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Spies and Poetry

Posted on Tuesday, June 7th, 2011

I am not sure that studying literature contributed to my desire to write poetry. I think it had more to do with an inclination toward prayer. Because it was in prayer that I discovered that I was not to be defined by my height, weight, skin color, or volume of my voice. My earliest recollection of composing what some might call feeble attempts at poetry was in my senior year of college when I was employed as the night manager of the newly opened Yankee Stadium Motor Lodge. Though I took the position because I thought I could sleep or study and get paid for it, I discovered that the night activity of folks coming and going was a sufficient distraction from sleep. I remember once trying to catch some sleep sitting at the switchboard when a couple came in quite late. As I got up to register them and give them a key, I realized that my legs had fallen asleep. Making my way to the check-in counter, holding on to anything within reach, evoked a look of sympathy in the eyes of the amorous couple.

Perhaps, CIA training or simply living in The Bronx contributed to my ability to record observations – mentally or in writing. Surely, my experiences walking the streets and riding the subways, working in college as a soda-jerk at Schrafft’s – an upscale restaurant/tea room chain, going out with friends to bars to meet young ladies, as well as did those special times in prayer and meditation at a Jesuit spiritual retreat center in up-state New York all contributed to this attraction, if not facility. With no instruction, I could sit, stand, or walk, taking mental note of what I was experiencing or observing. In time such note taking found its way into reflective journals, letters, and expressive poetry, though for the CIA I limited such observations to the format required in operational and intelligence reporting. For the latter, poetry would simply not be accepted; though in my career I did come upon reporting from esteemed colleagues who could write with just that creativity and flair.

I remember once sitting on a CIA shuttle bus and observing a young lady deep in thought on a bench waiting for a connection to another location. She was inhaling deeply on a cigarette, staring straight ahead, her lipstick was bright red. She never looked left or right. So engrossed was she in thought, I wondered what could have snapped her attention inward on that spring day. Later, I even composed a couple of line to capture the scene.

In Warsaw, I wrote poem about Zorba the Greek. I was a spy assigned to Poland, considered at the time a Denied Area because it was under the rigid control of the Communist authorities, and a bureaucrat no less in an organization that did not entertain rebellion among its cadre; and I compose a poem celebrating freedom of the spirit. Here are a couple of lines from that poem:

Who is that fool with arms outstretch

Above black-haired ankles – pale bare feet?

Whose smile mocks himself no less that those,



Who trudge uphill – dull face to neck.

In India, I wrote of the sounds and smells, and the beauty especially of the women from Rajasthan who carried towers of bricks on their heads to construction sites in Delhi, their wealth on their ankles in the form of bangles, sounding as they walked with dignity along the red dusty roads.

In Beirut I tried to catch the balance between brutality and beauty, despair and hope, loneliness and time with comrades in letters that I wrote to my wife who had been evacuated with the children to Athens.

Much later in Kabul, sitting in my hooch one evening, I wrote this poem inspired by a rose I had picked within the fortified compound.

The Rose

Have you ever looked at a Rose?

Really gazed at it until


You and the Rose were One?

Could you sense the Rose

Being in you and it puzzling


Why you can’t be still,

Listen to the movement,

See the soft whisper,


Touch together Divine Wonder?

What is happening to me?

That my companion,


This blood-tip Rose,

Speaks soulfully

Of a ripple-free


Presence in Love?

It must be good!

When’s the last time


You looked at a Rose?

No longer a spy, I continue to write poetry. Sometimes, I am wakened in the middle of the night to record some lines that I will work on next morning. Here’s one such example.


Harmony is immediate,

Presence in near time

Powerfully dismissive of



Distractions that diminish;

Harmony is the solo only

You can sing in whatever

Circumstances encountered,



However diminished spent.

Harmony is heart refresh,

Reminding one of destiny;

It’s a holy madness of sorts,



Emboldened in grace.

Harmony is a legacy,

Not to be squandered,

Won by those wandering



Deep beyond surface clatter.

Perhaps, in the final analysis poetry is a holy madness, reserved to record the deepest promptings of the soul wherever one is in life, whether a former spy or not.

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