Kliban imagined Our Lady
appearing to a Volkswagen
parked at a one-hour meter
in Denver. One assumes she had her reasons:
a message too urgent
to take venue and audience sufficiently into
account. Any secular intellectual
There are cases still more extreme.
suddenly befalls one
of those attenuated stickmen made
to writhe by hot air at used-car lots.
He understands everything.
He knows where the others are.
The answers are so terrible
he becomes at last one with his dance,
but even more alienated
from his eager open painted eyes
and smile. Preaching also to windshields.
A voice, insinuating, loathsome,
came over the comms: “In ancient times,
small groups in bad situations –
an open lifeboat, cave-ins –
another member, always calm and helpful.
In many cases they called him Shepherd.
Later they may have viewed him as an angel,
but I make no claim to that. You can call me Shepherd.”
What was so bad about the voice?
It was educated, in an old, elitist way, and
relaxed. The captain, whose job
and joy it was portentously to state
the obvious, announced, “We have a stowaway”
and called for teamwork; he and the others
thinking what the Head Office
would do to them for this, and covertly
selecting whom to blame. They
conferred. They checked readings, logs,
storage units, food and oxygen
consumption. Were issued sidearms,
and headsets that, once activated,
erased fear, superstition, and
concern about career, leaving only
purpose. They found him
in the lounge, beside a viewport, looking down
at the planet. Vegetation there
was purple, much of it now black
from mining. “Freeze!” yelled someone. He
smiled. Was oddly wispy, antique
clothes without a logo,
dyed by the old red dwarf; hardly there
when they upped the lighting. They tased him:
nothing. Zipties passed through him.
Their focused anger fought its bounds. He
smiled. The AI identified
what he said next as propaganda
issued to soldiers in an ancient war: “You should
regard the enemy as someone
who has killed your father, burned your house, dishonored
your mother. On him you may discharge
the load of misery and frustration
you have carried with you all your life.”
I had arranged a few objects
on the setback bricks
atop the old-fashioned fireplace.
A blue Tunisian plate.
A Baule mask. A small sculpture,
which only when you looked at it
looked shapeless, by a sculptor
who had lived upstairs of my father.
This was after
I had scrubbed with a wire brush
as much grime as I could
from the fireplace, which had burnt
nothing in decades and never would.
Then I realized that something like
a window or a mirror
was there, and that beyond it lay
an almost identical
but clean and working hearth. The plate
was the same, the mask better and not
inherited, the artwork
by some big name and rather dull,
the room a charming nook. Mine was my flat.
I could almost see him.
He could almost see me, and was
amused, not very interested, then gone.
I wondered: were we both evil?
Their names remembered like old phone-numbers,
or vanished, though the face remains,
and the last ambiguous laugh, or request for a loan …
Best to regard them as scientists, explorers,
lost somewhere. One discovered
the effect of forty acid trips
in one semester on a mind
that might have rivaled Goethe’s. One
who loathed computers when they appeared
became their master, hidden in that fortress.
One researched for ten years with Scholastic rigor
unrequited love, then boringly,
hermetically, theorized women. And, finding
profession, promotion, family, one found me
a vestigial organ, subject to infection, best
removed. But the cases
that keep me up, trying to remember names,
cafés, disputes, are less clear …
It’s only certain that the fault was mine.
Explorers, certainly, for all of us
“moved.” I imagine them
in towns I never visited, every turn
of every street available on screens
but where the later, all-revealing face
never appears, while
the googled bio seems a fantasy …
Scientists, too; for they learned
new accents, tastes, ways of accommodating
and dying. In any case
the dullest will bequeath ten thousand facts,
I a few mysteries.
Immune to its charms, ignorant of its names,
I drive into the countryside.
Odors of vegetables and animals.
Hay-fever, chaperone of intellect.
I bear in a cardboard box the relics
of the deceased, suggesting only innocence:
a past, that is, not canceled promise.
The house is as I expect, expecting little,
in need of paint to hide its other needs.
And, knocking, I must remember whether
son, daughter, or whoever is in the box,
for that can influence my reception.
Which will inevitably be bad,
though at first I’m offered a chair and awful coffee
and gaze at pious slogans, framed or carved,
I privately decode, my look approving.
Try to grasp, I urge, that I didn’t know him
or her. I’m not the police. I come
long after the police, who were and would be kinder;
it’s we around this desperately polished
table who are the cold case now.
She meant to be good, quit drugs, help people,
he to be rich, successful, male –
successful in any case, a star, a patriot!
These toys, that scrap of diary, this key
to a long-emptied safe deposit box
reveal if properly interpreted
their good intentions. The city
was cruel, but with a cruelty you wanted …
At which the beating comes. I’m prepared,
faith in non-violence never questioned;
and when, exhausted, he, they stop,
I see in them through my remaining
eye that agonizing choice of troubles,
whether to dispose of me or learn.
As I awoke I wasn’t sure
what the times demanded, what diction to use.
Slang flashed and vanished
like quanta. Was a word meant
to be placed in a sentence or replace it?
And with what emphasis, what shrug or rictus?
Worse was the question
of persona and tone. Once there had been
a noncommittal caution,
a mask of belonging. Still earlier
in my genetic background lay
a touching earnestness that coincided
oddly with the “hardboiled” mode.
(At such a distance the term confused me:
surely it meant a way of being eaten?)
Later there came a frantic expressiveness
that may have been honesty, shot through
with saving moments of rage. This yielded
to a sullenness, which deepened.
How should I speak, who should I be,
I wondered, when I entered
the cafeteria, went to my locker
for my blazer, my hoodie?
Swung from bed; was surprised to encounter
my cane, my denture.
Frederick Pollack is author of two book-length narrative poems, The Adventure (Story Line Press, 1986; to be reissued by Red Hen Press) and Happiness (Story Line Press, 1998), and two collections, A Poverty of Words (Prolific Press, 2015) and Landscape with Mutant (Smokestack Books, UK, 2018). In print, Pollack’s work has appeared in Hudson Review, Salmagundi, Poetry Salzburg Review, Manhattan Review, Skidrow Penthouse, Main Street Rag, Miramar, Chicago Quarterly Review, The Fish Anthology (Ireland), Poetry Quarterly Review, Magma (UK), Neon (UK), Orbis (UK), Armarolla, December, and elsewhere. Online, his poems have appeared in Big Bridge, Diagram, BlazeVox, Mudlark, Occupoetry, Faircloth Review, Triggerfish, Big Pond Rumours (Canada), Misfit, OffCourse, Bindweed (June 2016) and elsewhere.