The Unparalleled Beauty of a Crooked Line

John L. Stanizzi
Author photo: Carol Stanizzi  
John L. Stanizzi’s fourth poetry collection, Dance Against the Wall, will stun readers into a fuller livelihood of the heart. Fearful pain and self-incrimination are here, but in the end it is love and a sense of the brotherhood among all living creatures, human and animal, that inform the book. Steve Straight writes that “These poems are not just accessible but inviting, deceptively casual even when formal. At the heart of this book is family, both blood and extended, and few poets explore it so well, so honestly. Here the family includes all of the natural world as well, in descriptions and stories whose exquisite details not only capture but enlarge. The poems collected here beg to be reread, to be savored.” Robert Cording adds: “John Stanizzi’s Dance Against the Wall celebrates our most deeply felt human experiences of love, of family, and of the natural world that take place, as they must, within the limitations of our mortal and fallible, error-prone lives… Dance Against the Wall is filled with unflinching, passionately honest, brave, well-crafted poems that openly acknowledge the sorrows and dangers of living while simultaneously fighting to keep safe all that Stanizzi holds dear. In the end, these always self-aware poems contain a tender, hard-earned sense of transcendence.” And this from David Ferry: “The word that keeps coming to my mind when I’m reading John Stanizzi’s poems is ‘realization,’ not in the sense of giving a seeming reality to things that were only imagined, but in the sense of seeing the realness of what is really there, and bringing it to his reader (and to himself) so generously in the directness and vividness of his sentences and the authority of his writing.”

Front cover photo by the author.

John L. Stanizzi has delighted readers and listeners throughout New England and (thanks in part to his presence on Garrison Keillor’s Writer’s Almanac) beyond the Northeast. He is the author of Ecstasy Among Ghosts, now in its fourth printing, Sleepwalking, and Windows. His work has appeared in The New York Quarterly, Tar River Poetry, Rattle, Freshwater, Passages North, The Spoon River Quarterly, Poet Lore, The Connecticut River Review, and many other publications. Twice nominated for a Pushcart Prize, in 1998 Stanizzi was named New England Poet of the Year by The New England Association of Teachers of English. He has read at many venues throughout Connecticut, including RJ Julia Booksellers and the Arts Café Mystic (with Gerald Stern). In 2011 he introduced Dick Allen, Connecticut’s Poet Laureate, at the Sunken Garden Poetry Festival, presenting a lecture and discussion session before the reading. In 2012 he presented a second Sunken Garden lecture, this time on Natasha Trethewey, Pulitzer Prize winner and newly-named U.S. Poet Laureate. He has judged the Connecticut Poetry Out Loud competition and the 2011 Connecticut Book Award for Poetry. John L. Stanizzi teaches English at Manchester Community College and Bacon Academy, where he also directed the theater program for fifteen years. He lives with his wife, Carol, in Coventry, Connecticut.

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ISBN 978-1-936482-35-1

Copyright © 2012 by John L. Stanizzi

6" x 9" paperback, 104 pages








Unlike the other men in the family, my father
has no chains or skunks with attitude,
or his last name over crossed Italian flags,
no Mom or Born to Ride or broken heart,
no Semper Fi, no naked ladies or dice.

My father has no Jolly Rogers or devils,
no angels, crosses, lions, dragons, or knives.
He has no rosary beads or praying hands,
no Virgin with child, U.S. Army or dove.
My father has no Sacred Heart of Jesus.

But on the inside of his left forearm
there’s one tattoo no bigger than a signature
and the same shade of faded blue as the bruises
that blossom on his papery yellow skin,
and as he sits in his big reclining chair,
smiling vaguely and squeezing a stuffed toy,
I glimpse the washed-out ink that tells the story:
Johnny and Dolly, faded and just about gone.



for Phil Bannock

Our friendship was crumbling
and held together with Black Velvet, herb,
and your ’72 Valiant.

I’d plead with you not to drive like a lunatic,
and you, ever smooth,
assured me you wouldn’t.

Then we’d drive nonchalantly
to the mouth of the Scantic River,
where we’d fish deep into the night,

and drink and smoke
until the night became a living thing,
and we would hide there, invisible.

Later we’d find our way
back to the Valiant
and fall in.

In and out of dreamy consciousness
I’d say
“How fast we going?”

ZZ Top thumped over the static
and the snarl
of the hole in the muffler.

“Hundred an’ ten,” you’d say calmly,
“One. Hundred. And fuckin’ ten.”
And the hot wind of late July

slapped me around a little in the passenger seat
until the trees were crazed creatures
and I’d whisper to myself,

Hell yeah,
leaning back in peace,
the world roaring into me.



“…to advance to the muzzles of guns with
perfect nonchalance!” –Walt Whitman


I want to get all my mistakes,
injustices, and regrets,
real or imagined,
and trick them into thinking
that they’ve gotten the better of me,
that I’m finally dispatched.

I want them all to meet
in some remote location,
like maybe a big house in the country,
where they’ll sit by a stone fireplace,
drinking Courvoisier
and smoking La Gloria Cubanos,
laughing at how they used me,
made a fool of me.
I want them to feel absolutely certain
that I’m gone.

What they won’t know
is that I’ll be outside hiding in the woods,
camo on, face blacked,
getting their bodyguards lined up
in my cross-hairs.
They won’t hear the shots
over their loud boasting.

Then I’ll appear,
to their terrified surprise,
ghostly behind the couch,
and they’ll beg me to reconsider,
yelling, “Wait! There’s been a mistake!”
But it will be too late.
I’ll take them out one at a time.

Then I’ll mess with a gas pipe
that just happens to run down the wall
right near the fireplace.
I’ll pop it with the butt end of my automatic
and it’ll start to hiss,
my cue to saunter out indifferently,
rifle slung over my shoulder.

I’ll open the front door
and walk slowly across the lawn
into the foggy night,
perfect nonchalance,
as behind me the big house
explodes in a series of deafening volcanic eruptions,
boiling flames a hundred feet high,
sending shards of wood and metal and embers
raining down on everything,
explosion after explosion,
but I will not flinch.

Metallica’s Fight Fire With Fire
will have started to play in the background
as I stroll in silhouette against the monstrous blaze,
all the consequences of my every indiscretion
dissolving in smoke and flames
as I disappear into the fog,
clutching a secret no one will ever know
but you and me.


for my son Jason and my grandson Jonah


The rainiest June since 1989,
and the weighty vault of gray clouds
spills open every day —
three inches yesterday!
Enormous trees lie down in wet grass
as easy as jewelweed uprooted
and let the rain bathe over them,
their ragged crowns of roots exposed,
as in the peripheral hills
lightning shorts out the sky
and bottom-heavy thunder
snarls in the distance,
looking for attention.
But my son calls anyway,
eager to defy the persistent weather,
wanting to scull the kayak
through the day’s foggy midday funk,
the mist parting to reveal the sun
and us emerging from the haze.

So I agree to go,
though I’m not in the mood.
The weather sucks,
but we climb into the tandem kayak anyway,
my grandson, my son, and me.
The air is sodden and thick,
and the gray sky so low I can touch it.

We seat ourselves in the boat,
triplets, matryoshka dolls —
Jonah in front,
the smallest,
the one everyone wants to hold,
curious and smooth,
hand over the side,
parting the water with his fingers,
searching for everything
that lies between and beneath.

His father, Jason, is in the middle,
nicked up,
largely overlooked,
and huddled between infancy and old age,
his past a kind of love.

And me in the stern,
grandfather, father.
still large enough to hold them both,
but worn by light,
worn by darkness,
and growing tired
of the long, silent stories
of men who, once they go,
can never return.


What took me
completely by surprise
was that it was me:
my voice, in my mouth.

In the Waiting Room,” Elizabeth Bishop


There are times when, in my mother’s voice,
her father’s voice distracts me from her words,
doppelganger-speak in some translation
that sounds as if she’s simply saying Hi
when in truth it is her father come to say,
in language of the living, that he’d like
for me to take a moment and to think
of all the time we spent in shady joints,
our elbows on a sticky wooden bar,
the half-light and acrid smell of booze,
stale beer and the years-old reek of smoke.

I also hear it when my daughter speaks —
my mother’s voice addressing me as Dad?
asking me if I can watch the kids,
and when I answer, my aunt, my mother’s sister,
answers back, but with her father’s voice
in which I hear the tinny timbre of
his eccentric mother, Grandma Far-Away,
asking if I’d like some “funny water”
in a voice my other daughter borrows
to bring me up to speed on all her plans,
sounding just like Uncle Rocky did
when he’d grin a menacing grin and talk
about his tennis game or bothering girls
in the flickering darkness of the theater.

Then my boy speaks with his brother’s voice,
but it’s my father, calling to say his wife
is going to have a child, their first. We share
the joy with jokes of our advancing age
and hopes that it will be a boy to keep
our name alive. I smile and clear my throat,
but it’s my father’s throat, my father’s cough,
and there we are, the living and the dead,
the living carrying on as best we can,
the dead alive in everything we say.




When the avenue was cleaned
by whirlybirds of seeds
in a polished city with sparkling windows,
I’d sit in a bucket full of water on hot September days,
or lie on the cool linoleum floor between
my grandmother’s big brown shoes
and stare up into the mystery
of snaps and nylon under her dress.
She was an excommunicant,
and Tony the nice man with a wife and children
would be there most days,
sitting at the sunny table and speaking
so softly I couldn’t hear.

My grandfather was gone by then,
and his red-headed daughter put on a bus to somewhere
by her red-headed mother Jenny the prostitute,
and whenever my grandfather did come around
he’d always wipe the corners of his eyes
with the backs of his wrists
while he talked to me.

The only thing my grandmother ever needed
she couldn’t have,
until the day at Mass
when I drank the Blood of Christ,
kept it wet on my lips
and took His body cupped in my hands,
back to her in the pew
where I nudged her,
opened my hands to the great disobedience,
and nodded.

“No,” she said as I kissed her mouth,
Blood of Christ,
broke His body,
ate half,
put the other to her mouth,
Body of Christ,
salvation’s relief shining through
the guilt in her face.


for my son Jason


The young man’s bruises have the luster of metal,
and he weeps whenever there is talk
of winding roads which shine with the danger of rain,
roads bordered by blackened trees which throw

down their heavy shadows thick and wet;
and he stares off into a world that you,
from the comfort of your tenuous routines,
can not imagine, though you certainly try —

what else can he do in the presence of such
an intimate struggle but try to ignore the sun
that could deceive him into believing that all
he has to do is walk out through the light

that heats the windows of his sunny room,
that fills the room, as summer does, with thoughts
of children’s faces streaked with sweat from play,
that all he has to do is start his car,

and drive with certainty into the crowd
that races blindly through the countryside,
driven by the fatal misconception
that everything will always be all right.


A depilated dog would not look well.
Dress up! Dress up and dance at Carnival!

“The Pink Dog,” Elizabeth Bishop


In the carnival of lights and shadows at dawn,
a small bony dog stands in the road,
Elizabeth’s dog, watching me curiously
from the center line, so I slow for her,
and then I see the dabs of softened white.
Her right ear twitches a wary cautious twitch,
and she lopes into the woods, leaving me with
a sense of joy at seeing this tiny fawn.
But just as I am about to leave, I hear
her squawk, and see her just behind the scrub
at the side of the road, where she is watching me,
her wise and fearful eyes too big for her.
What are you doing, I say, and where is your mother?
She hears my voice, and steps back to the road;
looking me straight in the eyes, she bleats a question,
but before I can respond, another car
comes speeding by and off she runs for good,
before I even have the chance to say
that I would lie down near her in the woods
while she slept, sheltered on a nest of leaves,
and when her mother returned, then I would go,
having kept her safe from the likes of me.



In the early hours of morning when darkness drains
out of the sky and into the tops of trees
whose silhouettes undulate through the rising fog —
early morning, crawling from the well of night,

your fears still hanging off you like old rags,
you hear the grunt of frogs around the pond,
a lexicon of confidence and life,
and you hear the mockingbird, who you are sure

must listen carefully despite his zeal,
and deep in the hills the Montrealer sounds
its throaty note and fills you full of thoughts
of other worlds, of sounds within a dream,

and distant birds fleck the panorama
with what they have to sing, and you are drawn
through this early mist down to the pond,
along these muddy halls where spider webs

cling to your face and arms with delicate tension,
a gentle hint of restraint that wraps you up
and slows you down and stuns you into life.

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