green vertebrae cradling all the wood-bone of your years
Poetry exalts. Yes, that’s right, it transports you up and out of dreary into ethereal. No it doesn’t. That’s all wrong. Poetry grounds you. It brings you right on down to where you can plunge fingers and toes into clay, grow roots. How else could you ever expect to leave? Still wrong. Think again. Poetry doesn’t change you at all. It catches you in the moment, this moment, right now, and shows you the you you really are.
So who’s right? How about this: Poetry = Salt. Here’s what the cookbook says – “salt makes food taste more like itself.” Poetry? Makes life taste more like itself. I’m sitting here eating a bowl of lentils. Onion, tomato, even the bay leaf can’t rescue it from bland. A fine sprinkle of poetry: an angel named Gracie; my sapped body a river that floods without regard; green mountains to lift me from the sinking sand. Now that’s tasty. More than tasty, that’s umami. More than base sustenance, that builds muscle. Wings, roots, soul – serve it up!
* * * * *
Sam Ragan Poetry Festival, March 21, 2015 in Southern Pines – a tenth anniversary gathering of poet mentors and their students from the Gilbert-Chappell Distinguished Poet Series. During its first ten years GCDPS (named for founders Marie Gilbert and former NC poet laureate Fred Chappell) has sponsored dozens of students of all ages to work with the finest poets from around North Carolina. A complete reunion of readings would take a full week but this one Saturday is more than filled with five mentors and four students.
Tony Abbott is Professor Emeritus at Davidson College and still teaches courses in modern drama and creative writing, especially poetry. He has served two years as president of the NC Poetry Society and continues to guide our programs and encourage our members. When he stands at the lectern and pauses before reciting, do you feel it, too? He invokes in me a spirit not of confidence but of questing, not knowing but seeking. The titles of one of his books wonders if words could save us, but when I listen to Tony I believe they can.
When Tony was invited to be one of the Distinguished Poets at SRPF he knew he had to read with a student whom he had mentored before and after (but not during) GCDPS, and whose growth as a poet he still follows and nurtures. Annalee Kwochka will graduate from Davidson College this spring with a degree in Disability Studies and continue graduate studies in clinical psychology; she is currently completing a full-length book of poetry that will be her thesis. Before she entered Davidson she was a GCDPS scholar, and before that she won every youth contest the NC Poetry Society sponsors several years running.
* * * * *
Tony and Annalee are reading from Tony’s book The Angel Dialogues, Tony the voice of the jaded poet seeking his muse, Annalee the voice of the angel sent to redeem him.
The Poet Names the Angel — Tony Abbott
Spring night. Azaleas shining, red and white,
in the pale gleam of the full moon. I step outside.
She is sitting on the hood of my car
across the street, painting her toenails.
“Lets walk,” I say, “I’ve got something
serious to ask you.”
Just a minute, she says, and blows on her toes.
I wait, and then I wait some more.
I don’t think this is my color, she says.
We walk. I watch her toes and think.
I take a deep breath. “Do you have a name?”
She blushes, and she says nothing.
“I want to call you by name. Do you have a name?”
No, she says. Not really.
“Why not? Doesn’t God name you?”
Oh no, our people name us. Each one
names us, she says, and she starts to cry.
“Why are you crying,” I ask.
The names, the names, the names–
Each name brings back the person. This angel
business is hard, sweetheart. I have all these
people. I love them all. I help them all. A little
girl in Venezuela named me Rosalita? Isn’t
that marvelous? The angel Rosalita.
A game strikes my fancy.
“France,” I say.
Antoinette, she says.
“Russia,” I say.
Masha, she says. It must be Masha.
“German,” I laugh.
Oh God, German. Ilkedoodle.
The angel Ilkedoodle.” We laugh together.
I’m standing under the angel tree. It is empty.
She sits at my feet, yoga style,
and looks up at me. Well, she says.
“I don’t know. I don’t think I can do this.”
Yes, you can. Try. You’ll find it.
You always do, eventually.
I close my eyes. Then I know.
“Grace,” I say. “Gracie,” “Gracia.”
Indeed, she says, and floats upward
into the leaves.
* * * * *
Renditions of self — Annalee Kwochka
1. Neither acute nor chronic fits the curve of your sapped body
these days; rather, constantly recurring, the river floods without
warning, without regard.
2. On the Sabbath, you anoint your own body with Vaseline.
You are snake-leather skin, bird-hollow bone, quickening, flung-
3. After dinner; a single glass of cheap, sweet wine. You collapse
into bed. Room still fully-lit, fully-clothed. Without even the urge
to bury yourself.
4. Then—raw-skinned horizon, aching iris-of-eye—are you
not right, to live in fear? You are cortex, synapse, firing neurons—
heart bruised and writhing in the hot sun.
5. You are a failed secret agent, writing your identity over and over
on fortune-cookie papers, filling your pockets, passing them on
with each handshake, pulling them out of ears—
6. Despite your best intentions, home is full of sinkholes.
Classified lives brush against you; You would spring
yourself open, the un-cracked spine of a holy book.
7. Only the mountains comfort you
lift you from the sinking sand, green vertebrae
cradling all the wood-bone of your years.
* * * * *
umami, the fifth taste
* * * * *