Friday, December 17, 2010

hold on or hold up

a man turns into a hand
and we’re striped
by traffic, hello pulled
yellow—the outer sky
don’t block the box
bitches. taxis flit by
itches, home back
in the hole of bare
brown trees, as far
as i can see. cops
look at me when i look
around. the mall is
cowards but jefferson
clouds in larry rivers
        hush of gas
from airtime airbrush,
as if. my friends walk
on the suns of the un
built, back into a man
of food court.
michael jordan is
the saddest thing
in the whole world.
so’s tweety bird. so’s
me when i stocked
ladies underwear for
strawbridge’s. its old
entrance now four
glass panels shut
blue. where to begin
i remember thinking,
my whole life fired
SKY BLUE ahead
in red letters arched
like sundown, UP to
50% OFF. what is
the past? all these
trash cans which are
cops that look like
robots. feed their
eyes your soda
under the canned
classical, sniff the
coffee stains off
the chinese ever
greens. to sniff’s
to work the floor
i believe, as water
quarters you in dark
ness. the 23 bus
misses us for
christmas, puddles
that we go be

Saturday, December 11, 2010

reading passyunk lost

Some notes I wrote on Kevin Varrone's passyunk lost can be read on PhillySound, December 10th.

Friday, December 3, 2010

the state of new jersey

You seemed more working class the last time I saw you. Maybe it’s that you’re talking different, yeah, when you introduce people, or it’s just your clothes this time, I don’t know. Anyway, did you get my email with poems? I would still really like to read in your series. I know I said I’m going to sue one of your best friends, but I think if you judged me solely based on the merit of my work, that would only be fair. You’ve got a great series here, and I mean that, I do, but people who are less fortunate need to know about this. The disenfranchised, there’s a lot of disenfranchised people out there, like me. Forgive me, I know I’m annoying and I don’t really care about anyone else in this room, but I am going to die soon, and that’s real. People need to know that there isn’t gonna be a movie about me. People need to know about it. They need to know about the state of New Jersey.

the test

They like you until they find out you’re into them. They’re all grown-up cave girls. Not that we’re different. Not that this business of “I’ve suffered more than you.” Ever will take off. The running theme is what is human greed’s relation to motion, or how long can you look into another person’s eyes. I bet the old New York School poets I love, I bet they know the exact pains. I peek at their papers, the trace of car caroming off, shhh, and take off. Shhh. I grow with nothing.

the deal

The people who are cool are not in a position to hire you, eckes. Write that down on your napkin there. Fold it up and mail it to yourself. Mail yourself. When your doorbell rings it’s either valu-plus or jehova’s witness. Take your chances. Wipe your mouth.

Monday, November 29, 2010

no libs

south broad’s valu-plus is closing. everything must go
til day’s reflection is night’s, your passing face barters
for itself against the blackness pulling thru us. threads:
kids from south philly high walk by, their shithole of a
school on their shoulders, not anyone’s. let the asians
and blacks have at each other, say the old whites, shrug-
ging themselves off to the young whites in their patient
bossworship that builds and builds a box to be gutted
between dollar tree and footlocker. kids are actually
small, smelly goats, terry eagleton, the british critic,
reminds us americans. i look out of my box: no parade
of marxist profs. i would like to be open. hey, if northern
liberties on the other side of town burns to the ground
i’m fine with that, so long as we plant a giant sign in
the middle of all the smoking rubble: AMERICA’S FIRST
SUBURB. sure, crumb cake from kaplan’s and coffee
walking around the ortlieb brewery ruins and the jazz
that came from a corner of it—i’ll sell you the postcards—
i’m selling them right now, in fact, for nothing. but that
giant sign i’ll especially sell you, dirt cheap, and we’ll
make it pretty.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Monday, November 8, 2010

art as experience

in passing john calls john dewey j-dew, which makes everything infinitely
more watchable. go phillies like a bus, half hours, half flowers, to valu-
plus for flip-flops and a new notebook—marble, like my stoop. i stand
on the book, its title,
valu-plus, arrived home on a sticker, yellow, with
a price: a buck, a holler. after that we’re free to have our hazards. love
ages me, but not that two people were murdered a half block from me
this week. the barista lays down a napkin and spoon even when you’re
just getting it to go. front-to-back three years ago a night this november
i tore thru
splay anthem while this place was called something else, and
i thought i felt the whole world sail thru a map in my chest, knocked on
wood a lesson: bare hands, bare hands, no lie: you’ll never understand
yourself in isolation. a hair on your selfish city’s chest, you will mistake
selfishness for independence again. again, you will catch yourself being
a republican to yourself. if i’m beaten, who can tell. not me, anymore.
not me, anymore.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Friday, September 10, 2010

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Dear Thomas Paine,

There’s a plaza named after you here in Philadelphia, just north of City Hall. On the front steps, in front of the Municipal Building, a giant Frank Rizzo statue is frozen, tyrannically, in mid-wave to traffic. Over his right shoulder a statue of the Philly Phanatic like some harmless little alien of a vice-president, about a third of the size of the actual mascot, tries to welcome us. And over Rizzo’s left shoulder is a sculpture of a game piece from the board game Sorry!

Big pieces of Sorry!, chess, checkers, Monopoly and dominos are scattered throughout Thomas Paine Plaza. The installation is called “Your Move”. You can climb on the big replicas and write your name on them. That’s what the kids do. The older, more permanent piece of public art here is the Jacques Lipchitz sculpture “Government of the People”: chunky human bodies squished tightly together, many feet and hands, holding each other up and some nebulous object at the top that’s hard to make sense of. A dedication on a plaque interprets it for us:

“Symbolizing family life, the wellspring of society, the hope of the future and the concept of government being of, by and for the people. This sculpture is dedicated to the people of Philadelphia.”

What’s at the top of the sculpture must be a big piece of shit then, my brother suggests. He’s a bike messenger. People I know always see him fly by and then tell me they saw him, so it’s like he’s everywhere. As far as jobs go, he likes it. He likes the freedom of riding his bike all day, which he does anyway when he’s not working. The bodies in the Lipchitz sculpture do not look free; they look uncomfortable and ridiculous—and looking at the top, at the ultimate production, it doesn’t seem that what they’re doing is worth it. Maybe they should all take a break and climb down from there and each get on a bicycle and go for a ride.

No family life for the bike messenger, who achieves freedom horizontally, not vertically. He goes home and makes music with his friends, and that is a kind of family, and that is his wellspring. Or he goes home and thinks about himself and the world that presses him, another wellspring. His ambitions are concentrated and few since he does not think vertically either. If there’s a heaven above, who cares?

I’m sorry, Tom, that there is no bicycle named after you. There’s only this plaza which is an ugly, painful emblem of the limits of freedom we impose on each other and ourselves, and of the shit we collectively produce. It gets worse: inside the Municipal Building is the Streets Department, which this year initiated the Unlitter Us campaign. The ads are all over the subway and on TV. The print ones show a person speaking a poem about the virtues of throwing away your trash. The words appear (littered, you could say) on the speaker’s profile. All but one of the poets I’ve seen so far are dark-skinned. Here’s one of the poems:

          Outside looking in
          All they see is trash
          If you’re a product
          Of your community
          What does that make you?
          Reconsider your litter
          The kids watch what you do
          So c’mon
          We can end this cycle
          Reconsider your litter
          The brush is in your hands
          Paint a pretty picture.

While the rhyme of “litter” and “picture” is charming, I wonder who the “they” is looking in. Tourists? White people? People with money who don’t litter? Maybe just the kids that arrive in the middle of the poem? Let’s see—the brush in my hands would have to be more of an eraser, and the pretty picture what exactly? A city that doesn’t look poor? If there’s such a thing as “big government”, this must be it—an implicitly racist campaign of bad poems that isn’t going to make the city cleaner or anyone in it more responsible. The program itself is a total waste.

I propose a Litter Us campaign instead. It’d go something like this: we all go around town knocking over trash cans in a fury, perhaps imagining each can as someone who’s done us wrong, and then we all get drunk somewhere. When we wake up the next morning, hungover, we write about the emptied contents—what we saw and felt—and then mail what we wrote to our mothers, fathers, sons or daughters, lovers or ex-lovers. Or we draw a picture or write a song or make some kind of thing and send it to them. I figure if we do it on a grand scale, this repressed culture of ours will begin to see what art is for, value it and evolve.

Oh, as for the trash—the mayor, city council and their families could clean it all up.


christ on a bike

i’m just following
the man’s plan
with a corner
that opens out its
fingers like planks
that sigh small businesses
moms and pops
to bounce from
to buy gum from
to chew the plan
to shake hands
with all the bands
play a show
make a demo
quit your job
be a slob
be a slob
take a bath
a bird bath
a nothing people
a sadness like
standing water
in my chest
so there’s nowhere
to go but do
what the kids do
for real: schoolbook
old nostalgias
into fists to toss
in the schuylkill
as pennyboats water home
in the weathered know-how—
my love will be here
when i wake up
as an old man
city on top
of me
til i tell it
what to do
tell it to stop stealing
my gas

                              for Brandon Eckes

Thursday, August 12, 2010


so when i’m buddhist
finally and gin pints
at frank’s become
trains into trees
in a distance
liberty then water
thru bench slats
all the presidents
wet dogs at gunpoint
in the open-faced
park you once lived
in to tell people
about—hey, i was a kid
once and now last so
in your thought clouds
as stamped pieces of
comic strip dialog
that’ll drift around
for a borrow and
all you can get
is the drift
a pigeon
this morning flew
into my place
panicked and calmed
into an owl and
perched, so i opened
the window, my mouth
and it flew out, a ghost
and i miss it, i miss it
i miss it

                          for Brandon Holmquest

wised up

worn stupid
i hear you
in myself
when i talk
to people
in the scrapped air
worn the corner
of 10th & oregon
plain as day
you can see
the highway
as a beam
thru the ballgame
cars passing thru
the crowd
in calm swift lines
that make my eyes
things to do here:
sit or sleep or go
down there all
lazy in the papers
of hunch scraps
founded on
hunch scraps
airplane or thunder
i don’t cross
the crossing guard
i don’t tie forth
for nothing
i don’t change my
for the standings
of quacks
to grow a science
broker than a duck
of self

more than i could

a bunch of the bar
starts really getting
into sinatra’s “my way”
peter sellers looks up
from his magnifying glass
and fixates on this one
guy who’s singing it
into his girlfriend’s half-
averted half-embarrassed
face as she texts a friend—
half here, i think, a licked
sadness and that half
the whole bar up in its
own business, as always,
as if any of the world
that’s not this bar
could give two shits
and so what if it did
anyway—would it be
what it needed to be
would it eat up doubt
and spit it out
like the street outside
going by as taxis
as people looking
for money or ass
and a thing to reassure
them they’re wrong
a thing to reassure
them they deserve
to be punished
forever and ever?

Monday, July 19, 2010

flat water

penny slinger        another
broker     for speech boats
home into a tree made
of the dead named all
washington          watered

          city of plants
          to be heard

          is a kind of

          of self
          no end

          of articulation
          eats the world

          the wall
          of resolve

wrought wrong or not
attends public school
for food, for sex
for what music
and how        it wasn’t
a well-made bell, rung
the ranger as faces
ticker-taped out his
mouth             flashing
themselves            yes
i remember i remember
the hippie who swung
his hammer at the bell
yes it’s true       he said
           GOD LIVES
a bunch of times
about ten years ago
right here
then went to jail
from nebraska

                          for CA Conrad

Saturday, July 10, 2010

If you're in New York . . .

I'll be reading there with Brandon Holmquest
Thursday, July 15th at 7pm
@ The Four-Faced Liar
165 West 4th St., at 6th Ave.
Free poetry.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

The Joe Milford Poetry Show

A few weeks ago, Joe Milford hosted eight Phillysound poets on his internet radio show, The Joe Milford Poetry Show. We read our poems into a telephone at Pattie and Kevin's house. It was a good time.

You can listen to it here.

We each read for about 5 minutes, in this order:

CA Conrad
Ryan Eckes
Ish Klein
Pattie McCarthy
Chris McCreary
Jenn McCreary
Frank Sherlock
Kevin Varrone

Thursday, July 1, 2010

on the make

if man makes to deny
death he’s a continent
governed by an island
and all that water
and then what—
jimmy rollins goes yard
in chicago
as if to say for us all
i miss you like crazy
to whatever dies in us
every morning
the walk-off replayed forever
i can’t get over
how cool to flip
the bat like that—
it’s time to leave
the bar for the sake
of my hands
which, opened, smell
of tacos & potsmoke
as what to make suddenly’s
the question of walking
home in the heat that
eats you        little bits
of family in a voice
spat toward the future
from trees of teeball
practice          those
sycamores across
the street making me
count the many weeks
since a coffee w/ you
that died in me
across a little round table
an eye broken like
a halfdollar as you
listened for what
it’s worth against
the tottering situation
of things      the world
going by      embarrassing
like haiku     flew off
the sill         are you seeing
any one       my dumb
prayer of to-do list
groceries crossed out
on back of a poem
in shirt pocket
the dog on my heart
knowing i know
it is god
cares less and less
the city is quiet
which means we lost
its talk growing slowly
as nice strangers
in no real direction
       no telling
       no telling how it all
turns out               even after
all those good times
all those good times gone
down the sink
you don’t clean
any more
the fight is the dream
says lauren
in a poem that ends
it’s summer   it’s summer
       wrapped up
       wrapped up
i'm happy and tough
and sad so easy
      sad so easy

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

thomas paine on the jack of spades

i am too big to fail
the cops are babies
in the rain
cried out
posters ripped
off telephone poles
on the way to cvs
or acme or rita’s—
you had your whiz
now get your
water ice

the new york shuffle
will always be older
than new york
an unmarked club
is throwing a boss
out the window
like a party
their yankees
a graveyard
cut from a stem

neighbors complain
of hands
there’s nobody
to clock
til jack makes jokes
about vietnam
is he allowed
is he the boss
of vietnam
who be my own boss
who be my own police

who spraypaints a middle
finger on the wall
and who smooths it
roughly into a peace
sign before the giant
frank rizzo mural
is repainted over it
by a giant club
of jackass

playing card

a gift from Debrah Morkun

not the time

if you call peter porcupine
“peter skunk”
that’s nothing
you’ve got nothing
on him
the land he owns
is owned
by a king
and the country
is comfortable
this is not a time
that tries men’s souls
this is a time
that doesn’t try
because its soul
is a deck of banks
that trade names
every few years
so we forget
what to call
our stadiums
that we piss all over
as free agents

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Dear Tom Paine,

The Flyers are in the Stanley Cup Finals, and they're huge underdogs. The last time they won it all was 35 years ago, in our country's 199th year. Nicknamed the Broad Street Bullies, that 70s team is remembered for its gritty, aggressive, balls-deep approach to the game. Philly prides itself on those kinds of teams, which supposedly reflect the city's character. We like to imagine ourselves as perpetual underdogs by celebrating ourselves as working class, as the foundation of all that is great in this world, as the very roots of an attitude that makes America America--indeed, we see ourselves as the embodiment of freedom.

I watched Game 2 in Big Charlie's with my friends. They (we) lost, 2-1. But I don't care about hockey. I think it's boring. Sure I want to see them win it all so that the whole city fills the streets again and I can highfive strangers for a few hours and watch people flip over cars and dance around fires and generally assert their masculinity as if it were the cause of freedom worldwide. Sports is the only thing that ever unites this city. But hockey?

The last Flyers game I went to was in 2001. It was preseason, an exhibition game. My friend Rudy had gotten us box seats, so premium beer was brought to us in these comfortable chairs and everything was nice. We watch a little hockey, we talk, we make jokes, we drink beer. During the first intermission, George W. Bush is broadcast on the big screen. He is making a speech. Everyone goes wild, then pays attention as if a goal were being replayed. Suddenly it's time for the second period to begin, so the speech is shut off as the players skate back onto the ice. Everybody boos. Everybody continues booing. So Bush comes back on. Everybody goes wild. We listen to his speech: America, the underdog, will rise from the ashes by bombing the shit out of Afghanistan, a poor, war-ravaged country that nobody cares about. We will smoke the terrorists out of their holes. We will show the cowards who's boss. Ravenous applause. The speech concludes to ravenous applause, ravenous applause, ravenous applause. U-S-A, U-S-A, U-S-A etc. And then . . . the game is called. The game is called . . . . for patriotism.

Really. That actually happened. The game. was called. for patriotism. The players, who were of course mostly Canadian and Russian, skated off the ice after 20 minutes of play followed by this absurd speech, and the chanting, invigorated masses funneled out of the arena, which was then called the F.U. Center (after First Union bank)--officially the FUN Center, but nobody called it that. Angry and therefore afraid, I was careful not to make eye contact with anyone on the way out. I mumbled a few quiet complaints to Rudy, who couldn't care less, against the tide of U-S-A, U-S-A, U-S-A.

Games are called for bad weather. Is there any comfort in thinking of patriotism as just a form of precipitation, as something that comes and goes? Recalling that event, specifically how alone I felt in the middle of that crowd, makes me feel sick. Can bad weather make you sick? It's actually bacteria, right? It's living things. Which our bodies, as true underdogs, as hosts at gunpoint, will try to resist without question, without meaning.

I don't hope that we lose. No. I hope the series goes 7 games and that Game 7 goes on and on and on in an endless tie until everybody gets so fucking bored they go home and shut off their TVs while the players skate back and forth, back and forth for days, unable to score in the big empty silent arena, and the game is finally called for boredom.


Tuesday, June 1, 2010

a pair of epithalamia

On May 22nd my friends Steve Dolph and Mary Hoeffel married each other. Laura Jaramillo and I each wrote a poem for the wedding.

Below is the broadside, which I awkwardly scanned into my computer.

Monday, May 10, 2010


(after reading “of being numerous” w/ friends on top of a parking garage)

we want to say
“common sense”
and cannot
the door torn off
the mouth
out a car parked
& booted a bankrupt
shopkeeper the very
tongue he preaches
parched & barking
the accident
the poem in me
i believe
til i see it
& then want myself
which is someplace
else        thomas paine
recanted nothing
on his deathbed
in a house later
which today
is a piano bar
called marie's crisis
on grove street
marked w/ a plaque:
citizen of the world
you don't know what
you see
so you love
then break
reaching like a bridge
that cannot be finished
that is not invented
god – this place
doesn’t exist
my friend said of paris
the big empty talk
of museumed people
fifteen-dollar beer
behind red-roped
sidewalk & michael
jackson died the next
day from passing cars
billy jean is not my lover
all day & all night
the mosquitoes eating us up
for the words to say
the buildings
so we could be them
and walk thru our lives
traveling is not
in my book
one does not vacate
in my book
opened flat
my father lying
on the floor
counting the churchbells
every hour to the wall
that won’t let him up
as if the final words
we live by were not
already vacating us
fuck the job it’s perfect
you’ll find another one
i’ll write w/ this pen
w/ your name on it
til the ink runs out
then throw it away
& rise to make a toast:

you can have a seat

you can have a drink

you can have a woman

you can have a job

you can have this whole
society that does not
want to move
this cult of final word
this thing that grew
into my heart & died
i get up & walk around it
punt it down the street
then mug somebody for it
eat her flowers, wipe my
ass, flush & close the lid
is that closure?
no, but i’m retired
i’ll be retired my whole life
from you stupid assholes
who believe in jobs
you don’t know what work is
til you wake up
on the ceiling
as shadows of leaves
clawing for tree stumps
lumped in the throat
you thought was yours
it’s a forest for a tongue
from bedrooms i used
to wake up in
it’s a forest for a tongue
to pave a life
up & down
as chewed gum gets
tarred into it here &
there     final words
as they should be
so the wind can be revolution
which is all it is
a street made
of people railed
w/ eyes emptied
of windows, opened
& closed     so inside one
i dust the pollen off
my tv w/ an old che
guevara tee shirt
though i have no channels
& almost never watch
movies i can look up
& see myself
on the screen
in black & white
writing this poem
to somebody
& swear i hear
my neighbor’s tv
downstairs tonight
though it can’t be
b/c she’s out of town
i have this note
says i’ll be away
til next friday
fyi (if you see the light)
i have a light
on a timer

Dear Tom Paine,

I admit I’m impressed that your chapbook sold hundreds of thousands of copies. I wonder at how your writing appealed to so many people across the social class spectrum. The success of Common Sense is credited to the force of its imagery, which, situated within simple, direct language that was buffered with biblical allusion, sucked readers into your corner while rendering any other corner so wrong and wretched a place anyone would be a fool to be caught dead in it.

Your corner is furnished with questions such as this one: “How impious is the title of sacred majesty applied to a worm, who in the midst of his splendor is crumbling to dust?”

And declarations such as this one: “Now is the seed time of continental union, faith and honor. The least fracture now will be like a name engraved with the point of a pin on the tender rind of a young oak; the wound will enlarge with the tree, and posterity read it in full grown characters.”

Even your enemies had pretty nice things to say about you. John Adams, for example, who hated your guts, believed that your “utopian conviction” and “brilliant pen” made you the “most dangerous man in America.” Who’s the most dangerous man in America today? Hard to say, but I doubt it’s a writer, whoever it is. Today there is no one like you who wields the same influence, and I think that is why many people say that poetry can’t matter. This letter is about poetry. And the future of our country.

It’s not that more people would want to read poetry if more poets used imagery like yours or used simple, direct language. Plenty already do. Besides, your own writing has been described (by a prominent Paine scholar) as “disjointed, even rambling, amounting to a stream of observations on political events or statements by others . . . which [you] interpreted to [your] own advantage, often disregarding the original speaker’s intentions.” Hmmm. I often find myself doing the same in poetry. But I try to resist interpreting solely to my own advantage—otherwise I learn nothing, and then what’s the point, except for convincing myself that I’m right?

I know that being right is important to you, Tom. That makes you more of a politician than a poet. Maybe you’d disagree, but look: you convinced people of democracy without using the word “democracy” even once in Common Sense—not because you mastered the show-don’t-tell principle of the creative writing workshop, but because “democracy” was a dirty word back then, sort of like “socialism” today—no one would buy it. And, let’s face it, you didn’t believe in any of that Christian nonsense you were spewing. You were pandering. You compromised on truth.

You also used to brag that you didn’t read very much. How true can that be? I mean, come on. Maybe a little John Locke? Or Crèvecœur? Your thinking began somewhere. Your sound came from somewhere. And you believed in dialogue, in the social. You preached it. Yet you wanted to be heard more than you wanted to hear. In that, you may be essentially American. 300 million people now live in the United States, so I doubt what I can say accurately about a country of this size. We are too many to be one, too many for nationalism of any kind to make sense. I’ll say that I live in a society in which people are dying to be heard. Sometimes I wonder who is dying to listen. I write in order to be heard, in order to matter. We 300 million are a society that aches for society, perhaps without truly seeking it. At best, the U.S. consists of various almost-societies; at worst, a collection of crumbling worms seeking to crown themselves.

Would my time be better spent trying further to trace how we have come to be so, or shutting up for hours and hours, days and days and, before saying another word, letting myself become full of sounds and sounds until, finally, singing it all back and seeing what I’m made of?



Wednesday, May 5, 2010

recording from 4/30, mostly books

Here is a link to a recording of my reading last Friday at Mostly Books.

(Thanks, again, to the tireless Greg Bem, who, I suspect, is constructing a non-academic counterpart to PennSound. Greg is threatening to leave Philly for Seattle soon. It's time to bombard him with letters threatening him to remain here.)

Monday, April 26, 2010

upcoming readings

I will read poetry aloud on

Friday, April 30th at Mostly Books, 529 Bainbridge St, at 9pm
w/ Rick Snyder and Sean Fitts

Sunday, May 9th at Molly's Bookstore, 1010 S. 9th St, at 7pm
w/Jeffrey Stockbridge and Liz Moore

Sunday, May 16th at Robin's Bookstore, 108 S. 13th St (2nd Fl), at NOON (not 3) w/ Samantha Barrow, hassen, Heather Saker and more

Thursday, July 1st at UPenn Bookstore, 36th & Walnut, at 6pm
w/ Greg Bem, Mecca Jamilah Sullivan and others

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

flash mob

you get a message says come down
so you come down
so which way to the river, a boy asks
and i point my finger
east into the empty TLA video store
the pink papered up windowfront
fronts nervous moms
with obvious answers
lock their restaurants
whose lookouts keep it coming
whose windowlight turns night
into a story that goes on
the streets which talk of water
til our hearts nod and know
what home is           home is
a rival high school as segregated
as your own room     it's tired
of listening to you collect
yourself into buckets from
the ceiling that edits you
down to a status update

can you watch my bag?
sure          there's a love
that's nothing in another
place you can't find
there's a love       it sleeps
and wakes your days
beyond letters     stamped,
i clock in            the time
is ripe for endless
foolishness       a flash mob
mops up the jizz of april
my jacket       the weather
counts the people
an arm of the river meets
the mouth of a sea
if more people live here
kill the people!
or turn the page and continue
along an arm of the mouth
the house fronts painted
shut a shade too for the
mobbed heart         so goes
the leak of jackets    so go
flutter yourself somewhere
a knock at the door dumbs
down your freedom pamphlet
you can be in love in a target
parking lot and sleep for days
under the country's front page
a bus just blew right past me
robbed of lightness
i walk and walk and walk
and walk down the street
to be open like a door
open like a door

hating me won't make you pretty

a tee shirt said that
on a worn-out woman
w/ a bicycle riding
the el to frankford
for easter
me and my brother
to meet our mother
who’ll make dinner for us
who used to make clothes for us
when we were kids who
wanted tee shirts
that said things—
my mother refused
to put words on our shirts
clothes shouldn’t talk, she said
people talk—you’re gonna
speak for yourself

today i said if sorrow’s really
old joy, toss me an absolute
to suck on           christ is risen
we hop to & fro     the rhythm
opens a small business     a prayer
we patronize     we are patrons
patriots             pick up a pound
of ham from greenman’s
on your way        worn pieces of
routines               the sense and
nonsense              pieces of clothes
in the common weather we’ve
worn      pieces of my mother
in pieces because my father’s
left her for good
and all the money from her business
gone for good
that hurts to say               for good
it’s not for good
it’s for the fucking worst
you might as well shoot the motherfucker

you’re not supposed to do that
you’re not supposed to               take your bike on the el
you’re not supposed to               park against the direction of traffic
you’re not supposed to               turn on red when there’s a sign and nothing’s coming

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Scythe, Volume II

Two poems from my Old News mss. are in volume 2 of the online journal Scythe.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Wendell Berry on restraints in art and life

A few nights ago I was re-reading Wendell Berry's essay "Faustian Economics" (Harpers, May 08), which I've assigned my composition students the last few semesters, and it reminded me of why you should never apologize for being a poet. My feeling was reinforced the next day after reading an absurd email from Temple's provost (to the entire university) claiming that an adjunct union isn't necessary. I've come to live my life in opposition to the thinking that characterized that email, a way of thinking that rests on the assumption that what's best for the privileged is best for everybody else, and that freedom is something granted to an individual for working hard and remaining loyal to people with more money. Wendell Berry, a farmer and poet, argues for a better definition of freedom than the traditional American one that foregrounds the individual's inherent license to do business at whatever cost to land, resources and other people:

"In our limitless selfishness, we have tried to define 'freedom,' for example, as an escape from all restraint. But, as my friend Bert Hornback has explained in his book The Wisdom in Words, 'free' is etymologically related to 'friend.' These words come from the same Indo-European root, which carries the sense of 'dear' or 'beloved.' We set our friends free by our love for them, with the implied restraints of faithfulness or loyalty. And this suggests that our 'identity' is located not in the impulse of selfhood but in deliberately maintained connections."

It's the thought of faithfulness and loyalty as restraints that caught me this time. I'd never really thought of them as restraints. That is, I've never felt restrained by being faithful or loyal to someone. That's always come natural to me. But I think I'm understanding Berry's point more deeply now. When you're free, you aren't aware of restraints. When you're free you're creating, and you do so hardly knowing. You don't experience restraint as restraint.

Maybe I'm somewhat free in regard to friendship and community then. Certainly I'm not free in other ways. Anyway, Berry believes these restraints are the root of a potential paradigm shift. What about the more obvious restraints--say the restraint of that which does not believe in you--the world that worships efficiency and fashion, that will suck the boss to be the boss? Berry suggests that those restraints are broken by bypassing them for truer restraints, by subscribing to another model and living it.

What's hard, for me, is locating the right restraints, ones that are "not confinements but rather inducements to formal elaboration and elegance, to fullness of relationship and meaning." This has to be case by case. It can't be as simple as be a good neighbor or love is all you need. For example, what about my wariness of people (and institutions) that want from me without intent to give back? What about my broken heart? Those too are restraints you have to work within. There are competing restraints on an individual level that seem to make progress impossible. Berry suggests the answers to our problems, individual and collective, are in our cultural heritage, in the products of real freedom; there's nowhere else to go. So back to books and trying to be like Jesus and buying fair trade coffee, I guess.

Out of loyalty to Berry, who's the kind of writer I tend to trust (because he's been around), here are more of his words:

"It is the artists, not the scientists, who have dealt unremittingly with the problem of limits. A painting, however large, must finally be bounded by a frame or a wall. A composer or playwright must reckon, at a minimum, with the capacity of an audience to sit still and pay attention. A story, once begun, must end somewhere within the limits of the writer’s and the reader’s memory. And of course the arts characteristically impose limits that are artificial: the five acts of a play, or the fourteen lines of a sonnet. Within these limits artists achieve elaborations of pattern, of sustaining relationships of parts with one another and with the whole, that may be astonishingly complex. And probably most of us can name a painting, a piece of music, a poem or play or story that still grows in meaning and remains fresh after many years of familiarity.

"We know by now that a natural ecosystem survives by the same sort of formal intricacy, ever-changing, inexhaustible, and no doubt finally unknowable. We know further that if we want to make our economic landscapes sustainably and abundantly productive, we must do so by maintaining in them a living formal complexity something like that of natural ecosystems. We can do this only by raising to the highest level our mastery of the arts of agriculture, animal husbandry, forestry, and, ultimately, the art of living."

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

old poem after old war

Here's a poem I forgot I wrote. This was in October 2001, and I didn't know what else to say.

I forgot about that website, too.

(Haven't forgotten about the wars, though.)

Friday, March 12, 2010

dumb dog

dumb dog barks the bottle
caps       what are their lives
made of across the street
i wish was a river
mountain’s a one way
split in opposite directions
by 10th        which pulls me
by the back of the pants
south         of snow and
garbage (i hope)     nothing
to park but a park
at oregon ave     i walk myself
around marconi plaza
around a statue of columbus
he’s italian     he’s graffitied
on by his kids here
their squirrels
at my feet
for food gone back up
tree whose long shadow
makes a path i follow
to a bench     for a long
foolish time i thought
i’d succeeded
in failing to follow
in my father’s footsteps
but look there’s nothing
to do but respect that
man til the day i die
while we grow stranger
and stranger
toward one another
i know enough to know
he never knew
where he was
i know the scattered
grown into heart
i can watch it here
in front of me
on broad street which
passes itself up
what wife what good
it says
i keep my walls blank too
every day the page
so i’m something
to say
by just stepping in a room
churchbell in throat
makes me noon
there is nothing
there is nothing
but a weak ‘come back
to me love you are
the realest thing
i ever found in this city
that bore me’
a wash    spat up    sitting
now numbly indignant
if not dead in
the laundromat
holmquest calls to say
he’s back in town
a rope
to catch hold of
we need these
like quarters for pool
at a bar
tonight i’ll call you
when i get outta
this place

hard of hearing

the basic formula, to quote
my friend quoting her friend
quoting a friend, etc:
hurt people hurt people.

               --for Darcy Sebright

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Elective Affinities

A few of my poems, as well as a poetics statement are now part of Elective Affinities: a Cooperative Anthology of Contemporary U.S. Poetry, edited by Carlos Soto Román. The contributors also become editors. The idea is to "chart our own literary map where affinites, differences, and unexpected connections coexist in an ongoing, collective construction." I've followed this anthology - which is a blog website - with interest, and one reason is I'm curious who other poets name as their affinities, as those choices will determine the directions in which the anthology spirals outward.

What does "affinity" mean? After Carlos asked me to send work, including a list of five affinities, I made this long list of influences and then struggled to whittle it down. He let me have 11. I decided that an affinity would be not only a living poet whose work has influenced me deeply, but a poet I've met and conversed with, someone whose ideas about poetry often ring in my head. Of all the writing that's influenced my own, the work of those eleven is most directly in dialogue with mine.

The nature of the anthology foregrounds dialogue, community, even localism as the project expands to various places. Its unpredictability might help it avoid the pitfalls of typical anthologies, which have to draw stricter boundaries and are bound to be criticized for their shortsightedness, exclusivity or editorial judgment. At this point, the only criticism of Elective Affinities I can anticipate would be what Jacob Russell calls "The Lost Gatekeeper Lament" - which is ideologically opposed to "affinities" of artists and is willfully blind to the vibrant literary communities that exist right now (that you can find in Philadelphia, for example). I recommend Russell's recent post about this - he picks apart one such lament from The Chronicle of Higher Education.

My affinities turned out to be mostly Philadelphia-based writers. But perhaps another concern: they were also mostly white men from a similar class background. How bout that. It's interesting to me how the project might illustrate lines of class, race, gender and age in poetry circles. But especially class, since the work of all of those eleven poets addresses on some level class conflict or economic disparity and its social effects, and this topic - which seems to me very politically urgent - is by and large ignored in much of the American media I encounter, including poetry - and that ignorance is destructive. (It also happens that this concern is usually absent from the Gatekeeper Laments.)

In a letter Gil Ott wrote me once (in 2002) he lamented the fact that the United States has become so stratified that it is not only possible but likely that when one travels through this country one does so without leaving one's own social class. Gil's writing has taught me a few things about traveling, inner landscapes and texts included. One is that traveling is not vacationing.

Elective Affinites is ongoing, and I like that, too - and that it's happening in 14 other countries. I'm curious to see where it goes.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

passyunk lost


the rain is wider
than the skyline,
than the eye
of a mind
of winter.

no snow but a hole-punch
disaster flurried
white circles
in an arc about your desk

& anamorphosis from a 3rd story window
let me walk fingers across the rooftops
to the liberties some 12 pop songs away

-- Kevin Varrone, from "middlefebruary" in g-point almanac: passyunk lost - which is the book I am reading tonight and recommending to you all forever.

Kevin will read at Chapterhouse this Saturday night w/ Sarah Dowling and Joanna Fuhrman.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Sunday, 2/21 at L'Etage, 8pm

Join us for a night of performance, cocktails, info and prizes to benefit the Haitian Mission of Doctors Without Borders. $5 donation suggested. All moneys collected will go to help the people of Haiti via an impactful organization who was in the country before the tragic earthquake, remained there, and will still be there for the rebuilding process.

Hosted by Jaime Anne Earnest, MPH and Frank Sherlock

Musical guests:
Site Recites and special guests

Poems by:
Ryan Eckes and Frank Sherlock and more

Commentary by: Jaime Anne Earnest, MPH, Dr. Elisa von Joeden-Forgey and Maria Raha

L'Etage is at 6th and Bainbridge (above Beau Monde), Phila, PA

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

a pair of recordings

On January 11th I read w/ Brandon Holmquest at Molly's Bookstore (it's open again, and they're selling records and dvds, too). You can listen to the recording here. Pictures and a summary here.

On January 7th I read at Blend. You can listen to the recording here.

Thanks to Greg Bem for all of this.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

common sense is not super glue

toast: if you lose my bones
after i croak           no sweat
                            my neighbor’s
name was jimmy stewart
before i knew of the actor
                            in my backyard
i told him he wasn’t the center
of the universe

yes i am he screamed
no you’re not i said
yes i am he cried

and threw dirt on me
it’s a wonderful life
of graves or jokes
for angels
i tie my ass to a tree
and walk for three days
a debt collector
in the poorest city
of a country w/ wings
made in china
a sense of balance
a sense of balance
so self reliance eats
the lie of itself
what am i worth
to what i have loved
remains a question
for the birds
to pick at
the train’s a whistle
that hurts
you can float whispers
into its phone’s heart’s
bathroom door its
locked song withstands
any attempt to smoke
it out
some aching poem
in there          sleeping
off its debts

expect large streams
of paul revere
a gaping sense of wounded
cats          the huff and puff
the house that holds a name
that gropes
i smash old crow bottles
in my kitchen
chris dances in the ruins
brandon tackles him
paper bag over my head
counting down the sidewalk
riverbottum passed out
against stoop
pass the glass says the love
to no one
it’s a wonderful life
sweep it up

Dear Tom Paine,

During the recent SEPTA strike, I had to take a cab. The driver, from India, asked me about American women. What is wrong with them, he said. Why had they spurned him. Why are the customers so mean. I wanted badly to say the reason you came to this country is the same reason the women here want nothing to do with you. Two birds with one stone. Efficiency. Common Sense. But I kept the stone in my pocket and shrugged. I tipped him two bucks on a nine-dollar ride, which I thought was reasonable, but he didn’t say bye back. We both felt indignant. Two birds, one stone. We love that stone. Love to save it up for the right birds.

My friend Brandon says the only thing he loves about New York City is that intimacy is possible through anonymity. There are so many people that sometimes a person’s gotta spill his guts, say the words, the desperately important words, allowing for a real, meaningful exchange. Something’s born, a story, say, out of and in spite of an overwhelming nothing, and the story has a chance to live on for awhile before it is washed away. This Big Nothing might make us honest, but it also cheapens the risk. Tell me about risk, Tom. Why is that important to me? Is it simply that I want a greater return on my investment? Is it just that I want more?

What can I call the distance between birth and my writing this very word, so that it’s holy? Time won’t do. Life won’t do. Gertrude Stein wrote in “Poetry and Grammar”: “As I say a noun is a name of a thing, and therefore slowly if you feel what is inside that thing you do not call it by the name by which it is known. Everybody knows that by the way they do when they are in love and a writer should always have that intensity of emotion about whatever is the object about which he writes. And therefore and I say it again more and more one does not use nouns.”

That we have to name and name and name again and again and again is a real motherfucker, Tom. But that’s how we stay young. It’s the only way. And that means you have to be a poet. There was a poet I loved very deeply who called me “love,” and I called her “love,” which is both a noun and a verb but more so a verb. Once I asked her how we had come to call each other that, and she said “because we’re lovers.” I’m one who loves. You’re one who loves. And we had come to be lovers by spilling our guts to each other again and again (and by fucking, another kind of gutspilling). So the action of naming the respective distances between our respective births and the present moments of naming, you might say, the little speeches we offered to one another, brought us closer and closer, til finally we named each other “love.”

Now this type of thing is swell, right, but what if you think of yourself as a noun rather than a verb, and someone’s calling you a word you feel strongly as a verb, such as “love”? It can be a lot of pressure to realize you’re a verb, that you’re in motion all the time, and that you are headed, ultimately, for an unknown intimacy, and you have only dead intimacies to go on, to guide you. What kills me over and over is the paradox that inside the urge to name is the urge to make permanent, and in naming we achieve the opposite, as our little speeches change us, taking us further and further toward some abyss that could be heaven or hell or anything, really. So you can’t know how much it’s worth, the intimacy. Name any price it’s totally arbitrary. Which means it is probably not something to bank on.

So what is? God is. And god is not love. I’m speechless right now, Tom, and I don’t know what I am, so I’ll stop here.

love song

i was not a depression
in the park’s heart i was

not a tree in south philly
what i was was a glass

coke bottle strung from
a power line i looked up

out of the bottle, the sky
was a dime and it

blew into me and dried
up the death and i

fell into sleep fifty feet
deep and woke up as air

w/ you: no title, nothing
had begun nothing had

ended, the world spun
so the river was patient

we hurled stones at the
water, and they skipped


for the record

sorry marcel duchamp but
you are not a household
name where most people
come from           nothing
personal              the urinal
changes my life every time
i relieve myself
a classist rolls his eyes
like stones down the steps
of the poorly attended
funeral that invented him
underground there’s no
wallet open to mouth
signals to the operator
no traffic spilling its guts
to anyone           i’d like
to say i was born in the subway
and then invented love
but that’s as readymade
as american cities are
for spoiled artists
to win honors
from the social class
that invented them
i have been told
i have a one-track mind
an ambulance insists
on going down passyunk avenue
i don't know why
its blood won’t flow faster
again and again i arrive
at the point where
the question of what god
could be crosses my desire
to eat or fuck or tell a story
and that’s where i get off
and try to figure out
where the hell i am
since place and identity
have melted into
the same glue
cecil b moore used to be
columbia ave or columbia
became cecil b moore
temple university once belonged
to the neighborhood
i was going to bother
to say i rely on public
for the record
for the record
at tasker-morris
this morning
on the platform right in my
face stopped a big dick
drawn by finger
on the fogged up window
of the subway car
i got on and rode in silence
among the other passengers
surrounded by other drawings
of dicks on windows and
advertisements w/ mustaches
and thought bubbles and
as i tried to keep from bursting
out laughing i got pretty
confident that the spirit
behind those drawings
would live forever and ever
and i would continue to believe
and believe in this world

Friday, January 15, 2010

a pair of thoughts on responsibility


To take responsibility for your life is a middle class concept. It's like wearing a neck brace to hide your scars. It means that you're taking a vow to walk the straight & narrow. The words mean more than you say, a meal ticket to instant happiness. To articulate the idea of responsibility indicates an irregular heartbeat. The label is pinned to your shirt collar, but your true identity has been erased.

--Lewis Warsh, from "Premonition"

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Collaboration w/ Brandon Holmquest

Last year Brandon Holmquest and I wrote a bunch of poems together. Below are a few of them. Tomorrow night - Monday, the 11th - at 8pm, we're gonna read them and some other things at Molly's in the Italian Market. It will be a party. You're invited.

Cowboys Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Mamas

When I die I will ask who, who robbed the register. My first question will go unanswered. My second question, a refrain I hope rots the core of another prayer, the moment I learned that one could, if one wanted, laugh a priest into shame, that opened it all up . . . and then it passes. Another chapter in the Universal Bible of Human Misery. It sold thousands of copies the first year. Brilliant reviews, but almost nobody read it. You can find it in any used bookstore. $2.95. Mass-market paperback. Heavily underlined. Marginalia.

No Frontsies, No Backsies

I am Walter Mercado's tailor and my ass is made of gold. Come sniff at its horizon! At the top of the hour! At the bottom as well! Spank me with a hammer! My ass is a bell! The parishioners come a-running, clad in trash bags. The poor bastards worship the grandeur of my work. The poor bastards worship the poop on my stoop. What do I charge? What do I charge to let you scoop up my poop? I charge nothing because you may not scoop it. You may not. I will. I will use my solid gold shovel, and you will watch and, by watching, pay for it.

Does Marcellus Wallace look like a bitch?

However, we come quite to the precipice, quite the messy mess. Victorian. Where in the milk's the milky loquaciousness I bet my mother's milk on? That shit is gone. My sole inheritance this advice: Beware black rats and white mice. Beware brownstones with bay windows: traps. Carnivorous plants. Asps and asspacks full of candy. Rush on the radio huddling masses, fingers the hungers I can't let you go.


I type poet in an email and google tries to sell me poet lessons. They are taking all my letters. And they read them. Spool them round some headquarters. Parking meters, I wrote my uncle last, are a product of your generation. Parking meters, he wrote back, what are those? He wrote those words on paper. Sent them through the mail. My next letter began: Dear Uncle Luddite, okay I have thought about it and I will join your paper airplane factory under one condition: no contracts. And you can't fire me. Dear Spacebook, it is 2:50pm. I own the shirt on my back. Dear Myface, fucked til seven and I've got 1800 friends so why are my hands shaking. I should know better.