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Archive for April, 2012

April 27, 2012 – first scarlet tanager of spring, Elkin, NC.

If I had an hour and good binoculars I could spot him, but I know he’s there.  There’s no other song like his, just exactly like a robin with a 40 pack-year smoking history.  He always arrives about a week after the big oaks in our neighborhood have fully leaved, and then he hangs out way up in the canopy.  I’ll come back tomorrow when the sun is high, follow my ears, and when he lunges from the greenery for a moth or a beetle, I’ll have him.  A red like no other red.

Last week Linda was drawing at her desk when Saul ran in from the next room.  “Granny, I seed a red-headed woodpecker on the bird feeder!”  He pulls her into the den and there is indeed a woodpecker on the feeder, a male downy, patch of red at his nape.  “Good, Saul!  That is a woodpecker.  But a red-headed woodpecker has a head that is red all over.”  About fifteen minutes later Saul is back.  “Granny, see this red-headed woodpecker!”  And it’s head is red all over.  A bright fiery cardinal.

Red birds.  So startling!  So noticeable, so eye-catching!  Is the northern cardinal, Cardinalis cardinalis, the state bird of seven out of fifty because it’s so familiar and recognizable or because it is exotic, unbelievable that something so bright would allow itself to be seen by mortals?  I remember the first time I actually saw Piranga olivacea, the scarlet tanager.  I’d heard plenty calling and singing but never spotted one.  June 17, 1994, I was visiting my brother-in-law Skip for a weekend at his place in southern Ohio (off the beaten path doesn’t half do it justice).  Mid-morning with the binocs, about to quit because of warbler-neck (cricked back searching the tops of trees for spots of color), and there he was.  Perched high in brightness, not even attempting to conceal his flame.

Just to share a moment of that creature’s living breath, to see something in clarity and commonplace that up until that moment has been so elusive and so desired, it is to feel the earth, nature, creation expanding around me and I am a single cell in the body of God.  And if the sun is shining tomorrow, I think I’ll walk around the block and try to see another.

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It’s been almost a year since I last saw a scarlet tanager.  It’s been about a year since I last read Mary Oliver’s book, Red Bird.  I need to return to both.  Scarlet tanagers aren’t rare, although one has to go where they are to see one.  And look up.  Mary Oliver’s poems don’t seem rare.  So conversational, so commonplace.  Being alive is not particularly rare.  Six-plus billion of us Homo sapiens are engaged in it today. Out of the one-thousand four-hundred and forty minutes in each day, I don’t pause to consider many of them rare.

Shouldn’t I?  Read this poem with me.  Read and let us, you and I, share a moment of each other’s living breath.

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Red Bird Explains Himself

“Yes, I was the brilliance floating over the snow
and I was the song in the summer leaves, but this was
only the first trick
I had hold of among my other mythologies,
for I also knew obedience: bringing sticks to the nest,
food to the young, kisses to my bride.

But don’t stop there, stay with me: listen.

If I was the song that entered your heart
then I was the music of your heart, that you wanted and needed,
and thus wilderness bloomed there, with all its
followers: gardeners, lovers, people who weep
for the death of rivers.

And this was my true task, to be the
music of the body.  Do you understand?  for truly the body needs
a song, a spirit, a soul.  And no less, to make this work,
the soul has need of a body,
and I am both of the earth and I am of the inexplicable
beauty of heaven
where I fly so easily, so welcome, yes,
and this is why I have been sent, to teach this to your heart.”

from Red Bird, Mary Oliver, Beacon Press, © 2008 by Mary Oliver

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There were more eyes looking into the pot than looking out.

This metaphor has stuck with me for forty years.  Telling the story is my German host father Dieter, a ruddy, lusty little man much more prone after a few glasses of Rheinwein to grab his tall wife around the waist and waltz her about the living room than to recite poetry.  But the eyes are the punch line of the story.  After we’ve finished the second bottle, or perhaps the third, he launches into stories about the war years.  Not so much for me, the American exchange student who would live with his family in West Berlin for a year, but more for his own son.  To remind him again how easy his life is.  To remind him again how lucky he is that his father has provided him with this bungalow in Spandau; the education; the fat goose and full pot.

Dieter was a Prussian conscript on the Eastern front, eighteen years old in 1945, the same age as I was in 1971 when he opened his home to me.  He survived, returned to the farm, and spent the following years slowly starving.  Tempted they were, so tempted every winter to boil the seed potatoes.  And finish dying.  He would dig the bare fields over again and find a couple of shriveled tubers for his mother to make into a thin soup.  There was no meat, no eye of grease floating on top of the grey water to peer back at the hungry eyes looking in.

When he told these stories Dieter would grin as if daring me to believe his tales, but he never lost a defined hardness around his eyes.  Klaus, also my age, would just roll his eyes.  He never used the word, but he acted as if he considered his father an unreconstructed fascist.  Klaus had to invite his leftist friends to the house when his father was working (which Dieter did about all the time).  To have the slouching longhairs show up in the father’s presence invariably ended in a shouting match.  When I had lived as his guest-brother for nine months, Klaus took me to Ernst Reuter Platz for the huge May Day march (I think I even carried a red flag), just blocks from the concrete, razor wire, mines, attack dogs that during those years still separated Dieter from his cousins in the East.

Too many German political parties for a teenager who couldn’t at that time clearly state the difference between a Republican and a Democrat: I just watched, took it in, tried to feel less confused.  What exactly is it that we’re protesting here?  Nowadays I can get on my soapbox about the gap between the haves and have-nots in our great prosperous oppressive nation, about how badly we need a national health program and how impossible it is to conceive of our self-serving politicians even taking one step toward consensus.  But all politics must evaporate before that stark image: the desperate eyes looking into the pot, and no eye answering their supplication.

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In Counting the Lost, Gail Peck unveils image after grave image.  These ekphrastic poems are inspired by drawings and photographs of World War II: refugees, displaced Jews, concentration camp victims.  Each poem is the story of a person, a human soul caught in high relief and presented to us, the readers, that we may share their life.  Their death.  Faces and hands, mostly, mothers and children.  You might read my description here and say, “How utterly depressing,” and the poems are indeed sobering, but taken together they are a memorial that has lifted me to a higher place.  I feel the shared humanity of us all.  Just as the Jew is healed by his ritual of the mourner’s Kaddish and the Roman Catholic by the sweeping Latin of the Requiem, so may we be healed by remembering those that have suffered.  By remembering, as Gail states in her dedication, all those who have perished in war, especially the children.  Faces turning face-to-face, eyes seeing eye-to-eye.

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Seed for the Planting Must Not Be Ground
after Käthe Lollwitz, drawing

Her arms are shelter, her body.
Every birth was a wake of pain
until they were lifted from her, washed
and placed on her breast to nurse.
She touched fingers and toes.

Older now, they are playing with
a wooden wagon, a ball, while she ladles
soup into bowls, trying to scoop
a bit of potato in each.

Hans spills his, and she wants to cry –
instead, takes spoonfuls from the other portions
She will never let these boys go to war.
Look at Berlin, windows with nothing behind.

Come see the hunger of six eyes,
hear the begging of stomachs.
Once there was an apple she cut
into threes, telling the boys to chew slowly.

The war goes on – who can rest?
Peter, Herman, Hans, almost numb
to the constant sirens, and explosions,
want to stay in their beds and sleep.
Count them and count them, the numberless sheep.

from Counting the Lost, Gail Peck, © 2011, Main Street Rag Publishing

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Read more poems by Gail.

Also by Gail Peck:   Thirst

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That’s me, seated lower right-hand corner.

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My middle name, just like my father and his father, is Wilson.  The county just east of Wake and just south of Nash is Wilson.  Its county seat and the home of Barton College is Wilson.  Is that why, when I drive past the magnolias and stately homes onto the pastoral campus and walk beneath the loblollies and grand willow oaks to the Sam and Marjorie Ragan Writing Center, is that why I feel so connected?

This second Saturday in April is the tenth annual (OK, Marty Silverthorne says it’s the ninth) celebration of National Poetry Month by Walking into April, a collaboration of the NC Poetry Society, Barton College, and the Gilbert-Chappell Distinguished Poet Series.

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Wild Geranium

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 splendor –
Come, let us walk into April.

Sam Ragan, NC Poet Laureate 1982-1996

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In the morning: readings by two featured poets (this year Debra Kaufman and me), a round-table discussion.  In the afternoon: readings by each of the Eastern region’s Gilbert-Chappell students, a reading by their Distinguished Poet mentor (this year Michael White from UNC Wilmington), and of course open mic.

My impression, after attending Walking last year and again this year, is that this is a time and a place to become connected.  The young Gilbert-Chappell poets (Elizabeth is still in Middle School) connect to their mentor for months via prompts, suggestions, critiques — literary bonding.  This day of reading is the culmination, the pinnacle of all the poetry they’ve worked on together.  A few faces are present at the meeting year after year: Becky Godwin, our Barton College sponsor; Marty Silverthorne, without whom no open mic could be complete; Bill Blackley, to remind us of the legacy of Marie Gilbert and Fred Chappell in creating this program. And of course Sam Ragan is ever present.  His vision and creative spirit, keeping bright the connections between the literature of our past and the hottest verse of today, are a major reason North Carolina has become such a state of poetry.

Well, I just had a wonderful day and once again I feel connected to a big encouraging family, all of us blood kin because of the poetry in our genes.

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Elizabeth: Spring “. . . eventually something will grow from the ashes of a fire!”

Rachel: I Am Spring “I am the recovered youth in all life.”

Nancy: Spring Poem “I felt perfect . . . like the butterfly poised on the coral azaleas.”

Lauren: To Be Celebrated “speechless . . . grasping for verbs of uninvented languages.”

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During the morning reading, Debra Kaufman shared poems from several of her earlier book and then focused on her new collection, The Next Moment (2010 Jacar Press).  The poems cover an entire life’s span with sensitive maturity and a light touch that brings me, the reader, into the poem’s very moment.  The petals of star magnolia and tulip are falling; the breeze already hints of July; I will re-read these poems and traverse the seasons and the years.

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Shimmer

After the rain, heat
rises in mirage-like waves
on their hike to the river –
father, son, pregnant mom.
They sit midstream on boulders
and dip their feet in.

Above the river’s burble,
a high-pitched, ear-tickling thrill –
language of the infinitesimal –
and a horde of tiny angels
fills the hazy sky,
translucent wings glinting.

They’re going on into infinity,
the boy says, proud
to use the new word he learned,
along with optical illusion,
from a traveling magic show.
They watch, not talking,

until the cloud thins, disappears.
The woman wants
to say miraculous, but know
her husband would scoff.
the boy spies the first
split husk on a twig.

They find hundreds of shells
of the creatures
that ascended in a holy cloud,
then dispersed to light in trees,
beings that will sing lullabyes –
a choir of breathing – all summer long.

© Debra Kaufman, 2010

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I don’t know anything.  I’ve got a lot of people fooled into thinking I do, but no, I don’t know anything.

Sometimes Linda accuses me of thinking I know everything.  Well, OK, maybe I do tend to blurt out answers.  I hope I’m not as obnoxious as Bill Murray watching Jeopardy in Groundhog Day, but I do suffer from a mild case of expository blatheromania.  “What is a stereoisomer?”  “How about a four letter word for ‘wing-like’?”  Linda won’t let me within fifteen feet of her when she’s working a crossword. But all this fact stuff is just trivial.  I has nothing to do with knowing.  I say things out loud to test myself, to see if I finally do know anything.

Nope, still don’t.

All of which is making me very nervous about being the featured reader (along with Debra Kaufman) at Walking into April this Saturday. [April 14, Barton College, 9:00 a.m., Sam and Marjorie Ragan Writing Center – be there and place your bets as to whether I know anything.] It’s not the reading part.  I love to read and recite – my poetry, classic poems, a Sam Ragan or two – I’m a big ham.  No, it’s the little entry on the day’s schedule at 11:00 that says “Roundtable Discussion with Griffin and Kaufman, who will present their tips on writing and reading poetry.”

Right now the anything I don’t know the most about is poetry.  As in a total mistrust of whatever I possess that passes for taste, opinion, judgement, skill.  I worry that at the very moment I begin to like a certain poem that proves that it’s inferior.  “Man, you don’t know anything about GOOD poetry.”  And those poems that appear to me as if they were compiled by a random phrase generator?  “What is the matter with you, man?  Where’s your head?”  Maybe it’s just lack of self-confidence.  Maybe it would help to beg an audience with the Wizard of Oz, who would tell me, “Nonsense, lad!  You imagine you have no poetic soul, but all you need is this . . . [fill in the blank:  MFA; Fellowship; Pushcart; One thousandth ‘like’ on WordPress].”

There’s only one cure.  Read some more poems.  Let myself get caught up in images that seem to float effortlessly from line to line like dragonflies laying eggs on the mirror of a pond.  Words never before juxtaposed that now seem as if they were meant to be married since the genesis of language.  A narrative so exotic and at once so universal that I suddenly realize it’s my own story this strophe has captured.

Maybe I’ll discover I don’t need to know anything.

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Now Debra Kaufman knows something.  I have sat in her presence.  As she shares, the lines wind and flow like silk ribbon that seems so casual but soon binds you with no escape.  Her poems may hint at a personal history at the same time they are invoking an entirely new and fantastic landscape.  I walk into that landscape, look around, and find myself at home.

I am counting on you, Debra.  Knowing you’ll be there on Saturday, I will stand up straight, put off all this sidling nonsense, and walk upright into April.

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Autumnal Equinox

Sugar maples blaze at sunset;
leaves swoop and skirt
the chilling wind like chimney swifts.

A boy leaps into leaves,
calls to a neighbor’s Irish red,
as light falls, a cat’s white shadow,

on his grandmother’s lap.
Her hands rest there,
her grandmother’s hands,

the same boniness of wrist and knuckle,
dry fingers nearly flammable in the smoky air.
She smells ripe pears

and feels her body drawn
toward the darkness that rolls in
earlier each day.

Heat and light retreat,
and evening covers everything
except the boy, whose hair shines

silky silver light
as he tosses armfuls of color
upward, like sparks.

from The Next Moment (Jacar Press)

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Debra Kaufman is a North Carolina poet, playwright, and educator.  The Next Moment is her most recent poetry collection.  Her short and full-length plays have been performed throughout North Carolina and elsewhere. Debra is the recipient of a North Carolina Arts Council playwriting scholarship and of a grant from the Central Piedmont Regional Artists Hub Program.

Sample her work at:

Debra Kaufman homepage

Kathryn Stripling Byer — Here Where I Am (blog)

Scott Owen’s Musings

Moon-Mirror-Whiskey-Wind

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Showy Orchis

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OF SORROWS AND ACQUAINTED WITH

Third Day
What door opens
when it’s closed?
The man with no arms
catches the bird.
Does the barrow dream it rolls
itself uphill?
Escape
frees no one.

My friends don’t know me
until I know them. They can’t
call my name until I call theirs.
Today we will eat together and be full;
tomorrow we’ll be hungry again.

Some say you created hunger so that we
might appreciate bread,
but even the fat man likes to eat,
and no want of bread ever drew
a dead man from his tomb.
There is no point to hunger.
No point at all except that we
must all be hungry together.

On the leafless branch,
a ripe fig.
Who gives it all away
becomes rich.
Cry, mouth. Drink, throat.
Reach, arms.

In the end, it is not my power
to roll this rock away. My friends
won’t know me until they know I
know them. None of them ask,
Three days? What took you so long?
Their blood is warm on my face. They
draw me to their breast.

Bless me, Father, for I
will struggle, and my heart is all pain
and all thanks.

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by Bill Griffin

Day One posted April 6, 2012

Day Two posted April 7, 2012

Originally published in Wild Goose Poetry Review

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Star Chickweed

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OF SORROWS AND ACQUAINTED WITH

Second Day
The voices are almost quiet here.
Like sleep, but without the need
to awaken. An old man who can’t summon up
an image of the hour he’s just spent, is he
a captive of his past or freed
to live in the moment? And a young man
who can’t imagine his next hour?

The voices are almost quiet here.
I add my own voice to that thrum,
a single indeterminate bee
in a distant honey tree. Oneness.
Distance. Warm, golden, sweet,
and who can remember the stings?
Have you abandoned me
or is emptiness my fulness?

The voices are almost quiet here.
How is it done? Are stones and darkness
enough to shut them out? When a man denies
the need for food because he desires
never again to feel hunger, when he breaks
the knife because it has cut him,
when he closes his eyes
because he fears darkness, then

the voices are almost quiet. Here
there is no need to discover
my voice. Oneness, or nothingness?
A mother draws her newborn son
to her breast, her own blood still warm
on his face. The pain, she doesn’t forget it,
but her heart is all thanks. The voices
are almost quiet here. But only almost.

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by Bill Griffin

Day One posted April 6, 2012

Day Three posted April 8, 2012

Originally published in Wild Goose Poetry Review

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Wood Anemone

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OF SORROWS AND ACQUAINTED WITH

First Day
Forgive me, Father, for I
struggle. Did you have to make self
the first syllable of selflessness?
But truthfully, what soul
borne in bone and blood would welcome
this grinding? This heaviness? Like hell
they know not what they do. Even the stones
cry out for my surrender. Why?

Yesterday I walked through the garden
with my friends. They laughed.
Have you heard the one about the soldier,
the rabbi, and the carpenter?
Anyone who’s not depressed
just doesn’t really know what’s going on.
Why resist? There is an hour at the end
of night when the eastern fields turn grey and yet
it is still possible to imagine
this morning there will be no sun.

I prayed for you to take it from me,
this cup. I still don’t know
if I can drink.

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by Bill Griffin

Second Day     posted April 7, 2012

Third Day         posted April 8, 2012

Originally published in Wild Goose Poetry Review

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