Published on: 5/6/2012
By the time his wife died,
My great uncle was already in his seventies.
I don't know what he was like when he was younger,
But when I knew him his conversation seemed to be a mix of religion
And his service in The War to End All Wars.
I remember the last time we talked.
He was sitting on the rocker on his front porch,
Wearing the cracked leather jacket
He always wore when he went for a ride on his vintage Harley.
I was too young to understand everything he was getting at,
But I do remember how sad and tired he seemed.
"I've been a respectful man all my life
And all my life I've held my tongue,
First to keep the army happy, then my boss, and most of all, my wife.
But I'm all that's left now.
"Lately, I've thought a lot about angels,
If not how cowardly they are, at least how inefficient.
For two thousand years they've been in the same trenches,
Never advancing, never gaining ground,
Never getting closer to final victory.
"And the devils are just as inept, limited to a strategy of greed and lust,
Fighting with the night time guerilla tactics of hit and run sex.
Dropping the mustard gas of vanity and lies,
And using their cowardly Big Bertha of cancer on the innocent, like your aunt,
So that the pain drove her mad, so mad that she cursed the angels who ignored her
As if she was a wounded horse crying for help in No Man's Land.
"People used to talk about the stalemate on the Western Front
That's nothing compared to this incompetency.
All these generals, like Michael and Lucifer should be
Shot as a warning to the rest
To get off their fat asses and do something."
It was easy to think he was senile,
As my mother said,
Especially when, later that week,
He and his Harley went AWOL.
Published on: 5/6/2012
Traditional grammar exercises
Read like the conversation of Alzheimer patients,
Sitting on their rockers on the sunny veranda of a nursing home,
Their hands on top of blankets.
1. My husband loved his Rottweiler more than (I, me).
2. In which religion (comma, no comma) do husbands apologize for their (wives, wives') sleeping with other men?
3. Do you (know, no) if that (was, were) my first or second husband?
4. How would (you, your) knowing that (affect, effect) you now?
5. It's always been against my (principles, principals) to eat a chocolate statue of Mary, especially at Christmas.
6. Off hand, do you know how many times a person (can, may) be exorcised?
7. Have you ever noticed how you always sleep better after a good cry, especially if (its, it's) not (your, you're) own?
8. My first wife (use, used) to sleep with her favorite pistol (beneath, under) her pillow.
9. Sometimes I miss the lingerie collection that I couldn't (bring, take) here.
10. I remember my high school English teacher (who, whom) made me horny with the way she (taught, learned) grammar.
Since there was always at least one tricky response,
Few ever achieved a perfect score.
Published on: 5/1/2012
The Power of Darkness
Like most parties, this one had been dull,
Until the host introduced me to her young cousin
Who was standing by himself in a corner,
Sipping a glass of ice water.
After the essential pleasantries in which I summarized my life
With family and job,
He said that he was an unemployed priest.
I smiled, assuming he was joking.
"No, I was a missionary to the mountain people of the Philippines.
I was chosen by my superiors to bring the light of the Gospel
To some of the most pleasant and generous people on earth,
People who were always smiling and joking.
And it was my task to show them a better life.
"Every morning, I would say Mass, and distribute Communion
To the few elderly women who came.
On Sundays, I would deliver a sermon,
All variations on the story of the loaves and fishes,
And how God would feed their bodies as well as their souls,
A concept for which their language had no term.
So I had to use their word for shadow instead.
"And each evening, when the shadows began to fall,
The men of the village would assemble in a clearing on the side of the mountain,
And fly kites.
Initially, I thought it was some type of game they were playing.
But when I looked closer, I realized these were special kites.
From each corner hung a length of fishing line,
And at the end of each line was a hook.
Shortly after the kites were launched,
The sky was blackened by orders of fruit bats.
They had left their roosts in the caves above us
And were flying, as they do every evening, to eat the sweet fruits in the valley below.
As they flew into the kites, some would get entangled.
Immediately the men would pull them out of the sky,
Screeching to the ground where the men clubbed them to death.
Then, after the legion had passed,
The men would take their bounty back to the village for the women to prepare.
The first time, I watched in horror as these fragile women worked over their dinners.
First they spread the leathery wings on the ground,
Each animal five feet across.
Then they disemboweled the creature,
Each rat face with bulging eyes reminding me of the illustrations
That accompanied the ritual for exorcism in my seminarian texts.
"At first, I turned away.
But my kind hosts insisted I share in their blessings.
So, mustering my limited courage, and wishing not to offend them,
I took a bite, fighting off nausea.
But I survived it. In fact, I enjoyed it.
You see, because the bats feed only on ripe fruit,
Their flesh is sweet and succulent, like a sugary beef.
"Now it was easy for me to be a Catholic when the lights were on.
But at night, in the jungle, when the fires burnt down, and all were asleep,
I would lie in the suffocating darkness,
Listening to the jungle cries and crashes all around me.
Visions of tortured devils with their hideous faces ransacked my sleep,
Until I would bolt upright with the sweet taste of them in my mouth.
Within the month, the rosary I had brought along with me broke.
It was never designed to take the strain I put upon it.
And when it did, I packed my unused hosts and left."
Published on: 5/1/2012
Sitting next to me on a New Year's flight from San Juan
Was a young woman soldier, dressed in her holiday camouflage.
The screen saver on her laptop
Showed her army husband and herself,
Smiling cheek to cheek, wearing their party camouflage.
Then she opened a special video game in which her likeness
And that of her soldier husband
Teamed up to fight a band of terrorists in an Afghan village.
I watched how they killed for each other,
Shooting men in dark clothes hiding behind rubble,
And insurgents on rooftops who tumbled into the dusty street,
And then a young woman who was carrying
What looked like a baby wrapped in a blanket,
But was actually an IED
That rolled between them as the woman grabbed her chest and collapsed;
And, for a second, his character hesitated;
So hers fell on it.
And then she closed her laptop.
I wanted to ask her if she had won,
But she already had her earphones in and didn't want to talk.
Published on: 4/21/2010
St. Mary's Visitation
All the good hiding places are taken.
I learned that when I was in first grade.
We used to practice for Armageddon
Once a week or so.
As air-raid sirens whined,
We incidentally holy children
Would hunker beneath our desks,
Stepping on our navy, for Mary, clip-on ties
That bore the letters J M J,
And quietly, we would wait.
It was over in a minute or two.
Then the all clear would blow
And we would stand up,
Dust off the knees of our blue pants
And the scuffs from our ties.
We would tuck in our white shirts
And be ready for the Angelus.
The nun would lead the seventy-two of us,
In a Hail Mary, which most of us had the rudiments of
Then she would say a special prayer
For God to convert the Russians to Christianity.
As we settled back into our wooden seats,
And straightened our books on our desks,
She would sweetly say, "But if He doesn't,
"It's up to each of you to study hard,
"To grow up and be a scientist
"Who will make something
"That will make Russian children hide under their desks."
We bowed our heads,
And waited in the silence that always followed the Angelus.
Published on: 4/21/2010
Art in Philadelphia
"Yes," the curator said, with the smile only authority can give,
"The Academy of Art is open, but
"Tonight is for selected guests only."
Which we both knew wasn't me.
And so, I found my proper place back in the foggy drizzle.
One of the liberties the Founding Fathers never debated
Was that all men have equal access to great art.
We have only the right to stumble upon it for ourselves,
Like now, in the mist and smoke of a Philadelphia spring.
Let the rich men and women who hire
Major artists to paint their portraits hoard their Eakins and Whistler.
I reassure myself that humility is another kind of art.
Besides, I'm only an unarmed tourist here,
Without the wherewithal to mount a frontal assault,
Brandishing a pistol and barging in,
Blubbering, "Don't anybody move. Just show me The Gross Clinic,
"And nobody'll get hurt."
One way to see Downtown Philly is as the hub of abandoned art.
What's the point of carrying it any farther?
How else do you explain the placement of Oldenburg's "Clothespin,"
Which suggests there once was dirty laundry here, but it was taken care of.
Or a Calder stabile, like an unfinished gibbet for public hangings,
Ironically painted in flamboyant circus colors,
To commemorate the time when America had a moral center and was proud of it.
So much is left for the imagination,
Not the least of which is Indiana's three-dimensional command to love,
And where the word brotherly will fit in when it finally arrives.
It's as if union haulers couldn't squeeze through the traffic around City Hall
Before quitting time, and so just left it.
So I'm out in the rain with the other things that can take it.
Standing under the protective arm of the bronze statue of Mayor Rizzo,
The last man who knew how to get things done here;
Who saw that great art has to be financed by somebody.
Concepts are cheap, but
Somebody has to pay for materials and movers.
And only men who know how to do that are worthy of art.
His statue comes down the steps waving one hand,
Either as a futile reflex to a mob drive-by,
Or inviting everyone as if they're family to come play on the Your Move Plaza,
An enormous game board of alternating squares,
Strewn with colossal plastic pieces of several childhood games,
Where, during the day, kids can practice hiding.
Like City Hall across the street, the remaining pieces are fixed.
And the game's king, Mayor Rizzo, who once said,
"If we can't get what we want by being honest,
"Let's honestly admit it,"
Is also secured where he stands,
So that he doesn't end up like the missing
Giant checkers and chessmen and monopoly pieces that were once behind him
But now decorate some councilman's garden.
And here, quite frankly, is the safest place in the city.
Because good art,
Substantial art, always makes good cover.
Once, after a rare Florentine snowfall,
The Medici princes commanded the teenage Michelangelo to sculpt a snowman.
No record of what it looked like remains,
Only the fee that was paid.
I dream of a world in which Michelangelo
Could be counted on to make second-tier art,
Where his work would be left to weather
In the Piazza della Signoria, in front of the Uffizi,
As part of a community chess board.
The Pieta as a combination of king and queen,
David as the knight.
Moses, the Bishop.
And all the slaves, with the homeless sleeping at their feet, pawns.
The real good stuff, the stuff of true genius,
Would be kept safe inside the Academy,
Where its beauty would not be wasted.
Published on: 4/21/2010
A Piece of Chalk
It's unfortunate the state no longer tests its
Students on the elements of simple narrative.
I enjoyed setting up a class assignment
By taking a piece of chalk off my desk
And holding it up to the class.
I'd tell them how this piece was different
From all the other pieces of chalk they had ever seen,
Because this one was brought to this country by my grandfather,
Who, at the turn of the last century, had been a physics professor in Krakow,
But that he had fled because he was forced from his position at the university
For speaking out against his Austrian rulers.
When he came to America, all he had were his clothes,
A few pictures of his family back in Poland,
And this one piece of chalk that reminded him of his love of physics.
In America, everyday he carried this piece of chalk in his overalls
As he descended into the coal mines,
The only job he could get in this country.
When he died of black lung disease in his early sixties,
I inherited this piece of chalk as memory of his intelligence and his strength.
And while the students stared for a second on the pure whiteness in my hand,
Waiting for it to turn into an assignment I would scribble on the blackboard,
I would clumsily drop it on the floor,
Where it invariably shattered into a dozen pieces.
A few kids would nervously laugh,
A kind-hearted girl in the front would gasp.
Once or twice a kid even got out of his seat to gather up the pieces.
No, I'd reassure them,
That was just an ordinary piece of chalk,
The same one I used yesterday to put your vocabulary on the board.
I just used it to concoct that story.
The real one I smashed years ago.
Published on: 11/6/2009
It's one thing for them to have given me this heart.
But it's another to think they still own it.
I know this beat inside my chest was once their son's.
And they do seem like a fine old couple
Who I didn't mind humoring
The first time they came to listen.
It seemed the least I could do.
Even with my old stuttering heart
I would have consented to it.
I unbuttoned my shirt.
The old black woman took off her glasses,
And placed her ear on my scarred chest.
Then the old man, with his cold earring, did the same.
Then they hugged each other,
Before they hugged me.
That was the first time.
And I was exhausted for three days.
Emotion had always tired my first sloppy heart.
And I wondered if anything had changed.
Then, six months later,
When their son's Rottweiler got hit by a car,
They asked to see me again.
Again, there was the listening and the hugging,
Ending with the old man's whispering into my scars,
"I'm so sorry, son. I just carried in your mother's medicines,
And thought I closed the door.
But OJ was gone."
This time I knew I was getting better,
Because my pity was edged with annoyance.
And this last time,
After they sold their house
Because it held too many memories,
First their son's shooting, then his dog,
Then the girl next door,
Who had been their son's prom date,
Told them she was engaged to be married.
The old man sobbed as he broke the news to my chest.
Then the old woman swore, calling the young girl a whore.
What else could one expect from white trash like that?
The old man hugged her, calmed her down,
And asked me if I knew a nearby apartment
Where they could live,
So they could be closer to their son.
Perhaps if they had given me the Rottweiler's heart,
I would have answered differently.
But a human heart is a selfish heart.
This beat is mine and they can't have it.
It's good to finally feel like a man.