My Lover Suspects I Have a Wife

My Lover Suspects I Have a Wife
How else to explain my fascination
of late for brooks and runs and old rivers?
No errand seems complete without stopping
at some trouty stream, taking two hours
for twenty-minute trips for carry-out
Indian food. I return muddy, watered,
smelling of crayfish, tandoor chicken, nan.
Or is it in the way I show interest
in places you and I have never talked
about before?–In Chincoteague Island
where people on the beach wave at people
in the water who wave right back at them,
where small horses eat from the same hands
that hold her dearly when she finds your mail.

I’m sipping a finger of “Mango Merlot” while “Mrs. Warner” paces upstairs, anguished over the choice between flats and heels, basing her decision on metric sound effects. It’s still three hours before sunset—the witching hour—when my inner self-medicating doctor becomes an inner bartender.

Tonight’s fiasco is a rain-checked wedding reception for Julia’s friend Lisa. The theme is traditional and casual: a toast by the best man, a first dance, and utensils meant to be thrown away after using. If anyone knocks a plastic spoon against a plastic wine glass would Lisa and Wayne even hear the kissing cue? At their ages there wouldn’t be any blushing.

Lisa’s wedding party had some novelty. Most of our vow exchanges had involved men marrying men. This was only our second wedding reception—except our own—for a man and a woman. No one had come to ours since we tied our knot on the run, and Andrea’s wedding to Curdy involved carpooling with a racehorse trainer. Instead of chasing down garters on the wing we talked tricks for speed and stamina, getting the first jump and the last bob. There’s a lot to learn about gambling at an old time wedding.

Gifts are another matter. It’s one thing when the couple are in their twenties and don’t have a garage or anything. What do you buy someone who’s been buying shit for so long? Lisa and Wayne had at least 75 years of home-owner consumerism between them. It was time to start thinking about subtraction. I suggested a U-Haul rental for trips to the dump.

We settled on a cherry pie. The day before, Julia found the perfect pie tin. Instead of wrapping it, she’d bake a cherry pie in it from scratch and give it to them that way. We tossed in a bottle of dessert wine. But we realized too late we had the wrong cherries. We needed sour and all we had was sweet. Then Julia mistakenly opened the Mango Merlot, confusing its lip-colored contents with Cabernet. “Damn,” she said.

The two of us lose heart quickly. We have that much in common. “The last thing those people need is dessert,” I said. Weight was one of those tricky subjects between us. Julia is rail thin and counts her calories with decimal places. She can wear anything she wants, whereas me, well, I just dress in what I think I can get away with. Lisa was like me, an ectomorph.

Julia came downstairs like a herd of buffalo. “You decided on the heels,” I said.

“Jesus,” she said, “Are you drinking already?”

I waited outside the Hallmark store while Julia hustled in and back. She waved a card for me us to sign. “Shit,” she said. “It’s all in Spanish.”

“That’s OK,” I said. “It’s more exotic if they have to look up the meaning of what we’re trying to say.” I wrote a little note: May you always find true North, south of the border. Julia crossed it out and wrote her own little note. She drew a box around it shaped like a house. “I haven’t wasted half my life,” she said, stuffing the card into a bag filled with tissue paper. “But I have spent half my life with a pig.”

Right then I started to compose a sonnet. Sonnets were supposed to be an argument, right? Maybe some disagreed, but it seemed like the perfect form to talk about marriage, where everything always had to be so perfect just because it never was.

I composed it to myself like I always do, saying the words in my brain, repeating a phrase, turning it over. Not recommended while driving. “You want to get around this guy?” Julia said. I made a left and pulled onto Lisa’s street. Her house was dark. There weren’t any cars parked in front of it. “Maybe the party is at Wayne’s house,” I said.

My inner bartender—I’ll call him Scott—offered some critical advice. “Divorce,” he said. “That’s the whole reason I’m never getting married.”

Where Have All the Demons Gone?

The trouble with poets is that we don’t have any urban myths. devil batNo story of the mad sonneteer with hooks for hands sneaking around Lovers Lane. No legend of the cannibal food poet who ate his extended metaphor garnished with his victim’s liver comfit. Try doing a survey of occupations in the horror circuit and you’ll find camp counselors, accountants, lawyers, doctors, teachers, innkeepers. But you won’t find a single poet.

We’ve been telling the same ghost stories for 4,000 years. Everyone’s heard the endings. For the ones who fell asleep around the campfire there’s a wiki for Chaos and Gaia, and the whole Neptune slash birth of poetry thing. Oh, and that other one with snakes for hair. Turns you into a stone, right? I’d be worried if I weren’t already a couch potato.

billy collinsOld myths don’t frighten me. Charlton Heston is much scarier playing himself than playing Zeus. When was the last time you opened your door for trick-or-treat hooligans and saw kids disguised as poet laureates? Does anyone ever scream and grab his chest and say, “Christ, you scared the Hell out of me! For a second I thought you were Billy Collins!” 

Face it, hardly anything is as scary as it ever was, but poetry was never all that scary to begin with. Throw out Poe and what do you got? You got nothing. If the color is red, I bet it’s not blood. It’s probably a damned wheelbarrow.

Once in a while someone comes up with a decent creepy beginning.  “Two roads diverged in a yellow wood” could be scary if it were read by Jack Nicholson. There’s the big fork of normal expectations, and the smaller fork where anything can happen. Anything. Might even be some casual gore. Instead of Pumkinhead, Bobby Frost gives us the not exactly dark angel known as Difference.

I’m shaking in my shoes, Not!

Poetry can be engaging. It can be genuine. It can be moving. It can even be deeply satisfying. But when something stops making us fear for our lives it stops being real. Isn’t every memorable moment the answer to a bravery question? Even if we scream, the screams are the poetry too.

Go on then, dare to eat that frightening peach, even if you know that peach is wanted for murder. Eat the want. Eat the murder. This is your poem.


Dear Editor

I was so nervous submitting poems to the Carolina Quarterly in 1981 that I composed four slightly different versions of a cover letter, and—overcome by brilliant anxieties and wanting to be done with the whole affair—hastily included all of them with my poems. Mercifully they were rejected, but the editor replied with four slightly different rejection letters. It was my first lesson in irony.

Since then, I have tried to bolster my natural shyness with unnecessary formalities or excessive personal details—anything—to scatter an editor’s eye from the real purpose of the submission. In 1986, I wrote cover letters which included phrases like “Perhaps you saw the review of my short story in The Times” or “Let me tell you about my Uncle Turner…” But no one liked the bobcat story as much as I did.

Each experience writing a cover letter came with its customary discomfort, but it was the only way to dress up my work which deep down I knew wasn’t crafty enough to stand without judicious ornaments in my cover letter.

My not quite ready poems had interesting images but lacked any narrative thread to vouch them or the lyric motion that could make subject matter a little more interesting. My stories suffered similar problems. My characters were elaborate and new and strange, but to what end? They had no motivations other than their own interesting identities.

It was the era of photo-realism, long before Instagram, when our professors still remembered having had a conversation or two with Faulkner and long before similes had gone out of fashion.

The little bit of success I had publishing a story and a few poems every year was enough to make me think I shouldn’t change anything. That my work seemed consistently to be in the bottom third of the publication lessened my enthusiasm for listing credits in my bio. To this day, I normally provide three or four instead of two hundred.

Sometimes, I just like saying that my work has appeared in Plastic Tower and Industrial Decay Quarterly. Other times I emphasize university magazines, or various online tigers like Entropy to convey how up to date I am and my familiarity with the “machine.”

A few years ago I became an associate editor of Free State Review. For the first time in a thirty year career I saw thousands of cover letters. In the space of one month, August for the winter issue, and February for the summer issue, I saw every mistake I ever made since I became old enough to drink, and fight, and smoke, and vote, and drive.

For starters, editors are people. Our names are on the mastheads. Many of us have personal blogs. It is nearly impossible not to find out exactly who we are and what we dig. Address your letter by name for the appropriate genre. It’s always useful for an editor to know how the publication became one you sought for your work.

Say a few words about your story—not a plot summation—or your poems, especially if they are part of a larger cluster, and include the title or titles of each. Think of it as a way to invite the editor into your work without giving away the game. Academic and professional credentials are better to imply, not advertise.

Share one or two personal details and mention some prior accomplishments. Note: an unseemly number of people have been nominated for a Pushcart. It would be better to withhold this information from a cover letter until you have been actually selected. Always close with some contact information.

The trend of full bio notes appearing in cover letters addressed to no one in particular and broadcast to fifty markets is alarming, but only if you’re the sort of editor who is easily alarmed.

I am easily alarmed.

Say you know the editor, then what? Nothing changes really. You both know that you know each other. Leave it at that. The advantage of knowing an editor is that it becomes easier to be precise in your cover letter about your work. The important thing to remember about being rejected by someone you know—and this happens to me quite a lot as a writer—no poem or story is worth a friendship.

Bottoming Up in Kalamazoo

I love small amounts of pleasant disorientation. Peering out the 1970s window at Herndon Intermediate School during geography lessons—some hammering out there, the shop class fussing with some molten something—I missed the point Mr. Harrison was making about Detroit being east of Chicago, and Michigan, north of Ohio.compass_rose

In my mind, Chicago was closer to Baltimore, and Detroit was somewhere near Minnesota, and the great lakes were in no particular order except that some froze and sometimes dogs were lost or cars disappeared and some fish never stopped eating no matter how cold it got.

It isn’t as if I don’t have a GPS system. It plugs into my cigarette lighter port. But I resent using it. I can’t stand being interrupted while my mind wanders, when I’m actively engaged in my own disorientation. To avoid having to pay attention to traffic I prefer to settle in behind a truck that seems to be going a lot further than I.

Unless is has chickens in it. Those strange snow flurries coming out of the wind gates…

On the road I’m always vegetarian. At home I’ll eat meat if I know the animal. A steer is ready for college at about 18 months. I prefer eating one that has a PhD in something. Nothing with eyes is a good rule to follow, but if it’s old enough to need reading glasses I’m in. As for animal products, well, honey is basically bee shit, and even if I were vegan I wouldn’t spit, I’d swallow.

JYoungMy friend Joe Young had just driven to Kalamazoo, taking four days to make the trip. Something about going to your home town makes you want to camp a lot before you arrive. I was flying, but I missed my plane at Thurgood Marshall Airport by two minutes. Through the viewing window I could see its tires crawling back into its Delta belly a few hundred feet off the ground.

Instead of a long layover in Detroit, wherever that was, I laid over in Baltimore. I was giddy, and already thinking about Joe’s piece of advice: a stop to Bell’s Brewery. He’d also let it slip—and there’s no way he could have known about my river fetish—that Kalamazoo had a river. I took the information as cool as possible in spite of my attraction to snake-shaped endlessness, mysterious splashes in dark green waters, and incredibly small bridges.

My flight to Detroit outlasted my connection to Kalamazoo. I would have to rent a car and drive to Minnesota. Terrible situation, I said to Julia, who was furious at me. Inside, I was radiant, but also confused. We were driving west to Chicago. Hadn’t we flown over it already? Instead of phoning ahead to say we’d be later than expected she called Bob, her Pittsburgh lawyer, a title meant to imply he was made of tougher parts.

“There’s a nice restaurant called Bell’s Brewery,” I said.


“Do they have chardonnay?” she said. The brewery was large, more like a refinery. We stood outside, looking at a menu placard. “You might enjoy the veggie burger; it’s made out of fungus.”

“Why can’t you call them mushrooms like everyone else?” I said.

A few blocks away there were three ladder companies and dozens of black and white patrol cars parked on Portage Street. Their lights whirled but the fire brigades were mostly standing around like they were making a disaster movie.

We went to the wine bar across the street and took a table outside to watch the crews. She ordered a “Migration,” known for its oak butter entrance and almond exit. I ordered a Bell’s Oberon, known for nothing. Each thought is a mile. I would need at least a hundred of them to put us in the same bed that night, a little west of the sounds of hammering, a little north of everything else.

Jalousie: from Marcel Proust to Brian Tierney

You have to love Marcel Proust. The man got 2,000 pages from eating a cookie. I like to forage tins of pecan sandies when I write a poem, noshing myself back to puberty, to falling in love, to having something toProust write about. Then I eat too much and get sleepy. Most of my poems become dreams I can’t remember, or ones I’d rather forget like the snakes coming out of a wall, lunging and snapping at me in 1975.

No, I said to my shrink. The snakes are not a symbol for penises. She wrote something in her yellow pad and told me to wear a sporty outfit for the class photo tomorrow. My mother had been analyzing me the whole semester. She’d gone back to college for a psyche degree. I wasn’t just her son. I was her client.

Why is it so hard to forget what you don’t want to remember? If there’s such a thing as involuntary memory can’t there also be involuntary forgetting? I love the irresponsible side of involuntary anything. With “responsibility” comes pressure and pressure produces performance anxiety. Why can’t we all be Quakers, sitting quietly in the meeting house, waiting—for an hour or so without a minister—for something important to pass through us?

Why can’t sex be like that—two people lying on their backs, staring up at the dark, making astronomy from the ink, a few groans, and then morning? Instead, I suffer predictable blunders, making involuntary associations at all the wrong times.999486_10151456957361417_1647411079_n

Roll over Beethoven. The flip side of memory is desire. It had to be voluntary—as controlling even—as memory had to be spontaneous. According to Proust, jealousy is the first sign of love.

I wish I’d thought of that.

Irrational jealousy, controlling desires, involuntary memory, responsible, irresponsible, east, west, left, right; makes me so dizzy to ride this train while the steeples lurch past.

When you think of steeples do you think of penises? The thing about moms is that they show up unannounced right in the middle of your essay about the French novel. At such times it pays to send a letter to a voluntary poet in the Catskills.

“Why? Why? Why?” I begin. But I’m not talking about my mother. I’m referring to Brian Tierney. I was re-reading Proust because of him. Brian! He of the pre-Vietnam era line structure! He of the all night guitar solos! He of the beautiful bride to be! He of the Stegner Fellowship! He of the cross country trip to San Francisco with his brother. His brother!


I am so jealous of him. Sure, I’m proud of him too. But I’m mostly jealous. I am chase-him-through-the-streets-of-Paris jealous. I am so jealous that if I ate him I’d be jealous of my own shit. If Proust is right there is only one explanation: I am in love with Brian.

It’s true, his eyes have a contagious sparkle which he embellishes with a sly wink from time to time. His grin is sheepish, but it has dimples too. And his conformation! His stride has souplesse, guided by Rabelaisian kneecaps. I love that the big wide future lies before him. All I have is a scrawny past .

I confide my plan to Mark to meet up with Brian and his brother in Kansas. At the right moment I’ll offer to take the wheel and when Brian least expects, I’ll crash his side of the car into a passing buffalo.

When you think about bison…

That’s Marcel’s secret, to be irrational and logical at the same time. At the race track, trainers who are great friends sometimes run horses against each other. The one always says to the other, “If it’s not me, I hope it’s you.” So I return the RSVP to Brian’s wedding. YesOdette and I would love to come.

bt wedding

Blackjack Hydrangeas

Getting married, you gain a whole new set of parents. Toss in a few divorces—Hemingway had one for each big novel—and by age fifty there’s a dozen moms and dads in your stash of ancestor trading cards. That’s twenty-four grandparents—two platoons, half a company, one sixteenth of a regiment—making a big splash on anyone’s Normandy.Til I'm Blue

Last week I spent two days visiting my mother—the one I started with—to help with a spring clean-up about four months overdue. I packed a few metaphors like a pitchfork and a machete to bolster the effect. Tanned oak mulch mounded the bed of my pickup. On top of this was a two-wheeled cart. A determined bug-eyed look and a chin full of sweet woodruff made it seem as if my face were a bumper sticker: flowers are forever and make honey not war.

The real reason for my coming was that her mother—my grandmother Joan—had died. I wanted to make sure mom was doing OK. My mother had been planning on becoming an orphan for a few years now. She had already made arrangements with disability charities for the walker and the wheelchair and the “hospital” bed.

“Damn,” I said. “I wanted that.” The souped-up recliner had more levers than a Major Jackson love poem. It was like an easy chair on steroids. Everything we had at home was meant to be admired, not actually sat upon. I liked our house OK, but unless I were eating supper I mostly just stood around waiting for bedtime.

So it was just a few details: a strategy session with the lawyer to keep my grandmother’s medically dwindled estate out of the hands of relative gamblers like myself and others,arlington  and what to do with my grandmother’s ashes until they could join her husband at Arlington National Cemetery. With combat veterans still returning in boxes from two wars, there would be a six month delay in getting our hole dug.

My mother’s garden of good and evil definitely needed a rake job. Her passion had been hydrangeas, while my dad’s passion was lower to the ground: daffodils, day lilies, and the odd crocus. I could see where the two had been fighting the last fifteen years of their marriage. He liked to plant soldiers in a row, and preferred brick curbs to natural edging. She was the insurgent, footing an oak leaf hydrangea a little too close to his smoldering fig.

mom's actual garden not shown
mom’s actual garden not shown

“I planted 21 varieties of hydrangeas,” my mother said. “He pulled up a few, not knowing what he was doing, but when he did I told him that tree cost $800. He was such a miser, it was my way of making him suffer.”

Checking up on mom is not for the faint of heart. That day, I hand-sawed dead rose-of-Sharon branches, sheared perennials, pulled weeds like a goat. Heading out for dinner in my mother’s car I glanced at the back seat and saw my grandmother. The cremation parlor hadn’t gone digital. Her name was typed on a box label. “Don’t you think we should fasten her seat belt or something?” I asked.

At Fat Tuna’s restaurant I ate baked fish and she ate chicken, breaded with pistachios, fried, with a cream sauce on top. We’d made a special truce. I promised not to talk about her weight and she agreed not to talk about my drinking. The Guinness was more of a digestive aid anyhow. Some trainers gave it to their racehorses. I asked if she wanted to go in on one. I was sure it wouldn’t lose.

“When are you going to learn that a passbook savings account never broke a leg?”

Well, it was worth a shot. In the morning I surveyed yesterday’s sweat. Extremes are so extreme. Good? Evil? No, thank you. Hers had become the garden of the halfway decent and the not so bad. The soldiers were still in place alongside the rebel hydrangeas, but everyone seemed to be getting along. It was pretty, and complicated, the way things are meant to be.

I asked my mother about my grandmother’s final moments. My mother had been with her for twelve hours through the night, reading and re-reading an edition of the New York Times. Maybe it made her feel international. Coming from the San Saba River country in central Texas where the houses still don’t have numbers didn’t mean you couldn’t be part of the larger question—the question was big enough for all of us.

My grandmother had made a muffled noise. My mother pushed her breathing mask aside. “Anything good in the paper?” she’d asked. And then she was gone.


Opening a Little Box Called Tuesday

Sometimes I open the little box called “Tuesday” and empty the pills into my hand and wonder if my doctors are trying to kill me. Not sure what they call this feeling, may be “Healing Is Dying” syndrome. There’s probably a drug for it.20140727_124018

I became aware of death healing at the age of five or six. There were ten of us in the pediatric infectious ward—the spinal meningitis lounge—and each night someone would have the nightmare. It was like we took turns afraid of being offed by medicine.

“They’re killing me,” I’d shout in my silent dream voice, and yank out the lines running into my forearms.

It must have something to do with the impersonality of a drug that can nonetheless change your personality or turn your body’s genes inside out. Most healthy people know something can exist if it has a name. The closer you get to the last door—close enough to hear its bolt unlatching—the more you realize that most of what exists doesn’t have a name. It’s only a void because it’s so anonymous, but it’s still a real place in spite of an unspoken and unwritten language which doesn’t have any nouns or verbs or predicates.

One of my doctors calls me “Stud” in hopes it will make me feel stronger. He rings me up: “Hey stud, how are you feeling today?”

“I’ve recently begun laughing when I mean to cry,” I answer.

He recommends new blood work and a week later he tells me that there’s nothing to worry about merely because my body has stopped producing vitamin D from sunlight. “I’m a farmer,” I remind him. “I’m in the sunshine all day and all night.”

Soon, there’s another pill—a green one—pharmaceutical grade vitamin D to go with other vitamins and antibiotics and soft tissue relaxants and anti-inflammatories which can only be acquired by handing a small piece of paper to the druggist. “Remember Stud, these pills are your friends.”

A few days later it happens again, the feeling that my handful of friends are trying to kill me. They don’t seem to be real friends at all, but maybe I’d feel different about them if they had names like Bruce or Jimmie instead of rifampin.

The solution is on the death shelf. It stares me in the face. That is where I keep the fifty or so books I’d always intended to die with. I rename the prednisone Updike for the washy feeling it gives me, layered over feelings of anger. I rename the military grade vitamin B-6 Robison because it’s so small—so local—but makes a wonderful difference. John Hawkes is a much better name than isoniazid; both give my spit and my sweat a subtle metallic note. The rifampin I call Barbara DeCesare because I don’t know whether to take it or to kiss it. Plus it turns my pee a red-orange tequila sunrise color, a detail that seems would appeal to her.

Then there are the alternative medicines for which the muses supply alternative literature. Instead of calling it wheat grass extract (to oxygenate my blood) I prefer to think of it as Steve Roggenbuck. Each mid-morning I drive to a health bistro in Timonium where my ounce of Roggenbuck is cut and juiced by a kind woman who migrated here from Eastern Oregon, “Where the children are still children.”Wheatgrass_1401735968

I like knowing that Roggenbuck is responsible for turning my blood a bright festive red.

Nothing beats swallowing a handful of literature several times a day, even if I worry that so much Updike might hurt me in the end.