for Helen Caldicott
Of course you know this thirty-second tone
sustained. . . so like
a Middle C. . . . . . is only a test
You are not required to locate shelter
about the proximity of targets
You may disregard, for now, that tone's persistence
an overkill of the alarm
waking you from shadows, from nightmares
Of radiation sickness, mutagenic wars,
a world stockpiled
with strontium-90 to its deciduous teeth
Blot out the photographs of Bikini explosions
will permanently blind you
Two hundred thousand Japanese ghosts
must be wrong
about meltdowns, picocuries, and other carcino-
Genocides. If you're capable of listening
to relax under an ozone layer still intact
So what if the Senate purchased (for you!) some new missile
to detonate twenty more Soviet Unions
Don't call this station asking for escape routes
with every broadcast
we are testing our love for this planet
If a bomb goes off in your neighborhood
we won't just
be working here anymore
from Searchings for Modesto (1993), first published in The Greenfield Review (Summer/Fall, 1984)
"It is in the sphere or art
that dream is reconciled with reality."
The earth did not come with a list of instructions.
Like lines of tourists waiting at the border
Of a foreign country, shadows of pine--
Mostly ponderosa--cast themselves as curtains
Against the melting snow bank along a highway.
Or maybe the run-off--so loud in the streams
Below --conveys an acid with it, blighting
The spawn of brook trout in transparent lakes.
Some people take the truth for propaganda.
Over the marshes the male harrier--
Smaller than the female, gray with black wingtips--
Displays that plumage for his brown mate.
Today he is her major litmus test in life.
Shadows mingle. Pine needles screen
Two passengers from fatigue and blindness.
Colors build to white. We need to know.
from Searchings for Modesto (1993),
first published in Calapooya Collage/10 (1986)
It's time to throw out
on that Peugeot 504
I sold at a corner
five years ago this summer.
It wasn't the car for me
to drive anymore:
window that kept falling
off its rack with a break-
These things always happened
to the passenger next to me
in the front seat.
When we bought that car,
pointing at an F, said:
"You say Fahn; we say Ferme'!"
A seatbelt jammed the front door
the first day out.
(October. No ice on the road.)
we got rear-ended in Chamonix
by a woman who shouted:
"Don't call the cops!"
inviting us to flatten out the bumps
at her house.
Out of gas in Vancouver.
Yellow lights flashed citations
The longer the trip,
the hotter the muffled,
melting the plastic handle
of a Phillips screwdriver in the trunk.
At Safeway in Aberdeen, Vermae P. Harris
collided (at an angle)
with the left front side.
Rattled, she back up,
then hit the gas
another time in forward gear.
Her call to the insurance agent,
"Floyd, it's me again!"
delivered everything we needed.
But in Hawaii that Peugeot
caught tropical diseases, sticky gears,
demanding Japanese parts
to replace the dying French ones.
One day, on its own,
it traveled out of a garage,
down a hill, past the normal Hell
of screaming children
who later flew back to Canada
with their sunburnt mother.
Her ex- (to be)
took a photograph of rear wheels
hanging over the edge of their driveway,
stopped by a metal stake
into a neighbor's converted carport.
The local who came to tow the car
eyed the engine
beached on cement and leveled:
"Mo' bettah you sign dis waivah!"
I did, and thanks to him,
the steering wheel shaking.
from Searchings For Modesto (1992), first published in Hawaii Review (Spring 1986)
"silence of the sewn-up lips
is no silence" Mohandas Gandhi
A Shrine For All Faiths--
carved words on a wooden sign.
My mother's hands on the steering wheel
of our '57 Chevy
hugging the right,
taking the downhill curve
like a saint praying for humanity.
Others forgot cleaving:
tires squealed beyond forbidden lines,
horns sounded, and a motorcycle policeman,
dressed in black,
jumped the last amber light on Sunset
in hot pursuit of his prey.
set off spiraling worlds
on our shoulders.
Summer days meant open-window drives
like that one to the Pacific.
Mrs. Abzug loved the beach in September,
when the fog stopped blowing, the water
warmed up a little. My father complained
about loose sand gritting his food.
Cold wars didn't bother us much as kids;
we built sand castles on the beach, and freeways, too.
Lake ripples differed from the ocean's:
a windmill turned California chaparral
into green Holland, a houseboat converted
itself into a chapel, a statue of St. Francis,
and a bigger one of Jesus--
arms outstretched on a hill above the lake--
and an ancient Chinese stone sarcophagus--
a portion of Gandhi's ashes--
on the other shore beyond a lotus gateway.
Annie Hruby criticized it:
"Saint Francis, Patron Saint of Birds?"
Her family's was a Roman Catholic faith,
schooled in Corpus Christi and St. Monica's,
where Annie too the lead
in a play the nuns directed.
Her cues slipped by the stagehands.
Annie cleaved to the switch of a lamp,
waiting for their lights; their train
sounded outside a stage window
several minutes too late.
All I hold now is her exasperation--
the drama vague, the setting cluttered
with furniture from another decade.
Paramahansa Yogananda said Gandhi drove
beyond material sacrifices to "the more difficult
renunciation of selfish motive." Faced with
outright misconceptions, the Mahatma chose
His shrine on Sunset still takes curves
around me, flattens out old summers
and the Pacific, opens up a prayer
in Death's loud light.
from Searchings For Modesto (1993),
first published in West Wind Review (1984)
Sending the Right Signals
Mr. O'Brien didn't like children.
If, by accident, the back door
of his garage was left open,
we'd peek in to watch him
talk into big HAM-radio
microphone. His short-shaved mustache
bristled; the smell
of his pipe
crackled in the air
like those voices rasping:
"C.Q., C.Q., do you read me? Over."
If, by chance, he happened
to spy us, his signals
came in loud and clear.
Once, by chance, we got ahold
of his seltzer bottle--
squirting one another
"by accident" like on TV or in the movies.
We filled each glass
to overflowing, our laughter
crackling on his table and floor.
When he found a used-up cartridge
unloosened from its bottle
he made his ire understood
in no uncertain terms.
Dee Dee, his daughter,
was accident prone.
Playing "Off to Mars,"
some of us took a stationary
space flight in my mother's car.
Our voices sounded so grown-up,
modulating brisk interplanetary
communications. That distant
journey was interrupted
by a dragging backwards
down the driveway
after I set loose
the emergency brake. We abandoned ship
all except Dee Dee
who got her arm rasped
where the wall of the house
stopped the car's back door.
A few months later
I got an urgent message:
Dee Dee had just fallen
through her parents' glass window.
The Eisenbergs--next-door neighbors,
dropped pijamas, nightgowns,
robes in mounds on their floor
when they rushed her off
to the hospital's emergency room. I stayed
at the Eisenbergs',
watched TV Dragnet, waited
for news about Dee Dee.
A mean face with freckles got the electric chair.
But Mr. O'Brien all day
stationary in his garage
never heard a thing about Dee Dee--
those voices rasping signals:
"C.Q. C.Q. Do you read me? Over and out."
from Searchings For Modesto (Talent House Press, 1993)
Counting Those Years
Facing his TV,
his right hand grasping
Arizona Highways on a metal
Grandpa Scoles never gets up
from his deck chair.
The bullet-nosed Studebaker
before he retired,
before he and his wife moved
into the house on Coolidge,
never budges from the garage.
I am four
and can count those years
on my fingers,
my thumb at the end.
My father lifts me
up on his shoulders,
across our backyard lawn
to a redwood gate where he says,
"Unless you want to bump your head,
lean over," where we lean
twined and tangled
as the sweet peas strung out
in the Scoles' yard.
My grandfathers died before World War Two,
my grandmothers shortly after,
but the neighbor I call
babysits me, gives me
with fancy Queens, fierce Kings
and Jacks with tangled hair.
After she cleans up the kitchen,
we try a game
of Fish or War,
evening off our scores,
And Grandpa just sits in his chair.
At bedtime, Grandma walks me home.
I grasp her warm, shaky hand
as we pass through the gate.
She reads me stories
in an upholstered chair,
where I loll,
where we fit
Staring at the pictures,
I breathe the words
as she reads them
twining them, too,
to my lips.
At the end,
I want another story.
Her lids already fallen,
she sighs and says:
"I need to rest my eyes."
Before hers reopen,
mine are tightly shut.
a hot day,
when the Studebaker has disappeared
from the garage--
Bobby Mueller and I
trespass in, see old
on an overhang.
We climb up,
leaf through them,
admire naked bodies,
scatter slick stacks.
Our eyes a little bleary,
we get up to leave;
I go down first;
Bobby slips, doubles over,
falls towards me
onto the cement below.
His head dripping red
along a tangled crack,
I say: "My father's a doctor.
We've got lots of bandaids."
But Bobby wants to go home.
He is bleeding and crying.
A few more years.
We move out
of the house on Colby, rarely
go back. I am in college
when I hear
Grandma has died, Grandpa
has moved in to a cement apartment.
He is sitting by his new TV
his head facing me,
describing the robbery:
how two "young toughs"
broke down his door
cracked his skull,
knocked him cold.
He moves again,
a while longer.
I can't count those years. from Searchings For Modesto (1993)
"Teach us to care and not to care.
Teach us to sit still." T. S. Eliot
"It is very difficult to bring quiet
to the heart." I CHING
That cross babysitter,
who thought I was too thin,
who decided to force-feed me, shrieking galling words
in her native Swedish,
stuffed anger into me
and stealth: for years,
when a meal looked overwhelming,
I pushed peas over the edge of my plate,
tucked them into hiding,
stuck half-chewed lamb chops
into our TV sofa.
After my mother pointed him out to me
driving his wild-westernized car
on the Hollywood freeway,
filled me up enough
each night at 6 PM--well, maybe a stray bite
between bullets and shouted commercials.
Calm Emily babysat a lot longer,
didn't overworry about my diet
or her usage of Black English.
We had an appetite for similar things:
roller-coaster rides at Ocean Park,
ice cream, cotton candy,
a weekend or two at her home in Watts:
nameless dark-skinned playmates
(we didn't need names!),
and my first harrowing
acquaintance with mythological beasts:
when Emily's brother took us fishing in Ballona Creek,
reeling one in onto the sand,
IT WALKED ON LEGS!
He called it a "crawL-fish."
I never liked afternoon naps.
Emily tucked me into bed once, rolled down
the white window shades,
but I got dressed in silence,
sped up the block with Corky Klein
and my black-haired dog named Spots.
Vexed, indignant, Emily hurled
righteous words at us
in vain. Our eight short legs
outmaneuvered her two, and devilish,
I shouted: "We're running away for ever!"
An alleyway behind apartments.
A girl our age opens a kitchen door,
invites us in,
hides us a few twilight hours--
all except Spots,
whose wag showed recognition
of my parents'
slow, searching car.
Though the magic had darkened,
my punishment seemed light:
tough words from my mother:
"Mrs. Klein is madder than a hornet!"
And Corky's mother's smiting shrieks,
her threats: Corky would get his mouth washed out
with soap, could never
pal around with me again.
That tan boy, Chris Ewing, and his magical sister.
Their white-washed Spanish house
sloping toward the Channel Islands
alone on a bluff over Ventura.
Those wild fictions she created one day
on imaginary horses. We lived them,
hopped along, silent
on flagstone, peering through
paneled glass windows.
She died in Spain--motorcycle accident.
The family veered
off to Hawaii. More and more
recent houses affront the view.
But Spots grew arthritic, nauseous,
contracted other ailments; he couldn't snap
at bees in flowers, run in circles
wild from their sting, the way he used to do.
When he couldn't stand up
on his legs any longer, I drove him
to the Vet, who, silently,
put him to sleep.
Something I wrote in a letter
irked Billie Addams--so many lost friends,
babysitters I owe something to--
even that tormented Swede taunts me
in the mirror when I notice
my still skinny physique. from Searchings for Modesto (Talent House Press, 1993)