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Sample Poems by Toni Ortner


Daniel Pearl's head was hacked off by Islamist terrorists and made into a videotape because he was a Jew. There is an air of assassination everywhere. Floods and tornados spring up in unexpected places. The dollar is worth half of what it was. The politicians smile and tell us there is no recession. We do not have enough food. Some work two or three jobs to make ends meet while the rich sell oil and bathe in milk. Most of us cannot find a job. Babies are cast into bonfires in Darfur, and l0, 000 die of starvation each week.

I confess I feel black and blue and all I want to do is print my way out. I stand on the edge where gray turns into black.

Lost in the city I want to get home quickly. I decide to go underground and wonder if I hold the right coins for admission. I fall on the staircase steps, slip, fall again, regain my balance, and keep on walking. It is dangerous to stop. The first subway cannot take me where I want to go. I lack clothes. Connections are broken. I get off the first subway to transfer to another. The sky lightens as I put one foot down in front of the other. The rain stops.. Houses with lights float in the mist. The water keeps on rising. Polar bears drown. While I sleep, land turns to sea. I carry your ashes and bones in a bag. Peter and I float in a boat with a map we cannot decipher.

When I saw your body, it was a shell. The wind shines. There is a chill in the summer air. The waves lap out as the tide ebbs in. Ten thousand sunsets ride the silver ripples of Goose Bay. Spiders weave webs in the bookshelves. Last night I saw calm water with sharks circling beneath. We sold the antiques for bread. God knows we would scour the stars to find you.

What I Remember

When the earth split apart, there was no warning. Deep sharp crevices split the flat fields of grass. Boulders thrust like acorns into the sky and an incessant angry rumbling came from the ground. The high rise apartment buildings had been hit, the staircases cracked. The residents had been evacuated at the first blare of the sirens before the glass panes shattered and the roofs were swept off by the tornado exposing the twenty floors of apartments so you could see inside the rooms, box after box filled with fat-cushioned sofas sodden with rain, refrigerators turned upside down, freezers, beds, dressers, book scattered like dust over the floors. Suddenly it was important to have neighbors to save the dogs and cats. Those of us who managed to get down the cracked staircase with gaping holes knew that many were trapped inside and had fallen through the holes in the walls, splayed out like rag dolls with twisted arms and legs. As the rumbling continued, the sky grew ominously darker, darker by the second. I did not know which route to take except to run as fast as I could away from the cities where the buildings shook and crumpled in slow motion as new shock waves hit the ground. Hundreds of animals were racing in the same direction. There were sheep mixed with wolves, foxes, cats, dogs, slews of robins flying overhead, a frightened hawk , a bellowing cat, all racing north away from the crumbling cities.

Behind me my apartment on the l6h floor was opened like a box exposed to the sky. In my haste I had forgotten to grab the computer that contained my life or the flash drive I had prepared the week before sensing something intangible, indefinable and unnamable was headed toward us even though the politicians and newspapers denied anything unusual in the air. The thing was in the air. It hung in the air before it happened. It hung in the spaces between words like a picture that is too vivid to comprehend but can be glimpsed for a second before it fades into the unconscious because you never experienced anything like it before. I had to get back into the building to get that flash drive, but the staircases were broken and the elevators not working. It was getting darker. Why had I never learned to use ropes to shimmy across space or taken a basic survival course? Loudspeakers told the fleeing citizens that it was only a matter of time before the steel beams that supported the buildings would be reinforced and we would be able to walk into our boxes and live our sheltered lives, but none of us believed anything the government said, much less its promises. The truth was conveyed in our eyes, in subtle glances, in a hand held out to a stranger.

The air was charged with electric particles that clung to our skin as we ran. It stung and burned. We were headed north like hundreds of lemmings headed towards the cliffs and no one knew why. I could tell we were headed north by the slant of the sun in the remaining patch of clear sky.

I would like to tell you this was a dream from which I woke up, but now that my eyes are open it feels more real than the birch outside my window whose leaves shine in the morning sun. There is something in the air.

Midnight in the garden of grief

Midnight in the garden of grief the sacred birch holds up the sky. The thin bones of her wrist snap like twigs. She cannot find the switch moving in dark day after day hand over hand as if to find.

He asks why white lines are drawn like grids on the surface of the sky. Burnt pine needles shower accusations. Snowflakes fall in summer and stick on green leaves. Climate change brings early spring, wet summer, and warm winter as streams turn into torrents.

Fishing boats that floated last week are buried in sand. There are new cities in China where the wind shrieks shrill through empty streets. We watch the video of the stoning of the woman in Afghanistan who committed adultery. This is the law of the land where the head of Daniel Pearl is held up like a trophy by men in black masks and the fingers of girls who wear nail polish are sliced off. Hidden eyes behind veils. A killer writes a best seller. A fashion model in Buenos Ares who is married to a movie star has two maids, a nanny, three gardeners, and a cook and does not understand why other women do not play more with their children.

There are numbers are screens we cannot decipher and facts we cannot comprehend. 11,283,000 are the number of persons killed by Adolph Hitler between l933-1945. Three million Cambodians put to death by their government between l975-l979. 61,911,000 citizens murdered by the Soviet Union between l917-1987, three million dead in North Korea, a million dead in Pakistan, a million dead in the Baltic States, and a million dead in Mexico.

The mother in Darfur builds a fourth wall of bricks made of sand three feet high because her six year old daughter was raped. Babies are hurled into bonfires. Where are swords beaten into plowshares where each man sits under his own fig tree? To what mountain do the people come to worship the One when Catholic priests commit buggery on alter boys dressed in white?

Her hands can barely move on the black keys; she is losing her letters and the watch ticks on. Fingers gnarled and twisted by arthritis, she mounts the bicycle and pedals into the wind. Who is this woman? She is the fractured woman who spent her life trying to rescue the child. The weight of the world is a stone in her heart around which blood pushes and swirls like a dark drug through arteries and veins. Eyes dimming, can she tell the difference between truth and lies?

In the video store unshaven men with legs like sticks stare mesmerized at the breasts of young girls. Eight year old boys are riveted to video games where bodies burst into flames. Spy cameras look like hummingbirds.

A boy of six is named The Turtle Boy because he has a mole that covers his body. When the doctors remove it, ten million viewers on U Tube see the scars and bruises. We all need to grow shells to survive.

Girls in Thailand are sold by parents into prostitution. There are rumors that explosions from the sun will eradicate all electronic devices and networks, and the Chinese are conspiring to devalue the dollar.

A novel called The Wall by Marlen Haushofer tells of a woman who fell asleep in an isolated country estate in the mountains of Austria who woke up, went for a walk, and hit her head against an invisible wall behind which people, grasses, plants, birds, trees, cows, chickens and dogs are frozen like statues. Someone has dropped the bomb or a chemical, but it is over so it makes no difference. She thinks of her children frozen in London. Doris Lessing tried to warn us in Shakasta. Attention spans shorten. Collect the seeds of organic fruit and vegetables. It is reported that a homeless woman in Los Angeles who was starving bit off the head of an infant.

The writer's hands continue to move across the keys.

Mothers march to protest nukes. Then march again to save the whales. There are CIA agents at the front door asking politely to come in to ask a few brief questions. The nurse who saw aliens at Rockwell was killed in an air plane crash two weeks later. There is a military site in the Nevada Desert designated by number that is officially denied by the government, and the candidate man running for President has a Swiss bank account and an offshore trust.

The messages arrive daily. First the Mayan prediction of the Apocalypse, then the friend taken up by Christ and saved who believes the rest of us will go to Hell. There are massive hurricanes, tornadoes, and earthquakes as seas turn into deserts. High rise apartments in Rio de Janeiro slip sudden into sink holes. Ancient volcanoes spew ash into air and dead birds fall out of the sky. Oil spills filled with broken timber, plastic bottles, Adidas sneakers, and pillow cases ride currents round the globe. Houses are swept into the sea by tsunamis along with oil slicked pelicans and terns. The ash, the white ash, you cannot deny coats the leaves of the trees. The weight of the world, the endless pleas for money, the broken faces, the scarred lips, the child soldiers trained to cut off the ears and noses of friends and relatives.

The ring of child pornography you think is finally broken, the men in Africa penetrating babies to get rid of AIDS, the gray wolves shot by rangers in Wyoming, the icecaps melting, the polar bears drowning while millionaires build underground shelters in empty missile silos.

In the dark vault of sky the blue planet swirls.