Poetry in the Mainstream
Numbers 2 and 3
February and March, 1998
Barbara Fisher and Richard Spiegel
Thomas Perry, Assistant
Waterways is published 11 times a year.
©1998 Ten Penny Players, Inc.
How much punishment is enough?
When Hitler took his life in that crumbling bunker,
did you feel cheated?
If he had been tried and hanged,
would you feel better?
If he had been drawn, quartered, and fed to the animals,
would that even the score?
When we get around to killing all murderers,
should we put the noose, the switch, the gun, the syringe
in the hands of the victim's family?
When they have sprung the trap,
thrown the switch,
fired the gun,
pressed the plunger,
will the punishment finally be enough?
Though compassion is now out of fashion,
isn't it worth a shot? And, if so:
How much compassion is enough?
When the last gout of dirt was dropped on her grave,
I prayed for relief of guilt at being alive.
When the chimneys of Auschwitz sent smokes and smells around the earth,
I prayed for an end to killing and revenge.
I see my world torn with murderous intolerance,
and I pray for caring and peace,
Somebody out there! Say something!
The Kitchen Floor
I never knew about beat up pots,
or unpainted walls,
or what some may call the ghetto.
I just knew about the kitchen.
I never knew about dirty walls,
or unfresh water,
or what some might call a roach motel.
I just knew about the kitchen.
about beat up pots,
or beat up pans,
but I do
know about a beat up face.
my mother's face.
Night after night
I hid from the fear
that I could not erase.
And behind my mother's smile
was a frown
and a pain that I ignored.
The beating continued
he watched her
both sides of the bars
how long is life?
there is time
to squeeze through;
don't wait until
you grow big
as prison can become congenital,
something in the cells.
It was real bad being seven years old,
seeing the disappearance of my mother.
In the beginning there was a happy family
that cared for each other,
but outside, in my eyes, no one really cared.
After a while, I saw so many terrifying family situations.
I saw my oldest brother and my father smoking the crack vial,
stealing their son's and younger brother's toys to sell.
It took me years to smile.
In the bed one night I heard a scream.
I got up and looked around.
No one was there.
Going to the hallway,
upstairs in my building,
I saw my mother gasping for air,
with a knife stuck through the chest,
laying on her rear.
Life then fell.
Everything I did was heartless and illegal.
From one group home to a foster home to another,
Being abused by an aunt.
Felt as if no one could tell me anything.
And now I'm in jail, trying to do well,
because the last place I want to see is Hell.
Outside on a rainy day,
nowhere to go,
walking with the wind.
I feel like I've been walking
When I finally look up at the sky,
it's red with
The buildings are black,
I see guys talking to their girls,
girls talking to their men.
I look around me & see other
outside looking in.
Damn, I wish I were with
Damn, I wish I was inside,
Where the Light Falls
Georges de le Tour, The Newborn Child, Rennes
Abruptly, out of the immense dark,
a small circle of light picks out three,
holds them as they are, not still lifes
but pulsations of still life, awesome
as a Hebrew letter coming to a point,
softer, gentler, more iridescent spelled out.
A cameo carved with two women and a child.
Townspeople. The artist's mother
and his wife. Any older woman, mother, child.
Anne directing the light to fall on Mary
and hold in her gaze the child in her lap.
They look as if they had been to a shrine
and wear its medal of pilgrimage in their face.
Woman, behold thy son:
head in the full force of light,
eyes closed, nose a lump of unformed clay,
sleeping mouth open to what dreaming? --
swaddled or shrouded, destined
to live his death forever alive,
mysterious as the sperm of spirit
that brought him into blood.
She is at the Eucharistic table.
A light smile hovers around her mouth.
Her gaze is of such benignity and grace,
the Garden might never have ceased
to be the place she was in.
For the artist, current wars and plagues,
perplexities of anguish and jubilee
resolve in light for greater light,
the saving vista in the dark surround
of life. How is it possible,
with only paint overlayed for translucency
to create such translucency? --
where the light falls,
the near sight of all that matters.
She gives her gaze to the child,
the artist gives his to hers
and I -- I hold that gaze in my gaze.
Holy Holy Holy
oh, I shall never be the same again,
having looked into that light.
Hard Times for Job
No wonder he is firm in faith,
said Satan to God. You have been
so good to him. Put him on trial
and see how quickly he will denounce you.,
Easy times for Satan.
God was confident in his servant Job,
"there is none like him in the earth."
Hard times for a woman, one after another
their sons and daughters dead,
all their goods gone, her man
a useless thing, skin-and-bones
sitting in ashes, scraping his sores
with a bit of broken crockery,
the little left to them.
Hard times for a faithful man
asking why? why? --
listening to the empty thoughts of friends
only the Angel of the Lord
could answer for in light.
In Georges de la Tour's painting
she towers over him crouching
in his dark corner like the last
withered potato uncovered in winter.
She holds the candle from him.
It makes theater of her vivid red dress
and the strong vertical lines
of her ample apron.
She is too tall for the frame
and bends her head to him.
Only a gleam from the candle
reaches his gaunt eyes meeting hers.
In that still moment of the brush
does her open hand hovering over his head
reinforce her rebuking tongue or resist
the old conjugal need to touch?
"Curse God, and die."
He will not yield.
One God. One flesh.
This time, different for sure
"My name is Evelyn, and I'm an alcoholic and an addict,"
she said in a gravelish voice, full of despair.
"And I don't want my daughter to end up like me."
Her face showed years of booze and self-abuse, needles and pipes,
Going in and out of 12 step programs, each time pledging
to everyone but herself that this time it would be different.
"I just can't seem to get it for more than a few months; one
time I even injected my asthma medicine into my veins to try to get high,
and you know what? It didn't even work, and all I got was
bruises. Then, I thought, I know, I'll get them to
send me to jail and it'll all be over; that will straighten me out.
So I lifted yet another item from the rack, and got sent up to
the judge, and he said, 'Go straight to jail; do not pass go; do not
collect your child.' That was 6 months ago, and now I'm out
and now I have collected my child, my sweet little girl, that
baby I didn't even want and now love more than anything.
Please, God, don't let her turn out like me. Don't let her take
that first shot, the first needle, the first fist from a man. Well, at least
I'm back in these rooms for about the umpteenth new try,
and I think this time it'll be different. Yeah, for sure, this time."
Joy Hewitt Mann
The fat lady and her daughter
lean on the counter, peeling
Nevadas, throwing winners
toward the store owner,
tossing losers at the basket
I balance three cans of cat food,
four litres of milk
in my arms, clutch
a ten dollar bill in my fist.
The milk is cold against my chest
the money softening, but
they want their winnings in tickets.
The owner counts them out
by twos. I shift foot to foot
as milk bags slip lower, catching my breath
like the first movement of an unborn child.
while they close a deal for chips
and pop and a carton of cigarettes and
squeeze side by side through the door.
I smile at the woman behind the counter.
"Welfare cases, " she snorts.
The milk is on the counter.
I feel its ice deep in my breast.
The Creed of Eris - Joy Hewitt Mann
In his young limbs an ideology
is being born,
breached by the shine of his mother's wild hair.
He sees her tired summer eyes,
the sadness that imbeds like blown grit,
sees her face etched by the scalpel
of a harsh winter. But still
her hair shines, flying out untamed,
reminding him of books he reads in secret.
Her hair is caught on icebergs,
lifted by Arctic terns to float
above the frigid clouds;
in jungles it rests on flowers two feet wide
that smell of her flesh, rides
black fur rippling like liquid coal, padding
with the sound of a baby's breath.
He sees the new sister sucking at her breast,
watches tears counted out like beads,
her sigh like a wind
that will break his heart.
Joan Payne Kincaid
All You Need
That little house you couldn't wait
to browse into reality
moved you into a box
that stole away the world;
confined forever within
pretty little baby-safe walls
digging holes for egg and sperm
of supposed immortality
one could only peek longingly
and pole compacted body parts
in contact with interiors
and paddle undergrowth
to search out wistful things
near some safe sort of suffocation
in immortal mortar...
on your menu.
The way to do changes through the ages
in Medieval times they were not thought of
as children the way we think of children,
but rather as smaller versions of adults.
Benjamin Spock brought an enlightened view
which often was misinterpreted in the 60's;
parenting should be creative;
children should be loved for their individual
differences and capabilities and respected
the way adults should (but often do not)
respect each other. He brought into play
the wonder and uniqueness of being young
and encouraged stewardship of these qualities
rather than such previous attitudes as children
should be programmed, seen and not heard...
or spare the rod and spoil the child.
As I look back on how I raised my two children
the best analogy I can choose seems to be a garden
you plant and tend with wonder, love
and tender observation of each ensuing stage;
encouraging growth through attention and intention,
tempered with devoted freedom;
a lot of hard work and patient to try to get it right,
allowing them to flower as they will,
encouraging them when they are ready
to go out and plant gardens of their own.
Mother with Child
i hug close my baby five days old and feel
for concrete steps down how steep i cannot see
the ratty loud dog nipping my ankles and yapping
at my knees. i carry her close my sunday child i know
for sure is mine and i am hers no matter what
fright is in this place what voices thunder down or
yelp up at us. we are one body my 5 days' baby
and i an older child torn from school before
i learned the language of bodies.
a doorjamb a narrow
a dimlit room the loud dog leads us in and is scolded
out. i hold her close the little one who loves me and
bump against a cot against the far wall
and lie down with her the cot flat and low
to meet us where we are still together and nothing
can pull us apart now we've found our need and answer
one with other. she is mine and i am hers
waif-mind thinks detention the naked lightbulb
bars on windows and the jeers but gives way
to other knowing this is a holding space
for baby in my arms baby holding me where we belong
one with other warm and blind in a cave. sudden shelter.
i hold and hold her she gives me life
for the future for interminable apartness.
it is i who know we'll not be this close
again who cry because she doesn't know.
horizontal i hold and hold her. around us
there is wall ceiling floorboards a frayed rug.
that door will let us through once more be vertical.
doctors say she is frail and i am hardy.
they scan tables where according to
statistics she will die and i shall live.
and i cannot imagine how they lie
but i will understand that by and by.
When the bill comes in
don't you think I should pay it?
After all they saved his life
He'd be dead if they hadn't put him in detox
It's the right thing to do isn't it
to pay the bill?
her voice deepening
as she waited for my response
But you don't have any money
I'll work out a payment plan
After all they did save his life
You know he'd be dead
if they hadn't taken him in
And it is the right thing to do isn't it
to pay the bill
because they saved his life?
And if they hadn't,
What if he'd had the alcohol fueled
climactic electric surge
drinking drinking drinking
to stop the pain - fear still rampant
time frozen in the then
the now yet of a 17 year old soldier in Vietnam
33 years gone
but still crawling
nights of torment
drinking drinking drinking to kill fear
And would it still have been the right thing to do
to pay the bill
even if you had no money
and you needed to work out a payment plan
if the patient left in a body bag
Richard Alan Spiegel
Are we contained in cardboard boxes?
Prison cells? Bureaucracies that shut
us off and turn the locks are staking
psyche's territory; but we collude
too easily, taking what we find
at hand then brooding over changes.
These bureaus contain moments
of yesterday's crash. Unclocked
comments race with fantasies
and lies along the synapse
of knowing, while pretenders
to power stay doggedly perched.
What holds the aging errors
of Eros? What frames the delusions
in the East Side galleries?
All certainties tumble as fractals
upon the once upon a time
as the telling is tongued.
I drove out to Rikers Island
to meet with teachers
students and the principal
who was making
pancakes for the paras.
is a prefabricated rectangle,
a warren of classrooms
with a bubble
for the c.o.
Ten years ago
inmates were painting
the walls, preparing
for the new school;
now students exhibit
their art in a glass case.
And that force directing each motion
to turn in upon itself without
opening the self to another's
grasp -- must contend with a counter force
turning on the outside of the act
and closing upon the gesture's aim.
Who's held in place beside me,
for the moment, will gather
momentum in the current
of speech; each word is ledgered
leading to our redemption.
There are frequent exemptions
flung shivering into the dreadful
uncertain. Memories hold
the times she would dance upon a whim,
take pleasure for her comfort,
and weep her passage in ecstasy.
from their class
or barred entry
to their school
will still be taught.
After hiding under
tables and over-
turning desks, he
came with me
to the computer lab
to tell his story.
Then he wrestled
With uncertainty I trace your form
dissolving into random day dreams,
into a tense soft sung turbulence
bleeding through the silent and still touch
where I lose myself in curves of light,
planes of pressure, and the open chord . . .
We play at school studiously
that disperse and reassemble,
afloat in whirlpools, rapids,
vortices, calms, and eddies.
Your city, with her sorrows
in hiding like fugitive lovers
who look out soot paned windows
on ambiguous grey stained courtyards
abiding lost years' secrets,
borrows solace from urban jug bands.
That painting - I've half hidden
with books, cassettes, head phones,
and electric boxes - is not easy
to contemplate, though it makes
a bold and striking statement
in yellow, green and black.
Working in acryllics, she once
painted - on the bathtub in the kitchen
of the railroad apartment
we sublet on East Fifth Street
near Avenue A - flower petals,
but this painting
is a city scape . . .
Everybody thinks that he's the only one that's flawed
or that he has a particularly magnificent and disgusting
flaw that no one else could possibly have or even imagine.
And, of course, that flaw is a secret that must be kept
because to divulge it would mean instant and total rejection.
So we each sit there in his cave holding tightly to his
secret -- which, of course, we pretend we don't have -- and
then talk about other things, the weather, our favorite
movie star, or better still, we watch TV and don't talk
at all. And all this time we're guarding our secret flaw
for fear that the other person will discover it and all
hope of intimacy will be forever and totally destroyed.
Meanwhile, of course, any hope of intimacy has vanish.
What to do? What to do? It never occurs to us to simply
blurt it out. No, that would be too disgusting, too
shameful. Instead, we let the moment slip. And one
moment slips into another and we're tobogganing into
nowhere. And still we sit and nurse our awful secret while
our dreams at night get stranger and stranger and our dreams
by day get lonelier and lonelier until we're the only person
left in the whole world. And all this happens without it
once occurring to us that the other person might be equally
flawed and equally alienated and just waiting for someone
to come along who is also flawed enough to understand. No,
it never once enters our mind that that fluidness and that
alienation of which we're so ashamed just might be a bond,
that if all of us are alienated, then alienation itself is
a part of our common ground.
from Hammers, Evanston, Illinois, 1997
Ten Penny Players