Lying Upon a Bed of Nails

I tend not to dream and I awaken
long before the alarm does.
The music I don’t wish to hear
again plays and there
you stand smiling above me.
My subconscious pulls the covers
off me, leaving me awash
in thoughts into which I’d prefer
not to wade. They often
keep me awake on the other side
of each night’s ford across
the river to tomorrow.
They pull me out and wrap me
in a different kind of blanket,
one of your knitting and my
weak attempts at rending.
It’s not that I don’t wish
to surround myself with those
soft thoughts of impossibility.
I’d prefer their comfort as I stare
at the ceiling from this bed of nails
I built and continue to lie upon.
Just like I’m lying awake again.
Lying alone. Lying here. Lying now.
Lying to you. Lying to myself…
Supine upon every lie I drove.

I Was Just Thinking…Making Us Better

When I was a kid, my mom would walk me from our flat on Bradford Street down to Dr. Jack’s brownstone office on the border of Albany’s Washington Park. Even now I can recall the giant yellow pine blocks, smoothed to a semi-gloss sheen over the years by innumerable toddlers’ hands. I’d pull them from the corner toy box to build grand castles and forts there in his rubbing alcohol-redolent waiting room.

But beyond those tactile and olfactory memories, I remember the vaccination shots he’d give me for any number of kids’ diseases, most especially that polio shot. But I don’t remember Mom paying anyone any money, which in our house was usually as scarce as enough real beds for everyone to have his own. But Dr. Jack must have gotten paid his couple of bucks because he didn’t hesitate to drive to our house and give me another shot when I got really sick one snowy Saturday.

When I got older, I had to visit the County Health Building in the big parking lot on Pearl Street, at the bottom of Morton Avenue, in the down-sliding neighborhood that once served as the pastures for Albany’s buckle-shoed, ruminant-owning swells and a chicken sufficed as a co-pay. I remember seeing all the little brown and black kids sitting with their moms and grandmas, waiting to get their shots. It never occurred to me if they had to pay for their pointed opportunities to avoid the kind of childhood diseases I did.

It wasn’t until I had to dig into my own pocket for a visit to the doctor, ponying up some cash for necessary medication, paying the hospital for sewing up another of my skull’s collisions with reality or saving my life when an asthma attack almost removed me from it, that I realized what a blessing and burden is the quid pro quo for some sawbones to exercise their Hippocratic Oaths.

These memories of those long-past times don’t surface very often. In fact, I’d forgotten them, even when, check in hand, I brought our girls to their pediatrician for all their shots. Even when my own health speed bumps brought me enough pause for thought. Even as I bumped up against mortality and Medicare.

That was, until this week, as I watched the proceedings of the United States Senate in attempting to dump and probably not even replace the law established to help people get healthy without having to give up not only a chicken, but the whole damn farm. It forced me to scour my recollection-seeping mind to recall the history I share with America’s post-World War Two healthcare system.

In my life, I’ve seen kids in leg braces and iron lungs, draped in pox scars and being born without limbs because their pregnant mom took a medication to help her get over morning sickness. I’ve known kids with cancer who now are grandparents like me. I’ve seen the advent of machines that will keep you alive until modern science, magic and prayer can get you better. And I’ve given the nod to turn them off.

These days, I see how much of my meager assets I spend on keeping a pretty healthy family pretty healthy and wonder how those little girls in the County Health Office and the little boys up in the St. Regis Mohawk Reservation waiting on their free vaccinations managed to do that in their lives. And, yeah, I know I’m paying for some of that, but I know that now they can have the health insurance they never could before if they ever need it. It’s not their fault it costs so damn much. It’s the system’s.

It’s a system that’s grown as creaky, expensive and imperfect as I have in sixty-odd years and I’d like to see both of us healthier before I have to bid you all goodbye. But I’d never ask my family to kill me first in order to cure me. And that’s not me talking the dreaded P word—Politics. Just some old guy’s sore back, shaking hands, stiff-walled heart still pushing what few undiluted drops remain of his human decency and common sense.

I ramble, therefore I am. A true change of pace. But I’ve paid my dues for this pulpit and sickbed. Thank God I’m an American who’s free to express myself here and who’s lived long enough to see how we as a nation can make bad things get better. But I also know that’s if we all get pointed in roughly the same direction, and to accomplish that we’ll have to accept the individual and communal guidance of “the better angels of our nature.” 

Just a Lump of Clay

I was once a writer,
but I’m really just
another lump of clay
waiting for the next
poke of Nature or Man
to knead me into
something new.
Was this need to shape
lives from words another
of my passing fancies?
Like living, a pastime
from when you open
your eyes to when they
close them for you?
Sorry if this shape
wasn’t all you hoped,
because pleasing you
always had more urgency
than bleeding on a page.
Not sure why this
hurts so much. After all
I’m only a lump of clay,
and this just one more
smudge of my passing.

Like Carl Sandburg’s Hair

Edward Jean Steichen, Carl Sandburg, photographic montage, 1936. © Joanna T. Steichen – National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution

I wish I had hair like Carl Sandburg,
silver and smooth, with a near-center part
from which would curl horns of cool
hirsute parentheses that would occasionally
encapsulate the brown and gold irises
of my poetic vision.

I wouldn’t like hair like Walt Whitman
or even Ezra Pound, though, all kind of
wind-wild and wiry. Sure, damned
arty-looking, best kept under wide-brimmed
slouches, but probably troublesome
containing beneath a baseball cap.

Robert Frost’s hair, silver like Carl’s
and mine, just seemed as weedy as
a New England pasture, unfettered by
the neighborly fence of brush or comb.
Emily’s, while smooth as a Berkshire pond,
never made it to silver.

I didn’t slick it back like Stafford when
I had enough to slick, nor even now when
it borders the vacant shores of Lake Roethke.
No, I want Carl’s hair with its quotation mark
cowlicks speaking louder than little cat feet,
as big-shouldered American as the prairie.

Another Waste of Time

Sleep and lust once shared
with me this bed where I lay.
They were my youth’s balm,
my refuge, bedmate and love.
Now we are estranged,
Nights are but numbed-over Days.
Mirror images
reflecting dark dawn’s light
on old eyes that see
how Night and I have wasted
each other again.

Went back to the origins of my poetic life, writing of my wretched sleepless or fitful nights in links of haiku-like lines of five and seven syllables. Restful sleep has once again become my obsession and unattainable treasure. And whatever facilities I have to speak to you suffer from this loss. With this numbness I grow more mute and isolated by the day.

The Climb Left Me Breathless

Now I know. But I wish
I didn’t have to.
Then I’d be able to look down
that deep well of recollection
and enjoy seeing the reflection
of the guy I used to be.
Instead, I focus on the skin
of memories I scraped onto its walls
in my halting climb to today.
And as fallible, forlorn and
sore as that climb has made me,
seeing that hopeful face
staring back, framed by all those
slime-coated scars, breaks
what’s left of my heart.
Funny, even though I’m standing
here on the ground, peering into
this well feels like I’m looking
down from some mountain top.

That view of my yesterdays
often hits me like a gut-punch, 
taking my breath away.

I quickly wrote this poem in response to the prompt set in that photo at the top of the piece. It’s from my friend Sharyl Fuller’s Writing Outside the Lines Challenge.

Struck by Lightning

The power went out last night,
the only illumination,
until I found the flashlights
and lanterns, were the lights
flashing in the sky.
I asked, in vain, if we could
keep the emergency in-house
lights off so I could watch
the outside electrical ones.
I’m sure that sounded ridiculous
to someone who hasn’t spent nights
on the back porch trying not
to fall asleep as the gods
struck sparks across the sky
and Hendrick Hudson’s crew keggled
in booming strikes and spares.
So last night I took to the dark
back bedroom and marveled at
the light show and the shadows
of the trees dripping down the hill
like rainwater, not just for
its natural majesty, but also for
the power it turned on to make me feel
like a twelve-year-old again.

As Far As I Can See

Dewdrop diamonds glitter
in the brush of a lawn that
gave up its grass majority years ago.
But it’s greener than ever.
As far as I can see.
The housetops across the road
wear halos brassy as church bells
this Sunday dawn. The sun’s probably
as bright as it was when I was a kid,
but I can’t say that for a fact.
Now it filters into my eyes past
progressive lenses, gestating cataracts
and glaucoma’s shrinking field
of left-right and up-down.
But I notice so much more of its
intrinsic glory now then I did then.
It means more to me now, as I write
each day’s biography from my obsolescent
point of view. Probably why I wake
so early and go to sleep so late.
Sight might be leaving me with each
sunset, but more vision comes with
the next dawn.
As far as I can see.

Asking for Directions

Robert Earl Keen tells me
the road goes on forever
and the party never ends.
But sometimes you reach
a crossroads, or a fork
in your life’s road.
And if you have no map,
or go off the reservation,
you could take a wrong turn,
if there’s such a thing
as “wrong” on your journey.
I only know I never could
remember the way back
from those corners I cut
when I left the path
others set for me.
But these latter days, as I
grow old on the trail,
no matter which way I turn,
I see nothing but dead ends
and I’m not ready to stop.
So that’s why I’m asking you,
since you’re still running
and look like you’re enjoying
your trip more than getting
to that dark place where
the exit signs are turned off,
“Which way to the party?”

With Stars in Our Eyes

I closed the book, put down the lighted magnifier and realized this might be the last one I’d ever read.

You think of these things when you’re going blind. And fast. Ischemic optic neuropathy is what the doctors called it. On top of that, I had something called low tension glaucoma, something the regular eye exams would never pick up.

They were something I’d had for decades as my eyesight deteriorated and the doctors just gave me stronger eyeglass prescriptions and the lame, “You’re getting older” jive.

“Another headache, Dave?” my wife Jen would ask.

“Yeah. Work’s just been a bitch and my sleeping has sucked.”

“When are you going to see a doctor about it?” Jen would always say.

“It’s okay, Jen. Just migraine or something. I’ll take an ibuprofen and it’ll be fine,” I’d reply. But then the ibu didn’t seem to hit it anymore and my peripheral vision seemed to be shrinking.

After I nearly rolled off the shoulder of the country road out near Oneonta, almost taking out a jogger, I decided I’d better see the doctor. But it was too late. The damage was done, my optic nerves were dying and the world was going dark faster than the onset of a January night. Only no dawn was riding to my visual rescue.

To her credit, even though I deserved it, Jen never pulled the “I told you so” card on me. She was calmer than I thought she would be, though in no way unsympathetic. She just was Jden, the woman I’d loved for over forty years.

She found me sitting in the dark, moping, feeling sorry for myself. I’d become your typical panicked patient. You begin groping even before everything goes dark, pondering how you’ll survive in the perpetual night coming in just a few months or even weeks.

“Hey, why so dark in here?” Jen said and flipped on the lights.

“I’m trying the future on for size. Now turn out the lights, Jen, and let me think, okay?”

“I wasn’t talking about the lights, Dave,” she said.

“Wouldn’t you be upset if you were me, Jen? Tell me you wouldn’t,” I said.

“I would be and I am, Dave. But sitting here silently raging in the dark isn’t going to change that. Now let’s talk about this some so we can figure out what we’re going to do when…you know.”

“Are you kidding?” I said, jumping up from my chair and moving toward her voice. I tripped over the ottoman and fell to the floor, banging my head and seeing flashes of light like I hadn’t seen in months.

“Dave, are you okay?” Jen said, hitting the light switch again and rushing to my side.

“See? See what an invalid I’m becoming? I’ll be nothing but a fucking burden on you and useless to myself and everyone else.”

She stood up and looked down at me. I could feel her eyes boring a hole through mine. I recognized that energy from all the other times I’d been a self-absorbed asshole with her.

I scrambled off the floor to the window, embarrassed for my whining outburst. I opened the curtains and looked into a darkness that might well be my view for the rest of my life.

“I can’t even see the stars anymore, Jen. Our stars, the one’s we’d stare at from the bed of my pickup when we were 17.”

“We can get through this, Dave. We’ve been through worse. What about my mastectomy? Fucking cancer and you never wavered in your devotion and care. You’d hold me every night, loving ME, not just some bra mannequin, as much in love as in the back of that pickup.”

“I’ll never see the kids faces anymore, never watch the grandkids grow up. And worst of all, I don’t know how I can take never seeing you again, Jen,” I said with a catch in my throat.

“I’m right here,’ she said, putting my hand to her face. “I’ve got your stars right here,’ Jen said, touching my fingers to her closed eyelids. “And I’ll keep them for you, let you hold them, bring you every bug or vista you’d ever want to see. That’s what we do, Dave. If you can’t see that, then you’re blind already.”

Slowly, her face so close to mine I could feel her eyelashes and a dampness on my cheek, everything became so clear, even with our eyes closed. So clear a blind man could see it. She’s beautiful, isn’t she?