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Poetry

We are the universe learning to love itself
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We are the universe learning to love itself, like a shelter animal learning to trust again. 

If you’re reading this in the future, I can’t imagine how we, in our now, must look to you, in yours.

Our sacred ceremonies were cigarette circles outside bars, four whiskeys deep.

Our love was the secrets we kept hidden while sharing our fears with anyone who would listen. 

Our hunger was a bottomless hole we tried to fill with everything we didn’t need.

Our prayer was a passive-aggressive comment tossed into the internet cosmos. 

Our meditation was impatiently refreshing social media apps waiting for someone (anyone) to reach through the screen and touch us. 

Our sex was a rushed and impersonal reenactment of bad porn.

Our soul’s energy leaked like a broken faucet, feeding vampires instead of our higher purpose.

Our salvation was a paycheck and six hours of dreamless sleep.

But on our best days we were also radiant, like a brilliant child not yet fully formed, and you could almost see our light shining through our shadows.

James McCrae
No place for a poet
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I moved from Minnesota to New York City because that’s what Bob Dylan did. But the 1960s was a long time ago. 

The only folk singers I found were homeless beggars in Washington Square Park and millionaires in swanky hotel bars. There wasn’t room for anyone in between.

New York City is a museum financed by a bank as a tax write off. Nobody actually creates anything inside a museum. Museums are a public tomb for art, a showcase of magic that once was.

I arrived 10 years ago during a summer thunderstorm. The weather has been slowly clearing ever since.

I was made homeless by Hurricane Sandy, made obsolete by the technocratic gatekeepers of the economy, made claustrophobic by eight million conflicting agendas and opinions, made safe and lonely by various women on the other side of dating apps, made nostalgic for stars by city smog, and somewhere along the way I was made into myself.

Thank you, New York, for taking off my clothes and fucking me in public. It took me a long time to realize that this is just how you make love, and if I showed no fear you were happy to let me turn you around and fuck you back. 

Thank you, New York, for showing me that vampires and angels are real and living among us.

Thank you, New York, for teaching me that there are no answers. There are only stories and what we choose to believe. 

Thank you for letting me crash your party. But the party is over, at least for me. There’s no place for a poet in this race for property and privilege. And the prizes are plastic anyway.

Everybody wants to be somebody important, but I just want a good night’s sleep.

James McCrae
High school yearbook
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I opened my high
school yearbook
and looked inside
at the lost and
glowing faces
printed in black
and white ink
suspended in time
20 years ago.

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There we were:
Erin, Rachel,
Pete, Chris,
Paul, Ricky
Michael, Anne,
myself, John,
and others

with rosy
cheeks and
awkward passion
like animals
ready to mate
or flowers
ready to bloom.

(Then again
maybe we
had already
bloomed
and have
been withering
ever since.)

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It was the year 2000.

Back then, it felt
like we were living
in the future — the internet,
Britney Spears,
MP3s, cell phones,
The Matrix, and
baggy jeans.

Today, blessed
with the gift
of perspective,
it looks more
like a safe
and passing oasis
that couldn’t
stay long
before 9/11,
student loan debt,
and the arrival
of children
would change
everything.

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The different
angles of
our rudders,
although subtle
at the time,
gradually steered
our ships
miles apart.

Now this one
is a fisherman’s
wife in Alaska,
this one is a
small town cop,
this one is a
college professor,
this one is an
Army soldier,
this one is
a millionaire,
this one took
her own life
after years 
of depression
that nobody
saw.

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Everybody became
somebody different,

but I still feel
the same:

lost in another
daydream

(or perhaps the same
eternal daydream),

throwing rocks
into the river,
and not learning
as much as
I should.

James McCrae
Open
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What I want is to open up,
to merge my body
with the energy around me,
to clean my subconscious
and burn the clutter in ritual,
to open my vocal chords
and hear the universe expand,
to inject my veins with sunlight
and bask in my aura’s glow,
to become my breath
and exhale myself into Times Square
and wait for strangers to inhale,
to hallucinate the story of myself
until I open my eyes
and realize that I was dreaming,
to dissolve
into particles of awareness
and wake up inside a womb.

James McCrae
In my room
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In my room, by myself, my closed door is a portal between one world and another. 

In my room, when my work is done, I take off my mask and forget how to lie and impress.

In my room, wide awake, with a pizza and a bottle of wine, I listen to songs by good friends I’ve never met, and hear the full octave range of my own emotions.

In my room, after dark, I feel closer to the people I avoid during daylight.

In my room, in stillness, I forget the fiction I’ve been taught to believe.

In my room, all alone, I have the best sex of my life.

In my room, under the stars, with nobody to compare myself to, my public identity dissolves into particles of comfortable awkwardness.

In my room, lying down, I slip away into the solar system of my imagination, perhaps to encounter some lonely unknown god, in her own room, in some far off dimension, patiently waiting, with a new message of truth, to be found.

In my room, without distractions, I empty my head by pouring words onto paper.

In my room, tucked away, my cat and I speak to each other in a language that only we can understand.

In my room, up too late, I stare into a computer screen like a zen monk watching a sunset, waiting for satori that never comes.

In my room, before dawn, I hear the muse whispering a soft melody, like a blue jay dancing across the dewy morning grass, before the sound of Manhattan traffic scares her away.

James McCrae
Miracle
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The single mother
teaching her children
to love themselves
is a miracle.

The grown man
whose inner child
is still alive
is a miracle.

The awkward
teenager
who survives
the factory
of suburbia
with her
individuality
in tact
is a miracle.

The transit
and temporary
nature
of all life
and matter
is a miracle.

The sequence
of letters and
punctuation
placed together
to form a poem
is a miracle.

The native
dance of every
indigenous
culture is
a miracle.

The unseen
force that
holds billions
of tiny particles
together
in the shape of
a human body
is a miracle.

The smell of
a new lover’s
naked shoulder
is a miracle.

Every wrong turn
is a miracle
in disguise.

The tears
that water
the soul like rain
are a miracle.

The wise
and ancient
consciousness
of plants
is a miracle.

The romance
between the flower
and the bee
is a miracle.

The snake
hiding in the grass
is a miracle.

The darkness
is a miracle
as much as
the light.

The blow of
a saxophone
that gives voice
to the gentle
and enthusiastic
human spirit
is a miracle.

The death
that makes space
for new life
is a miracle.

As a fish
who lives
in water
doesn’t know
that she
is wet

so we
forget

that I am
a miracle,
and you,
dear reader,
are too.

James McCrae
Today in New York
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Today, while moving my feet along Broadway alone, 
I thought about the men and women who walked here 
before me, in the days when Broadway was a dirt path, 
when Central Park was an unmarked patch of wilderness, 
and elms were the highest towers.

I thought about the Europeans who looked upon 
the lush landscape and envisioned a utopia 
for themselves, free from the tyranny of kings, 
while slaying the indigenous protectors of the land.

I thought about the taxi drivers, bankers, criminals, 
bodega owners, sex workers, students, police officers, 
Washington Square Park guitar players, bums, socialites, 
and street philosophers who blended their voices together 
to harmonize a new human tone.

I thought about Walt Whitman quietly writing poetry 
on the Brooklyn ferry, about Herman Melville sitting 
at the mouth of the Hudson daydreaming about a whale, 
about young Billie Holiday standing behind a dimly lit 
Harlem microphone, her heart a volcano ready to erupt,
about Bob Dylan, blown in from the north country, 
setting down his dusty suitcase in Greenwich Village 
with a song in his pocket and a twinkle in his eye, 
and about some angelic and nameless kid in the Bronx, 
possessed by a new energy rising from the concrete,
who opened his mouth and spontaneously spoke 
the words “hip hop” into existence. 

I thought about the profound and unrecorded thoughts 
of the men and women who have come and gone, 
(their secrets and shame, their hopes and dreams) 
accompanied by whatever music was ringing inside 
their heads, like millions of private operas. 

And I thought about the unborn souls who will walk here 
after me, with names and faces still unknown, 
and how their streets will look different than mine, 
and how their words and music would sound foreign 
to my ears, and how they will judge our behavior 
as we have judged the behavior of ages before us, 
and how they will wage new wars and pray for new peace, 
and how they will be responsible for both miracles and tragedies, 
and how they will know things for certain 
that to me are just the whisper of a dream.

James McCrae
I'm a fool
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I’d rather admit it now than keep pretending that I’m not, to give you a fair chance to walk away and find a more astute poet before reading another word.

It’s true. I’m a fool. And it feels liberating to confess this to you. 

I spend too much money on things I don’t need.

I obsess over insignificant details instead of appreciating the big picture.

I write wise words inside my notebook but never take my own advice.

I tell myself that I’m meditating but really I’m trying to remember song lyrics.

I say things that sound brilliant in my head, expecting a resounding applause, only to be greeted by an awkward silence that precedes the sound of footsteps walking away.

I can see everything that’s wrong with everything but can’t do anything about any of it.

I don’t appreciate the good things I have until they’re gone.

Did I mention my special gift for turning friends into strangers, or the fact that love makes me embarrassed?

If you think less of me now, good. My job here is done. I never felt comfortable sitting on that poor high horse, with nowhere to look except down. 

I’d much rather sit with you, here at eye level, where we can laugh together at those who pretend with comic urgency to be wise.

James McCrae
Vacation
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I sort of think 
that dying will feel 
like Friday at 5 o’clock 
after a stressful week 
before leaving 
on vacation.

James McCrae
The flower comes last
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First comes the rain 
that wets the soil.

A seed cracks 
open – the first 
breakthrough!

A tiny thread 
becomes a stem 
that stretches 
upward toward 
the warm sun.

New life stirs
below the surface,
but above ground
no evidence of 
growth is seen.

When the tip 
like a mighty spear
pokes above the 
dirt to finally see 
the light of day,
it’s a cause 
for celebration.
But there’s still 
plenty of work 
to be done.

The journey from 
seed to blossom
doesn’t happen 
overnight.

Those colorful,
fragrant petals 
that inspire awe
from photographers,
women, and bees
are the final fruits
of strong roots
grown alone
in darkness.

So have patience.
The flower
comes last.

James McCrae
I wish
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I wish we could 
burn every flag 
of every nation

and smear the 
ashes on our faces 
like warrior paint 
in the battle 
for equality.

I wish we could
melt every statue 
of every religion 
into a single 
nameless altar

where strangers 
are required to 
meet and share 
their darkest 
secrets and 
most intimate 
fantasies.

I wish we could 
sweat or cry 
or ejaculate
the anxiety 
and judgment 
from our DNA
and replace it 
with awe and 
curiosity

so we would
remember that 
nothing is as 
serious as we 
think.

I wish we could
dim the blinding
lights and soften 
the harsh lines 
of reality

(like a sunset 
gradient or Van 
Gogh painting)

to make it easier 
on the eyes 
and on the 
heart.

James McCrae
Hymn
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Simple being
alive is holy
and the only
church worth
joining is
the inhale
and exhale
of oxygen and
carbon dioxide
shared by all
your friends
and enemies
and lovers
and haters
as we step
and stumble
and walk
each other
home.

James McCrae
Being human is awkward
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Sometimes I feel like an animal trapped inside a human body.

Sometimes I feel the rage of a killer for no reason. 

Sometimes I lay awake in the middle of the night overthinking something stupid I said five years ago. 

Sometimes I want to set my brain on fire because enlightenment takes too long. 

Sometimes I’m too embarrassed to say “I love you.”

Sometimes the sound of a saxophone makes me cry.

Sometimes I want to bury my face between the legs of random women on the street. 

Sometimes I want a cigarette even though I quit smoking 10 years ago. 

Sometimes I want to give away everything that I own and live in the forest until I learn to communicate with trees. 

Sometimes I want to watch the city burn.

Sometimes I feel like an outsider, even with my closest friends. 

Sometimes I think that everyone in the world is looking at a small piece of the truth but nobody can see the whole thing.

Sometimes I wonder why I’m writing this poem and not somebody else. 

Sometimes I think that everything is exactly where it’s supposed to be according to some cosmic law that I don’t understand.

Sometimes I wish I could rescue the heart of the world from its own abusive mind.

Sometimes I don’t know what I think or how I feel, so I sit down and patiently wait for the wind to change directions.

James McCrae
A good host
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When the winds of change come knocking on your door (as they do to every door, sooner or later), don’t turn off the lights or hide behind the curtains. Try to be a good host.

Open the door, force a smile, and invite them inside for a cup of coffee. Don’t say much. Just listen. Those winds have been around the block many times, and have fascinating stories to tell.

And when the coffee is finished and those same winds drag you away, blindfolded, into the unmarked van parked outside, don’t scream for help or try to run away. Just go.

They will take you to the next place you need to be, whether you like it or not.

James McCrae
A female leader
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I think it’s time
for a female
leader.

Let’s be honest.
Men have been
fucking things up
for a very long time.

My only advice
to the brave women
chosen to lead us
into our uncertain
future:

Being a woman
isn’t enough
if you’re on the
same ego trip
that men have
been on since
the first caveman
hit another
in the head
with a rock
during an
argument
about a wooly
mammoth.

We’ve had
enough head
butting for
the next few
thousand
years.

What’s needed
now is your
intuition, your
gentleness, and
your connection
with nature and
the body –

an open palm,
not another
clenched fist.

James McCrae
I used to want
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I used to want 
life to be perfect
like a straight line 
or math equation.

Then I realized 
that imperfection 
is more interesting
and gives us space 
to learn and grow.

I used to want
everyone to think 
that I was right 
and hang on my words 
like a judge’s verdict.

Then I realized 
that “right” 
is the wrong 
way to think 
and what works for me 
may not work for you.

I used to want 
to change the world.

Then I realized 
that the world 
is a vast buzzing 
energy field
containing both 
heaven and hell 
in every inch.

The world 
doesn’t change.
Only mind
changes.

I used to want 
to own a collection 
of expensive things 
and beautiful women.

Then I realized 
that nothing 
can be owned, 
only borrowed, 
and whatever 
we cling to 
ends up dragging 
us down.

Who am I kidding?

I still want 
all these things, 
and more.

But most of all 
I want to stop wanting them 
and to simply enjoy 
the passing of time
as I sip my tea 
and watch the sun 
set upon 
the busy 
city.

James McCrae
Humanity
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A hungry wolf 
with good table 
manners and 
a bottomless 
stomach.

A species 
suspended
in the childhood 
of awakening.

A ray of sunlight 
on the verge 
of a nervous 
breakdown. 

Good people 
with bad 
leaders.

An assembly 
line of cells 
and genes.

A carnival 
rube playing 
a rigged 
game.

A teenage God 
having a bad
mushroom trip.

Siblings 
who fight 
as a family 
tradition.

Our own 
worst enemy.

Suicide 
in the form 
of genocide.

An innocent 
woman burned 
at the stake 
for witchcraft.

The right
hand blaming
the left hand
for the body’s
genetic pain.

Consciousness
disguised as 
matter.

The universe 
learning to
love itself.

A crying baby 
with delusions 
of grandeur 
and ambitions 
of world 
domination. 

An eagle 
with a broken 
wing. 

The heart 
under attack 
by the mind. 

Oneness 
broken into 
duality. 

A homeless
man vomiting 
on the foot of
a billionaire.

The nauseous 
womb of our 
technological 
future. 

An energy 
whose borders 
are illusory. 

An advanced 
education for 
brave souls. 

A baby fawn 
walking across 
a busy highway. 

A school play 
where some 
of the actors 
take their roles 
too seriously.

Both Judas 
and Christ.

Baby Krishna 
and Death, 
destroyer 
of worlds.

A caravan 
of blind explorers 
arguing over 
a map they 
can’t see.

Awareness 
lost inside 
of thought.

A flickering 
candle inside 
a dark room.

The scream 
of a poet 
into the 
void.

The distant 
ancestor of 
a noble tribe 
whose history 
has been 
forgotten.

A group 
of refugees
who gave up 
their magic 
in exchange 
for paper 
money.

An ape 
who saw 
too much.

Many vibrant 
shades of the 
same great 
rainbow.

A jazz band 
with seven 
billion solos 
playing at the 
same time.

The vision 
of a genius 
dulled by 
medication.

The rerun 
of an old 
television show 
that we watch 
again and again 
because we 
never quite 
learn the lesson.

The sickness 
and the cure.

The eternal 
debate between 
the artist and 
the engineer. 

A fuzzy
channel 
of cosmic
inspiration.

A fallen angel 
who must repay 
her debt before 
returning home.

A collection of 
broken pieces 
trying to come 
back together.

The thing 
standing between 
the light and 
the shadow.

A comedy 
that looks 
like a tragedy 
until the very 
end.

James McCrae