Leaving the Nest

What’s it like to be free,
to no longer feel the weight
of it all upon your shoulders,
not bear so much upon your back
of what you can’t even see?
Is it like a life spent in the sky,
unbound from that which would
bring you down among we
who think we’re un-free?
We are silly sometimes,
wishing we were loosed from
our chains that truss us
to the day-to-day track,
expecting an oncoming train
that may never arrive atop us.
You thought you might be free
when you flew off from your
nest built of broken promises,
and curse-propelled spittle.
But that wasn’t freedom.
That was escape.
And the only escape that makes
us free is the one where
the spirit slips the ties
of You and Them, You and Me,
You and its nest over which
all bid adieu with a quiet “Amen.”

Day 23 of my poem-a-day NaPoWriMo quest. Had to take some time away because all my girls were in one place at once for the holiday. Priorities, y’all.

Greasing My God’s Odds

It’s been a while since I sat in a church
without a dead person lying near me.
I sometimes wonder if, from that low perch,
perhaps the guest of honor can hear me.

I’d like to think I’d get to hear you say
some things like “He was a wonderful guy.”
But I also then run the risk that day
hearing, “I couldn’t wait for him to die.”

I know, such thoughts in church are pretty crass,
and I should just pray for the poor deceased.
Someday I could be the one under grass,
and need my holy reward odds increased.

If more church is my heaven test, litmus,
pass the hymnal, pal. My God, it’s Christmas.

The Dollmaker of the Onöndowága,

Iroquois False Face Society mask

He was a powerful shaman, a man of great spirit and fearsome medicine who The Creator imbued with the power to heal and the power to strike down.

And he was my grandfather.

The People called him The Doll Maker. And nobody dared wonder aloud why every doll he made had the same face. Except for me.

One night I said to him in his special hut in the furthest corner of the village from the palisade entrance, “Grandfather, why do all your medicine dolls have the same face when they are meant to represent different people and spirits?”

“That is not for you to know yet, Grandson. Soon enough, I shall reveal my secrets to one of you children, for someone must take my place when it is my time to join our fathers and their fathers’ fathers in the Land of the Dead,” he said, never moving a muscle as he stared into the small fire before him, save for his lips around his pipe.

“I see, Grandfather, it’s just that I never understood.”

“And perhaps you never will, Grandson. But, if the spirits of our ancestors place their hands upon you, you will be the one to whom I will share the secret of the dolls,” he said and closed his eyes as if in a trance.

“I know why he does it, give all the dolls the same faces,” my older brother Kakë:’ët neokë, White Deer, told me one night in our family’s portion of the longhouse. “It’s because he’s become so old and feeble he can no longer carve any face but that one. While I, on the other hand, have schooled myself in the carving art and have surpassed that old man. All I need is the knowledge of his incantations and medicine and I will succeed him as our clan’s shaman.”

White Deer pulled from beneath the bear robe on his pallet six small wooden doll heads, each carved to look like a member of our family. Their likenesses frightened this boy of eleven winters and I stepped away from them while not being able to tear my eyes from their piercing stares.

Hahji’, my brother, while your craftsmanship is great, you should not show those to anyone. And you should learn to keep your plans to yourself. The Grandfather hears with more than his old ears and he will punish you for speaking against him in such an arrogant way,” I said and walked to the other side of the fire to where my mother was nursing our baby sister.

Over the next few months, I began doing more and more chores for Grandfather, learning more about the history of our people and even some of the healing arts beyond those dispensed by the False Face Society, the masked healers who held ceremonies throughout the village in the green-up and harvest times.

Several men, including my father, were members of the False Face Society. Father said they all learned the story of the False Faces from The Grandfather. How the Creator, when he had finished forming the world, was wandering around admiring his work, when he encountered another being who said HE had created the world.

“In a competition to see which of them had the most power, each was to move a mountain, though they were supposed to turn their backs to the mountain while the other used their power. The stranger went first and moved the mountain but a little, yet he moved it. The Creator then took his turn and reminded the Stranger to keep his back turned. But the Stranger’s curiosity was too great. He turned before the Creator was done and was struck in the face by the mountain, leaving him disfigured. Despite The Stranger’s now hideous face, the Creator recognized his great powers, and decided to let him stay in the world to use those powers to heal and prevent storms from harming The People. In his honor, the False Face Society members carve their masks in their own special representation of the one now called Ethiso:da’, The Grandfather” Father said.

“And it was your Grandfather who taught three generations of our men how to carve our masks. No one was a better teacher or a better carver than our Grandfather,” Father said.

“White Deer feels he is a better and will succeed Grandfather as our great shaman,” I said.

“Your brother will become a great man among The People. His strength and confidence will serve him well in war and politics. But your baby sister stands a greater chance of becoming Shaman than White Deer,” Father said, and laughed. “And we shall keep that between the two of us, son.”

He sent me off to see to Grandfather’s comfort and needs. When I entered his hut, I saw Grandfather placing a new doll over by his carving knives. It had the same face as all the others, but it’s clothing looked familiar and on its hand it wore a bandage.

“That doll reminds me of White Deer. It even has the bandage he wears since he cut himself,” I noted.

“Perhaps he should be more heedful to what he has in his hands rather than dreaming of grasping for those things he cannot reach,” Grandfather said.

“Grandfather, did you…?”

“White Deer cut himself, Grandson. I only had the vision that he would and carved a remembrance of the act. Now come, look more closely at this doll,” he said.

I sat next to him and he showed me the doll, whose face looked like every other doll’s face.

“I have decided to begin teaching you how to carve, Grandson. You shall be my apprentice, my student, my successor,” he said.

“Grandfather, I am just a boy,” I said.

“Yes, but your heart and spirit are pure and have the welfare of all The People foremost at all times. Even as young as you are, you do not judge a man, woman or child by how he looks, but what lies beneath.”

With that, he tugged the face, the same face as every other doll, off the White Deer doll. Beneath it he had carved an exact likeness of my brother. He pulled the face off another and it was my face, painted a strong medicine red, beneath it.

“You will learn the carving and the medicine easily enough, Grandson. But you, above all my generations of children, have the greatest gift necessary to succeed me,” Grandfather said.

As you can see, The Grandfather taught me well. Oh, you see only one face on my dolls? True, but my brother, Chief White Deer, will attest to its striking resemblance to our Grandfather.

For Day 3 of Story-a-Day May, I was tasked to write something using the following prompt from author Kylie Quillinan:  “People called him The Doll Maker. Nobody ever wondered aloud why every doll had the same face.”  I decided to set t in the culture of the  Haudenosaunee or Iroquois Confederacy of my native New York State. Had a lot of fun taking a fantasy-like prompt and pulling it into my favorite genre., American Historical Fiction

Things Fall Apart


Things fall apart, the Irishman said,
and, as days dwindled like hours
dropping by the temporal roadside,
my life sloughing off like a snake’s skin,
I’d once turn to look at the trail of debris
I’ve left along my way.

Along both shoulders of this
pothole-pocked gravel two-lane lies
the detritus of all my broken promises,
crushed chances, dashed hopes,
severed relationships and shattered dreams.
But I reckon that’s what this life’s
supposed to be, not some smooth interstate
of a heretofore to hereafter.

I’ve found it’s like driving along
and That Song comes on the radio
and you see Her while the highway fades away
for the next six miles. Suddenly
you’ve reached your destination and
you don’t remember how you got there,
what you passed on the way, what
you might’ve dropped while recalling
a better-forgotten past and contemplated
a cloudy never-will-be.

I try not to look back, try not to imagine
my destination. This current place
in my journey is what’s most important.
And every time I think of taking a peek,
I look hard to the right and left
and continue slouching toward Bethlehem
or wherever it is I’ll finally fall.

My thanks to William Butler Yeats for the opening and closing lines of this marathon (for me) of a poem. Those lines come from his poem, The Second Coming. We only get one coming, though, so maybe we should try taking in as much of the scenery of our lives rather than who/what/where we’ve been and what it’ll be like when we reach that nebulous destination that we probably won’t make anyway..

Lost Behind Clouds in a Sky of Blue


When I think back upon those days,
I remember only one textbook
the nuns parceled out to us, their
semi-sentient little lumps of clay.
The catechism’s soft covers of sky blue
and white reminded me of a sky full
of wispy clouds half-hiding my view of heaven.
Mom already dug the foundation of her child’s
certainty that the Hereafter nestled
behind that star-strewn real estate
above that some called The Firmament.

But black-habited virgins swinging rulers,
sticky gold stars and glow-in-the-dark
rosaries required to teach me
the necessary tenets for gaining admittance
into that divine eternal housing project
only brought blink-inducing pain and
phosphorescent bling. The same as if
I devoured all the Sugar Smacks to get to
the prize at the bottom of the box.

So my faith stood built upon those
flurried clouds, apparitions of such
small substance that persistent breezes
whispering gossip about Fathers X and Y
and one of my fellow acolytes blew
enough doubt to topple it. They tore
from me my willing but rickety belief
in the unbelievable as easily as an
abused and angry boy ripping those soft
cerulean covers from their holy rule book.

I was asked to write a poem on the subject of Faith. I don’t think this is what they had in mind. I want to believe in something bigger than I, in earning the fabulous prizes available for one who lives a good life, a life of treating others as he would want to be treated. But so many of the men who served as the arbiters of the rules of the road to that Better Place, men I knew personally, carried souls within as black as the outfits they wore without. I still lead that good life as best I can, because it’s the right thing and…well, just in case. But that’s Hope, the surviving little brother of a Faith I fear shaken to its foundations apparently built upon sand.

Hang In There



“I’m stuck in a precipitous place,”
you said, “and falling is a possibility
I no longer care to worry me.”
The fall doesn’t kill you, I replied,
ignoring the pain I’ve felt, too,
it’s that sudden stop at the end of it.
He grinned (Or was it grimaced?)
akin to a wolf who had a death grip
on his own ears, contemplating
letting go or holding on for dear life.
His life, yours, mine, it didn’t matter.
Fear and anger will do that for you.

“I don’t care as much anymore about
this place in the present,” you said.
“The past looks like scorched earth and
the future’s a desert of hopelessness.”

Then stay where you are, I replied.
Yesterday’s nothing but ink-stained
fabrications at the bottom of a birdcage.
Tomorrow’s just a hazy today in waiting.
Hold onto your spot here and now like
a bird, softly enough not to crush it,
but firmly enough that it can’t get loose.
Your grip on life can escape you
on swift’s wings, and sometimes those
guardian angels pounding their gloves
waiting to catch you if you drop in
the existential outfield have been known
to lose some in the sun.

Do I know what inspired this? Does it matter? Let’s just say if fell into my glove as I squinted into the sun.

Fallen But Willing


The storm slaps down the trees’ hands
that reach in prayerful supplication,
or maybe to protect themselves as I would.
Many inevitably fall, which I have
many times in this stormy existence,
to the steady beating and beat-down
brought upon us from above.

Some splash-land upon the soggy grass,
some divert the rainbow runoff
from the oil-slicked blacktop driveway,
others recline their spindly backs
upon the gravelly roof shingles.
They look up at the path upon which
the watery host forced-marched them here.

If I was to fall, I’d lie like those
on the angled roofline, eyes tracing
the individual drops’ paths,
feeling assured we’d one day rise and
find our vaporous way back to the clouds.
Your faith assures me that could be,
even if I’m never anointed like that driveway,
even if I fall to buffeting by my will and not
some unseen baptismal force in the clouds.

I can’t really expect to be resurrected
like you raindrops after becoming one
with the earth beneath its green shroud.
But I’m willing, willing to faithfully face
these storms again and again if it means
I have a chance to see the good in you all
when my tearful tempests end
and the Sun comes back once more.

Not so religious or blasphemous a piece as you might think. Just the freely dropped rainy Saturday thoughts of a fallen altar boy whose faith has been shaken by the floods and gales of doubt that have battered my spirit over years of seeing and knowing too much evil. Shaken, but not shattered, though. As I said, “I’m willing’.”

Yes, No, Neither, N/A


Somewhere the rules were written
that we’re free to believe our lives
are all part of some Grand One’s
equally Grand Plan, one concocted
behind a door in the firmament
that reads: Gown and Glove Before Entering.
Others wrote that it’s all on us,
warts, mud, blood and all.
But isn’t it also possible we might be
students in a metaphysical low-security
prison school, our lives contained in stacks
of test papers surrounding our dorm rooms.

We spend our days filling in a circle
— Yes, No, Neither, n/a —
with our No. 2 free will.
From time to time, like on
a fire drill schedule, The Dean
opens the window and blows in
a breeze, scattering our papers in
a haphazard blizzard.
With a sigh, we pick them up and
just as haphazardly restack the unanswered
ones, grab ol’ No. 2 and decide
Yes, No, Neither, N/A
until the next blast of planned
supreme serendipity blows up our
little lives all over again.

Penultimate poem (Number 29) in Poem-A-Day April 2016. A haphazard write quickly rendered because…I’m whipped by time and poetically creative exsanguination.

Last Rites

An Irish Wake

An Irish Wake

When you lie there in the dark
in the sleep that is not yet sleep,
does the thought ever awaken
(like the pea beneath your mind’s mattress)
what it’d be like to lie in the coffin
within your casket in the not-yet-death?
Do you wonder who’ll come visit
your corporeal self as you, with
maybe one eye slyly peeking, capture
memories as the soon-to-be-tipsy mourners
contemplate, inflate and conflate
your times together, consecrate,
them perhaps with a baptism
of a tear or two?

If the don’t, I won’t judge.
My hands’ll be knotted in someone
else’s damn rosary, so I couldn’t cast
any stones, let alone the first.
But, boy, would I love to roll away
the rock they plant me beneath,
in a fourth-quarter comeback resurrection
just to confirm I saw in your hands
the letters I wrote, even the ones
I never sent, but composed in this,
my warm and waking coffin here in the dark,
here in the sleep that’s not yet sleep,
here where it feels so much like death
in my every-night not-quite-life.

Poem Number 13 of poem-a-day NaPoWriMo 2016. This one prompted by a call for a “Last (Something)”-titled poem. Yeah, I went there. Not sure if this is an egomaniacal exercise or just another potential disappointment captured in verse.

The Shoes You Only Wear in This Rain


They’re falling all around me now,
the large and small, old and young,
so many that it feels like
the rains in Spring, their passing,
the sound of water dripping,
falling off the eaves of my heart.
And still I’m here, chronicling
what I don’t think I want to know.
Is there a light you lope after?
Or do you fly like a moth until then?
Does the light, all of it, just go out?
Not a flicker, nor a dimming. Just…

These unusual secrets my raindrops
took with them when they fell,
even though I watched and listened
when some of them did.
It wasn’t just a ping on a tin roof
followed by a plop in the muddy puddle
of their mingling with earth.
It was natural, gravity winning out
over angels’ wings, the wings that wrung
these showers from those clouds,
that rat-a-tatted on the corrugated
prayers you huddle beneath,
that collect on your cheeks and spatter
the blessed mud of their ashes
on the shiny shoes you only wear
in this spate of rain.

There have been just too many over too short a time, and I can’t take any more.