Saturday, November 28, 2009

you are for me as you cannot be for yourself

Prodigy. Girl of infinite wonder.
Face hanging open like a broken gate.
Beating the air with prophesies
issued from honey-sticky lips.
It’s a drag because sometimes
no one knows what we’re doing anymore

or what we’re saying, like last Saturday,
when the world was held together
by a pair of jeans
and a milkshake.
Yet you’re still curious about life,

Because I’ve thought about the spots
where you grip the earth in secret,
where you’re adrift in the wind
and signaling.
I keep checking the sky
for some midnight pilot
tracing your name in stars,

oh me,

but I’m still in the thick
of it I guess. I spend so many nights
thinking about you like this—
a curiosity in orbit,
incapable of knowing anything else,
caught up in some cold tract of self-brilliance.
What is it like to be someone else, anyway?

Like the way you are, the big smile
with the copper-glossy hair,
smile like the sun. (The sun
still rises, right?) Like
the sun. Whereas I drive
in my car for hours
with no direction...

sometimes towns look
better that way.
Well, smacking oars on water,
intransigent, incongruent—
I want to worry about what you worry about
and not be a slave to myself anymore.
Like in Berlin, when I was dazed and alone,

wandering the Friedrichstrasse
with my bag and a song in my throat.
Some empty thing’s always taking me
to Paris and Chicago, and I know
there’s a place where those two
don’t fit together,

but my friends
keep telling me it’s OK and
I guess it’s OK because
these days the bars between our
homes seem to be lit better
and better and

someday the streets
will finally be picked clean
by taxis and we won’t have
anything left to fear

except the utmost sincerity

Sunday, October 25, 2009

god damn does he go

Johnny was something with the ladies,
I'll always remember him with
his highball and dinner jacket
making a rodeo on the Steinway
for someone he was
barely interested in, and
isn't it funny? Always on the
verge of suicide and such beauty,
well, it is what it is, boy
had weight on his shoulders
no love could allay, but
god damn does he go—
if only we could all carry
ourselves straight to that sweet hell
he could put us in,
and go and go again—
sing it with me friends,
o good times, o good times,
o good times will you ever end?

Friday, August 21, 2009

prayer for an american century

No working. No working
for love or money!
The pretty waitress leaned
over and asked, just
passing through?, and
doesn't she deserve better than this?
No more poems. No more poems
til they bear the fruit of living!
All the feats of language
come from advertisers anyway
and all these sons of Santa Clarita
have missed the worst and most
meaningful of life.
The trains rust on their rails
and we sing the song of separation,
forever and ever,
and ever,

Thursday, August 20, 2009


When I was twenty my best friend
tried to kill me, he got drunk and
spoke in voices and sent his Army
hands toward me, my neck,
I worried later (when I got away)
that I couldn’t kill him, I mean,
I couldn’t squeeze my sanity through
a pinhole of violence barely small enough to see,
couldn’t make these sad musician’s hands
speak to act for the life of me.

And so it is the way it always is.
A year ago I fashioned myself as
one of the Brooks Brothers blood brothers
and this morning I watched a kid with
a bald spot like the sunrise get 20 years
in a manslaughter, his slammer pajamas
barely hugging his ass, and shit,
aren’t we all in the wrong place
from time to time? I thought of you
and your pretty legs and me and my hopeless
self and how my hopeless hands grip
the open air and leave nothing but
nothingness in their wakes, blades on a fan,
bars of a cell—well, we all make mistakes and
that’s just how it happens sometimes,
everything pathetic gets its naked day
in court, where our wasted selves abide.
Blame no one, we all find hearths
in which we’d burn. And that’s it.

It is the way it always is.
My fingers still don’t work.
So tie that tie ‘round my neck, baby,
watch me hang myself with desire.

Thursday, July 02, 2009

Near Deventer

I looked up from some of my files and saw a little boy, through the train window. It was somewhere near Deventer, on the way to Berlin, and he tumbled towards the tracks a toddling mess of blond hair and fair skin, halting just beyond the shade of the tree where his family picnicked. He started to wave up at the train, in little floppy motions, and I felt something catch in my chest. I paused a moment and lifted my hand, but his little arms and little red shirt had already disappeared, still waving, beyond the horizons of my window.

I remembered, then, a night over a year ago, some muggy twilight in the heart of a Chicago August; I was in town for one night before I had my one-way to Berlin in the morning, where I was moving for work, the first good job offer I’d ever gotten. We were stepping off the El somewhere near Wrigleyville, where Memo suggested we get off and take a walk for a while. There was a wine-bottle’s worth of drunk between us, and we seemed to veer off the platform without direction. It was hot, and my shirt stuck to my chest and shoulders. Memo wore a dark blouse and a white skirt that danced against her legs every time she walked.

Memo finally pointed us towards Lake Michigan, looking down at her feet as we walked, gripping her skirt at her hips and squeezing the fabric between her fingers. “Look at this,” she said, rubbing it with her thumb and inviting me to touch. “Got it today. Guess how much.”

“Ten dollars,” I said, just looking.

“I like where your mind is,” she said, “but this is Chicago. Forty bucks. Still a great deal.”

“Okay.” I smiled.

The brownstones seemed to lean in over the street, covered in the thin membrane of orange streetlight that bounded in arcs across their fronts with every lamp. We passed a busker with an accordion squeezing out a tango by Piazzolla, with a nose that looked to have been broken three times, pivoting to face us as we walked by. We passed a deli with a green awning that we would eat at when I used to visit, still bearing the same white strip of 80’s balloon font, Sal’s, that now looked a little bit older and a little more foreign from the wear of passing time. Caked stains from rain runoff striped its sides. I stopped for a moment as Memo walked ahead and I watched her reflection disappear off the edge of the deli window in a drain of color. I’d loved her before, and always would, but I would never tell her, not then, not ever. There were the little rules of the universe, repeating themselves infinitely in quiet dramas played out in the past and present and future, at school, in the Little Village, on the waterfront where we were about to make love and then dress without speaking. A history and destiny so real and certain that its story seemed to be printed in letters of fire.

My breath shook. Beneath the lights and the motion of the city, the streets seemed to writhe and tremble with life. Ahead, there was a storefront neon whose cursive message—Open 24 hrs.—seemed to set the air around her shoulders into vibrations, and Memo paused a moment before stepping off the curb ahead.

“Hey,” I said, even as she started to turn. “Wait up.”

at the Platz der Republik

I lie in a park watching the sky.
Clouds pass in domes of grey,
mottled with the blue of summer.
Climbing away.

The things we do when in love.
How long is not long enough?
These are the things we do now.
Sitting in parks, watching the children.
I don't know you, and you don't know me.

My hands pass in front of the sun.
The sun passes the earth.
The clouds climb together
towards the atmosphere, to ignite.
I don't know you, and you don't know me.

I lie in a park watching the sky.
I lie in a park.
Climbing away.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

the land of ready

I was born in the land of ready.
My father died with grey ink in his heart
holding a book called “Be Angry At The Sun.”
We wrapped the sun in lattice
and painted the door
geranium red.
Change flattened the lilacs.

Born in the land of ready and plenty,
so haven’t you heard?
Kill thy poet and vengeance is swift.
In this town the best give birth
blessed to stoke the bitter plenty.
Bobby spins his 808s
to wind Deb up for magic
and there I’ll be caught again
with cigarettes and silhouettes
keeping that shit in line,
holding pregnant light to smile
for one more run through town’s main drag,
fronting for the little magic,
with string quartets and pirouettes
hopping cold-cocked bastard motherfuckers
who stamped their feet upon
my sovereign right to anger.
And what!
I traveled space and time
to ride this Motown supernova.
It’s a chanteuse honky-tonk;
I danced in a melody made of satin
and transfigured all the tenements on my block.
Bobby spun and Debbie spun
and every year their bitter past
meets some better pavement,
and lo to all those motherfuckers
who dared tread upon it.

I was born in the land of ready,
where everywhere decent was named
after decency everywhere else;
Danny drove an old police cruiser
forty miles to the ocean,
where he blew out his brains
to Dre on cassette.
We speak of him kindly but barely speak.
John Q. Layaway. He was Army. My mother blamed
a sweet and lonesome wind.
He was not born Ready.
Abby was born ready.
But she cried and fought and finally
cussed her way to Washington,
cut by heart and better fury,
losing re-election,
fleeing by Danny-chariot
into the muddy palms of the Potomac.
And through the window,
my brother held a fist of paper flame
to his sweet and lonesome sky.

I snared the moon in a net of fingers
entombed across a dark and endless paddock.
Come see the dead,
the ditchlilies,
the ignorant rays of the sun;
this land of our fathers,
the sometimes-magnificent
blue-collar made-its with
hokeyisms fresh for all occasions.
Laugh, drink beer,
wake up for work.
you came back and asked
if I’d loved someone in this town.
The savage candor:
Jump from a bridge—
Isn’t the water, suddenly, there?

Saturday, January 03, 2009

white noise

No longer occupying my life
in swift, broad strokes
but in a splatter,
I’m driving with the radio
on low AM-band static
in the Douglas county rain
and there you are in bursts—
phantom, atlas, eyelash,
traveling the airwaves bad and beautiful,
knotted up in light.
I imagine your handprints
on all the windows,
a happy little honky-tonk,
my Navajo blankets in neon;
all the pretty lonely words
spoken from a distance measured
in airfare.

Driving drunk on sleep,
work tomorrow—
don’t you know what I am?
A name in miles,
a favorite song, a date of birth.
And I may never get away.
So tonight, it’s the tuxedo
with patches on the elbows,
poignancy in the bed of the Chevy
flying down the quarry highway.
They say you’re doing fine now,
I wait to pass that judgment
until I see your name in the news,
I just hear you,
I always hear you,
I never change the frequency.

bud light poem

[this poem appeared in the Spring 2008 issue of EPIC]

this is a Bud Light poem,
as requested.

it is low calorie.
you will not gain weight
reading this poem.
this poem still looks good in a bikini
after all these years.

it is zesty
and available
everywhere poems are sold.

pregnant women should not read this poem.
please do not drive after reading this poem.
please do not provide this poem to minors
or conservative congressmen.
do not post this poem on facebook,
as potential employers may be watching.
consider this a warning.)

since you are in our target demographic,
you may have seen this poem
advertised on TV.
honestly, we know
this poem looks better with actors.
but since this poem lowers inhibitions
after a while
it’ll make you look good, too.

we’ve also heard some connoisseurs say
that this poem is not “poetic.”
so what?
this is not a Guinness poem.
this poem is cheap.
there are symbols,
we’ll leave it at that.
(hint: disable the pop-up blocker
on your browser.)

not that you need symbols.
this poem has pathos, buddy.
this poem has everything America is about.
this poem fills vast seas of loneliness,
and it makes it look easy.
yeah. we’re all literary here
so we know what we’re talking about.
the next time you’re cracking open a Bud Light poem
just remember:
if T.S. Eliot was so smart
then why is he dead?

reading frank o’hara on the blue line and a few words about disappointment

Words cheapen most things
and so all along I’d said nothing,
careering through life on silence,
musician of gestures and tics.
I was becoming a catastrophe,
one of many in my office,
beautiful, and interesting, and modern,
shaded well by the dim noir
of fading juvenescence;
full of fuck and thunder
on the cherry eve of atrophy.
Well, I yet worried about being drab
and struck by nothing, that
no inbound collision could have force enough
to punch a hole through this world—
it seemed that we, for instance,
would never again not be ourselves.

Je ne crois que ce que je vois:
the days parading about,
memos in the yawning waste
or letters addressed to unseen addresses.
No more bohème splendor.
No more naked and be angry.
The building we worked in
grew smaller each morning,
I listened to cellos sobbing Debussy
on my little plastic radio.
A stroke of cement, a calendar year,
I dreamt of urgent self-destruction
worthy of Latin America
and made little trails in the carpet.

I arrived seven days late
and two years older,
but I finally wrote on the dream,
gilding it with only the good words
during a hurried August lunch hour
at the sandwich counter where
they might feed me pastramis forever.
I showed the cocktail napkin to no one.
My delusions I keep at a separate mailbox
so I don’t have to sleep with them,
since people still read, after all,
still carry newspapers once in a while,
still write lovesongs
on oceans of light.
I went back to work a bespoke articulation
flickering in the syllabic shadows
of the high-rises above the El.
The paycheck would come as always,
but I’d inaugurated that summer
the season of whim’s content,
when against the hull of my generation I shattered
the last remaining vintage
of a rhetoric.

time machine

The chassis of the time machine
is up on blocks on your patio out back.
All tubes and mirrors,
tender iron musculature.
Some manuals obscure the kitchen table,
stolen from the library where we’d first met.
They crackle when opened,
read that when activated
there’ll be a carnival of lights,
estuaries of past and future;
we get first kisses
at our funerals
where we did all our drinking at school.
You built the frame, connected it,
I provided the parts
and even the name:
“Comfort Pageant.”
Tonight our vertices collide
and we plot out co-ordinates
to be vivid again
though I never needed a machine
to revisit the past.

the tenor-man

[for Neil Ostercamp]

a hotlight punches through the dark,
setting the stage afire
crowning the night band
with blazing halos,
now-crown princes of Cool
and basking in the final seconds
of anonymity—
their horns resplendent,
lacquer-tongues of flame
in radiant silence,
miming eloquence,
bells bulging-pregnant with song—

the sight of it
makes me think:
won’t take long to get
the whole damn band going
alto trumpet drums and piano
plus audience
hemorrhaging a rhapsody
like exploding—
the darkness and the music and the bodies
one mass of color and sound and smell—
the existensual:
perfumes and sweat mixing
with heavy breathing
and the minor melody,
the beat of the percussion bleeding into the
glossy blacks on shoes and
hot pastels of cotton
and the taste of gin

and the lithe tenor-man,
smiling like the Cheshire Cat
because he knows what’s coming
puts the horn to his shit-eating-grin,
steals a deep breath
and barks out a liquid telemetry
that pours through the room
his eyes closed
lids fluttering
as if giving notice:
this space belongs
to him
and tonight
we’ll take
Giant Steps
until the wailing-some river
of sound is
drowning every space in the room
and shooting through the crowd
its refrains crashing like waves
rolling along the tabletops
and pouring into every crack
in the brickwork;
tides in syncopation
into conversations,
between the clink of glasses,
rafting over the sound of shuffling feet;
blue notes cresting their way towards the back,
til they explode out the door
and through the casements,
all the way out onto the street
and into
the night

so what, so what

tonight we’ll remember there were
things we’d wanted once
before this tenor-man steals a breath
and thumps that serpentine melody
until we forget—
a prizefighter
ducking and weaving the beat,
the poor band choking to keep up,
from his new math:
‘rhythm post-Bop rope-a-dope’
and god-damn!
I’ve seen it before,
the boy letting it be known
he is a motherfucker
with a trajectory
saying ‘so what’
while destroying the joint
with this orgy of sound
wrapping himself around the horn
like the contortionist’s
brand new act:
“The Drunk’s Car and the Tree”
Don’t know where the metal ends and
flesh begins
one tenor-chassis,
one violent extension of his body,
its voice: his
blues, his
on a theme of
neverending night
so he
makes love
to the melody
pillow-talking it,
getting that horn
preaching to every body in the joint
holding sermon
a theophany
arpeggios like hal – le – lu – jah
blithe man
diving through his lower registers
going down,
searching for that low B
hal – le – lu – jah
seducing the tenor
to speak in tongues,
slang I didn’t know I’d wanted—
making me ask:
what do I do
with all these verbs
down,— I have been given?
they wouldn’t even conjugate
if I tried.
down, B downBeat.

all it takes is
one slap of the tongue
to make me think
jazz is not music—
it’s language
all the way

the lexicon of midnight

and god-damn
if this tenor-man’s grammar
ain’t the bluest shade
of proper—


I miss an abstraction,
a concept of a woman,
the way words only gesture at meaning:
"there it is."
I miss her and don't miss her,
it's no longer her I write about
but the word "Her."
It's no longer myself writing
but the muscles of this body,
which used to hold her close.

sharon olds

It’s hard not to read someone like, say, Sharon Olds,
and see that writers have
clearly different experiences.
I write poems about loving women, missing women,
and Sharon Olds writes about the nakedness of bodies
and the way men are distant.
I can’t even imagine us meeting, and making love.
Afterwards, Sharon Olds would come into the bathroom
and find me on my back in the shower,
and for all the poet between us,
for all our mountains of words,
she’d say What are you doing?
and I’d go Huhhh?
I see her poem now:
“Rubble of soft angles and soggy muscle,
like he wants to go down the drain with the water.
I ask him what he’s doing
and he barely gives an answer.”
In my poem,
I write that I like the way
warm water feels on my chest,
it feels good,
and man!
Sharon Olds!


I am your pupil.
Your body, the tome,
lie open before me.
I peered into it;
thus tutored, I learned
to paint such sentences.

Should our sighs become
symptoms of the night,
my fictions will tell of
how your words came to bed
hell-bent on eloquence.

o.k. opera

OK opera, give us your poor
and mass of huddled cough,
fuck, we need a break,
need singer upon stage,
melody upon melody,
melody upon mattress of song,
need park and bark,
your wretched, give us your starving,
your gilded windows,
your lyric tenor entrenched in despair,
a spray of consonance
of double consonants
OK, opera,
voice of your angel atop an oscillating fan,
voice of what conscience
from one end of this neon to the other,
from one top of this welfare cigarette to the bottom,
what are you if not a psalm for the masses
but a cloud of Puccini
waltzing immaculate fright?
OK, alright,
from one canvas of public transportation to another
we alight, OK opera,
you delight,
OK opera,
we come, we die,
you, OK, goodnight.

one regret

My one regret is stupid,
not kissing her in the alleyway,
I remember knowing it as
soon as the place passed,
yet not saying anything,
dragged along like a child
looking back at a toy.
I should have said,
grabbed her hand,
walked back along the sidewalk,
thrown her against the brick and mortar,
and had at it like a couple teenagers,
but if I had done something that stupid
I would no longer be
holding on to anything,
would I?

nighttime in kansas city

[this poem originally appeared in the Spring 2008 issue of EPIC]

Let memory say I am home tonight,
where all is again made new
and light must be sound
since everything hums softly
in rhythm with this town,
where fountains sigh into
the same open palms of
starlight cupped over streets
that knew my first summer
as the year of the pennant,
a century after this moon
crooned to the stockyard cowhands
who’d sang my wander-song
until stopped in the place
where I choose to stand.
Memory will say
I am here until morning sees
my city no longer,
where the lyrics are old,
the night a troubadour
and this, the year of my birth.

new dominion

We’ll have no god but a new god
who can listen to the wind in our blood
when he journeys all the world’s galleries of sound,
hearing us sing no prayer but a new prayer
in a street opera with all the light of faith in repose.
Let him break bread in this new dominion
and wander the strange geographies of our bodies,
the lips aged by toil,
the hands weak from use,
the genitalia expended,
all the world’s largesse sprawling on our skins
like an endless melody unraveled by touch.
He may find us unfamiliar;
we had been made foreign by his absence.
No more.
Let there be no writ but the only writ:
we fashion our temples into concert halls
so the sonorous god will know
what we’d meant by “absolution”
when, wearied by travel and tribulation,
the final thing possessed
is a song connecting
one soul to the next.


Monroe enlisted in ’43.
He rides the train now,
Herman to St. Louis to Springfield.
A dozen different pins inhabit
the pinstripes of his suit,
and he has a story for every stop.
In Italy GIs would sell ten-cent packs
of cigarettes for ten dollars,
and the girl who was waiting for him
married another fella.
They still fooled around
until the day she died,
and Monroe waits for his stop,
retired from upholstery by a heart attack,
never having been to Wrigley
or New York,
a monument avoiding all others,
decelerating life measured in
wavelengths of trackside telephone wire.
He says it’s as good a unit as any other,
and we are all a slackened sum.

intent intact

Ants in suits in cars in busses
in trusses in transit in style
in love's indirection,
by ways and means inside of perfection,
of angle and chassis and target production,
quizzical by the light of the El,
all whim and fight and song and fury,
intent intact in vogue inferring
by wing by word by sight and service
of a want—a want, a want—a want.


Most of my generation
is still cologned with the expectation of greatness.
It’s a thin membrane of slight unbelonging
worn about most of our shoulders like a favorite jacket.
We expect. That’s what we’re good at.

Most of us are dumb shits
and I’m a dumb shit, too.


OK with dying.
OK with dying.
OK with dying.
Each eave as calm
As the next;
Becoming a mountain
Beaten to sand.

berlin, june 1945

Berlin, June 1945.
The city eroded by bombs
And the bricks are snarled
In pools at the feet
Of passersby in three-button suits.
It’s a pageant of naked plaster
And there comes a question
Of how we get food now.
Someone checks the time
On a Rolex worth two
Of these less gently used city blocks.
Five o’clock.
Things were looking up.