We Witness (for the Poetry Patroness)


Insurmountable: to palm someone’s blinding grief in your hands 

to show her–the griever– 

the terrifying, sublimity in bottomless agony. 

You can’t help her picture that pure, petrified stance on the bridge 

mid-way between his suffering and her own, textured so distinctly, 

galaxies apart in their partnered struggle,

his fraught with the tortured, focused fight against pain, and hers, 

witness, empath, limb, mother, wife, married to his suffering. 

Her body pours static breath into his mad-gnashing vortex.

 
Where does one end and the other begin? 

At the point of internal harrowing, razing cells that scream 

in hysterical, frenzied death and reproduction, 

death and reproduction, 

with no end in sight, for these crazed, cracked-out enucleate disks don’t quit, 

bear no mind but to destroy in their very giving–as if human.

 
I’ll show you the petals of the wide-blooming, morning rose, 

heady as your bejeweled wedding day,

the dewy, pale, opalescent-translucence of redolent, velvety dalliance, 

stained rust-dry at the edges–

a picture of blossoming, ordered DNA

perfectly-formed, fragile as your first-born’s, infant fingernail– 

carrying its own prescient death at the borders.

 
She’s beautiful, 

not as a symbol, not as obedient structure, 

but as herself, fragrant joy bleeding. 

I’ll cup her in my gardening hands to grow a path between us–

sorely aggrieved and floundering shadow, 

clumsily consoling your fear and mine, 

both corraling an other’s-brother’s-father’s-husband’s-son’s fluxing end. 

Could you crawl outside a minute to see?

National Kick Butts Day

kick butts

Oddly enough, I smelled cigarette smoke today, and for the first time in many, many moons, it smelled good to me. I used to smoke cigarettes–an on again off again affair. I started in elementary school, forcing myself to trade un-labored breathing and clean smelling clothes for cool. I stayed with the habit throughout junior high and high school, developing a full-blown half a pack to full pack a day habit back in the late 70’s. Cigarette packs cost less than 50 cents then.

When I moved from New York to California, the cool changed and so did my habit. Californians did not smoke like New Yorkers did. And I met a non-smoker who encouraged me to quit to avoid the kissing an ashtray repulsion he wished to avoid. So I did, many times in as many years, sometimes for months and other times for years at a time. I had not smoked for 5 years when I enrolled in a summer school graduate school program back in 1989. The first day of the semester brought on a half a pack a day habit instantly. But the last day likewise signaled the last cigarette. The longest non-smoking stretch spanned ten years or so, the child-rearing years.

All in all, I tally the smoking years against the non-smoking years and the latter wins out handily by a 4 to 1 ratio (yes, I include infancy in that calculation). Mollifying my conscience about healthy aspirations is one reason for the calculation. The other is the sneaking suspicion turned confirmed of late.

My father’s smoking ratio is about 1:2 smoking to non-smoking. He quit tobacco 31 years ago after visiting an old friend dying of emphysema, leaving behind a wife and kids. Watching this formerly cool, tough Italian macho tote an oxygen machine like a child’s security blanket was not so much what did it as the look on his wife’s face, knowing she would be left to take care of it all. My father quit after that Florida visit and never smoked again, despite a three-pack a day habit. My first cigarette was one I snuck from his maroon soft Pall Mall (he pronounced pell mell) pack and lit on the school playground–during recess!

He was my inspiration to both quit and not-quit. If he could quit a 30 plus year habit cold turkey, I could quit a smaller habit. But the thought was always: any day I could just up and quit like my dad did. He just decided to do it, and then quit. And so did I. But I didn’t stay quit.

I haven’t smoked in a long while, not sure how long. I don’t like to count. I don’t like to think about it at all, though I often have a twinge of angst about the damage done. I have heard and seen those pictures of dirty and clean lungs of cigarette smokers. I have read that the deleterious effects immediately begin to dissipate as soon as you stop. But it seems to me there would be some residual damage, some frayed edges somewhere for the abuse. The subject has never brought me even close to researching. I probably don’t want to know or trust what I read.

Yesterday I sat in the doctor’s office with my 81 year old father and questioned the doctor about the tumor discovered inside his bladder. I asked why he needed surgery rather than a biopsy if the tumor was just discovered. The internal medicine specialist matter-of-factly turned to me as if I were on fire with ignorance and replied, “because with his smoking history and the location of the tumor, these tumors are almost always malignant.” Malignant and tumor in the same sentence made my jaw slack and eyes widen.

Funny thing about looking up the National Day (a habit of mine)–National Kick Butts Day–I did not automatically think of cigarettes. My immediate understanding was kicking butt as in overcoming or winning or beating. The notion made me smile. I like kicking the butt of obstacles, like just today submitting an article due at 7:22 right on the dot at 7:21 after my day got away from me and I toyed with extending the deadline. I also re-negotiated a couple of contracts to more favorable terms, turned a few students on to poetry and astronomy (two current passions of mine) this morning in class, and whittled down a stack of essays needing grading. I’d say it was National Kick Butt Day today for me if not for the nation.

But also for my dad. The doctor did add that this type of malignancy–located in the bladder–is one that commonly spreads. The surgeon removes it and done, out patient even. At least that is my hopeful understanding. Though I have no desire to research this one either, I am going to take this news as equally kick-butt as enlightened 18 year olds to poetry and astronomy, hard to believe but absolutely, positively plausibly true.

Happy National Kick Butts and Kick Butt Day!

 

credit: scoutingmagazine.org

David Bowie

No doubt music marks our days, sometimes quick phases, oftentimes longer, a decade or a lifetime. Bowie marks a near lifetime for me. Not too many artists have kept me listening as I pass through the decades with morphing styles and tastes befitting the ages, mine and the world’s.

I first heard Bowie in late 75, Ziggy Stardust most prominently but all of his early albums. I remember his young scratchy nasal voice (“Oh cacti find a home…”) that blossomed into that deep sonorous sometimes bass trilled at the edges full of flair and drama. My sister adored him and played his albums continuously in the basement room we shared back in Long Island. And when she slipped off the edge a bit, Bowie seeped into her paranoid delusions. She saw prophecy in him. Even in her mania, she appeared to capture the essence of him–enigmatic and forging.

We saw him, my sister and I, in the late 70’s, maybe early 80’s, if my poor memory serves me (and it rarely does), at the Forum in LA during the Low tour (or maybe the early 80’s Serious Moonlight tour–or both). He had already abandoned Ziggy and the thin white duke by then. I remember feeling nostalgic every year or two when he changed his style yet again, transformed into someone else, some other alien, sliding into the latest (industrial/Eno influenced) or setting the trend himself (Ziggy).

Some might characterize him as a chameleon or a dragon of sorts with his commanding fire burning everyone and everything up in frenzied delight or disintegrated fury if you read the stories of his professional and personal life, a long list of gone-throughs. But there is no doubt that the music world has been much influenced like a meteor scar on the earth, the crater of his prolific creative output over several media–music, art, film, drama–ever communing with the stars he brought our eyes to time and again.

Up to his probable scripted death by the seemingly indomitable cancer yesterday, he was in charge. He made the trends, first had us look gender fluidity in the eyes on such a grand scale. And glam rock, I believe, would not have come to the fore with its serious spark without him (okay Queen was pretty cool too).

Of course I am no music historian nor critic, just a listener, appreciator and star gazer. But as a fan, I know I will sorely miss the years’ passings without a Bowie change-up around the corner (just when you think he’s resting comfortably…). He seems to have synchronized my days, kept me abreast of the new, the old-new, the new-new and the new-old. But just as I said it as I watched his Lazarus video from his just-released BlackStar, “amazing”, as I’ve exclaimed it so many times before when he sent chills down my spine with some profound lyric, performance and/or song.

Peace, bro. I will miss the latest and greatest you sorely.

 

Horror and Music

  

 

 
You want horror? I’ll give you horror.
 
You want music? How about a dirge?

How about the feeling of feeling nothing?

Not fear or love or even boredom. Not feeling.

How horrible would that be? Or maybe not.

How about brain tumors and skin cancer?

Who doubts rectal cancer’s horror, rotting from

the inside out, reeking inverted guts exposed?

What about bloat, the Great Dane disease,

their intestines twist-knotting them to death?

And perfect lovers meeting at the worst time,

both stuck inextricably in others’ lifeless lives?

Shattered happiness is horror, potential lost,

Losing a child or a loved one’s murder, terror.

How do you recover from sending your child 

off to school just to find her dead, shot up by

a murderer festering in a room, a closed door

emerging for a brief fatal foray out of alienation?

I cannot write any greater horror. Unimaginable.

How to write horror stories worse than the real?

Controlled horror in letters would play us God.

We can manage and shape–to know the ending. 

To know: Coping with horror is to make it. Write.  

In which we bow and break in bearing it

 
 
It’s five minutes before class begins and one student, a mousy girl who twitches occasionally and whispers answers to my questions after I respond to her half-mast upraised tentative hand that must be propped up by the other hand in order to give it any height, says, “I think no one’s here because of the shooting.”
 
The classroom is one third full, not unusual for the hour and time in the semester, about one third of the way through. 
 
I wanted to doff off her suggestion as somewhat silly or illogical to assure her, actually, but as is always the case in teaching college students–or any students–sensitivity is paramount, so I pause a complete second. But in drawing up my response, I immediately flash angrily, “No, probably not. Why wouldn’t they be used to this sort of news by now? After all, mass shootings happen every other day now. It’s just become the new normal.”
 
I immediately regret my callousness.
 
This student has confessed in her second essay written for this class that she suffers from epilepsy, a recent discovery that has left her to picking up pieces, rescuing remnants of her former life that held nothing but unfettered future, the worst day up until then being when an elementary school kid called her a mop-head. She told me her medication affects her memory, slows her.
 
When she confided in me, I thought of my daughter in college two states north from home. She suffers from a recent sport-inflicted concussion, confused and depressed, her mind sluggish and stalling–going on too long now. She fears. I fear.
 
******
Last week at the head of the classroom, I repeated the line from a prose poem assigned for that day, “In the end, we are alone in the house of the heart.” I then asked the students if they thought that was true. Some thought so. Most did not know.
 
I offered my story of watching a cancer patient die, slowly, how, after months of gathering her family around her, then one by one sending each off not to return to her as she got sicker, she hunkered down inside herself the last three weeks, doing the difficult work of dying. It certainly looked like no one could help her do it, that she had to do it alone. To further illustrate, I likened that aloneness to being elbowed in the diaphragm, down on the soccer field, fighting for air. All of the hovering bodies above you as you lie on the ground can do nothing for you–you don’t even see them–as you fight the pain and fear of never breathing, diving deeply inside yourself for that will to bear it, to survive or brave surrender.
 
I thought the dying example was illustrative, poignant. Some stared in reflection, some in emergency-broadcast-test-pattern mode, others in churning liquid emotion. One young man gripped his head in his hands, face hidden, staring down the sheen of the teflon coated desk.
 
My heart winced.