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Long Beach, CA

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Poetry Blog

The Philosopher's Sermon

Brandon Cook

The most serious judgment of all, perhaps, is that we get exactly what we want 
If there is a God, He (I know God doesn’t have a gender, but just go with me) 
He, in love, gives everyone what they choose 
He cannot force any soul along a path  
He is limited by uncoercing nudges 
The wind, the light, a hand on the small of a back 

No one will be in heaven who does not want to be there 
No one in hell who isn’t satisfied, in some way,
And no one will be surprised, either 
It all just extends out, this life, like a ripple from the steps we now walk

If you walk up to someone in hell and say, “Are you happy?”  
“Yes, of course,” they’ll say 
And of course, he said, leaning over his lectern, 
Hell isn’t a place at all  
It’s a state 
A state, perhaps, that many of us have long embraced

Then he stood straight, gathered his papers, and looking up, paused and said, at last, 
“Dismissed, good day”  
His brow furrowed when he looked up, confused as to why we all sat there still, 
Waiting for the next page 

Goofy

Brandon Cook

My wife and I bought drinks at Disneyland
And the mouse sure knows how to make a Manhattan
As we sat, with our kids asleep in the stroller, on a plush couch

In my periphery, a man walked by our window with such happy zest, my brain balked 
“No one is that happy, he’s hiding something,” I thought, before turning to see
That it was just Goofy 

Literally, a man dressed up as Goofy, 
A character on a stage to assuage, in some way (and not unlike my liquor), the daily pain of life
Creating in his walk enough space for sighing and for smiles

He walked with such purpose in his cartoon rendering, 
No doubt off to bungle a car repair, banging his thumb ’til it throbs,
Though, no worries, a few frames later, it will no more be inflamed,
And even if, while catching fish, he hooks instead his own britches, they will be re-born
without a tear

No wonder he is so happy (I thought without thinking, as I sipped my drink):
In this magic place, Goofy is always marching into the fray for us,
A beautiful dream of what might be
Sore thumbs, torn pants, broken dreams all so easily mended 
A balm to these endless human hearts, with their joy and pain,
And their endless capacity to feel both things

We See As We Are

Brandon Cook

I saw a man stand near the trash can and throw his wrapper,
Balled up like a sad piece of origami,
Into the trash can
Except he missed, and the malformed swan swam not into its garbage pond
But found instead the cruel, hard ground 

The man’s faced twitch, and he paused before bending down 
Picking up the paper and dropping it in

“A good guy,” I thought

But then I realized he probably wasn’t so concerned about the earth or giving clean berth to the next passerby
He was probably simply sad he missed
Or worse, worried that someone saw him and would judge him if he didn’t drop down
If he knew that no one saw, I reckoned, no doubt he would just walk on, unalarmed   

“What a jerk,” I thought, shaking my head 

And all this happened before I realized that everything we see also speaks something about us:
We see also with our inner eyes 
Not as things are, but as we are
In sizing up others, we ourselves assize 

I thought all this to myself without thinking, as I turned to go, 
A good guy into the storm of life

The Orbit of You

Brandon Cook

When you passed me, as the party petered out into its sad drunkenness, like a meteor losing light,
I was caught in the wondrous orbit of your yellow dress, with that fringe of red to match the auburn of your hair, and the smile that was only friendliness opening worlds within me

Time and space became nothing in my brain 
A thin fog, an oozing sense of electricity, as if I were the first to reach up and touch the mystery  
I wanted the moment to never unhand me
To stretch on into blind eternity
To shake me down for every coin and piece of lint inside my sad pockets 

But these moments pass, and so you passed into the kitchen carrying that unwieldly tray of marzipan, exiting like a Greek goddess, the door swinging swung shut to sew in the glory of you (and the perfect lines of your long waist) 
In the dust of ordinary life, at an ordinary time—such are all theophanies

But I have not been able to pass through any space purely
Always breaking the newel post or the last rung of the fence, 
Dropping mud into a clean tankard of champagne
My soiled hands, much as I've tried to keep them clean,
Mussing up the dearest dreams of me
And breaking things along the way

Still
I feel hope at the perfect kindness of your lines, your eyes, and that sweet smile, 
Hope in second birth
In a cleaning, down by the river side
Of desire finally finding the star that guides it true
And pulls up from the earth of me the best parts, that God has long been so patient with,
As stars are patient with the earth

Mr Crowzen’s Yard

Brandon Cook

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

Sandy Beaches Like False Gold

Brandon Cook

Most men sit around coffee wishing they had more time for it
Nursing a dream to fish, they see themselves setting down their cup or can
Chasing a marlin down the strand  
Or standing on some shore, their toes buried in the sand  
Or, on some perfect climb above it all, the past behind
And this dream for Sabbath (call it “leave” or “another life”) 
Has all the taste of freedom, 
Would be the breathing that their lungs can’t find amid the smoke of so much work 

But the truth is that what wears them down is the race within
Which would still be with them wherever they be found, 
Standing here or on exotic ground
They would not know how to spend the time of freedom, 
Stalked as they are by a sadness through every season, in rain or shine
And after a few weeks, the joy of “somewhere new” would fade
And the unpaid tabs all left behind would find them
And the new bright place take on the shade of whatever sorrow they hadn’t shaken  

The head shaking “damn" always finds us, after all, 
Invades us, pushes deep into the breaches and beaches of our own rocky hearts
Reminds us of the kind, relentless angel, Reckoning, who always seeks to heal us
Whom we run from as much as from the aching angel, Sorrow, 
For both would have us sit with them, at the table of Abraham, 
And wrestle like Jacob, at Bethel, and be born like Jesus, in Bethlehem
And never let us go

Love is like sorrow in that sense

To find peace would mean no more loathing, which means letting go
And no more being master of ourselves, 
And we just don’t bear that kind of being swallowed up, not when it means laying down the dearest illusion, Control
Not when it means accepting that what is laid down for hope’s sake is lifted up in resurrecting love
No
No, that is a painful way to go  

So, come right to it, 
The vision of some distant beach just serves as a spoonful of sugar, a little extra boost, 
Along with the long caffeine, the extra cup of juice, 
To help them think, to get them through another day,  
Thinking wistfully along the way, how fine it would be
To be out again upon the sea 

Night of the Hot Tub

Brandon Cook

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

A Reflection on my Trainwreck

Brandon Cook

I spoke to a room full of people, and I suppose I’m writing this to address the anatomy
of my glorious meltdown  

First, in rising mania I moved before the mic, saying things like, “Right?  I mean, right, guys?” Palms raised pleadingly for comprehension, I looked around the room for some nodding eye or mind to anchor the panic of not knowing what I was saying

Second, I soared out of my body, asking myself what on God’s green earth I was talking about, and wondering, not unlike a lamb being sheared, when it would all be over 

Third, three times, I opened my mouth, like a leap off a clip, literally without words to say, and not a pool to land in
I only found a place by making up a thought, no matter how incongruent, how grand the non-sequitur
And the wreckage was profound

Fourth, by the end, I just admitted, “I know this wasn’t very clear,” by which I meant, “I know this was a total trainwreck, and I’m really sorry,” and people got my meaning because they came up to me afterwards to “thank me” 

So they said, but, 
I’ve been around the track enough to tell the difference between gratitude and compassion from sweet souls—the kind of people who take home strays or leave milk out for tomcats
And saw how in need I was of a warm place to spend the night 

I told my wife, two days later, that it had stirred up my soul, like vinegar in a vat, settling into the bowl of my stomach, where I hold the best of my anxiety
It chewed up the sediment that holds down the river bottom—the waters of ego I scramble like an engineer to hold back, 
I, always an unwitting builder of a sandbag dam within me, holding back
Pebbles of performance
Earth layers of ego
Fissures of fear 

But three days of sitting in the dark is enough time
For my soul to enter that v-shaped resurrection I’ve come to know will hold me
You hit your low and then you know
That God never sees the pretense anyway, or sees past it, right as rain
And if all pain opens the soul, it’s better to learn to laugh and let it go
Sometimes, like the models in those old Westerns, the train just needs to go off the bridge
So you can learn it’s perfectly okay
And that the best lessons are the ones that shake you whole, so you can learn to let them go 

In the Coffee Shop

Brandon Cook

To a bird looking in at us through the window
We must look so stern
Our face-the-day hoods snug and firm, about our whole bodies  

But, when they played the hip hop song,
I noticed that the girl across the table started shaking her head
Her hair bouncing with the beat
And later, through my headphones, when my favorite song was spun,
I started miming the words to myself, placing myself before the sun
With metaphorical fist pumping that I will not go gently into any night
Before telling myself to calm down and carry on, head down 

Such are these wellsprings of desire within us
Which we, with unthinking effort, so nimbly conceal,
Like bodies which we do not wonder if we will dress
Avoiding each other’s eyes, smiling politely if we pass by
Because this is life: a calm face of sea, spinning oceans underneath

If we are all actors on a stage, we spend most of the time
Pushing down and getting by and
Hiding all the desire that drives us
Measuring our lives by coffee cups, sure,
But between the sips, holding a firm grip on the mast within us
As we bounce and bound all through the theater of this world
With all its plastered masks all about us, so placid

To stay balanced on the sea, then— 
This is our great trick, and we are all Houdinis
Striding atop the love and rage and pain which is never very far beneath us
A great endless wave always rising to meet us
As we all seek to walk on water
In all the places where it really matters,
Far from the coffee shops where we silently circle each other,
In the moments we reveal what burns inside us

To Those Who Make it Through

Brandon Cook

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

Brandon Cook

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

Your Shining Century

Brandon Cook

After my wife and I paid our exorbitant entrance into the carriage
We passed at last, in the final arc of clop-clop-clop, the Strawberry Fields,
Adjacent to where John Lennon died
(Or, I was reminded, was killed, by some mad eye)

Which made me think of a trip my dad took to Spain, to study art,
After MLK had died (or, I am reminded, was killed, by some hateful heart)
And a Spaniard said to him, disgusted, “What is wrong with you all?”
You all…you Americanos
You who strike down great men
Your presidents and your prophets
(Though, I am reminded, some great men are simply men who prize great prizes and great-sized aspirations)

Even now, I want to defend my father, which is to say, defend him and me and us
What about your shining century? I would say
Your oppression, your rejection of humanity
Your Guernica, your civil war
How convenient you can only afford such a short memory

But I guess throwing rocks only locks us in their grip
And, after all, the clop-clop-clop of Brian (I think that’s our horse’s name)
Reminds me we all ride on the same field, despite these dividing lines which we call nations,
Which give us places to work out, in our own ways, all this pain

It would be better to say to that Spaniard,
Yes, say a prayer for us
Indeed, what is wrong with us, 
as I shake a sad head
And maybe he, confused by my refusal to raise arms,
Would nod his head and say, I understand 
What’s wrong with all of us, eh?
He’d prod my arm in solidarity
And we’d sit thinking about what a fine future there is somewhere, off waiting for us
A fine future just waiting to be built

To Be Here Now, in the Great Belly of the Beast

Brandon Cook

I am listening to a baseball game, one of the more refined pleasures of this lingering American century
And sure, the radio is also a handheld genie with more computing power than the ship that put men on the moon
But
Sitting in Central Park while spring tries to spring, before the sun soaks up the
wet grass and wears shades and smiles (like the suns of 1,001 children’s books),
it is warm enough to enjoy the smell of hot dogs and someone’s fine tobacco
(It may be cheap, but what do I know? And who cares?)

And I become aware of timelessness here
On these leaves upon which so many derrières have sat
The day that Armstrong waddled down the ladder, perhaps, 
Onto that great white orb, now circling with endless speed this green sphere, 
And perhaps ten thousand other days, where souls have sat enjoying the little grattitudes of life, 
Of eating, of smoking, of pushing pain away 

My dad taught me how to sit and do nothing, which is the greatest excellence of a man, and one at which I still struggle lop-sidedly, an artist still at crayons,
But after the final out, while my wife sleeps on a sprawling rock untouched by centuries of metal teeth or the sharp whirr of the bulldozer,
I practice the art of being here
Now
And become aware of my breath
And let my mind wander down its spiral staircase for a waking nap
So that everything can become just sense, 
Of green and sun, of earthy smells
Which makes my soul shudder, at how large this park is, and how small, like squirrels, we are in this great belly of city
And how still, that seems good and right: a sensation of dangling
And how it’s better to have some sense of falling
Than a false sense of being held
Or worse, the addiction of avoidance that is our endless rushing around, 
Trying to be everywhere 

The Cow Turned its Head (So Wait On Life)

Brandon Cook

Around the bend, while we chased sunlight
I will remember always the last pasture  
Where three cows sat unaware of anything much spectacular in this dark world
Certainly not, by God, the burning down of earth and sky
Like hope collapsing to endless density, cold and quiet

I waved my camera, quick as I could, fixing its fixtures to take in the world, frame and shutters ready
But it would not work, despite the perfection of orange above me, because  
The damn cow closest us was content at eating grass
And there’s nothing sweet about a bovine ass  
(It’s a cheap rhyme, but there, I’ve said it, I couldn’t let it pass) 
In the center of the frame  
And the other two so far turned, were helpless to help me, as the sky turned dark and the seconds burned  

But, 
at the last moment, that cow most close to us—who knows why, God alone— 
Turned its head, sighing or eyeing me, 
I believe he flipped his tail, too, as if to say, “Yeah, I see you" 
And that image of his face made everything else take its place, stand ready, and say “Cheese!”—the sky, the trees, the holy grace  
As not three cow hides but rather three beautiful beasts  
Filled the center of the frame, and one, a perfect quiz upon his face, was an angel to all the rest, as I clicked away 

He, my new friend, quick as cows can move,  
Settled back down to herb and plate, all done
But the sky was through, anyway, as things need to find their boring, brooding pace again

I knew, though, for that moment, that his turning seemed to say, “Be present, wait on life, things will look your way" 
And I could not have loved him more
So grateful for the photo, which sits framed now, on my desk,
And much more for the metaphor  

Driving with My Daughter as Sunset, in a New Place

Brandon Cook

The sky is a saddle on the horizon
And my daughter is fighting sleep in the back seat as we drive through hills formed so long ago that you just have to ignore how small we are in the expanse of things
That we are kings, rather—now glad explorers newly finding this ring of road,
Blazing trails on pavement

The stars blink on, revealing the void always there, the never-ending night
The ocean we always sail, the sky,
As we chase the purple clouds of sunset,
The orange leather of last light

She is new to this world (give or take four years), pure and perfect
She doesn’t have the words yet, even in waking day,
To say full what she thinks (of course, what year ever grants us that, complete?)
And what she feels is still a churning sea, a geyser, a quiet lake
Always being discovered, sometimes surprising her
All this water in the world, around and in and through us

You can see the look on her face when she has no words
Like tensile hands just learning to touch
Trying to pick a grain of sand from dust

Before the end of this day’s world, and before words,
In the embrace of a hilltop on which we pause, as on a crest of wave,
Before speeding gladly down into the bottom, where the night is formed more fully—
More sure the dark there, and pure
Together, we have no words, just wonder
As the next hill looms before us like a great, breaking wave
Of perfect quiet
 

Rite of Passage in a Small Town

Brandon Cook

My aunt told me that my cousin, for something fun to do in this small town,
Would ride the square
"What’s that?" I said, as if I were in Rome pointing to a statue
"Ride the square, you know…get in a truck and ride around it" 
Then she laughed, and I was in on the joke 

There are rites of passage which blind the participants
They are drawn inexorably, like the swallows of Capistrano,  
Like those salmon jumping upstream to spawn  
Like me at my high school graduation growing a goatee of eleven hairs, so spare and sparse
I alone, exulting in my strength, was blind to the sad statement I made 

Little birds, you see, do not despise their strength
And we all flex whatever muscles we have 

"So they just ride and…what?" 
"Stare at each other, mostly" 
I nodded

Another rite of passage, saying
"Stare at me and dare me to prove I’m something"
This makes sense to me
With so much mad fear in the world that "I’m nothing,”  
It’s better to punch something and prove you're there
Better to feel pain than insane fear 

Not so bad, this rite of passage in a small town  
And really, pretty much the same as anywhere and everywhere, and anytime
The world one great town square, around which we ride with wary eyes

Diner

Brandon Cook

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

Sometimes Death is Necessary

Brandon Cook

The celebration feels like birds landing on my open hands
But always flying off
Like trimming a bonsai tree with shears just too small
It’s hard to get my heart around it all

Christmas comes blustery and red
With visions of sugarplums plump in our heads
But a day clothed in pastel?
And we are surrounded by so much spring
That the mystery is almost drowned out by our over-seeing and yet, our not believing that
The day that turns to night will turn to day again 

But then I remember that
We pruned our rose-bushes two months ago
And that became its own Easter
I thought we killed them, but
The holy hush—not three days mind, you—but six, seven weeks
Turned them all to burning bushes
And it was too much metaphor
Life, life on every side, orange and red and white
The resurrection and the life

We are destined to walk, if we will, as he once walked,
In the cool of a garden
Up a long, lonely trail
Into the perfect sacrifice of love which keeps whispering,
“Sometimes death is necessary,
Keep walking, still”

Opening Day

Brandon Cook

The new year as a new babe is a bit tired
But I do like the idea of an old man facing death well and death that goes up in confetti
So sure, let’s go with tried and true clichés; they’ve paid their dues:

In its young days, being raised right
The year smelled leather, began to shape the form of ball and, most important of all,
Formed the memory to mark its life, the association distilled to one smell—
Leather and cut grass

And if January first was the day of birth, last month the year became mature
Took the car out, got its heart broken underneath the football stands, 
Found itself at a bonfire, making eyes across the smoke,
Tried its first illicit act

The year left home, too, in its rusted car, full of stuff,
To become a scholar, to run the halls of wisdom
Before it runs the bases 

And now, thank God, having tasted heartache,
No heart can come broken to Opening Day,
When hackneyed hope springs eternal
And the year is suddenly reborn
No hearts broken at 0-0
When the smell of leather and cut grass removes all the sting of coming loss

There is, if we are ever lucky and blessed, the joy of union beyond ourselves
With something that transcends our mortal frames
And what great irony: we transcend within them, in their prowess and their power
In this, the best work, of filling the earth and subduing it, on perfect grass
And white lines running towards the bliss beyond

With popcorn, with peanuts, with dumb smiles
Which is to say, with hope
On opening day 

The Place Where God Already Is

Brandon Cook

"Listen to the rain, we have so few nights to enjoy rain,”
I said, lying in bed with my wife, having read a book about how Christianity is subversive,
and that we should use cloth diapers on our babies and shop only at co-ops
And maybe this is true, or some of it, 
But I had no energy for the imagination of it
Not even guilt, just too tired to try anything but listening to the rain
When my wife said, 
“You know what I pray when I dance?”
All my thoughts hid from her, “No,” I said. “What?”
“Lord, give me this dance. Give me this one dance.”
I squeezed her leg, because it made sense to me
Somehow, the mystery is: 
All we do is enter into the place where God already is
the dance, the rain, the tired bed