cross-dressers and crucifixions
in a riot
and rotten apples
in the earth
full of pinballs
and paper airplanes
empathetic as a
On this long corridor
between two rows of desks.
Stiletto heels with their thin
or sandals, flat,
too easily pretending relax
or squelching rubber soles
so full of road,
in this hazy light from the low
glass walls, a drowsy glare
on the beige floor.
They sit at their desks on the corridor,
their faces change every year
but not their eyes
with veins of scared smiles
in the blank space
from the ceiling to their papers
between a packet of biscuits
and a bottle of mineral water.
And coughs and whispers,
the shifting of infinitesimal rustles.
You walk and sit, you survey.
And give advice, your job,
And you can’t avoid getting caught
in the surging river of comments
of others like you,
the murmurs and silences,
the eddies of sudden small outbursts
with in the middle of it all
the practised surveyor’s smile,
the broad –I know, I know…
time and again we’ve passed
you never manage to say
if we will ever awake.
Don’t Follow Leaders or Parking Meters
Watch Jack Kerouac on television a year before his death. Where do his eyes disappear to? Friends in the audience; or do they linger over the tragic, dog-eared pages of a child hood bible? The scent of chicory on his mothers hands as she waits for him, waits as do the leaping waters of Lowell, Massachusetts? The football describing an arc into his writer’s hands, his illusory hands (the hands of an angel)? Watch his soul ebb through his fingers as he reaches for a paper coffee cup, reeking- still- of sour whiskey. Watch his hand tremble with the fragrance of the cigar that would once have been a pencil, inscribing not dull whorls of smoke, but a thin sliver of light. Where is Jack Kerouac, in that dull husk? That dull, fat body. The dull red husk that hides a painted crucifix and a million worlds and a million words and flakes of rust, dull and dry and dry and dull. Watch Jack Kerouac spit the last of his blood from between his teeth, his shredded gums; watch him spit the last flakes of rust from between those teeth. The rust of his imagined America. Watch Jack Kerouac on television a year before his death. Actually don’t. Watching any dumb animal, being led patiently towards the bolt gun, is not, after all, entertainment.
As Bugs said to Clausewitz
As Bugs said to Clausewitz:
Of course you realize this means
Politics conducted by other means.
Mary Ann Honaker
Whole, it reflected an image entire:
eyes where eyes should be,
and nose just so, opposite hand to hand
perfect crease by crease,
and every blemish increased,
magnified, before settling into its place.
I would see an honest face…
But love scorned is like a mirror shattered.
The image breaks in unlikely places:
here a cheek and corner of lip,
here the ceiling staring back
where an eye should have been,
there a square of hair
with no scalp.
So too loving shatters:
here I see an eye that pleases me,
here a gentle hand, here
a thigh of taught muscle,
here shapely lips, here narrow hips,
but none a beloved entire.
Love may parse the beloved into parts
to praise each one, but a heart scorned
parses all the flesh of the world,
and praises no one entire,
feasts like a vulture, pulling
eyes from one face, skin from another,
and any , any flesh will do,
any at all,
all at once.
Ramsey Mark Elias
Behold Mighty Atlas
After losing the battle against the Gods, Atlas was shouldered with the weight of the world as punishment. Because he was a Titan, he was exceptionally powerful and austere. And he had no sense of humor worth mentioning.
After few decades of holding up the sky, he stopped thinking of it as punishment, but as necessity. And after a few more it was his purpose. During storms his voice boomed, “I alone keep the sky from falling. Only I stand between the earth and chaos! For there is none so strong as I!”
Like his grip, the furrow in his brow never faltered. It became part of who he was.
Mother Earth hated to see her son suffer. She could feel his mighty shoulders pressed into her, trembling under the constant strain. She tried to end the struggle over and over again. She sent all manner of drones to distract him or knock him off balance. Ants bit him all over, rams crashed into him, honey bees gave their lives stinging. But the harder they tried to topple him, the more resolute he became. All his muscles – his very skin – coiled up like stone.
Finally Athena, the goddess of wisdom, sent an owl to him with a message. “Release your burden, Great Atlas.”
“That is foolishness, whelp. For only I keep the heavens from consuming your Earth. Only I can keep the firmament at bay. Give thanks that I cannot swat thee. Instead, I command thee away to reap thy freedom: the fruit of my labors.”
“Great Atlas,” the owl pleaded, “you have never seen the fields as I see them. Your neck is too far bent under your burden. You see only the swirling stars and your abandoned legs dangling on the edge of the void.”
“This is my duty, puny fool. You would do well not to question the actions of the Gods.”
“Great Titan, you only succeed in holding yourself in place. Your legs find no purchase in the swirling night sky. You only stand upon your head.”
“You lie! For am I not all that keeps the world from disorder? Is it not I who keeps the firmament aloft?”
“Whether I am right or wrong, Atlas, let me show a small token of my gratitude. Before we part company I will remove the pests that torment you.”
The owl lifted himself to the air and brought his soft flapping wings to Atlas’s rib where a mass of ants were trying to carve through to his heart. Atlas began to recoil from the thought of help, from the soft thing about to touch his stern chest. He shifted as owl’s wing drew nearer. His hand twitched for the first time in centuries.
The ants were swept away from the Titan’s ribs by a light brush of feathers. He felt two impulses: one was to smile, but strangely, the other was to protect himself from the stirring feeling. He covered his chest despite the consequences. Pleasure finally penetrated where pain could not.
Atlas fell and landed on his side. He quickly rolled over to his belly to hold the earth in place. He bellowed, “Sweet mother! I have failed you!” Still dizzy, he suddenly found that everything was in order. Even when Atlas lost his grip, the Earth still held everything close, even him. He wept violently for her grace.
He raised his head and saw the ground for the first time. He felt leaves tickling his chin. As he looked across the field, deer and rabbits were walking along the ground; birds and eagles surveying the land. He saw the grass swaying in the wind – each blade unique yet uniform.
He turned over to look up one last time at the heavens and stars, the whirling chaos that for years he thought he kept the earth apart from. And for the first time, it was not swallowing him. He felt his Mother Earth warming his back.
He spent the morning nuzzling her fur and smelling the sweet pollens of her bosom. His arms- now weightless and outstretched- wandered over her grassy soils. She poured strength and energy in through his navel. He felt all the creatures and feelings of the whole planet all at once. And it was harmony.
His face lightened like a ship unloaded at port. His brow floated.
NIGHTS IT WAS TOO HOT TO STAY IN THE APARTMENT
We drove to the lake, then stopped
at my grandmother’s. The grown ups
sat in the screened porch on wicker
or the glider whispering above the
clink of ice in wet glass. Spirea and
yellow roses circled the earth under
stars. A silver apple moon. Bored
and still sweaty, my sister and I
wanted to sleep out on the lawn
and dragged out our uncle’s army
blankets and chairs for a tent. We
wanted the stars on our skin, the
small green apples to hang over
the blanket to protect us from bats.
From the straw mats, peonies glowed
like planets and if there was a breeze,
it was roses and sweat. I wanted
our white cats under the olive green
with us, their tongues snapping up
moths and whatever buzzed thru the
clover. For an hour the porch
seemed miles away until itchy with
bug bites and feeling our shirts fill
with night air, my hair grow curlier,
our mother came to fold up the blankets
and chairs and I wished I was old
enough to stay alone until dawn or
small enough to be scooped up, asleep
in arms that would carry me up the
still hot apartment stairs and into
sheets I wouldn’t know were still
warm until morning
“Son, we need to talk. Janet left me. I was wondering… if you’ve stopped hating me, we could meet.”
I should have seen it coming. I should have known he’d track me down; he must have read about my success, contacted the newspaper and made enquiries. At least he’s not here in front of me. Dad always did like to come out with the bluntest of statements, just to see the look on my face.
He continues, “We could start again, Michael, let bygones be–” I slam the receiver down and stare at it for a couple of minutes. Swearing, I pick it up again. I might as well hear what he has to say. I tap in 1471, make a note of his number and then dial.
He doesn’t pick up immediately; maybe he thinks it’ll be another fifteen years before I speak to him again, and has gone back to his easel. He knows what I’m like; I’m good at cutting people out of my life.
The answerphone kicks in. When I speak he interrupts. “I’m glad you rang back, Michael. I was afraid you wouldn’t give me a chance.” Is that remorse I hear in his voice? I think about the speech I’ve mentally prepared, all accusations and expletives, designed to shock.
“How did you find me?”
“Sandra. The one you moved away with, Michael. She’s back here in Worthing now.”
“I’m surprised she still has my number.”
“I bumped into her,” he continues. “Literally. The poor dear was so embarrassed.”
“She hasn’t been on speaking terms with me for some time.”
“You stayed together for nine years, I hear.”
“Well, there have been plenty more since her,” I say breezily, as if I don’t care that they usually clear off after a few months. “There’s no likelihood of the ring and bended knee routine. I’m too busy.”
My mind whizzes back to my childhood, when he’d been too busy, setting up his gallery. He’d been too busy to fit in regular check-ups with his doctor, optician or dentist, in spite of Mum’s nagging. Too busy for parents’ evenings. Too busy for me. He used to roar, “I’m trying to work. Stop distracting me with your endless demands, boy!”
One day I’d let rip. “You don’t have time for kids, just your precious paintings. And that painting won’t sell, because it’s crap!” He hadn’t even followed me as I’d stormed out of the room. He always left the comforting to my mother. The funny thing is, that painting never did sell.
Dad’s voice snaps me into the present. “Michael, I know I let you down when–”
“Well, I disappointed you, too, taking up music instead of art.” I try to sound flippant.
He clears his throat, the way he always used to just before one of his tellings-off. I’m no longer a child; I carry on before he has a chance. “Why did Janet leave?”
He’d married Janet when I was twenty, only eight months after my mother had died. If Mum had had cancer instead of a sudden heart attack, he’d have had to support her through chemo. That would have distracted him from his paintings. Mum’s manner of death had probably been convenient for him.
He hesitates before replying, “She couldn’t cope with looking after me any more.”
“Couldn’t cope with your temper, you mean.”
“You didn’t approve of my marrying her, did you, Michael?”
“That’s not the only reason I left.”
He clears his throat again. “You said I’d never see you again, and then you went. You didn’t even turn and wave.”
“Dad, I’ve got to go.”
“There’s more we need to talk about. I’m still at the same address, should you want to contact me.”
“I thought you’d moved – your number has changed.”
“No, I like to stay in familiar surroundings, and I always hoped you’d come back one day.”
So he is still in my childhood home. I’d like to see the old place again sometime. “I’ll be in touch.” I hang up and sit in silence for a while before picking up my guitar. Accoustic. At this time of morning the neighbours won’t appreciate the electric one.
“You never really knew me,
never needed me at a-all,
so now all you’re left with
is my picture on your wa-a-all.
So when I…”
I stop singing. I’m not in the mood. Sandra used to say my lyrics were bitter. The last girl said the lyrics were okay, but it was a shame I didn’t sound like Mika. Helpful. I decide I’ll write to Dad. Nothing too slushy; I’ll just fill him in on my life and career to date. It’ll be easier than talking.
I leave it for a couple of months. Play it cool, that’s my style; I don’t want him to think I’m desperate for contact. He doesn’t ring; Sandra must have given him my address as well, but no letter arrives. He obviously doesn’t want to be too pushy.
When I write, the letter is short, as I’m busy songwriting. And because sentences like “Are you a little bit glad I was born?” look awkward on paper, after all.
I’ve got a gig coming up in three weeks’ time, at the local College. Why don’t you come along? I teach music part-time, but I write my own stuff when I can. I won a competition – it was mentioned in the Daily Mail. I’m getting regular bookings now. You might not like all the lyrics, but my music can’t be too bad – I’ve got quite a following.
Two days later I get a phone call. “Michael, about your letter. Mrs. Pearson – she helps me with housework – read it and…”
“She said you must be famous, down there in Hampshire. I have to say, I’m proud of you.”
“So your Mrs. Pearson was impressed?” I smile at myself in the hall mirror, trying to stroke away the lines beginning to form between my nose and mouth. One ex-girlfriend said the lines made me look stubborn. “I don’t suppose you let her dust your studio.”
“I don’t paint now.” He pauses. I don’t ask for the details; I don’t want to appear too eager.
“I sold the gallery, too, several years ago – had to let it go, really. But I still pop in there to chat about the old times.”
“I see.” I don’t. That gallery was his life.
“I went through a bad patch; it took me a while to get sorted out, and I needed help. I’m doing all right now, Michael. I walk a lot. I get out into the fresh air more than I used to.”
“Good for you.”
I hear him take a deep breath. “Janet actually left four years ago. You said it wouldn’t last. What you say has a habit of coming true.” He sighs. “I couldn’t be alone after your mother died. Janet helped me through some tough times, but we were never soul-mates, not like your mother and me.”
“No. I know.” I feel uneasy. He’s hiding something; I can hear it in his voice.
Then he blurts out, “Always loved you and your mum, Mikey. I just couldn’t say it, not back then.”
Mikey. He hasn’t called me that since before I was seven. Before the gallery. Before my balsa-wood Spitfire had veered off-course and crashed into a fresh patch of Windsor Green and Burnt Umber woodland. Before he’d yelled that kids and business are a bad combination.
“Yes, well, you know,” I mumble. I loved you, too. A lifetime ago.
“I was a perfectionist,” he continues. “The paintings had to be right, and I wanted to be a success for you and your mum, as well as for me. That’s why I was so grouchy, I suppose.”
I see a photo of Dad sticking out from a pile of books on the hall table. I don’t remember putting it there; I don’t have reminders of him scattered about the place. I pick it up. He looks odd. The face is the same, with the lines around nose and mouth, but his blond hair is not parted on the left side, as it was when I was at home. It’s a close crop, a modern cut. I look in the mirror above the table, then back to the photo, as the realisation hits me like a hammer to the chest. “It’s me.”
“No, no, it wasn’t your fault, Mikey. I should have made more time for you. Family is important.”
My mind is in a whirl, so I change the subject. “Are you coming to my gig?”
“I’d like to, really I would…”
“Son, there’s a lot we need to discuss, before–”
“Sure, whatever.” The familiar disappointment sinks into my stomach, and my chest feels tight. “Well, I can’t talk now, I’m busy.” I hang up without saying goodbye.
The days pass quickly, filled with marking my students’ work, music practice and checking arrangements. I keep thinking about Dad. There’s something he’s not telling me. Maybe he’s getting married again and wants to break the news gently. I keep looking at that photo. I’d never realised we were so similar – and not just in looks.
Four days before the gig, I decide to see him. I can’t leave it any longer. How can I condemn him when I’m so much like him? I feel bad about the years of silence; he’s still my father – and he’s getting old. If anything happened to him, it would be too late to put things right.
Yes, we’ll have a little chat-and-make-up, I’ll sleep in my old room and then I’ll bring him back to my place. He will come and see me on stage. I told him I’d be a successful musician one day; he’ll be able to see that what I say, I make happen. I’m the one in control now. I leave a message on his answerphone: “I’m on my way.”
The journey is depressing. By the time I cross into West Sussex it’s pissing down so hard I can hardly see the road. The windscreen wipers groan continually, disturbing my concentration.
I need to get the words right in my head. I can’t just do the loving, forgiving son thing, without him knowing exactly what there is to forgive. Then we can move on. Everything sorted. And if it doesn’t go well, at least I’ve shown my face. Yes, it looks like everything will turn out all right. I’ve said some harsh words to him in the past, but they’re only words. It’s not as if I need to apologise for the things I’ve said. I can’t wait for him to see me on stage looking so cool; I deserve that moment. His son, the successful musician. Yes, what I say, I make happen.
The rain eases off as I park outside his bungalow. I wonder if the place still smells of linseed oil and turpentine. The front garden could do with weeding.
When I knock, I’m surprised to hear barking inside and then a thump against the door. Hallelujah, he has a dog. An animal is an ice-breaker. It’ll help with the awkward silences.
When Dad opens the door I can’t bring myself to look at him. I don’t want to see the greying hair or the wrinkles that must have formed in my absence. Not yet. Instead, I quickly bend down to make a fuss of the dog, enjoying the feel of the coarse fur under my fingers.
“Didn’t think you liked dogs, Dad.” I wipe canine saliva off my chin. “You never let me have one. Said it’d knock into your paintings.”
“I don’t paint these days, remember?”
“If I got in the way, you’d yell then glare at me, waiting for me to cry.”
“No, Mikey, your crumpled little face broke my heart. But I couldn’t stop, really.”
I keep my attention focussed on the dog, pretending I haven’t heard the break in his voice.
He mumbles on, “And now look. I should have gone sooner…”
I can’t help chuckling as the dog’s tail tickles my neck. “What’s that, Dad?” I look around the uncluttered hall and try to lighten the conversation. “You’re tidier than you used to be.”
“The glaucoma was too advanced by the time…” He makes a little choking sound. “You said I’d never see you again.”
“I know.” I feel a pang of guilt. “Well, not everything I say comes true. I’m here, aren’t I? So it’s never too late to–” I stop talking, my mouth open, as I spot the labrador’s harness hanging on the hook nearest the corner.
The fluorescent yellow harness. Printed with the words, “Please don’t distract me – I’m working.”