Sympathy For Robert Johnson

Yes, I wish I could say that

I met Satan ad a crossroads

just outside of town, that

in exchange for my soul, et cetera…

As for Robert Johnson

—the man himself—

I’d wager that the woman

leaving with his luggage on that train,

leaving with his love in vain,

she’d have more to do with his pain

than Satan ever did.

Lips drool while the beating chest

falters, falls somewhere in between

lust and dread and

loyalty and despair and

love and withdraw…

Drugs, hard liquor, Internet pornography—

Satan with his poetry

is but one of many ways

to soothe an aching heart,

to recover wasted ecstasy,

or to finally trace the horizon

of death.

Decades’ Serenade

Imagine my grandmother dancing…

Alice Chambers, daughter of a mother tough and so severe,

my grandmother, my mother’s mother,

born 1917—her 25 would be 1942; also imagine

“A. J. Sylvester”, the name my mom only vaguely recounts to me.

Imagine “Moonlight Serenade” straining through a vacuum tube radio…

Somehow, I think of him as Sylvester,

maybe Mr. Sylvester: I’ve never seen him;

I’ve seen his handwriting.

He died in Pearl Harbor; the Navy named a ship after him.

Imagine the swell and sway of the clarinets as he held her…

After she married—Garnel Poppleton, a nice boy from church—

Sylvester kept writing, but that mother of hers so severe

hid every letter until after he was dead,

and it was too late, and that broke Alice apart.


Imagine the white on a mountain, framed by a kitchen window…

I remember her from her garden’s raspberries:

frozen, fresh and crisp; I remember the bite

of sweet and ice (she’d often pour milk over);

Alice Poppleton, my co-conspirator to decadence.

Imagine my grandmother folding laundry alone in the kitchen, in

front of the fridge with only a radio playing…

I remember her from her letters;

she’d always tuck a dollar bill stiff from the bank,

and I didn’t mind when mom made me write back

because that meant yet another letter would come.

Imagine my grandmother’s face, deadpan, calling out for me as

Brian David Thedell Luke Skywalker throughout my fifth Summer…

I remember her—in the house down from the mountain

with her own private garden of berries

as she smouldered through life with that

nice boy from church, the radio, and

the pile of letters in the back of the guest closet.


Imagine hands, soft with Rose Milk lotion and a lifetime of work,

finally at rest on a quilt…

I can’t help but feel a kinship with Sylvester,

and I wonder what I’d call myself today

if a certain Japanese pilot had failed his mission,

had left someone alive to write back to.

Imagine “Moonlight Serenade” remastered on CD, ringing through the nursing home bedroom…

By 2001 I was 25; I called her sometimes, in spite

of all the awkward, confused pauses, the mumbling of aging.

Then I learned that the nurses read my emails aloud

for her; it hurt me less to write than to talk.

Imagine my grandmother, dancing across all those decades…

I didn’t visit my grandmother’s death bed;

I’d grown unforgiving at her for her daughter so severe.

Now, as I sit with my regret, I wonder if hers tasted as frozen and crisp

that day she changed from Alice Chambers to Alice Poppleton.

Hello There

(for Zach)

My room orders despite its mess, it confines

these walls, these walls;

I’ve had the song on repeat all day,

I think the neighbors are sick of you

(I know my best-friend was, until—)

I’ve read so many poems

celebrating photographs and records;

But you know what? It’s okay, though:

a cellphone snapshot and your favorite mp3

off a pirate Russian website

fit you perfectly: digital phantoms,

a script of pulses like a heartbeat

that drums out from my fissured chest.

And I don’t even have that receipt

from when we went to lunch;

I’ve kept you in the breast pocket

of that coat that’s too heavy to wear,

and it’s okay, though,

I’ll mix vodka into sherbet and

I’ll wash it down with Sprite:

a more adult incarnation

of a picnic elixir; Summertime, and I remember

being twenty, and you might as well have been Dan

from back when I was the one too young to understand love’s end.

You suggested a road trip to Los Angeles

a heavy dose of freeway spaces and

we could find our own rhythm

along the sun-bleached guardrails,

the heavy green signs

that sag along the roadside.

You’ve been stuck in reverse so long

I guess you’re used to driving like that;

it’s okay, though;

then you squeezed the trigger,

and hit your mark,

and me already bleeding,

red drips from my hands and all I do is

sigh instead of scream.

It’s only because I’m so numb;

I wish you were here to kiss

my sunburned back, red from

being out all day in California sun…

I think I’ll finally pick up my room

and take a road trip in that coat, too

thick for any but your mountain regions;

I’ll leave at midnight with a CD that

plays just one track and sometime

before dawn

I’ll find you.

Chrome Histories

(for Zach)

I had a friend who had

a 1956 Bel Air—frame chunky, smooth;

I still feel from its soft head lamps

a hypnotic daze that suggests

every mile, every driveway

it saw since it began

twenty years before I was born…

Didn’t you tell me, once, you wanted

an El Camino: half truck, half car,

your world again swollen with indecision?

But I was always happy to just sit

and listen to you decide—

that story of yourself you wove

out of the cloth of American rust:

the specter of a glory before us both,

as you felt stranded, I guess,

on the island of twenty-one…

And look, I know, I know

how hard it is to be someone,

to find the foothold on thoughts

that you can actually call home,

that grew up beside you and

saw the same television,

roamed the same playgrounds—

thoughts that burn like the little candles

that you found in your mother’s cupboard

that lasted through the rainy November afternoon…



Candle or car exhaust, it cakes

my hands, burns my eyes—

our days and days chatting online, and

what I’ve left to show for it

is a mouthful of ash

and a muddy old junk yard

with your name on the sign…

Today you look handsome in your El Camino,

but remember, no matter what history you purchase,

we have no choice down which roads time will lead us.

Though, whatever our destiny, I am happy

to tell myself the story of you:

your soft eyes beaming,

your flat chest, chunky and smooth…

Eat Pussy

EAT PUSSY blared the bumper of the car next to me;

someone had taped out the message in block letters,

then spray-painted the bumper, then removed the tape, to reveal EAT PUSSY;

at first I was annoyed,

I bristled at the banner on the bumper, but then

I caught myself, realized myself, and

realized a fundamental truth about men.

At this point in history the mighty Western penis

has become so perfunctory as to almost be cliche;

I’ve nothing against penetration (believe me)

but it takes real skill to communicate

with just a tongue and quivering lips,

and the difference between a man doing oral

and a woman doing oral

is the pure abstraction of manhood

(tasting great, filling less).

EAT PUSSY, then,

on a sun-bleached Honda Civic bumper

is a radical act of straight male reclamation:

a mini-pride parade with every trip to the gas station,

the video game store, or yes

with every date…