Shoulder to Shoulder We…
(Previously published in Cha: July 2011, issue 14)
Shoulder to shoulder we sit on rocks by the bay
Watching from a distance a fast ship rushing out of the harbor
Heading toward the land on the other side of that vast water
Just like a lover
Dashing to a date
A sweet woman is there
Yearning arms open, awaiting his embrace
Another ship is dragging back from the other side
Pensive, hesitant, not eager to arrive
Taking in all it has passed on its way
Experiencing everything, yet destined to abandon it all
As if the best parts of life have been left behind
What is about to come
Is only a premonition from the past, an unchanging destination turned bad
Ah, dear, you turn your head and ask me tenderly
Which life is to my liking? What voyage is
Neither too fast nor too slow?
Please, please look, not far from these two ships
A white sail is gliding leisurely on the sea
Without purpose, without desire
Nothing but a pair of wings, spread high and low
In a life full of hopes and disappointments, soaring free
Two poems below by Charles Rafferty,
who read for us in March, 2013:
It was New Year’s Eve and we’d been drinking —
old college friends converging
from across the country to a single lit-up window
eight floors high in a city of lit-up windows.
Some of them had blinds or gauzy curtains;
some were bare with the privacy that comes
from being seen only by people
you’d never be able to name. It had been years
since we’d had a drink together. We talked
about our cancers and failed marriages.
The second wives showed off their new tattoos.
It went on like that all night — the triumphs
of the present book-ended by the twin catastrophes
of the past and of the future. The apartment
had a telescope. In one window people were
fucking. In another they merely drank.
In others the strange blueness of the rooms
ignited by televisions. When it got late we opened
a bottle of champagne for each of us
and staggered to the roof. We knew it was
midnight by the cacophony of car horns
below us. The street was still packed with limousines
and cabs — all of them late for the year’s biggest party.
A woman hung out of a passenger window
flashing some guys we couldn’t see. Then fireworks
from somewhere started flickering the bricks
of the taller buildings that rose like the weather
around us. What happened next is gone forever,
though one of us may have tried for the street
before that woman could get away. We awoke
inside where the sugar ants were dying
in a puddle of vodka and cherry juice.
Someone had spilled it before throwing up
in a sinkful of drying dishes — and the ants
had found that too. Outside, the sun with its prybar
and siren was throbbing at the blinds.
The Pornographer Speaks
There is an art
to arranging a woman
like an overturned
vase of tulips,
a jigsaw puzzle
across a pool table —
cocktail dress like a scrap
of glittering trash,
ready for whatever
you might imagine.
is to make it seem
like she wanted you
to see her
like this. Before you turn
you should think
you understand her
completely — the very
shade of her soul,
the pinkening quick
of her body.
If I’ve taken her right,
her smiles are pure
subversion. It’s as if
she’s watching you
through the keyhole
of the page —
in which she opens
as an oyster,
with the twisting
of a blade. She is
unclosable now — a box
with a bent hinge,
for the permanent
only I can make her sing.
Three by Christine Beck, a member of our 2012 Favorite Poem panel:
The Great American Word Called Dog
The stuffed one you dragged around at six,
its fur worn to a nub, now packed up in the closet
with your too-tight jeans, old t-shirts advertising names
of marathons or bars like Kilroy’s.
Then, your first real puppy, lapping water in its aluminum
bowl, slippery with spit, the one that waited while you tied
your sneakers, danced the Macarena in anticipation of a walk,
poised to rescue you from quicksand, tornadoes,
or the fire storms erupting at the family dinner table.
Now, there’s just the mutt, now the kids have all moved out.
You stroke his silky fur, the strands that weave
into the cushions of your couch, stick to your best black slacks.
It’s the slacks that tell the story, make manifest the intangible:
You are loved. You own a dog.
On Being Asked Where I See Myself in Ten Years
I say at dinner at Bertucci’s, where a student
I don’t remember says I changed her life.
I say, in my garden, pulling up weeds, dead-
heading zinnias and marigolds, the smell
so acrid and enticing, I want make it soap.
I say, dead.
I say, maybe dead.
I say, not dead yet.
I say, wearing nothing, nothing
stiff or scratchy, nothing tight
around the waist, nothing khaki,
nothing but chiffon scarves, tangled
palimpsest with no right angles,
twisted patterns, souvenirs of flight.
In the Time Before Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors
And in those languid days,
the distraught found solace
in small pill-like objects,
called stones, placed
in the mouth, and
sucked upon, until
such time as ennui
A poem from our January, 2013 reader. This poem was previously performed by the East Haddam Stage Company, as part of their Plays and Poetry presentation.
In Park with George
by Nancy Fitz-Hugh Meneely
There is a space
an angled invitation made
by his careless ready arm
on the long seatback
and his torso, warm
beneath an ironed shirt.
As he drives, I slide in increments
to join him there.
He smells like a man,
like my father
in the mornings, clean
I love his hand when he
drops it to my arm
and tucks me in,
the way he steers
with a single palm,
the bunch and slide
of his muscles
when he works the car
into a hidden overlook.
I love the easy way
he lifts me to kiss,
the tilt of my face
under his, the beautiful
curve of my neck,
his big sly thumb
moving slowly in circles
under my ear.
But I hardly breathe,
careful to bring
no other part
of myself to its notice,
the circling thumb
that already knows
the give of my skin,
the slope to my collarbone.
Short story by our December , 2012 featured reader (Previously published in Ken’s Book, The Tragedy in My Neighborhood):
From time to time I agree to give a concert at my mother’s church. My mother is an Episcopalian, and although live performance is not my forte, I do believe in lending my talents now and then for the greater good of the community. Also, the church pays me $50 to do a short concert, followed by a 15-minute Q&A.
I can really use the money.
This week my mother asks if I’ll consider sitting in with the organist and choir for a Sunday service. The choir director, a man named Steven Took, is an adventurous sort, always looking for new ways to expand and energize the liturgical soundscape. He decided that a bit of percussion would help liven things up and wanted to know if I would bring a bunch of my instruments and gadgets to accompany the group. My mother assures me that I will have complete creative control over all percussion arrangements, and if it works out, we can explore the possibility of incorporating my work regularly into the church’s repertoire.
I am not a man of God. The idea of organized religion has always struck me as absurd, misguided, and even pathological, but my mother finds great comfort in church activities—her knitting group, her Bible study, her Tuesday pot-lucks—so I try to keep my views to myself. On the rare occasions that I do go to church with my mother, I refuse to chant along with any creeds or prayers. To my ear, the parishioners’ monotone drone sounds more like the dark hymnal of Satan than holy worship. I get the shivers when they say things like, “We look for the resurrection of the dead,” or, “We bewail our manifold sins and wickedness.”
I am willing, though, to sing along with church songs because, for me, music is the least offensive part of any church service. After all, much of the music in the Episcopal tradition comes from great composers like Beethoven, Mendelssohn, or Bach, and the lyrics from such poets as Milton, Herbert, and Donne. That’s why, when my mother asks, I agree to perform at the next Sunday service. One could do worse than to shake maracas and bang cymbals to the works of the greatest creative minds in Western culture. Also, my mother says the church will pay $75 for my time and effort.
Using my mother as courier, Steven Took sends me a draft program for the service and a set of sheet music covering all the hymns and prayer songs. I do not read music, so the sheets are useless to me. Luckily, though, my mother has an uncanny memory for hymns and prayer songs. It takes a little needling, but I finally convince her to sing each melody into a microphone in my home recording studio. The poor woman is extremely self-conscious about her voice, and she makes me agree (in writing) not to play back any of the recordings while she is still within earshot.
Listening to the melodies over and over in my headphones, I familiarize myself with their contours and textures. Eventually, I am able to create a bold but tasteful percussion arrangement for each. Some songs seem to require a strong backbeat, while others only call for occasional ornaments, flourishes, and accents to intensify their dynamic range. I even work out a few synthesizer parts—rhythmical bleeps and blips to give a couple of the tunes a more contemporary flare. Grafting my own musical ideas onto these antiquated compositions, I feel as if I have tapped into the rhythms of a distant past, and that I am leaving my own mark on a sacred tradition of music that has spanned centuries, and which will endure for centuries to come. Never have I gotten so close to a set of songs, dived so deeply into their melodies and cadences, understood so implicitly their bold lines and subtle shadings. Sitting in my office with headphones on and a cowbell in hand, I sense for the first time in my life the presence of a benevolent spirit, a higher power. I wonder to myself, is God here in these songs? When Saturday evening arrives I put the finishing touches on my arrangements, pack my instruments and gadgets into a crate, and lay out my best Sunday suit.
Steven Took fidgets with his conductor’s baton and smiles brightly as I set up my instruments on a small table in the organ loft. He has grown a beard since the last time I saw him. The choir, made up mostly of women in their middle age, assembles in a semi-circle around me. They are astonished that I have memorized all of the songs, and that I will play my part without the aid of sheet music. After some final preparations and a few words of advice from Steven, we all join hands and bow our heads in prayer. Normally a group prayer like this would make me squirm, but this morning I am simply glad for the assurance that God will guide my performance, and that if only I will entrust myself to His loving embrace, all will be as it should be.
The church hushes as parishioners make their way to the pews. The organ prelude is a piece by Salzburg, the textures of which I am able to deepen with a subtle combination of maracas and train whistle. Immediately, the place buzzes with excitement. People turn to see the source of these unconventional sounds, whisper to each other, giggle joyfully.
I reserve my musical grand entrance for the opening hymn, “Holy Spirit, Font of Light,” and when it begins, I can feel shockwaves rippling through the chapel. With each rim shot, bass beat, and synthesized chirp, I feel the miracle of creation in my heavenly soul. This is God’s music, I think, and as the song progresses through its first and second verses I give myself up to the vibrations of divine inspiration. The congregation swoons. They turn and stare with their mouths agape. As the service charges ahead, I improvise wildly through the offertory anthem, through “Glory to God in the Highest,” and through the post-communion hymn. With each tune, I feel more strongly the presence of the holy ghost in my instruments. When we arrive at the final hymn, I am aflame with the spirit of the lord. The sounds that burst from my humble corner of the organ loft transcend all earthly limits. I channel the cosmos. I breach the divide between body and spirit. No one is more surprised than I am by the spontaneous blasts and sonic eruptions emitting from my instruments, my gadgets, and my own throat. I step outside of myself. I howl. I groan. I am ecstatic. I am awash in God’s battering riptide!
When it is finished, the entire place seems to exhale in unison. No one says a word. Apparently the priest has decided to forgo the dismissal. The parishioners, clergy, and choir members file out of the chapel. Finally, I am alone with Steven Took, who strokes his beard and looks at the floor. “That was quite something,” he says. “Really something.” I pack my things and leave.
It’s been almost a week since the service, and I haven’t heard from Steven Took. But what is there to say, really? My mother assures me that the performance was well received by all, but I have my doubts. In fact, I’ve become suspicious of the entire affair. Was that God’s grace I felt coursing through my veins? Or was I simply caught up in a grand deception, mistaking my own natural enthusiasm for divine intervention? Maybe it doesn’t matter.
When my mother hands me a thank-you card from the choir, I am glad to find seventy-five dollars in cash tucked neatly inside. “Thank God for small miracles,” I mutter, and my mother swells with pride.
Here’s a poem from our September, 2012 reader:
When the War Began
by Jonas Zdanys
I pick up the bucket and pour the water out for the last time, picking it up and pouring it out in currents and swirls as if for the last time, picked up the rusted bucket and poured the green water across the sand where the thin stone path crossed for the last time. The sky was a red river, the gray face of the receding moon a hollow boast in early morning, the shoals along the shallows below washed to a perfect dead calm. This is how the day began when the soldiers came, she told me, when the day began in the small town on the edge of the country, their menace and resolve stumbling ahead in slow procession as the day began and the stream of water crossed in front of them on the stone path still cool with early morning as she picked up the bucket and poured. She remembered only little things, she said, that day, as the soldiers came: the way stirred wind blew in her hair as they passed by, the color of the weeds as the sun rose in the distance, the sounds of the bell above the outlines of the town. The water overwhelmed us, she said, the immeasurable black cloth of history and war covered in the dust of fallen stars draped across the opened windows. Nearby, she said, a solitary apple dropped from a thin branch, a fly floated on the surface of the spill.
Welcome to Circumference, Pi’s Poetry Journey. Or Journal, perhaps. A section of our website devoted to poetry of interest to our members.
For now, it is just something to try. Submission guidelines to follow. And, poems. Allow me a first, to get us started:
by Mark McGuire-Schwartz
Circumference equals 2 pi r. But just what are
two pies? Apple, of course. Maybe pumpkin.
Or strawberry rhubarb. Circumference is the
distance around something that is round. A pie,
for example. Or a circle drawn by a child waiting to
be filled. A face. Happy or sad. A balloon, a tire.
Either one can be a ride. Lemon meringue? How odd
a meal is that! Certainly not Boston cream. Or chocolate pudding.
Or mock apple, made with crackers to mock us all. My mother-in-law
always pronounced that she would take pie over cake any day. And she
meant it. And now we have come all the way around.