the poetry that matters

J.J. Steinfeld

J.J. Steinfeld is a fiction writer, poet, and playwright who lives on Prince Edward Island. He has published two novels, Our Hero in the Cradle of Confederation (Pottersfield Press) and Word Burials (Crossing Chaos Enigmatic Ink), ten short story collections, including three by Gaspereau Press — Should the Word Hell Be Capitalized?, Anton Chekhov Was Never in Charlottetown, and Would You Hide Me? — and the most recent, A Glass Shard and Memory (Recliner Books), and two poetry collections, An Affection for Precipices (Serengeti Press) and Misshapenness (Ekstasis Editions), along with two short-fiction chapbooks by Mercutio Press, Curiosity to Satisfy and Fear to Placate and Not a Second More, Not a Second Less and three poetry chapbooks, Existence Is a Hoax, a Woman in Fishnet Stockings Told Me When I Was Twenty (Cubicle Press), Where War Finds You (HMS Press), and A Fanciful Geography (erbacce-press). Over 200 of his short stories and nearly 500 poems have appeared in anthologies and periodicals internationally, and over forty of his one-act plays and a handful of full-length plays have been performed in Canada and the United States, including the full-length plays Acting Violently, The Franz Kafka Therapy Session, The Golden Age of Monsters, and A Television-Watching Artist, and the one-act plays Godot’s Leafless Tree, The Waiting Ends, The Entrance-or-Not Barroom, No End in Sight, Flowers for the Vases, The Word-Lover, Laugh for Sanity, A Murderous Art, Back to Back, Freesias in Whiskey, The Heirloom: An Evidence Play, and God’s Work.

Researching a storyful poem
uncertain as to subject or theme
I wander into a large building
an edifice, to be imprecise, imposing
full of padded rooms innumerable and sad
certifiably insane residents
and white-coated overseers
good place to start the research
I observe, take copious notes,
hold my breath sometimes
my nose other times
see two astounding residents
shouting a dictionary of pain and confusion
one resident by consensus the most disturbed
the other resident by default the least disturbed
in the labyrinth of rooms and lives
suddenly, a miracle of treatment
of metaphoric medication
the most and least disturbed residents embrace
speak a truce in gentle smiles and soft breaths
and my heart starts to flutter without cunning
like a madman overtaken by worship
for the one, then the other,
not knowing which one is least
and which one the most disturbed
touching the walls, assessing the padding
dropping my notebook
when my overexcited heart soars
seeking words of piety and ardour. 

In an argument over disaster and catastrophe
semantics, history, repercussions
(during both ancient and modern times
ranging over societies and civilizations
those gone and those still hanging on)
the fierceness of which raged for twenty minutes
and ravaged half the bar
the words, the concepts, the indefinable reality
ideas to fists to bloodied psyches
the two drunken philosophers
both caught in unhappy second marriages
and careers so blunted and unillustrious
that lies had to be heaped upon exaggerations
to salvage even a modicum of accomplishment and significance
finally, the doorman, who had started his career
as a spirited clergyman transformed into a devout atheist
and reinvented himself as a feared bouncer,
made an admirable attempt to display muscle and diplomacy
one drunken philosopher purple-faced and vein-bulged
fell to the floor in death-throe
and the second drunken philosopher cried that he had forgotten his CPR
and the doorman kneeled over the life-threatened word fighter
and attempted to revive (a less critical observer might say resurrect)
or at least to reprise a spectacular sermon
that made the congregation yell in admiration and hope.


You dreamed you lived a day longer than Methuselah, some sort of record, an accomplishment of inertia. It was the clearest, sharpest, most memorable dream you have ever experienced, and it took you several minutes to believe you were awake and had actually been dreaming. With blithe indifference you outlived friends and enemies, outlived the kindest soul and the cruellest creature, even the swiftest runners and most brilliant thinkers—outlived them all, a noteworthy marvel of agedness, a living artifact of parchment skin and worldly woes. In the dream, which you claimed was more real than daily life, your face was on the cover of every magazine and tabloid on the racks at the grocery store check-out line, and you looked old, older than Methuselah, without once being mentioned in the Bible.


amidst an uninspiring morning
a quiet walk broken
by a loud amazement
a seldom seen seasoned drinker
comes out of a coffee shop
and spits skyward
with such precision and beauty
that you expect applause

the drinker spits a second time
even more lovely
the trajectory a record-breaker
what is going on, you wonder,
but you are wordless
in the face of unexpected brilliancy

a third, fourth and fifth time
one display following the other
accelerating in performance
trajectory exceeding trajectory
a crowd now forming
clapping, cheering, wondering

you want admiration
and spit skyward
but a parched thought
dissolves your best attempt
at prominence

Pleased to have all of you in my class
my class of the absurd, my absurd class,

the naked professor greets the students
a smile of pedagogical splendour
as blinding as the bright night sun.

(You ask the sex of the smiling professor
and I say, you should have attended class
and not stayed in the library
looking up critiques of nakedness—)

The Smiling Professor interrupts the parenthetical poet:
Quick, class, put on your disguises
prepare for the final exam
on this very first day of classes.

A pause, a deep breath, then an utterance
like an ill-defined spasm of profundity:
I, as you can all see,
have my finest disguise
like the emperor newly suited
though I am neither emperor nor empress.

A forlorn melancholy exceptionally sad student
raises a hand, is called on by the Smiling Professor,
and in desperation confesses:
My disguise, my conjured form, is deficient
leaving me less than adept at hiding
when hiding is the art form surpassing all others.

The rest of the class offer their confessions
meek admissions of betrayal and disobedience
tiny eruptions of insufficiency and disappointment
as the professor
passes out the exam papers
and says, Ready, set, go…

(The Parenthetical Poet, the author of this poem,
takes the final exam—
true/false, false/true,
none of the above, all of the above—
and fails miserably.)


Magnified under your empty shot glass, halfway between epiphany and hearsay, is the tiny newspaper headline, DRINKER CHOKES TO DEATH ON WORD, the cruelty and unfairness slapping you like a forgotten morning or an erased night. You refill your glass, simple ceremony, slight piercing pain of dislocation, and wonder what the lethal culprit was—perhaps fear or pity or shame, or, you reflect, it could have been a longer weapon, polysyllabic bullets, vengeful projectiles, like betrayal or unredemptive or meaninglessness. Death by word is a sad concept that impinges on your lonely afternoon. Another refill, a duel with the patient gods of memory and awareness, and in a shiver of tidiness you pat the newspaper dry. Oh my, you misread the tiny jittery headline, just as you have misread the curved text of your life, the incompetent downwardness: DRINKER CHOKES TO DEATH ON WORM. Squinting—where are your glasses?—you read of a nameless imbiber in a far-off land, the prose sombre and disjointed: “Mezcal drinker meets his end choking on a worm in notorious public house…” You would have written, were you so inclined: "One morning fate tripped him / and he choked on a merciless creature / disguised as a taciturn worm.” You use your old fountain pen to change a single headline letter, M to D, proofreader craving redemption, and feel a little less uneasy about the dangerous semantics in the world.




“DRINKER CHOKES TO DEATH ON WORD” and “Longevity” were first published in the short-fiction chapbook Curiosity to Satisfy and Fear to Placate (Mercutio Press, Montreal, 2003) by J. J. Steinfeld, copyright © 2003 by J. J. Steinfeld.

“In the Face of Unexpected Brilliancy,” “The Parenthetical Poet’s Failure,” “Ideas to Fists to Bloodied Psyches,” and “The Most and Least Disturbed Residents Embrace” were first published in An Affection for Precipices (Serengeti Press, 2006) by J. J. Steinfeld, copyright © 2006 by J. J. Steinfeld.

Used by permission.

Bookmark and Share