Literary Yard

Search for meaning

‘Shell Collecting’ and other poems

By: John Grey


Shells roll out of the ocean,
former homes, having parted ways with their dead,
tumble a little, then dig in as the wave recedes,

for even the inanimate have instincts
when there are strollers about, beachcombers
ready to stoop down at any moment,

collect another artefact for the mantel,
a shelf above the fireplace perfect
for the brine depth’s polished scree,

so I can still be ambling even as I sit
comfortably in a plush chair, roam the shoreline
without having to leave my parlor,

inhabit a room that feels as if it was once part
of the restless sea, not abandoned exactly,
merely humanized as a last resort.



She cries and she laughs
in roughly equal amounts.

She prefers the latter
but she can deal with the former.

To her, it’s all part of being human.
Either can happen when watching a movie.
And also in dealing with real life.

The tears and laughter
can originate on the surface
or be deeply felt.
They can run on uncontrolled
or stop the moment
they no longer apply.
Both are reflex actions
but they are her nonetheless.

Whether she’s happy or sad,
there’s always someone to say,
“That’s not like her.”
She cries when she hears that.
Half the time that is.
The other half, she laughs.



I’m surrounded by modern art:
Soutine’s houses, Morandi’s still-lifes,
Hopper’s loners, Modigliani’s portraits.

The Madonna no longer suckles baby Jesus.
Flemish merchants don’t stare solemnly from frames.
Landscapes refuse to conform to what’s on postcards.
Nobody’s trafficking in Grecian myths.

The demands on me
are more blatantly obvious
than anything on these walls.

This is no time for reality.
I have to be myself.



The body’s just a body,
she says.
Why can’t I put it on display?
It’s legs and breasts.
It’s not me.

She lies topless on the beach.
Even clothed, her cleavage
attracts a throng.
And her dresses slit so far up her thighs,
it’s hard to tell where the sides meet.

She calls herself a very private person
but that privacy is all in her head.
And she admits to pride at what she looks like.
When she starts to sag,
and cellulite takes over,
she figures she’ll be proud of that too.

Woman talk about her.
Guys are surprisingly nervous in her midst.
She has no close friends
and has never been in a serious relationship.
A body’s just a body, she says.
Whether fortunate or luckless,
she just happens to occupy hers.



The crew:
a female lawyer wannabe
a guy with a flute
and a heart to match.
a male art student
who lost twenty pounds
painting his masterpiece –
and a different me at any given moment,
living in an apartment that would have had my mother
fainting on my carpet-less floor –
sometimes self-immolation is the only way forward.

And the old man in the park could well be me at his age.
Nothing like the squalor that comes with fitful sleep.
I too was losing weight.
Art has to go hungry or its not art.
At night, more coffee houses, some strumming.
And tenements – bars on the window,
bright graffiti on walls,
and a heart like two broken guitar strings.

But plenty of hugs,
even from two male English majors,
and I learned to clean dishes
and fit inside a tiny room
and never once tell myself
that the dream was dead
in this New York City wasteland,
even as I played for coins at a local coffee house
and the threats from the street people were real.

The deal:
get high on second hand marijuana smoke,
pretend I’m Hart Crane in London,
Hemingway in Paris…
and not someone who couldn’t even afford
the rent on the dive he was living in
and ending up crashing with friends,
new and old.
I hung out there till I found a real job.
But I never once considered
scrimping together bus fare ands leaving.
When I was totally broke,



that was just more excuse for strumming,
and, more pretense –
Dylan in the Village this time.

If I learnt anything in those days,
it was that I could survive.
In the daytime, I strummed in the park,
for more coins,
sometimes in time with the bongo beaters.
And more friends came by and hugged me.
What choice did I have.
I was hardly Napoleon on Elba.
Nor Edmond Dantes in the Chateau d’lf,
Or the prodigal son
being done to death with ‘I told you so.”

I finally found a place to share
on the top floor of a tenement.
My dream had many a step to climb.
No health benefits of course.
Promises I made to myself:
Don’t get sick.
Protest wrongly arrested black kids,
Scribble new songs in a notebook,
Ignore the sirens and the screams.
Enter into a stable relationship.
Six months of this,
still broke, but not shame-faced.

Now my younger brother feels the urge
and wants to come out here.
I tell him to make his own plans,
not to emulate mine.
First, you have to like the feel of a lumpy mattress.
And, for scenery,
you have to find something wonderful in an alley lined with trash cans.
And rely on the kind of strangers.
And accept the fact that it’s not so much the life you choose
but the one that chooses you.
I figure it’s best he stay where he is.
For a start, he doesn’t own a guitar.



Anyway, I’m learning who to trust and who not to trust,
and I’m doing a better job of balancing
reality and romantic notions
while clarifying my position
as a stranger in a strange land of similar strangers,
and I’ve never once wired home for money
and, though I’m still living this life,
I can see myself looking back on it
twenty, thirty years from now,
with the deprivation eliminated
and the hugs brought more to the forefront.
I could erase washing dishes for a living,
and the crummy digs,
but keep the mix of accents
and the wondering what the hell do I do with my life.
Twenty, thirty years from now, I’ll know.
The wondering won’t stand a chance



I can only stare at
a beautiful woman for so long.
It’s not so much embarrassing
if she notices me
but becomes a kind of pedantic formalism,
a hark back to the day
when a woman’s legs and breasts
were the sum of her mythology,
if not her existence.

But, then again, I can’t turn away
I don’t limit myself
when it comes to fields of goldenrod,
or a maple tree in its fall colors.
Too much pleasure. Too much exaltation.
So what if she’s a Mensa member?

I am, after all, a common man
in every sense of the word.
I am a hotbed of hormones.
I am in the great tradition
of masculine pseudo-aesthetics.

As she’s about to leave,
she smiles in my direction.
I feel as if my shallowness
has been compromised.



The ex has her knowledge
of how many men have held her since,
and I can’t decide whether or not it I should spend a life
entangled in the barb-wire of this issue.

Jealousy is a crooked journey away from itself
and many times I have tried unsuccessfully
to straighten it so that the distance between
becomes farther and faster.

Forms of love must embrace a little hate,
love letters written in blood,
love-making that replicates slaughter,
the words that remain
when we have used up all the kinder ones.

So I am by myself but I am never alone.
There’s always some essential thing hounding me.
It’s not simple, not even now, when I live in the desert.
Silence is not nourishment enough.
Dawn arrives but nothing really leaves.


John Grey is an Australian poet, US resident, recently published in Sheepshead Review, Stand, Poetry Salzburg Review and Red Weather. Latest books, “Covert” “Memory Outside The Head” and “Guest Of Myself” are available through Amazon. Work upcoming in the McNeese Review, Rathalla Review and Open Ceilings.

Leave a Reply

Related Posts