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Site design: Skeleton

Sample Poems by Ben Gunsberg

Rhapsody for Children of the Midwest


What a blast! Crossing the community yard,
ketchup on our lips, chocolate milk fresh as a hiccup,
Illinois sky scrubbed peasant white, our eyes
flecked with pollen. Erik, Alan, Nina, Mike,
race me to a public pool, where sun shatters
like a chandelier and lifeguards punch our ears
with whistles. Let's ride our bikes to Missouri,
where rivers sluice like turkey gravy.
O brown lament, O mosquito, O inner tube
slick as a hippo. Erik, Alan, Nina, Mike,
float with me into the swamp-thick heart
of Cape Girardeau while Baptist churches break
into song. Just passing through this picnic,
this Boy Scout troop, this Vacation Bible School,
sampling potato salad and Christ's gold corona,
praying our fathers land better jobs up north
in Michigan, where bass and trout sleep in
deeper lakes and December plasters shore,
for it's damn cold today as we don skates,
click across the ice, arms like metronomes
set at different speeds, the lake's shimmering
scalp beneath our blades, a half-circle of spruce,
a lone snowman engrossed, his future secured
by flakes that share his ontology, which we catch
on our tongues. Snow forgives the ruins of Detroit,
smothers ragweed and wasps, cloud-pricked
Canada Geese, chain-linked fence. Now climb
into Indiana, beloved corn fiefdom, to brag
about basketball, to step behind the arc and drain
three-pointers, to quench our thirst at Seven Eleven
with resinous Mountain Dew, preamble
to Seagram's, which we pass around the bonfire
before basement lights dim and we thrash
like captive hawks. Erik, Alan, Nina, Mike,
you grew up so fast, I hardly had a chance to write
about Ohio. I hardly had a chance to savor Shoney's
buffet and Red Lobster butter. Goodbye, friends.
May you find your voice in the emerging global economy.
Goodbye, I-75. May the deer that line your shoulders
grow wings. Goodbye, two A.M. stars romancing
Rust Belt cities, backyard tents, public parks,
I have breathed your night air, sweated your Augusts,
biked your pitted streets. When I return, I will
climb your Ziggurats. I will wait in line with my children
at the base of Sears (now Willis) Tower
and tell them stories about growing up,
this tower, then, the tallest in the world.


Concrete Laundromat


You don't know it yet, but today
you will open a hole in your head
the size of two quarters,
and your mother will see the savage white
eye of your skull. Won't that be an ugly
thing to behold on a Saturday morning.

Someday she will tell you how she felt
she must collect every drop of blood
poured from your head. She will say
a stranger carried you to his car
while she pressed clean shirts
against your wound. She remembers

shirts soaked red, still warm
from the dryer. She forgets
the stranger's name. What seems
real: scar, white eye closed below
the seam, those fragile hours
stitched in the retelling.


Black Jack Peers Over the Bed

Fee-fi-fo-fum, I smell the blood...

- Giant

Down below, Jack fathoms
vacant boots wide as trucks,
laces thick as fitness rope
slung from his high school gym.
He snaps pictures with his phone
because this tale just turned
crazy. No one will believe the boots'
totemic gloom without proof.

Warm wind against Jack's throat
as he tries to comprehend their bulk,
so opposite his airy climb,
so anti- bloom, these boots.
He feels flimsy as a daisy
compared to jagged tread,
gaping jaws frozen mid-yawn,
swollen tongues. Rank odor.

Scorched earth and gutted swine
wafting up from empty leather.
Gentle reader, it's not the boots
Jack dreads, but power's feet
for which the boots were built, officer
who shoots twelve times,
would snap his toothpick spine,
pepper-blind his mother's eyes.
Not the boots,
but what the boots imply.

Ann Arbor


Our landlord said we should find a hotel
while he tacked and stained the oak floors,
but we were broke, so Dad pitched a tent
in the backyard beside the great tree,
where my mind climbed among fruit
flies and caterpillars, hungry for cherries
I couldn't reach. Only birds and Mr. Dodge,
our landlord, balanced on his ladder, angling
his silver pole with telescopic extension,
could pluck those rubies I would later
link to Plato tending his fire, Freud,
Marx. He passed a few down,
and we stuffed our mouths and pockets.
At night we lay on foam mats
beneath a single sheet, July's wet heat.
Those blinking hours before sleep,
I assessed the seams, triangular panels
that composed a ceiling, nylon mesh
through which I watched branches bow.
Cherries dropped safe as snow falling
into snow until, by chance, one struck
the tent's taut roof. Mom stirred,
shifted her weight. The unborn child
stuck in breech stomped her bladder.
I remember she unzipped the door,
crawled out like a she-animal, low-slung
middle scraping the tent's under-lip.
She hiked her nightgown, and I heard
water (not blood), smelled rotten fruit,
not the iron tang that would linger state
to state-doctors' bills, late fees-at least
he's alive, they said. A miracle to wake
early and hear his voice, brother born
blue who needs a little money.
He's looking for an apartment.
His girlfriend carries a baby.



Self-Portrait with Silly Putty

Charlie Brown must be the one who suffers.

-Charles Schulz

I didn't laugh while pinching Silly Putty
between my thumb and forefinger,
flattening space-age flesh into a disk.

With all the seriousness of a bench scientist
working late, I pressed the comics page,
extracting Charlie's face. I stretched

beyond limits of legibility, Charlie Brown
thin and translucent, like a small window
with a peach-colored shade.

And seeing he could stretch no further,
I folded his face in my palm,
kneading-what was it

about the boy I wanted to contort?
The expression of defeat,
each loss I knew I could not erase
I transformed into a rocket
before rolling a perfect sphere,
a better world that bounced.

One Lousy Enemy


I'm thinking of the quiet Milwaukee street
where a skinhead knocked me off my bike.
This is not a loss too great to understand.
Not like losing a country or the will to speak.
Just a bike. Chrome frame, gooseneck, spokes.
Another theft in some American outpost,
another boy left flat on his back, blinking
at the sky, listening to his chain click, click
goodbye. I'm thinking about the difference
between that boy, age nine, and me
riding to work, pant cuffs stuffed in socks,
wind scraping my eyes to tears, so many tears
one might guess the girl I love is buried
in the cemetery I pedal near. But I'm not crying.
I'm thinking how lucky to live here now
and not Jerusalem during Crusades, or Odessa
with its pogroms, or Gulf Port with its slaves.
I'm thinking about my sloppy childhood,
preoccupied with BMX and rock music,
those gaping Sunday streets where I could ride
to hell and back with Jews, Muslims, and atheists,
our tee shirts taut sails, our callused palms
and checkered Vans, thighs pumping uphill,
elbow to elbow, free-born, well-fed children, rolling
past the mall like a glittering train, between our legs
bikes with sexy names like Redline, Haro, Hutch.
Especially Hutch. If ever asked to lie naked
with a bike for Annie Leibovitz, it will be a Hutch
I clutch. I'm putting romance into perspective,
beginning with my love of bikes, for which I am
not ashamed. We boys built ramps that sent riders
skyward in perpetuity, the big blue catching me
like a pop fly or a Tom Cruise or whatever I aspired
to be. This is what it felt like to ride and jump
a bike in 1986, Milwaukee, and this is how it feels
to look back on my stunned self, sickle-armed
off my seat by a shirtless teenage prick. How it feels
to put loss into perspective, as a lucky man should,
when thinking about stolen bikes and skinned knees
and one lousy enemy, unworthy of history.