Saturday, January 31, 2009


Trains are the most literary form of travel, other than walking, of course. Old automobiles come close, only close. As much as I love airplanes they’re thin in literary emotion. There was a time ships were literary, that time has passed.

Somewhere in a box, perhaps at the bottom of the hallway closet, there is a photograph of Patrick R. Ballogg on a train. We were travelling from Vicenza, Italy, to Garmish, Germany. It was a long time ago. Patrick is smiling. A bottle of Tanaquery on the table beside him. I was sitting opposite. Soft winter light illuminates the side of his face. I haven’t seen the photograph in years but seem to think a young woman is sitting next to him. Trains. Another young woman sat next to me, and like me, is not in the photograph. Trains.

Trains muscle their way through distance. Trains are best experienced at night. I should have mentioned it earlier, but electric trains are not as high on the literary ladder of resonance. The exception are subways when the train struggles through a tunnel and the lights go out.

George Stephenson was born in 1781, on June ninth. Years later he invented the steam locomotive engine. He named his first one "Blucher." It pulled eight loaded coal wagons weighing thirty tons four hundred and fifty feet at four miles an hour. The men who shoveled the coal must have been buried with the black dust of that day under their fingernails. Men working on railroads seldom go to hell once they die. Yes, some are horrible, sinful people, so there is no explanation for this. Nor for the reason that Frank Sinatra collected model electric trains. Actually had a cottage devoted to them on his Rancho Mirage property.

Moonlight pulls the smoke from steam engines at night. Don’t let anyone tell you anything different.

I’ve never written on a train. I have on an airplane but it wasn’t a very good poem. I often think of taking journey on a train just to revise that poem. The fact that more poets have died on trains than airplanes* is not preventing from this. Other things are. Destinations are often a triggering event for travel, trains, in my version of the world, prove they are not a requirement.

Every time a ship sinks there will be a train crash in nine days within eleven hundred miles of that port of departure. Harold L. Watson, explained that this is a proven fact. He spent many years as an executive in railroad companies and was three emergency meetings to discuss precautions after ship sank. Railroad companies try to keep this secret. But when I told Harold L. Watson I was writing about how trains inform poetry he thought it would be fitting way for the public to learn of this danger. Poetry has always been good for this sort of warning. A thought from me not Harold L. Watson.

*The last year that the International Poetry Registry and Administration in Geneva, Switzerland, has figures for this is 2007. One poet died on a train, none on a ship. In 1989 there were eleven poetic deaths on trains and only two at sea. Figures with relationship are consistent from year to year except for World War Two. Fighting at sea and the number of poets who joined navies as opposed to armies is thought to be the cause here.

Friday, January 23, 2009

The End of the World

(from The Soup of Something Missing but first appeared in Prairie Schooner, University of Nebraska, Vol. 78, No. 4, winter 2004)

The End of the World

The End of the World brushed The End of the World’s long black hair
as if it were a story a lawyer was telling a jury
or a cloud stroked by summer wind.
Music from a radio wandered through the apartment.
As The End of the World dressed
The End of the World swayed to the music.
The owl in The End of the World’s backyard yawned.
He had seen it all before
-- men at The End of the World’s door swallowing
their tongues like medicine.
Each was treated to a different death.
Silence was one of The End of the World’s favorites.
Suffocation was another.
The End of the World’s very favorite, the one closest
The End of the World’s green heart
was the terrible way The End of the World cloned hope,
then took everything back, even the sound
of The End of the World walking away.

Sunday, January 18, 2009


Who would I be without my failures?

Sometimes I think I like my failures more than they like me. And they so like me! While others measure us by our successes we measure ourselves by our failures. You know I’m correct about this.

What does this have to do with poetry? Everything.

I wanted to say that every poems begins as a failure. But after scribbling that sentence in my notebook on three separate occasions I realize it’s simply not true. Though it is one of those easy to remember lines and would be often repeated in workshops. The truth is, every poem begins as hope. The poet, or the person writing the poem*, hopes the poem about to be littered across the page will be the greatest ever spilled on paper.

Fear of failure is often referred to as writer’s block.

There are few things as enjoyable as writing badly. Sitting in a coffee shop. Scribble, scribble, scribble. I even allow myself to use words like love, dream, laughter; yes, I actually write those words. I’m convinced Shakespeare would be jealous. For those precious few minutes I don’t judge, I simply enjoy. Here’s the problem. If I closed my notebook. If I never read what I wrote, nor shared with friends the result of that joyfulness I could continue the self-delusion. Unfortunately, I’m filled with arrogance and pretense and pretend I’m really a poet. And, gasp, share my poems with the world.

Writing like this. Writing badly, when you know it’s bad and write it anyway, is like sex. Once it’s over you have nothing to show for it other than a memory of pleasure. Sex is never a failure. Neither is pleasure.

But there comes a time when failure is not an option§. There comes a time when writing poetry is too serious to enjoy. Yes, I said writing poetry is not something meant to be enjoyed. It’s meant to be hard work. If it was easy everyone would be at it and the magical pleasure of a successful poem would be less magical. All this would happen if it were easy.

You send out your manuscript to 100 contests and win none and continue writing. That’s not failure. Failure is when you fail to get out of bed in the morning.

I smeared ink across a newly written sentence. That’s a failure, but negated by the fact that I was writing.

No one would suggest that the man who crossed the finish line last in the New York Marathon was a failure.

Failure isn’t meant to be embarrassing. Though it often is.
Failure isn’t meant to be painful. Though is always is.
Failures and mistakes have nothing to do with each other.
Be brave. That’s my advice.

How many books have been written about success? Too many. The world needs books about failure, the more commonly shared experience.

The word failure is at is best in “I failed to write today.”

* Writing a poem doesn’t necessarily make you a poet. According to the International Poetry Registry and Administration, Geneva, Switzerland, only seven percent of poems are actually written by poets.
§ That line sounded so good in the movie “Apollo 13” I wanted to borrow it.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

The Growers of Olive Trees

(First appeared in Shenandoah, Washington & Lee University, Vol. 46, No. 1, 1996, pg. 67; and in The Soup of Something Missing.)

The Growers of Olive Trees

The mayor ordered a statue of himself
erected at the top of a steep road that twisted
up from the beach. It took five days
to find a large rock that looked like him.

On warm afternoons we sat beneath
our olive trees, played dominoes,
drank beer and retold the stories of how
we drove away the growers of lemon trees.

Sunday, January 11, 2009


There are Questions so terrible they should never be asked. Each of us decides for ourselves what they are. There are Questions so sublime no answer does them justice. They go unasked.

A failed poem is an answer. A successful poem is a Question, one that would rather go unanswered. The only proper answer to a poem is another Question.

The story of Questions has little to do with the story of answers. Consider the courtroom, a trial. The conversation is Question answer, Question answer. Lawyers avoid asking Questions that they don’t already know the answer. Poets don’t have this luxury. The legalities of poems require answers. That’s how poems beget poems.

The similarities between doors and Questions is startling. Openings. What passes through has nothing to do with this. It never did. Though it has much to do with poetry.

Poetry shares room in the Art of Questions with science, one of the few, very few, places that demands answers.

Pablo Neruda’s Book of Question asked every important Question. I suspect there still might be a few that need to be asked. That’s what I write about. I’m searching.

Over the course of a lifetime each of us is asked roughly 187,326 Questions. Half go unanswered. Of those answered, 63% of the answers are wrong; another 9% will be out-and-out lies. Now that you know this will continue asking?

Since undertaking Questions I attempted to compile a list of each one that I’ve asked throughout my life. Most that began with raising my hand in a classroom were dismissed. Questions asked more than once, “can you starch the shirt and still have it ready this evening?” and “… do you love me?” were only counted once. Tempting as it was, “do I have a brain tumor?” was also only counted once*. The total was 91,876§ Questions. I then went back over the list, the ones I didn’t need to know the answer to were marked with a yellow highlighter. A red highlighter was used for Questions for which I really didn’t want an answer. Question asked to erase a silence were marked in green. 8,337 Questions remained.

*The implication of this question was staggering, for a few weeks I counted it as three questions. After putting some distance between me and the emotions involved I realized that there is not much difference between this question and “… are you pregnant?” Hindsight is an effective editor.
§ Questions asked in this book are not included in the total.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

The Butcher’s Bride

(First appeared in Shenandoah, Washington & Lee University, Vol. 46, No. 1, 1996, pg. 66; and is also in The Soup of Something Missing.)

The Butcher’s Bride

No one wanted to bloody their hands after the butcher
was shot through the neck by robbers who fled
leaving the front door open and three pigs
hanging in the window. And what about the dead butcher’s bride?
Men gathered to discuss how long the village would remain
without meat. They decided to repair the dock next to the cafes
they drank at each evening, pay for the work by selling
the butcher’s knives and pigs. Whatever money remained
would go to the bride. The open door would be discussed later.
The man with the darkest hair was sent to tell her the news.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

The Hypnology

(First appeared in Crazyhorse, The College of Charleston, Issue 68, fall 2005, pg. 133)

The Hypnology


A man sits on a bus bench and flips a coin.
It’s just after midnight.
The next bus won’t arrive for hours.
To keep the cold air off his throat
he buttons his shirt to the top.
He runs his hand over his wrinkled pants leg
like a blind man smoothing
a crumpled note to read the Braille.
This has nothing to do with a bus.
The streetlights are lost planets;
flies are moons.
Heads, return home.
Tails, remain at the bus bench.
The traffic signal clicks three time before changing.
Once, he got into bed without
even removing his shoes.


A soft blue light sweeps the kitchen
from a television beside a sink
filled with soapy water.
On the television, two women are riding a train.
After three hours of not being able to sleep
she washes dishes, glasses, and two days’ silverware.
She imagines the two women on the television
can see her t-shirt and underwear.
The television is mute;
she doesn’t want to hear what they say about her.
A siren in the distance.
A opossum in the shadow of a garbage can.
The dishes are clean.


A man sits on the curb smoking a cigarette
while she sleeps; raspy inhales, long exhales,
a forefinger against a thumb
when he flicks a butt into the street
before pulling another from the emptying pack.
She wakes to walk the dog
when the moon is between
a streetlight and a tree.
Her white robe billows in the breeze,
collapses, glows in the chill.
The dog sniffs at the man
in his smoky gray cloud.

There is so little to say.
Isn’t this the best use of night,
to make us afraid, make us uncomfortable,
make us stare at the ceiling until morning.
Is sleep a skill or a prize?


Now let me address you, reading
in your car, only lifting your head
when you hear the front door open
and see her coax the dog along the driveway.
Are you embarrassed like the man who can’t explain
his presence in a neighbor’s dream?

Saturday, January 3, 2009


A car pulled over. It was midnight. Raining. The car pulled over in front of a restaurant, Burgers, on the corner of Mott and Central, in Far Rockaway, New York. Far Rockaway is easy to find. Get on the “A” train. Take it to the last stop. Far Rockaway is last. There’s no where else to go. Decades have past since this happened. The occupants, two men, got out of the car leaving the doors open and engine running just as two other men stepped from the restaurant.

One of the men from the car touched one of the men from the restaurant. A light touch on the touch to say stop. With the other hand man-from-car flipped open a black leather wallet. I was very young. The gold shield must have gotten wet. I remember this night. The second man from the car also flashed his gold shield. Detectives. They ordered one of the men from the restaurant into the car. Only one. The other man was free to go. The world is a dangerous place. Melodramatic but true.

The man free to go was Murray Wasloff, my uncle*. The man ordered into the car after the flashing of gold New York City detective shields was Herman Bursky, my father.

My brother and I shared a bed back then. The phone ringing in the kitchen woke us. Light from the hallway glowed into our bedroom.

Is it fair to make poetry from another’s misery? Or do some things need to be written? Confessional poetry? I have nothing to confess.

I don’t remember what my mother said when Uncle Murray told her my father was taken away.

My father was not an innocent man.

The local police station in Far Rockaway is the 101st Precinct. My mother knew many of the officers there. They had been business partners with my father. Take that any way you want. She called the precinct. “Do you have my husband?” No.

She then called the FBI to make a missing persons report. He had to be missing for three days, call back then.

I remember being upset, but don’t remember crying.

Kidnapping? My mother called the FBI back to report it as a kidnapping. They weren’t particularly interested. But there was a witness, and there were gold shields.

It would be years before I would see my father again.

Ten minutes later the FBI called. He was being held at Queens Central, police headquarters for the borough.

“Okay, you Jew bastard, we want some names.” “I told you, my name is Herman Bursky.” The largest of the three detectives in the room wore a white shirt with sleeves rolled up. This was the detective who hit my father in the face knocking him backwards out of the chair each time the question was asked, and each time my father only gave his name.

Sometime, just sometimes, I think the past is meaningless.

“This thing called failure is not about the falling down, it’s about the staying down. You can have a new start anytime you want simply by getting up.” For years I carried this quote in my wallet.

Years later my father told me there was nothing wrong with the beating.

When my mother was allowed to see him the next morning he couldn’t see out of one eye nor hear out of one ear. If you’re afraid of getting hurt don’t become a criminal. My father told me that, too.

What he did has nothing to do with this story. What he did is none of your business. None of this has ever found its way into a poem.

It troubles me greatly that I didn’t start writing poetry until after his death.

*Uncle Murray really wasn’t my uncle. After my father was orphaned he went to live with the Wasloffs. Murray Wasloff was always Uncle Murray.

Thursday, January 1, 2009


If you stare at an alligator for too long they can read your mind.

I find my poems in pieces, the same way they find me. Every poem, okay, almost every poem starts as a scribble in a notebook.

I consider my unresolved poems as longish notes. If the poem is resolved, it’s no longer a note. The opposite of note is memory. Note is reliable. Memory is not. Writing a note is a joy in a way we hoped writing a poem would be. Then we became poets.

When all else fails and I’m desperate for a sense of completion I rummage through my notebook for notes that I can assemble and fool myself into thinking they hold together with some sort of poetic ¬– or language – logic. Occasionally, it works†. Occasionally.

Her tongue in my mouth, could taste every word she ever said. On a napkin? No. A bank deposit slip? Many times.

The best place for notes is in a notebook. Browsing is not only possible, but pleasurable. You can’t browse a computer. Sitting in a coffee shop with nothing to write I find myself writing about the strangers surrounding me. Even makes notes of their conversation.

“She’s afraid to say she never loved him, married over a year.” How do you reply to that? “I need a haircut.”

The envelope my paycheck comes in? Twice.

Notes made on random scraps of paper must be transcribed in a notebook as soon as possible. Before long they disappear. They always do.

The dead walk through the world with their hands over their eyes. I was sitting in my car. The only paper was in the glove compartment. On the back of an insurance certificate from State Farm is where I wrote this note. Something about that feels fitting.

My girlfriend* was buying shoes. We were walking through a mall and something red and pretty in a window caught her attention. I didn’t need shoes, and since the stop was unplanned didn’t have a notebook or anything to read with me. “Yes, they look great on you” is what I said about each pair she tried on. Though she had beautiful feet and no shoes could do them justice. A line occurred to me. Lines do happen this way if you keep your mind in wander-mode.

She was standing in front of the mirror a little longer in a pair of open-toed brown shoes, a canvas texture of some sort, if I remember correctly. Needing a place to write the line that occurred to I wrote it on the inside top of the shoe box from which the open-toed brown shoes that she was admiring came from. These, of course, were the pair she would buy, none of the other trials in front of the mirror lasted so long.

At home I looked for the line on the inside of the box. It wasn’t there. She bought a different pair, a fancy sort of athletic shoe, and I hadn’t noticed.

Someone, eventually, bought the other shoes. I wonder what they thought when they opened the box and saw my note. It’s simply a coincidence that every woman I’ve ever loved kept anteaters as pets.

(Originally published in the Hawaii Pacific Review, Hawaii Pacific University, Vol. 14,
The Week of Harsh Holidays On Orthodox Island

Sunday/ The Weatherman’s Holiday

In the old days this holiday is why a season
changed or men consummated a threat.
Bitter men call this Revenge Day.
Greeting cards are expected.

Monday/ The Day of The Atoned Rock

Candles burn. Prayers ends
with a name. Young girls secretly
relish this day: the trumpet’s
sour notes, the possibility of aftermath.

Tuesday/ Adulteress’s Day

Who wears a blindfold?
Who’s ear is cut off? Anonymous gifts.

Wednesday/ The Festival of Catastrophe

Windows are covered with red crepe paper.
Babies born this day are named after hurricanes.
Lavish parties and dances are held.
Only fast music is played. When this holiday falls
on an even date people buy expensive blankets.

Thursday/The Assassin’s Carnival

Parties and dances are also held,
though the music is louder. Gifts are exchanged.
Promises are made. Imagination
is under siege. Doors must remain open after
dark, even if no one is home.

Friday/ Electrician’s Birthday

Only two traditions are practiced.
From midnight to midnight sleeping
is not allowed. What people do to stay awake
is unique. Written confessions
are sealed and left with relatives.

Saturday/The Biographer’s Sabbath.

Nothing to do with memoirs or survivors.
Families eat breakfast together. By noon,
a sigh of pity. Men are given a chance
to change their names. The lambs
are slaughtered for dinner.

It sounds so immature to say “girlfriend” but it accurately describes the relationship and explains why I would be there while she was buying shoes.