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Sample Poems by Joseph Gastiger

Boys Who Cried Wolf

Sometimes in winter, I'’ll dream I’m wandering through a small, sad town, with hardly a sound except for the wind peeling sheets of corrugated tin from the sides of weather-beaten sheds.  Nothing’s for sale at the market, nobody comes.  Three dirty, empty cars.  A scrubby ballfield with its scoreboard caving in.  I’m halfway sure I belong to a lost war with old, broken-down trucks, with rifles that few of us know how to fire.  We’re fighting so some day, maybe, all over the world, you’ll be able to go into a diner, slip into a booth, and there’ll be the sugar, the creamer, the salt and pepper; soft, squeezy tubes of mustard and ketchup.  For that, we’ve buried some of our friends in the pebbly sand.  All across the plains, small squads like ours are hunting for documents, so they’ll be no doubt whatsoever.  Thousands of pages of single-spaced notes, yellow with age, locked up in cabinets generals swear have disappeared.  They hammered nails into the feet of men, shod them like horses, and marched them away into the desert, where they died.  This is the secret I terribly hope to wake up before.  Why bring us bread?  What use is bread?   Bring us poison, they cried, out of the filth in and around those tents.  Mothers who couldn’t remember now how many sisters they’d left behind, how many soldiers had used them that way, and boys who’d cried wolf.


The Marsh King’s Daughter

            after Arthur Szyk

Even before I could read the whole story, sometimes I’d gaze at her picture, it’s true, in that moony way I’d fall in love with a girl from a faraway country one day at school whose laughter could turn broken shells and seaweed into colorful birds.  Before I could shape my tall letters in pencil, still smudging every word with my left hand, I thought of her slipping alone through cattails in the wet fields beyond my house.  I thought just maybe I might find that lotus whose flower could heal her bedridden king, even before I made my first confession, in that small booth.  Surely, the priest with the brogue on the other side of the curtain chuckled while I tallied my meager transgressions, my woeful offenses against his God.  Surely, he gave me the easiest penance, for he was kind.  Crossing the busy road back to the parking lot where my father whistled and smoked, I thought if only I’m hit by a bus now, I will be saved.  That was as worthy as I ever felt, after the Saturday matinees, before it all got ruined on the ride home.  Thing is, those virginal martyrs and angels high up in the rafters didn’t matter to me as much as the only swan maiden I half-believed I’d set free.  Surely, I told myself, when I lift whatever spell binds us both, she will remember me, tremulously.         


Fear Of Windmills


Truly, I’m not so bad; I’m just a victim of unhelpful sartorial choices.  I’m in charge of this vast federal agency, but none of the pamphlets they put in my mailbox explain what it does.  I took one of those tests advertised on TV, and found out that I’m Irish and Wendish and Uzbek, which might account for why my bitter grandmother neighed like a horse.  She was not a nice person, but when I was small, back before kindergarten, I mean, she would look after me, after my mother kissed me goodbye and became a lunch lady.  I would sit on her lap, watching the Million Dollar Movie on Channel 9.  She’d tell me gruesome tales about boys who got killed playing hooky, and make me swear I never would, with no idea what hooky was.  I thought it had to be something like flinging a knife in the dirt to see if it would stick, puffing a Lucky Strike, trying to look tough.  Sooner or later, boys that bad suffocated in grain elevators, or they put pennies in a fuse box and got burned up.  Meanwhile, windmill blades creaked on in futile orbit as my guardian angel scribbled down each new mishap all my fault.  Sooner or later, my father would blow up reading that list, come Friday night, after he grumbled in from the carport, sullen and scared-looking as if he’d spent most of the work week flailing at the controls of a jumbo jet, jabbing these buttons and switches and screeching How do you work this thing?


None The Wiser

    for Rene Girard

            Right after kindergarten let out, I’d hurry home to watch Uncle Fred Scott dish out Bugs Bunny and Pow Wow the Indian Boy. Wisecracking Bugs won every time; he’d sputter,This means war! strap on a helmet or welding goggles and blast away.  Elmer Fudd blew up and came back and blew up and blubbered in hapless rage. That’s what fate was:  you were born either a rabbit or Fudd.  Couldn’t change that by gobbling St. Joseph’s Aspirin for Children.  Anyway, Pow Wow the Indian Boy loved all the animals and the woods.  When he got confused, he’d find the medicine man.  Once a while, a Peter Lorre-faced fish rose out of the sea, moaning that, Now I’ve seen everything.   He’d put a gun to his head and be gone; I have no clue why.  I’m only telling you this because now I remember the products that Uncle Fred plugged—Fox’s U-bet syrup, boxes of Wagon Wheels—between cartoons.  Mainly, he’d pitch Junket Rennet Custard, which I’d keep begging my mother to buy.  Sometimes she would, but I’d refuse to eat it because that quivery, watery whey turned out to be just what it was:  premature cheese.  I kept on wanting this magical, mystical treat Uncle Fred smacked his lips for, swearing I’d love it as much as Paul Parrot shoes.  I kept on pleading for something I’d realize I didn’t want the very moment I got it, and now here I am, climbing, as usual, out of the tub, toweling this forest of white hair across my chest, unblessed, unchosen, and aching for ecstasy; none the wiser.