V  P  R

Contemporary Poetry and Poetics





Here, where the paved ridge declines into the bay,
what I keep coming back to is a building,
its blunt facade storied with brick,
latticed with fire-escapes—a monument
to function.  Whatever dull architect
raised this box above the dwindling farms
of a city spreading to the Island
was pleased to be paid and let it blend

into the flow, block on block of apartments,
rowhouses crowding to pristine lawns
along the shore: though I loved
the wrought iron doors outside the foyer,
between each grille a painted-over flower,
on every pane of glass a scratched-in name
or emblem embossed in magic marker
to preserve a life from the illegible:

carved plaster, affectations of marble,
the long hallway devoid of furniture
where I'd hurl my pink "Spauldeen,"
hearing its report echo up the floors.
I'd watch for the landlord, Mr. Johnson,
who changed his name from the Greek,
on patrol in his great brown coat.
Now, stiff as washed-up actors at a call,

the others come, passing from the numbered
honeycomb of their rooms: Astrid and Gunnar,
crew-cut jutting off his head, his hands
a prizefighter's.  His wife, her breath
hinting of drink, used to slip me quarters
on the stairs.  Frances and Tony lived
above the alley, their door always ajar.
Tuscanies of sauce drifted into the hall

with smoke from Tony's panatellas.  Each week
they'd have us over to play Po-Ke-No,
Frances calling cards, her rough contralto
throaty as Bacall's.  And "Skinny Jeannie,"
who'd hunt the avenue for bargains.  She'd coif
her hair to a stiffened hive and brag
of her virginity.  Madeleine lived over her.
With her French page-boy and porcelain face,

she looked a nun and talked of nothing
but finding a husband.  Old Mr. Walsh
who limped since the War.  The man
we called The Farmer who stalked the yard
with his owlish stare.  Bobby Carney
who came back from Vietnam, my mother said,
"a little off."  Crazy Kathryn who sang
show tunes in the hall.  My own family

pent in our four rooms.  I can see us all
climbing the last flight to the roof
the night the city turned blank as a screen.
In that blackness, the stars visible
above our cramped antennas, everyone
went quiet.  We listened to ships sounding
on the Narrows like voices through a wall,
the muffled promise of lives beyond our own.

© by Daniel Tobin


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