The Halcyon Plan
Butterball! Fatso! Lardass! The enduring
names my Catholic school chums unaffectionately
called me on the plague-ground at St. Mary’s
Grade School in the fifties. Who could blame them?
My wads of flab embodied everything they feared
they would become if they let themselves go.
I weighed 164 lbs. in sixth grade and wore jeans
marketed as “Husky.” No matter that these
excessive pounds journeyed my way during
months of hospitalization and bedrest prescribed
by doctors for my “possible” case of Rheumatic Fever.
Hours watching Howdy Doody and other couch attractions
combined with mounds of Twinkies, chicken a la king,
donuts, M&Ms, Fritos, Baby Ruths, Milky Ways,
guzzled down with Coca-Cola, Ovaltine, Pepsi, and
You-Hoos, anesthetized my swollen ankles, stiff limbs,
murmuring heart, and broken spirit. I wasn’t like
the other boys, but I had been. At four years old,
in home movies, I was skinny and running after life.
Then my ankles swelled, my body stiffened,
and my mouth opened to the processed wonders
of the fifties—capitalism’s cold war harvest.
I lost the weight when my father died in 1964.
Turns out, grief is a terrific diet regime. Still
my body held other treats in store for me.
At 14 my face and forehead were so riddled
with acne that Bud, owner of the Snack Shack
on Pershing Boulevard, where I ate golden
hash browns tickled with butter, loudly asked
in front of all his customers at the counter,
“DO YOU HAVE A SKIN DISEASE?”
I turned to the Halcyon Plan: washed my face
three times a day with Halcyon Oatmeal Soap
(how those soapy oat-crisps scraped across
my pustules and made them bleed!), smeared
stinging Halcyon Lotion (really hyped-up
rubbing alcohol) over my sores twice-a-day,
and took Halcyon Pills (candy coated sugar
tabs) twice-a-day, all to be like those other boys:
athletic, smooth-skinned, attractive to the girls.
At 15 my face resembled an unbaked pepperoni pizza.
You’ll never find a woman, I said aloud to my
mirror image. You’ll be alone for the rest of your
life. Accept it and forget it. And I did. I flushed
the soap, pills, and lotion down the toilet.
I didn’t look at myself in the mirror
for a year. When I was sixteen, I caught
my reflection by mistake—maybe in a spoon
or a lake. I was astounded. My face was
as smooth as a newborn’s behind. Still,
I wasn’t like the other boys. I could
play a mean set of drums and, despite
what the nuns told me, I had a mind.
The urge to conform, to be like those
other guys, was something I gleefully
abandoned to the nasty blemish of time.
St. Rose of Lima
She was an occasion of sin. Men would see her
and their apostate gushers would fill holy water
fonts from Pisco to Puno, Lisbon to Pucallpa.
The entire male population of Peru teetered
on the edge of Hades and she knew it. Her parents
wanted her to marry, be merry, act like a normal girl,
but Rose had different ideas. What about those
poor backsliders enraptured by her silky dark hair
and smooth olive skin? Because of her irresistible
beauty so many souls sizzled, sputtered, bubbled-up
in Satan’s skillet that his stupendous spatula couldn’t
handle all that spiritual bacon. To stop the drooling
and dripping, Rose cut off her hair, slathered her face
with hot peppers until it blistered, and placed a homemade
crown of thorns on her head. But wait, that wasn’t enough
to atone for the shameful venery caused by her gorgeousness.
She was a master seamstress and regularly took a sewing
needle and plunged it deep into her scalp, probably
penetrating her brain. No wonder she had visions
of the Devil. Since she was a saint-in-waiting she evidently
didn’t have to worry about infection. Guess pre-canonization
was the 17th Century version of antibiotics. Well, maybe not,
she died at 31. I only read three books at St. Mary’s Grade School:
St. Rose of Lima, Blessed Martin de Porres, and the Lou Gehrig story.
I wanted to give away all my clothes to the poor, like Blessed
Martin, but my parents didn’t take to that idea, and I certainly
wasn’t up for sticking a pin in my head (besides, I wasn’t, as
far as I knew, an occasion of sin—but maybe perusal of some
priestly diaries might prove otherwise). So, I chose baseball.
I’m still a follower of St. Lou.
Launched in Light
Every morning I open the blinds
as if hoisting the main on a sailboat.
Like wind, a nothing that propels
vessels along waterways, light,
another nothing I can’t hold,
or touch, or taste, fills our bedroom—
announces another day on our
beleaguered but still green planet.
People argue over light:
a series of waves,
a gaggle of particles,
waves and particles.
Its contrast with afternoon shadow
heartbeats a room, pushes
particles of my life into
an open face discovery,
sends waves of warmth
through my biography.
They say that night harbors mystery,
but real mystery is launched in light.
How does something not liquid
pour onto a carpet,
or spread into a room
like a celestial mantilla?
How does a huddle
of vibrating molecules
force a smile or an invisible
wave inspire a song?
Requiem in Winter
The icing lake moves slowly
pushed by northern Michigan winds,
pallbearers to autumn’s corpse—
a sombre procession witnessed
by bending spruces, birches,
cedars and aspens; their sudden
frozen creakings, a brutal requiem
with movements entitled
Impermanence, Decay, Endurance.
The Mirror Stage
Identity didn’t exist in the 14th Century (i)
Nobody wondered who they were—
they knew: either they were peasants
who spent their lives working for others,
making babies, and waiting to die, or
they were the noble class who spent
their time waging war, making babies,
and waiting to die so they could pass
on their possessions and reap their
just reward in the next life.
So what is this carapace we crawl inside,
carry wherever we go; this Self, invented
by psychoanalysts, that we constantly
cultivate and that gets in between
ourselves and others all the time
but random images reflected to us by
parents, siblings, teachers, friends—
fellow travellers in this veil of years?
Some of us wear fedoras and payot,
others prune and preen in imitation of
their avatars in the pages of Vogue or GQ.
Some wear t-shirts in winter, others gray
government suits, blue shirts, red ties,
ready for their television appearances.
Some are captured in nearly invisible
bikinis, swim trunks, and flat stomachs
cavorting with the terminally happy
in places like Spice Island, Casa de Campo,
and Belmond La Samanna. We are obsessed,
in our confusing and divided times,
not so much with graven images of old,
but with a modern excarnation: the Self
reflecting on itself. Shipwrecked On Illusion
Island we worship ourselves, our craven images,
gravid with death and gravebound.
(i) See Tuchman, Barbara, A Distant Mirror, New York: Random House, 1987
Roar that makes the cosmos cower,
waves that carry on their backs
dolphins I aspire to become,
undertow—invisible, sinister, evil,
admirable—takes back what
it gives only to give it again:
treasure of sand and shore,
seashells that echo its voice, green
tangled locks of Aphrodite’s hair,
Poseidon’s foamy champagne
along its penumbra, aroma
from below, destiny’s perfume—
a mist that mimics infinity
and captures eternity’s smile.
Charlie Brice is the author of Flashcuts Out of Chaos (2016), Mnemosyne’s Hand (2018), and An Accident of Blood (2019), all from WordTech Editions. His poetry has been nominated for the Best of Net anthology and twice for a Pushcart Prize and has appeared in The Atlanta Review, The Sunlight Press, Chiron Review, Plainsongs, I-70 Review, Mudfish 12, The Paterson Literary Review,and elsewhere.
Image: Herbert James Draper, The Pearls of Aphrodite, 1907