Jerry Smaldone

NOT FADE AWAY

They cut the pascal celery
when the frost is on the ground
frozen fingers wrap it in gunnysacks
bury it in furrows
dig it up at Easter,
white as snow, clean,
crisp, full of new life
…………………………………..
Which way to go, we debate
six of us crammed in the car
weaving our way to Welby
on a trip into the past …

Imagine the city ended at 48th in reeds
and cattails, no houses, no businesses, no highways,
Pecos just a path to walk to the fields,
to drag produce on wheelless wagons, giant
sleds to the market on Cherry Creek,
Brienza’s goats pasturing on the hill running
down to the Platte and the rail lines…
“They had all these old steam engines from the 1800’s
just laying in the grass,” Dad says.

Imagine no mousetrap at I-70 and I-25
just empty land pouring into Globeville’s bloody air,
slaughtering 100,000 cattle a week
down Washington past St. Joseph’s Polish Church,
past Holy Rosary, Transfiguration, past Slovenians and
Volga Germans, and on the west side of the river, Swedes,
“and farther east nothin’ but Norwegian pig farmers,”
packing houses closed, past the Blue Flame, Bomareto’s,
LaConte’s, places with no name, just a beer sign,
Dad names the owners, long gone,
how you could always find cousin Mike Spera
there, he was smart, the first farmer to hire someone
outside the family to work for him, Filipinos.

A hard right amid complaints that we’re lost
and I recognize Ray Torres’ place, circa 1967,
pot of beans always on the stove, pile of fresh tortillas,
black ‘40 Ford in cherry condition on flat tires
in the yard, still starts, he’d get these calls
at school, over the intercom, Ray Torres ,
your cow is loose, and 3 or 4 of us would jump
in Ray’s ‘51 Ford, all black and primer, hole in
the floor, door held on with wire and cruise out.

Ray had the first car, before that a Honda 50,
later a sweet Chevy Nova SS, his Dad died so
young, now Ray runs his own trucks.
We are turning down small roads,
10-acre vegetable farms just 30 years ago,
now an industrial jungle, Steve points out a
little grocery barricaded by blocks of
concrete and steel where he got
the best sausage sandwiches and I’m musing
on about our crazy cousin’s winery, when we
shag past your typical brick bungalow only
surrounded by five acres of vines covered in plastic.
Yeah, they’re selling it for 20 bucks a bottle
and they plan to make money.

As we approach Assumption Church I recognize
Joe Jiuliano’s house, Tony Croce’s, Nick James’.
Help the old ladies out of the car and see Antoinette’s
whole family lined up next to the door like
dutiful soldiers. Kiss my red-eyed third cousins
and brace for the long and beautiful service.
Dad George gone too soon with a bad heart
and now Mom, sweet Antoinette to those
who didn’t really know her, like me,
but also wise and wise-ass to those who did.
She loved to fish, to gamble,
we all know gambling is not a crime,
to curl up with the Enquirer and a cigarette
Grandson Tod eulogizes the stories every grandchild
should know, of fighting to see who’d get to
spend the night at Grandma’s, at Grandma’s house,
the 10 acres on the hill, hemmed in now by highways,
quarries, trucking companies, utilities, like a lost photo
in a family album, but look, look off in the distance,
it’s 1910, there’s nothing around but a blessed view
of our mountains that makes the soul blush.

This home, these fields, these trees,
these smells, these ghosts, these memories
all printed on a For Sale sign on 62nd avenue.
It’s the end, Tod cries in the delicious sadness
the end of a time, the passing of a tight-knit
community, oh, I remember knots of Dago
farmers at vegetable stands, at feasts
and pig roasts and mostly at funerals like these,
how rowdy and earthy and independent they seemed,
they and God against all obstacles, why I always liked
Adams County, that live and let live,
easy on the rules attitude…
Dad ran away from Zi Pupine’s farm one summer,
the hard life easy to desert. As Roxie said, he
didn’t care if you stayed out all night but you better
be out in that field at daybreak, ready to work.
All that work, lavore, why they’d come
all that love and suffering
all those travels to get this far…
so much and never enough
the wheel turns from
winter to spring

They cut the pascal celery
when the frost is on the ground
wrap it in gunny sacks
bury it in furrows
dig it up at Easter
white as snow
crisp, clean, sweet
full of life

sealed w/a tear 3.2.0

— Jerry Smaldone

White Buick Patrol

Two old, white-haired Germans
In a white Buick with Pioneer plates
Drive to the New Horizon Church
in the near ‘burbs.

Used to be the German Congregational Church
For 100 years, most of that time in Globeville,
In the decrepit inner-city of Denver
Where they were born.

But still they come, dragging children on a holy day,
Grand-children on holidays. The Grays, she calls them,
In their omnipresent white Buicks, quietly cruising
In the reliable, underpriced machines. American, quality.

They’re out grocery shopping weekdays at 10 a.m.,
Dad driving Mom to do her errands, a reminder
That it’s not speed but a steady hand (and foot)
That gets you to your destination safely.

What’s important is a steady purpose, taking it all in
Before you’re gone, the eternal smell of new spring
And decomposing in the fall, the forgiveness of wrongs,
Forgetting the pain, the privilege of being alive,

Alive, right now. On this side of the grass. With those
Oh so sweet moments of remembrance. And coffee,
Can I get a hot cup of coffee and a small bite to eat?

— Jerry Smaldone

1928

They played in the swamp that runs from Pecos to Lipan, 46th to 48th and beyond, down the hill running into the Platte and the Argo brick tower, Globeville on the other side. They follow the goatherd as he pushes the goats home, as he stops to cut long, green cattail spears and a young willow.

Home was on 44th, a tract of one-acre plots. (He raises his eyes to me, asks for a pencil and diagrams exactly where all dozen families lived and what their names were. When his father died they lost the cow, the pig, the chickens, the crop, his peddler’s horse and finally, the house.)

The goat farm is next door to him, on 44th and Navajo. The man pushes the goats into the shed
as the boys look through the window lined with hanging baskets. It is Easter time and orders are coming in for young kid goats fit for the special meal. He slips his stiletto from his sock and cuts an angle on the cattail stalk, then sharpens the willow stick.

He picks up a kid by the leg and as it squeals like a baby, with a deft move punctures its throat.
Hot blood streams into the tin bucket. He makes a cut in the hoof, pokes the willow in and pushes it up the leg. He replaces it with the hollow reed, slides it in and cheeks puffed, blows. The kid’s skin expands like a balloon, off the body. He slides his little knife up the soft skin and peels off the coat, guts it, takes the stomach
And drops it in a basket.

He hangs the kid next to the others, sits on a stool and milks its mother. He reaches for a
handful of the stomach and drops it into the basket of milk. This is the starter, the quaglia.
He hangs up the basket of milk next to the baskets of cheese and starts to work the flat, green reeds. He cuts, folds and layers, pulling up the edges. (The boy in the window, now a man, wonders if he could remember how to do it.) The man finishes the green basket and hangs it next to the dry ones.

He takes another basket from the rafters and reaches in. The cheese in his hand is soft, half-formed, close to solid. He shapes the cheese into a small horse, a rabbit, a lamb. He takes a deep breath, sighs, unties the red bandanna from his neck and wipes his brow.
He is not a happy man. He beats his son and this bothers the boy in the window. The man cannot know, or does he, that this skill, passed from father to son for generations, is about to end.

— Jerry Smaldone

On South Boulder Creek Trail

As I climb, I try
To hear my heaving
Breath, chorusing
With the wild rush
Of the river just
Over the ridge

A mile up the trail
Burst into a cut clearing,
Assaulted by the loneliness
Of a broken down cabin,

These homesteads everywhere
In Colorado, on cattle trails
And windblown farms,
In dusty arroyos and wild
Flower mountains 9,000 feet up.

They lived … here, and why?
To make a living two miles high.

I reach down among
The shaved timbers
Lying like broken dreams
And pick up a rusty nail.

I roll it in my hands
Squeeze it
For life, for memory
Pocket it, this once

The sting of settler’s luck
Burning against my skin.

— Jerry Smaldone

1963

You sit in front of the buzzing TV
Watching the vertical bars, waiting
For the indian chief to appear

Calculating what cartoon might be decent
And which will bore you to death,
Mourning the loss of your toy soldier wars

Oh, those were the good old days, that list
Of secrets you would never forget, the keys
To the universe that you lost one by one

Along with every shred of innocence, those
Rambling bike rides to nowhere, to the edge
Of the city or down to the Platte, that first

Jealous ache at the kid who got the first bike
And his mom said no one could ride it, what
A rat, he’d broken the neighborhood code

And finally you guilted your folks into that
Ultimate Christmas gift and now it lay useless
You were too old, not cool, must WALK from
One end of northside to the other, for no reason,
Too shy to enchant the ladies except for one
Talkative lothario, stopping at various aunts’ for water

And snacks, cruising the alleys with their overwhelming
Aroma of lilacs, munching sweet, tart rhubarb and
Fruit from overloaded trees. Every Spring the short bus ride

Downtown to get our new baseball hats, walk down Lar’mer
To Gart’s or Dave Cook’s, the only two sporting good stores
In town, past the Golden Nugget, bar after bar, weaving in

And out of drunk cowboys and hard living men to 16th St.
Where all of society met, high and low, pointing to some bum
Holding up a spot at the St. Elmo or Interocean Hotel and

Squak, Hey, what’s yer dad doin’ here?, the women in skirts
The men in suits, dodging the mean, legless dwarf on his
Mechanic’s dolly, inches off the ground, loaded with the

Morning paper that he pushed with reckless abandon,
smelling Wolfe’s tamale cart, miniatures, three for a dollar
and rolled with string, dropping a penny in the blind man’s

tin cup, the sound of poverty, too afraid to take a pencil,
crossing the street back and forth to gawk at the movie posters
at the Centre, the Paramount, the Denver, the RKO, the fancy

clothes in windows, remembering the Christmas display
behind glass, detouring to 17th, the tomb of money, cemetery of banks,
over to 15th, stick your head into a burlesque joint just to see how

far you could get, “Get the hell outta here!” , oh the sweet temptation,
and slowly, inexorably pull your converse over to Woolworth’s,
the oasis of sparkling, vinyl counters and shiny steel and red leather

stools, her bright lights illuminating every conceivable piece of junk,
her giant penny candy display and hot, salted nuts on a revolving tray
served in a paper cone, to drool over the most delicious looking pizza

and imagine a girl on your lap in the picture booth, curtain pulled.
Trudge back over the viaduct, teenagers racing hot rods behind us,
watch out for Buster!, dusky purple mountains rising from the jagged

brown hills, a look back at the Denver Dry spire, the gentle slopes of
North Denver before us, Amato’s shining statues, cross-topped
Churches, little markets, tilted flagstone sidewalks, smell of beer and
Stale cigars seeping out bar doors, radar alert for trouble.
Tireless, hopeless acolytes, when you’re 12, you own the city,
Her magic the first narcotic to run through your veins.

— Jerry Smaldone

15th Street, 1970 

It was hotter than hell that summer, like 95,
when all the old bars and burlesque
houses crowded 15th St. I was a young kid
wearing tight jeans and a buckskin leather
sport coat, chainsmoking total loss and
irresponsibility. This old lady is floating
unsteadily toward me, a silent film mirage
who probably lived in one of the many cheap
hotels downtown then for single retirees
and social security cases before money moved in.
She is dressed in a long velvet dress, a rich
black jacket topped with a fur stole, gloves
and high heels, costume jewelry, a full black wig,
long and silky, a pound of makeup and thick
red lipstick and rouge covering her ancient,
riven face. She is a lady.
A shaking lady who’s seen at least 75 brief summers,
thousands of days like this, and like the old do,
maybe she was cold when she left her cloistered room,
unaware of the heat. Who is she? She doesn’t look like
she left a 19th century farm, but looks deceive.
Beautiful once, married once, a mother once? Maybe
a saleswoman when all Denver shopped downtown and it
meant something to have a position at the Denver or
the May. She stops right in front of me on the
melting sidewalk and stutters could you, could you
as I ask myself why I attract the helpless and needy,
I’m only a boy and she pees, pees hard as she stands
there and her mouth moves and we’re caught, the two
of us, in this bone trap, the death grip of life.

— Jerry Smaldone

Say a prayer before you write 

Uncle Frank sat on the bench,
slumped against the brick wall
at the back of the house,
under the shade of the apple tree
that has stood for a hundred years ….
and cried…..
Uncle Frank never cried
Uncle Frank told me about when the
first street in Denver was paved,
when the first traffic light went in,
when he lost his cap under the wheels
of the first trolley car on opening day
it was such a big deal, the crowd,
the people couldn’t believe it
Uncle Frank told me how the women hid
when his father walked up Pecos after work,
told me how it took a week to get up in the hills
to fish and hunt, his passions, boulders
blocking rutted dirt roads, he said
modern life’s only improvement was
no flies in the outhouse.
Uncle Frank, that picture of you in your pin-striped
suit, foot on the fender of the model T, flashing
your shoulder holster, always that furbone grin.
You and Benny Duran made your fortune bootlegging,
bought a bar, married the prettiest girl
at the sewing factory, Rose, sweet,
smiling Aunt Rose, absent-minded soft touch,
wrote Dad excuses for missing school,
her sauce you would kill for, how Dad
hid as I walked up to her door and gave her
that single red rose on her birthday.
You had the midas touch, knew every deal
in town on pork butts for sausage,
bushels of peaches to can,
garage stuffed with 5 gallon cans of peanut
butter and jelly, boxes of work shoes and cases
of motor oil from World War II, pieces
of antique machinery no longer made,
and your health rules, only wine and whiskey
brown bread, brush three times a day and
my god, never drink water with a meal,
Aunt Rose laughing at your silly looking
stretching routine, yet at 70 you looked 50,
at 90, 70 and still told the dirtiest jokes
and double entendres, pointed at your wife
and said, When I was young I thought I’d
wear that p—y out….but I never did.
Uncle Frank, straight-talking perfectionist,
making sausage just so, sharpening your
knives and laying them out
every act a ritual, sitting in that boat
in the middle of the lake, thunder, lightning
and rain poring down, filling gas cans with
dozens of fish to feed the family
who no longer need your help.
Uncle Frank, your wife still knows you,
knows your name, you are the only one,
you looked after her, you are 96,
this isn’t fair, you don’t go to church,
this pain in your leg won’t leave.
Your daughter says Mom’s still in good
shape and to prove it Aunt Rose lifts her
leg over her head, like a dancer
and holds it, see, she says smiling.
She points to the single picture
in the institutional room and repeats again
They told me that’s my mother,
holding on, to one last shred of…
Nothing bothers like blood
and I believe in the soul
because there is too much beauty,
because I cannot not believe
built this way, plain and simple
after all the arguments and pain.
oh Uncle Frank, breathlessly
sleeping in your satin bed
what goes on inside her head,
to hold her hand, to feel
the heart still beating
Uncle Frank, you smile down from
eternity with that hard, foxy grin
the light shining from your face
shapes and illuminates
the dark questions
inside me.

— Jerry Smaldone

Un grido dal’ anima 

All across North Denver
you can hear a lonely wail
it settles in the bottoms
of the Platte
reaches out to the truck
farms in Welby and Arvada
the gold in Ralston Creek
shimmers at its call
birds pickup their heads
as it flies on the wind
men and women raise up from the
fields, gunny sacks in their hands
peddlers stop their song
of fresh cherries and apricots
you can hear a flute playing
you can hear the thump of drums
the men in the coal mine
covered in black
the women in the sewing factory
the crews laying track
and in the packing plant
hear a lonely voice wail
to kiss the sadness away
a hundred reasons for sadness
a new one every day
a hundred reasons to sing
a hundred reasons to dance
the sun and moon rise and
set on another bittersweet romance
here in north Denver
you can hear a lonely wail
rising to the mountains
on a black crow’s tail.

— Jerry Smaldone

Open City, 1985 

All the nothingness of a hot afternoon takes
the body out of a beautiful blonde’s hair, leaves
it limp and human behind her shades, as perfume
wafts from her shiny sports car. She moved
here ten years ago, 5 years ago, or was it just
last month, from somewhere more decayed or less
employable, because this town was so clean,
so calm, so…young.
Trucks thunder down the street, city out of control,
the city, my city, this horrid squall screaming
off the plains, thrown against the hills, city
founded by con men and marks, born out of a gold
fever that never died, the whiteman’s bane,
a testament to his true god, pure greed pushing
skyscraper cathedrals higher.
There is no one left alive to write about the
confluence of rivers of hope and faith, about the
old red light district in Lodo, the pros who worked
the Beano Hotel, the washed-up sailors and cowboys
at St. Elmo’s and the Inter-Ocean on Larmer, the miles
of squat, red brick, of burlesque houses, barbershops,
pool halls, dance halls, arcades, dive bars, bordellos,
50 cent flophouses so you didn’t have to sleep on the
street, cheap apartments all over downtown for old vets,
spinsters and amputees.
That city was sold like a cheap whore to those who
equate progress with money, growth with civilization,
and find safety in numbers.
And where the city ends and suburbia ends, there is
no end, only more noise even on the once peaceful
farms, cars bumper to bumper on two lane roads we
cruised on Sunday afternoons.
And you know and I know that with each red brick
building torn down for an asphalt parking lot or an
empty hi-rise so a construction worker from out of state
can feed himself for six months, and with every tract
home built so we can create more $4 an hour service jobs,
a bit of our collective soul is torn out of the landscape
until we pray for a cloud of mythic Indians to rise above the mountains and wash the blur of smog and speed away
with an apocalyptic cry carried to Christ’s statue atop
Mother Cabrini Shrine.
I think of my home in the ’burbs, how natural to want
a quiet, green space amidst the rush, how many in the
past needed it just as those will in the future.
I think of all the old grandmas’ from all over the
world, who found themselves in Denver, who lived
their lives in one house on a sober, tree-lined street,
who died there, and I wonder, who will be living in
those houses in 100 years, will they still be around.
Change is inevitable, developers are not monsters, yet
they have no more right to commandeer the common good
than we do, lost tribe wandering in the desert of the
New, avoiding the question of which way to go.
God bless this town, this two-bit hick pot of chili.
He let us build it and he should take part of the
responsibility for the mess. God bless the poor, what’s
left of them, the humble, the strivers, the self-assured,
the reasonable, the nature-lovers. Damn the rest.
God bless the sacred mountains men once worshipped and
understood, awed by their beauty, now hidden behind smoke,
covered in anthills. They are the massive anchor that
keeps me grounded and holds the storm of the future at bay.

— Jerry Smaldone

DENVER AGAIN , 1990

Oh humble humble humble
tucked away in dark corner bar as beer
and shots and alley tokes kick the buzz up.
“It’s the energy, man, the energy,
I can feel it, feel it everywhere,
this town’s about to explode.”
And visions of a new greenwich, north beach, venice
west, left bank anywhere in timeless archetypal artistic
paradise of fumble jumble rumble hard times but good
times oh the golden glow around our faces,
the moonlight over the Platte, the unreal tint
of the Rockies bathed in evanescent pink and purple
Magic it’s all about magic,
and the magic is happening here
But only if we make it , if we are
the vanguard and we spread the word
instead of waiting for the anointing,
some thunderclap of universal approval,
for rich patrons to support us
like little kids or backstabbing in wasted
breath that only reinforces the image
our damaged psyches leave dripping
on the page, not remembering how
this dream was lost gold from the mouths
of many who came before and many yet to come
Meanwhile, it’ll happen when it happens,
I guarantee it, just live your art, this is
what we were put here for, quit crying
and just do it, never doubt, never curse
those who don’t care but bless the dizzy luck
that granted you this feather pen, this arrow brush,
this bruised bird throat, this clowns face,
this fearless will, this dancing brain
this heart of a beautiful city.

— Jerry Smaldone

All of the above poems are from All Flesh Shall See it Together, 2009, Turkey Buzzard Press

GHOSTS
for Gregory Greyhawk

Old ghosts haunt me
in the dark, quiet hour
but this time
I’m not afraid.

Maybe …maybe they can show me
take me inside
the shadow of the heedless moon,
whisper words in my ear, words so
much easier than the images I struggle with
and live, family, job, age, loved ones pain
and mortality torture my worried sleep,
leave me exhausted and sick.

Another gone, the crazy Indian who thought
he could teach me to write, who gratefully
accepted my beat-up olivetti as he left town,
who proudly took Father Woody’s 20,
slept in an abandoned railcar, ssshhh,
it’s a secret, lest some other down ‘n outer
try to invade. Come, he said, let us dance
on the grand Denver viaduct under a fat summer
moon and howl what our hearts can’t speak.

Let us pretend the women love us
and maybe they do, let us sell bullshit
and pray the rubes buy it, let us
stay up late, ply our muse with smoke
and twist the sound into shapes the
Lady will admire and bless with a
gallon of booze and a good working woman
to keep us safe from the cold hard night.

Let’s talk about missing front teeth,
the sly side of hockey, why Canadian poets
are better, pr jobs where I made and blew
a fortune, the big scores so close I could
taste ’em, that’s why I’m living in a boxcar
next to the river with an alley cat singing
to me as I cross the deserted railroad tracks.

Here, kitty, kitty, you are the best friend I have,
what a team we make, singing to the moon,
singing to the stars who should never be named.

Greyhawk, remember … to forget that name,
that you ever met me. If anyone asks, you don’t
know me, I’m a shadow who passed through Denver
on the way to another ship, sailing from the coast
on an opium cruise. I’m keeping watch on the stern,
where the stone is ultimate awareness as black as
home Detroit and the water is as cold and deep as
Lake Superior and keeps her secrets and her bodies
just as well. Let us never abdicate our total freedom
no matter the circumstance, we ‘ve forgotten how
important it is, let us be rude and obnoxious and craft
the most precise and human poems. Let us spread
tobacc to the four directions and drive our hatred into hell,
spewing venom at white men, black men, red brothers
who’d robbed this half-breed of all he ever owned,
his own piece of reservation heaven, and a blind,
drunken curse on God who stole his wife and children
in a fiery crash, I can’t, can’t think of it, staring up into
endless black space.

You won’t forget me now, will you, how I loved your
simple family, how I believed in the kindness of hooded
sisters, in the mercy of Jesus, in this Catholic crap,
save that sappy dago bullshit for some other sucker,
somebody who hasn’t killed total strangers for a cause
he was too young to believe in, someone who hasn’t
lost it all, foundering so hopelessly that his psyche was
submerged in the darkest ocean of mysteries, down
down beneath the waves.

I am here, let me speak.

— Jerry Smaldone

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