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Sample Poems by Charles Brice

Marmalade

The porter with his tiny xylophone
calls passengers to breakfast or dinner,
waiters in the dining car, white coats,
careful articulation of the breakfast
fare, shiny, sterling silverware-
rhythmic clatter of cups and saucers,
boxcar acrobats balance huge trays
as the train sways and heaves.
That first taste of marmalade
scooped from a serving boat
with a tiny silver spoon.
Those fine black men make
a fuss over my toast and tea.
How did they regard us-
three fat pink people
who boarded in Cheyenne
and headed to Omaha in 1954?
They made us feel like the queen,
king, and crown prince of breakfast,
and helped us forget that none of them
could travel the train as passengers,
or stay in any hotel along our route.
Centuries of indignities scattered
across the tracks, our offal ravaged
in the train's turbulent wake.
Something about the gap between that first step
into the Pullman car and the track
came after me at night for years.


Jesus' Mother Didn't Have Blond Hair

Jesus never made it to Europe.
-Amiri Baraka

There was the smell of Sister Marino's white
habit, something beyond clean, beyond pure
even. There was the hard wooden seat that
folded up and then down again, the cold
metal siding in the design of vines
and leaves, and the solid, unmovable legs
screwed fast to the floor, the desktop
with a well on the right-for what?-
not big enough for a cup.

There was her voice, shrill and black
as the grotto-hood that framed her head
and made her look like a saint
carved in marble. She passed out
fancy colored paper and crayons.
"Draw a picture of Mary," she said.
I'd only scribbled before this. Everyone
got right to work: tiny knocks
from the kid's crayons
as their Marys found form.

Who's Mary? I wondered. My drawing
was of some lady in rags, with the kinky
black hair of Mrs. Dee, my kindergarten
teacher in the public school. My mother
had promised God that she'd send me
to St. Mary's Catholic school if my bone
marrow test came out negative. I was saving
her soul. Everyone but me drew Mary with silky
blond hair and dressed her in the finest robes.
My picture, drawn on that first day of first
grade, was the only one Sister Marino
didn't put on the bulletin board.

I think now of Sister Marino, a bride
of Christ condemned to a dusty
little hole in the prairie like Cheyenne.
For her nothing worked out. I can still hear
her "tsk" as she looked at my raggedy Madonna.
Couldn't she at least have had a classroom
of kids who knew what Mary looked like?


Daydream

Those cottonwoods were thrilling,
they danced like ballerinas,
and sometimes went mad
throwing their white blazon
all over the city like furry confetti.

"He daydreams," my mother
read aloud Sister Susanna's
terse and torrid critique.
"What's a daydream?" I asked.
"It's when you look out the window
and stop listening in class,"
my mother said.

But the music I heard/
saw out that window:
The Nutcracker Suite-
elephants skittered like leaves
across the sky, Jesus jumped
from his cross and chased
Lazarus to life.

Someone picked up the end
of a river and found frogs
reciting the Baltimore Catechism.
Streets rolled up into concrete
spirals like the toffee we bought
in Jackson Hole.

"Don't daydream," my mother said.
Sister Susanna, so gray, read
everything to us third graders
out of a black book packed
with prayers, pleas, and
purposelessness.

Out the window she danced
like a sailor, wore a parakeet
on her shoulder, a patch
over one eye-Sister Long
Joan Silver yelled,
"Ahoy, matey," and swilled gallons
of rum while the St. Mary's Marching Band
played Mussorgsky, "The Great Gate of Kiev."

"Stop daydreaming," my mother said.
Goodbye

Auntie Ursal would sing to me, or chant
her rosary beads, rattle them against my bed,
during what seemed, in seven-year-old time,
unending nosebleeds. Later we'd hop

a bus. Ten cents got you anywhere in Cheyenne.
She'd take me to the Mayflower Restaurant on 17th Street
where the marinara sauce atop my spaghetti
allowed a first taste of garlic, and where

she showed me holy cards her son, Terry,
had won during twelve years of Catholic education.
Cousin Terry, who once told me that Marines,
like him, were so tough they jumped out of airplanes

without parachutes. Terry commanded tanks
in Korea and, when drunk, relived his worst
times there. He once threw a drink at a friend
in our basement, then collapsed in tears. He

was in Korea again where (the Chinese
about to attack) one of his men mired in quicksand
pled for his life. They'd run out of time. Terry
threw him a morphined syringe and said goodbye,

as did we to Terry one hot June morning in 1957.
He'd run off the road near Torrington. Auntie Ursal
jerked at the 21-gun salute and touched his flag-
draped coffin. His brother Marines looked sharp.


At Ten I Thought Everyone Had A Shoebox
Filled With Human Teeth And Seashells


Hemingway was either drunk
or writing, a bore, no fun at all,
or so say the few I've met who knew
him. For me he was Papa, a man
who took me fishing in Cuba,
gun running in Martinique,
Civil War fighting in Spain,
drinking and whoring in France,
and big game hunting in Africa.
He taught me how to love a woman

more than war, and how to walk defeated,
but never destroyed, along an infinite path
of grief. He even taught me how to end it-
decisively, simply, and with grace. Some people
loved my real father, a round man in a brown suit
who cried for days when his brother
Francis died from the same excesses
that would claim my father in later years.
At ten I thought everyone had a shoebox

filled with human teeth and seashells. My dad
spent WWII in the Evacuation Corps
where the unspeakable stifled explanation
of those polished surfaces-teeth pulled
from the mouths of Japanese soldiers'
that my pudgy childhood fingers found
amid craggy shells from Guadalcanal. My father

smiled often, had a grateful laugh, and avoided
any brand of toil other than lifting a bourbon glass
to his lips. He spent his life drinking and watching
the Ed Sullivan Show. Hungry when drunk,
he'd fry and burn an egg, then another,
to brim his empty mass, his booze-bloated
corpse to be. What is the nothingness
that nothing fills? He never wrote anything
save his name, rather elaborately, on bar tabs.
The only similarities to Papa were the boxing
he did in WWII and the desperate drinking.
I wasn't his son; I was an excuse, a conduit
to a Fleischmann's Bourbon bottle,
the glass tit that ran his life and ours.