Poetry in the Mainstream
Barbara Fisher and Richard Spiegel
Thomas Perry, Assistant
Waterways is published 11 times a year.
©1998 Ten Penny Players, Inc.
Grasping at memories,
you pull them together
and tie the drawstrings,
binding your immediate present
with your selected past.
You are a complex bundle,
passed around in dreams,
using the quiet time
to remove a wrapper
and delve into experience,
whilst preparing yourself
to face the music
Dealing with myself is okay,
but there is the memory of that
which has been done to me,
the adding to and the taking away:
bruises, tongue-lashings and poisonous baits,
landscapes and vistas and the faces I liked.
With closed eyes
he runs a hand across strings,
bridge, fretted neck,
lays palms gently on the arching
"Like Jimmy's still alive."
Craig dreamt of this
since he stumbled
on the plywood mold.
A genuine James D'Aquisto Solo-
Stradivarius of the archtop guitar,
except Jimmy had the nerve
to die before he finished.
They borrowed a Solo, dipped
a dental mirror into each bend,
matched every rib, joint, curve.
And now, Craig eases it
from velvet, wraps
his hand around ebony,
presses body to body,
fingers caressing high-strung steel.
He strokes a major,
aching it blue, plucks
a minor, hesitates
before inserting a seventh,
before sliding into a lyric cadence.
No rush. They don't know
they're a guitar, yet.
They were trees most of their lives.
A study concluded that so-called monetary gold - gold stolen from central banks - had been intermingled with non-monetary gold, or gold taken from individuals, in some cases with tooth filings of Holocaust victims.
N.Y. Times. October 7, 1997
Every banking rule was observed
I assure you, gentlemen,
as far as humanly possible.
We've taken pain
to label each ingot
and isolate each source.
And it was a challenge, I assure you.
Look at these two bars, gentlemen.
Can you tell which is monetary
and which non-monetary?
But it's crucial to distinguish.
After all, one can never be sure
of purity. Assays are essential
to protect the prudent investor.
And we've stored these bars
for 60 years
under optimal conditions.
I assure you.
Gold may withstand
but (it's unfortunate)
lesser metals were introduced
into dental amalgams.
let me show you our records
A slate world is easily erased.
Nothing remains long.
Measuring time by the curvature
of a cheek, we reach for faces
shadowed by memory.
But the old is gone.
New tales replace old constantly,
as if truth could be told -
an essence from fragments.
Now, gently, you must guide my hand
to that hidden space
between the scars
to touch your heart.
The ice storm crashed on us,
breaking the limbs of trees,
jagged edges in every yard.
What do I care about destruction?
My friend, too, is destroyed.
We are weak survivors, who tug
and pull at the downed branches
oozing death on our jackets
and arms and hands, like tar.
We can't remove the largest branches
until Spring shall free them
from the grip of snow and ice.
When will the time come to free
my memories of ice storms,
and the jagged edges left behind?
I am now my mother's dreams:
I am the voice she hoped for
when she was swapped for the neighbour's wife;
when her son died at nine days
a hole in his back the size of her heart;
when she miscarried with syphilis
contracted from her husband's whore;
I am the dream she had
lying on her back, strangers
bringing her no comfort; I am
the comfort she gave herself -
surprised discovery at fifty-two;
I am the relatives she never knew, all
ash and dried-out bone - the Dutch
and German relatives who disappeared
in 1943. I am
the Jewish hair without the faith;
the Jewish voice without
I am the voice
she never learned
You were fair as a Gentile angel, and your mother,
black hair/black coat flapping from her stout body,
was a fat, black Lucifer
as she charged the two nuns taking you away. Mein Kinder,
mein kinder, she screamed
as one nun spoke softly to the crowd - Stop that fat German bitch.
It took three policemen and two
to make them let her go
and your scream
to melt the penguin witches away.
You never questioned what your future might have been,
though I have.
There are no Jews in your family now, Mother.
It's a picture of a young girl, in the shade,
sort of, behind a big tree - nose and one eye
peeking out. Eye looks coy, or maybe feared -
always had trouble tellin' them apart. Can't
quite make out who she is. Photo's old, stained,
with fingerprints whorling round the edge. Thirty,
forty, years ago - she'd be a grandma now - this
was took. She's got a good throat, long and creamy.
They gave me back this box of things I can't
remember, along with a new suit and a little cash.
I don't look like much, but I feel new to myself.
I shared my lunch with Aaron
while he spoke to a tree;
bread suspended between his lips,
fingers fell into the channeled bark.
He told me of spirits
and the cacophony of the fields,
rocks walked by the fingers
of the earth,
the roots of the trees pulled down.
He was always hungry, Aaron was.
His sisters and brothers too
ate dirt and charity in a three-room farm house.
My mother whupped me for crossing over.
There's a red thread in those kids, she said.
their farm burned down
and I stood knee deep in the voices of the grass
from across the road
Remember Halloween - we tipped the cinerator
in someone's yard
and shotgun voices hit the ground as we ran
"Hey, boys! . . . dammit"
and you laughed
while I fingered my barbershop hair
and thought of tipping it again;
the summer we lit the world on fire
Sonny and Cher at the talent show
and you grabbed my wig
swinging it behind your back . . . back and forth
. . . back and forth . . . until I screamed
and you said "You're no fun anymore";
and that last night when you ran away
we hid beneath the open porch
squeezed friendship in the fusty sand
and we promised to love forever and never forget
our favorite star
but when you tried to kiss me goodbye
I pushed you away.
I'm sorry 'bout that now.
They said it was a painful death
in a painful part of town.
When you left your pregnant Reizel in Khastchevate
and bummed your way across Europe to America,
what were you hoping, papa?
I never asked.
You never told.
I'll never know.
When you sat at the kitchen table reading
the Forwards and The Day from beginning to end,
what were you thinking, papa?
I never asked.
You never told.
I'll never know.
When, at evening, you sat at the kitchen window,
cigarette smoke trembling on your lips,
what were you dreaming, papa?
I never asked.
You never told.
I'll never know.
When you saw me on that floodlit platform,
capped, gowned, diploma in hand,
what were you feeling, papa?
I never asked.
You never told.
I'll never know.
To the last of your eight babies,
you gave driblets, mama.
The sips were precious
and I wanted more and more
as though you were a magic spring
with all the world of water to draw.
But you died and left me
too young to grasp what I had lost.
Now I rehearse your face and figure,
your pride in what I have become,
your rue at what was gone and lost.
But rehearsal is not enough!
Ay, Mamenyu, come haunt me!
I remember: There's ice
on the windowpanes
of our motel room
when we get out of bed
in the morning. Because
you've had a bad cold
for more than a week
I go outside, warming up
the car, scraping ice
from the windshield,
my feet sliding on ice.
It is only mid-October
in Meyersdale, but already
the red and yellow
maple leaves glitter
with frost. You look
watching me from the window.
I know your contact lenses
are still in the ashtray
where you keep them
at night. Your breath
condenses on the glass
until you seem to vanish,
but I know you're there,
watching. Each piece of ice
I scrape is for you.
She was born in the house next door
living there seventy five years last week
calling her niece in Brewster;
She'd always been willing to sit our cats
as we talked over the back fence;
I'd give her tomatoes every summer
she'd say I love fresh tomatoes from the garden.
She was gracious and innocent,
our minds were one from politics
to cats; she had been the village librarian
after her father refused to let her work in a defense plant
during the war because she had to ride with a man
(never having learned to drive herself, or be encouraged to);
instead of leaving the house to her, he left half
to her prosperous married brother!
She never married and wanted to move
to a college community for seminars and intellectual stimulation,
but feeling ill, she made a fatal call to her niece
who now had inherited half of the house
She says the house is too large and more than
our neighbor can deal with and that she's never coming back.
The house will be sold as quickly as possible.
An ambulance took her away.
She is in Brewster now
where the niece says by phone: She will be challenged
at Senior Citizen affairs;
but she is going to fade lost up there
with 100 cats and a cow;
there is a great gothic emptiness in the old house
standing alone by the back fence
on the other side of our yard.
It was worth the trip to get out to Port
particularly considering the alternatives
of trying to work too many cubbyholes
of determination . . . here we are drinking cold brew
bright and golden as sun and sucking tortillas,
sliding down cold iced oysters
isn't perfection, things are always
going to be missing . . . people forever dying either
because it's time or doing it deliberately . . . heading off into the
tale of a comet . . . at a place like this you tend to dream
which results in return of ghosts and spirits alone in a moment
of picture-card picturesqueness;
lobsters in a glass restaurant across from the open-maw ferry
possessing cars running like ants into clenched jaws;
image enters your mind on clouds that alternate spray and
light; you cannot wall yourself off from white-capped tossing
stretched as canvas across a perfect view.
Formerly we were dis-empowered,
evidence of self in an era where power is no longer a matter of
personal persuasion . . . but we evolved . . . if sitting almost silently
regarding everything . . . having the leisure to do that is
not being stuck in endless routines going- down- that- way . . .
we enter each other's menu, crack shells and dip butter
savoring sweet meat and cold drink
safe in peaceful transparency, moving too fast
Last night was the 4th
which means preparation
and attempts at creating something
people want to share
and sales to chase for something affordable
for so and so's wedding
and the clothes so hideous
the fabrics gross acetates, polys
and you look a wreck anyway
then the grocery ritual . . . grasping tangible fulfillments
hotdogs, potato salad, eggs to devil, hamburgers, apple pie
and of course ice-cream
so you fall in bed leaving the flowers
to dry almost to death until tomorrow
and always the pain from the dog-knock-down
and funny odd memories bloom
like flowers in the summer heat
like perennials coming back surprises
sparklers when you were a child
names of violent things like cherry bombs
watching the rise and explosion of colors
always at some park's watery reflection
fracturing the vividness of life
feeling the pain of a father departing
the eternal void of his falling away forever down the years
the sound of a piano on the radio
downstairs echoing thru the empty house
suddenly becomes a practice room
from the past, and music of lovers
that remain like ancient divorces
that never really end
entering the sweetness of early possession
the yearning and fulfillment
of coming together
and expectations of future delights
of romantic dreams literally realized
and all the more precious
for ephemeral shimmering
you never thought would fade
watching around our table
with lamps hanging from the birch
in the distance fireworks rise and fall
like lovers climaxing and falling from the cliff.
ever not having been?
Can you remember a time
when you didn't exist?
When you try, does it make
you feel like you've always been,
or, conversely, like you'll always be?
Trying to remember not being
will make your head hurt;
it's like looking into a mirror
for a long time and trying
to figure out who blinked first;
it's an ontological Möbius Strip,
the three-card monte of rumination.
When you check on this
with Heidegger and Hegel,
and Kant, they don't help much.
Not really. So why is it
that we can't remember
ever not having been ?
or for that matter, imagine
a time when we won't be?
from: America, Vol. 174, #5, February 17, 1996
"Eat the Rhubarb Pie
in the Freezer" said my sister
Saved like an old wedding cake
for an anniversary
made by my mother
two seasons ago before her death.
We ate the Rhubarb pie
without ice cream
without her lips pursed by satisfaction
missing the pride in her eyes
for a job well done.
"Take your Uncle Wally's
Rhubarb and Plum wine
it's the last bottle" said Aunt Anne.
Friends and family sat sipping
the second to the last bottle
remembering an uncle
who wished to please the crowd
clumsily guffawing at another's expense.
Between the death
of my mother and my uncle
Myrtle, their oldest sister died
in the Hollywood earthquake of 1994
one of the 500 aftershocks
stopping her heart
while taking a cake from the oven.
I never met her, nor was I asked to share
the last crumbs of cake
made by that family stranger
yet part of the family that sought to please
by feeding others.
The wished forgotten can never be forgotten.
Memory will not void its place
for the wished remembered.
Look at Peter's tears.
"He wept bitterly," the Bible says.
By the time the cock crowed
he had disclaimed a friend.
Not once, not twice, but three times.
And now the condemning bird
would never leave his view.
He would be inconsolable
to the depth of his worshipful heart
the rest of his life.
He was forgiven
but who can forgive himself?
However many amends are made,
however many blows are taken later
in the name of spirit,
what was said cannot be unsaid.
I have spoken out, I have hurt as much.
His tears tell my story.
Tears are perpetual. Tears redeem.
Tears are the mandate of life.
The place where true entwining begins.
Had to get back -
before recollections started to defect
and memories cracked, eggshell mortality.
Took my oldest -
taught her the reality of reasons
and seasons of sun, snow and sins.
We were in the cradle.
I ladled it on like thick gravy
on sticky potatoes. (No one knows
the starch of days marked with
doubt and fear). When we neared
the sacred grounds, stones tipped
or pounded, gritty grins in green
expanse, I glanced back to see
if she understood (tragic past
and the tragedy of passing monuments
in the present). She was picking
her way through ancestors, pleasant
cautious, peering at names and dates.
And it was late -
time jerking backwards,
ticker sticking on cogs clogged
with regret. At the gate I asked
her if she perceived and looked deeply
into grieving eyes, my eyes.
Got to get back -
point my feet,
solemnize an afternoon,
complete the circle
and bury Danny Barrows.
We went on a dare,
fifty odd ago,
slow to sap, like summer,
but simmering with the glimmer
that hardens into manhood.
We were afraid -
of dark waters, deep,
of snappers, willow traps
along the bank,
dank smells of deep snares,
and sleepless nights of cowards.
We stripped to skivvies,
shivering delivered a few rocks
for courage, and slipped in.
Funny how high laughter can
banish fears . . . sometimes.
This time was different.
Danny coughed in the middle
of a chortle, sort of a gurgle
and a burp, like bubbles rising
from a far place. I looked.
His face was white as a fish belly.
He reached - fingers miles away,
and something dark rose to cover
the sun. My stomach went to old
jelly, I backpedaled, panicked,
broke and ran home.
They never found the body.
Sometimes, when my sleep is deep
and dank I see his face,
funny look, and the way his eyes
rolled in reproach. Then I wake,
shiver and stare into the past.
So. Here I am. It looks about
the same, smells worse. Would
you like to take the curse off me,
sink into some happy oblivion,
envision him again, laughing.
But it's too quiet: listening, watching,
waiting to see what I'll do.
Do? Throw a piece of chewed clover
on dark waters - no ripple,
just a sad offering in the closed
circle of watery space,
but his face is in willows,
wet earth, laugh is in
he sad breeze. Please,
release me from this ...
I'm drowning at Dal Royal Pond.
I tug her gently - she does not rise;
she watches me with waiting eyes.
I tug again
I pull her to the stars
terrestrial to celestial.
We float over Mars
breathing the strange
red breath of aliens
with voice of sliding glass
on glass in limbo akimbo,
drifting like floaters
in the eye of God.
what if she had really
been a part of him
locked inside his body
then they would
have been one
he everything to her
she a fragment of him
maybe such unity of form
such perfection made someone
jealous or maybe someone wise
saw such intimacy would become
too familiar too complacent
or such unbalanced balance be worse
than separation worse
than the chill that slips-in
between two sleeping forms
or perhaps some sculptors simply
can never keep their fingers
from re-pinching the clay
moving chunks here and there
tossing bits aside to use later
or maybe someone powerful
set them apart just
for a moment's fancy
once they both had eyes
his brown hers gray
to gaze back and forth
across the space between
and both had hands
to stroke and tongues
and all that skin
it hardly mattered why
or who tore this piece free
left that gap in his side
what mattered was the empty place
left in each
that never gets filled
except those moments
they spend holding
what they might have been
but even of those small moments
that someone is jealous still
Take this woman
comes the decree
Make her long for a creature
of her own
fashioned inside her
from the very stuff of self
Take this man
Make him violent against her
against their progeny
Then we will see
In the old house where the souvenir scarves,
Paris, Florida, and beyond,
lie in the drawers until the son comes
to spread them open on the bed
and frame or sell their tourist colors,
the caged-in smell of old smoke waits
to seep out the newly opened windows.
When the house is stripped for the new owners,
the aura of Violet Jones still stays
around the ceiling tiles and woodwork,
indissoluble in harsh detergent.
first appeared in Hot Air, 1988
The day I fell in love
with John Wilkes Booth
my gown had 12 yards
of silk. The dashing actor's
dueling scenes were
so startlingly realistic,
sometimes fled the stage
convinced Booth really was
going to draw blood. My father,
a senator, introduced us and
I was thrilled when Booth bowed
to me and drawled, "You
are lovely enough to stop
a heartbeat." All of spring
was in that voice. I wore
my gown to Lincoln's second
Inauguration. His words were
merciful and kind to
the all-but-defeated South:
"With malice toward none;
with charity for all . . ."
Five weeks later,
the inevitable happened and
Lee surrendered. Lincoln
had received hundreds
of death threats while the War
lasted. But now,
on the fifth day
the truce had been signed-
John shot the President
whose wallet contained
a five dollar Confederate
in a pocket. Lincoln died and
daddy says the South
will pay; it'll be a hundred years
before that region
recovers. Spurred by
$200,000 in rewards, the army
hunted John down. He died
with my picture
in his pocket. My gown
was of varying and deeper
shades of blue.
Mother at eighty
said she'd gone with two guys
at once when she worked
on roller skates at Macy's,
one for lunch and one
for dinner. And then?
I wondered [on roller skates?]
about her. One took her
to Sunday Polo on the Island
and one with a beautiful
deep baritone, "Bob
and me went to concerts."
She lowered her voice
although my father in front
of the weather channel couldn't hear.
"I was very popular
I think because I got
no attention at home"
where her father doted
on first-born Josie even more after my uncle
Billy's BB smashed to smithereens
her left eye. And from her palace
tower Josie kept an eye
on my mother's misdeeds.
" 'Do you know when she came home
last night?' she'd ask my father.
'Three in the morning!' and he
beat the crap out of me,
let me tell you,"
"I'd been engaged already
(not to your father) so I told
Bob," [Remember Bob?] " 'Platonic Bob.'
We dated a year and never kissed.
He wanted to, of course, he became
But here's the story: Why
am I telling you this?
Years later I had you
and your brother with me
during Christmas at Macy's. I
hadn't worked there for years,
but I hear,
and this is Macy's at Christmas.
He's so excited. He
wants to take us to lunch, and
I say no. What if someone saw?"
"No! Your father
would have killed him! But Bob
trails us to Gimbels
"No, I was so nervous
that someone would see us and think,
but he says he married a girl named
Terry because she
reminds him of me!
"How terrible,' I said
'to do to her...'
"'You broke my heart.'" [Bob, remember.] "And
when he said goodbye to us . . . "
"He kissed you!"
"I've had a life," she said
and smiled, satisfied.
The truth is
I feel like Judas every time
I think of him, my son Joe
whom I can't be around because
I can't handle his head so
I run him off. Yes, just like
that: I run him off out of
self-protection, that ragged
scarecrow who can't hold two
moments in sequence, who falls
through a hole in time every
time he places one foot in
front of the other. And that
reminds me of-no, drops me
into-a time when I was the
same way and suddenly I'm
down a hole scrabbling at the
sides while the earth rains
down on me and I keep slipping
back down and the hole grows
deeper each time I slip back
till there's only the sky
far above and then that slow-
ly grows dark and then there's
only me at the bottom of this
hole and then very slowly the
hole begins to cave in and
I feel the earth around me
rising up over me and know
I'm going to be buried there
in the earth in the darkness
and then-it's every man for
himself. And I run him off
and then feel like Judas and
there's no way to justify what
I've done and there's no way
to feel remorse because it
was him or me and then once
it's over I forget it for a
while because there's all kinds
of things to be done only
every so often he comes into
my mind suddenly out of nowhere-
that ragged, bereft scarecrow
of a son of mine and then I
feel like Judas and so now
I've said it and if the purpose
of writing is to get a thing
out of your system so that
you can forget about it once
and for all, then this has
really been a waste of time.
from Main Street Rag, Charlotte NC, 1997
Death hangs over us
but it always did -
now we remember -
like a battlefield
in the first light of morning,
the corpses glowing with
grotesque elegance among
the trees and grasses,
natural things like the
gnarled branches of some
incredibly old tree
that refuses to die.
Yes, that's how we are:
just because we're dead
doesn't mean that we've conceded.
It's all one you see:
the battlefield with its
eloquent burden of trees,
bodies, grasses, morning light.
That's it, you see:
death's just part of it:
we're the light too.
April 10, 1997, Hyde Park Cafe, Austin Texas from Heeltap II, S. Paul MN, 1997
Sylvia across the table from me
at the Tower Restaurant, pregnant,
eating strawberry ice cream (she'd
have eaten it all day and night if
she could, would have mainlined it
if she'd found a way). We'd just put
the laundry in at Ching Wong and
come here on this summer breezy day
in sixties Austin, Sylvia eating
ice cream and me drinking coffee,
smoking, nothing to do but let the
laundry cook, silent, you don't start
talking till something's wrong and
nothing was wrong for the time being
in Sixties Austin with the sun bearing
down and the light just so and the
laundry in and strawberry ice cream
and coffee and cigarettes and silence
and if you think this poem is going
anywhere, you're mistaken.
from Anthology Magazine Phoenix, AZ, No., 10, 1997
When I die,
don't bury me,
just lay me down
where nobody's peed
and I'll look up
at the pale cold moon
and try to remember
what the hell I was doin
to come to a place
so far from home
and meet a woman
whose heart was a bone
and I'll lie
a little longer
and then I'll rise
and float off into
the eastern skies
till I get back
to the place I'm known
where there aren't
with hearts of bone.
from Heeltap Two, St. Paul MN, 1997
There's a place past loneliness like a night without stars, like the moment when a toothache becomes a bomb exploding in your head (only this is the pit of your stomach) and there is suddenly for a moment nothing at all of you or the world or the universe or anything or anybody and that nothing in you and you can't even find it. That's the same moment that you remember where you come from and know what death is and then the pain returns and it's just pain and building again and you can't for the life of you decide whether or not you want to explode again and one part of you fights it and one part of you reaches for it and then suddenly both parts of you are gone for another instant and then back and then you try to think of new words for what is happening because nothing matches what it is you feel at that moment, that fraction of time that extends outward infinitely until time is swallowed so that reaching back in time for that instant you're suddenly no longer in time and you're only absolute zero and at the same time the whole history of the universe, beginning to end, alpha and omega and stretched beyond breaking and then only then do you begin to conceive how comforting it can be to be human, just one body, one thing containing the possibility of being held, contained, of hands finding and holding and touching you and you begin slowly as though it were an infinite chore to invent a word for what it is you mean and need and have to have and the word uncoils out of the same void slowly till it finds the infinitely distant flesh that is your lips and they move in vast slow motion shaping that word that means hold, touch, contain, find, believe, flesh here and finite in this here and finite place. Love, you say, your lips barely moving, love, the word uncoiling from your guts and spreading through you surrounding you, holding you, that sound, the way that light enters time and the dark withdraws and everything begins again as warm hands cup you slowly into this one moment where it all begins and you inside it held and homed, past loneliness and not alone.
from The Red Owl, Portsmouth NH Issue 5, 1997
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