Knuckle Down

marbles 2

Knuckle Down

Don’t forget that any marble

larger than the rest may be

termed a boulder, bonker

masher, plumper, popper

shooter, thumper, smasher

taw, bumbo, crock, bowler

bumboozer, tonk or trunk

godfather, tom bowler, fourer

giant, dobbert, hogger

biggie or toebreaker.

Play for keepsies always.


Common Magic, Cyclone Ofa


Ofa 1

 After the storm the whitened limbs

of the sea-sucked trees stuck in the reef

catch your eyes more than

the thousands of others strewn on land


after that day and night of the sky

as a limb of the murderous sea

pawing over us, its hind legs

raking the beach, the screaming.

An open ocean storm upset with

the prospect of shores

and land its meat. And trees.


Ofa 2

Ko’s exploded and Nofo’s disappeared.

The laundromat in Malaeimi left its

washers sitting on a concrete slab

all alone.

Sometimes Ms. Nature just won’t take oh

for an answer.  Why is it everything

looks burned by her breath?

Such a kiss

makes anyone’s knees weak, so helpless.


Ofa 3

 And in Malaeloa like a metaphor

come to deliver the yachties from

the cliché of their reality, a fragrant

mulch of shredded jungle leaves fell

a soft green rain on the harbor

while roof irons sliced through the

other, upper air—an argument that

wasn’t theirs, a domestic tiff

between the natives’ deities.


Ofa 4

We stayed up all night and listened

to Rilke’s  angels sing whosit’s kaddish,

the chorus running its fingernails down

the blackboard of night.  We got stony

still and ever so insignificant,

the children never out of our reach.

Any end should come in such a roar,

something twin beyond description,

a possession by 50-foot seas,

another tree downed in the bush

and swept by common magic

back to mama ocean.


Ofa 5

Strike the stone the phone rings

around towards the back where

the houses are all blown down and

strike a match in the night

there’s nothing there but concrete

beneath your feet a few inches

off the ground and weeds all around.

Take a piss it’s pitch black

when you piss on the weeds

you can suddenly smell them in

the dry wind with all the palms

snapped near the top you can

see the ocean from just about

anywhere and the women are still the same.

                                          1990, Tutuila



Hurricanes cover

6 Dec. ‘91



What do you know? The power is back on. It was off when I got home at dusk and I got all my hurricane and Coleman lanterns fired up. There’s a hurricane warning for tonight, and I really didn’t figure that (the power just went off again) the power would come back on. Well, I was partly right, temporarily wrong. Back to writing by hurricane lantern (that long shadow the pen makes across the page). The computer is unplugged.

Hurricane Val. Val? Sounds more like someone who wants to put ground pepper on your salad than a storm that’s going to toss your coconuts.

*     *     *

Thursday  12/19/91

I have been suffering from a somewhat severe depression. The place is so trashed. Everything seems pointless. But the house slowly takes on a rather bedraggled normalcy. Still no power or phone, and it will be a while longer before the repair crews get this far out.

Part of your check went for a little fake Christmas tree for Liam. Thank you. That other storm I mentioned slipped east of us and headed for the Cook Islands. I still have no doors or windows on my ocean-side verandas, and no structural repairs have been made save what limited stuff I could accomplish to make the place minimally safe and livable. Another storm really could wipe the place.


Those are the opening and closing paragraphs of my contribution to a book called Hurricanes about living with Hurricane Val in Samoa at the end of 1991. The images of what is happening in the South this season brought back those memories. I hope my posting this will not be taken as a case of catastrophic appropriation.


The Lap of Jeopardy

malitia 1

The opening page of the latest chapter of the Dominick Chronicles novel in hand, The Lap of Jeopardy:

Chapter 9

             The border was closed, in both directions. No one in, no one out of the U.S. The skirmishes had increased in number and intensity, especially along the coasts and in New England. A bunch of states had declared martial law, with legislators fleeing their capitals for safety’s sake. Government buildings were a popular target. Citizen militias were springing up everywhere.

There seemed to be three major factions, none of them coordinated, but each at war with the other two. One faction could be called the libertarians—the government called them anarchists—who claimed they wanted to reclaim their country from the industrial/military/ polluting/profiteering corporations and their puppet plutocratic government. The second citizen faction called themselves patriots—white supremacists mainly, flying the Confederate battle flag—for whom government had always been the enemy. In each of these factions there was a vast smorgasbord of disparate regional and obsessional affiliations. The only belief both factions shared was that the other was the nexus of evil.

The third faction was the beleaguered government—federal, state, and local. In the past year, the poll approval ratings for government had cratered. In the eyes of many Americans, politicians and their institutions had lost any claim to legitimacy. Now the bureaucrats were under attack from left and right. They had allowed the citizens to arm themselves to the teeth, and now they were reaping the bloody harvest of that sowing. Cops and soldiers were being asked to battle their neighbors. Desertions were rampant, and their weapons went with them. There were a hundred fronts, and, unlike in foreign wars, airstrikes could not be called-in to level an insurgent stronghold in, say, Berkeley.

Harry spent much of the day watching cable news. Dominick tried to escape it, but could not entirely. There was a video of men in hunter’s camouflage with assault rifles looting a big-box store, carting their liberated booty away in stolen pickup trucks. Another of firemen being warned off with rifle fire as they tried to approach a blaze in Baltimore. Highways were packed with people fleeing one place for another. Several dams in New England had been blown up, wreaking havoc downstream. Mortar fire from New Jersey was hitting Wall Street in lower Manhattan.

malitia 2

The Birth of an Obsession


Prentice-Hall Inc., Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, 1972. A gray cubicle, with piles of gray manuscript boxes and reams of galley and page proofs of scientific college text books, a beige desk phone, a Selectric typewriter, and production editor me. With a graduate degree from Berkeley, I had almost flunked the spelling test for this poverty-level gig. I had to promise to keep a dictionary (American Heritage, 1st edition) open on my desk (still open on this desk 45 years and many desks later). It would never have occurred to me to appear there not dressed in a suit coat and tie. Both my wife and her mother worked there as well. We got to commute together.

My mother-in-law, Mae Santamaria (may her god bless her soul), had enrolled in night school at Fairleigh Dickinson University. I don’t know why. Her job at P-H was secure. Maybe because both of her kids had made it through college, she figured it must be easy. Mae had been born in a small town in Chieti Province, Italy. Her New Jersey high school diploma was decades behind her. She was enrolled in an English Literature class. She didn’t mind the readings, but the papers bugged her. English was still not her first language. She had to get A’s. Solution: son-in-law.

Mae would show up at my cubicle and wonder if I might find the time to “give her some ideas” on how to address her latest writing assignment. Oh, she had to hand the paper in at class tonight. They were just 400 to 500-word freshman comp efforts. I would put aside my drudgery job work and bang out winners for her. It does not hurt sharing a conspiracy with your mother-in-law from which she owes you favors.

Then one day she came to me with a larger but no less immediate request—a four-to-five-page discussion of any two of Shakespeare’s sonnets collected in her Norton anthology text book. I had three hours. I chose two sonnets. The easiest route was compare and contrast. I showed how and why one poem worked better than the other. I remember being pleased with the paper when I handed it over to Mae. It was the best thing I had done for her. She got a C-minus and a scolding from her teacher for thinking she was smarter than Shakespeare. She was not happy.

Neither was I. I got the marked-up paper back from Mae (she threw it at me) and went over it. So, okay, maybe I needed to know more about sonnets, which had never really interested me. For the next year or so, during which time Mae’s daughter declared our marriage a big mistake on her part, I studied sonnets. I read them and I read about them. I started writing them and became enamored of their discipline and concision, of their subtle rules and strict injunctions. I read and wrote a lot of lousy ones. The form and its possible mutations commandeered my verse. Everyone else was writing without borders. In an ancient form I had found a cohort.

Keeping fourteen lines, I pushed the end rhymes inward. Leaning always iambic, I let lines find their own choral lengths. Sometimes the concluding couplet might rhyme or half-rhyme; sometimes, for effect, it would not. The classic two-thirds to one-third of observation to comment, specific to general, story to analysis held. I became convinced that this was the ideal length of a poem, the optimum focal verse aperture. Because of my alteration of traditional prosodic components, I could not justify calling these products sonnets. I called them instead sprung sonnets.

Over the next several years, free of New Jersey and Prentice-Hall, I composed a hundred-poem series to that ex-wife and -life, all sprung sonnets, called passage. Now, going on fifty years later, I still have not escaped the shadow of that C-minus. Thank you, Mae.

On the Occasion of Robert Kennedy’s Assassination, 49 Years Ago Today

Bobby Kennedy

49 years later, like a ladder left in the attic

I once shook Bobby Kennedy’s hand on Main Street

catty-corner from the Sears & Roebucks where I had once

seen Annette Funicello pitching Kenmore appliances

(looking like yesterday’s forgotten pancake make-up)

about three blocks from where I guess I was conceived and

was born and grew up as innocent of  history as the next.

Yesterdays like peanut shells on a barroom floor.

He was standing on the back seat of a white Impala

convertible with the top down coming out of the

negro ghetto, held upright by big black guys who

kept him from falling out of the car as he leaned

sideways (he wasn’t a big man) to shake our hands.

Hope wasn’t something you even heard about in church

in those days, but he was smiling this goofy real smile.






At 3 a.m. I Understand


Rummaged through the evidence files again tonight

the moon past full and all the crows asleep inside the woods


the past dealt like tarot cards laughing at their own predictions

avoiding the present as the transparent pox that it is.


At three a.m. I understand that what we believe in is no more

than past hopes dressed in armored denial, the lies of survival.


We are each an archaeological site, an arrowhead here, a bone

fragment there, cracked and crushed to suck the marrow out


long-forgotten memories properly encased in common earth.

Imagine the chaos if death was not the only truth.

Cultural Appropriation

Liam in hat 2

            The photo is of my son Liam, on a beach in Tutuila, American Samoa, getting on a quarter of a century ago now. He had appropriated my hat. It is not a Samoan hat, though he is a hundred-percent Samoan. It is a palagi hat. Palagi, properly papalagi, sky breaker, is the Samoan term for Caucasians. I’m a hundred percent palagi. I adopted Liam, in Samoa, when he was one-month old. We spent the next eighteen years together there. He was an exceptionally brave child. You can see it in his face. He was fearless when it came to doing what he thought should be done.

            Fourteen years ago, while still living in Samoa, I started writing a series of police procedural novels set in Samoa. I had lived and worked there for more than twenty years. I wanted to share what I had learned about this richly different place. I invented a Samoan detective, Sgt. Apelu Soifua, and through four books dwelled in his bicultural conundrum of an American-trained cop in a Samoan world. For years I had demurred, even though my island mentor, the Samoan playwright John Kneubuhl, had told me to just fucking do it. After Uncle John died, I took his advice. I had no idea at the time that I was committing a literary crime.

            How dare I, a palagi, assume to write about the experiences and thoughts of a man from another—indeed a colonialized—culture? What presumption! Larceny!

            I wish Uncle John was still around so we could mull this over. John was afakasi, half Samoan, half palagi. Born in Samoa, he had learned his trade under Thornton Wilder at Yale. He had spent decades in Hollywood as a very successful TV/screen writer, churning out scripts for such shows as Star Trek, The Fugitive, Gunsmoke, The Wild Wild West, and Hawaii Five-O, among many others. He was a master at cultural appropriation. In the end, he returned to his island home and roots in the masterful trilogy of plays in Think of a Garden.

Uncle John would have warmed to this debate. I know he would have railed against any ideology placing borders on an artist’s creativity. “How dare Shakespeare write about Danes or Italians?” “White-out Twain’s Nigger Jim!” A fifth of Scotch and a lot of laughs. Then we would have moved on to some more serious topic.

Is exclusivity essential to diversity? Is there any need in art for political police? And who are these people? Don’t they have anything constructive to do? How about trying on someone else’s hat?

(Det Sgt. Apelu Soifua Jungle Beat Mysteries: Pago Pago Tango, Fire Knife Dancing, The Dead Don’t Dance, Blood Jungle Ballet. Thomas & Mercer. Available via and

San Francisco, Summer ’66


There was a bakery over in the Mission that sold its day-old bread for ten cents a loaf. Every couple of days I would hike over there and bring back as much as I could carry in my rucksack. It wasn’t much of a hike, just a mile or so each way from the Haight. The bread was my contribution to the commune. In return, they let me sleep and eat there, a big old run-down house in a working-class neighborhood. I’d hitchhiked out from New York. I was the only one in the house from the East Coast. At 20, I was also the youngest. I didn’t fit in too well. One of my first nights there, we were all sitting around on the floor in the common room getting stoned, and everyone else was drinking cheap dago-red jug wine. I went out and came back with a quart of Rainier Ale. That somehow made me weird.

Often, the jug wine, or the sangria they fixed to try and make it palatable. would be laced with LSD. This was the summer before the Summer of Love. Lysergic acid was not yet illegal. And in the Haight was a small ghetto of adults who had not so much dropped out of their old world as dropped into a new freedom sphere of their own invention. Psychedelics had freed them. My commune mates were ex-lawyers and -teachers and -real-estate agents. One of the things they all had in common was that they no longer were what they once had been, like married or on a career path.

I had come to San Francisco on a vague poet’s quest. New York was still the literate center of the universe, but it was stale. The so-called Beats had abandoned Manhattan for the City by the Bay. In those halcyon hitchhiking days, a visit west was only four or five days of free rides away. I had been fired from my stat-analyst job at Fortune for showing up one Monday morning with a shaved head. (It was not attractive.) Such expressions of personal freedom were not tolerated at Time-Life Inc. So, I was collecting unemployment, $48 a week, and learned that I could collect it as well in California.

There was a man whose name I then knew, who that summer was sort of royalty in the Haight. He dressed in Oscar Wilde hats and capes and toured his tiny principality with a pair of exotic wolf hounds. Supposedly, he was the font of all local LSD. With caution and diligence, I managed that summer to avoid ingesting any of his product. Though it felt at times as if I alone was the only one not tripping, I confined myself to weed and Rainier Ale and became a non-participant observer of the encompassing alternate reality.

The source of my reluctance was quite simple—the verse the acidhead poets was churning out. I thought it was awful. The purpose of poems, I thought, was to clarify, to distil experience into shareable insights, not celebrate personal confusion. The solo inner vision is not communication. Much of what I read, in my jejune opinion, seemed speaking-in-tongues gibberish. They lacked all discipline, were amorphous, pure personal indulgence. I did not want that to happen to my poems.

This substitute for poetry was emblematic of the scene as a whole. The gaseous comfort zone this mini-subculture subsisted upon was comprised primarily of self-righteousness, a snotty self-righteousness at that—the less sense you made, the higher your status. That defense—it’s not that I’m not clear, it’s your fault for not understanding. The literary analogy was to jazz. But even jazz had rules and framework and was played by groups of men who understood one another. Coltrane always returned to the tune right on beat.

The smells—patchouli oil and incense, marijuana and unwashed bodies—and on the streets, the fog-cleansed air and the always chilled Pacific breeze. North Beach saloons and cheap Chinatown noodle houses. Stoned side trips to Mendocino and Big Sur. In 1966, $48 was equivalent to $480 in today’s dollars. I got to hear the music and watch the lightshows and the people at The Fillmore and The Avalon—the Airplane and the Dead, Big Brother and Grace Slick, Country Joe and the Mothers of Invention. The musicianship was often not the best, but it was the experience you went for, the comradery of crazies.

On the radio, ’66 was the summer of “California Dreamin’,” “Paint It Black,” “Good Vibrations,” “The Sound of Silence,” and “Yellow Submarine.” But that was the other, regular world. As the summer went on, the lightshows got more psychedelic, Janis Joplin went beyond extreme, and the Grateful Dead would refuse to stop playing. How many rules can be broken?

Then there was the Oracle. In subsequent years, Haight-Ashbury became famous as a flowerchild haven, a refuge for damaged and disaffected teenagers. But in ’66 there were no kids there. It was all adults. They weren’t adolescent escapees. They saw themselves as pioneers. I was just an inexperienced kid and ignored. So, when a cadre of the senior acidhead elite decided to put out a community newspaper, I got to hang out with them as a goffer, the practical kid who remembered stuff. No one remembered my name.

The money all came from acid sales. A space was rented above the Haight Theater. Someone who said they knew what they were doing bought an ancient press from a shuttered newspaper upstate. A staff of exotic misfits was assembled. I don’t know what they were paid. I never was. At least at first, no one was in it for money. It was a community project. The explorers on the frontier of alternate reality required an organ to relate back their inner discoveries. It took us weeks to get that old press adjusted and balanced enough to print. It didn’t help that everyone else was tripping.

San Francisco Oracle

The San Francisco Oracle fulfilled and exceeded its mission. Its success and impact far exceeded the worth of any combination of its contents, much of which was either unreadable—due to the liberal application of colored-ink washes (ala Fillmore lightshows)—or intentionally unintelligible (unknowability being the hallmark of all true wisdom). The few pieces of mine that got published were unrecognizable, chopped up to decorate some mandala or unicorn graphic. Printed badly on cheap coarse paper (a bitch in the press), it had a good feel in the hand. It caught on among those who cared little for words.

At the end of the summer, with $40 in my pocket, I headed north, hitchhiking up to Vancouver to take a new route back to Manhattan across Canada 1. For the next couple months, I acted as East Coast distributor for the Oracle, until it became too popular and profitable. When it started making money, everything changed and I was out. Just as well. Its many-colored inks came off on your fingers.