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Inner Ocean Fantasy 2011
25” x25"
by John Babcock

Photo by Linda Babcock

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Charles Atkinson

Assisted Living

I round the curve too fast: I’m almost on him—
man on his back at the edge of the road, with wheelchair,
mailbox hanging open, mail a halo in the mud.
Skid to a stop at his feet, hit the flashers,
leave the door ajar. An arm and leg—his left—
waving to right him, crablike; right side’s inert.
Set up the wheelchair, lift beneath his arms:
I can’t do it—till he pushes up with
the one good arm and leg, flops into the chair.
Shit!—what if he has broken bones?
Pick up  the muddy mail, drop it in his lap.
He points to the box: sure enough, lodged in
the back, a package. Wheel him back to the home,
amazed how much his one leg helps. The gate
slams behind, the staff fusses around him: no
breaks, it seems. I turn to leave, he beckons me
close: “Fye, fo, tree, to, won—“ counting on his hand.
A joke, I think: he’s blasted off. When I reach
the gate, it’s locked. Ah—the combination.

Churchyard

I dwell on endings now,
          kneel at the stones to study their
                     chiseled accounts. And still I’m  
          dazzled by the birds’ quicksilver.   

Mockingbird riffs on neighborhood
          noise—car-horn, whistle,
                     organ, hawk-scream, laced
          in a hundred cut-glass trills.

Ravens confer sotto voce;
          watch them fly upside-down,
                     play catch with sticks mid-air,
          toboggan in snow. Who are they?

Waxwings tack in tight
          formation, light, then dark—
                     a rush against dusk: how can they
          share compass-sense at that speed?

Hummingbird: a flower-mite’s
          hitchhiked from Yucatan inside
                     its nostril, deplanes for a meal . . .
          everywhere, the ardent riot!

Scholar, Dementia Ward

Hefts the tome—it’s dense.
Lifts a cover, leafs pages,
fingers a line: deep
silence. Nods. Snaps the book shut.
It’s been upside down.

Survivor

            David

Wants to know, “Have you seen ‘em?”—
Eagle Scout Badge, Marine insignia,
sharpshooter’s medal, Pacific campaign.
And a snapshot: against a white sky,
dark coconut palms and a spindly kid
thumbs up in a foxhole, cigarette dangled.

Wild out of high school, shipped to dig-in
big machine guns—key emplacements
over an unnamed airfield, a beachhead.
Boredom. Sudden roar and mayhem
from above. Bag up the mud-splashed bodies.
“Those guys sure paid my way home.”

First son dead at forty: like dad,
two packs a day. The younger wrangled
trees, cleared the wires in storms.
High in a bucket, ten thousand volts
arced to a chainsaw. Couldn’t let go.
“Already told ya more than I wanted.”

Drags a colostomy bag behind
the walker, grapples for every breath,
a bubbly wheeze. Forget the horizon;
he clings to his plank—the red satin board
pinned with medals and photo. “Never
asked ‘em to stand my watch—never.”

Volunteer

I don’t know what drove me to it—
could barely sit beside their beds.
Prayed they’d be sleeping; I’d study their skin.
Some had lived and labored in weather:  
cracked, scarred, liver-spotted

beyond my own light spatter—dusky  
continents embossed on the back of a hand.
Once his breath grew strained. Unthinking,  
I grabbed that hand—sun-warmed leather—
knit our fingers till something passed.

Others had sheltered their fine dry folds,  
now tortoise-skin. Mid-morning she started
to weep. Her finger-pads were smooth,
concave, as if some filling were gone—
but sinew and bone locked to my thumb.

I had nothing to say to the silence.
“You look fine . . . I’m glad to see you—“
till I couldn’t bear my lies, and  
asked how they felt. “Rotten” they’d grunt—
or the look that meant, “you have no idea.”

Around us, funk of urine, fusty
breath of the aged—vapors from under
the earth—until I smelled my own
grandfather: peat moss, hay, the jolt of
Pine Sol . . . his bayside fishing cabin.

Began to listen for what they’d loved—
a lilac wedding, decent husband,
Brandywine tomatoes, chanterelles,
always children. I’m still afraid to
enter those rooms, savor their musk,

but fear’s a spore—it shrinks in light.
Found myself stroking a silky forearm,
a polished pate: seems I was as eager
as they for touch. Arms around their
shaking, I hum them down to sleep.

CHARLES ATKINSON taught writing of various sorts for 30 years at the University of California, Santa Cruz. His first poetry collection, The Only Cure I Know (San Diego Poets Press), received the American Book Series award for poetry; a chapbook, The Best of Us on Fire, won the Wayland Press competition.  A third volume, Because We Are Men, was awarded the Sow’s Ear Poetry Prize. His most recent poetry collections are Fossil Honey, from Hummingbird Press, and World News, Local Weather, from Finishing Line Press. He has also received the Stanford Prize, the Comstock Review Prize, the Paumanok Poetry Award (SUNY Farmingdale), the Emily Dickinson Award (Universities West Press) and The Ledge Poetry Prize.

Nonfiction
Julie Minnis
Veronica Zaleha

Poetry
Charles Atkinson
Farnaz Fatemi
Maggie Paul
Ken Weisner

Artwork
John Babcock


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