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Archive for March, 2012

July, Knife Lake, half a mile from the Canadian border.  The vireos begin to sing at 4 a.m. and dawn follows right on their tails.  I crawl out of my tent before the boys awaken.  We’re camped on a bluff high enough above the water that the mosquitoes don’t find me for a while, so I just sit among the red spruce, wait for water to boil, and watch the dance of colors on the water.

We paddled to this remote spot yesterday at dusk.  In the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, northern Minnesota, you’re only permitted to camp at specified sites, perhap just one in the smaller lakes, half a dozen in large lakes.  Of course there are hundreds of lakes, interconnected by creeks and sloughs and overland portage trails.  This will be our fourth day on the water out of ten.  Yesterday afternoon every campsite we passed had a couple of canoes pulled up the bank; we were afraid we’d be portaging ourselves and our gear to the next lake in the dark before we’d find an unoccupied spot.  Then we glided through a straight, passed a promontory, and the lake opened before us.  No tent, no campfire smoke for miles.  The designated campsites, like the portage trails, are indicated “approximately” on the map — a red dot, no signs anywhere in the wilderness.  On a hunch a boy in the lead canoe tied up to a sapling, rock-hopped to shore, climbed the abrupt bank, and fifty feet above the water there it was.  A fire grate.  Here we were allowed to spend the night.

Now the sun promises to return, a coy suggestion through the conifers on the far shore.  A loon cries, its liquid call mimicked in pastel ripples.  Every minute the lake is different from the minute before.  A phantom of mist here, a reflection of pale sky there; color rising, flowing . . .breathing.

I snapped a photo.  For several years it hung in my office.  I could name the landmarks: that curve of shoreline, sharp flint mouthing the shallows, trees reaching down to the distant notch where our next portage hid.  But where was the dance of sky in water?  Where the ephemeral colors that have no name?  The print on my wall was like words on a page, a dead thing.  It couldn’t breathe, it couldn’t speak . . . except in the fire it lit within my mind.

.     .     .     .     .

Can a poem breathe?  Can it live?  Can it set you down on some elevated vantage you’ve never visited and reveal a place you’ve never dreamed?

I’m looking for that poem.  I want to stare across its rippled surface and discover in its reflections something that words can’t name.

Bud Caywood’s poems have taken me at times to that unnamed place.  He is an artist, a canoer, a fellow birder, and his verse often endeavors to capture that singular moment of inchoate atmosphere.  You want to enter the words he’s placed on the page.  You want to return there.

.     .     .     .     .

GoodMorning

Morning in the World of Fog

See the fisherman crossing the stippled lake,
cutting a swath through the layered

fog of morning.  See how his image
darkens the falling light, brushed out

like a blurred black and white photo,
until thicker fog washes over him.

Now watch the boat docks quiver
in their eerie caress of the wake,

or the skeleton-like crepe myrtles
light-speared through their branches,

or the boathouse holding its stillness
against the thick gray-orange blanket,

while its squeaking hinge strums
one-chord songs again and again and again.

See the gulls appear like angles,
disappear like apparitions,

unwinding the velvet, circle after circle,
as if the sky’s whole element is one in them.

Now hold open your palm;
even the air around you has weight.

.     .     .     .     .

I first met Bud years ago at a reading in Hickory.  He invited me to join the “e-Poets,” and for several years we shared poems with each other every month or so.  We’ve continued our friendship and mutual admiration through the NC Poetry Society and now Poetry Hickory, a monthly reading organized by Scott Owens.  Last month Bud invited me to read, along with Adrian Rice and Tyree Maddox, at an annual poetry night at the Bethlehem Branch Library near Hickory.  Bud arranges art, sometimes accompanied by poetry, every month at the library; he is one of the stalwart perennials who are keeping verse alive in our modern culture.

And I admire his poetry.  Images that breathe.  I will hold onto and return frequently to that closing couplet: “Now hold open your palm; / even the air around you has weight.”

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Additional poetry by Bud Caywood

Wild Goose Poetry Review

Dead Mule School of Southern Literature

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I’ve lived in this little town for thirty-one years, but almost every day someone still asks me, “Where you from?”  I don’t tell them.  Maybe if I’m not in my long-suffering persona at the moment I might just say, “Here.”  And move on.  Or I might sidestep with, “How far back do you mean?” and if they press then I inform them that my Griffin forebears moved down here from Virginia to Union County (near Charlotte) before the Revolution.  Or I might go on the offensive: “All my folks are from around here,” with further ammunition that my Mom grew up in Winston-Salem and Dad in Hamlet.

But I never tell them where I was actually born.  That would end the conversation.  Because what they’re really saying is, “You ain’t from around here, are you?”  And I’ll be damned if I’m going to confirm it.

Why?  What’s the big deal?  Afraid of being labeled a Yankee?  It’s not as if there aren’t fifty other things besides my pure midwestern accent that brand me an outsider in this rural county.  Not Baptist.  Not Republican.  Not a football fan.  Not a Tarheel (although I have no compunction about letting my Carolina friends know I went to Duke).

No, I’m not running away from the things I’m not.  I”m running toward what I long to be.  Not exactly a state of being, but a state of belonging.

I belong to North Carolina and it belongs to me.  I’ve slept on the ground in its forests and mountains.  I’ve drunk from its streams.  I’ve planted trees here.  I can recite its toast: Here’s to the land of the longleaf pine . . . .  I’ve lived in a lot of other towns and a lot of other states, but this is the one I need to accept me and take me in and hold me.  Maybe it’s exactly because I lived in so many different places growing up – I need some place where I belong.

So I won’t apologize for getting defensive when someone tries to imply I’m not from around here.  Just take heart all you folks who have moved more than twenty miles from the place where you were born.  Even if your great x 10 grandfather didn’t live here, you can belong.  Just put down a taproot of love, and when someone asks where you’re from, you tell them, “Right here, damn it.”

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Moving – I couldn’t help but get agitated about all those moves after reading that Jodi Barnes has moved at least twenty-four times in her life, as far as she can remember.  Her book Unsettled keeps returning to that theme, the quest for belonging.  Of course there are the boxes packed, unpacked, repacked, and their tangible artifacts of memory.  We can’t let go of things because we can’t bear to be cut off from our past.  Memories – are they really roots that are strong enough to feed us?  Is home what we’ve left behind or where we long to arrive?

Jodi’s poems reveal so many things left behind.  Love: we thought it was real, but it has moved on without us.  Lives: that pack our hearts long after we’ve lost them.  So many false steps and false starts that may end with us feeling cut off.  Is there any hope for us wayfaring strangers to finally discover our home?  The gods of metaphor; the dirt beneath our feet; the persona of myth we don like an astonished cloak; all those things that leave us feeling uncertain and longing.  Everything unsettled.  And yet . . .

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Pretend Pioneer

My friends ask, are you moved in yet?
They mean is my stuff unpacked;
am I settled?
I envision wagon wheels,
mail-order brides, the frontier.

But here my sole risk is to trip
over cardboard,
the clutter of privilege.

Once I unwrap what I thought I’d need,
I circle camps of chattel on a polished floor,
stretch the metaphor of expansion,
contrast this mansion with teepee
desire – its flapping door.

Next time I’ll answer Hell No
I got to keep moving.

.     .     .     .     .

The Hardness of Cardboard Philosophy

Memories hide beneath cardboard wings,
seek solace against worn seams.
Last night, I dreamed this box
grew feathers and flew away.

But it stays, obeys gravity,
reminds me of a frayed decision:
to face the weight or leave this matter
to tidy imagination.

I think I remember why it’s no use
to ply back flaps on time capsules.
It’s the same stuff.  Pixies don’t exist.
And there is no magic in this dust.

Yet something pulls me to the drab,
unrelenting, rectangular shape,
my arms extend, my fingers bend
to search breaches in brittle tape.

Strands of hair, stale baby’s breath,
baptismal candle, eyelet gown,
first tooth, proof of life –
unmoved, they stare me down.

As I try to keep them dry,
not mourn her past, the missed –
angelic imps resist my wish; the box sits.
Another blurred present flies by.

From Unsettled, (c) 2010, Jodi Barnes, Main Street Rag Publishing

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With his masters in chemical engineering, my Dad got a job with Western Electric straight out of Georgia Tech.  I was born in Niagara Falls, the American side.

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“As needed?”

When I left the hospital last Saturday night a fat Vidalia moon was just peering through the trees that circle the campus.  There were two cars and a pickup in the visitors’ lot.  Lined up on the front bumper of a dented black Civic were three of those deer blasters, chrome-plastic gizmos four inches long that look like little jet engines.  When you’re driving sixty they’re supposed to emit an ultrasonic whistle that spooks the deer so they don’t jump in front of your car.  Gives you an idea of the kind of traffic concerns we contend with out here in Surry County.

As I crossed to the lower lot (there was only one car at the far end – mine) I glimpsed movement.  I stopped and turned.  A grey fox trotted across the pavement.  Ignoring me.  It sauntered into the bushes at the perimeter of the landscaping and never made a sound or quickened its step.  Time to spring forward.

The big trees are still bare but this week the cherries blossomed.  Canada geese in the hospital pond have paired off.  Sunday morning I saw a pair of hooded mergansers and a wood duck eyeing each other near the nesting boxes I donated a couple of years ago.  How long until fuzzy chicks leap unafraid from the nesting cavity and plop into the water like tennis balls?  Everything is precisely as it should be.

What is needed?

Some day soon – five years?  ten? – I’ll make evening rounds for the last time.  There are plenty of things I’ll miss.  The Monday mornings after a long weekend on call.  Clowning around with the nurses – walk the halls with a big mug that says “DUKE” if you want to start a civil war.  My partners: sitting down to puzzle out a confusing patient; cracking each other up with the deadly black humor that makes you shut the door of the conference room.  And of course my patients.  Figuring out what they need and being right a lot of the time.  Figuring out who they are.  Figuring out who we are together.

And I wouldn’t even mention that there are plenty of things I won’t miss, except that they fall into the category of things-that-piss-me-off and are mostly the same for everyone who has survived into the twenty-first century: mindless productivity-sapping bureaucracy; people that manipulate and take advantage of you; being unappreciated, or underappreciated.

But there’s one more thing I really won’t miss.  Although it makes me irritable (ask Brenda and Carolyn at the office), it isn’t having to think about ten things at once – adrenalin just primes the pump, after all. It isn’t even the 3 a.m. calls from worried mothers – hell, that’s what I signed on for.  And it isn’t fear, although there have been plenty of crisis situations when I’ve been scared, and I don’t like that.  That thing I will be most glad to put behind me is something I might name “malignant uncertainty.”  I don’t know what comes next, I’m not sure what to do, but if I don’t make a decision in the next thirty seconds something real bad is going to happen.  Close corollary – I’ve given the order, the die is cast, and now I will sit and watch the outcome for minutes, hours.  Will this baby’s breathing slow to normal?  Will this old woman’s blood pressure come back up?  Will somebody hold my hand?

What do I need?

Besides another weekend off?  A couple of hours to write these lines?  An insight bright enough to make sense of it all?  A moon that pours through the branches while the fox and I pause to listen to spring peepers?

Will I figure it out before I’ve missed it?

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Painted Trillium

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The Geriatrician Ages

They don’t fly up at him, all these names,
n
o confusion of pigeons’ wings
in the parking lot; they don’t lock arms
            to block him entering
the next exam room;
maybe they awaken him near dawn
but not by shaking. More like
            the powdery flutter
of a moth disturbed in daylight,
the mute gray snowfall
of ash from burning newsprint.

Many he can’t recall, but all of them
he recognizes when their dry lips
whisper their presence
            from the other side –
not accusations (their ease of passing
one more benediction
of his calling), not really thanks
            though most are grateful,
mostly just an airy I . . . I
in his cluttered bag of memories.

So many, so often now, more and more.
Each murmur a spirit body bowed
into a wheelchair, curled mantis-like
            in bed, pushing against a walker,
each of them pushing, pushing
against what held them here
and what let them go.
            Some days he can’t remember
if he last saw them on evening rounds
or in a dream, and any moment
he expects the office door to open:
            one will enter, speak
his name, one he had thought
was gone.

.     .     .     .     .

first published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, Vol. 304, No. 16, p.1754,  October 27, 2010

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“In case of nuclear attack, hide underneath the toilet.  No one’s ever hit it yet.”

On the wall above the commode, that’s the hand-lettered sign you get to read while you take aim and take a leak.  Assuming you’re standing – it’s a unisex bathroom.  To find it I had to ask directions of the forty-ish woman behind the register in the little convenience store: through the store room, take a right, last door.  I’m running ahead of schedule and have stopped for gas about a mile above the Catawba River (and I hate to arrive anywhere and have to ask first thing, “May I use your restroom?”).  Looked like it couldn’t be more than another mile or two from here to the Bethlehem Branch Library where I’d come to hear Adrian Rice read.

For the wanderer in search of literary respite, what a haven.  A simple well-lit temple to words.  Bethlehem Branch is across the county line from Hickory, so all those who cross this threshhold must do so intentionally and filled with expectation.

After we set up chairs, the head librarian showed me around: cozy spots for curling up with a book; windows, lots of natural light on winter afternoons; the current month’s art on display, evocative scenes by a local photographer; each photo accompanied by a poem written by a local poet inspired by that specific shot.  And now the library is officially closed but the door keeps swinging open.  Twenty or thirty souls arrive to share poetry, each of them intentional and filled with expectation.

In case of nuclear attack, head for the library.  Might as well pass through the pearly gates with a crowd you wouldn’t mind accompanying into eternity.

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I’d never heard Adrian Rice read his poetry before this night.  But who could resist that soft accent, as smooth and deep as kelly moss and inviting as a tall glass of dark amber?  The first thing he said was, “It’s a disaster to ask an Irishman to read for twenty minutes.  The introduction to the first poem will be twenty minutes!”

How can it be, then, that Adrian has written a book of haiku?  He shared with us several from his collection Hickory Haiku.  Oh sure, before each poem he gave us a build-up that was probably ten times seventeen syllables, but the secret to the Ulster lad’s three-line epics is to sit down and read the book through.  Fifty terse images from a man far from home and almost as far from boyhood.  Lines as quick and sharp as a turning latch.  Connections longed for, connections discovered.  The green hills left behind and the new hills that have become home.  The strangeness of nature, the nature of people, perhaps not so strange after all.  The deepwater anchor of porch, books, family.  Taken together, these are poems that link arms to tell a grand story with a wink and a prayer, worthy of an Irishman.

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II

We Irish aren’t wooed
by weather.  But, for folk here,
it’s a love affair

VIII

Night-winds lay the corn
rows low.  Morning, they rise –
foals finding their feet.

IX

Olde Hickory Tap
Room – draught handles are beer-bows
that target the Thirst.

XIX

The sun’s done gone.  Dark
ink surges through sky water –
a storm’s a-comin’!

XXVI

Two contrails cross in
the royal sky – the airy,
brave flag of Scotland.

XXVII

Like found poems, the bare
necessities of home – Heinz
beans & Weetabix!

XLII

We whinny and neigh,
two rocking horses grazing
the pasture of porch

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Adrian Rice teaches English at Catawba Valley Comunity College.  Turning poetry into lyrics, he has also teamed up with Hickory-based and fellow Belfastman, musician/songwriter Alan Mearns, to form ‘The Belfast Boys’, a dynamic Irish Traditional Music duo.  Listen to him read at the book launch for Hickory Haiku.

Thanks to Bud Caywood for organizing the monthly art and the annual poetry readings at Bethlehem Branch Library, and thanks to all the staff and regulars.

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Fort Macon Beach.  I’m twelve.  Is this dream or memory?  Either way it’s true.  My little sister snatches from the foam’s edge a clump of stringy green seaweed.  Shakes off coquinas and mole crabs.  Drapes it on top of her head and down around her shoulders.  “I’m a mermaid!”

Of course I believe her.  Because what is a mermaid?  A creature that rises from a strange and exotic world to challenge all our comfortable assumptions.  One who challenges and enthralls only to slip from our grasp.  Who breathes a cold hot enfolding incandescent oxygen like no air we’ve been able to imagine.

Any six-year old who will pull ickiness from the surf and adorn herself with it must surely be a mermaid.  It explains a lot.  My sister who cycled the Eastern Seaboard when she was barely a teenager.  My sister more at home in a kayak than a staff meeting (but who can dominate a staff meeting).  Who for her forty-first birthday backpacked a hundred miles of the AT with me. Who works her healing power over mind and spirit with Jung and the Buddha at her shoulder.  I”ve always suspected it — she does breathe from some atmosphere I’m still trying to discover.

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Meet the mermaids of Diana Pinckney’s Green Daughers.  Dream or memory, the poems are true.  The voice of the watery mother whose daughter is struggling, torn — isn’t it the voice of all mothers?  The voice of her daughter tempted by a world out of reach, agonizing for her unknown future — isn’t it the voice of all children?  And poems for each one of us — for which of us does not long for deep roots, for a fundament to which we may always return, for sustaining love?  Yet don’t we gaze at night into the “sky full / of all her gods and animals” and believe that there is mystery beckoning just beyond our perception?

In the way the next receding wavelet parts the shards to reveal a lettered olive, whole, smooth, its cryptic glyphs revealing a message for my eyes alone, in this way I am still discovering the layers of meaning in Diana’s poems.

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What the Mermaid Wishes for her Daughter

I turn to the land and imagine
your long, strong legs kiking a road
I can’t follow, climbing from lavender valleys
to the highest peaks, the whole blue earth
at your feet.  And those strange
creatures — men who slipped
like minnows from my grasp —

may you unlock the mysteryof at least one
who listens when you laugh
in your sleep, who cares to chart
a woman’s pleasures and pains.  Sailors
have told me love is what
brings the boats home.  From where
I sit, nature decides our days
and turns the wheels at night.

I knew you were borrowed, but
you nourished me the way the shore
feeds the sea each day, a glossy
bond unbroken.  What you
carry from this place is not
lent, but given.

.     .     .     .     .

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Diana Pinckney lives in Charlotte, only a few hours drive to the coast when the wind and the traffic are at your back.  She teaches poetry at the Cornwall Center.  Green Daughters is her fourth collection and is available from Lorimer Press.  Get to know Diana and read more of her work at dianapinckney.com.

Diana will be the featured poet at the Sam Ragan Poetry Festival of the NC Poetry Society, March 24, 2012, Weymouth Center for the Arts and Humanities, Southern Pines NC.

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