Changeable Day
by Sean Bentley

Cover Image - Randolph Langenbach

Artwork courtesy of Randolph Langenbach from his book Rome Was! The Eternal City from Piranesi to the Present. Langenbach merged Albert Bierstadt’s The Portico of Octavia with his photograph of its contemporary location in Rome.

Swerve at 65 | Harvest | New life in Georgetown

Gravity | The first thing you’d hear | Cathedral

Sacred darkness | These days | Real life

Swerve at 65

“If all movement is always interconnected, the new arising from the old in a determinate order — if the atoms never swerve so as to originate some new movement that will snap the bonds of fate, the everlasting sequence of cause and effect — what is the source of the free will possessed by living things throughout the earth?”
— Lucretius Carus Titus, 99 - 55 BCE

Sidewalk café. All that brings to mind.
Tiny table half in shade, pots
of shrubs and gaudy primrose, saplings budding
into sprays of white plus tender leaves, an arm’s
length from traffic. A crow swoops from the eaves
to investigate leftovers from a couple with a Doberman,
who just sauntered off leaving plates
and dregs in cups and most important crumbs.

Life keeps at it: two Latino guys
power-wash the plastic surgeon’s brick
plaza. Deliveries come and go, their boxy
trucks beetling around the corner. One hipster
driver wheels his handtruck, empty, back
to its mobile den. The Doberman’s ears were taped
and rigid as party tooters. He (or she,
I didn’t check) reared up, front paws
on their table like someone making a point.
His point being, I want what you have.

This week I’ve discovered Lucretius Carus Titus,
his On the Nature of Things, his muse Epicurus,
his followers Bruno, More, Jefferson, Darwin.
I feel the knowledge seeping through my veins,
don’t know quite what to do with it...
Expensive cars crawl past, windows darkened,
engines drowned out by the pressure-washer’s howl,
a cross between waterfall and dentist’s drill.
Bristling with old tools, a yardsman’s truck
heads, implacable, for the next weedy landscape.
A well-dressed lady in a puffy winter coat
(it is warm and sunny) stops and lifts her phone
to the blooming plum, snaps a picture, checks it,
retakes it, stalks on. Across the street, apartments
overlook the scene, and me. Yes,
I am part of someone’s changing view.
Who lives above me, unaware?

If I lived here I would be home now.
That’s what the realtors are selling.
At the barber’s, a giant photo of an unshaven
but “handsome” man (quotation marks are mine),
in posh casual wear, gazes pensively
at the adjacent shot, a “man and son” (ditto)
enjoying quality time with their haircuts.
The workers pressure-wash them too: so clean
you could eat off them.

The last time I wrote such observations
I was 20,000 feet up and a thousand miles
from home, where I live now, and I
was registering the street life of clouds,
the passing traffic of mountains and rivers, as if
it was I who was static, not whipping through the air
at 600 em pee aitch, as though the sun
circled around the earth. Today I am free
to do nothing, leverage the sun
and its changing position, and, well, “think”—that is,
think thoughts, rather than worry at concerns
like well-worn stones—because “my man,” as they say,
has clarified with bar charts and spreadsheets
that no, I really needn’t go back to work.

I am “retired.” All that brings to mind.
My senses stir, small multi-legged critter
roused from a winter’s sleep. A few feeble
blinks, the stretch of a foot, a foreleg, a quick
flapping of the ears to clear the cobwebs.
I’ve been wanting all this time here pen in hand
to figure how to fit Lucretius in
to this story. I think I have it now.
I have swerved (cue vee Greenblatt),
like prescient Lucretius’s atomi, which make up everything,
which do not travel in straight lines like raindrops:
they jitter and they change their courses,
thus enabling evolution, and happenstance,
free will, and such. I slouch in this sunlight
like one of those proto-fish dully amazed
to find his front fins scooting through the hot
sand of a scratchy beach, a beach that’s full
of new things, swerving, often, freely.
He wants what they have. He can live here
and be home.


My daughter, six, passes over
the freakish Indian corn, the misshapen
pumpkins lolling in the carpark
at the farmers’ market. She wants
moon-round, the ripe for carving,
though the blade will answer to me,
following her directions toward spookiness.

She hefts her choice
in textbook perfect hands,
hugs it to her like a tiny sister,
as I rummage for payment.
Giving a fiver to the woman
my hand meets two
stumps, one bearing

a thumb, a lithe thumb
which, even as it volunteers
a vestige of normality, is
monstrous, amplifies the smooth
otherwise inarguable finality
of the farmer’s arms.

She has been carven, at least
in the way a wayward log might be
sized to fit a hearth’s narrow cause,
or some beast, sacrificed—
the thumb, like Ishmael, alone escaped
or left there to rub in, over the years,
the hatefulness. I think

of those hands falling like small cobs
in an Asian field somewhere, she
pressing the stems of her arms
to her belly to save at least
her blood, its lavish rouge
twinned incalculably
by the man’s neckerchief, sweatsoaking.

Her face today is crinkly, pleasant, as old perhaps
as mine. While I filed for CO in ’72, she
did the staggering run up to the killing fields.
She calculates, explores for change,
wrists stirring her apron pocket,
thick spoons in a cauldron.
I know where Piper’s eyes look

and dread explaining, then realize
even if I knew whatever atrocity
was truth, I need not tell it.
Shes unable to imagine
anything but accident or sad nature,
horror limited to the small witches soon
at our door, “scary,” and gross-out
masks the drugstore flaunts.
Little news. No history.
She is fallow to “truth.”
The woman levers out three
ones, hugging them
as she hugged her arms back then
and — hands them is not right —

offers me the bills.
At home tonight she will know
she’ll never know
as she stirs her children’s hair
how soft and light it feels
to her husbands fingers
combing through it.

She will stroke with skin over bone
his face and perhaps remember
her nails against his back,
how he felt
to hold.
... Whether bearing it in hands or heart,
my daughter and I bring this harvest home.

New life in Georgetown

An unlikely spot for a sidewalk café:
jets thunder above, landing gear
cranking down from white underbellies
for Boeing Field, freight trains
a-hoot as they plow between
warehouses and brownstones and light
industry. Old Georgetown has persisted,
has grown up. It’s its own
country: smokers exhale freely,
the Seattle air smells

like San Giustino Val Tiberina, where
the old scalawags hunkered all day
on uncomfortable chairs outside
the village bar, at tables just large enough
for their endless demitasses, puffing Toscanos
and nattering and gesticulating
and eyeing us Americans, who wandered
pie-eyed around the small piazza.
Off the tourist track and flight paths,
the only disturbing noise on a sunny afternoon
was unemployed hotshots on motocross bikes
and the odd shotgun blast
from the town arborist
hunting tent caterpillars.

It took twelve years for me
to become a geezer at a sidewalk table,
large espresso but smokes
given up. It’s a new life,
eyeing in my turn the surprising
passersby of artistic bent, bent
to their cellphones, sporting
elaborate tats and piercings,
on their way from and to
somewhere hip. Across the street
the old brewery now houses
artists’ lofts, the venerable bricks
cleaned up good.


“When Newton sat in his garden, [he] saw what no one had seen before: that the apple draws the world to itself, and the Earth the apple, through a mutal force of nature that holds all things... in a unifying embrace.”
— A.C. Grayling

The students, let loose to explore, dispersed,
a swarm of balloons at a grand opening gala.
They clustered shops and open-air cafés,
hunting amongst the limoncello purveyors
for Coca-Cola, a measure of the familiar
to bring them back to Earth from their initial
trip to another world. Capri rose
from the choppy sea abrupt as a breaching whale.

Given one brittle hour before our boat
left for Sorrento, I hiked up all alone
from the square already halfway up the hill,
knees pushing against the slope, rambling
paths lined with lavender, sage, heavy bees.
Beads of sweat fell behind my glasses
like Newton’s apple, toward the world’s core.

At the shadeless crest I rested for a drink
at a lone cart offering the intrepid sandwiches.
“You have,” I told the dubious barista,
“the best job in the world,” quiet and simple
atop a hill from which no doubt Augustus
and Tiberius beheld, unimpeded, the moony tides
of the Mediterranean, the middle world. Below,
far below, sloops orbited the island
as gulls spiraled weightless far above.

I closed my eyes against the glare, and red
consumed my inner eye, but swarmed with motion,
iotas like those glittering on leaves you pass.
I remembered seeing them, orange, in my crib.
The pull of that vision across the decades slung
me back to a place even that light couldn’t escape.

Space is no longer space: out there, it’s glutted
with bits of dark matter so small it’s just
an idea, but a weight strong enough to bend
starlight. Maybe that’s what ideas are
in here too, passing through like neutrinos,
drawing each other subtly back and forth:
the pull of a face across a room, the movement
of a leaf, the memory of a song. The gravity
of associations asserts itself nonstop.

My watch hands had circled round to boarding time.
Having gone up I must, as they say, come down,
descending the switchback lanes to the piazzetta,
rejoining the kids queued for the funicular.
It drew us back to the harbor’s blue embrace
— or the harbor was drawn up to meet with us.

The first thing you’d hear,

                                        unless it was Sunday
        and the deep bells gonged droning
        across the city,
                               aside from the muttering
        of pigeons a-flap in the eaves, or
                                                         if you were by the sea
        the creak and bray of gulls soaring
        from right to left
                               or circling the square,

was the machinegun rattle
of corrugated doors rolling up
as proprietors arrived at their shops,
                                                      or perhaps the crash
        of trash cans being filled
        with last night’s empties
                                            or being emptied
        into the maw of a roaring garbage truck
        as it crawled the passageway, or
        would halloo from a window
                                                 or shout
        a mild blasphemy at a meddling dog
                                                             or cat
        on the prowl for morsels
        from the night’s revels
        and an answering bark
                                          or yowl
        would echo back.

You’d dress silently, so as not to wake the family.
You’d grab the camera and notebook, and pad
downstairs, easing the door shut, and take
the first step outside at dawn. The air,
                                                        unless redolent
        of rotten fruit from yesterday’s market,
                                                                 or piss
        from the back door of the bistro,
                                                        or diesel
        from delivery trucks
                                      or the first bus,
                                                             or some early reprobate’s
        first cigarette,

was cool and scentless,
                                  except by the quay,
        where the taint of dead creatures and kelp
        offset the mimosa trees
                                           or a surprising
        sweet puff of fresh bread
        from the corner boulangerie or,
                                                      if you were in the north,
        acrid peat or
                            coal smoke
        on a damp breeze.

You’d look left and right, weighing the possibilities.
You’d walk.


The cathedral was swathed in scrims
and scaffolding; sandblasters scoured
off the grime of the century.
We’d found the door like the loose
end of a bandage to begin the unraveling.

Now from the observation deck halfway up St. Paul’s,
from which London flowed
lava-like in all directions, sun-shot
and hazy, we spiraled down hardwood steps,
537, like maple seedlings toward terra firma,
past grafittoed names knifed into stucco
two, three hundred years ago,
stairs buffed, darkened, eroded
by generations of feet, the pious or curious.

Through occasional windows like arrow slits
the city revealed itself but we were encased
in the entrails of history. We continued
to the crypt, cool and oddly
bright to help us see the residents
beneath, behind, stone slabs incised
with names and dates like the walls,
with lore, with epitaphs. Henry Moore,
his plaque as angled and unMoore-like
as the rest, Samuel Johnson, Bulwer-
Lytton, the great Turner at our feet
and back, and back, to Blake,
bust black, globe-pated and pugnacious.

Until well warmed, parched, awed,
we gravitated to the crypt café
where across from the tea dispenser
a great placard served as tombstone
for those who’d lain here before the first
cathedral fell in the Great Fire.
Including—holy crow!—King Ethelred,
died 1016. It sank in
as we chewed our sandwiches, absorbing
the ancient holy space transmogrified

to museum. We bought our postcards
and replicas of Roman coins and exited
into the blast of summer London, the stink
of tourist buses. The priest intoned
as the door shut
about this week’s Iraqi deaths, the Sudanese,
the war, wars, never far despite the lessons
we should have learned since Ethelred ruled.

We wished for peace, change
as incremental, imperceptible as the bending
of all those sturdy stairs to the persistent
will of foot after foot after patient foot.

Sacred darkness

Jeder für sich und Gott gegen alle
[Every man for himself and God against all]

                — Werner Herzog

Notre Dame is a horrible candle
for my 65th birthday, its spire melted,
toppled like a shorn weed. Oak rafters
fallen after twelve centuries. The sorrow
is not merely for antiquity lost
— after all, there are trees near here
older than America —
but that so many lives
have revered that space.

Fifteen years ago we touristically
touched its walls and carvings,
Robin and Piper sketched its façade
in pastels in the plaza. We’d crossed
and recrossed the Seine in light
rain for hours, craned our necks
and looked into dripping gargoyle jaws
and leaded petals of a sunshot rose window.
The darkness in the ceiling vaults thick
as between boulders of a Neolithic dolmen
or the back of the barrow of Hetty Pegler’s Tump
or the deep Celtic copper pits of Grimes Graves or

          the dens of creatures at the Woodland Park Zoo.
          “Look at the creature!” mother instructed child,
          as if we’d captured an alien —
          ignoring the sign for “TAPIR.”
          Many creatures were asleep or missing in action
          somewhere, their lairs murky and enigmatic.

I’d sighted along the dim chapels
to the votive-lighters, the kneelers
and murmurers in their natural habitat,
savored the alien surroundings —
although I was the Other,
an atheist of Jewish lineage.

          Ochre drawn on rough stone,
          broken tibia on a limestone floor
          blackened where campfires burned
          or smoked, deep in the sacred
          darkness, where human shadows
          flame-flickered across icons
          of auroch and lion, flying arrows,
          knives blood dark, heroes,
          hovering ancient gods, Others.

The stones of Notre Dame are black today.
I’m of a time as savage as earlier ones —
but more shameless, where infernos
sadly first suggest terror.
Just last month bullets filled
two Christchurch mosques.
Come last day of Passover, churches
in Sri Lanka will be bombed.
In two weeks a California synagogue
rings with gunfire.

The clans and parties, factions or fanatics,
devotees of sundry rival idols,
flood the world, possessed
of vanity and firepower,
unhinged. How many Others
battle-axed, lynched,
arrowed or Gatling-gunned,
bombed in foxholes,
gassed and ploughed under?

It seems one cannot live
without the Other.
Tribe against tribe.
Gods against all.

These days


This busy spot, in 1900, was remote,
red and dusty with the Builders Brick
quarry and factory, in the mining boom,
the logging days. Firs, countless,
were as big around as their fellers were tall,
where now a few tame plantings
punctuate the chain cafés and condos
that push into the thinned remains
of second-growth alder.

Filled with miners, Red Town, Finn Town,
White Town, Rainbow Town hotels
and cabins erected in the clearcut
are only blemished photos
and foundations mossy and hidden
in bracken between rubbled mine shafts:
Ford Slope mine, Primrose, Bagley,
May Creek mine, Muldoon seam.
Hiking trails follow the old flumes
where hewn trunks sloshed downcreek.
Joggers and dogwalkers erase the ghosts.

Those days, horse-drawn trams lugged coal and logs
down Coal Creek to Lake Washington,
where barges continued the five-day meander
south and then up the Duwamish to the Sound
and Seattle. Steamers then carried on
to California and profit.
A narrow-gauge steam railway ran
where this five-lane arterial now pulses
with its Teslas, Porsches, Maseratis.
Money is still made, these days
and hereabouts, but not from solid things.


Just in the years we’ve lived here,
the horse pasture down the street has gone,
the sheep and llamas, orchards and corn.
We are now more urb than suburb.
But bobcats, bears, coyotes, possums,
even baffled cougars prowl our yards
for food, as their foothills turn
to townhouses in cul-de-sacs,
the roads that reach them,
nail shops and pizza joints,
churches, firing ranges.

The news seems very black these days
unless you think it’s white. Regardless
where you hear it, it sears the heart and eyes.
The earth is evanescent, and solid things seem
illusive, similes morph to lies,
to belief, as easily as that bright
cloud above grows murky as it gathers,
a thick, broken layer flying doggedly north.

The sun peers through the fissures,
warm in a chill wind, and blinding.
My mesmerized retinas
turn black firs against leaden grey
ember-red. It’s a changeable
day. There’s a storm warning for later.
Branches may fall, they say.
Some trees have fallen already
this gusty spring. But forecasts
have been wrong before, pessimistic,
or hoodwinked with unpredictable
conditions. I sit in sunlight when I can,
hope it lasts, but prepare for the blow.

History flows over us, bright and dark,
dissipating and bloating, threat and promise.
Soon we’ll walk trails through new deadfalls,
hunting old foundations in the leafmold.

Real life

      Real life is constantly
      screwing up our secret
      lives and getting us
      on the wrong track.

      A white fence made of
      horizontal boards — only
      here and there an
      opening, large enough
      for a mouse. A chunk
      of sky.

My mother’s cosmos has thinned to nearly empty space.
Through it she careens around her few memories,
fragmented as Saturn’s rings; around and through,
and between bare and baffling facts.

      Little female cries
      from the hallway,
      and thumps of doors.
      Today is Halloween!
      Good timing.
      Two Asian young women first
      came in to give me my medicine
      (medicine!!) which turns
      out to be Tylenol!!

      The fantasy of an old
      woman who loses her sight:
      to have a series of young girls
      threading needles for her.
      “Hurry up please, it’s time”
      from T.S. Eliot

At first she wrote notes to herself
like a prison diary,
each day as though for the first time,
setting down the fleeting clues in ink
but forgetting to reread yesterday’s.

      “Land escape”
      The window at my right
      faces a 6-ft high cement wall
      topped with a white-painted
      fence with long horizontal boards.
      Above these and behind them
      trees are growing. I cannot
      see beyond the first few yards
      of forest. It seems almost
      to be a barrier,
      for us, or “them”?

      The day, being grey,
      is not inviting,
      like this incredibly
      useless pen.
      For us on this side
      it is more a threat
      than a pleasure.

Her physical world is chatty nurses, silent or strident
residents, slow shuffling the hallways,
meals as simple as nuns’,
naps in her small room filled
with books she can no longer read,
a radio she can’t suss out, family photos
she doesn’t quite recognize.
Yesterday’s visit is forgotten.

      Back from breakfast
      Someone left a brand
      new notebook in my
      dresser top drawer.

      Maybe my guardian
      angel is watching after
      me, and chiding me
      for not writing for
      so many days.

Her conversation now comes out
in approximated grammar,
vague nouns and verbs:
This man... he was... someplace...
he did... that thing ... with... something.

      A ten-foot-high cement
      fence surrounds this
      building. Why? We’re
      all women — all elderly,
      grey, except for us
      who get our locks colored.
      Why the hell here?

      Go down to the so-called
      library and steal a
      newspaper, to find the
      date. How old am I

She makes herself cry —
is it that the memory,
whatever it is, is sad,
or that she despairs because
she simply can’t find the words?

      A young girl appears
      with a small cardboard
      cup carrying one small pill!
      If I keep it perhaps
      it will provide a “clue.”

      Please don’t mess
      with this necklace
      I am trying to disentangle
      Thank you

She turns from tears to laughter in moments,
her attention flipping like a pack of cards,
the way an infant must perceive the world,
one long strange trip good or bad by the moment.

      Perhaps someone wants
      to make me die of boredom.
      Not a voice to be heard
      and my pen running out
      of ink!

      I should go down
      stairs and ask around
      if there is any food
      to be had.
      No telephone. No people.
      No sign of intelligent life.
      I could be in Africa!
      It is a point like this
      people break down and
      buy a cat!

      If it weren’t so
      comfortable, I’d
      break out!

She stares, like Dorothy Gale through a window
at figures from her life flying by in the whirlwind —
the lake she used to swim in,
her childhood dogs,
her friend shot in cold blood by a cracked husband...

      Who inhabits this place?
      The room has a double
      window at my right — floor to
      ceiling. My own bookcase
      has been brought in.
      Why? Also, one or two
      paintings of my own — an
      old water-color of a river
      and a path — brownish

      Find a newspaper!
      What is the date?
      How long have I “lived” here?
      God, help me find a
      good pen.
      Who are our keepers?

Her grandfather in his store.
Her father’s coal-black hair.
Her mother’s self-defeating pride.
Her anti-Semitic Texan schoolmates...

      Today 4:00 exactly.
      They hired a folk singer
      to entertain the women.
      He’s nothing unusual.

      I’ve come back to my rooms.
      A living room, bedroom, and
      kitchen & bath & 2 enormous
      floor-to-ceiling windows on each
      side of the outside wall.
      Totally devoid of interest.
      This is too dull to write
      about, and the four
      little square pots with
      green plants in them
      are withering, as am I.

Her Midwest college days.
Her young, slim boyfriend — my father,
her husband of nearly 40 years.
“Who is that old fat guy beside me?” she asks,
at a photo of him by her side
at my wedding 30 years ago.

      I haven’t
      written anything that could
      be recognized as poetry for
      several years now. Who am I?
      What am I? A stick,
      leaning against a stone.

      The room is cold
      again, but, for the
      moment, quiet.
      Both vacuum cleaner and voices
      quarter to 12 noon.
      Dare I lie down?

Her world is blinkered and her thoughts fugitive,
impressions flickering through her
like evening sun through autumn leaves.

      I must try to recapture
      my thoughts of yesterday.
      I’d like to stir up
      reality and confront the real
      world after breakfast, this A.M.

      I do not ask for
      nothing, but a good
      pen and to hold

* Italicized lines by Beth Bentley

Sean Bentley’s work has appeared in Crab Creek Review, Seattle Review, Third Coast, Painted Bride, Northwest Review, Poetry NOW, Bellingham Review, Another Chicago Magazine, Coe Review, and many other magazines, as well as the anthologies Pontoon 3 (Floating Bridge Press), Iron Country (Copper Canyon), Intro 6 (Doubleday), Island Of Rivers (Pacific NW National Parks Assoc.), and Darkness and Light: Private Writing as Art (iUniverse). Bentley has published three collections: Grace & Desolation (Cune Press), Instances (Confluence Press), and Into the Bright Oasis (Jawbone Press). From 1986 to 2006 he coedited the print poetry journal Fine Madness.

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