SAMPLES FROM THE BOOK
Copyright © 2017 by James B. Mele
An American Scholar
Words have told a story
The picture will never know.
In the photograph my great-uncle
Looks every bit a man of letters
Intent upon his cerebral trade.
He strikes the trite pose,
Pen poised, electric with genius,
An inspiration away
From the blank, white page.
His Sunday clothes trick
The camera’s credulous eye
Into an image of the man
He could imagine himself
The only day a week
His face was not
A prisoner of a dark, Anonymous mask of coal dust.
An untutored scholar,
Wild and brash,
He took to learning
With the same zest
That he wrestled tarantelle
From the wheezy bellows
Of his accordion.
Hammering out his lessons
In an unlikely class,
Stoop-backed in the tunnels,
Wading the black pit water,
He mined the tongues of Poles, Slovaks, Swedes, Irish
Who sweat with him
In the infernal Babel
That schooled his heart
In the hard truth
Of America’s promise.
A little knowledge proved
Its dangers to my breed
With misery’s flawless logic.
In the evenings, hunched half-asleep
Over the kitchen table,
He would move his lips
To read union handbills, Jefferson,
Paine, hackneyed Marxist tracts,
Filling his starving head
With slogans, with fiery speeches That took the bread
Out of his mouth
And hounded him
Like a Fury, mine to mine,
Through a conspiracy
Of company towns.
His learning earned him
The family’s bemused respect,
Though their awe was fickle
And never went as far as praise.
Uprooted again and again
By his antics, more often
Than not they mocked him
For a swell-headed fool
With too many big ideas
And not enough sense.
But his dreams were hard-muscled
As a miner’s arm:
Scorn, banishment, the bloody clubs
Of the owners’ thugs,
Through his windows
In the dead of night –
Nothing could erase
The dignity from the face
He saw in the words
He scrawled in coal-black ink.
In some green field
Deep in her being
The sweet air
Of her mother’s love.
As she basks in
A laughing embrace,
I watch her soul
Flower in her face.
The snapshot instant
In my mind fills
All the time
And space there is
With a radiant
Icon of her
The beauty of this
Child is a truth
Old men best
They who know
The wisdom of age
Is an empty
Treasure, bitter fruit
The living vine.
This pleasure in
Her mother’s adoring
Question life asks
With the infallible
Logic of joy.
Her absolute smile
Is a small, bright
Bird, I have
Heard it for
Days now, chanting in
The bare branches of
My cancerous blood.
In the darkest
Hour of the night
It psalms the sun
With its wild music
And sings a light
Into the world
I had long ago
in the Ruins
of an Irish Abbey
In the gray, morning light,
I climbed worn stone stairs,
Winding in curious turnings
Under vaulted arches
Up from the courtyard of
The cloister to the dormitory.
My eyes lost focus
In the dark cells.
Ghosts of the monks
Who had brooded once
Upon riddles of silence
In those stone wombs,
Blind to all but
The naked word of the world,
With their fierce quest
I pictured them there
With their stark-boned flesh
Scourged and starved
Into dreams of God,
Their hearts giddy
With the mystery of
The light hidden in things.
Later, atop the bell tower,
A peat-smoke scented wind
Searched my face with
Soft messages of rain
In a swirling mist
Like strains of harp music
Through the bare trees
And the winter fields,
Orchestrating the silence
With a vague desire
For a life unfettered
By the loneliness of bones.
The solid fact of things
Brief moments of
Flickered into brightness
In the shifting
Distances of the mist.
Voices suddenly called
My mind back to itself.
Shouts of children and
Excited laughter shattered
The quiet of the morning
With echoes of
A dizzy game,
A surprise invasion sprung
I could not guess.
Wild-eyed and red-faced,
Through the ruins,
Clambering in short pants
Over the broken walls
To escape into secret places,
Hiding and seeking
In the electric darkness
Of the monks’ cells.
I listened to their voices
Slowly lose themselves
Among the abbey’s stones,
Then to turned to watch
A backlit shadow
Of a man
Fishing the river below.
The First Seed
A garden is always an uncertain thing.
Legions of dark forces conspire against the harvest –
Frost, drought, hail, blight, cutworms, groundhogs…
In any year hope is the first seed we put into the ground,
But this spring there was even stronger cause to fear
I might never taste the fruits of my labor.
I doubted I should even bother to put a garden in,
But insistent whispers of ancestral superstition
Urged me to go ahead and plant anyway,
Lest the planets fail to spin in their proper orbits.
To my kind it seems somehow a sin
To leave the soil untilled and longing to bear.
Not even a staring game with death was reason
Enough to let my backyard plot go fallow.
I did the work in fits and starts, whenever I felt able,
Though I often had to stop to lean on the spade to rest,
With a rubbery weakness in the legs and short of breath,
Nauseous and dizzy at times from chemicals
Gnawing in my blood at another kind of darkness.
For months I had kept my distance from people
And worn a mask over my nose and mouth,
But, without the least concern, I crawled in the dirt
On my hands and knees to lay out my rows out straight
Then trowel the holes to set my plants into the earth –
Tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, zucchini – only the essentials
Necessary to please the gods and keep the table true
To the rites and the religion of our palates.
With the chemo hoeing among my corpuscles
Drawing their healing aroma deep into my lungs.
Like a half-blind drunkard with delirium tremors,
The simple garden chores of watering and weeding
Some days seemed like herculean labors.
I’d have to summon up the ghost of the athlete in me,
Who had gutted out wind sprints and spinning drills,
To find the will to out wrestle the fatigue.
When I’d finished the job and caught my breath again,
I’d stand amid the plants in the cool of the evening
As if basking in rays of the green and crescive life in them,
I charted white and red cell counts in my head, week by week,
Hematocrit and platelets, lymphocytes and neutrophils,
As I worried buds into blooms and blooms into fruit.
Wary of the doctor’s vague assurances, I tried
To figure for myself if I was getting better or worse
And what the chances were of my celebrating
The moveable feast of the season’s first ripe tomato.
To think I might sink into a wasting infirmity
And have to leave the vegetables to rot on the vine
Sometimes weighed on my mind with a guilty despair,
Though the truth is, it was probably not because
I was so loathe to leave the garden an orphan.
The thought of life and time moving on without me
Was a cheap shot uppercut to the solar plexus.
Imagination can dream whole new worlds into being,
But it cannot make real what it is to not exist.
To see the vegetables swell into plumpness
And ripen in the August sun did me more good
Than all the hours I sat in the clinic
Watching an IV pump push bags of drugs
Down a tube into the needle in my arm.
In the end the treatments failed, but the garden
Finished brilliantly after a slow, unpromising start.
There were enough tomatoes for me to eat
Insalata caprese for weeks and weeks,
The fruit picked fresh with the morning dew still on it.
The purple teardrops of eggplant became tears of joy
In the pans of parmigiana melanzane I cooked up.
Pots of zucchini stewed with peppers and hot sausage
Cranked up the heat to a degree I half-imagined
It was sweating the cancer out of me.
I suppose it’s only fancy that gives food
Grown in your own ground a special savor,
Or perhaps the sweat of your toil spices it
With a flavor that sharpens the appetite for life itself.
Even the ravages of cancer’s gluttony
Could not spoil the taste of it for me.
Now in the long shadows of an October afternoon,
I pull up the dried-out stalks by the roots,
Clear away the remains of stunted and unripe fruit,
Yank out the stakes that bore the weight
Of the plants’ laden stems and branches.
As I turn over the soil and put it to rest,
Uncertain if I will ever sift through my fingers again,
I can only wish there were autumn ritual
That would bring my memories and desires,
My fears and regrets, into such a tidy order
And prepare them a soft bed for the long winter sleep.
I envy the earth’s infallible wisdom
In knowing when to let go of the life in her.
It is a lesson I cannot seem to learn.
The doctor could not look me straight in the eye
When she told me there was a new drug
That could bring me back from the brink,
But I know, no matter what odds my reason calculates,
I will take the chance to beat the perverse reaper’s clock,
And snatch another season from his grasp.
Shivering in the chill of a wind that is winter’s prophet,
I stare at the furrows of the raked-over plot,
Lost in empty thought and lamenting summer’s loss,
Until a notion floats into my head like a falling leaf,
And I remember there is something more to do.
In a week or two I’ll plant a row of garlic cloves
And bury them deep beneath a bright blanket of leaves
To let them sleep under the drifts of snow,
While I in hope’s embrace will dream of waking
From winter’s barren world to see their green shoots
Rising up from their bed toward the light of April’s sun.