A Clerihew? Who Knew?

David Bowie,
was dissatisfied with being born David Jones, so he
changed it for artistic purposes — no lunk, he.
Ziggy Stardust doesn’t happen if you keep your name like that Monkee.

John F. Kennedy
Wasn’t quite sure he had the remedy
To put the brakes on a ride to World War 3’s brink,
But Dr. Jack’s ballsy cure worked, because ’twas Khrushchev first to blink.

George Armstrong Custer
knew his troopers to victory he could muster
if it was he who always led the charge.
But his tactic never ran into an opponent four times as large.

King Richard, the Lionheart
left England, in a great Crusade to take part.
But while he was gone, his little brother, King John,
tripped over himself trying Richard’s too-big monarchy thing on.

Queen Marie Antoinette
abdicated her throne in the French Revolution, and yet
the mob wasn’t sated until they took her head
for insinuating starving people eat cake in lieu of bread.

Charles Dickens
knew his writing prospects would be slim pickin’s,
forcing each of his children to eat like a bird.
So, like Scrooge’s Christmas goose, his prose he often fluffed quite loose, since he got paid by the word.

Edmund Clerihew Bentley,
was a poet unafraid to invent, evidently,
a form combining biography and satire in rhyming verse.
At the first two I’m not bad, but the last I couldn’t be worse.

Joseph Andrew Hesch,
a writer turned to janky poet, I gesh,
When writers block brought his prose to an end,
an imaginary poet broke through, penning mushy verse to you, my make-believe friend.

Here’s a placeholder post until I can write something bigger for Day 14 of NaPoWrMo. In fact, these pieces, called clerihews, were prompted by NaPoWriMo.net A clerihew is a whimsical, four-line biographical poem invented by Edmund Clerihew Bentley. The first line is the name of the poem’s subject, usually a famous person put in an absurd light, or revealing something unknown and/or spurious about them.

House Rules

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They say history’s written by the victors
and justice is blind. But sometimes
the laurel-wreathed John Milton’s
who chronicle our times and decide
our fates just might be more
sneak-peeking carny clairvoyants
than the mighty marble men who stand
muscularly aloof as they look
“out there”
or down upon us with their colorless eyes.

They set the rules for this game
long before we were born,
sometimes tipping off a crony or
sonny boy to which of the three
flippity-flopped cards says
”We Win!” or “Get Out Of Jail Free.”
The groundlings and rubes of us
usually pick incorrectly, backing
the wrong side, choosing the wrong card.

Maybe we might get taken down for gambling,
or pulling a hand of aces and eights,
when all we did was answer the come-on
to invest our time and a penny
in their game of skill built more
upon their skill in The Game.
Prime Rule of playing The Game?
No matter who’s dealing, it’s
The House always wins.

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The studiously apolitical writer goes mildly political. I hope you know your street-corner card scams and Old West history. Understand, in my notebook-toting, cynical life, I’ve observed the political sausage made from both sides of the capitol walls and I’ve watched badges tarnish or shine even brighter in the flinching blink of a Jack’s eye.

I Dream of Riding the Treetops from Cahohatatea to Skahnéhtati on Butterfly Wings

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They say, before the White Man came to this place, a squirrel could travel tree-to-tree from the western bank of my great North River the Mohawk called Cahohatatea to the Father of Waters, the Ojibwa’s Misi-ziibi, and never once touch the ground.

The premise that some ambitious arboreal rodent might make that half-continent jaunt upon the green leafy or needled tops of what was not yet considered American timber is hard for me to envision. And that saddens me.

Some fine artist should recognize in poetic imagery that’s how it was, instead of Mountains, Prairies and Oceans that roll upon America’s margins like the heads of nicely poured beers. No purple mountains, and no fruited plains, a lesser writer’s reach for something that bounced on the right beat and rhymed with “grain.”

Yep, someone should address that pre-Columbian Interstate 10 at altitude because we’ll not experience anything like it again. Though how many really care about that lush here-to-there anymore? Our wild trees now exist within dotted-line walls on maps, like deciduous Black Rhinos or coniferous Karner Blue butterflies.

The latter are dainty flappers who once shared my home territory with wild everything elses from the shore of the erstwhile Cahohatatea all the way to the Mohawk’s Skahnéhtati, their “place beyond the pines.” I’ll bet those pines were as thick as God’s hairbrush, though are surely as sparse now as the once-black hair on the back of my head. From where I look, neither will I ever see again. And I dream of experiencing them both a least once more.

As I said, sad.

Changing Course on The River That Ran Two Ways

In the western distance,
Hendrick Hudson’s crew rolls
ten-pin balls, the native ghosts
having confirmed the literal
and figurative truth Mahicantuck
The River That Flows Two Ways —
wasn’t yet a one-way float to Glory.
That’s the legend anyway.
But the white thunder eventually
rolled over the red man,
just as this afternoon storm
overruns Today, washing me
another step along this stony shore.
The flood tide of my youth
has changed course, drowning the fire
that blazed within this body
that cracks like thunder whenever
I fight its inevitable course
down this river, which now flows
only one way.

The Hapgood and I

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She sits there and watches me as I think about her, like some ancient Muse of fire that would ascend the brightest heaven of invention. To me, she is a silent litany of mysteries, questions she can never answer and I will never know. And I think I prefer her that way.

She admits being a Hapgood — one of the Boston Hapgoods, a shapely bunch — but she came to me from North Carolina. She’s old, her dark skin cold against my cheek, and I wonder how many cheeks she had pressed against hers in her long life.

Did she ever travel west of the Appalachians? Was the dust of the West brushed from her when our West really was, before it became just another character in a television script, where clean-shaven and well-pressed men never are seen traveling on the trail with one like her. I know the real men of the West did, though. In 1850 they almost all did.

I’m sure she provided for her family, helping bring food to their table, because I can still smell the sulfur on her breath, even after all these years. She still will click back her hammer to half- and full-cock, exposing the nipple that suckled brassy cups of fire in a time before my United States of America went from a plural “are” to a singular “is.”

Did she protect her people from harm? Did she ever spit blind, unfeeling death in anger while in the arms of her man, maybe at another Yankee like her? I hope she never pointed her long brown finger at someone in dusty blue, or at a painted American in red. Even so, that’s why I call her she: Capable of taking care of her family and willing to fight—hard—to do so. I’ve known mothers like that. I sincerely hope she didn’t.

Her silence is probably for the best, though. I know she had no say upon whose arm she rested, how they used her, how they abused her. One of them eventually broke her forearm right where my hand holds her today. Those were rough times.

I’m told she could probably still do what she was brought into this world to do over a century and a half ago. But she’ll never do it while she’s mine. Now she sits and inspires me to think of other years, of other men, of their families and farms. To me, she represents a time when our flags flew fewer stars, when our nights were darker and seemingly flew many more stars than I can see from my porch tonight.

I’m going to find her a simple and elegant place to rest the remainder of our days together. But she’ll never be far from my reach, because to look all the way down to that little bead at the end of her barrel is to look back almost two centuries, to glimpse stories I’ve yet to know from times I’ve never seen, stories the Haploid, in her silent way, will tell me and then we’ll tell others.

I’m by no means a gun guy. Never was. I am an American history guy, one who often writes of those times when this nation still had a frontier. I purchased my antique Hapgood rifle (Maybe it’s a fowler, I don’t know. See? Not a true gun guy.) as a piece of Americana to help inspire my historical fiction. It gives me something palpable from those times to hold, to infuse me with imaginings of what I hope become fictive reality. I wrote this essay last December, as much to spell this out for myself as for anyone else. I needed an explanation for why I — of all people — would own such a device. Simple. To me, the Hapgood is a piece of history I can hold in my hands. This country’s history. Our history. Nothing more.

April 26, 1865 (Do They Remember?)

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The Lincoln funeral procession passes through downtown Albany on April 26, 1865

I wonder how many of them
here on this dark day remembered
the President’s last visit to the city?
Do they know the actor was in town
that day, too? Do they know
that each performed that night?
The President, to grumbles and chides,
in the Capitol and Governor’s house,
and the Actor, to bouquets and accolades,
on the boards of the Gayety on Green Street.

Do they recall the weapons flashing
through their tears on this second visit?
How that first crowd, raucous and angry,
had to be clubbed back by the butts
of soldiers’ muskets that soon would
spit fire in the gleam of southern battle?
Do they remember the actor, handsome
and passionate, appearing in The Apostate,
had fallen upon the Albany stage and
pierced his own chest with a dagger?
Do they wonder what if?

The crowd now weeps as the casket
rolls by on this street where men both
slept that night and one now sleeps
for all time. A moan follows the casket
along Broadway and up State as if riding
the swags of black crepe where once
stripes and stars directed a course
from this city on the Hudson to a nation on fire,
where two lives crossed paths once,
then again on the way back to Springfield.

Poem #23 of NaPoWriMo. Writers Digest was looking for a history poem and I recalled what happened in my home town almost exactly 150 years ago today…President Abraham Lincoln’s casket came through town on its way back to Springfield, Illinois. Being a bit of a history buff, I recalled some coincidences of the President’s first visit to Albany on February 18, 1861. I wondered if any of the people lining the street as the casket passed wondered the same things I did. This long piece poses those questions for which we have no answers.

Don’t Blink

Rolling through the valley,
you pass the canal and mill towns,
the farms that string like an antique necklace
all the way to Albany. Near Dolgeville,
I saw a once-was farmhouse and barn,
empty of family and stock.
The barn’s roof rested on the milking floor,
empty birds’ nests in its beams and joists.
Yet the house still stood, though canted
toward the Mohawk.
It looked to be held up by one window,
which stood almost plumb and middling strong
for the time being, staring as it always did,
out at the path where the cows once
rumbled in and lowed for their milking.
“Don’t blink” I said to myself as I rushed by,
“because someday this will all be gone.”
“Don’t blink,” I begged the house, whose
sad swirled-glass eye looked out
on one more hollow bead in the
necklace leading all the way to Albany.