Monday, December 11, 2023

Still Eager to Hear About Sacco and Vanzetti, at Whitman Public Library

The program room at Whitman, Mass. Public Library filled steadily, until more chairs had to be separated from a file a pile in the far corner of the room and placed on the floor to accommodate the audience for what librarian Barbara Bryant called "the best-attended author talk we have ever had!"

The talk about Sacco and Vanzetti was her idea, her invitation. I hadn't given a talk about the two Italian immigrants falsely accused of murder and robbery back in 1920, and ultimately executed by the state of Massachusetts seven years later despite worldwide protests -- for half a dozen years. I gave a bunch of them, mostly in libraries, after the publication of my novel based on the case, "Suosso's Lane."

The audience that filled the Whitman library program room was almost uniformly of an age to know that we're all part of history now. 

This talk was about the facts of the case, not directly about my book. The book is fact-based, but goes beyond the historical record to invent a contemporary (wholly fictional) investigation to turn up some new evidence about the old case. Those talks were fun, but a little fraught -- I was hoping back then to sell books.

To prepare for this talk, I had to go back to my notes and printouts for those talks from seven years ago and reacquaint myself with what I used to know well enough to share by memory with an audience, Facts, dates, places, names were particularly important, indeed essential, because this was a talk about the case, its history, rather than about the book. 

Here's what I told them, the good people of Whitman, about the Sacco-Vanzetti case, the international affair that exposed America's prejudice against immigrants, particularly those from Italy.

Long Ago in Braintree... The Crime That Began the Sacco-Vanzetti Case Took Place 100 Years Ago

By Robert Knox

These are difficult days in American politics – perhaps difficult days in America, period. But times were tough a hundred years ago as well, especially for immigrants and for civil liberties – i.e. constitutional protection of free speech and other basic rights.

A little more than a hundred years ago, on April 15, 1920, the crime took place that began the notorious Sacco and Vanzetti case – an American scandal of injustice that became an international cause – in which two Italian immigrants who professed anarchist beliefs were accused without a shred of real evidence of committing a heinous crime, tried in a prejudiced courtroom, convicted by a nativist jury – that is to say, all male American citizens in a time when only men could vote – and eventually executed 7 years later, by which time their case had become an international cause de celebre. (They were famous names worldwide, everybody knew about the case; everybody worldwide knew they were victims of injustice.)

Immigration, always an essential part of the American story, looked a lot different in the early 20th century. Immigrants came from Europe – not from Mexico, Central America, Asia, the Caribbean, Africa or the Middle East, as they do today. They came at first from England, Scotland, Ireland, Germany, Scandinavia, mostly northern European countries. But from around 1880 and into the 1920’s, in greater numbers than had ever been seen, they came from southern and eastern Europe. From Poland, Russia, the Balkans, Portugal, Turkey, and – the single greatest number – from Italy. For those who came from Italy, the cause was almost always purely economic. Disasters weakened the economic base of Southern Italy: drought, crop disease, the collapse of traditional fisheries and the lumber industry. At the same time advances in maritime transportation made it easier, and less expensive, to cross the ocean. Many Italian men crossed the ocean to work in seasonal industries and then return home with their earnings year after year. But many others, including women and children –whole families – chose to come and stay.

During those peak decades, 1880-1920, national prejudices grew as numbers of immigrants did. Some towns or companies made it clear when they were hiring more workers that they did not intend to hire Italians.

Two immigrants: Bartolomeo Vanzetti arrived in America in 1908 as a young man of 20 to “put an ocean between my mother’s death” and the rest of his life, he said…. Unlike most, he did not come for economic reasons. His father was a wealthy farmer in northern Piemonte Italy (in Villafilletto) who wanted Bartolomeo to learn to run his businesses. He sent him to the city to learn to be a pastry chef and help the family business that way. Bartolomeo found pastry-making to be factory work, piece-work, a miserable business in conditions that nearly killed him. He became seriously ill with a breathing difficulty, was sent home, where his mother devoted herself to nursing him back to health. Then she developed cancer and died after months of suffering. Her devoted son thought that her efforts to save him weakened her. Wishing to separate his future from a painful past – he had a deep relationship with his mother, but a poor one with his father, he decided to go to America, which he thought of as “the land of the free.” No big divides between social classes; no oppressive national church.

Vanzetti was not an anarchist when he arrived. His life in the US led him to that philosophy. He later told reporter about the early years, “I was a Dago to be worked to death [a pejorative]…. We lived in a shanty, where the Italians work and live like a beast…” Like other day laborers, he is forced to follow the availability of work, a trade he called “pick and shovel.” After five years mostly in New York, rumors of work brought him to Mass., and eventually to Plymouth, where he boarded with the Brini family who came from his region in Italy, and who lived in North Plymouth, the immigrant section of town. [this is how I got interested in the story...working for community newspaper publisher based in Plymouth] He became close to the family’s children. He called Beltrando Brini his “spiritual son.” Recorded interviews collected and published later show V. to be kind, courteous to women, gentle and loving to children; V was a talker, a thinker, a dreamer, a reader. Among the books he owned was “the life of Jesus Christ” by Ernest Renan. Anarchism became his religion; its ideals gave meaning to his life… Among his jobs was working on repairs to Plymouth harbor.

Nicola Sacco was born in the town of Toremaggiore (SE of Italy) and emigrated to US in 1908 at age 17. He loved machinery. He emigrated with his brother Sabino, and when his brother returned to Italy in 1909 and he was left alone in the United States, he began to take lessons on shoe-trimming and became an excellent shoe trimmer. He was a skilled worker; made a good living. He married his wife Rosa, when he was 21, she 17, and first child was born in 1913.

He found settled work in a shoe factory in StoughtonMassachusetts; he developed a strong relationship with the owner, the son of an Irish immigrant. He made a good living because he was so good at what he did. A shoe trimmer is piece work. He could make a day’s pay in a few hours. He was also attracted to the cause of labor, and participated in strikes. …Sacco helped with the defense of Arturo Giovannitti, an Italian labor organizer -- one of the principal organizers of the famous 1912 Lawrence textile strike -- an Italian immigrant who had been arrested on a dubious murder charge.  It was one of his first radical activities.

A definition: The word “anarchy” means ‘no authority.’ [From the Greek: ‘a’ means not; archon is a ruler] It doesn’t mean chaos. It means living with no governing state, no political or “established” religious institutions. No rich; no poor… V. called anarchy “the beautiful idea.” People, he believed, would live happily and survive materially by forming voluntary cooperatives. Sharing resources. Recognizing the needs of others as important as one’s own.

For anarchists like V and S and for many other social critics, the fundamental issue in this stage of western civilization was “rich versus poor”. …today we call that “the distribution of wealth.”

Believing that workers were oppressed by the capitalist system, by the owning of property, anarchists like Sacco and Vanzetti – both became disciples of the anarchist theorist Luigi Galleani (V. called him my ‘master’) – supported and took part in strikes. Though he did not work there, Vanzetti took part in the 1916 strike against the Plymouth Cordage Company, a large ropemaking business. WWI created a great demand for American resources such as cordage, but war-driven inflation ate up workers’ earnings.

When America joined the war in 1917 (3 yrs after it began), the act forced political radicals to choose: participate or not? Anarchists opposed all war; they opposed the draft; they opposed governments.

Sacco, who supported strikes by his physical presence – strikes were often street battles – also became a disciple of Galleani. He began attending weekly meetings of an anarchist group in 1913 and subscribed to Cronaca Sovversiva (“Subversive Chronicles”), as did Vanzetti, an anarchist newspaper published by Galleani in Italian. He became a devotee of Galleani and in the next several years wrote for the paper, donated and solicited funds for anarchist activities, as well as support his family.

So the two men have much in common, a world view, an allegiance to the views of a powerful theorist, or ideologue in Galleani. A strong commitment to social change. They’re the kind of people the business and political establishment hate and fear. They want change. As anarchists see it (or ‘radicals’ generally), the ‘establishment’ hates change; it wants to preserve the status quo. The owners and the politicians are rich; they don’t care if you’re poor.

The two meet at activities held in opposition to the war. Then, in 1917, both join a group of men leaving home to travel to Mexico and live under pseudonyms in order to avoid the draft. 

The Mexico experiment lasts a few months. No jobs; no money. Then both men go ‘home.’ Sacco returns to his young family, in Stoughton, Massachusetts, where he worked for a shoemaker, who valued him so highly he gave him management responsibilities and paid him to keep an eye on the factory after hours. Vanzetti goes back to Plymouth; has to find a new place to board, the Brini family doesn’t have room for him any more. He boards with a widow a few streets over in North Plymouth. He also finds a new to make a living; selling fish, door to door, among the immigrant community. 

OK, now comes the heavy political stuff.

During a period of anti-radical and anti-foreigner hysteria known as “The Red Scare,” [ask yourself if this was in your American History class] a well-organized criminal gang carried out a brazen daylight robbery in Braintree, Mass. The robbers stole a shoe factory payroll and shot and killed the paymaster and his guard at point-blank range.

We'll come back to the crime, but first we have to talk about the Red Scare of 1919–1920 — a time of national paranoia in which thousands of immigrants were detained without due process of law.

After the US entered World War I in 1917, Congress passed laws to suppress all criticism of government’s decision to join the ongoing European slaughter or any means the government chose  (such as the draft) to conduct the war. Anti-war critics were prosecuted, the non-citizens among them deported to their native countries. (For comparison, imagine that response to war protests and criticism of the government during the Vietnam War era.)

When Galleani was deported to Italy, some of his followers ‘declared war’ on the government – arguing that the government had already been making war on them --  on the institutions that suppressed their publications, broke up rallies of war critics, and used the courts to suppress their First Amendment freedoms of expression. In response, these followers – some of them members of the same ‘gruppo’ that Sacco and Vanzetti belonged to -- sent bombs through the mail and placed them at the homes of their ‘enemies’ in government and big business. These "Anarchist Fighters" were self-declared enemies of the state.

In his recent book “American Midnight,” historian Adam Hochschild detailed the US government’s outrageous violations of war critics’ Constitutional rights – and the rights of Americans in general. Thousands of immigrants were rounded up in mass raids, declared ‘disloyal’ and sentenced to deportation before a single federal judge stepped in to overturn decisions made without due process of law. 

His legally prescribed role was to make sure "due process" had been followed before he approved the deportation orders. He refused: due process had not been followed.  

A crackdown on labor organization was taking place as well: Union meetings were broken up by local and government police; speakers, and simple participants, dragged off to jail… A lawless war was declared on members of the most active labor organization of the time, the IWW, the Industrial Workers of the World, known as Wobblies. Private industry, especially 'big business' supported the war. There was lots of money to be made from it. Organized labor -- unions -- cut into their profits. Now that the US was at war, big business wanted union organizers to be seen as traitors.  

Wartime deportations included the nation's most famous critics of capitalism, among them Emma Goldman, a Russian immigrant, radical, anarchist, and America’s most popular lecturer. She traveled whole country, drawing audiences everywhere and speaking on a wide range of social and political subjects. 

Eugene V. Debs, not an immigrant but a Socialist party candidate who received almost a million votes for President in 1912, was jailed for opposing the decision to go to war.

Mobs of what were called “Super-Americans” physically attacked and broke up meetings of war critics, draft critics, and labor organizers. Enforcing wartime restrictions on freedom of speech and assembly required the creation of the first federal police force, called the Radical Division of the Department of Justice; it later became the Investigation Bureau; finally the FBI, its principal duty from the very beginning being to ferret out and suppress 'subversion' by labor organizers or 'radical' critics of the status quo. J. Edgar Hoover, in his 20s was there from the Red Scare to the Civil Rights era when his agents were harassing leaders such MLK.

After the government suppressed Galleani's network, destroyed his printing press, burned his writings and tried and deported the maestro himself back to Italy, his followers decided they had to fight back. Going underground, hiding their identities, they formed the "Anarchist Fighters" and mailed bombs to the houses of federal judges, police chiefs and prominent capitalists, "terrorist" style, in revenge for the 'war' the American government had been waging on them. Famously, June 2, 1919, bombings in major cities such as Washington DC and Boston shook the nation. Top of the page was the bomb that exploded on the front steps of the Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer’s house in DC, destroying most of the house but not harming the family. Other buildings were destroyed, but almost no one was seriously hurt, except for the anarchist who blew himself up when the bomb he was planting at Palmer's house went off prematurely. Remarkably, we know his name, Carlo Valdinocci, an Anarchist Fighter and follower of Galleani. Sacco and Vanzetti would have known him.

            These bombings lead to the "Palmer raids," as they are known, in late 1919, when federal agents and vigilantes conduct major raids in big cities rounding up supposed radicals and thousands of immigrants – lots of Russians, since after the Russian Revolution ‘communism’ is now perceived as a major threat. Detainees are roughed up and kept in poor conditions. Congress passes a law making it illegal to be a member of an anarchist organization.

            Federal agents declare they will find those responsible for the bombings, but get nowhere. After almost a year, the feds arrest Andrea Salsedo, a member of the Galleani network; a printer, he made the leaflets denouncing the government the ‘Anarchist Fighters’ include in their bombs. He’s questioned, tortured, and held without charges in police office building in New York City. He smuggles out a letter to Vanzetti, asking for help, and Vanzetti heads to New York, though it's unclear what he can hope to accomplish. But before he can get to see him, Salsedo dies falling out a window of a police building. The cops say it was a suicide; other anarchists say he was pushed. 

             But the crackdown on 'radicals' following the Anarchist Fighters' bombings creates the hostile law-enforcement atmosphere in which any critic of the government, the war, or wartime profiteering by Big Business is treated. This politically tense atmosphere may explain why local and state police in Massachusetts tried hard to convince themselves that 'radicals' might be responsible for a shoe factory robbery in Braintree.  

The Crime: 

In a well-planned criminal enterprise, a gang carried out a brazen daylight robbery in Braintree, Mass., on April 15, 1920. The robbers stole a shoe factory payroll and shot and killed the paymaster and his guard at point-blank range.

Some days later, in a completely unrelated matter, members of Sacco and Vanzetti's "Gruppo" decided that in view of the government's sweeping attack on radicals and immigrants following the Anarchist Fighters' bombings, they should hide evidence linking them to Galleani, such as copies of his journal "Cronaca Sovversiva." …The Gruppo decides to send some of its members to collect anarchist lit from other members and hide it. Sacco and Vanzetti and two other group members decide to retrieve a comrade’s car left at the home of a mechanic in Bridgewater. Police have staked out the car, on the grounds that that Bridgewater is somewhat near Braintree (not really) and since some anarchists have taken to planting bombs, maybe they also commit robberies -- a notion that, a century later, makes no more sense now than it did at the time. Cops tell the mechanic to call them at once if anybody comes for the car. 

Four Gruppo members, two riding a motorcycle, arrive at the Bridgewater mechanic's home one evening to retrieve the car, which they plan to use to round up anarchist literature from other group members. The mechanic stalls, then tells the visitors that the car isn't ready to drive yet. His visitors shrug, decide it's now too late to make their rounds without a car. The two guys get back on the bike for the ride home. Sacco and Vanzetti take off on foot to the nearest streetcar stop. Meanwhile the mechanic's wife has called the Bridgewater police to say four "foreign" guys came looking for the car.

State police put out the word to local cops to look for foreign-looking guys leaving Bridgewater. Streetcars are stopped, and two men with foreign accents are taken off a streetcar at gunpoint, hauled to a police station and interrogated. After the two men freely admit to being anarchists, Sacco and Vanzetti are charged with robbery and murder, despite any evidence linking them to the crime. They were charged, police would later say, because they lied about what they were doing on the night of their arrest. They said they were visiting a friend. And because they were carrying weapons. Quick fact check: This is America! lots of people carry weapons – it’s legal. Vanzetti told the police they were carrying guns "because there were a lot of dangerous people around." Clearly, though, they came under suspicion largely because they were friends of another anarchist who owned the car. It’s hard to find a clearer case of “guilt by association.”

The Trial

Since police and prosecutors lacked any substantial evidence against the two radicals, both of whom had witnesses for their whereabouts on the date of the crime, they went about creating it. Among the many shoe factory workers who managed split-second glimpses of the crime from factory windows, the state found a few whom they could pressure, or threaten, into testifying that they recognized the defendants. In the best of circumstances eye-witness testimony to the brief, violent or otherwise criminal acts of strangers is highly unreliable. The overwhelming majority of factory workers interviewed either said the accused were not the robbers, or they could not make an identification based on what they had seen.

When the case went to trial, ballistic experts disagreed over whether a bullet removed from one of the victim’s body could have been fired by Sacco’s gun. Recent re-examinations of both the ballistics and autopsy evidence suggest that the state fired a bullet from Sacco’s gun and subbed it for one of the bullets surgically removed from a victim’s body. Since the state failed to maintain a secure chain of evidence, the case’s physical evidence was contaminated.

The trial’s native-born, male jurors were themselves hardly unbiased. After the trial, the jury foreman said he didn’t care whether the defendants were guilty or not, saying “they should hang them all.” It was clear who was meant by this ‘them’ — foreigners with political beliefs that native-born citizens found threatening.

And trial judge Webster Thayer made his own bias clear in a widely reported comment to a college classmate, at an alumni reunion, after passing sentence: “Did you see what I did to those anarchist bastards?”

The defendants' attorney, a respected labor lawyer naturally appealed, beginning a legal process that lasted seven years. Appeal hearings were delayed, postponed, rescheduled for a host of reasons -- so-called prosecution witnesses had left the state and needed to be tracked down. Expert witnesses were ill and could not attend until recovery. The judge was ill for a year. The appeals court judge was ill, and then needed a vacation. When the state's supreme judiciary court finally rejected the defense's appeal, only then could Webster Thayer pronounce sentence: death in the electric chair.  

The sentencing brought widespread public protests, both in this country and abroad, to a boil. A typical newspaper headline from 1927 captured the universality of working class and progressive condemnation of the court's decision: 

"Protests and demonstrations and strikes all over the United States, in Germany, England Australia, Switzerland, Paraguay, Mexico, on every continent except Antarctica."

In Paris, a protest gathering drew a reported one million people. 

A who’s who of prominent figures from different walks of life expressed support for Sacco and Vanzetti either publicly or privately. Writers Dorothy Parker and Edna St. Vincent Millay

showed up to demonstrations. Benito Mussolini, then prime minister of Italy, explored potential avenues for requesting a commutation of the sentence. Various others, from Albert Einstein to George Bernard Shaw to Marie Curie, signed petitions directed toward Massachusetts Governor Alvan T. Fuller or U.S. President Calvin Coolidge.

The defendants' attorneys made a final appeal for clemency to the governor of the state. Unhappily, the overseas attention paid to the case may have worked against the defendants. Governor Alvan Fuller, a Republican, visited them in prison while weighing an appeal and was impressed by Vanzetti's personality, remarking: “what an attractive men.” 

Vanzetti had used jail time to improve his English. He wrote letters to supporters, and a few memoirs. Fuller said he considered granting a pardon but, one associate explained, "He felt that worldwide interest in the case proved that there was a conspiracy against the United States."

Their execution, after several stays of execution by Fuller kept the case on the front pages in the summer of 1927, drew international outrage, including violent demonstrations in France and in some other European countries. Thousands of people gathered the night of the execution, Aug. 23, 1927, many of them on the Boston Common, in a vigil…dispersing after midnight in sorrow after word passed that the men were dead.

The executions also led to a huge public funeral march through the city of Boston regarded as the largest public gathering in the city until the Red Sox World Series victory parade in 2004, with the crowd estimated by newspapers at 200,000.


I will give the last words to the two principals in this story:

"At his trial Sacco said that life in the U.S. is good for people with money but it’s not good for the working and the laboring class, and at his sentencing, he said, 'I know this sentencing will be between two classes, the rich class and the working class, and there will always be collision between one and the other.'"

Vanzetti said their deaths would be a worthy sacrifice. He said he mkight have spent his life talking to sad men on street corners, winning no change or improvements: a failure.

But “Now we are not a failure. This is our career and our triumph. Never in our full life can we hope to do such work for tolerance, for justice, for man’s understanding of man as we now do by dying. Our words, our lives, our pains—nothing! The taking of our lives—lives of a good shoemaker and a poor fish peddler—all! That last moment belongs to us—that agony is our triumph.”


Tuesday, December 5, 2023

Still Thankful: Seasonal Poems and a Time to Remember


My thanks to editor Jim Lewis for including two poems in the December issue of Verse-Virtual. The poems are a response to a seasonal request to poets to write a poem about what we're thankful for... Big question; so many, many answers.

Here's my poem --below the photo -- on gratitude for the beauty of the natural world.

Twilight in Paradise

We’ve been here before 
Not ‘here’ in the literal sense,
but such an evening path to Perfection
If you live on Perfection Road,
you know the signs.
The sorcery of twilight when an autumn afternoon
     nuzzles August balm
and then the light fades, so soon this time of year
And your street, your road,
each house after perfect house,
silence unbroken, no traffic finding this way,
    nor wandering through, confused,
the driver’s nose in a map… 

No motorcycles, power tools, radios
nothing at all to spoil a perfect silence,
smear with words 
the perfect end of a perfect day.
And not one perfect person,
old, young or in between
stepping out of doors 
to watch the sun set over Hillside Pond
or see the full moon rise above 
    Mount Blue,
the perfect place from which 
to watch the seething traffic back up on the way
to pop-idol stadium


Monday, November 13, 2023

It's a Truly Seasonal Story... If Plants Could Talk

 Now that we're all in a November state of mind.... (chilly? holiday season? early dark?) ... my humorous short story "Reasoning with Azalea" is up online on Witcraft, a journal looking for ways to win a smile.

Yes, Azalea is a plant, but she does a pretty good job defending her point of view. If you click on the title, the whole piece comes up.

It's a two-minute read at most.

Here's the link Azalea

Here are the first few lines:

I know it’s cold, Azalea. 

I don’t like the cold either. 

But you’re not going to spend the winter indoors this year spooning with your buddy, electric heater. 

Not this year. 

He’ll miss me! You think you’re the reason he gets hot!

Tuesday, October 17, 2023

Poems in October: Seeing too much blood, too often


 This past summer has been a bit of a blood bath. Damage to my bladder from long-ago prostate cancer radiation treatments has left me seeing much more of my own blood, and on a regular basis, than I ever wished to. My journey back to status quo ante (a work in in progress) has included a lot of walking at a gentler pace.

     I am grateful to English poet Robert Nisbet, a frequent contributor to Verse-Virtual for his kind comments on my poems in the October issue of Verse-Virtual: "The problem with any poems about personal ailments is that they can so easily cloy, but the linguistic jauntiness of Bob Knox's first poem carries us over all of that risk. And his second poem has a real range and richness."

I have been a contributor to Verse-Virtual, a community of poets that publishes a monthly journal, since 2014 and a contributing editor since 2015.

Here are my two "bloody" poems from the October issue.

Red-Blooded American

Blood inside, blood outside, blood all over 
For days it rains red, 
messy, sleep-broken, unspeakable, red-basined days
The body on a short leash,
Punishment enough, I thought, for an eon of sins…

Then nothing: no flow, no stream, 
no whisper in the cistern of the soul
Just the pain of bone-dry efforts
Burn, burn, the smoke of effort,
no fire of release…
No higher expression 
of the body’s deepest need than this:
    Gotta pee! 

We struggle down to the ER, 
dedicated spouse now designated driver – 
     thank goodness! 
Or the impatient patient would have run the lights
through glorious, summer-green, upper-crust Milton,
     school-house of presidents,
to a season’s early end. 
Succumbing (notices would read) to a deadly combo
of scabs and plasma,
victim of broadly fired radioactive treatments 
performed in a prior day  
     by optimistic clinicians, slightly off-mark 
in a crowded neighborhood of organs. 

Somebody please, we beg the healers, 
free me from this inner strain. 
For I am bound upon a wheel of fire,
an old man in a rag of flesh, 
who does but slenderly understand what’s bloody up.


I walk slowly uphill.
It’s how I do everything.
Something has tipped the world off balance.
Now the sidewalk, the dirt road, the woodland path,
     is always trending up.
Strange… I remember thinking tasks completed, 
      gardens planted: 
‘All downhill from here.’

The world is green, a healthy color.
I dream of swapping flesh with the leaves 
that swarm the hillside,
     pirouetting in the devil-may-care late summer breeze.
But then, in autumn’s termination, all must wither and go under…
Well, yes, in the end, just a question of timing.

The great shade of the forest
stirs music in the minor key.
I will climb these heights, 
once more possess such sights 
in a theater of the heart. 

My feet regain the path,
reclaim their strength, their range of motion, 
renew my journey…
both up and down.

And here's a link to the listing of all the poems and articles published in the October issue.

Monday, July 3, 2023

The Garden of Verse: Doors That Never Open, and The Gates Through Which All Pass


My two poems in the June 2023 issue of Verse-Virtual are both about unusual visits, going to places where I've never been or tend to avoid. 

"Other People’s Lives" tells of traveling to parts of the city in which my wife and I live in, Quincy Mass., to deliver notices of an upcoming community meeting, and discovering that some houses are built with front doors that are never meant to open. Here's the poem.


 Other People’s Lives

All the doors closed, locked, shut up tight.
No way in, no welcome mat.
The mailbox up and mailed itself somewhere else.
The front door an utter rampart:
No entry. No welcome. Nobody home to the likes of you.

Privacy protected.
Living in the hills.
I’m a mere stranger. Worse, afoot,
no doubt out to seek thrills.
Hence those locks:
The feverish encounter always pre-empted.

Walk your city’s hidden neighborhoods,
those unseen lanes and cul-de-sacs,
divorced from the city’s busy streets,
its commercial thoroughfares, numbered highways.
Quiet nooks, the street may not be, legally, ‘private’
but a taxpayer’s home is surely his, her, or their castle…
What is it like to put three-quarters of a million (probably more)
into a modest lot plus extra-large dwelling, 
outpost of well-protected privacy
smack up against a vast and wooded preserve,
     people-free at the busiest seasons,
on a narrow street most of us commoners will never find.

What is it like to hide away?
This house is “Protected," so saith the conspicuous advisory
on the never-used front door.
Protected in turn by all-weather storm door with its own 
     tight lock
from the interloper with the handbill declaring the invitation  
     to “community meeting” –
Offstage laughter indulged in silence: Community? Meeting?
… preventing said interloper, or any other physical entity that 
     can walk and chew gum
from approaching the double-locked barrier behind it.

The beast within howls his rage, his furious abandonment
when the interloper touches the impenetrable outer barrier,
that second skin of inviolability,
the offense wired directly into his self-devouring imprisonment 
     of canine sadness. 

Bark all you want, Wolfie,
No one is coming to reduce the terrible gnawing anxiety
of your endless hours of incarceration.

No toys out-of-doors, no sign any creature of flesh ever steps 
     through this parody of ingress,
the mocking shell of the conventional ‘Welcome’ baked into the 
     unyielding mat spread upon the doorstep,
the empty remembrance of that which we no longer 
     mean to offer.
Unpurposed now, its meaning fouled,
it braves the elements, impersonal, dysfunctional till the very 
      crack of doom. 

Speak not to us of common purpose, public space,
those challenges and opportunities that onetime fell to all, 
… the town meeting, the charity drive.
After all, who can you trust?
The state is me, moi, and mine own
And if he, or she – or (conceivably) some trace element of younger lives –
does not come home soon,
     I’m surely changing the locks. 

The second poem, "Visiting Eternity" follow a rare visit to a place where nobody is worried about who may come to the door.  Here's the poem. 

Visiting Eternity

The parents are well. We know where to find them. 
Back to back on a stone we ran to ground (a year later)
in a busy corner of forever. 
It is, admittedly, a crowded neighborhood, 
though well-tended. 

The next search however proved a bear.
Don’t get excited to find a Goldberg,
their neighborhood is everywhere.
The wind passes the time among them,
the low boxwood, the hedges elbowing into remaining space
between one placement and the next,
row on row, eternity grew up around them.

No social classes, mind you, in this subterranean finality.
Room to move, though under.
If being head partner in the firm, you object to neighboring 
the treasurer of the local Communist club, 
union chapter, or simple laborer, self-employed accountant
or various women who got things done,
well, it’s a busy neighborhood,
something going every night.
The street signs hard to follow,
difficult sometimes to tell the people apart. 
All that may be left is a long stoney fez,
an elemental billboard for a few prosaic data points,
eternity’s stovepipe,
an ear to the wind –
Hard to imagine they are not overhearing our jokes
and errant philosophies,
observing our frustrations:
Reading us as we struggle to find that final 
     hiding place
in the hide-and-seek of time.

Who, we wonder, will come looking for us…?
You are not in the ground, dear ones, 
You are in our hearts and minds
This is our house of remembrance.

To find poems by the 48 poets represented in the June issue 

of Verse-Virtual, go to 




Tuesday, May 23, 2023

The Garden of Sad-Angry Poems: Guns and History, They're Still With Us

 Two of my poems were published online last month. 

My poem "They Came" was posted last month on Poetry Superhighway's 25th Annual Yom HaShoah Issue. The poem was inspired by German pastor Martin Niemöller's famous 1946 postwar writing “First They Came.”  

They Came

First they came for the immigrant children
And we looked away
Because the Leader’s toady told us, “Those are not
our children”
And we looked at our own children,
and were reassured

Then they came for the people who cover their heads
or pray too much
And again we looked away
Because we were not Iranians, or Iraqis, or Gazans,
or children of the West Bank detained indefinitely without charges
And, as the man said,
those are not our children

Then they came for the abused, and those who accused their abusers,
and for the accusers’ advocates,
and for those who fought against their abusers,
But we looked away, and jested at the comedie humaine,
because we were not ourselves the victims of abuse
or the advocates for the abused,
and, after all, we were “not his type”

Then they came for the ones who would never
play ball with Der Leader
The ones who would always be trouble
because they were cheated out of their land
or, perchance, had been enslaved
or who had once owned a country that the slave-owners wished
to possess for themselves
or who, we feared, were willing to work
for too little money
or who loved the wrong people

And then because no one else remained standing
in our diminished patria,
neither advocates,
nor scribblers with their pencil over the ear,
nor Enemies of the People with their hand-held devices,
nor workers’ parties,
nor defenders of the beaten, humiliated and disappeared

nor anyone able to kick the ball from their feet,
nothing was left for us to do
but to lay our own bodies before his feet

as the painted, spiked, and horny-headed demons of extinction
cheered, and drank, and laughed, and danced upon the bodies
of their victims
and ran up history’s score

First published by The NewVerse.News in July 2019

My poem “Allen Ginsberg’s ‘America’ and Ours” was published New Verse News on April 29. This poem makes use of and takes off from Ginsberg's 1950's beat poem screed titled "America." His assessment of the politics of his day inspired me to be a little profane about our own.

Allen Ginsberg’s “America” (and Ours)


America I’ve given you all and now I’m nothing.” – Allen Ginsberg, Howl and Other Poems, 1956


I am frankly envious of the poet who, on Jan. 17, 1956,

wrote, in a poem entitled “America,”

“America, go fuck yourself with your atom bomb.”


Tennessee, I invite, in the same spirit of candor,

go shoot yourself with your absolutely unqualified no-foolin’, stand-your-ground

irredeemably nut-case gun rights laws,

per events on the ground taking place March 28, 2023.

I could simply echo every sentiment in that mid-century poet’s inspired piece

     of unbridled spontaneity

composed on the theme of his America, in which he that mid-century poet vowed,

amid other proclamations,

“I won’t write my poem till I’m in my right mind”…

but I do not expect to be in my right mind

so long as the YMCA in which I seek to run away from my fury and despair

offers news channels on its TV service available to rats like me

who run on treadmills of anger and despair


Networks, that is, on which the munitions-injury expert

is asked to describe the effect of AR ammunition on the bodies of children,

and what I increasingly wish somebody (even crazier than me) would do

to the persons of the elected Tennessee officials

who valiantly protected their freedom-loving constituents from any limitation,

however slight and publicly supported by official law enforcement,

on their natural right to destroy the bodies of children

with whatever armaments the Good Lord, acting through the protected mediation

    of the National Rats Association,

entitles them to possess


“America,” Ginsberg demanded in his disarming and eternally youthful way:

“when will you take your clothes off?”

“America” – how’s this for pre-visioning the paramilitary far right? –

“why are your libraries full of tears?”


America, we ask in our hair-tearing, torn-clothing way,

Why are your courthouses, state houses, ballot boxes and school boards

full of self-made demagogues who failed to read the books

in their now besieged schoolhouses when they had the chance?

who think that libraries are merely back alleyways for the gang fights

     of the culture wars?

America, we ask, why do the voters of Tennessee develop amnesia of the ballot box?

When will it end, America, your war on humanity?

When will you be worthy of your blues singers, jazzmen, street corner poets,

         dancers on the page as well as on the stage?

When will you invite Stephen Colbert to be the speaker at the next inauguration?

America, the cherry trees are blossoming

and I feel sentimental about the days of wine and roses and that legendary decade ban

     on assault rifles…

and even when the party of Richard Nixon was, by comparison, a beacon of moderation

Americans, we are obsessed by media, by the Chinese timebomb that goes TikTok, TikTok


America, the best minds of my generation are already underground

America, there is nobody left to vote for

America, our ancestors saved the world from fascism

But all the fascists have to do today is show their pure-white fannies on TV

and the writing on the wall goes tic-toc-clock, as the timebomb of private self-interest

     melts the glaciers

and brings the ocean to your living room

just before the signoff of the foxed and phony nooz


America, you are teaching all the world how to kill people,

     best result for the buck

Because that is all you remember how to do


Lilac Days in Massachusetts: The Sweet Smell of Spring

Lilac Days

They shine because this is their month,

their showtime,

but so also the cherry and other fruit trees

in their many branching varieties, 

as do the dogwood, and apple, and willow,

and the nameless white-flowering beauties,

blossoms, their offerings lasting only a week or maybe, with teasing, and the right weather,

a little more.


And the gentle sun,

Keeping its schedule, as always, to a perfection

unknown here below

slipping with matchless grace down a cloudless horizon

to the last bans of sunset, twilight


but still at night  they sleep with us

still they house and keep the birds safe

     in the quiet hours

and still the morning prays again

that time persists once more to be beautiful

precisely because it is so much older than we

May All Be Blessed!*


The little fingers on the little piggies

The big men in my childhood nightmares

     thumping through the shadows of my mind

The killers and the haters, even.

     Who somehow survive my wrathful imaginings

as if they were nothing but what they are –



All the yoga ladies

The muscled guys

The busy life of the highway where

     the machines take us where they will

And the slow life of the late winter day –

     Gleaming March sunshine,

Brutal west wind

And the yard full of squirrels chasing one another’s


The tails wagging the dogs of peace,

The people below the bombs

The lasers of love’s eternal springtimes,

The offerings,

Those who carry the finger bowls of time

In which we dip our fingers

*(After a song by Peter Kater)