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Archive for June, 2011

Passionate Intensity

Surely some revelation is at hand . . .

Now the long freight clears the crossing and traffic grinds again along E. 36th St.  Now the thirty or so find their way into the Gallery, grind and clear through studio work spaces & art on display, find their seats.  Now the poets approach the microphone.

There couldn’t be a better space for poetry.  Green Rice Gallery at the corner of Davidson and E. 36th, reclaimed and resuscitated mill and warehouse, the intensity of artistic creation in all its forms and guises.  There couldn’t be a better crowd.  Jonathan and Scott, the hosts gentle and inciting (you guess which is which).  The writers and listeners not just from Charlotte but as far as Winston-Salem and OMG Lincolnton.  Everyone intent. Everything passion.

I have rarely attended a better open mic.  The woman channeling Ginsberg’s America who cries to discover her place in this nation, in this existence.  The man reciting surrealist imagery until the photo on the wall behind him becomes Salvador Dali.  The quiet brooding lyric that leaves me desperate to know more – what lurks beneath?  The guy of 100 personas whose rant in the character of a postal employee makes me want to duck for cover.

And the woman who read two Irish poets, the first observing the tangled path love may take – didn’t each of us listeners say, “So true.”  And for her second she read Yeats.  Violence, chaos, apocalypse before us. The Second Coming.

Frightening that his poem written in 1919 sounds the very dread we experience in 2011.  The New York Times observed in 2007 that this was becoming the official poem of the Iraq war.  And yet however menaced I may feel as the rough beast, its hour come round at last, / Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born, I am encouraged by the passion of these young poets declaring their intention to create new order from anarchy.  I am convinced that they, the best, lack no conviction in their passionate intensity.

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THE SECOND COMING
William Butler Yeats (1865-1939)

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: a waste of desert sand;
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Wind shadows of the indignant desert birds.

The darkness drops again but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

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A brief analysis of THE SECOND COMING

Green Rice Gallery in Charlotte

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He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her.

Remember Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Imp of the Perverse?”  In each of us exists the ingrained capacity to self destruct.  When you stand at the precipice looking down, the imp urges you to take one step closer to the edge.  You know you’re driving, but you think you’ll have that one last drink.  You’ve typed it and you just know you shouldn’t hit SEND, but you do.  The rational mind recoils, but the id whispers, “Why not?”

When you’ve heard the verse I quote above, isn’t your first response usually something like, “Oh, those bad, bad hypocrites.”  Last week I read an editorial in the Wall Street Journal by James Taranto about Anthony Weiner (who is apparently possessed by the largest and most perverse imp in the Western Hemisphere).  Weiner’s fellow Democrats have denounced his transgressions, but somewhere soto voce you know folks are saying, “At least he’s not a hypocrite. . . . Especially one of those family-values conservative hypocrites.”  Does that mean Liberals have no moral values to transgress in the first place?  Weiner, in his public life, was an adamant feminist and would most vehemently denounce anything that degraded or subjugated women.  And so, about those tweets and photos . . . ?

But Jesus’ challenge to the Pharisees isn’t about hypocrisy.  It’s purpose isn’t to condemn.  After the self-righteous slink away, doesn’t Jesus look up and say, “Woman, where are those thine accusers? hath no man condemned thee?” She said, No man, Lord. And Jesus said unto her, “Neither do I condemn thee: go, and sin no more.”

Rather than hypocrisy, I say this story is about humility.  And I define humility as mindfulness, specifically being mindful that we share common desires, weaknesses, and failings with every other human creature.  My sister Mary Ellen, as a psychologist, uses mindfulness techniques to treat a number of emotional and psychophysiologic distresses. It can’t be an easy process.  At least to me, it doesn’t seem to come naturally.  How effortless is it for me to tool down the highway recounting to myself all the bad qualities of someone who’s done me wrong, enumerating all the reasons I’m justified in despising them until I enter some anti-Zen state of sour despairing mind-crud.  Practicing humility and compassion by comparison seem like work.  Mary Ellen, help!

Does any of this provide context for the poem I’m featuring today?  Perhaps just this: that every fault I see in people and in the society around me, every screwed up priority, every exploitation, every just plain meanness, I see in myself as well.  Here, today, I’m dropping my stone.

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little mouse
(garbage)

What we throw away:
shall I make a list?
The brown spot and the whole
apple around it;
the purple spot

and the addict’s arm
and the whole man.  Mostly
what’s hard to look at or easy
to look past.  An empty wallet full
of bus rides home; the child

crying in the detergent aisle;
a dark man who laughs
in another language.  Thinking
we can have what we’ve killed
to keep.  And my soul, too,

is small and gray
as all the rest.  Yesterday
I nibbled crumbs and was happy
until someone told me
they were crumbs.

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[from little mouse,© Bill Griffin, Main Street Rag Publishing, 2011; first appeared in Iodine Vol 10 Nr. 1, Spring/Summer 2009]

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Magnificat anima mea Dominum.
Et exsultavit spiritus meus in Deo salutari meo.

You’ve seen signs like the one I’m talking about.  Hand-printed, fervent, a little threatening – probably intentionally so.  You might expect to encounter one only on the winding back lanes a healthy stretch removed from “civilization,” but no, keep your eyes open.  The one I’m thinking of is right on 21 between Roaring Gap and State Road, the heavily traveled route we all take to the Parkway.  Black on white, just a little crude:  “Prepare to Meet Thy God.”

Well, now that’s just silly.  Meet God here?  Not likely, unless He or She knows how to text.  OK, that’s a pretty lame joke.  If God shows up we won’t expect the great I AM to be wearing a robe and speaking Aramaic; if God wants to text me, God certainly will.  No, it’s not technology that’s the barrier, it’s that I am just way too busy to greet God right now.  Aren’t we all?

I guess I thought I was, until I read Rebecca Baggett’s chapbook, God Puts on the Body of a Deer.  Many of the poems are contemplative: they invite me to retreat from the clamor and just ponder for a moment.  But many more plunk me down right in the middle of the incessant mindstream and preoccupation we call “life” and smack me with a sign that seems to say, “Prepare to Meet.”

Not unlike Mary in Annunciation, kneading the dough, hair in her eyes, back aching when . . . suddenly the angel appears, / wingtips quivering, / shimmering like a dragonfly / in the light from one window. // The angel names her, / his voice tender, merciless.  The paradox stops me in my tracks. Tender; merciless.  My God is a being of infinite love and mercy, but wait.  Maybe faith is not a get out of jail free card.  Maybe there’s a reciprocal expectation.  Should I be taking a little more time to listen?  Should I be preparing?

Should I be reading Rebecca’s book more often?

My soul doth magnify the Lord.
And my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Saviour.

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Annunciation

The girl’s sleeves are rolled
to her elbows, her hands sticky
with dough.  She pushes wisps
of hair from her eyes
with her forearm, yawns,
eases her aching back,
and suddenly the angel appears,
wingtips quivering,
shimmering like a dragonfly
in the light from the one window.

The angel names her,
his voice tender, merciless.
Mary gasps aloud, fingers brushing frantically
at constellations of flour
scattered across her skirt.

There must be some mistake,
she wants to protest, flinching
from the messenger’s luminous face,
his fervent, adoring eyes.
You want some other girl.
Finer.  Kinder to her mother.
Someone stronger, strong enough
to bear . . .

But already she has consented, altered,
speared in a shaft of light,
her breath surging in her ears
while something unearthly
stirs inside her.  Already
the swept dirt floor, the rough-
hewn table, the clay pitcher,
beaded with water-drops,
the new-shaped loaves, still bearing
her hand’s imprint,
have receded,
distinct and distant
as if she had traveled as far
from home as Egypt.  As far as that.

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[from God Puts on the Body of a Deer, Rebecca Baggett, Winner of the 2010 Main Street Rag Chapbook Contest]

More poems by Rebecca Baggett

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I’m fourteen and I need a new pair of pants (the Aurora High dress code states “no blue jeans”). My dad drives me to Solon to the men’s store. I am not feeling at all like a man when I consider walking up to the clerk in his jacket and tie and asking for help finding what I need. I don’t even know how to describe what I need, much less do I have the intestinal fortitude to ask for it. My mouth is dry. Everyone in the place (all two of them) is staring at me. What a dork! Then my dad walks in and says three words to the clerk who points to a rack. Dad pulls down a couple of pairs, holds them up to my scrawny frame, sends me into the fitting room. They’re OK. He pays and we drive home. DAMN, my Dad can do anything!
When I was thirty-eight and shopping with my fourteen-year old son, I walked up to the clerk and asked how to find the pants. And I was convinced everyone in the place thought I was a dork. But then I suddenly realized my son couldn’t tell I felt like a dork. He must have thought I knew what I was doing. And then I thought maybe my Dad always felt like a dork and was never really filled with the confidence I always sensed exuding from him. And now I’m fifty-eight and still feel like a dork, but I’ve at least reached the point where I don’t always care whether people think I’m one or not. [OK, OK, until later, when the retrospectoscope clicks on and I think, “Why the hell did I say that? What a dork!”]
Which doesn’t have a thing to do with this poem by Annalee Kwochka. Or maybe it does. In her premier book, Seventeen, Annalee includes endnotes that explain the moment in 8th grade when she suddenly realized her parents didn’t have themselves figured out any better than she did. When your idols are suddenly discovered to be human and fallible, do you hate them for it? Or is that the moment when you really first begin to love them?
And now I’m recalling Annalee reading from her book at Weymouth Center for the Arts & Humanities last month. Poised, beautiful, expressive, honest. Her piercing skill with words, her entangling extended metaphors, how she reveals a depth to the teenage psyche I didn’t know we former-teenagers ever possessed. Totally non-dorky. But still I wonder – did she go home that night and think, “Why the hell did I say that?!” I hope not. I hope there’s one person on the planet that feels completely at home in who they are and who they’re becoming.
Oh, and postscript to my son: does it help to know that your old man who carries a stethoscope and writes poems and knows the Latin names of things is really still, at heart, a dork?

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 Storms
for my mother
You, with your
Mouth drawn tight and your fingers
Fast on the keyboard, you seem
So lost in your own private storm.
You can’t feel the winds that rip
From your mouth, scarcely notice the
Words they carry.

Do you dance
In your own rain?
Once while spinning
On the warm summer sidewalk, I
Watched the chalk-pictures drain their rainbow
Through my pink-painted toes,
And thought I might have glimpsed
A little happiness.

Do you sing louder
Than your own thunder?
When I was swinging in a spring
Thunderstorm, I let my voice seek the
Bluebirds and their bright feathers, the ground
Falling from under my mud-stained feet as song
Lifted me through that crack in the storm
Where the sun seeps through.
And I found
A silver lining
In the angry, tight-pulled words
That brought me out into a summer storm,
Wishing you were here with me.

from SEVENTEEN by Annalee Kwochka, (c) 2010
For information, contact Running Poet Press
RunningPoet17@gmail.com

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Annalee Kwochka won first prize in the 2005 NC Poetry Society student contest for lyrical poety (grades 3-8) for her poem Window Seat at the City Bakery, and she has been accumulating kudos ever since.  This fall she’ll matriculate in Davidson College’s creative writing program.

SEVENTEEN reviewed by Scott Owens 

Mona Lisa Muse by Annalee Kwochka, won first prize in the 2008 NCPS student contest

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Linda’s sister Jodi is a National Park Service ranger in the New River Gorge.  In addition to some of her jobs like cultural and historical interpretation, wildflower walks, and storytelling, she’s also a graduate of the National Outdoor Leadership School: she teaches people visiting the backcountry to Leave No Trace.

Is it really possible to leave no trace of your passing?  Whether it’s an afternoon in the Greensboro Arboretum or ten days on the AT, can you really return from a place with no evidence you were ever there?  In years past the NPS and other outdoor organizations had less ambitious slogans:  Only You Can Prevent Forest Fires; Give a Hoot, Don’t Pollute; Take Only Pictures, Leave Only Footprints; Pack It In, Pack It Out.  But no trace at all?!  Even if all six billion of us recycled, composted, and travelled everywhere we went via shank’s mare, just the act of breathing in and out sends billows of carbon dioxide like a blanket into the atmosphere.  Leave No Trace — are you kidding me?

I wrote this poem, little mouse (trace), with my son and daughter in mind.  At different times one or the other of them has taken extended wilderness treks with me, and we’ve struggled to practice the best stewardship over wild places that we can.  (Margaret’s famous quotation upon reaching a road crossing with a refuse bin and over a pound of garbage in her pack:  “Trash cans rock my world!”)  But the world I want to leave them is not one with a few nice paths through the woods free of candy wrappers.  It’s not just the expectation that a few hikers will know how to erase the marks of their stay when they break camp.  It’s more like some crazy hope that all of us, every one, will retain an acute awareness of our traces right in the very places where we live.  That we’ll regret the unavoidable scars we leave on the earth.  That we’ll celebrate together when we can heal one.

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little mouse
(trace)

I want to leave the earth and climb
the snowbank cumulus, kick
my boots into the billow, lean
against my sassafras stick and rise.
Rain licks the slickrock clean

of my prints, greenbriar weaves
wild drapery up the wall, hickory sprouts
through the sidewalk.  I want to leave
no trace of my passing, no more trail
than the cursive of a slender tail

in dew.  Morning sun drinks that cup
and learns a word I never spoke,
someone’s new word for love.  I
want to be no more I but we – creature
loam bud feather; let roots translate

the phosphorus of my dust to fruit.
If you look for me a wren calls.
If you listen the poplar turns to honey
in the sky.  Drink deep this cup.  I want
to leave the earth to you.

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[from little mouse, Main Street Rag Publishing, 2011]

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It’s just shy of 5 a.m., and I’m standing in the far corner of the Wal-Mart parking lot.  The leaves are still dripping from an all-night shower.  In exactly two minutes Nancy and Jean will pull in to meet me, we’ll check our gear and get into my car, then drive half an hour to our first designated stop.  For the next five or six hours we will be official volunteer employees of the US Geologic Service (Patuxent Wildlife Research Facility), joining about 3,000 others in US and Canada to complete the annual North American Breeding Bird Survey.

This is my seventeenth consecutive year counting Route 63027, “Copeland.”  There are fifty stops a half-mile apart, starting in Yadkin County on Old Rockford Road and ending all they way into Wilkes County.  At each stop I identify every bird I can hear or see within three minutes – Nancy is my timer and scribe, Jean counts cars and records “excess noise,” but only one person is permitted to count.  Nancy and Jean aren’t even allowed to point. From late May to the end of June, individuals and teams in all fifty states and Canada are counting along similar pre-mapped routes.  This “citizen scientist” data has allowed groups like the Cornell Lab of Ornithology to identify continent-wide trends in wild bird populations, such as the major crash in the House Finch population about fifteen years ago (eventually discovered to be due to an epizootic of chlamydia).

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Our first stop is a gravel drive just past Double Creek.  It’s misty, still dark, and the frogs are way louder than the birds this morning.  (I’m no expert on frog calls, but I hear tree frogs, leopard frogs (I think), a bullfrog, and an American Toad.)  A Northern Cardinal across the road is so persistent it’s hard to concentrate, but there’s an Eastern Phoebe near the creek, a Pine Warbler, and now, yes, across the field, the first one starts singing – Indigo Bunting.

Every year, as I transmit the data to the USGS, I keep my own personal tally of the number of species and number of individuals.  On a sunny day on any stretch of North Carolina piedmont roadside, an Indigo will be singing.  Constantly.  They like to perch on a wire or dead limb where they can be seen, and they are tirelessly vocal – so easy to count.  Every year Indigo Bunting is the number one most numerous individual, even when there are flocks of twenty Cedar Waxwings or thirty European Starlings.  This year, though, it is overcast right up to our forty-fifth stop, and I just don’t feel like I’m hearing many Indigos. Oh, we’ve seen quite a few, and some are singing, but I’m afraid this will be the first year they don’t “win.”

Why do I love these tiny dark cavaliers?  I remember the first one I ever saw, on Fodderstack Trail off the Blue Ridge Parkway, singing, of course, in the tip top of a dead tree.  And when the sun struck him OW! the iridescence and electricity of that little body.  When I drive down any country road in the summer with my windows down, I find myself muttering every minute or so: “Indigo . . . Indigo . . . Indigo.”  They thrive at forest’s edge, and since we’ve sliced up so much woodland into scattered chunks it just leaves more prime bunting habitat.  So how about this cool counting day when birds that usually steal away in the heat are active right up until our finish?  Will they overtake my Indigos?  Total up the hash marks on the tally sheet.  Here it comes: Chipping Sparrows – 35; American Robins – 46; and (the envelope, please) . . . Indigo Buntings – 57.

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Bird Watching
John Ciardi

Every time we put crumbs out and sunflower
seeds something comes.  Most often sparrows.
Frequently a jay.  Now and then a junco or
a cardinal.  And once – immediately and never
again, but as commonly as any miracle while it
is happening, and then instantly incredible for-
ever – the tiniest (was it?) yellow warbler
as nearly as I could thumb through the bird
book for it, or was it an escaped canary? or
simply the one impossible bright bird that is
always there during a miracle, and then never?

I, certainly, do not know all that comes to us
at times.  A bird is a bird as long as it is
there.  Then it is a miracle our crumbs and
sunflower seeds caught and let go.  Is there
a book to look through for the identity
of a miracle?  No bird that is there is
miracle enough.  Every bird that has been is
entirely one.  And if some miracles are rarer
than others, every incredible bird has crumbs
and seeds in common with every other.  Let there
be bread and seed in time: all else will follow.

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[John Ciardi, 1916-1986, was the long-time poetry editor of Saturday Review and directed the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference in Vermont.  His book How Does a Poem Mean? was the first instruction I ever read on how to write and appreciate poetry, and for many years was a standard.  He was also a renowned etymologist; I remember him from his NPR program on word histories.  This poem is collected in Bright Wings, 2010 Columbia University Press, edited by Billy Collins.]

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USGS Breeding Bird Survey, Route 63027
May 28, 2011

Canada Goose   –   19
Green Heron   –   1
Black Vulture   –   2
Turkey Vulture   –   1
Red-shouldered Hawk   –   2
Red-tailed Hawk   –   1
Killdeer   –   3
Mourning Dove   –   37
Chimney Swift   –   29
Red-bellied Woodpecker   –   6
Downy Woodpecker   –   2
Yellow-shafted Flicker   –   1
Pileated Woodpecker   –   2
Eastern Wood Pewee   –   2
Eastern Phoebe   –   6
Great Crested Flycatcher   –   3
Eastern Kingbird   –   2
Red-eyed Vireo   –   8
Blue Jay   –   10
American Crow   –   35
Northern Rough-winged Swallow   –   2
Barn Swallow   –   15
Carolina Chickadee   –   5
Tufted Titmouse   –   17
White-breasted Nuthatch   –   2
Carolina Wren   –   24
House Wren   –   1
Eastern Bluebird   –   24
Wood Thrush   –   4
American Robin   –   46
Gray Catbird   –   6
Northern Mockingbird   –   21
Brown Thrasher   –   7
European Starling   –   29
Cedar Waxwing   –   13
Pine Warbler   –   6
Common Yellowthroat   –   10
Scarlet Tanager   –   1
Eastern Towhee   –   16
Chipping Sparrow   –   35
Field Sparrow   –   11
Song Sparrow   –   10
Northern Cardinal   –   33
Blue Grosbeak   –   2
Indigo Bunting   –   57
Red-winged Blackbird   –   2
Eastern Meadowlark   –   5
Common Grackle   –   39
Brown-headed Cowbird   –   7
House Finch   –   5
American Goldfinch   –   8
House Sparrow   –   7
White-throated Sparrow   –   2 (non-breeding)
53 species

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