Category Archives: Poems

Short poem: ‘Into the Cryonics Dewar’

We had no destination ever, from birth,
save into the ultimate ocean, or ultimate fire, or ultimate earth.
Now we have not quite so ultimate ice.
For now, it will have to suffice.

The chance of reanimation from cryonic suspension may be small, but still greater than the chance of reanimation after creation or burial in land or at sea. And I guess we now have a fifth option – ending up off-planet, adrift in space. But in effect that will be a variant on “not-quite-so-ultimate ice”. In space you’d end up near Absolute Zero, as with cryonics – but whereas with cryonics there is the miniscule hope of eventual reanimation, in space your ultimate fate would be that of all space debris: drifting for millions of years until burning up into a star or planet, or getting sucked into a black hole.

Life, death, quite fascinating. Not many options for changing the outcome, though various billionaires are throwing some of their money at the search for immortality, as people have done since at least the time of the pharaohs and early Chinese emperors. And why not? think it’s “just science fiction”? For thousands of years we used to dream we could fly to the moon, and that happened eventually…

This poem was originally published in Snakeskin #274, July 2020. Thanks, George Simmers!

Photo: cryonics.org

Potcake Poet’s Choice: James B. Nicola, ‘Everybody’s Friendly, Just About…’

On my floor there lives a very nice old
man. Foreign. He’s going blind.
I don’t think he was necessarily an act-
or but a vestigial life percolates up from beneath
the lines in his face and accent. Lately, reaching
out to him has become exhausting. He’s too friendly

now and thrusts his face too close. . . . I was friendly
when I moved in the building. I thought old
meant interesting. Besides, singles are always reaching
out somehow, even when we appear blind
to the personalities and plights that lie beneath
the surface of a stranger’s smile, that casual act

on the elevator where everyone’s an act-
or in some way. Alas, I lack the stamina to feel friendly
always. . . . One time I was standing beneath
the shower in the health club, and another old
man poked his head in. The steam must have blind-
ed him to the soapy mess in my hair. He was just reaching

for whomever he could find for help. What’s wrong with reaching
out when you need help? He had been a famous act-
or, probably used to bothering others. I almost blurted, “Are you blind
or what?! I’m showering!” I felt unfriendly—
then hypocritical, for I knew the showers were old.
After I got his to work, I heard him singing beneath

the nozzle and the steam. Tone deaf. Of course beneath
it all, I was just cranky about his not reaching
out to some paid employee instead of me. Was I getting old
all of a sudden? Old and irritable. O, why resent act-
ing friendly simply because you don’t feel particularly friendly? . . .
Sometimes in the elevator, I’ll read. The book or magazine’s a blind,

but is it hypocrisy? I wonder. Then, when a certifiably blind
person gets on—with a walking stick—the person lying beneath
my literary subterfuge looks up, and, actually feeling friendly,
says hello, implying I could provide some assistance in reaching
a floor if so desired. No, this is not an act:
When they don’t ask for help, I don’t feel cranky or old.

When they do, rudely, I fear I’m going blind, reaching
out to souls beneath loud showers, trying too hard to act
friendly always, and turning prematurely old.

James B. Nicola writes: “If anyone cares to perform ‘Everyone’s Friendly, Just about….,’ you can either enhance the repeated end-of-line words (slightly), or try to ‘enjamb’ through them. In this way, you may notice it exploits the sestina form to serve as a bridge between the ‘poetic/special/heightened’ and the ‘conversational/ quotidien/ casual.’ The balance, or tension, between the two is a concern we have in the theater as well, with the actor’s craft. More than once have I coached an actor with: “For heaven’s sake, don’t let anyone catch you acting!” The poem is the first sestina of mine ever published. It is from my first poetry collection, Manhattan Plaza.”

James B. Nicola has authored six collections of poetry, the latest being Fires of Heaven: Poems of Faith and Sense. Decades of theater work culminated in the nonfiction book Playing the Audience: The Practical Guide to Live Performance, which won a Choice award. Residence: New York City; born: Worcester, Massachusetts.
https://sites.google.com/view/james-b-nicola

Potcake Poet’s Choice: Cody Walker, ‘Mad System Down’

He thought he saw a Herd of Cattle
Grazing on his lawn:
He looked again, and found it was
A Phaser set to “On.”
“We’re seeing more and more of this,
With Sarah Brady gone.”

He thought he saw a One-Eyed Jack
Go grizzling through the night:
He looked again, and found it was
His Dream of Being Right.
“It turns out not to mean a thing,”
He texted Barry White.

He thought he saw a High-school Hoodlum
Trash his Neighbor’s Yard:
He looked again, and found it was—
Just say it, man. “It’s hard.
I saw my life, reviewed by God.
He had it single-starred.”

He thought he saw Roberta Vinci
Execute a volley:
He looked again, and found it was
A randy Shepherd (prolly).
“I’d live with him, and be his love—
But no, I’ve read my Raleigh.”

He thought he saw his Country’s Fortunes
Crumble—wait a minute:
He looked again, and found there was
Another way to spin it.
“In eighty years we’ll be cadavers.
Kinda funny, innit?”

He thought he saw a Panicked Face
Upon a Panicked Neck:
He looked again, and found it was
Umm . . . nothing. Wait a sec.
He thought he saw a Panicked Face
Upon a Panicked Neck.

Cody Walker writes: “I’ve been writing in Lewis Carroll’s ‘Mad Gardener’s Song’ stanza form for a couple of decades. The form ferries me to some of my favorite destinations: the Land of Rhyme, the Land of Associative Logic. Though I don’t think I’ll ever outdo Carroll in terms of quality (the start of his final stanza—’He thought he saw an Argument / That proved he was the Pope: / He looked again, and found it was / A Bar of Mottled Soap’—strikes me as unimprovable), I have outdone him in terms of quantity (he wrote nine stanzas; I’ve written about 375). I’ve also, more and more, tried to shake the form free from its light-verse origins. Can a form as seemingly weightless as the ‘Mad Gardener’s Song’ stanza take on cancer, Alzheimer’s, school shootings, and (see above) debilitating anxiety? I think it can. But I may need another couple of decades to fully test the hypothesis.

“I’ve read ‘Mad System Down’ for the University of Michigan’s Poetry Blast series, and I’ve written about the form for Poetry Northwest and the Kenyon Review’s blog. Four of the six stanzas in ‘Mad System Down’ originally appeared on the KR blog. The poem’s penultimate stanza first appeared in Light.”

Cody Walker is the author of three poetry collections, including ‘The Self-Styled No-Child’ (Waywiser, 2016). His work appears in The New York Times Magazine, Light, Parnassus, The Best American Poetry and the latest Potcake Chapbook, ‘Lost Love’. He directs the Bear River Writers’ Conference in Northern Michigan. Website: codywalker.net

Illustration: A Harry Furniss illustration for ‘The Mad Gardener’s Song’ from the Lewis Carroll novel Sylvie and Bruno.

Political poem: Bono’s St. Patrick’s Day poem on Zelenskyy

Oh, St Patrick he drove out the snakes
With his prayers but that’s not all it takes
For the snake symbolises
An evil that rises
And hides in your heart, as it breaks

And the evil has risen my friends
From the darkness that lives in some men
But in sorrow and fear
That’s when saints can appear
To drive out those old snakes once again

And they struggle for us to be free
From the psycho in this human family
Ireland’s sorrow and pain
Is now the Ukraine
And St Patrick’s name now Zelenskyy

OK, first of all I recognise that the Saint Zelenskyy artwork by Liliya Rattari is a complimentary parody of either St Michael or St George, not St Patrick – but who cares? Putin is a big enough snake to rate as a dragon, and Zelenskyy is heroic enough to be any saint you want.

U2 frontman Bono‘s three-limerick poem was sent by him to Nancy Pelosi for her to use on St Patrick’s Day this year, and she read it at the Annual Friends of Ireland Luncheon in Washington to the assembled guests including the particularly Irish Joe Biden. The poem may not be good enough to be revered eternally, but nor is that snake Putin. Hopefully St Zelenskyy will chase Putin out of the country soon, and the sorrows of Ukraine will become as distant as the sorrows of Ireland.

Potcake Poet’s Choice: Vadim Kagan, ‘You Are Changing’

You are changing from day to day
And from night to night
You are changing before I say
Let there be light
You are changing your smile, your hair
And even your eyes
You are changing what isn’t there
Making truth of lies

You are changing the coins you bet
And the games you win
You are changing what has been set
Outside and in
You are changing from old to new
And again to old
You are changing all that we knew
But were never told

You are changing along the way
And across the sea
You are changing the things that may
Be the last we see
You are changing your blood to sweat
And yourself to me
So keep changing but don’t forget
How it used to be

Vadim Kagan writes: “Life is all about changes. People change, countries change, the world changes. Are we walking in circles or are we ascending (or descending) some universal helix? Opinions differ but as I got older I realized that to me it matters less where we are going than where we came from. This poem was written during a tumultuous time in my life, when I realized that, no matter how well I try to plan,  tomorrow will be different from what I imagined. The poem was, in a way, a kind of therapy – and is probably even more relevant than several years ago. It is also more musical than many of my poems, and made a great (if little known) song.”

Vadim Kagan writes poetry and prose in English, Russian and, occasionally, a combination of both languages. He runs an AI company in Bethesda, MD and is a member of the DC Poetry Collective. His poems have been published in The Lyric, The Road Not Taken, Founder’s Favorites, DC Poetry Collective Inkblots anthologies and the latest Potcake Chapbook, ‘Lost Love’. He often posts on Facebook (@vadimkagan) and Instagram (@wines_and_rhymes.)

Potcake Poet’s Choice: N.S. Thompson, ‘The Women in Delft’

Johannes Van Der Meer, (Vermeer), 17th Century

We look at them expectantly: a room
With balance held, a string of pearls, a hand
Placed on the virginal, or there a letter
Clutched to the breast; these women keep
The gentle art of looking artfully
Revealed, yet hidden in the art of space.

They seem absorbed in it and yet leave space
For eyes to linger on them in that room
And wonder what the painter artfully
Kept in or out, things under hand
Or underhand? The surfaces still keep
Us guessing. What could be in that one’s letter

Or that one’s balance? And why does he let her
Appear to weigh up in that pregnant space
Such a wealth of meaning only to keep
It from us in that sunlit room?
Are we – the viewers – meant to have a hand
In them and come to see what artfully

Has been concealed? That View of Delft is artfully
Conceived yet not depicted to the letter
But deftly rearranged, the painter’s hand
Adding the unknown of space,
A brooding sky providing all the room
To rise above the secrets buildings keep…

Or take elsewhere that crenellated keep
Of brick (its outside walls so artfully
Salt-leached) allowing us again the room
To wonder if they hold that letter
Or else the string of pearls in all that space
Held in The Little Street. Whose was the hand

That let the children out of doors or hand
That pressed the collars, urging them to keep
The clothes clean, as she hurriedly made space
To meet the lover artfully
Returned from sea or merchant whose last letter
Had news that left her trembling in that room?

How artfully he let us have a hand
In them and keep us guessing in the space
Between a letter and a sunlit room.

N.S. Thompson writes: “I have always admired the sestina and for years thought about writing one before I finally did. What intrigued me was the way the six words at the ends of lines could be worked into a sensible whole; indeed, made into a resonant whole while yet showing the variety of meanings those words could take. It seemed the perfect vehicle for exhibiting, as it were, a gallery of pictures as we see in Vermeer’s several depictions of women going about their everyday activities, each different but forming a whole. A view of life that was both evident to the observer and yet at the same time hidden. What were those women thinking as they went about their business? What was fascinating was the mystery he created in the representation of everyday life.
The nearest analogy I can think of in visual terms to reading a sestina is the way a kaleidoscope works, even if there the succession of patterns there is endless, but the variation is surprising and pleasurable. It is also playful. There are little touches in the poem of such playfulness, as in “deftly” in the fourth stanza which is an anagram of Vermeer’s home town of Delft “adding the unknown”, which is the “y” (as in algebra).
And it took a long time to get right. I first produced a version after watching a television programme about Vermeer. I jotted down my six end words and quickly filled out the six stanzas, then the three last lines incorporating the six words again, hopefully with yet another semantic turn on them. I felt very pleased with myself until I read the result the next day. It then took several years of careful homing, plus several changes of end words until it finally seemed to be a natural expression that did not call attention to itself as a deliberate construct. This seems to me the necessary requirement of a sestina. Other repetitive forms can flaunt their patterns overtly, but for me the sestina has to be more subtle and almost disguise itself until the reader finally notices the form.”

N.S. Thompson lives near Oxford, UK. A poet, critic and translator, he is also the non-fiction editor for Able Muse. Two recent pamphlets are After War (New Walk Editions) and Ghost Hands (Melos Press), and he has a poem in the imminently available latest Potcake Chapbook, ‘Lost Love’. ‘The Women in Delft’ is published in the poet’s collection Mr Larkin on Photography and Other Poems (Red Squirrel Press, 2016).

Photo: “Vermeer” by pom’. is marked with CC BY-SA 2.0.

Potcake Poet’s Choice: Helena Nelson, ‘On Gloom and Proper Respect’

He doesn’t exactly blame her for it. No,
it’s not her fault. She is the way she is—
incorrigibly optimistic. But
the strain of her unbridled cheerfulness

must tell. His gloom requires due diligence.
It’s there to serve a need, and needs a slow
and proper processing. That’s it—a proper pro-
cessing. To this he must commit, and hence

his necessary isolation. No,
he is not depressed. He’s just process-
ing. Some ‘thing’ is passing through. It will go
eventually, but it must run its course.

The weight of doom would be a minor stress
if she would just dispense with cheerfulness.

Helena Nelson writes: “This poem is part of a book-length sequence telling the story of an ordinary, conventional marriage (albeit a second marriage for each partner). It’s about love that struggles to survive the difficulties of aging, loss and illness. The husband, Mr Philpott, has always suffered from anxiety but he has bouts of depression too, when he withdraws into himself. In fact, he might fairly be described as a ‘difficult’ man, though he can’t help it. Here the sonnet form reflects his need for tight control, repressing his anxiety about depression, which gets squeezed uncomfortably across the line breaks. There’s humour here, too. Because how absurd it is, surely, to wish your wife were less cheerful? And yet he does. He certainly does.” 

Helena Nelson runs HappenStance Press and sometimes writes poems, one of which appears in the soon-to-be-released latest Potcake Chapbook, ‘Lost Love’. She has been writing the story of Mr and Mrs Philpott for over twenty years, and it can finally be found in its complete form as Pearls (The Complete Mr and Mrs Philpott Poems)

Sonnet: “What Will You Be When You Grow Up?”

Historically, this never was a thing.
You did what you were born to do, were told,
Fitting yourself into your parent’s mold,
A farmer’s son a farmer, king’s son a king,
A girl to be a mother and a wife.
But then came education, travel, choice,
Awareness of the wishes you could voice,
Countries, careers, sex partners — it’s your life!
And though just who you are you cannot know,
Nor what you want, yet all is your decision.
You’ll make mistakes, find failures and derision,
But life is long: so have another go . . .
Retry, and then try something else; take; give.
Do what you love. You die, regardless. Live!

This sonnet is a mirror of the short poem I posted most recently – and I’m happy to see that my outlook has a certain consistency, even over a 50 year period.

The sonnet has just been published in the formal verse section of the current Better Than Starbucks – thanks, Vera Ignatowitsch!

Photo: “career choices” by Jerome T is marked with CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

Short poem: ‘Remember’

Remember the whole world’s in your range,
When all your strength is gone.
If you can’t accept, then rearrange;
Can’t rearrange, move on.

I wrote this little poem when I was a very unsettled and directionless 20-year-old, and I lived by its tenets for several years, constantly changing jobs, countries and relationships. Eventually I slowed down, only changing jobs, countries and relationships once every few decades. But I still hold to the principle that you have no obligation to stay in an unsatisfactory situation, that you should actively try to identify what makes you happiest at the deepest level and then change your life in that direction. And sometimes random change is an appropriate if temporary solution.

This poem was finally published, decades later, in The Asses of Parnassus.

Photo: “File:Banksy Hitchhiker to Anywhere Archway 2005.jpg” by User:Justinc is marked with CC BY-SA 2.0.

Epigram: ‘Bit with Bite’

I think I’ve blinked
At what you write:
Edgy, succinct–
A bit with bite.

This is in the spirit of a homage to The Asses of Parnassus, in which the poem found a home. Editor Brooke Clark has created a tumblr account that for the past few years has been posting “Short, witty, formal poems” on an occasional (i.e. erratic) basis, much in the spirit of Latin and Greek epigrams (and often translations of them, or modern retellings).

This poem itself is not particularly noteworthy – but I enjoyed rhyming ‘blinked’ with ‘succinct’, as well as the ‘think/blink’ and ‘bit/bite’ pairings. Wordplay is at the heart of poetry, from Anglo-Saxon alliteration to modern rap, from nursery rhymes to Shakespearean sonnets. Wordplay is memorable, and sharpens the pain of an epigrammatic jab. Use it, if you want your barbs to be effective.