Dusk Over Pier A Park, Hoboken

A mother bird nests in the bowed eves;

Her young dead on the ground below.

The reddening dusk etched and balanced

Above the palisades—the sky pressed down,

Distanced.

The clamor of the city’s rattle

Squeezes tight the pulsing blood:

Heels click, flip-phones clack closed,

The last commuter train bumps to a stop

With the weight of the city inside.

A girl and her brother dart ahead, snapping;

Mom and dad stroll close behind, silent.

When she gets older, the girl loses her brother.

She watched the tower fall with him in it

From the same spot they darted ahead, snapping.

Two derelict men kneel down,

Lower their faces to a fresh spill

Of water on the floor, rest on their elbows,

And lap the cool water.

Birching the Dust Below

The tingle on my tongue,

From a late summer nectarine:

Glistening, ripe, swollen,

cracked by desert-warmed wisps.

 

From my lips the tiniest

syrup-rich droplet drips,

birching the dust below,

alerting the ants to swarm, feast.

Lost in the Garden

Uncle Ezra sat expressionless in a frayed nylon lawn chair next to his yellowed herb garden. Cigarette butts fell out of the full pie tin ashtray and onto the table as he stubbed out a cigarette.

I sat between Ma and Papa on a shaded bench under the overgrown fig tree. The dew-drying spring morning heat smelled of damp dirt. In my boredom I squirmed side to side, like a wild spirit weighed down by a wet lose-weave blanket.

Uncle Ezra’s coughing fit broke the silence. He gasped to catch his breath, stood up and leaned against the wall with both hands to sturdy himself. I too gasped for air.

“You okay?” Ma asked him.

Uncle Ezra didn’t say anything as he turned to face us. He unbuttoned his shirt and shoved his clenched fists into his pockets and inhaled, deep and deliberate. I too inhaled, deep and deliberate. Our chests barreled and tense with the damp atoms of decomposing fig leaves.

Men Who Show Love and Affection Will Save The World

In a study of 2,934 fathers, 52% of the fathers said “showing love and affection to their children” is the “most important” responsibility of a father (Kalil, 2003). That means 48% of the fathers do not think it’s important to show love and affection to their children! If almost half of fathers do not think showing love towards kids is important, then how will their children learn to maintain a healthy relationship?

Fatherhood.gov is a national initiative to “encourage and strengthen fathers and families.” The tv ad campaign promoting the initiative features WWE Superstar Roman Reign and his daughter. You may have seen it: A female postal carrier stops and voyeurs through a house window at a hulky tattooed father singing “I’m a Little Tea Pot” with his daughter. The ad encourages fathers to take time to be a dad today, but fails by not emphasizing basic ways a father can use that time to show love and affection.

There is a negative connotation associated with men who say “I love you” and show affection. The most affection the daughter experiences in the fatherhood.gov tv ad is eye contact. For too many women and children, they “…learn to settle for whatever positive attention men are able to give. They learn to overvalue it. They learn to pretend that it is love” (The Will To Change). Men must learn and practice ways to express love and affection. They must learn to lead by example and with integrity.

We cannot love what we fear and that is why so many religious traditions teach us there is no fear in love (The Will To Change). We’ve heard that love is patient, kind, rejoices with the truth; does not envy, boast, delight in evil, dishonor others, keep records of wrongs; is not proud, self-seeking, easy to anger; always protects, trusts, hopes, perseveres. It’s critical all fathers practice these basic acts of love, not just 52% of them.

As bell hooks emphasizes in The Will To Change: “…life has shown me that any time a single male dares to transgress patriarchal boundaries in order to love, the lives of women, men, and children are fundamentally changed for the better” (Will To Change). Saying I Love You, giving a hug, and being kind to your family and friends are simple yet important acts that we know will save the world.

The Will To Change: Men, Masculinity, and Love

“…we have been socialized to be the keepers of grave and serious secrets—especially those that could reveal the everyday strategies of male domination, how male power is enacted and maintained in our private lives.” ~bell hooks, The Will To Change

I was the target of male rage throughout my childhood. To soothe my physical and mental pains, I sought the peace and support of the women in my life. They hugged instead of hit; smiled instead of sneered; joked instead of jested. Life was calm around them, not callous. But by 12 I began to look like a man and the women stopped hugging, smiling, and joking with me. I was left to discover how to love on my own.

But how was I to learn about nurturing relationships with love when I rarely experienced or witnessed acts of love by the men in my life? When I was nine, my dad said I was too old to sit on his lap; at ten he stopped kissing me before going to bed; at eleven he stopped hitting me as punishment; and at twelve, we got in an argument and he challenged me to a fight. Over those years I learned how to hide emotions, withhold my affection, and intimidate with dominance. My father and I have shared moments of love and joy. But the memories of his rage and oppression are overshadowing. Men “…cannot change if there are no blueprints for change. Men cannot love if they are not taught the art of loving” (Will to Change).

There are many honorable men who are loving and kind. However, a loving and kind man may still choose dominance over love: “Many of these men were radical thinkers who participated in movements for social justice speaking out on behalf of the workers, the poor, speaking out on behalf of racial justice. However, when it came to the issue of gender they were as sexist as their conservative cohorts” (Will to Change). I’ve struggled with unlearning what patriarchal culture taught me. My willingness to change motivates me to relearn how to love others and myself.

When I was young the abuse and bullying confused me. I couldn’t figure out what I was doing and how to make it stop. I often wondered why people who said they were my family and friends hurt me. Was I unlovable? The people I wanted to talk to about my pain became the same people who hurt me. Over time I learned to hide my emotions from myself and others. The result of boys not experiencing or feeling love leads to the sad truth that “Boys are not seen as lovable in patriarchal culture” (Will to Change). Perhaps a reason why men struggle with saying “I love you” and sharing affection with their sons, brothers, nephews, fathers, and friends.

It’s easier for a man to act violent towards others who he doesn’t love. As a boy, I saw men yell at their wives, slap their children across the face, and withhold affection to gain emotional control. What I didn’t see were men who treated their wives as equals, were affectionate with their families, and nurtured lasting relationships. The Will To Change encourages men to nurture relationships with love and to “…let go the will to dominate…and be willing to change.”

Pasta al Forno

#RecipeStory

Serves: 6

Prep: 30 minutes

Cook: 1 hour

_______________

2 lbs penne pasta

2 T olive oil

4 large cloves garlic, chopped

2-16 oz cans whole tomatoes

4 Roma tomatoes, chopped

¼ cup fresh basil, chopped

1 red bell pepper, chopped

1 large onion, chopped

2 cups mozzarella cheese, grated

4 eggs

2 T fresh oregano, chopped

  1. In a large saucepan, Ma heated the olive oil on medium heat and added the garlic. While the garlic softened, Ma showed Papa my second grade art project: A hand-drawn picture of a hairy Bigfoot holding his dick, peeing on a rock. They whispered to each other, and then Papa yelled at me, “Don’t do it again.” My eyes began to sting from the garlic’s fragrant punch.
  2. Ma added the chopped and whole cans of tomatoes, juice and all, into the saucepan. And then turned the flame to low. As the tomatoes and garlic simmered for 30 minutes, Papa yelled things like, “You upset your mother,” “The principal and teachers don’t like you anymore,” and “Who taught you that, your cousin?”
  3. Ma added the basil to the tomatoes and mixed it in. Papa grabbed me by the arm and forced me into my dinner table seat—next to the wall, under a plate-sized painting of Pope John Paul II. Ma moved the saucepan off heat and kept an eye on me and Papa’s temper.
  4. She brought a large pot of salted water to a rolling boil over medium-high heat, and added the pasta and cooked it al dente. The whole time Papa yelled at Ma and my sisters. He said they walked around the house in their underwear too much and it’s causing me to draw bad pictures.
  5. Ma’s hands were shaking as she turned the oven dial to 375 and as she drained the pasta. They continued to shake while she coated the inside of a large, deep baking dish with olive oil. I too began to shake.
  6. Papa’s yelling got louder. Ma added the pasta, tomato sauce, chopped peppers and onions, cheese, eggs, and oregano to the oiled baking dish and mixed everything together. She slammed the oven door closed after sliding the baking dish onto the middle rack, and yelled back, “Maybe he found the dirty magazines you keep in the garage.”
  7. For the hour while the pasta baked, Papa sat silent in his chair smoking and watching TV. Ma scrubbed the kitchen counters and swept the floor. The picture of Bigfoot holding his dick while peeing on a rock was on the dinner table, right in front of me.
  8. Ma took the pasta out of the oven and let it cool. She put the Bigfoot picture on top of the refrigerator. We sat at the table and ate. No one spoke. After dinner, Ma washed the dishes, Papa went back to sitting in his chair to smoke and watch TV. I sat under the table and flicked breadcrumbs at him.

Ghost Story

The moving truck had left and I was alone in the kitchen of my new home. I opened a cupboard and began tearing decades old shelving paper out. I heard glass break on the floor behind me. I turned around to see a glass pitcher on the floor, whole and unbroken.

Out of nowhere, Martha appeared in the kitchen entry. She looked like my uncle’s ghost, but more yellowed. She said, “Don’t be afraid. I won’t hurt you.”

“I know,” I said. “I’ve seen my uncle’s ghost for years. ”

“Oh, so you touched the ground where he died?”

“Yes. My uncle shot himself in the head in my grandparents’ garage when I was five. None of the kids were allowed in the garage after that. I did sneak in once and saw a big stain on the floor next to the washing machine. I knelt down and touched it. After that day, my uncle appeared to me every time I visited my grandparents’ house. I called out to him a few times, but he never looked my way or said anything. Where did you die?”

Martha said, “In front of the cupboards, where you were tearing out the shelving paper. He left me for her. I raised three kids in this house, alone. I helped them make science projects on a table we had right here.” Tears welled up in her eyes. “I had to do it all by myself. And President Kennedy was about to get us involved in a war with Russia over Cuba. The kids were so scared. Matthew finally came home on a Saturday and said we should divorce. He had a ‘For Sale’ sign in his hand. I went to check on the kids playing in the backyard and when I came back inside he stabbed me in the stomach with a kitchen knife. I screamed and held my stomach. I saw my kids come inside and then I blacked out. After that, all I remember is floating above my body as my husband hurried the kids out and then came back to put a hammer in my hand. Matthew told the kids I tried to kill him. He told the same story to the sheriff, but added because of the divorce.”

“Did he go to jail?”

“I don’t know. But I did see my oldest daughter a while ago. She was beautiful and had kids with her. They stood right outside the kitchen window, looking in.” Martha put her hand on the windowpane.

I heard a car pull up in front of the house. Through the front window I saw my sister Linda walking up the driveway. When I opened the door, she said, “Hey bro,” and poked me in the chubby part of my belly as she walked past. “Here to see the house.”

She hurriedly went room to room and at one point I heard her shout from another room, “Nice place.”

“There’s a ghost living in this house,” I blurted.

“Who’s living with you?” Linda said as she opened and closed closet doors.

“Nothing. Forget it.”

“You’re so weird. I thought you’d grow out of it.” She jingled her car keys in her hand, kissed me on the cheek and headed for the door, “Catch ya’ later, alligator.”

“See ya’, sis.”

“No. Say it.” She smiled, jingled her keys in my face and poked me in the belly.

“Okay, in awhile crocodile. Happy?”

She hurried to her car and hollered, “Congratulations! Someday you’ll get married and have a reason to own a home. Just kiddin’. Love ya’.” She blew me a kiss and drove off.

 

It was getting close to dinnertime, and I wanted to fiddle around with some woodcarving tools I found in my toolbox before I ate. I took them out, placing them on the workbench on the back porch. In the vice grip I tightened a piece of hard, cracked wood. With my left hand, I grasped a chisel, and in my right hand, a hammer.

I struck the head of the chisel with the hammer and it slipped off the wood and cut into my stomach, just below my belly button. I felt warm blood run down my belly, and also a sharp pain deep in my stomach. Blood dribbled, then started to flow when I tugged on the chisel. I fell to the ground and gasped. As I crawled towards the backdoor, everything became fuzzy and heavy. Through the kitchen window overlooking the back porch, I could see Martha looking out at me. I reached my hand out and she did the same.

 

After I died, I glided around the backyard. On the day the new family moved into the house, I leaned against the wall outside the open kitchen window, and talked to Martha. She said, “It’s nice to have kids here again. No offense.”

I said, “None taken.”

One of the kids ran out of the house and across the back porch. The little boy stopped and stared at me.

Not wanting to frighten him, I stood still until the boy approached me. I glided closer to him, squatted down, and said, “Do I frighten you?”

The boy looked me up and down, and said, “Not really. What’s your name?”

I steadied myself, and answered, “I’m Scott. I used to live here until I died on the back porch. What’s your name?”

“Timmy. We moved here from Canada for my dad’s work. When I grow up, I want to drive a bulldozer or be a pirate.”

I laughed and said, “A pirate?”

“Yeah, I want to travel the world on a ship and have gold.”

“That sounds like fun, Timmy.” I sat down on the ground and crossed my wrinkled legs, and he did the same.

The boy’s father yelled out the kitchen window, “Timmy, come in. Mom’s making hot chocolate for us.”

Timmy stood up, and before running inside asked me, “Do you live here?”

I got back on my knee, steadied myself, and said, “Yep. I live right here in the backyard.”

Timmy ran inside and let the door slam behind him. I glided to the kitchen window to get a glimpse of the family. I saw the boy take a seat at the table, and Martha leaning against the kitchen counter. She smiled as the family drank hot chocolate.

“Writing Like a Poet”

“For the poet is a light and winged and holy thing, and there is no invention in him until he has been inspired and is out of his senses, and reason is no longer in him.” Plato, Ion.

Why do poetry teachers find it necessary to scare the hell out of any one attempting the art? Discussions about consciousness, vibrancy, and environmental concerns are profound and complex, however, they have no place in the writing of poetry. Writing poetry is a challenge in itself and becomes more of a challenge when bombarded with rules, regulations, and other “workshop-ish” guidelines. Poetry teachers, the whole bunch, must remember that poetry is the most democratic of art forms. Poetry is for the people, by the people, of the people.

Walt Whitman, a tongue of flame in the fire of American poetry, acknowledges the point repeatedly in Leaves of Grass. In “I Hear America Singing,” Whitman recognizes that in the ever-changing American society, poetry is found in every “song” sung by every American: “Each singing what belongs to him or her and to none else.” Our everyday activities contribute to the ever-revising, universal poem. And all we need to add to the expanding poem is a thought, a pencil, and a single sheet of paper.

For the past thirty years I’ve worked with diverse groups of writers that range from wards at Sylmar juvenile hall, to privileged prep-school teens, to underprivileged NYC youths, to poets in Columbia University’s MFA program. From my experience, these writers all have one major quest—get “it” off their chest. The use of abstract phrases and concepts by poetry teachers are interesting to ponder, but fail at compelling a poet to write. Teachers of poetry must focus on reasonable applications and practical tips, without which all successful poets would be unsuccessful.

I often hear poetry teachers take a stab at offering a practical tip by suggesting that poets document their journey through life. “It’s what the people want,” they say. The exercise of documenting is worthwhile, but the real proof is if the poet is moved by the poem. The poet should not be interested in the reader’s reaction at all. Archibald MacLeish in “Ars Poetica” states, “A poems should not mean/But be.” Ultimately, poetry is the act of diving headlong into the past, present and future, sometimes all at the same time, in an attempt to please the poet.

A poet has one task—write. That’s it: sit, stand, bow, or kneel. But whatever position you end up in, write about your own experiences. Declare your satisfaction or dissatisfaction with a howl, hoot, cry, or just giggle your words onto paper. As poets, we know that poems are a challenge to write, what with the rules and regulations. We know that our chances of making a living off our writings are slim to none. So, all we can do is heed T.S. Eliot’s wisdom, “No honest poet can ever feel quite sure of the permanent value of what he has written: he may have wasted his time and messed up his life for nothing.”

So, write something you like.

* published in The Santa Barbara Independent, December 1, 2005

 

I Saw The Future Today

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We’re all going to be okay. The student in the picture made it possible. Not in a hopey changey kind of way, but stone cold real.

Here’s the issue: At a high school in South Africa, African woman are told their hair is untidy. It’s clear to me now that “WTF” was coined many years ago just for this very story.

And when the school officials at Pretoria Girls High required female students to braid their hair, a beautiful thing happened. They didn’t braid their hair, and instead showed us what unity looks like.

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Trying to unify a group of people isn’t easy. As a faculty union senator at a community college, I led a campaign to organize 300 adjunct instructors. Only 135 joined. But at Pretoria Girls High, the entire campus of teenagers joined in.

Our future leaders know that when one stands, many follow.

baton-rouge-protests

 

 

“Marie’s Fear” by Lucia Tenerelli

My mom arrived at Penn Station in NYC on November 24, 1954, the day before Thanksgiving. I asked her many years ago about her ride from NYC to Los Angeles. She said she slept most of the time. But remembers waking up at one point and a black man was sitting across the aisle from her. Growing up in a convent in southern Italy, she never saw a black man before. She stared at the man for a long time before her father slapper her across the face and said not to stare.

I grew up with stories. Immigrant stories. Stories of my grandfather “jumping ship” to get into the US, of my father and uncle driving Route 66 from Chicago to Los Angeles in their 1955 Pontiacs, of my mom being raised by nuns in a convent in post-WWII southern Italy, of my Uncle Filippo being murdered by members of the Manson Family in Bishop, CA in 1969. All true stories.

One of the most influential stories to me as a writer was written by my mom when she was a junior in high school. The writing assignment was for students to write a story about their childhoods. My mom wrote about her best friend, Marie, an orphan who she grew up with in the convent in Molfetta, Italy. I’m amazed at the level of fear my mom was able to convey with a limited English vocabulary. And the level of terror my mom must have lived with as a child.

My mom swears the story is true: Marie’s Fear_Lucia Tenerelli