Monday, December 15, 2014

I had a nightmare last night. A humdinger. During my 2nd career, I taught emotionally disturbed children and this was one of my teaching nightmares. (Dance nightmares— I don’t know the steps, the part, the music, or indeed, why I must dance— play out too, sometimes, still.) Most of my pupils in waking life were young kids, but when I have these hopelessly chaotic dreams the students are always teenagers. Often there are hordes of them, as in this one, and they are running amok and I am trying to “settle them down” long enough for the sweetness of reason to prevail. I remember saying many times to them, no, trying to shout (I have a piss-poor shouting voice; doesn’t carry) above the din that if they would only stay in their seats and be quiet we could get to know each other, have reasonable discussions, become co-operating participants in a learning process. But no.

Instead of a classroom, we were crammed together in an auditorium. Young people ran up and down the aisles, did incomprehensible routines on the stage, although it was clear enough that as various groups grabbed the spotlight, their intent was simply to mock everything I tried, and everything else that had been tried by others. My job in that auditorium was to teach literature, and this was profoundly unimportant to the group I was supposedly in charge of. They were passing bottles of potent eggnog around and popping the tops of beer cans, too. Budweiser, I remember. At one point I made a frantic call for help from my Principal. Maybe she could at least help me divide the crowd into manageable groups. Surely I wasn’t meant to control such a massive class! And the lovely, strong, resourceful woman who’d been my mentor and who was always supportive of me in those real days of teaching, came into the huge, awful space for a brief appearance. She was no help and in fact said if I didn’t like my job I should go take another offer I’d mentioned to her, (of course I didn’t know what she was talking about) of becoming a dirt farmer! A dirt farmer was someone who actually farmed dirt as I understood it in the dream.  I know I tried to find students who were possibly on the fence about anarchy, but they slipped away from me before I could reach their hearts or minds. The dream wasn’t "a loss of control" dream. It was "a discovering that I’d never had any control" and that my place in their lives was less influential than that of a lone cowboy, without even a horse to help him, charged with stopping a stampeding herd of cattle. It was a god-awful dream; a relief to wake up from.

Only a dream, right? Except…it was a spectacular visualization (with audio) of how I’ve been feeling these last weeks. I’ve felt like I’ve been wearing a flimsy ballerina costume in armored battle, like I’ve been baking sugar cookies for people who want raw, bloody meat, that I’ve been reading poetry to torturers, or potential torturers, that I’ve kissed the good-looking boy next door many times over a lifetime only to learn that he has a portrait in the attic of his true image, corrupt, greedy, sadistic, and bigoted.

Nightmare notwithstanding, I enjoyed my years as a teacher in Florida and Maryland and am grateful that I got to spend so much of my working life among schoolchildren. The other day my mood was lighter and I’m sure (almost sure) I’ll rally from the dark place I’m in this morning; I gave in to my compulsion to watch Dick Cheney with Chuck Todd on Meet the Press yesterday, even though I was already down, even though I was pretty sure he’d act exactly like he acted and say what he said.  I wrote this on Saturday when I was still sort of coping:

A Reflection on Repression

The teacher shouted, “Quiet!”
The nine-year-olds hushed,
Arthur’s joke forgotten.
“Close your Arithmetic books,
fold your hands on your desk 
and put your heads down,” she said.
Quiet classroom.
Tense children.
Order restored.
Teacher pleased.
 Minutes ticked.

Then, Suellen’s nose itched.
Quickly she risked a scratch.
Ben’s foot, the right one,
the jigglely one, jiggled.
Arthur’s best friend Harry
grinned, face hidden
against his knuckles,
because the joke
had been a good one.
In the back row,
Mary Margaret turned
her small head, caught
Arthur’s eye, puffed out
her cheeks and blew,
and Arthur wiggled
his eyebrows.

And even if Mrs. Foote delayed lunch, 
kept them in at recess, wrote notes
to go home, gave extra extra homework,
made them sit like that forever, 

she’d never have the complete
control of her fourth grade class she craved, 
never win her battles, only make them 
hate her and tell their friends about her when they were free. 
The children would rally and the tyrant would always lose.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Three Dance Poems—the first is brand-spanking new.

Recklessly Twenty-One

Full out one more time.
Fast. Eat the space 100 times.
Tilt. Torso reach down and side,
leg lift high, higher, highest to right 
flip your body, fast. Now lunge.Do it again.
Do it once more. Once more. Once more.
Splat. Stars. Blood. Ambulance. Blurred ER.
The oral surgeon looks like a young Max Von Sydow. 
He investigates, stings me, forces open my bleeding mouth.
How many hours in a spotlit dentist’s chair in the dim cave of that OR?
No one else helps us. We are alone and I am in love with him before 
he’s finishes wiring every loosey goosey tooth. He’s more gentle, even 
with glinting steel, than I ever imagined any man could be, and, once I’m 
good and numb, I forgive him everything, unaware that the next day I’ll face 
the world with Leslie Caron lips, chipmonk cheeks, metal criss-crossing 
broken teeth, and not yet recovered from my reckless break-up with Jim.

Bare Feet on a Tile Floor

Bob Dylan and I are growing old together.  
These days I rock to tunes in the Florida room. 
I walk with a cane, dance without it.  A mystery!
My dog worries as I whirl and watches from the safe couch. 

Once I wore pointe shoes. Wore them to death!
I’d wait until my slippers were useless, then take
the subway to Hell’s Kitchen. The old man at Freed’s
would fuss over the fit and I’d hand over dollars. 

No human audience for my dance needed now.
Hips swish with guitars, my feet, drums, and my head, 
arms take the melody in my return to the high desert, 
to my company of barefoot dancers. On late Sunday
afternoons, costumed in loose white pants, skimpy 
tank tops and Panama hats, we performed 
for Albuquerque’s brown and white families in the city’s parks.

“Hot chili peppers in the blistering sun” sang Bob
as we circled with partners then all together across hot 
green spaces, covering ground fast, with strong young legs, 
supple torsos. During the verses we’d each solo, while the others 
reclined on the grass, hats over their hearts. Laura twirled her lament, 
Robert shot his enemy with a finger gun, fierce and convincing,
Randy escaped in great leaps from the Sheriff’s posse, I bent 
back, face to the sunset, leg extended, hands folded in prayer.

Soon after the company broke up, the first swath of AIDS 
cut down Randy and Robert. One had his lover nearby, 
the other, disowned by his family, died broke and alone 
in Long Beach, California.  Golden Linda, my drinking buddy,
my roomate on tour, died young, too. She kept on with Cutty Sark, 
fine wine, finally cheap vodka until cirrhosis got her.  We touch 
again when I dance to Dylan on the radio. He carries us all along.

published by Mojave River Review, 2014

Alice Turns Adam Down

"So, you see, you are simply the wrong partner
for this part of the dance. I'd thought 
someone in a blue shirt, with a side part 
in his blond hair, and your hair is red. 
So even if you changed your shirt to a blue,  
I wouldn't, simply couldn't, choose you.

Dance with someone else, why don't you?
You could dance with the woman over there 
wearing that very long string of pearls.
Or how about that woman in the long red dress. 
Do you like long dresses? Or someone else?

Oh. You often wear blue shirts, do you? 
You don't care for long dresses or pearls? 
You like my green eyes and so choose me? 
But that doesn't matter, to me, you see. 
You are simply the wrong partner for this part of the dance.”

Published in my collection, “One Day Tells its Tale to Another,” 2013

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Road Trip, October 2014

View from my hotel room
Last week:

I drove to Viera, Florida to spend time with Kathy, a friend I’ve often talked with, but hadn’t seen since 2006. I knew it would be as if no time at all had passed and that’s exactly how it was. I feel like I’ve been injected with a massive, nourishing, dose of connection. My emotional health is sturdier, my supply of appreciation is refreshed, my regard for my friend, always high, has risen. We’ve lived through much of the whole boomer enchilada in the years since we’ve known each other and I’ve decided we’ve done well. We carry on with grace and courage. I happen to think most of us do, you know, but Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, good friends help!

I met more Florida Democrats: Kathy’s friends in Viera. I now live in an area nicknamed the Redneck Riviera, the Florida Panhandle, a place replete with white sand beaches, mega-churches, and Republicans. I practice tolerance, almost always, but I’m an aging hippie, artsy-fartsy, New York Liberal and it’s delightful whenever I can say what I think without getting frowned at and prayed over. Plus, Kathy’s friends live on a lake popular with all kinds of seabirds. There was a giant Great Blue Heron resting peacefully right outside their screen door while we were talking politics.

I was a Groupie for three days. I’d never been a Groupie before, but there you go. This road trip to see Kathy seemed like a good time to include a poetry festival if I could find one that fit my plans. Sure enough, Anhinga Press was holding a timely festival and it would even be on the way home, you know, if I went home via Tampa. So I registered for three days at the swanky Grand Hyatt Tampa Bay and settled in to attend days and nights of poetry.  I heard some extraordinary poems read beautifully, talked to friendly writers, editors, and teachers from all over the country, and generally got a big kick out of the biggest hotel I’ve ever stayed in. The last night they held a banquet and I toddled to that, too. And at the banquet the penny finally dropped that I was the only poet there who had not been published by Anhinga Press. Anhinga has been a successful small press for forty years and that’s what they were gathered to celebrate. The event was open to the public, but I was the only public! Huh. No wonder I kept getting asked about my connection to Anhinga! After the speeches, after eating one of the best desserts I’ve ever had in my life, (cinnamon ice cream and a chocolate extravagance) I slipped away without ado. I was only sorry I didn’t say good-by to David Kirby, who I’d had a weeklong workshop with a couple of years ago and I adore, but it couldn’t be helped. Shyness, finally, overwhelmed me. Back in my room I made a cup of tea and thought about things and decided it was all good, after all. But…

I got pissed-off by one thing during this road trip. I’d signed up for a manuscript conference; I’ve had six or seven conferences with various writers over the last few years and they have all helped me immensely with my own writing. This conference did not go well for me. I’m not going to whinge here, but after the hour I spent with this woman I decided I hated poetry, skipped the next session of readings, took a walk, gazed at more sensational seabirds, and ate a big, healthy, breakfast. By afternoon I was happy to listen to poetry again, felt my proper age, and knew I’d keep working on my new book.


Monday, September 15, 2014

Black Horizons
  by Carl Sandburg

Black horizons, come up.
Black horizons, kiss me.
That is all; so many lies; killing so cheap;
babies so cheap; blood, people so cheap; and
land high, land dear; a speck of the earth
costs; a suck at the tit of Mother Dirt so
clean and strong, it costs; fences, papers,
sheriffs; fences, laws, guns; and so many
stars and so few hours to dream; such a big
song and so little a footing to stand and
sing; take a look; wars to come; red rivers
to cross.
Black horizons, come up.
Black horizons, kiss me.

I’m way behind in my mourning for the dead who’ve made the news this summer. I have to catch up somehow, because I still feel bad about the passengers who were shot down over the Ukraine and that happened on July 17th. My heart is on the wonky spectrum and it progresses from tragedy to tragedy in the world too slowly, I guess. I’m not keeping up.

Did you know that when Sam Peckinpah made “The Wild Bunch” way back in 1969, he hoped his film, with its slow-motion deaths, blood that looked and behaved like blood shooting out of all those bullet holes, and scene after scene of human brutality, would prove to be a cathartic experience? That people would be so affected by the violence in his film that they would leave the cinema craving peace and harmony?  Maybe even march against the war in Vietnam? Boy, was he ever wrong. 1969 was also the year of Woodstock and I think the musicians and hippies at that rock festival were more on track regarding peace and harmony promotion. 500,000 people, rain, mud,scarce food, pot, and no killings. I remember feeling proud of my generation…optimistic.

I wish there would be a global epidemic of a virus that softened hearts. I think deluded minds have taken charge in too many places and too many hearts have hardened to steel. I wonder what one can do to relax after beheading someone or shooting down a plane? Here, there, everywhere there is someone inflicting hurt. But not in our house; my brother’s and mine. Not in yours either, I bet. After all, my blog isn’t likely to appeal to someone busy with waging war, whether on a battlefield or in their neighborhood.

I used to teach emotionally disturbed children. Hitting, kicking, biting happened, (sometimes to me) but everything, (everything!) we teachers did in those classrooms was directed toward helping the kids understand that they weren’t going to win in their lives through violent behavior. Our first goal in this was simple: that a child experience his or her environment with pleasure. They needed to do this, you see, before gentler emotions could get the upper hand. We needed to start with this simple goal, because we taught children who did not know how to play, make friends, or feel safe. They experienced their environment with pain when they came to us, and anger was often their ruling emotion. But I saw children change and when a child learned to use his words rather than his fist, it was a marvelous thing. Sam Peckinpah thought bombarding us with bloodshed would, somehow, do some good. He was troubled by how far he was off the mark. Back in 1969 I thought Woodstock meant we were all going to move toward a kinder, more peaceful world. Huh. Both wrong. Well,
Carl Sandburg by Dana Steichen
I’ll grieve at my own pace, one horror at a time.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

"There is no one between you and me." Czeslaw Milosz

"There is no one between you and me” Czeslaw Milosz

When I started this blog in 2006, I instinctively titled it Augustine’s Confessions—no other name for this even brushed by. So, I’ll confess. I turned 65 today. Who woulda thunk? I’m proud and grateful. I had one open-heart surgery at 51, and another one eight years later, and the year after that a surgeon put a VERY IMPORTANT stent in my left main artery. For a couple of years my cardiologist checked to see if it was still open, via heart catheterization every six months and it was always fine, so we decided not to go through that for awhile. Oh, and I have a messy neurological disease called Myasthenia gravis (it’s always done that way, with a capital M and a small g ) Six and a half decades! I’ll tell you about them:

1-10: small New Jersey town, neighborhood full of kids, St. Paul’s Elementary, learned to read (!!!) ballet classes & Miss Lynn, 3 remarkable, funny, handsome, teasing, brothers, Mommy and Daddy, Ditty and Bob.

10-20: All of the above and first kiss (Dickie Young in the back of a bus) many more ballet classes, NYC and Juilliard, Antony Tudor, hard, hard, hard work, fell in love 2x, (one painter, one actor) sex, learned about theater, museums, drugs, music, living poor, marched against the war, Bob Dylan, dance, dance, dance, dance.

20-30: Went to Italy for a summer to perform at Spoleto, graduated from said Juilliard, fell in love with a piano player, moved to Albuquerque, taught at the University of New Mexico, started a modern dance company with the piano player and another Juilliard student, lost the guy, choreographed, performed on tour, did costumes, became a drinker, moved back to NYC.

30-40: Tore my Achilles tendon in performance, stopped dancing, kept drinking, sobered up, (32 years, now) went back to school, became a teacher in Florida (emotionally disturbed Kindergartners), almost got married twice, wanted a baby.

40-50: Got pregnant, got married, lost my baby, (the worst thing) spent a year living in England, (maybe the best year) moved to Maryland, dogs, cats, and gardens, taught older special needs kids, felt pretty damn middle class, went to a lot of doctors because I had weird things going on like double vision all the time and it felt like I was climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro when I went up a slope, (a slope!) went back to Europe a couple of times, started to look a lot more like Mom.

50-60: Divorce, moved back to Florida to take care of Mom, then Dad, Mom died, my youngest brother, Ric, died, Dad died, (I know) got answers to my health mysteries, began writing poems and a bad novel.

60-65: Peaceful. One of my brothers, (Drago’s his blog name) and I live in a comfortable house with a dog and 3 cats. There are also outside cats who were born in our back garden and who have stayed around. Two of them beg to get their bellies rubbed whenever I go out to see them. My book of poems, “One Day Tells its Tale to Another” got published by The Linnet’s Wings, and I go off on road trips at least once a year to a poetry festival. My brother/housemate and I get along ridiculously well and so do the cats and our dog…and the other cats. My other brother lives in Philadelphia, but maybe he'll join us one day.   

Some time ago I developed the habit of posting something on my Facebook page about a writer (usually) whose birthday was on that day. I wake up, feed the outside cats (and the inside animals if I’m up first) and start reading biographies. I’ve become pleasurably compulsive about this and today I had SO MANY birthday greetings from people who know me through FB.   

I haven’t been writing this summer, but I’m going to. I’m going to write a book of poems about the ancestry research I went from dabbling in to doing intensively. It turns out my family comes from the first kings and queens of Scotland, conquistadors, Alsatian farmers, French pioneers, factory girls, and Irish refugees from the potato famine. During the 19th century my great-grandparents made it to Staten Island, New York and hooked up. And here I am. 65. I still dance, alone in the Florida room when Drago’s out teaching yoga, I still listen to Bob Dylan, (I’m more a Leftie than ever) and I still,  as ever, love to read a good book.

Sunday, June 29, 2014

June 29, 2014

Morning Sun, Edward Hopper 1952

If I were still a child I could light a candle for the young immigrants from Central America and believe the flame I’d lit would do them some good. Tonight I’d include in my list of blessing requests the new father who was killed a few miles away by a drunk’s stray bullet. I’d say Hail Marys for the sad Arabs who are murdered every day and then I’d light more candles for slaves all over the globe. When I was a child I believed things would come out all right in the world if I prayed enough and if you joined in. I was taught to light candles and to pray, as were my schoolmates, of course, but I took to it mightily. I remember feeling like God would listen, and it was only a matter of time before people would become kind to each other and peaceful. But I’m an adult, and I’m at a loss. I don’t know what to do for this barbaric race of ours.

The Oxford Dictionary defines “barbaric” as 1) savagely cruel 2)primitive; unsophisticated 3) uncivilized and uncultured. Here’s a splendid list of synonyms: brutal, barbarous, brutish, bestial, savage, vicious, fierce, ferocious, wicked, cruel, nasty, ruthless, remorseless, merciless, villainous, murderous, heinous, nefarious, monstrous, base, low, low-down, vile, inhuman, infernal, dark, black, black-hearted, fiendish, hellish, diabolical, ghastly, horrible, barbarian, primitive, heathen, wild, Neanderthal; thuggish, loutish; uncouth, coarse, rough, boorish, oafish, vulgar, archaic, rude. (When I read this list I wondered if possibly the lexicographer was being sarcastic by ending with “rude,” but I don’t suppose sarcasm seeps into dictionaries as a rule. ) This is the etymology: Origin: late Middle English (as a noun in the sense 'a barbarian'): from Old French barbarique, or via Latin from Greek barbarikos, from barbaros 'foreign' (especially with reference to speech). So, “other,” then. Not us.

Certainly not me. I’m not a murderer. I don’t keep slaves. I don’t get drunk and shoot a bullet that travels through the woods to stop in the body of a proud father celebrating the birth of his first child with his wife and a few friends. I’m not a barbarian. I wasn’t when I was young enough to believe in those burning candles sending my messages to God, either. But back then cruelty hurt me somehow. When I heard about the starving children in China from the nuns or, as you might have, too, from my mother when she was trying to make me eat something revolting like squash, I felt a pain somewhere within. This aching still goes on in me, and in you, (if you’ve read this plaint so far then I can say that confidently) when six year olds die from gunshots, when boys and girls are sold to sex traffickers, when chemical weapons are deployed. I sometimes yearn for the belief I held fast in my heart as a child: if I prayed and you prayed, brutal, barbarous, brutish, bestial, savage, vicious, fierce, ferocious, wicked, cruel, all those kinds of things would stop. God would fix things for us. Well. I’ve turned out to be someone who doesn’t light candles or get on my knees and fold my hands together in nightly prayer anymore, but I find I still hurt. And I’m at a loss.

Thursday, May 29, 2014


My brother braces the worn cardboard box against the bed lest the photographs spill from its bowed, damp sides. We didn’t know my mother stored hundreds of photos up there in the dark awkward attic. Setting about my task of sorting treasuring saving all these people and places I am stopped by Aunt Shirley.

My Aunt Shirley, who had moved off Staten Island,
who had a good job, worked in a Manhattan bank,
 who had her own apartment off Washington Square,
who was the most devout Catholic of the bunch of them,
who was in love with her best friend's fiancé,
slept with him, became pregnant and in June of 1952
slit her throat with Grandpop's razor in the white tile bathroom 
of my grandparents' big house on Castleton Avenue.
A man, a neighbor, broke open the door, and so Nana found her. 
Blood, screams and whispers, then a priest who refused 
to say Mass at her funeral or bury her in a consecrated grave. 
Maybe my mother wanted to die too, but she was a wife 
who had children to raise, and a house in New Jersey to keep.

My mother never talked about her sister, but Dad told us. 
I have the photos, can see how close, how alike they'd been back then—
small girls, school girls, teenage brunettes with trim figures, unguarded eyes.
Now that Mom has died, I meet Aunt Shirley. 

a version of this poem was first published at Sheldon Lee Compton's Revolution John magazine

Thursday, April 17, 2014

On the Irish side...

These poems were previously published by Sheldon Lee Compton in Revolution John magazine. Someday they will be in a new book of poems about people and places I've discovered while researching my family's ancestors. I do believe we are all cousins and that we might as well get along, eh?

"On a Lee Shore"  Winslow Homer 1900

The Liverpool census in 1851 lists him:
“Thirteen years old, Irish. Occupation: beggar.”
Only that. I will do more for him.

I will see him in torn jacket and too-short pants
singing all day of the sea, the cliffs, the rivers
Shannon and Liffey, the lass who died too soon.
I will give him a pure tenor and a brother clicking bones,
keeping time while he’s tuned to the doings in the street,
his freezing feet, his big brother’s sweet, hungry voice.
Two stevedore’s march past, heading for work on the docks.
Their clothes gray and their caps grimy, they’re tired, silent
men who have no time, money, or even a listen to give them.

Here is a man coming through in a well-cut coat,
and his hat is a gentleman’s hat. The boys eye him
slow down and stop. Sure, but he’s English
thinks the singer and the rhythm of the bones
never falter though the player is thinking of boots.
They finish their tune, stand, stare, and wait.
“I’m a music teacher and I thank you for your music.”
He smiles, opens his purse, and hands them coins.
“Get some food, go home, rest your fingers, rest your voice.”
The Englishman walks on and the beggars are done for the day.

The census taker’s fine script hurled itself at me; his facts smashed something too soft in me, but I’ve caught these boys,
given them music and food. Tomorrow I’ll give them warmth.

Strength & Luck

There was no food in Ireland for young Patrick Kennedy who'd known nothing of blooming. So he crossed the wintry sea in a bucking, groaning boat to Liverpool. Once the damn ship docked in sloppy, exhausted triumph, Patrick was shoved and hurried to join the mass of his countryman lost in the dirty alleys snaking from the docks. English churchwomen met them with bread and jugs of weak ale. There was more food if he worked and he would not go without food again so Patrick, who'd been a farmer, became a stevedore, all the while hating coal-smothered Liverpool, and hated by the English working alongside him. When he'd had enough of the place and the place had had enough of him he boarded The City of Manchester, a ship bound to New York, or so he'd heard. The voyage was 49 days of hell, the only good being the end of it. Patrick's skinny self stayed free of the typhus that forced quarantine on those it didn't kill. When he stumbled down the gangplank the recruiting man grabbed him by the shirt and pushed him onto a cart belonging to the Union Army and he survived the Civil War, too.  Because Patrick Kennedy went through all that and lived to have a family with Catherine McCarthy I am here to write these things down about my great-great grandfather, born in Cork, Ireland in 1836, dead in New York in 1877.