Saturday, June 10, 2017

Five Poems


The moment I knew
In my strange youth
That I was sure to come
To no good
Was the day I was left
In the presence of
An item known
As Bass Clef.

Here was, above all,
A cruel instrument –

  Just when it
    Had seemed
(Let’s see… Great… Big…

That one might
after all
  Somehow manage to recall
That the bottom line
Five down from the top
Was a note by the name of E
Here was, then,
A new bottom line
Deceptively resembling the former
But this one, we were told—
I laugh to be so bold –
Was now to be read as

As if, just when this
Was starting to seem
Appropriate to one’s learning level
We had entered a fun-house version
Of what had
previously been known as Treble.

And all my days since then
I could still,
If safely ensconced in the latter,
Painstakingly count – if one had all
The time in the world (and in Hell) –
All the way up
From Middle C.
But here, now,
with this
Base company

I was suddenly
There was
No more truth to cling to
Let alone a note
To sing to.

Why, on earth
Would human brains design
One staff that so resembles another
Each one with five
Innocuous lines –
and then assign
A different value?
A bottom should be an E, I say
whether it’s above or be-lower
Or better yet – start the whole thing
With – like our alphabet – A!

In adulthood I’ve heard
Strange rumors
At times
That say one notch above Bass and one
Below Treble
Is Middle C, one and the same, which accounts for all
This apparent work of the devil.

I discount this theory at once, however.

For it utterly fails to explain
Why there are often those hideous
Cacophonies of notches
Hanging like vines from the same!

  in my childhood
I was told
That there were whole instruments that played only in Treble
This opened, to me
Vistas heavenly
A possibility
Of a world without evil.

  Oh, they tried on me, don’t doubt it –
 In their effort to stuff me
With Bass
   Everything from All Cows Eat Grass

Such devices were proposed—
  As aids to the memory
But I never learned
  How one was supposed
To know which applied to which Clef -- and where!
 They were like every
  Dental retainer that I
 Was asked to – but didn’t – wear!

And like all the other things in life
That one ought to do
 But doesn’t.
And like everything else
That was supposed to be
Good for me
But wasn’t.

And that’s when I knew
That when they were blueprinting the world
Someone designed
Without me in mind
It was my first test in life – whether I
Could accept the cruelty and irrationality
of God, Guido, or the devil,
That Clef-footed demon,
Or whether I’d
To  bewail it.
And I’m ashamed to say
That until this day
I’ve failed it.


Dear Madame
-- Or Sir,
I don’t mean
To be a bore
But there appears to be
  An irreparable
Problem with your
For all the things
  One wants to read
Have languished
Out of print
While the rest sit
But utterly without
And here and there,
  Some tome
One momentarily was thrilled to see
One finds filled, upon its opening,
With villainous ellipses!

  Burglarious blemishes, all!

Places they are
Where some fool
Has pruned
All of the most interesting parts!
Here in a volume, say
  Is that essay on Malthus by Keynes
 How possible? How can it be?
 it was permitted between covers?
In 2017?
But lo! It is missing –
 Where’er our editor has taken a poke –
All of the actual argument
 Leaving only
The jokes

And if – by some miracle
A truly excellent read
Has been permitted into circulation
One finds some desperate publisher has
 drained all merit from the deed!
Flashing out now from the front is some
Naked effort to appeal
To whoever is least likely to buy it
While I, who might, can feel
Only dismay!
What sort
Of establishment
Is this anyway?
And now I know
 That whatever I did not obtain in my shopping today
Shall be the thing that haunts me,
Glimpsed behind the veil, unseen,
  And keeps me awake –
What was between
Paragraphs two and three – Say,
Did Keynes
Perhaps not make it all clear
At just the moment we cut away?
And now I shall have to purchase
Some tattered original
  With a coffee-stained cover
To be shipped to me, unpromptly,
By some great online Moloch or other.
Curse you Madame – or Sir
My whole purpose in coming was to avoid
Lending business to such a shameful exporter
And thereby to add one safer
Prop to your brick and mortar!


Shh, I tell you a mystery –
 All his life there was
Some notion of “absolute safety”
An organizing principle,
The guiding obsession
That he knew,
Was an emotional insurance that others lacked
 (Occasionally, he’d even contemplate
 Telling others to try it, but couldn’t find how
 To say it with tact)
Some might call it
The Kingdom of God
Within him
Its name varied, but not
Its function
And seven times – he can count them
(They were more frequent in childhood)
One was switched out for another – the next
Always eventually came, though not without
That passing space between
Of intolerable vertigo! I’ll tell you about
 This time,
On the train it left
Somewhere between stops four and five
I guess it got
 Off the T
Before he did
Between – even – reading
The second and third line
Of a newspaper – Gone!
And then it became
A kind of game
He played with himself to see –
How much had changed
 Without it,
He seemed
Still to be breathing, and was still
Going to work, or wherever it was,
His destination,
 And was living now
As others must have lived – all this time
In the face
Of impossible risk
 Somehow – they all
Had done it
Here goes!


Ahhhh it’s the ringing of that hideous phone!
That great creator of obligations!
That pocket-sized engine of guilt!
Inescapable, in my small chambers
Even on vibrate
Needing to purchase few hours of solitude
At whatever price to my soul
I will hide the thing in the other room, but lo!
Just when I think I have
Stuffed it into silence
And allow myself a moment of relief
I then hear, barely audible
And all the more maddening for that –
 That small odious chirp
Of the message unwillingly received
And then curiosity – damn me! – will interrupt
Whatever I was reading
And maybe in a manic fury I will leap
From my couch into the room where the beast is resting
And wildly strip the bed of pillows and covers
And pile them willy-nilly onto the hated phone
  Just try to sound your way out of that, curse you!
It always does.
And in my head there comes this ideal of becoming
Some monster of total unfeeling
That could wash itself of all claims of society—indeed,
some I have known
Who could go weeks without answering their phone!
  (They recognized the truth, that all
The things I thought were being nice
 Were actually the truest path to making sure they became twice
As bad!)
Blessed souls! Just think
Of all one could get done
If one wasn’t in one’s heart convinced
That soon the few small hours of solitude would stretch
Into an eternity
The obligation
 once refused
Would not be asked again
And one would find
Without social ties
And doomed
To isolation
The fear is there, and that is why
 I cannot allow
That phone to lie
Untended like
A crying babe
That needs nurturance from me
I was made
To be a suffering servant
That is my fate,
My cross – the cost
Of that gift
Of empathy
That is the source
Of all the interest I might find
In whatever I might be doing
Or reading
By myself
That is
The great irony
The force
Of my so enjoying
My own and a book’s company
Is also the source
Of the incalculable shame
That will always, when it rings,
Interrupt the same.


There was a time, in my neighborhood
It was late at night, in my childhood
My sister had been away and it
Was getting dark
So I took a flashlight, and there I stood
At the front of our street
Let me remark
That this was not
Some suburban development
But a gnarled jungle
Where a child alone
Was a stark
Contrast to the surrounding pitch
Someone came out
Of a house at the end
Of the road and said,
Voice quavering, “Um… little boy?
  Can we help you?”
“I’m waiting for my sister,”
  I replied.
“He says…
   He’s waiting for his sister…”
I heard whispers inside
Then I got uncomfortable and left
  The voices and my mission behind
And I realized that
They probably assume –
Even to this day
I was a spectral presence
A ghost, condemned
To walk the Earth eternal
Always to seek – but never to find
This sister, who the legends say
Had died with him on just this day
Fifty years ago, or whenever it was
And now we both haunt,
With our guiltless feet,
This red-lined overgrown
Florida street
For its sins
I suppose that is how it feels
To be a child pitied and feared
A horrifying sensation, that I have never washed out
To be a spook
And bear for an instant
Those whispers and looks
To stand with flashlight in hand
And from that station
Bespeak the guilt
Of segregation.

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