It isn’t just the extraordinary amplitude of Scott Coffel’s poems that dazzles me, though the imagination that produced them appears to be boundless. It isn’t simply their speed; speed is all too cheap these days. I’m a sucker for glamour, and there’s considerable glamour here: in the bait-and-switch of reference, the tonal range, the wit. But what makes these poems so remarkably out-of-the-ordinary is that all these riches are subordinated to so masterful a syntax. The sentences are athletic, outrageous even, but their cadences are relaxed. They branch, they build, they turn on a dime, they never succumb to clutter, and their rigor is part of the wicked fun.

Listen to—and watch—the beautiful deployment of poetic line:

I owe my death as a gardener not to cheap rabbit fencing
but to a botched affair with Persephone, the Garden of Eden’s
willowy seed manager. As William James remarked

Heptameter made to seem as natural as breathing, with a variable two- and three-beat foot, the line breaks end-paused or enjambed so gently as to be almost indistinguishable from the end-pause. Technique so brilliant, in other words, that it all but disappears.

I’m in danger of going on and on, but the work speaks so wonderfully for itself that commentary pales. You need to read these poems. Have a ball.

-Linda Gregerson, Contest Judge 


A Man Half the Size of Napoleon

Even the Incredible Shrinking Man, now lost
among individual sequoias of grass, would be a Gulliver
wreaking havoc on this silicon chip of a city

where I lead Zeitgeist tours when not hawking
novelties in Washington Square Park: after squawks 
of dissonance doomed my twelve-tone musical condoms

I returned to shooting fish in a barrel, hitting pay dirt
with pairs of North and South Tower pajamas.
But this life feels small, and six days out of seven

I find the Eighth Symphony’s café au lait inferior
to the metaphysical heroin of the Ninth, for to be young,
that state of bliss we verge from most unwillingly,

is to worship Chaos the world god, to despise
Adonis for disintegrating at the first touch of gray
into a wage slave with a spouse and mortgage, to idolize

a man half the size of Napoleon—no slouch himself
in the art of delusion: in truth a giant dwarfing everyone
as he ducks for clearance under the Arc de Triomphe.


Goldman Sachs

I owe my death as a gardener not to cheap rabbit fencing
but to a botched affair with Persephone, the Garden of Eden’s
willowy seed manager. As William James remarked
after his final Chautauqua, a dance of erotic instruction
that begins with the pH value of chicken shit
ends in a Richter-scale derangement of the senses—after which
I scavenged amongst the undecided, combing the estuaries
for bi-valves, dead set on poisoning the unswayable,

my moral high ground a barnacled rock visible at low tide.
Thank God I failed: my candidate and his churlish spouse
receding faster than a cosmic hairline,
as did my fantasies of Venus on the half shell—a goddess
who could iron shirts as if every Chinese launderer on Mott Street
had been shanghaied into arbitraging for Goldman Sachs.


Mr. Still

Opposite the incinerator chute was a wall of mailboxes,
all with the grilled opening that infuriated my father
every time Mr. Still’s lackey—a coward, voyeur, and sadist

rolled into one—took his revenge, inserting
the pink notice of arrears only half-way through the grill,
broadcasting my father’s penury to the neighbors.

I can still see the lackey masturbating in the hedges
below the frosted window where Miss Curley, my favorite
art teacher, showered each morning at six, she

who would die young in the icy waters off Idlewild.
The lackey wasted no chance to profane the dead,
as he did that summer morning when the jeweler’s wife

transmogrified into a maroon splodge after plunging
from the roof of 20-28, he and his lewd circle of caretakers
laughing as they hosed her down the storm drain.

How the lackey hated my father, who volunteered
to patrol the terrace at night until the rapist was captured,
who had seen the lackey paying too much attention

to Elise, the girl whose hand I held during fire drills,
whose desk I hid beneath when the long-desired H-bomb
exploded over P.S. 215, she and I the only survivors,

playing skelly alone for hours without looking up,
the tips of our forefingers tender from striking bottle caps
weighted down with the slag of metallic crayons.

It was not yet impossible to dredge coelacanths
from the depths of our pockets, strange creatures stamped
like Mercury dimes or pennies from the Jazz Age;

specimens from the 1870s lingered in circulation,
pestered by young numismatists as they slept in the sun.
Where the lackey was not, human nature thrived

or at least coped as best it could, given what it had seen.
Dogschneider’s father, for instance, made a habit
of hoisting himself through the bedroom window

he shared with Mrs. Dogschneider, never stepping foot
on the terrace, avoiding contact with everyone
except the lackey or on rare occasions Mr. Still himself.

Of the Dogschneiders little was known, though
with his gaunt physique and prosthetic arm sheathed
in black leather and his tense and swarthy face

he seemed to have survived the camps at worst
or the Communists at best, or so thought my father, who
had tried and failed to befriend this silent ghost.

One afternoon in 1963 the lackey made his fatal mistake.
Elise, myself, and at least a dozen other children
waited for the miniature thrill ride mounted on the back

of an unlicensed truck driven by Mr. Hernandez,
whose English was atrocious but we in our stupidity
adored him for it, and loved his gentle mirth as well.

The lackey, his bloated youth decaying fast, dreamt
of chasing Hernandez out of Wavecrest Gardens,
Far Rockaway proper, Queens at least, America itself.

Why had Mr. Still granted the lackey such license
to humiliate and torment anyone lacking the strength
to stop him? Why was it that only Dogschneider

had ever seen, or much less spoken, to Mr. Still?
In what kind of world, I thought, did hedge blossoms
and catchable bees and ocean air and my friend Elise

merit the lackey? The sky toyed with the idea of rain,
building and then tearing its anvil clouds apart,
shifting from dark to light with grave abandon,

its blurts of thunder now mixed with mariachi music
as the truck turned right on Seagirt Boulevard
with Mr. Hernandez smiling. We watched the lackey

die in public, his scheme to terrify Hernandez
having worked all too well, who instead of swerving
into a crowd of children, accelerated to rid his soul

of the lackey’s death’s head in the windshield
and of Mr. Still’s Pinkertons in the rearview mirror,
a posse of retirees who couldn’t catch a stalled train.


Speakers of Wintu-Nomlaki

Aleppo, though not as lucrative as the basket case of Greece
or the golden toads of Costa Rica (short supply, high demand)
or loquacious as speakers of Wintu-Nomlaki
(rarest of gossips) or free as a dying radical on Coumadin,

remains the supernova in my portfolio
of lost causes. Short of The Hague, revolutionaries
could release enough ethylene to ripen statues of Pablo Neruda,
exposing ogres to fatal doses of poetry.

An opportunist at heart but a Saint Bernard to my conscience,
I joined an ethical investment seminar in Cedar Rapids
led by Theresa of Avila, who to her credit dropped all pretense
of detachment as she showered kisses on the Vatican’s

Large Cap Growth Fund, tempting me to measure
my Ponzi scheme of salvation against the sure thing of God—
as if ecstasy exempt from risk was recompense for the flood
of cataclysms, massacres, heartbreaks, false friends.


Crossing the Mighty Catskills

Is it not unconscionable for a man to lay waste his powers
in the serene unpaid cultivation of rutabagas and cherry tomatoes
when he could be giving credence to the vilest rumors
or trading his lewd and expensive wife for a mail-order bride?

Each evening after work he trots out his agrarian agenda
in a pantomime of class warfare, the rich strung up from lampposts
as he preaches in earnest to his polite but amused guests,
a family of Sudanese refugees wearing electric green T-shirts.

Though lazy and skeptical-on-the-cheap
I would risk an appropriate amount of second-degree burns
to extract him from a burning Chrysler and have little doubt
that if a throng of critics emerged to sabotage my reputation

he would drive them underground with a gallon of mole repellent.
I ought to apologize for my spleen but I am disheartened—
in truth more shaken than disheartened—having finished
yet another biography of the Romantics

that ends, as they all do, in a spree of melancholia
for the subject and his friends, all of them dying of ailments
even overweight Southerners never contract. We say things
could be worse until the day they can’t be,

the Age of Reason exploding like the EEG of an epileptic.
On such days we are not of the flesh: our shallow breathing
scares off the sensual stranger. Despondent as Jacobins
we seek safe passage out of history, inhabiting the imagination

of William Wordsworth on the D train as it lurches
between DeKalb Avenue and Grand Street, taking leave
of our senses as we cross the mighty Catskills without knowing it,
bequeathing to autumnal breezes our lyrics of extinction.