An Unnoticed Theft

My father emigrated to the US a month short of his fourteenth birthday. I’ve told part of his story in The Line Between. As a teen, he fell in love with the silent movies of the time, particularly the westerns. My father wanted to be a cowboy. But that wasn’t possible in eastern Ohio, which was not home to cowboys.

Horses were another matter. Many farmers and even non-farmers owned horses. My father so coveted a horse that, one night, he inadvertently stole one. I explain the result in the poem below.

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My Father Was a Horse Thief

Joe longed to be a cowboy, wear a white hat,
ride a black stallion and thunder after bad guys.
The Packards, Studebakers, and Arrows

of his new land held no lure for Joe: moving
pictures with western heroes called. Every night
after chores, Joe bolted down the street

to the saloon, where Old George Clark hitched
his horse to the rail. Joe stroked that horse,
fed it, and pictured himself in the saddle, looping

a lasso and roping bad guys who wore black hats.
The stallion didn’t belong to him, but Joe was a kid
and Old George Clark drank his nights away and the horse

was there. One night in the drizzle Joe couldn’t resist:
unhitching the reins he sprang into the saddle with a loud
Giddyup, just as he had seen done in the movies.

Snorting, the stallion burst into a destination trot
that no amount of desperate Whoa’s! would stop.
When it reached home the cayuse finally halted,

and not a Giddyup in the western world could start it up
again. In the gloom and rain Joe trod three desperado miles
back to the saloon and waited: waited to come clean to Old

George, who at closing time reeled out and peered around.
Joe stammered, confessed that he had taken the horse
for a ride and it wouldn’t bring him back, but Old George

wouldn’t be tricked: he figured he must have walked
to the saloon, and so he walked home. Thunder rolled
as good guy and bad guy hoofed it home in shades of gray.

 

rain

________________

This poem is from Crossing the Skyway: Poems, by Barbara Gregorich.

Baseball’s Longest Game

The longest game ever played in professional baseball started on April 18, 1981. I’ve long been fascinated by this game and several years ago I wrote a 33-stanza poem about it: one stanza for each inning.

This poem is the one I receive the most comments on and the most requests for. It was first published in Bardball.

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No Ties, No Ticking Clocks
April 18, 1981

There are no ties in baseball,
there is no ticking clock.
The game could continue forever.

One night in Rhode Island
the Rochester Red Wings
face the Pawtucket Red Sox.

A fierce wind invades the stadium,
numbing fans and players alike.
Make this one quick, everyone hopes.

Lights generate no warmth.
Fans applaud, the game begins.
Six scoreless innings, then Rochester drives in

a single run. Bottom of the ninth,
the PawSox also score a single run.
There are no ties in baseball,

there is no ticking clock. There are only
more chances. The extra innings creep
like icicles: tenth, eleventh, twelfth arrive

and depart with nothing but snowballs
to show: big, round, cold zeros.
At the end of eighteen innings

the score remains one-one.
The temperature drops to bathyspheric depths.
Players light bonfires in trash barrels,

burning broken bats as fuel. Fans go home
to furnaces that blast hot air.
Players long to go home, too, but first

one of them must cross home.
The stadium sells out of food. Clubhouse men
deploy into the frigid night and return

with chow the players bolt down. The game
goes on — four hours . . . five . . . six.
There are no ties in baseball,

there is no ticking clock.
And then, top of the twenty-first inning —
Rochester scores a second run.

Hallelujah!
The game will, at long last, be over.
Completed.

No. Not meant to be.
Pawtucket also scores a second run
in the bottom of the twenty-first. Game tied,

two-two. The contest will continue. Players
know it, the remaining fans know it. This is baseball,
not some nickel-and-dime tick-tock diversion.

The managers think otherwise:
they want the game called and resumed
later, preferably on a warm

summer day. They appeal to the umpire,
who pages through his book coldly
and finds . . . no applicable rule.

“Play ball!” he huffs, his breath a speech
bubble in the frosty air. And so players stumble
through the motions they’ve been making since

they were six years old. Half-asleep, half-frozen,
they are all good enough to play at the Triple-A level,
and definitely good enough to keep one another from scoring.

By the end of the twenty-seventh inning,
Rochester and Pawtucket have played
three full baseball games. Again the managers

appeal to the umpire, but the blue man stands
by his earlier decision. There are no ties
in baseball, there is no ticking clock.

The fans: a score of them remain. (A score!
If only somebody would score!) Nobody goes out
to scrounge up food for the fans, who dare not

burn stadium seats to stay warm.
Why do they stay? Do they know
they are witnessing baseball history?

History, schmistory, the managers don’t care —
they understand about ticking clocks
and no ties, they just think somebody

has to show some common sense.
And so, calling it common sense,
somebody calls the league president

at three o’clock in the morning.
After he is awake enough to understand
the situation, the league president grants

permission to call the game. And so,
at the end of the thirty-second inning,
the game is called, to be resumed another day.

Before the fans can unstiffen enough to leave,
the Pawtucket organization awards a free season pass
to each of these true blue-from-the-cold lovers of the game,

The players stand in hot showers to thaw,
then dress to go home, stepping out
into the early morning sunrise.

Two months later, the Red Wings return
and the game resumes, the score still two-two.
Rochester fails to score,

but Pawtucket does not, driving a run
across the plate in the bottom of the thirty-third inning.
The longest game in baseball history

is finally completed.
There are no ties in baseball.
There is no ticking clock.

_____________________

Barbara Gregorich is fascinated by long games and long odds, such as those faced by the Cleveland Naps/Indians during their first two decades of existence. She wrote about this in Jack and Larry: Jack Graney and Larry, the Cleveland Baseball Dog.

Goodbye Hyphen, Hello Confusion

I love punctuation marks. Not just the inventiveness behind them (squiggles, slants, dashes, dots), but the way they work. Punctuation marks help the reader know what the writer of a sentence is trying to say.

So I’m very sad to see the fading-away of the hyphen as a mark that helps the reader understand the writer’s intent. Ad writers are particularly guilty of ignoring this punctuation mark: perhaps they think the hyphen is too tiny to convey anything of importance. They are oh so wrong.

One day several years ago I was hit by two unrelated ads (the “sex party” was in a newsletter, the “never” was on a shopping bag) which I read the wrong way.

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     The Tie That Binds

     The hyphen once connected
     what hadn’t yet coalesced,

     protected words from prematurely
     bumping or stubbornly jumping back

     to apartness. Base ball bounced
     into base-ball before it reached home;

     to day grooved into to-day before becoming
     current. But few seek connections these days,

     except for the kind that rack up
     unearned favors or lead to higher-

     paying jobs — not the kind that help patch
     cracks in thinking. Sex party for twenty

     three year olds. She holds you
     in her arms and you feel never

     before love. Tidal waves
     of separation

     drown ember glows
     of punctuation.

____________________

This poem appears in Barbara Gregorich’s Crossing the Skyway: Poems.

Use What You Need, Invent the Rest

Cover-with-Template

It wasn’t until after I had published my first two novels that I realized: (1) People think my hero is me; (2) People think that most of the events in my novels actually happened to me.

For example, because Frank Dragovic, the protagonist of Dirty Proof, states that he doesn’t like pizza for breakfast, all kinds of people have come up to me and said something akin to: “What’s wrong with you? Pizza for breakfast is delicious!”

There’s nothing wrong with me. I happen to love pizza for breakfast. It’s a character in my book who doesn’t like it. That character is somebody I created. I gave him some of my likes and dislikes, some of other people’s likes and dislikes. In fact, to make myself work harder to develop his character, I made sure he wasn’t identical to me. Likewise for other characters, major and minor: I feel free to have them live events that happened to me, and I feel even more free to invent for them their own events.

In the poem below, which I wrote in 2010-11, some of the events happened to me, and some didn’t. I’ll explain after the poem itself.

 
Crossing the Skyway: 1968

The Greyhound drones, Madison to Cleveland,
ferrying the poor, a few of them students destined
to demonstrate against the state-spawned war, fewer

thinking about French students on strike, fewest conjugating
French verbs for practice. Laboring toward the Skyway,
clever construct of Mayor Daley to circumvent laws

prohibiting toll bridges on land, the bus lurches
up the long, high arc of roadway. Belching black smoke
it slows, jolts, stops. In the back a wraith-like stranger

in worn denims and cowboy boots looks up from the marks
he’s been carving into his saddlebag and summarizes:
This animal done staggered.

The hindered and jostled board a replacement and continue
to their destination, as does the state continue to wage war,
not just that war, but more wars, repeats of wars, wars

that were, wars that are, wars to come. L’etat, c’est maw.
Despite its Vietnam defeat, despite race rebellions,
despite assassinations, the state survives, cruising

its own skyway, declaring the good life for all.
But the century turns and the bus begins to lurch —
capacity overloaded with cluster bombs, war planes,

battleships; engine clogged with devalued currency,
costly bailouts, bankruptcies; tires blown by unemployment
and homelessness. The skyway, too, is crumbling, potholes

more than roadway, and as the black smoke of human misery
spews out the bus sides, a specter awakens, pulls a dusty
Marx from his saddlebag and repeats: This animal done staggered.

How much of this poem actually happened? My bus ride from Madison to Cleveland happened. My fellow riders were students and working class. Some were indeed going to a place where they could take a bus to Washington DC to demonstrate against the Vietnam War. I was going to Cleveland to join friends and together we would take one of the antiwar-rally busses to DC.

The Greyhound did indeed break down on the Chicago Skyway, exactly like my poem describes it. In the back of the bus was a man dressed in a cowboy shirt and jeans and cowboy books. He had with him some sort of leather satchel that looked like a saddlebag, though I’m not certain it was. He did indeed utter, This animal done staggered.

You can see why such an event would imprint itself on my mind. It stayed with me, and eventually it came out as a poem.

arton2400How much of this poem didn’t happen? Well, the bus I was riding broke down in 1965, but in the poem I changed the date to 1968. Why? Because by 1968 the war had intensified, with President Johnson sending more and more American troops to try to quell the Vietnamese liberation struggle. By 1968 more and more students and others were protesting the war. In May of 1968 French students rose up in rebellion against capitalism; French workers staged general strikes. In the poem I wanted to tie the US protests against the war to world-wide events: hence the 1968 date

The cowboy-type character in the back of the bus was not carving marks into his saddlebags (at least not that I was aware). But I wanted an allusion to Karl Marx and to his famous statement that “a spectre is haunting Europe” (hence I made the stranger wraith-like). For Marx, that specter was communism. It was the specter of an economic system yet to be born.

When the event of crossing the skyway on a doomed bus happened to me, it was finite: it occurred, a replacement bus was sent, and the event was over with. But in the poem I move from the skyway event through the next forty years, ending in the awakening of the forgotten, dormant, wraith-like stranger who now, instead of making marks, pulls Marx out of his saddlebags, offering to the world once again the analysis that capitalism has not only outlived its usefulness, but has dragged us all downward, downward into unemployment, poverty, and war.

In poetry and in fiction, writers use what they need (from what really happened) and invent the rest — in order to tell the particular story they want to tell.

________________

“Crossing the Skyway” is the title poem in Barbara Gregorich’s first collection of poetry, Crossing the Skyway.

Earliest Memory: A Wagon Load

Early memories that stay with us throughout our lives must do so because they have some deep meaning to us. Else why would such a memory be so persistent?

My earliest memory is very vivid. After living with it for decades, I decided to address it in a poem.

 
Pulling My Wagon

My earliest memory, the one I remember remembering,
the one in which I was conclusively aware, “I am me,
I am pulling my wagon,” finds me somewhere between

two and three years old, wearing a white cotton
shirt, red corduroy overalls, and Mary Jane shoes.
I am playing in the basement, whose silver-gray concrete

floor slopes strongly away from the center. As I walk
around and around the imposing coal-burning furnace
which heats our house, and from whose raised eminence

the floor tilts way, I hold a black cord in my right hand.
On the other end of that cord is a toy, a flatbed wooden
wagon perhaps six inches long, varnished, with four red

wheels. In the middle of the oblong platform is a round
groove, and in that groove nestles a red wooden sphere
with a small knob-like projection. I consider the sphere

a rider in the wagon and the knob the rider’s head.
Pulling my toy around the furnace is no easy feat.
Although I am too young to understand this,

cords are insufficiently stiff links between puller
and pullee, so despite my determined path, my wagon
does not follow, but veers off toward the cellar walls,

where it crashes, this in turn causing the little red sphere,
which I wish to remain upright, to slip and slide within
its groove like bathtub soap and, sometimes, to fall

out of the groove and off the wagon. I am aware,
as I continue my journey, that things are not going
my way —that what I want to happen is not happening:

the toy does not follow me but wheels off in unpredictable
directions; the rider does not sit upright in his groove
and sometimes does not sit in the groove at all. In the midst

of this, perhaps because of this, I am aware that I am me,
a somebody doing something. . . . I do not have the thought, then,
that doing something in this world is neither easy nor predictable.

Unknown

Unlike my wagon, this one has three “riders,” each of which could  topple during a revolution around the furnace.

______________

“Pulling my Wagon” appears in Barbara Gregorich’s first collection of poetry, Crossing the Skyway.

Finding a Found Poem

Many months ago I explored both web sites and books in order to learn more about different types of poems. I’ve already posted about the fib. The day I learned about the fib I must have been in the F section of information sites, because I also learned about the found poem.

Found poem? I muttered to myself. Is that the opposite of a lost poem?

No. It isn’t.

According to Wikipedia, which in this case provides a good definition, found poetry is “a type of poetry created by taking words, phrases, and sometimes whole passages from other sources and reframing them as poetry (a literary equivalent of a collage) by making changes in spacing and lines, or by adding or deleting text, thus imparting new meaning.” (Emphasis in original.)

Okay, I thought. That’s great. I now know what a found poem is. On to another subject.

Because, you see, I never thought I’d write a found poem. Nothing about found poetry really “called” to me, you know. Perhaps the found poems were out of hearing range.

But life loves to watch us strolling happily along, thinking we’re in charge of our own decisions — and then throw something in our path that makes us do the opposite of what we said we would do.

So it was with me and the found poem.

My husband, Phil Passen, is a musician, and I am his roadie. One day Phil had a three-hour gig at O’Hare Airport, somewhere in the United terminal. I brought along a novel I had almost finished reading.

Sixty minutes later, I did finish.

Two more hours to go on this gig. And I had forgotten to bring a second novel. What could I do? Besides listen to the wonderful music, of course.

I sat there, looking all around.

Words.

Words everywhere. On posters, flashing in neon, in windows, on plastic signs, on free-standing sandwich boards, on cardboard boxes, on luggage, on trams creeping by, on suitcases . . everywhere.

So I wrote down maybe half of the words I could see.

Found Poem

And then, even though the Wiki definition does not say that a found poem makes changes in the order of words, my found poem does. I rearranged the words (okay, okay, the spacing and the lines, too, and maybe I even deleted some words) and produced my first (and so far, only) found poem. You could say I found it at O’Hare.

United We Wait

Duty Free Liberty
United Club
Wi-Fi Available
Concourse C Baggage Claim
Currency Exchange
Animal Relief Area
Welcome US Customs Require That
Life-goes-on Insurance
From the International Best-Selling Trilogy
Let Us Serve You
Eli’s Cheesecake Chicago
You’re going to need a bigger map
Please Ask for Assistance
Not just leg-room . . . laptop room
Restrooms
Prudent
Earn Miles and Rewards
Priority Boarding
Trains to City
Ticketing/Check-In
Terminals

___________________

Barbara Gregorich’s not-lost poetry can be found in Crossing the Skyway.

Tell Me a Fib

IMG_3619The fib, short for Fibonacci Poem, is a form of syllable-counting poetry invented in the late 20th century. As you can imagine, the syllables in the fib follow the Fibonacci sequence — a number sequence that starts with 1 and proceeds as long as you want it to, with each following number being the sum of the two numbers before it.

Thus: 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34, . . . .

A fib poem is typically six lines long, but it needn’t be. It could be shorter (though that might make it difficult to discern as a fib), it could be longer.

I
might
write fibs
for this blog
to illustrate how
more syllables make longer lines.

A fib could go up to a certain number, then go backward to the beginning, as in 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 8, 5, 3, 2, 1 1.

I
might
write fibs
for this blog
to illustrate how
more syllables make longer lines,
but I fear that more syllables
don’t always equal
profound truths:
much less
good
lies.

After I explored writing several different kinds of syllable poems (see The Tanka: 17 Plus 14 Equals 31), I stumbled upon the fib. Immediately I was attracted to its shape as well as its concept.

Although most fibs may stop at the sixth line, I found myself wanting to push the envelope — to write the maximum number of syllables that would come out as one line on a page. (Without reducing the type size to Agate or less!)

As it turned out, I learned that I could fit 13 syllables on one line of type. But not 21. Here’s a fib that comes from Crossing the Skyway, my collection of poems.

Nandi

Bull
god,
wooden
protector
of humble portals
against omnipresent dangers,
guard our house against woeful threats — toss aside sickness,
trample downsizing, gore unemployment, charge headlong
into evictors until all
retreat, forgoing
injustice,
leaving
us
safe.

Of the four types of syllable counting poems I’ve explored (haiku, cinquain, tanka, and fib), the cinquain and the fib interest me the most. Both have very recognizable shapes, and I find these shapes intriguing.

______________________

There are one or more fibs in Barbara Gregorich’s Crossing the Skyway. The rest is truth.