Big City, Lit
It’s more than a long, dark road. You’re in your car, with everything you need in the glove box, back seat, trunk. You’ve got your smoke, there’s the fog, and some rain, and more fog, and thoughts of searchlights.
Maybe there’s someone beside you—or there will be—for who knows for how long. A guy thing maybe: a city, a woman, warm coffee, more smokes.
Stations drift in and out in the sing-along tease ’til you’ve had enough of the night, the absolute black Van Gogh claimed didn’t exist. All the tricks, like in a Dylan song, play by the roadside shoulders.
It’s what you want: not exactly lost, not exactly knowing where you are, but full of the importance of being elsewhere, speeding toward.
And so you drive on, grateful for the dashboard, steering wheel in your hands, strings of mileposts, tiny reflectors, what’s left of the white lines, rarities the more traveled, rained on.
Smoke, fog, smudge of light on the horizon: The City, allegory-big. You on the way, bridge-buzzed, highway-wired, everything within reach, toward the light, the place where “symbol is the thing itself.”
Robert Klein Engler
At The Headwaters
for Maureen Holm, 1951-2005
Let’s sing of a wild rose, of one who flowers
in Babylon. She reads the scribble of the world
and translates it, spelling sweet from sour.
Maybe tomorrow she’ll sweep the dust, somehow,
wash the dishes, do laundry, but maybe she won’t.
The unkempt house of desire matters little, now.
Babble rises with indifferent smoke across the river.
The hum of flesh rushes like a fountain in the heart.
l will walk with you, my arm around your shoulder,
and tell you how she weeps when poems
are read, and like a cypress donned with moss,
lifts up her woe while Jesus lifts the cross.
Mapped by Heart
for George Dickerson, 1933-2015
All the years and photographs you prize —
poses and roles, wars and wives, children
and borders of birthday candles in more
than 40 countries you mapped by heart —
repose in a vaulted chest.
And just when you thought there was no point
but here and now, along comes an exit
from which you began traveling. No lens
ever captured, no light ever emulsified
this place, but you could draw
a map, unspool it like a roll of film.
A picture, rising toward focus like
a fish approaching the surface, nags and drives
you round the pickled suburban town,
until a house you called home
reaches across a lawn you mowed.
Looking up and back, you see yourself
silhouetted in a second floor
memory. You were nine, wondering
out at night and passing freight
trains. The world was a map on your wall.
You memorized capitals, and the war
on a kitchen radio taught you
to listen and read anxiety
on your mother’s face. You traveled
by the sound of names — Lackawana,
Phoebe, Santa Fe — the steady rhythm
of steel, and the long train of promise
and far away carried you to dreams.
Now, you remember that boy,
that longing to go, not yet knowing
that the weight you lean on this cane
is the only geography, that cairns
you’d find in ancient cities are all
that remains of mountains wind
and rain pulverized into hourglass
sand and history, that time and trains
take us near and far from our core
and blizzard the heart with aching for more.
Yes, you remember that boy,
you were in that window, dreaming,
sleeping, chin on the sill of the world.
M. Nasorri Pavone
Big City Parable
The new housing complex rose mightily
over an ancient burial ground.
During construction no one said a word.
Who knew? It sounded like a rumor
until the local descendants
did their research, shared their outrage:
The corpulence of modernity oppresses
the spirit of our ancestors,
the bones must be freed! How to do
that now? A tunnel must be dug.
Tear it down, chant the anarchists
armed with iPhones, Bic lighters pup tents,
poised to kick ass, spark up, be filmed.
No, we’ll dig, states a flock of corporate
counsel, solemnly suited around a podium.
The legalities play on— paper-tennis in Limbo.
As years pass the complex begins to sink
into the ground, is condemned, abandoned.
Conflicting theories abound: termites
delivered by backpack and detonated,
vengeance from the scary beyond,
another short life of a shoddy product,
fracking, or the building off to bury itself
with the bones that still can’t get away.
Sheila e. Black
Re-Mix: To My Brothers and Sisters Living in the West
My city is a liquid blue steel-barreled gun
a traveling sanctuary, a .457 Magnum of champagne
an oily ball bearing rattling in a wheel always heading west.
Young Man, Young Woman, it says, slice through the sacred
especially if you’re packin’. Score the blemishes on the wooden desk
deeply until they burn brighter than the grain. Nothin’ like a solid reminder
of American craftsmanship in its more than two hundred year old existence.
Half a life-time away, the tenuous beginnings I always wanted,
served as solid reminders of youth, aging, and death,
all present in each mahogany mark.
Then, the only direction I heard was, Go Forward!
I remembered the time spent at my brother’s ranch,
the long days exploring the dusty, rugged terrain, where arrowheads
and Paleozoic rocks filled our pockets and cuffs as if they crawled in there
without our consent. Mesquite and cactus, too, clung to our clothes
and tumbleweed bunched up of its own volition,
carelessly blown there by the wind and the dust.
The dominant horizons came and went, landmarks for the changing emotional weather.
I used to screw my eyes shut to avoid the crawling sensations I felt on my skin every night
under the radiant stars, grateful that their brilliance was untainted by artificial city lights.
Each element glowed inside of me for a brief time,
a time of love and hate and misunderstanding.
And my city was a city of guns and ammo,
guns and ammo that never ran out.
If you go to any campground in West Texas,
you will find empty shells, and arrowheads;
sometimes, you find blunt-nosed bullets
slammed into rocky canyon walls,
streaked or cracked, but man-made nevertheless.
By degrees, these tortuous nights, raw-nippled and burned in our memories forever,
were like something shuffled over our hearts from the inside out with sandpaper.
This was a city where the path, handed down from ancient sun-burnt explorers,
always blossomed into vast electric fields—epic future journeys—
and needed every gun in the place.
To a Petal South of This Coast
Where I falter at the gate, dark blaze of daisies.
Early moon heads out,
and box kite tails are whipping like streptobaccilli.
Asterisms mimicked in slow-folding inlet,
rippled by copper fish tugging
at twines. They crumble at a slant under
lunar-tinted bones: tombstones like baby teeth easing
You were its ocean. Moth lamps lodged
in backyard ginkos silver toolshed roofs. Nests
of the poorwill are moored to fossilized roots. Unlike cradles
woven for April, these offer
empty comfort, lightly cupping their burden of shade.
Lichens grip the flagstones. Afraid to re-enter through the flesh
where love drove here down dirt roads through showers of gravid blossoms,
you should remember me—I’m telling you this much.
When Sleep Won’t Come
Rowing out this far means
emptying the future of everything
but this shore, those trees.
A small leak springs the boat, the oars
slip unnoticed from their locks,
the drift is quiet,
slow. I could drown alone
but have taken you down with me.
The lake is indifferent —
tangled milfoil, reeds waving
lost lines, lost hooks, skeleton kittens,
rusted cars, skiffs, springs,
rings and trinkets, stones and their secrets
cached by gravity.
the lake is no bigger than a thimble,
and the boat, floating in the pale,
passes for a signal sent back in time
Among the Named
I’ve come to believe a man who reckons by rain and smoke —
not just rain but the reason for rain,
and not merely smoke but how it blinds us.
He speaks with the silence of stones, the rivers that travel them.
I believe him fool enough to squander his time listening
to the cricket in a barren field, the new moon linger.
They speak as membrane allows breath to pass
through a lung or blood the heart
with replenishing oxygen — to renew, distinguish
between what’s lost in the wound and what reclamation heals.
I count myself lucky among those named,
not explained away or bargained with like death or the fear of death —
they, too, have a place in the reckoning.
Karl D. Gluck
Pardon Our Dust
Wax has spilt everywhere,
Hardened and unremovable,
That spot, there up front—
I have been meditating on it
For ten years.
Ashes from incense show up in places
You would never imagine.
The rice thrown in the air,
As an offering to the lamas
Gets vacuumed up
Each time they leave,
Yet move the shrine and there,
In the back, a whole handful.
Closets are filled with things
Too sacred for the trash can.
They should be burnt. It seems
The landlord would not take kindly
To a bonfire by the shrine in the living room.
We have spent so much time meditating,
Chanting, contemplating the possible
Dimensions of enlightenment.
At least one thing has become clear:
This world of form we live in is nothing
The wax and ashes on the floor,
The rice from offerings,
The things that pile up all around
While we search for formlessness—
All the things we take to be holy
Only create difficulties—
With the landlord, the neighbors,
The vacuum cleaner—
We beg forgiveness of man and machine
Pardon our dust…wax…ashes…flames—
Our minds are under construction.
The protectors seep out of the walls,
The paintings, the statues
And silently begin to mend the hole
We tear in the fabric of the universe
As we squirm, trying to break free
Of the only world that will have us.
Song on Awaking
They sang in the voice of the open road or the sea,
That carried the sense of fresh ways ahead
Through new journeys, or work made more free
From powers ruling, we’d serve, strive and die how they said.
Urges from waves, from wind in the sails, in the trees;
Scaled up their tones, rising to a march,
Not to war or armed force, but in firm steps towards,
Fair promise of peace, as meant by the rainbow’s arch.
From wide lands and seas, new words fused to tunes,
Spelt out works, both classic or popular,
To speak on hard tasks set in these strict times,
To beat a call which anthems can answer no more.
Masses, once meaning grim service for the dead,
Or wide crowds cowed by word of command;
Strike voices to protest through shades of red,
Of green, for caring. Blues in the night hit the land.
Out of dim office, writers take up sharp lines
Songs smiths use, welding a mood to the cause.
Chants to obey switched to stormed sea-change sounds:
“Sea Drift”, “Hard Travelling”, “Hard Rain Falling”: tough works now arose.
(“Sea Drift,” a Delius suite from poems by Walt Whitman)
The Best Cigarette
for Billy Collins
There are many that I miss
Having flicked my last one over a balcony
One dark night, a firefly disappearing in the trees.
The obvious ones, of course;
After an evening joint, the double indulgence
As one fades to ash, two light up
And lean back, the end of a long
At the end of a greasy breakfast
The day waiting to begin
Blue-grey haze curling and dancing from the ashtray
Or in a hot tub, resting an elbow on the edge
Holding the damp filter until it burns out.
It’s a strange dichotomy, these moments
of flame and relief.
The most pure memories are mornings
When the next line keeps appearing
Through the tangle onto my computer screen,
Ingrid Michaelson in the background
and endless Miami sun.
I would grab for the pack without looking
Away, lighting up as I read my own
Words as if they were a letter
To myself, written
And it would be the exhale of breath
As I lean back in the chair.
Then I would be my own sunshine
All bright energy as I returned to work
My thoughts like beams of light
All the lines that brought me here
came from somewhere
That was the best cigarette.
Smiling at the monitor.
Every ounce of light within
Shining on these words.
Having Almost Forgotten Why I Was Here
I stand flat against window glass in Manhattan,
pressing my palm against the cold winter of evening.
The lights are out. The bellman rings and slips an envelope
under the door. The plastic in my pocket is fulfilled.
The closet is empty now, but for an unused bathrobe.
Shampoo bottles oddly bright with infused light by the bath.
My forehead leaves a smudge of DNA against the night,
and as moments pass I push my hips too against the glass.
With a luck of sorts I will fall into what surrounds me now
and my past will meet me in the eyes of a coyote pausing
on the moonlit night ice of Central Park with no entity.
City to a Small Person
Trees in the dark park are still visible
outlined by industrial port lights in ‘Jersey
and moon dappled waves on the Hudson.
Some days the buildings feel homey
and of the correct proportion
with a bright sky beyond the gray.
But, during the off moments
of more cloudy times
buildings have no end,
there is no sky
and this metropolis cages.
Steel and alloy needles press into fog,
press into clouds and draw dew drops,
rain drops, snow to street level.
Delicate this all feels,
a piece of re-bar bent and it may all implode,
a window shattered and this dream collapsed.
Perhaps, though, this is just my fragile mind
and soft body cocooned in this glassy place.
My river, you run brimming
with barges tugboats, trout.
Flanked by Catskills and Palisades,
your source is Lake Tear of the Clouds,
Adirondack mountain stream.
Your Mohican name is Muh-he-kun-ne-tuk.
Trout breech into ever
widening circles. Heron and egret
wade in the shallows, eagerly fishing.
At sunset, bats rush from shoreline caves
catching mosquitoes in mid-air.
Ancient oak trees lean,
gesticulating toward the opposite bank,
their roots touching the shallows.
The shadows of great bridges,
George Washington, Tappan Zee,
ripple your waves on a windy day.
Robert Klein Engler
Men of God tell us the great pain of Hell
is the pain of separation. Sublunary lovers
know this already, or something like it
in the faint colors of everyday longing.
This morning the sun is quarterway towards
noon and pushes ahead a cerulean blue
sky with a hint of autumn in the air among
turning leaves. The color of longing is rust.
We hear when Jesus walked in Bethlehem
some had their longing cured. Others
dragged out Scripture to argue over words.
The color of longing is rust and blood.
Now, the field corn is stripped and ground.
Now, the water blushes into wine.
The saints take up their cross. It grows cold.
The colors are rust and blood and gold.