Monday, May 6, 2024

Some Poets

Some poets are too neurotic
To write poems
Some poets
Can write poems
But are too neurotic
To live long enough
To really establish a rhythm
Some poets can write poems
And live long enough
But are too neurotic
To publish and work the career
Some poets can write poems
And live long enough
And publish and work the career
But their day job or vices break them
Some poets can write poems
Live long enough to establish a rhythm
Publish and work the career
And their day job or vices don't break them
How do they do that

Wednesday, May 1, 2024

Father Eagan and Me


As the country dogs chased angrily behind, rambunctious to overtake me, and I peddled frantically ahead, I remember thinking: Why? Why am I here, miles outside of Milwaukee on a county road circling Holy Hill and risking death by a racing pack of dogs? Father Eagan was further down the road, free from the dogs’ attack, peddling stolidly along, undisturbed by what I was enduring.


Our first outing was to go cross country skiing. He drove us to some woods along the south shore of Milwaukee where the snow came down in thick blobs, wobbly with the lake moisture. Father Eagan skied ahead of me by about 15 yards, so we had to yell to converse. He was assigned to be my counselor at the Jesuit high school I attended and was aware that I was somewhat depressed. I remember I said, loudly through the snow, “Yeah. We can’t get mired in the mundane,” or some similarly sophomoric existential observation. Father Eagan agreed. He quoted me Thomas Merton on the importance of having the mystical as a presence in our lives.

And there was something otherworldly in the woods in the snow at dusk. I had never been in the forest under such conditions of light and temperature, and the slowness of the fall of the bloated snowflakes seemed to contort time, to slow it down until it felt malleable – a thing that could be bent forward into speed or bent backwards into stopping. We continued to put our poles to the ground and to lift our knees slightly to propel ourselves forward.

But I didn’t want to be having these experiences with Father Eagan. He was a priest in his mid-50s; it wasn’t like we could bullshit and talk about girls and music together. This was some other relation that I could not understand or even identify properly. It felt like something to be done grudgingly out of obligation, like eating Grape Nuts cereal or listening to Kansas because a new friend liked the group.


When summer came around, Father Eagan called up and invited me to go to a swimming hole he knew about outside of the city. He picked me up in what I thought of as “the priest-mobile,” a maroon-colored station wagon that was available for use by all the priests who lived in the school’s Jesuit Residence or “Jez Rez,” as it was known to the students. So, we put-putted along, crossing into Waukesha County, when Father Eagan turned off onto a side road, which he took for a while before pulling up to a very unglamorous pond that had a wooden dock jutting out into it. It wasn’t a large pond and it was full of lily pads tethered to the muck at the bottom by long green stems. As we stood on the dock in our swim trunks, holding our towels, Father Eagan announced, “Dan, we’re all alone out here. I’m just going to swim naked. There’s really no reason not to. It just feels so much better. You can just really feel the pond and the whole place better that way,” and he pulled off his shorts and stood there facing me. Then he said, “Go ahead Dan. Who cares? There’s nobody around here to notice.” I took off my shorts and then I, too, was standing naked on the pier beneath the white-yellow Wisconsin sun of summer, with dragonflies zipping around me and the occasional frog erupting with a sound that might accompany the bending of time.
Before we jumped into the nearly brackish pond, Father Eagan announced to me, “So what do you think, Dan? Pretty good for 54 years old, huh?” I probably stammered something like, “Yeah. Uh-huh.” What I was thinking was that he didn’t look pretty good for any age. I noticed that he looked wizened and that his skin was a little slack. I also didn’t understand why he asked me that question. And this is where the consciousness of a 16-year-old boy raised in Catholicism is crucial to understanding how this strange series of outings could have occurred. As I looked at Father Eagan naked on the pier, I actually thought: “This is okay because priests don’t have sexuality. The vow of chastity puts them into a different category of people and sexual desire is removed from them. Father Eagan is a sexless being.” It is what I had been taught somewhere along the line and it is what I believed in that moment. This reasoning rendered all of it okay and almost totally unthreatening. Almost totally because, despite the reasoning I told myself, another part of my mind or body sensed that something was not right.

We jumped off of the peer and into the pond, Father Eagan to the West and I to the East. I don’t know the man’s background, but he was obviously made of some sturdy stuff. He likely grew up on a farm somewhere in the Midwest because from within the warm filmy water, with lily pads bowing beneath each of us to run along our backsides, he called over to me, “Isn’t this great, Dan?!” “Yeah,” I said weakly. I was floating on my back with my arms spread out like the wings of a startled chicken and the sun above me feeling too close, like something being lowered down slowly on top of me.


Each day at school, for a half hour before regular classes commenced, Marquette High School students would go to their homeroom to hear the daily announcements and to involve themselves in discussion or a project related to the domain of their homeroom. Father Eagan was the moderator of the Peace and Justice Homeroom. Perhaps because I had been bullied severely in seventh grade or because I was very earnest in my understanding of the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth, by high school I had become concerned with making the world a more just and less miserable place. Accordingly, I joined Father Eagan’s homeroom. Through brief articles we read and news clips we watched on video cassette, Father Eagan informed us of the dirty deeds that the Reagan administration was committing in Central America. I appreciated being exposed to this information, as it is not likely I would have come across a leftist perspective on Central America on my own. My father was known as “Little Barry” at the Boston post office where he worked in the early 60’s for his tendency to pontificate to his coworkers on the sagacity of Barry Goldwater. One of my earliest memories is of fastening Nixon for President pamphlets to people’s doors in my neighborhood with my father. I found the perspective of Father Eagan to be subversive and among the few approaches to being Christian I had encountered that was in any way serious.

Also in Peace & Justice, we watched the epic film Gandhi, with Ben Kingsley in the title role, soon after it came out. It would not be an overstatement to say that Father Eagan was obsessed with this film. It became a running joke between the students that he could be seen walking the marble halls of the school calling out to groups of blue-uniformed boys: “Guys, see Gandhi! See Gandhi, guys!” in an almost breathless voice of joyous pleading. He attempted to show us the Brazilian neorealist film Pixote, but had to abandon its broadcast after the explicit scenes of sex and prostitution went somewhat beyond what he had expected from the film.


Once a year, the Peace and Justice Homeroom went on an overnight camping trip. In October of 1983, it was to Kohler Andre Park, a duned beach north of Milwaukee on the shores of a grey and choppy Lake Michigan. For the ride north, I sat in the “way back” of the priest-mobile and practiced singing for the first time in my life. I was playing guitar in a reggae and ska cover band called Dick Tracy and had volunteered to sing “Twist and Crawl” by the English Beat. So, at low volume, cruising along I 94 North, I sang, “Something shows in your face / aren’t you forgetting yourself / merely let your mouth stand / twist & crawl twist & crawl twist & crawl…” hundreds of times, always noting where I failed to land on the proper pitch. Learning to locate the proper notes to sing somewhere in my throat and mouth felt like learning to play the slide trombone. At Kohler Andre, I stayed in a tent with my best friend, Doug, and we managed to have a pretty good time at the beach – spread eagle jumping off of the dunes and making up funny names for the students we didn’t know well. One kid we called “Gorko” because that’s what we believe he looked like, Gorko. And his bowlegged and hirsute best friend we called Apeman.
Come nighttime of the second day at the beach, I noticed people beginning to gather down by the shore. With the full moon shining, the spot where the sand met the water was illuminated like a scene in a faded hotel room painting. Despite the chilly air and the even chillier water, Peace and Justice students were bounding into the lake, lifting their legs up high as they ventured into deeper water. And they were naked. The first one to go in was Marty. He had a crew cut, but he wasn’t a conservative military type, though neither was he a punk rocker. Marty was just a guy who needed extreme experiences to feel entertained at all. In that sense, he reminded me of my Uncle Larry, who ran away from home at 16, lied to get into the military at 17, joined the Green Berets and volunteered for several tours of duty in Vietnam. Given his personality, I believe he liked the tours of Vietnam. Marty, immediately upon graduation from High School, was entering the Coast Guard. And there he went, bare assed and giddy into the cold gray.
Father Egan turned to me and said, “Go ahead, Dan. Everyone is doing it. They’re just jumping into the lake. Why not? What the heck? It looks like fun!” Well that paean to youthful innocence was enough to dissuade my 17-year-old brain from suspecting anything sinister about this little romp on the lakeshore. So, even though this wasn’t my idea of a good time – I preferred sitting around at my friend’s house and listening to Jimmy Cliff and Bob Marley records while eating grilled cheese sandwiches and drinking ginger ales – I stripped and ran into the little unfurling night waves and then quickly turned around and headed back to my pile of clothes. Father Eagan was there and let me know that there were wooden-stalled hot water showers just behind us and that he was heading over there. I walked over to the showers with him and he took off his clothes and got in under a spout of hot water. There was another showerhead facing his. Father Egan said once again, “C’mon Dan. Just get in. No big deal. The water’s warm.” I got in to the two-person shower stall, facing Father Egan with a couple of feet between us. I didn’t feel comfortable, but was still operating under the notion that priests were asexual beings. So, even though my intuition sensed this was not right, my intellect reassured me that there was no danger. He didn’t touch me and I made sure I was only in the shower stall for a couple of minutes.


A chill fall blew into a frigid winter; a frigid winter sluiced into a muddy spring and a muddy spring leapfrogged into another bright Wisconsin summer. The year was 1984, my junior year. Father Egan probably sensed I wasn’t crazy about floating in the lily pads, so for our next outing, he suggested that we take a bike ride around Holy Hill, a kind of sacred Catholic shrine north of Milwaukee, in Washington County. We parked up the hill in the church lot, unloaded the bikes and set out to pedal around the sparsely populated country nearby. It wasn’t long before the farm dogs were sprinting after me and barking in a way that I hadn’t heard dogs bark before. The barks contained both ferocity and excitement – the excitement that accompanies a novelty. Their bark told me that they could not believe their good fortune – a skinny 16-year-old Catholic kid biking along and holding no can of mace. After playing this game for several harrowing minutes, the dogs relented and I continued to pedal around the roads snaking below the hill.

Father Eagan pulled over to wait for me and soon we were peddling side-by-side, both of us feeling we were ready for a little breather. He knew the area well and guided us toward a spot where we could leave our bikes and scramble up the prairie grass incline on the roadside to sit upon two massive boulders. There we sat looking northward toward the great red brick basilica on the hill, part of the grounds of a holy shrine to the Virgin Mary said to have been founded in the early 1600s by a French priest who had planted a cross on the hill in reverence to the Holy Mother. We munched on some Usinger’s sausage and cheese and crackers that Father Egan had brought and sipped from our water bottles.

One of the first exercises I learned in acting class focused on the idea of high status and low status characters in a scene. For example, in a scene between a jail guard and a prisoner, it is commonly the guard who holds the high-status power and the prisoner who occupies the low status position. Much of the drama in such a scene comes from these two characters’ jockeying to either maintain or better their position. The prisoner’s theft of the guard’s ring of keys would constitute a quick reversal of positions and a potentially interesting dramatic moment. So, in this scene, with the 55-year-old priest seated next to the 17-year-old boy, who occupied the high status and who occupied the low status position? As odd as it sounds, in my mind I occupied the high-status position. This is because I felt sorry for Father Eagan. Something about his having to hang out with me was sad to me. It was obvious that I was not at his conversational level. I thought he might be friendless, merely existing in the brown brick Jez Rez on Wisconsin Avenue and pouring himself a a white ceramic “world’s greatest father” coffee mug of beer from the rumored 24-hour keg on tap when he felt particularly bereft. And by the same token, I thought that his inability to talk to me about the cool stuff I was into, as far as bands and music, also made him a character worthy of pity. Outwardly, nonetheless, I was always polite and deferential with Father Eagan. And despite our many differences and the fact that I often felt bored and out of place around him, I recognized him as an interesting person who cared about people, who recognized the beauty of the planet and the cosmos and who took time to consider things ethically before pronouncing an opinion. Was he ethical in his actions? At the time, I didn’t even think about that. Because I found the whole situation sort of bewildering, I didn’t even get to the point of posing that question to myself.

And what about Father Eagan? What did he think was his position in the power dynamic between us? Well, he obviously thought he had the upper hand because as we sat upon the massive rocks carved out of the southward descent of the glaciers through Wisconsin 17,000 years ago, Father Egan removed from his backpack a skein of wine and offered his clearly underage student a drink. I stopped drinking at age 22, but this was because I found I enjoyed it far too much. At age 16, I had already been blissfully inebriated multiple times and was decidedly pro-alcohol. Nonetheless, I declined the red wine for which Father Egan had thoughtfully brought us a pair of clear plastic cups. I mostly saw spending time with Father Eagan as my Catholic duty; he was the last person I would see as a drinking buddy. Always with his cards close to his vest, never giving anything away, Father Eagan said, “Alright, Dan. Are you sure?” No, no Father. That’s OK. “All right. But I’m going to enjoy a little wine. Not a lot. Just a little bit. I just like the taste.”

I told my parents about the outings, not the getting naked part or the red wine in a skein part, but how there was something about them that made me uncomfortable. My mom was pretty clever; she had to survive as a poor Catholic girl in Boston without a father from an early age. She told me to tell Father Eagan that I would only go on the next outing if I could bring my best friend Doug along. And so I did. His response was immediate and unambiguous, “No, no. That’s ok, Dan. You enjoy the weekend. And say hi to your parents for me.”
Father Eagan never called the house again. And after high school graduation, with each passing year I understood more and more what had happened. Disaster was averted, as he never touched me. But the experience remained as one of someone in a position of power passing boundaries and taking advantage.

Monday, April 22, 2024

on the ground, khan younis


a bird perched on rebar
scattered stuffing from a mattress
wooden slats from the bed frame
a graduation photograph
a white burst in the corner
the difference between absence
and chaos
impossible to discern
the sky briefly peaceful
then three jets race overhead
sounds like rusty chains
yanked through gravel
brown dust and white plaster
a smart phone
with shattered screen
and plastic pink casing
pick up the photo
and turn it over
some names written
and a date

Saturday, April 20, 2024

Different Ways of Surviving Indifference


As American as the band who made it
Is the band
Who barely started
Before injury
(No health insurance)
Ended it
Discovering poetry is anti-American
On the walk from the apartment to the café
Toting a gym sock of coins
A second self is born
To diverge
And navigate roads you'd have taken
He is distant
As impossible to glimpse
As the second self
Of the Andean rebel -
Made to flee to Bolivia
To the States finally -
Who traverses mountain pathways
In a second world
Where time is divided differently
The land the second self
Moves through is not ours
But we collide with it
At times
In our dreams
And the other I
Looks at us
But not indifferent

April 15 Tax Day


Taxes for bombs
Bombs for bodies
Bodies for graves
Graves for memories
Memories for people
People for places
Places for living
Living for singing
Singing for longing
Longing for time
Time to stop
Or even reverse
Bombs in their casings
Sent back through the foundries
Metals to mountains
Mountains to gaze at
In quiet
Just birdsong

Wednesday, April 10, 2024

Meditation, Bass


Vonnegut tried meditation
But gave up because
"Nothing happened"
The man who played electric bass
The way a buffalo charges
The way a moray eel strikes its prey
Told me about Zen madness
When Westerners contemplate
And it only brings them
The void
He wondered if he had it
He told me once
He took a tab of acid
Wandered the streets
And saw some unsettling movie
Had a scar had formed
On the tissues of his brain
He asked
My mother brought me home
From the Vonnegut talk
Breakfast of Champions paperback
Autographed with a drawing
Of an asshole
Which was liberating
The bass player persevered
Monkish appearing
In 2 AM diners
Playing in bands
Waist-length hair
Coiled under a dark cap
Which he let down
Only when dancing
Beats paced
With strobe flashes
His movements seen
Like the landscape
In a lightning storm

2024 Poem


England has lost 33%
Of its earthworms
And I'm losing
My mind