Thursday, April 8, 2021

Flash Fiction: "Good Odds"

In our era of rapid clicks and short attention spans, flash fiction seems like the way to go. This was published last week in 101 words:  


I have some questions.


About my treatment.

I will be happy to answer any questions you may have.

Is it worth it for me to go through this?

That’s a question only you can answer.

Okay, let me put it this way: what are my chances if I go ahead with this treatment?

As I said…

Just tell me how many people are alive five years later.

You want a percentage?


22.7 %.

How about ten years out?

Now we’re really getting into another area where statistics…

Pick a percentage.

9.2%. Approximately.

That seems like good odds to me.

By Michael Cooney

Tuesday, February 23, 2021

"The Colonel Takes Command" published in Sundial Magazine


My story, inspired by the Mike Masco murder case in Little Falls a century ago, is now on line in Sundial Magazine, a new site for short historical fiction. The details of the homicide  and the method of concealing his wife's body are taken directly from the files of the Little Falls Historical Society. The manhunt is also based on fact, and Masco did flee to the area known as the Burnt Rocks east of town before he was apprehended. Chief Molloy and his son are based on local  figures whose identity would be obvious to the more ancient local inhabitants. Camp Jolly, the Home Guard, and the shooting of the cows are all taken directly from history.

Looking back at the story, my one regret is giving the Colonel the name of Guy Beardslee and I hope I have not troubled his spirit with my portrayal of the foolish old fellow bearing his name. The Colonel descended from the family who pioneered electricity development the county and built Beardslee's Mills, long since under the lake created by the dam at East Creek. The family's gothic mansion is now the well known Beardslee Castle restaurant on Route 5. (Photo below)

Sundial is a great new magazine and I urge your support. I particularly like A Part of Charlotte by Amy Goyan, a flash fiction which centers on an infamous device used to restrain patients at the State Asylum for Lunatics in Utica, New York.

I would also like to acknowledge the story illustration by Yaleeza Patchett.

For other Upstate Earth  posts related to the background of this fiction, see:

The Ghosts of Beardslees Mills

Tales From the Rock City

The Utica Insane Asylum

And this summary of a recent museum exhibit gives a good picture of Camp Jolly:

Little Falls Historical Society exhibit on Camp Jolly


Sunday, January 24, 2021

"The Witch Girl and The Wobbly" published by Running Wild Press

 My novella set among the isolated people of the Taconic Hills a century ago has been published in Kindle and paperback editions: 

Running Wild Novella Anthology, Volume 4 Book 1: Wright, Peter: 9781947041820: Books

The story is narrated by Tom Ryan, a young man radicalized by the 1912 textile strike in Little Falls who comes to New York City in flight from World War I conscription. Falling in with the anarchist firebrand Carlo Tresca and the future Communist Party leader Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, he is recruited to organize workers in upstate Stottville. Fleeing a bogus murder charge only days after he arrives,  Tom finds refuge in the long isolated community known to local historians as the Taghanic Basketmakers or Pondshiners.

The story takes a turn when Tom meets a daughter of that community, only recently ravaged by the misnamed Spanish Flu pandemic of 1917-19. An excerpt from that encounter follows:

I hardly remember stumbling into a lake and then climbing up a hillside full of trees and after that I must have passed out. I saw a girl with a bow and arrow, and thought I was dreaming.

I have no clear recollection until the next day. I was under a rough blanket and could hear the sound of birds. Opening my eyes, I saw that I was in a room with walls that looked to be made of mud and sticks. The iron pots hanging from the walls looked about a hundred years old. Then I noticed a little girl, no more than seven or eight, in a raggedy dress. She jumped up in a fright when she saw I was awake and ran out through the canvas flap that served as a door. A minute the later the older girl, who might have been sixteen, the one I had seen in the forest, poked her head into the room and said something in a blurry sort of voice. “I'm sorry,” I said. “What did you say?”

She came a few feet farther into the hut. I could see that the smaller girl held her hand and was trying to pull her  back out of sight. “Are you still feelin' peaked?” she repeated.

“No, I'm all right, thank you.” 

The two girls so closely resembled each other that I was sure they were sisters, although the older was dark as a Sicilian and the younger light as a Dutch girl. With her long, straight black hair, the older one reminded me of a picture of  Pocahontas I'd seen in a schoolbook.

    When she didn't reply, I added, “Thank you for taking care of me. I guess I was pretty sick when you found me.”

    The older girl nodded. “You hungry now?”

   “Sure,” I told her, and she vanished. A few minutes later she came back and handed me a wooden bowl. I tried a mouthful of a kind of stew, which was about the gamiest stuff I'd ever tasted, but I was so hungry I took another spoonful. “Pretty good,” I lied. “What's in it?”

    “That there's some fine squirrel meat and healing roots I gathered special.” She relaxed enough to sit down on a wooden stool. “That'll bring ye back to yourself.”

   “Well, I thank you for it,” I said, forcing myself to keep eating. “You've been very kind.”

    She blushed at that, and put her face down. Wanting to keep her talking, I asked her, “Did I really see you with a bow and arrow or was I dreaming?”

    That brought a shy smile to her face, but she quickly looked away. “I'm the best hand at a bow of any woman on the hill,” she said in a very serious voice. “I took down that squirrel you're eatin' this very morn.”

   “Of any woman? Are there other women who use a bow and arrow?” 

I was wondering if I had stumbled into Sherwood Forest and she was Maid Marian.

    “Them's our ways up here, not that I 'spect you to know that. We gals are the only ones 'lowed to touch a bow and it's on us to catch squirrels for the pot. Or bunnies if we see one. A'course, it's only the men 'lowed to take down deers 'cause they have their guns but there's never any deers, not for years, anyways.”

    As I was trying to figure this all out, she asked me “How come you's meandering on the hill, anyways? You from the hotel?”


    “From the hotel down on Lake Charlotte. Lots of city folk been comin' there of late and it'd not be strange if you'd got yourself lost in the woods.” 

     “No, I don't know about any hotel. I was just...”

     “Then there's no place you got to be goin' in a hurry?”

    “No, for a fact, there isn't.”

    “Good, that's good.” She stood up. “Ye needs to rest now. If ye need a thing, call out and my lil sis'll get it for ye. Her name's Mary.”

To read the entire story and those of my fellow novella writers, order the book by clicking on the link at the top of this page.

Friday, December 11, 2020

The generous poetry of Ellen Bass


(Cross published at Daily Kos)

Ellen Bass is appearing with Aracelis Girmay tonight at a Brooklyn Public Library virtual event  entitled "Holding Space for Grief." In these terribly difficult times, Ellen is a living poet who offers much to nourish our spirits.

First a brief bio based on the copyrighted Wikipedia Ellen Bass; it is used under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License. You may redistribute it, verbatim or modified, providing that you comply with the terms of the CC-BY-SA.

Ellen Bass (born 1947, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania) is an American poet and co-author of The Courage to Heal.
She grew up in Margate City, NJ, where her parents owned a liquor store. She attended Goucher College, where she graduated magna cum laude in 1968 with her bachelor’s degree. She pursued a master’s degree at Boston University, where she studied with Anne Sexton, and graduated in 1970. From 1970–1974, Bass worked as an administrator at Project Place, a social service center in Boston. She currently is teaching in the low residency MFA program at Pacific University in Oregon and has been teaching Writing About Our Lives workshops since 1974 in Santa Cruz, California.
Her poems have appeared in hundreds of journals and anthologies, including The Atlantic Monthly, Ms., The American Poetry Review, The Kenyon Review, Ploughshares, and Field. Much of her earlier writing is confessional poetry. The Human Line (Copper Canyon Press, 2007) was named among the notable books of 2007 in the section poetry by the San Francisco Chronicle[6] and Mules of Love (BOA Editions, 2002) won the 2002 Lambda Literary Award in the category lesbian poetry.

Ellen Bass writes wonderful generous poems full of specific and very human details. I'll include here a couple of her poems and urge readers to visit her website for more samples and information on purchasing her books.

First, listen to her reading "Sous Chef" as she prepares dinner with her wife.

And now here is a poem about her mother's life from her 2020 book, Indigo.


I didn’t know that when my mother died, her grave
would be dug in my body. And when I weaken,
she is here, dressing behind the closet door,
hooking up her long-line cotton bra,
then sliding the cups around to the front,
leaning over and harnessing each heavy breast,
setting the straps in the grooves on her shoulders,
reins for the journey. She’s slicking her lips with
Fire & Ice. She’s shoveling the car out of the snow.
How many pints of Four Roses did she slide
into exactly sized brown bags? How many cases
of Pabst Blue Ribbon did she sling onto the counter?
All the crumpled bills, steeped in the smells
of the lives who’d handled them–their sweat,
onions and grease, lumber and bleach–she opened
her palm and smoothed each one. Then
stacked them precisely, restoring order.
And at ten, after the change fund was counted,
the doors locked, she uncinched the girth, unbuckled
the bridle. Cooked Cream of Wheat for my father,
mixed a milkshake with Hershey’s syrup for me,
and poured herself a single highball,
placed on a yellow paper napkin.
Years later, when I needed the nightly
highball too, she gave me this story.
She’d left my father in the hospital–
this time they didn’t know if he’d live,
but she had to get back to the store. Halfway
she stopped at a diner and ordered coffee.
She sat in the booth with her coat still on,
crying, silently, just the tears rolling down,
and the waitress never said a word,
just kept refilling her cup.

And here's a scene of two people at an airport from her earlier book, The Human Line:


At gate C22 in the Portland airport
a man in a broad-band leather hat kissed
a woman arriving from Orange County.
They kissed and kissed and kissed. Long after
the other passengers clicked the handles of their carry-ons
and wheeled briskly toward short-term parking,
the couple stood there, arms wrapped around each other
like he’d just staggered off the boat at Ellis Island,
like she’d been released at least from ICU, snapped
out of a coma, survived bone cancer, made it down
from Annapurna in only the clothes she was wearing.
Neither of them was young. His beard was gray.
She carried a few extra pounds you could imagine
her saying she had to lose. But they kissed lavish
kisses like the ocean in the early morning,
the way it gathers and swells, sucking
each rock under, swallowing it
again and again. We were all watching—
passengers waiting for the delayed flight
to San Jose, the stewardesses, the pilots,
the aproned woman icing Cinnabons, the man selling
sunglasses. We couldn’t look away. We could
taste the kisses crushed in our mouths.
But the best part was his face. When he drew back
and looked at her, his smile soft with wonder, almost
as though he were a mother still open from giving birth,
as your mother must have looked at you, no matter
what happened after—if she beat you or left you or
you’re lonely now—you once lay there, the vernix
not yet wiped off, and someone gazed at you
as if you were the first sunrise seen from the Earth.
The whole wing of the airport hushed,
all of us trying to slip into that woman’s middle-aged body,
her plaid Bermuda shorts, sleeveless blouse, glasses,
little gold hoop earrings, tilting our heads up

Thursday, May 21, 2020

We must risk delight: The poetry of Jack Gilbert

I thought I knew American writers of his generation well but I had never heard of Jack Gilbert until a friend recommended him to me a couple weeks ago. Born in 1925, he is often associated with the Beat poets like Allen Ginsberg and Lawrence Ferlinghetti but he shunned publicity for his five decade long writing career. After winning the Yale Young Poets Prize and being nominated for a Pulitzer in 1962, he pretty much dropped out of sight for years, surviving as best he could overseas. Here’s one that gives a sense of how he found joy and beauty even in his failed marriage with the poet Linda Gregg. She also needs to be better appreciate. Read about her and her poems at the Poetry Foundation site.

Failing and Flying

Everyone forgets that Icarus also flew.
It's the same when love comes to an end,
or the marriage fails and people say
they knew it was a mistake, that everybody
said it would never work. That she was
old enough to know better. But anything
worth doing is worth doing badly.
Like being there by that summer ocean
on the other side of the island while
love was fading out of her, the stars
burning so extravagantly those nights that
anyone could tell you they would never last.
Every morning she was asleep in my bed
like a visitation, the gentleness in her
like antelope standing in the dawn mist.
Each afternoon I watched her coming back
through the hot stony field after swimming,
the sea light behind her and the huge sky
on the other side of that. Listened to her
while we ate lunch. How can they say
the marriage failed? Like the people who
came back from Provence (when it was Provence)
and said it was pretty but the food was greasy.
I believe Icarus was not failing as he fell,
but just coming to the end of his triumph.

After twenty years he published another book of poetry, and followed with three more over the decades. When asked where he had been, he answered that he had been falling in love with Linda Gregg and then with his second wife, the sculptor Michiko Nogami. He never overcame his grief when Michiko died of cancer and this is one of many poems he wrote for her:

Michiko Dead

He manages like somebody carrying a box  
that is too heavy, first with his arms
underneath.When their strength gives out,  
he moves the hands forward, hooking them  
on the corners, pulling the weight against  
his chest. He moves his thumbs slightly  
when the fingers begin to tire, and it makes  
different muscles take over. Afterward,
he carries it on his shoulder, until the blood  
drains out of the arm that is stretched up
to steady the box and the arm goes numb. But now  
the man can hold underneath again, so that  
he can go on without ever putting the box down.

In old age, he published the poem, “Brief for the Defense,” that might be his greatest. To quote Dan Albergotti:

“To say Gilbert has been working on his greatest poem for 80 years might be overstating the case, but it has certainly been 80 years in the making. Perhaps it is safest, though, to assert that he’s been at it since 1962.” 

Albergotti’s entire elegy on Gilbert, “Coming to the End of his Triumph,” on is well worth reading. Here is the poem where he says that no matter how terrible life becomes, we must risk delight:

A Brief for the Defense

Sorrow everywhere. Slaughter everywhere. If babies
are not starving someplace, they are starving
somewhere else. With flies in their nostrils.
But we enjoy our lives because that’s what God wants.
Otherwise the mornings before summer dawn would not
be made so fine. The Bengal tiger would not
be fashioned so miraculously well. The poor women
at the fountain are laughing together between
the suffering they have known and the awfulness
in their future, smiling and laughing while somebody
in the village is very sick. There is laughter
everyday in the terrible streets of Calcutta,
and the women laugh in the cages of Bombay.
If we deny our happiness, resist our satisfaction,
we lessen the importance of their deprivation.
We must risk delight. We can do without pleasure,
but not delight.Not enjoyment. We must have
the stubbornness to accept our gladness in the ruthless
furnace of this world. To make injustice the only
measure of our attention is to praise the Devil.
If the locomotive of the Lord runs us down,
we should give thanks that the end had magnitude.
We must admit there will be music despite everything.
We stand at the prow again of a small ship
anchored late at night in the tiny port
looking over to the sleeping island: the waterfront
is three shuttered cafés and one naked light burning.
To hear the faint sound of oars in the silence as a rowboat
comes slowly out and then goes back is truly worth
all the years of sorrow that are to come.

“We must admit there will be music despite everything.”  What a sentence!

Cross-published at the Daily Kos.

Sunday, April 12, 2020

Easter 2020: The yellow birds that fill the trees

No River Where We Parted
After Eugenio Montale’s “Dora Markus”

There was no wooden bridge,
no river where we parted:
a stream of taxis yellow as daffodils,
the air tasting of smoke.

With a wave of your hand
you pointed to the city of brick
where an old man, almost motionless
at the window, awaited your return.

Your sadness made me think of a winter morning 
when so many yellow birds arrived
that they filled all the trees in all the woods
that stood behind my father's house.

I spent the day shoveling snow
from the neighbors' walks,
thinking and thinking about hundreds
and hundreds of yellow birds.

This poem, originally published in the Spring 1999 issue of the long vanished Brownstone Review, was loosely inspired by one written by the Italian poet Eugenio Montale in 1926, and continued in 1939. The woman in the title is someone he never met.

Montale survived the Fascist era by concealing his meaning behind such intricate symbols that his poems can be interpreted in many ways, all of them beautiful. 



Fu dove il ponte di legno
mette a Porto Corsini sul mare alto
e rari uomini, quasi immoti, affondano
o salpano le reti. Con un segno
della mano additavi all'altra sponda
invisibile la tua patria vera.
Poi seguimmo il canale fino alla darsena
della città, lucida di fuliggine,
nella bassura dove s'affondava
una primavera inerte, senza memoria.

E qui dove un'antica vita
si screzia in una dolce
ansietà d'Oriente,
le tue parole iridavano come le scaglie
della triglia moribonda.

La tua irrequietudine mi fa pensare
agli uccelli di passo che urtano ai fari
nelle sere tempestose:
è una tempesta anche la tua dolcezza,
turbina e non appare.
E i suoi riposi sono anche più rari.
Non so come stremata tu resisti
in quel lago
d'indifferenza ch'è il tuo cuore; forse
ti salva un amuleto che tu tieni
vicino alla matita delle labbra,
al piumino, alla lima: un topo bianco
d'avorio; e così esisti!



Ormai nella tua Carinzia
di mirti fioriti e di stagni,
china sul bordo sorvegli
la carpa che timida abbocca
o segui sui tigli, tra gl'irti
pinnacoli le accensioni
del vespro e nell'acque un avvampo
di tende da scali e pensioni.

La sera che si protende
sull'umida conca non porta
col palpito dei motori
che gemiti d'oche e un interno
di nivee maioliche dice
allo specchio annerito che ti vide
diversa una storia di errori
imperturbati e la incide
dove la spugna non giunge.

La tua leggenda, Dora!
Ma è scritta già in quegli sguardi
di uomini che hanno fedine
altere e deboli in grandi
ritratti d'oro e ritorna
ad ogni accordo che esprime
l'armonica guasta nell'ora
che abbuia, sempre più tardi.

È scritta là. Il sempreverde
alloro per la cucina
resiste, la voce non muta,
Ravenna è lontana, distilla
veleno una fede feroce.
Che vuole da te? Non si cede
voce, leggenda o destino.
Ma è tardi, sempre più tardi.ult to decipher


As Montale found beauty and hope in a dark time, so may we this Easter:

Now it seems, and I may be wrong, that
I will come to where you are sitting across
from the fountain in the Piazza Navona.
You have already ordered a bottle of Frascati.
You are thinking that I am late but I am not.

Thursday, April 2, 2020

Ezra Pound: the Best and the Worst

Lady Wang, found in Mogao Caves, Tang Dynasty

Ezra Pound was a truly great poet - and he wasn't. Leaving the United States in the early 1900s, he settled in London and later in Italy and immersed himself in European and classical culture and literature. His best poems came early, but as he moved into middle age, his charm and generosity were displaced by a bitter anti-Semitism. This led him to make rather incomprehensible propaganda broadcasts for Mussolini during the war. And that, in turn, led to his arrest for treason and his subsequent commitment to a mental hospital for twelve years. Pound appears in my novel In the Forest of Tombolo in scenes set at a prison camp in Pisa in and at St. Elizabeth's Mental Hospital in Washington.

I prefer to remember him now for his early and remarkably beautiful poems, often loose translations from other languages. Here is my wife's favorite:

The River Merchant's Wife
          after Li Po

While my hair was still cut straight across my forehead
I played about the front gate, pulling flowers.
You came by on bamboo stilts, playing horse,
You walked about my seat, playing with blue plums.
And we went on living in the village of Chōkan:
Two small people, without dislike or suspicion.
At fourteen I married My Lord you.
I never laughed, being bashful.
Lowering my head, I looked at the wall.
Called to, a thousand times, I never looked back.
At fifteen I stopped scowling,
I desired my dust to be mingled with yours
Forever and forever, and forever.
Why should I climb the look out?
At sixteen you departed
You went into far Ku-tō-en, by the river of swirling eddies,
And you have been gone five months.
The monkeys make sorrowful noise overhead.
You dragged your feet when you went out.
By the gate now, the moss is grown, the different mosses,
Too deep to clear them away!
The leaves fall early this autumn, in wind.
The paired butterflies are already yellow with August
Over the grass in the West garden;
They hurt me.
I grow older.
If you are coming down through the narrows of the river Kiang,
Please let me know beforehand,
And I will come out to meet you
As far as Chō-fū-Sa.