Days and Nights


He still sees her as she was nearly forty years ago.  While he recognizes the marks that time has chiseled on her face and body and the streaks of gray in her hair, he still can see her at twenty four, in the backyard of the property they still live on, amongst the piles of leaves they’d been raking, her deep green eyes lighting up her face.

She sees him as he is, too thin, gaunt, with the remaining hair left on his head having turned pure white. Every morning, she wakes up with him beside her, and when she looks at him, she sees a clock, counting down the days left until the morning comes that his side of the bed will be empty and cold.

They’d bought the house, a simple 1200 square foot ranch on a two and a half acre parcel on a remote dead end road in what was left of a sleepy small town that was in the final stages of being consumed by the spreading sprawl of suburbia, in November of 1984.  She worked seven miles to the north as a paralegal in a local law firm, while he was working as a computer programmer /analyst at the power plant nine miles to the south. He was 26 years old, she was 24.   They’d been married for a little bit more than three years.

Now, in 2019, they still live in the same house, having added a second floor and doubling the living space in 1998.   They raised three children, two sons and a daughter, all grown and successful and on their own now. His career ended in 2012, when the Parkinson’s Disease he was diagnosed with in 2004 progressed to the point to make working too difficult.

In  2015, he survived the severe blockage of three arteries and triple bypass surgery

After the heart surgery, he lost twenty five, then thirty, then thirty-five pounds, thanks to a new regime of diet, exercise, and a combination of a statins and baby aspirin that cut his overall cholesterol in half, by more than a hundred points.  Weighing the same as he did when he graduated high school was a source of pride until thirty five became forty and forty forty five.  When forty five became fifty pounds without even trying, he became concerned. The diagnosis confirmed their worst fears.

They both struggled dealing with the news.  For the first couple of days and nights, things were uncharacteristically quiet between them. She was consumed by fears of what life would be without him, how she’d cope with the emptiness that would consume the house they’d lived in all these years.

He spent most of the time in his head, replaying memories like Youtube videos. He kept returning to that Saturday in December of 1984 and he came to the conclusion that it ranked right up there with the birth of his children among the best days of his life.

It was a brisk and grey late autumn day, and it was just her and him, the rest of the world didn’t exist, each raking and burning their own piles of leaves, underneath the two giant maple trees in their yard. They’d only owned the place for a month, and though they’d raked leaves many times before, this was the first time they raked their leaves that fell from their trees onto their lawn. And that was all, the world belonged to them, and it was such heady and intoxicating stuff that is was inevitable they’d end up in bed, making love in the early afternoon. He remembered how she looked and felt, the warm smoothness of her skin, the smell of smoke in her hair, the sweet taste of her kisses, and the perfection of how their bodies fit together.

Returning to the deep night of 2019, he rolled over in the darkness and wrapped his arm around her waist, and she clasped his hand in hers.  They both lay there, awake with their eyes closed in the dark, somewhere between their best and last days together.

 

I Am Smoke


I wake in the diminishing daylight and I am smoke,

rising from red burning embers in a campfire

in an open field on the top of a high ridge.

I rise higher and higher above the red and blue flames and the white hot coals,

leaving the warmth of the fire and floating on the breeze,

feeling the chill of the late afternoon air,

above and over the trees,

carried on the breeze,

dissolving into the wind,

until I melt into and become the wind,

making the leaves on the trees tremble and shake.

I move out past the ridge and over the river,

pushing small blue lines that silently glide across the water.

The trees that line the water’s edge

are leaning and bowing in silent deference to me.

I lift dead leaves from the ground and breathe life into them,

making them dance in the cool air.

I make flags wave and I whisper through pine trees.

I am silence and grace,

I am young and old,

I am familiar and comforting,

and threatening and foreboding.

I am life and I am death.

I am the sum of my contradictions.

 

I find her,

working in her garden,

and I wrap myself around her.

She bundles her jacket tight around her shoulders as I move through her hair,

lifting and caressing it,

until she turns around,

and I caress her cheeks and fill her lungs.

I brush her skin and make goose bumps rise.

I taste her and she tastes me,

and she becomes fire,

ignited by my breath,

and I am the smoke she exhales from her red and blue flames

 

 

8-15-19


I’d give up my sight

rip the eyes right out of my head

just to see you again

 

and I’d cut off my feet

and sever my legs

just to stand beside you again

 

I’d tear the flesh from my bones

and bleed every drop of my blood

just to brush my hand against yours

 

I’d cut out my tongue

and never speak again

just to taste your kiss

 

and I would die again

a thousand times and more

just to sleep in your arms

 

but I couldn’t breathe, not even a breath

the morning sun couldn’t rise

if my searching fingertips couldn’t find

 

the smooth warmth of your skin

Fear and Loss: The Boss at 70


A couple of weeks ago, about three months in advance of his seventieth (!) birthday, Bruce Springsteen released his nineteenth studio album, Western Stars. It’s unlike anything he’s done before while remaining unmistakably Bruce.  It’s the voice in his lyrics and the characters he speaks through that  hasn’t changed.

Musically, it’s almost entirely acoustic, but unlike previous acoustic masterpieces like Nebraska  and The Ghost of Tom Joad, it’s much more than Bruce in a chair with an acoustic guitar and a harmonica.  Instead, it’s filled with lush, country-ish orchestral arrangements that hearken back to the late 60s and early 70s work of Harry Nilsson and  especially the hit making collaborations of Glen Campbell and Jimmy Webb; sounds of the American west, particularly Arizona and Southern California. Musically, it’s about as far away from the New Jersey sound of guitars and saxophones as one could get without leaving the USA.

Thematically, the album is about fear and isolation, love and death, all things he’s sung about before, but never as openly and urgently.

To summarize the themes of the album, let’s take a look at what in my humble opinion are its two best songs.

In the song “Western Stars,” Springsteen takes on the role of a washed up cowboy actor who is barely hanging on, to life, sexual potency, and relevance.  The song opens with the character pleased to be simply waking and that he hasn’t been taken to “the whispering grasses” of Forest Lawn cemetery.

Then he’s at work, filming a television commercial, refusing the makeup girl’s offer of a shot of gin and raw eggs in favor of a Viagra for an unidentified lover.

We’re only into the first verse, and, as is one of his gifts, Springsteen has told us everything we need to know in as few words as possible. We know this is a guy consumed with fear; fear of death, fear of sexual impotence.

The incredible second verse shows us more:

Here in the canyons above Sunset, the desert don’t give up the fight
A coyote with someone’s Chihuahua in its teeth skitters ‘cross my veranda in the night
Some lost sheep from Oklahoma sips her Mojito down at the Whiskey Bar
Smiles and says she thinks she remembers me from that commercial with the credit card

Nature is still exerting its dominance even amongst the encroachment of real estate represented by the reference to Sunset Boulevard. The desert remains a dark and wild place, a place where coyotes prey upon landowners’ small dogs. Then the verse takes a turn, referencing a new face, “some lost sheep from Oklahoma”, and the predator and prey metaphor is made, although it’s really not clear who is predator and who is prey.

The next verse had me puzzled for a bit, but the video I think helped clear it up for me:

Some days I take my El Camino, throw my saddle in and go
East to the desert where the Charros, they still ride and rope
Our American brothers cross the wire and bring the old ways with them
Tonight the western stars are shining bright again

“Charros” are Mexican cowboys who observe the old ways of doing things.  These days, it seems doubtful that they are still riding around the southwest U.S.  In the video, Springsteen is alone in this part of the song.  I think the sight of them “riding and roping” is illusory, that they are merely ghosts and that the old ways, like the singer himself, are fading and fading fast.

The next verse is devastating:

Once I was shot by John Wayne, yeah, it was towards the end
That one scene’s bought me a thousand drinks, set me up and I’ll tell it for you, friend
Here’s to the cowboys, riders in the whirlwind
Tonight the western stars are shining bright again
And the western stars are shining bright again

All he has left that’s of any interest to anybody is the same old story about how he was once shot by  the  Duke himself in a movie that has to be at least forty five years old now.  He’s been getting drinks off of that story ever since, and he offers to tell it again if you’re willing to pay the price.  He then raises a toast to all the cowboys, “riders in the whirlwind,” and we’re not sue if he’s referring to real cowboys or the movies version, western “stars” like John Wayne.

The song reaches its conclusion:

Tonight the riders on Sunset are smothered in the Santa Ana winds
And the western stars are shining bright again

The “cowboys riding in the whirlwind” have been replaced by commuters down Sunset Boulevard  “smothered in the  Santa Anna winds.”

The singer is left alone, aging, and irrelevant to the “riders on Sunset.”

. . .

“Moonlight Motel” closes the album out, and it’s as great a song as Springsteen has written in a long, long time. 

The song begins with the narrator looking back into his past, and his memories are rich with sensory detail that has retained its grip on him even after the passing of an unspecified period of time:

There’s a place on a blank stretch of road where
Nobody travels and nobody goes and the
Deskman says these days ’round here
Where two young folks could probably up and disappear into
Rustlin’ sheets, a sleepy corner room
Into the musty smell
Of wilted flowers and lazy afternoon hours
At the Moonlight Motel

The images are vivid and multi-layered, reflecting both the physical decay of the Motel and the aging of the narrator. The details that Springsteen chooses and the language he uses to describe them are nothing if not poetic:

Now the pool’s filled with empty, eight foot deep
Got dandelions growin’ up through the cracks in the concrete
Chain-link fence half-rusted away
Got a sign, says, “Children, be careful how you play”
Your lipstick taste and your whispered secret
I promised I’d never tell
A half-drunk beer and your breath in my ear
At the Moonlight Motel

The images of rust and decay are balanced with memories of the intimacy the lovers shared.

In the next verse, the responsibilities and routine of the everyday eat away at that intimacy, and it’s interesting that Springsteen gives us precious little information about the woman that is being remembered so powerfully.   Is he describing an extramarital affair? Or is it an ex-wife? Is he a widower? All we know is that for whatever reason, she’s gone, and he’s alone, feeling a profound sense of loss


Well then, it’s bills and kids and kids and bills
And the ringing of the bell
Across the valley floor through the dusty screen door
Of the Moonlight Motel

In the next verse, she visits him in a dream, and the wind blows icy cold.  He wakes up to something she said, that “it’s better to have loved.” His sense of loss is so powerful that he is compelled to drive to the motel in the middle of the night:


Last night I dreamed of you, my love
And the wind blew through the window and blew off the covers
Of my lonely bed, I woke to something you said
That it’s better to have loved, yeah, it’s better to have loved
As I drove, there was a chill in the breeze
And leaves tumbled from the sky and fell
On a road so black as I backtracked
To the Moonlight Motel

The images of the drive to the motel, of  “a chill in the breeze” and leaves tumbling from the sky to land on “a road so black” are beautiful and haunting even as they represent death, and it becomes clear that the lover being longed for has died.

He arrives at the motel only to find it “boarded up and gone.”  He pulls into his old spot in the parking lot and pours two shots of Jack Daniels and says his last goodbye to things once important to him – his lover, the motel and his  youth:

 She was boarded up and gone like an old summer song
Nothing but an empty shell
I pulled in and stopped into my old spot

I pulled a bottle of Jack out of a paper bag
Poured one for me and one for you as well
Then it was one more shot poured out onto the parking lot
To the Moonlight Motel

In   the end,  the guy in “Moonlight  Motel” isn’t the tragic figure of ”Western Stars,” he’s just a guy, the same guy  who’s inhabited so many of Springsteen’s songs for close to fifty years now. In Western Stars, we find this guy carrying the same baggage of loss and fear that we all carry as we approach our final destination.   By recognizing and exploring this baggage, Springsteen makes it a little lighter  for us to carry.

Rabbit Hunting


Railroad tracks

on the east side of town

by the bridge over 67th Avenue.

Rabbit hunting.

I’m seventeen years old.

A fresh coat of snow on the ground.

Cold wind slaps my face.

My single shot 20 gauge loaded and cold in my hands,

a half dozen six-shot shells in my coat pocket.

Late afternoon,

sun is sinking on the horizon,

painting the sky watercolor pink

with wide swathes between the grey clouds.

From the top of the elevated tracks

I see a patch of gray moving in the thickets of brush

at the bottom just ahead of my brother.

I raise my shotgun to my shoulder and point it at the first opening

ahead of the rabbit, slide the safety off,

and wait,

no more than a second or two,

for the opening to be filled.

I squeeze the trigger.

The shotgun explodes,

rabbit tumbles over its front legs

In Peckinpah slow motion

and abruptly stops, lying motionless in a thicket,

a drop of red in the snow next to its mouth.

As the echo of the shotgun blast fades

and the gusts of wind pause,

the whole world falls still

if only for an instant,

for eternity.

June


A group of five writers

sitting at a table on the patio of an Irish pub

on a glorious June afternoon.

Easy conversation floating on the breeze

like an exhausted butterfly gliding,

too tired to flap its wings.

 

Dark clouds rush in

and chase them to a table inside

where they stay, even after the dark clouds move out,

and the sky grows bright,

when the subject of suicide comes up.

One of them casually mentions a half-hearted

attempt as a teenager,

another describes in detail how Sylvia Plath locked herself

in the kitchen and put

towels under the door.

Another remarks that pills more often than not

fail, leading only to vomiting and pumped stomachs.

The only certain way to do it is with a gun,

and someone else points out

that men tend to use guns more than women do,

as if that were profound.

 

I contribute nothing to the conversation

because I know nothing about suicide.

Instead I watch through the window

as you glide by on the breeze,

orange and black,

too tired to flap your wings.

Make Me Blind Again


Make me blind again

to the shadows of indifference

that spread across unfertile black fields.

I’ve seen your cold emptiness

and I’ve felt your bitter cynicism

take root in my heart.

 

Make me blind again

to the ravages of time

in my morning mirror.

Weathered wrinkles of shame

and failure and fear accusing me

of crimes only I know I’ve committed.

 

Make me blind again

to the white capped waves of regret

lapping on shores of sorrow;

my footprints left behind

in the intractable sand of the beach

of things said and done.

 

Make me blind again

to the bubbling poisons of disease

and the toxic fumes they emit.

Make me blind again to the inevitability and clarity

with which I see a future

of diminishment and loss.

 

Make me blind again

to the darkened skies and barren trees

of the black forest of death.

Make me blind again to all I know

because seeing nothing is the same

as seeing everything.

Poets


I’m currently the longest serving member of the Kenosha Writer’s Guild, coming up on ten years since I attended the very first meeting, where the Guild was born.

These days, the Guild remains as vibrant and alive as it’s ever been.  Membership has turned over several times, and with the departure of many seemingly indispensable members, there have been lean times where we wondered if we were going belly up. But it seems like each departure has been followed by fresh and talented new faces with energies that have reinvigorated the Guild. It’s all a part of the evolution of what we were to what we are. I am still honored to be a member of the group and take my role as a member of the Guild’s steering committee seriously, as we branch out into new and exciting landscapes.

Over the years, we’ve lost about as many people as we’ve gained.  Some quickly concluded that we weren’t their exact cup of tea and some relocated, to places as far away as the United Kingdom and New York. Others have had career changes.  Some who’ve left have and will return again and sadly, we’ve been around long enough that some won’t, not because they might not want to, but because they can’t.  So it is with every family – eventually, there will be an empty chair at the dinner table.

The second longest serving member is my good friend, the extraordinarily gifted writer and visual artist, Darleen Coleman. Darleen has been a member since the second meeting, or one fewer meetings than I have attended. I make a point to never let her forget that compared to me, she’s just a newbie.

A hobby of Darleen’s is collecting “junk,” or “junking.” Her passion for junk frequently leads her to estate sales.

So it was when she happened to stop by an estate sale a couple of months ago only to discover that the estate was that of Marguerite Mclelland, a member of the guild up until her death in 2015.  Marguerite was born in 1943 in the Alsace Lorraine area on the border of France and Germany.  In other words, she was born at the intersection of the chronological and geographic epicenters of World War two. She never knew her father, who was killed on the eastern front before she was born.

We in the guild didn’t get to know Marguerite until 2013 or 2014, when she joined our little group. We knew her as an utterly charming and good -natured woman who was also a very talented writer of poetry and prose.  She published a book about her childhood memories, “Stories from the War.” It’s a very well written collection of poetry and prose, of which you can hear some KWG members reading from here:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WgATnG6rbUM&t=2141shttps://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WgATnG6rbUM&t=174s

Darleen was quite surprised that the estate she was checking out was none other than Marguerite’s.  Knowing this, and remembering Marguerite’s passion for poetry, she couldn’t resist paying a couple of bucks for the thin paper-backed collection of poems and prose entitled “Ginsberg Speaks.”  Published in 1983, it contains about 35 pages of work by local writers, with its centerpiece being an interview with Allen Ginsberg by the Kenosha writer, Michael Schumacher.  When Darleen got home with the book, she opened it up and was surprised to see, in the table of contents, several poems attributed to another last name she recognized: “Gourdoux.”

I’d forgotten that my oldest brother, Mike, used to dabble in poetry. I’d forgotten about the pamphlet that published his poems. All I know is I didn’t understand very much about poetry at the time. It turns out there were plenty of other things I didn’t understand, either.

Mike was the oldest of four children. I was third, born a little more than six years after Mike. Growing up, he always seemed light years older than me. He also seemed to be, as far back as I can remember, the smartest person I ever knew. My interests closely followed his, and as his broadened, so did mine. First was professional sports, then music, rock and roll, then movies, and then books.

In 1971, a year after graduating high school, and after finishing a couple of semesters at UW-Parkside, he signed up for a three year stint in the Army, coming home in October of 1974. Those years, between 1970 and 1975, when I was between 12 and 17 years old, were the closest we’d ever be. In those years, he openly shared with me all of his knowledge about the aforementioned topics and more, including philosophy, the subject he’d changed his major to. To this day, I owe my love for those things to Mike.

One thing he didn’t share with me that I had no clue of until years later was his considerable expertise in substance abuse. What started out as a mild curiosity in high school,  in the army, in Germany, exploded into a major obsession, and he experimented with just about everything.

Sometime around 76, things changed. Mike was still living at home, and I was growing up.  Mike was having trouble holding on to a job, and he was going to school, pursuing his philosophy degree.  It was around this time that he essentially moved out of our shared room to a room in the basement, where he consumed case after case of Andeker beer.  We grew apart, into our own and separate corridors of loneliness, neither one of us realizing how much we needed each other, how much we could have and should have been helping each other.  Instead, we put miles between us, Mike taking a couple of Kerouac inspired trips to California and me moving to and working in northwestern Wisconsin.

In December of 79, after being laid off from my job at the window factory up north , I returned home, got a job, and signed up for night school, where I met my everything. In 1981, I married her; in 84, I started what would turn out to be a career in I.T.   Between 1985 and 1994 my wife gave birth to our three children.

Mike, meanwhile, continued to struggle. For a brief time he had a job in California digging out swimming pools. He’d return home and spend months at my parents’ property in Northwestern Wisconsin.  In the early eighties, when he wrote the poems Darleen found, he was living a hermit-like existence in a cold and unending winter.  Meanwhile, with a demanding job, a growing family, and some 330 miles between us, I didn’t have much time for Mike, but when we did get together, the spaces between us would fade and vanish and we’d discuss the Packers, Nietzsche, Jack London, and whatever else we felt like tapping into. He was such a great guy. Anyone who spent time with him knew that, and would leave feeling better than before they arrived.

Sometime in the late 80s or early 90s, Mike was diagnosed with depression. I heard the word but I didn’t appreciate the extent of its meaning. Looking back on it now, I wonder how I couldn’t understand the pain he was living with, and I wonder how alone he must have felt while I went back to my family, my wife and kids.

I’m not self-centered enough to think that I caused Mike’s death. There are multiple specifics that I know directly contributed.  But while I may not have caused his suicide in 2010, I did nothing to prevent it, either.

Now, my kids are grown and have left home. I have nothing but time, time to remember, and time to forget. There is so much I could learn if Mike were still alive.

In recent months, thanks to the encouragement of several members of the guild, I’ve become interested in reading and especially writing poetry. When Darleen gave me the book she bought at Marguerite’s estate sale, I realized that Mike and I once again shared a common interest, and that, as usual, he’d developed a deeper understanding of the form than I probably ever will.

It’s so easy for me to see now in his poems what I couldn’t see the first time I read them, back in the mid- eighties. Now when I read them, with the added weight of regret and time, they reverberate with despair and anguish and beauty that is overwhelming in its sadness:

               My night bird is an owl

                and flies with the borealis and the stars

                to look down upon them

                from the static of their antennae skies.

                It sits in dark lamp-lit rooms

                with books on shelves

                and remembers a shadowy figure

                standing by a river in the woods.

 

Back when I was a teenager, I remember Mike telling me that one of his favorite bands was Ten Years After, and one of his favorite albums was their masterpiece, “A Space in Time.” While the album includes a lot of great deep tracks, the best remains the justifiably famous “I’d Love to Change the World.”

Now, in 2019, approaching ten years after Mike’s death, I’d love to change the world and go back to a space in time where Mike still lives.

 

I’ve Seen You


I”ve seen you
in the weathered faces of strangers
emerging from shadows.
Older women
with wrinkled faces
and light blue eyes,
you for only a moment,
then random strangers again

I’ve seen you,
In bright dreams you come back,
sitting upright at our old dining room table,
strong and healthy,
your brain free from malignancy.
I want to touch you, smell your hair,
but the shadows are already lengthening
and soon darkness overtakes you
until I wake up and you are gone,
the night as dark as a womb

I’ve seen you
in the face of the granddaughter
you met at the intersection of death and birth,
where souls collide, you on your way to joining
the green cosmic dust of the night sky
that lights her way through the journey
of her lifetime.

I’ve seen you
draw your last breath a thousand times,
death severing the cord that connected us and
sending me adrift in the inky and unending blackness
of the cosmos
until the next time I see you
and you become Mother and I become Son again,
warm and safe,
tethered to your infinite and unending soul
by a single thread of your grey hair.

 

Dreams Do, Too


As I approach the end, time accelerates,
and more is lost than gained.
One by one the functions fall
until I become immobile, a statue,
ensconced in flesh and blood.
Then you will become the moon and I the tide
and in your pale thin light 
you’ll find me,
waiting for you to exert your magnetic pull
to free the steady waves of my breathing
to obey the rhythm of our shared and beating heart,
the music of our souls, our bare feet gliding 
over the wet sand .
 
And the day is coming when I’ll fall mute,
unable to utter even a whisper,
and when the end is upon me
I will speak your name loud and clear
in a voice not heard in years.
 
And long after I’m gone
I will return to you,
young and strong again,
In the lifetime of the dream 
we’ve lived all these years
 
One after another
the nightmares all come true
But you and I, we know 
that sometimes,
dreams do, too.








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