ISSN 1556-4975

OffCourse Literary Journal

 Published by Ricardo and Isabel Nirenberg since 1998


Poems by Steven M. Smith

First Novels in Drawers

Some are interred in padded manila
envelopes or snug boxes that quality reams
of print paper were once swaddled in. 
Their cut and stitched remains
are occasionally exhumed for private
perusing then respectfully returned
to their pullout vaults. 

Some are strangled with produce
rubber bands and flung face down
and naked without a prayer into the mass
graves of deep filing drawers—shovelfuls
of second novels tossed on top—forgotten
tax returns become grave markers.
And years later in a first novel plot one of these
was dug up at midnight by its intoxicated author—
a grave robber by lantern light—dragged
to a backyard firepit while the village slept
and unceremoniously cremated.


My High School English Teacher Dies While Visiting
            the Grand Canyon Circa 1979

I want to believe canyon flowers
on the rim caught your eye—perhaps
the white petals of a cliffrose in bloom. 
Perhaps you thought how can something
so beautiful live so dangerously?
So you got down on your hands and knees,
then sprawled out on your belly, and crawled toward
all those white petals that summoned
you to come, come to the edge, come get a closer look. 
And I want to believe you were smiling. 
Your dark beard sweeping
the Arizona soil as you crawled—
and I want to believe when you stretched
over the edge, your fingertips were able
to at least reach a solitary petal.


Another Poem Is Arriving, I Think
after Anne Stevenson

I’m sitting at my desk knocking a pen against my cheek,
thinking how my muse served me with divorce papers
this humid afternoon.  The wall clock’s click-clack,
click-clack, click-clack is becoming more and more
distracting.  Then I visualize a bomb squad in protective
gear sweating behind the clock between the studs.

Then the clock’s obnoxious click-clacking is disarmed as a neighbor
kid sputters by full throttle on his minibike.  Then a poem begins
to arrive, I think.  This time the poem is arriving as a gorgeous

Vietnamese woman driving a blue motorbike.  She is arriving
in a long red dress.  Her waist-length black hair is blowing
behind her as if from the force of a slow motion explosion.
Then my empty suburban street beyond my desk
becomes a chaotic street in Saigon, circa late 1960s. 
Now here I come, arriving as an American soldier—

an army private—in uniform.  I don’t want to be there. 
But I’m there, and I can’t desert.  Standing alone.  No. 
Wait.  Not alone.  Too Dangerous.  I’m with another

army private, Private Perfect Teeth with Acne. 
I think he’s a farm boy from Nebraska.
The Vietnamese beauty has us in the booby trap
of her beauty.  Should I let her wave to us as she arrives?  No!
Why?  Because she’s reaching between her legs.  She’s
groping for something between her legs.  Something
about her smile.  As she arrives Private Perfect Teeth with Acne
is pulled toward her.  Her motorbike begins to swerve.  She’s still
pawing between her legs.  The front tire veers but she’s still
smiling.  Halt!  I begin to step back.  Step away.  Something’s wrong
with her smile.  I try to grab hold of Private Perfect Teeth with Acne. 
But he steps in her incoming path.  I can’t shout.  My lungs

are empty.  My heart’s now pounding on the tunnel walls of my throat. 
Wait!  No!  You poor ignorant boy from Iowa—no, I mean Nebraska. 
Stop!  No!  And just as she slows down and pulls up
to Private Perfect Teeth with Acne, I try to turn.  Try to flee,
but I can’t move.  My boots are impaled on punji sticks.  She pulls
something from between her legs.  God, no!  She slows to a toddler’s

trot and tosses it to Private Perfect Teeth with Acne.  He extends
both hands, palms out, as if he’s trying to catch a bad pitch behind
home plate.  My eyes are nearly closed.  I begin to raise my hands

to protect my face.  And I see Private Perfect Teeth with Acne
catch a brilliant flower—it’s a white orchid!  The beauty blows
him a kiss.  Shoots him a smile.  Then she grabs the handle bars
with both hands and swerves on her way toward the north.
Another poem has arrived, I think.  Yes!
Another poem has arrived.


After Putting Their Dog to Sleep

for Thunder

They repeat the words of an acquaintance,
One experienced in matters of loss:
People have to suffer, but our dogs don’t.
The words now calling as if unleashed
In some cavernous kennel drenched in darkness.
But how the story goes there should be a new
Dawn way down at the exit gate.
Just follow the scent to Justification Junction,
Go left, and simply keep going and going.
They want to believe the exit exists,
And beyond the gate paradise resembles
Their fenced-in backyard with a sunlit
Breeze curling up in the oak leaves,
The trellises sniffing the honeysuckles,
A scatter of squirrels, a hymn of birds.
And they want to believe that just beyond
The golden treasure markers of pee-stained grass, under
The aging silver maple, the happiest
Tail in the afterlife wags.
But for now they embrace in their morning room,
Still careful not to spill the empty water bowl
In the shadowless corner.

Steven M. Smith’s poems have appeared in publications such as Rattle, Poem, Old Red Kimono, Plainsongs, Poetrybay, Ibbetson Street Press, Studio One, The RiverCabildo QuarterlyBetter Than StarbucksHole in the Head Review, and Mudfish.  He has poetry forthcoming in The Worcester Review and The Writing Disorder.  He is the Writing Center director at the State University of New York at Oswego.  He lives in North Syracuse, New York.

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