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Sample Poems by Jeff Bernstein

Showing the Flag (Baltimore 1942)

Today he scans
the morning sky
for storm clouds, chest out
slightly, gold watch fob
planted like a tree in the breast
pocket of his vest, worsted
despite the summer heat. He raises
Old Glory slowly up the white staff
in the side yard of the new home
straddling the corner lot where
Forest Park Avenue embraces
the more rarified air of Hilton Road.
Not six blocks from their old
one-floor apartment down Forest Park,
another world wakes. His wife
and two sisters no longer live
in each other's steamy kitchens,
traverse the few steps
back and forth beneath the old sycamores
which line the alley behind
their back yards; now
her sisters wait for invitations
to visit the big house
at the intersection, his raven-tressed
daughter nearly married now,
his quiet son a teenager almost
always smiling.

The flag near the finial,
he looks to see
his son's windowshades still drawn,
thinks about waking him
though the train will not chuff out
of Union Station for two more hours.
It's an all-day journey to Montpelier, Vermont
where a farmer, waiting in a wagon
drawn by two old field horses,
will take the boy the final ten
miles to Plainfield, first-haying everywhere
in the fields and on the breeze,
darkness not descending
until well after nine p.m.
in that northern summer.

The only news
of his son's beloved O's
will come slowly
from his father's careful hand,
the International League
hardly a household word
way up at the top of New England.
He opens the suitcase already packed
and waiting in the back hall,
slips in a scorecard and roster,
a twenty-five cent extravagance
for the boy he will miss so deeply
during his own long weeks on the road,
to make the rounds at department stores
up and down the mid-Atlantic.

A Few Small Worlds

Our universes start with darkness,
end the same way. In between,
you wait in the station
wagon parked at Brigham Circle
while Dad runs into the hospital
on a Saturday to check on a patient,
sit coloring in your book patiently,
guard comes over to the car
sticks his head in the open window
says hello. Next universe

is Sunday morning Provizer's Deli.
Dad picks out the plumpest whitefish,
two slices of belly lox (salty like tears,
he likes the salt) and you are glad
to be with him. Finally, a few days

ago you walked by the hospital, his
hospital, now all bulked up,
a major leaguer on super-steroids,
sitting on four city blocks. It's where he died
two summers ago. First time you went there
since those last sleepless morphine-colored
nights like snow angels, it all floats
down twelve stories to Francis Street,
gathering momentum, a dull thud
on the sidewalk in your feet.

A Short Guide to the Proper Treatment of Maryland Blue Crabs

Dad's first cousin should pick them out
from secret storefront near Fells Point,
isn't satisfied with paper bag he brings
back to his leafy green townhouse, edge
of Baltimore City, but they look fine to me.

Hide the varnished wood of the dining room table
under old Suns, boil water and cheap beer
in a huge crabpot on its last legs, watch
steam rise up, mix with air-conditioned air,
prime that time machine so clocks move backward.

Pile on layer after layer of live blue crabs,
add liberal amounts (we are Dems, after all)
of Old Bay, kosher salt, wait. 2008 will fade
as you hear a story or two about that alley
behind Forest Park Avenue, Pidgie the rat-terrier
and three sisters waiting for two husbands to return.

Drain those crabs some waterman harvested
in a misty cove over on the Eastern Shore
at five this morning, put 'em in huge bowl on the table,
decorate with worn mallets, wicked knives,
crab forks, more Old Bay and stack of colored napkins.

Next, choose first mottled red monster, pull off
its legs suck dripping white meat off the joint, lips
peppery and sweet, swig Coronas, carefully put claws
aside for later and listen to a story
about Danny smiling at shul on Saturday morning.

Flip it over, open apron to unveil the goods
(who else would let you?), squeamish -
pull out those innards, fat yellow mustard,
cousin Steve eats it but not I. Whack
with hammer, perfect cut
in half with that sharp knife.

Time to hear about 4th of July, 1944, old Oriole Park
burns down, Steve and Dad's plan to see
minor league O's play holiday doubleheader goes
up in smoke. A year later Dad celebrates the 4th
in dusty barracks Gulfport, Mississippi,
just 18 damn lonely and scared.

Take claw, a good blow breaks it and the big pieces
are yours! Stay up way past midnight
in sticky summer night, doesn't matter
what decade it is any more, worry those crabs
till your blistered lips say no,
cousin's stories reach so deep in the night
you can't hold your head up any longer.

Sleep it off, dream of tidewater Maryland
when Dad is young, sailboats tack upwind
from coastal inlets into the sea, thousands of crabs
march across sandy floor, shorebirds hoot and holler,
not yet a glint in your father's eye,
you won't exist for another few decades:
it's going to be sunny perfect beach day.

Hash House

Early one summer Sunday
morning, family arrayed
in the station wagon, heading
to the beach; Good Harbor tide
out so far, Salt Island appears
just a hopscotch from the boardwalk.
My mother used to worry,
watching us squoosh out where
the ocean had been just scant hours
earlier, that water would rush back,
submerging us, northern
tsunami. We three children
thought only of starfish, those
tidepool heavenly blue mussels
and the other dwellers
gathered on ancient rocks
guarding that near island.

Later, after picnics at high tide,
sand in sandwiches and chips,
sand in our bathing suits,
sand everywhere, she told us
we were going to a "nice place"
for dinner. Wearing t-shirts, shorts
over our suits we marched
up to some Yankee sitdown
seafood dining room named
"Barnacles" or "Scuppers."
The wooden threshold was blocked
by a haughty maitre'd who
informed my mother, "Madam,
this is not a hash house!"
Mother grimaced, led us
away in stony silence.

We kids were not upset
winding up at H-J's:
grilled cheese, fried clams
and garish peppermint
stick ice cream studded with
green and red candy chips.
Fuel for the ride creeping
and beeping, moping and hoping,
shiny sea of blinking brake lights
a/k/a 128 south!

8 p.m. sun still shining
brightly, two younger kids dozing
in the wayback, all beached-out,
complete, two step lurch home.

Busted Dreams

My high school got busted
in the middle of the night.
The whole school. One hundred and four
students and teachers alike.
It wasn't what you think.
We weren't at school. We were planting
beach grass between the high water line
and the dunes of Duxbury, Massachusetts
at that rare double tombolo
where two narrow spits of land try
in vain to deflect the waves
rolling across the North Atlantic.
When we'd enthusiastically approved
the project at an all-school meeting,
our new science teacher said we'd help stop
further erosion, not that anyone or anything
can hold back the storms. (They arrive
as northeasters, reclaim pieces of our folly,
the highest priced houses along the beachfront
lose their toes, can't feel their feet,
topple into the Atlantic).

The summer camp where we unrolled our sleeping bags
that long ago night probably had never seen
teenaged girls and boys sleeping in the same cabin.
It was mostly innocent, almost all of the lust
was contained in our hearts - weed, a few pills
(Quaaludes in the day) and the like scattered
in our backpacks. Somebody's mother visited,
Didn't cotton to what she thought she saw.
She called the authorities who sent a missive
out on police radio to every neighboring town
within shouting distance (bad news
traveled fast across those old lines).
Each department launched emergency plans
like lurid rockets, readied for the midnight raid,
I remember being awakened from a deep sleep,
herded to the knotty pine dining hall, blue
lights flashing everywhere, some twisted
celebration of narrow-mindedness.

Back then, scandals did not go viral
and all in all, this one was handled
so calmly by our liberal, local authorities
that decades later my parents couldn't
even remember a thing about the incident.
But I recall it still for a different reason;
I had designs on a classmate along
for that trip - Lenore - the same girl
who'd shut my toe in the door playing
after school when we were second graders,
big toenail hung in a bloody caesura
that I couldn't bear to look at.
The Duxbury police and their brethren
from Pembroke, Plympton, Kingston
and Marshfield had snuffed my fantasy
the way butter left out melts on a hot day.
Lenore never married. She lives in TriBeCa
to this day, actress and artist,
you could see her on the web
if you wanted but you can't
find a single mention
of that middle-of-night raid
near the double tombolo beach.