todd moore | the gold cane, van gogh's ear, and the gun in the casket: wandering down this crooked road

This is the age of Lummox.

Granted, there are many fine publishers out there, some of them even legendary. Grove Press, City Lights, and Black Sparrow not only published great writers but somehow went on to define an age. Scribners gave us Hemingway and Fitzgerald when we desperately needed them. Now, it is Lummox’s turn. Lummox reminds me in some ways of Warner Brothers back in the black and white thirties when Bogart and Cagney were staples and gangster movies were pushing the cultural envelope everywhere. I could be wrong but I think Raindog is pushing that cultural envelope now with poetry. Raindog is not just a good editor but he is also maybe one of the savviest readers of the culture that I know of and by coediting DOWN THIS CROOKED ROAD, MODERN POETRY FROM THE ROAD LESS TRAVELED he is giving everyone a peek at the next generation of poets. Certainly, this anthology does not represent all new and promising poets, but it is a very generous sampling.

If Baudelaire taught us anything it was how to be good flaneurs, walking urban voyeurs who couldn’t stop looking at everything from a crowded farmer’s market to a grungy crime scene where a bloody sock was all that was left of a murder. DOWN THIS CROOKED ROAD, the new poetry anthology published by Lummox Press and edited by RD Armstrong and William Taylor Jr. is the perfect gift for any serious voyeur anywhere. Even Baudelaire, if he were alive. Or, barring that anyone interested in some of the best poetry to appear for awhile.

Heart like the train station in Amsterdam
in the winter, even the birds listen to
the ting, ting, ting of time, blind. Time is black…

from Love, My Monster of Grace by M. K. Chavez.

I love the dark urban ennui of these lines. Chavez knows just the right notes to hit to give you the feel of existential darkness, erotic longing, and motel emptiness that lies at the center of the american scene. And, from the same poem, these lines. “Light/ surrounds the mundane and muted air.”

I pour the gasoline
You light the match
and we stop
take in the view
a red sky burning
the sun coming
to an end
as we touch.

from The Baptism of the Alchemists by M. K. Chavez.

Chavez commands us to watch this poem. These days we don’t so much reach poems as we watch them. The best contemporary poems are like movies that suck us in, keep us in, and then kick us out. We long to be held captive by poems that conjure us even closer and closer to an oblivion someone else dreams of. M. K. Chavez has fallen in love with the dark side.

Suicide Poems

Let them be read the way that I wanted to be loved.
Let them sink into the fibers of unbound paper.

Let them haunt the capillaries of each vein.
Let them be ether. Let them be death.

Let them be immortal, let them be porcelain.
Let them be young girls and old men. Let them be
let them tell lies.

Let my poems be a sparrow traveling
from the façade of Brownstones
to the faded pastels of Victorians.
Let it not matter if anyone believes in the lungs of
one little bird.

Christopher Cunningham’s poems are not quite so bleak but he comes close to the same kind of modern despair and apocalypse in his poem, “a sure thing.”

pour another
of Bordeaux
at four fifty-five a.m.
and listen
to the wind.

leather and rubies
and smoke
on my tongue
with the breath
of winter
on the glass
of my small window.

they say there may be
bad weather
on the horizon.

I am sure there is.

the wind speaks
of strangers dressed in black
of loaded pistols
of broken guitars
of failed attempts
and worn boot heels

I am listening
to the harmony
of violence and wine.

I keep one red eye

and one on the glass.

This poem reminds me of that evocative first paragraph of Raymond Chandler’s classic short novel RED WIND where the hot dry Santa Ana’s are blowing in across the mountains and the wives are testing the edges of their butcher knives and thinking of their husbands’ throats. At the same time I am also thinking of Hemingway’s great short story The Killers in which Ole Andreson has curled up into a fetal position while he waits for the hit men to come and put a bullet in his head.

What I like best about Miles Bell’s poetry is the kind of street lostness he brings to his work. Almost all of the poems included here take place in an urban setting and nearly all of them carry that flaneur/walker sense of desperation in them.

2 kids pass
striding into town
I know that feeling
nowhere to be
a twenty in yr pocket
& some real cigarettes
ready to murder the darkness
with laughter & stories

from Love the night by Miles J. Bell

Icarus Rex is arguably the best poem included in the Bell section. It is a long poem, just short of three hundred lines, about urban despair, that sense of becoming so lost you really don’t know who you are or where you are going.

I’ve felt shivers of wonder at the alien spires
of the church of the Sagrada Familia
I’ve seen a grown man punch a five year old
square in the face for dropping an ice cream
I’ve drunk tequila sunrises at 5 pm on a pub bench
winking at the businesswomen
I’ve spoken with the ghost of Primo Levi
and asked him how he made it and he said
I didn’t
I’ve chased a sunset for hours on a plane to New
York while trying to forget I was on a plane
I’ve seen the new every day every day every day
I have loved the stars too well to fear the night

That last line is one of the great epiphanies that this poem offers. Bell’s poetry hints at something longer, more ambitious. The wager is his, he needs to give it a try.

William Taylor Jr. is well acquainted with big city streets, bars like the ones where Bukowski used to hang out, and the entire urban milieu of the smartass hustle and the always present sense of someone on the verge of going over the edge as in Edvard Munch’s famous painting THE SCREAM.


It is much easier than
we imagine;
a door left ajar
a thread about to snap
a string to be pulled
a black core at the heart
of the sun
a simple giving in
a little letting go
a tapping at our window panes
at 4 a. m.
we are closer to it
than we recognize
we understand it
more than we will say
we long for it
in dreams we will never
speak of.
It speaks to me now
in a language that smells
of winter rain
and of all things lost and
dreaming to be

What I especially love about Taylor’s poetry is the way he works the poem into his own particular version of the city, his sense of the bars and the people who inhabit them. Taylor is the consummate street wanderer. He also has this built in sense of understanding that what the poet does is sit and drink and watch. This is what he does, this is what he has to do. He knows how to waste time for the poem. He knows how to make the ordinary extraordinary.

Rainy Afternoon

The rain comes down
on a Sunday afternoon
in San Francisco.

It’s as good a day as any to sit in a bar
and watch the world go by,

as good as any

to take back just a little bit
of what the world forever steals.

Me, I get drunk at the Gold Cane
as the tourists and the hipsters
drift up and down
the avenue.

A true smile from a stranger is enough
to set things right
for a little while.

I drink it in

and let the bitterness slide off
like rain down a windowpane

that looks out on Haight Street
on a rainy afternoon
in San Francisco.

Christopher Robin’s underground classic FREAKY MUMBLER’S MANIFESTO keeps looping through my head like some crazy street dance a blind man is doing for a hat full of quarters and nothing. The title poem is included here in this anthology.

I’d like to tell you I stayed
up all night
shadow boxing with the Muse
rock and roll poems
that will topple empires
or that Oprah called to say
I wasn’t just a fat
hairy loser
and asking how
did I ever transform
the misfortune
of my birth
and my own profound
to become the artist
I am today

from Freaky Mumbler’s Manifesto

Freaky Mumbler goes on for several more pages but this should give you a taste of what Christopher Robin can do. Of all the poets in this anthology, I think he takes the most chances because with him everything is on the line and in my opinion poets who take chances, especially with risky subject matter are among the bravest of all.

I don’t know what to do
should I write a poem?
should I kill myself?
or should I just figure out
how to wipe my own ass first?
there’s just no key
for this sort of thing
no cosmic blueprint
nothing extraordinary
about this day
this life
this poem
Freak Town is not a tourist destination
it’s the end of the line
nobody’s giving out any prizes
it’s not hip
and no one’s cleaned the bathroom
in 6 years

Christopher Robin’s Freaky Mumbler is one of those archetypal underground characters in poetry who just seem to haunt you. I know he haunts me and he deserves a place right next to Bukowski’s Chinaski and Ginsberg’s mother in KADDISH as being as marginal and memorable as it gets.

Being down and out is a familiar theme in underground poetry. Finding yourself either out on the street or in a lousy apartment wondering where in hell you are going to find the rent money.

It Will Never Be My Turn

once again I’m facing the end of the month without
a job and without rent money.

I’m listening to music in my hotel room.
I feel a coastal breeze,
and taste the salt in the air.

I’m nearly 50 years old
and I’m beginning to

it will never be my turn.

Father Luke’s bio informs the reader that he is waiting along with his woman for the perfect world. He’s probably going to have a very long wait, but in the meantime if he keeps writing poems like this, it won’t be for nothing.

Throw a Gun on the Casket

Grimes Patterson sat in a motel in some horse shit
town on the California coast. He waved a fly
from a piece of toast, and read the newspaper.

He’d been somebody. He’d robbed banks, kid-
napped for ransom. He was among the baddest
motherfuckers you’d ever seen.

The linoleum on the kitchen floor was ripped, and
coming up in more places than it decently
covered. What little was left was covered with
a smooth, brown and yellow greasy dirtiness
that wouldn’t let his socks slide as he walked.

Grimes Patterson took a bite of the toast, and he
folded the newspaper, and put it down on the
red formica table. As he chewed he flicked a
cockroach off the wall. He watched it walk in
circles on the floor. Then he stepped on it. The
bug made a little snap as he put pressure on it.
He took another bite of toast.

The water in the tea kettle began boiling. Grimes
adjusted his bathrobe, and stood up to pour
some water into a white cup over a spoonful of
instant decaf.

The water mixed with the instant coffee, and made
brown foam. Grimes leaned against the cracked
enamel of the sink, and looked into the cup,
and drew a heart in the foam with a spoon. He
let his mind drift to nowhere, then he stirred
the heart into the coffee, and sat back down at
the table.

He sipped the coffee. Hot. Too hot. He blew across
the top of the cup, and watched the steam make
paisleys in rays of light filtered through vene-
tian blinds.

When I’m dead, throw a gun on the casket, he said
to no one.

The fascinating thing about this Father Luke poem is that it reads like a good short story, something out of Hemingway or the late Borges. The setting for this poem reminds me only too well of a joint I used to live in when I was a kid, right down to the toast, make that burnt toast and the cockroach on the wall. It got so they could have been found art that moved.

They’re Feeding The Pigeons In Venice,
& Someone In Amsterdam, In Paris,
Is Standing In Front Of A
van Gogh

…because they understand it,
understand that there’s just
not much
understand that almost everywhere there is an
inescapable ugliness
& that the soul grows tired of its shell,
of being told not to scream
when all it wants to do is
sing of this
that surrounds it, this
that stumbles through
hours & decades & drunken midnights,
loveless, wallowing, begging condolence like
scuffed pennies.

We should be sick of desperation,
sick of stagnation & lifelessness, joylessness,
sick of all that are content to be left
to this plague and pitter, content to just
dangle about like
spiders & cheap

Amidst all we push around & carry,
all we imagine & invent,
all we kill ourselves to garner,

There, once again,
begins the

— though the

Hosho McCreesh knows that they are always feeding the pigeons in Venice or in Manhattan or in Paris or in Albuquerque while someone is weeping before a van Gogh and a bomb is going off in Iraq and everyone keeps garnering things and inescapable ugliness is everywhere. Still, someone keeps writing the poem. McCreesh says it best.

The clean living through is all. —Todd Moore

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