A burst of laughter slips into an echo past
the tinny bells and rattling glass
of Joe’s, my corner liquor store, the last
and first of every day.
Arroyo streets are dry of human traffic now,
are dry of humans anyway,
and through abandoned cars a gust
of night is torn into a howl.

A local-paper tumbleweed is spinning past
some soggy bags of broken glass;
and crumpled icon and iconoclast
who only yesterday
were vital news, are only what they are right now,
were only human anyway.
There is a lull between each gust,
an aching, long-imploding howl.

And neon flickers with an eerie, friendly cast.
It satisfies as painted glass
and Joe’s becomes an abbey. Thus recast
before the sabbath day,
it harbors broken souls who live just for The Now,
if that is living, anyway.
A slowing bus exhales its gust
of night, a wheeze if not a howl.

Below the streets, the subway-howl,
suppressed, still shudders with The Lost,
the lost-to-day-lives anyway.
Above, in what the edges of the light allow,
a gutter-flood unwinds itself around and past
a trashcan lid on which, alas!
a nurse off graveyard shift is balanced, last
to leave this black-lit day.

Inside that cone of day,
her body’s bright, but where her arms have passed
outside the light, they also pass
from sight and seem cut off. Her tied-up smock hangs past
her spandex contours like a towel.
She’s Aphrodite, though dismissed,
regarded cheaply anyway,
and broken as she was on Milos anyhow.

She turns, and dreadlocks tumble past where eyes allow,
where modest eyes do anyway,
and cups one hand against her breast.
She wavers in the city’s scowl,
its night so like its day,
but stills her wobbling hips, composed at last,
on trash-can lid that has to pass
for scallop-shell: The Birth of Venus, fading fast.

Can brokenness be beautiful, can beauty last?
Mosaic light, like broken glass
says beauty lives in brokenness, like vast
and scattered shards of day
in stars. But never let me reckon, “Night, be Thou
my day!” since Joe’s does in a way,
maintain a light for those who’ve passed,
and calms the city’s growl.

A burst of laughter floats into the echoes past
the angel wings and tinkling glass
of Joe’s, my corner coffee shop, the last
and first of every day.
As stars dissolve from human sight yet stay somehow
The Broken go about their way
with beauty—reconciled at last
among the stars, at least for now.



.Daniel Kemper is a systems engineer living in California.

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23 Responses

  1. Joseph Mason

    Rhythm, Rhyme, and Rapture, RULES!
    So sayeth the SCP
    And now and then we’ll capture fools
    Who sail upon our seas

    Perhaps emotions hot and cool
    Or sheer vulgarity
    Shall further bare my tarnished soul
    For all the world to see

    Alas, no wind to billow sail
    For even fools can see
    That Rapture renders laughter pale
    And THAT! – “Free-Verse” – is what a poem should be!

    For what it’s worth, Daniel Kemper, the best poem ever posted on this site, IMHO. Kudos to you!

    • Julian D. Woodruff

      I have to agree with Mr. Mason, at least to this extent: I haven’t read a better poem on this site. But not because of it’s freedom: it is in the resourceful use of assonance, the striking comparisons (e.g., Joe’s / abbey), and the vitality of language and description that bowl me over. Thanks, Daniel, and congratulations!

      • Joseph Mason

        For the sake of clarity, Mr. Woodruff, and then be done here, “THAT” was a direct, emphatic reference to Mr. Kemper’s poem.
        “Free-Verse” was a direct reference to so-named community. Mr Kemper’s poem is the absolute antithesis of Free Verse and quite simply breathtakingly brilliant, subject matter notwithstanding. That’s all I was saying.

      • Daniel Kemper

        Thank you, Julian, for your praise and appreciation for the details with which I was diligently working. Did the allusion to “every time a bell rings, an angel gets his wings” at the ending of the poem? That was a risk. Perhaps a private or obscure meaning. In any case, it’s clear that you “got it” and were brave enough to say so — Thank you!!

    • Daniel Kemper

      Greetings and thank you much!

      But what do you know, you’re just an engineer. 🙂 (Like Dostoyevsky.) And probably have a mockable accent, too. Hee hee. Not directed at you, just trolling a little for fun.

      Thank you very much for your praise. Thank you very much for directly pointing out that this is, indeed, the antithesis of free verse. When I first glanced at your comments, I understood that you meant all that because of your quotation marks.

      • Julian D. Woodruff

        Sorry, Daniel
        I admit I missed the allusion to “every time a bell rings …,” even though Clarence has been on my mind lately: I’ve been revising a short story that revisits the “angel on a rescue mission” theme (in which Clarence becomes Gabe, the improbably literate wino.
        Otherwise–I evidently misread Mr. Mason’s comment, but to me your poem does show more freedom than that of most posted to this site, my own included. And I suppose that relative freedom may lie behind some of the richness that I pointed out above.

    • Daniel Kemper

      Mr. Joseph Mason,

      I goofed up the posting a bit — the post that begins, “But what do you know, you’re just an engineer. (Like Dostoyevsky.) …” is meant for you. Thank you again for your praise.

  2. Paul Freeman

    Weird, frenetic and dreamlike, almost like Kubla Khan.

    For want of a better word, the rhyme scheme is crazy – but in a good way.

    I’ll be giving this one another read when I have ponder time available.

    • Daniel Kemper

      Hi Paul! Thank you so much for your praise and willingness to take this on. As you will have seen, there’s a lot going on — but it’s still o.k. just to trust one’s feel…

  3. Cynthia Erlandson

    Daniel, I agree that this is absolutely brilliant! The rhyme scheme is creative and fascinating, the theme and motifs are beautifully carried through, and the descriptions are magnificent! Thank you for this gem!

    • Daniel Kemper

      Hi Cynthia,

      I don’t really deserve, “Thanks,” but humbled by it, I appreciate it nonetheless. Since you, a wordsmith, appreciate what I have done, it makes it that much more impactful. Thank YOU!!

  4. Daniel Kemper

    Symphonic form: a quick example written some time back when debates were ongoing. Working on my second ‘symphony,’ now, but they seem to take six months, if undistracted. Interim time, I’ve been immersed in family and relationship drama while work hits fevered pitch with harvest and still more fires.

    Note: Cal state gov’t refuses to address fires when they are small for weeks and only after they attain biblical proportions do they headline them as consequence of global warming and address them. This complicates our harvest, already hectic, because of smoke taint.

    The notion to write a shorter piece as an example came to mind, and with it a stanza with a musical feel. Since patterned variations are intended, having a varied stanza was intuitive; however, having patterned variations within the block structure of IP is certainly possible. Since the poem would start out irregularly, repeating that stanza structure a few times to convey the feel to the reader seemed necessary.

    In this instance the content that came to me was “brokenness” because from a certain vantage point this form is a broken version of rhymed IP. Yet, from another vantage point is was a broken version of free verse also because it would be clearly consistently musical. In any case, I wound up varying line length, rhymes, and rhyme schemes and not the meter. The principles of variation should be the same, but the variations stand out less ambiguously this way.

    A more fully symphonic piece (with intro, exposition, development, recapitulation, coda) seems to take about six months to write. So perhaps a bagatelle. The idea to start by looking at a subject one way, then slowly change to looking at it another way, then change back made me want to find a variation that could do the same: change a few times and find itself back at the start. Finally, I brainstormed that perhaps some simultaneous little flourish could accompany these transformations and signal the resolution and upcoming conclusion.

    I cannot overemphasize enough before I start that the reader/hearer need not trace these patterns with their left brain the whole way through the poem; they should be able to feel them happening, though. As I kicked through some thematic elements — the most down and dirty juxtaposed with the most high and elevated — the following structure emerged.

    The octect: ABACDCad (ignoring line length for now)
    1. Repeat octet three times so reader/hearer can acquire the pattern.
    2. Then, to make each of the next four octets, do two transformations/changes.
    a. Take second quatrain of the octet and move it to be the first.
    b. Reverse the line order of that quatrain you just moved. Adding a space for clarity:

    So, S1-3 ABAC DCad
    –> first change –> DCad ABAC –> second change –> daCD ABAC, resulting in S4 like this:
    S4 daCD ABAC
    –> first change –> ABAC DCad –> second change –> CABA DCad, resulting in S5 like this:
    S5 CABA DCad
    –> first change –> DCad CABA –> second change –> ABAC DCad, , resulting in S6 like this:
    S6 ABAC DCad
    –> Now we have returned to the first stanza pattern.

    3. Then in S7, resolve the off-rhyme of L7 to perfect rhyme. So,

    S7 ABAC DCAd

    4. Then for the final reconciliation, reconcile L8 to perfect rhyme with D, and end:


    One additional flourish: The off-rhyme used for “a” rotated through each short vowel: [ust], [ost], [ist], [est], [AST]. Not necessary, for reader’s/hearer’s left brain to track the minutiae; it does create the instinct for approaching resolution in S7.

    I cannot overemphasize enough that I am NOT saying brokenness is beautiful or is as good as beauty, but that beauty remains even in brokenness. This is why I explicitly reject the paraphrase of Milton’s Satan: Night (evil) be Thou my Day (good). In a sense, it is not addressing Keats’ “Truth is Beauty”, but his Endymion in that beauty cannot be destroyed. Traces always remain which can spring to full.

  5. Mike Bryant

    Daniel Kemper… now I know what you were talking about. This is without question a new and intricate form. The poem is definitely Bukowskiesque!? I would love to hear you read this. I’m sure that Evan would attach a sound file or a video to the post.

    • Daniel Kemper

      Hey Mike,
      It was very satisfying to read your post, connecting this to earlier conversations of mine. That this particular form will almost certainly never get used again — but that the way the form was made certainly will — is key.

      In another piece maybe six-line stanzas occur, like so.
      3/3/4/3/7/3 and maybe the following rhymescheme: 3A/3A/4B/3C/7B/3C …
      and what would happen if the trimeter lines were anapests, and the others iambs… what sound effects does that produce? If the first line had a full stop at the end, would the second and third tend to combine to sound like one 7B line to pair with the latter 7B line? Or would the metrical difference prevent this? Could that variation be played with for dramatic enhancement of the content. And on and on… What “rules” do we stumble on? What’s the maximum distance of rhymes? How much or little can you change meter without descending into prose? etc etc

      It’s about the way of making forms; that is, the form of making forms.

      Thank you so much for your comments.

  6. Susan Jarvis Bryant

    Daniel, the title of the poem drew me in immediately – how could one resist a ‘A Bagatelle for Brokenness’? It begs to be read, especially in the world we live in today. The images you create are striking – particularly in stanzas six and I love the questions posed in stanza seven. The closing stanza touched me in its melancholic musings on beauty and brokenness, I adore those dissolving stars. For me, this poem has essence of Eliot. I also catch whispers of Ginsberg… is the repetition of ‘howl’ a nod to him?

    Thank you for detailing this intriguing form. I can see just how much effort you have put into this piece and it has paid off… ‘reconciled at last among the stars, at least for now.’ 😉

    • Daniel Kemper

      Hi Susan,

      so pleased for your praise! A bit long for bagatelles perhaps. FWIW, this would point to a symphony of 640-670 lines or so, and the few data points I’ve/’m putt/ing together hit about 500. The detail in your praise is actionable too: that’s huge. I hadn’t thought of Ginsberg until a ways into making this — however, it pleased me on multiple levels to evolve beyond “Howl” – keeping rhyme and meter perfect and eventually “howl” becoming eventually “now.” So I tweaked it just enough to stay consistent to that theme.

      On the effort, it’s been key to build the idea of the form *as the content is being created* and to be iterative about it. Work on content, notice a form tweak that might enhance is, sketch that forward, revise the content slightly to fit it, and onward again. Else it’s easy to imprision oneself in an archane form.

      You “out” me on my Eliot! How pleasing! How good your instincts:

      “In light upon the figured leaf
      And hear upon the sodden floor
      Below, the boarhound and the boar
      Pursue their pattern as before
      But reconciled among the stars.”

  7. Jeff Eardley

    Daniel, this is nothing short of a masterpiece. I was reminded of that other iconic poet/songwriter, Tom Waits who, like you, fills the brain with images of a sad and broken reality in the US. Thank you for “Arroyo” a new word for me. I love the image of the nurse on the trash-can lid. This is a most enjoyable and re-readable piece of pure genius. Thank you.

  8. Daniel Kemper

    Hey Jeff — thank you!! Huge praise; I hope to live up to it in future pieces.

    Tom Waits! My favorite. Was hooked on him from the first time I heard, “The Ghosts of Saturday Night” and then how almost all his albums have a poem in them. (Potter’s Field, The One that Got Away, What’s he Building in There? The Ocean Doesn’t Want Me Today, etc etc etc He’s my guy.

    It’s really important to me that you found/find this worth a re-read. That’s the gold standard that I really strive for and to which this form lends itself well, I think. Reading it multiple times out loud also does something interesting too — different patterns of the sounds stand out at different times and the way they connect different parts of the content.

    I go on too long. Coffee is kicking in too much… Thank you for your reading and your praise.

    • Jeff Eardley

      Daniel, I think the song you mentioned was, “The Heart of Saturday night,” but the ones I remember are, “The Piano has been drinking,” Tom Trauberts blues,” and “Small Change got rained on, with his own 38”
      Like Tom, I can almost hear your recital of this poem, accompanied by a lone, wailing saxophone.
      Once again, I echo the opinion of Mr. Mason that this is up there with the best on SCP. As someone from England brought up on Dylan, Kerouac, Woody Guthrie, Steinbeck, Poe and many others, I
      thank you again for a most excellent piece.

  9. Margaret Coats

    Daniel, I’m happy not to have had time to comment when I first read this poem, and thus you have had to analyze yourself. What a job! It did look to me like a nonce form of ballade, and that supported the bohemian atmosphere all the more when you moved beyond established expectations of the rhymes. The identical rhymes (correctly capitalized as refrains in your scheme) give a dirty sloshing effect when they bob up irregularly (reader’s point of view) in eight stanzas of grayer and grimier dish water. Since I am thinking “ballade,” you went beyond the six stanzas that limit the form in the rare double ballade–but not beyond the nine and twelve Clement Marot used to press the lyric to its limits. And he created his own means of suggesting refrains that he finally abandoned. You may love the mod and beat bohemians, and we don’t see much of their methods at SCP, probably because their relation to form is sloppier than yours. So let me ask, with the form you have created here, are you hoping the reader will NOT analyze, or that he will? And if you think this is close enough to symphonic style to suggest upcoming aspects of form, do you expect the common unanalytical reader to notice and be pleased with it?

    I take it Joe’s is open 24 hours. You miss the usual bohemian opportunity to wind down to closing time, but gain the weird cyclical transformation of a place that never sleeps. That is well done, and although I didn’t expect signature coffee, I wasn’t surprised by it. At least you left enough of the day in obscurity to call this a bagatelle. I find the numerous atmospheric details the most vigorous energy you have here, and I can see that mosaic composition of this sort takes time!

  10. Daniel Kemper

    Hi Margaret,

    I’ve been hoping and waiting for your engagement and I’m really happy your here! Thank you for getting into this.

    I wrote this bagatelle as a shorter, more manageable example of symphonic form around the time of debates on the essay about variation. It took just under a week to complete, but some time passed while I got some feedback, sent it in, and the process to post here ran its course. It might not seem short, but comparison to a symphony’s length is what I had in mind. It’s not easy to write on demand. Nonetheless, somewhere in all that there seemed to be a call for a concrete example, which is a reasonable ask. (FWIW, a full-length symphonic form seems to take about six months to write. Out-loud reading time of four minutes compared with twenty-five.)

    Applying a ballade format to this poem is a good hypothesis and wearing the hat of an engineer for my day job, the value of that is immediately obvious. And of course all clear information generated indicates a successful test.

    In this case, the test comes back negative, right? Clearly, it fails to fit a ballade format. That excites me. As I post some of my ideas out here among those far more established and broadly read, this kind of feedback really helps.

    Random note: I’ve been told the line rotation is something like a sestina.

    It was a great verification: My analysis detailed both the genesis of the form and the final structure, with nothing connecting to variations on existing forms. And though the ballade-test is just one, the fact that it’s been selected by someone of your stature and applied as it were speaks volumes. Thank you.

    I do have to quibble about “grayer and grimier dishwater” in that the final two stanzas focus on the redemption and the light. As I read your comment, it seems like you felt an unbroken downward spiral, but the whole reason for two of the middle stanzas is to show the two most potent icons of beauty (unified in one figure, perspective turning as the stanzas turn) are palpable relief even in the midst of darkness. And the final stanza is all about the sunrise and bells turning to angel wings.

    Regarding the form that I created: I am hoping that the reader will be amply rewarded at whatever depth they take the poem. It should be beautiful (in a bohemian way) if only read for enjoyment of the sound and image qualities. The techniques should produce effects a reader can really feel, but need not identify why they feel it. Nonetheless, it should also unflinchingly reward the deepest study.

    I do have a few other, full length symphonic poems, varying from complete to complete-but-needs-an-overhaul-to-fix-one-recurring-item, to stuck at 2/3, to very-happy-with-progress-but-completion-still-far-off. The first one is most complete, best presentable, but I still regard it as proof of concept because I learned so much from it. It seems to me that it’s more likely to encounter focus its flaws and attacks on them, rather than appreciation for its innovations and building upon them. So I think it necessary to build up at least one or two more to presentable level before proceeding with lengthier examples.

    In the end, I’m hoping everyone remembers that this one too is something of a proof of concept. So many new principles in play for these kinds of constructions.

  11. Margaret Coats

    The Bagatelle is no ballade, nor do I find any resemblance to a sestina. Sestina form depends as much on patterned recycling as it does on endwords. I probably shouldn’t tell you about this, but there is a good essay entitled “A Numbers Theory of the Sestina and Similar Repeating Forms,” by Sara Gwen Weaver, complete with clear layout charts that an engineer can appreciate. It’s easy to find online. Don’t spend too much time on it, because although you have an interest in form, I think it would be overload to try to apply any of this in any significant way to what you know you want to do.

    Thanks for taking the questions about readers seriously. We can always say, “I’m doing my art for myself,” and that has to be the case, but since you run your work by others in the finishing stages (as I do), readers must be a concern. I thought Bagatelle was most likely to be appreciated as a narrative; the details I admired go to make up a good story. The formal structure was lost even on me, because I wouldn’t have had patience to analyze it. You’re talking about brokenness, and the form looks kind of broken–that’s as far as I think most readers will get.

    In fact, I wondered whether you were cheating on rhyme with those identical rhyme words. It seems easier to choose a few words suited to your topic, and keep re-using them with artistic flair, than to create a poem relying on whatever other words feature those rhyme sounds and can be made to fit.
    Still, this is acceptable cheating from my point of view.

    However, I understand your quibble about my reading. I have to say I don’t think you achieved redemption in this piece. While broken persons must go on with their lives, and can find beauty in them, I do not agree that brokenness itself can be beautiful. Brokenness needs redemption, not a lying declaration that it is just fine. Or some redefinition with rose-colored glasses. I understand your supporting image of a mosaic, but it doesn’t apply. Nothing beautiful was broken to bits and put together again as a beautiful mosaic. Tesserae are produced as artist’s materials. Some artists insist on finding and refining their own materials. They don’t redeem them. Here I am perhaps being too imagistic, but you must see that the problem is philosophical as well as aesthetic. The stars are even less satisfactory as an image.

    And perhaps the terminology is not quite accurate. We agree that fallen human nature is redeemed, but if you are trying to make some argument for a Fortunate Fall or Felix Culpa, I never took these terms as anything but paradox. Fallenness is never fortunate to a fallen individual, nor is guilt happy. Nor do “fallen” and “broken” have the same meaning. It looks to me as though brokenness and beauty need some rethinking, especially because your ultimate concern is beauty. The final stanza and especially the final lines seem weak. Or in other words, I didn’t find any resolution in this musical piece. For myself, the bohemian atmosphere is not attractive, as it seems to be for you. But you weren’t aiming for a successful picture of the late night underworld that fades away with dawn, were you? Sorry to be rather negative, but I hope the perspective is worth something!

  12. Daniel Kemper

    The resemblance to the sestina is only the patterned recycling. Sestina: Last line becomes first; third line becomes last and repeat until returning to original order. This particular bagatelle: Second quatrain is inverted and becomes first until returning to original order. My explanation seems to have given more convolution than clarification.

    I’ll put that essay in my pocket for now. One big thing I’m wary of is just making arbitrary patterns. Those aren’t necessarily beautiful to me.

    Agreed on importance of readers — I’m wanting to communicate, not just create. I think you’re right about most readers, but it’s there for them if they want it. And I think on successive reads new observations will appear, making those reads worth their while. For example one of the lines repeated at beginning and end, but with bells replaced by angel wings…

    Way harder to reuse same words freshly.

    Felix Culpa: We agree. God doesn’t need a bad thing to happen in order to produce a good thing. Ever. I just see it as God being The Great Recycler who can redeem anything by any means. The argument of the poem does assume goodness in beauty: Imago Dei is beautiful. Agree also, the brokenness itself is not beautiful; it’s that beauty remains despite brokenness. (Redemption is unaddressed.) As stars symbolize broken pieces of day, they retain a little bit of day in their brokenness and that little bit of day is the parallel with/reminder of beauty retained even in brokenness. Explicitly brokenness is not beauty: “…never let me reckon, “Night, be Thou / my day!”

    Nonetheless, these lines:

    “like broken glass / says beauty lives in brokenness, like vast / and scattered shards of day / in stars…” are at significant issue.

    The un-enjambed phrase “beauty lives in brokenness” lands a little too strong. So strong it sounds like I’m almost going so far as to say that beauty is brokenness — because although the rest does qualify it as not being equated, those statements are enjambed and much harder to process because of it by the time “But never let me reckon, “Night, be Thou / my day!” rolls around. Also, the nuance is lost – the question is answered in a way that changes the question. Imagine a young hunter and an old hunter. YH: The lion wasn’t in the ravine last night: where was he? OH: He *is* in the meadow. (I.e. the correct question to ask is not where was he, but where is he now.) The answer rephrases the original question. Likewise, with the answer here: Beauty lives in brokenness means beauty is still there, not beauty is brokenness. Despite my lengthy explanation, I see that the phrasing really has to change.

    Brokenness and fallenness are used interchangeably in much Christian discourse these days. Not sure about not finding resolution. I’m listening and pondering, though. The late night underworld did fade away with dawn, or rather is just beginning to… Still, your observations regarding a problematic relation between beauty and brokenness has set me to some deep thinking and given me some ideas for future development. That’s really cool. I also get to see how various techniques play out, Also very cool, very valuable. Thank you for all that.


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