The Pope Coffin
I do not know whether dad
believed in heaven.
He had a sense for the sacred.
Sometimes all you see is the fruit;
the root remains secret.
My father never discussed death,
except to say he wanted a coffin
like Pope John Paul II: clear
lines, no frivolous embellishments –
an architect’s choice.
The minister spoke about the city-to-come,
solemn and hopeful, consoling
without the saccharine promises
dad would have hated. One must leave
space for uncertainty.
About the Author: Agnes Vojta grew up in Germany and now lives in Rolla, Missouri where she teaches physics at Missouri S&T and hikes the Ozarks. She is the author of Porous Land, The Eden of Perhaps, and A Coracle for Dreams, all published by Spartan Press. Most recently, she has been collaborating with eight other poets on the book Wild Muse: Ozarks Nature Poetry (Cornerpost Press, 2022.) Her poems have appeared in a variety of magazines; you can read some of them on her website agnesvojta.com.
As the Managing Editor of As It Ought To Be Magazine, I want to thank all of our contributors and our readers. 2022 was a great year for poetry and I am grateful for everyone who shared their work with AIOTB. Here’s to another bumper crop of poetry, reviews, and nonfiction in 2023!
With his trademark spare and exact style, John Dorsey’s latest book of poetry guides us through a carnival of characters that stretches across the country in space, and deep into his decades on the road. What sets Dorsey apart from the other geographers of trailer parks, small town diners, and dollar stores is the balanced empathy of his writing. There isn’t anything sensationalized or exploited. What he reports may shock, but his work never relies on shock value or gratuitously gruesome description to strike its blow. The power of his work is in his ability to make his readers empathize with the marginalized and grotesque without straying into the cheap pathos of pity.
In a poem about a man who lost part of his nose to cancer, Dorsey concludes in the final stanza:
but he’s not pretty enough for heaven
or the silver screen
& not ugly enough
to hide his face
& let some lonesome dirt road
forget he was ever there
This liminal space between beauty and ugliness, between heaven and hell, is where Dorsey’s redneck carnival is located. Beauty is always tempered by the constraints of the environment in which it lives, and what gets written off as ugly is infused with humanity, glowing with careful understanding. At this carnival, the “prettiest girl in town,” “pours drinks/ &becomes a wingless canary/ singing for tips/ in a cage filled with smoke.” Later, Dorsey’s poem for his grandmother similarly envelops us with smoke, describing her with the following:
I never remember you looking young
shaky hands lighting one cigarette
off the other
black rings under your eyes
but your smile was magic
talking about tv preachers
by their first names
as if they really did care
about your salvation
Cigarette smoke is the before and after: beauty destined to shrivel in its environment and the unsinkable beauty deep within an already withered face. As you thumb through Dorsey’s poems, the question is always, who is living in the before and who is living in the after? Who is the young and beautiful destined for pain and age, and who is the weathered soul whose beauty still flickers from inside a battle scarred body?
Take his short “Trailer Park Song, 1982” for example:
Brief, simple, yet unexpected. Dorsey hands us the unanticipated connection of anger and beauty without a treatise on their causal relationship. In another poem, “Love Letter for Jana Horn”:
the mailbox is full of postcards
from hipster boys
who just want
to be swallowed whole
by a desert rose
The young who are destined to become old, and the old who cling to what makes us young in spirit all desire to be consumed by beauty. In Dorsey’s poetry, beauty is as much an aspiration as it is a physical state. Physical beauty is fated to fade, which in of itself is beautiful, but the aspiration toward beauty is what remains after flesh fails.
The only time Dorsey is explicit in labeling true ugliness, is ironically, when he describes a young woman asking “for donations/ for a baby beauty pageant”:
for a twirl
at the baton
is nothing uglier
It’s here where Dorsey draws somewhat of a line where his appreciation of the aspiration toward beauty stops. There is an inherent ugliness in these pageants that exploit the bodies of young people and inculcates in them a belief that beauty should be subject to the judgment of others. Yet, even in his distaste for the pageant, Dorsey isn’t judgmental of the young woman asking for donations. She has bought into the ugly side of hope when our culture commodifies our aspirations to be beautiful. The same is implied in the earlier poem about his grandmother and the TV preachers who pretend to care about her salvation. It’s not the women having hope that is ugly, but instead, the ugliness is in the cynical hope sold to them by institutions that promise what they won’t deliver.
Dorsey never patronizes his subjects by lapsing from empathy to condescension. Sympathy can often be a temporary license we give ourselves to gawk at someone’s misery. While Dorsey doesn’t shy away from presenting the sad circumstances of someone’s life, he also never infringes on their agency by flattening them into one-dimensional victims. Even the aforementioned cancer survivor:
says we are all ravenous locusts
at the same overcrowded trough
as he explains his theories on women
We can only imagine what these “theories” might be, or what he might be expressing with the locusts comment. What is sure is that these complicating aspects of the man’s personality play against any impulse to use his cancer as a thin premise for sympathy. He is not the perfect victim, just a human whose cancer is part of his story.
Dorsey’s poems are all honest reports on the damage we all live with, and whether this damage is a circumstance of birth or self-inflicted, the damage is inextricable from our stories. For example, Dorsey bluntly spells this out in his poem “Young Man”:
i’m not saying
you were no good
just rotten on the inside
like a bag of sour apples
who left us too young.
Dorsey does not fear pinpointing the rot inside this young man, but also avoids any kind of judgment on him or blame on anyone else. It is taboo to speak ill of the dead, but our culture’s fear of this taboo often leads us to invent a fictitious version of the dead that paints them as blameless and brightsides their darkness. This is more of a dishonor than providing an accurate record of the life they led because it erases all their choices and every mark they made, good or bad. It doesn’t remember the dead; it forgets them immediately and entirely.
This leads me back to what I refer to as John Dorsey’s balanced empathy. Empathy doesn’t mean excusing or ignoring the faults and failings of an individual, but understanding the trauma residing in someone’s scars, including the self-inflicted. Dorsey’s balanced empathy calls attention to the ugliness of the sour apples rotting in all of us, but in just a few words, he makes the pain of carrying this rot momentarily beautiful.
hotter than the rangers intended, judgment of flame on vine & brier, jellied gas vengeance tears sapling chokehold: it’s time, past time, juices boil and crack and twenty feet up long needles scorch a black shroud but wait until spring, green crown emerging from char, heartwood alive, and at each tree’s feet an oblation of nourishing ash;
forgive me for the tangle of all our years: it’s time, past time, thorns twisted between us, my fear of hot words, flamed feelings, my fear of burning ignoring litter and scrub prone to flare with a spark and now how high might the fury rise? but wait, some lively shoot has still struggled up from the core: thank you for feeding it, thanks for the strength of your own sweet heartwood, but most of all thank you for the match.
About the Author: Bill Griffin is a naturalist who lives in rural North Carolina. His poetry has appeared in NC Literary Review, Tar River Poetry, Southern Poetry Review and elsewhere. His ecopoetry collection, Snake Den Ridge, a Bestiary (March Street Press 2008), is set in the Great Smoky Mountains. Bill features Southern poets, nature photography, and microessays at this blog: http://Griffin.Poetry.com.
ImageCredit: Carol M. Highsmith “Remnants of a previous forest fire in Yellowstone National Park, in the northwest corner of the western state of Wyoming” (2015) The Library of Congress (Public Domain)
So you never went back to the time you left yourself on the tall grass beneath the dull black night
where you counted stars and satellites; you listened as the planets hummed.
Because you had forgotten that like this, even the pull of earth couldn’t move you.
Because you were still tv static and telephone wires, barking dogs and the trembling streetlight,
you decided if life should exist out there, it would be made of light and air, color and sound.
When you blinked and lost your body, the sky flashed, you named the moons trapped in each planet’s gravity
and you only looked back once to find her there– body on the tall grass, not terrestrial, but full of stars
About the Author: Emily Martin is a writer from New York City. She holds a B.A. in English Literature and Creative Writing from Hunter College and is currently working towards an M.A. in Media Studies.
this café is contrary
a strange anomaly in a land of diners
walls paper brick with watercolor mustangs
one calendar, two posters of the hulk
one hulk decal on the cooler
I wonder about the calendar to quality ratio
an equation mastered in blue highways
then wonder how many hulk posters equal a calendar
the waitress says her son raises groundhogs
I don’t know what to say
maybe she’s fucking with me
I look deep in the hulk’s eyes this year he has forty-two groundhogs
I say, that sure is a lot of groundhogs
bessemer tunnels and carbon snow
a few towns away
my mother’s family settled in the 1850’s
dropping the A and E
dropping the family crest
marrying into a family with a township named after them
a yellow sign juts from the snow in surrender I miss the america I grew up in
I want to believe this is a statement
on a widening gap in equality
on the erosion of class
on the working persons giving everything away
on the ways we allow government to fail
in not mandating social responsibility
instead, it’s another absurd conservative screed
about the good old days that never were
times when people went to church
family values happened and abortions didn’t
the stop signs have addendums
one says stop touching me
another stop, hump me
the last stop and dance
these winter messages so conflicted
I hunt frozen snakes along the kiskiminetas
here in the bleak of february
I fill myself with enough gray
to crush the restlessness that grows each snow
ten hours after the groundhog
he saw his shadow
so did this town
there is no evidence this civilization
still tries to understand weather
through the eyes of animals
About the Author: Jason Baldinger is from Pittsburgh and looks forward to roaming the country writing poems again. His newest books are A Threadbare Universe (Kung Fu Treachery Press) and The Afterlife is a Hangover (Stubborn Mule Press). A History of Backroads Misplaced: Selected Poems 2010- 2020 (Kung Fu Treachery) is forthcoming later this year. His work has been published widely across print journals and online. You can hear him read his work on Bandcamp and on lp’s by The Gotobeds and Theremonster.
Welcome to AIOTB Magazine’s second Poetry Soundbite, an on-going series of poetry readings and interviews. For this edition, we welcome John Dorsey, who will read from his book Sick, a collaborative collection of poems with Daniel Crocker. Dorsey’s poems explore growing up with cerebral palsy and the challenges he faced in an era before our present day accommodations for young people with disabilities.
About the Author: John Dorsey lived for several years in Toledo, Ohio. He is the author of several collections of poetry, including Teaching the Dead to Sing: The Outlaw’s Prayer (Rose of Sharon Press, 2006), Sodomy is a City in New Jersey (American Mettle Books, 2010), Tombstone Factory, (Epic Rites Press, 2013), Appalachian Frankenstein (GTK Press, 2015) Being the Fire (Tangerine Press, 2016) and Shoot the Messenger (Red Flag Press, 2017),Your Daughter’s Country (Blue Horse Press, 2019),Which Way to the River: Selected Poems 2016-2020 (OAC Books, 2020) and The Prettiest Girl at the Dance (Blue Horse Press, 2020. His work has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize, Best of the Net, and the Stanley Hanks Memorial Poetry Prize. He was the winner of the 2019 Terri Award given out at the Poetry Rendezvous. He may be reached at email@example.com.
We get a Santa Ana
and wake to streets
full of branches
and trash and a palm tree
that’s crashed down
through the wrought iron fence
around the city yard.
Today, the air is still
for a while, but the winds
always come back,
or they have so far.
The train tracks are
covered in tumbleweeds.
This air that has come down
from the highland deserts
News of the Weather
The first weather report I get
is when the airport shifts
its flight pattern directly over us,
and I know the winds are coming.
The breaks in our conversation
as the engines pass above
soon become natural and unnoticed
unless one of us points them out.
The eucalyptus across the train tracks
looks shaggy today. I wonder
what it will look like tomorrow.
The flags on top of the tax service
and immigration building are torn
to feathers by the Santa Ana winds,
and that feels like a metaphor
for something, but I’m not sure what.
The winds have always felt
more symbol than real to me.
They’re so dry they suck
the water right out of you.
We can see for miles across
the normally smoggy sky, and at night
we get stars. All of these things
might mean something like someone
is out there telling us something
with great clarity that I could see
except that I am limited to being just who I am.
After the winds
have died down
here in the valley,
they are still rising
a mist of snow
blowing it off the top
of Mt. Baldy,
which I can see
headed straight up
It’s still early
on a Sunday morning,
and I’m the only one
out in the world
by the Santa Anas.
The dawn has no transition
through filtered air.
One moment it’s night,
and the next it’s full day.
The New Neighbors
When the Santa Ana picks up,
some long haul truckers
pull off the freeways
and park in the neighborhood.
We can see their cabs
in the pale blue lights
of their computers
as they wait out the winds.
When we walk the dog
down the street in the evening,
we invade their space.
This is now their backyard.
About the Author, John Brantingham: I was the first poet laureate of Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Park, and my work has been featured in hundreds of magazines and in Writer’s Almanac and The Best Small Fictions 2016. I have eleven books of poetry and fiction including my latest fiction collection Life: Orange to Pear (Bamboo Dart Press). I teach at Mt. San Antonio College.
Image Credit: Impressions of Southern California by Chase Dimock
6am, and the world is just about to fire up again and
over across the way there’s a black dog straining at its chain, barking and barking at a starless black sky,
black sky fading to a sheet metal grey, then, a pale powder blue,
hot black coffee starting to cool,
sixteen Redwing Blackbirds sitting on a wire,
right above a rusted-out pick-up that’s missing its front driver’s side tire.
A shoebox full of unopened letters,
a black pleather cowboy boot sprouting yellow flowers,
a piece of notebook paper, found in a copy of Don Quixote; a long list of “things to do, Summer 2002 (#14- finish Don Quixote).”
And here, at the center of it all, an old-school, wind-up alarm clock chopping out our meager allotments of time with a tiny, relentless, insectile sound.
Time; just never enough of it to go around.
About the Author: Jason Ryberg is the author of thirteen books of poetry, six screenplays, a few short stories, a box full of folders, notebooks and scraps of paper that could one day be (loosely) construed as a novel, and, a couple of angry letters to various magazine and newspaper editors. He is currently an artist-in-residence at both The Prospero Institute of Disquieted P/o/e/t/i/c/s and the Osage Arts Community, and is an editor and designer at Spartan Books. His latest collection of poems is The Ghosts of Our Words Will Be Heroes in Hell (co-authored with Damian Rucci, John Dorsey, and Victor Clevenger, OAC Books, 2020). He lives part-time in Salina, KS with a rooster named Little Red and a billygoat named Giuseppe and part-time somewhere in the Ozarks, near the Gasconade River, where there are also many strange and wonderful woodland critters.