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Blue

[with poems by Ryan Wilson and A. R. Ammons]

I didn’t intend to count birds when I set out Tuesday morning. Just a nice weekly hike to Carter Falls and back, a weekday’s solitude – I’m not sure I intended anything more than cooling my brain and heating my muscles. Tamping down the trail maintenance we completed last Saturday. Following the season’s advance into winter.

But then a heron flew out from under the footbridge as I crossed Grassy Creek. Whoever coined the phrase a force of nature was probably in the presence of a Great Blue Heron. Up close they are mute and fearsome. Flying they arouse precognitive awe. When Linda and I encounter one feeding we address it by its nickname: “Hello, Spike.” When one passes overhead we think, “Pterodactyl.” Great Blue demands that one notice.

After gasping at the heron’s sudden flight, I began noticing birds. If they had been calling and singing during the preceding mile my striding deliberation had shut them out. Now they were continuous and various. Counting, I recede and the birds advance.

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Below are two favorite poems which I return to regularly. They strike me as creating a continuum – the advance of a life toward discovering its meaning, the advance of a life toward its end. I read these and I recede into the lines, but as I read them I expand into my self.

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At Carter Falls trailhead a Black Vulture perched overlooking; I scanned up past the parking area and saw the roadkill possum the vulture was waiting to ripen. At the Powerhouse (the riverstone foundation, all that’s left of the old generating plant) a Kingfisher daggered up the river and disappeared above the spray. I pulled an index card and a pen out of my pack. Here’s what I came home with:

Great Blue Heron / Belted Kingfisher / Northern Flicker / Red-Bellied Woodpecker / Black Vulture / Turkey Vulture / Carolina Wren / Carolina Chickadee / Tufted Titmouse / Golden-Crowned Kinglet / Eastern Phoebe / White-Breasted Nuthatch / Blue Jay / Eastern Bluebird / Cedar Waxwing / Pileated Woodpecker / Red-Shouldered Hawk / Chipping Sparrow / Northern Mockingbird / American Crow / Common Raven

And since I wasn’t carrying binoculars I’ll just include the numerous chippers and chirpers in the thickets as LGB’s (little gray birds, also sometimes known as LBJ’s, little brown jobs).

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Face It

A silence, bodied like wing-beaten air,
Perturbs your face sometimes when parties end
And, half-drunk, you stand looking at some star
That flickers like a coin wished doen a weill,
Or when you hear a voice behind you whisper
Your name, and turn around, and no one’s there.
You’re in it the, once more, the stranger’s house
Perched in the mountain woods, the rot-sweet smell
Of fall, the maples’ millions, tongues of fire,
And there, whirl harrowing the gap, squint-far,
Than unidentified fleck, approaching and
Receding at once, rapt in the wind’s spell –
Pulse, throb, winged dark thar haunts the clean light’s glare –
That thin that you’re becoming, that your are.

Ryan Wilson
from The Best American Poetry 2018, first published in The New Criterion

Ryan Wilson was born in Griffin, Georgia and resides in Maryland. Of this poem he writes, “Face It was written in West Virginia at a mountaintop cabin belonging to my great friend, Ernest Suarez. During a break near dusk, I stepped out onto the porch, from which one can see more than fifty miles on a clear day. I was tantalized by a hawk hovering in the western gap, how it seemed to approach and to recede at once on the wind, never near enough for me to identify its species, or even its genus.”

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Finishing Up

I wonder if I know enough to know what it’s really like
to have been here: have I seen sights enough to give
seeing over: the clouds, I’ve waited with white
October clouds like these this afternoon often before and

taken them in, but white clouds shade other white
ones gray, had I noticed that: and though I’ve
followed the leaves of many falls, have I spent time with
the wire vines left when frost’s red dyes strip the leaves

away: is more missing that was never enough: I’m sure
many of love’s kinds absolve and heal, but were they passing
rapids or welling stirs: I suppose I haven’t done and seen
enough yet to go, and anyway, it may be way on on the way

before one picks up the track of the sufficient, the
world-round reach, spirit deep, easing and all, not just mind
answering itself but mind and things apprehended at once
as one, all giving all way, not a scrap or question holding back.

A. R. Ammons
from The Best American Poetry 2018, first published in Poetry

Archie Ammons was born outside Whiteville, NC in 1926, attended college in Wake Forest, NC, and taught at Cornell for over 34 years. He was guest editor of The Best American Poetry 1994. He died February 25, 2001. A two-volume set of his collected poems was published by W. W. Norton in 2017.

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2014-07-13 Doughton Park Tree

Throwing Out the Bible

[with three poems by Glenis Redmond]

She wanted you to have this to remember her by. Callie’s niece hands me a simple paper gift bag, pink with a heart, like you’d give your sweetie on Valentine’s. It’s heavy. I lift the thick book from inside carefully because the front cover has already fallen away. Onionskin leaves are curling. A Holy Bible.

During my forty years as a small town family doctor my patients occasionally gave me little gifts and mementos. The tomatoes and squash and sacks of Brushy Mountain apples I shared with the staff then took the rest home, but the knickknacks piled up on my desk and bookshelves. Handcrafts and little painted figurines, usually of an old time doctor. Inspirational plaques. Paperweights and ornaments. Bric-a-brac.

I retired September, 2020. What to do with all this stuff? If it’s flat I file it in a scrapbook: crayon drawings kids made while they waited, photos, thank-you’s (and a few angry letters – I saved those, too). The most interesting, which I remove from its frame, is the February 20, 1927 Honorable Discharge from the Army of Ellis, who died November 20, 2005, age 100. His niece thought I should have it.

Callie’s niece enclosed a sweet card with the well-read Bible. It sat under my desk at the office in its pink bag for years and now it’s nudging my right foot under my desk at home. All my shelves are packed, stacked, stratified. Most of that other bric-a-brac, after girding my loins, I threw away. How do you throw out a Bible? I certainly don’t need another one – I’m not going to try to count all the versions and editions on my shelf (and there are eleven Bibles in an app on my iPhone). Callie’s Bible doesn’t include any inscription, not even her name, no family births and deaths recorded, nothing personal. Except that from Genesis to Revelation there are small x’s penciled along the beginning of each chapter, maybe to mark how far she’d read that day. And the pencil is still there, stuck between the pages.

Is it even possible to throw away a Bible? Not today. Back under the desk you go.

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I’ve just read Glenis Redmond’s book, What My Hand Say (Press 53, 2016). Its eighty-some poems seem like a lifetime’s work, a generation’s, a civilization’s. She picks, plows, pushes and pulls memory, history, lore, wisdom until they glow with heat, danger, pain, joy. She doesn’t hold back. To read these poems is to walk in the dust with the little black girl from Fountain Inn, South Carolina. To read these is to have a grandmother who teaches you hard, hard lessons. To read is to open your heart to the suffering we all share as humans but also to be welcomed into the circle that offers each of us human family, community, inspiration, love.

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From What My Hand Say, Glenis Redmond, Press 53 © 2016

Benediction

We took back roads cutting cross-country
traveling from one small road to another
snaking from Moonville to Mauldin.
My big brother Willie and I rode
while the blue Duster began stuttering a dubious rattle,
sputtering to a stop on a small rural track of road called Conastee,
a quarter-mile stretch riddled with seven steeples,
each pointing a path to God:
First Baptist, Church of God, Deliverance of God,
United Methodist, Reedy River Presbyterian,
Conastee fellowship Hall and McBee United Methodist.
Sure we were cloaked in the protection of the Lord
as we knocked on the first door we saw,
a sweet grandma-looking lady
opening her door like a smile
granting us a Samaritan’s Act
by letting us use her phone.
Her words spilling over us like gospel,
we heed even today.
Hurry, night’s about to fall. You two
are not safe around here.

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Bruised
For Middlesex County Academy in New Brunswick, NJ – Alternative School
and Damon House – Alcohol & Drug Treatment Facility

They banter back and forth like boys do:
You charcoal, son. you so black you purple.
I tell them, hol’up in defense of my mahogany skin
and the boy they’re putting down. I say,
You know that they say? In cue as if we rehearsed it,
we both chime, the darker the berry, the sweeter the juice.
We flash twin smiles. There’s a moment when the air
gets less complicated in the room. The space is large enough
for me to ask, why y’all hate on each other so hard?

Oh, he? He my boy. See, that’s how we show love.
They crush so hard I want to weep –
I’m so tired of everybody being gangsta hard,
but they are being real. I know ‘cause I got three brothers
and growin up I never saw them show love,
except in that one on one – man on man dunk in you face.
Call you ignant ten times a day kind of way.
Their talk swags like their walk.
I follow the conversation as it dips and drags.
We end up talking about how we were punished as kids.

I lead with, I’m from the South and y’all don’t know
nothin about a switch – havin to go ‘round back
fetch your own hickory, the same stick use to beat you.
I say these words and I still feel the sting of the switch.
See welts raising into an angry language of graffiti on my skin.
One says, don’t bring back no skinny one neither.
I shake my head in solidarity – the blood we’ve spilled makes us kin.
Another boy says, what about those belts?
I hear my mama’s beating cadence,
a belt whip with every word, I-told-you-not-to . . .

Another says, extension cord.
I’m brought fully awake, ‘cause
I don’t know nothing ‘bout that kind of whippin.
We only heard of Cedric down the street gettin beat like that.
Then, we did not know the word, Abuse,
or the phrase Child Protective Services.
We just said his mama was MEAN.

Jicante, another says, I say huh? Rice.
You kneel on raw rice for hours.
We walk down alleys; I listen as they go deeper
into the shadows farther than I have ever been,
but we don’t skip a beat. We laugh –
joke about our beatings and nobody mentions
the pain, but it’s all understood – we are all battered.
We bump up against each other’s wounds before we brainstorm.
I pick up the marker and they bicker blue versus red.
I read between the gang signs. It is not lost on me,
that when these colors mingle, they make purple.
I muse in my mind how violence for them still continues.
I come back to the poem, that we are here to write;
the ones that saved my life. I know this detour we took
down old roads is a place we had to go,
places where we have been loved so hard it hurts,
so hard we are still bruised.
We bear our scars,
then we pick our pens
and write.

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My First Poetry Teacher
for Carrie McCray

Teach like the congregation
at Bethlehem Baptist Church yells Preach
and she did. Said, Poets look back.
Mine the memory.
Find the journey work taking.
Don’t dismiss the coal.
Go down the dark shaft.
Go down into the danger.
Go down into the lives lost.
Plummet. Clear the smoke.
Wipe your eyes and the grime.
Write.
Polish the rock
that made the past
till all facets
come to light
shine

 

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[author bio from Press 53]

Glenis Redmond travels nationally and internationally reading and teaching poetry so much that she has earned the title, Road Warrior Poet. She has posts as the Poet-in-Residence at The Peace Center for the Performing Arts in Greenville, South Carolina, and also at the State Theatre in New Brunswick, New Jersey. During February 2016, at the request of U.S. State Department for their Speaker’s Bureau, Glenis traveled to Muscat, Oman, to teach a series of poetry workshops and perform poetry for Black History Month.

In 2014-16, Glenis served as the Mentor Poet for the National Student Poet’s Program to prepare students to read at the Library of Congress, the Department of Education, and for First Lady Michelle Obama at The White House. Glenis is a Cave Canem Fellow, a North Carolina Literary Fellowship Recipient, and a Kennedy Center Teaching Artist. She also helped create the first Writer-in-Residence at the Carl Sandburg Home National Historic Site in Flat Rock, North Carolina.

Glenis believes that poetry is a healer, and she can be found in the trenches across the world applying pressure to those in need, one poem at a time.

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2016-10-17b Doughton Park Tree

Poetry Submissions Calendar — UPDATE

In 2015 I originally posted a table I use to keep track of when and where to submit poems for publication. Here’s the original post with description:

https://griffinpoetry.com/2015/08/31/editors-mercy-part-2/

Here’s how I use the calendar:

It’s arranged by month – look down the column to see what journals and sources are open for submissions right now!

Each row includes the web address – be sure to check before you submit, because requirements may have changed since I last updated!

The row also includes other information such as:

  • Is this an online publication only?
  • Should your submission be a single document?
  • What format files do they accept?

There are more instructions on the table itself. Feel free to print it out. And I would really appreciate it if you notify me of any errors or suggested changes!

If you have journals you’d like me to add to the table please send me the particulars!

Poetry Submissions Calendar 2020-11

I will try to post an updated table once or twice a year.

THANKS!

BILL GRIFFIN

 

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2020-03-07 Doughton Park Tree

How Do Crayfish Taste?

Upload Burrowing Crayfish, Cambarus dubius

[with poems by Lesley Wheeler and Bill Griffin]

How? Crayfish taste with their skin. Well, not skin precisely: cuticle is what their carapace is called, their shell, made of chitin. (Read to the end for a science geek discussion of chitin vs. keratin.) It’s hard and it’s tough but it has chemoreceptors that detect dissolved molecules. With their skin, crayfish taste the water. Or smell it.

Taste and smell, inseparable as yeast and flour. Apart only mildly interesting, but mix them together and suddenly it’s 1979, Durham, that little red house on Green Street, waiting at the table with your toddler for hot bread from the oven. Or if you’re Crayfish maybe a tasty caddisfly larva. Or perhaps that taste/smell is Otter on the prowl and it’s time to find a rock.

This big guy (guy: we have our ways of knowing these things, though we don’t like to pry when those pincers are cocked) is possibly an Upland Burrowing Crayfish, Cambarus dubius. Yes, he really is blue; I swear I didn’t touch the hue sliders. (Read to the end for a science geek discussion of crustacean blueness). He was tooling across the level patch near the creek below our house where the Sewer Authority crews clear a path to check their access ports. Lovely spot for a walk, although you might catch the occasional whiff of fabric softener lightly swirled with hydrogen sulfide and anaerobic bacteria. Poop perfume.

Ah, ineffable links, scent and memory. Strolling down the aisle at Food Lion I pass the Downy and my olfactory bulb & hippocampus spark to tell me I’m hiking beside the autumn creek. And look! A Crayfish!

Mountains-to-Sea Trail with Sassafras; near Elkin, NC and Isaac's trailhead

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I don’t believe I’ve missed reading an issue of Cave Wall since its inception. Editors Rhett Iseman Trull and Jeff Trull never fail to craft a collection that sparks neurons I’ve been neglecting. In the same way that a forgotten aroma can open a memory door into all the senses, a poem can flash and growl and shudder the reader with sudden insight. Circles, ripples, connections. My college English prof taught a whole semester on it: epiphany. Or an even better word (thank you Caren Stuart for this indispensable addition to the lexicon) – the gasp-sigh.

Invocation by Lesley Wheeler appears in Cave Wall Number 16 (Spring 2020). Something here is thirsty . . . something is called to wake up! How much of each of us is mud, condensation? Shall we pause a moment for spore and mire to convene again within us?

Worship begins with invocation, a call to the divine presence to enter this place. But since divine mystery comprises the entire universe, every boson and lepton, where can we sojourn where the divine is not? Perhaps practicing invocation we are really calling ourselves. Enter this moment. Reside here. Abide with the mystery. Wake up!

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Invocation

Bottomland: rouse. Sedge, knotweed:
time to rally. You’ve been lost
in thought, ebb and fuming flood,
since the glacier, thin winters
digging for turtles in cold mud.
Valley was tundra. Elk and moose
drank at water’s brink while firs
invented shade. Panthers melted

into the dark, but spore and mire could
convene again. Softness feed us
and eat our footholds away. Something
here is thirst for living’s every
rivulet, hospitable and
treacherous in her oblivion.
Misty divots. Condensation
beads on the throat, where pulses drum.

What kind of god is this? Her name
just a hieroglyph drawn in muck
by a tentative finger. No
answer but a hissing river.
Drowsy spirit, I’m pleading. Take
this blood shed unseasonably,
mineral gift. Be comfort. Be
danger. Of sleep, of trough. Wake up.

Lesley Wheeler, in Cave Wall Number 16, Spring 2020

Lesley Wheeler is a poet, novelist, scholar, and blogger. She is the poetry editor of Shenandoah.

Sassafras, Sassafras albidum, illustrating the three lobe types

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The following poem appears in Snake Den Ridge: a Bestiary (2008, March Street Press). Linda and I collaborated on the book and her illustration appears below (at the time she agreed to interrupt her many other projects because I promised to dedicate the book to my friend Mike Barnett – I can’t even calculate the hours she spent drawing or the height of the field guides and science books piled beside her on her desk).

Crayfish

Just wiggle this rock
and the stream
hums a whole new flavor –
in the turbulence I taste
last night’s shower
on the Ridge
and this morning’s stirring
of awakened larvae.
Tailflap, legtips,
cuticle,
all of me every moment
strummed by roil and eddy,
random caress
of molecules,
divine order of chaos.

I’ll tell you a secret –
God is deliciousness!,

the constant inconstancy
of current
that reveals my breakfast
or Otter on the prowl,
and just maybe
the passing of a lovely
arthropod I long to meet.

Join me! Immerse yourself,
not in Inadu Creek
but in your own lifestream.
Savor it, sense it as I do
in every part of you.

Bill Griffin, in Snake Den Ridge: a Bestiary (2008, March Street Press)

Illustrations by Linda French Griffin.

 

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Chitin is the hard part of invertebrates: cicada exoskeleton, crayfish and lobster shell, squid beaks (and vertebrate fish scales). Keratin is the hard outer part of vertebrates: bird feathers, tiger claws, what little hair I have left. The two are chemically completely different but function in the same way, for protection and structure.

Chitin is a polymer of sugars, glucose with added nitrogen = glucosamine (a polysaccharide), the stuff I take for my bad knee. Keratin is a polymer of amino acids, namely a protein (polypeptide). Here are two more factoids you can’t possibly live without: Keratin resists digestion, which is why cats hark up hairballs. Spider silk is classified as keratin, although production of the protein probably evolved independently of the process in vertebrates.

Crustacyanin is not a Spongebob character. It’s what makes this crayfish blue. Crustacyanin is a carotenoid, which are pigment proteins found in everything from tomatoes to pink flamingos. The crustacyanin is made from stacks of another carotenoid protein (astaxanthin), which itself is red, but depending how many and how it’s stacked can actually reflect the blue portion of the spectrum. Blue crayfish (also look up Blue Lobsters) have a genetic variation in their stacking. If you steam them (perish the thought!!!) the astaxanthin comes unstacked and that’s why cooked crabs, lobsters, and crayfish are bright red.

Brushy mountains reflected in compound eye

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2016-10-17b Doughton Park Tree

Southern Lobelia, Lobelia amoena, Campanulaceae (Bellflower family)

[with poems by Robert Frost, Paulann Peterson, Edwin Markham]

Tree At My Window

Tree at my window, window tree,
My sash is lowered when night comes on;
But let there never be curtain drawn
Between you and me.

Vague dream head lifted out of the ground,
And thing next most diffuse to cloud,
Not all your light tongues talking aloud
Could be profound.

But tree, I have seen you taken and tossed,
And if you have seen me when I slept,
You have seen me when I was taken and swept
And all but lost.

That day she put our heads together,
Fate had her imagination about her,
Your head so much concerned with outer,
Mine with inner, weather.

Robert Frost (1874-1963)

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Why the Aging Poet Continues to Write

At a coneflower’s seed-making center,
hundreds of tiny dark florets—
each stiff and sharp—
take turns oozing
their flashes of pollen.
A flagrant
bee-stopping show.

Making a bright circle,
the outermost spiky blossoms
open first to then fade.
Shrinking day by day,
the ring of yellow flame
moves inward.
That heart—what’s at
the flower’s very core—
blazes last.

Paulann Petersen, from Understory, Lost Horse Press, 2013

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These two poems are collected in The Poetry of Impermanence, Mindfulness, and Joy; edited by John Brehm; Wisdom Publications, 2017.

Spreading False Foxglove, Aureolaria patula, Scrophulariaceae (Figwort family)

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No plant community is static. Even the “climax forest” is in constant flux, the flow that is the marker of time’s passage, that is time. All things flow: change, the primary mutable immutable that creates reality.

Observe the climax forest for enough generations (its generations, not ours) and see that its steady state is illusion. Water cycles, carbon cycles, death and reclamation and regeneration: constant flux. Apt metaphor for our life as human individuals. Observe the plant community’s encroachers and invaders, its fuzzy boundaries, its balance never balanced for long – also a metaphor for human communities.

During pandemic if there is one factor that underlies our existential fears it must be separation from community. How small has our circle shrunk? How unwilling are we to step outside or let in the unknown? Anger, anxiety, dread: they must all have the same roots.

When the soil is shallow the tree sends its roots wider. When moisture or minerals are scarce the rootlets’ embrace by mycorrhizal fungi becomes even more welcome.

Human ecology: I watch the Zoom gallery nod and smile and imagine that they are seeing me, too. I step off the trail when other hikers pass but we wave and share a few words at distance. I sit nearby during Linda’s long phone calls with sisters: essential, restoring, redeeming. I even (gasp!) write a few letters. Aren’t we all reaching out to discover some new way of connecting, some way amidst the flux to re-forge community?

Wider, draw the circle wider!

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He drew a circle that shut me out-
Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout.
But love and I had the wit to win:
We drew a circle and took him in!

Outwitted – Edwin Markham (1852-1940)

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Many thanks to the organizers and instructors of Great Smoky Mountains Institute at Tremont who continue their mission of connecting people with nature even during pandemics. Their science-based educational programs have evolved with science-based precautions and modifications to allow small communities to form for a weekend at a time.

One word sums the program and purpose of Great Smoky Mountains National Park: BIODIVERSITY. These photos are from the September 2020 GSMIT program Southern Appalachian Ecology. Immersed in that diversity, I continue to absorb the enrichment, root, stem and blossom, of that community of seekers.

 

 

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Southern Harebell, Campanula divaricata, Campanulaceae (Bellflower) family

[with two poems by Lola Haskins]

I sat in the ophthalmologist’s office reading Lola Haskins and wondering. I’ve put off this visit due to COVID and I’m overdue, seeing Dr. Bondalapati for the first time. She is new here, just moved to Elkin from Chapel Hill with her family last summer. Most of her staff I’ve known for years, although it is still welcoming to be recognized behind the mask.

All of us masked. Wondering. Are our precautions enough? Is it OK to be together like this?

Isn’t it remarkable how much eyes alone can communicate? Eyebrows bobbing, winky lids, wrinkly skin of brow and temple, lovely corrugator muscles. I left the office happy to have seen my new doctor and Deanna, Karen, all the others.

Bridge the separations. Make community. Take nothing for granted.

I am also restored and innervated by Lola Haskins’s poems. I heard her read several years ago and just bought her collection, how small, confronting morning (Jacar Press, 2016). Isn’t it remarkable how much a few words and a few lines alone can communicate? Seeing through another’s eyes. Another’s voice in my ears . . .

. . . like happiness // it materialized so gradually / that I never even for a moment // saw it coming

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The Cabin at Fakahatchee Strand

by morning the water has turned such
silver I want to put it on i know

it would only flutter off my skin
like a bird too quick to follow

but i don’t care i want it anyway
and i want that tangle of cattail

and black rush too the way i want
to be perpetually waking to

yet another gift like the single gator
stretched out on the muck

where pond has begun to thicken
to swamp like happiness

it materialized so gradually
that i never even for a moment

saw it coming

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Lola Haskins, from how small, confronting morning (Jacar Press, 2016)

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Flight

if i eat feathers asks the child
will i be able to fly?

you already can says her mother
any night
the lightness in you my lift you
from your cot
that’s why i close the windows

when i get old enough the child
wonders

will you open them? oh yes
comes the answer

(sorrowing) that’s what
mothers do

.

Lola Haskins, from how small, confronting morning (Jacar Press, 2016)

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Haskins writes with the startling freedom and grace of a kite flying, and with the variety and assurance of invention that reveal, in image after image, the dream behind the waking world.
W.S.Merwin, winner of the Pulitzer Prize and former U. S. Poet Laureate

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IMG_0877

Appalachian Trail near Clingman’s Dome, 2003

[with two poems by Kathryn Stripling Byer]

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Summer has skimmed the high ridge like a chimney swift, rarely perching for long. Now on September mornings you can see your breath. First frost certainly won’t dally. Above 6,000 feet you wonder, Where is the South in Southern Appalachians?

And what about these bleached spines and gnarled knucklebones? This phalanx of snags that palisades the highest elevations against the green upon green below? The balsam wooly adelgid arrived on Clingman’s Dome in 1957. By the 1980’s the tiny insect invader from Europe, order Hemiptera, had destroyed more than 90% of the Fraser Fir in Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

This year, though, the Park Service has declared a tenuous truce. Some of those dead snags are forty years old but younger trees spared by the adelgid have matured and are making fertile cones. The very oldest trees, with thicker bark, also seem less susceptible. The insects are still around but you have to hunt for them, whereas during the earliest infestations biologists described the branches covered in wooly bugs as if they had been “whitewashed.”

What is the fulcrum of this new equilibrium? Perhaps the adelgid found easy pickings among whole communities weakened for decades by acid deposition, bad air. Coal-burning power plants up the Appalachian ridge to Canada have added scrubbers. The red spruce that had stopped growing in the ‘80’s are laying on new rings of cambrium. Leave a patch of ground alone long enough and it will grow into what it is meant to be.

Or will it? Depends on what you mean by leave alone. The fir that survive are a little more resistant to the insect, a little more acid tolerant. But what happens as their subalpine microclimate becomes less like Canada and more like Atlanta? Scrubbers remove the nitrogen and sulfur that oxidize to form acids but when you burn carbon you get carbon dioxide. Can’t scrub that out. How many degrees of warming can Fraser fir tolerate? Go higher, it gets cooler. Here in the Park you can’t go any higher than Clingman’s Dome.

Mountain Angelica, Angelica triquinata (Apiaceae - parsley family)

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Last week I shared two poems from Kathryn Stripling Byer’s first book (1986). The two poems that follow here are from her final book, Trawling the Silences, published in 2019 two years after her death.

Kay Byer takes me into wild places and she brings me home. She names the earth, just naming a thing is a prayer, and she leaves nameless the mysteries that mist from her verses into my soul. She has left this earth, and she has left this earth to me to hold close for the days I will remain. Notice. Learn. Cherish. Tell it.

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Three for My Trail Guide
for Jim

1.

Ascent

Before I can catch
my breath you right away
start to identify

Wild Ginger,
Mayapple,
Bloodroot.

I’m dizzy with switchbacks
I see rising into
the hardwoods you hail

Sarvis,
Sycamore,
Tulip Tree.

Trillium sweeps down
the hillside like angel wings
come to rest creekside.

You chanting hepatica,
stonecrop, anemone,
we climb until

we reach the summit,
where underfoot
some stubborn lichen

you can’t name
has already claimed
the best view.

2.

Star Grass

You name it
and there it is
at the edge
of the outcropping
over the Gorge.

Not to worry,
I placate the ravens
that harry us,
we won’t be lingering
long in your aerie.

See? Even now we are
striding away
into star grass,
its small spikes of clear
recognizable light.

3.

Galax

Squatting behind bushes,
I smell it nearby, neither bear scat

nor carrion vine, to which naturalists
liken its scent, but the breath

of an old woman lowering herself
to her chamber pot, sighing

as I heard her sigh while I tried
not to listen. Hoisting my backpack

I leave her behind in the underbrush,
glad to be back on the trail

with you, sidestepping tree stump
and blowdown, splashing through

creek bed, striding from switch back
to switch back toward sky we see,

step by step, open its window,
when, almost to summit, I stop.

Breathing hard. The scent
of her following me.

Kathryn Stripling Byer, from Trawling the Silences (Jacar Press, 2019)

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Silvery Glade Fern, Deparia acrostichoides (Dryopteridaceae - Wood Fern Family)

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Trawling the Silences

This end-of-March day, I’d rather watch hawks surf the
thermals than contemplate what lies ahead.
Or behind in its wake. In the few hours left, let me keep
my doubts shut, my windows wide open, their sheer curtains
billowing. It’s March, after all, having come in
a lamb and departing a lioness, stalking my back yard,

leaving her paw prints alongside the patient ephemerals
rising again out of leaf litter. Squirrel corn. Spring beauty.
The first rue anemone. Today I would rather
read field guides, repeating the whimsical names
of our nice-dwelling mussels about to be wiped out by backhoes
and bulldozers. Pimpleback, Snuffbucket. Monkeyface
Pearlymussel. Don’t let their names be forgotten,
I’d pray if I prayed, though just naming a thing is a prayer,

wrote Simone Weil, turning her face to the almighty
silences. The silences. Where would we be
without them, what were we, what will we be, oh to be,
and again be, that damn linking verb. I’d rather be tracking
my lioness up to the rim of that mountain top,
I’d rather let be and let go. Let the anemone
cling, the hawks soar, the lioness squander another day
trying to find what she’s looking for. Give her another day,
I ask the Almighty. Give the birds one more day
scolding the rapscallion squirrels stealing birdseed.
I rest my case, carapace, my own little voice trawling
the silences, the bully wind boasting its presence in present-tense,
no linking verb to shut down the show. Let
my lioness lounge in the sally grass. Licking her paws.

Kathryn Stripling Byer, from Trawling the Silences (Jacar Press, 2019)

 

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Spruce-Fir forests covered vast areas of the Southeast when glaciers reached their southernmost extent 18,000 years ago. As the glaciers retreated north the Spruce-Fir communities also retreated to higher elevations and now remain only along the highest peaks and ridges above 4,000 feet elevation, mostly higher. Clingman’s Dome at 6643 feet is the highest point in Great Smoky Mountains National Park and indeed along the entire Appalachian Trail. Its impressive swath of Spruce-Fir is also home to the rare Jordan’s Red-Cheeked salamander (Plethodon jordani) found only in the Park. The naturally acid soil and severe climate limit biodiversity compared to lower elevations, but other distinctive high elevation species include mountain ash (Rose family), mountain wood sorrel, mountain asters, glade fern. After sixty years the Fraser Fir seem to be surviving the balsam wooly adelgid invasion, air pollution, acid rain; it remains to be seen how long they will remain in the face of advancing climate change.

from SNAKE DEN RIDGE, A BESTIARY, illustration by Linda French Griffin

from SNAKE DEN RIDGE, A BESTIARY, illustration by Linda French Griffin

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Photos by Bill Griffin from Southern Appalachian Naturalist Certification Program; Southern Appalachian Ecology, September 2020, Great Smokies Institute at Tremont; instructors Jeremy Lloyd and Elizabeth Davis.

 

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[with two poems by Kathryn Stripling Byer]

Hepatica: its flowers spring up in March before its new leaves. Quick! Before arching limbs furl their green sails and hijack the wind of sunlight, quickly make your tiny seeds from last year’s photons! New leaves will have all summer and fall to glean what the canopy misses.

When Linda and I discover the first hepatica blooming along Elkin Creek each spring we take heart. The world is not such a grim and wintry place. One morning last April we counted 50 individual plants along a mile of trail. Such bounty! How they thrive! How our hearts do!

A few weeks ago I walked one mile of nature trail at Chimneys picnic area in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. At the end of September hepatica leaves are glossy, taut, ready to overwinter. As I strolled the cove, deep cathedral of old growth hardwoods, I estimated within 5,280 feet I saw 50,000 individual hepatica plants.

Sharp-lobed Hepatica, Hepatica acutiloba, Ranunculaceae, buttercup family

Life wants more of itself. Life wants to fill every niche. How many generations, how many hundred, did it take to create this mountain cove topography? Mossed, leafy, pits and mounds left by an ancient giant fallen. The light gap its falling created. Explosion of variety in the margins. Trunks of all sizes and ages in the understory, massive individuals creating the canopy. I didn’t know a black cherry, a silverbell, ever got this big!

Leave a patch of ground alone long enough and it will grow into what it is meant to be. Mountain flanks and shoulders for protection, rain upon rain, limestone subsoil for minerals – the old growth cove hardwood community shelters biodiversity approaching a tropical rainforest. These few sections in the Smokies that the loggers never reached are still revealing new species. Life wants more.

And to what purpose? What is it good for? I could probably list a few dozen reasons the undisturbed and unmanipulated forest is good for me and good for you. But how about this – the thousands of reasons it is simply good for itself.

Black Cherry, a BIG one, Prunus serotina, Rosaceae, rose family

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Kathryn Stripling Byer (1944-2017) was North Carolina Poet Laureate from 2005-2009 and the first woman to hold that position. She and her family lived in the mountains of western NC (she taught and was poet-in-residence at Western Carolina University); her grace and generosity reached throughout the southeast and beyond. She was teacher and mentor but, even more, she encouraged and celebrated the creative spirit wherever and in whomever it was found. Even me. Thinking of her today brings me joy.

I have gone back to Kay’s first book for these two poems. The Girl in the Midst of the Harvest was her debut collection (Texas Tech Press, 1986) and was re-issued by Press 53 (Winston-Salem, NC) in 2013.

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The Backwoods

Great-grandmother carried the cadence of Genesis.
Girl cousins up late at family reunions,
we made her an Indian, although her forebears
were Irish. Before her lay darkness, the empty fields
barren as desert until she came forward,
the sweat on her high cheekbones gleaming like eyes
we imagined surrounding her, bob-cat and red fox,
the last of the sleek, singing wolves. Every evening
she shouldered her how and walked home
through the tasselling corn. The Good Lord only knows
what bare feet stalked the backwoods in those days,
what waited behind every woodpile! She brought forth
a daughter with black hair that never curled.
Shy as a fieldmouse, that girl fell in love
with a man scything hay in the twilight. They kissed
twice. A moment she stood in her white dress
and smiled back at us, then she grew fat and sighed
in the kitchen. Four daughter she bore,
and the three who survived scarlet fever
wove grass in their brown hair and danced every night
with the fireflies. They galloped on wild horse
bareback until they got married and gave birth
to us, Southern Belles who could sit in a parlor
all evening and never complain. We could faint
in a handsome man’s arms. We could charm a
a stone wall. But we never forgot the back door,
how to disappear into the darkness, our crinolines rustling
like cornstalks between our legs. We told
this story so well, we inherit its black earth
where women hoe all night, inscrutable as Indians.

Pale jewelweed, Impatiens pallida, Balsaminaceae, touch-me-not family

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Frost

“Shake the cold from our hands,” you call, running ahead
of me onto the frozen grass. Look, in the garden
your father wrests vines from a tripod of bamboo stakes.
Okra’s grown weary with mourning another year
gone and just yesterday, Darling,
they wore yellow buds in their hair. Like you

twisting a puny chrysanthemum into your tangles
and galloping off on a broomstick. Down Caney Fork
scarecrows come hobbling like old soldiers
leaving their cornfields. They’ll sit by the river
and talk about what the crows told them: a hard winter
coming. Those windy crows, all they keep saying
is cold, cold, and when I see clouds swept
like ice down the creek, I believe them
too easily. Why must the maple leaves rattle

Remember me, as if someday
I’ll forget there were thousands came
falling the morning I felt for the first time you
shiver inside me, no fish as I thought you would be
but a mouse in its burrow? Now you sit in sand
and make birthday cakes, blowing out candles
that aren’t there. I blow on my hands
like an old woman taking no heed of a child
who believes time can be shaken from her like water.

poems by Kathryn Stripling Byer
from The Girl in the Midst of the Harvest, Press 53, © 2013 Kathryn Stripling Byer
first published by Texas Tech Press, January 15, 1986

 

Mountain bugbane, Cimicifuga americana, Ranunculaceae, buttercup family

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Mountain Cove plant communities occur in sheltered areas with abundant rainfall in mid- to lower-elevation areas of the Southern Appalachians. Especially the Rich Cove Forest subset, with less acidic and more rich mineral soils, is home to a huge diversity of tree species, flowering plants and ferns, insects, reptiles and amphibians. Original (old growth) forests will have massive individual trees hundreds of years old mixed with trees of all ages where a giant has fallen and allowed sunlight to reach the forest floor. There are a number of these areas where loggers never reached in GSMNP, such as Chimneys and near Cades Cove.

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All photos by Bill Griffin from Southern Appalachian Naturalist Certification Program; Southern Appalachian Ecology, September 2020, Great Smokies Institute at Tremont; instructors Jeremy Lloyd and Elizabeth Davis.

 

 

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[with two poems by Debra Kaufman]

Deep shade, red spruce, heavy moss – the trail switches up, cuts back, winds steadily higher. We can smell the transition, conifer tang, slow decomposition. We can feel it on our faces, in our pores, sweat cooling, wraith of mist blown up the ridge to envelope us. And we feel it somewhere deeper.

Something changes, so gradual we sense it before we know it. Daylight creeps through, one tree with toothed sun-colored leaves, then two; smell of spring and sweet flowering even at the end of autumn; witch hobble and pale mountain asters give way to dwarf goldenrod. Look, here are beech drops, flowers faded, seeds set, never green, their skinny bodies and appendages like effigies set among the trees they parasitize. We stop and breathe. Again, deeper. This is beech gap.

Leave a patch of ground alone long enough and it will grow into what it is meant to be. Its personality is in its community. Why does this beech gap persist? Its elders, Fagus grandifolia, stunted and twisted in communion with mountain maple, wood ferns, sedges – why not fir and spruce intruding? Elevation, precipitation, mountain aspect, soil pH? Centuries-old seed repository in the duff? Visitation by warblers, jays, and small mast-seeking mammals? Protection by allelopathic residues? Protection by mountain spirits?

All of these may define but don’t explain. It is the community that becomes itself: shallow spreading roots and pervasive mycelia, leaf and frond, sporangium and ovule, every one essential to the personality of place.

And you and I? We may choose how tall we stand. We choose which way we face, whether we learn from our elders, teach our children. We rest here for a few minutes and commune with this other. The silence of a ridge-crest glade: fragile or resilient? Retreat or restoration? Will we descend from the mountain and bring this peace, this purpose, into our own communities?

Beech drops, Epifagus virginiana, Orobanchaceae (Broomrape family)

 

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These two poems by Debra Kaufman speak to me of reverence and restlessness, of longing for community and the fear of isolation. Are we welcome on this earth and will we welcome others? Will we create more than we destroy?

As described on the cover of her book, God Shattered, Kaufman discovers how personal disillusionment can be a guide to finding the godly within ourselves. These poems lead us to contemplate and understand our place in this fragile world.

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Great White
An angel is nothing but a shark well-governed.
– Herman Melville, Moby Dick

Everyone carries a shadow.
The less it is embodied in the conscious self,
the blacker and denser it is.

Does a savage self always lurk
just below the surface,
on the hunt, no matter

our good intentions? Is our higher
nature ready to do battle against the dark,
harpoon at the ready?

If, as the Buddha says, there is no I,
does awareness reside
between empty spaces?

I understand so little.
But I can see Aleppo is rubble,
its people scattered;

anyone who listens can hear the cries
of girls being shuttled into brothels,
can imagine comforting someone suffering

here or half the world away.
How do we stop what is sacred
from being ravaged,

witness life out of balance yet not despair?
There must be ways
toward doing what is right.

Why else, as Job asked, would
light be given to a man
whose way is hidden?

The great white shark
is nearly extinct. It can sense
a beating heart over a mile a way.

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Welcome

You, one of seven billion born
helpless, nearly hairless,

one more chimp-cousin
in our midst:

Will you be swaddled,
neglected, anointed,

will you breathe air
that smells like rain?

Which foods will sustain you,
upon what ground

will you walk? What storm,
fires, floods will sweep

over you, what languages
will you learn, what

dances, what prayers?
Here is my hope for you,

little stranger: may you feel
beholden to this wondrous planet,

may you take your hungry,
humble place in it,

may you dedicate your life
to making it a world worth

revering, holding, passing on.

poems by Debra Kaufman from God Shattered, Jacar Press, © 2019

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Debra Kaufman grew up in the Midwest but has lived in North Carolina for thirty years. She has published three poetry chapbooks and four full length poetry collections: God Shattered, Delicate Thefts, The Next Moment, and A Certain Light.

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The Beech Gap is a rare subtype of Northern Hardwood Forest, found scattered in small patches surrounded by Fraser Fir and Red Spruce in Great Smoky Mountains National Park and elsewhere at the highest elevations of the Southern Appalachians. The Beech, mixed with small numbers of Buckeye, Birch, and Maple species, are stunted by the cold climate and high winds, with an open understory but relatively rich herb layer. Some patches in the Smokies are fenced to prevent destruction by invasive non-native wild pigs. Why this seemingly stable climax plant community remains stable and is not overtaken by Spruce-Fir remains a mystery.

 

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All photos by Bill Griffin from Southern Appalachian Naturalist Certification Program on Southern Appalachian Ecology, September 2020, Great Smokies Institute at Tremont; instructors Jeremy Lloyd and Elizabeth Davis.

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Poem in the Key of E

Some trees keep their color and shape
even beyond the time that we have ceased
to dream. They tease us into faith.

This one I approach from a distance.
Its leaves, like tiny flags of grace,
beckon to me. It is November, and the rain

has pelted us, sweeping masses
of yellow to the sodden earth.
But these leaves stay, and the tree,

bright orange against the now blue
sky, stands against the growing dark.
Some days I am afraid to come,

fearing that a mean and fickle God
will flip the table, leaving me nothing
but a tangle of dark and dirty branches.

The neighbors think I’m weird.
“For Christ sake,” the plumber says.
“It’s just a fucking tree.” Maybe.

I thought that once myself. But now
if I close my eyes hard in the night,
the color comes and the room

slides away. I float upward in this
orange, this strange treeness.
My body is inside, looking out.

 

Anthony S. Abbott, from The Angel Dialogues, Lorimer Press, 2014

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Poetry, on some level, is about saving things. . . . Things die; poetry retrieves them.

Tony Abbott graced my life during the few years I knew and worked with him. He was president of the NC Poetry Society while I served on the Board, he was mentor in the Gilbert-Chappell program for students, and he was an inspiring colleague and friend. I sat in awe: Davidson professor, poet and novelist, literary leader. But Tony didn’t want our awe. He was a seeker for meaning in this tangled, sometimes messy human journey and he simply invited fellow travelers.

Perhaps empathy and humility spring from the same root. If one has suffered deeply, one cares for and feels deeply the suffering of others; if one has experienced the frailties and missteps to which none of us are immune, one sets aside pride and judgement and stoops to lift the burden of one’s fellows. If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it.

Tony, with his vast gifts and achievements, embodied empathy and humility. My life is richer for having shared it with him. Now his voice we carry within ourselves.

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Going Home:
a poem in memory of those North Carolina writers who have gone before us

– Weymouth Center, July, 2009

Late afternoon. I lie in the long grass and wait
for words. The still white clouds mock me. Then,
unexpectedly, the sound of music. I sit up. From
an open window upstairs, the clear sounds
of Dvorak. I know these notes like I
know the timbers of my own soul. Yes.

The English horn sings the theme, and sings it
yet again, with the bass clarinet. And then
the strings enter, like a prayer. Take me home,
Lord, take me home. Now the clarinets,
and the horns like faith answer. Then the strings
whisper softly, yes, and again, yes.

I see Graham Jackson, tears running down his black
cheeks, Graham Jackson, in full dress uniform, playing
“Goin’ Home” for his beloved Franklin Roosevelt, and then
the farmers, young and old, black and white, all
of them poor, who loved the only man they had
ever known as President of the United States, hundreds
standing on the hills of Georgia and the Carolinas
watching the train go by with the body of their lost
leader, watching the train take him home. “Goin’ home”
say the English horns again, and then the clarinet returns.

Here I am, listening, images surfacing – the trim brick walks
of my beloved town, the green hills to the west, rising
and falling like the strings, the waves on the outer
banks crashing like the cymbals, then sliding back
like the clarinets. I see the faces of my friends, I hear
the voices of the poets who have gone before, their words
rising again. Dark skinned and light, old and young, male
and female, children of the valleys and the mountains,
children of the coast and the Piedmont. I am here, they say,
I have made the path for you, and I am still here, my words
as true as the rock face of Cold Mountain.

The music soars and for a moment there is light. The whole
orchestra together in hope. then the English horn alone,
mournful, and the strings so soft, almost a whisper.
The strings carry our love over the hills to the sea,
the horns offer it to the sky, and the strings set it aloft.
It is done. They have gone home, and who and what
they are we carry within ourselves. The evening comes.
I rise from the grass and walk toward the open window.

 

Anthony S. Abbott, from If Words Could Save Us, Lorimer Press, 2011

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Poetry, on some level, is about saving things. Even a poem so simple as “Growing Up” in A Small Thing is about saving the wonder of the child in an adult world that conspires to destroy it. Maxine Kumin uses the term ‘Retrieval System’ in one of her great poems. Poetry is a retrieval system. Things die; poetry retrieves them.
from Anthony S. Abbott – In His Own Words

Tony Abbott’s publications at Lorimer Press

Biography and induction into the North Carolina Literary Hall of Fame

The scriptural quotation above is I Corinthians 12:26, New Revised Standard Version

Sam Ragan Poetry Festival of the North Carolina Poetry Society — March 22, 2015

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