Friday, August 29, 2014

That Song

for Michal Friedman


There is a song I heard once long ago:
   Raucous and powerful; tender and brave.
The singer’s voice was like a silver hoe
   Digging my soul up from a cold dark grave.
It was a song that made me want to sing.
   It gave me strength to storm depression’s wall.
It said that hope and trust were everything.
   It told me that true love could conquer all.
The words have, like all words, faded away;
   But that tune still echoes inside of me
And everyone lucky enough to say:
   “I heard that song live—it was ecstasy!”
      Soothing and fierce; inspiring, bold and true:
      That songthat brief, undying song—was you.


Copyright 2014 Matthew J Wells


Wednesday, August 27, 2014

A Badly-Written Play


for Hilary
who (thank God)
feels the same way

A badly-written play fills me with gloom—
   Watching one is like being introduced
To all the boring people in the room.
   I think: “Christ—how did this crap get produced?”
A badly-written play’s a gift from God.
   By hearing false words, I can know the true;
And if I stay awake while others nod,
   It shows me all the things I should not do.
A badly-written play should give me hope
   That my plays might get done someday; but no—
Each one I see makes me feel like a dope
   For aiming high instead of shooting low.
      I  cry: “This play has no integrity!”
      Then write so no one says that about me.


Copyright 2014 Matthew J Wells

Monday, August 25, 2014


for Dawn Kamerling

Sometimes it comes like water from a hose;
   I try to keep up, but my fingers ache.
Sometimes it’s like an empty suit of clothes,
   And all I write is surface and feels fake.
But something always comes—and even what
   Reads false—just like third season Captain Kirk—
Can ring true if I edit it and cut
   Deeper than skin—which is where my real work
Begins, the work that typists never do.
   Because the first draft’s always therapy,
The second is where I must make it true
   For people who lack my pathology.
      And if I’m blessed, that work will make them hear
      What inspiration whispered in my ear.

Copyright 2014 Matthew J Wells

Saturday, August 23, 2014

A Better Place

In memory of MZ Ribalow


There is no hope for anyone; we all
   Will bend the knee to this low world’s great king
Whose harsh but gentle voice will one day call
   Our lives out of the songs our bodies sing—
A song that has such supple harmony
   That when one voice is silenced, we can hear
The loss in every note—hear bitterly
   How all is doubtful that was once so clear
And how your death untuned the world forever.
   And we can mourn this emptiness, or pray
For understanding; we can vow to never
   Forgive the God who took you, or just say
      “You’re in a better place.”  But that’s not true.
      The only better place was here with you.


Copyright 2014 Matthew J Wells

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Manhattan Sonnet: Summer in New York

Your summer is a long, steamy affair
   After Spring’s sweet, but very brief, flirtation.
It’s filled with tourists, flip-flops, frizzy hair
   And water bans on all but perspiration.
The air’s like maple syrup to walk through;
   You have to chew each breath as if it’s cotton.
The sun makes side-street asphalt give like goo
   And takes five seconds to turn fresh fruit rotten.
Your streets are never quite as hot as hell—
   Just nastier than armpit stains in silk.
In August, twenty zip codes will all smell
   Like rotten lettuce soaked in sour milk.
      Thank God for Central Park, the city’s jewel:
      It’s the one place where everyone feels cool.


Copyright  2014 Matthew J Wells


Sunday, August 17, 2014

Ever Now And Then

Today would have been my brother Gary's 56th birthday.
It's also the 30th anniversary of my mother's death.
This one's for them.

for Gary & Lenore

We all have three souls in us, say the wise:
   The Ever Soul, born of eternity;
The Now Soul, which dies when the body dies;
   And the Then Soul, which lives in memory.
The Now Soul is who we all think we are.
   It has to die so that our Ever Soul
Can take its rightful place as a bright star
   Shining on all who, under Heaven’s bowl,
Keep our Then Soul aliveas I do yours.
   The thought of you is like a magic feather
That lifts my spirits till my Now Soul soars.
   Until the day I die we’ll be together:
      Your Ever Soul in every star I see
      And your Then Soul forever part of me.

Copyright 2014 Matthew J Wells


Friday, August 15, 2014



As I sip coffee on Park Avenue,
   White cops dressed up like soldiers in Iraq
Are aiming guns at non-whites, marching to
   Protest the shooting death of a young black.
The marchers say they have the right to show
   Their rage at this in a public display;
The cops say: “We say who has rights, and so
   When we say move, you get out of our way.”
If this took place in Russia, we would cry
   “Police state!”  But because it’s here, we say
All but those two words, and repeat the lie
   That we are free to speak out, not obey;
      Then make sure we shout: “Cops are not assailants!”
      So they can hear it clearly on surveillance.


Copyright 2014 Matthew J Wells

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Two stabs at the same demon

Life Is A Jest

The words “Life is a jest; and all things show it.
   I thought so once; but now I know it.” are
On an old tombstone with John Gay below it.
   He wrote The Beggar’s Opera, and his star
Once lit the London stage.  I can’t recall
   The way he died, or if his final days
Were full of bitterness about his fall
   From fortune, or a play that won no praise.
What I remember is that epitaph—
   Just the right touch of Restoration wit.
Only a man who can make others laugh
   Sees to the bottom of depression’s pit:
      A gaping, hungry hole in every floor
      Against which jokes are just a thin trap door.

“But doctor—I AM Pagliacci.”

Every time a tragedian looks down,
   He sees what he expects—a gaping hole
Of nothingness—and smiles.  But when a clown
   Sees that, he frowns, and broods, and feels his soul
Infected with a challenge.  “I won’t laugh,”
   Emptiness says.  “You’re just wasting your breath.”
Great clowns hear that and want their epitaph
But it’s like Daffy Duck auditioning
   For vaudeville—tripping over his own feet
Until at last he gets the golden ring
   With the one killer bit he can’t repeat.
      And that’s Despair: it cracks up like pack ice
      At the one punch line clowns cannot do twice.

Copyright 2014 Matthew J Wells




Monday, August 11, 2014

My Foul Laddy and Smiley's Germans

Magic In The Moonlight

The title is half-right.  There is actual moonlight.
After successfully making his own version of Tennessee Williams’ Streetcar Named Desire, Woody Allen has now attempted to do the same thing with Shaw’s Pygmalion, the results of which are a lot more laughable than the movie itself.  Which is, like its main male character, almost completely heartless—as well as being, like its director, kind of creepy. The heartlessness stems from the fact that Allen reproduces the condescension of Henry Higgins in his male lead, but never bakes in anything more than acid.  He’s like a prettier version of the Max von Sydow misanthrope in Hannah And Her Sisters; you want him to get his comeuppance, not the girl.  And the girl here is definitely a girl and not a woman, unlike other versions of this story.  For instance: in My Fair Lady, there were 21 years between Harrison and Hepburn (he was mid-50's, she was mid-30’s); and when Peter O’Toole and Amanda Plummer did Pygmalion on Broadway, there was a 25-year difference between them (he was 55, she was 30).  There are 28 years between Colin Firth and Emma Stone (they were 53 and 25 when the movie filmed in in 2013).  Unlike the other two, Firth is more than twice Stone’s age.  And the fact that Stone wears a lot of waistless sack dresses makes her look like she’s barely out of her teens. 

Plus there’s no chemistry between the two of them.  (Thank God, in a way; right?)  (I mean, ewwww!)

Double-plus: Colin Firth isn't given anything but egotism and condescension to work with, and supplies nothing to suggest there's anything more to his character than an author's note that reads "Be pompous and unlikeable here." The film would have been much better off with somebody like Jonny Lee Miller in the part, because Miller is one of those actors who makes his every attack feel like a defense against emotional involvement, and isn't that what you want in your Henry Higgins?

Triple-plus: about 20 minutes from the end of the movie, everybody else disappears—the girl’s fiancé, the girl’s mother—everyone else who has or might have an opinion about who Stone is going to marry just drops out of the plot like they were never there.  Which is incredibly bad writing.  Or Allen recognizing that actually writing a final act that included these characters and their motivations was beyond his powers, so he played to his lack of strength and just disappeared them. 

In other words: don’t bother.

A Most Wanted Man

That smile is how I want to remember PSH.

The film version of A Most Wanted Man bears two burdens, one intended and one accidental.  As an adaptation of John LeCarre’s angry anti-American novel, the movie has to tell the story without the anger getting in the way.  It does this by turning the plot into a Smiley’s People for the war on terror, concentrating on the tradecraft of a tightly-knit group of professionals who have integrity, pride, and a job to do, and showing how they do that job despite the interference of short-sighted superiors and politically-motivated foreigners. It’s like a dark Howard Hawks movie, where the job comes first, and anybody who gets in the job’s way is either incompetent or evil because they don’t understand that long-term gains are better than short-term profits. (And guess which one the American favors.)

The movie succeeds in making you care about a small group of co-workers not because you know their backstories or their secrets, but because you see how well they work together as a team.  Team members float in and out of the background as the people they’re tailing are followed and watched (there’s even a shout-out to that great De Niro/McElhone car kiss in Ronin). And because you’ve come to know and care about these people, especially the guy running the group, Günther Bachmann, the end of the movie is an even stronger sucker punch than the end of the book.

The unintended burden is that Bachmann is played by Philip Seymour Hoffman.  That makes it hard to watch on one level, and fascinating to watch on another.  It’s difficult not to read the actor’s future into the world-weary character that he plays, but it’s impossible not to see how the man was single-handedly capable of raising the level of both the actors around him and the movie they were making by doing nothing less than his best. 
The movie and his performance in it are crystallized, for me, in a moment near the end.  Bachmann is making his case to his superiors and the Americans, and when he’s asked a particular question, the answer he gives, which is a direct quote from an earlier conversation, is followed by a smile, a smile that says he knows that, by using these exact words, he’s won his case.  The reaction shot that follows is brief but echoed in my head long after the movie was over, when I realized that this moment, the moment Bachmann smiles, was the exact moment when he lost everything.  The line is what wins him his victory; the smile that comes with it is what causes his eventual defeat, because he’s just pissed off the wrong person in the room.  And the way Bachmann delivers that smile made me feel like Hoffman knew exactly what he was doing, showing us Bachmann’s one mistake.  That’s brilliant acting.  We shall not look upon his like again.


I walk against the Monday morning swarm
   Of men in suits and ties, women in heels;
Because I’m not dressed in their uniform,
   None of them look at me.  This blindness feels
Both liberating and insulting, like
   There’s a great sea of cars, all thinking: “Hey!
Who is that idiot riding the bike?
   And even worse—he’s going the wrong way!”
Ah, worker ants—they go nuts when they see
   A loner, or hear a dissenting word.
The badge of individuality
   Is only worn by members of the herd.
      My badge says outcast—and I have to say
      I wouldn’t have it any other way.


Copyright 2014 Matthew J Wells


Thursday, August 7, 2014

Thinking about my Dad today . . .


I wasn’t there to help you pay the bills,
   To help you shop for food or help you dress.
I wasn’t there to see you take the pills
   And all the treatments that made you a mess.
And when you finally said: “No, that’s enough,”
   And stopped the drugs, and let the cancer do
What cancer does to all, from weak to tough,
   I wasn’t there to whisper: “Good for you.”
But everybody else was.  That’s a gift,
   To have your kids and their kids in the room
You slept in every night, to make the lift
   Of soul from body rise to light from gloom:
      A breathless moment that I’ll never share
      Because.  Because I wasn’t.  Wasn’t there.


Copyright 2014 Matthew J Wells



Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Nothing Will Come Of Nothing


Nothing will come of nothing.  So says Lear,
   And I have yet to see an actor do
That line like Scofield did it: he could hear
   Cordelia’s answer as he spoke, and knew
He’d done her wrong, knew that he’d been a fool.
   That’s what Lear’s madness is: a mind that’s rent
By the hard truth that consequences rule
   Our lives, no matter what our actions meant.
In Scofield’s recognition, all is done
   Of his descent except the going down,
Till nothing matters underneath the sun
   But glimpses of a girl in a French crown:
      Soft in his arms, saved from the old world’s wreck
       With nothing but a noose around her neck.


Copyright 2014 Matthew J Wells


Tuesday, August 5, 2014

My Sumer Reading List

Tiamatlock, by Agatha Chrishkigal.  Novelization of the TV show pilot about an aging sea goddess who can only solve crimes that occur within 500 yards of the Pacific Ocean, because the further she gets from water, the weaker she becomes.

Enkidu Or Die, by John Updikurbanipal.  In this, Updikurbanipal’s sequel to The Centaur, the Gilgamesh legend plays out in a modern high school where hell is gym class, heaven is the teacher's lounge, and life on earth is an endless football game. 

The Ziggurat Patrol, by Alistair MacLeananapalus.  A World War II thriller about a team of special agents, all descended from Assyrian warriors, who fight the Nazis using spears and chariots.  And one of them is a traitor.
Enki See, Enkidu, by H. Rider Haggardalulu.  Enkidu and Gilgamesh are reincarnated as Sir Richard Francis Burton and John Hanning Speke, whose quest to discover the source of the Nile stumbles upon a secret city of super-intelligent African apes bent on world conquest.

Akkadia, by Tom Stopparderabum.  A play that takes place in ancient Nineveh, Tenth Century Alhambra, and modern-day England.

The Ruins of Ur-Ur, by Heinrich Schliemannilishu.  The first book in The Ur Trilogy, during which the world’s first city is revealed to have been built on the ruins of an even older city.  The sequels, which will detail the discovery of two even more ancient sites, will be called The Gates of Ur-Ur-Ur, and The Ghost of Ur-Ur-Ur-Ur.

Enkidoodle Dandy, by L. Frank Baumeshtar.  A children’s book about a young Sumerian fighter’s battle for freedom which is actually a disguised allegory about the American Revolution.
Inanna of Green Gables, by Lucy Maud Montgominurta.  The goddess of love, fertility and warfare is mistakenly sent to the owners of a farm on Prince Edward Island and proceeds to lay waste to half of Canada.  The only way to stop her is by calling up an even greater power, which takes places in the sequel, Cthulhu of Green Gables.


Sunday, August 3, 2014

August Is Like A Month-Long Cemetery

August is like a month-long cemetery—
   The days are tombstones that I wander through.
So many passengers on Charon’s ferry:
   My dad, whom I’ll never be equal to;
My mom, who’s up there smoking Larks in heaven;
   Meir, who would have loved Cold In July;
Brother Gary, still pissed at brother Kevin;
   Michal, whose loss can still make strangers cry.
Part of me likes to think that they all know
   I’m thinking of them; but part of me fears
That when we die, it’s nowhere that we go,
   And all who live weep self-deluding tears.
      Yet weep I will—weep and believe that crying
      Can banish loss with tears of love undying.


Copyright 2014 Matthew J Wells


Friday, August 1, 2014


for Rebeca

Time.  Friendship.  Love.  Life.  What does it all mean?
   Who knows?  We’re winging it—the drunk, the fool,
The mother who still loves men like a teen,
   And every teacher that you’ll have in school.
None of us know the answer, so go make
   An answer of your own, and try to feel
The timeless in each moment, try to break
   Life open to find out what makes it real.
That “what” is us.  The days are ours to fill.
   And even if we own what time has sent us,
Years from now, all that we’ll remember will
   Be one-half trivial, one-half momentous.
      That’s what life is: moments that pain and please you
      And let you go the moment that they seize you.


Copyright 2014 Matthew J Wells