Reprise

Okay, just like we planned, let’s do this again.

I’ve been walking on sand,
Goin’ on months, now.
Been wearing these high, hot boots
Made for cold weather.

It’s a bit slow, so far.
Pick it up.

All this shifting weight, keeping balance,
Doing everything I can to stay upright;
When I could just lay back, slip off my shoes,
Let the ocean pull me in.
Float buoyant.

Maybe fewer words does work better.

But there’s this wall up:
Foundation a thousand feet deep,
Nothin’ but clouds come over…

Come on, keep going.
Try more alliteration or rhyming.

Looking now at the concrete,
Cold winding street,
On course to save myself from this perdition.
Permission for salvation.
Sedition.

Yeah, that’s the good stuff.
Just a few more lines!


No…

I won’t.
Not anymore.

What do you mean!? Why not!?

Tread not upon old roads.

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Positive Disintegration

I wish to be sand;
So I might soak up what is brought to me
And become malleable.
That small hands could shape me,
Build fleeting dreams and weep
As the perpetual tides ripple,
Pulling me with them into strong currents.
Or to make rich and fertile loam,
Where steadfast roots take hold,
Spread, and sprout eternal forests.

I wish to be water,
To cool parched tongues
And soothe with calming touch
The burning minds and souls
Of the wayward and weary.
Let them follow me to green places
Among groves that blossom and give shelter;
Allow them take my nourishment,
Build upon my shores and live forever:
Peaceful through generations in quiet, smiling joy.

I wish to be air—
Free and constant and neverending—
The unconscious need,
Drawn into aching lungs and given back
To the gasping Earth, to bleeding hearts
Intent on love and suffering.
Would that I could comfort
With deep breaths.

But I am not air,
Neither am I water nor sand.
I am a pebble,
Eroded away by relentless millennia
From mountain to boulder,
To big rock and small.
And there are eons still ahead.

Autumn Hymnal

Our last chance to be busy,
As days grow shorter
In a flourish of noise and color.

Riotous reds, yellows, and oranges
And the dying rays of the Summer sun.

I step onto the school bus on a Monday in September,
Twenty-one years ago,
Terrified.

But I have my sister with me,
And she’s just as scared as I am.
So I pretend I’m not afraid,
Even though I’m surrounded by strangers:
Each one bigger than the last.

Getting to our destination was easier than being there.

Once we’d arrived,
We were separated, my sister and I,
For the first substantial length of time
Since we were born.

It’s no surprise, I became nervous,
Anxious of every new event
Without the safety of my sibling.

But I pressed onward,
Despite the fear and loneliness
That ensnared me ever after,
Going as far as seeking out that strange unfamiliarity

So that I might have a chance to learn something new.

I’d like to call it courage,
But it’s probably just wishful thinking…

I can remember the leaves changing,
Revealing their accessory pigments
In the chill of October,
Seven years later.

I woke up and I’d lost religion!
Couldn’t find it anymore!

I remember having it,
When my grandmother took us,
To play games, eat cookies, drink fruit punch.
And to learn about God.

I wish I could have asked her where it had gone…

I had it with my brother as well,
When my soul was saved and I saw
The heads of pseudo-strangers being dunked
Into murky water,

Polluted with our most dire sins.

But God became mired within a web of deceit:
Entangled in the bias of my unmarked category.
And lost to me forever.

Now I prefer faith to religion…

In November, after a decade and four years,
Northeastern gales strip the world
Of its foliage, of its many-colored fantasy.

And I find truth again—
Perspective, agency, love for all things—
Among the barren branches
Rising above this beautiful and terrible naked Earth.

I am reminded of Autumns past:
Breaking bread and playing games
With those who molded me;
I am grateful for my family,
All the old friends, all the new,

All the opportunity awaiting in this life.

I am an amalgam, a distorted mosaic
Without semblance of rhyme or reason,
Cobbled together by the enigmatic hands of time.

And if I have hurt you, bless me with forgiveness,
So that I might forgive myself.
And if I have loved you,

Know that I love you still…

Our last chance to be busy,
When leaves fall,
When we feast together,
When birds fly far from home,

As days grow shorter
In a flourish of noise and color.

Ode to Summer

There is time to play
With bare feet
And the sun beaming down.

Leeward tides roll along seas of green hills.

I am very young, now,
It is night time,
And my sister sleeps next to me.
We are wrapped for warmth in the chill of the Northern night,
Sandwiched between our parents.

I hear gentle waves from beyond the barrier of our tent,
The wind caressing the trees, an owl in the distance.

There is only peace here, and safety.
I am home.

Twenty years gone,
And the sun mocks me.
It taunts me with oppressive heat.

It is August, and my neck and shoulders burn.
Not from ultraviolet radiation,
From carrying power equipment
And picking up the slack of those
Too lazy to pick up a goddamn weed-eater!

They call it, “bitch-work”
Behind my back…

My hands are rough.
They ache with my knees and spine.

But I bring beauty to the world,
And the world brings it back to me.

Weeks spent in the North, to get away.
Around Detroit or Cleveland or Buffalo;
To small places like White River, Lac Victoria, and Wawa.

It was there that I fell in love for the first time.

We were young, just passing each other
Outside a small general store:
The old kind with sundries and novelty bubblegum.

She waited on the stoop for someone,
Or something, eating ice cream.
But I never spoke to her.
Never said, “Hello,”
Or asked her name.

It was likely a beautiful name,
Laden with meaning.

A year passed and I walked down country roads,
Talking and being silent
With a different girl.
She was sweet, kind, and faithful.

I wished she would be with me,
And I told her as much.
But her feelings differed from mine.

She fancied my best friend.
So, graciously, I stepped back.
I didn’t fight or beg,
Because I didn’t want to lose her.

I told him, they became a couple.
For a while, anyway.

Now, I see women,
No longer girls.
They wear flowing floral dresses—
Summer dresses—

That come to their knees,
Exposing delicate curves
Of thighs and hips and busts.

With intricate patterns and fancy shoes or hair.
Sometimes, just sneakers or sandals.
Sometimes, just a ponytail or braid.

They don’t walk,
They dance across sunlit pavement
To music I can’t hear.

In June, fifteen years ago,
I was a terrible baseball player.
I played among the best,
But I helped us lose the championship.
The last at-bat, full count,
Swing and a miss.

My teammates pat me on the back,
Consoling with, “good game,” but silently blaming,
Like I blamed myself.

A decade later,
Standing in plaid cargo shorts and flip-flops
In tall grass beading with dew,
At the top of a small mound
Surrounded by Appalachian hills.

All minds reeling from the onset of powerful drugs.

Music drifts from the distant stage,
Filling the air with harmony.

A magenta sky swirls with clouds in sunset,
And the stars begin to peek out of the purple behind me.
The grass is cool and refreshing on my bare legs.
Awe and inspiration.

We are fleeting as the birds.

It was better than the day before,
When panoramas took infinite depth:
Backdrops of silhouettes,
Like a Chinese shadow puppet theater.

Fireflies flashed among the trees,
Looking for mates.
In a small grove overlooked by the balcony,
Where we found oneness,
Where we became whole.

Five years earlier,
I had no idea who I was or what I wanted,
Only that I had good friends,
Who would later leave me behind.

We sat at my house, in my room,
Laughing at the antics of each other.
They were as lost as I was,
Not knowing the future,
Not caring for the past.

We were creatures of the present, then.

Three years after, I worked and withdrew,
And they let me,
But not before taking me to the woods again,
Where I was made the punch-line.

The year before, we’d lived for a week together,
Away from our homes,
Marking our transition into autonomy,
Into independence.

It was an alcoholic blur that lasted three years,
For me at least.
For some, it got better,
For others, it got worse.

I can only remember anger
In the Smoky Mountains,
And loneliness when I returned.

It was a decade after I hiked the steep hills in July,
With my father and mother and sister.
As children, we put ridiculous names to places we saw,
So we could commit them to memory.

Eventually, we forgot, but our parents remembered.

So did I once I saw them again,
Hiking the same Appalachian hills
Nearly two decades later,
Though they were covered in moss and dead leaves,
Overgrown with vines of greenbrier and blackberry.

After I’d lost the stomach for red meat,
After a tick bite nearly took my life,
With a week of pain and hallucinations

From hunger and dehydration and deprivation of sleep.

I had been slothful before,
Waiting for life to take shape around me,
“Never again,” I vowed.

So, I took up hatchet and machete,
To clear away the brush and bramble
Of lost youth,
To cut trails back to the past,
Toward remembrance and direction.

I have been shown the way,
I need only the strength to follow.

There is time to play
In cool water,
In the scent of freshly cut grass,
In the verdant blooms of wildflowers.

With bare feet,
And the sun beaming down.

A Subjective Nature

“What is beauty?”
Ask Van Gogh and he’d cut off his other ear.
Picasso would glue the ear to his mistress’ forehead.
Dali would twirl his moustache and scream obscenities.
Jackson Pollock would vomit.

Everything we have ever seen exists
On wavelengths of light,
Measured from 390 to 700 nanometers
Apart at their apexes:

The visible spectrum.

This range contains every mural,
Every painting,
Every sketch,
Every dye and ink and pigment;
Every aesthetic wonder ever glimpsed by the eyes of man.

“What is music?”
Ask Handel and he’d pray for an answer.
Mozart would put his ear to the floor and wait for his own.
Coltrane would chase the dragon and wonder why you’re asking him.
Bob Dylan would shrug.

Everything we have ever heard exists,
On a separate measure of wavelengths,
Apart from light.
Measurements of vibrations in the air,
From 20 to 20,000 hertz:

The audible spectrum.

This range contains every opera,
Every symphony,
Every song,
Every chorus and melody and rhythm;
Every sonic opus written by one for the joys of another.

“What is literature?”
Ask Chaucer and he’d point to the people.
Shakespeare would laugh and point back to Chaucer.
Hemingway would get drunk, tell a war story, and shoot himself.
Neil Gaiman would doodle.

Everything we have ever read exists,
Within a spectrum all its own;
Not subject to empirical measurements,
Apart from word count.
The English language contains roughly
1,000,000 words and rising:

The literal spectrum.

This range contains every novel,
Every manuscript,
Every poem,
Every line and syllable and letter;
Every literary masterpiece that shaped a young boy’s imagination.

“What is art?”

Mantis shrimp can see into the ultraviolet,
Helping them find their mates.
Pit vipers can detect heat in the infrared,
Helping them find their prey.

Greater wax moths hear sonic frequencies up to 300,000 hertz,
Allowing them to evade predators.
Asian elephants produce seismic frequencies as low as 14 hertz,
Allowing them to locate friends.

Archaea, Bacteria, and Eukarya,
Everything that slithers, crawls, walks, swims, runs, jumps, and flies
Upon the face of this blue-green Earth
Communicates through electromagnetic and biochemical impulses.

Art is beauty.
Art is music.
Art is literature.

But overall,
Art is life.

Third Law

“There she is, man,” Kenny said, nodding in the direction. I looked and saw her standing at a table in the corner of the bar, talking to some of her friends. My mouth went dry, my palms started to sweat. I was twelve again, trying to work up the guts to ask the pretty girl from homeroom to the Spring dance. He nudged me with his elbow, “You goin’ to actually speak to her this time?”

“Fuck off,” I said. I tried and failed to avert my eyes from her.

“Ooh, tender.” Despite his constant mocking, Kenny was my best friend. Not that he was much of a friend, for that matter; more like a partner in shared social isolation. “Come on man,” he said, “it’s not like she’ll spit acid in your face if you just offer to buy her a drink.”

“Dude, just let it go,” I said, “I’ll worry about me, you worry about you.”

“Dave… buddy… I’m telling you this as your friend: you’re a total pussy.”

I shook my head away from her and walked toward the bar. Kenny followed a half-step behind me. We sat down at the counter and waited for the bartender to find the time to take our order. Once he noticed us, he wrapped up his conversation with a giggly waitress and came over. “Yeah?” He asked, flat with indifference.

“Coffee with a double-shot of Bailey’s,” I said. He nodded.

“Jack & Coke,” Kenny said, “if it’s not too much trouble. I know you’re pretty busy…” His voice was heavy with implication. The bartender, seeming to have missed the jab, apathetically fetched our drinks and returned to ignoring his customers. “Fuckin’ asshole,” Kenny said once he was out of earshot.

I nodded and took a sip, “Yup.”

“Why do we always sit at the bar? This dickhead treats us like we’re lepers every time we come here. I’d rather be forced to tip than deal with this bullshit.” Kenny drained half his drink.

“Probably because this is one of the few places in town that hasn’t thrown you out at least once. Don’t you remember what happened at Penny’s?” I asked him, half-consciously glancing over my shoulder, feeling like I’d lost track of something.

“That was different,” he said, “that waitress was a bitch.”

“You started screaming at her in the middle of a crowded restaurant for not bringing you an extra tub of ranch. I’m honestly surprised they didn’t ask us to leave sooner.”

He grunted in typical cranky fashion and finished another quarter of his drink, “Whatever man.”

“It was a mistake, dude. You didn’t even give her a chance to fix it, either. You just started yelling, ‘You fucking hambeast!’ as soon as she brought our plates,” I reminded him.

“We ordered the ranch,” he said defensively. “She put it on the bill. As if sauces should even be fucking priced… If I’m paying for condiments, I will get my damn condiments… If people are going to be expected to tip, which is retarded anyway, they should be allowed to expect adequate service.” He kept talking but his voice faded into a muffled garble, barely audible over the jukebox.

I wasn’t paying attention to him anymore. I smirked and nodded and sipped my caffeinated cocktail, still looking around the bar. Kenny always shot off into tangential rants about anything and everything; it only took the smallest infraction to invoke his wrath. I’d once seen him berate an old man for taking too long at an ATM. I’d already heard his current tirade several times that month and each time it had gained more vitriol. He’d probably been snubbed after trying to flirt with his server somewhere. That was how he was: always bitter, always resentful, always blaming something or someone else; misanthrope was a euphemism.

As he was jabbering, I glanced over at the door, then back to the TV hanging over the bar, then back over to the corner where I’d seen her earlier. She wasn’t there. I looked back at Kenny and kept him going with a chuckle and a, “…right, yeah,” after he’d mentioned something about a certain football player looking like the type of person that might rape a horse.

My drink dwindled and disappeared and a new one was brought after much attention-grabbing, indication, and indignation. The same happened with Kenny’s Jack & Coke, but he’d also managed to coax two shots of tequila out of our high-and-mighty host. We each took one and knocked them back. I looked back at the corner again; she was still gone. This cycle continued into the wee hours.

By the time we were both feeling warm and seeing fuzzy, I began to notice something strange. There was a small mirror along the back of the bar. It was a fairly small place so they used the mirror to make it look bigger, I assumed. To the inebriated mind, it looked more like a window as long as it was seen from an angle. That was the effect it had on me then, even though I knew better. I could see the bartender behind and all the patrons along the counter from my angle, but the lights seemed different. They were a little softer than out in the bar. I closed my eyes and opened them, thinking I was just too drunk to be rational. Nothing changed.

“I gotta take a leak,” I said, hopping down off the stool.

“Don’ ffall in,” Kenny said, beginning to lose eloquence.

Wandering toward the back, I weaved through various mild displays of drunken buffoonery: a tense pool game, an argument over some recent sporting match, a long string of crude jokes from a guy that looked like a used car salesman. As I slipped into the men’s room door I glanced across the bar at the corner again. She’d returned. Her eyes caught mine as the door closed. I stared at the inner side of it for a second and sighed. I turned around and another guy slid past with an “excuse me.”

I said, “sorry,” and moved aside, shaking my head with momentary embarrassment. The bathroom was fairly standard fare for a hole-in-the-wall dive. The toilets were cramped together, there was a heavy smell of stale urine and beer, and almost everything looked like it would feel slimy. I released the pressure that had built up in my bladder as quickly as I could for fear of catching an airborne strain of gonorrhea. I zipped up and walked back over to the sink to wash my hands. Something shifted in the mirror.

The reflection wasn’t mine. It was me, for sure, but I was different. My clothes had changed. I was sporting a scraggly beard and long hair pulled back into a ponytail. I looked down at myself and everything was normal: same black shoes, same gray pants, same blue shirt, same brown blazer. The mirror insisted something else.

My jacket was leather. I wore a dirty t-shirt and ratty blue-jeans. I could only assume my boots were snakeskin. The door opened in the mirror and my reflection turned around to greet someone that looked like Kenny. He was motioning for me to come back out to the bar. I heard the jukebox get louder and felt a little rush behind me. I glanced to my left and saw someone turn into the stall next to the sink. I turned back to the mirror and I was there, in my own familiar skin. I rubbed my eyes and finished washing my hands, then left the bathroom.

As I left the bathroom, I noticed the lights were dimmer outside. The music had changed over from top-40 hits to classic rock and heavy metal. I could feel different textures over my skin; my face itched. Kenny, or someone that looked too much like him, slapped me on the shoulder. He brought his arm around me and pulled me closer under it- something he’d never done- whispering loud enough so that I could hear him, but no one else could: “Jesus Christ, man, try not make it look like you’re doin’ a fuckin’ line next time! Wipe up.”

My hand reflexively wiped my nose and my mouth sucked my hand clean. I was horrified with how natural this motion seemed. My eyes darted around the bar and I found familiar faces. She was standing in the corner, right where I’d left her, but she was different. Her features were sunken and she had a tattoo down her neck. Her hair looked greasy and tangled. She wore a halter top and short-shorts in place of a blouse and skirt. She winked and blew me a kiss. I couldn’t help but smile back.

“Alright, my turn,” Kenny said. “Go get us some drinks, man.”

I made my way back to the front of the bar while Kenny ducked into the bathroom. I leaned in on the counter and almost instinctively yelled, “Why if it isn’t Ol’ Johnny Ringo,” at the bartender. Surprised at my voice, I slunk down a little as some of the other tavern-goers looked my way.

The bartender turned and laughed and took my order without hesitation. “What are you hiding for,” he asked, “who gives a shit what these fuckin’ tourists think?”

I nodded and he kept up the chatter as he poured the two pitchers of beer I’d ordered.

“You guys comin’ to the party later?”

“What!? I am the fuckin’ party, man!” I said, hiding my confusion.

We laughed in alien ways at foreign jokes. He left his post to help me bring the load to my table. The group greeted us with glee, all of them staring at the beer. After pouring our glasses the bartender said, “When you need a refill just get my attention and I’ll bring out another pitcher.” He left us to our devices.

After we each drained half of our glasses, my dream girl welcomed me by shoving her tongue down my throat. The taste of cigarettes and regret made me want to vomit. She grabbed my ass and I was pulled back from the brink. “I love you, baby,” I said.

“Love you too, babe,” she replied.

Another person in our group, a face I half-remembered from my youth, called her name. “Hey Jen,” they said. I liked the sound of it. They chatted about the past and laughed about things I couldn’t quite recall. I was compelled to smirk at a few of them. I scanned along the mirror behind the bar as I waited for Kenny to come back from taking whatever drug was now coursing through my bloodstream.

I caught my reflection sitting at the end of the counter, looking about and quietly smiling while Kenny’s reflection threw out some self-righteous diatribe. All three of us took a drink. Beer swirled down into my stomach.

Kenny returned from the bathroom and gave me the same hard slap and one-armed hug he gave me earlier, but I didn’t shrink away this time. It was different, but it felt normal. He took his glass and chugged the whole thing, then poured another. Once the beer hit the brim, he tapped someone else on the shoulder and nodded them toward the bathroom, continuing the relay. I waved Johnny over for another pitcher. He poured it immediately. His reflection stared contemptuously in our direction with a towel over his shoulder, unflinching.

“So anyway,” Kenny said, having left in the middle of a conversation, “we’re fuckin’ with the dude pretty hard at this point. We figure it’s the easiest way to weed out the rats, you know: make ‘em piss themselves. I’m hoverin’ real close over the guy, watchin’ Dave play with his knife while he tells him some bullshit about the last dude that stole from us. You know, the same old crap we used to hear about the mafia: balls cut off, tongues cut out, houses burned down, family members kidnapped…” he took another drink midsentence, “all that shit…” He belched. Johnny sat the pitcher down and trotted back behind the counter.

I was enthralled by what I heard, smiling, laughing, or nodding on cue to every reference. As he talked, the thoughts came flooding in. I remembered myself, but not myself, committing almost every petty crime in the book. I was a thief and a thug. I had manufactured, smuggled, dealt, and used every drug I had ever heard of and some I hadn’t. I’d cheated, lied, and stolen my way through the underbelly of society since I was born. And Kenny was right there with me the whole time.

The most terrifying aspect of this sudden rush of memory was that I only felt the slightest tinges of regret and remorse. I looked back over at the mirror while Kenny kept relaying stories and the girls left the table to powder their noses. My image stared in my direction and turned around sharply as another group came into the reflection. It was the girls I’d been leering at the whole night. Kenny’s image nudged my arm and I shook him off again, just as I’d done when we arrived.

I turned back to the table, drank the rest of my beer and poured another glass from the new pitcher. I didn’t look at the mirror again until Johnny belted out the last call. By this time, Jen- apparently my girlfriend- had returned with her flock of companions. I’d learned through the conversation that we’d been dating for about a year, having met when she and her friends wanted to buy cocaine from Kenny and me. My reflection had first seen hers at an art show last year during my final semester of college; she’d just been hired as an adjunct professor there. They’d never spoken.

I glanced back at the mirror and found an unfamiliar scene. Johnny’s pompous doppleganger was pouring a round of shots for my reflection, Kenny’s, and the entire group of girls sitting to our right at the counter. I’d taken the seat between my friend and the girl I’d been ogling and made my move: one last round, on me, for her consideration.

She willingly accepted the token and we toasted our fortune. I formally introduced myself and she almost immediately stopped paying attention to me. Kenny’s reflection noticed this. Jen grabbed my focus back by running her hand up my leg and groping my crotch. “Hey, baby, I’m horny,” she said in a lurid whisper. “Let’s go fuck in the bathroom.”

She took my hand and led me to the back. I watched the mirror as we walked; Johnny smiled knowingly as we passed by. I nodded back to him and saw the image of Kenny scream at Jen’s reflection, flailing his arms around like a rabid ape. As the bathroom door opened, she started crying and my fist hit Kenny’s jaw. He went down as the door closed.

I stared into the mirror while I bent Jen over the sink. I was conflicted. While we writhed against each other in the dirty restroom, I could only think about what was happening back out there, in the reality reverberating through the silvered glass behind the counter. At first I could only see the inner side of the door. Soon, it opened and Kenny’s reflection stumbled through, crazed. He rammed himself into the stalls and ripped the paper towel dispenser from the wall. Water gushed up from below the frame where he destroyed the sink.

The door opened again and the bartender and my reflection burst through. We grabbed him by the arms and pulled him out of the room, kicking like a toddler. The door closed and I let go; Jen moaned loud enough to let the whole place know what we were doing. We each cut and snorted a line, then straightened ourselves up and left the scene. My vision blurred along with the rest of the night.

My eyes opened to the sound of someone else breathing and a soft glow filtering in through the curtains. I turned over in my familiar bed and saw the back of her head. Her hair was clean, albeit a little messy from a night of what I hoped was a lack of sleep. She snoozed peacefully as I sat up and grabbed my phone from the nightstand: ten a.m., seven new voicemail messages, thirty new texts; almost everything from Kenny, only a single text from Jen.

I looked at the bruised knuckles on my right hand. They were aching. I thought back to the night before; there was the punch and having to drag Kenny out of the bar; things seemed to have gone exceedingly well with Jen; the drive home, or maybe it was a cab ride. Things were still fuzzy. I tossed the phone aside and Jen stirred behind me. “Where you goin’,” she asked as I stood up.

“Takin’ a leak,” I said.

She yawned, “Don’t fall in…”