Monday, February 27, 2012

How Heavy

How heavy must a heart become
to measure beats in bits of lead?
How awful must the walls of home
appear to add some shotgun red?

How chilly must the bathroom tile
feel to find a razor your
last sympathetic friend? I will
not pretend I know. No more

chilly than the floor usually is.
Maybe no colder than this rain.
No heavier than a feather or a kiss.
There’s no good way to measure pain.


“Hocus-pocus, you’re a crocus!”
a sudden flash of purple said.
My thoughts must turn to Spring because
I carry dirt inside my head.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

The Uncertainty Principle

Not every game that I played with my parents required so large and so mathematically sophisticated an apparatus as our beanbag tic-tac-toe set: with its ever shifting planes of experience—Xs and Os—victory and loss—all poised on invisible pins and ready to pivot from pleasure to pain to panic—that nightmare land of indecision—at the slightest provocation.

We also enjoyed simpler pastimes, such as hide-and-seek.

This is the 1970s. Everyone is seeking something: personal fulfillment, the meaning of life, cheaper gasoline in Fort Erie, Canada. Devout as my parents were (Southern Baptists), they were both under 30 for most of the 70s and they were pulled along by gravity toward Niagara Falls along with everyone else floating toward oblivion in the latter days of the Age of Aquarius.

As far as I could tell at the lucky age of 7, my parents’ mania for self-destruction seemed pretty normal, even tame, compared to others. It consisted of: family devotions, fondues, and a slimy, soupy, tomato, spinach and cottage cheese gruelcooked in a Crock Potthat was supposed to be a newer and more nutritious take on lasagna and that I refused to eat because it looked too much like our kitchen rug.

When I needed a snack and my grandparents were out—our home was a duplex—I liked to share granola and yogurt with the harmless hippies who occupied a cozy second floor studio in the apartment house across the driveway. The narrow stairs and dark passages of that building reeked of incontinent old men and recently incinerated flying carpets, but their comfortably cushioned rattan and bead bedecked abode was always sunny. The syrupy atmosphere of love it exhaled into the hallway when they opened the door smelled of beeswax candles and cloves.

Like my parents, they were both in their 20s. They had no children. The man enjoyed an average-sized penis. His wife —I think it was his wife—possessed a boisterous bush of black pubic hair that contrasted very sharply with the milky curves of hips. She might have been a model if she had shaved her legs and armpits like my mother.

They used to walk around naked at night. Because of the size and the position of their bamboo shades, I could never quite make out their faces when they were naked, just their genitals. I pointed this curious fact out to my brother one evening, when my room was being wallpapered in Bicentennial red, white and blue bars. (My own demented color scheme.)

Kyle and me were sharing his pine-paneled bedroom with a cage full of pet rocks bound for Brother Johnson—a travelling evangelist—a gag gift cooked up by my mother and some other ladies from church. But Kyle seemed more interested in getting back to sleep than spying on the neighbors. I soon drew down the blinds and meandered off to Dreamland myself.

I forget the names of the hippies now. I was better friends with their half-breed poodle, Pepper, really. She taught me how to bark.

Maybe there was more going on behind the scenes than met the eye. I was barely 4 feet tall and missed a lot. The truth is that—apart from cartoons—much in the world fell beyond my comprehension. Things were constantly appearing, disappearing, and reappearing in our household with a random regularity that mystified my mother and probably would have astonished Einstein.

Take the box of Ayds.

Ayds—mom’s delicious little chocolate diet cubes—stated to metamorphose into crumpled up plastic squares whenever she went to look for them. Even though they were hidden in the highest, most oxygen-deprived region of our kitchen cabinets.

After that, my own math papers—marked “See Me” in red pen by Mrs. Miles—underlined twice—began materializing inside my toy box. Then, a golden trinket (a lovely thing, a precious thing decorated with a piece of pink coral, a souvenir of a dart game at a fair in 1965) I had noticed in my grandmother’s cedar chest turned up one Saturday afternoon sandwiched between the cushions of our living room couch, when we were vacuuming.

Or consider The Case of the Spectral Spatula. While she could always be depended upon to find something to use during a disciplinary emergency—a spatula, a thick black belt belonging to my father, the back side of a pink hair brush—mom could never be confident how her nuclear arsenal would be stocked at any given time.

My mother had an inquisitive mind, but she was not a budding physicist like me. She took night classes in the art of upholstery instead of melting crayons with a magnifying glass. She re-did the couch on the sun porch in a rough and rusty plaid fabric. She dabbled in ceramics with her friends, Angie and Rita.

While the three of them were seated at the kitchen table—chatting, glazing and sipping sweaty glasses of unsweetened instant iced tea—mom might easily be provoked into searching for a spatula. Especially if she heard me slam down the key cover on our upright player piano. On the fingers of my brother. (I wanted to play, too.)

Aroused by a scream, she boiled up like a volcano from the depths of the sea and began going through drawers. She found every spatula, wooden spoon, plastic spoon, slotted spoon, serving spoon, and runcible spoon in North America had evaporated.

Being short-tempered and Italian, Angie reacted immediately and decisively in these sorts of situations, like Mussolini. Besides an older boy, Freddy, Angie and her husband Dave had two daughters, the same age as us.

She said, “I would kill both of them, Kathy.”

Rita’s ancestors were less hot-blooded and more phlegmatic. They were Scottish. You could tell from her red hair. Rita took a swig of tea and made a face, I expect, expecting the tea to be sweetened. Rita was rather fat and loud and had a good sense of humor, as I remember her, but she understood the need for discipline as much as Angie and my mother. In addition to her own boys and girls, Rita and Tom took care of a crippled foster child named Charlie.

I imagine that Rita choked on an ice cube while she tried to maintain her composure and continued touching up her bust of Elvis.

Mom marched us upstairs and demanded that we explain—or at least account for—the missing spatulas and spoons and other artifacts. She promised ten licks from a doubled-up length of orange Matchbox racing track, if we did not. What could we say? She might demand we grow wings and wheel about the sky like angels. We were not angels. We were boys. What did she expect?

Why she turned to us for an explanation of quantum mechanics—Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle—I have no idea. Kyle could no more offer a solution to the problem of the missing spatulas than he could account for Schrödinger’s Cat. He pulled down his pants, bent over with his hands on the bed, and burst into tears, hoping the saltwater would dilute the sting.

I was under no such illusions. Crying made things worse, in my opinion. The best I could manage was a kind of sullen defense of the facts as I saw them. The deployment of spatulas was not in my department. I suggested that she ask dad, because he was bigger than all of us.


I am not sure that she spoke to my father about the incident when he got home from work or what he might have said to her about the spatulas, if she had. All she discovered from me was that the more she required a spatula, the less precisely the coordinates of any particular spatula in Western New York could be controlled, determined, or known.

A nimbus of mystery pervaded the whole atmosphere of our house for the next few days. It was unusually chilly outside and in. Mom adjusted the thermostat. A funny smell from somewhere in the basement—the furnace, I suspect—drifted upward whenever the weather turned cold.

It seems pretty clear to me now that this warm but obnoxious gas—a mixture of Love and Despair—was the most elusive member of our family. Love and Despair are both fairly equal in skill, when it comes to hide-and-seek, fairly expert. They both approach the game like God: you know they are there, you can hear them quietly breathing. But, unless you can grasp the elusive nature of Life, you will search high and low for them forever and still come up empty-handed.

After Life, I guess, my mother was the second best player of hide-and-seek in North Tonawanda. Like Life, it took a determined effort to find her, if she really decided to hide. My father could always find my brother and me pretty fast. We didn’t rate in the cosmic scheme of things. Were were not even players yet. Not in the manner of adults, anyway.

In other words, dad was helpless when it came to mom. She was his spatula.

The poor man wandered from room to room on tip-toes, opening closets slowly at first—then quickly. He peered beneath beds. He looked down the laundry chute for some reason. He pulled out a pair of streaky Fruit-of-the-Loom underwear that had gotten stuck. Finally, and angrily, he yanked aside our opaque shower curtain—like Anthony Perkins—whom he slightly resembled as a younger man—in Psycho.

His Norman Bates impression was all in vain. My mother may have had her ample bosom, but she wasn’t Janet Leigh. She wasn’t holding her breath in the bathtub expecting a maniac. Our shower didn’t work anyway. Mom only hung the curtain there for decoration. To deceive guests.

After he had ransacked every room in the house—basement to attic—bowels to brain—my father stood at the top of the stairs, looking down disconsolately at the front door. He squeezed his jowls and he drew his cheeks to his chin in exasperation. He called out to my mother,

“Okay, come on out, Kath, we give up.”

I thought it was strange that my father said “we,” as if he were speaking for all of us. I knew exactly where my mother had been hiding the whole time.

My mother was not given to giggling under a pile of dirty clothes like us. She did not play hide-and-seek just because it was fun. She played to win. She was patient. She could wait. She still was young. She could keep silent in her secret hiding spots for hours, years if necessary. She knew exactly where the floor creaked, she knew which hinges squeaked: she carried a sort of sonic map of the entire house in her head. She shifted her position throughout the game.

She was like that Japanese soldier, Hiroo Onoda, who popped up in the Philippines in 1974—bayonet in hand—surprising everyone—including Emperor Hirohito.

Maybe that is why my boyfriend is Japanese.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012


Because of all we have
committed to the fire
I seldom kiss your thigh
without a faint desire

to put a period
to these pointless affairs
where the sex is so exquisite
nobody really cares.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

An Anthem For Orpheus

Some animals were gathered in a ring
around a rhapsode playing with a song.
He sighed and plucked a solitary string,
“It’s music. What could possibly go wrong?”

The lion lying there, beside the lamb,
drifted off to sleep in the tall grass;
brooks trickled in, and so did boulders, and
the audience stood up, as if at Mass.

He handled his equipment with such skill,
he held a brief monopoly on sound.
He plucked another string, another—til
a mushroom cloud erupted over town.

Some say this was the first experiment
to mix religion, politics and art.
The town was made of music, not cement.
Construction in cement had yet to start.

Pipe Dreams

It seldom takes more than a toke, just a whiff,
to start my tongue reeling off stories of you;
on our naughtier nights we might split a spliff,
surrounded by haloes of smokiest hue.

God only knows how I lost my huge honey!
Through railroad investments, a cyclone, a ring?
Ten carats of coal I once hocked for money
to pay for potatoes? I replaced it with string.

The calamity came from Switzerland—Berne—
a skiing instructor, I forget on which Alp.
His mittens said Matt. I said I can turn
a blind eye to that. Methamphetamines helped.

But now only cads will attend my cotillions!
Now, only cockroaches and creditors call!
Mostly cockroaches—I seem to have billions—
all poking forks in my nerves through the wall.

I sit in my corner, just nibbling my knuckle.
The party is over, and my place is a sty,
and I think of five fingers I tore from my buckle.
“Darling, don’t hurt me,” you said. “Don’t cry.”

Friday, February 17, 2012

Performance Piece

As you might have noticed, I am writing a sort of autobiographical novella called, A Child’s Encyclopedia, in real time. I say “sort of” because I cannot completely vouch for the veracity of all of the events depicted here. Some may have been tinted by time. The story is about the house I grew up in North Tonawanda, NY and how I came to lose it.

Now and then disconnected sentences or paragraphs from it pop-up on Facebook. For reasons too complicated to go into here, I have no personal research materials (no interviews, no photos, no diaries, no letters, no newspaper clippings, no scrapbooks, no et ceteras) from which to reconstruct the first few years of my life. Everyone depicted is dead in one way or another. Including me. In a way. I am relying entirely on my own memories and occasional trips to Google to research obituary dates.

Why am I doing this? For fun, mostly. I am sure you have heard of those peculiar people (mostly men) who memorize baseball statistics and who are able to reconstruct whole games in their heads based entirely on numbers. I like to do something similar with images in my life: remembering a helicopter seed whirling down from a maple during a solar eclipse in 1973, the amount of force I used to crush a cigarette during a tense telephone conversation, the cloudy gray binding of a translation of Dostoyevsky’s The Devils I happened to glance over and see—spread open like a dead moth the floor—just at the point of climax one delirious afternoon in Harlem. This is how I waste my time waiting for trains.

But since it seems a tragedy to let all of this imaginative exercise go to waste, I thought I would start writing these things down.

What I noticed when I began to jot them down is that these odd images began to tell a story that I had not noticed at the time I was living through the events themselves, only in retrospect. I then asked myself the question: was I imposing some kind of order on the past or was the past imposing some kind of order on me? What actually was going on in my surroundings during that eclipse? How come I didn’t close my eyes in Harlem and lose myself utterly in the experience? Is there any coherent explanation for what is going on?

Yes and no.

I think the fundamental problem here is one of perspective—how events appear in isolation and broadly and collectively over time. What we mistake for the foreground in one era dissolves into the background of another. Comedy and Tragedy can occupy the exactly the same place in space and time, it seems to me, without the fabric of reality being torn apart in a gigantic anti-matter explosion.

The only variable I can perceive is the lighting. Some days are grainier and rainier than others. We are always in different places when the Sun and Earth collide. Comedy and Tragedy are not. They are wherever we are. In a way, I think that it is in the eyes of a child that we can see reality reflected the best. Not for sentimental reasons, of course—not because childhood is some golden land of innocence and opportunity—it isn’t for most us—only because childhood is the period in our lives least structured by experience. Everything seems so vivid and fresh.

For evolutionary reasons relating to survival, memories are laid down on multiple tracks in the brain at this time: skinned knees hurt more, the movement of slugs is mesmerizing and moss is a million times more emerald than emeralds. We do not yet know how to discriminate what is useful knowledge and what is not. Sometimes I am not sure I ever really learned to discriminate. Everything seems pretty important to me even at 43. Though paler. A scintilla more ghostly.

So, I have decided to compress my entire life—the most intense extremes of color and experience I have ever known—into the narrow space of a few years and test my theory about Comedy and Tragedy, space and time.

I intend to revel in my metaphorical isolation and reach out with prose simultaneously. I want to do something different in this book. I am writing it for a little girl who just recently turned 5. Right now the words I write are meaningless to her. A rainbow pair of socks made in China means more to her, I suspect, than the collective works of Homer, Dante, and Shakespeare combined. As they should. Forever may they do so.

I will not always be here to send her pairs of socks and discuss the inhabitants, flora and fauna of Mars, unfortunately. She may have to settle for Shakespeare eventually. Or some good-hearted but misguided astronomer like Percival Lowell, the man who mapped the extensive network of non-existent canals on Mars. She may do something unexpected entirely. One could do worse, I suppose, than wake up a dreamer. We all learn to make do.

Even now, she is beginning to doubt that Santa has transferred his operations to Mars from the North Pole. She has been talking up Saturn, which worries me enormously. Eventually, I fear, Santa will move out of the solar system completely and effectively cease to exist. As will her crazy uncle. These things happen.

But the socks will remain, I trust, for a year or so, until they wear out. Memories of the texture of their threads will intertwine with this book. How she looks at those socks and how she reads my face later, she will compare to the younger person she talked to on Skype, the hat she tried on at a diner, a vacation we will take with her parents. I will look different, she will look different, the socks will fit differently, everything will be different. In fact, you might say that everything is already in flux and has been since I picked up my pen. Everything is already happening right now: the past is becoming the future the future the past with every word I write. That is the funny thing about time.

When I am finished, I am going to copy everything out in long hand in a Moleskine notebook (probably two) and give it to her as a present, with another pair of mismatched socks. I hope to do this in time for her 6th birthday, next year.

The book will still be unreadable, of course. Mismatched socks may well be out of fashion by next year. She may make a face at my gift. If she does, I will make a face back at her: because I know for a fact that those socks are going to be popular again. I have seen it happen over and over in the fashion industry. Things always come back into into style, even if only for a season. There is no reason for it. These things just happen.

Some are very lovely.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

A Villanelle for St. Valentine

When I consider the curve of your cock
in even this mild, mathematical way,
I notice strange images start to knock.

Sticky things, mostly, and things made of rock.
A petrified marshmallow showed up today.
He either was stale, or scared by your cock.

So, I sent him away. A while back Bach
appeared at my door. He started to play
a sort of pipe organ. Bach did not knock.

Nor did his friends. He arrived with a flock
of cherry-faced cherubs and a golden bidet
with the weirdest fixtures—all curved like your cock.

Now, very few stores keep cherubs in stock,
which is why I thank God for Bach and eBay
whenever strange men with strange instruments knock.

And speaking of knocking, I think I forgot
to mention something. What I meant to say
concerned a key more than it did a cock.
This is for you. No need no more to knock.

Monday, February 13, 2012


Consider the following hypothetical.

If, one winter day in 1975, for instance, we were trapped inside Bryant Street by a murderous blizzard, if all of the roads and schools and businesses in Buffalo were closed, if we were keeping the heat low to conserve oil, if we were playing tic-tac-toe with polka-dot bean bags, and if my father and I were the Xs, and if my mother and Kyle were the Os, and if my father’s final throw slid across the frozen surface of the tic-tac-toe set and he accidentally tipped an O over, and if we lost, I cannot say that I felt unhappy.

Yes, I could try to weep and wail and gnash my teeth, if that would make people more comfortable. I could put on a gown of grief, pick up a microphone and perform the typical song of desolation. I daresay, I could conjure up all sorts of emotions in the breasts of barren old women. This is one of the first lessons one learns as a child: how to extort love and money with tears. But why should I do that? Since it is just the two of us here, and we are both children, why should I lie about my actual feelings? Especially when the truth is so much more poignant and bizarre.

I was delighted that we lost. I leapt across the living room with joy. I smiled as I turned the Xs and Os back over to blankness. I threw all of the bean bags back at my dad with such comical fury that everyone erupted into laughter.

I was pleased because, for a moment, I had all the ammunition. I had everyone pinned down, trapped in the living room, while I was in the frigid sun porch, where the game was actually set up.

I somersaulted back while dad passed half of the bean bags to mom. It was time to switch sides and start another game—my father pairing up with my brother—me with my mother—a much more lethal combination.

I was happy because the loss I suffered with my father confirmed in my mind something that I had long suspected: dad had also missed the My Lai Massacre in 1968.

Edwin stumbled into existence during the siege of Stalingrad in 1943. Too young for World War II, too young for Korea, and taunted for being too quiet, my father enlisted in the Marines in 1962 and spent a dull tour of duty setting up tents in Taiwan and motorcycling around Japan. He returned from Tokyo in 1966 with a tailor-made tuxedo, but no tattoos. He is more like my flat-footed grandfather than my uncles who invaded Guam.

The Vietnam War could not compete with the charms of North Tonawanda and my mother. He did not re-enlist.

In 1968, he earns his journeyman’s papers, working the late shift at Columbus-McKinnon, a manufacturer of cranes. This is the first year of their marriage. Dad does delicate operations with a drill press, peering through flexible green-tinted safety goggles at a block of something shiny. I see him blowing tiny steel corkscrews away.

I wish I could see him watching Star Trek in its original run on NBC, as we did later, both in the living room on Bryant Street and in his little trailer on River Road, when the show was in syndication.

Many conflicting visions of the future appeared on TV during that turbulent year. But, for me, and probably for me alone, nothing reflected on the screens of 1968 appears quite so strangely compelling as that vision of love my parents presented to the world in January. As I have mentioned elsewhere, I was born in September. Even 44 years later, I am sure my mother could tell you exactly what was on television when I was conceived—without consulting a single issue of TV Guide.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

The Roman Empire

Geographically, the left is almost identical to the right, except that there are paint chips in the flowerbeds, and, on the whole, life on the left seems slightly less civilized than next door. My home is a work in progress. Or maybe the word is regress. If you think of Rome in the 4th century—increasingly Christian, increasingly crumbly—you get the idea.

The brown façade of our duplex has 8 windows on the first floor, divided by 2 doors: 4 for my grandparents and 4 for us. Above that, on the second floor, 4 more windows face the street: 2 for my room and 2 my grandfather’s. Below the cicadas in the tree branches, you can hear his air conditioner hum.

A slightly recessed peak crowns our house. It is not so much a garret as a newspaper hat on a madman. 2 blind eyes stare blankly at the sky. In lieu of a corpus callosum, a layer of lath and plaster divides the attic into two compartments: the conscious and subconscious mind. Each contains relics. Mine also contains aliens—silver invisibilities—gigantic garbage cans with serrated steel teeth. If you step on their feet, their mouths open up. They eat anything—including babies. If you listen very carefully, you can hear them crunching Christmas ornaments at night.

The residence of the soul remains a mystery. I have a feeling it lives in the walls we share—in the hot and cold whispers of air mixing in the conduits of our separate furnaces—our separate lives—in the grilles and grates through which we communicate—if it exists anywhere at all.

So much for my body and soul. The rule here is bilateral symmetry, as it is with most living things on planet Earth. The external line of division between the 2 dwellings is represented by a walkway, disfigured by the stumps of 2 melted crayons—a red and yellow cross—an orange nail in the middle—marking for future generations where my first experiments in light and color were performed.

Stepping over an abandoned magnifying glass and a gold and green box of Crayolas—still open, 2 crayons still missing—we walk with a man (a boy, really, from my present perspective) across the lawn. On the left, around the corner, I point out the gas and electric meter—a sort of octopus with numbers for eyes. When he squats to read our rates of consumption, I watch his t-shirt rise from his teal trousers, revealing a milky slit of skin: an arrow of peach fuzz points down to a new magnetic pole on my compass—one I have never quite noticed before.

When he is finished reading the figures, I ask him if he would take like to take a look at my furnace, too. He smiles. He says, no. He says that he only measures people’s electricity and gas. We have oil heat, he explains, leading me to a greasy fixture a little further along the foundation of the house. I will have to wait for the oilman and his pink hose, it seems. I thank him for coming by and we shake hands. I must have looked disappointed, because he turns around on the driveway and he waves goodbye with his clipboard.

Depressed by his departure—my brother is off having surgery, so I only have my shadow for company—I pick up a twig to sharpen and plant myself on the cold patio. I sit down rather hard and perhaps the faint impression my fanny made on the concrete is still visible. All I know for sure is that we have no chairs over here today. We have no picnic table. Worse, have no garden. Our decrepit garage takes up too much room. Only children grow here, apparently.

My bewildered brother celebrates his first birthday in this very spot in 1971, enthroned on the aluminum and vinyl highchair I have never quite outgrown. I do not remember being invited to his party, although I am sure that I was. It would have been foolish to hire a babysitter to sit with me in the house when everyone else was outside having such a disgusting blast: flinging cake, wallowing in ice cream and pouring out Pepsi. My birthday is scheduled for the following month—September—when I will turn 2—so I am not the star on this occasion. That is probably why I did not preserve the invitation.

I am sure that somebody took a picture of Kyle, which is why I recall the event today. For his sake, I hope the album containing it hasn’t been lost. If it has, these few paragraphs will have to suffice for a snapshot. In a way, I suppose I am like those imaginary aliens in the attic, with one important difference: I am not imaginary. If you step on my foot, even accidentally, I can assure you, I will scream. I might even bite you. It all depends on how big you are and how hungry I am for a spanking.

But if you lock me in a padded cell—a comfortable place like my apartment—if you let me lie down and close my eyes, I can block out the howling maniac in my head. I can hear a chorus singing ‘Happy Birthday.’ If you put a piece of paper on my face, I will blow it off, swing my feet off the bed, pick it up, and use whatever crayons I have stashed under my mattress to draw you a picture. I will begin with a pointed party hat decorated with tiny dancing zebras, rhinoceri, leopards, lions, apes, giraffes and other savage beasts—creatures of the Coliseum—all blowing frilly noisemakers.

My mother beams behind the new Emperor, adjusting his dunce cap for posterity. There is frosting on his face and a fine line of elastic running down his right ear. A drop of vanilla dimples his chin. I see an extinguished candle, too—white with turquoise edges—shaped like the number 1 in the foreground.

I have seen that number somewhere before: maybe in another picture, at another party, sprouting up from the remains of another birthday cake like some lonely column—left over from the temple of Castor and Pollux—in the Forum.

The marble rubble of my Imperium.

I snap the twig.

Back when I commanded the love and allegiance of home.