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John Damon

This edition is dedicated to John Damon, a true colleague and friend.


John Damon, a generous and thoughtful colleague, served the UNK Creative Writing Committee as a fellow poet and writer. His mindfulness and fairness were considerate measures anyone in his presence would be moved by. His career in Language, Literature, and Linguistics brought him to Nebraska from Arizona where he studied the Tohono O’odham language and the work of Ofelia Zepeda, a brilliant poet/scholar, MacArthur genius, and Regents Professor at the University of Arizona.

The English department of the University of Nebraska--Kearney acknowledges with gratitude this tribute to our friend John Damon. Professor Damon wasa gifted teacher, brilliant scholar, and superb colleague. He inspired countless students with his passion for language, literature, and writing.Among his colleagues he demonstrated the selfless service that made him so integral to the department in his all too brief stay. He sought the best in us all and led by example. We are pleased that his work is being shared with an audience that will undoubtedly find much to appreciate in his talents.

Dr. Martha Kruse, Department Chair, UNK English





                                                                            Visions of the Afterlife:

                    Twelve Stations on a Tour of Eternity
                              and One Recurring Nightmare


Visions of the Afterlife


I. The Poet Virgil-Less
II. Hitler in Hell
III. Marx and Engels in Heaven
IV. Pound in Purgatory
V. Whitman Come Back as a Ghost
VI. The Second Rebirth 
VII. A Disputation in Paradise
VIII. Lorca en el más allá
IX. Anne Frank on the Dachau Train
X. Emily in Amherst 
XI. Neruda Enters Endless Night 
XII. The Poet Feasts in the Light 
XIII. The White House Entertains Armageddon



I. The Poet Virgil-Less

                        I start awake … a fading bell…
                        see neon letters brand the night.
                        Laid out below my windowsill
                        A broken city bares its blight.
                                    The sight
                                                deprives me of delight.
                        The hollow moon gives forth no holy light.

                          Somnambulant, I dress and pass
                        down halls that sound with fleeting sighs.
                        Beyond a door of shattered glass
                        Strange sights assault my sleepless eyes.
                                    The cries
                                                of unseen birds arise
                        as startled from their nests they seek the skies.  

                        I exit to the street, amazed.The city’s broken like my dreams.
                        Where all around me lights once blazed
                        stand empty doorways, splintered beams,
                                    pale gleams,
                                                rank fires, reeking steams.

                        Somewhere in the dark a machine screams.

                        Wandering through the world’s remains …
                        half-ruined houses, rusted cars,
                         burnt books, smashed stores, cracked windowpanes
                        lie scattered underneath the stars.

                                    Red Mars
                                                winks above the spars
                        of wooden ships dry-beached as bleached bones are.  

A file of headless figures carved
onto a block of tumbled rock—
their naked limbs contort, half-starved,
their faceless features blankly mock.

            No block
                        can shield me from the shock
of secrets cryptic as a handless clock.  

I scan a thousand paths that snake
across the jumbled plain’s expanse,
No signs reveal which road to take
as lonely travelers advance
            like ants
                        into the fading distance
where peaks glance up deep-browed and immense.  

Choosing a path at random, I set out.
The wind blows dust back in my eyes.
Unguided, lost, I long to shout
my fears out to unhearing skies.
                        are the only things that thrive,
in this wilderness of lost and broken lives.  

The road seems endless; each new bend
reveals some future better missed –
some self-made jail cell, frozen end …
an eternity of journey whose each twist
                        Follow me to bliss!
No guiding spirit takes me by the wrist.  

My footsteps slow, my own limbs freeze,
the mists swirl on without respite
until through bone-limbed trees I see –
                        a beam of living light –

The gleaming city on the high hill.


II. Hitler in Hell

It is a case
of flight from the snow,
flight from wings
and the stillness of sleep.
It is a case of flight from death
into death’s arms.  

No more white,
no more slow falling of flakes,
no more cold--
he is developing a fear
of icicles,
the snow repulses him.  

If only spring would come!
If only he could break through
the defense of Stalingrad.
If only the Russian wind
would stop howling

It is a flight from death
into death’s frozen arms.
It is a flight
from a world of all colors
into a world
of none.  

It is a tragic thing
--Goebbels remarks--
that our Führer leads
so unhealthy a life.
He doesn’t get out
into the fresh air.  

He doesn’t relax.
He sits in that bunker,
fusses and broods.

It is a case of flight
from snow--
so the good doctor says.  


III. Marx and Engels in Heaven 

It is always
just after supper,
the smells of brandy and a briar pipe.
Evening gathers outside the windows
as they sit and talk.  

Their minds go seeking out
every wrinkle and line
on the earth’s distant face.
Here they need no postal dispatches,
their eyes are angelic.  

So their thoughts fly swift as wings
from Shanghai’s crowded docks
to the broad avenues of Paris,
from Africa’s ancient jungles
to the New World’s fresh-tilled fields.  

Their eyes see back
into the deeps of time,
probe ahead

over the dim horizon.
The clock on the wall ticks softly.  

Inevitably there are after-dinner
dishes to be washed,
even here in heaven.
In the distance sound
women’s voices, clashing pans.  

And if things haven’t changed
why should they?

This is heaven.
Change belongs to the material universe.  

The armchairs are soft,
smoke hangs in the air,
time stands still.
The international revolution is always
just about to begin.


IV. Pound in Purgatory

His cage encloses but cannot contain him.
The autumn wind comes whistling through the bars.
He is friendly with all the different guards,
salutes them daily.  Until midday he declaims
impromptu verse, gesticulating wildly;
in the afternoon, slumped in a corner, he snores.  

The measured days pass by like flights of planes,
each one releasing its load of increasing dark.
All night he sits awake in his cage composing
while Italy slumbers wrapped in its cape of fog.  


And when at last the powers that be release him
it’s into St. Elizabeth’s white, numbing arms.


V. Whitman Come Back as a Ghost

Last night Walt Whitman’s shade appeared
           in a San Francisco disco:
tanned hands clutching a battered hat,

           hair uncut and beard acurl,
                        eyes open as the sky and gray as rain.

              No man held out his hand to him,
                        no woman unbent and kissed his lips.  

A queen decked out in sequins
            laughed at him, someone
spiked his foot with a high heel.
            The barman refused to serve him,
                        his eyes were blinded by strobe lights.

            Beard and a leather cap asked him:
                        What’s your perversion?


VI. The Second Rebirth 

            Mary Shelley’s monster is being reborn.
                        Its disparate parts begin to coalesce.
            And though old Frankenstein’s still cold and dead,
                        his sons and daughters carry out his plans,
            assembling the requisite pounds of bleeding flesh
                        in secret labs cleverly concealed in microchips.  

            A severed ear appears, just freshly-cut,
                        from the depths of a weed-choked urban alleyway;
            its mate, scavenged on a lonely stretch of shore,

                        comes fluted like a shell and wrapped in foam.
            The fingers, each with its own unique i.d. code
                        intact, fly upright through the air like stolen musical notes.  

            Shelley’s monster lies unetherized on a table,
                        a composite of bones and liver, lips and tongue.
            A stalker’s eyes, though recently quite fried,
                        hurry to join baser material parts
            served up by doctor’s scalpels and butcher knives.
                        The ethereal elements, inserted last, are formed in human hearts.  

            The heartbeat, rhythmical and regular,
                        the doctors tune to a teen’s pounding eardrum.
            The nerves, thin strips of crimson celluloid,
                        are strung together tight as sharp catgut.
            And for the brain, from bookshelves and newsrags come
                        in endless streams the tiny bits of spongy, blood-soaked pulp.

            The eyes of Shelley’s monster will soon snap open,
                        Leviathan, an Atlas to unmake the globe.
            A thousand volts set its limbs to stirring,
                        the beat of its heart reverberates like a gong.
                                    Yet even as the tidal wave of its awakening
                        races to overturn their drunken boats,
            our poets of perdition croon out its cradlesong.


VII. A Disputation in Paradise

            When Salman Rushdie and the Ayatollah
            meet among the groves of Allah
            on their souls the eternal sunlight plays.  

            Though the peace of paradise is strong
            their earthly differences soon spawn
            a deep disturbance of that heavenly place.  

            One of them reads a book of verses,
            the other spews a string of curses
            that shatter the serene celestial calm.  

            For one a houri whirls and shakes,
            the other hides his head and quakes
            when she throws aside her gauzy veils to dance.

              And when offered for drink celestial wine
            or on honey-nectared fruits to dine,
            one eats, the other calls for bread and water.  

            So seeing how they disagree,
            Allah commands them both to plead
            their views before the high, celestial throne.

            One calmly speaks of things that matter,
            the other damns, excuses, flatters,
            till he falls and grovels, wailing, on his knees.  

            Judgment firm the One God renders:
            one embraces, at the other thunders
            and casts him headlong into Death’s abyss.


            Still on earth a willing martyr,
            convinced of his holy truth,
            boards another heaven-bound airplane,
            fuse protruding from his tennis shoe.  


VIII. Lorca en el más allá

                        In Grenada
                        when they come for you,

                        Federico, Federico...
                        when they come for you in Grenada,
                        are you smiling?
                        Does the blue moon rise up
                        out of its nest of towers?
                        Does the City of the Gypsies
                        murmur rhymes to you in its sleep?  

                        The Civil Guards come climbing streets
                        plaintive and winding as deep song.
                        Do all the balconies there
                        weep moss?
                        As they climb the hill
                        shadowed in bare black,

                        are you smiling, Federico,
                        are you smiling?
                        Do their heels
                        click on your stairs like guitar chords?  

                        And where you ride now
                        in the moonlight
                        does the sea still smell salt?
                        Are there towers watching you in the distance?

                        Do olives still fill your saddlebags?

IX.  Anne Frank on the Dachau Train

They have packed her away into the silence.
            They have loaded her into a boxcar with all the rest.
            They have taken away her pen, her book, her name.
            She has become only a number and a face.

The guard sees nothing as he peers inside,
            nothing but darkness, bodies, arms, and eyes.
            He doesn’t see that a bright light is shining

            through the night, igniting the frigid air.

            The faces radiate light, light burns in their stares.  

The rails run along veins of light in the earth,
            the light, invisible, flows outward into everything.
            The train casts its own luminescence for a shadow

            across the snow-covered fields of the Third Reich.


X. Emily in Amherst

Whitewashed walls and drifts of snow,
a narrow bed in a narrow room.
Kettle on the hearthfire steams,
shadows weave and wobble, cast
ghostly forms and faces on the beams.  

Each day not unlike the last,
she fills a box with slips of paper.
Shadows weave and wobble, cast
evening ghosts and lights aflutter

as the first bright flakes come falling fast.  

Sunbeams, cloudy forms of foam,
shadows’ weave and wobble cast
a ship comes sailing through the gloom,
white sails, mist, and cloaking fog,
saltspray, purple petals, stalks of broom.  

The kettle on the hearthfire sings.
Outstretched on the bed, eyes closed,
she fills a box with slips of paper.

Beyond four walls she lives a dream,
feet that lightly pirouette and caper.  

She fills a box with slips of paper,
evening ghosts and lights aflutter.
Narrow bed in a narrow room.
Windowpanes begin to shudder,
wheels come spinning up the road alone.

 Ships come sailing through the gloom
up the old, tree-shadowed river,
stretched prone on the bed, eyes closed,
beyond four walls she lives adream.
Whitewashed walls, drifts of snow and foam.
Horses stamp, black coachwheels creak and groan.  


XI. Neruda Enters Endless Night

            Again, once again
                       a clatter of medals clears the streets,
                                    castanets of machinegun fire,

                       dice-like, deal out fates.
            Coins cast down on casino tables

                       fill up a soccer stadium
                                    as boots grind red flags into the dust. 
                       And in the sterile midnight silence
            of the medical mausoleum,

                       where orderlies tote pistols in the halls,
                                    a helpful doctor hurries
                        the old man on,
            beret in hand,
                        down the long cold steps to final sleep.


XII. The Poet Feasts in the Light

At twilight I arrive at the city’s gates.
            The wooden doors swing open with a creak.
            Loving faces appear in the light to greet me,
            clear water and marigolds to bathe my feet,
            my worn clothes, dirty and travel-torn,
            replaced with cloth supple and soft as silk.
            I drink the juice of fruits and eat hot bread.

Then at length, when the needs of the flesh are met,
            I’m ushered into the crowd in the high hall
            where poets gather tonight to recite their verses.
            Bottles are uncorked, absinthe is poured,
            the espresso machine spouts out its ghosts of steam.
            In their words I hear echo worlds now lost,
            all that ever was or ever will be,
            all that should or ever could have been.

The gathering tonight is packed with stars.
            Their faces gleam out from amongst the crowd.
            The man with dreamy eyes and hollow cheeks
            was taken out long ago in the night and shot.
            The woman who sits at his side once cast herself
            over the crusted edge of a sheer sea-cliff.
            In the left wing sit those who died in prison;
            those allowed to starve to death at home
            prefer the right.  I choose a seat and am silent.

A babble of voices fills the raftered room,
            speaking all tongues at once.  Are these the dead
            who sit tonight carousing with one another?
            The disembodied souls of the departed?
            No, these are the beings forever-living.
            Far in the back, at a tiny table, the blind
            angelic scribe and the infernal prophetic engraver
            laugh like old friends over cups of tea,
            as all the smoky lights begin to dim
            and the mead-hall bard begins to chant.  


XIII. The White House Entertains Armageddon

Last evening the White House held a lavish feast
            for the newly-freed Beast of Apocalypse.
            Flashbulbs glittered as the guest of honor slithered
            up the steps, trailing ten tails behind it,
            ten tongues flickering sparks of violet dust.

The First Lady offered it her drink of choice:
            a fluted glass filled with unheard cries.
            Her cellars hold a stored-up amplitude.
            The Beast’s metallic voice then raised a toast
            that set the chandeliers all tinkling:

“Now is the long-awaited hour come;
            those who are not with us are against us!
            Mighty shall be the name of our victory.”
            Then, after the applause, dinner rolled forth:
            Seven courses sealed under seven lids.

The first dish appeared all crisp and fresh,
            enough crinkly green to thaw the hearts
            of the frozen financier and his entourage.
            The next was a thick red soup served steaming hot,
            spiced with the tastes of ancient lands far off.

Then came the palate cleanser: silver cups
            holding the icy snows of ancient strifes.
            The diners paused a moment to reflect …

but only a moment. The final courses flying
            thick and fast, a dazzling display
            of ancient arts updated for the modern age,
            old wine served up in new atomic skins.  

One dish steamed and smoked like cities burning,
            glowing an eerie incandescent red.
            Another delicately mixed rare smells and tastes:
            charred pink flesh chilled in a long extended nuclear
            frost, muted for the discerning palate by space…  

across seas not yet running ultra-modern red.
            When the lid of the sixth was raised the diners gasped—
            the visual display made up for the lack of taste
            (and to tell the truth the guests had supped their fill)—
            crimson ashes swirled in a congealing stew.  

But before the Beast could uncover its very last
            and final dish –

                                    mushroom clouds dusted
                                    with a crust of incinerated
                                    flesh –
                        the diners had begun the rush  
            for the doors. It was all much more than they
            had bargained for.  Only the Beast and its hosts
            remained behind, awaiting enough desserts
            to last them through all eternity.