Len Roberts

Tilting Pagodas

Separating the darks
from the lights, a cup
of bleach
in the empty washer
then filling a bit
with water
before hurling our son’s
dirt-grimed socks in,
even the Perkins Coffee Maker
humming along
now that I’ve found the brown
and green tin of Columbian
the smell drifting out the way
it used to
those mornings you’d wake before
me and walk quietly
to this tiled floor and blue-walled
where the same refrigerator and same
stove gleam,
the same doorknob you’d twist
on your way out to get the morning paper,
the same blue plates with an oriental
bamboo, ponds, storks, and pagodas
that seemed to slant, high on their hills,—
the ones we lined up that morning to see
they all did lean to the left,
making the two of us tilt as though our world
was out of skew
and we did what we could to right it.


Len Roberts

Centripetal/Centrifugal Force

The planets whirled around the sun
on that fourth-grade blackboard
Sister Ann labeled the Milky Way Galaxy,
and it was my turn to tell the class
if it was centripetal or centrifugal force
that made them circle without spinning off
into space,
the inner pull or pushing away
I never did get right, not then, not today
as I sit here wondering where my wife
has been the entire morning,
Gone to shop, the note said when I rose,
late, from bed to drop the first load
of laundry in, the darks together ⁠— I’ve learned
that much ⁠— only to stare at the central cylinder
that struck me as a black pole all those clothes
swirled around in the centripetal or centrifugal
force that washed then rinsed then spun and,
an hour later, when the weed whacker toppled tall weeds
about to take over the stone row and pond’s edge,
that orange string always whirring about the black center
as it sliced its own circular swath,
the whole morning pivoting on my worrying
over where she had gone again, the clock moving
with its own sure gravity
around the brass pin that held down the two black arrows
always threatening to shoot out into nothing I wanted to think about,
refusing to look in her closet to see if her favorite skirt was missing,
the favorite blouse,
knowing I’d turn in my own hellish circle in that dark,
as though a pencil tied to a long string made its full black arc of doubt⁠—
one full revolution of pulling in, pushing out-around the still point of
my heart.


Len Roberts

Jerome’s Lion

A lizard there, too,
looking like a crevice in the stone,
the one I honed in on when we were told
to write one hundred words about Jerome’s lion
as the sun kept rising behind the saint,
Casting that shadow of doubt
he had to wrestle with, Sister Ann hissed,
but I could only stare at the lizard’s red eyes,
the tail that would flick whenever he wanted
to disappear,
the four squat, bent legs so near
the sand where he’d already traced
his own message
I tilted my head and squinted to see,
knowing those curved grooves were talking
directly to me
the way the glittering book and thorned cross
spoke to the others,
those cool slitherings a shade darker
than the lion’s glowing mane,
otherworldly whisperings I sensed even then
were not from God.


Len Roberts

Land O’ Lakes

Strong coffee, the heavy white cup,
sugar container crystal clear
beside the yellow milk jug
that always creamed on top,
and biscuits, too,
with peach jam, raspberry jam,
strawberry, black currant
while the sun shone through
the squeaky windows and she’d
lift that heavy, silver crucifix
three times above my head,
bringing it down hard,
Repentance and Sin, Sin and Repentance
echoing from my grandmother’s lips
that stopped only to ask where
my father had spent the night,
was my mother off to Troy again?,
her hobbled gait from stove
to table five seconds I would count
while staring at the white plate,
the shining fork, spoon, knife,
everything glittering as she whispered
More where that came from
into my red ear she had used to lift me
from the chair to wash my dirty
hands and face, and then used to set me
down again to as many pancakes
as I could eat,
three to a stack with a bowl
of batter that had no end
as long as I bent my head
and prayed aloud for grace
while the Land O’Lakes
butter streamed into maple syrup
on my overflowing plate.


Len Roberts

Like the Weeds and Flowers

I tell myself I will learn
the names of the bones
when she is burned
but know it will turn out
like the weeds and flowers,
how many springs I asked
Which is this?,
Which is that?,
tearing out,
patting down,
Sorry, Sorry, Sorry
trailing me
through her garden
till I was resigned
to bringing over mulch,
spreading it carefully under
I otherwise would not touch,
that’s what I’ll do with
the bones,
I think to myself
as the undertaker asks
To be buried or burned?,
her short, blunt fingers,
the high hips
and pelvis thick with flesh,
the width of her back always
when I wrapped her tight
and squeezed till it hurt.


Len Roberts


She wants an electric wheelchair,
a Go-cart, she whispers over
the telephone,
so pleased at her own joke
she laughs a good ten seconds
while I count the cents for this
long-distance talk
we never had when she was mother
and I son
in that other flat, a fact

I want to remind her of but bite
my tongue
as I did in that Sunday-steaming
when chicken dropped from the bone
into mashed potatoes and peas smothered
with white creamy sauce
and she quietly said she was leaving,
to click off the brown porch
with not one look back.

But now she can’t take a single step,
must roll from the wheelchair
onto the toilet seat to piss,
the breasts sliced off, the uterus gone,
how she slept the last twenty years in
a separate bed
despite the fat Irish lover she’d left
us for,

her cracked words about Bingo
and a thousand-piece puzzle
that’s a giant rose
coming through like static
from that other world
where we sat at the long table,
my mother thirty-two and I, twelve,
her hair black, her legs thin and curved,
her lips glaring with fire-red lipstick

as she set down the heavy plate
and glass of milk
filled to the brim that I’d have to
lean over to sip
before lifting to my trembling lip,
watching her watch my every move,
the two of us closer than we’d
ever been,
waiting for the slightest spill.


Len Roberts

Saturday Night Fights

I wasn’t there when
the black wings landed
on your chest and lifted,
although the woman you’d fucked
all night
said you garbled my name while
feinting left, jabbing right,
like those Saturday Night Fights,
when we’d watch Sugar Ray
in and out before the bleeding
would start,
your left fist a few inches from
your pockmarked cheek,
right level with your shoulder,
cocked, ready
to shoot straight from the heart,
in that dark parlor the woman
had left,
the dodge, the jab, slicing
while you warned me in jumbled breaths
that speed and strength weren’t everything,
tapping that thick index finger hard
into my forehead
as you mumbled it was all in there,
the bone of my brow thudding loud
those few final seconds before you
passed out.


Len Roberts

Lighting the Candles

With my back to the congregation
I lifted the burning wick
and carefully lit one red
candle, then one white,
for the soul of the man
who lay in the coffin
quiet at last, no more
bottles of beer broken
against floor or wall,
no more fists pounding
on the closed door,

the red candle catching
like the clot of blood,
I thought, must have caught
in his throat, his heart,
that Sunday morning he woke
only to be snuffed out,
the white candle like the gloves
of that woman who’d
high-heeled off our front porch
and did not once look back,

a hush in the church
when I turned around
with flames in my hands
to watch him go
in death as he had in life,
a wavering circle of smoke
that broke as it rose
into the stained-glass light.


Len Roberts

Road Rage

For three blocks now
he’s been right on my tail,
blaring horn, blinking lights,
shaking his fist out the window,
his face livid with road rage,
the name we’ve finally given
to the violence bubbling up
all around us,
my son licking his ice cream cone
while I try not to look in the rear-
view mirror for fear
I’ll slam on my brakes, get out
the way my father did those mornings
on the Golden Eagle bread route
when someone tailed too close,
Not taking shit from anyone, he’d shout,
sometimes just that, sometimes the fists,
blood, the quietness when he’d climb back in
the heated cab and turn the radio down,
lean toward me to tap my forehead hard
with that thick middle finger of his,
lifting it up before my eyes as he whispered,
This is what the world is.


Len Roberts


Cholesterol 154
but the HDLs too low
and the LDLs too high,
so the ratio’s medium risk
my father dead at 47
of a heart attack,
his brother at 53,
and here I am 51 and counting
like everyone else,
my friends last weekend,
for instance,
when the conversation turned
to cancer and emphysema and liver
until not even the beer could buoy
us up,
not even the white russians and whiskeys
with coke,
or the old boilermakers we were so proud
to drink thirty, forty years ago
when we strode up to any bar and ordered
one and then another and another
only to end up here with rows and rows
of vitamin pills
and watching what we eat, no more steaks
and hamburgers on the grill
but vegetables skewered and charred to
look like meat,
one’s knees blown, another’s elbows,
a hand thrust out onto the table
where a finger points out cysts grown
practically overnight,
red, raw bubbles of flesh that glimmer
in the charcoals’ flickering light.


Len Roberts

My Father, Tu Fu, and the Nine Storks

Alone at the top of the third
hill behind my house, snow
completely covering everything
except for the black and ragged trees
jutting from the stone rows, branch-
I see my father again in the black kimono
brought back from the war,
the gold dragon reared up, red eyes, red tongue,
the blue smoke of Luckys clouding his head
while my old man sits at the white porcelain table,
his eyes bloodshot, inscrutable
from the four quarts of Schaefer’s,
his fingers clever, thieving, as he stacks coins
from the Golden Eagle bread route.

In Wassergass January I know my father
is still lost
on the Great West Road somewhere in Cohoes, New York,
the hundred mountain peaks of the Adirondacks
stretched out, black, before him,
the Ten Thousand Miles,
the Ten Thousand Sorrows,
Kung Sung’s dancing with two swords no help
as she turns into my mother, his wife,
thrusting at him with the butcher knife,
no help the scrolls
of the Hudson Valley Community College course
on Architecture and Design to trace homes
and roads late beneath the dim light,

my father’s hands drifting to the narrow margins
where a jungle suddenly appears, vines, bamboo,
huge flowers,
men buried to their shoulders in the earth,
faces looking up to a sky completely blank
till he draws the nine storks circling with wings
spread wide,
long bony beaks, long bony legs,⁠—
the traditional nine lives given to everyone at birth,⁠—
rising in the whirls of that one-inch, full-page, snakelike
growing smaller and smaller till the last one is nothing
but a winged dot about to soar off the top into the night.


Len Roberts

Persistent Cricket

A cricket, that cliche of persistence,
will not stop cracking his black
wings all morning
although this is April
and he’s in the wrong scene,
like my father so often was ⁠— boxer delivering
a box of eclairs,
drunk trying to button the white shirt, corpse
with stitched lips and a harmonica
stuffed in the suit pocket
where the handkerchief belonged,
or my mother, my brothers, a list long enough
to fill this warm morning with blue
bathrobes and boys in bathrooms
and electroshocks,
those usual
that will not change despite their deaths,
persistent as this cricket
somewhere by the pear and peach trees budding,
after four years of nothing
but blossoms,
those white petals that promised, promised, promised
like Irene in the red bathing suit and Ellen
with the gold-sparkled eyelids and lips,
and another list forms that the
cricket applauds in his own
black music

as though he’d sat in the back row of the Cohoes Theater
watching his love’s legs shimmer
in silk stockings,
as though he’d tongued his love for timeless minutes
till she came and he fell asleep
with his head between her legs,
as though he’d held a phone once in his life saying
goodbye, goodbye, goodbye,

leaving him hollow, leaving him in spring
where he’s out of place
with his shrill, chirping song and long antennae and legs,
his ability to leap
hundreds of times his own length without missing a single beat
rising from his weightless heart.


Len Roberts

Well, Mom,

you’re finally alone
with your frozen
sides of beef, whole chickens
with their stiff feet,
legs of veal, five-pound plastic
bags of shrimp,
the gallon bottles of spring water
still lined on the cellar shelves
for when the bomb
falls as you’ve been waiting for it to fall
these past fifty years,
ready with canned asparagus, corn, beets,
the whole gleaming fear
of your young starving on Olmstead Street,
gone, 47, Dad, too, twenty years ago, 47,
and you
sit, 66, on the Mediterranean couch that’s
covered with plastic
comes to visit. And the dog’s gone, too,
your cursing in the kitchen,
the black nights of your unloving,
for all I know the polka-dot dress
thrown out years ago, the white crucifix
that hung
above your sleeping body now tacked in the
doorway, the plated gold of his feet worn
away by your lips, still
painted, full, and stiff.


Len Roberts

Walnuts, October, Wassergass

Clear October, the goldenrod
and aster turned
from summer, the Farewell-to-Summer
having said farewell, and I raked
the walnuts down
to the gravel driveway, so our car tires
would crush
the thick, green shells and we could crack
them open
on the blue porch, pick out the meat
and eat. Each
fall I am surprised by how many drop
in one night, at
the half-chewed ones, the sharp teeth,
the cold
dark in which my wife and son and I sleep
the walnuts are thudding through the autumn air.
I lifted them up and smelled the bitterness,
I smeared the brown walnut stain on my fingertips
and thought
of my mother’s walnut coffee table, her kitchen
table and chairs, the rich,
dark brown of the walnut box she kept
her fake pearl
necklace and earrings in. And I knew again
my mother would be dead within the year, by
the time new walnuts once more had grown full
and fallen, her voice
thin as walnut stems, her hair sparse
as the walnut tree’s leaves
that hung onto the black, twisted limbs
and there, behind them, the cold, clear
blue of winter coming.


Len Roberts

Nights, lately, I’ve been going to

sleep holding
my penis, as though that might stop
me from seeing my father again
as he climbed from the Golden Eagle
bread truck
and handed us each a box of cream-
filled doughnuts, rolled
the racks out in zero degrees so we
could choose. It is
an anchor in the black bed in my
forty-second year
as my older brother enters madness
and drowns of emphysema on April
and my younger goes down
on a Cambridge
Street, swinging at invisible men
he has blown and fucked and left.
This cock
that has entered my wife’s blood
and made our son’s blood, that lies
after love the way I wish I could
lay my head
on my love, cock that wakes me up
some mornings
with a flag erected on its tip
that some adventurer to the North
Pole left
before he started back. Cock of
Cohoes, Dayton, Bethlehem,
cock in European cities and Asian
cities, swaying,
snug in the white underwear, pissing
into snow, toilets,
pissing on trains, off buildings,
staring down
all of its life except those few
of wonder when it enters the cave-
cunt-prehistoric mother-darkness
and comes for all its worth
despite death
and the insurance/retirement plan,
despite the bombings
and the random shootings,
despite Sister Ann Zita slapping Donald
Wilcox’s hands into blisters
because he took it out and let its bald
eye look upon the world
of that first grade class. Despite
Hiroshima and Guadalcanal and the Battle
of the Bulge
and all the ads that say Where is it,
Where is it,
despite the skyscrapers and bombers that
imitate it,
despite hard, waxen toilet papers that
scratch it
and the too-soft tissue that clings to it.
Despite the United States of America
and Russia and Noriega and Ceaucescu
and the conspiracies of undercover agents
who beat it
because they are afraid to hang the medal
of life about its neck.
Despite Barbara Walters and Don Rickles,
despite Lassie and Harriet Nelson, despite
Reagan and the Nancy Drew stories, despite
you and me keeping it in our pants like
loose change, our
servant, yellow, black, red and white and
blue slave, quiet
in there until the aunts have gone home
and the uncles
are too drunk too notice, when the party
begins, dim
lights and Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me
on the past’s radio and the cock bows
and dances
with any partner he wants till dawn.


Len Roberts

Antique Store, Pécs, Hungary

Soldiers on blood-frothed white horses reared
the toes of beaded Polish moccasins in
the antique
store on Kossuth ter, their inch-long
sabers drawn into the leathery air
while the pretty Hungarian woman behind
the counter
smoothed a brass barrette of two tiny
angels holding
each other’s hands in her glowing hair.
In the clear glass shelves women wailed
in long lines of polished quartz, some
leaning on sticks, others standing straight
in the little light, all
of them walking toward the black trains
that waited on the side, beside
the miniature synagogue with the thatched
roof and the inch-sized
Book of the Dead, all the names real, she
said as she flicked
the pages open to show the minuscule scroll,
last names first, first last, and the gold
that clasped the book closed. I could feel
the children’s weight, the mother’s heavy
suitcase, I could hear
their last words, smell the smoke.
I could hold their hands and dance with
the pretty one
who had braided blond hair. Passing the
salt, the paprika, I
heard the knock on the door, saw the bodies
piled in the hole
beside me, wondered if the small leg belonged
to my son, if the fixed
hand was my wife’s. At three p.m. on a Friday
in Pecs, Hungary
I lifted the green ceramic lions made
in the Zolnay Factory
by the men who would be shot, I bought
the hand-stitched tablecloth from 1938, the bright
red roses clumped in the corners, the green
tendrils climbing
the walls of small houses the soft yellow
of the sun. I paid the full
six hundred forints for the lions without
guarding both sides of the Erzebet bridge, two hundred
forints for the peasant
girl with acorns in her lap, her face looking
up at the sounds
only she could hear in the empty air, everything
behind her burning, not one house left, not one
dog, not one horse,
the smoke curling and stinking of human
bodies, of faces and backs,
the wonderful calves, the delicate hands
and wrists
smoldering by the carved lilies in the town
park, one
swing left with chains swinging above
the dustless shelves.


Len Roberts

Near the Paulite Church, Pécs, Hungary

For the first six months I didn’t know
the bells
were clanging me to mass at
7:20, 12, and again at 6, their
tolling waking me from sleep, from
books, from dark. I would
have gone on November first, the day
my father sat
straight up in his piss-stained sheets
and died of a weak
heart; I would have knelt on Christmas
and February thirteenth, to celebrate
Christ’s birth and my son’s birth,
have stared and prayed and dropped
money in the basket
for a God I’m not sure exists. But
I am not worthy of the small wooden cross,
the Gospel lines my friend David sends.
On an ordinary Tuesday I bow my head.
stirs. I don’t know who or what is dead.