Looking BackMy friend died suddenly, jerked away from me
like a soiled napkin tossed from a speeding car. The mountains,
rotating calmly in the distance, lushly upholstered in spruce
and pine, had hypnotized me with suggestions
of dignified, perdurable tempos,
so that I was shocked to find my own
breakneck onrush to be the final frenzy, the unintended wave
that dragged my friend away.
When I stopped at last for sleep
my friend’s memory collapsed onto landscapes
so cluttered with wrecks and garbage
that only shreds of him managed to snag,
or so I needed to believe, robbed by betrayal of full embrace.
When I resumed next morning I reflected compassionately
on many important things
and listened to a Verdi aria which did not mention my friend at all.
Yet I remembered him constantly,
the act of remembering squeezing my life
to the vanishing point, until I felt required to begin forgetting,
not callously, but as a kind of symbol
signifying that this thing too had taken its place
in the implacable parade of recession,
allowing the heartfelt loss of this magnificent soul
to become a gift of sudden remembrance,
a cherished part of the mind’s golden task.
Within me now, years later, at a fixed but unknown distance
from the mind’s eye, my friend’s face takes shape.
It towers above some imagined horizon in mythical resplendence,
composing with its rare companions my soul’s Mt. Rushmore,
adorned with as much richness of detail as love can summon
through eyes half-blinded by dust from unpaved roads,
as I now lean and peer foolishly out the open window
of that same speeding car.
Journal of DaysDay 1
I choose from the hangar a ratty, overstuffed armchair
that looks comfortable enough for the voyage, but which,
if properly situated, seems unlikely to overturn my chunk of floe.
Beds are available, but strike me as melodramatic, and besides,
I prefer horizons to clouds and stars, even though they say
stars are the souls of popular singers and other heroes.
Had a town taken me, I would have gone,
but little appetite for parables remains, and little use
for useless comparisons. One rarely hears the word ethic
without the word work anymore, and the word personal
is inevitably preceded by the word nothing.
In truth, no one is wanted who lacks substantiating analysis.
Many complain, but who can say what is truly fair?
I have not been hurried and my provisioning
appears to have been well considered: warm clothes,
ample blankets, food and water sufficient to defeat
any sense of cruelty, but not dishonestly abundant,
and a small device filled with all known music.
And actual old books make from tree pulp: fixed black
words scattered like a debris field across the pages,
words unable to apologize for misreading the future,
but proving, at least, the past existed. I choose a few,
sex books, holy books, stories begging to be seen
as universal from back when only one universe was detected.
Tonight a trivial snow slants prophetically northward,
bringing the docks to life like a bedeviled bed of black ants.
I watch the folks who do for me, who make sure I am done for,
hustle my future out ahead of theirs, hoarding the cache
of love and evil I must now blindly stumble past.
Best, they say, to treat this as a dream, odyssey, first date.
Anything but what it truly is, which is what? I am cast off
into a wild rocking spin within thundering druid winds,
fear shorting all circuits but the reptilian death grip
that fuses me to the chair as it bucks its ropes and spikes.
It is as if I ride a frozen wafer on the tip of God’s tongue
while he is busy chastising the fallen, man and angel alike.
Three weeks pass. The veils fall faster than I can lift them.
Clouds shade the sea into cold iron, the water nonetheless
molten in some deeper aspect. I am ravenous and sense
some inner program numbering the days, the math simple now.
It is at this moment I am compelled to honor the stars,
to see what only waits to be seen, and so devise a way.
You have found this account beneath clumped rocks
where the Little Bear first swept me with his bright paw
into this icy archipelago. A far cave you will not find now germinates
the clandestine seeds I carried in place of your dark anthems.
In the end, it was you the world cast off, and I will not lightly share
the white hares I now fatten with lichen, or the long fires I tend.
VoiceDemolition dust has left me
stooped and coughing,
so I need a new voice,
a new way of saying hello,
I love you, won’t you tell me your name.
My old voice
has forgotten how to whisper
in a paramour’s ear or pacify
a fretful baby. My new voice, radio-ready,
will win you over
no matter what I say, will attractively intimate
my glamorous despair and tell you
exactly what you need to know
about the road not taken, just in case.
Once free of burlesque
vibrato and intransigent rasp
my new voice will no longer bare
its vocal fangs at nothing
or bark orders at ghosts,
but will instead lure poppies
from their subterranean harem quarters
and serenade the sun in its morning balcony.
I will once again speak, as I often did as a child,
simply to hear my head pleasantly roar.
The words of my old voice,
heavy with complaint and confession,
will still clamor to be heard,
but will strand themselves flopping on my tongue
as my fleet new thoughts dart by
on their way to describing how beautiful
a thing to kiss me would be,
although the kiss itself
will always taste a little of salt and death.
Scarecrow in ExileI am painfully thin, a scarecrow, as they say in America.
My father’s mother, daft and huge, her apron full
of raw dumplings for the market,
would squat and piss in the gutters of Prague,
blind to the stares of passersby. She, a woman who feared no one,
who pressed the wart on her tongue through broken teeth
as a gesture of infinite scorn,
who once pressed my hands and my sister’s hands all at once
against her breasts and shaggy sex
to illustrate the crooning mysteries of love, she
whose Christian name I’m sure I never knew,
feared only scarecrows.
She knew them from the villages of Bohemia,
from among the cherry and plum orchards
where the jackdaw, or “kafka,” brazenly feasted.
She called the scarecrows “bone-straw demons” and claimed
they would burst alive if struck by lightning,
then hop about like mad toads, sizzling with the devil’s own blood.
I wonder if my babi would fear me now, sprinkle rue
and dogbane in my beard (a tidy goatee),
if, tottering, drunk on Bohemian plum vodka,
I hopped and cursed to regain myself
on a dusty street in Prague, Oklahoma?
Certainly I have bones and demons enough
to force a hiss from her as I careen though shadows
of my own making,
but she is safe−if from God or the Devil or the State
the dead are ever safe−since my Czech heart
is frozen in exile’s forfeiture and my Czech bones dangle
in America’s pastures of unseemly plenty.
Urns filled with gold and silver coins sat behind a false wall
in my parent’s bedroom closet, sending my father briefly to prison,
a pragmatic shrug defining his return.
He said it was good to save, better to steal, and willed me
his need, his love, to thieve and bribe and lie and, finally, flee
that most beautiful city of spires.
How hard, then, to be harmless
among these gently obese American folks!−if “folks”
is the right word in this clumsy language that forbids
me to be funny or adequately mask my sexual schemes.
Here, in the presumptuous land of last, best hopes,
the black birds perch on me
as if it were their freedom and not mine
I had swindled from the Communists.
Next week I will start writing letters back home to find a bride:
“Please send me a dishonest Moravian woman
with skinny, inventive legs, preferably a chain smoker
who reads Kundera and is sufficiently bored
to welcome the itch of straw, the thrill of blood
bursting into flames.”
Elephant WalkShe walks the shores of paradise,
a tasteful sweater loosely tied
around her shoulders as a mild contingency
against a freshening sea breeze.
A lifelong smoker perhaps, in the slow grip
of irreversible suffocation,
she presents nevertheless a flawless vison
of inner and outer peace, strolling with a companion
of her sex and generation,
a long friendship implied,
their paces, expressions and gestures
matched and cleansed of anxiety.
Since the TV commercial she inhabits
champions an inherently dangerous, at best
temporarily efficacious drug,
some sense of the dark, desperate drama
raging inside this calm and lovely woman
must be acknowledged, so a conceit is contrived
to do so: an elephant following her
at a polite distance, as gently comic an agent
of crushing, breathless fate as taste
and reason will permit. For now,
thanks to the touted elixir, and because suffering
has been so artfully air-brushed out of mind,
the placid pachyderm displays no particular eagerness
to squash the life out of our unruffled Everywoman.
Behold a modern fairy tale:
The Witch of Bad Choices banished for now,
so it’s on to the seaside after-party,
the sunny soiree wherein the Queen
lives out in a contented loop
the trope of simple pleasures,
the wolfish character of fierce old death
morphed amusingly from beast to trailing pet,
the Hero now a brave new pill, summoned
by white-coated wizards from the crystal forge
of trial and error, and promising, for mere gold,
to simulate the echo of endless tides.
Copyright © 2014 Michael Hallock
Michael Hallock is a writer of music and poetry who lives in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Crafting words has always been at the center of Michael’s working life, and he points to the example of Leonard Cohen to demonstrate the poetic seriousness of lyricists. He says, “I love the beauty and discipline of the song structure, but there are things pure poetry can express that songs, for all their virtues, cannot.”
Michael has released four albums, primarily under the name “High On Loretta.” His poetry has appeared in Collision Literary Magazine, Yellow Brick Road and was recently featured in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
When not gardening or playing guitar, Michael sits with his wife and basks in the background radiation from the Big Bang.