Twelve Poems, selected by Jeff Newberry
The first submarine to torpedo an enemy boat was the invention
of Horace Lawson Hunley. The South lost the fight, but his invention
was the secret weapon that defended Charleston, a port city shelled
by the Union day and night. Hunley’s eponymous contraption,
a converted steam boiler that must have looked like a whale
surfacing in the harbor under moonlight, spurning attention,
held eight Jonahs in its belly, one skipper and seven brave crewmen
propelling the sub with hand cranks. They all died, I should mention,
just after their valor blew the USS Housatonic out of the water.
Worse, Horace Lawson Hunley died before his invention
modernized naval warfare. During diving trials, Hunley sank
with the Hunley because the hatch wasn’t closed tight. His invention
was salvaged by Confederate divers, who found captain and crew
still frozen in their death poses, a grisly sight. There’d been tension,
of course, between old-school navy men and Captain Hunley.
They told him, “We don’t hide in fright in an invention
that lets cowards breathe beneath the ocean. We battle on the waves,
like men!” The age-old clash between the dim lights of convention
and the bright bulbs of innovation. Like him, I’m a Hunley, a rebel,
a maker. Words are my keys-on-kites. These poems are my inventions.
Red Ribbon Spermatozoa
There is another world, and it is in this one.
In another world, Shrödinger
is a Nobel Prize winning poet,
Whitman, an astronomer
who storms out of poetry readings,
fixes his telescopic eye on the stars,
reflects, in his loneliness,
that the stars are as numerous and large
as the sperm cells in a single emission
are numerous and microscopic,
and in yet another world,
a just one, I was never born,
because the winning sperm,
the one that wriggled
its way into my mother’s egg
before any of its rivals,
the sperm that joined with that egg
to form a coincidence called me,
was dishonorably disqualified.
To the red ribbon spermatozoa,
whom I edged out of this world
in a coital photo-finish:
I apologize. I’ve been a cheater
my whole life and longer.
This world rewards that.
But if it’s any consolation to you,
this world has also punished me
in ways that someone like you
could never fathom.
from My Life as a Minor Character
Elegy for Robert Creeley and Pope John Paul II, Dead Three Days Apart
Something dramatic is going to happen to me soon.
I know this because I feel myself and the whole whirling world
reset to slow motion, and the hotel room I’m in
holds its breath. I see pigeons scatter
and clap their wings. I hear slow, operatic music,
and I feel scores of invisible fingers
fumbling at the threads that hold me together.
The black clouds outside are pregnant women
approaching labor, and as the slivery sunspot
disappears from my carpet, I understand
that every godforsaken thing in this luminous, freeze-framed world,
will drift away, cloudlike,
and as I slow-motion my way to the window,
the birds circle overhead.
I see my hotel mirrored in the windows of another hotel,
and I see 10,000 people, vigilant outside my window.
They shout that I’m the next pope,
that I’m their last hope.
They toss up prayers and pigeons,
and a few detractors shout that I should jump,
which I do, on one leg, safe behind my window.
The world speeds up again, whirling like a windswirl of leaves,
and I see the crowd scatter in all directions
as if to say oh, you’re a poet, not the pope, our mistake,
determined not to notice me, even while I open the window and bellow:
my body is breaking down, too;
my spirit, too, will soon drift far, far off,
and all of you, too, you too.
Pope John Paul II, pray for us.
Robert Creeley too.
Before it has time to consider
the landlord who stole my deposit
with a fountainpen,
then headed for a prayer meeting;
their prayers answered by Jaguars
& secretaries ready to fall
on their knees before God and man;
or plantation owners
manipulating their slaves with Paul’s letters
in Uncle Tom’s Cabin;
before it has time to judge
a forest by a few trees,
or remember the name of the philosopher
who said that God can’t exist
because no God would create a world
in which toilets are necessary;
as I walk past the blue and white marble
Greek Orthodox Church crowned by a cross
that resembles a dove ascending
The Fire Remembers Joan of Arc
I wanted to touch her gently,
and then to enter hera lover,
I, and all those shepherd boys of Domremy,
I, and all those soldiers fighting for her flag.
“Forgive me, Maid of Orleans,”
I roared before I licked her ankles. “It’s
my nature to destroy the ones
who come too close to me.”
She said “Your flames won’t singe my cross” and held
two twigs against her breast. She said
“a cloud of angels told me so.”
I laughed, a sad, involuntary crackle,
and suddenly she wore the face
of a naive teenage seamstress, not
the mighty visage of the general
who led the charge against the English Lion.
I wrapped around the makeshift cross,
but Saint Joan’s angels told the truth:
her cross stood strong. Joan began to burn,
and she prayed for Bishop Cauchon,
the hypocrite who tried her as a witch.
She prayed for her Dauphin, the spineless man
she crowned. She prayed for England, her enemy
who demanded ransom, for her beloved France
who wouldn’t pay, and for every back-scratching,
courtroom-entrapping, money-grubber in the crowd.
Enraged, I wanted to run through the street, raze
their church, their homes, the entire city of Rouen.
I stayed to touch her gently
and shield her from the crowd.
She shrieked “Don’t think I blame you, Fire.
You can’t help it that you’re so hot,”
and she was right. I couldn’t help myself.
Becoming large, I entered her, ravaged her, loved her.
In Crystal River
I dive near a manatee
and she turns over.
I pat her belly.
She’s drawn by the motor’s hum
and the rope, which her
mouth tugs. My mouth’s dumb,
numbed. I float in the water,
sure I don’t belong.
While she’s swimming off,
the barnacles fastened on
her body speak of
stillness. A calf sails by to taste
the ocean-milk that’s in her breasts.
from The Tongue
I used to drink generic beer. It gave me a poor man’s hangover.
I had a generic life and a never-ending poor man’s hangover.
I lived on coffee and aspirin and my factory shifts lasted forever.
I used to hound any honey who would give me her digits.
I’d hound the dingiest barroom pickup once I had her digits.
I’d be her sweet pet or a pest until I got in her britches.
Now I’ve found a stronger brew and the worst hangovers ever.
I’m downing rich man’s brew, getting the worst hangovers ever.
I never thought I’d taste such cold beer, so smooth, with such flavor.
And I’ve found a nice woman who made me forget all the others.
She’s a long-haired brunette, made me forget my old lovers.
First she gave me a son. Next comes his sister or brother.
When my wife smiles at me, I feel drunk in ways that aren’t generic.
When she scowls, I want to die, leave these bones for our kids to inherit.
Full of My Blood
After driving my wife’s 15-year-old corgi to the vet
(bones welding together sand squeezing a nerve
an accordion whose song is a dog’s yelp ;
tears streaming down my wife’s reddened face,
expensive muscle relaxants, narcotics, steroids),
I saw a snapping turtle in the middle of the road,
head and legs tucked under the shell.
I wanted to pull over and help it, but I was afraid,
(getting hit by a car myself, getting bit,
my finger lost in the turtle’s maw).
Later, sitting on my porch, with a book of poems
in my lap (No Heaven by David St. John)
and the ailing dog tied to a lead, I scratched
a small constellation of itches on my skin,
and I saw a mosquito land on my screen door,
the little monster that had battened all afternoon
on my blood. I eased out of the chair, hunched,
stalked, and struck ’ my hand a frog’s tongue.
The mosquito flew off in a jagged line,
then returned to the screen, as if magnetized.
I flailed, staggered, and caught it
between thumb and forefinger.
I squeezed that fat beast flat, crumpled its legs,
and crushed it, a raspberry-red smear.
It had been full, ready to burst. I washed
my own blood off my hands, and then it hit me,
as startling as a bee sting, how amazing it is
that I’m alive, how fantastic and strange
that there’s enough of me here for something to feed on,
enough of me to fill
this bag of skin.
from The Tongue
Our corgi, Tazsy, used to stand on hind legs, her front paws clawing the sofa, breathing horse meat into our faces, until we shared our spaghetti with her. Now our son, Evan, wants our spaghetti, too. He crawls into our laps, insinuates his way into reaching distance of our plates. When we pull the plates away, he thinks we’re playing. He glides his sticky fingers across our plates. Instead of “please” or “thank you,” he says “shoe” or “yay,” comments which, in context, make no more sense than Tazsy’s yap. He takes what he wants, puts the rest back on our plates or hurls it on the floor, then, smiling, comes back for more. Tazsy used to whimper, truly apologetic, whenever she had an accident in the house. Evan wriggles like a wrestler while we try to change his diapers. He smears his own feces on his hands. He would fling it at us like a funny monkey if we let him. He squirms out of grasp, runs naked into the living room, and is not at all sorry.
The perfect parents at the library’s Peak-a-Book Babies group are always sure to point out that they have a perfect boy who listens to every story with hands perfectly folded and purrs like a kitten. He can say a hundred words sometimes two in a row, and in the right contexts and he uses his potty chair the way a cat uses its litter box. He is perfect. He will get all A’s in school, and he won’t let our son copy his answers. He will win the spelling bee. He will be the class president prom king quarterback. He will grow up and marry the woman who will have broken Evan’s heart. He will hire Evan just so he can fire him. We won’t be able to stop any of it. We won’t be able to protect our son from the perfect people who will be perfectly happy to run him over after he pumps gas into their perfect cars. May his first sentences be “That boy is a perfect ass” and “I hate him.” May he, at least, fling a diaper full of feces at the perfect boy, at the perfect parents.
When I lift up my hand-made picket sign
above the crowd and raise my voice as high
as it will go, when I am at your door
protesting “I’m not a solicitor,”
when I lick envelopes, when I make calls,
I feel just like a rolling bowling ball,
a prayer sent down a greasy lane, and smack!
The government comes toppling down a strike!
A split? A 7-10? Fear not! I’ll end
the war and save the forests, too. Don’t send
me home to my torn shack, to my mean wife,
to my small paycheck, to my meager life
because that’s where I feel just like a pin,
set up, knocked down, set up, knocked down again.
I dropped my Ecology class
in college because everyone in it
seemed too earnest too early
every morning. Sure, I cared
about turtles, but not a lot,
I guess, and spotted owls
were little more to me
than vowels pressed between
consonants, just words I mean.
I went without a car,
because, I claimed, I cared
about the air. But since
I didn’t drive, I had
no easy way to recycle
paper. To please my fiancé,
I placed a bag labeled “recycling”
in my kitchen, and I trashed the contents
after each of her visits.
One day, she caught me, and
she said she didn’t know
which hurt the most: my
disregard for Mother Earth
or the lie. She said that she
and the trees couldn’t trust me.
She held our future in
her hands as if inspecting
a slice of cheese for mold,
and I thought I could save what we’d made
together if only I could say
something original, some phrase
as rare as a panda bear,
but I hallmarked. I threw the book
of clichés: stole roses and told her
I loved her, groveled and praised
her skin, her lips, her eyes,
her eyes which softened
with each recycled phrase.
While Delivering Pizza to Executives at an Art Museum, I Stop to Have a Look
After Chagall’s 1920 mural “The Green Fiddler”
First, I notice the colors. Though the fiddler’s coat
is regal purple, his face and the hand holding the bow
are frog-green. Like his songs are making him wealthy
but he still envies other, more talented musicians
or the owners of the opulent halls where he performs.
Next, I note the fiddler’s foothold. He stands
bow-legged, precarious on two sloped roofs,
a domed synagogue in between. Then I see,
above the fiddler’s head, a barefoot boy
dressed in pink, floating on air.
A horse stands on hind legs, leans
against a house, rapt by the music. And I
am rapt when a woman with hair the color of
lightning stands front and center, blocking the houses
so the fiddler seems to balance on her wavy locks.
The painting reminds me of Midwood, Brooklyn, where
I spent a summer in a slummy boarding house.
Nice and quiet, too quiet on weekends when everything
shut down: Judith’s Shoes, Jerusalum Pizza, Shalom Books.
“Please turn on our light!” pleaded a woman one Sabbath,
and we scaled two flights of stairs so I could flip
the switch, which I never understood until
I heard Tevya, the milkman in Fiddler On The Roof,
say “Without tradition our lives would be
as insecure as the fiddler up there on the roof.”
A little man at the green fiddler’s ear holds up a cloud
and, muse-like, tells the fiddler what notes to play.
Another little man holds a violin by the neck and leans
toward the fiddler as if planning to strike him for any wrong note.
Or maybe that’s the censor, saying “don’t play.” I, too,
have a little voice in my ear, that of a co-worker full of stories
about how “she wanted extra sausage hahaha,” and his voice
tells me to approach the woman with hair the color of lightning,
makes me want to descend on her like an owl swooping to lift a mouse.
But I don’t. For what if the fiddler’s ear represents Chagall’s ear,
and what if that little man is the heavy law telling him
“Thou shalt not make thee any graven image, or any
likeness of any thing in heaven above or in the earth
beneath, or in the waters”? I, too, have an inner critic,
and nowhere near his boldness, nowhere near his art.
All poems ©2005 Tom Hunley, printed or reprinted by permission of the author.
The Tongue. Lexington, KY: Wind Publications, 2004
Still, There’s a Glimmer. Cincinnati, OH: WordTech Editions, 2004.
My Life as a Minor Character. San Antonio, TX: Pecan Grove Press, 2004.
Newspring. New York: Linear Arts Books, 1998.
Losing My Luggage. Seattle: Poetry Around Press, 1994.
Tom C. Hunley is the husband of Ralaina Ruvalcaba and the father of Evan Joel Ruvalcaba Hunley. He has degrees from Highline Community College (AA), University of Washington (BA), Eastern Washington University (MFA) and Florida State University (Ph.D.), where he was the recipient of a 2002-2003 Kingsbury Fellowship. He is currently an Assistant Professor in the English Department at Western Kentucky University. Before settling on a career in academia, he worked as a public relations writer, a sportswriter, a technical writer, a warehouseman, a Salvation Army bellringer, an enumerator for the U.S. Census Bureau, a typist, a data entry clerk, a file clerk, a fry cook, a cashier, a dishwasher, night manager of a convenience store, and a canopy construction worker. He is the editor/publisher of Steel Toe Books.