Sunday, January 29, 2012

About Poets

Our words are nothing to live by:
You cannot drink a syllable,
Whatever your capacity.
We say that love will never die
Because the truth is terrible.
Time winks at our mendacity.

So, we tend to be soft-spoken.
We tell dirty jokes, we smile,
We see that no one cries alone.
For this, we may receive a token
For the Ferryman’s turnstile,
To pay for passage, when we’re gone.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Henry A. Norris


Maybe the best relationships
are based on little lies.
I know you had a shop,
I know you repaired watches,
dad showed me your workbench:

a bright light up above,
below, a field of felt—
—Elysian fields, maybe—
a million little drawers
full of tiny, shiny parts

that would keep better time.
I see this all quite vividly—
down to the oil atomizer
wearing chain mail.
I told him I remembered

sharing cookies with you.
I was 2 the year you died.
I lied. It would have killed him
to hear the truth. So, I shared
cookies with my grandfather.

I think you’d understand
the great necessity of lies
in love. In art. The spring,
the perfect movement, moment,
the whole idea of time.

So, let this be our secret.
I have no memory of
your cookies or your face.
But every line I write
today contains your name.

I saw it on your workbench.
There it shall remain.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012


My first exposure to this class of animalia came in the form of an ancient iron bullfrog with a maroon rubber gasket and an orange hole installed in his posterior.

After screwing the shiny brass end of a long green garden hose into his sphincter, my grandmother carried him around the corner of the house, and dumped him about 10 yards from her bed of white-purple-pink pansies on the front lawn. Then she returned to the spigot. My brother and I sweated expectantly on our naked haunches—ready to spring on her sprinkler at a moment’s notice. I noticed my brother’s back was striped with shadows. To the vultures on the telephone wires, we must have looked like tigers crouching in the grass.

Heaven only knows what the frog was thinking. He stared straight ahead, as if he had other, more pressing matters than tigers on his mind: namely, the location of my grandmother. Instead of blasting his entrails across the street—as an inept poet would do—leaving frog intestines hanging from the audience’s unfortunate faces—with one vigorous twist of her fist, my grandmother forced this fossil of the 1950s to cough up his rusty guts and resume spitting rainbows across creation.

Greedy children that we were, I suppose you could say that Kyle and I wrestled for the sky that day, dividing the rainbows between us, sousing each other with laughter. We left our grandmother’s thirsty flowers safely unmolested: behind the shallow ditches that marked their borders—their beds—immersed in nutritious mud.

It was an ingenious lesson in pleasure—one that I never forgot—and one that I will deliver to a few spaced-out friends in the dungeon of a sexclub in the Meat-Packing District in the not-so-distant future: where pansies are still almost entirely dependent on hoses and the kindness of a few quirky old ladies for care.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012


Our source of illumination resides in a suburban side street of an obscure galaxy. You will notice it over there—next to Andromeda. The local star—or, Sun, as the system’s inhabitants call it—sits at the center of a swirling conspiracy of clouds, approximately 93 million miles from a mysterious embryo presently coalescing from comets, hydrocarbons, gas and dust, iron and silicon, and other odds and ends left over from The Big Bang.

It may take of eons of patient fiddling, but once I have adjusted my knobs to the proper celestial coordinates, you should be able to see a few plucky photons colliding with a surprisingly lovely little planet, the home world of the human race: a gorgeous globe, completely unique in my experience—green with plants, gray with clouds, and blue with water.

Vivid as it appears to us today, due to the extreme distances involved and the lugubrious speed of light, there is every chance that what we see before us has already evaporated into the void: every tear has fallen, every smile has been erased, the seven seas, once crowded with mackerel, have boiled off into oblivion. There is every possibility that nothing now remains of the Earth except for cinders.

Until the light catches up with facts on the ground, we cannot know for sure. Until then, the Earth will remain as exactly as we see it now, silently spinning, shimmering with magnificence in every atomic detail: from dusk to dawn—across the lawn—to a tree almost eclipsed by the sunset—a trunk almost the exact size and shape and texture of a particular tree I always tried but failed to embrace as a boy.

Perhaps you have seen it yourself, while passing through Buffalo, looking for a good time. One more slight adjustment and a walnut is plainly visible: in July, through the northwest quadrant of a pane of glass (second floor, double-glazed window on the extreme left, mine) at an angle of 15° above the western horizon.

That is me—lifting a filthy screen and poking my face out of the frame, so I can get a closer look at the leaves. I should introduce myself. I am your telescope. I am not a reliable witness to subsequent events because my field of view is so narrow.

As you can see, the world in question still revolves around me and I am having trouble sleeping. When I get bored with watching the stars come out through the leaves—they all look the same nowadays—I go downstairs to my parents and complain.

They are sitting on the couch in the living room watching The Mod Squad or something. I do see people running through some sort of tunnel. Maybe they are photons. Whatever they are, I don’t really care. I am the star here, so I step in front of the TV. My three-year-old brother is whimpering again after his surgery. (Glittering scalpel, lazy blue eyeball.) He has been whining for the last hour. I ask if I can go next door and spend the night.

My mother says nothing, but quickly unfolds her legs and goes upstairs to check on Kyle. My father sighs. He stands. He turns me upside down in front of the Zenith, stashes me under his arm, and marches through the living room into another—even dimmer—room, where he sets me down gently and presses a black pasteboard button. Another button pops out of the wall and lux fiat.

In a flash, I am straddling two worlds—the orange carpet in the kitchen and the olive one in the dining room—Hell and Heaven—Heaven and Hell—the difference can be hard to tell without a look at the thermometer. 75°. Fahrenheit or Celsius? Let’s have another look. The thermostat doesn’t say. All I do know for certain is that it is hot, I am almost 5 and I am looking up at my father with awe while he lifts the telephone receiver from its cradle and starts dialing.

The next morning, around 8:30—aroused by the distant squeak of a mattress spring, followed by tip-toes, flushing, tip-toes, silence, and then some inexplicable giggles—the nosy scent of coffee nudges a door open to see if I am up to no good. I am not. I am sitting Indian-style in my grandmother’s pastel dressing room, reading random entries aloud to myself from a 26 volume set of books—A Child’s Encyclopedia—that once belonged to my mother.

You might say that this is Volume T. T is my middle initial. T is where we discover ourselves today.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012


I seldom see anything
worth preserving which I can’t
imagine when I close my eyes:

the infinitely tender way
the wind ruffles lakes to the texture
of aluminum foil—how

I would smooth the foil
left over from my baloney
sandwich—flatten it

with my fist, then fold it in
a silver square. How I’d forget it,
until mom forced me to yank

my pockets inside out—
looking for forgotten pens—
on Laundry Day.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Drama, Updated

The curtain rises on our stage. Looked at from the street, Comedy and Tragedy are relatives, who—for reasons of economy—live together in very close proximity, in fact, side by side.

For now, all you really need to know about the characters depicted in the unfolding drama is that two families have been cast here by Fate. The set consists of a duplex dwelling that was converted from a carriage house early in the 20th Century. Our family purchased their property in 1970, the year my brother was born. We live on the left, at number 139, my grandparents on the right, at 137.

On the right side, you will see a victory garden, less ambitious than the one tended by Mr. Crockett on PBS, perhaps, but full of treasures nevertheless: cucumbers, peppers, rhubarb, carrots, parsnips, tomatoes, onions, and chives. This is where I dug up a crusty dime minted in 1857.

Beside the garden, there is a pleasant patio full of potted plants sheltered by a large corrugated aluminum awning. Here, men with aquamarine anchors tattooed to their hairy forearms are invited to smoke—veterans of campaigns in the Pacific—exiting with a discrete cough through a side door.

They would never be left alone with their cigarettes, however. These men were always attended by my grandfather. He would excuse himself from the living room like this:

“If all you gals are going to do is gossip, I’m going outside to smoke with Jim.”

“Francis, one of these days, I am going to hit you over the head,” my grandmother would hiss.

Francis was not a smoker himself, or a drinker, or a veteran anything, actually, except for my grandmother’s rolling pin, Chinese checkers and the vinyl chloride vats of Goodyear. (Enlarged heart, flat feet, 4F. Sorry, son.)

According to family tradition, it is possible that—in revenge for the rolling pin—my grandfather broke my grandmother’s nose at the time of The Cuban Missile Crisis in October of 1962: the fatal day Florence snuck up, leaned over Francis’s silent figure and shouted, “Boo!” as he was dozing on the davenport.

I do not think any malice was intended. From the way she rolled her eyes when he told the story, I gathered that he accidently struck her in the face with his fist when she frightened him out of his wits.

Besides, violence would have been completely out of character for him, if not for my grandmother. She was a different sort of creature altogether. Florence once threw a croquet mallet at my mother as she ran out of the happy home they inhabited during the Eisenhower administration.

When I asked her why anyone would want to throw a croquet mallet at her, my mother looked up from the jaws of the ceramic shark she was painting (a bank, a future Christmas present for me, it turns out) and she said that she didn’t know. She said she was a perfect child. She invited me to ask my grandmother about the incident. I immediately turned on my heels and stomped out of the house like the Spanish Inquisition. I rang the bell (which I never did) and my grandmother answered the door. She was pickling beets. She led me up the back stairs.

“Why did you ring the bell?”

“Why did you throw a croquet mallet at my mother?”

She turned and squinted and looked me straight in the eye and said, “Because she deserved it.”

Having been spanked with a wooden spoon by my mother on more than one occasion, I could accept that. I sat down on the steel and rubber step stool my grandmother used to reach the upper shelves in her pantry (where she kept mason jars) as she decanted a can of Spicy Hot V-8 in an orange juice glass. She gave it to me and went back to stirring her cauldron.

My grandmother might have made a spectacular witch, as my grandfather often alleged, but she was a terrible shot and had no sense of timing: the mallet crashed through a pane of glass in their old screen door instead of hitting my mother. I also adore Spicy Hot V-8 juice and did as a child.

A loving husband and a caring father, I have always felt that my grandfather—uncle Franny, as he is known to my cousins—played the role of pater familias and gracious host to perfection. He will succumb to cancer while I am holding his hand.

With that same hand, on a rickety wooden gardening table, beside the clean blade of a spade my grandmother used for transferring her plants to larger pots, he would habitually place a chipped ashtray decorated with tiny, indeterminate flowers. On the reverse side, the glaze bore the mysterious legend, ‘Made In Occupied Japan.’

This was the one ashtray that my uncle John refused to use. He preferred to use another one in the living room, one that my grandfather reserved for his butterscotch candy wrappers. For some reason I could never fully fathom—maybe because he had a reputation for being more ornery than everyone else—the only visitor allowed to smoke in my grandparents’ house was uncle John, a recently retired shoe salesman. I loved him for that. When he insisted, nobody resisted.

As you might imagine, the day uncle John died was something of a disaster—especially for him. I heard the phone ring in the kitchen. I followed the blur my grandmother formed as she whizzed by me—as she tripped, running up the front stairs, shouting, “Dad, Dad!” When she was forced to complete her ascent by crawling on her knees, bawling like a baby, I almost laughed. I had never seen an adult behave like a child before.

I thought my grandfather might have agreed. I am not sure that he did. He stood—dentureless—in a pair of periwinkle pajama bottoms and a V-neck t-shirt on the second floor landing—trying to make sense of things.

He was getting ready for work. Third shift.

“Ma, Ma, what is it?”

With wet hands, he lifted her gently by her elbows from where she knelt. While I am sure it took only a few seconds, it seemed like an eternity had to pass before my grandmother could gather her head together sufficiently to blurt out, “Oh, Francis, John is dead. He had a heart attack.” I had no idea what a heart attack was, but it sounded pretty serious to me, even worse than death.

I dropped the chain of multicolored plastic monkeys I had painstakingly connected on the carpet and was about to dispose of in their home—a brown plastic barrel. Suddenly, I felt like crying, too.

In fact, I did cry. So did my brother.

We had no idea what was going on. Uncle John had never died before. Nobody in our family had ever died until that day—not to my knowledge. What are you supposed to do under such circumstances?

Once my grandfather had inserted his clean teeth—grimacing in the mirror, pressing a thumb against his upper plate, making sure it was sealed against his gums strongly enough to resist the forces of gravity and permit difficult conversations—he closed the door. This time, I sat on the stairs. I heard a tap gushing into the sink. He emerged a few minutes later clad in a pair of dark slacks, a white shirt and a sea-gray acrylic cardigan with a black Greek meander design dancing up both sleeves. He smelled ever so faintly of Barbasol.

After making a few quick phone calls, my grandmother drifted off to her bedroom, sobbing again, selecting something suitable to wear to my aunt’s. My grandfather tied my brother’s shoes while she took her turn in the bathroom.

He took us next door and explained the situation to my mother, before driving my grandmother to stay with her sister, aunt Midge, and then on to work. He always kept an extra pair of work clothes in the trunk of his car.

As I had already eaten dinner, I rejected the trembling dish of goulash my hysterical mother offered to calm me down. My brother was not a liver fan, so he may have sampled some. That, I don’t remember.

You see, I was 7, which I had always been led to believe was a lucky number.

Now, I was confused. What did the death of uncle John mean for the blackberry bushes that grew next to his garage? Would aunt Midge allow me to continue to pick them? Would the proprietors dim the pink and blue neon bowling ball at Rojek’s on Payne Avenue, two doors down the street from the chilly house with the lemon trim where my aunt and uncle lived? Would Principal Baker order the flag at Grant Elementary School to flap quietly at half-staff for a few days? Would President Ford address the nation? What kind of future did I have to look forward to? Would there be nuclear war?

I wanted answers. Unable to articulate my actual desires, I asked for a Windmill cookie. Only my grandfather ate those, of course, and he was carefully backing down the driveway, trying to avoid the swing set he had once almost demolished with his Buick. In other words, we didn’t have any Windmills in our house. Or answers.

By way of a compromise, my mother peeled a Ho-Ho and placed it on a plate, still half-wrapped in tinfoil. It rolled to the edge, paused, and then rolled back to the middle, glittering at the center of a flower fringed universe like a gilded turd. I didn’t want a Ho-Ho. I was told to stop being a brat or go to bed. I opted for brattiness and went to bed. It was already after 8:00 p.m., anyway. I saw no reason to sit in the kitchen and sulk.

38 hours later, a prophylactic whisper in the funeral home foyer informed me that my favorite uncle had passed away on his porch, napping beneath The North Tonawanda News, after eating a basket of fish and chips at Arthur Treacher’s.

I may not like liars, but I have always admired a lie told with élan. My mother could always manage that. She took no chances. Out of the air, she plucked a pen that seemed to be swinging rather too freely in space and time from a chain of brass BBs fixed to a little pulpit. She signed for all three of us: Edwin, Kathleen, Eric and Kyle. She laid the pen to rest in the shadowy valley between the pages of the Visitors Book before she led my brother and myself to the casket.

My father was at work. My mother said he would be dropping by to add his name to the book later.

Thursday, January 5, 2012


Maybe I do love you.
Unless I believe in you,
you cannot hurt me.
Until then what are you?
A mouth. An ass. A joke.
A hole of such hilarity
your slightest whisper makes
me fart with laughter.

I mention this because
I love you. Before you speak,
look in your mirror, dear,
and ask yourself, honestly,
“What can I say to him,
what can I hope to do,
he hasn’t done already,
when he believed in you?”

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Leonardo In The Marketplace

“Passing the places where birds were sold, he would pay the price asked for them, take them from their cages, and let them fly off into the air, giving them back their lost freedom.”
-Giorgio Vasari, 1550

He nicked the skin on purpose, to release
the light. Scented by the lemon that he held,
the little half-moons of his fingernails
glowed this morning. When he sniffed the rind,

the odor of a memory—a spoiled
uterus—left his nostrils: a young girl
he dissected, with difficulty, last night. She
died giving birth to twins, two boys. He was glad

they lived. He took the time to sketch her hands.
They were particularly delicate, lilac, even
rendered in red chalk. He wondered why
we must turn blue in death? He wasn’t sure. He tossed

his lemon in the air and caught a song
above the cartwheels and the coughs. “How much
for the goldfinch?” he asked. Bird and man,
both cocked their heads. The poor refugee named

his price. Leonardo paid. He had no wish
to haggle over prices. Wicked cages.
The pages of his notebooks were bad enough
imprisonment. He might tie wings to men,

but there the similarity of men
to birds ended. He could set finches free.