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Singing

 

[with 3 poems by Aruna Gurumurthy]

One directs from the piano while he plays, his left eyebrow for entrances, the right to cut us off. Another tells us stories about her middle school students, then gets us to open our mouths like grownups. The beautiful one coaches our vowels with a baritone so luscious even we ourselves begin to believe. The one with a degree in percussion can direct 6/8 with his right hand and 4/4 with his left – simultaneously. The one no longer quite young requires all her sopranos to sing as if they are. The forever younger one jokes with us constantly until someone sings a terminal s at the end of the upbeat instead of the up of the downbeat (some in the tenor section refer to this gaff as “showing your ess”).

And all of us gathered around our director? We sing.

We sing not merely phonating, mouths formed, palates elevated, cords vibrating. We sing not merely vocalizing, words in rhythm on pitch. Not merely making a joyful noise. Singing together is less about what issues forth from between our lips and more about what flows into our ears, listening to our brothers and sisters on either side. And the together in singing together is most of all about what we see, eyes lifted from the score, alert, watching our leader, his hands, her face, their power to slow and soften us into tenderness, to swell us to climax, to make us one.

Singing together: leader, voices, music, lyric, all coalesce into one wholeness, one flow, one message – the song.

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Madras

Tied in seventeen years of matrimony,
we lick the glazed onions and potatoes
of a masala dosa
from banana leaves at Karpagambal Café.

The scent and steamy ascent
of filtered coffee wraps around tunes
of the Tamil melody Ennavale.

He touches my swinging earrings
as I nod through tales of yesterday,
picking just the good ones,
the greener exits off the highway.

Breathless by the ocean, we watch
Earth’s blazing empress undress on miles of blue.

To heartbeats of the Ferris wheel,
we crack hot, roasted groundnuts,
glance at fluttering pigeons
and faraway people.

He pulls out three rupees for the jasmine braider,
tucks those flowers in my black curls,
smells the white, drooping malas
bounce in my hair
as we kick the wet sand on the pier.

Morning mantras resound
under the temple arches of Anna Nagar.
Garlands of marigolds sway to the singing breeze.
Devotees, we circle around the Ganesh deity,
break a coconut, drink the holy water
and make offerings for a good day.

We take a rickshaw to my mother’s brick cottage.
Crows caw on the neighbor’s wall
as we amble down the pebbled aisle.
A drop of dew slides on a hibiscus,
its yellow mellows even a passerby’s gloom.

I step on kolams, starry rice powder tattoos
on the foyer floor, dusting our rising dreams

of the shores of a white sand beach
dimmed by the dwindling sun,
where we curl our fingers
as the waves unfurl at our feet
and touch our breathing bodies.

Aruna Gurumurthy
from storySouth Issue 54: Fall 2022

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Cumin and mustard seeds pop in the oil, fragrant steam from onions, garlic, coriander, cardomom wafts us away from a cold, overcast day in the North Carolina piedmont to a warmer clime that gently challenges all our sense. Aruna Gurumurthy’s poems taste exotic. Sometimes the masala is hot and makes us sweat, sometimes it’s sweet and floral, but always fresh: an unexpected description, imagined encounter, cultural reference. Whether her setting is her home in Chapel Hill or her themes are as commonplace as home, motherhood, a morning in the garden or an afternoon in the kitchen, Aruna seasons each poem with a hint of something new.

Madras was runner-up for the 2022 Randall Jarrell Award of the North Carolina Writer’s Network. The Embrace and I Went to the Bottom of the Well are from Aruna’s 2020 book of prose poems, Down the Grassy Aisles.

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The Embrace

The growing vine, she helixes around the naked branches of the Oak. She travels through a gazebo, she dances about, the bounce loosening up a passerby’s grimace, with a musical glow, an oomph to the soul. Resplendent raw sienna, her body touches the tree. A cherub of twenty-four months, she has grown and crawls to embrace me. A subtle Shangri-La, a mystic Bethlehem, the dancing duos in he arms of Mother Earth.

Aruna Gurumurthy
from Down the Grassy Aisles, Kelsay Books, American Fork UT, © 2020

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I Went to the Bottom of the Well

They hated me, a timid teenager. They bit me with mean dragon faings, making me weak, shredded from within, stripped of my faith. The dragon’s fumes roared at me, turning its neck from side to side. I felt like a trembling half-dead cockroach. Left me feeling like they had shot me in the head, but I bled from down there. After it all, the dragon dove into the wter, escaping, extinguishing. I went diving too, to the bottom of the well. There lay a small, shining silver coin. I swam my way through layers of despair, arms as though mustering a breaststroke, and my fingertip reaching out for that coin – my faith. I had found my faith.

Aruna Gurumurthy
from Down the Grassy Aisles, Kelsay Books, American Fork UT, © 2020

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2018-02-09 Doughton Park Tree

 

Corncob Miracles

[with poems by Kimberly O’Connor]

We walk out of the pines and hear it, a throaty chuff and grumble from somewhere across the corn field. A plume of dust and chaff is one clue but the clincher is the field’s gnawed border twelve rows wide, a swath of brittle stalks and husks eaten and spat out. And a scatter of yellow kernels in the weeds.

After we cross the road our trail re-enters the woods but still parallels the field. The combine is laboring well out of sight but its growling swells and fades. Linda and I hike this particular bit of Mountains-to-Sea trail every week and we’ve been wondering why these acres have been standing so long unharvested. Great day for an answer, this Wednesday before Thanksgiving – school’s out! – and the grandkids with us. Hardwoods now. In the leafless shadows we can smell corn dust even when we can’t see the field through the undergrowth. Saul hangs back to talk philosophy and politics with Linda while Amelia skips ahead and dares me to jump over every rock and root.

At our turning-back-to-the-car point, the trail branches north to Grassy Creek and south into the corn field. Machinery noise has receded; I want to see the carnage. We all walk up the red clay bank. Most of the stalks are now stubble but a few have been pushed over, unconsumed. I wander a few rows and pick up dry ears to show Saul and Amelia. Moldy toward the silks, but mostly each ear is clean hard kernels clinging to cob. I put a few nuggets in my pocket. Saul keeps two unshucked ears to carry home for evidence.

Back at the road crossing the uproar reaches its crescendo. We see the top of the cab as it approaches, pulling rows of stalks into its jutting incisors, and then it finishes its row and roars past us. A man and his son sit high in the glassed-in booth! They wave back to us and we watch for a few more minutes as more of the field is mown down.

When we turn back into the woods, Amelia says, “I’m sure glad they weren’t mad at us for taking some of their corn.” Small miracles – and another is that on today’s hike we heard nary a complaint from the kids even when I confessed I’d forgotten to bring the snacks.

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Old Dominion

Remove arteries,
veins, and clotted blood
around heart

was the start of a recipe
for chicken pie in
a 1920’s cookbook

I found and read in the house
of friends we were staying with
in Charlottesville. It was

an heirloom. Their whole house
was antique, old fashioned:
mason jars, strawberries

resting in colanders, milk
in a white porcelain pitcher.
Worn embroidered linen dishcloths.

She canned. He cut wood
for fires in winter but
this was summer. The air

almost tropical, unbreathable.
Azaleas. Wisteria. Roses.
When I breathed in, it hurt.

The house hurt me and
I didn’t know why.
Everything was white.

Clotted blood around heart
I wanted that cookbook.
I almost stole it. I was

a terrible houseguest. I wanted
to go home. I cried beside
the clawfoot bathtub

throughout the afternoon.
I wanted to go home and
I wanted to own that house.

Kimberly O’Connor
from White Lung, Saturnalia Books, Ardmore PA, © 2021

 

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Kimberly O’Connor’s poetry is the surgeon’s dispassionate blade. Lie straight and still and watch the blood well up. Yes there will be pain, yes invasion, yes you are vulnerable, but what is cut from you may offer your best chance to live.

Kimberly O’Connor’s poetry is the surgeon’s passion and point of compassion. Yes there is pain in our world, both of us know it, both feel it, both of us have at times caused the pain. But here is our best chance for hope, for a world where we dig out the pain, find its roots, put it in a place where we can all see it for what it is. Maybe it won’t have to hurt us forever.

In White Lung, Kimberly explores every painful vein and clot of her Southern heritage and upbringing. She doesn’t flinch, although she cries and so do we, her readers. Several of her poems share the same title, The History of My Silence, which proclaims one of the major themes of the book and can be extended to the silence of not just one individual but of our society and culture: by extension, the silence of our history. Not only are the individual poems tense with emotion and meaning, but the poems communicate with each other to weave a personal story, and interconnect to bring their painful, hopeful, glorious epiphanies into masterful wholeness.

The North Carolina Poetry Society awards its annual Brockman-Campbell Award to the best volume published by a North Carolina writer in the preceding year. Kimberly O’Connor and White Lung are the winner for 2022. Kimberly is a NC native who lives in Golden, Colorado and has over 20 years of experience teaching and working with writers ages eight to adult. This is her first book.

[More information about the Brockman-Campbell Award, White Lung, and another poem by Kimberly O’Connor, available here: ]

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Portrait of a Lady

her father an electrician her mother
a hairdresser (it’s not that simple)
(you want her to be nice
and quiet) she’s a girl reading
in her tiny bedroom in the trailer
she does not say a word

you don’t want to read the word
n_____ but there it is her mother
says it her father says it the trailer
echoes with its two-syllable
thud & poison you can read
(here) where she wrote it in her diary a nice

(straight white) girl straight hair straight A’s nice
and quiet (like you want) says not a word
sits in the beauty shop reading
spinning a chair while her mother
cuts hair (she imagines she is special)
they drive the dirt road to the trailer

they move out of the trailer
build a house (big wood nice)
when her father wins a sweepstakes
they look at the letter repeating the words
over and over (it’s true) her mother
gives her the letter to read

there it is in red
(one hundred thousand dollars) the trailer
becomes a memory her mother
moves the shop to the new nice
spare room the ladies get shampoo & styles words
hum white nose white ladies scissors

swish you can see it (it’s simple)
a whit girl grows up in the South its red
& pink mimosas dripping scent the words
they say there taking root trailing
tendrils in even nice
girls’ minds (everyone says them even mothers)

Kimberly O’Connor
from White Lung, Saturnalia Books, Ardmore PA, © 2021

 

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Untitled (By the End)

By the end, we won’t remember what
happened when. We’ll remember hardly
any of it. The only thing that makes it

bearable is all the blossoming. The trees
turn white, then green. What unfolds
for me unfolds secondhandedly.

While they’re injecting the midazolam,
I am watching little girls in black
leotards play tag. Or it takes longer

than I think and we are already driving
home for dinner. But let’s go back
to before that. There was a murder.

It was violent. It was not an accident.
A young woman died and a young man
went to prison. Elsewhere, unrelated,

I want to be a poet. I fall in love with
someone. He becomes a lawyer.
We become a mother and a father.

We move to Denver. My husband meets
the young man in prison. He’s no longer
young. He becomes a kind of friend.

Of course this takes years. I learn things
like in supermax, the inmates are required
by law to have access to one hour

of sunlight per day. On death row,
the light though a skylight counts.
The men can’t touch their families

or each other. The day before their
executions, their mothers cannot hug
their sons good-bye. No one cares about this.

Why should they? Their victims’ parents
didn’t get to hug their children before—
yes. That is correct. So what’s wrong

with me? My husband sends his client books.
Should I say his name? He likes
vampire books. Mysteries. Thrillers.

When my husband calls him with the news
that the last appeal has been denied,
Clayton says Have a good weekend

when they hang up the phone. My husband
flies to Oklahoma City. I wait.
Amelia’s dance class is in a church.

I sit in the sanctuary and imagine
I am holding Clayton’s hand.
I am ridiculous. But my hand feels

warm for a minute. My husband calls
and he is weeping. Or he is furious.
He’s not dead yet, he says.

They kicked us out. They closed
the curtain and they made us leave.
It’s the end of April; everything’s in bloom.

It snows, then the sun comes back.
By summer, we should feel better.
By autumn, we might forget.

Our garden grows. We harvest. I walk
through the alley carrying vegetables.
When I get home and dump out the cucumbers,

I’m filled suddenly with joy. I pirouette
around the kitchen and imagine Clayton
is dancing with me, his spirit, anyway.

I think he is. I wish for it. I imagine
his victim’s mother wishing deeply
for my death, and I don’t blame her for it.

Kimberly O’Connor
from White Lung, Saturnalia Books, Ardmore PA, © 2021

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2020-09-08b Doughton Park Tree

Early Snow

[with 3 poems from Quiet Diamonds
Bob Wickless, Susan Craig, Bill Griffin]

O narrow track, how I have missed you! O wee well trodden way, favorite mile, little path through pasture and wood that my right knee has refused to let me walk for all these weeks, I am so glad to see you again. Last visit you had all but shed your autumn yellows, not to mention cardinalflower reds and pastel meadowbeauties. Now here you are blowing snow across my path.

The season has arrived of whites and browns, feathers and fluff, crowns and rounds – seeds! Hello little calico aster whose name I just learned last summer; now your stems are strung with new stars so fine. Hello crownbeard; petals fallen, you lift your regal head. And hello snowy boneset and thoroughwort; one puff of breeze is all it takes to loft your feathered promises across the meadow.

There is a bare patch below my house beneath the powerline. There is an empty bag in my pocket. You won’t mind, prodigal wingstem, goldenrod, ironweed, if I catch a bit of your seedstuff and carry it home to a new bed? You won’t run short of provender when goldfinches and sparrows come to call. You won’t ever hear me, like some others, name you weeds.

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Prayer in Spring

beginning with a line from Seneca

Not hoping without doubt,
Not doubting without hope,
We enter the slow country
Of change, clad in the garment
Thread through the loom of change,
Woven in green doubt
Though woven in hopes

Greener than any hopes are:
May the clothes of the world
Still fit, in the eye’s mind
And in the mind’s eye, may
Our vision still clear
As the iced eye of the river
Cataracts, loosens, the view

In the breeze of the green flag
That is not failure, in one light
That will melt the white flag
Of surrender – Lord, we had not
Given up though the air had said
Surrender, through the vines, trees
Were all blasted with failure,

Though no light shone
Through the fabric of sky
But one pale and unaccomplished,
Wan, washed out as our vision,
Faded divinity, in the blank
Washed out country called snow,
A world neglected, blue

Now, Lord, even as the sky

Bob Wickless (Reidsville, NC)
from Quiet Diamonds 2022, The Orchard Street Press, Gates Mill OH

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Today in Elkin this blowing snow is windborne seeds of last summer’s asters, but inches of the cold frozen sort are accumulating in northeastern Ohio around Lake Erie. Snow belt – that’s where Linda and I met, dated, and graduated from the high school we walked to through slush & drifts. Call off school for a “snow day” in Ohio? Bah! The last time we visited Portage County was for Linda’s birthday six years ago. The old Aurora Country Club had been converted to a nature preserve – how many species of goldenrod filled those reclaimed fairways? The Cuyahoga Valley National Recreation Area had since 2000 become a National Park; we still talk about the canal trail, every ten meters another chipmunk to chirp and run across our feet.

Northeastern Ohio lives fondly in our hearts. Just up Chillicothe Road from the Cuyahoga and our old school is the village of Gates Mills and The Orchard Street Press, another font of fondness. OSP editor Jack Kristofco published my chapbook Riverstory : Treestory in 2018, so I most certainly love him, but even more I love the anthology his press produces every year, Quiet Diamonds. This year’s collection is deep and various and moving. The poems can be personal and at the same time universal. I find myself leafing back and forth through the book reading each one several times, in a different sequence, discovering new moods with each passage. So many I would love to feature on this page, wonderfulness from poets all over the US, but here I continue my focus on us Southerners.

Check in with The Orchard Street Press in January for their 2023 contest.

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Looking for the Banded Sphinx

++++++ I’d seen clutched last night to the railing
its wings of veined mahogany like a master craftsman’s
the way my brother’s finest tables
were inlaid in gold and amber

++++++ yet, only the marsh hawk waits
atop the same wooden rail outside the same glass door
its wing-shoulders brownish-gray
as any familiar relative

++++++ and even its flight, when it senses
the small breeze of my arrival, appears
blasé as a loping dog

++++++++++ Last night, the next-door young couples
played guitar as midnight lapsed into new year
sang Jolene in a lusty chorus
that rose and fell like the distant sea pulled
by a stranger’s violin

++++++ I ask my husband about the banded moth
Gone, he says, at first light
without a hint of nuance
++++++ the same way wonder disappears, the way
dust becomes fugitive

++++++++++ My eyes trace mid-morning’s
pale pentimento of moon
while at the edge of marsh a stalking ibis
is osmosed in plumes of fog
where sun glints cold creek
++++++ and we find no reason to speak
as the hawk melds like another riddle into winter’s
moss-draped bones

Susan Craig (Columbia, SC)
from Quiet Diamonds 2022, The Orchard Street Press, Gates Mill OH

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We Never Give Up Hoping

Morning frozen hard. Pour
++++boiling water
into the birdbath;
++++ they will come
to drink when I have gone.

++++ God of holy ice, holy
++++++++ steam,
++++ give my children
++++++++ water
++++ that all my hoping
++++++++ can’t.

Sound of wings, splash
++++ diminishing;
find the world again
++++ iced over.
Fill the kettle. Holy water.

Bill Griffin (Elkin, NC)
from Quiet Diamonds 2022, The Orchard Street Press, Gates Mill OH

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EARLY SNOW: ASTERACEAE

Stare across any random autumn afternoon and soon you’ll notice the jig and curtsey of little airborne tufts. Catch one and see if there isn’t a tiny hard seed hanging from that feathery wisp. The early snowflake you’re holding is a member of family Asteraceae.

Except for Cardinal flower (Bellflower family, Campanulaceae) and Meadowbeauties (Meadow Beauty family, Melastomataceae), all the flowers mentioned in my homage above are members of the Composite family (Asteraceae). This is the largest family of flowering plants in North America and vies for the world title with Orchidaceae. Besides typical species like asters, sunflowers, black-eyed susans, and coneflowers, Asteraceae includes less obvious suspects like Joe-Pye Weed, goldenrod, ragweed.

Study a daisy: you figure you’re seeing one standard flower, right? A ring of petals around the edge (corolla), eye in the center. Basic taxonomy of flowers depends on the configuration of their reproductive apparatus – flowers. But a daisy is a Composite – each “petal” is 3 or more fused petals from a complete individual Ray flower; each spot in the eye is an individual Disc flower with its own minuscule petals, pistil, and stamen, ready to make a seed. (And if that’s not already confusing, some Composites have only Ray flowers, no Disc (Dandelion), and some have only Disc flowers with no Rays (Fireweed).)

So what about this early snow, then? Ah, sepal and pappus . . .

In most flowers, sepals are the layer, just outside the petals, that make up the protective bud cloak. After the bud opens, the ring of sepals is called the calyx. In Composites, each “flower” actually multiple little florets all clumped together with zero elbow room, the calyx is diminished to almost nothing: the pappus, sometimes visible only with a microscope where it’s fixed to the seed. Except . . . those members of Asteraceae whose pappus is a bristle, hair, tendril, feather. For wind dispersal, but also for wonder and delight. When a breeze puffs the boneset or fireweed or lowly dandelion, one might imagine the pasture will soon be knee deep.

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Doughton Park Tree 2021-02-23

Time’s End

 

[with 2 poems by Richard Chess]

Yesterday my teenage grandson reported that he had run into the father of his own father’s best friend at Trader Joe’s. And he told me he’s 82. I can’t believe that. I soberly reminded him that next year on 11 February I will turn 70. When you’re 70, I informed him, I guess you’re officially old.

My grandson nodded. (Did he have to agree with me quite so quickly?) Then he shrugged, But you’re a child at heart, Pappy. You’ll be OK.

When I told this to my wife later for laughs, she agreed at once. Of course. She thinks she knows exactly what our grandson means. Whenever our seven-year old arrives for the afternoon, her immediate mantra is, Play, Pappy! The funny songs I make up, the games invented, the animal voices and dumb jokes – a playmate, that’s me.

No. There’s no connection between childish and child-like. The former is fun and funny, a diversion; the latter is as serious as time and time’s end. I desire to become child-like and it is a struggle. Or I make it a struggle. Self-inflicted pain wakes me after midnight recalling hurts I’ve caused in times past; worries about indeterminate futures refuse to allow sleep to return. Of course. Who doesn’t worry about their children’s choices, their aging parent’s decline? Who doesn’t have drama and bullshit to put up with? Who, after all, sleeps soundly?

Last night I watched my granddaughter sleep. Utterly relaxed, an exhausted kitten. Breathe in, breathe out. May a bit of her child-like flow into me? This morning she is bouncing and singing and I will clearly have to make time much later for any silent meditation or prayer. Hmm, awkward constuct there, making time. Time is making me. The made up songs, the made up worries, may they flow as they will and may I cease my furious resistance to the flow. May a child’s song be the prayer I need. Trust my heart – I will be OK.

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Tashlikh 5773

++++ “And you will cast all their sins into the
++++ depth of the sea” – Micah 7

++++ Tashlikh: a ritual of symbolically casting
++++ one’s sins into a moving body of water
++++ performed on Rosh Hashanah afternoon

Into this
shallow
creek,
into this
narrow
gesture
of land,
this
slow
discourse
of water,
I empty
my holiday
pockets,
a year’s
crumbs
of gossip,
I empty
my eyes
of lust,
my heart
of unsym-
pathetic joy
over his
fortune,
I empty
my hand
of the fist
and my mouth
of silence
where there
should have
been cries
of injustice,
I empty even
the emptiness
of vows I
made last
night, before
the open
heart of
this synogogue,
this wounded
house of
prayer;
into this
trickle
I empty the
comfort
of ritual
so that I
may stand
stripped to
the bone
of creation,
whthou
a deed
to just
ify my
life, this
life, carried
now only
by the current
of Your mercy.

Richard Chess
from Love Nailed to the Doorpost, University of Tampa Press, (c) 2017

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A mentor from my days of medical training introduced me to Richard Chess last year. (Thank you, Jessica!). His essays in SLANT invariably lift me from my complacent path and set me back down in fields of thoughts like unfamiliar flora; I spend days exploring, learning. What seemed unfamiliar was really already some part of me waiting to be discovered. The personal searching of Richard’s writing invites me, us, to pass through a door that opens into all that makes us human, into all that makes us unique and at once all we share.

More recently, I’ve read Richard’s poetry in Love Nailed to the Doorpost. Unsettling, provoking, unique and uniquely demanding. His personal moments of awareness entwine and intermingle with spiritual mythmaking and retelling of Torah. It is a journey of confession and redemption, of certainty and profound doubt. By the end of the book I’m exhausted by the struggle with my own doubts. But might not doubt be the beginning of faith? I believe there is a benediction available through these poems – beating, beating, beating our heart, our stubborn, collective heart into submission, into awareness, into life.

Richard Chess directed the Center for Jewish Studies at UNC Asheville for 30 years. He helps lead UNC Asheville’s contemplative inquiry initiative. He is a board member for the Center for Contemplative Mind in Society.
More by Richard Chess . . .

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The Huppah

In the sixth or seventy year
of their marriage, the huppah
was stolen. I had absorbed
the love that was consecrated
under it, or it had absorbed nothing
and was merely fabric zipped
into a bag of of no value
to the theif, or it ws a thin
blanket to cover his little girl
on an autumn night, or it was a wrap
with a rainbow of stripes
knotted around his woman
before and after a good fuck.

Of no use to a guy looking
for a quick fix of his broken life,
it may have been tossed into bushes
outside a church or into dumpster.

The huppah had no mouth
to sing the bride’s song,
here I am, take me home.
It had no money to pay
for space in a closet or a drawer
in some row-house. Though it looked
like it could have belonged to a magic
act, it knew no tricks, it could not assist
in sleight-of-hand. Though it looked
sacred, ti could not purify human flesh.

It’s been a dozen years
since the huppah was taken from them,
since it went out into a city of mustard
and minute steak, of a cracked bell and hall
of freedom, and whether it was hauled
to a landfill with all the other refuse
of a fat city, or tacked to a wall and draped
over a window to keep a brother, a cop
from stealing a look at a brother’s girl
moving toward him with all that’s good
to eat, or whether it was offered
to an oil drum’s angry fire
around which six day laborers gather
waiting for the dock to open –
it’s all the same to them. The mortgage

is hungry and must be fed. The children
are stupid and must be prodded
toward the pen where they will be civilized
and milked. The marriage is short
on memory and must be consecrated
again and again, with a glance that shoots
from bride to groom, groom to bride
under the huppah of sky
that fills with clouds and empties, that trembles
dark and light, that must be held in place
by some angels, maybe the same angels
that held their original huppah
for the brief ceremony that preceded
the long ordeal and party of love.

Richard Chess
from Love Nailed to the Doorpost, University of Tampa Press, (c) 2017

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[with 3 poems by Diana Pinkney]

Oh, I couldn’t possibly eat all that. Thank Heavens I haven’t heard Mom utter those words for quite a while now. For the fifty years prior I believe we heard that phrase with each plate set before her. Some impulse ingrained in the 30’s in the genteel South? A mantra for all the new college girls in the 40’s? How, we would ask ourselves behind her back, could someone forever twig slender so fear gaining a pound?

This week at the doctor’s office I watch the nurse enter Mom’s vitals in the computer to make sure she hasn’t lost a pound. Dad admits he hates to nag her to eat her breakfast – too engaged with the paper or too forgetful to take a bite? Yesterday I cooked them both lunch – calm down, it was just 10 minutes in the skillet from Trader Joe’s – and served the plates. It’s no trick, really, just sit across the table from Mom for long enough and she will finally finish what you’ve given her. Don’t forget the milk! The doctor says you need more fluids.

Grandmother, Dad’s Mom, had her own mantra for us grandkids in the 50’s and 60’s: Children are starving in Europe. Yes, swear to God, she actually said that more than once. Chubby me was more than happy to clean his plate, but one breakfast I recall her disapproval. I had scooped up the last Cheerio but there was still milk in the bowl overlying its substratum of teaspoons of sugar. That evening I washed down my cornbread with a big gulp of sudden sickening sweetness Grandmother had rescued from that bowl.

Now I’m clearing the table while Mom stares at the last of her milk, a layer of ice melt above the 2%. In a few minutes, though, as I stand at the sink rinsing, she walks in carrying the empty. I have to say it. Good job, Mom!

❦ ❦ ❦

Super Cuts, Six Months after My Daughter’s Death

The stylist snips, snips my hair, shorter
and shorter. As she works, we talk.

You have children, she asks. Yes,
I answer. Do you? Oh, I have two girls.

How about you? Three, I say, my voice
tight, clipped as the gray strands covering

the floor. My daughter’s hair was long
and red, until it was blonde. She loved

the sun. A little less on the sides, please.
Why didn’t I say I have two children, sons,

and that would have been that. Except that
will never be that. I will always have three

children. Do they live here, she asks?
The sons do. My daughter lives nowhere

and everywhere. It’s good, she says, you
have a girl, too. Yes, I answer, it is good.

Diana Pinckney
from Hummingbirds & Wine, Main Street Rag Publishing, Charlotte, NC, © 2022

❦ ❦ ❦

How impossible to bear, losing a child to death. How much more impossible to write about it. Diana Pinckney in Hummingbirds and Wine overcomes the paralysis of grief, but not as chronicle or biography or personal therapy. Although she confesses I live / behind a veil, these poems are the bridge that leads her and us beyond the Valei of Teeris. These lines are twisting tracks that connect past and present, parent and child, and that connect poet and reader.

On the tree of suffering there is a twig of joy that grows up from dark earth. The root of happiness is the same / as perhaps, both descendants / / of hap – hazard or chance. Diana’s poetry is not rationalization, not sentimentality, not desperate. These are poems that share one moment, then another and another, along the path she has had to walk and which we can now walk together.

❦ ❦ ❦

Sea Turtles

Loggerhead, Leatherback, Ridley or Green, they all drag
themselves onto a beach. Alone under the same moon
on different shores, in their struggle to lay eggs.
Volunteers like Elizabeth spent hours at dawn

searching for the side, clawed tracks, uncovering
and moving the eggs to sand dunes, staking orange
mesh over the nest. Protection, maybe, she said,
from dogs, crabs, lots of things. Oh, my girl, I couldn’t

protect you, holed up in your house in the company
of bottles. Still, in your best years, you waited weeks
for dozens of thin-shelled eggs to split as the tiny feet
tore an opening, and under nodding sea oats, started

their spill up and out. Each one, no bigger than a silver dollar,
struggling to climb into moonlight, and down to the sea’s white foam.

Diana Pinckney
from Hummingbirds & Wine, Main Street Rag Publishing, Charlotte, NC, © 2022

❦ ❦ ❦

Beach Walker

I can still see her stretching in the hazy sun
each morning, strolling the surf, breathing salt

and the musky scent of creatures curled inside
shells – whelks, clams, conchs – once alive.

She so many miles from y city home.
So many Hey Mom’s when I’d lift the phone.

How is it that a heart so loved could weaken
through the days and weeks, and I never knew.

A heart that beat with the rhythm of the sea
and one bright morning would fail her and me.

Diana Pinckney
from Hummingbirds & Wine, Main Street Rag Publishing, Charlotte, NC, © 2022

❦ ❦ ❦

 

 

❦ ❦ ❦

 

 

[including poems about poetry]

Many more people agree they hate poetry
+++++++++++++++++than can agree what poetry is. ++§

Poetry

I, too, dislike it.
+++ Reading it, however, with a perfect contempt for it, one discovers in
+++ it, after all, a place for the genuine.

Marianne Moore
revised version from The Complete Poems of Marianne Moore, 1967, Penguin Classics

❦ ❦ ❦

I started this blog eleven years ago to write about poetry. Wait, no, that isn’t correct. I don’t know anything about poetry. I started this blog plagued with a vague pernicious guilt about that ignorance.

Devoid of understanding notwithstanding, I discovered several poems that kept prodding me, insistent and hungry. I turned away and turned back and there they remained. They invited their friends. I couldn’t bring myself to just toss them back out into the darkness. so I started this blog to give a few poems a little home. To decorate them. Perhaps even to exalt them. Slowly, incautiously, I allowed more and more of them to sneak through the door until they’d taken all the seats and I was the one crouched beneath the table begging.

Then I opened Ben Lerner’s little book – how could one ignore a thing titled, The Hatred of Poetry? At least once a year someone announces the death of poetry; was this book just another swain raising his sword in poetry’s defense? How was I to react to Marianne Moore’s poem smack in the center of page one? Or to understand Ben’s confession that his unbidden mantra whenever he opens a book of verse, is introduced to a poet, attends a reading, stands before his classroom, is, I, too, dislike it?

❦ ❦ ❦

Ars Poetica #100: I Believe

Poetry, I tell my students,
is idiosyncratic. Poetry

is where we are ourselves
(though Sterling Brown said

“Every ‘I’ is a dramatic ‘I’”),
digging in the clam flats

for the shell that snaps,
emptying the proverbial pocketbook.

Poetry is what you find
in the dirt in the corner,

overhear on the bus, God
in the details, the only way

to get from here to there.
Poetry (and now my voice is rising)

is not all love, love, love,
and I’m sorry the dog died.

Poetry (here I hear myself loudest)
is the human voice,

and are we not of interest to each other?

Elizabeth Alexander
from American Sublime, Graywolf Press, © 2005 by Elizabeth Alexander.

❦ ❦ ❦

The poet is a tragic figure, doomed to fail. The poet scrapes together such muck and detritus as we call ‘words’ to try to create a specific and personal and even universal poem, while capital-P Poetry remains lofted out of reach by angels and dreams. The actual poem never becomes all that its maker imagines for it. Bitter logic. Poetry isn’t hard, it’s impossible. Perhaps the heat of our hatred for the poem arising from our biting disappointment can yet burn off a bit of its fog.

I’m condensing all this from Ben Lerner, who writes: Our contempt for any particular poem must be perfect, be total, because only a ruthless reading that allows us to measure the gap between the actual and the virtual will enable us to experience, if not a genuine poem – no such thing – a place for the genuine, whatever that might mean.

So for eleven years I’ve written about earth-smelling gravelly stuff and let a few poems sneak in to hint at the sacred. I’ve written about salamanders, crayfish, herons, asters, lichens; about ecology, taxonomy, biochemistry; about grandchildren, aging parents, being born, dying; about suffering, gratitude, community. The poems have written about what poems write about – I can’t say exactly.

Perhaps you, dear reader, can enlighten me. Perhaps you’ll convince me that none of us understand anything about poetry and thereby absolve me of guilt. Perhaps you’ll reveal to me that the very act of creating is born in transcendent desire – to twine the intensely subjective personal with the authentic encompassing universal – and that the word we use for that desire is “Poetry.”

Perhaps. Perhaps not. At least, though, we can join Ben Lerner in this: All I ask the haters – and I, too, am one – is that they strive to perfect their contempt, bringing it to bear on poems, where it will be deepened, not dispelled, and where, by creating a place for possibility and present absences (like unheard melodies), it might come to resemble love.

§ – quotations are from The Hatred of Poetry, Ben Lerner; Farrar, Straus and Giroux; New York; © 2016 by Ben Lerner

❦ ❦ ❦

Ars Poetica

Thirty miles to the only decent restaurant
was nothing, a blink
in the long dull stare of Wyoming.
Halfway there the unknown but terribly
important essayist yelled Stop!
I wanna be in this; and walked
fifteen yards onto the land
before sky bore down and he came running,
crying Jesus–there’s nothing out there!

I once met an Australian novelist
who told me he never learned to cook
because it robbed creative energy.
What he wanted most was
to be mute; he stacked up pages;
he entered each day with an ax.

What I want is this poem to be small,
a ghost town
on the larger map of wills.
Then you can pencil me in as a hawk:
a traveling x-marks-the-spot.

Rita Dove
from Grace Notes: Poems, W. W. Norton; first appeared in Poetry, October 1987

❦ ❦ ❦

Ars Poetica

A poem should be palpable and mute
As a globed fruit,

Dumb
As old medallions to the thumb,

Silent as the sleeve-worn stone
Of casement ledges where the moss has grown—

A poem should be wordless
As the flight of birds.

*

A poem should be motionless in time
As the moon climbs,

Leaving, as the moon releases
Twig by twig the night-entangled trees,

Leaving, as the moon behind the winter leaves,
Memory by memory the mind—

A poem should be motionless in time
As the moon climbs.

*

A poem should be equal to:
Not true.

For all the history of grief
An empty doorway and a maple leaf.

For love
The leaning grasses and two lights above the sea—

A poem should not mean
But be.

Archibald MacLeish
from Collected Poems 1917-1982, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1952; © 1985 by The Estate of Archibald MacLeish.

❦ ❦ ❦

❦ ❦ ❦

Poetry

I, too, dislike it: there are things that are important beyond all this fiddle.
*****Reading it, however, with a perfect contempt for it, one discovers in
*****it, after all, a place for the genuine.
***********Hands that can grasp, eyes
***********that can dilate, hair that can rise
*****************if it must, these things are important not because a

high-sounding interpretation can be put upon them but because they are
*****useful. When they become so derivative as to become unintelligible
*****the same thing may be said for all of us, that we
***********do not admire what
***********we cannot understand: the bat
*****************holding on upside down or in quest of something to

eat, elephants pushing, a wild horse taking a roll, a tireless wolf under
*****a tree, the immovable critic twitching his skin like a horse that feels a flea
*******************************************************the base-
*****ball fan, the statistician—
***********nor is it valid
*****************to discriminate against “business documents and

school-books”; all these phenomena are important. One must make a *******************************************distinction
*****however: when dragged into prominence by half poets, the result is not
*************************************************poetry,
*****nor till the poets among us can be
***********“literalists of
***********the imagination”—above
*****************insolence and triviality and can present

for inspection, “imaginary gardens with real toads in them,” shall we have
*****it. In the meantime, if you demand on the one hand,
*****the raw material of poetry in
***********all its rawness and
***********that which is on the other hand
*****************genuine, you are interested in poetry.

Marianne Moore
the “original version”

❦ ❦ ❦

RESOURCES:
Ben Lerner
Marianne Moore
Elizabeth Alexander
Rita Dove
Archibald MacLeish

Doughton Park Tree 2020-11-22

Decorations

[with 4 poems by Doug Stuber]

“Look at that one, Mom, a Rainbow Unicorn Skeleton.”

“Oh my, and all the spiders!”

We’re driving through residential Ardmore in Winston-Salem, just the two of us. An outing! On our way to the pharmacy and yes, we’ll pick up a prescription for Dad, but this is one time we made him stay home. Dad’s 96th birthday is Thursday and this is Mom’s chance to pick out a card, maybe a few goodies. And see all the Halloween decorations.

It’s rare that I have Mom all to myself. At her doctor’s appointments Dad tags along, and well he should since Mom’s memory is failing and he needs to tattle on her. The grocery store, the dry cleaners, Trader Joe’s, those are all on Dad’s agenda; usually Mom stays home with the CNA. As Mom ages she’s become more withdrawn, much more passive, but get her one on one and she’ll tell you what she thinks. So here she is riding shotgun, laughing at the yard art, game to grab her cane when we arrive at the store.

While I head to the pharmacist window I leave Mom in the Birthday Card aisle – we have five family birthdays in the next four weeks. When I return, maybe 15 minutes later, she hasn’t picked anything out. I point to a couple that seem likely. She can’t quite decide. That’s OK. I find one with dogs on it that seems right for Dad, get her approval, find some for Allison, Margaret, the Josh’s, subtly nudge her to pick one each. When we finally have our five it’s on to snack selection. I tell her if she’s not sure what Dad would like just get stuff she likes (see how that works?). When we’ve finally paid and returned to the car, I have her put Dad’s chocolates & nuts etc. into the gift bag we bought. Once she’s looked each item over she finally says, “I can’t believe you could pick all that out.” Shoot, Mom, I was wanting you to think YOU picked everything out.

Sadness is just one story we can tell ourselves. I could hold onto Mom’s bewilderment and indecision, nothing like the Mom that raised me. Or I could buckle her in as we laugh, thinking about Dad’s face when he sees his pile of loot. And I could prepare a big build up for the drive home, remind her to look out her window at the Rainbow Unicorn Skeleton, both of us enjoying it again for the first time.

❦ ❦ ❦

Hikaru

One cherry blossom detaches, falls, a single unit
allowing fruit its space, starting its new journey: island
to reflecting pond, orchard to cottage yard, daughter to
love, enhanced by the wind, if even for only six seconds.
Transformed to long-boned genius, long-yearning adult,
considerate friend, purple-green plaid from soft pink,
tan suede boots from five-petalled bloom. Hikaru, as they
say in Japan, hits the town running, arms crossed, cradling
herself like the war-torn victims of Vietnam, but not
worn or torn, she flings enthusiastic youth toward
outstretched limbs. She captures her beginning and future
simultaneously, shedding one form, embracing another,
sweating humid Spring, still awkward in this skin.
Descending unannounced, she moves among mere mortals
spreading joy, quietly demanding obedience, offering all
in exchange for all. Most cannot accept, choose an
easier, less complicated path; but those brave strong souls
born from deep roots, blessed metamorphosed
being who join Miss Cherry soon realize, if for one day,
week, or lifetime, their lives will never be the same

Doug Stuber
from Chronic Observer, Finishing Line Press, Georgetown KY, © 2019

❦ ❦ ❦

Doug Stuber is a crabby pessimistic lyrical idealist. Doug is a sharp-eyed sharp-tongued teary-eyed lover. Humankind, Doug Stuber as chronic observer constantly notices, has royally fucked up and Doug is more than ready to rub our noses in it. Human individuals, Doug reveals over and over in his poetry, are beautiful in their brokenness and he must open his heart. Poetry is silk on the breeze: at first we flinch and claw but with each turn we draw closer together, are drawn, maybe to cocoon or maybe to struggle forth with spread wings and open eyes.

I side with Clark Holtzman in his comment about Doug Stuber’s book: All the poems of Chronic Observer engage the world we are given, natural or political, fair or foul, as the given it is. Buy this book, read it. You’ll see what it means.

❦ ❦ ❦

The Mangrove Blues

The sun sinks.
A pumping heron
Chases dreams into the night,
Resting momentarily
In a life of constant motion.

The wind shakes.
Trees stretch out,
Anticipating winter.
Orange floods
Mangrove and the pines.

The cold turns.
Clouds gather
Over murky surroundings,
Drifting slowly inland
To dump a fresh-new load.

The tears run.
A skipping child
Delivers momentary reprieve.
Gloom infests
The evening of a lonely-hearted man.

Doug Stuber
from Chronic Observer, Finishing Line Press, Georgetown KY, © 2019

❦ ❦ ❦

Rules

It took this long to hide my penchant: Rhymes.
Another reading forces inner looks.
Where is Ed and his heroic Elegy for us?
What happened when we traded love of lines
For time cards, bosses, corporate crooks?

Here’s what happened: life became a chore,
There is not time left to rage creating.
Competitive suburban gardening ins a bust.
What there is left is not elating
Except the love of soul-mates through this door.

The Eagle’s Nest is now a restaurant:
You get a 15-dollar turkey plate up there.
But is a fourth Reich rising from the rust,
Or are we evil, just nonchalant?
Oklahoma City fades like sunset air:

The only lasting image is your own.
One veto and the fascists will shut us down.
One thousand points of veto from the upper crust
Without a batted eyelash from this clown.
What further outrage can we condone?

As long as TV says it is OK
Our lives submit to the worst human rages.
Just when we’ve farmed this place to dust
Some half-assed savior might come our way
Passing manna to those left: food of the ages.

Doug Stuber
from Chronic Observer, Finishing Line Press, Georgetown KY, © 2019

❦ ❦ ❦

❦ ❦ ❦

[Given the approaching season, I just have to include this final poem of Doug’s.]

KC and the Thanksgiving Prayer

I gave a thanksgiving prayer to a new family I met near Asheville. I got twigs and built a triangle (the three goddesses: corn, squash, and beans) and a square (the four directions: North – Winter and cleansing, East: Spring and beginnings, South: Summer and warmth, West: Fall and remembrances). the triangle sits above the square, because it is the goddesses who feed us: corn, squash, and beans.

You start in the square facing West and, while turning right for each new direction, say:

We salute you for your wind and fresh new sky
We salute your wonderful people and cleansing snow
We greet the day with dreams to labor by
We salute your sun and love and fun and go

To green mountains, cold river by the leaves
Of Rhododendron bushes, tall black trees.
A new friend of mine now believes,
Captured by spirits she feels and doesn’t have to see.

Doug Stuber
from Chronic Observer, Finishing Line Press, Georgetown KY, © 2019

❦ ❦ ❦

2016-01-30 Doughton Park Tree

Swamp Monster

[with 3 poems by Alan Michael Parker]

When grandson Bert walks the lakeside trail at Yates Mill in Raleigh with his Dad & Mom, they are ever alert for evidence of the Swamp Monster. Those unexplained bubbles in the pond? Could be Swamp Monster breathing. The sudden galoomp that startles us, abrupt pivot, but all we see are receding ripples? Yep, SM. A patch of pond lily that speckles and ripples the surface? Bert explains to me, instructor to pupil – that’s Swamp Monster’s ridged, scaley back.

At age five Bert teeters on the delicious cusp between credulity and manly savvy. He knows there’s not really a Swamp Monster, but he still craves more of those tingly shivers that rise like dark forms from dark water, birthed by lingering maybe’s. And who’s to say that Swamp Monster is not the wisest of teachers? Step One and Step Two along the Naturalist Way are Pay Attention; Ask Questions. No question is ever too silly; all questions are worthy. Like this one – Does Swamp Monster have pets?

Maybe those two turtles jostling among the pickerel weed. Maybe the northern watersnake camouflaged beside the minnow-filled mill pond. And what in the world is this thing? Glommed around a root in the water, a gelatinous hive, a lurking snotball! And there’s another, and another. Yuck, Swamp Monster!

We have made a discovery, life forms creepy enough to serve as pet to any self-respecting Swamp Monster: fresh water bryozoans. That mucusy ball, almost as big as a Jack-o-Lantern, is a clonal colony of tiny filter-feeding invertebrates. Occupying their own Phylum, for goodness sake! Each tiny individual everts a ring of tiny tentacles with cilia that waft food particles down toward its tiny mouth. If there’s danger, it pulls them back in and down pops the lid. In some colonies there are specialized individuals that can sting. Some species are able to creep around (although at only a couple of centimeters a day, they’re not about to engulf us)! Nice Bryo . . . Sit! . . . Stay!

All of this is just to say – whenever you’re hiking through prime Swamp Monster habitat, it is always important to pay attention.

❦ ❦ ❦

Breakfast
++++ It’s not just sentimental, no, no, no…

Once there was a blueberry
in a bowl of granola.
The bowl was Melamine, the table was pine,
the kitchen was linoleum and metal and oak,
and the house was brick and cedar and aluminum,
and the roofing material in the shingles
was fire-rated Class A, don’t worry.
There were trees: hawthorns and one river birch.
There were azaleas and a Lindlley’s Butterfly Bush.
The sky was 78% nitrogen and 21% oxygen,
with a trace of argon gas, and ice in crystals.
Space was an almost perfect vacuum,
with a few hydrogen atoms per cubic meter.

Maybe the blueberry and one hydrogen atom
were cousins, cosmically and/or metaphysically.
The spoon that held up the blueberry
was aluminum, the shine a little worn,
and the blueberry was violet in a gradient,
a tad puckered, still with a bit of stem.

Today, class, let’s all be astronauts.
We’ll begin with breakfast, and then
we’ll search the universe for tenderness,
which I suspect – so long,
my blueberry, adieu
may be the last perfect thing.

Alan Michael Parker
from The Age of Discovery, Tupelo Press, © 2020.

❦ ❦ ❦

These poems by Alan Michael Parker dance on the knife-edge of joy. Oh yes, my warm Companion, we may slip and often we may bleed, but just for a minute let’s join that puffy red cloud drunk on sunset. Let’s confess our secret angry names (“asshole,” you say?). Let’s discover the microeconomics of love, the birth of the cool, the future of love. Isn’t this, after all, the Age of Discovery?

Who’s to say that the highest life form is not a colony of clonal bryozoans? Can you or I wave our little ciliated arms over our heads and expect sustenance to waft into what might pass for a mouth? On the other hand, you and I are blessed with cheeks able to detect the tender kiss of the cosmos, and hearts with the capacity of affection for tender bryozoans. Let’s join Alan Michael Parker on the journey: Dear Reader, I know you’re dying / That’s sad. Me too. // How about we wait here together?

The epigraph to Breakfast is from “Try a Little Tenderness,” covered by Otis Redding in 1966, backed by Booker T. & the M.G.’s. Psalm is after Yehuda Amichai’s “Jewish Travel: Change is God and Death is His Prophet.”

 

❦ ❦ ❦

Ornithology

When a bird flew into my window
and made a hard and soft death sound,

I found her in the dirt below
and I fixed a cardboard nest for her
and fed her from an eyedropper
what the Internet suggested,
and I named her Young Self,

and when a bird flew into my living room
and frantically bumped at every corner above,
I named her Old self,

and because height and light are
humankind’s spiritual aspiration,
I wished my hands were birds.

Luckily, it was evening,
the outside version of my sorrow:

the swallows flocked and flew
to sleep somewhere, presumably,
and every swallow was like a minute,

so I watched and tried to count, which is what I do,
despite so much of each day
happening to me,

and I fed my Young Self more sugar water
while my Old Self
beat in a corner to get out.

Alan Michael Parker
from The Age of Discovery, Tupelo Press, © 2020.

❦ ❦ ❦

Psalm

If there are grave stones, may there be
shy stones, kind stone, mad stones,
scared stones, thoughtful stones,
and may we have a choice;

and if there are hummingbirds, may there be
humming walks and humming naps,
humming minutes between
the minutes that hum in anger,
a humming table and chair by the fire,
and a warm and humming towel to wrap us in.

If there are thunder clouds, may there be
whisper clouds and echo clouds,
clouds the rustling of linens,
giggling clouds scampering,
and clouds to call a child home;

if there are heavy sighs, may there be
sighs that float or sink or rise,
and sighs that drift away,
and sighs to take from us our sighs;

and may the weeping willow,
the weeping redbud,
and the weeping cherry
weave of their weeping an evening gown;

and when we come to the end of days,
may we come to a beginning;
and if there is a time keeper,
may there be a time giver,
and if there is a guard house,
may the house be safe unguarded,

and if there is an ocean view, may we see
what the ocean sees,
the little boats of our bodies
nudged into the tide.

Alan Michael Parker
from The Age of Discovery, Tupelo Press, © 2020.

❦ ❦ ❦

❦ ❦ ❦

IMG_1783

 

Semper plus discere

[with poems from Visions International]

From the ridge above the creek the tallest tulip trees poke their heads up to catch the evening sun. Hammered gold, bright lemon and lime, for a moment they torch the forest and we who look up catch their display. Without this certain angle of sun, autumn lends these trees only ochre dashed with butterbrown; without us looking up at just this certain moment we might not appreciate them at all.

Most everyone mid-October is planning their looking up. Hey Honey, wanna drive up on the Parkway on Saturday (the crowds, the crowds!)? Which weekend will be peak color? Was late summer wet enough and September nights cool enough for the maples to manufacture their anthocyanins? (Yes, most everyone is debating phytochromes and anthocyanins whether they know it or not.) Slowing the car. Craning necks. Meanwhile Linda and I are back in deep shade where beech and hickory still hold onto their leaves. We’re looking down, not up. The color we seek is reclusive, modest, avoiding the limelight.

Right now is when Beech Drops bloom. No one is noticing. If you see them at all, you probably assume they’re the leafless twigs of some summer forb that’s already succumbed. It’s hard to even realize that their bare centimeter-long appendages are flowers. Bud, bloom, and pod all look pretty much the same. In fact I didn’t even realize they were blooming until I got down on my belly with a macro lens and then blew up the images. A streak or two of deep purple up their sides; pursed lips of fused petals; one protruding yellow stigma, anthers too delicate to see – but little friends, you’re gorgeous!

Epifagus virginiana is the only member of its genus. It is parasitic, like many other members of the Broomrape family (Orobanchaceae). It attaches to roots of Beech trees for all of its nourishment; it makes no chlorophyll and the only remnants of leaves are tiny scales along its stem. There’s no sign that Beech Drops weaken or harm their host, but in late summer and fall their pale stems emerge from the leaf litter like bony fingers of the undead – just in time for Halloween! Walk through a beech grove: when you notice your first Beech Drop you’ll suddenly realize there are hundreds all around you, and when the low angle of late sun catches them, translucent purple like pale flesh, you might just get creeped out.

For years I had mistaken Beech Drops for the dry leavings of Puttyroot or Cranefly Orchid. Now that I’ve learned their identity, I make a point of seeking them out. On display, this is the one qualification of the Naturalist: Curiosity. The four steps along the path of the Naturalist: Pay attention; Ask questions; Make connections; Share. And the motto of the Naturalist, a motto I just made up and have taken for myself, at least: Semper plus discere. “Always more to learn.”

❦ ❦ ❦

Snow on the Back of Cattle

They seem, at first, dark formations of stone,
half drifted in, bunched and volcanic, rectangular
with oddly shaped outcroppings, sun glinting
on crystal, fringes of gray-green and palest
yellow: lichen, sage, bleached dry grasses
Then small puffs of steam, their breath, shift
and snuffle, soft voices lowing, hooves cracking
the frost. In two places near the herd’s edge,
bright splashes of red where calves dropped
in the darkness, where rough tongues licked
them clean and muzzles nudged small bodies
until they stood, shaking with wonder, to
search out the straining udders and drink.

B. J. Buckley (Power, Montana)
from Visions International, #106, Autumn, 2022

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Forty years ago Bradley Strahan collected work from poets from around the world and created the first slender volume of Visions International. Twenty years ago I first picked up a copy from a table at a poetry conference, not fully grasping what I was holding. I wondered about the title. Not the International part – holy cow, Bulgaria, Ukraine, Ireland, Italy – but the Visions. For the past several years I’ve been a subscriber and I think I’m finally getting it. To see . . . with another’s eyes, from within another’s place and persona. With every issue that arrives, the poems nudge, jostle, encourage with their quiet insistence that I open my eyes. And learn.

Semper plus discere – always more to learn. The two Latin roots disco and doceo are closely related (from the same Proto-Indo-European origin) – to learn, to understand / to teach, to instruct or show. I perceive that Bradley’s mission is to rattle us loose from the cage of our unquestioned routine, to crack a first fracture into our ossified assumptions. Always more to teach, always more to learn. And how about the homologue discern – from dis – cernere, to take apart – to be able to distinguish or perceive the differences between two things that might at first have seemed to be identical. The poems in Visions International never fail to open my eyes, my mind, my heart to a larger world, more varied, more diverse. More exciting!

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Tell Me Where All Past Years Are

She had a broad lap, a feed sack apron.
We sat warming on the stoop, and everything around falling
fell into her sack, golden
catkins, chinquapin burs, pods
of locust sticky with their honey,
dust of stars, dust out of the furrows.
She hummed; I translate:
+++++ When will the time come back to me
when hours were in my pocket
as man and heavy as loose pennies,
when days oozed thicker than
end-of-summer honey, when happiness
formed in my hands like butter from the churh
to squeeze and pat into a cake
and print with a petal crown of daisies?
+++++ No we both are humming, sixty or more
years between renditions, and while
we sing the sun clocks out and the moon
on the ridgetop stands and shakes out its lap,
a glowing radium dial.

J. S. Absher (Raleigh, North Carolina)
from Visions International, #106, Autumn, 2022

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Magpie Potential

The cloak requires to be worn lightly.
You cope with its invisibility
and, trying it on for size, dip your hands
in its deep pockets until they

smuggle up four eggs of lustrous blue,
brown-spotted, the same eggs
you climbed to find in Ballyduggan wood
in your barefoot childhood.

One by one you put the eggs
to your ear, amazed to hear from each
the whir of magpie potential.
Gently you bed them back down,

hoping for wingtips to sprout, bodies
and legs and darkly the eyes
and cowled heads
to come about. Hoping for feathered

iridescence, even for flight,
and your life of hoard-need, or reining in,
of fear that you might fail,
seems only a grounding for this

exuberant scatter and go. You withdraw
your hands, but all is empty now,
and clay, make of it what you
will, clings cold under every fingernail.

Patrick Deeley (Dublin, Ireland)
from Visions International, #106, Autumn, 2022

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Note: Issue Number 106 of Visions International also includes a poem by Deborah Doolittle (Jacksonville, North Carolina) that I admire, Bird Poem, plus work by poets from Italy, China, Germany, France, Bulgaria, Hungary, Ireland, Ukraine, and eleven states in the USA.

Visions International is published by Visions International Arts Synergy, a 501(c)3 non-proift group for the promotion of poetry and the arts. Subscriptions are $25 for 4 issues; Contact BLACK BUZZARD PRESS / 309 Lakeside Drive / Garner, NC 27529.

To which little magazines do you subscribe? Support poetry by reading it. I’ve got 20 years of Mainstreet Rag piled on the bookcase; the mailman brings me every issue of Tar River Poetry and Cave Wall. Semper plus discere. Semper plus legere.

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Doughton Park Tree 4/30/2022

 

Engaged

[with 3 poems by Cal Nordt]

Happy Birthday! Not that it’s yours today but that you’ve had one (plus a few anniversaries) and can still remember when it is. Last Thursday at the hospital I tried to keep track of how many times someone asked Dad his birth date: the clerk at registration, the orderly leading us to pre-op, every nurse at every encounter, every blood draw, every consent, every med. The Urology resident, the Anesthesiology attending. Yes, Mr. Griffin, and tell me your birthday? Even after I’d put his hearing aides in my pocket, he managed to answer them all correctly right up to and including that one last time before they parted the curtains, wheeled him to OR, and pointed me in the direction of the waiting room.

Every ask is a reminder that in four weeks Dad will be 96. More than one scrubs-clad woman remarked, “I can’t believe that’s really your age!” Does he appear so young? I can’t see it – how different does 80 look from 100? No, my theory is that it’s because he is so present. He’s watching them, telling them his story even if for the dozenth time, questioning, commenting. Some might describe him as engaged – we, his kids, tend to call it sociable. There is some ineffable quality about my father that makes people want to talk to him.

I guess that’s how a person makes it to 95. When I ask Dad, “How was your day?” his answer is to tell me who stopped by for a visit or which family member he Zoomed (after he’s told me what he had for supper). And by the time I’ve finished writing this it will be only three weeks until Dad is 96. Which makes me . . . mmm . . . don’t ask.

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Turning Pages

Time the destroyer is time the preserver . . . T. S. Eliot, The Dry Salvages

We rode miles of rolling country roads,
past tobacco fields, crumbling farm shacks,
vast woods of longleaf pine.

Bike Rides with My Dad was her first book,
illustrated – words and crayon drawings,
her fascicles on soft cream-colored paper
bound in bright red yarn.

When that book was made, my bike tire
had gone flat – we walked two miles home
and talked the whole way. She was eight.
Spring was off in the distance,
after a month’s turning days.

Eighteen years later, it’s almost summer;
she’s half a world away, an artist teaching
English to children near Taipei. Our first
video call, miles of talk
on aesthetics and poetics.

“Does it really exist, this destroyer, time?”
Rilke asked years ago. But isn’t time
just a tablet of blank pages we draw on
that turn one way, while memory
turns the other?

Cal Nordt
from Mystical Fictions, © 2022 Cal Nordt

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I don’t think Cal Nordt is nearly as old as my Dad, although if you put them in a lineup I wouldn’t bet on you being able to pick the younger 5 times out of 10. (Did I just say that once you’re 80 you don’t look any different from 100? Ask me that again in ten years). One thing the two of them share, though, is that innate push to engage. Show up at a poetry event and there’s Cal in the front row. Even if it requires block and tackle, Cal is going to stand and read a poem.

I’m sure Cal’s desire to connect and to share are a big part of what drove him to create and compile his book, Mystical Fictions, a labor of many years. As I read and reread these poems, it’s just like we’re back in a late night kitchen somewhere swapping yarns. Maybe some of the events in these poems occurred when Cal and I both still had hair, maybe entropy is having its way with us and with those we love, but the voice that sounds through these pages is fresh and wry. His delight in the quirky nature of physical reality and the quirky reality of human nature are still delightful. Are we getting old? Hell, it’s all relative.

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Physics

I’m still frustrated by
gravity –
things falling
down.
But I’m OK with entropy
now.
And I’m OK with the arrow
of time.
If the arrow suddenly
switched –
and it all headed crunch-ward
(galaxies, the universe, etcetera)
and the shattered glass really did
jump
back from the floor
up on the counter,
while,
I’d be perplexed – liking
the one change, but maybe not
the other.
You can’t have
everything
your
way.

Cal Nordt
from Mystical Fictions, © 2022 Cal Nordt

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Stop Time

In jazz, when a chord is played only on the first beat.

To freeze time:
a sculpture
in a courtyard,
a flower pressed
in a book, a butterfly
flattened behind glass.
Why can’t we see things
without stopping them?

Like particles we can’t
throw light on without changing
by a photon’s reflection,
do we make them physical
when we stop addressing them
as points in a flow
missing certain coordinates,
the folded-in dimensions?
We press things flat to understand –
the smallest bits allowed in
our philosophy or science.
We call them probabilities,
not even a thing we can hold.

Words of ink on a page,
old photos . . .
Eternal is a dead end.
Life moves, sparkles in
another’s eyes, an instant’s
shared sense of what is:
wind on a leaf, rain
on hot tar, touch
of a hand then let go.

Cal Nordt
from Mystical Fictions, © 2022 Cal Nordt

❦ ❦ ❦

I couldn’t resist sharing the book’s cover with artwork by the Nordt Grandchildren, Elding, Jane, Owen, Tommy, Maggie, Joey, and Kit. Cover and book design by Cal’s daughter, Katie LaRosa.

 

Mystical Fictions is available through BOOKSHOP and (omg) WAL-MART.

❦ ❦ ❦

IMG_1783

 

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