Monthly Archives: September 2009

Yesterday, when you called me from where
They wring your body in rehabilitation,
And cried like static into the phone,
I wanted to say, this is not you anymore,

Forget your life as it is, let the receiver
Fall away as I do, summer, sandalled women
Along endless asphalt, black turf, glory again
Years ago, enough for both of us. Remember

How you used to swear there was nothing
Close, nothing that would ever shut you down,
Your `71 `Cuda, with its bored and blown
426 Hemi? Well, I believed you, racing

Alone all night in my bunk while our parents
Snored or tried to make another brother
Through the wafer-board walls. Rather
Than sleep I would listen for the chance

Screech and roar at an intersection
Rising somewhere from the gold sphere
Of mist that uptown became at night, sure
That it was you, and pretend I rode shotgun

Through that traffic of shadows, defending
Every stop light and woman on the boulevard
From the hated college boys whose lacquered
Foreign two-seaters were left finding

Second gear. Older, I cruised with you
And your girlfriends, smelled their beer
As perfume, watched you make them wet right there
On the leather seat; and I’m sorry now

I lied about my own nights, still a virgin
At sixteen when I followed you into
The mill. You said if there was any true
Likeness to the innards of an engine

In this world it was that place: metal dust
Searing as ash, arrow showers of sparks, booms
That swung and plunged while fires loomed
In vats; all day the roar ground us, a blast

Of steam down our throats, the world red hot,
Water cooled, sweat oiled. I know we’re both
Big, and you were bigger, with a bad mouth
And a good right, but when that plate hit

Your back, I knew you’d never walk again.
In the facility that you lived to loathe,
Where the spoon quivered each day to the mouth,
They claimed your hands might come back and then

Maybe your sex. Your wife wants children,
And you can’t stand to think she’ll bear
Only you, alive but miscarried somewhere
Inside yourself, the way that car you can

Never drive, sits eaten by rain out back
With half a tank of gas, and lets the weeds
Embrace it with slow ruin. Go on, you said,
Take it, and finally I did, for your sake,

But I won’t drive it. I still punch a clock
For the men born in white shirts and paisley
Ties, whose parted hair flutters in the AC
Of their offices. Their armpits used to reek

With real sweat under the exertion of facing me
While I helped all those adjusters and lawyers
Right the wrong, so you could lie for years
Totally snowed with Darvon. Sometimes I see

Their wives turn as I pass, to second the praise
Of my snug work clothes, the smell of Paris rising
From their breasts, because now that you’re nothing
I’m the one they take raw and finish with their eyes.

All their laughing smiles remind me of a night
When I raced beside you, loving the whiff
Of high octane that seemed to never wear off
Your skin. We waited by the black iron gates

Of the University, the supercharger you bolted on,
Simmering, until an Austin-Healey nosed the line
At the light. The driver flicked his thumb down
While his blonde shook her head and laughed. On green

You let him have a length, and then all
At once, so smoothly, so evenly, your foot
Bore down the throttle like a man who puts
His root inside a woman because they will

Never have anything else, your Firestones
Scorching in every gear, your hand tossing
The shifter as the drive train whooped in passing,
The sidepipes emptying like 12 gauge shotguns.

Shuddering with sheer torque, you sucked the chase
Right out of them. But pulling up at the light,
They were still laughing. They just sat
And loved it because they didn’t care, because

They didn’t give a goddamn what a true-
Run, boost-snorting, big block motor could do.

                                                             —David Moolten


As you may have heard, Jose M. Hernandez, an astronaut on the recent Discovery space shuttle mission began his life as a migrant worker–a child laborer who traveled to the U.S. from Mexico to pick fruit and vegetables in California. I’ve combined the spoken words from a poem I just wrote in response to that news with animation to make a short film.

After fourteen years of downsized widowhood,
An efficiency’s garden view, and if he bent
To the kitchen’s greasy window, smokestacks
Over trees and then the light-struck river,
Which from this distance never appeared
To move, the current small creases like worn flesh,
He thought it would only take a little air
On the street, a change of scenery
To fix the ache, his good left arm discreet,
A silent counselor at his shoulder
With a determined pinch, a signal
For which he strangely lacked the strength to respond
That he understood. So he sought to predict
And thus accommodate its return
As with the neighbor he’d never met
Beyond a curt how are you, her perfect
Disapproving face, on which he’d focused
So she wouldn’t think he’d dare eye any
Other part of her, now floating over his
As she loosened his shirt. If only he’d considered
Earlier lying on concrete. The cars brushing past
Slowed on reflex as if their wheels had sunk
Into dirt, all traffic could do in homage
Like the anonymous though pleasant dusk,
The peering passengers close enough to touch
While right there a crowd bloomed around him
As in the park or a sermon, waiting
For someone to hug the accordion
Or make lesions vanish from a leper’s back,
Show them what came next. As for his flawed heart,
The attack was final, defied nitroglycerin
Then the paramedic’s brusque cajoling
But was itself a tonic for everything else.

                                                            —David Moolten

When someone at a foo-foo reception
Cuts open my first durian, Far East paradise
Fruit, I nearly refuse. I catch a whiff
Of brimstone, soiled socks, warehouse #2
At Olin Chemical. I smell a girl I didn’t meet
In Saigon, but a bar in Lynn, her accent
All Boston, Irish with a trace of German,
Exotic because she was just a stock clerk
With a foul mouth and no future, someone far
Beneath me, summer fun, friends preached
Hopeful and prophetic. I made less working security
For the makers of fertilizer. But each tour
Of the premises at 2 AM, each eerie stride
Past the fresh vats of powder that clung
To my shined jump boots was college cash, a step
On the way up. Maybe she was too
Though the prophets claim odor never lies,
That of the five senses only smell escaped
The garden uncorrupted, that it is the one sense
Enjoyed by the soul. Here I am with fruit
Thick skinned, spiny but sweet as sherbet,
Its stench so potent there are no flings,
No wild sowing ever that doesn’t endure
On that lower cruder level of the brain
The oldest sense calls home. Maybe brimstone
Is the fragrance of hell and of heaven too.
I spent nights with this girl darker and deeper
Than scrub woods around the plant’s “keep out” signs,
Brick buildings and fusty industrial ambitions.
Maybe I was infiltrated. Maybe I was compromised
In ways I couldn’t begin to imagine, shrugging
Off her calls after the breakup, the phones
Echoing in each cavernous room as I paced
My rounds. Maybe hell had shifts and clocks with keys
You turned that made marks in a roll of paper
So they’d know where and when. Maybe guilt,
Which the Sanhedrin claimed the messiah would sniff out
With the awe of God, made my sinking hat brim,
My seven bucks an hour, feel almost deserved.
Sometimes I’d cheat, set my own cheap alarm
To jolt me out of my chair from a dead doze
So I could somnambulate among the loading bays.
Once in a dream I saw something move
In the trees, surged out from my shack to find
This girl offering me my forgotten lunch pail
Over the fence. When I woke I was alone
Once more, famished, haunting the infernal corridors.
Even now as I bite into my durian I’m watching
Her walk away through the links. I’m unarmed
And wear no uniform, no chintzy badge,
Though I write this down almost as duty,
Knowing at last what I’m here to defend.

                                                             —David Moolten

Unlike much of America, Philadelphia still hasn’t gone back to school. No early soccer practice.  No head-start on the daunting junior-high curriculum. We honor the quaint tradition of waiting until after Labor Day.  So my daughters have wrung one last week out of summer.  Nevertheless it’s a somber time, the air full of premature briskness and their ennui, which resembles my own come Sunday afternoon, when I anticipate and then steel myself against the spiritual and mundane demands of gainful employment.
For me, although I haven’t sat in a classroom for ages, it’s a bittersweet time as well.  The year’s ratchet has engaged another notch with a noticeable click, and a sigh.  The girls will soon climb the steps to yet another plane of cognitive awareness.  For me, understanding comes in a less quantum fashion, more a vague diffusion of the obvious like light through the lids of closed eyes.  Fact: they’re one year older. Fact: I’m one year closer to sending them out into the world for good.  Yes, back to school, as in blank slate, fresh start, but also as in goodbye Mr. Chips, hello nostalgic acceptance that my hands must resist the urge forever to take theirs when we come to 7th street.
Maybe that throat lump is another reason to love writing, perhaps one of the best.  Every time I pick up a pencil and an old-fashioned notepad, or rev up the old PC, it’s like tiny chairs and melamine desks.  There’s a classroom in every dictionary look-see, every search-engine foray into the obscure but mesmerizing story of Topeka circa 1840 or Picasso’s second wife, or the etymology of “rodomontade.” Every day brings the eureka of unraveling just how a particular array of strange-but-true details will feed a ravenous piece of prose or give me the edge I need for a poem that’s had me in a hammer-lock since last night like the angel held Jacob.  There’s no farewell in writing.  Unlike fourth grade or fine arts or manufacturing, nothing’s ever done, or really gone.  But there’s still room, always room for what’s new.  Even the driest textbooks bear this out, their titles so often a throat-clearing “Introduction to…”  Who ever read “The Conclusion to Organic Chemistry,” “The Conclusion to Homer’s Prosody?”  To write is to learn, eternally.
So with devious hopes, I rousted my daughters from their gloomy loitering on the couch with “nowhere to go” and “nothing to do.”  I told them I’d created a blog for each of them.  Then I congratulated myself when, in spite of my many previous misadventures in pedagogy, they didn’t summarily reject my offer.  In fact, they appeared intrigued.  And after the requisite mouse-shopping for themes and colors, and considering where to place the widgets and how big to make them, and which photographs, and would embedded video be o.k., they pecked out their first posts.  A sense of wonder and a dash of humility as accompaniment: that’s all it takes, and you need never graduate, at least not in your heart. You can learn to write instead!  It’s only Thursday, and they don’t know it yet, but they’ve already gone back to school.

Marveling bystanders applaud his burning
Star, its vertices eight wheeling torches,
A brass hoop he faces the sky to hold
Up with his clenched chin, an adversary
Of gravity, the odds, and just plain sense.
Bare-chested, he boasts a statue’s torso,
The festive skirt of an Aztec sun worshipper.
These tourists of his torrid zone have come
Far south, grope for coins and context, the cosmogony
Of their own experience, mimes unicycling in a park,
A subway cellist sawing off debts, her velvet
Case starry with quarters. The crowd believes him
Here just for show, quaint diversion, a little fun
And profit from useless talent. They’re ravenous
For spectacle, sacrifice to the primitive gods
Of pride and failure, can’t see the hours
Of practice that make the trick possible,
His whole life an act of trembling balance,
Of sweaty breathing and keeping the tender
Jaw rigid. There’s nothing so solitary,
Though his young wife would have assisted,
Selling penny candy from a bag instead
Of sleeping in their dim niche of an apartment.
But she’s ponderous, about to hatch
A little more risk. He’s juggling children
Already and they sear him whenever he gets
Near them, even in his thoughts. The words
He uses flare about him, how this is much
Better than Sinola with its fields, its shootouts,
Though she prays for curtains, a working stove.
He’s like Nanahuatzin the sacred and willing
Legend who leapt into the inferno
And became brilliance in the final age.
He doesn’t want sympathy, just the living green
Ash of Yankee dollars, and he’s tried everything,
Burnishing windshields at stoplights with spit
And paper, guiding drivers parking cars into
A minute of his world. But there’s no playing
With fire, the real draw, or so he wants
Them to think, purveyor of the perfect
Stunt or just another shoddy miracle.