Degrees of Gray in Philipsburg, by Richard Hugo

You might come here Sunday on a whim.
Say your life broke down. The last good kiss
you had was years ago. You walk these streets
laid out by the insane, past hotels
that didn’t last, bars that did, the tortured try
of local drivers to accelerate their lives.
Only churches are kept up. The jail
turned 70 this year. The only prisoner
is always in, not knowing what he’s done.

The principal supporting business now
is rage. Hatred of the various grays
the mountain sends, hatred of the mill,
The Silver Bill repeal, the best liked girls
who leave each year for Butte. One good
restaurant and bars can’t wipe the boredom out.
The 1907 boom, eight going silver mines,
a dance floor built on springs—
all memory resolves itself in gaze,
in panoramic green you know the cattle eat
or two stacks high above the town,
two dead kilns, the huge mill in collapse
for fifty years that won’t fall finally down.

Isn’t this your life? That ancient kiss
still burning out your eyes? Isn’t this defeat
so accurate, the church bell simply seems
a pure announcement: ring and no one comes?
Don’t empty houses ring? Are magnesium
and scorn sufficient to support a town,
not just Philipsburg, but towns
of towering blondes, good jazz and booze
the world will never let you have
until the town you came from dies inside?

Say no to yourself. The old man, twenty
when the jail was built, still laughs
although his lips collapse. Someday soon,
he says, I’ll go to sleep and not wake up.
You tell him no. You’re talking to yourself.
The car that brought you here still runs.
The money you buy lunch with,
no matter where it’s mined, is silver
and the girl who serves your food
is slender and her red hair lights the wall.

Practicing Vigilance, by Bianca Stone

Every day try and write down one terrible thing.
One terrible thing—I’m filled with them,
carry each one
like an organ locked in a Coleman cooler.

Add a little color for emphasis.

I say my father’s surname to a migration of crows.
His name like a figure jumping out of an aerodynamic object

through a burning hoop
into a glass of still water.

*

My history is comprised of the inappropriate.
I look into the mirror and see disturbed human qualities,

my face like grass in a summer essay
like a senator stepping into an empty room

to hate his speech,

the almost symmetrical science of it.

Trying to feel something.
Covering rented light with a curtain.

*

Today make nothing happen very slowly.

I can see through the atmosphere’s silk chemise

all the way to the faint constellation in the southern sky
and it’s making me want to shake my head

and ask a question
to the clairvoyant 8-Ball in my hands—ask

if we are among those left in a dark forest

with our flare guns pointed at the ground

or among those loved by our parents’ parents
on the paternal side we never see.

Hell If I know, the 8-Ball says
drunk in its dark blue alcohol.

*

Winter breathed out all language.
My father appeared
and began taking my hair
one follicle at a time.
He worked his way to the neural tissue
threw himself down
in a tantrum.
I listen attentively to the wind
and cannot compute this.
I sell my letter to the sentimentalists
leaving behind a trail of fuck you
crumbs the largest of birds cannot tear.

*

Despite the parables I keep close
I won’t be mythologized by my father
who moves like an incoherent, boozing breeze
through my life’s antechambers.
I won’t admire the west vestibule of the Frick with him
not with this roast on a spit in my chest
the mind like a database of rage-expressions
the mind like a bottle of loose glitter—

so shadowy, my people, you begin
to see the blueprints in all things
until you can’t hold a book without
blowing on it to see if it will scatter
or laying on a bed, waiting to fall through
into the particle-laden apartment below—
to each his own until it ruins pleasure.

*

Where is the rain
when I am feeling this
reckless?

I went to a doctor and she said
There’s a little you in there who feels
hideous—

the little me fell
like a grand piano into my lap

*

Visualize a knock-knock joke with yourself
in a white noise somewhere
on the Upper West Side
a box of Kleenex in your hand.

memory swam through the grotesque
with its spoon paddle.

My dreams always fell flat.

The doctor said:
Start with finding out where your hands go
when you say your father’s name.

*

I say his name and I can see him.
He squats in the corner computing Zeno’s paradox.
He fills another glass and pukes,

starts in again about the illusion of motion—

If I’m coming toward you on the street
I will never reach you, he raves.
I’ll go half way and there will be another half and another half and another half.

He stands in infinite points on the distance
assuring with his ancient terrible glee
that I am going to go out and get a drink with him.

Deep within some cell
the nucleus grows unstable

*

I used to put a miniature rosebush
in the ground each year
to counteract my squalor.
Don’t tell me that definition of madness,
doing the same thing over again etcetera.
The definition of madness
is a certain enthusiasm, then there has
to be another person there
to not share in it—who is oppressed by it
who can only stare into it.
Tell it to the bluebird rustling over my head.
Tell it to a satellite orbiting in its delusion of being a moon.

I’m coaxing the black bull out of my mouth
with a red flag and a beer. I’m constructing
out of my faulty genes,
my last sentence, my last thing
which addresses the dilemma obliquely:

we will perceive our own pain in others.
And we will know if we are capable of loving them.

A Bedtime Story For Mr. Lamb, by Arthur Nevis

What story would you like to hear, Mr. Lamb?
Are you a real lamb?
Would you like to hear of Webbers?
Or Whales?

Here is the Story of Alice:

  The Queen wants to have a baby,
That’s why she’s kissing her hand.
The Mad Habit is pouring specklish tea.

  Finally, the Mad Habit and the Queen go to sleep,
But she’s not looking at him.
He’s just pouring the milk.

Goodnight, Mr. Lamb,
Have a nice dream.
Sleep like a lamb.

Don’t rough scream
Scream smooth.

Thirst, by Laura Cronk

Unclouded third eye and lush
red wings. I’m pouring water
from cup to cup.

This is the water we are meant
to drink with the other animals.
There are daffodils by the water,

a road leading from the water
to the shining crown of the sun.
My white hospital gown—

off-the-rack and totally sane.
My foot unsteady, though,
heel held aloft, missing its stiletto.

Nine months sober emblazoned
on my flat chest in red
below girlish curls and mannish chin.

You can’t see my eyes.
You’ve never seen them.

The Real Enough World, by Karen Brennan

Spider City

After a while I dreamt about
                  the Spider City
& when I woke up in my
                  flannel pj’s
the curtain flapped open
                  & the sky greeted me.

Hello Karen, Hello Little Bee,
         it said which is when
I remembered the strange
         webbed sky of the Spider
City & your face in the
         middle saying Kiss Me.

Breathless City

Every city is a little breathless,
a little behind the times,
racing to catch up, thus
gasping.

That day I wore a gray suit,
         white gloves, 1960 or so.
Some thin man approached
         & offered me $$ to
         pose in the nude.
The sun over St. Patrick’s
         Cathedral like a child’s
sun, all rays around
         a smiling face
& the man whose gray suit
         matched my own was
         called Ray!

         Such coincidences
occur in a city whose heart
         splits open in two shocks.
But this happened later.
& I wasn’t around
though I watched it on TV.

Dapper City

In Florida the palm branches
         rustle like neckties,
the ocean an opulent
         cologne we plunder,
the grass, green as the
         stolen eye of the Dowager
or a bruised infant
which is so sad
found in the trash can
among some white receipts
& spaghetti.
                  I am smoking a cigarette
wishing it were over–
the parasols, the gliding waterway
         ships, the cocktails,
the aces & clubs, the languorous beach
         stretches, the strings of pearls,
hats–
wishing it would begin again.

Dieting City

Or Starving City. It’s hard
         to tell. For one thing, it’s
         dark & for another
         I feel inadequate.
My perpetual motion has
         ceased to amuse anyone here
         (I confide) even though…

I wore a beautiful skirt of red silk
         & when I whirled you could
         see everything–
         the river
         with its captured lights, the
         glint of bridges, the
         pock-marked Palisades,
         aflame.

                  So much of this is untrue.

A worm slunk in the sidewalk cracks.
An old, old woman, wreathed
         in snot,
spoke sharply: She said,
“just because you give me five dollars
don’t entitle you to my life’s story.”

City of Jokes

A man goes to a psychiatrist
         sporting a huge gash in his
         forehead, says I bit
         myself. How did you
         do that? asks the psychiatrist.
         It was easy, says the man.
         I stood on a stool.
Afterwards, I pulled out of
         the parking garage & the
         day was overcast, streets
         icy.
I drove up the hill & took
         a right. I drove by the
         drive-in coffee place &
         the brown house with the
         shutters & took a left
         & then I was home.
         I turned
on the radio at this point.
A girl with a cane made her way
         down the sidewalk.
She was a stranger,
& she was my daughter.

Elizabethan City

I encountered Hamlet in a glade
& this scene, forsooth, changed into
hills &
then again a dark chamber
in which my own mother lay dying.

I wish it were another era
         but things occur where
         they will
& my defenses are poor ones.

         She has elegant bones which,
in age, have become sharp &
unfriendly.

         (Oh the body weeps & slickers
of hair cover all of us who
keep vigils.)

In a moment, I too, would
         invent a soliloquy about
         existence.

My heart in its jeweled box
         as of nothing
& zero the shape of
sorrow which doesn’t
add up.

City of Dot Dot Dot

There was a window, a drape,
         a venetian blind thickened with
         dust, an accordion sound
up from the street…
Your friend the author [was] inside
this which was inside that which was
once again…
ad nauseum…
contained in…
etc etc…
         Space
         shrinks & even afternoons
         which once seemed so voluminous
         have dwindled to a sad heap…
Little wrinkled days no longer
         unfold… Lawns have grown
minuscule & purposeless… Hairs
sprout on the female chin & buildings
formerly majestic are…
But I was crazy then…
In the fullness of each moment…
I walked everywhere in the gloam & sand…

City of Basements

Of course, conducive to sleep.
Of course, musty & poorly
         organized. You wouldn’t go there
         uninvited. I wouldn’t invite you.
But there are chinks in the brick ceilings
         that make it seem radiant
elsewhere, which is a blessing.

& amid the rats & spider houses
I might invent something
spectacular (I almost believe).

This is all I have to say about it.
Because it is unamenable to description.
Because even now my eyes are closing.

Pity yourself, Sister.
Life is harder than you dreamed possible.

Cracked Ice, by Julie Sheehan

When I return, I’ll come in clapboard, stained
chestnut, with lead-based paint on radiators,
old-fashioned, and a little bit insane

but sturdy to a fault. A spalting grain
on punky myrtle and no refrigerator
when I return. I’ll come in clapboard, stained

shake shingles skittering on skewed roof planes
that snarl the corner lot like unpaid panders,
old-fashioned and a little bitten, saying,

“Leave our sightlines sharp. Let dormers train
What angles water sheds.” They congregate for
when I return. I’ll come in clapboard, stained

with varnished truth: you ran me down. You caned
old rockers with prefab splints, hack renovator
refashioning me bit by bit, insane

to strip as spilth fine bulrush. I’ll maintain
myself, then. There will be no mediators
when I return. I’ll come in clapboard. Stained,
old-fashioned, I’ll come a little bit insane.

The Very Nervous Family, by Sabrina Orah Mark

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.