"Lyrics for the Run-Off Hiss"

Just a poem for today. 
 

LYRICS FOR THE RUN-OFF HISS

The birds were singing in your letter: figments
of your drunkenness, perhaps; or else the night
had finally succumbed to morning — Morning
seems unreal in this real-life dream.


In your half-lit last rite, even I can see
that rising sun, whose sudden rays burst chaos
through your sprawling penmanship, through shaken words
that faltered, in both form and sense,

but never faltered in their lust for dawn. Now
the night you thought would never end is over.
And the sun that rises, as it always will,
cannot care what fate it brought you

as your hand—intoxicated with the dreams
an endless night could endlessly embellish —
put a period to your sleeplessness.
In the absurd light of new dawn,
 
these words you penned, but could not live, replace you.
Yes, the sun still shines; and I suppose the birds
kept singing: a mantra for unresolved sleep.
One day we will wake in your dream.



[From To Kiss the Sun and Mean It (2000)]

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The Poet Among Ruins

OMEN

It’s an after-the-fact
stress test, this
building in reverse; the ceiling
drops its burden, finally relieved
of having to define “above.”


Somewhere
the blueprint probably
remains, archived on acid-free paper.
Its secrets have spurned their confinement.
As though soulless, the structure
yields to transparency: even at night
you can see through to the same blank sky
on the other side.


I don’t think I belong here
like that man clearing away rubble
to stake out tonight’s home.
I am more transient,
a scavenger
for mementos I can use
in my own abode: sizeable fragments
of textured glass; marble tiles;
the assurance I’ve found beauty
present still in fallen things,
dressed up in decay.

 

Each broken detail charms
my uninvested eyes.


My friend is a photographer.
He seeks the proof
of my assumptions, posing the question
with his camera lens.

 

A small bird’s dusty skeleton
lies, fetal, in the new dirt floor.



This poem has been slightly revised since it appeared in 2000 in To Kiss the Sun and Mean It.  It was written in 1998, after I accompanied three photographers into the Michigan Central Station. We looked around a bit; they took pictures with cameras; I took pictures in my head. There’s some fictionalization going on: I combined my photographer friends into one; and I didn’t take any marble tiles. I did take broken fragments of glass, because they could not be re-used in the station were it to ever be restored in any way. The fragments I took were just the right size to make coasters. I never finished sanding down the edges with emery stone. The roughly 1/2 inch thick glass is ridged on one side, and has octagonal chicken wire in it.


We climbed all the way up to the roof—a precarious undertaking, since the dark stairwells included steps that were broken. I recall in a hallway seeing the plaster ceiling, with a wire backing, hanging down and just about touching the floor. We came across evidence that people were living there: sleeping bags and refuse, mostly. But we also saw a man—probably “Catfish.” I did find a bird skeleton on the floor in the main waiting room, but of course the floor only appeared to be dirt. There’s a basement underneath it. It was simply so covered with debris that it gave me that wonderful poetic image. I did point it out to one of my friends; she wasn’t happy with the resulting photograph.


Thanks to the Burton Historical Collection at the Detroit Public Library, I now have pdf files of the blueprints. So, yes, they do remain.

You can read more about the station in Dan Austin’s excellent article over at Historic Detroit.

Incidentally, after my visit inside the MCS, I found out my great-grandfather was one of the carpenters that worked on it back in 1912-13! That excursion also produced the photograph (of me) on the cover of my second book, When Midnight Comes Around:

Photo by Paula Styer




Here’s another poem referencing ruins, although that was not the initial impulse behind it.

HIGHLAND PARK

From our parting embrace
my dumb hands
drop to my sides. I have
no use now
for these words that pool up inside
these numbed lips.
I am skin, 
I am bone,  

I am crumbling cinderblock and shattered glass,
standing on a corner,
channeling the wind,
wearing marks of my abandonment.
I am bone.

I am skin, wearing
these precious abrasions: why
not/if only/what else
And the wind in me reverberates
the howling memory
of our often dissolving
structure and
moment
in touch
 
This one actually began in a reflection on that experience of being together with someone—perhaps at a train station or airport, or carpooling—and suddenly, having said goodbye, finding yourself alone. For me, the situation goes directly from animated conversation to very sudden silence, with no one to talk to. Still in conversation mode, the brain keeps churning, but there is no longer anyone to share your thoughts with.
 
Similarly, buildings teem with life, with human activities, until, for whatever reason, they become abandoned. Perhaps a building is condemned, due to poor maintenance over the years. Perhaps it is largely, but not completely, destroyed by fire. Or it may be trapped in an economically depressed geographic location, where buildings, and people, are so often abandoned, discarded as if they were such useless trash as the wrapper on a take-out cheeseburger.
 
Highland Park, an enclave city completely surrounded by Detroit, has suffered such abandonment for a very long time. I was living just across 6 Mile from Highland Park when I wrote this. Originally, when the poem appeared in To Kiss the Sun and Mean It, it was called “H.P.” But when I read it at the book release party, one friend commented, “Wow, I’ll never think of Hewlitt Packard the same way!” 
 
I may still revise this poem, but that goes without saying.
 
I have already shared another ruin-related poem, “There Is No Nothing,” on this blog. The theme of modern/industrial ruins has long permeated my thinking and my aesthetic tastes, and so it appears frequently in my poetry.

Where do poems come from? Part one: Boring, everyday life.

Here’s a bit of juvenelia:

 
SOUVENIR
 
The flowers you gave me
are wilting;
they fade,
they shrivel,
disintegrate,
and blow away like white ashes.
 
When I was in college, potpourri burners were in fashion. I loved the smell of roses, and it was easy to find a good rose potpourri. One afternoon, I decided to light the votive inside my potpourri burner, but I didn’t have a good match – just a lighter. Rather than mess with lighting the candle and then placing it inside its little niche, I rolled up a piece of paper and used it like a lighting stick to reach the candle in the burner. You guessed it: when the paper burned to ash there on my desk, it resembled a flower petal.
 
How mundane. 
 
The truth is, I have no idea where poems come from. Or, rather, I’m certain they come from many different places. Sometimes they come from the most everyday sources, and that’s what this post is about. I’ve mentioned here before how my poem, “New Year’s Eve,” originated with a sun that looked exactly as I’ve described it there. That’s not enough to explain the whole; the rest was a condensation of mood and scenes from my own treasury of imagery absorbed over the years from the culture, from experiences, from anywhere, really.
 
Not very satisfying, is it?
 
Shouldn’t there be some deep meaning? But perhaps there is. I’m of the opinion that meaning resides in the work, but in the work as a sign that relates author and audience and their shared experiences and cultural milieu. Is that inchoate enough?
 
Here’s another example:
 
 
APPARITION

All day, the sun dropped its
hooks of ultraviolet and
ensnared this house, a
small white prisoner of
summer heat, a

Petri dish for sleepless thoughts.
The slow hours settle,
crimson dust on the window sill.
The moon, behind a filter of clouds, soaks up
the day’s excess of sunlight,
leaving only this
unreal warmth,

the lingering sensation
of a touch out of vacuous air,
an echo
emerging from the persistence of silence,
the haunting familiarity
of a dream that has not yet been dreamt.
 
 
One thing I can’t get used to while living out here in Northern California is that when the sun goes down, so does the temperature. Back home in Michigan, that is certainly not the case. Hot, muggy summer days make for hot, muggy summer nights. Sometimes you come home and have no energy to do anything but lie around trying to keep cool. Sometimes you write a poem about it. Then it can become a metaphor…for what? Well, that’s part of the point of poetry (and all art, really): if you could say it plainly, you wouldn’t write the poem. 
 
But sometimes a metaphor strikes you or, in the case of the following example, catches your attention in a gutter in a street in Ann Arbor while you’re there, walking alone at night, as you do. And then you press it into service.
 
 
PORTRAIT FOR THE WALL OF A PRIVATE DRESSING ROOM

The mirror won’t reflect me anymore.

It shows me pictures of this
woman with no smile-muscles
and no soul.
Her skin, a worn-through garment,
clings and sags, betrays
the twisted bones and knotted fibers
of a crumpled-and-
discarded-empty-
candy-wrapper body.

 

Her eyes are wild, confused,
and go their separate ways,
chasing chimeras.
No voice
escapes her fluttering lips.


She presses her face to the
glass that confines her.
By the awkward light
of her incommunicative gape I
cake on more make-up: decorate
each blemish, map out
the growing shadows underneath
My eyes.
 
 
Sometimes poems come from very mundane things: a burned piece of paper; the temperature indoors on a summer night; litter in the street. Sometimes they are more directly about an experience. Sometimes they are thinly-disguised memoirs. Sometimes they are responses to other literary works—I tend to write poems after reading biographies, and I’ve written in response to poems too. In future posts, I’ll give more examples. For now, I leave you with hum-drum detritus.
 
The above poems are found in When Midnight Comes Around (1998), Deciphering Scars (1997), and When Midnight Comes Around (1998), respectively.