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Posts Tagged ‘Fred Chappell’

.   .   .   Think of the wren
and how little flesh is needed to make a song. 

from Why Regret?,  Galway Kinnell

Brown-Headed Nuthatch

Sitta pusilla

The Grandson and I are playing with Legos on the back porch. Above the constant chitter of the goldfinch kaffeeklatsch shines a sudden clear bright whistle. “Listen, Saul. That’s a Carolina Wren.”

After a few minutes of silent cogitation, a few more minutes of Lego cars brmmm-brmming across the planks, we hear the bird again. Saul remarks, “He’s saying Senner-pede, Senner-pede.”

“You mean centipede, the little crawly thing with a hundred legs?”

“No, Senner-pede.” Brmm, brmm. “I made that up.”

And the moral of the story: Encountering the logic of the philosopher, even if only six years old, it’s probably best to listen.

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The Carolina Wren is one of my favorites, feisty little troglodyte whose voice is 30 decibels too big for his 30 grams of fluff. Listen to enough wren song and you discover the birds can be quite individual. Scolds, chatters, and so many variations on that 2- or 3- or 4-note whistle: just when you think you know them all someone new moves into the neighborhood.

Fred Chappell is one of my other favorites. He’s one of the writers that inspired me about twenty years ago to rediscover the dark forest of Poetry. I carried a typescript copy of his poem Forever Mountain around in my wallet until it wore through and I’d about memorized it. As I sort through the piles on my shelves I think it’s safe to say I’ve bought every one of his books. The epigrams, the complex forms, the backsass, the cat poems . . .

. . . and just when you think you know his song someone new moves into the neighborhood. At this year’s Sam Ragan Poetry Festival Fred revealed to us that he’s now writing fables, poems that tell a story with a moral. His voice just keeps getting bigger and bigger. And you can bet that a Fred Chappell fable is going to stretch your intellect and then bite you on the ass.

Feisty, yes; troglodyte, no.

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Fox and Bust by Fred Chappell; read at Sam Ragan Poetry Festival,
Weymouth Center for the Arts and Humanities in Southern Pines, NC, on March 21, 2105

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Every year the North Carolina Poetry Society sponsors the Sam Ragan Poetry Festival, named for our state’s third and longest-serving Poet Laureate.  Sam was succeeded by Fred Chappell as our fourth Poet Laureate, illuminating that post from 1997-2002. In 2004 Fred collaborated with philanthropist and poet Marie Gilbert, assisted by William Jackson Blackley and a volunteer board, to create the Gilbert-Chappell Distinguished Poet Series.  Each year since then three notable NC poets have been selected to serve as mentors, each to 3 or 4 students middle school to adult, to create and critique a body of poems, followed by public readings in libraries throughout the state.  Fred is still a guiding light for this endeavor, which celebrated its tenth anniversary at this year’s Sam Ragan Poetry Festival in Southern Pines on March 21, 2015.

The photos and poems from this and the five preceding GriffinPoetry posts commemorate that event.

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Weymouth Woods

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Doughton Park Tree #1

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

And then reads the poem.

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

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

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

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

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Syntax          –           Cathy Smith Bowers

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

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

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

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Light in an Upstairs Window           –          Caleb Beissert

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Cathy Smith Bowers bio

Books by Cathy

Caleb Breissert Bio

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

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green vertebrae cradling all the wood-bone of your years

Poetry exalts. Yes, that’s right, it transports you up and out of dreary into ethereal. No it doesn’t. That’s all wrong. Poetry grounds you. It brings you right on down to where you can plunge fingers and toes into clay, grow roots. How else could you ever expect to leave? Still wrong. Think again. Poetry doesn’t change you at all. It catches you in the moment, this moment, right now, and shows you the you you really are.

So who’s right? How about this: Poetry = Salt. Here’s what the cookbook says – “salt makes food taste more like itself.” Poetry? Makes life taste more like itself. I’m sitting here eating a bowl of lentils. Onion, tomato, even the bay leaf can’t rescue it from bland. A fine sprinkle of poetry: an angel named Gracie; my sapped body a river that floods without regard; green mountains to lift me from the sinking sand. Now that’s tasty. More than tasty, that’s umami. More than base sustenance, that builds muscle. Wings, roots, soul – serve it up!

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Sam Ragan Poetry Festival, March 21, 2015 in Southern Pines – a tenth anniversary gathering of poet mentors and their students from the Gilbert-Chappell Distinguished Poet Series. During its first ten years GCDPS (named for founders Marie Gilbert and former NC poet laureate Fred Chappell) has sponsored dozens of students of all ages to work with the finest poets from around North Carolina. A complete reunion of readings would take a full week but this one Saturday is more than filled with five mentors and four students.

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Tony Abbott is Professor Emeritus at Davidson College and still teaches courses in modern drama and creative writing, especially poetry. He has served two years as president of the NC Poetry Society and continues to guide our programs and encourage our members. When he stands at the lectern and pauses before reciting, do you feel it, too? He invokes in me a spirit not of confidence but of questing, not knowing but seeking. The titles of one of his books wonders if words could save us, but when I listen to Tony I believe they can.

When Tony was invited to be one of the Distinguished Poets at SRPF he knew he had to read with a student whom he had mentored before and after (but not during) GCDPS, and whose growth as a poet he still follows and nurtures. Annalee Kwochka will graduate from Davidson College this spring with a degree in Disability Studies and continue graduate studies in clinical psychology; she is currently completing a full-length book of poetry that will be her thesis. Before she entered Davidson she was a GCDPS scholar, and before that she won every youth contest the NC Poetry Society sponsors several years running.

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Tony and Annalee are reading from Tony’s book The Angel Dialogues, Tony the voice of the jaded poet seeking his muse, Annalee the voice of the angel sent to redeem him.

The Poet Names the Angel               —              Tony Abbott

Spring night. Azaleas shining, red and white,
in the pale gleam of the full moon. I step outside.
She is sitting on the hood of my car
across the street, painting her toenails.

“Lets walk,” I say, “I’ve got something
serious to ask you.”
Just a minute, she says, and blows on her toes.
I wait, and then I wait some more.
I don’t think this is my color, she says.
We walk. I watch her toes and think.

I take a deep breath. “Do you have a name?”
She blushes, and she says nothing.
“I want to call you by name. Do you have a name?”
No, she says. Not really.
“Why not? Doesn’t God name you?”
Oh no, our people name us. Each one
names us, she says, and she starts to cry.
“Why are you crying,” I ask.
The names, the names, the names–
Each name brings back the person. This angel
business is hard, sweetheart. I have all these
people. I love them all. I help them all. A little
girl in Venezuela named me Rosalita? Isn’t
that marvelous? The angel Rosalita.
A game strikes my fancy.

“France,” I say.
Antoinette, she says.
“Russia,” I say.
Masha, she says. It must be Masha.
“German,” I laugh.
Oh God, German. Ilkedoodle.
The angel Ilkedoodle.” We laugh together.

I’m standing under the angel tree. It is empty.
She sits at my feet, yoga style,
and looks up at me. Well, she says.
Any ideas?
“I don’t know. I don’t think I can do this.”
Yes, you can. Try. You’ll find it.
You always do, eventually.

I close my eyes. Then I know.
“Grace,” I say. “Gracie,” “Gracia.”
Indeed, she says, and floats upward
into the leaves.

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Renditions of self              —               Annalee Kwochka

1. Neither acute nor chronic fits the curve of your sapped body
these days; rather, constantly recurring, the river floods without
warning, without regard.

2. On the Sabbath, you anoint your own body with Vaseline.
You are snake-leather skin, bird-hollow bone, quickening, flung-
open mind.

3. After dinner; a single glass of cheap, sweet wine. You collapse
into bed. Room still fully-lit, fully-clothed. Without even the urge
to bury yourself.

4. Then—raw-skinned horizon, aching iris-of-eye—are you
not right, to live in fear? You are cortex, synapse, firing neurons—
heart bruised and writhing in the hot sun.

5. You are a failed secret agent, writing your identity over and over
on fortune-cookie papers, filling your pockets, passing them on
with each handshake, pulling them out of ears—

6. Despite your best intentions, home is full of sinkholes.
Classified lives brush against you; You would spring
yourself open, the un-cracked spine of a holy book.

7. Only the mountains comfort you
lift you from the sinking sand, green vertebrae
cradling all the wood-bone of your years.

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Tony Abbott

The Angel Dialogues

If Words Could Save Us

 

Annalee Kwochka

Opening the Doors to the Temple

 

umami, the fifth taste

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Doughton Park Tree #3

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 . . . it is nothing but a song – the long journey home:

Homecoming – what sort of images does that word evoke?

Marching band lined up, the girls with their blue and gold pom poms, boys becoming men bursting through crepe paper onto the field.

All the old families filing into Salem Fork Baptist for preaching, and in the afternoon pot luck under the willow oaks.

A long absence, a holiday, sitting down to share the meal with family, wondering where you really belong and beginning to get an inkling.

The prodigal returning to discover the grace of unconditional love.

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How about this one: men and women who have known each other for fifty years, or one year, or just today, gathered in a single great room to listen and be silent, to laugh and to cry, to start out wondering whether they belong and discover themselves bound together by the soul of words into one family.

Sam Ragan Poetry Festival at Weymouth Center for the Arts and Humanities and the tenth anniversary celebration of the Gilbert-Chappell Distinguished Poet Series – friends, it was one hell of a homecoming! Oh yes, the readings, Fred Chappell bringing new poems, fables and morals to slap you upside the head; Gilbert-Chappell mentors Cathy Smith Bowers, Joseph Bathanti, Lenard D. Moore, Tony Abbott each with their prized student protege from the program; from basketball to angels; from love lost to love well shet of; from growing up to growing old to refusing in any fashion to grow old. And the greetings – more hugs and handclasps per unit time than any baby shower or wake or political convention on record.

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And then there was Shelby Stephenson. Our “newest” NC Poet Laureate? How about our oldest and truest friend and guide? Has anyone in our state done more to encourage poets? To teach and encourage? To just plain get the poetry joy juice flowing in the crowd’s veins?

When I read the announcement that Shelby had been selected as Poet Laureate I immediately dug out my file – all the rejection slips he sent me while he was editor at Pembroke magazine. Friends, you would have to knock me down to get me to part with these sixteen little 2 x 3 inch slips of yellow paper (some actually just a post-it note with the Pembroke rubber stamp). Almost every one has a personal scribble: “good luck placing these” . . . “keep writing” . . . ” liked [poem] best” . . . “send more any time.” My God, how I harassed him with submissions until glory be one was good enough to keep.

Shelby Stephenson, thanks for the poetry homecoming. I am still discovering where I belong.

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from fiddledee
(read by Shelby at the 2015 Sam Ragan Poetry Festival)

Saying I need an image to make the world
I went back home and held my eyes on the hill
and it said You need a word deeper than I

so I took the old fencerails the lizards ran
and my family’s tongue came out of the Mouth
of Buzzard’s Branch, the sound of that one story,

everywhere, in the marshes, in the fields,
and lowgrounds, and I said Where is the word
that holds All I am trying to say? –

and the cows lowed through their cuds over
and over it is nothing but a song – the long journey home:

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.  .  .  let go the body: the cardinal

flowers stretch across the landscape, handsome
in their high keys: there goes a plankhouse into
a hedge: we come from a desert of innumerable

dances made in pain and pleasure arriving
forever, America’s promise, Huckleberry
laid back every spring when the little green

corn is sided, what broken clods to bounce
in the dirt: the literature of the world
is the people: Whitman, where are you? Our

faculties run out into the unknown:
results are beginning, continuously
extending the plain chance to hold a seat,

here, hardy as a foot soldier: an articulate
voice lowers to let the mind down so the
undergarments might hear humanity

in the bosom stumbling back to breathe independently:
transitory, we bequeath to thee, O Death,
this victorious song thou breaks, the word

of the singer, his parentage and home,
the wood in the flames a quiet crackle
of no hurry going up and out, moving

the dust that settles the ashes, a tune,
a farway injury of happiness,
a bliss that is hard to empty: time and space

affirm the rhythm, the dimensions of
across and around: wrap a tent around
the music and steal away: images edge

the feelings like heels grinding lightly on
a board of closest imaginative
stances delighting the reapers in the

wheat, the keepers in the creek: the word is
another form of dancing: the body
moves on the surface just over truth: we

live amid the skin: the true art of
experience is practiced by the skipper
bugs: they skate so well: I clap my hands and

the water scoots a wake beating with a
new beauty: and the line which begins behind
is brought forward: I look back one more time

to draw a radiance in language, a
radical system formless and grammatically
mountainous and divine, mortal as the

fertilizing rain, a lingering space
that gives the celebration a morning, noon
and night swallowed up by the dallying and playing

world holding the ancient beard in an avenging
dance, a cosmos for jollity: high in
the pocket of a farmhouse I am alone,

a laughing moon brightening like an orange on ice.

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fiddledeedee
© 2014 by Shelby Stephenson, Press 53, Winston-Salem, NC

More information about Shelby at http://www.shelbystephenson.com/home.htm

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Over the next couple of weeks I will share more vignettes, poetry and photos from the 2015 Sam Ragan Poetry Festival & tenth anniversary celebration of the Gilbert-Chappell Distinguished Poetry Series

Also check back for a link to the full photo gallery, forthcoming

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Doughton Park Tree #3

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Red-tipped maples along the ridgeline and pumpkins lined up at Hawks Produce (as well as Brushy Mtn. Stayman Winesaps almost the size of pumpkins) – you know what that means: Halloween is coming! When Linda was growing up Halloween wasn’t one single evening, it was an entire month, sort of the Olympics of holidays. Linda’s Mom Donna French was really into costumes and stories and pageantry in her job as an elementary school librarian, and her seven kids became the flock to her Bo Peep, the Hansel and Gretels to her Wicked Witch, the entire cast of characters to her Mother Goose. In fact, the first time I met Linda (November 1, 1966, eighth grade and first day at my new school), she was wearing the unexpectedly indelible vestiges of the previous night’s costume.

So October 1 Linda mentioned to Saul two books that we’ve inherited from Grandma French’s large collection, and when he came home from school with us the next afternoon he was ready for me to read them to him: Kat Kong . . . and Dogzilla. Saul calls them the “Double Feature.” He has set up an entire audience of Lego men, Blue Rat, Mousie, and various other little critters to view the performance. He does the sound effects, monsters growling and crashing into things, and I do the narration and dialogue. Roll ‘em! Action! Halloween is only four weeks away!

Whoa, I’d better start thinking about MY costume. Hmmm . . . how about Rat-cula? And if you’ve got a kid or grandkid that thrives on silly, you need to track down copies of Kat Kong and Dogzilla, written and illustrated by Dav Pilkey with the help of his pet mice, cat, and corgi. At the time he created these in the 1990’s he was living in Kent, Ohio and was a friend of Grandma French’s.

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Now for a poem to get you into the Halloween spirit. Who’s your favorite poet? If “favorite” means you seek out all their books and keep coming back to them year after year, I guess Fred Chappell is mine. His latest book, Familiars, is filled with the personalities, imaginings, and eccentric doings of cats. And if you shudder at the approach of ghouls and spirits, if you dread the thought that you might be haunted by former lives, perhaps you really don’t want to be a cat . . .

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Ghost Story

What does Alexander see,
Staring with taut fixity
Into the dusty corner there
And its eerily vacant air?

Perhaps invisible Somethings flock
That barren angle of the room
And speak to him at twelve o’clock
Of an unalterable doom.

It would not be a single ghost
But several who gaze and wait
Until the Halloween veils with frost
The leaf-strewn lawn, the gray roof-slate,

To whisper to him in unison
The dreaded sentence that constrains
Him to a destiny fordone:
“Us eight you squandered. One remains.”

Fred Chappell, from Familiars, LSU Press, 2014

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 Mousie&punkins

Mousie will be ready for a snack at the next Double Feature.

Kat Kong and Dogzilla © Dav Pilkey, Harcourt and Brace

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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 . . . ?!”

.     .     .     .     .

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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