from Poetry Editor Jeff Kaliss
Featured poet — James Doyle
JAMES DOYLE may be a contemporary lawyer living in San Rafael, but like the dragon in his verse, he’ll fly you past the needless boundaries of time and space to when and where poetry was rhymed, elegant, and fanciful. In the spirit of Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, Doyle’s tales are fervid and febrile, though pausing to reference such languid scenes as when “horses pulled us slowly past the day.” While himself journeying from Army duty in Vietnam to graduate school in philosophy at Gonzaga to law school at USC to seekers’ sessions at the California Institute of Integral Studies, Doyle maintained three decades of poetic output.
Here he shares “Dragonsbane,” a battle pitting valiant humans against flame-breathing airborne serpents, and “Kosmologi,” a compacted musing on history, evolution, and the beckoning future, which Doyle himself hopes will champion environmental protection and global animal welfare.
Upon the rising road to Stonegill Fell
we came upon a wizened, wearied Scot
who asked “Have ye a drink to warm a man?”
and could he ride with us to Woods End well.
He covered with some skins against the cold,
once seated in our wagon facing back;
and horses pulled us slowly past the day,
as from his weathered lips this story told:
“In Glendysfen — or nearly there,
A dragon beast which flamed the skies
Was hunted by a thousand knights
Who yearned to find her hidden lair.
A dragonkill would lift a brow
Of lowly rank beneath a crown,
And win the hearts of fairest maids
Who would the sweetest unions vow.
An eon since this dragon slept,
Her ancient eyes had blinked from light
Of Avatars who walked in woods,
Of Earth aglow ere Mischief crept.
And while she fenced these lands from strife
With dragon kin in vaulted skies,
Their shadows soaring swept the Earth
Made safe to bloom abundant life.
But simple-minded men of old
These flying ‘demons’ misconstrued;
The frightful fled their gusts of fire
And swore to slay the dragon fold.
Thus one by one the dragons fell
In broken heaps near guileful bands
Who’d wait with crosses blessed by saints
And strike with arrows charmed by spells.
The spreading darkness in the skies
Exposed broad belts of open ground
And Glendys, left to fend the Earth,
Had dawn to dawn too far to fly.
Exhausted by relentless pace
She dropped her guard in aerie rocks
And missed the dusky smell of one
Who lay in leaves with charcoaled face.
In one mad burst of hate and fear
The desperate lad jumped to his knees
And with his crossbow at his chin
Aimed just behind her feathered ear.
Impaled by bolt of poisoned elm,
She wildly writhed into the sky,
And flamed the air in flags of pain,
Her peals rang across the realm.
The birds on wing and beasts of prey
Each shivered as she tumbled down,
And as her heart turned cold as night
The last winged dragon lifeless lay.
The slayer’s face fell ashen gray,
Once darker hair turned hoary white;
A shaft of grief lanced through his heart;
(Somewhere he wanders still, they say).
Her fearsome head was carted down,
Paraded far across the shires,
Then toothless left beneath the mists,
While pawns regaled in every town.
Then soon enough the Harpies came
And followed close by trolls and sprites,
Till Earth was rife with lower kind;
In thriving gloom, men languished lame.
A crown the slayer never felt,
His village turned to martial law;
The townsfolk bolted doors at dusk,
And dreamt of peace where dragons dwelt.
In Glendysfen, outside a cave
A dragon’s bones might still be found,
But memory fades of flaming skies
Of warmer Springs, of dragons brave.”
The Scot sank back upon the wooden rails,
relieved, it seemed, to end his story there;
his wistful words lay heavy in the dark,
his wilted brogue an echo of travail.
And as his eyes blinked in the fading light
I noticed hands much scarred as if from fire;
and down his crevassed cheek a tumbled tear,
that fell on hoary hair, then out of sight.
One wonders of a time back when
the restless dreams of Indra woke
from massive grandeur, clenched in darkness
echoes from the Silence spoke —
And in the instant of the listening
patterns, once imagined — Living!
suddenly a blaze of Being
blowing outward, glowing leaping —
Stunning light and heat created
proto-matter fluxing fleeing,
twisting in the churning forces
threads of pieces shredded streaming —
Fledgling matter drawn together
matter seeking form and mating!
spinning sizzling ringing rounded
time is minted; space awaiting —
In the cooling of the streaming
atoms in the ethers stormed,
matter mostly dusted, rifting,
gathered in galactic form —
Colder reaches in the darkness,
masses lacy, lingered, rolled,
drawn by forces old as fusion,
plasma heated sheets unfold —
Spiraled eddies mid the shadows
pressed by fragments falling far,
Lord of Blacksmiths at the anvil
striking hot, enchanted stars!
One wonders of a time back when
a mighty Sea engulfed the Earth,
and lithic life was boiling, bruised
from fissured holes within its girth —
The seething Sea’s first sister, Sky,
is lit by sparks from angry wounds,
and firey pots of molten mines
forge coils of crust that lift lagoons —
The ground thus born to some fierce god
rears up amid the birth debris;
its raw and dark contours of rock
lie cracked and cut in bleeding seas —
A thousand cauldrons’ chemistries
are churned in nameless mineral strains,
as high above a brooding Sun
floods photons down on peptide chains —
And bolts of dreadful, dancing light
burn dark the fledgling life asleep;
resilient mutant forms survive
by sinking in the briny Deep —
The fervid Sea’s life flanks to shore
with bolder thrusts as eons pass;
and there upon the once bare rocks
Are lichen… algae… fungus… grass.
One wonders of a time back when
a filtered Sun warmed clearing skies
and deep within a troubled Sea
a pack of crawlers starts its rise —
The first low creatures timidly
slide up upon an apron beach.
a savage air tears tender gills
yet safer sands entice their reach —
And ruthless ravens of the Sea
must end pursuits in tepid shoals;
in coastal raids the sand is seized
by valiant kings — the size of voles —
As tiny kingdoms grow to great,
the jungles roar with their conquests;
and high upon Triassic skies
a hungry raptor searches nests —
And far below the soft earth groans
where heavy-lidded lizards creep;
where towering ivory pickets grin;
where harried, hunted reptiles leap —
A mammoth breaks from cypress woods,
and stalking from a hidden trace
are shadowed forms with twinkling eyes;
our hearts were bred in such a chase —
High mesas teem with smaller life;
the beasts and birds each other eat;
and shallow caves near frozen lakes
keep ape-men warm by fires for heat —
When evening comes they’ll venture out
and fall upon a rival camp
and those who have the strongest arms
return to lift a victory chant —
A gatherer of corn and grain
burns biscuits on a winter fire;
she scorns the nomad, hunter-race,
a stable hearth her chief desire.
Ten thousand lifetimes wax and wane
as Earth beneath the solar blaze
still guards her cubs through fair and foul
her course unchanged from ancient days —
The struggle of all life persists,
the hunters stalk, the hunted shreik,
and forests faint while skies turn sick
but of this darkness few will speak —
One wonders of a time ahead
when seas of eyes no longer weep
when tribes can peaceful steeples raise
when wounds can heal, and gods can sleep.
Previous featured Poet:
“Flowers, all sorts…” review by Jeff Kaliss
To all the rest of us, there can be something forbidding and welcoming about venturing into Irish literature. What I first felt in high school about James Joyce, I’m thrilling to again in Flowers, all sorts in blossom, figs, berries, and fruits, forgotten, by Dublin-born Oisín Breen (his given name is pronounced ‘Uh-SHEEN’).
This collection of long-form poetry was released a few months ago by Hybrid Press in Edinburgh, where the 35-year-old Breen now makes his home. Our excerpting it here is not entirely by chance: Breen contacted our Review after realizing it is published in the same town where he’s secured a long-distance bread-and-butter job, as a financial journalist for Mill Valley’s RIABiz.com. He in fact visited here last year, and though it was many months before the COVID shutdown, he “hated the fact that all the bars close at nine. . . excepting the Deuce [the 2 AM Club].” He’ll have his poetry with him when he returns to seek out Bay Area saloons, “for two reasons. One, because it’s just fun. And two, because I have an ongoing battle with people who talk to me about, ‘accessibility, Oisín!’. They believe in a dumbed-down, boring way of talking. [But in Scotland] I’ve performed poems from this book in bars, and it goes down a treat, because it has musicality, it has emotion, and that’s all you need. It doesn’t matter if they understand everything, that’s not the point.”
Breen’s manifest erudition — passages in the Gaelic language, references to Mesopotamian and Irish mythology (he was named for a Celtic poet warrior), and top-drawer English vocabulary — have me scratching my head, as does the subject matter of the doctoral dissertation he’s writing in the Department of English Literature at the University of Edinburgh: narratology and its connection with complex systems. But what comes through clearly in his verse, aside from the musicality and emotion, are themes of love for people, place, and tradition. “And, I hope, a sense of humor and wonder,” the poet adds.
“There’s also seriousness and an understanding of form, with similarities to the traditional British. But they don’t have a sense of play, and we do.” This spirit manifests at times as giddy structural experimentation and fluidity of tense, in “trying to show a holistic view of life.” The life is partly Breen’s, and partly “other people’s memories, that I just lifted.”
On your journey through it, you’ll find it becoming your life, as well.
Notes for Breen’s poetry
The first two excerpts are from “Isn’t the act of placing flowers on a tomb a gesture of bringing a little life back to the dead?”— which is the first of his book’s three sections. The third excerpt is from the second section, “Dublin and the Loose Footwork of Deity.”
Oisin states, “Flowers, All Sorts in Blossom, Figs, Berries, and Fruits Forgotten, the collection carries three long-form pieces, each in a series of thematic parts, and it is stylistically and formally playful. That being said, it also has that muck between its teeth that can leap out and grab you. The book is unlike much of what is presently de rigueur. It’s full of foot-stomping paeans rolling through father-death, mother-death, memory, revelry, horror, meaning, and contradiction. But again, it’s also quite riddled with a sense of knowing irony and humour.”
“Isn’t the act of placing flowers on a tomb a gesture of bringing a little life back to the dead?”
I asked her if the muck-begetting brown felt good on her skin,
She told me to ask her if she felt the same-as-I.
For weeks now we’ve both been mute.
Not a murmur,
Mute. That awful consequence of our intemperance of speech.
She asks me for a root to gnaw on,
Sitting at the bus-stop if it rains,
And I say we should play kissing games,
But she’d like the real heaviness so much more.
Now the worms in our bellies are ripe for the hunger,
And I can hear all the heartbeats in the world,
And all I want is to rest in parabola.
So I stand,
Feeling just like that
But what will become of the ashes I give you?
This is a history of contempt.
But it is in these steps,
those that you take,
after the door has closed,
and my morning begins,
having said goodbye to yours,
that I recollect,
that I love you.
But, full of doubt, behind me I have left a litany of spoiled wishes.
But, though I remember more than enough to sate my living on, I take
myself to the riverside bridge, solely to weep at the bones.
The act itself,
Its flash powder of yellow-tan dust,
Engorges the hour hand when it’s brightest.
Barû, pitifully, I speak, and I remember.
I start, not with a heavenly chorus, a wail, or a Guinness wet lip against
my cheek as my da tells me he loves me — a moment he will always
forget, yet one that defines me — but precedes and succeeds the seconds
that counted for him when he said there he is, that’s my boy.
Nor am i the heavy sweat dripping release of gushing coos: ahhh, that my
ma’ belched out rapid when she said i have made you and she saw and
knew that she was right, and knew when she said it and would be right
forever that she did, and that she had made me.
Nor am i that inkling that a part of her that she would hide and deny
would always hate me for having stolen what was most precious from her:
her reason for living, and made it my own.
I start, instead, with a rasping cough on the horizon if I don’t ultimately
mend my ways, under the moody lights of a room empty save for myself
and a jobbing brewer, looking backwards over what mattered and realising
it was only the small things that ever will.
I am married, to be, and was.
I step into the hail and the rain on a cobblestone May and watch my
beloved walk forwards in the diachronic time of stilled heartbeats.
I am in love, thank Christ I am in love.
I am facing down an inverted set of footsteps racing out of a bar,
and I am taking back words that I said when glasses smashed and voices,
briefly raised, shook heavy thoughts into lightness.
I am plucking flowers at a baobab tree and thinking, ‘what if you forget
“Dublin and the Loose Footwork of Deity.”
Dublin, that day was the start of a cycle that would lead you in but three
days to falling madly in love, eschewing the contents of your stomach all
over her feet, still trying to hold yourself together while the clanging of a
bass guitar in the castle was ripping your belly apart, and even so,
working the courage up to just, just — and, I mean you gave her a biscuit
beforehand for Christ’s sake — to kiss her so gently, then hard, really hard
on the lips, to have one of those last memorable days of friendship with
your then closest kin, to have to twist yourself through the railings in
Fairview because the Dart track is mad-long and there’s no way off it
when you walk through the city, just to end up being on the front page of
the paper, for you were battered while trying to run from the guards.
Dublin, from the bridge, your river beautiful, your pockmarked, bric-abrac
coloured houses shift themselves along your quays, each of them
looking like an awful dodgy dealer, singing out story bud; strawberries
one euro; and how dey red it in a bewk. I mean Jaysus the state of you,
what like? I does be tellin ye, d’ye hear me?
Dublin, I can smell bread by Liberty Hall, and look at the fifty-three about
to shudder its way down past the last hovels that you’ve left near the
docks, and watch as your heart, beautifully, I admit, is quartered, so that
finance can lift you up from behind, so so nicely that it makes you feel
like you’re glowing, and makes you want it all the more so much so that
you endlessly push out your chest and masquerade, all tarted up, while the
building in Joyce’s The Dead is a ruin and you’ll pretend you’ve got no
But Dublin, Lámhfhada, that’s the king and all for you,
Do you remember him?
Previous issue poetry follows:
Our Poetry Editor, Jeff Kaliss
Jeff Kaliss reads poetry to jazz at 7 Mile House, San Francisco, with Don Alberts Renaissance Band. Late Don Alberts on keys at right. April 9, 2016. Photo: J.Macon King
For Jeff Kaliss interview see Salon.
A poem written while listening to Andrew Speight and group perform the title song, at the Café Stritch in San Jose.
songbook: Autumn in New York
Why does it seem,
long after I left,
long after she left,
autumn invites Aunt Stella
down from her penthouse
to walk her way
just a few blocks east
at Central Pak,
where 93rd stops being west.
And the hurried grid of Manhattan
onto rocks and grass
and Stella can pass
through birds scurrying
through what’s left
of their September sounds,
and Stella can still sniff
past her own perfume
and still inhale
of autumn decay.
Passing the benches
of Central Park,
she kicks her Bergdorf boots
through unpackaged piles
of crackling russet riot
which the trees, green gone,
would not hold on to.
Stella turns to me
to wonder with me
what it will be like
to be scattered and remembered
Speak to me through open windows,
in licking language,
with familiarity fresh
as it is tasty,
but showing off
in my shaded office,
so I can’t but smile
to let you know I know
that it’s you, not me.
Send me a letter
of love I don’t know yet
but you know,
because you are,
and you need a receiver
to press yourself upon.
Let me hear
how you sing to yourself,
when you’re romancing yourself,
when you’re wanting to get yourself into bed,
or out of it
and over to the desk.
Deliver to me
a caring package
of goodies you think I’ll like,
because you’ve binged on them,
and treat me to
the sources of what’s nourished you
and gotten you as far as me.
Transmit to me
groups of glyphs
to get me spinning
in your direction,
drawn towards you
through time and space,
together in new orbits.
She lies down,
downhill from the clapboard house, and the barn,
far from her bed,
and she rises to rest
down left on Wyeth’s canvas.
There she stretches
along all our memories
where she may stay,
if only she can,
long past the sea-cooled day’s dusk
outside the town of Thomaston,
and long after,
after she’s gone to ground
in the town cemetery,
and the artist has been lain
beneath a worded stone,
way down along the rolling hills
For now, with us,
she feels with the brief, short life
of a Maine meadow,
in all its amber multitude,
her eyes, away from ours,
watching the waves of simple splendor,
no place for longing there.
The Death & Everlasting Life of Glenn Frey (1948-2016)
“It’s a girl, my Lord, in a flatbed Ford,
Slowin’ down . . . “
Slowin’ down, to pick up Glenn Frey.
That guy from the Eagles, taking the early ride,
the early flight south, to death.
Swing low, sweet Flatbed Ford!
Early to death, and early to rise,
makes a man legend, not always wise,
makes a man gone.
Makes me feed the jukebox at the Portals,
over forever nightcaps, forever.
Next morning, makes me wake up, to versify,
Slowing down, forever.
To take a look at me.
Young and firm and friendly.
To take a look at her.
Take a look at Linda!
Winslowing south on Routes 17 & 10, to Tucson,
to take a look at Linda Ronstadt, young and ripe
and hanging on a gearshift.
Hitching a ride on Linda’s flatbed wooden stage, way out West,
to the Whiskey a Go Go, on the Sunset Strip,
full of LA girls in halter-tops,
full of kinds of fun, legals and illegals,
for guys becoming Eagles,
full of guitars to grab, drums to pound, keyboards to twiddle,
full of the glad sounds of being,
sung through Linda’s succulent girl-mouth,
her chocolate eyes showing what we can do, and should do,
to try and pull the reins in.
Ride ‘em, Cowgirl, in tight jeans.
After the set, we unplugged, went out back, and got older.
We got sold, we bought,
we broke up bands and marriages.
We lost our hearing.
Or was it just the good music we lost?
And here we are with Glenn,
faded further than our jeans,
on our last, aching legs,
long hair grayed and thinned.
Wheezing in the dust of Winslow, Arizona.
Interstate 40 is the new Route 66.
Glenn was 67.
He wasn’t new.
But what a fine sight to see!
A final sight.
A girl, my Lord, with angelic horde,
slowin’ down to get old Glenn, dust him off,
and carry him to where the songs are free and forever.
She ain’t singing, that girl.
She might be humming.
But she sure looks like Linda.
When will she be back for the rest of us?
Jeff Kaliss reads poetry to jazz at Bird & Beckett bookstore San Francisco, 2018. Bassist Ollie Dudek. (Not shown singer Thu Ho, pianist Grant Levin.) 7 Mile House poster with Kaliss & King, 2016.
Note: Autumn in New York was originally published in Forum magazine from City college of San Francisco, Fall 2019. Bird & Beckett photo from Kaliss collection.