Mudlark Poster No. 147 (2017)

from Old Man Howling at the Moon:
A Book of Complaints
by Peter Johnson

Head Note: My favorite poets have always been the whiners: Catullus, Nicanor Parra, even Bukowski when he wrote his best stuff. Ginsberg’s “America” is also high on my list. These poets had a way of merging outrage and humor, the ability to attack people and institutions without acting superior. Their personae were often so self-conscious, so prone to self-loathing, that it was hard not to view them somewhat ironically. Although much of the work associated with these poets, and many others I could name, might be called invectives, I would prefer to name them “complaints.” There is a long history of complaint literature. It’s a genre that reached its height in 14th century France. The following prose poems are from my new book called Old Man Howling at the Moon: A Book of Complaints, which is about, well, the assorted grumblings of an Everyman-Old Man bemoaning, sometimes comically, his surroundings and the failure of religion and philosophy to assuage his pain. I hope you enjoy them. — PJ

Breakfast with Dad

Yesterday the sky was as gray and seamless as a well-done facelift.

It was late afternoon and I was rattling the cages of child-friendly things to do.

I was thinking of those luxurious spots at the edge of glaciers where not much happens.

That’s how to stay young, my Old Guy’s Manual for Staying Young says.

Pain in the groin, pain in the L-3 vertebra, spots on my face like puke-brown barnacles on a seaside rock.

You know the indignities.

Or will shortly.

Face it, the old earth-shattering ideas have left town or can’t find a place to crash land.

They hover like cigarette smoke above a hysterical cocktail party as a self-absorbed soccer mom lies about giving birth to twins on a grass tennis court.

Well, my dear, I have my stories, too.

This one happened at the Breakfast Nook where an exquisite one-armed waitress was serving us.

My father gave her a hundred dollar bill for two eight-dollar omelets and said, “What’s mine is yours.”

She smiled and brought back the change. “He always does this,” she said.

This event, which happened many years ago, is just an afterthought now, though still demanding to be translated.

Isn’t that what we’re supposed to do? Try to find meaning with our eyelids half-closed?

I will tell you: There is more meaning in an empty birdfeeder than in those small-print fat books, heavy with ideas.

I turned to them, often, during my father’s last days, searching for the courage to let him go.

Before Anyone Had Ever Heard of Johnny Depp

I’m trying to find a runway that’s not in flux, some place I can strut my stuff. Like that roofless bar in Hermosa Beach.

It was called La Paz or La Place, or maybe Je Vous Demande Pardon since I’m always seeking forgiveness.

Whatever, it had the best taco burritos in southern California and was manned by a bartender with a pop-star face and a vicious overhead volleyball serve.

I was explaining this to a classmate at my 50th high school reunion.

His name was Mario, a guy as fidgety as conductor’s wand, intent on settling his nerves with a tumbler of gin and tonic.

He called me a liar, and that’s when we attracted a crowd of old guys who still believed in signs and symbols.

Undeterred, I recounted my idyllic nights at the Je Vous Demande Pardon until they told me to shut up unless I had something lyrical to say.

Exhaling deeply, I let it rip:

“It was the Summer of Relief when Uncle Lou came stumbling out of the closet wearing two different shoes and the sun bore down on us like some mythological god. ‘O Hope! Oh, Charity,’ the birdies sang . . . ,” and I could’ve gone on if not interrupted by smatterings of laughter and a wall of gray suits drifting toward a table of Buffalo chicken wings.

I felt hurt until I realized we’d all be dead in ten years or found heavily sedated, wandering around parking garages unable to locate our cars.

We’d all like to be as permanent as a forehead crease, as necessary as a mop in a house that’s sprung a leak.

Who wants to end up as an unsung artificial leg dragged across some stranger’s straw rug?

Forty-five years ago, back in Hermosa Beach, I was drunk on tequila with a wino named Sudsy.

We were stealing two-by-fours from a construction site.

We were piling them like blocks of letters that once correctly organized might form a word to explain our sorry-ass lives.

All this before the age of flat stomachs and unpronounceable coffee drinks.

The age my Old Guy Manual on Memory lovingly refers to as “Pre-Lacunal.”

The One That Got Away

I was sixteen and had a crush on a Ukrainian girl.

She’s probably dead by now or fat, though maybe she’s slim and classy and owns a Pilates studio.

Sometimes when I’m stressing a bicep at the goddam YMCA with its poor ventilation system and teenage goons, I expect to look up and see her winking at me as she punishes the thigh adductor machine with deep scissor-like thrusts.

That’s how we carried on during those midnight rendezvous in a soot-covered city made famous after some poor bastard missed a field goal wide right.

If I saw her tomorrow sashaying in a pair of heart-thumping red yoga pants down the Boulevard of Old Guy Memories, I’d kneel and take her hand.

I’d the kiss the finger I so often sucked on, thinking I was being homeopathic or part of some great revolution that, like all revolutions, service only men.

“My apologies, Mademoiselle,” I’d stupidly say, pretending the black hole between us wasn’t as vast as the distance between who I am and who I wanted to be.

The Abductee

Grandmothers line the street squawking like blue jays. They’re fed up, and who can blame them with so many dogs wandering the countryside, unwanted.

Their husbands slouch in rusty wheelchairs facing the gray concrete walls of our sick-weary hospitals.

They’re staring at what? What?

Yet we keep their organs alive until they wrinkle and collapse like three-day old balloons.

We construct birdfeeders outside their windows believing they can distinguish between an oriole and a squirrel.

There was a man. A friend of a friend’s friend who happened to end up at my house.

He looked like my sister’s old bulldog who itself looks like a convict.

But I had to reach out after he confessed to being an alien abductee.

It’s the kind of thing you envy.

We circled the Weber Grill like two codependent planets crisscrossing a galaxy whose death was as certain and unplanned as a mugshot.

The conversation got heavy as I kebabbed and curried a fistful of rucola and dandelions, a potion my Old Guy Book on Longevity says counters the ravages of estrogen.

But it was hard to concentrate with all his talk about mind scans and hybrid sex.

Especially since I’d had such high hopes for the evening.

And what an evening it was, the stars blinking their strange Morse Code as we leaned drunkenly against each other waiting for something interstellar to happen.


I was fifteen and studying ancient Greek when the Jesuits took us to a movie about Heraclitus

It was a hundred times longer than his fragments.

Everyone knows the one about not stepping into the same river twice but few are aware he wrote a treatise on the nose.

Man, do I have a whopper sinus infection today.

I’m in bed watching a red bird limping on a limb.

He’s agitated, screeching like a castrato who just realized the profundity of his loss.

Imagine that kind of despair.

Heysoos, Maria, and so on.


Sick or castrated, how can you not marvel at spring?

Those days when it’s enough to wander mindlessly through a vineyard or to tiptoe like a tuba through a particularly difficult melody.

Heraclitus wrote a lot about wisdom and fire but very little about anything that blooms.

You certainly wouldn’t call his prose “muscular.”

All up in his head, like most of his fellow ass-scratchers whose endless, and, excuse me, pointless analytical leaps leave very little room for a soft landing.

Which has always been my preference.

I always prefer the safe oversize slogan any day.

Give me the sixth hole at Firefly on a windy November day, too cold for anything metaphorical to happen.

Remembrance of Things Past for an Audience of One

“Bridge Over Troubled Water.”

Man, that song hit me like a flatiron thrown by a hippie girl in a floral print Mu-Mu with a giant daisy in her hair and a bad case of clap.

The Sixties!

I know what you’re thinking: another old guy with the donut appetite of a cop and an inclination toward hyperbole.

A guy who can’t quite grasp that long hair on 66-year-old man makes him look like one of Three Stooges.

“And lose those sideburns,” some punk tells me in front of the local convenience store.

It started innocently enough with him not holding the door for me and saying something about being blinded by the glare of my bald spot.

I called him a thug, and he said I looked like Friar Tuck, so he was at least well read.

What else could he do?

Beat up an old man?

Instead, he joined a group of itchy-fingered boys who were quite oblivious to the fracas about to take place.

The girls were worse, leaning against a red Range Rover bragging about their hairless legs and lip gloss.

It was a knucklehead moment.

All of us frozen in time like a bunch of skinned chickens hanging by their ankles.

Someone had to be the adult, so I said, “If there were still such things as winding sheets, our skin would gladly embrace them, so relax, dude. We’re all in this together.”

The last I saw of them they were admiring their cell phones, stumbling like blind salmon up a newly paved road.

Peter Johnson’s forthcoming book of prose poems is Old Man Howling at the Moon: A Book of Complaints (MadHat Press). His second book of prose poems, Miracles & Mortifications, received the James Laughlin Award from The Academy of American Poets, and his most recent book of prose poems is Rants and Raves: New and Selected Prose Poems (White Pine Press.) He is the founder and editor of The Prose Poem: An International Journal (which he’s planning to resurrect in the fall of 2018). Past issues can be found at His fiction and prose poetry have been published in various magazines, including TriQuarterly, Epoch, APR, Beloit Fiction Journal, Field, Boulevard, Iowa Review, Indiana Review, Colorado Review, Quarterly West, Denver Quarterly, and Ploughshares. His work has received creative writing fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Rhode Island Council on the Arts, along with a “Best Book of 2012” citation by Kirkus Reviews.

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