I gave a poetry reading tonight, of Frank Maloney‘s poems. I’m working through a book of Interpretive Reading projects at Freely Speaking Toastmasters. I had to read some poetry for tonight’s project and Frank’s work was an obvious choice. (Had I remembered, I would have recorded the reading and made a podcast.)
Frank was most active as a poet in the 1970s when he published his collection, How to Eat a Slug.
Six poems follow that give a taste of his work. The material in [square brackets] I omitted from the reading.
The Illiterate Calligrapher
Frank was long interested in Chinese and Japanese art and he used to paint watercolors.
I am learning to write a language I cannot read.A few ideas get through:The character for heart beats truer than a valentine;For bamboo, the node is enough.Use erodes the pictures like old mountains,Scrapes them clean as a hide,Clean as the glacier’s tracks, down to bedrock, the core.[Where I live all is new and getting newer.The cities, their people: a century is about all we can claim.[The Salish, the Nootkas with a longer reach,Like their cedar always renewed,Became their salmon.[Even the mountains still rise and stretch,Unfinished, raw, & unreadable.]Twelve strokes, movements: suspended needle,Playing butterfly, and phoenix-wing hook.Ink ballets make a few hundred radicals, the rootsOf K’ung Fu-tze and Mao Tse-tung.I copy out a commonplace by rote,Like watching the wave and not seeing the fish.
Alice to Dorothy
A letter from Alice, of Wonderland, to Dorothy, of Oz.
with apologies to Melinda MuellerIt could be spring back in England,If that is the direction;for all I know it is just around the dogleg in this roadThat does not seem to know its mind.Perhaps it’s behind a bush.I try not to step on things;England might be under a dry leaf,Buried in the whorls of a snail,Or it may never have happened at all.I get muddled when I try to thinkBut one does hear rumours. I am sure you must.How we got back.I read it in a book I found here.Seems I was real and you a character,But as for that I think we both behaved well.I grew up and died; you came back in sequels.Yet here I am; I know I saw you onceAcross a hedgerow. I tried to wave, to catch your eye.[The air’s as thick as boxwood.]I felt we had a lot to talk about.I imagine you were busy with some adventure.In any case, you did not see me or choose to wave.Please answer this letter. I am lonely rather.They did not let me take Dinah,And cats can be quite a comfort.You have Toto, and dogs are such great company.And your friends. They do not make good friends here.It is a pretty place once you get used to it.Things are much more hereThan they ever were back there.A queer sort of hereness that makes itThicker, taller, brighter, faster.Sometimes I feel all shadows & cobwebs,Just as if I were a puff of smokeThat everyone wanted to blow away.I cannot ever go away.I am beginning to doubt there is anyplace to go.Wonderland & Beyond the Looking GlassAre the same place, like some great countryseat:Wings, floors, tourelles, crofts;The maze, the amble, outbuildings, the ruins.I know now it is all the same,The same small place.When you read this, stop.Do not let them push you down the road.Oh, I hear stories how that Mr Baum drives you all;The Rev. Mr Dodgson wanted a lot more from me,But I put my foot down.I was quite insistent I had done my share.Plant your feet and refuse to stir.Refuse all enticements, all threats.They shan’t harm you.Without you, where would they be?Rusting in a woodlot yet,Mulching the cornfield by now.As soon as I finish this letter,I shan’t move again, not a muscle.Then we shall surely sift togetherLike leaves under some great ash.Wait for me. I need to talkTo talk to someone who doesn’t know any riddles.Your friend / Alice.
Frank was a lifelong subscriber to National Geographic.
"Giraffes frequently cry, but they make no noise." —Associated Press, 22 Sept 1977There are rules for living at great heightsGiraffes must stoop, not bend, to keep light.Keep your footing and your head;Never know a soft, low bed,Lope a snaking, heavingNeck; loll acacia’s thorny leaves.Preserve a mottled dignity despite the horns,Useless as a Caddy’s fins. MournWith un-African silence that none takes quite seriously:The tactless taxonomist who herds youWith the unspeakable okapi;Or the Romans who failed to catch your gentilesseAnd called you the monster Cameleopardis.You know you’re head and tail above our carnival,But man & nature have given you a nasty fall.You broke a rule, you accept the price.Yet these damned meddlers, these graceless lice,Would wrap & hoist you, would interfere,And in the end raise you to the jeersOf little men who find their funIn mocking him who dies for love.—Frank R. Maloney.September 1977.Published: Blue Heron Press.
The next two poems were written in August 2008, weeks before Frank’s final illness.
For Peggy Maloney, 1915 - 1991
Frank’s relationship with his mother was … fraught.
You hated your real name, Iva Belle.Was it too Southern for your northern life?Too rustic for the Hupmobiles and roadhouses of Boise?You never said why.So much you never told me; what did you think your job was?You knew guitar, never offered to teach me.Your first husband died impaled on his steering wheelWith you trapped beside him.You waited until the last year of your life to mention it.You held your secrets tighter than an oyster its pearl,Than an octopus its crab, than a tree its ground.Night and false dawn lit your lies and evasions.What rainy day were you saving your truths for?Did the Depression teach you to hold fastTo the truth like a job, any job, whatever the wages?I admit you taught me many skills,Like how to be afraid of change, of novelty, of life.Your legacy: worry, insecurity, withdrawal, resentment, and unforgiveness.I am your son, despite all my denials. When I am scared and nervous,My left hand flaps like a landed fish even yours did.I buy love by forcing food on guests. I wield silence like a stiletto.Did you know that I stopped liking youLong before you died? I assume I loved you.Sons love their mothers, don’t they?You died long before your heart stopped,When you retired to your TV, Pall Malls, and YubanIn the mug you never scoured.To the apartment by the lake you never walked to.You dropped all the friends who wanted to be close,Waited for the son who only wanted to get away.You taught me how to be sad,How to waste a life,To pull back and grow a shell,To wait for high tide.—Frank R. Maloney.August 14 2008.
Black Cats & Broken Gates
Frank and his partner of more than 30 years, Lyndol, had a long succession of cats. The two most recent are Princess and Blackie.
In the half-hay summer grass, a black cat rollsThis way and that, relaxed, warm, and safeBehind a fence. The gate never latches on its own,Hangs slightly askew, is watched overBy two tutelary aluminum cocker spaniels.These are complications not native to a black cat’s thinking.In the shade of the vast holly tree,The grass stays green enough to nibble,The shade warm enough to sprawl against,And a human hand close enough to scratch his head.The black cat gets up, wanders off into the overgrown field,Exploring again what he has patrolled daily for five years.Routine is what he thrives on.Now is the season for lurking, for hunting fat grasshoppers,Not for fretting over broken gates.The human sits in that same brown & green yard,Sketches the broken gate & its blind guardians,Preserving in his way the moment,Its still, black-cat perfection, not in the sketch,But there in its perfect absence.—Frank R. Maloney.August 5 2008.
Finally, a bonus. I didn’t read it, but people tonight were intrigued by the title.
How to Eat a Slug
The hardest part is holding it.A joy to drop the curl into steam, parboil it.Quickly, vengefully.Drain the melted snot away from creek or brake.You run your knife along its belly;Peel off the jaundice, the liver spots,The curving leprosy.Shut your eyes and thrust a thumbInto the half-congealed guts.What’s left is firm, white, and altogether mild.Garlic, butter, and you’ve escargot.You’ve earned your appetite.—Frank R. Maloney.12 August 1972.(revised 1 December 2008)