Since 1996 Volume XXI

The Len Roberts Memorial Reading Room

Len Roberts

Len Roberts
The Way of the Cross
When Sister said God was unknowable and unknown,
that only silence could express His Nothingness,
we hushed for a few seconds
in that sixth grade class,
Joey McGraw, up front, white shirt, tie, pants pressed,
nodding his head, as though he could hear Him,
and Leslie Stiles, tall, blond girl with pimples
who carried the nuns' lunch from the convent,
sitting with her mouth open as though waiting
for God to soundlessly enter, Richie 
   Freeman and Donald Wilcox
cocking their ears as they bet on an ant 
that crawled past their desks, 
Richie stomping down when it turned back,
making me laugh even as Sister wafted
   up the aisle
with the three-edged brass ruler, tapping 
   heads as she went,
Good, Good, Good, she said till she got to where
I sat, then hissed Bad, Bad, and whacked
   till I bled, 
the rosary beads on her belt clicking between 
her knees, the silver cross on her chest thumping
while she shouted, This is what happens 
   to sinners,
stumbling her way back to the front of the class
where she wrote The Way of the Cross with red chalk,
   told us
we must lift our crosses up, up,
so the sinner among us might, might, she whispered,
   get into heaven,
 making us stand to do it that very second,
twenty-two eleven-year-olds lifting heavy crosses
   of air onto our shoulders,
balancing them there as we staggered around
   the empty seats,
some bumping into the scarred desks, 
some easing them from shoulder to shoulder,
some stopping to kneel and catch their breath,
no one daring to put down the crossed weights
   or whisper a joke
as we circled each other for a silent hour 
   that gray, darkening, December day.
The American Poetry Review/Pushcart Prize
In book: Counting the Black Angels
Learning on Olmstead Street
The tattoo of a heart with an arrow
piercing it has MOTHER written in blue
across the pink center, and it moves
each time my father piles another stack
of coins on the kitchen table or reaches
to lift the gold glass of beer.  Who 
was the sixth president, he asks, What's
the capital of  Nebraska,  the difference
between the Arctic and Antarctic, the change
for two boxes of doughnuts at twenty-three
cents each if the man hands me a five-
dollar bill?  Even as I stand to wrap
sandwiches in wax paper, folding
the corners in neat triangles the way
he taught me, he asks the names
of the last three governors of New York,
says in French I've dropped the knife.
Bending to pick it up, he's suddenly
beside me, his eyes bloodshot,
his breath blue smoke as he repeats
the average life span of an ant, a moth,
then wipes up the stain in looping
figure eights, the sign for infinity
he says, tossing me the dirty cloth.
POETRY       In book:  Black Wings


Second-Grade Angel
Each Choir had 6,666 Legions,
with 6,666 angels in each of these
and I knew as sure as the fluorescent light
in that second grade class kept blinking
that I had been one of them, still was, but sent
to Earth because of some unforgivable sin,
that all I had to do was lift the window
and I could soar out onto Ontario Street, wings
erupting from my shoulders, the white shirt
tearing off, the school's striped tie
and gray trousers floating away, and I knew
   I had fire
in my tongue, my right hand filled with lightning,
that Sister Maria must have seen it but decided
to keep quiet so the others wouldn't bow
   down to me and lose their places
as we Pledged Allegiance and recited
   the Commandments, the Mysteries,
the invisible wings on my either side telling me
my true father was not a road man for the Golden 
   Eagle bread company,
my mother not a textile stitcher who danced
   nights with drunks at Boney's, 
knowing I could soar above the blue Earth, up  
   into the darkness
where my brother did not walk alleys calling
   for rags,
that dogs howled when I walked by because
   they sensed
the fire in my body, that the dates of my birth,
added up to the magical number of 66
and gave me power over seasons and planets, able
   to make
Margaret Blake throw up because she tripped me, 
giving Ronny Michaels the hiccups for shoving
   me down the stairs,
sure even then I would ascend again some day,
despite my heavy body, the warts on my hands,
and I would become who I was, and I would know 
   my real name.

The Hudson Review/Counting the Black Angels 


The Sparrow and the 
Winter's Nest of Snow
Long winter day of cutting wood, old cherry trees
strangled by poison ivy, one a good three foot thick,
the trunk set aside for the lumber mill, the rest
cut up and stacked while I thought
of my distant son in his distant room,
of the full-page poems he sends in the mail,
   The winter's nest of snow 
scribbled in his first-grade red and yellow
   and blue letters,
and the picture with each one,
huge oak trees and tiny daisies, always 
   the sun in a blue sky.
And I remembered my father's drawings
   before he died,
how the sparrow came into each sketch,
sometimes on an arcing branch,
sometimes on a gutter,
the scruffy brown feathers and yellow-orange beak,
the tiny claws clasping whatever it was on,
sparrow with its small song,
sparrow indistinguishable from the winter's brown weeds,
sparrow of the mind of my father that has flown
   into darkness,
sparrow above the glass of Schaefer's, the pack of Luckies,
sparrow of the blackened heart and short distance flight,       
   sparrow of 47 years and a mad wife. 
Sparrow darting now over my buzzing saw and bent head,
   making me look up
at the steel sky, upstate New York winter wind
   whipping my eyes, 
poor, stupid sparrow in this five below,
searching for the winter's nest of snow,
sparrow stumbling down the streets of Cohoes
   mumbling Irene, Marjorie, Irene,
sparrow pulling out the racks of doughnuts, cakes
   and pies
those early mornings of the Golden Eagle bread route,
taking the iced curves in the road at seventy miles,
pock-marked, skinny, malarial-ridden, drunken sparrow,
I follow you a few seconds in this light, then let you go. 
The Chicago Review  
In book: Counting the Black Angels


The Equation
Twenty-six years dead 
and still you stir 
my sleep, wake
me four a.m.s
the entire week
before your final date,
point me to sit
and learn the assigned
words, commit
to memory the capitals
and states,

           the value of x
always bringing you
hovering, close, your
beer breath in my breath,
clouds of Lucky Strike
smoke bluing your face
as you bent to trace
the known and unknown,
as though 
         that might explain
why the woman had left
or the other son's death,
how you had come to weigh
105 beer-soaked pounds at
the end, a stick figure 
of a man bent over a sheet  
of scratchings you tried
desperately to show me
made some kind of sense,
whispering in that hushed
voice I hear as clearly
now as I did then
to pay attention
to the equal sign,
that what is given
is given is given.

The Southern Review
In book: The Trouble-Making Finch

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Mary Barnet


Grace Cavalieri

Joan Gelfand

Janet Brennan