The first one scared me to death.
I wanted so badly not to fail this manly ritual
though I wasn’t a tobacco virgin,
my father grinning at me with the lone cigarette
in the crumpled package I’d found in the gutter,
ushering me furtively away from mother’s eyes
into the backyard where he lit up, told me
to inhale as big as I could. Then laughed
as I choked and sputtered the devil smoke
out of my lungs. He’d been a minister once,
didn’t mind a teaching story. Many years
passed as I heeded the Surgeon General’s
black labels on each pack, saw the country
ban smoking from airplanes and restaurants,
remembered my high school librarian so proud
of the filthy charcoaled dead smoker’s lung
preserved under glass by her desk. But this cigar,
proffered by my friend’s father after we’d painted
his house that summer, was another matter.
He was a Freudian. This was an initiation.
To snip the tip of those dusky leaves rolled
on the thighs of Cuban women, touch flame
to its darkness, rouse the orange ember to full body
like Mafia dons and back-room politicians.
Or this worldly psychiatrist inserting a bit of Havana
between forefinger and thumb, who knew
something about this underworld of the smoky psyche
and the lips of men who sucked life’s aroma
from its very darkness.
is still just around the corner, where it
always seems to lie. As a young boy,
it was a plan of escape, the Rapture
promising to elevate us from failed bodies
at the sound of a trumpet purer than Miles Davis’
pensive horn on my father’s stereo.
Or Mother Mary’s demure breast
obliquely promising what my mother
and the high school cheerleaders
kept hidden. No one had told me, yet,
how improbable the quest for paradise
is—bankrupt as a heroin dealer’s promise,
or a used car dealer’s lemon.
Even before Genesis was first scratched
on papyrus, the Babylonians believed
that Enkidu, a wild man living happily with gazelles,
was enticed from Paradise by a woman
wise enough to love by a murky waterhole,
birth civilization. He woke,
as do we all, dazed by the womb—
no longer living inside of Paradise
but armed with nostalgia,
a rebel’s recklessness, an iron foot
on the gas pedal of the red Mustang of the body,
reeling toward the horizon’s mirage,
yet haunted by the rear view mirror.
Until the wild man wakes one morning
in the ramshackle motel of his life listening
to Miles rather than Jesus, hears his woman
snoring softly beside him cloaked
in twisted bed sheets,
and like Enkidu, begins to understand
that Paradise lies neither forward nor behind,
but in the clunky lemon parked outside,
the enigmatic horn of scratched vinyl,
the gazelle of your heart leaping.
I can’t get no…
Reading how Jagger and the boys started pure,
only mattresses on a threadbare carpet,
no furniture, a few shillings fed into the meter
for warmth. The goal was not fame,
but to outflank each other with dares,
like returning from a gig to find
a flatmate astride the stairs stark naked
yelling Welcome Home! with shitty
underpants on his head while pissing
down the steps. It was a gas, satisfaction
easily had. The band hatching itself
amid poverty, a Vox amplifier, broken
guitar strings. Every waking hour
listening to Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf,
figuring out the Chicago blues, just wanting
to be black motherfuckers. Anyone
straying from the nest to get laid
a traitor. Craving
so simple, so attainable. It was later,
after endless satisfactions that emptiness
came. Hashish, blow jobs in the Bentley
called Blue Lena, the Cocaine & Tequila
Sunrise tour, whole hotel floors trashed.
A pirate empire with lawyers, clowns,
thirty years clean from the Black Tar,
Keith dangles a lit cigarette from those
rebel lips in the Rolling Stone photograph,
sums his autobiography titled Life
by saying he just couldn’t imagine
living without the god-damn blues—
and I think, Oh save me from a perfect life.
Let my fingernails brown with nicotine,
my eyeballs roll up white from all I’ve seen,
cock murmur from exhaustion,
heart still tremble at the end
from one big bluesy chord after another
till my body falls, my spirit gyrates away,
|The Violence of Young Boys
I was a good boy. Most boys were
in the small town I grew up in,
but not one of us could escape
the peculiar violence lurking
like a mafia hit-man in our DNA
standing in the alley shadow
between the police department
and the library.
Mostly it was eccentric obsessions:
which comic book character would win a fight,
or lining up hundreds of tiny green army men
arrayed against hordes of gray Germans or red Indians.
Our hands like some meticulous,
slow super-computer repeating scenarios
over and over till dinner. Or dissecting
frogs in biology for the fierce fun of it.
Some boys went further, like mad scientists
pulling the legs off a mantis while
it prayed, or incinerating bugs by magnifying glass,
obsessed with finding whatever truth lay
at the core. Even of your own heart:
facing the bully, meeting his fist
with your eye-socket just to see
what would happen.
Our mothers would roll their eyes,
our sisters look confused,
run the other way,
but we knew without anyone telling us
that Darwin, also once a boy, might be right.
That survival required more than calm,
lurked in violent curiosities,
was somehow at stake in each captured frog,
plastic army, black eye.
|Staying Up All Night in College
She was perched at the border crossing
between sanity and a nameless landscape,
digging in her crumpled cigarette package
for one more smoke as she blinked at me
on the couch. As though staring
at the guard of ego with his rifle and flashlight—
the light blinding—calculating whether to fuck him
or kill him or just make a run for it.
But tonight in the dorm, she was neither violent
nor seductive, though her blond hair toyed
with her collarbone. It was the fierce argument
of her conviction—
that she would take her life this night in full sanity,
conscious of past lives. That this was her destiny.
That college held no allure, nor the fey boyfriend,
the fawning parents, not the pending minutes,
nor our exhortations that life is worth every minute.
You could see her, while she smoked,
disarming the guard, grabbing his rifle,
running into the dark. Her metaphysics
shaky, her map, if she had one, tugged by a rogue
magnetic pole. But oh she could talk sane—
no judge would condemn, no doctor seduce
with injections of Haldol or Thorazine.
It was late. She stubbed her last cigarette.
We sat with her till we all crashed,
and I dreamt of rifles and flashlights,
of running blindly towards light.
|The Siren Call of the Normal
After graduate school and the study of psychology,
I trekked to the northeastern corner of California
where obscure Modoc County hosted
the Rainbow Gathering, an itinerant enclave
of wandering hippies who would sweep into a rural area,
set up a tented community for the summer, then move on,
leaving not a shred of trash. I hated my life.
My lover had gone. I’d become a licensed therapist
without a clue as to how the human worked.
What the answers were. The unsure science
of the normal.
So I parked my orange Datsun pickup on the fringe
of the forest, packed in my tent, and went looking
for it all. At a far grove of pine,
I found two naked women adorned with only a few feathers
so I set up camp adjacent. But after a week
of weed, guitars, the immense magic mushroom Om circle
on the edge of the plateau overlooking Nevada a mile down;
the outdoor toilets, ten wooden holes in a row,
humans squatting like some better animal version of themselves—
yet still no enlightenment, not even free love—
I grew restless,
finally ventured into town. Just a block or two of old buildings,
but with a quaint café. I sat with the regulars
who marveled at all the rainbow shirts, peacock feathers,
blue crystals. They seemed to secretly want
to be one of us. While I, secretly, began planning
how to be one of them.
|The Church of the Mortal
The bowling alley on Bellevue Ave. was built with the same brick as the church in the dusty town of Atwater, where I grew up and attended both regularly. One offered pizza and soda, the other wine and bread. The church, a wooden altar to confess your sins, the alley a wooden lane with ten battered pins you could never quite topple twelve out of twelve times for the perfect 300 game—its own sin. Like the twelve disciples, there was always one to betray you no matter how many times you lifted that dented round orb with the three holes for thumb and middle fingers, rolled it towards the altar of pins, prayed.
At church, I’d watch the preacher, the deacons, the devout ladies cry and holler and exhort us all towards entire sanctification, which is like bowling a faultless game over and over. Oh sure, the spirit would come, holy and with hallelujahs, but you didn’t have to look hard to see a smattering of recalcitrant pins still standing askew no matter how much you’d holy-roller.
That summer, I began to doubt flawlessness as I haunted Bellevue Bowl, sipping Cokes at the counter overlooking the twenty-odd lanes while broken ranchers smoked and the poor retailers drank and kids at birthday parties threw their featherweight balls down lanes with guard rails up—still never rolling a perfect game. But then,
in walked David, sure, a good bowler just like his dad, but the talented almost suffer more for being closer to perfection than the rest of us, yet never arriving. Like our preacher. As I sipped my Coke and watched the little “X” marks fill frame after frame of his scorecard, more and more bowling disciples began to gather round the molded plastic seat where he sat,
his steely but relaxed gaze looking a bit like a zealot aiming towards heaven. The radio went silent, cigarette smoke circled, and David lined up one strike after another till the last beaten pin on his final throw wobbled and fell. A perfect game. In a town where nobody was without sin. On a blistering day where, for a moment, we were proud, each and every one of us, to be mortal.
|Tiger's of Wrath
The tigers of wrath are wiser than the horses of instruction.
And what of the Siberian tiger in the San Francisco Zoo
who leapt, crawled—leaving scars on the asphalt—
finally thrusting her magnificent haunches
over the lip, then beyond the fence.
In one final leap, facing the terrified
young man who moments before had been
thoughtlessly provoking such regal desire.
Was the tiger in her beautiful being truer
than the careless cur who, lacking
the rituals of older men schooled
in desire’s wrath, should have known
not to provoke, cavalierly, such raging
gorgeous hunger. And after the boy,
jugular slashed, lay silent on the cold
concrete, what did you, his two friends,
then imagine as you fled, veins
soaked in vodka and cannabis,
Tatiana in pursuit. That your
careless lives were coming
to an end? That some brutal,
had leapt, impossibly,
then will you live
after the marksmen
shattered the tiger’s skull
as she clawed your shoulders,
arms, your drunken heads?
|The Minotaur's Lair
My wife calls from an icy road outside the Kentucky hospital,
having escaped for a moment her mother’s obsession
with the million dollars waiting for her in Jamaica,
her entire wracked and hollowed body lunging
toward the door, commanding her daughter
to undo the lock—but there is no secret code
for the mind’s labyrinthine maze. And so
my wife follows the thin thread she’s laid
in her heart from the bullish Minotaur’s lair
where the death of every parent snorts
its angry inevitability—runs
from that blind grief back
towards her husband
along the strands
of cell phone
as I cup
the small black box
to my ear half a continent away.
to an alphabet neither
of us can bear—my own mother
after two strokes, shaking her head
as the words disappear, caressing
her blind dog who growls at everything
she can’t quite see. And the meaning of growing old
is lost in the brain’s bark as it digs for the buried bone
precious beyond measure, lying in the folded gray
of cerebellum. The bone of consciousness—
the million-dollar coin—is not in Jamaica. It is beneath
the hoof of the Minotaur stamping the dirt
in the center of grief’s maze.
|The Gift of the Fallen
I remember the fierce brow of the archangel
standing on the dark hill as in Dore’s wood-engraved print,
Michael’s chin jutted like marble
over we who had fallen so far.
His nose, revolted at the stench of losing.
The massive shoulder bearing thick-limbed wings
that never fail. To never fail. I remember this
conceit, don’t you? How he stared at heaven’s rebels,
we who dared more
lying broken on unforgiving ground. To never risk
anything. Michael’s immaculate foot, muscled
with sure-footed divinity, poised to leap back
to perfection. But it was ruined now, for him.
Heaven would always be the same, unrelenting beauty
staining golden eyes with inescapable light.
Except here, at the bottom of the dark hill.
The swarm of fallen angels already naked, wingless,
digging about in the dirt for what even he could never have
without failure: a life
singular, his own.
|The Privilege of a Private Life
In Karachi, human life goes on
tipsy balance: scandalously happy,
then uncompromising in sorrow.
Loved for cricket & conversation,
feared by foreigners for chaos.
for spiced tea, a good book
amid religious violence
becomes even more ambiguous
than in the confines of peace. The
privilege of a personal life, inviolate,
an American promise. An
thou shalt not touch me.
Here, it is heresy—
and broken, broken.
Dane Cervine’s forthcoming book is entitled,Kung Fu of the Dark Father. Previous books include How Therapists Dance (2013), and, The Jeweled Net of Indra (2007)—all from Plain View Press. His poems have won or been finalists for awards from Adrienne Rich, Tony Hoagland, the Atlanta Review, Caesura, and been nominated for a Pushcart. His work appears in a diverse range of publications, including The SUN, the Hudson Review, Poetry Flash, Catamaran, Sycamore Review, Pedestal Magazine, anthologies, short film, animation, newspapers, including a fine press broadside of his poemClay Feet from Sam Amico’s Middle Earth press. Visit his website at: www.DaneCervine.typepad.com or drop him a line at: DaneCervine@cruzio.com
Emerald Street Poets