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This poem first ran in the Late Winter 2009 edition of Grub Street Grackle

What an appetite! Moonbelly would have eaten everything—earth, sky, ocean, stars, lakes, comets—swallowed all of it, given a lifetime long enough.
That’s how awfully violent, hopeless love afflicted him: lifelong love as makes men empty, turns terrestrial hearts to an alien element.
Food’s the stuff when you’re hungry, but lovers’ stomachs want thicker fare: stones, mortar, concrete, iron—all inedible objects are lovers’ aliment.
So they starve, so what’s new? Isn’t that the oft-repeated and age-old theme of lays, odes, sonnet cycles, ghazals, and hasn’t that song been sung enough?

Here’s the difference: Moonbelly’s hunger wasn’t metaphor—no pale mime of real gut hunger. No, he wanted the world in his stomach, bodily.
Having once heard Veronica singing, seen the way that her songs would load her rash, soft, smile with echoes, suddenly sharpening every entity,
nothing else but to harbor the whole—which saturated with those rich strains, now ran him through with aching emptiness, longing of boundless quantity—
could have satisfied Moonbelly’s craving, quelled his ravening. Next best was a piecemeal banquet, downing sequently one then another victual.

He ate the nearest things first: several thousand meals, compacted in one night’s dining, was what his immediate prospect amounted to: broiled asparagus,
steak and french fried potatoes was what he’d made for dinner, but could not sate him: he had yet to eat his plate, and the place-mat and table under it.
Still unsatisfied, Moonbelly stood with cracked alacrity, ate his chair and tore his dining room to pieces and—taking no time to ponder it—
threw it down, in a frenzy of biting chewing, swallowing. Next day, though he was still hungry, scads of sodium bicarb and foul saxifragous

oils were all he could think of consuming—things conducive to sound digestion. But no good. It turned out Moonbelly’s gastric constriction called for a
stronger treatment. He roamed in a bloated craze, partaking of each thing which he thought might have medicinal properties: boiled aconitum, milk thistle,
dandelions, banana peel extract, mercury by the fistful, bacta, birch bark, frogs, ammonia, gerin oil, terrigen crystals, darthisol,
uncut ginger root, buckets of fresh volcanic ash—
he ate all these, but ate not least the acrimonious gum of the laurus camphora.

All the same, the unbearable constipation, dyspepsia, heartburn, retching, bloat, aches, gas, and reflux kept him as sick as a whole infirmary.
Still, his hunger had nothing abated. Now—no hope in his song-wrecked heart of eased pain, nor contentment—at random Moonbelly stuffed his orifice.
Almost half of the town he had swallowed whole, or chewed, or somewhat nipped before Moonbelly’s mad campaign could be stopped, and he exiled, shorn of his
access to his Veronica. Still, if music be, as they say, love’s food, yet this love needed no more sustenance than the remotest memory—

though, of course, if its food is the fruit of geological stock, Moonbelly had his fill: for now his diet was nothing but stones. A carat or
two at first was a mouthful, but soon his intake stoutened.

Now in those days, a blood ore forest covered untold expanses of country, whence if it
can be true what was said of it, men of iron spirit in times long past had come, intent on taking hold of the world, but a fateful deficit,
not of might, but of libido, cut their conquest short—for their empire, though successful, fell in time for want of an heir to become its heritor.

There stood columns or trunks of a crimson hue, so high that a man might wonder if their roots (or their foundations) were sunk into earth or firmament.
Thither Moonbelly’s way was inclined, as though magnetically drawn; five hundred miles at least he had to travel, until the blood-red horizoning
thickness split into towering pieces, looming suddenly each by each and cast rock-hard obscurity over Moonbelly’s rabid reasoning.
Huge with weeks of unceasing intemperate gorging, swaying now towards these piles of doom-frought stone, he eyed them just as a conqueror surveys his armament.

Now I’ll tell you the ending: our hero knocked one over on his way in—his girth outstripped his inner sense of his body’s extension. Thousands of
pillars toppled like tenpins, and pitched in all directions—our man had no recourse but stretching out his jaws as he never had done and swallowing
whole each copious morsel of this his most cacophonous meal. Stones into his mouth slammed hard—he gulped, his cheeks and his belly aflare and billowing.
Still, the forest was tumbling around him—fallen columns were heaped up higher with each passing moment. Finally, one of these pillars, propped on a

pile behind it that served as a fulcrum, see-sawed up, and it caught Moonbelly by both legs and catapulted him skyward and into orbit.
He flies there even today, and at times stoops low and blood-red, and draws out from the earth faint ghosts of his Veronica’s song with his gluttonous gravity.

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Impressions of a Bird Song

This poem first ran in the Fall 2013 edition of Grub Street Grackle

This poem first ran in the Fall 2013 edition of Grub Street Grackle. It appears here online for the first time.

Its wings spread wide,
feathers like spikes
to frighten or chide.

The eye shocks,
suddenly fierce.
With violent squacks

its cries pierce
twilight: it hurls
and chokes its curse

on impudent squirrels,
on sparrows, dumb
churls whose demurrals

free bread crumbs.
A man leans back,
laughing. He becomes

the sound it crackles,
the death-song of grackles.

Original bio from the Fall 2013 edition:

Ben LaVergne is surrounded by books he never reads. Now that he has a Kindle, he can ignore his unread library without ceasing.


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hearth gods

This poem first ran in the Spring 2015 edition of Grub Street Grackle. It appears here online for the first time.

This poem first ran in the Spring 2015 edition of Grub Street Grackle. It appears here online for the first time.

gram and pop have been so long,
it’s hard to imagine that they’ve gone,
no longer rocking in their chairs,
knitting or napping, jawing there.

when mom and dad finally split,
they stowed us with them in week-long visits,
and gram was stone-silent, while pop
came to crackle, roaring with talk.

he’d built the entire place with his hands,
except for the fireplace, which as ever stands
apart and gray and blackened with use,
eternal as anything, and old as truth.

mom seems to come by (despite dad)
to sit near the old stones and brick stack
amid pop’s carefully laid lumber and gram’s
sturdy old afghans, still warm,

and though dad won’t leave the study,
we hie the wood in and stack it deep,
and in the fireplace the little flames go
swimming to life while he seethes alone.

the fire’s four-foot perimeter fills with odor
of warmth and the hissing of heat, though
it fades in quick steps past that—
we glow together, missing only dad.

the wood poppops and pops and sizzles,
while the thin white smoke knits little
strands of something to be finished above
us though started in this room, near this hand-wove rug.

dad’s bourbon glass rattles in his room;
our breath mingles with the wood’s soft groan;
if you listen it speaks a slow invitation:
tend to the home fires; come tend home.

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St. Sebastian

This poem first ran in the Sep/Oct 2006 edition of Grub Street Grackle.

This poem first ran in the Sep/Oct 2006 edition of Grub Street Grackle.

Trembled by the muscle’s clustered grip
On each shaft’s head, the sprouted wood began
A bird wing’s measured beat, as if to fan
The crisp air with the lifeblood’s giddy clip,
Pulsing the measured rhythm’s rise and dip,
And flapping the awkward scaffold of the man.
It wasn’t according to the archers’ plan,
To place, symmetrically, two at each hip,
Two buried in the ribs, and the last two
Odd-angling from the shoulders. Nor could they
Deny the strange result: With each drawn breath,
The white plumed arrows, arced in just that way,
Fluttered, grotesque with grace, bearing, in death
The youth on terrible wings, too wildly true.

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Gary the Bear

This story first ran in the Sep/Oct 2006 edition of Grub Street Grackle.

This story first ran in the Sep/Oct 2006 edition of Grub Street Grackle.

Gary the Bear was a hard worker. I can’t say that enough about him. A lot of people said a lot of things when I hired him, but as I look back, he’s still one of the best workers I’ve ever had. Even after he ate Juan Pedro, the line cook, I was hesitant to fire him. The floors were so clean. Louise, the night manager, was adamant that he go, pounding on my office door, shouting about Juan Pedro’s family. Maybe she just didn’t understand how hard it is to come by good workers, especially ones who could mop well.

Juan Pedro was uncomfortable when I first brought Gary the Bear into the restaurant. He said something like, “Either I go or he goes.” I begged him to give it a chance. I mean, what’s the worst that could happen, right?

Gary the Bear was great with a mop, it turned out. He could mop anything: the bathroom, the kitchen, didn’t matter. And he always worked so hard at it, furrowing his brow and really putting his back into it. Also, I could pay him in garbage.

Juan Pedro didn’t leave like he threatened to, and everything seemed to be working out well. Louise even started to like him. She said that he had hugged her one early morning before he went home. She said it was one of the best hugs she had ever received, entirely devoid of any sexual overtures. “It was just a hug,” she said, “A perfect, warm hug.”

The customers didn’t like having him around at first, particularly this guy, Bruce. “Come on, man,” he would say to me, “This isn’t a fuckin’ circus. You ain’t got no clowns. No midgets, right? What’s with the bear?” But I didn’t really have to make a defense for Gary the Bear. The floors spoke for themselves, did they not?

After a while, the other customers seemed to get into having Gary the Bear around. “Hey, Gary the Bear,” they’d say, “Show up your paws!” And Gary the Bear would stand on his hands and wiggle his hairy bear claws. It was a kind of fabulous joke to him and the customers loved it. “Great, Gary the Bear!” they would say. “Fantastic!”

And then, one day, out of the clear blue sky, Gary the Bear ate Juan Pedro the line cook. They hadn’t been arguing, Louise said, when I came in that morning. In fact, the day before they had gone bowling together. Juan Pedro had even lost. They hadn’t drunk much, and everyone knew that Gary the Bear could hold his liquor. “But it doesn’t matter,” Louise said, “You can’t keep him on. It’s not safe. What if he eats me.” I started to head towards my office, back behind the water boiler, but Louise followed me, “You can’t seriously be thinking of keeping him on, can you?” her voice getting louder and louder. “What about Juan Pedro’s family?”

I called Juan Pedro’s wife to apologize about the situation, and she was rather indifferent. It seems Juan Pedro had been bowling most every night anyway and she hadn’t really missed him. “Juan Pedro was a good man,” I said, “I’m really sorry that he had to go that way. But I do know Gary the Bear meant nothing by it. I’m sure it was just a small disagreement. These things happen.”

When Gary the Bear came to work that night, Louise hid in the ladies restroom and I confronted him about the situation. “You ate Juan Pedro the Line Cook? Why?” Gary the Bear didn’t look me in the eye (not that he ever did), just put on his apron and picked up the mop. “Look, Gary the Bear, I need answers. You can’t keep working here if you don’t explain what happened. Did he call you a bad name?” But Gary the Bear put the mop in the slop bucket with wheels and made his way to the men’s room. I shouted after him, “Answers, Gary the Bear! I need answers before you leave, or you won’t be coming back.”

I went to the office to put my feet on my desk and smoke a cigarette and think about what I should do. I couldn’t very well send Gary the Bear back to the woods, could I? He had developed such a taste for garbage, and besides, who would mop the floors? Not Louise, God knows she doesn’t have any talent for that. So I just thought it out.

Louise came back to the office some time later. “What’d you do? Did you fire him?” I shook my head and said, “I’m thinking. You gotta fill in for Juan Pedro, the Line Cook tonight.”

At about ten, I was still in the office on my fifth Lucky Strike. I had the window open and the air smelled so sweet. Like it was just about to rain. I remember thinking, This would be a perfect night if I wasn’t so worried about what to do with Gary the Bear.

Suddenly, there was some noise in the restaurant, a glass breaking and some raised voices. I ran out through the double doors of the kitchen to see what was going on. It was Bruce, shouting for Gary the Bear, holding a shotgun. “This is between me and Gary the Bear, see? Nobody gets hurt. I just want Gary the Bear.”

I assumed Gary the Bear was still in the men’s room, still mopping with the diligence that only Gary the Bear had. I tried to reason with Bruce. “What, are you crazy now? This isn’t right, this won’t solve anything,” but Bruce wouldn’t calm down. “Goddammit, where’s Gary the Bear!? Tell me now!”

The truth was that I didn’t know for sure. Maybe he had heard the noise and escaped through the window in the bathroom. Gary the Bear was quick thinking like that, always one step ahead of the game. But then again, the window was a little small to fit Gary the Bear, I thought. Could he be cowering in the second stall, waiting for Bruce to leave?

Just as I thought that, the men’s room door opened, and Gary the Bear emerged, looking calm and cool. He was only coming out because he had finished mopping, not because Bruce was shouting. There was no grin on Gary the Bear’s face, no trace of irony either. Just the diligence that made me love him in the first place. Nothing was going to get between him and his work, I remember thinking.

Bruce was surprised, it seemed, when Gary the Bear came out of the men’s room, like he wasn’t actually expecting to see him. “Well, well, well. It seems fate has dealt you quite a hand, Gary the Bear. Quite the hand,” he said, laughing and raising his rifle. “Here’s looking at you, Gary the Bear” and unloaded a round into him.

Gary the Bear had a solid body, but the shotgun blast really got him good. Really good. He went down hard, dropping the mop and falling over the top of the slop bucket with wheels. We all just watched for a second, not quite sure what to do. One of the customers, this fat woman in a yellow jumpsuit, was gasping like she might start crying. Louise was looking out from the kitchen with big eyes.

Why did Bruce shoot Gary the Bear? I said that, without looking at him, “Why’d you shoot Gary the Bear, man? What’d Gary the Bear ever do to you?” but Bruce just lowered his rifle and stared at Gary the Bear’s body. There was blood pooling underneath the slop bucket with wheels. It was really disgusting.

The few guys at the counter lost interest pretty quickly and started talking and eating again. Bruce didn’t shoot anything else, just turned around and walked out to his Ford pickup, throwing the gun in the back. I thought about calling the police, but then again, I wasn’t sure if it was bear season. Shooting Gary the Bear wouldn’t have been a crime then, right? Besides, there were so many things that might come up in a police investigation. I didn’t really want to say anything about Juan Pedro the Line Cook.

I cleaned up the body all by myself. Louise said she didn’t want anything to do with it. She just kept cooking. The fat woman in the yellow jumpsuit watched me like a terrified schoolgirl. Gary the Bear wasn’t that big so I was able to pick him up over my shoulders and haul him out back. I thought about just wheeling him out on the slop bucket, but there’s like five steps off the back of the restaurant. Plus it just didn’t seem right. I found a blue tarp in the supply closet and laid it out in the backseat of my Cutlass. I just barely got Gary the Bear inside.

Gary the Bear’s eyes were still open, wide open, and still completely void of irony. They were just empty like maybe Gary the Bear had forgotten the meaning of life right before he died.

I drove the Cutlass out of town for a while, smoking a Lucky Strike and trying to think about what to do. It was dark so I figured I could dump the body just about anywhere. I knew Gary the Bear and I knew he wouldn’t mind that kind of burial. No pomp for Gary the Bear. It just wasn’t his style.

The river seemed right. It would probably carry him down stream for a while and when he finally got caught up in some fallen tree on one of the banks, it’d probably be a couple of towns down and everyone’d just assume Gary the Bear got away from a hunter. I killed my headlights in the middle of the bridge, hauled the body out of the backseat, and heaved it over the rail. I didn’t think I was going to get it all the way over, but I did. It was really dark so I couldn’t see down into the water, I heard a splash and figured that was probably all I needed to do. I thought about throwing the tarp into the water too.

The rain started up a little bit, but I stood out there on the bridge, thinking about getting another cigarette. Nobody came over the bridge while I was there, which wasn’t really that weird because I was kind of far out of town. A couple of times I thought I heard something, but it wasn’t anything. Just me, the car, and the water underneath everything, rushing Gary the Bear’s body away, someplace new.


featured image: “Sad Bear” by Andrew Taylor
used under CC BY 2.0 // cropped

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Can the Same Thing Again Come as a Surprise?

I am in general in favor of repeating myself, and it seems to me that as a blogger I have a special license to do so. So although I have said it before, this will not prevent me from remarking again here that echo says the impossible. But let me also go a little further and say that the marvelous phenomenon of refrain depends on that same impossible saying. Take the lyrics of this Mountain Goats song:


And I sang “Oh, what do I do? What do I do? What do I do? What do I do without you?”

Needless to say, this refrain is already calculated to make a repetition-lover like me smile. But is it also needless to say that this is not yet a refrain? It is “only” repetition. Only the empty rhetorical words of a broken man for whom nothing is possible, wandering in speech through his own indifferent thoughts just as he “wandered through the house like a little boy lost at the mall.” And please don’t let the force of that image go to waste! For a little boy with his mother the mall may be a place of wonder (even there, perhaps, the gods are present!), with something new to astonish him at every turn—but with his mother’s disappearance, there disappear also all the various and surprising invitations of the place and all that is left is the space between him and his mother, which threatens to be infinite—nothing appears to this child but that his mother is not there, nor there, nor there again, as with each step she does not appear.

“What do I do?” An expression of the impossibility of doing anything. If a man reaches out to speak, or rather to sing, in the midst of the impossibility of doing anything at all, this expression threatens to become all he has and to repeat itself infinitely in all his song. Song itself, the wondrously various and surprising highway of the soul, becomes an exercise in futility.

But if this man sings these words so often that they lose their meaning, he might recognize that they had all along the peculiarity of not meaning what they mean: “What do I do?” A question. How am I to proceed? But the words meant precisely that this question could not be asked, because no answer could be expected, and there is no such thing as a question which expects no answer. A question, to be a question, has to “[get] ready for the future to arrive.” If it does not have this readiness it asks for nothing and is only bitter rhetoric. And in our song this readiness which the singer has is why his repetition of the refrain is emphatically not only a repetition, but a discovery. Suddenly the very words of hopelessness have joined the world in coming alive.

And let me say also this: in order for all of this to be true, the refrain must have already had this life in the first place in order to come alive. If in its first entrance the same saying which concludes the song on an expectant note does not bear itself toward the future with expectancy, it must for that very reason be said that it does bear itself in this way toward its transformation in the end. Waiting: holding back. If the song is a composition, something to be performed more or less according to prescription, then the sense of expectancy is withheld deliberately and knowingly from the first entrance of the refrain, in expectation of the second. The first waits for the second. And only because it does so, because it refrains and holds something back can the second come as a surprise.

—This article was originally posted on Philosophy KTL in December, 2009

featured image:

Roald Dahl” by miuenski miuenski, used under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

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The Grackle is a production of the 501(c)(3) nonprofit Imagine Dallas Literary Arts, Inc.