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dark earth (a reading)

dark earth

from a work in progress: process, not a journey (60)

obsessively the earth gives birth

to its dead rich and fertile

safe inside itself unseen

unvoiced like ecstatic dancers

beneath a moon-bright sky

the earth lifts the rose

the oak twisting and throbbing

into the air so i burrow deep

beneath the black soil a worm

gnashing rocks like prayers

until i find a darker god

and somewhere in the black clay

an old woman natters

lost in perpetual disappointment

as a death skull’s laughter’s

trapped in his life’s delusion

(May 7, 2020)

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dark earth

from a work in progress: process, not a journey (60)

obsessively the earth gives birth

to its dead rich and fertile

safe inside itself unseen

unvoiced like ecstatic dancers

beneath a moon-bright sky

the earth lifts the rose

the oak twisting and throbbing

into the air so i burrow deep

beneath the black soil a worm

gnashing rocks like prayers

until i find a darker god

and somewhere in the black clay

an old woman natters

lost in perpetual disappointment

as a death skull’s laughter’s

trapped in his life’s delusion

(May 7, 2020)

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Infinite Watched Pot (a reading)

Infinite Watched Pot

“That is, if you write it has it happened twice”

—Michael Palmer, Notes for Echo Lake

I woke and now it is now; the sun’s setting.

Was the writing the thing that happened?

Would today happen without being written?

Are they two events or one?

I see something—

like a car crash,

or water boiling on the stove.

One’s disconnected,

one’s intentional, possibly

even a causation; for example;

I’m hungry, so

I hop in the car for a burger.

She was in a hurry. It was

raining. She slams through a yellow light.

The driver in front of me dies

on the wet street. Or,

I’m still hungry. I hold dry

pasta knowingly, and watch

as the tiny bubbles form

on the bottom of the pot.

Did anything happen?

I am hungry, and will be

each time you read this,

even if I was the driver

who died, or I just wrote

it down; even if something

more than this

was in my thoughts

as I waited for water

to boil.

(May 3, 2020) 

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Infinite Watched Pot

“That is, if you write it has it happened twice”

—Michael Palmer, Notes for Echo Lake

I woke and now it is now; the sun’s setting.

Was the writing the thing that happened?

Would today happen without being written?

Are they two events or one?

I see something—

like a car crash,

or water boiling on the stove.

One’s disconnected,

one’s intentional, possibly

even a causation; for example;

I’m hungry, so

I hop in the car for a burger.

She was in a hurry. It was

raining. She slams through a yellow light.

The driver in front of me dies

on the wet street. Or,

I’m still hungry. I hold dry

pasta knowingly, and watch

as the tiny bubbles form

on the bottom of the pan.

Did anything happen?

I am hungry, and will be

each time you read this,

even if I was the driver

who died, or I just wrote

it down; even if something

more than this

was in my thoughts

as I waited for water

to boil.

(May 3, 2020) 

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fog

from a work in progress: “process, not a journey”(59)

of course it’s never either or

a yes a no one path or some other

no matter how far you attempt to see

before it bends in the brush

or how detailed the pro con list

you lay out with little checks

primly contained in tightly drawn boxes

your life is always cluttered

with could haves would haves buts

yets and never-minds

all the vaguely grey spaces

where it’s troublesome to see

as if your smudged glasses were removed

in order to clean the day’s detritus

away and what blurred clarity

you possessed expands and smears

toward an ever-darkening horizon

(May 2, 2020)

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my face blurs as well (a reading)

my face blurs as well

from a work in progress: “process, not a journey” (57)

i walk out into the brush

into a world not home

and there in the stream 

in the moon-bright sky

i look from mirror

to water to window

and the air

blurs what I see

when I read it blurs

everything i’ve read

and like memory it becomes

what I know now

what I knew then

the story is seen

as what it is

always present

always a lie

(April 25, 2020)

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Afterthought (a reading)

afterthought

from a work in progress: “process, not a journey” (56)

a residue lingers in air

it curls like cats purr

their self-absorbed song

between your feet

and the lies you stand upon

most days the end of the sentence

arrives long after your focus

has blurred and you’ve slipped

from the book stunned

by the light in the street

no one but you sees the rabbit

scurry down the hole

for like a wolf the brush devours

any trace of stillness that remains

between the bluebonnets and clover

these are your thoughts your dislocations

like a floral hint upon a breeze

they vanish as you turn lost

in the thought you lost in turn

(April 24, 2020)

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One Way or Another

from a work in progress: “process, not a journey” (58)

the day to day distorts

easier than cataclysm

they bend like fun house

mirrors a reflection

of a persistent truth

rather than shattered

into shards to slice

the skin into tatters

the blood seeps beneath

a blasted bit of bone

one seduces

like a lullaby

one 

a merciful kill

(April 29, 2020)

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my face blurs as well

from a work in progress: “process, not a journey” (57)

I walk out into the brush

into a world not home

and there in the stream 

in the moon-bright sky

I look form mirror

to water to window

and the air

blurs what I see

when I read it blurs

everything i’ve read

and like memory it becomes

what I know now

what I knew then

the story is seen

as what it is

always present

always a lie

(April 25, 2020)

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afterthought

from a work in progress: “process, not a journey” (56)

a residue lingers in the air

it curls like cats purr

their self-absorbed song

between your feet

and the lies you stand upon

.

most days the end of the sentence

arrives long after your focus

has blurred and you’ve slipped

from the book stunned

by the light in the street

.

no one but you sees the rabbit

scurry down the hole

for like a wolf the brush devours

any trace of stillness that remains

between the bluebonnets and clover

.

these are your thoughts your dislocations

like a floral hint upon a breeze

they vanish as you turn lost

in the thought you lost in turn

(April 24, 2020)

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spectacles

from a work in progress: “process, not a journey” (55)

to see clearly I look

through lenses

made and adjusted

over time as my vision

grew worse

I understand to see

I must cast off

all perceptions

accumulated

within my cliches

like now as i remove

my glasses

and rub

my dim eyes

(April 19, 2020)

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futility’s song

Everything we do is futile, but we must do it anyway.

—Mahatma Gandhi

she dances

casting off ghosts

like skin

she has no bones

no laughter

to lace

the pettiness

tossed on her

like shrouds

to disguise the decay

she avoids

yet accepts

.

she dances

as her feet shuffle

a stolid beat

to disrupt silence’s

desolate

reign

she has no words

to mouth

against herself

no cloak

against the coldest

wind

(April 17, 2020)

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radius

The eye is the first circle; the horizon which it forms is the second; and throughout nature this primary figure is repeated with end.

–Ralph Waldo Emerson, Circles

I do not know where I am

nor by extraction where you

are in relation to me

other than someone else

.

when I look at you you become

the object of my sentence

a reference toward action

that is wholly defined in me

.

my eye contains the complexity

deep within the oyster’s pearl

layer upon layer’s luster

shines with time’s light

.

an accumulation of vision’s

blind devotion to itself

(April 14, 2020)

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to define is to limit

poetry is nothing

poetry is everything

poetry is thought

poetry is words

poetry is silence

poetry is emotion

poetry is gibberish

poetry is vague

poetry is ambiguous

poetry is precise

poetry is concise

poetry is babble

poetry is light

poetry is dark

poetry is mind

poetry is heart

poetry is hidden

poetry is everywhere

poetry is pervasive

poetry is absence

poetry is laughter

poetry is tears

poetry is love

poetry is hate

poetry is simple

.

poetry is nothing

poetry is everything

poetry is metaphor

poetry is plain

poetry is complex

poetry is slant

poetry is curved

poetry is bent

poetry is straight

poetry is cubed

poetry is convex

poetry is obtuse

poetry is infinite

poetry is hermeneutic

poetry is occult

poetry is transcendent

poetry is god

poetry is zen

poetry is buddha

poetry is Christ

poetry is religion

poetry is atheist

poetry is glib

poetry is serious

poetry is dirt

.

poetry is nothing

poetry is everything

poetry is earth

poetry is air

poetry is fire

poetry is water

poetry is elemental

poetry is irrelevant

poetry is submission

poetry is dominance

poetry is coy

poetry is rude

poetry is blatant

poetry is obvious

poetry is obscure

poetry is orgasmic

poetry is impotent

poetry is sex

poetry is flirtation

poetry is destruction

poetry is resurrection

poetry is creation

poetry is filth

poetry is shit

poetry is dust

.

poetry is nothing

poetry is everything

poetry is breath

poetry is death

poetry is ice

poetry is tongue

poetry is bowels

poetry is piss

poetry is you

poetry is me

poetry is us

poetry is other

poetry is privilege

poetry is poverty

poetry is gender

poetry is genderless

poetry is cadence

poetry is dissonance

poetry is power

poetry is gravity

poetry is nature

poetry is voice

poetry is spit

poetry is sight

poetry is blind

(April 11, 2020)

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the lethargic day’s disquietude

from a work in progress: “process, not a journey” (50)

time does not flow forward it folds and turns

as mind rattles from thought to thought like rain

drops into puddles making the water

wetter as it vanishes from itself

.

the flow turns inward like the subduction

of one tectonic plate to another

it circles back in an eddy’s slow twirl

until its start is lost within its end

.

time takes its time to tell what time it is

what with the past’s present nature

contending with the present’s obsession

with tomorrow’s constant unravelling

.

then quite suddenly it’s no longer there

like your last stagnant puff of fetid air

(April 9, 2020)

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gently down the stream

from a work in progress: “process, not a journey” (49)

our lives changed

around him

the first born

.

that summer he turned one

I read dante and the moderns

for grad school

.

at night I’d rock him singing

row row row your boat

until he’d drift to sleep

.

now he has a child

and that summer

floats away into dream

.

like a mountain river

we happily crossed

splashing in the sun

(April 7 2020)

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Dream Journal 37: He Woke to a Memory Which Only Happened in Metaphor

As they walked, she spoke and collected items she saw along the trail. A kind of reverse Hansel and Gretel: instead of finding her way back by dropping bread crumbs, she wanted to become lost, and collected markers which would have shown their way home.  Finally, she asked if he would read a draft of something she wrote. He disliked reading friend’s work (it was all too intimate: entering another’s mind), but he said for her he would. He lay down on the soft grass, entranced by her voice. She told a story as she placed the objects she had found (an acorn, a feather, a stone, a dead butterfly, a ribbon) in a shallow hole next to where he lay. After a while, he sat up and glanced at the objects in the hole. He said, it’s like a witch’s ingle. She laughed gently, and began to loosely tie his hands with the ribbon as she finished her story. He watched her dark eyes focus on the task, becoming lost in their intensity. When she was done, she said to him, now you’re supposed to untie yourself, and become free. He said, one would first have to want to be free. With nothing more to say, she walked away leaving him in the woods.

(April 1, 2020)

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ongoing

from a work in progress: “process, not a journey” (45)

the field is a smooth green

small lines define

the gain and the loss

.

there is no loss

there is no gain

we are there

.

flowers and flowers

dance in decay

no daffodils today

.

he sighs and wanders

along his way another day

another day

.

time is the construct

the die never falls

it just falls

(March 27, 2020)

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spin again

from a work in progress: “process, not a journey” (44)

the ball clacks

from red to black

a cord turns

this way then that

.

they say yes they

say no as if

saying makes it so

.

it’s certainly true

he held out his hand

such a simple man

while her fingers

traced along a wall

wanting nothing

nothing at all

.

then they turn again

loops through loops

doubled and troubled

a move to the left

a move to the right

chains held them o so tight

.

this is our day

one more song

and one last wrong

(March 26, 2020)

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Writing About Writing My Work in Progress

I read this morning that Hemingway said that better writers didn’t talk about their writing; I think it is often important to reflect on what one is doing as one writes: metacognition to use education jabber. So, fuck off Ernie.

I started a serial poem back at the beginning of January. The plan was to write 140 poems, each poem’s length is pre-determined by a random number generator, ranging from 3-140 syllables. It was to follow vaguely the rules of a renga, where each poem grew out of the one before it somehow, weather through theme, pun, image, or a reply. The number of poems was determined by the number of syllables in a sonnet. 

I have come to the end of the first “stanza” section—40 poems. The last poem in the section #40, ‘rhymes’ with (39), (20), and (1); as (10) and (30) ‘rhyme—in an attempt to create an overall section unity. I will now begin to move forward with the second ‘stanza’ while collecting and tightening section 1, in hopes that as I reread and work over section 1, the themes and ideas that emerged in section one will echo and grow organically in section two: a conversation between sections one and two, if you will, as section two talks to itself.

Well, it keeps me something to do, and think about if nothing else.

(March 22, 2020)

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winter’s end

from a work-in-progress: process, not a journey (40)

blue bonnets bloom in the backyard

as a new plague floods the city

fear all that has changed enough

to become a normal day yet forget

what patterns have been replaced

by emptiness reweaving a past

which should have existed like flowers

found pressed between the pages

of a favorite book marking the poem

you read to me when we were in love

instead of these tattered nets I mend

as best I can from wisps of memory

in the hope a better world will blossom

like the wild flowers in the backyard

(March 20, 2020)

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one

from a work-in-progress: process, not a journey (37)

for years years ago

I thought about amoebas

.

how I wanted a metaphor

which would work well

.

with the amoeba image

to surround and absorb

.

until there was no difference

to contrast a comparison

.

no space between to slip

a prosaic definition

.

where on wanders safely

through dusted hallways

.

and life’s sharp ambiguity

blends into one

(March 16, 2020)

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excise

from a work-in-progress: process, not a journey (36)

I like the silence of morning the slow hum

of the refrigerator from the kitchen

the soft purr of the cat curling around me

as I wait for the coffee pot to finish 

it is there beneath all of these sundry sounds

that the true weight of silence can be measured

as each strain’s lifted from the cacophony

and there’s nothing left but the strum of our blood

(March 11, 2020)

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“Rock Rock Rock Rock and Roll High School”

“My life could have turned out differently, but it didn’t.”

                  –Jim Harrison

“I live with my contradictions intact”

         –David Ignatow

“I’ve got to lose this skin I’m imprisoned in”

                  –The Clash 

“Didn’t nobody seem to know me, babe, everybody pass me by”

                  –Robert Johnson

It is easy to trace the twisted path which led me to where I am; however, it is a bit more difficult to see where I am going next. 

An obnoxious student asked me last week, in regards to this assignment, what my “rock” was. In my usual evasive fashion, I responded, “You are” meaning all of them, my students were my rock. However, even though I enjoy teaching most of the time, when I think of why I do what I do, or rather who I am, I don’t think about teaching. I have several roles I have taken on over the years: husband, father, friend, teacher, student, doctoral student, writer, poet, fool. I don’t think I am a Prufrock, yet, sometimes I feel as if I am no more than a sad man walking along the beach with my trousers rolled. Having a meaning or purpose, it is often said, leads to a happy (ier) life. With that in mind I guess, I would say that teaching gives me some of my purpose, and poetry gives it meaning, or helps me to create a meaning, to create sense out of chaotic universe.

Recently a friend wrote that she had a hard time calling herself a writer, even though I know she writes and writes well. A few years ago, a woman at the first meeting of a poetry group said she did not feel as if she could call herself a poet. I had just said as part of my introduction of myself that I had considered myself a poet since I was fifteen.  She seemed shocked that I would have the audacity to call myself a poet.  This inability to call oneself what one does came up again in another conversation between teachers. One man said that it felt somehow pretentious to call oneself a poet or a writer.  I asked the group how was it any more pretentious to say you were a poet than to say you were a teacher. To me it seemed more pretentious to lay claim to that title, to say, “I am a teacher.” I mean Jesus was a teacher. Who the hell am I? But I have over time become used to being called arrogant, so I guess that is why I have an easy time saying:  I am both: a teacher and a poet.  I don’t claim to be very good at either one, but I am both. Charles Bernstein said that if one says it is a poem, then it is a poem. No claims to quality, but it is a poem.  I am a poet.  I sit down with the intention of writing a poem.  I think about each line, the rhythm, the sounds of the words in relation to the other words, the phrasing, where I can cut and reduce, where something else needs to be added. I use poetry as a way of making sense of myself and the world I find myself in. As I have said elsewhere, poetry (both reading and writing it) helps keep the horrors of the world away and a way to find beauty everywhere and in everyone. I have consciously written poetry since I was fifteen; with luck, I will continue to do so the rest of my life. I am a poet.

Of course, I am also a teacher. If some magical seer had appeared to me when I was a 17-year-old senior, and told me that I would be a teacher for more than 30 years, I would have laughed out loud just before dying in horror. Yet, here I am working at one of the best high schools in Texas as the senior APLit teacher. Sartre famously wrote about a waiter at a Parisian café. The waiter, according to Sartre, is only a waiter when he is performing as a waiter. So, following that train of thought, I am only a teacher when I am at work talking to my students. I rarely think about being a teacher. It is still, after more than 30 years, difficult to think about me being a teacher.  I suppose my life as a teacher would be inauthentic since I don’t think about why I do this beyond making enough to feed my children, pay the mortgage, and send them off to college. Yet, in some small way I like to believe that what I do matters, even though I know it probably doesn’t. 

Maya Angelou said you remember how people made you feel, not what you learned. I think that is why when my former students run into me at HEB, or they come back to visit, they remember my class fondly. A few weeks ago, I was having a beer with a friend when I man in his thirties approached and asked if I was Mr. Neal, as if he were a process server for some lawsuit. It was odd to say the least. When I answered yes, he told me that he had been in my class when he was an eighth-grade student at Pflugerville Middle School. He said he heard my voice, and knew it was me. He remembered “The Road Not Taken.” (I used to have my students memorize poems). He said the first few lines. He said that had been his best English class, which I found embarrassing and kind of sad—his best English class was as an eighth grader. 

I am not retelling this event as an attempt at self-aggrandizement, but to show how one’s self-identity is often much different than how the world sees you.  I am always uncomfortable when people try to define me to me. I find their descriptions to be too pat, too much mired in the cliché, too many wrong associations. I am a teacher, and I feel in some small way I am helping create a better world with my students; yet, I never really know what it is I am doing. 

In a faculty meeting, several times, I have stated I don’t have any idea what my students are taking away from my class. In an age of standardized testing, to say I don’t know what my students learn in my class is tantamount to heresy. I don’t mean I don’t know what it is I am doing in class; I just don’t know what it is they are learning. And I certainly don’t see them as the number they receive on standardize tests.  I have had students tell me years after being in my class what they remember. It is always surprising to me what they found valuable, because it is never really what the objectives were in the class. 

When people ask what it is I teach, they mean what books are we reading. They seem confused when I talk about my students. My students are what (who) I teach. Books, poems, essays, are just the ephemera of my class. The tools that are employed in the teaching. About 15 years ago, I would respond glibly to my fellow teachers when I was asked what I was teaching that six weeks with “Nothing.” My students read what they wanted to read, and for the most part wrote what they wanted to write. I ran my class as a reading/writing workshop. The district where I worked claimed that ELA did workshop k-12, yet I was the only teacher in my high school who did. So it often took several weeks to teach the students how to read on their own, to have the stamina to read for 20 minutes without interruption. So, one day after the students were fairly proficient at the process, I was sitting on the floor in the doorway to my class. I was monitoring the students who read in the hall, and the ones who stayed in my classroom. A history teacher walked by and said snarkily, “I wish I could not teach, and sit around all day and just read.” My students were on the verge of rising up against her, when I mumbled (they had learned to understand my mumbling at that point as well)—I mumbled in response to her, “One would have to know how to read first.’ She walked on, not hearing what it was I had said, and the students laughed as they settled back into their books. I developed a reputation with the faculty pretty much as a smart-ass. Not that they were wrong, but I interpreted what they saw as smart-assness, as more of a way not to scream expletives at them. I refused to accept their definition of what it meant to be a teacher. I created my own definition. Even if some of that definition was simply a defiant rebellion against my fellow teachers.

I do think a lot about what I am doing both as a teacher and writer. So, I imagine I am attempting to be authentic in what I am doing. I question whether my praxis (my beliefs correspond with my actions) is authentic..not just me going with the flow because that is the easy way to go about life. As I said earlier, I am never sure if what I do is effective or worth doing at all. I will fluctuate between thinking I am a decent teacher, or writer, to thinking I am a fraud, fooling everyone, even myself. 

And that is the point I think of life: to try to be brutally honest with oneself, to never settle back and assume you know what it is all about, because one can never know. Which is not to say that we should not try to understand our lives, we should always be trying, even if we know we shall never know. Embrace the vast absurdity of the universe with a passionate intensity, not matter how pointless. It is the process and the awareness of the life you are living that makes the life have meaning and be worth living.

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Three poems

from a work in progress, “process, not a journey” (33-35)

resonance

the cold rail vibrates

beneath his hand

.

It’s inevitable

he stands and waits

.

Time Enough

patience sips her tea

as she watches

the bees flit and hover

among the roses in her garden

.

a breeze shifts the leaves

to the left and right

.

as above so below

morning breaks

pink and blue

beneath the ragged clouds

as the wind chime

in the chase tree

ripples through the yard

(March 6, 2020)

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What Each Transition Leaves Behind

He entered the water,

and drowned.

She entered the earth,

and decayed.

He entered the fire,

and was consumed.

She simply vanished

into the air.

Between her words

and the sediments

of his desires,

they were transformed,

becoming more the other

and less themselves.

Like beasts who love

in shadow’s spheres,

they entered metaphor,

and returned home.

(March 5, 2020)

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politics of fear

from a work in progress: “process, not a journey” (33)

as i drive to work each day

at eighty miles per hour i slip

between concrete meridians

and rattling White Freight Liners

the eighteen wheelers heave

and pitch in the next lane

like fat cattlemen at an auction

on the radio news of war

and poverty of graft and greed

play out like melodramas

without an easy denouement

the girl remains on the tracks

the train bears down the villian

laughs world without end

among the grass beside the road

my ghosts slowly sing in whispers

this is the time we have become

this is our time to overcome

(March 4, 2020)

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Drama-Drama Mama Gets Dramatic Instead of Writing a Poem

they said, then she said, and can you believe 

it that this happened, then that happened too,

and I said that she should say, but then she 

went and said that this was just way too much 

to stand, much less believe like Santa Claus;

I am so upset that I stabbed myself

with my pen, and wondered if I would die:

but first answer me this: “if you’re tattooed

on your lip, do you have to hold the lip

the whole time, or do they do that for you?”

as she stared into space holding her lip 

lost in the quandaries of everything 

not involved with the task which was right there,                                                

and not there like an answered Zen koan.

(February 28, 2020)

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as if he must explain

from a work in progress: “process, not a journey” (31)

after dad died

I would wear his shirts

they were too large

for my adolescent body

.

thin wisps of skin 

like spider’s silk

drift in the wind

.

each new mask adhered

to and was shaped by

the one that came before

.

my feet are numb now

as if on fire

.

as the ground slips away

I grasp for space

.

I don’t know how I got here

or where I’m coming from

I’m tired and out of breath

I need to sit down 

.

when asked I don’t know

who I am or where

.

I think of my father

and how he died gasping

for air drowning in phlegm

.

and my collar grows tight

.

(February 24, 2020)

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time enough to establish an alibi

from a work in progress: “process, not a journey” (30)

in the interim silence

he waited

as if the inevitable

were inevitable

.

this ritual opened a space

easy enough

to occupy because expected

even allowed

.

he could feel safe

for the time it took

to take 

what bit of dominion

was left to him

what scrap of language

he cold manifest

as a disguise

(February 24, 2020)

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I say

from a work in progress: “process, not a journey” (29)

this is me

these words define

my perception

like skin

.

a vague edge

between

what I hear

and what I say

.

if I peel

apart

the wet layers

I find nothing

.

beyond regret

self-flagellation

embarrassment

psychic decay

.

this is me

a bleeding scab of words

clot across my tongue

like worn rags

(February 20,2020)