Saturday, August 28, 2021

Memories of Other Folks

No one forgets you
Having once seen you.
At worst they mix up
Those first and last names.

You forget their names,
Often their faces.
Memories are vast,
But some of them strain.

Who haven’t you known
Briefly, then forgot
As soon as they left,
Or you left them?

Bodies, names, and lives
Larger, completer
Than what’s glimpsed float by
Under brilliant skies.

~ Paddle and Steer

He had a turntable. He loved
To DJ. He wasn’t quite cool.
He said he wasn’t Black enough.

His family was Puerto Rican.
They owned a funeral parlor,
Bottom floor of a skyscraper,

And lived in a slim apartment
Near the middle of the building.
They weren’t poor. They were middle class,

The late 20th-century
Way—plenty of food, lots of work,
Multiple television sets,

Maybe a mortgage, likely debts.
He brought a white boy home from camp
Where both had worked as counselors,

Just for fun, to meet his parents,
To listen to him practice scratch.
It was the year Rapper’s Delight

Sent a tremor through the pop charts
Foretelling what was soon to come.
He taught the white boy all the words.

The white boy never forgot them
Or the visit to the parlor
To learn how a funeral worked—

Thus the rebirths of pop, the deaths
Of so many lives in sequence,
The way some platters could be made

To spin as easily backwards
As forwards, the notion that rhymes
Were not necessarily trite,

Or mawkish, or old-fashioned, but
Could be spit out in defiance
Or ballooning hyperbole—

All that got tangled in the mind
Of that one summer friend from camp
Where they’d both taught kids to canoe.

~ Fifth Wheel

Here we are, forty
Or so years ago.
He’s an immigrant—
Unseen wife, small son,

And teenaged daughter.
He does maintenance
At the swimming pool
Where the hot lifeguard

On duty is just
A few years older
Than his daughter and
Still a teen herself,

Although already
Also married. All
Summer, the lifeguard’s
Sad teenaged husband

Lusts for the fiercely
Teenaged daughter while
The maintenance man

And the lifeguard flirt
And screw each other.
When the lifeguard showers
Past midnight one night,

The young husband knows,
But can’t bring himself
To tell the daughter
Or file for divorce.

He tells you, instead,
How he hates his shame,
Doubled for losing
What he sort-of had,

Even while wanting
What he never should.
You don’t understand,
But years you wonder

About the wishes
Of maintenance men,
Sexy lifeguards, teens
With fierce politics,

About how youth counts
As something to try
Taking only when
You can’t take it back,

How you don’t know what
Became of them, why
You kept your own wants
Hidden as the wife.

~ Yuppy

No one in the cubicles
Ever met her family.
She had photos on her desk,
And that was enough for us.
She was our boss, after all,
Or at least our underboss,
Older than the rest of us,

If not by all that much, ring
On the finger, kids in frames,
Padded shoulders, cigarette.
She was emphatic, funny,
Disparaging of most men,
Mostly her unseen husband.
She seemed wholly self-possessed.

She never talked politics.
She never went out with us
Or payed any attention
To the romantic intrigues
Of our horny carousel.
When irritated, she tapped
Pointed, glossy fingernails.

We all liked her. She was calm
And didn’t care for bullshit
Or bureaucracy, unlike
The plump male overbosses,
Who lived to issue memos
On what everyone must do
Differently starting today.

There was only one strange thing
We noticed, eventually.
Whenever one of us left—
And we were always turning
Over like insomniacs
On a sultry summer night,
A new employee a week—

She, who never invited
Anyone to visit her
Or to go out as a group,
Would try to ring the parents
Or spouse of whoever left,
To see what they’d got up to,
How well they’d been doing since.

She’d worry for a few months
But only about the gone.
The rest of us she gave tasks
And joked with until we left
In turn. Then someone we knew
Or lived with would say one day,
Oh, some woman called for you.

~ Poetry Is Not Wisdom

He was maybe the most openly
Gay man in Missoula, Montana,
During the AIDS-torn ‘80s. Who knows

What he endured for that. He didn’t
Talk about the slurs or anything
Much involving suffering. He was

A quiet person and determined
To live quietly, contentedly,
He often said. He wrote poetry,

And he hung out with a small out-group
Among the cloud of local poets
And aspirants to literature,

A heteronormative cluster
Of straight poetic women and one
Pint-sized, disabled straight man. His love

Life he kept separated from them.
He was shy about his poetry
And rueful about being older

Than the rest of his writing comrades.
They all read each other when no one
Else would deign to read any of them—

The woman who wrote in purple ink,
The woman who was a radical
Mennonite pacifist activist,

The woman who barely wrote at all
That he declared must be a genius,
And the one small man who wrote too much.

They were all kind to each other’s poems
Because who else would ever read them?
And he was the kindest among them,

Although he sometimes said strange things, such
As when he told the disabled man
That the wisest romantic advice

Anyone had ever given him
Was to always pick someone ugly
Because the ugly ones never leave.

~ Not Long After Life

She always seemed cheerful.
Got migraines. Her wide face
Was a faintly pink dough,

Like bread being kneaded
By someone unaware
They just nicked a pinky

A few minutes ago.
She paid for her grad school
Managing apartments.

She always seemed cheerful.
She attended events.
Over grad-student beers

And pizza, discussion
Turned to sightings of ghosts.
Everyone had their own

Ideas and dubious
Anecdotes. She was one
Who enjoyed all the tales

Without one of her own.
She held, on principle,
It’s better to believe

Everything anyone
Believes happened is true.
She got migraines. Dropped out

Of the PhD track,
Did library science
Instead. Got a job fast.

She moved to a new town.
No one saw her again
But you, once, visiting

Her research library,
Where she bobbed through the stacks
And came out to greet you,

As cheerful as always,
The wide face spooking you,
That ghost you knew she knew.

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