Dennis J Bernstein
|Dennis J Bernstein lives in San Francisco, and has been a long-time front line reporter, specializing in Human Rights. His articles have appeared widely including in the Boston Globe, and the Nation. He is host/producer of "Flashpoints," a daily radio news magazine heard on Pacifica Radio. Bernstein was chosen by Pulse Media as one of "20 Top Global Media Figures of 2009." Bernstein's artist books, co-authored with Warren Lehrer, are in the Special Books Collections of the Museum of Modern art in New York City and other major museums around the world. Bernstein’s poetry has recently appeared in the Texas Observer, New York Quarterly, Chimaera, Bijou Poetry Review, Bat City Review, The Progressive, ZYZZYVA, J Journal, and Ars Medica, Falling Star(pending).
The following work is Copyright © 2010, and owned by Dennis J Bernstein and may not be distributed or reprinted in any form whatsoever without written permission from the author.
Trickster's Traffic Jam
(Overheard in Smiley’s Tavern, Bolinas, Ca.)
This parrot I knew
was an expert at doing traffic—
car horns, fender-benders, short
squealing stops, dragsters leaving rubber.
“Trickster” could do an eighteen-wheeler
beeping backwards for a pick-up,
or a high speed car-chase,
around a series
of treacherous, hair-pin turns.
But the parrot’s Magnus opus,
was a full-blown, head on collision,
complete with ear-piercing sirens,
that grew louder as they honed in
on the gruesome scene.
This parrot was so good,
cops once ticketed him
for a faulty muffler.
Her Story Is Mine
for a story
she believed in:
Paulie's Bouncing Bible
He carried his basketball wherever he went.
Sometimes he bounced it fiercely
and took aim at hoops
that only he could see.
Sometimes he twirled it
on one finger
like a bulbous ballerina.
But mostly Paulie
held the ball
between his palms,
against his chest,
the way a preacher holds a bible
to make god’s point.
Just like his mother’s little Christ,
it strengthened his grip on things,
extended his palms around a world
he was barely able to hold onto.
My new sex-change pistol
is a strict fundamentalist.
At home, alone, I caress it
under the covers, praying
for my chance to love Christ
man to man. My new snub-nose
is always loaded and cocked,
like a street preacher’s bible.
My bullet ready to explode
into the mouth of god.
Worst Case Sceneriois / A Baker's Dozen
She used my grief as his suicide weapon
He’s a top executive with nobody underneath him
They pick what’s left off the bones of their marriage
We canceled the pizza delivery
and opened up a can of worms
I spent all morning
washing the arguments
off of last night’s walls
He hangs his kids in the closet
when company comes
Her boss always laughs
a little bit later
and a lot louder
She strip-searched my shadow
before she let him in her house
I threw a stone at the moon
and hit my neighbor in the head
He forgot to sharpen his sword before he fell on it
She caught me in bed with another butterfly
We pray with the same hands we kill with
Wars start in the memory
And leave memories that start wars
Frederick Pollack is the author of two book-length narrative poems, The Adventure and Happiness, both published by Story Line Press. He lives in Washington, DC and is an adjunct professor of creative writing at George Washington University.
The following work is Copyright © 2010, and owned by Frederick Pollack and may not be distributed or reprinted in any form whatsoever without written permission from the author.
Giusto era il segno.
When lifers die, they’re released.
The doctor waves goodbye, the nurse,
the last important woman, cries.
The traditional clang of cups on bars
accompanies the lifer (and a guard,
relaxed for once) on his last walk beside
the cells. Old enmities are forgotten,
like the decades-old original guilt
or protestation of innocence;
even the thought exhausted.
There’s a long-unaccustomed spring in his step,
ease in his joints. It must be
approaching freedom that causes them
along with a new feeling: apprehension.
The guards are remarkably soft-spoken,
the man behind the wire window
patient as the lifer signs
for the box of belongings he came in with.
He recognizes the jackknife, the report card,
the puzzle, the lock of hair;
or perhaps he doesn’t but agrees
with the guard they may as well be his:
one must have something. The gate
at the end of the corridor opens.
But the lifer is dismayed
by the glare. It has the harshness
of a siren announcing lockdown;
the noise is like that of the dining hall. And
the official behind the window
forgives the lifer’s lingering, perhaps
forever as he asks
if there was anything else? Maybe a wallet?
The passive, the undemanding,
the frightened of life appear
obstreperous in memory:
they refuse to elect a symbol,
an epitome, but insist
each upon something individual.
An uncle dead for forty years
turns from his shrew
and leukemia to offer
a strained, familiar smile.
A marginalized kid who had
the locker next to mine mumbles
again to the pinup within,
but repeats the prayer this time
as if I should have heard it.
A girl who scuttled,
whose eyes one never saw, strides
not into that California suburb
but the desert it replaced.
At the time I thought I had no time
and, moreover, that I was alone;
that I had to develop a style
(which was not entirely a matter
of writing) before
I could return and do justice
to whatever deserved it.
And was right; and therefore
must reconstruct them all from little data,
so that all I can make
is a shroud, not a stone.
When we hear from Them at last,
it isn’t some coded
gift of cheap energy,
an invite to a party
of all intelligences everywhere, an intervention
or sneaky invasion, but their love-poems.
(Or songs – it isn’t clear.)
They seem to believe their poetry
is the best in the galaxy, that it defines all love
anywhere. So that the scientists
recording it think
at first it is a theorem about love,
the concept. Is it
one being’s work or the anthology
of a race? That isn’t clear.
Much is unclear
apart from joy,
hot as a nova. The villages (nests?)
along the route of the lovers
applaud and cheer (click?); they’re not much
for privacy, these guys. There’s a wealth
of colors, but the scientists aren’t sure
which. And as they climb the (hill?)
in full view of (life?), there’s
a sun for (him) and one for (her),
allusions to dark energy,
to visible and imagined moons
and something like us. The translation,
tentative as it is, touches sublimity,
can bring a tear as long as one ignores
that what’s actually happening involves many
spiky enthralled limbs, and ovipositors.
The rabbis explain that Noah
wasn’t an absolutely good man, merely
the best of his generation.
Had a touch of the poet. Which is why,
as he ordered his three (worthless, lazy!)
sons to keep the descent
steady and spaced, he looked
again at the animals and felt
how uniquely real they were.
(Must be the smell. He wondered if
he’d miss it.) The giraffes
weaving into the distance,
the hippos hesitating
even before a universe of mud, the lions
and those who live by fear and flight
not hesitating, becoming
somehow less real as they scattered.
The dove (definitely unreal)
who had brought the olive twig had long
since vanished. A rainbow
persisted in the drying air.
(You can turn it off now, thought Noah
privately.) The prospect
before him would have daunted
a more imaginative man.
Mud, stinking puddles,
tree-stumps, here and there
a heap of sodden rags. One seemed
to rise and approach him. You weren’t
especially good, it said.
Noah was silent. I had
a wife and three kids. I paid
my taxes and the shakedowns
on time, baked good bread.
Noah shifted uneasily. I’m not
responsible, he said,
and nodded piously upward: He was.
Try to tell yourself that
as you plough our bones and raise new grain
from our flesh. And it brandished,
laughing nastily, an empty
sleeve in Noah’s direction.
Couldn’t hurt him, but had an effect:
by the time the animals were gone,
the patriarch had developed a mania
for security. Told the family
they’d continue to live in the Ark – make it
a strongpoint. The First Building was a fortress.
If you seek its location,
here’s a hint: it isn’t necessarily
Unhappy families are all alike:
they have lost narrative. He can’t
remember what the girl looked like,
only isolated scenes
like porn with a war-movie soundtrack.
His talk about leaving his wife and marrying her
retains in memory the warmth
of a divorce petition.
The rooms of the McMansion seem
like separate McMansions, distinct
pointless experiences; the car
parked on the boulevard outside (location,
location), a grinning, stupid brute.
The wife drifts shapelessly from room to room.
It’s hard to clean what isn’t dirty,
especially if you feel you have no hands.
His office calls. He can’t remember
what he does, but knows he does it well and mimics
the noncommittal cheer he always mimics.
Then her office calls. The son
contends with a hormonal storm,
that epilepsy which lasts ten years
exacerbated now by morons;
he yearns for success, independence, power,
his own liquor cabinet. The daughter
suffers less, surprisingly, drily
imagining serviceable boys.
Outside, the snow of global warming falls
like the turbulent lust of middle age.
In the living room, the husband confronts the tree.
The star at the top represents hope.
A golden ball distorts a sleeping dog.
The angels in the middle branches wear
a simper that no entity, divine
or human, would put on for any reason.
This judgment lends him clarity, an anchor.
What’s the true meaning of Christmas, Daddy?
Well, dear, basically
a very great man came to tell us
that sexual frustration
builds credit in an afterlife called heaven.
For weeks, night after night,
I couldn’t see them clear,
and now am not sure
if I saw them first in childhood
when on an early visit the city scared me,
or later; or whether
the thing carved on the wall
of the enormous building
above them was a corporate logo,
eagle, hero, scales,
or a presumably more dreamlike symbol:
conflicted, hermetic, mine.
Were they the type who go
immediately from childhood
to manhood, territory, murder,
striking a terror equal to their own;
or merely hanging out,
relying on repression or support,
miraculously harmless and benign,
that miracle reversible in a moment?
I mean those youngsters dancing as one must
at the foot of a tower, whom I saw
with the doubt of one kind of childhood
that adumbrates a later fear
after the sentiment that comes between.
In either case the relief
carved on the wall of my dream
was irrelevant to them,
which is why the sign was just.