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Poetic Discoveries Inside the Bellies of the Beasts

Working in a homeless shelter, in Portland, Oregon, the hub of homelessness in the United States of Israel, well, it's got its ups and its downs. BY far, the stories -- narratives, sometimes autobiographies, or splaying memoirs -- they make up for the lack of leadership at the top, lack of pay, the lack of scaling up to help millions of homeless and near homeless, and the lack of programs and training and real self-care.

Poetic Discoveries

Veterans, well, add to the mix some really screwed up times in whichever branch the individual ended up. These are not colonels and West Point grads, generals or senior NCOs. We are talking about grunts, sometimes technical grunts in the Navy or Air Force. Hands down, though, even with the crocodile tears spread for the combat veterans, or the deployed ones waiting for orders to kill or be killed, most of the men and women in the military had some bad times – exposed to sadistic leaders, put through bizarre and physically and psychologically hurtful hazings, feed into a chipper of sick hierarchies and leaders of the highest hypocritical state.

Just being in for a year or two or four, these people were many times exposed to toxins, chemicals, drugs, noises, EMFs, microwaves, shock waves, and more, enough to scramble brains, scramble the DNA in all of the body’s cells.

Formative years, while the brains of young men and women are still wiring and syntactical pathways forming, and away from families and lovers and hometowns, well, the toll is monumental. Hard-hard military brass will call these folks slackers or already damaged before they enlisted, but as all high brass are idiots, overpaid ones at that, well, I have seen traces of similar trauma and PTSD and cognitive issues derived from being in the military, in that structure, within the body of a sick head running the show.

It’s not to say the bonding and comradery and the travel and sometimes even comingling with the enemy or the foreigners in their own land, experiencing the new cultures and foods and sights and tastes and sounds aren’t positive memories and deep lasting effects on the men and women.

But for many complicated reasons, I get homeless veterans at a shelter for issues the general public in the 15 percent of upper living would not understand: debts, divorces, criminal issues, substance abuse, PTSD, and cycles of self-harm and self-collapse.

Many in America, and most in the brass section of DoD or wherever, the so-called upper echelons of the US Military Industrial Complex-Establishment, have no concept what it’s like living in a tent, a night shelter, a car, or from couch to couch, on the concrete in war buddies’ garages, inside barns, under trucks, on beaches, inside abandoned buildings.

The reality is, we treat people in general like shit in this messed up usury based society of penal-medical-legal-social Brave New World paradigm. Survival of the fittest, let them die alone, who the hell says there are entitled to entitlements/welfare?

So, with the veteran moniker, there is a lot of self-loathing, self-effacement and self-denigration. In the end, though, veterans commit suicide two or three a day in the USA. Many are on a slow drip to suicide by the use of meth, booze and opioids.

Some veterans are so scarred by early childhood demon fathers, or so drawn and quartered by the most impoverished lives and remote familial connections, that any amount of success in uniform or post-uniform comes crashing down eventually in the form of defeat or the American catch-all malady called dysfunction.

Try doing this daily, working with infinite sick stories about sick leaders, sick drill sergeants, sick fathers, sick systems, and then being told “you are doing the work of angels, of god . . . you are doing work no other person wants to do,” while cashing checks equal to (or less than) the checks we give Burger King assistant managers.

Slopping on the mayo, sizzling the artery-clogging ground beef, tapping the high fructose corn syrup goo, deep frying the genetically disturbed and diseased potatoes. Doing god’s work, man, and it’s akin to the pay rate of Carl’s Junior employees.

Nothing bad about those employees, per se, just the corporations and the deliverers of evil – management, union-hating managers, sickeningly greedy stockholders.

What I do is something most people can’t do, won’t do, forbid themselves to do. And herein lies the problem of doing the work that has to be done throughout this dog-eat-dog, culture capitalism society, yet so many have zero real connection to social workers, albeit radical ones like myself.

There are salves, though, in the form of writing workshops, or groups. Where I do my work, there is a volunteer, Judy, who comes in and gets our homeless veterans to consider their lives and their imaginations in the form of words – writing.

Judy believes writing is therapy, or believes a writing group should not be run like a class. She is caring and awaiting participants’ commitment to writing down something on their own terms. She massages out words and lines and sentences. She does a very good job of conveying the spirit of creative writing and the spirit of choice.

I, on the other hand, see the world as short-lived, and view the world from a lens of people needing prodding and cajoling and sometimes direction: I have had thousands of students in more than 35 years teaching and know that most want a teacher directing things, both inspiring/modeling but also pushing buttons and pulling out great feats of writing inspiration and writing practice demands.

In any case, we worked recently together, and our styles and philosophies work together with these groups.

So, here, Hollywood Progressive, well, the poetry section is back with some hot slag poems. These are mine, mined from the classes, derived from the very flux of humans attempting to think about writing and what it means in their lives.

I am a storyteller, and deep fiction writer, but poetry sometimes is the song, man, the overture to a person’s life, loving, longing, lingering and learning. I have to be in and of the classes I workshop with. I have to be in the ebb and flow of my students’ dreams and fears. Writing can be daunting and intimidating. I try and model my verve, love and seriousness around what it means to be a writer, poet, novelist, journalist.

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I will continue featuring these poems for a while. I will continue prompting the people in this shelter to go above and beyond what it means to be them, tagged for life as a veteran, harangued for life by the VA, and forever floundering in a world where empty-hearted people run the show on so many levels. Poems on so many levels are the sulfuric acid needed to melt away the cages built around us as men and women, boys and girls, people. Here, some poems:

About Swapping War Stories

homeless shelter for vets -- writing class, for Ric M.

Sao Paolo blues
boy called Ricard
man now, veteran
Portland, Oregon
Stumptown, hot Portuguesa
land, Brasilia
slaves, United Fruit Company
favelas, tropics
squeezed from memory

his tongue, Latino
US Marine, naturalized
medic, warrior, witness
he haunts his own head
with Somalia
that kill shot
a child

he still doesn’t know
one child, three years
old to now, fourteen
words like a thin
red line red line between
honor and trauma

he speaks language
of healing, traveling
through text books
arriving at the body
always a soul, to fix
broken limbs
the sag of age

one day on a mountain
maybe the cross
will rise up
out of la cruz
in Rio de Janeiro
beaches now
laden with plastic
particles, zillions
needles, black pools

tears from Jesus
Cristo, magnificent
sea, despoiled
but why not
man rapacious
chewing jungle into
sugar cane,
one addiction rum
for another coca cola

man this gentle 47-year
old says he sees war
inside a personal
kaleidoscope, prisms e
point triangles, or hexagonal
red to orange
like life’s tragedies

all pushed into
clay effigy, each
hand of man,
woman holds soft
clay, a new way
expressing trauma
left or right leaning
flat or round

he wants to move
on, homeless shelter
hearth, temporary
family, a house
this man holds dear
with stories

a boy with Redhook
mother, surrounded
by spines, books, bibliotheca
he told tragedies,
penned onto paper
proudly orated words
almost four decades
later he floats
in writing class
we listen for more
life, beginnings
and ends, can
PTSD end, or
is a beginning a
new end, infinity

we cradle words
like we covet
people, me, short-
timer everywhere
I practice healing
always watchful
hunting for men
like Ricardo, Ric
hoping the dark
cave will reveal
prehistoric hunts,
wishing man to
man, understanding
is best gained
in peace, no sticks
or stones
but words
from a nine-year-old
boy’s Redhook
imagination

We Are More than the Sum Total of All Parts in Our Upside-Down Journeys

veterans writing class, J.D., old man

glint in eyes
the flavor of Boston
Irish kid, punk sometimes
listening to the hustlers
men twice his age
scamming, razzing
Whitey Bulger,
brothers Bernard and Edward "Punchy" McLaughlin,
and the Winter Hill Gang

old man now, he eats
at the shelter, waiting
for stories to percolate up
waiting for motion in last
drizzle of life
years left maybe
or months but still
wanting to go out swinging
no doctors pushing toxins
he hates the idea
of appointments

we listen in the class, his
stories like fire bombs
a telling that captures
young 13-year-old
hassled by the crooks
hiring him, clubs, bars
seedy restaurants
young James struggled
but lived, an elegance
in the way Irish mobsters
pay tribute for dead relatives

one corner of his mouth
smile, the other scowl
life’s journey wrinkled
the pouring out of sweat
his mother deep in memory
94 years old at the end
Irish Catholic
father gravedigger, more

we listen, some of us mostly younger
his dance with death now
fluid, lungs clogged
phlegm-filled
there is a song in his heart
Walt Whitman:

I too am not a bit tamed,I too am untranslatable,
I sound my barbaric yawp
over the roofs of the world

Jimmy tilts with winds
looks for mice, rats
reminders of age flowing
through gnarled fingers
knuckles pounded to bone
Jimmy, father, mother, grandparents
lives like the quick of nails
reminders of his walking
on earth, distance green hills
maybe Celtic dreams
he lives electric
smiles when story
telling, hoping one
more hook of imagination
grabs an audience
waiting for his final
punchline

Paul Haeder