriggling narrative with the point
as if to explain, no matter how far you go, you leave
the littlest hairs of your roots behind– only to be
turned away from a place that is not theirs,
nor their children’s. The front matter is blanked
from their biography, hanging wide
like a mouth with puzzle teeth that, having
opened too far, finds it cannot shut.

I have a free and clear evening tonight. Perhaps I will cruise around the poetry blogs a bit, catch up on some more writing, practice some headstands… you know, the usual Thursday rubbish. We’ll see.