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Creative Writing

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.

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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.

Many, if not all, of these poems have appeared on this blog in various drafts. I hope you enjoy the fruits of my labors these last few months.

-Shane

Stars

languish on the limpid

dermis of a lake,

 

beyond the reach of skeletal trees

and the silk moon’s rippling sheen:

 

ten thousand forgotten faces.

 

Trojan Yogurt

 

Today we think of the Greeks

at breakfast. Their legacy protein-rich,

smuggling probiotics to fortify our guts;

a low-fat alternative to the fried meals

preferred by barbarians.

 

Like that other Attic invention,

the final product is too evenly distributed

for American tastes. It’s a messy process,

but still better than those other forms

that have been tried from time to time.

 

Unable to stomach bland egalitarianism,

we bribe our bowls with berries,

lobby mothers for granola,

and whisper honey into every spoon

when we think her back is turned.

 

We know our portions aren’t equal, but we keep

our bowls hidden from other jealous eyes,

sneaking in the sweetest parts

like soldiers waiting to conquer.

 

Slurping broth at the bottom of a bowl of pho

 

You stare into the red-broth dregs at the bottom:

a slurry of noodle, sprouts and sriracha sauce. No need

to finish but you do it anyway, for her. She always liked

see you cringe as the heat hit.

It starts as a slow burn on your tongue’s tip,

quickly catches fire and rages through your palate.

You sweat, red-faced with a flowing nose,

a tingle moves from mouth to mind,

you transcend time. Blink and you’re back home:

Ebey’s Landing, where mountains loom

through clouded cowls. Baker, Rainier, and the Olympics

can each be seen from the trailhead

where she smiles to see it all for the first time.

You run down the bluff toward the snarling cape

of emerald-white waves and she twirls

the axis of your world. Exhale and return to steamy

windows and that faded mural of painted cedars

and a single frozen eagle, floating forever with his catch

just out of reach.

 

Blocked Lines

 

Grandpa’s passing robbed me of my pen, like frost

from a cool mourning blurring my mind’s eye.

Plots thinned and characters shallowed. I still tried,

but each line seemed tired and trite, too much lost

in abstract thought and smoke-haze. The cost

Of four years bolted to the same sofa getting high

is a stack of scratched-out notebooks to tell the lie.

No way not to write but no lines left uncrossed.

 

I cannot embrace this urge to erase

each line forever. Smothered light searches for a slit

to shine through, as I search for words to place:

a struggle on blank sheets for what might fit.

Grandpa smiles down and I know I can’t waste

one more verse written, only to omit.

 

Notes on Meaning

 

Each day the luthier works

in the dusty shop below his home.

He bends wood to shape,

carves holes for sound, and pulls

string from tail to scroll

then draws his bow to try the tune.

 

Years after he’s gone,

his work lives on in the soul

of every sounded note

she plays. The violin was a gift

from her dad, who loves the way that

music makes her eyes light up

 

as though she might finally speak.

Now he lives to watch her play

from his seat beside the stage.

As she sways, strikes

bow to bridge, he leans in so his wet eyes

may catch hers.

 

Play Acting

 

The boy inside you yearns to burst free

from the suit you wear to smother him

He longs for days when a bicycle wasn’t a vehicle

but a saddle to ride with a lance or six-shooter

when you climbed each tree with a branch you could reach

when you ran until you couldn’t

when ice cream stains on your cheeks

meant the day was won

 

You know he’s still in there

not transformed to the man at a desk

on the 34th floor waiting for his 11am

but the towhead looking out the window

as he folds a paper airplane to soar

 

This fatigue is more than can be cured

by day hike dates from OkCupid

or every streaming video on the Internet

You’ve forgotten your father’s smile

and what it meant

when spinning on the tire swing

 

The boy remains

beside the young man and the dreamer

wondering why you pass so many parks

on the way to buy vegetables

and how you can sit still for eight hours

as the whole day passes outside

 

He’s the reason you still take

a new route for each trip

why an unclimbed tree feels like failure

why you stop to smell the fresh-cut grass

why you still make time for ice cream.

 

Beach Bums

 

We build camp in the gap

where a gnarled log fort

lets in sky. You stack

driftwood sticks,

I rip sheets of past sins

to burn.

 

Zeus, the rottweiler

who chose to join us,

stands sentinel outside the light,

thundering at each rustling thing

like his Olympian namesake. Before life

 

fractures the frame of our best-laid plans

before love and full-time jobs

take all our time. We’re warriors

living in our moment of the possible.

 

We watch night trip and fall

to scatter stars to the gloam;

drinking 151 from a sandy bottle

we ponder the ineffable flame

in a dim pile of coals.

 

Our futures are painted

in Perseid streaks and we know one day

we’ll take off.

 

Almost Lucy Temerlin

 

“Would she learn to love us, and, perhaps, have other human emotions as well? Would she be well behaved, rebellious, intelligent, or stupid?”

-Maurice K. Temerlin

 

Lucy almost always you. Almost my bouncing baby girl, my perfect

experiment, but never just anything. Never

the chimp you saw in the mirror, not quite the lass

in a gingham dress with a cup of tea and a hug

 

as wide as the room. Two years to grow

from tea parties with dolls to gin guzzling and leering at men

in dirty magazines. Too quick a switch from my sweet girl

to a simian whirlwind. We taught you to sign and you learned

 

to lie. I wish I’d never known you, Lucy. Never known that almost

girl who grew to love too much. You cared for your kitten,

caught a fish from my balcony and handed it to me smiling.

You mixed a gin and tonic to celebrate your womanhood.

 

I still dream of you and of the girl you almost grew to.

An elegant hostess in your red dress, ready with cakes

to greet our guests. I’m still proud of you, Lucy, and of the

girl you always were. So trusting, so embracing.

I should never have left you.