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Long Beach, CA

His/Her Story

Mr. Crowzen’s Yard

I never understood why the old man bent down so dutifully above the green
Preening like a crow on the crown of the hill, “Old Man Crowzen’s yard”
Pulling weeds

Sometimes, I guess, he was planting seeds
Then watering with the focus of a sieve 
Always calling forth dense green, incanting some mystery from the earth 

Indeed, he stewed it like a witch’s brew, the blades to hold the dew
Obsessed, he seemed, with that moving stream of water
In his tiny wizard's kingdom
When outside his walls a whole world wasted away for his lack of seducing it
Reducing it, as he did, to a patch of grass

But now, I understand:

If you can make one thing flourish in this strange world
If you can stand and say, I have power, before the sun fades
In this—a little kingdom of green, 
(No matter how small it is, that matters not a thing) 
It stings and stuns the sense we’re fading too fast 
It preserves the words we need to hold in all our unsaid selves

It delays the night with day  
And provides that prize we most covet:
A sense of harmony 

I know this, as I stand in my own yard, watering grass to green it, 
Preening as it lays down and lets me speak to it
Feeling the gentle stream that keeps me here and nowhere else—
Which may be life’s dearest trick
To be here now
And all while calling forth a shade of green
Which is to hold hope close, life’s second trick
Those two tricks the thing
So very close to being king

Night of the Hot Tub

The most hilarious story of my life, I was not there for
But have heard so many times I feel I was standing to the side of it, in dew drenched grass of a summer night so many years ago, when Bill woke up to the hippies in his hot tub

There had been a long fight about the contraption
Barbara lobbying like a lark, Bill calling it “newfangled," or some such phrase he reclaimed from the hackneyed rubbish bin of his day
And Barbara, exulting when, having won, it was installed in their backyard, while Bill just shook his head, slathered herself with sunscreen and slid into it, while Bill spent the week cutting the hedge

And at the end of that short week, to the sound of splashing, Bill rose and strode through the back door and yelled, “By God, what are you doing out here?”
But they were laughing and/or too high and/or drunk to hear or listen
So he went out into his garage and returned with a chainsaw—just for looks
And stepped right up to the tub and yelled, “Well...”

And then every one turned and scrambled like squirrels, naked to the world
Slipping all over the grass like it was buttered, and screaming
And Bill said no further word but walked back to bed
Where Barbara sat sleeping like the fat cat who caught the canary, dreaming of her hot tub

I wish I had been there (girls streaming from the water aside),
To watch the light in his eyes, and to watch him leverage that crotchety gray style
And beneath it, that wonderful, mischievous smile, glad at last that some things
Can at least remain the same and in their proper order
In this, our always newfangled world

 

To Those Who Make it Through

There were some who got through
I don’t know how but they did, 
Like bombers on air raids slipping through impossible skies
They defied the odds 

This man I have in mind (because I met him, once, in a photograph, 
and have heard his stories)
Lived with a smile which was never plastered on like a lie
Like the miles of billboards down the old highway to his house

He didn’t walk in the door and say, “Gee, Sal, this dinner smells fine”
But he did shine, with an inner sheen of light
He was happy, kind

He rode with Sally, his girl, on back roads
Smiling as he laid his hand on her thighs
And later, as he held her and had her and she had him
There was selflessness that rose up like a rainstorm in the midst of their great love

He would not roam, never strayed—though he had his offers
He never hit his child
Anger yes, but never rage,
Always found some way to release it like a frog that had crawled into his house
Back into the night

And some many years later, wrinkled and wounded but beautifully unscathed,
Burnished and burgeoning all the more for his age
He handed off the gift
Like a little bird cage 

And not an eagle inside it, nor a bird of prey
But a canary, small and frail and innocent
And with a song like the morning lark

He sings an aria through the years
An opera
Its music, still
Filling all our grateful lives

 

The Duty Free Shop

When we came up from the cave of jetway with its bright lights behind us,
We were given “good days” and “b-byes” as we made our way
Into a different kind of light—not yellow like the sun, but white
And the room tinged with a king of ringing, like a penumbra of sound spilling from the shade,
That said, “All is safe here,” 
A Siren’s song
A serenade

I held all in wonder on my first long trip: all the people passing with such purpose
To great things, from here to there, on long flights
But we were momentarily, my grandmother said, in the den of iniquity
And she shook her head and pursed her lips, checking a price tag over the rim of her thick glasses

But then I saw a star of light cross her face
The confusion, the sense of impendent grace
"That’s half the price,” she said to no one (certainly not to me)
Before, as if kissed by an angel,
She grabbed my hand and guided me to a rack of toy cars and teddy bears
Where I played, as she spent ten minutes rifling through the devil’s things 

And when she bought me chocolate
I saw in her bag the very bottle of devil’s syrup that had raised such flags
As she looked at me with kind eyes and smiled
Before we made our way into the great white city sprawling like angels’ wings beneath our feet

 

Diner

She hung the saddest sign on the highway:
“Open for business, even on Christmas”

Inside the shoebox diner
She served him coffee,
And a fresh slice of pie— 
Her greatness
The one true excellence of her life
That, and the beauty of her eyes

When he reached out and patted her thigh
She only smiled
“Harmless,” she sighed,
Her chest rising
Against the faded pink creases
Fraying beneath her nametag

An hour later, as the bright Buick bulbs
Lit the gravel like a child’s flashlight,
And then the rock wall, and them the empty blackness of asphalt
There were whispers all along the highway
That burned out, like candles, into silence
As the evening came and went
As the night swept in, thick as fever,
The desert canyons moist with rarest dew
The indigo of fading blue,
With its endless beauty and false strength,
Passing like the angel of death
Into the west
 

From George, on his Deathbed

O, God, I leave this story
And I don’t want to go
And lose this pageantry of sight,
And above all sound
The notes of symphonies
Tightly wound and worn
Like a woman’s wedding gown
And the music of nighttime
And birds at day

The smell of summer, too
And ripened fruit
And honeysuckle root
I weep, but not from fear
Only loss
I want to see the story end
I want to dance its final spin

So help me go
There is another story
I’ve been told, and I know—
beyond those feeble witnesses—
That it is so
And the colors there are brighter
Than a thousand here
And its music will melt me
While I will revel in being wax

Still, I can’t see, if pain is gone,
How joy will stand
Or how a pear will taste as sweet
If fruit won’t rot
Or how a stolen day could be as dear
When theft is made dumb
By endless time

But these mysteries, I leave to you
I’ve learned to trust
I know you will see it through
O, God, into that void I go
Knowing this is not the end

And as I leave her...
This I can’t bear to say
(It rips my heart away)…
Let her know our life was sweeter
Than any autumn scent that drenched me
Any summer spring that quenched me
And though we trust it comes again
This is still the brutal end
And meet for tears and loss

But now, heart and courage
Unknown spring still stands
So let me grieve purely
Not as one who is afraid
But as one who loses
And has the strength to cry
With no pretense nor pretending
ven if this is no end

 

When I Was Young in the Mountains

Actually, I never lived in the mountains
But the brand’s the thing

I was young, of course, we all were
And startled
By the light of this green world

I lived by meadows, that’s true enough
But you’d hardly call the hill a mount

It was good for sliding down, though
I can still feel the ice freezing my hands

It cut me like a dagger
The winter would rip your skin

And in the cutting
Something was let in:

You knew you were alive then
With blood dripping down

You didn’t know you’d always be chasing
Ever after
Something to make you feel the same way

Something as true as that racing pain
You could stay just one step, one slide, ahead of

If pain’s the tutor of the soul
His truth, at least, is easy to learn:
“This is real,” he says
“This means something and matters”

And if you know that, you can hold all things
Like water’s held in a bowl
And then you can let it all go

When I was young in the mountains
I learned all I’d need to know

But it wasn’t long ‘til I moved to the town
And things move on from thing to thing

Worse, people will become things
And if you let that winter happen

Well, there’s no spring behind
Nothing coming to redeem it

And when the singing’s gone,
What’s left?  Just standing in line

Keeping your head down
Running ‘round and ‘round

Trying to get what’s next
Trying to not get ground up

Because that’s life
And what life becomes

But when I was young in the mountains?
I was the king of the land

Hands bleeding, the whole world in front of me
Some pain that said, “Don’t get numb, kid,”
Teaching me

I just didn’t know how numb a pain can be
Couldn’t know such realities

When I was spinning in joy
The winter cracking my lungs open

The pain teaching me that to feel
Is what’s real, even if it’s hell

And then, after that winter
The spring coming with so much sap
The smell of green would take your hand

Make all good and bright inside you
Renewing the land, and you with it

For years now, words have slipped from me
Beneath this longing that can’t be laid in words

To slip from this place
To slip from this, the unreal
Where all is numbed and tame and plain

Back to that hill
That I can slide down
Where I can find again that letting in

That letting go that holds you
And lets you hold it

Your hands frozen
Your soul, unzipped, alive,
Shaken and unshaken

Your heart quaking
For how real it all is
And how much it means
The pain of everything meaning everything
Its sting speaking, being, revealing
Everything


Beneath the Anger, Always Sorrow

In The Perfect Storm, there is a moment when the actors are transfixed metaphors
Staring at a patch of sunset beyond the fray until
Seeing the wave that would push them away from sun, back into the darkest day
George Clooney, bearded, brawny, bruised by life, curses the storm that will not let them go

In your sorrow, my friend, you were such a sailor
Not on film or page but in flesh and blood, looking at the pink horizon of hope beyond the waves
For a moment, your anger abated and there, beyond the black and gray of it, you saw the pain
Touched it, felt the throat-tightening grimace in the underwater vault of it, 
Always kept at bay by the energy you expend wrestling that Leviathan away
Beneath such thick skin

The pink sky ahead was the way out of it
But it will not let you go—the rage—unless you find a way into the pain 

Sad to say, Clooney and those sailors went down with the ship
It’s not much of a metaphor, then, unless you can flip the script
And claw your way to that horizon
Where the sunlight warms and burns you to death
Like the boy covered in dragon scales who became himself again, but
With searing pain—the sloughing off of second skin—
The agony of being lost and found
The strain of being saved
As the ocean always brings its truth to bear:

The path of life is more painful than death
Resurrection far harder than a watery grave 

 

Good Fruit

There is something gained, of course, in the glad reality that
I can peel and pierce an orange whenever I like (or twice, or thrice)
Can walk or bike to the grocery and engorge on citrus
With fine happy fingers or the expectant knife

But one hundred fifty years ago, a woman walked six miles to town
And waited two hours for a train, late at the gate from a broken beam,
Which finally lumbered and gave out, with a great sigh of steam, 
After a trail too long, a master mean

And from a car she watched, as they hauled though the yard
Mail and bundles and boxes large, and a sack of fruit
Which, ten minutes later, in the general store, she made sure
Was first unpacked and, laying her hands on two—the limit—
She paid bright coins for that good booty, then walked back the six miles
A smile in each step

All to bring her girl a gift, a Magi, a wise woman  
And the girl gaped
As if the skies peeled back and angels sang, at the sight of that orange orb
All on Christmas day

There’s something gained in that story, too,
The beauty of effort, the perfection of simple things
When you still have eyes to see miracles all around you
And the soul’s longing is longer, made more sure by how it finds you
And what it will require of you

There's something lost, too, in how easily I weigh and peel the things
Or throw away the ones which fail to please
Because, after all, life is hard, and it’s often hard because it’s easy
And easy doesn’t please me, or you, or us
With these souls meant for good, hard work
To fill the earth, subdue it,
And bring of our lives sweet, good fruit 

 

Omar, on the Border

My body can no longer hold my spirit  
It shakes at the smallest lifting
It quakes through the watches of the day

And in the night, when I lie quiet,
Awake
I can’t sit straight, stand, get up

You move your hands, feeding me, shaving me
My chin presses in as my body abandons me
Once again, this morning
This now eternal re-occurring
The never-ending boarding of the flight of myself
Leaving me, as I stand at the window, waving

But my mind still sees so clear and bright and clean
I peer through the curtains, and in-between here and the hills, the highway
With its flashes of sun, reflecting off all the cars and trucks
That run and ride blind to the dumb luck of youth

Quick rivers of light flash into being
Blinding apparitions through these partitions of glass
Promising some world enflamed with the light of the sun
Some world burning on the other side

 

Subtext

It’s hard, she said, in that way that you say "it’s hard" and almost look away or retreat inside
So that the seam of the bag doesn’t rip and spill its grain all over this nice table
The heart is like a sack, after all, the bottom of which we stuff with the stuff that would keep us from getting up and getting on, one step after another

“It’s hard,” she said, and as she looked away I thought of textbooks or the Bible,
in which we read “and they went to war”
Which means blood and death and rape and the mad frenzy of hate
But,
The black words look so clean and straight on the white page
Sanitized, stripped down to just the glories—Alexander on his podium, say—and the orgies after
The dysentery in the camp forgotten
The boils, the sores, the blisters swept away by the smell of warm ink on pressed paper

Such is the subtext of pain
"It was hard” means, I guess, she almost spun out into the abyss, like a cartoon riding a bike over a cliff
But somehow, just before looking down and falling
She somehow threw the sack of her own heart off the bike and landed here, at this table
Where the water tastes so much like lemon, and the windows keep the rain at bay

 

The Pilot Comes Down to Earth

When the pilot came back to earth
It was all mirth, for a long moment
A slap on the back, a smile
Cut short by what comes after

The drive back from the tarmac
Hive activity in the hangar
Paperwork

The mundane removing of the flight suit
And the bumpy desert road trip
Back to the base

Where his bosomy wife watched a soap
And told him he was blocking her light
And would he bring her a glass of water

Which he did
Pouring it at the sink
Looking up at another test flight
Which left a long trail of white
Across a perfect sky

The Monologue

I dropped my phone in am Amsterdam toilet
I thought the story would be worth it
You know, I did it on purpose
(By the way, did you know dolphins are the
world’s most intentional animals?
Yeah, they do everything on porpoise)

Get it?
Anyway, yeah, I though it would be worth it
A good story, I mean
I was rushing around trying to catch a flight
And plunk, I dropped it
And I stood there laughing, just
Shaking my head at the absurdity
Rushing around to catch the connection
And I didn’t even enjoy a stroopwaffle
Just like my time in Jerusalem
Not one falafel!

Okay, so I didn’t drop it
But it would have been interesting, right?
I’d come home and tell the story
And there would be this morale beneath it
Like a living parable
Don’t rush around, or you might go crazy

The end
Er…c’est finit?
Oh right, oh right
…And scene



Harold, Going On

I sit where you would sit
By the open window on the porch

Dale, that damned squirrel, gathers acorns
Where you planted gourds
Pays me no mind, still
Which makes me smile

His world has gone on spinning
Somehow the worlds have gone on spinning
As I slip from symphony into silence

I pass through the kitchen, with its Maytag in D Minor
A note stumbling to find footing
Between the Black & Deckers in A and E

I stand now on the porch
Just as the B Flat of the dishwasher, with no ceremony
No baton drop, stops
And makes everything feel of quiet

When something stops, it’s as if everything else,
Even if it goes on, is gone

I sit alone now and hear only the autumn night
Smell lilac
The same night you listened to
With its G sharp of bullfrogs
And its crescendo of crickets

We call this quiet, but it’s not
It’s sound
But then the wind rises up, over the pond
And that feels like the first noise of the night

It sweeps up, unaware of me or the memory of you
As unaware as the moon or the stars or the trees
And it kisses the ground where you once walked
That favorite purple dress swept up by the wind
Of a springtime storm

You puckered your lips and blew a kiss,
Pretending you were Marilyn
Then you laughed as I smiled
And you turned to the woods
Staring into the storm
With its percussive rumbling
Its timpanis sounding some low note that shook your soul
Before the storm became one sound
And swallowed the evening whole

 

Lamppost

Silver light clangs down the street
After the rain
In the drizzle
Until, at the lamppost
The orange light breaks the night
Radiates warm
And invites
A soul to look up, to the sky
And pupils to stiffen and shrink,
Banishing the starlight
Blackening the silver sliver of moon

It buzzes in its blooming
All unassuming, though it breaks the stillness
The short distances below to peruse
In a calm and steady gaze
Cold, mechanical, quiet
Like the soundless stars

The way it buzzes, before I move on,
The way it’s buzzing still, somewhere
On the cold night
Incognizant, like a bug
Sad and senseless
Nudges me

Not to drown in melancholy
Or go down in droning

It’s been too long since I’ve written you
Tonight I will make the time
To put to words the Things that go beyond them
And see if they can steady me
(And, more dearly, find you)

A rope tossed down this long, dark well
Where, maybe you’re holding, still, the distant end
Standing in some field of moonlight
Or beneath some spot of lamplight
Looking up