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.
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
— 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