Archive for April, 2011

I’m opening the box my parents just sent me.  High-level divestiture (cleaning out their attic).  They’re moving to a condo and discovered this antediluvian stash circa 1970-72: my year as an exchange student in West Berlin and summer job at the XX Olympics in Munich (usher in the volleyball hall).  Here’s the German-Italian/Italian-German dictionary I bought for the trip my host brother and I took to Lugano and Como.  How do you say, “Noch ein Bier, Bitte,” auf Italienisch? *

Apropos, here’s a beer coaster from the REAL Hofbräuhaus in München.  Several volumes of Goethe and Brecht auf Deutsch.  Student passes, trinkets, maps, ticket stubs.  And a fat packet of letters looped with a ponytail holder — Linda and I kept up a transatlantic romance during the twelve months I was in Berlin and then the semester she spent in Hamburg.

But what’s this?  A slim blue cloth-bound volume I don’t recognize at all.  Slightly musty but in good repair. “Fifty Acres and other selected poems.”  By James Larkin Pearson.  I open to the title page, and Linda comes running into the room as I let out a whoop.  1937 . . .  signed by the author.

James Larkin Pearson was appointed by Governor William B. Umstead to a life term as North Carolina’s second Poet Laureate in 1953, the year I was born. I’d never even heard of him until a few years ago when I asked someone why the Poetry Council of NC has a contest named for him.  Where did this little book come from?  My grandfather Cooke grew up one county over from North Wilkesboro, where Pearson was a newspaperman.  Maybe he’d met him and purchased the book?  Or had my Mom bought it at yard sale somewhere while I was overseas and totally forgotten about it?

There’s no telling, but I received the box weeks ago, and I’ve been saving the story until now to share as National Poetry Month winds down.  Maybe it will spark a J. L. Pearson revival.

Pearson lived in Wilkes County from his birth in 1879 until his death at age 101 in 1981.  For most of those years he resided on the “Fifty Acres” in Boomer, NC. To read his poetry is to put down rural roots in another century.  Pearson fills his poems with his love of the land and of his family, and with spiritual longing to become one with God and with the earth.  The brook will take me to its singing heart / And bear me on triumphant to the sea, / Till every land shall claim a little part, / And naught can be identified as me. (Erosion) And always he identifies his work as making the song, as becoming the song.

The poems were published as widely as The New York Times and The Detroit Free Press.  Let me know and I might let you borrow my copy.


I’ve never been to London,
I’ve never been to Rome;
But on my Fifty Acres
I travel here at home.

The hill that looks upon me
Right here where I was born
Shall be my mighty Jungfrau,
My Alp, my Matterhorn.

A little land of Egypt
My meadow plot shall be,
With pyramids of hay stacks
Along its sheltered lee

My hundred yards of brooklet
Shall fancy’s faith beguile,
And be my Rhine, my Avon,
My Amazon, my Nile.

My humble bed of roses,
My honeysuckle hedge,
Will do for all the gardens
At all the far world’s edge.

In June I find the Tropics
Camped all about the place;
Then white December shows me
The Arctic’s frozen face.

My wood-lot grows an Arden,
My pond a Caspian Sea;
And so my Fifty Acres
Is all the world to me.

Here on my Fifty Acres
I safe at home remain,
And have my own Bermuda,
My Sicily, my Spain.




James Larkin Pearson Library at Wilkes Community College



*   ” “Another beer, please” in Italian “

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This morning at church we flowered the cross. It’s a tradition we’ve followed every Easter for many years and an act potent with symbolism: restoring the dead , heavy wood with the bright color and fragrance of spring. Our little family of Christ always celebrates this ritual with joy, laughter, a strengthening of our bonds to each other and our faith, but alas – this year winter ended early and Easter arrived so late. Would our gardens still hold flowers to share?

Most years by the end of worship the cross is replete with spring’s full spectrum: daffodils, tulips, hyacinths, even redbud and dogwood. And scent! On Saturday I clipped cuttings from the few azaleas that hadn’t already browned. Oh well. Make do. Such as it is.

Was it the rain we had Friday night? The cool mist Saturday morning and again today? Everyone arrived with azalea sprays bright and retaining all their freshness, every shade of pink, lavender, red, salmon. And now that we have sung and prayed and shared the message of the rock rolled back, now that we’ve each taken our turn in adorning the cross, I see a figure rise before me as I’ve never seen before.

The cross is not hidden by greenery and flowers. Not concealed. Not denied. It is enlarged, towering, perfected. More than a crucifix, it has become a presence with arms stretching out to me. To you. To any one who will see. An attitude of inviting – come, return here every time you need what you find here today. So often life is heavy, deadening. The time of blooming may seem to have passed without recognition or celebration. You may convince yourself you don’t deserve beauty; you don’t deserve renewal, forgiveness. Love. Remember this gesture and this moment – may you live each day in a house where all is good.


In the Valley of the Elwy
Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844-1889)

I remember a house where all were good
To me, God knows, deserving no such thing:
Comforting smell breathed at very entering,
Fetched fresh, as I suppose, off some sweet wood.
That cordial air made those kind people a hood
All over, as a bevy of eggs the mothering wing
Will, or mild nights the new morsels of Spring:
Why, it seemed of course; seemed of right it should.

Lovely the woods, waters, meadows, combes, vales,
All the air things wear that build this world of Wales;
Only the inmate does not correspond:
God, lover of souls, swaying considerate scales,
Complete thy creature dear O where it fails,
Being mighty a master, being a father and fond.

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Good Friday



Showy Orchis




        blooming in the soccer field
fly up
        into the windbreak pines –
30 goldfinches
        on Good Friday. Thirty,
I counted them,
        not silver coins but weightless
        to purchase . . . what?

        breaks without a promissory note,
        can’t hold back his chorus.
        the goldfinch, sad one named
not for color
        but for his song. Barter
as I may
        there are some things I can’t

.    .     .     .     .     .     .     .     .     .     .     .

Bill Griffin 4/22/2011



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Last fall I precipitated a lengthy debate when I claimed that all poetry is about death. Well, Richard and Allison, I apologize, but I’ve changed my mind – all poetry is about sex.

Let me rephrase that: all poetry is sensuality. At least I’m convinced that’s true when I re-read Sara Claytor’s Howling on Red Dirt Roads.

Sara’s poems take delight in slipping off their silk blouse and pointing their rosebud nipples at the moon. In a buttery drawl the poems say, “Damn the saturated fat,” and spoon up a steaming platter of cornbread and collards. They are magnolia perfume on a muggy afternoon. Salt and beachsand and waves at night. The stanzas are tactile, gustatory, aromatic – oh hell, let’s just say they drench the senses. Presence and immediacy – the characters rise up from the page and breathe.  And oh my, we are there with them and we are red and we are howling.

You’ve experienced sensory memory – just a hint of the smell of your Grandmother’s talcum and there you are playing on the floor in her living room. [It’s synapses firing in the hippocampus and cingulate gyrus, but forget I said that.] Sara’s poetry is born in memory. Her memories become ours. The smell of July sun on pine needles, squeak of the porch swing, the sound of butter beans falling into a chipped enamel basin . . .


Dog Hobble

Blue Rocking Chair

She lost her leg,
wanted to return to her tin-roofed cabin
with the blue rocking chair on the porch.
Working daily in a cotton mill, Claudine
spent nights with her. I was in Zimbabwe,
a Peace Corps teacher,
when I received Claudine’s letter
detailing the 2-month-old news of Julia’s death.

Perhaps Julia rolled her wheelchair to the kitchen,
boiling water for coffee, loose sleeves brushed
against a heated stove coil.
By the time the fire department arrived —
the old wooden structure eaten by flames,
tin roof buckled and flattened,
blue rocking chair reduced to blistered sticks.

During the next year, I recovered,
feeling more black than white,
my skin & hair darkened by fierce African sun,
my heart involved with 15 black children
who called me ‘Mama Blanche,’ who learned
to speak English with a Southern accent,
celebrated my 23rd birthday singing Dixie.

In each face, I saw myself on a day
when I sat in the blue porch rocking chair
beside a tin bucket of pink petunias,
helping Julie shell butter beans,
smiling in the sun while she hummed hymns,
dropped the empty hulls
into a brown paper bag.

Sara Claytor, from Howling on Red Dirt Roads, Main Street Rag Editor’s Select Poetry Series, 2008

Sara featured on Katherine Stripling Byer’s blog

Sample poems at Main Street Rag

Sara’s web site

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The tree which moves some to tears of joy is in the eyes of others only a green thing that stands in the way.  Some see nature all ridicule and deformity, and some scarce see nature at all.  But to the eyes of the man of imagination, nature is imagination itself.    —   William Blake

You can’t write what you don’t notice.    —   Peter Makuck

When I was sixteen I spent ten days backpacking with the Boy Scouts in the southern Rockies.  Twenty-four years later I hiked some of those same trails again with my son’s Scout troop.  This time the climb over Abreu Mesa and up along the Cimarron River was punctuated by green-tailed towhees, Stellar’s jays, the sudden flame of western tanagers.  Where had all those birds come from?  Where were they last time I was there?  The difference was the dog-eared copy of Peterson’s Guide to Western Birds in my pocket.  And looking.  Noticing is intentional.

On April 9 at Barton College Walking into April Peter Makuck read from his new and selected poems, Long Lens.  An apt title.  The poems invite us to accompany the writer during a long career as a poet.  They focus for us the quotidian observations that suddenly blossom into meaning.  And most of all the poems’ images bring things up close — a ladybug that reminds of leaving home; a pelican to release us from bondage; a hawk killing a squirrel on a college campus —  or rather the poems bring us closer so that we can begin to notice.  To notice like the poet notices.


Wild Ginger


Coming from the pool
where I’ve just done laps, letting water bring me back,
I’m already elsewhere, thinking
about Tennyson and my two o’clock class
when a squirrel appears
ten feet from the concrete walk, by an oak.

Then a loud ruffle at my shoulder,
like an umbrella unfurled, before a flash glide
makes the Redtail seem to emerge from me

and nail the squirrel with a clatter of wings —
a long scream that strips varnish from my heart
before the sound goes limp.

She presides with mantling wings
over the last twitches of gray as I
edge closer to her golden eye.
She hackles her head freathers, tightens her talons,

holds me prey to what I see, watches me
as she lifts off , rowing hard for height, the squirrel
drooped in her clutch.

Now skimming a lake
of cartops in the south lot, making for the break
between Wendy’s and Kinko’s, she swerves up

sharply to land on the roofpeak of a frat house
over on Tenth.

Some noise from the world snaps me back.
I look about, but nobody has stopped
to look at me or where she stood by the tree,
only ten feet away.  Slowly released,
I move ahead with the passing student crowd,
holding fast to what I have seen.

Prey, Peter Makuck, from Long Lens: New & Selected Poems, BOA Editions Ltd., 2010


Peter Makuck

Featured at Kathryn Stripling Byer’s NC Poet Laureate Site:

Some persons seem to have opened more eyes than others, they see with such force and distinctness; their vision penetrates the tangle and obscurity where that of others fails . . . How many eyes did Thoreau open?  How many did Audubon?  Not outward eyes, but inward.  We open another eye whenever we see beyond the first general features or outlines of things — whenever we grasp the special details and characteristic markings that this mask covers.  Science confers new powers of vision.  Whenever you have learned to discriminate the birds, or the plants, or the geological features of a country, it is as if new and keener eyes were added.  John Burroughs

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“. . . I think / of the artist’s needle, how it broke the skin.”
A short story may wander, but it knows there’s a way through these woods and dammit it’s going to find it, even if it’s nothing but a deer path and briars.

A poem is a story on open water with a busted keel. It may try to tack, but when the wind blows it skitters sideways. It has to go where it has to go.

John Hoppenthaler read his poem Buffeted at Walking into April last Saturday. Within its lines how many stories swirl and beat against each other like storm surf?  Hints of a rocky past; the lovers with their secrets. And in dead center a Gordian knot of a line that’s worth repeating slowly out loud: how much like the book / you said you could read me like this is of me:

Damaged everything and matching dragonfly tattoos – will they take flight, or will they only remind us of blood? Even the atmosphere – faux Tiki bar, clams and tequila – is a character in this story. And the title. Did one word ever have more meanings?



Stoned in the canned jangle of steel
drum tunes in the faux Tiki bar, I sit below
dusty plastic frond and nurse my drink. A few stools
down, too precious for words, a tongue-studded, nose-ringed
lesbian couple, heads bowed close, whisper secrets and softly laugh.
I want their love to last.

I order a plate of clams oreganato
with crusty French bread on the side for dipping
into the buttery broth that strongly hints at salty brine.
Ted slides another frozen margarita down the lacquered
surface of the bar top while come raw, tequilaed-up synapse fires,
and I remember the Paul Simon

song that mentions two fragile ex-lovers
speculating over who’s been damaged the most.
Guess what?: I think of you: how much like the book
you said you could read me like this is of me: to flounder
still in our marred way of being together in the world. I love the dead
dumb clack of emptied shells

as I assemble them into a stylized pile, as if
building an already weathered monument to sailors
the night sea took away and never gave back. Damaged
dreamboat. Damaged land. Damaged ocean. Damaged man.
Damaged woman. Damaged tide. Damaged moon. Damaged pride.
Damaged angel. Damaged wing.

Damaged Jesus. Damaged everything. I don’t think
it will last, though the adorable lovers have not gathered
tightly in each other’s arms and seem, in this heartbeat, defiantly
inextricable, their matching dragonfly tattoos now visible, poised as if
for trans-Atlantic flight on each girls right shoulder blade. I think
of the artist’s needle, how it broke the skin.

(c) John Hoppenthaler, from Anticipate the Coming Reservoir, Carnegie Mellon University Press, 2008; reprinted by permission of the author.


Walking into April, Barton College

John Hoppenthaler profile

Four poems by John Hoppenthaler

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Leave the Carolina silverbells blooming up the Elkin Valley. The foothills daffodils are still bright but curling at the edges. Now Redbud Alley, I-40 where it slices through woodlands between Winston-Salem and Kernersville, is about a week past its peak. Raspberry sherbet ribboned with lime. In Durham after showers the corner of every parking lot is drifted with yellow layers like foam the tide has ebbed to discard. We park for an hour or two, and the overhanging sweetgum trees cover our hood with anthers like clusters of powdery nerf grapes.

Now I’m on I-540 escaping Raleigh; Knightsdale aproaches and my eyes are burning. Zebulon and sneezing can’t be more than minutes away. By the time I reach Wilson the season has advanced a good two weeks, and Barton College is planted firmly into April. I park behind the music building (it’s Weekend College and every lot is full), walk two blocks, and Rebecca Godwin is waiting to welcome us into the Sam and Marjorie Ragan Writing Center with Aunt Edna’s ginger snaps. And poetry.

Walking into April! Poets and poetry, greeting old friends with a hug, discovering that the impressive writers presenting their work today have now become your new friends, clapping to suport new poets that have come to read for the first time: just about every time I go to a poetry reading in this state, it feels like coming home.

The afternoon session of Walking into April always begins with this year’s Gilbert-Chappell Distinguished Poet and his students. More on John Hoppenthaler in a forthcoming post, but here is some bright imagery from the verse presented by this year’s students:

Cindy Thomas

Cindy Thompson: “Let yourself become the fight, the dance.”

Nancy Seate: “It isn’t the object but the light it reflects.”

Candace Jones: ” . . . when the world is barking too loud.”

Marty Silverthorne: “sabers and rifles will grow like weeds. / Maybe we should plant boots / so when the marching blister’s busted, / blood would not ooze out weakened stitches.” [from Prayer for Boots, in the voice of his Civil War ancestor]

Sometimes April seems like the month of Too Much Poetry Stuff, but come next April on the second Saturday I’m saying, “Damn the pollen, full speed ahead!” and driving right into it.

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Writing a poem is an act of discovery. The poem discovers itself.     – – – Sam Ragan

Down East poetry fans celebrate every spring with a walk into April – an all day poetry event at the Sam and Marjorie Ragan Writing Center (Barton College, Wilson, NC). To open the festivities on Aril 9, I had the honor of reciting this poem by Sam:

The Marked and Unmarked
 I cannot say upon which luminous evening
I shall go out beyond the stars,
To windless spaces and unmarked time,
Turning nights to days and days to nights.

            This is the place where I live.
            I planted this tree.
            I watched it grow.
            The leaves fall and I scuff them with my feet.
            This is the street on which I walk.
            I have walked it many times.
            Sometimes it seems there are echoes of my

In the mornings, in the nights,
In those long evenings of silence and stars

                                   -the unmarked stars.

[Sam Ragan, from To the Water’s Edge, Moore Publishing Company, 1971]

In 1982 Governor Jim Hunt appointed Sam Ragan North Carolina Poet Laureate for Life. This small fact doesn’t begin to express Sam’s immense influence on NC arts and letters in the second half of the twentieth century. Read his bio for the accomplishments, publications, and “firsts,” but for those who new Sam Ragan as well as we hundreds and thousands who know of him, he embodies the love of poetry and the love our state – place, people, and persnickitiness. Oh yes, and the affirmation that bow ties are cool.

About now Sam might well be saying, “Enough! Back to the poetry.” Back to Barton College. For the morning session Peter Makuck and Sara Claytor read alternately; they took turns reading a poem or two trying to forge a thematic link to the poems that preceded. [My next few posts will include some of their poetry.] They then led a roundtable on the craft of poetry. Very energizing. The afternoon session each year is the Eastern Region readings by the Gilbert-Chappell Distinguished Poet (this year John Hoppenthaler) and the four students for whom he has served as mentor over the past several months. [More about that later, too].










I’d like to think that all the poetry events, celebrations, publications and edifices that carry the name “Sam Ragan” would be satisfactory to the man, the legendary. But why is the event called, “Walking into April?” Sam’s poems were sensual and often deeply colored by North Carolina native creatures, flora, seasons. The scent of lilac, a cool night breeze, whatever changes and never changes. His poems are often deceptively simple, like the one above, but as I labored to memorize those lines they began to live in me more and more deeply. From Sam Ragan’s 1986 collection comes this:

Let Us Walk into April

It was a pear tree in bloom
That lit up your eyes.
You came at blossom time –
Dogwoods and lilacs,
The camellia and azalea,
And the glow of the redbud tree –
Thousands of wildflowers run before your feet,
And a faint green hovers in the woods.
Here we are just before the coming of April,
When the whole world is new
And each day is a beginning,
A time of sunlight and spendor –
Come, let us walk into April.

[Sam Ragan, from A Walk into April. Laurinburg, N.C.: St. Andrews Press, 1986.]


Sam Ragan Biography

Gilbert-Chappell Distinguishe Poet Series of the NC Poetry Society

Sara Claytor

Peter Makuck

John Hoppenthaler

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Learn O Voyager to Walk

 From 1999 to 2000 my wife Linda devoted every joule of her creative energies to a project she titled Cosmologia. She selected thirty sayings about human perception and the nature of the universe, from Aristotle to the Bible and Einstein to Archibald MacLeish. She then illustrated each passage with drawings magical and transcendent – today, paging again through the entire collection, I feel me feet threading sporangia into the earth and the tendrils of my brain entangling the stars. I take again my first step into the cosmos.

And aren’t we all wanderers in a vastness at once inexplicable and primal? Are we ever really at home? Can we ever really be apart? One of the passages Linda selected has shaken me with new awareness every time I’ve read it, and I’ve read it a thousand times: the first stanza of Seafarer by MacLeish.

And learn O voyager to walk
The roll of earth, the pitch and fall
That swings across these trees those stars:
That swings the sunlight up the wall.

Most days I sit at my desk or walk to my car and take for granted that everything will remain perfectly solid beneath my feet. But once in a while a tremor of poetry enters in. Suddenly the earth is revolving and the galaxy wheels; I see for a moment the shadows racing up the wall, the moon arcing through the night branches. It is all movement. It is all embrace. Welcome.


Wake Robin, Reynolda gardens 2011


And learn O voyager to walk
The roll of earth, the pitch and fall
That swings across these trees those stars:
That swings the sunlight up the wall.

And learn upon these narrow beds
To sleep in spite of sea, in spite
Of sound the rushing planet makes:
And learn to sleep against this ground.

Archibald MacLeish, Copyright © 2003 The World War II Lecture Institute. All rights reserved.


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In January 2010 the neurosurgeon diagnosed Linda’s Dad with glioblastoma multiforme (the most aggressive malignant brain tumor). The cruelest cut was that the first thing the cancer robbed Dad of was the evenings spent scratching physics equations on yellow legal pads – he was reworking relativity from the fundamentals on up, correcting the errors he’d discovered Einstein had made.

Park French was the most intelligent person I’ve ever met, and the most curious. He knew something about everything and everything about a whole lot of things. There was no particle of creation that was not a subject for his discovery and delight. And his greatest delight was sharing that knowledge. I would feel just brilliant when I sat beside him and he explained electromagnetism and the derivation of Maxwell’s equations. Park died on February 16, 2011.

Last fall I spent a Saturday hiking from Basin Creek up the Flat Rock Ridge Trail to the Blue Ridge Parkway. All the way I was thinking about Dad French and all the things he would have been teaching me along the climb. Here in our neck of the woods is a tree with distinctive buttery autumn foliage, seen commonly along the spine of the Southern Appalachians but not often elsewhere: Fraser Magnolia, first described by William Bartram in 1775 but named by John Fraser, a British collector of botanicals. I picked up a leaf to press for Dad. I had it with me when I read this poem at his memorial service:

Flat Rock Ridge Trail


With the Separate Leaves

The trail up Flat Rock Ridge this morning
       is ankle deep, the brittle season
of chestnut oak, cracked manuscript of maple.
Every scrape and scuffle calls out – I know
       you are listening.

Every long breath recalls the first time
you walked me through mountains
       to Kelly’s Pines, up the Allegheny steprock,
a raven’s perch and runes
you scratched there:
gandalf was here
In your company wonder
and revelation, ancient mutterings
       of dark forest, the language
of night deep as memory, stars
in our pockets.

For us you were all window,
all door; was there anything
       you couldn’t teach us?
Heat disentangling its waves
into particles, everything connected,
       every thing distinct. Listen,
they are speaking to us, the planets,
the separate leaves.

And you know we are listening.
We never wanted to learn
       this language of loss, dim path
grown narrow, but this morning the trail
crests above Basin Cove before
       it descends, and here at my feet
is something rare: I will save
an offering for you – let’s discover
       its oblate identity, trace
twin lobes at the pedicle, name it
Fraser Magnolia,

name it listening, seeing,
       name it revelation . . .


[the title is from the final line of the poem Hymn by A.R. Ammons: “and if I find you I must stay here with the separate leaves”]

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