Tag Archives: juvenilia

Hats

When I was eight,
I kept a picture on my wall
of my father, another man,
and a sea of smiling children.
Behind them was a helicopter
(black in my picture, green in Asia)
and in front of them
(though not in my picture)
were little homes of straw and mud.
In my picture,
he was not much older than I am now.

Not much older,
as I walk along Caille Duarte,
stepping over goat shit and mango pits,
greeted by four little boys
yelling, “Hola, Miguel! Miguel!”
I lose my straw hat to them,
I juggle stones and mangoes for them,
I chase them over cracked pavement
and past rusted barbed wire
covered with wet clothes.
They chatter at me,
as they must have chattered at him,
and I am powerless against their talk
and their tugs and their laughter.

Little Juan took me home one day–
grabbed my hand and my hat after Mass
and led me from the church to the river
on the edge of town, where his mother
kept a tin-roofed shack.
How proud he was of his, pig, his puppy,
his swing made of a stick and a rope!
He climbed into trees for fruit to give me,
and he threw round stones to knock mangoes loose
then led me back to the pastor’s house
and I gave away all my mangoes
walking back to Caille Duarte.

My hat always disappeared during Mass,
as though it crept stealthily
from under my seat and then flitted
from head to tiny head like a yellow-brown parrot.
I always retrieved it from a little cabellero
who wore it nearer his chin than his ears.
Now it’s torn and cracked in places
where small fingers plucked it roughly
like a hard yellow mango.

When I was eight,
I asked my father what had happened
to those children who hung on his arms,
and passed his green hat from head to head.
When I was eight,
he told me that they had to lock him in a room
when that village was burned,
and that he still feels rage at that fire.
If they had lived,
they would be not much older than me.


When I was in the Dominican Republic, I was a favorite of the little kids, who stole my hat and gave me fruit; I could juggle, sing silly songs, and was always up for a game of tag. Kids are great: fearless, funny, and resilient.

My father loved kids, too, and I had a picture of him, snapped for the Stars & Stripes newspaper, playing with a bunch of kids in Vietnam. It wasn’t until much later that I learned that many of those kids were later killed by the Viet Cong, because the village had been too friendly to the Americans. Of course, a good many kids were also killed by the ARVN or American bombs because their villages were too friendly to the VC. One of the many horrors of war is that friendliness can kill you.

I suppose I have a somewhat rosy view of American soldiers because of my father (and my grandfather, who passed out chocolate and gum to kids in Belgium and Germany during the Second World War); at their best, they’re overgrown kids themselves, even though they’re often called upon to do things horribly un-kid-like. The soldiers in the Dominican Republic were a different breed entirely: they swaggered around, swinging their rifles, buoyed by their unquestionable power, bullies every one. Thuggery in arms is a terrifying thing to see.

Of all my leftover poems of twenty years ago, I like this one the best, and I think I’ll end the series with it.

Haiti

From the border hill,
surrounded on three sides by Haitian mountains,
I can see the prison, the old mansion,
the market on my side of the island.
On the other side, nearly invisible in the dust,
is a twin prison, a twin market town.

Our rain and our sugar can cutters
come together from Haiti,
twin black clouds bringing the French island’s
wealth to eastern Hispañola.
And Haiti becomes dry and lonely,
like an old tin cup turned over
until all its blood has dripped out.

Haiti’s colors explode in Santo Domingo’s streets,
purple-skinned boys asking,
in patois-tinted voices,
“Tengo dinero? Tengo dinero?”
Purple-painted canvases declaring,
with their sharp shapes and rounded lines,
that life was vibrant in the twin market.

He brought his gray horse down through the trees
to drink at the stream we were swimming,
two miles into Haiti, unknown to swaggering soldiers.
His rough patois was strange
to my high school French,
but together we learned that he hadn’t eat in two days,
that work restrictions on the rich half of the island
were harsher than ever before,
that a nickel-a-day on Dominican fields
was still shinier than hunger in Haiti.

Old blood still clogs the streams
running north and south across Hispañola,
clotted into a bridge for bare feet
looking for rain and sugar.


The relationship between Haiti and Dominican Republic has been strained and often bloody. In 1937, the Parsley Massacre killed 17,000 to 35,000 Haitians living in the borderlands. (The Dominican soldiers used parsley–perejil to the Dominicans, pèsi to the Haitians–as a shibbeloth to identify their victims).

When I was in the Dominican Republic, we often saw Haitians in the town market, and in the cane fields. One day we ventured a little ways into Haiti, and it was clear that though the Dominican Republic was impoverished, it was a city of gold compared to Haiti.

Reja

Lovely señoritas would lean against barred windows
above the cobbled streets of Santo Domingo,
coyly smiling at the young caballeros
pleading audience from down below,
poetry dropping from their rosy lips
like pearls in the cool Caribbean autumn.

At siesta time Father John and I walk to the pump
to see the children gathered with tin water drums,
and over the splashing and laughing come prison shouts,
shirtless shadows behind barred windows and under guns
screaming “Gringo! Gringo!” and angry Spanish
in the dusty border summer.


On the edge of our village was a small prison on a hill; we walked by it sometimes to visit the water pump, and often elicited angry yells that we (at least Father John and I) could barely understand, probably for the best. I was raised on Kingston Trio songs like “Señora” and “El Matador” that painted a romantic picture of colonial New Spain, a world still visible in parts of Santo Domingo, which made a strange contrast with the realities of the modern Dominican Republic. “Reja” is a kind of ornamental ironwork originating in Spain in the 16th century.

Drought

I.

The bean plants fall into the cracked clay
like the damned into some pit,
their dusty leaves writhing arm-like
in displays of supplication.

When the mud from the last rain dried
it buckled up in the middle of the street
like a small range of sharp mountains
stamped into craters by goats’ feet.

Drought clings to my hair and shirt
when I walk along the mountain road,
turns to thin mud when I stand under
the rusty pipe in Mercedes’ shower.

II.

The expectant sky breathes hard and shallow,
moist air from a straining bellows
shaking dry cornstalks.
When the drenching birth of rain finally comes,
we all run out to midwife the storm,
Bachanal dancing.
The rain feels like snow in the hot air,
stinging the skin with its cold,
steams when it strikes stone.

The dust mountains in the streets burst
and spill into rivers that wind through
the garbage in the roads,
save the burning bean stalks only to drown them,
and pull the hillsides down into valleys
to carry them into the sea.


My month in the Dominican Republic was the “rainy season”; every afternoon, so regularly you could set your watch by it, a downpour flooded the streets. All the kids in the village, and the gringo visitors, ran out to play in the rain and mud, while the adults made sure the rain barrels were positioned to collect water. The government controlled the water that came from pipes, and we could only be sure the faucets would work until about nine in the morning.

The region had been so badly deforested that the downpours were more a cause of erosion than replenishment; it was worse over the border in Haiti. Farms clinging to the steep hills were always in danger of washing away, and the mud turned back to dust by evening.

El Mercado

Dried fish and sacks of sugar,
rice and beans piled high on sheets,
crushed coffee, frying platinos,
coconut dulces and lemons.

Haitian contraband t-shirts from America,
shoes for an army mis-sized and tattered,
hand-stitched trousers and woven jackets,
straw hats with flowery bands about their middles.

Old women twirling strands of tobacco,
leaves burning in hand-carved pipes;
campo men haggling over burros,
looking longingly at domino bars;
soldiers swaggering with heavy guns,
forcing personal paths through the crowd;
shoe-shine boys tugging at my shirt,
offering to buff my sneakers for a peso.

The massacre of chickens, their feet pedaling
in buckets upside down;
the waiting of mules, picking at the scrabble
on the church lawn;
the chanting of flies, Te Deum hymns to the sun
and strips of meat.


The town I visited in the Dominican Republic had a regional market, which was the most amazing crossroads of goods and services. I had never seen anything quite like it, though I’d read about places like it in Bowles and Burroughs. In my neighborhood now I visit places like El Mercado Central and the Midtown Global Market that have a good mix of things, but no open-air poultry abattoir nor dried meat rotting in the sun.

Coffee

Mercedes gives us the best family china cups
filled with pitch tar from the tin pot,
two heaping lumps of sugar to cut the bitter,
before we bathed in rust-brown water.
It fills the mouth like solid food–
“Petrol por humanos,” John says brokenly–
and slides into the belly warm and black.

The afternoon’s muddy trail cut through
a dirt farmer’s field of platinos and coffee–
we see him lashing his ox with sharp cries
and leather sting, grinding plow in ground–
and I touch a green coffee bean with timid finger.

On the bus going east on the army highway to Haiti,
we passed fields of sugar cane–
nickel-a-day wages for los Negros
and in our village I stood in a ruined refinery,
its walls pledged to Ballaguer and Bosch both.

I cradle the demi tas in my fingers
as though it were a fragile bird made in Taiwan,
and gently kiss its eggshell lips
while swallowing the black island.


In the summer of 1990, I spent a month in the Dominican Republic, in a village on the Haitian border. It was part of a youth ministries program based in Orlando, Florida; I was an intern at the Green Bay Catholic Diocese, and I was along to gather information to write a grant to support a similar program.

It was a great experience, especially for a middle-class American kid. I stayed with a family in the village, sharing quarters with a priest from Scranton, PA, who was along to determine whether to accept a mission calling. The mother of the family, Mercedes, prepared meals for us, and I especially remember the breakfasts: thick slices of toasted bread, sweet fried platinos, milk with clots of fat still floating in it, and incredibly strong and thick coffee. The hospitality that the village gave us was incredible.

This section of the Dominican Republic is off the beaten track for tourists; we had to get there by bus, sharing space with crates of chickens. On the outskirts of the town was a ruined mansion that once belonged to Trujillo, the Dominican dictator from 1942 to 1961; a little further down the road, less than mile, was the border with Haiti. It’s a dry, dusty, mountainous area, and the people get by as best they can on subsistence farms, and sugar and platino fields.

This is the sort of place Americans ought to see. It’s poor, grindingly so, but also dignified, not at all like the Third World poverty Americans are likely to encounter on the edges of cruise ship destinations. Family and church were very important to the village, and an ethos of mutual aid and support suffused the culture. Isolated from the world and largely ignored by the government, the people in this region did their best to make a civilized life with limited resources.

Monody, after “Lycidas”

for John Milton and Stephen Westergan

I’ve only just planted my seeds,
and already I’m pulling up the harvest–
the seasons have been sped
before the shoots broke soil.
Give me time, let me wait for rain!
See, my dirt is still dry . . .

Perhaps if I stoop to pluck,
some migrant hands will bend with me.
Bright brooding wings might sing
some work song, tragic fingers help
to shake the dust from little roots
still shriveled;
              if Memory serve me,
I’ll serve her one day, reap her wheat
beside her daughters in some redder autumn
after damper spring–
only help me pull back these little seeds
before the coming drought still them withall.

And of what shall the wings sing?
Of the sower, of course, giver of seed
sung of before, praising tunes
that drew me to these fields
the lush crops to admire
and the pregnant fruits to taste.
I took a satchel of seeds from him
upon my back,
             took fire from his lips
that put sweat on my mouth’s indent
which I tasted on my tongue.
Daemon-chased and chasing sower,
who flew through the planting spilling seeds
and coaxing out of the dirt
musical wheat for baking rich breads.

The field is empty now, plow abandoned,
satchel of seed left in the rows empty.
Trees that nodded outside his cottage window
and gave shade to the stalks of wheat
drop their leaves like sighs,
bark curling with grief.

Why could not the bread he grew
nourish him? Why did you,
O Memory, quick the rising of those loaves
and fill his hungry plate with soft crusts?
Where were the other tillers who labored
beside him when his crumbs were spilt?
Where was the wheat?

O futile plowing!
Deep as the metal blade cuts,
long as the seed waits to sprout up,
gentle as the care of hands and rain,
it all came for naught.
Why delve as deep into the soil for rich loan
when scrabble on dusty rocks
feeds most empty bellies?
The textured bread from his wheat
could sop a thousand meaty stews
and still be dry, and a single bite
filled deep hunger and made one hungry still,
hungry for more of those rich loaves.
But now that hunger will not be sated
by dry crusts, though that is now all we eat.

We have new sowers now, and new bakers,
and his cottage is turned dark and empty
as our rumbling stomachs;
new sowers and bakers without wheat and bread,
though possessed of king’s commission–
as though decree could feed us.
Oh, I long to smash their plows and ovens!

I will build him great statues, then,
to stand in his field as he did,
tall and proud with satchels and loaves
like his, I will build him pillars
of marble and obsidian, angelic tall!
But what needs my sower piled stones,
that will not grow even poor scrabble?
No, I will plant for him, bake for him,
make breads as textured and as rich
from wheat as lovingly planted.
I will fill bellies with food and hunger both.

And in my hands will be his
when I strew the seeds on deep-plowed dirt,
when I swing my scythe to cut down wheat,
when I bundle long stalks
                         and when I pull
the flowery tops apart from chaff,
when I grind the seed between stones
and knead soft elastic dough into loaves
to make soft, crusty bread.
And I will send my sower on to other fields,
still chased by daemons, still chasing them,
and together we’ll catch those fiery fiends
and sit them down with us to supper.

Even now I see him, satchel and scythe,
his beard blown in autumn winds,
walking along rural lanes while I make harvest.
Even now I see him, striding ahead,
to make new fields ready for our crop.


Stephen Westergan was the instructor for my class on John Milton; he obviously had a big impact on me, both in the way he taught the class and the example he gave of living a rich life of the mind.

We didn’t touch “Paradise Lost” until late in the semester; before we even read a line of Milton, we were introduced to Greek and Roman mythology, Homer and Virgil, the Old Testament, and Milton’s contemporaries. We had to be prepared to meet Satan, Adam, and the vengeful God; it was a classical education compressed into a few weeks. Most classes, we sat in a circle and discussed what we had read, with Stephen sitting on the edge of his chair, fingers at his temples as he listened hard to what we were saying and guided us along.

Stephen represented the best in college teaching: he had a deep love and respect for his material, high expectations for his students, and an almost superhuman ability to listen and guide and teach. And because of his passion, we students were driven to at least not let him down, even if we struggled to rise to his expectations. Reading and understanding Milton was the most important thing in the world in those classes.

He played cello in the Green Bay Symphony Orchestra, and I’d often see him crossing the Main Street Bridge over the Fox River with his cello case and long coat. He looked the part of a Milton scholar: tall and thin, with wild red hair and beard, always wearing a rumpled suit; he could well have stepped out of the pages of Stoner, or a Renaissance salon. He had an intensity about him, as if he could barely contain all the poetry roiling about in his head, but at the same time an easy approachability.

At the time I took his class, he was still “Mr. Westergan”: he hadn’t finished his dissertation yet, a fact that he occasionally mentioned, like when he explained the “sympathetic fallacy” with an anecdote about receiving encouragement from the wind-blown trees outside his window when he was working on an especially tricky part. The life of an ABD instructor at a liberal arts college is tenuous, no matter how good a teacher you are, and during that year the college started interviewing for other instructors. I was one of the students who got to see these applicants–“new sowers and bakers without wheat and bread, / though possessed of king’s commission”–and I was generally unimpressed, firmly a partisan for Stephen. Replace Mr. Westergan with some diploma-mill hack? That would be like scuttling the course on Milton in favor of a class on modern advertising jingles!

Things have worked out well for Stephen. He’s still at St. Norbert College, with “Professor” attached to his name, and he won the Founder’s Award in 2003. At RateMyProfessors, he gets a 2.2 for “easiness” (that sounds about right), and 5 for helpfulness (though I don’t understand why there’s no “hotness” rating–he was certainly one of the handsomest teachers at the college). It sounds like he continues to inspire students.

Alas, this poem that he inspired has some problems. The central metaphor is muddled (is he a baker? a farmer? is it harvest or planting time? and is the speaker a student or a peer?), and the pastoral form (inspired, of course, by Milton’s Lycidas) feels clunky and forced. Parts of it are more than a little overwrought, and the jumble of classical and Biblical references is a tangled and unfocused mess. But as an undergraduate ode to a great teacher, and a sort of seminar paper on the classics and pedagogy, I’d give it a solid C and ask for a few revisions.

Thunder Poetry

Loon cries tonight became pattering rain,
a water lullaby that rapped me into sleep
cradled in a leafy wind. The prose
of branches groaning back and forth
filled my dreams with conversations;
we lie a “V”, feet together.
Suddenly thunder’s poetry woke me,
Philip Whalen’s booming voice chanting verse,
and I rolled into my pillow counting meter.


Summer 1990; I was reading a lot of the San Francisco school (Gary Snyder, Brother Antoninus, Philip Whalen) at the time.

Frogs

“but the nymphs have thought good that the frog should eternally sing.”
Moschus, Lament for Bion Idyll III, c. 150 BC

I spent two weeks on an argonaut quest
for frogs.
The sandbar by the boathouse had once writhed with them,
a great croaking mass of mottled green
singing out their ballooning throats in summer nights.
As my canoe slid past the thin beach,
only one crippled toad with a too-long leg
clawed at the sand like a soldier at Dunkirk.
My rustling among cane brakes shook out one or two,
which hopped into the trees without even silent protest.
The lilies twined under the weeds by rotted logs
and stretched their green plates out on the water,
naked and empty.
And my daily reports of infrequent sightings
were greeted joyously on land,
though they never amounted a full dozen.

The ranger suggested ozone and climate change,
cabins encroaching on the shore,
offered news from other lakes of silent summer evenings
or a strange void beneath the stars.
Under those lake weeds they must still be,
hiding and waiting,
tuning their eternal song.


Written in the summer of 1990, in northern Wisconsin, when stories of missing and malformed frogs were first hitting the news.

Skylines, Highway

I. Milwaukee

There is a great upreaching to God here,
a thrusting of fingers up to God
who presses his wide black belly
against the steeple tops,
and his belly stretches and strains
like tent canvas over poles
until the fabric tears
and torrents of rainwater puddled above
crash down and make rich mud beneath.

II. Chicago

Blunt buildings are flattened by the sky,
black clouds bursting into fire
over skyscrapers and trainyards,
our eyes are cast on pavement,
afraid of the burning air.


When I was at school in Indiana, I used to drive through Chicago and Milwaukee on my home to the Green Bay area. It was the highway through Milwaukee that gave me my master’s thesis topic: from the ramps that loop through the city you see church steeples sprouting everywhere, thick forests of them. A lot of them are Catholic, but their ethnicity was as important as denomination among Protestants: German, Polish, French, Bohemian, they all have their own churches, and their own style of worship.

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