Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about the magic of language, how it builds within our minds a world that’s been created in someone else’s (the writer’s) head. Which is to say that lately I’ve been thinking a lot about communication: verbal, written, and otherwise. About intention and perception. How it can—and often does—go wrong. You think you’re communicating beautifully with someone, and you really get one another, and then the person you’re conversing with says something like a line from Prufrock: That is not what I meant at all; that is not it, at all.
Communication is a messy experience. (Kind of like eating a peach, yes.)
And yet in these poems I find a miraculous irony: in them, there is a crystal clear embodiment of the moments they’re describing, even though the moments are all about the travails of communication. The successes and failures. They embrace the question: how do we truly know one another? In attempting to answer this question, they brilliantly convey the messiness of speech and connection. And in that I am both heartened and grieved, which is why I go to poetry in the first place. To get both sides of the coin.
“One thing I’ve learned: go looking for fire eaters and you don’t know what you’ll find.”
As a fire eater you will never go unemployed.
Your windpipe determines retirement.
Ember jaws, spark gums; the physical is glamorous.
Come April Fool’s Day, the lighter fluid dunk tank.
Do you remember Joe “stilt ankles” Mikelson?
Well now he runs the Missoula circus scene
with his fiancée Carol, Ms. Spinning Plates.
You who were raised on three-syllable commands:
The perfect Jesuit acrobat save for
homosexuality and that dented leg.
If you’re lucky you’ll meet the ventriloquist
with extra knuckles.
Lord knows where that could lead.
You began as a germaphobe?
I prefer the term contagion-avoiding.
Better than running from, he thrived.
Eons, websites after now, they’ll refer
to us as the society that bronzed its
footwear. Gave preservation a new
lukewarmth. Meanwhile, where’s
your microscope? Gander into that
lens and see how long it is before you
petition the committee on household bound.
But if it veers your readers in a Hughesian
direction, germaphobe it is. Either way,
it involved scalding and a lot of Dial.
P.S. That Howard should thank his
bacteria-free stars for Leo D.
I’d have leapt at the chance for some
Gilbert Grapethrob with the countenance
of yesterday’s SpaghettiOs to portray me.
Question to a chronic
hand washer: does your
lifeline rankle at water?
I scrub the skin cajoles.
Is it true you only wear
If laces, phobias they’d come undone.
Undone, fear they’d touch whatever
Band-Aid, saliva mane, gum glob,
vector spring or spatter errant
that calls the pavement home.
The ground begat your brand
It could’ve been the ether’s glitch,
the boogey mensch.
How do you function?
By stigma disbursed.
Complete this sentence
as only an agoraphobe
of your standing could:
is the new bullet train
of a wished-for Japan.
Sterile’s a pretty battery.
Affliction takes you so far.
MY MOTHER, HELEN EILEEN
At the edge of the road there were houses
huddled in a suffocating blanket
that wouldn’t let me find you
in those hilly streets, steep roads too new
to know about the star-lit sea we shared.
I turned before the street rose steeper,
hating hills at night, the way a car in front
can teeter in my headlights,
plunge and disappear. When you died
I trembled on the edge.
You worked at it for hours.
Your breath grew shallow, slower—
stop and start and stop.
I hope you didn’t go to heaven,
it’s too perfect to be happy there.
I remember how you played Satie’s Gymnopedie
the way the chords resolved, the rising melody
climbing the hill:
a sudden subito and ritardando
fading into silence.
THE COMMON ROOM
At first he thought I was a friend he knew
from hot-dish dinners at the church,
he finally knows it’s me and dozes off,
wakes up wondering who I am.
We talk about the Army,
World War II, and his favorite plane,
The Flying Fortress. The radio
is playing “What is This Thing called Love?”
He cries as I beg heaven
not to put me in a place like this
when life gets thin,
slithers off me like a dirty slip.
Here the lobby doors are automatic,
gliding back and forth they hiss and mock
the common room of keening,
barely masked by finches dying in their cage.
My father never hears the birds;
he listens for the dinner bell,
he tells me he has whistling fish inside his head
that never go away.
I knew him best the day he looked at me
and thought I was his wife come back
to cook him breakfast. What’s left of love
are things that touched her hands—
dirty cans of poppy seeds and turmeric
whisper curry, coffeecake,
the closet of clothes he can’t throw out,
the red wool dress, the long-sleeved arms
that lift to him at night.
BASTILLE DAY, TARASCON
You say that when the traffic slows
to a trickle then stops, that will be the signal
that the parade is about to begin.
The traffic continues unabated,
though off in the distance somewhere
it sounds like an announcer’s voice
coming over loudspeakers, festively
trotting its swift little journey towards us.
At least here no one honks their horns.
The traffic is slowing—no, now it’s picked
up again. At least there are no trucks—
were there trucks before? I don’t recall.
There is a rumor now spreading in the café:
the parade has not been cancelled but
merely postponed, for reasons no one knows.
But 6:30, 7:30, what’s the difference? We can
just sit back and enjoy the pre-dusk light and shade—
the heat today had come very close to hot.
I say that tonight, at least, in the village square
after the traffic, the shush of wheels,
and the sun have all punched out for the day,
the folk dancers from barely known countries
will come, there will be music then for sure:
playful accordions along with wind instruments
and strings we have never before seen accompanying
the dancers stepping the same wedding celebration steps
as their ancestral kinsmen, the same strange courtship
twittering of feet and high kicking celebrations
of heroic deeds. The women’s long sleeves will wave slowly
again as if to another welcome caravan passing along
The Silk Road as the lone horn trills hypnotically up,
then down. But for now, our drinks are almost finished
and you say that there were posters, handbills as well,
this is the route, the time, the place, wait—
do you hear something? No. Who is this parade’s
marshal anyway, Tartarin? Godot?
I look up now to shrug or shake my head
and I see it, there it is: the parade of wind
in the high leaves above the people, above the streets.
You have not forgotten us, there you are
with your very quiet trumpets of love,
a muted trombone, clarinet, and flutes.
We have discussed it and both now agree
that we will be your antique drum to be played
with sticks of lavender, thumping the old tunes.
You’re still always there, breath without a flag, old friend
marching through the branches with their fattening leaves
and in this way, we will not be so likely to forget.
A PEDAL BOAT
Two mallards paddle through their own reflections,
glance at the waver of their underbellies, a singled eye
scouts past us to this and that insensible predilection.
My father and I, hunched into the nearest boat lay
no bread upon the water nor shiny hooks below whose
glint in the sun they could take for epiphany, diving
to capture the morsel, feet left to kick
into a world turned upside down.
In our pedal boat occasion my father and I kick our
way into where we imagine the foot pedals to be,
to the glorious, the elliptical, the watery nowhere.
Looking back through another continuity of interrupted flight,
you call this pond what, this oldish wet and dry?
Looking up through a skylight, just now
before dusk no light can suffice to show if you
are there, or read your lost answer written as it is
in the weightless slipstream of one or more feathers.
A LITTLE JOKE
After Adolph Dehn’s A Little Joke
Like bald eagles fallen over a wooden bench, hands resting over their laps’ folds, fingers curved inwards, claws awaiting their prey, two men empowered by their black cassocks, chatter like old village gossips, distorted figures wearing a feather as a headdress you’d rather imagine bent over a breviary or behind a confessional’s lattice.
For that can’t be serious talk: the tension in their elongated limbs shows they’re sharing something much juicier, a dark string of syllables hushed in secrecy, winglike capes propped in symmetry, rounded eyes doubled by circular binoculars, two sets of eyes facing each other almost as in a duel, yet accomplices of the ebb and flow of words riding the air between the smile stretching their lips, inaudible even in the stillness of the gallery’s collection.
The more I try to decipher this arcane complicity, the more I find myself caught in a net spun by ink strokes in that visibile parlare. I am left with the fear that the artist has led me to a threadless string of invisible words just for the sake of playing a joke on me.
Hedy Habra is the author of Tea in Heliopolis, winner of the 2014 USA Book Awards and finalist for the 2014 International Poetry Book Award, and Flying Carpets, winner of the 2013 Arab American National Book Award’s Honorable Mention. Her work appears in Drunken Boat, Bitter Oleander, Blue Fifth Review, Diode, Nimrod, among other magazines. Her website is HedyHabra.com.
Don Pomerantz lives in New York City where he is a teacher. His poems have appeared in Washington Square, Failbetter, Potomac Review, Eclectica, New Plains Review, Euphony and elsewhere.
Jon Riccio studied viola performance at Oberlin College and the Cleveland Institute of Music. An MFA candidate at the University of Arizona, current and forthcoming poems appear in CutBank, Paper Nautilus, Blast Furnace, Triggerfish, Waxwing and Stone Highway Review.
Sue Robinson lives in Boulder, Colorado. Currently she is working on a manuscript of poems and enjoying a diverse and supportive community as student at Lighthouse Writers Workshop.