Those of you who occasionally read the drivel I post on this site may have noticed a recent plethora of mediocre poetry. This is mainly due to the fact that I’ve recently developed an interest in poetry. As amateurish as my poems have been so far, I chalk the dearth of quality up to the fact that I’m still learning the craft and remain a stumbling novice.
That was until tonight. Tonight, I finally broke through and wrote something that is undeniably good if not great. Best of all, it’s in the form of a haiku, and even better yet, it’s related to the holiday season.
Here without further ado is my masterpiece:
What's the Deal With Egg Nog
Egg nog in July
would be just as refeshing
as in December
Thanks, and Merry Christmas from DBD!!!
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.
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.
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:
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.