Photo by Steve Roe
wears a face so brave
it holds up through tremors, subways . . .
At last one dawn it has dropped,
dealt blows by his rich-toned clock.
A stammer, a shrug––red wine.
From his door Will searches the rain.
And for a long while wanders
down an office hall––
by nine heads bowed in a row,
each sunk to his dictating phone.
So the hours mount with mail,
a paper-weighted wall.
Midnight. Straggling miles
through downtown streets grown quiet,
he teeters back from a glimpse––
bald griffins!––that shadows him
like the jagged line of towers. . . .
Far-off, his cry resounds.
Will fades at a lamp and chair.
past windows cramped with snow
needling storms unfold.
Yet somehow he works up his arms
to wipe the pane’s wet blur.
by Jeff Grinnell, c2016
ON THE EVENING EXPRESS
With a wall of their building gone, four or five
bundled-up urchins pee from a stack of planks
and, grinning, wave toward the elevated tracks
as we rocket past. And all’s in a sapphire light—
those kids, billboards for gin, Hakeem’s Tattoos
with windows shattered although guarded by grates,
and a court of pigeons where schoolgirls promenade.
Still, most would rather riffle through the news
than watch this barbwire neighborhood grow dark.
Most of us slump down in our cushioned seats,
blinking at fine print, or stretch, bored.
In less than an hour we’ll come on snow-white parks
and houses nestled in clumps of evergreen.
We fly with sparks, careering through the cold.
for Roger Bartlett and Gordon Menninga
by Jeff Grinnell, c2016; originally published by Spillway
San Francisco’s Tenderloin
The shirts off our backs have been stitched into some no-frills
from her rusty little cart
heaped with distended shoes, bent cans of okra, ravioli, pea soup,
and a tin toolbox hiding a .45.
It’s the only flag she’ll still salute like a fool, Bud—-
her Republic of Reds-Who-Bloodied-Whites-and-Shook-the-Royal-Blues—-
yes, the only vision that’s burned clean through her heart during the
Hupa Council drummed out most every rattling voice.
And she’s traipsed all over this whorehouse sideshow twice—-
one run-down, rabbitlike man after another had tried to take her hand
ain’t no way—-
one job-on-all-fours after another had gripped her breast, like some trap
with its teeth driven deep to pin down a howling success
for the plush upstairs;
her vitals a long while ripped out and left to the night’s vermin—-
till that blustery Sunday morning behind the griddle station of a local
she flung coffee at his face—-
Billy, the suds-busting, crackpot, stinks-like-a-righteous-oath,
he ranked her ugly and old!
As if she’d never been damned before; as if
this dead-end, hellhole city would let her forget that routine half an
she who was, is, and glaringly will be the bottom dog
in the whole shakedown,
kept there for kicks by every high-stepping heel and his brother.
So don’t try to hawk her no ticket to Wheel of Fortune—-
which she once caught
slantwise through the Lipgloss Lounge’s front door,
not long before its channel zoomed to another marshy bridgehead somewhere
under showering flares and twilight stars.
And don’t pitch her no rainbow to the wild blue yonder with any
Brother Drum-beater throwing your weighty cant
behind King James.
It’s just that she seen crossfire nightmares out there on the street till
they all but drove her pulse wild—-
a girl with hair whipped into blood-red jags
like the devil’s own rooster comb, who shook and shook
when a bullet ripped her thigh;
Leon the Sleepwalker, marinated one night behind the Marquee Club,
he lunged onto frosty mud and struck bedrock
as surrendered empties stood watch in a crate
close at hand to the service door;
or twelve-year-old Yolanda with that gaze like the rainy dawn and not a
dime of sunshine,
heading into some Porsche near the corner loan shark’s—-
and where were you, Brother, pushing your out-of-body purity?
The seven deadly kids around Rosie’s grate; the landlord over her
as four horse-ass faces;
the dealer bestowing a golden grin and twinkle to wish on (from his
endless black center),
who grabbed her fur that time the 9 bus
had jerked them to the floor—-
God yes, they've haunted her while she rummaged in a crusty coat,
picking through street after street
whose signs aimed any which way—-for some ginhounds' prank?
And again some pink-and-green neon nights, those holed-up terrors come
back along sidewalks entirely off the track of security cams;
terrors on course to cross Rosie's evening return round. . . .
But, due to a muttered chant, her cart once more saw the day’s discoveries
then one heavy step at a time
down to the metal door; and, within,
a furnace astir as if from pressures vented
by a spirit far underground.
Beneath pinned-up clippings of Jesus and Aretha—-and flopping even lower
than a card table lavished
with votive candles, she’s turned for the worse
to profiles shadowing paths, like owls before a bayside moon—-
a moon now shimmered into knife blades
strung along joists
over the Hide-A-Bed. There, as often as not,
she’s cowered through this nightmare without cover
or a stretched leg to stand on.
Then again she’s turned and punched her fingers into the pillow like
that just wouldn’t cough up its fry-bread soul. . . .
Before daylight finds a way down to the window well, another
will rock her awake
when skates weave by, grinding; or Harleys explode
for parts unknown. By nine she's out steamrolling her cart around the
Yes, the shirts off our backs have gone to Rosie with our disregard.
So she’s patched up a flag to hoist
in our faces one bright day.
by Jeff Grinnell, c2016; originally published by The Literary Review