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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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I’m going to bet your family is a lot like mine.  Sometimes my parents come to stay a few days over a holiday, with Margaret and her Josh in from Raleigh, Mary Ellen down from Sylva (and all with dogs-squared), and finally Josh, Allison, and Saul all squeezed in.  Then it starts.  First hugs, then catching up and gossip, meanwhile eating, momentary pause in eating, start eating again.  Finally, if we’re all under the same roof for long enough, the stories begin.

Haven’t you heard them?  Stories that start out with, “Oh, I remember when you were six and you . . . .”  “Right, and remember that time we thought no one was looking and we . . . .”  “Sure, and can you remember what Nana would say when we . . . ?”  We’ve heard them all a thousand time, but we can’t help ourselves.  We have to re-tell them.  It’s the stories that bind us together and remind us we’re a family.  Those stories make us a family.

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I was at the Zoo about a year ago when Batir was smaller (though not by any means small).  She still kept pretty close to her mother, Tonga, and they would frequently caress each other with their trunks or even interlace, touching . . . touching.  Today they still spend much of the day near each other; is Batir leaning against her mother’s side?  They’re that close.

Yesterday at the aviary, besides watching the Yellow-rumped Cacique add fronds to a large unruly nest in the very top of a sapodilla, I saw a pair of White-headed Mousebirds that evidently also had nesting on their minds.  They nibbled at each other’s beaks, and then one would preen the neck feathers of the other . . . and they were perched pretty darn close together on that branch.

One morning this week I entered the Park early while the alligators were still bellowing at each other (there are two separate ‘gator enclosures so the males can’t get physical with each other).  As I passed one pool, a larger ‘gator was rubbing his jaw up and down the neck of the smaller, and then she (?) would return the gesture.  I’d have a hard time calling it “nuzzling” when your skin is smooth as an old shagbark hickory, but I can only assume they were making friends.

With such a large extended family of baboons, you can’t pass them by without noticing that there is always some grooming going on.  Sometimes it’s a female picking through the thick mane of a large male; sometimes two females; frequently a mother and child, and then they reciprocate.  The younger members of the troop sometimes stop chasing and wrestling to comb each other out with their claws.

Somehow each species communicates that they are a family.  It may be the complex subsonic telegraphy of elephants or the ritual stereotypic breeding displays of birds, but the message is received.  The bond is forged.  The family prevails.

We humans prevail through the stories we tell.  When that gets old, we tell stories about telling stories. As Zoo ambassador, here’s my challenge to you:  tell me a new story.

I am leaving the Zoo after this week-long residency with a headful of stories.  You’ve got some, too.  Discover them.   Tell them.  You don’t have to visit a zoo, or an aquarium, or a botanical garden, or a national park.  You have a backyard, a neighborhood, a schoolyard.  There is something about any one of those places that can remind you what family you belong to.  Do I have to come right out and say it?  It’s the Family of All Life on Earth.

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Maybe you’ll encounter a creature you’ve never paid much attention to before.  You might learn to recognize a bird’s call or look up the name of that big butterfly hanging around your bushes.  Perhaps you’ll gain some new understanding about how creature A depends on creature B, and vice versa.  Could be you’ll discover that something you’re used to doing every day actually harms creature C.  You know you’re going to feel invigorated after you get a big dose of Vitamin N (“Nature”).

And you’re going to have some stories. I can hear you now, each time you get together with your Family and spend some quality time under nature’s vast open roof – “Hey, do you remember when we . . . ?!”

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A Prayer for the Mountains

Let these peaks have happened

The hawk-haunted knobs and hollers,
The blind coves dense as meditation,
The white rock-face, the laurel hells,
The terraced pasture ridge
With its broom sedge combed back by wind:
Let these have taken place, let them be place.

And where Harmon Fork piles unrushing
Against its tabled stones, let the gray trout
Idle below, its dim plectrum a shadow
That marks the stone’s clear shadow.

In the slow glade where sunlight comes through
In circlets and moves from leaf to fallen leaf
Like a tribe of shining bees,
Let the milk-flecked fawn lie unseen, unseeing.

Let me lie there too
And share the sleep
Of the cool ground’s mildest children.

Fred Chappell
from Spring Garden, 8 1995 by Fred Chappell, Lousiana State University Press.

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You don’t have to visit the Zoo, but it couldn’t hurt.  It’s done me a world of good.  Next time you’re there, see if they’ve started displaying poetry around the Park.  (It won’t happen until after all three of us Poets-in-Residence have submitted our suggestions, but if you don’t see any yet it’ll just be the perfect reason to make another trip before too long.)

Meanwhile, I thank profoundly Ellen Greer, Sue Farlow, and Dr. David Jones as well as all those on the steering committee that developed the vision for this Poetry of Conservation project.  And to all the rest of you folks – design staff, animal handlers, Zoo Com, volunteers, interpreters, Sodexo, Schindler House folks – you welcomed me into your NC Zoological Park family, and I am humbled and grateful.  In sheer awesomeness you are equal to any of the other animals in the Park!

Love, BILL

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Brave families at the NC Zoological Park today: heat index topping 100, no respite cloud, scant breeze, water fountains running low.  Even the rhinos and bongo (antelope) had sense enough to find a patch of shade and not budge from it.  But Zoos are made for families, and a good chunk of mine showed up to join me on my first afternoon as Poet-in-Residence.

My kids are 30+; Margaret said she couldn’t remember ever going to the zoo,  Josh said his last trip was in seventh grade, Allison has fond memories but they’re getting pretty fuzzy.  Jimmy and Dana (Allison’s parents, Josh’s in-laws) and I reminisced about the zoos of our youth and how much things have changed.  But four-year-old Saul didn’t need to philosophize – he kept us laughing repeatedly with his hoots of amazement at every new wonder.  The park was closing as we literally dragged him away from the underwater viewing of the harbor seals, and even rides on the tramand the bus had his eyes popping.  And I honestly don’t recall any complaints about the heat.

It’s not just the old cliché about seeing the world through the eyes of a child. It is something deeper, something that is ingrained in our heredity, essential to our lineage.  Something without which we wouldn’t have survived as a species.  Shall I call it the desire to give our children joy?  It is certainly a self-reinforcing phenomenon, a positive feedback loop:  when I see the awe on Saul’s face as he places his hand against the hand of the baby chimpanzee on the other side of the glass, I just want to keep offering him more of those experiences.  More and more.

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This poem by Peter Makuck captures for me the yin and yang of this sort of desire for our progeny.  We want to protect them from suffering – they will nevertheless experience sorrow.  We want to convey to them whatever meaning we’ve discovered – they will have to discover it for themselves.  My grandson is the apple, all potentiality and sweetness.  I am the stiffening branch.  I can only hope the ground I leave him, when he falls, is fertile.

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 My Son Draws an Apple Tree

I watch it grow
at the end of his dimpled hand
rooted in white paper.

The strokes are fast
and careless, as if the hand
had little time.

Quick black trunk,
a green crown and in the white
air all by itself

a red splotch,
an apple face with a frown
that is his

he gravely says
looking up at me — the stiffening
branch he falls from.

Peter Makuck
from Long Lens, New & Selected Poems, © 2010 by Peter Makuck, Boa Editions, Ltd.
American Poets Continuum Series, No. 121

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Peter Makuck lives on Bogue Banks, one of North Carolina’s barrier islands.  He was the first Distinguished Professor of English at East Carolina University, where he taught for thirty years until retiring in 2006.  While at ECU he founded and edited the nationally-respected journal Tar River Poetry.  He has influenced a generation of North Carolina poets and writers.

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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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I’ve lived in this little town for thirty-one years, but almost every day someone still asks me, “Where you from?”  I don’t tell them.  Maybe if I’m not in my long-suffering persona at the moment I might just say, “Here.”  And move on.  Or I might sidestep with, “How far back do you mean?” and if they press then I inform them that my Griffin forebears moved down here from Virginia to Union County (near Charlotte) before the Revolution.  Or I might go on the offensive: “All my folks are from around here,” with further ammunition that my Mom grew up in Winston-Salem and Dad in Hamlet.

But I never tell them where I was actually born.  That would end the conversation.  Because what they’re really saying is, “You ain’t from around here, are you?”  And I’ll be damned if I’m going to confirm it.

Why?  What’s the big deal?  Afraid of being labeled a Yankee?  It’s not as if there aren’t fifty other things besides my pure midwestern accent that brand me an outsider in this rural county.  Not Baptist.  Not Republican.  Not a football fan.  Not a Tarheel (although I have no compunction about letting my Carolina friends know I went to Duke).

No, I’m not running away from the things I’m not.  I”m running toward what I long to be.  Not exactly a state of being, but a state of belonging.

I belong to North Carolina and it belongs to me.  I’ve slept on the ground in its forests and mountains.  I’ve drunk from its streams.  I’ve planted trees here.  I can recite its toast: Here’s to the land of the longleaf pine . . . .  I’ve lived in a lot of other towns and a lot of other states, but this is the one I need to accept me and take me in and hold me.  Maybe it’s exactly because I lived in so many different places growing up – I need some place where I belong.

So I won’t apologize for getting defensive when someone tries to imply I’m not from around here.  Just take heart all you folks who have moved more than twenty miles from the place where you were born.  Even if your great x 10 grandfather didn’t live here, you can belong.  Just put down a taproot of love, and when someone asks where you’re from, you tell them, “Right here, damn it.”

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Moving – I couldn’t help but get agitated about all those moves after reading that Jodi Barnes has moved at least twenty-four times in her life, as far as she can remember.  Her book Unsettled keeps returning to that theme, the quest for belonging.  Of course there are the boxes packed, unpacked, repacked, and their tangible artifacts of memory.  We can’t let go of things because we can’t bear to be cut off from our past.  Memories – are they really roots that are strong enough to feed us?  Is home what we’ve left behind or where we long to arrive?

Jodi’s poems reveal so many things left behind.  Love: we thought it was real, but it has moved on without us.  Lives: that pack our hearts long after we’ve lost them.  So many false steps and false starts that may end with us feeling cut off.  Is there any hope for us wayfaring strangers to finally discover our home?  The gods of metaphor; the dirt beneath our feet; the persona of myth we don like an astonished cloak; all those things that leave us feeling uncertain and longing.  Everything unsettled.  And yet . . .

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Pretend Pioneer

My friends ask, are you moved in yet?
They mean is my stuff unpacked;
am I settled?
I envision wagon wheels,
mail-order brides, the frontier.

But here my sole risk is to trip
over cardboard,
the clutter of privilege.

Once I unwrap what I thought I’d need,
I circle camps of chattel on a polished floor,
stretch the metaphor of expansion,
contrast this mansion with teepee
desire – its flapping door.

Next time I’ll answer Hell No
I got to keep moving.

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The Hardness of Cardboard Philosophy

Memories hide beneath cardboard wings,
seek solace against worn seams.
Last night, I dreamed this box
grew feathers and flew away.

But it stays, obeys gravity,
reminds me of a frayed decision:
to face the weight or leave this matter
to tidy imagination.

I think I remember why it’s no use
to ply back flaps on time capsules.
It’s the same stuff.  Pixies don’t exist.
And there is no magic in this dust.

Yet something pulls me to the drab,
unrelenting, rectangular shape,
my arms extend, my fingers bend
to search breaches in brittle tape.

Strands of hair, stale baby’s breath,
baptismal candle, eyelet gown,
first tooth, proof of life –
unmoved, they stare me down.

As I try to keep them dry,
not mourn her past, the missed –
angelic imps resist my wish; the box sits.
Another blurred present flies by.

From Unsettled, (c) 2010, Jodi Barnes, Main Street Rag Publishing

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With his masters in chemical engineering, my Dad got a job with Western Electric straight out of Georgia Tech.  I was born in Niagara Falls, the American side.

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