Poems Out Loud

In the past I posted numerous poems to the site PoemHunter. When I visited the site recently, I noticed the poems had an audio component created by a computer-generated voice, which I found very entertaining. Here are a few examples.

 

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Three Poems

With today being Halloween, I want to share two seasonal poems and one speculative poem.

The first is a narrative poem that attempts to capture the spirit of trick-or-treating in a rural area.

Photo by James Wheeler via Pexels.com

Halloween on Lamphear Road

Blackness shrouds the land
between the houses on a
long stretch of rural road
in Rome, New York.

You and your best friend
are shining flashlights
as you go trick-or-treating
on a Halloween night.
The smells of cow manure,
burning leaves and ripe apples
permeate the air.

You and your friend walk briskly
along the edge of the road,
chattering about sports,
movies and girls—
trying not to express
the terror you both feel as you
navigate the darkness.

You fear a witch, a ghost
or another malevolent force
will emerge from the adjacent fields,
snatch you and fly away.

You tell yourself to calm down
and keep walking—you are safe
and there’s nothing to be afraid of
on this country road.
And all you have to do is make it
to the next house, the next doorbell,
the next fun-size Snickers bar.

Photo by Eberhard Grossgasteiger via Pexels.com

This next poem has bothered me for several years. It doesn’t sit right with me and I probably shouldn’t post it, but it has a strong autumn theme and it seems appropriate for a weekend in which we turn our clocks back.

Falling Back

Alone on an empty school playground in Toledo, Ohio,
my worn-out sneakers shuffle on concrete,
as I practice left-handed hook shots
on a bent basketball rim with a rusted chain-link net.
The sound of the bouncing ball reverberates off the school’s red brick facade,
as my reflection jumps out at me in the first-floor windows
adorned with orange paper jack-o’-lanterns.

A towering oak tree with thick branches
observes me as I throw up an air ball from three-point land.
It studies my movements while a sharp wind
strips away its cloak of golden-brown leaves.

The cold sticks to my fingertips as I lick them
to get a better grip on the Spalding rubber ball.
And with my nose running and my chest heaving,
I swallow the chill in the air, trapping it deep inside my lungs.

I pick up my dribble … stop … smell … look and listen.
Street lights flicker on,
and across the road a pumpkin is perched on the porch of a white house.
The smell of burning leaves wafts through the suburban neighborhood.
Charcoal-gray clouds dominate the sky,
and on the western horizon, near a row of pine trees,
there’s a feathering of soft pink light.

At the nearby park, soccer goals stand idle,
and on the gravel softball field,
silence reigns on the base paths and outfield grass.
In the schoolyard, monkey bars are free of tiny, groping hands,
and empty swings sway in the stiff autumn breeze—
as the wind calls out for the children to return.

Photo by Dominika Roseclay via Pexels.com

The Chill

Marble statues, pale and worn,
flash me scowls
as I take a long walk
down the aisle eternal,
where a bride in white
stands lovely and radiant.
She beckons me closer,
waving me on, until I
drop into the everlasting abyss.

She shrieks as the earth
swallows me whole.
But this place hath
no fury or fire, only a toll,
paid with collected sins
and a blackened soul.

And this domain is
no less dreadful than a
frigid castle or cardboard box.
It is without torture and torment—
no gnashing of teeth,
just a mundane domicile.

Yet something is amiss.
Ah yes,
despair clings to the walls
since God has been thrown out
by the occupants.
His spirit is absent and ignored
in this dank stone place
lacking light and an exit.

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The Best of Kindness Anthology

One of my poems is published in a new anthology titled The Best of Kindness 2020. It’s a collection of poems written about Kindness from the Origami Poems Project’s summer 2020 poetry contest.

Cover art by Lauri Burke.

The poems fall into the following categories: Compassion, Constancy, Gratitude, Adversity, Our Muted Brethren and Perspectives. My poem was a finalist. Here’s the verse:

Class Photo

Seeing every person
As a 12-year-old child
Taking a school photo
Eliminates any animosity
You may have for that person.
When you imagine
The awkward kid squinting
At the camera lens—
You discover yourself
Staring back at you.

My sixth-grade class photo.

 

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Kathleen Kramer: Everything Matters

I’d like to offer a book suggestion that would be a good read anytime but seems ideal for a pandemic—during an unprecedented time in human history when we are all contemplating our existence on this planet.

The book is a collection of poems inspired by a series of photographs captured by the author, Kathleen Kramer. I must state at the outset that I am biased; Kathleen is a friend and we have supported each other over the years through many writing projects.

The author with her husband, Jack.

I also wrote one of the blurbs on the back of the book, which is entitled Everything Matters (Yesteryear Publishing, 2020). But that’s not why I’m recommending this collection. I’m recommending it because of the quality of the writing, its universal message and the transcendent feeling the book delivers to the reader.

Everything Matters by Kathleen Kramer.

To better explain the book, I turn it over to Kathleen, who has agreed to answer some questions about the work. I highlighted some phrases that caught my attention.

Can you give a brief description of the book? What do you hope people will take away from it?

The book, Everything Matters, is a collection of poems and the photographs which inspired them. (So, I guess if I could be bold enough to call my simple photos art, this is a collection of ekphrastic poetry.) I’ve found that if I pay attention, there is often something about an object or a scene I may see that “catches” me. I’m guessing many others have found this, as well. Maybe as we mail a letter and are struck by the pattern of shadows on the steps of the Post Office. Or, at the bookstore, we catch sight of a book we used to read to our children 50 years ago. Or we see a little boy contemplating his first big snowfall. There’s something that has connected on a level deeper than the simply visual. So these photos and these poems were not planned nor conceived together, but arose later, paired, and out of a place within and, perhaps, a place “beyond” myself.

“Small Things” by Kathleen Kramer.

It’s my belief that creativity, whatever form it may take, is a gift from something greater than ourselves. We are enlarged by creating something beautiful, authentic, honest. And I think our hope is that those who read or see or hear our work will be enlarged, too, and feel a personal connection that is important to them.

My observation: I love Kathleen’s statement that “we are enlarged by creating something beautiful, authentic, honest.” It’s the sense that art is a shared connection between the creator and the reader or audience, and both sides are required for a satisfying experience.

Can you describe how your work celebrates or gives heightened meaning to the ordinary moments of existence?

 Almost 30 years ago, when I first began writing seriously—both plays and poetry—it was the “ordinary” life or the “ordinary” event that called to me. There always seemed, to me, to be something bigger that lived in that life or event. For lack of a better way to explain it, I believe there is a holiness at the heart of most ordinary things. Or, quoting Gerard Manley Hopkins, “There lives the dearest freshness deep down things.”

Lines by Kathleen Kramer.

So I guess what I wish for is that by calling attention to the seemingly-simple—a moth on the window or a chocolate sprinkle fallen from an ice cream cone—the reader or listener to these poems will be led to see a holiness in their own lives and the lives of those around them.

What was the most challenging part of the process for you—writing the poems, taking the photographs or piecing the words and images together?

 Truthfully, in most cases, the process seemed organic. Something in me responded to something I saw. I didn’t stop to think about it, I just took the photo. Then I waited for whatever “spoke” to me in that image to come to the surface. Sometimes it came within minutes, but usually it was hours, or even days or weeks, or months. Again, it seemed organic in that it happened in its own time, maybe like a baby robin hatching or a peony opening from its tight bud. So to answer your question, neither part—taking the photos or writing the poems—was particularly difficult—except for getting myself out of the way enough for the authentic to come forth.

Not So Long Ago by Kathleen Kramer.

Then, of course, there’s the re-writing, when it’s not always easy to let go of a phrase or a line that takes away from the integrity of the poem, regardless of how much I loved that particular phrase or line.

My observation: Her responses, “I didn’t stop to think about it” and “getting myself out of the way,” inspire me. The goal is simple—just create and don’t worry about the result. Trust the process and have faith that it will yield results.

How can reading poetry help people during a pandemic?

Perhaps the greatest benefits to reading poetry at this very challenging time is that poetry can take us out of ourselves into a larger consciousness while, at the same time, leading us deeper into that part of ourselves that is tender and receptive, hopefully affirming a wholeness that exists, regardless of the conditions around us.

Do you have any advice for aspiring writers, no matter what genre they are writing?

 I think writers come to write for many reasons. Some have to. By that, I mean that they don’t feel complete unless they write to explore life and to articulate, first for themselves, and then, hopefully, to share what they’ve written as a way to affirm their lives and to connect with the lives of others.

I guess there are some who write in the hope of recognition or fame. This isn’t an easy motive for me to relate to. Mostly because we all know how unlikely it is that many writers will achieve it. But also because to write with “the market” in mind, feels shallow, contrived, and unrewarding to the writer. But that’s me speaking from a place where this motivation never held much importance.

What I’m getting to, I think, is that an aspiring writer needs to be fearless, in a way, and bold in reaching for the heart of what he or she is moved to write. Be authentic. Strive to write what is true for you. At the same time, be gentle with yourself. Allow yourself to write bad sentences, bad poems. You can delete them! Or rewrite them! And, as a beloved writing teacher used to say, “Get the censor off your shoulder.” I would add, “trust yourself, trust the process, and trust that something larger than yourself is at work.”

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Thirteen Years Gone

Today marks the thirteenth anniversary of my father’s death. He passed away from lung cancer at age 64 on Aug. 6, 2007. It’s hard to believe so much time has passed since he left this world. Since then, my sister, Lisa, had a second child, a daughter named Elizabeth. I married in 2013 and my wife, Pamela, gave birth to our son, Colin, in 2016. Francis Sr. would have enjoyed getting to know his other grandchildren, as he did with my sister’s son, Paul, who was born in 2003.

Dad in the kitchen. Photo by Francis DiClemente.

Now that I’m almost 51, I realize how young my father was when he died. And while he still had a lot of life left in him, he was also lucky to even make it into adulthood.

I’ve blogged about my father in the past, and here are some highlights from his life.

He had been born with a hole in his heart, a ventricular septal defect. On June 12, 1959, when my dad was sixteen years old, pioneering cardiac surgeon C. Walton Lillehei performed open-heart surgery on him at the University of Minnesota Hospital, successfully repairing the defect. The heart problem interrupted Dad’s high school years and he faced a long recovery; but he rebounded after the surgery, lifting weights to add strength and put on muscle.

Renowned heart surgeon C. Walton Lillehei. Photo credit: University of Minnesota.

He graduated high school from St. Aloysius Academy in Rome, New York, went to work at the city’s Sears Roebuck store and eventually grew to a height of about five-feet-five inches tall.

And Dad was proud to have been among the first batch of patients to survive open-heart surgery in the U.S. Whenever he told the story to someone, he would lift up his shirt and show off the long scar snaking down the middle of his chest.

As a kid, I loved visiting him at the Sears store after school, as we would descend a flight of stairs into a warehouse in the basement—filled with washers and dryers, lawnmowers, rolls of carpet and other merchandise. We would go into the break room, and he would buy me a soda from the glass vending machine—usually Nehi grape, root beer or Dr. Pepper—and then pour a cup of coffee for himself. We’d sit and talk at a little round table covered with the latest edition of the Utica Observer-Dispatch or the Rome Daily Sentinel newspaper.

From my father I learned about the importance of hard work and about trying to be a decent person. I often observed him saying “hello” to people, holding doors for them and offering help when needed—whether that meant giving someone a car battery jump or pushing cars stuck in the snow. And people would seek him out at the Sears store because he would find a way to give them deals to on washers, dryers, stoves and refrigerators.

When he was diagnosed with cancer, the doctor told him he could try chemotherapy, but it would only give him a slim chance of living slightly longer. He decided against the treatment, noting, “What’s the point?” And so in February of 2007, he accepted his fate, knowing he had only about six to nine months left to live.

As the months passed in the spring and early summer of 2007, he became weaker and weaker as the cancer ate away at his body.

Dad, side angle. Photo by Francis DiClemente.

He had always eschewed desserts and when offered them, would say, “No. I hate sweets.” But as his time on earth waned, he went all out when it came to food—eating Klondike bars, Little Debbie snacks, Hostess cupcakes and other junk food. His philosophy was “Why not?”

I recall one of our last conversations while we sat in the living room of my grandmother’s small ranch house in north Rome. Sunlight poured through a large bay window, past the partially opened silk curtains. Outside I could see a clear sky and trees burgeoning with leaves—a bright, saturated landscape of blue and green.

I sat in a corner of the room and he sat in a forest-green recliner covered with worn upholstery.

“What’s the name of the angel of death?” he asked me.

I was surprised by the question, and I said, “I think he’s just called the angel of death.”

“No, he has another name,” he said.

And after a few seconds it came to me. “The Grim Reaper.”

“That’s right, that’s it,” he said.

“Why do you want to know?” I asked. “Did you see him in a dream or something?”

“No, but I want to know his name when he comes.”

During this time period, I remember listening to the second movement of Franz Schubert’s Death and the Maiden, which is such a hypnotic piece of music that I often play it continuously on the “repeat” cycle.

My mother died at age 66 (also from lung cancer). Both of my parents had been smokers—which I am not—but in doing the math and being immunocompromised in the era of COVID-19, I feel like I am racing against my own impending expiration date. This gives me an added sense of urgency to create art and finish the projects I had started prior to the pandemic.

Yet in recalling my father’s life and his death, I focus on the merit of being a kind person and living a life of quiet decency and dignity. He passed these values to me and I try to carry them forward.

I wrote a few poems about my father since he died in 2007. And here are four of them, which all appear in my collection Dreaming of Lemon Trees: Selected Poems (Finishing Line Press, 2019).

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.

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.

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More Coronavirus Poems

It seems like nothing but coronavirus occupies my mind these days. And so here are a few poems I’ve fiddled with in recent days.

Coronavirus Plan

If I fall victim
to COVID-19,
if it appears
I will not
survive the
coronavirus
pandemic,
I will:
Submit.
Resign.
Accept.
Relent.
And try to die
without infecting
anyone else.

Getting On

You get one more day.
One more day is all you get.
So take a deep breath,
Count your blessings
And get on it with.
Make an attempt to
Live today like
There is no tomorrow.
Because with coronavirus
On the prowl, there may not be.

Coronavirus Kid

The child may not
see tomorrow.
Yet he lives today.
So let him be a child,
full of laughter and play.

Harrison Street, Syracuse, New York.

A Coronavirus Poem With No Ending

The reality of a pandemic
heightens our fear of death.
Today it’s you.
Tomorrow it could be me.

But I can’t grasp the figures,
can’t imagine 100,000 people dying.
I wonder how far the victims’ bodies
would stretch across America.
Would the line of corpses reach both coasts?

And with the world in crisis,
everything nonessential drifts away.
Nothing matters now but survival
because we can no longer picture
life untouched by coronavirus.

We’re in the midst of this crisis
and my reflections prove
frivolous and inconsequential.
I offer no gleaming insights,
and my words flounder on the page
as I try to wrap up this poem.

I’m unable to extract the perfect line
to deliver a tidy ending.
The fact is, I don’t know
what coronavirus will bring tomorrow,
and so I won’t pretend that I do.

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Coronavirus Poems

In between working at home and watching streaming content, I have been playing around with some poems inspired by the coronavirus pandemic. The poems are nothing more than word nerd exercises, but they help to keep my mind active. Plus, I do believe writers must write—no matter the circumstances.

Fine Wordplay

I may be
FINE,
but I may
also be
FIN´.

Coronavirus Wordplay

Take the word
DEATH
and mix up
the letters.
Insert an R
to make the word
THREAD.
So here we are,
a THREAD
away from
DEATH.

Keep Away COVID-19

Stay clear COVID-19.
Don’t come
around here.
Don’t come
knocking at our door.
Go jump in a puddle
or dive into a dumpster,
but leave us alone,
and let us live
and die on our own.

One More Day

Alive for one more day.
Granted the gift
of one more 24-hour cycle.
One more rotation
from morning to night.
One more chance
to love those in sight.
One more chance
to do it right.

Coronavirus Fear

Look at the word
FEAR.
Now drop the F.
You get two options
for alternate words:
EAR and ARE.
With my EAR,
amid coronavirus panic,
I hear wolves howling,
markets crashing,
Gabriel’s horn echoing
throughout the land
and the hooves of the
Four Horsemen thundering
across the face of the Earth.

But I also hear my son’s laughter,
birds chirping outside my window,
tree branches swaying in the wind,
and my own heart beating.
The sounds remind me I am alive.
For now, just for today, we ARE still here.

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Recovered Words

Last night, in the process of looking for the original wording of a poem I wrote more than fifteen years ago, I discovered a collection of unpublished work stored on an external hard drive. The poems, short stories, essays and short film scripts had been written on two old laptops—a Dell and a Gateway—and they remained unpublished for the simple reason they were unworthy of print. But as I fell into the Word doc rabbit hole, I came across a few items with potential.

One was a poor, unfinished essay with the opening sentence, “Sometimes I wish I could ‘green screen’ my life.” I played with the line spacing and edited the essay into a poem. It’s certainly not the poetry of Whitman, Dickinson, Mary Oliver or Billy Collins, but I am pleased to have revised the words into a finished piece—which is now saved on my current computer for future use.

Green room, green screen by Jared Tarbell via Wikimedia Commons.

Green Screen Poem

Sometimes I wish I could
“green screen” my life—
alter the circumstances,
change the background,
transport myself from
my furnished studio apartment
to a Northern California bungalow.
Employ artifice to shape existence.

But life is a reality show—
just without the scripted confrontations.
And there is no green screen
to fix the disparity between
what I am and what I hope to be.
We achieve our dreams,
continue striving toward them
or give up altogether.
Life provides no special effects
to bend reality to our liking.

©2020 Francis DiClemente

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