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Robert Lavett Smith

Raised in New Jersey, Robert Lavett Smith has lived for more than thirty years in San Francisco, where he recently retired from twenty years working as a Special Education Paraeducator for the San Francisco Unified School District. He is the author of five collections of poetry, the most recent of which is Collected Early Poems.

THE FOURTH OF JULY, 2020

There's nothing really left to celebrate:
Whatever freedoms we believed we had,
Submerged beneath a tidal wave of hate,
Are grace notes in a broken jeremiad.
Bring on the marching bands, celebrities,
Pop icons gathered at the Capitol:
As death tolls rise these doomed festivities
Seem less a party than a funeral.
While the United States persists in name,
Nothing remains of all those high ideals
The Founding Fathers held, and to our shame
We bare the guilt we've struggled to conceal.
Hitler would almost surely recognize
The numb complacency that dulls our eyes.

CLOTILDE

Clotilde Dubois was born in the French Quarter
on the very first Juneteenth, to a prostitute
who died giving her birth and a clergyman
of whom nothing was known save that he was white.
The madam christened her for a medieval queen,
hoping that when Clotilde was old enough
to receive gentlemen, the regal name
might help her attract a wealthy clientele.
The old woman needn't have worried.
The child grew unusually tall, with tight,
bronze-blond hair and pale, sea-green eyes.
By thirteen she was already experienced,
earning the princely sum of ten dollars
a week, after her debt to the house.
Rogues and royals called her by name.
But when she was fifteen, she stabbed to death
a drunken gambler who played too rough,
breaking her wrist as he forced her onto
the bed, holding a jeweled poingard
to her throat as she spat and cursed.
As soon as the parlor was shuttered
and the other girls had retired,
she gathered together the silver dollars
she had saved, packed her carpet bag,
and took the first train west as far
as it would carry her, disembarking
in Wathena, then walking thirty miles
across the unshorn prairie to Calamity,
where she arrived at sunset, just as
Mavis' Place was opening for business.
Clotilde, who despite her bandaged wrist
was beautiful, lithe and exotic, earned
two whole dollars that first night, slim
pickings by Big Easy standards, but enough
to convince her it might be worth her while
to put down roots among oddballs and misfits.

FEVERISH AUBADE

For Michael R. Burch

The starless darkness that infects these streets
Is more than just a symptom of late spring—
The weary heart of my sick city beats
Beneath cold asphalt like a reckoning.
On Nineteenth Avenue the semis moan
Into the sunrise, troubling my sleep;
Train whistles always made me feel alone;
Big eighteen wheelers almost make me weep.
Each dawn that reddens San Francisco Bay
Breaks like a fever as the lights go dim;
Weak daylight stumbles toward another day
Borne on the shoulders of bored Seraphim.
You don’t believe in angels? Nor do I—
But something festers in the swollen sky.

WHAT’S ALWAYS THERE

Venturing out to the mailbox,
how delightful to see a bumblebee—
a sudden, surprising splash of yellow
in the bristles of a bottle brush plant.

I’ve grown used to not noticing
the shadows shifting,
the deep coppery glow that gilds
summer evenings as the stars appear.

But after many weeks of sheltering,
I’m experiencing a subtle change
in my breathing as I begin at last
to trust what’s always there.

EVENSONG

It is the end of a very clear day,
the failing light, crystalline.

In this time of sickness, stillness
leaks from the reddening sky like fever.

The world has broken my heart
so many times it has ceased to matter.

It will be dark soon, and the wind
will waft through my open window

the dying smells of wilted grass,
hydrangeas, and distant gasoline.

LORD FRANKLIN

“Reports...that some of the crew members
resorted to cannibalism were at least
somewhat supported by forensic evidence
of cut marks on the skeletal remains.”
 —Wikipedia article

Marooned on an ice floe
for two years of hard winters,
Lord Franklin’s expedition,
the provisions left in cairns
tainted by lead and botulism,
was reduced to eating rats,
shoe leather, and at the end,
the rotting bodies of shipmates.

While gripping, this program
is perhaps an unfortunate choice
after weeks of sheltering in place.
Our nerves raw with solitude,
my friend and I are becoming
short with each other, and the cat
watches us keenly, licking his chops,
green eyes round and glittering.

LIVESTREAM

I watched the Easter service
Livestreamed on my computer
from a sanctuary utterly empty
save for officiants and organist,
rows of vacant pews silent
as a chorus of held breaths.
Even the flower arrangement
on the altar looked inconsolable—
lilies and white roses glowing
in the stained, shattered light
like pallid, bloodless faces
drained by uncertainty and fear.

SHELTERING

There’s a hospital bed in my apartment
I use at night to raise my swollen feet;
One consequence of overlong confinement:
Therapy goals I have no way to meet.
How many episodes of Downton Abbey
Can we binge watch before it drives us mad?
But we’ve learned to avoid network TV,
Its bleakness, and its endless jeremiad.
Even our indoor cat has gone stir crazy,
Galloping through the cluttered studio
At night, dozing through daylight blissfully
With the gas heater for a glowing pillow.
We’ll manage for the moment, but we dread
The days, the weeks, the months that lie ahead.

VALENTINE’S DAY, 2020

i.m.: Patricia Lewis Smith, 1953-2005

At daybreak this morning, deep
into the fifteenth year of your death,
I noticed a long-bodied cellar spider
dangling in a corner of the room,
on a thread so thin it was invisible—
the dark teardrop of its body suspended,
motionless, above an emptiness
that might give way at any moment.

DISMAY ARRIVES WITH MY RETIREMENT

Dismay arrives with my retirement,
Hungrily eyeing the years that lie ahead:
Missed opportunities, time poorly spent.

Infirmities I’m helpless to prevent
Dog every step with pained, arthritic tread;
Dismay arrives with my retirement.

Judgmental silences demand atonement,
Accusatory whispers fill my head:
Missed opportunities, time poorly spent.

The urine-yellow light sets like cement;
Flies fill the morbid air—perhaps I’m dead?
Dismay arrives with my retirement.

Each morning brings a grim presentiment;
Some days I barely stumble out of bed.
Missed opportunities, time poorly spent.

I’m often urged to savor every moment,
Remembering I’m fairly young. Instead
Dismay arrives with my retirement—
Missed opportunities, time poorly spent.

THE ONLY GHOSTS

Decades ago, in the calm of cathedrals,
wooden saints arrayed in garish paint
shared my solitude, faces tinged with pity.
I lit votive candles for the cruelty of love;
longing positively dripped from the gloom.
Even then I was a stranger in my life.
Nowadays my body, stiff and awkward,
is graying, dissipating, beginning to fade.
The only ghosts are those we must become,
haunting the absence of who we used to be.

THIS FIRST DAY OF WINTER

My late wife’s birthday—this first day of winter—
Comes decked out in accustomed monochrome.
Daylight’s the brittle brown of newsprint; her
Absence fills every corner of my home.
Solicitations will sometimes arrive
Here, where she never lived when she was living;
Publishers Clearing House keeps her alive;
Junk mail can be especially unforgiving.
Four days from now is Christmas. After that,
The thirteenth anniversary of her death.
A new year beckons: dull days beaten flat,
Chilled by the pale Pacific’s briny breath.
Somebody’s future sings of Auld Lang Syne;
I don’t know whose it is; it isn’t mine.

SMOKE DAY

       “For, behold, the day cometh, that shall burn as an oven....”
               —Malachi 4:1


One thing I miss about my East Coast childhood:
Snow days, when sharp flakes swept into the silence
Like updraft ash blown loose from burning wood,
Beyond the reach of heat’s brief recompense.
But San Francisco schools are closed today
In what appears a horrid mockery
Of that lost whiteness where we used to play—
Perhaps a glimpse of some Hell still to be.
The morning news shows blackened shells of cars,
Blistering mountain roads engulfed in flame
More than two hours’ drive north of where we are;
Our sunrise smells of things we scarce dare name.
Rank smoke drifts south—an omen to believe—
That burns our eyes and throats, too thick to breathe.

IF I BURNED THESE WORDS

i.m.: Patricia Lewis Smith, 1953-2005

You are more than thirteen years gone.

What would I tell you
if I could write to you now?

Today an African-American woman
married into the British Royal Family.
You would have liked that—
although she, of mixed race,
is pallid enough to pass for White.

The ceremony was carried on several channels.
In the many-hued light of Saint George’s Chapel,
a gospel choir sang “Stand By Me.”
The bride’s mother, looking improbably young,
and dark complexioned, as you were,
was a motionless study in poise and grace.

I thought of our own wedding day,
nearly twenty years ago—
how the white train of your gown
followed you down the aisle
like receding sea foam,
as if silently acknowledging
your fondness for the ocean.

I loved you then,
with a devotion I realize
your absence has only deepened.

Now you are smoke,
or perhaps no longer even that.

If I burned these words,
would they somehow reach you?

             5/19/2018

THE THUNDERBIRD

This isn’t exactly a vacation:
numb days worn thin as stone,
the pages of the calendar blank,
the bloated moon stumbling
through a sated summer sky.

Joy, we learn, is never enough.
It fattens on the blackened flesh
of strangers’ pain, fashioning
deceit from splintered bones,
filling the cracks in neglected hours
with supplications in a dead language.

We have become like the Thunderbird—
flightless skeletons startled into shale,
recording our ordinary disappointments
in the shifting calligraphy of sand.

WHEN THE BIRDS COME

When the birds come, the rush of wings,
too small for the ear to appreciate,
insinuates itself into the silence
which has become so pervasive one hardly
notices it anymore. In cold summer, season
of dampness and fog, they must huddle
together for warmth, we suppose,
on the sodden branches of the trees,
foliage golden and dripping like the rags
of last year’s light. Deep into August,
no birdsong bejewels the weeping mist,
no warbler or sparrow writes its name
on the blank page of that sullen weather.
But when the birds come, the air takes heed,
and the hearts of housebound multitudes
are borne upward out of solitude,
like the vapor that rises, a few days a year,
from the whitened asphalt that mars
the abandoned streets of the Presidio.

WAGERS, NORTH ATLANTIC, 1945

On troop ships returning from Europe
off-duty seamen while away the hours
dropping carburetors from officers’ cars
overboard to see which ones will sink
the fastest; wagers are made and lost
amid inebriated laughter. Some manage
to stay afloat for several seconds before
they disappear like rusty pinwheels
into the foaming chaos off the bow.

A TOWN CALLED “LEPER”

           Veterans Day, 2018

My father’s father fought in World War I,
Returning to his farm in New York State
To guard his secrets, grimly carry on,
Bearing stern silence like a heavy weight.
I’m told he saw some action once, at Yprès;
But his were wounds that would remain unseen,
That fester more the longer that they keep—
A town called “Leper” left his flesh unclean.
He died when I was two; I can’t recall
The close companionship it’s said we shared;
I keep one single photograph: I’m small,
Running plump fingers through his thinning hair.
I never had the chance to know the man,
To touch his grief—I don’t suppose I can.

KEVIN NEGOTIATES WITH TIME

Ninth grader Kevin negotiates with time
In his unique and unexpected way:
Scrawls dates on tiny paper planes that climb
A passing updraft and are swept away.
He tells me this the week before his birthday;
Impatient for the big day to arrive,
He writes a testy note to it to say
It better get a move on. Lately, I've
Found he does what he has to, to survive,
Taming the future with these “time machines.”
He turns his fancy loose and lets it thrive
In places few of us have ever been.
I wish I were as sure as Kevin is
Time could be cowed by strategies like his.

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