an old poem

While going through folders of old papers I came across the following poem. I’m not ready to throw it out, but don’t know what to do with it. As we’ve begun to feel the weather turn here, and I suspect it will be a cold season, I post it as



Unbeknownst to the clerk, thousands of white shirt collars
were at that moment being starched to exactness.

A hunger pang, he thought.

The tidy picture sketched above is encased, for the convenience of all,
within a square oak frame.

Somewhere on the heaps, from the
heaps, lips twitched, parted
as if to say,

My hand for your hand

the two waltzed to the turn
of the century while outside
the wind blew furiously.

Dad, the boy implored of his dead father, why, after so many years,
do you continue to come back?
The father’s only response
was to leave the Christmas decorations up until Easter.

somewhat in the manner of a poorly maintained mustache

Wow! Rows of champagne bottles!

Later that evening the two were found still dancing.

The monk’s house was out of order, and the suggestion slowly gained hold
that this would be the flavor of the future.

Close-by two men dug a ditch in the moonlight.

A “good boy”, he peeled his head of its hat like a potato.
His hands quivered like stapled reading assignments in the wind
while he edged his sneakers through the mud and stones
of the new home construction site,
with its ditches and exposed pipes. Broken now, to
his old home.

She sighed in the candlelight.

A skull is a delicate thing.

In sleep tonight who will I be? And who
will meet me there?

with the scantest information, such as the coldness of these sheets.
I only know I invest all in the posture I show, a flimsy and
unreliable contraption, barefoot on ice in flowing nightgown,
but it’s all I have. It has worked so far, has withstood many
surprises and I’m pleased to note I’ve managed to revise it
based on lumps from those surprises, but tonight I don’t know

I don’t know, when that stack of books in the moonlight
looks like a stack of old cakes. But I’ve eaten them! I cry,
and immediately withdraw. It’s close to midnight, after all,
and I have to get up to starch those collars.

not yet quitting time.

The two dance still. The digging continues. The monk,
on his way home after dark, is observed by multiple eyes
from the bushes.


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12 Responses to an old poem

  1. angela says:

    I’d would like to know if you were reading a lot of Ashbury when you wrote this…it is a lovely read through, but it is also one of those that offers no transparency, or perhaps it does… (I am not complaining, in fact, it reminds me that I need to read more poetry and get back to writing some) There are several interesting dialogues going on here – the father/son – the hunger/food illusion – is it all an illusion, is this a dream in which we visit the what we have lost and what has yet to be seen? Then again, it is a new year and the couple dances while ‘you’ ruminate on living…yes, as I read this twice, I like it even more (it is especially fitting as our atmosphere has too changed and tonight reminds of sitting outside long ago when the mountain air was thick with autumn and a twinge of snow) Thank you, Mark, for posting this small treasure which reminds me that there is beauty even when I don’t know the story, but can understand the language to make it a bit my own. ~ a

    • angela says:

      (how I wish to edit…sorry, late day in libraryland, please forgive bad spelling and grammar!)

    • No need to apologize, I’m glad you got some pleasure out of it. This is about 20 years old. I had discovered Ashbery about that time and was probably reading a lot of him. It’s written as a narrative with lots of parts missing, blurring between dream, memory and an apprehensive present consciousness. The atmosphere or feeling was the main thing for me – hoping the reader would like to fill in the missing narrative parts.

      • angela says:

        p.s. reading (very quickly) others comments here – you DO indeed have your own voice and style. I was just not used to the layers that I read here, dreamscapes so to speak, that flow, but yet there are gaps as to connection. Not sure why I think Ashbery, though “The Skaters” came to mind – so evocative and dreamy and waltzing ( to me) Keep posting your poems, please ~ inspired

        • No worries. I’m not bothered by the comparison. If you and a few other kind readers did not come by and give your impressions I’d be in the dark about what effect my poems have on readers other than myself.

  2. For me it brought to mind the work of Rosemarie Waldrop–a poet I haven’t read much of, but recently perused an article about, in Poets and Writers. No theme, necessarily, but a “hodgepodge of …curiousity, confusion, speculation.” This is the kind of poem I read a snippet at a time, enjoying the play of words and ideas without trying to construct a whole.

  3. hedgewitch says:

    I see it as a sequence of cinematic vignettes, also–a surreal slideshow of memory-images with a narration that is in the language of dreams–very effective, Mark–reading it one becomes disassociated from waking norms and slips into the dreamworld where logic works perfectly but much differently(e.g. the cakes/books) Really some rich veins amidst the darker ores, too. The ending is eerie and has for me a feeling of deep recognition–those eyes…I also like it that it has dancing.

  4. Susan Scheid says:

    Angela got there first, but it does seem very Ashbery, and I love it, this dancing among images, among dreams and perhaps even memories and memories yet to come. It’s quite remarkable. I’m glad you held on to it, and even happier that you chose to display it here.

    the two waltzed to the turn
    of the century while outside
    the wind blew furiously.


  5. Must agree with Hedgewitch here Mark, this miraculously flows as easily as a dream, which was my exact thought before reading hers. I’m sorry, but John Ashbery is not one of my “go to” poets for inspiration, although I can certainly see how those who admire him are paying you a very high compliment here. While reading your poem and now in the afterglow of dream emotion it left me with, I can only say it smacks definitely of Mark Kerstetter to me….. Quite a unique, pleasant style that I have become quite fond of….. Excellent write. And please quit hiding poems for 20 years! Age can not improve the ageless…..

    • Well, I have scores of poems no one has seen – some old, some new. I keep them to myself if they’re weak or need work. Others I have the crazy idea of publishing somewhere.

      I never thought of this poem as Ashberian – or any of my poems as such. I feel that with time I have developed my own voice. But I can’t see myself the way others do, so I appreciate all comments.

  6. newleafsite says:

    Mark, having read this old poem over several days, and read the comments, I echo John’s observations. I am slow to view art as “under the influence,” unless the artist says so – usually meaning his own experiences or relationships. I also appreciate a distinct personal style in your poems, especially in your attention to the details that flesh out the emotion and situation of your characters. If it hadn’t been written by you, I would say this poem reminds me of “Robert Chisholm’s White Suit.” In that poem, I especially enjoyed the list going through his mind, as he climbed, of all the things he was done with. Here, there are several images that particularly stand out to me: the square oak frame reminds me of your wood art; the father leaving up Christmas decorations till Easter made me laugh; I wonder about the monk. What threads all the images together, for me, is “In sleep tonight who will I be? And who will meet me there?” Back to John’s comment, please don’t throw out this poem. It seems like it may be a very personal poem for you in many ways, and worth exploring now and then. And I’m glad you shared it here.

    • Thank you. Yes, this one like many others has a personal dimension. For example, I’ve lived in Florida for years but I grew up in rural Pennsylvania and this poem has the feel, for me, of a cold icy winter night.

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