Sample Poems

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New and Uncollected:

"I Called My Uncle"
"No Ideas But In Things"

The above two poems were chosen for first prize for the 2013 Arts & Letters Prime Poetry Prize.
Read them below, or Click here to listen to Jerry reading these two poems on the Arts & Letters website

 "Poetry Reading"
"Crepuscular Non Driveway" 

Click  to read the above  two poems on the New World Writing website

"Mike"



These five poems are from Jerry's recent collection,  In Flagrante Delicto

"Shooting Gallery"

"Palmetto"

"Suburb"

"Morning"

"Pez"



These three poems are from Jerry's first full-length collection, Picture a Gate Hanging Open and Let that Gate be the Sun

"Icarus"

"Rock and Water"

"Fiesole"

 

All poems copyrighted © 2013 Jerry Mirskin
All rights reserved.

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I Called My Uncle (click to listen to Jerry reading this poem)

I called my uncle. I had something to tell him.

Out of the clear blue, he sent me five hundred dollars.

He was giving gifts to his nieces and nephews.

I was living in Binghamton, working as a substitute teacher

and living in a crappy apartment.

I didn't know if I would have work from day to day.

I didn't know why he was giving me a gift, but when I saw the check, I was grateful.

My uncle was old school. When he died, a friend referred to him

as "a diamond in the rough."

I thought about what I knew of him. He had been in World War II.

There were some stories. Hard times.

At his funeral, his brother-- my dad--
  told a long rambling story about how my uncle took

my father to a baseball game when my dad was young.

My father stood by the grave and recounted.

He remembered that on that day the famous player, 
Joe Dimaggio, hit two home runs.

It seemed like a funny story to tell at a funeral. And even more odd

was how my dad referred to the baseball player as, "Joe D."

Looking at the hole in the ground, he said,

"…. and Joe D hit two homers."

He hesitated, as if trying to find a few more words. Nothing.

Then eventually he said, "I liked him," and took a small step back.

I wasn't sure whom my dad was referring to: the baseball player

or my uncle?  And then I realized it must be my uncle-- his brother.

He was talking about his brother.

It was a year earlier that I called to thank him.

I felt my uncle had looked down from somewhere

and saw where the dark
 was collecting in the corners and wanted to do something for me.

When I called, I told him I wanted to thank him.

He didn't say anything.  I said it was a surprise. I listened, waiting for a response,

wondering
if there were something else I could say.

That's the hard part: knowing what to say.

I imagined my father's brother in his Bronx apartment, the way he was the last time I saw him.

How he came to the door in his underclothes 
and then rested in bed while we talked.

I hadn't seen him like that before.

It was the beginning of his physical decline.

Before that, he was all strength and good humor.

Now, on the phone, it was as if we were both standing in the dark.

The undivided dark that we all share, but must abide alone.

Maybe it was that that made me really feel the simplicity of his gift,

and I told him I didn't think I deserved it.

It was then that the silence
 on the other end of the line seemed more intense.

I heard a sound
like someone trying to breathe.

And then I realized, he was crying. Quietly sobbing.

Years later, after I gave a poetry reading, a friend of my father's

came up to me and shook my hand, and then he surprised me.

Holding my hand a moment longer, he said, You're not nothing.

We were standing in the doorway. I wasn't sure what he meant.

I still remember that. I didn't know, but I sensed it was meaningful.  

After some time, it came to me, and I knew what to say.

Thank you, Uncle George, I said. I love you.

And before I hung up, and then for some time after, it seemed

my uncle and I were dwelling together in a timeless place.

A different place. Not this one.


                                                                                                                       
                                                                                                                                        published by Arts & Letters 2013




No Ideas But In Things

                                                        So much depends
                                                        upon a red wheelbarrow
                                                        glazed with rainwater...
                                                                        WC Williams

Sometimes at the end of winter
he my of me battered by having traveled
too many miles in the dark, I catch myself
by the window, looking and longing
like an artificial flower, in flagrante delecto
checking the horoscope of the snow
the dial of the rain.  


It used to be I’d take the dim and grey
as a horse takes shoes. 
What do we have but expression?  Give me a word
as solid as ice.  Pithy and worthy as wood. 
The end of winter is a dirge.  Soft in the tooth. 
It is the querulous sound of dripping water
the ground is not prepared to take in, as I am not
prepared for the snow's ignoble decline.  


Put it this way, In another country
they'd seize the window for making the world so poor.

Here things are different.
Across the way, a black bird stops like a hammer
in the broken tines of a tree. 
And a squirrel, nimble as the limb it ambles on climbs
to the end of the earth and the beginning of sky. 
If the tree were a document, the squirrel would be the nib
that gives the world its imprimatur.


We live in a college town.
Down the street, a red sofa chair is lodged upside down
in the crotch of Maple.  You can't say that the trees
around here aren't playing their part.  Black veins
they take over the neighborhood like Rorschachs of trees.
For some reason, I take the sofa in the tree personally. 
As if it were not only my sofa, but my idea to put it there.
I think the precocious fraternity who made that petition
should have to stay after.  Stay until they learn
how much thinking it will take to get spring here again. 
How far the rains will have to go.

              
                So much depends upon a red wheelbarrow
                glazed with rainwater,  
 I say to my wife
                who is taking a bath. 

                She doesn’t care for Ars Poetica.   
                I know she loves me, the way one loves an old horse.  
                This old horse goes into the bedroom
                opens the window and pulls a three foot icicle from the eaves
                and brings it in the house and into the steamy bathroom
                where she floats like an Italianate fairy.
  
                When she sees the gleaming stick jutting up between my legs
                she yells, Don’t put that thing in here!  
                and laughs, and I laugh, and for a moment it feels
                like it will all be o.k.





                                                                                                                                        published by Arts & Letters 2013


Mike

In New York freezing is about forty-two inches. That's how far you have to dig if you're putting in a foundation. In this case, we were digging by hand because the backhoe couldn't get in. I'd done work like that before. One time on a farm, I had to dig a grave for a calf. I remember I was up to my waist in the hole. It was winter, the farmer came by, looked down and said, That's deep enough. Another time, I was digging and found a row of horse teeth. They were coated with dirt, but after I cleaned them off, I realized that they weren't teeth, but a row of keys from an adding machine. I remember holding the unearthed numbers in my hand. They'd been in the ground for some time, but I had a feeling they could still add.

Now it was summer and hot. Over ninety degrees. The foreman came by. Mike. He was a good guy, but I couldn't see it. All the others were inside, and I was out there in the heat. He picked up a shovel. It wasn't work that a master carpenter would do, but he started in. I wasn't assuaged. I wanted to know why I was the one in the hole. He didn't say. I knew a little bit about him. He had graduated high school and went right to work. By the time he was twenty five he was an accomplished craftsman and even taught a class in construction at the local community college. I also knew that he was recently married. His wife, a cute but tough girl, drove motorcycles in a circus. She was one of the riders in the round steel cage, going around and around and upside down, held by centrifugal force. Often there was more than one motorcycle in there. It was really loud and smoky, and you wondered how they didn't get dizzy or collide and crash.

Mike was in love with her. The circus was in Florida. One night she called him. They had been going together on and off . She was sick of it, but didn't know what to do. Mike got into his car that night and drove twenty hours to where she was. He proposed and they came back together. He would talk about her. Sometimes he would even share some of the private things they did. Other times he talked about how he'd come home from work, tired. She wasn't working and she was lonely and wanted to play. He told me how he used to stop at a park on the way home sometimes and take a nap, so that he had energy to be with her. I pictured him lying on the grass in some park. Resting between his work life and his home life.

We were digging. After awhile, we stopped to take a drink. The sweat was pouring off. He looked at me. I realized that he'd probably have to go back inside, but he didn't go in. Instead he started talking. He said that his dad died five years ago. He said that he couldn't get used to the idea that he would never see him again. His dad would never see him with a good job, or a wife and all they were planning. I hadn't ever seen him upset. I haven't actually seen a lot of men upset. He said he would work for a whole year in a trench and give all his pay if he could just see his dad for five minutes. A year of one's life for five minutes. I tried to picture that meeting. The meeting that couldn't happen. The truth was as flat and hot as the face of a shovel. For a moment there was quiet. There was sadness, but it felt peaceful. After a while, Mike went back into the house, and I went back to digging. Back to the girl in the cage. Back to driving all night long on the highway.

                                                   
published by the Seneca Review 2013



Icarus

To understand this story
you have to picture a gate hanging open
and let that gate be the sun.
Then picture a boy bursting from the spell
of too much dark, how he tumbles
and slips from the effortless grip of the clouds.
What seemed last night like a good idea,
spanking the water.
I don't really understand why he had to die
beyond understanding the statute of limitations—
how imagination goes unsupported in the sky.
I suppose I understand how water goes on living,
while people like you and me prophesy a kind of patience
a pride in flying low, a wisdom
in the plain joy of just walking around.
But, to really understand this story
you have to imagine a kind of castle loneliness.
Nights when there is no telling
from all the things that men do, just what we want to do.
From that flightless dark
it is just a small step to seeing any sign of sun
as the kind of beauty our knowing can embrace.
Maybe it is just youthful infatuation,
but who wouldn't open their arms?
Who wouldn't feel in the light of such knowledge
like putting on their wings and going out?

Picture a gate hanging open.
And let that gate be the sun.

 

*********

 

 

Rock and Water

 

They were a perfect pair.
The boy hunched over near the rocks.
His shadow moving gently on the surface
as if he were stirring the water.
When you looked closer, you could see
that he had something in his hand.
A small silver fish.
He was stroking it. Placing it in the water
in swimming position.
It floated to the surface and lay on its side.
Once, twice.
The sun shone on the side of the fish
and the boy continued.
Nearby another boy stood with a fishing pole
facing the other way.
He was busy and only looked over once in a while.
The boy continued trying to help the fish
by adjusting it in the water, placing it in motion.
Patiently and deliberately, as if placing the last piece
in a puzzle. As if it only needed a little help, a touch.
Once in a while the fish would actually stir on its own
and then it would slip to the surface as if having died again.
Each time the boy seemed more intent
and repeated his stroking, hovering like a guardian
repeating this ritual of patient affection and concern.
It was a very clear day. The water and the light glittered.
I stayed until I couldn't watch any longer.
Hovering as if to understand.
They were a perfect pair.
The little fish did not know how to go on living.
And the boy did not know how to let it go.

 

****************

 

 

Fiesole 

I like the way they live forever in Italy .
I like the way they take the time to do it.
How they put their whole lives into it.
The wine will tell you this.
The way it stands on the table.
So lonely, dark and lonely.
I like the way they live forever in Italy .
Like each day they put a penny in.
A penny for art. One for work.
They know it will take a whole life to pay off.
All this art. All this beauty.
In Fiesole , outside of Florence
I saw two men walking the hills.
When they passed a small faded shrine
their walk faded. They gave a few pennies.
A handful of lira.
They were on one side of a hill
walking a small path to their homes.
On the other side was the city, and the duomo.
You can see it ten miles away
like a great tired heart sleeping soundly
in the smoke of sunlight.
Asleep and snug in the valley by the Arno .
Which side would I prefer?
From here we could see that the sun
was going down on one knee.
The grooves of the city were growing taller
like a taller garden.
Shadows were growing clever in the alleys.
Still, the sun was working hard as always.
Conspiring with the church and the city on one side
and the vine on the other.
I like the way they live forever in Italy .

 

**************

 

Shooting Gallery

 

Why does the poem appear in the middle of the page?

One would think it would slink around

the empty edges, singing and sinking its dark grounds

in the clear margins. But no, it takes residence right here,

lying like the shadow of a hand, a footprint

of a newborn cast into life. A fundamental thing.

One day I went to the fair.

All day I rode up and down.

All day I ate and drank.

There was in the air the rapacious odor of burning meat,

the sweet spin of sugar.

Bitter tongues of coffee, and boulevards of beer.

And there were the young and the old.

All together.

A spectacle.

It was summer.

Light flung over the waters of evening.

I picked up a gun.

At the end of the day there was a star.

I aimed and fired. Aimed and fired.

I was cutting my mark.

Welding the parts of my scattered life on paper.

If only I could do this simple thing.

The man drew the paper toward us.

It came up on a long string, as if

from the future, the past.

It came to us with its bloody answer.

I had lived.

Full of desperation. Full of peace.

Of love. Of fear.

Each moment shooting out the next.

Emptying.

All the signs were there.

I wore the flesh that others wore.

That is why the poem appears as it does.

Because at the core there is an invisible center

with no trace of blood.

The poem steps in to take its place.

And then the word transpires and says otherwise.

 

***************

 

Palmetto

 

It was me. I did it.

In a stringy wood in Florida

I tore it from its mother.

Sawing away with my motel key

I stole, stealing from the green, green world.

I don’t know if I invoked the sacred name

of sorrow, or the ragged name of fear

I remember striding into the hospital

with its head down by my side.

And how the woman in the next bed

recognized it immediately.

It’s on the list, she said. And meant a better one

than you could ever find in a hospital ward

in Florida, or any other state, for that matter.

What we did then was just look at it.

The little saw palmetto with its green

and juvenile crown of fans.

A small shy prince. Almost apologetic

even as it lifted and spread its bright deck

and serene face.

Have you ever seen one? This one

had already begun to be a light in the world.

Taking its place between two women,

one sick and one injured.

Endangered species. I still remember

how it looked, as if being endangered meant

that it knew from the very beginning

what sadness was, and what its work

would be. Far from home.

Far from the green, green world.


*****************

 

Suburb

“Me, a name I call myself…”

 

With my special flare for the slightly perverse

I construct a cemetery in our backyard.

The innocent grass, those small hydrants of fire

do not know my mortal play. Nor the cedars

rimming the yard with their straight and recondite bones.

Nothing, and no one, not even my wife.

My plan is to enjoy a little peace, a little hush

in the here and now, the translucent present

before that other, evermore.

For obvious reasons, I cannot use real stones.

My love would not go for such a dumb show.

She would not have a salad among monoliths and slabs.

Instead, I place the barbecue at the foot of my plot

and at the foot of hers I place the clothesline.

No one knows what pleasures accrue

in this secret statuary, my miniature Stonehenge.

It is sublime, as I see now that the barbecue

was always my marker, and the clothesline hers.

We were already, without knowing, living outside of time.

Our eternal dominion suburban and mundane.

After awhile of peace and quiet and sun, I weary

of being dead, and go inside for a cool drink

thinking maybe she made some lemonade.

When I return refreshed, I see the clothesline

flashing with the light chatter of her underwear,

flitting bird like in the breeze, and on the ground

there is a patch of glittering shade so lovely

I must dive in and pass through the delicate blades

shimmering on the lawn.

When she comes outside I am on my knees

caressing the grass. Though she has no idea

what’s really going on.

Suddenly seized by her beauty and the moment,

I ask if she will pose nude for me by the clothesline.

She is in a fine mood today, and laughs

and gets on her bicycle and goes, calling behind

for me to leave a key for her in the garage.

Calling to me. Me. The shade.

The darker grass.

 

******************

 

Morning

 

My wife, who is often as unassuming

as Ophelia, came in last night after I had

gone to bed. Where I was? And what?

No matter. Just some lifeless golem clay,

statue that lifts under her touch and flies

to the wing of her mouth.

 

And she to me?

More than perpetual stasis. More than

the hard chronos that disquiets and eludes.

So much that in the monument of the dark

the hands began, and the mouths and lips

all entering into the blind drinking

and the principle of consume and be consumed

was as fine as first commission.

 

For is it not original what two working

the endless math of one and one can perfect,

can echo in each other?

 

I looked out my window this morning,

which is what writers do.

The trees were enacting their simple vigil

of absence and creation, and I thought

for a moment that would be all.

 

But how powerful it was then to sense

through the closed door, a drawer opening

and soon after-- quiet steps on the smooth floor

and receding stair.

 

*********************

 

Pez

Before Skinner and increments of reinforcement,

there was Pez. Pellets of species specific candy.

A product of the industrial revolution that put things in packages,

brought meaning to cardboard and cellophane.

Now you could get a “pack” of something.

And the stuff in the pack looked better than their ancestors,

those lumpy cigarettes you rolled by hand, or the cakes

grandma made with rumpled crusts and hunks of fruit.

I remember how an open pack of cigarettes looked like ammunition.

A line of bullets. Perfectly straight teeth.

Come to think of it, that was probably when they started

clamping down—all of a sudden everyone was wearing braces,

and smiling their big industrial smiles.

It was all part of the process.

Pez came in a dispenser. That was key.

You didn’t just eat this stuff like feed from someone’s hand,

but with a flick of your thumb you forged a perfect tab,

a compact block of powdered sugar emerged as if from an assembly line.

Manufactured from the force of your hand, it was not unlike

how Superman turned a lump of coal into a diamond.

It was the nearest thing to witnessing birth.

The cool thing was you could take it everywhere and be ready

for anything.

One time, after reading an essay by the young Prince Charles

about what he would take with him in the event that during a war

he was deserted on an island, my teacher asked us to write a similar essay.

She didn’t tell us what the smart and practical prince put down,

and I don’t remember all of what I wrote.

But I remember, I got the answers wrong.

My list, which included my bicycle and the dispenser, didn’t compare.

I pictured myself on my bike, zipping from foxhole

to foxhole. With my ready dispenser, I slid between salvo

and salvo, and moment to moment.

Clearly, I was delirious.

And I think that image really bothered her.

For what could you teach someone who had

a gadget of self-reliance—a personal dispenser of candy bullion.

But I had something that she couldn’t give me

and could barely control. It’s called enthusiasm.

And when I put it to good use, like not beating up my brother

or burning down the house, my parents gave me Pez.

 

 

 

 

All poems copyrighted © 2013 Jerry Mirskin
All rights reserved.

 

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