Students

A poem to my students…


I wonder if it’s a sonnet,

The poem of your life,

As I hear your shoes squeak their stanzas across the floor to your desk

And you click your blue mechanical pencil

Twice to take a quiz.

 

For I happened to notice two index cards,

Like a light pink couplet,

Tucked beneath the tidy layers of your notebook

As you closed your eyes, breathed, reassured yourself

Of what you knew and filled your name at the top.

 

Or do you live and breathe in music,

All elbows and gym bags, your fingers

Twitching steadily the edges of your sweatshirt?

Perhaps your life is a lyric, a rhythm

Kept in meter by the beat of basketballs,

Or the wild and fearless drummings of your

Feet along the track?

 

Or you, there in the far row,

Do you see the world in free verse?

Eyes bright from gazing through kaleidoscopes,

Bending the sky around your ballpoint pen?

From here I see your frenzied scribbling in that beat-up journal,

The back of your homework, the length of your arm,

Scrambling to seize your swelling thoughts,

Your echoing afterthoughts,

Your madcap fever of creativity.

 

And I bet hers is a ballad, a song,

Her eyes telling the fear in the horizons,

Dreaming of afternoon, of evening,

Of the time she’ll spend with her father

Before his illness takes a turn.

 

Whatever they are,

These poems in your mouths, your hands, your smiles,

They somehow fit each one of you, like shadows

Filled with beauty and, ironically,

With light.

 

And when I am old,

Beyond the reach of my podium,

My pen, my worn and dog-eared Hamlet,

I will see you all,

Again and again and again,

As young as autumn leaves

Reddening, then leaping

Into the constant winds of change.

Lost at Sea

He saw the night sky crack like a violin

When he first began to drown.

It cut across the string of stars, every single pearl,

Dropping them, one by one, into the cold Atlantic.

 

Beneath the black waves, he gasped for all the ice in the wind,

Baring his teeth into the howling wolves of winter

As they shook his brain awake, his eyes reddened

And wounded by their torches, the faint fire of salt water

Biting at his dreams.

 

The ship behind him raised her nose into the darkness

As she flaked the splintered beams from her hull,

Littering the wild water with the bones of war,

Aching at her empty sides.

 

And still he wheezed, his ribs barbed with thin air,

Filling the tin cup of his heart with gunpowder and rain

As copper blood pumped into his mouth,

Dried and cracking, lined with pewter, rusting as fast as memories.

 

He struggled like a rag doll against the pitch and pull,

His eyes flickered their spotlights into the iron dark of space,

Motionless and far, a moon quietly pinning it all together

 

Until every shattered star on the sable swells drifted into view,

Pooling into a dazzling form, a woman

He knew from another world,

One where the fire is low and warm,

The sugar bowl is full,

And her hands are made of sky.

 

She shimmered in the shine of starlight

And beckoned his wincing eyes to stay awake

Just one hour more

Till all her lovely words could sing him to the shoreline.

To Billy Collins

A tribute to my favorite poet…


It was the lanyard that got me first,

Then came the windows, the dogs, the bowl of pears,

All of your words ambling along my field of vision

Like butterflies

As I gently read your poetry in the different chairs of my life.

 

I was reclining on a couch in the early morning

When you ate alone in that Chinese restaurant,

When you spoke of Petrarch’s crazy tights,

When you weighed the dog.

 

Then, during lunch,

Seated at the desk in my classroom,

Carefully selecting the cashews from a little bag,

I read of your autumn leaves,

Your wet umbrella, and your parents.

 

In the afternoon,

As I stopped by the tire store on my way home,

I found myself, legs crossed lazily,

On the iron frown of a folding chair,

Shoved between the yellowed coffeepot,

Pooled with tepid decaf,

And the large bay window to the garage.

 

There, as I waited, I read of your constellations,

The dripping stars, the moonlit swans,

And I laughed a bit at the irony

As I looked up to my own heavens

Only to gaze upon panels of flickering light and dead flies.

 

Late that evening, I shuffled off the petals of a weary day

And nudged my feet deep into the covers of the bed.

My wife softly lay her head beside me,

And I picked up your book to see

The early sun and the old teacher.

 

But as I reached the final page, I noticed,

Perhaps for the first time,

That all the early suns,

Shining through each rain-soaked pane,

And every cup of tea swam freely in my mind,

Happily treading my stream of consciousness

With Petrarch and the bowl of pears,

Teaching me how to hear.

 

So I quietly lay down your poetry,

Placed my hand on my wife’s shoulder,

And followed the moonlit swans as they paddled

Deeper into this tender sleep.

Outside Hopper’s Nighthawks

A new poem…


I was shuffling down the sidewalk that night,

My hands fixed in the pockets of my coat,

Thumb and finger turning at keys, aping

The turning in my mind,

When I found myself outside Hopper’s Nighthawks.

 

It was eerie at first to see my curious look

In the reflection of the old diner,

Though not so old in this impossible present

Where I stood peering through the dingy glass,

Squinting to note the familiar figures at the bar:

The hatted cigaretteer, the suspicious woman in red,

Their hands eternally touching or not touching,

The amiable boy tending the bar

And the fourth with his back to the world.

 

I drew my forehead up to the window

To determine how cool this outside dark,

Placing my hands like parentheses around my eyes

Only to see the still figures inside

Staring at nothing,

Dwelling on absent futures, listless

In their fixed points where Phillies are only 5¢

And the lights are always on.

 

Yet before I pulled away to turn the corner to my car,

A lazy glance happened upon a single glass,

Idle and unclaimed,

On the nearer end of the bar,

Removed from the four characters

Paralyzed in their cold moments.

 

So I drifted inside,

Lay my keys and scarf upon the counter,

And asked the boy if he’d exchange the empty tumbler

For a coffee cup like the others.

But he wouldn’t take it, wouldn’t even listen,

Didn’t even stand up straight from his persistent stooping,

And I gathered the glass was meant to stay,

Left by someone else,

Destined never to be filled,

Perhaps stuck in his own still point,

Caught in a portrait of frozen dancing

Or motionless on the curb.

 

I scooped up my keys and turned them over,

One by one around the ring,

But not before I waited for a while

To see what would happen next.


Nighthawks_by_Edward_Hopper_1942.jpg

The Devil’s Lies

As the night centered itself behind a thousand stars,

Your voice cut the cables in my mind,

And I fell to the corner of 8th street,

Where I found my shadow in some shallow gravel water,

My pupils exhaling,

Unwinding,

Widening to devour my vision –

Dilated thick like dark ink.

 

The sharp steel of your footsteps raked like teeth to a stop,

Surrounded by the blur of city light

As I knelt alone, rooked in the corner, undone and

Enveloped in the venom of my name

On your silver tongue.

 

The earth stammered when you spoke, quivering beneath

The bass of your breathing lies

As you slowly taught me how to drown.

 

And now I see

How your every word howls,

Choking and decoding my defenses,

Coursing through my chemistry,

Anchoring the fever to my bones until they shiver

Like sparrows in the cold.

 

And when you lean in closer

To tear apart the helix,

My knuckles rust, robotic,

Helpless to your redirection,

Heavy with the burden of entanglement –

Short circuits and crossed wires –

Reprogrammed to believe in you

And all your bitter charming.

 

So I time a desperate prayer to touch

The crest of tossing waves,

To clear the fog and wind within

And find my loving Father,

Tell Him that I’m sorry,

Then beg He take a shovel to this serpent on the corner,

Calm my frightened eyes and

Pull the poison from my spine

That I might stand up straight

And finally become human again.

Wife

Your fingers felt the hem of your violet dress

When you first looked over at me,

And for a moment I swear the room rippled

Like water kissed by a skipping stone.

 

Then you spoke,

And all the watercolor rain

In every cloud between us

Began to fall,

Rinsing the beautiful stillness,

Bearing your words like notes on sheet music

Across the twirling wind,

The sweetness of roses,

The lovely taste of light.

 

Your smile curled at the corners like hymnals,

Bright with the glory of verse,

The joy of Christ resting on your gentle cheeks

And your eyes deeper than morning.

 

I stood helpless as you swept your hair behind your shoulder,

Arrested by a single sentence,

A hundred hummingbirds whirring in my chest.

For you were no mere person,

No woman on a busy street,

But starlight on the evening sea,

Melody in rosined strings,

Beauty in a violet dress.

 

And still, now,

As I rake the snow with my right hand,

Five fingers along the length of our front yard,

And the cold night laughs a flurry of new blankets,

I see our children dance around the staff that I have drawn,

Stepping out a chorus, leaving notes beneath their shoes,

And I know when I look up,

I’ll see my lovely wife,

And we’ll smile in quiet gladness

For the time that we’ve been given.

A Quiet Pond in Camden

My wife’s grandfather passed away a few days ago, and his funeral is this morning in South Carolina. This poem is in honor of Elbert Benjamin Newman, Sr. 


I couldn’t help but notice your hands first, Granddaddy,

Your nails yellowed by coarse decades of work,

Your veins the color of wine.

 

Against the white cloth of your rolling hospice bed

They seemed translucent, thinning from the groan of

Fluorescent light.

 

They’ve worn age well, these spotted hands,

Covered in the creases of your full life,

And I admit I laughed a little when your great-grandkids

Scooted close to say hello,

And you peered through the bifocaled tunnel of time

To smile back and twinkle two fingers

As best you could.

 

But when you winced and adjusted the tape on your bruising skin,

Scratching the IV in your limp fist,

I wanted to run out of that hospital,

Down the front, tightly-manicured lawn,

And leap into the clouds to see your life in sum,

Every living scene all at once.

 

I wanted to see those hands wriggle a ring on Grandmama’s finger,

Twist the ripcord of your parachute in the War,

Peel a hundred avocados, stranded in the Philippines.

 

I wanted to see you vote for Stevenson in ’52,

Build a furniture business with the strength of your iron will,

Raise a nurse, a preacher, and an heir to your company,

Then see your lineage expand

As generations branched and took your torch into the future.

 

I wanted to see your hands cradle each and every grandchild,

Each and every great-grandchild,

As you breathed in the lily air of new life.

 

I wanted to see your hands take up the fork and knife

And silently thank Grandmama’s every move with your cutting,

Pancakes, chicken, pie, and all her other glories,

Then gulp your gratitude after swishing sweet tea

From cheek to cheek.

 

They’ve worn age well, these spotted hands

That pulled me back down from the sky of my daydreaming

As if to say it’s time.

And it is.

 

So let us all smile and say goodbye, Granddaddy,

Loud enough for you to hear,

As we crowd around your recliner in our minds

And carry your legacy forward

Into another hundred years and more,

Speeding ever faster from a quiet pond in Camden.

Grief

Another poem…


As I write this,

I’m still breathing hard from a night of fitful sleeping,

My V-neck shirt clinging like dew to my warm chest

While the ceiling fan does its best to gin up

A gentle wind.

 

It’s, let’s see,

I’ll need my glasses for a bit,

2:38 in the morning,

And I’m jotting down my thoughts at the bedside table

Like the doctor said.

Oh, and my feelings,

I’m also recording my feelings.

 

The poetry’s been difficult these days.

It doesn’t flow like it once did.

The Nile’s all dried up, you’d ask,

Or turned to blood in plague? And I’d chuckle.

I tried some in the first stanza with the sweat simile,

But I think I yawned in the middle of it.

 

I remember you used to love a haiku I once wrote

About the cold side of the pillow

(Sort of on the fly, just to see you smile really).

Only now do I see why you liked it so,

As I cycle and recycle this old feather bag

To find that cool shadowy feeling in which to lay

My weary head.

 

It’s only when I glance over at yours in its pristine condition,

And I notice no sagging indention in the center,

That I remember your pillow is always cool now,

Both sides.

 

So, I’ll just lay my glasses back down on the nightstand,

At 2:52 in the morning,

And I’ll climb once more into my tempest of dreams

Where you and I are together again,

If momentarily,

And somewhat wispy in our world of memory,

Before my body shakes awake

At 3:41 AM,

And I lean for my pencil

From my sloppy and disheveled side of the bed.

Clean Slate

I’d like to introduce my guest writer for this post. Will O’Neal is a current student in my Creative Writing class and a truly remarkable young poet. His wordmithing talent and his imaginative reach are quite impressive, so I asked if I could share his most recent poem “Clean Slate” on Eden.Babel…

Enjoy. 


With one fluent swipe of a hand, it’s gone

Non-existent

It was an idea, then breathed into creation

Now forever obliterated.

With one careless fling of an arm,

It was all destroyed

With nothing left, except the faded view

Of what it once was.

It’s ironic they call it dry

‘Cause of all the rich and wonder-drenched ideals

That were swept aside

All the emotional words,

And Truth-filled phrases

Erased and turned to blackened and lifeless ashes.

 

If only we could amplify it to a larger scale

Patch up, erase, and destroy our mistakes and blemishes,

Perfect our lives

So that we seem pristine

As newborn children,

In all their innocent infancies

Wipe our slate clean

So that we are perfectly polished, Photo-shopped people

Hiding behind a facade of fantasized features

But then without our mistakes,

We all become the same,

A utopian human race.

Our faults are what set us apart

And how we handle them is what defines us

So let’s not destroy our mistakes;

Just learn from them,

And leave the Dry Erasers for Expo Markers

And games of Hangman.