Words in the Night

This never happens to me—a poem came to me in a dream. Granted, it’s not much of a poem. But I appreciate the intercession of some muse tapping on my head while I slept.

In the dream, a news report revealed that artist Alanis Morissette had suffered an accident and had lost her singing voice (fortunately not true).

I was standing in the middle of a coffee shop when I heard the news on TV. I then announced two sentences to the baristas and a few customers seated at a long wood counter. I’ve edited the words slightly, but here’s the result:

The One Thing

What is the one thing
that makes you
uniquely you?
And who would
you become
if you lost that thing?

The beauty (and terror) of the question is that the response is different for everyone.

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Kerouac Poetry

I’ve been reading Jack Kerouac: Collected Poems, which includes the works Mexico City Blues, San Francisco Blues, The Scripture of the Golden Eternity and Book of Haikus. The Beat Generation novelist and author of On the Road inspired my writing of poetry many years ago. Kerouac, Langston Hughes and Charles Bukowski taught me that you didn’t need an MFA to write poetry, as their art sprang from life experiences. They showed me the power of raw and real voices and stories expressed in the form of free verse.

Kerouac’s collection has more than 600 pages of poetry, but I found much of it gibberish—stream-of-consciousness thoughts, rantings and Buddhist and Catholic references. Yet Kerouac also delivers heart-crushing beauty within the pages of this doorstop.

The poem “Hymn” appears in a section entitled Pomes All Sizes.

“Hymn”

And when you showed me the Brooklyn Bridge
in the morning,
Ah God,

And the people slipping on ice in the street,
twice,
twice,
two different people
came over, goin to work,
so earnest and tryful,
clutching their pitiful
morning Daily News
slip on the ice & fall
both inside 5 minutes
and I cried I cried

That’s when you taught me tears, Ah
God in the morning,
Ah Thee

And me leaning on the lamppost wiping
eyes,
eyes,
nobody’s know I’d cried
or woulda cared anyway
but O I saw my father
and my grandfather’s mother
and the long lines of chairs
and the tear-sitters and dead,
Ah me, I knew God You
had better plans than that

So whatever plan you have for me
Splitter of majesty
Make it short
brief
Make it snappy
Bring me home to the Eternal Mother
Today

At your service anyway,
(and until)

I also enjoyed many of the pieces in the section Book of Haikus. I believe Kerouac’s haikus do not follow the strict Japanese pattern of three lines of five, seven and five syllables.

Here are some autumn-related selections:

Late moon rising
—Frost
On the grass

Waiting for the leaves
to fall;—
There goes one!

First frost dropped
All leaves
Last night—leafsmoke

Crisp cold October morning
—the cats fighting
In the weeds

A yellow witch chewing
A cigarette,
Those Autumn leaves

Kerouac, Jack. Jack Kerouac: Collected Poems. New York: Library of America, 2012.

The book also served another purpose for me. Late last night I found a nail sticking out of the cheap wood paneling in the bedroom of my apartment. I was worried my son would catch himself on it, but I didn’t feel like going to the closet to grab my hammer. So I used the book to bang the nail back into place. Thanks Jack!

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Books for Sale Locally

Two of my books, Dreaming of Lemon Trees: Selected Poems and Outward Arrangements: Poems are available in the Local Authors section in Parthenon Books, the new bookstore located on Salina Street in Syracuse. I stopped by Sunday morning and was excited to see the books lining the shelf, in company with works by other Central New York writers.

Books on display.

 

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Meditations by Marcus

My end-of-summer reading list has ballooned with my “Currently Reading” page on Goodreads looking ridiculous with nine titles on view (although I’m actually only reading seven).

One book I’m reading is Meditations by Marcus Aurelius.

Meditations: A New Translation Paperback by Marcus Aurelius and translated by Gregory Hays.

Even though his words were written centuries ago, Marcus’s observations are very prescient with keen observations for the living. This passage from from Book Two: On the River Gran, Among the Quadi hit home with me.

7. Do external things distract you? Then make time for yourself to learn something worthwhile; stop letting yourself be pulled in all directions. But make sure you guard against the other kind of confusion. People who labor all their lives but have no purpose to direct every thought and impulse toward are wasting their time—even when hard at work.

It inspired a short poem that sums up my activities both at home and on the job:

Not Done Yet

My whole life
is a To Do list
that never
gets done.

And a similar line of thought:

Multitasking

In the process
of multitasking,
I feel like I’m
half-assing
everything.

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Father’s Day Poems

For Father’s Day, I thought I would post some pieces honoring my father, the late Francis DiClemente Sr., and my stepfather, the late William Ruane.

The first poem is a fictitious, but the father character was inspired by my dad.

Father’s Day Forgotten

Daddy and Christi parted ways at a bus depot
In the early morning hours.
No big scene, just a kiss on the cheek,
Then she turned around and was gone for good—
Hopping aboard the Trailways bus headed westbound for Chicago.
And she never looked back.

Daddy went home to his beer bottle and sofa seat,
And he drew the living room curtains on the rest of the world,
Letting those four eggshell walls close in and swallow him up,
Wasting away in three empty rooms and a bath.

And the memories can’t replace his lost daughter and wife.
So he tries not to remember his mistakes
Or how he drove them away.
Instead he recalls Halloween pumpkins glowing on the front porch,
Training wheels moving along the uneven sidewalk,
Little hands reaching for bigger ones in the park,
And serving Saltine crackers and milk
To chase away the goblins that haunted
Dreams in the middle of the night.

Now Christi has a life of her own,
And she lets the answering machine catch
Daddy’s Sunday afternoon phone call.
She never picks up and rarely calls back.
So Daddy returns to the green couch
Pockmarked with cigarette burns.
He closes his eyes, opens the door to his memory vault
And watches the pictures play in slow-motion.
He rewinds again and again without noticing the film has faded
And the little girl has stepped out of the frame.

Dad in the kitchen. Photo by Francis DiClemente.

Open Heart

My father was born
with a hole in his heart,
and although repaired,
nothing in his life
ever filled it up.
The defect remained,
despite the surgeon’s work—
a void, a place I could never touch.

The Galliano Club

From street-level sunlight to cavernous darkness,
then down a few steps and you enter The Galliano Club.
Cigar smoke wafts in the air above a cramped poker table.
Scoopy, Fat Pat and Jules are stationed there,
along with Dominic, who monitors the game,
pacing with fingers clasped behind his back.

A pool of red wine spilled on the glossy cherry wood bar,
matches the hue of blood splattered on the bathroom wall.
A cracked crucifix and an Italian flag hang above,
as luck is coaxed into the club with a roll of dice
and a sign of the cross.

Pepperoni and provolone are piled high for Tony’s boys,
who man the five phone lines
and scrawl point spreads on yellow legal pads.
Bocce balls collide as profanity whirls about . . .
and in between tosses, players brag about
cooking calamari (pronounced “calamad”).

Each Sunday during football season, after St. John’s noon Mass,
my father strolls across East Dominick Street and places his bets,
catapulting his hopes on the shoulder pads of
Bears, Bills, Packers and Giants.
His teams never cover and he’s grown accustomed to losing . . .
as everything in Rome, New York, exacts a toll,
paid in working class weariness and three feet of snow.

But once inside The Galliano, he feels right at home,
recalling his heritage, playing cards with his friends.
And here he’s no longer alone,
as all have stories of chronic defeat.
Blown parlays, slashed pensions and wives sleeping around,
constitute the cries of small-town men
who have long given up on their out-of-reach dreams.

For now, they savor the moment—
a winning over/under ticket, a sip of Sambuca
and Sunday afternoons shared in a place all their own.

Dad, side angle. Photo by Francis DiClemente.

Death Mask

Assume the death mask,
put on your final face
like those insolent characters
in that Twilight Zone episode—you know the one,
with their cruel faces contorted and fixed there for all time’s sake.

My father wore his death mask.
He kept it on even though I arrived after his passing
on that soft, warm August evening.
I’ll never forget the way he looked,
with his mouth agape, eyes vacant, cheeks sunken,
body withered and shriveled,
curled up in the fetal position on his soiled deathbed
in my grandmother’s sweltering death house.

I allowed myself to look at him for just a moment.
I then turned around and left him alone in his small bedroom.
I did this for my benefit, since I wanted to remember him
as a father and a man and not as a corpse in a locked-up state.
This is because the death mask grips its lonely victim
and sucks out the life and extinguishes the person.

I shuffled into the living room,
rejoining the Hospice nurse and the neighbors who came
across the street to comfort my grandmother and express remorse.
And Grandma, still acting as host despite the occasion and the heat,
asked me to make a pot of coffee for her guests.
The neighbors sat on the old, out-of-style couches and chairs
in my grandmother’s ranch home.
They conversed in hushed tones and sipped coffee
while we waited for the workers from the funeral parlor
to drive up to the house and wheel away my father.

St. Peter’s Cemetery

I extend a hand to touch an angel trapped in marble.
Its face is cool and damp, like the earth beneath the slab.
I pose a question to my deceased father,
Knowing the answer will elude me.
For his remains are not buried in this cemetery,
But instead rest on a shelf in my sister’s suburban Ohio house.

##

I never called Bill “Dad,” but I considered him a second father instead of a stepfather. He played an instrumental role in my adult formation. Here are two works about him.

Weekend in Albany

Night—diminished faith now fights for restoration,
aided by rosary beads pressed between the gnarled fingers
of the retired Sisters of the Academy of Holy Names.
And silent petitions are mouthed
in an air-conditioned hospital chapel,
as Sister Carmella—my Aunt Theresa—
storms the gates of heaven for healing intervention,
sending out special pleas to Our Lady of Perpetual Help.

Inside the surgical Intensive Care Unit,
fluorescent lights reveal my stepfather Bill’s post-op image.
The sight of his figure catches me unprepared—
glassy eyes, belly stained with iodine,
an incision running down the sternum,
and a ventilator forcing air into his smoker’s lungs.
Mom stays close to his bed,
afraid to look away or leave the room.
Her small body trembles and
displays the effects of chemotherapy’s wrath,
evident in hollow cheeks
and in the absence of her black hair.

Unbearable heat conquers the Capital District,
and Mom finally crumbles when our used Chevy Blazer
hisses and groans and stalls along New Scotland Avenue.
She sits down on the roadside curb, dejected.
Her tears cannot be held in any longer . . . they gush forth
as she holds a cigarette and sips a lukewarm cup of coffee.
Almost in slow motion,
a few drops fall toward her Styrofoam cup.
I reach out to catch them,
but they slip through my outstretched fingers.

And after two days in Albany, my sister and I
must leave our mother to return home to Toledo.
On the flight back, in a plane high above
the patchwork of northwest Ohio’s farms and fields,
streaks of pink and lavender compose the sunset’s palette.
And I realize all I can do is pray;
I’m left to trust faith in this family crisis.
I ask God to hasten Bill’s recovery,
while giving Mom the strength to abide.

I lean against the window as the plane touches down in Toledo.
I close my eyes and consider if my prayers
are just wishes directed toward the clouds.
No matter, I tell myself, pray despite a lack of trust.
And so I do. I focus my thoughts on my stepfather
breathing without a ventilator and being moved out of the ICU.

Bill getting a haircut from George, a barber in Rome, New York. Photo by Francis DiClemente.

This essay was published in Star 82 Review several years ago.

Man in the Chair

It is late in the afternoon on a fall or winter day, and I am visiting my mother and stepfather at their home in Rome, New York. They are sitting in their family room watching TV; if I had to guess, I’d say the show is Judge Judy, Criminal Minds or NCIS.

My stepfather, Bill, who owns his own contracting business, is reclining in his favorite chair, wearing a work-stained hoodie and sipping a cup of coffee. I walk into the room and sidle up to him. I put my hand on the bald crown of his head, which has a fringe of brownish-gray hair on the sides, and I feel the warmth emanating from his skull. Often when I do this, Bill will say, “God, your hand is freezing.” But he does not say anything, and I leave my hand on top of his head and take a glance at the television screen while darkness gathers outside the windows.

A sick realization makes me shudder. I pull my hand away because I recognize in the moment that the head of this man I love could, in a matter of seconds, be crushed with a baseball bat or cracked open with an ax blade. Blood could splatter against the walls, and he would slump over in the chair, inert.

And I think this not because I am homicidal or possess a desire to kill my stepfather. Quite the opposite. Fear sets in because I realize the man sitting in the chair, with a beating heart, functioning brain and sense of humor, could be gone in an instant. He could be animated in one moment and his breath snuffed out in the next.

Most likely my stepfather will not be killed by a blow to the head or a tree crashing through the house. A heart attack, stroke or cancer will probably get him in the end. And while I already know this, I pause and allow this knowledge to sink in, so I will appreciate him better.

A year or two after this dark afternoon, my mother would lose her battle with cancer. And her death would remind me that we do not live life all at once. It’s not one big project we need to complete by a deadline or a trip to Europe you have planned for years.

Instead, we experience life in small doses, tiny beads of time on a string. And it helps to recognize them, to acknowledge you are present and alive even in the most mundane circumstances—while you are talking with co-workers in the parking lot before heading home for the day, running errands, doing laundry, baking a chocolate cake, tossing a football with friends, reading to your kids at bedtime. These are subplots that drive our stories forward. They are not exciting. They are not memorable. But they are part of our existence, and we must value them before they and we are gone.

So, after I pull my hand away from Bill’s head, I decide to sit on the couch next to my mother. She hates when people talk during a program because it distracts her, so I look at the screen even though I am not interested in the show, and I do not say a word. But during a commercial break, she mutes the sound with the remote control, and Bill and I converse about something. And I can’t remember the topic we discussed, and it doesn’t really matter.

What I remember is three family members spending an evening together.

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