November 1998

David Graham

David Graham David Graham teaches English and coordinates the Writing Program at Ripon College.  In addition, he serves as poetry editor for Blue Moon Review.   His four published collections of poetry include Second Wind (Texas Tech 1990) and Magic Shows (Cleveland State 1986).  
Alternate Take    Read Along with the Author

Somebody coughs, or the drummer
flubs the tricky intro, yet somehow
the sax waxes golden this one time
above all, leaping up turbulent chords
flowing from the piano, a salmon
climbing riffles and spumes
with its undeniable body.
Then the engineer calls a re-take,
bassist heads for the can, or the piano man
stops and chokes with laughter.
Genius lags, lights its languid cigarette,
counts coins in a pocket, one-two,
one-two, and they're off again
into mellow midnight, suddenly
released for the rest of the tune
from itchy eyes, addled fingers,
all the smoky clamor of this night
I'm breathing in forty years later
like first air in the garden.



Wedding Reception    Read Along with the Author

As usual the bridesmaids are dressed
like Christmas ornaments, in this case sporting
huge velveteen bows strapped at their backs. Their hips
seem enormous, these matronly maids
earth-mothering their tropic way across
the crowded dance floor. The groomsmen's tuxes
all look bulletproof, though in an optimistic
way, and it's pleasant to envision them
puzzling over their cummerbunds.

Time for toasts. Echo and feedback contend
with halting praise, and no one seems reluctant
to sit back down. Kids tap their waterglasses
like speeding drummers, so the stars of this show
rise each time with the dutiful stretched grins
of figure skaters. Though this routine has run
a little long, every judge holds up a Ten.

So we pay homage to these stand-in gods,
this Mike and this Sandy, here in the clatter
of cutlery, this well-girdled exercise.
Even in the popping glare of flashbulbs,
they sway to a private music as best
they can. And everyone not busy wisecracking
or gobbling down easy tears receives
an eventual slice of this tottery cake,
though the size of the pieces varies widely.



Honeymoon Island    Read Along with the Author

—Florida 1997

Shell-white northerners in January sun,
we follow bird tracks farther and farther
from the woods path, drunk on greenhouse air,
squinting even with shades as we round a curve
and meet the Gulf: a flock of ibises
in the shallows like a stiff cocktail party,
egret alert just over the next low dune.
Osprey nesting in dead firs at our back,
a turtle on pause in the white sand just ahead.

An hour at most we've stolen
between obligations, lucky to find
this profuse and garish dream island,
strange spiky blooms in the freighted air.
Sun nearly bleaches all thought away,
easing blizzard and black ice, thawing
stopped pipes and dammed gutters.
We murmur new surprise at every fresh
knife edge of greenery, each houseplant
somehow looming taller than a house.

I wish I could say now I take your hand
and speak my heart, but we just continue
ambling our languid sky-and-sand circle
of this hothouse island, soon enough arriving
back at our rental car, chatting of night plans,
the cancer even then busy blooming in your chest.



Old Poet Enduring Praise     Read Along with the Author

—in memory of one who is not gone

Once in a jerky student movie I saw him showered
by apple blossoms in a graveyard, petals crowning
his gleaming pate. Flower and skull, we got it,
having seen pages and pages of this sort of showering.

Then the camera slipped an instant to reveal
how he shook the bounty from above on himself,
one hand gripping the bough tight as a pen,
raining dire blessings on that implicated head.

No doubt the shoestring budget allowed
no apple bough shaker. Cheerful to a fault,
he consented to dump fragrant symbols on himself.
Oh, too tempting not to take this up now

as summary of a career in lyric play,
tensile flex of green branch and heavy hand,
the given arc between stolid earth and vanishing sky
seeded with that praise he nonetheless deserves

for his handful of perfect fruit. A quarter century's gone,
his books long since ceased. He's begun to slip
from most of the anthologies by now, though from time
to time he is still hauled out of the Home

to recite those ancient miracles of his prime.
I saw him arrive at the hall, grandchild steering him
like a battleship into dry dock. Pipe ashes
all over his tweed, stubble on his still lyric face.

Nobody could say why he clutched three cheap flashlights
all unlit, a plastic jumble filling his writing hand.
So after receiving my teacher's blank-eyed greeting, I asked,
half expecting some quip as of old about Diogenes,

or the light that surpasseth understanding.
"Oh, it's just a habit, I guess," he smiled, and shuffled on,
uninsulted, heading for the podium where they would read
his best poem four times before they eased him off the stage.



Elegy for Roger Case    Read Along with the Author

He once swiped a pen-knife
that had been my grandfather's—
a multi-bladed amazement
any kid would want in his pocket.
Already I'd had my suspicions,
for my piggy bank looked
a little low, and Roger's
ways were well-known.

One afternoon as we played
in his bedroom, there it was:
jutting out from under a pillow,
unmistakable. I lunged
quicker than Roger could
and stalked out before
he had well launched
his excuses. The little creep
was a year older
but I could have hurt him
if I wanted, I could have ridden
over him like righteousness itself—

but just walked out, and that
was it for us, though kids
aren't too good at nursing
grudges: I mean, I saw him
around, maybe played
sandlot baseball a time
or two—but no more
sleepovers, no more rapt huddles
over his mother's explicit
nursing manual, no more Saturdays
lounging through cartoons
and teasing his baby sister.
He shrugged and smirked,
and that was that.

Of course Roger was used
to being banished. No telling
how many times he was found
tied to a tree
in someone's back yard
with his pants down, or
came home with a bloody nose
he couldn't explain. I can't say
I ever truly liked him myself,
though I was no prize either—
shy and secretive in a way
he must have felt as harmony.

By high school we didn't bother
ignoring each other
in the corridors, just stared
like bored cattle if we happened
to crowd the same door.
Roger had graduated to full
drug-punkhood, and I
fled into the honor roll. I never
knew what became of him—
he melded easily
into boyhood's phantasmagoria,
its long held scores and dreams,
one of my shifting roster
of almost half-pals. He faded
like the twin Polaroids
I kept as his sole memorial—
Roger balanced on his head
in our upstairs hallway,
Roger with monkey face
and crossed eyes.

Now comes word he's had a stroke,
the ultimate prank, a firecracker
in his head. This missing quarter
century, since I grabbed that knife
and exited Roger's puny life,
now throbs with fresh force.

No reason for it, I suppose,
my mourning a friend
I never quite had, and don't
regret. Perhaps he straightened out
at last, though how can I
imagine him with family
or career, or believe he ever kicked
his sneaky ways? No:
I'm stuck with my vision
of Roger's cut lip, Roger
scampering away from someone's
casual cherry bomb. Dead
or alive, it hardly matters
to this everlasting portrait—
Roger Case upended
in a long lost hallway,
grinning like a monkey
from the heart of monkeyhood.



David Graham: Poetry
Copyright 1999 The Cortland Review Issue FiveThe Cortland Review