Since I’ve been in the mood this last week to put things up on The Seeker that I haven’t been able to publish, I figured I’d give this poem some exposure. The writing of it was a long time coming. I registered the episode on which it is based as nothing more than an absurd occurrence from my life stemming from me perhaps being too glad to offer some help in a teaching circumstance. It’s always made for a funny story, but I never saw it as a poem until two years ago when I was alluding to the episode with a bunch of seniors in my Public Speaking class. Something clicked in my mind, and pretty soon I was casting the whole thing into this poem.
I work shopped it first thing when I was out in Iowa two years ago, and was taken aback at how freakin’ serious everybody took it. It’s supposed to be funny; at least as funny as my brother found the story when I first told it to him 9 years ago, and he couldn’t stop laughing. I was hoping it would be funnier still that I used something as “elevated” and “sublime” as poetry to communicate an uncomfortable, intrusive circumstance—I figured I’d have a a great juxtaposition, if nothing else.
Still, maybe this isn’t as funny as I think it is. About fifteen publications seemed to think it’s either not funny or not very well written. What do those bastards know, anyhow?!?! The local public library must not have liked it, either, since it didn’t get any recognition in their recent creative writing contest. What mystified me the most about this one, though, was that it was also rejected by a publication that was specifically calling for submissions “…by a man, about something that happened to him, that by and large could only have happened to a man, and that shows women Who Men Are.” The editors took a lot of shit for their stance, so maybe it’s better that this one didn’t appear in it.
You, the doctor, and his intern
are all in the exam room.
The intern is young. Blonde.
Her eager eyes sparkle
as she hovers beside him.
“Do you mind if she’s in here for this?”
the doctor asks. “She’s got
I don’t want her to miss.”
The intern clutches a clipboard.
You imagine a neatly typed checklist.
This next task looms at the bottom
next to a barren, untouched little box.
It’s cool with you. The doctor probes
and talks his way through several
tender angles and steps aside. The intern
reaches for a glove, and you realize too late
that the ‘here’ she’s going to be ‘in’
is much more than the exam room.
continued from yesterday…
Pre-dawn was muggy along the river and in the forests that edged the water. Thin blankets of mist clung to the ground, but dispersed a few feet up and disappeared into the grey sky. A trio of turkey vultures soared through the fresh, moist air over the river. The rushing waters below muted their calls as they circled in and out of the walls of trees on both banks.
The headlights on Michael’s truck pierced the mist as he drove down the narrow dirt path that lead from the main road to the river. As he neared the end, the lights reflected off two trucks parked at the head of a narrow beach that had formed along the river bank. Father Bernard stood in his black cassock with his head bowed as he leaned back against Guy’s truck. His chin touched his white collar. He clutched his bible with both hands.
Michael could see the silhouette of Guy sitting by himself in his truck. Leon and Big Jean sat in Leon’s truck. An orange glow lit their faces when Leon dragged on his cigarette. Michael parked his truck and got out. Sam opened his door and stepped out. They had both dressed in cargo shorts and mesh utility vests. Michael wore a red t-shirt beneath his vest. Sam wore a blue t-shirt and a canvas porkpie hat. He was more than a man in size, and his bulk still managed to surprise even those who saw him frequently. If he kept growing, he would soon rival Big Jean as the largest man in the county. He still wore a boy’s face, though. His cheeks were pink from the summer sun, but smooth and unblemished.
“Good morning, Father Bernard,” the boy said. He touched his brow with two fingers in a casual salute and stepped to the bed of the truck to retrieve tackle.
Michael held up his hand. “Not yet, Sam.”
The boy stopped and walked to the front of the truck. Leon and Guy stepped out of their trucks and joined them.
Sam smiled at the lot of them as they stood in a small circle. “I don’t think we’ll catch anything. The water’s moving too fast. Look at it.” He gestured to the river. “You don’t have to look. You can hear it.”
The solemn faces around him offered no response. Michael’s eyes darted between them. This wasn’t a good idea, but it would be over quick enough. There had to be a way to explain to Sam how this had come to happen, but that was for later.
Father Bernard released one hand from his bible and extended his arm, gesturing to the river. He walked wide of the group to the edge of the water.
Sam looked to his father, who nodded and nudged his head in the direction of the water. Sam took a step toward the water and stopped. “What’s going on, Dad?”
“Go on, Sam,” Michael said. “Go on down to the river.”
Guy snapped, “Boy, do what your pa says.”
Michael felt Leon’s eyes on him, again pinning him down. He looked to Leon, who brought a finger to his chin and ran the tip of it on the grey stubble. Leon said, “You go, too, Michael.”
Michael sucked in a breath to speak, but couldn’t find words. He was stuck in place, Leon’s stare or not. He heard the squeak of a car door opening and looked over to see Big Jean haul himself out of the passenger side of Leon’s truck and walk around the bed. Once he was clear of the tailgate, everyone saw the shotgun in his hands. Big Jean brought the weapon across his chest and pumped the slide handle. The scrape and sharp click of metal made Michael’s stomach jump.
“Go on,” Leon commanded. “The boy came from you.”
Michael’s hands trembled beyond his control. He turned to his son. The boy’s face was red. Tears perched on the ledges of his eyelids. “Dad.”
“Come on, Sam,” he replied. He took the boy’s cold hand in his own and put his other hand on his back. He turned his face to Sam’s ear and said in a low, plain tone, “Walk in front of me. Keep walking. Don’t look back no matter what.” It was the only protection he could offer.
Big Jean fell in line several paces behind them. He raised the shotgun to his shoulder and slid his finger inside the trigger guard.
Michael’s son stepped into the cool river ahead of him. The boy’s shoulders were convulsing and Michael knew he was sobbing, but the gushing river water muffled the sound.
Michael neither heard nor felt his own feet splash into the river. To his right and around a bend, the sun peaked over the top of the forest. To his left, Father Bernard held a hand in the air as he read aloud from the bible in the palm of his other hand. Michael couldn’t hear the words. He didn’t have to hear them to know they were wrong. They had always been wrong. Sam knew that. Of course he did. The boy had been brave in the face of all everyone had told him was right and true. He was not the one who had faltered.
I read a transcendent article on the craft of writing about two years ago. It came from Poets & Writers, which is a good source for a lot of things writing. The slant of the article dealt with using forward momentum in the plot of a story—and forward momentum only. Thanks for that, Benjamin Pearcy. I had never thought about that before reading “Don’t Look Back,” but the more I thought about it the more it made sense. I started to think about the stories I’ve used in my English and Creative Writing classes, and there it was all of a sudden, like a neon sign: Most of them used forward momentum almost entirely. And then a few other pieces fell in place about using dialogue to push a plot forward, and before long I had taken in a pretty damn important lesson about writing. In fact, I felt like I had take a big step forward. All I needed was a vehicle with which to practice, and of course since I was intentionally looking for a story to write, I couldn’t find one. I had to wait.
A few weeks after my “discovery,” the Michael Sam controversy broke as the NFL draft was approaching, and on my drive into work one morning an entire story dropped in my lap. Some news sources tried to make a story out of Sam’s father’s reaction to his son being gay, and a gear switched in my mind that opened a door, and out fell that story. I drafted it out over the next two days, being mindful of using forward momentum entirely, and felt pretty good about what I put out. It went through a few edits with a few friends, and I was heartened by comparisons to Shirley Jackson, who is one of my favorite short story writers. I felt pretty confident as I started sending it out.
No dice. It’s been rejected about 30 times, with only one “maybe.” The editors at Midwestern Gothic liked the story well enough and emailed me back with a suggestion about tweaking a few things and they’d reconsider it. I followed their suggestions and saw how it impacted the story, but still struck out when I sent it back to them. Finally, I entered it into a creative writing contest at the local public library, but no dice there, either. My final thought on the story is that it’s a good thing I have The Seeker! At least I can put the story somewhere where more people can see it. I’m going to put it up right now in two parts, the second to follow tomorrow.
Sure, this is a defeat because I couldn’t find a home for it. Big deal. I’m still learning a lot about fiction writing, and practice is so, so important.
Take Him to the River
By Jeff Burd
“Take him to the river.”
Leon said it. Michael looked up from the other end of the table where he had sunk into himself and was staring into his lap at his folded hands. Leon’s face was impassive. His grey eyes held Michael in his seat. Leon flicked the ash from the tip of his cigarette into the ashtray in front of him, and then let the remaining butt rest on the lip. He spoke in a low tone. “We’re going to stop this before it goes any further.”
Father Bernard sat on one of the long sides of the table and slowly nodded his head. The pale, loose skin under his chin creased and uncreased with each movement.
On the other side of the one-room lodge, Big Jean leaned over the pool table and struck the cue ball with his stick. The ball cracked against another ball, which dropped into one of the pockets with a dull thud. Big Jean stood up and turned to them. He let his stick slide through his hands until the bumper end thumped on the floor. “What if he starts this coming out crazy talk when he’s there?” He looked to Father Bernard, and then Leon, and then Guy, who was pouring Southern Comfort at the bar. He lumbered over to the table and sat down across from Father Bernard. “People are gonna start looking back at us. What will they think? We been pullin’ for Sam all along. Supporting him. The whole damn town.”
Guy moved to the table and sat next to Father Bernard with his whiskey in front of him. A sweet, pungent alcohol smell rose from the half-full glass.
Michael leaned back in his chair and folded his arms across his chest. “Sam won’t go for this. Maybe he’s confused. I’m not sure what to say to him. He won’t go for another baptism.” He looked to Father Bernard. “Sorry, Father.”
Big Jean tapped a fat finger on the table. “You’re still his pa.”
Guy piped in, “You still say what’s what.”
They were right, of course. They were alluding to one of the centuries-old founding philosophies of The Faithful Servants: To mainten the saintliness of family ordre. Michael knew all eight of them, the same as everybody else in the room. There was no arguing the philosophies, though Michael had absentmindedly opened his mouth to reply.
The lodge was quiet in a way that Michael had never experienced, like every aspect of the place had been engineered to shut down in a crisis so the brotherhood could focus. It seemed like even the cigarette smoke hanging in the air and the dark burlap curtains blocking the windows pressed noise down and away to create absolute still.
All eyes were on Leon, who still held Michael in his seat with his stare.
Michael knew he had said far too much, and now he wished he hadn’t said anything at all. It would be best to get in front of things before they got any crazier. “Why take him to the river? He’s been church baptized.” He looked to Father Bernard, who nodded. He continued, “I mean, that’s our ritual, too. I know that. But Sam’s not becoming a Faithful Servant. He’s too young.”
Leon shot back, “He will never be a Faithful Servant. It’s not allowed for him now.”
Guy broke his gaze from Leon and turned to Michael. “He’s right, Mike. Plus, he goes to campus and they’ll kill him in the locker room. Them linemen don’t go for that stuff. Nobody does. Sam wouldn’t have a chance.”
Leon nodded at Guy to continue. “Is that how you want it? You get a phone call from the coach or the athletic director?” Guy looked to his Southern Comfort. He seemed satisfied in having asked a difficult question.
Michael could only nod at what they were saying. A phone call would be bad. Maybe the river would work to wash away some of the notions the boy had brought up.
It was quiet again. Michael’s go-ahead was no longer a formality. The others had settled on what they must do.
Leon looked to Big Jean. “The river will wash this all away.” He had angled his hands off the table like he was trying to hold something down. He shook his head as he looked at Guy and Father Bernard. He returned his gaze to Michael. “Tell the boy you want to pull some blue cats out of the river. It’ll be a nice father-son thing before he goes away. And hell, maybe he needs to give you a chance to talk to him about what he told you.”
Michael shrugged and shook his head. It would be best to let them get this out of their system, and then he would never bring it up again. Never.
“Dawn tomorrow,” Leon commanded. “Not at the usual spot.”
Big Jean nodded. “There’s a spot downstream. Around a bend.”
I got to Milwaukee on Monday of Spring Break two weeks ago to see The Who. It was a delayed trip because the lads were supposed to play up there in October on the last leg of their 50th Anniversary tour, which is also their farewell tour. But viral meningitis stops for no man, not even leather-lunged Roger Daltrey. He contracted it, he recovered from it, and The Who found Milwaukee for only the third or fourth time ever. I’m glad I was there for one last head-smashing, ear-drum-bleeding, face-melting concert that I thought I’d be lucky to limp away from.
Well, it was a concert, at least. Some pre-show projections cautioned the audience not to smoke because Daltrey is allergic to smoke and it might inhibit his performance or be cause to end it. I have no issue with that, other than what I came to view as a traditional Who concert smelled a whole lot less like what I was used to. When I saw the band in 2012 on the Quadophenia tour, it took less than a minute after the lights went down and the band launched into “I Am the Sea” for a cloud of weed smoke to engulf The All-State Arena. Same with The Tweeter Center in 2002, except in all fairness most of that smoke was left over from Robert Plant’s opening set.
One can never count on Pete Townsend to be in good spirits, whether he’s sailing one of his boats, acquiring and editing books, recording in the studio, or playing live. That’s part of what you expect from the tormented genius. He heads the band that replayed a song at The Tweeter Center show in 2002 because it didn’t sound right. Before playing “Baba O’Riley” at a Chicago show 2007, Townsend made it clear how he’s always felt about the track: “We fucking hate this next song. The only reason we play it is because you love it.” He has also on numerous occasions said he doesn’t much care for Daltrey. I’ve always accepted this side of Townsend because I see it is a manifestation of his creativity and how exacting he is. I wish more artists felt free to express themselves in that manner. How strange it was, then, to see him in a jovial mood as he talked with the audience throughout the night. He joked about the extravagances of the rock star life (“back to the hotel at 3AM… bed by 9AM… wake up in late afternoon…”), and asked the audience to be patient with the band because they’re old and because “…we’ve done so many tours that there’s a chance you and I could be related.”
It took a good 45 minutes for the band to really start to fly. Daltrey struggled to get his voice going, and Townsend confided that he himself wasn’t feeling good and the audience would be able to tell in his singing. He was right, though he nailed a damn good gritty imagining of “I’m One.” Still, once they brought out “Join Together” complete with a live Jew’s harp, the boys were close as they could get to The Who at their full power almost 40 years ago. They rolled for another hour and fifteen minutes after that. My only disappointment was they opened with “Who Are You” rather than close with it or at least save it for when they were fully warmed up.
I expected it to be an emotional evening. There is no better rock band than The Who, and I’ve counted them as my all-time favorite band for more than half my life. I knew I would be watching mortality unfold on stage. I could never again play Who’s Next or Quadrophenia with the thought that I’d see the band live again. It was going to be a funeral. But there was a greater theme being played out throughout the night. The band still brought their game, still found a meaningful reason to tour beyond dusting off their greatest hits and grabbing cash, and still produced an excellent show. My ears weren’t ringing when I left (first time seeing The Who that they weren’t!), I wasn’t buzzed from alcohol or excessive weed smoke, and I didn’t feel like I’d been in a mosh pit or that I had lived every song. Instead, I felt satisfied knowing that the band met the audience at an intersection far down the roads from where both began. It was a point at which the band that played with a nihilistic bent when they were young and a fan base that was known to be rowdy and violent probably never thought they would or could meet. That’s all a gift. If the band can still do it in their 70s and people will still pay to see it, what’s to stop any of us from pushing on with our art? There’s no expiration date stamped on any of us until we decide to stamp it.
Let’s get this straight: I don’t much care for the NFL. I’ve had enough of the domestic violence, the buried concussion research, the cheating franchises, and the bumbling commissioner who can’t do much of anything about much of anything. This is to say nothing of the corrosive effect football has on public education, which I know a thing or two about. I’m as equally leery about nostalgia and its impact on professional sports franchises, especially here in Chicago. The problem in these parts is so chronic that most that people don’t realize that 1060 W. Addison has been the city’s designated nostalgia zone for generations and nobody has done much about it up until about two years ago. I’ve written about both these ideas in the past (here and here), but here I am considering both of them again. It feels awkward, but come this afternoon, I’ll be tuning into the Super Bowl, and my cheering preferences will be firmly rooted in nostalgia.
First, from the perspective of a less-than-casual fan, Carolina will likely run over Denver. I won’t be surprised to see a 20+ point blowout. It won’t bother me a whole lot if that happens, but I hope it doesn’t. I’m pinning my hopes on Peyton Manning and the notion that the old man has one last win in him. I’m sure I’m not the only man of a certain age or older who has pinned his hopes on #18. I don’t think it’s unusual to want him to pull off the improbable, if not impossible. He’s fought injury and PED accusations and criticism of his statistically worse year as a pro, but still is one step away from a championship. Don’t many of us find ourselves wistfully entertaining the notion that we, too, can pull out one last win? We might not dare to lower our shoulder into a linebacker, but somewhere in our mundane lives we fancy ourselves less spectator and more participant, and more victor than vanquished because we believe our moxie can make up for our shortcomings born from aging.
So what if Peyton fumbles in one more attempt to see the top of the mountain? There is still honor in the attempt. We’ll move on. Most of us already know how to cast off failures and cherish victories day to day.
One of the final prompts in this year’s PAD Challenge was “write an open letter poem.” I had been thinking about those confounding dead trees I see each day at the edge of the faculty parking lot at school, and decided on a whim to address those trees in my letter.
Ah, hell! The truth is that I’ve been pissed at myself for a few years for not being able to find out what those trees really mean to me as a poet. I decided as a last-ditch effort to make them the subject of this poem, and if it didn’t work out I was going to surrender to the notion of not being able to write a poem about them. Thankfully, this one worked out pretty well.
Oddly, this is the second poem I’ve written that has taken the faculty parking lot as inspiration. Here’s the other one from two years ago: Faculty Lot, January.
For now, though, here’s what I got out of the trees.
An Open Letter to the Dying Trees at the Edge of the Faculty Parking Lot
Winter has gnawed off your bark,
leaving you vulnerable to rot
in the wet of April and blisters
and dryness in August. You creak
and crack against the wind. Now
your spines are splintered and
you’re falling onto each other.
We know institutional abuses
relentless as time. We know
the ground is fetid and soft
with decay, but you won’t loose
your roots—you stand
austere and defiant each day.
I once worked with a woman who told a story about how every Thanksgiving her family would wait for their grandfather to finish eating and scoot his chair out from the table. He’d pat his belly and look around at whomever was giving him their attention, and announce for all to hear: That’s another Thanksgiving shot in the ass. Seems like a fitting post-script to the PAD Challenge this year, so I stole it.
I turned in my chapbook last week, thus completing the 2015 Writer’s Digest Poem-a-Day Chapbook Challenge. I wrote about this last November as it was kicking off, and posted a few poems from last year that didn’t make the final cut. Right now, I’m feeling my way around that strange landscape of a just-finished project that took a long, long time and a lot of effort and leaves you with a big empty feeling once it is complete. Not having several poems right in front of me demanding my attention is a strange sensation; my poems have been on my person or close enough to my person so much lately that I can probably claim them as dependents on my income taxes.
Thus are the after-effects of the PAD Challenge. It takes a lot of your time when you commit to it, which is one of the perks. You spend 2.5 months of your year in the process and not really worrying about when the muse will once again shit upon you. That first month is all about responding to the prompts, even if it is a few scratches in a journal as your eyelids grow heavier and heaver at 10 P.M. The second month is all about rewriting and reshaping and weeding out the weak stuff from the strong stuff. And if you’re like me, those last two weeks are dedicated to formatting your chapbook.
I guess it’s safe to say that I have a method for the PAD Challenge. Perhaps that method is what led me to producing what I think is a damn fine chapbook given the time constraints and my standing as a poet. And hell, modesty aside, I think this year’s is a damn sight better than the one I submitted last year. So many of my poems last year hinged on clever word play that I’m almost embarrassed. Word play might be cool for a poem or two every now and then, but there are far more sophisticated and respected poetic devices one should develop. I think I got to some of them this year and took them for a solid test drive.
I started to experiment with forms, which is good. My poems are usually about one stanza long and are deductive in their logic. I abandoned stanza form in numerous poems, but not the deductive reasoning. Maybe that will be next year’s goal: to be more inductive. Anyhow, I have multi-stanza poems, one that is a set of couplets, and another that is literally all over the page because I felt it should be all over the page. The PAD Challenge gives you license to do those types of things since you’re producing so many poems so fast that you don’t really give yourself time to stop and reconsider or second-guess yourself. Add that to the list of advantages of accepting the challenge, right behind “turning off the inner critic.”
There was an all-around different vibe to the challenge this year, and I’m still trying to get my head around it. It felt last year like I was producing a lot more and having a lot more free-wheeling fun with what I was writing, but that may have been due to the novelty of the act. I caught on a few days in to the whole deal, and worked furiously and joyfully at catching up and then staying caught up. I think, too, that I was looking at the writing as an escape from some life issues and thus got more out of it. The build-up this year was intense for me, knowing as October broached the horizon that the challenge was but a month off, and then that month was spent on baited breath until it was time to cut loose and write-write-write. I expected to shoot off like a rocket on November 1 and produce all kinds of verse both elevated and profound. It didn’t quite work that way, and I had to get in my own head and remind myself to let things come to me. Glad I did, because boy did things come to me once the challenge was in full swing and I had been writing for a week.
One of the best things to come from the challenge is that I finally wrote a poem about the dead trees at the edge of the faculty parking lot at school. For years now, I’ve left the building at the end of each day and looked at those damn trees, thinking there is something about them that is speaking to me poetically; something greater than them being trees and me being a teacher. I couldn’t put my finger on it for the longest time despite several efforts to write a poem about them, but something clicked during the challenge and I found the poem that had been calling out to me from the nether regions of my psyche. I’ll post it later this week with some comments.
So, who wants to check out a chapbook produced by an up-and-coming poet? Text the phrase “you ain’t no Bill Shakespeare ” to 847-528-2873, and I’ll reply with a pdf of Everything You Should Know… . And hey—thanks for reading!