I just read this poem again for the first time in probably eight years. Among the stuff I've written in my life, this is one of the few that I don't cringe when reading. From my own biased perspective, it's the single best poem I've ever written. But it's dense, and it's personal. To give a couple hints . . . it blends three scenes into a single sense of a cold end-of-winter day in Cleveland, Ohio in early 2001. The three scenes are Public Square in downtown Cleveland, Ohio in early February, my Slovak grandmother's kitchen in small-town Ohio, and the basement of one of those giant Ohio libraries that exist in all of the mid-level or larger cities in that state. Mix in a longing for a long-dead love affair, and a personal religion in which god is actually a puckish, Loki-like character whose primary goal is to laugh at us . . . and this is the poem you get.
Saturday, February 10th, 2001
A rainy, icy city square in February
when the leaves are paper-thin, muck-brown
and plastered to cement pavements and stone walls like
Hiroshima people-shadows, giving mute
but rancid testimony of lives that once
lived in a warmer season,
is the state the heart enters when
love exists but to no purpose
other than a twisting torture
brought down by the supreme
awareness of the universe, that
Being whose sole purpose is the quirky,
impartial sneer of the inebriated ironist.
The long-ago, nearly-forgotten beauty of a
Christmas snowfall lingers in the memory
like the aroma of well-cooked meals
in the house of a newly-deceased grandmother.
Wind whips the walls, wailing the
needlepoint pictures from their hooks and
clanging the cookware a’clattering across
the kitchen floor, quickly turning a corner
to whip a soggy leaf from the face of the statue
of the city’s founding-father, only to
snag it and snarl it in barren
bristling bushes on the edge of the square
where it hangs, a soggy scent, a ruined
memory, a wasted emotion of a life lost in a
lingering lachrymose dead-kitchen out
in the grey-brown world of a grimy
February morning when the light is
both too bright and inadequate for
any life to linger without a painful longing,
for both more . . . and less.
Yellowing books sit on the bottom shelf at the back
of a basement room in the ancient
Carnegie-original library building, flowing
slowly, glacierlike, downward into layers
of dust on the yellowing tiled floors.
Knowledge and purpose have left an imprint,
but with neither motive force nor reason.
Silverfish, paper chemistry, and the same rot
that infects the eyes of the liver-dead
alcoholic doom them to their untidy
end in the cracks between, and
the shelf corners too hard to reach,
and the crawlspaces beneath the world
of motion and motives.
Emotions, too, were recorded here, like
the shadows of dead Civil War horses
captured by Mathew Brady’s flash pan
and seared into semi-perminence by
brass and glass and an impartial, unmoving eye.
Emotions, made soggy and slapped in the
face by wet leaves when the room has
been forgotten and the windows vandalized
and the February dead-kitchen mists at last
reach in, stir the air, and mire the dust
in the detritus of all the other little deaths
of the ironic, laughing, twisted smile
of the cruelly calculating universe.
If it were personal, it would be terrifying.
But since it is not, it is just . . . dust
of leaves and pages and pots and pans,
drying slowly in the cracks of a March
bus stop, forgotten in a world preoccupied
with a forlorn hope of something called
The snicker is almost,