Friday, February 16, 2018

The Garden of Verse: Wisdom in Gurus, Mothers, Vermont, and Flecks of Cappuccino Foam

             I found not only a lot of fine poems in the February edition of Verse-Virtual, but a lot of wisdom. Poems live in our thoughts not for what they say so much as how they say it. We may 'know' these truths, or realize we've been told them (or shown them) before, but now we feel them as well.

            In his poem "Mahayana in Vermont," Sydney Lea is telling us that 'nothing' happens in the course of a long hike taken "with three dogs through the rain." But we know what 'nothing' means after hearing about the grouse, and the deer flies, and the "late trillium," and the counted steps. We know that 'nothing' actually means 'everything,' and are not surprised, but in fact happily gratified when the poem sums this 'nothing' up as "a mystic sense of well-being/ in quietly chanted numbers."


            In Alan Walowitz's poem "String Theory," a guru morphs into a Jewish mother when he responds to a bill of complaints with the advice "Things could be worse." It's a pleasing conjunction, offering an insight into both roles. Our guru may not know everything; and our mothers (Jewish or otherwise) are likely to know something valuable about their children. This recognition leads to a slightly shocking, but worthily eye-opening embrace of peace from an unconventional perspective (which I won't completely spoil by quoting it here). Aging brings complaints, but it beats the alternatives.

            In Penelope Moffat's poem "My Cat is the Buddha," the pleasure lies in how the proposition is advanced.

Yea though I do call her Smoke
her name is God.
Though I murmur “silly child”
she is intellect made flesh.

Serious things can be said lightly, and the wonderfully ear-pleasing arcane vernacular of sacred texts is out there for us to play with, as this poem so pleasurably does.

            The fleshly intellect of the cat called "Smoke" is realized in warm fur, a "nubbly tongue," and the virtue of breathing her "honest breath" into a bedside water glass. Animals too can be a sacred text. What pleasure to read about this one.

            Playful and fun as well, Kate Sontag's poem “The Many Lives of Foam,” invents a new world of "karma," the February issue theme that got me noticing the wisdom of these poems. It turns out that foam gets around. It's "a fleck of cappuccino... a white mustache on my future lover’s upper lip," also the "lather on your father's face," and the bubbling creation of "soap & glycerin" that finds a kind of ultimate release in a "roving rainbow." And a lot of other stages in between. Sometimes in the karmic journey of rebirths, everything  is relative. Sometimes the thing to do is just look at it from a different angle.
            Judy Kronenfield's moving and impressive series of poems "Saving the Dead" suggests to me that we 'save' them best by remembering them. I'm particularly moved by a poem about the acute memory loss in parents or other aged relatives (that many of us have already experienced in family members), a condition described in the acutely titled "The Withering of Their State."

"...the scales fall
from their eyes, and they fall asleep
in each other's chairs, and thine
is mine, and now is then, and mildly,
with the most gracious of oh?s,
they allow themselves to be

            The wisdom here consists of seeing things as they are, offering the compassion that we would wish shown to ourselves... and simply letting be.  
            Tom Montag's fine contribution to the February issue of five concentrated reflections includes a couple of unblinking looks at the persistence of darkness in all lives. A kind of insight and wisdom that perhaps flows from "the stranger/ angel in my nature," to quote from his poem "The Sadness of Happiness." As this poem says, "between kiss and climax/
there is always this darkness."
            The somewhat longer lyric "Walking the Tracks on a Warm December Day" suggests a particulary Decemberish insight consistent with the time of year when the light is at its briefest, the dark its longest. The poem asks, "Train in the distance, or not?" But the poem knows the train is always out there, and will someday arrive.
            These are a few of the poems that spoke me in the February Verse-Virtual. Many other fine poems can found at

Friday, February 9, 2018

The Garden of Stories: Rikers Island Prison, Where White Boys Got 'Woke' to the Reality of Who Goes to Jail in America

My short story "Behind Bars," dating from a summer internship at Rikers Island, the famous and infamous New York City prison, is published on the internet short story journal, "Beneath the Rainbow (
             It's the summer I learned about who was 'behind bars' in America's large urban prisons. People of color. People from Latin America. People, some of them white, who grew up in certain densely populated inner city neighborhoods, with bad schools, too little family income, absent fathers, family histories including alcohol, domestic abuse, and possibly drugs. People who valued money because they didn't have enough of it. People who learned to get it in any ways I never thought of. Stealing, fencing, scamming, gambling, hustling, selling drugs. People who -- if and when -- they became drug users (heroin then; many choices these days) knew where to look for money: in their family members' hiding places, in the loose behavior of people (often white) who were less worried about keeping it, behind vulnerable locks on apartment windows and doors, unlocked or otherwise vulnerable vehicles, in the stores, workplaces, and warehouses where there was something lying around to steal. 
            Behind bars at Rikers, on a couple of occasions or twice, I tried to do something out of the routine to help people. One inmate was an admitted fence, but not a drug addict. His little brother, however, was a 'junkie' and was certain to break in and rob his apartment if he learned that he was in jail. To protect his home he needed to make a phone call; would I help him? I did.
          On another occasion an inmate who ran an illegal high-stakes poker game, he admitted it, told me that he had been committed to prison without having appeared before the judge. No day in court? He told his guards about this omission, but no one would believe him. He knew he would end up jail for a few months after appearing before a judge, but it was the principle of the thing. He believed in the American 'justice system.' 
           I persuaded the prison authorities to look into it. The guy was right.
           Here's how my story "Behind Bars" begins:

White summer interns in sports jackets and slacks, we’re assigned to assist the social services department in the Reception Center of the Rikers Island prison complex, run by the New York City Department of Correction. A set of the three big units (men, women, youth), the prison was built on an island in New York City like a harbor fortification, but Francis Scott Key never visited Rikers Island. It is one of the largest prison complexes in the world.
Undergraduates, newbies in the way of the world, we’re assigned to our little cement box of cell-like offices, each with his own desk, chair and yellow pad. Our work begins when a new shipment of convicts is dispatched to the island after their day — or, more likely, minute — in court. They arrive in big daily batches, like harvested crops or factory deliveries. Dominic, a neat, black-haired young man of Cuban descent a year my senior, and I sit in our office cells conducting formalized “reception interviews” for each new inmate, inking down their responses to a long series of intrusively personal questions on a four-page form.
Who are these men? Why are untrained summer interns, college kids, mere players in the fields of academe, entrusted to carry out these interrogations, however rote and bureaucratic? Who are we to ask such questions of men twice our age, sometimes older? 

Here's a brief excerpt about my college kid naivety: 

Though I myself was born in the Borough of Queens, [the inmates] speak of neighborhoods, or spawning grounds, by names I am unfamiliar with.
“They call it Hell’s Kitchen,” one fair-haired young man informs me.
“But you’re white,” I blurt, ignorantly.
He laughs. “They’re all Irish,” he tells me. “The kids I grew up with? They’re all in jail.”

          To read the whole (not very long) story, see: 

Saturday, February 3, 2018

The Garden of Verse: When You Get What You Deserve, Now or Later, It's 'Karma'

 Karma, the belief that our actions in this life, plus some steerage from whatever is hanging around from previous existence, determines our condition in our next life, is a word a lot of us use in informal ways. It's the theme of this month's, in homage to the recently deceased poet Dick Allen, who explored Buddhist ideas in some of his later work... And it's an idea that can go in a lot of directions. 
         In the classical Hindu theory of reincarnation, the sum of your moral conduct will determine the state of your next incarnation. Will you be reborn as a higher-status individual, or a lower one? Or as an animal? Or possibly even an insect? So don't step on that ant; he may come back as your boss. 
         In the American vernacular "karma" tends to be used loosely to suggest a cosmic connection of any sort between past events and present ones. Did the IRS send you an unexpectedly large refund just when you needed it, after you spent a lot of time last year volunteering at a nursing home? It's karma. On the other hand, if you've been nasty to someone at work, then someone is mean to you later that day, or the next day, or the next week. And a part of you feels, 'well, maybe I deserved that.'
            In response to Verse-Virtual's theme for the February issue, I contributed three poems on ways of thinking about karma.
            The poem "International Karma" connects the violence two communities inflicted upon one another in the past as warring allies of World War II enemies England and Japan to the assaults the Buddhist Burmese majority are currently inflicting on the ethnic minority Rohingya, who are Muslims. Here's the poem:

International Karma

The Rohingya may know little of karma
They follow a prophet whose law was furthered
by rounds of daily prayer
offered fresh from the oven of the soul
And though their persecutors are, formally, Buddhists
whose varied traditions of thought include the notion
that what you do here and now
affects who, or even what, you become then and there
and even in the undreamt future,
traditions of thought and belief
lose sway to the smarting remembrance of grievances
therefore doing onto others what the British and their allies
have done to you, and what you and the wartime Japanese,
have done to those whose mutilated communities
now flee, carrying their borders on their backs,
raising for those who look from afar the question:
Is karma but another word for history?
It may be, as the Vikings once believed,
that 'destiny is all'
But if karma bends to the wheel of fate,
it is the heft of human deed that pushes wheels along
and karma,
the fingerprint on the soul,
the DNA of conscience,
the golden template of deeds good and ill,
inscribes our souls in the book of eternal recurrence
... And so whatever dooms have befallen you,
courtesy of the British or the Japanese
it is hard of heart
to see how compunction requires the expulsion of a people
much like oneself
arms, legs, eyes that weeps, loins that
breed a miracle of life
from particular pieces of planet Earth,
where ways of life, or worship, or contemplation
are various in dress, but rooted all in home,
familiar food, happy smells, a well of communal expectations
entreating safe return for
love's meager, wounded, breakable body
           To read my other poems, "​Karma Falls From the Sky," and "Christmas Karma," go to
            Plenty of poems by many fine poets on a wide variety of subjects in the February 2018 issue can be found at: