This is a digital story I was able to create as a part of the Minnesota Writing Project’s Invitational Summer Institute at the University of Minnesota. It’s a fellowship, which I only mention because I was put on academic probation in the fall of 1996 at the same institution for being an idiot/poor attender. It feels good to be earning graduate credits now, and it feels even better to have been able to honor Gervase “Gerf” Daniels, a special guy in my life.
Sanford Florida Public Works
They’re ripping up the sidewalks,
Cardinal calls drowned out
By jackhammers, bobcats.
You can’t weaponize a sidewalk
That isn’t there.
No more crime scene photographs,
no more guns discharged.
This is a peaceful place –
And don’t we all deserve
Some peaceful ground
To stand on?
Soft and grassy,
Surrounded by gates
A worn path in place of pavers.
A word of caution:
This is our life.
People not from around here
Who make us so afraid
That we go towards them
Instead of away –
They don’t get a warning shot
This isn’t Tallahassee,
This is a peaceful place
Where we do what needs doing.
Bring on the jackhammers:
We’ll walk on the grass
If we have to.
I AM FONG LEE
Animate an arrow on a map.
Imbued with all of the cultural sensitivity
of an Indiana Jones movie.
Launch in lush Laotian jungle,
cross continents and seas,
like the forked tongue
of a serpent,
or a dragon,
upon reaching the Mississippi.
One end lands in Minneapolis,
calls itself Fong Lee,
and falls, one weekend
outside an elementary school
on the beleaguered North Side.
No saint, this Fong Lee,
or maybe he was,
or maybe it doesn’t matter,
when chased on a bike
by cops in a squad car.
When rammed, run down,
when running like hell isn’t enough.
When shot eight times.
And a gun recovered later
has no prints,
no bullets fired.
Official reports attribute it
to the late Fong Lee.
The arrow’s other end
lands in Saint Paul,
on my roster.
This Fong Lee is quiet,
His shirt reads “I AM FONG LEE”
Poetry and politics,
Shakespeare and Espada,
and who knows if Fong
has read either man’s work?
This one gets the joke
because he tells it,
but forgive his lack of laughter:
There’s nothing funny
about having to know
that some kid with your moniker
and migratory history
was killed by cops
not fifteen miles away.
Indiana Jones only had snakes
and caricatures of Nazis
to contend with.
This shit is for real.
An animated arrow splits in two,
but cannot retract.
It must remain,
A red stain on a map.
This poem sets up on the floor
no pretense, no bullshit
preferring a basement,
The secret handshake anyone can learn,
this poem is not interested
or in being sold.
It is the lyric sheet passed out
at the outset,
because the words fucking matter,
a butterfly pressed in your pocket.
This poem is the moment there by the water heater
that you realized both your privilege and your potential
These are loud stanzas, and, okay,
a little abrasive,
but they know that’s not enough.
They are also starry-eyed,
and why not?
Nothing good ever came
out of anything that wasn’t.
This isn’t the most lyrical poem I’ve ever written, that’s for sure, but as the debate about Voter ID rages on (it’s on the ballot as a constitutional amendment in MN this year), I wanted to get at what I think the real problem is: racism. Communities of color came out for Barack Obama in record numbers in 2008, and I think that there are some who would cynically move to do whatever they can to prevent a repeat of this in 2012, making those same communities pawns, once again, in a game they didn’t consent to playing. Like a lot of racism, this is of the unexamined variety — voter ID advocates would never make the connection between redlining and the proposed amendment (after all, it isn’t Obama’s skin color they don’t like, just his politics, and I have to say that I believe their sincerity in this) yet there it is, an attempt to further disenfranchise groups of people based on skin color and a socioeconomic status that is directly linked to policies of the past (e.g. redlining). This kind of historical amnesia is very dangerous for our country.
We’re standing on maps left behind by our grandfathers,
covered in red lines and promises of financial solvency.
We’re the architects of a grand plan all our own.
We’ll make a man out of straw and call him voter fraud.
Ask him for identification – what’s the harm in that?
If he doesn’t have it, we deny the vote,
light him up as an example to others.
Use the maps to get it going –
we don’t need them anymore.
Behold, arms outstretched in supplication,
a burning beacon in the night,
a cross to light the way.
These are times of values.
Of course, that’s far too scathing a critique.
After all, we were very careful not to identify
those most likely not to have identification.
We never said anything
or skin color,
or people groups voting in record numbers,
Electing the country’s first black president,
by a landslide.
That’s not what this is about.
We just want to make sure we know who you are.
What’s the harm in that?
This is based on the Texas Republican Party’s 2012 Platform, excerpts from which you can read here.
The Texas GOP Weighs in on Higher Order Thinking Skills
A magician (or a fancy waiter with a lot of flair)
yanks a tablecloth in one fluid motion.
Audiences gasp, convinced
the silver and china will be casualties
of this man’s caprice.
But that’s not the trick,
and our man is to be commended–
everything remains in place just so,
only a little lower.
I am neither waiter nor magician,
but a teacher; even so,
I take no joy in having to explain
the more obvious metaphors.
So ponder, please, (though of course not critically);
I’ll cut to the candid:
“Challenging the student’s fixed beliefs”
is my life’s calling,
not because I don’t respect them,
but because I think that someone should.
I am a teacher, and this is what I do.
Oppose this work,
and I am a revolutionary, too.
I like writing poetry much more when I have a prescribed form to follow, so I’ve been playing with different forms lately. This may or may not be the first villanelle I’ve ever written. My wife and I are expecting our first child, a son, in May. This one’s for New Guy.
NEW GUY’S VILLANELLE
We will give you all that we are able
though so much is left outside of our control.
Soon you’ll take your own seat at the table.
We both know that soon this very day will
fall to memory, etchings on a scroll.
We will give you all that we are able.
Giving hope: for other days to wait till,
not knowing what they’ll overlap or hold.
Soon you’ll take your own seat at the table.
We know not how long your lungs will stay filled
or what you’ll say about us when you’re old;
we will give you all that we are able.
I imagine something brimming, something stable,
something glowing with an ember never cold…
soon you’ll take your own seat at the table
We can’t wait to meet you, let’s just say we’ll
never be the same (or so we’re told).
We will give you all that we are able –
soon you’ll have your own seat at the table
I believe that this is the first sestina I’ve ever written, and, I have discovered since, not a true sestina. Oh well. The end result is maybe a bit overly philosophical and plodding, but the process was pretty fun. Common and Very Common Nouns courtesy of Random Word Generator.
What does a half-filled glass of water represent?
What trite and useless lesson might it teach?
And can such aphorisms save a man
or woman’s beating shipwrecked heart enough
to buoy it toward something more complex?
Can mystery and meaning join with plot?
Those who’ve read the ending, know the plot,
and can decode what symbols represent,
(the ones that are straightforward, not too complex)
and these we might well count upon to teach
us something – not quite all but quite enough
about the heart of woman and of man.
And who am I in all of this? A man
who ruminating on it hatched a plot
to etch the glass’s midpoint just enough
that drinkers decide what drops do represent
and maybe then they’ll all decide to teach
lessons arid, waterlogged, complex.
For is life empty? Full? A complex
of organisms making up a man
or woman waiting for the thing to teach
or data points that we forgot to plot?
Hold the film up to the light and represent
it in reverse and see if it’s enough.
Tip the water over, then we’ll teach
the lesson of having had more than enough
of forced compliance with a placid plot
of fearing the blurred edges and complex
paradoxes intrinsic in each man
and woman with all they represent.
This man hopes to muddle through a plot
at once complex and never quite enough
to represent what he could never teach.
I’ve been sitting on this Word document for the better part of a year, maybe even more, called Northern Poems.doc. The idea, if I remember correctly, was to try to capture in verse something of the idea of Minnesota, whatever that is. I think, to be honest, that it wasn’t even Minnesota, necessarily, but that thing that we in the Twin Cities call “Up North.” It’s a funny thing, really; if you look at a map of Minnesota, you’ll see that the Minneapolis/Saint Paul metropolitan area is located in the East-Central part of the state, and maybe even hovering just a little bit south of that designation. That means that places like Hinckley or Lake Mille Lacs become “Up North,” despite their considerable distance from what might be called Northern Minnesota.
Geographical innacuracies aside, there is something kind of wonderful about getting out of the city and pushing into that part of the state that is not prairie but woods and lakes.
I remember reading Tony Glover‘s liner notes on the Jayhawks’ 1995 masterpiece Tomorrow the Green Grass something along the lines of “these songs are Minnesota” (if anybody can provide a link to these online I’d be grateful), and it changed the way that I listened to that record, which, for what it’s worth, is still one of my favorite albums ever.
I don’t expect these poems to gain such wide popularity and/or endurance, and I’m actually fairly insecure about my poetic dexterity, but even so, I offer these Northern Poems.
As a final note, the irony in these poems is that they seem to celebrate a certain warmer something than the seven degree temperature that’s here today (which is to say nothing of the windchill, of course…). I think fellow Minnesotans will agree that we endure winter in order that we might be able to breathe in the more temporal beauty of our state’s more temperate months.
* * *
There is a juniper berry
between your thumb and forefinger
And birchbark in your voice.
I will build us a canoe.
Your laugh will be the oars,
Stirring up the depths
As we make our way.
In time this lake will freeze,
The snow upon its surface
Crunching under heavy boots.
At these temperatures,
No one questions the integrity of ice.
We will walk without purpose for a while,
And you will lay in the snow,
Arms and legs working together
To make a snow angel,
And your laugh will echo across the granite.♦
The air is wet and full of pine.
A tawny miracle stirs not twenty feet away.
Eyes meet, a question mark against birch and fir,
Answer: hooves push off for safety.♦
The lake dark and shimmery,
Sky reddening as the sun
Says, “this is all you get,
But not all there is.
Also: this is spectacular.”
We stand silently, a vigil
To its departure, emptying
As it goes.
You say, “well,
Should be getting back,”
And a spell that stretched
From the eastern shore of Elbow Lake
To a distant spot below the earth
Snaps, component parts
Lighting up the night like fireflies.
I say nothing, and we walk slowly
The worn path to the cabin.
“This is everything,” I say,
Hoping to stretch something.
The air is sweet with wildflowers, and
You laugh your laugh,
Which I also have to tell you is everything,
Say, “it is?” and kiss me under the porch light.♦
New Morning Poem
Astringent air blows in with morning,
Wet sand like witch hazel.
My breath lingers just there,
In the space between the workweek and a sunrise,
And in the distance, a loon.
In another second, both will disappear.♦
When the last of the whiskey is gone,
Secrets buried in the yard
Roll over to get comfortable.
You rub your bleary eyes,
View the world through ragged pouches,
And listen to the crickets.
A million little metronomes,
Keeping pace of life up here,
Restless legs more symphony than syndrome.
Sloshing spirits can’t bring him back
Forty-five years on,
But the crickets, tiny and dependable,
On the smell of the tall, wet, grass
Fold time in on itself.
On the long walk back from the ballfield,
He strutted in the road, just next to the shoulder,
“Tony Oliva will be Rookie of the Year.”
You, younger, afraid, dependent,
Straddled the seam between pavement and dirt,
Kicking a rock that you found by the park,
Trusted he was right.
Headlights now, and you want to yell “look out,”
To grab his waist, to pull him near you,
But he is gone, and they fall across the kitchen,
A million pieces of glass, future sands,
Upon which tomorrow’s insects scurry.♦
This island pulls radio
Some nights as far away
As the Cities,
North to International Falls,
Those clear nights,
You sit with CBC
On your grandpa’s old transistor
Pale ale and a map
That came with the cabin.
How easy it seems,
Those clear nights,
To pack up the truck
And drift north,
Into a foreign land
The way radio floats
On the wind.
How many gas tanks,
How many portages
Or in the other direction
To the great Hudson Bay,
To the sea?
Greenland and Iceland
Become mere stones,
Breaking laws of physics,
Skipping across the surface
Of the sea
En route to Edinburgh,
A six pack of beer
And a map,
And you’ve traveled the world
From a cramped lakeside room
That smells of mildew.♦
Amidst moss and wet leaves,
Little room for worry.
There’s the smell of the earth:
No small comfort.
Soil in the fingernails
Signals a day spent well.
The dock your father built,
Left behind years ago,
Both weathered now.
Maybe it’s holy here,
Amidst moss and wet leaves,
When I first moved to Chicago with my limited skill set and education, I got a job painting houses. One of the two bosses, I found out later, had been diagnosed with ALS, or Lou Gehrig‘s disease. He received his diagnosis at just about the same time that I was hired, and I remember noticing a curled hand and some slurred speech.
His name was Ben Byer, he was very active in the Chicago theater scene (I saw him play Elvis at the Steppenwolf Theater once), and he fought hard to the end, even making a documentary about his illness called Indestructible. I’ve known quite a few people who have died, and it always seems to effect me in a different, unpredictable way each time. I was especially struck by the cruelty of ALS, a disease that destroys the physical body while the mind remains sharp and intact throughout.
This is a story that I am particularly proud of, and, for what it’s worth, would like to dedicate it to Ben Byer and to all of those whose lives are touched by ALS. Thanks to Dan at Cellstories for running it.
Stepping out into the parking lot, the sunlight is blinding. The radio said that today’s is the warmest temperature on record for this date in May. I imagine a version of myself – more youthful, less aware – driving home with the windows down, blasting the first Weezer album through shitty factory speakers, singing along at the top of my lungs. Young Self gets home, calls up everyone he knows, and hosts an impromptu early summer barbecue. Real Self is struggling to get the car keys out of the front pocket of his jeans, his hand curled and non-responsive, the keys falling to the dusty pavement below. Real Self kicks the fender, slurs a curseword, and looks around humiliated before retrieving the keys with his good hand. He drives home and calls no one.
Which isn’t to say that I don’t sit home on the couch for hours, cell phone flipped open, almost calling every person I know. I do this. I sit there and sit there, first in the low, warm late afternoon sun, later in the cool purples and blues of twilight, and finally in the sad and lonely light of my phone. I almost call, but don’t know what to say, and each time think that maybe I can fix this, maybe this isn’t forever, maybe they can’t tell. And each time I almost get up to get my laptop, almost check every medical site I can think of, and each time hear the doctor say no known cure at this time, only stopgap measures.
The doctor was so nice, too. It would have been so much easier if he had been an asshole, or if he’d had bad breath. But he was warm, empathetic, and smelled like antibacterial soap, which is comforting, in its way. His eyes were deep pools of sorrow and apology, and I stared into them as he delivered the news, looking as though he were taking from me a boarding pass for a plane he knew would crash.
Back at home, my bladder can hold no more. On the way to the bathroom I wonder how long it will be until I’m no longer able to perform such a simple task. I return, grab the laptop, and find my way to lougehrig.com. There is a picture of The Iron Horse smiling back at me. Dumb motherfucker obviously had no idea what was in store for him when this picture was taken. And then, even though it’s his disease that I’ve contracted, I somehow wind up feeling guilty: I’ve always been a baseball fan, but never knew that Gehrig was Number 4. Feeling now somewhat connected to the man, this seems like vital information. I watch his farewell speech over and over, struck by the hyperbole of terms like “bad break” and “luckiest man on the face of the earth.” I feel sick.
I stare off and eventually focus on the ceiling fan above me. I allow my eyes to follow the blades as they spin, and then to get lost in them, and for a moment I’m tricked into thinking that the motion has reversed, but then everything comes back into focus and it’s a trick I can’t sustain. I do this again and again, losing myself in the illusion, waiting and watching as the laws of physics are suspended and righted, lost and found.
I want a knife or a laser or a time machine, something to extract the reality of the moment somehow, to make it unreal. It definitely feels unreal. I want to lay on the floor and open my mouth, vomiting out all of the sickness until there is no trace left. I want to be eight again, playing baseball with my friends in the vacant lot across the street from my house, the sun casting long shadows across our improvised home plate. I want to go back and live inside that moment forever, fully appreciating it as I do.
I want to run, physically sprinting through the darkened streets of my neighborhood, and begin to pace around, looking for my running shoes, my keys. When I finally find my keys, I decide the running idea is stupid and that I should just drive and drive and drive, maybe north to the Iron Range and Canada and the frozen Arctic Circle, maybe south to Mexico, but somewhere, anywhere else, to a place where none of this is happening.
Something in my brain clicks and I realize that I might be having a panic attack, veins awash with adrenaline and the sound of my pounding heart fills the chambers of my skull. I know this is unhealthy, remembering the time in college I punched through a dorm wall and had to pay a fine. I stop and breathe, my head between my knees, and finally, weak and ashamed, collapse onto the couch.
On TV there is a movie starring a man who is not George Burns, but should have been. He has been told that he has seven days to live, and must choose how best to spend them. It’s a movie I remember seeing some long ago Saturday afternoon in my dad’s basement as a kid. Not-George-Burns is in the capitals of Europe, the beaches of South America. He is with family, at the fourth birthday of a grandson. He is skydiving. He is not, this man that should be George Burns, concerning himself with the relative merits of taking massive amounts of antioxidants versus acupuncture and/or stem cell transplants as safeguards against the rapid degeneration of his body. Instead, this very forgettable actor is all smiles, checking off items on a list with smug satisfaction. I drink a lot of whiskey while I watch, stepping outside of myself as I do. I wonder how loss of physical control due to intoxication compares with the death of motor neurons that control voluntary movement. I wish my mind would shut the fuck up. I fall asleep before the movie ends.
My friend Brandon calls about an hour later. For a brief moment, I forget everything. Then, without thinking, I lay it all on the table.
“I’m dying, Brandon.”
“Yeah, we all are. Hey, those Twins tickets you got, were those for the sixteenth or seventeenth? I can’t remember and I need to put in for the time off work.”
I let it go. Brandon never really knew how to relate to anyone on much of an emotional level, and as a result, we were never really that close, but I think we both accept the friendship for what it is: we might go to a ballgame, get some drinks, help each other move, but it isn’t the kind of friendship either of us are expected to bring our feelings to. I have other people for that, and don’t lose a lot of sleep wondering whether or not Brandon does.
“The seventeenth. They were for the seventeenth.”
The idea of having tickets for something, standing plans of any kind, is strange. I’m still kind of lost in a whiskey fog, trying to follow Brandon’s story about a car accident, a spinout on 394 during the last snowstorm of the winter, but I still feel somehow as though I’ve already died, this afternoon, at the doctor’s office. The truth is, I’m still very much alive, very capable of going to a baseball game, and probably will, but after I hang up the phone I’m alone again with a treacherous body whose betrayal has already begun en masse. I want to be able to seriously consider suicide, and really do weigh the pros and cons of each method. In the end I can’t decide on one. I’m scared of what I might do in my state.
I get up and pace the apartment, unsure of where I’m going or for what purpose. I’m enraged, but quickly lose steam and make my way to my bed, where I sob and sob in a snotty, messy heap. I let loose, crying from somewhere deep within my chest, a place I haven’t accessed since my parents’ divorce. I was in the second grade. I cry until I can’t, and fall asleep, sideways and uncovered, just like in the old days, imagining again the disease leaving my body.
At some point I make my way under the blankets. Dawn creeps slowly and softly into my room not long after. It comes without fanfare or invitation and just sits, like a stranger watching me sleep. At a certain point it’s too much. I get up.
The sky is blue like a robin’s egg, or a flame, promising another unseasonably warm day. My mind races as I begin to plan, but it doesn’t take long for me to realize this will be my first day living with the knowledge that – in a very real and not very metaphysical way – I am dying.
The first thought something might be wrong I was at work at the group home, bouncing a dodgeball down a long hallway. The hallway smelled like Folgers and copy toner. I remember thinking that it was the hallway for stinky black powders, and began to sniff the air for dirt and gunpowder. Terry, one of my clients, shot the ball back at me with all of his considerable strength – Terry could never play an actual basketball game, but I’ve seen him sink ten three-pointers in a row before, it’s really something – and as I went to block it I found I couldn’t fully open my right hand. I’ve since learned to do this, though it takes time and the help of my left hand. That day, though, the ball struck my hand, jamming my ring finger, ricocheting into Betsy’s head. She was seated nearby in her wheelchair, and she began to wail. Betsy is sort of medically fragile, and so I still feel terrible for having her seated so near our game, and worse still for my inability to catch a stupid dodge ball.
That was the first day I wondered. After fawning over Betsy, apologizing more than was probably necessary (let’s be honest – she’s always wailing about something), I walked outside to schedule a doctor’s appointment.
It was one of these late spring snowstorms. Big, slow flakes that don’t mean any harm, don’t want to bother anyone, just want to bring a little quiet into the world. It was barely cold enough to snow, and I was fairly happy to be away from the noise of the group home. I got the clinic’s recorded message right away. As I waited on the line, I remembered hearing somewhere that Frank Capra had corn flakes painted white to mimic snow in It’s a Wonderful Life. I tried to imagine cornflakes falling out of the sky, and just couldn’t picture it. I remember wishing that I could fall into the illusion of black and white film.
Brandon and I managed to cop some pretty good seats for the Twins game. I had forgotten about this until today, but here we are, lower level, five rows back, right along the first base line. It’s the last season they’ll play in the Metrodome, the only ballpark I’ve ever seen a baseball game in. I remember my dad used to talk about the old Metropolitan Stadium, the Met, where the Mall of America is now. “That was real baseball,” he used to say, “this indoor shit is ridiculous.” I’m trying to explain this to Brandon, about how my dad was kind of a badass. I go into this whole thing about how the original home plate is supposed to be somewhere in the mall, but I’ve never been able to find it.
“Dude, are you drunk already? We just got here – that’s not your first beer?” I realize I’ve been slurring my speech; I have been all day. I’ve also been talking a lot, about anything, because whenever I stop, all I can think about is how bad off I am. And then – and I know this is terrible, I can’t help it – I lay it all out for Brandon, right there during batting practice while Justin Morneau fires rocket after rocket into the cheap seats. I’m yelling, and pretty soon I’m sobbing, and poor Brandon has no clue what to do. He just sits and stares into an empty beer cup that’s half-filled with spent sunflower seeds.
I get up and walk outside and sit on the steps of the Dome. There are people everywhere, which almost makes it easier to be by myself. Brandon, predictably, stays and watches the game. I sit and watch Twins fans walking back and forth, keeping my body as still as I can, not saying anything to anyone, just trying to feel it. I sit there for hours, feeling my mind working while my body does nothing. Occasionally I can hear the cheering crowd through the Dome’s fiberglass roof. I want to sit there for months, years, however long it takes. I don’t want to get up, to ever walk again, because I know there will come a time where that won’t work, where I will fall, where it will all fall down. It will be me in the group home, in hospice, in the ground. It’s all too much to take.
Across the street I see a homeless man I recognize as a downtown fixture. He’s been hanging around for as long as I can remember, charging passersby a fee to sign his trenchcoat. I assume this is how he supports his crack habit, though I’m not sure, and that’s probably not fair. I sit and see this man, quite convinced that he will still be here long after I’ve gone, still facing the reality of his situation in the most practical way he knows how. I wonder if either of us will get to see a game in the new stadium, imagining us drunk in the box seats at a Sox game, booing A. J. Pierzynski and high-fiving after a Joe Mauer homerun.