Two Poems from Joshua Michael Stewart’s “Break Every String”

Western Massachusetts poet Joshua Michael Stewart came to my attention through Straw Dog Writers Guild, where he’s a popular frequent reader at open mics and literary events. (Take advantage of the Zoom era and drop in on their upcoming readings!) As a Buddhist, Joshua is modest about his literary reputation, but I, for one, want him to be famous, because the guy has a helluva voice.

I recently finished his 2016 collection from Levellers Press, Break Every String. This lyrical autobiography is a blues song for the dead-end economy of Midwestern towns and the family wreckage they harbor. His characters crackle with energy that could find its outlet in verses or fists, parenting your own children or stealing someone else’s, a guitar or a bottle. Stewart writes of his teen years: “I was nabbed for keeping up the family business–shoving merchandise down my pants.” As the one who escaped, Stewart plays through all the octaves of emotion, from gratitude to judgmental pride, to survivor guilt, to wary compassion: “of loving/the lost with raucous praise, of letting the gone go.”

Several poems are titled “After Ohio”, each beginning with an excerpt from a letter from his mother, who is usually updating him on his ex-con brother’s bumpy road in and out of sobriety. In one of these pieces, Stewart begins, with his characteristic deadpan humor: “When scoring a revolver from a guy/who lives out of his car, you don’t plan/much of anything else for that day.” The poem recounts how he wandered into a bookstore and bought a book of poetry when the guy didn’t show up. The tipping point between his fate and his brother’s could be just that random and precarious. I found myself thinking of the ending of the film Angels with Dirty Faces: “let’s go and say a prayer for a boy who couldn’t run as fast as I could.”

Joshua has kindly given me permission to reprint the poems below. He’s just finished a new manuscript–I hope it gets published soon!

NEVER ASK WHAT’S UNDER THE BED

Your grandfather once shot a man,
my mother says over pea soup on the porch—
chucked his sorry ass down a well,
kept the man’s false teeth as a souvenir.
Take that to your fancy school
for when you forget who you are.
The jobs have ditched town, and the freight
trains are gone—no longer rattling
windows, shaking nails from rotten studs.
The house shivers on its own.
We move out to the yard, squat down
on five-gallon buckets and scavenge fallen
pears among dandelions and bluegrass,
my favorite AC/DC T-shirt and my woodshop award
stuffed in a cardboard suitcase at my feet.
My generation, we didn’t have learning
disabilities, we just drank homebrew,
and threw knives at each other.
Sweetness drips off her chin,
her mouth a honeycomb of bees.

****

MOTHER, THESE AREN’T YOUR FLOWERS

I thrust open a stubborn window,
causing a book to plop on its side,
slide off the shelf and, washed over

by a wave of other books, crash
into a rose-filled vase that smacks
on the hardwood floor.

What follows is silence, the split
second after a mother slaps
her child. I’ll let the water search

the valleys of the room, finger
the petal-thorns and prism-shards.
This isn’t your carpet ruined

by spilt paint. You will not lean
in the doorway smelling of strawberries
and righteousness. No wailing

or pleading here, only the quiet
twinge of panic ingrained
by the memory of your nearness.

The Poet Spiel: “a suite of dirty pictures”

The Poet Spiel, a/k/a visual artist Tom Taylor, is a longtime reader and occasional contributor to this blog. He asked me if these poems were too steamy for Reiter’s Block, but there’s no such thing! In this poem sequence, a gay man watching porn has an artist’s eye for the complex shadings of emotion in acts that are both intimate and mechanically mediated, painful and pleasurable, filthy yet strangely beautiful. As bodies violently strain to close the gap between self and other, the viewer straddles the line between obscenity and transcendence. And cums all over it.

The Poet Spiel and his life partner, Paul Welch

 

 

a suite of dirty pictures

seventeen seconds

as if to break his own neck,
the subjugated throws his head back,

utters an odd range of lamentations
expressing dire suffering

at each snap of the narrow strap,
more reverent than his moans.

hooked once more by this 17-second litany
panning flesh, compromised in stress,

no doubt pre-agreed to inflict the ecstasy of pain,
but when looped,

this sequence of harsh snaps and abrupt groans
becomes other than directed;

rather a familiar insistence —
like an old hymn lulling you

til you are lured to draw yourself to closure
into soft tissue.

__________

white smoke

two taut dudes
in possession of one and the other’s face
by squalls —
like dying fauns —
while that dark duo
of more substantial steamy feathered beasts
barks out harsh commands
and their prides, be-sheathed in latex skin,
come to resemble white smoke
just as they begin to burst
as turgid mounts,
now cease fire,
re-loop,
so returns
this pair of fauns
faces engaged, one micro instant
between the smoke and squall.

you relight your hands,
hot enough
to ignite your
otherwise compromised
spoil.

_____________

hard pressed

hard copy is not an option here;
no quickstop key to press then print
just eight-fleeting-seconds
of this rapidpoundingcocksucker.

his eyes with the inestimable insouciance
of fine crystal glistening
at table several hours before
you would be allowed to partake
of his admirably boned dish.

so you refuse to celebrate yourself
until you are able to regain your conscious mind,
some many dozens of re-plays later
when at last you are convinced

he

gazes

directly

at

you.

_____________

war of pearls

as qwik as a want,
your mouse glides you from coy to desperado;
your hands hostage to a war by casual treaty
declared within this spartan triad
harboring ransom never to be paid
but relentlessly antagonized.

this sequence of howls, indistinguishable
from the sacrifice of salt as real booty
beneath the drawing down of fetters —
as if little more than weekend anarchy
where the only courtesy might be
that all three come out alive.

but this is not your concern for now,
you too are subject to the strictures
as you form a fist jouncing madly in succession
to the flow of what you’ve come to rely upon.

the glistening of the jugular,
the snapping of the glands,
repeated incantations
oh so tautly veined like orchid whipsnakes unraveling
upon a fevered yowling emitted of flesh fresh bared,
committed to this driven theater that will never end.

at last, in sudden silence you sacrifice your will,
you loose the grip between your teeth
and as your walls submerge your windows,
you baptize your nipples in pearly showers
of hism.

________

urgency

these two
young blooming hides,
rising phoenix,
so hot before your eyes,
rush their capture
between your thighs
as ash becomes sweat —
like viscous rubber
on august asphalt —
these are not two peaches
abrading hair from there
but sizzling it

and no sooner
than you screw
your lotion bottle’s cap off,
the thickness
of your pour
is compromised.

Lesléa Newman’s “I Wish My Father” Is a Tragicomic Elegy

Shepherding an elderly parent through illness and death is a stark, unglamorous journey that demands clear vision and directness, and (especially if you’re a Jewish New Yorker) a fair amount of gallows humor. These qualities abound in Lesléa Newman’s latest poetry collection, I Wish My Father (Headmistress Press, 2021).

Dedicated to Edward Newman (1927-2017), a dapper and hardworking New York attorney, this sequence of narrative poems cycles repeatedly through grief, frustration, and absurd humor, as his adult daughter endeavors to preserve his dignity and safety (not always compatible goals) while his grasp of reality weakens. There’s a certain kind of Jewish couple for whom bickering is a love language. One gets the sense that Newman’s late parents often communicated in this register, which makes her widowed father’s moments of romantic sorrow all the more poignant.

The collection is unified not only by the storyline but also by a formal similarity among the poems. Each poem’s title serves as the first phrase of a sentence that continues as a sequence of three-line stanzas. This device, never obtrusive, reinforces the feeling of sameness that must have burdened her father’s days once his mainstays of work and marriage were torn away. And yet there is change, painfully perceptible to his daughter if not to him.

…He looks towards
my mother’s chair, and out of nowhere
I hear her, too, her voice the weak whisper

of that terrible last day. Don’t worry,
sweetheart. She cupped my cheek
with her worn, withered hand.

There’s no problem so terrible
that it can’t get worse.

Now, that puts the “dead” in deadpan humor. Look how deftly the anecdote is saved from sentimentality by an unpredictable bit of very Jewish wisdom that is both optimistic and so pessimistic we can hardly stand it. As Leonard Cohen sang, You want it darker…

Faith is more than a cultural style here, though. Mr. Newman seems largely contented by his delusions–or are they visions?–of mysterious children at his bedside and random dead people from his past. Together they observe Yom Kippur in a nontraditional way that still brings his daughter closer to the mysteries of time, repentance, and forgiveness. And when he is released from his earthly life, she narrates his arrival at her mother’s side in the World to Come, in exactly the same factual voice as the preceding poems.

I appreciate how this book is accessible to readers without a background in poetry, while also revealing depths to an experienced writer and reader. Even the Young Master took an interest when he saw the book cover, asking me “What does that mean? I wish my father what?” I read him the title poem, about Lesléa’s father tallying the events of his life at age 90, and then asked Shane, “What do you think she wishes for her father?” His suggestions:

I wish my father was still alive.
I wish my father had a good life.
I wish my father knows he was the best.

I Wish My Father by Leslea Newman

Click the cover image to be taken to the book purchasing website. Lesléa has kindly permitted me to reprint the poem below.

MY FATHER WAS NEVER

on time once in his entire life.
No, we could always count
on him being a good 20 minutes

early. I remember many a Saturday
night with my dad dressed
to the nines in his sleek black tux

and glittering diamond studs
pacing the hallway from front
door to kitchen to dining room

before ordering me to dash
upstairs and see what was taking
my impossible mother so goddamn

long. I’d find her sitting side saddle
on a stool in a white silk slip
surrounded by crumpled tissues

imprinted with lip prints
of lipstck the color of apples,
clasping a sparkling bracelet

around her wrist, clipping
on a pair of matching earrings
and muttering to herself in the bedroom

mirror. “I know the early bird catches
the worm. But who the hell
wants a goddamn worm?” She’d hand

me a pendant shaped like a tear
to fasten around her neck,
then raise a silver aerosol can

the hairspray hissing like a snake
as she circled her head three times
forcing me to step back from the cloud

that always made me cough. Once
I came home from college
for Thanksgiving and my dad

drove me to the airport for my return
flight on a snowy Sunday afternoon.
Somehow my stuffed-to-the-gills suitcase

never made it out to the car.
After a ton of yelling and screaming
and carrying on, my father drove

us home and drove us back
to the airport and I was still
an hour early for my flight.

It made me laugh when my father
proudly showed me a note
he received after my mother died:

Dear Mr. Newman,
Thank you for coming to my Bar Mitzvah.
You were the first one there.

I wonder just how early he was
and how on earth he would feel
to learn that from this day forth

for all time he will always
and forever be known
as the late Mr. Newman.

 

© 2021 Lesléa Newman from I Wish My Father (Headmistress Press, Sequim, WA). Used by permission of the author.

“The Baptism” and “Touching” by The Poet Spiel

Today being the Feast of the Baptism of Christ, I thought I’d share a poem on the topic by The Poet Spiel, inspired by the Renaissance artwork below. The second poem returns to a topic that Spiel and I both ruminate upon frequently, the complex feelings we have toward our abusive mothers.

Suspended Motion Luca Giordano, The Baptism of Christ, 1684, oil on canvas, 91 ½ x 76 in. New Orleans Museum of Art Renowned painter of the late Baroque period Luca Giordano created mythological paintings, frescoes and religious imagery in a...

The Baptism

re: “The Baptism of Christ” ca. 1684, by Luca Giordano

One wonders what so predictably clings the abundant yardage to the Christ—
like his alabaster flesh was sensitized to draw it loosely
to what his benefactors might find objectionable—
except to expose the mansome strength of his right forearm,
the somewhat effeminate grace of his left hand,
the navel from which he was miraculously sprung and
a useless pinky toe which appears to have been cramped too long
in crummy shoes not meant for such a broad-torsoed man.
Hosted by fat-faced imps posturing as angels,
with a trickle poured from a scooped shell,
at this wetting of his flesh by the red-draped John;
his cloth also likely to have been commissioned
to please the elite prejudice of its day.
Supporting his weight on a conveniently-assigned tree stump—
as if he were resisting exhaustion
from such a foolishly daunting pour—
and he expects to pose statically for weeks on end,
though one suspects each man would high-tail it
if the brightly backlit dove hovering above them
suddenly let loose to become the baptizer.

****

Touching

A merciful dream
I could not before
have imagined—
touching her—
when she was dead,
when I was certain
she could not speak,
such pleasure of her skin,
her pure white hair
within my hands.

I cannot recall
who took me away
to sign documents
acknowledging
she was gone—
the exact time
and might there be
something
I wished to claim?

Yes—
a snip of her hair,
nothing so white,
and a few moments
alone with her…
still warm,
not resistant,
her mouth
not suggesting
how I might change
my life
to suit hers.

Music and Poetry by Peter Campbell-Kelly: “Passacaglia”

Violinist Peter Campbell-Kelly of Worcestershire (UK) contacted us at Winning Writers to share this exquisite contemplative video of himself playing Heinrich Ignaz Franz Biber‘s Mystery Sonata #16 “Passacaglia” in a 12th-century church in Warwickshire. He writes, “It is a sort of musical prayer, intended somehow for the well-being of all of us in this desperately difficult pandemic.” Peter wrote a poem to accompany the performance, which he has kindly permitted me to reprint here. He also submitted the photos below. Follow the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra channel on YouTube for more music to soothe your spirit.

Passacaglia 

Our songs of sadness touch
The dry-deep scars of earth

And on this peaty path
A lichened branch
Cuts clean through the heart

And people lie dying
And people die weeping

And the waters ripple slow
And the sun lasts down and down

And the curlew throws free
Her liturgy of fiery love

The Poet Spiel on Dementia

Regular readers of this blog will know I’m a fan of The Poet Spiel, a/k/a the artist Tom Taylor, whose eight-decade career includes both exotic pastorals and furious satires of bigotry and militarism. These poems on dementia show a more understated and gentle, but no less powerful, side of Spiel.

Leaving

When I cannot know my name and
I cannot recognize the ones who care.

When my native language becomes none
and I’ve forsaken caution.

When my curiosity has vanished
and I’m no longer able to want.

When I don’t know that someone I don’t know
is paid to garb me in disposables.

When I can no longer talk to my self,
the I of me will be suspended.

When I know no equivalent
of dusk nor dawn

and you no longer feel a need to visit me,
on the day I am unable to miss you,

you will know for certain that
I’ve forever lost my song.

****

Paint Cry

I doubt I’ll be painting daisies
like the others in this home
who can’t recall their names.

But please, dear heart,
smother me in gobs of paints and
leave my thumbnails caked and cruddy.

Please don’t scrub my sweats
of muddy colors and all that goop
I used to flush down in our kitchen drain

Can’t you hear, my dear, that I’m still here
but unable to cry in the colors
we used to share.

Election Day Poetry by Carolyn Howard-Johnson: “We Will…”

An Election Day poem by my book marketing guru, Carolyn Howard-Johnson, author of the Frugal Book Promoter series. Also check out her human rights themed poetry collection Imperfect Echoes with cover art by Richard C. Jackson, known to readers of this blog as Conway. (He is still waiting for a hearing on his early release petition since 2008!)

We Will…

Today we will line up.
We will line up in the heat…
We will line up in the cold with scarves around our necks,
hot coffee steaming from paper take-out cups…
We will line up, leaning into Santa Ana Winds or hurricanes
named after Greek letters…
We will line up in fire storms and bitter ashes…
We will do what persevering voters did in ‘64
with a new voting bill as assurance we should be there.
Today we will line up
with that bill clawed away
because “there is no longer a need,”
our postal service disrespected,
our drop boxes suspect or gone.
We will line up today, tomorrow and tomorrow…
We will line up wearing our masks…
We will line up six feet apart
with space enough
to dance,
to sing
to vote.

The Poet Spiel: “Teaching Little Ones”

The phrase “gut instinct” is more than a metaphor. Scientists have found a sort of second brain in our GI tract, which they call the enteric nervous system. During stressful times, it’s common to develop digestive issues. In the piece below, the Poet Spiel muses with his usual humor and bluntness about what makes 2020 so hard to swallow.

Spiel’s books include the illustrated autobiography Revealing Self in Pictures and Words and the poetry collection Barely Breathing. His spoken word album breathing back words is available on Spotify. Visit his website for more information.

 

TEACHING LITTLE ONES

As a farm kid, I swallowed
axle grease, copper rivets and dingleberries,
road tar, spiders, coal dust, and lead paint,
chicken beaks, mouse bones and my sister’s snot,
and chips from Uncle Charley’s permanent asbestos siding.

Mostly I swallowed crap
similar to what my dad swallowed
in the early 1900s
before the age of five.

I’ve swallowed a lot
but I cannot swallow the brazen narcissism,
the hypocrisy and bullying of a nation’s government
that serves its righteousness to me in a bloated bladder
that’s about to spew its selfishness all over this earth
while the shameless leader of the pack
teaches our little ones that cheating and lying
are the only way to win.

I will stand when you stand,
but I will grip my grieving gut
with my right fist
while you place yours against your heart.

Two Poems from Phyllis Klein’s “The Full Moon Herald”

In the most frequently quoted lines from “Asphodel, That Greeny Flower”, William Carlos Williams wrote that “it is difficult/to get the news from poems/yet men die miserably every day/for lack/of what is found there.” What is found in Phyllis Klein’s new poetry collection The Full Moon Herald (Grayson Books, 2020) is an unflinching and compassionate witness to the news of the day and the historical traumas that birthed it.

Cleverly organized in sections titled like the features of a newspaper–International News, Health, Crime, Arts & Entertainment, and so forth–the collection responds to timely topics such as wildfires and droughts, the refugee crisis, sexual violence, and even the coronavirus. Several poems reference the Holocaust, a visceral part of Klein’s ancestral legacy as a Jew, and how the memory of this event both compels her to write about other genocides and sometimes threatens her with despair. Human interest stories provide fleeting moments of hope, such as in “Paul Barton Plays Piano for Elephants”, yet even there, Klein refuses to look away from details that complicate the sentimental picture: “Even if they/knew where the piano once got its keys, what would/they do?”

On August 22 at 4 PM Pacific/7 PM Eastern time, Klein will be participating in a Zoom poetry reading with J. David Cummings and Christine Holland Cummings titled “Staying With the Trouble: Poems of trauma, grief and hope in an age of disaster”. RSVP to phyllis@phyllisklein.com for the link. Visit her website to learn more about her work as a writer and trauma therapist.

She kindly shares two poems from the book below. Jeni Haynes, referenced in the second poem, is an Australian child abuse survivor who developed 2,500 personality alters. Hers is believed to be the first case in Australia, and possibly the world, where a victim has testified in their alternate personalities and secured a conviction, according to this BBC Australia article.

The Human Tragedy

Dandelions… kept alive by the finest gardeners
in the world who knew how to work against nature.
—Jack Gilbert, “The Difficult Beauty”

You can only avoid it for so long. Like reading a story set in
pre-war France knowing something terrible will happen to
the lovely Jewish characters. Why do you read it? When you

started it was a happy story. Good fortune draws you in.
Love starts off loudly, calling with the ecstasy of a requiem,
only you don’t want to realize the beauty leads to the grief

until it happens. More and more of this these days. More of the people
gathering, the bombs gushing off, the dead and the survivors.
No need to explain what fear feels like. It’s in you, it’s sitting beside

you. It’s in the backs of the gardeners as they bend over
the plain yellow flowers weeding out everything else that wants to grow.

****

She Was Alone

for Jeni Haynes

She was alone like an iceberg, but not too frozen
for her father to hurt. He assaulted her at age four almost
breaking her. Her body, a crime scene. Her mind, a disjunction.

Every day of her childhood. We know about it now because
she went to court. She was alone like a volcano on a fault
line, sitting there facing him, barbarian in a chair. Enjoying

her affliction. A gargoyle. He’s going to prison now. She did
the impossible. Didn’t erupt or sink him with an icy gash to his side.
Didn’t smack him in the face. Found a detective who believed her.

A detective who can cry. She made an army, a republic of her, to stay real
while her criminal father tortured her. There are Muscles and Erik
in charge, but it’s a democracy, a nation of her. Alters, fragments, back

room boiler boys and girls and notgirls. Voting on every single
important issue. Symphony testified first. Still four years
old. Remembering everything in detail. She was alone like

a seed planted in a vast empty desert. Until the others,
so many she would never be alone again, surrounded
by their palm fronds, cassia bushes, cactus guards, soothing aloe veras.

Her body a crime scene, what he did to her, how she paid with her organs
in ruins, no babies ever for her. He is going to prison for a long
time, her father. And everyone will know what he did.

How he violated her territory. He told her she was ugly, every
day he tried to ruin her. Tried but couldn’t. He was a giant next to her
meager body. Bathroom tormenter. How she fought him, her beautiful

enduring, backboned, spirit. What he would never see on her cold
wounded skin. Excellent, breathtaking, outstanding beauty, had to go
under cover, beneath her waterline to the vast hidden underside.

Residence of power. She opened the door for other split
people to have their days in court. We bow to her, association of Jeni,
society, territory, unionized, incorporated, ablaze.

Poetry by R.T. Castleberry: “Dawn Came, Delivering Wolves”

A few years ago, the online journal Wag’s Revue published my poem “The Deer Problem”, about the sinister side of suburban wildlife management. It contains the lines “Men arrived in unmarked trucks./We were told to clear the area for that day.//They were delivering crates of wolves.” Longtime Winning Writers subscriber and Internet friend R.T. Castleberry asked permission to use the image in one of his poems. As you’ll see, he truly made it his own. I’m happy to share it with my readers below.

A Pushcart Prize nominee, R.T. Castleberry is an internationally published poet and critic. He was a co-founder of the Flying Dutchman Writers Troupe, co-editor/publisher of the poetry magazine Curbside Review, an assistant editor for Lily Poetry Review and Ardent. His work has appeared in The Alembic, Blue Collar Review, Misfit, Roanoke Review, Pacific Review, White Wall Review, Silk Road and Trajectory. Internationally, he’s had poetry published in Canada, Wales, Ireland, Scotland, New Zealand, Portugal. the Philippines and Antarctica. He lives and writes in Houston, Texas.

Dawn Came, Delivering Wolves

In clubs like Ghost,
like Corsair, like Shred
we punish our rye, sardonic as the war.
Office lights, like captions,
shine color and intent, streaking
signals into the night.
As slide guitar smear overdrives a bass,
outside speakers shiver patio tables.
Cellphone anarchists hawk
Free Zone passage, hound
soldiers staging for weak retreat.

Hungry, determined, river rangers
muscle a path from barricade to back bar.
Queasy from steam table sterno,
they settle for Tecate and nachos,
squall of a martial mixtape.
EMS drivers cluster in a low light corner,
uniforms dusty rescuing refugees from the Wires.
They count the few casualties as consolation.
Post-edit, news crews gang the tables,
tipping back Red Stripe and Japanese gin,
refreshing their taste for next day’s damage.

Up the block,
the train runs on the hour,
headlights blaring white in its passage.
Late walkers circle away from sidewalk crowds,
roll Bugler smokes on bus stop benches
The photos posted in the bar credit
actors in uniform, in military roles.
Like the world was indoors dark,
we huddle under Airborne berets,
rolling instance of combat videos.
Numbering nights—luminous, brittle,
years pass hard.