Ninety Nine and One Half Days

This is one of those
poems that’s starts with a
title, and little else.

I say it –
I write it –
I feel its weight.

Ninety nine and one half days.
Some phrases appear as if
by magic, with no

connection to experience or
memory, as if created
that moment, and even if

it’s not true, even
if they are lodged beneath
memory like a seed under your

dentures, it still
feels powerful and
exotic – a new idea.

This phrase is not
new at all; I took it
from the Jimi Hendrix song

Red House, which I’m pretty sure
he took from somewhere else.
No matter.  In Jimi’s case

he’s trying to find a
woman with whom he shares
some history, some mystery –

he goes to her red, red house and
while he’s approaching it he tells
us that he hasn’t seen his baby in

ninety nine and one half days, a
period of time that feels
somehow ominous; we don’t

know why they’ve been apart, who
left who, which one
pushed or ran or hid.

Whatever unfinished business
there is will stay that way, because
when he grasps the knob it will not

turn. He is locked out.  She is
gone, either on purpose or through some
heart-numbing bad luck.  Ninety nine and

one half days will stretch to one hundred,
one-twenty, three hundred and sixty four,
a forever’s worth of days, so many that

he may lose count, lose the image of her
face, the memory of her body in a
shared space, the archive of conversation,

her name even.  He’s got a bad, bad
feeling, and even as he says that our scalps
crawl with the possibilities:  the

truth we’ll never know, don’t want to
know; emptiness like a tunnel with no
end, a wound that won’t stop oozing, a

chill that never leaves.  But here’s where
Jimi pulls out his talisman, works his own
magic –

“that’s all right,
I still got my guitar,
look out – ”

and the howl won’t heal the
scar, but it stops the
bleeding, lights a match

in a dark room.  He doesn’t play
for us, he cannot make
us feel what he feels –

he plays to better understand
his relationship with pain,
with loss, with rage.

Because that’s what we do –
it’s not about describing, it’s
about illuminating.

Ninety nine and one half days – it’s
a long time to be trapped in the dark, and
a short time to have left.

DM Boston 84


A Poem is a Song You Write When the Band’s Gone Home

A poem is a song you
write when the band’s
gone home:  an empty club with the
lights on, bartender preparing a bank
drop, waitress having one last
smoke before setting free the
babysitter; waiting for the van,
the pounding on the alley door, humping
the gear that gets
heavier every night, finally
home to a dark street, satisfaction and
loneliness, the list in your head of
things you could have done better,
falling asleep with ringing ears.

Poetry is the songs you write when
the band’s gone, and that’s fine;
see, now, the drummer’s not late, the singer’s not
drunk, no more painful shock from the microphone, or
broken strings, no asshole who
only wants to hear Zeppelin, no
bully bar owner, or drunks who
talk over love songs.

A poem is a song that
doesn’t need a band, but
here’s what I miss:
new strings
a dance floor
the punch and roll of a good drummer
cigarettes and Dewars
couples kissing in dark corners
a bartender who likes my songs and
pushes back my crumpled bills, the
feeling you carry unseen, like
shrapnel, that tonight
could be the
night.

Work Ethic, or
Why I Bloodied Myself at the Inn Square

The message was that
hard work makes your dreams come
true the message was that if you
weren’t succeeding you weren’t
pushing hard enough the message
was that John Henry killed himself
to beat the steam hammer the
message was about straining
towards perfection.

So when my words fell
short, when my voice
did not convince, I
tried to show my love
with sacrifice, I tried to
beat the elusive sound
out of my guitar with my
fists.  I tried to believe that
each night each club each
audience represented the final
round in a knock-down drag-out
fight over what mattered, sometimes
not noticing when the fight was over
and the crowd gone home.

It started at Inn Square when I
tore off a fingernail on a guitar
string – the pain was a flashing
red light and my guitar became
slick and unplayable, I became
decorated in warpaint that no amount
of bar towels could absorb, I didn’t want
it to stop until every person in that bar
was painted with my blood, my love;
who worked harder than me?

I had martyred myself for
devotion and it became a ritual
I couldn’t stop, flaying the skin
off my knuckles night after night,
scars upon scars, stained shirts, if
I didn’t bleed then I wasn’t working
hard enough, I was cheating the
audience and betraying my
desperation, I deserved to
fail.

Finally I realized that it had
become an empty gesture like
the ones I railed against, one
more bit of stagecraft, no one
cared and soon I didn’t either,
I had bled myself dry and
grown tired of performing feats
of endurance for an audience
of one.

Now the message is be still and
listen now the message is raise your
sail raise your antenna raise your eyes
now the message is move through the
woods like a wolf not a high school
marching band, now the message is
that there may be nothing more powerful
than silence and mystery.

DM CBGB

Soul

It started with music,
as it usually does, so we
sat together and tried to

catch it in a net of words, tried
to describe how a song, say, could
bore a hole in your chest, reopen

the ancient mine, let you
reach in and rest your fingertips
on your own beating heart.

Call it what you want, once
you’ve touched it, heard it,
gotten a whiff of it you spend

your whole life trying to get another.
It’s a hunger like no other, a
holy poverty that keeps you

buying lottery tickets at God’s
corner store because you want to
be that alive one more time.

It’s not nostalgia, even if
time-travel is involved – it’s
what Hafiz said when he described

us as lutes that had once been
held by God, and
we miss his warmth.

Call me crazy, but you know
it’s true, and has been since
Adam – a drum beat, a melody,

some words can lead you to
Heaven’s window, and even if you
can’t get in, you can look in.

Layla.  A change is gonna come.
How great thou art. Thunder road.
Drift away. Oh holy night.

It doesn’t matter – when you’ve
trudged through a sandstorm all
you want is a drop of rain on

your tongue, when you’ve lost
your way you just need one light
in one window, when your heart is

as empty and cold as a deserted
warehouse you just need a little
soul.

It’s a kind of desperate love, the
kind that makes you want to throw
yourself down in front of something

beautiful and difficult, makes you
want to weep alone, makes you
want to  climb to a high place in

the dark, makes you want to share it
but you can’t unless the person you
want to share it with already knows;

makes you want to ring like a bell
in a snowy midnight, makes you want
to burn like a cathedral on a cliff and

tumble into the sea like a holy firefall,
makes you want to drive fast with
your eyes closed, makes you want to

hold someone and make them feel
safe and loved, makes you want to
never fall asleep, but stand watch

waiting for the next spark.  Its
absence  makes you angry, its
absence makes you feel cheated,

the absence of soul makes everything
seem like a carnival booth prize –
once you have it you can never settle.

As simple as the first blooming
snowdrop, as mighty as a sequoia, it
costs nothing, it risks everything,
it is delicious agony, acceptable

burden, the original addiction,
confusing blessing, as light as
flame, as heavy as heartbreak, as

close as your own breath and as
far away as the moon, an
aching reminder of all
that is possible.

DM CBGB 2

November, 5:30 pm

It’s a blue-black
night, the clock has
stopped, and I need

the topography of loud
music, I want at
least 3 dimensions.

The rain is a pale
bead curtain out there
in the dark, and I

need the weight and
motion of loud music,
I need the feel of

it like a silk scarf over
rough tree bark, I want
to ride bareback in the

dark with my eyes
closed, recognizing the
dogs and wind chimes of

each house as we drum-roll
past.  It is a night of
small sounds, house sounds

and I want bass + drums +
guitar at least, something
that moves you like the

deck of a ship moves you.
I want my past and my
future to dance a scandalous

tango.  I want the clock to
start its purposeful march
again so I can follow

it, I want to pour the wine and
light the cigarette, I want to
count off the next song.

 

The Dawgs at Grovers

(for Phil Haynen 1955-2009)

A half-mile off the highway
At a blinking traffic light
On a Thursday or a Friday
Or even better, a Saturday night

At a blinking traffic light
Near freight tracks rarely used
On a loaded Saturday night
The sky looks lonely, bruised

Near freight tracks rarely used
Park the van, kill the lights
The sky looks lonely, bruised
Tonight could be the night

Park the van, kill the lights,
Hump the gear onto the stage
Tonight could be the night
We let the dogs out of the cage

Hump the gear onto the stage
Shed your skin, put down that weight
Let the dogs out of their cage
Tonight we’re going to stay out late

A half-mile off the highway
At a blinking traffic light
On a Thursday or a Friday
Or even better, a Saturday night.

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