in memory of Steve “Dr. Softy” Orlen, 1942–2010
Steve Orlen would pose an awkwardly intimate question
About your life as though your life mattered to him
& magically your life began to matter
You drum-rolled into my dimwitted frontal lobe a notion
That swapping truth for a poem’s emotion & musicality was A-Okay.
Now that the documentation of your life is notarized,
Birth & Death certificates time-stamped,
Now that your most recent draft is abandoned,
The primitive ’60s swallow tattoo on your left forearm will transform
Into a hummingbird, thumbnail-size, so as not to be overstated, co-existing
On the subtle side of art. The morning after your demise I sat with your wife,
Stood actually, on what used to be your front porch
(Still a front porch but no longer yours),
& we both admired how this not-quite-a-bird, more an enormous insect,
Hovered around the sugar-water in a cobalt blue bottle that dangled
From a mesquite tree you planted.
It is believed by some Native American cultures
When a well-loved man dies he hovers over his neighborhood,
His personal haunts & hang-outs, for a couple of goof-off days,
Eavesdropping on what his pals are saying about him before
The immense undertaking of integrating into the sweet elixir of everything.
Undoubtedly you relished the gossip & the little reminisces we told about you.
Undoubtedly you were concerned
Some secrets would leak out, though I swear mine would not,
Including the 3 a.m. episode in the parking lot of a now-demolished
Las Vegas casino with that half-black half-Korean woman in the platinum wig,
The slow dance under the singular street lamp in the world-vacant,
Without the benefit of music. I am not afraid of sentimentality.
I will never fear revealing my vulnerabilities in a dangerous neighborhood.
I sport my poet gang colors anywhere. During your last days
An esoteric population meandered in your backyard to take photos of your swallow tattoo
So they could ink identical shapes & colors into their own skin.
It crossed my mind too, but ultimately
It seemed too much a cliché,
& skin-ink is too permanent for poetry, which is the continual revision of thought
Due to the inaccuracies of life observations.
Make no mistake, my tattoo is here, but invisible,
Visible only to those who know the password, the secret handshake.
I chose the fleeing hummingbird, which hovers, eavesdrops,
Has the physics-defying ability to fly in place & preserve secrets
Before it zooms off to strange & mysterious, intuitive places.
Bruce Cohen’s most recent books are No Soap, Radio! (Black Lawrence Press, 2015) and Imminent Disappearances, Impossible Numbers & Panoramic X-Rays (New Issues Press, 2016), which was awarded the Green Rose Prize. Recent poems have appeared or are forthcoming in The Antioch Review, The Gettysburg Review, The New Yorker, AGNI, Ploughshares, Poetry Daily, The Georgia Review, Harvard Review, and Poetry, as well as being featured on Poetry Daily and Verse Daily. He is also the author of Disloyal Yo-Yo (Dream Horse Press, 2009), which was awarded the 2007 Orphic Poetry Prize, Swerve (Black Lawrence, 2010); and Placebo Junkies Conspiring With The Half-Asleep (Black Lawrence, 2012). (updated 10/2017)