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Posts Tagged ‘Cathy Smith Bowers’

She – or is it he? – steps up to the lectern, adjusts the mic, unfolds a sheet of paper. Tells a funny little story about arriving in this place, the hour’s drive, the decades’ journey. Mentions a connection with a character in the poem. An influence from another poet, a friend, family. Clears his – or is it her? – throat.

And then reads the poem.

And we who are listening to this person for the first time or who have known her and her work for years, we step into her world. The images unfold into our imaging, the story connects us to the person who was and has become this person, we add lines between the lines as they enlighten our own story. We step into our own world along a new path, familiar yet unfamiliar, and now populated by this person and her poem.

Is this how it’s supposed to be? Shouldn’t a poem walk in on its own legs, open its own mouth? Whose voice is speaking? Does it even matter who wrote these lines? Unlined face or gray at the temples? Scholar or laborer? Woman or man? Tell me, because I want to connect with the poetry. Tell me, because I’m connected to the person.

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The first thing former NC Poet Laureate Cathy Smith Bowers told us at the Sam Ragan Poetry Festival was how bad her early poems were. Oh right, Cathy, as if we believe you could write a bad line. The second thing was to credit Fred Chappell for teaching her that poetry can include humor, this after Fred had read us several re-imagined fables with wickely tart morals.

And the third thing Cathy told, after doubling us over with helping after helping of her own outrageous stories, was that she pines to be able, like Fred, to meld the humorous with the profound. Hmmm. She may have nailed that with this one:

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Syntax          –           Cathy Smith Bowers

Where haunts the ghost after the house
is gone? I once wrote. First line of my first
poem in my first creative writing class. I’d
been reading Byron, Keats, and Shelly, lots
of Poe, loved how the cadence of their words
fit the morass my life had fallen to. I had
stayed up all night, counting stressed
and unstressed syllables, my mother’s
weeping through the door of her shut room
echoing the metrics of my worried words.
It was the year our family blew apart,
my mother, brothers and sisters and I fleeing
in the push-button Rambler with no reverse
an uncle had taught me to drive. I loved that poem,
finally knew how words the broken and bereft
could alchemize, couldn’t wait to get to class,
could hear already in my mind that teacher’s
praise. When it came my turn to read, the paper
trembled in my hand, my soft voice cracked,
years passed before I reached the final word,
before she took the glasses from her nose
and cocked her head. You’ve skewed your syntax
up was all she said. I remember nothing else
about her class. That spring her house burned
down, she died inside. Where haunts the ghost
after the house is gone? I had several alibis.

From The Collected Poems of Cathy Smith Bowers, Press 53, 2013

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Cathy Smith Bowers and Caleb Beissert met as mentor and student through the Gilbert-Chappell Distinguished Poet Series and we shared their reunion at Sam Ragan Poetry Festival, March 21, 2015.

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Light in an Upstairs Window           –          Caleb Beissert

Reptilian plants crouch in the corners climbing
curtain rods. Darkness sweeps over the house.

Four friends walk a mountain trail to a darkened
tower, stacked firewood not far from the old cabin.

Mystery grows deeper in the old growth forest,
in the clusters of stars, in the study in the house.

The yard surrounds, like a secret army poised and hushed
in the emptiness. Silent horses. The austere house.

The faithful dog has seen something invisible
and makes known he wishes to be let out of the house.

Among the vanilla of books, the lamp-lit pages
run with ink, producing distant lands beyond these walls.

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Cathy Smith Bowers bio

Books by Cathy

Caleb Breissert Bio

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“This is about how big Annalee Kwochka was when she became my student.”

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“Not all those who wander are lost . . .”  J.R.R.Tolkien

What would it be like to take a walk and not know where you’re going to end up?  To just sling a pack across your shoulder and strike out southwest, no, let’s make that northeast, OK, just up and out?  I don’t mean when you’re not exactly sure what route to take, or it’s a trail new to you and you don’t know how rough or easy – I mean you have no earthly idea where you’re even headed.  Or how long you’ll be walking before you arrive. Or if you’ll arrive.

For someone like me, whose days are mostly lined out in fifteen-minute blocks, to simply walk in the moment is such an alien concept it’s almost terrifying.  I’ve taken some pretty long walks over the years, fifty and a hundred miles some of them, but I always knew within a few hours when I expected to arrive at my final goal, and within a few square meters of where that goal was.  Unfolding big maps and memorizing the landmarks, dissecting guidebooks (literaly, to rearrange the torn-out pages), scratching notes on little cards I’d carry with me along the way – they’re all metaphors for this planned-out predetermined regimented life of mine.  Once in a while I might stray from the trail and wander the woods, but I always know to be home by dark.  Yet by even the most wildly generous estimate my life is now two-thirds over.  Do I remember where I’m headed?

Friday morning Linda and I are going to pick up my eighty-something parents in Winston-Salem and drive to the Greensboro Coliseum to attend Josh’s graduation from UNCG.  Can I even list the obstacles that have made his path of the past ten years so uncertain?  The ones he never imagined he could succesfully negotiate but did, the ones that crushed him more than once, the ones he just had to hoist on his back and carry, sweating, all along the way?  Many times he and we too have doubted there even was a path, much less a way to travel it.  But in the past few months there have been subtle signs, like seeing the first trout lily and knowing spring has arrived, that this is real. It IS going to happen.  One of the sweetest images is that of my mother discovering, as she unpacked boxes from their recent move back home to North Carolina, the blazer she wore as a UNCG (then “Women’s College”) graduate sixty-three years ago, a “‘49” pin still attached from one of her reunions.

Way to go, Josh!  Your GrandMommy will be wearing that blazer, and I will be wearing admiration in my heart for your achievement.  You toughed it out and I’m proud of you.  It’s the steep path that brings us to high places.

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Which of us ever really knows exactly where we’re headed?  What the heck am I talking about?  Career, marriage, kids, grandson, church, yardwork, a vacation from time to time – enough there to fill any number of present hours and more than enough to fill any contemplations of the future.  Is it only old guys and ascetics who take time out for a minute and ask, Where am I headed?  For those like me who are too fidgety for a meditation practice, too cocky for a psychologist, too type A to spend time doing nothing instead of something, there’s a window to throw open and stick your head out when those questions tap on the pane.  Poetry, of course, the opening window.  When I read a poem that pierces my id I don’t get all the answers: I discover the questions.

Thank you, Cathy Smith Bowers, for this poem and all it doesn’t say.  I was reading Cathy’s book Like Shining from Shook Foil as part of a project to collect poems to be displayed at the NC Zoo.  Among others, I want to include one by each of our NC Poet Laureates, back to James Larkin Pearson.  I started at More Weight on page 119 and read the book backwards (I know, I know, they make a pill for that sort of thing).  Hers is a poetry of arresting images, lightning, and jagged truth-saying.  When I reached poem #1, perhaps from being filled with everything that had come before, all the questions clamored loud and I knew this is the one for the Zoo, and for me.

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Paleolithic

We love these old caves – Lascaux,
Altamira – and walk carefully
the way we always enter the past,
our hands bearing
the artificial light of this world.

We imagine those first hunters
crouched, conjuring luck,
carving into rock-swell
their simple art – whole herds of bison,
the haunches, the powerful heads, floating
orderless along the walls.
And some are climbing sky
as if they were stars, planets
obiting something they cannot see.
Centuries will pass before they
right themselves, their hooves
coming down onto the deep
wet floor of leaf-fall.
Remembering earth.
Remembering where it was
they were headed.

© 2010 Cathy Smith Bowers.  from Like Shining from Shook Foil, Press 53.  First appeared in Southern Poetry Review.

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Cathy Smith Bowers was named North Carolina Poet Laureate by Governer Bev Perdue in 2010.  Press 53 (Winston-Salem, NC) published her new and collected poems, Like Shining from Shook Foil, that same year.

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