Sunday, February 11, 2018

Blood Face Back

The poem below was written way back in 1992, when I was sixteen. The inspiration for this poem was my grandmother, Ruth Bernstein. Though I did not know then, much that I know now, I will convey some significant points that were unwittingly relevant to my perception of her when I wrote the poem.

Ruth was born the middle child of three sisters. Both parents of the sisters had immigrated through Ellis Island, but met in Manhattan. Ruth's father was a young man named Isadore Siegel, who came from an affluent Jewish family. (He was second cousin to the infamous gangster Benjamin "Bugsy" Siegel.) Isadore married a poor girl from the tenements, Rose Greenberg Siegel. It seems clear that Isadore and Rose married for love.

Isadore rejected his family's influence and went into business for himself, running a fruit and vegetable truck. His middle daughter, Ruth, had eye problems which required an expensive surgery that he could not afford. She cursed him. Shortly after, while working on his truck in the rain and cold, Isadore contracted pneumonia, and subsequently died. Isadore was twenty six years old. 

Ruth never forgave herself. Her relationship with her sisters could be characterized as loving, but conflicted. One might speculate that she struggled with being loved because of the guilt she carried over her father's passing, and because of that constructed emotional walls between herself and those whom she most loved. 

Rose went to her late husband's family for help, and was rejected. She raised her daughters on her own, beginning in the 1920's, becoming an example of sheer determination and moxie to the three sisters, that would transcend the generations to come.

Ruth was wooed by a charming mechanic named Jacob. After the war, Ruth and Jacob had two daughters. Her parenting style could be characterized as demanding but also fiercely protective. She loved her daughters deeply, but often pitted them against one another. One might speculate that because of her own conflicted past she saw this as the only way to protect them and prepare them for the cruelty of the world. 

Ruth became a social worker, specializing in child advocacy. As her grandson, I once observed to her that sometimes it seemed like she was nicer to other people's kids than she was to her own. She responded by pointing out that her girls never faced the same obstacles as those other kids, who had no one else to speak for them.

Grandma Ruth was never one to shy away from saying something that made people uncomfortable, except perhaps when the uncomfortable someone was herself. But because of her I learned to be comfortable, from time to time, asking her questions that made her uncomfortable. And she was always honest with me. 

Most of my insight into my grandmother comes from our conversations. In the final week of her life Ruth reconciled the burden of her childhood with a statement she made to me and my mother. Some portion of my insight into human nature in general, must be attributed to Ruth's influence. She is still one of the most fascinating people I have ever met.

The following poem, is one of my mother's favorites of mine. My mother, Ilene, enjoyed it so much that she used the text in a work of calligraphy for her short lived business venture "Accordion Books". The accordion book with "Blood Face Back" in it was donated to the Center for Book Arts in Manhattan, where it remained on display until a theft in the 2000's.

Love can be a brutal thing, but like this uncomfortable work, it endures.

Blood Face Back

They tell stories of you.
Once upon a time we met you.
You wear a terrible scar,
Of hard times and memories of evil lore.
They told of the grandeur
Of the personality that you are,
But that was to your face.
They speak about you,
You seem, to mine eye, to hold yourself with grace.
They think poorly of you,
And voice it in their speech.
Behind your back they raise the knife
Drooling, preparing for the stab.
You are soaring like an Eagle, when they grab
The gun raised to shoot you down.
The ammunition seems to draw forth pain,
But standing at the pinnacle
It doesn’t wound or kill.
Well that is what they tell me.
How can I find truth in the words of murders?
I wait upon the hill.
When time has gone to meet with space,
When once again red seas are joined in blue,
We will meet, face to face,
To start upon the day anew.
Then all those winds of fury
Will blow on open prairie,
And we shall speak
Of the futility of anger.

Thursday, December 21, 2017

I Survived Treasure Mountain

Eighteen strong, sweating and hiking with fifty pound packs,
Three weeks deep in mid-summer, carrying our worlds on our backs,
When the red bearded man appeared in snow shoes over the pass,
G.I. Joe man Outback, waving his arms and pointing back towards the ridge.

Like beer foam, the clouds spilled over into the three-quarter basin,
And the mountain storm brewed, roiling rapidly in our direction.
We dropped our gear while he shouted us into the gully;
Scattered fetal teenagers, we thought we were going to die.

Separated from the group, and huddled on my foam pad,
Like a Muslim on a mountainside, praying in the wrong direction,
I pulled the steel rims from my face and tucked them under me.
I could hear the others at a distance, every one terrified.

Heavy, grey, billowing monsters, greedily swallowed up the sun.
When the lightning struck between us, I could feel its heat.
The hairs stood erect on my forearms. Thunder growled, and hail fell from the sky,
Like golf balls, relentlessly pelting my spine, that day on Treasure Mountain.

Up where the marmots live, they eat your socks if you leave them out,
And there is no help for miles, where the ice persists thick into July -

Then like a snap it was over, and for the others hypothermic shock set in,
But I couldn't feel it; Aged seventeen and flying high on adrenaline.

Fifteen people split and climbed inside two, three person tents,
Boys and girls in underwear huddled together for body heat,
While I collected the gear, and the three adults boiled water.
Everything would be alright, they responsibly repeated to my peers.

An hour later everyone was dressed, packed, and hiking up to base camp.
We would talk by the campfire, laughing as if it were any other repast,
As if every one of us hadn't just seen our lives flash before our eyes.
That night we tried to sleep, up there on Treasure Mountain.

Adrenaline still coursing through my veins, I tossed and turned all night.
The next morning we trained for ice climbing, but my stomach wasn't right.
That evening found me trowel-handed often, between shivers and shakes.
On the third day, finally coming down from my high, I knew I couldn't climb.

So while I cuddled in my Thinsulate, the others examined the horizontal ice sheet.
Sun beat down on its pale face like a spiteful child in judgment of those softening crystals.
Clearly no pick ax or crampon would hold fast, that final day on Treasure Mountain.
They returned to find me, trembling and feverish at over thirteen thousand feet.

Our window was closed. We struck the camp and I searched my soul,
Scrapping for the willpower to hike back down into the reassuring arms of civilization.
The very burden of existence; my pack felt heavy as lead, and my legs were tired as eternity.
My eyes trained on my feet, while my mind boiled inside a blistering flesh cauldron of fire.

This time, there was no leprechaun spotted at the end of a Rocky Mountain rainbow,
No cavern of riches guarded by a ferocious, slumbering, fire-breathing dragon,
No ancient, mislaid prospectors cache, nor long forgotten bandits stash.
Our map led us on that journey, to an entirely different vein of reward.

Now with that day a memory, through faded decades, tell me how you think I'll cave.
For I am standing now, having once been brought low up on that high ground,
Where the marmots ate my socks, and I felt the heat of lightning. You must realize,  
When the sum purpose of life was breathing, I survived Treasure Mountain.

Saturday, July 15, 2017

What Is Not Not Is

Not afraid of darkness
Not afraid of pain
Not afraid of crying in the sunshine
Or of laughing in the rain

Not afraid of looking
Not afraid to see
Not afraid of searching
What must be will be

Not bound by tradition
The status quo does not torture me
Life has never been a given
It takes effort to live free

Not one to get waylaid by emotion
Like so many others drifting blind
The combustion ignited in this soul
Fuels the flame inside my mind

Reason is my only weapon
The greatest tool I know
I can never be disarmed of it
And I take it everywhere I go

So now you've learned some things I'm not
But another fact is also true
A mind like a muscle can be exercised
The choice is up to you

The world is not all butterflies and rainbows
Not all options will always be ideal
But wishing on some shooting star
Won't help you cope with what is real

Perhaps the evidence is there before you
Or it may be fleeting as you gasp
At algebraic thoughts and variables
For some solution you strive to grasp

There is nothing wrong with the negative
It is part of what life is all about
What is not not is
To rule things in, first one must rule things out

Saturday, June 18, 2016

Ode to a Lost Friend (Farewell KingSwank)

Amidst the green of the campus,
Rolling hills and red brick halls,
With our sly winks and impish grins,
Our bond reached beyond those walls.
I had a friend who was a dreamer;
A soul imbued with the light of life.
He left this world far too abruptly -
In his wake beset shadows of internal strife.

Sometimes I wondered at what I had missed,
Or what I could have done,
Tried to bargain with the irreversible,
Ran screaming towards the darkness,
Or hurled violent curses at the blazing sun -
But then I was halted in my footsteps,
To recognize these histrionics were untoward.
My friend was never one for dwelling on the past;
He would have wanted me to move forward.

Many years prior...
Pending the admissions test for seventh grade,
And while administrators expressed their rules in sum,
We met, as he broke the droning list of don'ts and nevers,
By passing me a forbidden stick of Juicy Fruit gum.
From the very first day we ever met
One truth endured the entire while,
My friend never seemed to find a greater joy
Than when he evoked another's smile.

When my steak is cooked just perfect,
Or I'm goofing off beneath the stars,
When I am making myself productive,
Or just driving around in cars,
With every slice of hot and cheesy pizza,
And every rockin' note I hear
With every memory tinged new experience
I feel my friend is near.

Through so many experiences together,
And so many stories that we shared.
I know that I am not the only one
Who felt the warmth of how much he cared.
A presence in every room he entered,
A bridge between every divide,
He taught us to drop our petty differences
And revel in being alive.

Though he was every bit a human being
He was also more than that you see;
He lived as an example
Of the best that we can be.
He walked among us, a boon of hopeful flame;
A bounding breath of oxygen, stoking our fire,
Colliding in a relentless positron of positivity -
He could self-generate the energy to inspire...

He was a strong foster of community
Bold enough to overcome the rife,
With a royal heart as grand as everlasting love,
He charmed we celebrants, touched by his life.
A great friendship is eternal
Even after that friend has passed,
So I take his light into my thoughts
Where I know he will forever last.

Ode to you my friend,
I miss you, though you are with me.

Saturday, May 23, 2015

Lament of a Poet

This piece came to me while watching a YouTube video of Bono being interviewed by Charlie Rose, which was recorded in May 2013, but which I watched on Memorial Day weekend in 2015. Something about Bono's description of how songs come to him struck a chord with me, as it were, and the first to lines of this piece materialized in my brain.

The first stanza came suddenly, but it was in the second and third stanza that I realized subject of the piece. Consciousness however is a great deflector of magic, so that in writing poetry, the more you think you know about where you're going, or where you want to go, the harder it becomes to get there. No sooner do the ideas of a poem begin to become clear, then they also begin to evaporate. The poet is left with a turbulent internal struggle to hold onto his inspiration long enough to make a recording, and to do so while remaining honest and while avoiding contrivances.

A poem, after all, is a conversation between a poet and himself; his subconscious beliefs erupting into his conscious awareness. Honesty and Integrity are key. If the poet cannot be honest with himself, he should not expect anyone else to trust his words. Thus, if the poet cannot get it all down before inspiration leaves him, he will be forced to choose between the undesirable option of faking it, or if he is an honest man he must wait until she returns... And the truth is, she may never return.

Lament of a Poet

Words in the vapor
Songs in the spray
Echoes of a lover
From an long lost day

This is the dance
The language of life
A passionate mistress
My common law wife

Poetry floating
Like clouds through the sky
When a phrase as a sunbeam
Catches my eye

Quick as a flame
Consuming my soul
There will be no peace
‘Til the poem is whole

But my muse is a flirt
A fickle young lass
My efforts feel fleeting
For soon she must pass

No bonds could hold her
Though I tried my best
Thus this frustrated poet
Shall never find rest

My heart is a bonfire
On a beach where I wait
For my lover’s return
My passion to sate

Salty with seaweed
That seashore musk
Fills up my lungs
As day fades towards dusk

The lapping of waves
Crashing as foam
Oh where is my muse
Far did she roam

I wait beyond sunset
With hope not forlorn
A new day shall come
If I can last ‘til the morn

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

A Life Defiant

Staring at the walls
Pining for the Angel
When the Demon calls
They both want me
Clawing at my soul
Tearing at the fabric
As if it were theirs to own
Running for the door
Keep your pedestal
I’d rather stand alone
Arid integrity
Sand granules
Across a promise mirage
Blind faith
Desert sun barrage
I can see their game
But just because I understand
Doesn't mean I’ll play
Mucking the hand
Chips held in reserve
Time will tell
If we get what we deserve
Rinse and
Cleansing of my brain
Laying waste to parasites
Build a better way
Pounding on the walls
Don’t believe in Angels
Nor Demons at all
Acquiring principles
Needed to survive
With this hierarchy
Of values I can thrive
I am a man
Born for standing tall
A life defiant
Honest and True
Is worth the price
No matter what detractors do
So gentle – Never
Bring on the night
No doubt whatsoever
I can spare the light

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Screaming Heart

Well I’m screaming in my heart
Silent as I start
Drifting through a window
Soaring as I swoop low
World below is dying
But still I am flying
Scanning where you might roam
‘Cause where you are is my home

And I’m screaming in my heart
Trying to play my part
Looking like a hero
Feeling like a zero
Cold as a snow globe
Drifting like an ice floe
Doing all I can do
Trying to find you

Still I’m screaming in my heart
Hiding in my art
Searching for some meaning
Interpret what I’m gleaning
Looking for my lover
In the shadows under cover
Holding out for reason
Though sometimes it feels like treason

Now I’m screaming in my heart
Silent as I start
Playing along
Dying for this song
Alive but not free
Only you can save me
Tell me what to do
I am longing for you

Screaming in my heart
Screaming in my heart
Only silent as I start
Screaming in my heart
Trying to play my part
Hiding in my art
Screaming in my heart
Screaming for you

I am, screaming for you…