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New Poetry, Fiction, Essays

3 poems by Jeremy Nathan Marks

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Jeremy Nathan Marks writes, reads, teaches, researches and talks to folks about things which interest them and which interest him. He has had editorials, essays, poems and photographs published in various places in Canada, the United States and across two ponds. He makes his home as an American exile in London, Ontario, Canada. A town that, while not having a left bank or much intellectual ferment, does offer a wide selection of craft beer.

 

 

 

 

Two hats

for Nora, my beloved daughter

God, who walked the field’s edge
was mistaken by the people
for a troublemaker

He wore one red hat
and one black hat
that really were the same hat
but the workers to his right
and the workers to his left
didn’t know there was a difference

So the God laughed
and the workers argued
and my daughter asked daddy
why do they fight
when there are muddy puddles
as many as there are drops of rain in the sky

‘I have a good idea,’ she says
piling several hats onto her head

Leading me to the yard
I am made to stand and face her
‘See, you can see both hats’
so how could anyone fight?

Why(?) is a statement not a question
and answers are just further questions

Like that God in two hats
the God, a God or just God
a trickster leaving stories of teething,
first words, night terrors and potties
told in a tangled vernacular so mischievous
the storyteller is a face framed by
curling blond locks.

 

 

 

Shangri-La (or my father takes his vacation)

I

When I was a young kid
my father had but one week off per year
which he preferred taking in the summer
since then it could serve as a form of childcare

This was in the mid-1980s
not an idyllic time for my father:
when he was hired by the US Government
in 1980 and promised a raise
Ronald Reagan’s victory nearly quashed this promissory;
even though the contract had been duly signed
the Supply Side budget of 1981
froze the escalator of incremental federal raises

And wouldn’t you know that my parents
first time home buyers
had just entered a five year mortgage
at the then standard interest rate
of 18%

Thank you, Paul Volcker.

II

Every August back then
we’d set out for Pawtucket, Rhode Island
in our cobalt blue 74’ Olds
(bought used)
its white vinyl bench seating
hot enough to scald our thighs
from May to September
it had an air conditioner that took a freon charge

A beast of a machine
it took leaded gasoline
and choked the air with particulate matter
since, like every pre-77’ model
it lacked a catalytic converter.

We’d motor up from Aspen Hill, Maryland
hoping to reach Little Rhody
and my grandparents’ -his folks’- home
for less than the price of one full day
the cost you’d pay for taking
I-95 and its mandated Federal Speed Limit
of 55 (MPH)

A trip that now would likely take seven
eight hours tops
frequently took ten back then
and not just on account of the low posted speeds
but because there were far more tollbooths
in that pre-digital age.

In an era long before the E-Z Pass was invented
when Turnpikes dotted Delaware, New Jersey,
New York and Connecticut
the trip felt impossibly long
while my father -for his own reasons-
had a way of extending its duration
on account of his loathing of the more direct line
through New York City

When we were within sight of Staten Island
he would turn off onto the Garden State Parkway
in order to bypass the bridges and tunnels fronting Manhattan
convinced that anything
anything
was faster than taking the Bruckner through the Bronx

I suspect this was the result of two assumptions:
the first being that New York City was
in his imagination
a metropolis of intractable backups
while the second contention might have been
those embedded tales of Gotham’s decay:
skyrocketing crime
public urination
graffiti covering the subway cars

It was, even then, they said,
an ‘ungovernable city’:
Broken Windows,
James Q. Wilson,
neutered police, liberals and all that-

III

My dad must have had heroic patience
since once we hit Jersey traffic would slow
literally at the foot of the Delaware Memorial Bridge
and pick up but little until we hit Metuchen

The Garden State
which I’ve mentioned
was its own hell:
that litany of booths every seven miles
with their asinine 35 cent fares
which could be replaced by a single state-sold token
but if you didn’t live in-state this was not a practical option.

To pass the time I’d recite to myself in silence
the names of familiar Essex, Bergen and Passaic County cities:
Newark, Clifton, Fairlawn, West Orange, Patterson
and then Paramus at last (with its mall)
where the congestion would thin
and the New York State line loomed
which, with a sign of relief, we’d clear
only to begin our wait for the Tappan Zee tolls
that Dutch named dual span crossing the Hudson

I would press my face to the window
peering down the river in anticipation
of the moment when
through blear white air
Manhattan’s skyline would emerge
all thumbs, index and forefingers
of steel, concrete and glass
prying apart the haze
I would say look! to my sister but she wasn’t fazed
since often she was enmeshed
by the challenge of drawing circles on her Etch A Sketch.

On the opposing Hudson shore
we’d move through Westchester
past White Plains
to skirt Pound Ridge
finally touching Stamford:
New England at last!
But we weren’t in the homestretch yet
since the fun of the John Davis Lodge awaited
Connecticut’s special contribution to that unbroken
vibration of coins-clinking-in-baskets
a defining feature of Northeastern US highways.

At the outskirts of Bridgeport and in another jam
I could hear my father swear softly to himself
‘I’m never doing this again’
an oath he would repeat while we would wait
an hour, two hours maybe(?)
to go perhaps twelve miles
before getting stuck shortly thereafter
in the New Haven clog

The trip now deserved the mantle of epic
as it was my father’s journey to the house where he’d grown up
that house on Edgemere Road
the little bungalow his parents bought after the war
with three quarters down:
who could leave a home where you owned everything
even if the town around it had ceased to be a bright destination?

IV

The final stretch past New Haven was mercifully swift;
Mystic, New London and then Rhode Island at last

At the state line I’d see a welcome sign:
Providence 44 miles.

Peering carefully down the highway
I’d scan the horizon for that first sign
of the capital’s towers
back before Providence was a place
New Englanders liked to come to visit and shop
back when it was barren, crime ridden, ‘a dump!’
or so I was told
which was why we never went there
despite the fact that I always asked if we could

Since I wanted to see up close the Fleet Bank Tower
an elegant old art deco structure
topped off in 1928 at 111 Westminster Street
the mere site of it used to cheer me inexplicably

But perhaps the thing that drew me most to downtowns
was the inverse of an impulse which had pushed my father away:

As I had not lived and worked in urban America in the 1970s
hadn’t had a gun pressed to my temple at a St. Louis
intersection; hadn’t watched decay crumble formerly vibrant
business districts and public spaces;
hadn’t had the dew on my lily desiccated
by the hollow echoes of promises made in the fields
of urban planning, economic justice, race relations

Maybe as I had not experience the 1970s-

I would not understand my father’s unshakeable aversion
to taking his family into any urban environ?

What I think I understand now
more than thirty years later
is that my father’s incentives were
even then
vastly different from mine

I remember thinking how when I grew older
our rationales would converge
that having a family, too, would lead me to avoid
close encounters with urban centers
summer vacations with children
becoming daunting ordeals to be endured
that filial challenge in the life of the working professional.

But this hasn’t happened.

Thinking about those days, those trips
I admit how they now feed my father’s legend.
Recounting my upbringing
recalling his perpetual struggle for comfort
I recognize not just how times have changed
but that I have a particular and peculiar comfort
which he never had:
the assurance, I think, of not caring too much about my job.

Sure, the value of money was impressed upon me
and on those Rhode Island trips I had not just he
but my grandfather too
to school me over money’s power
what it could do
and how the working world was an unforgiving place
so be smart, try and find a sinecure
but even if you do
always work, dammit! Work!

I love and respect my father
but I don’t want what he had and has:
a career that drives him to fret
but that also has delivered a pension
and reputation
which have secured him
vacations free from distractions
now

Time shares
Europe
cruises
National Park trips
without too much worry
(so I imagine)
about their cost.

My father has found his Shangri-La
but so have I

Mine is just a quiet shadow
within his shadow
as his circle is still wider than mine
though I imagine how my own is closer
to that dark concentric centre
that is silence

Perhaps the sublime?

 

 

 

Autonomic

 

When my grandfather died we made the old familiar drive
up I-95 through the many miles of turnpikes and tollbooths
my father again under the wheel.

A strange unsettling calm pervaded the car as my father
who had just lost his father
guided our powerful Dodge Intrepid
on its first actual pathbreaking mission
across the many miles of uncleared corridors of grief

Grief that was his, foremost
but it was ours, too.

Grief for my lost grandfather
grief for my father now fatherless
grief as a verb guiding our movements
through the brume of deep sadness that now
overlay everything

It was grief, I know
for that first moment when
a parent had passed
something not one of the four of us
had ever experienced.

I remember the sensation in my chest
a feeling that my father was propping himself up
without benefit of any of the non-visible supports
each one of us relies upon just to carry on
those invisible springs to propel us out of bed
or the silent turnings of wheels of autonomic action
philosophers like to call ‘Will’

All of this now a deliberate set of actions.

My mother was a prop
her hand on my father’s back
his shoulders
offering through her fingers
a warm palm
of fulsome compassion

We,
my sister and me,
trying hard to follow her hand
while she,
my mother,
now the appointed captain
piloted the traffic of all of our emotions
on their true course of compassion
to him.

We, the other three:
my mother, my sister, me
becoming together
a three legged table
the meaning of family now plain
since, as I said,
much of the mostly benevolent force
usually at work unseen in my father’s body
(his soul, if you will)
was now spent
or in retreat
meditating in a silent, recondite place:
A cave?
A devotee lying prone in supplication
atop a 30 foot pole in some trackless desert?
Job looking toward the serene blue sky
asking why-

My father,
he was there
but he was somewhere unseen as well
a place I knew then
more than ever before
I one day would have to go.

And when we arrived at his parents’ house
(now his mother’s solely)
and when I found her in her kitchen
hunched over in grief at a table bereft of bread;
when I felt the walls of that kitchen
a room which always had bent outward to receive
my grandfather’s frenetic joie de vivre
(the kitchen being one of the places he always was most alive);
when I felt those walls caving in upon themselves
succumbing to a metaphorical withdrawal of autonomic will,
crumbling from that ebb of ordinary life
glorious in its gracious mundane;
it was there and then that I felt the kriah
of grief, of a body as rent fabric
and within that garment an inner frame:
the bones and muscles of my father in his ‘cassock of pain.’

This was too much to bear
and my wall of reserve broke
as I darted into the backyard and sobbed,
a flood of tears breaching twenty years
of a carefully cultivated demeanour;
I felt the four legs of my own supports
warp and collapse.

It was my sister who,
having followed me out,
reached for my shoulders
and pulled me close.

We stood there,
she firmer than I
as she felt me cry out
from the hollows of my loss

But before I struck their source
a bird -a Mockingbird-
began singing, shouting,
imploring we pay him full attention

He was standing low on the roof
just over the backdoor to the kitchen
that room where my mother, my father and his mother
were huddled
the room I had just fled-
that bird stood there for at least five full minutes
and carried on looking right at us.

I ceased crying.
We stood in silence-
watching, waiting, wondering
at this new whatness.

A song,
a shout from the field
that never paused
and when it was over
I felt the first shocks of my gracelessness
pass before a peaceful awe of loss.

I reentered the kitchen
strangely girded against the curtains of despair
fortified by the syrinx,
perhaps the gizzard
of a tiny creature bolder than death.

 

 

 

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