Saturday, April 25, 2009

The Seaport Diner, Port Jefferson Station

(First appeared in Mudfish, a literary journal, though I don’t remember which issue; and is also in The Soup of Something Missing.)

The Seaport Diner, Port Jefferson Station

My mother and a cousin decide to go to The Seaport Diner,
my father’s favorite, for a cup of coffee on New Year’s Eve.
Though he’s been dead for six years, they take him along.
The black marble box that holds his ashes is placed
in a shopping bag, then on their table next to a window.
On another night the waitress might have asked about the box.
But tonight the diner is crowded, she doesn’t notice
that two women asked for three cups of coffee.
There are many ways to suck the marrow out of time’s bones.
This is my mother’s. No one’s seen the inside of the box.
Though at times I’ve thought all of heaven was within.
By refusing to bury it my mother is unwittingly hiding
my father from the devil. At a small table in the center of the box,
my father sits. Ashes piled to his knees, he remembers
flames and fears he’s in hell. If he walked forever
he would discover the wall and on the other side of the wall
my mother’s hand holding the spoon she stirred coffee with.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

The Original Purpose of the Box

The Original Purpose of the Box

In The Museum of Antiquities,
a guard in a gray uniform stands against the wall.
Once, he heard a woman say “I don’t believe.”
Once, he saw a child grow frightened.
Once, the guard told a man with an old camera
on his shoulder that photographs weren’t allowed.
Invention is a series of tragedies.
The original purpose of the box
was to contain the emptiness.
Though scholars once thought
it was invented as a place to hide

a length of silk, dagger
or a crucifix from a borrowed god.
In the middle of the room
is where the first box sits.
Tragedy is a series of inventions.
Each wall, the nuance of a different disgrace.
The floor, camel tongues stitched together.
The ceiling changed with the weather.
At night the guard takes the box home.
As he rides the bus it sits on his lap
as if it held his lunch or a gift.

Sunday, April 12, 2009


“My father's ghost watches TV in the living room.” This was the first time a ghost appeared in one of my poems, was with this opening line of The Jesus in the Garden.*

Ghosts have been a literary device for thousands of years.** Poets have successfully called upon them time and time again. Shakespeare more successfully leaned on ghosts in his plays than in his poems. The urge to compile an anthology of ghost poems is overwhelming but I’ll leave that to you.

The word ghost, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, didn’t really work its way into the language until about 1590. Back then it meant something else. To ghost was to breathe one’s last, expire, die. Today’s use of the word came later.

Staying on topic, some important facts about ghosts. These are things you must consider to successfully write about them. A man must be dead fifteen years before he is eligible to be a ghost, eighteen are required for a woman. No explanation as to the difference.*** The biology of the dead have yet to be studied with the necessary rigor. Ghosts cannot talk. Ghosts simply watch. If you want someone to return as a ghost bury them with an umbrella. This increases the chances by thirty-two percent. Researchers working independently of each in three different countries came to this same conclusion. “Haunting” is a construct of the living and something never practiced by a ghost. That noise you heard the other night was mostly likely a burglar or a cat knocking something over.

Identity thief is rampant among ghosts. Nothing to do with monetary gain. Somewhere in the transition from living to dead to ghost a giant confusion takes place. The ghost of a thirty-seven year old taxi driver from Buffalo, New York, who was murdered could take on the history and consciousness of a twenty-two year old Japanese from Tokyo who died of cancer. Imagine the dismay of a young Japanese man when the ghost of the taxi driver recounts their moments of intimacy. It would be impossible to convince the taxi driver he isn’t the Japanese girl. Ghosts don’t do this on purpose. I was attempting humor when I called this identity thief. Things like this happen all the time. Consider the imagistic nature of poetry and this could be a problem in a narrative poem that insists on an authentic confessional point of view.

A noise in the hall woke me. This was many years ago. I lived alone in an apartment in North Hollywood, California. The sound resembled that of a stick hitting a wall, was coming from the hallway leading to the bedroom. Just as I lifted my head from the pillow Rocky ran in. My father’s Great Dane. Rocky was large, even for a Great Dane. When his tail hit the wall it always sound like someone was banging on the wall with a stick. Rocky died of a heart attack years earlier, around the time my father was first diagnosed with cancer. I was so happy to see him I began to cry. He squirmed in my arms and climbed on the bed as I hugged him. His wildly wagging tail swept things from the table beside the bed. A minute later he turned, ran down the hall and disappeared.

The next night. I don’t remember what woke me, but I lay in the dark with my eyes close. Someone sat beside me on the bed. I could feel that persons weight push the side of the bed lower. I didn’t move. I didn’t look. I didn’t have to. Intuitively I knew. My father. My father’s ghost was sitting on the side of the bed looking at me.

When my father died of cancer six years earlier I lived in a different apartment, but in the same building. Four years after he died I moved into a two bedroom. The night before this he sent Rocky to find me.

The part of this that confuses me is that this was about six years after his death. Since than I have come to learn a man must be dead fifteen years before he could become a ghost. There is still so much we don’t know about ghosts.

Now, tell me a ghost story.

*The Jesus in the Garden
My father's ghost watches TV in the living room.
My mother's in the bathroom, busy cutting her throat.
Supper will be late. In the garden, my brother practices
the violin next to a statue of Jesus. Concrete robe, arms
outstretched for stain. I imagine Jesus standing
for the sculptor. Arms heavy without wood
to lift them. Boredom closes my eyes. There's a crucifix
above my bedroom door. At night, the tiny Jesus
struggles nails from his hands and falls. He reads the bible
and complains. By morning he's back on the cross.
There's hammering in the basement. My grandfather
builds oak tables for his daughters, makes them round
as a heavy moon, too large to fit through the door;
then smoothes the wood with his palms,
rubs blood into its pores. My brother plays
a few notes of hysteria, the garden's favorite music.

** The International Poetry Registry and Administration, Geneva, Switzerland, indicates that the first poem with a ghost in it was written in 1343 B.C. Only two fragments of the poem remain, “return to where / and prayer” followed by what seems to be nine lines later “the ghost of that daughter/ loved, yes and”

***Domesticated animals, dogs and cats, have been proven to become ghosts, and there is no waiting period for them. There are documented cases of wild animals becoming ghosts.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Then What

First published in the New Orleans Review, Loyola University, Vol. 33, Number 2, 2008, pg. 172

Then What
for M.

Four years after burying the cat she decided to dig its remians.
The gardening spade used to plant flowers along the porch,
she would dig with that. Surely the skeleton would tell her
something, but if it didn’t, then what? When she pushed
the spade into the ground the moon was low
over her shoulder, like her father. Below the roots
of grass the earth was soft. She dug with her hands.
Isn’t it enough to be curious? That would be the answer if questioned,
though she didn’t plan to share this with many.
And behind her on the clothesline, a blouse and the white underwear
she meant to retrieve earlier but was distracted by a phone call.
She remembered the grave deeper, but in minutes
touched something brittle and curved. The underwear billowed
in a breeze that grew into a gust and glowed over her and the grave.

Sunday, April 5, 2009


In the last three weeks I’ve drawn nineteen self-portraits. Two resemble me; a third almost does. I prefer charcoal to pencil. In the mirror my left eyebrow is an upside down checkmark laying on its side. In a photograph it’s flat, as it turns with the side of my head it drops off like the shallow slope of ridge. A raised eyebrow indicates suspicion. The only possible explanation is that when I look at myself in a mirror I look at myself with suspicion. What would a self-portrait teach you about yourself?

Poems are self-portraits.

In Picasso’s 1907 he captured his nose, eyes and forehead.

The mirror sits on the table; a Stanford drawing pad, four charcoal pencils, razor for sharpening, kneaded eraser, and a steel ruler are also on the table. Other things on the table include a glass of chardonnay and an ashtray with a smoldering Santa Damiana cigar. My eyes vowels. My nose is a consonant.

There was a time I believed if I wrote a self-portrait, I mean a detailed life-like rendering in nouns and verbs, it would be a prose poem. I no longer believe that. Now I’m positive it would be a lyric poem broken in two stanzas of six lines and forty-one words each. A face is always formal. Self-portraits are always confessions.

Vincent Van Gogh did thirty-eight self-portraits. He hides his face in none of them. I’m using the word hides in the most literal sense. There are more important meanings and innuendos for “hides” and none would be incorrect.

I’m absolutely positive that Keat’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn” is a self-portrait.

Try describing yourself, your face, in twenty-nine words. Explain your hands without using an adjective.

When was the last time you read “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror” by John Ashbery?

Each word you write becomes your personal property. No one would deny that our possessions speak loudly about us. I sat in a chair and wrote eleven lines describing the bookcase on the other side of the room. Each book was looking out at me from its spine and doing the same.

When writing your self-portrait do not start with “I am.” Never use a roller ball pen to write a self-portrait. Never write a self-portrait in the afternoon. Rules are important as they are reliable frames.

The Son of Man was the title of Renee Magritte’s self-portrait. In the painting he wears a bowler and a suit and stands in front of a wall, the sea is behind the wall, and his face is behind a large green apple. Self-portraits are poems. The poet is not required to reveal himself in a poem.