Monday, July 6, 2020

Attacking Panic

As he burned he never moved a muscle, never uttered a sound, his outward composure in sharp contrast to the wailing people around him.

David Halberstam

No news picture in history has generated so much emotion around the world as that one.

John F. Kennedy

About a mile from home on my walk this morning

I had to pee so bad I panicked.

When I got back to my apartment I panicked

with an irrational need to eat the cheese Danish.

Right now, sitting here with my laptop, I’m panicking

trying to think of the next line in this poem,

and fighting a panicky urge to turn my head to see

in the lot outside my window who’s slamming car doors.

Oops, now my sense of urgency is torn between focusing

on the assassin beetle sneaking across a pane of the window

to my front and the tendril of ivy waving at me behind it

from the edge of the building across the parking lot.

At least I’ve abated my panic about the “next line of this poem”

but now there’s the next. Does it ever end? Do I want it to?

Is this the “ or not...” crux of my “busy being born”

  v. “busy dying” dilemma?

I know of one whose answer spans the void between conceit

and moral dominion, yes, goading me forever hold my pee.



Saturday, July 4, 2020

Laughter of Crows

At first I thought they were laughing at me,

their "ha ha"s beginning when I dressed

for my morning walks,

laughing while they pooped

from the cypress limbs that reach out

over the hood of my Ford Ranger pickup

parked by my door on the busy street.

I’d shoo them to a neighboring pecan tree,

clapping loudly in hopes they’d think it gunfire.

They played along

pretending to be frightened, yet

loyal to their primary privy

laughing all the while.

In time they disabused me

of my egocentric conceit

allowing me entree to a deeper insight:

they were laughing at the irony

of their ancestry, reminding them with

ghostly internal combustion roars

it’s not the size of the dog in the fight...


Thursday, June 25, 2020

Pretty to Think So

They never had a chance to talk before the raid. The cops came through the front door, and those who were quick enough got out the back and scattered into the night. She was one of the lucky ones, or so some might consider. She didn't. She'd searched in the dark for him, hoping somehow the glow would reveal him, the glow she'd felt that single time their eyes had met, an intimate glow that promised everything she'd ever imagined wanting in life.
She never really gave up the search. He must have been among those arrested. She'd never gotten his name, never saw him again.
And now, in her hospital bed, awaiting test results she'd been dreading for months, she strains to justify a lifetime of ambiguous satisfactions, the series of jobs, the someone else, family...a heart never quite able to give up a certain yearning,
A doctor studies an x-ray print at the foot of her bed, his hesitant poise casting a grim shadow over the room. The shadow melts into a nearly forgotten glow when he looks up.

Sunday, June 14, 2020

SUPER BLOOD WOLF MOON poems– Gary V. Powell

I wish Super Blood Wolf Moon had been available several years ago when I was substituting for the regular teacher in a high school honors literature class. I didn’t have to teach, just sit at the teacher’s desk and stay awake. The students sat at their desks staring at worksheets. At first I thought their stares were fueled with pure scholastic intent. But soon enough, when I saw no one was doing anything besides staring, I realized they were in a trance, unable to move or talk or look at each other. Or write. Soon enough I learned Wallace Stevens was to blame.

Not that Stevens’s famous poem Peter Quince at the Clavier had enchanted these students, or that they had all gotten stoned on some damned good shit before class — well, they might have, that last, but only to enable them to stare at a worksheet expecting them to answer technical questions about the sort of things that might interest a college seminar dealing with poetry the way someone unable to tell a joke to save his life could tell you precisely what makes it funny. The self-discipline of my honor students was exemplary in keeping them awake and apparently devoted to understanding Peter Quince at the Clavier instead of rioting or crashing, ballpoints clattering to the floor and heads banging against desktops, in snoring slumber.
None of this would have happened had the poem they were facing on their worksheet been On Learning of the Death of an Old Girlfriend on Facebook before Finishing Your First Cup of Coffee.
Perhaps the teacher would have risked being fired or at least brought before a committee of parents-with-lawyers for assigning this lead poem in Gary V. Powell’s Wolf Moon collection. And yet if more high school classes taught appreciation of poetry rather than how to dissect a poem, maybe poets, the most seductive of all word wranglers, would be able to reach more readers who fear poetry is something they have to “get” rather than merely enjoy. I cannot think of anyone, of any age or proclivity, who would not “get” On Learning of the Death of an Old Girlfriend on Facebook before Finishing Your First Cup of Coffee from its title alone -- even without the first stanza:

When your old girlfriends
begin to die like
dogs you’ve buried over
the years,

There are fourteen more stanzas in Old Girlfriend. I laughed out loud, alone in my apartment, each time I read On Learning of the Death of an Old Girlfriend on Facebook before Finishing Your First Cup of Coffee, and the laughter has continued long afterward, sporadically, dieseling like an old gasoline engine that doesn’t want to stop, kicking up now and again mysteriously, and occasionally in delicate social proximities. Want another one? Stanza? I don’t see why not:

When your old girlfriends
begin to die like
rushing rivulets of rain
disappearing down a sewage drain.

I don’t mean to give the impression with this selection that Powell’s poems are intended to be read only at stag parties, although it seems clear such would be a welcome venue for them. True, the evidence might point to a for-bubbas-only supposition, especially weighing in consideration the title of one of Powell’s three celebrated collections of short fiction: Lucky Bastard (for those of you who have yet to celebrate them personally the links here and directly above are to my reviews of the three: Getting Even and Beyond Redemption).
While it is true Powell’s poetic outlook is that of a man, a man with a man’s lifelines and hard-learned sense of humor, it’s also true he is a poet, and any poet worth his iambic pentameters can appreciate the feminine sensibility. Take for example, How to Make a Gardens opening stanza:

Clear a space, a space in the sun,
of trees and bushes, vines and thorn,
as you might carve your torpid heart from
your chest and lift it into the light, so that the
hard-earned scars may heal, and it beats wild again


Till the space by hand, or with a power tiller,
if you’re able to bear the noise, turning the soil,
as you might cultivate your fallow mind to converse
with mountains, trees, and valleys, with fish of the sea,
birds of the sky, beasts of the land, and worms of the

Please do not mistake my offering How to Make a Garden as strictly a feminine poem. Neither Powell nor I are so simple. But prospective buyers of this chapbook might suspect gender exclusivity with titles like The Night the Condom Broke or When Wifey’s Away, the latter beginning with this couplet: I practice saying “I love you,”/so I won’t forget the words
Ultimately, I would suggest, if you have a sense of humor regardless of gender – birth or choice -- you will find a lot to like in Super Blood Wolf Moon. Why, gasp of gasps, it might even set you to howling once the day slides away making room for creatures of the nighttime sky.
Former Texas Poet Laureate Carol Coffee Reposa offers this about the collection, “I think it was Ethel Merman who said that we grow up the first time we have a good laugh — at ourselves. Most of all, these poems strike me as the work of a person who is absolutely committed to writing good poetry, and I feel honored to have had the opportunity to read his work.”
Back in my classroom, as I said up top, Super Blood Wolf Moon, had it been available back then, might have enabled me to do some actual teaching, i.e. turn these serious honor students onto what poetry is all about, that is, something deeply felt by the poet expressed in a way to arouse deep feelings in the reader -- and to hell with what that means or why.
Gadzooks...I almost forgot to mention Super Blood Wolf Moon won the 2020 Contemporary Poetry Chapbook Prize! Click the hyperlinked title at the top to pre-order your copy so you can celebrate these poems personally, in daylight or under a leering midnight moon…

Thursday, June 4, 2020

Seventh Day

Take me home, said General James Mattoon Scott,
ending the only movie the son saw tears
in the father’s eyes,
glistening in the incandescent light, tears
the father neither hid nor acknowledged.
Powerful, the father said, and the son agreed.

The father had always seemed remote
from the son and from himself. Feelings,
he would imply now and again –
never using the word – showed weakness.
The mind had to be strong to control them.
Comfort, he’d convey – never verbatim –
was dangerous indulgence, weakened the mind.

They last spoke, briefly, at a great distance,
father not recognizing son’s voice or name
yet the lawyer in him, polite, pretending he did.
He needed a favor, he said gently from the nursing home
he thought was a doctor’s office: Come get me.
Take me home.
                                                                                                     m.d. paust

Wednesday, May 27, 2020


I'm sharing a den with Lily and Hope
but I'm the only one still hibernating.

Lily and her cub are outside at the moment,
getting some fresh air.

Emerald sunlight bathes them from
the leafy cover, drawing highlights of grey
from the shag of their midnight winter coats,
and dripping golden pools across the forest floor.

On all fours, alert—Lily holds her nose astutely
north, her mini-me beside her faces rear. I feel far
from harm seeing their calm vigilance, safe
in our den from all intrusion, real and imagined.

The real’s been several months now, while my bears
have been with me several years, gracing the Navajo
blanket I hang from nails over my windowed door to
fend off solar glare and bolster my illusion of privacy--

An illusion so vital it rarely granted hopes of social
surprise, yet misses that luxury at the moment.

                                                                                                              m.d. paust

Sunday, May 24, 2020

Sleep State

I dreamt of Scrooge last night, for the first time,
it seemed, and with nothing of the drama one would expect
of such a visit--no Marley or journeys in time, no
scalding jabs of damning implication.

This was the Christmas giving Scrooge,
reveling in tenderness and bonhomie, the new Scrooge,
born again, gnarly faced lips curved in smiling peace, happy
being alive, rid of miserly contraction, free.

Free of obligation, free of strings attached to expectation—
from anywhere, cosmic, imagined, terrestrial! Free of
judgment and consequences and worry and debt, free

at last of the gibbering, howling madness the interminable
traffic outside his apartment door incites--
the assaulting din of myriad conveyances sparking
ancient fossil detritus to rage muffleless or snarl
turbo’d farts of dinosaur bequest.

Within the mute enigma of merging sleep scenarios
where insights meld and part in frail coherence, I felt his
serenity, unwavering throughout, and knew implicitly
his silent language,
understanding it was mine as well.

I awoke to morning light, feeling fresh with desire
to make notes, capture on my laptop screen whatever
remnants of my sleep’s enlightenment had yet not
succumbed to wakened demands.

Then I remembered the rent was due, and before putting
the coffee water on I fetched my checkbook and pen...

                                                                                                                           m.d. paust

Wednesday, May 20, 2020

Tear sans Tears

Removed a mattress tag today! True
the thing was done and on its way
to the Dumpster site and

solemn vows now long elapsed and
the act impelled, aforethought nil,
yet fondling the severed tag

with an outlaw's awe for the diamond grabbed
in a high-rent heist, trembling
as an addict might with dire drift
the kick can never be the same,

I know I mustn't sin again no
Facebook heart when no heart's felt no
coloring rush outside the lines—oh

wistful me with stoic face,
love's sparkle hid in lost embrace.
                                                              m.d. paust


Saturday, May 9, 2020

Quarantine Notion (With a nod to Jonathan Edwards)

Perhaps our language is too mild, too
reasonable to get the message across
that these are apocalyptic times for many, and
for all we know, for all.

Jokes abound--six feet wide or six feet down,
cover faces, wash hands, wash hands, stick to open spaces
wash hands...Economy? Forget it, stupid. How?
More than comfort’s at stake here. Life. Whose?

Dissension reigns, facts—fake, real? Science? Constitution?
Experts, each of us, each his own. Does language fail us?
Hyperbole too bold? Were we to hear we hang by a slender thread,
with the flames...flashing about it, and ready every moment
to singe it and burn it asunder, would we then believe?

                                                                                                                                           m.d. paust

Thursday, May 7, 2020

Berlin Terror

Checkpoint Charlie could be the name of a party bar. If there are any, they're surely named after the original, which could be considered a "bar" only in the far grimmer sense of Tennyson's "Crossing the Bar," which in the Berlin context meant an act of final transition made by those unfortunates who were shot dead as they tried to flee the eastern, Soviet-controlled, sector to the western side and freedom.

An unlikely name for a killing ground. Charlie. A most casual name, suggestive of carefree fun: there're your good time Charlies, your Charlie McCarthys, your Charlie Browns. It exceeds in diminutiveness even the technically more diminutive of the diminutives for "Charles," that being "Chuck," which sounds almost too inside baseball for someone outside the game. Nope, "Charlie" is the one for every occasion, except maybe being gunned down trying to dash or sneak across the football-field-length of pitted pavement separating the Communist guard shacks from those of the Western allies.

"Charlie," incidentally, came from the NATO phonetic alphabet for "C." In retrospect, "Checkpoint C" might have had a closer emotional connection with the high and low drama ever playing on that stretch of political stage from 1959 until 1989, when the Wall came down.

I walked across that patch of "no man's land" into what was then East Berlin in 1970. A couple of hours later I was surrounded by a rifle squad and herded into the back of a canvas-covered military truck. Watching these hard-faced young men, who looked to be in their early teens, rack back the bolts on their weapons, which I'm thinking were probably Stg-44 assault rifles inherited from the Wehrmacht of WWII, definitely got my attention.

They jumped out the back of the truck, which had rumbled up and screeched to a stop about a block or two from the Reichstag ruins, toward which I and three companions were walking. The whole scene was strange. There had been no traffic on the streets-neither vehicular nor pedestrian-throughout our stroll in the city.

The only commercial outlets I recall were a bookstore, where I bought a beautifully bound English-Russian dictionary for a fraction of what I would have paid in the West, and a drab restaurant where someone in uniform guarded the door until the four of us had given the manager every German mark, U.S. dollar and cent in our possession in order to pay the unspecified "cost" of our meal of cold cuts, cheese and fruit juice. 

The Cold War was in full chill. I had gotten out of the Army three years earlier and was bumming around Europe at the time. I was in West Berlin expecting to meet a couple of friends from home - one, a college buddy and the other a fellow I'd grown up with. Our schedules didn't jibe, however, and we never got together behind the Iron Curtain. Meanwhile, I decided to visit East Berlin on my own.

It was a cool morning, I recall, but I can't remember the month. Checkpoint Charlie was within walking distance of my hotel, which was within view of the imposing Brandenburg Gate, with its Doric columns and horse-pulled chariot atop. I spent about half an hour at Charlie, walking through the little museum that featured photos of people shot to death a few yards away as they'd tried to escape to the West. I remember a small automobile in the museum, which had an ingenious hidden compartment for smuggling escapees to the West. It didn't fool the Soviets. 

 Touring the museum, I met the three young people with whom I then crossed over to the Eastern sector for what we anticipated would be a leisurely tour of the forbidden city. My little group included two U.S. college girls, who were enjoying a "junior year abroad," studying in London, and a young British male student.

Our little jaunt halted when a military truck stopped next to us, and rifle-toting teenagers hopped out and surrounded us. The two girls with me immediately began crying when a smallish man in a gray-green uniform approached and demanded, in German, our passports. This prompted a running argument with the British lad, who spoke the host language quite well. But he gained no ground, despite sounding fairly sure of himself and nearly as authoritative as the smallish man, whose manner and uniform insignia indicated that he was the leader -- I'm guessing a non-commissioned officer, most likely a sergeant.

He ordered us into the back of the truck.

We complied, as the troops -- about six or eight of them -- motioned with their rifles the direction we should go. I had just sat down on one of the wooden planks that served as seats along each side of the truck when the leader barked out my name. For the first time during the incident I noticed a prickling along the hairs on the back of my neck.

"Herr Paust! Raus mit du!" came a shout, ordering me out of the truck. I complied. The little man then strutted around from the truck cab, where he'd been going through our passports, and handed mine back. He waved me away. The troops climbed into the back of the truck, the girls wailing by now, and the Brit still shouting and scolding in the language of his captors. The leader strutted back to the cab and the truck rumbled off.

I stood there alone on the deserted sidewalk examining my passport, which, I noticed for the first time, had "foreign service" stamped across my photo. I'd gotten it when I was stationed in Germany with the Army. Nuts, I thought, they think I'm some kind of spy, and any second now a black limo will screech up beside me and I'll be hustled off to God knows where for God knows how long.

I began walking briskly, trying to appear nonchalant, back the several blocks to Checkpoint Charlie. I reached the crossing point without seeing a single motor vehicle or pedestrian. I had the sensation of being in Kafka nightmare. OK, I figured, this is where they nab me. They were simply waiting for me to arrive.

They weren't. I made it through the gauntlet of East German and Russian border guards without incident, although one of the Russians made a small joke out of the fact that I'd grown a scruffy beard since my passport photo was shot. I reported the incident to the U.S. MPs, and waited on a bench outside the guard shack for about an hour before I saw the truck rumble up to the gate on the Soviet side and my erstwhile companions climb down and walk through the checkpoint to join me on the bench.

The girls were still crying, and the Brit was still indignant, although now he spoke English.

He said he and the girls were delivered to the "VoPo" (Volks Polizei, i.e People’s Police, no kumbaya) equivalent of a precinct station where the East German equivalent of a magistrate berated them for looking scruffy. Indeed, the youngsters had the slightly unkempt appearance associated back then with "hippies," the Brit, especially, with full beard and uncombed hair down to his shoulders. I believe he or one of the girls wore a blanket or serape-type garment. I wasn't especially kempt myself, but my hair and beard were shorter. And I had that "foreign service" stamp on my passport mugshot.

We stopped somewhere nearby for a beer. The girls' emotional expressions eventually eased back to sniffles, the Brit's indignation relaxed a tad, we promised to write and we went our separate ways.

[from my collection If the Woodsman is Late]

Saturday, May 2, 2020

Perils of Poetry in a Pandemic

Even the plethora of potential titles is dangerous--
alliteration obviously, for example,
sign of an amateur, except, of course
as an example.

Then again, all poets are amateurs,
all with day jobs
yet among the poets our elite must respect
those with hoi polloi celebration
are deigned the eyebrow arched in class distinction.

Yet it would seem if art’s true value
is sublime surprise, and a lifting of spirit
across the species, both eyebrows
should salute those who do so,
salute them with unfeigned delight.

And yet the elite and those aspiring to such height
can’t seem to resist writing mainly for one another
baring inner whimsies and contradictions
with the cleverness of mystery writers
constructing puzzles only they expect to solve.

But back to perils of pandemic poetics,
in truth no different than others--
which words, which arrangements—No--start over
keep at it until something clicks, surprises,
brings something from deep within to life.

A friend today said, “I hate Emily Dickinson,” after posting
one of her poems on his Facebook page.
“Stream of consciousness, bah,” he went on.
Frankly, I, too, had trouble with “A Light Exists in Spring”
until, with a second reading, something clicked,
surprised me, brought something from deep within to life:

"A quality of loss
Affecting our Content
As Trade had suddenly encroached
Upon a Sacrament."

And I murmured, I think
Holy shit!”
                                                                                                                                 m.d. paust