Stuart Friebert

The Last Plume Poems
July 24, 2020 Friebert Stuart

1943 & COUNTING

the year that is when Churchill begged
the Aussies to send a platypus to boost
wartime morale. Alas, the male died in
 
his tank aboard the MV Port Phillip not
far from docking in Liverpool: a U-Boot
attacked, the MV set off depth charges,
 
enough to concuss the poor creature.
There’s quite a history of others, I read,
who also never made it alive to England,
 
e.g. one in 1799 said to have spilled to
the ground “when the barrel of spirits
it had travelled in burst open atop
 
the head of the woman carrying it from
Newcastle docks.” There’s a stuffed one
in the British Museum I’m too sad now
 
to fly over to visit, and no one answered
my inquiry re a postcard, which I’d hoped
to get enough votes for as a Field cover,
 
still smarting that Babies in Boats, a 19th
century card Nany Willard sent me, never
managed to get more than Alberta Turner’s
 
and my votes, back when we were but two
of five Field editors another lifetime ago &
a simple majority voted the next cover in.
 
They’re gone now too, alack squared; & a)
their poems ought to be museumed beside
the platypus; & b) still in print so hurry to
 
order Nancy’s 19 Masks for the Naked Poet,
or Alberta’s Learning to Count & you’ll see
what I mean. Meanwhile, 2020’s here now,
 
so we’re off on another decade & with luck
& the good fortune of having married the right
girl, I might be around when our son retires,
 
who’s at this very moment descending over
the British Museum, on a landing glide to
Munich, having taken over the controls of
 
his 787 after hours of computerized flight
from San Francisco. For free, we parents
can be aboard his final flight, which will
 
be welcomed back to its base by firetrucks
cascading a waterfall over the 787’s nose.
We’ll be nearly 100 then ourselves. I plan
 
to shout with what’s left of my lungs, Hubba
Hubba, which I did only once before, when
WW II ended, only to be shushed by grampa,
 
“First we give thanks to Stalin, Churchill, &
foremost to dear FDR, then you may continue
shouting whatever damn well you want to!”

 
 

SEA SQUIRT
 
At first, it resembles a tadpole with a tail,
whose eyes and nervous system ferry it
around, only later to root to the seabed,
forever after to feed on plankton floating
by, its eyes and nerves assimilating back
into its body, sort of how my life has gone.

 
 

MOON BEAR

You’ll know it by the crescent-shaped
white spot on its chest. But hurry to
 
the Asiatic highlands of its habitat, as
their numbers are diminishing expo-
 
nentially. Trapped and caged, or worse,
they are even harvested merely for their
 
bile, prized for its medicinal properties
through the ages; the principal component,
 
ursodeoxyholic acid, is actually known to
take on a host of human afflictions; UDCA
 
also stalls cell death, said to protect bears
during hibernation. The only one I’ve known,
 
up close & personal, a Wisconsin blackie, sent
me backpedaling into our summer cottage when
 
we met at the garbage can on the porch one dawn
morning. I shrank back as if someone struck me.
 
Old now, less fearful of most creatures, my heart
wrings more & more merely reading of fates like
 
the moon bear’s, sometimes waking in the wee
hours, bathed in sweat. Why on earth should
 
they die the way they do at human hands, while
we do our best to show them we can live without
 
them? I’m quite tired out now. Please refill my cup,
wheel me to the window. See the marks on the birch?
 
There, right there, that’s bark only a bear could have
gnawed! You’ve got to help me now that I’m cursed…

 
 

CHICKEN STREET

Not 5th & Brown in Milwaukee’s
inner city in the early 1900s, when
 
my father as a boy delivered chickens
for my gramma to the man who did
 
circumcisions. He’d cut their neck out,
hang them up, take them off the hook
 
after they stopped dripping, then swing
them around till they spritzed “Little Eddie.”
 
Not 9th & Vine of Jennie’s shop, “the chicken
lady,” who hired me in the 30s to deliver birds
 
she’d dressed to upper class neighborhoods.
I mean Kabul’s, it’s 5th Avenue, people say,
 
and if you can’t find what you want in warrens
of its myriad shops, whose lights only go on
 
when you enter, you likely don’t need it. But
past all essentials, what will catch your eye:
 
cheap new rugs swarming with helicopters,
against expensive old rugs with Enfield rifles
 
from previous British invasions. Well hidden,
but for the right price, skins of snow leopards;
 
and more arresting, stuffed Marco Polo sheep,
the largest wild sheep on the planet, leopards’
 
favorite prey, whose horns like other trophies
of animals done away with, will be mounted
 
on distant walls. They are especially susceptible
to capture myopathy, just drop dead when caught.
 
Marco Polo writes he was quite content to watch
them negotiate the slimmest of trails on high,
 
kept his distance, absent evil intent, but his
companions clenched fists, ground teeth, not
 
an opportunity to squander! “Well, we have to
eat, don’t we,” Jennie would cackle. “Besides,
 
we’re all going to die, kid, get used to the idea.”
Overcome, I wept on her shoulder, didn’t touch
 
a single dish for two days, till at last I slowly went
back to eating, biting my lip with each bite. Taking
 
pity on me, she said gently, “When you grow up,
you may be able to be kinder toward whatever you
take to eating.” Our faces broke out with sweat.

 
 

VETERANS
— for Bruce

What trees anything from 400 to 800
years old are called in botanical circles,
“all their wood a thin sliver of living tissue
on the outside. Some remain in a state
of senescence, the rate of cell division
lagging behind the rate of cell death.”
 
Knowing something of another species,
of “The American War,” say, which is what
the Vietnamese call it for good reason, I’m
told by one of standing under mimosas, his
arms outstretched, the sunlight above so
bright his head felt abuzz as if a swarm
 
of bees crowned him like a halo, sounds
of chaos momentarily gone silent. Science
thinks his amygdala whispered ‘be afraid,’
his head shot back, his frontal cortex yelled
‘GO!’ But how he survived, to be showing me
a tree he’s planting now, I’ll not only never
 
understand, without any excuse whatsoever
I drop to my knees, tie hands behind my back,
slowly raise my head. We stare at each other till
at last he turns around, spading the manure I’ve
brought gently around the trunk, his eyes tearful
as a child’s. Covering my eyes, I start to cry, too.

 
 

THE BLUE SOFA

Their marriage collapsing, Mileva and Albert
haggled about it in voices so loud neighbors
 
just shook their heads, the air that had been
charged with reverence for the Einsteins soon
 
souring. Would she sit on it ever again, once
it arrived in Switzerland at her new lodging?
 
Why are we made with such desires? Rubbing
her eyes, she rolled a cigarette between fingers,
 
brown with stains, licked it with puffy lips, while
he snapped his fingers as if to light it, driven to
 
mock her it seems. That’s as far as I get before
wishing painters got after the sofa. What would
 
Klimt, Beckmann, Nolde or even Klee have done
with it? The smoke’s so deep you can only see
 
them from the waist up, Klimt cursing, Beckmann
muttering contempt for everything nationalistic,
 
Nolde feeling some love for Mileva, while Klee sat
down, “Let’s see, here a perpendicular, there a…

Stuart Friebert’s DECANTING: Selected & New Poems recently appeared from Lost Horse Press, which has also published two volumes of his Kuno Raeber translations. A second memoir and stories appeared recently as well, FIRST & LAST WORDS from Pinyon Press, which will shortly publish BETWEEN QUESTION & ANSWER: Selected Poems of Elisabeth Schmeidel. “Found in translation,” an essay on SF’s ways with many a translation, has just appeared in the Antioch Review.