Emergency Broadcast

for Helen Caldicott


            Of course you know this thirty-second tone

            sustained. . . so like

            a Middle C. . . . . . is only a test


            You are not required to locate shelter

            or think

            about the proximity of targets


            You may disregard, for now, that tone's persistence

            an overkill of the alarm

            waking you from shadows, from nightmares


            Of radiation sickness, mutagenic wars,

            a world stockpiled

            with strontium-90 to its deciduous teeth


            Blot out the photographs of Bikini explosions

            one glance 

            will permanently blind you


            Two hundred thousand Japanese ghosts

            must be wrong

            about meltdowns, picocuries, and other carcino-


            Genocides. If you're capable of listening

            you're safe

            to relax under an ozone layer still intact


            So what if the Senate purchased (for you!) some new missile

            enough megatonage

            to detonate twenty more Soviet Unions


            Don't call this station asking for escape routes

            with every broadcast

            we are testing our love for this planet


            If a bomb goes off in your neighborhood

            we won't just 

            be working here anymore   



                             from Searchings for Modesto (1993), first published in The Greenfield Review (Summer/Fall, 1984)



  Acid Rain

                                                                                    "It is in the sphere or art

                                                                                      that dream is reconciled with reality."

                                                                                                              Robert Langbaum

                    The earth did not come with a list of instructions.


                    Like lines of tourists waiting at the border

                    Of a foreign country, shadows of pine--

                    Mostly ponderosa--cast themselves as curtains

                    Against the melting snow bank along a highway.


                    Or maybe the run-off--so loud in the streams

                    Below --conveys an acid with it, blighting

                    The spawn of brook trout in transparent lakes.


                    Some people take the truth for propaganda.


                    Over the marshes the male harrier--

                    Smaller than the female, gray with black wingtips--

                    Displays that plumage for his brown mate.

                    Today he is her major litmus test in life.


                    Shadows mingle. Pine needles screen

                    Two passengers from fatigue and blindness.

                    Colors build to white. We need to know.    

                                        from Searchings for Modesto (1993),

                                                            first published in Calapooya Collage/10 (1986)



Old Papers


It's time to throw out

old papers

on that Peugeot 504

I sold at a corner

gas station

five years ago this summer.

It wasn't the car for me

to drive anymore:

leaky sunroof--

window that kept falling

off its rack with a break-

neck crash.

These things always happened

to the passenger next to me

in the front seat.



When we bought that car,

a Frenchman

pointing at an F, said:

"You say Fahn; we say Ferme'!"

A seatbelt jammed the front door

the first day out.

The second

(October. No ice on the road.)

we got rear-ended in Chamonix

by a woman who shouted:

"Don't call the cops!"

inviting us to flatten out the bumps

at her house.



Out of gas in Vancouver.

Yellow lights flashed citations

in Blaine.

The longer the trip,

the hotter the muffled,

melting the plastic handle

of a Phillips screwdriver in the trunk.

At Safeway in Aberdeen, Vermae P. Harris

collided (at an angle)

with the left front side.

Rattled, she back up,

then hit the gas

another time in forward gear.

Her call to the insurance agent,

"Floyd, it's me again!"

delivered everything we needed.



But in Hawaii that Peugeot

caught tropical diseases, sticky gears,

demanding Japanese parts

to replace the dying French ones.

One day, on its own,

it traveled out of a garage,

down a hill, past the normal Hell

of screaming children

who later flew back to Canada

with their sunburnt mother.

Her ex- (to be)

took a photograph of rear wheels

hanging over the edge of their driveway,

stopped by a metal stake

from colliding

into a neighbor's converted carport.

The local who came to tow the car

eyed the engine

beached on cement and leveled:

"Mo' bettah you sign dis waivah!"

I did, and thanks to him,

drove away,

the steering wheel shaking.

                        from Searchings For Modesto (1992), first published in Hawaii Review (Spring 1986)



Self-Realization Shrine

                                                                            "silence of the sewn-up lips

                                                                                            is no silence" Mohandas Gandhi


                    A Shrine For All Faiths--

                        carved words on a wooden sign.

                            My mother's hands on the steering wheel

                                of our '57 Chevy

                    hugging the right,

                        taking the downhill curve

                            like a saint praying for humanity.



                    Others forgot cleaving:

                        tires squealed beyond forbidden lines,

                            horns sounded, and a motorcycle policeman,

                                dressed in black,

                    jumped the last amber light on Sunset

                            in hot pursuit of his prey.

                                Those sirens

                            set off spiraling worlds

                        on our shoulders.



                    Summer days meant open-window drives

                        like that one to the Pacific.

                            Mrs. Abzug loved the beach in September,

                    when the fog stopped blowing, the water

                        warmed up a little. My father complained

                            about loose sand gritting his food.

                        Cold wars didn't bother us much as kids;

                    we built sand castles on the beach, and freeways, too.



                    Lake ripples differed from the ocean's:

                        a windmill turned California chaparral

                            into green Holland, a houseboat converted

                    itself into a chapel, a statue of St. Francis,

                        and a bigger one of Jesus--

                    arms outstretched on a hill above the lake--

                    and an ancient Chinese stone sarcophagus--

                        a portion of Gandhi's ashes--

                            on the other shore beyond a lotus gateway.



                    Annie Hruby criticized it:

                    "Saint Francis, Patron Saint of Birds?"

                        Her family's was a Roman Catholic faith,

                            schooled in Corpus Christi and St. Monica's,

                                 where Annie too the lead

                            in a play the nuns directed.

                    Her cues slipped by the stagehands.

                        Annie cleaved to the switch of a lamp,

                            waiting for their lights; their train

                        sounded outside a stage window

                                   several minutes too late.

                    All I hold now is her exasperation--

                        the drama vague, the setting cluttered

                            with furniture from another decade.



                    Paramahansa Yogananda said Gandhi drove

                         beyond material sacrifices to "the more difficult

                               renunciation of selfish motive." Faced with

                    outright misconceptions, the Mahatma chose

                    selective silence.

                        His shrine on Sunset still takes curves

                            around me, flattens out old summers

                                 and the Pacific, opens up a prayer

                    in Death's loud light.                     

                                                                                    from Searchings For Modesto (1993),

                                                                                           first published in West Wind Review (1984)  


Sending the Right Signals



                    Mr. O'Brien didn't like children.

                            If, by accident, the back door

                    of his garage was left open,

                        we'd peek in to watch him

                    talk into big HAM-radio

                        microphone. His short-shaved mustache

                    bristled; the smell

                            of his pipe

                        crackled in the air

                            like those voices rasping:

                    "C.Q., C.Q., do you read me? Over."


                    If, by chance, he happened

                        to spy us, his signals

                            about interrupting

                    came in loud and clear.



                    Once, by chance, we got ahold

                        of his seltzer bottle--

                            squirting one another

                    "by accident" like on TV or in the movies.

                            We filled each glass

                    to overflowing, our laughter

                        crackling on his table and floor.

                    When he found a used-up cartridge

                            unloosened from its bottle

                        he made his ire understood

                    in no uncertain terms.



                    Dee Dee, his daughter,

                        was accident prone.

                            Playing "Off to Mars,"

                    some of us took a stationary

                        space flight in my mother's car.

                    Our voices sounded so grown-up,

                            modulating brisk interplanetary

                    communications. That distant

                        journey was interrupted

                    by a dragging backwards

                        down the driveway

                            after I set loose

                    the emergency brake. We abandoned ship

                        without interference--

                            all except Dee Dee

                    who got her arm rasped

                        where the wall of the house

                            stopped the car's back door.



                    A few months later

                        I got an urgent message:

                            Dee Dee had just fallen

                    through her parents' glass window.

                        The Eisenbergs--next-door neighbors,

                    dropped pijamas, nightgowns,

                        robes in mounds on their floor

                            when they rushed her off

                    to the hospital's emergency room. I stayed

                        at the Eisenbergs',

                            watched TV Dragnet, waited

                        for news about Dee Dee.

                    A mean face with freckles got the electric chair.



                    But Mr. O'Brien all day

                        stationary in his garage

                            never heard a thing about Dee Dee--

                    those voices rasping signals:

                    "C.Q. C.Q. Do you read me? Over and out."

                                                from Searchings For Modesto (Talent House Press, 1993)


Counting Those Years



                    Facing his TV,

                    his right hand grasping

                        Arizona Highways on a metal 

                        folding table,

                            Grandpa Scoles never gets up

                            from his deck chair.

                    The bullet-nosed Studebaker

                    he bought

                        before he retired,

                        before he and his wife moved

                    into the house on Coolidge,

                    never budges from the garage.



                    I am four

                    and can count those years

                        on my fingers,

                        folding down

                    my thumb at the end.

                    My father lifts me

                        up on his shoulders,

                        lopes me

                            across our backyard lawn

                            to a redwood gate where he says,

                    "Unless you want to bump your head,

                    lean over," where we lean


                        twined and tangled

                            as the sweet peas strung out

                            in the Scoles' yard.



                    My grandfathers died before World War Two,

                    my grandmothers shortly after,

                        but the neighbor I call

                        Grandma Scoles

                            babysits me, gives me

                            plays cards

                    with fancy Queens, fierce Kings

                    and Jacks with tangled hair.

                        After she cleans up the kitchen,

                        we try a game

                            of Fish or War,

                            evening off our scores,

                    And Grandpa just sits in his chair.



                    At bedtime, Grandma walks me home.

                    I grasp her warm, shaky hand

                        as we pass through the gate.

                        She reads me stories

                            in an upholstered chair,

                            where I loll,

                        where we fit

                        snugly together.



                    Staring at the pictures,

                    I breathe the words

                        as she reads them

                        twining them, too,

                            to my lips.

                            At the end,

                    I want another story.

                    Her lids already fallen,

                        she sighs and says:

                        "I need to rest my eyes."

                            Before hers reopen,

                            mine are tightly shut.



                    Just once--

                    a hot day,

                        when the Studebaker has disappeared

                        from the garage--

                    Bobby Mueller and I

                    trespass in, see old

                        National Geographics

                        on an overhang.

                            We climb up,

                            leaf through them,

                    admire naked bodies,

                    scatter slick stacks.

                        Our eyes a little bleary,

                        we get up to leave;

                            I go down first;

                            Bobby slips, doubles over,

                    falls towards me

                    onto the cement below.

                        His head dripping red

                        along a tangled crack,

                            I say: "My father's a doctor.

                            We've got lots of bandaids."



                    But Bobby wants to go home.

                    He is bleeding and crying.

                        We walk--

                        shaky together.




                    A few more years.

                    We move out

                        of the house on Colby, rarely

                        go back. I am in college

                            when I hear

                            Grandma has died, Grandpa

                    has moved in to a cement apartment.

                    He is sitting by his new TV

                        his head facing me,

                        describing the robbery:

                            how two "young toughs"

                            broke down his door

                        cracked his skull,

                        knocked him cold.



                    He moves again,

                    lives on

                        a while longer.

                        I can't count those years.         from Searchings For Modesto (1993)


Keeping Still

                                "Teach us to care and not to care.

                                                                                  Teach us to sit still." T. S. Eliot

                                                                                  "It is very difficult to bring quiet

                                                                                    to the heart."  I CHING


                That cross babysitter,

                        who thought I was too thin,

                who decided to force-feed me, shrieking galling words

                        in her native Swedish,

                stuffed anger into me

                    and stealth: for years,

                        when a meal looked overwhelming,

                        I pushed peas over the edge of my plate,

                            tucked them into hiding,

                    stuck half-chewed lamb chops

                            into our TV sofa.

                    After my mother pointed him out to me

                        driving his wild-westernized car

                                on the Hollywood freeway,

                            Hoppalong Cassidy

                    filled me up enough

                        each night at 6 PM--well, maybe a stray bite

                    of potatoes

                        between bullets and shouted commercials.



                Calm Emily babysat a lot longer,

                    didn't overworry about my diet

                or her usage of Black English.

                        We had an appetite for similar things:

                roller-coaster rides at Ocean Park,

                            ice cream, cotton candy,

                        TV dinners,

                    a weekend or two at her home in Watts:

                nameless dark-skinned playmates

                    (we didn't need names!),

                    and my first harrowing

                        acquaintance with mythological beasts:

                when Emily's brother took us fishing in Ballona Creek,

                        reeling one in onto the sand,

                            IT WALKED ON LEGS!

                He called it a "crawL-fish."



                I never liked afternoon naps.

                    Emily tucked me into bed once, rolled down

                        the white window shades,

                            but I got dressed in silence,

                    sped up the block with Corky Klein

                            and my black-haired dog named Spots.

                Vexed, indignant, Emily hurled

                            righteous words at us

                        in vain. Our eight short legs

                outmaneuvered her two, and devilish,

                    I shouted: "We're running away for ever!"

                An alleyway behind apartments.

                        A girl our age opens a kitchen door,

                invites us in,

                    hides us a few twilight hours--

                            all except Spots,

                whose wag showed recognition

                    of my parents'

                        slow, searching car.



                Though the magic had darkened,

                    my punishment seemed light:

                        tough words from my mother:

                            "Mrs. Klein is madder than a hornet!"

                And Corky's mother's smiting shrieks,

                    her threats: Corky would get his mouth washed out

                with soap, could never

                        pal around with me again.



                That tan boy, Chris Ewing, and his magical sister.

                    Their white-washed Spanish house

                        sloping toward the Channel Islands

                alone on a bluff over Ventura.

                    Those wild fictions she created one day

                on imaginary horses. We lived them,

                hopped along, silent

                    on flagstone, peering through

                        paneled glass windows.

                She died in Spain--motorcycle accident.

                            The family veered

                off to Hawaii.  More and more

                    recent houses affront the view.



                But Spots grew arthritic, nauseous,

                    contracted other ailments; he couldn't snap

                        at bees in flowers, run in circles

                wild from their sting, the way he used to do.

                When he couldn't stand up

                    on his legs any longer, I drove him

                        to the Vet, who, silently,

                put him to sleep.

                Something I wrote in a letter

                        irked Billie Addams--so many lost friends,

                babysitters I owe something to--

                    even that tormented Swede taunts me

                        in the mirror when I notice

                my still skinny physique.              from Searchings for Modesto (Talent House Press, 1993)