Ronald Vierling
    A long, long time ago—and yet, not so very long ago, really—Ronald Vierling was my teacher at San Francisco University High School. It was (it is) a small private school for mostly rich people (I was one of the poorest), and every morning, as the sun poured through the windows of that old classroom with high ceilings, Ron opened up the world of fiction, poetry, drama and English papers to a small group of bright and spoiled fifteen-year-olds. Of all the teachers I’ve ever had—including those in college—Ron had the biggest impact on my life. We read Faust, we read The Book of Nightmares, we read The Old Man and the Sea, we read “My Last Duchess” and “The Death of a Hired Man.” A new world opened up. The excitement in the room, I recall, was immense—and I don’t think I’m confusing him with that other inspiring mentor, the one in Dead Poets’ Society, or the one in Stand and Deliver. Interestingly, in the room next door, a young lady, a part-timer, was teaching creative writing courses and only rarely made an appearance outside of her classes. Once I spotted one of her books lying around in the art room; it was a racy little thing that that the art teacher looked upon with contempt.  The name of this part-time English teacher, author of the mildly successful racy little book, was Danielle Steel. Now, over thirty years later, she lives in a hundred-and-fifty room mansion and is known by lovers of romance novels the world over. The people who know Ron Vierling’s poetry and prose, on the other hand, are a lucky, picky and educated few.  And a happy few. 

    I first tracked Ron down about two years ago, thanks to the miraculous technology available in our new era. I was also thrilled to be able to get my hands on an actual copy of his—to my mind—mythical collection The Prairie Rider Cantos.  Now Ron lives in Florida and is retired, and all of his children, I believe, became English teachers.

    Ron’s newer poems are longer and more complex than his earlier work, but he remains concerned with the lonely wanderer who overhears conversations in bus depots and parks and all-night diners.  The world of these poems is rugged and sweet and bare. In these narrative poems the spirit of Huckleberry Finn joins with the ghosts of Spoon River Anthology, Our Town, An American Tragedy and Long Day’s Journey Into Night: the setting is often a windswept place, it is often a rented room or the back of a house or a decrepit porch.  This is a quintessentially American landscape instantly recognizable after a few simple cues.  It is a quintessentially American road trip that Ron makes in his writing, a stark, lonely, poignant odyssey that sings of sorrow and hope.

Donald’s Mac Donal
Donald is a perfectly normal man.
Everyone who knows him says so.
So I do not understand your question.
And he was a perfectly normal boy.
Yes, he was raised by his mother and two sisters
And one maiden aunt—
Who now lives in the spare bedroom
Next to the attic steps
Near the back of  a house.
Yes, he grew up playing games
With neighborhood friends,
Played tennis on the school team,
Went to dances at the Legion Hall
With girls he’d known all his life.
So there is nothing in his childhood
Or during what for most boys
Are those painfully awkward years
When girls are a problem and
Making friends is even harder
To explain his relationship with Mac Donal.
Yes, he read more books than
Most boys his age read,
But that isn’t a bad thing.
And yes, his older sister, whom he adored,
Left home at seventeen to
Become an opera singer,
Eventually touring Europe for years,
Specializing in Verdi roles.
And yes, okay, it’s true his
Other sister,
The middle child of the three,
Ran away to Hollywood at nineteen
And got a job with an award-winning
Documentary camera crew,
Traveling all over the world
To make movies that won prizes.
And yes, I know his mother once studied
To become a concert pianist,
But had to settle for giving lessons
On an old, upright she bought used
And put in the dining room
On Donald’s third birthday—
The same day the family
Moved into the big, three-story house
One month after Donald’s father drowned
In a boating accident out on the lake
When he and his two fishing friends
Tipped their canoe over in a rain storm
Because they’d been drinking—
According to Donald’s mother—
Who never approved of fishing or drinking or
Any of her husband’s so-called
Good-old-army-buddy friends.
Donald remembers that very clearly:
Going to the funeral,
Moving into the house,
Exploring all the empty rooms,
Then other boys and girls
Coming to the house to take piano lessons
When he and his sisters
Were not taking their own.
And yes, his maiden aunt had once
Aspired to be a stage actress,
But hadn’t gotten very far before
World War II started and she married a
Nice young man who cried on her shoulder
And said it would help him stay alive
If he knew she was there waiting,
Which didn’t work, as fate would have it,
Because he died in France three weeks
After the Allied armies landed at Normandy.
But, even with all of that,
As he looks back today,
Donald is the first to say he was
Very well cared for,
Taught to say, “Yes, Sir,” and “Yes, Ma’am”
When addressing adults.
He is the first to say he was always
Treated with respect by his family,
Which is probably why he does the same
With everyone he meets,
A practice not lost on his co-workers
In the office where he’s been employed
As a payroll clerk since graduating high school.
So I say there is nothing in his rearing
To explain why he took up with Mac Donal,
The horribly beat up, musty smelling
Red-haired ventriloquist’s dummy
That Donald brought home when he was fifteen
When he found the figure sitting alone
In a pawn shop window on Third Street,
Which is a haven for those kinds of stores.
Nothing explains why, every evening,
Donald goes back to his dark rented room
Across town from where his mother and his
Maiden aunt still live,
And sits down with Mac Donal on his knee
And continues what has proven to be a
Twenty-three year conversation about
Everything under the sun: from
Why there are wars in the world to
Why conservatives are so mean-spirited to
Why people of different races
Have such a hard time getting along to
Who in this God-guy folks are willing to
Fight and die for, and why in the world
Did his father have to be drunk in a canoe
The only day a storm ever made waves
Big enough to drown a man
On the lake bordering downtown, to
Why movies seem so less glamorous today
Than they did when he was a boy—
And why is it that every time he sits down
And writes a really good short-story
And sends it to a magazine
The story comes back with a cryptic note
Saying “Your characters are interesting,
If a tad eccentric,
But they don’t seem to do very much,”
Which is the point of Donald’s stories in the first place.
“So why, oh why,” MacDonald goes on to say,
“Why can’t any of those smart-aleck editors
with all their fancy educations
see what Donald is trying to explain
about growing up and finding a place
in the great, confounding scheme of things?
Why, oh why, for pity’s sake,
Don’t any of those dummies
Ever seem to understand?”

           Philosophy 101


Salina, Kansas

Along the old state highway
That once carried long lines of cross country traffic—
Now reduced to a narrow, dark street
Skirting the edge of a part of town
Past its prime—
Two old men sit on
Sun bleached, straight back, wooden chairs
In front of a clapboard house that’s
Needed paint for at least three decades—
The drive and the yard shaded by trees
That have been there since the beginning—
One of the men wearing a sweat stained felt dress hat
Bought years before for Sunday church,
The other wearing a hopelessly misshapen
Kansas University blue baseball cap
Soiled by working hands now long retired—
The two of them talking and laughing
As they have talked and laughed
Since they were boys
Living on side-by-side farms—
Good, merry fellows nowadays who
In their wisdom see the ironies that abound
With each passing car that
Disappears down the street and
Around the corner
Headed toward its own brand of oblivion.


              San Francisco, California

They sit on a newly painted park-style bench
In the small public space
Surrounded by office buildings and department stores—
Three older women with gray hair
Styled appropriately for their years—
One wearing a dark gray suit,
Another an expensive dress bought especially years ago
For their monthly occasion,
The third in a long coat against the
Moving shadows that follow the clouds off the Bay—
The three of them continuing their talk about the
Ever-expanding list of subjects
They’ve discussed over a fifty years friendship—
One of the women laughing to the point of tears,
Another smiling more inwardly
As the third tells yet another story
Detailing the foibles of a woman
They’ve all known since grade school
Who they agree should have known better
Than to take up with that kind of man seriously—
The three of them aware their notions
Are yet another signal that life is a comic opera—
A frenetic farce of expectations and delights and
Disastrous disappointments that require a
Sense of humor if one is to survive whole
Until the last breath says, “Okay, my friend,
That’s about enough, don’t you think?
That’s just about enough.”


                       Miami, Florida

On the bus stop bench near their middle school
Two promising dark skinned girls,
Long curly hair pulled back
In the style of their older Latina sisters—
Lean toward one another while balancing
Matching textbook backpacks on their laps
As one tells a long story
From behind a cupped hand
To the other, who laughs as only a girl who
Has not yet been ill-used can laugh—
Both of their slim bodies animated by
Sensations of sunshine, traffic noise, and a
Companionship they believe will last
Through the troubles they know, at least vaguely,
Are coming at them in the
Next ten years—
Trials and tribulations and as yet unrealized failures
That will crash down all around them when they
Decide their families really do not understand
This new America to which they fled in secret
From a place that in truth promises little else but
Fear and dread and the scrap heap leaving of other,
More powerful and better connected people.

2010 Ronald Vierling
Ronald Vierling was a Featured Poet who read his poetry at the November 2010 Second Sunday Poetry Series