“National Day of Atonement”

A few weeks ago my poem “National Day of Atonement” went up at Writers Resist, a website “born of the 2016 U.S. Presidential Election”. The poem was actually written in November 2017, in response to the Virginia election results. It was the first time in a year where there seemed to be a glimmer of hope on the horizon. The poem takes its first line from an article about Americans actually screaming at the sky on the anniversary of the election. There is a play on Wallace Stevens’ “Blanche McCarthy” there, as well. The poem attempts to end on a note of hopefulness. Let’s hope 2018 fulfuls that wish.


 

“National Day of Atonement”

Scream at the empty mirror of the sky,
the waiting blue, the blinding cosmic eye,
until your pain lathes the Plutonian rim
of the Solar System.

Scream at the crystal ceiling of the sky
until it cracks up like an electoral map
of the United States, our jagged earthly cry
a collective bootstrap.

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April poetry rundown

April was a good month – for poetry, anyway. After a two-month streak of rejections I thought would never end, I had two poems accepted. The first is an ekphrastic – a poem inspired by an image, in this case one from NASA – and the second is inspired directly by the moon (no telescope required).


 

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Space Station Crew Sees Lots of Clouds 

From up here it’s an oceanic birthday cake
these frosted tufts of cloud

makes you want to poke your finger in and lick
it right across the sugary mounds

of chemical-sweet butterscotch icing
gold-plated by the setting sun

then suck it through your teeth and tongue. Up here
we get lonely for such things.

Published in the Ekphrastic Review


 

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To the Horned Moon

How often I meet you here
above the trees and houses
nested in sleep, the edges

of you ringed, luminescent
as a dropped nickel in a pool
of crude oil. Copper-crowned

night, twilit and electric blue,
presiding above the world
unchallenged. What star

measures up to you? None
I know of. They are too far.
You, on the other hand,

so close I could
take you by the horns
wrestle you to Earth or

steer you forever
at ten million miles per hour
straight out of the universe.​

Published in Verse-Virtual

From Morpheus to myself

Astute readers will notice that I’ve added my name to the header of this blog. I’ve quietly been abandoning @godlessinitaly as my online handle, which I’ve been using for quite a few years. Perhaps I should’ve turned it into a brand and tried to monetize it, which seems to be the way these things go. Whatever, I’ve never been good at that kind of thing. This blog has gone through quite a few permutations over the years, and I reserve the right to do whatever I want with it. Lately, that means poetry. I’ve dipped my toe again into the waters of Lethe. I’ve sent out some poems into the world and some have come back with wings.  Here is a poem I wrote about the opioid crisis after reading an article on the Sackler family in the New Yorker (them again?). The poem was written quickly, as “news poems” usually are, in order to keep pace with the ever-morphing news cycle. As such, it is part of an interesting contemporary experiment: can poetry – typically a slow and arduous form of expression, often subject to years of revision – say something worthwhile about current events, while they’re still current? I think it can, and so so the editors at Poets Reading the News, where this was published back in November 2017.

Morpheus in West Virginia

A scion of robber baron philanthropists
whose last name is synonymous with pain
has, through the toxic advertising mists,
made murder legal, elegant, humane.

Like Jagger’s Lucifer, he wears a tie
outfitted in the finest Italian suits
possessing all that money cannot buy
prestige and prominence the world salutes.

The dead of West Virginia are his keep,
couples with needles hooked into their arms,
their babies born into narcotic sleep,
more dust from opiates than firearms.

The mortuaries have run out of beds
to stretch the corpses on. In this shell game
the blue pills were swapped deftly for the reds
by Morpheus. I hope you guess his name.

I actually wrote my first news poem the week after 9/11, about those terrible events. It was written at a Chinese restaurant on 48th & 6th, and I can still smell the scent of that food as I wrote those bitter lines. Those were heady days, but there was no outlet for poetry that commented what was happening, as it was happening. I sent it out to the usual journals, but it was never accepted. Of course it lost its immediacy. What to  do with such a poem almost twenty years later?

Write new ones.

A Letter to the New Yorker

Yesterday I wrote a letter to the editors of the New Yorker. Since I very much doubt it will get published or even answered privately (then again, who knows?) I’ve decided to publish it here, as I feel it is in the general interest of those who read and write poetry.

Dear New Yorker,

As a longtime reader, enthusiast, poet, poetry-submitter and subscriber – not necessarily in that order – I was taken aback to see that the poet Traci Brimhall (“Dear Eros“, “Love Poem Without a Drop of Hyperbole in It“) was published twice in a three-week period in January, 2018. I have no qualms with Brimhall or her work; in fact, I loved her poems on both occasions. But to publish one poet twice in such a short period, in a magazine which publishes roughly a hundred poems a year, comes off as a display of cliquishness. It reminds me of an exchange I once had with a former poetry editor of this magazine nearly twenty years ago. When I queried if I could send her some of my work, she responded with visible embarrassment, “Please understand – I have obligations.” The New Yorker is highly-regarded for the quality of the work it chooses to publish, and no one would ask that it lower its standards in order to broaden its sweep. But one wonders if, among the thousands of poems on the editor’s desk, there wasn’t one which might have rivalled Brimhall’s for ingenuity. I’d bet almost anything there was.
I’m not sure why I was so ticked off by this, but I was. A poet friend of mine says he doesn’t read the New Yorker, so he doesn’t care what they publish. Well, I do, and I generally esteem their selection. And I also recognize that a great many poets dream of seeing their work in its rarified pages. I just keep wondering, what obligations exactly? Every poet wants to be on a level playing field, don’t they? If their submissions page said, “Agented submissions only,” I’d grit my teeth and understand. But it doesn’t. It sounds friendly and open and, well, encouraging. As if you or I might actually stand a chance.
I’m not worried about burning my chances with the New Yorker because of a kvetchy little post like this one. After all, it is the New Yorker – right? What’s New York without a good kvetch?
*Update: As of May 15, 2018 there has been no response from the New Yorker. Unsurprised.

New Poem up at Rattle

facebookprA few days ago Rattle published a poem of mine in  its Poets Respond series. Like most poems inspired by the news cycle, it was written at lightning speed and sent off almost immediately and with minimal revision. I’d like to write a post on the phenomenon of “news poetry” when I have more time, but right now I’m just bookmarking this one for posterity. Rattle is a fantastic journal and it’s an honor to be in such good company.

_____

WORTH IT

You, too, are currency. You can be saved,
devalued, spent, invested, thrown away
or burned. In this town roads are paved
with skeletons of folks like you and me.
Your net worth isn’t what you thought it was—
pursuing happiness, you work for free.
You’re better than this, you tell yourself as
you Google who you are. And who are you?
Data, as it turns out.
                                      Go now, erase
your name from the wine-dark sea of Facebook blue
before you’re bought and sold! But it’s too late.
The work is done. What more is there to do
but punch the clock and rue what’s left of fate?
In bed, you count your sheep and calculate.

A Memory of the Gotham Book Mart

http://blog.bestamericanpoetry.com/.a/6a00e54fe4158b883301bb087ebc4c970d-piBookstores are something I know from, as my grandmother might’ve said it. I worked in some of the most famous bookstores in the world, and accumulated a large backlog of anecdotes and memories which have served me well since I moved on to other things. They are a constant source of material for my poetry, for one thing. But then again, so is every experience in a poet’s life. Take a recent example: the other day I was writing a poem on the kitchen table – which is my writing desk for all intents and purposes – and one of the lines became something about my grandfather’s prosthetic leg. My grandfather – who had been born in Vilnius (Vilna, in Yiddish) – died when I was eight, and I had only ever seen him infrequently. That is to say, I have no conscious memory of his fake leg. My sister, however, confirmed that he had indeed lost his leg to gangrene and used an artificial limb to walk. There is no end to the surprises we find out about ourselves, and sometimes in the most surprising ways.

The following memory was written in 2007, after the Gotham Book Mart had finally closed its doors.  I hope some of the flavor of the place comes across. There will never be another bookstore like it anywhere.

_____

Everyone’s mother has some tidbit of wisdom that stays with them throughout their adult life. Here’s mine: when a person dies, an entire library dies with them. Therefore, it stands to reason that when a bookstore dies, an entire fleet of readers dies with it.

The Gotham Book Mart was, by some accounts, an ordinary bookshop in the venerable old style. Founded by Frances Steloff in 1920, it was there on 47th St. in midtown Manhattan before the diamond and watch merchants moved in. In its final days, it was the only remaining oasis on the block, a place where one could duck in amid dusty volumes of forgotten poetry and tumbleweeds of orange cat fur in order to escape the rabble. It was also a haunted house of literary legends. It was there that Steloff may or may not have scolded Marilyn Monroe for climbing on a ladder in high heels. It was there that Ezra Pound reportedly refused to enter because Steloff was Jewish. It was there that Ulysses and Lady Chatterley’s Lover were sold under the counter when you could still get into trouble for such things. Rumor has it they used to assemble the loose pages of Joyce’s masterpiece copy by copy in the store, making it a kind of literary speakeasy. It was there that they filmed the bookstore scene in Rosemary’s Baby. It was there that Robert Crumb reportedly rode a woman down the stairs like a mule during his own book signing party…

As of 2005 the store’s bookmarks boasted “85 Years of the Best in Literature”, followed by a cascade of illustrious clients: Katharine Hepburn, Woody Allen, Jackie Onassis, John Updike. I can personally attest that the store’s Rolodex contained the very private addresses of Greta Garbo and Lou Reed, both of whom lived on the same block on the Upper East Side in the 1970s. All this was part of the fun. The Gotham swept up all kinds in its wake: writers, artists, culture mavens, gossip columnists, executives, bookaholics, even the occasional schnorrer with his handfuls of change and a rehearsed joke: “A rabbi walks into a bar…”

After decades in the limelight, times changed. Days could often pass in the presence of no one but a few old-timers and a gaggle or two of tourists straying from Times Square. Steloff died in 1989, at the age of 101. Up to its ears in debt in one of the most expensive neighborhoods on earth, the store’s second owner, Andreas Brown, was constantly under pressure to sell. Finally, having no choice, he did. In 2004 the bookstore moved from W. 47th St. to E. 46th St (just across 5th Ave., for those unfamiliar with Manhattan’s nexus of streets and avenues.) Away from the whirlwind of Times Square, Rockefeller Center, the Diamond District and – significantly – a very convenient subway stop, the store battled bravely on for another two years. It closed, almost without a word, in late 2006.

This is not the place to do justice to the Gotham Book Mart’s legacy. One day there will be a full-length book to do just that. Word has it that they are still “negotiating a deal” with some business bigwigs, which means – in newyorkspeak – that there is almost no chance of the store’s ever reopening its doors again for business. The loss of the Gotham Book Mart is one of those things one would like to blame on the internet or chain-style bookstores. We could even try to blame the fact that “no one reads anymore”, but then they never really did. The store was a kind of unofficial New York City monument, the kind of place one was proud to shop – or browse – if only to admire the signed photos of Dylan Thomas and Anais Nin, the creaky wooden floor and the thirty-pound feline named Pynchon lazing in the window. It was, as it still says on the bookmark (quote courtesy of Woody Allen): “…everyone’s fantasy of what the ideal bookshop is.”

Emmes*, as my grandmother might’ve said.

*Emmes is Yiddish for emet – the Hebrew word for “truth”. It means something like “damn straight”.

2018 Update

Strand Logo
When I was there it was still only “8 Miles of Books”.

It’s 2018, folks, and it’s time for an update. I haven’t published anything on this blog in almost two years. Frankly, it’s just too much work at times, and there are always more important things on my to-do list, like cobbling together poetry manuscripts, writing new poems, raising a family and – yes – work.

My intention is to use this space to track new writing as it is published. Last week, Poets Reading the News ran a poem of mine about the Strand Bookstore which was written on the occasion of the death of its owner, Fred Bass. The Strand was my alma mater, in a way. There is a lot to say about that time and place, about New York City in the mid-1990s. There is probably a novel in there somewhere down the line. But let’s let poetry do its work. Suffice to say it took 20 years to write this.

______

The King Is Dead

Employees stocked the fridge with beer, pocket
bottles of Smirnoff tucked
behind stacks for easy nipping. Lunch-

breaks were drinking contests, pounding
pints to dull ourselves before re-entry,
turbulent and dazed. After our shifts

we’d hit the bars along the Bowery
fueled on Chinese takeaway and pizza
by-the-slice. We were ‘bodies’

in their jargon, useful mannequins
for schlepping boxes full of books –
ten floors of them and counting.

The intricate small man sat at the desk
glasses clasping the bridge of his nose
bald pate shining like a headlamp.

“I need a body,” he would say. Someone
would pick up a phone, request
a body, one would be sent up

from the nether world. We were paid
minimum wage to build labyrinths
of boxes made of books made

of paper, miles of it, enough to pave
Broadway with a pelt of snow. Walls
went up between us, block after block after block,

a city within a city. Like Theseus,
I wandered through them endlessly in search
of my Minotaur. The king is dead.

_____

Snow

I have a complicated relationship with snow.

My father – like all Italian fathers – thought it was important that I learn to ski at a young age. Perhaps this comes from growing up in a country with an Alpine border. So he took us to the local bunny slopes in Pennsylvania where I learned to coast gently on the powder and sip steaming hot cocoa by the fireside in my wet jeans. As a teenager I became a skateboarder, and so naturally in winter I began to snowboard. One winter we even took a trip – friends only! no adults! – up to the slopes for a weekend. While my friends were getting trashed and wrecking the room at the Days Inn, I hooked up with a girl I had never seen before, resulting in an unexpectedly hot night. The next day on the slopes I remember thinking, “Do I have a girlfriend now?” When we got home I promptly discovered she had moved in with my friend Jeff. At least I had an answer: I did not have a girlfriend now.

Years later, after I had moved to Italy, I was visiting a cousin in Zurich when I found myself again on the slopes. This time they were real Alpine slopes with staggering views of what appeared to be the entire continent of Europe. I was on borrowed skis for the occasion. With the Swiss there is no dilly-dallying on the beginner slopes. These people race right up to the top of a mountain and down the other side like rabbits. When I found myself on a slope, which for all intents and purposes seemed liked like a mountain-sized vert ramp made of ice, I began to have second thoughts. “There are only two ways down this hill,” I was told by my Swiss companion. “On your skis or on your ass.” I seriously contemplated the second option for what seemed like years, staring down at the infinite whiteness. A knot formed in my stomach. When I finally thrust myself from my shaky perch, I made it some part of the way down the mountain before hearing a distinct “craaaack!” and feeling my leg twist around like a rubber Gumby doll. I lay there sure I had broken my leg. The pain was intense. I had no phone, spoke no German and had no idea where my cousin or his family were. I was three hours outside of Zurich, eight hours from Rome, an ocean and a mountain range away from New York City (still home to me then), alone and writhing in pain on a mountainside in deepest Switzerland.

I spent the rest of the week reading Nietzsche’s The Gay Science in the lodge and obliquely chasing after Italo-Swiss ski bunnies. I wrote a lot of poetry in those days, continuing work on a Don Juan-esque epic I was writing (to be published after my death) and musing on what the fuck I was going to do when I got back to Rome. My leg, it turned out, wasn’t broken.

I haven’t touched a slope since then. When people ask why I don’t go skiing in the winter – settimana bianca is an Italian tradition – I say I don’t like having things fastened to my feet. Of course, as a skateboarder it’s becoming more difficult to make excuses for not wanting to ski. And now that our daughter is old enough to begin taking ski classes I envision having to return to the dreaded mountains again soon. Seeing the distorted smirk on my face, my wife says, “You can snowboard, you know.”

“I don’t like having things attached to my feet,” I repeat, changing the subject.

The (not so great) helmet debate

Forgive the pun, but this is a no-brainer. It all started with a comment from my ex-stepfather, whom I haven’t seen or spoken to since 1997.

Marc never let the wounds and pains of falls ever stop him from getting back up and skating more. However, now that he and his bones are older I hope he can get a set of pads to wear for protection. Speaking from expierence (sic) having had a head injury from 9 months ago leaving me somewhat disabled I would also suggest a helmet.

Of course I wrote those words off as soon as I read them. My thoughts were something like, I don’t ride vert or jump down stairs, so I don’t need a helmet. Besides, they’re for wussies. And that was – kind of – that.

Until I started paying attention to Josh Katz, who has a semi-popular skateboarding YouTube channel. He’s probably young enough to be my son, but he’s almost the only person on my skadar (skate radar!) who wears a helmet. When I began reading the comments to his videos, I noticed that there were a lot of comments about his helmet:

 (like this one)

Blah blah blah.  Nice helmet pussy.
Probably more attention was being paid to his helmet than to his skating, which is a shame because Josh can backside triple flip over a hip. Sure, he was a minority of essentially one, but what was the big deal? I mean it was obvious that he probably cared enough about himself to err on the side of caution. Which, in a subculture that has always had a strong component of delinquency (Baker, et al.), was kind of like Jonathan Richman singing “I’m Straight” at the height of Haight-Ashbury. It’s a bold move to go nerd. Anyway, the more I read of these comments the more my estimation of Josh and his refusal to be bullied grew. He even made a video responding to his trolls in which he lays out the four most common arguments against helmets: 1) they’re uncomfortable. 2) I don’t care. 3) they’re not cool. 4) you’ll never get sponsored. To which Josh responds:

I’d rather look a little bit goofy wearing a helmet than be a vegetable for the rest of my life.
It’s hard to argue with a line like that. So when Mike Vallely, the biggest street skater who came up when I was a young skater around 1988, dropped his recent part sporting a powder blue helmet, I took notice. Say what you will about the retro skating (looks fun to me), the helmet was a bold move. In his defense – because apparently a helmet must be defended by its wearer – he said something like “I have a family, I have responsibilities to them.” And bang, that was when it hit me. I have a young daughter. Do I really want her to grow up with a brain-damaged parent because of something so stupid as “helmets aren’t cool?” I have a wife and a sister and, hell, I have a brain, without which – or the proper functioning of which – I’m not, well, me. Am I ready to give all that up for a backside ollie?

Of course not. And since I really enjoy skateboarding and have no plans to stop any time soon, I might as well get with the program. I just turned 41, I have a family and run a small business. I’m interested in lots of things, not the least of which is science (difficult to appreciate with a damaged brain). There are so many reasons I can think of to protect my cranium and literally only one against it: it’s not cool, which isn’t even a reason in my book.

Long story short, I got a helmet. And, as if this were all part of some cosmic jest, the first day I wore it I fell backwards and hit my head on the pavement. I wasn’t even trying some gnarly trick, either. I just hit a pebble and went flying. But I was glad I had a helmet at that moment. And it didn’t even feel uncomfortable. It felt, well, kind of cool. Like being smart.

Progress report

Progress report 1: Marriage equality is legal across the fifty states, and I’m excited about that!

Progress report 2: But I’ve also been making my own progress skateboarding. Back in May I passed the six month mark, and noticed I’d been accumulating a lot of clips. Sure, I’d been uploading them to my Instagram account (that’s where I put all my skateboarding-related stuff), but it seemed the time was ripe to, well, commemorate the fact that I’m still skating. After all, there was no guarantee back in November of last year that I’d have kept up with it. Plus, I’m perennially irked by the fact that I have no footage of myself skating from 1987-1993 (other than some poor-quality video in the possession of my friend Pat Eisenhauer.) Not that I’m narcissistic – I’m not at all – but I now realize the importance of keeping personal archives, the kind of thing that never crossed my mind when I was a teenager. I’ll be happy I did this when I’m old and senile.

What I’ve done is arrange a representative selection of clips into a three-minute video. They basically follow chronological order, starting around December 2014 with what I consider my ‘first trick’, a frontside pop shuvit. I learned them before backside pop shuvits, although I now find them harder to do consistently. Progress is a strange thing, and it’s not really linear. I clearly remember thinking – back when I was 15 or so – that I’d never learn another trick, that I’d maxed-out my repertoire. And usually by the end of the session I’d have surprised myself with something new. My philosophy is: just keep at it. Progress will take care of itself.

My hope is that some modicum of progress is visible over the span of the six months or so that I’ve been filming. Not just new tricks, but perhaps something approaching style, or at least not looking like I’m always in danger of falling. As most of what I have available to skate is flatground and a few mellow banks, those make up a disproportionate amount of this video. There is some footage of the Ashland and 28th St. skateparks in Richmond, VA, and a dilapidated skatepark in Campello, Umbria; other than that it’s all street. I wonder what kind of progress I’ll have made by this winter. Hopefully, another amateurish video will be in the works in a few months.

Note: This is my first video and almost all the footage was filmed by placing an iPhone on the ground or on an elevated surface and touching “record”.