What I Learned from Carol Channing by Michael Spence

Michael Spence discusses perseverance throughout his career and the success it brought him, and ultimately what he learned from Carol Channing. He last appeared in the North American Review with his poem “Consensus” in issue 298.2, Spring 2013. He also discusses “Consensus” in an earlier post

Perseverance

Carol Channing

Photo courtesy of deserthealthnews.com

Carol Channing was not an actress I ever paid much attention to.  I knew her name and that she’d been in some well-known shows and films, but I never would’ve thought she’d have made any comment that would mean much to me.  As with many other things in my life, I was wrong.  One day she appeared on a TV talk show and was asked, in the face of constant rejection and difficulty getting her career going in her early days, how she found the strength to keep going.  As I recall it, she said, “You just keep trying and trying and trying, and finally, fate gives up.”  That’s a great, funny way to phrase it, implying that whatever forces may seem aligned against one’s efforts at least can be worn down enough to allow a victory now and then.

I recently had my own Carol Channing moment in the world of poetry book contests.  Like many of us, I’d dutifully sent my manuscripts to competitions large and small.  For three decades I tried contests from the Walt Whitman Award to lesser-known ones sponsored by presses that now, alas, have vanished or ceased publishing poetry.  I was fortunate enough occasionally to get a kind comment or two from the judges, and I even “finalized” (as novelist and short-story writer Marjorie Kemper put it) a few times through the years.  But I could never get the last nod needed to actually win such a contest and get a volume of poems published that way.  Though I kept on sending manuscripts out, fate showed no sign I could see of giving up, so I came to the conclusion that such a win just wasn’t in the deck of cards I was playing with.  Mathematically of course, it’s always the case that the odds are tiny that a particular person will win:  There are hundreds or thousands of manuscripts being submitted, and only one is selected.  Still, we keep trying, because maybe…

So I was, as I like to now joke, completely floored and walled and ceilinged when I learned that the manuscript of my fifth book of poems, Umbilical, had been selected this January as the winner of The New Criterion Poetry Prize.  I kept reading and re-reading the email telling me this, certain that the words would morph into the this-came-close/thanks-anyway comments I’d been “trained” by all these years to expect.  The volume is slated to appear this fall from St. Augustine’s Press.

All of which is to say that, if you believe in your work—even if you don’t necessarily believe the outside world will favor it—you have to keep on trying.  Fate is so fickle a thing, you can never tell when it will finally give up.


ms

Michael Spence retired on Valentine’s Day, 2014 from thirty years of driving public transit buses in the Seattle area.  His poems have appeared recently in The Hudson Review, Measure, The New Criterion, The Sewanee Review, Shenandoah, and Tar River Poetry.  New work is forthcoming in The Hudson Review, The Sewanee Review, and Southwest Review.  His fourth book, The Bus Driver’s Threnody, was released last September by Truman State University Press.  (The Spring 2015 issue of The Hudson Review includes a quite complimentary review of Threnody.)  He was awarded a 2014 Literary Fellowship from Artist Trust of Washington State.  His fifth book, Umbilical, is slated to be published this fall by St. Augustine’s Press as the winner of The New Criterion Poetry Prize.

 

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Flashback Friday featuring Joan Colby from issue 293.2

Joan Colby is today’s flashback Friday tribute. Here is “I Am Calm and Happy but Desperately Anxious to Live,” which first appeared in issue 293.2, spring 2008.

“I Am Calm and Happy But Desperately Anxious to Live” — from a letter by Royal Dublin Fusilier Tom Kettle a day before his death on September 5, 1916 in The Somme.

How many of them on that grim battlefield
Composed rather formal ornate poetry
Invoking God, glory, duty, a noble grave,
Or sodden with the rank stink of the trenches,
Screams of wounded, abandoned in no man’s land
Found their pencils scribing bitterness.

Not yet modern or abstract as the bitter
Almond odor of cyanide gas over the battlefield
Where helmets fell dismembered in no man’s land,
No prayer, no lamentation, no poetry
No rats, no shot away faces, no ghastly trenches
Could pardon those white crosses marking graves

“Known Only to God” the unidentified grave
faceless bounty robbed of bitterness
or forgiveness, all that the heart entrenched
forever lost as upon every battlefield
the rotting bones formed a terrible poetry
inspired by the faceless muse of no man’s land.

The Battle of Imphal

Fast forward, a couple of wars, a no man’s land
Open their gritty prose, the poetry
Of post Victorian times gives way to bitterness,
Novels Fields Of Fire, Paco’s Story, battlefields
Always the same, hills, plains, trenches

Machine guns, firefights, Napalm, in its trenches
The mind huddles in the midst of no man’s land
Where no man can save himself. The battlefields
Are made of earth, the earth is each man’s grave
Each man who yearned to live, his fate bitterly
Pocketed, a few lines, maybe poetry

Or maybe just a curse, a name, the poetry
He never learned in those scholastic trenches
Heroic epics, elegies tinged with bitterness,
Housman or Homer blazing in the no man’s land
Of blighted imagination. Regardless the grave
Will name him and thousands like him on the battlefields.

Does it matter which battle, which no man’s land,
Which trench composes his bitter grave?
None of it’s poetry.


Joan Colby pic

Joan Colby has published widely in journals such as Poetry, Atlanta Review, South Dakota Review, The Spoon River Poetry Review, New York Quarterly, the new renaissance, Grand Street, Epoch, and Prairie Schooner. Awards include two Illinois Arts Council Literary Awards, RHINO Poetry Award, the new renaissance Award for Poetry, and an Illinois Arts Council Fellowship in Literature. She was a finalist in the GSU Poetry Contest (2007), Nimrod International Pablo Neruda Prize (2009, 2012), and received honorable mentions in the North American Review’s James Hearst Poetry Contest (2008, 2010). One of her poems is a winner of the 2014 Atlanta Review International Poetry Contest. She is the editor of Illinois Racing News, and lives on a small horse farm in Northern Illinois. She has published fourteen books including Selected Poems (FutureCycle Press), which received the 2013 FutureCycle Prize, Properties of Matter, (Aldrich Press/Kelsay Books), Bittersweet (Main Street Rag Press) and The Wingback Chair (FutureCycle Press).  She has two new chapbooks, Ah Clio (Kattycompus Press) and Pro Forma (Foothills Press), as well as a full length collection Ribcage (Glass Lyre Press), which has been awarded the 2015 Kithara Book Prize. Colby is also an associate editor of Kentucky Review and FutureCycle Press.

Clay Rodery is a painter and illustrator who lives and works in New York City.

The conclusion to “Standing Deadwood” by Thomas M. Atkinson from issue 294.3-4

“STANDING DEADWOOD” originally appeared in issue 294.3-4, May-Aug 2009. The first half of Thomas M. Atkinson’s short story “Standing Deadwood” was featured yesterday June 6, 2015.


House_in_the_Woods

After work, I stopped by on the way home to visit Gwen’s mother Jeri, who lives in a little stick-built house under a two hundred year old standing dead oak just waiting for the right gust of wind. Once Amber found a perfect arrowhead in the broken knot of a windfall branch, grown over and over again each spring, rising higher and higher. Jeri owns Miss Jerolee’s Trims ‘n Tans and most people call her Miss Jerolee whether she’s working or not. She was nursing a cup of coffee at her dinette and she looked like she’d been painted with the powder off of those cheese curls Amber likes so much. Last year she fell asleep with a chemical whitening tray clamped between her teeth, and for months and months, until her cigarettes could stake another claim, it was like she had a light bulb turned on in her mouth every time she smiled.

I said, “Is your tanning bed giving you trouble?”

She held out an orange arm and said, “’Bronze Goddess.’ You spray it on. It’s
what the stars wear to the Golden Globes.”

I said, “And I thought there was something wrong with our TV”

She said, “I got it off the eBay.”

I said, “You talk to her today?”

She licked her thumb and worried a spot on her arm. She said, “Honey, she don’t
call me no more. Not unless she needs cash.”

I said, “You give her any?”

She said, “Not since she broke in the shop. And I didn’t mean to then.”
She lit up a menthol and rubbed the filter end against her teeth until it squeaked.

I said, “I drug her home again last night.”

TraarbaraGruzŝoseo

I’d tracked her out east of town, to a trailer home back a gravel road so washed out that my shingle hatchet kept sliding up underneath the pedals and back again. An old woman on oxygen was asleep on the couch and a lady was selling loose gemstones on the Shopping Channel. Gwen was in the back bedroom in the dark, laid out side by side on the floor with a high school boy like they were dead. They were both dressed and his hand, slim and soft, was on top of hers as light as a feather. She’d sighed and whispered, “Tell me again.” Then I stepped between them and put my boot through the Sheetrock above his head. I stomped all the furniture to match sticks and didn’t stop until Gwen got in the way of the vanity, crawling for the light of the open door. The boy balled up in one corner covering his head with his hands, and I pissed three beers down his back before I drug her out to the truck.

Jeri said, “Smoking that makes her crazy, Honey. It’s poison.”

I said, “I tore up a trailer. Pissed on some kid.”

She shook her head and blew smoke out of her nose.
I said, “Wasn’t his fault.”

And she said, “No, but not yours neither. She’s my flesh and blood, but God help
me, you’ve served your time.”

I said, “But she’s my baby.”

She said, “She’s my baby once too. You got another baby to worry about.”

At the door, I said, “Jeri, when are you going to let me fell this tree?”
She said, “If you cut it down now, how’ll the insurance buy me a new house?”

I looked up and said, “That’s not much of a plan, Jeri. You might just get
squashed like a bug.”

She said, “Next time your sister brings her down, come by the shop and Kim’ll do
her free.” Kim is the Korean girl who works for Jeri, and she paints tiny unicorns on Amber’s nails that look like they’re running from one to the next.

I stopped by Wendy’s and picked up a Frosty milkshake because that’s about the only thing Gwen can keep down anymore. There was a doe in the yard when I got home, and we stared at each other until I turned off the engine and she bolted through the pines. Gwen was still sleeping and the whole room smelled of rotting teeth. I untapped the oven mitts from her hands and rubbed at the adhesive caught in the fine hairs of her wrists. When she stretched you could see my boot laces in the big bruise coming up on her ribs. She smiled at me like a sleepy child, like she used to, like the last two years were a dream she’d already forgotten, and said, “Baby, be careful at work today.”

I said, “I will. You want some Frosty?”

She rolled on to her side and said, “No, I’m just going to catnap until Amber gets up for school.”

Sometimes she forgets. I said, “Give her this.” I kissed her palm and wrapped her fingers tight around it and now she’s fast asleep. It’s what I used to do.

Raccoons_600p

I go out for a breath of air and set the Frosty down just outside the back door. Three beers from now I’ll be too drunk to drive to Akron, too drunk to run without thinking about where I might be running, too drunk to find my pistol hidden up in the rafters of the tool shed. But I won’t be too drunk to sit in the dark and watch him lick ice cream off his little black hands. And with any luck, I won’t be too drunk to throw my hatchet through the screen door, at the night full of starlight gathered in the green behind his eyes.


Thomas M. Atkinson is an author and playwright. His new novel, Tiki Man, was named one of four finalists in the 2014 Leapfrog Press Fiction Contest. His new collection of linked stories, Standing Deadwood, which includes “Standing Deadwood,” has been selected as a finalist in the 2014 Spokane Prize for Fiction (Willow Springs Editions) and the 2014 St. Lawrence Book Award for Fiction (Black Lawrence Press). “Ruint Horse” was just named 1st Runner-up for the 2014 Chris O’Malley Prize for Fiction at The Madison Review and will appear in the Spring 2015 issue. His short story, “Grimace in the Burnt Black Hills,” published in The Sun magazine, was twice nominated for a 2013 Pushcart Prize, and is taught in English 11 & 12 AP courses in San Diego, California. “Ruint Horse” and “Red, White & Blue,” were finalists for Tampa Review’s 2013 and 2014 Danahy Fiction Prize. His short play, Dancing Turtle, was one of six winners of the 2013 38th Annual Samuel French Off Off Broadway Festival, and appears in an anthology of the same name. He has won numerous awards for both fiction and drama, including five Ohio Arts Council Individual Excellence Awards. His short fiction has appeared in The Sun, The Madison Review, The North American Review, The Indiana Review, Tampa Review, Fifth Wednesday Journal, The Moon, City Beat, Clifton, and Electron Press Magazine. A new print edition of his first novel, Strobe Life, is now available. He and his wife live in Ohio and have two sons.

A Special Saturday featuring “STANDING DEADWOOD” by Thomas M. Atkinson from 294.3-4

Thomas M. Atkinson’s short story “Standing Deadwood” was featured in issue 294.3/4, spring/summer 2009. This is the first half of the story and the conclusion will be posted tomorrow, Sunday June 7, 2015.

“STANDING DEADWOOD”

The raccoon took a crap in my truck last night. Inside the cab, in the cup-holder. I was still a little bleary this morning and my coffee thermos wouldn’t sit straight so I kept trying to push it down. That’s how my day started. That and a sore knee. He must have dropped down out of the pine and pushed in the cardboard I had over the busted rear window. I can’t remember what Gwen threw to break that out. Back when she still had the strength to throw stuff and hadn’t pawned everything in the house worth throwing.

racoon

Some night if I can stay awake long enough, I’m going to put out a can of Super Seafood Supper cat-food and when he’s fat and happy and licking out the bottom of the  can, I’ll shoot that little fucker right through his eye, just so he knows it was me. Skin him out and hang his carcass in a tree to warn off his buddies. I’m starting to believe the house was built on sacred ground, cursed by a great Ohio chief like Cornstalk, right before one of my wife’s relatives cut off his nut-sack for a tobacco pouch. I don’t know what else would explain everything going insane, even the animals. My great grandmother was Shawnee, and claimed an unbroken bloodline back to Black Wolf, who
raided up and down the Big Sandy and Tug Fork, down into Virginia and crossing the big
river up into this part of Ohio, killing the men and babies, stealing the women, and
trading the children to faraway tribes. But besides black hair thick as fishing line, which I
passed on to my daughter, and being a sorry, sloppy, and cheap drunk, I don’t see it when
I look in the mirror. That’s why I can’t ever catch him, because by my third beer I’m
either drooling on the sofa or I’m out on a tear chasing down Gwen.

racoon2

This time last year I got the ladder to clean the leaves and needles out of the gutters. Blocked gutters in the winter can cause ice dams and do all kinds of damage. I was a roofer for seventeen years right out of high school, back before the Mexicans started doing it for free, and I got nothing to show for it except bad knees and a shingle hatchet under the seat of my truck that slides out if I brake too hard. Now I work at the
discount tire place over on Route 4. Down the whole length of gutter on the east side of the house, every six inches, like he had a tape measure, were little piles of raccoon turds. Not piles that had been on the roof and got washed in by the rain, but direct deposits. In the quiet hours of the night, a raccoon is climbing on my roof just so he can hang his fat ass off and crap in my gutter. I don’t know why. There’s a square hole in the front porch where there used to be a rail post and he likes to go in there too. Last August he took a dump in the swimming pool of Amber’s Barbie Wee Three Friends Splash Splash Splash Play set and chewed off the little blue plastic umbrella. She and the Wee Three Friends were already living with my sister up outside Akron by then so we both didn’t have to watch her mom go bat-shit crazy every couple of days. She asks about it every time I call,
and if she doesn’t forget about it soon I’ll have to get my mother-in-law to find a used one on the eBay to send her for Christmas.

When I got to work Billy was already out in the service truck and Grimace was
climbing up out of the pit from underneath an old BMW.

He said, “Hey, Chief.” But it didn’t really sound any more like Chief this morning
than it did any other morning. Billy named him Grimace after that purple thing in the old
McDonald’s commercials. A few years back, the batch of meth he was cooking blew up
in his face, so like the original, he has no ears or nose to speak of and what’s left of his
lips are pulled back so tight he has a hard time closing them around words or food. Every
morning his senile mother paints eyebrows on the angry purple skin and he lets her
because it was her house that got burned to the ground. They change a little each day and
sometimes it can take hours to put your finger on just what mood he looks like he’s in.
But not today.

I said, “Concerned. You look concerned.”
Grimace said, “Really?”

He’s not big on mirrors and each morning it’s up to me to let him know how it
turned out. He thought a moment and said, “Yeah, I am. But I wonder how she knows?”

More often than not, Ma Grimace’s work with the eyeliner pencil seems to
capture what’s going on behind the hillbilly Botox.

I said, “Mothers know these things.” And there was a time that I believed that,
back before Gwen left Amber alone with only a cigarette smoldering in the shag carpet to
keep her company.

Grimace worked his chin against the pull of scar tissue and said, “They’s holding
a driver’s side caliper for me over at the Beemer store. Hey, you know the difference
‘tween a BMW and a porcupine?”

Speed_bump_on_Work_Channel_Road

Counting Billy, I’d heard it at least twice for every BMW we’d ever put tires on, but it was so painful to watch him get out “porcupine” that I just said, “Seems like I’ve
heard this one.”

He said, “Porcupine has the pricks on the outside.”

Grimace’s laugh would scare Christ down off the cross.

He said, “If you go get it for me, I’ll fix that flat that’s waiting on you. Billy don’t
have to know.”

Billy likes Grimace to take care of his own work, even if that means a customer
lounge full of staring strangers on his way to a parts counter. Me, I don’t mind helping
him out.

I said, “Is that it?”
He said, “That’s it, Chief.”

On the way to the BMW dealer, I could hear a song in my head like the bandit
raccoon had returned the ghost of my stolen CD player. It was “Chief,” by a singer named
Patty Griffin. I used to like it, liked it so much I bought the CD for Gwen, called “1,000
Kisses,” and gave it to her on Valentine’s Day. At first, Gwen and Amber would sing and
dance around the kitchen. Then Gwen started listening to it over and over, just that one
song, and she’d sing along with the part about dreaming and flying and laughing “way up
high” as loud as she could. And hour after hour, day after day, that’ll wear on you. I came
home from work one cold October day and Amber was sitting up in a pine, in a little
pony t-shirt and stocking feet because freezing to death seemed better than another four
hours three minutes at a time. I went in the house and snapped “1,000 Kisses” into a
thousand pieces and that was the last time I’ve heard it anywhere except inside my own
head. For a while I tried to remember the lyrics, like maybe there was a riddle hidden in
there somewhere, but all I could ever hear was the part Gwen sang.

But nobody but Grimace ever called me “Chief,” and I can’t remember now
whether I first liked the song because he called me that, or if the name came later, in one
of those twists you won’t ever figure out. I could ask him, like I could buy another “1,000
Kisses,” but either one would make the answer disappear like summer fog. Better that it’s
out there and I never find it than have it gone forever.

fog

Two crows were picking over scraps of fur in the turn lane in front of the BMW
dealer, and they hopped out of the way at the very last moment. The parts counter is
inside their “courtesy bay,” a long, double-wide garage with doors at each end, tiled walls
and a spotless floor. The customers drive in one end to drop their cars off for service, and
even though the “customer care team” wears white shop-coats that make them look like
doctors, the first thing they do is cover the seats in plastic and put paper mats down under
the pedals. The best you can hope for at Discount Tire is a complimentary ass inspection,
when we show each other the seat of our pants to check for any obvious globs of grease.

While I was waiting for the parts guy to get off the phone, I watched a blond in a
black sedan. She’d pulled in a few minutes before and was checking her hair in the
rear view mirror while she talked on her cell phone. She had a good ten years on Gwen,
but she had the kind of money that works like polishing compound because she was lean
and tan and buffed to a soft glow. And she sure didn’t have an addiction piling extra
years on her wasted body. Maybe she might make herself puke after a big meal at the
club, but she didn’t have sores on her arms that she scratched bloody in her sleep or death
on her breath.

Two mechanics in blue shop-coats yelled, “Close the doors! Close the doors!”
The one in front had three feet of two-by-four over one shoulder and the other one
followed at arms length with a flashlight and they both stepped like Elmer Fudd hunting.

The one in back yelled, “We got him now!”

The parts guy hung up the phone and customers and salesmen crowded in to
watch and all of the employees were wearing white or blue. The blond closed her phone
and dabbed at the corner of her open mouth with her pinkie. She opened her door and put
out a black high heel and a length of calf as hard and smooth and polished as a furniture
leg.

The parts guy said, “Ma’am, you might want to stay in your car a minute. We’ve
got a little bit of a situation here.”

She closed her door and I turned and said, “You got a caliper for Discount Tire?
A guy called on it.”

He looked at my mesh-back cap and said, “Look alive there, Slick. We got a
sewer rat running around big as a ‘coon.”

And I said, “And we got a shitbox beemer clogging up our alignment pit.”
A girl screamed and someone yelled, “There he goes!” and out of the corner of
my eye I caught something a foot long and rust colored disappearing under the sedan.
Flashlight knelt down behind the car and after a quick look said, “Shit, he’s got up in her
undercarriage.”

The parts guy said, “That don’t sound good.”

Two-by-four said, “Rock the car. Bounce it and I’ll get him when he drops
down.”

Flashlight looked at exactly how close he’d have to stand to bounce the car, and
quietly said, “Fuck that.”

One of the salesmen yelled, “Get her to pull up and brake hard. That’ll fix him.”

Two-by-four yelled at her and made big motions with his bat and when she
cracked her window open just an inch, like maybe he might be crazy, he still yelled like
she was way across the river. When she pulled up and stopped, the rat dropped down and
ran, ran without thinking about where he might be running. I turned on my heels and
drew back, and just before he reached me, the toe of my boot was there to meet him. My
sore knee twinged and he sailed over the black sedan, dead before he hit the tile wall. It
went quiet for a moment, then the salesman threw up both arms like a football ref and
yelled, “And it’s good!”

Flashlight and Two-by-four worked their way around to the other side of the car
and Two-by-four poked at it a couple of times. I was watching her and she was watching
me, and I don’t know why, but I took off my cap. Two-by-four opened her door, and she
turned, wool skirt on leather, and paused with her ankles crossed. She looked at me, past
the greasy jeans and the hard hands, and bowed. Not a big bow, from the waist, but a
slow dip of the neck and head, lowering her eyes for just a breath.

She said, “Thank you.”
And Two-by-four said, “You’re welcome.”
But I don’t think she was talking to him.

Flashlight walked up to me and said, in a voice filled with hurt, “You didn’t have
to kill him.”

When I got back to the garage, Billy and Grimace were in the grubby little office
with their heads together listening at the phone. Billy turned it back to his ear and said,
“Yeah, he just come in the door. So why do suppose the turd herding rats are all over at
your shop?…Well, you know what they say, ‘Fuck the best, die like the rest.’”

Billy hung up and smiled.
I said, “It’s ‘fuck with the best,’ not ‘fuck the best.’”
Billy said, “Is it?”

Grimace looked at me with an eyebrow smeared sad by the phone and said,
“Dang, Chief.”


Thomas M. Atkinson is an author and playwright. His new novel, Tiki Man, was named one of four finalists in the 2014 Leapfrog Press Fiction Contest. His new collection of linked stories, Standing Deadwood, which includes “Standing Deadwood,” has been selected as a finalist in the 2014 Spokane Prize for Fiction (Willow Springs Editions) and the 2014 St. Lawrence Book Award for Fiction (Black Lawrence Press). “Ruint Horse” was just named 1st Runner-up for the 2014 Chris O’Malley Prize for Fiction at The Madison Review and will appear in the Spring 2015 issue. His short story, “Grimace in the Burnt Black Hills,” published in The Sun magazine, was twice nominated for a 2013 Pushcart Prize, and is taught in English 11 & 12 AP courses in San Diego, California. “Ruint Horse” and “Red, White & Blue,” were finalists for Tampa Review’s 2013 and 2014 Danahy Fiction Prize. His short play, Dancing Turtle, was one of six winners of the 2013 38th Annual Samuel French Off Off Broadway Festival, and appears in an anthology of the same name. He has won numerous awards for both fiction and drama, including five Ohio Arts Council Individual Excellence Awards. His short fiction has appeared in The Sun, The Madison Review, The North American Review, The Indiana Review, Tampa Review, Fifth Wednesday Journal, The Moon, City Beat, Clifton, and Electron Press Magazine. A new print edition of his first novel, Strobe Life, is now available. He and his wife live in Ohio and have two sons.

Come back Sunday June 7, 2015 for the conclusion of “Standing Deadwood”.

Two Poems from a Dream of Anna Akhmatova by Jacqueline Marcus

6-4.1Sort of a strange experience on the writing of these two poems. I was an avid reader of Anna Akhmatova’s poetry, but it’s been years since I’ve read her work. The other night I had a dream about her: I was in a dark café—probably the Stray Dog, a name that always stuck with me in the biography, where Russian poets would meet and read their poems. Akhmatova stood up on the stage. I was trying desperately to make out the words of the poem, but I couldn’t hear her. The only thing I could hear was the sound, the tone of her voice that was like a very sad cello. And her eyes, I remember her eyes—those huge, mournful eyes. I could vaguely remember the dream when I woke up at 4 am And then I sat down and wrote these two poems. Both were written in less than ten minutes. I didn’t touch a word.

Abandonment

Bent on the weather of distraction,
I watched the blackbirds from the large framed window
make their way to the northern sea for the last time.
I don’t know why I was feeling the need to go with them,
or why the rain spelled the music of elsewhere,
or if the moon signaled its lost joy, like a child’s drawing
that had been left in a box of memories. All I know
is that the time had come for the end of summer.
A cold sun pressed its palm against the pane of glass
as if my heart would shatter—
so many pieces of impossible nights, a splash of leaves, perhaps,
in a field of elegant trees…

There was no point.

There was only the sound of a lifetime,
diminished. It drifts across the sea and a million stars.

It has no destination.

You come to me, dear soul, in the middle of this winter,
stubborn as a fierce storm.

What exactly do you expect from me night after night?
You follow me like an abandoned dog.

Crimes against Humanity

In the awkward moment of farewells,
small talk, coffee, the clatter of silverware at the café,
we left our signatures beneath the prose of endearments.
The train muttered the sound of towns with its gray whistle and scarves,
a cold wind embraced the warmth of the fire.
No one could have guessed by now how the country had changed.
We were strangers passing through centuries of farms,
cobblestone streets and mothers hurrying with their children,
bargaining prices for fish, cabbage and flour for bread…
The train sang through fields of wheat. Each time
it entered the tunnel of years,
it was a new dawn.
I got off, and stepped down to the platform.

I could tell you what I saw through the steamy windows:
the faces of the young, the faces of the old—

and the long, dolorous smoke of what we’ve done to one another.


Jacqueline Marcus is the editor of Forpoetry.com and EnvironmentalPress.com.  She is a contributing guest writer for Buzzflash at Truthout.org.  She is the author of Close to the Shore by Michigan State University Press. Her e-book, Man Cannot Live on Oil, Alone: Time to end our dependency on oil before it ends us, is available at Kindle Books. She taught philosophy for twenty years at Cuesta College, San Luis Obispo, California. Her essays, “The Beauty of Sadness: An Essential Human Emotion Exiled in a War Society”, “Neruda”, and “How Nazism Shaped US War Policies: Thousands of SS War Criminals Recruited to the U.S. by CIA-Pentagon after WWII” appeared in the North American Review blog. Her new collection of poems, Summer Rains, has been accepted for publication at Iris Press.  


Illustration by Eric Piatkowski. Eric was raised in Arizona, and after a few years of working in theater, he switched gears and studied illustration at the Pratt Institute. Now in Des Moines, he splits his time between drawing, drawing, and more drawing. Give him a call, he just might be the perfect man for the job. Prints of artwork are available through Etsy at Eric Piatkowski Art. The illustration above is titled “Adrift” for a story in issue 299.2, Spring 2014.