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John Cullen Poet

Trying to Tell You

By John Cullen

Imagine a group of ten. Include your grandfather,
briar pipe in hand, puffing a wreath of Borkum Riff
over his chair; and Mr. Allen, your math teacher,
Kroeger bag in hand escorting his poodle a quarter mile
down Clark so Sparkles can crouch at the cul de sac;
and the wallpaper hanger with the barbed wire tattoo curling his bicep;
and your neighbor the postman, who tucks ash in his cuffs
while weeding dandelions. Add six individuals from your local
State Farm. Most likely, this collection couldn’t agree
whether to order frosted doughnuts or pecan rolls.
So let’s gift each with one simple item, say a plastic kayak.
Set them sailing down Main Street after a storm early Wednesday
morning to avoid snarling traffic and misdemeanor tickets
written by police for the operation of unlicensed transports.
Now the group has a mission. This should make the day simple,
like peeling Macintosh apples into grandmother’s stoneware bowl,
adding one cup of sugar with cinnamon and clove to spice filling.
About this time, some Einstein tweets there is never enough water after rain
to float a kayak down Main Street, and Mr. Investigation complains
there’s too much ground clove in the filling; the pie tastes like potpourri.
(Which might be true!) Like when fire hosts a meeting;
before you lift a pencil, timbers and struts disagree and screech,
even grumbling after engines and tankers return to the station.
Now imagine this case in court, your ten individuals annoyed.
Are kayaks paddling in one direction traffic or protest, rally or riot?
Do traffic laws apply equally to boats, bicycle riders, and the occasional
turtle moving through June as fast as nature to lay eggs?
What is the implication of all this on the Endangered Species Act?
Boats never use turn signals! Now, the prosecution rejects a potential juror
who states for the record David Kirby is his favorite poet.
At this point, the people you imagined demand to leave the poem.
If you look quickly, you can see them sailing toward the horizon.
And now they are gone.
The poem is defunct, hanging by a few loose lines and rhymes,
and a boodle of kayaks causes backups and one shooting. 
People will wake tomorrow to the smell of the sea
and lost dreams, and news headlines will announce an emergency
town council meeting to discuss next year’s kayak festival. 
At least we can end with something simple: An old man
wearing a lazy fedora plays guitar in the key of E while sitting
on a Borden’s milk crate. He looks like Robert Johnson.
A half dozen children listen and tap their feet to the music.
Most of them wonder why his monkey smokes a cigar. 


When your dad swung at you
and connected with mad dogs running drunk
through his blood, you howled,
grateful your mother wasn’t pummeled.
She cringed, and hunched
her flesh, an umbrella for you and the puppy.
Then you ballooned from kid to punching bag.
At first, arms and legs snarled on the floor
and you wondered if you could shelter mom
under the deck where your dog, Jack,
deaf in one ear from a haymaker, dug
foxholes under a cracked plastic pool.
Eventually you parked dad on his ass.
It had to happen, and he sat, dizzy,
crouched but growling. You felt you won,
and the world tasted safe.
You learned the world fist first,
and so you’ve got to understand your own
will plant you wordless, nose bloody,
and puzzled, just like your old man
wiped spittle and blood that day
from busted lips on bruised knuckles.

Harsh Words

Trained by whistle
to race to my side
and growl, they ate
from my hand. Chipped
on the shoulder, they
returned and slept
in my bed, muzzles
on my heart.

My mother asks
what happened
with my girlfriend
and why these lines
are so short.
I’m typing this
with one finger.
They bit the others off.


John Cullen graduated from SUNY Geneseo and worked in the entertainment business booking rock bands, a clown troupe, and an R-rated magician. Recently he has had work published in American Journal of Poetry, The MacGuffin, Harpur Palate, North Dakota Quarterly and New York Quarterly. His chapbook, TOWN CRAZY, is available from Slipstream Press. His piece “Almost There” won the 52nd New Millennium Award for Poetry.