in the dream
our lips meet
as if they’ve always known each other
later i get trapped in metal elevators
crushing me, suffocating
i struggle to break free
but that moment we spend together
is what i recall
An hour-long reading of fifty original poems selected from Anything Sounds Like a Symphony, Animal Inside You, and Never See the Night, along with two previously uncollected poems. Narrated by the author. This audiobook is now available on Audible, Amazon, and iTunes. Plus, the text comes in a Kindle edition so you can read along!
if we get separated you can find me
in front of amplifier stacks
dancing where music is
too loud and full of rage
i am the ink in your pen
the bullet in your chamber
and the catfight in your backyard
you won’t need to look far
when you’re made from electricity
it doesn’t matter if the grid collapses
we will always have lightning and the
sparks between your synapses
some things are indivisible
they will not fade with time
their bond cannot be measured
by clocks and watches
like photons we have only the singular moment
like stars we set the sky on fire
we have written our names on everything
like vandals it belongs to us
if we get separated you will find me
even when you don’t know where to look
the location does not matter
only the seeking
This poem appears in the short story Never See the Night.
love is a lie
death is ecstasy
my eternal enemy
your seas have no horizon
your moons are scarred
from burning in the light
the craters of their eyes
will never see the night
—final transmission from the expedition to Gelnikov 14.
over breakfast we discuss corpses
coffin births and stillborns
who never had a chance
how charles died
why it took so long
when we barely hang on
before lunch you choose a mercy killing
keep it to yourself for later
then surprise me
dinner’s a cadaver you
dress to the nines and
bathe like a lover
brush its hair and whisper
softly as a carving knife
then put to bed
maybe some things should remain unsaid
but we were never good at that
our plates are all empty
piled in the sink
just leave them
Why Minimalism? A Personal Reflection.
A year and a half ago, while workshopping poems for my collection Anything Sounds Like A Symphony, I received game-changing advice. For reasons I can’t remember, I had been capitalizing the first letter of every line. But two folks told me that since my free verse closely resembles prose, I should punctuate and capitalize it as such.
I take workshop feedback very seriously, so I reformatted all my poems. It also made me realize much of my poetry from 2012–2016 read like bullet lists. Maybe it was my training in technical writing that led to that. I don’t know. But the feedback helped me rewrite and improve a body of work I was mostly happy with, but which had problems I couldn’t quite resolve. Symphony was a better work because of it.
When I was done, and Symphony was published, I had this inescapable feeling I could go even further. The experience made me wonder just how much punctuation and capitalization was necessary to convey meaning.
As an editor and a writer who produces essays on public policy, I need to be the master of grammar, punctuation, and all the formal mechanics of writing. The things I work on professionally and academically need to be technically perfect, and that is no small task.
But just how much technicality is required to convey meaning, emotion, and imagery? This question made me reevaluate my approach to poetry. What if I could get rid of all the mechanics and focus only on words? Is that even possible?
I gave it a shot to see how much of the mechanics could be removed during the Poetry of the Planets group project earlier this year. Using nothing but line breaks and spaces between stanzas, could I make meaning absolutely clear? Could I toss out capitalization and punctuation altogether?
It turns out: I could. But it wasn’t instantaneous, and my first few efforts required a period or two for clarity. Also, I granted an exemption to apostrophes to show possessive words and contractions.
As possibilities became realities, I worked to construct lines which never needed periods. It became a poetic mission, the kind of artistically satisfying personal obsession that makes you terribly boring at social gatherings. “I’m working on exterminating punctuation to reveal the beauty of words. Let me show you.” Right. Good luck with that line at the next office or holiday party.
Oddly enough, it worked. I put the new poems in front of workshop groups which included amateurs and academics and everything in between, and they drew the exact interpretation I wanted. They unequivocally got the meaning. The only exceptions were when I had made narrative errors, not mechanical omissions. Those exceptions forced me to rewrite poems until people drew my desired interpretations.
I also discovered a weird thing about line breaks. Without a period to stop a sentence, I could create double meanings depending on where people assumed the sentence began or ended. The first confirmation of this effect happened when author Judy Cullen sent me a beautiful reading of my poem, Jupiter.
The poem has two ambiguities in it. The first happens at the line, “love me for an hour then leave / traces of your orbit…”. Judy read this without a pause between “leave” and “traces”. Read with a pause, it says, “Love me for an hour and then leave,” as in, “Let’s get it on and then you go away.” It’s a cold line, read that way.
But if you extend it without a pause, as Judy did, it’s a line encouraging your lover to love you then leave traces of themselves, which is an intimacy the former reading stops cold. I wrote it that way to set up multiple possibilities between coldness and intimacy—something standard punctuation never accomplished.
The poem’s second ambiguity happens in the line, “until all they know is mystery like a fool / i would keep you to myself”. When Judy read it, you can tell by her pacing that she chose the first meaning: they know only mystery, like fools. But a second possible interpretation exists. You could end the sentence after “mystery”, and read the next part as “Like a fool, I would keep you to myself…”
Which interpretation is correct?
Like the first ambiguity, both ways of looking at it are right. As the author, I can tell you the correct interpretation is to simultaneously hold both interpretations in your mind, despite the contradictions. In the first case, both the coldness and intimacy are intended; in the second case, both the foolishness of others and the foolishness of the narrator are intended.
Those simultaneous but contradictory meanings were never available to me in more conventional forms. Stripping out punctuation between sentences made it possible to mean two things at once.
In most poems, I want the reader to reach a definitive meaning. But having the option to reach two possibilities, either of which is correct, and both of which are more correct when taken together—that was simply impossible in my previous style.
I respect poets who work in forms with guidelines about meter, rhyme, structure, and other formalities. In nearly three decades of composing poems, I’ve dabbled in countless formalisms. But my current minimalist approach to free verse has unlocked a freedom of expression I felt was inaccessible before.
This is not a minimalist manifesto, nor an insistence that my current approach is right or wrong. All wordsmiths need to find solutions to their own unique concerns about language. I would not produce fiction, essays, or technical manuals using this philosophy.
But when I need to unleash myself from the mechanical constraints governing my non-poetic work, and delve into the potential beauty of the spoken word, throwing convention to the wind and relying only on line and stanza breaks opens a whole new world of possibilities.
later we recall the memory in a dream
leaving us uncertain
how much of it was real
every time we dream it
you seem farther away
like heat waves bending the
asphalt horizon in the summer
something always comes after starlight
but tonight i can’t remember what
for 80 million years she crawled
flightless as her arthropod ancestors
she grew wings in the devonian period
and flew away faster than six legs ever carried her
no flowers bloomed or scented her flight
no brutes with torches or electric moons
she flew in a night without fire and she dreamed
remember her under your porch lights
in your desolate parking lots at 3 a.m.
in your isolated rooms where sunlight
remember her millennia of yearning
for a place to swarm and burn completely
and in that brief flash before dying
tell an ancient story written with buzzing wings
outlined with keratinous hairs
segmented like carapaces into paragraphs
stories you could never understand
until you too had lived in darkness
near the end
you chose the monotone
you had your fill
of chord progressions
bouncing like billie
or children playing in the grass
chasing soap bubbles
until they burst
all you wanted
was a steady drone
a placid ostinato
oscillating in the background
like hummingbird wings
or a rothko canvas
consuming your vision
with one fundamental color
the moon burns for the ocean
when no one else can see the sun
he cares nothing for what her tides erode
with violent patience
nor the animals lost
in her limitless depth
he only wants her
they hold each other
across unchartable distance
but never pulled apart
time’s endless night
destroys all those she makes
we build honeycombs in carrion
not even ravens will scavenge
we sleep in cities where birds refuse to roost
back alleys where the concrete wind
blows one implacable song
in refuse we find refuge
what was cast off we repurpose
to make it new
my sweet everything
this continent belongs to you
by virtue of your villainy
you own it because it cannot escape you
nor restrain you
your power here is absolute
the essence of impermanence and solitude
embracing all and drawing them
to your breast
suckle your disciple
so i might outlive gods
and kings and treachery
outlive words and paper and the
bonfires where they will be burned
you make me laugh until we tumble
into this drift like asteroids
coaxed by gravity
to surround this jovial hydrogen bastard
who disturbs the belt
with his frivolous storms
laughter heals and lifts us past the pain
your tears on my shoulder and fictions
we dream together
love me for an hour then leave
traces of your orbit and clues you give
to the sadness of the inner planets
where life only made them realize
i will never let them touch you
with telescopes and equations
i will erase their blackboards and crush their lenses
until all they know is mystery like a fool
i would keep you to myself
though your brightness burns for everyone
annihilation comes easily
rejuvenation takes more effort
or none at all
when you no longer hate the sun for shining
or curse it for bringing life
to our cold blue speck
when you run out of things to say
i will hold your heart in my hand
so you may count the petals of every flower
every hand that held another holds us
ache for me when i am gone
then realize i never leave you
write our manifesto and burn it
our buried chest of golden coins
will grow to a garden of stars
love it for me as if it is our child
my place is with you
we paint the stars together
when no one else is breathing
the moon hides below the horizon
our neighbors rise from beds
like corpses from their graves
unable to recall the songs
the mockingbird performed at 4 a.m.
the wind whistled down the asphalt
haunted only by coyotes
my modern mercury’s caduceus
is a radio tower pulsing
between realms like dreams
the serpents of his staff
become iron girders riveted to the sky
broadcasting love and fury
to the sons and daughters of lightning
spanning the globe under incandescent shelter
from midnight’s prehistoric treachery
the courier’s gift
signals the dawn
you and i have unfinished business
you taught me destruction
a skill for leaving trails
of unmarked graves and broken spears
your path leads nowhere but down
stone is your only element
you bask in the sun for millennia
and only learn what it means to burn
you serve neither love nor justice
but conquest as its own reward
its prize a thread of wounds and ash
what words could you offer for redemption
how dare you speak them
over the eulogy of rain
and falling earth
you wait when light abandons you
to a frozen ammonia tempest
forgiveness lives here no more
what becomes the sea without the sun
what tide is borne without the moon
to bear it
silent you drifted for centuries
while after you dreams dared not venture
and no one sang at all
holst named you the mystic
but what knowledge awaits
the astronomer forsakes the city
for the unlit barrens
to see farther
past the realm of noise and mirth
and the din of blinding light
busy with nothing
Note: Holst originally composed The Planets for two pianos, except for Neptune, which was an organ solo. Peter Sykes’ nine-minute organ transcription of Neptune captures a depth of tonality and emotion that surely would have pleased the composer.
Luna, our beloved crescent,
you swell until you are full enough
to hang heavy against the horizon
like the breast of a pregnant woman.
You will be the first we settle,
our laboratory to test survival
on other stones that fill the sky and
telescopes. How could we resist touching you?
Will you shudder with pleasure
beneath our fingertips, or recoil
at the machines and metallic intrusions,
the rivets and girders of our civilization?
You have been our goddess
since before the dawn of history.
Now we will bring you atmosphere
and mark you with our scent.
We have always been inseparable.
Now we will be close.
At your core, gravity crushes hydrogen
into liquid metal, where it becomes
an electric conductor.
Holst, the symphonic astrologer,
orchestrated your old age as
A sadness boldly pondered
resolving into acceptance
a vast lake of hydrogen
where tumult settles into ripples,
then the polished perfection of pearls.
Your moons attend you.
A family of sixty-two descendants
and admirers. They cannot leave your side.
Have you still the strength to
swing your scythe and reap for them
a harvest? Prepare a feast for solstice.
Io, Saturnalia! Celebrate the sun
we thought was dying but was only
far away. Revelry summons rebirth.
Close the courts. No justice
may be served today, nor any war declared.
We have eaten enough of our children already.
Let them grow old as we did.
Give them time to reach this aphelion
and wear these rings themselves.
Second daughter of the sun,
Holst imagined peace in your embrace.
Without a moon of your own
you thirsted for the man
to caress your cloudy tresses
with cellos and rapture.
But without his fantasy
he could never survive your
pressure, such peerless heat
dripping sulfurous sweat.
Volcanoes erupt and
recarve your surface again
and again until they render you
Yet Gustav dreamed of you,
and in the lies one’s mind
spins while sleeping
he saw you not as you are
but as he wished you to be:
tender, resplendent, radiant.
On a morning ruled by chainsaws
they cut off all your branches
right down to the ground
then carted you off to burn.
But you would not be dispatched
Underground you waited, untouchable
by sun, and moon, and me—
but not the rain. You drank
and planned a bloodless revolution
filled with sap and life
all covered in thorns.
You never lost your dream about finches
singing in your flowers and cleaning
caterpillars off your leaves.
You never doubted, and you never
held it against me when I did.
You only proved me wrong.