The Masks Of Heaven

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The abandoned cemetery isn’t far
from here though you might think so,
looking at all the tidy houses and
trimmed yards which line this street:

But you should have learned by now
how masks reveal their wearers,
the pearled surface of happiness
cursed by old eyes staring through.

Duration is just a ruse; if you
stick around you’ll see it falter
like a bone chewed too long:
the mask’s edges start to droop

from saggy cords and then
you’re face to skull with
full moonlight after 3 a.m.,
a face beaming eternal night.

What this town has become
in the uneven ravages of time
is a place drained even of place—
everything carnal and spiritual

attracted elsewhere, amped to
big-box blickerbulbs of not:
cities, malls, celebrities,
channels, devices, rot.

A place existing on but that’s all,
just as empty as the lost boneyard
without the peace of the forgotten
& carrying the curse it crossed.

Is there a principle which states
that the meek inherit Earth?
Do the fallen places in this country—
ruined miles of working-class Detroit,

the Chicago morgue receiving all
the bodies of the murdered,
ridded with our glut of bullets
bursting from fear’s silo—:

Do those places whisper slowly
ever more loudly our collective fate
creeping in with its king tide
inexorably over us all?

Does an abandoned cemetery echo
in our sleep in a language that in waking
to the next day sounds like static on
a radio almost tuning to a song?

And when you drive those last streets home
on your daily commute from work,
doesn’t the light, unrolled now in
autumn foil, seem not so much golden

as gilt now sere, like sunlight passing
through the top leagues of abyss,
the way a burnt page looks a
hundred nights after you found it?

Over in the cemetery, death is a head
hunched below earthen shoulders
like a long-collapsed pumpkin,
forest litter covering the markers,

palmettos fanning twenty feet high.
Healing over as nature must because
only we must not forget death
then mask it with all our might.

No one’s even seen the graveyard
for fifty years, not since the black church
was moved to make way for the highway
which was moved away from town—

the groves grew thicker and then froze
and then were cut down, clay and sand
mauled out for the highway project &
idle now, waiting for development.

How could any place be more desolate
than wherever those old black bodies lie
aside from my home street in this
my late perhaps last home town,

charming enough as masks will do
while inside the living stare at TVs
changing after infinite channel,
wondering why there’s nothing to see?

September 2016

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In 1959 an African-Amerian church was moved from atop the knoll in the background to make room for a highway. There’s a cemetery still up there, lost in the brush. Stoneybrook Plaza with its Publix supermarket (left) was built around 2010.

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Almost Blues

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It’s a simple 12-bar progression,
bar to night to nothing’s blight
back to bar for one last height
of lowdown yearning far too right,
too dope, for the silken sway
which ropes midnight:

The sound of it’s your homeless heart,
squandered by all the gambits of
this bullshit art, burning
for what always turns out
to be just distant, freezing stars,
the silent welcome of blackout
flickering out in a junebag’s jar.

Some part of you will forever
linger in the Blue Dog’s jaws,
trapped in the amber of slow blues,
your eyes rapt upon that spotlight
which always forms a bright shadow
around the woman onstage who sings
ands chords the blues just so,
drowning on a sea guitar.

The sound of it’s so strange, both
intimate and dead, like moonlight
white and black across the sleeping
back of a lover forever sailed away.
To and fro the chords slowdance
in a blue-to-blacker scrawl,
weaving failure on a silver loom
of twisty smackdust falls,

rounds in perfect step with the
way you turn your shotglass as
you lift it to your lips, screwing if not
courage then the gall to safecrack happiness—
its the Drinker’s Tao the blues mirror,
surrender to the profanity of death
en route to ecstasy, tripping all the way,,
godlike the way the blue bells ring,
the sound of twelve steps falling.

Can you hear the tritones miss
their marks, nailing what it mean
to fail perfection truly? That’s the smoke
inside unquiet blues, almost getting to
an honest turning point but faltering
a half-tone shy, blurring the distinction
between root and fifth with a curtain’s
wavering sigh, diminishing the stout
narrative of I and Thou into another
grey scud of weedy skies at the far end
of last call at the last bar’s empty door.

There’s comfort in that, plush and
smoky like the fifth whiskey, lush
in the sorrow of the woman’s voice
trailing off this short of any career,
ending up with all the starless bums
who drink like stride pianos, dum de dum,
bluing every hope to fateful shore.

To sing such blues is to turn the shotglass
like a pistol chamber’s roulette wheel,
aiming lonely midnight after midnight
into a blue and blacker heart, O so perfectly,
as if rapture never was the point, not quite…

And so the last round before closing time
becomes a girl, almost, sitting next to you
down from that stage, her eyes almost blue
in the mighty tide of blackout with its
lengthening blue haze, staring almost
into to yours to lock and hold the empty place
you’ve carried through all these bars
for all these years, the tattered relic
of devotion to a blue, she-shaped door.

Thank God all you ever wanted and cared for
is just the thought of her as you drain your glass,
a blues ever ending where it never could
quite start, just another headstone in the row
grown back over twelve bars and bottles ago.
Already dead, if you will, having failed to live
any more or better now simply rounded like
the blues which travels song to song nowhere,
never quite allowing you to finish your drink & go.

Perfection is sweet like that, waving like
weeds in a forgotten graveyard on gray afternoons,
your name on a stone now covered by forest clutter,
dreaming of the saucy figure with the silver guitar
playing the song with such arch and plush tritones
meaty mitts of nothing powdering your bones.

All this only makes the next night’s blues
that richer, the next dive bar with its twelve
solitary drinkers nodding to a voice almost
the full shot of immortal proofless booze.
Not quite, but just enough to enoble
the old unfathomable heaven
with its angel riot here to expire
on the rim of every toppled shotglass
the blues loved and left that way,
walking with that certain

stumbling defiant sashay
out this last unquiet door

into an almost dawn quintessence,

the maker’s murderous blue roar.

September 2016

Submitted to Real Toads Play It Again Pastiche Challenge,
because the blues are almost everything

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In Wilderness

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Forty years of wandering in the desert because the prayers
of Moses keep faltering. When the praises he had learned
from the fathers rang clear as struck bronze through the wood,
the ark became a hound, leaping toward the Promised Land.
But then came those midnight intercessions where the Moses
foundered, his words spoken not by gods but a sweat of thought,
spreading a raw new gulf whose sides were I and Thou.
The next day he would point left then right, his doubts
so ambling that Israel found herself back again and again
in the same dismembered waste of scorched prosaic earth.
And so again off he’d go to kneel and pray, finding in the next
words poetry as clear and good as found water: And so
the march’s cadence would resume the pour of metered gold,
gilding the seraphim beckoning a sunlit mountain’s pass.
You could still hear the music of promises almost coming true,
glorious as the brow of the god who refused to be named.
And then the collapse of the prophet in his supplicating hour,
negating all returns to paradise with a failing spirit’s No.
Forty years of days and nights between angels and death,
lost inside the maze of how to brood on past and future.
Finally Moses climbed the mountain and was handed four books
of laws. Poetry no longer was needed to escape Time’s jaws.
The command of Moses became the God of scripture, embodied
on tablets by poetry descending from on high but carved in prose.
Our story thus proceeds, ghost-wheeled by hung hexameters,
divine enough to ring with truth, but rounded with kingly sooth.
The going sure and steady on the path of written books. Israel
was now ready for the Promised Land: But Moses they left behind.
Observe him standing there at the final pass, suture of a purpose
which strands me here today, too read for any future trust,
too fearful of the I-shaped wave which covers arks with dust.

August-September 2016

Note
In the Biblical account, the Israelites had been led out of Egypt by Moses but feared going further into Canaan because they heard that giants lived there. For their hesitation Moses declared an entire generation of Israelites had to pass before they warranted entering the Promised Land. I made their hesitation his, where poetry was passing into prose—the utterance of angels become the rule of law become, eventually …. this.

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Submitted to Real Toads “Following A Thread” challenge

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La Belle, Falling

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I.

Back when I was 18—
when silence wintered
wounds with its ghost breeze,
raking my frozen chain of lakes

I didn’t socialize much.

Words so easy on the page
were a cross of barbed wire
when I plied them with people,
so forbidding and useless

I tried less and less.

I remember one bright
cold Saturday in November
when a guy I’d gotten
to know in an essay class—he
said my work was great—invited
me to join he and his wife for a day.

They stopped by my rented house
on the outskirts of Spokane
to pick me up & we smoked
a few bowls together. The shit
was good, Hawaiian bud,
its big gold-feathered high

so plushly revealing
the great wall inside me that
the rest of the day was ruined.

My words turning bilious
soon as I said them & theirs
resounding like caricature,
too close to vertigo & the
serrated flush of petit mal,
the horrorhouse mirrors

shards in downworld whirl.

For the rest of the afternoon—
we ate lunch in town then
walked the bridge over
the Spokane River falls—

I suffered spell after spell
growing from chill to
defeated boreal,
my fading high barbed
in freezing doubt.

The guy was so easy,
drinking wine & laughing
& his wife simply beautiful
& just as gregarious, winsome

in every way I spelled loser.

My retreating trapped there
a spent wind rattling the bare
limbs of winter trees while
the happy birds fly south.

Whatever I might written
in that class I had none of it
outside there, & the difference
went on to compose those
awful years fleeing song
with rock n roll.

Play some 70s’s jazz fusion
here, drinking Reisling
from a glass next to an afternoon
candle and a plate littered with

a few crumbs of boursin cheese:

I am of that bright November
sun composed, delight
around a falling god.

 

II.

I remembered that defining
day for the first time in decades
this morning as I wrote down
a dream about finally going
to the poetry museum in town.

It sat on top of a hill ringed
by oaks & I had avoided looking
at it for decades. Inside it was
a huge and well-endowed, offering
endless racks of poetry books.

I spoke with a young woman
about her poetry internship in
Kentucky & it made me think
of being 18 by those falls,

awakening the poet to blue roar.

Of being that poor in everything
but spirit, perhaps because words
were so wildly renouncing;

How a leaden life is required
to cook the words that slowly,
poisoned by the quick and true.

Writing down the dream today
I remembered that guy and his wife
at that table in downtown Spokane,

white tablecloth, white wine, Jon
Luc Ponty on the hidden speakers,
their talk gregarious and free

while I was fading in the Spokane falls
behind, falling toward a future self
whose bones lay far below.

When I finally sort them out here
will I be done?

I remember how that woman laughed
at something her husband said,
tilting her head back & showing

her smooth perfected throat:

Just that drop of white into
the winter sea whose voice I am

droppered back here upon
this just about lost page

marries the muse
this late and last

to the blues’ own
reckoning—Kentucky
damned, & failing,

falling in her throat
beyond all windows,

gone.

August-September 2016

submitted to Real Toads’ If Death Were A Woman challenge.

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Seizure of Night

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563 A.D.

By day the monks worked setting the abbey’s footers,
girding the new faith’s white claim on ancient ground.
Each night wind and water howled back from the sea,
a black hurricane ripping tackle and block away
from the tenons of new mind, tearing Heaven
with a drowning shriek that crashed the abbey down.
Come morning the monks found Christ in wreckage,
swooning, as it were, in Time. Again the monks began
rebuilding, getting as far as beginning every night: Again
come midnight the banshees of spout and bolt would roar,
cracking the brain of future and spiraling the host again.
For weeks the same diabolic of founding, man caught
between the polemic of mind and insane: Finally Columba
their leader, future abbot and finally saint decided to
harrow the night himself on a knoll above the site,
to witness for himself both art and author of its ripe
destruction. And there, in the black seeling of midnight,
the thing again arose, delved by the angry god
of the sea: Black Kate, the gill-witch of the Hebrides.
Appearing in the torment of whirling black flame
Kate shouted to the saint that blood price was due:
A man buried alive standing up in the belly of the pit,
human footer to the god of the night’s unholy fit.
And so lots were cast (some say Oran volunteered)
and the hallowed man went into the harrow’s well,
drowning in dirt until he sang the Psalms no more.
Maybe my entire life’s arc compresses down to
this old physic for a god’s blue swamp of vertigo.
These words my well, my suffocation divine,
the blood of confusion become sacrament wine.
When meter catches pace and rhyming gets tight
and the placebo angel takes over in saintly flight,
smothering my angst with bosomy blue wavelets,
sand packed hard over my face, one cheek against
the cross that once topped Iona’s abbey spire.
Sea and earth both murmuring against the tide,
grinding down these bones into still finer grain,
lining the marrow of the buried god, this awful
remedy for ancient rounds, this hollow singing stain.

September 2016

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A swooning shaman dreams of bison in the paleolithic cavern of Lascaux, ca 15,000 BCE.

Submitted to Real Toads’ Tuesday Platform

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Notes

A folk cure for epilepsy in Scotland was to bury alive a black cock on the spot of the first fit. This seems a remnant of the pagan practice of foundation sacrifice as evidenced by the legend of Saint Oran, patron saint of my Well. As in the story retold above, Oran was sacrificed to appease an angry hurricane of old deity and so the Iona Abbey walls could stand.

Angus MacOdrum of Uist was a black-haired Celt of Fomorian origin and one of the seal-tribe; Saint Columba encountered the great black seal on a shore of Iona one day. Angus asked the saint “in fine Gaelic” if he had seen his wife Kathleen, a good Christian woman who had been lured into wave by Angus a thousand years before to become his bride and sea-witch. She could invoke the cataract of storm with her song, the bane of fishermen and sailors of the Hebrides. Columba replied that he hadn’t seen the witch; Angus then cursed the saint in salty old Gaelic and leapt back in the crashing bath, taking with him the haunting resonance of song.

My father began his Order of Saint Oran in 1982, the year of my first grand-mal seizure. (It was also the year of the dedication of the St. Columba Chapel there, which sits in the woods not far from the St. Oran Bell tower.) I wonder if my three-decades long fascination with the Oran-Columba myth, most recently through Oran’s Well, roots in all the seizures & migraines that have crawled up from my brainstem over the years, demanding a physic beyond Carbamazepine and Maxalt and Imitrex, calling for another descent into the Well—standing up and singing all the way.

Such verbal gambits in the land of the dead may ground the future; let’s hope so. The spiraling ruin of the Twin Towers are fifteen years in the grave, and history still seems mired there. What song do we bury in that broken, unspeakable place?

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St. Oran Bell Tower at Columcille (Pennsylvania)

St. Oran Bell Tower at Columcille (Pennsylvania). The Columba chapel is in the woods just beyond.

 

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Charm for a Drowned Song

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Three strands woven on a water loom
to raise a flower from Ophelia’s comb:

A thread of black from cold insane,
a strand of red to ley the stain,
blue lees to womb three gods again.

Plait the music in a trebled braid
and chord it with the heart’s nightshade.

Kneel this prayer and dive to dream,
lifting bouquets from the singing stream.

September 2016

Submitted to Real Toads Charms Sunday Mini-Challenge

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The Fire Well

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No wonder the dream brought me to his house
in the middle of a Connecticut winter so bitter bright
it was like drinking well water from a burning skull.
A childhood moment dredged from suburban Chicago,
prying these knowing eyes out with the soul’s pick.

There he was, James fucking Hillman, standing outside
wrapped in heavy winter coat, a hat low over his brow
so I could only make out a sharp nose and thick beard—
he’s been dead for five years—and those infinite blue eyes
staring in shadow, fixed on a frozen pond across the way.
Or was he my father? It sure looked like his house
in Pennsylvania, his winter, his Goth New Agey vibe.

There were scattered patches of snow melting
or freezing, who knows, bright in the morning sun
rising over the pond. With so much blue shadow
rimming with their rinds. I had come across
the great water of dream to tell him how much
his essay “Alchemical Blue” has meant to me all these
years: But in the way of dream business, the real
nature of its bladed work is ripping faces away.

I followed him inside and he faded down a hall,
leaving me in a living room on a couch with
a woman in late youth—her 30s, I’d guess—
with the same blue eyes & blonde dreadlocks.
Was she Hillman’s wife or anima or mine?
Looking about the room I realized—again—
I could be at my father’s house; same fieldstone
fireplace I had helped build 30 years ago,
same barnwood siding looking like Ye Olde Vermont.

I’m trying to compose my speech to Hillman—
how many years has it been since I stared writing it,
all those early hours copying those burning words
a journal—sometimes many paragraphs, once or
twice the whole damned book, my ground trembled
and trebled by the metric pace of a thoughtful giant.

That made me think of my father—again—the one
who first invited me to dance with a thought, to imagine,
always to play on some recess monkeybars of the brain.
I start to tell the woman my story but it comes out
of my mouth as my father’s history—his growing up
in Cedar Rapids, stint in the Navy at the end of WWII,
on to Northwestern on the GI bill where Hillman
too studied at the same time. Peers or tandems?

I go on telling her how my father got a divinity degree
then a wife and four kids and a fray with fame in
downtown Chicago; how straight life in the suburbs
threatened somehow to kill him so he left us for
the gay bars down by the docks of New York City.
The woman didn’t understand what “gay” meant—
not even “homosexual” quite worked—and I
wondered when all of this prefacing would be done,

when I can start talking about Hillman and his
influence upon me in “Alchemical Blue.” But
then a young man came into the room—one
of her many lovers—and took her into a bathroom
where he applied color to her hair. She came
back to sit next to me with hair all a-foam which
is then was dry and colored. How did she do that?
Had I dreamt to the bottom of the fire well?

She was as old as that fireplace, I think, I carried
every stone she was made of; and her voice—smoky,
bluesy with more than a little rue—came from
a flue I had tended with my father once as we drank
Scotch and talked about Being all January 1978.
I wondered if I would ever get around to talking
about Hillman’s “Alchemical Blue,” thus finding
the man inside a book in my father’s library of bones.
To thank him for it when he’s dead and his woman
seems interested and not, there and not, him but
not ever the singing man again? That’s how I woke.

The soul indeed swims in the sentences, like a skull
singing from deep down a well, bringing to all who
would listen the resonant physic of blue waters:
and thought is the paternoster, a well of fire doors.
Even if no one ever reads this poetry again
I count myself happy; even though I’ll dive no further
than this league defined by my need for these men
and the sorors who mediate what I still burn for them,
mapping fire islands down and round the dream.

August 2016

Posted to Real Toads’ Fire From A Different Sun challenge

Note

James Hillman was a leading archetypal theorist, therapist and writer who died on the Eve of Saint Oran, 2011.

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Rain Band Reel

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Rain bands lashing now the house as the
hurricane passes three hundred miles north:
Intenser griefs now come to us who wick
this quickburning Earth. I hunker listening
to the voice inside the winds now fiddling
round our house, a hoary bearded reel
freighting more than we can hear or bear.
Look what you’ve done to us the fiddle sings.
Harp your morrow with these howling strings.

August 2016

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White Horizon, Tideless Afternoon

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It’s the absence of shadow blue which fails the picture,
awareness drying too fast, without the yearning to quench
and passing on bare, unsated, unaware even of its need.
When Navaho weavers starting making rugs for tourists
the distaff thread—that lone discordant note in the pattern
which allowed the spirit to escape unburdened—was lost,
vanishing into government housing and alcohol abuse,
a reservation’s angled roofs serrating the immense.

Now there’s only sun and shadow, nothing left between:
Even the petroglyphs are fading from their rock, elk and bison
bleaching themselves out, the hunters’ stick figures collapsing
into balls like dead ants, tiny waves without any sprawl left,
no longer greeting their ghost kills or even waving goodbye,
patternless stains in the overhanging whose blue shadow
cannot comfort or assuage the lingering assault of light.

It’s what becomes of presence in this vanishing age
and would be terrifying if anyone paused to notice.
It’s not that we cannot see the erasings, it’s just that ghosts
aren’t on the dropdown menus which decide where we look.
Between those links to someone’s fortune there is this:
Would you have the land of shadow so literally dead
not even an abyss distinguishes the one and zero?

Observe the island oasis of a wet nipple dimly lit,
the infant’s mouth half open as he deeply sleeps.
White curtains billow next to a half-opened window,
their soft calm breathing weaving white and shadow
from lungs we can’t see but are. And the ocean down
from the house in midafternoon is blue then green
then darkening, there at the horizon where heaven
anneals earth with stormclouds tall and steelblue
grey and darker underneath where long mists trail.

The fretful shadows of the maker’s overlit hand
were lost when we burned all yearning for the page.
Leaving us this fretful immediacy, this metastasizing
now, a immense vacant reservation bent on whiting
itself out. The myth was lost when we lost forgot the words,
the mouth’s soundhole sealing out the shadow tones.
Our voices now like surf when the window closes,
a ghostly murmur, like sleep without a dream.

Come nightfall none of this will find the minor key
and what’s walking into water won’t look back.
Leaving us tomorrows without seam or sea,
the horizon too brilliant now for what made
the nipple so perfect. Anointing the soft breeze.
Its milk night infinite. So darkly blue & gleaming.

August 2016

Note

In his essay “Alchemical Blue”—a writing which has colored my poetry since I first read it 20 years ago—James Hillman writes about Cezanne, first quoting Kurt Badt’s The Art of Cezanne: “When he was composing, only a visionary’s or a poet’s imaginative conception … could e of help to him. It was impossible to start out from an isolated real thing seen.”

Hillman continues: “He based his painting on ‘shadow paths and contours’ out of which ‘real things’ emerged as local high points. The imaginative conception, the visionary shadow, originates and supports the real thing seen in nature. “

Badt again: “The deepest color in Cezanne’s paintings, the one which supports the composition and is most appropriate for shadows, is blue … When (Cezanne) used blue in this way, he transcended any special connotation which had attached to its former uses. Blue was now recognized as belonging to a deeper level of existence. It expressed the essence of things and … placed them in a position of unattainable remoteness.”

Hillman: “The blue shadow is the imaginal ground that allows the eye to see imaginatively, the event as image, creating at the same time a remoteness from real things.”

Uniform Edition of the Writings of James Hillman, Volume 5: Alchemical Psychology, Spring Publications, 2010.

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Downbrain Lane

lonely neighborhood

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A neighborhood behind here, long abandoned, forgotten
until I dreamed it: Its winter afternoon ending too soon,
the light almost heavy as I inventoried empty houses,
each in such despair of disrepair there was no hope
of going home. Leafless trees armed up through collapsing
roofs, corner masonries were crumbling out, boarded windows
stared like dead eyes and the porches’ welcome was lost
from both sides of the padlocked darkened doors.
It was like walking back down the brainstem, my motions
dulling and clumsy as I numbly tried to pencil addresses
on a notepad until I forgot how to write. With cold dark
approaching like a rising water, I tried to take pictures
with my phone, but what was that silver gadget in my hand?
A flip phone from ten years ago I couldn’t now figure out.
The poster from “Endless Summer” on its home screen
the only brightness now, a little stamp of beachside happiness
flickering and lonely as night snow began its steady fall.
Icy water everywhere, freezing this far South. I wake
to write arch sorrow, droppering blue on every flake,
covering dead suburbia with this silent frozen lake.

August 2016

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