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Poet's Sampler: Joshua Weiner

Beyond 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.

--Alan Shapiro

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.

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