Fresh Words


I use this page to post a variety of pieces, both those just out of the sluice, and older pieces that feel fresh to me at the moment. I generally keep them up for a month, or a few at the most.

Look for new poems (and more) at the start of each month.

The Day I Learned to Fly  (new in September – up for one month only)

Amoeba Quatrain   (new in July)

Requiem   (new in July)

The Rack   (new in July)

id entity   (new in June)

Ukraine Triptych   (new in June)

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I’ve been writing a series of memory pieces about crazy and amusing stuff I got into in my 20s as a bike messenger in San Francisco. I put one up last month and here’s another, up for September only. I swear on whatever I need to swear on that it’s totally true. Enjoy.

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THE DAY I LEARNED TO FLY

For a couple of years in the mid-1980s I was a private bicycle delivery person for ARCH Drafting Supply in San Francisco. I’d been a bike courier for a year or two prior at Aero Delivery, but the requirements for ARCH were a little more specific. The standard messenger transpo at the time was a mountain bike with a large, heavy wire basket bolted to the handlebars. This was fine for the usual courier fare of envelopes and small boxes (though I did once have a birthday cake bounce out and under the wheels of a Muni bus), but materials from ARCH were of various sizes and shapes, and some were more delicate than your average parcel, requiring extra bungees, cardboard reinforcements, and the like. Still I was limited by what I could fit in the basket or occasionally balance on top of it, and as a result some days I had less work than I was used to. Although I was getting paid by the hour by one of the best bosses ever, it pained me to see so many flats of art paper and board, which were among the most frequent orders, go out daily by van at a much higher cost.

On one particularly slow afternoon I had a stroke of smartness and set about to invent something to carry those big flats on top of my basket. I grabbed a big piece of one-inch thick gator board and cutting materials, with permission of course, and set to work. (Gator board, for those unfamiliar, is a much more rigid form of foam core presentation board with a ceramic coating instead of paper.) First I cut two rectangles, each slightly larger than the common 20 x 30” and 30 x 40” sizes of board and paper. Next, and a little more challenging, I cut two one-inch square holes close to one of the longer edges of each board, a few inches on either side of center. Then came a fun-filled excursion to good ol’ Cole Hardware to secure a long strip of sturdy nylon strap, four strong black plastic side-release buckles (like they use on backpacks and such), and a lot of lovely silver duct tape (my favorite stuff ever). I meticulously wrapped each of those boards with the duct tape, covering every edge, the insides of those neat square holes, and every inch of surface twice, making them even sturdier and pretty darn waterproof (and lovely and silver). I then measured out pieces of the nylon strap precisely for the purpose you’re about to see, and got a friend who had a sewing machine to stitch those straps firmly as anything to each end of the buckles after having threaded them through the holes in the board, so that nobody but nobody could pull them out save cutting them. Yes, this all took more than that one afternoon, but when it was finished I could buckle either board to the back of my basket, zippity-zap, and voila!—the ARCH Messenger was born.

The gods love a jury-rig.

This invention worked quite well, allowing me to carry a good deal more than I had before. Beyond the frequent orders of paper and board, which were now a snap to deliver in perfect condition, I had a second surface on which to stack parcels up to a foot or two high at times, with appropriate use of bungees of course. The boards were light and oh so sturdy, I could remove or switch them out in a flash as needed, and they actually improved the stability and balance of a lot of loads. After a time I became quite skilled with them, and could easily glide through traffic and even between lanes of stopped cars with a full load. I’m certainly a klutz and a dunce about some things, but I have terrific spatial acuity (even more so back then) and could guide those flats often without slowing within an inch of car mirrors on either side, never hitting a one. Not only did I save the store cash on a lot of pricy van runs (sorry, Quicksilver), I was able to schlepp those parcels to their destinations swift as pie. Everyone was happy.

Some time later when my expertise with the system had become second nature, I popped into the store after a run at 4:30 one afternoon to find not much happening. There was only one van delivery to go out and nothing coming in, so the manager told me I could go home for the day. But it was a gorgeous sunny summer afternoon, which in the 1980s meant that we had an hour or two before the fog began pouring in from the west, and I was in my mid-twenties, i.e. brimming with vim, and more up for a challenge than a chill. I glanced at the waiting package leaning against the wall, which was huge—four by eight feet of gator board in a stack about six inches thick, professionally wrapped and ready to go, addressed to a firm just a couple of blocks away. I was always looking for ways to test my skill with my delivery system, and here was a big chance to do so.

“Did you call the van for that yet?” I asked the manager.

“Just about to.”

“Let me take it,” I piped.

“How are you going to carry that thing?”

“I’ll take it on the bike.”

“No, you won’t.”

“I can totally do it.” I could do it. I knew I could, though the manager most definitely did not. But I did have some charm back in those days, and knew how to jump around enthusiastically and look cute. I also said that if the materials got damaged I’d pay for them and the van. I was an idiot. Amazingly, the manager agreed, and the experiment began.

The employees all pitched in to help me load the package onto the bike. This was a major bungee and cardboard job, needing every cord and strap I had and I still needed to tie the base board to the basket to keep it from flapping. The manager was right—this thing was too heavy and awkward to carry far, let alone easily keep in balance. Somehow we managed to get the behemoth parcel secured, centered, and as level as possible, with three feet of it hanging off the front of the basket and, well, close to four feet on either side. The bike was seriously front-heavy, wobbly, and hard to even push, but I was determined. ARCH was located at the time on Jackson Street a few buildings west of Sansome, on the northern edge of the Financial District and the southeast corner of Jackson Square. All I needed to do was get the bike two blocks down Jackson past Sansome and Battery to Front Street, then half a block to the left. A cakewalk, a hop skip and jump, and an increasingly intimidating endeavor. At least the route was flat, as were all the streets to the south and east, the Financial District being mostly built on landfill. Just a block or so north the hill up to North Beach began, while the slopes up to Chinatown were a few blocks west. I was good to go, and as I pushed the bike tentatively down the sidewalk to the end of the block, my workmates cheered me on and wished me luck. They were all good folk, and most likely expected me to succeed swimmingly rather than crash and burn. I was a little less sure.

I hopped on the bike a bit unsteadily, and when the light turned green I pumped it hard into the intersection. That’s where I hit my first bit of trouble. It was about five o’clock by this point, and the evening winds were already beginning. At this spot there was a good breeze pouring off the hill to the north, competing with one much stronger coming from the west. You see, there was one important thing that I forgot, that I didn’t factor in, that I didn’t think about, but who ever thinks really. That was the fact that on the other side of Sansome Street the buildings were much taller than those to the west, more than fifteen floors compared to the usual two or three stories of Jackson Square. As a result the wind was sucked down that block with a great deal more force than anywhere else around, especially in the breezy afternoon. Every messenger knew this; I just hadn’t realized that this load was large enough to be impacted by meteorological conditions. I caught on fast, though, as I met the winds churning in the intersection that almost flipped me over like a leaf. Somehow I managed to keep it steady(ish) and make it across without toppling. Then I hit the wind tunnel.

The bike took off like a rocket, or really more like a glider in a gale. The wind hit that sturdy eight-foot board and pushed. I have no idea how fast I was going, but I shot down that entire block, where fortunately there was no traffic at the time, in no more than several seconds, at maybe 30 mph at a guess. This all happened very fast. I was breathless, but as long as I kept that front wheel straight I would be okay. Then I realized two things almost at once. The first was that the board, the wing, was no longer tilting downward but was level and noticeably higher than it had been, and the front tire was no longer touching the ground. The parcel had in fact become a wing, and I had essentially turned my bicycle into a light aircraft. I assume the rear wheel was on the ground, but I wasn’t able to look, and for all practical purposes I was flying. The second thing I noticed was that I was coming up on the intersection of Jackson and Battery at quite a clip. Seems like Luck, that Patron Saint of Wild Children, was with me, as the light was in my favor. Thing is, it was the very start of rush hour, of go-home hour, and the intersection was filled with people doing just that, a few of whom were milling across Jackson Street against the light, having noticed no cars or trucks approaching. They were correct in that, though there was a light aircraft made of titanium and gator board bearing down on them. I had no way to slow or stop without crashing badly; I wasn’t even sure I could turn the wing if I had to. My instinct took over and I let out a screech worthy of a pterodactyl that stopped everyone in their tracks. Those few in my path dove to the side and I flew through triumphantly, exhilarated and very relieved. I couldn’t help but think that those pedestrians had just seen something that quite possibly no one else had ever seen (save perhaps the Wright Brothers), and which they’d be unlikely to forget.

The wind died down and the front wheel touched down and I pumped the brakes lightly till the bike came to a stop at Front Street. I dismounted shakily and walked it the rest of the way. The package arrived undamaged as, miraculously, did I.

This is the story of how I learned to fly, even if it was just for a moment and I had to learn very, very fast.

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I recently stumbled across this silly little piece in a notebook, which I seem to have written sometime last fall. So here ya go.

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AMOEBA QUATRAIN

My tongue is like an amoeba.
My amoeba is like a tongue.
Oh, how they love each other
rung by ravenous rung.

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Just a little wistful thing that leaked out, in the course of which I learned a couple of interesting etymologies. Turns out that “requiem”, meaning of course “rest” as in “rest in peace”, in Latin (and quite clearly to the eye if not the mind) means “re-quiet”, which nicely suggests a sense of cycle. And “amaranth”, which just came out as an image on its own, in Greek means “never fading”, perfect for this piece as well.

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REQUIEM

So frail, so frail a leaf we are
as sunlight caves to evening
and gnats descend and embers cool
for the industry we once held
strong as a towering oak, and hale
as any granite peak under snow
as if naught would ever fall, nothing fall
nor bone crumble to dust.

So full, so full our veins have been
in lavish fields of amaranth
of a May that dared to seem so fair
and never to trouble, never,
as on we rared aglare in glee
and dashed our clocks to the burgeoning ground
laughing and charging and weaving about
just on the cusp of bloom.

So rare, so rare the flesh becomes
stacked in the towers of bustle and charm
while documents pile and rockpiles slide
and no one remembers the crown
was once an achievement and once was a groom
ruddy and full-cheeked and terribly spry,
now thin as a web, thin as a web
this November afternoon.

So shorn, so shorn, the leaf cracks in two
and lets an aroma of drywood and grain
as rain falls and mud runs and all the pretty hair
seems murkily mattedly one,
and streams run together and the leaf joins the others
that once were their sisters through membrane and branch
and remain, remain a field and a barrow
for the morrow a yarrow to seed.

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A little found poem or more accurately an overheard poem, though the phrase I overheard, which may have been repeated once, became an echo loop in my brain growing louder and louder. So maybe it’s just a torture poem.

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THE RACK

by the Nordstrom Rack
by the Nordstrom Rack
by the Nordstrom Rack
it’s by the Nordstrom Rack
by the Nordstrom Rack
it’s by the Nordstrom Rack
it’s by the Rack
it’s by the Rack
it’s by the RACK
it’s by the Nordstrom Rack
by the Nordstrom by the
Nordstrom Nordstrom Nordstrom
by the Rack
by the Rack
Rack Rack Rack Rack
IT’S BY THE NORDSTROM RACK
BY THE NORDSTROM RACK
BY THE NORDSTROM RACK
BY THE RACK
BY THE RACK
BY THE RACK
RACK

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A recent piece for which I will give no explanation or apology.

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id entity

You know,
there’s only so much
a man can take
before things gotta change.
Things.
Man.
You.
It.
The id of it all,
inchoate it, germinal,
radiant, whence came
and how came it to be
caged
in this flesh-puddle
of a notion, this
conceit.
Don’t gimme
none a that
hogwash,
I
got things to do.
Things.
I.
Me.
Caged.
There’s no place like
the sty of an eye
like happenstance and
the hunt.
If yer looking
fer rhythm
you better look
hungry.
No.
You.
Like.
Look.
Like it or not
I will always evade
you, easy
as sky.
The wherewithal to continue
is troubled by
this seeming lack
of coiteration.
I.
You.
Will.
Seem.
Whoever took
the initial name
was forsaken,
doomed to braid
a horse
out of logs.
What fog we are
will be
tumbling ever
from the sea.

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On May 22, 2022, Steven Cosgrove performed a piano recital which he dedicated “to all of the child Mozarts of Ukraine who have had to flee their homes and for their lives from the Russian invasion.” I wrote the following pieces, which fit together as a triptych, while he played the pieces indicated in each section. I’ve pasted them in as images since this WordPress theme doesn’t support tab spacing.

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UKRAINE TRIPTYCH

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