for Heath and Philip
The old man
with the Janis Joplin record eyes
staggers from the parking lot
of his low-income apartment
and into the middle of the street to ask
“have you seen the rainbow?”
I stop and enter the street with him
and together we are a couple of undercover
survivors. He is grateful for the comradery
and thanks me abundantly as he points out
the faded red, yellow, green,
and blue 1970’s shirt barely visible
on a bodybuilder cloud.
“No one believes me,
no one ever believes me.
No one believed me about the rainbow
they just kept walking,” he says.
This last part fading out like his rainbow
as he notices me walking away.
I want to stay. He might
have good weed. My brief
gesture of entrance
seems like the sort of act
a Christian would boast about
on their Facebook page
imagining the twelve disciples reposting it
in a thousand different dimensions. But I’m
no good with people. I’d rather
leave him with this impression
than the hammer falls
of my bewildered laughter
falling upon his opinion of the deficit.
I shouldn’t say this, I’m
a Christian or at least a person
who has heard the hail drops
of sunlight. Light patters
on rooftops, sky and city
indecisive as gutters catch the faith.
What would I die for
in such a storm? Two men
blew themselves up today,
hugging thirty strangers
with fire and glass.
We all want to be martyrs.
We all hate the martyrs,
saying “torture me, kill me,
just don’t let those zealots
near my kids.” I wish I could invite
death, approaching the swinging iron
breasts of the Romans
to nurse on my own blood
like the early Christians;
happy to die, happy to live.
I am neither
so I cling to this morose life,
the social media martyr
dies with every post
only to be reimagined as a cat picture.
Bureaucracy itself can be
a kind of zealotry. And if you stare
too long at the skull
in your Long Maoist March to death
you may get lost
in the swamps of Sichuan. So I clutch
Christ’s tears with a stranger
in the street in that moment
before the light is silenced.
The audience of five has gathered,
it’s time for the poetry reading. Of the audience,
four are here for the open mic
and one is a drunk homeless woman who wandered
into this room to sleep off the high.
The chairs have been arranged,
thirty just in case. These boxes of blank virtue
seem to receive kisses
from the computer on the wall and the drunk has spread
herself across three of them.
She is now startled awake
by the voice of the host scratching at library walls
in its attempt to escape
this almost-solitary confinement. The host looks out
from the podium with sad
and hopeful eyes
waiting for the Beats who got lost in jazz and LSD
to find their way here
with wide alliterations wrapped around their waists
and tiny hats of assonance
atop their heads. She begins
each reading by pulling a Tarot card from the deck.
Today’s card is The Tower.
She shares the meaning of the card, destructive chaos
breaking down forms existing.
So far from this carpeted room,
the idea is almost soothing. The poet is introduced,
the only man in the room.
He steps to the podium, in here it feels as necessary
as a spacesuit. He had planned
on reading from each
of his seven books, all published by a small press
that he believes is also
selling cheap meth in Rapid City, South Dakota.
But this is not the audience he expected,
so he’ll need to improvise.
Stumbling over the first two poems, he wants to
old-vinyl his way to perfection,
plant-cracklings from every groove-shade of his soul.
Before he can pick the right
poem, the true poem, the
urgent poem, the necessary poem, he trips on a cord
ripping the computer from the wall
and it all crashes, both monitor and tower. The man
horrified by glass-copper-wreckage.
Drawn by the noise,
a librarian rushes in and a crowd begins to form
in the doorway. Suddenly,
the eyes of the drunk light up as she stands and says
“Anne Sexton, I have been your kind!”
Benjamin Schmitt is the Best Book Award and Pushcart nominated author of three books, most recently Soundtrack to a Fleeting Masculinity (Clare Songbirds Publishing House, Fall 2018). His new poems have appeared or are forthcoming in the Antioch Review, Worcester Review, Ginosko, Columbia Review, New Plains Review, and elsewhere. A co-founder of Pacifica Writers’ Workshop, he also writes book reviews and hosts a reading series for At The Inkwell. He lives in Seattle with his wife and daughter.