What the War Taught My Mother
My mother learned that sex is bad,
Men are worthless, it is always cold
And there is never enough to eat.
She learned that if you are stupid
With your hands you will not survive
The winter even if you survive the fall.
She learned that only the young survive
The camps. The old are left in piles
Like worthless paper, and babies
Are scarce like chickens and bread.
She learned that the world is a broken place
Where no birds sing, and even angels
Cannot bear the sorrows God gives them.
She learned that you don't pray
Your enemies will not torment you.
You only pray that they will not kill you.
Why Do We Age?
Is it the moon, the Sun,
the pull of Mars or Jupiter,
the movement of the great whales
as they migrate beneath the waves?
Not even Walt Whitman could tell us
although he could tell us more
about youth and living and loving
than anyone else with just a couplet.
Remember “Unscrew the locks from the doors,
Unscrew the doors themselves from their jambs”?
And what can I tell you about growing old?
That I’ve been to the circus and I’ve seen
the big top from the inside and know
that the sky of stars inside the tent is the circus?
That there are things I am giving up
as I move toward my 70th birthday:
things like worrying about silence and flatulence,
the reworking of old puzzles,
the problems God sets before all of us?
That my mother loved to hold my hand
when we were walking to the park
and it broke her heart when I told her
I was too old to do that?
And what else can I tell you about aging?
That my father loved to listen to me
talk to him in English even though
he didn’t understand a word?
That once I sat next to a dying friend
who kept weeping and whispering something
about sand and water that didn't make sense?
That all I could do for him was sing a song
that I hoped he remembered, something
about hoping that all his rambling
had brought him love and joy?
That you can smell the human gasses
coming off of dead bodies: hydrogen sulfide,
methane, and cadaverine,
yes, sweet cadaverine?
And still there’s always the same question:
Why do we age?
At night you cannot see the dust
Or the paint chipping.
It is all hidden behind the stars.
Keys are worthless, locks can’t be
Unlocked, and still you have to walk
through the door. There is nowhere else.
You have to walk through the door.
Death and Life Sing It
And life listens
Life then tries
And the beach
When the singing
Listen to this.
My silence and your silence
speak a language
we learned long ago
in a world where silence
moved the waves
and every sparrow
flew on wings of silence
into our eyes
And every word
we learned to speak
is part of a prayer
to all the words
spoken by all people
This silence and these words
Taught us to whisper
To open our eyes
To enter the woods
And learn the meaning
38 Easy Steps to Carlyle’s Everlasting Yea
After living with Rod Mckuen in the horse-filled streets of Sandusky
Arise and sing naked
And dance naked
And visit your mother naked
And be nervous and tragic and plugged in
And pay the waiter in kisses
And pay the beggar in silver
And embrace the silent and scream for them
And grab watches and ask them for directions
And be a carpenter and redeem all the sins of the University of Illinois
And look for Walt Whitman beneath the concrete in the street
And put your thumbs in your ears and ask somebody to dance
The bossa nova and hear him or her say
Sorry I left my carrots at home
And eat/write/cry/drink/smoke/laugh and keep holy the Lord’s Day all in the same breath
And be a blue angelic tricycle
And be any martyr’s unused coffin
And be you or me – it doesn’t matter which
And write poems like Pablo Neruda does
And throw them into the street/into the wind
And be Christ waiting at the bus stop for a passing crucifixion
and not having enough exact change to mount the cross
And be a mail-order clerk at Sears and send free TV sets to all the charity wards at Cook County Hospital
And free the masses and free yourself from the masses
And march on Moscow, searching with burnt-out eyes for Zhivago
And be afoot with your vision and be afoot with my vision
And be underfoot and underground
And sell magic sparrows at the Maxwell Street Flea market
And carry flowers to the poets’ corner and water them with enormous Byronic tears
And wander through midday downtown Chicago humming “the St. Louis blues” and know the meaning of nothing
And guess the meaning of everything
And be a mind-blistered astronaut with nothing to say to the sun but
Honey I’m yours.