Queries for Keats
Why did you walk through twenty-five
miles of November rain
in a flimsy springtime waistcoat,
immune to thoughts insane?
Did you think death was no more
than a laudanum dream –
an apparition murmuring
of that not fully seen?
But you knew it had arrived
like the Italian sun
in your fevered rooms in Rome
of breathless consumption.
Did you ever hear portents
in the nightingale’s song
that you wouldn’t live to Wordsworth’s age
or even half as long?
A Query for Clare
Why did bird song stay in your head
from Emmingsale’s heath
where Night Jars called and the hawk
whistled like a thief?
You didn’t heed the cold-eyed
men of science in London
who peered through the sterile glass
at the corpses of robins.
Ignorant henchmen of commerce
lived in that city,
their black thorn hearts icy toward
How could they hear other bird tunes
as nightingale music
which you still heard within the walls
that housed lunatics?
Teddy Bricks, my one-time ursine companion,
slouches in a corner chair – his faded green
vest and feathered Robin Hood cap askew.
His metal limbs are old and twisted.
When I wind him up, he can no longer
execute his mechanical somersaults.
Sad in disrepair, he commiserates
with my sister’s bear, Teddy Bebe,
who’s grown pudgy and moth eaten.
Now they rest in the spent morning’s
shadows, as I reach for my shoe box
of baseball cards. I shuffle the smiles
and stances of Walt Dropo, Elroy Face,
Ted Kluzewski and Yogi Berra through my hands.
After lunch, I go out to our back yard
with my bat and rubber ball and pretend
to be Gene Woodling – the only Baltimore
Oriole hitting over 2.60. I’m swinging
for the fences (sixty feet away) and
trying to hit that red orb all the way
to Glen Burnie (a half mile away).
Through the kitchen window, the Coasters
harmonizing “Young Blood” draws me out
of that August Maryland swelter to drop
a lemon-lime Fizzie in a glass of ice water.
Then, I look through my collection
of Rhythm and Blues trading cards
to see if I can find one of The Coasters
among Laverne Baker, Little Richard and Elvis.
At twelve years, I finally learn
to ride a bicycle and pedal out
with my friends to beaches on the Severn River.
There, I watch sails billow over glittering
liquid blue towards Chesapeake Bay.
Hamilton County Purgatory
“He would have
convicted Jesus Christ too,” the thirtyish
Corrections official exclaimed when he saw me enter
the third floor of the Hamilton County jail. I had just come
from the Common Pleas court of Donald White where I was
found guilty of possession of marijuana – still a felony in
I guess I looked
innocent in my suit and tie and Ivy League
short hair. I said, “ I think I’ll get probation because I’m
going to college.” “So, you’re smarter than the average
he shot back, using the culturally dated TV lingo typical of
Ohio River valley.
Then a guard
escorted me to my cell and I met the other
occupant, who was waiting to be remanded to a hospital
for the criminally insane. Other detainees drifted into my
over the next twelve days. Some would be going to the Ohio
Some asked if I had brought any weed with me. Of course, I
since “I was smarter than the average bear.”
During that time,
I met an assortment of interesting people. One
of them was in for smuggling. He was from my high school and
string member of the basketball team. He told me about my
class president who got busted with two others for smashing
statue of a llama in a city park. The llama was stuffed with
packets of hashish. Another was a member of a motorcycle
who discussed the merits of eating grasshoppers. One got
and forged a check.
One day, the
warden let us watch an old black and white B movie
from the forties. In it, a gang of convicts were on a train
over an elevated railroad bridge when one of them was thrown
from the train. Everyone cheered.
On Sundays, Top
40 radio was piped in over the public address
system. Melanie wailed “Candles in the Rain” while someone
“That white girl sounds kind of weak; why can’t they play
Then Norman Greenbaum was singing “Spirit in the Sky.” I
my eyes and saw myself in a dark earthen cellar, looking up
a door flooding with white light. It reminded me of reading
Pilgrim’s Progress where the pen and ink sketched sun seemed
to expand at the end of every chapter.
Then one day the
guard said I was getting out tomorrow. The next
morning, the “key” arrived in the form of a probation
officer. It seemed
“The Curse of Harry Anslinger” was beginning to lift and the
marijuana laws were receding.
Then my father arrived and we rode into a
pulsing March morning of
of rainy light. After two weeks in windowless halls, it
lifted me in a rhapsody.
That night the purgatory of jailed voices vanished from my