The letter from an associate editor
was polite and longer than usual but not by much.
"Thank you for submitting," it said,
"but poems about muses are common
and we have no use for them.
We did like that you have forsaken
the usual figures of Greek mythology
in favor of the tiny goat that sits on your shoulder
and whispers poetic phrases into your ear.
We had not heard of that before.
If ever he tells you something
of better quality, we hope you will consider
giving us an opportunity to read it.”
Smokey The Bear tosses his hat at the hook by the door.
In the kitchen he pops the top on a can of Budweiser,
slugs down the whole thing in one gulp.
It was a rough day at work.
He’s sick of motor homes
full of pyro-maniacal tourists,
and their slack-jawed kids.
He grabs another beer from the fridge
and lumbers into the bath,
where he starts the water in the tub
for a cool soak, hoping it will help.
He knows he should call Mama Bear
and check on her but he doesn’t feel up to it.
She’ll still be complaining about somebody
breaking into the cottage and eating all of the porridge.
He wonders why his family
can’t just eat wild berries and honey
like all the other bears.
In the bedroom, he slips out of his pants
then pulls on a long zipper,
letting his heavy fur coat drop to the floor
where it lies like a worn rug.
It feels good to be out of it
and he starts to wonder if he shouldn’t
look for job in one of those camps
where everyone walks around naked.
To be perfectly honest,
I haven’t been feeling myself lately.
Doctor Jekyll hasn’t made a diagnosis
but he’s trying different medications
hoping some combination of them will help.
I can describe the worst of the symptoms.
People say I’ve been irritable.
I wake up mornings soaked in sweat.
I find hair growing in the oddest places.
My girlfriend says she doesn’t recognize me.
People who should know me
act like they’ve never seen me before.
I’ve been tired during the day, as if I haven’t slept.
Tonight I’m locking myself in.
I’ve heard rumor that some of my friends
are planning an intervention
but I swear everything I take is by prescription.
It always feels cold, even in summer,
the stone walls clammy,
heat from the kitchen doing little to help.
Candles in the tiny room
flicker from an incessant draft.
Benedict (named for the saint),
near blind and hunch-backed,
bends over the table,
nose nearly touching the parchment,
After fifty years of doing it,
he has come to hate this job.
His back aches, his head is throbbing.
He has to squint to see his work in the dim light
looking back and forth from the original
to his copy, now in the book of Exodus.
He dips his quill,
carefully sets his ruler,
begins to copy line fourteen
of the twentieth chapter,
With maniacal laughter that can be heard
from calefactory to cloister he writes
"Thou shalt commit adultery."
A shining pewter bowl overflows with ripe fruit.
A maid peels an apple, light pouring
thick as water through an open window.
A girl reads a book by candlelight, the lids of her eyes
heavy with dreams of distant countries
with dense jungles and smoky mountains,
A dog lays waiting at the foot of a prince.
A pearl, glowing with its own inner light
Dangles from the delicate earlobe of a young woman.
Tell me van Eyck, de Hooch, Fabritius, Vermeer;
What happens after the light has dimmed
When the fruit has gone to rot,
The apple has been eaten,
When the book has been closed
And the candle blown out,
When the dog has been fed
And the young woman is no longer young?
At the first hint of fever
I begin to dig, knowing
it’s only a matter of time
and no one else
will want to do it.
I hack a few roots
with the tip of the spade,
lifting some grubs, small worms
and the moist black earth.
I have chosen the right place.
The soil here is soft.
The pile at the edge of the hole
grows higher with each shovelful.
At the bottom of the hole
there is nothing but me
sweating from the heat,
or is it from the sickness I feel
spreading through me
like a slow-burning fire?
He was a tall man with the grace of a willow.
He had long hands that led her on board,
engulfing her small ones in his.
In the side-facing seats he slipped a wiry arm around her
pulling her gently against him, holding her
the way the shell of an acorn holds its treasure.
During the ride he smiled into her expressionless face,
talked softly into the delicate ear that faced him.
When the bus made its turn onto State Street
he reminded her of a time they had pie
at the diner on the corner.
For a moment (one fleeting moment from how many years ago)
a glimmer of recognition formed in her eyes;
then, as quickly as it had appeared, it was gone.
James came home
from the state institution
declaring that he
was no longer Jesus.
It came as a great relief
to all of us who found Jesus
to be an annoying man,
ragged, blunt in his speech
and usually smelly because
he rarely showered.
I sometimes miss him though,
but even more, I miss the wine.
faded yellow rose wallpaper
clock face frozen in surprise
in a mirror full of sorrows
fireplace grinning in the parlor
face of an angel in the wood grain
of the mahogany mantle
motes of dust lit up like stars
in a silver sliver of sunlight
mummified body of a dead mouse
on the linoleum kitchen floor
uses no vanishing point.
Every place can be
seen from every other place;
distant mountains, an island
across a calm sea,
the gates of a great city,
a fall of water,
a silk merchant travelling
on a narrow country road,
a bamboo forest,
a gathering of young monks
taking evening tea,
a solitary blossom
in an old orchard of plums.
I have often been told that I look like someone else;
somebody’s brother, cousin, uncle or
One is a shoe salesman, another a cop.
The last time one was seen
was at the funeral, his cheeks
rosy with rouge painted on skin
that looked like wax, dressed
in a nice blue suit, arms
carefully folded over his chest,
not a single hair of his comb over
out of place,
looking better than I ever did
when I was alive.
"I’m only kidding.
Don’t take things so seriously.”
He might have been the grim reaper.
He was dressed in black
and I couldn’t see his face,
though I could see no reason for that.
He had been following me around all day.
I noticed him at the garage
where I’d taken the car for an oil change.
I saw him again at the hardware store
where I stopped to pick up
a quarter-inch bolt and a some wood screws
and later he was seated at the counter of the diner
where I had the day’s special for lunch.
Now, he was following me around the yard,
looking over my shoulder while I cut the grass.
I was feeling short of breath
and failed to see the humor in it.
My pet piano on its three wobbly legs
quivers with excitement as I enter the room,
takes two steps forward and one step back
as I approach, bends down for me
to stroke its shiny black finish
then smiles broadly its wide white smile.
I pet it just so and it plays me
a little from the Goldberg Variations,
which it knows to be a favorite of mine,
then the opening movement
from the Moonlight Sonata.
When I pat its lid it grows playful
and teases me with Jellyroll Morton
and some Eubie Blake then,
just as I am about to fall asleep,
it plays a little Brubeck
and all three of Satie’s Gymnopaedia.
The year is 1796 and each of us is enjoying
one of our many past lives.
Especially Bob, from Casper, Wyoming,
who is having a turn at being king of England.
As you might recall, the year began on a Friday
which was a Tuesday
if you follow the Julian Calendar.
In March, a widow by the name of
Joséphine de Beauharnais (now working
at a regional Social Security office in Chicago
under the name of Julia Meadows)
married General Napoléon Bonaparte,
who is now settling insurance claims
as Lila Fitspatrick in Davenport, Iowa.
(Yes, you can come back
as a person of the opposite sex.)
Catherine The Great dies in November.
She successively becomes a Japanese fisherman,
a cannibal in what will one day be New Guinea,
a sailor in the Spanish Navy and, most recently,
a sales associate at Foot Locker
at Mall of America in Minnesota.
In December, the electoral college meets
to name John Adams President of The United States.
I am happy to report that John Adams
is once again John Adams, this time
a cable installer in Waukegan, Illinois.
Sometime during the year
Jane Austin begins her first draft
of Northanger Abbey
but by the time it’s published
she is born to a slave on a sugar plantation
in Brazil, and, in her most recent life,
has just made assistant manager
at a Kentucky Fried Chicken in Dayton, Ohio.
On March 18th Jakob Steiner,
the great mathematician, is born
in Utzenstorf, Switzerland. He achieves
only minor fame in synthetic geometry
but some years later he receives greater notoriety
as front man of the Rolling Stones.
It’s no coincidence that rats and kids love me.
They have a lot in common (the little vermin),
So when I was asked to pipe rats away from Hamlin
Piping children too was no problem.
But, what do with them now?
It seemed like a good idea at the time
But they are so needy”
And they smell, lord how they smell.
Eat? You should see how they can eat!
Getting them all to sleep - forget it.
You put them down and one has to go to the bathroom.
Another one wants a drink of water.
Then a little one says she can’t go to sleep without a story
So I make up a great story about a witch
Who cooks and eats some children.
Next thing you know, they’re all bawling;
They have to have a story with a happy ending
So I retell the entire thing so it’s the witch
Who goes into the oven like a pepperoni pizza.
This whole thing was a big mistake.
I have to admit, though, some of the little ones
Are kind of cute. Not like the rats
With their tiny paws and whiskers
But cute in their own snotty-nosed
Booger-flicking sort of way.
"Hey kid, come here. Pull my finger."