Found poetry: Silent City

At the Scrap Exchange in Durham, North Carolina, I found several empty boxes that had once held photographic slides from the 1960s, presumably of vacations to the western United States. 

Although the slides were missing, the labels were intact, neatly typed on specially sized index cards.

Because of the narrow confines of the cards, the titles of the slides were brief. Each succinct line contains an innate meter, as well as a random yet inevitable juxtaposition of poetic phrases.

I distilled some of the 100-some titles into four assemblages, each based on a respective index card.

The index cards, with their full text, are pictured on this page.

1. Long View

Mormon temple 
evening shadows
on dinosaur grazing land
Nation’s icebox
Nearby picnic
Ladies and gents 
fasten seat belts
We are on our way to the moon

2. Ditto

The chipmunks and 
the gray jay
Animal lovers
Three tall timbers 
flat flat country 
Lawrence, Kansas 
more of the same

3. Great White Throne

Foggy morning getting down 
close to the Colorado 
Lunch time with Tom
At Bright Angel 
mountain scenery 
with patches 
of aspen
Silent City
Court of Patriarch
Great White Throne

4. Yosemite Falls in a.m.

Canyon and sunlit
Twin giants
Facade and shadows
General Grant
Twice across the plateau 






Forest primeval 
and its people

you know my needs

One Sunday evening in the winter of 2013, I was walking through downtown Durham when I found a box labeled “prayer requests” sitting on a window sill outside a bank. Inside the box were hundreds of snippets of paper, prayers collected 12 years prior at a local church on the city’s east side. 

I have no idea how this box of prayers wound up where it did. Yet I seemed destined to find it, as I was headed to a protest but had the wrong address.

The prayers were so earnest and modest, asking for the most basic of human needs. I hope they were granted.

Inspired by the image of Tibetan prayer wheels, I assembled the scraps on canisters, so they can be turned and read.


My marriage
My mom
with stomach cancer

Cannot talk
Father stop
verbal abuse to family

Children car
Kidneys gout
Hair scalp shin
Bladder legs

Lord please give me
my drivers license back
Lord I need
a permanent ride
A job



five years in prison
life in prison

Bless Tony
Bless James
as he is in war
Bless me
with a husband

Please bring my sister 
Tiffany home safely
My son

having problems
with him
My son return

to Christianity
Healing from drugs
and alcohol

Pray for everyone
Homeless and
the whole world

God you know my needs


4 poems assembled from the Indiana Board of Health annual report, 1877

The general health of the inmates for the year was good,
the death of twin babes being the only ones recorded.

Found one weak-minded girl,
about four years old
tied to a rope on the porch.
She is quite shy and timid.
On her head were nests of vermin.

One insane woman had set fire to the institution,
removed some iron bars from the window
of her room in the basement
and then escaped.
She is now chained to the floor.

the greatest privilege,
destiny of woman
is illy borne by them.
They may give birth to one child,
seldom more.
Then for the remainder of life
comes invalidism
and the gynecologist.

And so foul is the odor
that issues therefrom
that the stoutest stomach
will rebel against him.

Who has the temerity
to lift the plank that covers it
and look in?

Instead of hiding away
in pits and sinks
or slushing miles of filth
The Giant is to be strangled
in its cradle
by the constant watchfulness
of draft
and evaporation.

Without restriction
all dead bodies may be transported
those who die of
scarlet fever
typhoid fever

Those bodies must be wrapped in a sheet
thoroughly saturated  with
a solution of chloride
of zinc
encased in an antiseptic
interment sack,
hermetically sealed in
a coffin
which must be enclosed
in  a tight wooden box.

Under all circumstances
the funeral should be strictly private
a public one  should never be tolerated.

Bonus inches of meat

You’ve been scammed lsorg
You’re a moron
You’re brilliant,
gospel virtuous

Extend your rod
upside down
Succinctly bomb her womb
Insert spawn
bonus inches of meat

Hey, palm tennis shoe
I was looking for you
I missed you
I’m lonely
I’m tired

Don’t be shy
I wonder why
You’re still shy

Assembled from spam e-mail subject lines

Night prior

Assembled from the Twitter feed of the
NC State University Campus Police

Officers responded
 to reports of person         

  pretending to shoot  
       imaginary guns

                                                   Warning issued

        suspicious person
speaking in loud voice

                                                      Unable to locate

someone preaching loudly 

                                                     Had a permit

caused by air

caused by hair

    caused by curling

persons engaged in
behavior in Schenk

                                                        Told to leave

         goats escaped from         
         their enclosure

                                                          Upon arrival
                                                                  goats were back

people moving cameras
   in Free Speech Tunnel

                                                                    No action taken

          person gathering

                                                                          Was planting flowers

     person using metal

                                                                Was advised of

     person walking on

                                                                     Was advised
                                                                           to refrain
                                                            for safety reasons

         child screaming

                                                                 Had not slept
                                                                       night prior

Poppies: a fallow field of concrete

poppies 1.jpg

Someone had a vision. Resurrect an abandoned shopping center in southwest Durham. They would call it Poppies, as in the flower that was adopted as a symbol of remembrance after  the First World War.

poppies 4.jpg

I took these photos in December 2014, years after disinterest, a stock market crash, financing, poor urban planning, and inertia had conspired to stop Poppies.

An Indian restaurant, the only attraction along the former Poppies strip, had surrendered and built a new, even more successful eatery across the boulevard. About a block away at South Square, Target, Sam’s Club and other big box stores flourished.

But the vision of bustling bookshops and grocers and cafes, depicted on large canvasses that developers had draped over the facade, instead had dimmed to become a field of fallow concrete.


Durham-Chapel Hill Boulevard can be hostile and unforgiving for people without a car. Walking and biking are dangerous, even on the service roads. The No. 10 bus route runs nearby. One morning I took that bus, then on foot crossed the six lanes of the boulevard with a man who had just finished the overnight shift as a security guard at Duke Hospital. He was so very tired, his gait more a shuffle than a walk.

poppies 8.jpg

Since I took these photos, all of the buildings on the 15-acre lot have been leveled, the cement scraped clean.

poppies 7.jpg

poppies 5.jpg

Last week, a Charlotte developer announced it would build a mixed-use project there, with apartments, restaurants, offices and a fitness center. It will be called “University Hill,” and include an art project of 25,000 square feet of murals.



Ode to the metal lunchbox


Black or silver, it was shaped like a camel back trunk, with two chrome latches on the front. A swing arm locked the glass-lined thermos inside the domed lid. The metal “workingman’s” lunchbox—although plenty of women carried one, too—symbolized the can-do spirit of manual labor.

My dad carried a black metal lunchbox to a General Motors factory., where he worked the night shift as a machinist. Each weekday afternoon at around 3:30, my mother would lovingly stuff his lunchbox with enough food to feed the Donner Party: five sandwiches on white bread—two grape jelly, plus one each of bologna, pickle-pimento loaf and peanut butter—plus an apple and a thermos of whole milk.

The work was such that my father did not get fat. At 5 feet 10 inches and 185 pounds, he had forearms the size of rear axles, sculpted by years

of wrestling with borers and grinders, jig mills and lathes. He would stand all night at his workbench, his feet snug and sweating in leather boots that deflected sharp flakes of hot steel onto the oily concrete floor.

Meanwhile, in the cool cave of his lunchbox slept the sandwiches, which, like his toes, needed protecting.

In 1979, nearly 20 million men and women were working in factories and mills. A sturdy metal lunchbox could withstand the rigors of the harsh environments—heat, cold, falls from tables and benches.

Yet as the number of blue-collar workers declined so did the need for the metal lunchbox. My dad got a promotion and began wearing a tie and regular shoes to work. He carried his lunch in a plain brown sack.

Now we work at service or desk jobs. To bring a metal lunchbox into a such a workplace would be pretentious. What would we protect our lunch from? [2:00]

Falling megabytes? Paper cuts? Office gossip?

In the daily ritual of lunch making, my mother’s final touch was to write my father a note and then slip it among the sandwiches. I don’t know the contents of these letters—to read them would have been an unthinkable breach of my parents’ intimacy—but I always knew when she had finished one by the brisk strokes of her pen as she dashed a constellation of x’s and o’s at the bottom of the page.

My father took his lunch break at 8:30 each evening. I imagine him sitting at his workbench with his lunchbox agape and reading a love letter from his wife, who at that moment was readying their children for bed. Then he would neatly fold it  and place it inside for safekeeping.

Other concerns

The City of Durham has a One Call app for smartphones that people can use to report issues in their neighborhood. This is a selection of complaints that have been lodged this summer.

The grass near the 7 GoDurham bus stop is wild.

Highway just cut grass
and ran over a mattress.
Please discard mattress.

We live next to a car wash
that has a dumpster.
A colony of rats seems
to have made this area
their home.
And there seems to be
quite a robust city

More than half the year
I beat the most efficient home.
And I have never used more energy
than other homes of similar size.
This is a point of pride for me.
I have no idea
how my water usage
compares to other homes.
Knowing that I am beating others
in water use,
or not,
is a great motivator.

Our whole street needs rocks.

Dog was bleeding profusely from his head.

Dead possum in back yard.
How do I dispose of it?
Do you need to test for rabies?
It’s going in the trash if I don’t hear back.
Might as well close this.
No response.
Or action.
Dead animal is in
the city landfill by now.

Someone to watch over me

Photo by Dennis Scoville

I had just finished feeding the cats when Dennis stirred from a deep sleep with a request. His voice sounded urgent and firm.

“I want my glasses. I want my camera.”

His clarity surprised me. The combination of Morphine, Haldol, and the toxins building up in his brain had rendered him nearly inarticulate. The day before, he had spoken to me in tongues.

Dennis’s cancer had begun in his prostate. But over the last two years, his CT scans had lit up with black spots, as if his bones were becoming riddled with buckshot. Now the cancer had invaded his skull. In the most recent images, his entire head was black — a beret of cancer.

Dennis could barely hear; nor could he see well.

“Is it dark or blurry?” I had yelled a week earlier.

“Blurry,” he yelled back.

Well, at least he wasn’t blind.


I handed Dennis his glasses and his phone. At first, he held it in landscape and then turned the screen to portrait. He pointed it at a spot at the end of his hospital bed.

He took one picture.

He handed me his phone and his glasses. He went back to sleep.

I didn’t look, not then.

That evening, as Dennis slept, I pulled up the picture.

This is what I saw: A darkened TV screen, a ceiling fan. His feet beneath a sheet.

This is what he saw: Something I could not.

After Dennis died the next morning, his hospice nurse, Pat, told me she believed that he had seen his spirit guide. In their final days, she said, many people have visions of their loved ones — floating near the ceiling, sitting in a corner of the room, leaning over the bed. Pat believed in these guides. She had no doubt someone had come for him, and that he wanted to take their picture.

When I look at this photo now, I strain my eyes to detect what Dennis felt so desperate to capture: a shadow, an apparition, a kind face that will allow me to lift the veil between this plane and the next. But I can’t see anything. It’s not my time.