Wally Swist – Seven Poems

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Wally Swist’s books include Huang Po and the Dimensions of Love (Southern Illinois University Press, 2012); The Daodejing: An Interpretation, with David Breeden and Steven Schroeder (Lamar University Press, 2015); and Invocation (Lamar University Press, 2015). Some of his new poems appear in Commonweal and North American Review. Garrison Keillor recently read one his poems on the daily radio program The Writer’s Almanac.


A Holiday Menu: Respite and Cheer

French apple pie and Morello cherries in yogurt,
with perked coffee offer an auspicious

beginning to Christmas Day. Lunch is elegant:
one half of a melted brie and bacon sandwich

on multigrain (saving the other half for later);
Kalamata olives, a small bowl of steaming

turkey gumbo, with a glass of Montepulciano—
and for dinner, a plate of herb-roasted turkey;

shallot pan gravy; a serving of that benevolent
root vegetable, squash; the sturdy and earthy

prince of the field, turnip; and crowned with
the prize of the holiday season, pearl onions

in cream sauce; with a glass of Bordeaux,
(2009 and 2010) were fine years for pressing

grapes into the heady and delicious taste of this
fine French red—heavenly fare for a princess or

a poet, a porter or a private detective, such as
Hercule Poirot, whose Christmas is made

perfect with a kilo of Belgian chocolates, a
good book, and a host of carols on the radio.


Lunch Poem

in memory of Frank O’Hara

NPR reports this morning that Putin strong-arms
his political minions at their weekly meetings
and that Russians admire the ethos of gangster

culture, and I have returned from Whole Foods,
with some specialties on the gift card I was
given for Christmas. I think about the young

black men shot in Ferguson and Berkeley,
Missouri—separate incidents, although what
does the rest of the world take from carnage

such as this? Is America viewed as a nation
that openly shoots their blacks and Latinos
in the streets, and what of Citizen United’s

plutocratic and insidious subtext slipping
through their messages that loudly endorse
such neo-fascist antics? My thoughts breaking

through these clouds as does the sun this
overly-warm day after Christmas, just another
example of climate change, as I make lunch:

multigrain baguette with sautéed sweet onions
(thank you, Pablo Neruda), spread with
goat cheese au herb de Provence on one side

and brie on the other, with a touch of grey
Poupon, and a side of Kalamatas, and leftover
fries refried in olive oil; finished off with

one of the chocolate Biscotti a friend of mine
made a gift of for the holiday. What to guess of
things to come, Frank, these last days before

New Year, with my long drought between
freelance writing jobs, and the world veritably
aflame from cut-throat ISIS-held Iraq to

the elderly British woman beheaded as she
lovingly worked her spade in her garden,
then what of the Taliban murdering school

children after telling them to say their prayers
and setting their teachers on fire. What have
we come to, Frank, inhabitants of a global

village standing on the proverbial precipice,
the brink of void, the very edge of the undertow—
as I wrap the other half of my sandwich,

so I can rationalize spending the money
on the salmon and lentils I will make for dinner,
taking delight in the sunshine on this last

Friday of December, savoring
the memory of having read your
Lunch Poems when I was a young man,

and walking to Whitlock’s
Typewriter Shop on my lunch break
from Book World, in New Haven, where

I was a clerk, to take a chair
at the Remington on the table
in the front window, to type a poem of my

own, students changing classes in throngs,
the click of those keys now heard by
me decades later, grateful to have lunched

with you and your poems, fully aware
about why lunch of simple baguette and
goat cheese is nothing less than recherché.


Atavistic

I remember, as a young man,
just 19, driving cross-country

a la Neil and Jack, and after traversing
the rolling plains of eastern Colorado,

coming to a rise, and upon cresting
that rise were the sprawling lights

and the geometric grid of Denver.
It was so shocking after my following

the darkness of the macadam and driving
all night that I needed to pull off the road

and to just breathe it all in.  It was a lot
for a kid who wasn’t quite prepared for

the world but who was eager to go head
to head with its largesse and its sublimity.


Shrapnel

I know you referred to me as Walter last night
in a jocular fashion.  Although I will share

with you that my legal name has nothing but
horrors associated with it.  After my mother

died, when I was 8, my father remarried, and
the marriage was a concatenation of one evil act

after another. People who have moved into that
house we lived in have long reported of strange

psychic occurrences: globes spinning by themselves,
the poking of unseen prongs beneath mattresses,

an intermittent mournful keening. My stepmother,
an alcoholic, would either lock me in the basement,

or out of the house itself, for reasons as ludicrous
as playing basketball in the rain, or my having

run track after school (I would sleep on a chum’s
darkroom bench during the week).  My stepmother

who refused to call me Wally, only referred to me
as Walter, with a malevolent intonation, a perverse

Bette Davis bitchiness. My hearing the name Walter
carries an amount of PTSD with it.  When you referred

to me as Walter last night, it was only on the second
occasion of your using the name did I respond,

in some shock. For me, the name Walter explodes like
a bomb and fills the air with psychological shrapnel.


The Mourning Dove

The women are impossible, if not heartless.
Whatever they are seeking that they might find

in you, and do, they then either seek something
else or find fault with what they have found.

The woman telling the man that the poem
he wrote for her only took a portion of a single

night and the man indicating that it actually
took the years of work preceding the moment

he began to write it is only a proof of the theorem.
But it is not in the feeling of loss, or of what

might have been, or might be, but in the going
forward with such disappointment that we may

experience any growth in our lives. To lay claim
to what it is in ourselves that broadens us into

compassion for another and for ourselves, with
a finality that allows us to begin again to take up

the weight of our lives, is what enables us to
transform who we are, in the brevity of a single

alchemical moment—to watch the mourning dove
peck for windblown seeds and flecks of grain

among the crushed black stones of the driveway
and for the entire world to coalesce into

the mysterium tremendum of understanding
is worth all the years of sorrow that preceded it.


Malediction

Most people: a grim excuse
for the divine spark

they all carry within them,
beginning with John Boehner

and his trenchant rhetoric,
which influences bullies

in the schoolyard every time
he opens his scurrilous mouth.


The Poison Well

To see you in passing the doorway
to the adjoining room,

head down, your hair falling past
your shoulders to the middle

of your back, onto the madras print
dress you were wearing, as still

as a character in a frieze, having
listened to the entire conversation

I was having, and for you
to not even look up to acknowledge

me as I walked by, was in keeping
with your deceitful behavior over

so many years, with your malicious
intent, despite your proselytizing

your path and practice of higher
consciousness. Clearly you chose

to neither meet my eyes nor to
welcome my presence, abandoning

the opportunity of opening to any
amount of delight, since there was

only acrimony apparent, only your
acidic nature. Your use of what is

spiritual is in twisting it to your own
cross-purposes, so that the power

you think you have over others
is actually you exhibiting the lack

of control over yourself, your own
acerbic actions in the world, which

are really a cry for help. However,
as you told me once, you were fine

just as you were, your statement
dripping with dualism, since always

your claim was to achieve liberation
and to become fully conscious.

To see you standing there, without
movement, not wanting me to have

noticed you were listening to every
word I spoke, is much like passing

standing water in an open field
long after the rains, knowing it to be

a source of a spring, or a well,
and when I look into it from its very

edge, careful not to reflect my own
face, I see yours there, rippling

in all of its darkness, infused
with the poison of your malintent,

with you embodying its entire
recesses, knowing that you chose

to contaminate the water of the well,
and my being aware that it was

not only unsafe to the touch but also
calamitous to drink.

 

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