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[with 3 poems by Pam Baggett]

The last time I saw my best friend Rick was in his hospital room. His counts were so low he couldn’t go home. They would never budge. Oh yes, last time, the idea must have hovered above us like a moth in pale daylight but we didn’t speak it. Isn’t it always easier to count on one more time before the last?

What we did talk about was lighthouses. Linda and I had taken our grandson to the Outer Banks that summer. We’d found the Mexican food truck on Ocracoke just like Rick had described it. We’d climbed Hatteras, Bodie, Currituck. Rick loved to hear our tales, loved those beaches, loved telling us his own stories. That’s how we shared our last couple of hours, transporting ourselves out of that hospital room into places we loved together.

Rick loved stories but in a deeper sense Rick just simply loved. He loved us into his family when our own family was just getting started. Through forty-some years of mountaintops along with several dry rocky valleys in between, he never checked us off his love list. A few days after that visit, Jan called to let us know that the last of Rick’s last times had run out. But last is not the same thing as over.

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After

Huddled on the porch steps,
sheltered from wind, you crave something deeper
than warmth. Sparrows scratch in the garden,
though the frozen soil yields only stones.
A hound howls from a half-mile away
and caffeine stirs in your blood. Startled
to heel hope nudge, you inch forward into a shard
of sunlight. You’re a few days past Christmas,
overdosed on food and family regret.
Your best friend and your dog
have just died. You know telling people
makes you sound like a Conway Twitty song,
yet you’ve spend hours on the phone,
letting them know who the world has lost.

Sitting out here, throat-sore, silent,
you knit blue fingers around your knees,
rocking, rocking, your thoughts black birds
circling an empty sky.

Pamela Baggett

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Senecio aureus, Golden Ragwort

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Let me recommend something. Sit down for an hour with Pam Baggett’s book, Wild Horses; start with the first poem; read straight through to the very end. It is a novella about friendship. It’s about not over. The 29 poems span maybe forty years: Pam & Cindy at 13 crazy about boys but crazier about rock and roll; best friends separated; best friends reunited and still crazy; best friends together through all the last times while one is dying of cancer. Oh my, the music. And of course the stories. The stories we share transport us into places we love together.

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Dog Dreams

In Cindy’s back yard, far from her mother
snoring in the recliner, we slap mosquitoes
despite a smelly citronella candle,
dodge slobber from the neighbor’s black Lab
who loves Cindy like a favorite chew toy.
Fifty years old, we giggle about our moms
as if we’re still thirteen. Mine answers every doorbell
gripping a suitcase. Cindy’s rubs her eye
until it’s teary, convinced there’s glass.

Almost midnight, Cindy sighs.
Keith Richards is nearly seventy, you know.
I yawn. Who’d have thought he’d make it so long?
Silence. Then Cindy lets me off easy –
Remember when we used to take drugs?
For fun? I bend to tie my shoe, hiding my face.
Why the hell did I promise not to cry?

Her skin goes gray when she tires.
I hug her, and her hair, thinned
from chemo, still smells like the pillow
I slept on all those high school weekends
decades ago. I offer reassurances,
a game of pretend. Pat the Lab
one last time before I leave.

Than night I dream my two dead beagles
race across the neighbor’s lawn
to hurl muscled bodies against me, my dogs
who in this vision belong to someone else.
I think, I have to return them, but then I realize
they’ve claimed me, the way her love
claims me, even as she surrenders
to the cold steady fire burning away inside her.

Pamela Baggett

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At 3:00 A.M.

Driven from bed’s warm covers,
I stumble to my desk.
Beyond the open window,
a fox barks, some small animal screams.
Gnats spin in drunken spirals
around the lamp. Grief
performs its slow
dazed circuit of my thoughts.

Now, in the hell of your last
days, I clutch at each moment,
trying not to picture
the cold clay blanket
that will soon cover you.

I shiver, a rabbit
that has seen the fox
but waits until the last second,
frozen, before it runs.

Pamela Baggett
all selections from Wild Horses, Pam Baggett, Main Street Rag Publishing, © 2018

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Anemone cinquefolia, Wood Anemone

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2016-05-08b Doughton Park Tree

[with 3 poems by Maureen Ryan Griffin]

At the National Zoo in DC the Maned Wolves are sniffing them out – crunch; the Red River Hogs have dug up their entire enclosure to welcome them; the Big Cats just couldn’t care less about them; the River Otters bat them like shuttlecocks a few times, then crunch; the Keepers are busy calculating how much less protein to allot each daily feed because of all the crunching of them.

Here in Elkin an army of little workmen fill the trees, each holding in his middle arms and forward arms a tiny leaf blower set on max. Their women can’t resist that sound. Cedar waxwings can’t resist coming down from the heights where they usually hang out to nab nymphs climbing up the oak trees. Yellow-billed cuckoos are planning three broods this summer after checking out the buffet.

In 10th grade Mrs. Schilling made sure we learned the major orders – Lepidoptera, Diptera, Hymenoptera, etc., not least Hemiptera, the True Bugs (you’d better not call a Coleoptera a “bug”). Stink Bugs, you guys are old news after this year’s Hemiptera (suborder Homoptera) emergence — Magicicada septendecim Brood X, The Great Eastern Brood, magical indeed, to you we doff our hats. Second thought I’ll keep mine on.

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Ten Thousand Cicadas Can’t Be Wrong

Summer sings sweet songs for her supper,
but her golden slippers aren’t for sale – no unless
you happen upon some celestial bargain basement
of goodly delights. There, nearly hidden under
last year’s turquoise silk sky, raspberries ripen, rampant,
as the mourning dove’s plum notes whirr, winged
into basil-drenched dreams. All this, and watermelon, too,
and fireflies, and the daylilies from your mother’s
last garden, double-headed. Just don’t forget
there are chiggers, and mosquitoes, of course, and that heat
everyone speaks of, muggy, tasting of
mildewed shower shoes, sounding for all the world like
kudzu unfurling in Jackson, Mississippi, where Janis Joplin
might have sung supper songs of her own. I don’t know.
I’ve never been there. I do know freedom’s not
just another word for nothin’ left to lose, and that you’ll never
find that bargain basement, no matter how long you look.
Listen, ten thousand cicadas can’t be wrong.
Anybody knows larvae never lie, not as long as
persimmons pucker and peaches procrastinate.
Lollygag in your hammock if you must, whenever
the tomatoes lean, but remember
that the persnickety bookie of guilt and doubt
is keeping score. You can’t hide but you can
run. You can steal the chiggers right out from under
the blackberries. You can rob from the raspberries
in bruised homage to the summer afternoon
the two most beautiful words in the English language,
according to Henry James, whose afternoons
are elsewhere now. Tu connais Uncle Death?
No worries. Aunt Morning will waltz willfully
wanton beyond noon, yea, and onward, well past dusk,
in Sister Summer’s silver slippers, the ones
deep in her closet that she seldom thinks to wear.

Maureen Ryan Griffin

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Could there be a more perfect moment to re-read Maureen Ryan Griffin’s book Ten Thousand Cicadas Can’t Be Wrong? Her poetry is often about the changing seasons, the changes in our lives, the mile markers and wrong turns and new pathways discovered in the process. Nature and human nature interwoven, the book is rich and broad-ranging; I’d add even more selections from the Ten Thousand but when the sun comes out the little leaf-blowers rev up and soon I can’t hear myself think.

[Rather than 10 to the 4th we’re dealing with 10 to the 13th = tens of trillions. But they are nice and crunchy.]

Maureen (no kin to this writer) is best known as “midwife to dreams” for the many writers she has instructed, encouraged, and inspired through the years. Visit her website WORDPLAY and learn more about “spinning words into gold” through her contributions to the award-winning CHARLOTTE READERS PODCAST.

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I’d like to think it isn’t greed

impelling us
to gather
far beyond need, whatever
our predilection –
++++++ blackberries
++++++ buckeyes
++++++ daylilies
++++++ fireflies
++++++ olive shells
++++++ sand dollars
++++++ stones –
++++++++++++ rather,
the feel of familiar
texture, convexity,
the comfort
of a particular weight
cradled in a palm.
Who knows
what it is that sings
as we fill
+++ baskets to overflowing
with our own peculiar harvests.
We feel the lure
+++ cull just one more
as if it were important to
keep this bit of fruit
from what we think of
as waste, to save
another shell from being
shattered by the sea,
to make ourselves a home among
the things of this world.

Maureen Ryan Griffin

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When the Leaves Are in the Water

When my brother and I walked
through these woods, he pointed out
subtleties of bark and branches,
read growth rings, spoke of drought
and rainy years. Said I look

like Mother. What I love
about trees: they endure
the seasons. I yearn
to be sweet gum, sugar maple.
My brother named me

ironwood, divined my rusting
heart, too hard to yield
forgiveness. Would we agree on oak,
my gallnuts early griefs
painstakingly transformed?

Arriving at the creek bank,
I let silt run through my fingers,
minute bits of pebble
with unseen roughness.
I wasn’t looking when my hands

turned into hers. I plunge them
into cold creek water.
I once thought
forgiving her was clean,
balsam on a wound

to make it heal. It’s more
like washing hands
before a meal. I have to do it
over and over: forgiveness
to the third power. I feel

it’s time, but loss spirals
deeper each succeeding
season. What will I be without
my holy anger – stripped bare
like the skeleton of a tree,

my stipule scars, my leaf
scars showing. Trees are born
to nakedness – I’m not ready.
My brother told me
the Cherokee believe

it’s a time of great power
when the leaves are in the water.
I fling in handfuls of
hard memories, watch the current
carry them away.

Maureen Ryan Griffin
all selections from Ten Thousand Cicadas Can’t Be Wrong, New and Selected Poems, Main Street Rag Publishing, © 2014 Maureen Ryan Griffin

Magicicada

Brood X

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IMG_6432

photo by Saul Griffin

[with 3 poems by Becky Gould Gibson]

Amelia’s Papa Jimmy brought the bunnies to playschool yesterday. Four of them had fallen from a nest destroyed as he cleared a field two weeks ago. No mother in sight.

When we heard he’d bought bunny milk at Tractor Supply and was feeding them four drops every two hours we first thought, Is he raising them for the dogs? Not to eat, to teach. He trains young beagles to hunt; maybe they need to learn the smell of rabbits?

But no, not at all, it’s just that Jimmy can’t leave helpless young to die. Tractor Supply will mix up formula for any small critter you may have need of. He used a dropper until they learned to suck from a nipple. Two weeks later they’re hopping, eating tasty greens.

Yesterday each four- and five-year old got to hear the bunnies’ story, touch their soft ears and heads. Today Jimmy will release them at the edge of the woods, restored to bunny-ness, preserved for no other purpose than themselves.

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Stand of Birches

The woods are wet this morning – rain yesterday
or the day before, maybe – such a sense of quiet,
all the damp peace of it, mostly trees to be with,
birches especially, minimalists in chic black and white,
raw silk with horizontal markings like wounds
slashed across white paper, dashes, staples, lines
of ghostly scansion, every beat, every syllable
of wood and glade accented, no scales or hierarchies
scored in their bark, rather universal emphasis,
as if everything mattered – this tiny white-headed
flower, this ant on some errand, even the mosquito
buzzing my ankles, these low-growing grasses,
branch with its bark pulled back, underbelly softening,
chartreuse mosses – though brief, briefly important.

Becky Gould Gibson

photo by Saul Griffin

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These poems by Becky Gould Gibson are from her book Heading Home, the winner of the inaugural Lena Shull Book Contest in 2013. The poetry is strongly rooted in family and place but also richly steeped in literary tradition and history. I keep coming back to Stand of Birches for its eloquent, even spiritual expression of the deepest premise of Ecology: not utilitarian, not exploitative, not derivative or charismatic or anthropocentric – each living thing in all its interconnectedness is of value in and for itself.

Yes, yes, OK, OK, even mosquitoes.

In 2012 the Poetry Council of North Carolina elected to dissolve its organization and merge its residual funds with the North Carolina Poetry Society. Since 1949 PCNC had promoted the craft of poetry in the state with its annual contests; now in collaboration with NCPS it established an endowment to sponsor the annual Lena Shull Book Contest for an unpublished full length manuscript by a North Carolina writer, named for founder and first president of PCNC. Becky Gould Gibson was the first Lena Shull winner.

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Scuppernongs
+++ Immortal life will be given . . .
+++ The Lord of harvest gathers us, / Sheaves of the dead –
++++++++++++++++++++++ for Bill

When death lifts its edge a little,
as in the first movement of Mahler’s C minor symphony,
you wonder will you be ready.
We finish a bowl of scuppernongs from the market,
wild bronze from childhood,
delighting in the bite, thick skin between our teeth,
touch tongue-tip to tongue-tip.
You taught my tongue to talk back.
I recall all those summers,
you in another county, nearly a decade before we would meet.

Now, come with me.
We’re together, then. It’s a languid afternoon in late August.
I’m eight. You’re ten.
As for death, I still think I can talk my way out of it.
Follow me across the un-mowed yard,
weeds tickling our legs,
to the scuppernong bush at the edge of Mr. Marcus’s field.
For you, death is no fiction.
At six, made to duck under your desk at school,
wear a dog tag, so someone could identify your body.
No bucket. We stuff ourselves madly.
Know what happens if you swallow a seed? We laugh.

No, love. It is not my own death I worry about, but yours –
will I ever be ready for it?
To be alone as I was that distant August,
memory plucking the fruit of you, scuppernong ripe in my mouth.

Becky Gould Gibson

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Lines to Yeats on the Anniversary of His Death
++++ January 28, 1939
++++ for Alice

To a soul just fledged, still damp, in a nest
Of paper, flimsy bits of Plato, Paul,
Shelley, Wordsworth, Tennyson, all the rest
Who believed (or even half-believed) soul
Could soar above the earth (earth a mere cast
Of heaven), spirit somehow separable
From flesh, you came, William (my dear Willie)
With your poems of pure song, heart’s own music.

No wonder it entered my veins, my pulse
Learned to tick your rhythms. No matter you
Warned not to pleasure soul at the expense
Of body, who could even listen to
Such warning with such a beat, sound and sense
So perfectly married, as if to show
A manmade thing could become immortal,
Gold bird on a gold limb sing out its soul.

You made me more impatient than ever
To conceive such a poem of my own.
Your artless art merely fed the fever,
Yet every line fell stillborn from my pen.
Blood had become a colorless liquor
Nourished on symbols. Life had to happen,
And it did. Not a woman but a child,
Rather a child’s birth. It was a girl-child

Split me apart. No way to staunch the flood
(Nothing’s sole or whole that has not been rent)
Of blunt necessity. You had your Maud.
I had my Alice. She caught me up, lent
Me her knowledge. She, no man or bird-god,
Made loins shudder, roused me from those years spent
In abstraction, taught me bone, bowel, breath,
Body’s mortal work. She taught me my death.

Becky Gould Gibson

three poems from Heading Home, Winner of the 2013 Lena Shull Book Contest, Main Street Rag Publishing Company, © 2014 Becky Gould Gibson

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2016-05-08a Doughton Park Tree

[an essayette by poet Ross Gay and a poem by Bill Griffin]

Joy is Such a Human Madness: The Duff Between Us

Or, like this: in healthy forests, which we might imagine to exist mostly above ground, and be wrong in our imagining, given as the bulk of the tree, the roots, are reaching through the earth below, there exists a constant communication between those roots and mycelium, where often the ill or weak or stressed are supported by the strong and surplused.

By which I mean a tree over there needs nitrogen, and a nearby tree has extra, so the hyphae (so close to hyphen, the handshake of the punctuation world), the fungal ambulances, ferry it over. Constantly. This tree to that. That to this. And that in a tablespoon of rich fungal duff (a delight: the phrase fungal duff, meaning a healthy forest soil, swirling with the living the dead make) are miles and miles of hyphae, handshakes, who get a little sugar for their work. The pronoun who turned the mushrooms into people, yes it did. Evolved the people into mushrooms.

Because in trying to articulate what, perhaps, joy is, it has occurred to me that among other things–the trees and the mushrooms have shown me this–joy is the mostly invisible, the underground union between us, you and me, which is, among other things, the great fact of our life and the lives of everyone and thing we love going away. If we sink a spoon into that fact, into the duff between us, we will find it teeming. It will look like all the books ever written. It will look like all the nerves in a body. We might call it sorrow, but we might call it a union, one that, once we notice it, once we bring it into the light, might become flower and food. Might be joy.

from The Book of Delights, Ross Gay, Algonquin books of Chapel Hill, © 2019

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My daughter Margaret gave me this book by Ross Gay for my birthday in 2020 and it’s been waiting patiently with its companions on the to-be-read-someday shelf until this month. I flipped it open and read a couple of the daily musings on delight (a page or two, observations and reflections that Ross decided half-way through the project to call essayettes). They are like a Whitman’s Sampler – once you’ve opened the box you know you’re going to eat every one.

So I’ve left the book beside the couch and picked it up when random minutes offered themselves unfilled. It’s hard to read just one or two, though – coffee has cooled and soup has threatened to boil over.

This particular entry, though, stopped me in my tracks. I read it over and over. Not only because it followed the amazing interview with Merlin Sheldrake I had just discovered in the May issue of The Sun, all about mycorrhizal networks and sentient fungi and the meaning of life and everything, but because of the way Ross Gay interweaves joy and sorrow and delight and death. Maybe he is right, as many of his essayettes seem to suggest – if we face the one thing we all share in common, which is death, and even God forbid talk about it, maybe we can discover that it is possible to step past the fear into a space that reveals joy – delight – every day.

Which is to say: Hey, life is suffering – along the way let’s you and I share a little delight.

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Rule #1 No Hurting

I tell you this while you whack me
with your little plastic hammer: what I mean
is no hurting other people, not that you
could really damage me
with those little boy hands I love
but sometimes it does sting. Maybe I’m worried
about your buddies at playschool: hitting
begets automatic time out. Or do I mean
your Mom and Dad: see their tears
when you fall? When you are bruised?
And pain you can’t see: someday
you are bound to bruise their hearts.

How we do hurt each other, and how
could it be otherwise, two souls
all entangled while we stumble,
lash out, grab for help, and I
won’t tell you now but I know this:
you will hurt me too, although I
will have handed you the knife
of loving you and hoping
life won’t leave its scars.
But this is what Rule #1 doesn’t mean:
No hurting inside. I’m sorry, Grandson,
no platitudes about for your own good
you will suffer because you too
are human and our world makes no
distinction. Just remember Rule #2:
I will cry with you.

Bill Griffin

from Tar River Poetry, Vol. 55, Nr. 2; Spring, 2015

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Additional links for Ross Gay:

Review of The Book of Delights

Books

The On Being Project

 

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[with 3 poems by Jenny Bates]

Yellowthroats sing from three compass points. Who triangulates whom? One sings, flits, sings and a farther one answers, flits, answers. I stand motionless in the mud beside the lake’s lazy inflow. I want a bright bird to fly from his thicket and show himself to me.

As I stare into the leaves, still no success with my x-ray vision, something moves beside me. Down low. A muskrat six feet away is swimming upstream utterly unconcerned. I turn only my head. It reaches up the bank for a tasty green, swims some more, jeweldrops of water on its whiskers. It stops to scratch its nose. It swims on.

I look up and a yellowthroat is watching me.

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Triangulate: to discern your true position within the vital features that surround you.

After a couple of weeks with Jenny Bates’s books I learned not to read her poems to ferret out their meaning but to read to enter the poetry. Stare at the Pleiades in the night sky and they slip away from you; look slant and the Seven Sisters reach to you from the darkness. Let a line of Jenny’s verse slip into your awareness with eyes half closed, fortuitous inadvertency.

An intimate acquaintance / that leaves nothing but / earth.

I learned not to read Jenny like a field guide but like I read the breeze greeting sweat on my back when the trail stretches uphill, like I read the sun’s flagrant liason with blackberry blossoms.

Bent twig alphabet, language mist-twist
revises with no sequels, no chapters that leave-off.

I learned to read Jenny not like a genealogy of contracts and progeny but exactly like a genealogy of creatures and connections and the family of the one.

The bee does not claim originality as it takes
something from every flower.

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3 poems by Jenny Bates

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Merlot and Thyme
++++ with a Hummingbird Chaser

I uncork old resting places, no maps needed.
Just strange-tongued travelers of
++++ bird, wine and spice.
I sip Merlot, write in cloud-light
++++ missing mother’s voice
Conversations become riddles, coaxing the truth
out of her children, eventually.
Thyme and tarragon fill the clear jar
in front of me: I smell her there
++++ in herbal comfort.
No still dark corners to hide in her memory,
she emptied her children like clearing a table
set by despair, without lingering.
With an edge that never dropped off.

Hummingbirds have no brink to pass to their young.
Wisps of winding birds tousle leaves, jiggle air under
++++ diving, dancing, levitating.
Homing devices, trade routes birthed into them.
Swift and common lessons to grow by. Shade brings
++++ less frantic maneuvers.

I wear pink and grey – the first colors I liked
++++ as a child.
My grandparents farmhouse in Northern Michigan
was grey with pale pink shutters.
Dove colors for a delicate landing grandmother
would say. I hear mom in the background talking to
bees, kittens, mule, land. For a city girl, she could
ambush nature, then heal its wounds.
++++ No time was distant then.

 

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Engagement Rings

Morning insect yoga.
Grasshopper extends himself
in heat-stretching air.
Jumps into space, disappears.
No fossil fuels, no footprint.
Fly stuck to a metal merry-go-round,
a centrifuge so man can stick to
ceilings in his quest for flight.
Prometheus moth wings dismantled,
grounded, still-payment for
bringing man fire.

I walk earthling steps, marker-less,
circling your grave.
Mob of ants scurry in loops,
larvae in pincers turn you from
solid to liquid to solid again.
Jealous in my exile,
++++ lucky ants get to spend time with you
you continue in unending generosity.

The angel tree had sung a copperhead
right out of his skin.
I bring it, fresh and warm to my
neighbor who sculpts it into
suspended twists.
Hung it through a metal ring
at the studio door.
Bow Tie markings coiled to dry,
venom empty, benign husk.

Heat draws new flycatcher parents
to drink from your round water bowl
filled each day to the brim.
Parched squirrel’s half cry bubbles out,
scampers then hangs in shade relief.
Skinks run full speed in swirling chase
across the deck.
++++ don’t come out of the nest too soon . . .
++++ ++++ don’t fall . . .
the newly hatched chick yawns,
bellyful of ground up ants.

 

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How to Spell Sorrow

It’s beautiful, your words,
but I’ve read better in the eyes of my dog.

In spider webs and spider spaces.
When hummingbirds leave, you feel it –
empty air without fashion.

You put more sweet water out anyway,
wait for Buddhas and fools.

You wonder about ellipsis of Truth
wrapped in coyote calls.

You watch a groundhog prostrate like a saint
on the gravel drive – surrender play or
cooling his belly on the stones.

you see a murder of crows line their toes
straight and tight along the split rail fence.

Gripping the wood like text on your arms
becoming the word on your hand.

You curl your fingers into your palm
twist and spell – Sorrow.

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“Merlot and Thyme,” “Engagement Rings,” “How to Spell Sorrow” by Jenny Bates from her book Slip, Hermit Feathers Press, September, 2020

Jenny lives in the North Carolina foothills and is an animal whisperer and helping hand at Plum Granny Farm, an organic local farm in Stokes County, North Carolina.

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Header Artwork © Linda French Griffin

2016-10-17a Doughton Park Tree

[with 3 poems by Denise Levertov]

. . . Who can utter the poignance of all that is constantly threatened . . .

Toward the end of March Amelia and I explored the vernal pool near Dutchman Creek and discovered frog eggs with hundreds of newly hatched tadpoles. We visited a couple more times to watch them grow (no legs yet!). Week before last I was walking along the creek on my own and decided to check their progress.

I edged through the muck and grass, taller now, leaned over the little pool, and counted all the tadpoles. There were exactly zero. None. Well, I did scare off a few big second-year tads, but all of the little black wigglers were gone.

I stared a long time. Plenty of water. A little algae, weeds and water plants. Maybe they were all hiding under leaves. I leaned all the way down. What is that in the water there, arc of a cylinder covered with hieroglyphics, almost stepped on it? I poked with my stick and a 3-foot long Northern Water Snake shot sinusoidal through the water then veered back towards me and disappeared into a hole, I guess, because I never could spot it again.

Hungry snake, OK, gotta eat, but did you have to finish off every one? Isn’t there some sort of ecological balance that guarantees next year’s balmy spring evenings on the porch listening to peepers, tree frogs, and the long mellifluous trill of the American toad? I guess the older, bigger tads were experienced, too wily to be caught, better at hiding themselves in the silt, so maybe a few will indeed live to sing. I don’t think I’ll be telling Amelia about the snake any time soon, though.

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This afternoon I walk down to the creek to see what’s become of the pool after a two-week dry spell. One year it dried up altogether. Still plenty of muck; grass and weeds even higher. The pool has shrunk but as I thread my way closer there are two big plops and a swirl of silt slowly settling. And there they are: brand new, a couple of hundred little black tadpole wigglers, freshly hatched.

More life, says Nature. More, please.

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Three poems by Denise Levertov

bring the planet / into the haven it is to be known

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Web

+++++Intricate and untraceable
+++++weaving and interweaving,
+++++dark strand with light:

+++++designed, beyond
+++++all spiderly contrivance,
+++++to link, not to entrap:

elation, grief, joy, contrition, entwined:
shaking, changing,
++++++++++forever
+++++++++++++++forming,
++++++++++++++++++++transforming:

all praise,
+++++all praise to the
+++++++++++++++great web.

– Denise Levertov

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In California: Morning, Evening, Late January

Pale, the enkindled,
light
advancing,
emblazoning
summits of palm and pine,

the dew
lingering,
scripture of
scintillas.

Soon the roar
of mowers
cropping the already short
grass of lawns,

men with long-nozzled
cylinders of pesticide
poking at weeds,
at moss in cracks of cement,

and louder roar
of helicopters off to spray
vineyards where braceros try
to hold their breath,

and in the distance, bulldozers, excavators,
babel of destructive construction.

Banded by deep
oakshadow, airy
shadow of eucalyptus,

miner’s lettuce,
tender, untasted,
and other grass, unmown,
luxuriant,
no green more brilliant.

Fragile paradise.

. . . .

At day’s end the whole sky,
vast unstinting, flooded with transparent
mauve,
tint of wisteria,
cloudless
over the malls, the industrial parks.

the homes with the lights going on,
the homeless arranging their bundles.

. . . .

Who can utter
the poignance of all that is constantly
threatened, invaded, expended

and constantly
nevertheless
persists in beauty,

tranquil as this young moon
just risen and slowly
drinking light
from the vanished sun.

Who can utter
the praise of such generosity
or the shame?

– Denise Levertov

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Tragic Error

The earth is the Lord’s, we gabbled,
and the fullness thereof
while we looted and pillaged, claiming indemnity:
the fullness thereof
given over to us, to our use
while we preened ourselves, sure of our power,
wilful or ignorant, through the centuries

Miswritten, misread, that charge:
subdue was the false, the misplaced word in the story.
Surely we were to have been
earth’s mind, mirror, reflective source.
Surely our task
was to have been
to love the earth,
to dress and keep it like Eden’s garden.

That wold have been our dominion:
to be those cells of earth’s body that could
perceive and imagine, could bring the planet
into the haven it is to be known,
(as the eye blesses the hand, perceiving
its form and the work it can do).

– Denise Levertov

all selections are from The Life Around Us, selected poems on nature, by Denise Levertov, New Directions Books, 1997

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Denise Levertov (1923-1997) was a naturalized American poet born in England. Her first book of poetry was published shortly after World War II; she moved to the U.S. in 1948 and became influenced by the Black Mountain Poets and William Carlos Williams such that her writing ultimately came to express a uniquely American voice with a world vision. Her poems are often strongly ecological and political. She writes in the forward to The Life Around Us: As I have quite frequently found myself obliged to skip back and forth from book to book when reading to audiences composed of people whose work and vocation was in ecology, conservation, and restoration, it was suggested that I put together a selection of thematically relevant poems, which would be useful not only to the many earth-science people who, I have found, do love poetry, but also to the general public.

Poetry Foundation
Academy of American Poets
Works by Denise Levertov
Chronology of Denise Levertov’s life

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Header Artwork © Linda French Griffin

Doughton Park Tree -- 5/1/2021

[poems by Galway Kinnell, Yusef Komunyakaa, Robert Frost]

April 22, 2031 – Rover Shēn zhī (Deep Knowing) prepares to analyze its 50 meter drill core sample from the Martian south polar ice cap. Strata of grit, water ice, mineral dust – wise Rover’s AI chooses to begin by studying a faintly pigmented layer at 17.5 meters. Very promising.

Yes, there is life on Mars.

And this is what the Rover does not discover – a single species of microorganism spending its long cold days and nights in solitary, independent, utterly lonely metabolic isolation.

Instead Shēn zhī’s electron microscopy, nuclear magnetic resonance, and biochemical probes reveal several varieties of cell structures not unlike Archaea from deep ocean sites on Earth, a dozen species that mirror bacteria isolated from Antarctic cores, crystalline nucleotides indistinguishable from viruses, even twisted proteins – prions. All of these merrily feed and feed upon each other in homeostatic bliss, coevolved for a billion years: an ecological community.

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an offering from Sharon Sharp . . .

Daybreak

On the tidal mud, just before sunset,
dozens of starfishes
were creeping. It was
as though the mud were a sky
and enormous, imperfect stars
moved across it as slowly
as the actual stars cross heaven.
All at once they stopped,
and as if they had simply
increased their receptivity
to gravity they sank down
into the mud; they faded down
into it and lay still; and by the time
pink of sunset broke across them
they were as invisible
as the true stars at daybreak.

“Daybreak” by Galway Kinnell (1927-2014), from The Forgotten Language: Contemporary Poets and Nature, ed. Christopher Merrill, Peregrine Smith Books, Salt Lake City, UT, 1991

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Life is community. Even you, homeostatically blissful Human, are a community of bacteria, protists, tiny ectoparasites in every pore, even Archaea in your gut. I feed my Archaea a cup of Greek yoghurt every morning and they are so serenely blissful. If you could count all the cells that comprise the unitary psychosocially distinct and identifiable YOU, less than half of them would be human cells. You and I couldn’t begin to live and remain healthy without those wonderful gut bacteria. How much more so mycorrhizal fungi and diatoms. Life is beautiful.

Earth Day is about the web of all life on planet Earth; no single organism remains completely solitary, independent, or isolated. If, through our actions or inactions, we create an Earth that makes it impossible for a certain species to survive, then our own species is that much impoverished and our own survival that much diminished. If, by our attention, understanding, and reverence, we permit the web to grow, extend, deepen, thrive, then our own species thrives. And thriving is defined only partially by strength, health, and numbers; for a human being to truly thrive also involves participating in the epiphany of connection to all living things. Community is life.

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Crossing a City Highway

The city at 3 a.m. is an ungodly mask
the approaching day hides behind
& from, the coyote nosing forth,
the muscles of something ahead,

& a fiery blaze of eighteen-wheelers
zoom out of the curved night trees,
along the rim of absolute chance.
A question hangs in the oily air.

She knows he will follow her scent
left in the poisoned grass & buzz
of chainsaws, if he can unweave
a circle of traps around the subdivision.

For a breathy moment, she stops
on the world’s edge, & then quick as that
masters the stars & again slips the noose
& darts straight between sedans & SUVs.

Don’t try to hide from her kind of blues
or the dead nomads who walked trails
now paved by wanderlust, an epoch
somewhere between tamed & wild.

If it were Monday instead of Sunday
the outcome may be different,
but she’s now in Central Park
searching for a Seneca village

among painted stones & shrubs,
where she’s never been, & lucky
she hasn’t forgotten how to jig
& kill her way home.

“Crossing a City Highway” by Yusef Komunyakaa, Poetry, January, 2016

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The Oven Bird

There is a singer everyone has heard,
Loud, a mid-summer and a mid-wood bird,
Who makes the solid tree trunks sound again.
He says that leaves are old and that for flowers
Mid-summer is to spring as one to ten.
He says the early petal-fall is past
When pear and cherry bloom went down in showers
On sunny days a moment overcast;
And comes that other fall we name the fall.
He says the highway dust is over all.
The bird would cease and be as other birds
But that he knows in singing not to sing.
The question that he frames in all but words
Is what to make of a diminished thing.

“The Oven Bird” by Robert Frost (1874-1963)

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[Bad news for Shēn zhī: an unanticipated feature of Martian metabolism is that the cells require elements from Groups 8, 9, 10 of the Periodic Table for electron transport during energy transfer – they “eat” iron, cobalt, nickel, and rhodium. Within a few weeks many of the Rover’s critical microconnectors begin to fail. EarthLink in Ningbo goes dark. Bits of Shēn zhī drop to the Martian substrate. The Rover ultimately pinpoints the cause and transmits a warning: “Do Not Come Here.”

Unfortunately its message is garbled and received by other Martian Rovers as, “Come Here!” Within fifteen years they have all arrived at the southern plateau and become fodder for the Martian ecological community.

Which thrives.]

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[original artwork by Linda French Griffin (c) 2021]

[poems by George Oppen, Jenny Bates, Matthew Olzmann, Dianna Pinckney]

an offering from Pat Riviere-Seel . . .

  PSALM
-Veritas sequitur …
– George Oppen –

In the small beauty of the forest
The wild deer bedding down—
That they are there!

Their eyes
Effortless, the soft lips
Nuzzle and the alien small teeth
Tear at the grass

The roots of it
Dangle from their mouths
Scattering earth in the strange woods.
They who are there.

Their paths
Nibbled thru the fields, the leaves that shade them
Hang in the distances
Of sun

The small nouns
Crying faith
In this in which the wild deer
Startle, and stare out.

Psalm” by George Oppen, from New Collected Poems, copyright © 1975 by George Oppen, New Directions Publishing Corporation

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In the introduction to The Ecopoetry Anthology, Laura-Gray Street speaks of George Oppen’s “Psalm” and her epiphany in reading it: language – the Word – is not something that separates us from and elevates us above the rest of this planet. Rather, language is an integral part of our biological selves. The roots of it / Dangle from [our] mouths. We are language-making creatures in the same way that spiders are web-making creatures.

What does the language make of us as we make it? I watch my wife Linda French Griffin at her drawing table. She moves her pencil point across white paper and images take form and grow out of nothing to expand and link and resolve into something entirely new – as I look at her drawings I’m filled with feelings and ideas that grow out of nothing but are linked to all I have felt and known up until that point, and yet are entirely new. Reading a poem, writing a poem, may give substance to inchoate urges we had tried imperfectly to permit to lead us into a new place. Language conjures spirits that clothe themselves with the flesh of newly perceived reality. Language makes us a new person.

Several friends have offered poems that speak to them about our Earth and which offer to gather us all in together to celebrate Earth Day! I’m posting their offerings April 21, 22, and 23. What do you see? What do you hear? What do you notice? What do you feel? How are you changed? What will you do?

 

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an offering from Jenny Bates, her poem . . .

Doubts in Other Latitudes

You will not find them on any

geologist’s map; artifacts discarded
glimpses inset
in moments
stagger out of time.

Tippling trinities disrupt
the rhythmic landscape;
beer bottles

####pop cans
########chip bags
foul party of litter.

Earth ambitious
not without
want of amusement
yet with great
vision

####energy

########patience
its commitment of being mindful
confidence to complete its life,

a solitary endeavour.

Terra firma watches human struggle
from a caged window,
doubting its endorsement of evolution.
Dreams of smooth skinned ammonites

from the Jurassic,

Dinosaurs enjoying retirement
in geologic armchairs.

I do not make rubbish, says the ground
as I stir the forest leaves.

“Doubts in Other Latitudes” by Jenny Bates from Visitations (Hermit Feathers Press, 2019)

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an offering from Lisa Zerkle . . .

Commencement Speech, Delivered to a Herd of Walrus Calves
– Matthew Olzmann –

Young walruses, we all must adapt! For example,
some of your ancestors gouged the world
with four tusks, but you can grow only two.
It’s hard to say what evolution plans for your kind,
but if given a choice,
you should put in a request for thumbs.
Anyway, congratulations! You’re entering
a world that’s increasingly hostile and cruel
and full of people who’ll never take you seriously
though that will be a mistake on their end.
You are more tenacious than they know.
You’ll be a fierce and loyal defender
of those you love. You will fight polar bears
when they attack your friends and sometimes you’ll win.
Of course, odds always favor the polar bear,
but that’s not the point. The point is courage.
The point is bravery. The point is you are all fighters
even when the fight in which you find yourself
ensures unpleasant things will happen to you.
For example, the bear will gnaw apart your skull
or neck until you stop that persistent twitching;
it will eat your skin, all of it, then blubber, then muscle,
then the tears of your loved ones, in that order;
it will savor every bite, and you will just
suffer and suffer until the emptiness can wash over you.
The good news is: things change!
For example: the environment.
Climate change, indeed, is bad for you,
but it’s worse for polar bears whose conservation status
is now listed as “vulnerable” which is one step removed
from “endangered” which is one step removed
from “extinct” which is a synonym
for Hooray! None of you get eaten!
I suppose this will make some people sad.
Even now, they’re posting pictures
of disconsolate polar bears on melting ice floes
drifting toward a well-deserved oblivion.
They say, We need to stop this!
They say, We need to do something, now!
These people are not your friends.
One cannot be on both Team Walrus and Team Polar Bear
at the same time. I’m not saying these people are evil;
I’m saying, it’s time to choose a side.
I’m saying sharpen your tusks, young calves;
your enemies are devious. You need to train
yourself to do what they won’t expect.
For example: use computers, invest
in renewable energies, read Zbigniew Herbert.
Unrelatedly: your whiskers make you appear
to have mustaches, which, seeing as you’re
not even toddlers, is remarkably unsettling.
Babies that look like grown men freak me out.
Like those medieval paintings by so-called masters
where they’d make the face of little baby Jesus
look like an ancient constipated banker.
If that’s what God really looks like,
it’s no wonder we’ve done what we’ve done to the Earth.
Maybe you can repair what we spent lifetimes taking apart.
Replace some screws. Oil some hinges.
This might sound impossible, but have you ever
looked at yourselves? Seriously—take a quick look
and tell me how a walrus face is possible;
everything about it defies the laws of physics.

You will exist beyond the reach of nature.
You will learn to slow your own heartbeat to preserve oxygen
while diving to depths of over 900 feet.
You will stay awake for up to three consecutive days
while swimming on the open sea.
And when the ocean is too rough—
so terrible with longing, so ruptured with heartache—
you’ll find a small island of stone or ice offering refuge.
It will be difficult to climb from the water,
but because there’s hope for us all,
you will hoist yourself up,
using only your front teeth to drag your body
onto the shore.

Commencement Speech, Delivered to a Herd of Walrus Calves” by Matthew Olzmann from POETRY, Published in Issue 19, 2020

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Bloodroot; Sanguinaria canadensis; Mountains-to-Sea Trail above Brinegar Cabin

 

An offering from Diana Pinckney, her poem . . .

Clapper Rails

Thin, dark flitting invisible
through reedy creeks, these

calls and cackles gleeful
the sun has seeped into trees.

A raucous crowd, near, but not of
the ocean. Who cares if your eyes

ever glimpse a flurry, one or two
fluttering their wings, less graceful

than chickens careening
old barnyards. Marsh hens

natives called them, tracked
and trapped, such poultry

made a foul meal. So tough
no one dared fry or bake.

They ride tides, float eggs in pluff-mud
and shrill black waters. You know

they are close, answering each
other over oyster beds, blue crabs,

every scuttling appetite, the night
grasses alive with hoots rising,

a party you love to be near, not of.

“Clapper Rails” by Diana Pinckney, first published in Wild Goose Poetry Review and collected in Green Daughters, Lorimer Press, © 2011 Diana Pinckney

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[original artwork by Linda French Griffin (c) 2021]

[poems by Gary Snyder, Wendell Berry, Rose Fyleman, David Radavich]

an offering from Craig Kittner . . .

Piute Creek
– Gary Snyder –

One granite ridge
A tree, would be enough
Or even a rock, a small creek,
A bark shred in a pool.
Hill beyond hill, folded and twisted
Tough trees crammed
In thin stone fractures
A huge moon on it all, is too much.
The mind wanders. A million
Summers, night air still and the rocks
Warm. Sky over endless mountains.
All the junk that goes with being human
Drops away, hard rock wavers
Even the heavy present seems to fail
This bubble of a heart.
Words and books
Like a small creek off a high ledge
Gone in the dry air.

A clear, attentive mind
Has no meaning but that
Which sees is truly seen.
No one loves rock, yet we are here.
Night chills. A flick
In the moonlight
Slips into Juniper shadow:
Back there unseen
Cold proud eyes
Of Cougar or Coyote
Watch me rise and go.

Piute Creek” by Gary Snyder from Riprap and Cold Mountain Poems. Copyright © 2009 by Gary Snyder

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an offering from Alana Dagenhart . . .

The charming landscape which I saw this morning, is indubitably made up of some twenty or thirty farms. Miller owns this field, Locke that, and Manning the woodland beyond. But none of them owns the landscape. There is a property in the horizon which no man has but he whose eye can integrate all the parts, that is, the poet.

Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nature, 1836

Poet, will you put the parts back together? The seed, the roots, the petals that have been thrashed and trampled? The bits that once meshed and fit now distracted and ignored? The air we can’t taste, the sunlight we can’t breathe, the stone beneath our feet, the water in our hair? Who will put us back together and put us into the places where we belong, all together?

Several friends have offered poems that speak to them about our Earth and which offer to gather us all in together to celebrate Earth Day! I’m posting their offerings April 21, 22, and 23. What do you see? What do you hear? What do you notice? What do you feel?

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an offering from both Lynda Rush-Myers and Kitsey Burns Harrison . . .

The Peace of Wild Things
– Wendell Berry –

When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

The Peace of Wild Things” by Wendell Berry, from Collected Poems (North Point Press), © 1985

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an offering from Kitsey Burns Harrison . . .

Mice
– Rose Fyleman –

I think mice
are rather nice;
Their tails are long,
their faces small;
They haven’t any
chins at all.
Their ears are pink,
their teeth are white,
They run about
the house at night;
They nibble things
they shouldn’t touch,
and, no one seems
to like them much,
but, I think mice
are rather nice.

Mice” by Rose Fyleman (1887-1957)

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Roundleaf Yellow Violet; Viola rotundifolia; Mountains-to-Sea Trail above Brinegar Cabin

an offering from David Radavich, his poem . . .

Enough

Rare is better:
The price soars
when you lack
what you need.

A poem carries
everything
in your pocket
like a mind.

Love can be
stored in a cell
whose DNA
heartens life.

Music is soul
saving, the simplest
math and finding
one solution.

O earth that is
rare and good,
sing to the unclean
with your seas.

“Enough” by David Radavich, originally appeared in Iodine Poetry Journal

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[original artwork by Linda French Griffin (c) 2021]

 

[poems by Joy Harjo, Wendell Berry, Mary Hennessy]

an offering from Debra Kaufman . . .

Remember
– Joy Harjo –

Remember the sky that you were born under,
know each of the star’s stories.
Remember the moon, know who she is.
Remember the sun’s birth at dawn, that is the
strongest point of time. Remember sundown
and the giving away to night.
Remember your birth, how your mother struggled
to give you form and breath. You are evidence of
her life, and her mother’s, and hers.
Remember your father. He is your life, also.
Remember the earth whose skin you are:
red earth, black earth, yellow earth, white earth
brown earth, we are earth.
Remember the plants, trees, animal life who all have their
tribes, their families, their histories, too. Talk to them,
listen to them. They are alive poems.
Remember the wind. Remember her voice. She knows the
origin of this universe.
Remember you are all people and all people
are you.
Remember you are this universe and this
universe is you.
Remember all is in motion, is growing, is you.
Remember language comes from this.
Remember the dance language is, that life is.
Remember.

Remember”; Copyright ©1983 by Joy Harjo from She Had Some Horses by Joy Harjo

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There is something we want to hear that poetry speaks to us. We don’t know what it is until we feel its vibrations. How could we know? Do you only see what you know you want to see and never turn around and the redbud has burst into bloom? Do you only smell what you know you want to smell and baking shortbread never wafts you into Nana’s kitchen?

Poetry wants to say to us the thing we didn’t know we wanted to hear but deep within us we do know and do desire. Remember all is in motion, is growing, is you. / Remember language comes from this. (Joy Harjo).

Several friends have offered poems that speak to them about our Earth and which offer to gather us all in together to celebrate Earth Day! I’m posting their offerings April 21, 22, and 23. What do you see? What do you hear?

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Linda French Griffin

an offering from Catherine Carter . . .

A Purification
– Wendell Berry –

At start of spring I open a trench
in the ground. I put into it
the winter’s accumulation of paper,
pages I do not want to read
again, useless words, fragments,
errors. And I put into it
the contents of the outhouse:
light of the sun, growth of the ground,
finished with one of their journeys.
To the sky, to the wind, then,
and to the faithful trees, I confess
my sins: that I have not been happy
enough, considering my good luck;
have listened to too much noise;
have been inattentive to wonders;
have lusted after praise.
And then upon the gathered refuse
of mind and body, I close the trench,
folding shut again the dark,
the deathless earth. Beneath that seal
the old escapes into the new.

A Purification” by Wendell Berry from New Collected Poems. Counterpoint © 2012

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Plantainleaf Pussytoes; Antennaria plantaginifolia; Mountains-to-Sea Trail above Brinegar Cabin

an offering by Mary Hennessy, her poem . . .

Repeat After Me:

jettison the idea of shelter.
Say it’s like a camera,
one more thing to hold between

ourselves and the world.
In hand, an invitation by library card
to leave the room of a little life.

Move out unwashed and unredeemed.
Wear a raggedy-assed back pack
like a harness.

The smell of pressed meat
from the back of the bus,
The curve at the top of the world

visible. Something you could Braille-
the almost arc of it.
You tell me that the composer Ravel repeats

every line, I say, “so do the birds.”
Sometimes they go on repeating
until I lose count.

Without looking up you say, “the world
will be gone a long time before anyone notices.”
The world will be gone a long time.

“Repeat After Me” © Mary Hennessy, first appeared in Pinesong 2018, annual anthology of the North Carolina Poetry Society

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[original artwork by Linda French Griffin (c) 2021]