photo by Harry Rajchgot, 2014
I wouldn’t recommend the roadside.
And not on such a desert straightaway
where every passing car
kicks up a cloud of dust.
In a ditch of all places
and so small,
your roots get by
on water memory,
a sun-scorched pebble.
But plants – not even cactus –
ask me the best place to prosper.
Seeds nestle down where they are blown
and try to make the best of it.
Besides, why else would an Australian be
on this highway in New Mexico?
A seed – an adaptation –
you have to believe
you can bear fruit anywhere.
photo by Harry Rajchgot, 2010
This chaotic jazz suits my mood
after the frenetic day I had
Heavy on the drums
Brassy cymbals clashing
Piano pounding and lively
Scaling up and down
trying to keep up
with the beat
A lone horn sings out
Edgy and soulful
Leading the session several
golden shimmering moments
before backing off
To allow a bebop
walking bass line solo
Notes wrap around one another
Entwined in a dance
for the auditory sense
Jazz beat lines up with heart beat
I relinquish myself to
the new pulse
photo by Harry Rajchgot, Montreal Jazz Festival, 2016
Sown from the teeth of a birch tree
lashed together she
lives in a graveyard
paints a poem after Auschwitz
using Zyklon B gas
with a bundle under her arms
never took that photograph
the ghost plaint: here
remember the crematoria
living inside barbed wire
armed SS guards.
“Where are we going?”
Those feared as the other.
Those who rode in cattle cars.
Those whose voices silenced
fifty kilometres west of Kraków
Rajiya in the work camp.
Her only possession
a red knitted cardigan,
made by her Bubbe.
photo credit: Dr. Fred Leitner, Auschwitz-Birkenau, Poland, 2012
Iris observes a sparrow at the apex and remembers
Today, cold December sun streamingly rushes –
bright radiant light downpours the stone wall,
where a sparrow clings in the mist and Iris
wonders what it is holding onto. A flat wall?
No, not entirely, there is a high raised relief
an embossed concrete line which it clings to
in mourning light – much like a Mycenaean
stele marking the borderline between the
world of the living and the world of the dead.
Dark-cloud eyes flashed thunder; and lightning
must have struck open her chest because a sparrow
was pecking through the bloodworms of death.
Humble print of the Pietà hung and from
Madonna’s eyes tear-shaped garnets fell like
a broken string of pearls spreading hopelessness
all over the Carrara marble corridor.
Over-stretched leather covering of her heart
drummed out a faint death-beat march. Not shaking
of a rattler’s tail, but a dull-weakening beat.
The line on the monitor’s screen flattening.
And there was nothing for Iris to hold onto.
One large lethal tear slid dangerously down
rode over the high horseshoe cliff of her chin
the way a black and white movie once shown
a man inside a barrel riding over Niagara’s rushing
white waters shattering into the sudsy
foaming jaws of splintering death.
The shivering sparrow pressed against stone – Gone
photo by Harry Rajchgot, 2017
M. A. Istvan Jr.
She would masturbate to the magazines
that she found behind her father’s workbench.
Shaved bald, the females seemed as young as her.
That made her okay with fantasizing about them.
It was easy—and helpful—to be unclear
about whether she was lusting for those bodies
or was imagining herself to be one of them.
photo by Harry Rajchgot, 2017
Solitary and slightly apart from my twin sister and brothers and three cousins, I would slip away to the single backyard swing attached to high poles cemented into the earth in my aunt’s back yard. At first I just sat there and swayed, with feet just off the ground, but soon I tipped back to hang on my arms, holding tight onto the chains attached to the seat of the swing with sturdy bolts. From that up-tipped position, I could see the slow spidery trail made by the tips of my hair in soil scuffed to powdery dust by previous feet, the hot sun on my tender throat, in a trance until the heat and hanging upside down made me too dizzy. I would sit back up slowly, to fully feel it: the surge, a streaming sweetness in my stomach. And then I would push up, and up, and up again, my feet hard against the earth and then not, finding the exact rhythm with arms and legs and torso, swinging higher and higher. With each downward swoop, sometimes I’d sing, in my soft schoolgirl voice: “SOME-how, SOME-day, SOME-where..”, my hair, unloosed from its tight plait, a dark warm animal rushing past my face on the high backward push, and dusty from where I let it drag again as I gave my body over to the sway of slowing down.
For a while after, my sweaty palms carried the imprint of chain links and smelled of bitter iron.
Vintage image from Wikimedia Commons.
Strange how a tree heals, its cells diverging,
creating a different path around the wound
for water to flow from the roots to the leaves,
the wound covering over with sap,
becoming a dark knot.
When I remove limbs from these wild trees,
I want them to heal into a dark knot,
but I never know where to make my cut.
Too close to the trunk, the wounds will not heal,
not close enough and new limbs will grow next summer.
Wild trees lined both sides of Ridgeview Road,
the shortcut Bryan and I walked to and from school
to avoid the older kids and their bullying.
We’d talk about our favorite kung fu movies
and attempt their kicks,
feeling we were hard to see in the shade of those trees,
and not thinking how someone could hide behind them.
But my son thinks about that, these trees outside his bedroom,
their branches smacking his window as he tries to sleep,
and for him I trim and cut them.
I hold a limb and work the saw and tell myself
I am holding one of his nightmares
and try to imagine its shadow,
the creature it becomes at night
as I tell myself again I am holding his nightmare.
In the shadows of the trees, walking home,
Bryan and I were arguing about a kung fu movie
and the hero’s amazing kick, one foot rooted to the ground,
the other smack up against the bad guy’s head,
an impossible act for any man, yet one we believed.
Bryan stopped by a large, white mailbox and tried it,
kicking the air beneath the mailbox.
I said, No, higher, and kicked the air above the mailbox,
neither of us seeing at the far end of the gravel driveway
the old man in the doorway of his garage.
He yelled at us, stood up, and raised his shotgun.
We ran, clearing the tree on the other side,
the wind from the shot breezing past my back,
bits of bark and wood hitting my jacket.
One could see the damage done,
a chunk of tree level with our heads, missing,
the wood blonde and bleeding, sticky with sap.
We used to laugh at the idea of anything being dangerous,
would want to touch and explore any wound,
study how it would heal, wait for the crusty darkness of a scab.
My trees now trimmed, I hope for healing,
hope for sunlight to fill my son’s window,
the shadows now dead limbs piled on the ground,
the naked space opened above them among the leaves
an emptiness only memory can fill.
photo by Harry Rajchgot, Montreal, 2017
10 below zero in the first
blinding light of a sunday morning and
they are slaughtering prophets
down on main street
air freezes in your lungs
when you try to scream
woman i love sleeps and
dreams of all the
days before we met
i am too goddamned old to keep
laughing off this pain
that has come to define us
image by Harry Rajchgot, 2017
Off the Track
At Creel we paid the two pesos
to see the woman living in a cave
the way her ancestors did,
soot on the walls, darkness and wood smoke,
newborn in arms and the older boy
running and running in circles.
We caught the train west,
saw the chasm at Barranca del Cobre
through the charcoal smoke of taco vendors,
bought a basket made from branches,
as supple and fierce as human thighs.
Back on the rails, we stretched
our heads from the platform between cars,
the wind remaking our faces
into shapes we could only imagine.
We thought of the Tarahumara,
somehow immune to the heat
running barefoot through the desert,
scaling the hot clay inclines,
keeping up with the deer.
Approaching the trestle we slowed
as if coming upon an accident,
but below, among the pines,
near the bottom of a vertical world,
the coach cars had lain for years,
positioned like disjointed limbs,
undergrowth pushing through their frames.
The Sister Between
She is like a strong
breeze layered in
sheets over old shale
& even when free to
flow she’s still brittle
& though young she’s
strung between her
head in the sky & her
feet on a line drawn
in the middle of a
road laid over a land
not yet geologically
dead to make it real
she needs to feel she’s
more solid than air yet
lighter than secrets
she’s stashed deeper
down in the strata.
Ruth Z. Deming
To please Dr Cynthia
I said I’d get a
though it is.
The Mary Sachs Breast
Center right around the
corner fit me in
like a lost library book
assuming its rightful
place on the shelf.
Judy was my dark-haired
host. The all plastic
machine was a marvel
with Plexiglass shelves
that lovingly bore
down on each breast.
They seem to get bigger
with time, I said, making
polite conversation, to her
I helped her lay each
appendage on the
shelf, arm clasping
and chin held high
like a Tolstoy princess
Then held my breath
one two three
one two three
until Judy, who
Febreze, told me
to relax, like a
stiff soldier, and
finally bade me go
Come round to my
house on the upward
slope of Cowbell Road.
No one feels my breasts
anymore. Let’s get
acquainted. What kind
of foods shall I
pleasure you with.
Perhaps later on
you’ll make me feel
like a college kid
on my first date.
So I’ve Heard
It was fated that we meet
that we stop and speak in passing
that I reveal to you the softness
of my velvet wounds of sorrow
my mirror eyes.
And I came to dwell with you
and you showered me with jewels
you fed me what I did not know I hungered for
As you learned to dodge my mirrors, as you disciplined
your hooded eyes.
In return I showed my sign
then extracted vital essences from arteries unopened
finally caught you
in elaborate deception.
This is the way they say you’re telling it.
she loved punk rock
on her arm
was drunk or bored
usually was on Tuesdays
in her flat
a kale salad
Perhaps she should have been
an actor – shyness not
uncommon in that profession,
so expressive is her beauty:
That sober furrow between her brows
A coy wink,
Fireworks of joy.
But never self-pity
Not even when she told me
“I guess we were too happy” he said
Words still solace then
He could summon none
That day I called
After the treatments had begun
She upstairs in the dollhouse cabin
The girl and boy playing some quiet game
At the table
Beside their empty soup bowls
And never on those Friday nights
Her face bleached tight
The week of chemo in Halifax,
The four hours in the car,
And still ahead, that long hill home
Only once did I see her cry
Her hair was as thick gold again
As long, as straight
As the perfect rows of her garden
Shiny as the pale scar
Below her neck
Our house was cold that day the floors muddy
The furniture in the truck
We were leaving her and she was late
Almost too late
To say goodbye
artwork by Adrienne Carrier
new york city
a hot summer day
crowding the streets
museums shops restaurants
all the sidewalks
bulging with tourists
cameras always at ready
logging their future memories
on this day
I play the visitor
in a very cool coach
gliding down fifth avenue
gawking at the store windows
bursting with sightseers
jostling for breathing spaces
expropriating my stomping grounds
my gilded carriage an air conditioned city bus
ALEXANDRA IN ISTANBUL
New to the city,
she spends afternoons
rehearsing the shapes of clouds.
One day, they’ll reappear
in a notebook
with names of friends
she’ll have forgotten.
She swears the city
won’t swallow her, leave her
unconcerned if she’s the will
to get up, go home. I was
Alexandra, and walked
through Taksim Square
in the rain in November.
They sold me poison sandwiches,
seats for movies
that never played.
I am waiting to go home.
But the tangerines this fall
on Ergenekon Street
have just begun to sweeten,
and the bonito for sale
on the Bostanci sea-road
glisten in the morning.
Alexandra will put these away
for later, images of a lost world
when the calm of Gdansk
grinds her and the Long Market
on the Baltic becomes shadow.
-photo from creative commons zero
Cowell Ranch State Beach,
south of Half Moon Bay, California
Once an entrance to Aldo Giusti’s
many-acred field of brussel sprouts. Now
the twelve-foot metal gate’s chained shut, holds
back the headland fennel, canes
clawing damp air, rising lumpy with snails
climbing in slow, mute panic.
It couldn’t open anyway, without the chain:
bumpy ox-tongue thistle
and frilly poison hemlock clog
the gate’s swing-arc. On its face, wrought
in iron, a huge blue whale painted white, not blue
—rusted iron spoiling through,
flaking. From his blowhole he spews
an iron fountain, dribbling rust, raises
his curly fluke high into stylized waves
that surge along the upper rail, his tiny
dorsal fin submerged below them.
His throat grooves are
what I like best, rendered by the welder
like a Caddy Eldorado’s grille—rods of iron
parallel, criss-crossed by plowed crop rows
you see between them. Like me,
the whale heads seaward, ocean
half a mile out the gravel track.
An information plaque, pulpit-wide, erupts
right there in hemlock, pedestal flecked
with delicate wild-radish flowers.
It tells, though, about agriculture, how Italians
brought the artichokes, how brussel sprouts
began in 1909, now the coast’s
most lucrative crop.
What I wanted, of course,
was a whale story, perhaps a story
of a particular whale who liked
to breach, whose lobtailing fluke
inspired the gate, how he filtered krill
through his comb-like baleen and didn’t
need teeth, how he was warm-blooded
and had a four-chambered heart.
Like most Hopi, my great-grandfather, Wilson Pentiwa, expected to spend his entire life on Third Mesa near Orayvi, but a doctor from Jersey City who would visit the reservation each summer, offered to repair the failing heart of his infant son, the man I now call grandfather. That was how Wilson, his wife Elizabeth, and their boy, Alban, came to live on Dudley Street where the old Morris Canal met the Hudson River.
Although thousands of miles lie between our family home in the shadow of Manhattan and the land of his birth, great-grandfather made sure each generation learned, and more importantly never forgot, our Hopi heritage. As I sat with him beneath the grape arbor he had built in the small yard behind the three-story brick tenement, he turned to me and whispered, “It is my time to return to Orayvi.” When I told my father, his face lost all color.
My father and grandfather gathered the family around the kitchen table and prepared us for the old ones’ departure. Grandfather asked which of the young ones would travel with him to Orayvi. My brother and cousins were more interested in baseball and the girls of St. Aloysius School, so he turned to me and said, “Would you honor my father?”
I agreed and it was set.
Grandfather steered the old Ford van out onto the New Jersey Turnpike, but long before we reached the Delaware River, he exited and followed what he called a blue highway.
When I asked why he left the faster road, he smiled. “This journey is not about speed, but passage.”
I sat in the front, holding frayed maps and watching gas stations, diners and billboards slip past my window. In the back, great-grandfather sat silently next to his wife of seventy-four years. With the river that separates New Jersey and Pennsylvania just beyond trees that lined the steep bank, great-grandfather asked his son to stop. Once we were parked on the gravel shoulder, great-grandfather stepped slowly from the van and stood with his arms outstretched and palms upturned.
“What is he doing, grandfather?”
“He is thanking the spirits who inhabit the land through which we travel for their generosity.”
Never having been west of Philadelphia, I was taken by the breadth of America and the varied landscapes that filled the windshield: forested mountains, grassy mounds followed by endless wheat fields, then wide prairies, and finally red rock spires. Somehow, great-grandfather knew just when to pay homage to the spirits of each; the Lenape in New Jersey, the Monongahela in Pennsylvania, the Miami in Ohio, the Osage in Oklahoma, the Cheyenne in Texas, and then, the Comanche in New Mexico. But, with each stop he seemed to weaken until we neared Shungopavi, where he could barely leave the van.
Nothing prepared me for the sight of those flat top mesas rising from the desert floor like great tables on which massive white clouds perched. Though unable to describe it, I felt a primal connection that at once was completely new, yet strangely familiar.
We arrived at Orayvi late in the afternoon as the sun sat low in a western sky that stretched from horizon to horizon. Great-grandfather led the way to a small adobe just beyond the others. “That is the place of my birth,” he said in a weary voice.
Though it looked abandoned, the old building had been swept free of cobwebs and dust. Shelves had been stocked with fresh cornmeal and lard and eggs. Neatly folded blankets and laundered sheets lay atop the wood frame beds.
“Grandfather, did you tell them we were coming?” I asked.
Great-grandmother prepared a meal of mutton and black beans. Afterwards we sat on a wooden bench along the outer wall of the adobe and, while bathed in gold, watched the sun slowly fall behind Howell Mesa. We said nothing, but became a single unit in that aurulent glow.
A final glimmer of sunlight reflected in the tired eyes of great-grandfather who, to save the life of his son, walked away from everything he held sacred, including his standing as a leader of his clan. Not once did I hear him utter a word of regret.
Indigo shadows climbed the mesa and shrouded us in their dark grip. Great-grandfather reached out and took hold of great-grandmother’s hand. Then, he turned to me and said,
“We are again part of this place. You, grandson of my son, will come here and take my place.”
Knowing nothing but the streets of Paulus Hook, I dismissed his words as the addled ramblings of an old one. But, I did not sleep well that night. My eyes would blink open when there was only silence. Then, the rhythm of great-grandfather’s shallow breathing from across the darkened room soothed me. In the soft gray of early morning, I heard stirring about the small adobe; then, “Edward, get up.”
I leapt from the bed, afraid of what had happened during the night. There was great-grandmother standing by an old black cast iron woodstove, making a breakfast of speckled eggs, blue corn pancakes and fry bread. Great-grandfather sat at the table smiling and motioning for me to join him. We ate in silence. The melancholy of the previous night was gone; replaced by a new serenity.
With the meal finished and the dishes cleaned, we walked outside and made our way to the eastern edge of the mesa where we sat on mother earth. The evening before, we bid farewell to the setting sun; but this day we welcomed the warmth of another as it lit the wide plateau beneath First Mesa. Long morning shadows shrank as the sun climbed high into a cloudless turquoise sky.
Great-grandfather spoke softly, “Son, today take Edward to Kykotsmovi. Tell the council he will assume my place. They will know what to do. Go now, before the rain.”
Though I spun in every direction, I saw no clouds overhead, only two distant puffs sitting like dandelion blossoms on the southern horizon.
Grandfather rose, signaling for me to accompany him. I wanted to stay; to have more time with the old ones. Great-grandfather asked me to kneel beside him. “Edward, you make me proud. You will be wise like few men. Embrace your great-grandmother; then, go with your grandfather. Remember, let the eagle guide you.”
Great-grandfather coiled his arm around my shoulder and pulled me close. I felt his hot breath on my neck, his leathered skin against my own and recognized the scent of sage in his shirt. I held him tightly until grandfather called again.
Great-grandmother looked at me, smiled; and whispered, “Your time is nearly here.”
Then, she pressed into my hand a small silver disk bejeweled with cabochons of turquoise, obsidian and jasper. It was the medallion great-grandfather had made and given her the day they married. I stroked her downy hair one more time. On my way to the van, I stopped. “Wait, grandfather, please.”
“Edward, don’t make this harder than it is,” he cautioned.
I ran back to the small rock ledge on which they sat. Crouching between them, I gathered both in my arms and forced out what had burned in my throat since the day we left Dudley Street, “I love you, my teachers.”
Our barter was now complete: they had given me wisdom for my journey, and I, my love for theirs.
Grandfather and I rode to Kykotsmovi and met with the tribal elders. They shared stories of my great-grandparent’s marriage ceremony in Orayvi; the birth of their first child, my grandfather; and, what they had done to help the Eagle Clan. Even though two thousand miles separated my great-grandparents from the people of the village, they somehow knew all that had transpired in their lives back east. We remained with the elders until midafternoon and my head swam with the tales they told. Then, in a sacred ceremony, I was welcomed as Wilson Pentiwa’s heir to his position in the clan. We returned to the adobe, but finding it empty we walked around back.
Great-grandfather and great-grandmother still sat where we had left them that morning; but now they leaned against one another, like a young couple planning their future. Grandfather circled around them; knelt; and, gently placed his hand first on great-grandfather’s eyes, then on great-grandmother’s. He called, “Edward, please help me. Hold great-grandfather.”
I cradled his cool body in my arms as grandfather eased his mother down next to sagebrush nearly as tall as I. Great-grandfather fell back into my arms and I rested him alongside his wife. Grandfather prayed aloud for them in the language they had taught him.
I peered across the plateau below us to see an eagle and its mate soaring on an updraft along the mesa cliff. No more than thirty feet from us, they arced to the right and climbed high in the sky, disappearing into the glare of the white-hot sun.
Two menacing dark clouds approached from the south. Large raindrops began hurtling to earth and exploded in bursts of dust at our feet. In minutes, the rain fell steady and hard.
Grandfather said the old ones’ earthly bodies were being cleansed while their spirits were being lifted on the wings of those eagles.
Seven years later I left Jersey City for good and made my way back to the village. A pair of eagles circled high overhead as I drove the final mile up the gravel road to Orayvi.
-photo Creative Commons Zero
Michael Lee Johnson
like a stagnant
rain water with moss
floating on top-
Oh, it’s not such
a bad deal,
chilled in the
middle of a sentence
like an old grandfather clock,
hands stretched straight in the air
like a final
-photo Harry Rajchgot
When a night is named
This is how I will keep you,
wrapped in Christmas lights.
Above me, you shiver like kite skin.
My young body is vanity
I thought I could be a home for anyone
But you, like light, are swelling
in a place I can’t touch,
you are rolling like the shadow
of a cloud.
-photo Harry Rajchgot
I know your skin,
the bitten place behind
your knee. I know
from being peeled,
from being cleaned
in your small room,
moulding like pleated skirts,
a place I can fall to
when I need to be anyone.
Leaving Your Bed
When the quiet is silenced by sunlight
Stretching itself languidly over your skin
I see morning, unmasked.
A murderer! A criminal who sneak
On pointed toe into this bedroom to take last night.
When I fell to sleep upon your lips.
Morning was loud of envy. Morning, the inevitable nuisance
Policing laze and comfort. Calls me aside
And pats me down. Morning bathes us in false heat, false
Light and heralds the interruption of day. The fiend is unrelenting.
He comes with the sun and swears to be a soldier of
Good. Know, lover, that the badge he presents is
Morning is a jealous thief. Me from You, You from Me.
You are taken from me upon the contract of day.
Taken away, your blush, your smile draped like silk upon your lips.
Taken away, the arm resting above your
Hair. Fingers telling me to move forward. Too hot for covers,
Your body is embraced by lecherous Morning.
The bastard winking at me as he touches you.
What is Morning
But a thief in the day, masquerading as a new beginning
When it is but an end.
For I must leave your bed.
I have been to Babi Yar
a silent, sad earth
leafless chestnut trees, poplars, roses
inscribed in the sand of skulls
Symphony No 13 adagio
I couldn’t even ask:
Who is the bass soloist?
Baritone of speech song.
Fenced in with barbed wire
on the outskirts of Kiev
and Dokhturova Street
beyond the Jewish cemetery.
A male chorus.
Cellist on this recording
cordoned off by SS soldiers
you couldn’t hear the shooting
September 29 1941
in a ravine at Babi Yar and there, I don’t know
a child. I touched her face.
Reservations are suggested with changes
except most of us are unaware
that we have travelled on a
one way journey until
we have reached its destination.
And whether suddenly or,
through insipid pace,
no desired accommodation
awaits our arrival.
It would be best to book in advance
a fortress to steel oneself against
any damages, loss or theft
and then affix a DO NOT DISTURB sign on
Seeds encased in jack pine cones
require fire to release their kernels
and spur new growth to an aging forest.
But restoration has no confirmed date.
tangle against each other
and in successive days,
block out more light.
Changes can betray you.
They have a life of their own,
that intersect our itinerary
and shove us against time.
We grasp past moments
to regain balance,
but remain all the while,
the startled tourist.
“The only journey is the one within.”
~Rainer Maria Rilke
To know what it is
to be cracked open
wide as the world –
Heart open as the sky,
and part the path for
that kind of space.
To uncover the buried blessings
of your pain;
To know that you will never again
be the same –
Your borders, boundless.
To feel the earth collapse
under your feet
your ability to fall,
To no longer run
from the wounds
of your past.
into the darkness
and mine the gems.
To arrive, again
to further journeying,
To face unafraid
the plans that you’ve made
and to know
your plans are traced
To make peace with this.
To slide back
into your story,
become its hero.
To celebrate the pulse of Life
here, now, this –
Arriving home gently
with loving welcome.
Marlena “Zen” Johns
Glass shards fall.
Like the leaves of an autumn tree,
Baubles cover the ground.
Hands deflect a shower of
Splintering, slicing slivers,
Like threads of insulation.
My tiny paper cut scars
Staining maroon seat covers.
My husband continues,
Smashing car windows with fist and club.
Bloody marriage knows no laws.
Vows protect heinous crimes.
Degradation follows destruction,
And police watch, bystanding pedestrians
As a stream of broken lives pass Go,
And no one sits in Jail,
The community chest’s gift-
Get out of jail, scot-free.
We know, we strangers, we
who stand on the platform
to each other.
Her mother’s breast aches—
in the morning, especially.
Perhaps it’s how she sleeps,
or the fall breeze,
the crack where the window
won’t close. But we’ve foreseen
the issue already, the tender
flesh spidery and weak.
Or the man whose wife
disappears most Wednesdays,
the breakfast plates
in the sink, her best pants
specially creased. She’s not
going for the sale on sheets
at the English Home Boutique.
She’s desiring another latte
with the man with nice hair.
These people speak to us
with glances, as we listen
for our trains and wait.
-photo Harry Rajchgot