CAUGHT IN THE NET 83 - POETRY BY ROBERT BAGG
Series Editor - Jim Bennett
Introduction by Jim Bennett
Hello. Welcome to the next in the series of CITN featured poets. We will be looking at the work of a different poet in each edition and I hope it will help our readers to discover some new and exciting writing. This series is open to all to submit and I am now keen to read new work for this series.
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and following the links for Caught in the Net.
doors—pried open rickety—held back
from; The Sewer Dare by Robert Bagg
1 - BIOGRAPHY
2 – POETRY
PLAYING THE WHEEL
THE WORST KISS
THE SEWER DARE
BEATITUDE / MORTMAIN
AN ANCIENT QUARREL
THE NAMES OF PERFUMES
3 - AFTERWORD
1 – BIOGRAPHY: Robert Bagg
2 - POETRY
I’m five or six. A boisterous party pulls
me half-way down the stairs, to sit peering
under the banister at Mom and Rick Larkin
face to face, arms reaching––not dancing
not talking, just floating closer––till I
catch Mother’s roving eye … she lets go,
deflecting handsome, handlebarred Rick’s
attention up at me … who takes her wet
gin kiss back up to bed, too young to know
why everything feels, suddenly, out of place.
This memory has jagged edges. Like those
clay ostrakoi Athenians attached
to unwanted newborns left out to die,
so if rescued and brought up by strangers
they might, fate willing, chance on whoever
holds the other broken half, make the match,
discover who their parents really were.
It’s six years later. Rick loses his job
(selling Iron Lungs that cures for polio
would soon make obsolete). He and I spend
rainy afternoons playing pouncing chess.
“I am an opportunist,” Rick liked to say
when he reached for my queen, not grasping
that capturing her would lose him the game.
I could see four or five chess moves ahead,
but grownups playing life were beyond me.
I didn't know what opportunist meant,
not then, till adolescence broke out
in a rash of hormonal entendres.
I’m rerunning Rick’s verbal jousts, to feel
now, each of his galloping shots to my ribs.
He once spoke up for household nudity.
“We Larkins are too pretty to be prudes,
we love walking naked around our house.”
Wow! Red-haired Ginny, his elegant wife?
Tomboy Katie? My mind slipped off their clothes,
gingerly fixed on flaming pubic hair.
Once striding from his bathroom Rick
startled a houseguest. She was shocked.
“So I said to her: ‘Do I frighten you?’”
I couldn't figure why he’d scare anyone
––such a happy-go-lucky bon vivant––
not yet seeing the stark fact he’d left out
of his account … And now, freed-up erotic
noises and images come into play…
Mother, husky-voiced at bedtime, calling Dad
to turn off the news and come up to her.
Once she pulled her nightgown over her head
so I could see for myself how different
women are from men. When at nineteen I sailed
for Europe, she kissed me goodbye, saying
“Now don’t be afraid to come home a man.”
Not till my late thirties did she confide
Susan and I had a half-sister, born
when Mom and the father were seventeen.
No one in her own family was willing
to take on Mom’s burden. Perfect strangers
had to step in. She knew the girl’s life
thereafter, only by photos and clippings.
She did her best to help me see: It’s so
hard for us––meaning girls––to say no.
Having heard a ton more nos than yeses
all through a stuttering adolescence
I was incredulous––where were those girls?
The only stunner who ever hissed yeses
my way, was Molly Bloom in Ulysses.
The morning Mother died, Dad walked me
through her roses: “It’s so unfair … Mom dying
at sixty-two.” (She wrote the book on low-
salt cooking, which kept his blood pressure down.
Dad thrived, remarried, lived to eighty-nine.)
“I was never unfaithful to your mother.
Maybe I should have been …” said a minute
later, out of the blue. I wondered why
ever would he want to be unfaithful?
I knew she’d seen psychiatrists early
in their marriage. Dad never said why.
What therapy is it that cures desire?
As a child, I knew how selfish she could be.
But she never hit or belittled me.
Except, if she thought I was being stupid
or lazy, well, that got her ire up.
More than once she told me she’d tried
to be a good mother. I told her: she was.
The day my first serious girl dropped by––
both of us home from college at the time––
all at once Mom left the house, leaving us
astonished, ourselves alone, to take as much
advantage of the moment as we dared.
If we don’t dare, we start to die: Prufrock’s
white trousers sit in judgment on us all,
whether we roll them up or take them off.
Mom did her best to raise a by-the-book
Christian gentleman. And did. But I knew
no book for the passion in her—not till
away at college, I found it in Greek myth:
Aphrodite, Helen, Phaidra––Furies
poets envision giving birth to murder,
war, tragedy … a sex still unforgiven.
Mom’s sexual dramas got no one killed.
Yet cast in one I felt it gripping me.
I was fourteen, out dripping from the shower.
She’d brought me a towel. “You’re such
a good looking boy,” she said, “it scares me.”
The potshard pieces come together. Mom
stares at me. My shivering nakedness
covers itself up. Hers lights up with a flash
so blinding all I see is the darkness.
PLAYING THE WHEEL
We are leaving the Casino at Juan-les-Pins
the roulette marbles still tumbling over numbers
about to lodge in somebody else's stomach.
By a hotel full of the Rolling Stones
arrogantly parked is a black Maserati,
the mild swale of its transparent fastback
frosted smooth by the August dawn.
There a suave finger––speaking, I supposed,
for the whole woman––had written,
"Dear Luc, I waited for you since three hours.
Your anger not incurable anger?
Biot 479 310"
My fingers are spinning the dial
around like the wheel of fortunate numbers
ticking into a perfect parlay
just as she answers—Daisy! with a voice
full of money which I spend in the dream
Je suis Luc J'arrive J'arrive
THE WORST KISS
I ask you for it.
You look unhappy and surprised
but lean forward to touch my lips
with a reluctant brush of your own.
I say: "That is the worst kiss
I've had since I was seven."
The moment veers toward a smile,
we say goodnight.
A night later by Grasmere in rain
your mouth buries in my sweater,
hiding. "The worst kiss?" you say,
unwilling to part with another.
But you do. Your kissing is tireless,
expectant, as though you woke up
from walking all day through London, still
overflowing with its pleasure, and so loving
every morning we nearly miss breakfast.
The facts of our lives flow freely,
we're guides to our own arrested pasts,
wondering whether we still live there.
We do. Our last kiss
holds nothing back, except our lives,
which empty of each other as slowly
as rain dries from damp wool.
Inscriptions on Greek tombstones intrigued him,
the way stones spoke to the dead with sure words.
This little stone, good Sabinus, records
our great friendship––which I still need. Don’t dim
your memory of me by drinking Lethé.
Sometimes the dead answer. Please don’t worry
long over me. Work. Live. At nineteen
cancer killed me, and I leave the sweet sun.
We both had strong Platonic appetites
for ripe symposia of grapes and plums—
whose power Aristotle found in their pits—
tiny grenades, packed with earth-driven blossoms
which stun the World of Forms. When a calm mirror
lake absorbed us, we dove underwater,
blew out mouthfuls, swam until the honey
of exhaustion sweetened every cell in the body.
From a frame normally tense and restless
a tennis ball exacted gracefulness
by skipping on the tip of the net’s tongue.
The dust kicked from our reflexes in long-
winded rallies. Sharp satisfying plocks,
both of us bent on keeping play alive,
we’d silence with a forehand drive,
let sweat cool, and drink harsh gulps from our Cokes.
His death ten seconds in my ears, I stalked
past our friends, making of grief a dumb show,
striding as if I had somewhere to go,
so blindly thirsty for Ron’s life, I hawked
up rain I'd swallowed, then spit through chilled teeth;
sat for a while in a bus kiosk
recalling the times Ron would ask
me what I‘d study, faced with early death.
That Spring, at Epidauros, I heard mist
hiss off marble harangued by the rain.
When it’s wordless, grief can drive you insane,
so talk to him. Tell him he's keenly missed.
Trust words to carry in this magical air;
this theatre to cure pity and fear.
Ask both laurel and myrtle leaf
to help bring him back from the afterlife,
then set two stones speaking. Let him go first.
“Sometimes we doomed seek death––I was coerced.
Though I loved math, Greek, philosophy, song
I mastered none. In all lives much goes wrong;
to love your own––then die––is the worst.”
“Ron, the Olympian Bastards stopped cold
the life that your genius foretold––
except for friendship, in which you are versed.”
We poets were assigned the old potters’ shed,
its kiln and dislocated wheel nearby,
built on the slope below the Aurelian
Wall that swells up from seething Roman earth
like a Pacific roller cresting overhead
––a perfect wave to catch, if you can ride
that buried power surging underfoot.
Out its south windows stretched the backyard farm––
ten walled-in acres of working Campagna.
Free-ranging hens skittered about, women
picked blue-green artichokes into aprons,
a goat’s vibrato rasped and rasped and raaaasped.
Cool morning winds bending the tulip beds
brimmed over us, setting our hands to work.
When nothing much was happening on pages
littering our worktable, we would feed
the woodstove wretched balled-up early drafts
better off smoke than fodder for critics.
Time to quit writing when the noon cannon
boomed over Rome from Garibaldi’s statue.
Afternoons we trooped down to the Tiber;
our scholar-guides ticked off on either hand
snake-throttled bell-towers of the late Baroque,
or probed the Palatine with a miner’s cap
to spotlight, in a 2nd-century school,
graffiti mocking Gaius for his faith.
At night, Fellini and Frascati binges.
Fired by such trips we hiked back to write late,
through artichokes whitening in the moonlight.
Every writer left something odd behind.
Letters from convicts to Ralph Ellison,
Louis Simpson’s unpublished dissertation
on James Hogg, The Ettrick Shepherd,
a photograph of Tony Hecht’s young wife
stunning herself on what looked like Capri.
Pinned to the back wall for contemplation
were single words, writ large in lithe Italic
script. Some I recognized as nouns vital
to Richard Wilbur’s Roman fountain poems:
a Greek word, Arêté; a Latin one,
reticulum; then laundry and angel.
That wall of opportunity beckoned:
Don’t hide your most audacious words––flaunt them!
Rescue them from Roget. Get them ready
to rise to your occasions. Poems are made
not just from serendipitous mots justes
but from words groomed until their big chance comes.
One word of Wilbur’s never got the call.
At least I never found it in his poems.
Niké: a goddess once, but now a shoe––
an airborne winner riding roughshod.
Wilbur left it, a tuft of flowers spared
for those who work this meadow after him.
But I worked far away from Frost’s meadow
where scythes pair off––and you work together,
Buddy, whether you work together or apart.
Though tempted I let Wilbur’s Niké be.
Whatever Roman fact he made a poem
soars in its place, even his railway station’s
Jordanesque swoosh of roofline hangs there still––
beyond the faked-out past, beyond my reach.
Poets compete for fame. Is this our worst
infirmity? Or just our union card?
I’ll scavenge Rome for transient artifacts
too fleeting for Wilbur or never etched
by Piranesi; I’ll go easy on fountains
in favor of totaled Vespas and time bombs.
What seemed a small refusal now seems huge.
I should have put those Nikes on and run.
Thirty-seven years later I’ve just done it.
The farm is gone; American grass, green as
a fairway, soothes the Fellows dealing frisbies.
Our boarded studio stores beat-up chairs.
Niké is still pinned to the burlap wall
in Wilbur’s hand, breathing inside her ink
cocoon, impatiently growing wings.
THE SEWER DARE
The April I recovered from measles––
quarantined for weeks in a darkened room––
the outdoor sun intimidated my eyes
but dazzling cardinals and forsythia
soon lit up everywhere I looked. From lilac
and honeysuckle, my breath pulled sweetness
in through my nose. Weather turned warm as though
won by the flowers’ graceful example.
After a sweat-provoking tennis game
I took my first cool shower of the year.
Screen doors—pried open rickety—held back
their slam until I pushed off the top step
of the porch, staggering under my own weight,
eager to run myself back into shape
against buddies, jackrabbits, butterflies;
every competitor set a harsh pace.
No matter how lightheaded after races
through backyards and woodlots, I balked at
being conned by Reichert’s provocations.
Haul ourselves hand over hand on telephone
wires, biceps shivering with exertion
but our legs scissoring uselessly? That
was one sure way to join Pete Reichert’s gang––
or get ourselves electrocuted. Screw yous
got my head pummeled, pugnacious fist feints
brought my guard up, but the real killers
clenched in Pete Reichert’s fists were bottle caps.
He flinched when I smacked the hand that struck me
lucky, relaxed, and opened on a Pepsi cap.
Reichert broke its news grimly while he lodged
that opaque monocle in his eye: “You know
the old storm sewer runs under Sagamore?
I’ve bellied through it during thunderstorms.
So you guys better hope it doesn’t rain.”
McCornack, hunched over his sunken chest,
volunteered. He had failed to recite
the Lord’s Prayer yesterday while, pinned squirming,
a hen pecked chickenfeed off his bare belly.
A Nedicks top whose luck lay undivulged
Reichert stuck in his other leering eye,
then both caps dropped off his frozen zombie
stare focused on something a mile away.
Maybe Nedicks meant Mountain Avenue
strapped in Mike’s buggy, with a running start,
one wheel loose, and me steering with my knees.
By deadpan razzmatazz they tried to haze
chickenhearted refusals out of me,
pulling the laces out of my sneakers
so when I raced I ran them off my feet.
Disgraced, there was no place to go but down.
McCornack teamed with me, and the iron grill,
crowbarred upright, tottered over our fingers.
We let go of the street; the grill clanked shut.
Reichert peered through the manhole: “Hey, little rain
comin’ down.” He quieted to let us listen.
Somebody’s leak tumbled on the macadam,
superbly timed. “Bastards, I still see blue,”
Mac whispered. Bastards was fed back to us
amplified. Reichert’s hollering laughter
hollowed the sewer out ahead of us.
Unforeseen water drops glanced off our necks.
Holes sucking at our palms in the leaf slime
left by runaway rainfalls, ghouls of the cold air,
spider webs and rust flakes, increased our sense
of the sewer’s impassive narrowness—
constriction of being bound and gagged
without anything firm to fight against.
Nothing to do but elbow into it,
worming the way a jointed finger does
squirming inside a glove. But open-eyed
blindness put pressure on our lungs, as though
we were swimming underwater, knowing
we had to come up for air pretty soon.
My fingers grabbing both McCornack’s ankles
stopped him. My own thighs loosened and my neck
ligaments eased. A lit match showed Mac’s hands
flailing to kill invisible vermin;
water drenching our pant legs swirled chills
up through our privates, encouraging leaks
through our khakis and cloudbursts in our minds.
Mac tried to pivot and crawl back the same way
we came, but his buttocks jammed his forehead
flush against stone. His scrawny arm muscles
grappled and strained, resisting python-like
peristalsis. McCornack’s fist jabbed
as if for Reichert’s jaw. “Easy!” I said,
thinking, We’re dead. Reichert had bullshit us;
we’d become mutinous excrement
propelling itself through an intestine.
Neighborhoods, parents, friends sank out of sight;
my sister's curls sagged in sodden languor
below me, trapped in a swift rising tide.
I couldn’t hear a word my mother called
from our porch, which floated out of my mind.
Auroras opened their colorful fingers
whenever my twisting head smashed my nose.
At last the fiery hand that palmed me turned
to clammy mud. I groveled in knowledge
I still believe: Bravado can kill you.
A steady spray of water drenched our faces,
then subsided. The brass nozzles of hoses
bumped kneecaps; sunlight broke through as Reichert’s
whinnying buddies pried the cover up.
Our minds, pounded into our stomachs,
reawakened to blinding sunshine, which we
got used to, hand over hand up the slick green
hoses toward the blue manhole-rounded sky.
There, towering in a human pyramid,
was Reichert’s roaring gang, topped by Reichert
rollicking in his personal glory.
His was the biggest swindle of our lives.
We stood sullen, each holding a live hose.
Reichert pounded his fist on the asphalt,
but for once I had a good grip on water,
filling his nostrils with its blinding blast.
Cynthy and Abigail arrived breathless,
sleepy-eyed, the bedspread’s tassels still pocking
their cheeks, just too late to see what happened.
“Those beasties don’t even know they’re alive,”
he yelled at the gang. For weeks the word death
seeped through everything I loved, then dried out
soon as baseball season got underway.
3 - Afterword
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