Monday, December 28, 2009

Chance Cards in the Wuthering Heights Board Game

Pay $200 rent to Heathcliff.

Dogbite at Thrushcross Grange. Pay doctor $50.

Win $200 gambling with Hindley Earnshaw.

Heathcliff runs off with your sister. Lose inheritance.

Sleep with Linton Heathcliff or lose $100.

Name your child Linton Linton, Earnshaw Earnshaw, or Heathcliff Heathcliff.

Sleep in the barn for two years. Forfeit $100 for porridge and soup.

Dig up Catherine Earnshaw. Collect $20 gravedigger’s fee.

Lose Thrushcross Grange to Heathcliff.

Stay in Wuthering Heights forever.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Child Sex Criminal

At six
I find the place,
the tender glans
whose finger-rub
in gentle circles
makes me tremble,
till sparklers go off
from brain-stem
to end of spine.
It was, and remained
my secret,
an under-blanket ritual.

So much to mind
about the body’s plumbing:
dry underwear,
toilet concealment,
as though the outcome
of last night’s dinner
was a national secret.

Nervous Aunt Thelma
chides us:
How can you have a bathroom
next to the kitchen?
The sound of flushing
sickens me.

First grade at Hecla School
you raised your hand
and asked to go
to the cave-cool bathroom

Second grade boys
march to the bathroom
expected to pee
on the teacher’s schedule.

I confide to the principal
at the next urinal:
I don’t have to go —
I’m just pretending

On homeward bus,
half-dozen boys
hunch over, wince
from the agony
of holding it in
just five more minutes.
I cannot hold it,
walk stained
and dripping
to shouts and spanking.

My penis rebels
against conformity,
an unzipped peeper
as Miss McReady
explains subtractions.

I touch the spot.
It springs to attention.
Suzie, who gave me
the chicken pox, stares
from the cross-aisle seat
and giggles. Five
minus three is two

A nature book
from a restricted shelf —

tells all about spiders.
I take it home one night
to show my mother,
devour by moonlight
long after the lights-out,
then slide it back
to its shelf-place
at the start of school-day.

But someone saw,
and ran to tell Miss Macready.
Now books the other children
may borrow,
I am not allowed to borrow.
“We don’t loan books
to thieves,”
my teacher tells me.

We learn to read music.
After I was out with measles,
I returned to find them singing
with flats and sharps. I had
no idea what they were doing.
Miss McReady will not explain.
I am trapped forever
in the C-Major scale.

My next report card
alerts my parents:

My mother assumes
it’s over the book
brought home by stealth
and just as quietly

Suzie and Miss Macready
whisper and glare at me.
I read what I want
and when I want to,
break rules
I find ridiculous.
I have already decided
there is no god.
I will never sing in a church choir.
I will not pee on demand.
I am marked for life:

child sex criminal.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Peeling the Onion: A Pennsylvania Memoir

When I was around fifteen, my grandmother, Florence Butler Ullery, decided I was old enough to hear grown-up things. She told me how her father, Albert Butler, had robbed a bank sometime after 1910. He had miscalculated what day the payroll cash arrived, and had come home with only $30 for his trouble, followed within an hour by the police, who dragged him off to jail. My grandmother showed me a photo of him, a middle-aged man with a Masonic pin on his lapel. It was taken in Scottdale, apparently the day he went off to prison after his conviction. On the back was written, “The pictures with both of us in them didn’t come out. Good-bye from your Pa.” He never came back, leaving my great-grandmother Christina Butler to fend for herself.

“Those were rough years, during the First War, and then the Depression,” grandmother sighed. “But we got through.” Great-grandmother Christina had died when I was eleven, preceded by “Homer,” the cigar-smoking old man who “boarded” with her and to whom it was said she was “secretly married.” As children, we were told to include “Grandma Butler and Homer” in evening prayers.

My grandmother, a wide-faced, simple woman, sat peeling onions, her chair pulled near the “slop bucket” where the peels fell. “The truth is like this here onion,” she said -- the first and last time I ever heard her speak metaphorically.

“What do you mean, grandma?”

She held the onion out for me to examine. It was partially cut open to reveal the white under the skin. “See here -- I peeled it and there’s the white part.” She cut some more. “Now look -- there’s some dirt and another peel inside.” She cut again, halving the onion. “Now the rest is all white. That’s the way people talk to you. There’s always a lie outside, then a little truth, and then some more lies, and then the inside is all true.” She asked me if I understood.

Yes, I said, there were people in town who said one thing and did another. Like my stepfather, “Uncle Joe.”

My parents had been divorced the previous summer. A messy affair, and everyone had to move out of town. My mother took up with my father’s sister’s husband. Both couples divorced. “Uncle Joe” became my stepfather, proclaiming how happy he was to have such a brilliant stepson and how he would make sure I got to college. We moved to the new town and Uncle Joe and my mother pretended to be married.

Then Uncle Joe came into my room one Saturday and told me, “You’re not welcome here. There will be food on the table, but that’s it. The day you graduate from high school, I want you out of here, and don’t expect anything from me.” I later found out he had dumped his children by a previous marriage in an orphanage some years before.

To get away from Uncle Joe and my mother, (“Gertrude and Claudius” in my own Gothic imagination) who were quickly becoming the town drunks, I spent most of that summer with grandmother, in the four-room, tarpaper-covered house that had been her mother’s and was now hers.

I noticed something I had never seen before. Grandma kept a loaded shotgun near the door.

“What’s that for?” I asked, alarmed. I was terrified of guns.

“It might be for your Uncle Joe,” she said. I smiled at the thought, but assumed she was joking. While my grandfather was alive I had never seen a gun in the house.

The next day, a car came up the long driveway and grandma told me to turn off the light and duck down in her bedroom. She turned off the television and all the other lights, locked the door, and came into the room and crouched down on the carpet.

I heard the chickens scattering in the yard, then a single set of footsteps on the porch. A light knocking on the door, then louder. Then an angry pounding.

“God-damn it, Florence — I know you’re in there! I just want to talk!”

It was Uncle Joe’s voice.

He pounded again, cursing. He stood for a while, then the footsteps tromped down off the porch. There were chicken noises again -- a loud one as the rooster went for him and he likely kicked it; another round of cursing as the rooster followed him to the car;  and then the car started up and did the turnaround to retreat back to the mountain road. We waited until everything was quiet again.

“What did he want?” I asked.

Grandmother was livid, shaking with a combination of rage and fear.

“He comes out here, on days when he’s supposed to be working. He wants me to go to the county courthouse and sign my property deed over to your mother. I told him ‘No’ twice. I have three children and this will always be home for all of them. He wants to use me and your mother to get this house. Your Uncle Ron and Uncle Bob will always have a home here, and your mother too. When Joe comes in the daytime like this, I just turn out the lights and hide.”

That night I dreamt of Grandma shooting Uncle Joe dead. It was a good dream.

*     *     *

A few days later, while peeling potatoes, Grandma bent her head toward where the gun stood, and she saw I was looking at it, too. She took a deep breath and told me another story.

“My mother lived here for a long time after my Pa went to jail. You don’t know what it’s like to be a woman in the country, running a house all alone. Your husband goes away, or dies, and there are all these men sitting around in roadhouses reading the paper, and they see the name in the obituary, and they remember you. Men you hadn’t seen since you were a little girl in school.

“One day a car comes up the drive and it’s two or three men. They’re real polite and respectful. They bring a big sack of groceries. They come in and sit down and have some of your bread. There’s a bottle of whiskey in that sack, so they say, ‘Let’s open it and have a drink.’ And you want to be polite, so you get the glasses out.

“And then one of them says something about how lonely it must be out here without a man around. And they laugh and make jokes until you blush. And then they suggest something, and if you had a whiskey with them and you’re a little silly and you give in —“

She paused and looked at me, not sure if I, at fifteen, knew what she was saying. I knew. I just looked at her and waited for the rest.

“And if you’re dumb enough to do that, then there’s no stopping it. They tell their friends, and pretty soon they come by the carload. That’s the other reason I keep the shotgun there. That’s the kind of thing that happens to … women.”

I had visions of my great-grandmother fending off rednecks with the shotgun, and I never forgot the story.

*     *     *

My grandmother Florence has been dead for many years now. Her oldest son Ron, a tall lanky man with speech as slow as melting tar, lived far away and didn’t look like anyone else in the family: he’s dead too. Her son Bob lived in the house until his passing a few years ago. My stepfather, “Uncle Joe,” finally moved in with my mother, and gasped his last from emphysema in the run-down shack he had so coveted. My mother is long gone, too.

Curiosity about Great-Grandma Butler and her Alsatian ancestors led me into some genealogical research a few years ago. I discovered cousins I never knew, and some of them visited the house and sent me photographs. The roof had crumbled and the house is now a ruin.

The cousins interviewed some of the neighbors and found one farmer who remembered all his parents’ stories about the Butlers. He knew about the bank robbery, and that Albert Butler was part of a gang of three robbers, all of whom went to prison.

Papers we had obtained about Great-Grandma Butler were startling. She had married an Alsatian man named Georges Jaquillard, who divorced her saying she had committed adultery “with numerous persons on numerous occasions.” So Albert Butler was her second husband.

After Butler went to prison, the neighbor farmer reported, Great Grandma Butler supported herself by making and selling moonshine, all through the Prohibition and for some years thereafter.

“Yes, she sold moonshine there,” the farmer reported. “But she didn’t just sell moonshine. She sold herself — and her daughter Florence.”

Truth is an onion. My grandmother, at its white heart, had prepared me to understand it when the time came: “the kind of thing that happens … to women.”

Note: I wrote the above as a "family story-telling" exercise in a course on Native American Literature I took with Prof. Alexia Kosmider. As you can see, I don't take the easy route with homework. I had never written down this memory until then. The photo above shows what remained of my grandmother's and great grandmother's house.

Friday, December 4, 2009

August Recess

Reform, like
Zeno's arrow
never comes:
before the halfway measure
must come the quarter measure,
before it
the hemi-demi-semi-measure,
before it the intention,
never mind the will.
Lacking the single push of empathy
the bowstring is unreleased because
it was never pulled.
The fat hand, weighted
with golden rings,
the leaden-braceleted
wrist, the immobile arm
en-Midas'd by bribery.
Fear no arrows from this
sclerotic Congress.

(Written in August as our Congressmen cowered beneath "Tea Party" madness)

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

About Marilyn Nelson

Back in 1770, Phillis Wheatley, the first African-American woman to publish a book of poetry, penned her longest work, an adaptation of one episode from Ovid’s Metamorphoses. It was the story of Theban Queen Niobe, one of the cruelest tales from mythology. Until very recently, this work of Wheatley’s was scorned by most critics as Wheatley’s walking in the footsteps of her white captors, a useless exercise in “white” neoclassical poetry. Yet the story Wheatley told included her own story in a subtle way. Niobe, a great queen, loses all fourteen of her children to the bows and arrows of the rogue gods Apollo and Diana. Wheatley had been torn from her mother in Africa by slave traders, the agents of rogue nations answerable to no moral law. Wheatley found in classical Greece the cry of the African mother.

Like Wheatley, Marilyn Nelson claims all myth, all stories, all nations as her own. She knows she needs no permission to step inside another person’s skin in another place and time. Like all great poets she knows that all poetry is hers, in whatever language. So I was thrilled to see that she has translated Euripides' Hecuba, whose central character is the Queen of Troy, another bereft mother. And I see that she has translated some of Rilke’s Duino Elegies. When I say this, it’s like saying, “She has climbed Mt. Everest.” Rilke is the most rarified and difficult of all poets to grasp and translate, and Marilyn Nelson renders him with stiletto sharpness, retaining her own voice and manner. Do this, and you are flying with the eagles!

I delight in Nelson’s choice of topics. She knows there are great stories to tell about great people, or ordinary people who prove themselves greater in soul than their oppressors. When she writes of her slave and liberated ancestors, she rises above victimhood and depicts them with dignity, power, and agency. Her poems around her homecoming to family history are poignant, and tinged with a curious irony: if those who came before did not do as they did, good or evil, then I would not be here to tell it. I would be someone else, all one color, all one thing, and maybe not even very interesting. To forgive history even while enduring the knowledge of the hand holding a whip takes a large soul.

Nelson’s life of George Washington Carver, the great botanist and artist, should be studied by young poets, who seem so in lack of something to write about beyond their everyday lives and love affairs. History teems with heroes, whose story only a poet can tell. After 9/11, Nelson set out to write a requiem work “to everyone in the world who died on that day,” including the 24,000 people who died of starvation on that day. Making everything out of one life and death, she wrote Fortune’s Bones: The Manumission Requiem about a Connecticut slave whose skeleton was extracted for “educational” use by a doctor – a polite way of saying his body was cooked down in a pot until nothing was left but the bones. The central poem in this book, “Not My Bones,” is one of the great poems of our time.

Her poems about her father, one of the heroic Tuskegee airmen of World War II, and the poems about his fellow flyers, her extended family of “uncles,” convey both the heroism of these men, and the horrific prejudice and race violence that still prevailed in America in the 1940s and 1950s. Whether it is the story of the World War I black soldier lynched on returning home in uniform, or the more subtle story of her father in uniform on a train, mistaken by a white woman for a porter, Nelson has the right words, the right giving and holding back, the right way of putting the anger in the events told, not the voice telling. These poems make you gasp, weep, and stagger, hit right between the eyes.

She writes “everyday” poems, too, and makes them extraordinary. I love her “Dinosaur Spring,” and her hilarious “Levitation with Baby” (a Muse poem), and her childhood recollection of “How I Discovered Poetry.” It is no accident, then, that she can sing to the young in sonnets, and her poignant cycle about a lynched 14-year-old boy – a most unlikely topic for a children’s book – is A Wreath for Emmett Till. Nelson’s book is challenging, high-toned, in gorgeous language a young person would take to heart and live with for a lifetime, even while teaching a dark moment in our history. Its presentation and kindly author’s notes are a model for how we might turn a new generation of young people into poetry readers.

Nelson also has the gift of a great narrator: she has a keen understanding of human psychology, as keen as a Dostoyevsky or a Maupassant. She knows we are not all culture but instinct, too. She sees the raw power of desire, anger and lust, the seed impulse coursing inside everything that lives. In “Churchgoing,” in classically formal language, she has finally explained to me, in terms that convince me, why slaves and former slaves could be Christians after being slaves to Christians. She writes:

That Christian, slave-owning hypocrisy
nevertheless was by these slaves ignored
as they pitied the poor body of Christ!
Oh, sometimes it causes me to tremble,
that they believed most, who so much have lost.
She is the poet Phillis Wheatley would have wanted to be.

The above text was my introduction to Marilyn Nelson when she appeared as judge and reader for the 2009 Philbrick Poetry Prize at the Providence Athenaeum.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

eve is a palindrome

for Mary Cappello

eve is a palindrome,
its time-trough center
the intersect
of yesterday/ tomorrow

eve is always
fraught with magic:
budspring bonfires
on every hilltop,
virginal dreams
of future husbands,

witch brooms anointed
and flying,
Nutcracker abductions,
the false clarity
of first champagne;

the eve of wanting
better perhaps
than the day of having;
the eve of counting
the dead who outnumber
our friends still living,
all the more poignant
in its ripe wealth.

eve is a palindrome,
a boy-scratch icon
of two breasts
and a guess hazarded
of what’s “down there.”

eve is a palindrome:
in Milton’s paradise,
self-seen in water,
then ripple, then
double-self, no —
it is Adam. Even
the metre is mirror’d
around eve’s

eve is a palindrome,
semiote of evil, Devil,
evolution’s creation-crack,
Greek snake alarm
of evohe! evohe!
as if to say
“If woman comes,
can snake be far behind?”

“eve is a palindrome”
is in itself an anagram,
ten times varied:
Love me, in despair.
I, opal, seven-armied,
(ever a lapis Domine),
O Spire, leave a mind!
A love inspired me, a
piano, severed mail.
Are divine poems a reel,
a paved line? Is Rome
pined? Lo, I am a verse,
a palindrome. Is Eve?

The above poem is a riff, a word play, inspired by Prof. Mary Cappello's own lingering over the word "eve" in her recent reading from her memoir, Called Back. Mary delights in pursuing metaphors down rabbit holes into unexpected places, and her terrifying intellect burns bright in her searing new book. This poem in no way reflects the gravitas of the "eve" over which she mediates: the eve before receiving a cancer diagnosis, a division of one's life story by a "line down the middle" (Woolf's climactic phrase). Instead this is an improvisation of the sort she enjoys provoking in her students. I hesitated to offer it, but when I said, "Did you know that "eve" is a palindrome?" there was no holding it back. Mary urged me to post the poem, slight as it is. It was fun unfolding ten anagrams of the poem's first line and weaving them together. The "eves" in the early stanzas are May Eve (Walpurgis Night), St. Agnes' Eve, Halloween, Christmas Eve and New Year's Eve. The Milton reference alludes to a kind of metric mirror that Milton creates around the moment when Eve first sees Adam, reflected in water.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Some Quick News

Just a few quick news items:

1) I have a photo blog on Flickr now, so take a peek at some of my eerie and dramatic photos. Most recent postings are from our November 1 outing to the North Burial Ground in Providence. The photo show is at:

2) I just learned that soloists from the Erie Philharmonic performed a chamber work by Pennsylvania composer William Alexander last October, titled, "Suite from Whippoorwill Road." This work, for flute and piano, is based on several poems from my collection, Whippoorwill Road: The Supernatural Poems. Composer Alexander has already written a song cycle, some madrigals, and several symphonic poems based on my work.

3) I just heard from an undergraduate group at Brandeis University, with a request to perform my play about H.P. Lovecraft, Night Gaunts, next spring.

4) My poems, "Pepper and Salt" and "Monday Miss Schreckengost Reads Us Little Black Sambo" will appear in the Rhode Island Writers Circle 2010 Anthology, due out in March. My poem "Fete" has been selected for inclusion in an anthology from Mythos Books titled The Supernatural Poem Since Homer. And, for the third year running, my poem, "Viking," about the Viking lander arriving on Mars, has been licensed for use in state reading exams in North Carolina. This poem also appeared in On the Wing: American Poems of Air and Space Flight (University of Iowa Press, 2005). For those born only lately, a note: Viking I was launched in 1975 and took eleven month to arrive at Mars. The lander ejected from the main ship touched down on July 20, 1976, man's first presence on the Red Planet. For four years, we received data about Mars from this unmanned robot.

I'll share the poem here:


I did it.

Who would have thought
that such a hulk
of rivets and scraps
could cross a sea of space?
You named me for voyagers,
for men who ravaged harbor towns,
content with seizing
their women and gold.

Cool were the hands
that made me. Few cheered
when I embarked in flame.
No one expects a golden bounty
at the end of my crossing.
A strange tide carried me
weighted, then weightless,
then tugged to ground again,
devoid of passenger
and pilotless,
not even a goddess
carved on my prow.

Little was left of me
when I touched down in sand.
I did it:
before the alien hordes you dreamt of
could launch their fleet,
I touched this desolate
and long deserted ground.
Well earned, the name
you gave me. I dared
your greatest dream and won.
Salute me, my maker:
I invaded Mars.

Sunday, November 15, 2009


This is a dark, new poem. A few days ago I heard Prof. Jean Walton present a memoir chapter about revisiting her childhood home in Vancouver, B.C. She used topgraphic and geological maps to show the estuary of the rivers around Vancouver as the background for her description of visiting a place where it rained incessantly and where the people were prepared to be driven from their homes at any moment by a flood. I was struck by one of these maps, which showed vast underground waterflows under the land, larger than the rivers above. This reminded me that I had been studying US Geological Survey maps of my native Southwestern Pennsylvania, and I had been struck by how mountainous the terrain was and how everything was covered with old coal mines and iron mines. I had read stories about sink holes opening into old mines or into flooded limestone caverns, and then I remembered two places: "The Swamp," in Edinboro, Pennsylvania, where I attended college for a few years, and a sink hole in Scottdale, Pennsylvania where I spent my childhood. This poem is an improvisation, bringing together these images. 

They called it The Swamp,
and although much of the lakeshore
was wetland, weed- and frog-
infested, lily-pad-mosquito-land,
everyone knew, when you said it
with that certain intonation
voicing italics and initial caps,
that you meant The Swamp.
It was a pond, reed-fringed
water a shallow cover for floor
of mud from which noxious vapors
bubbled, and where foxfires glowed
on certain moonless nights.
Beneath the mud, though none could see it
was a water-filled cavern
of unknown depth. I was shown
the Geological Survey map whose legend
denominated a place with no known bottom.

Locals take that on faith:
for generations it’s been the place
where useless vehicles, scrap iron
and dead refrigerators are dragged,
pushed with some danger to the townsmen
as they go knee-deep in sucking mud
until their offering is far enough in
for whatever it is that wants things
to begin its inexorable pulling.
Within a day an old jalopy
is nothing but two round headlights,
glass frog-eyes, then nothing
as by the next morning the swamp pool
resumes its perfect flatness, its mud
as uniformly flat as a well-made bed.

I remember a field
we were not allowed to play in —
and playing there anyway
my friends and I discovered
the vertical maw into blackness
we learned was an abandoned mine.
One day it had been a cornfield;
the next the shaft had fallen in.
In a town criss-crossed with forgotten
mines, it could happen anywhere:
holes the size of pancakes, holes
just big enough to swallow a bully,
an arrogant preacher, a rival
(if only one could make them appear!)
Soft ground was best, but even
a sidewalk crack, a storm drain opening,
a gymnasium floor or a toilet
could give way into a sinkhole,
a cenote, a sudden burst
of Karst topography. Someone you really
didn’t like could be swept away
into an underground river or fall,
fall, fall beyond the length of rope
to a dull thud at the hard place
between the earth’s crust and mantle.

We came back again and again to see it,
to measure how black
its blackness could be.
Tar, coal, obsidian, ink: nothing we knew
was blacker than this cavern-hole.
We threw soft coal, and chunks
of road gravel, iron slag
and a 16-ounce soda bottle
as hard as we could from a safe overhang.
No echo answered our probing.
So far as we knew, it had no bottom,
as though the mine below
had been mined from below
by subterranean demons.
Although we stopped playing there
and walked a long way 'round
the hillock that humped over it,
in dreams we walked its maw-edge,
lost our bearing, missed one another’s
outreached hand of rescue,
or were pushed
and worse by far than the nightmare
of falling into it was the dread
of what might come out of it,
if it wanted to, and was hungry enough.
What if, at night, some shambling Thing
crept into our cellars, filling great sacks
from our coal bins, returning the fuel
to the mountain depths? What if we went,
as we sometimes did, to stoke the furnace
at the stroke of midnight
and came eye to eye with It?

I read of places
where sink holes appear
without warning, some watered
beneath with underground rivers,
but others just chasms, cave vents
or rifts between two angry seams
of geologic tension. Cybele’s
temple was just such a place,
its altar an opening into darkness
that drove women mad, and men
to self-mutilation.
Just such a place
is the entrance to Tartarus,
nine days below Hell.

One falls, not into open space
like Milton’s bad angels
(who enjoyed a feast of starlight
while they plummeted) —
but no, one falls
     into an ever-narrowing funnel
     of cold darkness,
into a place where legs
    and arms are useless
until there is nothing of you
     but a head screaming upwards
towards an ever-dwindling
     pinpoint of light.

Our earth is a shifting island of sea and magma,
Swiss-cheesed with sink holes, cenotes,
Blue Holes at the bottoms of coral seabeds —
Something riddled with Nothing,
orbiting a self- regulated explosion,
sun hurtling around and away from
the Black Hole at the rift of space-time,
Every moment of existence here averts
an infinity of empty, unpeopled stars.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

The White Tiger

Each Autumn, I write one or more "seasonal" poems, adding them to an ever-growing cycle called "Anniversarium: The Autumn Poems." This is the 34th in the series. In Chinese art and folklore, the white tiger is a symbol of autumn (white itself is the color of funerals and mourning in China).


I dreamt — it was no dream! —
for there, on the floor, the melted snow,
the window-lattice broken, night coals
from the brazier scattered everywhere.

I dreamt he was there beside me:
the great white cat, tiger of Siberia,
lord of Manchurian wastelands. He,
my servant comes trembling to tell me,
has taken up residence
at the far end of the north pavilion.

Ah! let him stay! Bring me my sword?
No! my pen and scroll! I must wash
my thoughts with a draught of tea.
Renew the fire. Refill the yi xing
pot with pale white tea leaves.

“He is Death,” my servant tells me.
I shake my head and answer:
“He is Autumn, the world’s Fall,
my autumn, the end of my youth.
Where he treads, frost follows,
his breath the snow that fells the wheat
and makes the maples scream
red murder. Long have I known
he would be our guest one day.”

“Repair the window,” old Chen admonishes.
“We shall light torches to keep him off.”
I see two feline eyes
grow larger in the passageway.
“It is too late. A guest once past the threshold
must be offered food and lodging.
The tiger may come and go as he pleases.”

I point to where the great beast enters.
My servant issues a piercing cry.
Ignoring us, the monster, white
in the whiter moonlight, lies down
on the warm tiles of the coal hearth.
“You see, old Chen, how he reclines.
I do not think he means to harm me.”

Chen bows and backs to the doorway,
and as he closes the double door, calls back,
“Tomorrow brings terror to the countryside.
The tiger will kill the fallow deer,
and, should you venture forth by daylight,
he, pretending not to know you,
will turn on you as well. An old poet
is sweet fruit after a venison banquet.”

’Twixt Venus and Jupiter, one moon
hangs crescent; ’twixt sleep and dawn
the great beast cradles me, and I, him;
sword, fang, and claw forgotten, defying
our double death; a frozen interval,
two hearts abeat, and four lungs breathing.
I dream of being a great beast, rampant;
the tiger dreams of the calligraphy brush,
the tail-flick ink flow that places songs
on paper, words in the ears
of unborn readers and listeners.

I taste the blood in his mouth, the flex
of great legs that can overleap all prey;
he tastes pale tea and delicate sauces,
the savor of rare wine in a heated bowl.

As dawn breaks through,
the Heaven-tree, the willow boughs,
the distant pines sigh, shiver, shrug:
they will fight for a green day,
bird-harboring, leaf-tipped
to the lambent sunbeams.

Somewhere, out there, the tiger
drags Fall behind him as he hunts
life down with a panther frenzy.
Great clouds of birds assemble and flee
before him; cave, den, and warren
pull in their denizens for the long sleep
of winter. He leaves a trail
of antlered skeletons, doe-widows,
trees clawed clean of summer.

My place is here with lamp and teapot.
I wrote a poem. I rolled and sealed
the rice-paper scroll, wiped clean
the brush and closed the ink-jar.
This is not just any autumn’s beast.
There is some cause for which
he spared me, and was not my Autumn
or the death-breath of my winter.
No, he is the Tiger of Entropy:
he drags tornados, kill-winds
and glaciers behind him.
He would blink out
the world’s great cities if he could;
he would strike down the moon
as his ball-of-string plaything,
leave earth an orphan
in a sunless cosmos.
If I let him.

Tomorrow, while he sleeps,
wherever he sleeps —
and I see the place,
in the shade of the pines
beyond the placid river —
I shall send Chen for my finest mount,
my armor and my banner men.

I shall ride forth,
my flag the three-no poem of summer
defiance: No to death,
No to surrender, No to the idea
that all things must have their autumn.

I have sixty-one years
as I leave the pavilion.
I have fifty-one years as I cross
the great wheat fields.
I have forty-one years
as I track the red-maple forest.
I have thirty-one years
as I ford the river,
horse-neck and saddle
just barely above the water.
I have twenty-one years
as Chen passes me
the great halberd
of my ancestors.

Now, I shall kill the White Tiger.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Mr. Penney's Books

Bay-windowed room in gingerbread Victorian,
bookshelved from floor
to cast-in-shadow ceiling —
my dream of my own retirement-exile, to be
left alone at last amid ten thousand
books, and cabinets whose sliding drawers
concealed vast sheaves of etchings, prints,
treasures way back to incunabula days.

And the room — it was Mr. Penney's­
with its great desk and drawing board
tack-pinned with unfinished blueprints
of a magnetic perpetual motion engine —
was itself a mere anteroom
to corridors and attics, niches
and passageways, book
upon book, a hollowed hive
of unkempt learning.

It was here, as a high-school boy,
I came for my real reading:
Voltaire and Paine and Ingersoll,
the little Blue Books of skeptical thought,
the slim red classics of Everyman's library,
the histories piled high 'mid Verne
and Conrad, Tolstoy and Maupassant.

Each day I'd listen rapt to his tales
of selling Vermont marble
in post-earthquake San Francisco
of his newspaper days,
dragging O'Henry from drunk bar
to his deadline desk, long years
of teaching young men the rigors
of mechanical drawing; of buildings
designed and constructed (he’d built
one of the first automat restaurants);
of patents granted and sold too cheap.

Eight decades had crept upon him; he joked
“I never dreamt I’d live to the day
that I grew tits, and my wife a beard.”
Sons and grandsons tramped the big house,
not one of them a reader. Each week
his son's wife heaped Penney's books
into the curbside trashcan; each week
he was up before dawn-crack to retrieve them.

Hundreds were the volumes he gifted me.
“You'll read them. What's more, you'll pass the gift.”
I nodded, books piled to my chin, tottered home.
I read three a day then,
as though I had come to books from a desert,
or dreaded returning to one. Gone from home,
gone to school, gone to the city, I have
a dim memory of someone mentioning
“Old Mr. Penney died a while back.”

I made one final visit to the hated town,
raked my stepfather'd house of every scrap
of my existence there: old manuscripts,
my few remaining comics, cartons of books
I had left behind for someday-retrieval.
My mother, between beers and cigarettes, said:
“Oh, the Penneys came by one day. They said
he left you all his books. We were
going to write you a letter,
but then I never found a stamp,
and I guess I lost the envelope.”

My mind screamed What?! —
my voice went novocain,
a tiny “Oh,” my only response.

Friend’s car packed up
with all my juvenilia, I asked,
"Let's turn left here. There's a house
I want one last remembrance of.”
We slowed to stop. Three people rose
from their porch chairs, swung wide
the double stained-glass door.
The porch light flickered, failed.
Inside, the door to Mr. Penney's library
was thrust open, then slowly shut
like a drowsy eyelid. An arc
of hall-light swept over the floor,
over and across to the deep bay window.
Bare floors, bare walls, stark corners,
bookless, shelfless, deskless and desolate,
then dark as the door closed. The hall's
lights went black, unlettered Penneys
ascending their crisp, clean, dustless stairs
to sleep. We drove off
without speaking, our car trunk full,
back seat piled high to the tipping point
with all the books I'd ever owned.

Copyright 2009 by Brett Rutherford. All Rights Reserved

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