The Brooklyn Rail

MARCH 2021

All Issues
MARCH 2021 Issue
Poetry A Tribute to Lewis Warsh

three from Elixir

Noblesse Oblige

Pay attention to all the details
of writing. Sentence structure, for
instance, and the use of commas.
The abyss needs some attention as
well as the void, but words
are not interchangeable, and
cellphone use is not permitted
during class. The highest grade
you can get is a D, but don’t despair,
many people did poorly in school
and went on to high-paying jobs.
It’s not that interesting to contemplate
the afterlife, but might be something
you do in your spare time, just for fun.
“By the Time I Get to Phoenix” was
a favorite song, but don’t look back
at the high and low ends of the spectrum,
starting in the stone age with the invention
of fire, and ending in the present with the
sun disappearing behind the clouds,
and you in my arms (or not). The
moment exhausts itself like a runaway
train, the rush-hour traffic on the Long
Island Expressway, the cross-town
bus no longer in service. It’s not a bad
idea to walk a mile or two every day.
Let’s meet for a double expresso
and a plate of humus and cheese
some late afternoon when all the kids
are in school. I had a brush with the law
when I was sixteen, I must admit, but
I dodged a bullet and they let me go free.
“If it happens again,” someone said, “you’ll
be in deep shit,” and since that day I’ve
kept my nose clean, my eyes on
the message board so I know what’s
coming next. I’ve had enough surprises
in one life time, to say the least. A
priest in street clothes gave us his
blessings when we picked him up on the
side of the road. “Where’s the nearest Justice
of the Peace,” we asked, the way city
slickers ask country folk if they can milk
a cow, and the man in the back seat
answered, “You’ve come to the right
place, I’m him.”

In Spite of Everything
      for Rackstraw Downes

The emergency medical worker
Stretching his legs in the parking
Lot of the local hospital,

The tour guide taking a piss
In the bathroom of Shaker Village,
The half-naked woman leaning

Out the tenement window
Calling the man in shorts
Home for dinner, the air

Train delay from Newark Airport
To Penn Station and the man on the
Intercom announcing that full

Service has been restored, the left-
Over sushi, the woman
Sitting on the side of the bed

Watching cable news, a slice of
Stale toast with jam, the wall
Covered with graffiti, the bags

Of garbage in the deserted lot, the
Mountain-climber’s fall, the cemetery
Plot, the words on the gravestones,

The abbott at the door of the
Monastery, the bark of a tree
When you’re hungry,

The book on your knees
When you’re falling asleep,
The dud avocado, the overdue mortgage,

The bare-chested men on the street corner
Playing dominos, a turkey and her brood
Crossing the road.

On the Western Front
for Katt Lissard


A feint to the left and he was
out in the open court, where
anything was possible, morning
till midnight, and then it was

time to stare at the moon
and stars and think of people
in the past tense only, because
that’s where they are, or

were, the flowers out the bedroom
window, the key on the tray, and
that’s where we want them to stay,
no questions asked.


An angel-food cake soaked in sherry
was offered to the friends of the
diseased, but they were already half-
way out the door

by the time I arrived in full regalia
to serenade them with a version
of Dizzy’s “Salted Peanuts” and the theme
from “A Summer Place.”

Meanwhile, the ghost of Xmas past
just showed up on my doorstep. (Sorry,
I don’t want any.) You can read
the small print about fringe

benefits and douse the carrots
with pesticide as the night goes
on without you like Homer in the original,
all his friends and relatives eating

couscous at the local pub. More finger
food than you can imagine under one roof,
more false starts, more late night spins
with the hood down, going nowhere fast.

What looks like a mirage on
the distant horizon, beckoning
you forward and back with the wave
of a hand, as if you were dancing

the lindy with your sister in
front of a mirror or leaping
over a turnstile to escape
from the cops.


Even I agree we have to improve our intelligence
capabilities. I don’t mean our ability to spy on other
people or intercept phone conversations. It’s one
thing to train a telescope on the windows of your
neighbors as they emerge from sleep or follow
the woman next door as she enters the corner grocery
and asks the man behind the counter for a coffee
with half & half, no sugar. You can jot down every-
thing she does in your little black book and afterwards
you can report to headquarters, like they do in the
movies. The officer in charge will compliment you for
a job well done. “We’ve been watching her for years,”
he says, “and now we know.”


It’s important to read Being and Nothingness
at least once in your life, though some
would say the same about other books as
well as the thought one might read it twice
just to make sure the message sinks in. There

is no message, except “I’m sorry, I was late.
My train stopped between stations. There was
police action, or something. I’m not sure what,
but it took awhile to restore order, and then
the train continued, as if in slow motion,
stopping at one station, followed by another,
and people I don’t know got off and on,
some of them sat down, but most of them
were standing, and once a man
gave his seat to a pregnant woman
who thanked him profusely.”


It seemed like I had passed myself
off as someone different, who had changed
over night from one person to another, but maybe

it was you who sat in the sun for too long, under
duress, your dress hanging over the arm of a chair.
There were dirty dishes in the sink

from the night before and a pink streak
of light in the sky above the river.
Maybe we’ll look back years from now and blot

it all out or replay the moment in living color,
the way you reached for the phone in the middle
of night and realized it was ringing in your head

and no one was home, only a voice at the end
of the line calling your name. “Wrong number,”
you said, and hung up, without thinking twice.


You can stack up on crackers
for the Fourth of July. Take
your inhalers just in case. They were

shipped here from Taiwan
by a little sparrow. Ventilating
machines on wheels in the

parking garage. Minutes of life
are lost until the air gauge
system filters are restored.

Surgical intervention. A movie of animals
in a state of heat. The moment
between now and when the music

stops. Flowers on the windowsill,
flowers in the dust. A confluence of random
particles, off-shore turbulence,

and flood warnings.


If you don’t see me when I enter the bar
It’s because you’ve already had one too many

You must take yourself home
Under your own reconnaissance

If that’s the right word
But don’t touch the electric fence

It will make you sad, and with head bowed
And heavy with the weight of clouds

And tears you will measure the key to
Fit the lock and place a bag of tomatoes

And plums on the kitchen table
So everyone can partake or not

But don’t put your hat
On the bed for bad luck


A psychopath from the Smithsonian
sank his teeth into my arm.

The tops of taxis going by in the rain.

A table for three in a restaurant
overlooking the river.

A sack of sweet potatoes on the floor
of the pantry.

Don’t cash in your dividends until the market

Buy a package of eight and get one free.

A country as big as a postage stamp
where all the meters are broken.
An all you can eat buffet,
weekdays, noon till 2.

Take the wheel for a moment.
I need a nap.


I played my last gig at Funky
Broadway, a bed & breakfast

that had seen better days. I drank
myself under the table and ate a

fruit cup (for breakfast) and
a sugarless scone. The Old Gray

Mare was tied to a hitching post
when a man in a Stetson

riding side saddle entered
the bar with guns blazing and

the night sky was reflected in the
bathroom mirror where a guy with

lipstick on his collar fell asleep on
the cold tiles and bit his tongue when

he came back from the dead like
a heavyweight who had fallen to his

knees in the center of the ring to
sing a rendition of “Danny Boy”

(one last time) to his admiring



Time is like a river, no, shit, it’s like
a song.

You can give away more than you take
and sleep through the night with a heavy

It’s possible you have lead poisoning,
or maybe something you ate at a chain
restaurant on a blind date when you were
a kid

brought on an attack of nerves. And you
never recovered.

A nurse came to take my blood
pressure and gave me a pill

to knock me out. Gladys Knight &
the Pips were singing “Midnight
Train to Georgia.”

The conductor says “all aboard” but I’m
asleep on my feet.

Hang on tight or let go. It’ll be over
in a minute.


I had cherry pie for
dessert, but the crust

was too moist.
A cop wrote me a ticket

for eating a fruit-
tart on the street.

The ghosts of love
summon me

to a lonely grave.
Seasons greetings

from the pest control guy
and his mother.


My boat washed up on an island where
there were a few palm trees and a couple
of squirrels. You can see the squirrels

running up one side of the tree
and down the other. The defining moment
of my life came and went, and no one noticed.

Will the author please stand up? The
houselights go on and the audience tosses
flowers onto the stage, but the author

has retired to the local pub for a game
of darts and a pint of Guinness.


Cold brisket waits for no one.
It comes with a baguette.

She leapt to her feet
as if someone had summoned her

from the dead. The feeling
is reciprocal.

I pull up my fly
in mixed company.

Full moon at noon.
Three songs for a quarter.

Put it in writing, just in case
I forget. A couple of Sprites

on tap? My name is Rene.
I’ll take your order.


No fault of your own, you took
a step backwards into the past
and saw it differently

each time around, the cows on
the hillside swatting flies from
their behinds, the smell of mosquito

spray on someone else’s skin
in the back of a car, a slave
to a system someone

else created, the flood warnings,
the icy windshield, the surfers on the
horizon, going home or staying

out too late so you can never go back
to where you came from, all the
false promises like flowers with

broken stems in the dust on
the side of the road, the theory
of cycles, the eternal recurrence,

paradise lost and found and then
lost again, all in one breath.


Today was less like the day
before yesterday than the night
before which started late and
went on without us over the roofs
of the houses

and the roadside stand selling
fresh eggs and lemonade also disappeared
from the field of vision
as we drove up a mountain
and then down the other side

This is where I came in and where
you got off but in a manner of
speaking we are both in sync
like the dogeared map on the floor of
the ocean

like the crisp fries in a paper cup
I ate on my way home
from some public swimming hole
on the subway
as a kid


I should have known better than to think
she would meet me at the Cafe Bonaparte
in Paris where Roland Barthes used to hang
out. I sat in a corner, facing the door. Only a fool
would sit around for hours waiting for someone
to come, someone they didn’t know (personally) but
whom they had seen from a distance, the flesh and blood,
the halo, the long vintage skirt purchased for half-price
in the Haight. You have to know when you’re being
stupid, and I know I’ve made the same mistake before,
thinking something was going to happen when there
wasn’t a snowball’s chance in hell. You can flaunt
your theories until you’re blue in the face, and everyone
within earshot is falling asleep. Class dismissed.
Those are my favorite words. I sit in the back
of the room waiting for the class to end. Then
I run into the streets, like an escaped convict,
like a doe in a poem by Wordsworth, bounding
over the hillside. I lie in the grass and see
the sunlight through the tops of the trees.
And at night I see the moon, staring back at me,
like an old friend.


Lewis Warsh

Lewis Warsh (1944–2020) was a poet, fiction writer, editor, publisher, and teacher. He authored over 35 books of poetry, fiction, and autobiography, and his book of poems Elixir, completed in 2020, & from which these poems are selected, is forthcoming from Ugly Duckling Presse.


The Brooklyn Rail

MARCH 2021

All Issues