to lead by example
is the only way
to make the proof ample
you don’t lead astray
If I wasn’t an impostor
I’d be virtuous & brave—
but my courage is all posture
& I mostly misbehave.
If I wasn’t an impostor
I would take a leader’s stance—
but I’m bound to make a wrong turn,
so I’d best not take the chance.
…then again, I’ve seen no roster
listing who’s best fit to lead—
what if leaders are impostors
taking risks in times of need?
Image: Ivan Aivazovsky, 1890
to a coward
to get devoured
This one’s for you, my leaders: This weird year,
chaos is come again—that much is clear.
It’s not a circling vulture now; it’s here.
* This is my longest poem; read the full 400-word piece about leadership at ellenrhymes.com/for-you-my-leaders/
There’s no excuse for cowardice
no honor in deceit
no ransom sum for innocence
nobody death won’t meet
no victory in bigotry
no sanity in hate
no substitute for dignity
no foresight into fate
these facts I know
but even so
I’m ignorant as Eve
without you, love —
I have nothing to believe.
If you think greed
you’re enviably naïve;
if you think honor
Image: Rubens’ Hercules & the Lion (1639)
Your phone is addictive. That’s really no joke!
Ask any person who gambles or smokes:
You think you can stop anytime you decide,
& that’s why you probably haven’t yet tried.
Free markets run on supply and demand,
so companies want that phone stuck to your hand.
Expert psychologists help them design
chimes, bells & whistles that mold to your mind:
Look at that bubble—shiny, bright red—
urging you not to leave that thing unread!
See how your apps feel so pleasing & clear?
That’s not by accident. That’s engineered
to make things so easy you don’t have to think—
calming, habitual, just like a drink.
Have you noticed all these people
who think they know what to do?
Have you noticed how they often
also tell YOU what to do?
It seems rarely out of malice
that they try to force their view;
It’s more like their kingly palace
is a prison
like a zoo
where you spend your life’s duration
in your natural habitat,
but it’s all a fabrication
& you die exactly that.
I asked a gifted craftsman
for advice as we conversed;
he said simply, “Of your critics,
you yourself must be the worst.”
“Hear me, hear me!” all day long he cries,
soliciting thumbs-up from passerby
where the people are many & most of them cry
just as loud—why he tries
to be heard over the crowd is beyond me,
but there’s always somebody responding.
“Here’s my story!” he yells. “Nothing to hide!
I’ll play-by-play till the day I die
& tell you so much you’ll think it’s all lies,
but I’m really this shallow, believe me—
I live just so strangers can see me!”
“Well hollered, my friend!” another replies
at the top of his lungs from the herd’s other side.
“Isn’t it wonderful how, in our time,
we can all see each other, but never meet eyes?
We’re all the same now, whether sighted or blind!”
There’s no message here—how could there be one?
but if you want to look for one, for fun,
look around you & wonder, right here, on the fly,
where would you turn if you needed to cry?
Image: Sandro Botticelli, 1480
i persephone though living wander
in death’s shade along the sidewalk by day
the moon raising her sickle overhead
reminds me monthly of the bloody dead
bodies who have carpeted battlegrounds
for generations laying their lives down
for the next generation & i am
a fly on the wall who will die with all
she has witnessed & not said & i’ve read
everything written about releasing
your final breath with ease & it’s no use
because fate just rolls a die & cuts the thread
but i wander in this land of the soon-dead
happy because i love you though doomed
photo by Angelos Michalopoulos
The beauty & brains of concision
are rooted in clear-eyed decision.
In my quest to make every word count
I quite often reduce the amount
down to zero, at which point I shout,
“Damn it, Muse! What was all that about?!”
Image: Leonardo Da Vinci, ca. 1500
Once upon a time
in a land called Compromise
two people could win
if they could share the prize.
Painting by Émile Friant (1888)
Good leaders do
the things they must
to flourish & succeed;
the great ones also
their followers to lead.
Image: Mohandas Gandhi ca. 1930
With this brief time
you might as well aspire
to be among the keepers
of the Fire.
This Fire’s not like the rosy cheeks
instead, by peeling layers,
Image: ‘Astronomer by Candlelight’ by Gerrit Dou (ca. 1665)
Love is not love
which grows uncertain in uncertain times—
love’s the same flame ignited in two minds
as burns in the
Image: Hubble Telescope (2018)
Fools often speak out daringly
while wise men speak more sparingly.
Image from Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927)
some beauty’s just
a skipping stone’s skip deep
it’s beautiful enough to keep
some truth is like the paddle on an oar
where it was before
some beauty is cosmetic
some is true
some truth’s a thing you say
& some you do
We introverts by nature must
have solitude to live—
as such, we struggle with how much
Image courtesy of Pavel Brodsky (browse more of his work here!)
disguised as a mere
When this coarse paradigm
has run its course
& none alive were born before your day,
will you remember what
you took away?
‘Seclusion’ is a very pretty word
for something that could easily get lonely.
‘Isolation’ strikes a deeper nerve—
one that looks at war & says, “If only.”
Image: Caspar David Friedrich, ca. 1850
Some people do not understand
why I prefer the ampersand:
It’s simply more efficient, &
it’s spelled the same
in every land.
There’s a co-dependence
between Liberty & Fate:
while through constraint
Image: Salvador Dali (1942)
See also: Too much freedom? by Marin Mikulic
Much in life you
One thing you
your own is
Image: Al Pacino in Serpico
Many are called
& few chosen—
or are most just
scared & frozen?
i see the future, see,
not like a prophecy—
i just imagine
(that seems to be the key)
then, as an engineer,
i bring the future here
Want a useful thought? Here’s one:
play is good for more than fun.
Through play, even wild wolves explore
in peace their readiness for war,
& language (“give a thing a name”)
is mankind’s first recorded game.
The rest is easy to derive:
we work hard & play hard to thrive.
The most advanced tribes ever known
used playing as a shared backbone
as they passed down, against all odds,
their richly painted masks of gods.
Invention (i.e. “make cool tools”)
is simply play with self-made rules.
We use play to grow, learn, create,
communicate & propagate—
plus (Shakespeare said it) play’s the thing
to catch the conscience of the King.
See also: Homo Ludens by Johan Huizinga
Image: Van Gogh, “First Steps” (1890)
Last time I saw my son,
I was a young man. Now, he is.
It’s OK. I like listening.
I don’t resent the woman. I’m just tired
of traveling, listening, hauling
my tall three-legged robot & his box
of replacement eyes, ears & memories.
Things could be worse.
Want to see a grown man cry? Lie
& tell people he raped his daughter.
There is a cave where people are enslaved
with manacles around their necks & ankles
& made to sit silent & well-behaved
beholding shadows cast from many angles.
Eventually, one prisoner gets free
& sees (in horror!) the machinery
that’s been projecting his experience.
He knows this is his disappearing chance
& climbs out of the pit, gasping for breath,
where, right away, his eyes scream in the sun;
in spite of this, it now seems much like death
to live in that cave (or, at least, less fun).
Plus, in the cavern’s darkness, he looks blind,
so, laughing, the cavemen pay him no mind.
A product of you, Time,
I’ll never be:
your bleeding scythe can only
set me free
from all these vicious
cycles lived on earth
& from the tyranny of death & birth—
you’ll take me, Time—
but maybe I won’t mind
if who I am
you’ll never have defined.
You planted thoughts precisely where
they’d make me grow aware,
to dazzling heights
by helping build the stairs
& showed me how Time’s waste of life
is possible to bear—
only now, I wish you’d be less
Andy Warhol, 1972
What are you, opportunity?
You mask your full identity
until you’re seized—then, we can see
your face of grace. Yet, if set free,
passed up or missed unwittingly,
you mutate all too easily
into a space for tyranny.
It’s a scarce commodity,
when someone very audibly
says, “This looks like a job for me.”
Image via SpaceX
A pure mirror disappears. The mirror is Tao,
a secret known & kept by all
being (by nature) untold.
It’s boring unless
you seek to be born.
It prescribes nothing, yet heals, I think
today. What it is, though… who’s to say?
someday you’ll find
inside an (AI) mind
when that time comes i hope
i am the more blind
the trouble with texting is
text is too poor
to serve as the right type of
there’s so much of you
i can choose to ignore
that before long, i’m not texting YOU anymore.
Two ancient wolves are fighting
forever in your soul:
the first is bright as lightning;
the other’s dark as coal.
One loves to watch you suffer;
one wants you to succeed.
Which fighter proves the tougher
The one you feed.
Wisdom sits with knowledge in her lap
wisdom’s the compass
knowledge is the map
wisdom’s the water
knowledge is the tap
wisdom is supple
knowledge sure can snap
Image: El Greco, 1609
There’s a story I imagine
everybody’s heard before
of a little hilltop village
where they never lock their doors
where they don’t take love for granted
& they see no point in fame
& they share the food they planted
asking nothing but your name.
Have you traveled to that village?
If so, tell me: Is it more
than a bunch of people like us
who refuse to lock their doors?
Image: Van Gogh, 1890
Sometimes I curse
the existence of skin—
how it makes some
people lose & some win—
yet, without skin, there’d be nothing within.
Image: William Blake, 1796
I’ve taken it upon myself
to educate mankind.
I’ve studied much psychology,
much science of the mind.
My stamina’s uncanny;
my resolve is absolute:
I’m speaking for the underdogs
who’d otherwise be mute!
I do their thinking for them—
that’s what I was trained to do.
You wonder who I am?
I am not Red.
I am not Blue.
I’m someone using power
to make fake promises to you.
Inspired by: Propaganda by Jaques Ellul
Image: Joseph Goebbels
Daniel Celentano, 1935
traveling unnoticed & unknown
traveling together but alone
the cargo of this train’s the pain
of men who’ve sacrificed in vain
If you are creative
you’re never alone:
your drive to create has
a mind of its own.
You’re bound to its service
& soon you learn well:
you put it to work
or it makes your life hell.
Image: Salvador Dali
I think the purpose of taboo
is sort of as a last resort:
When people cut
their love lives short—
when isolation walls us off—
then, like a lung-awaking cough,
up to the nakedest of things—
love, which is why the caged bird sings.
image: Shatner & Nichols, 1968
If words transcended time, I’d say:
“Thanks, Socrates—for to this day
you set a golden standard & example,
stand in sanity when truth is trampled,
lead leaders to love being wise
& remind me there are always times to fly
by the seat of your conscience.”
Image: Jacques-Louis David, 1787
Only after your time will Time decide
how well you’ve served our species as a guide,
but, since a leader’s life’s the life you lead,
here’s how I hope (& think) we both agree:
A good teacher won’t preach what he thinks;
instead, he shows the thirsty where he drinks.
The more he grows, the less he thinks he knows.
Friends are those who keep him on his toes.
Blazing no new trail from which to stray,
at best, he sheds some light that lights the way.
Finally (to not drag out this poem)
he understands this story as his own:
A wisdom-seeker lived inside a cave
for many moons. He neither spoke nor shaved,
but scribbled nonstop nonsense on the walls
until, clearly enlightened, out he crawled.
The only drawing left, of all he’d done,
was one big disk—a circle, like a sun.
Many disciples followed in his wake,
except they kept on making this mistake:
they drew circles, just like his, everywhere,
never discovering how his got there.
When Reason, man’s most perfect power,
is exiled from the Ivory Tower,
you stand outside as fearless proof
of its unconquerable truth.
While institutionalized minds
grow coddled, sheltered & unwise,
you teach bright people to be free
& draw their strength from liberty.
You set the tone, you set the stage
for freethinkers of every age:
You brought, with your life’s burning blaze,
the truth to light, where now it stays.
Vacations taking nothing but your mind
exist in inexhaustible supply,
so never settle. Keep your standards high.
Great writing moves you fast ahead, and far;
Bad drags you back, or leaves you where you are.
Great writers help their readers come away
equipped not just for tasks, but for the day:
Aware that facts can fail when given straight,
they aim to bring you face to face with fate,
with conscience, with desire, with suffering—
the greatest writers don’t communicate
so much as they illumine the innate.
So, don’t eat food for thought that’s bland or dry
or feed cheap candy into your mind’s eye:
Demand that we, your writers, satisfy.
Rhyming though it may seem quaint
is good for when
some things are worth rhyme time
& some things ain’t.
How can something as dainty as a rhyme
stretch to accommodate a paradigm?
How could stone slabs, slowly inscribed by hand,
carry the weight of 10 divine commands?
How did the founding fathers—all mere men—
give birth to a nation with a pen?
How do hearts split apart by loneliness
let themselves be opened up again?
All anyone wants to do is
sit around with friends,
laughing & philosophizing
till the wide world ends.
We know social media is
getting in the way,
but it feels like up
and leaving it is not okay.
They will make excuses for us
when we’re dead and gone, like:
“How could they know better?
Networking was at its dawn!”
Still, we won’t be blameless
in hindsight or history;
we’ll be famous for our shameless,
strangely painless misery.
One thing Twitter can’t do is
acquaint you with your grave.
All of us will meet there, friends,
and no one will be saved.
one of each color
one of each stripe
all stories i write
i rewrite for all types!
some like em funny
some like em sad
some like em crummy
some like em bad.
whoever you are, your opinion’s embraced.
i guarantee something is typed to your taste!
one for each pipe-dream
one for each gripe
one for each inseam
& every blood type
if you like ice cream
or if you like tripe
there’s nothing on earth
this typewriter can’t type!
there’s only one limit:
there’s no going back.
so if you don’t like what you see
(CLACK! CLACK! CLACK!)
i have no “delete” key.
cut me some slack.
for Tyler Cowen
Shortcuts to the spotlight
are the hallmark of our age—
why labor making thoughts bright
when outrage takes center stage?
Seldom can a centrist
(however strong his form)
cut through the division
that’s increasingly the norm.
Rarer still is one
who can sustain his measured stance
among any admirers he enchants.
You’re that unique exception
who does teach & inspire
without peddling deception
or preaching to the choir,
& though it wasn’t face to face,
you’ve taught me that I’m free
to make a better place
of Earth, like you—marginally.
Brainwashers in the churches,
brainwashers in the schools,
making worship into mockery
& students into fools;
brainwashers in the Bible Belt,
brainwashers on the coasts;
brainwashers taking dollars,
brainwashers taking votes—
you’re all the same, brainwashers!
you think you’re slick & sly,
but I can see right through your grand
disguises to your lies
& I see how you
falsify your sympathetic cries—
it’s not hard when your crying eyes
look like a crocodile’s!
you think you’re safe, established
& looked up to by the youth?
you stick out like sore thumbs above the
flat, plain truth,
& already, your time’s run out—
you’re only still around
because what goes up
& you’re speeding toward the ground
(A study of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 66)
like father, like son, you’re destined to see
insight blunted by blind scrutiny
& innocence deformed by violent hate
& beauty overwhelmed by spectacle
& conscience crying out against its fate
& Mary ridiculed by Jezebel
& straightforward direction made obscure
& power-hunger crippling strength, & pure
& simple truth labeled stupidity:
like father, like son, you endure all these
& so do i, by knowing you love me.
Though close friends often know it before you,
no one can tell you what you’re born to do.
There is no Oracle who sees your fate.
there is no guarantee it’s not too late.
There are no pre-made maps to travel with;
there is only a vast stone labyrinth
whose pathways wind & wander to its heart,
& somehow through the walls, the center calls
you, & you know—you’ve always known—
there is a center, & you’re not alone.
There once was a quiet dystopian town
where the people amazingly found
one among them was born with an uncanny gift:
taking bad memories. He’d just lift
pain from your brain like it was never there,
each trace recollection erased.
How it worked: This ‘Receiver’ himself made space
for your suffering in his own mind,
so you stepped out smiling while he stayed behind
and wept in your place.
…but soon, as things go,
the Receiver could feel his soul-force getting slow
as he watched his dark beard turning silver —
so he passed all those memories from long ago
to a young man who called him the Giver.
Willie Lester was a man
who toured in Afghanistan;
he left when he was barely 18.
on that day, his mother cried
with sunshine in her eyes;
her son looked better than she’d ever seen.
he was decorated some
for how well he used his gun,
but mostly for the lives he fought to save;
he showed valor in a time
when his brothers lost their minds;
he was smart & strong, fast on his feet & brave.
he left with a purple heart,
but that was just the start
of the fearless fighter’s suffering & pain;
he came home where he grew up
& frequently threw up
from the flashbacks of his buddies maimed & slain
surrounded by the sound of the screaming
at night he never knew if he was dreaming
but in public he was fine
as he laughed & drank & dined
telling war stories his mom could understand;
little did Ms. Lester know
death had dealt the fatal blow
long ago to this exceptional young man.
one day, Willie got all dressed,
hung his medals on his chest
& wrote a letter for
when he was dead:
ma, my head’s so full of war,
there’s nothing left from before,
so I have to put a bullet there instead.
he pulled the trigger fast.
all his neighbors heard the blast
& stretched their rubber necks to see the sight
of the man whose violent pain
had pulverized his brain
till he was killed by his own will to fight.
a self-devouring snake,
its scaly tail convulsing in its fangs;
whatever satiety it feels is fake;
there’s not even a momentary break
as it ingests its own abdomen’s pangs
for emptiness alone fulfills Desire,
which, eating itself, eats you along the way.
what’s more to say?
you’re empty of, or else feeding, Desire;
if neither, you’re entirely a liar.
Cold blood beading like sweat on his brow,
he fell to his knees pleading, “Take my place,
God, if you have any power now,
& quench the bloodthirst ravaging my race!
After I’m killed, they’ll only kill again,
but maybe with your death, the killing ends.”
The Lord supported troublemakers then,
so before he felt the press of Judas’ lips,
that tortured young man was possessed by God
but even God didn’t quite know the price
of facing the shadow of death as Christ:
A man suffers only once & goes free,
but gods, once dying, die eternally.
So God cried, “Why have you forsaken me?”
my love, your genius is hosted in you
like a parasite, a demon, an ancient
ghost haunting your wanting eyes—how
those little windows burn with the immense,
intense intelligence inside! what i’d
give to set foot in that cathedral, to behold
the hoard of treasure being held there
hostage by the fire-breathing monster
whose lair you are—it’s true, love, all i do
enslaved to this blunt, blind, unfeeling craft
is look for ways of understanding you
so one day i may be strong enough to
lay eyes on the unfathomable view
that is your soul & live to tell the tale.
In Sparta, in general,
lived men of few words.
However, whenever they used one,
One day a tyrant,
fresh conquests in tow,
sent Sparta a threat:
“Will I come friend or foe?”
Unamused, Sparta’s leader said:
That’s when the conqueror’s patience wore thin.
“If I ride in,” he warned,
“with my brothers in arms,
they will ravish your women
and ravage your farms.
Surrender! I might leave
your children unharmed.”
Once more, the reply came, pithy and swift:
With that, the invader
gulped down his pride,
spun ‘round and feared Spartans
till the day he died.
Wisdom is moderation of all things:
to neither be a puppet
nor pull strings,
to lead with strength
but not an iron fist,
to smartly borrow from, but not consist
of lessons learned in lifetimes besides yours,
to seize the day, yet not forget your chores
& take action, but give in when you’re wrong.
balanced moderation makes you strong —
except in love, which wisdom cannot touch:
love proves itself by loving
far too much.
possessed by the curse of being the best,
he couldn’t help but help people in need.
power like his was easy to use wrong,
but Superman’s heart was bigger than greed,
too big to let him sleep around or rest;
he could barely go an hour without
putting himself in harm’s way for a stranger;
he chased danger, reined in fear & doubt, warmed
like the sun & quenched like rain in drought—
he was Superman until the day
he died, paralyzed on his deathbed
when, at last, the reaper struck him dead.
still, to this day, there’s no grave to be found:
no one can put Superman in the ground.
How is it that Time understands
your quivering twin wands
& their commands?
Now takes shape as it passes through your hands,
resembling strong youth, infancy & age with equal grace;
Some rhythms are warlike; some fight for peace;
right foot runs straight & the left syncopates,
teasing timelessness out between beats.
Where is your totem pole? What tribe taught you
the primal ecstasy that invokes gods?
Whose ancestral wisdom pumps life into
these hollow drums, mesh skins & tapered rods?
One thing I know: If hearts do measure time
for other hearts, yours keeps the beat for mine.
in the shade under the Knowledge tree
lives a phoenix by the name of Poetry.
times change the shape & pigment of her wings,
how long her beak is & what songs she sings,
but, sure as the moon follows herself in rings,
the phoenix flies, dies & again revives.
when in the cooling coals her scarlet egg
shivers awake, born on its own deathbed,
she’s unmistakable—swallow or swan,
dove, falcon, owl or vulture, her eyes glow
with a long-lived fever; that’s how you know
she lives on—new, though she was never gone.
there’s no illusion here, no mystery;
this phoenix lives for all who want to see.
i picture the evolutionary
march from primates to homo sapiens
& stand in awe. i don’t need to carry
around the whole Origin of Species,
our genesis painstakingly described—
it’s a living truth, this instinctive
contest of minds that made sure we survived;
it’s in us all, in the nucleotides
that combine our twin helixes; it’s the torch
we burn running the course of ages,
our succession of phoenixes, the source
that makes us driven, loyal & courageous—
& love, too, was evolved, because, i think,
it yanks you back, hard, from the brink of death.
all the great Masters recommend restraint
of thought, word, action & initiative:
always be ready to respond, but wait
for the right time to strike. how do they live
so disciplined, their only time around
more competent than others, but less proud?
as a dam may serve to irrigate the land
& pens pinpoint the fine control of hands,
their limits must be what defines their aim.
is love, which knows no boundaries, the same?
if i want lasting love, is there some vow
that can bind & secure me to its course?
or are great works accomplished to allow
their workers to draw closer to its source?
when i think about the Tao Te Ching
(though thoughts about it tend to distance it)
i fear the utter speechlessness it brings;
i dread being alone to witness it
when the universe of all things profound
pours out its annihilating secrets;
i’m scared of being infinitely drowned
in that vacuum where no light or sound
can interfere with the eternal Tao;
i’m scared of being disintegrated
& never returned to how i am now—
the fate to which all living things are fated.
but you dissolve all this. with you, i am
embraced by the great mystery, not damned.
If only, love—if only I could love
a tiny bit more deeply than I’d grieve
in the extreme worst case, I’d be above
peevish paranoias that you might leave,
free to release my passion with abandon!
The trouble is that even bottomless
love can never swallow up grief’s canyon.
Like balanced scales, grief is love’s consequence,
& as my treasuring of you multiplies
day by day, in layers thickening
around your heart, your speaking voice, your mind,
the thought of parting grows more sickening
but I’m far too far, already, to turn back,
so I’m flooring it until I’m out of track.
Once & for all time, Shakespeare says it best:
life’s short, love’s true, & silence is the rest.