Thursday, June 30, 2016


Yesterday was Part 2. Tomorrow, Part 4. Builds nicely, don't it?

Noreen wasn’t in the snack bar, which meant she was in the ladies room, looking at herself. It wasn’t vanity, quite, which made Noreen spend so much time with mirrors. Years later, I decided she simply needed reassurance.

      For forty days each year, we were the same age. She was born February 9th, and I came December 31st, just on the stroke of midnight of the same year. A bit eager my parents were, but they were both pretty old and there would be no grace in my complaining.

      My sister, as I expected, was making faces at herself, leaning her elbows on the counter. She could do this for hours, twisting her mouth to one side, then the other; tilting her head at different angles or raising her shoulders to shorten her neck. It didn’t matter; mirrors liked her and she looked no less beautiful. (Oddly, she never came out right on film, and those who didn’t know us then look at the photos and think I was the pretty one). I had given serious thought to detesting her, but it would have been too much work so, a bit reluctantly, I was fond of her.

      “Noreen. I need you to come upstairs right now.”

      “Is Grandma okay?”

      “If she was okay she wouldn’t be here, would she? But that’s not why you have to come. Greenray is standing in the hall, outside her door.”

      My grandmother had never talked to us about our mother’s father, but our mother had. Unfortunately, all she knew about him was that he was an American soldier who had gotten Grandma pregnant without marrying her and then absent-mindedly gotten himself killed before righting the situation. Noreen found this romantic, and had insisted on his being the hero of at least some of the stories we told each other when we were supposed to be sleeping. Thinly disguised as Greenray the Invincible, he’d rescued any number of princesses and the odd mermaid, all of whom had been eager to bestow their favors on him. Chastely, he had always refused them, out of loyalty to our grandmother. (We weren’t quite sure whether bestowing favors involved having babies or giving a sort of filmy scarf.)
      It bothered me that I couldn’t tell when Noreen was lying – which she did, but not to excess – but she always knew when I was making things up. I could tell her about three dwarves and a nixie chucking stones at each other in the high street and she’d ask me if they’d looked angry or were just playing. She would leave the occasional pan of milk for the snaky princess who sunned herself on the roof of the shed in the garden. But if I told her something as ordinary as that I’d seen Charlie Sands stealing Chloe Petulengro’s pencil she’d toss her head and say “Didn’t.”

Wednesday, June 29, 2016


Part 1 was yesterday. Part 3 will be tomorrow. Trust me.

      The soldier – he was a handsome man, I suddenly noticed – startled and looked hard at me. “O-kay,” he said “complications.” I stood my ground; there were people behind the closed doors who’d come running if I yelled; any minute the pale-yellow doors of the elevators would open and nurses or doctors or visitors would march out. I wasn’t scared. The soldier straightened his back – he’d been leaning on the wall – and did a sort of sideways nod. “Ray Green,” he said. “Not that I was expecting you, but I’m glad to meet you. You must be Annie’s – granddaughter? I can see her in you, a bit.”

      During the last few weeks, all sorts of stray kinfolk had been turning up. There seemed to be no end to my grandmother’s family, and I’d met any number of cousins whose names I’d mostly forgotten right after hearing them. Here, then, was one more, and what did it matter if he’d been dead a while? “Grandfather. Can you wait here a minute?”

      “I’ve got time.”

      “I’ll be right back.”

      It always drove me crazy how foolish people were in books, refusing to see what was right in front of them. If Professor Nosferatu had no reflection and yelped when splashed with holy water, he was a vampire and you needed to take precautions against him. When you woke up because your cat had climbed up next to you in bed and was whispering urgently that you had to get up and run right now since a truck was about to crash through your wall, it was not a time to wonder who had taught Mittens to speak, or to say “Am I dreaming?” It was time to run. So, if my grandfather was in the hall outside my grandmother’s hospital room, he had come for my grandmother’s sake, and goggling at him or pretending I didn’t believe in ghosts would have been a waste of time.

Tuesday, June 28, 2016


      If you believe the poets, it is a privilege and a gift to be born to see things invisible to see but I’ve generally found it to be more of a distraction. No matter how glamorous she may be, it is unnerving to have a tall, pale white woman in a trailing dress suddenly appear in the road ahead of you, her cold, gleaming eyes ignoring the traffic which drives through her as if she wasn’t there. It took me seven tries before I passed my road test. Nor is it easy – in fact, it was impossible – to tell ones first serious boyfriend that you won’t make love to him in a secluded patch of woods because there’s a weeping giant sitting on a hillock and cradling a battle axe in his lap and he’ll see you.
      Mostly I’ve led my life as if I saw only this world; even when I was small I was never one to go babbling about the pretty fairies in the garden or the fork-tongued princess on the roof of the shed. I left that to my sister Noreen, who was nearsighted and beautiful and had no second sight at all, but liked to make up stories. Even when I was small, I think, I knew that my stories wouldn’t get a response of “what a delightful imagination that child has!’ but would make grownups ask what was wrong with me. I got that enough already, so I usually pretended I saw only what everyone else seemed to see.

      Still, the black man who came into the hospital corridor where I’d been left to wait while my grandmother made her slow, painful exit from life, looked entirely human. Perhaps the fact that he was wearing an American army uniform from a war that had ended before I was born should have alerted me, but I was tired and out of sorts. I was nine then, and loved my grandmother dearly, but I was impatient that no adult, besides her, would admit to me the obvious fact that she was dying. Besides, the corridor was over-brightly illuminated by buzzing fluorescent lights, and seemed far too sterile a place for a spirit to come creeping.

      I was bored; I knew grief was coming, but it wasn’t quite there yet and I stared at the soldier since there was nothing else to look at in that hallway except closed doors and my feet. “Damn!” he said. “Who the hell are you?” I was insulted; I had a great sense of my own dignity in those days. I was preparing myself to play the bereaved child (and never mind that Noreen would do it far better than I ever could) and being asked who the hell I was didn’t seem right at all. “I the hell am Melissa Jane Jacobs. Who the hell are you?”

Monday, June 27, 2016


The baby who hangs out at my house
Removes the bottle from her mouth;
Holds it a short arm's length away;
Examines it carefully. She takes
Two considered sips; removes it again;
Turns it upside down so three drops
Fall on my shirt. She settles down,
Her artisan’s conscience satisfied.

Friday, June 24, 2016


Back when I was at the University
The Tomas Masaryk monument
Stood in a field by itself.
Though not a rider, Masaryk
Sat stiffly on a bored bronze horse.
Some nights, dismounting,
He’d walk down the Midway
To check in with the statues
Crowding Rockefeller Chapel.
He might chat with Zoroaster
Or listen to Athanasius tell jokes
Of surprising puerility.
As he passed her, St. Cecilia
Often hummed the opening bars
Of Jezu Kriste Scedre Kneze
Which he used to sing in
When he was a boy and not an image.
There is a statue of a girl, a student,
Named Margaret Green. She stands
Next to the west nave entrance.
She gave him one night a prayer
I’d left carelessly behind
(The ambulatory was quiet. I went there
To think about ghosts but fell asleep.).
Passing my dorm on his way back
Masaryk left the prayer in my mailbox.
(No, I didn't see him leave it
But how else did it get there?)

Thursday, June 23, 2016


Sure, my father knew all the Mings --
The Marvellous, the Meritless,
The Mucilaginous, the  Miraculous,
(And, for a few months, dated
Their sister, Lucy Ellen Ming)
But the Merciless was most his friend.
Ming retired some years back
As emperor of the planet Mongo.
He was tired, he said, of being resurrected
"I've lost count of how many times
Flash Gordon killed me; I think Dr. Zarkov
Killed me at least five times. Dale Arden
Pushed me into a volcano while I was proposing.
Even Prince Valiant, in a time- travel arc we did
In the Spring and Summer of 1941
Ran me through with a sword. Enough is enough."
I occasionally find stories my father
Wrote for his young grandchildren
Ming the Merciless appears in some of them
He is a beggar with a talking dog;
He is an absent-minded magician;
He is a reflection who has lost his mirror.
Always he is my father's friend.
I know I should root for Flash Gordon
But it would feel so disloyal.

Wednesday, June 22, 2016


I didn't get drunk often in those days
But I’d reached the point
Where each step required
Mature consideration. Gravity
Was not my friend that night.
I leaned against the  wall
Next to a candy machine as if
Deeply considering the merits
Of Kit-Kat bars and Snickers.
Someone's mother -- someone adorable --
Was suddenly talking to me.
I gave her all the grace I could spare
From my efforts not to fall down.
By all reports I have never again
Been anywhere near so charming.
"You really should marry that man,"
She told her daughter who,
With the wisdom born of youth,
Passionately ignored her.

Tuesday, June 21, 2016


In Rockefeller Chapel some messiah
Had fallen asleep next to a pillar
Gathering shadows about him.
You and I were there for the music
Sung by a choir invisble in the loft.
I would gladly have looked at you
The whole time but, foolishly polite,
Stared at the altar or the windows.
When the music ended I did not say
"That man there -- the skinny one --
Was sent to save the world,
Or at least
Hyde Park. I wonder;
What made him change his mind?"

Monday, June 20, 2016


The last public letter writer
Puts her feathers and inks in a bag
Which she slings over her shoulder.
The table and chair follow her
Since she's too old to carry them.
The cat lingers in the photo
For a few minutes, then comes too.

Friday, June 17, 2016


Over the years my father convinced himself
That he’d never woken hovering over his bed
Still, he wondered.

My mother had an ancestor named Aaron
Who weighted his pockets with stones
To avoid floating off.

Savonarola’s jailers found him asleep in his cell
Gently bumping against the ceiling.
They burned him anyway.

When King Sweeney recovered his wits
He ceased being able to fly. When I go mad
I will remember this.

(And then, an old poem about the King:

You think, perhaps, that it is easy to be mad;
“Farewell, Reason! I’m off; I’ve slipped your chain.”
I tell you it is not. Three years, seven months,
Six days I have followed Sweeny, who was King
And now lives in trees. Madness, like much else,
Takes practice. For the first six months, Sweeny
Could understand never a word the birds said
And feared their endless tweeting would drive him sane.
He could fly as soon as he and reason parted
But was clumsy at it, crashing into trees,
Perching awkwardly at night, liable to fall.
He flies well now; threading through the forest
Listening to the curlews and laughing at their jokes
(His courtesy is royal; curlews’ humor is dull).
His dreams tell him he will be king again
Unable to flutter a foot above the ground.
I prepare against that day.)

Thursday, June 16, 2016


Sweeping the heavens
Astronomers see Someone
Building other worlds.

Now a Grandparent
God expects less, accepts more –
Waits for us to grow.

God experiments –
Dashes our hopes, kills our dreams,
Whispers He loves us.

God experiments –
Whispers “Holy.” Doesn’t say what.
Watches us react.

The chosen people –
God perplexed; when did He choose?
He can’t remember

Pick up and move on –
Traversing the continents:
God seeking Himself.

Wednesday, June 15, 2016


Got a girl in Antioch
Got one in Tripoli
Lord! A gal in
Also one in
That old girl in
Gonna be the death of me.

My mamma was a Saracen
My dad a Ferenji
My mamma was a Saracen
My dear dad a Ferenji
(Yes he was)
I wake up each morning
And I'm at war with me.

Went to bed last evening
King Bohemund came to me
Yes, went to bed last evening
That grey ghost he came to me
Asking what I mean to do ‘bout
Antioch and Tripoli

There's sand in all my clothing
Ain't never seen no snow
So much sand in all my clothing
Never seen no snow
Gonna pack up all my troubles
And move to Cipango.

Tuesday, June 14, 2016


When Eugene Atget took the photograph
In 1923 the last public letter writer in
Was already centuries old. You can see it
In her eyes. Her equipment was scant --
A bent-legged table a centurion gave her,
Inks made from oak gall and copperas,
A chair, some quills, the customary cat.
When you needed her, she'd turn up
Next to a fountain or under a bridge
Or outside your house or in a dream
If your need was truly desperate.

Monday, June 13, 2016


The new font on the computer
Lacks serifs; despises poetry
Wants above all to be clear.

That tree outside is moving
To a breeze only it feels.
The crows, disgusted,
Move to the telephone poles.

The baby knows the reason for books
Is to be pulled off shelves.
The reason for me
Is to put them back again.

Friday, June 10, 2016


A dog often turns up
In my father’s stories.
Filled with good will,
He offers sound advice
Which no one follows.
I wonder if he is related
To Snowy, Tintin’s dog?
If Tintin listened to Snowy
There’d be no adventures;
The books would just show
Bars where we’d watch
Captain Haddock drinking
For page after page after page.

Thursday, June 9, 2016


Due to a deplorable misunderstanding –
Something about antecedents --
The letter which he’d meant me to get
After his decease was instead delivered
After my own. Crammed with good advice
As well as the location of many sacred bones
It also outlined an improved method
For learning the language of cats.

Wednesday, June 8, 2016


The baby who hangs out here
Tells me cows say "meh!"
Plainly these are blase cows
Bored with eating grass,
Tired of being milked.
Or else they are French
Rakishly tilting their berets
Which have holes in them
For horns to poke through.

Tuesday, June 7, 2016


Five in the morning
Each leaf thinks it alone is awake.
Mary Dimmish, once a kirkgrim
Now teaching at St. Uncumber’s,
Slept for forty years once
But nowadays does not.
Knots her clever fingers make
Cannot be untied.
Her students think
She teaches English literature.
Told this, Clotho laughs outright
And Lachesis smiles. Atropos
Does not see the humor of it.

Monday, June 6, 2016


So still the morning as if each leaf
Is only an image of itself.
A bird sings, then stops. In a while
Another bird sings but soon finds
He has nothing much to say.
The faint sound of a far off motor;
The cat lifts her head. "Motorbike," she says,
"An Indian Model O. Last made in 1919
But some still turn up because a defect
Makes them ride through time;
I wonder how a Genoese plague doctor
Managed to get hold of one
And who taught her to drive?"

Thursday, June 2, 2016


If you look as if you tip well your guide
May point to a shadow in the corner
Of the Kraken's dream. "That's Tiamat,"
He'll say, "saltwater goddess and dragon.
Last seen in reality 1700 years ago
Antioch, swallowing St. Margaret.
She's apologized many times for that
But Antiochene saints bear grudges
So Tiamat deems it prudent to live here
Outside the lawful realms. Leave her something --
A bead will do, or a key or a feather --
And chaos, I've heard, will be your friend."

Wednesday, June 1, 2016


As I slouch towards Babylon to be born
A very old car pulls up next to me
The driver leaning out the window shouts  
"Not Babylon, You damned fool! Bethlehem!
Slouch towards Bethlehem!"
I ignore him. What can it matter if I am born
New York or Pennsylvania? Besides,
The roads are filled with rough beasts these days;
There's no way of telling us apart.