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Sample Poems by Charlie Brice

The Fishes

There was muttering:
Joe muttered something to Alex
Alex muttered back.
There were looks:
Joe peered at Alex
Alex peered at Joe.
Eyebrows were raised,
cheekbones twitched.
Even at ten years of age
I knew something secret
was going on and that
I wasn't in on it.

What's up? I asked Joe.
Nothing, nothing, he said.
Then silence, more looks,
more muttering.

You're my best friend, I said,
tell me what's going on.
Joe raised his eyebrows,
Alex's cheeks twitched.
Joe jerked his head.
Okay, he asked Alex.
Maybe, Alex said.

There was silence.
Then, in a serious voice
I'd never heard Joe use before:
We have a club, Joe said.
What's it called' I asked.
It's a secret, Joe said.
Can I join? I asked.

Joe said he had to consult the membership.

Joe leaned into Alex.
There was muttering,
raised eyebrows,
cheekbones jerked.
Okay, Joe said, you can join.

Great, I said, what's it called.
The Fishes, Joe said,
but that's a secret.
You can't ever tell anyone
the name of our club.
Do you swear never to tell'
Yes, I said.
Then Joe taught me the handshake.
I learned that Joe was the president
of The Fishes and Alex the vice president.
I was their only member.

It felt good to belong.

Greg from down the street
pulled up with his new Schwinn ten speed.
Hi guys, he said.
We muttered to each other,
raised eyebrows,
flexed cheekbones.
What's going on? asked Greg.
We have a club called The Fishes, I said.
It's a secret.

Joe looked at Alex,
Alex shook his head.
Joe stood before me
with the most solemn expression
I'd seen outside of when
we buried our dog.
You, Joe intoned, are no longer
a member of The Fishes.

The Smell of Home in Wyoming

Joe taught me to keep my hand totally
flat when presenting an oatcake to a horse.
Oh, the whiskery caress of Baldy's thick lips
against my palm! Hay in the barn--
the smell of home in Wyoming.
I was eight years old.

Al, Joe's dad, taught me never to walk
behind a horse without patting its butt
to let it know I was there. Still
Spot, a feisty pinto, kicked Al once,
smashed him up against the stall wall.
Al had no fear, whacked Spot hard
on his rear and swore.

Another time Al wrapped Joe and me
in blankets, Indian style, and put us
on horses in a driving snow storm.
Huge flakes feathered the prairie.
Warm horse fragrance, creek of leather
saddle, breath mist before us--
a synesthetic blast of beauty.

And now Al gone, Joe gone'
no one left to hear this poem.

Joe's Gizmo

Joe had a new gizmo,
something his dad made--
a handle on one side,
a handle on the other,
in between kite string strewn
like a hand-held loom,
something Gandhi might have used
to weave loin cloth, but
we didn't know about Gandhi,
his efforts to free his country
from British rule, create peace,
or that he forgave his assassin
with his last breath.
We were in Lions Park in 1960--
ten years old under a massively
blue Cheyenne sky.

Joe's gizmo propelled our kite
so high as to befuddle hope with envy.
Our cheers echoed the sonorous promise,
the crisp vocal cadence, of our new
presidential candidate, John Kennedy.
With volitant optimism we attached
more string to Joe's gizmo. Our dreams
of flight at Icarus height were quickly dashed
by a loosened string that snapped. Our kite
disappeared into a cobalt abyss only to
descend, battered and torn, three years later
on the roof of a redbrick building in Dallas.


I'd been sick for a year,
when they gave me a bone marrow test.
The doctor, oblivious to my five-year-old mind,
explained to my parents that the white cells
were eating the red cells.

My best friend's sister, Sandy Risha,
died of leukemia that year,
the year of our Lord,
nineteen hundred and fifty-five.

I lived.

We got a dog, Lady K, a cocker spaniel
who was always sick.
One morning I woke up
and found Lady K dead in her box,
the same morning that my dad,
rumpled and red-eyed, arrived
home after a night of drinking and whoring.
He mocked my cries rather than face his embarrassment.
He made fun of my grief while my mother
railed at him for his drunken infidelity.

I knew then that,
in the family I called mine,
there was no place for me,
no place for me on this earth.

Deal Me In

During a night of failure-to-grow-up,
daddy, drunk and deluded, sat with hoodlums
at a poker table and said, 'Deal me in.'
He was the big fish in our small Cheyenne
pond. Next day, Sunday, he delivered
his terrifying homily: He'd written
a check for ten thousand dollars to cover
his wayward wagers. Mother nearly lost
what balance she had. 'Jesus Christ, Ward,
we don't have that kind of money,' called
the president of the bank in our little pond,
and stopped payment on the check. Monday
the phone calls began: 'Is your dad at home?'
The man on the phone brushed his teeth with gravel.
Cigar smoke wafted through the receiver.

Mother made a deal with Jesus:
If my bone marrow tests were negative,
she'd send me to Catholic School
where I learned it was a sin to lie,
but in a house that pulsed with Daddy's
malfeasance, my charge was to say that
our big fish had jumped his pond, gone
to his favorite destination, Nowhere, which,
a hippie friend pointed out years later,
was Now and Here. That's where he was,
now, here in our house, chain smoking, fighting
off the shakes, banking on me, his little fish,
to swim in the spume of his big lie
until our pond went dry.