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y c r e M r e h t o M h t r i B

poetry by

Alex M.Frankel

Birth Mother Mercy Alex M. Frankel

Š2013 Alex M. Frankel

Cover art by Luka Fisher

Author photo by Evan Gallas

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced without the express written permission of the author, except in the case of written reviews. ISBN 978-1-929878-48-2 First edition

PO Box 5301 San Pedro, CA 90733 Printed in the United States of America


In Memory of Vera Frankel


Birth Mother Mercy One The Growth …2 Aubade …5 After Trying to Sleep I Am Afraid …7 As Long as You’re Not Forty and Still Doing It …9 The Pleasures of Relinquishment …10 We Had a House in San Franzisko …11 When Everyone Moves Away You Start Talking to Your Alarm Clock …13 And I Have Known the Arms Already …15 Larry Quint’s Birthday …16 Once Upon a Time in Monterey Hills …19 Rancho Mirage …20 One Way to Pound’s Grave in Venice …21 Respect for His Glasses, One Year Later …23 Birth of a Birth Mother …25 Birth Mother’s Garden …27


The Long Happy Flight of Asa Smallidge Streb …30 Oscar …35 Still Can’t Hear You …37 Nine Hundred Thousand Legs to Waterloo …38 Massenetique …41 A Brazilian for Us …43 When the Queer Chat Room Closed, One Man Opted for a New Life as a Young Lady …45 Chat Room Bride …48 SoccerStud16 I Need to Leave This World Come Back as You …50 Breast Now …52


My Thirty-Ninth Year of Therapy …58 In Praise of Praise …58 A Low-Profile Old Poet Recruits an Audience for His Feature …58 vi

A Part-Time Creative Writing Teacher, 1976 …58 Rhoda Goldfarb …59 Angie Valente …59 Artists’ Woes …59 Poet’s Lament, 2013 …59 Liz Acker, Mezzo …60 Veteran Poetry Host and Arbiter of Taste Larry Stoker …60 At the Urologist’s …60 Brendan Atherton and His Facebook Fans …60 She Got Him to Change His Will …61 Love Life, Then and Now …61 At Pop’s Grave …61 An Eighteen-Year-Old Intern at The Missouri Review Turns Down an Old Man’s Last Efforts …62


Ode to 7-Eleven …64 The Talking World …65 Lullaby …66 Saturday Nights at the Edwards Atlantic Palace Cinema, Alhambra …67 Bread Loaf …68 Birth Mother …70 Ron Vierling My Teacher …74 The Computer Love Song …76 Cum Laude …78 Romance in the Basement of King Hall …82 Fog Advisories …84 Nobody Liked Him …87 My Father’s Lady, Wearing Black …89 I Will Not Go to My Father’s Grave …92 Birth Mother Mercy …94

Acknowledgments …96



Does it seem to you, too, stranger, that something died?

—Jorie Graham, “Untitled”

The Growth Union Snug inside the wet flesh of a girl there’s a stowaway curled up bundled in a bubble safe from scandal: it must not be seen, it must think small, smaller, smallest. . . even when its eyes are wanting to explore, even when the sockets are functional, bones trying to assert themselves, legs budding, fingers almost unwebbing, sketch of a heart. Alone: take a moment to feel the whole warm mound of your mistake. You know how to strap it in: a month before you’re due and no one else can tell. Who guides you through these days of 1960? Just television crammed with sugar and hope. Patti-Cake cookies What is your secret Mr. Patti-Cake man

TV and big thick reads: thank God for William L. Shirer and The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. You even love the prose of the footnotes: some Nazis were less wicked than others so they didn’t hang them all. This intrigues you as you smoke in your rented room on Market Street. Don’t be a square try Ting

And you wait: with Lawrence Welk and Barbara Stanwyck, To Tell the Truth, The Untouchables. . . and it waits too, plumping, hunting light. . . 2 • Birth Mother Mercy

Then the day and it cries out! But a birth mom’s task is to wear a mask, “Hello” is No and No and No: the loner that births another loner makes way for movers that move it fast and far away. Reunion Thirty years later: a letter. The being is waiting, even now, for a notion from your lips. . .

You tuck the letter between the pages of a mystery, you dream in a rented house in Honolulu, you dream on Super Bowl Sunday when everyone’s yelling from their inexpensive homes too close to yours: there’s a ukulele lesson in these dreams, and a luau broken off by screams from Psycho and a stalker with a torch: a child without arms should be put out of its misery right? And you wake up but you can’t wake up, you reach for another smoke. The cats are startled by the ringing of a phone. Wipe off the grime out of the oven in record time

It rings, it rings louder. . .

Kids don’t clown around with Trix

You’re fifty and you’re a waitress, you agree to meet him in the bar of the Sheraton Waikiki. He wants pictures, a story, he is young as you once were, he is tall and bashful and he’s losing his hair: “Can I call you tomorrow?” he says, and:

Birth Mother Mercy • 3

“I wanted to be famous for you!” Don’t talk much and he’ll be going soon. “Mind-boggling” he tells you as you rise, “after thirty years someone who looks like me!” You tell him you don’t see a close resemblance. You—Marcia Cranston— you plant orchids, banana plants, sugar cane, you grow ferns and royal palms, the cats wind their lives like silk around you as vital as television itself: TV is alive, like silk around you, flickering, vital like the winding lives of cats and palms and ferns that grow, and orchids. . . You—Marcia Cranston—

Letters keep coming: you know what to do with them. More pressing are the junipers, the moonflowers, the rhododendrons, online chat with gardeners who ask you to type your thoughts on storing bulbs, planting Easter lilies: Wisteria takes a lot of patience but root pruning is the proper way to force it into bloom. Fuss in the garden, talk to it, pull up weeds and dig along the oceanfront, where all year long it’s a riot of waves and tropical birds and seabirds, where all year long it’s a love affair with labor and arbor and soil and vine.

4 • Birth Mother Mercy

Aubade Time to drag my bloated kidney elevated triglycerides lattice degeneration average IQ below-average prospects into the glare again armed only with Wellbutrin Cozaar Aldactone Lipitor

West Coast sunup with its well-planned bourgeois vistas its quiet and its shrubbery and its rules should reassure me the fastidious dogwalkers I pass on the drive to work should reassure me I call “I miss you!” to a dog long dead I can’t let go of I reach a campus that’s born again with rich Mongolians rich Chinese I speak sense to a circle of noses necks eyelids in a haze of Mondaymorningness to which my contribution is deplorable posture a grizzled head impressive passive feet that beg for the pleasures of a hot water bottle Such tired sleepiness to handle a day A half-century just bangs you up

Birth Mother Mercy • 5

Time was when I let in the sun let it pour through the open blinds power up my fountain pen and Smith Corona to fill fifty sheets a morning child novels verse plays naïve little odes Can’t stand the pitiless business of daylight its monolithic will to go on no matter what

As I awoke from uneasy dreams a sewer rat was squirming in a glue trap near my bed legs fur tail whiskers sick on a soupy tray pointy face abashed in the sickness watching me

6 • Birth Mother Mercy

After Trying to Sleep I Am Afraid Neighbors are people far away

those of never

Nothing but comfort in these firs nothing but snow walls winter broth borscht from boxes bits of chicken

never a word

Way back a child was fussed over effusively acclaimed with cake candles warm women moving closer with their extravagant promises of sugar Now?

Scared faces in the hall voices suddenly in her world of quiet and insomnia

the way my mother spoke

I would like a dachshund on my lap

I would like a lifeguard why is it so hard? a kid with military hands and guts not just a body but a whole philosophy of the unexamined life gentle callous stuffed with popularity of limb and hip hop! This journey is not safe

What’s left of the unathletic boy who said good-bye to his little father and his little mother who made him cake and gave him grapes and waved as he walked down the jetway

Birth Mother Mercy • 7

toward two hundred strangers fastening their seatbelts with cold hands the two hundred facets of apathy large-scale apathy militant and cunning Rice and no one and always canned food cartons and open cans puffy legs Just lukewarm rice and always the food and somehow a taste of water and use and leftovers hanging on the bones

8 • Birth Mother Mercy

the hunger for broth

As Long as You’re Not Forty and Still Doing It Walking around the 7-Eleven at 3 a.m. in search of Jell-O, Band-Aids, get-well cards. As long as you’re not fifty, sixty, seventy, slumped in a wheelchair watching the crows and the cars and the cholos in front of a bad address. Spring was skin and shine and smelled like kid, summer fries an easy eyelid as you lie. What a chug of skateboard scraping sidewalk! Trains not too far away: harmonicas raucous in the quiet mesh. The radio still talks: at least it’s always willing. Nine hundred fourteen people chatting in Romance, eighteen hundred in Daddy/Boy, but the Pig Pen’s full (“please try again later”). They say you can find love in Brazil. . . Hey nice ad and profile! Lovely eyes! Receive a kiss from Ahmed in Islamabad! Lots of wind chimes: hammocks to paradise, but it’s only Wednesday and the pledge drive will last and last. Maybe tonight try and make contact with the cashier’s hand while he’s handing you your change. It will harm no one.

Birth Mother Mercy • 9

The Pleasures of Relinquishment Seven pounds of shame were shed today and Mom’s delighted to be slim once more. (The cries got weaker as they died away.)

Lightness! Litheness! Now a chance to stray to where they didn’t know her name before the seven pounds of shame were shed today. No mouth, no raucous summons to obey, she will be rid for life of all that furor (The cries got weaker as they died away.) Perhaps there’s time to see a matinee, freed from what she struggled to ignore. Seven pounds of shame were shed today.

Find a bar and worlds will start to sway: the thing was just a lonely visitor (whose cries got weaker as they died away).

“No. Mustn’t dwell or say the word ‘betray’”— she knows the German couple will adore the seven pounds of shame she shed today. (The cries got weaker. Then they died away.)

10 • Birth Mother Mercy

We Had a House in San Franzisko Master Bedroom An important tasteless green and orange place where my parents argued in prewar German or sprinkled scent on their old skin in preparation for synagogue or opera. Who let strangers live there? Who let strangers erase our world?

Living Room A generous and noble emptiness saturated with Thomas Mann and his white suits. I’d look up from books as flames and the fireplace lit up the three faces of my family, noticed how those moments passed without mattering. Father and dog nodded off, Mother read Ann Landers.

Kitchen They’re in the earth now, the refugees who tried to have a child, adopted me instead, who attacked each other with knives and spatulas and hit and slapped while I begged them to stop— they wouldn’t, not even for me. In them the Holocaust lived on.

Den Johnny Carson, Barbara Eden, Archie Bunker, Sally Field!— your voices, your tics, your habits sneaked into our dingy rug, streaked behind the wallpaper, settled in the loveseat. The den was laced with make-believe.

Birth Mother Mercy • 11

Backyard An evening of formal trees thrived almost free from the spider webs that disfigured plants and bushes. With a hose I tried to blast the spider webs away. They never went away: they were like the foghorns.

Dining Room Guests with silver hair and bald pates laughed among the silver and the plates. A longish room with cups and stemware, brittle ivory and old menorah. The nurse said, “Your dad is stronger than he acts” not long before they put him in a hearse. My Room I’ve taken this room with me to all my rooms: the tiger skin rug, the poster of Zinka Milanov, the globe as it was (USSR, Ceylon, Rhodesia). . . My sanctuary! Pungent and complex as the heart of an old typewriter that still hums on.

12 • Birth Mother Mercy

When Everyone Moves Away You Start Talking to Your Alarm Clock And you look at pigeons and they won’t look back: who takes care of them? Sometimes you’ll spot a crushed one— flattened mess of feathers, entrails feeding a flow of ant life. Who will take care of you? And Father eighty-nine.

Last night at Blockbuster a youth without shoes: you followed him through Horror, you followed him through Action. He shook his head, took his girlfriend’s hand. Who will look after you? Father crawling on the floor. . .

No one calls from Europe. While your hair is being cut you’re fine: hands at work, a mind busy with your hair. Nothing about your father on the Web and a silverfish dies easily: it’s powder now. At the clinic: boy and girl doctors. At the bank: boy and girl bankers. At the pool: the naive face of a lifeguard. . . and Father yelling though you were twenty-nine, “Such hair—it’s not decent!” and sat you on the bathtub, flashed his little scissors!

Birth Mother Mercy • 13

People move away: unless pressed they will not send on a new address. Strangers walk barefoot through Safeway and Vons while a father struggles on the floor all night dozing in his fluids. At the school: boy and girl teachers. On the freeway: the wind lifts a motorcyclist’s shirt! vertebrae and boxers in the light! Late at night hours with Art Bell: reports of sonic booms and brilliant bright blue pie plates flying in the darkness over Utah. Ambien tonight at bedtime, Ambien every night and slowness, not caring, words squirming on the page: pathogens under a microscope. And if you take two tablets, three? Stagger toward a bed at bedtime in ghloulish candelabra light and shadow: six more days until your refill. A silverfish dies instantly; it’s powder now. A father dies noisily, in stages, on the floor, in his fluids, calling out to you, calling the name he gave you.

14 • Birth Mother Mercy

And I Have Known the Arms Already Young men never sweat. Is it because they sleep among peaches sprayed with silver and brine? Perhaps, though I rather think it’s because they swim with women well above the coral’s eyes, joy smearing water blue and cool, sea-shine almost healing the boredom of the clouds. These words will melt fast enough, hunted by a whispered “no.” And yet how china dazzles the summer drunks even while shadows prey on the feet of urchins!

I like you. I’ve always admired the milky willfulness of your soccer worship, the throbbing healthiness of your indifference, the vast mad YES I think I might still open up deep in the life of your hair. Death wants fresh bone, runs only after the sons of stars (some as strong and harmful as music always is), but will not find them yet.

Where are you? I wonder if the grass can bear the stiffness of these leaves. . . I cannot but remain chained to a dance of squirm and crush sun and rustle skin and lingering.

Birth Mother Mercy • 15

Larry Quint’s Birthday

(Driving around West Hollywood, Beverly Hills and Santa Monica, 2005) Never been so alive in all of my alone * tired so tired * lost my view of the mountains, too * in dreams of the Al Qaeda fighters, hitting on me, pulling me * what does it mean so many tongues with mine “together” * whoa! pollutants collecting inside the body whoa! * it is a terrible thing * watching John Malkovich grow old * 22 MILES TO EMPTY * when rain hits rain hits * bold stacks of eggplant lettuce rice and cottage cheese at Vons again * nice bag boy too * about the age my mother was when she got rid of me * lucky if I see her once a year * on Lincoln’s birthday but who was that really * O epic of the keyhole * how many stairs in one lifetime * how many stars *

16 • Birth Mother Mercy

tastes grow baser as the hours pass * for here lies a half a dirty * when a fly lands on a porn star’s nose * when a fly lands on a porn star’s nose in the middle of Brazil * gotta act cool real cool real cool you too * God if my students could see me on my knees * this epoch of the keyhole * hopes of ecstasy bounce off new tennis champ * tattoos on skin nineteen or twenty and aloof * now there is no one * when faces lock uneasy in America * very critical of my posture * 17 MILES TO EMPTY * O Angie—what happened my friend * passers-by lunch thigh and sleeves * a parade of mutes down Wilshire Boulevard * why head bows to heart’s absurd * now my “circle of friends” sliding hallelujah down their whirlpool *

Birth Mother Mercy • 17

fast down to nowhere fast * Nora won’t reach out in her house alone * bitch * where is my Cuban where is my cowboy * bitch * cold women with warm hands * massaging hands that dig much deeper than any sleep * and dreams of Opus Dei again: a priest or two on top of me at bedtime * about the age my father was when he got rid of me * how many stairs in one lifetime * how much stardom * FUEL LOW! FUEL LOW! * where the last outposts of the British Empire miss northern Mexico by inches * never been alive in all of my alone

18 • Birth Mother Mercy

Once Upon a Time in Monterey Hills That summer of spaghetti westerns it felt all right to be forty-seven: nights on the terrace with a laptop, some mosquito spray and bossa nova, until a lifeguard broke through the walls of cyberspace, became flesh, smelling of hip hop, beach volleyball, naïve, hungry, body brown, rich with barrio. He waited like a waif in Mother’s armchair, waited to teach me, pry me open to his teenage music: Chuy Barajas all lean, brown, glorious, thirty-four minutes, maybe thirty-five, the way his mouth eagerly took over, fed me all the apathy of the world before he shook my hand, shut the door. A day went by of just listening to a simple harmonica and weeks and weeks of a simple worthless tune. Body brown, thirty-three minutes, it shouldn’t be allowed, to vanish like that, it shouldn’t be allowed, the stiff bird I found one night lying on the living room floor folded-up, worthless. A year and years, decades, a lifetime of Sundays and big-box stores, pop stars sneering from their billboards, buses burdened with the numb and the dead. Why do I try to book a flight to Martinique? Why do I hand a hundred dollars to a homeless man? Why do I spend nights roaming around a drugstore? A store that sank to the seafloor years ago with its load of musak and champagne.

Birth Mother Mercy • 19

Rancho Mirage God his insides hot and good as Mother must have been, his teeth abusive in their whiteness. Finals week he wouldn’t let me near his hair stiff brown well-greased hair Not a whiff of him now, not a single hair nothing from his flip-flops, nothing off his eyes no sleep. (“If I didnt wanna see u no more Id tell u that”)

It’s spring and new tenants are moving in upstairs. What if they play instruments, what if they bring drums or children or hammer at their walls. The ice-cream truck limps by like a dying butterfly riding the ants.

Not a hangnail in the blankets, no earwax not even a receipt nothing rubbed off from his tattoos. Just those spots on the dresser, just those pouches: Lucky Boy (lubricated) Passion Fruit (“silky smooth never sticky”) and that puncture he made on my Arrowhead water where it says “Pierce Here” I’ll work it better sitting up Try To Think Of Somebody Else He wouldn’t even let me near his hair. He walked out barefoot to his bicycle. This is Rancho Mirage: hot asphalt underneath a crust of soles, and he pedaled barefoot strapped to his young music. (“If I didnt wanna see u no more Id tell u that”)

The forthright business of eyebrows, the secret life of armpits, the naive machismo of his yeses, faster, better, and all whipped up like yeses till my hand is draped in white batter, fingers catscradled and bridged with icy filament caking into a wrinkled palm.

20 • Birth Mother Mercy

One Way to Pound’s Grave in Venice From the heights of the crematorium they pipe in Pachelbel’s Canon for the grass and the headstones and the empty paths and the lizards throbbing on the tombs. Heat, flowers, flies, sweat, heaps of names! Too many names too many crosses and bugs, graves helpless with life in a garden bereft of tourists. . . Eight months since that day. Eight months since the day of my father’s funeral. Five people showed up and it was over in a few minutes. Father who shipped out for America from Hamburg, 1939, with a big J stamped on his papers and branded with the name “Israel” Father who isn’t speaking to me anymore.

I’ll write him a postcard tonight. I’ll say I’m doing fine, mostly. What does the post office do with mail that bears no stamps? “You’d love the Carpaccio at the Trattoria Garibaldi, you’d love the rooftop bar of the Danieli, though you’d hate the service and yell at the help. . .” Without a father I’m afraid. Heat, flowers, mosquitoes, heaps of names and the Rough Guide accepts the tears that come and the map the guard drew for me so I could pick my way toward Pound: this too gets smudged and wet because I walked into that hospital room (“PLEASE SEE NURSE BEFORE OPENING THIS DOOR”)

Birth Mother Mercy • 21

and he—kindly, quiet, white in his bag— would not speak or answer me or anyone. The rabbi—she was a good young rabbi— wept because I wept and he lay selfish and disposable in his bag, and indifferent, where is the fire where is the fireplace? Strangers have taken over our home it’s wrong, it’s unnatural, a son without his father a father who could fix anything with pliers or a little wrench. Heat, sunlight, cypresses, no flowers at Pound’s grave except the ones I bring. Three pigeons are fighting over crumbs— then four, then seven, then none. Shrubs, grass and a name, some Americans are taking snapshots of a name. “Charm, smiling at the good mouth, Quick eyes gone under earth’s lid.”

At Sinai, after I bought the coffin, I asked them when my father would be just bones and they said it takes about a year.

22 • Birth Mother Mercy

Respect for His Glasses, One Year Later My father’s heavy old enormous glasses just as flabbergasted as I am are still trying to get by without him alongside his adding machine and his cufflinks Defenseless glasses— if I wanted to I could pet them I could squeeze them or hand them to a homeless person I could set them on a 78 turntable and have them go crazy to Glenn Miller I could put his glasses in an Osterizer dunk them in Lake Berryessa or Lake Merced I could lick them or kick them put them on a hooker eyeglasses without a future I could dye them violet or bite them or break them in two. . . He must be groping frantic in his night these are glasses built for banks and business the Ritz Carlton and Trader Vic’s glasses for bringing up a son big bold glasses If I try to look through them they think against me and I’m swimming in a nervousness of father lore / father love hear old shouting and shouting What kind of world did he see?

Birth Mother Mercy • 23

Maybe if I stare at them long enough I’ll figure out where he’s gone because in them I catch relics of skin eyelashes eye father me now even with your last face the one trampled with age strong frail father who raged against my manners and my mess

I hid behind a mausoleum and watched young men dig (they were fast!) then I peered below the boards at that sick space (he should have gone on, eighty-nine is too young!) dark and forever and lonesome down there impossible for a father to breathe The years will be here for a while and these glasses without a future my inheritance my gold —tired of dining around— just ponder without a future I look at them and they look out for me 24 • Birth Mother Mercy

Birth of a Birth Mother The birth of a birth mother is lurid and painless. Well-wishers are summoned, there’s milling about, an aura of wedlock and limelight. The birth of a birth mother is a matter for priests. The birth of a birth mother cannot be rescinded. Wine cellars are raided, corks unscrewed, hats are tipped in a forties way: the world of a town takes notice. Calls are made: some will pick up. Cards are sent: most will answer, because this is America and this is the day that nothing happened. The birth of a birth mother has many adoring. The birth of a birth mother is never discussed. The birth of a birth mother is far from over: a child still, she looks after dolls and pictures are taken to record this. Booze is served at dinner, booze is served at lunch. The birth of a birth mother has many upset.

Birth Mother Mercy • 25

She dreams of the crayfish her brother dissected, she dreams of its agony, but this is ranch life and school will be school and someone who teaches will never forget her or how she loved the Hanging Gardens of Babylon. The birth of a birth mother is a red-letter day. The birth of a birth mother is scrupulous joy. The birth of a birth mother is torture to watch. I’m liking you a lot, can you tell? says the boy, lying there striking a match, smelling of body and football. She puts her hand on her belly, she turns to the wall. The birth of a birth mother is earthy and grave. The birth of a birth mother is rife with refusal. The birth of a birth mother is the time of your life. The birth of a birth mother is down the hall to your right. Go and see her.

26 • Birth Mother Mercy

Birth Mother’s Garden Torn is the belly like an animal knifed clean in rain. where blood explores the dirt of happenstance and spade, and covers the garden with yearning. A birth mother does not kiss. With iron heart and easy petal she flees from the raw tongue of want toward a hazy blue and winter planting, and a soft drink. She does not tremble when from an old car radio the breeze blows “Yesterday” and reaches her and will not reach her, she just strokes the cat and fingers her dress, and smokes. . .

Tattered is the shadow of the girl while the woman limps miles through her sleep, an elaborate picture of rust, of stiffening visions and parts. No embrace. Her milk was drunk too meek, too frantic, to sweat the ice away.

Birth Mother Mercy • 27

l e k n a r F . M Alex Days and nights in Los Angeles, roots tugged out, wrung out, chatrooms, classrooms, malls, toilets, Help Wanted at the 7-Eleven, elusive boys, “urgent hunger,” the American 20th century, loneliness and betrayal—these poems have begun to haunt me. Alex Frankel sings in a register almost beyond hearing, the pain is so keen, the writing so fine. —Alicia Ostriker, author of The Book of Seventy Praise for Frankel’s recent chapbook My Father’s Lady, Wearing Black: Alex M. Frankel reminds us, in sizzling poems gathered here, that grief, in its fervor, if actually full, works against the grain of loss. Such contradictory intensities enthrall and also serve, at least in Frankel’s hands, as a kind of American catharsis—more violent than pure. —Judith Hall, author of Three Trios

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