The poems in John Popielaski's new book, A Brief Eureka for the Alchemists of Peace, are by turns solemn, comic, earnest, ironic, wistful, and hopeful. In poems whose subjects range from a Buddhist burial ritual to Polish jokes to the beheading of a Frenchman, Popielaski explores the small (and not-so-small) kindnesses and brutalities of humanity. Always on the lookout for the larger meaning, and seldom finding one, he revels finally in what he feels the world has offered. A native Long Islander, John Popielaski attended the State University of New York at Stony Brook and American University. After working several years as a mover, a lobsterman, and a lackey to a tropical biologist, he taught English in Mississippi and New York City. He currently teaches English at Xavier High School in Middletown, Connecticut. Recipient of a fellowship from the District of Columbia Commission on the Arts and Humanities, he has had work in many literary journals. His first collection of poetry, Contemporary Martyrdom, was named a 2002 “Pick” by Small Press Review. He lives in East Hampton, Connecticut.

Praise for John Popielaski’s first poetry collection, Contemporary Martyrdom:

Photo by Susan Batchelder
“These poems are crafted, considered, and strong, and I look forward to reading them again and again.” —Henry Taylor

“The poetry is powerful, well-crafted, and organically alive, evolving from a fine sense of detail and weighing of significances…This is a book to take deeply and passionately while under the influence of our society. And it is a book to take back with oneself when turning away from society. Go crazy with it.” —Jared Smith, Small Press Review

“Mr. Popielaski’s subjects are everyday desires and disappointments...the gathering awareness of time lost, behind and ahead. We muddle through. It’s far from divinity, but a small miracle nonetheless.” —The Iconoclast

Click here to read some sample poems.


ISBN: 0-9762091-6-0
Length: 88 pages
Binding: 5/5" x 8/5" perfectbound







Phineas Gage did his small part for Progress,
blasting stubborn ground to make Vermont amenable
to railway travel while a lot of men had trouble
picturing a country in which horses would not be
the quickest way to Burlington.
Like men who labored on the bridges and the buildings
and who fell from thin beams to the earth,
he knew the risks and took them with the money.
On a Wednesday outside Cavendish, the leaves
beginning their autumnal flare, he tamped the ground
around the charge he’d set and hit the thing
by accident, a whistle in the distance, maybe,
or a sudden sneeze distracting him.
The tamping iron hurtled through his left cheek,
exited the frontal bone of his defenseless skull,
and landed in the dirt not thirty yards behind him,
its metallic echo fading like a sigh.
Including his recuperative year or two, he lived
another dozen years, although his friends complained
that he was not the same Gage they had known—
not kind, not organized, not business-minded anymore.
Relieved of his position as a foreman of a crew,
he made appearances at Barnum’s new museum
but could not compete with top-draw spectacles
like General Thumb, the Feejee Mermaid, Chang and Eng.
He worked at Dartmouth in a livery stable
and in Chile, where he did the same, but died
in San Francisco, seizure-wracked at thirty-seven,
never guessing that in seven years
his tamping iron and his skull would be examined
by neurologists at Harvard and displayed
in a museum there when they were done.


Helen Keller challenged me to box her
on the undercard of an important fight,
and in the midst of drunken laughter
and cigar smoke spilling out of fat men
Helen signed to me as if the Braille dots
on her program told her I was there
with tongue out, thumbs stuck in my ears,
and fingers waving, poking fun at senselessness.

It is a dream and it is not—the only kind
of dream that is authentic, I was thinking
as I moved the ropes and stepped in to the ring,
unnerved as I stood face to face with Helen,
gloves snug, belt high, seeming not to hear
the ref’s instructions as I saw myself defied
in Helen’s tinted glasses, wondering
if I should hit a girl and, if so, where?

I crumpled to the canvas with her lone shot
to my groin, a low blow that was overlooked
because the ref was blind, and I could not
help feeling that the fixed world of my dream
was somehow fixed by some subconscious part of me,
a feeling complicated by the rush I felt
when, gloveless, Helen kneeled and traced the grimace
on my face and then massaged my injury.

For all its knee-jerk scenery my dream world
is a thoughtful one, so open
to the galaxies of stimuli that pulse without
my noticing when I am wide awake—
so open that a tiny chink or pinhole
in the ozone layer of my consciousness
can make me burn with curiosity and doubt,
those awful parents of analysis.

I lie here thinking of the hands that searched
my face in real life, knowing they were real hands
on a boy who had not seen or heard
a thing since he was born, who felt around
the faces of the bodies sleeping off the Fourth,
looking for his brother with his fingers, trying hard
to orient himself by seeking the familiar,
which I did so easily by opening my eyes.


My father died nine months ago; the usual
degrees of grief still come and go and alter
one small tribe not fond of alteration.
My mother called last Sunday, asked if I got rain
up here last night. I wanted to remind her
that I only live across Long Island Sound from her,
that when it rains on her it almost always rains
on me, that I am not as distant as I seem.
But I did not. I told her it had poured,
that we were unified in that experience
at least, that it was beautiful that Sunday.
She said it was, it was, and then she hinted
that my father’s spirit wasn’t as departed
as the solemn priest had led us to believe
when, after prayer, we put the flowers on
my father’s metal casket, hoping that the ritual
would recommend him to our God.
She said she heard these sounds last night,
like someone dragging something on the ground,
she said. It could have been the wind and rain,
she said and waited for a skeptical remark
which I let lie inside my logical head
because I hadn’t been there and I didn’t know
what sins or foibles in my father’s past
could have obstructed his ascension
and I didn’t know if love was keeping him
from going up, if his attachment to our lives
was his idea of Heaven, which was possible
because he never traveled farther than the time
he picked me up that May in Mississippi.
Driving through the Blue Ridge Mountains
in Virginia, he announced, “Now this is God’s country,”
and I wasn’t certain if he meant America,
Virginia, or that little bit of real estate
we occupied inside that yellow truck,
which he drove in the slow lane all the way
to what in retrospect, without his death,
seemed like a quarter-acre lot
of Heaven in a suburb of New York,
which now my mother talks of selling
even though the market could improve
and she admits from time to time she’ll never leave.

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