Clifford Thompson has published poems in The Georgia Review and Clockhouse. His essays have appeared in The Best American Essays 2018, The Washington Post, The Threepenny Review, and elsewhere. A Whiting Writers' Award winner, Mr. Thompson teaches nonfiction writing at the college level, all over the place.
2018-2019 FINALIST, COG POETRY AWARDS
Long rough white narrow alley
Snaking like a river, bank on one side
the backyards of our semi-detached houses,
on the other, foot of the grass hill topped by
urban mountain range: red brick housing projects.
My friends lived there.
When the hill froze over, that winter of—what?—1976,
thick silver-white ice shining in the January sun,
my friends found a door
(Where? Why? Eternal mysteries of the projects)
and piled on, five deep,
flying down the hill, hinges sending up frosty spray, then
CRASH into my neighbor’s wooden fence.
I was, simply, too scared to do it, probably why
I remember it today. But I also remember
Their hearty laughter on the way down,
Signifying knowledge those hard-luck boys were born with,
which I have gained as well,
now that it’s too late.
I looked like the Gorton fisherman, or, anyway,
Like a six-year-old boy
In new, slick bright-yellow raincoat, matching hat and boots. But
I felt, standing at our front door watching
The gray rain come straight down on that windless fall morning, like
An actor waiting backstage to make his Broadway debut.
The last time I bought a raincoat:
Nerve-jangling slide of hangers on metal
Is it too short? Shoulders too big? Too snug?
Dark enough to camouflage dirt?
How much time have I wasted already?
Finally, on the snaking line of dead-faced, forgotten humanity—
Credit or debit? Pain (payin’) now or later? No, thank you,
No rewards card today (Just get me out of here!)
That must have been a Saturday, late afternoon, that hour
When excitement of a free day turns
To disappointment over what hasn’t been done,
Not that anyone knows what that is, quite.
But we can go home, cut the tags off this coat
Purchased with middle-aged caution, maybe
Wear it into the evening’s adventure, into
Oddly welcome darkness, blessed rain coming down
Love and Golf
As a boy I knew nothing about either.
What I know now about love
is more or less what you know,
what the soldier knows about war,
the dad about child-rearing. My little sliver.
I still know nothing about golf. But
In my mind it is paired with love because
In my childhood, when the mold was set,
“Love’s Theme” played, the good Lord alone knows why,
during televised golf tournaments. Remember that wordless music?
Like so much in the 1970s, kitschy but stirring, stirring
my desire for, helping birth a quest for,
things I could neither locate nor name
(no wonder the music didn’t have words), leaving me as helpless as
the poor TV camera trying to follow the arc of the ball,
trying just to find that teeny little speck,
that elusive center of everything,
amid all the green sameness, rising and falling
beyond where anybody could see.
The Magic Gap
As a child I had a fire engine
Of the kind now found in vintage toy stores:
Metal halves fitted together, the gap showing.
The firemen stood on the running boards,
One on each half.
I’m told that déjà vu is not
A fleeting memory from another existence but
A gap, a lag in half the brain accepting
What the other already knows.
I’m told, too, that laughter at jokes is
The tension between halves of the brain,
One saying, “Yeah, okay,”
The other, “Hold on a minute.”
In that magic gap
Childhood, laughter, and fantasies of a different life
Hang out like old friends,
Or homeless strangers in an alley by a fire.
I was told once
Of a fireman on a running board who lost a leg
His engine and another heading for the same fire and colliding
Their sirens having drowned each other out.
Imagine a gap between you and your leg.
Not a place for children, certainly not laughter
Though fantasy might come in handy.
The firemen on my toy engine, of course,
Had only one leg each that I could see.
I took the other on faith,
Faith being the gap between
What we see and what we need.
Faith, then, is a gap filled with fantasy.
Laughter is forbidden, though children are allowed.
Laughter, odd man out, so often forbidden,
You might say homeless,
Getting warm by the fire,
Fire the cause of the trouble
Germ of my childhood memory
With a large and growing gap between it and me,
Filled with laughable fantasy
Revolutions Per Minute
45 RPM records, music of my youth
Black outer circle, outer space
Subtle grooves, white scratches like
Signals sent to other worlds
Inner circle, our world:
Business logos, written language, color
Empty at the center
45 RPM records, music of my youth
Could be played in succession if stacked
On that black rectangular thing like
The clip TV cops slam into bottoms of handguns
As our world spins 1,000 MPH, 0.00069 RPM
President 45, empty at the center
Slams into our bottoms, plays us in succession
While handguns are everywhere
45’s cult, .45 colts
But today’s youth
Send signals, like