SPOTLIGHT: Fear of Fish: poems by Bill Ratner

Quarantine Ride

I want a limo for this, a huge stretch limo like the one Sinatra rode in, a black one, longer than a semi. I’ll stick my head out the sunroof and breathe and sneeze from the pollen and smell Tommy’s Chili Cheeseburgers, kimchee on 6th Street, deep-fried Snickers at the County Fair, runners’ sweat, fresh rubber on racing bikes at the Venice pier, fried catfish, and brine, all in the air.

I’ll tap my lips so I know I’m here, massage my jaws, ball up my hand, and thump my thymus where the second button of my shirt touches my sternum, and leave this morning’s dream behind, rise like a pudgy bodhisattva levitating over his cushion. I’ll ignore the placards of grief, won’t acknowledge death. I’ll test my fear.

I’ll take Vitamin C, maybe a whole gram a day and float like a kite blown so high there’ll be yogis performing asanas on the mountaintop. At eight o’clock it’ll still be light out, I’ll hear the sound of drums and whistles, incantations, grateful cries from people’s windows. I’ll finger the air and float back and forth in a sky-blue sack like a Malibu seal.

Sirens will go off in the desert for a sale at Costco, I’ll buy Dexatrim, apple-scented room fresheners, grab free paper cups of sharp cheddar cubes and soy drinks. I won’t be able to sleep. I’ll go take in the poppies, park right by sidewalks full of people in shorts and smiles, kids eating Dreamsicles, laughs echoing through the crowd.

Driver, don’t drop me off yet, go around real slow one more time, for one more look, one more breath, so I can remember.

Of Dreaming

How did I inherit this flesh,
this machine glowing warm,
wrapped in moisture,
a mouth wanting milk?

I inhabit me.
I am aware of my heart.
I try to reduce steps.
I slather myself with castor oil and aloe.

I tighten the strap around my ankles
and swing my legs up the wall,
hoping my body likes it better
upside down.

I take stock of insults so old
I’m surprised at the detail,
like a drill sergeant searching for a plebe
to dress down, even on a day off.

My mother stands at the bottom of the basement stairs
limply holding a fry pan at her side.
She apologizes for no longer being able
to make my breakfast.

I wake to my older brother
saying, You were screaming.
He instructs me to pick a spot on the wall,
stare at it a while, I’ll fall back asleep.

My thoughts and dreams
pass like soldier ants,
blind, on separate errands.
How much of this am I responsible for?

Homage to Brother

He holds me like a chef
lowering a turkey
into a pot of oil.
You, the dirty ant that crawls
on the floor, he drawls.

I worship the Cossack green of his eyes,
the crook of his chin, his bigness.
He muscles his Schwinn like Jesse James
broke broncos on the Little Dixie.
He ranges like weather.

My father’s Buick pops gravel down the drive.
Shirking babysitting protocol my brother
straps me to a chair, slaps me left and right.
My hiccoughing sobs do nothing
to douse his rage at my existence.

As a kindness he re-gifts
me Esquire Magazine’s
What Every Young Man Should Know,
takes down his Genius at Work sign,
and nails it to my bedroom door.

After a late Spring of photographs
from the West, stage by stage
he succumbs to the ravaging
of his flesh. I watch him fade.
My passwords are iterations of his name.


I cross the crosswalk down in the village, coming to understand cigars, brassieres, chintz, graffiti. I don’t wonder about the economy or why a bus is called 4-D Suburbs. A woman steps off the curb. You’re coming to my house for hamburgers, she says. Oh, I say, Good, so she’ll think I’m polite. She’s planning to kidnap me. She is a Gorgon. I could duck into the sporting goods store and hide in ski equipment. But she’s friendly enough. She could take me into her closet with girdles and slips and nightgowns smelling of May when lilac bushes bloom and humans act like bumblebees drawing pollen from blossoms sweet with spring, the season we put flowers in our mouths. Layers of earth are packed with the victims of trial and error. A young couple in tweeds drives me home from a holiday party. I recline in the back of their station wagon. They are silent. They are kidnapping me. During a rolling stop I could jump out and run, but they will think I am afaid. I am suspicious of grownups. I blame TV. Howdy Doody is so cloyingly innocent I want to bring the embers of Hell down on him, I hate Captain Kangaroo and his Episcopal niceness, like he’s had a few drinks and is negotiating with me for love. I rarely, dream that someone is trying to get me. Oh, there is the skinny Frankenstein who follows me doggedly, without remorse. One doesn’t process death consciously. Orphanhood isn’t the kind of dilemma Dickens or Disney would have you believe. I’ve received much of the wisdom I need—how to tie a tie, iron my pants, sweep, mop. I tuck myself in at night, listen to the sighing of the eaves, and eventually drift off, as though I were going somewhere.


Bogeyman lives next door.
No house, just thistle
and ripgut brome
behind a chain link fence.
He carries the smell of mold,
loads his lever-action rifle
with slow-expanding slugs,
and whispers my name.
He talks to palm rats
in their language,
has jackfruit skin,
a voice quiet as a tile saw.
I wish he were the wandering
soul of a dead man,
but he lives as a bat
with the face of a terrier.
He preys on poultry and children.
He is a politician who eats hunks
of his mother between slices
of fresh sourdough.
I’ve tried to chase him,
but he skitters away.
When I tire of tracking him
he wheels and flies at me.
Not just another boggard,
he is reincarnated from a bubble
of intestinal gas inside Pulcinella
playing in an ancient commedia.
An amusement park train slows
as it passes by a diorama
lit by flickering oil lamps.
Lips protruding,
breast sacks drooping—
Bogeyman in wax.
Whenever I open a door,
place keys on a hook,
or stand at my window,
he is there.
I get little rest. Fear of Fish (9798517937087): Ratner, Bill, Buddha, Alien: Books


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