Jul-Aug '03 [Home]
Poetry Self-Portrait / Monsters
Aguila, Arizona ~ Tavern at the Grey Wolf Annex ~ Jeffrey Alfier | Gargoyle of Flesh ~ Tempestuous ~ Jay Chollick | I See No Tributary ~ Desmond Croan | That Surrogate, Your Sign ~ Graham Duncan | Self-Portrait ~ Allen C. Fischer | The Torturer's Apprentice ~ Maureen Tolman Flannery | Commandante ~ A Dragon ~ Andrew Glaze | Soon Made Glad ~ Maureen Holm | Manic ~ Nicholas Johnson | Insomnia ~ Stephen Massimilla | Carl's Daughter ~ Jim McCurry | Myself Am Hell ~ Ben Passikoff | Image: Egon Schiele
Confessional Self-Portraits (four etchings) ~ E. Stoepel Peckham | Self-Portrait ~ Steerage ~ Reflection ~ Charles Pierre | Self-Portrait, Ending with Neruda ~ Sam Rasnake | Monster Island ~ Brad Ricca | Patinir's Saint Jerome ~ Tom Savage | Inspired by Browning ~ Daniel M. Shapiro | Self-Portrait as Interstate 10 ~ Susan Somers-Willett | Self-Portrait in Sand ~ Self-Portrait in Water ~ Susan Terris | Making Monsters ~ David Thornbrugh | Self-Portrait: The Man Who Bounces Eggs ~ Martin Willitts, Jr. | Image: Donna Kuhn
This landscape is littered with spent omens.
The day you were born, passenger trains quit:
towns of four hundred were unworthy stops.
These are things you can't explain to lovers
when back roads are dark islands in sad towns.
You fight the awkward dryness of your lips
till you taste the softness behind her neck,
strong as the soil that mates your sweat to plows
year in and year out, all for bragging rights
for one more round of cantaloupe harvests.
Tears of women you should have never known
will burn like spindrift when you turn away.
As dawn drifts across McMullen Valley
you wake in a strange house, but lie silent,
hearing footsteps creak against the floorboards
the way tree limbs in the dark used to say
the time had come to cut the hanged man down.
~ . ~
The Tavern at the Grey Wolf Annex
between Flagstaff and Winslow, Arizona
This chasmal Hopi sky is wide enough
to make you wonder just how old friendships
could become things that slipped away from you.
Here, you seek again the warm allegiance
that brings smiles to these few who stayed faithful.
But wine and your mind conspire to say
some man's daughter is untouched by the Fall
and the gentle slope of emergent breasts,
rising smooth as the Venus of Ingres,
is begging your eyes to tread the contours
though you know desire burns dignity
down to cinders. When tables are too close
in small taverns, all gazes are suspect.
Friends, ill at ease, take notice of exits
as they leave you mumbling like Icarus
in a flat spin, embarrassed by the thought
you might keep them from the road out of town.
Only the Native bartender remains
to read your face: a lonely petroglyph.
He knows your rage is paid for in advance.
(Jeffrey Alfier is a retired U.S. Air Force officer working as a technical writer in Bechhofen, Germany. He formerly served as an adjunct faculty member with City Colleges of Chicago's European Division. Publication credits include: A Time of Trial (Hidden Brook Press, 2002), The Adirondack Review, Border Senses, Columbia Review, Penumbra, Poetry Greece, and others. This is his first appearance on the magazine.)
~ . ~
The Gargoyle of Flesh
There is no trifling
with mouths—they open
wandering pink (no wonder
speech is imprecise) they mate
Or go past other mouths:
or large or reconfigured clown—
towards mine, thin-lipped
in a frown.
Some ears are crisp, mine are;
the nose a steep line in my face,
(I love that oval)
And my jaw—well, that has
but it is pouchy there;
and where the eye sleeps,
near where the scorching dream is
it is an ordinary iris that's
But why (in the midst of this
modest happiness) when mirrors
are brought in
I see my self's poor gargoyle
brought to glass—I stare at stone, oh
woe, where is my humble face?
Time's twisting it!
He gives its small and daily death
such brutal carving.
There is a savage burns in me,
displacing satin, the
polished note, the bleaching smirk
all shoved aside I brandish
it, my vengeful torch, sink tusks
into a lion's flank
its spurting blood my
regicide I worship scars!
and out of every cumulus
I cut the black heart
of a squall, what lives
in me is deadly:
I see the condors winging past
I call out, call
I am your beast—they glide
and I am feasted on.
~ . ~
I See No Tributary
I watched a mountain become a canyon.
Winds, from everywhere, it seemed
Struck the mountain of the earth.
Boulders—they did not shatter nor recede—
Simply shifted, slowly
Downwards, in my judgment, though I have forgotten geology.
The winds and rain ate at the zenith
Like fabled monsters of epic poems.
I gazed at you sadly in the mornings as you turned to dust.
I, awaking to sounds of the monster against you,
Borrowing deeper into your earth,
I do not recall the moment, but silence danced across the air.
The ballet began as monsters fled for fear of song.
Through the ashes of boulders
I saw the beauty of the canyons of your soul.
Such suffering and erosion
Carved the fibers of your earth into a vast canyon.
Today I am filled with aged joy as rivers and tears,
Flood your thirsty walls.
You, yourself, always the mountain
Thrust life into the ocean and echo the rage of monsters.
Fear nothing—listen—before the waters run dry—
As the sound of the waves at your fingertips
Delights the depths of your canyon.
~ . ~
That Surrogate, Your Sign
Is your signature less and less
your John Hancock, more and more
a hieroglyph, a scribble,
the initial letters flourished,
even bold and large, but the rest
an erratic string of humps,
the o and a and c and e
lower cases slumping to m
or n, and those that formerly
stood tall and curved elegantly
up now just fallen shadows that
shrink and blur more every year—
all of it more and more like that
flat line, the heart's last sign?
And in the checkout line do you
notice other buyers, some much
younger than you, signing their bills
with a quick slash, names eroding,
worn away by speed, as if self
were fading from the world?
How old Palmer must be sighing
in his grave for the carefully
rolling loops, the parallel slants,
each letter articulated
shaped with symmetry and grace.
Next time I sign, I'll take my time,
put myself clearly on the line.
~ . ~
Allen C. Fischer
Visibly estranged, I surf the mirror.
Life maps my face like garbled directions,
good times criss-crossing the bad.
No government would send me undercover
without surgery to remove the telltale
lines. Anxiety gives me away.
I worry the yesterdays and their boomerang
of memories which nick me.
I worry if and what
my present tense will reveal.
I even worry contingencies
unrelated to me, events
thousands of miles away:
other people's feuds and afflictions,
the flood waters in the Honduras,
a locust plague in Australia.
I feel a dark front
conspiring, closing on me.
What happened to happy-go-lucky?
Lesions of anger and disagreement,
a slow cartography of wrinkles come
with age. What has gone wrong, what might.
The bad taste pulling my mouth;
my mother's string of admonitions.
A man could hang himself from her yard
and she's not even alive to tell me.
When I hear my name, I tense,
frown at the excess
punctuation of my habits, at what
others might think, their words.
In the teenage left to me, I feel
trapped in church; one by one,
old women, some known to me, others not,
come by to correct my outlook.
They talk about me and how I
appear: an etching of an aging
man who will find fault in you
whether or not it is there.
Comic relief cuts through life's intaglio
with a cursive hand: loops at the ends of the mouth
and from the eyes, cat whiskers. Laugh lines!
Oh there are salves, creams, emollients
to soften and fill in the curls of laughter.
Short of a total face lift, there are ways.
But they are temporary because laughter
breaks my silence. It ripples from the belly;
it is the soul's weight lifting,
how to bear up, remove the troubles
that scavenge my subconscious. Laughter
jollies the furrows of concern which mark
what is mine. I laugh with my friends,
laugh at the indifference
of weather and its downfall of drink;
I laugh at Popes and politicians
and their grim operas of governance.
At my wit's end, I laugh with the mirror
as though suffering myself were funny.
Woodcut, photoengraving, acid lines.
What did I expect, a tabula rasa?
Time begs portraiture, an unspoken confession
that doesn't erase, wash off or dry clean.
Moles surface, age spots fox my face
the way finger prints and sunlight blemish old paper.
Behind my smile, everyday damage appears;
memories of insult and embarrassment accumulate,
lie just below the surface, wait. As fast
as I cover up, my skin prepares to expose me.
Tiny crow's feet trek from the corners of my eyes:
follow us, they signal, follow us! No secret is safe!
What started as an artist's sketch
has yielded to revision and circumstance.
Nothing is what it seems. Look!
Look me in the eye and tell me I'm not trapped
in the thin tissue tightening around my face.
Tell me I am not myself
so this portrait can be reworked!
~ . ~
The Torturer's Apprentice
Maureen Tolman Flannery
On this planet of the sun
among the signs of bestiality
a clear conscience is Number One.
He went to daily mass to pray, ask
that he be worthy to cleanse the souls of sinners
before they died in Satan's grasp.
From cultivated stance of righteous piety
he criticized siblings for any non-compliance
with his high expectations of Christian behavior,
preached truths of heaven and hell,
suspicious always that evil was creeping
into thoughts and deeds of his fellow youths.
Being still too young to present himself,
he side-stepped his way into the profession
by observing the infliction of pain.
Confident that he too could do it, he trapped rats
and devised inventive ways to make them emit
that high-pitched squeal, even built a wheel
where the limbs of stray dogs who blundered
into a cul-de-sac could be whacked
to rubbery mass and braided through,
strung up to yelp their pitiful hours away
like the witches in the square's weekly wheelings
where he could watch how the muscled men of God
crushed criminal limbs with the wheel's iron rim
before threading them through the spokes
like ribbons of a Maypole.
He talked to the priest about his calling,
of how many late nights he lay awake
thinking of the vocation
and ways of making the sorcerer pay,
of swaying the fallen back to the hand of God.
He fantasized loud sounding of the holy word
Abiuro. I recant.
How successful he would be in the eyes of heaven
if he, by mutilation of corrupt, seductive flesh,
could inspire a woman to petition the mercy of Almighty God.
The Virgin in a dream had conveyed to him the essential thing—
that the guilty be allowed to confess before death—
before it was too late to snatch a soul from the clutches of Satan.
And so his busy thoughts weighed various ways
of giving that redemptive pain—
like the four-pronged heretic's fork
rammed into soft flesh under the chin
and into the sternum bone to prevent
any movement of the heathen's head
but allow him still to murmur the words
of recantation with a fervor of one
about to be saved from the enslavement of hell.
It required slow, excruciating pain
that the sinner confessing might know what God expected,
would feel what hell deals out to the unrepentant;
paced hours, days for the grace of remorse
to flow into open wounds before gangrene
or the silencing blow of a skilled beheader.
Better the skull-splitter, breast-ripper
or a vest of iron barbs.
The five clean wounds of Christ
were too good for the likes of these.
Let them see where heretical thoughts will lead.
He watched from the doorway as the silversmith
crafted elegant reliquaries for the bones of holy martyrs.
Nearby, the ironsmith and brazier
forged with the same precision those beautiful tools
of the torturer's trade, Spanish spider
and the ingeniously expanding vaginal pear.
He hung around the palace of the Grand Inquisitor
when the holy court was not convened.
His mentor would read to him from the manual,
the Constitutio Criminalis,
complex details he memorized with relish—
number of knots in the tether,
the prescribed length of nails, of screws,
degrees of mutilation for each offense of the accused.
When at last he felt ready
he asked the priest to speak for him
to those who would know where he could go.
~ . ~
Lightning snicks and chops,
cutting through the black-skinned cheese of night.
Somewhere in these scary mountains,
a monster's being sewn
but not to be brought to life
by these wild bolts
smoking at dug-steak on a lofty rock.
It's elsewhere he's been dreamt together
of bone and cold, strung on gold and diamond wires,
steals into life an eel of ice.
He's proud and straight, strung with medals,
the Commandante from Hell
who will give you, yes, intelligence only,
nothing as warm as honestly lost.
"You are for me," he proclaims politely,
extending his stitched green palm,
"You are fool's manure, child's trash,
and bah! with your garbagy lies of love!
Now stand aside!
You asked to be born my slaves,
created yourselves and gave me life!
You called, I've come!
Weep and pretend to grit your bowels.
The key to everything has been manufactured.
Give it me. It is mine to turn!"
~ . ~
Upon the ceiling, lighted rock-flowers
scrambling like butterflies, vast mats of glow-worms
reflecting from the black lake,
sardonic harp music whinnying out of the corners,
cordons of valets smile upon us,
trilling the ten commandments.
Then, with a blast of flügelhorns
comes a creaking of enormous stone doors,
and at last, the dragon comes.
He looks about,
eyes blinking, hatred running mechanically,
like melted slag.
His tail is treacherous as a fork.
He righteously curls his lip,
glares at us. He will dispose of us in a minute.
First though, he sniffs thirstily, bends and laps the
waters of Lethe.
At last, he looks up, cool but baffled,
ruffles his pinions uneasily,
shrugs, flaps, rumbles,
takes himslf off in a furious flame
like blue vitriol across the firmament.
We'd been lying in wait for him
to define our world,
now, the miserable worm has once more
He flies off everything unsettled.
Again we must opt for uncertainty,
keeping hidden from us everything it knows.
~ . ~
Soon Made Glad
Hang me at the end of a long
I plant myrtle, a self-tending grave
roped to hold the wind like
children at bay.
its clover blue as her knuckle veins.
I paint as she drew with a loose free-hand
Chime the nine hundred-oneth
of old bronze clocks
fan a faint half-flush with the gloved.
not for monster in the chamber
but for maid.
~ . ~
They give me orange and blue
pills with names like gods. Soon
my thoughts race around and around
like a Lionel train. I start
all my sentences in the middle
as if I had just found
my lost train of thought.
At home I chug from room to room
chanting—"I think I can!
I think I can!" My dog barks
from under the table, my wife
screams in protest.
"Left front wheel! Left front wheel!" I tell them.
I don't know when I expect to be so
(Prior publ: The Journal)
~ . ~
So I lost touch. All morning a double face
took shape in the window, mine, by the cold
commode. Blue was a bottle on the sill;
eight, a mustache twirling, a leaf.
Teeth caulked, dark cheek a hole, you talked
to me with the orbit of your eye. A leaf
blinked green on orange glass. Cyclops
sun outside, blood . . .
bricked glued to the pane, batting, beating in.
~ . ~
The old condescension wearing off,
fading like groundfog,
I sit in the Café
like a wallflower,
a pansy in a fresco
the voices of the neighbors
("my rainhat," "the mailboats,"
"they take you into
the villages, yes?")
they take you into the fjords.
Am I their Papa or am I
their child, Helga Sandburg?
I am a destitute deafmute,
but not happy, not sad.
I am the geraniums,
the cool morning air.
pansies in terracotta pots.
What is the hurry to make
deliveries of gifts?
The friends are out shopping,
in church, the sleep
in the corners of eyelids
dropping off slowly,
fading like groundfog
in the cool morning air.
~ . ~
Myself Am Hell
There was no space
between my God and Me.
He sat on my lap
and was my child.
With Torah tongue and Kyrie
I folded him to bed.
I dripped my blood
into His deity.
He died of me;
I was His disease.
I am alone
with my arteries.
is the sum of one.
Come, sit within my circle.
I will gather you.
(Ben Passikoff has published widely. This is his first appearance on the magazine.)