Al Ortolani ~ Four Poems

Losing a Ring

My father blamed him­self. My moth­er said
he should have lis­tened. Who gives
a four-year-old a gold ring?
                      And that’s how
it was left, like a tree ring on a stump,
like the ring of a ham­mer on a nail.

Today, I have a box, tucked with silver
quar­ters, pock­etknives, and tired watches.
I dole them out to my grandchildren
as they reach an age
when time is more a hall­way to anoth­er room,
than a four-year-old’s cir­cle with­in circles,

and some­times after Sunday dinner,
the dish­es dried, the pots and pans stacked
in a cab­i­net too small to hold them,
I bury my head in my hands and listen

to the emp­ty house, the evening
com­ing down from the hori­zon, until sorrow
rings with wind, and like my mother,
my father,

there’s noth­ing left to give.


Garage Storage

A fold­ing met­al chair in industrial
brown paint, the yel­low stencil
of Brother’s Funeral Home

on the back rest, a sparrow’s nest
inside a scuffed motor­cy­cle helmet,
grass and string and feather.

A can­ning jar on the work bench
filled with nuts and bolts,
odd wood screws that once kept

a swing fas­tened, a glass door sliding
open into the gar­den. Now, clouded
with dust, a smear of bicy­cle chain

grease, its blue catch­es the light,
bells like a gourd,
whit­tled glass embossed with a name

of a com­pa­ny known for canning,
for stor­age, for keeping
sum­mer into winter.


Rehearsing for the Winter Concert

In the trum­pet sec­tion of the junior high school band,
the boys tongue quar­ter notes, more or less, in time.
They sit in two semi-cir­cles behind shop-made wooden
music stands. Between songs, one eighth grad­er throws
his pock­etknife into the wood. Sometimes it sticks.
Usually, it clat­ters to the floor at his feet.
The band direc­tor fails to hear the whack

of the knife. He’s focused on the two rows
of clar­inets to his right, hop­ing to avoid the frequent
squawk of a poor­ly mouthed reed. The loveli­est girls
in the school play sil­ver flutes. They perch in a row
in front of the band­stand. Near the instru­ment closet,
behind the trom­bones and the sin­gle sousaphone,
the drums are in dis­ar­ray, click­ing their sticks,
tap­ping rims instead of skins. All snares, not a single
bass, since the mononu­cle­o­sis hit. The director
is a patient man. He only rais­es his voice to the trumpets,
who dodge knives and squeeze spit valves, or
to the drum­mers who con­fuse their sticks for rapiers.
The first chair sax­o­phon­ist in horned rimmed glasses

squeezes vibra­tion from his alto with pubes­cent verve.
Somehow songs like Sentimental Journey
emerge rec­og­niz­able to the par­ents on con­cert night.
Their mem­o­ries fill in the gaps with big bands,
how they loved to swing at road­hous­es to Bugle Boy,
when chaos wore a uni­form, and the trumpets
flashed from the stage like an assem­bly line
for brass shell cas­ings, and the solo drummer
banged out bat­tles to which they could dance.


Black Swans

Walking through my favorite park,
the one with ducks and two
black swans, I was met
by boys from the Catholic school.
I knew them from first communion,
from lit­tle league baseball.

They told me I could either jump
in the lake, or they’d throw me.
I tried to walk away, but the loudest
grabbed the back of my pants and jerked
my under­wear. Ragged they called it.
My under­wear was new, just
tak­en from the Sears package.

I thought of my moth­er, searching
the cat­a­logue for bargains
to keep her chil­dren presentable.
Now, they were torn, elas­tic band
ripped into a han­dle. I was embarrassed
as much for her as for myself.
I scanned their eyes for the joke of it,
for base­ball and sun­flower seeds,
for the wafer that would have tast­ed better
with sal­sa. I noticed Paul, my teammate
from Meadow Gold. His expression
was flat, curi­ous like a first time

I stepped into the lake, rather than
get tossed onto the rocks,
arms raised, fists
mute, rather than blood­y­ing noses.
I walked into the lake
and kept walk­ing, the water rising
up to the armpits of my new shirt.
I heard the Catholic boys laughing,
then yelling for me to come back.
It was over they said. But it wasn’t
over until my moth­er looked up
from the cat­a­logue, and saw me
sneak­ing in from the garage.
I wad­ed and dog­pad­dled to the opposite
bank, nev­er turn­ing around, kept on
until the swans part­ed and closed
between us. No one loves a coward,
except a mother,
and that is where the pain floats.

New clothes came once a year
before the school bell rang. She wanted
me fresh like cel­ery when it snaps,
radish, turnip, cabbage.


Al Ortolani’s poet­ry has appeared in jour­nals such as Rattle, poet­ry­bay, diode, New York Quarterly, and Chiron. Ortolani has direct­ed a mem­oir writ­ing project for Vietnam vet­er­ans across Kansas in asso­ci­a­tion with the Library of Congress and Humanities Kansas. He is a 2019 recip­i­ent of the Rattle Chapbook Series Award for Hansel and Gretel Get the Word on the Street. His newest col­lec­tion, The Taco Boat, will be released from New York Quarterly Books in October.