Wednesday, May 11, 2016

The Midnight Walk of Eben Byers

Grand cemetery, Pittsburgh’s Allegheny
arcs up to a hilltop, where nestled
in a millionaires’ necropolis, stands one,
a perfect replica of a Doric temple,
a steel magnate’s mausoleum. Sunlit,
the dryads seem to converge upon it,
a timeless Aegean day-dream.
Moonlit, it is the uneasy prison
of what remains of Eben Byers. Its stolid doors,
which might try two men’s strength to wedge
them open to a peeping-gap, are weighted
so that a tiny push from inwards hurls
them open. The dark inside is palpable
and seems to thrust back against you.
The best advice, if you find these doors ajar
is to run like hell and do not, do not, look back.

One casket there is lined with lead, they say —
pallbearers once groaned to lift and lower it
from catafalque to hearse to wall-niche.
This one, amid the disapproving Byers all
somehow breaks loose of a Gordian knot
of iron chains and adamantine padlocks,
undoes the patient webwork of melancholic spiders,
and floats, a log on a stream of unseen plasma,
to any place its never-sleeping occupant desires.
Police reports of a roaming black casket are filed
under “Hoaxes,” “Pranks” and “Hallucinations.”

How he emerges from his lead encasement,
whether the lid creaks up on rusted hinges
or whether he oozes out from a mouse-hole
it took him long years to scratch out, no one knows.
They say he mostly walks the graveyard,
striding among the oaks and sycamores.
Nocturnal deer and ’possums flee him
as his heavy tramp cracks pavement
and the flap of his metallic shroud dulls
the night chants of frog and cicada.

His gelid eyes still water in skull sockets;
there is flesh still, though dead since 1932,
on the withered left hand, palm upward
to scan the heavens for sustenance,
for rest assured, that whatever walks,
is hungry. If you scale the fence, you might
just find him on the Butler Street downslope,
amid a cluster of erectile obelisks.
He watched from there and no one saw him
until the last mill died, until the flicker-fire
no longer red-glazed the tombed hillside.
It is said that he is slightly lumen-
escent, that a greenish glow clings
to his felt hat-tip with corpse-hair aureole,
that arcs of small lightning or St. Elmo’s Fire
emit from his bony fingertips.
He runs his good hand on every granite
marker, not reading inscriptions, no:
he feels the butterfly flow of gamma rays
from thorium, sniffs the good whiffs of radon
that please him more than he can say.

To those who have seen him, and not
died screaming, he is known as “Radium Man.”
The steel mill he inherited was less to him
than travel and a good game of golf,
which he played to champion. Let others
build opera houses if only he could outdo
the rest of the magnate class on the course.
And he did: ’06 U.S. Amateur. Until the pain,
his right arm a misery of knotted nerve-fire.
A Yale man, he trusted a Harvard man,
who, bottling the famed success of the cure,
the radium-and-water treatment of Europe,
offered him a sample of RadioThor.
The ultimate in pep and healing, its label said,
This is the cure for the living dead.

By damn, one bottle and he was good as new.
He told friends, and pretty soon the Mayor
of Pittsburgh had drunk a hundred bottles.
There was talk around the leather-chaired club
of renewed and superhuman bedroom feats.
Radiothor came in by the carload.
If one bottle was good, and a hundred
turned Milquetoast into a roaring Don Juan,
why not three bottles a day?
Are we not entitled to the most of the best?

Eben Byers drank fourteen hundred bottles
of Radiothor. In the ensuing collapse and
galloping cancers, parts of his skull gave way
and his jaw ripped free and fell to the floor.
When they darkened the room where his corpse lay
it did not stay dark — his teeth and nails
glowed greenish, and what was left of hair
waved of its own accord like tided seaweed.
His lead-lined coffin made national headlines.

Then silence. Then a decade of the sleep of death.
But radium lived on with its 1600-year half-life;
it forged a new alliance with bone, neuron, sinew, joint.
When atom bombs erupted, his eyes widened.
When Strontium 90 fallout dusted down,
his dry tongue licked his upper canines, craving.
When isotopes lit the hospital skyline, when X-rays
arc’d on and off like fireworks, he sensed, and knew
there was more of what he craved, things new
to the Periodic Table he could one day savor.
When, at a nearby research institute
a pilot breeder reactor created Plutonium,
he knew it was time to set himself in motion.

The thing that walks at midnight, down
from its Doric resting place, is not content
with holding his hand out beggar-like —
for what? Dim manna of the night sky,
massless neutrinos passing through,
the taunting wave-pulse of a magnetar,
the warm hum of cosmic rays,
and just before dawn banishes him to hiding,
the hot half-sun at horizon, a Cyclops eye
from infra red to gamma beaming.

Radium Man wants more.
His left hand clenches, unclenches
as he thinks about the possible feasts
he might have at Chernobyl, quake-
shaken Fukishima, even Three-Mile Island.
His heirs would interfere, or seek
a discreet disinterment and cremation;
the servants who did what he asked
unquestioned, are dead and buried — sad
to say, permanently dead and buried.
He is alone in this. And all he can manage
to utter now, with his truncated face,
is a kind of hunh …… hunh ….. hunh
to the owls and bats and ravens.


Once in a while, his bad arm rises,
an involuntary wave of what’s-the-use
anyway-you’re-dead-now?

Pray you do not see it,
if you chance to come upon him
by his Doric mausoleum
with its gaping-open doors —
the skeletal right hand
that holds aloft, as club or cudgel,
the jawbone of Eben Byers.


Thursday, April 28, 2016

The Dresser in Emily's Bedroom


Right there, feet from the bed she died in,
sewn up in tiny fascicle bundles, unread,
not to be read, not to be published,
monoprint chapbooks arranged and re-
arranged to suit intended readers
she was too reticent to speak to,
ever, except from behind a door, ajar.


How they came from her writing table there
(no bigger than a oiuja board),
from planchette pen to folded leaf
stitched shut and mummy-wrapped,
living and smothering just feet from where
a gasp and pen-dab and a foot-tap
telegraphed them into being


How many enwrapped, entombed inside
that oblong moth-proof drawer?
how many survivors of admonition
a poet should never ... a lady does not ...
eighteen hundred tightly-wound mortars
she wryly called her “little hymns.”


Emily Dickinson at Amherst,
I in your room as close to fainting
as ever in my adult existence,
at tear-burst, with a strangled cry I dare
not utter. A life, a life’s work,
a soul's compression that one executor
could have tossed away for kindling
or suppressed for jealousy or malice.
But we have you, Emily, we have you always,
your words in a fascicle of stitched stars.

Anniversarius 41: Autumn Dragged Screaming


So where is Autumn?
     It is the week of Halloween
          and — nothing.
The maples are green, oaks green,
     willows even greener,
pines frowning their drooping arms
as if to say, get on with it, already;
the drama is long past over.

Bird flocks rehearse their southern pilgrimage
     but come right back
to feast anew on unchilled worm and beetle.

Damp rain sogs down,
     slime mold slides silently
          on and up the rotting beech trunk.
Mushrooms proliferate
          at an illicit rate.
The spiders are working overtime,
     harvestmen in jitter-skitter,
a Macy’s parade of Daddy-Long-Legs.
Sparrows engorged, squirrels spherical
     with acorn overflow,
eating all and burying nothing.
And the flowers just keep on,
     well, flowering.
Only the birches are shivering,
reading truly the Northern Lights,
the wisping fall of Orionid meteors,
white trunk flagpoles alert, on edge,
expectant pencils stuck in the ground.

It might have gone on this way:
     Indian October
          into Mexican November,
into a luridly Amazon December.
Today the unseasonable yucca plant,
     tomorrow the writhing anaconda!

It might have gone on,
     had not a thirteen-foot truck
somewhere just south of Pittsburgh
slide under an eleven-foot overpass,
the top peeled off like a sardine can.
One dull brown oak leaf escaped it,
     and then a blast
of sumac and willow and locust and maple,
     an Arctic air blast,
dust-devils, the choking lung-clot
     of burning leaf-piles.
And as the oblivious driver
     wends southward, southerly, south,
intending to take the autumn hostage,
he instead cracks open the heavens.
The horizon turns yellow instantly,
    the soft green lap of leaves
becomes the crackle-crisp
chatter of Rattatosk, the gossip squirrel.
Up, up Ygdrassil the World Ash
the singe of Autumn rises.
Red the long carpet in maple grove,
fiery the brush fire burn of euonymous,
yellow the leaf-sky in silhouette by azure.
Come winter, then, if you must,
     come autumn now,
a world-held breath of defiance.
I go, I go, a leaf, in glory.

Assignation (A Chinese Translation)


     after a Chinese poem “P’u Sa Man” by Li Yü


The flowers were bright
     (and might have lit my way like lanterns)
but the moon was diffused in light mist.
Cool, but not too cold,
that was the best night to go to my lover.
Trembling I trod the perfumed stones,
step upon step amid the night-blooms.
I held in one hand the golden-threaded shoes,
in the other his scroll of urgent summoning.



South of the newly-painted hall,
in the appointed place I met him.
His face was turned away and upward
as though he searched the moon face
or with his hawk-fierce eye some dove
asleep on a still and leafy branchlet.

At first, I leaned against him, shivering;
my pale arms could not encompass
the sweep of his cloaked broad shoulders.
He made a sound that might have been
my name, or a sighing exhalation.
I said, “I cannot come as often now,
so tonight you must love me twice as hard.”

At Innsmouth Harbor


The catalog of jetsam —
things washed ashore at Innsmouth:
a gnawed-through baby rattle; five
matched silver spoons of serpentine design;
a multitude of basalt pebbles, each
a perfect copy of its brethren, angled
obtuse with the hint of an eye,
black and unseeing (on the obverse,
an alien cuneiform, unreadable),
coins all of an unknown empire;
the rusted machinery of lost umbrellas
(from where since no one ever in Innsmouth
has ever owned or needed one);
clots of dank seaweed and curds of ooze
astir with phosphorescent pulsings;
a human skeleton, a chain, a cinder block;
blue bottle labeled tincture of laudanum,
wrapped in soft velvet with an ivory carving,
priapic secret of a ship captain’s widow;
an octopus impaled with the periscope
of a German U-2 submarine; a map
of the New England coastline inscribed
entirely in Runic letters; a trident,
vertical, twelve feet from top to bottom,
awaiting whoever dares to claim it;
and finally, as always, coats, hats and trousers,
all manner of ladies’ gowns and negligées
cast off on the rocks at Devil’s Reef,
all for the taking if anyone cares.
There is no catalog of flotsam, no list
of the things that will not come to shore:
the ten-lobed all-seeing eyes of the ghosts
of Trilobites, mandarins of the ocean deep;
the wary, watchful ammoniac waiting
of Architeuthis, the giant squid; the pound
and beat of the tide-drum, counting all down
to the world’s end, the sun’s death, the pull
of all into the dark heart of the iron stone
where everything that was and will be comes to rest.

amtrak, business class


riding dead-eyed in an alcoholic glaze to Connecticut,
hours to, hours fro, twenty days a month
(happy that man who rises and walks to his work!)
look at the juggernaut of three-piece suits,
the power ties, the snapping suspenders!
they imagine they own the world
as they ascend into their termite towers
in a manhattan cleared now of the inconvenient poor



the deal, the merger, the acquisition,
(the quick transfer of soaring or falling stock
in secret amid the wheeling and dealing
    for a little personal profit) –
all this produces nothing, not one apple,
    not one steel bolt nor fatting hog,
nothing whatever produced by their labor,
yet richer they grow, richer than
   the gloating emperors of byzantium



tycoon atop his tower of glass, perched
at the peak of world dominion,
has never heard “no” from his employees –
he’s driven everywhere, has but to nod
for a free lunch in the best-appointed spots.
he could not count his possessions,
and his so cleverly taxed that his worth
increases with every filing, oh wonderful,
this thing called oligodemocracy.



imagine his mute astonishment
as he reads in the morning news
that two of his dummy corporations
have hostile-merged him to nullity.
call button pressed, he waits,
but no one comes. his coffee cup,
empty, may show its bottom
for the first time ever. his broker
is theirs now, his law firm, theirs too.
which one of those many women
is his wife now? is one of the others
involved in this distressing affair.



he sighs. there is always the offshore fund,
the stock in those armaments and diamond mines.
there’s nothing left for him now
except to run for The White House.
run, as in, run for the office. it’s his turn, anyway.
in time he could be president of everything:
the justice department, the military (left hand
selling the right hand weapons to use and replace).
it seems only fair: with the mess they’ve made,
they should beg him to make everything right again.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

At the I and Thou Coffeehouse, Haight Street, 1967




the fourth pot of same-leaf tea
sustains us, dilute to green
then yellow, then but
a Taoist ghost of a beverage

we linger over poems,
over long talks of world-end
napalm politics
inconceivable here
where barefoot runaways
make love to passing strangers


there is food—
we make our morsels last
(Laura forgives our raw-bone budgets)--
insidious caterpillars
pose as donuts—


eye-food is on the walls,
dubious art muraled
by blurred visionaries,
and Donovan sings.


Poet Goodman is there with freshly
laundered hair
waiting for love, or a good review,
and poet David somewhere
between last night’s acid
and tomorrow's poem.

morning people for the
quarter-hour cup
each to his sole solace/
smiling
Isabell with half New England
in her shawl
comes in without opening the door—
she has studied with Jung
and now rarified to archetype
she is incorporeal —
someone asks Jonathan North what sign are you?

Stop
, he says. Go. Keep off the grass.
Donovan and the gypsy boy are
trying for the sun
and back in the corner
exacto knife flourishes
as Wes Wilson cuts screens
for a Fillmore concert

the psychedelic letters
twisting and bleeding,
arcing to leaf-curve
smoke billow, Beardsley twist

Outside in unrelenting sun
the citizens elect a mayor
whose vision of a city,
beadless and beardless,
he means to deliver.
The police glance in
but do not enter:

their eyes seem to count us,
weigh the threat
of beads and incense.
They see how many of us
have books and know how to use them.
Our days are numbered.