October 29, 2020

Ekphrastic Challenge, September 2020: Editor’s Choice


Painting women lounging and swimming in a pool in the head of a bluish figure

Image: “Pool Head” by Pat Singer. “In the Dream-Pool” was written by Elizabeth McMunn-Tetangco for Rattle’s Ekphrastic Challenge, September 2020, and selected as the Editor’s Choice.

[download: PDF / JPG]


Elizabeth McMunn-Tetangco


All summer long,
the pool was closed,
and I swam

Glimpses of aqua
through a fence.

A neighbor’s

Mouthwash blue.

The thing with dream-pools is
you never get to swim.

The thing with dream-pools is
they all mean something else.

When summer ended, the need passed
like an old pet, drifting
somewhere, like the wildfire smoke, or souls.

I thought of towels I’d sewed my name on,
how they one time seemed important.

In a dream-pool, I am floating,
silent blue in sheets around me.

In a dream-pool I am safe,
cleansed of whatever

came in with me,
my skin tight.

from Ekphrastic Challenge
September 2020, Editor’s Choice


Comment from the Editor, Timothy Green: “Interestingly, both this poem and the artist’s choice throb with the losses of the pandemic while looking through a fence that isn’t in the painting. In this case, the closing of the summer pool becomes a kind of obsession, haunting in its absence, as so many things are. There are so many memorable lines here: ‘The thing with dream-pools is / you never get to swim.’ That will stick with me.”

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October 22, 2020

Ekphrastic Challenge, September 2020: Artist’s Choice


Painting women lounging and swimming in a pool in the head of a bluish figure

Image: “Pool Head” by Pat Singer. “Visiting the Gardens at DePugh Nursing Center, Winter Park, Florida” was written by Vivian Shipley for Rattle’s Ekphrastic Challenge, September 2020, and selected as the Artist’s Choice.

[download: PDF / JPG]


Vivian Shipley


As if I am in a zoo, I peer through
bars of the black iron fence.
Restricted by the coronavirus
to outdoor visits, I’m unable
to touch my sister parked
in her wheelchair by the aide.
Under a trellis, vines seem
to yearn as I do to touch her hair.
Azure blue flowers, centered
in purple, rest near her face,
eyes closed, lips flatlining.
I whisper Mary Oliver’s lines,

I thought the earth remembered me,
she took me back so tenderly,
arranging her dark skirts, her pockets
full of lichens and seeds.

Someone has smeared on fire engine
red lipstick as if my sister might flirt
again, arm on a jukebox, index finger
running down a man’s tie.

Like a live beetle savaged
by fire ants swarming its cranium,
a brain tumor eats from inside out
until Mary Alice, who cannot
escape her executioner, will die.

I know the tumor in her skull is like
an ember, burning until any memory
of me in her lobes has been turned
to white ash. But if I could remove
the top of her head like the surgeon
had done to debulk the tumor, I’d like
to believe I’d find our pool in Kentucky
with us, the three sisters in tank suits.
Mary is floating on her back in yellow.
I sit on the edge in blue daring only
to dangle my feet in the water.
My youngest sister, naturally in red,
dives from the high board.

As a child, Mary Alice was the good girl,
Pointed her toes in ballet class, strung
glass beads on elastic bracelets in Methodist
church camp to help others find salvation:
white, the purity of Mary, red, the blood
Jesus shed, even for me. To give me faith,
she explained good and evil are like sun
and rain. God sends rainbows to make
sense of them together. I’d shoot back,
I didn’t need the world to have meaning,
had no ache to be saved or have afterlife.
Now, to be with her again, I do.

from Ekphrastic Challenge
September 2020, Artist’s Choice


Comment from the artist, Pat Singer: “The way this poem unfolds feels very real and unexpected. I enjoy the surprising and unpredictable way that the sister’s tumor introduces the visual of the pool inside the mind. The writer captured the grim, desolate reality of visiting someone who is unable to care for themselves anymore. Visiting someone who’s a husk of what they once were is difficult, sobering, and emotional. The words the writer uses conveys these feelings with raw power and an authentic voice. The visual cues tie in well with the art literally, but also manages to expand the meaningfulness into something much more robust and with more depth than what is on the surf.”

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February 19, 2024

Diana Goetsch


Lovers come best together when they come
undone, empty-handed, rendered dumb,
come down to their last card, a turning
way past desperation and cleaner burning.
They show up in the doorways of motels,
sights for sore eyes in sunken orbitals,
solemn as animals, far from all thought
of anything that can be learned or taught.
Lovers show up best after they’ve used
up their excuses, returning bruised
in a cold season, in a darkening room,
in threadbare clothes absent of perfume,
and even these will soon go up in flames
along with their bones, their dreams, their names.

from Rattle #82, Winter 2023
Rattle Poetry Prize Finalist


Diana Goetsch: “I began writing poetry at four or five a.m. on the NYC subway after nights spent shooting pool. I was wasting my life. Then phrases, lines came to me. They weren’t lines of Whitman or Yeats or Eliot, so I figured they must be mine. They cycled through my head as I walked my Brooklyn neighborhood among a million sleeping people, feeling like I was treading the afterlife. Once home, I jotted the lines in a notebook, added some more, and started playing with them. That was 30 years ago.” (web)

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February 26, 2024

Jacob K. Robinson


Oh, right. About the boy from the sky
He fell, unexpectedly, feet first into the pool
Which is a silly thing to think
A boy with enough composure, while falling from a great height, to direct his feet earthward
I suppose it could mean he intended to land
To bend his knees on arrival
To cushion the impact
But could it also mean he was trying to create as little splash as possible?
To pencil his body through the earth, like water
To show his skill at making no waves, causing no tumult, no hubbub, no trauma
Maybe he was competing in a diving contest
Between four other boys and himself
And he simply wanted to win.
The other boys had competed finely
There were flips and jackknifes and a cannonball just to stir the pot
They had no judge but themselves, each other
A scale of zero to ten, though no one would give a zero
That would simply be too cruel
And a ten was out of the question
A score only given to the impossible, the unattainable
A target to aim for, knowing they could never hit it.
With each dive they had raised the stakes
They had upped the ante, so to speak
This didn’t imply that the following dive need be better
Just that it had to be more, different, else
The thinking was that one must never step back, regress, devalue the competition
One must always add add add
Lift the competition to new heights
And in so doing, lift each other
It was really about encouragement, was it not?
It was really about making each other better, stronger, more capable
It was really about tough love and hard won battle scars
It was really about elevation.
From way up in the sky, the pool looked like a target, an eye
It had lost its kidney bean shape
And morphed into a simple dot
A little crystalline blue pupil with an off-white iris made of concrete and pebbles
Surrounding that, a green green green sclera
That was the wide open land of rural Texas
That was the cow pastures and hay fields
Hay fields in the off season, wild grass spurting up from the untilled dirt
There was a house next to the eye, a long ranch home
One could imagine it as a nose but that was upsetting
Then one might expect there to be another eye, bookending the bridge of the nose-house
But there wasn’t.
There isn’t.
There couldn’t be.
And it would be a sad thing to think about a missing eye, a semi-lost vision
So the nose-house does not exist, it disappears from view at this height
Not by actuality but by actualization
This was not an eye of a pair of eyes
This was a kind of cyclops, a singular point from which the Up Above is viewed
The Up Above in which a boy could be seen
Falling, feet first, toward the target-eye.
The other boys continued their competition
The highest score to be achieved thus far, an 8
Which is to say, they were nearing the end.
The dive that had achieved the 8 was a half back flip twist maneuver
Hard to render completely, but that is the description the attempting boy used
A sort of half back flip twist, then, head first, arms in front, straight down like a needle
And he did it
He pierced the water with hardly a ripple, comparatively anyhow
In fact, the only reason he did not merit a 9 was that he had not made the full twist
His entry was achieved at—roughly—a 350-degree position from how he began
Which was with his back to the other boys
So, given the parameters of the dive he described, he should have entered the water facing away again
And he nearly did
But not quite
Thus, the 8.
From below, the feet of the boy from the sky looked like an equal sign
Spread just slightly apart, the smallest of gaps between them
He had considered keeping them pressed tight to one another
Ankle to ankle, as it were
But that had proved to be uncomfortable to hold
And he would be holding it for some time
So instead he opted for the more sustainable: slightly apart.
There was something to this strange stance he had positioned himself in
This kind of gentle at-ease
Say one was flying in an airplane and looked out the window and saw the boy
He would look like he was standing on air
What a sight.
The diving boys did not know about the boy from the sky until he was there
They knew him, of course
He was a friend of theirs
Or an acquaintance maybe
But they didn’t know that word then
So they used friend
They didn’t know he was taking part in their little competition
They didn’t know how badly he wanted to win
They didn’t know how long he had been planning this dive
All they knew was that he was suddenly there
Feet first
Into their pool.
The water, that blue pupil, spilled out onto the iris of off-white concrete and pebble
All of it
The pupil space that remained became the color of bleached bone, empty
Its blue trickled away away away
Over the concrete and pebble
toward the green green green sclera
And then it seeped down into it
And was gone
The boy from the sky was the new vision
The diving boys were seeing.
Cracks began
To form
In the pupil
As if the boy from the sky
Kept wanting
To go down
It was aging
Everything was aging
At a pace
Drying out
The green green green
Is now brown brown brown
And the nose-house that never was
Is being sold
The memories contained in the pupil waters
Now somewhere else
Scattered on impact
The pool
Will be demolished
Filled in
And maybe become a garden
Or a garage
The four diving boys
Will eventually forget the boy from the sky
Or no
Not forget
Simply not remember
Not every day anyway
But occasionally they will recall
The dive that was an 8
They will laugh about how close it was to a 9
Oh right.

from Rattle #82, Winter 2023
Rattle Poetry Prize Finalist


Jacob K. Robinson: “At the end of the day, I think I’d like to be summed up like so: I am Texan by birth, a Georgian by blood, and a New Yorker by choice. I like a good pair of Levi’s, mowing the lawn, and playoff baseball. I am doing my best.” (web)

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April 25, 2023

Alison Townsend


I don’t remember if the bottle was a Coke or a Fresca,
just that the glass was cool against our hands
in the warm, empty tool shed. Where we’d gathered
after swimming all afternoon at Debbie Worthman’s
eighth grade pool party, everyone’s skin damp
and blue in the shadows, the boys’ chests bare,
the other girls wearing cute, peek-a-boo cover-ups
that matched their demure suits. And me with a frayed

blue shirt of my father’s, its tails tied fetchingly
around my first bikini, a homemade job I’d stitched
up in pink and red paisley from a Simplicity pattern,
the bottom half barely on because I’d run out of elastic.
I don’t know what Debbie’s parents thought when we slipped
away, leaving the pool. Or whose idea it was as we trudged
up the hill between her father’s prize-winning roses,

their scent filling the air like primitive attar,
their metal name tags chinking in the breeze. That seemed
to have come up from nowhere, pushing at us with invisible
hands as we locked ourselves inside the half dark
that smelled of wood chips and compost, our eyes dilating
like cats’, faces suddenly pale beneath Coppertone tans.
I wasn’t sure why I’d been invited to this party
or why I’d come, except that he was here, the boy
who’d pushed me into the pool more times than any other girl,

and who, when the guys “rated” the girls during a lull
in Mr. Tallerico’s “Classical Music Experience,”
had given me a “9,” Beethoven’s booming, making me feel
almost good enough, almost deserving of his attention.
Which, when it fell on me, when our eyes caught
and locked, threw out a tensile, silk line that hooked
my breath and heart as easily as he made jump-shots at games,
the ball teetering on the orange rim—then bingo, in.

While the sweaty mascot pranced in the moth-eaten tiger
suit, and cheerleaders scissored their perfect legs,
and I’d held my breath, hoping he’d look my way, his hand
dribbling the ball as if he was touching my body.
All that, pressurized and pushed down inside as someone
twirled the bottle and it spun, blurring as we held
our breath like fourteen-year-old yogis and (thank God)
it pointed at someone else. From whom I had to look away

as their lips met, my stepmother’s injunctions—Don’t
stare; cross your legs at the ankles—loud in my head.
Though I would have liked pointers, one dry, chaste peck
the year before from Bruce Colley all I had to go on.
But I gazed down until the bottle whirled toward me,
its opening like the little “oh” of surprise that undid
a slipknot inside my body, something not quite desire,
but what I’d soon call anticipation, singing along

with Carley Simon’s song, a fist in my solar plexus
opening and closing like a Luna moth’s wings.
As he moved across the circle and tilted my face up,
his palm cupped beneath the curve of my cheek,
then fastened his silky, Doublemint-scented mouth
over mine, everything in the room disappearing
in the plush wriggle of his tongue, the slight
thrust of his cock stirring beneath cut-off jeans.

And my tongue moving back. As if I had been born
knowing this, as if we were back in the pool,
his hand water on my skin, the rest of the kids gone,
the inside of my eyelids spangled with paisley swirls.
As I leaned further and further into this kiss that would
sustain me all summer, practicing for the next one
with my pillow or the fleshy part of my palm, enlisting
for life to the lure of the male’s hard, angular body,

the taste of mint everywhere like clean, green rain.

–from Rattle #28, Winter 2007
Rattle Poetry Prize Finalist


Alison Townsend: “I write poetry to make discoveries, to articulate what feels (at least initially) beyond words, to find out what I don’t know I know.”

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September 18, 2023

John Colasacco


Jesus wasn’t going to make it, Jim kept coughing and crying
on the floor next to the blue crib, the longest hair
on the backs of the girls—none of it came back, a moth came back,
in the noise it wasn’t possible, the garden
wouldn’t turn around and show its face, it wouldn’t open, yes the black
and white story lady music teacher tells about a phantom, I listened to it,
I found out you could die with your eyes open, I went with E.
and D. upstairs and we played die with your eyes open
in the room with the sandpaper door like doctors
flying, flying around, one having more sadness than the other, one listening
close, and I needed to blink, but I was dead, so I tried to squint and I saw
a knuckle in a black tree branch, I saw my uncle saying it’s diseased
I saw my marker drawing of a snake, a brontosaurus,
and a t-shirt, and
a glowing in the dark; one had her wrist
over my eyes saying yes
this happens, how it can happen, and whether
it actually happens we answered in part, we were starting
to improvise and the bathing suits
had lives of their own with water in them under water. There was the week
my uncle took both pairs of scissors away
and didn’t tell me where they were; I found out about the insides
of my eye, and what was in there; I didn’t want to do it, but
I wanted to do it, and I said so, but I shouldn’t have said so,
and I tried to draw the knuckle but it came out nothing,
I was mad, the basement was on a slant, we put gasoline
in a coffee can, we kept playing but I blinked, it was fine, I explained
again the point of the game, I forced
them, I had a little sale. Some pretzels
and a deck of cards, it’s not called a brontosaurus
anymore and then some daisies died in my hand
when I picked them for this picture, this blue one,
with Jim, in a wagon. The fruit trees
would sting you outside the woods would sting you.
I fell into a log full of hornets and died.
I fell into a plastic swimming pool and died.
I had to cough. I forced it. It was Tourette’s. I wasn’t born. My uncle
was following me like gasoline in a coffee can, rows of snakes moved
in the garden and I caught one and killed it and my shoe sunk halfway
down like a thought, the garden stung you,
the basement was on a slant.
I had my own hatchet. My uncle
had a hatchet. The moon came out, they tore the kneelers
out of St. Edward’s and chopped them up for money, we chopped
branches off the branches, we chopped stakes
for the vines to climb and ate all winter, some lighters died, the for sale sign
was gone, my uncle said Who you like in the Preakness, when we were Italian
and the girls knew what I knew, my eyes were going; I blinked
at Jim and he came back, we took out two pairs of scissors, I found
out about scissors and water, my uncle swung a bucket of water
over his head and said Centrifugal force.

from Rattle #29, Summer 2008


John Colasacco: “I want to thank my teachers Michael and Chris for helping me with this poem. It started as an exercise; I was basically listing as many distant memories as I could, especially memories that seemed mostly visual. While I was making the list I became aware of a frustration I have with my memory, and with list-making. After that the poem’s movement started to jive more closely with my frustration, and it seemed to become its own thing.”

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March 30, 2024

Tony Barnstone


It was a blonde. A blonde to make a bishop kick
a hole in a stained glass window.
—Raymond Chandler


The streets are dark with something more than night.
I walk out in the rain—and back in rain.
Though I outwalk the furthest city light
I can’t outwalk my shadow, outwalk pain
of Lizzie’s death. An interrupted cry
comes over houses from another street.
I know that cry. You hear it when men die,
when something sharp turns them from flesh to meat.
A knot of beggars, drunks and prostitutes
around a body, but what takes my eye
is her—the type that takes away your breath.
A luminary clock against the sky
is ringing bells out to the time of death.
A drunk man leers at her, “What’s your name, toots?”

Music: “On the Cool Side & Mystery!,” by Kevin McLeod



A drunk man leers at me. What else is new?
It’s happened all my life, or at least since
my breasts came in. It makes me want to rinse.
But I can’t let these people misconstrue
the reason why I’m here, by the dead man,
so I hitch up my chest and play the part.
I guess seduction is a kind of art,
though men like that would make a garbage can
out of my body, fill it with desires,
with acts they learned from taking in stag flicks.
Well, I can act as well, and make the tricks
believe in me. And that is what transpires.
I strike my most convincing hooker pose
and, sweet as I can, lie, “My name is Rose.”

Music: “Hot Swing,” by Kevin McLeod

Mike Casy by Tony Barnstone



“My name is Rose,” she sweetly grins.
“You should come up and visit us sometime.
My girls know how to wash away your sins.”
The lighted church clock bangs out one last chime,
then’s silent as the galaxy above.
I learned in school that galaxy means milk,
that some Greek goddess leaked stars out of
her breasts. I’ve known some goddesses, the silk
kimono at the crack of noon type, but
this one, well, I’d join her religion. She
goes back inside the Red Bordello, shut
inside like fantasy (though that is free).
Then there’s the corpse. I check: still dead. One clue:
red rose on a white matchbook. It’ll do.

Music: “Bad Ideas,” by Kevin McLeod



The matchbook’s blank except for a red rose
but that’s sufficient to suggest the fellow
with the switchblade in him was the sort goes
to do his business at the Red Bordello.
It’s quite a garden there, each color rose
planted around the bar for men to pluck.
When I walk in, the door-tough strikes a pose.
I laugh and slip the waiter a sawbuck,
“There is a man outside who’s so darn sick,
he’s dead. I found this matchbook in his clothes.
I’m not a cop, I’m not a private dick,
I’m just the curious type.” “Then talk to Rose.”
Rose talks to me all night without her clothes.
By morning I’m her man. That’s quite a trick.

Music: “Fast Talkin,” by Kevin McLeod



Living’s an act of faith, not just a trick
the body plays on us and I have trust
that loving’s also faith, not just the bust
and bicep, the nude dance, that makes us click.
Living’s an act for me—of theater.
I’ve always played the role of woman for
an audience of men, a kind of whore
in my own right, and now I’m playing her.
Poor Rose was sick. The worms who found her bed
at night, the choices she had, destitute
and battered, sickened her. Like Rose, I’m sick
of men (and yet, there’s Jack). But Rose is dead
and Jack must think I’m just a prostitute
performing passion for another trick.

Music: “Babylon,” by Kevin McLeod



She is tricked out in something scanty, looks
like a light wind would rip it like a cloud.
From bed, I watch through lashes: two black books,
a stack of cash, a gun. I give a loud
yawn, as if surfacing from a dream,
and stretch and wave my arms in semaphore.
Just then boots clomp on the wood stairs, a scream,
a shout, a scuffle outside of the door.
“Jack, this way, fast!” she hisses, climbing out
the window to the fire escape. “Spider
Floyd’s on his way.” No time. I spin about
and step in front the window so’s to hide her.
“Give up the frail,” the gunman scowls. Instead,
I look at him and smile, “Ah, shut your head.”

Music: “Nerves,” by Kevin McLeod



“I’ll open up your head,” says Spider, hard,
“and you’ll be leaking plenty, ’less you spill.”
I casually sit upon the windowsill
and stare at him. A knife glints like a shard
of glass, then quivers next to my left ear.
Another throwing blade is in his hand.
“Sure, buttercup, I think I understand,”
I say, “But I think I need atmosphere,”
and I roll back and out. The next knife clangs
the fire escape but I’m already sliding
down the steel ladder and then quickly hiding
behind rank rows of trash cans. Spider bangs
down to the alley, curses. I’m discrete.
I tail him to a place on Angel Street.

Music: “Walking Along,” by Kevin McLeod



The face of Spider Floyd is like an angel,
the sort of angel offers you an apple.
He’s flash, he’s jazz, he’s angling for an angle.
His eyes are dead. He’d sooner shoot than grapple,
being the dapper, slender sort of thug
—doesn’t want to break his polished nails.
Framed in the door is Spider’s pretty mug,
a pistol in his hand. “I don’t like tails,”
he growls. “That’s funny. I heard you was born
with one,” I smile. He smiles back with a smile
should be in a movie, maybe porn,
commences pistol-whipping me a while.
I wake up to a choir of devils singing.
Either my head or else a phone is ringing.

Music: “Backed Vibes Clean,” by Kevin McLeod


O'Malley in the Alley by Tony Barnstone


A phone is ringing somewhere in my head,
or maybe someone’s banging hammers on
an iron oven. Spider must be gone
somewhere, and I guess maybe I’m not dead.
The heap of broken images goes round
till I decipher I’m tossed in a chair,
pretty messed up. “I see they mussed your hair,”
comes Rose’s voice. “Behave. Spider went down
to the first floor, and I snuck up the back.”
When lovely woman stoops to folly and
she holds an automatic in her hand,
you answer what she asks: “You a cop, Jack?”
“No, Rose.” “Like hell. I’ve seen just how it goes
with cops. You won’t pin murder on this Rose.”

Music: “Backed Vibes Clean,” by Kevin McLeod



But how can you pin murder on a dead
woman? The problem is I cannot prove
that I’m not Rose, now Al is dead. Well, you’ve
got to admit the irony. I said
to him when I went in no one could tell
me from my sister; after years on stage,
playing gun molls and madams, four engagements
each six weeks, I’d trip no warning bell.
But now I’ve played the part with so much art
I can’t establish my identity,
can’t prove it’s not my name on the marquee.
They never could tell Rose and me apart.
And now, it’s curtains, Rose. The curtain falls,
and you won’t rise again for curtain calls.

Music: “Dreamy Flashback,” by Kevin McLeod



The curtain rises on a scene. Here’s Jack,
his lovely face so swollen it’s inflated.
Here is the heroine. Here is a shack,
abandoned, knocked askew, dilapidated,
a bare room barely lit by a bare light.
Here is a desk and hidden in the back
the white book scribbled with a code that might
uncode the black books, putting me on track
to find out why my sister Rose was killed.
I can’t let Jack catch on, don’t trust him yet.
Someone in all this mess turned coat and spilled.
It’s all an act, this acting rough
but I act well. I light a cigarette,
put on a pin-up smile, and then get tough.

Music: “Comfortable Mystery,” by Kevin McLeod



She pins a smile onto her face the way
you’d pin a butterfly to a cork board,
and sweetly says, “If I hear just one word
from you, I’ll make you a new mouth, okay?”
pressing the Luger up against my Adam’s
apple. And she is one sweet apple herself,
in her tight-laced corset rimmed with fur
and tiny skirt, a looker among Madams.
She has a face to make a reprobate
out of an archbishop. I’m a believer.
I can’t take her, and yet I can’t leave her,
though I’m no priest. “I love you, Rose,” I state,
with tenderness. She dips the gun, her wrist
gone weak. That’s when I kiss her with my fist.

Music: “Just as Soon,” by Kevin McLeod



I kiss her with my fist and she goes slack
the way a hooker’s dress drops to the floor.
I kick the gun away and lock the door.
She mumbles something weakly, “Me, too, Jack.
I love you, too.” Aw, hell. What a swell dame.
Outside of prostitution, gambling, oh
and just a little homicide, a Joe
could take her home to Mom. I’m not to blame,
she is a whore, and with a heart of tin,
no kind of damsel. When she looks distressed
her face would make a stockbroker divest
of money, make a saint invest in sin.
But still, I just can’t leave her here for them.
I guess I’ve fallen for this fatal femme.

Music: “Just as Soon,” by Kevin McLeod



I’m not the type who falls for muscle guys,
and something’s off with Jack, that he would want
a madam or a murderer, disguise
or not. Or something’s off with me. I can’t
pretend I don’t enjoy pretending, that
tending to Rose’s garden at the Red
Bordello as a madam with a gat
inside her purse, an airman in her bedroom,
hasn’t knocked my head askew. But Jack
must see too many movies, thinks he’ll own
this rose. We both are trapped inside our poses,
the tough guy fighting mobsters on our track,
the bad girl lounging in her dressing gown.
An insect in the bed will kill the roses.

Music: “Night on the Docks,” by Kevin McLeod


Bleed Edge by Tony Barnstone


Falling for Rose just might be fatal, but
what’s not? I’m just an airman with a knack
for trouble and a killer uppercut;
I know that Spider Floyd is on our track,
but spend the afternoon in Rose’s dive,
because you can’t keep days inside a box.
Maybe to love a tramp’s a paradox,
but no one’s getting out of here alive.
I’m not just killing time with Rose. Time does
the murdering. Rose stitches up the cut
across my heart. I hold her tight in bed,
because I’ve learned of love one thing: it goes.
It’s true that time is a great teacher, but
unfortunately kills its students dead.

Music: “Private Reflection,” by Kevin McLeod



“I am a student of death,” mortician
Joe Martin says, “the pistol, bomb and knife
and their particular effects. If life
is sickness, you can cure it with a gun.
The fellow over there with a switchblade
stuck in his heart had bigger problems than
four inches of sharp steel. The gentleman
was killed and later stabbed—a masquerade.
It took a while to figure how he died.”
Joe turns away from where the corpse is flayed
in autopsy, and hands me the switchblade,
smiling. He looks a bit self-satisfied.
“Stop dancing, Joe. Just tell me what you found.”
“Seawater in his lungs. The fellow drowned.”

Music: “Back Vibes,” by Kevin McLeod



“The fellow drowned? Who was he, Joe, a sailor?”
“Hardly. How many sailors do you know
who have five large in their billfolds? Who blow
their noses on fine silk? Who have a tailor
fit their suits? No, the man there’s moniker
is Algernon Byrne Westlander III.
A stuffed shirt type. Now more of a stuffed bird,
but was the Deputy Commissioner.”
I whistle at the news. Why’s a white shirt
like Algie pitching woo out at the Red
Bordello? His type gets a dame in bed
with just his name. He don’t need a pro skirt.
“Thanks, Joe. Let’s snort some giggle juice.” “Oh, no.
I gotta fit Al for his wood kimono.”

Music: “Back Vibes,” by Kevin McLeod



Algernon, or as I dub him, Algie,
got tossed into the drink and drank a lung
or two of salt water and ocean algae,
but here’s the little thing that has me hung:
we live in Chi-town—no salt water for
a thousand miles—so tell me how this fellow
sucked sea? I’m stumped. I knock on Rose’s door.
“Culture tonight,” she says, takes me to Othello.
Uh-huh, I know. O-what-o? It’s a play.
I ain’t from Cultureville. I’m from Chicago,
like Al Capone. But Rose has some great gams
so I will play her way, though I should say
just like that fella in the play, Iago
(or was it Popeye?) “I ams that I ams.”

Music: “Laconic Granny,” by Kevin McLeod



I am the guy I am, so at the theater
I’m watching all the high hats in the crowd.
One man bad-eyes Rose as if he ate her
for lunch and got a bellyache. The loud
gee on the stage is spitting wind in slang
so jingle-brained there ain’t no tail or head
to it. At intermission I go hang
my elbows on the bar. “Get to the shed,”
a whisper comes from to my back. I know
that voice—it’s Spider Floyd. “The boss is at
the opening.” Spider and Bad Eye go
and Rose come gets me. “Rose, that Spider cat …”
“I know. This theater’s being shaken down,
like every other business in Chi-town.”

Music: “No Good Layabout,” by Kevin McLeod



“In Chi-town every store shakes out the cash
or else the Big Guy who’s behind the scenes
will whack you, blast your place to smithereens,
or angel-face will burn the store to ash,”
says Rose. “He’s like a gangster God. The law
can’t touch him.” Snow is sifting down outdoors
like salt. Joe Morton made a salt that pours
instead of clumps, he found the formula.
If they had that at Sodom and Gomorrah
when fire and brimstone rained and cities burned,
that woman who looked back would not have turned
to a salt pillar, right? Well, I’m not sure a’
this stuff. Maybe the dame would still have bought
the farm. As things shake out, it was her lot.

Music: “No Good Layabout,” by Kevin McLeod



Back on the farm I taught myself a lot
by watching animals. My sister Rose
protected me against our dad. She taught
me sacrifice, and when he ripped her clothes
I heard the screams like mating cats, the weeping.
At fourteen I took off. My pop was found,
a kitchen knife stuck in his back, blood seeping
from the icebox to the back door. Around
the pool the starving animals collected,
lapping it up, as later men drew round
to drink Rose in. I think that I’ve detected
her killer and the place where she was drowned:
the Shedd Aquarium and Al Capone.
I leave Jack sleeping, and drive there, alone.

Music: “A Singular Perversion,” by Kevin McLeod



Dear Jack, you’re lovely, sleeping on the bed,
and all I want to do is crawl inside
the covers next to you. But I can’t hide
from what I have to do. I’m at the Shedd
Aquarium. Ten thousand gallons of
salt water, right? It must be where poor Al
and Rose were drowned. How strange that you should call
me by my sister’s name and fall in love
with her. Rose is a part I’m acting, Jack,
to make her murderer think she’s alive.
When Spider tried to kill me in that dive,
I knew Capone had ordered the attack.
Dear Jack, you’re lovely, sleeping on the bed.
Don’t follow me. If I’m not back, I’m dead.

Music: “Long Road Ahead,” by Kevin McLeod



I follow, but the opening party’s done.
There’s just the wilting tinsel, empty glasses,
a janitor, and my false Rose is gone.
I grab the janitor’s arm as he passes,
and twist. He screams, and I twist harder. “Where?”
I ask. “Where what?” he moans. I twist until
I hear a crack. And “Where?” I ask, and stare
him in the eyes till he knows that I’ll kill
him soon, unless he gives it up. “The bim?”
he asks. “You want to know about the dish?
Al’s gunsels grabbed her coming up to him,
gun in her fist. I don’t know where she is.”
I wrench his arm until I hear it break.
He shrieks, “She’s at his hideout on the lake!”

Music: “Devastation and Revenge & News of Sorrow,” by Kevin McLeod



I’ve found the secret island hideout. Now
two speedboats jet from the bay, opening
up with machine guns mounted on the bow.
I nudge the wind in my red biplane, slingshot
on an updraft, dodge the first barrage,
then bank and dive right down their throats.
The hissing bullets rip my fuselage,
but I let loose with bombs and now the boats
are bloody flame and so the good guy wins
—until a black plane dives out of the void
and shreds my wings. The handsome pilot grins
as smoke and flame decant. It’s Spider Floyd.
I stall to make him smash my plane, the brute,
then grin, too, dropping in my parachute.

Music: “Rising Game,” by Kevin McLeod


Fatal Femme by Tony Barnstone


My parachute drifts toward the high treetops
and as I float it all begins to gel,
how Rose was drowned for working with the cops.
They must have tortured her to make her tell
who she was working for. So Algernon
is next, but meantime here is Violet
running the Red Bordello. Rose is gone
and stiffs don’t walk, but they can’t take that bet,
because there is the matter of the books
that Rose got off a drunken gangster trick—
Capone’s accountant—the white book ascrawl
with fake expenses, and the two black books
of real accounts. Capone. Nothing will stick
to him. I drop, but swear he’ll take the fall.

Music: “Rising Game,” by Kevin McLeod



I clip the guard behind the ear. He falls.
I’m through the window with my silencer
spitting hushed death and spattering walls
with abstract paintings all in red. A stir
in the hallway. Two men burst in and taste
two bullets. I leap over them and find
the stairs down to the underground. I waste
a shot on shadows, then—cat feet behind
me. A knife scrapes my ribcage, but I whirl
and slam the knifeman up against stone,
gun to his neck, and grit, “Where is the girl?”
He spills the dope, and then spills blood. Alone
in a locked room, I find my Violet.
“Hi Jack,” she smiles, “You got a cigarette?”

Music: “Dirt Rhodes,” by Kevin McLeod



“Hi Jack,” she smiles, “You got a cigarette?”
She’s chained up to a chair and bruised blue-black,
her dress torn down her shoulder ’cross her back,
and that’s how I first meet my Violet.
But then I see her eyes flick to something
behind me and her smile congeals to ice.
I spin too slow and catch the knifeblade twice,
once in my arm, once in my chest, but bring
the gun around and just before I shoot
his large brown eyes expand, his lips form “No!”
Before he dies he grips my leg below
the knee. I kick his hand off with my boot,
grab Violet and run down to the pier,
steal a speedboat and shoot off in high gear.

Music: “Dirt Rhodes,” by Kevin McLeod



We stole a speedboat and kept going till
we got to Canada, where we laid low
until we thought the heat was off, but how
I had to plead with Jack not to go kill
Capone and get himself blipped off in turn.
Now I’m off Broadway, playing a gun moll
again, and Jack and I have found a small
bungalow in New Jersey, and we burn
up the dance halls and we are happy here.
Jack couldn’t quite believe I was alive
when he arrived, but as I tell him, “Love,
they couldn’t kill me till they found out where
I’d stashed the books, but how could I confess
I mailed the two black books to Eliot Ness?”

Music: “Unanswered Questions & Night on the Docks with Piano,” by Kevin McLeod

from Rattle #33, Summer 2010


All Music by Kevin McLeod
Under Creative Commons License


Jack Logan: Tony Barnstone
Spider Floyd: Tony Barnstone
Street Drunk: Tony Barnstone
Mortician Joe Martin: Tony Barnstone
Red Bordello Waiter: Tony Barnstone
Shedd Aquarium Janitor: Tony Barnstone
Rose: Jennifer Sage Holmes
Violet: Jennifer Sage Holmes


Tony Barnstone: “This sequence comes from my manuscript, Pulp Sonnets, and is the product of extensive research into 20th century American pulp fiction, noir, and comics, with particular attention to the spy, detective, crime, horror, sword and sorcery, vigilante, and pulp action genres. My approach is modeled on Robert Browning and Robert Frost, using dramatic monologue to let the characters speak for themselves in the vernacular of their class, location, and social situation. I research primary materials (including pulp short stories and novels, and original crime reports) in order to develop these voices, and secondary materials (theoretical, sociological, anthropological, psychological, philosophical, and theological studies of the pulps and the comics) to develop the larger themes of the project. I see the ‘Jack Logan’ story as fun (particularly in its wild plot and use of gangster vernacular), but not uncritical fun. It is meant to deconstruct pulp depictions of gender roles—in particular the femme fatale and the men caught up in their ‘tough guise.’” (web)

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