All The Questions Behind Our Masks

If you could hear my voice,
would you know who I am?
If you could see only my eyes,
would you just shrug and move on?
You, who notice so much, how would
I stand or walk or scratch
my nose that’d signal I’m
the one standing before you?

I only ask because years and tears
take their tolls, and to chase life,
we now wear masks to jump the stiles.
Would I recognize you, if you
covered half your face?
Your smile, once so infectious,
would retain some anonymity
and protection from me, though
your laugh might break through
as if shrouded only by Salome’s
diaphanous veils.

Would I recognize those pools
of sadness or of anger cascading
over your protective wall, as well
as your mask? It doesn’t matter.
Apart is our part in how life goes on,
and happy face to face need only
happen where there are no masks
and distance is dissolved in time
and the dark mask-drop of dreams.

Engraved In the Alloys of Praise

It’s not that I sought my name on the wall,
yet seeking it was what I found myself doing
one afternoon. I just never sought my name
on the wall while I was doing what allegedly put it there.
I’m just past the middle of the big varnished board,
in the school entrance hall, gold letters engraved
in now-tarnishing brass. And while I’m surrounded
by others who didn’t seek praise, to me,
their names shine brighter than mine.
At home I have more planks on my wall, each with
my name spelled correctly on their plates of praise.
I don’t look at them much. They’re just part of the wall
on most days, covering nail holes that’ll need replastering.
Though, yes, I am honored somebody thought enough
of something I did to recognize it one night
with a nice piece of wall decor.

I’ve learned that this hardware kind of praise is a lot like
somebody’s wake when they die.
More for the living than the dead.
More for that moment of giving than the day after receiving.
More for the engraving than the dusting off.
Better remembered for the day you crushed your thumb
with a hammer than on the day they take your name down.
You cannot capture praise in an alloy of copper and zinc.
Praise is an expression of the moment, an alloy of love
and respect. It’s the warmth of a hand on the shoulder,
the melding of my fist with yours, a hug.
Brass accepts heat like that, too. But it gets cold faster.
You can’t hang a hug on the wall, though. Much the pity.

On this rainy last day of NaPoWriMo Poem-a-Day April 2020, I was tasked with writing a “praise” poem.  All hail to the poets who brought so many poems to ground over the past 30 days. I’d give you all a hug, but you’ll have to settle for this room temperature video screen. 

The Way of The World

My way out ahead is so, so foggy,
in a handful of steps I might meet a wall.
But, my steps these days are so, so wobbly,
before I hit any bricks, I’d probably fall.

Yet behind me, the path is no clearer,
blurred by time, broken walls, and ghosts of sighs.
Backward’s too much like a look in a mirror,
It’s fogged, too, but mostly by all my lies.

So what do I do? Look forward or back?
Seems each way is its own bad direction.
I guess I could stand here with my jaw slack,
and claim I’ve reined in for some reflection.

But I know the truth. Maybe you do, too.
Life’s just a foggy game of hide and seek.
If you must move on, here’s advice for you:
The Way ain’t forward or back. It’s oblique.

Day 28 of NaPoWriMo/Poem-a-Day called for a “look back” or “don’t look back” poem. I kind of chose both.

Lavabo Inter Innocentes Manus Meas

I believe I had it a few weeks ago,
but I’m never really sure.
On a good day, control’s a slippery thing
that’ll squirt from my hands as if
they’re covered with soap suds.
I hate this feeling; it’s akin
to my senior moments, when I walk
into a room and forget why I did.
Did I ever have it?
I’m certain of one thing, though:
doing everything I can to stay alive
and, by that same token, keep you well.
But, if you can’t control yourself
and this all goes to hell…
at least I know MY hands are clean.

So much of the poetry being written every day during National Poetry Writing Month’s various poem-a-day efforts is centered around the coronavirus pandemic. And why shouldn’t it be? The damn thing is wresting our normal lives from our hands. And yes, we are doing what we can to stay uninfected. A poet, though, has the ability to build a moment of control while he or she is composing whatever it is they’re writing. (Unless the phone rings, the wind knocks a branch down on your roof or a meteorite takes out the State of Florida.)

Oh, and before I forget, the title of this piece comes from the Latin prayer the priest would recite while washing his hands when I was a wee altar boy back during the Dark Ages at St. Patrick’s in Albany. (But I’ll bet you could guess I’ve always been an altar boy, couldn’t you?) The translation to English is: “I will wash my hands among the innocent.” I thought it a good fit.

The Guitar Who Forgot How To Play

Over in the corner she stands,
the guitar who forgot how to play.
Back when I still could bend my hands,
we’d play each and every day.

Now all she does the year ‘round
is keep dust from hitting the floor.
That’s a burden to bear heavier than it sounds.
and I can’t bear the burden of not hearing her anymore.

So I’ll sit her curves upon my knee,
take her in hand and disregard the pain.
Strum her strings to see if she’ll sing to me.
Perhaps we’ll make beautiful music together again.

Ouch, that hurts my hands as well as my old ears.
Looks like she’s lost it, I have to say.
But I’ll never give her up, not in a million years.
We’ll find a way, me and my guitar who forgot how to play.

On Day 10 of Poem-A-Day April 2020, a poem that uses a fill-in-the-blanks title: “The (something) Who (something else).” There are days this is a true story, I’m afraid. And that really hurts when I’m so lost all I can do is write in rhyme. That’s almost as painful as trying to pluck some strings of grab any chord, let alone an F or Bm.

Dance Partners

I have an idea of what out there lies,
more so in the distance than in the near.
C’mon. we all know everybody dies,
Maybe that’s why some face it without fear.

See, ideally folks may get years four score,
so you have a decent time to prepare.
But long walks to get that knock at the door
you won’t get when death comes out of nowhere.

Some get lucky with their lengthy shelf lives,
while others don’t get to know know what hit them.
I’ll leave the future to the worrying old wives
and try to dance to this minute’s rhythm.

Sure I trip over my clumsy left feet,
but at my age I can’t really see ‘em.
Someday we’ll fall and our maker we’ll greet,
maybe not while we hold onto today. Carpe Diem.

Okay, I missed a day, so my poem-a-day run got busted. But life happens and you’ve got to pick yourself up and start dancing again in uh-one, uh-two, uh-three. So here’s a combo platter of Day’s 7 and 8: a lucky/unlucky poem and a future poem. Yes, it is steeped in a taste of mortali-tea, but what these days isn’t? And yes, it mostly rhymes, but life’s ALWAYS been too short to sweat my silly artistic pride.

It’s Making Me Sick

I’ve reached that age where things start going south,
at each doc’s visit I say “You’re kidd’n’ me.”
I think, after she checks my ears and mouth,
“What this time? BP, Prostate or Kidney?”

But those are already on my long list,
and we’re trying hard to get them off it.
When they find something new, I try not being pissed,
but medicine’s become for-profit.

What if I get that corona disease?
It can be deadly for old guys like me.
Copays and premiums, all rising fees,
if you think they’ll go down, that’s unlikely.

My Doc means well, she keeps me upright.
It’s the med bills make me feel sick and uptight.

Who’s The Man?

“Where the hell’s Rosalie?” Pat Bowman asked as he peered over his son Mark’s shoulder toward the front door.

“She was here this morning, Dad,” Mark said with a sigh. He sighed a lot these days, though he tried not to.

“Wasn’t that Becca?” Pat said. 

“Well, yeah. Becca was here, too. A little while ago. Rosalie came this morning, though.”

“I would’ve sworn…” Pat’s attention refocused on the television.

“She’s the one who came earlier, Dad. Trust me.” Mark decided to hold his big inhale this time. Sighing didn’t make Mark feel any better about his father or his own role as Pat’s health proxy and primary caregiver.

Besides, what good would sighing now do? The doctors and therapists explained to him how his father’s condition would become frustrating. Then would come the hard part. Mark closed his eyes and tried not to think of what the hard part would be like in light of the past three months.

“Who the hell thought this stupid ostrich was a good idea to sell insurance,” his father, a retired business executive, said. 

“It’s an emu, Dad. But you’re right. It sucks. Annoying as hell.”

“Stupid fucking bird. Assholes must think we’re idiots. If some ad man brought me this concept I’d throw him out the window. See if he could fly as well as some damn ostrich.”

“Relax, Dad. It’s only a commercial.” Mark was seeing more of these tirades all the time. And they hurt.

He recalled how when they were kids, his sisters Rosalie and Rebecca and he couldn’t go to sleep without listening to their father tell them a silly story.  Never the same one, unless they asked for one. Pat Bowman put the “gentle” in “gentleman.”

Mark thought of the time back at Yale when he the cops hauled him in after trying to score some weed off an undercover. Pat drove from Albany to New Haven in a blizzard to bail Mark out and drive him home. Not once did he raise his voice or issue a profanity. Not one “damn,” let alone a “fuck.”

“You’re better than this, Mark. You know the difference between right and wrong, and the law says what you were trying to do is wrong,” Pat said. 

“It’s a stupid law, Dad. But, yeah. Sorry. I fucked up,” Mark said, his chin to his chest as he stared at the floor board.

“Careful of your language, Mark. Words have power I don’t think you fully understand yet. How you use them communicate as much as what you’re trying to say. I tried my whole life to set a good example for you. Maybe I slipped up — slipped up — somewhere. Always remember, you’re my main man, pal. When I go, I want to say ‘My boy Mark is The Man.’ Not ‘The *blanking* Man. MY Man.”

And so he was.

Mark’s mouth twisted into something between a grin and a grimace thinking of that night. “MY Man.”

“When the hell is Rosalie coming? Was that a car?” Pat said, trying to rise.

“Sit! Yep, It’s Rosalie,” Mark said with touch of relief.

“Hi, Mark. You get some rest. Hi, Dad,” Rosalie said as she breezed into the living room.

“Thanks, Ro. Later, Dad.” Mark said, and kissed his father’s forehead.

“So, is there anything I can do for you, Dad? Need a drink, something to eat?” Rosalie said. Just so she knew she’d have his attention, Rosalie stepped between her father and the television screen.

“Yeah, get outta the way. And can you tell me who that guy was who just left?”

This is a larger version of a 250-word story I wrote (Yes, I WROTE!) Thursday in response to Siobhan Muir’s Thursday Threads  flash fiction mini-competition. It was probably better at 250. Somehow, though, my piece won. Never ceases to floor me when one of my simplistic, minimalist stories garners some bit of approbation. It’s humbling and encouraging. Those are two ingredients any writer needs to make his or her next bit of creative sustenance. 

The Forgotten Man

I am the forgotten man,
forgotten by you and you
and, if I’m not mistaken, by you.
(You know who you are.)
But that’s okay. I’ve forgotten
some of you, as well. It’s
something that happens when
we get older and too long hide
behind walls and in our depressions.
I’ve already lost the memory picture
of my grandparents. And recently,
I lost high school, like it’d been
razed and buried with all my memories
in it. I tossed my yearbooks
in the grave with it.
I like my memory of you, though.
I’m sure it’s mistaken and certainly
isn’t the you you are now.
Which is fine. We all change.
Like this morning, I looked
in the mirror and didn’t recognize
that guy staring into the windows
of my soul through this window
of sad truth. I turned off
the light and we each walked away,
as I heard someone say,
“Forget him.”

Hamlet and Prufrock Walk into a Peach Orchard…

My life’s grasp seldom exceeded its reach.
Most often it brought back nothing but air.
If I’d grasped it, I’d have eaten that peach,
but I’d not get a taste unless I’d dare.

Those times I stretched beyond my fingers’ tips,
you would just laugh and skip away a pace.
And so your flavor never graced these lips,
even when you’d skip back to tease my face.

I know it’s for the best I always failed,
except for these times my words caught your ear.
Like Prufrock’s Love Song, they’ll never be hailed.
I just wonder if I’ve made myself clear.

I’d still eat that peach, I’ve never forgotten,
It’s just overripe. I’ve become rotten.

Ugh. Sorry. For two years, chronic crippling depression has rotted the creative core of this once-prolific and not-half-bad writer. Whatever gifts I had, today present as useless mush. If I don’t get squared away soon, I fear you’re destined for more shoe-bottom sludge like this…or nothing. If I were you, I’d opt for the latter. Still grinding away, though. For me. For now… ~ JH