the death of poetry

1
osip mandelstahm wrote a school boy
verse about stalin
recited in a circle
of friends in his living room
and it ended his life
but no one cares
what we write
here in america
in the 1990’s

still, it feels like siberia here
even in summer
the few of us writing
just for ourselves
the masses eating up
doggerel rhymed to a beat
the academics cloistered
in the boring, the nonessential
the riddle

here, in america,
no one needs to execute poetry
because no one listens

that’s how well the system works

2
you were a big brick of a voice
laced aristocrat elite
superior
vowels and consonants
intoning along the ridges
of poet listeners’ backbones
like some sermon man
from the upper country
and no one could ever forget
or forgive the years you spent
inside the old testament voice
pounding out the heat
your brick voice down
on all the sinners unwashed unsaved

one day you chased a friend in the street
talking loud about his fornicating
and naming names
for all our community to hear

later, he came to you playing
chess in the coffeehouse
and told you never never
to do that again
and you didn’t
but he never forgot he never forgave
the days you walked stern judgmental
mouthpiece for a barbaric god

in the mental hospital you said —
“why can’t they ever forget?
it’s been years since i was a christian”
(but later you whispered —
“don’t tell anyone
i’m still a christian”)
and i could see where the mystical god
still lived back in the back
of all the compartments of you
new testament soft and forgiving
plotting you a safe exit
to heaven
but i never thought you’d go there

tim —
where are you now?
i know about the little box in the ground
with your ashes and no name
but did jesus love come mix
with your spirit
taking you away from your real old
testament father
your lost believer wife
your children nailed in the old
testament love of this world of green pain
and betrayal

have you escaped?
or are you still hovering around,
the cold spot in my passenger seat

as i drive through the cemetery
i feel the chill beside me
and i’m afraid

3
peter said it was a shame
they couldn’t get your meds right
as if all this pain
could be reduced
to chemistry

4
i’m at cedar point
all day
i wanted to ride
the ferris wheel
now it’s dark
and the ferris wheel is stopped
the control panel is off —
all the buttons blinking crazy
the mechanic down on his knees
trying to get it right
i’m sitting on this bench
half an hour before the amusement
park closes
thinking of you
i’d miss all the other rides
for the chance
of sitting at the top
of the great star
to look out across the lights, the lake
the world my miniature
the great spirit including me
in the sky

i sit on the bench
watching the wheel of lights
turning in the center
the empty cage still

it won’t be fixed
before i have to leave

5
marjorie says you asked
her to kill herself
with you
said it would be cool
that people would be talking
for months

i can imagine
you laughing
at their stupidity
their shopping news lives
revolving around the event
of your transformation
but tim,
how romantic
was the actual passage?
inhaling vomit
alcohol and meds
your lungs refusing
to breathe
your kidneys shut down
on dialysis
tubes running in
and out of you
a parade of people looking down
on the joke of your consciouness
the way cars slow around a fresh wreck
straining for a glimpse
of blood
of their mortality

marjorie says you regained
consciousness twice
and ripped the tubes from your body
i know you were angry
i know you never imagined
how unromantic it could be

marjorie says you worked
the suicide hotline once

tim

what did you say to those people?

6
this is the world where i still live
without you —
it’s lost and abandoned
as an eight year old boy
wailing in a doorway
on the streets of san cristobal
finally sleeping alone
on the sidewalk
with no cover

i am here
in san cristobal
and i don’t understand
why some of the children
are clean, their hair combed
tied tight back a shiny black
they’re wearing their school clothes
their white ankle socks
their maroon skirts
their button down white sweaters
bookbags on their backs
their parents are walking with them
to school
holding their hands

i don’t understand
why other children exist
in such poverty, without love
holes in their pants
the skin of their ass
showing through
their faces smudged and dirty
their eyes swimming in phlegm

i don’t understand
why some people are normal
from their first day of kindergarten
to their fifty thousand dollar a year life
while other people
like you and i
were never right
we can’t carry our pain

they couldn’t get the meds right
what medication
and how much would it take
to make this world right?

7
in san cristobal
they’re celebrating
the virgin mary with fireworks
and parades

at the end of our street
we see a giant circle of light
wheeling above the roofs
we follow it through the darkness

it’s a ferris wheel
empty
ancient, resting
on four long boards

the mexicans have to push it
to get it started

we stand there watching it
with another american couple
trying to decide if it’s safe
to ride

nobody gets on
we watch as the mexicans
close every seat

8
you are riding
your bicycle
your fat book of baudelaire

i’m driving through the cemetery

you’re reading poetry to me
poetry in the park

bury the memories

your hands
on young woman’s
breasts
unmarked
making out
ashes
in your red truck
your new red truck
your new red business truck

thrashing on the floor

the phone
the phone
phone ringing
aspirating meds over
medicated

you were my tuning fork
you sounded the truest
part of me

the leaves in the cemetery
budding turning budding buried
in fairyland snow
while the television plays soaps
that bad script
bad acting
bad music
in the mental hospital
patients sitting around
like crash test dummies
while you, at the piano
classical, grand, immense
translate your emotion to music
your pain fills the ward
fills the word
unspoken word
unwritten unable to write
word

WORD

empty
hooked up to life support

no voice

and i can’t write
i can’t live
in this world
turned inside out
like a blown out balloon
useless ornament
hanging in the corner of the room

you put your head in my lap
but my lap isn’t big enough
to hold your pain

i’m at the other end
of the line
the phone is ringing
and you can’t answer

9
this was our purpose —
to trap the living in words
to get a piece of god
down on paper
to tell the truth

we were alone
in the crush
of money changers
we were starving
for money
your hands in the dirt
and mine in the germy remnants
of other people’s food
but we continued to write
unpaid
without acclaim

now that you’re dead
your perfect words
are just the dust
a dead man has left behind
they can’t answer the phone
or have a conversation
and i hate them

i should have been a banker

10
the last time i saw you
we were sitting on a shelf
behind the counter at brady’s
waiting for the sign-up poets
to finish
we were laughing at david
so young and impatient
his poems in his hand
i turned my back to you
said
“rub my back”
you said to daniel thompson
“see how she treats me?”
then you massaged my back
i just assumed
you would always be there
your large capable hands
working out the knots
i tied myself inside
i expected you
to always be there
you said
you would always love me

11
how can i survive
if you can’t?

12
you’re at your brother’s wedding
it’s wonderful
his wife is wonderful
his life is wonderful
you meet a woman
and dance all night long
like eighth graders
words are rushing through your brain
as fast as blood pumps through your veins

13
it’s been a year since you’ve been dead

back in ohio
the ferris wheel is turning again
i don’t have a reason
to frame your passage
out of my life
in words
but i do it anyway

i wait in line
i ride high up into the sky
i watch all the lives moving around below me
like rainbow colored ants
moving through time

wendy shaffer

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