TURTLE ISLAND QUARTERLY 4
Al Ortolani, Donna Pucciani
Three poems and an essay
by Al Ortolani
Brother Juniper Rides the See-Saw
Not as simple as it seems, balancing
a 2 x 6 on a guard rail, two boys
on one end, a skinny monk
on the other, the three riding, wildly happy.
The elders emerge at the city gates,
walking their coifed spaniels. They are
curious and wish to show
the celebrity monk through the streets,
display him on Channel 5 News.
Juniper refuses their intentions,
keeps to the see-saw, rocking
higher and faster. The boys laugh,
shouting for more. Finally, a rumor
spreads among the crowd―the holy man
is a nut case, daft as a drumstick.
Juniper breathes easier ―
the boys beat their fists, the plank
rises higher, even the sparrows
are crazy for more.
Juniper’s Vision of the Floating Hand
Brother Juniper has been praying for days—
What else? It’s his mojo, you know, these
crazy acts of devotion. One afternoon
a floating hand appears out of the blue.
It’s like some kind of You Are Here sign—
disembodied, unadorned by rings
or jewels of office. It’s as plain to see
as a pig ballooned in sunlight. Juniper
appears to be the only one who has noticed
and he turns circles, but the friars are doing
their own prayer jumbo (gesticulating,
flagellating). Out of the woods, a voice
speaks into his ear―There is nothing
you can do with this hand.
Juniper isn’t so sure, he shakes himself
as if brushing leaves, acorns—second
thoughts from his tunic. He walks
among the mendicants, encouraging
himself to do nothing. This is difficult—
certainly a let go and let God
type of moment—the oaks stirring
with sunlight, the road to town
no busier than usual—God’s hand
in high definition.
The Naked Fool
Once again Juniper is naked. The police
corner him in an alley just off 13th
and Baltimore. He has ignored the judge
and given his clothes away. This time
he insists is different. The man was shivering,
squatting on the steam grate like a Buddha—
the theft mutually agreed upon.
Pigeons fight for space on window sills
and the wind curls the exhaust of taxis
into gray winter snakes. The officer drapes
a blanket over Juniper’s shoulders.
The lights on Baltimore flip to red—darkness
is the pocket change of night, the cold
its hard currency. There is plenty of both.
Juniper is a fool, already he is planning
how to lose the new blanket.
When I was a kid, I developed an intense loyalty to St. Francis of Assisi. We shared the same name. Francis was my saint, my patron. My father and his father also shared the same middle name. Francis was a family thing. Dad said without much explanation that St. Francis was the best saint to have on your side in a fight. This made sense. I expected that my father could beat up about any father on the block. He had the muscles to prove it.
As I got older, my respect for St. Francis never waned, even though I really couldn’t claim to know anything about him. At some point, probably in high school, I began to notice that St. Francis was the king of concrete garden art. Statues abounded of Francis with birds or squirrels or rabbits. I liked animals. I liked nature. As an Eagle Scout, I felt comfortable camping. I’d also begun to discover thinkers like Henry David Thoreau. I read Walden and claimed to understand about a third of it. In college I became a literature and philosophy major. The existentialists danced in my head. Ginsberg and Kerouac beat drums. As a nature lover, I stayed close to the environmental scene. I wrote haiku, kayaked, caved, supported Greenpeace, the Wilderness Society, the Sierra Club. As an unorthodox Catholic, I kept Francis benched like a pinch hitter in the dugout. My daughters bought me a statue for the garden on Father’s Day.
About all I really knew about Francis was what I recalled from the Bradford Dillman film from the early 60s and, of course, Franco Zeffirelli’s Brother Sun, Sister Moon. I took several retreats to a Missouri monastery. I explored meditation and Buddhism. At some point, I picked up a copy of The Little Flowers of St. Francis. Some of the anecdotes from Francis’s life were koan-like. Some reminded me of Sufi stories. But many I felt were flat. Years of translation and cleansing had washed away the human element from the 13th century. I may as well have been reading my catechism. Francis was a reformer and a radical. He shook his world, tamed wolves, preached to birds, survived the Crusades, questioned the leaders of Islam. His father had long since disowned him. He had spent a year in a Perugian dungeon as a prisoner of war. He kissed lepers. He had labored through the dark night of the soul. The 13th century church wasn’t sure what to do with him. He sought direction by opening the Bible three times at random. He asked Brother Masseo to spin in circles on the road until he fell in the mud. Then they followed the direction his head was pointing.
Brother Juniper was one of the most colorful characters among the companions of Francis. He saw himself as God’s jester, a King’s fool. I found myself drawn to his quirky moments of wisdom, his crazy light. He scorned personal fame, rode the see-saw to avoid interviews, had visions of God’s hand floating in the air. As the monks’ cook (much to their disdain), he emptied the entire pantry larder into a kettle, so as to cook a sort of perpetual soup, thus allowing more time for contemplation and prayer. He was removed from the kitchen.
Francis and Juniper are as much a part of the 13th century as we are a part of the 21st. We are the ingredients of a recipe which is salted to the taste of its cooks. I’ve tried to write these poems by focusing on what I see as ubiquitous or common or true to the spirit of both times. My images have little to do with era. I mix them like Juniper’s soup—the 13th century with the 21st century. Francis rides a tandem bicycle with Clare. Brother Juniper avoids a local television station. He gives away his clothes to a homeless Buddha in downtown Kansas City. In our back yard a feathered sparrow sits on the cement bird which is fixed to St. Francis’s shoulder. One is flesh and blood, the other a symbolic gesture. I put seed at the statute’s feet each winter. Maybe I’ve understood what I’ve read.
A few months after my father’s death, my wife and I arrived late one night by taxi in Assisi. Most of the old town was asleep. We bought a couple of drinks and sat in the piazza outside of the 1st century Temple of Minerva, christened Santa Maria sopra Minerva in the 16th century. An impromptu troupe of young travelers were beating skin drums and chanting songs on the steps. The silence between their songs was eerily quiet—subdued voices, bursts of laughter—then more songs. I drank one Moretti after another, listening to the primitive drumbeats, the voices of the young troubadours. The heat of the day still glowed in the old stones. I took off my shoes. It seemed that the world had not changed in 800 years.
Al Ortolani’s poetry and reviews have appeared in journals such as Prairie Schooner, New Letters, The Midwest Quarterly, The English Journal and the New York Quarterly. He has four books of poetry, The Last Hippie of Camp 50and Finding the Edge, published by Woodley Press at Washburn University, Wren's House, published by Coal City Press in Lawrence, Kansas, and Cooking Chili on the Day of the Deadfrom Aldrich Press in Torrance, California. He is an editor for The Little Balkans Review and is on the Board of Directors of the Kansas City Writer's Place.
poem by Donna Pucciani
this canal is just a canal,
the setting sun only a sun.
Passersby concern themselves
with dinner, grandchildren's birthdays,
walking small dogs in the park.
for the memories to disappear
like burnt-off smog, like footsteps
left behind on the opposite bank.
They take care
not to catch their reflection
in the still water, not to find
the past in fingers of drifted twigs
or the wake of a distant boat.
Truth was the biggest casualty.
Those who sought to tell the tale
disappeared speechlessly into the night.
No blood sullies this water now,
no sign of guns or bloated flesh.
Eyes seek the blue of the sky,
not the pulse of despair,
not the lost years when East met West,
touched, but never joined.
Those who crossed,
perhaps survived and stayed,
stare across the mute canal,
bathe in the sacred shadow
of a crumbled wall
fragmented by souvenir hunters
who chipped away its somber dark
and pocketed the stones.
Donna Pucciani, Vice President of Poets' Club of Chicago has published over three hundred poems in the US and UK in such venues as International Poetry Review, Mid-America Poetry Review, Spoon River and After Hours. She has recorded her poetry on LitCast, and has won awards from the Illinois Arts Council, Poets and Patrons of Chicago, the Illinois State Poetry Society, the National Federation of State Poetry Societies, and the Frieda Stein Fenster Memorial. Her chapbook of nature poems, The Other Side of Thunder was published by Flarestack Press in Britain.