Art and Poetry at a Hockey Game

Do the dead still have voices? That’s the question I asked myself on Saturday night as I left the Onondaga County War Memorial after game two of the Syracuse Crunch-Rochester Americans Calder Cup playoff series. The Crunch won 6-5 to take a 2-0 series lead.

The question about death was incited by a solitary moment I experienced early in the game. With about five minutes left in the first period, I left my seat in section 19 to beat the rush to the concession stand. I bought a coffee, a bottled water and an order of chicken tenders and then wandered through the concourse until I stepped into Memorial Hall, the grand space that honors the brave men and women from Onondaga County who gave their lives in battle.

I let my eyes wander around the room. Sunlight streamed through high windows and a row of American flags lined one side of the hall. There were two huge murals on opposite walls (painted by G. Lee Trimm) and bronze tablets with the names of those who died in the line of duty. The mural closest to me displayed figures dressed in World War I uniforms who appeared to be scaling what looked like a large block of white granite.

World War I mural by G. Lee Trimm.

In the bottom left corner of the painting a man stood with his right arm raised, an American flag sweeping down near him, and the words to the poem “In Flanders Field,” written by John McCrae, inscribed over the man’s torso.

According to PoemHunter.com, McCrae was a Canadian poet, physician, author, artist and soldier during World War I.

John McCrae in uniform.

I read the poem and the words struck me.

In Flanders Field

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie,
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

(John McCrae, 1915)

Words to the poem “In Flanders Field,” painted in a mural by G. Lee Trimm.

The poem made me aware of the transitory nature of existence and gave me the sense that death looms even in a place like a hockey arena bubbling with life—with kids screaming, loud music blaring, and fans chugging beer and yelling until their throats become hoarse.

It goes beyond honoring deceased veterans; the poem should make us all feel grateful for the time on earth we’ve been granted, for the opportunities we’ve been given and for the people we love and who love us back. But I think McCrae is also telling us we will all face our Flanders Field in one form or another, and so we had better enjoy living while we can.

For me, living meant savoring four of my favorite things intersecting in one place and at one time—art, poetry, coffee and hockey. And that’s not a bad way to spend a Saturday night.

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A Poem for Winter’s Lingering Grip

The calendar may say April but Old Man Winter is still holding on in central New York, refusing to step aside and let spring take over the scene. So while temps fail to crack 50—at least for now—I will offer a fictional, cold weather-themed poem from my latest collection.

Winter Morning

The woman in 309B rolls over on her side.
She reaches across the bed,
seeking the warmth of her lover’s body.
But no one is there.
And she remembers sending her man away.
She recalls a conversation filled with words
like freedom, space, and separation.
At this hour, though, she would trade them in
for flesh in her bed,
the presence of a person she no longer claims.
She can accept failed love, a relationship fizzling.
The end is not so awful
when examined with the passage of time.
She does not need the man.
She can excel on her own.
But with soft light entering her room,
and the radiator wheezing as it releases heat,
she realizes no remedy exists
for the empty feeling of being alone
in bed on a winter morning.
So she gets up,
makes a half-attempt to straighten the covers,
then goes out to the kitchen to fix a pot of coffee.
And the tasks of the day will help her
to shake off the loneliness, keep it at a distance,
until the following morning, when the yearning
for someone else nearby will return.
But let tomorrow take care of itself, she thinks.
She resigns to stop wasting time
on these cold mornings, replaying her regrets,
and bemoaning the absence of a man in her bed.

©2017 Francis DiClemente
(Sidewalk Stories, Kelsay Books)

I also wanted to mention that poet Elinor Cramer, author Jo Lynn Stresing and I will be reading from our recent books on Friday, May 4, at 7 p.m. at the YMCA’s Downtown Writers Center in Syracuse. The DWC is located at 340 Montgomery Street and you can find out more information at its website.

A Parental Poem

From time to time, I like to post some poems from my published collections. Here’s a longer narrative work with elements of fiction. It’s about my parents and how their absence has left a gulf in my life. For some reason I think about them more often during the gray days of winter, which are lingering this year.

Vestiges

My parents are gone.
They walk the earth no more,
both succumbing to lung cancer,
both cremated and turned to ash.

With each passing year,
their images become more turbid in my mind,
as if their faces are shielded
by expanding gray-black clouds.
I try to retain what I remember:
my father’s deep-set, dark eyes and aquiline nose,
my mother’s small head bowed in thought or prayer
while smoking a cigarette in the kitchen.

I search for their eyes
in the constellations of the night sky.
I listen for their voices in the wind.
Is that Rite Aid plastic bag snapping in the breeze
the voice of my father whispering,
letting me know he’s still around …
somewhere … over there?
Does the squawking crow
perched in the leafless maple tree
carry the voice of my mother,
admonishing me for wearing a stained sweater?

Dad in the kitchen. Photo by Francis DiClemente.

Resorting to a dangerous habit,
I use people and objects as “stand-ins”
for my mother and father,
seeking in these replacements
some aspect of my parents’ identities.

A sloping, two-story duplex with cracked green paint
embodies the spirit of my father saddled with debt,
playing the lottery, hoping for one big payoff.
I want to climb up the porch steps and ring the doorbell,
if only to discover who resides there.

In a grocery store aisle on a Saturday night
I spot an older woman
standing in front of a row of Duncan Hines cake mixes.
With her short frame, dark hair, and glasses,
she casts a similar appearance to my mother.
She is scanning the labels,
perhaps looking for a new flavor,
maybe Apple Caramel, Red Velvet, or Lemon Supreme,
just something different to bake
as a surprise for her husband.
A feeling strikes me and
I wish to claim her as my “fill-in” mother.
I long to reach out to this stranger in the store,
fighting the compulsion
to place a hand on her shoulder
and tell her how much I miss her.

Carmella Ruane, 1945-2011

I fear that if my parents disappear
from my consciousness,
then I too will become invisible.
And the reality of a finite lifespan sets in,
as I calculate how many years I have left.
But I realize I am torturing myself
with this twisted personification game.
I must remember my parents are dead
and possess no spark of the living.
And I can no longer enslave them in my mind,
or try to resurrect them in other earthly forms.
I have to let them go.
I have to dismiss the need for physical ties,
while holding on to the memories they left behind.

And so on the night I see the woman
in the grocery store aisle,
I do not speak to her,
and she does not notice me lurking nearby.
But as I walk away from her,
I cannot resist the impulse to turn around
and look at her one last time-
just to make sure
my mother’s “double” is still standing there.
I want her to lift her head and smile at me,
but she never diverts her eyes
from the boxes of cake mixes lining the shelf.

©2017 Francis DiClemente
(Sidewalk Stories, Kelsay Books)

Cover art by Donatas1205 (via Shutterstock).

Art in the Afternoon

I had time to slip into the SUArt Galleries Tuesday during my lunch hour to catch a couple of exhibits before they close on Friday.

The first is North and South: Berenice Abbott’s U.S. Route 1.

You could almost miss Abbott’s photographs, as her work was tucked in a back gallery space, far away from the Kiki Smith exhibit prominently on display. This raises a question, and please forgive my digression. Do multiple, concurrent exhibits in a museum lessen the impact of the art and lead to fatigue on the part of art-goers, as visitors move through several rooms? If you’re like me, you sometimes get to the point where you want to say: “Enough. I’m done. Let’s go get coffee.”

Anyway … back to Berenice Abbott.

Berenice Abbott in 1979. Photo by Hank O’Neal.

In the summer of 1954 the photographer and two companions traveled the length of U.S. Route 1, from Key West, Florida, to Fort Kent, Maine. During the trip Abbott made more than 400 8-by-10-inch photographs and more than 2,000 smaller images using her Rollieflex camera. The exhibit presents 50 images from Abbott’s journey, and in these pictures of Maine potato farmers, Florida motels, small towns and average Americans, we are given a snapshot of the nation during the post-World War II era.

Potato farmer, Aroostock County, Maine, 1954.

Two photographs stood out for me. The first was Daytona Beach, Daytona, Florida, 1954. The image shows some teens sitting on a railing in the foreground while an illuminated, soft-focus Ferris wheel or other amusement park ride spins in the background. You can almost hear the kids screaming with glee and smell the popcorn and cotton candy wafting in the air.

Daytona Beach, Daytona, Florida, 1954

The second image was No cursing, No drunks allowed—a low angle shot of a cop seated at coffee shop counter with his back to the camera. A boy in profile leans against the counter on the other side, facing the police officer. A ketchup bottle and a napkin dispenser sit on top of the white counter, and the composition draws the viewer’s eye toward the boy. The picture possesses a strong narrative quality—in line with the work of painters Edward Hopper and Norman Rockwell—and I imagined a scene where the police officer was the boy’s father and he was giving his son a lecture about the value of hard work and the importance of taking responsibility at a young age. In my story the boy worked at the diner after school.

The small size of the framed works and the intimate gallery space allowed me to get lost in the images and discover how people in the U.S. spent their leisure time in the 1950s.

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The second exhibit I checked out was The Hidden Beauty: Exploring the Aesthetics of Medical Science. The showcase of medical imagery, e.g. magnified shots of diseased organs, was organized by Norman Barker, a professor of pathology and art as applied medicine at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, and Dr. Christine Iacobuzio-Donahue, a gastrointestinal pathologist Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. The goal of the exhibit is to “leave the viewer with an appreciation of visual beauty inherent within the medical sciences.”

Exploded skull.

Having undergone multiple brain surgeries, I have always found MRIs and CT scans of my skull and brain alluring. And in getting my blood drawn by phlebotomists, I often make a mental connection between the crimson color of my blood collecting in a plastic tube with bright red oil paint smeared on a canvas.

Kidneys.

In roaming through the exhibit space, where I saw images of kidneys (which looked like balls of yarn), the netlike pattern of thinning bones in osteoporosis, a placenta, a smoker’s lung, a healthy human brain (which looked like a Pollock drip painting) and a scan of a patient with prostate cancer, I came away with a feeling of compassion for the patients—the owners of these organs and the people suffering from the diseases on display.

Placenta.

Many of the works offered bright colors and abstract patterns. But for me I was left with a strong theme of universality—the sense that all of our bodies will break down and ultimately fail us. The circumstances may be different, but the results the same. And in looking at some of the pictures, my faith tugged at me and I could not help but think that a divine master, call it God if you want, created this magnificent machine we call the human body.

Melanoma.

Both of the exhibits wrap up on Friday, March 9.

Three Short Poems

Number 5, 1948 by Jackson Pollock

The Feast of Life

Swallow the anguish.
Extract the juice
of this bitter fruit,
and expel the residue
upon the already
splattered canvas.

Train at Night (Shutterstock)

The After-Midnight Express

A train whistle at 12:40 a.m.—
steel wheels screeching against the tracks,
a speeding thunderbolt passing
through Rome, New York,
cloaked by the cover of night,
hauling freight to the West,
or passengers en route
to another town,
while I recline in bed, awake,
traversing a picturesque landscape
inside my head.

Datebook

August 9th, 2000:
This date chosen for no reason.
Just an absurd desire,
serving as a simple reminder,
to stop on occasion,
rewind the clock and remember.

©2017 Francis DiClemente
(Sidewalk Stories, Kelsay Books)

Bag in the Breeze

Photo by Kate Ter Haar (via Flickr).

Bag in the Breeze

Thursday morning, 9:47 a.m.
White airy clouds
painted against a pale blue sky.
Whipping sounds like
baseball cards spinning in bicycle spokes
call out to pedestrians
moving on the salt-crusted sidewalk.
A medical helicopter zips overhead.
You look up as it flies out of sight.
And with your head still raised,
you spot a plastic shopping bag
tangled on a leafless branch,
stuck at the top of a tree,
flapping in the breeze.
The bag waves its white flag
in an overture of surrender,
hinting at submission to the chill of winter,
while struggling to break loose,
straining to be released,
and waiting for a new wind to set it free.

©2017 Francis DiClemente
(Sidewalk Stories, Kelsay Books)

The Hawk

Photo by Sarchia Khursheed.

The Hawk

With wings outstretched,
A hawk hovers overhead.
I look up, admiring its flight.
The bird remains aloft,
As a gust of air carries it along
In the stillness of the afternoon.
The hawk soars between the campus buildings,
Then disappears from my sight,
As it pursues a quarry or
Scans the horizon for a perch.

But “no,” I think:
That’s not the way to end the poem.
The lines fail to capture the
Majesty of this creature.
And I realize any words I write
Are doomed to fall short,
As poetry can never improve
What nature has made perfect.

Sidewalk Stories (Kelsay Books, 2017)

Winter Walk

Winter Walk

It takes one fall
on the icy sidewalk
for your life to be ruined.
That’s right, just one tumble—
arms flailing,
legs scissoring in the air,
back parallel to the ground,
eyes looking up at a gray sky
unable to intervene—
in a brief suspended
moment before wham—
skull meets ground and blackness ensues.
Traumatic brain injury follows,
and you slip into a coma.
Your family huddles bedside,
waiting for you to rouse,
to wake up and rejoin the living,
like a grizzly bear stepping out
of its den after hibernation.
If you do come out of it
with some brain activity intact,
you may be a shell—withering
in a long-term nursing home.
And while you exist inside,
the costs mount for your family,
and the world outside your window
drags on, unaware of your predicament.
All this because some ice tripped you up.
So don’t be surprised if you see me
walking gingerly on the
glassy surface of the sidewalk,
digging my heels into a
pile of rock salt near the curb,
spreading it around on my soles,
strapping on a pair of
Yaktrax over my boots,
or cutting across the snow-covered lawns.
I guess I don’t mind dying,
or being knocked unconscious,
but I would feel awfully foolish
if a patch of frozen moisture does me in.

Sidewalk Stories (Kelsay Books, 2017)

Fortune Cookie Revelation

My wife had a outpatient procedure today so I took the day off from work. Afterwards we went to the Empire Buffet for some hearty Asian fare (two trips to the serving area for me). But when I visit the Empire, my favorite part of the meal is not the food but the steaming metal pot filled with oolong tea, along the fortune cookie that the waitress deposits on the table after the plates have been cleared away.

Today my fortune cookie read, “Luck will stick with you as long as you shall live.”

But my pessimistic brain sprung to action and excised the word “with,” replacing it with the words “it” and “to,” so the line in my head read, “Luck will stick it to you as long as you shall live.” However, I intend to chase away the negativity by taking a chance and playing the lottery with the numbers I received in the fortune.