Two Poems by Gerry LaFemina

It’s Christmas. The turkey vultures
             – For Michael and Barbara

It’s Christmas. The turkey vultures
have climbed into the choir loft of a nearby tree,
seven, twelve, fifteen of them ready for carols
we are too far to hear. They look sharp
backlit in their black frocks, their monastic heads
bowed & serious. Their songs all in minor keys.
Across the street another five have alighted
like Santa’s reindeer on a neighbor’s roof.
Some omen. Some harbinger. They remain
unfazed by flashing lights, by inflatable snowmen
suddenly resuscitated, by the old world
curses of a grandfather worried about
evil eyes & wives tales. These are beaks that know
carrion, talons that carry death over
backyards, patios, children pointing them out.
Winged, ferocious, hideous & full of grace
they could be seraphim. We are
miles from steeple or cemetery.
The community’s lone lake remains ice-scabbed.
The gazebo overlooking it frowns despite
its crown of holiday lights, each bulb a blazing
scarab. There are no crows or pigeons,
only the vultures. Already,
the remains of gift giving burn in fireplaces—
hearth smoke & kitchen scents mingling.
My brother wants to know what can be done
about the buzzards, talks about shooting them
with garden hose spray or shaking that tree
viciously, for they are awful & ugly & blessed all
at once, & like any of us, clutching carnage &
redemption both, our redundant lists
of naughty & nice. How radiant
the afternoon sky in the bay window, even
as occasional shadows darken the welcome mat.

*

Night Walk

Three bats scrape the undercarriage of dusk,
circle concentrically then swoop for summer’s
remaining insects. They are scraps of darkness
against the darkening sky, the way certain notes
in a nocturne’s melody resonate more,
cables vibrating from hammer strikes, sustained
almost a visible shiver, even as being played
by an unknown neighbor. E minor. Chopin.
The whole thing unsteady, uncertain, almost
unrecognizable, like the self in distant memory. Smoke
from a leaf fire a worn scarf against windsweep.
I didn’t use to believe in ghosts despite a childhood
watching Chiller films Saturdays past midnight.
I didn’t believe in mad scientists & undead.
Then I learned about the Bomb in class,
imagined being trapped in a basement shelter
with girls I had no courage to speak with
outside fantasy; the yellow & black fallout signs
that were everywhere it seemed, announced the inevitable.
Yet here we are nearly 40 years later, in Appalachia,
in an America that continues to advertise
custard cones, holiday parades, & Elvis impersonators
appearing at Autumn Glory band shells. For years
people kept seeing the King or his ghost—
the past unrelenting. Its soundtrack all nocturnes &
Return to Sender, the occasional riff of swing
or bebop. The junior high kids, instead, fall in love
on the school bus or in Math class or during
active shooter drills, teacher saying any one of you
might be a victim, so follow directions. This is how
we learn heartache, how even a name can be haunted
because a name can be a house we live in for years
walking in the empty rooms of its syllables.
We open the windows just to hear the beloved
breathing until that breath becomes the very back-beat
of our evenings. The properties of heartbreak & loss
all so similar, their overgrown lawns, their one lit rooms
behind curtains, envelopes uncollected in mailboxes.
No one knows what happened, though kids walking past
invent narratives, each one more horrific until
all that remains are the rumors themselves—
the plots like that of thrillers, all sadness or else
the threat of tragedy, & even this is American.
The piano appears again, this time Gershwin, more
furtive, further away. A feral cat rushes from wild fescue
a field mouse, metronomic tail swinging, clamped
in its fangs. Years ago this might have been an omen.
To the distant west strobe lightning flashes without thunder.

*

Gerry LaFemina is the author of numerous collections of poetry, fiction, and criticism. In 2022 he’ll have two new books released: The Pursuit: A Meditation on Happiness (creative nonfiction) and The American Ruse (poems). He is a Professor of English at Frostburg State University, serves as a mentor in Carlow University’s MFA program, is a Fulbright specialist in Writing and American Culture, and fronts the punk rock band The Downstrokes.

Unfinished Landscapes by Gerry LaFemina

Unfinished Landscapes

My friend Peter pointed out the condensation
on his glass & declared how much love is like water:
everyone wants it, & how it comes

in a torrent or a trickle; though it can also be
a still pond with mosquitos, cirrus-like, above it
so that sometimes we might confuse

the soft insect buzz for love itself, but no.
The water metaphor was what was important
in the end—how we thirst & how

we can’t cup it in our hands for it seeps
between fingers as we bring it to our mouths
so it’s as if we kiss our own palms.

Some people, in desperation, get on their knees
bend over like a dog to lick at a puddle.
So easily we lose our dignity, & easily, too,

we fight for it or weep in its name.
That’s something never taught in science class.
Ditto how to cope with heartache or how to enjoy

the way sunlight seems to cast itself
on only select leaves of a spring catalpa
so they grow a little greener, more lush & thus

more lovely. Ask the landscape artist I see some days
in May, in Central Park, & he’ll show you how
he mixes acrylics, shade after shade of emerald

whisked in, sometimes, a bit of yellow to nix
a daub of blue, then feeling it thinned out too much
adding something darker. The brush swirling in hues

so that it resembles a smeared thumb print,
a bit of forensic evidence, the way the fine brush hairs
form thin ridges in the paint.

Then it, too, is gone. Likewise, day’s luminescence
which gives way to evening with a shuffling sound
that can only be described as wind through leaves.

The painter picks up his tubes, canvas, & easel
though he’ll stop to let you know that
this is another in a series of unfinished landscapes, &

that he used to paint boaters on the lake
from one of the stone bridges.
It made him hopeful, somewhat nostalgic—

those couples with their secret languages &
picnic baskets, their laughter
competing with busker song & the giddiness of kids

clutching balloon strings. He never says what changed
his mind, or how much sadness is like sunlight—
ubiquitous, momentary. Along the curving path

comes a woman with a poodle, whistling
Stravinsky’s Rites of Spring. There’s no call for rain,
yet an umbrella swings from her free hand.

Peter would say that proves everything.

*

Gerry LaFemina is the author of numerous collections of poetry, fiction, and criticism. In 2022 he’ll have two new books released: The Pursuit: A Meditation on Happiness (creative nonfiction) and The American Ruse (poems). He is a Professor of English at Frostburg State University, serves as a mentor in Carlow University’s MFA program, is a Fulbright specialist in Writing and American Culture, and fronts the punk rock band The Downstrokes.

One Poem by Gerry LaFemina

Some Thoughts Driving Through Matawan New Jersey

There’s no mill on Mill Road anymore.
A bridge crosses over a parched river bed where weeds & wild flowers
shelter among the shattered remnants of Friday beers.
I pass the dry cleaners, a thrift store, ice cream stand,
some lone seagull perched on a stop sign, & marvel
how in May light the whole town’s picturesque or maybe
it’s just the sun causing the pollen film that covers everything
to glow golden. Hey, hay fever. Hey, young love.
Spring does what it always does, & the high school seniors strut
in their finery. Prom tonight. The future tomorrow.
Isn’t that always the way, though I try to catch a second glimpse
in the rearview. Diamond sign presages an S curve,
so I toe the brakes, slow down near a bar with no name,
just neon signs announcing cocktails & happy hour.
It harkens back to when the mill still distributed steady checks
& promises of a pension. In its dim corners muted laughter,
or is that sobbing? Sad lightthrob of a silent jukebox.
I’ve been in bars just like this in Kalamazoo, in Cumberland, in Corning:
the regulars revising the glory days of the Reagan administration
& their high school pigskin stories. There’s always one moment
of bad luck—a blown catch, a broken tibia, a lost season—
always, too, someone talking about leaving,
says he’s got a full tank of gas, a train ticket, someone waiting.
Tramps like us, baby. Springsteen on the car radio,
I’m only 20 miles from Asbury Park after all.
We went there one long ago Saturday after a prom,
skinny dipping in the May Atlantic although we never went beyond
knee deep. Oh, the way her untanned skin glowed in the half moon.
Was it her breasts or the cold that made me gasp?
Back then the nakedness of any body held wonders I couldn’t believe
I would ever understand. Later, we sat on the sand, both of us
ashiver, goose bumps on our legs almost touching, & she
told me how her father had just been laid off
or was it that he’d just moved out. I can’t be certain anymore, but
I know we were alone, we weren’t in love, but we were free
& that counted for something right then because
anything seemed possible despite the tide coming in.

*

Gerry LaFemina is the author of numerous collections of poetry, fiction, and criticism. In 2022 he’ll have two new books released: The Pursuit: A Meditation on Happiness (creative nonfiction) and The American Ruse (poems). He is a Professor of English at Frostburg State University, serves as a mentor in Carlow University’s MFA program, is a Fulbright specialist in Writing and American Culture, and fronts the punk rock band The Downstrokes.

Memorial Sloane Kettering, 2007 by Gerry LaFemina

Memorial Sloane Kettering, 2007

9:30. Upper East Side. A neighborhood
I hadn’t walked in in years,
though a group of my peers loiter outside
some with cigarettes,
some with cell phones,
some unwrapping the cellophane from a sandwich
—just a little more litter for the world—
before slumping against the cement foundation
strung out from work & witness.
My coffee exhales into morning light
smelling of Columbia, of Arabica.
This could have been the velvet line
waiting for some club to open its doors
a decade back, in our decadent, care-free twenties,
but I recognize no one
& no one checks my ID in the lobby.
No one shouts & pushes
to get up front. The alcohol scent astringent.
The elevator is a small cell of sadness
in its ascension. It stops with a chippy ping
so out of place when its doors open
to the fifth floor children’s ward:
I glimpse only the bald heads, emaciated
frames of 7-year-olds, & one father’s
swollen, unshaven face, like
illuminations from some forlorn copy of the Inferno,
one monks refused to copy, but no,
this is still Manhattan & the man beside me
no Virgil, just a stranger with the familiar
visage of the bereaved, eyes to the floor.
The flowers seem to wilt in my fist as we rise
to the head & neck ward
where a few patients walk with IV carts in tow,
circling the elevator bay & nurses’ station,
where someone is sobbing behind a drawn curtain,
where my mother has slept these last three nights.

*

Gerry LaFemina is the author of numerous collections of poetry, fiction, and criticism. In 2022 he’ll have two new books released: The Pursuit: A Meditation on Happiness (creative nonfiction) and The American Ruse (poems). He is a Professor of English at Frostburg State University, serves as a mentor in Carlow University’s MFA program, is a Fulbright specialist in Writing and American Culture, and fronts the punk rock band The Downstrokes.

The Temporary World by Gerry LaFemina

The Temporary World

The water tranquil, soft loll of sunglaze
as one sailboat lazes from its dock toward adventure
beyond the bay.
Isn’t this how so many stories begin? Behind me

all tumult—jackhammers & Harley growl,
shrieks of children, their laughter gift wrapped
in golden light.
Old oaks chaperone, wear boas of Spanish moss.

Anoles have gone into hiding among
the underbrush; I even watched one leap, an Olympian,
from the sidewalk,
before it changed from brown to green

the way they will, adaptation necessary
for survival, to avoid workmen sawing away dead fronds
& the wrens that
woke me earlier, which seem harmless enough

seeing as they’re barely fist-sized,
their beaks almost dainty. But deadly. Such deception
shouldn’t shock us.
When it closed its eyes that lizard disappeared.

The school kids have returned to classrooms,
but before they left the cutest one said, Fuck no!,
so natural
a reaction when summoned back. In only minutes

the bay’s begun to churn, foam gathering
along the water’s edge, & the child-drawn clouds
to the south furrow
their brows, portent to a storm I still can’t fathom,

so that, hours from now, rain will lash
the windows, breakers crash beyond the storm wall.
Imagine those lizards
how important to survival it is for them to hold on,

the way they must cling to some quavering branch.

*

Gerry LaFemina’s most recent books are The Story of Ash (poems, Anhinga 2018) and Baby Steps in Doomsday Prepping (prose poems, Madville, 2020). He’s also a noted critic and fiction writer, and his first book of creative nonfiction, The Pursuit: A Meditation on Happiness is forthcoming on Madville. He teaches at Frostburg State University, serves as a mentor in the Carlow University MFA program, and plays guitar and sings for Snubbed recording artists The Downstrokes.