Poems in the time of the pandemic

uncut version

Lockdown sonnet #1

Silly me. I always thought
sitting on the dock of the bay
was about Seattle and Bremerton –

It was the only bay I knew,
it fed and housed me well
and gave me countless hours
of solace and meditation.

Time and distant love altered the equation.
One seeks to close the gap
that separates and isolates.

Today we are socially distant,
trying to flatten the curve.
We stay at home. We elbow bump
instead of a goodnight kiss.

Lockdown sonnet #2

Nobody has bandwidth
To focus on the senators
Who profited from inside information.

We are at that point
In late empire. Justice has removed
Her blindfold to put on
A breathing mask.

It’s a good time for thieves
And rogues. And dirty politicians.
And it’s a good day for poets
Witnessing the birth of new genre.

We’ll all be safe. Besides, we’re in lockdown,
And the pens are full, and the coffee is hot,
And the bookshelves are overflowing.

Lockdown sonnet #3

Writing my own poems gave me
A deeper appreciation for poetry
Just like writing my own play
Helped me better understand drama.

Keeping a written record
is a small “d” democratic Art and
the expressed urge to write
is a small “r” republican Virtue.

Both strengthen the body politic.
But both require a voyage, not a visit,
as Mrs. Brooks’s The Chicago Picasso
would be pleased to know we learned.

The present quasi lockdown provides us
Space and time to take the journey.

Lockdown sonnet #4

Work meetings on Zoom today –
Two confirmed cases on campus
Mean shutdown until further notice.
But the library can never completely close
So there’s telework for all library staff –
Eight hours per week on site.
This ain’t a poem, it’s a list, too much
Is happening to restrict it to 14 lines.

Taxes postponed. What if it’s all a fraud?
Read some good Angolan history today –
Precolonial stuff, and an Amilcar Cabral
Essay: History is a weapon – all for my
Docent course, even though this week’s
Walk-through at the museum is cancelled.

Lockdown sonnet #5

See the line at Trader Joes this morning?
Wrapped down the block and around the corner –
Each shopper six feet apart from the next?
Whole Foods is still out of Vitamin C
And limiting frozen pizza to four
Per shopper. Good prices on naval oranges –
Stocking up to stave off scurvy, rickets.

Press conference on standby – gotta get
Latest developments on the crisis.
Never mind the moral imbecility
Of the press corps – the message seeps through
Their banterings and raillery
(And that’s being charitable. My goodness!)
The time to learn the news is nigh.

Lockdown sonnet #6

A new fountain pen arrived. Nice feel, heft.
German import. Overstock. Priced to sell.
A bit slow on capillary action
At first, as new pens often are. An ink drop
Spilled on my hand and down to the floor.
Should have done this in the kitchen. Trouble.
In paradise. Wife will be enraged.
No refuge will there be from her scorn.

We are both going crazy trying to predict
the unknown unknown. When will it all end?
Meanwhile, I’m preparing a short talk
About how the Portuguese invented
The plantation system memorialized
In the Cape Verdean art form: Morna.

Lockdown sonnet #7

I’m reading Transgenerational Trauma.
I should be planning my day of telework
at home, surrounded by distractions.

No one sits within six feet of me –
social distancing is the new rule.
Garland Nixon is broadcasting

On Radio Sputnik. At noon the pope
is giving a special prayer and Fatima
in Portugal is consecrating the world.

My mask is not stylish but effective.
Everybody on Twitter has something
Snarky to say about the corona virus.

I took my Vitamin C with coffee –
We’ll keep the barking hounds at bay.

Lockdown sonnet #8

I compare every new and pretty voice
To my safe bets, Mariza and Amalia,
And that’s not fair. How can the new ones meet
That standard? But they try and they deserve
To be heard. Fado is my antidote
For the blues the lockdown brought. But the songs
Of old don’t really address the anguish
and the uncertainly of the present.
Never mind. Folks are starting to panic,
Important events and milestones cancelled
Or postponed. Isolation takes its toll
In time. Mariza told us she was tired
Of singing all these sad old weary songs.

Lockdown sonnet #9

There is a sort of spiritual healing
taking place in government today,
thanks to Rona. Forced into party strait
jackets to support various sides
of the impeachment hoax, many
Unwillingly, members can finally seek
the unity of purpose and collegiality
that heals their souls. All our souls.

The black ladies are making a quilt
with large, oversized white hands.
And there is a peeping Tom in the window,
maybe the artist himself. Maybe some other.
A black cat creeps across the floor,
and a new world is forming outside.

Lockdown sonnet #10

The volunteer activities I cram into my weekends
Bring me great joy and fulfillment, satisfaction.
Even with the requirement to juggle things
From one Saturday to the next, I thrive on it.
But today, in the midst, we hope, of the lockdown,
The chores that once occupied my mind are absent.
So I am doing a binge on Amazon Prime selections
Since we terminated our subscription to Netflix
To avoid the social programming therein.
What’s in store for today? A friend recommends
Counterpart, Cold War spy thriller, supposedly,
Though we know what that deal was. And then
There is Star Trek – Discovery, not quite my cup of tea,
Although I was an early saint to outer space’s devotion.

Lockdown sonnet #11

To Rona (AKA, the corona virus, COVID19)

Rona, you were never a passing thing,
A good time girl who tiptoed daintily
Through the sweetness of our days,
Leaving a faint trace of a summer memory.
OH. HELL. NAW! Rona, you came upending
All our ho-hum lives, taking us
To new levels of thinking and being.
Rona, you were never a one-night stand.

I knew you were trouble when you
stuck your head in the doorway
And flashed that cunning smile.
My mother warned me about girls
Like you. Still, instead of chasing you away,
I brought you fully into my embrace.

Lockdown sonnet #12

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.

NaPoWriMo 2020

a poem about a favorite bird

A parrot, an African Grey named Chico,
Lived in captivity in Amalia’s kitchen
For eight years before her death.

Still in the cage, twenty years later,
now chained to his perch, Chico continues
his life in the kitchen of his home
that has become a house museum.

I stood next to the cage and hummed
a few bars of Cancao do Mar.
Chico turned his head. He tugged at his chain.
Perhaps he recognized the tune.

Maybe he remembered Amalia singing
as she prepared bacalhau com natas
or frango cafriela in her kitchen.


The prompt: a self-portrait poem in which you make a specific action a metaphor for your life

I measure the chilled, filtered water.
I grind the beans manually for consistency
Then place the coffee in the upper chamber.
I add three grains of Portuguese sea salt
(Because everything loves the sea
And the sea is in everything).
I turn the gas flame down low.
While I wait, I check my email.

When the pot gurgles and sputters
The coffee is ready to be served.
I add a teaspoon of raw honey (Trader
Joe’s is best) to dull the bitterness,
And one dollop of half and half
for presentation.


To the Peace Corps Director

Cosmic reset is exactly what it is!
Everything normal has come to a crashing halt.
We are OK, folks in NC, Lisbon and Bissau OK.
Just this strangeness. Can’t quite put my finger on it.
Yesterday I tried some retail therapy.
Orvis. Amazon. New clothes for what?
More books for what? I’m in a quandary.

Well, I’ve been in quandaries before,
one piece in a 1000-piece jigsaw puzzle.
I’ll write-bad-poetry myself through it.
But I do think about the families overseas
and I recall the disorientation
of uprooting, of sudden displacement
during normal times. Thoughts are with you all.


My nightmare is always the same –
I am working in a hot, noisy engine room
And I have to pee. But the watertight hatch,
For some reason, is closed and locked.
So I pee in the bilge. Then, when I go
To pump the bilge, the pump breaks –
So I have to fix the pump. But the parts
I need are on the other side of the hatch.
It’s a centrifugal pump with close clearances.
Who the hell came up with that design?
Soon it starts to stink (because I’m not
The only one peeing in the bilge – it could be
Worse. Let’s not even go there.)
My nightmare always ends unresolved.


This poem has short lines.
It is optimized for Twitter
And your cell phone screen.

Your face still haunts me.
It second guesses my actions
And double checks all I say.

We live in lockdown.
I miss the freedom to travel,
Occasional lunch with friends.

But things could be worse.
It could be death by fire
Or flooding without an ark.

Happy Birthday Booker T!
“You can’t hold a man down
Without staying down with him.”

These lines are getting longer.
It’s a natural progression.
And I overran the 14-line limit:
It cannot be a sonnet.


(take the tour here: https://archief.ntr.nl/tuinderlusten/en.html)

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.


How to Wear Face Masks Without Fogging Up Your Glasses


I have this problem – this is important to me.
Once a week I brave the invisible threat
And go food shopping in the neighborhood,
Carefully practicing social distancing.
My anti-viral mask makes me feel safe –
But my glasses soon fog up.

Washing the lenses with soapy water
Before going out seems to be a useful trick –
If it works – the soap film prevents the moisture
Of your breath from condensing on the glass.

A better solution is one I may actually try:
Insert a rolled up tissue just inside
The top of the mask to pre-absorb
Any of your breath’s escaping moisture.


From Odes of Pindar, Olympian II

For Bill Withers and John Prine

Ye hymns that rule the lyre,
What gods, what heroes shall we celebrate?
This week we lost two men I never met
But truly adored. Songwriters whose lyrics filled
My life, at various times, with sweetened thoughts
Transferred from their words and melodies.
Both served their countries first –
Non sibi sed patriae –
Both discovered in mid life they had a song
To sing, and thankfully, to share.
Both refused to sell out to the white ghost
Who peddles fame and fortune in exchange
For one’s soul. Bill Withers and John Prine.
Rest you both in peace down by life’s river.


NaPoWriMo #9 – Not a concrete poem

This poem defies the concept of concreteness.
It bubbles over the top of the walls
Of its container, like a boiling liquid –
Then flashes to steam, releasing its perfume.

Would that that were its final material state.
The perfume gets distilled into haiku,
Then changes state to sound, to melody,
Seeking eager and open noses and ears

Simultaneously in asynchronous effect.
It is still not at its end. Invisible
Atoms infiltrate the blood-brain barrier
And find a resting place. There it awaits

Retrieval as an oral combination, a word,
A passing thought, a feeling unexpressed.


I can do haiku.
But hay (na) ku might not be
my choice cup of tea.

These days corona
rules the schedule of our lives –
lockdown – stay at home.

Let’s flatten the curve,
keep corona from spreading –
keep the hounds at bay.

Record this crisis!
Tell stories of daily life.
Archive each event.

The really cool thing
is that haiku fits so well
And lives on Twitter.


African marigolds are beautiful.
Google just gave me a screen full of images,
Which is good since DC regulations
Only allow us essential travel
During this lockdown. Thank God for Google –
We can view assorted images of beauty
In Retina display on our iMacs
In the comfort of our living rooms.

Some folks say Jesus died on Friday night.
I mean no disrespect, but I’m not buying it –
the whole cross story just doesn’t add up.
Let’s work backwards. If Jesus rose the third day,
Wouldn’t that be Monday? Three days later?
But isn’t Easter Sunday, the second day?


a triolet

It is so hard to separate facts
From lies, to know what’s concrete
When surrounded by so many abstracts.
It is so hard to separate facts.
When it’s always a lie that attracts,
The plain truth can barely compete.
It is so hard to separate facts
From the garbage and all the deceit.


We have entered the mid-month long slog,
The third week when all bets are off
And anything may present itself
As poetry of crisis. Let the giants
Fall and die a fitting death. Let big banks
Fail. What do we care? A few billionaires
Become millionaires. How about the poor,
who lose jobs, and houses, and life savings?
How about a plan to bail out Main Street?
You shared your time with me for free.
I took it, stole it like a thief in the night.
We were two ships sailing, two starts crossing
In the distant night sky, passing port to port,
trading resilience for efficiency.


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.


a bitter pill
is neither red nor blue –
Just hard to swallow
When you know its taste
Might not agree with
What you know is true,
Or think you know, or
wish you never knew.

A spirit quest
That will not be contained –
It calls us gently
From sleep’s dormant state.
We rise embued with purpose
And a mission preordained
And leave a life constrained
Before by darkened memories.

There’s music hiding
In between the lines
and spaces of the words
the pages hold.
A secret message unwinds
The latent magic
And the sacred music
that resides deep within.


Everything is infinitely praiseworthy
In its own unique and special way –
The sunrise, the sunset, filtered water’s
Taste, the coffee the water produces.

And even overlooked external things.
I’ve read so many perfect poems,
And heard so much wonderful music
During my limited sojourn on Earth.

Didn’t I grow up with Motown and Stax
And the Philadelphia Sound? And played
viola and recorder? And awoke
To my father’s recitation of verse

From the masters? And the coolest teachers
And mentors? And the best shipmates ever?


Obsolete Technologies

I am surrounded
By ancient sacred texts
Preserved on technologies
That no longer exist.

How will I extract
The wisdom they contain?

It might as well
Be stones, pebbles,
Grains of sand on the beach –

Objects on display
In an alien museum,
Words memorized
In a drunkened brain,
Recited by slobbering lips.


Remembering Bob Kaufman

All the letters I never sent

All the letters I never sent,
Poems written but only shared
With special friends who dig
the cut of my jib –
I warehouse them (most but not all)
On blogs stashed across the internets.

All the morning walks I stopped
Taking after my fall,
From fear, misplaced perhaps,
That I might get stuck
Somewhere off a beaten path
Where no one could hear
my pleas and groans.

All the lies I never told
Because I didn’t feel 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.
I’m too old to make excuses,
And dead men don’t have birthdays.


Fences – Act Two, Scene Four

In the denouement our classic warrior
(Such is the tragedy that was his life)
Loses all that was once near and dear.

The cherished love of his wife is broken
After her decision to not refuse
The result of his infidelity.

He loses the respect of his son,
So long assumed, compelled by fear,
Never inspired by true affection.

His best friend doesn’t come around
Any more, not even for a Friday drink
That once satisfied a parched thirst.

Finally, abandoned by his own sense
of taste (Yes! A multiple metaphor!),
He is left to swing aimlessly at all
Those fast balls on life’s outside corners.


To my favorite Turkish librarian, Gozde Torun

A lovely homemade thing
From a far off distant land,
Woven with yarn and lace:
A cushion steadies my coffee cup
A pad where the mouse can rest.
How’d you know it’d be so useful?
A treasured gift of grace –
A token that holds a place –
Folded carefully in the liquor bar drawer
between the shot glasses and candles,
the napkins and cork replacements.
Woven with yarn and lace –
A lovely homemade thing,
From a far off distant land.


Reflections on listening to a podcast about Afropessimism
(because the author’s book tour was cancelled)

Can I tell you something? A deep secret?
I am exhausted by your shallowness
And as of this morning at 7AM
I will no longer give a good goddamn
What you think about my talent and skill
As a bureaucrat. What about yours?
Where is your tact? Your sense of fairness?
Your appreciation for the art form?
I have a fairly good, if wicked notion
What you are thinking when you see my face –
My black face that does not apologize
When undermining your hypocrisy.
Fuck all this. I’m going to work TODAY.
Keep six feet away from me. Wash your hands.


“Coracao de manteiga”

Coracao de manteiga –
The African girls said of me
In my youth: a soft heart,
too soft a heart, goodhearted,
Maybe. Heart of butter.

They keep butter at room
temperature in that country –
A hot knife sizzles through it,
A cold knife is best for spreading.

Butter gives bread a good taste,
And it’s good sprinkled with salt
On popcorn. A heart of stone
Would not be a nice thing
To say to a person.

We keep butter refrigerated here.
Makes it last longer, but hard
And difficult to spread. And it
Absorbs other all the other smells
In the refrigerator.


A Thursday Sonnet

It might be time for a shape shift moment.
This kernel of time, wedged between the walls
Of two more standardized realities
Only points us backwards on the path
Of forward growth. You can write your own poem –
This one holds out hope for a revival
And a different direction for our dreams.

Old ways benefited the chosen few.
Their poets and prophets sing of better
Days to come. They have playwrights and Netflix
Producers on the job around the clock,
Promising to protect the status quo.
I can’t say I wish them ill. Their vision
Is a museum object, best preserved, mute.


Cashew Fruit

Most people don’t know
About the cashew fruit.
Juicy, sweet, succulent,
Too perishable to ship
In crates to foreign lands.

We know the cashew nut.
It grows inside the seed
That grows outside the fruit.
Was it engineered to grow
That way? I don’t know.

But what I do know is that
The juice of the sweet fruit
Turns to wine quickly, and if
You don’t drink the wine soon
It becomes vinegar.

To can and preserve the fruit
Is an art and a secret knowledge
Passed down from mother
To daughter. Lucky those
With access to it.


To all the folks I’ve wronged

I’ve made some crucial errors in this life.
But often times when I go back in time
And try to make it right, I learn
The sin, the crime was mainly in my head
And had no strong or weak effect at all
On those I may have wronged without relief.
Who wants or plans to harm their fellowman?
But what greater harm in life is there
Than doing wrong against your own self’s soul?
I say to my soul: I deeply apologize,
Please point to the path of your forgiveness.
My soul responds: O silly man, I am
Your soul, I know your every deed.
But please stop by and visit when you please.


poets are mechanics who know this truth

I run a quite unique distillery
And take it with me everywhere I go –
I feed it all the garbage and the trash
From life experience. It processes junk
And outputs poems to read and share with friends
and foes alike. Moonshine for the soul.

One thing about the distillation act:
it does not destroy matter – Newton’s law
Is in effect – what’s not refined from life
At length concentrates to a detritus
That must be channeled outward, overboard.
And if the output pipings cross-connect,
It mixes gunk with truth for ill effect.


To Filomena

my wife is watching

My wife says she can tell
When I’m writing poetry.
She says she sees me moving
In and out of space and time
And she wonders where it is I go.

I tell her I cross a mighty river
Again and again. One that separates
The temples of life’s renewal,
On the west coast facing east,
catching the first rays of sunrise –
From the tombs that guard the past,
On the east coast facing west,
basking in sunset’s glow.

Both a library and an archive,
A moving feast inside my mind.
Crossing back and forth between
Those two worlds creates an energy
source and a drug for my addiction.

She does that thing where she
Points two fingers at her eyes
And then at me. She’s watching.


Loss of innocence/Rite of passage

She said, “I’ll be your lover if you wish.”
That forwardness was new to me. I paused,
But dared not respond, fearing I’d foreclose
My hope for a happy ending. She spoke,
“I’m a hippie, it won’t mean much to me.”
That’s odd, I thought, it’d mean so much to me.

A sudden death for my virginity
Was averted. I still recall it, clear
as day, perhaps, well, clear as yesterday.
All good things must end, and my time would come
To cross the line, to break the sacred plane,
To taste the fruit of the tree of knowledge
Of good and evil. The time, soon enough,
Would arrive and my soul would be prepared.


To my shipmate, Wendy

Some might say this work/life has given us
A warped sense of humor. We cast a glance
At each other and smile. Yes, I was there
With you in Baghdad, dodging mortar rounds
On selected days, and on the tarmac
Overnight in Kuwait City where we
had to have a special sense of humor
To survive war’s absurd insanity.

Time passes. The wounds heal. The scars remain.
We write the future, it does not write us.
We arrange and describe our past to fit
truth’s narrative arc. It doesn’t matter
That we spent nights in the Palace
Fearful of those whose lands we invaded.



I straddle multiple dualities:
Settler and native, assimilated
And separate, conqueror and conquered.
Crossing lines is my favorite pastime,
Assuming opposing identities,
Walking a mile in my enemy’s shoes.

Still, there are certain things I will not do:
I’ll never hurt a child, or kick a man
Who’s already down, or ignore a plea
For help from anyone. A warrior
To my bones, if you cross me I will pause
And think before I act: it’s likely I
won’t turn the other cheek. I’ll telegraph
my ev’ry move, give you the choice to strike.

memento mori

One day we’ll all lie down
In a narrow box. For a time
Our neglected hair and nails
Will continue to grow.
But our eyes won’t move
And our ears will no longer
Hear the ennobling sound of music.

Our fingertips will forget
The caring touch of our beloved.
When that time comes for me
Don’t put no shoes or socks
On my feet – there’ll be no reason
to walk any more – but my toes need
freedom to wiggle if they want.

confined to quarters – a sonnet and a farewell to Wilson’s ten-play cycle

What must we conclude when the cycle ends?
Is there cause for hope, for optimism,
A balm we can surely find in Gilead?
Or isn’t all just a wink and a nod,
Yet another slave narrative that shows
the futility of our pleas for peace?

As a teen I thought Robert Redford might
Someday be President. I mean, Bobby Seale
Didn’t really stand a chance and Redford
Was at least a man of action. But there
was no great art in his films, well, except
in that spy flick he did with Dunaway –
Who had been my secret crush forever –
Where, under duress, she said, “This is . . . unfair!”


End of series