Poems of everyday





Horse flies live here now

buzzing through the front hall

without hats or canes


Ghostly flappers of the Golden Age

dance to the rhythm of their wings


No feet mar the dusty floors

No polish, no paint, no pain

Only the vague memories


The twisted banister leans

at a precarious angle to marble promenade.


scratched and clawed with the years,

the brush strokes of fate and bank foreclosures


Rodents scurrying

as through a grand central station

with no trains


Illustrious architecture

dedicated to nothing


with graveled drive, spiked gate

and wasted dreams





This iron city has lost its grit

rail road turned to condos

and convenience parking

even the ancient Tuck Tape Factory

has tapered down

its bulging middle trimmed

for executive parking


Thirty years ago, the trains

from Newark spread main street in half

with squealing steel brakes and quaking asphalt,

leaving the scents of grease and sweating brakemen,

and perfumed silk ladies going on to downtown Paterson


And sometimes, standing here waiting for a bus,

I still smell them,

caught in the whisper of air

on a hot Summer’s day,

to savor and sip

like fading wine.





It is the clop of hooves on Cobblestone

I first hear in the morning

coming in with the peeping sun


the horse stops, the hunched back man

lifts his pole to snuff out the flame

on each high lamp


the smell of it lingers in the dew,

a captive piece of darkness

mingling morning with night


He moves on with the clamor of hooves

and the smell of manure


My eyes are captive, too,

caught on the ceiling,

painting each movement from memory

needing never to see the twist

of his morning smile


Like knowing the face of death

when it comes,

knowing it is my flame he will put out






Were they wrens or sparrows

that waddled the narrow

space between water and land


Battery Park, an island in the mist,

an Avalon through which\

many pass and fail to see

Liberty Island shrouded

gloriously among the sailing ships

that scratch so close

in their crooked paths


And Governor’s Island

upon which an aunt once worked

And that mysterious nameless island

to the west

whose footbridge

reaches all the way to New Jersey


Yes, there are ways to reach that shore

though the mists seem to never end,

a wren, a sparrow, the male with his pretty head

speaking too much, waiting in the mists

until all the ships come home.





We saw it on a Winter's day,

darting between foam and snow,

like a fourth Musketeer with foil-beak

slashing out survival between the waves,

 its peg leg as nimble as a Pirate's,

 hopping to the beat of the sea,

 leaning upon nothing,

 learning to defy all that is Darwin and Freud—

 perhaps all sand pipers shall have one leg someday,

 pecking at sand crab egg patches like thieves,

 hobbling with war wounds through Winter's worst,

 like Napoleon’s soldiers,

 stronger upon that one leg,

than most of us with two.





You escaped like a squirrel squiggling

through a hole in a fence,

the mad dogs of faith snapping at your tail,

their bone of contention always one of witch craft,

you, who knew too much too soon about their lives,

rhyming it all,

curling predictions up in pat phrases

you almost predicted me,

before the cradle,

pacing passed the delivery room,

book of poems in your hand,

as if you had ever read them,

or those I wrote later as a child,

 reading only the footnotes to history,

 your eyes shimmering over Nostradamous as if he were you.





Crazy tiles intrigues

me with old polish,

the scuffs like writing

I cannot read at three,

me, between each curve of letter,

each end of sentence,

a boy playing boy-games alone,

mother sewing after hard day at work,

a rare occasion of me and she

and the dull sunday light

streaming through deep grey clouds and heavy curtains,

her fingers, moving, moving up and down,

used to small spaces,

she says her eyes will go

if she keeps up with her job,

fitting piece into place

just like this,

with me,

marching up and down before her,

saying, "Look! Look! I'm in the band!"

Baseball bat for a bugle,

unfolded hanger for a sword,

each taller than I am,

each scraping new marks into the tile as I move,

each refusing to bring mother's eyes up from her work,

back and forth,

up and down,

stitched her and there,

I wave the sword,

bring the bugle and sword together to my lips—

and suddenly,

as bat falls to the hieroglyphic tiles,

I become a sword-swallower,

vomiting blood.





She took me on the bus to buy new shoes,

mad mother with her prayer book

tucked inside her purse,

bank bills marking the holier page,

her arm under mine—

the seven year old man

who needed white for communion,

suit already gathering dust in the closet,

tight at the shoulders,

and we, climbing down the rubber-ridged steps to the store,

sign saying: Hospital wear.

It smelled of hospital, too,

clean death folded with the linen,

mother telling the angry man we needed white for church,

and he, looking at me with folded brows saying

"Women's wear maybe," shoving shoe after ill-fitting shoe, me,

holding my breath, hoping they might stretch,

taking the last pair though later,

I walked down the church aisle in line with my peers,

dressed in solid white and bleeding feet.





He hasn't heard the clack in years,

the smack of glass on glass,

or the dull throb of thumb

striking a plump round surface


like shooting planets

through a dirt solar system

a thick wooden peg in its

center for a sun


But standing on the street

he stops, cocks his head,

for the subtly of childhood

prancing between the honking horns.





Alice dreamed of Grandpa's Ghost

a day before she died,

she told the dream from her

hospital bed, laughing,

her bright eyes dulled

by medication,

her sharp nails pealing

their paint, red chips

falling onto the white

sheet like hardened

blood to snow.


She said he had stepped

out from behind a stone,

his grey, carved face

smiling in one of its

rare ways, beaming

slightly from some

odd illumination,

an angle of light

for which she could not

see the source


And his large hands waving

towards her, as if through

a gate, the wounds long

healed from hammer blows

and saw cuts that had

long weathered them

in life, from too many

houses built or boats sailed,

waving for her to come along

as if there was

no tomorrow.





She faded at 90

like the rugs she used to beat in the upstairs hall,

dusty memories popping out

over the evening meal in loose threads—

and at night,

alone in her room with her pain,

she was ten again,

crying out for her mother.





She was always too tall,

limbs like a tree trunk

standing next to me on the corner

waiting for the light to change,

school books heavy with brutal study,

determined to be president,

 four kids and a husband

stealing her dreams and ambition,

but not the anger.





I laughed at his eighth grade romance,

bundle of hormones

ranting about the color of her eyes,

his whole life swimming in them

like a tadpole waiting to lose his tail





She handled knitting needles like knives,

seated each night in the corner of the room

where Grandpa died,

jabbing at an endless afghan

till it grew down to her knees,

like a beard, full of greens and grays,

slowly taking the size and shape of a man.





My mother used to come here to buy shorts,

the scuffed knees of summer too

expensive to keep on patching


The old institutions of Department stores

fragmented into tiny vestiges

of their former glory


Grants into junk stores

Woolworth into racks of cheap cloth,

Sterns into used appliances


And along the street a thousand

little island shops of too

bright fabric fluttering


mismatched, patterned shirts

and dresses, and bargain basement

luxuries from Hong Kong & Taiwan


to which the Spanish women flocked

clucking their tongues at their

lack of choices and suspect quality


my mother among them, fingering

each item like a treasure, looking

for something she'd never find.



Email to Al Sullivan


poetry menu

Main Menu

email to Al Sullivan