Archive for October, 2016


HE awoke screaming again. His head steaming and raw. He coughed to near seizure while some slow moving slime thawed, dripping the length of his throat like mis-swallowed gum. His breath was reticent to move and once it did unobstructed he angrily pounded the bedding with his fist until flurries of sweat rose in swarms akin to fruit flies. The blackened room glowed red within his eyes. Nothing had changed.

A long, heavy chain of days had been spent here in this house that rattled and leaned from one side to the other like some lumbering, clumsy beast marching in place. He rose from bed as if snatched up by his collar and compulsively rubbed his eyes with ashen palms. The room percolated with a milky green haze. The walls were dim and out of focus in the darkness, but he could hear their agitated chattering and scratching

He limped to the bedroom door and opened it, looking out the hallway towards the staircase leading down to the living room. To the right of the stairs the darkness breathed and watched him. In response he coughed and spat on the floor, cursing. The mass welcomed this and smiled.

He scratched the roughed skin in back of his head and coughed a routine prayer: How long. How long.
Downstairs what modest furniture there was danced the rooms circumference as if the entire house was a ship tossed between angered ocean waves. The carpet curled and ripped between the furniture like meat chewed between black teeth.

The house was an ever evolving sickness that worked hard to expel him. The other houses in the suburb were all equally hostile. From one end of the street to the other, the row of them appeared swollen and bruised like severed heads silently snoring behind beards of blackened trees. Their windows depressed in eyeless sockets yet blinked with unnerving shadows floating within. Such horrible things to be assumed through windows greased black.

It was his daily act to walk the neighborhood, though there seemed to be no safe place he could go that would take him. Leaving the space would depend upon some arbitrary unseen matrix, would be as easy as opening a door or window or it would be a locked room puzzle. His hand felt palsied reaching for the door and to his surprise it popped open with no resistance. He stepped out onto the porch beneath an open wound sky. As far as he looked, each house along the row pulsed with an internal seizure, noisily blinking hiccups. Each house was a bully he learned not to approach no matter what show projected along its windows.

He climbed down off the porch glancing across the face of each house which seemed to reach towards him baring some acrid and dishonest benevolence. He walked the length of the block. The sky rolled like an ocean left untreated after a spill.

His memory stalled shyly and failed him. There seemed to be houses he approached before, courage tested, but his body ached having learned well enough to stay away from them. The street felt secure and unlike the houses, quiet. He walked along the reptilian asphalt gently. His daily walks, no matter the length, were depressingly repetitive until he discovered some four blocks away a huge gaping tunnel burrowing down into the earth. Daily he fixed his attention on it, but dared not approach settling instead for just watching it to see what may emerge from its darkness or enter it. It resembled the opened mouth of a drowning victim, selfishly snatching a final breath. It was imposing and dark and cold drawing nothing except his gaze and releasing only steady gulps of steam.

The neighborhood around the hole remained blackly silent and still. He walked onward until he clearly saw it exhale ringlets of smoke. The ground around it were like lips of ashen gray. Nothing grew close to it. What trees there were, were infuriatingly black and malformed as if they had spines that had broken.

At the edge of the hole, he saw something that startled him. Sitting at its entrance was a small boy seated on a bicycle. The man’s heart cranked one way then another. He stopped several paces behind the boy who quietly focused on the blackness sighing smoke. The child was clean and calm. He wore a jean suit with a simple white shirt lined blue and red. White sneakers glaring against the stubborn ashen blackness of the soil. The bike was a red mini racer with raised handlebars.

Where did you come from. He stammered.

The boy turned towards the man’s voice but not to look directly at him. The boy appeared more sad than surprised.

Stranger, the boy diagnosed. Then turned his attention back on the nucleus of blackness and its tongue of smoke.

I’m not going to hurt you, the man said. I don’t know how long I’ve been here. I don’t know how to get out. Are there others? Where are your parents?

The boy looked at the sticky black ground which churned slightly as if it itched.

Why is everything in ruins, the man asked the silence. Why is every here place haunted?

What you dream last night? The boy finally said, asking the dirt more than the man. Remember?

I..I… I The man shook his head, no, and remained silent. Then: I worked as a driver at a firehouse, he said. It seem like…one day the alarm went off. Everybody looked at me, waiting for me to start the truck cause no one else knew how. But we’d never had a fire before either. And everyone was waiting on me. Just standing around, waiting. And I couldn’t remember where the keys were or nothing. But, seemed like, I went through everything. And I found them and we get to the building, and its like, the building is painted in fire. Everybody runs knowing what to do. But I just drive the truck. And the chief comes and yells at me to help. I get on the ladder and it extends all the way but the building goes right into the clouds. I look and the fire and the clouds blend in to one another. I see people hanging out the windows but they’re so far up they look like seeds. My heart is just… And then. They all jump at once. Just start floating down to me. I got nothing. Not even a hose. I’m just at the top of the ladder. I yell at them to stop but they keep coming. Getting larger above me. And I just. I wake up. Right then. Choking from the smoke in my room.

Look, The boy said.

The man stepped forward. Within the nucleus of the ring, the darkness moved.

From within the darkness, the man saw the outline of a figure take shape and approach. A head, hanger of shoulders. An arm. A torso. The dim shadow made the man more afraid and he began to back away from the boy and the ring. Finally the man saw it was but another young boy, looking dazed. His skin ashen and his eyes saucer wide and glistening. He approached the boy on the bike who motioned for him to sit on the handle bars. He kicked off. They rode straightaway into an accepting darkness. Going towards no place as the man could see. No tiny lights awaited. The street just veered off into nothing, as did the boys.

The man began to run after them. Words shooting from his mouth automatic, every floral apology begging acceptance he could think of. They didn’t look back. The smaller boy kicking pedals, his weight shifting. The other boy on the handlebars held himself in place. The man’s lungs burned. The boys took straightaway down the street, getting smaller and more dim in the darkness until they were gone and the man was alone again. He stared deep into the narrowing distance, as trying to understand something and couldn’t.

He took one street then another back to his familiar residence. The yard was busy with black insects swinging back and forth through the air a kind of beaded curtain. They rose from the oil slick lawn like smoke. He passed through the front gate. The house stared down at him coolly, then opened its mouth letting him in.


How many years ago was it when my friend told me: You know, poetry readings are like AA Meetings…

Turns out he found as much value in one as the other. The two rooms were companions and shook hands in his mind. I am not a member of The Program, but I attended one with him, and I get his point.

I watched on line all week as A—— advertised and encouraged people to attend the Saturday afternoon poetry event she hosted. She posted and re-posted announcements daily. The Friday before, I snuck around the office and found an empty room. I sat with a cup of hot water and waited for her to call and patch me into her radio show. Earlier, she mentioned I wouldn’t have to read anything on air, just talk about why I do what I do. Unfortunately, I believed her and didn’t bring any poems with me to that vacant office. She called me and one other poet to appear on her radio show live. As the other poet read appropriately short poems, I looked through my email for something I’d mailed myself and found it just in time.

The reading was mid-afternoon 3-5pm, and though it was scheduled simultaneously with the Black Panther’s Reunion festivities across town, I expected a sizable audience. My bad.

The reading occurred at the library at the Fruitvale Bart station. All this time I never knew about a library. But you walk up one block through the little mall of mini-stores and apartments then turn left and at the next corner and you’ll see a modestly glassed in lobby with a corkboard ratted with flyers. I entered and found… a lobby, where a mid-50’s Mexican gentleman and a woman stood with four pre-teen kids waiting for the elevator. We all piled on and the man pointed and laughed at the elevator buttons. There was only one choice, only one floor.

The library was full of lemony light and occupied the entire floor. On first scan it seemed more geared towards a children’s library. I walked up one aisle, looking for perhaps another staircase or evidence of a poetry reading. I turned around listening for voices or looking for rows of chairs and saw nothing obvious. I approached a librarian and she said, “the conference room at the end of aisle 13.” Just as I approached the door I saw the back of A——‘s wheelchair.

In the conference room were 12 people in a circle around three tables assembled into a C. I walked in just after it started. Once it started in earnest, the door was closed by a dred-locked security dude. The reading looked part community meeting, part AA meeting. The large room left plenty of unused space. Behind us, a young girl sat on the floor against the wall beneath the rooms only window, successfully ignoring us while doing her thing with a cellphone. After I sat down, two other women showed up ‘for a friend’ and after realizing that friend already read, the two surreptitiously got up and left. Not that I blamed them. I was one of four features, and we nearly outnumbered the others, who read poems in the open mic. All features read quietly while seated in the circle. The poems (and a sweet novel excerpt from a 82 year old woman’s freshly published first book) were good, solid.

Because it was quiet, I immediately re-structured my set (read: my expectations). I wouldn’t need to stand, wouldn’t need to get work too hard, wouldn’t need to fill the room with my voice. When it was my turn to read, I changed from where I was sitting so that when I came up from the page, I could look and clearly see everyone’s eyes in the circle. I read the new, long poem for my coworker Linda — imagining her standing just outside the circle, listening. Hopefully she was proud. While reading, it would have been a good challenge to read without effort or energy. To read and let the words do the work, while I sat still. I couldn’t sit still. I rubbed my knees compulsively, my hands floated while I spoke. I shifted and squirmed in my seat. It as close as I get to dancing. When A—— told me to ‘wrap it up in a minute’ I pulled out a poem Little Green Houses, which I think is one of my favorites and it did get a laugh at least. After me, the last person left on the open mic, then it was over.

I didn’t want to stay in the room. The forced pandering exchanges: Oh, I loved your poems — did you like mine? I was desperate to avoid. I stacked my chair, then hugged an older woman who pleasantly reminded me I hadn’t shaved in four days and tickled. I grabbed my pack and bee-lined for the bathroom, only to be followed by one of the dudes from the reading. For all the things that rattle my cage of discomfort, peeing in tandem is pretty high on the chart. I couldn’t wash my hands fast enough to escape, and he stood next to me at the sink, then waited and stared while I futilely ran my hands under the air-blower. The machine only produces ice cold air… A watched pot never boils and wet hands can’t dry while a stranger watches and waits. I gave up. I took the bandana out of my back pocket, then said: “Respectfully, I’m not giving you my handkerchief…” This is a Seinfeld skit I wasn’t ready for. We walked out of the restroom together and met another man from the reading now coming in. We both know him and accepted that he offered no eye contact and yeah, I have known him maybe 20 years and have NEVER seen him smile, about ANYTHING. Even the jokes in his own work. But he’s still a dynamic writer and I give him his space in love. We took the single floor elevator down without running into anyone else. We chatted. We shook hands and parted to different directions.

And really, how much difference is there between the community offered in a poetry reading versus an AA Meeting? There seems a similar fabric. There is the sharing of story, of struggle and success and realization. There is being validated in not being alone. There’s being heard. There’s being inspired and fortified by others voices and accomplishments. There’s recognition in hearing other’s perspective and stories. And there is the living with purpose under the struggle of the word until we gather again…

In two days time, there will be an office memorial for a coworker who died the weekend of my birthday.

I came back from my personal 3 day weekend and a secretary passed my desk, stopped and told me how over the weekend Linda had died suddenly. I’d worked with her about seven years and was surprised nearly to tears to hear that news. The story I’d gotten was how she was on the street (in the neighborhood of the office? during lunch?) talking on the phone and passed out. She spent the next day on life support and the day after she was gone.

I immediately thought a couple of things. First: how another co-worker of ours went to Emergency with her all of two months prior just after work one night and Second: how despite her being incredibly warm and chatty (ok, a motor-mouth) she NEVER talked about how ill she was, nor that she had cancer.

That I learned from the other coworker in question. A month ago, I went downstairs to visit him and Linda had sat across from him telling him a long, drawn out story. Her voice was light, animated, engaged. He kept mumbling Uh-huh, Yeah, I See, into his chest as if he were on punishment and continued to type while she talked and talked. I felt sorry for him.

And then, after hearing the news about her, I felt something different. I felt connected.

The other coworker told me that there were plans to have her cremated, but he also said her ashes were not going to be sent to back east where we all assumed she had family. Her ashes were going to be kept by a mutual coworker and friend. There was no family for her ashes to go to.

In that case, she and I were the same. Her hallway joke that I treat her like she was my mother, was but vaguely true. My heart recognized something in her I could never say aloud. I saw and understood her loneliness. I felt it in my own experience as much if not more than she did in hers.

This is probably why I couldn’t stop thinking about her. I found myself taking a break from the office and walking over to the library for my brief writing slash study session. Its a break I take on the regular, every other day if I can. And if just for an hour: to grab a book of poems and sit and read and try to work something out. On this particular day, I returned to the library for my session, but didn’t write anything. I felt like I was waiting for a call or text that never came.

After a few minutes sitting quietly, doing nothing, I got up as to leave But suddenly as when touching a doorknob gives an unexpected electric jolt, words occurred to me and I started writing. I balanced my notebook on the dusty window sill and expecting to write a sentence or two of notes, I instead wrote three pages. It was a mad scribble of words and ideas about death and loneliness and processing what I’d been told and I remembered about Linda and her predilection for telling spontaneously long stories.

I never expected to write a poem. But one immediately took shape and rattled me for its clarity, its specificity and demand to be born. I didn’t write it — rather, it wrote me. This sounds cloying and twee, but in truth it felt all but channeled. I came into the library with no intent or agenda and was just as happy to be out of the office communing with books. Then Suddenly…

And should Suddenly occur to you, will you be open for it?

I typed up the notes. Something began forming like an image though a slowly lifting fog. I thought of Linda, hyper friendly, eternal smile, and how often I was short with her to the point of appearing rude. Not always and not unfriendly, mind you. But once I realized she talked to people as if it were a condition that couldn’t be helped, and how warmly she accepted my lack of patience for her habit (I know you hate my stories, Cagney, but…) I sometimes playfully wouldn’t wait for her to finish talking. I stayed gleefully defiant to the social custom of patient listening.

While re-typing my notes for a poem inspired by her, I was also struck with a crazy idea.

Last July, I began writing a poem about BBQ ribs and how I bought an entire slab at the farmer’s market that I ultimately ate by myself. Here’s an excerpt from the original draft:

days of picnics, families having ended
A lineage of rhyming names remains having dissolved like sugar
Only the patrolling sun remains insistent to the point of hostility

There is you, the rottiserie truck and 30 dollars
rubbing in your pocket like fly legs–
You watch this man lay a rack of
blackened ribs on a running carpet
of aluminum sheeting then swaddle the whole thing
like a newborn. This youngster in a baseball cap and
apron blackened with sweet animal fat
handled the slab
ceremonially folding the crisp edges down sharp as an envelope

The poem had some cool lines, but I couldn’t get wholly engaged with it because… well, frankly it was irrelevant. All vegans, vegetarians had no entry point for it nor would they appreciate the language because, for them, its language wasted about meat and intended for meat eaters. I even dared opening the poem with the kinda humorous if off-putting lines:

Damn every vegetarian
and their anemic families
And their portable pulpit of entitlement

But all of us, myself as author included, were wrong. The poem was NOT about meat, but about loneliness. Its about my own isolation, which at first I couldn’t clearly see. It wasn’t about the purchase or even eating, but rather how in the poem, the purchase wasn’t shared. Couldn’t be shared. It wasn’t about greed, it was about a ‘need’ that the meat itself wasn’t going to fill.

So the poem sat idle for a while, until I found myself working through the poem for/about Linda. It occurred to me that I could take lines from the BBQ poem I fancied, and fold them whole into the Linda poem. The great irony being how Linda herself would NEVER participate in office lunches and gatherings, them being much too social (wink).

I allowed the narrative of her poem to run long and then… get off the subject, by having this other poem appear. It was weird, and perfect. The first poem about her was intentionally chatty. I thought of the security guard at the same library who’d always stop me to talk, then worked in conversational phrases people always say: …I’ll be short, I hate to cut you off, Let me tell you this one thing…

I wrote and re-wrote the poem a good four or five times over and was surprised how solid it felt, running a hefty three pages– too long for most open mics, but perfect for itself just the same.

Linda would sometimes side-eye me and say, You know, I was probably your mother in a former life. And for that reason, my mother cameos in the poem. The cameo is unflattering because its a memory of my mother perhaps a month before she passed away, and a memory I’ve referenced in another piece. But it also feels perfect. Because, like Linda apparently, I didn’t realize how important she was to me until she was gone.

I don’t know if I have it in me to share that poem at Linda’s memorial. Its pretty much sermon length. I’ll print it and keep it with me and hope the spirit… does with me what it usually does. Take over and drive me to a very unexpected but most appropriate place.