Thursday, April 12, 2012

NPM: Charles Rafferty

During my last semester at college I submitted a small batch of haiku to the literary magazine. The editors found them good enough to print; the special guest judge found them good enough to deserve the blue ribbon. I got more bragging rights and another fifty bucks, which immediately became another bag of herbal euphoriants. Few other series of transactions in my adult life have ever been as satisfying.

The guest judge for this issue was Charles Rafferty (pictured much younger than he was when I met him), and today we'll be looking at a few pieces from his A Less Fabulous Infinity collection. Like the stuff we sampled from Stephen Cramer the other day, most of these pieces were selected because they're the ones I remember hearing Rafferty read out loud. (I remember what a forceful reader he was -- a lot of poets' gestures and voices change when they read their work, but his transformation was particularly striking.)

Rafferty exists and writes on an entirely different plane than Cramer. Whereas the "I" in Cramer's work comes across as a hip youngster who knows his way around New York and has probably come home at least once with spraypaint on his hands, Charles Rafferty writes as a middle-aged man living in the suburbs with his wife and kids. The settings and events of his work are less romantic and picturesque than Cramer's, more provincial and commonplace -- but his words are no less incisive, and his ideas are no poorer for the "ordinariness" of his ostensible character or his subject matter. Remember: it's not the setting, the events, and the people conveyed in a story that matter most, but how they are conveyed.

Advice For Beautiful Daughters Entering A World of Scoundrels
         — after John Jeffery

Except for me all men are liars.
They will always say they were listening.
They will always say you’re welcome
To the pie upon their plate.
You cannot hold these things
against them utterly. Like a nail
they move well in only one direction.
Men are like this because you are
beautiful. You are what
the loneliest of them pay for,
because what good is money
if they cannot have at least the illusion
of beauty’s proximity.
Thus the magazines and strip clubs,
The leering, awe-struck stares
Of every man around you.
So put them through whatever tests
Your mother recommends,
but know that they will fail,
that anyone passing has successfully
deceived you——as I have now,
your flawed and steadfast father.


After a while the fallen tree seems to belong
where it is lying. The discarded tire
at the edge of the creek fills up with silt
and nettles. It will not budge for anything.

They get me thinking: how the chance
moments of my life pile up assuredly
as interlocking stones–the wrong turns and whiskey,
the kisses that taste like chess moves.

How did this happen? As I strove
To become the man I wanted
I became the man I am——impossible
to predict or understand, like weather

or the words that will make a woman
follow——living in a neighborhood
built on top of a cornfield
that was planted over a forest

that rose out of bedrock a glacier had scoured
like a stubbornly meat-grimed pan.
I open the blinds. The world seems just
as it should be——like a set of instructions

are being followed step by merciless step.

Fallen Snow

The radio towers are blinking on the hills
beyond our town. Theyare brighter than stars
and form a constellation that never moves.
Most nights the traffic from 84
skirts our house like creek-music
just within hearing, but tonight the world is stilled
by a foot of snow crusted with sleet
that had fallen this afternoon. The yard
is pristine, though I know by morning
the deer will have trampled right up
to the porch for holly bush and lilac,
the yew trees balled on the border of our drive.
I stand here while I can——the air full
of woodsmoke, my wife and daughter
stalled in their beds, the pine boughs
heavy with what had once been floating.
Down the street a neighbor's light ticks on——
there is the tinkle of a leash, a screen door
banging back. It's not enough to break it,
this almost magic solitude. In another hour
the moon will be up, making the neighborhood
glow in sympathy. All night, far in the distance,
a plow blade scraping closer.

The Gynecologist’s Lament

It’s not what I expected. Seventy-five percent
of my patients are over fifty
or overweight. And of the women who aren’t,
too many suspect chlamydia,
are not quite done their period,
or made love the night before
with a man better looking than me.
Despite what the magazines suggest,
none of them are shaved. Sometimes
it’s like examining a torn sweater,
and the thinness of my rubber gloves
is often disconcerting. But today
an angel climbed into my stirrups.
She smelled of soap. She knew how to smile.
She opened herself with the frankness
of a girl who has nothing to confess.
I checked off some boxes.
I pushed my fingers inside of her
With the regret of a chef cooking a meal
in which he can take no part.
I tried to make small talk—
the election, the Eagles game,
the bakery with the best baguettes—
but she would have none of it. She climbed out,
dressed, and paid with her insurance,
headed for the hands that will one day make her wet
as I tumble the scotch down nightly.

Against Hesitation

If you stare at it long enough
the mountain becomes unclimbable.
Tally it up. How much time have you spent
Waiting for the soup to cool?
Icicles hang from January gutters
only as long as they can. Finger pause
only above piano keys for the chord
the will not form. Slam them down
I say. Make music of what you can.
Some people stop at the wrong corner
and waste a dozen years hoping
for directions. I can't be them.
Tell every girl I've ever known
I'm coming to break her door down,
that my teeth will clench
the simple flower I only knew
not to give ... Ah, how long did I stand
beneath the eaves believing the storm
would stop? It never did.
And there is lightning in me still.

I am somewhat disconcerted by the lack of comments these are receiving. Anybody out there reading these? What do you think? Yea? Nay? Somewhere between? "Stop bothering us with poetry and talk about video games instead?"


  1. I'm sure people are still reading them. It's just that people generally have stronger opinions on politics (or video games) than poetry, especially since, while not many people know much about poetry, everyone fancies himself to be an expert on politics.

  2. I'm reading these!!! I use some of them when I teach English at school actually. Keep 'em coming!