Tuesday, January 31, 2023

January’s Poems: Devastation, Gorilla Monsoon, and Groundhog Day

Images generated by DALL-E 2

I’m writing poems based on prompts every Sunday from New Jersey poet Dimitri Reyes. Although I’ve taken some liberties with the prompts, I hope to continue this throughout 2023 and post these poems monthly. I’ve already posted my first and second poems here. Following are the other poems during this five-Sunday month.

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The prompt: Write about something you’ve been devastated about.


POEM 3: Diary of a Sociopath

 

I’m a boy playing minigolf

in rural New Jersey along Route 46.

It’s the site of a strip mall now.

 

My playmates, young Sheryl and Eddie,

were neighbors then.

Their house, a used car lot now.

 

It was Mother’s Day then.

 

Tires screech.

A car horn blares.

A sudden, sickening thud of metal on metal.

A woman screams.

 

I miss my short putt.

 

Minutes pass,

and we witness her death.

The children in her car are silent.

Her dog wails.

 

Sheryl and Eddie are speechless.

I grow restless.

I rearrange my stance over a bright yellow, dimpled ball

and aim for the mouth of a clown.

 

Can I have a do-over, I ask?


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The prompt: Write a poem using these words: mule; monsoon; traveled.


POEM 4: Ode to Gorilla Monsoon

 

We traveled through seven man-made holes

in the mountains of Pennsylvania.

Heading west, Dad squinted behind Saratoga Ray Bans:

The last cold warrior, the Republican JFK.

 

Dad was behind the wheel of our black Chevy Impala,

his hands recklessly at 12 and 6.

He said it gave him more control,

as Hank Williams crackled “I Saw the Light” across WINB AM.

 

Beads of sweat formed on Dad’s clean-shaven cheek,

releasing the incense of Old Spice.

Our car leaked smoke from his Micronite-filtered Kents

rising out a half-inch crack opened at the driver’s side window.

 

Arriving from New Jersey at dusk,

we parked in front of a modest house atop Mount Pleasant,

and my uncle rushed to place cinder blocks

behind our low-slung wheels.

 

The next morning, on a hillside overlooking a coal mine,

my cousin and I wrestled, diurnal primates at play.

His hero was Bruno Sammartino,

and I was a poor substitute for Gorilla Monsoon.

 

I am not a fighter.

I ate a mule kick on my cousin’s follow-through,

as Dad watched in the distance.

He flicked his cigarette to his feet and turned his back on me.

 

I pretended not to notice,

then woke this morning

threescore years and precisely 338 miles away,

with a phantom pain in my side.

 

I have survived.

And I remember everything.


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The prompt: With Groundhog Day upon us, read this poem by Len Lawson and write your own poem where the speaker repeats the same day over and over again.

 

POEM 5: Groundhog Day in Ramsdale

 

In the month of January,

I wrote a poem every week.

 

Prompted by a poet,

each day I wrote more words for you,

but I have not gotten anywhere yet.

 

In the month of February,

I will wait for your return:

I’m still in love with you.

 

I’m still in love with you.

I’m still in love with you.

I’m still in love with you.

I’m still in love with you.

 

I’m still in love with you.

I’m still in love with you.

I’m still in love with you.

I’m still in love with you.

 

Repeat, editor, till the month is full.


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PS: Here's a visual poem  "Groundhog Day 2023" — with images of the NYC skyline from the Lincoln Tunnel helix on my morning commute via bus during January:



Monday, January 30, 2023

ChatGPT Visits the Philadelphia Museum of Art

Museum of Art courtyard viewed from the Armor Room.

I wanted to post some photos here from a recent visit to the Philadelphia Museum of Art. I had suggested the “immersive Monet” exhibit in NYC, but my wife preferred we check out “real-life Matisse.” For background and context, I gave ChatGPT a few prompts and out popped the following words. Not bad!

I, for one, welcome our new robot overlords:

The Philadelphia Museum of Art is a must-see destination for any art lover visiting the city. Located in the heart of Philadelphia, the museum boasts an impressive collection of over 240,000 works spanning 2,000 years of world culture.

It isn't uncommon to see visitors engaging in playful activities on the front steps. One such activity is pretending to be the iconic fictional character "Rocky." Visitors raise their hands above their heads and jump in triumph, mimicking the famous scene from the first film in the series.

Upon entering the museum, visitors are greeted by the grand staircase, which leads to the main galleries on the second floor.

One of the highlights of the museum is the American art collection, which includes works by some of the most famous American artists such as Winslow Homer, John Singer Sargent and Edward Hopper. The museum also has a significant collection of European paintings, including works by Monet, Van Gogh, and Renoir.

Diana atop the grand staircase, decorated for the holidays.

Matisse’s “Large Reclining Nude” (1935) and
“Woman in Blue” (1937), including the skirt
worn by the painting’s model. 
During my visit, I had the opportunity to attend the special exhibition "Matisse in the 1930s" which featured over 80 works by the artist, including paintings, sculptures, and drawings, as well as a selection of his personal objects from his studios in Nice and Paris. This exhibition provided an in-depth look at the artist's techniques and the way he used objects in his studio as inspiration for his work. (Note: This exhibit closed yesterday... and I think ChatGPT is actually describing a previous Matisse exhibit here.)

I also had the opportunity to view the painting "Sunflowers" by Vincent Van Gogh. This famous painting, which is one of the most popular on display at the museum, is renowned for its vibrant colors and dynamic brushstrokes. It was a true highlight of my visit to the museum.

Unfortunately, I also set off two proximity alarms while viewing the paintings, but it was a reminder of how close you are allowed to be with the paintings and how precious they are.

So excited… a little too excited… to see this up close.
I also set off an alarm tripping over Zoe Leonard’s floor sculpture.

Overall, a visit to the Philadelphia Museum of Art is a truly enriching experience. The museum's vast and varied collections, special exhibitions, and educational programs make it a must-see destination for any art lover.

This is where ChatGPT stopped writing, but here are a few more images:

Degas in Philadelphia.

Video exhibit by Visual AIDS.
Lots of nooks and crannies in this museum!

This is an unfinished Cezanne, which I liked very much.
The Matisse exhibit also showed some of his works in progress,
and I liked the rougher, early versions better.

Had to wait until all the people jumping like "Rocky"
stopped posing on these steps 🙂

Friday, January 13, 2023

Poem 2: MYSTERIES OF THE ROSARY

This week's poetry prompt was simple:

Go through your phone’s camera roll and pick a random photo. Capture each detail with words and phrases, descriptive words for what you see, what the photo is of, where it’s from, etc. Think of these various details as a collage and put together a new poem.

I have thousands of photos on my phone: 61,023 as of earlier this week, to be exact.

So I downloaded a free app called "Stumble." Developers Ritchie & Mason enticed me with the first line of the app's description: "Take a serendipitous walk through your photo roll."

My life can use some serendipity.

Once installed, I pressed the "Stumble" button, and a photo appeared from a March 7, 2021, visit to The Met Cloisters. My wife and I had stopped to look at what we've previously discovered was the same favorite exhibit which we had both first seen years before we married.

I had seen this extraordinary rosary bead during a high school field trip, then years later accompanied by a friend who was an artist. I later took my young children to see it. Years later I returned alone, before returning again with Nancy last March.

I even tried writing a poem about this once before, but I like this one better:


Mysteries of the Rosary

I am a pilgrim.


Each decade of life,

I return to New York

to behold an intricately carved

boxwood prayer bead

the size of a snowball.


It depicts Christ’s crucifixion.


The museum piece,

hollowed and exposed,

never changes.


My spirit, 

hollowed and exposed,

diminishes in return.


My prayers

have been autonomous circles

of desire and intent.


I see them now as empty shells.


Behold this dying man.


Salvation is in the details.




My New Year's resolution: write a prompted poem each week in 2023, encouraged by New Jersey poet Dimitri Reyes.

Friday, January 6, 2023

Poem: LOST CAT


I'm going to try to write a prompted poem each week in 2023, encouraged by New Jersey poet Dimitri Reyes. We'll see how this goes. 🙂 The first prompt? "Write a poem about lost or forgotten things."

The type may be a bit small. Forgive me. It's meant to fit on a single page, so I can tack it to a telephone pole.

Thursday, November 24, 2022

Marking Mom and Dad's 67th Anniversary

Following is an excerpt from my contribution to "New Jersey Fan Club," an anthology published earlier this year by Rutgers University Press.

As described by the editor, on this page with ordering information, the book features personal essays, interviews and comics, offering a multifaceted look at the state's history and significance. My essay was about why I post images of New Jersey churches on Instagram every Sunday, and I wrote this about my favorite church:

My favorite church is the Cathedral Basilica of the Sacred Heart in Newark, which opened in October 1954. It was the site of my parents’ wedding on Thanksgiving Day -- November 24, 1955.

People flock to nearby Branch Brook Park every April for the Cherry Blossom Festival. New Jersey has more cherry trees than Washington, DC, with over 2,700 bursting into full bloom each spring.

It doesn't matter to this church. This church is always in full bloom.

Its magnificence is such that my mother, upon finding out she could secure the cathedral for her wedding, sought permission from her pastor in Garfield not to have her ceremony at her family's local church on Lanza Avenue.

Instead, Mom arranged for her immigrant Polish-speaking parents to take the first limo ride of their lives to travel to Newark, where her bridesmaids needed to stitch together two red carpets to cover the distance down the long center aisle.

Mom's wedding was an American fairy tale made possible by my wife's great-grandfather. He was one of the Irish day laborers who laid the stones when the cathedral’s construction began at the turn of the century.

My Babci was in tears when she beheld Sacred Heart. It appeared to her then, as it does to me now, the closest place to heaven in New Jersey.

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Dad died before my parents could celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary. Yesterday, Mom and I visited his gravesite at Laurel Grove in Totowa and, just like every year, Mom placed a single red rose there.

Mom and Dad, November 1955 and October 2005


Thursday, November 17, 2022

The Last Waltz: Goodbye, Catholic New York

I met Nancy, my wife, in the 1980s at a newspaper called Catholic New York.

That paper published its last edition today. Its editor, my friend John Woods, published this informative article about the publication's history.

In it, he mentions two editors I worked for at the start of my career: Anne Buckley and Gerald M. ("Jerry") Costello.

Both are now gone.

When Anne died in 2019, I posted about her life and legacy.

Anne was a wise woman; she suspected I wasn't good enough to marry Nancy.

Nevertheless, she wrote a charming column about our wedding day. There's an image of it below, and if you can't read the words in the photo, the words are posted here:


At Jerry's funeral in 2021, recalling that he recommended me for my first job and subsequently hired me twice, I learned he had sponsored many other journalists' careers... including another friend I met at Catholic New York, Monica Yehle, who sat beside me, and the Catholic Standard reporter in the pew behind us, and reporters, columnists, and editors who posted similar expressions of thanks on social media.

Jerry's obituary, written by his daughter Eileen, was wonderfully detailed: https://scanlanfuneralhome.com/tribute/details/10170/Gerald-Costello/obituary.html#tribute-start

His eulogy, delivered by his son Bob, focused on the impact of Jerry's life on his six children, 21 grandchildren, and eight great-grandchildren. Bob also spoke of Jerry's love of music, concluding with lyrics from Dan Fogelberg's "Leader of the Band" and applause from the congregation.

The photo below of the funeral Mass program includes Jerry's written reflection as he neared the end of his life and battled with Parkinson's disease.


The words in the photo are too muddy to read there, and Jerry's words were always precise. 

So here's what he wrote:
"The special memory I keep is one where I'm part of a band -- a big one, of course -- on a night when everything is going just right. All the sections are working together, and the five saxes that I'm leading are playing in perfect harmony, the music we're making is so good, so joyous that the crowd on the floor in front of us stops dancing -- just so they can listen. It may not have happened all the time, but often enough. And when it did, it brought a feeling of excited contentment that I remember still."

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To this day, I still remember, and miss, everyone at Catholic New York.

I appreciate that the cover of its last issue this week features a photo of St. Patrick's Cathedral, just like its first issue did. The photo is by Chris Sheridan, one of the most talented photographers I've ever had the honor to work with.

So I guess that's an appropriate "30."

And yes, Anne, we still have your wedding present. It's displayed proudly in our dining room.

It plays a waltz, and the music is forever haunting and joyous.

Thank you, Catholic New York.



Sunday, November 13, 2022

A Lesson in Poetry, Thanks to Marianne Moore

This is the story of my first public poetry reading.

I love hearing poems read aloud by their authors in real life. That and listening to musicians perform are two things that always rekindle my sense of wonder and reaffirm my faith in humanity.

Having recently attended both the Paterson and Dodge poetry festivals in New Jersey, I was energized and excited by the poets I heard. The experience inspired me to write a trilogy of poems that share the theme of looking back at my life and family.

Just for kicks, I decided to share these poems in public, out loud, during the open mic portion of a poetry reading at the Fort Lee Public Library this past weekend. There were a few other men approximately my age who also read, including one who read a poem about an imaginary conversation with the poet Marianne Moore.

So I was emboldened to walk to the mic in front of the room and read the set of poems below. The crowd of perhaps two dozen was attentive, and applauded, and I felt pretty good about the experience.

At the end, as I gathered my coat and notebook, an older gentleman hurried toward me. There was joy in his eyes, and it was as if he couldn't wait to tell me how much he enjoyed my poems. I thought, "I have a fan!"

He shook my hand vigorously and smiled warmly. He said, "I bet you didn't know that Marianne Moore loved baseball and was a big fan of the Dodgers!"

I smiled just as warmly, admitted I didn't know that, and thanked him for the information.

Then, turning and turning, I slouched towards home.


Elegy in a Living Room

Roman Holiday

Unopened Prayers

Sunday, October 30, 2022

Poem: 'Roman Holiday'

Pietà, St Peter's Basilica

Michelangelo's Pietà, St Peter's Basilica (Creative Commons)


This month, I was able to attend two poetry festivals close to home, the Paterson Poetry Festival and the Dodge Poetry Festival in Newark.

I listened to some incredible poets, including (two favorites) Rashad Wright in Paterson and Sandra Cisneros in Newark. Thank you to Talena Lachelle Queen and to the Dodge Foundation for coordinating such wonderful, life-affirming events!

In Paterson, two poets were especially kind and signed books for me: Elijah B. Pringle III and Catherine Doty.

I attended Cat's prompted workshop, where she asked us to think of details of a place we remembered vividly and also of a special hiding place. I combined the two prompts into the poem below. 

Roman Holiday 

When I was a teen,

my uncle led me up stone steps of a forbidden tower

to a parapet, with a panoramic view of St. Peter’s Square.

We were trespassing, and I was afraid of heights.

 

I told him I preferred to see the world with my feet on the ground:

Looking up at the Sistine Chapel ceiling,

Seeing my grandmother feed pigeons in the piazza,

Seeing the cool smooth marble of the Pieta inches from my eyes.

 

When I was a boy, I had seen Mary’s young face from afar,

behind bullet-proof, ceiling-to-floor plexiglass

on a dimly-lit moving sidewalk,

jostled by tourists at the World’s Fair.

 

As a teen, free from my Roman chaperones,

I was Jesus Christ, risen from the dead.

I was the only person in the world viewing, in a stolen moment,

what Michelangelo had carved from a single stone.

 

In such dizzying proximity to perfection,

I understood the desire to destroy it.

 

And yet I have lived my life as an innocent man,

never seeking to avenge my younger self.

I am Zacchaeus, and this page is where I hide.

This piece of paper.

This poem.


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Friday, September 23, 2022

5 Things I'd Tell My College Self


My apologies for the aging, yellow Kodak print of Dad and me examining my diploma after the graduation ceremony on the Notre Dame campus decades ago. It’s really all I have left.

Dad always wanted me to go to Notre Dame, so I did… to make him proud of me.

The first thing I’d tell my college self would be: “You don’t have to go to Notre Dame to make Dad proud.”

I miss Dad terribly. He died what will be 17 years ago next month. I learned in the years since that Dad was unconditionally proud of me.

Also, Dad didn’t know everything. For example, he was a lifelong Yankees fan. I started out that way too, but the older I get the more I appreciate the words of Roger Angell, who would have turned 102 this week. He wrote that cheering for the Yankees’ perfection is “admirable but a trifle inhuman.” The Mets’ “stumbling kind of semi-success can be much more warming: there is more Met than Yankee in every one of us.” I agree.

Regarding everyday life in general, I’d advise myself of two things: 1. “Be kinder than necessary” and 2. “Don’t worry so much.”

Regarding business, I’d advise myself of this truth: “Everything you need to know about business success can be found in two movies: ‘The Godfather’ and ‘The Godfather: Part 2. (A simple Google search can fill in the details.) 

Finally, about the big picture, I think back again to Notre Dame.

Fr. Ted Hesburgh, the university’s president from 1962 to 1987 who passed away in 2015, traveled far and wide in pursuit of social justice. I greatly admired him.

Fr. Ted was friends with popes and presidents, and his accomplishments were many. Touring the old LaFortune Student Center in a visit back to campus nearly five years ago, I stopped to admire a large, black-and-white portrait of Fr. Ted linked arm-in-arm with the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. at a civil rights rally at Soldier Field in Chicago in 1964.

Later that day, walking with my wife, we entered a cemetery on the edge of campus that had always intrigued me. It was filled with small cross-shaped headstones in neat rows. In college, I had simply assumed they were veterans’ graves.

No, my wife said, reading the markers in 2018, these were graves of all the brothers and priests of the Congregation of Holy Cross who had lived and worked at Notre Dame. They are buried in chronological order… one right after the other, with no marker more distinct than the next.

That made it was easy for us to find Fr. Ted’s grave, in a remote Indiana cemetery, marked with the same stone as all his brothers. Everyone buried there had done his part, lived and died, to the best of his talents, for a higher purpose than individual glory.

So this is the final thing I’d tell my college self: No person is more important than another; everyone contributes to everything.

Only the passage of time reveals the true import our efforts, and our biggest heroes are often buried in the most modest graves.