“Letter to Dick from Time” by Heather Altfeld

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Heather Altfeld


Dear Richard. How you wanted to be called dearest.
I couldn’t. There weren’t enough hours in the day then
to know the cathedral of your whimsy, nor the catacombs
of your desire. I will take you to the moors, you said
the first time, spooning against the small of my back, curving me
hard into your sadness. So many moors. Petrolia,
phone booth in the rain, car slipshod in the mud,
dialing the rotary for rescue. What you remembered
was hiking in the sand to the lighthouse, leaning me
against its old rail, speaking of Arabia, Lawrence
in the dunes. Everything I have done since
was in your image. The men I loved waver
beneath the shadows of you, seduced by Durrell,
the orange blossoms, white stone of Alexandria. The Arab motion
of spitting. Your lips, heart-shaped and full like a girl’s,
drawing out my breasts. How could you
do this to me? The phone crackles, gin in your fist, bitters
swung into the long planks of your porch. The butterflies
beat their wings in Japan and there are no surprises here. It’s all
chaos theory, darling, you slur into the cord, a hundred vocal
strums singing the Pleiades, my heart warming like pewter
to your words. I will drink to you drinking to me
tonight as the apple orchards glow pink
beneath the clouds and the wheat stalks bend
in our names. Oh, my love. I am just now approaching
who you wanted me to be then. You are right,
dear Dick, this is the worst time of day, when I pull the thread
of a match along the stove grate, bursting the small flicker of flame.
You’d slide past me then to reach the napkins, a dinner fork,
the memory of your hand on my hip as you moved alongside. Tonight I set
the table for you, the full moon of your dinner plate glowing empty
in the evening light. Call me, too, when the night tries to swallow you
past the lump in its throat. Ask me what matters, and I will tell you,
the phone trembling hard against the little knock of our hearts.

from Rattle #43, Spring 2014
Tribute to Love Poems

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Heather Altfeld: “This poem is one of my many homages to Richard Hugo, whose work I did not learn about until someone in my writer’s group brought ‘Letter to Kathy from Wisdom’ as a prompt. ‘Read it again, Bob,’ I said, and he did. It wasn’t enough. I’ve gnarled up two copies of 31 Letters and 13 Dreams in the last few years. I wrote this in a meek attempt to capture, as Hugo does, the kind of longing and sadness that time sets and screws into our bones.” (website)

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“T.S. Eliot’s Lost Hip Hop Poem” by Jeremy Richards

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Jeremy Richards


Let us roll then, you and I,
the evening stretched out against the sky
like a punk ass I laid out with my phat rhymes.

The eternal footman is no one to fuck with.
Alas, he shall bring the ruckus.

You think that you can step
to this, and Lo, I hear your steps like Lazarus
echoing through my soul.

Bring the bass.

Straight out of Missouri,
Harvard University in your face.
I’ve got ladies in waiting all over
the place, singing each to each;
do I dare eat a peach?

You’re damn right I’ll each a peach.
Who shall stop me, with my Prufrock hip hop
non-stop, clippity clop, clippity clop
I hear the horses carrying the wassailers,
I’m ready to impale their ears with my rhymes
rolling off of my parched tongue
the way trousers roll off my ankles.

I get it done better than John Donne.
Pound for pound, like Ezra Pound,
no other literati around can confound
the post-Victorian quickness I bring
to the microphone, though I shall die alone.

But not before I rock the house.
Watch me douse you in my eternal flames
of a freaky-ass style, my crew has the flow
with European tangent, Kto vahsh otsiets saychoss—
the Russian for Who’s your daddy now.

For I will tell you.
That I have scuttled across the floors of ancient clubs,
and yea, knowing that you may never return,
I will tell you this:
That I have been over to a friend’s house
for dinner, and lo, the food was not any good.

The macaroni, soggy. The peas, mushy.
And the chicken tasted of wood,
like the wooden coffin I’ve created for myself;
if this is going to be that kind of party
I will stuff my desire in the mashed potatoes.
But I tell no lie, I will show you fear
in a handful of hip hop,

making your body rock, your soul shudder,
your utter disbelief when the old school,
the ancient school, returns
from dusty book covers and scorned lovers
to reign again on the open poetry mic.
Bring the pathos! Bring the pathos!
You wannabe MCs just can’t stop…

…’till human voices wake us,
and we back the fuck up

                                into eternity.

from Rattle #27, Summer 2007
Tribute to Slam Poetry

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“The Fire This Time” by Roberto Ascalon

Roberto Ascalon


or How Come Some Brown
Boys Get Blazed Right
Before Class and Other
Questions Without Marks

how much damn broke
does it take to want to
burn just before class
lung green with chaos
how many times the
police come to the door
way past late, your auntie
face forlorn and flashing
in the turning blue, how
much knuckle in a boy
fist gotta break cheek till
body want to go numb
how much brave you
gotta front, pay forward
like a hard stare, like a
work muscle jaw
how many legal papers
say stay or go, right or
nothing, home or jail
love or palm skin
how many words
or promises did dad
mom and god knows
who else have to crush
so that you spit out
your eyes and slouch
like a demon, daring
me to call out your
name, as if it had
power anyway, as if
your own name, when
you strangle it out
your throat spill god
stuff, god, like a broke
egg, baby born into
fire, how come fire
put you to bed instead
of sweet hands, good
hands, why they put bad
hands, why bad hands
why the fire this time
god, why, we ain’t done
nothing, nothing yet
nothing yet and nothing
wrong, except the babies
are on fire, on fire, babies
burning by the stairs
before school begins

from Rattle #42, Winter 2013
2013 Rattle Poetry Prize Winner


Roberto Ascalon: “I’ve taught a poetry class in this one school for the last eight years. It’s been fantastic. But hard sometimes—it’s a credit retrieval school—the last ditch for kids who’ve been expelled for being angry or being sad or being high or for fighting or cursing out a teacher or not speaking English well enough or scratching fuck you on the bathroom mirror or being pregnant or skipping school for weeks—conditions and actions that often haunt the poor and the black and the brown. With lots of love, freedom, encouragement and a safe space, I find most kids want desperately to read their work out loud. But recently I had this one boy, who, by his very presence, prevented others from reading their poetry. Class fizzled when he was in the room. He’d talk brazenly on the phone during class or slouch deep in his chair and make offhandedly cruel comments under his breath. His swagger and arrogance conveyed total disrespect—all with this amazing smile and high cheek bones. Infuriatingly, he could have been a leader if he’d wanted to—but instead chose to laugh at other folks when they read. One day I had enough. I stepped to him, suited up in manly-man aggression, kicked him out. After he left the room, to my deep shock and surprise, the other youth called me out and argued with me. They said I wasn’t being right. They said that he needed the class as much, even more, than they did. They saw how unfair it was—all of it. So, I let him back in the next day. There was an uneasy détente. The other kids eventually read their poems. He wrote a handful of lines that year, maybe ten or twelve. A win. I wrote this poem for him—and for the other youth who wanted him back in the room. For Miss Diane and Lasheera and Romeo and Rica. For all of the brown boys that get denied by people like me. For James Baldwin’s nephew.”

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“1969″ by Tony Gloeggler

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Tony Gloeggler


My brother enlisted
in the winter. I pitched
for the sixth-grade Indians
and coach said
I was almost as good
as Johnny. My mother
fingered rosary beads,
watched Cronkite say
and that’s the way it is.
I smoked my first
and last cigarette. My father
kept his promise,
washed Johnny’s Mustang
every weekend. Brenda Whitson
taught me how to French kiss
in her basement. Sundays
we went to ten o’clock Mass,
dipped hands in holy water,
genuflected, walked down
the aisle and received
Communion. Cleon Jones
got down on one knee, caught
the last out and the Mets
won the World Series.
Two white-gloved Marines
rang the bell, stood
on our stoop. My father
watched their car
pull away, then locked
the wooden door. I went
to our room, climbed
into the top bunk,
pounded a hard ball
into his pillow. My mother
found her Bible, took
out my brother’s letters,
put them in the pocket
of her blue robe. My father
started Johnny’s car,
revved the engine
until every tool
hanging in the garage

from Rattle #25, Summer 2006
Tribute to the Best of Rattle

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“Distracted Notes …” by Barbara Louise Ungar

Barbara Louise Ungar


An Essay

When I gave birth at 45, I discovered that 35 and above is deemed “Advanced Maternal Age,” so I coined a term for my slim but growing demographic: Geriatric Motherhood. And my marriage was on the skids.

I found that pregnancy, like impending death, which it resembles, concentrates the mind wonderfully. At least, internally. According to my OB, I was the most ecstatic pregnant woman in the world, and I have poems to prove it. I was on sabbatical, so out came (after the kid) my second book of poems, The Origin of the Milky Way, my baby book. I trained myself, while nursing, to write poems in my head; once my baby went down for a nap, I ran to the computer to get the poems down. The poems in this collection are mostly short, telegraphic, and baby-centric. Obsessed as I was, I learned to write a collection focused on one subject: motherhood. I had become a vessel, and the poems, like my son, came through me. When I gave birth, I felt helpless in the grip of a ferocious life force: a model for the ancient idea of possession by the muse.

When my son was still an infant, I could set him down and he’d stay put while I scribbled, but once he began to walk, at ten months (early), it was all over. I had no help, and it was all I could do to survive.

I was lucky enough to be on sabbatical while pregnant and on maternity leave for my son’s first year. Then I went back to work.

“How is it?” a friend asked.


And so it remains, nine years later. Single motherhood is impossible. Single working motherhood. Single, working, writing motherhood. Then there’s poe-biz: a fourth impossible.

As my marriage crumbled, I found my next subject, which led to Charlotte Brontë, You Ruined My Life: divorce (and, of course, single motherhood). These poems were exorcism and catharsis. Life for me had been so bad in the marriage that it was far easier to be alone.

When visitation began, I had one and then two days a week without my son to try to concentrate on writing. To paraphrase Anne Lamott, “I used to think I couldn’t write with dirty dishes in the sink. Then I had a child. Now I could write with a corpse in the sink.” This quote is probably from Operating Instructions: A Journal of My Son’s First Year, the best book about single motherhood I know, a book I loved even before I joined the ranks of motherhood, and singletude, but I don’t have time to look it up because I should be grading papers, and I only have a few hours before my son comes home from school. So, the choices are always writing, poe-biz, or life-plumbing (my catch-all phrase for dishes laundry cleaning mail email bills car and body maintenance recycling garbage yard work plunging toilet fixing furnace shopping cooking dishes laundry cleaning … ). Writing wins, almost every time.

But my son comes first. Always. Reflexively. I learned this shortly after giving birth: Walking down an icy sidewalk with my babe in his padded plastic basket (one of those snap-in car-carrier doodads), I slipped. As I went down, instead of my hands going out in front of me to break my fall as they always had, my entire body curled around my son in his NASA-grade carrier. I hit the ground on my side and back, my arms holding him high up off the pavement. I was stunned by the realization that there had been no choice: My very reflexes had been rewired. I’d protected him, rather than my own body, without a thought. I realized in that instant that I would throw myself in front of a car, bullet, madman, shark, raptor, zombie, to save him, and there wouldn’t even be a choice. Natural selection: Moms’ brains are rewired.

I read a study, “Joys of Motherhood Include a Rewired Brain” (probably in the Science Times, where I love to fish for poem ideas): Virgin rats took nearly five minutes to snag a cricket, while lactating mother rats nabbed the food in just 70 seconds.

How is writing a poem like snagging a cricket? You learn to write like a mother rat: Faster. Leaner. Meaner. Shorter. Fewer drafts. More focused on what really counts: more desperate. Fearless. Loving.

If I am lucky and get a poem, sometimes I’ll have a little time left over to send a few things out. More often, I’ll obsessively revise the poem. On unlucky days when I give up in despair, instead of sending poems out, more likely I’ll get caught up in

that tiny insane voluptuousness,
getting this done, finally finishing that.

—Theodor Storm, trans. Robert Bly, “At the Desk”

A tree fell in my yard. I need to help my son with his homework and schlep him to Hebrew school grocery shop return cellos exercise relax. Instead, I’m writing this.

Mornings are hardest. Getting us up, dressed, breakfasted, washed, combed, lunched, and ready for school (which usually involves my packing five, count ’em, five bags of stuff to get through our days), and out the door on time for work often involves a bit of roaring. Or whimpering. Once he’s gone, I’m madly scrambling, mopping up the milk I’ve spilled in my rush.

“It’s too hard.” But then I woman up. Help. It would be nice to have help.

A friend doing a performance piece once asked for someone to come up on stage to help her. I volunteered. I was asked to cry. I have no acting experience but, having read about The Method, simply repeated what I had been doing earlier, hunched on the toilet, sobbing and keening, “I can’t take it anymore, please, help, somebody please help me!” I was a great success. People thought I was making it up.

I do not mean to complain. We do not live under a tarp in a refugee camp. I did not have to walk across Cambodia pregnant, as one of my students did. Kvetch a little, yes. An Irish friend, a young, married professor of English, wrote me in rage after she had her son: She told me that working mothers are trapped—we have no time or energy to write about it, let alone organize to do anything about it—so no light escapes our black hole. Tillie Olsen’s classic Silences describes profoundly the ways that love can silence women, mothers in particular. I’ve recently discovered Sandra Tsing Loh’s “The Bitch Is Back” and Mother on Fire; they’re hysterical, but Sandra is fifteen years younger than I am, and she has a really nice husband who helps her. (Old, bad feminist joke: Men are good for two things: One is taking out the garbage, and I forget what the other one is.)

There are good reasons for menopause, too: You wouldn’t want to do what I do if you were one second older than I am. (I was definitely on my last egg.) I think about women having babies into their fifties or sixties, and I know they’re mad. But even younger women with good husbands, like my friend and Sandra Tsing Loh, are overwhelmed, and most of us just don’t have the wherewithal to tell anyone about it. So, thanks for asking, Rattle.

It’s a little easier now that my son is older: The TV, computer, Xbox, and reading give me a little breathing space. He can dress, feed, wash, and go to the bathroom himself. I don’t have to watch him every second. Often we sit side by side on the couch; I grade while he reads, draws, watches movies. I’ve seen (with half my brain) every Disney flick more times than is advisable, and they’ve infiltrated my poems (as in “Crueler than Disney” and “The Middle-Aged Mermaid”). Sometimes fairy tales (“The Miller’s Daughter”), cartoons (“Looney Tunes”), or funny things my kid says trigger poems as well (“Spell” and “Champagne and Pull-ups”).

Who knows what teenagerdom will bring. What poems of mayhem. Then, in eight short years, my son will be off to college, and I’ll have the house to myself. His bedroom will be my study. (I’m working now, as usual, at the dining room table with the computer in a corner and piles of papers everywhere. I never entertain.) I’ll be able to travel again, if I’m still alive and mobile. I’ll be able to give readings whenever I want, if anybody wants to hear me. Maybe I’ll finally get better at sending my work out. I’ll have all the time and quiet in the world. And, God, I will miss him.

Like a lump of clay on a potter’s wheel, I am centered by my love for my son, and every shape I make rises out of this.

from Rattle #41, Fall 2013
Tribute to Single Parent Poets


Barbara Louise Ungar has published three books of poetry: Thrift, before motherhood; The Origin of the Milky Way, about motherhood; and Charlotte Brontë, You Ruined My Life, about becoming a single mother. She is a professor of English at the College of Saint Rose in Albany, New York, where she teaches literature and writing.

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