outlaw odes poems by garrett phelan

picture of garrett phelan

Garrett Phelan


The poems in Outlaw Odes, Garrett Phelan’s fine first book, balance deftly on a high wire stretched between life within and without the law, between distrust of the establishment and a passionate defense of all those treated unfairly by circumstance. As the speaker in “Hard-Assed” says about the narrator of these poems, “I know how sensitive you are / under that cool, snippy, hard-assed exterior.” Lisa Starr remembers the first time she experienced a Garrett Phelan poem: “I was racing through my dining room during a Block Island Poetry Project weekend, tending to the myriad details of running the series. The poem careened me into a u-turn, and I walked back in to listen a little better. The others at the table were as stricken by it as I was. Heads were tilted; many had that light in the eyes we get when someone has taught us something we never knew was out there for us to learn.” She praises the poems in Outlaw Odes for telling “stories about and for those who never got to say them themselves—the immigrant grandmothers, the invisible man working the chrome- plating line, beautiful Mauricio with his necessary knives. Welcome to the world of Garrett Phelan. This is a poet who commands attention; this is an outlaw poet if ever there was one.” And this from Coleman Barks: “Garrett Phelan’s poetry tries to let the poet disappear. His voice is so clear and strong it takes us to the verge of that happening.”
  outlaw odes by gerrett phelan cover image
  Cover drawing by the author

From chicken farmer, fruit picker, and batik artist, to Peace Corps volunteer and teacher, Garrett Phelan has lived and worked in Israel, Ireland, El Salvador, Guatemala, and England. He lived and taught for thirty-five years in the Washington, DC area, culminating in his appointment as master teacher and principal of César Chávez Public Charter High School. His commentaries on “Leadership Perspective” were included in The Right to Literacy in Secondary Schools. Garrett has taught creative writing under the auspices of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, the Washington National Opera, and a variety of other organizations. He presently teaches creative writing in one of Connecticut’s prisons. Garrett received a BA in Psychology from Central Connecticut State University. In addition, he has received two advanced teaching certificates. His poems have appeared in many publications and in the anthology Poetic Art 2010. With his wife, Jane Schloss Phelan, he lives in Bloomfield, CT.

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ISBN: 978-1-943826-00-1

Copyright © 2015 by Garrett Phelan

5.5" x 8.5" paperback, 45 pages



Copyright ©2015 by Garrett Phelan




Lucky Strikes, Levis, white t-shirt.
Leslie’s black hair, Latin class.

Me on street corners. Hitch-hiking—
103 up Rte 44.

Y on Friday night. She asks me who I am.
I know she knows. I don’t care.

Drive-in movies. Hud four times.
6 pack of Pabst Blue Ribbon.

Pointed shoes and a spit curl
and rolled up anger in my sleeves.

1 a.m. Shoot Cherry Bombs from
sling shots at cop in our Elmwood.

Wanting. To be a Cherry Bomb.
Shot out of a sling-shot. Into night.


We hooked up large jet engine parts,
raised them with the push of a button,
moved them over huge vats
and then lowered them into the chemicals.

He was 64 years old, a year away from retirement
after 45 years on the chrome plating line.
When he was told to work with the college kid,
I could feel he wanted to work alone.

One day we were told to stop and move back
from the line.
The cyanide man had arrived.
He wore rubber boots, a rubber apron and huge
    rubber gloves
and dropped new cyanide eggs into the first vat.

After a few weeks my clothes began disintegrating.
Little splashes ate away my t-shirt, dungarees;
even my Converse All Stars started to disappear.

You couldn’t take a shit in private.
Above the factory floor were 6 toilet stalls with
    no doors
so the foreman could catch you slacking.
Reading The Hartford Courant
was the only way to cover yourself.

He could disappear in the middle of a word—
you never caught him in the bathroom.
He could smell a foreman before I could see one.
He taught me how to disappear—like grease
    sucked out
of an engine part lowered into the degreaser.

He taught me how to work when there was no work,
he taught me how the chrome plating line could
eat away more than your clothes,
he taught me if you keep disappearing enough
no one would know your name.


Tonight I want to praise my outlaws
who cross boundaries without thinking.

They have faith, wild anger,
will keep the heart racing,
breath heaving like...


The wonderful way they gaze at women,
their smirk at good boys,
and the words “Do it this way.”

They stand on street corners
or sit on barstools as if they
were on Mount Olympus or in Versailles.

Even when they go into exile
they’re black holes
sucking in all the laws.


Yesterday Mauricio disappeared. That’s the way
it is around here. You can vanish at any moment.

He brought two knives. One in case
the other failed, and now he’s gone.

One knife was the street, one his voice
and now his voice is gone.

Yesterday he was poetry, the day before graffiti,
now there are no marks of him anywhere.


“I know how sensitive you are
under that cool, snippy, hard-assed exterior.”

Give someone an image of yourself
and you could be trapped in it forever.

Sometimes I’m sick of my own poses.
I want to change the locks on the doors.

I guess an orphan lives inside me
who doesn’t believe home exists.




for my Irish grandmothers

I am a famine at your doorstep.
I beg.
My tears cannot snatch
your soul from hell.
Your hatred robs me of food
and the scars I love.
A famine rages inside me.

Something bitter is coming.

I bruise of humiliation.
I’m a hunger so deep and violent
I can stand your ghettos,
depend on strangers who despise me,
grub your low wages and take
working conditions you reject.
I am a puddle of pain you walk through.
I breathe the soot of your insults.

Yet I cough up bloody prayers.
I have a hunger.
I cannot read or write but I have stories to tell.
I speak foreign words you will become.
I carry bitter keepsakes you cannot take from me.

I will lose my husband to tuberculosis
and a child to your prisons,
but I am your moon nailed to your night.
My memories are a savage
claw that I grasp the future with.

There is a famine inside you I can feed.
I cannot read or write but I have stories to tell
—and more children.

Something better is coming.


My dead brother speaks in my sleep,
waits for me in my pockets,

sits at the barstool of my heart
and guzzles my blood.

He speaks in tongues, smells hunted,
weighs nothing, but cannot rest.

He ministers to me at midnight,
dresses my wounds when I am weary.

My dead brother hides in my closets,
occupies my unoccupied