Offcourse Literary Journal
ISSN 1556-4975 

Six Poems, by Frederick Pollack.





They aren't famous figures, except to us

(I mean the people here) because they show up.

They’re part of a cadre that includes famous,

televised figures.  I don’t say the word “cadre”

because some people here might not know it,

and a sure way not to be accepted

is to know a word others don’t.

They never use such terms,

the speakers.  They use grand

simple words, and pronounce them

as if their breath were a vase,

each word a flower, and their joy

in arranging them nonpareil

(another word I know).  And the people here,

even those who drool unwiped and snore,

causing querulousness or hilarity,

or stare uncomprehending, recognize

the bouquet.  That the power of the mind

is the greatest power in the universe,

that it is the universe.  That we decide

whether or not to look on the bright side

and make it the only one.

They regale us with stories of fortunes grown from nothing,

of blind or differently-abled self-overcomers.

When it’s raining out or someone dies,

their metaphors stress the sun;

when our a/c, as so often, fails, cool breezes …


They wheel me in (I mean the attendants here)

with my various tanks and tubes,

to listen.  I could choose not to attend,

to be uncooperative, negative,

and so I guess I’ve chosen to attend.

Could deliver my own uninspiring talk

about how little it matters,

but that would take a voice above a croak.

Instead I throw myself into the spirit

of the thing.  Would affirm anything, sign anything,

if I could raise my hand.


Keep On Keeping On


The three blue-and-white Marine helicopters

pass again

high over the Potomac,

at the level of my window.

One can’t be sure He’s aboard,

if any of them are, or which they are in,

and of course the birds are fast and armored.

And loud, with that special loudness

of explosions, a tank on one’s street,

or guns more serious or at least numerous

than those of the gangs and random snipers.

One goes to movies to get close to that noise,

to be briefly possessed by it,

and to purge pity and fear.


Among the passengers

in the choppers, presumably, the search

continues for acceptance by the father,

continually overwritten by imitation

of the loveless mother;

the triumph of will over an essential

absence of will; the delight

in loyalty, the beauty

of service for their own sake;

the comfort of a cruel joke

agreed in advance to be harmless;

and a resulting freedom from psychologizing, even


from motive.  So that doors are opened, phones answered;

and, wherever they land on this gray day,

a fire will be lit … I wonder

what in my small experience

compares.  The boss

of a real-estate investment firm

I typed for in the Seventies showed me a prayer

composed by and distributed among

Wall Street honchos.  “Lord, have we done enough

this year?  Could we have done more?”

I pointed out that “doing” was undefined,       

that there was no value-term. 

And his look

said my remark

was inscrutable, idiosyncratic.




When the bridge collapsed, the engineer

tracked down and phoned

a guy he had roomed with in college.

The call at first resembled

the Ninth Step in AA, where one makes amends,

but was more comprehensive and convulsive.

I made fun of you, the engineer said.

Your impracticality, your idealism.

But I’ve lived to see cracks in the dams, the beaches gone,

clogged rusting rails, E coli

and mercury in the faucets, billions

of gallons of untreated sewage, brownsites

under houses, sinkholes in roads, and people

freezing or baked in blackouts.

I told them the cables were fraying,

that the bed wouldn’t hold SUVs.

They didn’t want to hear.  There was no money. 

The Feds laughed.  It was my job.  I’m fifty.

I buried the memo.  I realized

there is no rationality

or rather that everyone’s rational, each

in his own short-term way.

Then after it happened I thought of you

and I called to say I’m sorry.


The ex-roommate tried to be upbeat.

He employed the male convention

common when someone calls after thirty years

of talking as if you’d spoken yesterday.

He knew he could say nothing useful.

Was touched that someone like the engineer

would regard a humanities type,

still, as a keeper of values. 

He imagined a new artistic movement,

a return to the Constructivism of the ‘20s.

Scientistic, elitist, slightly scolding,

it would have the quixotism

that guarantees the life and death of a style.

With poems about Wiring or Solar Panels;

a detailed, impersonal

novel called The Distribution of Stress.


The Giant


The night before I had improvised

a bedtime story, a fairy tale.

The first part was OK, predictable:

the giant’s gross comfort

as he hollowed out mountains

to sleep on, picked his teeth with pines.

Then I had him become aware that the tiny creatures

he encountered somehow had feelings,

and that it mattered.  The two smallest –

neat in a sailor suit and neater

in a pinafore, and completely unafraid –

enlightened him.  He couldn’t believe

that beings so little could exist at all,

or that, if he leaned close and listened closer

and was very still, he could hear them.

But what should he do then?

Take mincing, anxious steps wherever he went?

Not move, and atrophy or starve?

Become a kind of power plant,

underexercised, exploited?

I couldn’t think it through. 

“What’s a pinafore?” the girl asked. 

Overstimulated, she and her brother

discussed what the giant could do,

and yelled and giggled, interrupting each other.


The next day we all walked

on the trail behind the house. 

Their parents were still amused. 

“Where did you get the ‘sailor suit’?” asked Joan.

“Some sort of archetype took over,”

I said.  “What should he have worn?

Night-goggles?  Junior camo gear? 

I failed miserably, didn’t I.” –

“No, you were just hung up

on trying to find some ending or a moral.

With kids you sort of have to think with the heart.”

I saw the gentle, guarded look

reserved for those unused to kids,

and agreed that in my work the term

and concept “heart” are generally avoided.


The sun played peek-a-boo.

In our parkas we looked, inevitably, like grenades.

At one point, several dogs appeared,

unleashed and big, apparently masterless.

They tasted us and panted

but decided we were part

of the overall pack.  Then their people

caught up, notably colorless

and unapologetic.  A recent storm

had added some new trees, still bare and straight,

to those long downed and lying across the creek,

covered with moss and turning into earth.

The kids walked on ahead,

still talking about the giant … probably not.

I asked how close they were

to the targeted ads, increasingly

more expensive electronics,

reality shows, anorexia, trainer bras,

rap.  I knew I could rely

on some attempt at literacy; but otherwise

opinions differed

whether they could be “protected,”

how much they should be and how much it mattered.


The girl kept her distance

throughout my stay, but I felt

at times that she was thinking

intensely about what, if anything,

I represented.  The boy sat near me often. 

We talked about outer space and the possibility

of aliens; and once or twice,

to Joan’s distress, about weapons –

lasers and tactical nukes and neutron bombs.

Once he did homework while I was reading;

I couldn’t help.  He was reputed to be a writer

but showed me nothing,

and once we walked together to the store.

When I left, his thin arms wrapped

at length and unexpectedly around me

clutched at my heart.




She is the goddess of a certain kind

of night without a moon or passing cars,

even the planes rerouted

to gentle landings at distant airports.


Darkness.  And then her presence in the room,

across the room, the light

from somewhere adequate to hint

at thigh and breast, at the incomparable.


It is as if the latent, vast

machinery of night terrors, of childhood

itself had been retooled

to produce its opposite, the good.


She speaks – it’s a rule

of these appearances.  To some

in the treble, bemused by the body,

of Marilyn Monroe,


to those with higher tastes with a low

breathlessness – as if

the tightness in both your bellies

forced these few words.


But she must speak, though a goddess, and you

must assure her

that she can only get pregnant

if she wants to;


that there is no such thing,

for her, as disease;

that you will go back in time

to erase all its instances


and those of rape, frigidity,

impotence, violence – all ugliness.

For the gods are not interested

in compensatory


metaphoric flights;

only in youthful bodies,

the crassest words, the promises

one makes when moved to promise anything.




All The Things You Are


A historian is getting me wrong.

It isn’t a biography; she’s using me

as a representative case. 

Which is wrong.  I can’t say why, exactly,

I think it’s a she.  I’m trying

to see through her assumptions

to her century, centuries hence,

but it’s like reading surface conditions

from the bottom of a well.  There seem

to be any number of genders

they can put on and take off

at will; the best I can say

is that she doesn’t condescend to us. 

There’s something about food

I actually don’t want to understand,

and references to freedom I wish I could.


She seems to believe that Christian gangs

stop me every few blocks to ask

some shibboleth-question and, when I can’t answer,

beat me. – Off by a decade or two,

I hope.  She has me stagger into a Starbucks

where people are coming to blows over

Serrano’s Piss Christ.  A kid with a Mohawk

(she capitalizes) drops dead.  My talk,

during a two-hour holding pattern

over National (she’s right; we never

called it “Reagan”), with someone who could not

understand the importance of, what was it? facts?

science? culture? never

happened as such, except in a poem. 

And there are all those allusions

to an obscure plague or singer

and yet another blithering post-post-structuralist.

What’s heartening is that she seems,

after all the horrors to come, to value accuracy.


Finally I’m not sure how

the historian sees me, or what I represent.

I try – it’s hard to describe – to signal her,

to make her change her mind, but it’s difficult.

The interzone is like a well, or rather

a mineshaft, and I’m lost in it;

only my words go on ahead.

However, I’m not alone

down here.  Some poor old scholar

from the circle of Diogenes of Syria

(the last pagans – see The Uses of the Past

by Muller), a minor Spinozist

the Inquisition got, a troubadour

too egregiously Catharist, are scraping

at different levels.  We tap to each other, trying

to organize an escape route.

Like the Underground Railroad,

or the ones that got a few Jews out

(or, for that matter, SS-men).  Break for the surface. 

It’s hard to plan, hard even to imagine,

unless that’s what death is.



Frederick Pollack is the author of two book-length narrative poems, The Adventure and Happiness, both published by Story Line Press. Other of his poems and essays have appeared in Hudson Review, Southern Review, Fulcrum, Salmagundi, Poetry Salzburg Review, Die Gazette (Munich), Representations and elsewhere. Poems have most recently appeared in the print journals Iota (UK), Orbis (UK), Naked Punch (UK), Magma (UK), and The Hat, and are forthcoming in Bateau. Online, poems have appeared in Big Bridge, Snorkel, Hamilton Stone Review, Diagram, BlazeVox, The New Hampshire Review, Denver Syntax, Barnwood, elimae, Wheelhouse, Mudlark, Shadow Train and elsewhere.

Pollack is an adjunct professor of creative writing at George Washington University, Washington, DC. This is his first appearance in Offcourse.

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