Poems and Paragraphs

Josh Mandel

1. There is little margin

There is little margin for blaming circumstance. If there was ever a feeling of momentum, of drifting windswept through the waters of change, this was nothing more than illusory. At every bifurcation has lain a kernel of choice. After all, of course, the decision to drift is itself a manifestation of will.

There is little, then, to blame if I find myself three months into this expedition with parched lips and an empty canteen. And there are only so many times one can lift the depleted supply to one's lips and still recognize with some degree of surprise that nothing remains.

I am tired of doling out emotions in one-hundred-word fragments. But then sometimes I wonder whether I emote at all. At what depths does a momentary wave of sadness reverberate? And the nostalgia that looms, seems to pervade my nights and loneliness: how far does it penetrate?

4. Down the dirt path

Down the dirt path to the Little League diamond behind the convenience store, sitting in the grass and alerted by the nearly imperceptible weight of a red ant on my wrist, for the first I noticed that period (extended to the limits of its viability on these summer nights) between sunset and darkness. For the first time I was alert to that interval where shadows reign but darkness waits at bay, the air cold but still glowing with the last embers of sunlight. It is the end result of an evening’s exercise in slowly lengthening shadows, final culmination of darkness stretching like fingertips over the landscape, that time when shadows have gotten so long that even a distant mountain, or a hill, or a tree, or even a blade of grass casts an image long enough to reach the horizon. When the light hits you at such an extreme angle (rays perfectly perpendicular) and you sit entranced by the entrance of night, you can almost feel (though never for long) that ultimate tension, battle terrifying to contemplate (for which of us could serve two masters?) the pronounced juxtaposition of infinities.

5. It lettered last night

It lettered last night, words of commendation drifting in lattices, descending windswept over a frozen river of mediocracy as I lay still as blue, a heap of crisp lines and no trace of a blur. They piled up, those compliments, so many words of praise just barely resting on the surface as though the tension of the water itself were enough to support them. Light like down, but heavy too as only feathers are so many syllables rang out for those more special than I. It was yet be fore dawn, and there was a line formed by the chosen few. They were accepting graciously, noddin g and smiling only slightly as they glided across the frozen surface, whole bodies seeming to fl oat like the words in which they basked.

There was glitter from sunlight, patterns and networks of refractions glistening, an interplay o f sparkles that danced off of symmetrical flakes as rocking they descended.

And then it was something strange. An invisible current, and maddeningly narrow grabbed just one flake by its edge and diverted it up, that solitary fragment alone adrift against so many other s. It struck me, then, and stung because I had pulled all stops in that doomed race: even that o ne flake, the fluke that flew not down but up, even the last trace of hope reflected from that s ingle source was not directed at me. Indeed from my window view it was no better than the far-of f dawn, all vague and smothered in haze.

6. We were stuck

We were stuck there,
conversation crammed in a dead-end,
waiting for a "but"
that would never come.

She was waiting for me to
make sense of myself,
to justify actions,
explain them, at least,
or take them back.

I could not give her this,
could not ever satisfy,
(never sufficiently)
the depths of that misery,
the immensity of it,
the way everything was suddenly consumed
in tears and anger and
exasperated words.

We were just stuck,
feelings failing to move forward,
so many sentiments just frozen in place,
a mere silhouette illuminated by the
embers of what must once have been a blaze.

We were stuck,
(or was it end-of-the-line ?)
half way through a phrase
and waiting for a "but"
that could never come.

7. I don't have time

I don't have time for device.
Nothing fancy, no shadow-play
or allusion to make
by way of coming to a point.
There's no caution to heed -
no need, at this point,
to play by the rules.
Because it's empty,
the promise I made that day:
You remember the one
(the one I've forgotten -
the one about us, and always.
It was the one where I was sincere
and you were sincere
and we looked at each other.
I gazed more or less deeply
into your eyes
and I said something
I can barely recall).
It's like a balloon, though,
or a kite by now -
the wind gusting
over hills,
stirring up old feelings,
mixing misery with dirt,
strings stretched taut,
aching to be free.

8. It's cruel

It's cruel,
how small our windows are:
the pipes through which we breathe,
mufflers that dampen and leave words
sentiments expressed in the
frigid vacancy of a hollow voice,
or a twenty-six character world.
And there we are,
stretching media,
fingertips just glancing,
only a memory of warmth
conjured up across the void.
And the suffocating stars,
one by one extinguished
in the thinness of it all,
call me back to the fact
of impending sorrow -
of the way decisions
have traveled, followed me,
grabbing hold, somehow,
despite the vacuum.
But it's hard to look around,
senses straining to strip off the noise,
head cocked and hypersensitive,
jumping at the least provocation.
It's disconcerting, flailing in a state like this.
I'm taking things as they come.

9. With all the ink spent

With all the ink spent,
with all the industry and affection that
poured three years into the undertaking,
with the sheer number of words uttered,
the silences that ensued were that much more pronounced,
explicit, impossible to bear.

Because after all, it was a great achievement indeed.
It was colossal, something astronomical,
but subtle, too -- a set of secrets shared,
ideas entangled one's with the other's to such an extent
that remembering what was whose at the end became a game
of guessing.

The very fabric that was woven (torn apart), the sets of
beliefs and jokes, bedside silliness and curiosity,
the months apart -- those long months --

all of it, accumulated, tallied...
and would you believe it: even-up at three years' end.

The House took it back,
bet diligently on certainties,
the obvious: fear, jealousy, desire.

Yes, in the end that consistency alone paid off: those affirmations
and compliments, the complements of one against the other...

all of it, enveloped into something
apathetic, or worse.

all of it shadowed,
swallowed up in five aching hours.

10. You called, I remember

You called, I remember,
But after the garbled transmission
and the still-wafting haze
your words never reached me.
I recall your tone, though,
the way you sounded,
despite the haze, and the bad reception -
I remember the silences that punctuated
So many of your thoughts,
The way the technology imposed absolute silence
until the threshold was met.
There was no hearing you breathe,
no listening to myself think
through all that delayed motion,
the echos still rattling,
and nothing but the sound of your voice
getting through.
I tried for a while to acknowledge you:
I made an effort at affirming our communication.
But after a while of drifting,
after being transported out of my own thoughts and
back beyond what anyone could remember
(indeed back to a time primeval and eerily quiet-
but never silent)
but after a while there was only the tone of your voice,
and while it never lulled,
I still fell asleep.

11. I remember distinctly

I remember distinctly what I thought of you before we met.
The potential, the hard-packed pluripotency,
          the excitement of the open road ahead --
there was hardly a hint then of the trauma,
the fabricated convictions, the abruptly-adopted
          hobbies and preferences and my own slipping away,
          losing ground to the steady crank of incidental transformation.

I couldn't have predicted the way I'd detach,
          compassion, enthusiasm, tenderness all falling
          off the bone like so much overcooked meat.
I might have shuddered to think of how little substance would remain.

But that carcass, the loosely-hinged skeleton
          that persists through the lies and false promises,
          survives the idiotic obsessions:
It's hard to explain, but hope crops up in the most unlikely places.

13. Saturday in a Basement Engineering Library

are stacked
packed tight up an aisle
whose narrow rows could zip shut
with the careless operation of a crank
I can see myself stuck between two stacks of journals
crushed packed paper-thin into another victim of compact shelving.

dream was to
track uric acid
in weevil-infested wheat
derive a differential equation to
govern the machines that squirt fig into fig newton
bury another tedious engineering career in the stacks?

14. Metric Spot Check

I have a natural phrase,
iambic trimeter
that isn't lonely like
the sound my heartbeat makes
recovering from New York:
the rows of screens and brains
and tag-team interviews
that left me pressed and bland
as any business suit.

I haven't eaten lunch
and I could spare an hour
to stare and wander through
Times Square, but I decide
to hail another cab,
my third since five a.m.,
and catch an early flight.

15. Edge Effects

I meant to write about the neon crowd
around Times Square on any Friday night
but someone beat me to the game: it might
have been the guy in line behind me for
the urinal at intermission, but
laconic custom holds it impolite
to speak in mens' rooms, so I didn't ask.
In either case, the poem isn't mine.

But if I might indulge one sidewalk scene:
a raving maniac with bible propped
to doomsday prophesies -- he points at me
and screeches ``a Professor of College!'' as
the crowd, constricting, edges out beyond
his raven-hemmed perimeter of speech.

16. The AD558 Restricted to Blank Verse

The Analog Devices dacport is
a low-cost digital to analog
converter with an eight-bit input port.
It's microprocessor compatible
and guaranteed to operate with less
than half a bit of error for a range
of temperature near twenty-five degrees.
The power dissipation won't exceed
five-hundred milliwatts for high supplies
of less than twenty volts, and settle-time
for output is a microsecond, so
it's suitable for use at frequencies
below a megahertz.
                   The circuit fits
within a single monolithic chip.

17. Pantoum for Pesach

There's a no man's land in central Mass.
where neither NPR affiliate
I listen to is audible: I pass
in static through the bulk of it.

Without an NPR affiliate
I'm drowsy, and I count the time
with static, just to make the most of it.
Sometimes I wish my home were mine.

But drowsy, when I count the time
to dinner I remember being eight
and wishing grandma's home were mine
at Pesach, drinking wine and eating late.

One seder, I remember being eight.
My brother drank a grown-up's cup
of Pesach wine, got sick, and eating late
was not entrancing as I'd hoped.

My brother drinks a grown-up's cup
today without a second thought --
but alcohol is not entrancing as I'd hoped
from all the lessons I was taught.

This evening not a single thought
of mine is audible. I pass
ignoring lessons I've been taught.
There's a no man's land in western Mass.

18. Villanelle, Almost Audible

Within a crowd I feel the most alone:
while other more ebullient voices gush,
my silence masks an awkward undertone.

On kindergarten bus rides I was one
to feign unconsciousness in callow hush:
within a crowd I feel the most alone.

I'd hide inside a cardboard box and hone
my ears on conversation's inrush:
my silence masks an awkward undertone.

Or middle school: at dances I was prone
to hide backstage, avoid my sixth grade crush:
within a crowd I feel the most alone.

And even now, with friends or on the phone
communication takes another push:
my silence masks an awkward undertone.

Disquieted, I fear I've never grown
accustomed to the blooming boundless rush.
Within a crowd I feel the most alone.
My silence masks an awkward undertone.

19. Blurred Moon

We went camping once when it was cold enough
to see your breath misting the stars
and I knew you well enough to hike into the woods
singing with a pot on my head
and liked you just enough to be jealous when you
laughed with Jessica instead of me.
I used you as a tripod: my rudimentary lunar
photograph left the moon a blur
and your hair entangled in the camera strap.
We had watched the sun set and the moon rise
before we noticed how dark it got
and slipped half scared in thrill down the slick trail to camp.
Then something left me juvenile in twig-snapping blackness,
drove me out of my sleeping bag
and into a little clearing to listen to your conversation
and try to frighten you with the eeriest leaf-rustling I could muster.
In the morning I awoke, rolled down the hill
from where I'd lain and fussed, embarrassed --
but you, already packed, wouldn't hear my apology.

20. The Potential of Maple

We made enough smoke
in the kitchen
to crowd out the pluming tension
with burned bits of pancake
caked dry on cast iron
never quite cured,
pluming wisps that mounted
as if handsome decoration
artfully diffusing foyer light,
as if to be displayed
next to a stolen hotel bathrobe
and the towel with my name
sewn in near the corner
from summer camp.

If I'd had my way
we would have eaten at that
restaurant with picnic tables
and plastic cloths
and the petting zoo just outside the dining room
where for a quarter you could buy a handful
of animal feed from a candy machine
and let the sheep gobble it up,
the kind of place that's only open
two months a year
when the sap's flowing
and the stove's burning
with the subtle-sweet scent of maple
just shimmering in the air,
and you can order a stack of pancakes
big enough to pop your pants' top button.
You would have been a smash hit
at the placemat anagram contest,
could have probably found a hundred words
in maple syrup,
beaten my grandparents' score
of seventy-eight and been
immortalized with a thumbtack above the cash register
where people wonder what's the difference
between fancy and medium grade,
and what about maple sugar, and
maple butter, and how many words could be
hiding, jumbled in a simple phrase.

21. The shampoo-sweat

The shampoo-sweat of your scalp is enough
to turn me snuff-taker,
nostrils tucked
under dirty-blond locks
to draw in euphoria.
You're dozing; I'm electrified.

And both our spines supported
by an orthopedic innerspring of solid steel.
We're twisted in a net of jersey-knit,
goose-down, egg-foam, pre-compressed fibers,
duvet. Touche!

And isn't it luxurious these days,
with eighty inches of Unicased mattress comfort
to explore that little space at the base
of your neck, the smooth parts
by your belly button,
dimples, earlobes,
fingernails, tooth marks.

The shock-absorbing box spring
barely flutters but
your eyelids open; mine close.
I'm feigning sleep.

22. Ad-verse

Escorted Europe Tours
at discount prices
are enticing,
like the concert tickets,
wonka bars,
and kitchen sinks
that Google's pushing right
beside my e-mail.

Thank heaven for the Internet!

I mean, they really tried
to offer me a kitchen sink,
complete with "experts" to advise me
on my "kitchen sinks needs."

Now I'm an ignoramous
when it comes to plumbing,
but I'm pretty sure
this "HandyHome Guide"
won't address my needs.

The page consists of
a list of ads
above a list of ads
below a little graphic
of a house.
And at bottom, naturally,
it's copyright
two thousand five, all rights reserved.

Last night a server somewhere
on the information superhighway
entertained the notion that
I might enjoy a pair of
inline skates,
with "free fast shipping"
and "effective breaks" ---
"exactly what I need."
I'm hazerdous enough at
low velocity!

But sometimes it occurs to me
that Google's right,
perhaps they know me better
than I know myself with thirteen thousand
e-mails logged and analyzed.
Perhaps their urgings are astute:

'Cause I can almost see myself,
lug wrench in hand,
or whatever kind of wrench you use
to fix a sink (I'm sure the experts
know.) and chowing on a wonka bar,
anticipating Europe as I skate
my way across the kitchen floor.

23. Swiss Miss

We're shaving chocolate bars in
shaggy heaps, stirring to dissolve
the flecks with a teaspoonful
of sugar, pinch of salt,
two drops' vanilla extract
and a final minute at
the resonant frequency
of milk.

We could have used the stove,
lit matches and methane
and burned off the scary-sulfur
mercaptan smell at 11,000 btu per hour ---

But where's the fun of foamy
milk film stuck to the sides
of a pot? What's the point of
sponging down the metal
in a hot sink when slick Pyrex
and silicone rinse clean
in seconds?

And then again, why bother
scraping bittersweet bars
across the grater stroke
by stroke, the chocolate dust
melting on our hands?
There's the cutting board
to clean, the sharp box grater
that gets clogged
and awkward in the sink,
and all that work for
sixteen ounces of hot cocoa.

24. Apoptosis and Necrosis

Already halfway through my coffee,
hardly fifteen minutes through the nine a.m.
I start to wonder how I'll go.

A cellular biologist divides the modes of death
in two broad categories: apoptosis and necrosis.
Like any good taxonomy the archetypes
are polar opposites.

Some say that for destruction apoptosis
has its charm, control, a regulated
inward shrinkage timed to signals
from the outside world,
disintegration bleb by bleb until no core remains:
a quiet death and easily absorbed into the sea
of nameless neighbors,
one more empty seat in lecture hall
consumed by someone's sweater,
desk usurped for coffee, cell phone
or banana peel.

But I can feel myself taking the other path,
with undissected head and neck still
glaring down in grave indifference
there are some necrotic signs, the swelling
thoughts and captivating whisper
of freedom swirling through my studies.

So there's this swelling plus a kind of
leakiness, disregulated planning and spending
as I ditch the textbooks to bake gleaming sheets
of hypertrophic chocolate chip cookies.
I purchase cookbooks on the Internet
and stoneware at department stores
and daydream of a future where I'll have
the time to use them ---

All early signs, reversible.

And yet from what I've learned to date
as salt pours in and water follows by osmosis,
every membrane meets its fate,
the mute explosions of necrosis.