Dead man, how was it?
––Zhang Heng

Whatever gauntlet reared before me, I came through with a quip,
a wry nod to postgame ink slingers--even a scout or two;
found the eloquent catches in my laugh; and learned the
handshake that confirms
a ground-gainer’s backbone and from-the-gut pickup. . . .

Every unscheduled hour over too many seasons, I had worked out
like a miler
in elliptical hell. Until one September Friday––after trials
from blocking sleds to cone drills––
I hit the battlefield at last, toned to beat all comers,
playing ball roughly within bounds.
What’s more, maybe eight times
my jukes would turn the tide to colossal hurrahs!
Those nights, we had the only surefooted game in town. You know,
even my off-hours father had labored to stand tall,
clapping as a matter of course
from an upper tier!
Afterwards many whooped how I’d done him so proud––except that
wave-making mirage,
Grand Old Dad
held under a shaky spell.

Nevertheless, I climbed library steps on my knees and swallowed
whole courses
at a coffeepot––yet found the time
every so often
to sound each word to its sensible depth.
My resume read like new labors of Herakles.
Then, right as the best employers laid their offers in sheaves
before me,
that moment––some lofty fog bank––
opened onto barrens commanded
by a pyramid, at the capstone its cyclopean eye
swathing me in rays
like the smiles of a thousand fathers.

And so it was
that I surrendered my balanced views and tongue which from the
had weighed every straight-talking mouthful.
Adjustments like these would always be worth my while
in spades––or aces up the sleeve.
I sat on a hand-carved chair high atop city avenues, subtracting
from life
and the lives of others
the debts due my birth––or was it a breathless career?––
and gave much thought to giving back little.
Better to drop this offering in their bucket or keep
it under my rainy-day hat?

In the billiard room behind a secret door of law books,
I walked and talked the nonsense that money finds profound––
but how could any citizen living against the clock
buy one word of it tonight?––
when told to, I drove the speechless into cold streets; fouled
far winds and water
while dwelling on my island estate; preached restraint
to the poor; worshipped my own excess;
and earned a worthy name, a face, a glad hand
among the self-chosen few.
After those confabs, my grip was cramped as all get-out.

But even then––
when told to, I strode before your sons at my utmost in the
my hands with set gestures toward a stand-up map, my commentary,
stirring an undercurrent of disquiet till they simply raged
for helmets, wildfire, and a good shot at death.
From the word go,
your sons won me over with their brimstone grit.
(Just the usual heretics dared to squawk.)

And so it was, blessed by many a strung-along talking head on
the Hill,
that they shipped out of sight a far cry; and I hustled over the
brave-faced as any hero, to a surge in the polls––
though my simmering daughter Pru disappeared soon after––
why had she taken flight instead of her medicine?

When cargo holds disclosed their coffins, I was sorry as I could
and, moments later, tottered on a reviewing stand, some three or
four brass from the President;
and actually wept! Fallen footsloggers by the score lay at our
One tear was just right.
How I hated myself during that whirling instant!––

yet, when the flashes went off like awestruck outbursts, and
bright dots
seemed to drift, confetti-style, as if forever,
I saw myself a pillar, a figure of silver before the world;
saw so many waiting to put on my workday best, assuming
my buttoned-down lies and livelihood. . . .

But even as the old man lay there, slack-jawed, at a Claremont
my bit jetting his way from coast to coast
would be ridden out under another name.
Those runs brought me down to earth head first, come to grips
with cold hands, more than my sworn share.
Once he’d haltingly drawn his last, the kin--Mom, twin sisters,
and I––without warning,
blew up in an aftershock that rocked
our mournful parts off-key
at some office of executed loot and codes under glass.
What a fall I’d spent dragging these wing tips through graveside

Back East, I watched our games unveiled high and low about me
and said nothing like No, proud
of my fifty silk suits, my Lion Gate cufflinks,
my tie-tack of a stag.
Strong enough to take pretty near whatever drew me, to be sure,
my free hand had helped make an empire fall
into the line that ends––always––around a corner
or after the next rise.

I played golf with God and lost by one stroke; flew in my black
limo, sleek as a bullet;
had my wife and son and, over the years, a few women barely
wearing smiles
under wraps of fur;
and ate steak thicker than a courtroom Bible.
To tell the truth, the third degree never hung so much as the
immaterial bead on my head. . . .

I traveled seven continents and saw nothing off base
with our carbines almost everywhere
in the faces forthcoming among dirt-poor devils––
yes, my enemies’ hunger was a godsend that fed me––
how doggedly they danced for table scraps!
My tongue rolled around only the purest, the most full-bodied
bourbon till tonight of all nights,
by this quivering, moonlit pool,
dear Lord, I, I . . .
saw a death’s-head
glare back from the waves.

for Joe T. Grinnell


by Jeff Grinnell, c2016

Kuching CIty aerial view


His eyes survey a sinuous line
of rippling head- and taillights. . . .
From their bay screened-off on the fiftieth floor,
in the muted blues of Club Excalibur,
the city below seems to swim with lights,
wave after gathering wave, for miles.

Here, where ghostly barons hold forth
and smart-suited couriers report;
where brass rails, decanters, and walls of mirror
scatter glints from close by or the distant Newmarket Pier
or Bayview Drive (with few and far between megastores)––
it rears upright, spotlit, that garnet-encrusted sword.

His map laid out before them, Gray had conferred:
“Shall we scrimp by routing the thing through Doletown––here?”
While notebooks changed hands, he privately glanced
over a field of stars and streetlamps,
over all that he’d raised in the lull between wars.
“Now, this skyway’s designed to bridge our spheres. . . .”

His eyes glisten, drawn as far as Wonderland
and its Great Wheel, its Grandstand;
but find they’re too bleary to fathom the dark
(only steps from bright-studded boulevards)
where outsiders thrash with faint strokes, flagging
through spillover traffic, vortical shadows.

for Palmer Pinney and April Eiler

by Jeff Grinnell, c2016