How to Taunt an Abyss

I pulled off the road at the scenic overlook
that teetered over the abyss where the Damned were kept.
Hey Damned! I called out,
how’s the abyss treating you?
We cannot say, came the answer,
we are only an echo . . .
how’s the scenic overlook?

Not bad, it’s what the road can afford.
So what’s it like to be damned?
Not bad. What’s it like to be at the scenic overlook?
Like being nothing but a voice falling forever, I said.
How sad, echoed the abyss, sounds lonely.
Lonely, I echoed back.


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The Progeny of Behaviorists

When I was a bad child I would be taken out back to the gazebo for a spanking . . . but once I got there, my parents only talked about the idea of taking me out back to the gazebo for a spanking.

As I became more responsible, my punishments changed.

I was told to take myself out back to the gazebo for a spanking, as it was known that when I got there I would most certainly think to myself about being taken out back to the gazebo for a spanking, which turned out actually to be a talk about going out back to the gazebo for a spanking.

When I was grown and married, living in my own house, I remarked to the wife that we would need to build a gazebo in the backyard.

“Why?” she asked.
“So that when we have children who are bad we can take them out back to the gazebo for a spanking, but then only talk about going out back to the gazebo for a spanking after we get there.”

She thought this extremely clever and then suggested that we go upstairs to the bedroom to make love.

Once we got there, though, she only talked about the idea of making love.

From then on, when one of us suggested we go upstairs to the bedroom to make love, it was understood that once we got there, we would only discuss the idea of making love.

“Let’s go upstairs to the bedroom to make love,” we would often say when we felt the urge to reestablish our priorities.

This practice eliminated the need for having to punish bad children by building a gazebo in the backyard where talk of spankings would occur.

After all, in the bedroom we talked about how making love would inevitably lead to having bad children whom we would have to punish by taking them out back to the gazebo for a spanking, but, once there, would only talk to them about the idea of going out back to the gazebo for a spanking.

In this way, we had improved upon my parents’ technique of child rearing.

[see note on poem]


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Levity among the Loons

For Ted Roethke

A loon said to a loon,
“I am lighter than the moon!
Drifting on the sky’s epidermal crust
without a single wing.
I merely trust that gravities will swoon
and air will bear me up—
a miracle babe thrust to the gods,
a mug o’ grog lifted to the toast,
hot vapor rising from a roast,
a glory craving bellowing from a boast,
a bang burst from a balloon!
Infinity’s sylph-slippered asymptote . . .”

“What you mean is that you float,”
said a loon to a loon
who also said, “but a moon is two moons.
One sits on the sighs of the world, shedding stars,
while her sister simmers in this lake,
another lonely girl
frequenting watery bars
where she hangs her neck to drink,
and drinks, and drinks. It makes you think:
some kinds of thirst are lies.
She grows more liquored with the wake.
Hardly even whole, really just a wreck,
hoping that some bottom-love will make her sink
and disappear into the dark.
Water’s the only weight she knows,
and it’s not weight enough
to anchor her ghosty color down
to the oblivion-life of its elementary particles—
sober, spaceless, black . . .”

“Of quarks!?” smirked a loon to a loon
as if to importune.

“Yes, of quarks,
the intelligence of mass, matter’s unmentionables,
the negligees of weight, an article’s innuendoes . . .”

“Perhaps she should date crows!” snickered a loon to a loon,
“Or learn to love the mud—a bottom love, indeed,
if I catch your drift.
Mud does wonders for the complexion, they say,
and crows cast only shadows, never reflections.
But who wants a casket for a wedding bed?
A grave’s not a decent place to stay—
too long a stop to smell the roses decay.

“No, I think she craves a kind of kinship,
another drunken lonely nighthawk
with some drunken lonely night talk,
to come and sit beside her wobbling hip to hip,
a wolf to peak into her basket
and to speak sweet nothings
of her lovely, lolling, loaf-like curves,
her buttery buns, dreaming back
to the churn where they were indiscreetly overfed
with a weeping, running heat.
It brings new meaning to the act
of breaking bread before we eat.

“See now, she’s spread out like a swan
with her skirts above her knees.
She has her pretty pistils on.
Her bloomers are in bloom,
their pollens plashing in her naked buttercup,
her petal ruffles lap
like tiny breakers
lipping to the flume,
oblivious to the delights of ingression
as ashes are to the urn,
that womb-theater where desire colludes
with beauty’s buxom amplitudes
to ape deathlessness
at the cusp of the abyss . . .
and always the act of making braids itself with not,
as nymphs and satyrs strike an odic pose
to tease a Keats out of his thought—
or, perhaps, a maiden
out of her clothes.

“O she’s a dirty, little curtsey,
like a keyhole clicking to its key
to get the fit that it deserves,
and, of course, the turn.
It’s the spinning of the bolt that matters,
a tickle of the mechanism, now inert,
but yearning for a spring.
They say what hurts the hovel
doesn’t hurt the storm,
and the bee is happier in the hive
than in the swarm—
so a little death is but a little sting.”

Laughing to himself, a loon took flight.
Another loon went diving like a kite
down into the moony puddle, imbibed,
dissolving as he fell,
finding moonlove an inebriated hell,
a silvered muddle that can’t be sipped or seized or satisfied.

The upward loon to the upward moon applied
and eased his laugh into the sky’s divide
where it shook a little silence from the light,
a little blink of focus
from the eye-orb of the night.

And a moon stared down at a moon most heavily,
barely lifting her primordial brow.
She was a child staring into a spoon,
round face bent around a prow,
inundated, wild, wearing a sleepy smile,
to think her light could grow so wet,
and so marooned.

And then her weary eyelid shut.
The Big Mistress mumbled what to what
like it was all so picayune, “Such levity
among the loons.”

[See Note On This Poem]


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What To Do With an Angel

I’ll tell you what to do with an angel.
When you walk through the front door
of a stranger’s house
and lying stiffly in a hump of a heap
is an old prayer-stained angel,
take off your overcoat
and throw it over the formless bulk
where the angel’s body is lewdly crystallizing.

Then walk over to the stranger
and put your hand on his shoulder.
Say, “It will be okay now, friend.
Just try to sleep it off.”
Turn to leave.

The stranger will say, “Thank you, friend.”
Smile and nod slightly and step toward the door.
“Friend?” the stranger will call out,
“What about your coat?”
Try not to shudder or hesitate too long.
Reply, “Keep it,” and now you may leave for good, and quickly.

When you have left the house
and are moving away more gradually among your footsteps
you will be free to mutter to yourself,
“It’s ruined . . . it’s ruined . . .”


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I’ve decided to die a little today, and maybe tomorrow I’ll do the same.

I’m going to turn my hands into powder. Spill them like salt on the forest floor. Spill them like new crystals in the water that takes and takes, and hunches away over the horizon. I’m going to saturate the juices that digest the land. I’m going to slow the sea’s appetite in my infinitesimal way.

Today, I’ve decided, I’m going to die a little.


It so happens that that woman, the one with the rough eyeballs and hag jowls, has ridden me like a broken horse to all the sepulchral dens of the bridge club . . . exactly as she said she would.

All the ladies laughing with their heavy loaves of breasts, their bodies sheathed in thick bear hair, thighs leaping like bear shadows through the firelight.

The waters come toward their door and then leave. And they leave me worthless.

As a result, I will turn my hands and fingers to powder.

Today, I will die, if only a little.


It so happens that the grotesque hand that lives in the pond over there has reached out to make love to my anklebone like a misguided house pet, exactly as it said it would the last time I passed it.

“I’ll turn my fingers and all ten fingernails to powder,” I said, but the hand from the pond only made moist slapping noises, slapping and sucking at my ankle with its syrupy palm.

The whole Worldbog started slapping and sucking like a wet orchestra warming up.

A little death, then, would not be a bad thing.


It so happens that the wooden underbelly of a little bridge has made its home above me, exactly as it swore it would, and it stretches on and on in mock of infinite things, stretching like a waking sleeper all day and night. And it feeds me a steady diet of gristly billy goats—pinching the fat on my cheek each morning, still not satisfied. Its footsteps bustling back and forth like a lone dumpling on a plate.

I’d threaten it with turning my knuckles and my fingerprints to powder, but I could just hear it saying, “When in Hawaii, one is inclined to eat more pineapples, no point in complaining.”

There goes the creekwater over my night bed, burbling and jabbering, pretending to be a big boiling stockpot as one might amuse a child by pretending to be a bumbling monster.

All I can do, today or any day, is simply die, a little, and then a little more.


Soon enough all I’ve swallowed will come up my throat like the body of a blue cat, skittery back arched in Halloween blue, a tatter of electric blue fur leaping about in a tease of current.

And I will drain out of the faucets of my wrists as sand drains (creepily) to the nether cup of the hourglass.

And I will fall into the land, which is always so inconsiderately pressed upon, but so accustomed, conditioned, and resigned.

I will fall exactly as it has always told me I would—into its soiled arms like some lonely sailor furloughed in a foreign land falls (out of need more than desire) into the grayed bed of an old whore who is no longer beautiful, who no longer promises any ecstasy, as he no longer believes in any.


I will call on her every day, slipping away from the memory of wife and kids, from the toe-tapping spouse of the long steel ship, from the lush floorless bisque of the oceans, sliding into her sheets, laying my head on her used bosom, looking for a way to love her, to be loved, to soften her with sweetness whispering,

“You’ve been at this too long, my dear. Come and sail away with me.”

She’ll rise and walk to a basin of wash water by her mirror. The water has forgotten all of its heat, but she dips her long hair into it anyway, a basketful of dried fronds spilling from the head’s roost. Leans back. The water drips over her eyebrows, down below her chin, down her shoulders, over the keel of her stomach, and down.

Yes, my love, she will always reply,
watching the reflections of the water trails fall,
yes, I’ll go with you, I’ll sail away with you.
We’ll sail away together.
We’ll sail away, far away from here,
far away forever, forever.


As a game, Water invented One, and She came and stowed her smoky body in the hold of her mattress, but One was not enough,

so Water made Two, and the hulk of the ship settled in the port like a beached whale and waited for the call, and waited, and the call didn’t come, but Water wasn’t satisfied,

so it made Three, and I came down on a hoist like a bundle of dry goods, to be the ace and count for either eleven or one.

And Water saw it was a good game and shuffled its deck of cards like fifty two foggy sunrises where the boardwalk paces in its planks, dealt itself a hand and won, and played again and won, and played and won and won.

[See Note On This Poem]


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I fell
or was pushed
from a seat
among angels
and landed
like an armful of kindling
in a place
where the footsteps
of my father
were deafening.

I broke
or was drowned
in a river
among men
and sank
like a pair of spectacles
in a current
where the hands
of my father
were baptizing.

I shouted
or was blamed
for the waste
of passions
and froze
like grass beneath the snow
in a wilderness
where the breath
of my father
was stilled.

I wept
or was buried
near the mountains
by devils
and dreamt
like the nets of fishermen
in the cradle
that the might
of my father
had toppled.

(take one goat of white
one of black
drive them over the cliff
with your sins


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First Blues

I’d slaked myself in the dandelions,
little sun manes weeding in the grass,
fatting the summer with useless constellations.
I was a cricket, unseen by the Mighty Ones,
making my little sun song,
chirping the blues over dirty strings of a cheap guitar,
hoarding myself into the quarried lake of sound
mewled with deaf steel, wanting the wind to open
highways in the sky, hobo trains freighting
Jesus tears to stop and let me ride the blind,
wanting the Road, the Road!
Unraveling and raveling its gravel lungs in my chest!
The Sloughing Snake, Tailbiter, Neverender,
Passagemaker, Seedsower, Devourer,
The Lemniscate Road, The Way . . .
to be absorbed by the Hunger
that coils the cosmic spring . . .
Ol’ Blacktop, Ol’ Motion who tears at soles,
who tars, and tolls, and swallows . . . .

You stung me like a hornet.
All I could
do was look
down at the wound,
away stuttering.

(Then my ears fell inside you
like seeds)


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Notes on the Poems


א (Aleph) is the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet. There is a great deal of symbolic and Kabbalistic significance associated with it. In the conventional Rider-Waite tarot deck, the first card, #0, The Fool, depicts a young, well-dressed man standing in the posture of an aleph upon a crumbling precipice . . . and seeming to take no notice. He is the great journeyer . . . and also the great faller. The Fool is the only thing in us that can fall without perishing, the survivor of descents, the indigestible seed that passes through the intestines and is fertilized.

The Aleph is a silent letter.

“Mother, Get my Ax!” is what Jack shouts down as he’s descending the beanstalk. The giant, whom he had stolen from, was right behind him.

This is a sort of overture for the book, and I hope its various meanings and inheritances will accrue (or congeal) as one moves through the rest of the poems.

The line, “Our shadows step forth to cast back the flesh of our bodies”, owes its inspiration to Remedios Varo and her painting, Fenómeno (1962) . . . not just to Orpheus and Eurydice and Lot and his wife.

I feel I need to add an important disclaimer to this poem, maybe even an interpretation. This poem was written before 9/11/2001. The first draft was probably completed late in 1999 with the origins of the piece begun in early 1998. It has been revised dozens of times since then. In fact, I seem to feel compelled every year or two to dive into it afresh, sans life preserver, and “translate” it, interpret it, make sense of it. Each time I have done this, I have come up with another meaning, or another level of meaning. From the very beginning of this ritual of interpretation (in itself, a ritual of faith), I realized that the poem was prophetic. Yet, I imagined it was prophetic of my book, of that whole statement or expression which I have called What the Road Can Afford. This is why it became the opening piece and overture for the book.

In my thickheaded, self-involved, self-captivated poetic intelligence, I amazingly did not realize that it could be (and most likely will be) seen as prophetic of (or related to) the 9/11/2001 World Trade Center terrorism . . . until now, early fall of 2004. This is the kind of goon-headed oversight only a poet could make.

And so, I feel somewhat bullied into providing an interpretation of my poem, both bullied and obligated . . . due to the rather harsh implications one might draw from it, were one to read it as “about” 9/11. On one hand, I do not fear being branded as anti-American. Even though I don’t see myself as such, I realize that we are still (in the George W. Bush era) living fixedly in an era of propagandized language, and so such branding is probably inevitable. On the other hand, I am as horrorstruck, as wounded by the 9/11 atrocity as any American bystander. I don’t wish my poem to try to aggravate those unhealable wounds, and so it is very important to me that it is not bent into such a device. Of course, I believe that if the poem is read intelligently, no such harmful interpretation would be possible. But I am not so naïve to think, because it is “Art”, it won’t be misread or misused, or that such misusage is unimportant. In truth, I have grown quite accustomed to my poetry being read unintelligently, and have come to expect it.

So, without further ado, this is what “Mother, Get my Ax!” is not about . . . .

Neither God nor poets are being blamed in any way for 9/11. America, Americans, and “Americanism” are also NOT being blamed. I do not believe we “deserved” this to happen to us, nor do I believe it is a “punishment” for our various hubrises. Anyone who wishes to see my poem as prescribing such a cultural edict not only does not have my blessing, but is considered by me an arse. I reiterate that this poem was not written about 9/11 and was written before 9/11 happened.

My personal feeling is that this poem is “about” ithyphallic language, which is a language of patriarchy and verticality (rise and fall). Such language incorporates common notions such as human hubris, Man vs. God or Man vs. Nature or Consciousness vs. Unconsciousness, The Fall as myth of consciousness, creation as partner of destruction, the masculine creative dynamic of potency vs. impotency, and numerous other things. In my possibly overly cerebral theoretical contraption, the story arc of humanity is one which falls under the aegis of ithyphallic language. God, consciousness, ego, self, gender, faith, civilization, philosophy, love . . . all are constructions of ithyphallic language. I don’t feel that to say this “gives away” or in any way belittles my poems. This is merely the same thing as saying that my book is about human experience or human perception (a perception that includes the perception of that perception); in other words, it’s about “everything”. The devil is in the details, as they say. Besides, would it really surprise you to hear a poet finds his way at the universe through language?

I will not be the first person since 9/11 to note that the fall of the tall tower is an ancient and powerful symbol, an archetypal part of the human species’ psychic genes. The images I use in this poem (and elsewhere in my writing) of Jack’s Beanstalk, the Tower of Babel, the “maiden towers” of innumerable fairytales and medieval romances, and the Tower card from the tarot deck, are merely well known manifestations of this archetype. It is, in fact, the common bond between these manifestations, the archetype itself, that I am drawn to riff around in “Mother, Get my Ax!”

The fall of the Twin Towers is all the more immense to us because it activates the old archetype of The Fall, that archetype which is the cluster of mysterious reactions surrounding the not quite definable connection between the onset of human consciousness and the birth of a new confusion, shame, or guilt . . . or responsibility. Thus, the force of blame, in all of its ferocity, is the anticipated beast awakened by such a fall. This beast stands between the wound, our loss, and healing of that wound. Blame activates a classic patriarchal redefinition of self and other, a redefinition that is particularly polarizing and has been profoundly troubling throughout human history. Our current trend is patriot/terrorist, a construct which we are trying to insist into a polar division. Of course, the patriot/terrorist construct is actually a patriot-terrorist type, a unity, not two different things at all, but two aspects of one thing, which are no doubt indivisible. They can only be artificially divided with a demolition of language, and the result (for anyone using this damaged language) is a relationship to both patriotism and terrorism that is secured by bad faith.

And now, possibly contradicting myself, I will state that I am willing to accept the association with 9/11 as another valid and useful interpretation of my poem. I don’t really believe in prophecy, certainly not when I am intimately aware of the mundane place said prophecy originated (i.e., my mind), but archetypes are not a “theory”, and this example is a proof of that assertion. What I mean is that these various interpretations all cohere to something which is a oneness, is largely definable and identifiable. In a way, all these interpretations mean the same thing. That thing (which is defined “as if” by its examples) is the archetype of the Tower or The Fall. The metaphor of iron filings (the manifestations) and the magnetic force (the archetype) could be applied.

I am willing to accept this possible interpretation with the condition that we consider 9/11 as something that happened in the realm of language, in addition to something that happened in so many other, more concrete realms. Think, for instance, how the language (rhetoric, really) emerging post 9/11 has been dangerously oppressive. The language has been shattered, just like in “Mother, Get my Ax!” or in the Tower of Babel story. We are left with a dissociation of language, with inadequate terms to talk about our pain, our anger, about America as something complex and multifaceted and non-uniform. Most of this dangerous rhetoric has emerged out of politicians, but the media in general has been complicit in disseminating it unquestioningly, and we, the people, are complicit for swallowing so much of it indiscriminately. This post 9/11 rhetoric is language with especially swollen subtext, is language which depends upon the submersion of that particular human organ required to perceive and read such subtext.

Possibly, not unlike the audience member of the “most devastating reading” given in “Mother, Get my Ax!”, we are struck now with a Great Dumbening. We must ask ourselves what this terrible blow to consciousness, this wound dealt to our ability to both hear (discern) and think (connect), means to us as members of the tribe of America, of the world, and of the species. That 9/11 has clearly been important on the level of language (and language always means consciousness), is not deniable. I can only hope that we will eventually bring forth some sort of greater understanding of the importance of language from it, for instance, that language creates us as we create it. Or, to be more biblical, that in the beginning was the Word, and the Word was God.

Much to the contrary of our poets’ constant grousing, our declarations of impotence, it would seem this should, in fact, be a time for poets. By poets, I mean those who rebel against the Great Dumbening by making the language useful, useful as a tool for humanity to better understand itself, not into a thing dominated by a subconscious rhetoric of power, of loosed will ripe for the opportunistic designs of sleeping demons. We need to ask ourselves, at times like these, who is tending to the language? Who will heal the language?

It is the rebel angel in us that interprets The Fall, not as a punishment, but as a calling. It is in America much as it is in poetry, a time to rebuild with one eye on the past and one on the future, and most importantly, with both eyes open. It is maybe the first sign in decades that language healers are needed in America, and so must come down from their own fortified towers and absurd, “enchanted” isolations, academic, psychological, or what have you.

Osiris was the ancient Egyptian dying god of the underworld and husband/brother to Isis. He was cut into 14 pieces by his envious brother Seth (god of chaos), who scattered the pieces all over Egypt. Dutiful Isis was able to collect all of them except the penis, which was said to have been eaten by a crocodile or fish. She constructed an artificial penis, attached it to the body of Osiris, and had intercourse with it. She became pregnant and later gave birth to Horus.

Horus and Seth then battled for 80 years over the rule of Egypt before Horus triumphed (less one eye).

The second stanza of the poem contains various images and phrases from the Egyptian Book of the Dead. The dead who had to make the journey to the afterlife were said to become Osiris. His mouth and eyes were cut open with an adze so that the god could see and speak his name and use the “words of power”, those magical incantations necessary to protect one against the oppositional forces and judgments one faced.

This is, needless to say, of particular interest to a poet, who must rightly perform an Opening of the Mouth Ceremony in order to create poetry.

Although the poet who speaks this poem is not blessed with a tongue as “perfect” (Book of the Dead) as the one Isis used to weave the incantations which protected Osiris during the process of his reassembly, he still must use it in order to sanctify his passage through the underworld of his impotency. Part of the blues journey requires the journeyer to see himself as godless (or goddessless), as impotent to the forces that act upon him, treating him as if he were merely substance, material, stuff.

Furloughed draws inspiration from classic folktales. The repetitive prosaic structures used are derived from an eclectic sampling of these old stories. The “voice” of folktales is a thing not often explored for its poetic worth (a notable exception would be Russell Edson), but I think it is an essential component, something like blues is to jazz. There are a few specific folktales I take actual plot points from. In order of appearance, they are: “Ridden by a Witch” (from August Ey), “Iron Hans” (from the Grimms), and “The Three Billy Goats Gruff” (Peter Christen Asbjørnsen and Jørgen Moe).

Levity Among the Loons was written immediately after I read Theodore Roethke’s Collected Poems. It is not meant to be an ode or an imitation; rather, I think it is more a personal reaction to and transmogrification of Roethke. I had especially noticed Roethke’s fascination with the dark anima or the ruthless consuming unconscious, which he seemed unable to work through. He was like a man in an old story that was enchanted by a mermaid or water spirit and lured into a watery death. I believe he characterized this as a necessary “regression”, but sometimes in the dizziness of diving, we accidentally drown. The unconscious is not so much a romper room as it is an ocean, just as deep and terrible and powerful as it is full of life and buoyancy and eco-structure.

Drinking was, of course, a problem for Roethke. Drinking and depression.

[A few years after writing this poem and at least a year after writing this note, I discovered that my approach to Roethke may have been unintentionally prescient. It seems (I read this online, and don't know if it's 100% true) that Roethke died after mixing some drinks and jumping into a swimming pool . . . where he had a heart attack and drowned. Maybe I would seem all the more clever if I had known this before I wrote "Loons" . . . but as I said, this was not meant to be an ode . . . or an elegy]

Roethke’s sing-songy children’s and nonsense verses juxtaposed and imbued his “more serious” poems with their darker, childlike (or fairytale-like) humor. They painted a portrait (in my mind at least) of a fascinatingly divided and self-destructive artist.

Possibly, this inspired me to create my self-reflecting, self-serious loon and his watery, lecherous, punning, foolhardy alter ego who plans to woo the reflection of the moon by hook or by crook. He was a very fun character to write.

Just a personal note, the voice and persona for the moon were inspired by Margaret Dumont, the wealthy dowager character wooed by Groucho in many great Marx Brothers movies. So, it would be fair to say that the reflected loon owes a great deal to Groucho, Chico, and Harpo, and not just Roethke.

Some years after I wrote this poem, I discovered that a very similar theme existed in a very famous poem of the 8th century Chinese poet Li Po called “Drinking Alone (by Moonlight)”. The first stanza as translated by Sam Hamill is:

I take my wine jug out among the flowers
to drink alone, without friends.
I raise my cup to entice the moon.
That, and my shadow, makes us three.
But the moon doesn’t drink,
and my shadow silently follows.
I will travel with moon and shadow,
happy to the end of spring.
When I sing, the moon dances.
When I dance, my shadow dances, too.
We share life’s joys when sober.
Drunk, each goes a separate way.
Constant friends, although we wander,
we’ll meet again in the Milky Way.

One might think I must have happened across this poem at some point during my education, and that, if only subconsciously, it influenced me . . . but I doubt it. Rather, I think it is a matter of the old axioms, “like thinkers drink alike” and “all new poetry is really old poetry”. I gladly bow to the bottle of Li Po. He pours a loving cup.

Featherhorse is, like Osiris, a retelling of an ancient myth from the perspective of a non-hero. This is the ancient Greek story of Pegasus, of course, who along with his “brother”, the giant (?), Chrysaor, sprung from the spilled blood of decapitated Medusa after the golden hero, Perseus, struck his mortal blow.

The winged horse, Pegasus, would go on to famous adventures, most notably with the Greek hero, Bellerophon, who was able to slay the chimera while riding his winged steed. Bellerophon was also a fallen goldenboy, bucked from Pegasus as he tried to ascend to Mount Olympus. Zeus sent a gadfly, which stung Pegasus and prevented the hubristic ascent of Bellerophon.

Pegasus was the horse of the Muses and the symbol of poetry. Chrysaor, on the other hand, received little literary attention and disappeared into anonymity. Maybe he sired Geryon, the keeper of the red cattle, who Heracles dispatched during a labor. I was curious; if Pegasus is the symbol of poetry, then what relationship does his brother, Chrysaor, have to poetry? Surely there must be some connection. Could Chrysaor represent a kind of anti-poetry, an inglorious voice (a voice and not an instrument), an unpoetic mind, and yet something more human, more conscious and anthropomorphic than a winged horse? This intrigued me, so I made him the speaker of this poem. Chrysaor means “Golden Sword”, which suggests divinely inspired discernment ("consciousness"). Other stories of Chrysaor suggest his difference from Pegasus had to do with where Medusa's blood landed: that which landed in the water (i.e., the unconscious) created Pegasus, and that which landed on the ground (i.e., the conscious) created Chrysaor.

Also, some sources claim that Chrysaor sprung from the ground in full armor (like Athena). Athena was the daughter of Zeus and Metis ("Wisdom"). Metis (the first wife of Zeus, who he swallowed in order to prevent her from giving birth to a son who, it was told, would overthrow Zeus) was the daughter of Oceanus and Tethys. Chrysaor married Callirrhoe, also a daughter of Oceanus and Tethys. Medusa was made into a Gorgon by Athena for being raped by Poseidon (a rival of Athena in Athens) on the floor of Athena's temple.

Medusa was a patriarchally corrupted version of an ancient goddess of wisdom and the earth. She represented aspects of the feminine which the patriarchy could not absorb, and so became “ugly” in the eye of the patriarch. What a wonderful muse for American poetry today, though. She is what is left behind of the muse/feminine after the male poetic mind has ravished and raped and lopped off her head. I figured her children, Pegasus and Chrysaor, would both have some resultant version of a mother complex: one soaring/ascending and serving heroes, the other decaying/descending and hating heroes.

Sitcom. The “stone icon of Mary evacuated through the sky” was “lifted” from Federico Fellini’s film, La Dolce Vita.

The Progeny of Behaviorists. My parents do both hold Ph.D.s in psychology. In spite of this coincidence, this poem is not in any way drawn from the actual events of my childhood. Really.

The Literary Life must be a reaction to all those fruitless years I spent in university writing programs where we were told we must do this and must do that and must never do such and such. I thought I would try to write a poem that was clearly a “bad poem”, that broke workshop rules, was replete with “young poet hubris”, and yet, somehow, worked (hopefully the reader will think this does actually “work”).

Forbidden things do not disappear. In fact, they continuously gather their strength as they lie in wait until, finally, the tables are turned. This is the rule of the universe . . . a thing to which we are not immune.

Fantasia on a Train Station is dedicated to T.S. Eliot, who couldn’t figure out if manhood was Prufrock or Sweeney, impotence or abusiveness. There is a tiny nod to Freud in there, too . . . very subtle, though. I hope you found this a penetrating read.

Creation Myth is a kind of companion piece to “Mother, Get My Ax!”

The Gospel of Mark is, I believe, thought to be the first of the four New Testament gospels written, serving as a source for Matthew and Luke.

This poem established the theme for Faith Fictions: the gradual reconstitution of reaction into formulation, belief, and faith . . . or, an acclimatization to darkness.

Polka for the Recently Exhumed is my invective account of the MFA experience. Well, my MFA experience, at least. I apologize for its strange brand of cloaked double entendre, but this is always the way the tongues of the oppressed must speak. It would be profusely naïve to believe there are no moral conflicts involved in the creation of poetry. A sense of moral responsibility is especially important in this contemporary era of unchecked colonial thinking.

I’d like to see a re-Americanization of American poetry. We have convinced ourselves that, because the nation ignores us, we can ignore it in return. We are thus free from bearing the American shadow, or so we think. I disagree. We poets are the true indentures of the American shadow. We are its scullery maids, its standard bearers, its grave diggers and embalmers.

But we have forgotten the vaudeville of our “Alas, poor Yorick!” routine.

I wrote this poem before I had read anything by Jack Spicer, but after reading Spicer, this poem seemed like it was written for him. I guess on both of our radios we share a common station through which the spooks and Martians are babbling. Or possibly, we share a taste in furniture.

Self Portrait in Canine. The tongue that is “loosed and thrown askew to palpitate/and drizzle impugningly” was inspired by my dog, Marley, who is a walking wet mop. Whenever her mad slurping is heard, all but the ignorant start to batten down, fortify, and pray to their prophylactic gods. Of course, she believes slobber is the greatest gift (and she is very generous by nature). Then the cries of “Ewwww!” begin, accompanied by chaotic fleeing or the usage of various defensive barriers. Many pools of drool spring up wherever she stops for a moment. Trouser legs often fall victim to large, wet chin prints.

Marley still has all four legs (but only half of a tail).

In alchemy the Axiom of Maria states that “. . . out of the three comes the one which is the fourth.” So there you are.

For Every Action . . . is a companion piece to “Furloughed”. These two poems, along with “Levity Among the Loons”, form a triumvirate of odes to water, which reflects and distorts us, which we consume, which consumes us, which we mostly are, which we need in order to live, yet can die from too much of. No trees were harmed during the writing of this poem.

The trinity of the poem is not meant to be the conventional Christian Father, Son, and Holy Spirit . . . not really. Think of it more as Flooder, Baler, and Sailor . . . or Drowner, Drinker, and Floater . . . or Self-Destroyer, Self-Healer, and Paparazzi-Poet . . . or chose your own favorite trinity (aquatic themes preferred). At the final stretch, I encourage you to bet on the apes.

Slaying Humbaba was inspired by the Epic of Gilgamesh.

Gilgamesh and his wildman “brother”, Enkidu, chose to prove their manliness by slaying Humbaba, the guardian of the Cedar Forest. Humbaba was a sort of monster, a representation of untamed nature. He was talked up as quite a serious threat (although he just hangs out in the forest far from human civilization, bothering no one), and both Gilgamesh and Enkidu have episodes of trepidation and indecision (and in some interpretations, a brawl) before they finally confront him. Eventually, Humbaba weeps and begs both Gilgamesh and Enkidu for his life, but Enkidu keeps spurring Gilgamesh on to slaughter. In the end, Humbaba is easily, somewhat pathetically, dispatched.

The entire Epic portrays Gilgamesh with a kind of Herculean arrogance. He is destructive and aggressive, and this behavior eventually has its consequences. First, Enkidu is condemned to death by the gods (for both his and Gilgamesh’s sins), and later, Gilgamesh fails in his quest for immortality.

My personal spin holds Gilgamesh’s first sin against the gods of the unconscious (Nature), the slaying of Humbaba, as emblematic of his condemnation to habitually repeat the fallacy (phallusy) of patriarchal consciousness: that the dire perpetuation of an aggressive, linear, monolithic will (or murderousness) is the goal of human life. The worship of rigidity, and the repression of flaccidity and fluidity.

The voice of the “You” character seems to me to represent the other. It possesses the wisdom, sympathy, and femininity that the “I” (Gilgamesh) character lacks. In fact, this poem is, maybe more than any of the rest, a poem of the other.

“Slaying Humbaba” came out fully formed and has never been revised or altered. It is, despite its apparent simplicity, extremely dense (as all “thoughts” of the unconscious are). It is likely the densest poem in this collection, dense with otherness. I feel like it tells me something different each time I read it.

Anima is permeated with images from Homer’s Odyssey: Polyphemus, Circe, Odysseus’ return to Ithaca, the prophesy of Odysseus’ death, etc. The anima is a Jungian archetype of otherness not integrated into the male ego’s concept of self (in women, the term would be animus). Poets call her the muse. These “men’s women” are of course, patriarchal notions, but, I think, important ones to recognize, to relate to sympathetically, instead of just usurp.

What Has Happened in Heaven? Viva La Manifest Destiny! “Croatoan” was the single word found carved on a tree in Roanoke Island by Gov. John White when he returned from England in 1590 with provisions for the Roanoke colony. He found that all of the colonists had vanished without a trace. Croatoan was the name of a Native American tribe the colonists had established friendly relations with . . . also, the name of a nearby island.

The Croatoan provided food for the colonists (who, for some reason, decided not to engage in farming, hunting, or gathering on their own). The relations with the Croatoan tribe became strained due to certain acts of violence committed against them by the colonists, who had mistakenly sought revenge in retaliation against the attacks of a different tribe, the Powhatan.

Despite these previous skirmishes, the Lost Colony of Roanoke seems to have disappeared without any sign of struggle . . . although supposedly they did so suddenly, right in the middle of their daily tasks. The Roanoke colony was the first English settlement in the New World.

There was some speculation that the colonists had “gone native” and were absorbed into the tribes of pre-colonial America. It took John White three years to return with the provisions due to war with the Pish. Other stories had them all (or just the men) being massacred, trying to sail back to England on boats of their own making (and being lost at sea), or venturing either inland or to the islands offshore, but the true story of these colonists remains a mystery. Theirs is a voice that belongs to the unconscious (and the lore) of our nation, and as such it is one of many voices that cannot be heard.

In his famous song, “Sweet Home Chicago”, the great bluesman, Robert Johnson, refers to Chicago as “the Land of California”. It is assumed he meant this epithet to indicate that Chicago was a land of promise and reward (and riches and escape) for blacks at the time (and especially musicians).

I owe thanks to Michael Moore and his consciousness raising about the closing of the General Motors plant in his home town, Flint, Michigan, and the ensuing devastation of the local economy/psyche. This provided the basic model for my Great Downsizing of the corporation of heaven.

The marginalization of the other is not only significant to patriarchy and to America in general, but also, of course, to American poetry. Even within the kingdom of American poetry, the usefulness or audibility of the voice of otherness has rapidly faded into extinction.

The Family Business. Christy, my wife, had a dog named Indy when she was a girl. Indy could, indeed, much to the astonishment of all who witnessed it, sing Old Man River. I heard this once with my very own ears (after expressing a great deal of skepticism regarding the family’s claim) before his passing.

Our dog, Marley, although she does have loose gray skin (or gray fur at least), does not sing . . . even after years of lessons.

This poem is dedicated to my wife, who tolerates me as a human being, but does not like poetry at all. She has long hoped that I will start writing fiction instead. Regrettably for all, this has not happened. Instead, the old man lingers on at the threshold of extinguishment, serving as emblem of my stubbornness and indulgence, as my eternal and somewhat dissatisfying muse.

The Grail knight associated with a fox pelt is Sir Gawain in the story of the Green Knight. On his quest to meet his doom at the hands of the Green Knight, who wagered one stroke of an ax against another (but declined to mention that he had a detachable head), Gawain stays three days at a strange castle with a noble hunstman and his beautiful wife.

While his host (who is also secretly the Green Knight Gawain has come in search of) spends his days out hunting, Gawain spends his days in bed with his host’s wife. By their agreement, Sir Gawain and the host must exchange whatever they managed to win during the day. The host gives Gawain the spoils of the hunt, and Gawain gives the host the kisses he won from the host’s wife. Gawain also accepts a magic green girdle from the woman . . . which he does not give to his host (as it is supposed to protect the life of anyone who wears it). On that day, the host has only a meager fox pelt for Gawain. Of course, this is a story about an exchange of heads . . . and Gawain feels rather attached to his.

The Green Knight spares Gawain, but allows him to keep the green girdle, which Gawain chooses to bear as a mark of his shame.

A Mounting Song. Gondwanaland, or Gondwana, was the southern supercontinent (the northern being Laurasia) formed after plate tectonics split the original land mass called Pangaea in two in the Mesozoic era.

Firebird is a character from Russian folklore similar to the Phoenix; a large, magical bird with glowing red and gold feathers. When it sang, it was said pearls would fall from its beak, and its glowing feathers could illuminate large dark spaces (it appears to have been, although not exclusively, nocturnal). In the best known Firebird tale, it steals the golden apples of youth from the Tsar’s garden. The firebird is pursued and finally captured by the Tsar’s youngest son (an Ivan).

Firebird appeared in my imagination as I wrote “A Mounting Song” just as “dramatically” and unexpectedly as he appears in the poem. In fact, it would seem he chose to bypass my critical faculties and go straight into the words (and straight into Sagging Pants). He knew I was less worthy than the roaring, nincompoop swain of Sheela-na-Gigs, I suppose, and he was right, as usual.

I did about two weeks of digging (after beginning this endnote) before I discovered where I had first read a folktale in which the Firebird carries the questing hero on its back during part of the hero’s journey. It must have been in the book, The Maiden King by Robert Bly and Marion Woodman, which I read when it was first published in 1998. My poem was written in 2003-2004, so it’s not surprising that I forgot where Firebird first appeared to me (especially because I wasn’t overly fond of the Bly/Woodman book).

The folktale that book analyzes is called the Maiden Tsar (another Ivan story), and it was originally recorded by the renowned Russian folklorist, Aleksandr Afanasyev. The passage with the Firebird begins in the hut of a Baba Yaga who wishes to devour Ivan, who is on a quest to find his betrothed. Following the instructions of another Baba Yaga, he asks the devourer for three horns. He then blows each one with increasing force. Suddenly, all kinds of birds appear, including the Firebird, who tells Ivan to hop on his back to escape the Baba Yaga. Ivan and the Firebird escape, and the Baba Yaga ends up with only a handful of Firebird tail feathers. The Firebird takes Ivan to the shore of a great sea where he discovers the house of the Crone (who helps him eventually regain the love of his betrothed, the Maiden Tsar).

I suppose Firebird showed up in my poem due to all of the horn blowing throughout this book. Blowhards and poets are just two of the many Ivans, or fools, who seem to be the archetypal partners of the Firebird. In The Maiden Tsar, not only is the Firebird a keen listener to the fool’s blowing, it is the intelligence that moves the fool from the devouring blackness of the Baba Yaga to the constructive wisdom of the Crone. The fool’s intelligence is the only masculine (although, one could argue it is actually androgynous) kind that can survive amidst the hunger, power, and wisdom of Baba Yagas, Warrior Queens, and Crones. As always, the fool proves indigestible.

With his proclivity for fools, it is no surprise Firebird wandered into a poem about an icicle farmer with plumber’s crack.

This poem is, rather than being a hymn of praise for the gods spoken by the poet, a hymn of praise for the poet spoken by the gods (who have fun putting on the airs of an overblown mock poetic language). So it seems, rather than the fool riding the Firebird as convention would have it, the Firebird rides the fool, imbues him, possesses him like an ecstatic spirit.

I guess after being bashed throughout most of the previous 31 poems, something in me felt the poet deserved at least one pat on the back (something compensatory in the unconscious, no doubt). Of course, this pat on the back also includes the indiscrete planting of a “Kick Me” sign in addition to the congratulation. That is, the poet is revealed in all of his utter foolishness.

A Volunteer from the Audience. This was the last poem written, coming about two years later than anything else in the book (itself a 7 year project). It took me this long to digest the other poems, to figure out what they meant to me, what they had made of me.

I suppose “Volunteer” is an overview of the process of creation that became What the Road Can Afford. It is also a very personal ode to my muse, my true mentor who has created me as I created this book.

The poem follows the narrative of the alchemical opus, the conjunction of the opposites . . . from the blackness of the prima materia to the golden consciousness of the lapis.

What I discovered during this process was that my true goal all along had been the connection with some other. In approaching this, I realized that the audience and the muse are one at some point, that the poet is created for the reader by the poem itself.

The notion (seemingly simplictic) challenges the idea of patriarchal creation, which is seen as an act of will, an expulsion. In contrast, the audience must give birth to the character of the poet, that other who they can dialog with. The reading of the poems is a kind of labor, and I, as the writer of the poems, am the midwife.

I started researching stage magic when the magician figure appeared in my poem, and I was lead into researching the life of Harry Houdini, and then to the symbolism and practice of Tarot.

In Tarot, the first card, #0, The Fool, plays a very important role in the symbolic universe. As I learned more and more about The Fool, I became increasingly aware that I had always been a great admirer of his, and had for years written stories and poems endowed with foolish characters, narrators, and the foolish spirit.

At this time, I returned to my manuscript and to “A Mounting Song” (as well as some other “stuck” poems) and realized that my blockages all had one thing in common: I had written (unknowingly) poems about fools, but had not been kind to the foolish spirit. I had been judgmental of the foolishness. It was this judgment, this improper handling of and sympathy for The Fool that was responsible for the failure of the poems. I should have remembered the old proverb “God watches over children and fools” as I wrote a book about the relationship between foolishness and creation, but alas, I was a bad god in need of redemption myself.

Maybe this has something to do with why, in a poem exalting the audience as muse, I ironically found self-expression only through very esoteric and personal references.

A number of Tarot cards play a role in the narrative of “Volunteer”: The Fool (in stanza 8), Strength and The Tower (in stanza 10), The Hanged Man (in Stanza 11), and The Magician (in stanza 12). The little white dog who nips at The Fool’s heals also appears in stanza 13.

Two paintings by Remdios Varo also found their way into the poem: Rupture, 1955 (in stanza 10) and Useless Science or the Alchemist, 1955 (in stanza 11).

The Ceremony of the Broken Wand is a ritual performed at the funerals of magicians in which a wand is broken in half above the grave.

The use of the word “effulgence” twice in the first stanza is a nod to Joss Whedon character, Spike (a.k.a William the Bloody). Before becoming a vampire, William is a bloody awful poet who recites a love poem in public with the word “effulgent” in it. It is met with laughter and ridicule. But, hey, he had to find a rhyme for "a bulge in it" . . . so what could he do? Such is the poet's burden.

"My heart expands
'tis grown a bulge in it
inspired by your beauty, effulgent."

The word “germinism” (orginally, Germanism) was used by my muse to describe my overly-cerebral (and misguided) poeting in a dream I had as a young man. Having grown a bit since then, I decided I was ready to meet the word half way, make it “germinate”. As Sir Gawain wears his lady’s green girdle, I also wear this word with both pride and shame. In itself it is a coniunctio.

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“Mother, Get My Ax!”

I. We Made a Deal with That Mysterious Man and Lost the Cow

Then the poet comes in—
rubs his feet along the floor, cosmic sloth
in fashionably cheap pants—ascendingly,
up toward the podium microphone,
eyes turn like a sonnet—
the iambic gait, lamed
hop-and-drag limp, his eyes
deeper than worlds, crappy with despair,
and his shoulders from the catalog of Atlas,
hunched forward, gargoyling over the pages
a tremble in his hands,
sprinkling loose a salt of verbs
that bear him.

Up. Forward.
A coiled sestina, a dragon
ushered upon his own precious
useless dainty exquisite golden things—
humanesque. Reeking of nightingales,
whiskey, and whiteout.
A coagulation of nuances
metaphorizing into
a bulk, a giant,
something immense that can walk into a room
of empty ears waiting to buzz for words
like it’s a kitchen
and he’s an exhausted man coming home from work
past supper.

No. Not nuances. Hungers.

The voice is a bison—
shagged, matted, abundant.
Hairy words: Fee Fi Fo Fum—
those original hairiest of words.
Pre-language of scent and taste,
the first invisibles on the tongue.

Now, what we’ve been doing is building,
small taps of a drum roll laid down—
our hearts, kidneys, colons,
bricks of a tower rising,
our livers, snaking intestines, stomachs piled,
groping upward like an arm out of a grave’s new soil.

Some towers invade the sky
poised to trip low flying planes,
maiden towers hoping to catch the air’s verse.
Somewhere there is the Word
elusively soaring, a murmur:
love . . . ?

He looks out at all the motionless sitting bodies.
“This is called ‘Mother, Get My Ax!’”

Frees his verse,

free, free.

II. The Birth of the New Redestructionism

Let’s call the empty space between us,
where the sound of the words means nothing to the air—

Let’s say our anticipation disappeared into the wilderness
like a fractal fades into its private micro-cosmos of formulations,
still existing but cached away by infinity,
the way matter in the mouth of a black hole
becomes impossibly dense and loses
its relationship to light,
and the slope of sound like the slide of a fly
down the throat of a pitcher plant
shatters the one tongue.

Our stalk of organs planted and growing
as prayers grow—out of some wrongful state of death
with a vegetal uncertainty, an acquiescence,
toward heaven, holding out their sun-spoon leaves,
hopeful for that everlasting communion with light . . .
but the words hit at the base of the trunk, a thud,
and our tower starts to topple—
prayers falling everywhere, crockery crashing
against the hard hearth floor.

There will be no more hiding in the ovens
of strangers’ kitchens
waiting for Mother to rook him over,
no more love cries from the hooded prince,
no more pawing of his steed, snorts into the mist,
incessant combing of the hair, recombing,
no more nights spent tending the long-burning
Promethean fire.

We clap, stand, and leave,
each with his golden stolen phrase,
his gold-laying goose, his jabbering harp
all golden and grafted into his nerves now
like a catch reflex.
Our shadows step forth to cast back the flesh of our bodies,
a last glimpse that condemns us to return
to that sound collapsing in our chests, that physical comedy,
vaudevillian slip, that greatest performance
by that perfect performance artist.

Then to touch ourselves in the dark, bitterly,
where the great tower once grew up thick
into the clouds from that magic bean.
Oh, for the belief in magic beans!
Now the massive impact crater
filled with beard, bone, and tooth fossilizing.
Our hands chafed with the shaft of the tool.

The downed stalk browning into a paste
discarded through the village,
a massive shed snakeskin hacked with doorways,
passageways, throughways
for the necessities of commerce.

When we woke the morning after,
there it was, leaning up against our nightstands:
the ax, like an unopened gift
from someone who never really knew us—
our inheritance.

Yes, it was a most devastating reading.
We will wear it like a hide forever
and limp through our days in honor
of all that has fallen before us, all that falls and will fall,
and cries out from its death pit to warn Jack
that he is no longer a boy.

[See Note On This Poem]


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What the Road Can Afford

What the Road Can Afford




Downtime For The Goldenboys
“Mother, Get My Ax!”
First Blues
What to Do With an Angel
Levity among the Loons
The Progeny of Behaviorists
How to Taunt an Abyss
The Literary Life
Fantasia on a Train Station

Faith Fictions
Creation Myth
Polka for the Recently Exhumed
Problems with Romance
Self-Portrait in Canine
A History of Bitings in the Domesticated Universe
For Every Action
Slaying Humbaba
Revolt among the Cabbage Heads
What Has Happened in Heaven? (Another American Messiah Tells His Tale)
Forty Days and Forty Nights
The Family Business
Dream of the Thousand Men
Rite of Passage
A Mounting Song

A Volunteer from the Audience




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