Stationery Store

Red Bull in the cooler, five-hour drinks on the counter, lottery tickets and cigarettes behind me, Penthouse on the top rack, herbal tea on the corner shelf, ATM near the door, coffee canisters by the pastry bins.

When I was a kid, we called this place Pop’s Candy Store. Pops sold it to me twenty years ago, and I changed the name to Park Street Stationery. I sold Mars bars, baseball cards, Twinkies, Pez dispensers, even pens and paper. I ask myself – when did I become a drug and porn dealer? When did I start running a numbers racket?

I never changed the sign. It still says stationery, candy, cigars. I haven’t sold cigars in fifteen years. No one buys them anymore.

People come in for their fix— coffee to wake up, Red Bull to stay up, lottery tickets to feel hopeful, cigarettes to feel calm, sugar to fill a craving, herbal tea to sleep, porn for immediate use. I know what my regular customers need by looking at their eyes when they’re in the line. That saves me some time.

Last week, I signed with a delivery service. They text me orders and send a guy with a van. Next month, I’ll hire some kid after school to pack boxes. I’ll tell him, keep away from the drugs, the gambling, the porn, don’t feel dirty about the product, don’t think about the customers or their families. Just put the blue gloves on, pack the damn boxes, cash your paycheck, and wash your hands before you go home. There isn’t much room for sympathy in this business.

“Stationery Store” (a persona piece) was first published in Red Wheelbarrow #10 (2017).

No ID

Without ID, there is no existence.

Without ID, there is no ‘be’ in a be sea. A sea without be is an empty vastness. A map of a beless sea is a measurement without dimension, an arrow without direction.

A number without value.

‘Nothing’ cannot be conceived— nothing is not born from nothing, nothing cannot be born from anything. The opposite of a vacuum with no dimensions is infinitely filled indeterminateness, which is not the same as a vacuum, but is no different. Divide by zero to prove 1=2.

A synonym for belessness is ________.

A person without ID is as invisible as a paper match’s smoke in a strong wind. People look through, look past. Who? The question cannot be answered. Can you distinguish one ant from another? One mathematical point? Something less than that? How many irrational numbers exist between zero and one? What is the difference in value between two neighboring irrational numbers? Two neighboring transcendental numbers?

Without ID, people are uncountable.

Without ID, there is no I, and there is no way to identify the body from dental records.

For those who cannot be identified, there is no origin, so there cannot be a destination or movement. No licenses, no work, no taxes to be paid.

ID is the key to society’s lock. ID opens eyes, allows recognition, and provides a path to somewhere. ID is how we know where on the map we are and where everyone else is.

Drop ID onto a person, and everyone else thinks they know who they are. The mask can be seen in a mirror, so it ‘exists’. They also know where they are— the Northeast side of Southwest Centerville, five miles up the road past the Jones cabin that burned down last year, by the old Bennett farm where Sam built the cheap condos.

If you leave your ID at home, you can slip through the world unnoticed, be a person of no account. Move between the masks, above the grid, and slide right in— a vampire of no reflection, who takes without giving, endlessly existing between the rhythmic beats of reality’s subtle drummer.

A mask is art, or artifice, or artificial.

A poet writes his story, his name is Forty, he sings of glory, but as he runs out of time, his mask falls away so he can no longer say the poet’s play; only empty pain remains as his life-stained mask slides down the drain.

Have a party to burn your diary; toast the loss of your past, and then go to the mall to lease three new masks. What is in style today? How much do you have to pay?

Hide your masks. Use them when nothing is not enough, when something is better than something else, or when anything will do.

Each day, wear one or all of your masks, or put me away; choose to be, or ________.

“No ID” was first published in the Fall 2015 spoken word issue of Arc Poetry Magazine.

The Babalus

Musical instruments wail as the truck rolls
under the train trestle. We exercise the echo—
I bang my buffalo drum, Joe slams his congas,

Sandy shakes her tambourines, the kid
in front pounds his vibes, the guy in the back
goes full throttle on his drum kit.

Sunlight flares as the truck turns right. Crowds
on both sides of the street wave as we restart
whatever rhythm we were playing.

Every July 4th in Ridgewood, Joe hires out a flatbed
truck usually used to ship construction lumber.
Signs remembering Joe and Sandy’s friends

who passed in the prior year surround a frayed
banner with the name of our group— The Babalus.
We tie down our instruments and chairs and hope

to be the last float in the parade. Some years
they put us between a screaming fire engine
and a shrill ambulance, but other years are better.

When it rains hard, I cover my doumbek and djembe
in black garbage bags, water spraying on every beat.
Near the end of the parade route, we stop in front

of the Elk’s Club where Joe and Sandy’s friends
watch the procession and we play for a minute or two.
After the bows, we drive past the town’s reviewing

stand as the announcer reports how many
parades the Babalus have performed in.
We never won best of anything, our annual

get-together with no uniform, little rehearsal,
and an uncertain roster, but soaked or sunburned,
for all of us, drumming is breathing.

Boil Until Tasteless

Lettuce was always Iceberg. Cookbooks told our parents that the hearts were the best part. They were bitter.

Cheese came in two varieties, yellow and white, pre-sliced and wrapped in clear plastic.

Bread was almost always white; seeded rye was used for special occasions. Whole wheat was cutting edge.

Milk had two teaspoons of strawberry or chocolate powder stirred in to make it drinkable.

Cereal had more sugar than cookies.

Chinese food was salty and spiceless Cantonese. We never made it to that Szechuan place in midtown.

Ice cream had three flavors – vanilla, chocolate, and strawberry. Then butter pecan was invented.

Vanilla ice cream, dumped into Coca-Cola, fizzed and erupted brown foam.

Soda and seltzer in thick glass bottles were delivered by some guy in a uniform. Dad put the empties outside a week later.

Seltzer had big and fast bubbles.

Sandwich fish was tuna fish. Salmon and sardines came much later.

Tuna fish and egg salad were made with large globs of mayonnaise. The result was flavored mayo. Sometimes diced onion was added for texture.

Borscht had sour cream, sliced egg, and boiled potatoes. Instead of borscht, really old people ate schav, which was green and had a sour odor.

TV dinners were fried chicken in aluminum trays. The apple cobbler never cooked right.

We survived.

— Published in The Rutherford Red Wheelbarrow #9 (2016)

Repast

orange juice yellow beets brown bread
once more she sets the table

arranging dishes
placing napkins

forks spoons knives
centering chairs by placemats

then placemats by chairs
tureen vegetable soup steam

cold salads covered
no grapefruit spoons or fish forks

yet again
she checks the simmering roast

reverently adjusting burners
almost hot enough

to start with
blue corn chips green salsa black olives

inviting me she
touches my shoulder

— Published in The Rutherford Red Wheelbarrow #8 (2015)

Corporate Theatre

An act performed with stock props—
common avarice, preferred prayer,
garaged convertibles, arrest warrants.

Setting: a dimly-lit office—
boxed files, encrypted evidence,
accrued interest, hollowed equity.

Enter the four players—
Founder. Investor.
Manager.  Employee.

A shroud falls after the first scene of
hushed negotiations, rash decisions,
turnaround specialists, legal execution.

Time of death? Written on a form filed by men of habit,
a notice sent to the local business rag,
a remark whispered in a pub— the company foundered.

The as-yet uncontaminated engrave an epitaph on the vault door—
Available, after the lawyers scrub out the stink of failure.
Of the stricken within— a rotting corp, with hands folded.

Recyclable employees claw into vertical positions,
managers supplicate quotations for furniture and fixtures,
founders stiffen attitudes, bury emails, spawn excuses.

Office equipment is consigned to a resting place—
disposal men grasp them by their attached cables
and file out, precisely positioning each into a black van.

Responsibility? Blame this! Blame that! Sue the consultant!
When driving by a seven car pileup, the officers direct:
move along, there are no lessons to be learned here.

Missed opportunities and fumbled execution
play no role because— well, just because.

Let’s raise money for our next brilliant idea.

— Published in The Rutherford Red Wheelbarrow #8 (2015)

Somewhere Else

I pick up a stick and dig a hole.
If I stand the stick straight up,

where on Earth does the bottom point to?
Google labels my fidget map tunneling.

An app calculates that I’m pointing
into the Indian Ocean, not far from Perth.

I learn that Tangier is opposite Christ Church,
and Hawaii is opposite a park in Botswana.

I swivel the stick, crossing cities and towns,
beaming Hey, I’m here, on the other side.

When my hand stills— where am I pointing?
What is the latest news? Who sings the popular songs?

Tracing a precise ellipse would sweep the equator,
but the app doesn’t have that feature.

Which circle’s diameter would intersect where the planet’s
mantle rests on the iron core, or the crust on soft mantle?

I think about pointing into the 32 Southern constellations,
starting with the Southern Ecliptic Pole in Dorado.

————————————————————
This poem was published as the
Red Wheelbarrow Poem of the Week
for August 12th, 2015. It was inspired by
some downtime at the NYC Poetry Festival
on Governors Island.

Noodle Pudding

The boat in Danzig would leave on time.

My grandmother and her two cousins traveled overland,
away from the Polish-Russian war.

Away from running into the woods
with only crackers for food.

Far from seeing men killed in the streets.

A long journey from avoiding windows because
she might get shot.

In school, she was taught in Polish, Russian, or German,
depending on who held the land at the time.

Years before, her parents manufactured horse blankets for the Russian army.

In 1923, my grandmother met her father’s former employee
on a Brooklyn street (a small connection).

Letters sailed across the ocean; news traveled from the family until 1939.

Then silence.

Always silence.

For the holidays, my grandmother baked a noodle pudding, glorious in every way—
two types of raisins, eggs, farmer cheese,
made in a bundt pan, baked perfectly, sliced thick,
couldn’t eat it fast enough, always wanting more.

It helped to ease the silence.

——————————————————————–
This poem was originally published in
The Paterson Literary Review #43 2015-2016

They moved into the house across the street

They moved into the house across the street.
Chinese, I thought.
My wife thought they were Japanese.

Our grandkids were in the school play with their grandkids.
Our wives met when they helped set up the stage.
We were invited over.

Their house brought back memories of ’68 Da Nang,
the smells of the SVA guys cooking their rice dishes.

He asked me, was I in the war, and I told him about
a couple of firefights near Khe Sanh.

He said that he was stationed in Hanoi until ’67,
and then he commanded a couple of VC squads. He asked
if I was ok with that.

I took a deep breath. Just two guys talking.

It was a long time ago.

I offered him my hand.

——————————————————————–
This persona poem was originally published in
The Paterson Literary Review #43 2015-2016

In the Library at Poet’s House, NYC

This room, filled with chapbooks,
full-lengths, journals, analyses,
a million hours of concentrated work—
this room listens—
each tap, stroke, page turn.

The poets surrounding me do not.

He writes about lost opportunities,
she, damaged relationships,
this one, how the media filters and fragments him,
that one, daily grocery lists and candy wrappers.

I write of the here and now.

If I bang the keyboard,
they would startle—
might they then think of poetry’s roots,
a throat’s voice, sounded words,
hands moving for eyes and not paper,
how spoken volume interacts with pacing and rhythm?

How can you (yes, you) shout a rage-poem on stage,
yet casually write that same performance
as if pouring cream into coffee?

This is my offer.
Think about the unexpressed sounds in this room,
listening as the room itself does,
in exchange for this poem.

Apparently, and disappointingly,
with your casual acceptance of the ‘quiet’,
you have declined my offer.

No deal. Please put down the page.

————————————————-
(This poem was on a coffee table at Poet’s House)