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[with 3 poems by Shelby Stephenson]

While I sit with Dad in the hospital we make a checklist of everything we need to do to close up the house. He had a TIA last night – “a little health problem” is how he’ll describe it to the agent at the News & Observer to explain why he’s canceling his subscription. His scans show no stroke. We wait for the doctor to discharge him, then he’ll take it easy (will he?) for a few days while I do laundry and winterize the cottage in Pine Knoll Shores, avoid the Labor Day traffic for the drive back to Winston.

Check lists. Dad already has a dog-eared collection, each one another page on his yellow pad. I create an updated list on my phone while we wait – first entry, “check Dad’s check lists.” When we finally buckle in on Tuesday and tick off the last item we will have accomplished something.

Or so I want to think. The next five hours in the car generate their own list: find accessible bathrooms, some roadside shade for the lunch we packed. Damn, forgot to give Mom a COVID mask at the rest stop. Unload, unpack, raid the freezer for supper. Make sure we’ve sequestered all the medical records for his appointment with his local doctor.

When I shoot a macro of a flower I want that anther tack sharp, but the blur of stem and leaves hinders identification of the species. Hey, I know all these lists I make are just to keep me hopping from one moment’s task to the next but I see the big picture. I read Dad’s echocardiogram and joke that he’s 94 in the body of an 80-year old. I know there’s a check list whose final box is his final breath.

But then flip the page. Another list. At the top: Remember. Let me tell you all the stuff we talked about on that drive home.

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[TIA – transient ischemic attack: a brief episode of decreased brain perfusion
that may herald an impending stroke]

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The Local Falls

When I come home I walk to Middle Creek
through thirty minutes of springtime bushes
to where the Mouth of Buzzard Branch trickles
with water to bridge the bubbly rushes.

Dangling their legs, a few bank-fishermen
mumble to Chub Robin full moon in May,
cigars and cigarettes in roll-your-owns,
eyes on lead-lines for bottom feeders they

bait with grub-worms dug behind the outhouse.
They fish too with fat swamp-worms freed from mud
near head of Cow Mire’s spring, a pudding-souse
Time works into clumps like huge Angus cuds.

All’s quiet: Daddy sets a turtle-hook
and baits it with chicken guts, one motion
as he stabs the stob, slings the cord the brook
settles, waffling under his location.

His hands gather Nature’s complete cunning.
Love allows for fresh food on our table,
His tongue, lips, face, limbs, and actions winning
affection of his wife, my mother, Maytle.

He’s gone; I help turtles cross Sanders Road.
Interstate-40 whizzes loud nearby.
Every waking day’s a different load.
What glory warriors must have wooed with sighs.

Pollution’s out of honor and our shame.
The sunfish’s eyes bloat like old eyes.
They wear bumps like my psoriasis (blame
chemicals on crops – fertilizers).

I bid the owl keep me pitched with tenor
to carry this: run blue-tailed swamp-rabbit?
I hear the beagles yow-yowing: Jake Mills
says those rabbits taste like the swamp run-off.

Shelby Stephenson

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These selections are from more, by Shelby Stephenson; Redhawk Publications, Hickory, North Carolina; © 2020 Shelby Stephenson. Used by permission of publisher.

A new book by Shelby Stephenson in his 82nd year is an anchor to the past and a beacon to the future. His lines settle you down and hold you fast like the mud near Cow’s Mire spring. His lines open your heart to love, death, redemption – to all of life. His lines advocate for the heritage of language and the language of heritage spoken in unflinching truth. There is no sentimentality here. And woven through each poem is the music of his tenor cum baritone – never forget Hank Williams! – and the gentle humor that wraps an arm around your shoulder and lets you know you’re welcome here.

Shelby has been professor, editor, NC Poet Laureate, minstrel, and most of all traveling ambassador of the word. If you’ve met him or heard him, you’ve been encouraged to read more, to write more. During years of submitting to Pembroke Magazine while Shelby was editor, I came to treasure his rejections, hand written on a tiny slip, invariably with a message like “not quite, Bill, but keep trying.”

Shelby Stephenson still lives on his family farm, Paul’s Hill; his family has “owned” it for generations. Shelby always adds those quotation marks. It must be quite a lofty hill because from there Shelby seems to be able to survey and discern all of human nature, as well as animal and earth nature. His poems may nest in the springtime bushes near Middle Creek but they fly over the countryside and lighten all the sky. He reminds me of North Carolina’s second Poet Laureate, James Larkin Pearson (1879-1981), who in his poem Fifty Acres (1937) sees all the world from his home in Boomer, Wilkes County, NC.

I’m just beginning to see a bit myself.

More please, Shelby – more!

 

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Circling Sonnet Number Two

You call it “realistic” that we should stay
where we are, you among your friends for life
and I, here, on Paul’s Hill miles away
from you and the very feel of a knot
sanctimonious ceremonies would
sour tightly sweaty aspersions barren
of Discord and Disdain and just a ton
of regret that we two should let heaven
outstrip all praise for earthly things and fame.
The easy new is not décor but blood
turned jelly in emotions and refrain.
Your reputation may dull those whose load
might turn both sides from love’s scent
if we do not sound out Love’s instrument.

Shelby Stephenson

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For Robert Frost

When you came to Memorial Hall to read,
Your black coat made your white shirt muss your hair,
As if you were standing outside in wind.
In a speech class I presented a “there”
in “Birches,” letting music in your lines
Lead the way of conversation in rhyme.

I did not try to imitate you, as ome would.
That crackle down in your throat, the doting
Tone seeking for you that turn in your woods,
When you paused, said someting about the road
You took that made for you the difference.
You reminded me of Luke the Drifter,

One of my childhood heroes who brought me
To songs and music, along with sermons
That wadded the pulpit at my Rehobeth
Primitive Baptist Church, yes, the come-ons,
A Brother, never a Sister, lining
Off a hymn for me in perfect timing.

I had never been to a poetry
Reading, by the way, would not have been there
Except for Charlie Whitfield who barged in
My dorm room in Lewis, saying, “Shelby,
You want to see a cadaver?” (Charlie
Was studying hard for medical school.)

I was silent; my mind flashed to Rehobeth,
Mortality, death, promises, and grace,
While there beside a long scalpel she lay,
Uncovered, more naked that a fish, scaled.
I said, “Charlie, let’s get out of this place.”
We arrived at The Hall; I sat blank-faced.

A few years later I failed the law; my
Memory never did lose your presence.
I bought easements, rights-of-way, for towers
Around New Hampshire, saw birches bending,
And boulders sunning, plus those rambling walls,
And I could hear you leading me, always.

Shelby Stephenson

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2016-10-17a Doughton Park Tree

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[with 3 poems by Crystal Simone Smith]

First day of kindergarten – we pick Amelia up from the bus stop. Glassy-eyed. She climbs into the carseat and takes off her mask but won’t say a thing. Or can’t. We paw through her backpack to find Tammy, well-worn fox companion – nuzzle, no words. We search her face for psychic trauma. “How was school?” “Are you OK?” Silent nods.

I drop them off and drive to fetch her brother from middle school. When we return Amelia and Granny are playing Candyland. Audible levity. After the rematch Amelia hops over to me. “Play, Pappy.”

Hummingbirds in the Andes descend into protective torpor every cold night. Their heart rate drops from 200 to 30. When sun reaches them next morning it takes 30 minutes for the little engine to rev back up. You can watch the brief shiver, flexing feathers, accelerating vibration of their chest. The tiny eyes pop open and they fly.

Amelia wants to ride her scooter to the mailbox, fly through August heat and sweat to chase the rainbow soccer ball across the yard, run and kick and score. When we take her home at suppertime, Mom meets us in the driveway, hugs her bouncing vibrating child, says, “My, your hair is wet.”

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Eastern Horsemint, Mondarda punctata

Eastern Horsemint, Mondarda punctata

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It Took a Village

It took a village to raise me
+++++and when my best friend’s
++++++++++islander mother shouted

in her broken tongue for me to ge’ toff
+++++the building roof, I listened –
++++++++++saved moon rock scavenging

for a safer day. It was a sort of lovespeak.
+++++I was no different than her own
++++++++++bouquet of fatherless children –

a brood of six, all hues and ages. She had lived,
+++++had become religious and arthritic,
++++++++++grimacing as she peeled the smooth,

maroon skin from mangos she offered,
+++++and I’d scoff down
++++++++++before I scaled a tree

to peer at the building – a colossal dollhouse
+++++or real live stirring.
++++++++++and when she stood,

crying and talking to the sun,
+++++I looked away. I knew
++++++++++she was talking to God.

Crystal Simone Smith

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Uncloudy Day

At the tenth year’s dark mark
+++++the clouds are white as bones

and the sky is the sky
+++++where the ocean stand
+++++after the last splattering of night,
a horizon so convincing even
+++++the cynic can glimpse the other side.

For so long I resented the swallowing earth,
held every pinch of darkness –

+++++a co-worker’s harmless but sharp remark:
++++++++++Exhume a body after a year
++++++++++and it’s basically human soup.

my mother stood stove-side once,
+++++her eyes filled with a clumsy glee
+++++as she spoke of fourth Sundays.
Her mother fried chicken after church.

The preacher might come.
All other days they ate beans and ham hocks.

+++++She gave it a name, uncloudy day,
a day that is just so, you are unbroken
+++++by memories where you stand
gazing at the sky, unfisted and glad.

Crystal Simone Smith

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Can a poem be a shovel, stabbing the earth to turn over what’s hidden and dark, to bring up a spadeful that smells also of fecundity and life? Dig, demand these poems of Crystal Simone Smith, into the heart of things, weeds and flowers worthy and alive, discover them all. Dig to the roots.

Perhaps a few poems can dig into our hearts and make us one family.

Amber Flora Thomas writes, “Has freedom made us lazy, we might wonder as we read these incredible poems in Smith’s Down to Earth? Are we tourists in our lives, troubled by a history of enslavement? The voices and stories of black lives penetrate these questions in this collection of poems that don’t coddle or pull away from our earthly struggles to find hope and meaning in our human work. Down to Earth is an asking, a plea to take comfort in the stories and people who anchor our living.”

These three selections are from Down to Earth, Longleaf Press at Methodist University, Fayetteville, NC, © 2021.

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Still Becoming

+++++~after Full Frame Documentary Film Festival

Age forty plus & I still consider
what I can become.

The slave wage of an adjunct is a choice,
the gatekeepers say.

So I teach the slave narrative
to white, affluent students.

A lesson they’ll never find use for – how to
escape bondage without it killing you.

I drive thirty miles with the sun rising in the east.
Every morning I speed – a lesson

taken from oppression – never offer
overtime without the compensating penny.

Often I pass a pulled-over brother struggling
to gaze into the cop’s face through riotous rays.

Those days especially, I consider a career change
or at least, how I can be a better citizen.

The narrative being, we are all keepers
with our iPhones and droids on standby.

I could become the viral documenter
of what can still become of a man

freed a century & fifty plus years
under the same magnificent sun.

Crystal Simone Smith

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Crystal Simone Smith holds an MFA from Queens University of Charlotte and lives in Durham, NC with her husband and two sons where she teaches English Composition and Creative Writing. She is the Managing Editor of Backbone Press. Her other books are Routes Home (Finishing Line Press, 2013), Running Music (Longleaf Press, 2014), and Wildflowers: Haiku, Senryu, and Haibun (2016).

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2017-03-06a Doughton Park Tree

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[with 2 poems by Beth Copeland]

February 23, 2021

It’s all downhill from here. That’s what someone told me when I retired last September and it didn’t sound much like a benediction. Today though, sitting down to eat lunch half way through my long day’s hike and knowing that this is, indeed, the highest point on the Blue Ridge I’ll reach, all downhill sounds pretty inviting.

Today is my “birthday hike.” Every February I spend one day hiking the 17-mile perimeter trail at Doughton Park on the Blue Ridge Parkway. A few times I’ve had to break trail through fresh snow, once freezing sleet slicked my balaclava into a glass helmet, but today it’s supposed to reach the 40’s up here near 3,000 feet. I might get sunburned. I’m eating lunch at the 8.5 mile mark, a stone NPS shelter at the top of Alligator Back that looks down into Basin Cove, and across the holler I can trace this morning’s elevation profile.

Park at Basin Creek, climb the trail a quick 800 feet or so, then another more gradual 800, then continue following the ridgeline to encircle the cove – up / down \ up / down \ up / up / up, the final ice-encased switchbacks climbing Alligator Back especially gruesome. But here I am half way done and now it’s all downhill! Hmmm, after more than 20 years of hiking this trail I know better. For every moderate descent there’s another knob rising up ahead, down \ up /down until the final mile of narrow white-knuckle hairpins back to the creek.

It’s not how long the trail, it’s the elevation change. Mom turns 93 tomorrow and Dad at 94 is right there with her. She can hear better than he; he can remember better than she. They practice exercises the Therapist is teaching them so they can walk the mild uphills and downhills around their block every afternoon. So far this year they haven’t really had any net elevation change in independence, well, not enough to sweat; we’re all living day to day on pretty level ground. For her birthday Linda and I have given Mom a book of animal photography by Joel Sartore – her face shines as she turns each page. My sister Mary Ellen and her partner Wendy gave her a patio fire pit table and Mom and Dad look happy as Hobbits hunched around it.

From this vantage that we call today we can look across the blue mountains of time and retrace in memory what brought us here. The trail ahead is less clear, or maybe our vision is perfectly clear even if not clearly perfect. Rough paths, slick spots – inevitable. It can get steep. For today let’s share the view together.

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I’m reading Beth Copeland’s Blue Honey for the second time and I know I will be reading it yet again. Most of the poems are set during the years her parents were entering their 90’s and declining as Alzheimer’s Disease progressed. She meets each waypoint of loss, theirs and hers, with tenderness and clarity. From vignettes of memories and intense moments she paints a portrait of their lives and reveals her own.

When we lose a parent to death the moment is etched on our hearts but also the calendar. We recall where we were, what was said; we commemorate the date. With Alzheimer’s we lose our parent in random bits like sparks that fly up from a campfire and extinguish in the night. Eventually the body sitting before us contains nothing of the person except an occasional glimpse as ephemeral as ash. Beth Copeland shows us that this sort of loss will make you cry, will make you pissing angry, and will also sometimes thank God make you laugh! Her poems are intensely personal but I also discover myself in so many of them. These lines are, from their first step along the trail and through all the sweaty climbs and bittersweet descents, perfectly human.

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Sandhills Gold

. . . in the Sandhills of North Carolina,
a few lucky beekeepers strike blue gold.
– Chick Jacobs

The year Daddy died, beekeepers found blue
honey in their hives. How it turns

blue or why it only happens
here no one knows. Some

think bees feed on bruised huckleberries, scuppernongs
or kudzu blossoms. Too far inland, Daddy

never found it in the forty-five years
he kept hives. In the nursing home, I talked

blue honey into blue eyes that
stared back in a blur

of lost memory and sleep. What
was he thinking? I spoke

of his veiled hat and long gloves,
bellowing hives

with smoke so he could pull combs and
honey from inside, and pour sourwood

into old Mason jars in slow motion
like the lengthening summer day

when the sky was so delphinium
it could be music, or the blue

shadow that followed me through the doorway
into the buzzing of bees when I

was thirteen, crying behind the pear tree because
I wasn’t popular enough to be

May Queen. This is what I choose
to keep against forgetting:

You’ll always
be my queen,

he said, bending
to kiss my forehead. I carry

that moment like a bee
in amber on a gold chain

above my heart to ward off wintering
broods and dark swarms, a queen without

a country or hive, standing in slanted light
as bees droned

around my head, weaving a crown of wings
and buzzing with sweetness.

* * * * *

Grief like honey left too long in the jar,
like the pint we bought last year

from a beekeeper who used to sell pot,
in the pantry all winter flanked by bottles

of blackstrap and Hungry Jack
crystallizing in the dark,

too solid to spoon onto bread unless you melt it
in water on the stove. Impatient,

I spread the gold grains on my toast, remembering
when he was alive and it

poured in slow
measures onto my mother’s home-baked bread. One

summer he visited me in Chicago after robbing
his hive of a quart jar of sourwood, his

ankles so swollen
from stings he slept with his feet propped

on pillows. I want this
grief to dissolve like a lemon

lozenge on my tongue, I want
to taste the sweetness

of mornings
before sorrow, anger, remorse

soured my vision of being
young and oblivious to his

pain, I want my words to flow
like a vein

onto the blue-lined page as holy
honey flowed from his white

hives onto our bread, our tongues, our lives.

from Blue Honey, Beth Copeland, The Broadkill River Press, © 2017

 

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Nothing Blue

When I leave she asks, Are you
going to that cabin with Phil? She can’t

recall our wedding. She wore
a periwinkle dress she bought at Belk’s

so she wouldn’t
embarrass me garbed in something

old as she sipped champagne and nibbled
cake. I live there. We’re

married, remember? She blinks. Oh,
that’s right. Not her fault, but I’m so

tired of wanting
her to hold onto that

one day. When I arrive to chauffeur
her to the doctor, she’s not

dressed but tells the nurse, I could live
on my own if I had a family. What

am I, chopped
liver? She tells her friends I never

visit because she forgets. On the drive
home, I pass a blur of chicory

growing wild around
a crinoline of Queen Anne’s

Lace – something
old, nothing

new, one thing borrowed,
almost blue

from Blue Honey, Beth Copeland, The Broadkill River Press, © 2017

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Blue Honey won the 2017 Dogfish Head Poetry Prize from The Broadkill River Press. Not long after the book’s release Beth, Teresa Price, and I read together at Malaprop’s Bookstore in Asheville. A brilliant day! I still have the Poetrio Author! April 8, 2018 bookmark in my copy of Beth’s book. Zoom is a congenial gathering of sorts but reading beside another author you admire before a phalanx of expectant mostly strangers, well, that’s adrenaline.

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View across Basin Cove from Flat Rock Ridge — see the speck of a tree all by itself in the bald patch on the horizon? Watch for it . . . !

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[with poems by Joan Barasovska and Kathy Ackerman]

Everything or nothing. The radio is off. The screen is frozen. The refrigerator snores. The clock won’t tick any faster, any slower. In an hour we leave for Raleigh to see our grandson (backyard, distanced, masked) but right now nothing is happening

I’m no good at nothing. If I wake in the dark my brain whirls venom trying to bite its tail. Where is dawn’s blessed peace? If I take deep breaths, watch the feeder, daily agendas begin to scroll down the back of my cornea. How many seconds after emptying myself before I fill back up with everything?

We are entering the season of nothing. The azalea may feint a few off-season blossoms but will we ever bloom again? We are in the season of waiting. Where is the so fragrant earth we lost so long ago? Where is the muscle and spunk of summer that convinced us we might carry through? The season of turning. What justice like waters, what righteousness like an ever-flowing stream? When? How do these shortened days stretch so long?

In the woods, something is happening. Orchids are making sugar. How have I missed that? One species will bloom in May, the second in August, but their leaves are now. Their delicate little tenacious tough-ass corms swell all winter waiting to rocket up a spike of summer flowers into a leafed-out overshaded world.

Something is always happening. Something is deeper than those scrolling agendas. Something in the world and something behind my optic chiasm in deep matter. Something that maybe wants me to be still and notice. Something to hope for, to wait for, to go forth and meet.

There is no nothing. It’s all everything.

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These two poems are from Kakalak 2020, the annual anthology of Carolina poets. It is an eclectic volume – conversational, confessional, contemplative. Not as many COVID poems as I expected but wait until 2021.

The poems by Joan Barasovska and Kathy Ackerman speak to me of the winding thread that connects our past to our present. Knots and tangles, yes, but also a lashing to secure us in the lashing storm. The something that is happening every day is us becoming human.

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Cranefly Orchid, Tipularia discolor

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Her Breath

Mike and I exchange a glance
over her cooling body.
Our eyes are dry.
Elsie wears a faded housedress
with a pattern of flowers.
Thirty minutes ago
an aide crossed
her swollen hands.

All morning we sat waiting
while Death rattled her.
She died in the afternoon
while we were out walking.
Our mother took a slow
rollercoaster ride to this day,
dragging us with her on
every shivery dip and climb.

Back from the dead,
Mike said when she woke
from a coma, angry to find herself
in a clean hospice room.
She raged until he put her back home.
Frail, sick, ninety-three, hanging on
ten hears after Dad’s death.
She scolded me yesterday.
I was late for lunch.
I had forgotten to pick up her mail.

Their old bed had been replaced
by a narrow hospital bed
rolled in the hospice workers
while she fumed in the living room
and I boiled water for tea.
Now her jaw is slack,
her last silent treatment.
Above her head hangs
a sad-eyed portrait of me at nine,
painted in blues and grays.

Mike and I are limp with relief.
the secret of Elsie’s anger died with her,
but it was probably sadness.
We are second-generation Americans,
inheritors of the sadness seed.

This mother
lying flat between us
birthed me sixty years ago.
With her last breath,
She’s in a better place
and so am I.

Joan Barasovsaka, Kakalak 2020, Main Street Rag Publishing Company

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Adam-and-Eve Orchid, “Puttyroot,” Aplectrum hyemale

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Misnomer
for Goliath, my father

i.
This story begins when I believed every word my daddy said.
Honeysuckle, he called them, tending the cuttings
that go all the way back to Rock Creek 50 years,
Aunt Gracie’s yard in the hills where I never lived.

Honeysuckle was all I had to root me to that ancient soil,
so every home I bought I planted some
from Daddy’s supply, rooted in plain clear water.
I wondered why it had no scent, was not a vine,
was pink, for crying out loud.

Now shopping for plants for house #5,
I see the truth in 5-gallon pots before me:
Weigela.

I imagine old Aunt Gracie shooing my father away
from her quilting or canning or sitting alone.
Go cut back that honeysuckle
before it swallows up the outhouse.

Later, seeing his mistake, she didn’t correct him –
a name is just a name –
Grace just glared at tiny Goliath
so proud of his mound of pink and green
already wilting

while the roof of the outhouse
still plushed with yellow sweetness
he’d confuse for 80 years
with a plant that belongs
to the same family, after all,
but so much harder to say.

ii.
Start me some honeysuckle, Daddy, I blurt out
in one of awkward lulls.
I want to imagine his hands on the branch,
the snip of sprigs of coal country
where Gracie’s old feist
barked me all the way to the outhouse and back
when I was too small to know
how hard it is
to keep what lives alive.

Kathy Ackerman, Kakalak 2020, Main Street Rag Publishing Company

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Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever flowing stream.
Amos 5:24

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2019-02-09 Doughton Park Tree

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This evening at suppertime she peers into the beef and carrots simmering on the right burner; I snip pea pods and spinach into the black bean broth on the left burner. Pretty soon both pots are smelling darn good. It’s usually something like this, the scene in our kitchen all the years since I decided to stop eating meat and she didn’t. Separate skillets, or sequential nuking, then sit down together.

But then every once in a while it’s all her show. She steams the broccoli while I sit near the lamp and read. I start on a little dry white wine (she’ll accept two ounces for herself later – Pastor Jan, pretend you didn’t read this) while she simmers the pasta. She serves two blue patterned Japanese bowls we’ve owned since year one. Then we sit down together.

When I die, sorry to say, I have no faith that there will be an angel in heaven who can make broccoli Alfredo this good.

 

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Getting home from the office early these days, I’m revisiting the overflowing stacks beside my desk. Poetry, philosophy, poetry, nature, poetry — I’ve rediscovered that all of Terri Kirby Erickson’s poems are home.

Lots of poetry is about home – you get a peak through the curtains and maybe you can imagine life on the other side of the pane. Terri’s poems are home. Welcome in. Don’t mind the mess. Maybe you didn’t understand this is your home but for twenty or thirty lines you will be part of the family. So many families. So many homes longed for, left behind, returned to. Soft light, hard edges. Sweet and harsh and all shades between. Come on in. Let’s sit down together.

 

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from In the Palms of Angels, Terri Kirby Erickson, Press 53 © 2011

 

Wayfarer

He seems like a man
you’d see walking down a long
stretch of road, the kind
with dust

rising

in a red haze beneath the wheels
of pickup trucks, cutting
through fields of golden

wheat. Scudding clouds cast
shadows
across the ground like whales

swimming through clear
water, and the air carries the scent
of grain and loam.

Every few miles, the glint of a silo
(startling against the lonesome

sky)

signals a farm house
where peach pies sit cooling
on window sills, and patterned
carpets are worn-out from parents

pacing to and fro with fretful babies
in their arms.

He’s traveling toward the horizon
with the steady gait of someone
with a place to go, whose tender

gaze

will soon find home, that place
more sacred than communion wafers
nestled in the palms
of angels.

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Rosary

Down by the creek,
we sit on dry
stones,

our shoes and socks
jumbled in a pile.
The sun

warms our toes
and casts its
net of light

from bank to bank,
where willows
trail their

fingers in the water,
and snakes look
like branches

floating by
them. Mosquitoes
lay their eggs

in stagnant pools,
far from leaves
and grasses snagged

by rocks, twisting
in the current.
Tadpoles swim

in tight formation,
wiggling their tails
in tandem,

as salamanders
scuttle by, searching
for places to nap.

Dragonflies hover,
then hurry
away,

their wings
thrumming a one-note
song – while we,

silent as nuns in prayer,
count the beads
of summer.

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[Rosary first appeared in Basilica Review; other collections by Terri Kirby Erickson from Press 53 include: Telling Tales of Dusk; A Lake of Light and Clouds; Becoming the Blue Heron.]

Author Page, Terri Kirby Erickson, Press 53, Winston-Salem, NC.

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Linda’s Mom preferred to assume the garb and persona of Mother Goose rather than Conan the Librarian, but if there were ever a muscular champion of children and books, Donna Unger French was it.  She began in the Sixties as library volunteer in an elementary school that didn’t have a library – Mom French created one in a wide place in a hallway.  Eventually each of the Aurora Public Schools had its library, and with Mom’s magical touch they became temples of creativity and imagination.  They were holy refuges for readers.  They were FUN! At its acme the middle school library included: an old clawfoot bathtub lined with purple shag carpet where students could lounge and read; a life-size E.T. and a menagerie of giant cut-out Sendak Wild things; doll houses and dragons, cowardly lions and witches, masks and puppets.  And every good book.

Mom French’s home is still overflowing with books.  Every Newberry.  Every Caldecott.  Racks and stacks of Bill Peet, Wallace Tripp, Richard Scary, Tomie DiPaola.  When we took our kids to visit it was a marathon of reading on Grandma’s lap.  Before Margaret and Josh themselves could read they could name each book’s artist with a single glance.  Thirty years later, Saul knows that when he and Dad go to the used book sale at the library, they are going to come home carrying a huge sack of books.

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The Fairies
William Allingham (1824-1889)

Up the airy mountain
Down the rushy glen,
We dare n’t go a-hunting,
For fear of little men;
Wee folk, good folk,
Trooping all together;
Green jacket, red cap,
And white owl’s feather.

Down along the rocky shore
Some make their home,
They live on crispy pancakes
Of yellow tide-foam;
Some in the reeds
Of the black mountain-lake,
With frogs for their watch-dogs,
All night awake.

High on the hill-top
The old King sits;
He is now so old and gray
He’s nigh lost his wits.
With a bridge of white mist
Columbkill he crosses,
On his stately journeys
From Slieveleague to Rosses;
Or going up with music,
On cold starry nights,
To sup with the Queen,
Of the gay Northern Lights.

They stole little Bridget
For seven years long;
When she came down again
Her friends were all gone.
They took her lightly back
Between the night and morrow;
They thought she was fast asleep,
But she was dead with sorrow.
They have kept her ever since
Deep within the lake,
On a bed of flag leaves,
Watching till she wake.

By the craggy hill-side,
Through the mosses bare,
They have planted thorn trees
For pleasure here and there.
Is any man so daring
As dig them up in spite?
He shall find the thornies set
In his bed at night.

Up the airy mountain
Down the rushy glen,
We dare n’t go a-hunting,
For fear of little men;
Wee folk, good folk,
Trooping all together;
Green jacket, red cap,
And white owl’s feather.

Copied from a well-thumbed edition of Volume 1 of CHILDCRAFT, (c) 1954 by Field Enterprises, Inc.  Mom French gave each of her seven children a set of Childcraft books when they left home on their own.

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A true story: When Mom French finally retired after forty (fifty maybe?) years as Aurora schools librarian, she still returned as a volunteer to read stories.  We’re not sure just how she arranged this, but one Saturday night she loaded the car with books, put on her Mother Goose outfit – pointy hat, shawl, wire-rims – and drove to downtown Cleveland to a bar near the Cuyahoga River.  While the longshoremen raised their beers, she read them nursery rhymes, poems, and bedtime stories.  They begged her to come back again.

Mom, in each story we read and in each one read to us, we will always hear your voice.

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Southern Sentence Poem Revisited

Last week when I reminisced about my Granddaddy, Pee Wee Griffin, Seaboard Airline Engineer for some fifty years, among the many comments I received was Kathryn Stripling Byer’s: The song of a train passing has haunted many a Southern poet’s work.  Haunted, that is indeed what we are.

Yesterday I caught a snippet on public radio by a Civil War historian at Duke.  He describes Governor Graham dragging his heels about secession; as much as a third of North Carolinians opposed war.  The Duke Prof then tells about pulling into a barbecue restaurant in Kinston recently.  During the War, General Pickett encamped at Kinston on his return from a disastrous attempt to recapture New Bern from the Union.  In Kinston Pickett hanged twenty-two North Carolinians he considered deserters, though most of them had never sworn the oath to the Confederate Army.  Pickett was later accused of war crimes and fled to Canada – the historical point being that allegiances, honor, and motivations are a lot more complicated than South vs. North.  When the Professer parks at the restaurant and looks down the row of cars and pickups with Stars and Bars on their bumpers, he just shakes his head and says, “You don’t even know who you are.”

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Who are we, anyway?  That’s why there’s poetry – that we may discover who we are.  I’m pondering again the form an essentially Southern poem might take. Remember in August I suggested such a poem must include Place, Past, and Culture.  Our identity is complex, but a poem’s complexity lies in its brevity.  What sense most perfectly evokes a memory?  The sense of smell – impossible to describe, complex and heavy with nuance, a simple odor may transport you to a time and place you thought you’d departed forever.  I want a poem to do the same, to be vastly more than the sum of its words, to cause the reader to gasp and sigh at the same time.

Therefore, the SOUTHERN SENTENCE POEM MUST BE SEVEN LINES.

Why seven?  When I as a doddering old man kiss my great-grandchild, I will have held or been held by seven generations of my family.  There are seven Southern waters: spring from rock fissure, clear trout stream, green piedmont river, dam & lake, blackwater meandering, sound, shore.  Southerners more than many are subject to the seven deadly sins and seven heavenly virtues.  Don’t forget the seven bridges road in Montgomery, Alabama.  But most of all because I think seven lines is just the right length.

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So here’s another attempt:

When the train whistle blows
through the Yadkin Valley
we lay down our plastic toys,
lean across the porch rail
until the last beckoning
has trailed away, and I become
my grandson, wondering.

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Place – Yadkin Valley; Past – becoming my Grandson; Culture – porch rail and, of course, that lonesome, haunting train whistle.

Leave me your Southern Sentence Poems here or on our new Facebook Page.

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[After you read this post, move on to my revised definition of the
SOUTHERN SENTENCE POEM
at
https://griffinpoetry.com/2012/11/25/when-the-train-whistle-blows/
And send me your offerings at our Facebook page:
https://www.facebook.com/SouthernSentencePoem?ref=hl ]

Last month after a poetry workshop we all went out for lunch.  Someone had been reading a book of Buson and Issa, and we got to complaining about how hard it is to transmigrate haiku from Japanese to English.  Syllable counting aside, Japanese haiku has so many formalities that just don’t translate.  Each word is drenched in a thousand years of cultural nuance; lotus, frog, mountain, they all have layers of meaning very difficult for an outsider to grok.  Why do we even try to write haiku ourselves?

At some point we came up with the idea – note here that no alcohol was involved in these discussions – that we Southern poets need a poetic form we can call our own.  I remember us laughing about what we might call such a thing;  the term “Bubba” seems to have come up a few times, with various prefixes and suffixes.  At the end of the day, though, we hadn’t really developed anything substantial.

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I’ve been thinking about that conversation ever since, and I’m now ready to unleash upon the literary world a new poetic form: the Southern Sentence Poem.  Besides consisting of a single sentence (which actually ain’t too Southern, knowing how we like to tell long-winded stories), each Southern Sentence must include all three of the following:

1 – Place.

A word or phrase has to place the poem in the American South.  It can be the name of a town, a geographic feature, a mention of some typical flora or fauna, even an ACC university.

2 – Past.

We Southerners make fretful Buddhists – we just can’t let go of the past.  The poem can be “in the moment” but it requires a reference to the past: kinfolk, a historical event, a personal experience (inevitably with a bad outcome, of course, but lesson learned).

3 – Culture.

Let the New Englanders and the Californians and the Canadians come up with their own poetic form – this here poem is about the South!  The reference to Southern culture can be food, customs, language/slang, clothing, agriculture or business . . . even anthropologists have a trouble defining the word “culture.”

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And to my mind a really good Southern Sentence would be seasoned with a drop of bittersweet.  Aren’t some of our great themes sin and redemption, hurt and healing, always at least a little hopefulness?  And it is ever appropriate to inject a little humor.  Just one additional rule: no cussed semicolons.  I love semicolons, but they are just too damn Yankee.

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Help me out.  Send me some Southern Sentence Poems.  If I get a whole passle of them I might start a whole new blog, or at least give them their own page.  Any comments and enlargements on my three rules?  Make the form your own.

AND . . . can anyone think of a better name than Southern Sentence Poem?

Finally, here are a couple of examples (it’s only a coincidence that each is 3 lines; that’s not one of the rules):

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Nana said she despised those “jawflies,”
cicadas that filled the oaks around her house,
but every August I think of her.

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In Nana’s preserves each fig
was suspended in gold – the summer sunset
on Bogue Sound.

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Why shouldn’t offspring of a given moment / be kin, whatever it takes to link lives across the species?
Katherine Soniat, Furnishing the Frog Cosmos

It’s 1963 and my family is spending a few weeks at Nana’s house in Morehead City.  She lives on a high bluff overlooking Bogue Sound (Bogue Banks a mile across the waterway with nary a house visible).  All morning my little brother Bob and I pole an old flat-bottomed skiff through the shallows.  When the tide’s out we spend all afternoon stalking creatures through ankle-deep water and weed beds: silvery fish too swift and lean for our dip net; scallops that show a line of blue-green eyespots on their mantle and snap shut before we can grab them; squirts, knobbed and rubbery, that Bob and I have become brave enough to pick up and squeeze; strange holes in the sand, some that bubble, some that smoke with silt, some with a filmy slime-sac attached that waves in the ripples.  Crabs tiny and large, sea urchins, sand dollars, muscle-footed conches – there are so many strange and wonderful denizens that I, age 10, am very leery of wading through those same weed beds at high tide, never knowing what intends to snatch my toe.

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Bob lives in Montana now.  I don’t know if those creatures still haunt his memories, but I do know that when he brought his daughters to Pine Knoll Shores a few weeks ago they spent an entire day paddling about the sound in a canoe.  Josh, Allison, and Saul are at the beach right now.  We joined them for a couple of days, and I coaxed Saul to follow me out into that green-grey water.  Two feet deep and it catches him mid-chest.  He’s not bothered a bit that he can’t see where he’s placing his feet.  I feel something firm beneath my own and dip up a 3-inch blue crab.  Saul watches its claws pinch the netting, notices the paddle-shaped rear legs flip it through the water when I release it.  The net clinks something hard; I bring up a little whelk shell.  There’s an orange hermit crab hunkered in there.  We set it up on the pier and hold perfectly still until it inches forth, scuttles away, and plops back into the sound.

It’s time for lunch.  There are plenty more mysteries beneath that shining surface.  Next time we’re coming back at low tide.

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I love Katherine Soniat’s Furnishing the Frog Cosmos, from her book The Swing Girl.  I am fascinated by the idea Why shouldn’t offspring of a given moment be kin?  What if?  I was born in February when the hoots of Great Horned Owls haunt the forest and the female on the nest is covered with snow.  Her mate brings meat to her and the downy chicks while she keeps them from freezing.  The Black Bear gives birth to her cubs in February, still in her winter dormancy.  While they nurse she may not eat for weeks.  No doubt a thousand generations of insects by the trillions share the February moment of my birth.  Equatorial birds, warm-water polyps, the whole southern hemisphere in their mid-summer – we’re a strange and wonderful family.

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Furnishing the Frog Cosmos

Earth-jam of a mulched garden — foxglove and iris
beneath the statue that trickles water from her jug
into the pond.

Frogs by the lily pad couple, aloof, eggs adrift
in the green algae.
Why shouldn’t offspring of a given moment
be kin, whatever it takes to link lives across the species?

Think of these squiggly scribbles on water, the young translucent
ones preparing for the planet, for clumsy leaps through circles
of slime.
And not far from here in the woods, the discarded clothes
of childhood lay buried — softened shoes, patched woolens and denim.
An owl dives for the red-headed woman as she weeds a small plot.
Her fickle mane is something that bird wants, sweaters clumped
underground with the winged mittens.

In a flash, that woman rises, out of synch with the concrete maiden
who pours water endlessly for the frogs.
One by one, the stories
diminish, and outgrown body of clothing at home in the dirt.

Katherine Soniat

from The Swing Girl, Louisiana State University Press, 2011

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Katherine Soniat lives in Asheville, NC and teaches in the University of North Carolina at Asheville’s Great Smokies Writers Program.  The Swing Girl  was selected as Best Collection of 2011 by a North Carolina poet (Arnold Oscar Young Award) by the Poetry Council of North Carolina.

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It’s been a few years since I saw a patient with their fingers stiffened by black gum, so tarry and mean you just absolutely couldn’t get it off.  For years they were regulars, members of several local families, and by late August I’d usually treated two or three of them.  Oh, they didn’t consult me to take care of the black gum.  That was a fact of life.  They’d come in with a sprained back from first priming (bending over to pull the lowest leaves, the first ones to ripen).  Or one of their kids would be vomiting from green tobacco sickness when the morning dew permitted the nicotine to penetrate her clothing and permeate her skin.  (The older ones all smoked or dipped, and a little extra nicotine didn’t phase them.)

To say tobacco farming has changed is like saying calling to your neighbor has changed.  The wood-fired tobacco barn has gone the way of the rotary dial phone.  The government bought back all the allotments, but you can imagine plenty of other reasons why you see so many fewer acres of tobacco in Surry County now (and so many more acres of grapes).  On top of that, those big steel gas-fired curing barns just ain’t as picturesque.  And I guess the kids have all gone off to college, because I don’t see them with that black gold on their fingers during priming any more.

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I moved to Elkin over thirty years ago to join Jonesville Family Medical Center right where rural nirvana blooms, the juncture of Wilkes, Yadkin, and Surry Counties.  Some days over lunch, one of my nurses shared stories of her farming childhood.  When priming was finished and the barn was full the whole family would join in the curing – cousins, uncles, the tribe.  The men had to tend the fire all night long to keep the heat just right.  The women would bring baskets of supper; the kids would play until way after dark; someone would break out a fiddle or a guitar.  There was probably a Mason jar of something potent being passed around in the shadows beyond the firelight, but my nurse wouldn’t want to make any accusations.  She and the other youngsters would bed down in quilts and blankets around midnight, and when the sun came up across the fields, there Mama would be with cold milk and biscuits.

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Who’s going to keep these stories alive for us?  Thank goodness for Shelby Stephenson.  I wonder if Mrs. Stephenson, watching her little boy helping with the priming, could have imagined he would go off to college and come back home a professor.  Could she have imagined him turning the black gum into poetry?  As English Prof at UNC Pembroke, as editor of Pembroke magazine, as author of numerous volumes, and as picker of a mean guitar, Shelby has given the old stories new voice, new breath, new life.

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Tobacco Days

The rows almost ridge themselves, shaping the year again
towards seasons that let the dust of sandlugs
fall into yesterdays lost in failed crops, quick dreams.

*   *   *   *   *

I lay on the warm ground of the Mayo barn at four in the morning
hoping Brother would oversleep.
The flatbed trailer bounded across the ditch,
the Farmall Cub droned.
“Morning, boys.”  I climbed the tierpoles.
Taking the top, I handed down four sticks at a time to Lee to
Paul who packed the trailer.  From my perch I
stirred the sun through airholes uner the eaves.
The barn emptied, we walked through dew to breakfast.
Dreams drifted awkwardly, Brother’s Big Man chew
rolling over in sand-dust.

*   *   *   *   *

The tobacco greens for the farmer who dives into the dirt,
renewed in the smell of warehouses,
golden leaves in the lightholes bringing the legged sunlight in.
Dew in dust, a musk in  mist,
the tobacco tips one more time on the prime,

a sea of blooms
bobbing in ninetyfive degree wisps of heat,
adhesive tape slipping over blisters.

My bare feet burn on the ground and I shuffle
toes into dirt for moisture, inching stalk by stalk
down endless rows in the ten-acre field where short rows
fade into plumbushes and shade.

The mules on the drags relax through the hot, climbing
July days, the frying dust, and you wonder if you’ll ever
get the gum off your hands.

Shelby Stephenson
from Finch’s Mash © 1990 by Shelby Stephenson

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