Monday, April 30, 2012

A new home for Penguin Poems

Penguin Poems is moving to a new home on WordPress.  This old url will remain as a full archive of poems posted up through April 2012.  If you have enjoyed my writing, I hope you'll come find me in my new spot.  Follow me - and share what you find.  It's always great to hear from you!

Monday, April 23, 2012

Death in the pot

It's been a rough week in the neighborhood.  We had a grade-school kid collapse on our lawn after experimenting with synthetic marijuana.  Then a spate of gang-related graffiti, including some of the most disturbing racial threats I have seen.  What really set me back in the end was the way none of this even phased me.  I just carried on as if things were normal.  Which I guess they are.  No outrage, no compassion.  Just a kind of jaded indifference.  I don't like to think this the is person I am becoming.  Something has to change in this neighborhood - and maybe it's me  Maybe you can connect with this, in some way.  Anyway, I wrote this bop as I reflected on the experience of these days. 

He couldn’t have been more than twelve years old,
face down on our lawn, strung out on K-2.
Out of nowhere there were three police cars
blocking the street, soon joined by a fire truck
and a white ambulance.  Then came the crowd,
the shouts, the knowing looks, the same old dance.

Something has to change in this neighborhood.

Overnight there was fresh graffiti sprayed
on our neighbors’ garage – a racial slur
with a threat.  The City sent a young man
to take photos.  He hardly said a word.
It all just felt so completely normal:
cops on our lawn, the n-word three feet tall.
It wasn’t until my son said to me,
“I’m scared to be outside,” that it hit me:

Something has to change in this neighborhood.

Suddenly I’m angry.  Seething at the
drug pushers, slum lords, smug politicians,
most of all, myself – for falling asleep,
dulled by twenty years in one place, until
I don’t blink when a kid might be dying
on my doorstep.  There is death in the pot.

Something has to change in this neighborhood.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Coming through in the clutch - Live Video

Here's a true (ish) story - performed live at Elkhart's b on the River, in March 2012.  My mother was present for the show, so I couldn't resist.  She's an amazing woman!

Independence Day

Got off on a mental tangent this weekend, thinking about a "Doomsday" poetry prompt from Robert Lee Brewer, and wondering how my Amish neighbors might handle an alien invasion...

After the Fourth of July holiday,
there are no famous landmarks left standing.
The Golden Gate Bridge, The Eiffel Tower,
Big Ben, The White House – none of them survive.

But here in town, no one knows much about
all that. At the Village Inn, plain-dressed men
eat heaping plates of scrapple and head cheese
and joke in low German about tourists,

while girls in coverings and tennis shoes
giggle about ketchup and the panties
they got at the U.P. Mall. No one looks
twice at the thing sitting in the corner.

When all you wear is dark pants and blue shirts
everyone else looks like an alien.
You love your enemies, and sympathize
with all who sing: “This world is not my home.”

Outside in the parking lot, the horses
make strange at the iridescent saucer
hitched awkwardly to the post between them
swishing their tails to keep the flies at bay.

When Amos Yoder’s barn is vaporized
the Amish refuse to retaliate.
Instead, volunteers come from miles around
and raise a brand new building by milking time.

This pattern is repeated for a week
until the invaders give up and leave.
At the Village Inn, they are serving pie,
and there are no planes flying overhead.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Something worth saving (the Octain Refrain)

Before you start to save my soul
from hell, it’s hardly worth it yet.
There so much life I want to get

to, if you’d spare the time. My goal
is this: to take a week to break
the rules. And laugh. I want to roll

back here, sky-high on being whole,
before you start to save my soul.

. . . . .

Sometime last year, I ran into the poetic work of Luke Prater.  He writes a great blog under the title WordSalad.  Well worth your time checking him out.  The Octain Refrain is one of Luke's creations, and I find it a fascinating form within which to write. 

It has eight lines, arranged as two tercets followed by a couplet.  Each line has eight syllables, normally in iambic or trochaic meter (but it's also OK just to count syllables if you prefer).  The last line is a repeat of the first line, as much as possible.

The rhyme scheme is as follows:
a-c/c-a  [note the middle line here has a mid-line rhyme:c-c]

 or, alternatively


A bit confusing just to read the rubric.  Probably easier to read a couple of examples to see how it works in practice.  The poem I started this post with is an Octain Refrain.  Here's a link to another, by poet Beth Winter.  Why not try an Octain Refrain yourself?  And drop me, or Luke, a note to say how you get on!

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

How we got to Vegas

(a quatern)

Looking back on it, we might have
thought twice before bringing a kid
blessed with agoraphobia
thirteen hours to the Grand Canyon.

It just never occurred to us.
Looking back on it, we might have
noticed the first signs of distress
when he stopped in the parking lot

at the South Rim and turned around,
striding away from the view, not
looking back at it. We might have
forced him to stay, but why go there?

Nature’s overrated, I said.
Let’s go to Vegas. So we did.
Did we have the best time ever?
Looking back on it, we might have!

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

When the well has run dry

When the well has run dry
it comes without warning.
The tongue swells in your cheek,
thick and livid, so that
your words no longer speak.

When the well has run dry,
you curse Providence for
this damming of the source
of such early growth. You
rail. Yet it is, of course,

when the well has run dry
that the real work begins.
This is the place you give
yourself to the long task
of learning how to live

when the well has run dry,
the daily love affair
with hardy words you kiss
into unlikely soil
to bloom up from the dust.

Monday, March 19, 2012


The Summer of Love,
I bit my baby-sitter.
She was beautiful.


Wednesday, March 14, 2012

The most important day of your life - VIDEO

Video from a recent performance - the World Cup wedding epic: "The most important day of your life."  Enjoy!

New school

He didn’t want to go to school that day
The kids were scary, he hated lunch
And the custodian was mean.
At last, his mother told him
The first day is the worst
But it’s a nice place
And besides that
You’re a fine

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Love fell laughing

Love fell laughing into the gulf
between our feet. We burned the lies
to stay warm, those that had lashed us

together, hobbled. Some saw us
as one splendid flesh, to engulf
their own griefs. They were wrong What lies

in us is a hope that belies
all expectation. For both of us
we owe our lives to this new gulf

the gulf, hard-won, that lies between us.

Posted to share with friends at dVerse Poets Pub.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

To be alive

A thousand eager faces hold the stage
in rapt attention. Slowly every heart
unfurls within this sacred arc. We start
by watching from afar, thinking our sage
or cynical remove can keep the rage
of fractured love at bay. But in the art
of light and gesture, we are pulled apart
by words astounding from the poet’s page.

The veil of separation has been torn
with rude abandon, making every breast
complicit in the tragedy before
us. For we share their breath, yet do not warn
them of their fate. Seeing our lives expressed
we ache to be alive, and cry for more.

Maybe we all exist

Maybe we all exist
only to inflict pain
on the ones that we care
the most about, without
even being aware;

maybe we all exist
only to light the sky
and fill each other's dreams.
Neither one seems true. From
these desert years, it seems

maybe we all exist
to each other only
when we chance through the sieve
which asks our heart for "yes"
where it can only give

"maybe." We all exist
firstly to be ourselves;
willing to stand alone
and trust our heart's desire
to plumb their own unknown.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012


Some days I really fret about karma,
afraid that I have totally screwed up
my chance to bring peace to those around me.

I feel guilty for taking advantage
of your love for crunchy peanut butter,
and shame for the ways I schemed against you.

Each time I picture you, lying spread out
in the kitchen, stiff as a tiny board,
I wince, and hope it didn’t hurt too much.

Next time around the wheel, if you come back
as something bigger and fiercer than me,
please, please, know it was nothing personal.

To share with friends at the dVerse Poets Pub.


Lying in the moon
we listen to our breathing
as your fingers trace
the graceful curve of my breast
rising and falling - for you.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

At the dance

He likes her, but not like
that, you know what I mean?
Only, she doesn’t get
it, and he hasn’t found
a way to tell her yet.

He likes her, but not like
he would like a girlfriend.
His teenage heart beats loud
for one of her friends, who
can’t see him in the crowd.

He likes her, but not like
he should, the idiot.
It just wouldn’t occur
to his hair-gelled brain that
if he ever tells her

he likes her, but not like
that, he will be breaking
both their hearts. She won’t wait
for him, and when he comes
back, it will be too late.

Monday, February 13, 2012


He wasn’t so complicated, really,
this overgrown kid playing in the barn.
Once when he grew weary of listening
to my sophomoric agonizing,

he challenged me to a game of ping pong.
Who would have thought that this sly old fox had
so much game, as teenagers say today?
He was leading me, nineteen points to twelve,

when suddenly his forehand fell apart.
Taking advantage, I reeled off nine points
in a row and stormed back to victory.
Funny how beating him raised my spirits.

It never occurred to me that a man
of God might be willing to throw a game,
sacrifice himself, so to speak, for me.
When he cleared out his office, he gave me

a small wooden sculpture of a farmer
sowing seed, crouched like a ping pong player,
ready to throw away all that he has.
He wasn’t so complicated, really.

In loving memory of  Herbert Eugene (Gene) Herr, May 11, 1932 – Jan 1, 2012

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

My old man

To be honest, it’s not clear how you got this job.
Maybe you applied, maybe it just happened
to you like a piano falling out of a third story
window, jingling down black keys of destiny
on your incipient male-pattern baldness.

You try and learn how to love. For a guy that’s not
easy. Mostly all you have known is movies with
explosions and lots of cleavage. And now, all of a
sudden, you’re watching a tiny chest rising and falling,
speechless before one of the wonders of the world.

Over the years, you walk the wire like you own dad did.
Sternly setting your deckchair at strategic points on the
beach, sometimes for well-considered reasons, sometimes
just to prove that you are still bigger and wiser, and
that you do in fact exist and matter somehow in the universe.

But meanwhile there’s the constant undertow. The cloud
of unknowing pierced by unforgiving questions. The realization
that maybe you don’t understand at all. That all you have
succeeded in becoming is a carbon copy of your own father.
And in a way, you don’t mind. As long as the kid is okay.

But then comes the night. And you’re lying awake, listening.
Listening for the front door to open and close. Listening
for voices to tell you that actually nothing is wrong. Listening
to the vast silence. Listening to your baby crying, because
his whole body hurts and he doesn’t understand why.

Written for a prompt over at the wonderful Poetic Bloomings site.

To the plastic king we found upside-down in the tree outside our house this morning

Were you exhausted from the journeying,
tired of the idle kingly chatter
or in your golden cups from a night out
a every inn in which they made room
for you and the boys to let your hair down?

Perhaps you just shut your eyes and let go.
Maybe that is what this whole gig was about,
finding yourself, as they say around here.
The star, the baby, the makeshift presents,
all that was just a happy accident.

Tomorrow you must turn the horses west,
sit straight, and begin the long return to
the steel cage of responsibility.
But just for now, sleep well your majesty,
for you may never get the chance again.

Tuesday, January 31, 2012


Daniel is a remarkable man (three point 14159265)
he has asperger’s and epilepsy (3589793238)

and has the wild gift of synesthesia (4626433832)
which means he sees numbers as colors (7950288419)

in his book he says numbers are my friends (7169399375)
always around me… each one is unique (1058209749)

days all have colors too.  Wednesdays are blue (4459230781)
so is the number nine, and loud voices (6406286208)

today he’s reciting the constant Pi (9986280348)
he’s been at it for over five hours now (2534211706)

that’s over twenty-two thousand digits (7982148086)
I feel like I’m staring at the ocean.

In honor of author Daniel Paul Tammet, who on March 14, 2004, set the European record for reciting the digits of Pi, to 22,514 digits.  Remarkably, this  record ranks sixth in the world.  The human mind is amazing.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Singin' in the rain - radio commentary

Here's my latest radio commentary for our local public radio station, 88.1 WVPE.  It's a fun piece about my first steps in the world of tap dancing!

click HERE to listen!

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

High art

Did we really have to invite Pablo
to do our family portrait again?
It may be great art to you, but to me
it just looks like I have a double chin.

You and your favorite bohemians
will be the death of me yet, I swear it.
Like that time you asked your good pal Jackson
to paint the kitchen while we were away…

I will admit that the senior portraits
you got Mr. Mapplethorpe to whip up
for Bryce were unique – but could we send them
to my folks in Kansas? I don’t think so!

So how about this, Mr. Art Lover?
Next time, we make a trip down to Wal Mart
and let some teenage kid take our photo,
squinting cheek-to-cheek, like normal people?

(...a little midweek musing to share with friends over at the dVerse Poet's Pub)

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Orlando's practicing

Orlando’s practicing
a word he heard me say
last Friday at the store.
I thought I whispered it,
but now I’m not so sure.

Orlando’s practicing
and I can’t make him stop.
He’s having too much fun
at how folks choke each time
he lets his foul mouth run.

Orlando’s practicing
was cute at first. But now
the parents of his friends
won’t let us visit them
until this blue streak ends.

Orlando’s practicing
again tonight. I tried
distraction, but no luck.
He simply scrunched his eyes
and burbled, “Daddy! F***!”

A goofy monchielle for frends over at the dVerse Poet's Pub.
This may, or may not, be a true story...

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

What no one can understand

We must not keep doing
this. The words spill slowly,
with my hand in your hair,
in some lost restaurant
sixty miles from nowhere.

We must not keep doing
such damage to ourselves,
and those we love. The lift
our souls gained at the start
has turned into a gift

we must not keep. Doing
anything together
now holds our life in thrall
to fear, muscles clenched for
the axe we know will fall.

We must not keep doing
this, dear friend. For freedom’s
found not in what we choose,
but rather in the good
we at the last refuse.

A monchielle, written for a friend in a long-distant cafe.
To share with friends at the dVerse Poet's Pub.

How I lost the Nobel Prize

I invented a brand-new medical
procedure, tentatively christened as
the nasal-scrotal swappy-ectomy,

a completely life-changing surgery
for an as-yet unidentified group
of sufferers scattered across the globe.

The first guy we tried it on did just great
until someone at church said: “The milk’s off.
Give it a sniff and tell me what you think.”

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Epiphany, 2012

Light steals into the coffee shop
with sand-rimmed eyes still arguing
the route.  A plain girl is watching

their confusion, coarse cloth on top
of her nursing child, soft singing
gilding the room. The strangers stop,

stunned, as at their journey’s ending
light steals into the coffee shop.

(an Octain Refrain, for friends in the wonderful dVerse community)