Turning Point

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Sample Poems by John Hennessy


Bachelorhood

Argument--hostile sex--burgeoning dread:
Phoebe said, Box me at Connacht's Irish bar
again, love. But all my brilliant crack was feldspar,
her hillside's silver eucalyptus dead.
I dated slim Persephone instead.
Anti-depressants warmed our winter star;
in the mailroom, someone else's unlocked car,
wherever we might get caught, she made our bed.

Too bad I felt confined by public space
despite her kinky talk, black net and lace,
and Zoloft's little death anticipates
those ashes greater than the greatest lust:
Persephone can never forget we're dust,
separate. I spent some time a celibate.


Irish Washerwomen in the New World

Mary Glover, d. 1688, Boston
Margaret Dolan, d. 1980, Brooklyn

She entertained me with nothing but Irish...However,
against her will I prayed with her, which if it were
a fault, it was in my excess of pity.
Cotton Mather, Memorable Providences


Take Great-grandmother Dolan, with her pocket full
of husbands and several spare names, her salt-spit
and snakebite, poker-face, terrier bitch, Donegal
wit, dog-track bag and four-pronged walking stick,

spin her in a silver capsule or calendar-flap,
time-line back three hundred years, keep her up
in Boston where she first jumped ship (the trap
she set her older sister, a girl whose luck

and nerve gave out when they saw her to the docks),
and I'll give you Mary Glover, Cotton Mather's
confounding hag. It took just a poorly-darned sock
or bit of missing linen, a few saw-toothed

taunts levied at the master's brats (that spray
of wet fricatives doused Goodwin's sallow brow),
the discovery of poppets stuffed with hay
and goat-hair planted in her beams, and slow

justice did a slower fox-trot, clopped Mary off
in a wooden-wheeled gallows cart. A wonder we
weren't as clever, my cousins and I, as that self-
possessed posse--Our Lady of Dun Laoghaire

was spared the Catskills act: the pains that flew
like lightning from limb to limb, blindness that came
and went, traded for speech or hearing, and new
gymnastics, which might make them one minute seem

to be tied neck and heel, skin so tightly stretched
their bellies should split, the next shoulders collapsed,
necks spent, heads twisted half-way around. They twitched
their hips to silent music and finger-snapped,

yodeled or yapped wide enough to snap their jaws
out of joint. Soon the neighbors exhumed her husband's
constant complaint: the woman perverts God's law,
throws top to bottom, and there's not a bloody island

so remote she couldn't track me with her witchcraft
and slip the nails beneath me as I slept.
Grandfather said as much, but his mates laughed
as they were meant to--until our Margaret left,

on to the next while he was still alive,
laid up in hospital with a gangrenous eye
and ice-pick wounds dripping his kidneys dry.
A barman's harvest, she said, and when he died

she skipped the wake and funeral. We did the same
more than four decades later, when the half-dozen
cancers that worked her bones and organs came
to common purpose in her colon. Our puns

and inversions--her conscience didn't sit well,
and appetite caught up with her in the end--
helped keep us this side of Brooklyn, burial
that. We spilled lilies, caps of whisky, pretended

to see her--because witches float. But I've always
secretly wished I'd met the girl beneath,
what burned low and mean, the kerosene base
that fueled the shriveled spit-fire. It's no wreath

of burning cypress, but I'll think of her
sometimes when grubbing celestial favors, ask
that she be minded; even Cotton Mather
stretched his hems, knelt in the flow of heaven's flask

puddling around her feet, when Goody's Latin
Pater Noster got mixed with an Irish blessing.
I see them in relief, Mather's pointed hat, two women
stretching the cord, backlit at sunset, dangling.


Dog-Star Freddy

He hated anything that flew, he said,
stuffed hooks in chunks of Sunbeam bread and went
pigeon-fishing, hauled scores off leaf-plugged gutters
and out from under eaves on nylon thread,
swung and beat them overhead, the Roman soldier,
new David, bastard of both testaments.

He poisoned sparrows with washroom bleach,
gas in the bird bath, hung them by their feet
from swings at Shotwell Park. Pale little nestlings
hovered like stunned hummingbirds, upside-down.
We stuck to basketball or slammed stickball
off the apartment building wall, crowned the king

of the jungle-gym with stitches, skipped the swings
until he copped a wrist-rocket, cocked at crows.
He plunked them off power-lines and streetlights
with marbles, gravel stolen from building sites,
plucked them before they died, stuck feathers in
his puca-shells, played Vietcong scalps Navajo.

Mid-summer and the whole neighborhood reeked:
sun-burned dumpsters, rat sunk in hallway walls,
drunken vets stumbled singing out of Pete's,
incontinently sprinkled streets,
Merck chemical plant's fuel tank leaked, and all
those rotting birds. Dog-Star inspired, that freak

in stinking feathers took prisoners to his basement
bunker--the smell of lichen, slugs, and newsprint,
and cool, at least. His ambush spread, we all went,
boys, girls, anything with eyes and orifice;
even the youngest made good audience.
Me, I skimmed his porno-stash, watched when asked,

scared, not uninterested, learned words for what
our parents did, studied and waited when he bent
and said, it looks just like a starfish, slot
for human pinball, blazing Aztec sun,
a burning basketball, it's where I vent
the souls of all the birds I catch, it's one

odd nest: sick, yes, but subject to his muse.



Mike Devlin

The dairy light, he called it, in any weather
when he delivered--fog eddies from Arthur Kill,
sun half an hour high over Merck, the morning
divided by smokestack. Temper's teacup, a man's
no more than a punter's error, he liked to say.
He hummed "Ave Maria" through the baritone
kazoo of tracheotomy, circus shadow
of his church choir tenor; for kids, he buzzed
the Yankee Doodle like electric razor
or flexed his arm and blackened ship tattoos
dropped anchor under a war wound's purple chop.

After the dairy cut his route, he became our oldest
paper-boy. Sack slung around his shoulder
and cradled like a headless cello, we saw him
more often, his walk an economic waltz.
Warm afternoons, he propped a shoe-shine box
beneath the awnings of Truppa's deli, bullied tips
from all his customers. He slipped his gauze,
pulled the patch off his blow-hole, neck-smoked
a hot-boxed Camel to win the hardest cases.

The night Mike died, men emptied out of Pete's:
Knights, Vets, Legionnaires, Sons of Italy. They parked
a phonograph on the fire-escape and played
his seventy-eights. Crackling Irish tenors
rose along rusted, ivy-covered slats, zigzag
ladder and window grills, to sing us to sleep.
Later bottles dropped, a pipe burst, the record player
smashed in the alley. Beat-cops broke it up
before morning twilight, his old delivery hour.