March 24, 2020

Jimmy Pappas

THE GRAY MAN

Part I: The Visit

I visited my father one Saturday at the nursing home
where we had put him against his will because he had
become too much work for us, he who had worked hard
all of his life, worked hard to make other people rich,
richer than he could ever hope to be. He was a gray man
now like a character in an Ingmar Bergman movie, so I
looked for the translation of what this all meant, but it
got lost in the white sheets; and I tried to figure it all
out by myself, but I too got lost in the white sheets that
covered his sleeping body. I decided not to wake him,
this gray man who had once been a stark man, who had
once been a man filled with action and life, and I sat in
a chair by his side, sat and looked down at my gray man,
my gray child, I who had become the father and he who had
become the child, our role reversals making the movie even
more complex, more difficult to translate, and I looked again
at the white sheets and saw only white sheets that smelled
of shit and piss. There were no English words, words that
I could understand, words that could explain all of this,
words that could explain him, words that could explain me,
words that could explain all of the things that have happened
between us, words that could explain why we behaved the way
we did. Even Bergman was never fully understandable,
even his words got lost in white shirts and a white background,
but at least he had words, at least there was an attempt at
translation. Here there was nothing, only my gray man, my gray
child, lying there sleeping on his back, waiting for my arrival.

 

Part II: An Earlier Incident

One day I approached
the nurse at the desk,
I’d like to take my Dad out
for an ice cream cone.

The nurse responded,
I’m sorry but … No.
I’m worried about him.
He could fall out of the car
or get hurt in some way.

For a few seconds
I could not speak.

I wanted to say
like Clint Eastwood
in Dirty Harry:
Go ahead, make my day,
tell me I can’t take my father
out for an ice cream.

I wanted to say
like Jack Nicholson
in Five Easy Pieces:
Why don’t you just
take this sign-out sheet
and stuff it between your legs, and …

I wanted to say
like Clark Gable
in Gone with the Wind:
Frankly, my dear,
I don’t give a damn;
I’m taking him out
for an ice cream cone.

But what I really wanted to say was,
What’s the worst that could happen to him?
He could die? Look at him!
He’s dying now! It doesn’t fucking matter!
He just wants an ice cream cone with his son!

Instead,
I said
nothing.

I acted the way
my gray man
taught
me to act,
respect authority
and do what I’m told,
so I did what I was told.

 

Part III: The Gray Man’s Arrival

There is something,
something I
want to tell you,
no
I need to tell you,
about
his arrival here.

He did not want to come.
He screamed when he arrived.
He screamed when they put him in his room.
He screamed and begged us to please not do this to him,

but we,
his children,
did it anyway,
did it
and turned our backs on him
both literally and figuratively.

We turned our backs on this gray man.
We left him there.

And now I beg him
(in my mind only)
to forgive me.

But that is not what I wanted
to tell you
about his
arrival.

What I wanted to tell you

what I really wanted to tell you

is that I

I was busy

so
I
was
not
there

no not I.

 

Part IV: Another Earlier Incident (of Little Importance)

I waited so long for this moment.

I wanted to tell him
that I loved him,
so I waited
and waited
and finally
I said it,
I love you, Dad.

And he said
nothing.

 

Part V: The Grand Finale

For my own selfish reasons,
I did not wake him on my visit.
I waited until he woke up on his own.

I sat there for almost an hour,
reliving our lives together
while studying the sheets,
and when he finally
woke up,
he smiled at me.

My gray man smiled at me.

from Falling off the Empire State Building
2019 Rattle Chapbook Prize Winner

__________

Jimmy Pappas: “My Dad told me before he died about a creative idea he had to make ‘mythology cards.’ They would be like baseball cards. He would draw a figure from Greek mythology on one side, and on the back of the card would be a story about the drawing. I realized he was sharing with me an artistic dream of his that he could never do now. I promised him that I would finish my first book of poetry and get it published because that was my artistic dream. We all have in us this godlike desire to create.” (web)

 

Jimmy Pappas is the guest on episode #34 for the Rattlecast. Click here to watch live or archived!

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March 10, 2024

Erin Murphy

MAN WITH BIRDS AND BREAD

a cento

On the edges of the afternoon
we lie on the beach, gray waves
 
the only language,
the gun-gray curlings of salt-tongue.
 
A man slogs through the soft sand
with an expired loaf of bread.
 
Look how he kneels,
holding out his palms as if catching snow.
 
Seagulls peep like Erinyes wearing
white linen suits, sky-jockeying
 
into a swinging web of flying sound
on their parameter of hunger.
 
A cacophony of needs—
synonym for human, perhaps.
 
His home is an ocean away.
 
There / the moon hangs like a golden mango.
There / the beach is the wind’s body
 
flecked with violet
where the light, aflame,
 
used to hum in the siesta’s honey,
donde la luz zumbaba enardecida
 
en la miel de la siesta,
There / a song curls inside you,
 
songs of children, songs of birds,
cantos de niños y de aves.
 
All of a sudden:
a call, loud and mean, while flashes of light
 
rise just over the beach grass at our backs.
A four-wheeler.
 
Birds scatter
like fireworks on el Cuatro de Julio.
 
Hatred glosses
in the cave of the mouth—
 
a mouth as a cold wind.
Above, in the yellow sky, a phrase drifts
 
to us like smoke from distant fires.
The breeze isn’t silent.
 
Look how he kneels,
face toward the light,
 
a man who tilts his bread in the sun,
the bag of bones:
 
I am I am still here still here.
How bitter is the bread of bitterness.
 
If I burn the world around me—
el mundo que me rodea—
 
until it shines beautiful and brown,
how does one undrown?
 

Cento credits: John Hoffman, Pia Täavila-Borsheim, Erin Coughlin Hollowell, Linda Bierds, Peter Makuck, Rodney Jones, Dana Levin, Jennifer Foerster, Garrett Hongo, John Ciardi, Eva Alice Counsell, Reginald Shepherd, Julie Marie Wade, Michael Broder, Lola Ridge, Huascar Medina, Jonathan Wells, H.D., Olga Orozco (trans. from Spanish by Mary Crow), BrandonLee Cruz, Gabriela Mistral (trans. from Spanish by Ursula K. Le Guin), Juan Felipe Herrera, Lily Darling, Noelle Kocot, Ron Silliman, Emanual Xavier, Cynthia Hogue, Ellen Bass, Canisia Lubrin, Alexandra Peary, Marilyn Nelson, Myronn Hardy, Forrest Gander, Chase Berggrun, Joseph Fasano, Chim Sher Ting, Mahogany L. Browne, Khaled Mattawa, Ashley M. Jones, Niki Herd

from Poets Respond
March 10, 2024

__________

Erin Murphy: “Whenever I visit the Outer Banks of North Carolina, I see a Latino man feeding seagulls on the beach after work. He speaks Spanish to the birds, gesturing with his hands for them to come down to eat. The birds seem to recognize him and swarm around him for bread. This week, I witnessed a vehicle speeding along the beach and coming dangerously close to the man. The driver and passenger were yelling at the man and pumping their fists. The birds dispersed. I don’t think it’s an accident that this happened the same week that Axios reported that Latino activists are concerned about increasing hate crimes against immigrants. I chose the cento form for this poem because the experience called for a multiplicity of voices.” (web)

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December 27, 2023

Chris Anderson

ALL THAT I HAVE

We’re in a busy shopping mall, very crowded—
this was before the virus—and an ordinary-looking man 
walks out of the crowd into the center of the atrium. 
He’s middle-aged, wearing a leather jacket, hands in his pockets. 
And he starts to sing. He opens his mouth and starts to sing, 
loudly and clearly. At first you think he’s crazy, 
he’s some kind of crank, but then you realize, wait a minute, 
his voice is beautiful, it’s powerful—he’s singing 
a famous aria—he’s singing Nessun Dorma, from Puccini.
This guy’s a tenor, this ordinary man who has emerged 
from the crowd is a tenor, and he’s a great tenor, and his voice 
is building and rising, and people are stopping and looking, 
the expressions on their faces are changing, people who 
would never be caught dead at an opera, who don’t have any idea 
what opera is, they’re stopped in their tracks. One little girl 
turns around and looks up at her mother, amazement 
in her eyes. O look at the stars, the tenor sings, that tremble of love
and hope, and his voice builds and builds, it rises to its climax, 
and he hits that final, high note, and he holds it, holds it 
until it’s ringing in the air of that crowded mall, and something 
transcendent has happened, something wonderful has risen up 
out of that ordinary gray day, something excellent and pure, 
and everyone knows it, they feel it, and they burst into applause, 
burst into tears. They clap and clap. And the tenor smiles, 
and looks around, then puts his hands in his pockets and walks 
back into the crowd. He disappears. O that I might hold
my one note and walk away! O that I might disappear!
 

from Rattle #82, Winter 2023

__________

Chris Anderson: “During the pandemic, I happened to watch a video about a flashmob in a shopping mall in Leeds, and it moved me so much I sat down and wrote the poem more or less in one fell swoop. Later, as I was polishing it, I realized that it was about poetry, too, as I guess every poem is underneath. We are all singing our arias in the mall, and we all want them to matter somehow, to make a difference, however briefly, even though we soon disappear, back into the crowd.” (web)

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February 11, 2023

Christina Kallery

ADULT NIGHT AT SKATE WORLD

You’d think it was an eighth grade dance,
the way we stand shyly eying each other
when the first slow notes sound for couples’ skate.

A fifty-ish man in a striped headband
and custom skates fit with blinking lights
asks would I mind? So we roll from the worn

carpet onto the glossy floor. One hand on my waist,
he gazes at a far wall and sings in high, quivering
tones to Endless Love. We pass a dozen

other couples: office managers in sport shirts,
single mothers squeezed into new jeans
and a few lone ones gliding through the tide of clasped hands.

Take the handsome Indian man with dark hair swept
like a raven’s wings from its stern middle part,
the moustache trimmed to a neat em-dash.

He moves like a figure skater, one long leg aloft
behind his jump-suited frame. No woman here tonight
can match his prowess as he weaves easy figure eights,

turns and sails backwards without a glance;
though I imagine his likely office job, manning
some cubicle in a gray and taupe-y sea

and the gaping dark that crouches nightly at his door.
Now the rink’s Robert Plant commands the floor
beneath a silver disco orb and twirls once, twice,

a third time, pretending not to watch us
watching him. In his prime in ’85, that bleached
mass of frizzed-out curls would have bobbed radiant

under hot stage lights during the guitar solo,
his attention rapt to the art at hand, yet aware
as a preening animal of the lip-glossed girls

in the front row whose eyes simmered
with envy and desire. But the gigs
have fizzled into soundlessness,

the Dodge van scrapped, the red guitar lies
long untuned in its velvet chamber
and each Sunday at eight he pulls the black skates

from their nook and somehow finds a rhythm
not unlike rock and roll in this dim-lit dome
with its carnival colors and claw machine and women

fluffing their hair in restroom mirrors.
Just overhead hover the sour divorces,
languished careers, botched plans, those hours when life

took a sharp turn toward the inscrutable
and left us older and daunted in its wake.
But when the DJ calls the night’s last song, we—

the lonesome and afraid, the jaded
and lost—peer through strobe lights
for somebody, if not lovable, then not a lunatic

and sing to a tune we first heard the summer
someone else left and we wept against a cool steering wheel
and felt the world spin, fierce and marvelous beneath our feet.

from Rattle #24, Winter 2005

__________

Christina Kallery: “I spent my childhood in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula where I learned the following: toads do not like dollhouses, snow pants are universally unflattering and Duran Duran will never, ever schedule a tour date in Marquette. Keats’ ‘Isabella; or, the Pot of Basil’ was the first poem that emotionally affected me. When I was sixteen, I came across it in an old, beat-up library book and literally wept when I got to the scene where Isabella’s lover’s ghost appears at her bed. I still haven’t entirely lost my Romantic sensibility—sometimes to my chagrin. I still love poems that resonate at an emotional level.” (web)

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May 27, 2023

Sharon L. Charde

LOVE’S EXECUTIONER

I come from a proud Polish poet sent to Siberia, right
arm cut from his body, punishment for poems—

the first daughter of a man from Naples who was
a baby in a ship’s hold, women screaming and praying

the rosary, afraid of God’s teeth, chocolate cake,
my mother’s blood, my car crashing into yours

on the Mass Pike or 84, and the brown spots and bruises
on my arms, afraid of saying yes and bank accounts

and a branch of the big silver maple falling on my roof.
I believe in the gray flannel pants of the therapist who

took them off, the room I shared with the other one
in Beijing, the woman who lives alone on an island

who cannot tell our story because she has forgotten it.
They say I always wanted to get out and I should go

back to church and not much else except that I was
the girl who got A’s and they wanted me to keep

getting A’s but then I got C’s and in that apartment
in Philadelphia I pulled the green and blue bedspread

off the bed and draped it over the kitchen table, made
a little tent so I could scream while the babies cried

and no one would hear—and you were gone then
but I don’t want to talk about that and me pushing

the cheap plaid stroller your mother got with S&H
green stamps waiting for another baby that I didn’t

want but when it came I did want it, such a beautiful
soft baby holding me and I didn’t know the seeds

of death were in him already. Do you know this, if
you are very good and do all the proper rituals

like making a different hamburger casserole every
night, scrubbing the tile in the bathroom on Saturday

morning, ironing all the pillowcases—that even if you
do this you will not get the prize of keeping your children

alive. Tell me why I love her again when I am love’s
executioner and dream I was a girl in a burn unit

who will not recover, tell me what will come from
the apartment on the second floor which is all blue

with a white bed as big as a small ship and a window
over a bathtub that looks out onto the tree I almost

backed into with my red Saab and the Dresden girls
on the mantle over the fireplace that cannot burn

anything. Tell me about the woman who lives there
who walks with a black cane and wears a blue sweater

and I wore one too that day though I never wear blue
and yesterday how I was the wind and she bound me in.

from Rattle #34, Winter 2010
Tribute to Mental Health Workers

__________

Sharon L. Charde: “My younger son died twenty years ago in a mysterious accident in Rome; my older son graduated from college a week after his funeral and left home to live his life. I knew I was not needed as a mother anymore, I had burned out in my job as a family therapist and that to survive, I had to return to my first love, writing poems. This love and practice has sustained me more than anything else since then. When people tell me that my poems have affected their lives in powerful ways, that I speak in an honest and clear voice, that my grief supports theirs, I want to keep on writing and I do.” (web)

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December 7, 2022

Jessica Lee

WHAT THE HEART DOES

If I told you a child taped two Band-Aids across her heart 
and one Band-Aid across her cheek,
you might not believe me, 
as I did not believe my friend, a preschool teacher, 
who described how Aila went on to pour glue 
into her hands and rubbed the Elmer’s between her palms, 
creating a potion to make no one you love leave you ever
while her classmates built towers with yellow blocks
in a separate corner of the room, 
towers they knocked down moments later, 
laughing at their own power to make and destroy 
as Aila continued staring into her small hands, 
the glue hardening in the palm lines that might
tell her future, this girl who already knew 
more than we knew about suffering,
or maybe she just knew how to solve her heartache 
more practically than we ever tried to—
after all, Elmer’s is fast-drying, multi-purpose—
and my friend told me all of this over coffee, 
her eyes as glazed as the china we were drinking from 
because she was being left, too, by the man 
she thought would be the father of her future children, 
a man who didn’t want to have children after all,
and when she finished explaining 
how Aila used the entire bottle of glue 
we sat in silence as our coffee went cold, 
wishing what we loved could stick 
or else for heartbreak to be quicker, 
rather than the trap door it is, the door we fall through
that returns us to our knees, on the floor 
of our very first loss, where my friend is now, 
remembering when she was four, the same age as Aila, 
and how her father was always leaving the room 
for the Crystal Geyser bottle filled with vodka—  
and I want to tell her this is why I don’t want children, 
because there’s no way to escape making
their first imprints for loss, like boot prints through snow, 
even if the action is out of our control, 
as when my mother, pregnant, was wheeled 
into the elevator at Mercy General 
when I was seven and knew without knowing 
I might not see her again 
after the gray doors closed and she went up, 
up to the cold table where she was sliced open 
under the operating lights while I watched Bambi
on my great aunt’s waterbed, miles away, 
and though my mother lived, the blinds were drawn
for a full year and everything was dark—
but you can’t tell a woman who is grieving the loss of a lover
and the children she imagined they’d have 
all your own reasons to not have children, 
so I just held my friend’s hand
and later we walked together through the woods
where we found deer hoof prints in dirt
and noticed how each impression split at the center.
 

from Rattle #77, Fall 2022

__________

Jessica Lee: “‘What the Heart Does’ is indebted to my friend’s student, who really did tape Band-Aids across her heart and cheek, rub glue between her hands, and declare she was making a potion ‘to make no one you love leave you ever.’ For privacy, I decided to give the girl the pseudonym, Aila—the name I hoped to give my own daughter.” (web)

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June 13, 2022

Brian Morrison

LIGHTING THE ROCKET

It was almost finished, the rocket fuse
nearly lit. Wind blew flame to my thumb,
blackened it. A woman walking in Grape
Ape purple headphones crossed the street,
then sped into a jog. We yelled, “Run
faster, bitch!” Or we didn’t. What was said
was maybe worse. I don’t know
what I said, but my mouth is a casket for it.
What boys say to women should stop
their hearts. The woman’s husband
stomped over not ten minutes later, while she
sat in the car behind sunglasses,
and the shitty rocket was still grounded.
He told us with a sharp finger
we were “punks” and “the worst kids
in the neighborhood.” Maybe we were.
We traded black eyes and split lips
just for fun. We threw ice cubes and eggs
at the gas station that sold us cigarettes.
Misogyny was a word we didn’t yet know,
and we were heart-shaped, beating ourselves
against ribcages to end the moment.
The man was one of us, and we knew it.
My grandpa used to say, “He held his mouth
right,” and he did—the lips just so, teeth
set in seethe. The polyurethane
caked on his chest from the fridge factory
on Stolle Lane was proof enough. “Stupid,”
he said. We knew our fathers’ fists
better than any teacher’s best efforts.
The man eyed the rocket, us. He saw
the shame in our faces, said “Fuck it, let me,”
and he grabbed the lighter out of my hand
quick as rainfall. The brush of his watch
over my thumb was lightning to sand
and left what felt like a jagged glass shard
spiked into my skin. He said, “Women
shouldn’t be afraid to walk the sidewalks
around you idiots,” as he hiked up his gray
Saturday sweatpants, picked up the rocket,
shook it, pulled the fuse out (it pulls
out?), and lit the fucker. We all watched
close-lipped (we held our mouths right)
as the white-blue cylinder flew up unsteady
in a high wave, was left-thrown by the wind,
then thudded down like a shot bird
across the field. The woman, headphones
looped around her neck, stepped out,
picked up the rocket, and set it at our feet
with a shark-eye glare under raised
shades. “You’d be cuter kids
if you smiled more.” The rocket smoked
right there until it didn’t.
 

from Rattle #75, Spring 2022

__________

Brian Morrison: “Poetry gives me the chance to consider the more confusing parts of life. I like lyric that leaves ears ringing.”

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