James Penha ~ Five Poems


What once was appre­hend­ed in pas­sion sur­vives as opinion.
—“Hammer” by Frank Bidart

Eager for learn­ing, hope­ful for a chance
to make some­thing of him­self again

in school, Richard shook my hand
and sat beside my desk in the office

the prison pro­vid­ed for me to oversee
University cours­es: an inmate might

earn an Associate’s degree in two years.
(Why? was the ques­tion most oth­ers asked.

For the best of rea­sons, I always replied.)
He asked if could study with us even though,

he said, he already had a degree—a B.S.
BS indeed, I said to myself, but wondered

aloud if he had a tran­script. He did, he said,
in his room. (This was a medium-security

cor­rec­tion­al facil­i­ty for con­victs queued up
for parole hear­ings. They called their cells

rooms.) In an hour, Richard returned with the
doc­u­ment show­ing he’d earned his degree

in Geology. From Yale. I gulped as I looked
at the top of the page, to his full name and,

of course, remem­bered the front pages
of the Daily News and Daily Mirror:

the Eli schol­ar­ship kid from the barrio
who loved the Westchester débu­tante he’d

met in New Haven so much he smashed her
beau­ti­ful face with a ham­mer in her bedroom

after she told him the romance was over. “I just
killed my girl­friend,” he lat­er told a priest

who called the cops and here, soft-spoken
and polite, he was ask­ing for my help. I

couldn’t—not because he was a killer—
I was there to help criminals—but because

he was way overqual­i­fied for our program.
Richard would soon be paroled because he

hadn’t been con­vict­ed of mur­der after all;
an insan­i­ty plea earned him manslaughter.

Weren’t you afraid, I’m asked when I relate
this sto­ry. Not afraid. I’d grown used to the

clang­ing of steel gates and the dis­taste­ful odor
of the pen and to all the male­fac­tors before me.

But now, I’m scared. That some­one so smart
and polite can run amok and leave his lover

dying with a ham­mer hang­ing from her head
makes me, when I think of leav­ing, afraid of



I Met Allen Ginsberg in the Balcony

I met Allen Ginsberg in the balcony
of the Brooklyn Academy of Music.
He was unmis­tak­able. Alone. Naked
as were many tak­ing counter-cues from
mantras of The Living Theatre actors
whis­per­ing across aisles and rows: I
can­not trav­el with­out a pass­port. I must
wear these clothes. Allen had made it to
the bal­cony with­out pass­port or clothing
left, I guessed, on some orches­tra seat.
“The Becks,” he said to me of Julian Beck
and Judith Molina who invent­ed Paradise
Now “are real­ly into some­thing. Visionaries.”
Ginsberg was my vision­ary, my Whitman,
a hir­sute vision now gaz­ing down at chaos,
elbows dig­ging into the guardrail, hairy ass
jut­ting above legs ready, it seemed, to spring
over the top if the spir­it moved him. Had I
met him at a café or on the street, I might have
asked about poetry—his or mine—or hoped
for a flir­ta­tion, but here he was naked already
and I…I should have stripped then and there
and held on to him. We could have been really
into something.


Roof Dreams

During the day I am Tevye listening
alone to the fid­dler precariously
bal­anced on the roof play­ing my song
some­times melan­choly, some­times like
a man­ic Gypsy vio­lin danc­ing him
toward the eaves and a ter­ri­ble tumble
and so I climb way up to the top
of the stairs to hold tight the player
in a tin-pan par­adise trouble-proof
up on the roof in a dif­fer­ent lit­tle death
only. But by night abed alone my eyes
widen with the chirrup of the cat
on the roof. I know what’s coming:
the cat­er­wauls of hunger and desire.
It needs, like a fid­dler, to be saved
but if I dare to climb the stairs
it will not be embraced; it will snarl
and growl and claw my hands reaching
out for it. We shall be awake all night,
it scream­ing and screech­ing on the roof
for me weep­ing on the edge like a cat
on a hot tin roof wait­ing for the strings.



I con­fide in the piano the things that I some­times want to say to you.”
—Frédéric Chopin, in a let­ter to his lover Tytus Woyciechowski.

We have shared a bed for more than thir­ty years
I nev­er shy to whis­per love to the back of your neck
as we make that love, to your wel­come steady snores,
lips to lips before we kiss, aloud as you serve culinary
mas­ter­pieces or after you play one on the piano,
but I haven’t writ­ten a line that declares my ardor
since we met and part­ed and ached to meet again
and did till now. I have con­fid­ed in my keyboard
your night­mares, your delu­sions, your paranoia,
depres­sion, and daymares—these ter­rors I can
nev­er say to you because my words exacerbate,
and all these poems in which you fig­ure live abroad
for anony­mous afi­ciona­dos of lit­tle jour­nals while you
stay nescient to them. Will you read this love poem?


Our Father’s Garage

Our father’s garage was his Eden,
not Eden to his Adam, but Eden
to his Godhead, orga­nized by his
every word and desire. Unlike our
mother’s clos­ets that avalanched
tow­els or Tupperware when we
opened them, our father’s garage
cab­i­nets revealed labeled drawers
con­fig­ured to their con­tents. More
daz­zling to my young eyes: the
vast peg­board where Father fixed
screw­drivers in ring tool holders,
pli­ers in U‑hooks, paintbrushes
from J‑hooks (my favorite because
it was my ini­tial), and a bracketed
shelf where col­or­ful tapes in balsa
box­es Father fash­ioned with rollers
could be cut at an old hack­saw blade
secured to the edge. Drills, wrenches
and span­ners, saws and axes, snips
and scis­sors, chis­els and files
all had their assigned places and
woe to any child who might filch
a J‑hook or adhere the mask­ing tape
back on itself or bor­row and then
mis­place a ham­mer. No wonder
Father could not bear the chaos
of the out­side world, his wife’s
depres­sions, his elder son’s fondness
for drugs, his poet son’s queerness.
His word dwelled only in the garage.


A native New Yorker, James Penha (he/him🌈) has lived for the past three decades in Indonesia. Nominated for Pushcart Prizes in fic­tion and poet­ry, his work is wide­ly pub­lished in jour­nals and antholo­gies. His newest chap­book of poems, American Daguerreotypes, is avail­able for Kindle. His essays have appeared in The New York Daily News and The New York Times. Penha edits The New Verse News, an online jour­nal of cur­rent-events poet­ry. Twitter: @JamesPenha