JULIA VINOGRAD
POEMS

from Berkeley Daze

 


 
LISTENING TO THE RADIO

I am listening to the radio.
I am not listening to the radio.
I am listening to the silence in my room
behind the radio.
I am the radio. Listen.
I can hear the night sucking its burnt fingers
that touched the quarreling lovers.
I can hear the big trucks going out,
the white line whipping at their windshields.
I can hear the old women selling terrible roses
in the chlorine-lit subway.
I can hear the young hustlers, their tight jeans
glowing in the greedy dark.
I can hear the ghosts mowing their own graves.
It's very late.
Everyone else is asleep
with commercials pulled over their heads
dreaming of sex and cigarettes and money and work.
No, I don't know what they're dreaming,
I don't even know
if there's anyone else left.
The radio talks to itself like a bag lady
in an empty room.
Not to me.
I fell asleep an hour ago and didn't notice.
I am the radio.
I am the bag lady.
I am the night.
Listen.

 

GINSBERG

No blame. Anyone who wrote Howl and Kaddish
earned the right to make any possible mistake
for the rest of his life.
I just wish I hadn't made this mistake with him.
It was during the Vietnam war
and he was giving a great protest reading
in Washington Square Park
and nobody wanted to leave.
So Ginsberg got the idea, "I'm going to shout
'the war is over' as loud as I can," he said
"and all of you run over the city
in different directions
yelling the war is over, shout it in offices,
shops, everywhere and when enough people
believe the war is over
why, not even the politicians
will be able to keep it going."
I thought it was a great idea at the time,
a truly poetic idea.
So when Ginsberg yelled I ran down the street
and leaned in the doorway
of the sort of respectable down on its luck cafeteria
where librarians and minor clerks have lunch
and I yelled "the war is over".
And a little old lady looked up
from her cottage cheese and fruit salad.
She was so ordinary she would have been invisible
except for the terrible light
filling her face as she whispered
"My son. My son is coming home."
I got myself out of there and was sick in some bushes.
That was the first time I believed there was a war.

 

FOR THE TOURISTS IN THE 60s

I remember how the tourists saw us.
They were wistful middle aged men
who were about to meet a barefoot girl
in an orange mini-skirt
who'd give them a flower
and take them to her pad
and after one toke on a joint
they'd be drugged and helpless
and make love non-stop on a mattress on the floor
and in the morning they'd wake up a communist.
You could tell they were worried about it
and even more worried
that for some reason it hadn't happened yet.
They believed in us
more than they believed in the stockmarket.
Even when they heard scary rumors
they went right on trusting.
I remember when I was hitchhiking
this couple slowed down, looked me over,
and then to be sure,
asked me cautiously, "Are you a psychopath?"
Of course, I'd tell them if I were. Of course.
And the newspapers wrote furious articles
about how na´ve and gullible we were.
I remember the tourists,
clutching their cameras like teddybears,
clicking their loneliness at us,
getting everything wrong and waiting for magic.
Sometimes I remember our magic
just by thinking of their puzzled faces.

 

A POEM IS A STREET HUSTLER

A poem is a street hustler
living on its looks,
smart enough to play dumb,
tough enough to look easy
and not hiding its meanings
any more than it has to
to keep from getting busted
for indecent exposure.
Despised and irresistible
in carefully torn jeans
a poem leans against the doorway
not quite looking at you
and saying nothing just yet.
Only the tip of its tongue curls,
as if forgotten in the side of its mouth.
It's young,
it's got a fake I.D.
and it ran away from home
and it doesn't care what happens
as long as everything does.
Culture makes people yawn.
Beauty drives them crazy.
As long as a poem is beautiful
it doesn't need anything else
and knows it.
It laughs dismissingly
at everything that isn't perfect.
It's a little unkind.
Culture comes later when the game gets it
and it needs a pimp and a publisher,
and drugs and distribution
and reassurance and reviews
and it isn't so young any more.
Then the English Teachers get it
and it isn't even a poem any more.
Just homework and a social disease.
        A poem is a street hustler
        leaning against a doorway
        not quite looking at you.
        And you can't look away.

 

TV

TV calls to the oldest childhood fantasy:
I don't belong here, it was all a mistake,
this isn't my real home.
I live on Starship Enterprise
with an android as artificial as I feel
and the counselor with the cleavage
(it takes an empath to know
what the men around her are feeling?
Come on.)
Or I'm fighting bravely thru the jungles
against impossible odds and my strength
is as the strength of Arnold Schwarzenegger
because I hide my heart.
Or I'm just about to win a million dollars
on a game show because I know —
what do I know? I don't belong here.
I belong in a cartoon world where everyone hits
and laughs and no one gets hurt.
Old movies rerun on TV over and over,
but my days don't come back.
The commercials are in code,
they're selling loneliness.
I'm a lifelong subscriber.
I don't want to watch TV, I want to look thru TV
to all the other people watching.
I want to follow the programs like smoke signals
and find my tribe
lost in the wilderness,
waiting to go home.

 

THE CHROME GODDESS

This is the time of the great chrome goddess,
the female fender, the stolen smile
made of steel,
the molten maiden, the metal mother, the rusted crone,
and of course the consort with his can-opener.
Burning oil is sacred to her, cars run on it
and corporations.
She is the Dea ex Machina and baby vacuum cleaners
nibble power from her fingers,
their bags bulging like bullfrogs' throats.
The meanings of her magical language are darkened with lawyers,
with a judge's robes, not a sorcerer's.
Even her latin is legal, everything is legal
in her hands except the law.
She is a flight attendant on a modern airline
considerately offering everything
except the illusion of flying.
She is strong and even beautiful,
she will redesign Eden if you tell her it's a golf course.
her skin glows on and off at night like a cafeteria sign.
"Eat," it says. There is no food.
Her eyes are radiation blue.
There is no water.
The sign on her forehead says
"Restrooms for Customers Only."
Each day she dresses in a different set of fingerprints
taken from her files.
You can feel it a little when she's wearing yours.
There's an alarm clock in the cleft of her breasts
and a pink slip up her sleeve tells you you've been laid
off.
And since it's metal she certainly has
a heart of gold that everyone wants.
She has levers and lovers but finally
chrome stands alone.
All her polished surfaces shining
as the skies darken.
        She is the goddess we deserve.

 

AMERICAN DREAM

I've been trying to remember America
when Walter Cronkite of the handsome white hair was president
and there weren't any politicians.
When fireworks and immigration were both legal;
we wanted everyone to want us,
it proved we were the best.
I held a sparkler, the Statue of Liberty held a torch,
I expected my light to grow into hers.
I remember when boys who wore baseball caps
played baseball.
There were maps full of geography
but they were the past.
We had fast food, fast cars and movies
of the slowest kiss in the world,
the one that's still going on
but I can't see it anymore.
America. I grew up believing it worked
even though it didn't work for me.
Like all the sad housewives
sure their neighbors' marriages were happy,
watching afternoon soaps in empty houses
with the blinds pulled down.
It might even be better now
in the dark where nothing works.
We're all scared and the birthday cards
painted on the sky peeled off long ago.
No more pretending.
Everything's broken from promises to plumbing,
it's not just us anymore.

 

TRADE

I can't believe I just traded one of my poetry books
for an old dog collar.
Studded limp brown leather
beginning to show thru black polish.
But this 19 year old punkette had nothing else.
She took the dogcollar off her soft neck
and tried to talk me into the trade
by saying she thought it came from an actual dog.
I asked what sort of dog
(I was going to ask about fleas)
and she said well no, she herself,
she did buy it in a shop
but it smelled really horrible, please would that do?
I think I was too startled to refuse.
I think I'll take the dogcollar home
and put it in my bookcase.

 

YOU'RE ONE OF US
        (for David Lerner, poet and friend, dead of an overdose)

You get up glowering in that stuffy little room
a big hulk lurching in rumpled sweat pants
lighting a cigarette before your first poem.
And your thick hands take so long fiddling with a match
that wild horses ride out of your bristling black beard.
Scotch-tape sort of holds your glasses on.
You bulge above us like a lost blimp.
And all this before the first word.
Then your voice booms like a church bell
running off with the circus.
You need all the air.
We hold our breath.

You're one of us.
You and Bruce talk about poetry
like you'd both just invented fire
and didn't know what it could do yet.
You're a marshmallow monster.
You're a heavenly hippopotamus with untied shoelaces,
and you owe everyone money,
and all your promises melt, junky promises.
You're a Cossack general in that old, fur-collared coat
drilling an army of teddybears
and waving a ham sandwich.
You're a prophet singing in the wilderness
except every now and then
you lose the wilderness the same way
you lost your car keys when you had a car.

You sweat New York City, roses, and lithium.
You burnt everyone, even the burning bush.
You're as proud of not going to college
as a pacifist is proud of not going to war.
You're not a rocket scientist
but sometimes you're a rocket.
You're natural as an earthquake and you're always late.
You like action movies with explosions
and shiny red cars going thru plate glass windows.
You know the end of the world can wait
while you stop for another pack of cigarettes
at the corner liquor store.
You were always sure you could boost them
because you're inconspicuous, of course,
you're not even in the New York Times.

You're one of us.
I met a guy who helped put you in rubber restraints,
he liked your poems.
I watch you and Phillip exchanging nuthouse nostalgia,
mimicking shrinks advising calmness
and ceremoniously addressing each other as "Michael".
When I ask why you shake your heads at each other.
"She doesn't understand anything, does she?"
And now you're dead I understand even less.

For years you tried to settle down with your true love
in an apartment with roses outside the window
and a piano you talked about playing,
but you're no more housebroken
than the two pet cats who pissed in the poetry box
and the needle kept calling —
"It's so sad," you say,
your voice caressing sadness
the way a woman's hands stroke a mink coat.

Your back hurts, your hemorrhoids hurt.
You eat so much your psych meds are always wrong.
There's something wrong with every chair in the world,
you can't sit.
Your junky veins hurt. Your foot got infected.
You have a crick in your neck from staring up
waiting for the heavens to open and anoint you.
And you have a great big laugh
like a fountain of furry fireworks
that makes us all forget why we're mad at you.
You hurt us and we're glad to see you.
You're one of us.

You love the ocean and us
and get angry when the waitress doesn't know you're god.
And get angry at us for trying to shush you
and then forget
and five minutes later want to know
what we're all fussing about.

You're one of us:
how can you be dead?

 

RAIN

It's raining between the worlds.
I saw a gull on the telephone wire
with blood dripping from his feet.
When the blood hit the street it fizzed gold.
Icarus must've been blown off course
and landed in the bay.
Gulls are territorial, it was his rock,
marked with his droppings
so he walked on the bloody wound.
The rain washed it away and the gull sailed off
with a little shrug.
Flying is so easy.

It's raining between the worlds.
The river Lethe overflows its swollen banks,
stranding shadows wrapped in plastic
but still getting wet.
They're not sure which world they should forget.
Coins in their Styrofoam cups
fall from their unfocused eyes
and when they huddle into doorways the walls melt.

It's raining between the worlds.
Big trees crash into power lines
and there are other power lines down
P G and E can't fix.
When the lights went off I clung to my side of the bed,
on the other side was a man I'd loved
and never let him know,
long ago, when he was alive.
I could feel him wondering why his knife wasn't in his boot
and from which direction danger was coming.
he was breathing fast,
I was holding my breath,
then the lights went on and he was gone.
he hadn't seen me, he'd never seen me
and the tv told me the storm just swallowed a trailer park.

It's raining between the worlds
till there's only mud in slow motion
rolling down hills and out of mirrors
calling to articulate mud.
What can I say to prove I'm more than mud?
It's raining between my fingers.
It's raining between the worlds.

 

STREET INCIDENT

3 large cops make one of the street people
pour out the full bottle of red wine
he just got.
But instead of spilling it into the gutter
he goes to the corner tree
and pours it carefully around the roots
so that all sides of the tree
have an equal chance to breathe in
the delicate bouquet.
It's a kind of communion
from red blood to green.
"Take this and drink."
The tree will get drunk for him.
The wind will blow the branches
the way he'd wave his arms.
The tree will stand tall
and take on all comers
the way the cops are worried he would.
Even his hangover will hand with the ripening fruit.
The cops can't arrest the tree,
it's bigger than they are,
it's over 21
and it wouldn't fit in their paddywagon.
So the cops go away.
He leans against the initial-scarred trunk
and the leaves, now lightly veined with liquor,
whisper marvelous drunken tales in his ear.
They pause occasionally as the wind pauses
in case they give offense:
        "It's the wine talking,"
        and the leaves apologize,
        and finally he smiles.

 

FOR MOE WHO DIED

I keep thinking it's an April fool's trick
and Moe'll come back growling contemptuously
over his cigar,
"You people'll believe anything,
whadda you mean dead?"
I've still got a Moe's trade slip, Moe money
with his picture and the slogan
"in God and Moe we trust."
I'll feel funny about using it now.
I never minded George Washington being dead
but some people just aren't supposed to die.
I remember Moe's voice loudly unharmonizing
with whatever blues the ceiling was playing.
"She done him wrong" would drift upstairs
and splash over the book I was browsing,
hunched on a stool or pouring thru the rickety carts.
I remember the continual cheerful grumble
that came out of Moe like cigar smoke
and of course the cigars.
Freud said "sometimes a cigar is just a cigar"
but not now.
I want all cigars to have Moe's face on the gilt band.
I want Berkeley's no-smoking ordinance to go up in cigar smoke
at Moe's memorial, they can reinstate the silly thing
afterwards, if they have to.
I want to plant cigars on Moe's grave instead of flowers
and see what grows, something will.
I want exploding cigars.
I want to watch the endangered whales
blow waterspouts out of Moe's bald spot.
I want every book in all 4 floors of Moe's bookstore
to be about Moe because I don't know much about him
and I never needed to before,
he'd obviously always be there.
I want Moe back.
I recognized Moe's photo in the shop window,
it's from the employees' bathroom
and it's one of a pair of photos in the same frame.
The other photo shows Moe with his back to the camera,
facing the john.
And I want that other photo to be in the shop window.
I want to see Moe pissing all over that April fool Death
that fools everyone.


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