Lost: On the Staten Island Ferry

Nominated for a 2017 Pushcart Prize

There, on an old worn seat, clean and cold,
I left it behind on the Staten Island Ferry—
after a walk on Wall Street,
a Saturday with darkness falling at four o’clock,
a wind chill of zero degrees,
a polar contrast to the heat, mosquitoes, and fear
I had known only days before.
The cold, cold wind I remember,
but I can’t remember
what she said,
staring past me
at dusk settling over the water
or perhaps at her reflection in the window.
She wore a bright red coat with gray fur at her neck
and at her throat;
I wore padded gabardine,
smooth and faded with age and use.
Did she wear a scarf, a hat? Did I?

It ended there, on the ferry sliding
through the black water of the harbor.
I can’t remember what she said.
But what she said was true,
truer than most words between lovers;
honest, confessional, expiatory,
perhaps even pleading.
What she wanted, I do not know—
to clear something away like the banked snow,
icy and dirty on Broadway.

To this city I was a stranger, an explorer,
on the Staten Island Ferry,
going nowhere and back.
Whatever it was she said,
I looked out the window
at the dusk turning night over the black water,
the lights, the statue and the lights not sparkling
but dully glowing in the dusk.
I can’t remember what she said.

The ferry entered the slip,
and we exited through the gate
(the only passengers coming back to the city,
maybe a worker or two,
the only fools wandering
through ice-cold canyons at Saturday dusk
because I wanted to ride the Staten Island Ferry,
no other goal than to ride the ferry,
a frigid hour before sunset,
under a sunless milk sky
that turned to soot
then faded to black)
and I ate the apple that she gave me.

Who knew the City could be so empty,
so solitary.
Sitting there on the ancient wooden benches,
worn, scarred,
new, newer now,
not seeing the statue or the skyline as she spoke,
only hearing her tell me
and feeling the frisson of despair
that wouldn’t go away.
Only gray skies and no sunset to watch,
and the black night when we walked the icy streets
to the subway,
Battery Park or somewhere near.
I was a stranger, I didn’t know my way;
and what she said changed everything,
the wages of blunt honesty,
two strangers on the Staten Island Ferry
going their separate ways.

Why Did Hemingway Kill Himself?

Why Did Hemingway Kill Himself?

We’re all going skiing today.
We adults are apprehensive, not sure how our old bodies will react.
I stand on the porch with my coffee and gaze out:
the lake is a shimmery blue;
the mountains, almost black, divide the lake from the blue sky.
The wet bark and boughs of the pines near the cabin
frame lake, mountains, and sky—
on the mountains white patches of snow.

Why did Hemingway kill himself when he wasn’t dying?
What did he wake and see in the mirror one morning?
What was he afraid of?
Was it death?
He feared death so much that he ran into her arms to escape the fear?
Was it the weakening of his body?
A debilitating, wasting disease?
Disgust at what he had become?
He lived in a cabin, in a wild and pristine place.
Was it not enough to look out across the forest in the morning,
hear the birds, see the mountains against the sky?
To squeeze out of life one last breath of cold air,
to bring in the light refracted through the trees,
the red and yellow flowers in the meadow,
the blue sky,
and process it all through rods and cones,
across synapse,
sparking billions of stars in his sentient self?
Different from the trees that stand silent, mute, mindless, unseeing.

Why did Hemingway kill himself
when perhaps he could write one more paragraph,
one more sentence
that described simply and directly
the world, life,
even if no one would publish it or ever read it?

War of the Martins and Sparrows (honorable mention Houston Writers Guild Press 2017)

In my side-yard, there’s a birdhouse we put up for purple martins.
We like hearing them chatter and burble,
seeing them soar and swoop and
land like fighter jets on an aircraft carrier.
The sparrows came; they built a nest,
then two martins returned from South America
and they built a nest, side-by-side with the sparrows.
Now it looks like there are two sparrow nests,
one on each side of the house,
and both sparrows and martins have cropped,
and there are birds all over the house,
both house sparrows and purple martins.
They fight all the time,
on the porches, even inside one of the holes with feathers poking out,
these two tribes of ex-dinosaurs.
Why can’t they live like humans, in peace and harmony?
There’s plenty of room for all,
twelve holes, six to a side, and two floors.
But the agile and vocal purple martin
(not so pretty a specimen)
and the common sparrow, who only chirps and chirps and chirps
(but the male is quite striking seen up close
and tenaciously holds his ground—
and breeds prolifically),
they, the martins and sparrows,
waste their time and energy fighting over this one house
that we bought just for the martins.
And there’s danger to both:
the hawk giving its piercing call above,
the snake that coiled its way up the pole at my former house
and cleaned out the martin nests
and not even the sparrows would come back.
If they had complex brains and thought and religion,
each tribe would probably justify its claim to the house
by some divine right,
a gift from some god for who knows what reason,
and rationalize their instinctive struggle for nesting turf and survival
by some mystical, mythical divine dispensation.
But this god, who put up the house for the martins
and wanted the martins to come,
and they did come,
wishes they’d all just shut up the infernal racket
and share the damn house already.

Vinh Long at Dusk

A lost memory
imbued with yellow
Superimposed on white stucco buildings
and red tile roofs,
Yellow dusk reverberating with the staccato
of Japanese and Italian labor
brought by Americans,
Echoing in a cacophony of horns and voices
choked with exhaust fumes.

No trees,
Concrete streets, broken sidewalks,
A water-filled gutter
with a crying, bare-assed child squatting on a plank
leading to the bar with a bright blue gate
Under a sky suffused with yellow,
lost in yellow,
swallowed in yellow,
In the deceptive
somnambulant grip of twilight,
A hiatus between the human clamor of day
And the artillery rung, fog-seized silence of night.

Sunrise at Boot Camp (excerpt)

Last week in the field, after chow,
The quiet kid from Indiana got a letter from his wife
and slit his wrists with a P-38 army issue can opener;
That night, 50 push-ups and blood seeping through the bandages.
“You fail, you’re fucked!” yells the drill sergeant.

The sun’s slanting rays rest on the top of the pine.
“Fall in,” the voice calls;
Not moving, I dream
of different places and better times,
Of your body
breaking the sparkling surface of the pool.

A Dangerous World (Houston Writers Guild Press contest – honorable mention April 28, 2017)

To see the world through another’s eyes
is a dangerous thing:
the loneliness of a widowed mother
as the child slips away,
the desperation of a child
when a parent blinks out
or flees
or just doesn’t understand.

To own their sorrows
and know their secrets
is despair and fear.

How can we care
if we do not know?
How can we know
if we do not see,
when we avert our eyes,
Since we are not …
we are not?

I am not a refugee in a leaky boat,
waiting to sink;
I am not hungry,
rooting through garbage;
I am not black or brown
living in a ghetto forsaken by hope;
I am not an unwanted immigrant
seeking a better life;
I am not an angry white man
watching Fox News;
I am not a black man
fleeing a uniform;
I am not a cop’s spouse
starting at each knock on the door;
I am not a single mother
watching her child off to school;
I am not a soldier
facing an unseen enemy;
I am not a veiled bride
seeing death rain from the sky;
I am not a breast-cancer survivor
facing a mirror;
I am not disabled,
struggling through a door;
I am not a debt-ridden farmer,
tilling dead fields;
I am not oppressed for my religion or race;
I am not gay afraid to come out;
I am not a teenage girl pregnant and alone;
I am not poor and working two jobs;
I am not homeless.
Homeless …

He watches the cars
go past,
the drivers stopped,
staring at anything but him—
gaunt, wasted,
time and drink and fate ravaged—
and his cardboard sign
with its crayon-scrawled letters
that ask for …
and we look away
or hand a folded bill out the window
and drive on,
forgetting,
denying,
that we have seen ourselves
in the rear-view mirror,
as he waves farewell
with a raised
middle finger.

A Rising Tide (Winner first place – poetry Houston Writers Guild Press contest – April 28, 2017)

  • I feel the tide rising,
      I see faces all around,
      different shapes
      and shades of hair
      and colors of skin.
  • In a Budapest museum, homage is paid to those who fled
      —inventors, theorists, thinkers
      —artists, musicians, writers
  • Welcomed in another place,
      and what they brought with them:
      television, laser, computer,
      paint, piano, and pen,
  • The HY-DRO-GEN BOMB,
      and the eighth dimension unstrung.
  • They, the celebrated,
      are only the froth,
      the effervescence of the movement of peoples,
  • Not the essence.
  • Yet another wave comes—
      short, dark men,
      digging, hammering, sweating, straining,
      building houses, mending roofs.
  • Imagine their struggles, their strivings,
      their sorrows, their fears,
      their loneliness

    Now that they are here.

  • Small dark women with straight black hair
      push strollers with blond, blue-eyed babies
      and stop in the park to talk in a lyrical tongue,
      staving off loneliness and fear of what will come,

    What will happen tomorrow—here.

  • There is a past—for them and for this place,
      of those welcomed and those turned away
      —some into the maw of their enemies;

    A past of some dragged here in chains;
    A past of all those who came any way they could.

  • I am part of it—
      a great movement of peoples—
      peripatetic tribes,
      seekers of freedom or fortune,
      refugees from evils,
      or responsibilities;
  • Some who prospered, some who did not;
    All lived and died, loved and sorrowed,
    • in this new place.
  • I see the tide rising,
      and I welcome it,
  • I go with it in exultation and praise:
    WE are the tide,
    • we are the tide, rising,
      every one of us.
  • As we followed others,
      so too
      shall others follow us
      to these shores,
  • A rising tide
      until death comes
      and sweeps us aside,
      leaving this ground we walk
      and air we breathe
      to others
      who follow,
  • Each and every one,
      rising, ebbing, flowing,
      like the tide.