Joe Osterhaus



The Gospels, if they teach us nothing else,
teach us to be suspicious of a faith
that makes a touchstone of such ivied walls
or the long curve of an avenue, whose length

is measured by a row of spotted elms.
For faith, if nothing else, is difficult,
and this light, like a light torn from old films,
diminishes these beauties to a fault.

The Gospels say if faith is to appear
it can't be claimed too soon, but must be coaxed
through a lifetime of habit and slow wear
that leaves the penitent resolved, if vexed:

and still, beneath the green domes of these trees,
the heart stirs with a penitent's release.



Save that the curtains, drawn
and held by jagged darts
arrest the light with flecks of gold
the music, when it starts,

pours through our hero's penthouse suite
so unexpectedly
he starts to tap dance, while, downstairs,
creased, but fresh and coy,

our heroine sits up in bed
and glares into the dark,
still not prepared to talk to him,
but angered by his joke.

Our hero slows midstep in thought,
dashes into the hall,
and, lifting an ashtray in his arms,
both bowl and pedestal,

swings it back into his room
where, cued at the end of the bar,
he pours its cache of fine white sand
across the polished floor,

then does a soft-shoe, carefully
sweeping his outstretched feet
through fine white sand, that brush and glide
freshening the beat

until, downstairs, she smiles; the notes,
diminishing, converge;
and she falls back on her pillow, launched
on sleep's transparent barge.

Sherman Fleming

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see more work by Sherman Fleming





Out walking one night, I overheard
a man saying to a woman that
he hadn't made his mind up when she called

but now was almost ready to decide.
And I was skeptical: so often when
we're ready to decide, we just fall back,

till predilection, masked as choice, decides--
a true decision is as rare as love.
Still, the dialogue persists, the slow

admission and rethinking of the thick
white horns of the sea beast in the dream; the rare
trapped bird with blood and gene-flecks in its eyes;

and if these creatures grow too mythical
with their faint chirrs and swarming in the tomb
the endlessness of the dialogue remains,

its pattern like the repetition of
the man speaking to the woman in the doorway,
his foot on the step as he looks up at her,

and the sea behind them rising at the docks,
as if to claim once and for all the rust
and silver moonglint on the ships and rails.




What happened to Sam Cooke? From what we know,
some ugliness in a motel went wrong:
a girl ran from a room, stung by a blow;
a radio sheared the high strings from a song;

a night clerk spun an alibi that seemed
improbable back then, and now a lie:
ten minutes after checking in, Cooke rammed
down her door and searched her office, angrily

demanding to know where he could find the girl,
who in turn claimed that he had kidnapped her
and drove her while she cried to the motel,
then, in the room, turned his back, allowing her

to grab her clothes and run out to the street.
In the office, the night clerk shot him as
they struggled; a black man in an overcoat
whose final rage blurs as through smudged glass.

The motel where he died--the Hacienda--
was in the black part of town; this simple fact
perhaps explains the coroner's seeming agenda
to let the women's story stand intact.

Such stories beg us to unravel them;
their hints of squalor, race, and low-rent sex
skewing their weave like thread snapped in a loom
till we, well versed in lying, comb the mix:

In the small room, they'd groped each other, then,
when he stepped in the john, she grabbed his clothes and ran,
later claiming they were tangled in her own.
Barefoot on Figueroa, she stopped to pull on

her coat and shoes, and, ducking in a phone booth,
went through his pockets, while half a block away
the night clerk shot him as he raged; the truth
a watermark appearing through the gray

contusions noted in the coroner's brief.
His red Ferrari idling at the door,
their scuffle ended with a blown red leaf
dawning on the ruddy wallpaper.


Ruthlessly narcotic, fame endures
because it speaks to everyone at once.
Hinting at longed-for praise like wreaths of flowers,
it blinds us to the dried stems heaped in bins.

And if its moment never comes, the pang
becomes a touchstone, claiming the time we've spent
sculpting body, character, script, or song.
Like James Dean plowed into the gradient,

his dying showed how easily fame's glare
can open on the clawed sand pit beneath--
as he took his X'd position near the door
a future audience sucked in its breath.

O businessmen and tenors, when you die
your dates will rifle your wallets in the street.
His cash in hand, she heard the gun go off
(the traffic lights turned crimson for a beat)

and, running back, worked out a story with the clerk;
the thick wad she had lifted from his calf-
skin wallet one more character to work
the story, but one who vanished; dulcet, grave;

whose rage marred the faces of those drifters,
then steeled them to compose themselves and lie.
The pop star slumped against the wall, that shape shifter
paused in the scutched neon, then slipped away;

then shot away like Cupid with his bow;
the spark of the neon, and the glide of the traffic
gaps in his quiver's bristling row
of accidents, whose barbs tore vents of static

in the star's life.
.........................As black waves crashed on the porcelain sand
a highway or a lifetime to the west
dissonance, slipped in his body, drowned
the high skirling hoop of his voice in waste;

diminishing his life as the bullets traced
the coming pops of flashbulbs, and the round
of onlookers who'd cry as they filed past.

A star, once dead, can't help but hold his ground.




Joe Osterhaus's first poetry collection, The Domed Road, appeared in Take Three: AGNI New Poets Series: 1. Zoo Press published his second collection, Radiance, in October 2002. His poems and review articles have appeared or are forthcoming in AGNI, The Antioch Review, BOMB, The Boston Review, The Formalist, Harvard Review, Hotel Amerika, The Journal, The Nebraska Review, The Paris Review, Ploughshares, Slate, and Triquarterly. His poems are also included in The New American Poets: A Bread Loaf Anthology and American Poetry: The Next Generation.

Published in Volume 4, Number 2, Spring 2003.