Brothers’ keepers

On Saturday, I emceed a “Poets for Peace” reading in State College, inspired in part by Sam Hamill’s call for an International Day of Poetry on September 11. Turnout was good, despite zero coverage in the local media. (Saturday’s edition of the major newspaper in the area had a special section on “What the Flag Means to Me.”)

The format was open-mike; I read first so as to give more people time to arrive. I was going to start out with one of Vallejo’s posthumous poems, “Y si después de tántas palabras,” but decided at the last moment that the Clayton Eshleman translation wasn’t all that good and I didn’t have time to improve on it. So instead I just read two of my own, recent poems written for this blog that happened to have taken their titles from pop songs: “Both Sides Now” and “From a Distance.”

Over the next hour and a half, fifteen other people read from their own and others’ works. There was a healthy mix of ages, backgrounds (including the mayor, in an unofficial capacity) and styles of writing and delivery. I was struck by the happenstance that two different nurses, Corene Johnston and Joann Condellone, read poems they’d written. Both were older women who had organized poetry groups in their respective communitites (Bellefonte and Huntingdon), and both felt that peace must be sought in the messy details of ordinary human life. How many other such unsung emissaries for peace and poetry are working in our midst, one wonders?

Other poets in attendance included Jack Troy, Todd Davis, Cecil Giscombe, Julia Kasdorf, Lee Peterson, John Haag and Dora McQuaid. Julia and Todd, our two Mennonite poets, were the outstanding readers of the afternoon, I thought, though a young member of the local slam scene named Kathy Morrow gave what was undoubtedly the most energetic performance.


The following poem is one I haven’t looked at in many months, so predictably, when I pulled it out of the files on Saturday I decided that it was unfit for a reading without some serious revision. I guess at this point I would class it among my noble failures; the imaginative effort here seems somehow inadequate to the subject matter. Like Ai, whose influence here is probably a bit too palpable, I think that empathetic understanding – trying to see the world through another’s eyes – is its own reward, even (or especially) when the the subject is a basically undeserving, ungrateful, brutal psychopath. Here, though, things are a little more complex, because the subject – a death-row inmate on his way to the chair – is himself imagining an exchange with the protestors of his impending execution.


They tell me you’re there, all
you would-be witnesses. Clustered
outside the gate. Each of you
clutching your candle
like a little white lie, right hand
cupping the flame,
the hot wax dribbling down the side.
If they’d let me, I’d come out there
& tell you one or two things.
I have done what most men merely
dream about, living proof that life is
a pale, weak thing. I broke the bones
in her face the way you’d ash
out a cigarette. Fear has a smell
like sour milk & it can turn, oh Jesus!
It can turn you so goddamned ugly.
From the moment you slimed your way
into the world, having just fucked
your mother backwards, you were
a creature incapable of innocence,
a pink grub, a howling bundle of wants.
If I had my way there’d be a chair
like this one on every street corner.
They’d be like video games. Only
the truly ruthless would be able
to walk past one without trembling like
a virgin. Those of you with
a guilty conscience would be
the first in line.

Be careful, now – something’s
diving toward the flame.
That’s right, drive it away.
For its own good, little moth.
Deprive it of its final joy.

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