DJB writes . . .

I’ve never known Michael Shepler as a friend. I can recall only once being in the same room with him, in 1978, ’79, or ’80, when I served as editor for Statement Magazine, the literary journal of Cal State L.A., and we were publishing Michael’s poems, eleven in all. Neither of us had much to say to one another, there in the chaos of a large meeting. That was all.

Yet, despite not knowing Michael personally, the sounds of his voice & laughter, the way he walks, how he moves his hands, despite not knowing his history, his manner, his gentility, but having read his poetry for forty years, I feel I am his friend.

Michael is tremendously prolific. His first published poems date from 1965, the year he began to study with Henri Coulette at Cal State LA., just as Coulette’s book The War of the Secret Agents was named by the Academy of American Poets winner of the award formerly known as The Lamont Poetry Selection which honored a poet’s first book. (Today it is called the James Laughlin Award and honors a poet’s second book. Poets. They always have to make changes.) The list of past winners forms a tidy who’s who in post-war/pre-millinieum American poetry: Ai, X. J. Kennedy, Carolyn Forché, the two Donalds – Hall & Justice, Mary Jo Salter, Garrett Hongo, Sharon Olds, Tony Hoagland, Gerald Stern, and others.

My occasional encounters with Coulette a dozen years after Shepler came to Cal State L.A. make up my most striking memories of Michael. The Lamont-winning Coulette unfailingly spoke of Michael’s poetry with the courtesy of a colleague, and sometimes with the wonderment of a fan. As an editor, I had to decide: Should I take the word of someone who knows?

After our fleeting glimpse in the late-70s wherever I’ve gone, north-south-east-middle-east-&-home-again-in-the-west, I’ve encountered Michael Shepler’s poems. Yeah, I’ll be browsing in some coffee bookshop high in the Shenandoah mountains and select a lit mag at random from a random shelf and open it up at random to find a poem by Michael Shepler. How many times did this happen? A hundred? Twice? Never? Once? The answer is none of the above. My relationship with his poetry is ongoing, the previous poem always faintly present, slowly resonating, until I read the next Shepler poem which compels me again to the page/screen as the poem finds something in me that is rarely found, or, rarely in me. Each encounter with Michael Shepler’s verse is like resuming a compelling conversation with a friend. However long I stay in the room with the poem the richer the experience.

Today, Michael posts a new poem on his Facebook page every couple of days, and each new poem appears carefully brewed and aged years in oak casks. I’m hardly alone in my admiration of Michael’s work. Many contemporary poets and scholars have expressed their praise, including Coulette, Allen Ginsberg, Kenneth Fields, Lauri Scheyer, and Louis Simpson. I join these distinguished writers in appreciating Michael Shepler as a true poet whose verse reaches and reveals.

Poems by Michael Shepler


EXIT WOUNDS

The door stands open, yellow, grinning.
Inside, silence is a soliloquy unto itself.

Dishes done & stacked, except for a half-filled
Cup of cold steel.

Keats nightingale, deafened by jackhammers,
Yammers in the trees.

A breeze slams against my blue-eyed broken windows.
Sky turning purple as a bruise.

(From Late Show 1974)

 

HENRY IN PASADENA

Lashed to the podium like Ahab to the whale,
The splintered man sweats blood beads.
His red specs bleed beneath stained glass light.
His faraway eyes lock on a tumbler
Of amber liquid. The Grail!
It’s his, once he utters
The last stanza for which he’s being paid.
Later, chasing coeds
Through the halls of the Green Hotel,
He shouts “Feets don’t fail me now!”
His best Mantan Moreland, he’d allow.
Tackled by a nurse with hypo, he’s put down.
Coming around, he fumbles an unstrung rosary.
Villagers with torches bear him to the train.

(November 9, 2019)

 

SUN IN AN EMPTY ROOM

Something’s painting this tired afternoon
Choosing a palette of yellow & shadows
Daubing an empty room haunted by whispers
A faint perfume of night’s allure lingers
Exhausted light sprawls across the bed
An unpainted phone, insistently ringing
Cars pass below the open window
Transporting strangers on inscrutable errands
Inside’s all angles, blocks of light
A sunny scene of uncommitted crime
No one in the room has been sketched in

(October 31, 2019)

 


LIFEGUARDS

Watery light dances on the surface of the Municipal Pool,

Its red bricks stacked dull in full moonlight.

The second story row of windows are flooded

With yellow streams of light, cranked open

Mouths gasping for breath.

Inside, the empty diving board vibrates

A tuning fork alive with unanswered cries.

The lifeguards are off duty in the quiet summer evening.

Everyone is drowning,

Hidden inside the pooled shadows

The lifeguards stand in helpless knots.

The red glow of their cigarettes pulsing,

Their feet heavy, unmovable.

Immobilized by the gravity of the emergency.
.

(From The Hanging Gardens of Memory, 2017)

 


ELEGANT CITY COMIX

rainy nights, oboe in hand

i would walk deserted streets

stoplights would change

blink — Green

blink — Yellow

blink — Red

& the neons did shine
whiskey bottles 50 feet tall
going into orbit!
dark cars slow then speed past me
they monitor my movements
& the men in the penthouse
update my dossier
dining on cheap takeout food

(From Statement Magazine 1979)

 


FOR PETER

they move carefully
thru each chamber
of the
world.

furtive jugglers, sometimes joyous
the dances are there
to step to
capering minstrels
eke a living
amid rubble
& mud.

thru villages
cross/t borders,
boundaries
w/ out passports
or cards
of identity.

legendary names:
villon
perkoff
rimbaud

li po
who painted cavepoems
who drank & bathed
in melted snow.

or silent,
chary
afraid to expose
their wares:
remembering the 1000s gone—

hands clutching air
grasping
thru boxcar slats

frm hungary
frm poland
frm heydrick
torquemada, joe mc/carthy
& the electric chair.

frm stalin
trotsky
& the stormtroops
of skokie.

sage is fool
sage is sacred

sage w/ numbered days
sleeping in a yellow field
of daisies

the black smokestacks
the brick/t wall

sweating out dawn
w/ a thin sheet
clenched
between their teeth

separate, sometimes
they recognize one another
across distances
of cocktail party
& exercise yd.

dancers, yes.
their stumps
bleeding / stomp
out a hymn
pounding tambourines
by a pond
at sunset.

they only do
as they must

put one foot
first
in front of
the other—
right
before left
& left
after right
toward a glowering
horizon,
promising nothing.

facts of the matter become blurred
sharp pain might almost equal ecstasy now
anything but this fearsome dullness of days
accumulation of disconnected moments
is this what knowledge has to offer me?

once i was wild—an idiot on the edge
singing torchsongs to the abyss
an overnite sensation over nite

i say ‘love’ now
& am fritened

before, love thrived
& died

each time an undiscovered garden—
beautiful, yes
filled w/ camouflaged pongi-stakes

                       . . .

one bird sings in this garden now
in the exact center of nite
& i cannot let love leave
or draw nearer
one bird sings in this garden now

(From Statement Magazine, Spring 1980)

 


VILLANELLE

We burn with fire, the fire dies down.
Years fall like leaves, like dreams.
Flames devour the wedding gowns.

Each arrives, a stranger in town.
We cross the green toward the tavern’s solace.
We burn with fire, the fire burns down.

We leave the bar to stroll the town.
Window gazing, an alarm sounds.
Flames are devouring the wedding gowns!

Evening’s passage brings jaded knowledge.
Passion spent leaves us restless, unsated.
We burn with fire, the fire dies down.

The street lights bear their icy crowns
Of febrile light, cast fitfully.
Flames devour the wedding gowns.

Night throbs with a fretful sound.
Drenching dark cloaks the ruined store
Where flames devoured the wedding gowns.
We burn with a fire, the fire dies down.

(From Get Happy, 2019)

 


DAYS OF ’67

Routes to the border were rapidly tightening
Rough saints sharpened totalitarian knives
The doors of perception, double-locked, beckoned
Parents wrung their hands in the blood of lambs
The Fox lot was transformed into Century City
We could hate LBJ, but just for a day
Winter was upon us wearing nights of white satin
Star maps, burning, lit wayfarers home
Something was cooking inside Hell’s kitchen
Our children, poor children
Forgetting us, grew frightened

(August 31, 2019)

 


LA NOCTURNE – 1954

Distant light saturates the wet iron rails
Bracketing the steps of the Lincoln Heights jail
It’s only the moon, out on parole
Tracking our relentless night patrol
From tavern to tavern, Eastern to Brooklyn
Past houses of slaughter which run along Slauson
Lights which are red & never green
County General where the mad rave & dream
One of those evenings, one of those nights
When nurse & orderly lace straitjackets up tight
& the Stations of the Cross in deep cover disguise
Are best viewed obliquely through dilated eyes
So pack up your troubles, sew up the shroud
Life’s only bearable lived in a cloud
Where angels sing doo-wop from a glittering juke
& not much stock is placed in the truth

(From Get Happy, 2019)

 


THE REMAINING DARKNESS

I muscle my way inside the photo
Taking my place among these dead friends

It’s early in the picture
& although sunlight strikes the porch
Bits of night are clinging to our clothes

What were we talking about
When the lens trapped us?

I’d rather not go into it
At least no further
Having spent so many years away

Last I checked there’d been two of us
Living imposters
Now I’m definitely ‘alone at last

Standing, somewhat abashed, near the edge
Taking shelter in the remaining darkness

(From Get Happy, 2019)

 


OPERATION SKULL

Arrgh!
as they say in the cartoons

(long screams of stark black
type / bursting frm
the gook’s balloon).
animal horror,
expression of utter
disbelief.

as he is mowed down by the
superior fire power
of abstracted hate.

ARRRRRRRRRRGGGGHHH!!!

I scream it to you now.
here.
safe.
in a room.
in
these
united
states.

(From Late Show, 1974)


(Editor’s Note: More to come. Check back here every few days for another Michael Shepler poem.)