Al Ortolani is the Manuscript Editor for Woodley Press in Topeka, Kansas (USA),
and has directed a memoir writing project for Vietnam veterans across Kansas in
association with the Library of Congress and Humanities Kansas. His poetry has
appeared in journals such as Rattle, Prairie Schooner, The New York Quarterly.
His most recent collection of poems, Swimming Shelter, was chosen as a Kansas
Notable Book.

Abbey Raises Chickens

The neighborhood cats
have never faced off
against a peck-ready,
sharp-spurred farm cock.
Suburban cats are champions
of sidewalks and patios,
hunters of chipmunks
and slow sparrows.
One morning, my niece,
a suburban transplant
to cock and hen farming,
took off running in her
Nikes, the county road
a ribbon stretched
to the next section, only
to find a red-combed
rooster chasing her
step by step. He flapped
his wings, squawked,
and kicked his spurs.
Her heels punched
the August dust
like .22 slugs. Whitman,
her literary, sit-on-the-
book-and-preen cat,
slipped from the barn,
and dashed WTF through a hole
in the backdoor screen.

Of an Evening

the neighbors sit in the summer heat,
waiting for the air to cool.
The first bug zapper in town
hangs on a pole under the shadow
of a tree. The yard flickers like a foreign film
that I don't understand. I want to jump
the curb into their circle, not
to small talk, since I don't know
how to speak to adults, nor to drink beer,
since that's against the rules, but just
to witness the purple explosions.
Violet colors my chrome wheels, splays
my spokes, feathers my legs.
There is a tingle to the floating dust
that draws me, baritone-throated men,
bell-like women, stories punctuated
by the bright poof.

Socrates on Olive Street

Knowing yourself
is like knowing how
a kaleidoscope changes
with a twist of the hand.
Children hold them to light
at the window, colors
brighter, more vivid
in the startling
change of patterns.
They shake the tube
to hear the dozens
of glass shapes
collide against each
other. You simply
stand at the window of
the washing machine,
soap suds splattering
the glass with triangles,
squares, polyhedrons
of hindsight, circles
spreading to soapy film,
colors washed to gray,
knowing when knowing
enough is enough.

Fortune Hunter

Yoyos, hula hoops, pet rocks—
once as a 4th grader, I side-armed
a flat rock at the class tyrant; it
slid through the afterschool air
like a spinning plate before cold-
cocking him in the side of the head.
He dropped like a bag of laundry.
I'd never seen a Frisbee before,
but I should have known
I was onto something. His mother
called my mother and said that I
was of all things, a bully. I hadn't
considered that before. I was the
smallest kid in the fourth grade.
I thought of myself more
as an opportunist, maybe an inventor.
But the tyrant found me alone that summer
walking barefoot in the grass
along Ohio Street. He pushed me
onto the hot pavement where the tar
sizzled and popped in the summer sun.
Every time I danced to the curb,
he shoved me back into the street.
Paybacks are inevitable, but shoes,
I should have thought of that.

Back to Front.