Umpqua

(For Chris Mintz & John Hanlin)

 

According to Everytown for Gun Safety, the incident is the 45th shooting at a school so far this year

 

It is gray and cold in Boston but I’m thinking of ice cream and home.

Because Oregon is next to Washington and I’ve driven through Roseburg

on the way to Crater Lake. Because Umpqua is a bank

and a brand of ice cream I like

and that’s all it should ever have been

to me. It’s a river, a national forest

or the word “satisfied” in a dead language

from a dead tribe displaced before our Civil War,

when mass shootings were a matter of business,

unremarked and unreported but remembered.

 

So far

When does an event recur enough to lose its place as news?

When did an editor decide to not report a suicide because he knew

it would only cause more death?

When did we forget that there’s no such thing as bad publicity?

When we will know the life history of a broken man

while the lives that matter will be plastered on a banner,

faces like marks on a scorecard.

When I can count on one hand until next time,

0 days since the last…

When fame is merely the flick of a finger away.

We will keep having one conversation,

reloading words in the same jammed revolver.

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Like the fool on a horse
you charge into the fray of a battlefield
no one else can see. You carry arrogance
like a torch to light up a cave,
but you’re in the backyard swinging sticks
at enemies imagined, erecting your own
roadblocks to trip on, and rallying
half-melted army men to your righteous cause.
You’ve thought yourself armored,
blind and deaf to an unarmed adversary
who doesn’t even know there’s a fight.
Consider a change of course
before you hit that cliff.
You see each troop on the board,
you’ve trained every day,
and your strategy is flawless,
but you’re playing with yourself.

Only one swing stands in Servian Rome
          a gate and painted fence guard
where it waits in the fossa
– grass-choked –
of an ancient bathhouse exedra

At the peak of each swing
          a crown nods
up and down on the Colossal skull
severed by a sidewalk from the Foro Romano

A tree-lined street stops at Aventine’s top
          in a round park with this stray dog
so keen to chase cones
his grinning lips drip red

In our hunt for that swing
     we find a door locked tight of iron and oak
with notes from a fete to hint us in
          so we peek
through the keyhole to see what awaits

Past an old stone arch wobble balls of light
to mar the sunset skyline of St. Paul’s
          looming like summer
     over other dusky duomo

We crave to join the masquerade
that sang us to this place
          but only empty masks remain
     staring from tabletops
while withered ribbons swing in the wind

Each bookmark placed is a parcel of memory
stopping time at the right page. Some are simple:
fancy slips with bookstore names engraved,
gifts from nervous friends unsure what to buy
the reader in their life or floppy dog-eared corners
marking a spot once thought important.
Others are improvised, like the receipt from last night’s shared pitcher,
a business card from a barber I’ll never call,
the six of hearts broken by one hole punch, or a two dollar bill
I’ll never spend anyway.

One in ten outshine the books they mark,
like the Roman bus pass that plucks me from any page
to be dropped off at the Villa Borghese where Daphne forever
chooses heartwood over Apollo, the name-tag
worn the first time my expertise was called,
a napkin scrap smeared with bloated lines
of rhymes my 17-year-old self thought
would hook the cheerleader so perfect
she must emerge each morning from tupperware,
or the picture of me on Christmas morning 1983,
buried in paper with my red PJs on holding tight to a book
I no longer remember.

Transference

It began at the reading room in the Boston Public Library. Much has changed these past three months, and I struggle to imagine my life before. But I was there, in that vaulted room, studiously ignoring the other patrons as I scribbled my doggerel into a thin moleskin notebook, freshly acquired for this outing. I was there early under the pretense of “getting some work done” on the collection of poems I intended to publish in Clean Your Stanza, the literary journal I had founded at Suffolk. I needed to get away from the hubbub and olfactory assault created by the bros in my dormitory, but I also knew that this was the best place off campus to meet the kind of naively pseudo-intelligent young ladies who were so inexorably drawn to me.

My mustache was freshly waxed and raised into a curl that would have made Salvador Dali melt with envy. My faded purple Keffiyeh was bunched around my neck to bring my ivory-pale skin and perfectly unkempt curls into stark contrast with my checkered trilby and black, horn-rimmed glasses. The American flag T-shirt I wore under my cardigan made me the picture of irony, and I could feel the eyes of lusty young coeds trying desperately to unravel the knot of mystery visibly twisting through my being.

I didn’t notice him at first. He was just some unfortunate urban mid-lifer probably here in hopes of bettering his life by reading the literature of my forefathers. Clearly not worthy of my attention. I am still unsure whether he was actually reading the words or just flipping the pages back and forth to absorb what culture he could through osmosis. He sat across from me nearly obscured by the six or seven hardbound books stacked neatly before him. Once he caught my attention, however, I could think of little else.

I remember nothing of his appearance save the stygian shade of his skin, but his mannerisms were unforgettable. He rocked back and forth in his chair, smiling inwardly and muttering to himself subvocally. His eyes darted about as though searching for some unseen adversary. He never made eye contact even once I began staring at him unapologetically. At first I thought he may be schizophrenic, or afflicted with one of countless other maladies of the mind so common to our modern society. Upon closer inspection I saw what seemed to be a calculated fear in his eyes. He was fully aware of his surroundings, but whatever the rest of us were unaware of was a far greater concern for the poor man.

Thinking he would make an excellent subject to write about, or at least worthy of a hearty chuckle later, I pulled out my iPhone and captured a quick video. Only then did I notice the titles of what he had gathered.  The Oxford Encyclopedia of Ancient Egypt, The Egyptian Book of the Dead, The Dictionary of Demons, The Encyclopedia of Demons and Demonology, The Black Arts: A Concise History of of Witchcraft, Demonology, Astrology, and Other Mystical Practices. What was really going on here? I had to know more. I stopped recording and cleared my throat to inquire into the nature of his studies. The moment I put my phone away the man blinked several times, shook his head to clear it, and stood up from our table. He smiled at me in the friendly way one does to a passersby on the street, and swiftly walked away. He grabbed only the newspaper and left the books without a second glance.

1.

It’s Christmas night and the stars on the ground outnumber the infinite

sky. Seattle stretches clumsily toward the foothills like a young lover,

unsure where to rest her hand. Streetlights shoot tendril trails,

take root in evergreen lungs, and as mountains grow alveoli fade

until only the resting Cascade black remains. I am wishing

I was asleep. I am wishing the drugs would kick in so my somnambular

musings could trip-fall into dreams. I am wishing my questions

had answers as simple as equations.

After breakfast
dad leads me downhill from my childhood home
to where the creek broke its bed like a child outgrowing the cradle.

In black boots we dig deep to scar new lines in the soil as flood-
waters threaten to wash us away like the last dam of logs and rocks
now scattered downstream. His plan now to roll new stones
buried deep in the loamy forest to close the gap
with an unmoving wall.

We grunt, groan, and sweat, pry by rotten logs and break free
a boulder from the hemlock’s roots. We roll and pile inside
the water we want to slow.

As the pond fills above our buried cairn
I wonder what it is inside that forces men
to reroute around themselves.