Stairway to Heaven, by Alison Hawthorne Deming

The queen grows fat beneath my house
while drones infest the walls

reconnaissance to feed her glut,
wood ripped from studs and joists.

I’ll pay to drill the slab and ruin
her pestilential nest. How to find

the song in this day’s summons?
I’ve been accused of darkness

by my inner light. My brother sits
in the chemo chair another long day

of toxic infusion, the house of his body—
bones, brain and balls gone skeltering.

I sit in my parked car listening
to Robert Plant recall how the English

envied the Americans for getting
the blues, getting all of it, into song.

I remember the dream where
brother and sister, adult and equal,

lean and white as lilies, as bare,
dove into a mountain lake, black water,

high elevation, fir trees growing
in flood water that had joined

two lakes into one. Do you ever dream
of animals, I ask him, hospice bed

looking out on a plywood squirrel
perched on cement block wall.

Frequently. A lilt of surprising joy. What kind?
Mostly the jungle animals. Then: I’m going

to do my exercises now. What exercises?
I like pacing, he said, immobilized

upon his death nest of nine pillows.
Then he closed his eyes to become the inward one

whose only work was to wear a pathway
back and forth within his enclosure.

Little America, by Jason Shinder

My friend says she is like an empty drawer

being pulled out of the earth.
I am the long neck of the giraffe coming down

to see what she doesn’t have.

What holds us chained to the same cold river,
where we are surprised by the circles

we make in the ice? When we talk about the past

it is like pushing stones back into the earth.
Sometimes she digs her nails into her leather bag

to find out where my heart is. The white sleeves

of her shirt are bright with waves when I visit.
When we lie, we live a little longer—

which is unbelievable. If you love

someone, the water moves up from the well.

The Clerk’s Tale, by Spencer Reece

I am thirty-three and working in an expensive clothier,
selling suits to men I call “Sir.”
These men are muscled, groomed and cropped—
with wives and families that grow exponentially.
Mostly I talk of rep ties and bow ties,
of full-Windsor knots and half-Windsor knots,
of tattersall, French cuff, and English spread collars,
of foulards, neats, and internationals,
of pincord, houndstooth, nailhead, and sharkskin.
I often wear a blue pin-striped suit.
My hair recedes and is going gray at the temples.
On my cheeks there are a few pimples.
For my terrible eyesight, horn-rimmed spectacles.
One of my fellow-workers is an old homosexual
who works hard and wears bracelets with jewels.
No one can rival his commission checks.
On his break he smokes a Benson & Hedges cigarette,
puffing expectantly as a Hollywood starlet.
He has carefully applied a layer of Clinique bronzer
to enhance the tan on his face and neck.
His hair is gone except for a few strands
which are combed across his scalp.
He examines his manicured lacquered nails.
I admire his studied attention to details:
his tie stuck to his shirt with masking tape,
his teeth capped, his breath mint in place.
The old homosexual and I laugh in the back
over a coarse joke involving an octopus.
Our banter is staccato, staged and close
like those “Spanish Dances” by Granados.
I sometimes feel we are in a musical—
gossiping backstage between our numbers.
He drags deeply on his cigarette.
Most of his life is over.
Often he refers to himself as “an old faggot.”
He does this bemusedly, yet timidly.
I know why he does this.
He does this because his acceptance is finally complete—
and complete acceptance is always
bittersweet. Our hours are long. Our backs bent.
We are more gracious than English royalty.
We dart amongst the aisles tall as hedgerows.
Watch us face into the merchandise.
How we set up and take apart mannequins
as if we were performing autopsies.
A naked body, without pretense, is of no use.
It grows late.
I hear the front metal gate close down.
We begin folding the ties correctly according to color.
The shirts—Oxfords, broadcloths, pinpoints—
must be sized, stacked, or rehashed.
The old homosexual removes his right shoe,
allowing his gigantic bunion to swell.
There is the sound of cash being counted—
coins clinking, bills swishing, numbers whispered—
One, two, three, four, five, six, seven. . .
We are changed when the transactions are done—
older, dirtier, dwarfed.
A few late customers gawk in at us.
We say nothing. Our silence will not be breached.
The lights go off, one by one—
the dressing room lights, the mirror lights.
Then it is very late. How late? Eleven?
We move to the gate. It goes up.
The gate’s grating checkers our cheeks.
This is the Mall of America.
The light is bright and artificial,
yet not dissimilar to that found in a Gothic cathedral.
You must travel down the long hallways to the exits
before you encounter natural light.
One final formality: the manager checks out bags.
The old homosexual reaches into his over-the-shoulder leather bag—
the one he bought on his European travels
with his companion of many years.
He finds a stick of lip balm and applies it to his lips
liberally, as if shellacking them.
Then he inserts one last breath mint
and offers one to me. The gesture is fraternal
and occurs between us many times.
At last, we bid each other good night.
I watch him fade into the many-tiered parking lot,
where the thousands of cars have come
and are now gone. This is how our day ends.
This is how our day always ends.
Sometimes snow falls like rice.
See us take to our dimly lit exits,
disappearing into the cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul;
Minneapolis is sleek and St. Paul,
named after the man who had to be shown,
is smaller, older, and somewhat withdrawn.
Behind us, the moon pauses over the vast egg-like dome of the mall.
See us loosening our ties among you.
We are alone.
There is no longer any need to express ourselves.

Inventing Father In Las Vegas, by Lynn Emanuel

If I could see nothing but the smoke
From the tip of his cigar, I would know everything
About the years before the war.
If his face were halved by shadow I would know
This was a street where an EATS sign trembled
And a Greek served coffee black as a dog’s eye.
If I could see nothing but his wrist I would know
About the slot machine and I could reconstruct
The weak chin and ruin of his youth, the summer
My father was a gypsy with oiled hair sleeping
In a Murphy bed and practicing clairvoyance.
I could fill his vast Packard with showgirls
And keep him forever among the difficult buttons
Of the bodice, among the rustling of their names,
Miss Christina, Miss Lorraine.
I could put his money in my pocket
and wearing memory’s black fedora
With the condoms hidden in the hatband
The damp cigar between my teeth,
I could become the young man who always got sentimental
About London especially in Las Vegas with its single bridge­-
So ridiculously tender—leaning across the river
To watch the starlight’s soft explosions.
If I could trace the two veins that crossed
His temple, I would know what drove him
To this godforsaken place, I would keep him forever
Remote from war—like the come-hither tip of his lit cigar
Or the harvest moon, that gold planet, remote and pure
American.

The Eighties, by Brenda Hillman

An Essay

A friend asks, “What was at stake for you in the Eighties?” She’s trying to figure out Bay Area Poetry. There was Reagan’s New Morning for America. Garfield dolls stuck to the backs of windshields with suction cups. At the beginning of the Eighties I was married & at the end i was not. The Civil Rights Movement became kind of quiet. Feminism became kind of quiet. An editor told a woman he couldn’t read her poems because it said she was a mother in her bio. Many thought about word materials. Environmentalism got kind of quiet. The earth spirits were not quiet. Buildup of arms. Iran-Contra. Savings & Loan scandal. Tax cuts gave way to library closings. The Challenger went down with the first woman astronaut aboard. People read letters to her on TV. Mini-golf places with purple castles opened on Highway 80 in the Eighties. Chernobyl exploded & the media announced it as a setback for nuclear energy. People ate out more because of tax cuts. i fell in love with a poet. Earth dropped its dark clock. A few wrote outside the margins. Mergers & Acquisitions. The Bay continued to shrink. Many got child-support checks. Many came out. Deconstruction found the moving circle. A few read Lacan. Guns ‘n Roses Sweet Child o’ Mine. Our daughter drew pictures of trucks with colored fur. She had 24 ear infections in one year so why were you not supposed to write mother in your bio. Many wrote the lyric with word materials. The Soviet Union began to free prisoners. America freed fewer prisoners. Superconductivity. Gorbachev became president instead of something else. One son went to college. We cried. There was no e-mail. Art pierced the image. Blue-rimmed clouds hurried past outside & in. Some wrote about childhood; some wrote about states of mind; some wrote word materials instead of about. Symbolist poetry, by then 120 years old, pushed the dream nature of the world. Hypnotherapy. i began the trance method. In the Eighties, Mr. Tam stayed the same. Mt. Diablo stayed almost the same. Many species died & would not return. At stake. One son started a punk band; he had a one-foot-high purple Mohawk. i listened to the tape with another mother trying to make out the words. Oliver North held up his right hand. Reagan turned off his hearing aid. Sentences fell apart but they had always been a part. Yeltsin. Walesa. Wall comes down. Romania. El Salvador. Noriega. Some elderly folk lived on dog-food when their pensions collapsed. People worried about children, lovers, ex-husbands, jobs. Consciousness stayed alive. Interest rates leapt through the vault of the sky. We cried & cried. We made food & quit smoking. We learned the names of wildflowers & forgot them & relearned them. This was only the beginning. There’s so much more to be said in answer to your question.

Poem for Adlai Stevenson and Yellow Jackets, by David Young

It’s summer, 1956, in Maine, a camp resort
on Belgrade Lakes, and I am cleaning fish,
part of my job, along with luggage, firewood,
Sunday ice cream, waking everyone
by jogging around the island every morning
swinging a rattle I hold in front of me
to break the nightly spider threads.
Adlai Stevenson is being nominated,
but won’t, again, beat Eisenhower,
sad fact I’m half aware of, steeped as I am
in Russian novels, bathing in the tea-
brown lake, startling a deer and chasing it by canoe
as it swims from the island to the mainland.
I’m good at cleaning fish: lake trout,
those beautiful deep swimmers, brown trout,
I can fillet them and take them to the cook
and the grateful fisherman may send a piece
back from his table to mine, a salute.
I clean in a swarm of yellow jackets,
sure they won’t sting me, so they don’t,
though they can’t resist the fish, the slime,
the guts that drop into the bucket, they’re mad
for meat, fresh death, they swarm around
whenever I work at this outdoor sink
with somebody’s loving catch.
Later this summer we’ll find their nest
and burn it one night with a blowtorch
applied to the entrance, the paper hotel
glowing with fire and smoke like a lantern,
full of the death-bees, hornets, whatever they are,
that drop like little coals
and an oily smoke that rolls through the trees
into the night of the last American summer
next to this one, 36 years away, to show me
time is a pomegranate, many-chambered,
nothing like what I thought.

Blackwater Fever, by Vandana Khanna

They didn’t find it in me until months later—
just like Vallejo who died on a rainy
day far from the heat rising over a garden
in silvers and reds—far away from the din
of buses, tobacco vendors, cows that overran
the streets with their holiness. Laid on the surface
of the Ganges, the thin shells reflected light, clamored
against the current. Far from the Atlantic, farther still
from the Potomac. Same color of night, dull dawn.
The fever should have churned my blood into tight
fists while the sunset stretched across the sky
like an open mouth. Everything was splintered heat.
I’d awake to winter in D.C., find streets covered
in snow, the words of some ancient language blooming
under my ankles like a song, a mantra called home.
I could trace it like a geography of someone I had once been.
How to explain the hum of mosquitos in my ear, sensual
and low, nothing like the sound of rusted-out engines,
police sirens, a train’s whistle. How easily I’d lost the taste
for that water, opened my legs to their hot, biting mouths.

Arms, by Richard Tayson

I’m late for the birth-
day party, it’s one
of those cool after-

noons when the world
is clear, is made
of glass, the sky

so blue you want to
look up at the very
center of its pupil

in case you get
a glimpse of what
comes after

we leave here. I’m
thinking my lover’s
sister is thirty-two

today, but I want
to let time stand
still, let the tourists

go on waving their
America the Beautiful
flags across 49th

Street, let the three
ladies whose hair
is the color of smoke

rising and ghosts
taking leave of their
senses go on laughing,

near the fountain, may
we all not have
a care in the world. But

it’s August 23rd, I must
get on the train, yet
a tree keeps holding

my attention, its leaves
luscious from the summer
rain, there’s a canopy

beneath which the Pakistani
man I talked to last
week sells his salty

sauerkraut, lifting
the lid and letting out
steam each time he

serves it over hot
dogs, and the man
pays him then turns

toward me, his thick
muscled arm tan
in the sun, the tattoo:

BORN
FOR
WAR. The day

is gone, the people
around me gone, I am
trying not to forget

that I’m a pacifist,
trying not to pay
attention to his name-

brand shorts and sun
glasses that won’t
let you see a glint

of eye behind them,
I’m trying not to watch
him eat the hot dog in two

bites and nudge the woman
beside him who pushes
a stroller, his arm around

her waist as he pivots and
sees me staring. Yes he might
leap to the right, grab

my throat punch
me shoot me gut
me clean as a fish

taken from the black glass
of the city’s river street, but
the church bells are tolling,

people are saying
their prayers three blocks
from here in the hushed

dark. So I take a deep
breath and am no longer
here, I haven’t been

born yet, there is no state
of California, no Gold
Rush or steam

engine, electricity hasn’t
been invented, people
cross open spaces

on horses, no Middle
Passage, and I watch
the Huns kill the Visigoths

who slice the throats
of every living
Etruscan, a crowning

city is razed, the virgins
raped, one nation
fights for land

to walk on, then are
walked on until
someone carves on a cave

wall, then someone
writes on papyrus,
until we do it all

again, right up to
concentration camps, rivers
flowing with nuclear

waste. 49th Street
floods back, and the man
with the tattoo turns

away, as if he’s decided
not to crack my skull
open and drink me

today, the 965th day
of the new century. War
goes into fifth month. The church

bells stop and the ladies
get up and walk
toward Radio City

and while I don’t believe
in an eye for an eye, I have
a flash lasting no longer

than it takes for a nuclear
blast to render this city
invisible, shadow

of a human arm I’ve torn
from its socket, its left
hand gripping the air.

valentine for Sally Hemings, by Sojourner Ahebee

there’s a dead jefferson in every black girl’s belly,
an unknown hunger for something stolen.
i found a poem in these parts, in the belly of a black girl.

i was told to look in the garage,
into the person i almost liked,
at the bottom of an odd blue sock buried
in my dresser drawer:
the hiding places of my life.

oh, but if you only knew
the way I wanted to love the dead president,
rescue him from the depths of a stomach,
feed him the warm soil from a Virginia plantation,
feed him pages from my history books,
heavy with lies.

but then i heard Sally scream,
and wondered what she’d think of me,
i heard Sally scream
and wondered what all the black girls
with bloated bellies would think of me
in my confusion:
the way i mistaked his breath, smelling of lavender and france,
for liberty,
when this scent was made of more potent stuff,
of silence,
of a black girl’s blood against white sheets.

i went looking for a poem
in the darkness,
a love poem for Sally,
an apology,
a revelation,
a dead man haunting the hallways
of a breaking girl.

William Dawes, by Eileen Myles

faint tinkling down the street
moved me from Swan
to Mass Ave
the skinny men running
into Boston. Why

I don’t know. Let’s go
to town hall
giant horses
Paul Revere & William
Dawes and horses
hairy poop lands
splat on the brick. Get em to sign
your program. It’s not
even really Paul Revere
I went to the other
guy he signed William
Dawes was there really
a him he signed all antiquey
I think it’s in my trunk
and horses went down the street
again after the runners
I don’t even think they
live here. They run all the way
into Boston. Why

little babies dying

man’s and people losing
their leg you live in the world
now in history it’s true
is not a fake.

American Singer, by Matthew Zapruder

when I walk
to the mailbox
holding the letter
that fails to say
how sorry I am
you feel your call
or any words at all
on that day
would have stopped
the great singer
who long ago
decided more
quickly through
to move
I notice probably
because you wrote
that strange
word funeral
the constant black
fabric I think
is taffeta
always draped
over the scaffolds
the figures
scraping paint
are wearing dusty
protective suits
and to each other
saying nothing
I move invisibly
like a breeze
around three men
wearing advanced
practically weightless
jackets impervious
to all possible
weather even
a hurricane
I hear them say
something German
then photograph
the pale blue
turrets that floating
up in fog
seem noble
heads full
of important thoughts
like what revolution
could make us happy
from some window
wandering horns
he was three
when I was born
for a long time
I had no ideas
my father worked
in a private office
full of quiet
people working
I came to visit
it seemed correct
I went to college
studied things
dyed my hair
felt a rage
disguised as love
kept escaping
suffering only
a few broken bones
everything healed
now I live
in California
where in some
red and golden
theater I saw
him howl
such unfathomable
force from only
one lung
it was one
of? his last shows
in Athens once
many years
ago we shared
a cigarette
a little smoke
from our faces
I can’t remember
so many things
but see him
in his wheelchair
his folded body
it’s all gone
but for electrons
I can still push
into my ears
I choose the song
the perfect one
hear his words
and see
the mirror
in the ancient
lighthouse blinking
brave ships
somehow
you crossed
the water carrying
what we need
you can rest
light as nothing
in the harbor
we will take it
and go on

Memories of West Street and Lepke, by Robert Lowell

Only teaching on Tuesdays, book-worming
in pajamas fresh from the washer each morning,
I hog a whole house on Boston’s
“hardly passionate Marlborough Street,”
where even the man
scavenging filth in the back alley trash cans,
has two children, a beach wagon, a helpmate,
and is “a young Republican.”
I have a nine months’ daughter,
young enough to be my granddaughter.
Like the sun she rises in her flame-flamingo infants’ wear.

These are the tranquilized Fifties,
and I am forty. Ought I to regret my seedtime?
I was a fire-breathing Catholic C.O.,
and made my manic statement,
telling off the state and president, and then
sat waiting sentence in the bull pen
beside a negro boy with curlicues
of marijuana in his hair.

Given a year,
I walked on the roof of the West Street Jail, a short
enclosure like my school soccer court,
and saw the Hudson River once a day
through sooty clothesline entanglements
and bleaching khaki tenements.
Strolling, I yammered metaphysics with Abramowitz,
a jaundice-yellow (“it’s really tan”)
and fly-weight pacifist,
so vegetarian,
he wore rope shoes and preferred fallen fruit.
He tried to convert Bioff and Brown,
the Hollywood pimps, to his diet.
Hairy, muscular, suburban,
wearing chocolate double-breasted suits,
they blew their tops and beat him black and blue.

I was so out of things, I’d never heard
of the Jehovah’s Witnesses.
“Are you a C.O.?” I asked a fellow jailbird.
“No,” he answered, “I’m a J.W.”
He taught me the “hospital tuck,”
and pointed out the T-shirted back
of Murder Incorporated’s Czar Lepke,
there piling towels on a rack,
or dawdling off to his little segregated cell full
of things forbidden to the common man:
a portable radio, a dresser, two toy American
flags tied together with a ribbon of Easter palm.
Flabby, bald, lobotomized,
he drifted in a sheepish calm,
where no agonizing reappraisal
jarred his concentration on the electric chair
hanging like an oasis in his air
of lost connections. . . .

A Supermarket in California, by Allen Ginsberg

What thoughts I have of you tonight, Walt Whitman, for I walked down the sidestreets under the trees with a headache self-conscious looking at the full moon.
In my hungry fatigue, and shopping for images, I went into the neon fruit supermarket, dreaming of your enumerations!
What peaches and what penumbras! Whole families shopping at night! Aisles full of husbands! Wives in the avocados, babies in the tomatoes!–and you, García Lorca, what were you doing down by the watermelons?

I saw you, Walt Whitman, childless, lonely old grubber, poking among the meats in the refrigerator and eyeing the grocery boys.
I heard you asking questions of each: Who killed the pork chops? What price bananas? Are you my Angel?
I wandered in and out of the brilliant stacks of cans following you, and followed in my imagination by the store detective.
We strode down the open corridors together in our solitary fancy tasting artichokes, possessing every frozen delicacy, and never passing the cashier.

Where are we going, Walt Whitman? The doors close in a hour. Which way does your beard point tonight?
(I touch your book and dream of our odyssey in the supermarket and feel absurd.)
Will we walk all night through solitary streets? The trees add shade to shade, lights out in the houses, we’ll both be lonely.
Will we stroll dreaming of the lost America of love past blue automobiles in driveways, home to our silent cottage?
Ah, dear father, graybeard, lonely old courage-teacher, what America did you have when Charon quit poling his ferry and you got out on a smoking bank and stood watching the boat disappear on the black waters of Lethe?
–Berkeley, 1955


More by Allen Ginsberg:

Howl, Parts I & II & III,
by Allen Ginsberg
A Supermarket in California,
by Allen Ginsberg
Kaddish, Part I,
by Allen Ginsberg

 

Poem Entering the Apple Valley Target, by Lynn Melnick

Into the fluorescent rough country
headlong into bulks of flesh

impatient to outspend me

and who wouldn’t fold real quick
under the weight of America’s sales and specials.

I believed then I didn’t

that I was different than I am
in my own skin in this infinity

mirror, instructed such
to seduce myself, to go on.

I am sorry

about the space I take up
about the panic

running around my aspect and my hunger

although it’s nothing

these racks of acrylic winter apparatus
won’t dazzle out of my head.

I’ll take several. I’ll take fistfuls.
I’ll tuck it into my mouth at night to keep me quiet.


 

About this poem:

I wrote this poem because I find myself terribly overwhelmed by the experience of shopping, by all the stuff and all the people, and all the people in a frenzy over all the stuff. I get confused and I can’t breathe and I can barely remember who I am or what I want. And then I buy something I don’t need.”

Lynn Melnick