Sunday, October 27, 2013

Great Showtunes of the American Stage






the early poems of

Michael J. Vaughn


For Calder Lowe


(for JC Watson)


Starving tenor sits in his blank page of a room

rolling the head of his pen, staring down a team of Russian novels

he writes a song for himself, sings it into the mirror

watching his breath steam up in pancake ovals


In the dark hall near the exit he places solace and solitude

bred together like mutant apples

two bodies, one stem

and inside, the seeds shaped like stars


Starving tenor piles scored sheets in the center of his kitchenette and

shoots them sideways into a combine

pulling them out the other end wrapped in baling wire

He stabs it with a pitchfork and poles it high on his shoulder

trodding a metered path to the concert hall

humming me and my shadow

running it high and low for warmth

ready to plow through these soundproof doors and plunder the stage


This is my voice, hear it call

hear it rip down clouds from the heavens

but when he enters, he is struck dumb


Raven-haired mezzo, center stage

piping stories over the orchestra

singing his song

different notes, farther measures, but his song

captured in the bars of her southbound whisper he has no

choice but to sit and listen

snipping the wires from his baled manuscript and chewing it all down

wondering if he has been writing too low


I will shove it all up an octave

I will plant altos and basses beneath her

I will carry candles into my dark hall

until the music cracks my curtains

and pulls sunlight up from the east




First published in Eclectic Literary Forum

(Tonawanda, New York)

Die Zauberflöte


Starving tenor pummels the canyons of a water-dry county

treading south from storm to storm on the

tender black soles of his shoes

racing hard to miss the queen of the night

by ninety six measures


Minus the crown, the magic and Papageno

she will sit for him on the lawns of the mission

a poker deck full of faces she calls

Lucia, Carmen, Violetta, Rosina

while the clouds play wuthering heights on the

furrowed brows of Los Padres

Were the San Andreas a state-long cello

she would ring out Verdi from the back of her throat

pluck the base of these mountains

and three hundred miles north his fingers would

shake across the strings




First published in Eclectic Literary Forum

(Tonawanda, New York)

Marcello's Lament

(For Robert Pesich)

"To the ancient Egyptians, these stars (of Orion's Belt) were the resting place of the soul of Osiris, god of the underworld and a symbol of creativity and the continuity of life…"
            --National Audubon Society Field Guide to the Night Sky

Starving tenor finds the stone on a
black sand beach covered in driftwood

(If I said the wood was white as bones
I would be giving it away)

He kneels on the sand
where the ocean comes through the rocks
and reaches into the ribs of a burnt-out cello
plowing a pyramid of blackened chars
until he fingers the edges of its mineral heart
and pulls it into the sun

(If I said it was as red as Betelgeuse
I would be lying)

The stone is a jealous stone
it takes away his lovers
takes away his sleep
leaves his pockets thin and sallow

She is
Musetta, the woman you cannot
but if you hold her to your ear
she will sing you bright waltzes
and turn her lollipop eyes at you across the café

But the song and the glance are not enough
so Marcello takes the stone and grinds it up
spreads it across his Sunday salad

(If I said the dressing was Roquefort
I would be saying too much)

The fragments trunkle their way through his veins
and gather at the aorta
pressing northward to make his heart skip
on nights when Artemis neglects her duty
and mountainside lanterns
burst like meteors through the Paris streets

Years after Mimi's last breath
he comes back to the sea to
bare his skin to the inkwell sky
and wait for Orion's Belt to burn him down
leaving a coal as red as Betelgeuse
for the timpani waves to steam away

First published in Eclectic Literary Forum
(Tonawanda, New York)

Cavaradossi’s Memo

To write a poem now would clearly be a mistake
so I won’t


a tempo

Now when the Dots of Bott and
windshield wipers
have opened me up
the lobby swirling around me like
so much perpendicular nonsense
so much other people’s stuff

subito piano

And Maria Maddalena stares back at me with blue eyes.

(I will fall in love with her on a balcony
the wind blowing her hair into my face;
I am forced to place it back
against her neck
and hold my hand there
three seconds too long for

Morning on Sant’Angelo is deceptively clear
the bells coating Roma in jackets of brass
the stars still in their seats
and these nice military gentlemen
who deliver my notes
for the price of a ring

But they moonlight as a firing squad, you know
and they have their orders
their muskets inscribed with the names of great painters
Raphael, Michelangelo, da Vinci
(I am honored but not glad)

I may never finish the opera house
but I offer you this
I know Scarpia is dead and gone, Tosca, but the
sands of Capitola Beach
are no more forgiving than the cobblestones
of Italia

Give me one sure kiss and I will
receive my shots
like long-lost friends
empty myself out to the sky
and listen to your Doppler high C
all the way down from the parapet

First published in Owen Wister Review
(Laramie, Wyoming)

Lament of the Opera Critic

I hereby apologize to all tenors, soprani, baritones, mezzos
for the finely crafted butchery I am about to perform
but pouring gallon after gallon of music into a pint jar
one is bound to spill

Suzuki, Butterfly
what you did just there
that long-stemmed Janus tone
witchcraft limbs spread out over a Nagasaki hilltop
drilled into your lungs and throat
memory of your muscles
countless green-room repetitions

It's gone, I'm sorry
no more than a comma, a police department sketch

Yankee pig, treble slut
coming in cold from the waterfront
spinning out great reeling ribbons of sound
straight through the wall of orchestra as if
you had been saving breath
all the way across the Pacific

It's gone, I'm sorry
modifying phrase, leaf on a koi pond

Madame set designer
you with the boxtop moon and skateboard walls
sliding around like wolves in a pack
Monsieur conductor
free-barter tradesman of tempo
figuring tariffs between pit and stage and
launching great ships with a stick
And you, ever-neglected oboist
waking the grieving bride from her sleep

I am so, so sorry
but this portal of ink is a rough, dull instrument
a chopstick in the hands of a Texan
trying to scoop up any measure of your depths but
falling always short
See the rainfall of black rice on newsprint
your sweat, your breath
the calluses on your fingertips
the numbers dancing through your head
the imitation heartbeat pacing your limbs

But believe me
for all the dripped-off ice
cream warmed-over last
week's chow mein pared-off gristle
that I parade as journalism

I admire you all the more
am constantly thrilled at the way you
turn yourselves inside-out on the
carousel pegs of a Saturday night
just so you and I and a thousand others may
live someone else's life, die someone else's death
and sing a song of centuries

First published in Comrades.


Plaid sweaters on coathooks
rubber boots along the hall
in from the weather the boys and the girls
march to a two-step
blue-letter bows perched on their shoulders like

Take my hand, Mary Ann
take from the millennia of my fingertips
the secret paragraphs within my palm
it is for this we ferris wheel over the boardwalk sky
for this we line up on walls east and west
working up the hormones to say
Excuse me, I

Let these amplified strangers
shake us around on the ends of their timepieces
let the sea water bead up on our foreheads until
the future becomes a paper we must sign in
blue ink and vinegar

The way your left hip swirls beneath my sonar
is a letter I will not open until the
stamp is old and faded
but give me a kiss and I will try to understand
why clockwise is the direction of choice
and how the spin of a mirrored ball can
turn a cafeteria into a milky way

First published in Orange Coast Review
(Costa Mesa, California)

Mustang Sally

Call her a red haired Jewish soul eyed brick wall Los Angeles blues belter wide stance evil eye coffee espresso stare melt you into the sidewalk.

You needn’t say more unless you feel like it.

Big Irish lug nut sits on the ride cymbal, too lost in his two four fills to hear the singer, nothing more than a shoulder blade on his middle tom.

Still, two days later he draws the picture in full fashion: shafts of sun piping the next door brickpile; longneck Buds, a shower of smoke, guitar case coffins; stage stack of Clapton drivers, one China rip and roll sax.
Mustang Sally holds up a strong pale hand, cantering the tempo. The band stays rutstuck lagging, but not me, me and my high hat frills. I follow her fingers all the way down with the cue of my sticks: twelve bars, twelve bars and home.

First published in Eureka Literary Magazine
(Eureka, Illinois)

Quarter to three, no one in the place

I gotta wonder just how many of us guys
have had this notion before
bruised, battered
driving home late at night
watching a moon sprout from the clouds
inches away from full like
a freshly poured martini

I sing in the
wee small hours of the morning
to the streetlights, to the stoplights
and I try to make it as soft as I can
softer than smoke
because sometimes you sing better when you’re quiet
and sometimes it’s better to make people
lean forward and listen

I consider the idea that
after hundreds of dashboard recitals
I no longer sing it just like you
and the gift is complete

So many songs
and what I cannot know
pulling into the driveway
loading my drums into the living room
is that, beginning a half hour from now
I will hear them all again
as our national ears and eyes
give your life the final once-over

Looking back, I am happy that
my tribute arrived early
without the burden of knowledge
just a lonely man down a dark street
something to pass the time
and so quiet at the end
so quiet
and then the strings
and then it’s just

First printed in The Montserrat Review
(San Jose, California)

Memorial Day

On the day you blew out your last birthday candles
I sat midway up a row of seats
dazzled by a cowgirl fiddler wearing the kind of
gypsy sparkle dress you would
take to work on Halloween

It isn’t supposed to be like this
there isn’t supposed to be a world where I can see
a cowgirl fiddler
or a step-drop accordionist
or some high-hatted peg of a bass player, and not
bring them back to you
wrapped in the ribbons of my words

The cowboy sang a song in Spanish
you should have heard it
rising into his smile
bringing water from the skies

Driving home I tried to remember that rain
does not always mean sadness
but could not raise my voice, thinking of
you, trilling over Sunday morning pancakes
great showtunes of the American stage

First published in North Atlantic Monthly
(Stony Brook, New York)

The Train to Unattainia

I inhabit the spaces between the walls
after the flip of the switch but before
the dark of the bulb

I am a ruthless cowboy semicolon
forever inserting myself into conversations
funny how it always seems to cause

a pause
riding the hum of the intermission crowd like a
sailor, tying silk scarves around
each of their slow-nodding heads and

the rise of the curtain my only ticket in.

The only breath I take (breathe)
comes on the twentieth mile (breathe)
of a thousand-mile drive
when I know that turning around is no longer an option
the early morning sun blowing through the vents like
powdered sugar

I go to the land where nothing can be had
running down a long hard ribbon of willful disconnnection
a lack of direction so palpable you could
cut it with a compass

The needle winds its way in and out of the continental fabric
pulling me along to places like Cheyenne, Wyoming
where my siren, Improvisia
stands upright on the green edge of a sidewalk
blowing smoke into a renegade sun

In one hand she holds a book of songs
in the other a bucket of blue paint
dips the one in the other till the
color bleeds out the notes

She hands it to me with an Andalusian smile and says
Here, it’s the one you asked for
open it up and
sing, baby, sing

First printed in Austin International Poetry Festival Anthology
(Second Prize)

Amaryllis Asphalt

Jacaranda snows are a lovely thing if you can find them, splitting the narrow sea of Highway 5, wondering if your hand will slip from the wheel, if life holds more for you than three-minute eggs and a waitress named Jolene.

The Texas rain does you large favors, curtaining off the horizon before it swallows you up. Western states do not stop for passengers, and morning waits like a dial tone on the rail fences outside Dallas.

The only thing better than being here is being three miles from here, three minutes from now.

And nothing so good as a rest stop blackbird, picking crumbs off the pay phone shelf.

First published in The Montserrat Review
(San Jose, California)

Redding   50 Miles

A wild dark breath
courses the night air
and Karen sits by the window
waiting to catch it

Its rise and fall comes in the form of a
freeway, two in the morning
flat shadow farmlands scored by the
dirt road call of Christmas tree lights

Driving by fast she looks to the right
squeezes the shutter
strangers’ lives, hubbub motions in the
charcoal splash of TV light

One frame one glance and she,
shooting star of brake lights
steals three of their seconds
chewing them down
running north toward Chico

(Twenty miles west an old man sits on
tinder brown hills
flipping matches like startled flaming crickets
into the tall grass)

If you could flux from point to infinite
point along the interstate highway system
you might cease to exist

So sweet to find Mt. Shasta at your
starboard window like a
bright-eyed salesman
so easy to watch him go

A silver loop of keys
perches on the nightstand
and Karen sits on the bed
waiting to take them

She slips down the walk
a set of eyes from the bedroom window
one frame one glance one

Karen reaches behind the shrubs
feels for the cord and
unplugs the Christmas tree lights

The darkness is so lovely.

First printed in The Montserrat Review
(San Jose, California)

Gooroo (Chekhov)

On the night of my freedom
a Cherokee barnowl spins by to
snatch my breath
a single helium balloon wanders the parking lot
like a security guard
and the soccer field is framed by airline seats

The history of drama is such that
no sane person would dare attempt it

(“In her eyes, she is quiet like a fish”)

Better to climb mountains on Lake Michigan
ski slaloms across Death Valley
eat ice cream with no apology

than try to wrap up the human bloodflow
like a fifty-cent candy bar

(“You have created an elaborate romance for yourself”)

Hie thee to a bookstore
where they are rolling in Hemingway on a hand truck

But tonight I will toss my every essential
into a hatchback
and just leave

Because leaving is the only response.

First published in Terrain
(Tucson, Arizona)

Mississippi Telephoto

What the northern lights
are really looking for
is a good Cajun band
but lacking the will to reach the delta
they settle for a slow Acadian waltz
wavering over the tundra
whispering to the ears of Minnesota
don’t give up, spring will come.

First published in Oregon East
(La Grande, Oregon)

And Roy Rogers Sang the Torah

North we go a-roaming from Wyoming to Montana
All upon a tankful of George Custer’s diesel gas
Jesus Christ is savior on the local reservation
But still we eat our snow peas on the Powder River Pass

Eastward in the gloaming from Wyoming to Mount Rushmore
Searching for the faces in the South Dakota night
Ripping down through Deadwood in the name of Rapid City
To see Abe Lincoln glowing in the cold arena light

The Seder means a shuffle low from Buffalo to Casper
Cruising for a synagogue and good unleavened bread
Jesus ain’t no savor in our private schoolhouse kitchen
And Jewish New York cowboys need a place to lay their heads

Gave us such a chilling there in Billings, South Montana
Fictive flames of Zion just beneath the bookstore glass
Driving back down ninety just as fast as wheels would take us
To watch them burning ridges in the deep Wyoming grass.

First published in The Redneck Review of Literature
(Pocatello, Idaho)


The wildlife of the Northern Plains
are committing suicide in front of our cars

East Wyoming
Big white-tail buck
a triple-knock tango down the length of the pickup
two blind kicks in the spell of my high beams

Black Hills
Tiny V-wing sparrow
suctioned under the chassis, drop-kicked out the back
arcing the white stripe in a tennis ball of feathers

South Dakota
Silver dollar frogs
flipping like leaves on the black rain asphalt
death  in a whisper on the steady whine of wind

We stop for gas in Sioux Falls
still-eyed, faint
charting the guacamole constellations on our fenders
shaking our heads
drinking our coffee, driving on

A day later in La Crosse
vegetarian pizza, and root beers
we look at each other and
burst out laughing

First printed in Plainsongs
(Hastings, Nebraska)

Requisite Breakup Poem #3

We travel this highway
as far as our maps will take us
sharing the lead
using each other to block the wind

At night we rest by the orchards
I hike between the rows to pull up mustard
for your windshield
your shadow just above me
in the shape of an owl.

One day we come to a T
you roll down your window and say

I want to go this way
the road is straight and clear
the soil is rich and moist and falls apart in your fingers
there are perfect cows and old trees and graveyards
and there is a town where children play on tire swings
where the motels have ice blue pools and queen size beds
and there is a car wash named the Pearly Gates
I know the owner; I know his son.

And I say
I want to go this way
the road is dusty and hard to follow
there are lightning storms and flash floods
but there are canyons the colors of children’s drawings
and at night the sky is wider than time
On top of a mesa there is a coyote sipping cappuccinos
and we will sit and drink and howl
while dead nameless poets play baseball
on the desert floor
hitting the ball hard, reciting villanelles as they run
to first boulder.

And we look at each other

You wave and turn right
your hatchback slipping away in the flash of morning
a period at the end of a clean gray sentence

I wrap you in tobacco
watch the smoke roll of my windshield
check my gas gauge and
turn left.

First printed in Emily Dickinson Awards Anthology


It’s a common story, me
circling the Union at Stanford, flipping through a paper
sighs pouring from the buildings like black coffee then

Echoing archways near the fountain
meaningless to anybody else but
there you are
Rollerblading by in your little black dress as I
pop you into my camera for Christmas

Ghosts are meant to be cursed
but I have learned to hold my tongue –
you have this habit of bestowing your features on
leading ladies, jewelry shop clerks
high school girls on beaches

I’m sure they’ve spotted my mystified gaze
tossed over my shoulder like a blue scarf at their
shifting triangle smiles, apple-cider eyes
white chocolate dimples, high-wire curls

Come back when you like, shade of my heart
haunt me, shake me, draw me out
no need to call ahead
because these days
when the words pour out of me like silvered breath
I couldn’t bear any less

I look up from the page to find you
framed by the window in a halo of fireflies
a Russian princess in a dark coat
and then, you come in
and sit at my table

First published in Mystic River Review

The Aging Bachelor Drowns in Memory

Charlie Madsen is deep into hiding, scratching out pages of English to his father, when the pageboy redhead rushes into the café, arms swinging in the backwoods slope of his vision.

Speaking to the room, she confesses that she is late because she lost her way, then goes to sit with her friends at the next table. The tractor beams of recognition stop her halfway there, pulling her gaze on a string to the right.

Charlie, in fact, would prefer that she were not there, has no ready vocabulary for the slick steel chains of attraction buckling his skin, but as she rushes over is overcome by the ice blue cut of her eyes, the severe line of hair shadowing her forehead, Renaissance cheekbones, and blazing youth.

Please, Rodrigo
drive me to my friend’s house
I will show you wide rivers of asphalt
tick-tock fields of suburban streetlights
and one tiny honeycomb cell near
the orchard where I spent
warm, liquid French toast hours
on a couch, with a girl
introducing her to the farther reaches of her body
thin shoulders, blonde hair the scent of
nutmeg, the skin at the back of her neck

(I whispered the word “condom.” She ran.)

And if it weren’t this street
it would be the avenue to the south
the boulevard to the east
and several bipartisan culs-de-sac
my former girlfriends peppered over the landscape like
shotgun roadsigns

Charlie succeeds in blocking out the UV rays from the redhead’s table and finishes his letter, is about to head to the counter for a refill when one of three dozen our-songs sweeps down from the speakers.

The fair-skinned Christian girl with
rotello curls of chocolate hair
a Christmas day two years before when they
danced to drunken country breakup songs
on a moss-green futon
her smooth Egyptian smile snaking its way up his neck

He is surrounded, buried
covered and done
had best just order a poppyseed bagel
stare out the window at taillights and oak trees and
settle in for the long night of forgetting.

First published in Comrades


What you are doing here is a
matter for minds
greater than this

All I can know is the
curve of your spine as I
cradle it in my hands and

refugee mockingbirds
calling out the hours from
across the street.

Our lips have been moving for
hours now but
finally are good for something

And when I slip my
fingers in yours and
pull you my way the

moon breaks open and
spits out stars like
raindrops from a shaken umbrella.

First published in Zuzu’s Petals Quarterly


Jersey said to the popcorn girl
add two letters to your name and I will
make you a streetcorner

The popcorn girl swooned

Jersey woke to the sound of
pecking on the shower stall door.

First published in Epicenter
(Riverside, California)

We’re none of us very good at saying no

Just beneath the sandry mocean
the mitochondria play their sweet fiddles
for the seabass
who cannot keep a secret
in their filthy little hearts

There is no trust out there
just barren narratives passing from ship
to ship on the sodium tongues of pirates
scurvy dogs who couldn’t make it in real estate
or car bombings

I am a missive for the great unimportant things so
meet me on the swings before midnight
Close your eyes, lay your sweet
shoulders into my palms and
wait as I take careful aim and
launch you into the fishnets of Scorpius

I will
miss you but
will enjoy
seeing your
smile there
just above

comet white

Forthcoming in Many Mountains Moving
(Boulder, Colorado)

Pressing Your

Tired of the hallelujah congress
incorporated mathematical white presidents
diet sodas on the big privy screen
Annie shames herself on the hot brass button
rolls out between sandstone griffins
wraps a leash around her last real thought
and lets go down the
hurly burly knobs of San Francisco.

Somewhere north of Market
three feet past the turnstile
Annie meets the straight flush she’s been
expecting ever since
that night in Biloxi
when the tides didn’t come.

She gets home on the transit
seven minutes past midnight
one finger on the rip cord

finds the jack and queen of diamonds
fornicating across the pale shoulder of her
best cotton blouse.

The king was looking the other way
but then, he had no choice.

First published in Zuzu’s Petals Quarterly

Globe Street

Build me a home in the shape of a question mark. Free up the shutters for long-seeing eyes. Salve me a redwood straight down the eaves, and plant a checkerboard on the front porch.

Burnish the banister to a fine chameleon hue. Wallpaper a bedroom where I can sit straight with someone I love, flip wide the curtains and watch the traffic slipping apart the sneaklight of dawn.

Don’t tell me the neighbors are wax statuettes; I won’t believe you. But pipe in the music of the stratosphere and leave me to lie in the hot tub, soaking up molten rocks while crazed children take steak knives to the heads of my tulips.

Bill me quickly; my time is almost up. There is always one car on the cul-de-sac with out-of-state plates.

First published in Eclectic Literary Forum
(Tonawanda, New York)


Yer a mad scootermonger, said Harold to the
change clerk, whereupon the change clerk said
I don’t have to take that from no one and I
probably will, too

You haven’t thought that the sun couldn’t
rise without us
that little Bobby Hermedon couldn’t tie his
shoelaces, nor eat a wholesome breakfast
without one of us paper pushers
pushes us

If yore life is so damned little or so
damned big
whyntcha prove it and see how many
checkmarks you can place within the frame of my
time clock fricassee

Go ahead and live yore unmarked path
yore reckless tango hall
yore foolhardy bean dip café
but dontcha come a-runchin to me when yore
number five paper clips run out on
around two o’clock

Oh and they will, too

First published in Onionhead.
(Lakeland, Florida)

Mariette, dressed in white
slings a castanet across her fingers and
joins the circle
twenty sisters pounding out the
unlikely double handclap of flamenco
a snake in their hands.

Not enough; nothing ever is. The
smoke never so sweet as yuletide fires, the
grass never so spring tart as
schoolday cartwheels, the
kiss never so lost as a
lightning bug’s capture
insect halo in the cage of your fingers.

Pleasures die down from the first
angelfood crayons snap in two
Kodachrome slides fade from too many
trips around the light bulb

And it’s come to God
brass circle token
the underground train to heaven.

Mariette, dressed in white
runs to the garden
strips off her habit
kneels eye level with a bed full of daisies
black faces turned to bottlecaps

Cupping milk white breasts in the
offering plates of her hands
thinking, no one
no one but these and

First published in Ilya’s Honey

Henry Miller’s Marshmallow Stick

In the full-moon stir of Big South
bright enough for front-porch kisses
we dip our bread in primordial soup and
chew off the crust, spitting out mountains

The old man’s up there somewhere
screaming out the Ventanas
as Michelangelo beats at his bald-pated hills

The white marble comes back as sea foam
or marshmallows

The guy with the flashlight forehead says
come down, old man
grab a stick, join the spree
burn them a bubbling black if you like

In the morning the old man is back to his mountains
while sun and moon play tennis on the grass-line spread
God love us if we don’t take it home and
play it on our tee-vees
when the pace gets too pacey

First published in Eclectic Literary Forum
(Tonawanda, New York)

Instructions for Finding Frosted Glass at the Beach

The glass is commonly found in the middle rocks
at the edge of the high-tide wash
an hour before sunset in fall
when the waves are beginning to churn

Walk easy, look hard, but
not so hard that you can’t hear the ocean

The best are found alone
on plains of wet sand teased by the breakers
Keep your gaze to the sun and
watch for them flashing
guitar-pick chinks of white, green, brown
the rare and lovely blue
stitching your pockets, scraping as you walk

Take five minutes to watch the sun fall away
this will cost you the green and the brown
which turn in the gloaming to coal-dark lumps
but the clear is still a possibility
even, occasionally, in moonlight
so long as you ignore the
triangular fragments of mussel-shell

Remember that your quarry lies in a middle ground
that these fallen stars come not from
beauty but from someone
throwing litter on a beach

Do not feel the need to restock
this will be done for you

First published in Parting Gifts
(Greensboro, North Carolina)


Perhaps I had forgotten to tell you
why I do this
out here on the steel railings of a coffeehouse
chairs stacked up on tables
brushing down the deadbolt click of a
chapter’s final word
the easy snap of a dictionary.

I need this
I need this more than
solid blue numbers in a checkbook
a young girl’s smile
a cereal with fiber in it

Grant me one small brake on the
steady slip of time
a night-fed gap where teenagers
kick coffee cups around the parking lot
where tomorrow’s mist hangs high
just across the road, patient as a hawk
and your thoughts settle down so heavy and warm
that your eyes cannot quite focus.

And so, if I had forgotten to tell you
that place, tonight
I was there
and my head still rings with sound.

First published in Eclectic Literary Forum
(Tonawanda, New York)


There is a whack and a thuck about this place
circular percussion, metal on leather
leather on leather
claws on baked white soil
scratch yourself a symphony and beware the bad hop

The men in fashion glasses don’t understand
the game is cloth on dirt
no Fred Astairing into third but a
decrescendo sled across the gravel
one hand cupping the perfect white corner

There is nothing more oddly beautiful than the smile
of an umpire
no point more tenderly treacherous
than the turn in a double play
hack yourself a concerto and beware the mute outfielder.

First published in Yarrow


Jessica Packhorse skips down the sidewalk, scoring out squares of cool gray cement in odds and evens, whipping their flanks with the red wooden handles of her jumprope.

Mama, if you live in these cracks, I will love you, even to the jadewater green of your weeds, the pocket-lint fuzz of your candy corners. I am the call of the desperate, the clothing of the clouds looking for a great wind to carry me home. When the sun splits the cap of the mountains, I will sleep and try not to wake, perhaps just to ask for the time, a drink of water, a word of comfort. And when I lie back down, the  pillow will hide half my smile.

Jessica pulls out a square of white chalk, scratching the exes and ohs in her path, hiding a world of secrets in the press of her teeth.

First published in Alphabet Faucet
(Bellingham, Washington)

Reel to Reel

I was standing in line
for tape decks
two for one
and these tape decks didn’t record sound but
loss, and
grief, and
the answers you remembered right after the
algebra quiz but it
didn’t matter
they took the points off anyway.

The old man in front of me
in the line, his name was Alex
he was afraid he wouldn’t know how to use it
the tape deck
because he hardly knew how to
program the VCR
boot up the computer
open the garage door
say he was sorry.

His wife was Betty
and he needed the tape deck for
the unfortunate sentence
the missed embrace
the long hours of silence behind the paper
in front of the evening news
while she waited by the fire, knitting
quiet, patient.

When the lady asked him, he said
I need lots of tape
five dozen
two hours each.

She didn’t tell me she was leaving.

First published in Eureka Literary Magazine
(Eureka, Illinois)


In the kitchen, Grandma was a turbine
smooth and powerful
quietly churning out beds of
baked beans
under a jacket of brown sugar and bacon
vats of potato salad that
appeared out of nowhere
roast turkey that fell to pieces in your mouth and
bright orange slices of vegetable candy –
the only cooked carrots that I could ever enjoy

It would never come from her lips but
told me, as a young wife
she cooked for entire logging camps in Alaska

which explains the leftovers.

She was considered unusually cool
for a grandmother
because she drove a red Mustang
was a single mom with a kid my age
and blessed with seven granddaughters could
shop with the best of them

When they asked me where I got the
polyurethane New Wave pseudo-military
wedge lapel jacket with the
wicked Dance Machine Michael Jackson angles
I would smile
slide the moss green zipper half way up and
relish my answer

“She was born in Alaska, you know.
And she invented divorce.”

One Christmastime we passed around
a frayed black and white photo
some time in the ‘30s
a young whip-smart June, already burdened
seated on a chair with her husband on her lap
a dark-haired bush pilot looking
wild, out of balance
staring at the camera with my uncle’s eyes
one foot already out the door

But even with all this knowledge
I may never have known her
may never have delved very far beneath the
layers of Seward toughness
and Indiana stoic

It took nothing less than
my mother’s death
to finally bring it out of her
seated beside me at the kitchen table
the evening after the funeral
her admission a string of
chopped-up words
through a gush of unwelcome tears

“Mike. This should never happen.
A mother should never have to
see her children die.”

In our lives, Grandma was a white blood cell
equipped with enzymes that could sense the damage and
rush her there to heal the wound
to fill the gap
to sit the kids

Now she has become the wound itself
and we part from this Indiana graveside
on diminished limbs
and skyward breath.

First published in The Montserrat Review
(San Jose, California)

Michael J. Vaughn’s poetry has appeared in more than a hundred literary journals around the world. He is the author of thirteen novels, including The Popcorn Girl and Frosted Glass. Vaughn is a regular contributor to Writer’s Digest, a thirty-year opera critic, and drummer for the San Francisco rock band Exit Wonderland. Vaughn’s more recent poetry may be found in his collection Fields of Satchmo, available on Amazon Kindle.

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