From the archives – My Feet Spoke to Me

One day walking home from work
my feet spoke to me. They said:
“Ray, we don’t want you sticking us
in your fancy brown custom-made
dress shoes from Portugal.
They are tight, and our toes
can’t move around freely.”

“OK,” I said, “let’s try
an older pair tomorrow,
something more worn,
more broken in.”

My feet said, “OK, but if we don’t like it,
you won’t like it either.”

I said, “OK, tomorrow we will wear the ECCO’s,
the Baghdad ECCO’s
that are well-worn and broken in.”

The next day my feet spoke to me again.
They said, “Ray, we don’t like the ECCO’s either.
We discussed it among ourselves and decided
we want the brown leather Saucony’s,
you know, the running shoes.”

I said, “but I can’t wear running shoes
to work with a Suit.”

They said, “If you don’t, we won’t like it.
And you won’t like it either.”

So Sunday night I cleaned up
the Sauconys and gave them
a good buffing with cream polish.

Monday morning my feet were smiling!

November 2012

Bob Kaufman at Saturday poetry group

All those ships that never sailed

All those ships that never sailed
The ones with their seacocks open
That were scuttled in their stalls…
Today I bring them back
Huge and transitory
And let them sail

All those flowers that you never grew-
that you wanted to grow
The ones that were plowed under
ground in the mud-
Today I bring them back
And let you grow them

All those wars and truces
Dancing down these years-
All in three flag swept days
Rejected meaning of God-

My body once covered with beauty
Is now a museum of betrayal.
This part remembered because of that one’s touch
This part remembered for that one’s kiss-
Today I bring it back
And let you live forever.

I breath a breathless I love you
And move you

Remove the snake from Moses’ arm…
And someday the Jewish queen will dance
Down the street with the dogs
And make every Jew
Her lover.


And here is my memorial to Bob Kaufman based on the form above:

All the letters I never sent

All the letters I never sent,
poems I wrote but only shared
with special friends (those
who dug the cut of my jib).
I warehouse them (most but not all)
like museum extras, far from the eyes,
and outside the reach of saints.

All the morning walks I stopped
taking after my fall,
from fear, misplaced perhaps,
that I might fall again and get stuck
somewhere off a beaten path
where no one could hear
my pleas and groans.

All the lies I never told
because I never felt the need
to misrepresent, to be
anybody or anything other
than my own true self.

I still fall in love too easily,
so I’m told – but there’s always
a link, a connection
worth tracing, a node
in a complex network
where we can meet.

And yes, I still get seasick –
the surface is no place
for lovers to hang out.
Once we reach
the dive point and submerge
the ride gets smoother.

a poem about a work of art

My body is missing that uphill walk
Each day from the Metro to the Mecca.
Bosch’s The Garden of Earthly Delights
affords me reprieve as I start the week.

The dragon tree – a plant that heals and dyes
A crimson red – is my first stop. I drink
Her blood and feel at once her curing power.
Reptiles seek terra firm where they can.

The owl is a nighttime bird of prey
Always watching, eyes wide open, spirit
Beast of the gods. A lion devours
A deer without compunction. His nature

Dictates relieving hunger pangs. So what?
A serpent wraps himself around a tree
That bears sweet fruit – tree of good and evil.
The pink fountain no doubt is feminine:

Her dotted eggs await incoming seed.
The darkened Moors below also await.

From the archives

A poet who used be a swimmer
and a chess player showed me her sonnets.
It didn’t take long for me to try one.
Fourteen lines and it was love at first sight.
She swam on a precision team. She played
chess with homeless men in Dupont Circle.
In her day job she analyzed and crunched
complex numbers at a government bank.
We sent letters with sonnets we’d compose
back and forth for several years before
the spell broke. We went our separate ways,
our poetry paradise forsaken.
Could it have ended any other way?
What is an end? Sonnets still fill the space.

On Sunday morning Full Measure is better than Meet the Press – a sonnet

Sonnet written in response to a Facebook message from a well-meaning friend on a Sunday morning.

I don’t really know or care what “troll” means,
and I have lost track of who follows me
on Facebook. What I know about events
in Michigan could fill a thimble, maybe,
though what I do know is that the far left
and the far right have consensual sex
whenever it suits them. All these group names
are a distraction – focus on the signal,
not the noise. The volta is late, it seems,
but don’t count it out. Good disruption hides
beyond the fear and hate that plague us,
that’d nail us to a tree. All that’s left
is the resolution couplet – the close,
a dangling modifier lost in space.

p.s. This tape will self-destruct in 60 seconds. Enjoy the music.

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Experimentation in Standard Time

We discussed Richard Wilbur’s The Beautiful Changes in our group this morning and the middle stanza reminded me of this effort from 2013, Enjoy.


Experiment in Standard Time

Autumn urban afternoons
get shorter and sweeter –

standing in the middle of “I” street
I await a very specific angle on the bow,
as my ship called Earth comes about:
a unique perspective on how time passes –

in the distance you can see Virginia:
how many beats per measure
are there in Standard time?

the future is reaching back to join us,
to warn us, to help us alter course
to starboard so we can pass port to port –
the present and the future,
like two ships, passing in a storm.

We post to a blog or sing a song:
we write some non-rhyming words
we call poetry –

and time is a social construct,
a contractual agreement we accept
from fear of things we don’t know –
dawn to dusk, high noon
to the darkest part of night –

a 24 second shot clock.
We sink…

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From the archives – Bus Station

(Note: I rode a lot of buses in my teenage years. Up and down. Back and forth. And on those bus trips, lonely and bored more than anything else, I began writing poetry. Here is one of those efforts from the archives. End note.)

Bus Station

Newspapers and M&M’s
Coca-cola and a cigarette
In its purest state –

A devil sitting there
Emotionless, expressionless,
Temporarily permanent

“We remind you that federal regulations permit . . . ”
prostitution . . .
poverty . . .
ignorance . . .
drug addiction . . .
and every conceivable form of immorality . . . . and
“ . . . cigarette smoking only in the rear of the bus . . . . ”
where black people are still forced to sit,
“ . . . in seats clearly marked
for convenience.”

…now loading at Gate 3…
your schedule for:

Dear Mr/Mrs Paternalistic White/Black Supremacist,
how many men/women have you destroyed today
with your lustful liberality
with your calloused conceited charm
with your sinister southern smile,
how many of my people have you destroyed today?

How many have you paralyzed:
from the waist down?
from the neck up?
on either side?
How many have you paralyzed?
Did you reach your quota today?


poem for a Saturday

an irregular riff of my heartbeat
awakened me last night –
interrupting a pleasant dream.

I am alive! And I can overcome
the dull monotony of deathlike sleep
if and when I choose.

Maybe it was the coffee I drank
too late in the afternoon
that stirred me from sweet sleep.

The dream? I was in a field
of overgrown wildflowers –
hunting for sassafras roots
my father planted in his youth –

The old men used to say no caffeine
after lunch. I never thought
it would apply to me.

Happy Autumnal Equinox to everybody!

John Coltrane – Equinox

thirty-three lines of haiku

Thirty-three lines of haiku
streaming on postcard media –
ran out of gas just as
the driver was needing a nap –

An old job ended –
tears of sadness and joy.
A new job started
without a vacation gap.

The pandemic is winding down
In some places
And picking up steam
In others. Uneven steps

progress down the path
to an uncommon destination

Ancestry sent me an update –

Ancestry sent me an update –
I’m more African than before,
not sure how they pulled that off.
Just the other day I told a friend
on facebook I was whiter than most –
Which most? was her quick retort.
I guess we made our points.

from the archive: Let’s celebrate!

Poems from the crucible, pt. 7

Let’s celebrate!

I’ve clearly been reading too much Walt Whitman! (“It’s not where you take it from. It’s where you take it to.”)

Let us celebrate every aspect of our being!
Celebrate our parents and our children, our ancestors on whose shoulders we stand and all the generations yet to come.
Celebrate our gender, whether male or female, whether binary on non-binary.
Celebrate our race, our blackness, our whiteness, our redness, our yellowness, our brownness and everything in betweenness.
Celebrate our nationality, our place of origin. Celebrate our migration from there to here.
Celebrate our straightness and our queerness.
Celebrate where we went to school, whether elementary, middle school, high school, or college.
Send them a check, big or small, whatever you can afford to let them know you care.
Celebrate the God/Goddess/Deity we serve if we are religious.
Celebrate our unbelief if we are atheists or agnostics.
Celebrate all our doubts and our certainties about everything.
Celebrate our friends and our enemies.
Celebrate the “things” we own and our freedom over materialism.
Celebrate any knowledge we have. Celebrate the things we can never fully know.
Celebrate our hopes for the future. Celebrate our fears.
Celebrate being married. Celebrate being single and unencumbered.
Celebrate having children. Celebrate being childless.
Celebrate every aspect of our being.

From the archives – an elegy

Did They Ever Find His Body? An Elegy for Christopher Dorner

I had forgotten about Chris Dorner
Until Dave Chappelle’s mention. I recall
secretly pulling for him, hoping he’d
escape being swiss-cheesed by 400
Of his fellow cops. Did they ever find
his body? I found his manifesto,
living and breathing on the internet.
He left behind a lot for us to read
and digest. Hyperlinks . . . all over the place.
Did they ever find his body? We’ve not
heard from him since. We must assume he died
in that shitstorm, transitioned this life.
Still, the mention of him makes me want to smoke.
The burned body they found was never identified.

From the archives

To Phillis, Emily, and Gwendolyn

The words we read, the lines we write,
are gaps in time, that soon take flight –

poetry has that property
transporting us through space –
we write a word and make a rhyme
and aim it to its place –

if accurate, we hit the mark,
we reach the goal we seek –
but if precise, we claim the prize,
and scale the highest peak –

the words and rhymes unwind, divide
with measured purpose, need –
then seek to replicate the thought
and shape the world of deeds –

The message in the poems we write
is free, yet hidden in plain sight.

Walt Whitman read-along Monday at noon EST

Anybody interested in a group read of all 52 cantos of Song of Myself?

Google Meet at noon, EST, Monday, Sept. 7.

Blessed by Al.

Click this link Monday at noon EST:

If anybody needs the text, it is all here:

From the archives – Cosmos Club

When I was a young pup and a struggling undergrad, I worked briefly with a friend doing janitorial work. One of our contracts was with a local entertainment venue in Greensboro, the Cosmos Club. We would come in after midnight on weekends, clear away the trash, clean the tables, and mop, strip and wax the floors. Of course, I imagined coming there to party, though I never traveled in those circles. So I wrote a poem about it. 1976.

Cosmos Club

Come in, come in . . .
Let the smoke invade your mind
and nod your head to the rhythm
of electronic disco music

Sit down, sit down . . .
Join us in a game . . .
of cards, or chess,
or death by double-elimination.

Have a cup of coffee . . .
or a can of beer,
or a shot of whiskey,
or a pull of reefer.

The cosmos is mathematical
and methodical and
exciting and fun, and
deliberately subjunctive.

Memoir update – Table of Contents

Woodberry Forest Experiment
Shabazz Bakery the lost years
Return to Greensboro and NCA&T
Navy Memories I: Enlistment and Training
Navy Memories II: USS Hammerhead
Navy Memories III: USS Michigan
Navy Memories IV: FAMU NROTC
Navy Memories V: USS Luce
Pre-Foreign Service
Orientation and Pre-assignment training
Embassy Bissau – the first year
Embassy Bissau – the second year

Embassy London
Domestic Assignment: The Operations Center
Embassy Luanda, Angola
Embassy Accra, Ghana
Domestic Assignment: AF/EX
The Final Eight Years – The Islamic Trifecta
Domestic Assignment – The Near East Bureau

From the archives – Still under construction: For Aretha

Still under construction – For Aretha

I can’t pretend it was just like any other
summer day. We gathered early, after coffee,
for the morning plenary session that officially opened
the annual SAA conference. The Archivist of the U.S.
addressed the assemblage and promised to keep his oath
to the Constitution. A famous scholar from UNC
improved on her TED talk about the effects of algorithms
(an Arabic word that sneaks too often into our conversations),
algorithms that control all the social media they let us see.
I tweeted a photo of her to friends in Cairo and Ankara
and flashed back to my time in Damascus, promising
to share the Youtube video with them all soon.

Then my phone buzzed: it was a mournful incoming tweet
containing and announcing Aretha’s passing.
(We knew you were sick, but the final words,
good bye, would never fit in our vocabularies.)

I tried to respond with a tweet but my phone’s
battery strength was too weak to pump it out.
Instead I pulled out my iPad and found a spot
in the hotel lobby where the wifi signal was strong.
All I could think to type, though, were the lyrics
to my favorite Franklin song: “Ain’t no way, ain’t
no way for me to love you, if you won’t let me.”
Later I posted to Facebook the Frank O’Hara poem,
“The Day Lady Died” because I knew my poetry friends
would be grieving. But the evening was still young
and I couldn’t just crash early on your transition day.

So I found that August Wilson passage that
set the scene in “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone”
about a song “worth singing, kicking in the chest…”
a song that was “both a wail and a whelp of joy.”
And I said a little prayer for you.

A childhood memory reimagined – #modpolive

Our ModPo Global Studies Group is reading a poem about Ray Charles, Blues Note, by Bob Kaufman. I dug this up from the deep recesses of suppressed memory. #modpolive

Our parents took us to see Ray Charles
At the Carlotta Supper Club in our hometown
Greensboro. Chitling circuit they called it.
Mama said no, but Daddy said the children
should see this. History in the making. Mama
was afraid we’d see Daddy’s drinking. It was dark
and smokey inside. Each table had its own “set-up”
because clubs back then couldn’t sell drinks.
Ray came out with his guide who sat him down
at the piano. He looked up, eyes shaded,
and flashed that light-giving smile. We knew
something special was in store. Then the piano
came alive and the magical journey was underway.
What you say? Hit the road, Jack.

Recent archives: Lockdown sonnet #12

At this point in the lockdown I was knee deep in our August Wilson discussion group (you’ll see references to Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom and The Piano Lesson). Today’s retrieval from the archives was inspired by a Saturday webinar, #OctaviaTried #7, hosted by three writers and friends of the great science fiction writer, Octavia Butler.

I just listened to the new Bob Dylan drop.
Some kind of weird incantation –
A forced repetition, for a hypnotic effect,
a magic ritual in an ancient oral tradition.

Also, a shout out to the musical ancestors,
Invoking each of the gods by name.
An African conceptualization is what Toledo
would call it. Oh, you don’t know Toledo?

How could you? He was Ma Rainey’s piano player.
Ain’t never been the same fool twice. Don’t worry,
You’ll see it on Netflix when it comes out.
A piano lesson disguises the real drama.

Old Bob gives the devil his due. Play that funky
music white boy. Spell it with a K in B flat.

Getting psyched about ModPo

Once upon a time there was an online poetry course called ModPo. And inside of ModPo forums there came to exist a discussion group known as The Breakfast Club where some really cool and creative ModPo students hung out. And yes, I joined that group, attracted to its coolness.

In ModPo’s second year, remnants of The Breakfast Club took the course again and renamed themselves Second Breakfast. More coolness and more creativity. And there was spillover into social media, into ModPo Alumni groups, into Coursera Cafe, into affinity groups observing NaPoWriMo, NaHaiWriMo, Postcard Poetry Month, DiGiWriMo, and countless others. Some formed unstructured groups that followed each other on Twitter. Some formed more professional writing groups. And blogs. Many had blogs where they showcased their own poetry. Some even became teachers of poetry. All spillover from ModPo forums.

Many original members of The Breakfast Club and Second Breakfast became community teaching assistants. They hung out in a new forum group called Coffee and Tea.

In 2014-2015 I worked as a librarian and a teacher of library instruction to freshmen, sophomores, and business students. That was quite a scope-widening experience, I can say in retrospect. But it was my lowest participation year in ModPo and I really missed it.

By 2016, some groups took on a slightly political persuasion, mostly in support of the Democratic candidate. And a few went to the opposing end of the spectrum. Poetry is like that, you know.

It was in 2016 that I completed docent training at the Library of Congress. And it was in conducting tours of the Jefferson Building that I discovered what poetry really was/is. In explaining the gaps between the John White Alexander murals that make up the exhibit, The Evolution of the Book, I had the following epiphany: Poetry began as the first manifestation of the oral tradition, a by-product of the mixture of ritual, religious experience, and human brain evolution. It was carved or inscribed onto walls of human habitations, just like Facebook or Twitter, then clay tablets, and finally, paper. But mainly, it was recited out loud, at parties and ceremonies and religious events. It was committed to memory and passed down through generations, each level adding value and depth and richness. Think Homer. Think Virgil. Think Psalms and Ecclesiastes.

Extending the metaphor, poetry arose as the original transcript of the sacred conversation (Google that one!) and the meeting minutes of the Beloved Community (look that one up too!). At an even higher level, poetry is the language of the demarche, a conversation between princes that became the structure and the art of diplomacy (you can’t look that one up because I haven’t written the book yet!).

I have given you a lot of homework. It’s another election year in America, after all. Perhaps I’ve invited you into my echo chamber, my parallel universe. But ModPo is not a cult, it’s a way of thinking about life.

p.s. Here is the link to ModPo:

lost in the archives – Rainy Night in Foggy Bottom

When it rains all night in Foggy Bottom
you can smell the swamp beneath us – 
the old rotted tree roots, the tadpoles,
the water moccasins skimming – 

The swamp is only ever ten feet away –
and all that separates us is asphalt,
and gas and water pipes,
and underground telephone lines.

It’s pitch black down there –
dark from lack of light,
black as a night without stars –
even the water is black.

The level of the swamp rises
as our own level imperceptibly falls,
both at an accelerating rate –
soon we will be together.

Saturday, October 12, 2013

from the archives – my experiment with the ballad form

Prayer Song to Grandma Lena Rankin Maxwell

Early, early in the morning
just before the break of day,
I arise, and count my blessings,
and fall to my knees to pray.

And I thank the Gracious Master
and I praise His name so sweet,
and I pour out all my troubles,
and I leave them at His feet.

“Prayer is better,” said the wise man
“than another hour’s snooze,
it will pick you up much higher
than some other stuff you use.”

Late at evening after dealing
With the problems of the day,
All bewildered and disheartened
I fall to my knees and pray.

And I thank the Gracious Master
for his grace in helping me
through another day of passage
on life’s cold and stormy sea.

“Prayer is better,” said the wise man
“than that wine or weed or dope.
It will soothe away your heartache,
it will fill you up with hope.”

St. Louis, October 1991

not a poem . . . . yes, an epic poem

I have discovered that most recordings of the famous Frederick Douglass 1852 speech, What to the Slave is the 4th of July,” are abbreviated, curated, and otherwise shortened for convenience. Moreover, most transcripts and texts available and accessible on the internets are similarly selectively curtailed. Let’s face it, people gave very long speeches back then, more like the Sunday sermons I grew up being subjected to in my Baptist/Methodist youth.

All that said, here is a link to the whole Douglass speech. It is, as the Portuguese would say, vale a pena (worth the pain) to review and study in its entirety, all 18 pages. And below is a Youtube audio of the entire speech read aloud. Enjoy!

from the archives – homage to Walt Whitman

Song of self (homage to Grandpa Walt)

I am that Irish pennant –
sticking out from a hem or a seam,
that, if you pull on me,
the whole thing unravels/disintegrates

I am the canary in the coal mine –
When my song singing ceases,
the fresh air that you need to breathe
to survive is just about to run out

I am the A-ganger in AMR II –
running the O2 generator, the CO2 scrubber,
and the H2 burner in close, tight synchronicity,
in melodic harmony the compressors speak
to each other, while I maintain the nitrogen
and the oxygen balance throughout the boat.

I am the fly in the ointment –
a textual discontinuity,
a corruption in a pure system,
a something that just won’t fit in

I am the sentinel species –
my presence or my absence,
or my well-being a sign
of the relative health of the ecosystem

December 23, 2013