Five Poems

Note: These sonnets are also "golden shovel" poems--the last words of each line, read vertically top to bottom, form a complementary haiku by Japanese poets Basho or Issa.


  after Basho

My friends all called them homos. So did I. A
few of us tried faggots, queers. It was the calm
and quiet 1950s. We thought it was hilarious to moon
them with our taunts. After school, walking
fast, we’d razz them: fairy, fruit, go home!
we’d say. And morphodite, pansy, perve! The
thought that we ourselves just might be gay
was simply unthinkable. We knew we were all boy,
beneath our tough exterior no frightened
poof or pansy lurked, no swish or queen. By
branding them we proved our certain manhood, the
only way we knew. Now the memory comes howling
down the years. What’s become of the queers, of
the boys I might have secretly thought of as foxes?

Climate Change

  after Basho

Late February, and yet the black capped chickadees in
the morning are singing of spring; the finches at my
feeder are foraging; daffodils are lighting up the dark;
Bloodroot and Scylla are coming on strong. It’s as if winter
were over, long gone. Is it global warming at last lying
in wait for us, the wind with a fever—and that ill 
wind blowing no good? And yet, how lovely to look at
the trees leafing out, the cold season breathing its last,
the grass greening up like money! I think that I
could get used to this, sit back and not ask
any questions, though questions fester and bloom: How
long can we last without cold to contain us? How fares
the insect, the bacterium, the virus? Is it my
problem if the planet turns up the heat on my neighbor?

One Word Alone

  after Basho

If a picture is worth a thousand words, then just
which picture would that be? How many Guernicas to
equal the horror of war? How many Durers to say
the same thing? How many Dadaists to make the
same point again and again. I say that one word
is worth a thousand pictures. Take the word “home”
or “love” or “peace.” What inimitable images that
word can call up. Or “neighbor,” “compadre,” “friend,” one
word at a time in the museum of sorrows, one word
on the canvas of regret, one word that comes alone,
maimed, on its knees, begging for you to desist, is
worth more than the picture imprisoned in its frame, so
terribly, horribly beautiful, so wonderfully, pleasantly
grave. Give me one word set on the windowsill to cool.


  after Basho

Get the goddamn government out of our faces, I
say! We all know the poor should fend for themselves. Would
you have us subsidize them? That would be like
throwing money away. We only expect them to
pull themselves up by their bootstraps like we did. Use
some common sense: put them on the dole and the
lazy and shiftless will just stand around like scarecrows
in a fallow field. If they want to wear their tattered
clothes, I say let them. I believe in the good old
American virtues: hard work and gumption is what clothes
the needy. We need tax breaks for the wealthy in
this economy. We need the job creators. In this
economy, yes, we need the very rich. It’s midnight
in America. Why don’t the homeless just come in from the cold?

The War Economy

  after Issa

A headline in the paper reads: APOLOGY OFFERED FOR
PHOTOGRAPHS. Afghanistan. Soldiers doing things you
wouldn’t want to know: bodies eviscerated, riddled with fleas,
urinated on, strung up from trees. An apology may seem too
little to pay, but war makes new modes of exchange--the
words for the barbarities. Here, let us offer some nights
of confession for days of defamation. Frank admission must
cover the price of defilement. Retraction should be 
satisfactory to buy our derision, acknowledgment be long
enough to pay for some simple debasement. Regret and
a mea culpa, heart-felt, should acquire befoulment. They
say only abnegation will purchase atrocity, but must
everything have such a high price? Come, let us be
only reasonable. Our poor apology’s growing lonely.

—Ron Wallace, Madison, WI