Two Poems by Paula Brancato

These poems are reprinted by permission from Paula Brancato’s newest poetry chapbook, For My Father (Finishing Line Press, 2010). Reviewing this collection in the Denver Examiner, Zack Kopp writes, “Her collection For My Father takes the intimate despair of an extra/ordinary familycentric reality tunnel and using the alchemty of creativity, tranfoms it to something profound and remarkable.”

The Plastics Man
(for my father)


She wanted to say she loved him, as the hospital
   walls dissolved.
She wanted to tell him
about the boy she kissed once when he was
  in Korea,
but in a morphine haze
she slipped into that night of mermaids
  and moons.

Under the boardwalk, the sand cold, her
  feet bare.
It was my father she missed
but the boy with the clean shaven face was
  indisputably there,
the smell of citrus and his dark dank hair.
His hand brushed her cheek as their lips met.
  The sea

roared on and in the pain of my father’s absence,
my mother sat with the boy.
I could still be a ballerina, she wanted to cry.
  I could still
make babies. Most of all she wanted him,
  my father, inside, inside.
To fill this hollowness.


“Everything is fine,” my father crooned
to soothe himself. She was fast asleep already.
  He looked down.
Something electric hit his heart and he dropped
  her hand.
The wedding ring was gone. This is not my
beautiful house… this is not my beautiful wife.

Then he remembered.
It was home in the jewelry box he’d bought
  her in Korea.
beside a small jar of cold cream, cover off,
capturing the last swish of her fingers.
“Everything is fine.”

He was holding her waist, so small, like the
  tiny dancing
girl inside the jewelry box, a ballerina, who
  twirled and twirled,
the tinny melody, the fullness of my mother’s
  hips under his hands,
the timbre of her voice, not low, not high,
in his dreams she always laughed,

my cries and the babbling of my brother,
  the tick-tock-tick
of the starburst clock in our hall, the dripping
  sink, dishes piled high, wet
clothes that flapped into the laundry bag.
  And footsteps.
The echoes of a family, no one there.
Every night, it was like that.

“Everything is fine.”
Every night she was here
in the sterile room.


My father stood, dying for a cigarette.
He shifted his thoughts to his work,
because chemistry
was always easy, the titration he must make
  next morning.
The solution. How life was like a saturate,

a sudden crystallization from the falling of a
  final grain. Of the toughness,
the viability of petrochemical plastics. How capable
they were. My father was a “Plastics” man.
Using the handkerchief she ironed for him,
   he blew his nose,
wiped his eyes. She only saw his shadow then,

heard the faint hum of the machines, morphine
dripping into her veins. Drifting, she smelled the
  smell of him, her husband, traced his
lips in her dream. The salt of his skin, the starched
crispness of his collar, the heat of him
like an iron, the oily coils of his hair, faintly

mixed with the scent of tape and saline, the metallic
taste of the IV feed. The light was out: he’d
  turned it down.


Somewhere in the dark, a baby cried. It was her.
   She was the baby.
She was on someone’s knees, bouncing, an aunt’s,
   an uncle’s,
she was passed from hand to hand. There was
a bright beach ball, red, yellow, green, and laughter.
The ball, thrown with speed, flew toward her.
   Bigger and bigger.

She grew frightened, suddenly. It would fly
   in her face,
no one to stop it. It would obliterate
everything. “No, no, please, don’t go. Please!”
  she shouted.
Or thought she did. At the height of this eclipse,
  she tried
to sit up but her box of a body fell back.


My father, hand on the doorknob, heard her moans.
“I’m here,” he said, and turned back.
But he wasn’t. He too was lost.
Thinking of the national athlete he once was,
   running the 440
around an asphalt track. The all-night lover
   he could have been,

given half the chance. The IBM
VP climbing into his Olds in Poughkeepsie.
   The Princeton scholar,
finishing his masters, my mother and brother
and I applauding, as photographers snapped
pictures and he alone explained how plastics

would save the world. The beautiful mistress Giselle
he might have had if he wasn’t a good Catholic
   and didn’t turn her down.
They would be in Peru or Fiji, stripped down
   in a bed, bathing
in the heat of one another. But at that moment,
there was only the honorable husband,

the benevolent father, the good son left to him,
the terror of raising me and my brother
   very possibly alone,
a piquant scent of hospital,
and the remembered touch of my mother’s sex
   the first time they’d made love,
her legs wrapped around him. He was gone,

though, of course, he turned
back and placed his arm under her shoulder.



They cannot go back. They can never go back. He is fifteen, fourteen, nine. She jumps him in checkers. He asks for her kiss. She gives him one black crown. He tosses his gum in, his baseball cards. For Mickey Mantle, Whitey Ford, she agrees. It is 1982. It is 1972. It is 1965. It is Coney Island. It is Rockaway Beach. It is Corona and the deli man. She tastes of coffee, cannoli, an octopus, sweet sausage and parmesan cheese. He tastes of ketchup, chocolate, salt and sand. Of boy, and not of man. It is Twiggy, the Pope, the Kennedy’s, lined up side-by-side. It is Elvis the Pelvis, Sid Ceaser, Cyd Charisse, Marilyn on Channel 5. The Last Supper hanging in the kitchen. A starburst clock in the hall. A Westinghouse refrigerator. Fathers spilling wine. It is prayer and haste and wait and waste. It is love and rosary beads. America kneels and beats the sheets. JFK has died. There are picnics and egg throws, barrel races, watermelon, pork chops, milk and Velveeta cheese. They compete as a three-legged team. He tucks his hand in her bathing suit bottom. When she punches his nose, it bleeds. There are mothers and fathers and brothers and sisters and nanas and uncles and aunts. A handkerchief appears. There are bottle caps in the asphalt. Malcolm X and Martin Luther. A black boy in Harlem with a two by four. A phone that coughs up dimes. Two years out, the Harvard Business School Class of 1959. They sit on the stoop. He shows her his knee. She greedily picks the scab. There are young men dying, air raids, jungles, grasses whipping wild. There are joy sticks, airlifts, agent orange bombings, napalm blasts and body bags. Under a desk, she swears she is not scared. While the air raid siren wails, he holds her hand. He is seven and a half. She is eight and a half. There is a quiet lake in Alley Pond. He claims ten pollywogs, possibly speared. There’s a crooked stick, some mud, a rock, one submerged branch, some lick-em-aid. She twists off her shoes to hasten the crossing. She grabs his wrists, he hugs her hips. They rock. They sway. They fall. She is a grade ahead of him. He is a head ahead of her. He is seven. There are railroad tracks. There are party shoes and school uniforms. He takes her on a dare. She is seven. He is six. She is five. He is four. He draws a big red house, a woman, a man. She sketches in trees and daffodils using her left hand. He gives her a crayon, muddy green. She paints in the leaves on his trees. She is three. He is two. She has him by the hand. He holds tight to her knees. There is a big white bunny. A soft blue blanket. A teddy bear. Yours. No, mine. They cannot go back. They can never go back. White, pure white. Oh mother. Oh father. It is September. It is November. It is the year that Michael died.

First Sunday in Advent Non-Random Song: “Lo! he comes, with clouds descending”

The Episcopal Hymnal includes two musical settings for this Advent hymn written by John Cennick with later edits by Charles Wesley. My favorite is the one we sang in church this morning, the tune “Helmsley” by their 18th-century contemporary Martin Madan. It has a memorable complexity yet every phrase resolves in a way that makes sense.

In fact, I find it more of an unmitigated pleasure than the words, some of which can be troubling to a modern ear. I’m not so PC as to purge the worship service of all martial references. In my opinion, the Christian imagination needs both masculine and feminine moods, both the appealing vision of peace and the recognition that justice requires struggle.

However, I suspect there’s a veiled anti-Jewish polemic in the second verse: “those who set at nought and sold him….deeply wailing, shall the true Messiah see”.

When we sang these words today, I did some creative updating in my mind, recasting “those” as my fellow Christians who persecute others in Jesus’ name, profiting from hate. I’m still not sure that this is a completely skillful sentiment to indulge in, but as compared to the original interfaith hostility, it has the advantage of reminding us that we shouldn’t take Jesus’ approval for granted simply because we invoke his name.

Sing along (if you dare) at Oremus Hymnal.


Lo! he comes, with clouds descending,
once for our salvation slain;
thousand thousand saints attending
swell the triumph of his train:
Alleluia! alleluia! alleluia!
Christ the Lord returns to reign.

Every eye shall now behold him,
robed in dreadful majesty;
those who set at nought and sold him,
pierced, and nailed him to the tree,
deeply wailing, deeply wailing, deeply wailing,
shall the true Messiah see.

Those dear tokens of his passion
still his dazzling body bears,
cause of endless exultation
to his ransomed worshipers;
with what rapture, with what rapture, with what rapture
gaze we on those glorious scars!

Now redemption, long expected,
see in solemn pomp appear;
all his saints, by man rejected,
now shall meet him in the air:
Alleluia! alleluia! alleluia!
See the day of God appear!

Yea, amen! let all adore thee,
high on thine eternal throne;
Savior, take the power and glory;
claim the kingdom for thine own:
Alleluia! alleluia! alleluia!
Thou shalt reign, and thou alone.

Two Poems by Temple Cone

A sacred quiet permeates Temple Cone’s debut poetry collection, No Loneliness, winner of the 2009 FutureCycle Poetry Book Prize. Abandoned barns are Cone’s churches; the steady rhythms of farm work, his liturgy. The birth of a daughter is both miracle and memento mori, a sweet paradox held together in an extended lyric poem that envisions poetry as a transmission of love across generations.

Temple has kindly given me permission to reprint these poems from his book. I had a hard time choosing just two favorites.


Leaner than the gray French lops
I’d raised as a boy, the wild hare
I held in the August heat
was speckled yellow and brown
as old sandpaper, his pelt
worn to cussedness.
He lay twitching on asphalt
a minute after I swerved
and still hit him.
            I watched
his crazy dance to see
if he would rise, then gathered him,
trembling, into my arms,
one hand on his feather-quill ribs,
the other cupping soft neck.
Dumb luck, this. His eyes lolled
skyward, showed me
what to do. I whispered
some nonsense under my breath,
words to calm one of us.
The sparrow heart drummed in my palm.
I hadn’t forgotten how
to end life, could feel the old fracture
of knowledge in my bones.
So when he sprang free,
bounding to a roadside hedge,
I knelt down in the dust,
gaping at my torn shirt, marked skin,
stunned by how quickly
mercy could break from my hands.



After his first descent to the underworld,
Orpheus didn’t die. The Maenads never tore him
apart like an offering of bread,
and the story of his head, singing
as the river bore it downstream to ocean,
is someone’s hopeful indulgence
in the persistence of song.
            What happened
to Orpheus happens to us all.
He wept. He cursed the animals who came
to comfort him, till the woods were silent.
In Thebes, he sold his lyre
and stayed drunk for days.
But the world doesn’t stop for myths,
so when the drachmas ran out, he found work
as a gardener. Kneeling hours in the dirt,
he’d talk to trellised morning-glories,
to the crocus and the daisies.
Of course, in time, he began to sing instead,
softly, and without knowing it.
The persistence of song. Then one day
he noticed the flowers following him
wherever he walked, and when he looked,
they didn’t turn away.

Two Poems by Ruth Sabath Rosenthal

Ruth Sabath Rosenthal’s poetry chapbook Facing Home has just been released by Finishing Line Press. As the title suggests, these frank and emotionally charged poems are about facing memories of the home we grew up in, as well as the homes that we as adults have made, broken, and re-formed. Rosenthal’s accessible writing style balances humor, anger, and compassion. She employs enough specific details from her own life to make the memories feel real, while staying focused on universal themes that will resonate with many readers. Some of her strongest work is about the complex feelings involved in caring for elderly parents who were emotionally unavailable to her as a child.

I chose the poems below for reprinting, with her permission. The extended metaphor of the porcupine is clever in its own right, but gains additional significance in the context of the more straightforwardly autobiographical poems–a sign of a well-constructed collection. As for “Zinnias”, I loved how she made the colors and textures of the scene come to life. My grandmother also slipcovered the good furniture in her Lower East Side apartment, and she also had a canary who died prematurely from the heat of the kitchen, though it wasn’t for lack of love–I’m told she let the little fellow fly all around the house, pooping where he wished!

Contemplating Caring for a Porcupine

A roof over its head, easily done.
Nurturing, quite another story.

Bathing — only with a long hose.
As for mealtime — the prickly thing

jumping up and down, impatient —
what protection would repel prick of quill?

What if the rascal was inclined to make
sport of that, then hide the mischief?

Get angry and chance an antsy porcupine
turning combative? Pay dearly for that;

or, if the critter contrite, savor the moment?
Or, having fed the robust rodent,

if it yelps for more but is on a diet,
what would distract? A game

of Hide and Seek might, though if
the quill ball should turn up missing,

how to know it would fare well, and
what angst to bear if the poor thing

was found to have been the dinner
of some known predator — when

all the poor porcupine wanted was more gruel,
and all I ever wanted was to care for it?


I Remember the Zinnias,

autumnal hues with bee-magnet centers.
In the planting, pearls of satisfaction
beaded Mother’s cheeks, made her glow
head to toe. Each summer, till first frost,
zinnias fringed the pathway to
the side door by our kitchen.

Mother loved her zinnias, their color rich
contrast to the dusty-rose brocade sofa,
aqua cut-velvet of Father’s chair —
both bound in clear-plastic slipcovers
that, in summer, made the backs
of our thighs stick to our seats.

When her new dining set arrived, keen
to keep it pristine, Mother moved Lucky,
my beloved canary, to the kitchen, to roost
inches from pot roasts simmering, the window
nearby rarely open — and, child I was,
I didn’t protest on my bird’s behalf.

Weeks later, just back from school,
I learned that Lucky had died
and Mother had given his cage away.
She claimed to have buried him
in her tomato patch, just feet
from her prized zinnias.

Thursday Non-Random Song: “We Lift Our Hearts in Thanks Today”

This selection from NetHymnal’s list of their top 50 Thanksgiving hymns was written by Percival A. Chubb (1860-1960) with music by Praetorius (1599). Sing along here.

We lift our hearts in thanks today
For all the gifts of life;
And first, for peace that turns away
The enemies of strife;

And next, the beauty of the earth,
Its flowers and lovely things,
The spring’s great miracle of birth,
With sound of songs and wings;

Then, harvests of its teeming soil
In orchard, croft and field;
But more, the service and the toil
Of those who helped them yield;

And most, the gifts of hope and love,
Of wisdom, truth and right,
The gifts that shine like stars above
To chart the world by night.

As we receive, so let us give,
With ready, generous hand,
Rich fruitage from the lives we live
To bless our home and land.

Autobiographical Fiction: Emotions, Not Facts

A primary reason why I write is to understand myself, my life and my environment. Facts get in the way. I already know those, superficially at least. Creative writing inspired by my experience, but not literally descriptive or duplicative of it, helps me find the principles that underlie these events. I guess I’m still an Ayn Rand disciple in that sense, believing that the wise person should always try to deduce universals from particulars in order to find a rubric for maximizing good outcomes and avoiding repetition of the bad ones.

I prefer poetry and fiction for this purpose and avoid the personal essay form. But fiction can also slide into thinly disguised autobiography, with the same danger that the author will be distracted by the task of replicating key events, rather than exploring the emotions and insights that those events triggered.

Prizewinning author Eric Wasserman explores this dilemma in his article “Embracing Emotional Autobiography Over Factual Representation in Fiction”, published last year in Writers Ask, a writing advice newsletter from the literary journal Glimmer Train. He writes:

One of the most important lessons a beginning writer
can learn is that emotional autobiography should always
take precedence over factual representation. This took me
years of trial and error to grasp when I was first hungry
to become a writer. It’s difficult to convey to a young
writer that events that are deeply personal are usually not
going to be engaging to readers. For instance, all of the
salacious details of your own sexual history may be riveting
to you, but I guarantee they will not be to 95% of the
reading world. However, if one has something fresh to say
about the universal nature of sex, that’s a different story,
and where emotional autobiography becomes crucial.

Wasserman goes on to suggest some writing exercises that can help you differentiate

A Psalm by Lakota Chief Yellow Lark (1887)

For the past few years, our church youth group has made an annual pilgrimage to the Borderlands Education and Spiritual Center in the Black Hills of South Dakota. Along with hikes and ceremonies to help them encounter God in nature, the teens learn about Christian settlers’ oppression of the Native Americans, and potential spiritual common ground between the two cultures today.

Last week we heard about their transformative journey in a Sunday morning service that incorporated Lakota music and prayers. This poem was read in place of a psalm. I particularly like how it strikes a balance between personal tranquility and concern for the wider world (“help me find compassion without empathy overwhelming me”).

Oh, Great Spirit, whose voice I hear in the winds.
And whose breath gives life to all the world.
Hear me! I am small and weak.
I need your strength and wisdom.
Let me walk in beauty, and make my eyes
Ever hold the red and purple sunset.
Make my hands respect the things you have made.
My ears sharp to hear your voice.
Make me wise so that I may understand
The things you might teach me.
Let me learn the lessons you have hidden
In every leaf and rock.
I seek strength, not to be greater than my brother.
But to fight my greatest enemy, myself.
Make me always ready to come to you
With clear hands and straight eyes.
So when life fades, as the fading sunset.
My spirit may come to you without shame.

The Episcopal

Peter Damian Bellis: “God’s Anvil”

While we were corresponding about a promotional campaign for his new novel, The Conjure Man, author Peter Damian Bellis shared some of his evocative, earthy poems with me. He’s kindly given me permission to reprint “God’s Anvil” below. I loved the idea that God might do His transforming work through something more grounded and physical, and less glamorous, than the “sweltering winds of my beliefs”.

God’s Anvil

Today I am spread thin across God’s anvil,
my soul withering in the bellows of his breath,
my body melting, merging, the dust of
my purpose mixing with the desert of
my hope until I am one of the many
obsidian-like shards half-buried, hiltless,
in the blood-dry carcass of this once fertile,
crescent earth, mirror to the shimmering,
sweltering winds of my beliefs, yet also the dark-
heaving ripple of the camels as they settle
into the sand, indifferent, unimpatient,
unwashed, impervious; and the stench of their
dung-heavy breath washes clean this mirror,
leaving now a cloudless, distant, sheltering sky.

River Boat Books, publisher of The Conjure Man, is offering a contest with good-sized cash prizes for essays responding to Bellis’ novel. Check it out here.

Eric Weinstein: “Persistence of Memory”

Eric Weinstein’s poetry chapbook Vivisection won the 2010 New Michigan Press/DIAGRAM Chapbook Contest. The sample poem below is reprinted by permission from Issue 10.5 of DIAGRAM, a quirky multimedia online journal that features poetry, flash prose, and cross-genre work along with peculiar diagrams found in obscure reference books. (The current issue, for example, features a selection from a handbook with the frighteningly optimistic title Anyone Can Intubate.) Read more of Weinstein’s work here.

Persistence of Memory

You bury a light bulb in the yard
& grow a blown glass tree.

It’s all your parents talk about
for hours after you’ve gone to sleep.

By morning the branches are hung
with tungsten leaves. The neighbors

complain because it attracts lightning,
even though it glows like an echo-

cardiogram for hours after each strike.
You are asleep when your father rakes

a chainsaw across the trunk, but the sound
carries & you wake, you run out, shouting

I’ll never forgive you, not ever. Of course you do,
hours later. A persistent cough carries you

to the emergency room, or rather, your father does.
They remove a filament from your tongue,

a spun glass feather from your trachea.
There were never any birds, your mother says.

The fiberoptic bronchoscope proves
otherwise: they find a miniature light

bulb, glass sapling, copper wire nest
& remove them from your lung.

Imagine that, the doctors say, voices
carrying through the anesthesia.

Imagine that, your mother says, so you do,
or rather, you remember your tree.

It’s all the surgical team talks about
for hours while you’re asleep.

It’s all the surgical team talks about
for hours after you’ve gone home.

Resources for Transgender Awareness Week

November 13-21 is Transgender Awareness Week in Massachusetts. This week of remembrance and activism is dedicated to educating the public about the transgender community and the pressing issues that currently face transgender people in Massachusetts. These issues include employment discrimination, lack of access to healthcare, and hate crimes.

The calendar of events is posted on the Massachusetts Transgender Political Coalition website. Most events are in the Boston area, but there will also be Days of Remembrance held across the state to commemorate transgender people who were victims of violence. Northampton will host a candlelight vigil Nov. 21, 5:00-6:15 PM, on the steps of the Unitarian Church, 220 Main Street. (Photos or videos may be posted later on this blog if the participants feel comfortable with being recorded.)

Meanwhile, check out MTPC’s new public awareness project, “I Am: Trans People Speak “, which launches today. They’re creating an online archive of video, audio, photographic, and written stories from trans people, their families, and allies. Their mission statement says, “This collection of stories aims to challenge stereotypes and misconceptions of trans individuals by highlighting the realities of their lived experience. These voices span across a diversity of communities and intersecting identities.”