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.

Two Poems from Joshua Corwin’s “Becoming Vulnerable”

Winning Writers subscriber Joshua Corwin’s debut poetry collection, Becoming Vulnerable (Baxter Daniels Ink Press/International Word Bank, 2020), was inspired by his experiences with autism, addiction, sobriety and spirituality. He is a neurodiverse, Pushcart-nominated poet who teaches poetry to neurodiverse individuals and autistic addicts at The Miracle Project, an autism nonprofit. Josh hosts the poetry podcast “Assiduous Dust“, where he interviews award-winning authors and creates on-the-spot collaborative poems with them. Visit his website to learn more. He kindly shares two poems from his new book below.

12:01 AM

I can hear the shine in your eyes
on the other end of the telephone.

When I speak like this,
I feel authentic
and not heavy.

I don’t have to tattoo meaning in the air
to know what you mean.

I remember when you first told me…
apropos of nothing…
about the different levels of charitable donation.

I was sitting right across from you—over there.
(You in that armchair, me in this one: our eyes.)

You said there’s the donor who gives large sums
and puts a placard on the wall, signifying
who it’s from;

and then there’s the other one who gives…
but remains anonymous.

Your words hanging like a phantom,
I didn’t have to be who I thought I was;

you were once me,
once where I was…

In that moment, I knew.

 

[This poem first appeared in Al-Khemia Poetica, September 3, 2019, and was nominated for a  2019 Pushcart Prize.]

****

GRATITUDE AFTER BREAKFAST

I USED       to think that meditation was a hoax,
that enlightenment was for those interred in the ground.

I USED       to think it was impossible to cease thinking.
I secretly believed I knew everything.

I USED       to deem gratitude an unnecessary word.
I hated to stretch my cheekbones into a smile.

I was convinced everyone was a phony.
I USED       to think I was the shit.

I USED       to think I was a piece of shit.
I would be paralyzed by fear for hours.

I would argue with mirrors, threatening to pound my fists.
I USED       to curse the reflection I feared.

I USED       to stay up all night, dancing in sorrow
without consent, my entire body convulsing.

I watched the sun rising sadness and despaired like a mourner.
Outside rising, inside dying.

I USED       to not know if I was lying or telling the truth.
I spent hours wrestling with my god—myself.

 

I wake up in the morning, and I say the sh’ma.
Then I make my bed; wash my hands.

I wake up in the morning, and I walk to the room next door.
Then I sit in a chair; listen for an hour.

I wake up in the morning, and sometimes I feel light as a feather.
Then I make breakfast; smile as I wash my bowl.

I wake up in the morning, and I smile at the man in the mirror.
Then I take a shower; hug my soul.

I wake up in the morning, and I thank God.
I know I’m not Him.

Poems of Love and Loss by Helen Bar-Lev

Today I’m honored to share two poems by Israeli writer and artist Helen Bar-Lev, a longtime Winning Writers subscriber. Helen is the Overseas Connections Coordinator for Voices Israel Group of Poets in English, and winner of numerous awards including the International Senior Poet Laureate title from the Amy Kitchener Foundation. She has had over 100 exhibitions of her landscape paintings, 34 of which were one-woman shows. She lives in Metulla with her partner, Bernard Mann, author of the Biblical historical novel David & Avshalom: Life and Death in the Forest of Angels.

Now or Before or Soon

Now that you’re gone
and I have mourned long and deeply
now that the tears have ceased
except when we speak
from the mountain where I am
to below the level of the sea
where you now stay

This house has no echoes
save for the memory of yours
my footsteps are soundless
as though I walk on foam
and it seems at times
as though I too have disappeared
and am a ghost in my own home

On the radio
the Black Orpheus
plays a mournful tune

Now or before or soon,
we all must mourn

And be mourned…

****

Quickly

So quickly my darling
now three Springs have flown
since we declared our love
optimistic as buds and blossoms
and migrating storks

Reborn were we
and how many lifetimes
have we known?

There was an angel
in your coffee grinds
its wingspan more than half the cup

When you left
an ocean of irises bade you farewell
and the dove couple disappeared

And you metamorphosed into a shadow
the sun went out
and the you that was
disappeared into darkness

I surrender to that angel
I am numb

The Poet Spiel: “Weighing In”

The Poet Spiel, a/k/a the artist Tom Taylor, has spent eight decades taking aim at warmongering, corruption, and bigotry. He depicts the pleasures and absurdities of our physical existence in blunt, earthy language. He’s kindly permitted me to reprint this ever-timely poem below. Sorry to say that WordPress formatting limitations have stripped out his line indents. Check out his 2018 retrospective collection, Revealing Self in Pictures and Words, for more of his work.

Weighing In

Weigh a pint of the blood
of the homo soldier

splattered on his foe

also a hero
dying for his cause
his country
what he believes is right.

Weigh the blood of the hero foe.
Weigh the blood of the homo hero.
Weigh the blood of every proud soldier
downed by friendly fire
and the blood of every proud soldier
who fired upon him.

Tell all their kids
in pints, pounds, or buckets

the quantity of their loss.

Does a pint of the blood
of the homo at war

weigh less in a jar?

than a pint of blood
sapped from his foe?
or a pint of the stuff
from your average Joe?

Compare to a pint
of dirt or sand,
a pint of gold or a pint of lead.

Weigh a pint of the blood
of the homo soldier.

Phone his mother her son is dead.

Self-portrait by the author. Used with permission.

Two Poems by Spiel: “the procedure” and “mixed intentions”

The Poet Spiel, a/k/a the artist Tom Taylor, has been sharing his outsider perspective on politics, sexuality, and disability for nearly 70 years in his raw poetry and passionate, psychedelic visual art. Read my review of his retrospective collection Revealing Self in Pictures and Words (2018). As a child, he suffered from headaches and seizures that were treated with invasive medical procedures, such as the neuroencephalogram described in the first poem (TW for medical trauma).

the procedure

give me
catastrophe
give me
wailing
give me
bobbleheads
with hair on fire
and toothpicks
poked
into their eyes

i want
to make a scene
and paste it
to a table with
screaming wheels
i can drive back
to my youth

on the day
they shoved
that needle up
the base
of my spine
to extract
any trace
of comfort
from my brain

****

mixed intentions

from so far away, he’s left behind
(but not without concern)
in hands of others who may find the mystery of why he suffers so.
it may be something like a tumor on his brain;
it might be tangible.
and wouldn’t it be nice to find something seeable, just something one could grasp,
even if it’s something terrifying,
like a tumor on the brain of this child who’s shown such promise to become
the special child in the family of this farmer.

so the child is tendered
by the hands of nurse lola
who has hands of black, like hands
that never have touched him before.
lola comforts him.
she daily soothes his body with her lotions
and her humor and he wonders at her blackness —
how it is that she can be
so tender, be so comforting,
as all the doctors study him.

doctors do their tests and fill their clip boards with notes;
then, they confer while lola tenders him —
his headaches never hurting
while her black hands touch him,
while his mother and his father are so far away
(but not without concern)
and having left him in the hands of others
who, they pray, might find the mystery
of all his suffering.
but, in fact, they come to learn there is no tumor there
and further steps must be explored.

the steps will be drastic because
his doctors must remove the fluid
from around his brain
to visualize it better.
this will be painful for the child.

now, he must be moved to a private room
with new nurses at his side.
he is so sad to bid
his lola, tender lola, a goodbye.
he will cry in secret for her hands of black
with pearly lotions and her humor soothing down his suffering.

the procedure is a hideous one.
from somewhere at the base of this child’s spine,
they drain his brain of natural fluids
but with the outcome yielding not much at all —
yet, more pain than any pain
this child has known —
his brain now hanging, unprotected,
by its natural pillow of the liquid
that nature gave to balance it —
an unnatural state of being.

this is a crime against the nature of his body, now causing a level of pain
beyond the combine of all the pain he has ever known.
and what’s more, this crime has yielded next
to nothing in the search to learn the reason
for the suffering in the innocence of this special child of promise.

now, his father on his long distance visits from the farm,
must bear down upon his head,
his nurses pressing firmly at his feet each moment as he tries to cry,
because each movement of his body
causes movement of his brain
that no longer has a pillow of the fluid they have robbed.
so, when he sees someone has sent him a bouquet of pretty flowers and his tears
come out in gushes,
his entire body has to be restrained to prevent his brain
from banging in his head — unshielded there by nature.

and from far away, the place where he was born,
comes the preacher of the church his family attends,
and the preacher waits his turn
out in the hallway while nurses change his sheets and dose his medicines
to help him bear his grief.

and just then,
while the preacher waits,
so also comes from far away,
the mother of his dearest friend,
and she also is a dear friend of this child,
this woman who is not a preacher
but in practice of the christian science church.
the preacher and this woman sit out in the hall,
waiting to take their turn in speaking to the child,
his pain so great, he hardly knows his name —
let alone a reason to receive
these patient guests.
but come they have, and the preacher
is first to read his scriptures,
say his prayings,
dismiss attention to the nurses
holding down his head and feet,
shove a silly get-well card into his hands
with names of every person at the church
the day the card was signed;
and then be on his way.

the child is edgy. he feels confused
and wants to be alone.
wants things back the way they were
and hiding in his barn, back home, alone,
with no one knowing,
no one paying any mind at all,
just leaving him alone — in hiding.

but then, he tries to shift,
to change the way his body lies
and suddenly, a scream comes from his gut;
his brain bangs back against his skull.
he’s dumbfounded as his nurses grab his feet,
then press his head against his bed to steady him.
he’s come to think this trauma will not end —
that what the doctors robbed from him
will never be replaced
and he will spend his life in agony.

his best friend’s mother now steps in to visit him,
to speak of how one’s ills are understood
by means of spirit teaching, by believing.
but the only thing of meaning to the child
is that he’s always wished
that she was his mom,
that he could replace his own mother
with her and that he’s wished her son
could be his boyfriend
(though he’s too young to think this way and knows that this is wrong).

it is her son who is the only child
he’s had a bond so strong that it could make him wish to live and not to hide.

even now, within this torture,
he can think of how he wishes for the comfort of her son to come,
to hold him at his side.
she tells him that her son and others
at his school have gathered coins
so that when he comes back home,
he’ll have a record player all his own
so, when he burrows in his attic room,
he can play his favorite music at his will.
and this will be a gift, because
he has so many friends and they are praying,
just as she has come these many miles
to deliver her teachings and her gift of spirit.

some six months it takes for nature to replace
the cushion round his brain.
and through this time,
and even though the child is back
within his realm; he’s so careful as he walks.
he must take each step to sense the liquid round his brain
as it, by nature, fills the space the doctors vacated
and the crazy torture they have put him through,
yet finding nothing to report —
nothing
anyone
can touch
nor see.

but he’s left with thoughts of lola.
thoughts of friends he never knew he had,
who’d gathered money for a gift
that he can touch and see and hear.
now, he can choose what he hears.
but he holds harried thoughts within his brain,
that he will just remain a “something”
that cannot be repaired
and he will always hide away in the darkness of the corner of his barnplace,
where there are no windows, no one prying in.
where he slams the barn doors shut;
where the freak is hidden in a jar
that no one sees.

he tries, again, to think of lola,
tender lola,
her black hands,
same as the blackness
inside his barn.

Poetry by Garret Keizer: “Yosodhara”

This week we wrapped up a 6-month online course on masculine archetypes at the Temple of Witchcraft. Jumping off from our source text, Robert Moore and Douglas Gillette’s King Warrior Magician Lover (a somewhat dated but still intriguing “men’s movement” book from the 1990s), instructor JT Mouradian prompted us to match these archetypes to the deities, spiritual guides, or role models in our worship traditions. Compared to the Greek and European pagan gods, or the compassionate but remote and all-powerful Adonai of the Hebrew Bible, can we say that Jesus is unique in foregrounding the Lover energy–a path centered on healing, personal intimacy, engagement with the world of the senses, and prioritizing human relationships over abstract principles? Perhaps, said our teacher, this missing ingredient explains Christianity’s extraordinary rise to popularity in the ancient world.

A poet, political essayist, and retired Episcopal priest, Garret Keizer explores this question in his sonnet “Yosodhara”, published last fall at Rat’s Ass Review. (Scroll down the page to read all the poets in this issue in alphabetical order by last name.) He’s kindly permitted me to reprint it below. I’m married to a Buddhist, and have learned to appreciate many things about that tradition, particularly the ideal of non-attachment to views and concepts, which literalist Christians would do well to emulate. Yet I’m ultimately in the camp of poet Richard Wilbur when he says “Love calls us to the things of this world”.

YOSODHARA

The Buddha’s path attracts me, always will,
the rational compassion of his Noble Truths,
the higher heroism of the kind and still—
by the Bo Tree let us build three booths.
But God so loved the world and so have I
and found it worth the pain, and found it good,
and therefore find that I identify
most with the lover nailed to the world’s hard wood.
It’s not that I see merit in love’s hurt,
or none in non-attachment’s claimless claim;
it’s rather that, as roots take hold of dirt,
whenever love grips me, I do the same.
Won’t Yosodhara, Buddha’s wife, agree,
though weeping, “Why hast thou forsaken me?”

Chapbook Reviews in Brief: Holmes, Lisowski, and More

Have you ever entered a contest you didn’t win, received the winning book from the sponsor, and said to yourself, “Yeah, they’re right, I have to up my game”? That’s how I feel about Dead Year by Anne Cecelia Holmes, which was my reward for entering the Sixth Finch poetry chapbook prize. (Dead Year was published in 2016, so technically we weren’t competing head-to-head; grab your copy before it goes out of print, since it’s not listed on Amazon and the “excerpt” link goes to an error page.)

Every poem in this chapbook is also titled “Dead Year”, demonstrating how grief seems to stop time, trapping you in endless ruminations or numbness. This is confessional poetry without a confession: the trauma that has unmade the speaker is never specified. Early on, perhaps reading myself into the text, I thought of infertility or miscarriage (“Unbelievable how we stretch/in our skin day after day.//How I never say when I am/a mother into the mirror”).

However, the point of the book is not literal autobiography, which would enable us to distance ourselves from the agony by pretending it doesn’t apply to us. Holmes aims to dissect the process of unbecoming and remaking the self after any event that calls into question our whole way of living as a body among bodies–specifically, as a woman:

Since I am female

I am like a pet
and try to swallow a man.

Perhaps this makes me
a villain but think of it

more an act of devotion.

But this is not, after all, merely a story of stagnation. The speaker’s immobility, her refusal to be prematurely reassembled into legible personhood, reveals itself as an act of furious resistance that burns brighter as the book progresses. (“Okay/hurricane, make me/a skinless girl…/I shape my mouth/into a poison halo/and rain.”) The later poems more directly address a “you” who (we infer) is somehow culpable for the indescribable event. In the last poem, this anger seems to be propelling the speaker up and out of her sojourn in the underworld.

It is the end. I hope
you know that.

When I stick my
full self inside

the year nothing
but my fire ring

blasts through.

It takes chutzpah to dedicate a poetry chapbook about Lizzie Borden to your father. Zefyr Lisowski went all-in with Blood Box (Black Lawrence Press, 2019), her unsettling re-creation of the much-debated murders of Lizzie’s father and stepmother. The family home becomes a cursed jewel that the poet holds up to the light, examining each facet through different characters’ perspectives, but finding only distortions and sharp edges. It’s a claustrophobic setting worthy of Shirley Jackson, where the menacing tension mounts but is never resolved by exposure of its true source. Lisowski is less interested in solving the mystery (the book is bracketed by the poems “If I Did” and “If I Didn’t”) than in limning the many influences that press down on the characters like a coffin lid in Mr. Borden’s funeral home. As Lizzie’s sister Emma says bitterly, “I’m in constant//pain. The minister says, ‘God is all around us.’/Tell me. Who could require more proof than that.”

We subscribe to the monthly mini-magazine True Story from the journal Creative Nonfiction, and if you’re an aspiring essayist, I recommend that you do too. Each chapbook-sized issue features one narrative essay, fact-checked by the editors. The pieces generally braid autobiographical reflections with larger cultural themes and a thumbnail history of a special topic suggested by the personal anecdote. This format would scale up quite well to a book-length memoir: a subscription to True Story gives you a useful series of case studies in nonfiction narrative structure.

Some of my favorite recent entries in the series:

Heather Sellers, Where Am I? (Issue 27) draws connections between her face blindness, “place blindness” (difficulty navigating even familiar locations), and growing up with a mentally ill mother. I saw so much of myself in this essay. It was validating to see common patterns and have a role model for struggles that my mother and I both faced. (My mother would need help getting back from the restroom to our table in a restaurant we visited every month, and the last time she drove a car was the day she got her license, sometime during the Nixon administration!)

Renata Golden, Bought and Sold (Issue 30) is subtitled “A history of lies and broken promises”, as exemplified by the boondoggle housing subdivision in the New Mexico desert that her father bought into in the 1960s. She describes how the US government, real estate speculators, and railroad companies wrested Western lands from Mexicans and Native Americans, then cheated working-class Americans with promises of cheap “uninhabited” land. This chapbook would be a good addition to a high school American history curriculum.

Ander Monson, My Monument (Issue 33) is a humorous and wistful tribute to the 15-foot-tall inflatable Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer that he installed on the lawn of his suburban Arizona home. Monson, the editor of the avant-garde online journal DIAGRAM, riffs on impermanence, neighborly ties, the seven wonders of the ancient world and the modern wonders of the Hammacher Schlemmer catalog.

Two Poems from Jeff Walt’s “Leave Smoke”

Gival Press, an established independent publisher with an interest in LGBTQ literature, has just released award-winning poet Jeff Walt‘s new full-length collection, Leave Smoke. Born into a rural Pennsylvania community of coal miners and bricklayers, Jeff is an editor for the San Diego Poetry Annual, with literary honors that include a MacDowell Colony Fellowship and a musical setting of his poems in concert at Carnegie Hall. Leave Smoke relentlessly probes the scars and longings of a life between two worlds, where midlife resembles Dante’s dark wood in the middle of the journey, and the family legacy of addiction and work-weariness pursues the narrator into his liberated middle-class gay life. Having too many choices is almost as bad as having too few, when one hasn’t had role models for choosing wisely. In this collection, moments of hope and tenderness–a brother’s latest stab at sobriety, breathing lessons with a Zen-like poetry instructor–are rare and shine like diamonds in coal.

Jeff has kindly permitted me to reprint the poems below. It takes a talented poet to come up with a new metaphor for stars, let alone two as surprising and piercing as these.

Stars from My Bed

On the ceiling glow-
in-the-dark & behind my eyes
gnarling sparks. No, no wishes.
These stars are sharp
like a tin can lid’s slit throat.
They write blues songs
but not about me. I love you
back then
where I am
mostly. I give the stars juicy details.
Sometimes just to piss me off
they go on and on
with stupid jokes about my old
jittery friends looking to score dime bags
while their constant need scuffed
down the once
white carpet
to a mottled circle
round my coffee table.
The needle made us
happy. The stars spread
like disease.

****

The Magician

Sundays in the living room, before Disney
and our baths, he made our mother vanish
right before our eyes. His long, black cape shiny

as water pouring through the hands of summer.
I swaddled my sister
tight in my eight-year-old arms that trembled

with frightened joy. We held our breath and bit
our nails as he sawed her in half, pulled nickels
from her ears, instructed her to bark

with a quick snap of his fingers. Then
they left us for the Windmill Tavern. Alone together,
we sang and danced in her pink pumps.

Draped in his silky cape, we saved lives and killed
off all the villains using the gagdets
that possessed the glittery magic

until the dark, late hours–our games behind us–
when the shadows became spirits our magic sprouted:
falling ice the footsteps of men

surrounding the house; winter’s spiraling whine
moaned up from the gut of the furnace.
When he asked if he could be my father,

I said, yes, wanting whatever that meant. We fled to closets
when they fought, afraid a clap of his hands
might reduce us to dust. The day he packed his bag

of magic, she begged him to stay. I hid
his wand in my sock–because,
in the dark, on his lap, he had pulled me tight, whispered

that he had the power to turn rocks into chocolate,
little boys into goats.
The black stick held all his tricks.