Wednesday, December 29, 2021

Lost and Found

I am not lost.
On the contrary, I found myself
yesterday afternoon sitting in a red cedar chair
in my backyard, staring at birds
or perhaps waiting for the first star to burn
through the dark blue wake of afternoon,

always a sure giveaway that evening
is going to roll up the day,
catalog it, and send it to the museum of days
that is as invisible as the Ark of the Covenant.
I was careful not to disturb myself
since I was listening to a cardinal

perched in a gum tree compose a sonnet
on what it was like to defy gravity
for short periods of time.
White clouds, catching the last rays of sunset,
morphed from mountains into tall ships
with three sails and bowsprit needling the ocean

to stay ahead of advancing darkness
and the undiscovered country of dreams
that could swallow the entire crew
and spices from Turkish bazaars.
I seemed to be happy,
though I had a crease in my forehead

formed by a regret that reminds me
that sometimes I am an imbecile.
I crept away so as not to disturb myself,
glad to know that I was needling the ocean
and staying ahead of the jim-jams.
There will come a time

when I will erase the regret like a Cavalier poet.
I will defy gravity and soar
through the undiscovered country
that cannot be avoided forever.
For now, I am found,
content to let the cardinal be my prophet

and tell me in verse what it is like
to be free of regret and the sloping ground.

~William Hammett

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Thursday, December 23, 2021

Christmas Eve

It is about the nativity, of course,
although it has not happened yet.
The pregnant possibility lies in the straw,
heavy with the promise of a New Jerusalem

that is far too distant
even for angels and shepherds to see.
Carols are sung about the imminence
that has not yet risen in the silent night.

It is all about what happens next.
Expectation hangs like an ornament
on the fir by the fire.
Royalty from Persia left their kingdoms years ago,

but the caravan has no arrived yet.
The magi are as curious as you or I.
Why else make the journey
on suspicions raised by a rogue comet?

Blind men and lepers are already lined up in Galilee.
For what, they do not know.
There are rumors about rumors
and a quickening of the pulse—nothing more.

The unwed mother in the Bowery knows this truth,
as does the junkie who throws away the needle
because he saw an angel in his delirium.
The rehab center was always in Bethlehem.

The alarm clock sings, and I pull myself out of bed.
Tonight, I am told, is about magic,
and I’m willing to place my bet on a mustard seed.
Why else make the journey?

~William Hammett

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Sunday, December 19, 2021

Blue Jay

Bluebird, bluebird,
tap me on the shoulder.
Oh, Johnny, I am tired.

            ~children’s nursery rhyme

Its harsh, shrill cry
scratches the dark blue evening sky,
demanding our attention,
threatening to rip open the heavens
and expose the eye of Armageddon.

Isaiah, Ezekiel, and Jeremiah
did the same with stubborn Israel,
pointing the finger,
exposing the lie,
calling men out
on the collective cerebral cortex
scrubbed clean of truth
so that lackeys might kiss the stone feet
of the idol deaf and dumb.

The D.C. metro bus carries freight
shuttled in from the Land of Nod.
Exhaust spills into the ozone
as men and women spill into a puddle of brain
while the jay shouts “Cry Havoc!
And let slip the dogs of war.”

Evening grows darker
as the jay finishes his screed.
We have been tapped on the shoulder,
roughed up in soul,
delivered to a fork in the road
by a crest of blue feathers.

I pour a tumbler of scotch.
Oh, Johnny, I am tired.

~William Hammett

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Monday, December 13, 2021

Calypso

Ah yes, there was the summer of ’78,
which I had almost forgotten in these latter days
of statins and twice around the block
in the evenings beneath the sheen of pine needles
so that my pulleys and gears will stay lubricated
and the bellows behind my ribs will keep
rush hour traffic flowing smoothly in my arteries.

The thesis and diploma were tucked away
where they could do neither harm nor good.
I had learned earlier that pulling one thread the wrong way
unravels the tapestry of blossoming love.
I painted murals in the air for no one,
an avant-garde hermit who lived in a basement apartment
and read “Dover Beach” one too many times.

The white sands of Jamaica—
well, that was a different story in the anthology,
so I puddle-jumped to Kingston Town
and bought a twenty-dollar guitar,
a beach umbrella, and too many cocoanuts
with umbrellas sprouting like new growth
from rum or tequila and the juice of the day.

At night, when small fires blazed like eyes opening,
and the beach was filled with lovers
or other refugees who had too much of nothing
and were sampling Dylan’s waters of oblivion,
I played for whitecaps and sea birds wheeling,
notes lost in the surf folding onto the beach,
songs hanging in the air for no one.

It was one evening when the full moon
sat on the rim of the world,
the atmosphere molding its shape into an ellipse,
a silver eye with a tint of orange,
that I sat up, arms folded around my knees,
and knew that, despite bikinis and calypso drums,
the spirit hovering over the deep
was watching me and always would be.

~William Hammett

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Wednesday, December 8, 2021

A Thousand Sitars

The song turned out to be prophetic.
Something was going to happen
in the black hills of Dakota,
and the building had been named
because the stones rose from a desolation
that looked like the upper Midwest in winter.

The people in the cheap seats had clapped.
Those in the box seats had rattled their jewelry.
The performers bowed,
and the curtain came down.

When it came up again,
time slipped forward,
careening past naked light bulbs
atrung like daisy chains on Coney Island
into a purple haze,
and Max Yasgur leased his farm
to his children’s children’s children
as a generation turned over in its grave.

The curtain came down again
during Monday Night Football.
Bob sang “roll on, John,”
and all cried grief for the bull.

I looked in the rearview mirror
over the long years,
the music always there,
Sometimes in dreams I hear sitars chanting
like a thousand monks on a mountain top.

I still hear them,
though I don’t have to play the vinyl backwards.
I pick up a guitar on most days
and get back to where I once belonged.

~William Hammett

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Friday, December 3, 2021

A Tree in Barcelona

Manicured cottonwood trees line the square
in Old Town, a space that looks as if Don Quixote
might amble through the space on his horse

at any moment, tilting at windmills as usual
as he sleeps and dreams his impossible dreams.
It is only a painting at a museum,

but I step into the frame and sit beneath a small elm,
bent as if it were a peasant woman or farmer
bending to pick up a potato.

It is a pleasant day, and I lean against the trunk,
legs crossed on the grass
as I survey the red tile rooves

and the brown arches of a building
that appears to be a hotel built in the Middle Ages.
I can hear the ceiling fans pushing air

through the open air and across the plaza into my face.
A plump woman walks down a cobbled street in the distance,
a baby riding her hips and bouncing

as gently as Don Quixote,
who has now checked into the hotel.
The elm tree whispers that I am welcome to stay.

I agree even though I know that in this perpetual afternoon
someone from the twenty-first century
will pull me from the picture.

Or perhaps it will be a noise,
the door to the museum closing
or a taxi horn disturbing the seventeenth century.

I close my eyes.
There is no hurry.
Like Adam, I will get kicked out of paradise

because a woman has spoken with a snake
about apples and my tenure on the canvas.
But I will return when the time is right.

I have found a mansion in my Father’s house
that, though humble, suits me fine.
A gold plaque above the frame reads

“A Tree in Barcelona.”
It knows nothing of good and evil,
nor is it a windmill.

~William Hammett

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Sunday, November 28, 2021

Visiting St. Joseph Abbey

It is a place where I retreat for a day or two
when the world is too much with me,
when I am the bull pinned at the edge of the ring
with four banderillas tearing shoulder blade from soul.

It is quiet except for when the five bells
tumble wildly through the bell tower—
high, low, loud, soft—
marking the hours of the day

and the passing of the Bogue Falaya
that catches petitions like Buddhist prayer flags,
running them into the lake
and whatever lies beyond the scope of water.

I walk down dirt roads and fire lanes,
thinking of the morning shadows I cast
when I was seventeen
and full of fire and heavenly hope,

unconcerned with roads not taken.
Life was, after all, low-hanging fruit.
The pines still whisper lauds and vigils,
vespers and compline, praying in tongues

according to the consecration of their tap roots,
never impaling so much as a white cloud
with their green satin needles.
They have their vocation as I have mine.

I shall return years from now
to the dirt and bells and the stream.
In the back is an acre of land
where crosses cast long shadows before sundown.

~William Hammett

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Monday, November 22, 2021

Sunset over Lake Pontchartrain

The waves are florentined with gold,
small crests catching yellow fire
miles into the horizon
where the world rolls into the unknown.

But this death is not yet complete,
not established beyond hope, though thin,
that still expects time to stretch,
to elongate the crimson and orange
and whatever ministrations comprised the day.

All is not lost of the heroic,
of digging in gardens or dusting the bookcase
and all acts falling far short of the siege of Troy
since our battles are with the circadian clock
that sets itself according to the holiness of the ordinary.

Twilight has no real definition.
The day is clearly not over,
and yet death, by all accounts,
is close at hand.
What to believe?

I watch the sun roll into Pontchartrain
in my state of mystical suspension.
For a few beats of the heart
I can have it both ways,
and so I choose to breathe in deeply
and savor the primordial palette
while balancing resignation
in that lobe of the brain rooted in reality.
The left hand knows what the right is doing.

The tall pine trees behind me are silent,
and a few waves wash against the seawall.
My home towns are before me and behind me.
Red beans and a cold beer await.

This small ocean contains so much of my life,
and I realize I could live nowhere else
as I melt and become particle and wave,
darkness and light, cerulean blue and dying crimson.

I can see heaven,
though the water speaks clearly:
it is not my time to set sail
into those deeper colors
that roll the soul into a glorified copy of itself.

~William Hammett

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Thursday, November 18, 2021

Upon Awaking

I do not wish my eyelids to be rolled up
like an old window shade pulled hard,
to be jarred by red numerals
and a digital buzz or reports of congested morning traffic.
It is asking for trouble.

Better to have the angel in my final dream,
or perhaps nymphs who were dancing through dew,
whisper that I should swing my legs over the bow
and slide into the ocean and its gentle current.

And please, no television,
no high-energy talking heads
reading words from teleprompters,
no pitches about aluminum siding,
gutters, or a bathtub that fits over a bathtub.

In the silence is infinite participial potential,
the glory of the garden outside my window
which has my brain, pulse, and visions
of lilies, daisies, creeping jenny, and knock-out roses
taking over the continent,
wildflowers run amok but that do not toil or spin.

There is a day to be lived,
but let it begin with a few simple words
brooding over the abyss that was sleep,
syllables that call forth the is and shall be.

Let each morning begin
with the kiss of Carrickfergus and waters wide.
Let each begin with hope against hope
and the quiet explosion of creation.

~William Hammett

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Sunday, November 14, 2021

Herons

I have never considered writing about herons
or egrets or long-legged fowl
that philosophize and ponder shallows

while standing on one leg or two,
poised, quiet, alert, or maybe dreaming
of sedge and daybreak and a variety of sun-slants

on the calm waters pricked by reeds,
small islands of grass rising like the back
of a sleeping sea serpent above the bayou.

I did not feel the need to investigate
the life of herons, who are still lifes
hanging in doctors’ offices,

muted birds who have little to say
and are content to blend in with the nature of things,
characters to swell a scene

but who have no dialogue
and are listed in the dramatis personae
as “birds” and nothing more.

No one sees them. Not really.
Perhaps the wildlife photographer
or theater-goes with season tickets.

The homeless woman sits motionless
next to the concrete bridge pilings
or leans against the dumpster in the alley.

The veteran sits in the front seat
of his ’92 Dodge and stares straight ahead.
It is his bedroom, kitchen, and den.

They are as invisible as the colorful graffiti
that people have passed multiple times
and does not seem to have a them

because the colors are tangled,
the words foreign, the faces distorted
on a brick backdrop that is as mute as a bayou.

I shall write of herons more,
the backwaters of the invisible,
the still life that once breathed

and was so in love with the sky
that it dared to turn its head
and say, “I am here.”

~William Hammett

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Tuesday, November 9, 2021

Scorpio

I have never consulted the Zodiac
or had Madame Zostra read my tea leaves,
never stayed home because the moon
was in the fourth house of seven.

I do not care if Mercury is in retrograde.
We rule the stars.
They do not rule us
unless we hopscotch across sidewalk cracks

or throw thyme across our left shoulder
to avoid the Melocchio. Tosh.
But I believe in the unseen hand,
detached from constellations,

that beckons, guides, cajoles:
a deeper heart, a better mind,
the Spiritus Mundi that stitches atoms
to mountain rivers and the mind of God,

the loaded dice of synchronicity,
the quantum flip of a silver coin,
the outcome of which
is determined by observers

seen and unseen.
I am forced to make concessions,
for there is Providence in the fall of a sparrow,
and who am I to debate that sacred wind

that blows where it will though I cannot divine
where it comes from or where it goes?
Once upon a time,
a man lived in the deep woods

and could not escape,
could not see the scorpion’s tail
in the glorious star-speckled sky
that pointed to a clearing off the beaten path

though he briefly glimpsed
the constellation rise in splendor
when the branches parted,
when he surfed a quantum wave.

A brother grim, a lost tale
that had not a jot to do with the astrologer’s chart
but with the hour of his visitation and the spirit’s art.
The jewels of the night

are meant to guide, not predict,
and so they do
when a wise man gazes into the sky
so that his pupils may dilate,

so that wonder may enter his eye.
In November, when Scorpius rises,
is it not, set by the Jeweler’s hand,
as beautiful as any sign shining above the land?

~William Hammett

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Friday, November 5, 2021

A Simple Poem

These lines do not seek to elucidate great truths,
nor do they speak of empires or a paradise lost.

To my great surprise, they have appeared,
letter by letter, to speak of water and leaves

that write history anonymously
as they fall or flow into a sunrise or sunset

that may or may not be noticed
by a camera shutter or the persistent scratch

of a pencil in a journal.
Commentary is in short supply these days.

These lines exist to speak of the moment,
a placeholder so that people fallen in time

might catch up to the elusive present,
though it is probable that only a few will arrive.

The words are as quiet as an epitaph,
as unpretentious as a suit off the rack.

They watch but are not seen
except by those who ask, seek, knock.

They are as elusive as a shadow
slipping into the death of high noon,

and yet they could hold the sun falling into the sea
if anyone demanded such a feat of humility.

In silence is power.
In a word there is always epiphany.

In the beginning was a word,
and these are the children of God.

~William Hammett

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Sunday, October 31, 2021

Strange Rivers

Why did the man stop beneath the Eiffel Tower
and meet the woman who would share his bed for fifty years?

Why did the woman teach high school history
instead of getting married

and moving to New York City
to entertain in grand salons

with a trademark martini always in hand
and a cigarette holder between her white fingers?

Sometimes people rake leaves because it is fall,
and even the russet and gold need to be piled high

before the north country snow blows into town
and pedestrians sink behind upturned jacket collars.

The alarm clock rings, and circadian momentum
moves us to coffee and the early morning commute.

Some things need to get done.
Some things just happen.

But mystic currents flow through invisible seams
that stitch together the farthest galaxy

to the freckles on the boy next door
and his pining for the girl that he yearns to hold.

Why do we turn left instead of right,
blurt out “I love you!”

or spend an idle hour in a museum,
transfixed by motes in a sunbeam

that transports us to what might have been
and the time we didn’t obey the flow

of strange rivers that would have led
to the heart and the road not taken?

A factory in Pennsylvania exploded,
but the cherry trees blossomed again

and the retired railroad worker read Proust
instead of sitting alone in a movie theater.

The trick of it all
is to look out the corner of your eye,

glimpse the river as it forks,
and look for signs in the clouds

or words on peeling parchment of the birch,
thus assuring you will never miss love

or the lilting language of the nearby stream
that kisses you when you least expect it to.

~William Hammett

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Thursday, October 28, 2021

Dashiell

You just gotta say “What a guy.”
Pinkerton and vet, living life as hard
as the concrete beat he pounded
when he was closing a case,
pulling the brim of his Fedora down
and disappearing into his overcoat
when he passed the man he knew
had cracked the hotel safe
and made off with the broad
with white legs that went on forever.

You told a guy, “She’s a keeper and you’re a fool.”
“I know, Dash,” he said.
“She bought me a beer and beat me at pool.”

You never gave up your sources,
never ratted names to the feds,
not even Tail Gunner Joe,
that baldheaded bastard who hated
lefty activists like you and the rest.
Jailed, blacklisted, checkmated,
but not down for the count.

They say that Papa picked up his style
from your clipped noir narratives,
even your words playing it close to the vest.
Smooth as the Continental Op
and as hard-boiled as the Fat Man
searching for the black bird,
you hammered out dialogue
on a black Remington Royal,
coughing and smoking
and throwing back cheap whiskey
while foghorns sounded in the Bay.

The clack of the keys sounded like gunshots
at the Chinese laundromat across the street.
Chandler was in the shadows
looking over your shoulder, unnoticed
because the rumble of a cable car
or the wailing siren fed your next sentence,
the one where the detective
clocks the police sergeant in the jaw
and walks away to the Grand Hotel
to meet the femme fatale.

You and Lillian had staying power.
For thirty years you lived with her
at Hardscrabble Farm while she typed
her own oeuvre on an old machine
with you in the background.
Hardscrabble—life imitating art.
The booze was never far away,
but you were a political southpaw,
never folding your hand
even when the DA made you go all in.
“A man should keep his word,” you told her.
And you did, in front of Congress,
but most of all on the printed page,
where truth and mystery
were strange bedfellows.

You were a thin man,
lungs black and always wheezing
through the day or Hollywood
when you potboiled your way
through screenwriting and radio dramas
that still retained a hard edge
that was the chisel of a man’s jaw
or the heft of a .44 caliber
that created widows and contested wills.

And when dying,
testy or  resigned depending on the weather,
you followed your iron code
even though your heart was dying by degrees.
All those years ago,
you slipped into the biggest shadow of all,
no one tailing you up the hill
after you turned in your badge and gun
for the last time.
It was quiet—
the way you would have wanted it—
and then they laid your bones
in Arlington, loyal and with the peace of mind
that you’d never dropped the dime.
What a guy.

I was just a kid,
but I read your stories until the pages
turned yellow, seasoned and full
of my parents’ secondhand smoke
before I pecked out stories in a black Royal.
I’m just sorry that we never met
and shook hands, exchanging a folded paper
in a secret gumshoe handshake.
Or maybe we did.

~William Hammett

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Monday, October 25, 2021

Front Matter

There is the author’s name
followed by a date soon forgotten,
then city and font,
ISBN and publisher,
all rights reserved, of course,
the author’s cerebellum copyrighted
for the curious, I suppose.

And oh, by the way,
any resemblance to people living or dead
is purely, so surely, coincidental,
is it not, saith the law?

And yet the adulteries
and murders and voyages
to distant lands or inside the heart
have all spun through the tornado
of reality, have they not,
variations on a theme at best.

The smiles and whistles
and rants and loves
are as real as sun on glass,
as foam on wave.

Why else put pen to paper
or press slugs on ink
but for the fact that there are realities
to save and savor,
to dream about?

What if that is my own life
in those dogeared pages?
What if I myself inject the poison
into the wealthy owner
of the country estate in Wessex
or save the planet from the comet
or the Galactic Emperor Ximodius?

I need the distant stars
to keep hope alive,
but landlords and publishers
need coin of the realm.

The alarm clock rings,
so I get out of bed
and inject caffeine
so that I may save
part of the big blue marble
that’s smaller than a postage stamp.

My employer has my front matter:
my name, height,
date and place of birth,
prior employment,
highest level of education,
all soon forgotten
when the wheels of the day
start meshing like cogs
to turn the world one more time
on an axis that’s tilted
from leaning my shoulder
into the task at hand.

But here’s the secret:
I can quit at any time.
There’s always another book,
another day, another job,
another Sisyphus
to roll the stone up the hill.

I am free to leave
the classroom or factory
or corner office
to go outside and play,
to drink in sunshine.
I made a contract
with Newtonian physics
and the laws of gravity and man
when I slid down the birth canal.
But I still own the copyright.

~William Hammett

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Thursday, October 21, 2021

All the Songs I Never Played

I often think of all the songs I never played,
bronze-wound Martin strings silent
in the velvet-lined hard-shell case.
They exist somewhere in the quantum field,

the wave-particle duality
in the synapses of my brain that winks
every second or two between potential
and the notes I hung in a spare moment

on the tree outside my window
or the ears of someone washing dishes
in the next room or on the sunbeam
that was my companion eight days a week,

Walter Mitty playing the venue
twenty thousand strong as the lights went down
and the spot picked me up as I walked
center stage, slinging the strap across my shoulder.

There are days when I wish
I were an old black man,
sitting on a sinking porch.
There would be no regret, no looking back

as I hung notes on invisible clefs,
singing the blues and the sky
and never looking back,
working the strings with bony fingers,

tapping the boards beneath my feet,
making music sultry and sweet
or more often than not
down and out because Mabel done left me,

and that was the end of that.
The neighborhood wives and single mothers
would be my audience as they sauntered by,
brown bags and babies clutched under their arms

as they picked up twelve bars
before reaching the end of the block.
It would be a good life,
and maybe Clapton, Mick, or Keith

would discover my licks and angst.
At least the music would be out there,
drifting on a deep blue afternoon
and making love to the dying day

that had been near and dear,
though we certainly had our spats.
Sparrows on the telephone wire
would take the songs across the block

or the river, and my fame would spread
like the fire of sunset.
Yes, I wish I’d let it fly.
But that’s not what happened.

The world was too much with me,
and I dragged myself out of bed
to teach grammar or a poem,
me—the living cliff notes

standing in front of a sleepy venue
watching the clock
and hoping that my droning
would be put in a velvet-lined coffin,

my lyrics stashed in the string pocket
where they could do no harm.
And yet there were times I found the sweet spot
and played for hours, glorious missing time,

day-tripping through the catalog of a band
or the folkies for whom I was journeyman,
strumming or fingerpicking,
the left hand not knowing what the right was doing,

and yet both dancing in syncopated sync.
But still I wish I had lost more hours
to that soul within that lives on melody.
I wish I had played a thousand more songs,

the movement I needed right there on my shoulder.
I wish I had played them for you.

~William Hammett

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