A retired Queens College professor, George Held was a Fulbright lecturer in Czechoslovakia
for three years and now serves on the executive board of The South Fork Natural
History Museum, in Bridgehampton. His poems, stories, translations, and book
reviews have appeared widely, in such places as Commonweal, Confrontation, New York Quarterly, 5AM,
and The Notre Dame Review, and Garrison Keillor read one of George’s
poems on NPR. A five-time Pushcart Prize nominee, he has had poems included in
two dozen anthologies. His fourteenth collection of poems is After
Shakespeare: Selected Sonnets (Červená Barva Press, 2010).
At Our 50th Reunion
We recall whose was hooded
Whose was not
Whose was biggest
Whose was least
So critical then
It makes me grin to recall my innocence
When I set out on my red and white Schwinn.
High clouds grazed on the azure horizon.
The smell of lilacs promised permanence.
Hormones yet to achieve their dominance,
I was one with the world, ever in season,
With no split between the heart and reason,
No need to pray, I thought, for deliverance.
I was fishing at Sprain Lake when the storm
Hit, too focused on my float to be forewarned.
When I lit out for home, my tires lost their grip
On the slick concrete, and I did a flip.
It was years before I got my balance back,
But I still smile at the smell of lilac.
Published in The Art of Bicycling,
where it appeared alongside poems by Seamus Heaney, Rita Dove, and Walt Whitman.
A Mid-winter Night’s Dream
(On Dog Hill)
That winter night
the Big Dipper
blazed so bright
all its water
couldn’t quell the star fire
In the west;
your bare breast
against the rising moon
in the east;
then we two
sank to our knees
in the snow-
till past all compass
points your embrace
drew us down
to form our own
What did the Savior smell like,
A gaffe with garlic breath,
A hint of death,
Or like a kike?
Did his teeth stink from caries,
His feet from fungus,
His armpits, richly hairy,
Like a leper’s house?
Whatever scent he wore,
Like an aura
In Giotto’s work,
As he walked in the agora
On steamy Galilee days,
Spinning the Word,
It drew swarms on his way
Like a pheromone hoard.
Those who heard him preach
Savored his brown odor,
His stammered speech,
His bleak splendor.
You shone the light of Euclid onto those
Who had a mind for him and helped the boys
Who played up to you, but your class left me as
Unilluminated as algebra,
And I sat more hopeless than a stargazer
On a cloudy night; I’d strain to perceive
How the axioms fit the forms you chalked
Boldly on the board, then give up to watch
The interplay between you and your bright
Boyfriends; I was consigned to an acute
Angle, while they plied the shortest distance
Between two points. But after class we all
Retained your habit of running your thumb
Along your own inverted triangle.
Downpour on Dog Hill Road
Sunday, October First
Autumn leaves pastel in the rain
A wild tom turkey struts
Across the road
Soaked but aflame
Hearing you on the phone forty-nine years
later, I can see you at fourteen, orange
hair pulled back in a ponytail, feel the fears
of a boy puzzled by puberty’s strange
pull. You appeared often in my dreams then,
naked and beckoning, desire incarnate,
yet we never held each other except when
we partnered in dancing school, kept apart
by the six-inch rule. What other limits
kept us from whatever consummation?
In your newly widowed voice are no hints
of the once shy girl, just resolution.
When you say, I was in love with you then,
I know that then can never happen again.
Published in The Lucid Stone
That was your nickname, Florence, and you were
A honey; at fourteen, vivacious tom-
Boy, carelessly feminine, you let your
Golden locks grow down over shoulders
Honeyed from summer sun and flashed me a smile
That made my face burn. At nine I watched your
Body round itself in menarche and felt
Anarchy in my own, longing to see
Beneath your sailor shirt or denim jeans
Whatever nature was accomplishing
With you. You still hit balls farther than boys
And swung the jungle gym with more agility;
And once, under Hussey’s big pine, I saw
You swing a branch, shirt belled out, gold breasts raw.
Published in Main Street Rag
Finding My Way
What does it mean to “find my way” at sixty-two—
that the path’s grown clearer, or my focus?
Who gets the credit—me, my shrink, or you?
Do I cheer, or lament the years I’ve lost—
that I was no DiMaggio or Bill Gates,
no Yeats, but one with time and words to waste,
an ex-Beatnik, ex-Hippie, at what cost?
But past’s not prologue; now I take my ease,
content to be wakened by Euterpe’s
call or caressed to ecstasy by you,
who prescribe more play and lots less labor:
aging Sybarites, we indulge anew,
annihilating all thought death’s in store.
Have I found my way by following you?
Published in Confrontation
Some editors reject and chide me,
Send us no rhyme and no meter.
They’d turn down Frost, Yeats, and Heaney;
I pray they’re turned down by St. Peter.
Published in Iambs & Trochees
In memoriam Philip J. West (1936-1997)
Phil, you went too soon to your maker, God
The Father you served monastically
Five years, then doubted fifty-five. How odd
Your course from cassock to Army khaki,
With sergeant’s stripes, to a Ph.D.’s hood,
A specialty in Anglo-Saxon: Bede,
Beowulf, Caedmon, “The Dream of the Rood”;
Quaffing each class as if a cup of mead,
The students your flock, the text Holy Grail,
You wore the collar in kind, though unfrocked;
A skeptical saint, patient without fail,
Yet quick to call a critic’s fad “a crock,”
You were the rock on which we built our cause:
To gladly teach and learn far from applause.
Published in Iodine
For Christopher Presfield
I write to an inmate, bound by his cell
yet a writer of poems, like me,
living a life in a version of hell.
Admiring his guts, his linguistic skill,
doubting the odds if the inmate were me,
I write to an inmate, bound by his cell.
The inmate writes back, water from the well,
drawn from the hole that is solitary,
salving a life that’s a version of hell.
Evading the question of how he fell
and how he now fends off insanity,
I write to the inmate, bound by his cell,
imagining things that he’d never tell,
imagining him imagining me,
living a life in a version of hell.
It’s others, wrote Sartre, that constitute hell—
can that be the truth, or just hyperbole?
I write of an inmate, bound by his cell,
living a life that’s a vision of hell.
Published in Home Planet News
As I slip into sixty,
Senior among my friends,
They say I could pass for forty.
Yet slipping into sixty
Brings with it the necessity
To contemplate the end.
For I slip into sixty
While dust commends past friends.
Published in Troubadour
The First Age
Golden, that first age, though ignorant
of laws, yet of its own will, uncoerced,
fostered responsibility and virtue…
trans. Charles Martin
Though Creation conjures a place of plenty,
Of temperate clime, man, lion, and lamb
Living in peace, it wasn’t milk and honey
That gave the first age most merit but some
Innate sense of self-regulation, good
Welling up from pure heart or issuing
From pristine brain. No cops to quell the hood
Or EMS to cart off victims bleeding
Their lives away were needed then, for men
Lived in the bliss that’s known as ignorance.
If lack of knowledge meant that mild routine
Ruled, the gods themselves reigned through forbearance.
So resist images of cornucopia;
Good self-governance most marks utopia.
Published in The Neovictorian/Cochlea
Spenser on the “E”
On the uptown “E” I meet McElroy,
the great novelist (also a great guy),
and we swap news, about his wife and boy
and new story, about my sonnetry,
and Joe says, Why not give Spenser’s a try?
But, says I, Spenser’s form is short on rime--
the sonnet’s hard enough, but his rimes five
sounds, not seven, like Wm. Shakespeare’s kind.
The Spenserian would stress out my mind,
like laboring over a Rubik’s cube.
Slant the rimes,says Joe. It’s a breeze, you’ll find.
That’s what goes down when writers ride the tube:
Serendipity sets down the challenge,
And our imagination must oblige.
Published in Plainsongs and Tokens: Poems on the Subway
A High-Toned Old Homeless Woman
Along the park she boards the M5 bus
Heading downtown on 5th Avenue, a/c
Negligible, New York locked in a heat/
Ozone alert, heat index 110;
The bus kneels, and she struggles up the steps,
A bulging black plastic bag slung on her back,
Swipes her Metrocard, and sways to a seat
Midway in the bus as it resumes rumbling
In fits and starts down the traffic-snarled street.
White-haired, still aristocratic face creased,
She must be over 80, a bag lady,
With filthy straw sun hat and soiled frock,
Her hands stained, finger tips worn, and nails chipped,
And she stinks, and she stinks, and she stinks.
Published in The Edge City Review
To a Solipsist
You think, therefore you exist, you alone;
The rest of the world’s a mirage. You sit
In the desert, dining on your heart,
Because it is bitter, and it’s your heart.
You are a skeptical empiricist,
Certain only you are real, nothing else:
You can touch your skin for reassurance,
Feel your pulse surge, like the rush of a straight flush
When you call a bluff. You take the gamble
That your dream you’re solitary is real,
While no one else is verifiable.
Living in solitude in your stone house
With no windows, you fortify your soul
Against the Other, smug in being sole.
Published in The Neovictorian/Cochlea
You’re the bones
rattling in the soul’s closet,
Sending the code that the end is the end.
You drag me down a pit so deep inside
Even Tenzing Norgay could not climb out,
A cave dark as a cloud-encrusted night,
Still as the undertaker’s lab at midnight.
If a pulse still beats, in whose body?
When my love asks Why are you depressed?
What can I say—that bad news brought you by,
A lack of faith, hormonal imbalance?—
When I know you permeate the marrow
Like emotional leukemia, chance
Of remission remote, temporary
At best, fearful that I’ll see tomorrow.
Published in The Neovictorian/Cochlea
Without an invitation you barge in
To assault me or to insinuate
Yourself into my mind’s cinema, then
Send your badass hit men to execute
Me with an Uzi or on the gallows,
To suffocate me under a pillow
Or in a car trunk or, alive, bury me.
Why are your plots so melodramatic?
Yet they play so damned authentically,
Jolt my heart andmake me scream in panic.
Who needs to tune in NYPD Blue
While I have you, auteur of my dream tube?
Still, I cannot count on a show from you;
Sleep might produce a dreamless interlude.
Published in Barbaric Yawp
I know that I shall meet my fate
Somewhere among the clouds above...
— W. B. Yeats
Was The Curse co-pilot as this Irish airman
Foresaw his death off the mist-kissed Vineyard?
Was he Adam, seduced by Eve’s command
To land the apple of her sisterly eye?
What made Lauren late from Morgan Stanley
Or overcast that coast when night overcame
Their flight? Did he curse the course that events
Had taken, or his wife, or her sister?
Even before the deadman’s spiral changed
Rory’s nuptials to a Requiem Mass
Did he see Oswald’s rifle and Sirhan’s
Pistol aimed at his own Kennedy crown?
After the sun had set beyond Gay Head
It was your turn, John-John, to wind up dead.
Published in Spring: The Journal of the E. E. Cummings Society
Death, Be Proud
Death, be proud as hell, for you are mighty
and dreadful, for you have the final trump.
When you call my bluff, I may think of some-
thing to delay showing my pair of treys,
but you’ll claim my stake inevitably.
Then I’ll get no new deal, no salvation;
for me there shall be no resurrection
even if I repent and mend my ways.
I am slave to fate, chance, muggers, drive-bys
and dwell with ebola and e-coli;
and drugs can only counterfeit your strength
and, like sleep, from them I’ll awake at length.
Once you knock me out, there’ll be no reprieve,
And I shall be no more: Death, you shall live.
Published in The Chariton Review
Under the Escalator
I want to go all the way
around on the escalator
to slip under the plate
at the bottom and turn
topsy-turvy in that
chamber below floor
level where it rolls
under itself and climbs
back to the top where
I’ll come out of the
crack under the plate
and start all over again
unless the trolls who
control the machinery
in that chamber under
the floor exact a toll
from me that I cannot
pay, since I’m upside
down and unable to
reach my bills or coin
and they imprison me
in that dark chamber
forever to hear those
metal stairs whine and
those rubber railings
sigh in their grooves
as all the customers
silently, sullenly ride
over me, my screams
drowned out by that
When suicides exceed the rate of birth,
And survivors doubt the worth of living;
When signs of hope have vanished from the earth,
And altruists have given up on giving;
When “quality of life” has lost its spark,
And euthanists no longer cast a pall;
When wildlife can’t expect another Ark,
And mankind claws for its own survival;
Will anyone write or read a sonnet?
Will time at last have undone Shakespeare’s line,
As with marble and gilded monuments,
Since lost will be all sense of the sublime?
If so, how vain of sonneteers to think
Their lines will last as life becomes extinct.
Published in Blue Unicorn
Poets are gardeners—
Planters, pruners, gleaners—
Till they are mulch.
Be My Pet
Pet girl kicked off bus for wearing leash.
—Reuters, 24 Jan. 2008
Come live with me, and be my pet.
Think of all the stroking you’ll get.
Wear a collar, like a collie;
Be my lap dog and my dolly.
Show the gang that you’re contented
To be my pet, you’ve consented.
Come live with me, and be my pet:
Jewels and spankings you will get.
On your leash you will learn to heel,
When to turn and whether to wheel,
How to roll over and how to fetch,
When to trot on all fours, my bitch.
I’ll chuck your chin and pat your head;
I’ll even teach you to play dead.
Come live with me, and play the pet;
It’s the best offer you will get.