Poems from On the Bridge (1986)


“I salute your compassionate realism”

—Carl Rakosi


Copyright ©1986 by David Cope

American Academy/Institute of Arts & Letters Literature Award, 1988




Poems from On the Bridge were published in Big Scream, Long Shot, Action, Pay Up Dead Beat, Ahnoi, Planet Detroit, Poetry Flash, Lactuca, and Pineal Grip. “Modern Art” and “Party Talk” appeared in Friction 5/6:  Obscure Genius Issue edited by Allen Ginsberg.  “Modern Art” also appeared in The New York Quarterly.  “Moonlight & Sunrise” appeared in LSA (The University of Michigan). 





Poems included here:



Modern Art

Sears Service Center Waiting Room

At the Croyden

Party Talk

 “Take Care of Yourself”

Midwinter Cleanup

Moonlight & Sunrise










horses’ tails swish in a sunlit field.

traveling to Antietam, she recalls a war story: 


her father, Uncle Bob said, was

always gentle

& kind, always ready to laugh—

never angry. 

her mother remembered other things: 

he’d wake up sweating—

wild eyes in the night—

the German officer he had to shoot, point blank—

those eyes, that cringe,

night after night.


in the cornfield

where the blue boys lurched & shrieked,

the cannons’re set up as in the old photograph,

but freshly painted, with an asphalt walkway curving around. 

& in Bloody Lane,

where bodies were heaped up waist-high,

I marveled at bees in the corn tassels not 30 feet away. 

at Burnsides Bridge, the lazy river barely rippled.


23,000 killed, wounded & missing here.

such a

beautiful vista,” the old man said, leaning on his cane: 

fields spread out

for miles, lines of trees & hills,

farmers on tractors,

eyes back & down to the turning discs,

or pulling tanks,

insecticide hissing over the fields: 

not a cloud in the sky.” 





Modern Art


an old bum scratches his back beneath his coat,

staring in the window at the auto parts store;

a sign—MODERN ART—is placed before

a crankshaft standing straight up

mounted on a bell housing,

carburetor & air cleaner for head & hat,

chains hanging down for arms.

the traffic’s heavy at this hour.  the bum turns away,

leans against a light pole,

pulls out a cigar stump & lights it,

watching the furious drivers curse each other

in the cool, bright morning.





Sears Service Center Waiting Room


the flower-strewn corpse of Indira Gandhi:

her eldest son, now prime minister,

calmly lays the torch at her side.

relatives pile the wood around her—

            seen on TV

in this waiting room, heard over intercom jabber.

a girl stands at the glass door, anxious,

looking out as mechanics strip the nuts from a wheel;

an old man wonders whether the wait’s too long—

maybe he should call off his deal

            for a new battery






At the Croyden


smell of fish frying thru an open door

& up the stairs

a fat woman in a floral dress bright orange & red

screams in the stairway

at anyone who’ll listen,

young dude leaning against a doorway nearby

picking his teeth, spitting big gobs on the floor. 

     another door opens: 

an old man, bent but with a bright eye. 

seeing me, a stranger, with my mop bucket & Stones T-shirt,

he wonders, do I own the building?  no? 

do I like music?  he used to play—jazz, supper clubs,

& he was happily married, too, bless her,

she passed on.   dropped dead right in the living room,

just the other side of this door. 

he played everywhere, all these big joints downtown,

an’ he played Detroit, & up in Canada, too. 

he knew all the good numbers—

didn’t play much now, no money for a piano. 

     his breath, alcohol, leaning into me as he speaks—

the woman who’d been screaming passes by now,

shades over her eyes—

don’t listen to him, damn fool talk yer arm off

& none of it don’t mean shit!” 

he looks at his hands, palms down, fingers spread,

& looks back up into my eyes

     & I see the invisible keys. 





Party Talk


over there . . . every day it was life & death . . .

my life . . . so BORING

since I came back . . .

he leaned forward, pointing his finger at me,

knowing I wasn’t one of those who faced bullets. 

     . . . those gooks . . .

you wouldn’t believe what they did

to the American dead! 

his fists clenched & unclenched. 

I thought of the severed Vietnamese fingers

my friend’s brother had sent back in the mail. 

there was nothing more to say;

I went to the next room & danced with the girls.





“Take Care of Yourself”


are you kidding?  do I look like

            the kinda guy who’d get attacked?

hands to his breast,

huge belly, shining eyes.

then, as we were passing out of the park,

cupping his hands to his mouth,

ya-ha!  that’s what Jesus said

            before they nailed him up!

his big hand waving,

we disappear in the rush hour crowd.





Mid-Winter Cleanup


he & the boss argued

how many rooms & how to do ‘em & how’d they ever get

that much done;

the rest of the crew leaned against the walls

& perched on the stairs, watching the falling snow outside.

as a kid, he & his brother

walked the tracks with wagons & picked

the coal that’d flown from the coal car

when the tenders were pitching hard;

or they brought laundry from the “richies

for their mother to do

& pumped the outside well for water to fill the tubs

so she could wash—

sometimes the “richies” wouldn’t pay, saying

the sheets weren’t clean enough. 

& when the war came, he enlisted,

went to Bougainville, saw little action but  recalled

a marine whose buddies had all been tortured to death

ordering the guards aside so he could

blast 8 Japanese prisoners;

& he could still see

the freed Americans whose faces had the twitches

& the fingers destroyed with bamboo stakes. 

finally, the boss walked out,

& he followed, shaking his head,

his watery eyes cast down. 

he stopped, explained the boss’s ideas to the crew,

& sighed:  “a few months more, & I can forget it all.” 





Moonlight & Sunrise


half-moon shines thru

mist & silvered clouds,


over the beaded lawn,

the dewy junipers.


you turn in sleep,

tiny child grows within


as I kiss you lightly,

sigh, & turn to leave.


turn the key

& wipe my brow,


get to the doors I’d open.

pass the silent aspens,


the oaks & dogwoods,

swamp pools reflecting


sky & moon, pass

the Indian Mounds,


sleeping bones

we’ll all become,


tickled by roots

in eternity.  already


the first red clouds

streak the sky.