An Electronic Journal of Poetry & Poetics

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ISSN 1081-3500 | Copyright © Mudlark 1996

Editor: William Slaughter | E-mail:



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Mudlark No. 3 (1996)

Ars Poetica

by Gerald Fleming

     The reader is even,
     the writer is odd.

1 2 3 4 5 6 7
8 9 10 11 12 13 14
15 16 17 18 19 20 21
22 23 24 25 26 27 28
29 30 31 32 33 34 35
36 37 38 39 40 41 42
43 44 45 46 47 48,49



Remember that first car?
Not the first day--the day
after--when you'd waxed
that chrome, that baked enamel
to a luster bright as the sky,
cleaned the old man's nicotine from the windows,
vacuumed, tossed out the under-dash deodorizer,
installed the compass...

You get in: put your hands on the wheel,
fire it up. Coast down the block,
wave to Al Sylvester, let out
that long deep breath,
turn on the radio.



Get in the car,  your lover the poem
orders & she shows you
a green polka-dot bandanna, & she gently
ties it around your eyes & thus
folded you two ride in sparse but kind
conversation to some distant place
far past sounds familiar
then to another place where again
the sounds are familiar &
she takes you into a room &
puts you onto the bed & there
in that blind warmth
makes love to you gently,
slowly, long, coming
just to the edge again &
again then exhausted, joyful,
still folded, you sleep
and wake. Stand up now,
she says; takes you to the window.

Sound: a throwing back of curtains.
Unknots the bandanna: you
knew it all along, you're in
your own room, so beautiful
you weep.



Introíbo ad altáre Dei:
where there is paper in plenty
& the ink flows like honey...



The reader steps onto the page.
Take me, teach me,  she pleads, and
begins to read the poem.
It announces it's about
a wrestler, and she's not
stupid, she allows it may be
even a rhetorical  wrestler but
she's two lines in & the thing
makes no sense, lacks sure feet,
but still she's trusting, steps
further onto the page, her whole
body there now, seeking music, seeking
some  meaning, any  meaning but climbs from line
to line in confusion, she wants out,
tries to leave but is caught
in the web of words, stuck
in the thick & viscous silk
of ink: she's splayed there
on page five and he has her,
crawls out from the dark spine
of six, big black pen in hand
and makes the kill.
It is not rhetorical at all:
it is bloody, and slow, and sexual.

Another one dead,  he says.

(Bones on the bookstore floor.)



Do I deserve to exist
the abused old child the poem asks itself.
It cowers in corners, believes
itself unworthy to form even
the words of its own name,
enters abusive relationships
with drunkards & half-wits, believes
it deserves its brilliant floribundant bruises,
dreams of calling it all quits, presenting itself
perfumed in some clean past tense
to its son & daughter
having left a note saying
This is who your father was...



The poem's hands
smell like smoked salmon--
the scent is all over his arms,
in his hair. He tried
something new in the smokehouse,
adding bay leaves & needles
of cypress & Douglas fir.
Take him in your arms  pull
him close  enjoy.
He'll only smell like this today.



Where did this pencil come from?
the poem asks. Eleven black horses
ride across its white shaft.
A pencil from the racetrack.
What words could compete with this
grace, this frenzy of jockeys,
even their whips visible &
sharper than the tip of the pencil
in this race toward the eraser.
We're riding no words today:
this pencil's built for numbers.



If I'm here more or less on the equator
are these ants that crawl on this book of yours
therefore equatorial ants?
(They look like the same things
that come into the kitchen
at home.) Maybe they sting.
Let's say  they sting: crawl up
from the sand across the book
past my hairy wrist onto my hand
& sting not such a serious sting--
just a kind of reckoning--a bill
to be paid for staying against common sense
to write this note about ants.
Would I be your victim then,
involved in something like
the searing kiss of equatorial
ants in the wide arena of melanin?

Word vulture, bone collector,
owner of cheap intellectual rings:
keep talking like this: you alone
will drain the world of meaning.



The poem is up early: hears
a tremendous cough, knows
there's been a death in the house,
is afraid to get up to see.

Faces of his family pass
before him: dear verb,
little adjective....God,
don't let it be the noun.



I keep looking for the book, for the poem
that will hold for me the words of that Monday--
end of summer--when coming home from work
I rounded the corner & there outside the store
was my daughter holding our neighbor's
month-old baby. It was the day before
her thirteenth birthday, & above her smile
was a look of concentration I've seen
only in certain virtuoso performers
just before
the music begins.



The poem weeps, prays,
crawls on his knees
to Chimayo, New Mexico,
enters the chapel where he's
seized with a vision of words so clear
he dashes his superfluous glasses
against the adobe wall & lays
their twisted frames in the spectacular
pile of discarded crutches, braces,
prosthetic aids, plaster casts & ill-fitting
false teeth; he's past ecstatic, his life
rolls out before him, a long
rectangular Boschian canvas, each
figure absolutely detailed, symbolic;
then, standing to go, emerging into
the red afternoon dustlight of Chimayo,
finds he can't see a thing, stumbles
to the highway, hitchhikes home & the next day
goes to the doctor, who tosses new glasses his way
which the poem puts on/ sees the bill,
astronomical, detailed only as:
Price paid: cheap thrill.



Your mother told you: sometimes when you
don't understand someone it's important
at least to make the effort, & sometimes--
whether it's because they see you care or
whether it's the reward of your own labor--
you'll find them open to you, almost as if
someone has peeled or sliced open
some fruit inconceivably intricate--say
pomegranate --and you find there
fragrance, balance, and a membrane
just necessary to hold in those
seeds, which you take in your mouth,
a few of them at first then
many, and one or two
drop from your mouth, onto your new
white shirt, and stain a stain
not to be scrubbed away.



The Rose in the Glove, I'll call it,
and right away they'll think A.D. 1260,
chain mail: Byzantium, a wide field just outside
Nicaea, a black-haired Seljuk woman,
skin like cinnamon, and there he threw down
his crucifix, dove into the bud, peeled back
its glowing petals, found God.

But I'll tell them what really occurred:
here in this rocky local soil when
weeding the old roses and the new, I saw
a black tab in the loam and I pulled,
and it was a glove--not the gardener's kind,
but a woman's: long-wristed, black leather
cracked in the nitrogenous humus, and it kept
coming, a whole budless rosebush packed
& rooted in its fingers, the white root-hairs
grown through the digits--simian, albino.
I'll tell them how I replaced it,
longing to know the woman
who must have gardened here,
finding a use
for the empty hands she'd known.



I see the poem's developed a coterie:
smaller poems gather round him & sing.
In truth, he's not much taller than they:
a few lines, if anything.



The poem on the hill went
to considerable expense:
bought an O.E.D., threw in
a big Webster's for good measure,
hired a licensed contractor
to build a chain-link fence,
installed his own hand-lettered
No Trespassing signs, & waited
in his living room, & looked:
joggers with wire-cutters cut tall holes
in the fence. Kids scaled it
just for fun. Sometimes bums
took refuge under the flyleaves of the Webster's
& howled weird words, moon or no moon.
Lovers would leave used rubbers.
And the poem looked on, emaciated,
his land occupied by the invading force
of the vulgar, wild words echoing
in his delicate ears, I can't call the police,
he said, I just can't,
wringing his bony hands,
perhaps I'll move to England.



All the people in the country
who read poetry
and are not writers
hold a convocation
at a local amphitheater.
Later, the three of them
go out for dinner.



These words
are not ours: they are silica: glass,
and we place them into our walls,
we look through them to the distance,
glasses, filled with liquid,
drunk from, seen from, seen through,
not ours: they are trains, passenger & cargo,
over the track/over the track/over the track,
Anglo-Saxon-African, Anglo-Saxon-African,
Latinate, Latinate...not ours
but ships, steady, ballasted in carbon,
freighted with our fears, far off shore
or near.

And wheels. Wind. Soil. Teach them
about water,
  they say. Teach.
Not ours: Torch. Drum. Birdsong.
Cross. Grass. Kiss. Who
can I give them to? Who?



The poem is a shark:
shoots oblique through
the obscure grottos of the heart,
the shock of shark appears,
razor-toothed, smells blood, yours,
glides toward that heat, that heart, you
sight it, your mouth opens, strike.



Let's see: looks like
the timing's off ten degrees
from Top Dead Center.
Get the blue light: we'll see
what we can do.



A big American car parked in front of a bakery.
Two women sitting in the front seat:
sisters, it looks like, each in
her seventies, powder-peach complected,
the driver's hair gone plain grey, the other's hair
tinged with blue. Grey has Blue's left hand
in her own hand, Blue's palm turned
upward. Is Grey reading that palm? No.
She's taking Blue's right hand, and with
the index finger of that same sere hand
she's drawing letters in the palm, writing out
a message so rapid & dexterous it's clear
this has been going on for years--no year
less intense or less loving than this.

The poem walks past that car,
recognizes the ceremony there,
takes off his hat, nods his head.



Love is what the poem wants:
not allegiance nor thin
filial devotion, but skin--
& if not skin then
the frayed cable of passion's
packed elevator on its last trip
down, the ultimate trust
that no one--least he!--
will live to tell his secret.



The reader visits the museum
of the poem's first home: brings in
a blanket, finds a closet, waits
till closing time, sleeps
in the poem's bad bed, wakes
at dawn to hear the insane wail
of mandrill, cry of hyena,
shriek of peacock. So that's it--
the reader says: the poem grew up
next to the zoo!  Listen--when the wind's
just right, you can hear the lions roar.



Where are the songs of Spring? Ay, where are they?
the reader asked. In the whirling world,
in the simultaneous submission of winter to desolation
& summer to its surfeit of light they labor, days, nights
bent at tables Laplandic, Somalian, Upper Voltan, Czech,
a hundred thousand poets at any named moment,
stupid with vowels, joyful with vowels, whispering
Now fly, good words--answer the man--unfurl those yellow wings.
Go--stand in the branches outside my filthy window.
Sing, goddamn you! Sing!



The spaniel wants out: Sparkie,
or something like that. His habit
the last few nights: midnight at the door,
not to return till six. He meets his friends,
you think, & they romp & hump
& return home to sleep.

You're alone in the house, awake,
pick up a poetry book & read thirty lyrics
so smooth they belie the ferocity
of their subjects: wild lives & cripplings
& a predation so savage you cannot stop
reading until sleep takes you, in which darkness
you dream of packs of dogs sprinting unrestrained
& feral in the watershed. They've tasted.
They're in chase. In this case it's a buck, which
they exhaust, which falters/tangles antlers
in the chaparral, stumbles/falls
& which they tear piece by piece.

Six. You wake before the alarm, sick
in your stomach, blame those poems, get up,
throw water on your face. As you dry you see him
walking south: the spaniel. He scratches at the door,
and you, dutiful sentry,
show him in.

His coat is matted, stuck with brambles.
His breath, crimson.



The poem doesn't understand what happened.
Her mommy told her she was wonderful,
her daddy told her she was beautiful,
she went to all the right
schools, is wearing all the latest
clothes, yet she walks through the world
as if invisible, and damn it!
No one will give her a job.



Was that poem one of courting? Praying?
Fighting? I loved it, prayed it would stay
& when it stood to leave double-spaced it with silence,
went to the bookshelf, bludgeoned it back into its chair
with a cudgel of prose,
sliced it into shreds with its own lines,
the red knives of what was left
of its malevolent intent.

Now it's nowhere to be found. It was
my own fault. I lost control. I think
it was a prayer.



The poem never could
deal with sex, never did
like to perspire, so why not
words? The worst words
in the worst possible
order. Make 'em sweat,
he says, they'll kiss the page
that's finished.



The reader enters the humid room:
the performance about to begin.
People, metal chairs everywhere.
He climbs across many knees
to the one seat empty: the one beside
the famous poet. It's so hot, so crowded,
says the reader, I wonder how I'll ever
get this jacket off. Ask the snake,
intones the poet. The reader



There was an asshole from El Paso
doing business in middle Italy.
    Write a poem for me.
    Make a poem for me.

There was an asshole from El Paso
doing business in middle Italy.
Brass hasps, or something.
    No: fasteners.
    Write a poem for me. Say a poem for me.
    I've been lonely in Ancona,
    bitter winds, winter, Adriatic sea.
    Write a poem for me.
    Drunk, regretful in Grosseto, lost,
    I made a bet with my host,
    a worm of a man from Viterbo,
    that I would die before he.
    I let him win. He needed the money.
    He had a family: make
    a poem for me.
    They converted me in Cattolica they
    found my sicknesses in Fermo they
    ground me up in Macereta they
    learned my life they burned me in Urbino
    & by the time I got to Ascoli Piceno,
    banners: We Welcome the Urn Holding
    the Bad Ashes of the Asshole from El Paso.
    Write a poem for me.

There was an asshole from El Paso,
business, middle Italy, ashes, Ascoli Piceno,
December 1983.



The writer wants to kiss the hands
of this suburban resident in his conservative
blue suit, head bent, waiting for the bus,
reading poetry.
The writer hopes he's president of the company.



And then he thinks he finally got it right--
it's a remnant from a dream--no thinking now--
jumps up from bed, grabs the pen on the bedstand,
gets it down: ten jagged lines whose truth
makes him shiver from the back of his neck.
He walks away, talks with his wife, makes tea,
comes back. No! No! Those kids!
Where are they? They tricked me again!
That pen with the vanishing ink!



The reader finally gets to meet the writer.
It's very awkward: the writer would rather
be home writing, the reader would rather
be home reading, and while they talk
the long soft graphite sky
forms a shape like the tip of a pencil,



Tell O'Neill I need him. Now.
Overheard. A boss: we've all
worked for him. Melancholy alcoholic.
The raw material: the poem.

Let's change it: concoct something lethal,
call it melancohol-- not worry about O's or A's
but squeeze Crenshaw, Honeydew, Musk,
& make a brew that brings on unspeakable
sadness, darkens the color of skin.
And let's change O'Neill from that rail-thin
white-haired wing-tipped automaton
to a girl, someone you remember named
Mary O'Neill, red hair, radical, very sexy &
carrying in her hot pocket a plausible plan
to blow up the Pentagon. But Mary
talks in her sleep, she's arrested,
the Pentagon plans are found, she's sentenced
to life, treason, smuggles into the cell those melons,
brews her sad juice, invites the jailer for a drink,
takes none of it, kisses him in the fading light
of his bliss, favors full frontally his
calaboose skin (oh how he holds her, that
black brooder, deepening shadow
come thundering in!) half-kills him
in sopped happiness, he weeps, sleeps,
O'Neill steals his clothes, escapes.

For now that's all the poet wants to do.
Further filling out=filling in.
It stinks? If it does, his own excision
heals him, makes him real again.
Anyway, there's still O'Neill; the turn
of melancholy alcoholic;  his pen.



In the long starless days
in the bitter configurations of clouds
it's what I most want to hear. Him, beside me.
Lights not out: lights not ever turned on
as the weak white sky dims, gas lantern, last
vapor, mantle fade-away. And he is near me now:
in hand. And loves, if in books I may be so foolish
as to say it. We look at each other: look. Two minds
one wave that never breaks--never!--or,
if it breaks we accede, we break, go down in its roar.
Bound. In this acrid desperation. My eye, bound to the page:
I who never read last lines, lest I go blind.



Shut up and fuck,  she said--
put down that pen & that
book in your head & all
this talk about useless ecstasy,
the fragility of gesture
& look at me:
I've been rubbed with gardenia,
frangipani in my hair--
shut up, she said, put down
that book, she said, open your eyes,
give me your fingers:



So: someone has died.
For once
can't our silence
send him to the other side?



(in brogue)

What miner sings as he swings 'is rhythmic pick?
Who can't believe his good fortune:
a vein what gets wider the deeper 'e goes?
The mudder-lode's in there somewhere, he knows.
Ten hours he's at it already:
he's tired, he's gritty, but he won' be
stopped for no supper.

Whaddya think he's my-nin'?
Can we decide on dis tagether?
Is it gold? Mala-kite? Silver?

Oh, don't go sayin' somethin' like death now--
It's cold out, it's rainin',
an this was just a little metty-for anyway...



That hooligan!
The poem makes mincemeat



They throw the poem's life
into the fire: it transforms
into a handmade basket,
each line a filament like wicker,
which glows in blue gas
then flares
strand by strand.



So what?



So what you see may not be
what I see & what I saw may not be the same
as what I said I saw, see/saw...nor
hear/heard. I heard that Yeats, too,
played the telephone game.
Once, from the smoke of a pub
in Ben Bulben, these words:
And what cuffed priest,
his flower bloomed down in the past,
crouches in the buttonwood
to be horned?



The rapids await. These four are up early
to drive to the river's white water:
the father whose stupidity is anchored
in the averaging force of the wife's
constant worry, the big ponderous teenager
& the twelve-year old daughter,
blossoming in her beauty
even at six-thirty.

The father won't leave until he finds a book.
He pictures himself in a group on a sandbar,
bookless, dependent on conversations with strangers,

To the big heap of books, then, in the bedroom.
Hand goes in randomly, pulls out an old
poetry magazine, opens it in curiosity
& this is the first line he sees: it's Stafford:
There was a girl whose body was found by a river.

The decision is made: she
stays. The girl is called in, sits beside him
on the bed, reads the poem, is amazed,
but also glad to stay. She
can go back to sleep.

They go without her,
    They were so crazy,
launch out for the distant river.
    One day we were supposed to go river rafting,
the father in the passenger seat.
    and my dad opened this book,
Auden sure was right, the father thinks:
    and he saw this poem and he thought...
poetry makes
nothing happen.



To hell with the meaning--let's unsuck some sounds!
Two fat black & yellow bumblebees rolling like Romans
in the poppy's luscious cup, let's rumble down, reader--
drown ourselves in juxtapositions slick as the middle of an almond--
let's find old friends--men named Max Memo
& that bastard slasher Irishman Cutter Harrigan--
I want to name 'em all again,
vowelwise by altered light, want to walk rain-sopped
among stone-shearers in sheep-slopped meadows--
Hello? Hello? When will it end and the wild be found:
in what wheat & water, what wheat, what water...
When the elm whines, longs to lose its leaves?
When the beetles and nematodes marry?
When our President urges an immersion in Persian poetry?
When your friends, raving, set aflame their sharpened staves,
run to your rescue in some sundering of nothingness?

What? What friends?
Colonel Urinal? Brother Fagus Blunt?
Don't kid yourself, kid. They won't.

Then what about that other  when--
when the spines of prickly pears are on your lips
as you stumble through the rubble of Peloponnesus?
When the sherpas smooch your iceburnt cheeks on your return
from Anapurna? No--never--not then--not there--
but here!-- just past the asteroids, under your last blunder,
aside your astraddling bride, out in shout's shooting range,
your beautiful voice: wild, powerful as sauerkraut,



The reader thinks:
Will this poem go on forever?



The writer thinks:
May this poem go on forever.



The gift book too beautiful
for the reader to write in: the white
frightened him, and the blankness,
and the blank white cover.
He wanted to give it to someone
who would use it, whose beauty
would make of its laid pages
a simple emptiness.
He gave it to his daughter.



The poem wonders what she'll ever do with these lines:
she can't fit them anywhere. Cuts them from their page,
puts them gently into the grey metal box labeled Fragments.

Years later her son comes upon the box. And what
can we say: does he take it into a grassy field,
open it, does a sudden rain melt away the opaque papers?
No: too corny. Then does the wind come, scatter
the many fragments like leaves, each at the base of some tree?
Too filmic, too ecological. What really happens, then?

An old man with spotted hands takes the grey box to the dump.
It's at the bottom of a pile in the bed of a truck, but he gets to it,
       tosses it
into the monumental detritus, it never opens, its papers
long ago having passed their balance of cellulose
to acid, having disintegrated like so many words.



Remember the flower you had never seen?
Wide as your hand, its white
moth-wings open five-petalled
toward your face, and its pistils
bend toward your nose in a wave
of fragrance just verging on the allergic,
and for a long time that hot night above
the blackness of the Indian Ocean
you pass that flower over your face.

Which is enough, really, but then
you must  know its name & ask
a native there, a dark-haired girl.
Which name she tells you/which name
you print primitively, phonetically, and she
comes near, leans over you, shakes her head no,
says nothing but takes the pen from your hand
& in a script which blossoms
on the weedy page, on the desert
of your scratching, writes kumbúng sanyú.

You start laughing, you can't
stop laughing, the words
are so beautiful,
and preposterous, and true.


Notes on the Poems

2. after Steven Bauer

24. for Peter Kunz

26. This poem was born from a quote in Frances Mayes' wonderful book, The Discovery of Poetry: "Old wisdom claims that all poems come from courting, praying, or fighting."

18. for Judith Serin

33. for Molly Giles

Gerald Fleming

Gerald Fleming's poems have appeared in The Americas Review, Five Fingers Review, Indiana Review, Michigan Quarterly Review, New Letters, Pequod, Poet Lore, Poetry Now, and Puerto del Sol among other places. He is editor of Barnabe Mountain Review, an annual literary magazine, published in December of each year. (Number One appeared in December 1995.) He has this to say about it: "Only five issues will be published, in a press run of exactly five hundred copies per issue. Perfect-bound, four-color cover, 200 pp., acid-free paper; half devoted to writers of notoriety, half to writers worthy of note. Poetry, prose poems, contemporary translations, short stories, essays (bright, unpedantic), open forms, lit crit if heavy on textual exposition/light on fustian. Seeking work of directness, presence, passion." Subscriptions are $10. Submissions are read from February through June of each year. Subscriptions, correspondence and submissions should be sent to:

Barnabe Mountain Review
Box 529
Lagunitas, California
USA 94938

William Slaughter, Editor
Department of Language & Literature
University of North Florida
Jacksonville, Florida 32224-2645

Contents | Mudlark No. 3