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2 / Poems from the
Propel Poetry Series

A silhouetted reader and book: the image represents the shadow of this reader, and their book, cast upon a golden wall.
About Propel

A Note from the Editors

With this issue we announce the first three poetry books by three disabled writers.  They are brilliant books, the first of the series to be published annually in each of the next five years, thanks to a generous grant from Propel. 

 

This is especially timely. The poetry community has paid close and deserved attention to work by minority and female writers and to closing diversity gaps among arts board members, but similar attention has not yet reached to disabled writers. With this series and this effort we hope to begin to remedy that gap.

 

Our first three poets are Tito Mukhopadhyay, with Creating the Faces and Other Poems, D.J. Savarese with Swoon, and our first Propel Poetry Award Winner, Daniel Simpson, with Inside the Invisible. All three books are stunning. They are available on our website or through iBooks or Amazon.

 

A selection of poems from each of the books follows.

— Bob Herz, Steve Kuusisto, Andrea Scarpino 

Daniel Simpson

Daniel Simpson

Poems from Inside the Invisible

Some Holy Saturday

you will rise from your bed at four-thirty in the morning, 

to find bitter weeping outside your window

and your yard filled with trees that were not there the night

       before,

large leaves everywhere soaking your hair with dew,

the thick smell of olives heavy in the air.

It is Peter, still crying

up through the crust of the earth,

and though no cocks have crowed yet,

and there is no farm for hours,

you are poised for the marking of betrayal.

What will you do

if, following Leopard Road or Route 13,

you should be drawn by a congregation of curious crows 

       to Iscariot hanging from a tree,

the neck groove lapping over the rope,

his toga tented at the crotch?

And what if from the moon come strains

of Hollywood’s fourth cousin to Gregorian chant

with celluloid clicks and pops to let you know

this is old and serious?

And what if the man who made the cross

sleepwalks beside the road in the underbrush,

and your father now remembers

that yesterday, between twelve and three,

the sky grew dark over your neighborhood?

Will you kneel down in the road and pray?

Run to your home to take from your kitchen cinnamon and

       nutmeg,

the only spices appropriate for the Savior’s tomb? 

Call the police?

Or walk to your church in silence,

hoping that the sun upon your back

is really the large hand of the fisherman reconciled?


 

Why Shouldn’t I?

Why shouldn’t I believe that Lazarus,

moldering in the grave, crawled up and out,

alive and fresh when called forth by Jesus,

or that Jesus could zoom through a locked door

to appear to his followers and let Thomas touch him?

And if I could believe those stories, I asked myself,

what could be so hard about the virgin birth?

My father said he believed in all of it,

and I feared I would be wandering in a desert

without a pillar of cloud to guide me

if I didn’t find ways to believe what he believed.

And never did I want to more than when

a girl I thought I’d never hold told me

I’d have to believe if I wanted her to stay.

(Her breast rested on my arm as she said this.)

Couldn’t it be enough, I asked her, if

I aimed to live a life of never taking

for granted the mouse, the butterfly, the snoring dog?

As for Lazarus, isn’t it enough

to think it a miracle that he got here,

like the rest of us, through the blending of sperm and egg? 

If only I could imagine that anything is possible!

But I saw my father, smart in the way of men

who work with their hands and rely on common sense, 

swindled by slick salesmen’s promises,

like the one of the super-sensitive smoke alarm 

“guaranteed for life and loud enough to wake the dead.” 

Three nights in a row, we ran into the street

in our pajamas because gnats or dust had set it off.

(The company’s whereabouts could not be traced.)

So how then shall I live inside the invisible?

There is no Jesus here for me to touch,

unless it is you, wearing his disguise.

 

 

 

 

Father’s Day

No card to send, nowhere to send one,

I remember the concierge telling me

on my way out the door to call home soon.

Afraid of bad news, I went first to Notre Dame

to hear a man missing fingers send up mystical prayers 

to the Holy Spirit through ten thousand pipes.

“I’m a tough timber to crack,” you said after “cancer,” 

your voice strong and sure via satellite.

But you did crack, leaving me lost but still playing 

memories of rituals: backyard baseball,

lunch at the deli, trips to the lumberyard,

slow afternoons on the train station bench,

the devoted waiting for the Spirit of St. Louis,

with her one-chord prelude and her sanctus bell,

to pass through our world with a thousand souls, 

sending up diesel like incense, like prayer.

 

 

 

Measuring Distance

They blow the whistle by my house 

and a long way down the track.

 

They don’t blow it at yours.

I know that from sitting on your lawn.

 

The train that lumbers to a start near me 

whooshes by the far end of your yard.

 

Today, I tried to see how long I could hear it. 

I was surprised how loud it was so far away—

 

surprised as when a New York FM station 

made me think I was hearing Radio France.

 

I imagined the train passing by your place; 

I can’t exactly say when it faded.

 

What if I called you up some day

and you stood outside with your cordless phone,

 

perhaps the same one your old boyfriend rang 

that broke the spell I had fallen under?

 

(You were sleeping on a blanket.

I was sitting near you, reading poems.)

 

Would we be able, together, to subtract 

the rails between your home and mine?

 

 

 

Chance Meeting

You are riding on a train,

and since it is such a long trip

and your book is boring,

and since she seems to have nothing to do 

but glance out the window

and once or twice at you,

you cautiously tuck your shyness,

like a bookmark,

into the cheap paperback

you bought in the station

at the last minute

and you say something to her.

It isn’t much of a thing to say — 

something safe —

and yet you feel

as if you are saying

something crucial and awkward

as you did when saying

almost anything in seventh grade.

You scratch your shoulder,

which doesn’t itch,

and you say something like

“Boy, Ohio is really flat” or

“I don’t know if I could live

in this city” and then

she says something back. It isn’t

 

much of anything either. But maybe, 

because you spoke first, or because 

she’s just that way, she sounds

a little more sure of herself.

And perhaps because the train 

clatters along confidently,

you tell each other

where you live and what you do, 

and then you both say that you are 

hungry and wouldn’t mind 

walking the eleven cars

to the snack bar. You agree 

that it would be good

to stretch your legs.

 

On the way,

because the train is swaying,

you link arms for support.

When you squeeze past the conductor, 

rather than going single file,

you turn toward each other

so that you are fairly dancing,

rocking between aisle seats

as if they were couples too.

And when you lose your balance

and fall into a stranger’s lap,

she laughs at you

with that understanding laughter married people have,

and you laugh with her

as though you haven’t laughed

since a year ago November.

 

By the time you return

to your seats, you are talking 

about favorite movies, you are 

telling family stories. And soon 

you are using words like wish 

and imagine, and you imagine 

this could go on forever.

Then the conductor is

calling out her stop,

but she hasn’t heard him

and so must hurry now

to pull her luggage from a rack

and make her way.

There is only time

to shout your number once.

She says she’s got it,

she’ll remember it.

You fiddle with your book.

When you look up,

everyone is watching you and smiling. 

A young boy several seats away

turns on a boombox

and the car is filled with music.

 

 

 

We All Have Something of the Poet in Us

which is why

the bookstore clerk

passing through aisles

of Danielle Steel

and waiting for new words

has stopped telling her boyfriend 

that she loves him

 

and why the crane operator 

who would take the Phillies 

over Frost any day 

nevertheless searches his mind 

before resigning himself to 

Sweetheart

Darling

Honey

the names already used up 

by previous lovers.

We all want

a new language,

to smell

the musk of sex

for the first time

every time,

to touch the new one’s skin 

clean of history.

 

Let us pray for poetry 

that begins in love

and then moves outward. 

May it fill the mouths

of all who love.

“My dancing tumbleweed,”

the crane operator will say

to his wife on a Sunday walk.

And the bookstore clerk, leaving for 

work, will embrace her beloved in the 

kitchen. “Oh, my hot skillet,” she will say, 

“my deep, deep fryer.”

 

 

 

Haiku Love

I want to live

haiku relationships — 

that rich, that defined —

 

believing confinement will 

save me from myself,

or from the other.

 

But then I think

of Schoenberg,

how mathematical music

 

can sound like chaos, 

no melody to sing, 

and I say,

 

Give me sprawling love — the kind that refuses to live in 

twelve tones and seventeen syllables, or even in a short story —

 

that is until

my replacement 

comes along,

 

and everything

is blown to hell,

then couldn’t we have

 

a sonnet,

a sestina,

a villanelle?

 

Why We Need New Year’s Day and the Passage of Seasons

Because we are iron in a smithy world

which heats and hammers us beyond self-recognition, 

leaving us slow to learn renewal,

too grumpy or fogged most mornings

to notice that our hearts still surge blood

to every point along the body’s map,

and that our minds are still what computers emulate.

 

After all, even monks with no other life

cannot harness themselves to awareness every second. 

And yet, a garbage collector I know

carries his life like a diamond,

and an exhausted mother

immersed in four-child babble all day

hitches her mind to a book each night,

if only for five minutes,

before she careens into sleep.

 

Praise, then, to the policeman who paints portraits

and to the bank teller who keeps a journal.

Praise to the thwarted shop steward who keeps

his standing appointment to play catch with his child.

Praise to the heartbroken social worker who subscribes

        to the symphony.

Praise to the math teacher who photographs birds 

and to the roofer who, hoping for hope,

believes that next year his team will do better.

 

Praise the toddler and the hospice-dweller

as they stumble in new passages.

Praise all who breathe.

Praise all who once breathed and now nourish the ground. 

Praise all whose stories have already been written

and all those who still have at least one more chance. 

(Seventy times seven, says Jesus,

are the chances we each should have.)

 

Let the fireman remember his own life as he chops 

        with the axe.

Let neither the minister neglect his wife,

nor the doctor her husband.

Let none of us simply swallow our lives whole. 

But if the minister, the doctor, and we should fail, 

let us have new years and fresh seasons.

Let us have seventy times seven chances.

School for the Blind, Daniel Simpson’s first collection of poems, came out in 2014. His work has been anthologized in About Us: Essays from the Disability Series of the New York Times, Welcome to the Resistance: Poetry as Protest, and Beauty Is a Verb: The New Poetry of Disability, and has appeared in Prairie Schooner, The Cortland Review, and many other journals. In 2017, he and his wife, Ona Gritz, collaborated on two books, as co-authors of Border Songs: A Conversation in Poems and as co-editors of More Challenges for the Delusional, an anthology of prose, poetry, and prompts. He has worked as a church musician, computer programmer, and high school English teacher.

DJ Savarese

D.J. Savarese

Oberlin Diary from Swoon

03/03/2012

 

Snow again, wind,

and brightly colored burkas

by North Face.

 

Spring is a lousy correspondent.


 

03/04/2012

 

Like the heart in its cage,

a college student in the library.

 

Blood pulses through the stacks.


 

03/05/12

 

Waking up this morning, I smile.

Twenty-four brand-new hours are before me.

I vow to live fully each moment.

And to look at all beings with eyes of compassion.

— Thich Nhat Hanh


 

03/06/2012

 

My birth mother lost six children

to the State.

Of the five, I knew only my sister, Kelly

Last night she friended me on Facebook.



 

03/07/2012

 

“Open a pop tart,” says the toaster.

“Peel a clementine.”

 

The past like a rabbit darts across the lawn—

it, too, is hungry.


 

03/08/2012

 

When I am terrified, I smell rancid meat;

when I am calm, fabric softener.

How can that be?


 

03/09/2012

 

Folding laundry, one can almost

believe in god—the soul

is an agitator

in which we bleach

ourselves.


 

03/10/2012

 

“Stop nodding off!” I say to the dictionary.

“Get to work!” I say to the reference books.

 

Midnight swims in an icy pond—

the fish at the bottom mouth hello.


 

03/11/2012

 

Before I had language, I understood

the word comforter. On the first night

in my adoptive parents’ house,

the bed felt like a giant cotton ball—

the swab before the needle’s prick.


 

03/12/2012

 

Except that there was no prick.

Accept that there was no prick.


 

03/13/2012

 

Maybe spring will send a postcard:

 

Having fun in Florida. Wish you were here!


 

03/14/2012

 

Waking up this morning, I smile . . .

 

Meditation, it must be said, is difficult—

my stomach meditates better than my lungs.


 

03/15/2012

 

I have twenty-six pairs of pants—

with enough legs I can outrun anything.


 

03/16/2012

 

Like seals squeezed onto an ice flow

the words of this textbook —

watch them waddle across the page.


 

03/17/2012

 

The doctor says that I am synesthetic:

I hear colors and see sounds.

My father’s voice is a balsam fir.


 

03/18/2012

 

Going to the dentist is a bit

like having

the Department of Children and Families

come to your house.

What will they find?


 

03/19/2012

 

For me sleep is a luxury—

like fresh strawberries or espresso.


 

03/20/2012

 

How can one live fully in a library?

Cholesterol clogs the stacks.

 

Soon they’ll need stents.


 

03/21/2012

 

Today at the supermarket, I bought yogurt,

beer and razors for my father. His shaved

head resembles an observatory: 

inside, it’s always night.


 

03/22/2012

 

How else to say it?

My birthmother tried to drown

me in the bath.

My head, like a rubber ducky,

refused to be submerged.


 

03/23/2012

 

I must have anesthesia at the dentist—

it’s enough to be trapped in a chair,

but to feel the gloved hand of the past

invade my mouth . . .


 

03/24/2012

 

Today we picked up my father at a rest stop on I-90;

his shiny, new Mazda had run out of gas.

The service station was closed.

How funny: my frantic father stuck

at a rest stop.


 

03/25/2012

 

In my first foster home they found bruises

cleverly hidden beneath my shirt and shorts.

Because I couldn’t talk,

I couldn’t tell them who had struck me.


 

03/26/2012

 

My father’s father never bothered to hide his rage:

he’d just throw my father against the radiator.

What he remembers of that cold, cold man

was the sudden, shattering warmth.


 

03/27/2012

 

Did the daffodils oversleep?

The sun is scolding them.

 

Stupid sun, they drifted off while studying.


 

03/28/2012

 

How can one man be so sweet and nervous?

My father tells me to stop pacing,

but he can’t stop biting his nails.

If heaven had fingers, they’d surely bleed.


 

03/29/2012

 

Because the mind is a farmer,

the mad cow of anxiety begs to be milked.

So out to the barn I go.


 

03/30/2012

 

When I first had anesthesia,

it took me an hour to wake up.

On the device that I use to communicate,

I typed, “Easy breathing forever.”


 

03/31/2012

 

Like buds on the trees,

my friends in their dorm rooms.

The wind incites a party.


 

04/01/2012

 

Is the penis a wasp?

Does it have to sting?

The pretty ones play

in the hive.


 

04/02/2012

 

Waking up last night, I moaned.

The covers seemed to be a bandage,

and the light, an unfeeling nurse.


 

04/03/2012

 

Thich Nhat Hanh once wrote,

“Walk as if you are kissing the Earth

with your feet.”

 

My feet drag like a ship’s anchor.


 

04/04/2012

 

Time to hit the books.

 

When I grab my belt,

a hundred novels

begin to undress.


 

04/05/2012

 

Though the skin was meant for pain,

I want anger to be a footnote,

not the central argument.


 

04/06/2012

 

Thank god the Internet is distracting!

Thich Nhat Hanh:

“If you’re going to struggle to read,

read things that are worth it.”


 

04/07/2012

 

Like a drop of blood on snow,

a solitary cardinal.


 

04/08/2012

 

In foster care I shared a room

with a sixteen-year-old boy

who had been sodomized

by his father—I was three.


 

04/09/2012

 

The Oberlin library

is a massive, concrete bunker —

a testament to endurance.

Think: Berlin, 1945.


 

04/10/2012

 

The Buddha said, “Your work is to discover your work

and then with all your heart

to give yourself to it.”

 

A lawn boy, I spread words around like mulch.


 

04/11/2012

 

At night my foster care roommate

would take his revenge, yelling,

“Get over here, R-!”


 

04/12/2012

 

The peace accords of spring.

The tulips risk tomorrow.


 

04/13/2012

 

My father sends an email:

The survivor skills you needed then

are not the living skills you need now.

Give your lungs a rest.


 

04/14/2012

 

Gainesville, FL.

Hornets circle the single-wide.

My birthmother,

that drooping chrysanthemum,

wants money:

“Pollination will cost ya.”


 

04/15/2012

 

Tax Day for the taxidermist.

My hide hangs on the wall.


 

04/16/2012

 

How can I fire the great welder Loss?

For twenty years he has worked for me.


 

04/17/2012

 

As metals fuse

through the application of heat,

so past and present

become one entity.


 

05/18/2012

 

The R- got an “A” on his term paper.

As at a baseball game,

the past applauds.


 

05/19/2012

 

Once, my birthmother

rode past my adoptive parents’ house

on her bicycle.

The wheels, I remember,

looked like giant eyes.


 

05/20/2012

 

All beings… compassion.

All beings… compassion.


 

05/21/2012

 

Watch me roll

my ten-speed at her.

Watch me don

her bitter spectacles.

David James “DJ” Savarese is an artful activist, multi-genre writer, scholar, teacher, and practicing optimist. Co-producer, narrative commentator, and subject of the Peabody award-winning, Emmy-nominated documentary Deej: Inclusion Shouldn’t Be a Lottery (2017), he founded Listen2Us: Writing Our Own Futures as an Open Society Foundations Human Rights Initiative Community Youth Fellow.

Tito Rajarshi Mukopadhyay

Tito Rajarshi Mukopadhyay

Eight Villanelles from Creating the Faces and Other Poems

I Figured 

I figured you came for a reason 

Reasons are blind alleyways 

Figuring out cannot be a treason!

 

You must have asked me a question 

Questions are closed gateways; 

Your asking - had a reason. 

 

The sun was slipping — as if a sensation. 

Sky revealed forbidden far-aways.

The sun’s slithering — almost a treason. 

 

I figured an answer. And you wouldn’t listen! 

You carried too many faces.

Can’t figure your faces for some reason. 

 

It was over between us — like an end of a season. 

And stars were shaping Milky Ways,

As if they never witnessed a treason. 

 

I figured I never will learn any lesson. 

Lessons dry like bouquets from yesterdays. 

I figured you came to tell me a reason.

My figuring was not a treason.

Through Miles

Through miles of white relentless sand

A snaking road was a ribbon of silver. 

Ripples on dune were hard to understand.

 

Muted sunshine, bleached sky and

As if the world was just a simplified matter, 

The desert continued, relentless like sand.

 

World from the desert is a peaceful land,

The Persian Gulf had an easy going shimmer; 

But ripples on sand — not enough to understand.

 

Radio in the van played a Middle Eastern band.

A foreign voice sang, the tune — unfamiliar. 

The song measured miles relentlessly on sand.

 

As we learn to hear, our senses expand.

We should be bathing in the desert wind forever. 

Ripples on a dune may be difficult to understand.

 

The tourist guide had our trip all planned. 

Mirages appeared just to disappear, 

Relentless shape-shifting of sand.

Made ripples on dune, hard to understand.

You Walk Around

You walk around a cloud of facts,

talk on this stage surrounded by others, 

find your head with your name intact.

 

Every day you make this out of that’s,

finding no choice become a bird of same feathers. 

You were taught all life to walk on facts!

 

You are aware how everyone will react

if you tell them something could be done even better 

You will be lucky if your head stays intact!

 

Beliefs are outdated — they are unrepairable tracks! 

To keep everything stagnant and paused forever, 

You must tiptoe around clouds of facts.

 

You tiptoe those tracks; digression distracts. 

And you must not try to talk too clever!

You must play it safe; your head must be intact.

 

You are tied! Grow accustomed to customary pacts.

If you want any change, you must chance to be braver! 

To be safely included, keep walking on clouds of facts.

You will find your head and name intact.

Walking By

Walking by the old school house

on a wind-blown day, navigating her past, 

her mind clogged with doubts,

 

JoAnne forgot the whereabouts.

Wind interrupted, blew harsh words,

her mind dissolved in the old schoolhouse.

 

“Wasn’t Emily Hawthorne in the girl scouts? 

And . . . When did I see her last?”

Overcast sky kept clogging with clouds.

 

“Simon and Jack D’Meo were twins. Sheila Sprout . . . 

Was she the girl who talked fast?”

JoAnne walked close to remembering. The schoolhouse

 

seemed to shrink. The rooms to the south 

looked new, wind combed the playground grass, 

windows stared at clogging doubts.

 

“Al Lieberman was some raconteur! Told stories — how 

his family had survived the Holocaust!”

Little stories mattered in a wind-slapped schoolhouse.

Her doubts were like sky, full of clogged clouds.

You Read a Story

You read a story. It is tall like a mammoth 

chestnut tree. As you read, heavy

weighted thoughts, drag you upward, rough

 

bark to hold on, you rise with speed of a sloth

through the spiraling trunk. You always read slowly, 

tall tales form dense foliage, characters

 

nesting on branches. You maybe lost 

midway as you read. The mammoth tree 

sways your windy thoughts high up

 

at the crown. You watch from the top,

the secret networks branching, you cannot shake free 

of the Story — tall as a mammoth.

 

From the height you interact

with the story’s frozen timeline. You see 

the pull of thoughts. Mist marauds,

 

covering you, as the story plots

with details. You struggle for that understory 

of empty nests, windless nights, or a mammoth 

shadow stretching its weight on earth.

I’ll Be Getting Back

I’ll be getting back now;

I should be

leaving soon. Time will somehow

 

allow

me to complete the formality

to email a valedictory goodbye. By now

 

you’d probably doubt, 

ask me — “Why must I be 

leaving?” And somehow

 

the exact answer is still a shroud

of fog to me. You wouldn’t see

and neither would I through it. “Why not now?”

 

I may ask. Sky rusts, darkness crowds 

grim patches around trees, 

somehow,

 

the silence plows

through us. You can bury a dead memory 

like planting a discarded seed. Any moment now 

time will somehow move away the clouds.

As You Looked Up

As you looked up, watched 

the reticulation

of branches, as you touched

 

its bark, felt a rough

sensation

in years of woody sculpture, watched

 

a climbing ant — its tough 

determination

to ride on a ridge, the touch

 

of morning on the deep grooves, the lush 

leaves signed a language midair. The sun 

hung oblivious somewhere. You watched

 

a circle of its shadow darkening the grass, 

smelled evaporation

of the dew, almost touched

 

the breathing air — it was oblivious

to everything. The breath reminded you of someone 

beyond, so distant. You watched

the patterns in branches, so beyond your touch.

You Had Entered

 

You had entered

through the ornate frame

travelled the outlines of her picture

 

painted by a — Lee Walker. 

You had guessed her name, 

your eyes cannot help but enter

 

through the dusty glass, filter 

inside her stilled brain.

You touched the outlines of her

 

smile. She could be posing one summer

sunset, sun was an extinguishing flame 

a dot of orange had entered

 

each of her eyes. You surrendered

at the sight of your own broken reflection — 

No, you cannot go any closer!

 

You cannot expect the layer

of dust to explain

a thousand words in a thrift shop you had entered 

an hour ago to outline an obscure picture.

When Tito Rajarshi Mukhopadhyay was eleven years old, the National Autistic Society published his first book, Beyond the Silence: My Life, The World and Autism (2000), a collection of prose, poetry and philosophical texts in which he reflects on how being autistic affects his view of the world. Since then he has published The Mind Tree, How Can I Talk if My Lips Don’t Move, Plankton Dreams, Teaching Myself to See, and others. Tito has been featured on 60 Minutes, Good Morning America, Disability Studies Quarterly, the National Geographic Magazine, Scientific American, The New York Times, The Telegraph (UK), India Today, and on the HBO documentary A Mother’s Courage.

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