Poet's Sampler: Joshua WeinerBeyond the formal and imaginative energies enacted in the verse, what I cherish in Josh Weiner's poetry is the vision of identity those energies serve. For the person implied by the nervy, surprising yet always precise language of these poems, identity isn't fixed or fated, hidden away inside us waiting to be found. Identity is rather something continuously made and remade in the crucible of social life -- less an entity than an open-ended range of imaginative and linguistic possibilities which the rigors, obligations and accidents of life simultaneously require and impede. If his is a poetry of self-discovery, the self-discovery arises in the company of others who for good or ill compel us to imagine how we could be otherwise than as we are.
The Dog State
Her reproach gathered in my inside atmosphere.
I fantasized my finger
drawing a tear line down her cheek
to trace a trail of hurt I thought to follow.
I hoped to touch her with a lightness
signifying sorrow, with a touch
leading me to sorrow's place
where I could feel it, and in that feeling
compose the man I imagine she loved.
The new dog loved me like a story-book dog,
slept curled tight into a cinnamon bun
by my bed at night, the AC cranked so high
my room was a box of winter inside the heart
of suburban summer heat. She'd wait outside
the houses of friends for hours till I appeared
like a miracle to acknowledge her, to praise
her loyalty, her patience, all sounds emerging
from me sounding like approval
and I did approve, rewarding with my kind attentions.
While working down a bone, she had a way of glancing
up at me, jaws never pausing, and I swear
she was flirting, it made me feel funny
as if she weren't just a dog, the way animals
sometimes express the human --
but like a suggestion it embarrassed me,
having so recently arrived to the year my image
first appeared to me alien and corrupted:
I am enclosed in my own fat, my face scarred;
besides God, who could love me?
And who could I tell what happened,
what must seem just a mindless act
without consequence, like jamming
firecrackers up a frog
or waiting to steal the report card
you know will come, must come
as she came to compliment my ugliness:
there in the yard she tensed on a shaggy haunch,
black nuzzle moist with slobber,
ears erect, her gaze stitched
to my every movement, the wanting so condensed
her tail sailed without wagging
as I retrieved the bone from beneath a bench
and snapped it back to sling it as far
beyond the yard as I could throw
when she crumpled
cringing beneath the arm now writing this
cocked then to fire without harm.
Not a story-book dog, in fact she was pure mutt
bought cheap from the mailman
who must have beat her often and hard, she cowered
so low to the ground, eye lids fluttering
with fear and acceptance at the human hand
(his knuckles, unlike mine, sprouted hair thick as wire)
preparing to punish without reason.
I felt sick. Why wasn't I destroyed
by my discovery of what I could make her feel
as I raised my hand again to see her sink before me
and again five minutes later.
Like sneaking beer or jerking off,
each time I gestured violence and marvelled
as she tried to disappear into the ground,
to become ground yielding enough
to absorb blows that never followed,
it seemed a crime inflicted on
the house I slept in, which kept me cool at night
and sheltered grown-ups still in charge.
A hidden voice whispered cold fury
against me, I had polluted my estate,
and it seemed she heard it too
the day she broke her chain and bolted
down the well groomed street muted in shade.
Adult sympathy arrived as if on cue, even bellowing
Mr. Schreck, the shop teacher from next door,
lowered his voice to add "I once lost a dog. . . "
in a register I had never before heard him speak;
and they looked at me as if I should know what to do
so I acted sad, it seemed required, hopped on my ten-speed
and set off like John Wayne to search for what I loved.
I slid through a neighborhood broiling with kids
caught in games that could never engage me,
not that day, with my script, A Boy and His Dog.
But how could I love
what now lived to shrink from me? She was anywhere
away from me as I circled the driveways
to peek in each backyard, each house
a replica of the house before, each kid recognized
by haircut, height and gait,
connected to a street, parents and a school,
until the catalog of likenesses
collapsed into a single field
sucking into itself everything I was told should matter.
And I thought: New Jersey, The Dog State:
more dogs than children, cars, or criminals.
The idea of caring had somehow decomposed
although authored by a conscience --
my conscience? -- until affection scattered
like an element unleashed by heat.
Soon it would turn dark. Clouds of gnats
thickened. Wanting it to end
I pedalled further into humid green
watching the grown-ups on my mind's screen
project into me, to see my sadness
shine into a searcher's hopeful panic.
They would love me for living, at that moment,
in a shape they once fit: their own story
of loving too much what they had to lose
burnished by the distant confidence of age.
Yet my boredom remained unwritten. . .
(The first trail of hurt and I had lost it
as the woman, whom I loved, would say to me
as to an emptiness, "you have lost me.")
The twilit streets narrowed to a funnel
drawing me through the hours
to an air-conditioned residence inside myself
with a bean bag chair and a TV showing snow.
And through self-knowing's static I could almost see
how the dog, gone forever, conjured up me
Masterlove, Goodfeeder, now mere Boy-With-Hands
shifting gears beyond town limits
where no one might call out my name.
Weeks before I worked the site
I saw myself a carpenter, and practiced pounding
three inch vinyl coated sinkers -- just nails to me then --
into a giant wood block until it splintered.
The cross-hatched heads of each nail bent
accused me of knowing nothing
I pretended to know, as the sparks that fled
my hammer glancing off the crippled metal
winked at me in my escapade: Dear Child of Books
can't you show one callous on your hand?
I read manuals at night I couldn't understand
and traced diagrams to lose myself
in mental drafting more like fantasy:
how the house would rise above me,
my precocious mastery of craft
so impressing the carpenters
they would all chip in for a leather tool belt,
buy me beer and run their fingers
down a seamless joint, declaring
my apprenticeship was done.
First day I brought my hammer
Mark borrowed it, led me to a scrubby plot,
said "cut this down" and left to hammer a nearby house.
From where I stood the new shining claw
fit so well in his toughened hand it was
his hand, which he waved to me
as I picked up the saw, ripped
the cord and revved it, holding tight
like a zoologist might grasp a strange bird's legs,
and stepped into the brush, machine teeth
racing and spitting to bite and spew
green wood flesh, dead limbs, debris.
Goggles fogging, boots unsure against the steep
crumbling grade, I gripped my knees and toes
into the hillside and silently sang
to the accompaniment of saw:
to conquer the hill and bury all doubt
that I could manage my tools, my body
warming to the task, satisfaction risen into pride
as I razed a square of nature for a job.
Third day Mark said "Slope's too big for a CAT;"
so I cleared the lot and started digging
the foundation with a pick. The ground was like rock.
Another laborer and I jackhammered for a week.
Mechanical pneumatics a kind of sex game
for the mind set loose by the body's effort,
he'd lean against the shaking chisel,
compressed air driving the bit deeper as he pushed,
the work's percussion like some tribal tune.
He'd pause and smile: "Feels just like a woman."
For him the hole he dug became a piece of art --
"just beautiful," he'd ponder it, examining
its depth, the sharp cut angles and even planes.
On paper you could read its purpose
but the hole's meaning deepened for us,
the makers of the hole, beyond its true significance,
until the hole became a word
repeated into senselessness: dumb hole, dada hole --
the two of us working in it for hours by ourselves,
our one intimacy, a space of understanding.
Two weeks later I left the job
blistering everywhere with poison oak.
I took colloidal oatmeal baths
and mixed a hoo-doo paste
to soothe the raw bubbled skin around my eyes
and genitals. Apprenticeship barely begun
I had succumbed to the weakness of my own system
and labored to conjure my most
recent version of myself
draining away like water from an itching body:
I dreamed of black sap
oozing from extension cords exposed to rain,
the blade's metallic argument, and then
the night my grandpa died
that I shot a man chasing me
down a dark city street. I ran
and ran to my childhood house
and took apart the gun
and buried each piece in a separate hole.
I heard music in the house.
Upstairs I found a woman who spoke
a language I almost understood.
We would marry, and when I woke up
a voice on the phone said "fly to Florida."
I understand why I dug the hole:
to build a house you need a hole.
I fell in love with the music of the work
and made up words to sing along --
a hammer, a gun, both make a song
but who was the man chasing after me
or the woman who would claim my life
in a foreign tongue? The joints won't show
and now the labor is done; and not having ever seen the house
I am left with a hole like a word without a thing,
while Mark, who always took the time
to unroll the plans so I could try to follow,
traces the lines from the architect's plot
to strings pulled tight above the ground
to an imaginary point in space
he sees the porch will reach.
-- homage to Mark Turpin
Who They Were
Thanksgiving day, no one yet thinks of him
as dead, his loneliness a new career
with which he seems preoccupied and proud.
Eyes tracing us at lunch, the cane he hates
still gripped while sitting, he's all quiet cheer,
a cartoon smile beneath a rheumy stare
absorbing family pomp and the pitch
of conversation teasing him like slang
he sometimes understood. He plays his brow
like a signal flag so we can see he's there.
Assured and brainy even now, he begins to speak
deliberate roping sentences that coil
off the spool of stories spinning in his head:
How Uncle Doc, a plumber struck by lightning,
took care of two Jew-haters on the subway
by slamming heads together in a brawling kiss,
then hauling them like beaten luggage curbside
and stealing their cigars; -- or he sees himself
a boy in Russia prior to the coup,
holding his mother's keys as she is shot
for running guns to Lenin. . .
Was it true
or merely true enough?
Desperate to snare
some history late in middle age, my mother,
prepared with tape machine, holds out the mike:
"Say it again Dad, speak into the thing."
He laughs and shakes his head, sips once and sighs,
the heaving past calm now beneath the surface
of everything he'd like to say, and shy
before posterity's cool instruments.
Another year, a stroke, yet still he is here;
speaks less; sings opera when the pizza comes.
He smiles at his son and recognizes me
but not my name or who I am: grandson:
a future pale as the once prized heirlooms
cramping his apartment, and as unknown.
Two portraits bordered with gilt above his bed:
his mother and father, stiff in formal dress,
stern, regal, staring beyond revolution
to the Soviet Union they would never see
or see their son escape from. His stare back
falls blunt, yet he sees there is some relation:
aunt, brother, cousins from a distant farm?
Who they were, failed to be, or might have been
fades from the dream-talk of his memory
until the frame itself begins to crack:
so that gazing at them he is like Aeneas
scanning with wonder the images engraved
on Vulcan's shield -- they could be children unborn
forecast in pictures, all their destined acts
hanging beyond the mind like a hemorrhage.
Hoisting a bright wool afghan to his shoulder,
lips pressed and flakes of scalp dusting his stoop,
he trembles, scowling, steel-eyed and aroused
for battle, ready to walk through a field
full-blown with bodies and sing out to the tribe.