When fiber-optic, sky blue hair became the fashion, my father began the monthly ritual of shaving his head. It was August, and we were still living in the Projects without a refrigerator. The sound of my mother fluttering through the rosaries in another room reminded me of the flies I'd learned to trap in mid- flight and bring to my ear. "Vecchio finally died," my father said, bending to lace his old boots. "You want to come help me?" My grandparents lived in a green-shingled house on the last street before the Jones & Laughlin coke furnaces, the Baltimore & Ohio switching yard, and the sliding banks of the Monongahela. The night was skunk-dark. The spade waited off to the side. Before I could see it, I could smell the box on the porch. We walked down the tight alley between the houses to get to the back yard where fireflies pushed through the heat like slow aircraft and tomato plants hung bandaged to iron poles. My father tore and chewed a creamy yellow flower from the garden. After a few minutes of digging, he said, "Throw him in." I lifted the cardboard box above my head, so I could watch the old white cat tumble down, a quarter moon in the pit of the sky.
Let’s not forget the General
Shuffling out in his gray slippers
To feed the pigeons in Logan Square.
He wore a battered White Sox cap
And a heavy woolen scarf tossed
Over his shoulder, even in summer.
I remember how he muttered to himself
And coughed into his newspaper
And complained about his gout
To the other Latvian exiles,
The physicist who lived on Gogol Street
In Riga, my grandfather’s hometown,
The auxiliary policeman from Daugavpils,
And the chemical engineer,
Who always gave me hard candy,
Though grandfather spit
And grandmother hurried me away
When she saw them coming.
The rain falls on.
Acres of violets unfold.
Myrtle and forsythia follow.
The cardinals call to each other.
Echoes of delicate
I know something now
About subject, object, verb
And about one word that fails
For lack of substance.
Now people say, He passed on
Instead of that. Unit
Of space subtracted by one.
It almost rhymes with earth.
What is a poet but a person
Who lives on the ground
Who laughs and listens
Without pretension of knowing
Anything, driven by the lyric’s
Quest for rest that never
(God willing) will be found?
Concord, kitchen table, 1966.
Corbetts, Creeley, a grandmother
And me. Sweater, glasses,
One wet eye.
Lots of laughter
Before and after. Every meeting
Rhymed and fluttered into meter.
The beat was the message. . . .
(for Robert Creeley)
This, we tiptoe.
This, we flower in euphemism.
The street has swallowed itself into border. Into railroad track.
This, where the bus line ends.
This, where little boys bike across curfew and into eulogy.
This, where board-slapped windows domino into mansions.
Runaway men into joggers.
This, where Oak Park River Forest alumni rep westside,
Redlands East Valley minstrels “Gangsta Day” during spirit week.
This, where the grass and the quiet
lull mothers to sleep.
This, where your heart is not yet
a restless telephone wire shackled to the ankle
of every one you have ever loved after sunset.
This, where the news stations tell you everything you know about
what lives across your street, outside of your living room window,
at the end of your driveway.
This, deliberate. This, abrupt.
This, sloppy stitching.
Here, you are exception,
urban, and articulate.
The black friend that let them poke pencils through your kink that one time
while you curled a trembling smile, pretending not to be
token or voodoo doll,
half house, half field
a Susie Carmichael or Huxtable.
The black family in a White House
ran north and bought the plantation.
This all too familiar of being someplace but not.
You were raised on “twice as good.”
Mama left the westside when you were two.
You were raised into valley-girl accent.
Your voice lost all of its skyline until
you went to high school through metal detectors.
You were raised on ditches and division streets.
Here, where you were born before you were conceived.
Here, where your cousin lives in the basement.
Here is your first real boyfriend
the first tongue in your mouth, and first
call from the county.
Here is the splintered wall your back will know.
Here, where you are no bourgeois success story,
just lucky enough to slip through cracks and make it
to your front door each night.
Here is where your ashes will be scattered.
Here is your home 6 years from now.
Here is your home 50 years ago.
Here is your redemption skin.
Your corner store.
Your corner stone.
Here is your Gramma’s house and dusted porcelain
and stuffed bears on the living room walls.
Here, where everything grows without permission.
Here, where sunflowers rise from the potholes
each and every summer.
weren’t built to let the sunlight in.
They were large to let the germs out.
When polio, which sounds like the first dactyl
of a jump rope song, was on the rage,
you did not swim in public waters.
The awful thing was an iron lung.
We lined up in our underwear to get the shot.
Some kids fainted, we all were stung.
My cousin Speed sat in a vat
of ice cubes until his scarlet fever waned,
but from then on his heart was not the same.
My friend’s girlfriend was murdered in a hayfield
by two guys from Springfield.
Linda got a bad thing in her blood.
Everybody’s grandmother died.
Three times, I believe, Bobby shot his mother.
Rat poison took a beloved local bowler.
A famous singer sent condolences.
In the large second floor corner room
of my 4th grade class the windows were open.
Snow, in fat, well-fed flakes
floats in where they and the chalk-motes meet.
And the white rat powder, too, sifts down
into a box of oatmeal
on the shelf below.
She knew how to seduce her destiny,
predict the time of flight
In 1939, dressed in garments
of night and happiness
at the threshold of a fearful
resolved to live,
to Southern seas.
In 1938, the windows
of her house of water and stone
resisted the extreme
horror of that night
of broken crystals.
She, my grandmother,
taught me to recognize
the landscape of danger,
the shards of fear,
the impenetrable faces
audacious in their will to live.
created a domain
of papers, fragile vessels,
clandestine poems and
notes to be made,
With little baggage,
like a frail and ancient
although ready to embark again.
I survived next to her
and I was thankful for the gift of her presence.
Mr. Horowitz clutches a bag of dried apricots to his chest. Although the sun is shining, there will probably be a storm. Electricity will be lost. Possibly forever. When this happens the very nervous family will be the last to starve. Because of the apricots. “Unless,” says Mrs. Horowitz, “the authorities confiscate the apricots.” Mr. Horowitz clutches the bag of dried apricots tighter. He should’ve bought two bags. One for the authorities and one for his very nervous family. Mrs. Horowitz would dead bolt the front door to keep the authorities out, but it is already bolted. Already dead. She doesn’t like that phrase. Dead bolt. It reminds her of getting shot before you even have a chance to run. “Everyone should have at least a chance to run,” says Mrs. Horowitz. “Don’t you agree, Mr. Horowitz?” Mrs. Horowitz always refers to her husband as Mr. Horowitz should they ever one day become strangers to each other. Mr. Horowitz agrees. When the authorities come they should give the Horowitzs a chance to run before they shoot them for the apricots. Eli Horowitz, their very nervous son, rushes in with his knitting. “Do not rush,” says Mr. Horowitz, “you will fall and you will die.” Eli wanted ice skates for his birthday. “We are not a family who ice skates!” shouts Mrs. Horowitz. She is not angry. She is a mother who simply does not wish to outlive her only son. Mrs. Horowitz gathers her very nervous son up in her arms, and gently explains that families who ice skate become the ice they slip on. The cracks they fall through. The frost that bites them. “We have survived this long to become our own demise?” asks Mrs. Horowitz. “No,” whispers Eli, “we have not.” Mr. Horowitz removes one dried apricot from the bag and nervously begins to pet it when Mrs. Horowitz suddenly gasps. She thinks she may have forgotten to buy milk. Without milk they will choke on the apricots. Eli rushes to the freezer with his knitting. There is milk. The whole freezer is stuffed with milk. Eli removes a frozen half pint and glides it across the kitchen table. It is like the milk is skating. He wishes he were milk. Brave milk. He throws the half pint on the floor and stomps on it. Now the milk is crushed. Now the milk is dead. Now the Horowitzs are that much closer to choking. Mr. and Mrs. Horowitz are dumbfounded. Their very nervous son might be a maniac. He is eight. God is punishing them for being survivors. God has given them a maniac for a son. All they ask is that they not starve, and now their only son is killing milk. Who will marry their maniac? No one. Who will mother their grandchildren? There will be no grandchildren. All they ask is that there is something left of them when they are shot for the apricots, but now their only son is a maniac who will give them no grandchildren. Mr. Horowitz considers leaving Eli behind when he and Mrs. Horowitz run for their lives.