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Red-tipped maples along the ridgeline and pumpkins lined up at Hawks Produce (as well as Brushy Mtn. Stayman Winesaps almost the size of pumpkins) – you know what that means: Halloween is coming! When Linda was growing up Halloween wasn’t one single evening, it was an entire month, sort of the Olympics of holidays. Linda’s Mom Donna French was really into costumes and stories and pageantry in her job as an elementary school librarian, and her seven kids became the flock to her Bo Peep, the Hansel and Gretels to her Wicked Witch, the entire cast of characters to her Mother Goose. In fact, the first time I met Linda (November 1, 1966, eighth grade and first day at my new school), she was wearing the unexpectedly indelible vestiges of the previous night’s costume.

So October 1 Linda mentioned to Saul two books that we’ve inherited from Grandma French’s large collection, and when he came home from school with us the next afternoon he was ready for me to read them to him: Kat Kong . . . and Dogzilla. Saul calls them the “Double Feature.” He has set up an entire audience of Lego men, Blue Rat, Mousie, and various other little critters to view the performance. He does the sound effects, monsters growling and crashing into things, and I do the narration and dialogue. Roll ‘em! Action! Halloween is only four weeks away!

Whoa, I’d better start thinking about MY costume. Hmmm . . . how about Rat-cula? And if you’ve got a kid or grandkid that thrives on silly, you need to track down copies of Kat Kong and Dogzilla, written and illustrated by Dav Pilkey with the help of his pet mice, cat, and corgi. At the time he created these in the 1990′s he was living in Kent, Ohio and was a friend of Grandma French’s.

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Now for a poem to get you into the Halloween spirit. Who’s your favorite poet? If “favorite” means you seek out all their books and keep coming back to them year after year, I guess Fred Chappell is mine. His latest book, Familiars, is filled with the personalities, imaginings, and eccentric doings of cats. And if you shudder at the approach of ghouls and spirits, if you dread the thought that you might be haunted by former lives, perhaps you really don’t want to be a cat . . .

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Ghost Story

What does Alexander see,
Staring with taut fixity
Into the dusty corner there
And its eerily vacant air?

Perhaps invisible Somethings flock
That barren angle of the room
And speak to him at twelve o’clock
Of an unalterable doom.

It would not be a single ghost
But several who gaze and wait
Until the Halloween veils with frost
The leaf-strewn lawn, the gray roof-slate,

To whisper to him in unison
The dreaded sentence that constrains
Him to a destiny fordone:
“Us eight you squandered. One remains.”

Fred Chappell, from Familiars, LSU Press, 2014

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 Mousie&punkins

Mousie will be ready for a snack at the next Double Feature.

Kat Kong and Dogzilla © Dav Pilkey, Harcourt and Brace

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For one brief moment each place is its center. The sky parts, darkness rends, the sun touches that place then moves on, but the place retains the sureness of its center.

We are wakened at 2:00 a.m. by trumpets and tubas playing hymns. They have stopped outside our window on Marshall St., played two verse, then moved on. I peek through the blinds while downstairs my Mom goes out onto the front porch in her nightie to thank them. From other parts of the old town, faint and distant, Linda and I can hear the band’s counterparts. Our alarm is set for 4:30. We whisper in the darkness. For a moment we are the center.

By 5:30 we have gathered with hundreds of others in the darkness outside Home Moravian Church in Salem Square. Robins sing continuously. There’s a scolding chickadee in the fresh-leaved poplar, its silhouette barely discernible in the pre-dawn. The old church clock strikes the hour. The liturgy commences. The congregants respond: This we truly believe. A brass choir leads the hymns and we listen for the echo.

Now we have processed from the Square to God’s Acre, brass harmonies behind to encourage, bands at all corners of the broad fields to call us along. As we gather among the unadorned white gravestones, “the democracy of death,” each with fresh flowers, the players gradually converge into one orchestra at the center. Three hundred strong. The liturgy concludes with a sweeping final anthem. The sky parts. Darkness is rent. Here is the sun, and the center.

The Lord is risen indeed.

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It’s hard to count how many times Joseph Bathanti has visited Elkin, NC to bring us poems. He read at the library here in March to prepare us all for Poetry Month, and as he always begins when he stands up after the introduction, he said, “It’s great to be back here at the center of the universe.”

Thank you, Joseph. We always feel like you mean it. And after we’ve listened to your poetry we do discover ourselves at the center.

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Joseph’s poem EASTER is from his book Anson County. It was originally published in 1989 but has been re-released in 2013 by Press 53 in Winston-Salem. When we returned from this morning’s Easter sunrise service in Old Salem, and after a nap, I sat on the porch in the sun and leaned back with Anson County. “I know there’s an Easter poem in here.” I was not disappointed. I never am.

. . . . .

EASTER

They stand like shades
against the skyline:
in resurrection suits
and second-day dresses;
waiting to be gathered and burned
by the first fires of dawn
they have come to believe
will perfect their two-days-planted fruit.
Now like the rush of souls
it leaps across the sky
shredding fog with cerise flames
sudden as tongues.
And there can be no denial
of this white light
that carves fields rife
with wheat and corn,
sculpts holy men behind plows,
draws the harrow and martingale –
nor the flash and raiment of seeds
above the red river mouth.
Behold.

.     .     .     .     .

from Anson County, Joseph Bathanti, Press 53, Winston-Salem NC, copyright 2103.

Originally published in 1989 by William & Simpson, and again in 2005 by Parkway Publishers.

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Every workday I’m out the door with a travel mug just as the sun pokes through the pines on Johnson Ridge across the valley. One solace – I leave by the back door, through the screened porch, embraced by the centenary beech before I get in my car. If there’s a little light it’s a herald of goldfinches; if full dark a doe might spook. The ‘possum might still be rooting in the compost. All just outside my porch.

This morning March snow is sifting through the screen and puddling on the planks. Office closed (at least until noon). While coffee perks I shove the screened door open against a drift of heavy white and toss a couple of handfuls of seed to the ground feeders. I huddle against the house until the birds return (they’d only flown twenty feet into the hickory branches). Hello, my friends. On the porch I’m only ten feet from the phone, the bills, the desk-high tasks undone, and three miles away I can hear traffic on I-77 unslowed by a little precipitation, but here is sanctuary.

*      *      *      *      *

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How many porches have acquired personality in your memory? Grandmother’s in Hamlet: the swing hanging from heavy chains, for Bob and me a pirate ship, a jet plane. Nana’s in Morehead: the smell of Bogue Sound, the chaise lounge one of us would sleep on when the July nights were too hot; our own first porch, the red rental house in Durham on Green Street, a family portrait with toddler Josh and Margaret just beginning to smile, all of us smiling.

With such an archetype it must have been easy for Maureen Sherbondy to elicit the poems, essays, short fiction that she has compiled into Voices from the Porch (Favorite Gathering Places). It is an anthology broad as a coastline or a rural avenue, but also deep in the secret heart of people gathered and torn. It’s a tangled story of memories and feelings that won’t allow themselves to be laid aside. It is voices that have whispered and will continue to whisper to each of us.

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Judith Behar’s poem Evening opens the collection. Like opening a door onto a space of sanctuary, and revelation.

*      *      *      *      *

Evening

Dusk rises from the pond,
misty and green, then gray;
a bullfrog croaks his song
up to the darkening porch
where three women drink wine by candlelight,
the humid air like saris on their skin.
They idly talk of gardening and plans
for summer travel. Work falls away,
lines soften, then disappear
in shadow. A slivered moon
hangs in a cloudless sky.
They clear the dishes, carry their glasses in –
their day ended, the guests depart.
Creatures of the night
swarm in the grass.

*      *      *      *      *

Judith Behar lives in Greensboro and is the volunteer publicity director for Writers Group of the Triad. She has taught English at Guilford College and practiced law in Greensboro for 30 years. Her poems and short stories appear in a number of publications, including contest winners in Pinesong, published by the NC Poetry Society.

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One more reason to consider sitting down in the porch swing and reading this anthology: my short story Overflowing about Jimmy, Nella, and Monty in Surry County and the danger of love.

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Who, Whose, Whom?

Halfway down the steep ridge behind our house I am carving out a level spot where I will plant a bench.  On cool mornings I’ll lean forward and peer between the beech and hickory, Dutchman Creek ripples below, a pileated raps and quarrels above.  On warm evenings lengthening into dusk I will lean back, tentative step of unseen deer behind, mosquito countertenor in my ears. Join me as we entertain small thoughts.

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Weekend before last I laid down the mattock and dug with my hands.  Scooping up dirt to mold a shallow campfire pit, I lifted something soft.  An underground fungus, the sort that pigs sniff out?  Rare petrified bear scat from a wilder epoch?  What?

I opened my hands – a toad, inert in its hibernation.  It cracked one eye the smallest slit and looked up at me.  “Just five more minutes?”  I found a safer spot between the beech tree roots and tucked him in with moss.

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Adam & Eve Orchid

Jalalu’ddin Rumi
(translated by R.A.Nicholson)

If there be any lover in the world, O Moslems, ‘tis I.
If there be any believer, infidel, or Christian hermit, ‘tis I.
The wine-dregs, the cupbearer, the minstrel, the harp and the music,
The beloved, the candle, the drink and the joy of the drunken – ‘tis I.
The two-and-seventy creeds and sects in the world
Do not really exist: I swear by God that every creed and sect – ‘tis I.
Earth and air and water and fire – knowest thou what they are?
Earth and air and water and fire, nay, body and soul too – ‘tis I.
Truth and falsehood, good and evil, ease and difficulty from first to last,
Knowledge and learning and ascetism and piety and faith – ‘tis I.
The fire of Hell, be assured, with its flaming limbos,
Yes, and Paradise and Eden and houris – ‘tis I.
This earth and heaven with all that they hold,
Angels, peris, genies, and mankind – ‘tis I.

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Doughton Park Tree #2

Linda’s Mom preferred to assume the garb and persona of Mother Goose rather than Conan the Librarian, but if there were ever a muscular champion of children and books, Donna Unger French was it.  She began in the Sixties as library volunteer in an elementary school that didn’t have a library – Mom French created one in a wide place in a hallway.  Eventually each of the Aurora Public Schools had its library, and with Mom’s magical touch they became temples of creativity and imagination.  They were holy refuges for readers.  They were FUN! At its acme the middle school library included: an old clawfoot bathtub lined with purple shag carpet where students could lounge and read; a life-size E.T. and a menagerie of giant cut-out Sendak Wild things; doll houses and dragons, cowardly lions and witches, masks and puppets.  And every good book.

Mom French’s home is still overflowing with books.  Every Newberry.  Every Caldecott.  Racks and stacks of Bill Peet, Wallace Tripp, Richard Scary, Tomie DiPaola.  When we took our kids to visit it was a marathon of reading on Grandma’s lap.  Before Margaret and Josh themselves could read they could name each book’s artist with a single glance.  Thirty years later, Saul knows that when he and Dad go to the used book sale at the library, they are going to come home carrying a huge sack of books.

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The Fairies
William Allingham (1824-1889)

Up the airy mountain
Down the rushy glen,
We dare n’t go a-hunting,
For fear of little men;
Wee folk, good folk,
Trooping all together;
Green jacket, red cap,
And white owl’s feather.

Down along the rocky shore
Some make their home,
They live on crispy pancakes
Of yellow tide-foam;
Some in the reeds
Of the black mountain-lake,
With frogs for their watch-dogs,
All night awake.

High on the hill-top
The old King sits;
He is now so old and gray
He’s nigh lost his wits.
With a bridge of white mist
Columbkill he crosses,
On his stately journeys
From Slieveleague to Rosses;
Or going up with music,
On cold starry nights,
To sup with the Queen,
Of the gay Northern Lights.

They stole little Bridget
For seven years long;
When she came down again
Her friends were all gone.
They took her lightly back
Between the night and morrow;
They thought she was fast asleep,
But she was dead with sorrow.
They have kept her ever since
Deep within the lake,
On a bed of flag leaves,
Watching till she wake.

By the craggy hill-side,
Through the mosses bare,
They have planted thorn trees
For pleasure here and there.
Is any man so daring
As dig them up in spite?
He shall find the thornies set
In his bed at night.

Up the airy mountain
Down the rushy glen,
We dare n’t go a-hunting,
For fear of little men;
Wee folk, good folk,
Trooping all together;
Green jacket, red cap,
And white owl’s feather.

Copied from a well-thumbed edition of Volume 1 of CHILDCRAFT, (c) 1954 by Field Enterprises, Inc.  Mom French gave each of her seven children a set of Childcraft books when they left home on their own.

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A true story: When Mom French finally retired after forty (fifty maybe?) years as Aurora schools librarian, she still returned as a volunteer to read stories.  We’re not sure just how she arranged this, but one Saturday night she loaded the car with books, put on her Mother Goose outfit – pointy hat, shawl, wire-rims – and drove to downtown Cleveland to a bar near the Cuyahoga River.  While the longshoremen raised their beers, she read them nursery rhymes, poems, and bedtime stories.  They begged her to come back again.

Mom, in each story we read and in each one read to us, we will always hear your voice.

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My grandson’s favorite Christmas song this year is Holly Jolly Christmas by Burl Ives.  This is really not so astonishing – the first record we ever played for him was a collection of folk songs by Burl Ives.  By the time Saul was two he was requesting him by name: “Play Bur Lives.”

What did astonish me today, though, was realizing that Saul knows all the words to the song.  I was impersonating a fly on the wall with a magazine while he built a little Lego house and had all his Lego men come visit.  The entire time he was working, he sang.  Say Hello to folks you know / and everyone you meet.  Or sometimes just recited.  Hey Ho, the mistletoe, hung where you can see.  With an entire village of different voices, tempos, timbres.  Somebody waits for you / Kiss her once for me!  Sometimes tuneful little boy soprano, sometimes gruff, briefly importuning, and when he noticed me listening quite loud and raucous.  All the Holly Jolly variations.

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A four-year old is a highly evolved little primate.  He knows just how far he can boss Pappy around before he’s crossed the line.  He can ask for ice cream a half hour before supper and convince Pappy the request is not at all unreasonable.  He operates on the rock solid premise that simply wanting a thing fully entitles the person to get it.  Or, and this is much more likely, he knows all the rules full well but also knows from experience that with the one-hundred-and-first request the rule might shatter.

But what happens if I sometimes call the little anthropoid’s bluff and just laugh?  He laughs too, and we go on to the next game.

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I bought Sarah Lindsay’s book Primate Behavior at a reading she gave in Southern Pines this year.  Reading it is like an archeological dig: each poem must be read carefully, brushed with fine bristles, held up to the sky.  No bulldozers, please.  I’m still working my way, layer by layer.  I’m discovering that there is unrevealed depth and complexity to us hominids.  I wonder, how did Lindsay get hold of my family tree?

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Primate Behavior

What was she looking for, the woman two days from
the end of a wasting death
who told her nursing daughter, “Shave my legs”?
Or the hospital-ridden one
who, coming out of ether, could only keep saying she couldn’t
be comfortable
without her panties on.

If one of us slips on ice, he or she
checks first for an audience, second for broken bones.
We are the apes
with mirrors inside our heads.  We pick our noses,
we fart and enjoy it,
but this is rarely mentioned.  We make fun of outdated clothes.
We listen to music.

In a thick place of mountain bamboo the
gorilla mother
croons and cradles her young one in her arm.
With her other large hand
she catches her own dung and eats it.
A hum of insects and green wet rot.
The father beside her sleeps.  Is it eight-thirty Monday?
His lower lip hangs on his chest.
Alone at her golden oak table
the young lady licks her finger, dots at the grains
of spilled sugar,
and licks it again.

Close to the Pole, where daytime stretches
like taffy
and icebergs move in vast and moaning herd, a furry man
scrawls a few notes in Norwegian.  He cannot carry a tune,
but he can make stew.  He has thought of little else but stew
and warming his feet for weeks.  Realizing
how dirty his face is, he tells himself:
I am here for no personal good, but to help make maps.
I am civilized.  See the word Forward is drawn on my heart.
And he throws some dried fish to the dogs.

from Primate Behavior, Sarah Lindsay, Grove Press, © 1997 by Sarah Lindsay

Sarah Lindsay received her M.F.A. in creative writing from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro and currently lives in Greensboro.  Primate Behavior was a National Book Award finalist.  Lindsay’s latest book of poetry, Twigs and Knucklebones (Copper Canyon Press, 2008), was selected as a “Favorite Book of 2008″ by Christian Wiman, editor of Poetry magazine.

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Tradition

It’s 1975, late afternoon on Christmas Day in Aurora, Ohio at the Frenches’.  Linda and I have braved the West Virginia Turnpike in winter (Our Motto: Under Construction unto Eternity) to drive up from Durham.  My folks still live in Aurora, too (we’ll divide our time with a microtome), but right now we’re sitting in the living room with Mom and Dad French, Skip, Jill, Sue, Becky, Annie, Jodi, and several imposing snowdrifts of torn wrapping paper, eating another delicious something, and waiting.

There’s the knock.  John is here!  Hugs galore, then he sets up his screen and fiddles with the old Super-8 projector and little reel-to-reel tape player, frame by frame and inch by inch so they’ll sync when he throws the switch.  Dim the lights.  Action, sound!  Grazini Christmas.  A new tradition is born.

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How many years, John, did you make that pilgrimage to the Frenches’ to set up your projector?  Your audience gradually shrank as the sibs moved on – Minnesota, New Mexico, West Virginia.  Some years I had to work on Christmas and we didn’t make it north.  A few years ago you sent us a Grazini DVD and man, did those memories come rushing back!  Now this season I’ve watched GC twice already, once when you sent me the YouTube link and once with my Mom after showing her how to add it to her Favorites Bar.  Margaret may be getting tired of me going on and on about the amazing story boarding and cinematography accomplished by two teenagers learning on the fly.  Linda has reminded us how she had to trail you guys around downtown Cleveland all day until it was time for her thirty-second scene.  But most important, John, is the lump in my throat – I still get it during that closing scene.  Every darn time.  I know what’s coming, I can recite the dialogue, one might say the message is so simple as to be obvious, but I still choke up.

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Readers, it’s time for you to watch Grazini Christmas.  In 1972 two high school seniors, John Mlinek and Dave Prittie, made a movie with a handheld Super-8 camera, a portable tape recorder, and scissors and tape.  A hero for our time, Grazini-Man searches for the true meaning of Christmas.  The film is literally a family tradition – watch for Linda as the little old lady and her brother Skip as the blind scam artist.  Much of it is shot on location in Cleveland; that’s the real Higbees Department Store Santa (the store security guard chased them out once he figured out what they were up to).  The closing scene is set in The Church in Aurora, where Linda and I were in the high school youth group, just a block from Linda’s parents’ home.  Tradition.

How is it possible to “make” something a tradition?  The word means that which is handed down  – doesn’t that imply that a tradition must seep into you from the past, that it requires years and years of gestation before its birth?  Maybe John hadn’t created a tradition the first time he knocked on Linda’s door with his projector, but I’m willing to say that by the second time he had indeed.  I think the secret is more than the family context, the predictable jokes, the backstory.  I think this little film connects with something primal – at some level we are all of us always searching for meaning, whether we can articulate it or not.

Thanks, John.  Got to go now.  Getting ready to premier Grazini Christmas on the big flat screen.  Linda says, “Hi.”

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.     .     .     .     .

And there were in the same country shepherds
abiding in the field, keeping watch
over their flock by night. And, lo,
the angel of the Lord came upon them,
and the glory of the Lord shone round about them:
and they were sore afraid.

And the angel said unto them, Fear not:
for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy
which shall be to all people.
For unto you is born this day in the city of David
a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord.
And this shall be a sign unto you;
Ye shall find the babe
wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.

And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude
of the heavenly host praising God,
and saying, Glory to God in the highest,
and on earth peace, good will toward men.

Luke 2:8-15 KJV

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Click to watch Grazini Christmas, written produced and directed by John Mlinek.

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