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It comes in waves

Waves

The morning my dad died
I sobbed in my wife’s arms,
she held me like a child
as I shook and shivered
and left my snot smeared
in her hair, cold and wet,
dripping down my beard.

It was like I awoke
washed in waves of tumult,
all these thoughts rushing me
from all sides, the inverse
of the eye of storms.

He died while we slept,
and he didn’t visit my dreams,
like so many stories I’ve heard,
there was just the room,
the light-filtered drapes,
the furniture, the sounds
of people in other rooms
carrying on with their
ordinary lives.

It’s stupid how guilty I felt
for crying my tears,
wondering why this hurt
so much more
than other deaths,
wondering why I found it
so difficult at times
to just pick up my fucking phone
and listen to his voice
on the other side,

our paths seemed to diverge
like planets and moons
losing their gravity
in ever-widening orbits,
entering each other’s space
less and less over the years,
though born through the same
hot fire of experience,

and now, I’ll carry this moment
until my ribs cease
their own rise and fall,
holding my hand
over your chest
to feel your failing heart
hammering in the heated confines
of your body being outgrown,
and if I decide thoughtlessly
one day to pick up my phone
the only voice I’ll be able to hear
is my own.

For my dad

How you choose to be good

You don’t know this boy
but you love his mother.
The interior of your car
smells like warm leather
and the rolls of Certs
you keep stashed in your pockets.
You picked the boy up from his house
to stay at your place
while you take his mother out of town
to a casino somewhere
just over the state line.
The car is a Grand Marquis,
white, with a supercharged engine
taken from a police cruiser,
its power vibrates through the seats
like a giant cat’s purr
always on the verge of a roar.
You don’t know this boy,
but you know that his mother
will soon be your wife,
and soon you’ll all live
under the same roof.
So when the boy says to you,
he’s never had someone
he’d be proud to call his dad,
and he wonders if you’d mind
if he called you that,
you should simply smile
and slap a hand across his knee,
and say, Sure, son, sure,
that’d be just fine by me.

grieving the loss of a father

GRIEVING

I’ve been wearing your shirt
for six days straight,
trying to meld your memory
to my flesh, a tattoo of plaid,
big knuckles, and Obsession
splashed through a gray beard.

It isn’t working, I feel the room
darkening where I kept your voice
like a phone recording
of a birthday wish
carried further and further away,
until the only sound is shadow,
and scrape of palms against walls,
scouring every shapeless surface
for any familiar frame,
perhaps a locked window clasp
that if loosened, would let some light in.

I can’t rebuild your ephemeral form,
instead I hold it in abandoned objects,
a few clothes, a silver half dollar
melted down and crafted
into a wedding band,
some dusty mandolin strings
strung to a dusty mandolin,
and the black leather jacket
you once let me wear
when I pretended
I was a reservoir dog.

I find myself continually surprised
at how empty I feel,
I’ve become a self-peeling onion
of diminishment,
my mouth a circular inhale
of silent shock
with every layer gone
revealing only more absence
of the space you took up
inside my human shell,
and when all these levels are husked
with only my skinless self
standing in this room
of memories draped in sheets,
I’ll either find myself reborn
or I’ll find myself a bed
among all these blankets
my body once warmed.

Notre Dame is burning

The burning of Notre Dame

today I watched it burn,
though I could not smell the smoke
I still somehow felt the heat
of that fire, engulfing my own
tinderbox notions of longevity,
my heart reduced to kindling
in this caged body
made of stick and straw,

and as that spire crumbled
into a billowy cloud of black,
cancer cells stacking themselves
upward into a heaven
mighty and blue,
red sparks poked

their frayed fingers through
like dying demons begging
for water from behind a curtain,
I wondered if anything
ever stays pure, ever remains untouched
and untwisted by the chomping
teeth of time’s relentless decay,

I remembered myself,
walking amongst the aisles
of so many abandoned artifacts
once held dear and cherished
in the homes of the countless dead,
antiques now piled and priced
according to a rarity
arbitrarily assigned to junk,

I found myself thinking of my own home
and its swelling horde of possessions
seeming to multiply of their own
accord, an inorganic mitosis of greed
or some semblance of anchoring
a foundation, existence too deep-rooted
to ever be undone in the eyes of a fool,
and I am that fool,
waving good-bye now
to Notre Dame, to Paris, to the streets
sinking in Amsterdam,
to the honey bee, to the mosquito,
to America and the American Dream,
to the final frontier
humanity was never meant to see.

On recent poetry plagiarism

Word thief
~after Ailey O’toole

Word thief, spit your teeth,
your bodily topography
is all-too-familiar.
God in your skin?
More akin to demon
than deity,
more likely to take
& take & take
& take
& take & take.

I’ve looked into your mouth,
and I know well
the points of those
hell-spangled fangs,
still wet with blud
of all you’ve consumed,
all you’ve claimed
as a reckoning of your own.

Ramshackle tableau
disowned,
like the borrowed wings
of barking hogs,
and I ask now,
whose wings are you wearing?

My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings,
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
bitch, I DON’T accept it.

It was a mistake,
made again
& again
& again & again
& again
& again & again
for which you
will never be forgiven,
since your fame
has bitten
more than it could ever
chew.

Poem for a facebook friend

Reasons to exist
~for John Duddy

We try to make sense of this life,
we want to understand
how our differences intersect
and make connection possible
among all this random bullshit,
how we can love one another
despite the myriad reasons
to simply close the door and hide
inside our nests of self and same,
our quiet holes of comfort and light
dimly cast from curtained windows
or lamps among stacks of well-worn words,
and yet, there’s no sense to it all,
no reason to be found for why
even the good people die,
suddenly, another novel removed
from the shelves of ourselves
leaving only but a faint outline
from where the dust fell
just as careless as rain
that causes the land to slide
and close the spines
of thousands of stories
never opened to our eyes.
You were here yesterday,
and today you are a glimmer
along the edge of the glass,
a trail of sun waving its last
ghostly filament of shine,
while in this world we move on
in fading remembrance
or without missing a thing,
poised on the ignorance
of our next innocuous mistake,
running stop signs, running red lights,
forgetting to signal a turn
that always leads us here,
looking around and lost
about what exactly happened
and how can we still love
a world such as this,
but it turns out it’s simple,
it’s because
we exist.

Not a racist

When they called the dead poet a racist

I suppose I’m selfish
because my grief makes me so,
turning your death into an excuse
for me to need something more
than even your presence could offer,
I say I’m sad, so comfort me,
make me feel anything
other than this emptiness,
this loose coat of flesh
dropped to the floor
like a fresh gutted fish
because it slipped
from the butcher’s hand
before he reached the brown paper,
and god damn it,
I just want to keep finding myself
reflected in the eyes of your words,
they gave me courage
to emulate your fearlessness,
your playfulness, the way criticism
seemed to bead from your skin
like water on a newly waxed car,
labels sliding off you
as easy as eggs from a pan
onto plates you just kept serving
to hungry customers
who kept standing in line
no matter what the protestors
shouted from outside
on their sidewalks, their lips curled
with rage, their mouths
all flying spittle and clouds
of cold breath, how could you,
how could you continue
without apology, without explanation,
smiling beneath your veil
of hot tar and goose feathers,
your teeth so white,
your skin so pale,
your poems so good
you insisted they do all your talking.

Poem contemplating life and death

Epiphany of the lemming

There’s a lightbulb cooking dust
in my troubled mind,
something so akin to meaning
I can practically taste the alkaline.

It’s worrisome, this notion of age,
that I’ve lived long enough
I’m now imprisoned by breath
that heaves as I’m forced
to watch my idols die.

Maybe it’s imaginary,
this vision of mine,
that everyone I love
suddenly takes on the stilted posture
of a marionette, string-guided
and trance-like in single-file rows
toward the edge of a cliff
that separates the light from the dark.

Daily the news comes,
be it phone call or text,
news headline or tweet,
that another great influence
of my life has taken the dive
into that unquestionable void,
and each disappearance
causes more of a stir in my gut,
more of a dread-set panic
that blooms like an electrical burn,

because I’m here too you see,
I’ve woken up trapped
inside a body of wood
and cheap metal joints,
my eyes fixed forward
as if they’re a painted stare
watching the bobbing rows
of shiny black heads
careening like floating ducks
on a river without rapids,
and only I seem to understand
it’s a trap

there’s a waterfall waiting,
and it’s impossible to hear
the deafening roar of the cascade
until it’s swept you away,
out and into the ether
far from the crowd that remains
and wonders absently where you’ve gone.

I want to scream,
WAKE UP YOU FOOLS!
THERE’S NO SUCH THING AS PEACE!

My heart a piston out of control,
turning my insides red,
but I can’t open my mouth,
my lips now just a pen-drawn line
curved at the corners
into a concrete smile of catatonic glee
watching more members
of this cursed conga line
vanish from my sight,
their scents still left like chalk plumes
in the absence of their bodies,
dissipating seed clouds that glow dim
and swirl like coffee creamer
between the ignorant passers-by.

There’s no way back from here
that doesn’t sever the world from me,
and I’m suddenly haunted
by a repeated phrase, a recurring dream,
ask not for whom the bell tolls,
it tolls for thee,

and every shaking step
carries you closer
to the source of the noise.

Poem for Tony Hoagland, RIP

Fuck Cancer
~for Tony Hoagland

I could say fuck cancer
but cancer never seems
to get fucked,
and all these repeated incantations
reverberating in kitchens
and hospital walls
like backwards Hail Marys
or curses of wind
expelled when stubbing your toe
on the dark corner
of the coffee table,
in the end, they’re just words,
creature comforts like chocolate cake
or favorite characters in a sitcom,
and it’ll never stop,
despite the stadiums filled
with pink scarves, pink socks,
pink shoelaces and gloves,
the pink will disappear from the faces
of the ones you love,
they’ll slowly turn an ashy gray,
waxy synthetic, almost mannequin-like,
only their eyes will remain
glossy and wet, quarters in a creek bed,
shining up at you on the bank,
someone so stupid,
you believed sometimes
coins carried wishes,
and even if they don’t,
people keep throwing them in,
so many coins, so many scattered prayers,
the stream shimmers like a disco ball,
and even if you died right now
there’s something beautiful
about that, something disorienting,
a virtual vertigo of the senses
spinning in a captive body,
when death’s black jaw yawns
so close to the ear
its breath raises the fine hair,
that whisper of finality
like trickled drips down an IV line,
a sound not unlike a fountain
found in a Buddhist shrine,
so hard to discern the difference
from the echocardiogram
and the scribble of a poet’s pen,
perhaps why it was once a custom
to place coins over the eyes of the dead.

HOW ANDERS CARLSON-WEE PROVED THE IDENTITY POETS WRONG

HOW ANDERS CARLSON-WEE PROVED THE IDENTITY POETS WRONG

This week a poem was published in the “pages” of the esteemed political magazine The Nation. Written by a highly regarded poet, Anders Carlson-Wee, his poem, a 14 line modern sonnet titled “How-To,” was quickly targeted by the niche group of people on Twitter and Facebook I have come to call the Identity Poets. The accusations came swift and hard against Anders Carlson-Wee and the editors of The Nation, with people demanding apologies and for the poem to be taken down. One poet even wrote a response poem to the piece, posted it on Twitter, and had other poets telling The Nation they should remove Carlson-Wee’s poem and put the response poem up instead, because it blatantly ridiculed white people. The Nation did not take the poem down. What happened instead was Anders Carlson-Wee issued an apology for the poem on his social media accounts, and The Nation issued an apology and posted their apology as an Editor’s Note above the poem in question, neither of which seemed satisfactory to the communities of the outraged.

I’ll freely admit, when I first read “How-To” I was unimpressed with it. It seemed a simple take on a subject I myself have happened to write many poems about, being a poem about homelessness. However, I knew from the opening line that people were going to be outraged over it, given what I have personally endured from my own work, and knowing the climate of the artistic community and the sensitivity toward “cultural appropriation” and other such topics the Identity Poets obsess over in order to draw attention to themselves. As soon as I read that opening line, “If you got hiv, say aids,” I said to myself, whelp, that is going to piss people off. If only I could earn a dollar for every time I correctly predicted outrage on the internet, I could potentially have a fistful of dollars!

In spite of myself, the more threads and discussions I saw about this poem on Twitter and Facebook, the more I began to analyze it, and try to find either the truth behind the accusations being leveled at the poet for writing it, or the truth of the merit of the actual poem. The more closely I read the poem, the more the layers peeled off, and the more meaning I discovered hidden in the misleading simplicity of the work. I was drawn into a debate with another poet on a thread hosted by another writer friend of mine, Robert Peate, in which this poet felt inclined to demand us to try and defend the merits of the poem based solely on the content of the poem. In doing so, I had several epiphanies about this poem, about how it succinctly and very cleverly reveals the faux intellectualism of the identity movement by showcasing their brazen nature to jump to conclusions about the artistic intent of white poets and how these conclusions are based on their own hidden biases and their own actual predispositions to fall prey to the same stereotypes they accuse other people of using. In doing this, in proving the fraud that lies behind the motivations of the identity poets when attacking other writers for perceived slights, micro-aggressions, and other offenses, their true natures are thusly revealed, in that all their outrage, all their virtue-signaling, all their attempts at silencing writers for producing work they perceive to be offensive, is in fact rooted in their own biases, their own versions of racism, and their own desires to see their work succeed, their communities succeed, to shift the attention always from the work at hand to themselves. It is simply put, phony posturing, a fallacy upheld by selfishness. And this poem, this utterly brilliant 14 line poem, proves it once and for all.

There are several things about the poem that work on a basic fundamental level. From the outset, the poem plays with the perception of the reader and immediately has the audience questioning exactly what the heck is being said and why. The opening line is a shock to the system. It is outlandish, and yes, offensive, but offensive with a purpose, as the best versions of shock-value ought to be. This is not shock for the sake of shock. This is shock meant to jar the reader and create a different mentality, to make the reader search deeper, to look inward and ask why. Who is speaking? Why are they speaking this way? What is the purpose? The narrator of the poem never reveals that information. The narrator could be masculine or feminine. The narrator could be black or white or any other variable of physical identities. This narrator reveals only that they are homeless, and through the lines of the poem, offers twists upon perception that play into making them more visible to others, and might earn them some version of charity. This is a shapeless entity in the context of the poem because in the world homeless people are generally the most ignored and invisible group no matter what country you reside in, what city you live in, what sidewalks you walk down on a day-to-day basis. Just yesterday, to illustrate this very fact, I saw a post someone shared in my Facebook timeline that showed people eating at a nice restaurant on the outside patio, enjoying their fancy cuisine and sipping wine from goblets, while two homeless men slept on the sidewalk not twenty feet away from them. This is a daily reality. On an even more personal level, when my wife, her parents, and I went out to eat last week in Portland at an upscale seafood place, a homeless man wandered the sidewalk and up and down the road in front of where we sat waiting for our table, shouting obscenities at an invisible person and trying to fistfight him, swinging his fists at nothing as he screamed incoherently, this shirtless man, so thin all the veins in his abdomen bulged bright blue and his ribs protruded grossly with every gasping breath, and NO ONE SAID A WORD TO HIM. One woman walked over from another restaurant at one point to make sure no one was calling the cops on this obviously mentally ill gentleman, but no one offered to help him or to console him or to look after his needs in any way. On his wrist was a hospital bracelet from where he had recently been discharged. Again, reality. Homelessness is a problem the world ignores. Carlson-Wee’s poem highlights this fact extremely well. The narrator even takes a very pointed stab at Christianity, the religion that prides itself on its supposed humanitarianism, when they say “Let em think they’re good enough Christians to notice. Don’t say you pray, say you sin. It’s about who they believe they is.” These lines point out the hypocrisy of the Christian religion that claims to love everyone, but notes that Christians only use charity to make themselves feel better, rather than to actually make a difference and a lasting change. A very apt, and a very cutting critique of religion, which pays no taxes in America, but generally doesn’t use their power to solve any problems, just let them exist so they can mete out tiny measures of subsistence to make them feel like they’re helping. The very last line of the poem “You hardly even there.” illustrates the invisibility and the bitter truth the world just continues to turn a blind eye toward. This is a solvable problem if only anyone really cared.

So with this very, unarguably and objectively positive message behind the poem, succinctly and pointedly achieved in the 14 lines of a modern sonnet, the most beloved of poetic forms, one must wonder why all the outrage over it? Aside from the shocking lines in the poem about conflating HIV with AIDS, and the word “crippled,” which earned accusations of ableism and insensitivity to the LGBTQ community (another grossly biased assumption there), the poet was accused of donning literary blackface for the language choices in his vernacular usage, accused by many of co-opting AAVE (commonly known as Ebonics) for the voice of the poem. In this accusation, the accusers are truly showing their own inability to fall prey to cultural stereotyping, as it is only in the mind of the accuser that the speaker of this poem is a person of color. There is nothing whatsoever in the poem to lend credibility to the accusation. The speaker of the poem never reveals their identity, as previously stated, the speaker of the poem can be anyone. The language of the poem is a simplified dialect, perhaps someone hardened by life on the street, someone perhaps less educated than most, or just a person used to speaking in shorthand. Nothing about the language is intrinsically connected to AAVE. So, again, the poet has played with the perception of the reader to reveal the inherent biases of the audience! If you leap to the conclusion that the speaker of this poem is a person of color, what does that say about how you perceive people of color? YOU, the reader, have just unknowingly admitted that YOU BELIEVE THIS IS HOW BLACK PEOPLE TALK. This is a stereotype you allow to exist in your own mind. By accusing the author of using a stereotype that they did not use, you are admitting you hold this stereotype in your own psyche, and it is something you must contend with on your own.

This is ultimately why I believe this poem is perhaps one of the most important poems to have been written in the last ten years. It reveals so much about humanity, says so much about human perception, and ultimately pulls the curtain back on identity politics. In causing so many people to leap to such vile conclusions about the nature of the work and the intent of the work, to cause them to lash out at the author, to cause them to demand the work be removed and the author and the editors to make apologies for things they did not do, the outraged audience in this case is shown to lack an ability to think critically about art, to look past their own biases and knee-jerk reactions, and their accusations reveal more about their character than that of the character of the person they are attacking. This is the ultimate example of art being used as a mirror. The accusations came against this poem because the writer happens to be a white male. The current trend in these circles of outrage is to attack, silence, and delegitimize the works of white male authors who dare to write things outside their own identities. But, Carlson-Wee, in his ability to shine his poetic mirror back at the audience, has proven very effectively, that these accusations are coming from a place of inauthenticity. In this case, the accusers are showing their own inherent racial bias, in fact their own guilt of holding racist presuppositions, because in accusing this author of racism, they are the ones being racist. Their racism comes in two forms, first making the assumption that the speaker of the poem must be black, and second, that Carlson-Wee is wrong for writing it because he is white. How beautiful is this twist of irony?

I firmly believe that this was all intended to happen. That the author and the editors knew this outrage scenario would play out just as it has and they would issue apologies knowing those apologies would not be acceptable to the mob. The final act of this should be when Carlson-Wee issues an artist statement explaining everything as I have outlined in this essay, and drives the final nail in the coffin of this phony identity movement in modern poetry. This has gone on long enough. No one has the authority to police others as to what content their art can contain. No one has the authority to demand art be removed from the public because it happens to encroach upon their own sensitivities. No one has the authority to demand apologies from other artists, and artists should never have to apologize for their work. Art is in itself one of the purest manifestations of freedom. And art criticism should have never started meaning artists have to accept censorship by mob rule. The way this has played out shows just how vapid and meaningless the concept of critique has become. There was no real attempt at critique of this poem! It was simply shouted down from the pulpits of self-righteousness by people hoping to earn pats on the back from their conformist peers. This has to be why The Nation, although issuing their seemingly spineless apology as an editor note, did not actually take down the poem in question. They know this is all a performance piece still in action. When it is all said and done, many people will have to eat a large plate of crow and be forced to admit some hard truths about themselves. And for that I say thank you, thank you Anders Carlson-Wee, for writing a brave poem, for being a true poet, and for shining a hard light into the darkness that has become the identity movement in modern poetics. It had to be done by someone, and it is better now than never.