I-70 Review

Writing and Art from the Middle and Beyond

Dennis Finnell's most recent book of poems is Ruins Assembling, published by Shape&Nature Press and winner of the 2014 Things To Come Poetry Prize, which was nominated for the 2016 Poets' Prize. His first book is Red Cottage which won the Juniper Prize from the University of Massachusetts Press.  His next two books, Belovèd Beast  and The Gauguin Answer Sheet, were selected for the Contemporary Poetry Series from the University of Georgia Press.  He has received grants and fellowships from the Ludwig Vogelstein Foundation, The Ragdale Foundation, and the MacDowell Foundation, and taught at the University of Tennessee, Mount Holyoke College, Wesleyan University, and Greenfield Community College, where he also served as Co-Director of Financial Aid.  Born and raised in St. Louis, Missouri, he now lives in western Massachusetts.

Dennis Finnell

Best wishes, or sortes Bushianae

Some of us wish we were smarter and better looking

and rich and were younger.

Here few birds mornings sing. Mostly mockingbirds, starlings.

Do starlings sing?  Maybe they're songbirds — goldfinches?

Mandelstam's psychic singer.

Do birds wish they were younger, rich, stronger?  

To fly to the farthest of Saturn's rings?

Learn from goldfinches. Don't worry about not.

Think is. We can't be more than the world permits. We're earthlings.

What will happen to us?  Who will fill the potholes?  

Who will defend us against our many enemies?  

Will we be rich enough to buy the stuff we need?

How high will the oceans rise?   Will each of us shrivel into islands?

Will each have his own high spot?

Whose thumbs will plug the levees?  

To find out some people throw grass in the air.

For example, baseball players.

Others butcher goats and read their intestines. Some buy Chevys.

Some have used chickens or espy the way crows fly.

We know friends who've paid fortune tellers.

We love surfaces. Our theory: Dig things up, voila becomes voici.

Is the inverse true?  In days gone by

those lucky bastards who could read

opened a revered papyrus at random to see the future.

Nowadays the sayings

of the President of the United States shall help us ready

tomorrow. An English child asked him,

What is the White House like?

He said, It is white. Some people think that means

our future is Caucasian. Others say it strikes

against global warming — it's a new

ice age, totally white. Or we'll be pure,

living in paradise seeing God's face, or if

it's a Muslim world the muezzin at the mic

will sing perpetual mourning.

The new world is more than ice and white people,

more than paradise mourning.

In this future we'll run out of national debt.

Economists worry we won't have bills. Debt is value. Morning

is evening. In the red is in the black.

We'll just glance at the headlines

to get a flavor of what's moving because our assistants

read the (whole) news that very morning.

They'll brief us, then we can sound like we haven't made mistakes

even though we're confident we have, although we haven't.

We will have no deficit unless we hit the trifecta.

We will trust God speaks

through us and teach children to read so that

he or her will pass a literacy test. The first shall be first.

Oh no, we're not going to have

any casualties in any war, not even casual ones.

Ticket counters will fly out of airports

so many enemies of the Homeland

shall be slain. Speaking of slaughter, what will quench our thirst

will be the acceptable ratio of fatal shootings to non-fatal.

We will have done something about it,

all because It is white, this seeming tautology, this completely total,

apparent reductio ad absurdum. Black shall be white,

and white shall be white.

We'll give money to rich people. The last shall be last.

We shall continue to think we cannot win it.

Tomorrow they will be wrong.

Finally. Tomorrow we will find the weapons, albeit

teeth and fingernails of the past.

Nevertheless we will suffer

a great sadness. The White House track is small.

We can't run more, can't get stronger.

It shall be one of our saddest things about being President.

We won't spend a lot of time thinking

about why we do things, not any longer.

We won't be very analytical. It would set a bad precedent.

We won't think everything to death. We will master

the comedy of inductive reasoning:

Those weapons have got to be

somewhere, check every spider hole and pup tent.

Next slide please. It shows our number one

priority:  We won't be resting

until we find Osama. We will all be very tired but right.

The slide show shall go on without us, running one big loop.

This foreign policy stuff will be a little frustrating. It will not be white

enough. Next slide please: Mission Accomplished.

We promise we will listen to what's been said here

even though we won't be here, right?

Wink wink. It will be one of our strengths. Ipso facto, a wish

to involve Saddam in the war on terror because

he has been willing to terrorize himself.

Saddam shall strike terror in himself. We shall aid him.

Who else shall we aid?  The rich. We shall be compassionate.

We shall pass an energy bill encouraging consumption.

Some people might think that's

insane, that the future will be us thumbless peons

waiting in long lines for gas but remember debt is in the black,

our empty tank is another's full tank.

We shall stare the future in his face and say, Bring them on,

all those tomorrow's camouflaged

as roadside bombs, but don't you worry now —

we'll be out of gas. The waters shall rise, our enemies shall drown.

They can't even dog paddle. Their IUD's will fizzle.

Our mornings shall rise brightly, a big Caucasian face

smiling providentially upon us

making our new papyrus high and dry on little islands.

We dare not disturb the surface, for therein lies water

and no one will have reinvented

the sump pump, much less electricity.

Tripe shall be our national dish, inasmuch as

farm animals will have been bred

with gigantic intestines, the better to tell our futures,

the poorer to gauge our past. A past of broken levees —

since stoppered with the superfluous digits of immigrants —

and potholes — dittoed. We shall prize starlings at last

for three things: their ideal of congregating behavior,

their skill at eating tripe, their morning song which we shall believe

sounds like: there is here, there is here.


                        —from Ruins Assembling, Shape&Nature Press, 2014

Invitation to the bonfire

Last year I had to deep-six

243 poems, some almost . . . what's that word,

alive? vital? viable! like fetuses

or pets, or pet fetuses, or fetal pets.

Last year I didn't want to tax

my shredder again--it's made party streamers

of socials and numbers, proper nouns

standing up for us, for you and me--so I tried

doing 243 poems in with my Toro lawnmower,

hoping to get some mulch out of them,

all those cut-up texts feeding

my French breakfast radishes and mesclun mix,

my Romano bush beans, purple kale

so I would be eating poetry's healthy

offspring, but that was one of those "-lusions”--

not "il," not "al," but "de"--my Toro

could only mulch a few poems at a time,

(maybe the blade needs a good tongue-lashing)

so I escorted the remaining 225 poems

to KopyKat where clerk Hamlet did a dumb show

slowly inserting chunks of poetry

into a portable safe, like a little dumpster

later to be extracted, shredded industrially.  

I could have just put the 225 poems in a garbage bag

and tossed them in the Connecticut,

like they were kittens, and then imagine them

tumbling along the river's bed to Long Island Sound,

the bag washing up in Baiting Hollow, a mysterious

crime?  This year I have 204 poems to return

to the elements, and you're invited to help

assemble the sheets in facsimiles of skeletons

and set them up in a cone of a bonfire

in the circle of bared earth in my backyard and burn them

Saturday evening at sunset and sing along

with platinum bones crackling fare-thee-well.

from Invitation to the Bonfire, work-in-progress

"Eat the rich!"

In Ohio going to visit her old parents in Illinois—

their 12' wide house trailer anchored to prairie

so the heavens have slim pickings,

thus home sweet home quivering in thunderstorms

as harps do, freezer larded full of tripe—we stop

our interstate-minded going for lunch, turkey sandwiches

on 10-grain bread preserved in wax paper.

Hungry in Milan (pronounced MY-lun), Ohio, there's zilch

for a town park but a Museum there is—closed

today, Monday—of the Birthplace of Thomas Edison, but no picnic

table. We pull into the Milan Cemetery,

spread the blue blanket on the grass which needs

a haircut, sigh, unwrapping the wax paper. How many

turkey nuggets did this turkey eat?

The 10-grain is a little stale, a super-size

Soylent Green cracker. It's paradise here, undoing

the translucent paper, refuge for the living and the dead.

I offer a few dry crumbs to Anthony Worm,

1914- , tempted to take my wax paper,

trace his tombstone's surface statement: “Called.”  

If he lives forever would it be Uncalled?

Needing to piss in Milan (pronounced MY-lun),

Ohio, there's zilch for a town toilet,

save a Johnny On The Spot just outside the cemetery

(convenient for mourners perturbed at the dead).

It's May, but not one fly inside—what do they know?

Cakes of deodorant hang. My nostrils

constrict. I lift the lid, unzip, piss into the community

waste, look straight at the translucent wall's

crayon pig's circle of a face, a balloon statement

from his snout: “I'm you.” Then, are you me?

I ask Pig. Below him a manifesto:

“I'm ready for civil war, Eat the rich!”

In Illinois our first course is tripe soup—chewy,

especially for her old toothless father.

He is deaf, half-blind, wheel-chaired, thirty pounds less, still

young-skinned (would Pig say, Mobil is still eating him.

Eat them before they eat you!?) If touched just right

his shoulder would ring like the damp rim of a wine glass.

I tell him goodbye, put my hand at his back.

In my ear he whispers, I won't forget you.

Eating the tripe of Bill Gates shall require

endless chewing, done in remembrance of whom?

The afterlife shall be eternal cud, beautiful

code. We shall eat without end,

nourished by that which consumes us.

                                                                                                  —from Ruins Assembling, Shape&Nature Press, 2014

Hotel Oceania

                                        — for Anita

This afternoon more snow. It takes forever

to touch its kin. I thought for a moment

I would help it fall. Pull it down. But the sky is in back of it.

I don't know much about your soul, even after ten thousand nights.

In this photo I brought with me you look like someone else.

Almost like you when I'm not around.

And I'm the one who released the shutter  

and fixed eternity with your face and legs.

You sit at the foot of the bed,

your arms in back propping you up. You've hitched

your skirt up to show your legs.

Where does a soul reside?  In a hotel room?  In legs?  In eyes I know

the color of spring mint but in the photo

narrowed to slits?  In teeth bared in a smile?

Everything on the planet chipped in to make you joyous this instant.

The new millennium that fed us and did not

bomb us is in your upturned lips.

That Roman alley's motos and barred shrine

to the Madonna, it's in your smile.

The open elevator with room for just

us two. Stephano's lesson on the “r.”

The “3” hanging loosely on our door. Our room's

bedbugs. The blood on our sheet.

All in your joyous eyes narrowed to slits. All

in your smile. All in your legs.

But you gave more than the world gave. You said,

I am more than I am

and in giving gave the world's gifts. You smile. Your eyes narrow.

Your lips turn up at baring your legs, joy

of exhibiting more than you are.

And this instant's revelation lets eternity

bare its legs. Anytime, anywhere,

tomorrow is possible. You open

your mint-green eyes. You walk in them.


from Ruins Assembling, Shape&Nature Press, 2014

The kneeling man

Things are pretty much status quo

here.  We are well, just as oddly

off-hand and anxious as ever.  We think

of ourselves as special dark chocolate

with a secret ingredient, white pepper.

We no longer have a cat⏤nor

does she have us.  At the end

she lay under the Christmas tree

like a toy, and breathed fast,

consciously.  We couldn't let her

suffer more, or us, or the world.

It's autumn and the maples

know more than we do about winter,

trying to both mislead her

by turning orange and yellow like

a squid, then dropping everything

and going naked. Then the sap

of their souls migrates into dirt,

reborn as the makings of sweetness,

the makings of belief, great

on pancakes.  We want to tell you

about the kneeling man

at the entrance to Kroeger's,

a cardboard sign hanging around

his neck, illegible words

bending his neck, his face ⎯

what some might call "physiognomy"⎯

legible.  We had our week's

groceries safe in the trunk and drove

by him, telling each other

Don't make eye contact, because

it's the first step toward what,

money, love?               Now home I feel sick like

I've eaten something wrong

like a baby, just because some of us

don't risk being fooled

but it's all moot because that guy

must be gone now that it's dark

out there, but he is out there

somewhere trying to earn an earthly

indulgence climbing the stairs

of a human spine on his knees.


                 first appeared in Rattle