W.M. Rivera

Back Then and Now


For my mother, Alice Moser (Rivera) Claudel (1914-1982),

poet, founder of The New Laurel Review


My mother in her salon days, skittish

in the Vieux Carré, laughed with Tennessee

and lyric Tate.  Rambling home up rue Royale

late afternoons, her six-year old said

"Houses are like people, first they're young,

then winds come and blow them away . . . ."


She praised that day's impulse . . . curse or blessing? 

Set me dreaming . . . .  To hobnob with the great!

To talk of ultimates!  To see beyond

the known, this little world, and walk with gods!

To be loved, revered . . . . To be grown up!

Back then, how grand I thought to be a poet!


So now I realize the blessing's curse: tolerate

the wait for words: ventures on outbursts.



What Can't Be Done

            New Orleans, May 2012


and I didn't, just went to where it was

            I couldn't go back to: my once

New Orleans—loath to see the house torn down

below the bridge that drives


"Algerines"* to work, a barren lot now under

traffic roar.  Teen years ago, I lived

to walk one block to the massive corner library also

            wrecked, its remains little


men carried off.  And now twenty-seven

             more years have passed: two trees grown 

that span the gap.  How simply made: a life

            that just becomes a looking back,


a splendid emptiness while lives rush

            past, there and here.  – Once

I was all future; now wishful thinking sighs

            for things not fixed in time,


the Irish Channel renamed "Art's Warehouse,"

            epic Calliope street abridged and over-

shadowed, limbo childhood's one-god, luck,

            and Grandma's adages to keep


my teeth intact, I'm back to do what can't be done:

            restore the missing house, its living

left inside, where nothing's revealed except

            time's abeyance and the urge to run.


*Algiers is across the Mississippi River from the rest of New Orleans, connected by riverboat ferry and now by the Greater New Orleans Mississippi River bridge built in 1958.  Known by some New Orleanians as the "West Bank," by others, the "worst bank."



Write about anything


To Agnolo di Cosimo (1503–1572), an Italian Mannerist painter and poet from Florence, known by his sobriquet, Bronzino.


It takes all kinds. 

Rilke shaped life into sonnets. 

Wordsworth ranted against wasting powers. 

Tu Fu derided war, loved flowers, wife and winds. 

Neruda enthused about socks and shoes. 

Bronzino extoled church bells and cheese.


One's a prisoner to the ludic sway.

Another chants the epic's stern details.  Others, the gritty

and the Milky Way, childhood trauma and love's nightingale,

a slice of moon, the fate of the pussy and the owl.

It's not what's right or wrong though values count for me

more than belief.  Some say it's the music, song

that matters; others say the object, concepts make the art.


Critics claim time's the test.  Others scoff. 

Write about anything, the centuries whisper,

nothing will come of it.



Staring at the Wall

            In memory of Grace Granger


Dear Grace,


my mother had me call you Aunt; you weren't.

I loved you in painless ways children do.


You fabricated dolls drawn from dreams and the famous:

Marie Laveau wild dancing at fiery Pontchartrain, dispensing gris-gris,

voodoo highs.  I wish I could recall your gumbo girls,

each had a name, their colors

stuffed on shelves, in corners,

unmoved the day you fell from cancer down the stairs. 


"Ma chère," my mother cried that day they took you off

still clutching your favorite white-winged Angel Doll.


Steeped in faith and scared you had not paid enough

to be redeemed, you gave

your tightly held one million saved to save

your soul—seeking entrance through the darkest space

you feared, thoughts of Hieronymus Bosch

whose hells some churches post along the walls


to cause the flock to pause and to contribute.  You gave your all;

why not! you said,

your family gone, your husband dead.  Yet

when the nuns shaved your head and dumped you

in a metal bed, it seemed a bitter pill, Hail Marys


to alleviate the pain.  Maker of famous

faces for Maison Blanche department stores, you worried

about your puppets unprotected, home, staring at the wall,

and hugging Angel Doll, watched fly by

white-winged and starched headdresses

outside the inhospitable door.



A Thanksgiving Story


In the New Orleans Lee Circle YMCA,

long gone, my buddy, John, and I leaped

to learn one Thanksgiving turkey would be

the prize to the best young swimmer

finishing two miles a day for ten days.


The first few days, we paced each other

neck and neck.  For the last seven, I endured

losing, gradually—a body length then two,

finally the pool's length.  I hadn't a chance

for the prize I meant to give grandmother:


that coveted bird.  The last day, I waited,

why wasn't he there.  I thought he must have

told his mother.  I bet she said, "They need it

more." I could see the glow in my grandmother's eyes

as I coasted the final mile, sprinting


at the last.  We never talked about it. 

He mumbled something next day.  Later,

I sneaked into a local movie house

(he wouldn't come with me, too straight to cheat). 

I missed him there, still glad not to have paid the price.


W.M. Rivera's most recent collection of poems is a chapbook titled The Living Clock from Finishing Line Press (2013).  His full-length collection, Buried in the Mind's Backyard (BrickHouse Books, 2011), has a cover print by Miguel Condé, one of Spain's prominent artists, and is available from Itascabooks.com and Amazon.  Born in New Orleans, he began publishing poetry in the 1950s. His early poetry appeared under the names William Rivera and William McLeod Rivera in The Nation, Prairie Schooner, the Kenyon Review, and The New Laurel Review among other publications. Recent poems have appeared in the California Quarterly, Gargoyle, Ghazal, and Broome Review. His first book of poems, The End of Legend's String,  was published in 1960 and illustrated by Mexican artist, José Luis Cuevas. Rivera's professional activities in agricultural development have taken him to more than 30 countries in Africa, Asia, Europe, and Latin America. Retired from the University of Maryland, he has only recently returned to poetry.



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