Online Chapbook by Thom Ward

(from Etcetera’s Mistress, manuscript-in-progress)





No algebra or chemistry equations required. Each Sunday
at precisely seven a.m., he walked through the automatic doors
of the giant, automatic supermarket, pushing a shopping cart full
of potatoes, milk, bread, cheese and peanut butter, napkins and
chicken cutlets, dozens of items for the cupboards, freezer and
fridge. As his truck was parked in a space alongside the cart
hangar, where the orange sign read Return Shopping Carts
Here, the rest was simple. Removing each item from the cart he

carefully stacked the heaviest ones on the bottom, the light ones

on the top, building a small pyramid of perishable food on the

asphalt. Smiling at such architecture (a single lemon like the star

atop a Christmas tree), he’d release the door to the truck’s empty

bed, place the shopping cart on its side, push it in, shut the door,

climb into the cab, twist the key, and – without hesitation, nostalgia,

remorse – drive off.





seemed to him theology’s side dish. Mercy, justice, eternal
please), and yes, damnation. Some days he felt like he was
ordering appetizers without a menu, without a table or chair,
made of light. Pepper: those shimmering mountains in the
distance not made of rock. Too many doctors, co-pays,

prescription drug choices. At least the glass of water remained,
abiding its wedge of lemon. A goldfish has a memory of three

seconds, someone told him, (was it yesterday?), so why tighten

the thumbscrews, stretch the rack? Speaking of water, six billion

people plus, (see: census, world), each of us no more than a small,

tired wave attempting to reach shore. Curse that shifting sand,

those geologists with their plate tectonics. Five servings of vegetables

a day – absolute overkill, and silverware replaced by plastic was

another abomination. He couldn’t even chew his allotment of

unanswered questions, shadow of sound. Even so, that shadow

will never be menu, table or chair. Stuck at an impasse while being

on the gad. Oh, Lord, he thought, unfolding his phantom napkin,

What if this is?





wasn’t born in a garden wearing fig leaves while angels pointed
their fiery wings, has nothing to do with triskaidekaphobia,
(take a swim through the OED). Though toddlers stomp and pound
their fists when desire falls short of response, it was a woman,
with a crackerjack clan of attorneys, who found it imperative to

sue the stars. Why? the judge queried. They’re already dead.

Because, she crooned, as her hive of fireworks, her kink of inertia,

left the astral lawyers speechless. It is three in one; it is one in three;

because it is simply the dream of a housewife. Elsewhere, children

scale kitchen counters toward cookie jars as scientists contrive the

dance of invisible strings. (Still, nobody asks X or Z.) Not once do

teachers start show and tell from the back of the alphabet as promised.

Haven’t you learned because it is, is enough to create new geometries

of rancor, flimflams of perception – Uzis, erections, churches.





How do you keep the four guys who hate you away from
the five who are undecided? Isn’t not to be chosen still
a choice? What’s forgiveness without oblivion? Were
incompetence a crime, wouldn’t everyone be convicts?
And where would we put them? Is there a place dreams
meander to dream? Now that we know beauty is merciless,
what good is it? When old Spot leaves his spots all over
the couch, the recliner, the rug, where, besides the vet, will
he go? Isn’t heaven just another name for Special Ed.?
How do you respond to the white-gloved proctologist?
If I fall in the woods and finally stop talking, could anyone
else get a word in edgewise? Aren’t most of these hours just
stand-up tragedy? What’s the purpose of ice and Triple Sec
without a blender? Even if I was lucky enough to concoct an
original thought, where would I put it?





At birth each was assigned a task. Hers was to put the moon
in a box. At no point was she told how to accomplish this, though
at the council meetings, always held when the moon was full, the
elders encouraged the children to query the adults and prattle

among themselves. Only one phrase was forbidden – Never
did get to it today. Each was expected to accomplish their
task before the rise and fall of six hundred full moons. This
put her in quite a predicament – being charged  to shackle the

very thing her people used to mark the rhythms of their work

and play, their prayer and sleep. The elders said she had been

given this task because she had been born under the brightest

and fullest of moons. That’s just wonderful, she thought, just like

humans to twist coincidence into portent. Never did get to it today.

How crafty of them to remove that option. And so she continued

to visit the hut of the oldest of the elders, and each time he told
her the same thing: my child, all you need is to see the wings that

you cannot see.





Don’t drink the water. Listen: don’t eat the fruit.
Eventually, you always do and look what happens.
Puddle-muddled in yourself, always the self, while the
Real bogey man strolls his black stroll in your head,
Easy cop-out to tell the kids he’s under the bed.
Silly you, bragging how the mask of ebullience is
Stronger than what it cloaks. Ain’t it time for a stroke?
Insist on yourself, go ahead, insist, if you must.
Onward, says another day. Yep, you’re screwed.
Not even yoga can stretch you away from you.




(from Various Orbits)





opposable thumbs won’t save us from ourselves
though they’ve helped exaggerate the drama sliding
toward denouement without free overdraft protection


only therapists and bomb-sniffing dogs, three months
or three thousand miles, whichever comes first.
Opposable thumbs won’t save us from ourselves


as your toddler shuffles in, lifts up the sheet and asks
his mommy if he can have a chipmunk, too. Little people
don’t care about free overdraft protection, oblivious


each whenever contains its own history, bootcrunch
and snort, the ding, ding, ding of the microwave warming
opposable thumbs that won’t save us from ourselves,


the swollen grapes blowing autumn down the river
through the village, those diligent shops and steeples,
the promise of free overdraft protection, ibid, ergo,


ad infinitum.... Let the poem fracture prosody,
the tonic go flat, opposable thumbs won’t save us
from ourselves, the office file crammed


with spooky government forms. Why live in the stable
of free overdraft protection, or beneath a rainbow
whose confidence
is impressive but misplaced. If nothing


else, we know how to somersault, how to bounce.





our eyes seesaw green,
go chartreuse into hazel, umber
edged by saffron and dun.


At home our kids
guzzle cloudbursts of milk,
thicken in spurts, at school


wave their arms to become
fields of windblown wheat,
trusting they have the answer,


something of the fluid plant
that enables each of us
to yield, acquiesce without


indignation, be it clippers,
pesticides, the implacable herd....
Most of who we are


does not blaze or spangle,
rarely scatters a redolent brume.
From grass it’s understood


what matters most is not
showing off but showing up,
breaching what we can —


asphalt, gravel, brick,
one among so many, this
our constant work and harder.





Last things first.
In regard to the great
nocturnal-diurnal conflict
prompting all that disaffection,
resentment and grief, you must understand —
I don’t care if the seat is up or down.
And though you’ve brought many parts of yourself,
not once have you brought a gift, ribbons and bow,
some small token of thanks
for each brilliant thought you’ve hatched
while resting much flesh on my porcelain
which is not a hole in the ground.
It’s one of the responsibilities of art
to provide others with more intelligent
questions, the flash of synchronic time.
I have no such charge, yet
when you need me, really need me,
even more than love’s orifice,
there’s nothing else you desire.
Look how the planets and satellites float
in the night’s black bowl. Does it startle you
that I can be romantic? Whatever the occasion,
some people love to booze and schmooze.
Some don’t. But everyone visits me,
even those who bluster cheap euphemisms,
though, in fact, I exceed metaphor.
Toilet is toilet as death is death,
so many parts of yourself
whooshed away. I know you mostly avoid
ambivalence and solitude, won’t admit
you’re still perplexed by how the flapper
and lift chain work. Have another drink,
another snack. You can’t stop philosophy
from conceding metaphysics to science —
splash, splash, flush — the universe expands,
brain cells burn while something like the truth
plays hide-and-go-seek. I’m here. Always here.
My perfect ellipse stays put.





Of course it’s the moment
all lovers hope to reach
between cigarettes and the work
of each other’s buttons.


In nursery school
you hung out with its pals
enchantment and wonder,
stacked blocks, spread paint.


After the explosion, the sweep
of bullets through the market,
it takes up shop in your throat.
Looks like you were lucky


enough to survive the errant
missile. Grab a chair, my friend,
the one covered with dust,
and it will buy you a drink.


Oh, yes, did I mention? —
the hole in the rope
from which the body dangles,
the gaze of an ape.




As their modesty now proved bothersome
Johnny pawned his box of fabulous lasts.
Each insight contains its own special blindness,
and all the little firsts came shrieking out.


Johnny pawned his box of fabulous lasts.
The heart is torn between practice and theory,
and all the little firsts come shrieking out.
Like some clouds we’re just necessarily mistaken.


The heart is torn between practice and theory,
those sharp brilliances the violin kaleidoscopes.
Like some clouds we’re just necessarily mistaken.
What’s a horse but a mule with a marketing team.


Those sharp brilliances the violin kaleidoscopes.
Susie touched the cardboard, sent a razor through the tape.
What’s a horse but a mule with a marketing team.
Knock, knock, who’s there? — the ampersands of fear.


Susie touched the cardboard, sent a razor through the tape
while we chose sides and adopted bogus rules.
Knock, knock, who’s there? — the ampersands of fear,
that poem without a freight train or a pocket watch.


While we chose sides and adopted bogus rules
Johnny pawned his box of fabulous lasts.
Eyes tossed from their sockets and nipples bloated
all the little firsts came shrieking out.




(from Small Boat with Oars of Different Size)





we fish at dusk. No strikes.
Just the occasional bass
thwaping the roof of the water,
making us wish our boat
were anywhere but here.
Which is the umbrella bed —
fat sandbar of stalk weeds, shells,
tangled hooks and lures,
the snouts of old centerboards.


We’ve nailed some giants off this bed.
Speckled green, dorsal fins bristled,
they died in the snarl of our net.
The thought of those fish
can tease a mile of line from a reel.
So we let out a little more
as the lake goes black and the loon
cries to its mate. The locals say
when you can’t see the end of your pole
the day is done.





                                                                                           to my wife on our tenth


Because it is easy to lie,
to say we write
from pleasure and not fear
of the indeterminate.
Because the wheat that’s withstood
so much wind
cares little for the blade.
Because the mantis
cloaks, the heron strikes,
the key
shares its secret with the knob.
All truths
wait in all things, Whitman said.
They neither hasten
their own delivery nor resist it.
Who wouldn’t
want to believe that, and who
wouldn’t challenge
such reckless assertion. Clearly,
we cannot stop
the lights on automatic timers,
the rain that fails
to slow the heat, extinguish
our humid
inclinations, each strength
a weakness,
hour into hour into ana-
phoric hour.
Because how often we forget
that art is only
a portal to love, that the waiting
is work, that one
one strident move will deliver us
from sweetheart
to son-of-a-bitch.





You can begin anywhere —
a scarf, knapsack, the sergeant’s
black chevrons, feathers spread
from neck to arm is a peacock
your drunk brother let
his buddy tattoo one night,
the bull in Les Jemison’s field
grazing timothy, his shoulders
two small trucks, pads
for the linebacker, a red dress
rivering across the bar, each strap
little more than a trickle of lipstick,
your Swedish aunt in the pantry
leveling dough, all of her brawn
frontloaded. It’s possible
that beneath our flesh, our
spindled muscle, one blade’s
a granite block from New Hampshire,
the other some easy green, languid
as Vermont. However shoulders move
it’s not far from comb or brush,
those glistening webs of hair
left on the pillow at dawn,
so we might ask —
can I cry on your? has she turned
a cold?
giving what we have
straight from, putting it,
like they say, to the wheel
of the Plymouth, driving
to a funeral or reunion
through sleet, spattering rain,
low on gas and in a town
we’ve never seen before, from nowhere
struck by a rogue necessity
to search the cramped, dilapidated
neighborhoods for the blistered house
we left years back in another town,
rope swing and dandelions, the road’s
gold hyphen dragging us on —
go, go, go, wipers slushing, the van
in the mirror blasting its horn
is enough to make us forget
to begin any place,
a scarf or knapsack, a strip
of wet tarmac where
we could pull over, cut the ignition,
unhitch our belt, turn
to the woman or man
sleeping next to us, and lightly,
ever so lightly, feather our lips
over cheek, neck, blunted wing.





The ice and the scotch, the fable
and the farce, three diamonds,
two no trump, Moe’s fingers
and Curly’s sockets,
what the judge expects, the plaintiff
seeks, remora and shark,
noose and neck, Rubens’ brush
and the frost on the polders,
their tabby and the couch,
our poodle and his balls,
this knife, that piece
of muffin wedged
between the coils, a neighbor’s
lamppost, a boy’s slingshot,
how the tux stratifies, the bra
enhances, album, cassette, compact
disc, the mold and the grout,
the march and the Mace,
his bonds, her stocks,
my last legitimate
maneuver, my next
felonious thought.





I’m coming home
a little crazier than the maples,
those maidens by the house gathering
their butterscotch skirts,
their arms generous
with the first October frost.
I’m dizzy as those trees
that dip and spin
in the light off the porch,
like the girl
just back from the grange,
who danced, drank
the thick sugary punch
that made her tongue a red leaf,
made it glow in his mouth —
the boy down the street, pulsing
with more fire than he began.



Thom Ward is a poet, essayist and the Senior Editor at BOA Editions, Ltd. in Rochester, New York. His poetry collections include, Tumblekid (University of South Carolina-Aiken), Small Boat with Oars of Different Size and Various Orbits (Carnegie Mellon University Press). You may purchase Ward’s CMUP poetry books by contacting CUPS Services at 1-800-666-2211, or via e mail at or through