No one drove us to the train,
The train that helped us get there,
To the airstrip, the green mountains,
The civilians: round-faced Mai,
Who did the laundry;
Mr. Diem, a white shirt on a screened porch;
Tin, the guard squatting on his heels
On a commode at the admiral’s quarters.
No one met us at the train when we got home.
At curbside with banners.
No patrol guard, like Mrs. Densler
In her white belt, to take us safely
Across the street. That night,
Outside the dance, a friend
Said not to talk about the war
To the girls: where you’ve been,
What you’ve seen and done
And what you didn’t do.
Don’t talk about the straitjacket marine
At the boat landing raving
Racist slurs about people born
And raised where you were that day.
Raving godamn this and that.
“We are psychedelic nowadays,
And nobody likes the war,” said my friend,
Who’s been dead some time now.
Consider the bullet hole in this astrological sign:
Gary is your name.
You’re six years old.
A rubber band links your paddle and ball.
The red ball bounces off the paddle,
Then snaps back. An older boy appears.
He leads you off a ways,
into spruces. In their shadows
you see a tree fort.
There are big kids around here
looking to hurt little boys.
You don’t see the blade he thrusts
into your chest, again and again.
“Why did you kill me?”
“I wanted to know what it felt like to kill.”
He wipes the knife on your shirt,
turns, and swaggers off.
Forty years later, a packed courtroom,
you look into his eyes.
What to say or not say? What to do?
Throw acid in Lester Berman’s face.
Then, behind bars, when he looked in the mirror
he’d see the lives he scarred.
Instead, you don’t go to the courthouse.
At home, you smoke a cigarette,
walk your dog, continue living.
Lester Berman, a name you didn’t know
until you read it yesterday in the morning news.
Years ago: I’m watching TV,
nightly news and weather.
As deputies lead a prisoner
through an airport corridor,
someone appears from a phone booth,
puts a pistol to the prisoner’s head
and pulls the trigger.
In the scuffle the shooter goes down,
the pistol wrenched away by a deputy.
What if I were the man in the phone booth ?
I pick up the paddle and ball from the grass.
The spruces throw off shade.
I was talking to someone in the weight room.
His dog had been killed by a neighbor boy.
“I’d make him sorry,” I said. “I would hurt him.”
I thought of striking with speed, strength, certainty.
But with what–a gun, a blade, a bat?
You want to take a thug’s head
and smash it against a concrete wall, but instead
you see trauma to the brain, blurred vision
that never goes away.
Light glints off the cuffs on the prisoner’s wrists.
Flanked by deputies, he shuffles
down the airport corridor. Someone comes out
of a booth, pistol raised,
turbulent and shadow-quick on the evening news.
Glasses they drank from at parties,
Wallpaper in bedrooms, end tables in living rooms,
Screened windows, snow shovels, hairpins and mirrors—
I’m thinking of their signatures on checks, weather
Reports they watched on TV, dresses and suits
And watches they put on before getting in cars.
These drivers and passengers I call neighbors, names
On gravestones, pictures in wallets of children
With children of their own.
A parking meter, I made friends with other parking meters,
Also a few traffic lights. We went to the Royal Scarlet Deli
And bought baloney sandwiches. We went to the library.
I checked out Fake Improvements of the Twentieth Century.
We went to the house of the dying man and raked his leaves.
Inside, in front of the dying man’s mirror I perfumed my neck
And shoulders. Then we crossed a bridge. At the Teaneck Armory
We wrestled, a tag team. One meter ripped off a light’s
White mask, one light spat on a meter that was down,
Contorted like a pretzel. The lights edged out the meters.
After the match I bought a cell phone and a Saint Bernard.
With two other parking meters I returned to the house
Of the dying man. Children were jumping rope. One boy
Scraped gum off the sole of his shoe. One of the meters
Climbed a tree and jumped into a pile of leaves. At home,
I fed Warner, the dog, scraps I’d brought from the dying man’s table.
Then, five days till Boxing Day, I settled in
with Santa’s Slutty Helpers, rented from Blockbuster.
I pictured myself a gray-haired forty,
vacuuming a rug,
a glass of white wine
in one hand, in the other a menthol cigarette.
I pictured myself old
and small, with a glass of white wine
climbing Everest; patient and young
with a glass of white wine dining on shark
charbroiled on Bastille Day, alone,
in a booth at Henry’s Seafoods;
middle aged and impulsive with a glass of white wine
spelunking in Carlsbad; young and curious
with white wine hunting ducks in November;
old and compassionate, convalescing
from knee surgery on a porch with white wine
looking out at sage and mesquite, looking up
at the big sky empty of buzzards at 10 a.m.;
with my glass of white wine in the stands,
middle aged and excited, supporting the Celtics
as the buzzer sounds.
In leg braces he sits in a corner
Of the principal’s office.
His nose is running, he wipes it
With the back of his hand.
The others will think he’s a fussy kid:
Scraggly hair, thin arms, Spider Man T- shirt.
Here from a country where snow is king,
His mother signs papers at a counter.
Outside a traffic light sways.
Over plains, hills, unfamiliar trees, river
Town and city, the morning fog lifts.
Children at desks hear the opening door.
Plants were bigger than I was,
So were paper clips and ashtrays.
Still, when I looked up, the stars
Appeared small. They didn’t trouble me,
Like other far-away things—
Earthquakes, famines , coups d’ etat.
By late November the plants had died.
It’s not that I was so small but that
These ordinary things—dust-buster,
Pencil sharpener, TV remote—
Had all grown huge.
There was the S&L scandal.
The president’s son got off, scot-free,
Yet James Brown went to prison.
A country where they jailed
The Godfather of Soul wasn’t a country
I wanted to live in. By April
The paper clips were staying out
All night. They’d come home, big
As Primo Carnera, looking chipper,
But with circles under their eyes.
By May the ashtrays had gotten
Too big to hold anything.
I hadn’t smoked in seven years,
But those ashtrays, round and empty,
Were causing me trouble. Now
Why would you want to
Cause me trouble? I told them.
The salt and pepper shakers
Backed me up. One shaker
Had a scar on the palm of its
Enormous hand and went downtown
To get its hands massaged.
That night the paper clips told me
To leave, all the while blocking
My path out the door.
Talk after burials
(baseball scores, football quarterbacks)
touches on anything but the departed.
Though maybe some people say
to themselves they’ll never see him again
except in photos, home movies, and memory.
Not lingering in a hospital
where, in the middle of the night,
when they were home sleeping, he took a deep breath,
and his heart stopped forever. In memories
he walks in through a screen door, carrying…
what would he have carried–a fishing pole
a football? He’s nineteen,
ten years before the cancer that would kill
him at twenty-nine.
He greets you and walks briskly
into his room. And what did you talk about
after he was in the ground?
Not the hospital,
not the burial on the hillside among other graves.
Not the tent-shaded mourners,
a few stepping up to speak of his life.
One perplexing the others by saying that
when a person dies young even God must weep.
Here, after all that, in your parents’ house
you’re not talking about his life or death.
A black cloth covers a hanging photo of him.
On a table are cold cuts,
salads, pies. You fix a plate
for your daughter. People are coming through
the front door, and the sun is shining.
He knew the word for sun in five languages.
The gradebook closes at noon,
Friday, May 21st. As if the gradebook
were the big book, the life book,
something large enough to walk in
and out of. The gradebook closes. That sounds
like, The bar will close at two a.m.
The bar, the church, the court,
the big store you walk around in,
up and down aisles for hardware,
linens. The gradebook gazebo
on the crest of a green hill. Gradebook,
a cave, a chapel of geologic
formations. The grades are stars
in the cave’s night sky:
A for friend, C for sibling,
B- for spouse, or for life partner
(as we’ve been reading in obituaries
recently). Why didn’t you
let your wife keep the stray kitten
when you knew how that would please her,
Mr. Selfish? Each star in the cave
darkness equals a grade: one for regret,
others for mistakes, for kindness,
forgiveness, acceptance, deceit.
What grade for being myself? you asked
your wife, who’d given the kitten
to a young fellow who named it Sky,
his own workplace nickname
at the furniture warehouse
of Hoffman and Koos.
Warehouse-large or locket-small,
the gradebook is open, and you look
into it. How am I doing? you ask
and expect a reply from the darkness.
Hope isn’t clean or dirty.
Dread doesn’t have a porch or patio.
Perplexity has no lawn on which to roll
or lounge reading A.J. Ayer on positivism.
Imagine telling an air traffic controller about the church
in the town of Doubt. Maybe there is such a town.
Imagine the rate of teen pregnancy, the two
convenience stores, the river alongside
the football field. Courage isn’t dry or humid.
Disillusion has neither face nor mirror.
Imagine telling Alisha, a convenience store clerk
you’re seeing for the first time,
I’m Bob, and Doubt has been my life.
Serenity doesn’t have a color
and Boredom has no appetite, though Bob
and Alisha, like the late A.J. Ayer, have
a capacity for boredom. To be bored is good,
one philosopher said. It’s the beginning of restlessness,
and restlessness leads to house painting, hiking,
moving furniture and, as they say in Australia,
the spinning of yarns. You might,
out of love, ride a Greyhound
two thousand miles to your son’s wedding
on an island. Sacrifice doesn’t have holes,
Betrayal no closet,
no cigar box with holes through which,
if it were living, it could breathe.
Alisha reads–Man Sucked Out of Somali Airliner
After Inflight Explosion.
The Record says he killed himself only
and injured two others. Somali detectives
question airport baggage handlers.
She unclasps a barrette.
Her hair falls to her shoulders. Outside,
Bob’s Taurus pulls away,
leaving a swirl of exhaust in the dark.