The American Journal of Poetry
"Strong Rx Medicine"®

 

  JON VEINBERG TRIBUTE

    by Christopher Buckley & Dixie Salazar

 

Veinberg

 

My Great Good Luck: John Veinberg 1947-2017

 

 

               

                Born Juhan Ernst Veinberg, Jon was the son of Vilma and Ernst Veinberg. His father died in October of 1946, and his mother escaped from Soviet-controlled Estonia to Geislingen Germany and a displaced persons camp of over five thousand Estonians. Jon was born in Geislingen in1947.

 

                In a 2007-2008 interview Jon relates: I come from a family of scientists. My father was an anatomy teacher. He was well read and spoke five languages. There were a lot of doctors in my dad’s family, and he too, earned a medical degree. He came to America in 1930 under a Rockefeller scholarship. Then he went back to Estonia. From this experience, he felt America was the most opportune place to go for Estonians caught under the Russian regime. My mother was pursuing being a doctor. During that time, Estonia was an egalitarian country. Women held a lot of occupation weight. She was his student. My dad died over there in 1946. After fleeing Estonia and giving birth to me, my mother wanted to catch the first boat out. We missed the first boat, but it blew up after it hit a land mine. We missed the second boat because my sister broke her arm; it went to Paraguay. We caught the third boat and by happenstance or luck it was going to America. When we arrived at Ellis Island, my mother didn’t speak any English.

 

                 Jon spent his early childhood in New York, Connecticut, and Pittsburgh, PA.  Then, with a job opportunity for his mother Vilma, the family relocated to Fresno, California in the early 1960’s. Jon graduated from Roosevelt High School and attended Fresno State University. While there, Jon first studied poetry writing with Philip Levine. He received a BA in Psychology but pursued his writing in the MFA program at UC Irvine.

               

                 So in one sense, my great good luck began in Germany when Jon and family missed those first two boats out of the country and caught the third one to the U.S.  More practically, it began at Fresno State which offered an office of “Evaluations” to which a student could apply to have his/her course work evaluated with regard to how they were proceeding toward graduation in a major. About 1971 or ’72 Jon went to the Evaluations window and handed in his request, later to discover that he had in fact completed enough courses for his degree in Psychology but was short two elective courses. Without knowing anything about Philip Levine or poetry writing, Jon signed up for a poetry workshop, thinking, How hard could this be?  That course with Levine was hard—Phil was a magnificent but rigorous teacher—and it changed Jon’s life as he discovered his vocation in poetry. And it changed mine, giving me the great good luck to meet Jon a couple years later and have him as a friend in poetry and in life for 43 years.

 

                Although Jon would, for most of his working life, have a career and hold down a day job in mental health with his degree in Psychology, he found poetry and became a poet—hands down one of the best, most compelling, and original of our generation, and one of the outstanding poets of The Fresno School.  Our mutual friend, Gary Soto, was in that class at Fresno State, and Soto recalls that one of Jon’s first poetic efforts was titled, “Green-Eyed Ants,” which early on demonstrated Jon’s penchant for looking outside of himself for his subjects.  My good fortune really began in my first MFA workshop at UC Irvine which found me in the room with Jon and Soto, Gary Young, Tim Sheehan and Deborah Gorlin.  Diane Wakoski was the visiting poet for that first quarter and Jon and I agreed she was a terrific and exact teacher as well as a generous mentor.  After our first workshop—which turned a little contentious when I suggested Soto cut a stanza from his poem on the worksheet—Jon invited me to have a beer with them . . . well, really Soto asked if I wanted to go and have a Coke, Jon having convinced him that he could profit from my suggestions. . . .  Jon and I just looked at each other: a Coke? We said we were going for a beer and headed for the Spritzgarden, the beer joint across the street from campus.

 

                From that moment forward, Jon and I were friends.  We shared a house together in Costa Mesa our second year in grad school, and spent many days together talking poetry, and critiquing each other’s work.  Jon was a great source for eastern European poets most of us had not heard of nor read, and Jon pointed me toward Johannes Bobrowski, Milosz, Yvan Goll, Zbigniew Herbert, and Jaroslav Seifert among many others.  He was always reading.  And Jon was an exact, insightful, and generous critic; his imaginative suggestions and substitutions always improved my poems.  Jon was direct and spoke the truth, no political or theoretical agendas except to make the poem as good as it could be in its own voice. 

 

                Toward the end of our time at Irvine I had submitted a first book ms. to the Yale Contest; I did not delude myself thinking I really had a chance at winning the Yale, but my outside hope was that Stanley Kunitz might like it enough to recommend it to some other press looking for mss.  That was, amazingly, exactly what happened.  I had a nice note from Kunitz and his kind words helped me keep my head above the waters for years.  The university press to which he recommended my ms. turned it down, regretfully they said. . . . I'd started on a second book and asked Jon what he thought of the title I’d come up with?  He liked it; “a good title for your first book” he said, and, no punches pulled, said that my first-book ms. was not very good, that I should toss it and start over.  That brought me down to earth and saved me from putting out a bad book.  Jon was accurate, rigorous, matter of fact, yet friendly and supportive; a true friend will tell you, and keep you from catastrophe.  Jon was that friend.

 

                Jon kept a house in Fresno while he was in grad school and drove home often.  It was Jon who introduced me into the circle of Fresno poets by first inviting me up to stay one weekend.  He suggested we go over to Levine’s house and visit, and that seemed to me impossible and presumptuous . . . you could just go over to his house?  Jon called Phil and Phil said sure, come by for a drink the next afternoon, and so, apprehensive as I was, we went.  I had met Phil years before at San Diego State when he was down for a reading, and we played a couple sets of tennis together, but I would then have never thought of calling up and going by to visit.  Phil was very friendly and relaxed, as was Jon, who chatted easily with Phil and Franny.  I can’t remember saying much of anything that day.

 

                I taught several places in southern California for a couple years and then moved to teach part-time at Fresno State. During that time, I got together with Jon every week for a talk about what poets we were reading or to exchange poems.  Every few months, we’d burn out and jump in one of our cars and drive over to Santa Cruz to see Gary Young and Tim Sheehan, to just shake the grey cells up a bit and change the scenery.  In addition to Jon’s wonderful friendship and help with my writing almost every week, what I especially remember those two years in Fresno was his support of Luis Omar Salinas. Omar moved in with Jon for a few weeks, but could not hold down the job he’d picked up.  Jon and I then helped Omar rent an apartment in town on his own, but that did not work out.  Omar was back in Sanger living with family, but he came into town every week, showing up at my door with poems in his pockets, usually having been to Jon’s first and then coming to me hoping I would praise work Jon had told him to re-write.  I had a large office typewriter and we always got right down to re-writing and typing out.  Many afternoon’s and evenings, Omar would come by Jon’s and we'd sit out in Jon’s back yard with Ernesto Trejo, Soto, Gary Young and Tim Sheehan before heading to the Basque Restaurant at the Santa Fe Depot for the amazing $4.95 chicken dinner or we'd throw some dinner franks and chicken legs on the hibachi.  We were continually amazed at Omar’s spontaneous poetic responses to the world, and Jon or I would write down the idiosyncratic riffs that he'd tossed into the conversation. Those lines—his wit and ironic observations—were the beginnings of poems.  I became Omar's main editor and secretarial helper, and Jon and I conspired to engage Omar in revision and organization when he showed up on our doorsteps.

 

                For the rest of Omar’s life, Jon was his lifeline to the world.  Omar mailed me poems almost every month but Jon was right there day to day.  There was hardly a weekend where Jon did not drive out to Sanger and take Omar out to breakfast or sit with him and work on poems in the family patio.  The last year or so of Omar’s life, he was in a nursing home and Jon went by each week to bring him a diet Pepsi and hours of friendship, sitting with him in the courtyard, reading to him and talking poetry and days gone by.  Jon’s weekly visits were especially important as Omar reached a point where he could no longer read.  Jon was a true and generous soul, a life long support.  He could have been working on his own poems with all that time, but he gave it to Omar, quietly and without fanfare of any kind.  Knowing the quality and imagination of the poems Jon produced, I often nagged him about finishing up rough drafts, getting work into the mails. Jon was not on the phone, writing letters or emailing editors, not at the post office promoting himself in the mails.  Rather, he was working in mental health.  He was a great student of the human condition, the mind, the wounds it receives in the rush of experience.  And with his great compassion, helped many. 

 

 

                While teaching at Fresno State, I learned letterpress printing on a press in a colleague’s garage.  The first book I printed was a chapbook by Jon, Nothing About the Dead, 1980.  Only recently, I found a copy of it on the internet and bought it, first one I have ever seen for sale though the colophon says I printed 250 of them?  “Dog Poem” from that chapbook, though an early poem, is still one of Jon’s best. Over many years of teaching beginning poets, I always advised them to avoid sentimentality and subjects like the death of a dog or cat. I would bring in Jon’s poem with it’s fierce and original approach and resolution to an old subject, its gravity and shaking mortality, and show them the one exception which proved the rule.

 

 

                           Dog Poem

 

                           No heavier than a sack of flour,

                           I carry him in my coat, upwards,

                           through the rubble of manzanita,

                           willow herb and tin can.

                           I set him down every few yards

                           To scrape the muck from his eye

                           And wipe his drivel from my cuff.

                           He tries a step forward, falls,

                           and rolls back down to rest,

                           his front legs pawing the air.

 

                           I take him to the farthest hill,

                           high enough to where nobody can hear.

                           He winces and cocks his ear

                           to what I think is animal terror--

                           the coyote's whine, the bat humming

                           a circle around his head, the owl's glare.

                           When he has fallen asleep

                           I pull the trigger at close range.

                           I hear two quick whimpers

                           and see his ears dragged back

                           and his bad leg twitching

                           as if he were hit right in the middle

                           of a bad dream.  I turn away

 

                           and look for the path

                           I had made the night before.

                           Soon light will unravel

                           from the thickets.

                           I should have nothing to fear.

 

 

                I landed a full time job at UCSB but still drove up to Fresno to stay with Jon, and he sometimes drove down to Santa Barbara, and we sent poems back and forth in the mails in those days prior to email.  Even though I always had stacks of papers to correct, I had more time to write than Jon as he worked long hours at the hospitals and mental health clinics, often the graveyard shifts.  In 1983 I moved to Murray, KY for a creative writing position, and that year both Jon and I put in applications for NEA grants.  One afternoon at UC Irvine, daydreaming over beers, Jon and I agreed that if we were ever lucky enough to receive an NEA grant, and if that happened at the same time, we would drop everything and travel to Europe together.  Amazingly, it happened.  Gary Soto, one of the judges that year, called Jon after the votes were in and told him he had received a grant, that all the judges had loved his poems.  Gary said, I was on the bubble, not in the original list, but some money had been found for two more additional grants and someone spoke up for my work so I squeaked by.  Soto had recused himself from voting on either of our mss. as he was very ethical about such things and was very put off when it was clear that some judges knew the people for whom they were supporting for a grant.  Jon took leave from work and I took a sabbatical without pay and we were off for six months traveling western Europe.  Nadya Brown, who was teaching art at Murray State, and whom I would marry, had had enough of the south and of the university there and decided to come along.  We had the time of our lives traveling about, the dollar at a very high exchange rate then.  Jon and I did not fill up notebooks with drafts of poems.  We were there for the experience, charging the reserves of imagery and memory.  After a couple months, we tired of travelling one place to another every week and stayed in Castelldefels outside Barcelona for three or four weeks, a place recommended to us by Philip Levine. Nadya, Jon and I would sit on the patio of the apartment we rented in the beatific light of September afternoons, sipping a little Tio Pepe, talking and looking at the sky.  We read a lot and maybe wrote out a couple rough drafts.  The poems would come later.

 

                In 1986 I placed a book with Vanderbilt University Press, and soon began screening poetry mss. for them.  I suggested Jon send his first ms. in to Vanderbilt, telling the director, John Poindexter, that it was an amazing book but that I was a close friend of Jon’s and should not review it officially.  I suggested he send it to Ed Hirsch and Chase Twichell, which he did, and they both gave it enthusiastic support for publication.  Vanderbilt published Jon’s An Owl’s Landscape in 1988, about which Ed Hirsch wrote: “His poems have a strong sense of conflict and drama.  They try to tell the truth about ordinary people—they also grant these people their individuality and dignity.”  Introducing Jon at a reading I said:  “Line to line and poem to poem, few poets today can sustain language and imagery this brilliant and inventive, a subject this deeply human, a voice this true, this powerful. . . .  His is a vision of the world being pieced back together, a world shining in its shattered parts.  These poems celebrate the power of the spirit unadorned and yet illuminated with integrity.”  I was not exaggerating.

 

                We traveled to Europe together, saw each other almost daily when I lived in Fresno, and he remained my great and wonderful friend for 43 years.  I could write pages and pages about Jon—his generosity, compassion, fierce intellect, critical insight, grounded sense of democratic values, and his amazing and sustaining sense of humor . . . no one like him.  In 1991 he married Dixie Salazar, a Fresno poet and artist and they made a mutually supportive, joyous, and creative life together for thirty years.

 

                 As I said at his memorial service, it always seemed to me that truly great poetry is a result of great character, not simply skill with language alone.  Jon was a man of great character, of great insight, imagination, and compassion, and that gave rise to his exceptional poetry.  To my mind, he was largely overlooked by those who purport to be champions of poetry. Jon was a true individual.  He realized early on that he wanted no part of academia with its duplicity and political agendas, and he would not network or curry favor, play poetry politics.  He worked longer hours than those of us who were teaching and likely did more good in the world, especially working with teens at risk the last ten or fifteen years of his life.  Yet he published five books, and, most interestingly to my mind, received two National Endowment for the Arts grants for his poetry, a competition in which the applications are judged anonymously.  Each time, I imagined the celebrated judges reading his work and wondering where this great poet had been the last several years, and wasn’t this someone whose work they should know?  Over the years his poems appeared in POETRY, Antioch Review, New England Review, The Missouri Review, Ploughshares, Quarterly West, ThreePenny Review, SENTENCE, and The American Journal of Poetry among many other journals. His chapbook, Stickball Till Dawn won the Sound Post Press national contest and was published in 1996.  His second full-length collection, Oarless Boats, Vacant Lots, was published by Orchises Press in 1999.  The Speed Limit of Clouds won C&R Press’ first annual national contest and was published in 2008.  In 2014 the redoubtable independent poetry press, Lynx House Press, brought out Jon’s last book, Angels at Bus Stops.  This book again takes up memories of his Estonian family and heritage as well as presenting the lives of those who live in Fresno, struggling to get by.  Derek McKown, reviewing this book for MIRAMAR, wrote: “Veinberg’s poems possess certain essential qualities—humor and courage, intelligence and passion—that persuade the reader of an engaged humaneness; but moreover, it is their distinctive tangling of tenderness and menace that breaks open the ordinary though urgent world they vividly and dramatically depict to reveal those deeper mysteries we sometimes still call miracle.”

 

                In addition to his two NEA grants, Jon also received the Vern Rutsala Award from HUBBUB magazine, and had work selected for POETRY DAILY.  Along with Ernesto Trejo, he edited the important anthology, Piecework: 19 Fresno Poets in 1987.  More recently Jon and I edited, Messenger to the Stars: A Luis Omar Salinas New Selected Poems & Reader for the Ash Tree Series published by Tebot Bach, 2014.  Jon’s poems appeared in many anthologies: What Will Suffice: Contemporary Poets on the Art of Poetry; Highway 99: A Literary Journey through California’s Great Central Valley; The Geography of Home: California’s Poetry of Place; Many Californias: Literature from the Golden State; Bear Flag Republic: Prose Poems & Poetics from California; Aspects of Robinson: Homage to Weldon Kees: and One for the Money: The Sentence as a Poetic Form.

 

                Of Jon and his poetry Peter Everwine has written: “I have for years admired the way a Veinberg poem makes its fierce and insistent music taking up, not another lyric subject, but rather entering the lives of others and giving over his vision and passion to the dignity of the individual trying to do his or her best on earth.  Jon’s is a selfless poetry and engages the basic mysteries of our existence, and elbows and shoulders its way toward the light, toward some concrete meaning that we might wrestle with a little anger and compassion, with great imagination, and with hard won beauty.”

 

                Jon’s passing was a crushing blow to his family and friends, a roadblock on that path of hope we all try to follow.  For most of my life I knew that joy, hilarity, insight, and camaraderie were only a phone call away, a three hour drive to Fresno—that great good fortune I carried with me since the first day I met him 43 years ago.  When Gary Soto called with the terrible news, I felt a lot of the luck of my life evaporate.  But realistically, I have to make myself understand how fortunate I was to have Jon as a friend all that time.  Jon wrote exceptional poetry that resulted from his unique and compassionate character, his incisive intelligence, his understanding of irony countered with joy in the world.  He wrote in the voice of animals, in the voices of the disenfranchised, in the voices of the lost who he reclaimed.  His last book Angels At Bus Stops is one of the finest books by anyone of our generation. We have lost a great poet and a luminous and original soul.  Here is Cicero's famous line from his funeral poem to his brother, # 110: Atque in perpetuum frater ave atque vale/ And forever brother, hail and farewell.

 

Here is WILD BIRDS, from Angels at Bust Stops, a poem written for Omar Salinas:

 

Wild Birds

 

                        Beneath the tangle of drizzle and mist,

                        the wind hisses prophesies to itself,

                        muffling the pants of nose-to-the ground dogs

                        who just the hour before slipped their collars.

 

                        Why do I keep seeing you there, Omar,

                        on the corner of Broadway and Belmont

                        heeling your smokes and losing count of angels,

                        thumbing a ride under the funeral parlor’s wink?

 

                        And the wild birds whose names are no longer within reach

                        that preened their wings inside your heart so nimbly

                        it is no small wonder to catch you floating among them

                        leaf-like, past the palm fronds and recalcitrant roses,

 

                        through the moon’s braid of light beyond

                        where fog and poverty drip into the same alley

                        and when the blue tinderbox of desire crackles

                        outside the hospital you died in and the untamed soul teeters

 

                        like an unbalanced brick, I’m sure you’ll turn up

                        through the gauze of clouds, the reef of time, to answer it all back

                        with spit and guts, the wind scorching your eyelid,

                        your hat on fire, your words melded in the hard flame of stars.

 

 

 

 

To the Poetry Students at Reedley College:

Sometimes the hardest part of writing a poem is knowing where to find a poem and how to start. At other times, when lucky, the poem somehow seems to find us and we have to be ready to jot down what the poem tells us or very strongly imprint it to our memory, a poet's greatest tool. For me, in either case, it starts with a sparking of the senses that sooner or later will travel to light a fire in my heart or gut and the only way to put it out is to write a poem, a desire to turn that spark into the music of language. Usually the outside world and its physical properties or ordinary images, whether they be flies, a car wash, blackberries, or a rocking horse, to use examples of some of my poems, provide the initial inspiration and imagery to begin; it's a little like having a camera inside your head, to give life to the outside world. Or like the great Chilean poet Pablo Neruda said in one of his poems, "so other lives shall live in my song". Now, the mettle of a good poet is how well he takes the poem beyond description above the ordinary or common image to a grander or universal level. If someone in Nebraska or Mexico can understand the subject matter or underlying emotion, whether it be death, mercy, birth, grief, or loss of any kind. It is what I hope for in my poetry—to hook up image with an event, historical or personal, that warrants compassion. Again, to use my own examples: car wash and redemption, the forest as elegy to a father, or coffee in memory of an uncle. My favorite invention is when I give voice to others: a pigeon, a small suitcase, or a German shepherd. In poetry everything has a voice and it's the task of the poet to find that voice, be it yours or one that lives in your imagination.

With hope,
Jon Veinberg

 

 

Jon Veinberg

Convergence

 

When the shades

                are snapped shut,

days fold into night,

                nights fog the day

and when the curtain is lowered

                to a level where

the only light left

                is the one leaking

through the unpatched

                gaps of the roof

now shadowed by

                mist, leaf-hang

and horned bird claw.

                When the wind

becomes a hustler

                of the slow-lobbed

clouds and the alone

                star turns white

as a weasel’s tooth

                under a fast

rising August moon

                and the lobster

shift cop sits in his car

                under the oaks,

considers the webbed

                lines of his palm

and sings “ Going Going

                Gone “ to a sunrise

that bleeds the good eye

                of the crackhead

shivering in his duffeled

                coat, each step

a rattle of bones

                criss-crossing the

Van Ness Ave. tracks

                heading south

to a lineup of clinics

                and Army cheese.

When grace has passed

                into a knothole of breath

and the sparrows refuse

                to surge upward

and the dog napping

                on the back porch,

with its burned out bulb

                won’t nudge awake,

a water bowl of dead moths

                at its nose

and when the last soldier

                to leave Cambodia

parachute doesn’t open

                and the 2 year old

swallows water in the frigid

                waves of the Baltic,

salt gungeing its lungs,

                will all ask for more

time and for us, angels

                of the everyday,

are to stand stone-cold

                by their side

on the doorway steps

                on their way out,

prop them up

                to stand nose to nose

with the devil as he haggles

                their sins. And it never gets

easy, butting heads with

                Jesus, not as hard as what

my shadowy cousin Bob,

                the angel of explosives,

doled out to the Fat Man

                bombers of Nagasaki,

with the same, equal dose

                of mercy and severity

as trying to mend

                the ripped quilt

of an ocher sky

                with loose thread.

 

 

Jon Veinberg

Angels At Bus Stops

 

 

 

 

When rain is the scratch of fingernails

across the moon’s face,

 

and the wind sears the treetops

stapling its eyes shut,

 

the angels have a tough time

telling time

 

or in what direction they’re

supposed to be transporting the dead.

 

I’ve watched them limp

into boxcars brimming with sacks

 

of dirt crusted potatoes,

ready to lift a supine, hung over,

 

and mistaken saint

into the smoke-stacked air

 

of south Fresno, and once

you thought Marty the wino

 

was buried alive under a cardboard coffin.

Rain tilts my umbrella toward a lost afternoon

 

of darkened windows in coffee shops

and flooded canals,

 

its weed-tangled bottom

shimmering with silver hand guns

 

perceived by the angels

to be the jeweled perch of Jesus.

 

When they come up behind me

I don’t know if I’m dead or alive.

 

They shrug their wings as if to say,

taking care of the dead is harder than you think.

 

Even the padlocked taco trucks

and check cashing parlors

 

on South Van Ness look worn out,

their windows veiled in soot

 

each starless time

the train whistle pulses through,

 

their souls sawed into streamers

with the dull blade of money.

 

In the bone chilling emptiness

of November a woman

 

in a black hat and overcoat

is fumbling for change

 

at the leafless bus stop on First Street,

her husband with his rooster crowned hair

 

mumbles to the unpeopled sidewalk

in his native Estonian

 

that the chimes of winter

have just begun their steady climb

 

to a tumultuous crescendo. Bus

stop angel, who walks me

 

from cover to cover, through

rain and bad dreams,

 

how often you remind me that

I got here by the message you sent

 

from that bus stop to Pittsburgh

to my mother to reunite her

 

to her refugee friends and a job,

I have followed you since then

 

through the cold and deepening

puddles, toward any tunnel you choose,

 

breathing in the mist of your wings,

the shoulders of heaven hidden

 

behind the soggy clouds

and dark grille of the sky.

 

 

Jon Veinberg

The Birth of Light


The last bit of moonlight beams through the window

and down the throats of bartenders and the swing shift

operators at Zacky Farms, done with the last minute butchering

and incubating as they slip into the couched sleep of waving

 

grasses and dying stars, coughing up what’s left of the dark.

To be walking down Van Ness at this time is to scare the stars.

To listen in on the undecided clouds as they confer with the night 

about the blood lines singeing the eyes of farmers and flower vendors

 

as they curse the shoulder that refuses to pivot and twirl

and the back that has lost its torque when unloading the trucks,

is to eavesdrop on secrets that will one day form dreams,

like a stillness that inhabits the Chinese elms before a storm

 

that might awaken the half-dead kittens tossed in empty oil drums

or the security guard lying torpid on the green linoleum tiles of the bank,

mulling over the tyranny of alarm clocks and the whereabouts of his thermos.

I watch a checkerboard of lights wink on from the gray-scabbed apartments,

 

releasing a littered nebulae of tossed magazines, an Early Times bottle,

armfuls of plastic hampers and flattened cardboard into the scrapped shopping cart

while a woman stands at the bus stop, allowing a pre-dawn breeze

to comb her hair, practicing smiles and mouthing the gawky syllables of bliss.

 

And I go on loving these loveless hours like no other before the sun

takes its rightful place at the head of nature’s table, bronzing the sky,

conning the day, and sending a new shift of angels to change the time

on the marquee scanning the ballpark, the hand of heaven changing gloves.

 

 

Jon Veinberg

A Small Suitcase

 

I could tell they’d never make it

by the way she hugged me

to the breast

that wasn’t feeding the boy.

After two years of being tracked

by German soldiers in black uniforms

and Russians in brown

with red trim and black belts,

after being tossed from one

crowded boat to another,

I’m tired of them

drumming on my skin

each time a bomb goes off

a hundred meters away—

tired of crossing the frigid waters

I’ve lost count of,

and of watching

children cough up blood

onto the freshly fallen snow.

They must be desperate

to have that chatterbox

of a four year old blond girl

lug me through the line

of another refugee camp

only to have their dreams blackened

by another customs agent

who won’t be bribed by the silver

spoons I carry in the tattered

pouch of the lining I share

with the death certificate

of God knows who, and the eye-

glasses of a nearsighted professor

who these omen-led Estonians

believe still holds enough

vision to lead them to America.

If they get that far,

they’ll need more than luck

to hold them up,

more than waking up

without the blanket they left behind,

with their left feet planted

in the earth upon rising

before the sun

teases them with light.

They’ll need more

than the sack of coins

I carry and the herring they’ll

eat on New Years and the crows

they’ll drive off their sills.

The hysterical one will once again

throw herself into the water

and the others will follow

with me bearing all they own,

like a small, bloated mule,

praying I’ll keep them afloat.

The sea will foam,

the gulls will scream,

and they’ll wave off all help.

And I’ll be thrown

in the nearest ash can

or washed up and left leaning against

the sea-battered feet

of The Statue of Liberty.

 

 

Jon Veinberg

Pumpernickel

 

When I eat pumpernickel bread

I am a young boy pumping

my butter-fattened legs

toward the farmhouse,

past the slate stacked sauna,

through the undulating wheat

and peat-smoked bogs,

the mist rattling the leaves off

the alder and white birch

into a mix of water and wind.

I find you culling the blackberry vine,

urging the oats to roll themselves,

the shovel always at your side,

an ally to wrestle the cabbage heads with.

White flour has gummed

the wild hair of your arms

into tiny globes of snow,

bees dance on your neck

and when you kick at the millions of moths

that invade your rye each year

I watch your eyes flame

from the dust of their wings

as you throw your pocket watch at them

into a splash of mud. Grandfather,

I have no need to build

a straw cave anymore

or learn how to start

a fire without matches.

The black geese have long ago floated

into the driftwood they were born into

and where I live there are no storks

living in the church belfry

hovering over their clutch of eggs,

their beaks clattering,

alerting us to the revival of beetroot,

the loitering of spring.

But I can still remember

how to predict the hour of rain by dividing

the sky into twelve squares,

picking out the dark ones, then

adding to it the wing beats of a goldeneye duck.

Each day I come home for lunch

and knife into the hard crust of pumpernickel,

its center as sour and dark as God’s pain,

and I cover it with a small boatload of herring

and for twenty minutes,

between noon light and dream light,

I watch you pour

scalded milk over butter, sugar, salt,

muttering to the caraway seeds,

triple kneading the dough,

then throwing the leftover grains

out the window, some of which

will take to the earth,

others to be carried by the wind

across four countries and two wars

and beyond uncountable, borderless waters

to land at my kitchen table,

where you inhabit

the pungent taste of pumpernickel,

a seeded taste I refuse to spit out.

 

 

Jon Veinberg

An Elephant Plans Its Escape From the Circus

 

I’ve always dreamt big and thought small.
Tomorrow I’ll flap my ears to the first murmur of wind

that’ll leak from the sculpted banana leaf and the raisin bush
that bends its blossomed head west to a desert I remember

stumbling across as a calf, holding on tight to my mother’s tail
as my aunts and sisters and cousins nudged me forward

through bush willow and star grass, away from the shrieks
I was too young to take in until I collapsed like a tent

in high wind and have been wondering where the now went
ever since. Say adios to whips and tricks said my friend, the juggler,

as he patted my head in one last act of revelry, tossing
balls that had been double-dipped in sunset toward a fabric of blue

sky now pockmarked with moons as far as my eye could wander.
Tomorrow I’ll fly the bamboo guarded moat, stretch a stalk

or two to my own liking, past the squabbling squirrels. I’ll
learn from the yellow-headed, gluttonous gannet how to dive

from an immeasurable cliff with a bubble-wrapped face uglier than my own
and pull out a smorgy of sardines and not leave a ripple.

I’ll land with a thud louder than a plane crash, clouds flagging the high rises,
and roll my body around in dusty circles of happiness,

crunching cars as effortlessly as groundskeepers crush a chaos of burnt leaves.
Adios to catching peanuts while balanced like a chihuahua on a stool

and picking up dimes with my trunk. I know how hard it’s going to be
getting lost in someone’s backyard, lumbering into their pool,

being the gray and acorned eye of gladness staring into a kitchen window
beyond the wind-whirling curtain, shouldering the depleting shade,

wishing to fit into the cricket’s throat, the lizard’s lung, a crevice to roam heaven
from at blossom level with the earth’s rumble as guide. Tomorrow I’m going home.

 

 

Dixie Salazar

The Voyeur's Glasses

for Jon

 

Beside a yellowed Viking Cruise mailer
and a Skylit Motel ashtray swamped
with sunflower seed casings, they wait
on a faux walnut desk scarred
with cigarette burns and coffee blooms.
They wait to watch Mrs. Ortega sliding by
in her Upsi-daisey Scooter
wait for Jaime going door to door
with his plastic bag of liver for sale
and stand guard watching for Choppo
who lies in wait to plead for the same
hard luck hundred he borrows
back month after month.
They wait to bring into focus the leaves raining down
from Chinese elms into soggy Asian puddles
to troll through lost three legged dogs, obituaries
and coupons for tripe and anchovies
at the Big Potato Market.
They wait-- lonely for your night shift
mermaids, pimps in pith helmets,
psychedelic sausages and
paroled paper boys without papers-
for the magic eight ball you tap into
to conjure the voices of clouds and snakes
and for your hostile witness
account of the man sipping menudo
from a paper cup outside Payday Loans
for your testimony regarding
the exact shade of the sadness
staining the embroidered oval badge
that says “Lyle” on his grease sparkled coveralls.
Beside a stack of unread books on a desk
banded with early light
the found penny of morning waits
to find you, to bring you a dollop of luck
to once again enable your prowlings
your myopic voyeur’s double vision
and sightings of pneumatic angels,
all those who missed the last bus
waiting for the one who just stepped away
for a moment, to turn back
to adjust the bridge and polish slow circles
once again to capture the sparks of shooting stars.

 

 

Dixie Salazar

Poppies

after WCW

for Jon

 

The yard is alive
with poppies- a redness swelling
and spilling open into bursts
of color to hold and enjoy
for a short while-- to hold the knowing
of eventual loss and letting go, knowing
that the small peppery seeds will fall
and re-seed for the next season
unlike you who have gone into the earth
and will not return this season or another
and now the redness opens
only wounds and sorrow and another
knowing that is a darker red
a color only extinct fish can see
a red sinking deeper into the cold arms of earth
and now only sorrow re-seeds itself
for another season of loss
for a heart that once spilled over
with the red beating of poppies pulsing
in the wind
and I see them now only
with those cold eyes unable to behold
them.

 

Dixie Salazar

Special Delivery

for Jon

 

The unopened letter must be mildewed
now and starting to fade--
the words no one will read nestling
in pockets of darkness
against your cold trousers.

Somewhere a doorbell rings and grief
enters with night letters—
exotic un-cancelled stamps--
messages lost from centuries
of separated lovers.
No need to open the door--
it barges in and sits
at the table demanding
its special spoon—opening the mail
I can’t bring myself to open
and laughing at my small
collection of forever
stamps and heart shaped rocks.

Rain falls into the owl’s song--
spring ignores my sadness
and dances wildly about with
a frenzy of colors
an old man shuffles by in shocking
pink bedroom slippers
followed by a small boy with a backpack.

Your unopened mail piles up
on the table, an altar of nothing
but mockery--
Every day when the sun slips
into my room, I lie in bed
waiting for the slap
of mail against the slot
for the winds to change and bring
back certain familiar scents.
And every day
despite my objections,
the doorbell rings.

 

 

Christopher Buckley

Irreverent Elegy for My Friend Jon Veinberg: 1047-2017

                                                The poetry gods

must have been drunk on time and darkness - J.V.

 

It comes out of nowhere . . .

                                            and it likely goes back there

as well. . . .

                 Don’t we like to feel

                                                 there’s an understanding

between the forces behind the sky

                                                    and our sense of loss—

the rain, the dead, cold camphor leaves clogging the drive,

some coefficient

                         to the back-stabbing days?

but it’s just winter

                            in California and that doesn’t come to much. . . .

 

                                                              *

Goddamnit—as I’ve said

                                    for 50 years without thinking—

there was nothing

                            we didn’t see eye to eye on

except maybe blood sausage

                                           and menudo con pata,

those skillets of chicken hearts

                                               or gizzards fried with a slab of butter

that got you through grad school.          

                                                    We went from politics in the Baltic,

to which poets should be exiled to Albania

                                                                  on the same page;

from ethically hamstrung university administrators,

to the uselessness

                           of the catacombs of St. Callistus

in Rome where no one was saved

                                                   beyond their bones.

We were a tag-team

                              of minor league anarchists

                                                                       and didn’t care

if it got us nowhere

                              beyond your back yard, raising a glass

to our lost compadres

                               and howling

                                                  with your dog Moses

into the cave of fallen stars?

                                           All we wanted—

                                                                      as your aunt advised—

was to eat marinated meat

                                         and tell the truth—

                                                                        hang

the mid-level managers, new-school

                                                       manglers of syntax,

actuaries, and assorted plaster saints!

                                                         Jesus wept,

or should have . . .

                             but what’s the use?

                                                          A few lines

change nothing and are no help.

                                                  I don’t know . . .

or I do,

            and don’t want to. . . .

 

                                                                *

I remember you coming back

                                              from Christmas break to our house           

on the cul-de-sac,

                           with two dark loaves of rye

your aunt had baked,

                                 which, sliced leaf-thin, kept us going

for weeks along with

                                the bony chickens you bought

with food stamps

                           from that butcher who’d give us change in cash,

enough to toss in a jar

                                   and add up to a bottle Jack Daniels

once in a great while,

                                 enough so we could throw the wings

to our stray, grey cat

                                who didn’t know

                                                           we weren’t the kings

of Costa Mesa.

 

                                                                *

                        If there’s a choice,

                                                    I think you’d choose

to come back

                     as a Red-shouldered Hawk

                                                               atop a giant evergreen

on Fulton street

                         so you could see downtown to the cinema

where you wore a maroon, polyester tux,

                                                               and worked

for next to nothing, but happily

                                                 through the crusts

and candle ends of youth . . .

                                            or to the greasy breakfast joint

next to Emerald Thrift,

                                    where you eyed each face making its way

into the forlorn Fresno sunlight

                                                  with a shredded treasure in tow.

And who doesn’t know

                                    The Eagle Café’s long gone,

                                                                                that it was never

destined for grace?

                             Wherever it is,

                                                    I still see you at the counter

with Omar and Ernesto,

                                      steam rising

                                                         from a blue plate special

of sweet breads and Swiss chard,

                                                  a thick fluorescence on the air

which you no longer need to breathe. . . . 

                                                               Christ! there’s no one

leaning on the long bar at the Basque Hotel anymore

                                                                                  with a snifter

of Fundador against the shirt tails of the night?

                                                                       Mainly I think

you’re looking into the Tower District,

                                                            into the window

of Piemonte’s, at the logs of salami you’d carry home on sale,

at the ghosts and panhandlers

                                              wiping their mouths on their

sleeves as more sandwiches

                                          float out the door. . . .

                                                                               

                                                                *

There was still road ahead,

                                         you were writing your fiercest,

most forbearing work

                                  with grit, with that gristle of light

webbed high in the sycamores—

                                                   and there were birds

you had yet to charm from the trees. . . .

                                                              Elegies are often

about the speakers,

                              the ones left behind,

                                                              going through papers

in an empty room,

                             watching leaves of a Chinese elm fall

and fill an empty parking space.

                                                 And that phrasing,

                                                                              left behind,

implies we go somewhere—

                                            some subconscious hope in that . . .

and so I hope

                     that there’s a there

                                                  there, as the lady almost said . . .

I hope Vilma’s set a table

                                       with creamed herring, sausage,

and a decent bottle of red.

                                         All of us who loved you are left

with a fraction of the courage in our coat pockets

                                                                            with which

 you faced the shaking stars—

                                               all of us shaking,

                                                                         more now

each night. . . .

                       If I had a loaf of that heavy, hard as brick

black bread now,

                           if I still had a good right arm,

                                                                         I’d toss it

smack through heaven’s window,

                                                   let the glass spray

across the night

                         and shrug my shoulders

                                                              wondering

just what the hell?

 

 

 

CHRISTOPHER BUCKLEY's Star Journal: Selected Poems is published by the Univ. of Pittsburgh Press, 2016.  His 20th book of poetry, Back Room at the Philosophers’ Club won the 2015 Lascaux Prize in Poetry from the Lascaux Review. Among several critical collections and anthologies of contemporary poetry, he has edited: Bear Flag Republic: Prose Poems and Poetics from California, 2008, and One for the Money: The Sentence as a Poetic Form, from Lynx House Press, 2012, both with Gary Young.  He has also edited On the Poetry of Philip Levine: Stranger to Nothing, Univ. of Michigan Press 1991, and with Jon Veinberg Messenger to the Stars: a Luis Omar Salinas New Selected Poems & Reader for Tebot Bach’s Ash Tree Poetry Series. He is the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship in Poetry, two NEA grants, a Fulbright Award in Creative Writing, and four Pushcart Prizes.  He was awarded the James Dickey Prize for 2008 from Five Points Magazine, the William Stafford Prize in Poetry for 2012 from Rosebud, and he was the 2013 winner of the Campbell Corner Poetry Contest.

 

 

DIXIE SALAZAR has published four books of poetry: Hotel Fresno, Reincarnation of the Commonplace (national poetry award winner) by Salmon Run Press in 1999, Blood Mysteries by University of Arizona in 2003 and Flamenco Hips and Red Mud Feet by Univ. of Arizona Press in 2009. Limbo, her novel, was published by White Pine Press in 1995. Carmen and Chia Mix Magic, a young adult fantasy novel, was published by Black Opal books in 2014. Altar for Escaped Voices was published by Tebot Bach in 2013. Dixie Salazar and Jon Veinberg were married in 1991. She shows her artwork at her studio in Fresno and her website <dixiesalazar.com>. She has also taught extensively in the California prisons and the Fresno County jail and is currently involved in The Eco Village Project to develop housing for the homeless. Website: dixiesalazar.com

 

 

A C K N O W L E D G E M E N T S

“Dog Poem” first appeared in Nothing About the Dead, 1980, and in An Owl’s Landscape, Vanderbilt University Press, 1987


“Convergence” first appeared in The American Journal of Poetry

“Angels at Bus Stops” first appeared in MIRMAR and is the title poem for Angels at Bus Stops, Lynx House Press


“The Birth of Light” and “A Small Suitcase” first appeared in MIRAMAR and are from Angels at Bus Stops


“Pumpernickel” first appeared in HUBBUB and is from Angles at Bus Stops

“An Elephant Plans its Escape from the Circus” first appeared in Fifth Wednesday and is from the chapbook, Uncharted Stars: Last Poems, by Jon Veinberg, Brandenburg Press, 2017


“Irreverent Elegy for My Friend Jon Veinberg: 1947-2017 first appeared in ASKEW

 

 

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