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David Alpaugh poetry

Double-title poems


My earliest memory—grasping that hard
black rock in the toe of my stocking after
the thrill of so many playthings. My Dad’s
poker-faced grin. Did you get everything?
Back in. Excited. What’s this? A lump of

Coal! Giver of toys reminding me, Dad said,
that I’d been “just a little bit” bad. Suddenly
I saw my self. Like that little girl with a curl
I could be horrid. So sang that lump of coal.
Unto me a Superego was born. Dad called it



I remember Ida saying she didn’t care for it—
when it meant the world to me. Youth’s go-to
ammo against confusion, alienation, suffering,
engagement, love. Voltaire in hand, put on a
smirky face—and slay all your dragons with

. Re-reading “To Autumn” (Ida long gone)
I’m autumnal now and ninety percent irony free.
Keats’ mellow fruitfulness… gathering swallows.
Ripeness to the core. Manna. But I always wash
it down with a jigger of Swift to give a finger to


David Herrle reviews THE ACADIANS by Angel Uriel Perales

The underground Georgian poet/spoken-worder Mikel K wrote one of the best lines ever: “People are defective.” Right on, K, right on. Not only is this fundamental defectiveness self-evident, but it’s always been and always will be presented by artists of all kinds, which can get pretty tiresome if one tends to tune in to the basic atrociousness of Earth and feels the burden of the unbearable heaviness of being. However, just as yet another Titanic show or movie must contain the morbid core facts and the inevitable sinking, the goodness in the art lies in how it’s shown and how the story is told.

The people in Angel Uriel Perales’ The Acadians (Rumrazor Books) are defective. They aren’t all devoid of decent qualities, but almost all of them, some more than others, aren’t really likable. “Do these characters end up being despicable to each other?” Perales asks in a recent poeticdiversity interview. “Do they seem like I plucked them all out from a basket of deplorables? Yes.” The book is a collection of paralleling and intersecting character sketches or vignettes that form a brief but memorable debut novella. As a fan of coincidental/subplot fiction such as Grace Metalious’ Peyton Place, Burt Hirschfeld’s Fire Island, Steinbeck’s The Pastures of Heaven, William Goldman’s Boys and Girls Together, Hugo’s Les Miserables and some Dickens stuff, Edgar Lee Masters’ poetic Spoon River Anthology, as well as Julien Duvivier’s Tales of Manhattan, P.T. Anderson’s Magnolia, Altman’s Short Cuts and Gosford Park, Edmund Goulding’s Grand Hotel and other anthology films, I was receptive to The Acadians from the outset.

At the beginning of Grand Hotel a Dr. Otternschlag says, “Always the same. People come, people go. Nothing ever happens.” Finally, after the interwoven situations, encounters and consequences of the characters are shown for close to two hours, the doctor morosely remarks, “A hundred doors leading to one hall. No one knows anything about the person next to them. And when you leave, someone occupies your room, lies in your bed. That’s the end.”

Similarly, in The Acadians a prologue-like opening section’s establishment of a pastoral Louisiana setting gives readers an implicit reminder to remember the here-and-gone nature of humans against the backdrop of impersonal perpetuity, the ultimate interchangeability of individuals who rise and fall in “suburbia primordial”:

…Flowers in the median, flowers grow and die in the median. The lawn mowers break down and need to be replaced. The mail boxes eventually sag or become loose on their bases and need to be tightened or replaced. Mail carriers drink and get old and have heart attacks and die and need to be replaced…

…The wind, nothing to be said about the wind, the wind blows like the wind blows.

Later, near the end of the book, embedded in a sullen quasi-denouement, the “suburbia primordial” motif shows up again, following a bottle of Mexican Coke from someone’s hand to its burial under canal silt years later, continuing the theme of cyclical existence: “Wildflowers in the fields, wildflowers grow and die in the fields unseen.” I wish this had been put in an actual epilogue, but the epigraphed final stanza of Charles Lamb’s wistful “The Old Familiar Faces” really ends the book, its final line summing up every human life: “All, all are gone, the old familiar faces.”

Within this larger existential context appear comparatively tiny episodes full of desperate emotion, sleazy duplicity, petty striving, caprice and entropy. Parochial bluster and desire, failure and demise. After all, “the wind blows like the wind blows.” Perhaps to emphasize the brevity of individuals’ dreams and affairs, most of the text is narrated in present tense, a choice I might’ve avoided. I’ve never been comfortable with present-tense books, except for Audrey Niffenegger’s The Time Traveler’s Wife and Tom Robbins’ underrated Half Asleep in Frog Pajamas (which also is told in second person, no less), so my bias against it is not specific to The Acadians. I just think the “immediacy” thing works better for poetry.

As I mentioned before, most of the characters aren’t very attractive. For instance, Grady is an unscrupulous check pusher who was crippled by a motorcycle accident ultimately set into motion by his shooting a buck in its backside one morning. Now, in his infirmity and depression, he indulges in a nasty porn habit in spite of his dead dick. The porn isn’t necessarily nasty, but the habit is. Let’s just say that the narration about Grady and his behavior physically repulses me. There’s much interesting psychoanalytical stuff surrounding his impotence and his incorrigible disrespect for women. First, there’s a pastime of using pages from porno magazines as shooting targets (first with a gun, later with arrows): “He annihilated all those old playmates with his little Roberts rifle.” Then there’s a dream of black snakes dropping on him from a tree, and a black snake emerging continuously from his (dead?) mother’s mouth “forever.” Finally, of course, who doesn’t think a motorcycle represents a potent penis?

Swinish Grady is cared for by resentful Evie, who’s horrified to realize her imprisonment: “I’m really stuck with him now. I can’t leave now. Fuck my life.” Yet…she gets off on giving Grady penile injections, mounting his erection “fast and mercilessly” and pretending to be bored even though ecstasy is the actual result for her. Eventually, Evie takes advantage of Grady’s disability and her role as caregiver to become qualified as an LPN, to improve her own life, not his.

Teenager Dottie is fucking Ernie Willits (a really winner, I say infinitely sarcastically) behind the back of “The Mademoiselle,” her enviable older sister. The story begins soon after anal sex between Dottie and Ernie, and there’s a blush-free description of her method of accommodating him: “[S]he had to imagine she was squeezing a turd out.” Though she grits and bears it, without hope of orgasm for herself, Dottie has more than one soft spot (ahem) for Ernie, which is shown with perfection in these lines: “She wiped herself and looked at the paper and saw a weird mixture of brown and white spume and froth but no blood. A wave of affection for Ernie washes over her.”

They both fear accidental pregnancy and even have a premonition of its inevitability, but the somewhat dimwitted couple continues having unprotected sex anyway. “They don’t stop fucking because they are both fuckers and fucking is what fuckers do.” Of course, Dottie gets pregnant. I’ll just say that things don’t end well for the triangle.

Also fucking Ernie is Seraphine (also referred to Sara and Sarafina), a “mulatta” who is driven by drug addiction to have sex with the “bastard.” Drugs are a factor in her being Grady’s mistress as well, but she has a romantic history with “the Grady man,” though her love has dwindled since the motorcycle accident paralyzed him:

She loved the feel of his motorcycle between her legs. She loved his blow and his cocaine. She loved to blow him on blow again and again until he blew out his back speeding around that bend. Then Sarafina could not blow Grady again. But she could bug him about the blow that was left…With every visit Grady would grab her tits and kiss her and make some jokes and they would do some blow but her feelings were gone.

Her degradation ever increasing, Seraphine ends up in Delcroix Island and resorts to thieving and scavenging. Next she drifts over to the Iberville Projects, where a pimp named Remy “Rotgut” Gautrot thinks she’s horning in on his whore territory and “making his girls come up short.” By the time Seraphine gets to Houma, Rotgut has her maimed, and she’s thrown into an estuary to drown. One of the best parts of The Acadians is a harrowing sequence of Seraphine’s lucky survival.

Perhaps the most problematic character in the book is Dr. Muhammad Ismail Afridi, popularly known as “Dr. Easy.” Not only is he attractive to women (Evie, for one, is enamored of him), but he’s adept at a deception that at first seems benign and softly self-defensive but is twisted into a chilling strategy later on. Afridi’s knowing “how to play the dynamics between two worlds” warps into a psychological situation in which “multiple universes rage war inside him. He is conflicted by religious ideologies, some ingrained from childhood, the rest imposed by culture and collision and hate.” Earlier in the book Perales makes a blunt statement against the veracity of Christianity, which is true to his unapologetic, bare-wire atheism, and he also refuses to tiptoe around the subject of Islam, writing “Islam is also all bullshit.”

Bullshit or not, Islam dominates today’s news cycles, since it seems that its terrorism in many parts of the globe has bumped up to the nth degree. With each almost daily – if not daily – Islamist atrocity, an alarming number of people cling to denial driftwood, refusing to admit that the problem lies within the ideology itself. Perales turns this on its head and does what I suspected was coming when Afridi was first introduced in the book. After what might be an inadequate transition in attitude, he entertains a fantasy of picking off highway drivers with a rifle and causing “murder and mayhem,” letting the urge grow and grow toward realization. While riding in his car, fawning Evie repeats the familiar politically correct mantra when she assures him: “Don’t worry not all Muslims are terrorists.” Meanwhile, we know his actual inner desire. The duplicity of countless jihadist moles is presented quite chillingly in this line: “This perfectly innocuous statement crawled under his skin and he began to see the cursed woman as haram, spoilt meat, and traveling in the car with her made him sick.”

Another woman who’s attracted to “Dr. Easy” is Jenny/Genevieve/”Genevieve from the block.” Falling into pregnancies with the wrong men again and again, mother of a mentally retarded or autistic son, Terry, and a bit of a loser, Jenny has her own deadly attitude transition – except this one is deadly for her and no one else. The catalyst is disappointment over the Doc being sweet on Evie at the hospital: “Something destructive burned a hole in Jenny’s fat chest, some internecine war, and she could feel all the grace escaping from her.” With suicide on her mind, Jenny’s despair provides us with what is probably the warmest passage in the book. She falls asleep in her running car in the garage, the toxic smoke fills the air, and her son Terry interrupts the inevitable because he wants his mother to read him a book about Pinocchio:

She looks at her child with blood-rimmed eyes, her sweet, lovable, innocent child, who just saved her life, her dumb, retarded, maybe autistic, wonderful child, touched as he is, who only wants her to read to him about The Terrible Dogfish, touched as he is by the finger of God.

The second warmest part in The Acadians is made up of three lines of Grady’s Freudian black-snake/mother dream: “Mother, catch my eyes. His mother laughs. She lets go of his arms and laughs.” I’m not sure why these lines affect me so much, but they do. What I really like about Perales is his ability to go from the perverse to the tender so smoothly.

Speaking of tenderness, the only wholly likable character in this “basket of deplorables” (or bucket of defectives) is Father Noé-Cyr, who, though he secretly considers Grady’s quadriplegia to be just comeuppance for his crime (particularly a bounced check with which he’d stiffed the church), is just a genuinely kind man. Concealing his homosexuality for obvious reasons, he’s attracted to a parishioner named Charlie Rochefort but never acts on his lust. Perales turns a cliché on its head again by sparing the Father the usual hypocrisy and, worse, pedophilia. Instead, we learn of his past experimentation with his cousin Benny, which isn’t a pride-worthy memory. “They learned to touch and explore each other barely moving,” goes the flashback narration, metaphorizing his current “paralysis” of identity and desire.

Father Noé-Cyr provides the third warmest passage in the book. After he hears Evie’s confession, he (or the narrator himself?) says, “May you accomplish all that your little heart desires. Dream too much and bind your senses. Get thee far away from home until that faraway is your home.”

The Acadians also showcases Perales’ taste for irreverent humor, and the whole book does have a strong comedic vibe. For example, the Deerpants Training Hospital’s full name is As the Deer Panteth for the Water Dispensary for the Infirm (taken from the Bible’s 42nd Psalm). Also, short author/narrator asides are interspersed throughout the book: “A Word About Karma,” “A Word About Prayer,” “A Word About Islam,” “A Word About Ben & Jerry’s Cake Batter Flavored Ice Cream,” “A Word About Mitsou, the Singer,” A Word About Joe,” A Word About the Vixen 21 Motorcoach” and “A Word on the Omnipotency of God.” Most of the Words are humorous, such as bashing the batter-flavored Ben & Jerry’s as tasting “like shit,” but the one that denies God’s existence stabs with a profound, disturbing statement: “We are alone. We are afraid.” As if that’s not enough to shake the soul, I was left with the grim notion that some of us might die, as one of The Acadians’ characters does, while watching the shitty 10,000 B.C. remake.

Wendeline Wright poetry

“Surprise Endings”

in the summer
he was fine
still mobile, looking
well, pushing
through treatment

and when he failed
he failed fast,
we stood aside and murmured—
as if loud words
could kill him faster—

because his eyes
wouldn’t close, his
gaze full of terror
and locked
to the ceiling,
hands clawed

when he was still verbal
he moaned
“I didn’t think
it would end like this” and
I smiled and grabbed his
fading hands and said
“at 88 surrounded by
loved ones?
we should all be so lucky”

how could he
not have known

John Grey poetry


Years ago, I wrote a letter to a famous poet.
Not a fan letter exactly.
More like a kind of ingenuous interrogation.
Why did you say this? Why did you end it that way?
I never received a reply.

I figured that a famous poet
was not like a movie star or singer with a string of hits.
I was under no illusions as to where poetry stood in
the artistic/entertainment pecking order.
Back in high school, when the bell rang,
my classmates and I exited poetry class
like we were citizens of Tokyo being threatened by Godzilla.
It took me the leap of faith equivalent of the triple jump
and a young woman’s saintly green eyes
before I could actually pin my sails to poetry’s mast.
And even then, it was the usual dead white crew that appealed to me.
A famous living poet? Bing bing bing bing.
The oxymoron alarm just went off.

So I reckoned he’d be chuffed as the English say
to receive that missive from me
even if it wasn’t a gushing paean to his work.
Now that I think back on it,
he might have considered it impertinent.
But I did provide my age.If I was writing out of turn
then surely my limited years on earth excused me.

That was the last time I wrote to someone in the public eye.
It was like sticking a message in a bottle
and tossing it over the railing of a cruise ship.
Or tying it to the toes of a pigeon
Or sending a poem about my Pekinese to the Paris Review.
It’s not that I don’t enjoy certain poets
but they don’t need to hear that from me.
And apparently they don’t even want to hear it from me.

So what’s the point of all this exactly?
It’s that, these days, I feel only sympathy
for that great poet, now deceased.
But maybe that isn’t the point. And why should there be one?
God, how I hate being asked to explain myself
even when it’s me doing the asking.

“20 Questions” by Rachel Belth


“You’ll have to guess who we saw at Kohl’s.” This is how Mom greets Dad today when he comes home from work. She leaves it at that for now. She’s still browning the meat for the chili.

“Okay!” he says, pecking her on the lips. He sets his lunchbox on the counter and goes into the study where Rebecca and Caleb are studying. He watches over their shoulders momentarily and sorts the papers on his desk until dinner.

Mom flips the piece of frozen ground chuck. The raw meat sizzles as she scrapes off the top layer of browned meat with a spoon, a rhythmic clack against the bottom of the skillet.

It’s my job to make the cornbread. If I start the moment we finish unloading the groceries from the car onto the kitchen laminate, it will be finished just in time to eat. I work two ingredients at a time, briskly to the pantry for flour, sugar. Take them back and grab baking powder, salt. Again for cornmeal, vegetable oil. To the fridge for eggs, milk. Whip with a wooden spoon, pour into the glass baking dish, scoot Mom aside to slide it into the still pre-heating oven.


At dinner, everyone’s quiet, the clink of silverware the only sound. Mom leans forward on her hands to shift pressure to a new part of her lower back; Dad leans back in his chair. Rebecca sits on both knees so she has farther to slouch, resting her head in her hand. She watches indifferently the curl of steam rising from her bowl.

Caleb is wearing a bright-green Bobby Labonte T-shirt. He habitually keeps a stash of NASCAR magazines and used Kleenex next to his spot at the table. He almost reclines while he eats, his entire right bicep parallel to his plate, fist to temple. His placemat is strewn with cornbread crumbs and drops of chili. He has opened one of the magazines next to him, occasionally turning a page with his greasy thumb.

Dad tries to break the silence. He looks at Mom across the table and says cheerfully, “Bill Deitsch gave me some more work today.”

I never understand why he thinks we’re interested about his time at work. I have never met any of his coworkers; I have only their names to imagine what they look like. I imagine Bill Deitsch to be a cheerful, gray-haired fellow. Maybe because “Deitsch” rhymes with “peach.”

“Good,” says Mom. She also does not know how to respond when Dad talks about work. She stares, expressionless, at a knot on the oak table.

Rebecca looks at me over her glasses. I roll my eyes in reply. Dad is staring at his bowl, so he doesn’t notice we’re making fun of him.

He tries again. “I’ll be testing a new radio. Greg Cantrell might be helping me.”

I imagine Greg Cantrell to be intense, a man who lives on the balls of his feet.

Mom takes a bite of chili, concentrating on the knot. And another bite. “Will that be a problem,” she says finally, the words so hard to come by that they don’t have the energy to form an actual question.

Rebecca coughs, a single faint thing, just a reminder of her presence. Caleb flips a magazine page.

Dad thinks and says, “Testing the radio or working with Greg Cantrell?”

Mom pauses, spoon midair, as if she had asked the question out of obligation to make conversation, as if she had asked it without knowing what she was asking or caring about the answer. “Working with Greg Cantrell.”

I sigh and lean back in my chair.

Dad takes a couple bites, thinking. “I think it will be alright. He’s getting a little better…at working with people.”

Caleb reaches for seconds, spoons the chili, with his elbow still on the table, dribbling sauce on the hot pad beneath the skillet. He drags the bowl back to his place.

“Is there math today?” says Dad, looking at Mom. He holds the raisin container to his chest, one hand inside, massaging the raisins apart and dumping them on his salad. He turns to Rebecca. “What kind of dressing are we having?”

“Ranch.” She stabs a piece of romaine with her fork. It’s a tradition of theirs, to have the same salad dressing, a tradition so old no one even tries to remember how it started.

“Rebecca and Caleb have math. It’s on your desk,” says Mom.

“Can I open the Doritos?” says Caleb.

Mom nods. “Okay.”

Caleb goes to the pantry. I neatly cut another piece of cornbread, press it against the roof of my mouth with my tongue, savoring the grainy sweetness. Finally, Mom looks at Dad and says offhandedly, “Oh, you still need to guess who we saw.”

“Right.” Dad’s face brightens, though he doesn’t actually smile. He sets down his fork. “Where did you say you saw them?”

“Kohl’s,” says Rebecca, sitting a little straighter. “We saw two people.”

“Let’s see…someone from Westridge?”


“Someone from North Park?”


“Someone from our Sunday school?”

“Yes,” says Rebecca.

“Well…” I say.

“One of them is from our Sunday school?”


“Is this person a male?”


“Is she married?”

“Does she have kids?”

“How many kids does she have?”

“Dad. It has to be a yes-or-no question.”

“Oh, right.”

Mom chortles softly.

“So, does she have more than three kids?”

“More than four?”

“So, four kids?”

“Four kids…in our Sunday school…are the kids in the youth group?”

“Are some of the kids in the youth group?”

“Some of the kids in the youth group…four kids…in our Sunday school…the Kraffts?”

“Which ones?”

“Mrs. Krafft.”

“And Anna?”


“Mrs. Krafft and Amanda!” he says, smiling as if this is a delightful surprise and leaning back in his chair.

“Very good. How are they doing?”

And before long, we fall back into the relative silence of spoons against bowls.

Joan MacIntosh poetry


The homes

of Hidden Valley
look far-off
from the overpass
traffic streaming

Warm black roofs
button row maples
bent finger
of brown road
glide into view

A softer world
is seen
then lost

Slow road
not felt

Bel Harris poetry

Bel lives in Toronto.

Oh, Love

Do you know who I am?
It’s a loaded question.
Like, “Do I look fat in this dress?”
Only much darker; with more at stake.

It slithers out near the end.
When both of you know it’s time to throw in the towel.
Do you know who I am? Did you ever really love me?

It’s a wanted ad. One heartbroken lover seeking admission of guilt!
But, you haven’t got any guilt, so what to do, what to do.
If sentimental and deluded say, “Yes, I love you always.” 
If honest say, “No – no, I don’t know.”

But, wait. That’s not true.
There was love once.
Maybe. In the beginning. At first sight.
No, wait. That’s stupid. Unrealistic. Scratch that.

Somewhere between lust and Hell freezing over.
Somewhere right in the middle,
on the nights we stayed in and played Scrabble,
there was love,staring at each other across the slowly filling board.

We get misty-eyed at the thought
of love won and lost.
We see it on the big screen
and we think to ourselves,
How explosive! How dramatic!
We won’t end up like that.

Remember that vase?The one that shattered
on the floor?

It’s cruel to say those words
“Do you know me? Do you love me?”
and expect an answer back.


Gaby Bedetti poetry

Gaby is the American translator of  Henri Meschonnic’s work, a contributor to Lexington’s poetry blog (LexPoMo) and a teacher at Eastern Kentucky University.

One World

An Iranian striker surprises a Nigerian keeper
with a hug. At midfield, an Ivorian
massages a Croat’s cramp.
A chancellor hobnobs with a president.
Twenty-thousand Americans fly to Brazil
to cheer the beautiful game.

“Hammers” by Gregg Williard

Once our town was famous for its hammers. When hammer production went to China, the factory closed and unemployment, alcoholism and suicides soared. The town daily’s editorial page, Brass Tacks, did a series on the crisis. It said, “Our town has forgotten the words of a wise man: ‘If your only tool is a hammer, every problem in life looks like a nail.’ Our problem is not just another nail. Nor is it a tack, pushpin, brad, spike, peg, fence post or chisel.” Fresh new ideas, it exhorted, were needed now or “the town will suffer the oblivion of a counter-sunk nail.”

The town took action. They brought in an economic consultant and inspirational speaker named Mr. Sheppard. He addressed the City Council and the Chamber of Commerce with rolled-up sleeves and a loosened tie. “My friends,” he began, “in Uganda there is a famous story of a blacksmith named Walukaga. One day Walukaga was summoned to the royal palace. The all-powerful king commanded him to make for his pleasure a living man of metal.”   

The room was silent. He swiveled his head in a slow sweep of the room, then answered questions we did not ask.  “No, not a metal suit with a man inside, and no, not an automata or robot. And again no, not a remote-controlled cybernetic appliance, or a synthetically-enhanced organism, if such things could have been imagined back then. No, my friends, what the king demanded was a living, breathing, fornicating, defecating man of metal, and failure to deliver meant death.”   

We were Midwestern people, disinclined to complaint or emotional display. Our mouths were good, tight smiles and our eyes leveled to the here and now. The vista of frigid grins we must have presented did not have a discernible effect on Mr. Sheppard, whose portrayal of Walukaga struck disturbing notes of screeching desperation. “What am I gonna’ do?! What am I gonna’ do?” He ricocheted from podium to PowerPoint, going on much longer than seemed necessary to make his point. In later discussions we talked about this aspect of the presentation, and agreed it was comparable to the experience of watching old Jerry Lewis movies, pinned to our seats in what some called Appalled Fascination. Irritated Boredom. Embarrassed-For-Him Horror.

After an eternity Mr. Sheppard regained the storyteller’s detachment. “Walukaga thought and thought, but no answer came. He could not make a man of metal. It was impossible!” He paused. There was a collective cringe anticipating the return of Walukaga, but the omnipotent storyteller went on. “Obviously, he was doomed. In despair he wandered the countryside to spend his last day on earth in the hills. The next day he would have to go to the king without the man of metal, and leave the king, without a head. Or arms. Or legs. Or testicles.“ It was things like this – extraneous, even gratuitous details like legs, testicles, etc. (not to mention the tendency to go on too long and strenuously when playing the desperate Walukaga), that caused some of us in the back rows and near the aisles to leave early. Those of us who stayed were rewarded with a fresh perspective on our problems, and how to address them. 

Mr. Sheppard continued. “Walukaga sat with his head in his hands and moaned. As evening came he spied a shabby beggar coming down the road.” Mr. Sheppard showed us the shabby beggar coming down the road. “As he approached, Walukaga was shocked to see that it was an old school friend of his who had fallen on poverty, sickness and insanity. Walukaga gave him what money he had, and the pair sat on a rock together, watching the sun set. In his lonely despair Walukaga confided to his old friend, and was shocked to hear him offer the following advice: ‘Tomorrow go to the king and say that, in order to do as commanded, he must supply you with six large bags of charcoal made from burned eyelashes and six barrels filled with human tears.’ Walukaga was mystified, but the next day he did as his friend suggested. The king listened, then clapped his hands twice to summon his servants. ‘Go to the village and gather these things,’ he commanded, and the servants scurried off with terrified expressions. 

Mr. Sheppard showed the terrified expressions. “Then the king told Walukaga, ‘Return in ten days and you will be given these things you have requested.’ Ten days passed, then fifteen, then twenty. Finally, on the twenty-sixth day he was again summoned to the palace. The king said, ‘There are not enough eyelashes or tears in the entire kingdom to give you what you need.’ As instructed by his friend, Walukaga responded, ‘If the great king cannot fulfill this simple task, how can I, a simple blacksmith, do as you have commanded and make a man of metal?’

The king’s stern expression softened and he began to laugh. He awarded Walukaga’s ingenuity with a new blacksmithing shop, anvil and forge. Walukaga returned to his village a hero. He found his old friend and made him his personal assistant, and in this way went on to live a long and prosperous life. He had many more adventures, but we will leave the legendary blacksmith with this lesson, and the moral of the story: when faced with an unsolvable problem, ask a madman.”

Mr. Sheppard smiled and opened his arms to the dribbling applause. “Thank you, thank you.” Mr. Sheppard urged the applause to stop. Since it was barely there to begin with, the room quickly went dead. “Are there any questions?”   

An alder named Phil Breef raised his hand and stood. His eyes jittered over the audience. “I think I speak for many of us when I say that, while you’ve certainly told us an engaging story, I’m just not sure how it applies to our situation here. The town has been decimated by the factory closing. It was our primary employer. Our only employer, actually. I’m afraid we need more than a madman to get us out of this.” There were murmurs of assent. A member of the Chamber of Commerce named Mack Sheets was out of his chair before Phil Breef had dropped into his. “Mr. Sheppard, we were under the impression that there would be some specific economic proposals today. At least recommendations on what we can do to revitalize our town, create jobs…”    

Mr. Sheppard’s lean pale face lit up with a smile. “Of course.”   

He went to the laptop on the low table and began a Powerpoint presentation. It showed a clipart drawing of a hammer above a nail. The nail was magically balanced on its tip on a board of wood. A thick blue arrow arced down from the face – the striking surface – of the hammer to the head of the nail. Then in all caps letters a word followed the curve of the arrow: JOBS!

The hammer descended on the nail and sunk it into the wood. Each time the action was repeated the nail went a little farther in, and the word grew larger:


“This was before,” intoned Mr. Sheppard. He advanced to the next image. The hammer had disappeared, leaving behind a horizontal plane littered with bent, unhammered nails. “And this is now.” Over the speakers came the sound of a moaning desert wind. A cartoon tumbleweed bounced in three hops across the plain. Mr. Sheppard shook his head at the screen. His face was grim. He said with a bitter hiss, “And this is why.” He stabbed the remote. One by one round yellow heads appeared across the top of the screen, leering down at the wasteland of nails. The faces were crude cartoon stereotypes of Chinamen, with buckteeth, single long braids, Fu Manchu beards and coolie hats, drawn in the manner of racist, xenophobic drawings from the turn of the 21st century. Mr. Sheppard pressed the remote again, and a recording of raucous, shrieking laughter and sing-song, foreign invective – or what sounded like invective – filled the hall. The heads tilted back and forth to convey the throes of hilarity. “You see,” Mr. Sheppard said above the din, “they are laughing at you.” He advanced the image. Hammers appeared in the Chinamen’s hands, moving up and down in threatening bobs. 

The laughter grew shriller. The day outside looked like a grudge against spring. Soggy leaves smacked the window glass, stuck for a moment, then twirled away. Many of us saw our hopes for the town fly away on these sodden leaves, and made for the door in despair. Everyone froze when a shop steward from the Metal Workers Union named Ed Holmes yelled out to Mr. Sheppard, “What is this? What is this racist crap? Turn it off and get the hell out of here!”


Mr. Sheppard paled, fumbling the Powerpoint off. Many of us stood, shaky with outrage. Mr. Sheppard’s eyes glistened and he backed away in tears, burying his face in his hands. We were, as stated previously, good Midwestern people, who took no pleasure in another’s anguish and humiliation, particularly in public. Stooped with regret Ed Holmes hurried to Mr. Sheppard’s side and put a gentle hand on his shoulder. “Hey man, it’s ok. It was just kind of inappropriate. The Chinese faces, you know?”

Mr. Sheppard ‘s hands opened like shutters. He was grinning. He jumped back with surprising agility to crow, “Oh, yeah!  I’m sorry! That’s right! The Chinese aren’t the problem, are they? That’s right, we are the problem! Why, we have lost our way! We have to get back to our traditional values. Yeah, that’s right! Traditional values! God, Country, Family! We’ve got to embrace our faith, our pride and faith in American ingenuity, and hammer our wives – um, I mean love and honor our families…” 

Most of us stared dumbfounded as the projector came on once more, flipping to a desktop menu. The cursor jerked to a video file. It opened to an old, kitschy painting of Calvary, with Jesus on the cross, flanked by the other crucified. A foregrounded hand gripping a large, mallet-like hammer appeared, its striking face pointed toward Christ. There were many exasperated groans of “Ah c’mon!” and “You gotta’ be kiddin’!” and “This is over the top!” We began to breathe the sweet ozone of community, the thrill of merging with a nascent mob. Then on the screen another fat blue arrow arched down from the hammer with the words “AMERICAN TECHNICAL PROWESS+DIVERSIFICATION+RELIGIOUS FAITH=,” which were answered by a brisk tumble of blood red bullet points:

  • Hammers with powerful electromagnets!
  • Produces magnetic fields that confer pain-relief to the worker and handyman suffering arthritis in hands and wrists!
  • Strong enough to unhammer nails!
  • And pull nails that free Christ from the cross!
  • Making pulled nails “resurrected” or “born again” nails!

(Here we saw animated nails wiggle out of the stigmata like cartoon worms from an apple, allowing Christ to flop down off the cross into the waiting hands of his disciples).

Then the screen showed only the hammer, bristling with dozens of “unhammered” or “born again” nails. From the speakers a baritone voice said, “This is the only hammer you’ll ever need! And you’ll never buy another nail again!” In the video an actor in overalls turned a switch in the bottom of his hammer, then passed it over a row of wooden tables, chairs and night stands. The furniture shook. Wood creaked and groaned. Nails sprang out of the wood and flew to the hammer’s magnetic head. One by one, the items of furniture fell to pieces on the floor. 

Many of us just shook our heads. A few others – including Ed Holmes, Mack Sheets and Phil Breef – got out of their chairs and slowly encircled Mr. Sheppard. Their hands were clenched and their faces dark. Phil Breef said, “We want our money back, Sheppard.” 

Mr. Sheppard bared his teeth. He reached behind him, and produced two hammers with bits of bloody-something caked in the claws. “You want it? Come and get it,” he hissed. “I know what to do with my hammers. The question is, do you?” He waved a hammer at the screen. “Maybe you had better back off and see the rest of the show.” He turned slowly in the shrinking circle, training the hammers on the men as if they were guns. The rest of us called the men back with “C’mon guys, we don’t want any trouble” and “He’s not worth it” and “We’ll get our money back” and “Hey, he’s nuts, all right? Forget it. Stand down.” Ed Holmes, Phil Breef, Mack Sheets and the others returned slowly to their seats. Many of us felt we’d been yanked back from the brink of something very attractive, and terrible.    

Mr. Sheppard’s face relaxed and returned to its normal color. He set the hammers on the podium and sat down on the edge of the dais, dangling his feet as he talked. “Are we done with our hissy fit? Yes? Good. So, obviously the solution is not to hate the Chinese or go back to good old American know-how or technical innovation or turning to your faith in our savior Jesus Christ amen. I mean, a hammer is a frigging hammer, am I right? And Jesus? For the time being he is just going to stay done dead, OK? So where does that leave us?” No one spoke. Mr. Sheppard looked over the group, thinned considerably by the rigors of his talk so far. “You were mad as hell and ready to kill. Good. Don’t lose that rage. But don’t waste it on the Chinese, or me.”

“Who do we use it against?” Ed Holmes didn’t sound mad anymore. Just tired and without hope. Mr. Sheppard’s answer was so soft we almost didn’t hear it. “You use it against yourselves.”

“What…what the hell does that mean?” Mack Sheets sounded like a split reed.

“It means destroying your old way of thinking about hammers. About yourselves and hammers. About everything and hammers. Listen to me! You have got to ask yourselves, what do you have that the Chinese don’t have, will never have?”

“We have unions!” Ed Holmes said. “And don’t think we are going to give them up just to be more competitive with the Chinese!” He thrust his fist into the air. Mr. Sheppard rolled his eyes. “I’m not talking about unions.” Ed Holmes’ fist dropped. Mr. Sheppard continued. “Look. The Chinese have the cheap labor, sure, and wimpy-ass environmental laws that let their factories do whatever, without penalties or limits. They’ve got protectionist trade policies that keep their hammers cheaper than ours. They’ve got some spanking new foundries and production techniques. But there’s one thing you have that they will never have. And that is the idea of the hammer.” You could have heard a pin – or a nail – drop. “Of course,” Mr. Sheppard continued, “it doesn’t make one bit of difference if none of you understand what you’ve got, and develop it.” Some of us felt prodded into riled agitation again. There were shouts of “This is what we paid you for, Sheppard!” and “Get to the point, asshole!” and “C’mon! What in god’s name is the ‘idea of the hammer?’”

Mr. Sheppard jumped to his feet and returned to the video projector. “All right, all right. I’ll tell you. But pay attention boys and girls. There will be a quiz on this material.” He alone giggled at his levity. He turned on the projector again to an aerial view of a town square. Our town square: the familiar hodge-podge of empty storefronts, empty lots, a McDonald’s, a Goodwill, an adult book and video store, several bars, two Chinese take-outs and, in the center , the abandoned hammer factory, graffitied, boarded-up and forlorn. The only place with any sign of life was the unemployment office.

“This is now,” he said, then advanced to the next image. “And this is what could be.”

The video morphed into a computer-imaged reinvention of our town. Mr. Sheppard’s curser jumped from one highlight to another like the planchette of a Ouija board. The main boulevard constituted the handle. It terminated in the town square, laid out in the shape of an enormous hammer head and claw. Mr. Sheppard said, “Let’s take a closer look, shall we?” and pressed the remote again. The computer simulation descended to a motorist’s point of view, entering the town from the “handle.” Up ahead, the town’s skylight danced with a multitude of neon hammers dropping tirelessly on neon nails. At the end of the road was the rebuilt factory, now a pedestal for a gigantic hammer. “At 400 feet,” said Mr. Sheppard, “it will be the tallest hammer in the world!” Beside it the courthouse sported an enormous judge’s gavel that marked the moment each judgment was rendered within by a rap to the marble floor below. 

We slowed and stopped, taking in the colorful array of new and attractive shops: there was a nightclub/bar called “Get Hammered!,” a book/video store named “Hammer” (offering the world’s largest collection of Mike Hammer books, movies, TV shows, radio recordings and memorabilia), another video store called “Hammer Horrors” (with a complete selection of horror movies from Britain’s Hammer Studios), the Hammer Museum (recreated as a virtual 3-D tour of the original museum in Haines, Alaska), the “Steel-Drive-In -Man’s Eatery” (famous for the “Hammerich,” a foot-tall club sandwich with 16 varieties of ham, “spiked” with a secret sauce and held together with a stainless-steel spike driven down through its center by shirtless, sledgehammer-wielding John Henry impersonators), “Hammerhead World” (an aquarium stocked exclusively with 20 varieties of hammerhead shark), the “Hammer-Fantasy-Fancier” (selling hammer-themed toys, games and models, including Thor’s Hammer (“Mjolnir”) and the Emulsion Powered Laser-Designator “Hammer of Dawn” from the Gears of War gaming series).

On the sidewalks were crowds of hammerhead shark-masked vendors; singers (“If I had a Hammer,” “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer,” etc.); hammer-taping Van Halen-style guitarists; performers hammering steel drums, gamelons, xylophones and vibraphones; carnival sideshow acts (“Watch the human 2X4 hammer nails into his face!”) and racks of T-shirts emblazoned with hammer symbols, logos and insignias (the hammer and sickle, Arm and Hammer, Hammer Bowling Balls, etc.). On the street corners were many hammer monuments and memorial sculptures (several John Henrys, plus 60s action star Fred “The Hammer” Williamson, and disgraced Congressman Tom “The Hammer” DeLay).

At the unfinished end of the square Mr. Sheppard pointed out armies of singing road builders breaking up stones for gravel using authentic “macadamizing” hammers, and, in the fields beyond, many spirited hammer-throwing and “speed-hammering” contests. There were even a number of year-round passion plays where, for a small fee, one could reenact the crucifixion as a Roman foot soldier hammering a lifelike bleeding Christ mannequin to the cross, or as a disciple using the claw end to yank out the nails and take him down, depending on the customer’s predilections.

There was a healthy range of opinions to Mr. Sheppard’s plan. Despite some doubts many were impressed by the boldness and originality of his vision, a few of us even embracing the plan with excited comments like, “Hey, when do we break ground?” and “Can you believe the job market this could open up?” and “This’ll put us back on the map for sure!” and “I like it! I really like it!”

Noticeably less enthused were the original troika of critics: Ed Holmes, Mack Sheets and Phil Breef, now joined by a CPA and funeral home director named Pete DeVoors. They huddled together, conferring in low, tense voices. Phil Breef raised his hand. “Mr. Sheppard? That was a very nice show, but maybe some of us don’t want to see our town turned into a theme park. And even if we did, who is going to pay for all of this development? Since the melt down we’ve all suffered disastrous losses. With this plan of yours we’d all be bankrupt before we put one shovel in the ground…”  

“…or hammered one nail?” Mr. Sheppard said. “Well, Phil – may I call you Phil?”  

“How do you know..?”   

“Phil, that’s the beauty of this plan. It’s not only about hammers. It comes from a kind of hammer.”

“But the factory!” Phil protested.   

Mr. Sheppard smiled. “I understand your concern, Phil. But I don’t mean coming from the sale of manufactured, physical hammers. I’m talking about different kinds of tools. Predictive tools, a different kind of hammer. It’s called a ‘Candlestick Hammer.’ Along with the ‘Harami,’ the ‘Doji,’ the ‘Dark Cloud Cover’ and a host of other pricing algorithms I can hammer out new derivatives strategies…”   

Phil Breef stood again, visibly struggling for control. “Wait…wait a second. Just wait…! You’re not…are you talking about investing what little we have left in the market?! Are you out of your…”    

Mr. Sheppard purred, “Phil, I realize in today’s volatile market…”   

Phil Breef paled. His mouth moved but no words came out. He made a low snarling sound and bolted at Mr. Sheppard. Mac Sheets held him back and shouted, “It’s not volatile, Sheppard! It’s dead!” Words and phrases like, “Wall Street?” and “He’s talking about derivatives?!” and “Selling sub-prime mortgage packages!” and “Bernie Madoff!” and “Ponzi!” raced through the hall like a torched incendiary. Mr. Sheppard watched from atop the dais, hands on hips and shaking his head, waiting patiently for the excitement to die down.    

But it did not die down. Shock turned to anger, anger to rage. Many other questions and comments filled the air: who decided the Chinese must make our hammers? Who decided the “idea of the hammer” was more real than the hammer itself? For most of us, Wall Street and corporations were a faceless evil. But in a moment of uncanny clarity and calm, even inner peace, we seemed to turn as one entity (or animal, really), and see for once a face, and a name: Mr. Sheppard. 

No one knows who brought in the hammers, but suddenly we all seemed to have one. Some of us had two. Some of us had sledgehammers or blacksmithing hammers, (the Twist, the Dog Head, The Long Cross), or the plastic Dead Blow Hammer, or the previously mentioned Macadamizing Hammer (with its distinctive round head for breaking rocks into gravel), or the classic Low-Curve Claw Head, forged of extra-strong, extra absorbent carbon-alloy and made in the U.S.A.    

We heard only a small “hey” from Mr. Sheppard as the audience closed around him, then a brief, wet crack of bone, followed by nothing more than the meaty dull thunk of hammer to flesh. Most of us never got close enough to deliver the fatal blows, if “fatal” can be ascribed to Mr. Sheppard’s wounds, or, rather, damage. Emerging from the crowd, Phil Breef, Ed Holmes, Mack Sheets and Pete De Voors (the first to hammer Mr. Sheppard) asked for a sheet to cover the body, then moistened paper towels from the men’s room to rub away the blood splatters covering their own glasses, faces, arms, hands, shirts and slacks. They explained to us that what we had done together was not murder because Mr. Sheppard was not human. Requesting more moistened paper towels for a stubborn splatter on his tie, Pete De Voors confirmed the news. “I’ve seen a lot of dead bodies,” he said, “and this was not a human one.” Ed Holmes nodded and took another moistened paper towel to his shirt. He asked us to recall the peculiar Ugandan story that Mr. Sheppard had told them. “Remember the king’s command to the blacksmith, Walla…”    

One of us supplied the name: “Walukaga.”

Ed Holmes snapped his fingers. “Right. Remember the king’s command? ‘Make me a living man of metal, blacksmith.’ Then the solution came from Waloo…”    


“Walukaga’s insane friend, who told him to ask for impossible to get materials, and the king had to admit he couldn’t do it.”    

We waited.   

“Don’t you see?” Ed Holmes said. “Mr. Sheppard was the living man of metal – or, more accurately, a living synthetic, a man-machine hybrid. Walukaga could not have built such a thing in his time, but now we can!”    

Mack Sheets added, “I think he was trying to show us something.”  

One of us asked, “What?”

Mack Sheets frowned with concentration for several moments. “I think it’s something like, Mr. Sheppard is the madman, and all of us are Walukaga. And the current economic crisis is the king, the king’s challenge, saying, ‘You’ve got to do something impossible – like save our town, turn the recession around,’ and we are the scared Walukaga, saying, ‘What am I gonna’ do? What am I gonna’ do?’” There was a ripple of appreciative laughter for Mack Sheets’ impersonation of Mr. Sheppard. Another of us said, “But that doesn’t make sense. You said Mr. Sheppard was the living man of metal. Now you are saying he is the madman, too? And if he is, or was, a real living man of metal – I mean Mr. Sheppard – does that mean we just killed – I mean deactivated – the solution to our problem?”   

There was an excited flurry of argument, with many comments like, “Maybe we made a big mistake,” and “Hey, he’s got a point!” and “Could the madman and the man of metal be the same person?” and “Why didn’t Walukaga just give the king the madman?” and “What was Mr. Sheppard trying to teach us?”   

Phil Breef raised his hand. “Hold it, everybody! Pipe down! It all makes sense! The metal man and the mad man were the same person. Both of them were Mr. Sheppard. But, like in the story, the mad man had to show Walukaga how to trick the king into giving up on the idea of a living man of metal, so the secret of the living man of metal would not fall into the hands of the king! But once Walukaga realized that the mad man really was the living man of metal, (the human-machine hybrid that was Mr. Sheppard), Mr. Sheppard had to trick ‘Walukaga’ (all of us) into destroying him, so the secret of his creation would remain safe!” 

A buzz of competing voices rose with comments like,“He sacrificed himself so we wouldn’t be burdened with the secret?” and “He wanted to die!” and “We were supposed to kill him?” Then another voice jumped out from the others with “But that’s not in the story Mr. Sheppard told us! He said that the mad man became Walukaga’s new blacksmithing partner!”

Phil Breef shot back, “Don’t be so literal! Walukaga probably destroyed the mad man after they became partners running the new blacksmithing shop!” 

We pondered the implications of his interpretation while Mack Sheets, Ed Holmes, Pete De Voors and Phil Breef attended discretely to the “body.” Strangely, no one is certain what happened to it, though some of us claim to know, with stories like “It’s buried under the floor of the old factory!” or “His components and software are what made the new factory possible!” 

Later at the trial Mack Sheets, Ed Holmes, Phil Breef and Pete De Voors all took responsibility for the fatal blow. Forensics revealed that, while many hammers pulped the “body,” “death” (or deactivation) probably came from a single, claw-first blow to the face from an American-made carpenter’s hammer wielded by Mack Sheets. His acquittal on grounds of self-defense and justifiable homicide was based on unanimous testimony that Mr. Sheppard was an unbalanced homicidal maniac, holding the group hostage with a semi-automatic weapon, making incoherent demands for a “hammer heaven on earth.”

Whatever the truth, it is indisputable that Mr. Sheppard’s brief time in our town changed everything forever. Now our factory prospers with an entirely new technology and line of robotics, though what many visitors come to see first is the memorial display of Mack Sheets’ hammer: the hammer that ended and started it all.

Spencer Smith poetry


He wakes with the uncomfortable feeling
that he is in the wrong house.
The color of wall paint is slightly off
in the lantern glow of morning light,
and the space next to him in bed
is empty, a large divot remaining in the pillow.

In the shower a needle of water darts past his teeth,
the taste different from what he recalls.
He dries off, puts underwear on backward, corrects it,
then scans the shirts hanging like beef
in the closet—they seem unfamiliar.
He slips one on and it is too loose, unsatisfactory.
He avoids the mirror, afraid of whom he might see.

In the kitchen his wife has an odd brand of coffee ready.
He parts his lips to thank her
but sees a mole on her cheek
that he does not remember. And her hair—
it seems to be styled like someone else he once knew.
He says her name, and it feels strange in his mouth,
so he does not complete the sentence.

Deciding he is no longer hungry,
he steps out into the musty garage,
stopping to watch dust motes swirl in a spray of light.
Standing by the workbench he tries to recall
why he is there.  He looks at his car—
there is a new scratch marring the door;
at least, it seems to be new.

He wanders outside and settles into the porch swing,
which feels like it is tilting the wrong way
as it glides under his angular hips.
Staring across the street, he is unsure
when the neighbor repainted his house.
And those flowers in the planter near the door—
did his wife just pot them this morning?

After a while she joins him on the swing,
her weight balancing it.
Her eyes seem puffy and there is a blush to her nose
as if she has been crying.
She says nothing, just reaches over,
places the cool dry skin of her hand on his,
and rests her warm cheek on his shoulder
in that familiar way.




The house refuses to open to us.
It clenches the fists of its doors
until we pry away the fingers
one by one with our key.
It breathes its musty displeasure on us
as we stand in its throat like tongue depressors,
the groaning ah of old floorboards beneath us.
We inspect the rib cage of its walls for cracks,
climb up its windpipe into the garret,
peer out the upper windows to see what it sees,
invade the colon of its basement.
There is resentment here. It does not know us.
We are foreign bodies, viruses,
transplanted organs it is trying to reject.
We glance at each other in silence and exit hastily.
It leans over us as we stand on the grass like vomitus.
We hurry to our car,
the gaze of the house making our backs itch,
trying not to look as we drive away.