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


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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Saturday, October 16, 2021

Along the Meridian Nerve

I saw two lovers kiss
while sitting by the lake
before returning their gaze
to the pewter-gray water.

A fish jumped
and geese took flight.
It was overcast,
but the sun kept moving

in its arc behind the gray pall.
A crow watched the scene as well
on the bare branch of a winter tree
as crows are wont to do.

The lovers looked at each other,
blue eyes connected by unseen wires
like those once imagined
by cavalier metaphysicians,

and then held hands,
leaning shoulder to shoulder
as lovers are wont to do.
They smiled as they turned back to the lake,

silent and content for the moment.
The kiss had traveled
along the meridian nerve
that connects all lovers,

producing a marriage
that is the best that can be hoped for
between the heart and the brain,
pole to pole, body and soul.

For the record, the crows,
having observed the union,
took flight, black on gray,
in search of others plighting their troth.

~William Hammett

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Tuesday, October 12, 2021

April Mayhem

The wind whips white dresses
like sails on oceans of green grass,

and suddenly it is spring
as young ladies from the red wooden schoolhouse

dance and pass between the mountains,
between winter and fall,

and all the mayhem that sun can bring
adorns the falling curls of maidens set free.

Amen to spring that such latitude
can swing wide the door to debtors prison

and free the soul that for a spell
was etched in winter’s glass.

~William Hammett

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Thursday, October 7, 2021

Tall Pine Trees in a Hurricane

I could not tell whether the tall pine trees
were fighting against the hundred-mile-an-hour winds
or engaging in a frenzied, orgiastic dance.
Branches, like the multiple arms of Shiva,
flailed wildly as their bodies whipsawed back and forth
with each new gust, untamed zephyrs
unleashed by Byron or Shelly on a future world
they suspected would need more hedonism.

The five-story pine in the corner of the yard
spiraled like a whirling dervish, orderly by comparison,
but then abandoned its pious spinning
to join the riot of its brothers and sisters,
green needles pointing towards sky and ground,
long fingernails waiting to claw my windows or roof
when the next feeder band swept through.

Or perhaps I have it all wrong.
Maybe they were martyrs or ballerinas
or both caught up in a westerly,
swaying left and right with arms arched
above their heads and bending to the wind
in a life and death choreography of salvation.

“Take me or not,” may have been their chant,
the wild rush and rustling of their limbs
against each other as the spirits,
angelic or demonic, blew in from the Gulf.
“But we will not fight, only bend
to the will of the same Father who determines
when sparrows must eventually fall to the ground.”

Stepping back from the window,
I clicked off my flashlight and listened to their declarations.
I have seldom encountered such surrender
or been as flexible in mind, body, or spirit
as these hamadryads rooted in a deeper well
of theology and soil that had thrust them heavenwards
years before they had been put to the test.

The spinner in the corner fell hard, died,
its nymph escaping into the clouds, I suppose,
and perhaps to a blue heaven and white light
accessed by traveling upwards though the eye,
its life review showing a progression from sapling
to firewood after the chainsaws had bitten
into the rings and concentric layers of soul.

The storm tracked north,
and after the sun reclaimed its ascendancy
and the juice ran through the wires once again,
I looked out the window and thought of life and death,
of going to the grocery store to buy more water.
The remaining trees were quiet
and prayed vespers inaudibly,
which was, I now knew, their regular evening routine.

~William Hammett

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