Poetry by William Doreski: The Yes or No, Written in Italics, Middle Son of a Midshipman, The View Along Lynn Beach, and A Scrawl in my Notebook

The Yes or No

The cats puddled on the bed
at dawn look flat as shadows
imprinted on the molten streets
of Nagasaki and Hiroshima.
You complain that the bell curve
of my fantasy dips too deeply
into morbid shades of brown.
You object to my slurs against
government, the local churches,
the teenagers swimming naked
in Cranberry Meadow Pond.

You should have seen them cavort
in their slightly unfocused flesh,
their sexual parts obscured
by fears they couldn’t repress
simply by acting brazen.
The compromised visual field
haunted me the rest of the day,
misting my vision. Getting home,
I almost drove off the road.

Someday, after volcanos erupt
in our personal space, the cries
of the cats will become human.
And someday my slurs will harden
into dogma the world will embrace
with all attendant prejudice.
That’s why you fear that with age
I’ll conceal myself under layers
of gently applied pastel.

With those distorting hues I’ll doctor
the black and white photographs
of the Second World War, rendering
the world safe for democracy
but awarding myself the one vote
that matters, the yes or no
the trees speak every autumn
and the snow attempts to mute.


Written in Italics

Letters, not words, tallow down
and pool at the foot of the page.
I’ve seen this before. A hulk
of youth with italic nib

in a coffee shop enchanted
young women with the trickle
of his pen down a legal sheet.
They cooed like running water.

Smoldering with jealousy half
a table away, I watched
the women burnish his ego
with eager and outstretched breasts.

When he swaggered off to shower
at the gym, washing away
his indecencies, I asked why
his italic script enthralled.

Genius, they murmured, and sex.
Freud in his grayest moments
wouldn’t think a slanted nib
so potent. I tried it myself,

but the pen slithered and bent,
and the letters splayed and wept
and the ink set in plaster smears.
Crumpled like a parking ticket,

I returned to my room and drank
until I slobbered in brown tones
and forgot my name. But the pen
returned to my hand and I wrote

words, not letters, arranged
atop each other like nesting
herons, each a thing itself.
Next day in the coffee shop

I tossed my pages on the table
and leaned backward into light
so brave the women donned shades.
I can’t reproduce those italics,

but the words were plain as air:
bird, church, gap, piano, suds.
I remember because they warped
the membrane stretched between

me and the women already
giving birth to powerful forces
that later would devour me,
leaving shadows and one dry bone.


Middle Son of a Midshipman

Middle son of a midshipman:
a title rather than a status.
I arise with this honorific
stuck to my lips like a scrap
of cigarette paper. The day
greets me with a handshake
of vegetable matter, a slush
of tissue clinging to sunlight.

The garden needs weeding. Chips
and chucks of little animals
gnaw at the roots of things.
I feel the tickle in my brain.
I feel the fear of being middle
son of a midshipman creeping
up my spine to embrace me
with the same flagrant colors
as my fear of thunderstorms.

Yet I’m the only child of a land-
lubbing store clerk, my thick hands
unable to tie a sailor’s knot,
my stride too narrow to prop me
on a tilted deck. The garden
sighs its morning garden sigh
and emits a few dozen birds
that expect me to put out seed
and suet even in midsummer
when the plant world looks luscious.

A midsummer middle son
of a midshipman. The phrase climbs
my larynx and tries to choke me.
But I cough it into the blue,
this mincing gobbet, and turn
away from the dream-dimension
to unfold my entire person
in a shudder of common flesh.


The View Along Lynn Beach

You earn your keep by scrambling
eggs in a cup with herbs and sauce
and two tablespoons of hot oil.
Since the nineteen-seventies you’ve sold
more than a million doses

of this recipe you invented
one summer morning when bored.
You propose to sell your business
for a hundred thousand dollars
and retire with a view of the beach

at Lynn, where Mary Baker Eddy
worked and watched the surf breaking
on Red Rock. You lack religion,
but the clash of sea and rock suggests
the agony of eggs suffering

the superheated oil that cooks
them in your little metal cups.
You expect me to join you and share
the rhythm of the sea engaging
with the drone of coastal traffic.

You expect that merging the small
fortunes we’ve saved for retirement
will enable us to live forever.
The view along Lynn Beach includes
the sweep of land toward Nahant

and the distant splay of Cape Ann.
In the cusp of this scene a crowd
of grinning bikinis courts cancer
with the bright insouciance of youth.
I could unfold a folding chair.

drench my exposures with sunblock,
and read Henry James until dusk
or thunder drives me indoors.
And you? Would you be happy
raking the tideline for rubble

and peering at cargo ships low
and black on the misty horizon?
No, I think you should continue
peddling your scrambled egg cups,
and I should sell insurance until

the chasm opens and we tumble
into the darkest resolution.
Then let the sea exude its radiance
in honor of those grave abstractions
that flatter but rarely pay.
A Scrawl in my Notebook

Consigning you to a scrawl
in my notebook pleases me.
No more simpering over flesh
the color of old newspaper.

No more stoking fires of ego
that scorch everyone who touches
your most innocent of organs.
A slur of misspelled places

in France, Austria, and Poland.
A swagger of capital letters
and a sketch of a landscape
a child could draw more adroitly.

A neighbor’s dog yapping at dawn
strikes more high notes than you do.
A rattle of trash cans replicates
your attempt to learn some German.

I’m no longer intimidated
by your daily fuss with your hair,
your fuming over the bible,
your anger at the lack of rain

unraveling your surly garden.
No, I’m writing in my notebook
the names of a hundred people
more sculptural than you are,

more spangled with the starlight
to which you’ve always aspired.
Don’t ask to read my script. You know
how illegible I can be

when sunrise comes over me
in a surf of golden foam
and dolphins chatter in language
more eloquent than I can attain.


William Doreski’s work has appeared in various e-and print journals and in several collections, most recently The Suburbs of Atlantis (AA Press, 2013).