the rivers of it, abridged

New York City skyline at night




Neil Shepard

God Bless You

He will not. Will too. Will
double–knot. Where's the sword
of Samothrace? The human race
doesn't know. Knowing doesn't
become us. We're more handsome
with hands–on things, rubbing
our tool between our legs
and making it smoke. Fire
scares us back to the stone
age. God forbid a bird flies
from the ashes, pecks our guts
until we surrender the secret
of the firepit and God finds it
sure enough in a garden where
the snake's got the bird's tongue
and two naked pagans are scratching
their heads wondering what happened
when they ate of the fruit and
straightway their hair fell out
and they walked on two legs
and knowledge, yes, and egg on
their faces, and eggheadedness,
and quandrariness, and I told you
you worked better with your hands,
told you so, said God. Now pick up
your fig leaf and get out.


Teenager 13: OOB

Old Orchard Beach, first beach
down from the border, Quebec girls
speak a tongue more foreign
than the put-downs and come-
ons of American girls.

Perched on the boardwalk,
you listen to the bright lure
of their words, your teeth sunk
in candied apple, your tongue
curled around a few French phrases:

Bon jour, Bon soir, Bon nuit, J’taime.
Their skimpy bikinis, atomic
in impact, power the Ferris wheel
in your blood hauling up hidden
fish from the salt marshes, hidden

stink of flopped kisses, flubbed
unbuttonings. This year you’ll get your first
wet kiss – but wait! – first
cocked fist in your eye
from a French girl whose name

you’ll never know – you’ll know
her simply as “Elbows” for the tomboy
swing of her arms as she beelines
away from you, your one rehearsed line:
Voulez vous couchez avec moi sur la plage?

which probably sounds as garbled
as Marconi’s invitation to the Queen
of England, 1902, via transatlantic cable,
to return his call. But you don’t know that yet.
And that’s the difference between

us. Benighted and ballsy at thirteen,
you’re neurons and raw nerve, ganglia and gangly
indifference to risk. You’re as close
to siren-singing as you’ll ever be.
No wax in your ears

to block the electric
hum of the blood’s dictation.
Whether a reefer on the beach
leads to enormous appetite
sated by French fries or French kisses,

you’ll stuff your mouth with some
thing and feel good, if not lucky.
But why stop there? Tonight,
we’re betting on saltwater kisses
and something steaming in your hand –

a wedge of pizza or hand-cut fries,
and a girl’s hand warm in yours
as you move away from amusement
lights and begin the mouth-to-mouth
resuscitation of desire.


Milk, Eggs, Bread

I keep thinking of John Sullivan,
not the famous John L. Sullivan
in Sullivan’s Travels, who
made film’s first tragic-
comedy, nor the famous
boxer, John L. Sullivan, the world’s
first heavyweight champion,
nor the scarcely less famous
Secretary of Navy, “father
of nuclear naval propulsion,” nor
the imperceptibly less famous
columnist who introduced us
to “manifest destiny,” nor, even,
the arguably less famous
John L. Sullivan, the boxing
elephant with Barnum & Bailey
Circus. No, I keep thinking
of John Sullivan, the small-
town selectman, who, when
our group suggested new
signage at the edge of the village
to advertise our strengths –
education, arts, industry—
he said, in jest, I suppose, Why
not ‘milk, eggs, bread’?
to which I was mightily 
offended, having sat up nights
penning that very phrase –
education, arts, industry
though, I admit, I couldn’t
think of ‘industry,’ at the time,
there being nothing
but long-gone mills,
and, somehow, just
two proud nouns –
‘education, arts’
(for the state college
and the arts colony
in the rural backwater) –
just wouldn’t do,
so I fudged the third,
‘industry,’ with a back-
ward glance to our founding
past, which led, I guess,
to John Sullivan’s famous
wisecrack, famous,
at least, for me.
And yet, why not
‘milk, eggs, bread,’ those staples
that sustain us in a small town
and keep us from each other’s
throats and larders, as after
the heated meeting, John
invited me home to break
bread together of an evening
meal, and we made the small
talk by which we live and
suffer and endure, and next
Saturday morning, I called
across the fence for him
to come over and share
scrambled eggs, toast, and
a cold glass of milk.



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