After Wyeth

Formulaic, her arms like sticks, she’s everybody’s
Though I can’t like an object when I’m not painting
Rectitude. This lady invites me
Because she could be somebody else.
I don’t really have studios. Women busy
With my work come alive. Mysterious
Places dream a lot though I find a clearing,
And dry grass isn’t romantic. Her pink dress
And turned back don’t give a damn about you
Just the small shed and tire tracks. A bad disease
Honestly picked the nagging dignity
Of this lady. Nothing foolish, glazed
With nostalgia, she’s happy in a way
A girl posed for the body. So people look
Past maybe for a young man waiting, effective
As gray skies. Realism crawls to the house
On a hill, her weakness not clear, just the want,
American, lost marrow around people’s attics
And farms, history, or my own conscience,
Life the only clue something isn’t right.

                                                          —David Moolten


“I had the impression that the old man was green;
perhaps a shadow from my heart fell upon him.”


The tender darkness grotesques him, bilious, alien,
One eye wide, the other squinting at Hebrew
Etched in a wall his tiny hand has begun
To scan. Such a natural shade must be true
To more than paint, the artist himself, breath-close
And hunched over with fascination
For the mendicant rebbe’s Russian cap, his
Patched sleeves and rays of golden beard. Vision
Has its own language beyond time or place
Though it must have felt terrible to walk around
Blessed with that verdant face and never take
Root, have anywhere. He still needs to find
The words, the right earth for his wandering,
For his buried heart to bloom from nothing.

                                                          —David Moolten

                                                      After Hopper

Brick apartments with a shade or cloned pair
Of blank curtains, the middle dark between them
Above a short row of storefronts, no perspective,
Everything near, and the empty street nearer—
Only the light that touches them appears
At all unique, sidelong and full of bias,
Intense in its calm attention to a place
No one would visit unless he lived there.
But you see no one, which forces you to be
That person who admires the lucidity
Of an ungodly hour, the world embellished
By removing distraction. It’s this the paperboy
Bicycles past, what the tired nurse or night
Watchman sees coming home, nothing abstract,
No drama beyond the understanding of light,
Which, merciless, yet just, falls upon the hydrant,
The barber pole, with as much indifference
As it might an odalisque, a wheat field. The shops
Will sleep all day with their windows black. In art
Nothing happens, maybe this hard enough,
Yet the aura of possibility hangs like a vow
That comes from within, a stubborn denial
Of a flat on view so limited and limiting
It must be mood coloring your expectations,
Not just air the same shade as marigolds.
Their absence blooms from them in the way you face
Your hands, your own body straight up, no companionship
To dilute your thoughts, the long shadowed chances.
This is life which consists of one city block,
Happy brooding, loneliness you love
Because you have plans that may finally go right
Beneath the plain old sky that isn’t poetic
Pap, religious diatribe, but clear and real and bright.

                                                          —David Moolten

Note: This new poem is a response to a prompt to “mash” together material from two other poems. I wound up “mashing” just two lines, which I altered slightly as I drafted the poem.

1. whose absence blossoms from it

2. and maybe this was already hard enough

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

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.

This is my first blog post, but I’ll begin in medias res–on the road, as it were, into new artistic terrain…

A few days ago, I uploaded my first video to Youtube, a simple slideshow movie** utilizing mostly public domain images, either as found or after I’d manipulated them.    The provocation for this was a poem of mine called ‘Cuda, slang for Barracuda, a late ’60s-early ’70s American “muscle” car.   The poem isn’t new, but it’s readily accessible, even has a pop-music-ballad-quatrain kind of feel to it.   I speak of this as a strength even as I’m dubious, or maybe better, wary of such strengths.    This is the kind of poem that the overwhelming majority of people who don’t read poetry maybe just maybe might read.   On the other hand, this  bridge of salvation between poetry’s rarified world and “pop” culture might also [in the manner of Groucho Marx, or Sigmund Freud] signify becoming a member of a very large and indiscriminate club, maybe thus cheapening the art.   Or so I mused as I browsed the incredible volume and range of video art on the internet.  

At this point, the whole enterprise was still cold water and I was the guy standing on the pier praying with my hands pointed down.   But as I listened to the mp3 recording I’d made over and over, trying to cue up the images in the sequence with the reading of the poem, I was also driving back into it, into the place I was in my life when I wrote it, and what part of a still further-back-self I had then dredged up.  Or maybe it was driving back into me.  

You see the poem is about someone with an older brother who works in a steel mill and owns a hot rod and  is thus one of the hoi polloi I have just disparaged.  Yet at the same time he’s the hero of the speaker in the poem,  a narrator who refers to his brother as you, and to himself as I.   The villains in the poem are “hated college boys” and the narrator and his worshipped sibling find themselves, as they begin their drag race, excluded by the “black iron gates of the university.”   But hold the phone, how could I, a Harvard grad and a physician, say anything honest from that perspective? 

The answer is–I don’t know, but I think I know.    Until high school, I was the stereotypical geek (sans eyeglasses), the encylopedic introvert who wouldn’t know a wrench if one hit him in the head.  Then adolescence took me for a ride.  I got myself adopted by some of the toughs and “motor heads” who thought I was “funny” in a good way.  I wore a leather jacket.  I became well versed in headers and horsepower.   Then I broke from that and from my friends, and continued along the path to and through scholastic accomplishment I’d secretly followed all along.   But I believe I always knew that such branching off has to be traumatic, that like a brother injured an accident, some part of me which was loyal and real and hard as the world had been compromised.   

The choice then had been between the gritty adolescent truth of high school swaggerers who went on to careers in gas stations and supermarkets and bars, and the fenced off intellectual green of science and medicine.   Poetry didn’t happen on the scene until later.  And this is the strange part.   Pondering my choices now, I believe poems were always a hard road back to those guys with the nicked, grease-black hands.  And this leaves me exactly nowhere now as I consider whether ‘Cuda is a little too macho, a little too coarse for its own good, wondering as always in my ignorance, what’s art and what’s not.  

It may be that vehicles like Youtube are the hope for poetry, in all its purist’s incestuous insularity.   The audience is vast, nearly boundless, and willing to be reached,  vulnerable despite their rough edges because the juxtaposition of images has freed them of their prejudices, suspended them for the dream-voice of the poet. 

It may be that it’s on the brink between schlock and song where poetry has to happen, like the Dead Man’s curve in the dark some hero who’ll never amount to anything risks with his cheap and precious life.