Festival Poets' Poems
At the Illinois State Fair
Pray for black-outs.
For a packed grandstand.
Pray for ex-cons and no back door.
Pray for Milwaukee men eating
turkey legs whole, who watch ours
as we climb the chairlift stairs—
pray for the heavy Clydesdale
hooves and the girl who waves
the 4-H flag. For our footsteps
swept out with the dirt. We’ll spike
our shake-ups and drink them
with the safety men. I’ll sever
the Spider’s arms so they’ll fall
around its trunk; you’ll watch closely
on the ground. They know we’ll ride
the Himalaya, so pray for the wrong
direction. For broken levers. For
the Alabama man to drop down
onto the console. We’ll clutch our
slutty drinks. We’ll stumble
to the Log Jam. Pray for frayed
seatbelts. Pray for the long drop.
Pray that tonight, when our mothers
rise from their incense blankets,
their sacrificial wine, from their shrines
winking like fairway lights, when
they look down at our waiting beds—
pray for the salt in the sheets,
for the body hollows. Pray for
their mouths, then. Pray then
for the final break.
I was always late. We kept reassurance
in your bedside drawer. I bought you
bespoke suits. I gave you an accordion,
leather goggles. Then we took it all off.
We built a fort and took it down
tenderly, snugly. I was late but you ran it
all the way to the mailbox. I was late
but they made me coffee in my border control
cell before they waved me through;
you, panting, held my visa. We had advocates,
not friends. Our friends had religion
about us together. I could stay three months.
I could stay but the police were involved,
the judges’ chambers. We had a favorite
cartoon still. We had a secret password.
When I was thrown out, I took my own flat
and there, I used my sheets as sheets.
You could stay but it took three buses
and a ten hour flight. You could stay but it cost
your next five years. When I left you
I laughed, then thought, this is
unforgivable. Then thought, thank God.
James P. Roberts
Kissing the Fog
I love to kiss the fog
and feels its clammy hands
on my face
such a cold
The fog swirls about me
ghostly children laughing
at my weathered
Feel the light wind
plucking at my clothes
my torn cap
a silent warning
of what may become
of those who wander
in the fog
without being kissed.
(Originally published in Spirit Fire, 2003, Hawk & Whippoorwill Press.)
Alone in the Sea of Tranquility
I write about rocks
the space between rocks.
to write about
on the moon.
Oh, the sun . . .
it's pretty bright,
but then darkness falls
all too sudden.
There's no wind.
The gray moondust
. . . me.
(Originally published in A DEMON IN MY VIEW, 2014 Pickle Barrel Press)
You said I should write more love poems and
I said, I’m sorry, but I’ve been thinking about
sloths. Well, actually, the moths that live
on sloths. Nestle into their fur, take the slow,
slow ride through the rain forest. Once a week
the sloth descends to the forest floor. Defecates.
Female moths leap off; lay their eggs on the fresh
feces; jump back on. Their caterpillars nourish
themselves on the fetid feast, metamorphose
into moths, fly up into the canopy to find
their own sloths. They prefer the three-toed
over the two-toed. Who can figure attraction?
The algae-covered sloth fur is the only home
the sloth moths know. The only place they live.
I know it’s a Darwinian thing but fidelity
comes to mind. Commitment. Patience.
The world writes love poems all the time.
Published in The Fiddlehead
Also in “and no spiders were harmed”
On the Occasion of a Day like any Other
Squabbling, gray geese melt out of gray sky, drop
into a field—acres of yellow stubble and snow:
small damaged soldiers parading in rows,
disappearing over a small rise. I’ve seen this before,
or something like it. Does it matter where
or when? I want to say I can still be surprised.
Surprised by the way snow changes from feathers
to stinging pellets of ice and back again in a minute’s time.
I can still be surprised by my heart’s everyday beat, my
lungs’ insouciant rise and fall. I don’t want to say
there’s magic in the ordinary or that the ordinary isn’t.
But what else can I say on a day the world twists
toward the sun for the twenty-thousandth time
in my life and the snow makes the most sensuous
sound, shatters against the bonebrittle
oak leaves still clutching their birdless branches.
From “and no spiders were harmed”
Gift of Sight
Mom dreams of a man she hasn’t seen
since high school and he calls.
My sister Carla dreams a rain
of money, and a window washer
drops his wallet at her feet.
Mom is restless, frets
about the dream of a lost boy
found dead or a deadly chemical spill.
She swallows amnesia, meditates
to turn her eye inward, prefers to be
the blinded horse. Carla imagines
herself a super-hero, Dream Girl
in a 360 thread-count cape:
Power-ball numbers, activated!
She looks forward
to the R.E.M. of night,
the flannel periscope rising.
I have visions too. Déjà vu.
A new room, re-entered.
Strangers met again.
A first kiss like cul-de-sac.
They feel sorry for my life
in the rear-view mirror, imagine
I tread in a vague pool of loss.
But I consider tomorrow
each toss a chance to retrieve
old sins, to pitch them again
to the thundering sky.
I see our three lives
as trifecta, as trinity,
the weird sisters
with our contradictory natures,
til the hurly-burly’s done.
Brain Tumor as BFF
Like a Hello Kitty piñata
like Auntie Em
like lead paint on a load-
and that wall?
I'm East Berlin
you my West
this strong rise in us
I promise to rise each dusk
and mirror your lips
your fogged reflection
your out and in and out and
in you that’s me singing the wires
your Wichita Lineman
but let’s not croon on
about wants versus needs
let’s stumble-tongue talk
let’s droop-eyed drink
let’s make a kick-in-the-pants pie
blackstrap and pokeweed
let’s make the best of this recipe
of you(scepter) + me =
a setting free others only estimate
unfold those praying hands
and hold me hold me hold
tight now yes with both hands
I promise to not let go
my radiant girl my girl aglow
Long Exposure, Small Aperture/ The Reciprocity Error of Film
The sun-warmed asphalt driveway releases its heat
back to us, through layers of sleeping bag, as we
wait for the first blur in the sky. Tiny and singular, but once
we notice one, we see them
I cannot describe the perfect bruises and bite marks on your arm, but Elizabeth Bishop could.
Once, someone block planted this woodlot, so the trees
grow in uncanny symmetry; watching from the backseat,
the trees flicker like an old projector.
A stand of young birches glows.
Even the underbrush has a tinge of red, copper-colored
leaves unable to fall, the pinking tamarack bark, the lichen
and red soil peeking through snow,
melt and freeze.
The Perseids fall, and my mother perches
with her camera, splayed tripod, shutter open for hours. Sometimes
our father would lay with us, point out the bats swooping
for insects. We
try to stay up all night, wake to dew fallen –the camera, our mother, our father
In the woodlot, a man walks, gun slung easy
over his shoulder; the dog courses –the two of them
in perfect grace.
The car may stop
abruptly, for deer or turkey. I may recognize
Ship Rock, climbed with my two brothers; the four-way stop
at Ray’s Closeouts, where I used to go with my then
best friend, before whatever happened happened.
The Only Woman in the Bar
All the men stop talking. I hear “women” and “naked.” My friend says they were talking about the dangers of wolves.
Perhaps her mother was excessively fond of her[i]. Or her grandmother doted on her still more.
These small-town men are my fathers, my brothers, my brothers’ best friends. I know them
under their beards, their layers of natural and synthetic fibers.
There were no wolves. But we want there to have been –it makes for a better story.
The poor child did not know it was dangerous to stay and talk to a wolf. The woman was no child.
Repeated press releases insist: there were no tracks, no bites, no signs of predation. There was only a woman, naked, dead in the parking lot of a local store that sold sundries, and foodstuffs, and beer.
By “we” I mean those men in the bar. But back in 1697, Perrault knew by “wolves” he didn’t mean wolves. The men in the bar are unaware.
By “we” I sometimes mean “I.” Who doesn’t love a good story?
The wolf cried out to her, softening his voice as much as he could. We can elide the middle part, the confusing part, the undressing part, the getting into bed.
Arms & Legs & Ears & Eyes & Teeth
By “we” I include Witness #40. The DA admitted, “Well, early on, I decided that anyone who claimed to have witnessed anything was going to be presented [ . . .] if I didn’t put those witnesses on, then we’d be discussing now why I didn’t put those witnesses on. Even though their statements were not accurate.”
The men in the bar stop talking. They might say it was out of courtesy, respect. An exaggerated politeness –it is what their mothers taught them. But I (as part of the “we”) know fear when I see it.
I say “wolf,” but there are various kinds of wolves.
[i]All italics from a version of Perrault’s “Little Red Riding Hood,” in Lang’s The Blue Fairy Book, 188
My aunt’s bedroom was a place
I was rarely allowed
with its lace and bows, dancers
embroidered on pillow cases,
the doll on the bed, crocheted
ruffles spilling from her waist.
Even the dressing table,
fancy and curved, the candy pink
skirt was delicate and sweet.
The girl under the silver dome
was always on her toes,
arms circled, pink tutu rippling,
as she twirled to “Für Elise.”
I wanted to touch her
fingers, so delicate, they might
break. But there was no touching
at my grandmother’s house
and every time I asked, my aunt
covered the music box while the girl
bowed and folded inside herself.
My Father's Horns
Saturday nights he'd jam the van:
the upright silver bass or the curvy
sousaphone, mouthpiece carried
in his pocket to keep it warm.
He'd pick up the guys and head
for dance halls, play big-band style
and pack the house. Back then,
the gang played standards,
some oom-pa-pas and little waltzes.
The dance floor was packed to the rafters
with suits and full circle skirts;
sometimes a pretty woman sang.
"It's getting a little dry
and dusty up here," Jerry’d say,
and beers and whiskey sodas appeared.
My father drove home after,
half asleep, a little jazzed,
his throat choked with smoke,
The horns, their big bells silent,
settled once more in the van.
Those Saturday night beauties—
the ones he held tight,
the ones he crooned to.
My mother—keeping time at home.