Sample Poems from BREAK EVERY STRING
BORN IN THE USA
We were pumping our fists with Springsteen,
chanting the chorus as Reagan galloped
the campaign trail, still pretending
to be a cowboy, and the old man who lived
in the blue house with the white fence
lined with rosebushes was handing out mints
from a bowl made out of a buffalo skull.
Uncle Bob chopped off his thumbs
in a metal press on his first day on the job.
My father returned to Khe Sahn sleepwalking
past our bedrooms, shouting out the names
of smoke and moon. He had a woman he loved
in Saigon, sang The Boss. Across the bay—
Ferris wheel lights and roller coaster screams.
Child Services found my grandmother unfit
to adopt. An ambulance in front of the blue house
with the white fence lined with rosebushes.
A white sheet. The bones and feathers
of a dead seagull—a ship wreck
on a rocky shore lapped by green waves.
On their lunch break, my father, my uncles,
and both my grandfathers, their names
embroidered on their grease-stained shirts,
stepped out of the factory and coughed up
their paychecks to their wives idling in Regals,
Novas, and Gremlins. Out by the gas fires
of the refinery. My father’s handlebar mustache
terrified me. My brother built me castles
out of blankets and chairs, larger than the house
that confined them. Taught me how to leap
off the couch like Jimmy “Superfly” Snuka,
how to moonwalk and breakdance. He’d go on
to teach me that disappointment’s a carcinogen.
My father took cover behind the Lay-Z-boy
in his underwear. My grandmother offered
a pregnant runaway a place to stay in exchange
for her baby. When the plant relocated to Mexico,
my father brought home a pink slip heavier
than a Huey Hog. The rosebushes became thorny
switches. Over ham steaks and mashed potatoes,
our parents poured out their divorce.
We had to decide who we wanted to live
with before leaving the table. I’d go
wherever my brother went: that meant Mom.
My father took a job out of state.
My mother took a boyfriend, who
dragged his unemployment into a bar
called The Pit, then staggered
into our house knocking over houseplants,
and I was the one ordered to clean
the carpets with the wet/dry vac. We’d sneak
out of the house at 3AM to swim
in the neighbor’s pool, or ping rocks
off hurtling freight trains. The city condemned
the blue house with the paint-chipped fence.
My mother’s eye, blackened. We slept in parks,
better than home. She stood at the sink,
sobbed, scrubbed blood-splotches
out of her white jacket with a soapy sponge.
Wouldn’t press charges. My brother bought
a dime bag and a revolver from a guy named Kool-Aid.
My mother was crowned a welfare queen, and drove
a Cadillac assembled out of political mythology.
I smoked my first joint on the roof of a movie theater
with my brother and the stars. An after-school ritual:
stepping over the passed-out boyfriend to grab
a Coke out of the fridge. We spray-painted
gang insignias across the boarded-up windows
of the blue house with splintered teeth. The boyfriend
could whip up one hell of an omelet. We didn’t hate
him on Sunday mornings. My mother’s stiches.
We swiped a bottle of Mad Dog, drank it while eating
peanut butter & jelly sandwiches. My mother stashed
bottles of gin in the leather boots my father bought
for their last Christmas together. Twice they called
me into the principal’s office because a knife fell out
of my pocket at recess. We turned abandoned factories
into playgrounds, busted out the windows with tornadic rage.
Somebody was asking for it, and somebody was going to get it.
I overheard a teacher tell my mother, “He’s going to grow up
to kill somebody.” Thanks to the Black Panthers,
this white boy had free breakfast at school.
My brother waited until the boyfriend was drunk
on the toilet to burst in swinging a baseball bat.
Later that night while taking a bath, I fished
out a tooth biting me in the ass. Backhoes
and bulldozers devoured the blue house
with the collapsing roof. We rewound
and played back the catastrophic loss
that plumed over Cape Canaveral
on our VCRs. The boyfriend slammed
a stolen van into a tree. She’d pour me
a bowl of Cheerios, pour herself a scotch.
The boyfriend’s dentist kept good records.
“I’m sending you to your father.”
Son don’t you understand now? Front-page news:
firefighters dousing the mangled inferno.
Got in a little hometown jam.
I stood before a judge, pled guilty to
shoplifting Christmas lights, the kind that twinkle.
My father won’t read poetry. He taught
my brother the ways of paintbrush
and canvas, played guitar before I was born
but after Nam, lost interest, saw no sense
in art. I’d like to think, surviving war,
I’d see no better reason to create, proclaim
and praise I am here, but what do I know,
given my armed conflict with the self?
My father once cradled a dying soldier
missing everything below his waist,
and watched a starving boy convulse
after a sergeant handed the child a candy bar—
his body no longer understood food.
My father pulls shoulder muscles
as he masons walls, lays foundations.
He cracks knuckles against engine blocks,
torqueing wrenches. Because the dead
remind him that splinters in his palms
are gifts, he builds cabinets, chairs, houses.
His life is work, no room for self-indulgence
or anything frivolous. But don’t we also live
in rooms not constructed out of lumber and stone?
Art is an alarm clock. Art is a ladle of beauty
lifted to the lips. My father. On the table
he planed, sanded, stained— where we’ve sat
together after a long time of not sitting together,
where we’ve eaten slow—I want him to dance
and afterwards, I want him to see the scuffmarks
on the pine as affirmations of purpose—of loving
the lost with raucous praise, of letting the gone go.
Each night they stare into the sky
and wonder why even with wings
they can never get off the ground.
Good reason for their creator
to take three steps, cock his head
and disown his gift to the world.
Abandonment: a likely origin of anyone’s
lack of faith. And faith: precisely what's needed
to soar in the purple abyss of winter.
We step out into our lives like sun slicing
between buildings and perform this one angelic
act that melts from our consciousness.
We return to our houses to accomplish
something important, leaving behind
the ones who don't know any better,
who see the wings as open arms,
snow as flesh, and are willing to lie back down.
I TRIED TO HATE YOU BUT LOVE YOU JUST THE SAME
My days are spent keeping a blind cat
from pissing on the rug and nights listening
for the fat in Ray Brown bass solos.
I used to drink coffee with cream, now
I drink it black. I cancelled my gym
membership. Progress. Regression.
I’ve been accused of being flippant,
my banjo out of tune, thoughts deep
as the frying pan my beef-patty’s
sizzling in. Time to be serious.
I’ve an uncle with black lung
and arthritis so bad he can’t button
his shirt. Dear Poets, we’re not sages.
We’re battered spouses of hope—
even when it blackens our eye
we rush back into its arms.
When you have nothing, you depend
on nothing the most. I want Lake Erie
to burn for old time’s sake. Give me
flat fields and grain elevators. Scrape
under my fingernails and find rust
and brick-dust from abandoned auto
plants. Mother, I lost you
long before I’ll ever lose you.
I’m not interested in last words,
but in final thoughts. Do you love
the most the one you think of last?
Are we defined by what shames us?
I’ll work overtime to be a figment
of your imagination. I’ll even moonlight
as one of your psychotic episodes.
We could’ve both been better angels
to one another, but Hell lives in the bones.
© 2013 Joshua Michael Stewart