Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Dominant Culture

We fear the Muslims and the Syrians,
   Latinos, Dreamers, Black Americans

They must be detained, deported, regulated
   But white men with arsenals must be placated.

Monday, October 2, 2017

Another day of devouring our own

Another day, another mass shooting.Over 50 people. Senseless.
I'm speechless.

Saturn Devouring His Son by Francisco Goya

Sunday, September 3, 2017

Oil and wine

Oil and wine I will pour on my soul
   I'll be my own Good Samaritan

Consolation and healing from those who assailed me
   restoration of my spirit, mending its wings

Till carried awhile on the faithful beast
   it learns to soar again

Monday, July 24, 2017

No poem ever began with I can't

No poem ever began with I can't
I can't is a real non-starter

Like turning the ignition key
and finding the engine dead

I can't's like the sound of an untuned piano
or the squawk of a crow too early in the morning

I can't is like egg whites that won't peak
or a cake that won't rise

So if you want your poem to rise
better start it with I can

Saturday, June 10, 2017

In Search of Summers Past, I

    I'm going back more than 50 years. Memories of those summers make me melancholy. My only companion --who dogged me mercilessly-- was the sun. Beating down on my head, blinding my eyes, drowning me in humidity. I naturally took refuge indoors.

    The bookmobile visited our neighborhood every week and parked just down the street. A van the length of a bus, it contained more books than I had ever seen in one place. The bookmobile also ferried about a duplicate of the library's card catalog. (Never seen a card catalog? Wikipedia to the rescue!) I could discover other books in the township library's collection, complete an order form, and the bookmobile would deliver it to me the following week. What a sense of power! In a few weeks I had consumed all the titles appropriate for my reading age that were housed in the vehicle, and I was hungry to browse in situ all those tantalizing titles listed in the catalog.

    When I was twelve or thirteen, Mom let me take the bus that stopped on our corner. It stopped at the larger branch library housed in the municipal building. During the summer months I'd visit the library almost every week, lug home all the books my arms could hold, and finish reading them in two or three days.

     My two best friends both had grandparents with homes at the New Jersey shore. They left the day after school closed and didn't return until a couple of weeks before the new school year. Bringing along a friend was out of the question, as both families were already densely populated. Later on I heard about kids who went away to summer camp, but the parents on our block didn't seem to know about that, and even if they did, who had that sort of money?  So, that's how books became my true companions.

    By the time I was in high school, I was allowed to take the bus to the terminal and from there, the El (elevated train line) to center city. From Suburban Station it was but a short walk to Mecca, a.k.a., the Free Library of Philadelphia. Along the way I strolled through Logan Circle, brushing by Alexander Calder's fountain to catch its cool, moist breeze. Eventually I learned that the architectural design of the circle and the buildings facing it, the Free Library and the Courthouse, had been modeled after the Place de la Concorde in Paris. OK, but to me the Free Library was the Taj Mahal.  

Logan Circle and its facing buildings. To the left, the Free Library. To the right, the Courthouse.


Sunday, April 16, 2017

Poem for Easter

They don’t sing for us
   they sing to mark their territory
   and attract a mate
   as nestlings screech
    I’m hungry! I’m hungry!

Out on a branch
   warbling full-throated
   in his ancestral key
   he could care less that
   we’re listening

But allow me to say thank you
   tiny virtuoso
   beyond price the ticket
   to such a glorious concert

Sunday, April 9, 2017


We write letters to our representatives
  and we post to Facebook
we're righteously indignant
  we know who to blame
expressing our outrage
   denouncing like Jeremiah
shedding warm tears
   while wringing our hands
then we sit down to dinner
    as they keep dying

Saturday, June 11, 2016

Powell's City of Books

Portland, OR

I could live here. Maybe in the Rose Room.

Powell's is like an old warehouse. Nothing about it is shiny or polished. The tables in the coffee room remind me of my grade school cafeteria crowded with long tables I'm sharing with strangers who aren't really strangers. They're kindred spirits, book lovers like me. We understand one another. We're instantly at ease in one another's company. You can keep your Barnes & Noble.

My mission for today is to leave with a French book or an Italian book. The selection is better than that at most university libraries. Maybe something by Natalia Ginsburg or Oriana Fallaci. But --more than that-- I want to linger. In my imagination I plot how I could stay past closing. How I could hide in a corner, evade detection, and sleep here. In the morning I'd have coffee and a biscotto for breakfast, greeted by the smiles of other bibliophiles. Only the ghosts of my favotite authors would know...

If the nerves in your fingertips don't scintillate when turning the pages of a book, you can't understand.

Friday, June 3, 2016

Ils sont tombés

A poignant song written and performed by Charles Aznavour, qui est de ce peuple, i.e., from an Armenian family that migrated to France.

Ils sont tombés sans trop savoir pourquoi
Hommes, femmes et enfants qui ne voulaient que vivre
Avec des gestes lourds comme des hommes ivres
Mutilés, massacrés les yeux ouverts d'effroi
Ils sont tombés en invoquant leur Dieu
Au seuil de leur église ou le pas de leur porte
En troupeaux de désert titubant en cohorte
Terrassés par la soif, la faim, le fer, le feu

Nul n'éleva la voix dans un monde euphorique
Tandis que croupissait un peuple dans son sang
L' Europe découvrait le jazz et sa musique
Les plaintes de trompettes couvraient les cris d'enfants
Ils sont tombés pudiquement sans bruit
Par milliers, par millions, sans que le monde ne bouge
Devenant un instant minuscules fleurs rouges
Recouverts par un vent de sable et puis d'oubli

Ils sont tombés les yeux pleins de soleil
Comme un oiseau qu'en vol une balle fracasse
Pour mourir n'importe où et sans laisser de traces
Ignorés, oubliés dans leur dernier sommeil
Ils sont tombés en croyant ingénus
Que leurs enfants pourraient continuer leur enfance
Qu'un jour ils fouleraient des terres d'espérance
Dans des pays ouverts d'hommes aux mains tendues

Moi je suis de ce peuple qui dort sans sépulture
Qu'a choisi de mourir sans abdiquer sa foi
Qui n'a jamais baissé la tête sous l'injure
Qui survit malgré tout et qui ne se plaint pas
Ils sont tombés pour entrer dans la nuit
Éternelle des temps au bout de leur courage
La mort les a frappés sans demander leur âge
Puisqu'ils étaient fautifs d'être enfants d'Arménie

A lovely translation that preserves the poetic quality of the original French:

Sunday, May 29, 2016

Decoration Day

Some thoughts that occurred to me during meeting for worship this morning...

Today I hold in the Light military vets like my 98-year-old father-in-law as well as those who have fallen, who paid the ultimate price --and whose families continue to suffer-- because of humanity's inability to resolve conflicts nonviolently. 

I am reminded of the Illiad and the Odyssey, those epic poems that express the Greek belief that war among humans reflects rivalries and conflicts among the gods on Mount Olympus. Our leaders in high places, like the gods of Antiquity, pull the strings of those in more lowly places. However, unlike Ulysses, Aeneas  Roland, Henry V, and other literary military heroes, our leaders do not gallop at the head of their troops. Some, like Joe Biden, do have sons or daughters who serve. But most are safe and their children are safe at home, while the sons and daughters of others are sent into combat. Some reserve units deploy a number of adults from the same town ... sometimes including a mother and father from the same young family.

We still have much to do before we can, like George Fox, come into the covenant of peace which was before wars and strife were.

Saturday, May 21, 2016

On the road- Days 3 & 4: Of bottles and men

Houston airport, 12:15 pm

    Still processing the second day of my visit -- already day ago. Although I was much less hesitant going through security and much more relaxed conversing with Troy (not his real name), I came out of Polunsky just wanting to unwind. Couldn't get it together to write. I exited the compound under a brilliantly shining sun that made the barbed wire fencing sparkle.  Thinking only of myself, I was in a hurry to savor my freedom.

     There was more activity in the visitation room on Friday than on Thursday. By total coincidence, I ran into the kind TCADP member who had sent me the long, informative email.  She happened to be visitng her friend and was assigned to the booth right next to mine.  She seemed subdued and heavy-hearted. We exchanged a bit of conversation and she remarked sadly that the men there are treated "like animals."  Troy's arrival on his side of the glass pane cut short our chat. My TCADP friend peeked over and waved hi to him. When her inmate friend arrived, Troy said a sideways hi to him and I peeked over and said hi too. He gave me a big smile. He seemed happy. Her visits must be a great source of cheer to him. Troy knew that inmate, of course, and told me his name.  I excitedly told Troy that the lady visiting the other inmate was the TCADP member who had sent me the helpful email. Then we settled into conversation.

     I had requested a different booth in the hope that the telephone connection might be clearer, and indeed it was. This time I felt no awkwardness. It felt natural to be there talking and laughing with  my friend.  As natural as can be expected when you're sitting in front of a pane of glass. A visit totally devoid of physical contact. I keep asking myself: what are they afraid of? Would I slip him a weapon or a razor blade? Or some other contraband? Would he slip me a note? Behind Troy I could see guards leading other inmates to and from visiting booths from time to time. The presence of these stocky, heavily armed guards keeps visitors and inmates properly intimidated. There must be a better way.

     The guard who gathered the snacks that I purchased for Troy couldn't have been sweeter, however.  Wonder how it feels to be a combination guard and take-out delivery employee? Seeing the guards and other prisoners going to and fro behind Troy, I thought of the beverage machine. You push a button and a mechanism behind a glass window locates and fetches the desired drink and drops it onto the shelf below, where only the guard is permtted to touch it. Of bottles and men.

     How does he keep his spirits up, I wonder? And when will we see each other again? And will we ever be able to give each other a hug?

Thursday, May 19, 2016

On the road -- Day 2: Eating yogurt with a spork

   The rain is beating against the window of my hotel room overlooking US 59. It's so damp and chilly that I turned the heat on. Not what I would have expected for Texas weather during the month of May. But then, it's been an unusually cold and rainy spring back home in PA too.  Just can't seem to escape the rain.

   As a couple people who have been to Polunsky Unit promised, the personnel were all very friendly when I visited today. The visitation room is kept spotlessly clean. The floor was shining. However, the dilapidated fixtures, worn or peeling paint, and generally Spartan institutional decor contribute to an overwhelmingly depressing atmosphere. The visiting booths look like something out of a 1950's TV crime drama.The telephone connection was staticky and I sometimes had difficulty understanding Troy (not his real name) when he spoke. The bathroom, although kept very clean, is in serious need of renovation. At the very least, prison admin should consider replacing the door. Sitting on the toilet you can read the sad, desperate musings etched into the surface on the interior side by family and friends.

    I found it hard to see that Troy was handcuffed as he was being led into the visiting booth. I gave him a big smile and a two-handed wave, and even the guard smiled along with him as he removed the cuffs. He reached for a telephone receiver on his side of the window, and I reached for one on my side. The first few minutes were awkward. While we have spoken before, (during periods when he was on bench warrant in another county and could call me -- no telephone privileges at Polunsky), that was awhile ago. I was touched that his first words were to ask about one of my family members who was recently ill. I was entitled to a "special" four-hour visit (as opposed to a usual two-hour visit), because of the distance I had come.  We chatted --and at times laughed-- about this and that for the first couple of hours, and then he asked if I wanted to eat.  Sure, I said. Troy had really been looking forward to this culinary treat, lunch from the famous visiting room vending machines. Says something about the daily grub he gets, I suppose.

    The procedure for purchasing food for the inmates is cumbersome to say the least. You take your friend's order. Then you call over the guard.  She comes with a brown paper lunch bag on which she has noted the number of your booth and follows you from machine to machine as you make each purchase. You deposit your quarters, make your selection, and the item is delivered. Or, in the case of a  refrigerated item such as a salad or sandwich, you slide open a little door.  But you are forbidden to touch the item. The guard retrieves it and places it into the paper bag. The process is repeated until all desired items have been purchased. Finally, the guard delivers the bag to the inmate. Just like ordering take-out, right?  When you buy a salad, it comes with a napkin and little plastic spork. Same for yogurt, as I discovered when I purchased some Yoplait for myself. Consuming a creamy comestible with a spork has a most unnatural feel. It's almost as though the entire experience has been calculated to be as unnatural as possible. Even as a visitor you feel you're being punished.

      Troy ate his lunch with great relish as we continued our conversation. Seeing him enjoy his food gave me at least the illusion that I was doing something for him. However, I know that he is totally vulnerable and at the mercy of the system, his only hope the unrelenting efforts of the pro bono attorneys. May the Spirit guide their work.

     Well, at least the great unknown has been dispelled. When I return tomorrow I'll be more familiar with security procedures and visitation culture. Maybe I'll even master the fine art of eating yogurt with a spork.