Poetry Sampler: Poems


   from Nostalgia’s Thread: Ten Poems On Norman Rockwell Paintings:

The Runaway (1958)

In the restaurant, a man excuses himself

         from his wife, his friends, his rack

of lamb, the drinks that have finally begun

         to plane smooth the day’s splintered edges.

In the lavatory, while his lame, diminished

         stream delays its advent, he stares as he has

for years at the framed print hanging

         above the urinal.  How many times,

the man wonders, has he pissed brooding

         beneath this same picture?  Recalling

its steadfast presence through the deaths

         of two friends, the near collapse of his marriage,

the slow-to-heal estrangement of one

         of three children, he knows this simple

framed image has been one of the few constants

         in a score of persistently shifting years.

He knew whose painting it was

         and he also knew he was not supposed

to like it.  Such sentimental looking back

         to a past mostly mythologized, such a varnished

view of America: this is what so galled true

         connoisseurs of beauty.  But he was moved

nevertheless, as if a neurosurgeon’s probe

         had stumbled upon some uncharted declivity

in his brain, one that contained all his pleasures,

         real or imagined, from childhood.

Now, looking again at the picture’s fixed

         moment, the man feels at once both exiled

from and pulled into the story: a towheaded boy

         and a cop sitting together in a diner,

talking, while the cook behind the counter

         leans close, smiling, listening to what

the boy and cop have to say.  At the boy’s feet,

         what little a runaway needs wrapped in a red

bandanna and tied to a stick.  The narrative      

         line, the man guesses, is supposed to be clear,

reassuring, but it leaves him feeling vaguely unsettled.   

        Most of his life he's dreamed

about running.  From family, from friends,

         from the angina-like press of routine

that often wakes him at night and leaves him

         frightened and barely able to breathe.

There in the dark he wonders what of value

         he might fit into a bindle.  What destination

would set him free of his own querulous

         soliloquies, his mind’s non-stop interrogations?

As a child he had come to the end of books

         that made him want to fade away

from his own constrained life and enter

         plots he knew must continue somewhere after the last

turned page. His bladder empty, he continues

        to stare at the wistful little vignette

in front of him.  One voice urges him to go

         back to his wife, his friends, and his now-cold

meal, and a second cajoles him to trade places

         with the boy in the painting, to be young again,

to ride his thumb toward every selfish whim.

         But a third, the one he knows best, asks

the kinds of questions that freeze a failed Romantic

        like him in his tracks, as if he himself

were nothing but a static image captured in paint

         as he stands before this urinal. Would the wedge

of apple pie that must lie on the counter in front

         of the boy taste sweet or bitter?  Would the glass

of milk before him be half full and cold, or warm

         and half empty?  Would the cop’s eyes be distilled

with kindness or shifting and distant?

         Who but himself will miss him if he chooses

to run away?  Who but himself will love

          him if he decides to stay?

   from Plato’s Breath:

Plato’s Breath

The first law is the conservation law.... It says that while energy can never be created or destroyed it can be transformed from one form to another....We’ve all heard it said that ‘there’s nothing new under the sun.’  You can prove it to yourself with the next breath you take.  You have just inhaled about 50 million molecules that were once inhaled by Plato.—

                     —Jeremy Rifkin, Entropy:  A New World View

High above the Agora, a woman stares through intractabilities

of time and distance while her husband reads aloud

from his Foder’s.  Her legs still burn from the long climb

up the slick marble steps to the Parthenon, her pulse a timpani

of vague omens in the white and blinding heat.  Pointing to the place

where the guidebook says Socrates died, her husband recounts

the famed teacher’s final hours, he who taught us all to steer

clear of the unexamined life, how he offered proofs for the eternal

life of the soul even as the quaffed poison crept toward his heart. 

The woman tries to imagine such philosophic poise,

but her mind scrolls madly to the drum of her own toiling heart,

as if her accustomed picture of the world had suddenly lost

its vertical hold.  Last night, on the verandah of their hotel,

unstrung by jet lag and too much ouzo, they had danced

for the first time in years, raising their arms like Zorba

and humming what they could recall of the movie’s score

while mythologized constellations spun above them

and the floodlit Acropolis towered behind with all the glamour

of a Hollywood set.  Later, after the worn-out tape

of their sex had finally rewound and her husband slept,

she listened to the pitch of the singing city rise until

she thought her armature of glass might break.  She remembered

a professor long ago in college who had asked

his students to bring a response to the Kazantzakis novel,

and when she and the others brought back nothing

but facile academic prose he had grown sad and walked out

of the room because no one had been moved simply

to come to class and dance.  A month later he was found

hanging from a lamppost somewhere off campus. 

Socrates, her husband now tells her, gave his final lesson

in the absence of Plato, his favored pupil, who stayed away

stricken with a sudden fever.  Breathing this same molecular sea

in which antiquity drifts like motes of spectral dust, the woman

gazes through the haze and slowly dissipating heat of Athens

to that point on the horizon where lines converge and all

things vanish.  She frames it in the lens of her Nikon, focuses

on infinity, and trips the shutter, half thinking she might

trap the immensities of a moment.  She closes her eyes

and rests them against the camera’s box, as if to divine

what lay inside the sealed blackness, unexposed:  a room,

dimly lit, a single window open to the famed light of Attica

in late afternoon.  On a bed, two lovers of beauty, two bodies

riding each other away from that terrible chasm between

the many and the one, their every labored breath another rung

on the long slow climb toward a perfect deathless abstraction.

    from Windthrow & Salvage:

Cursing the Deaf  (Recipient of 2007 New Letters Readers Choice Award)

      Thou shall not curse the deaf, nor put a stumbling block

      before the blind, but shall fear thy God.

              —Leviticus 19

When they shipped them to our school,

at first it was good for the class

cut-ups, who could mimic the shrill,

almost hysterical pitch of their voices

when, excited, they forsook the language

of hands for the fuller register of the human

tongue.  We would stagger with laughter

at recess, our mock castrato improvisations

leaving our friends doubled over, shrieking

with delight.  It was midway through

the 1950s, and we were pure, flawless

products of the American century.

These sudden intruders seemed normal

enough until their talking hands betrayed

them or a skein of inarticulate sounds

escaped their mouths and marked them

as clearly as the Negro cleaning women

blue-black as used oil who shuffled tiredly

up and down the sidewalks of our segregated

neighborhood.  When the deaf boys began

to move in on our girlfriends we fought

them after school, their fists to our surprise

articulate, their hatred eloquent.

Our teachers tried to help us torture

our fingers into meaningful figures

of truce, but in our lexicon it was treason

to speak to the enemy so we pressed on

and finally succeeded in driving them back

to wherever the deaf belonged.

At home, on another front, war lingered.

Some nights that year I’d stuff wads of cotton

deep into my ears to keep from hearing

the ack-ack of bitter words below,

or I’d muffle the sounds of ambush, hiding

beneath the headset of my crystal radio

and listening to rock n’ roll on a station

in distant Del Rio, Texas, which advertised

autographed pictures of Jesus Christ.

On such nights I sometimes wished

I could be like one of those kids

we had vanquished, adrift on  a stream of

silence, free of the collateral damage

of words.  Before sleep, when I prayed

my rote mechanical Now I Lay Me, part

of my heart already believed in a God

who must be deaf, or too far removed

to read the world’s lips, or  just

too stubborn to give us a sign.

My Father’s Hands

My father’s hands, both of them, lacked

fingertips and nails. The fingers were elliptic,

pink, and smooth, no telltale prints

for him to leave as clues at crime scenes

for prying forensic eyes.  I used to lie

awake nights and try to imagine the moment:

his hands, masculine and whole, holding

the dynamite caps out an open window to show

his friends below.  Those hands,

about to explode and leave him exposed

mimosa-like to the world, unable to learn

the simplest alphabet of touch, unable to play

a game of catch with his sons.  Is that why

he turned to tools, the feel of cold, hard,

unreciprocating steel, the pliant, undemanding

attitude of wood?  How often I tracked him

down to his basement shop and saw his tapered

stumps bleeding, his eyes fierce slits through squall

clouds of cigarette smoke, his lathe

raving like a crazed evangelist coercing

miracles from crippled and knotted planks

of pine.  When the stroke routed language

from his brain, we could always find him

on trips to Wal-mart pacing the aisles in Tools,

his pared fingers in silent conversation

with sets of chisels and drill bits and clamps.

In his casket, no longer able to hide with sleights

of hand his scarred fingers now dovetailed together,

he smiled.  That  smile, wired and screwed

into place, bore the slightest trace of pride.

As if, like Noah, he rode the rising waters of his death

in a fine ark of his own making, all gopher wood

and sealed with the purest pitch of darkness.

      —Published in New Letters 

Alien Sex

I stood on the porch that night,

the lights from a parent's car just vanishing

at the end of the street. My friend and I

had been to a movie, It Came From

Outer Space.  Above me, the stars

had lost their innocence.  My block


throbbed with threats from distant galaxies.

Because I was late, I entered the house

quietly, hoping to sneak unnoticed upstairs.

All seemed normal enough for the usual

Saturday night of too much drinking—

My parents, asleep, he in his chair


in front of the guttering television screen,

she splayed out on the studio couch

in a nearby room. How quickly

the known world can turn strange.

I knew what it was when I saw it

on the living room floor. I had swiped


them from Crown Drugs and filled them

with water to ambush passing cars. This one,

viscous, lay damply coiled on the rug

like the sloughed husk of a newborn alien

that must have streaked from deepest space

even as my friend and I hunkered down


in the Southtown Theater's three-dimensional

darkness. My brain, agitated,

could come to only two conclusions,

one so fantastic my mind refused

the gross picture it posed. The only credible

way to explain it: Extraterrestrials.


Either way, I had no choice but to destroy

the evidence, picking the sticky chrysalis

skin up with a thick wad of Kleenex

and shoving it deep in the kitchen trash

right alongside my own astonishment.

Upstairs, I tried hard to distract myself

with prayer, but that wet rubber

crackled in my mind's air like static

and there was no getting through

that night to the starry kingdom of God.

Next morning at breakfast, I studied them

carefully through my new 3-D glasses,


my father in profile with his coffee

and Sunday paper, Mother a bit

groggy at the stove, tending

pans of bacon and eggs. Nothing

amiss: no telltale scales on his hands,

no saw-toothed tail switching beneath


her gossamer robe. All through breakfast

I stayed vigilant, my eyes as sharp

as Flash Gordon's, my mind hyper

with the ammo of fight or flight.

After breakfast I planned to search

in our backyard for the crater, the mother ship


I knew it would contain.

I would bravely destroy the invaders.

Then it would be my most solemn duty

to inform the world: From now on

here, on Planet Earth, things would never,

ever again be the same.

    —Published in Sugar House Review

Dickering With God

An hour ago the phone yanked my wife

and me from sleep. My Cry Wolf heart

tom-tommed in my chest: Someone we love—

a son, a sister—surely dead or mangled

on a gurney in Intensive Care. When I answered,

a voice said, Is Artie there? Nerves aquiver,

I shouted: You have the wrong number! Peeved, pissed,

I hissed: It’s 3 a.m.! A pause, then: This is Vernon. I’m lost.

I was about to quip Who isn’t? when I heard

the hang-up, felt the deep silence of disconnection.

Wrong number, I grumbled to my wife and doused

the bedside lamp, my heart still punching

against the walls of my chest like some wild thing

trussed up in a gunny sack.

                                                      Now, still wide awake,

my mind churning like the little color wheel

on my laptop,  I recall other sleepless nights

in the Way Back of Time when I lay tucked

in fetal prayer: Give me my biblical three score

and ten, I pleaded, an age that seemed impossible

then because any moment I might die.

Don’t walk up a steep hill in a cold wind,

the doctor had warned as he flipped shut

my chart and fixed me with a Sibyl’s eyes.

How quickly the world pivots toward the Absurd.

I was a bit shy of 30. Just as Camus predicted.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                              

And what more purely absurd than thinking

about one’s own death? Deeply in love

with myself, I begged: Get me to 70. I promise

I’ll ask for nothing more.


                                                 Tomorrow I turn 74,

look forward to presents, ice cream, cake.

Gravity pulls more strongly now. My knees ache.

The ones I metaphorically bend each night

have stayed somewhat supple as I've begun

again to dicker with God. In truth, more filibuster,

more pitch than prayer. Don’t those late-night ads

on TV for this or that amazing gizmo cut straight

to the quick of it? The deep human hunger for More.

Always More.

                                  Here, in the dark,

snow and wind buffeting the house, I can’t shake

Vernon’s voice, the straight, simple way he confessed

to being lost. Lord God, I have no idea where

I am going: So prayed Thomas Merton, knowing

neither the road ahead nor his own core self.

Call back, Vernon. This time I will listen.

      —Published in Relief: A Journal of Art and Faith


Email: rfreisi@mtu.edu   © Randall Freisinger 2019