Samples from Alembic

Bits and Pieces

Money was simpler then.
Something valuable, 
Made of something scarce,
And scarce was precious, 
So a little bit
Went a long way.
Had slang names, now dead,
As door nails. 
In bits and pieces.
Like pieces and bits.
Or if you had more than a little bit,
Or more than a small piece,
Then two bits or four bits,
Which once was quite a bit -
A right fair piece.

Now money is an idea
Like a promise,
Something you have, but cannot see.
But it has to be a good one.
Because a broken promise is a theft.        
Ice in the heart.
So the promise has to be more
Than what it’s printed on.
Then, the promise and the print
Were of a piece, 
A single bit.

Money had weight then.
And the weight mattered.
The heavier the better.
Like a pound
Of sterling silver.
Or the king’s crown,
On the uneasy head.
Everything was heavier then: 
Shovels, baseball bats, bicycles;
The wrong way up weight
Of the sunward pull of kites
On twine-wound sticks;
The dark of night, alone; 
The impossible mystery of death
Whose haunting secrets in the Church
Smelled of incense and flowers’ sweet corruption.     

And work, such as we did,
Was heavy going
For a few coins.
Heavy in the palm.
The heavy things were hard to heft
But in the effort
I learned to grapple
And grew deft.
But not so deft
To make light yet
The weight that winter, ‘sixty-four,
When my father beckoned me.             
I, trundling down
To the big motor thrumming,
He, delving his pocket,
Shifting ungainly behind the tight wheel.

And then his face,        
Solemn with ritual,     
Because this was grave.
There, in his hand, stretched to me reaching,        
Pressing it firmly to mine                 
And wrapping mine round it, closing it up                 
And his around mine and what was now in it.
Shiny as that winter morning,
Brilliant for the silver, 
Big as my hand, nearly.                            
A rare and ponderous thing.                                
A whole fifty cent piece
(Always “whole” for big money then)
A whole four bits.                    

And the face just there
Only now just dead.
A death we saw forever and ever
Through the murk of Church incense            
And black and white TV.
His widow near shattered for the grief of him.             
Our hero and our hope,
The head uneasy that wore the crown.
In bits and pieces.

Fret of the Doom
But every junkie’s like a setting sun. - Neil Young

There was a huddle of young Swiss girls
Cute as feral kittens orphaned,
Lost down the path to the turquoise Aare
Out back the train yards in Bern.

Trapped in their sad fleeting moment of beauty
That doom in their dark endless eyes -
Heavy-lidded, dream-starved, forever dreamy -
Slumber enough when they’re dead.

A litter of fits in the dust round their feet
Like junkie-park sundown in Denmark.
Too young for the ken of the damage and loss
Too old not to long now for more.

Was nothing so broke in the wrack of their hearts
That sweet junk well could not fix
Certain as sunrise, sure dead to rights,
Love’s cruel impostor in ruins.

Gandy Dancer's Gift of Time
For Daniel Joseph Phalen 1859-1938

Smooth, round, and flat like a riverstone for the throwing
With a centering weightedness, easy in my palm,
And comforting too, like a charmstone to show the way.

Seasoned gold, burnished luminous by a thousand hands
Thatched with the scratches of a hundred years
And the crystal missing, which I replaced.

The once white disk, count of the hours, by thumbs besmudged
But the wound spring sealed and the escapement clean
So it paid out locomotion, tick-tocking, like no time had passed at all.

Great Granddad’s railroad watch, this immense journey to me
From hand to hand to hand to mine
And when I clasped it, was like shaking his, firm in my fist.

A gift of time across time out of mind
From my father twice removed, a ghost who haunts old tales, 
A gandy dancer - level on the level and straight as a rail -

Who now winks out, slyly bemused, from this old photo
Like Father Time with red lantern and blackthorn,
And whispers unutterably to my fabric, ineradicably,

From down the cold prairie as wide as the wind,
Of round houses, steam squalling, and firebox stokers,
Of steel drivers, freight loaders, and lining bar heavers,

Of the thingness of an age’s lost tackle and sundry,
Of heirlooms and mileposts that for a time abide only,
But inhere surely timeless in what we inherit.


            Twisted straw that’s lifted in a circle
            To handsel and to heal, a rite of spring
            As strange and lightsome and traditional
            As the motions you go through going through the thing.
            St. Brigid’s Girdle, The Spirit Level by Seamus Heaney

My first was a clip-on, then all the rage,
And “smart,” even for First Holy Communion
When we boys, dressed to the nines,
In stiff linen and pants with a pleat,
Hung them from our throats,
And for the first time shriven, of what, god knows,
Ate the body of the bleeding Jesus
And all in Latin.

I was a long way, even then, from when my little boy’s feet
Slipped into my father’s shoes, lined out tidy            
In the vault of his closet - musty, woolen,
Cigarette redolent - the perfume of the place -            
And the awkwardness suddenly for the weight of them
On the tops of my feet, when I lifted my knees
Tottering and wondering,
Would I ever grow so big?

And later forays there for the silver
Forgotten in pocket lint and tinkling like bells
If you patted the pants, lined straight as a die
With razor creases, neat as pins.
And no sense of trespass, but a treasure hunt,    
Reaching inside the worsted coat pockets, 
Hovering hauntingly there like half-men hanging    
In the half-dark - the thrill of it. 

The bouquet of ties, strange with spots and chevrons,
Hand-over-hand mysteries, silky and pointless, 
Though pointed at both ends, 
Hanger strung like washing among the tweeds.
And in the deep recess, lost in the corner,
So dark I’d wait my eyes to see,
Great grand-dad’s blackthorns collecting dust.
Patrimony’s meager bounty.
My father was a geography then,        
Terra incognita and a voyage too far,
So I took his measure in the landscape of his things.
I traveled his metes and bounds; touched and triggered
The finds, puzzling over the kit and tackle of it.
But if the distance was wide for that boy in the wardrobe
It grew inexorably, so the bridging
Sought opportunity, and then finally did not.

Until the time I donned a suit
And his shoes nearly fit my feet
And the clip-on tie had had its boyish day.
Well past the time I would watch him shaving; the marvel of it.
Mouth like a movie starlet, rosy in the round of foam.
Foggy mirror face inverted, lopsided.
And the stropping, methodical and deliberate, as he always was.
Never against the grain, he’d said then, and winked.

Half-Windsor, he said now,
Surrounding me from behind, like an awkward coat,
The hug he could not otherwise.
Both our faces in the mirror, eye to eye,
His, oddly lopsided again, like in the shaving mirror,
And his grey whiskered cheek against mine.
That sweet kiss of whisky and close stale smoke
The perfume of his face.

Play-acting a preamble to make it a game
Because the time for games was gone.
So he hammed it up to span the gape
That had opened in the silence between us.
My heart breaking for it and feeling such a fool
Both trapped in it, and doing level best.         
Silenced now in what passed for a hug
And our helplessness in the grip of it.    

His hands around mine and mine on the tie
(As if to tie the four-in-hand, but not)
Looped through my collar, as if it were his.
We wrapped once the broad end over the narrow
Tugging and passing it smartly,
Under the cross, now clamped with our thumbs,
Then round, under, up, and back round again.
He pausing, just so, to let lay the lesson.

Measuring closely, his high-arched eye sharp,     
Drawing down on the work and down onto me.
The broad end up over the knot from behind
And down through the loop in the front
Snugging it taut as we went, 
He pulled on the slip end
And up she snapped right
Square in the collar, neat, sharp, and tight.
The knot like a gem stone, suddenly there
His magic - astonishing - so long unseen.        
Not the knot he had tied, nor the lesson I took,
But the heart-ache we went through to get through the thing.

Orange Juicer

When the fruit blushed out in winter
The too many trees groaned for the weight of them
Marking the surfeit; the time to harvest and the work of it.        

In those days flocks of pickers descended        
Like locusts in train to strafe ripe unguarded fields    
And our mother, a grown Depression girl,

Would have tied the scant money they paid for the fruit
In her neckerchief, or called it pin-money,
If she acted and talked like that, but she did not.

Time to resurrect the white and silver engine,             
Squat and heavy, like Murphy’s crockery cookie jar -                
A fat tonsured friar whose cassock read, “Thou Shalt Not Steal.”  

Rotund and gravid, like a brass bell on the countertop,
Or a bucket upside down, wider at the base than at the crown
But not by much - a thick barrel thing - dense as a bowling ball.    

The juicer was the real thing all right, serious porcelain         
And steel; heavy as mud, no plastic and flummery,        
Impermanent folderol that came anon to win the day.

Winter harvest seemed natural to us, we had no autumn
Like they did in the books we read in school, of northerly
Wetter places - all blankety, velvety, bracing, and smoke-seasoned.

We tucked our shirts into our pants and stuffed their fronts
With the oranges we picked, lolling at full ballast like
Playhouse fat men in some cheap stage comedy.

We dumped our freight in the kitchen where mother stood
At the board, halving them quick as we could deliver,
The place a tart ferment, tonicked by the tang of them gaped.

And then the little engine on, and the juice from our harvest
Splashed like rare rain out the gutter spout and caught in a bowl
Orange as the African daisies we grew in the front.    

The rotary cone, ribbed and pleated, that reamed the juice out,
Was a tiny mitre, white as the milk,
Like the one the bishop wore and looked a damn fool.

But this mitre was all business, and no mistake,
And the afternoon of juicing made a glut of it,
Gallons gurgling and sloshing into the fridge.

Our shirts outsized now for the loads we toted
And grimed and smirched for the work
And mother’s hands livid for the cutting and squeezing. 

The kitchen orange splattered, like carrots grated in a storm.    
And the husks in a heap, flaccid flabby bladders.
Pulp and seeds - sweet slobbery slop - colandered in vanquished distraint.

What Stone

What stone will bear my name for me
When I, no more, am done,
What runes there carved to vault through time
To mark all that is gone?

Whose heart my memory gently keep
When a heart have I no longer
What echo will my joys resound
When none can I yet conjure?

What harp of grass will speak my words
When no breath have I to mouth them,
What song will by it then be sung
When stilled, my music ends?

What breeze in vain will beckon me
And who shall give response,
When it will be I can’t attend
Nor hearken this last once?

What force will in some matt of roots
My new shoots run again,
What freshet sweet will slake my thirst
When my waters all dry run?

What tree atop the next high hill
Will be my eyes to see,
O’er which the day at break will rise
But will not rise to me?

What silken pond will be my skin
Wrinkled now by winter wind,
Past time of rude youth’s bitter flight
In icy vice too stern to rend?

What warm sun be my sweetheart’s love
Fond embrace now loosed and lost
What clouded sky will weep its rain
Shed for such dread cost?

What meadow soft will be my bed
When no more I need of sleep,
And who, at night, my bedfellow be
‘Neath the vault of twilight’s keep?

Copyright© 2016, Thomas Phalen, All rights reserved.