Who Lives Better Than We Do? (2001) has at its core two essential narrative threads, one based on the title, and another entitled “Waiting for the Light to Fade.” Below are two poems from each thread as well as two additional poems from the book.
1. “Who Lives Better Than We Do?”: Poems and journal entries that emerged following my dad’s death in 1996 and the 3 1/2 years I spent as my mom’s primary caregiver thereafter. Many of these poems have since been revised, and are included in the forthcoming And Now, Still, which includes poems that reflect on my sister Anne Marie’s death in 2009.
2. “Waiting for the Light to Fade”: Poems that emerged from the wistful remark, “I wish I had known…” spoken on a news show in the early 1990’s, and encounters with homeless Vietnam Veterans in NYC. “11:43, Saturday Night” took form first and was selected by Billy Collins for first place in the 26th Annual Greenburgh NY poetry contest. I became curious about the characters in the poem and 21 poems later, found out more about them.
1. – from “Who Lives Better Than We Do?”
She awaits eye contact before
shaking her head side to side, frozen,
still on the street after two unsteady
steps toward me. Dorothy and Estéban
look on—I take her bag, lock the chair’s
wheels, gently help her off her feet,
wave to the van windshield’s glare,
lower my center of gravity and push
her up the driveway. Inside the garage,
lock the wheels again, help her stand,
up one step to the basement and
stair lift. I climb first, wait for her at
the top, walk with her to the bedroom,
take her coat, hat, scarf, ask her what
I’m so sleepy—nauseous—
I just want to get comfortable.
She walks to the living room, sits in
the recliner, I pull the footrest up, push
back near her head, slowly, the chair
shifts, she nods okay. I drape the
afghan, she cocoons, I walk to the
freezer, chip some ice in the one-cup
Pyrex pitcher, bring it to her with a
spoon—her dialysis liquid allotment.
She thanks me, says she’s all set,
closes her eyes. I hang up her coat,
put the bag away, walk through the
living room on my way upstairs.
She seems to rest.
At the computer, I work with revision,
theme, texture and completion in poetry
and life, hear the recliner bang forward,
her slippers shuffle toward the bathroom. I
find her holding the lined plastic trashcan in
front of her—as softly as I can, rest my right
hand in the middle of her back, left hand on
her forehead. She heaves. Anything? She nods
no. Slowly settles, reclaims her breath,
I just want to go to sleep.
Back in the living room she sits up,
both feet on the floor, different
trash can ready, I kneel alongside,
she begins to sob, fights it, loses, says
I hate to talk like this, but I’ve had it—
I feel so terrible that you have to go
through this, but I wish He’d just
take me—I’m ready to go.
I envelop her in both arms, her head against my
chest, she asks if I know what day it is, I say yeah,
I do, she says she tried not to think of it,
but misses him so much and fed up
with feeling so horrible, and
I’m not trying to scare you or make you feel sad,
but I don’t want to do this anymore, I’m ready
to join Dad.
I know, I say, and hold her as sobs
settle wordlessly into spacious silence.
520A this time
she’s sitting up
legs dangling over the
side of the bed powdered
feet light years from
ruddy complexion against
as well as she has in days
says the nurses told her she’s
an LMP—a low-maintenance
what else did I want to tell
you oh yeah they got the
results of the biopsy back and it’s
then changes the subject smiling
never missing a beat
as if heart disease and renal
failure are not enough
I get up from the chair sit
next to her put my right arm around
her she tilts her head against me
shifts slightly says my arm is
too heavy on her shoulder I move it
take her left hand in both of mine
we sit in silence
I’m so lucky to have you she says
adds and we’re both lucky to have
I massage her hand gently
We kiss goodbye I
love you I love
At the door I turn and face her
bright eyes, smiling face See
I smile—raise index and
middle fingers on my right hand
intend peace, question victory
2. – from “Waiting for the Light to Fade”
Jack Daniels’ anesthesia
numbs Linda’s body into
She staggers six blocks,
in the hospital lobby.
Wakes up alone four hours
ignorant of birth or death.
A nurse enters, hands her
a five-pound stranger, who
cries as she takes him.
After ten minutes of his tears
and her silent terror, Linda
Finally quiet, then asleep,
he burdens her head and
heart, not her arms.
Jeffrey sees success
in cashmere coats,
wool suits and skirts
leather attachés that
could feed him for a year,
shoes that always seem
to walk so fast, he
smells success he
cannot name, that
brings him back to
school girls who never
spoke to him, he
cabs and limousines
cough these strangers
up each morning, swallow
them at night, he
waiting patiently for
trains in parking lots,
for the cars, suburban
homes, city brownstones,
warm window light
eager faces, he
summer and Thanksgiving
essays he wrote of
places never visited,
dinners never eaten,
people never known, he
cries imagination, lies
and life, unfocused
tears escape his eyes,
stream down his
and two bonus tracks…
Late June news at six o’clock
spills across the screen as though
the pretty handsome anchors
might not better serve some ship.
Another story of an average loving
family doing well at work and home:
happy kids excel at school and play;
of course, one is adopted.
All the once homeless men and
women return to tell their stories to a
disbelieving audience of social workers
unable to imagine humans living on the street.
Police officers question the unnecessary
weapons in their holsters, request instead
a book of daily inspiration from which to
share selections with people on the beat.
After seven overtimes the Knicks and
Celtics finally choose to donate winnings
to local charities, ending the NBA
Championship Series in a tie.
Fans from Boston and New York meet
halfway in Hartford, high-five and
embrace until the early morning hours,
ecstatic in the spirit of the game.
Five-day forecast brings a mix of showers,
clouds and sun, each of which is
celebrated in the name of change,
variety and fond memories of snow.
And this just in: it seems the Nobel Prizes
for Peace and Science have been awarded
to a team of children who have playfully proven
that we are One with the Kosmos.
In local, state, national and international
politics, there is nothing of any substance
to report, the continuing result of our loving
and caring for ourselves and each other.
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It simply is.
Poets Don’t Drive Porsches
(What a Word’s Worth)
A regular, though not a
poet, at Eleanor’s cafe,
asked if any of us owned the
Porsche with the lights on.
We laughed, then
Poets don’t drive Porsches.
We threw a couplet to his chin and
raised our ironies to his tender groin.
We reduced him to a rough draft
loudly alliterated and lambasted him
kicked his assonance
rhyme and rhyme again.
Not knowing where to draw
the line, we broke it,
dumped a hyperbole of hot
soup in his lap, enjambed
his fingers, dropped
concrete nouns on his iambic feet,
piled image upon image upon
his fractured Muse.
We ripped off his shirt and
his pantoum, pushed him in front
of a runaway quatrain
that cracked his spine,
then rapped him till he sang the blues.
Our truculence left satire
marks across his body.
When he pleaded for a doctor,
we called two:
who just confused him.
We pierced him with a spear
then shook it, and he gasped,
Please don’t shake speare—
this is no pun at all.
As you pound the life from me,
I feel great paine, and
though I may not be swift,
I fear that I am donne.
Too late have I learned what
a word’s worth—poetic license
don’t drive Porsches.
Almost gone, he turned toward
the proprietress as if to prove
some point, and whimpered with
his final breath, I’m not
a villain, El.