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Steve De France
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ANOTHER PRIMATE ON EXHIBIT

 

Stephen De France

 

 

Fog bumps over the city’s mottled beach,

it swirls across a car-clogged

Ocean Boulevard & charges

the San Francisco Zoo.

 

It settles there—its ethereal shrouds

covering the animal exhibits & making mystic

the ubiquitous evergreen trees.

 

Caged flamingos—legs seemingly too delicate to survive

this world—stand etched on spider web legs,

like plastic sentinels on duty in this churning mist.

Obsidian flamingo eyes—forever unblinking

stare at my back—as a coven of shrieking kids

flush me from this exhibit, moving me

toward a more obscure & dangerous path.

 

Monkey Island.

Time has changed all.

The Island’s long gone & so too its

rock-to-ground-to-tree inhabitants.

Today it is only a grubby unyielding                   

caged pit with two sinister chimpanzees,

a shambling gray & a one eyed black.

 

I wonder—were they part of the original

island population? Are they all that is left?

There were hundreds of these island comedians,

but then—there was sun & freedom.

I speculate about these two veterans.

Staring into their pit—their dilemma,

dismal—sitting—waiting for death.

Maybe I should bust them lose?

Set them free again?

 

I sit quiet—thinking on other kinds of prisons,

prisons we design for ourselves,

8 to 5—cubicled jobs, commuter coffins all in a row.

The chimps eye me—roll back their rubbery lips

and scream as if in fear. . . .

yes, I, too, have grown older.

Have they recognized me? We stare now at

one another, as if looking for new questions.

Having long ago given up on answers.

Given up on most everything,

Given up on hope except to receive

a few random acts of dispassion.

 

The air temperature dives.

Wind whines & a chill screen

of wet fog pushes across

the wrinkled slate-colored sea,

it rolls toward the ruins of Monkey Island,

rolls toward the ruins of the three of us.

We bind together now, blinded by memories,

dying of time & this enveloping fog.

Past suns & all freedom fades to darkness,

as our overdue souls crash into an indifferent universe.

Reaching for my tail, I curl myself into the fog              

becoming just another primate on exhibit.

 

 

Suppression of Savage Customs

 

Stephen De France

 

 

I came back to London, as you know,

full of emptiness to finish Mr. Kurtz’s affairs.

I filed my final report with the Trading Company.

Later that morning, with considerable trepidation,

a few letters, and an odd picture stuffed in my overcoat,

I knocked on the door of Kurtz’s fiancée. I heard her step,

then her dress gliding above Persian carpet.

 

Upon hearing who I was—she ushered me into a small

parlor where we sat on a walnut settee. The room

was dark, claustrophobic with heavy drapes.

 

Without preamble she said, “Well?

“What did he say? Did he speak of me?

Did he call out my name?” Her voice

was low and intense. Her cold hands clasped mine.

I mumbled, “Everything that could be done . . .”

Not wanting to disappoint her—truth was here hijacked.

I wallowed in my own dark soul of absolute blackness.

 

“Yes,” I heard a strained voice say,

the voice was mine, “as he died, he called out your name!”

I cleared my throat.

 

Silence.

 

Triumphantly she softly exhaled,

“Yes, I knew it.

In his final moments, I knew it.

He needed me!”

 

Cupping my grizzled face in her hands,                                                        

She stared into my eyes—I tried to look away

but she held me there with her piercing gaze,

there in growing horror she saw reflected the Congo.

My eyes glowed with cannibal fires, naked black women

in golden hoops and bells, bodies glistening with oil

and the musky smell of the forest.

She began softly weeping. Tears traced her cheeks

leaving fragile lines trailing down her powdered face.

Her whole body trembled and for a moment

we were both captured in a gathering blackness,

at the edges of the primal forests, as the river flowed into

the heart of an immense darkness—into the uttermost ends of the earth.

 

 

 

 

Icarus

 

Stephen De France

 

 

 

Perched on the sand a man rocks tentatively

to-and-fro on his walking cane, digging in the

sand with his feet he pushes against a big wind.

Mr. Icarus—a strange bird—in formal attire

is ready for flight.

 

Behind him on the strand a knot of old men

backsides fused to benches watch the flower lady’s hips

twisting & bouncing as she trots down the boardwalk.

After she passes the men—their grained & pebbled fingers                            

dance deadly on their canes, their eyes exclusively focused

on the bucking of the sea.

       

Mr. Icarus snaps his top hat to shape with a pop,

spins his silver cane—and the wind 

fills the tail of his tuxedo like a plumed bird.

The strandmen their blood running stronger now

yearn for any kind 

of excitement—as the wind grows.

 

Then in a motion of total surprise

Mr. Icarus on the beach rises toward the sun,

hat and cane in hand—his jacket filling out

like wings in the big wind,

and the strandmen cry out with amazement . . .

 

“Oooo” & “Ahhh”

 

For an eternal smiling moment Icarus seems suspended in air.

then—sweating profusely—he falters and rolls head over heel

down the sandy beach as a dog barks and follows.

 

The strandmen grumble & spit—one lights a pipe,

another cries out, “Damn fool . . .” Disgust fills the air.

The wind falls away as the men settle on the bench

like so many stone figurines in a cemetery.

 

 

 

Por La Gracia De Dios 1986

 

Stephen De France

 

 

Indians are native to this land,

yet are harshly persecuted.

They live in spite of the rancorous

intolerance of the Mexican Army.

Haplessly they squat right here

in pasteboard boxes & plastic lean-tos.

 

Carrying an infant like a rag doll

 a woman rushes at me.

“Enfermo. Niño enfermo,” she says,

dangling the baby close to my face.

I touch its cheek.

Cold.

From my car I fetch water.

 

A crumbling old man stops me.

His Spanish is guttural, harsh.

“Muerto.

Niño muerto,” he says.

 

She sits quiet—baby in arms.

Rocks back & forth

heel to toe.

Head pitched down,

eyes red—swollen

from so many tears.

 

In the morning the baby is buried.

The ground so hard that dry dirt crumbles

around the miniature body . . .

 

Driving back to the U.S.A.

the baby’s short life is on my mind,

strangely what I recall

mostly was its tiny fingers

and perfectly-formed fingernails.

 

 

 

 

MY MUSE

 

Stephen De France

 

 

My muse woke with a hangover.

He didn’t brush, shave or shower, 

but slipped into dirty white gloves

with cut in finger holes. His black 

fingers stood out in stark relief. 

 

He sucks down a bottle of stale beer

& leaves the flop house on Beacon Street.

Outside he scowls at asphalt and metal.

One eye closed—angry & swollen,

He stares in my general direction.

“Hey, poet—I hope you are tired 

of writing about city shit—I am sick of living here.”

 

I turn the corner on San Pedro Street,

but he rolls up to me on his dilapidated bicycle,

and—as if—we had already been deep in conversation,

says: “Look at dese bitches on de boulevard!”

He waves an arm at a squat, meaty-looking woman

lingering near the corner. 

“How can dese skags even give it away?”

I nod in casual agreement.

“What’s up for today? How ‘bouts

a trip to de mountains & trees?”

“I got a good feeling,” I said, about the street here.”

“Damn you, poet—this is all Maria, squalor and no love. 

Six kids on de block think I am their daddy.”

 

I push a fiver into his hand. 

“There are other poets I could hook up with.

Good ones, too.” I add another five to his fist.

He smiles. His alcohol-drenched breath 

settles on my clothes. “Your last poem was . . . OK.”

He pushes the fives into his greasy pants. 

Surveys my clean & pressed duds

& suddenly smiles. Some important 

bottom teeth are missing.

Eyes unexpectedly fill with tears.

“I hope you appreciate de sacrifice I be making

staying wit’ you. I could have gone to Paris

& inspired poems on de Seine, lovers in de canals.”

“Watch the truck!”, I shout. My muse dodges the truck,

smiles wistfully and says, I’ll see you at Clifton’s Cafeteria,

slowly he becomes one with the tangled crawl of L. A. traffic.

 

 

 

 

High Drifting Alarm

 

Stephen De France

 

 

The train sways unsteadily, and

rolls over yet another high-stilted trestle.

Couplings clang, whistles blow as

my nervous stomach does a swan dive

splashing into a silver string of boiling water

a mile or so below.

 

Out my iron-windowed compartment

Northern landscape. Trees & water.

Water everywhere.

Not like the desert of L.A. at all.

Not like the harbor freeway.

Not full of frightened eyes rushing from work.

No, just trees. So many trees I feel dwarfed,

drowning in these encroaching trees.

 

Above the trees, hunched clouds

full of rain scrape their sexual bellies

across the green canopy of treetops.

Then

a patch of sunlight. A sudden furrowed

field—a man in coveralls, a jaunty

straw hat & a bright orange

bandanna tied round his neck, 

as he sits on a yellow tractor.

 

Wiping his brow, he stops to watch the

train. We see each other. He tips his

hat. By reflex, I open my hand in salute.

We connect.

We watch each other out of sight

until he's just a distant color

pressed into the impression of a landscape.

 

And in this moment, I wish to be him.

 

To fade away, fade faraway

atop his tractor, plowing

this field. I need to take up his life.

Snake-like, I want to shuffle

off my dead skin, leave my dry life,

and discard my city dirt.

 

I could see in his eyes 

or maybe I imagined it—he wished

he was the haunted one—sitting on the

train—unshaved & speeding South.

 

Watching his dot of color

fade and disappear, I think of

the many people staring

right now at someone else,

wishing it were possible

to become them.

Needing—

needing to leave everything—all of it

behind. To just check out.

To go forever missing—

to give up on the harshness

give up on the pain 

give up on the incertitude of breath

give up on the fear of eternal night

give up on a world grinding off its own flesh.

 

yes and again yes . . . 

 

To live a new life as someone else,

someone without these damn darkling thoughts.

 

Unexpectedly, the train whistle

shrills—calling me back to myself

from far across Seattle Sound 

and my train rushes forward—windows

on fire with the reflected sun.

 

 

 

 

Chinaman’s Chance

 

Stephen De France

 

 

 

I woke with China on my mind,

a hundred coal miners buried in the Hunan Province.

Northern China—frigid winds from the Kunlun Mountains. 

Men trapped a mile down—three days of silence,

suddenly a tapping . . . a sustained tapping is heard.

Mothers weep and wives fall to their knees.

Funny the things that roll through your mind 

in the first morning light—birds

twittering out my window. another day of life.

No thought of the hawks.

 

Out on the Boulevard I pick up cat food

from China & coffee and the free press.

The paper talks about the Chinese government

calling in the huge American debt.

Will Chinese checkers be banned?

 

I think about the Chinese who built 

the American railroads in the 19th century

and the extensive opium dens in Sacramento, 

how my mother said “clean your plate,

don’t you know people are starving in China?”

 

I turn to the personals page,

It’s heavy with over-fed cougars,

assorted American hedonists,

all walking beaches, going to Paris

or being movie buffs, world travelers, 

divorced women—loving

their own profiles.

All voting for world peace.

nobody saving anybody.

 

I feed my cats, 

take my vitamins from China 

and finish my coffee,

as an old saying clatters

in my brain . . . my culture 

is the one 

without a Chinaman’s chance.

 

 

 

 

 

Preface to the Avenue of Souls


For Shaula

 

Stephen De France

 

Before
the last black crow struggles

on its creaking wings,

gliding across a green canopy of trees

to hastily clatter down on sharp talons,

clicking across ancient tombstones.

 

Before

falling evening—solemn as any soldier

going into battle, settles down

to wait for the striding of the dark.

Before the evening sun

squints out of sight at the far horizon

& a few grey clouds hover like

tattered hawks over a new kill.

 

Before

steamy wet & antique streets

in New Orleans gather the shameless,

homeless & heartless into a single beating

reptile heart & folds them

into nervous sleep and into the consciousness

of the long hot smells of the Mississippi night.

Before

the last bitter word

falls

from the last argument,

& the needle falls from the trembling hand.

Before suicide, revenge

& murder settle

over the peeling paint of windowsills

in the meanest rooming houses

and in the rich man’s mansion

on Saint Charles Street.

Before

my hand carves

words on this paper,

& before

my heart tells me it isn’t worth doing,

before my mind starts

pulling funerary cars

for my dying spirit.

Before

you step on

or have your dreams

stepped on,

and

before

you mutter

into the growing night

that you believe

in nothing.

Not even

this gathering night.

 

Before

you swear to me

love

is the last hope of the desperate;

before

you tell me

about the hole in the ground

where they toss our bones

before 

forever.

 

Before

you tell me the little guy

is the world’s sucker—

and before you sing

to me of Wall Street

and international commerce

and how it

demeans and enslaves

us all.

 

Before

you tell me how

noble

you are.

How you’d set this 

raving world right

with a benign

fiat

that would make all our sorrows

as soft

as kittens’ tongues

in ivory milk.

Before

you paint a picture,

tell a story,

write a poem,

carve a rock,

pray to gods,

or raise hope in

willing flesh.

Before

these things are done,

take my hand.

Tell me

the biggest fear

you have ever known

that you still know . . .

And after

all this is said

and after all this is between us,

let us sit quietly

on what solid ground

there is, and agree

that none of our lives

are what we thought 

they should be,

hoped they might be.

Before

the night gets

too thick to breathe,

or too dark to dream in,

before

all this

let’s think of ourselves

as the last of the

rational beings.

And as we sit here

on the Avenue of Souls,

outside of Mexico City,

tentatively waiting for a

celestial translator

to interpret the garbles messages

spoken to us by the orderings of this night.

 

Give me your hand—it trembles so

and before we sleep, let’s just say,

it’s getting very dark now.

 

 

A Few Poets

by Stephen De France

 

Some call death sweet names,

others invite him in for tea,

many fear his ominous presence,

a few challenge him to duel & they

spit in his eye—a handful think to outsmart him.

These—I believe, he enjoys torturing.

Strangely

all poets seem drawn to him.

Perhaps because he is steeped in

a mysterious legerdemain as only an

emissary of Hades can be.

 

This Mexican poet I teach with

is very afraid to talk about death.

Cancer took his father’s nose, 

then his jaw, and then him.

Professor Michael is spooked

around the death thing.

Despite his hair having grown longer,

his pants tighter, and his girlfriends younger,

he still avoids all funerals.

 

If he ever thinks about death

he needs to drink wine,

wine till he can’t remember his name,

or remember how death comes

when you least expect it—finds you,

as you’re peeing, or dodging cars

on an L.A. freeway, 

or being a target in a New York City crosswalk,

or collapsed & broken in a Yuma asylum,

or hiding in fear in a lonely Alabama room.

 

But not at a garden party,

not staring stealthily at you,

not sipping his Non-Fat Soy Latte,

not as an incipient smile twitches

along the corners of his serpentine lips

 

Tony the Preacher

by Stephen De France

 

After five weeks of private prayer lessons,

Grandma announced she loved Tony

the preacher man. He would be husband

number five—he came to the house on Lucia Avenue

every Wednesday at 7:00 P.M. ”He is such a good

looking man, very romantic too,” said Grandma.

 

Everything had to be perfect—wine bottles hidden

Cigarettes put in drawers, floors swept—beds made

roaches sprayed and cheap perfume drizzled about the room,

especially on light bulbs—and a Dime Store print                         

of Jesus Christ walking on the waters

of Galilee—pulled from under the bed and hung

in a place of honor.

 

Grandma sprinkled herself liberally with the house

perfume—it didn’t cover her urine, wine & tobacco

odors—it simply combined with the other smells

creating the sickly odor of a funeral parlor.

 

She slipped into her full-length fur coat

put on her red-haired wig,

dusted her cheeks with face powder &

used a fire engine red on her lips.

 

It was a fateful Wednesday for grandma

 

Seven 0’ clock & nothing!

Eight 0’ clock & no Tony!

 

At nine 0’ clock the preacher’s wife

called to tell grandma Tony had been

delayed by a sick church member.

Grandma slammed down the phone

screaming:

 

”Son of Bitch never told me he was married.”

 

Tony arrived at 10:30 as Grandma leaned on the bed

smoking and drinking port—her lipstick smeared,

her wig slipping down her head, her fur coat on the floor,

she looked at him through bleary eyes and said:

 

“What the fuck are you looking at?”

 

 

Steve De France has traveled widely in the United States. On more than one occasion he hitch-hiked across America. He rode rails on freight trains, worked as a laborer on pick up gangs in Arizona, dug swimming pools in Texas, did 33 days in the Pecos city jail as a vagrant, fought bulls in Mexico, and dove for salvage off a small island on the coast of Mazatlan.

After traveling the country in pursuit of adventure, he later worked his way through college driving Yellow Cab and working as a bartender and bouncer. He received a B.A. in Theatre Arts from C.S.U.L.B. He immediately transferred to San Francisco State University. He worked for the San Francisco Shakespeare Company and the Marin Shakespeare Company playing leading and supporting roles. He returned to Los Angeles and finished a Master’s in English Literature. He continued his education at USC and later at Chapman University where he received an MFA in Creative Writing. In 1999 he received the Distinguished Alumnus Award for his writing. He has written & sold scripts for Hollywood & worked as a professional actor in film & television. He continues to write poetry, plays, essays & short stories. He sails a small sailboat in Long Beach, California. His poetry has been published in most of the English-speaking countries of the world. He has won writing awards in England and in the United States.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In Association with Fossil Publications