poems by John Grey

The kids of my year


So there they are –

not in alphabetical order

but in three rows by height –

that’s Adamson, Jensen and Barkley at the back-

but who’s the blond kid?

and why is that face-pulling prickle-head

only vaguely familiar?


The middle is dominated by McLean –

such a smirk,

like he owned not just the classroom

but the world beyond it.

And, on his left, stands Craven,

his right hand man.


The ones in the front row

are all seated –

four are even girls –

Julie something,

Brenda Wright

or was it Wilson?


Some memories arrive fully formed –

like Bobby –

I can feel his fist

pounding my upper arm.


But others are so flimsy

that I don’t even bother trying to focus them –

yes they have faces, upper bodies,

but it’s still not enough for them

to breathe and talk and move around.


And there I am, middle row,

not smiling, not grimacing, not anything.

What a pathetic looking sod.

Luckily, I have other ways of knowing me.




The voice of progress


In every New England state,

mill towns junk their water wheels,

turn rotting floors into three-bedroom apartments.

Once the very last prayer is offered up to heaven,

churches are sold off to condominium developers.

The past is dead. The present inherits

and is eager to spend its good fortune.

Even ruins look presentable when totted up.

So battlefields are malls.

Sacred burial grounds become parking lots.


Who needs that last stand of trees, for example,

when we have carpenters and brick layers,

electricians and plumbers.

And show me a strip of desert

that a new casino can’t improve upon.


Sure, time is money. But so is space.

Wasted space. Like places where someone

might go to just sit and think.

So why not sit and think in new office space?

And what’s a nesting owl compared to the inscrutable face

of a bank lending officer perched behind a mahogany desk?


Even do-nothing rivers can be collated,

dammed into usefulness, a sense of wonder

coerced into a show of force.

Where once was history, now gather investors.

And nature’s where it belongs – elsewhere.

Yes, mosquitoes are a holdout

and they’re as stubborn as college kids with signs.

But their death is imminent

if a better way of life has anything to do with it.


Just remember, when the future is inevitable.

no use pretending that it’s rape.




You leave in winter


Those are your footprints

leading from my stoop

to the front gate.


The snow’s compacted,

preserved them,

even as it buries the path,

the garden.


Your departure

is trapped, slowed to a stillness.


Come spring,

the flowers will bloom.

Your leaving will thaw.




Do not disturb


Sure I’m skeptical,

and somewhat cerebral

with an unruly dress sense,

and I can be absorbed one minute

and totally indifferent the next –


not elegant, that’s for sure,

not first thing in the morning,

and raucous from time to time,

emotional, nonsensical,

and artistic once I convince

my hand to steady –


I’m weary and solemn and angry,

musical and occasionally avant-garde,

but only when realism is not working for me,

expressive, experimental, somewhat difficult,

more lyrical than visual,

and up-to-date, even post-up-to-date,

not a parent, more of an Uncle,

and as white as an egret’s feathers

in the parts of my body where the sun doesn’t shine –


I am not Jewish though I would be if I was,

reflective, on-edge, often at the same time,

misguided on my mother’s side,

but with my father’s narratives,

a tryer, a roller-coaster, an interrogator,

a slave to my craft –


yes, it’s a burden being all these things,

but a curl-up in a quiet corner

is often my ticket out.




Widow crying over the remains of her husband found in mass grave


He walked towards town.

She stood by herself

in a damp field.

It could have been anywhere, anytime.


She couldn’t sleep

wondering why he hadn’t returned.

Went for long strolls,

lost in her thoughts of the worst

that could have happened to him.


The air smelt of the earth they farmed.

A new government’s soldiers

dragged the weight of the war

out of soil more useful for growing rice.

They found bones both white and green.

Grinning skulls with nothing to grin about.


Hearing the news,

she ran barefoot down the gutted street.

Sank to her knees

when the soldiers tried to hold her back.

It was so much easier

to think of him alive

when his favorite ring

wasn’t gleaming through the mud.


By the times tears touched her cheeks,

they were already scars.

It was a lonely and useless end

to her vigilance.

Her heart had long encouraged her.

But none of what it said was true.




Character instructions 


Far from any highway,

or town for that matter,

follow the trail through thick woods,

narrow and sunless

but aided by occasional tree markings,

that leads to a cave,

a labyrinth really,

with tunnels branching off

in many directions,

but the one you want

drops down to the shore

of an underground river,

that you must wade across

to reach a passageway on the other side

where you should begin to see

strange markings on the walls,

silken threads dangling from the ceiling

that give the impression

of broken spider wings,

bones scattered here and there

on the muddy floor

and you’ll hear strange noises,

like a gorilla in great pain

though it’s coming from no great ape,

and much scurrying about,

lots of moving shapes,

shadows darting back and forth

across your flashlight ray,

before you finally enter this large chamber,

lit by glittering jewels,

with an altar on one end

and what appears to be a dark-robed man

conducting some kind of service

for twenty or so similarly-cloaked acolytes,

who bow their heads, hum softly,

with an occasional break

for an impassioned, “Yes master”,

before their leader suddenly

notices your presence, and all heads turn,

gleaming red eyes stare threateningly at you,

and then you’ll know you have arrived –

I can’t say whether you’ll live or die,

but you’re in chapter ten of my new novel.


poems by John Grey

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