Fighting fires


Walter Bell, fights fires

and is fighting one down the street.

A cameraman stands out front.

A few neighbors, in what will be

their only TV appearance,

say an old couple just bought it

and were fixing it up.


Behind them, stop-action in flashing light,

Walter and the other men

fight fire, spray water, and rake

the smoke from cinders.


Down the sidewalk, I mill around with others,

wondering about lives lived there,

about who lived in our houses

and where their memories have gone.


I remember it is spring, time again

to clean generations out of the corners.

But you never get it. You never get all

the flakes of skin, old food,

all the wool turned to moth dust.


The only time it all goes is when it burns,

winds up in the wind or smeared on the face

of a guy you went to high school with.

leaving home


that summer, the park ached

with the screams and yips

of kids and dogs loosed

upon it


it was green then,

pool full, moms with sunglasses

kids with flippers and sea monster floats


people burned weenies, took in a breeze,

smiled at each other

with beer foam moustaches


in the houses, mamas sang in kitchens.

bread steam, meat-and-potato sear

floated over the baseball diamond

crawling with those spidery little guys

on St. Helena’s B-Team

flooring St. John Francis Regis again


porches creaked, smoldered with cigars

a hundred dogs on every block

raised the living and the dead

at each out-of-sync clock chime


anyone who had any money

bought grape pop in a bottle

a pack of luckies, or a snort of whiskey


and life was as good

as it was ever going to get

that summer, in the park,

in the pool, we watched

young mamas and older sisters

cross and uncross their legs,

snap their swimsuit tops

and pull the elastic out from behind

with index fingers


it was before life became knotty,

before the girls got pregnant,

and things went bad with cops

parents, brothers and sisters


and we all got the hell out


that summer was as good

as it was ever going to get

but we couldn’t trace the lines

through the waves in the water,

or see our reflections in the sunglasses



the new yard, gravel and rock

bare ground muddied in recent rain

lies fertile on the mind


for dogwood, pink and white,

a pair of redbuds, either side of the drive,

a couple of brooding lilacs next to the house


out back, on the hill, where the water has run

into the basement already, the mind has placed two apples,

a peach, and a fish pond


all this gardening, digging, hoeing,

mulching around roots, smacking dust and soil

from knees of jeans and crimps of skin

presupposes the pinoak, now a sapling,

draping its green curtain over it all


shade an old man

might remember he wanted to see

as he sits on a porch swing under a broken gutter

before a house long in need of paint

in the shade of that tree

surface tension


settled into cushions in the solarium

cat tinkling around bare feet


we read, evening falls on orchid-skirted palms

sprays of lemon blooms swathe cherubs


pages turn, breaths echo at babes’ ankles


we skim the water,

surface dimpled with your breath


your skin cool



Mike Ayles, 1962-1979


His face hung in wrinkled folds

even when we were seventeen,

and crows’ feet danced at his eye

when he squinted to smile.


In the park at night, over pilfered whiskey,

he said he could see where things wind up,

how young men turn old,

and memories smoke up with wishes.


One day you’re young, he said,

the next you talk in raspy whispers,

your body turns into a map

back to the beginning.


In a car in a ditch, he became as old

the oldest man in the world:

Son of somebody, brother of whomever,

no wife, no offspring, no chance to vote.


Not even remembered, really, but by people like me,

who hear him all along here—yelps and howls.

Steps—leather on concrete in the rain—

stumble up alleys, play along the curb.


to walk


bandy-legged, newspaper under arm,

skinny little paul—neighbor, friend, critic—

walks and walks and walks


he was in the cemetery

when we buried my grandmother—

grayed beard and bushy eyebrows

flittering in the wind

he remembered her fondly

as neighbor, friend, critic


he didn’t want a ride (he never does)

but said he wanted to visit

someone earthed long ago

in a distant row of stones


his mother, whom I never heard of,

his father, who disappeared,

or a sister, brother, or cousin?

he never said


he turned to the hill

that rolled down to a wooded creek

happy to see us, he said,

happy one more day

to walk


Against the end of hope, or John Stack’s last good try


His cohorts, once and former,

drank wine and smoked cigars,

in robes, bleary eyed, like Romans,

orgified, just in from debauch.


And inside, the Senate sent up a cheer,

a wail of laughter that busted

along the street, where we warmed our hands

under the haunches of dogs

with hardly any breath left in them.


At the door of the chapel, meanwhile,

a whole line of mouths opened

on cue of everlasting life.

At the altar, Caesar wrapped laurels

around the heads of orphans who’d done him favors.


And there was our man, the one who stood for us,

making one last try—after we had given up—

to reinstate the republic, to make us believe

in something other than flesh

and empty prayers and false gods.


Last time we saw him, he was blowing the base

of the fire, sending sparks into Cleopatra’s veils

stars to signal gods the experiment wasn’t over,

the patient’s heart hadn’t stopped—not yet.




between thumb and forefinger

balanced on a knuckle on the nose,

a man, a tree, the sun

bob in a bead of sweat


squeezed between fingertips

the man disappears in memory,

sunset into night