After a few beers out comes the accordion.
“Uncle, play us those songs you use to sing.”
Beautiful songs from when you were small.
The notes you did not know,
but the tunes your mind will never forget.
Oh how you played an instrument of zeal
that held our family together.
How we would sing and dance
to the sweet sounds you’d create.
And now the seasons have passed.
Some of us have died.
Some of us have grown too old to sing and dance.
Some of us have moved away.
Some of us were too young to care
Oh uncle, how your accordion use to keep us together,
but now we have ‘grown’ in all different directions.
Uncle it is sad to see.
Your accordion stored in a closet.
It will soon collect dust for eternity.
Only to be played in our memories.
But uncle when you pass,
who will play the accordion that made our family last?
On the fourth of
July when everyone
gathers by the river
a righteous man holds
up a sign listing all
the traits of sinners.
I notice two of them
apply to me as I sit
on my lawn chair with
a neighbor beside me
who thinks Marilyn
Monroe’s death was
a conspiracy. Lilacs
bud on the path and
at my feet. Lazily I tear
a reed off a lonely clump
of crabgrass, stick one
end of it inside my mouth
as I listen to my friend
speak. She is obese with
a statue of liberty crown
on her head, the lean
branches of a maple
above her still holding
their leaves. A bicycle
behind her lays against
the trunk of the tree.
Soon a twenty foot flag
is reared tilted like a
telescope when starlight
On Stopping Beneath an Inner City’s High-rise
Take a look skywards
and you will
hell is much closer to heaven
in the speck of a town on the khorat plateau
wisps from glowing charcoal touched
the foreigner beneath asia¹s
dim moon as her face emerged
hovering through humid air
nurtured by rice fields
banana fronds bent with dew
could he be her destination
pale feet on macadam
himself one more meat-stinking
farang shown nose to nose
by the last bright filament
edge of swamp she hooked
his small finger in tow drew him
over pavement even beyond
burnt wicks to an opaque world
discarded planks barely held him above
mud even deeper to brambles
oh yes he felt fear yet the insistent tug
that erotic grip kept him more aroused
than afraid to a large stained box
one end opened where a refrigerator had slid
forth to some rich citizen but this one¹s
faded cotton cloth was delicately drawn
aside to reveal her home a miniscule
oil lamp barely alive showing comb
curled photograph mirror
sheet of sorts lying dank
was he really going in with her to strip
first time feeling cardboard running
along his body her sinewy form
next to him leaning to blow
out the weak flame snap went
some twigs and snap he was up in terror
man in uniform gun in shaking hand
screaming at her and out
she scrambled the cleft of her buttocks
his final image of the night¹s fantasy
the foreigner tried to form words like
jesus christ don’t shoot before being
enveloped in a light that took
him from it all with the pistol¹s last explosion
muffled by an empty box
and a soldier crying for his sister
Michael J. Solender
he only grew in the nocturne
barn owls shared their hunting rhythms
by seeing what others saw
and he revelled
searching for lights
lost ember to
illuminate paths for
the storied master
in black offered
daytime belonged to
those who mocked
he lay with
home was there
Dreaming in Black and White: Wisconsin Noir and the Justified Poem
Crossover poems are increasingly popular in Wisconsin’s thriving poetry community: a member of my online writing group is churning out a series of great science fiction poems, pithy vehicles for social comment; my own manuscript of occult-themed verse is making the rounds of the book contests; and at a recent writing conference a Milwaukee poet handed me his latest chapbook, Misadventures of the Paisley Cowboy.
Then there’s the hard-boiled crime genre being worked by Madison area poet John Lehman, who recently published a book of verse noir—Acting Lessons, Parallel Press, 2008. Filled with murky mazes and existential ambushes, the work is in a short form devised by Lehman a few years ago, called the Wisconsin justified poem.
Looking like cubes of newspaper column, the poems are defined not just by their form, but also by a noir-ish feel and tone. They usually explore Wisconsin topics, are often rural, and at heart “inspired” by Wisconsin winters.
Here’s a taste, from Closed Until Spring:
This is the season of Ed Gein
and Jeffrey Dahmer. Sleep days,
fish through ice, pry firewood
from frozen mounds of snow.
Buy wine at the gas station. Court
darkness. Speak to no one. This
is winter in Wisconsin. Write
horror stories. Embrace the cold.
-John Lehman, Acting Lessons
“They give the impression of a rigid form,” Lehman explains, “so that the language within the poem can be casual and conversational…more Midwest, and yes, more Wisconsin. They resemble their larger cousin, the prose poem.”
Magic Lunch Box
If you’re unfamiliar with prose poems, here’s a quote by Louis Jenkins, an acknowledged master of the form:
“Think of the prose poem as a box, perhaps the lunch box dad brought home from work at night. What’s inside? Some waxed paper, a banana peel, and half a peanut butter-jelly sandwich. Not so much, a hint of how the day has gone perhaps, but magic for having made a mysterious journey and returned…the prose poem is a formal poem because of its limits. The box is made for travel, quick and light. Think of the prose rectangle as a small suitcase. One must pack carefully, only the essentials, too much and the reader won’t get off the ground. Too much and the poem becomes a story, a novel, an essay or worse…the trick in writing a prose poem is discovering how much is enough and how much is too much.” (Nice Fish: New & Selected Prose Poems, Holy Cow! Press 1995.)
The prose poem has a dual nature, as its name implies. “On the one hand, there’s the lyric’s wish to make the time stop around an image, and on the other hand, one wants to tell a little story,” comments Charles Simic, a former U.S. Poet Laureate. “It must dazzle, and it must also have a lightness of touch. I regard the comic spirit as its true Muse.” (The Poetry of Village Idiots, Verse 13, no. 1, 1996)
The God Of Flow
All of the above holds true for the Wisconsin justified poem. But John Lehman cites an additional element—flow. It’s what gives poetry its real dynamic, claimed Robert Frost.
“Most poets break lines by phrases or concepts,” says Lehman, “but Frost carries us with his flow from one line to the next, then stops us in our tracks. ‘His head carved out of granite O, / His hair a wayward drift of snow, / He worshipped the great God of Flow / By holding on and letting go.’ (These are lines about Frost by Robert Francis.)
“Frost believed we further enhance the dynamics of the poem’s flow by stretching the spoken sentence over the line of poetry,” Lehman explains. “Frost’s famous narrative poem The Death Of The Hired Man is a classic example.”
Pulled Around The Corner
The Wisconsin justified poem, unlike the standard prose poem, pays attention to line breaks and their relationship to sentences. It pulls the reader around the corner and only stops movement when the end of a line corresponds with the end of a sentence. In addition, the lines seldom end with prepositions or articles, but with nouns, adverbs and verbs.
As forms go, it’s a soft one. The rules are few and fluid: conversational style, noir tone and Wisconsin topic. Keep it short and justify the text.
“I think its informality seems particularly suited to the voice of a Wisconsin narrator who might romanticize a little more if the winters weren’t so long and so dark,” muses Lehman. “The mutterings of someone in a farmhouse kitchen alone, late at night listening to the wind.”
Film Noir’s Influence
Film noir’s a big influence on the poems. “In a way the noir films were not realistic,” observes Lehman, “but a kind of theatrical romanticizing of the forties. People enjoyed them partially because they were escapist.”
That escapism sometimes bleeds into a comic surrealism, as in The Nut Bread Murders:
A friend sends a loaf of nut bread that’s dense
as a kiln-dried brick. I tell my wife it reminds me
of something my first wife would bake. Is this
a mistake? No, because upon hearing it she
makes me a fluffy coffee cake with a brown-sugar
and chocolate-chip topping, and I deduce there
may be a lesson about women here (how one
can be played against another). So I call my
first wife who asks what the hell I want. Hmmm.
Later, I decide to put her in a novel I’m plotting
as a character out to poison everyone with her
goddamn nut bread while I, the hero, am saved by
a stripper named Brown Sugah. Writing comes fast.
It’s February in Wisconsin and I am going nuts.
-John Lehman, Acting Lessons
The Wisconsin justified poem transcends regionalism by combining a specific form with a specific tone. The form’s uniquely suited to the tone of the material expressed. But it’s the tone most of all that gives the poems their distinct character—not unlike the dialogue in noir films.
These poems work the way haiku and watercolor do to capture the mood of a place, expressing the way our lives resonate with our state and sometimes finding In the Middle of Nothing, Greatness:
I pass a sign on Highway 26 that states
Juneau is 5 miles away, Oshkosh 53.
I saw the same sign just ten minutes ago,
but listen, when I check my gas gauge
(then, it had been a little below a quarter)
now, I swear, it shows half full. And there,
around a curve, against the steel November
sky, in a field of cornstalks far as a crow can
see—are you ready—rises an assemblage
of grain elevators more magnificent than
the Cathedral at Reims.
-John Lehman, Acting Lessons
In Sprecher’s Tavern Lehman observes: “Living in Wisconsin is a lot like the tavern that sells rifles and beer. It doesn’t make much sense but it feels right when you’re there.”
That’s how these poems work. But how well do they work? Does it feel right? That’s the final test…and something only poets and readers and time can decide. The best test of any form is whether the force it contains could manifest as well in any other shape.
Here’s hoping more Wisconsin poets add to this new genre—a form and tone unique to where we live.
By John Lehman
2008; 38pp; chapbook;
Parallel Press, University of Wisconsin-Madison
728 State St., Madison, WI 53706. $10.
Shorts: 101 Brief Poems of Wonder and Surprise
By John Lehman
2005; 96pp, paper;
Zelda Wilde Publishing
315 Water Street, Cambridge, WI 53523. $11.95
Completely in my own mind
Looking at myself in the mirror at work,
I breathe a sigh of relief, literally,
say to myself, “It’s been 8 weeks since he’s
been to dance class, maybe he’s not coming
any more.” Then I smile to myself.
Finally, finally, maybe I can relax a little,
not be so concerned about competing
with him, dancing better than him. Maybe now
I can stop worrying about him
swooping in and sweeping my wife
off her feet. He has a wife of his own, but
she’s nothing compared to my wife –
he likes watching her, likes dancing with her too
whenever he gets the chance. He thinks
she “moves smooth as a river.”
My wife claims my jealousy is completely
in my own mind. She’s not interested in him,
not attracted to his tall, debonair presence whatsoever.
As soon as we get to the dance studio
our instructor declares, “Guess who’s coming
tonight?” And my heart sinks, it does,
drops like a stone to the bottom of the sea.
But I admit I am not surprised,
guys like him never really ever go away entirely.
But what does surprise me is that immediately
upon hearing the news, my wife,
by reflex really, turns, stares at herself in the mirror,
pats her hair and says, “Oh my hair is such a mess
and I didn’t put much makeup on either.”
What Am I?
What Am I?
Without your entering
Into my life, in a way
That was the sweet,
Epitome of smoothly
Without your joining
Of hands, in wedded commune
to a young woman whose
cries soon; rained monsoons, on the altar
Without your wiping
Tears, salted; spite publicly,
On greatly more, these occasions
And many more, the weepy occurrences
Without your non-caring
For the thoughts of gapes
Or the glancing of eyes on face
Cleansed; by five-fingered, handkerchiefs
Without those precious sharing
Moments in the world
Of you and I; we subsist,
In love’s mere couplet
Without your refusing
To give up on we;
To let go of, not so easy
To stand in shoes, man
To bring wholeness,
To the door of brokenness
To our exchanging of hope
To my awaking of adoration’s, awoke
To the children; whom deem you dad & papa
To the rock, that shields life’s suffer
To no other; un-selfishly, I wont release their connection
To no man; the title to land
To you, my love’s expression
To you, I demand the question,
Without you, my husband,
“What Am I?”-
HIATUS IS WIDESPREAD AND THICKENING
Stop signs abound and disgust.
While composing a symphony in the dark,
my mother and father waltz into my bedroom
and begin ordering me
to feel a pile of cashmere
to a Tibetan sound bath.
Can’t you see, I bark at them,
that my concrete is mixing?
That I am rolling sushi
with a rice you couldn’t fathom?
They never leave.
They talk about the weather.
It’s going to rain, my mother says.
My father says,
DIFFICULT TO SEE THE BICYCLISTS THIS TIME OF THE EVENING
Screaming in the car
on the route back from Taco Bell,
I listen to National Public Radio
that I would have been better off
as a London born
Pall Malls have gone up
nearly a dollar but no notice
was given via post.
The ninety pound Russian who asks
for my identification tells me
she recently recovered
from a very harsh
urinary tract infection.
The sun is hardly logical.
The sun comes down again
and just once,
it could stay up there,
staging a sit in.
A sparrow’s bones
A sparrow’s bones crushed into the pavement.
Is that the
Is that a
And where’s the hollowed skull?
A wind lifts the dust like
breath on piano strings.