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A Poem, by Joe Milazzo

Glenn Shadix


Imagine me—
an arborist, he would prod
himself. This over orange juice
(never in an orange
juice glass) or even during a
quick hustle through the free
alternative weekly’s ever-dwindling
classifieds. So much gravy
to be mined from low
testosterone. And afterwards, and
unfailingly, with wide-awake, four a.m.,
neck-sweat certainty: No,
I’m but a tree man:
an ape. Either way, as
his drill sergeant liked to bark
before every march, he could sure
use the work.

For a while, he tried
mounting billboards. But
something about those heights, the business
of wooden prosthesis, was somehow less
honest than the four-color fake
news always choking his mail slot.
So it was soon back to slow riding
in search of the overgrown.
(He called all thatch “’Nam,”
every lead a “snipe.”)
Rousing the day sleepers at
another duplex, swapping business cards
for the Watergate salad handed out
by the blue-hairs in housecoats,
maypoling around a pretty thick discount
in a cozy circle of misunderstanding.
No wonder he’d put on weight.
Shouldn’t he be intractably wiry,
gibbon-like? Not some leathery
Humpty Dumpty just waiting for his toothpick
legs to snap with that first oops
up the hot asphalt slopes kissing the sky?

Still, the thought had occurred
to him—to stay on the low. But did
he really want another taste of spilled milk?
The good old bad times, toiling headphoned
and breathing his breakfast’s
styrofoam xerostomia
(how bottles up and down
drugstore aisles pronounced
“dry mouth”…so he’d learned)
behind the mower’s power?
Self-propulsion would run
over his daydreaming
—and inevitably—
hit a patch of some wild-ass, weedy
cover, some tendril-y, empurpled, skunky
thing whose essence of destruction
soaked him with a wiener’s leftover boil.

Those were the mornings
when there was no sparing
the luxury of the vending machine’s
coiled calories. (He missed the mess hall,
but he’d forgotten what shopping
at the PX was like.) Those
were the days when the crew chief
sent him home with an equal piece
of the action—minus the checks,
settled later—rubbing salt all
over his honey bun hands.

Lucky for him, then, the tent bugs
came back. He couldn’t afford
yoga, but the light surgery
that was the only remedy
for oak, ash, willow, and pecan proved
therapy for his sciatica. Besides,
he told himself, this was
his next best chance to get serious.
He upgraded his pole saws, started
coordinating the brown of his trousers
with the khaki of his button-ups.
Was that enough to cut the figure of a man
in uniform? Or was he just
getting pretty good at another kind
of reaching? It hardly mattered, so long
as the homeowner showed him how to work
the gate to the privacy fence and didn’t
cotton to the fact that his ladder
was mostly a prop. Oh, yeah,
you sure lose track
of time up there with all that dappling
in your eyes. His way of setting
the stage for an encore non-apology.

With every guesstimated snip,
a healthy pinch at his hip. With
every semi-shiftless glance down
to the paltry pile of extermination
crisscrossed over the afternoon’s
earth clods, he indulges in a little eyeful
of looking back. Even just six
probationary weeks spent
planting fence posts had taught him:
roots are always more clever
than you. He thought the hunching would
make him feel better about his
numberless amputations. Instead,
shoveling fired his summers with a spitting
energy he could hardly exorcise.
The clouds puffed themselves up with terror.
Their cheery drought zapped
his sunscreen, sucked at his scalp, slipped
a snake pit swimming with mermaids
underneath his cap. Okay. He wasn’t
too proud to implore. He showed his spine
and turned his eyes. But all the eminence
he minded beyond his blue horizons just hung
there, a lookalike hardened in its invisibility:
the bleached canopy of a haunting tree.

The world’s a ball-breaker anyway.

How he wishes he could take
his red and blue chips to
another table, one far from that fool wager:
enlisting during peacetime. No cavalry
was going to ride in and cover that tab.
And still the rounds keep making their way
to the table anyhow. Waste not, want
more? In the squeeze between
the breastplate of one war and the codpiece
of another, you end up owning
a mushy spare tire you can
sometimes hide by
standing at attention.

That’s when he spies something
neither web nor branch. A darkness,
not a blackness: a pure inversion
as of a robin’s breast or signaling
smoke, thunderous as a drum.

He feels himself heading somehow
into a downturn and it isn’t
all harps and robes radiant
with fabric softener (he takes a note
to himself: curse your penicillin
intolerance before they lay you
into the gurney). A brute’s stumble
into finesse, as though his wide backside
were a first-time diver nevertheless confident
of their score and the wee splash
eager to receive them.
In the long yawn of his suspension
between the coming thud and
the sun—suddenly a ringworm moon
—his training leaves him. More outline
than silhouette, his second, or better,
or second-best self pulls
a Kilroy peek, then plunges
past his head, his reclining
in this airy La-Z-Boy.

The last sound he hears is
his double take smacking
against the corrugated pans
of the carport with a soft shattering:
marbles rasping in a mesh bag,
or—on the off-chance his departed discipline
has taken his capacity for metaphor
along with his supply chain reference
models—the little truths
of everything he’s prone
to if left to those unfelt
but strongly suspected strokes
clicking in place
to assemble the handwriting
co-signing his name to insurance
policy after insurance policy.

Adrenaline screaming and anything
but breathless, he’s too busy sprawling
to wonder how his descent has skidded into
the yard’s one patch of St. Augustine.
Yet he knows he’s been discharged
and it’s back to landscaping
from here to eternity.

Because, everywhere:
broad blades and the seeds of Easter eggs
blinking—parading stripes, spots, ambush—
in a light that impresses, but with a fugitive
relief. A light restored. Only those orbs
aren’t so fat, or atomic.

He sees it now. He’s surrounded
by and surrendered to
bits, specks, shards. Comets,
not stars. That’s the advantage
of hailstones having settled
everywhere but where
he’s been grounded. That’s the pattern
a fingertip, vagrant as
a maggot, would warrant.


Note from the author: My concern in the “name poems” of Acrostic Aspic is with the conditions of celebrity as they are lived by non-celebrities, i.e., “you” and “me.” Or: I suppose these poems are all about minor celebrity, as their titles, borrowed from the outer limits of fame, suggest. Our subjectivities so often cohere in the back and forth between narratives intensely our own and those widespread narratives with which we cannot help but make contact, or which are in constant contact with us. But the latter narratives are so much more easily represented, not to mention “relatable,” while the former remain largely untranslatable. So this self-exchange can never be equal. Still, people live as they live, and their names mean something to them.


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