Saturday, April 24, 2010

Poésie Noire

Bits gleaned from atop the powdered rungs
and doll tongues strung upon a braided cord clasped
between folds of frilly frue, you come
in the night wrapped in ermine and brooch
over fetching skirt, and you’re tippled on the putty,
and I’d sure dig it, but not so go and such tomorrow:
your face mashed and snorgled, perfect shroud
of your makeup layer permanently Turinning my pillow slip,
eggs flipped over my frypan and my sizzled sausage
already sorted like two stacks of cordwood
dumped from the truck and claimed right there
by a hungry pair of lumber barons. Then me,
apron in the kitchenette, my eggs on the plate
getting cold while you proof and yodel under my shower hose,
juice from a sliced orange creeping your plate
and sogging up your toast while I expect the sound
of your bus at the corner. I’d climb into a barrel
of slowboil tar and leaf through the complete works
of Jacques Derrida as I wait for the slow dissolve.
Still, I’m no Marlowe and you’re less Dietrich
than I’d have you be, no femme fatale echoing pumps
down the wooden hall outside my office door.
You just came in the night a bit better for wear.
I’ll feed you my eggfry though you’d like the hardboil,
and by light of day I’ll drive you home in my Packard
with benchseat and rear-projection stock footage. 

*               *               *               *
Poésie Noire started out with some free form word associations, basically 
just playing with words. Powdered rungs, doll tongues, braided cord, etc. 
I like the way the phonemes roll around and create some bizarre images. 
By the time we reach ermine, brooch and skirt, there's more of a narrative 
thread appearing. There's a reference to the Shroud of Turin, then eggs. 
Again with the eggs. Eggain. The egg is an image that appears in my poems 
off and on over the years. I've always been a fan of a healthy yolk, not to 
mention the gooey thing that umbilicals the wet to the shell sac. Eggs are 
sensual and reproductive. Eggs are pure. They may have come before the 
chicken, but that hasn't yet been definitively determined. Eggs are a delicious, 
moist and protein-rich snack contained within a crust. The exterior is 
simultaneously fragile and incredibly strong and resilient. If you put a raw 
egg into a vinegar bath and leave it soaking for a few days, all the calcium 
leeches out of the shell, turning it clear as glass and opening the mystery of 
the interior's goings-on. Despite the richness that causes me some belly pain, 
I like Hollandaise sauce drizzled generously over Eggs Benedict. Or omelets. 
When we were kids, my sisters and I were about to enjoy omelets for dinner. 
Bubby brought her plate into the living room and placed it on a chair in order 
to stake her claim. She went back into the kitchen to get her beverage. When 
she returned, she sat on her omelet.

There was an oddly spiritual kung fu movie called Circle of Iron / The Silent Flute
It starred David Carradine as a blind kung fu master / flautist who mentors an 
aspiring martial artist on a quest for knowledge. At one point the "apprentice" 
is crossing a desert wasteland, and he encounters Eli Wallach in oil, trying to 
dissolve away the lower half of his body after numerous vows of chastity had 
failed. The reference to Jacques Derrida is about that deconstruction of one's 
sexuality and mobility.

The rest of the poem is heavily flavored by film noir imagery, and how both 
the poem's speaker and the overnight guest fail to measure up to that ideal. 
On a slightly more optimistic note, the poem concludes with the speaker 
embracing both the film noir ideal and the inherent pretense of the genre 
(and poetry by association?).

First published in 

Saturday, April 10, 2010


Been dipped in the rainbarrel
as I settle back, beer
in hand, feet raised to relief.
Son’s soft snoring
seeps down from upstairs.

My mind, couched and beery,
pictures Storm in his pjs
with his gorilla collection and pillow-pile.

Along with local news
splayed out before me, I spy glasses
left, lenses lined with dried cry.

He’s a shaman, a spell caster,
       having resurrected faces
of the recently deceased
       from the daily paper
             with tears and pink putty.

*               *               *               *
An oldie... 
I worked in restaurants for years, mostly as a line cook. My wife and I worked opposite schedules so that one of us was always home with our son, Storm. I went to work in the evenings, closed down the kitchen at the restaurant, and came home around midnight. Usually, my family was sleeping when I got home. 

This one night, I arrived home, opened a cold beer and sat down on the couch to relax. After being on my feet all night and cooking hamburgers for what felt like a thousand hungry customers, the beer and couch were a refreshing Ahhh. I could hear the steady breathing of my sleeping family upstairs, though nobody actually snores (right Donna?). I thought of Storm, who at the time slept with a pillow pile and a number of stuffed gorillas to sort of nest himself for security (though that's long ago, right Storm?). Storm's glasses were on the coffee table and the lenses had dried tears. I wondered what had occurred earlier in the evening while I was at work. 

The rest of the poem draws on a slightly earlier image. Storm had been playing with Silly Putty and lifting images from the newspaper, which he would then stretch and pull. At one point he turned to the obituaries page just to get some more faces. It was that idea of Storm resurrecting deceased people through his childhood play, and how that seemed like such a spiritual and shamanistic occurrence that was the impetus for this poem. 

I put the two poem ideas into a single narrative. I like this poem as an example of my approach to poetry at that time. It's very linear and direct, as compared with my current writing style, which is more like "Hydrocodone" and "At Back Stair" below.

First published:
and on the related website


   Moonpie and mumbly peg. Numb to dock-sound
with mumenshantz on a quicktime loop. I’ve a sasquatch thumb
   in a felt bag with a drawstring cord. Lord, lay your sweaty palm
upon my tenderer and grunt a holy wyrd. Balls black
   huge heavy. Crotch jockey smuggling bowling sphere
through customs’ drooping lid, ricket-legged. Someone struck me
   with a candlestick in my pantry. I in paper, wake later dazed
and shaved, have been shiv-stuck and sorted, junk knocked about
   and volcano pathway tied in a not. Though hurt in pankey sack
expand to suit the wooly thumble. Fortunate I was to rise,
   writhe, day to lay and pill bottle in grubbed-out clutch.

*               *               *                *
I had surgery on an inguinal hernia. Now that was a fun time. (Click here for photos!) I wrote this poem the next day while packed in ice, swollen, feeling battered and bruised, swimming on painkillers, and generally zoned out. The first several lines were meant to capture the sort of mumbling surrealism that I experienced at the time. I don't remember why I was watching mumenshantz videos on YouTube, but it's a strangely fitting image for my state of mind and a jarring example of my drug-induced stupor. I was eating a moonpie at the time, and thinking that it would be a good time to play mumbly peg, due to the painkillers. Somewhat random images, but they were of the moment and captured the hernial zeitgeist.

The first image that preceded the poem was the sasquatch thumb. I love the word sasquatch. Having her or his thumb, I thought, would be a strangely wonderful trophy, while still being bizarre, like carrying a rabbit's foot as a charm. Plus, the thumb would be physical proof of the existence of the creature without being enough of the creature to actually prove anything. If I had one I would carry it with me in a little bag and show it to curious onlookers. What does it have to do with the hernia poem? Well, that's up to the curious onlooker to decide. (BTW, did you click there?)

Bowling ball imagery... yes.

This poem first appeared in the third edition of Jessy Randall's short-run 'zine, 

It is published online in the Canadian journal,
ditch, the poetry that matters

Sunday, April 4, 2010

At Back Stair

Lead you to the empty room, paste
             grim ace upon the rack,
talk of fish spoon in the pantry sack.

Like you, I just want l'oven,
            c'est les autres, and
slump loose from the pomple noose.

That back stair is string and winds
            piltdown from the amberbach,
dribbled from the honeycove and built

to resin with hard visage
            intact. You’ve a hand
in my larder. I’m plagued

by such scenes and heights, tread worn
            smooth to the tipple edge,
riser hide a black and tan.

Drawn. In bas de l'escalier sans
            Suess soul, nevertheless
absolute and elsewhere. The blinder

bite abate in lined slicker, hat brimmed
            in narrow and frizzed
in drizzle. It seems that

mayhap doppelgänger be my me
            knew by.
Now I wrap in mac at the corner lamp.

I’ve poison the child, turn
                        and key.

*           *           *           *
The title "At Back Stair" refers to several things for me. For a short while in my childhood I lived in a house on Baxter Avenue in Superior, WI. In this poem, I'm letting my mind wander around at Baxter. I was pretty young when we stayed there, and my memories are vague, so when I was working on this poem, I talked to family members who helped to fill in some gaps. There was a back stairway down into the basement. I remember the stairs, but didn't until I was reminded. In an even more convoluted way, my brain is accessing distant memories, sensations and fears from a far off time, like opening the back door to a place one hasn't visited in a long while, but which still seems intimately familiar. What I seem to be visiting in this poem is my childhood, and those things that helped make me who I am as an adult.

Off the kitchen at Baxter was an old pantry with unusually high ceiling and shelves. Like you I just want l'oven. This is meant to imply both wanting loving as all people do, and also wanting the oven, a la Sylvia Plath. Also, in the Sartre play No Exit, the protagonist comes to realize that "Hell is other people," or rather, "L'enfer, c'est les autres." The remainder of the stanza sounds like a mishmash image: suicide by hanging, but slumping loose suggests being released, but is it too late, and where the hell does the indie band Pomplamoose come from? Is that a grapefruit?

The next image seems complex, but what it feels like to me is an acknowledgement that the memories and experiences from Baxter and childhood in general really exist only as a relic of the past, or a treasure encased in amber, an opportunity for wealth of discovery. I realize that's a stretch, but I had very little overall purpose in mind while writing this poem. For me, the joy comes from discovering what is happening here, why it's happening, and what it tells me about myself. The surface is about language play and layering images. The "you" in my larder in that stanza could be directed toward family, self, childhood memory, or the amber nugget.

In the next stanza we're back to the physical: the back stairs at Baxter, the treads of which were worn and old even back in the 1970s when I lived there. My mom reminded me that there were a lot of bugs in the basement, and here at least, the bugs are black and tan beetles, and represent the dangers and fears of either childhood itself, or revisiting childhood from a later perspective.

The next French suggests to me being drawn back down the old stairs, despite the potential dangers and lacking the purity of the child's soul (yes indeed, Dr. Suess). As we transition to the next stanza with hat, slicker, and drizzle, I'm once again an adult. Maybe there's a double of me out there somewhere. Maybe my childhood experiences are another James independent of the adult me. Whatever. I'm back outside the house and down at the corner, standing in the drizzle. I pull my coat up around me, giving myself a hug as I turn to go. The child may now be poisoned, or maybe I have poison for the child, it's unclear though either way it doesn't sound like a positive. 

Key? I have a key in hand? A car key? Or I'm returning to the house? Is the key a key to understanding something? In which case, does the poem end on a positive note? Key seems to be a verb as used here. What could it mean? I'm not sure, though again, I absolutely love the richness of exploration that undergirds this sort of poem. Good or bad, at least I key.

First published in:
ditch, the poetry that matters 

Saturday, April 3, 2010

The Zoo

    Congregation and Communion

            Back at the room, bare
            except for where I’d nailed Christ
            to the wall, we debated
            the holy word in jubilance
            fortified by drink.

            But in the ennui and boredom it brought,
            we created the church            and its steeple
with only our clumsy paws.

            Later, loaded, and no longer limited
            by tactile sensation,
            we set off seeking fulfillment
            in the afterhours haze of a nearby zoo.

            We scaled the fence
            as monkeys chittered
            and snakes sang in the moonglow.
            Like animals, we ran amok,
            calling out to each other in the dark.
            We thought to search for something nunlike.

            When we found it we formed a line,
            each of us taking a turn
            spanking the penguin
            on her warm, velvet bottom.

*          *          *          *          *
This poem goes back nearly 10 years. My friends and I would sometimes go to the Como Zoo in St. Paul in the middle of the night. There was a wolf pen close to the parking lot. We could see the wolves padding around inside the pen, watching us over their shoulders, but apprehensive about getting too close to us. We would get down on our hands and knees next to the fence and knead the ground with our front paws and the wolves would come right up to the other side of the fence, inches away, and sniff us. Sometimes they'd knead the ground with their front paws as well.

This poem is fairly direct and true to life at that time. Did my friends and I actually queue up to spank the penguin? While I'm reluctant to openly admit to any wrongdoing, let's just say that the event was not without the penguin's approval.

First published:
The Rapids Review, Spring 2004

Friday, April 2, 2010

The Apples

      Back when we ate the apples
that the old man was saving for pies,
he hoarsed Hey you kids! from his porch
where he always sat upon the weathered Adirondack,
lording over yard and field.
      –We ran from the tree,
through the old man’s lavender
which was indeed lovely,
and we ran clutching our treasure,
made our way to a neighboring pasture
upon which to laze our afternoon.

For years I’ve replayed the scene:
      Old greybeard rising from his throne, leaning
          heavy on the rail,
              the running, the apples,
      and you, breathless in the buttercups.

*          *          *          *          *
Back when I wrote "The Apples," I was working on a series of poems based on Bible stories or Christian iconography. "Monkey Flees" was my poem about the crucifixion. "The Apples" was one of several taken from Genesis: the Garden of Eden, the apple, Adam and Eve, etc. What I was trying to do in the series was to write poems that would work as religious texts if one saw them as such. I didn't want the poems to be dependent on the source material though. Over the years a few people have seen the postlapsarian connection, but usually it doesn't crop up. I'm completely okay with that. 

A frequent comment about poems from the series was that they seemed like familiar stories from a dream that the reader couldn't quite remember (or something along those lines). I've always assumed that it was because the stories are familiar, but not quite appearing within the expected context. Anachronisms are a part of all these religious poems of mine, though I've always felt that the odd juxtapositions simply add richness to the interpretive possibilities of the narrative.

First published in:
and on the website

Monkey Flees

Breathless from the chase, we gather ‘round the tree.
Our hands visor sunglare at the brow;
shadows, like scolded puppies, crawl under us.

We’re an odd lot, drawn out,
craning neck spectators in a harsh light,
saluting a primal beast.
That monkey led us on quite a chase,
but we’re the fools for leaving him
the open cage.

We followed him, yes, sticks pounding the ground,
a cacophony of voices and outstretched arms
trying to corral and contain, yet
he slipped through.

He’s gone up a tree.

We try the sweet talk, but he ignores us,
up there swaying from his branch.
We offer drinks of cool beverage,
the sun, after all, beading sweat upon us,
but he’ll have none of that.

This shouldn’t be so hard.
There’s really not much to him, the little ape,
so small and filthy, hair matted.
I’d lay into him with a firehose.

But threats and demands prove fruitless,
as did the bananas, so plump.
The monkey looks down on us, grits his teeth,
and tears weave down his fuzzy cheeks.

He leaves the branch, ascends slowly.

Beyond our reach now, he’s rising from sight,
and still we stand with upturned faces
calling out his name.

*           *           *             *             *
Though I don't consider myself to be Christian, I am very interested in the power of words, images and ideas. I went to a Pentecostal church in Superior, WI, for many years as a child. Also, Christianity is pervasive throughout American culture. Anyway, I've occasionally gone through periods of writing religious poems, or at least poems in which religion is explored. In "Monkey Flees" I was trying to imagine what the crucifixion of Christ would be like from the point of view of the angry mob. As the poem opens, the speaker is breathless from having chased the "monkey"under the hot sun (possibly having "followed" Him?). The speaker shields his eyes to see the captured one (inadvertently saluting Him), and the harsh shadow below the man cowers like a scolded puppy. The man has mixed feelings about his experiences with the "monkey," leading up to the monkey's capture and "escape" up a tree (the crucifixion, an image that always reminds me of Lawrence Ferlinghetti). The crowd taunts Him, mockingly offers a drink of sour wine, and turns more negative about the "little ape." The "monkey" looks down on the gathered masses, grits His teeth (in pain or as a smile?), and weeps for humankind. After leaving His branch, the "monkey" ascends to the heavens, leaving the sinners and looky lous staring up toward the sky, calling out His name.

While this poem first appeared in the online version of Hamline University's literary journal, I had it republished in a short-lived venture called The Facebook Review. It was there that readers had the option of commenting on published works, and where I could comment on others' contributions to the journal. The best thing that came of it was that I came to know Kim Groninga, a writer and editor in Iowa. We got to know each other and Kim invited me to join an online poetry workshop. I did and made some great friends, received a lot of deep critique of my work, and as a result developed a lot as a writer. 

First published:
and then:

Effigy Waltz

I was so lonely
            I made me a man.

Grabbing the sewing box from the utility porch, I stitched dungaree to old work-shirt. Exceedingly careful about the seams I created, fastened wool sock to pant leg, garden glove to cuff. I had to stem bean flow. I made a head from a gunny sack to suit my new companion. Hair, an unused mop.

I filled my man
            full of beans,
and it took on girth,
            became complete.

I dragged it from the house,
 slumped it against the clothesline pole
  with a huff of dried August.
   Its head tilt conveyed emotion,
  woven jute ennui seemed a crooked grin.
 Faceless, I thought it resembled my dad,
so I named it Bean-Gene.

I went to the porch swing
for tea and cake.
What are you thinking over there?
            Silence and willow sway.

Bean-Gene leaned heavy on the pole, puppet so forlorn. I downed my tea and a few leaves, and went to the shed for rope. I looped an end where jute met shirt, knotted tight, and heaved rope over clothesline arm. I took of the slack and pullied. Bean-Gene stirred, cocked his head to one side. Slowly he rose.

His feet barely touching the ground, I tethered.
            Willows draped and late-day sun
warmed shed, house and barn.
            We danced hand in glove.

Father, your hair is candied yarn. 

*                            *                         *                          *
I wrote "Effigy Waltz" sometime after my father passed away. His name was indeed Gene, though he didn't have a look of woven jute ennui. My father grew up on a farm in northern Wisconsin, and even though I never lived on a farm myself, the imagery seems to exist for me as part of a collective history that I share with him. My relationship with Gene was not always a positive one, probably where the image of hanging an effigy comes from, but yet the speaker in the poem is embracing the man's memory, building and giving life to an effigy to have him around again, and dancing with the "death puppet," an image that could make Ingmar Bergman rise up from his nest. 

An interesting note: As I wrote the poem, the speaker was male and more or less a stand-in for the writer, James. Early readers of the poem observed that the speaker seems to be a woman, possibly due to the sewing, the tea, the waltz with her(?) father. Now when I read it, being much more removed from the time and emotions, it does sound like a female voice to me, though I must point out that in my house I do most of the sewing. The pink sewing box full of notions and such belongs to me, though the box itself comes from the long-lost Jody. (More on that later.) I'd be happy to waltz with Gene if I could see him again.

First published in:
and on the website