DJB writes . . .
Michael Shepler is wonderfully 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. The list of past winners forms a tidy who’s who in post-war/pre-millennium 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.
Michael Shepler’s stay at Cal State was a heady time for the college. Along with Coulette, among those who walked the hallways were novelists John Weston and Christopher Isherwood. While I don’t know Michael personally, my relationship with his poetry is personal and has been ongoing since the late ’70s when I was editor for Statement, the lit mag of Cal State LA. For me, Michael’s poetry is ongoing, the previous poem always faintly present, resonating, until I read the next Shepler poem which compels me again to find something in me that is rarely found, or, rarely in me. Each encounter with Michael’s poetry is like resuming a lifelong conversation with a friend. However long I stay in the room with the poem the richer the experience. I am proud and honored to offer to you this small sample of his tremendous body of poetry.
Today, Michael posts a new poem on his Facebook page every couple of days. Many poems speak immediately and directly to our times, others speak from memory, and each new poem appears to have been carefully aged years in oak casks. I’m hardly alone in my admiration of Michael’s work. Many celebrated poets and scholars, though far too few, 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
Driving The Grotesque Dolls
Call them back from the cellar
They’ve brooded enough
The weather’s clear, let’s bundle up
Lead them shackled to the touring car
Help them into their Sunday Best
See how well the stains came out
Martha, Ellen, Luke, Pete
They can’t keep their hands to themselves
Get some music going on the radio
A crutch with strings, a nightbird’s dream
Homemade instruments from long ago
Keep that scattergun under control!
Whoever made them did a half-ass job
It’s jagged where the stitches are sewn
The best part of the ride’s just coming up
When oncoming traffic sees their faces
m. shepler 10/21/21
Band Of Outsiders
Silent snowmen in hats & belted coats
Miss-sent letters, blackbirds
Drifters in some concocted storm
Whipped up by wind machines
Legends inscrutable as cuneiform
Scratched across the bottom of the screen
Subtitles in a language we don’t know
Stragglers from a drunken dance
Spent arrows grasping nothing in their clumsy hands
Let’s join them in this late matinee
Let’s throw away our minds
Retreating to a pipedream time
When mad love filled the bill
When cobblestones, pried up
Shattered castles, splintered locks
Flinging wide the gates to the sublime
m. shepler 10/13/21
1966 – after Ungaretti
Bad penny returned
Bright as before
Fire engine red
You consume & ignite
A thorn from a rose
Caused my finger to bleed
You gave it a kiss
Sucked up the muck
Tigers in the streets
Feeding on life
We’d feast til the end
Leaving nothing to waste
One long afternoon
We lay down in a park
Then someone complained
The police threw us out
m. shepler 9/13/21
The cutthroat wind ground stone to dust
White powder to tickle the nose of god
Thus uttered the army of empty men
Clutched in their holes
& the ripped up tracks
Quenched errant dreams
Of rust & wind
Giving no quarter to
The hopes of the lost
A shinny photograph of night
Sprawled overexposed in a tray of blood
m. shepler 9/14/21
The same little dog of light
Follows me each night
On my way to the well
Voicing his small
Snapping at the heels
Which races just ahead
When we reach
The cool stones
He becomes frightened
By his moon-cast shadow
I dip the wood bucket
& we drink
m. shepler 9/22/21
“…thrilling, & a disaster for a time” – Ricki Lee Jones
Fun wandering where one isn’t wanted
Especially when young & they can all see you coming
Fresh off the bus from Heaven or Kansas
A hayseed, yes, but wet with promise
Six quick shots, at the bar, on the rocks
Flush with starry night & unbridled passion
You’ve broken a heel on dawn’s early light
The wishing well’s dry at Los Feliz & Fountain
See the pimp on the bench at Sunset & Fuller
For a while it felt just fine being mad
A quick slide, a thrilling disaster
You tumble on down to a disheveled park
Winged messengers gather, dressed for evening
Near uncharted edges where shadows obtain
m. shepler 8/2/21
Cold Morning After Storm -after Su Tung P’o
Night was cold, without wind.
This morning, sweeping the porch
I see the mountain
encircled by crows–
They form a dark crown.
Nothing moves in the frozen streets.
Stores & houses are tombs of ice.
A few clouds, silent conspirators, gather.
Outliers in rainshrouds
twist in the pale sunlight.
I feel weak. My head’s not right.
Day passes, slow as dying.
The storm-wracked trees
glitter like dragon’s teeth.
m. shepler 7/31/21
Los Angeles, 1926
‘Reality makes him dream’
(introduction to a book of Weston photographs)
Having returned from Mexico, Weston goes
To see Murnau’s The Last Laugh at the Orpheum
Losing his mind in the night streets of Weimar
On screen, Jannings, deemed too old, too weak
To perform his duties as Doorman
At the Grand Hotel, turns his back
To the camera. Such thick sadness!
What treacherous harpoon could lay this
Great Beast low?
Is Weston drawn to the fluidity of Murnau’s dream?
A thousand stills made animate float through
The cavernous brain of the Dreamers in the dark.
Hypnogogic light – like the glint
Of Mesmer’s twirling watch, plays across a thousand
As each evening the old man sheds his lavatory attendant’s smock
Retrieving his doorman’s jacket, with its gold epaulettes
His stature increasing with each piece of cloth, until, resplendent
As the Kaiser, he leaves the hotel, crossing the city
To his own dank street
& he swaggers now, past the awestruck neighbors
He swaggers, but with a limp
A crippled spider, legs moving sidewise
In an effort to reach the apex
Of its thick-spun web
‘Do they see it?’ the Doorman thinks
& Weston hears him thinking
& Weston, too, is drifting
Becoming insubstantial as dust
Whirling in the dry light of a Magic Lantern
He sees Tina standing by an open door
Tina – acting again, the Doorman’s daughter
Pregnant, & then a suicide
Cold & small –
Along on a steel table in a room
In the centre of the Labyrinth where he’d left her.
m. shepler, Dark Room Elegies, 2009
Secrets of Clouds
Spiffy in white tuxedos
Basking in luxurious corpulence
Herds of silent fat men
Roll around heaven
Merging, then pulling apart
Blown sky high against blue walls
Those stretched out O’s
Pale rings of smoke
Sliding from their louche lips
Signals of their swift
m. shepler 3/10/21
The moon rises
Its pale finger indicates
The passage, the page
The moon rises
We draw close
In slumbering gardens
Buds close tight
A few drops remain
When the moon rises
Hands thrust in pockets
Touching coins with blank faces
m. shepler 3/9/21
Clear Bright Festival
Hillsides sprinkled with tombs
Mourners bring wildflowers, brooms
Weeping, neatening, all afternoon
Moonrise welcomes other creatures
Wild things, returning
Wolves, foxes, girls, boys
By lantern light, shadows warm cold stones
Let passion mark the journey down life’s path
No comfort greets us at Nine Springs
m. shepler 11/3/20
-after Huang T’ing Ch’en
Longing for days when news was long coming
I spend my time in high mountains
Busy all day with custodial tasks
Providing food for birds & squirrels
At night I linger over yellow notes
Marveling at notions of changing the world
m. shepler 11/4/20
Hummingbird light threads mist
Alight, toward the distant shore
Quick shadows shimmer over water
Dazzling blue clarity
This evening, wind & rain
Arrive as promised
Drenching the garden’s autumn spoilage
m. shepler 10/17/20
Return To The Lost City
Not budgeted for pith helmets & goofballs,
We’ve found drinking snake medicine produces
Visions of breathtaking beauty.
Pola Negri is gone, & Gustav Frohlich.
What of Debra Paget? Does she frolic still,
White-haired, shriveled? Barely able
To go into her dance–
The legendary Dance of the Cobra?
Perhaps she’s resurrected every century like She?
A quick dip in the Eternal Flame & she’s hot as she ever was!
Really, there’s no one here.
No image soils the desert eyes of glowing mirrors.
The walls of the torture chamber grow too crumbly
To sustain their chains.
Eunuchs, maidens, dwarfs–how we used to party!
All of them gone. All that remains
Some bits of unraveled gauze
From the night the mummy did the Watusi,
The outline of a dusty rose
m. shepler 7/8/20
Days of ‘83
Having traveled the halls of academy & industry
Palaces of endeavor where death goes unnoticed
He’d become a dreamer among swans
Spending long afternoons in neglected gardens
Tonight he’ll dive into fathomless waters
Swim the lake toward the distant skyline
In the morning he’ll pawn his suit of lights
Leave the city, start again, hair straight on end
Somewhat tanned from his days outside
Possessed with a new quiet certitude
Thanks to years of dissipation & anxiety
m. shepler 7/2/20
Sunset over Villa Ortuzar -After Borges
Here the world ends
The street mouth deepens, opens onto night
Bonfires become rows of immolated angels
A fever dreamer’s sunset agonized on the wire
Wire which tears the sky’s skin
A world discarded out of disgust, neglect
Scraps of light, scattered bright rags of a swimmer
Pool by a bus stop where frightened girls huddle
The landscape, losing definition, dissolves
Cut-purse night lurks in the barranca
The day’s riches plundered, divided & spent
Voices of thieves quarrel in my head
m. shepler 5/11/20
Aspects of the Novel – for Richard Yates
He insisted on smoking in the car while sucking
On the oxygen tank; & the car itself, so junked
& broken, gas fumes curled through the cracked
Rolled up windows, further hindering him
In his abstract meanderings down the Dixie Highway.
He lectured his students, ‘Aspects of the novel’,
Claiming he wrote no more.
All the while pages fell, scribbled leaves
From his stammering machine.
The manuscript grew, bulky, unread;
Stacked in the refrigerator, rubbing shoulders
With limp vegetables, moldy sandwiches.
He stashed a bottle of Everclear in the closet,
Unopened, kept his pencils sharp, desk cleared
For action. Every day behind thick glasses,
Held together with bandaids & Krazy Glue.
Behind his unvoiced inscrutable motives
His fractured heart fluttered in its cage.
m. shepler 3/29/20
Meshes of the Afternoon
Your shadow picks up the flower
As you ascend the stairs
Someone within the apartment is watching
Hidden after you come inside
A mix of cigarettes, sweat & fear
Objects become malevolent
The bread knife ponders its history of cuts
You back away from the voice inside
Tumbling down stones toward ocean rocks
In the empty room faucets drip
Twigs crackle in the fireplace
Garments burn, a sleeve twists
Blackens then curls in combustible sleep
m. shepler 3/28/20
Poem in the Manner of Chi’n Kwan
Spring blossoms are bursting along rainy roads
Flowers of unstudied brilliance
Swaying flags, colored dancers
Startling birds with their audacious ravishments
At the edges of a hidden stream they huddle
Above their golden heads, clouds twist
Untongued, animate, soaring
Beneath these trees, drunk with light
We spin, blissful, directionless
m. shepler 3/3/20
I can’t think fast enough to remember
What happened back there
In a glow I know was a haze of sun & smog
Or scrim of rain & wind
Washing down Sunset in a torrential flood
& the sign in front of Zeidler & Zeidler
Where Lenny Bruce bought his threads
On that radio spot
Or said he did
It isn’t that I can’t go back there
Dreams are built for that
Although what I saw is dead & gone
& it was Dream City from the start
A desert construct miraged out of stolen water
Palms & gardens tended by people trucked in
Everyone there was from elsewhere
Even the Chilean girlfriend of my pal from Manzanar
Racing the fire road above Beachwood Canyon in an open car
Black hair whipping in the wind
Nothing happens quickly
Memory loosens its hold
The suit I’m wearing doesn’t go with the pill I’ve taken
Demolished blocks of time turn to lyrics of a song
Soft as rose petals drifting down
From an overheated radio
Through an open window
Of a darkened Spanish bungalow
m. shepler 2/18/20
The empty voices have departed
A single lamp burns inside the house
Night wind scatters flowers
Petals fall in patterns of random confusion
At the edge of the porch
Stands a figure with a rake
Slumped shadow, shoulders bent
Too tired to sweep them up
m. shepler 12/25/19
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.
m. shepler 11/9/2019
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
m. shepler, 10/31/19
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)
they move carefully
thru each chamber
furtive jugglers, sometimes joyous
the dances are there
to step to
eke a living
w/ out passports
who painted cavepoems
who drank & bathed
in melted snow.
afraid to expose
remembering the 1000s gone—
hands clutching air
thru boxcar slats
torquemada, joe mc/carthy
& the electric chair.
& the stormtroops
sage is fool
sage is sacred
sage w/ numbered days
sleeping in a yellow field
the black smokestacks
the brick/t wall
sweating out dawn
w/ a thin sheet
between their teeth
they recognize one another
of cocktail party
& exercise yd.
bleeding / stomp
out a hymn
by a pond
they only do
as they must
put one foot
in front of
toward a glowering
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
each time an undiscovered garden—
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)
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
m. shepler 8/31/19
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
Now I’m definitely ‘alone at last ‘
Standing, somewhat abashed, near the edge
Taking shelter in the remaining darkness
(From Get Happy, 2019)
as they say in the cartoons
(long screams of stark black
type / bursting frm
the gook’s balloon).
expression of utter
as he is mowed down by the
superior fire power
of abstracted hate.
I scream it to you now.
in a room.
(From Late Show,1974)
(Editor’s Note: More to come. Check back here every few days for another Michael Shepler poem.)