Masks

Our faces emerge
so smooth and guileless.
But we learn along the way,
as those older ones
teach us how to massage
the clay from which we emerged
into a new mask to wear.
Even the fumble-fingered
can become their own Leonardo,
Rodin or Michaelangelo,
turning themselves into
something they aren’t,
until eventually, they are.

Mask after mask,
thin slip fib or thick layer lie,
we attach to our baby face,
until one day it becomes
the one we wear last.
They grow heavy
after all this time.
They’ve drawn my face down
with the gravity of their artifice.
so much so that I wish
to crack them off my
inner infant’s innocent mien.

All it takes is confession
and a smile, perhaps.
This is not me, I swear.
I am more than words,
more than the lies I’ve shaped,
more than the masks I’ve worn
and you have come to accept.
Though I am not yet that smile.
Touch me, friend.
Let me grip your finger.
I won’t let go anymore.

BINGO

On August 5, 1971, if you asked one of us ’52 Leap Year baby boys what his lucky number was, he’d probably laugh a nervous laugh and tell you 366. Though any number from 200 to 366 would feel quite charmed. On that date, I already carried what you might call an unlucky number, 1-A, Draft Eligible. Like the others, I waited to see where my birthday landed in the Selective Service’s Draft Lotto, a government-sponsored game of chance most guys hoped to lose. When some suit in a suit pulled my Lucky Number — 46 — I was fairly sure I or my commanding officer would one day soon send letters to my parents from an APO somewhere in Asia. At my Draft Physical, where medical corpsmen poked and military doctors prodded lucky losers, one doctor discovered this, and another verified that, which changed the right-hand half of my unlucky numbers — 4 and 6 — into a luckier letter — A. This 4-A spared me the fate of most of my peers huddled close as brothers on that dark January day in downtown Albany. But in the years since, when I observed so many of those guys come home casualties of that life-changing gamble the U.S. forced us to play, I feel conflicted about my eventual Lucky Number. But for one day before or after our births, we all could be sitting here unharmed, pondering the cosmic vagaries and auguries set in motion by the casual spin of a giant bingo drum.

On Day 8, of my poem-a-day NaPoWriMo challenge, I was supposed to write a “lucky number” poem. I’m not sure this qualifies, but we’ll call it a prose poem.  It’s not what I wanted to write, but it’s the first thing that came to my mind. Blame my cock-eyed depression-stoked version of survivor’s guilt.

Heinous Envy

Is jealousy the pain of losing
something to another,
that rips at the heart,
tosses you about your bed
until exhaustion takes hold
and smothers you with its pillow?
Is envy the green-eyed mistress
that poets speak of who tempts
and taunts you as she walks around
with another? For those of us
who split the hairs of language,
perhaps I can best explain it this way:
When I was a youth, I jealously
cared for my black hair,
all shiny and thick, lest
any of them made a break for it
and stepped out of the line
I parted like Moses did the Red Sea.
Today, I am envious of those fellows
with all of those youthful sprouts
of keratin in their original hue.
Not that all of my white ones have made
their new kind of break for it,
choosing to follow gravity to pillow,
shoulder, floor, and shower drain.
In sum: I envy those men who
squire youth around the place,
running her hands through their locks,
playing their abs like a xylophone.
I am not envious of their language though.
And I doubt, as this poem reaches EXACTLY
200 words, they are covetous of mine.

On Day 7 of my poem-a-day NaPoWriMo quest, a poem prompted by the word “jealous.”

The Tenderfoot

The Tenderfoot, Charles Marion Russell 1900

Say there, cowboy, heard you first herded sheep,
but soon enough moved on to real live beeves.
So how’d a kid with callouses that deep
learn to paint as well as a Hopi weaves?

Taught yourself since you were a sprout, you say?
I b’lieve you done good in learning that art.
Now you paint people and things gone away,
real cowboys and Indians, but with heart.

I like how you showed them Piegan fellows
on ponies galloping hellbent for meat.
Them bufflers, I can almost hear their bellows,
like when there were more of them than Blackfeet.

So you’re happy now that you’re in Great Falls
‘stead of wrapped in a blanket under stars?
Or d’you miss them days when the heifer bawls
as we drove ‘em to Helena’s rail cars?

I’d say you done well for yourself, Charlie,
got this fine house and a pretty young wife.
Beats pushing a plow though a field of barley,
but I still think you might miss our old life.

‘Preciate you painting my picture there,
though I’m on the wrong side of that tussle.
Bucked like a tenderfoot on that li’l mare
I believe was your show, Charlie Russell.

For Day 4 of the NaPoWriMo Poem-a-Day Challenge, the prompt called for a “painter” poem, where I am to take a painter and make him or her the title and subject of my poem. If you know me, you know my, ohhhhh, let’s say obsession with the American West. From when it butted up against my backyard in New York to what we now call the Old West. One of my favorite artists of that time is the great Charles M. Russell, who gave new meaning to the term “cowboy artist,” since he was both. This poem’s a conversation, one-sided at best, between an old cowboy chum of Charlie’s visiting him with reminiscences and maybe a slight bone to pick. 

If I Recall, That’s the Spirit

 

I hope someday you reach that point in your life, as I have, when you recognize Christmas doesn’t march up to you like a balloon-festooned Fifth Avenue parade anymore, one whose colors, sounds and corporate sponsorships you can see from blocks away. Nor does it sneak up on you on little mouse feet in the snow. Christmas has become like old age to me now. One day I’m humming along to the rustle of life’s green leaves, all the while ignoring the gifts of my black hair, firm chin and memory like a 100-terabyte computer. The next blink, I’m shaving silver filings off the lower chin of some barely recognizable guy in the mirror. And suddenly I hear (and need to turn up the volume on) a song I think might be called “Silver Bells.” And that’s OK, because the tree downstairs today is always green, and somewhere inside me a little kid is coiled in bed — quiet as the whispers of angels’ wings — for that sunrise when I can charge into the living room in an explosion of torn paper and cardboard before we three brothers trek to church and back. These days, Christmas just IS. And, should you reach my tinsel-topped, Santa-in-training-bodied and memory-leaking station in life, you might recognize it doesn’t need to come at you but once a year. You can charge into it every sunrise, tearing open the gift of that new day and giving it to all you meet. If I recall, that’s the spirit!

A mid-December rambling. Now back to our regular programming.

I Know She’s Out There…Somewhere

Sometimes I wonder if
I ever actually felt her warmth,
sensed her, breathed her in.
I look back and question
any place in my life where
I stood in her presence,
held her, or she held me.
I wonder if she was
nothing more than a dream I had,
when I still had dreams,
an ideal that kept me on
a path to be the nice polite boy
and good strong man, since
that was the way they said
one took to win her favor.
But I never did experience
her love and,
like most sore losers,
I have doubts now she
even exists. Perhaps, in this,
my last dream, if I stopped
searching so hard, one day
Peace will find me.

Marching Back to The Twilight Age

Across these shadow-filled decades you probably wouldn’t remember how we’d sit there on our beds and submit our lives and times to all the oh-so-mature, badass examination that only eighteen-year-olds possessing a 2-S or 4-F Selective Service deferment or a Draft Lottery number higher than 200 could muster. Through the tawny, fuzzy-framed lens of five beers each or the gray-white haze of ultra-clarity that you’d acquire from that illicit psychoactive agent you harbored in your sock drawer, artistic, philosophic and geopolitical certainty would hang in the air like soon-to-incinerate paper lanterns strung from one side of the room to the other. Occasionally, the rocket’s red glare of your proselytizing the work of Salinger would send me scooting for safety behind the cover of my Shakespeare, Twain and Chekhov. Do you remember falling to sleep to Zeppelin, Dylan and The Dead? How about the phony bomb threat someone tried to pin on the Black Panthers that emptied the dorms on our first night on campus? Can you recall how we wandered around the quads and stared at easily a hundred of the first girls we’d ever seen wearing clothing — actually or, most likely, in our dreams — more easily removed than high school uniform jumpers, wide-belted low-hipped bell bottoms or even a tight-ass mini? Do you recollect any of those deliciously salacious silhouettes of their Promised Land projected through each of the nightgowns by the fire trucks’ lights? I only just thought of them, sitting here with this faded old photo of her. I wonder whatever happened, since we never did. Those will never be the good old days, though, since so much bad since then blocked the light of the good. But the faintly outlined memories I saw today through something like those old chemically induced dorm goggles make me happy. I guess I could call them memories of the Twilight Ages, since at this age I’m living in now sure as hell feels like a Dark one.

I don’t wish you could have been there, but you probably had to be to fully understand this. It was a time of great social and political upheaval faced by kids who had lived through a just-averted nuclear war touched off a relatively few nautical miles from Key West, by burning racial divisions and flaming American cities, and by many an American boy about to turn 18 who sweated out if his next birthday recognition would include a card that read: “Greetings.” Guys my age tend to talk about their youth as “the Dark Ages.” But they really should be called the Twilight Ages. Today scares me in a whole different way.