In third grade only two kids got chased
around the playground.
One was a shaggy-haired boy,
I think his name was Peter,
who miraculously appeared in Lincoln,
Nebraska, from England, in 1963,
trailing clouds of Beatle-mania.
I watched in helpless amazement
as the girls squealed and took off
after him at every recess.
Hard to imagine what they would
have done had they caught him.
Held him down and kissed him?
Torn him limb from limb
like the maenads in Ovid?
The other was Dudley Ball, whose
yellowish face and bloodshot eyes
I now know indicated jaundice
and liver disease but at the time
signified only strangeness,
laughable ugliness, untouchable
difference from the rest of us.
The other boys chased him,
threw kickballs at him, thrilled
they could zing a ball at a weird kid
named Dudley Ball. “Hey Dudley,
have a ball!” “Dudley Ball, what a dud!”
The red hair and freckles, puffy cheeks
and constant perspiration, amplified
his otherness. No one spoke to him.
But why do I see his face so clearly now,
the fear and loneliness in his eyes?
The faces of all the others I’ve forgotten.
I was outraged at the injustice of it,
the cruelty of the schoolyard taunts.
I tried to intervene but couldn’t
put the pack off his scent.
I told the teacher but can’t recall
if she did anything about it.
And then he stopped coming to school.
A few months later, we were told he’d died.
I wish now I’d said a kind word
to him, tried harder to protect him.
I had my own strangenesses,
though mine were mostly invisible.
I wish I’d put my arm around his shoulder,
asked him to eat his lunch with me.
We could have watched together
the screeching girls, their mad pursuit,
and marveled at the vagaries of luck
and circumstance that exalt some
and cast down others, dealing out
adoration and ridicule in unequal measure.
We wouldn’t have talked that way
back then, of course. More likely
we would have sat in awkward silence,
or talked about what we wanted
to be when we grew up.
Or maybe compared our cowlicks—
I remember now how alike ours were,
a cresting ocean wave on
the right side of our foreheads,
as though we’d each been licked
by the same thick-tongued cow,
a calm old cow who saw all our fears
and flaws and loved us
just the same.
–from The Sun Magazine; forthcoming in Dharma Talk, due out in September 2023 from Wisdom Publications
My wife had the brilliant idea
to put jasmine blossoms
beside the bed
to help carry me off
to sleep and keep me there
all night long—
sleep, blessed sleep,
like the elegant doe
you catch sight of
in the forest and then
it bounds away
—but in the night
my cat ate my wife’s
and stepped right over
my spinning head
and curled herself into
a black spiral
of unimpeded slumber
and thought nothing of it.
NEW: published in Cloudbank
I wonder what the neighbors think when they see me
outside with the BB gun shooting at the pigeons
on our roof. I gave them a copy of my anthology,
The Poetry of Impermanence, Mindfulness, and Joy,
and the introduction makes me sound like
a person who probably wouldn’t be shooting
at pigeons, even if only with a BB gun,
which doesn’t really hurt them (I tell myself)
but simply encourages them to find
someplace else to deposit their smeary droppings
that threaten to turn one side of our house
into a bad Jackson Pollock painting.
“Honey, come look at this—isn’t that
the mindfulness guy out there with a gun,
shooting at his own house?” I’m well aware
of the irony, but life’s like that, isn’t it?
A contradiction wrapped in an absurdity, etc.
Still, plunking pigeons with a BB gun
might not fall afoul of the injunction
to not cause harm. (I thought about shooting
myself in the foot just to see how much
it hurt but decided against it). I tried
placing scary-looking plastic owls strategically
around the roof but the pigeons laughed at that.
I tried an electronic device that sent out
a kind of sub-audible (to humans) shrieking,
imitative of a bird of prey, but they didn’t fall for that
either. I always thought pigeons were dumb,
but now I’m not so sure. They’ve outsmarted me,
so far, not that that’s any great accomplishment,
moving from one side of the roof to the other,
where the angle for firing is not so good,
and where the homeowner
is exposed, even in this early morning half-light,
to the watchful eyes of the neighbors.
NEW: published in The Gettysburg Review
The slowing down
is speeding up.
–first published in The Sun
It’s no day at the beach
being me, I said.
It’s no walk
in the park.
I can see that,
Trust me, I said.
It’s no picnic.
Clearly, she said.
to mean? I said.
I’m just agreeing
with you, she
said. You might
a bit, I said. Tried
to convince me
maybe it is
a day at the beach
being me. Or
maybe it’s a day
at the beach
being with me.
No, she said. It’s not.
–from No Day at the Beach; first published in The Sun
Was it really as heavy as it felt?
I got the scale out
from under the bathroom sink.
That’s where it lives,
tilted on its side,
resting in its zeroes.
Would my head weigh more
than the Collected Works
of Anthony Trollope?
More than my overfed
Would my jittery thoughts
my mournful ones?
Or would my head reveal itself
to be largely empty, like
which it contains,
as I’d often feared
and sometimes wished?
I realized I would need a mirror.
I lay down
on the bathroom tile,
pillowed the scale
under the back of my skull,
held the hand-mirror at arm’s length
and took a good look
the absurdity of my situation,
a grown man lying
between toilet and tub
wearing the slightly
of a person who has decided
to weigh his head.
The number floated above me
as in a thought-bubble
and I had my answer: 8.8 lbs.,
turned rightside up,
the Eightfold Path doubled,
the number of years my father lived
minus the decimal,
and about half as heavy
as I’d imagined
this thing my spine had evolved
to lift into the air and carry
above the earth
–from No Day at the Beach; first published in Plume (online)
For my father
Early fall, the light thin and brittle, and if
it’s true that deprivation is a gift,
I accept the gift. I walk down
to Wallace Park to watch the swifts
that roost every September
in the Chapman School’s tall
brick chimney. The charming swifts
with their long, forked tails
and swept-back wings,
ten thousand of them swerving
and darting in the evening sky,
a flowing, expandable spiral
of birds, clearing the air of insects
and riveting the wandering
human mind. Tonight there must be
three hundred spectators,
a whole hillside of us, ordinary people
whose wings fell off eons ago,
who traded flight for speech
and have regretted it ever since,
sodden and earthbound as we are,
except for our lifted eyes, our oohs and ahs
that show we’re still alive when
the peregrine falcon dives in
and knifes one out of the air,
which we boo or cheer,
We love this passion play of form
the birds’ shifting patterns
flung out like a whiplash of water
or school of fish above
the stationary human school,
then drawn tight together,
a miracle they don’t crash into each other,
a miracle of echolocation, until
you see them as they truly are:
a single organism, a body made mostly
of air and quick decisions, jagged
motions that gradually cohere—
a poem, in other words.
It takes the flock a full twenty minutes
to funnel down into the chimney,
and it seems a living smoke
pulled back into a still and sleeping fire,
so beautiful I forget for a moment
my father’s death, or I turn my mind
away from it or, no, I open
my grief to accommodate this wonder
and wonder what he might have thought of it,
were we standing here together,
the kind of thing we never did, and now
will never do, except in my imagination—
that unchanging inner sky where the swifts
take flight whenever I want them to
and my father cannot die.
–from No Day at the Beach; first published in The Gettysburg Review
Standing on the subway, exhausted, dispirited,
glancing over the exhausted, dispirited faces
of my fellow passengers, I read posters
for a new movie about Pompeii.
“How can you breathe when the air is on fire?”
“How can you escape a boiling mudslide?”
“How can you outrun an eruption
faster than this train?” they ask.
Obviously the ad writer has never been
on this train, because this is a Q train,
and anybody who can’t outrun a Q train
must be on death’s doorstep anyway
and will soon be overtaken by time itself,
if not a boiling mudslide, though sometimes
that’s what time feels like, thick
and burning, pushing you on and pulling
you back. And now we rise creaking
over the Manhattan Bridge, where
one can see through scratchy windows
the city skyline and the buildings that are
not there, where thousands tried
to breathe air on fire and failed,
tried to flee an avalanche of concrete
and falling bodies and failed.
If only they’d been asked to outrun something
as slow as this slow train that takes us home—
how easily they might have done it.
But that is not what they were asked to do.
–from Help Is on the Way; first published in Poetry
So sexy to slide under-
neath a river,
to sit inside this
subway car and
the world above—
trembling with the
weight of its
the East River
still guided by
eyes wore in it,
the bulldog tug-
boats pushing the
and the double-
and black Staten
with their aura
and beyond them
the Atlantic Ocean
which I lately learned
was brought here
by ice comets three
billion years ago,
a few things, like
feels so alienated,
and of course
the thoughts being
thought by every
person in New
York City at
vast schools of
curving and rising
in the cloud-swirling
the vaster emptiness
which holds them
and which they try
not to think
about and you
lying in bed in
on St. Mark’s Place—
such a breath-
rising now to meet you.
–from Help Is on the Way; first published in Poetry
I don’t understand myself, nor do I know myself, nor
can I explain or prove who I am to anyone else.
All I know is that I’m a man who let his out-
of-state Driver’s License expire and who
does not have his original Social Security Card,
(issued at birth?) or a copy of said document,
to obtain which one must have an unexpired
Driver’s License, which requires, of course, a valid
Social Security Card. I needed something to get me
on a plane at LaGuardia. I did have a Birth Certificate,
and when I slid it tentatively under the bullet-proof
Plexiglas window at the Brooklyn Social Security Office
and said “What about this?” to the unexpectedly
sympathetic and ontologically sophisticated young
Asian-American man scanning my application
for a replacement card, he looked at me and said:
“This doesn’t help. This just proves you were born.
We need proof of your continued existence.”
I threw up my hands and looked down at my body,
as if to say, Well, I’m standing here, aren’t I?
I admit I have not done much with this life.
I have failed at love, let down my friends,
ignored my best instincts and given my worst ones
free play, but for better or worse I have continued
to exist. Because if I hadn’t continued to exist
I wouldn’t be contemplating all the joys and deep
satisfactions of non-existence, as I am right now.
I don’t imagine the dead are required to show papers
at every river crossing, or that only those with valid
photo ID are allowed into the caldron, or the
harpsichord concert, as the case may be. Often I wake
at 3 a.m., I wanted to tell him, with the night terrors,
scrambled fears of death, which would be one
of the privileges conferred exclusively upon the living,
and often I wish I could forget myself completely,
forget the fragile, worried, rabbit-hearted self
that seems to run my life, forget the whole
nightmarish mess—I wouldn’t have that
feeling if I hadn’t continued to exist, would I?
It’s true, I wanted to confess, I have no children
to mirror me into the future, and mostly I only
half-inhabit the poems I’ve written, a ghostly
uneasy absence floating just below the lines.
In fact, from the Buddhist perspective
I don’t exist, but neither do you, nor any of this.
A luminous emptiness is all there is.
Instead I tell him I just want to visit my parents,
for Christmas, in Nebraska, for christsakes.
Which was no help.
–from Help Is on the Way; first published in The Gettysburg Review