Poetry for the Curious across the Religious Spectrum

     {from Dreamsongs}




My father, 86, this spring,

Was a large in-charge, forceful, hands-on,

School superintendent

Until he retired too soon and too unprepared

For anything beyond the TV

And flipping channels and on and off

In the midst of conversations,

And solitaire in the basement

With his trophies,

And mowing the lawn in the summer,

Or raking leaves in the fall,

When the yard man didn’t come,

And now, getting on, not much of that either,

With stern advice from his doctor,

WEAK IN THE PINS, as his grandmother put it,

Till THE EVENING SENTINEL came, halfway

Up the sidewalk after the worst blizzard of a century,

And he got it in his mind to dress warm

And retrieve it, and FELL halfway there, and couldn’t get up,

At 7 AM with the wind-chill bad

And no one on the street to call to,

And making up his mind that he wasn’t going to die, not

Yet, for a damned paper,

And easing himself around and clawing his way

Back through the five-foot drift

To the porch and erect at the railing and on inside

To take off his ruined suit-pants and shake

The snow from his boots and on upstairs

To my mother, who is deaf and couldn’t hear any

Desperate cries for help—


The very next day’s headline—

And saw him standing there in his boxers, sheepish,


And asked him what he was up to,

And he finally told her,

And she assessed it—










I never knew sound till I was twenty-eight

And heard again music

With some help from a friend

With his proffered hemp.

I heard again,

After dark years when I couldn’t even see,

At least not spiritually,

When my ears were failing in every respect,

First the left,

Then, to a lesser degree, the right,

And I strained to hear what others took for granted.

And I discovered again

That to hear one must listen mightily.

And then late, a Friday night,

I turned the volume all the way over to the left

Earphone and heard Beethoven balanced, sound, whole,

For the very first, the very last, time, perhaps,

For a week later I noticed

The damage I had done in a peculiar ringing, tinnitus,

In the damaged, hopeless, left ear,

That had heard its share of the Ninth in all its power.

THESE days it is perfectly natural

And perfectly powerful enough to coax my little terror

Of a Minnie

To lie along the right of my face

Against the failing, but nonetheless sounder, right, ear,

And hear her purr.








The night Rosie died, she purred so hard

By the side of the bed

It woke Johanna from a troubled sleep.
I buried what remained at
5 AM

In the back yard, where even now, our neighbor’s flowers

Seem to do the best,

Feeding on what for me has faded into the vaguest


Ramses is clear.  He was the brightest,

Drank his water from the faucet, attempted the doorknob,

Teased at the lock, aching for space,

But found it under ether,

Still young and full of promise,

When the vet knew full well there was no way to save him.

Others have wandered off, died in sleep,

Confronted cars,

Ended their lives or pursued them,

With or without us—I could go on this way forever.

Jessie, the current fatty, is currently snoring to my

Left.  Min,

The thin,

Is settled on the radiator.

We caught her at the toilet paper again last week,

Clawing, chewing, shredding.

She was but a year old, when, in one of my

Darkest depressions,
I heard Johanna’s laughter and the clack clack clack

Of the roll at the other end

Of our railroad apartment, heard thunder down the hall,

And turned from what was then (I was

Bearded at 46) a manual typewriter,

And caught just the flash of Min, our Min, Minnie,

A gray blur, a tempest,

White streamer trailing, festive,

Toilet paper gripped in her little pink


I hope YOUR death will be like a gathered Meeting.








I never figured out whether Mountain John

Hockenberry was a relative on my father’s side.

Dad talked of him enough.

He talked about the Hockenberrys, and I listened.

Too well.

They were mountain people, and had habits.

Last night I watched a video

With de-caf coffee and tofu,

And I noticed how much the people in that old film

Enjoyed THEIR habits—cigarettes, drinking,

Sodomy, steaks.

It made me long for the good old days when

Cancer and heart disease

Were a mystery.  Late in’68 I got high every time

I had the urge for the legal stuff

But went off the end with the cure—BOOGERED UP,

Uncle Nev said—

And ended in a State hospital,

And about an hour after the insects

Was offered a Chesterfield by an orderly,

And for the next ten years smoked a carton a week.


The HOCKENBERRYS weren’t big on it.

Mountain John smoked three packs

Of Camels a day and drank a cup of hot drippings

Every morning for breakfast

And went out and worked on the field all day

And loosened up nights with a gallon

Of moonshine and had

His women by the dozens

And went on living till the ripe old age of 47.

Besides, I get this reaction—YOU’RE A QUAKER??








Last Thursday I was checking up on my father

Via phone to Pennsylvania,

When he said that my MOTHER had had a bad spell,

With angina, etc.

And that she had called Dr. Green

And that she was in bed with a lot of pessimism and fear

He attributed to her hairdresser,

Strangely enough.

But the spell passed and she was there on the phone

Again, Monday, BOOGERED UP still,

But cheerful,

And making a very useful suggestion that we buy a Japanese

Cherry tree

For my oldest sister’s backyard and 60th birthday.

And I told her to take it a day

At a time and

When I hung up I suddenly remembered a dozen years I

Took it an hour

At a time.  And then I remembered a friend

On Methadone

Who took it a minute at a time,

Who took it minute by minute,

Longing for a lifetime supply of heroin

And a 45 caliber bullet when that ran out after maybe

Six months, who wanted simply TO die,

And I gave a message that touched on it some months back

In Meeting,

And a dear little smartly dressed woman, on in years,

With large open eyes, the pillar of the religious education


Asked me with a tiny voice,










Mishima attempted with his private army

And a solitary howitzer

To overthrow the government of Japan

And restore the Monarchy in a single day of his brief

Tortured life,

And, failing, ended that life with ritualistic suicide,

Which included carving his young hard body

With an ornate sword

And being relieved of his head by his first lieutenant,

Who subsequently

Suffered the same grisly fate.

That same morning he had the good sense to

Hand in to his publisher the completed massive manuscript

Of his very great novel

Of reincarnation, THE SEA OF FERTILITY.

It is said that he felt his life work

Was completed

And that he had to turn to his real task,

Which he botched that afternoon.

One image from Mishima’s tormented masterpiece

Haunts ME yet.

A young man looks out of the window and spies a brilliant

Red insect moving towards him on the ledge

And, suddenly, without preparation

Is launched into the fact, that the beetle,

Blood-red and burning,

Is so immensely beautiful that in its short course over

Scant inches of casement, it makes up a universe,

A galaxy, a Milky Way.

It is so sad to me

That that much wisdom didn’t grow old to die,

Calmly, gently,

With the faintest touch of decorum,

In bed.








The yellow house was gone the year we went

Back to it, on a visit with Estling,

And traveling the 20-odd miles from Fort Atkinson

To east of Whitewater.

It had been converted to a redwood ranch.

No one would have suspected

The winter of ’69 had ever existed,

When I embarked on a 10 week voyage on hashish oil

And meditation and my own manic energy

And ended strapped to a birth-bed

In Elkhorn, shrieking at Insects,

Altering the course of evolution for 96 hours

Till I woke to find the world fairly

Much the same, tedious,

Even wicked.

They asked us in, and we entered fearfully,

And the living room retained only the knotty pine ceiling

As testimony to the eyes that had watched

My private Omega Point.

And I asked to use the toilet, and took a pen knife

To the dispenser, and pulled out the oregano jar

With some 5 ounces of the best weed

Money could have had at that time, the winter of ’69,

Now, 23 years later, 23 years of holding on

And trying to forget and trying to live

And trying to manage.

And I opened the jar and inhaled and closed it,

And lowered it back down into the wall till

The hanger was no longer visible,

And I screwed back in the toilet dispenser,

And I sat back, fully clothed, on the seat,

And took my head in my trembling hands and cried,

Giving it three good minutes,
And went on out, as far as I could get, and went on

Back to living.