Saturday, May 15, 2010

James and the Twenty-Seven Bicycles

by Carole Rose Livingston
illustrated by

1. James and the Twenty-Seven Bicycles

2. copyright, etc.

3. To G.

4. James had twenty-seven bicycles.
They were all stored in the garage.

5. Some were missing a pedal or two.
Some had flat tires.
Some were rather rusty.
Still, taken all in all, there were twenty-seven bicycles cluttering up the garage.

6. How, you may ask, had James collected twenty-seven bicycles?

At yard sales, of course.

James was always going to yard sales to look for bicycles, and also to look for spare parts for bicycles.

7. "Aha!" he would say, rummaging through boxes of old hardware, "a tire iron!"

8. And he would carry it home in triumph, and add it to the twenty-seven bicycles and all the bits and pieces of bicycles that were cluttering up the garage.

9. The family car sat outside, parked at the curb in sun and rain and snow. There was no room for it in the garage.

10. James' wife Gemma was a patient woman.
Everyone, however, has a limit.

One day, when James brought home an especially bent rear wheel, Gemma said, "Right! That's it! I've had enough. We are going to have a yard sale."

And they did.

11. But first, Gemma took all her tools and spent a whole weekend working in the garage.

Here's what she did.

12. She removed the shiniest handlebars and frame from one old bicycle.

13. She added the best front wheel from another, and the best rear wheel from another.

14. She added the best pedals and seat from another, and a good loud bell and other bits and pieces from others.

15. After she had put all the pieces together, she painted and she oiled and she polished.

16. When she was finished, she presented James with one perfectly beautiful bicycle.

17. It was a bicycle that James could actually ride. he loved it!

18. Then they had a giant yard sale. All the neighbors attended.

19. Some people found old bicycles that were just the right size for them.

Some people found the right spare parts for mending their own bicycles.

All the neighbors found just what they needed.

20. When the yard sale was over, James swept out the garage.

21. Then Gemma drove the car into it.

22. Inside the garage, there was just enough room left for James' beautiful bicycle.

23. Next week, though, James wnet to another yard sale....

24. Probably not the end....

A Hyacinth for the Departed Soul

Marion Wade, who was an active member of Pinewoods Folk Music Club and a founding member of People's Voice Cafe, was a fine and feisty woman. After several careers, paid and unpaid--as a journalist, a bookseller, a left-wing activist and the mother of Don--Marion became a folk singer at an age when most people retire. Singing unaccompanied, Marion performed around the country, at cafes and union halls, festivals and conferences, schools and libraries. She sang traditional songs and contemporary political songs that others had written. She did little songwriting herself, but--good atheist that she was--she did write rousing new political lyrics for the Protestant hymn "What a Day of Victory," and that became her signature tune, and the title of her tape.

In her final ilness, Marion had surgery at Roosevelt Hospital. To cheer her, nine of her friends decided to visit Marion in the hospital and sing her version of "What a Day of Victory" to her. One of us was a minister, who could pull the right strings to get us all into Marion's hospital room together.

On the appointed afternoon, we gathered outside the hospital, and one thoughtful person, handed out xeroxed copies of Marion's song. While the minister went inside to arrange our visit, the rest of us rehearsed on the street.

A few minutes later, the minister rejoined us. "Mariion died an hour ago," she said. "Her body has just been removed to the hospital morgue. I will not feel right until I go to visit her. Does anyone wish to go with me?" Two of us joined her.

In the morgue, an attendant pulled open a green metal drawer, and there, swathed in a sheet, with only her face visible, was Marion. We had come to the hospital to sing to Marion--so there in the morgue, the three of us sang her song to her. After her well-lived life, and her gallant struggle with cancer, it was indeed her day of victory.

(This is not an account of all the events of that afternoon. Each of the people who assembled at the hospital probably has a different, deeply felt key memory. This is mine.)

Carole Rose Livingston

Friday, May 14, 2010

A Hyacinth for the Urban Soul

Did you know that the subway, contrary to its reputation, is actually the safest place in New York City? According to a TV news program a while back, the subway is seven times safer than your own home, and thirteen times safer than the streets.

I ride the subway all over, at all hours. At night, I prefer to wait for my train in the designated area near the token booth, but this is not always possible to do. And what of entering and leaving the station, standing on lonely platforms, and walking through pedestrian tunnels? What of the surrounding streets at night? Here's a safety tip that's better than a bulletproof vest. I sing folk songs, loudly. It's great fun, and any would-be perpetrators who might be lurking in the vicinity scurry away, dismayed and confounded.

Some years ago, after a party on Christmas Eve, I found myself waiting for the A train at the Hoyt-Schermerhorn station in Brooklyn, at 2 AM. Around me on the platform were about a dozen large men of varied hue. None of them seemed very sober, and all of them seemed to be leering in my direction. So I burst into song. Foreign languages are best for such occasions, so, in keeping with the seasaon and the apparent condition of my companions, I began with "Al Voll," a medieval German drinking song:

Al voll (6x).
Bist du voll?
So lege dich nieder,
Shteh auf fruh
Und esse dich wieder,
Das ganze jahr,
Den abend und
Den morgen

(Dringers: All full.
Barmaids: Are you full?
So go to sleep,
Wake up early
And eat some more,
The whole year long,
In the evening and
In the morning.)

As I was modulating into my next number, The French drinking song "Chevaliers de la Table Ronde," I looked around and discovered that I had half the platform to myself. All those men who a moment before had appeared so menacing were now backing further and further away from me, and looking distinctly uneasy, even anxious. This is not the response that I yearn for when I perform in cafes, but on subway platforms and dark streets it suits me fine.

I realize that what I'm doing at such times is exactly what the small birds do: I'm marking out my territory, my turf. Some animals do it with scents or bodily fluids. Many Americans think they need guns to do it. They're wrong. Like the little birds, I create my personal safety zone not with guns but with songs.

Carole Rose Livingston


I've climbed the high mountain,
And I've crossed the great sea,
In search of the man
Who can truly love me.

But if I don't find him,
Content I'll still be,
For I've climbed the high mountain,
And I've crossed the great sea.

Mr. Right

Oh Mr. Right, I love you so,
Though where you dwell I do not know.
I hold you safely in my heart,
For ne'er to meet is ne'er to part.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

My Cherished Friend: The Charming Stranger

(Dedicated to Trudy Katzer)

You are my rock. He is my rainbow.
You are granite. He is gold.
You are the north star, strong and steady.
He, the wind, blows hot and cold.

You are my harbor. He is the tide.
You are my anchor. He is the sea.
You are my touchstone; you keep me sane and real.
But he is a song; he sings to me.

And oh my friend, I need you both:
For he is the murmuring sky,
My father, a lover, a poem;
And you are the solid ground,
My mother, my friend, my home.

To Carry `Haiku'

Because it can't be moved by the morning sun,
Or quickened
By the curling aroma of coffee
And the first hot swallow,
Or ever feel your smile
As an intimate caress,
A computer,
However clever,
Can never
Translate a poem.

Neither can your dog,
Because he cannot sympathize beyond his nose,
Or shed a tear for those he'll never see
Crouching in crossfire on a Beirut street
Or pressed against a wall in a Belfast alley.
No, neither can your dog,
Although he sometimes has long thoughts
And bays at the moon.

It is left to you and me, my dear,
To carry haiku
Over the seas
And down through the years,
Past barriers
Of language and culture and taste,
Of history and class and caste;
Like smugglers,
To steer round the rocks,
Find the inlet at night,
And bring
The lightest of cargoes,
Delicate as camellias,
Mysterious as stars,
Into the dark harbor,
To the shore
Where the listeners

Wednesday, May 12, 2010


I shaped you of words, Galatea,
Of language malleable as clay.
I molded you, neaded you, pinched you,
Made you curvaceous--all--over,
Like me...

Then stood back and squinted,
Circled around you, chanted you, pinched,
Chanted, waited, pinched,

Chanted again and squinted,
Repeated, repeated, repeated,
And polished and waited,
A yellow-eye cat,
For the last piece of puzzle
To find its own place.

I chanted and throbbed and waited,
Until like a swimmer too long in the sea
I grew numb to the waves,
Unable to feel anymore
How distant the shore, how deep the water.

I drifted away for a night and a day,
And came back.
Too soon.
Not yet.
So I wandered away for a year and a day,
And came back.

Then the last word appeared,
The glass slipper.
I had shaped you complete after all,
For without me, you started to vibrate,
The music and rhythm, they were in you,
And you rose on your toes
Ah! to dance.


Watered at the spring of
--Dare I say it?--
Sexual urges,
All poems are sublimation.
Mine certainly are.

I may or may not
Be a good lay,
But I'll damn well write one.

And on the 1002nd Night

Many men have sworn they loved me
(None enough to do the dishes).
Genie poured from bottled smog,
If I truly have three wishes,
Give me health and wealth and worldly fame.
Forget the prince; the frog was delicious.

The Drunken Soliloquy of Prince Charming As the Clock Strikes One

Out of her glass slipper I drank dreams.
Bubbles they were, light and frothy.
Such small feet she had, such slender bones.
I drank from her slipper and gazed, enchanted,
As she whirled aaway, barefoot,
Flew down the stairs and away down the street,
Dancing, still dancing,
Drawn home by the dark drums of hunger,
As all the gilded clocks of the palace,
Tinkling and chiming, struck twelve.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

You Touched Me Everywhere

You touched me everywhere,
Until the clamouring hammers in my body lay still,
And the wolves that had snarled and ravened within
Were routed and scattered, like dry leaves in the wind.

For you rolled me around
As the gardener's lad,
With sun-hard hands
And mud on his boots,
Might challenge the earth,
If the gardener's lad
Had a string of degrees
And a lyrical tongue,
And the earth was in need of seeds.

Amazing how hard hands
Can coax the tender sprouts
From the unyielding ground,
And tickle the roses into bloom.

I have been peeled like a peach,
Soft inside touched.
I have been

The Stone Speaks

You swept me off my feet
With a wink and a whistle.
Askew my petticoats flew
As I fell.

And then with a laugh
You dropped me like a stone
Into the dark well
Of forgetfulness.

But I did not forget.
Down at the bottom of the deep well
I lived,
Breathing underwater.

And I learned:
A stone does not dissolve
Nor does it die.
It just gets wet.

Monday, May 10, 2010

I want visceral rewards

I want visceral rewards.
I am tired
Of doing good for its own sake.
I was raised to believe
That virtue is its own reward.
But over the long run
I have not found it so.
The habit of virtue hangs heavy.
Stiff as an overcoat,
But threadbare, comfortless
Against the lonely winter of my days.

I want touch
I want to be stroked.
I cannot, without input,
Keep generating energy.
A kettle cannot whistle
Without warmth;
No one expects it to.
Even a boiler needs tending.

And I am not,
I am not an appliance, a thing.
And my life is not without significance.
Nor do I, by and large, regret my ways.
But I cannot stop a billion starving cells
From howling in the caverns of my skin.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

I've been many kinds of addict

I've been many kinds of addict:
thumb sucker
nail biter
sweet tooth
gut stuffer
weed smoker
hard talker
puzzle whiz
and organizer of closets.

Mechanically I cope
by means of little cut-off switches,
automatic flick
when my burdened circuits overload:

Murder mystery
word game
murder mystery
word games

But still the pressure rises,
builds and rises,
still the pressure rises,
swells and rises,
still the pressure--click:

Shut down
turn off
let go
(oh sleep),
charge up
and try again.

Elegy on a Cigarette

My mother's breast,
Untasted then,
Now sucked.

Love lost,
Unconsummated then;
Now slowly savored.

The old neighborhood,
Old friends recalled:

The rope of smoke
To all my past.
My consolation
For all that never was.

And now, my courage.
On to the hard task,
Into the fray,
Again and again and again.

But first,
A cigarette.

Saturday, May 8, 2010


I drown in dreams.

Gentle at first,
The waves
Come reconnoitering,
Rock me
In the hollow
Of my pillow.
Then urgently,
The powerful tide
Pulls me out,
Forces my clinging fingers
From the rope of consciousness,
Carries me down,
Down and down,
Holds me under
Until I stop struggling
And drown.

Every night.

There is a city under the sea,
Of shadowy surfaces
And shifting grey shapes,
All the ghosts
Of childhood.
We never left you, they murmur.
Even in that other world
We are always with you,
Fluttering around you
With our soft, invisible wings.
At night,
Our bony fingers
Reach above the waves,
Loosening your grip on the rope,
Thick rope now,
But stiffening,
And frayed.
We pick at its strands.
One day, my dear,
The last thread will split,
And you will stay with us.

Struggling and gasping,
I thrash back.
My head
Breaks the surface.
I heave myself onto the shore,
And as the last wave recedes,
I reach for the rescuing rope.

Post Mortem

I am not a practicing Jew,
But letter perfect
By birth.

Hitler wanted me for a star,
A smouldering, six-pointed star,
One in a cast of millions,
The theatre blazed with stars
(Tormented Hamlets
And poor Ophelias)
When he staged his loud
And monstrous spectacle
Before an audience that was
Deaf, and heard no evil,
Blind, and saw no evil,
Mute, and did not speak.

When the curtain rose
On the night of broken stars,
The critics didn't even attend.
Nor for years did they review
The grand opera Genocide.
To the shrieks and wails
Their ears had walls.

And that, my dear children,
Is why
Every Jew should own a diamond:
To bring at once to the box office,
Should the murderous chorus sound again,
For the fastest ticket
Out of the theatre.

Friday, May 7, 2010

Sonnet: Affirming Atheism

Too soon the darkness comes, the dreamless night.
Too soon the vision fades, and all emotion
Ceases. Too soon the soul, which once was light,
Goes out. We turn to meat and vegetation.
No airy and ungrounded speculation
Can contradict the evidence of shrouds:
The journey to the final destination
Is the goal. We strive for dreams, not clouds.
We strive for human justice, human truth,
For this is all there is, this life, this earth.
Irrelevant the churches' tolling bells;
Our heavens all are here, and all our hells.
There is no god, and never ever was,
For lions eat gazelles - and we fight wars.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

To Make a Better World

To make a better world
Book reviews are not enough,
Though they be of many tasteful words.
Songs may be more real,
Closer kin to action.
But more real still is time.
Will you give time?
And more real still is blood.
Are you prepared to bleed?
And more real still are flesh and bone,
Which bruise and break.

They hacked off slabs of her flesh.
They broke her bones, finger by finger.
The heroine of the revolution
Died in a pitiless place.
I do not want to be like her.
I do not want to die like that.
But book reviews are not enough.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Cassandra: A Bedtime Story

(You will recall that Cassandra, daughter of Priam and Hecuba and sister of Paris and Hector, had the gift of prophecy, but was condemned by Apollo always to be disbelieved. It was she who foresaw the fall of Troy.)

Once upon a time, in the 1950's,
There was a child,
Brand new in the world, and fragile,
And scared shitless of the Bomb.

She had nightmares every night
Of that monster Bomb,
And she screamed and screamed
But it wouldn't go away.

And every night she peed in the bed.
The bedsheets were sopping,
She couldn't help it.
That monster was going to eat her up.

So her parents took her to a shrink,
To shrink the gigantic,
The earth-shaking terror,
Down to the size of an imperceptible squint.

Now she is a woman grown, a peacemaker,
Who addresses rallies
In the ringing voice of lifelong conviction,
Sowing sweet reason like seeds.

But always there, inside her dark eyes,
Soft and smouldering,
Lurks that small, bed-wetting child,
Helpless before the Bomb.

And behind her sweet reasonable words
Is the high voice of that child,
Screaming, "Listen. Please listen.
There are more of them now."

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

My City

I have woven a cloak around you, my city,
Its stitches a thousand moments in memory,
Warming you, shrouding you, making you mine,
My illusion, my city of smoke, my skin;
Is it safety in numbers or safety alone
That you offer the walker in neon at midnight?

Monday, May 3, 2010

Theft Insurance

Whenever I hear of someone
Shooting at a thief,
I am appalled.

Material is immaterial.
Only life matters.

I do not own
The things I own.
All things
Are but a loan.

The diamonds
That I fancied I possessed
Were merely visiting.
My grandmother's
Old-fashioned ring
Has again changed hands.
And the gold thimble
That my great-grandfather
Carried in his pocket
O'er the sea to America
Has embarked on another voyage.

What of it?
Nothing of value
Was taken
And I remain
Fabulously rich.

For I count:
All my fingers and all my toes,
My eyes, my ears--
And the storehouse of my mind
Is filled to bursting,
Not with rings and thimbles,
But with dazzling jewels of thought,
And fantasies amazingly wrought,
And memories of burnished gold.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

That Boy

Thirteen years old
and couldn't read for squat,
but his momma had a TV
and he watched it
a lot,
the cop shows,
the action shows,
the jacks in the box,
who shoot to kill
but when they take slugs
jump up whole
in the next episode.

Bang bang.

And all those commercials,
he watched them, too,
They spoke right to him,
flaunting their wares.
over and over and over,
they said, "Sucker,
go for it."

So that boy got a gun,
had no bullets,
had no firing pin,
but he went to rob
a high top shop,
and the real cops came
and one yelled, "Stop!"

When that boy
heard that word,
in a flash
he pointed his pistol,
his unloaded pistol,
at that big cop,
who shot him dead
on the spot.

Now I'm not asking
where that boy got a pistol.

And I'm not asking
whether he was on crack.
I know he was dealing.

And I'm not asking
what that cop was thinking
when he reacted.

And I'm not asking,
I'm not asking,
how that boy's momma
took the news.

And I'm not asking
why that boy
wasn't in the library,
reading up
on how to be an engineeer.

I'm not asking
any of that.

But here's the question
I can't stop asking:
What was that kid thinking
when he aimed an empty pistol
at a cop?

Did he think
that gun was magic
like on TV?

Did he think he was magic
like McGyver
and Mr. T?

Did he think
this is what a man does?

Did he think,
"Fuck you, mother-fucker.
You, daddy, you"?

Did he want
to die?

And if he did,
what was he thinking?

The answer
to this question
is unknowable,
because no one
can ever ask
that boy what, what
was in his mind
in the instant
before he got wasted.

This question is his ghost.
This question haunts me.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

And The Winners Are....

This is the Oscar belated
to the great Black actors of the Thirties
who didn't roll ltheir eyes
and sling their hips
and shuffle
and say yassuh boss
with a smile as wide as a watermelon,

who walked away from the money
(it wasn't much)
and starved,

who said no to the part
(it wasn't big)
and gave up the one chance,

the dream
(the hopeless dream)
of personal recognition,

because they knew,
give priase they knew,
that cavorting on a screen
twenty feet high and fifty across,
in full sight on that broad white screen,
was a giant betrayal,
not just of self,
but of a whole people,
and beneath contempt.

They chose instead to walk upright,
away from the bright lights
and down the long dark road
cobbled in forgotten names.

And so tonight we honor them,
the unseen,
the anonymous,
the great Black stars
who are gone with the wind.