Category Archives: friendship

To My Blood Sister

illustration two women sophia loren

When you drink, your voice thickens sweet &
lethal as syrup. I know that sweetness —
once I let it go all through me, I let it stay & stay.
I don’t know if we will cry together, like sisters,
my nose pressed against your neck, but for now
we can drink together from the same bottle &
descend as one into our true blue depths, united
by our sadness, our terrible failure to be loved
enough. I will not flinch from your bloodstained
towels, your green veins, your broken arms.
I understand why you weep for the dead —
though you never loved them. Still,
the yearning to save rises in you as bread rises,
doubling your volume, your capacity for pain.

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The Iconoclast Says Goodbye, a short story

illustration the iconoclast says goodbye

The Iconoclast Says Goodbye, a short story

Dear Zarel:

It was 1977.  You’d majored in filmmaking at the same expensive, private school Stephen Spielberg went to.  You were 25, and stalled.  For entertainment, you drew a cartoon strip, Fred and Edna — they were strange four-eyed aliens, and of course all the humor was sexual.  You had another idea for a cartoon — pieces of meat talking to each other, perched on barstools.  We met at Mr. Pip’s discotheque.  I was 5’ 7” and weighed 130 pounds but thought I was fat.  Everybody was skinny then.

All that cocaine; cutting edge.  You asked me to dance, I forget whether you asked my friend first or me.  I would have been slightly offended.  I knocked your glasses off on the dance floor.  It charmed you somehow.  We were drinking, probably vodka gimlets, that was my idea.  We went off in your car, you parked at the beach.  You got my number and said you’d like it if you could be my first lover.  You cooked dinner for me at your parent’s — they were away for the weekend.  I was impressed with your cooking, the French antiques and the view of the bay.

We took a sauna in your parent’s bath.  We went upstairs; I was only slightly spooked by the huge oil painting of your mother in full jewelry regalia on the landing.  Out came your pack of Trojans; it was difficult, painful.  I can’t say I enjoyed it much the first time.  “It’s just… got… to open,” you kept saying.  My muscles were clamped tight as a vise.  You worked up such a sweat trying to impress me, later you revealed you’d slept with hundreds of women.  Over time, things improved for me in bed, but the closer you came to me emotionally, the faster I started to retreat.

I always dreamed and schemed for love then got strangely revolted when it appeared.  I thought you were too old because you were approaching thirty.  I felt typecast, imported from the sticks.  Your mother seethed, your father smiled benignly.  Every Sunday morning, you brought my mom the finest nova and bagels — but my grandmother cast a dour eye on our trysts.

For fun, we drag-raced on I-95 — always a tie.  You said I liked to dominate relationships — to me it didn’t feel like domination, only self-expression.  I didn’t want to be owned.  You weren’t romantic enough, and never romantic at the right time.  It could have been worse, for my first affair.  If only you’d given me a nicer present our first Christmas together, maybe we wouldn’t have broken up.

I just didn’t like the sugar dispenser.  Then there was your plan for my prom — you were going to wear a T-shirt printed with a tuxedo.  I was 17 — I wanted to be taken seriously.  One night, lying on my mom’s couch we discussed marriage and children — you wanted to name our first Bozo — but the next morning I knew it was over.  My heart was sheathed.

I liquefied in your arms, then dribbled away. You tried for months, told me how wonderful I was, how beautiful I was, but I didn’t believe you.  You said you were too busy for friendship.  It had to be all or nothing.  After we broke up I saw men who reminded me of you everywhere, and every time my stomach lurched.  I waffled, waffled, waffled.  I bought a plane ticket to see you, then came an attack of conscience, or memory, or both.  You wanted to be my alpha & omega.  Nice dream, love  love love.

Goodbye,

your Iconoclast

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The Song of Women of Jaded Time, a poem

la voix humane simone signoret

The Song of Women of Jaded Time
(for François Villon)

Talk to me this instant, or don’t ever bother
talking to me again. You think your sorrow
is like a flower, you beautiful, pitiful Italian;
but you are not a paragon, not crying like this.

Underneath my foot you shall find perfection.
You are like an echo of my own will, you shall
learn to speak of my brutality all the time,
and love it. Under this river or in your hands

I shall drown — how beautiful is too much human pain.
May you sing your own black heart forever!
Listen to what I say, but don’t hear it with your ears.
Listen with your heart, you are like a blooming flower,

you wild, beautiful fool. Your injured foot is far more
beautiful than my own. Don’t repeat me, speak only
of my brutality all the time. Under the water I will drown,
or under your hands. How beautiful is too much fever,

or human pain? May you sing your black song forever!
Or, perhaps you are like the wise, able Heloise,
and my blessed foot will kick you hardest
when you are already down. Like her dim-witted

Abelard — for love, he ceased breathing. Love,
I think you resemble the king that commands
none but the harridan. First, jettison your silly bag
of river water. Long may you sing your black heart!

You are wise, and blessed, as are all ill-fated lovers.
For love, we cease living — we all resemble royalty
in this way. I command the bitch who is my deepest
self: first throw away everything you hold dear.

May you sing with your thick blackness in my life.
The queen of white is coming to lie — she chants
regally in a serene voice. I was born of Bertha
with her grand feet, she of Beatrice, Alice,

harem dancers all, colored in the main for beauty rather than wisdom.
And we come, too, from Joanna, the beautiful Swiss girl.
The English back then were belligerent, though mainly
in Rouen. Or do I see in your sad eyes, your oldest

unforgotten queen? May you sing of your black, tight
heart until the words choke you with regret, with forgiveness.
I was once a queen, of all I surveyed.
I sang with a stilted voice. My mother,

my grandmother, my great-grandmother
were all such foolish harem dancers,
too lovely to look at and let live.
And the beautiful maid who cleaned

my rooms… I was always bitchiest
to her just before the dawn. O, your
sharp eyes went through me like a sword.
May you sing your own praises until nightfall!

O Prince, do not ask to love me except for cruelty,
do not wonder where those other ladies are, this year —
what a sad refrain your unshaven face reminds me of.
I used to know someone, he was a lot like you.

May you sing lullabies to your faithless black heart!
O my lord, do not ask me to come to you out of
kindness — do not ask where I have lived until now.
What an ancient sorrow you have reopened!

May you sing this pain into the book of all eternity.

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Pretty Young Women, Playing A Game, a very short story

Pretty Young Women, Playing A Game

The stupid party game I suggested that night was called “the worst moment of your life.” A half-dozen of us were playing, sitting cross-legged in a circle on the floor. The prettiest, Kelly, resembled a long-past period of fashion, with her trembling dusty-yellow curls, her sharp little chin — her eyes were bright blue, her frame delicate. We had been up all night; the sun was close to rising, but the birds hadn’t started their relentless cheerful, spell-breaking noise.

Kelly didn’t want to play at first, but the rest of us insisted, figuring what? That not making head cheerleader was her life’s worst tragedy? That’s what happens again and again to women like her, they try to explain why they don’t want to talk about it… but no one listens.

The second prettiest one, Vicki, was pale and fleshy, moving with a clumsy, yet charming, slowness that made the rest of us wonder if it was an act… or could she really be that dumb? Across the undersides of her velvety forearms gleamed a network of thin white scars… the baby she’d left at her mother’s that night was not her husband’s. Mistakes get made; the child’s father was never heard from again.

Oh, but now Vicki wanted to get remarried so badly it made every other woman in the room flush with embarrassment just hearing her mention her latest lover’s name. We knew because of the kid that wasn’t his he would never agree to marry her; but she was so beautiful… scars, sad eyes and all… that he couldn’t say no to what she offered up nightly.

So, after being pushed & pushed & pushed & pushed & pushed into participating, Kelly narrated the worst moment of her life. Her twin sister was in the middle of a divorce. We never knew she HAD a sister. A few days before Christmas, the estranged husband called — he had lots of presents for the kids. She agreed to meet him at a gas station down the street. The only thing he gave her was three bullets — one in the spleen, one in the right lung, one in the throat.

“At least he had the decency to shoot himself too,” Kelly says sobbing. “How does marriage turn into murder?” The rest of us watched tears plop out of her eyes like clear glass pearls; we heard the birds finally, blessedly, began to chatter, bringing relentless life back into the world.

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Giant Redwoods, a poem

illustration muir woods 2

Giant Redwoods

(Statements in italics taken from Ethics, by Baruch de Spinoza)

Look farther and farther toward thin blue sky, until the green feathery tops of the trees are like the northern pole on some dream planet.  Put the anger back in its bottle. These trees are generous.  Hatred can never be good.

Your carsickness from the ride up the mountain begins to fade, leaving behind a breathless, weepy echo not unlike your first religious fervor.  Hatred is increased through return of hatred, but may be destroyed by love.

When have you not been afraid?  The random can be scrutinized for meaning, the puzzle solved, when surveyed long & carefully enough.  Anything may be accidentally the cause of either hope or fear.

These trees have plenty of time.  As a child, you stared at Jesus’ sad face for hours, wishing you could marry him  — wondering what it was that made him love you.  Could you sacrifice yourself for the sins of the world, if it was that simple & necessary? Cathedrals turn us small and vulnerable again, for reasons both blessed & cursed.  Devotion is love towards an object which astonishes us.

Vague, starry eyes like yours feel at home here; the air is weighty, burdensome & solemn. You’ve loved trees before; this is different.  These trees have plenty of time – more time than you.  If we love a thing which is like ourselves, we endeavor as much as possible to make it love us in return.

Your nerves are suddenly frozen, by the unaccustomed richness of perfect light.  Your guide is tall & slender, hesitant to speak.  Her mother has the tattooed forearm of a Polish Jew of a certain age.  The knowledge of good and evil is nothing but an idea of joy or sorrow.  Sorrow is [a hu]man’s passage from a greater to a less perfection.

These trees have plenty of time.  She touches your wrist, and for a moment, you, too, want to grow taller, leaving the surface of the earth behind forever.  Shyly, she picks up a tiny pinecone, smaller than a toy.  You both laugh when she tells you this is their seed.  Joy is [a hu]man’s passage from a less to a greater perfection.

These trees have plenty of time.  And all around, their wise, fallen, hollow bodies litter the ground like the bones of saints.  Childlike, you understand a wish to die here, never to leave this hush.  They’re only trees – your neck bent back as far as it will go; only trees, yet wondering if the giants can hear your thoughts.  Love is joy, with the accompanying idea of an external cause.  Love and desire may be excessive.  When the mind imagines its own weakness, it necessarily sorrows.

Is there anything we have less power over than our own tongues?  These trees have plenty of time, growing wise as the Buddha, in their silence.

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Tunneling Bivalves (Lithophaga palmerae), a poem

ilustration tunneling bivalves Shipworm Boring

Tunneling Bivalves (Lithophaga palmerae)

I have eaten stone. I have tunneled through the hardest
hearts. For ten years, I was in the hands of a wizard
who, little by little, made me forget everything I knew

before I met him. He fed me stones. I became a small
soft thing, covered with two hinged shells, digging
farther away from the world outside, the world I thought

would hurt me. I shrank smaller each day, tunneled
deeper. I wanted to disappear. While I was enslaved,
I learned to use silence as a weapon. My shells

closed tight, tried to protect my softness, but the wizard
jammed gravel in and devoured me. We used to swim
together, in dark water, his robes hanging over the pool

like a tent. His robes were warm, and sheltered me.
His robes were stifling, and smothered me. I was not
a good apprentice. I failed all the exams, I was held

back to repeat the same lessons over and over.
He wove elaborate spells to keep me in my place.
He was content for me to be his forever.

I was his slave, though I hated him and made him pay
for my service in other ways. I thought the hardness
of his heart was a sign of God’s presence, of God’s wisdom.

I forgot to look for God’s grace, God’s joy. My tears
fell and anointed the floor. I was like a religious pilgrim
who brought palm fronds home, nailed them

to the wall of her room, slept with one eye open,
to see if dry leaves caught fire. I was a staple
for the wizard, I gave him everything I possessed,

willingly, and when he would not give me the knowledge
I sought, I betrayed him. His anger was mighty,
and destroyed much of my beauty. When I first fled

the wizard’s castle, I felt powerless, I felt alone.
The wizard was happy I was gone — I had learned
the lesson he had been trying so hard to illustrate

all those years. The one about peace, about power.
He was my teacher, for that I am grateful.
Injury comes from inside, I know that now.

I try to remember to feel God inside. Still, sometimes
I forget I am not eating stone anymore. Sometimes
the food I prepare for myself still tastes like stone.

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Pretzels & Chocolate, a poem

jim-valvis

PRETZELS & CHOCOLATE

(rented room, cigarettes)

I am eating pretzels
and they are hard
but splinter into salty crumbs

with the merest bite
they only satisfy
part of my tongue

(rented room, cigarettes)

so I pick up the chocolate
greedy for it to melt
against my palate

sucking the firm square
feeling it mold to me
the way I imagine

my body molds to yours

(rented room, cigarettes)

retaining the character of sweetness
to complement the salt
to balance my mouth

I am eating chocolate
thinking of us
together

(rented room, cigarettes)

illustration mockingbird mimus polyglottos

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