Cosmic Heavyweights in Free-For-All: One of the most complex galaxy clusters, located about 5.4 billion light years from Earth.

By Chandra X-Ray Observatory, 2009.

Millennia ago, I stared into space
the man selling hot dogs beside me
and my mustard moment
threw the night sky at me.
And an ageless poem.
And this photo.

sight unveils
a thousand questions

Smell the breath of the galaxies.
Be a Superman, with no breath.
Invisible royal purple man,
pick up paperclips and Van Gogh’s ear
give me back every millennium’s climax.

sense unveils
a spangled ocean

God has sex with us
by creating galaxy clusters
and our small faces
ofttimes so emotional we stuff
blue and purple tree-shaped
fairy floss; as if God was on
one knee, simultaneously caressing
energy and chewing gum.

being unveils
the myriad life

I have seen you.
I have honoured you.
Day forever brightens in my pocket.

* * * * *

This post is one in a series of works inspired by the Smithsonian Institution’s photo archive, made publicly available on Flickr. If you would like to, choose an image from their collection and create something – be it prose, poetry, audio, or visual art – inspired by it, and send it to snakeoilcure [at] gmail [dot] com.

* * * * *

Michael Fitzgerald-Clarke is an English-born Australian poet who lives in Townsville, Queensland. At present he is working on a MS titled Five Faves, Five Least Faves. He blogs here. If Michael could have just one wish, he would give the wish away.

His other contributions to the Snake-Oil Cure can be found here.

Owney Dies


he young boy quivered like a loose railborne down by overflowing coal truck, afraid to look up from beneath his cap for fear his grin would split his face wide open.C. Rudolph Brand was not looking at the boy.  He spun the strip of telegraph paper around his thick, dusty fingers as if he could rub off the black ink buried in the deep furrows.

Owney due on next packet from St. Louis.

The comical cur was coming to Toledo, Brand thought.  The live package with no address.

The boy couldn’t contain himself any longer.

“I’ll tell everyone else Owney’s coming, right Postmaster?  It’s a right fine honor for the Toledo Postal Service.”

Postmaster Brand held up his hand.

“Is the packet train coming in on time?”

“Running a couple of minutes early, sir.”

“We’ve got a full load to lay up when it’s here.  We don’t want too many distractions.”

The boy tore open the door and ran out into the vast anteroom of Toldo Postal Routing Station #1.  The sounds of the mail, muted by the heavy oak frame, the thick, smoky glass, the stolid marble walls, came coursing in like a river roiled from early spring rains:  worn-down cast iron wheels catching on the loose seams of the shiny new floors; the insect-like whisper of envelopes sliding one against another as postmen poured thousands into huge sorting bins; the echo of voices calling out across the anteroom, signaling a load ready to get routed, the mail sorted and directed, some pieces set for their final mile, wrapped together in square packets and stuffed into a waxed canvas post bag, other pieces strewn among hundreds of other pieces, sealed loosely in a canvas bin, ready for loading onto the packet train heading east, or west, or the south, hopscotching across the country, to Chicago, or Lexington, Minneapolis, Cheyenne, Harrisburg, Denver, Albany, Salt Lake, San Francisco, Boston, Washington, New York.

The noise from the anteroom was like the roar of a waterfall to the thin, serious man who sat straight in his chair and tapped thick schedule book on his desk.  The country was growing.  The mail was growing.  The number of cars on the packet train was going.  The army of postmen was growing.  There was no end.  This was an infinite campaign.

The mail held siege and there was no escape.

The packet from St. Louis pulled in at 3:43 in the morning, 15 minutes early.  The platform was uncommonly crowded.  Word had gotten out that the travelling dog, Owney, was coming to town.  Clerk, runners, sweepers, shift leaders, sorters, carriers, boxers, pushers, postmen — all of the graveyard shift at Routing Station #1 ran along the gravel railbed beside the squealing train as it eased into the station.  The men pounded on the wooden side planks, yelled out high-pitched barks, cried out “Owney” like they were serenading a two-bit street lady, laughed and snorted and pranced with infantile glee.

They fell still when the train settled on its axles, the steam clouds shrouding the undergear.  Four men swung from the front and back cars and worked their way to the middle of the train, stopping at each car, yanking each iron latch free and pulling the doors open wide.

“Got a special load for you today, boys,” one of the men said.

They all were silent.  The doors opened onto the black bowels filled with the mail stock.  When the four men came to the center car, one pulled a long wooden plank from the side rail, while another clambered up the side and unlatched the door.  The other two stood facing the Toledo Routing Station crew squarely, arms crossed over their chests, feet shoulder’s length apart.

The man at the door yelled out, “Presenting Owney.”  He opened the door.

A thick, ragged dog with matted grey, black and brown hair sat stolidly in the center of the opening.  His muzzle was fell like the lips of a dispirited old man.  His haunches sagged to the side under his own weight.  His eyes were dull.

The men let out a cheer.  “Owney!” they cried.

When the ramp was laid down, the dog stood up.  A makeshift harness of dun canvas was wrapped around his forward haunches and the small of his back.  Tin stamps, metal tags and leather labels pinned to the harness jangled and clanked when the dog walked.

He looked old and heavy.

When he got to ground, he held his nose up and sniffed.  He turned toward the station house and began to trot.  He ignored the men altogether.

“What’s he doing?” one asked.

“That’s Owney, got a mind of his own.  Let him be and it will be all right,” one of the railmen said.

The men fell into line behind him.

Postmaster Brand stood at the center of the platform.  The dog was almost invisible up against the grey muster of men.  The serpentine train seethed behind them.  The rail crew was setting out the ramps on the cars to unload, readying their gear at the front of the platform to take on the new load.  They were heading northeast, to Buffalo, where the Canadian post would be laid off and intermingled.  A tall man in a crisp blue uniform stepped to the balcony of the second car and called out impatiently, “We’re ready now.  Don’t make us late over that fool dog,” and Brand cast his glance around for his loading foreman, a young man named Chevrall who was mature beyond his years, only to see him trotting in a crouch alongside the mangy dog that was moving up the platform.

Brand held his voice.  Yelling out was beneath his position, would undermine the dignity and authority that he believed was the responsibility of a Postmaster.  The order of the Postmaster was rule; without it the torrential plunge of the mail would crush the Station, and unleash a sequence of mistimings, disruptions and failures that could bring the entire Postal System, a vast, faceless network, to a halt.

Brand turned to the young clerk who stood on his tiptoes beside him and said, “Please fetch Mr. Cheverall to my office, son.” The boy’s grin was uncontrollable now. He raced down the platform.  Brand returned to his desk, where he mused on the odd quality of this dog that travelled from post station to post station, unfettered, on his own whim, disrupting and enlivening.  They were fortunate that the train was early, he thought.  They would survive the distraction, though it would take all the extra time they had picked up.  He’d heard other Postmasters curse the travelling dog, and had wondered at their virulence, but now he could feel the urgency that the distraction of the dog instilled, the grabbing, cleaving worry that the work would not be done and the train not leave on time.

Chevrall burst into the room with his hat in his hand.

“Can you believe it, sir?  That Owney picked us to come visit?  He’s been all over the world and he comes to the Toledo Routing Station!  It’s a premonition of good things, Sir. Fortune’s going to shine on you, Mr. Brand, you can be sure of that now.”

“I’m concerned more about the misfortune that we’ll experience if we don’t get the post off the train and the packet out in time,” Brand said.  “I’m expecting you to fulfill your responsibilities with your customary competence, Mr. Chevrall.  That means getting the teams busy and at work, not following a mongrel around the station.  If they can’t manage that we’re going to set that dog out, that’s what you need to make sure they know.”

“Sir, we can’t tell them that!” the young man blurted.

Brand looked at him in silence.

“I beg your pardon, Mr. Brand.  I’m just meaning that it’s a great honor to have Owney visit us, and the men should feel good about it.  We’re on top of the job, sir.  I’m off to keep it moving.”

Brand looked away out the window.  Carts were trundled off the train, lost in the shadows beyond the platform.  The door closed behind him.  He shook his head.  A dog, just an old dog.

Chevrall found his men clustered around the dog in the middle of the anteroom.  Owney had stopped and was looking around.

“I don’t reckon he can see,” said one of the men.

“What do you think he wants?” asked the young clerk. “He’s looking for something.”

“He’s probably half blind, you figure?”

“We’ve got to get a tin to hang off him so people know that he was here.”

“What do you think made him come here?”

“He must have got word that we had a new Routing station.  State of the art.”

“He doesn’t get word, you know.  He’s a dog.”

The little clerk threw back his shoulders and faced the men.

“He’s something more than a dog.  He’s been all the way to Katmandu with the post.  I’ve heard about.  He’s a postal dog to his core, just like us, so don’t be smart about him.”

The old dog pushed his nose against the young boy’s hand.

“See,” the boy said.  “He likes me.”

Chevrall pulled a few of the men aside.

“Come on now, we’ve got work to do.  The dog can take care of himself.”

The men slunk away as if they were just waking up, reluctant to start their shift.  The boy stood by the dog.

“What do you plan on doing, Eddy?” Chevrall asked.  “Stand with him all night?”

“This is the biggest thing I’ve ever seen, Mister,” the boy said.  “I’m famous now.  I don’t know what to do.”

“Why don’t you call over the paper and get someone here to take a picture?  We should let all of Toledo know that the famous world travelling dog Owney paid us a visit.  It’s better than royalty.”

Postmaster Brand had realized well before the incidents began that the transfer was going to turn ugly.  His crew was hurrying because they’d got a late start.  A hamper of loose mail tipped and spilled along the tracks.  Another hamper careened down the ramp and struck one of his loaders.  A big Swede who worked as a sweeper pushed a railmen down on the fresh gravel.  The weather turned and a light rain began to fall.  Brand looked at the clock.  They were falling behind schedule.

He stood at the big glass window and looked for Chevrall.  Yelling erupted from dark end of the train and a loud crash sounded.  Brand stepped through his private door to the platform.  The noise became louder.  He heard the sharp crack of a gun shot.  The train foreman ran out from the second car and sprinted down the platform.  Brand followed briskly behind him.

As he came closer to the rear, an unfamiliar voice stood out from the rest.

“Stand back, I say.  Stand back or get what’s coming to you.  Just stand back.”

The foreman waded into the group of men and pulled a small, grimy man aside by the scruff of his neck.

“Timmy Mahon, up to the front with you, you little wretch, now and don’t move an inch.”

“What’s going on here?” Brand cried out as he got to the group.  “My men, get back to work here.  Hurry it up.  Nothing to do here.”

“Just a minute,” said the loud voice.  Brand saw a stout man with a florid face standing at the back of the rail car.  He pointed a pistol diffidently toward the men.  He wore a Toledo Police uniform.

“What’s your business here, man” Brand said.  “This is Federal tracks here.”

“I’m patrolling over in the yard and saw this big man swinging a board at that small one, so I’m stopping this from being an all out brawl, don’t you know that, so don’t tell me what to do.”

The big Swede hung his head down and stood at the side of the car.  The rail foreman looked at Brand.

“I’ll take the resonsibility.  It’s this one here, he’s no good.  My sister’s son, and I’m giving him a chance, but he’s picking fights at every stop we got.  No fault of your man.  We’ve got to pick it up so we can get on schedule.”

The constable was bright red in the face.  Brand could see that he was young, that he wanted to do what he thought was the right thing, and that he’d waded into something bigger than he could fathom.

“Come on then, son, let’s go up to my office and call a report in to your station head.  These men can get to work and we can get them out of here.”

The constable looked around and let his gun drop to his side.

“That’s a good idea, sir.  May I ask your name?”

“I’m Postmaster C. Rudolph Brand.”

“Pleased to make your acquaintance, sir.  I’m Constable Fred Free.  Where should we make that call?”

As Brand led the constable down the platform, the men fell back to work, their rhythmn shocked by on track by the discharge of the gun.  He checked his pocket watch.  They would finish the transfer only 10 minutes late, he calculated, at this rate.

For a moment, he did not register the scream, it was so sharp and high-pitched that he mistook it for the squeal of iron brake pads against rail wheels, or the death cry of a game bird cornered by a hunting dog that’s smelled blood, or the haunting cries of the nocturnal spirits that travelers said haunted the jungles of the Amazon.

Constable Free recognized the sound in an instant.  In the newspaper story that followed, the first of many, a story that Postmaster Brand poured over as he sat alone in his rooms, trying to understand what had happened and why, Constable Free described the cry as the same sound his grandfather had made to invoke the cry of the Confederate wounded at the Battle of Vicksburg, men who were destined to die in a moment, who were crying out in sorrow and depair.  The Constable raised his gun and sprinted down the platform to the open arch of the anteroom.  Brand was forced to run after him.  He entered the anteroom moments after the Constable and skidded to stop.

The Constable had dropped into a crouch and slipped across the marble floor like a fencer.  His pistol wavered at the end of his rigid arm.

In the center of the floor, the dog Owney was straining at a thick rope that had been looped around his neck and fastened to a metal stanchion.  His tongue was slick with white slather and thrust from his mouth he time he lunged.  Except for the jangling of the the tins and iron plates and medals, the dog was silent.

Beyond his reach the young clerk sat on his hindquarers clasping his forearm.  Blood spilled between his fingers.  He was moaning.  His eyes were squeezed tight, as if he could make everything go away.

“Hold still, boy, he can’t get you,” the Constable whispered, advancing on the dog.

“What have you done to Owney?” a loud voice behind Brand demanded.

“The dog’s mad,” one of the loaders yelled.  “He’s attacked Eddy.  See!”

The foreman from the train pushed past Brand.

“You can’t tie Owney up.  He goes where he wants.”

The constable had arrived behind the old dog.  He lowered the gun slightly and pulled the trigger.  The blast was deafening.  The dog dropped to the floor.

The report of the pistol caromed off the high ceiling, repeated itself over and over, a faint murmur of prayer.  Brand felt his shoulders fall, but could not help himself. Constable Free fell back in dismay as the foreman threw his fists out, striking at the florid man.  The gun fell to the floor with a sharp crack.  Brand watched it spin.  Young Eddy cried out, “Owney,” as his fellows came to his aid.

“He needs a doctor,” Brand said.  Chevrall stood framed in the archway to the platform, stunned.  “Get the boy a doctor,” Brand repeated calmly.

The foreman beat at the constable.  No one intefered.  The florid man was senseless.

Brand walked across the marble to the dead dog.  He had fallen to his side in a final repose.  Brand crouched next to him.  The animal was foul smelling, the essence of oil, smoke, mold and the enervating rot of age lifting from his body.

There was a dull brass tag on his collar.  Brand fingered it.

“Owney Albany Post Office.”

He grimaced.  A small typographical error — a ’y’ in the place of an ’r’ — had given the animal the freedom to wander around the world, rail packet by rail packet, station by station.  Brand could see his future clearly.  He was the man who had killed Owney the Dog.

He lifted the body and clasped it against his chest.  He carried the dog into his private room, where he sat in his chair and watched the engine steaming beyond the platform.  He stroked Owney’s foul, matted hair and waited until he could decide what to do.

Owney was a stray dog who wandered into the Albany, New York, post office in 1888. The clerks let him stay the night, and he fell asleep on a pile of empty mailbags. Owney was attracted to the texture or scent of the mailbags and began to follow them, first onto mail wagons and then onto mail trains. Owney began to ride with the bags on Railway Post Office (RPO) train cars across the state, and then the country. The RPO clerks adopted Owney as their unofficial mascot, marking his travels by placing medals and tags from his stops on his collar.

* * * * *

This story is part of a series of works inspired by the Smithsonian Institution’s photo archive, made publicly available on Flickr. If you would like to, choose an image from their collection and create something – be it prose, poetry, audio, or visual art – inspired by it, and send it to snakeoilcure [at] gmail [dot] com.

JW Rogers lives in New York with his wife, three children, three dogs and four manual typewriters. His other contributions to Dr. Hurley’s Snake-Oil Cure can be found here.

Gazebo Dreams

Morningside slide: vaulted arbor in foreground with stairs leading up to gazebo by Mrs. William G. Bush


e planned to ask her to marry him in the white wedding cake of a gazebo in the back garden, off the terrace. Nobody else was home that day, except the gardener, who didn’t count, and the maids, who counted even less. Frizi was nervous, and kept wiping his sweaty palms on his trousers, leaving dark patches on the gray flannel. He wished he had worn his sailor’s bellbottoms instead, but hadn’t wanted to get grass stains on the crisp white linen.

He toyed with the ring in his pocket, hoping it would fit her finger. It would spoil the romance if he had to jam it over her plump knuckle, or if it were too loose and dropped into the shrubbery. To control his shaking, he tried to make light conversation until the right moment. He wasn’t sure when that would be.

“It was a nice moon last night.”

She nodded, gazing down at an ant struggling to drag a leaf ten times its own size.

“So bright you couldn’t even see the stars.”

“Yes.” The ant was heading towards the edge of the stops. Would it fall off or turn and keep going?

“Delia, I…” Fritzi’s throat was as dry as his hands were wet.  He saw the curve of her breast beneath her yellow silk blouse, and desire stuck to the roof of his mouth.

She heard his hoarse breathing and lowered her head, concentrating fiercely on the ant’s progress. The leaf dipped over the edge of the step, threatening to take the ant with it. She could almost hear it panting with effort.

Fritzi tried again. “From the first time I laid you –“

Her head swung up and she fixed him with a glassy stare.

Oh God, what did I just say? He fumbled, “I mean, laid my eyes on you, I’ve loved you. Delia, will you – will you—marry me?”

The ant teetered, hung suspended in the air still clutching the leaf, and tumbled onto the concrete walkway. She could see it lying there on its back, legs kicking, smothering in something that wasn’t meant to be.

* * * * *

This post is one in a series of works inspired by the Smithsonian Institution’s photo archive, made publicly available on Flickr. If you would like to, choose an image from their collection and create something – be it prose, poetry, audio, or visual art – inspired by it, and send it to snakeoilcure [at] gmail [dot] com.

Siu Wai Stroshane is a published writer and longtime admirer of the Elephant Man. She has works in several anthologies, both on-line and in print, including, “The Forbidden Stitch: An Asian American Women’s Anthology, winner of the 1990 National Book Award (Calyx, 1989), and “A Ghost at Heart’s Edge: Stories and Poems of Adoption (North Atlantic Books, 2002).

 Her publications at Dr. Hurley’s Snake-Oil Cure can be found here.

Gustav Stands in Front of the Display Case

Nathaniel Livermore Stebbins
Museum of the American Indian – Heye Foundation (MAI), 1916-1989
Created December, 1921

* * * * *

quare shoulders, feet an arm’s length apart, hands flat on those fleshy, sagging thighs, knees slightly bent, as if leaning into a squat, but not quite squatting.

Chin up, jut forward a fraction of a degree, until he feels the first two vertebrae click into place, and the long-suffering bow of his spine curve like a pliant willow tree from the anchor of his coccyx.

The next motion is critical, the precise insertion point of a worn-out key into a cranky old lock: he eases back on his haunches ever so slightly so the grand, shining balloon of his heavy breasts and swollen gut deflate, settle like a lowered cape on the shelf of his groin, encasing him in fold after fold of skin.

Gustav stops and opens his eyes.

His reflection is frozen in the smoky glass of the display case.   The display room behind him is captured in muted hues.

He looks at his body in the glass.  It is grotesque, suspended in a partial crouch, his white skin unnatural in the grey shadows, his penis a notion, incomplete, his testicles surrounded by a halo of whispy hair.

Gustav didn’t dare move.  It was in his stillness that the mystery would play out.

The first time he had discovered the life that teemed on his body he had been a 12-year old boy rooting around in his father’s study, looking for the letter he knew his father must have left behind, just forgotten to put out where it could be found, even though he’d been thoughtful enough to run the rope over the willow tree under the big window that looked down to the river, and had taken care to put an iron garden chair on the occasional bench so that he’d fall enough distance to snap the noose tight around his neck.  At the back of a bottom drawer was a sharp spike of stone with a flaked edge; Gustav felt a prick and then a strange tickling when he jammed against it.  He held his finger up and saw an impossibly small but precise Indian high-stepping in the fatty roll of skin around his knuckle.  His blood dropped to the desk and was absorbed into the old blotter.  The Indian danced and danced tirelessly, intensely, endlessly, and Gustav could barely breath from joy.

The museum was quiet.  A drop of sweat formed on his brow.  He looked through the glass at the artifacts.  A collection of stone arrowheads; wilted, tired headdresses; round pots with impossibly narrow foundations, wide-shouldered brims.  Clay.  Pigment.  Grass.  The earth.

The movement began like a muted dawn rain.  Gustav watched his reflection.  They appeared from his bouyant crevices.  Their weight didn’t turn the clear down covering his flesh.  They wore ceremonial costumes; their bodies glistened with sweat; they looked out to the invisible horizon and began to chant, the vibrations of their silent keening thrumming Gustav’s heart.

He could barely contain himself.  He wanted to crash into the glass and gather the artifacts into his arms.  He wanted to feel the minatures rise around him and crush his chest under their weight.

He stood still.

This is where the spirit world has come to rest, Gustav thought.  Hidden in my corpulence, protected by my gluttony, unencumbered by my emptiness.  This is my purpose.

This is where Gustav stood in the morning when the old half-breed who watched the building at night shambled through the halls.  The Indian stood in front of the naked man and looked at his shrunken penis.

Gustav was barely breathing.

“Come on down now, Mr. Hey, and let’s get something warm on you,” the Indian said.  “Nothing here is going anyways.  You got it all.”

“Are they gone, Billy?  Look close. ” Gustav whispered.

The old man stroked his jaw and crouched down.  When he stood, he wet his lips with his tongue and put them close to Gustav’s ear.

“They’s all gone.  Every one of them.  You can move now.”

Gustav sighed.

“You did good, Mr. Hey.  You did real good.”  The old man took the young man by the hand and walked him along a side corridor.  Their shapes followed in the amber glass of the display cases, receding into the shadows with every step, their faint stamp on time slipping into the stale air.

* * * * *

This post is one in a series of works inspired by the Smithsonian Institution’s photo archive, made publicly available on Flickr. If you would like to, choose an image from their collection and create something – be it prose, poetry, audio, or visual art – inspired by it, and send it to snakeoilcure [at] gmail [dot] com.

The Aeronaut

When Sophie Blanchard cleared Tivoli Gardens,
she did not think of cloaks, umbrellas,

ball gowns wrought from taffeta.  Instead,
she studied glow above wicker cradle.

She would not lull herself to sleep this evening,
but listened to the crowd’s reverberation.

Its call of flightless birds.   Its clap of thunder.
When Jean Pierre died, she’d not succumbed

to penury, nor thrown herself in water.   She’d
renounced ground.   At Turin:  awoke to nose-

bleed.   Above Vincennes:  outbucked hailstorm.
Beneath satin scrim, Sophie, lit by Bengal

fire, out-gleamed opera.  Until Tivoli, 1819,
Sophie flitted behind cloud cover.  A Blue Fairy

unmisted other side.  Then, taffeta leaked.
Starlight caught air inflammable, and balloon

turned chandelier.  Sophie, tangled in lines,
fell.  Vertebrae snapped.  Flung from night’s

ballroom, Sophie did not brood.  She could
not dance—and, yet, she flew.

* * * * *

This poem is one in a series of works inspired by the Smithsonian Institution’s photo archive, made publicly available on Flickr. If you would like to, choose an image from their collection and create something – be it prose, poetry, audio, or visual art – inspired by it, and send it to snakeoilcure [at] gmail [dot] com.

BLANCHARD, MARIE MADELEINE SOPHIE (ARMAND) SI Neg. 2002-20292. Date: na...Photo of unknown artist’s rendition on a poster of Marie Madeleine Sophie (Armand) Blanchard’s balloon ascension in Milan, Italy, Aug. 15, 1811. Blanchard became France’s 1st female professional balloonist in order to continue her husband’s ballooning legacy…Credit: unknown (Smithsonian Institution)

Helen Marie Gunz; and Me

Helen Marie Gunz

Helen Marie Gunz; and Me

OK, the first part’s fairly easy; I’ve read H.G. Wells
years ago.  With what’s in my kitchen, and
my workshop, whipping up a time machine is,
today, less difficult than cheffing the maple
syrup chocolate cake I want to take as provisions,
lest an errant lever lead me to Genghis Khan,
and I need to make a peace offering.

As usual, though, my honesty could do with a good
scrub.  The first, first part was exquisitely hard.
The Smithsonian Institution’s photostream is way
better than eHarmony ever was, but when my
gaze finally found Helen Marie (“may I call you
Helen Marie,” I practise, while the cake cooks)
I knew I was looking at the perfect one for me.

An Assistant Librarian, no less.  The bibliophile
in me already waltzes with you, past dusty volumes
of Waldo, and Emily, and Walt.  You were, I am
sure, the quiet, yet driving force behind the
scenes, much as Al was, before all that
environmental bull gored him.  Yea, before
you, sweet Helen Marie, there have been a few,

I have loved, and lost, but now your smile
reduces those before to bitter-sweet oblivion,
which reminds me, did I put enough lime juice
in the mix?  But what, arguably, moves me most,
from Townsville 2011 to New York 1955, is, yes,
the trace of impish humour I discern in those
wondrous eyes.  Was Marlon, or James, doing

it for you?  Somehow I hope not, for I wish us
to be cleaved by P.G. Wodehouse over dinner,
and yes, darling – oh how my heart pre-
maturely aches! – I yearn that it be me, me
alone, forever more, who unties your ribbon.
This poem must end now, for fear of carnality,
we both will be as the angels: let us marry anyway!

* * * * *

This poem is one in a series of works inspired by the Smithsonian Institution’s photo archive, made publicly available on Flickr. If you would like to, choose an image from their collection and create something – be it prose, poetry, audio, or visual art – inspired by it, and send it to snakeoilcure [at] gmail [dot] com.


Julian Schwinger (1918-1994)

Think carefully before taking me on
, young man. Push me and I’ll jam this pen into your eyeball so far that you’ll be reading my last novel in your nightmares. Fuck with me, and I’ll fuck with your future hard enough that you’ll still feel my dick in your ass 30 years from now when you’re sitting in your cubicle, cold-calling old ladies to try and sell them storm windows.
The stink from your story isn’t the sweet bouquet of a rose, it’s the stench washed from a urinal puck by a diabetic drunkard. Quit wasting my time with “art” and give me some grit!

* * * * *

This poem is part of a series of works inspired by the Smithsonian Institution’s photo archive, made publicly available on Flickr. If you would like to, choose an image from their collection and create something – be it prose, poetry, audio, or visual art – inspired by it, and send it to snakeoilcure [at] gmail [dot] com.


Print by William H. Johnson, ca. 1942

hough we’re often called polycephalic, we prefer to think of
ourselves as two people with one body, not one person with two heads.  A unisomatic, if you will.”
“Yeah.  We’re two, not one.  I’m me, and you’re you and that’s that.”
“Calling us polycephalic reduces us to a single being.  But we are really two people, forced to cooperate by circumstance, but with differing wants and motives, just like any other two people.”
“Jus’ because when we stand to be counted we have to stand together, that don’t mean we don’t count twice. Right, Shelly?”
“Correct, Michael.  We don’t mean to perturb people but, sadly, many people are agitated by what they perceive as our deformity.  Counting us as one makes it easier to minimize their aversion and the guilt that results from it.”
“Some gets doubly bigoted ’cause we’re both unisomatic and African-American.  Can’t get much more minority than that.  Least I ain’t the onliest.  I got my sister.”
“And I have you, Michael.  United we stand, because we must.”

* * * * *

This poem is part of a series of works inspired by the Smithsonian Institution’s photo archive, made publicly available on Flickr. If you would like to, choose an image from their collection and create something – be it prose, poetry, audio, or visual art – inspired by it, and send it to snakeoilcure [at] gmail [dot] com.

University of Virginia Slide

I could say things have not changed much,
All the neoclassical glory remains set
In familiar halcyon arrangements,
The picture certainly appears
Old enough to make such a declaration,
It looks soft enough to now be a memory,
The trees are covered in a haze
Of leaves that stick to the branches
And the grass is hard to distinguish
From a sea painted onto the photograph,
But maybe it was taken yesterday,
There are plenty of applications out there
For coloring in the lines with a tint
That imitates old chemicals and storage
In a nearly forgotten cave under a dark pile
Of other gardens colored green by hand.

* * * * *

This poem is the first in a series of works inspired by the Smithsonian Institution’s photo archive, made publicly available on Flickr. If you would like to, choose an image from their collection and create something – be it prose, poetry, audio, or visual art – inspired by it, and send it to snakeoilcure [at] gmail [dot] com.

The Institution


he likes to watch them.  The skaters, I mean.  Every year I bring her a Christmas card with skaters on it, to remind her how much she looks forward to this scene.  Little girls in wool stockings and gangly boys with snowballs behind their backs – Father used to wait by the edge of the pond when we skated.  I know she remembers.  She doesn’t say so, but she does.

We got lucky, my sister and I.  When she came here they only had one open room, and it had a view of the hill and the pond below.  We would never have been able to afford it, but they hate to move patients once they’ve gotten into a routine, so she stayed.  Nearly ten years now.  I know she watches the outside world from here, like the princesses in the fairy tales she used to read to me when we were young.  Now she is the damsel in distress, here in the castle tower, waiting for Prince Charming.  Or maybe not.  He’s the one who put her in here in the first place.

A few times a year we go out to pick daisies on the hillside, or walk past the trees.  I tell her stories of Johnny Appleseed and she looks at me with insect eyes and nods solemnly.  The drugs don’t let her smile anymore.  She used to try, so they upped the dosage.  They said smiling made her unhappy.  And she was.  Smiling reminded her of everything she used to be, and would never be again.  That’s why she needed restraints…but she’s better now.  Now she can work on her painting, and her pottery.  They even sell some of her projects in the shops downtown, though of course she doesn’t know that.  The profits help fund the institution – if she’d found her talents earlier, she might have gone in a different direction.  But she had been a princess even then.  Married her prince, wore her gown, had a beautiful little girl of her own.  And then her palace shifted, and she began to fall.

There are sisters like us down on the ice right now.  I see them holding hands, shrieking at friends, whispering secrets into cherry red ears.  I wonder how many of them will watch their sister, their big sister who was the star of the stage and the belle of the ball, come apart at the scenes.  Whether the first drunken evening will register as a true problem, or whether they, too, will excuse it as a mistake.  Whether they will find their baby niece on the doorstep with a note saying “I can’t”.  Whether they will see the manic smile on sis’s face when she waves goodbye to the husband she once adored.  Oh, how she laughed.  Her ecstasy was contagious, it always had been.  But the character of it changed.  Men came and went, her daughter forgotten to my care, her bills unceremoniously shredded with careful fingers and placed in the flower beds.  The neighbors finally contacted her husband – she was lowering property value in the neighborhood.  No one knows how low values can go in situations like these.

Exasperated and embarrassed, he had taken her straight to the Northampton State Mental Hospital, and then telephoned the family.  There had been no divorce.  He was within his rights, as he constantly reminded us.  He sent no Christmas cards, and did not visit.  It was just as well.  It was best if nothing upset her.

I watch my niece glide quietly over the rough ice.  The other children avoid her, and she’s used to that.  Despite my best efforts to familiarize her with her peers, she already shows signs of the illness.  A bad example, set when she was just a baby, indelibly inked onto her spirit.  The family wonders what will happen to her when the episodes arrive.  Perhaps a bedroom next to her mother.

They do not recognize each other.  My sister watches the skaters from the safety of her room, and even if we were on the shore of the pond, she would not know her child.  But even from this distance, I can hear the girls’ tiny giggle, slowly evolving into a laugh as she spins in circles, tighter and tighter.  Her shout carries into the institution’s walls.  For a moment, I think my sister’s eyes show her old intelligence, her daring, the spark of a kindred spirit nearby.  And then the narcotic cobwebs descend, and she turns to her finger paints.  The expressionless faces on the Christmas card mirror the recipient’s own empty eyes.  Below, the child with the demonic grin keeps laughing.

* * * * *

This story is one of a series of works inspired by the Smithsonian Institution’s photo archive, made publicly available on Flickr. If you would like to, choose an image from their collection and create something – be it prose, poetry, audio, or visual art – inspired by it, and send it to snakeoilcure [at] gmail [dot] com.