Three Poems

Paul Hostovsky

What Beautiful Is (February 2/8)
Photo Credit: emma.kate

Works for Trumpet

We are listening to Alison Balsom
play Bach. “Do we have to

listen to this?” Amber, eleven,
buckled up in the passenger seat,

balks, bucks. We’re late for school—
her backpack, lunchbox, and violin

ride mutely in the back. She looks
down at the CD box, makes a face:

“Who is Botch anyway?”
Her violin leaps violently to the floor

as I brake for a stopped school bus.
“It’s not Botch,” I tell her. “It’s Bach

only the greatest musician who ever lived,
that’s who.” She gives the box a second,

closer look—“Bach is pretty. How old is Bach?”—
frowning at the photo of Alison Balsom

on the cover. “That’s not Bach,” I tell her.
“It’s Alison Balsom. On trumpet. And yes,

she is pretty.” Amber raises her left eyebrow,
then stitches it to its twin. “A girl

playing the trumpet?” And I can hear
the wheels turning, tuning, inside her head

as the school bus trundles dumbly along
and I follow close behind. “There aren’t

any girls who play trumpet in my school.
Only boys,” she says. Alison belts out another

string of impossibly gorgeous arpeggios.
Amber looks out the window, scratches

her head. She is listening. I don’t say
a word, pull in behind the school bus, park.

We sit there for a long time, the violin
on the floor, the trumpet in the air, Alison

Balsom breathing Bach, breathing beauty,
Amber late for school and listening hard.


To the Man Talking to Himself on a Park Bench

Could it be, Delirius, that it’s left to you
to say out loud what the rest of us
are all just thinking to ourselves
in so many words? If not the gist of it
then the thrust of it, the spill of it, the raging
waterfall of it? You are vaguely dangerous
with your amblyopic eye, your mossy beard
caked with dirt and crumbs and life forms that crawl
and fly. But what frightens me isn’t you.
It’s the danger of going where you have gone,
of opening that door, that window,
and not being able to close it now,
all the interior monologue flying out,
flying free. I envy you that freedom in a way,
the going over that waterfall
with nothing but the broken staves of your own
rotten teeth framing your verbal free fall;
the relinquishment of resistance; the syllables
of all your mutterings and murmurings,
all your enthusiasms, imprecations,
recitations and improvisations like so much
spray misting above that vertiginous
ecstatic abandon. And the faint illusion
of a rainbow hanging in the air just above your head.
No, what frightens me isn’t you, Delirius.
It’s that slatted green bench right next to yours,
looking so vacant, so unoccupied, and so free.



A suicide bomber isn’t born a suicide bomber.
He wasn’t a suicide bomber in elementary school
when he drew a spiky, yellow, exploding sun

above a little town between two green hills
and gave it to the teacher, and the teacher smiled.
On the day the suicide bomber was born

his father danced through the market from stall
to stall, singing the good news out until
the spiky, yellow, exploding sun went down

over the little town, and by then all the people
in the houses huddled between two green hills
had heard of the birth of the suicide bomber

who wasn’t a suicide bomber at all, at all.
He was never in his life what you would call
a suicide bomber. He was his father’s son

until that day in the market, the people and animals
splattering like so many fruits and vegetables—
That was the day the suicide bomber was born.
An exploding sun. Like millions of exploding suns.

pencilPaul Hostovsky is the author of five books of poetry and six poetry chapbooks. His Selected Poems was published by FutureCycle Press in 2014. His poems have won a Pushcart Prize, two Best of the Net Awards, and have been featured on Poetry Daily, Verse Daily, and The Writer’s Almanac. Visit him at Email: phostovsky[at]

Two Poems

Paul Hostovsky

sympathy cards. it's so surreal.
Photo Credit: Rachel/Fuschia Foot

Dear Hallmark

I know some kids who’d rather make their own.
And I know some grownups who would rather
cut their own tongues out
than let you speak for them. Helplessly intelligent
surrealists, glib intellectuals, haiku bicyclists, some
of my best friends. But I’ll give you this, you have
sold more poems than all the moderns and postmoderns
put together. And the people love you. Are the people just
stupid? Are the poets just jealous? Are the pharmacists
just high on life? The truth is, I love your timeless
earnestness. I do. In sickness and in health. Births and deaths
and all occasions in between. Because it goes without saying—
the whole world goes without saying. Saying doesn’t
make it go. Never did and never will. But you,
you say without going, like the clock that doesn’t
go, the clock that stays the same, your hands always
together, in applause, or prayer, or shared joy, or sorrow where
you can only wring your hands, fumble for the words,
and say the words are inadequate. Which, of course, they are.
But at least you say them. You say them for us when we go
without saying, and when we go without knowing
what to say, or don’t go at all but send you stammering
in our stead. And here I stand in your aisle, in your
shadow, in your presence, my hands in my pockets, fumbling
for my wallet, feeling I am in the presence of
not greatness, not brilliance, not scholarship or virtuosity,
but love. I am in the presence of love here, helplessly
simple, deliberately compassionate, practicing forever
its imperfect loopy cursive with its pink tongue sticking out.



All I need is a car
and some gas
and a garage, and I’m good to go. Good
to go. To cease upon the midnight with no pain.
Half in love with easeful death
all my life. All my life I have
been jumping to death the way others
jump to other conclusions. When I got sick
I jumped to my death. When I fell in love
I said she is so
beautiful I want to die. But a suicide
isn’t born a suicide.
He wasn’t a suicide in elementary school.
And he wasn’t a suicide in band practice.
And he wasn’t a suicide when he was playing left field.
For a long time he just wanted to be
one of those words that are acts.
A speech act. To say one is to do it. To actually
do it. I promise. I apologize. Maybe that’s why
he was always making promises,
and always apologizing
for breaking them. To cease upon
the midnight with no pain,
no pain being the operative
words here. For he doth hate pain. You can
operate a garage door from the front seat,
close it with the electric garage door opener
while your car is still running, and not get out,
and not walk back into your life.
You can sit there thinking about
the lines in certain poems
while the car is singing soft and low
and Lethe-wards. Being
too happy in thine happiness.
I don’t think I’ve ever been
too happy in mine or anyone else’s happiness.
Maybe that’s why I’m sitting here
all alone except for the sleds and the bicycles
and the lawnmowers and snow shovels
and garbage bins, thinking about Keats and
tuberculosis. And wondering: if he had a car
and some gas, and a garage, would he
have done what he said in that poem?
I know the words are not the act itself.
These words are coming before the act.
After the act, others will come
and read these words, looking for reasons.
I apologize. To the living.
I know the act itself says
there is no reason to go on living.
I know it’s kind of a slap in the face.
But it’s nothing personal.
I wasn’t talking about your
life when I took my own.
Your life is still beautiful in so many
words. I love you is another
one of those words, you could say.
Or you could argue that it isn’t.


Paul Hostovsky is the author of three books of poetry, Bending the Notes, Dear Truth, and A Little in Love a Lot. His poems have won a Pushcart Prize and been featured on Poetry Daily, Verse Daily, The Writer’s Almanac, and Best of the Net 2008 and 2009.
Visit him at Email: phostovsky[at]

Five Poems

Paul Hostovsky


The first time we kissed
you turned away, saying:
“Not on the mouth. Not yet. I’m
sorry. There are things
I haven’t told you…”
I didn’t understand.
But I understood enough
to gather your hands
in my hands,
to rest my cheek
against yours,
and to kiss
your cheek,
your temple, your
eyebrow, and then
only the side
of your mouth,
its corner. It was
a sort of lateral kiss,
like looking a little to one side
of something to see it better,
like with stars,
or with poems,
or like the truck that carries the glass
on its side,
because of the nature of its cargo.


The Message

In the dream I was living with your death
and it was intolerable. When I woke
you were alive, and the dream of your death
receded like the dark. I went about my day
in a kind of daydream—eating, drinking, walking,
talking to the living, not recognizing which ones
were living with death. But I kept thinking about
how intolerable it was, the loss, the thinking about
the loss, and the not waking from it ever. I thought
it’s the thinking about it that’s intolerable. As if life
were thought. And so while there was still time—
before there was no place in life where the thought
of your death was not—I called you. I got your machine.
I left the message of the dream on your machine.


Ars PO

A poem should have
at least one good list—
anything fragile, liquid, perishable, or potentially hazardous?
A poem should be
as a package you might put
into the hands of
unsuspecting others.
Can you be trusted?
Can they be trusted?
You can receive a thing
without opening it.
You can reject a thing
without opening it. You can
read a poem by holding it up to the light,
holding it up to your ear
and giving it a shake
to see what shifts. You can
even walk away from it
and come back to it later
to see if it has changed
you, opened you. Oh my
bearer of rectangles,
if I could tell you
how to tell the pure
money of the poems
from all the other rectangles
in your little square truck
with its picture of flight
on both flanks,
if I could show you
how to feel it
through the envelope,
like a Braille letter,
like someone else’s
goose bumps in your hands,
worth its weight in
transport of a kind I cannot
teach you how to make your own,
though you steal it,
though you open every
letter, oh my poor
letter carrier, rich already
with the handling of it,
though you look for it in all
four corners
of its own sumptuous
destitute world
which is thinner than paper,
which is air itself,
air from the country
of someone else’s
mouth, oh my beautiful
mailman, I would,
I would.


The Self

It was a Buddhist lecture on the Self.
There must have been fifty people
in that room with the eight Vicissitudes,
six Stages of Metta, four Noble Truths,
three Kinds of Suffering and two
ceiling fans spinning, spinning. She was
sitting on the other side of the room,
touching herself. I couldn’t stop staring
as she twisted a strand of her long hair
round her fingers absentmindedly,
listening to the speaker, holding it
to her lips, sniffing it, tasting it,
eyeing it doubtfully, then letting it go—
She caressed her cheek, her forehead,
the palm of her hand cupped her chin, fingers
drumming. It was a pensive attitude
lasting only a moment, for her hands
grew restless again, and she started hugging
herself, her left hand massaging her right
shoulder, her right hand making excursions
to the hip, belly, armpit where it moored itself
with a thumb camped out on the small hillock
of her left breast. I couldn’t help wondering
if she could feel my eyes on her body the way I could
feel her hands on her body on mine. “Don’t
attach to anything as me or mine,” the Buddhist
speaker who was Jewish before he was Buddhist
was saying, “because attachment is the second
arrow.” That’s when I realized I had missed
what the first arrow was. And then, as in a dream,
I was trying to raise one of my hands lying
in my lap like two dead birds, belly-up, to ask.


Looking at Boobs with Aunt Edie

Me and my Aunt Edie are looking
at my parents’ wedding album.
My parents are dead; my Aunt Edie
is living with Alzheimer’s; I’m fifty
and twice divorced—just to give you
an idea, a preamble. On the first page
a photo of my mother and grandmother.
Aunt Edie’s short-term memory is shot,
but she can still remember the name
of her fourth grade teacher, her best friend
from camp, her great Aunt Millie, Uncle
Donald, and the exact number of the house
on Observantenveg where she lived
in Maastricht until she was eight: #46. “Hey,
look how busty Saftah looks,” she says,
and we stare awhile at my grandmother’s
boobs. I smile, nod, turn the page
to a photo of my mother and grandfather
walking down the aisle arm-in-arm. “Hey,
look how pointy Reggie’s boobs are here,”
says Aunt Edie. And I can’t help noticing
the theme that’s developing page by page,
breast by breast. And I’m wondering if
this is a side of Aunt Edie that was always
there, only covered up, inhibited, corseted like
her own ample breasts (“which were always
much bigger than your mother’s, you know,”
she’s telling me now) and only coming out
in her late seventies, now that she’s forgotten
the reason for keeping it hid. Whatever
the reason, her celebration of the bosoms
of the women of my family is making me
squirm. That’s when she looks up, adjusts
her bra strap, fixes me with a penetrating
hazel arrow, and says, “If I didn’t know you
better, nephew, I’d say you were blushing.”

Paul Hostovsky’s poems have been featured on Poetry Daily, Verse Daily, Best of the Net, The Writer’s Almanac and The Pushcart Prize XXXIII. His latest collection, Dear Truth, is available from Main Street Rag. To read more of his work, visit his website. E-mail: phostovsky[at]