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Matt Freese

Memory Traces

I went to Starbucks on Sunday because I had an attack of spilkes. I ordered a grande cappuccino and a piece of cinnamon cake, most of which I threw away because I had to begin fasting for a blood test the next day, my semi-annual anxiety trip. In addition, my physician retired with very short notice to all his patients, without a letter, just employing a nurse to  inform me that the doctor was “tired” (he’s in his seventies). It was a very sloppy way of ending a medical relationship, but this is Nevada, a Third World country, especially in terms of medicine. This is a time in which professionalism is absent, rotten manners are prevalent, and Presidents gather tribally like maggots to praise George Bush and his new library. Only in America do we praise and honor a war criminal.  After all, we rehired Nazi scientists to help us against the Russkies (check out Werner von Braun and his use of slave labor at Peenemunde).

So I had to scramble about to get another doctor of unknown attributes and recommended by my cardiologist. (You know you are ageing when you have a cardiologist.) All of this backstory to amble into what has been mesmerizing me of late. Probably a reflection of being 72, cherishing each day as if it was my last, which it really could be. I am not entertaining a bucket list, which is American jargon for not having lived. Americans, most people, would not know what it is to live if it was a suppository shoved up their ass. Bucket lists are for conditioned schmucks, the last and intensive advertisement to be “meaningful” in life, using life rather than living it.

What goes through my mind are memories, remembrances and regrets. And there is nothing to do about these reminiscences except to tear up a little, gag, suck on the lollipop of ruefulness, feel sad for oneself. Here are a few snippets:

I recall my now deceased daughter, Caryn, at the age of four. She had her hair closely cropped by her mother, and it took me a moment to begin to adjust to that when I picked her up for a day with her father. I wish I had told her how sweet, adorable and how she was important to me. However, that is me now as an old man; then I was a stupid man, self-involved and needy. Mindful of that wise adage that says we grow old too soon and smart too late.

I recall when my now-estranged daughter, Brett, now 41, was in her crib and I picked up one of her pudgy hands and examined each of her fingers. I placed one finger against one of my mine and realized how dwarfed her baby’s hand was in comparison. I savor that memory because it is time now in which she will not extend her hand to me as a father. Oh, insupportable loss.

The list goes on and on: of lost opportunities, but what ravishes like hail against a field of wheat is the immense rush of time and the accumulative weight of years “lived” – were they ever, truly lived? – and how I have this tsunami coming at me from the past, all kinds of tender recollections, especially bittersweet, of hands I could have clasped, of embraces of my children made and not made, of running my hand through their hair, of telling them how dear they are to me. I am part of a very stupid species. And I have been very stupid in life.

My genes force me to go on. My mind says no. I lose out.

I am living with a kind of amazement at how much time has flowed by, of how I am an old man – and when did that happen? Of how to spend each day as if it is my last, of how to suck out the marrow of each day without going bananas or becoming American frenetic. I am sensing an immense need to return or give back, either as a teacher or in a relationship; for there is much in returning what one knows as a sharing of what wisdoms or smarts obtained over the decades. Erickson labeled it “generativity.” Whether or not it has an impact on another person really is not the issue for me. It is in the giving that there is some kind of last meaning as I taper off like a jet’s vapor trail.

Ironically I responded to an ad from the University of Las Vegas in its summer 2013 catalog asking if they might be interested in my teaching a course on memoir. After making a contact via the phone, I forwarded a resume and other pertinent materials, and now I’ll wait. I have absolutely no expectations at all, not in this state. However, using my own book as a text would give me some pleasure, even fun, but we shall see. Meanwhile as I drift into deep old age in which I will be cultivating a patient expectancy, to quote Chesterton, about death and dying I will pick up my Louisville Slugger bat and take a few hard swings at the incoming misfortunes heading my way.

All this brings me back to reminiscences. The memory traces of my life are unfolding in my mind, the movies of my mind, 24/7, and I lack – I admit so – the ability, the skill and the knowledge to make heads or tails what it was all about – that still eludes me. I hear the plaintive notes of “What’s it all about, Alfie?”




Matt is a writer who lives in Nevada.  He’s the author of The i Tetralogy, Down to a Sunless Sea and This Mobius Strip of Ifs.  Visit his blog.

Rolf Gompertz

My Journey to Prayer

While this is a story in a Jewish context, it is one that I believe Christian readers can relate to also, for several reasons.  I mention two Psalms that come out of our common religious tradition: Psalm 23 and Psalm 21.  Central to this story is what Jews refer to as the Sh’ma and what Jesus quoted when he was asked what is the most important commandment.  He said that there are two: “The most important is ‘Hear O Israel the Lord our God, the Lord is One. And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your might.” (Mark 12:30-31). He was quoting lines 4 and 5 from Deuteronomy 6:4-9, the Fifth Book of the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) where the Sh’ma appears.  It also appears in various places of all Jewish prayer books. Jesus also quotes from Leviticus 19:18, the Third Book of the Hebrew Bible: “The other [commandment] is: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these [two]” (Mark l2:30-31).
These two commandments are central to both Judaism and Christianity: The love and service of God and the love and service of our fellow human beings. “My Journey to Prayer” deals with a personal crisis that became the springboard to prayer.  Readers may find a personal connection from their own life, journey, and experiences.  – Rolf

Presented at One Shabbat Morning (OSM) Service, Adat Ari El, North Hollywood, CA – February 11, 2006
It was 1964. My father-in-law, Philip Brown, lay dying in the hospital, with congestive heart failure.  I was 36 years old. My mother-in-law, Lillian Brown, was desperate as we walked the hall.  “Do you know any prayers?” she pleaded. “Do you know ‘The Lord is my shepherd [Psalm 23]?'”  I began:

    “The Lord is my shepherd,

    I shall not want.
    He makes me to lie down in green pastures,
    He leads me beside the still waters.
    He restores my soul.
Distraught, my mother-in-law pleaded, “What about ‘I will lift up my eyes unto the mountains [Psalm 121]?'”  I began again:

    “I will lift up my eyes unto the mountains;
    From whence shall my help come?
    My helps comes from the Lord,
    Who made heaven and earth…”
That’s as far as I got. “How about the sh’ma, I offered. We prayed: “Hear O Israel, the Lord, our God, the Lord is One.”  I continued alone: “And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your might.  And these words which I command you this day shall be upon your heart and …and…and…” I did not even remember the sh’ma any more — the central statement of Judaism! Worst of all, I was not able to help someone who was in crisis!
Two years later, in 1966, we joined Adat Ari El, a Conservative synagogue in North Hollywood, California. We joined for our children, but we also joined for me.  I had come to a life-changing decision: I wanted to attend services regularly from now on, including Shabbat mornings.
My Hebrew was rusty, but it was still there. Carol, my wife, gave me a big tallit, a prayer shawl that covers the whole body, the following year, when I was invited to be a darshan, a lay congregant who interprets that day’s reading from the Torah (the first five books of our common Bible) from time to time. I felt self-conscious and lost in the big tallit. I figured I would have to grow into it.  And then I did something unusual: I began to pray in secret, every morning. I locked myself in the bedroom, pulled out the prayer book, read three prayers quickly, and came out of the bedroom, before anyone noticed or could see what I had been doing!
How does a man approaching 40 begin to pray? With great difficulty — and in secret! I felt awkward, foolish, embarrassed, before myself! A grown man, approaching 40, trying to pray! In time, I began to realize that three prayers are not enough to get to the heart of the treasure. Three prayers just get you started. Soon there were more prayers, but not enough time. So I made time. I got up half an hour earlier. I did not miss the extra sleep.  While the others slept, I sat in the kitchen and prayed.
I didn’t care now that Carol or the kids saw me, when they got up. And I kept reading the words of the sh’ma. “And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your might.  And these words which I command you this day shall be upon your heart…And you shall bind them for a sign upon your hand, and they shall be for frontlets between your eyes…”  Gradually, over five years, the words penetrated; they came alive. They spoke.  And they disturbed me. Frontlets. T’fillin.  Phylacteries. The leather prayer boxes and straps worn around the head and arm. I talked it over with myself: “It says to put on t’fillin.”  “It’s not necessary.”  “But it says to put on t’fillin!”  “I pray, I wear a yarmulke, I wear a tallit.  I don’t have to do everything!” “But how can you say this prayer and ignore its meaning. It says you should put on t’fillin!” “But I have never put on t’fillin!” “You have never prayed before, either!” “But I don’t know how to put on t’fillin!” “Then learn!”
I remembered my father’s t’fillin bag. It was old already when I was a child.   I never saw my father put on t’fillin. But I remembered and knew that the t’fillin were there, in the velvet bag, near the prayer books…waiting.
“Do you know where the t’fillin are?”
“The t’fillin?”
“Yes, the t’fillin. May I have them?”
My father looked at me in surprise.  He jumped up and rushed to get the small, velvet bag. “Here!” he said, handing me the t’fillin.  I thanked him. I didn’t tell him that I didn’t know how to put them on. I didn’t ask either. I didn’t know if he knew how. I didn’t wish to embarrass him.
“Are you going to start putting on t’fillin?” he asked.
“Yes,” I said. “I have started to pray every morning.”
I said it almost defiantly and a bit smugly.
“I pray every morning, too,” he said.
It was now my turn to be surprised. I had never seen my father pray in the morning. My father praying? A grown man approaching 80? How long had he been doing this?
“You sure you don’t want the t’fillin?” I asked.
“No, no!” he assured me. “You keep them, you keep them!”
I thanked him again and took them home with me. I was eager to take them out and really look at them. The leather straps, which once were pliable, were stiff from years of disuse. How many years had it been? 50, 60, 100?  I picked up the hand t’fillin. I knew it went around the arm and around the hand in some special way, but I could not figure out how. Whom should I ask? Whom could I ask? Who puts on t’fillin nowadays?
No doubt the Rabbi would show me. But I could not ask him. It’s hard to be humble. I would ask a fellow congregant, Meyer Sedowsky, of blessed memory. “Look!” he said, as he took the head t’fillin and showed me a Hebrew letter, on the right side of the leather box:  “SHIN.” Then he showed me the knot that sits on the back of the head, shaped as the letter:  “DALLET.”  Then he took the hand t’fillin and showed me the knot near the leather box. “The letter YUD!”
“Shin, Dallet,Yud! Shaddai! Almighty! One of the names of God!” He explained the four verses from the Torah in each box. “They remind us of the unity of God, the miracles and wonders God performed when He brought us out of Egypt, God’s kingship, and the command to put on the t’fillin.  Then he showed me how to put on the t’fillin and declare the appropriate blessing. To what purpose? As a daily reminder so that the work of our hands and the thoughts of our mind and the longings and strivings of our heart be placed in God’s service. I rushed home that night, anxious to fall asleep, so I could wake up early and put on the t’fillin. I have put on t’fillin every day ever since – except for on Shabbat, because on Shabbat you do not put on t’fillin, because Shabbat is its own sign and symbol of God’s presence and our relationship to Him.
My mother died in 1983; my father died in 1987. With their deaths, I came to say kaddish, the mourner’s prayer, which does not speak of death but only affirms God’s glory, at the daily prayer service, the minyan. As I did so, I had to make one more change in my Journey to Prayer. I had prayed at home daily for 20 years.  Yet, when the need arose, I found that there was a daily prayer service available to me at the synagogue for saying kaddish. It was time now for me to move from private prayer to public prayer, so that I could be there for others, as they had been there for me. I joined the daily morning minyan, and I have been there ever since.
One final matter. My mother-in-law, whom I had failed when once she needed a prayer, died in 1976. As she lay dying, she asked me to pray with her.
This time I did not fail her.


Rolf Gompertz and his parents were refugees from Nazi Germany coming to America in 1939, after Kristallnacht (November 9, 1938), the Night of Broken Glass.  He has written about their story, which was also dramatized by the BBC (2003).  He is the author of five current books, including a spiritual self-help book, Sparks of Spirit: How to Find Love and Meaning in Your Life. His books may be found, browsed and ordered at Amazon.com.

Jonathan C. Sampson


Mystical Fist of the Vajrayana Exorcist

My hiking boots are filled with icy water.  The fancy grooves in their soles are clogged with mud.  My expensive science — or faith — has backfired in this terrain: the traction of mud on mud is worse than anything.  Children in grooveless flip-flops run past me down the slippery stones.  Their unpredictable strides weave webs over a mountain stream.  At length, I am grateful for a stretch of dry dirt.  An hour ago I left Sapa, a resort fitted by French colonists to the Tonkinese Alps.  Now my steps return to the present.
These mountains are less the product of geology than of endless and arduous labor.  What had been a mountain is a gentle stairway of rice paddies.  The edges of these paddies are both walls and aqueducts, the water unused by one layer irrigating those below.  How can it be that this fabricated earth feels natural, more natural than nature?  The quality of awe that we attribute to a vista is profoundly diminished by this kind of alteration.  Proportional to its extremes, there is less suggestion of the infinite. 
The mist of this mountain does not detract from the view.  The view is a living depth.  If one flattened the view, it would constitute a scroll of imaginary meanderings.  Its infinity has doubled back on itself.     
I approach the village.  A water buffalo is tethered to a post.  A complex knot wraps through its nose, around its fearsome horns.  Why does this fetishized creature, genetically the product of human symbiosis, feel more natural than a wild beast?
Our cattle, grazing the steppes of Wyoming, possess a singular majesty; but for nature, onward to the next state park.  Nature is jagged, moody, and indifferent, throwing down the gauntlet to man.  In the devil’s myth, we are liberated from a finite garden.
A man is chopping wood in measured swings. After unsnagging his axe, he takes a moment to sense the grain of the wood, to determine the arc of his next swing.  Here, wood is cut long, right along the grain.  Long contours of wood, visibly pregnant with knots, are inserted slowly into the fire.  Wood is not cylindricized, exploited without comprehension. 
Stirner (1844), most radical of the Young Hegelians, construed life as the quest to define oneself amidst the engulfing chaos.  As life progresses, the ego attempts to extricate itself from objects of increasing subtlety, from social objects Stirner calls ghosts.
In the ego-dialectic, all that is not ourselves is correlative to our uses.  In its essence, then, an object must be finite, like us.  To overcome the object, we test and define its limits.  Infinity, for the ego, is flat and homogeneous.  In the ego-dialectic, location is inherently arbitrary and extraneous. 
 Mystical Fist of the Vajrayana Exorcist
Infinity is identified with the vertigo of an infantile space, in which ego floats around with all its objects. In the finiteness of its needs and use-objects, in the fable of a fixed orientation, the ego feels the security of the known; in the infinity of perspectives and interstices, the ego perceives a mystery whose comprehension is death.
Our gardens are on the shallow side of things.  Our fence demarks a sphere of the finite, lest tempestuous man or nature overrun the boundaries of reason.  The trampling of our fence signals the hunt.  Dark nature, which includes the twisted heart, is captured by the hunter in his operas and frescoes.  Such was the Geist of Stirner’s egoism. 
In the infinite fractal accretions of the object, by which mother nature gives the lie to its dialectic, the ego persists in its hunt for vertigo.  To qualify as art, even a still life must dislocate our mental and emotional compass.  Form, color, a language of style are all mere design.  Van Gogh’s bouquet is no longer art.
In the egoless complementation that defines man as nature, we suddenly find an aesthetic of finiteness and compression.  Wittgenstein (1922) identified mysticism with a sense of the all as finite.   Later, we were told that the physical universe is finite but unbounded.  In its contours, pregnant with knots of mass that bend the space around them, our finite physical universe alludes to driftwood.
In the house where I sleep, the floors are made of dirt. 
The garden of meanderings follows me home.  Stones emerge from this floor that is ever more floor.  Our low stools cluster round the campfire.  That fire, the only source of heat in the house, indiscriminately smokes the bamboo walls and ceiling.
My host, an indigent tribeswoman, speaks my language.  As we pass the pipe, her fire slowly encircles us.  We are a mandala. 
Her beauty, in and out, is as from some time forgotten.  There is contentment, of a color that bleeds freely into joy.  Her face, that is youthful, is gaping, as with age.  Her broken face welcomes all the agonies and ecstasies of the gods.  No, this dumbfounded joy wears no face, it is a broken receptacle; their nectar will be squandered on the other side.  Her brow is drenched, but her eyes widen easily around the task.  In a smooth and rhythmic seppuku, she inserts my wood. 
By day, our large wooden door is always open.  This house makes no sense as a separate enclosure.  People, young and old, stop over.  Some are friendly, some coy, some distressed.  Their comprehension of the ordinary is magical and dramatic. 
The space in front is another sitting place.  The view, that is not framed, appears framed.  As we all sit quietly together, I am immersed in its solid continuum.
Eventually I leave, with my elaborate backpack and hiking boots.
There is no closure of the possible.  The set of all sets comes up against Russell’s Paradox. 
A single line of Shakespeare might unravel into a thousand monkeys with typewriters.  The text of possible go games is larger, roughly 5 times 1090 times the number of whole atoms in the universe.  The set of possible Woodin games has the number of the continuum.  But this number, c, is tiny: c may or may not quantify the smallest uncountable set.  
Confronted with the open infinity of the possible, the ego projects the same onto the actual.  The ego sings of a hunt that never ends, even though its prey remains in sight.  This hunt is the fable of its origin and the romantic tragedy of death.  Like Descartes (1641) and his god, we suppose that our sense of an open infinity can congeal in finite minds because it is real.  With a fanciful, paradoxical, and dichotomous usage of come, we say that it must come from somewhere.  But the dreams the ego sees are not real.  It is its nature to flatten Earth.  Upon learning that the universe is finite, we grope instinctively for a set of higher power, in which ours is only one among uncountable parallel worlds. 
In the end, it is only with difficulty that we can imagine the actual as finite and closed.  The mystical fist of the finite lulls the ego-dialectic to sleep.  With a painstaking bluntness, we are informed that absolutely nothing is arbitrary.  We return to ourselves.
In the ether of possible selves, we discern a vast population of demons.  These demons are not our rivals, but temptations that we design and manufacture.  Like succubae, they redirect our natural energies. This ether is familiar as Samsara, the grand masque of hell. 
Even as a flesh and blood person has a factual history, a demon has a myth.  Among thinkers, there is a butterfly effect to these myths.  Outrageous conclusions amassed from small forays into the possible attract schools of like-minders.  Generations of demons overlap, wrangle and breed.
Wittgenstein taught us to return to the soil, to the ordinary usage of language.  He forswore (for example) a positive sense of love, which he consigned to the language game of uncertainty (Wittgenstein 1994: 129).  If a Christian died and met Jesus, she wouldn’t say “I love you.”  Thus was my mandala.
Like Descartes and Stirner before him, Wittgenstein tried to mold the philosopher into a kind of exorcist.
Tokyo, two weeks earlier.
“What is your original face?”  That koan, the gauntlet of a Rinzai master, offended my Western sensibilities.  The question stemmed and plumed in a lacework of assumptions that are all easier questions.  Its arc was smoother than jade. 
In such fullness, no din might resound.                                                                      
Descartes, R. (1641) Meditationes de Prima Philosophia.
Stirner, M. (1844) Der Einzige und sein Eigentum.
Wittgenstein, L. (1922) Tractatus logico-philosophicus.
Wittgenstein, L. (1994) The Wittgenstein Reader, ed. Anthony Kenny, Blackwell
Publishers, Malden, Massachusetts.

© Jonathan C. Sampson

B.W. Elliot

The Standup Does Poetry
“…That was during my
One word poem period…(laughter)
Poems like
‘Yawp’ (laughter)
‘Woof.’ (laughter)
My favorite was a love poem…
To myself…(laughter) called
‘I’… (much laughter)
What was great about that
Was, it was a single character
Love letter…(rim shot followed by groans)
But seriously folks…
The only problem with those poems
Was there was just so much left to say after that one word…
Take that love poem…
I couldn’t help but feel that it absolutely screamed
For the word
You’ve been a great audience,
   Good night.”

© B.W. Elliot



B.W. lives in Utah.

Gerald Bosacker


A Sudden Summer Rain

A needed surprise rain
concluded the drought
that withered spring grain
and curled corn leaves,
turning pagans more devout.
This rain dancer believes
in thanking all of the Gods,
slighting none who might decree
that nimbus cloud tightwads
dump their water for me.

© Gerald Bosacker



Gerald lives in Arkansas.

Milner Place

I asked him
where he came from.
He said:
I come from my mother’s waters,
from my father’s well,
come grimed with brick dust,
stained by my brother’s blood,
scorned by accountants,
washed in sweat.
Horses see the dust of my passing,
snort their impatience.
Crows watch my shadow,
are familiar,
worms sense my steps
and are expectant.
My inheritance is clay
and offal from sumptuous kitchens.
I’m a conjuror of fishes.
My nostrils know the language
of faithless streets,
effluvium of mines.
I pass from farm to forge,
from mill to ship
and each one steals
the droplets of my sweat,
my hours, my loves
and no one calls
my name.
I asked him
where he lived
but he was lost in the crowd.

The turning of an Archimedes screw
sucks water from its heaving up to where
water drifts waiting in a somber cloud,
waiting to fall as water in a drift of rain,
like leaves that drop in autumn to the soil
to rot among the roots that ravish them,
to spread a canopy that sucks the sun
until the turning of the globe calls in
the nights that harbor frost, an alchemy
transmuting green to gold before the white
of snow lays on its eider down and crows,
their darkness like the mouth of death,
like water deep below the eye of sun, like
a black hole and its relentless screw, wait
for the nights to shrink and leaves to spring
and dress the branches where to build a nest,
their shadows on the winter wasted fields
transient as wakes of old and desperate ships.



Milner is from Huddersfield, England.  He’s the author of Caminante, The City of Flowers, Piltdown Man and Batwoman, In A Rare Time of Rain and other books.

Paris Weslyn

Word Born

Blood runs through my veins in the form of alphabets
I am brought to existence through the opening of pages
Through the word it was spoken and thus we gasped the first breathe of life
The rays of eternity shine on the temples of poets,
Molesting the insides of journals with the pricks of their pens
She shines on them
They make the world that rotates around her
Mother sun, daughter word
She hangs on the tips of toddler’s tongues
She is the soul of the cunning lawyer
She is the heart of the silent father
Stars and moon she shines
Skipping across the ripples in lakes
Painting with leaves and branches
This is the beginning
With her smile we write the tale of our birth.

Paris lives in Peoria, Arizona.

Review of Collin Kelley’s RENDER

Render by Collin Kelley – Sibling Rivalry Press, 2013
Learn more about/order the book

What moralists are demanding from a photograph is that it do what no photograph can ever do – speak. Susan Sontag, On Photography


In The Everlasting Man G.K. Chesterton wrote that you can return home either by never leaving or by traveling around the entire world until you arrive at the starting point.  Collin has traveled a long way (figuratively and literally) since his debut poetry collection, Better To Travel, and his latest book, Render, might as well have been subtitled Better to Stay Home, because Collin takes us back to his very birth and guides us through a poetic photo album that’s a showcase for more than careful poses and “cheese”-activated grins.

The meaning of the book’s title becomes obvious when you see that the cover image depicts the author (tellingly) out of focus behind a large-format studio camera.  Collin is a meticulous metaphorizer, so, of course, Render’s divided parts are named accordingly: reticulation, aperture, blowup and resolution.  (Not that there aren’t double meanings to them.)  Finally, the concluding poem, which shares the book’s title, is written for photographer Sally Mann.  Its poetic stanzas are interspersed with instructions on how to render a photograph, and the closing lines could have been used as a caveat for the reader at the beginning of the book: “Note that a blue sky and clouds are impossible to render/Expect imperfections and subtle debris.”  Clever move, Collin.

Though Render revolves around the author’s maturation into adulthood and socks us right in our kissers with both the sacred and profane of his formative years,  the book seems equally concerned with his parents, to whom it is dedicated.  This triune dynamic is described perfectly in a piece called “Tuscumbia, Alabama”: “My parents on each end of a see-saw, up and down, and me/in the middle, a counterbalance.”
The sorest spot in the book is Collin’s mother’s infidelity, and it strikes me as its central conflict.  “[M]y mother turns bitter and adulterous, no sizzle in the bacon/my father brings home,” Collin writes in “Parallel Lines.”  This burdensome memory serves as a shameful backdrop behind most of the book’s autobiographical snapshots.  That the mother’s cheating puts the father in a sympathetic light is granted, but it seems to also cause the author to question the desirability of his very birth.  For instance, in “Blackout”: “I wasn’t a gleam in anyone’s eye…I wonder if she wished ’65 back at the final push?”  And in “Tuscumbia, Alabama” his mother looks “into some middle distance,/beyond my father into the next life of no children,/no responsibilities, a clean slate to begin again.”

“To Margot Kidder, With Love” provides strong evidence of this shame by revealing that Collin (“in need of rescue” at the age of ten) was regularly dropped off at the movie theater so as to keep him clear of his mother’s trysts: “I pretended not to care what my mother was doing,/but I was cashing in part of my childhood to keep up the charade…”  His weekly movie choice was Superman, and he related to and was comforted by actress Margot Kidder (“my surrogate”), who played the ever-imperiled Lois Lane.  Collin’s affinity for the actress is a primary example of his tendency to identify with female icons, such as Judy Garland, Farrah Fawcett, Pam Grier, Debbie Harry and Wonder Woman.

Who knows exactly when bored or stressed love finally caves in and excitement is sought outside of marriage?  This process is usually gradual, but children tend to be delineative and attribute significant events to relatively insignificant ones.  In “Breaking My Mother’s Leg” Collin recalls screaming at the sight of a grasshopper while sitting in his kiddie pool as a child.  His mother, fearing the worst, breaks her right leg during a dramatic rescue attempt.  Heartbreakingly, the boy within the man blames himself for the broken leg and blames the break for the rift in his parent’s marriage:

[S]he would never be the same again.
After mending, she lived a lifetime in five years,
casting my father off for another man,
flaunting herself around town.

The sharp crack of bones
was a dividing line between one life and the next…

The other revealing light that shines through the aperture is the author’s awakening gay sexuality.  Though he masturbated to both Daisy Duke and The Blue Lagoon’s Christopher Atkins during early puberty, the ephebic island Adonis ultimately won over the Georgian Venus.  However, a “nerdy fuck” named Dirk – not a bronze, blonde hunk – was his first major (closet-shy) flame: “His mismatched clothes, ill-fitting jeans, dirty sneakers,/my queer eye for a sexually confused guy already razor sharp.”

As sexual confidence strengthens, the poet as a young man shows a tendency toward seduction, an almost sardonic pleasure in undermining “fagbash suburbia” and shattering tenuous straightness since his “aim was true” in contrast to others’ “scattershot” due to “God blinders.”  For instance, in “Ian” (which winks at Dangerous Liaisons fans):

This was only a test, Ian, to see if I could use my power.
Like Valmont, stripping away your virginity, your God blinders.
I hooked you on the first cast, reeled you in,
left you gasping, until your whispered declarations
were intercepted on the downstairs extension.

He becomes braver and braver in exercising his true aim, the once-clumsy novice hardening into a determined marksman, with all of the predatory energy of the universal horny.  “Bare Back,” about a pickup and quickie with an anonymous hitchhiker, marks a graduation from crushes to outright promiscuity.  Curiously, Collin links this development with his mother: “I feel myself slouching toward whore./It’s passed down through maternal genes.”

I find myself questioning the reality of “Hustling,” the poem that follows “Bare Back.”  Playing out like a scene from My Own Private Idaho, it portrays the narrator in his late 20s letting a repulsive 70-something fellate him for money.  Up to this point I’d taken Render as embellished autobiography, but I wonder if this piece is more whore-metaphor than dramatized fact.  “Freshman Orientation,” a poem I think should have been coupled with “Hustling,” reverses the situation: the narrator now as the older man (“past my sell by date”) doing the sucking.  Echoing the “Bare Back” situation, like the hitchhiker Collin is “a blank screen,” a nameless source of raw pleasure.  The tryst is a response to a personal Craigslist ad posted by an Asian college student (“orientation”: get it?) who wants good head from another man who’s not “to old” [sic]:

I become device and vessel made of metal
a receptacle for your youthful stamina…
I’m a blank screen
project those skinny boys onto me…

There’s a recurrence of the author being offered as “a receptacle,” his “soft palate/a perfect landing pad for fallen angels.”  Perhaps this can be read as a futile attempt to fill an emotional void.  (Hey, just because it’s banal doesn’t mean it’s invalid.)  The author’s sexuality, as far as Render goes, seems to be one of reception more than penetration.  Even when he is the seducer, he is offered as reward to the other for giving in.  I can’t help but recall impactful metaphors from “Mr. Rogers Made Me Fat.”  Here is the full poem:

It was after Make-Believe,
when I was vulnerable.
He made the peanut butter
jar appear on his kitchen table
between the Museum-Go-Round
and Daniel Striped Tiger’s Clock,
dipped in a spoon, lifted it
to his mouth like sacrament,
proclaimed it good.

Wishing for Someplace Else,
I wanted to please him,
so I scampered to the kitchen,
climbed the counter to the top
shelf and found my first addiction.
As the cold metal touched
my tongue and salty sweet
the roof of my mouth, I was hooked.

The empty jars would stretch
to the moon now, Fred is dead,
and the magic Trolley still runs
on schedule, perpetually empty.
It disappears into a hole in the wall
faster than Lady Elaine Fairchild’s
and I’m too tall and wide to follow.

What better way to mitigate the inaccessibility of the “hole in the wall” than to become the “hole in the wall?”  In “Sex Machines” the author admits to lifelong psychosexual infantilism, which often involves submission, the desire for mothering, identification with nurturing women and the like.  Is Collin’s desire to “surrender to the no name night” part turn-on and part expiation?  Out of mercy to the reader, I’ll leave further psychoanalysis to keener minds.  Besides, as Sontag wrote, “[P]hotographs do not explain; they acknowledge.”

In all the sex and mommy stuff I’ve neglected the other dear star of Render: Collin’s father.  As not-so-pleasing coincidence would have it, he passed away recently, which doubles the book’s impact on me.  “My Father Escapes A London Hotel Fire” is a deeply moving piece on its own.  Whether or not it’s a dream or fantasy, it involves exactly what the title says, and the close call brings the author and a female bystander together in an inexplicable mutual attraction.   During an intense moment of sublimated affection and desire Collin claims to be tempted to switch teams (to use a Seinfeldism inappropriately) and make love to the girl: “I love her, want to be/inside her, renounce my past life, but we know this will not/happen.”  Is this his big chance to be the straight son his father assumed he’d be long ago, not under duress or shame but out of love and maybe pity?  I’m reminded of a passage from an earlier poem called “Wonder Woman.”  Instead of G.I. Joe young Collin prefers to dress up as the comic-book Amazon, and his father makes him a golden lasso made from spray-painted rope.  The boy imagines forcing “the truth” (of what we don’t know) out of his father with the lasso, which elicits absolute honesty from its captives:

I lassoed my poor dad first, demanded the truth,
but there was no magic in those rough, twisted fibers.
If the rope could have squeezed out an ounce
of what he was really thinking,
I would have been dressed up as Superman or Batman,
a manly cape flying out behind me as I ran…

The closing lines of “My Father Escapes A London Hotel Fire” are too ironic and touching not to share:

I hear my father stir. I tried, I say through the open door.
Oxygen whistles through his nose: We’re alive, why ask for

I hope that Mr. Kelley managed to read Render, for it portrays him in a very sympathetic light.  He was a man whose “work ethic/[kept] him out of the house and underpaid,” who was loving enough to spray-paint a rope to make it look like Wonder Woman’s lasso, who supported reconciliation of the marriage despite the harsh trials it suffered.  This isn’t to say that I’ve no sympathy for Mrs. Kelley.  No, in spite of the multiple reminders of her adultery, I left the book with a very soft spot for her.  By the time I got to the middle of “Broken Things,” a poem that just kills me (not in the funny way), I was more than ready for her absolution.  The human heart is a volatile, tricky, tragic thing, after all.  This fact should be self-evident.

In her old age Mrs. Kelley has what Collin calls “selective amnesia,” which seems to serve her denial of past decisions – to the point of condemning parents who leave their children behind at malls.  Her husband, “the elephant who never forgets,” knows better (or worse): having kept track of all those times his wife left young Collin alone at home or elsewhere when human nature called.  In her lucidity, however, she atones for her past neglect in her own way, and Collin chooses to avoid poisonous resentment, delivering the most compassionate lines in the book:

When she returns to earth, constant contact
becomes her repentance, radio always transmitting,
and even from this distance I can hear
her distress call, waiting for a message
that I have forgiven her, and I have.
The snapshot in Render that touches me most is found in a piece called “Barney Rubble Saves Our Lives,” which stars a seven-year-old Collin.  The three Kelleys will be stranded on Brasstown Bald if their Ford LTD’s leaking radiator isn’t filled enough for the car to make it to the closest gas station.  There’s nothing around that can hold water, but little Collin realizes that his precious Barney Rubble bank (with a “dildo nose”) can do the trick:

That’s when I offer up Barney
remove the flesh colored cap from his feet,
place my finger over the change slot in his head.

How utterly sweet.  Indeed, the boy was “in the middle, a counterbalance” – and he saved the day, not Barney.  
This poem is one of the many reasons Render is my favorite of Collin’s books so far.  While I enjoy many writers for their style over their content, the content of this book shines brighter for me.  Though there were some rough spots, and a smudge tool would have helped, this is his clearest work.  I appreciate his candidness, his exposure, his resolution.  Going home isn’t easy; sometimes it can be downright painful.  But how forgiving and lovely those family photos can be.


– review by David Herrle

John McKernan

We used
Our tiny child bodies as dams
In the Cass Street gutter
To block the cloudburst
Its gritty brown flow
Rolling down
Our neighbors’ sloped lawns
Nude cylinders of mud
Squealing in green lightning air
Around the corner   Shivering
Pushed by his father floated
Jeffrey Hains in his chrome wheelchair
Wearing a black swim suit
Bones & ribs twig thin
His smile growing
On his big wet skull
When his father’s lifted him up
Then down onto the warm gutter
Shallow concrete water slick  
Not any lightning   Not any thunder
Not even Mrs. Jurgen’s shriek
At our nude bodies with their invisible
Pricks & lips & breasts & scars
Could clothe or peel way the iced
Warmth we felt crawl under our skin



Who are they?    At night with their tires exploding
Their mufflers the sound of rivet drills
I’ll be dreaming of a quiet H Bomb obliterating
    some peaceful Pacific island and I wake
    to the smash of a Pepsi semi bending
    a guard rail into the shape of a noodle
I sure hope that fake Viet-Nam veteran fell
    asleep in the ditch & not on the berm
I like it when the coyotes are afraid
a little and shut up for ten minutes
It is true   I’ve never seen a coyote
    as road kill on Highway 10
You can’t tell me that guy with the Coleman
    cooler wearing purple latex gloves was
    collecting wildflowers around the form
    of a German Shepherd by the mail box
All those new restaurants in town and the mall
I liked how that dog would play tag with trucks
    and the school bus    Never go near a car
Just look at that    Another anonymous deer  Its
    front hooves barely touching each other  One
    ear pointing to the blue sky    Curious doormat
    to eternity   When the wind ruffles its fur
    you can see how brown it was    How white
      Its body the points of a compass
Nights the road turns to a chessboard    Possum
    to Rook 4     Gray squirrel to Queen 8
    Raccoon to King’s Bishop 3    The crow
    with the clawed  bones of a feeble old man
    Butterfly to chrome bumper 2

© John McKernan



John taught at Marshall University for over 40 years. He lives in West Virginia and edits ABZ Press.

Heidi Taillefer

The following is excerpted from the artist’s own words on her work: “My paintings are meant to denounce or celebrate technology and the changes it either promises or threatens, as a projection of what we are becoming with both the appeal of the familiar and the jolt of where we are headed…Using the original language of mechanism found throughout my work, I explore eternal aspects of the human condition while portraying a growing hybridization with technology despite our immutable human nature.  In this way I examine the new relationship between artificial enhancement of the body and daily life, combined with the primitive fundamentals of our human character.”  Visit her official site here.

Angels of Our Nature


Sneaky Work at the Crossroads