You leave during math class,
walk through town alone.
Late morning, late October:
Lee Drug, Elm Bakery, the A&P
framed by hellfire leaves,
crosses of telephone poles.
It’s your week, sixth-grade
altar boy, to serve 12:10 Mass,
to don the cassock, light
the candles, ring the bells
as Father Shriner raises
the host and the gold chalice,
God’s grace glowing
through stained glass.
But on your walk back to school
you can’t help yourself.
You stop outside The Fernwood,
its dark windows forbidden.
You cup your hands around
your eyes and look inside
at the men sitting in smoke,
beer glasses and BLTs on the bar.
You’re thrilled. You tremble.
The carillon strikes one.
Attacking the Burghoffs, 1971
It was no state department initiative,
those thrown pop flies rainbowing
the lilacs and smacking vinyl siding.
I’d tiptoe over, search for baseballs
in weeds beneath a dark window,
peer through the screen and see Mr. B,
strangely named King, smoking a pipe
in his recliner and watching the Red Sox
on the Game of the Week, apparently
oblivious to the assault on his castle.
Our ammunition were simple boy toys:
a frisbee oddjobs King’s high-ball
while he and Betty relax on the porch;
a seven-iron windmills onto their roof;
a lawn jart decapitates a garden rose.
What is it about nostalgia –
memory’s mawkish sibling –
that pulls me back fifty years?
And why didn’t King rage
at our incursions into his territory?
We had another brother, too old for our games
but old enough for America’s. He spent
that summer wondering if his number
would come up. Good King Burghoff,
keeper of the peace, must have wondered too.
Seated on heated chairs,
the magic of satellite jazz
beamed through metal and glass,
we ride these highways
like trusting lovers staying
an arm’s length away,
parallel and careful, never swerving
toward significance, toward something
more important than destination.
You know the danger of intersection.
That’s why you hesitated
at that green arrow tonight
before turning left, preventing us
from being T-boned by a pick-up
barreling through red,
its headlights bearing down,
empty moons in the dark.
You hesitated. Then we rode on,
on edge, like the flute of a rose,
delicate and warm, a breath
from screech and scream.
When She Fails the Test
she picks up her desk
throws it across the room
the only way her body
knows how to liberate anger
the same instinctual way
her teacher cowers in the corner
the resource officer cuffs her
her classmates take pictures
the principal expels her
she’s an animal
just like the rest of us
I give my body
to the wave
in the sixth inning
rising in rhythm
to the hymning
but my mind drifts
from the field where
baseballs rise and fall
to the old man
at the end of the row
still sitting down,
juggling his popcorn
and beer in the surf,
then to the seagull
on a beam overhead,
of my reflection
in the shadows
of these tiers.
At first glance, these five poems have little in common. Two are based on memories from childhood; one is about attending a sporting event; one is about riding in a car; one is about a high school teaching experience. Two are fictional; the other three have some factual basis.
Furthermore, they’re all over the place in terms of idea, though they cover most of thematic go-to’s: spirituality, guilt, kindness, loneliness, alienation, love, mortality.
So what, if anything, is the thread that runs through them? Probably the ultimate go-to – the unknown. Philosophers might call it the mystery of the metaphysical. It’s been said that mystery propels all narratives – and maybe all lyrics. Certainly, these poems address the familiar bumping against the mysterious.
12:10 Mass: What a wonderful object, a gift from the real word, for a writer to play with – a dark window. At first glance, the mystery is, of course, the bar; the church is the familiar. Now, looking back, I see that in fact it’s the church that’s mysterious and the bar that’s familiar. The poem ends, I think, on an ominous note (literally), appropriate for a mystery.
Attacking the Burghoffs, 1971: It’s actually my oldest brother who’s the mystery here, not King Burghoff. Because of our nine-year age difference, I didn’t understand about the draft for the Vietnam War – though I could sense mystery, lots of adults talking in whispers (in the living room and on television). I certainly didn’t understand what my brother may have been feeling as an eighteen-year-old in 1971, and I still don’t. But I think I have some understanding about King Burghoff’s kindness.
The Wave: Adulthood doesn’t necessarily make life less mysterious. The poem contrasts the contrived transcendentalism of the ballpark wave with those souls who just don’t feel like they belong. Maybe my impatience with the wave is that, after being a lifelong sports fan, my interest has waned dramatically. I mean, who cares? Maybe the seagull has some understanding, especially when the wave is held up against the lonely old man at the end of the row.
Cars continues the idea of loneliness despite the couple who, in my view, clearly love each other. This poem depicts most literally the edge between the known and the unknown, perhaps because it’s really about the edge between life and death. The flute and the rose echo this fragility, the mystery of how there can be such beauty so near to tragedy.
When She Fails the Test arises out of high school, that great laboratory of human behavior. Yes, it’s a mystery as to why students behave the way they do – though I always say, at least they have some excuse. The adults, on the other hand – I’d better stop there. Despite our professed expertise in the known (knowledge), our jobs are really about mystery — from those thirty mysterious adolescents who sit and stare at us every hour to the mystery of whether or not we’re teaching them any damn thing at all.
Barry Peters lives in Durham and teaches in Raleigh, North Carolina. Publications/forthcoming include The American Journal of Poetry, Best New Poets 2018, Miramar, The National Poetry Review, Poetry East, Presence, Rattle, South Florida Poetry Journal, and The Southampton Review.