Poetry movements do not always occur in the big cities. There have been movements as significant to their own locale as others were to the entire country. It is in one mid-western city in America that we can find a significant impact of poetry and the arts on society. At the center of these events is John Tuschen, Poet Laureate from Madison Wisconsin. While Tuschen's name is not nationally recognized, his impact on Madison and the arts has been tremendous.
John Tuschen was born in Chicago in 1949 and grew up in the Chicago area. He attended the University of Wisconsin, Madison where he obtained a Bachelor of Science Degree in Rehabilitation Psychology in 1992. He remained at the University of Wisconsin and also attained a Master of Science Degree in Rehabilitative Psychology in 1996. Tuschen has worked as a Chemical Abuse Specialist/Psychotherapist. He was also co-director and publicist for the "Fat Rap & Jazz" music and poetry series, was assistant gallery manager for Gallery 853, copywriter for Education Presse, and Music and Art Critic for The Daily Cardinal newspaper.
He has received numerous grants, scholarships, and awards for his work on the literary scene. He was named Poet Laureate for Madison and awarded the key to the city by Mayor Paul R. Soglin in 1977 (Tuschen still holds this title). He was a member of the Poets-in-the-Schools program, sponsored by the Wisconsin Arts Board in 1977. The City of Madison Cultural Affairs Commission awarded him grants for his poetry in 1979, 1980, 1982, 1985, and 1986. The Dane County Cultural Affairs Commission awarded Tuschen grants for his work in 1980, 1981, and 1986. He also received a John A Johnson Scholarship for scholastic achievement in 1989.
Who exactly is John Tuschen and what has he done that has been so significant in Madison to warrant 22 years as its Poet Laureate? Let's take a look at one of the events Tuschen was involved in. An article written by March Bracken for The State Journal says, "Fat Rap ‘N Jazz is a series of poetry and jazz evenings occurring monthly at the Madison Arts Center. Lanny Silverman, the center's new curator of education, and John Tuschen, Madison's poet laureate, recently inaugurated this series combining local talent and out-of-state talent."
What was so significant about this series? Tuschen invited Gregory Corso to kick off the series. Later, he brought Corso back with Allen Ginsberg and William Burroughs in 1982. They called the follow- up event, "An Old Beat, A New Tune- The Reunion." The series continued for a year and a half. I asked Tuschen how he knew Corso and how he was able to arrange such an impressive queue of poets for the series. "I got to know him [Corso] through other friends and talked to him on the phone a bit when he was in San Francisco. I invited him out to read, and he came."
While he was assistant gallery manager at Gallery 853, Tuschen organized poetry readings, hung paintings and did public relations. I asked him what he did as music and art critic for The Daily Cardinal newspaper. "The Daily Cardinal is the newspaper for the University of Wisconsin. Back in those days, there were lots of riots going on against the war in Vietnam. I would cover that under different names and would also publish people's poems and go around to the galleries and do reviews."
On May 24, 1977, Mayor Paul R. Soglin signed a proclamation naming Tuschen as poet laureate of Madison. The proclamation states, "Whereas, John Tuschen has been a major figure in the local community arts movement for many years; and whereas, he has contributed greatly to the rebirth of poetry and poetry readings in our city; and whereas, John Tuschen represents Madison's ability to keep the arts alive, growing, flourishing, and most importantly, to keep the arts recognized as a service to be patronized and supported by the public . . ."
I asked Tuschen why he thought Soglin named him laureate and he said, "You'll have to ask him." So I did. In an interview with Soglin, who had been Madison 's mayor from 1973-1979 and then again from 1989-1997, I asked him what Tuschen had done for Madison to warrant the title. "John had a presence in Madison- he was recognized both on and off the campus for his literary work . . . John had done a lot of readings around town . . . and I guess it seemed the natural outflow of that. We knew that nothing went with the title of poet laureate, except recognition. But the idea was to not only recognize his work but to encourage people who wanted to explore the literary arts. The position of Poet Laureate is held until you're dethroned. No one else has been appointed. I never appointed anyone else and I don't think the other mayors have. So he has been poet Laureate for 22 years now."
I asked Soglin about his projects in regards to the arts and what John's contribution has been. "We had two goals that worked quite nicely. One was to make graphic and literary arts available to the public at no charge. The second was to find ways to support local artists. So we came up with the Art Grants program. There were two simple criteria: you had to be from Madison and whatever you proposed to do had to be free to the public. We would help underwrite that. A lot of the activities we funded were basically street performers, musicians, graphic artists, and poets."
"I guess he was every man's artist in one way or another. He was a constant reminder of people who got into their craft . . . who were committed to their craft, and who were not necessarily getting the recognition they deserved. I went to the Ginsberg/Corso/Burroughs program he put together and had the honor of being invited to dinner with John, Lanny Silverman, Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso and William Burroughs. It was quite an experience."
Did Soglin think that Tuschen had any profound impact on the arts in Madison? "I think so, in two ways. First as an artist. And second as a reminder of the importance of art participating in an urban community where sometimes priorities are not aligned. It is John, and people like him in Madison, [that get the attention for the Arts.]"
Tuschen's involvement in the arts and literary scene was not restricted to the streets and arts centers. He also worked in the schools with children. I asked him how he first got involved in the Poets-in-the Schools program. "The Wisconsin Arts Board asked me if I wanted to apply for this poets in the schools grant. So I did. What they did is they selected a bunch of poets and high schools and they paid us. We toured around the state. The High Schools had to ask or had to choose the poets. There was a manual sent out." What did he do while in this program? "Hopefully, I taught them to read. We would spend a week in each High School. The first day we had a whole school assembly. Then we attended classes the rest of the week. I talked to them about poetry. I read to them and mainly tried to get them to read and then write."
In addition to the school programs, Tuschen was involved in poetry readings on the radio through grants from the City of Madison Cultural Affairs Commission and the Dane County Cultural Affairs Commission. "I got grants from them for writing and performance. Bill Milosz can tell you more about that. He and I put together a series of shows on WORT and it was called "Neal Bohemian Poetry with New Music and Jazz." We'd record stuff. Apparently Bill made a tape of it and I think it went to Belgium. We had great titles each night like ‘Genital Democracy' and ‘Soft Beads on a Cushy Mic.' We did a lot of improv."
I spoke with Bill Milosz between his trips from New York and Chicago. We discussed his projects with John and others in the area and what his thoughts were about Tuschen and his work. "I did two series of pieces for radio at WORT in Madison. I did a series on local poetry and featured John a couple of times. Then I did a series with just John doing jazz and sound effects. John has a definite or certain kind of beat... 50's ish."
"I produced a series with sounds from Chicago and got the grant to do two series. One with John and one with William Burroughs sometime around 1990. In 1993, on the Greg Taylor show, John read and I mixed sounds while Greg Taylor played music."
"I met John through Lanny Silverman who knew John from the Madison Arts Center where Lanny was program director. Tuschen was familiar with people there and had done some readings there. That was in the late 70's. We started working together around 1982."
"John has been.... he gave poetry a performance face in Madison. He was their poetry mascot. He did readings with bands and at rallies. He brought the beat era performance into the settings in Madison that were unfamiliar with poetry . . . the bar and club scene . . . he exposed a lot of people to poetry in the performance venue."
"John is warm hearted and sweet, he has a lot of compassion in a Buddhist sense. He has had a rough life. Psychologically, he is like a lot of artists and is a tortured soul and struggles with all of that stuff. He got his MA in Psychology. I think it got to him too much. He had too much empathy with all of the pain he was encountering in his professional work, and I think it was too much for him. Psychic overload. He has a layer of anger and is sometimes a little bristly. He is like a lot of artists and has issues with vanity. Lanny is closer to him than me. He knows him better than I do."
"John really puts his heart into his poetry, and like a lot of artists, it's part pose. Calling yourself an artist is sort of a defense against people who want to know what your function is in society. What you do for a living. Saying you are an artist is sort of a way to answer that question if you are more interested in living than doing [a professional job like] engineering or medicine."
"There are those people who are self-consciously artists. They just do what they have to do. It is something they have to do. Then there's the ‘artiste'. It isn't always without genuineness or talent. It is also a lifestyle choice in this day and age. Poets, I suppose, at the time of Greek city states in Persia were employed by the court. Poets had a recognized occupation. Though, I can't see them making money off it [nowadays] . . . the rest are English professors."
"With John, it's a statement of how he lives and there's deep roots in the romanticism of all the cafe life. That whole hard drinking poet thing and all of that. Sometimes, if you know John, the whole image thing of being a poet gets bigger than the actual need to create. There were long periods of time when he didn't write anything. To be a poet is a hard thing and I think he does as well as anyone I have ever personally known, especially in performance."
"I was there for the Ginsberg/Corso/Burroughs event but my focus was on Burroughs. I had dinner with Tuschen, Burroughs, Ginsberg and Lanny. It was an interesting evening. Lanny wanted to take them to a fancy schmancy restaurant but Burroughs wouldn't hear of it. He said, ‘what good can a Morroccan restaurant in a college town in the Midwest be? Let's go to one of the real restaurants for this area.' So we went to this old 1920's place that had a homey feel to it. Burroughs liked the roast beef. Ginsberg was suffering from kidney stones and Burroughs asked him if those were painful and if he had anything for them. Ginsberg said something like he had Tylenol 3's. Burroughs brushed that comment away saying ‘No, no, no, no, I mean something INJECTABLE! Because as you know, we are well supplied!' Ginsberg kind of looked chagrined and said, 'No that'll be alright.' "
"Ginsberg was very sincere and was a wonderful gentleman. I really liked him. I didn't get to meet Corso. Of the three, Corso was the closest to Tuschen because they were sort of the self destiny type, like Bukowski. They were tortured people, more so than Ginsberg was. Ginsberg was healthier psychologically. Even Burroughs was. John carries a great burden of sadness and grief and loss. Not a lot of anger, but there is some of that too. I sensed the same thing in Corso. Ginsberg had a lot of sadness, but he didn't have the tremendous burden of it. Tuschen has a real huge amount of grief he carries in his heart."
"I really liked working with him [Tuschen] because . . . well I don't like to do big elaborate preparations . . . I like the spontaneity of the beat era style of working. I would just grab tapes, cd's or records of sounds and things I liked. I mixed them as I felt moved to do while he was talking and reading. He was great to work with that way. He was able to just get into it. He also had a real good sense of spontaneity. It was great working with him."
"Not a lot of funny stuff happens with John. He's not a card or a character, in that sense. He doesn't have a lot of amusing things he does to gain attention like some do. Like me for example. He's not like that. He has a good sense of humor, but that's not what he is about. He's more just genuine and soulful when he's interacting with other people. But he can be a wise guy sometimes."
Milosz sent me a tape of the radio programs they had done and I have to say that I was impressed with what they had accomplished. It did not seem as though most of it had been improvised. It sounded as though it was a carefully choreographed poetry reading with different, and pertinent, sounds interjected at the appropriate times. In all honesty, the tape was a complete work of art and in this writer's humble opinion should be produced for the public. It is a piece of history as well as a genuine work of art.
In August 1981, Tuschen participated in a program called "The Reunion" at the Nitty Gritty in Madison. An account of the event and its history was written by Michael St. John in the Wisconsin State Journal (Aug. 7). "Four Hundred people gladly dropped a 25-cent donation at the door of the Nitty gritty . . . to experience a truly unique flashback . . . Billed as a memory Jam Session, ‘A Reunion,' the event was the brain child of Madison street poet-laureate John Tuschen who contacted dozens of musicians and regulars who frequented the club during that time."
St. John continues, describing the history of the Nitty Gritty, "When Shapiro opened the North Frances Street club in October of ‘68, it was the only campus bar offering live music. Local and national blues groups packed the room to its roughly 200-head capacity seven nights a week. Muddy Waters, Charlie Musselwhite, Hound Dog Taylor, Otis Rush, Bonnie Raitt, Junior Wells, Jimmy Dawkins, Siegel-Schwall and dozens of other big names graced the Gritty's tiny platform. The Jefferson Airplane jammed with Luther Allison for 3 ½ hours on an unannounced visit following their Fieldhouse concert in 1970."
The article goes onto state that, "the final gig at the gritty was December 18, 1974. Tim Davis, Ben Sindran, Curly Cook, Tom Piazza and Jim Peterman, all former members of Boz Scaggs and Steve Miller's bands converged as the group Watermelon. It was a night to remember. The end of an era."
Tuschen was responsible for bringing back such an event to the Nitty Gritty when he put together this reunion for Aug 5, 1981. I asked him about the event. "Well, that was a long time ago. It was a great night. It was important that we all got together again because it might be the last time for a bunch of us. In fact, it was the last time. Some of the people there were, Fat Richard Drake and Paul Black, who is one of the best Blues guitarists in the country. In fact, when Sandy was up here earlier this year [Jan 1999], she read with me at the Cardinal. He [Paul Black] was backing me when I read."
Another venue of poetry Tuschen was involved with was the Broom Street Theater and their poetry magazine. I asked Tuschen about his work with Broom Street. "I founded The Camel, The Lion, and The Child [CLC] and then I left. I think it became The Broom Street Magazine. I edited the poetry for the CLC in the late 60's. Back then there was this whole movement called the Commission of Small Press Editors and Publishers and it was really wide-spread. It was dedicated to small presses. The idea was to get poetry out there. It freaked some people out because it [poetry] hadn't been out there. Being confronted with poetry to begin with, freaks people out. It had a leftist bent."
The Broom Street Bacchanals was another project of Tuschen's. "It [bacchanals] is a Greek term for ‘big party.' There were plays, poetry readings, music and dance. This was done through the Broom Street Theater. One of the things I did with the Broom Street Theater, which is one of the most respected theaters in the country, was I started what was called ‘The Free State Street Poetry Sheet.' What we would do was, all the poets from around here would write something and bring it up to our mimeograph machine <Tuschen laughs> mimeograph...remember that? Well, we would spin those things out and bring them out to the street and hand them out."
Tuschen went to Paris for a year on a private grant to write a novel. "When I came back here, we threw a big party at Gallery 853 and bought a new tin garbage can and I threw 352 pages into it with 12 sticks of incense and burned that sucker. It was the worst thing I had ever read in my life!"
While in Paris, he worked as a copywriter for Education Presse. "That was only a part-time gig. I made a few francs here and there. What I did was some guy from Switzerland bought this encyclopedia company and wanted them translated into American. Roy Watkins, who was a friend of Ted Hughes, was the main translator to French and then Philip Swan would translate from French into English and I was English to American. There was a difference between English and American in dialect, style, and content."
Another thing that Tuschen did while he was in Paris was read at the American College in Paris. In a letter of recommendation dated 8 May 1973, Stephen Plummer, Assistant to the President for Student Affairs at the American College in Paris writes, "John Tuschen's great strength in public readings is his total public honesty, a directness that will draw any receptive audience into a celebration of the feelings and ideas that he sings. He speaks of events and questions that are immediate, using a language that college audiences will recognize as their own in the hands of an artist. He sings of the force of those events and the depth of these questions with emotion that is true and irresistible."
In the September 25-October 1, 1970 edition of The Bugle-American there is a whole page article on Tuschen and his work including four of his poems from his book Junk Mail. The feature was a tribute to his work as he was leaving the Madison poetry scene to travel to "Vermont, Canada, California, and parts unknown" and was giving his goodbye performance. The Bugle-American states, "the crowd exploded; they loved it, and he knew it, and they knew he knew it. They were like two old friends smiling and shaking hands. One of the things that makes his readings so incredible is his lisp. He actually uses his lisp to his advantage during the reading. His trilled ‘r' becomes such a natural part of his poetry that you miss them in his written work."
If one thinks back in time to 1970, one will recall that it was a time of revolutionary and social unrest in America. Tuschen's work, like the works of other poets at the time, reflected the events of the times. The feature in The Bugle-American recalled a night when police did a house to house search looking for radicals whom they considered dangerous. "He was hiding from the cops in his shower stall when they smashed up Mifflin Street . . . John is a secret revolutionary society of one, and with any luck he will stay that way. His deep sense of compassion for his community is a deep vein in his work . . . in ‘The Search,' a poem in Junk Mail, he writes about what has been going on and what is happening to his community."
now the street
only with faces—
to broken-house windows—
from twisted tree branches—
in blistered concrete—
faces slashed and scared—
faces of white
and here and there
a face of blue
(premature or unexpected?)
The face across the street
has not smiled for weeks - I knew him
when a smile hid his
There is no more music, and
they took away the breeze, too.
They hauled off the poets
when they refused to have their
They haven't found me yet.
Sometimes I wish they would—
there's no one here
with . . .
I asked Tuschen what he thought of The Bugle-American labeling him a "Secret Revolutionary Society of One" and he said, "I am not sure what's in that story, but I love that! During the riots of the times, I was living on West Mifflin Street and it was very intense. Tear gas was flying, police were doing house to house searches for radicals. It was like Nazism. It was horrible. And some people (the police) had a thing called the ‘affinity files.' I was listed as being a radical because I spoke out a lot about Vietnam."
Did Tuschen participate in the riots and demonstrations against the Vietnam conflict? "All of them. One time, down here on State Street, the police rushed the crowd of about 15 to 20 thousand people. They rushed and were firing their tear gas canisters and we all ran. I turned to look behind me and got hit on my upper left forehead by a tear gas canister. I woke up in the Memorial Union Library in the lap of this beautiful blond woman and she was washing my eyes with water, and pardon the cliche, I thought I had died and gone to heaven."
"Paul Soglin was instrumental. He was an outspoken student at the time. He got thrown in jail during one of those riots. He later became Alderperson, and then mayor, I think three times. He changed this town like you wouldn't believe! He got the Frank Lloyd Wright Convention Center built. He completely redid State Street. The list goes on and on. He is extremely progressive and shrewd and can get things done."
What is Tuschen doing these days? "I have a new collection of poetry called Clinical Echoes and Other Poems, but I am just waiting for someone to publish it. I am still doing some readings and am supposed to do something in Chicago this summer." He has also completed a novel on inverse dream states and autism.
I asked Tuschen about his early life and when he could recall that his love for writing began. "I really don't know. I have been writing all of my life. My adopted parents still have this small sheet of paper that I wrote lines on and it looks like a poem with spacing and rhythm, but it is just small curvy lines. I guess I was four or something. I was the editor of my High School paper and was Senior class president, for what that's worth. I wrote poetry, articles, reviews and interviews."
Who were the poets or writers who influenced Tuschen's work and caused him to dedicate his life to literature and the arts? "Whitman, of course. In terms of inspiration, dedication, and how poetry wasn't just something you do, that it's actually a way of life is Ruth Stone. She has taught me that poetry is a way of life, a way of seeing things, of getting through or to things, capitalizing things, and making things beautiful. Taking the mundane and making it magic."
"One night, it was Christmas Eve, I was working at Victor Records. The place was empty and I was looking at my watch wanting to leave. All of a sudden, the door whips open and this woman in a beautiful black dress swooped in. She came up to me and said she needed something for her daughter and asked me what I would suggest. I didn't know. I did suggest something and then we started to talk. I found out she was Ruth Stone, a visiting poet at the University. She said she lived in Vermont and gave me her address and said to visit sometime. And then she swooped out the way she had swooped in. This woman had incredible energy! The next summer , a friend and I went to the Newport Folk Festival in Rhode Island. I said to him, ‘let's go to Vermont and check this woman out.' So we drove up there and met Ruth. I built her back porch while I stayed there [for three months]."
"Her daughter, Phoebe, came up a couple days later. She had been living in New York and came home to visit. She walked through the door. I was hammering a nail or something and I looked up, our eyes met, and BOOM! That was it."
Phoebe returned with Tuschen to Madison a few months later, where she stayed with him until January 1970. I spoke with Phoebe and asked her about those months with Tuschen. "I think he came up with a friend to Vermont to visit my mother and I happened to come up there too. He was working on the back porch. We got to know each other, kind of you know a little romance, and I went to be with him in Madison. It was kind of a hippie time I guess. And it was just fun, I had a wonderful time. He is very bright. We were always writing and it was always reading things and having fun. We were interested in music I did some theater while I was there and painted a mural. It was fun."
What does Phoebe think of Tuschen and his poetry? "He is a really good performer, I haven't seen him for about 30 years, but when we were both 21 he was giving readings in Madison and he just was you know totally charismatic. His readings were wonderful. I guess there's a little bit of performance artist in his work, not always. But of course that's always true with any poem. Something about the way, I don't know, he just had a good command of the audience. He read his poetry really well. I think he's wonderful. I think he's been a real, he is kind of a myth around there. He's really done a lot of readings. I don't really know what he has done outside of the poetry world. I know he has been a real influence on the art scene. He just has a strong presence and a lot of people admire him and come to his readings. He has been there a long time."
I mentioned to Phoebe that Tuschen considers her mother a sort of mentor for him and his work and asked her what she knew about it. "I just know that he admires her work and she loves him. So I would say, I don't know how she is his mentor other than I know he admires her work. He visited her a few years ago, about 10 years ago."
In a telephone conversation with Ruth Stone, she confirmed she had met him in the record store that Christmas Eve and had invited him to Vermont. I told her that Tuschen considers her his greatest mentor and thinks of her as a mother figure and asked what her thoughts were about it. "I really think mostly what I did was listened and look. He knew what he was doing and you know he was performing and you know he was sort of a part of a literary movement there in Madison. He was in the vanguard of very interesting writing. He ...we talked a lot about everything and yeah we were good friends."
Was there anything in particular that struck Ruth Stone about Tuschen's writing? "Well . .. Many of the things I love are connected with his amazing sense of humor his use of humor as well as twists on reality and he's a wonderful performer of his work. But from the time I first knew him I have been very taken with his poetry. I think it is original voice and I think it comes from an awareness of both pain and irony and about living. As well as an amazing buoyancy that comes through too."
"He's... his stutter is absolutely part of his charm though it probably comes from very sad things in his childhood. He is a wonderfully intelligent and humane. His interests are of course often literary, very broad. He is praiseful of other people. I think that he's a unique and captivating man and you know they aren't on every street corner. His work I think is absolutely wonderful. He is a wonderful person and a wonderful poet. He had a very sad childhood but the amazing thing to me is he triumphed over that childhood. One of the reasons he did is he sees with this amazing vision across the board, both the tragedy and the comedy. Which I think is a great gift."
Ruth and I discussed some of the things Tuschen has been involved in doing in the Madison arts scene. "He had me come and read for something once or twice. I always expect great things from John. He's unique a very charismatic person. I think that he is a kind of example or a model of how reaching for artistic excellence and regulating your life through an art form and trying to understand life through an art form and communicating with others about the complex emotions that we all go through, through an art form. I see partly he was blessed with a charming personality in spite of anything that has happened to him. His personality is darling and charming and warm and funny. It appeals to people enormously. He is not a selfish person, he loves others and sees excellence and beauty in others. Which is all to me a part of a higher form of expression that he does. And I think it has drawn people to him. It is no wonder that he has taken part in all these things because his enthusiasm is towards the positive and he radiates that."
Ruth had some insight into why Tuschen has been able to be as successful as he has. "Well I think he is very gifted. He is aware of his gift, I don't know at what point but he certainly became aware that he was gifted verbally. Even though he has that stutter, probably because of it he was able to write. But at any rate he is a natural lyric and poet whose work...he can perform. He has a positive approach to everything. And some of it he has learned the hard way. His life hasn't been easy."
Tuschen has lived in Madison off and on since 1967. He has also lived in Montreal, Boston, Toronto, and New York. He has four books of poetry, all out of print; Junk Mail (Broom Street Press), Thighs, Sighs, and Other Things (Quest Publishing), The Percodan Papers (Quest Publishing), and Tuschenetrics (Quest Publishing). He has also had over 600 live readings across the United States and in Europe.
"John is a rare human being. His dedication to poetry is total, and his talents as a poet and ability to communicate to an audience are special and worthy of reinforcement." — Lanny Silverman, Curator of Education and Public Programming, Madison Art Center
Poems by John
I Cry on America's Tile (1973)
I cry on America's tile;
I cry for the New York City cabby
who thinks Henry Aaron is a plot;
for the weak and the dizzy;
for the suicides and the poems;
for those who spell murder
with dollar signs;
for those who believe freedom
is a Chevrolet;
for those who keep slaves;
for those who keep slaves of themselves.
I cry on America's tile,
head down between my knees
I cry for the lonely ones
who are too afraid to scream;
for those who feel that living
is an act of the dying;
for those trapped in brain factories;
for those who think god
is a product
or even real;
for the fucked-up poets
whose vision is blind, stamped,
I cry for the walls, the cement,
the fear and the germs;
for cold nights on park benches,
newspaper covers, cardboard pillows,
and empty wine bottles.
I cry for the needles and light bulb rooms;
for the deceived
and the conceived;
for the haters and the warmakers.
I cry for the neon
and plastic crawling death
inching out over America.
I cry for the trees, the saw,
and the New York Times;
for the killers and the liars;
for the fooled and the foolish -
I cry on America's tile.
I know these crazy signs,
like the mud drops
on Baudelaire's tomb,
wrapped in bat wings,
in the rain,
in that garden of graves,
in a dream
real as dust.
Dust to dust -
then to mud.
I see these crazy signs,
bright, sharp like the side of
a blade before its deadly encounter.
These signs and their echo
are swept into the Metro
like the homeless on the benches
The homeless are the "anti-miracles"
whose miracles will never come,
whose journey ends at birth,
whose fear of salvation is not recognized, and
whose wandering toward a grave
is wrinkled and solitary.
Time to despair.
Time to sleep.
I know these crazy signs
in the rhythms of ceremony,
in the rhymes of Doctor Season -
Doctor Season -
who knows when to pull his wings in,
who knows how to weep
when the tortured rain
Twenty-five years ago
on a Sunday afternoon
when the autumn rain
were companions -
both gray, sad, and unexplainable,
I found you bleeding
on my bathroom floor.
It was slippery
when I lifted you
the black and white checkerboard tiles
now splashed red.
I nearly fell.
You were so light in my arms.
Your arms were slashed deep
(it was a Gillette, fresh, cool blue and sharp -
I didn't shave much then.)
Your face was pale, your green eyes moving upward.
Your words weren't urgent, but fading,
they came in like this:
What time is it?
I have to go home.
I can't go home
but I can't go home.
but I can't go home.
When the ambulance finally
slid in on the bastard snow,
your face was pastel blue.
I wanted to take your picture, but
the police were there.
They asked me if I killed you.
I told them that, perhaps,
One guy hit me (badge #303)
and I fell on to the bathroom floor.
The blood on the floor was now cold and sticky.
I stayed there
my face in your cold blood,
on my bathroom tiles.
I couldn't move -
the reality of knowing death
and brutal life,
struck me so deep
and so close
that I stayed there,
I laid there
What time is it?
I have to go home.
I can't go home
but I can't go home.
but I can't go home.