Michael R Brown

Falling Wallendas

poems by
Michael R. Brown
Chicago: Tia Chucha, 1994

Ordering Information

This book is available at Amazon.com
and from the author at mrbrown64@msn.com or 207-454-8026,
or by mail:

Michael R Brown
PO Box 14
Robbinston, ME 04671


The Ice Worm

You can take away that net.
I'm not much of a performer,
one of those that struts and shines,
delivering my personal angst
in easy technicolor rhymes.
I'm from the old school
where poets named things, told the truth--
the hard truths nobody wanted to hear.
When they created beauty,
by God, people were stunned.
When they failed,
they took the fall.

Truth, beauty, the arcane lore,
what are they against People magazine,
USA Today, CNN, and a lying president?
Mass production, the glory and curse of the 20th century,
replays words, pictures, politics and bad art
until it all seeps in like an Eskimo winter,
and sometimes the only way to clear the synapses
is a vigorous cranial wallbanger--or a good poem.
So let me tell you something I remember.
Maybe you've seen it, too.

At four or five years old,
when I was starting to lose my imagination,
had stopped coloring dogs' tongues orange and cats' feet purple,
I must have been home from school sick
and bored with staying inside the lines,
when I saw something where nothing should have been.

On top a bare sycamore branch
where the sun should have melted it away,
a piece of ice moved.
It humped itself up like an inchworm
and moved along,
humped and moved,
humped and moved.
When it got to the end of the branch,
it's head searched and couldn't find anywhere to go,
so it humped off the end of the branch and fell
with a couple of tumbling flashes into a snowbank below.

Once I saw one, I saw more.
They were on the trees, the snow and the sidewalks.
As my chest and throat and head
were about to burst with excitement,
my mother came up behind me.
She saw what I saw,
and light flashed in her warm brown eyes
the way it had off the ice worm.
She opened the window and slid her finger
under one on the window sill.
I watched it inch along.
Before it got to the end,
I picked it up,
and all I felt was dampness
between my thumb and forefinger.

I haven't seen an ice worm in years.
I'm not sure what that means, except for this--
there ought to be things that we can't see easily,
that TV networks, magazines, companies,
and the goddamned politicians can't use,
small, beautiful things that disappear
as soon as we get our hands on them.

Falling Wallendas

Behold a Wallenda stopped at mid-line;
years of discipline hold him up,
but he's lost the desire to cross
and the crowd can't help him.
If it were AJ at Indy,
the gas would run out,
the machinery stop,
and the crew lift him out of the car.
But what can we do when the mind is gone,
the body goes on,
and we're too weak to jump,
too stubborn to let go?

I think of Eddie Balchowsky,
a concert pianist who lost an arm on the Ebro.
He scattered body parts and brain cells in his past
like some joyous Johnny Appleseed of common sense
who finally couldn't bang himself sane
and scraped together transit fare
to step in front of the train,
a Wallenda giving up his grip on the wire,
shivering off the balance that made him a household name,
dropping like a precious stone
set in the golden ring of memory.

Buddy Bolden

A blood red sun rising makes
a black river run blue.
Stevedores and draymen drag themselves alive
while the last jazz notes of the night
lie down in the dawn and die.

From the cemetery across the river
the people could hear him, they say.
I know the music, but I wish
I could have heard Buddy Bolden play.

Inside bright back doors of morning kitchens
old ladies cook up ambrosia
from white families' table scraps.
They grumble, spit and hum sweet tunes
and never touch their head wraps,
and every note of their lives, they say,
was something Buddy Bolden could play.

At the barber shop folks sang,
"I thought I heard Buddy Bolden say,
'Get out of here, take it away.'"
But they'd have let him cut their ears off
just to hear Buddy Bolden play.

On the 4th of July, 1900,
the most fertile seed unplanned
started a plant that grew up the Mississippi
and flowered across the land.
The raucous voice of Louis Armstrong
blended with the finesse of Sidney Bechet.
Ten thousand masters have been recorded now,
but you can't hear Buddy Bolden play.


Weariness with life makes young men attractive;
old men require youthful vigor: such is expected
when a warrior comes home. Under a green tree,
before I walk the lane to claim the place above
the river, I rest my sword and wooden shield.
These new trees repeat murmurs of hope and sweeten
shade for short rests. Live or fallen, old trees
teach hard ways: bend only with the grain. Water
runs past the house where they let voices like
the breeze blow through in mindless variation.
My name has a life of its own; in my namelessness,
back from trying to return, I will be restored
a wife and take up household ways: choose food,
games and times and spin stories from the raw wool
of my adventures, daily tussle with a woman
schooled in how much she can get away with, who
will cede the exquisite pain of sweet submission
when she has gone too far. It is not because
I lack understanding of domestic life that I have
stayed so long unhoused. Soon I will be too old
to see the children grown. I can play with the
dark-eyed moppet on the Persian rug, twist her
straight black hair, gauge the sunlight on golden
skin, but will I teach her how to draw a bow,
catch fish by watching, defeat enemies by direct
action instead of guile? If I cannot begin the life
I would have in less warlike times, I can go on.
I say I am too old, but this way agrees with me;
I can follow it till death, but that yet unsuccessful
way I must first try--to call for entry at my own
door, understand a wife, be patient with children,
break nothing, not look back nor far ahead.

Freedom cannot be an eternal no to some relentless
domestic yes. I do not fear sailing through a homey
storm as much as letting the calm lull me into
unwatchfulness. Water never takes us home. The wind,
a mistress with greater variety than man can master,
is quick to lie, charm, or force us to new tricks
in ancient places. Leaving those lonely ones along
the way, each a hurt in an old heart not so hungry
yet unsatisfied, I am touched by the sting of old
scars, aches in my bones. Still, I have done wonderful
things: from the top of an eastern temple seen a great
muddy river turn to gold, crouched beside wild dogs
and tasted the northern sea, squatted among early merchants
and scooped soft white rice and sticky vegetables off
banana leaves, caught goats on stony cliffs, had tropic
maidens weave hibiscus in my hair. But as I tell the children,
I have not yet heard the sun hiss when it hits the western
sea. Many times were bad, but like any discoverer who climbs
a hill and wrongly names a distant ocean, I call this life
my own. A man who chooses cannot complain. I will take up
my weapons and carry them home. If there is not a child
to sing to, no wife to hold me while I doze, no excitement
in a safe bed, no purpose to my dreams, I know the words
of the wind, the paths across water, how to sail away.
Now, an old gardener deaf to airy promises, I plant trees.

Raking Leaves

The fourteen-year-old inside writes
a paper on Our Town, and I'm out
in a small town's big yard,
head bent and shoulders hunched,
making the long draw across thick
fall grass, flimsy bamboo slats
gathering dry confetti in slanted sunlight.

Linden leaves like ragged parchment,
red oaks, flat golden maples,
sycamores curled like tobacco leaves--
the soft woods are bare but the beech
still holds half its load above.
I drag the rake in methodical
pulling together, heaping
the crashed assets of spring's investment.

Sweat falls in my eyes; my bifocals
blur the swirling mass; the sun
glares and magnifies the mosaic;
I get lightheaded in clear air
as my fat heart pumps, dusty
earth smells crawl up my nose,
thrashing fills my ears, insects drone,
and it's like a couple of hits of windowpane.

I don't want to get all Romantic:
a few days on the banks
of the Susquehanna is not exactly
Wordsworth in the Lake Country,
but there's some of that if I factor in
egocentricity and the city child
getting hits of small town life through homework.

When I was his age, this was also
my grandmother's yard, and I learned
how to use a bedspread
to transport tons of leaves
to the burn pile in the alley.
Today we sweep them into the gutter
and trashmen take them away.
(We've got plastic crates
for everything that isn't plastic.)

But the air still hums the way
it did before I knew what acid was;
the colors whirl about me as we do
our dervish dance through the afternoon.
Only when artificial moons glow
along the block and motley surrenders to night
do I put aside my rake, go inside,
and take up my grandmother's pen.

You, John Keats

This weak-chested wheeze
that powers the fever
up my face and into my head
like a drywood boiler generating steam
propelling me through
monthlong thickets of experience
whirring by in cacophonies
of autumn colors strewn on plush turf
brilliant sun fits crowning my hot head
like a torturer's hat,
blinded without, blinding within,
shattering my vision so each step
bumps the kaleidoscope
at the dark tunnel's end of my sight.

The taste of leaves is smoke.
The smell of smoke dilates my nostrils.
The warm air flumes,
mixes drywood and dead leaves,
dirt and onion grass,
broad heavy base of pine,
leathery tree bark,
fish on sea air
into a great autumnal chowder boiling inside my head
above the hearth fire in my chest,
my squat legs sturdy on the stone floor,
my stumpy arms hooked for hanging things,
my crazed consciousness a woodsman's cookbook,
my sad congested heart
singing like a stone at the center of the cauldron.

For all the majestic chords of Nature's symphony
scrambled by perceptual madness,
broadcast in my raving awareness,
for all that I might care to be or cured,
I gather myself in quiet writing
while my senses are dragged behind fall's runaway cart
and I wish, oh wish, oh declare,
if I were half my age
and twice as mad
as all the music played at once,
I would be you, John Keats; I would be you.