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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


Snow Poem

Snow on Branches. Photo by Francis DiClemente.

I wrote this poem recently and it seems fitting for a day dominated by a lake effect blast.

How to Survive Winter in Syracuse

The only way to survive
a Syracuse winter
is to think of the snow
as a friend and not a foe.
When you scrape the ice
crusted on your windshield
and the snow clogs the streets,
when your tires spin,
or your car veers off the road—
regarding the snow
as a friend and not a foe
will help you to endure the season.
Even when the snow lashes
your face as it blows sideways,
or frozen clumps melt inside your boots,
making your feet cold and damp,
you must remember to
view the snow as a friend instead of a foe.
And what a friend … a friend that keeps on
giving and giving and giving
six months out of the year.
To which I say:
thank you my dear friend,
but I don’t need your generosity.

Uncategorized, Writing

A Poem for December

While I dread it, the start of December means there’s no denying that winter is upon us. And with colder temperatures and lake effect snow forecast for Central New York within the next couple of weeks, I wanted to share a winter-themed poem, inspired by some scenery I encounter when I walk near the Genesee Grande Hotel in Syracuse.


Cedar hedges wrapped in burlap,
awaiting winter’s bite,
like a family of mummies
snug in their tombs,
but poised to shake off the fabric
and reach for the sun
when the warmth of spring resumes.

©2017 Francis DiClemente
(Sidewalk Stories, Kelsay Books)


A Monday Kind of Poem

I’ve been reading another collection of poetry by Charles Bukowski that I borrowed from the library. I’m up to page 138 in What Matters Most is How Well You Walk Through the Fire, and I came across a poem Sunday evening that seems fitting for the resumption of work following a long holiday weekend.

This little verse by Buk offers inspiration to reset one’s focus and seems to urge readers to value each day above everything else.

Here it is:

This Moment

it’s a farce, the great actors, the great poets, the great
statesmen, the great painters, the great composers, the
great loves,
it’s a farce, a farce, a farce,
history and the recording of it,
forget it, forget it.

you must begin all over again.
throw all that out.
all of them out

you are alone with now.

look at you fingernails.
touch your nose.


the day flings itself upon

Bukowski, Charles. What Matters Most is How Well You Walk Through the Fire.
New York: Ecco; First Edition, 2002.