Posts Tagged ‘Jane Mead’

[ with 3 poems by Jane Mead]

In Need of a World

Who wouldn’t want a life
made real by the passage of time
or a world, at least,
made real by the mind. Something
solid and outer, though connected.

Who wouldn’t want to know
for certain how to get there?

I’d like to tell you simply
how I passed this day putting tomatoes up,
or how I tied a stern cicada to a string
so I could feel the gentle tug
its flying in frantic circles made.

I’d like to show you the red
worm-shaped burn on my wrist
and in this way claim myself.

Instead I slip out of my every day –
away into the distant and lulling sound
of “once-upon-a-time-there-was-a-woman.”

Will I ever find that perfect stance
of soul and mind from which sparks
a self uttering itself?
I’m always slipping between rows of corn –
through the field that rises toward this ridge
from which I like the houses for their smallness.

Here I lean against a Honey Locust,
feathery tree with its three-inch thorns,
and watch sagging strands of barbed wire
sway slightly in the wind – the clump
of brown fur hanging there, waving.

I watch the field of drying corn beyond,
and beyond that the soccer field
and rows of clean-lined condos.
I wait for the yellow light to flick on
in the white church across the valley.

Will I ever learn the way to love
the ordinary things I love to look at?

I’m always slipping away
between rows of corn, climbing
toward this ridge to think,
when really what I want is a ridge
or a lonely field on the edge of the world
of the mind. A place from which to speak
honestly to that man on the porch, a way
to greet the children who are swinging
on the edge of duck behind chain-link fences.

But always it’s either I or world.
World or I.

And when it’s I, I’m dreaming
on a quiet ridge that the tomatoes
ripened and, though I was missing,
a woman put an apron on and canned them.
And when it’s world, it pushes me back
toward that madness of the soul
which is not a field, nor a ridge, nor a way.

Jane Mead
from To the Wren, collected & new poems 1991-2019; Alice James Books, Farmington, Maine; © 2019

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I am sitting at the kitchen table reading these poems by Jane Mead when Linda asks me if I have any trash that needs to go out. I am sitting at the kitchen table because if I sit at my desk I will remember all the things that need to be done but that are not reading poems by Jane Mead. Of the things I will remember sitting at my desk some are a chore, like writing checks, and some are sober, like checking in with Dad to see if he is still having pain, and although reading Jane Mead is not a chore the poems are certainly sober. She makes me wonder: will there be a moment later today or tomorrow to sit and stare into the green chapel of April and ponder who I am?

Yesterday walking the Forest Bathing Trail, Linda and I saw three violets that are not the rampant purple violets that fill the rest of the world. One by one during the weeks of April we have learned their three names. They are small, they are just a few, they are precious. Their rampant purple cousins whose flowers are crafty enough to duck beneath the mower blades, who make many, many seeds, and who have perfected the concept of ‘spread’, they, too, are precious. Will there be a moment later today or tomorrow to sit and consider the insignificance of violets and consider whether, perhaps, all things and all moments are precious?

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Sparrow, My Sparrow

The voice that loves me best when I am dreaming
comes from every corner of the circle of my sleep
speaking in the sound of my own drowning.
She says the body’s just a habit getting old,
a crystal turning on a nerve of ancient longing.
She says I will teach you how to be with yourself
always, she says we do not live in the same world.

All this is just an allegory for the truth.
Truth is, I cannot speak
the voice that I’ve been dreaming.
Truth is, the slate sky darkens,
clouds of sparrows heave in the wind,
the trees are massed with sparrows screaming
and the fields are dotted with them.
The birds are bracing themselves. The birds
are frenzied by something about to happen.

Truth is, I have my feet on the slimy banks.
I look for my face in the murk-green river
and the water’s surface does not change.

But I hear myself in the screech of sparrow
and am panicked by something about to happen.

Slate sky – darkened; sound in wind:
I enter this world like myself as a prayer.
I enter this world as myself.
I cannot help myself.

What is a prayer but a song of longing
turning on the thread of its own history?

I feel myself loved by a voice in the wind –
I cover my ears with my palms.
The whole world rocks and still
the cold green river does not spill.

Jane Mead
from To the Wren, collected & new poems 1991-2019; Alice James Books, Farmington, Maine; © 2019


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The Man in the Poetry Lounge

at Berkeley is reading English
pastoral poetry with passive
abandon, chewing his thumbnail
aggressively. He wants

to see grass, he wants to
BE grass so badly he can
almost smell it. Outside,
they are cutting the grass—

the man and the mower—they are
dressing and keeping the garden.
They are not far enough away
from my hay fever, but the man

reading pastorals is off—
zeroing in on calmer places.
Have the birds arrived yet?
Have the larks and nightingales

made their appearance? I would like
to ask him to let me know
when he gets to the birds. I would like
to concentrate then and there, and lose

what I have read about Flanders
and Picardy and the trenches of W.W.I:
the larks appearing around the time
of stand-to in the morning,

the nightingales showing up
by stand-to at night. I would like never
to have learned that they were there.
But instead, because my nose is running,

my eyes are getting smaller by the minute,
and I’m edgy, I’ll ask him sweetly
if he’s bothered at home
by bedbugs, rats, or lice,

and justify the question with an explanation:
I myself am bothered by fleas.
This is why I keep scratching—
which act I hope he does not find

distracting because, really,
who am I to ruin his birds.
I who cannot, as you have seen,
follow those trenches to their

logical conclusion. Instead, I too
have searched long, and found
that in the gentle arc
of a pig’s back there really is

a thought to calm the thinker—
if, that is, the pig be tame.
I want to know if this man
loves what he is reading—

and if he loves it enough
in what way it will change him.
Are we onto something real now
or is this all about planting

a false goose in front of the moon?
Do the iambics soothe him? Is he
big on true rhyme and false conclusion,
the sonic hanky—you wipe your eyes

you blow your nose. Which I will
have to leave this room to do.
But not before I’ve resisted
coming right out and asking

if he’s fulfilling the requirements
of heart or mind, and asked instead
what it’s my true right to know
(involving, as it does, the heat

of concentration and the problem
of public safety, as in MY safety):
if his shirt, which I’ll begin
by calling handsome, has passed

the requirements of the Flammable
Fabrics Act. Then I’ll
step out and blow my nose,
at which point I might as well wander

back on down toward Cody’s and try
to receive the world, browsing
and scratching in the poetry section,
after buying a paper poppy for a dollar—

the one you didn’t want to know was coming—
the Flanders—from a veteran of foreign wars
at Telegraph and Durant—not,
of course, looking at his left leg—

because I can’t.
Because it isn’t there.

Jane Mead
from To the Wren, collected & new poems 1991-2019; Alice James Books, Farmington, Maine; © 2019

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Given the nearly complete destruction of an entire planet, the overpowering by greed of any sense of the basic logic of survival, or valuation of beauty — it would be odd if the urgency of this situation were not reflected in our poetry. But poetry has the potential to move people, which is where the potential for growth and change of a certain kind enters the picture.
+++++++++++++++ Jane, Mead, from a 2014 online interview,
+++++++++++++++ recalled in her obituary in the Los Angeles Times

Jane Mead died in 2019 at the age of 61. She was a Griffin Poetry Prize and Los Angeles Times Book Prize finalist for her 2016 book World of Made and Unmade, about her mother’s death. Her previous book of ecopoetry, Money Money Money Water Water Water, explores the widespread destruction of the natural world.

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[with 4 poems by Jane Mead]

What is Leafy yet has no Leaves?

On our way home Mike and I pull over at Newfound Gap but not for the Appalachian vistas: it’s our last stop to hunt lichens before we leave the Smokies. And maybe an opportunity to spread some lichen joy.

No need to hunt – stop moving long enough and a lichen will find you. Two old guys squinting through magnifying glasses at rocks and bark, though, and it also isn’t long before a passing family asks, “What gives?” “Looking at all the lichens,” Mike answers. “What’s a lichen?” Jackpot! Mike begins to tell their story . . . “a whole little world of fungus and algae” . . . while I wander on.

Now a couple asks me why I’ve raised my camera toward this one tree among the millions. Spreading from its bark are crooked fingers, hands of crones, veined, flattened, beseeching. “That’s lichen?” says the woman when I tell her. “I thought it looked like wind had plastered leaves against the trunk.” Exactly, that’s just how it looks. But it has no leaves!

Lobaria pulmonaria: Lungwort, you need a new name. Not even remotely kin to spiderworts, toothworts, liverworts, you are no wort at all – though your presence is atmosphere’s benediction. Draw deeply, my lungs! Exhale wonder! What shall we call you, Leafy without Leaves? Troll’s Greeting? Across the Aisle? Or maybe simply Lichen Welcome.

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Three Candles
And a Bowerbird

I do not know why
the three candles must sit
before this oval mirror,

but they must. –
I do not know much
about beauty, though

its consequences
are clearly great – even
to the animals:

to the bowerbird
who steals what is blue,
decorates, paints

his house; to the peacock
who loves the otherwise
useless tail of the peacock –

the tail we love.
The feathers we steal.
Perhaps even to the sunflowers

turning in their Fibonacci
spirals the consequences
are great, or to the mathematical

dunes with ripples
in the equation of all things
windswept. Perhaps

mostly, then, to the wind.
Perhaps mostly to the bowerbird.
I cannot say.

But I light the candles: there is
joy in it. And in the mirror
also, there is joy.

Jane Mead (1958-2019)

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These poems by Jane Mead appear in To the Wren: Collected & New Poems (Alice James Books, Farmington ME, © 2019). The book spans three decades of Mead’s life: running her family’s vineyards in Napa Valley; the death of her mother; her own cancer which ultimately took her life. All through her poetry there is a fierce seeking for identity – But always it’s either I or world. / World or I.  Relentlessly she seeks justice for the earth, for creatures, for the self. Poet Gerald Stern writes, “Jane Mead’s mission is to rescue—to search and rescue; and the mind, above all, does the work…. Her poems are a beautiful search for liberation and rebirth.” Nature is not something we write about; nature is what we are.

[Above poem excerpt by Jane Mead is from In Need of a World.
Three bright yellow lichens of the Smokies found at Newfound Gap:
= Xanthomendoza weberi
= Caloplaca falvovirescens, “Colonel Mustard”
= Caloplaca flavocitrina, “Continental Firecrackers”
++++  – – Species identification revised 2/28/2022 after review by Dr. Lendemer]

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The Argument Against Us

The line of a man’s neck, bent
over welding, torchlight breaking
shadows on his face, hands cracked
into a parched map of fields he has woken –
the gods wanted us.

Think of their patient preparation:
the creature who left the rocking waves behind,
crawling up on some beach, the sun
suddenly becoming clear. Small thing
abandoning water for air, crooked body
not quite fit for either world, but the one
that finally made it. Think of all the others.

Much later, spine uncurls, jaw pulls back, brow-bone
recedes, and as day breaks over the dry plain
a rebellious boy takes an upright step
where primitive birds are shrieking above him.

He did it for nothing. He did it
against all odds. Bone of wrist, twist
of tooth, angel of atoms – an infinity
of courage sorted into fact
against the shining backdrop of the world.

The line of one man’s neck, bent –
torchlight breaking shadows on his face.

There was a creature who left the waves behind
and a naked child on a windy plain:
when the atom rips out into our only world
and we’re carried away on a wave of hot wind
I will love them no less: they are just how much
the gods wanted us.

Jane Mead (1958-2019)

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The Geese

slicing this frozen sky know
where they are going –
and want to get there.

Their call, both strange
and familiar, calls
to the strange and familiar

heart, and the landscape
become the landscape
of being, which becomes

the bright silos and snowy
fields over which the nuanced
and muscular geese are calling.

Jane Mead (1958-2019)

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To the Wren, No Difference
No Difference to the Jay

I came a long
way to believe
in the blue jay

and I did not cheat
anyone. I
came a long way –

through complexities
of bird-sound and calendar
to believe in nothing

before I believed
in the jay.

Jane Mead (1958-2019)

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When Mike Barnett and I stopped at Newfound Gap (on US 441 smack in the middle of Great Smoky Mountains National Park) we were returning from the weekend lichens course at Tremont, part of the Southern Appalachian Naturalist Certification Program. We bow down in gratitude to John DiDiego, Education Director at Great Smoky Mountains Institute at Tremont, for convincing Dr. James Lendemer to teach this course. Dr. Lendemer is chief lichenologist at New York Botanical Gardens and literally wrote the book: Field Guide to the Lichens of Great Smoky Mountains National Park (which weighs 1.48 kg, not so much a “field guide” as an entire encyclopedia!).

Dr. Lendemer in his book names L. pulmonaria “Crown Jewel of America” – it is the biggest baddest lichen of them all. Thank you, James – we love lichens! Thank you GSMIT and SANCP and GSMNP. And thanks to all you little fungal hyphae, algal photobionts, cyanobacteria – you look mah-velous.


More by and about Jane Mead at Poetry Foundation.

Field Guide to the Lichens of Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Erin A. Tripp and James C. Lendemer, University of Tennessee Press, Knoxville, © 2020.

Great Smoky Mountains Institute at Tremont, Southern Appalachian Naturalist Certification Program.

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2019-02-09 Doughton Park Tree

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[New Year’s Eve, poems by Mary Oliver and Jane Mead]

“Are spirits’ lives so short?” asked Scrooge.
“My life upon this globe is very brief,” replied the Ghost. “It ends to-night.”

The worm Ouroboros eats its tail, every day renewed, ever renewing. Cycles unending. The Neuse River snakes to New Bern, clouds lift inland, each little feeder stream is filled. Rain, ice, lichen eat the stone, phosphate creeps its migration through generations: rock to soil, leaf to masticator, herbivore to predator and all decomposing back to soil. I breathe out what the tree breathes in and breathes out for me to breathe. And the cycle we mark today: the dying Year gives birth to the New.

So many cycles. One enormous round. Every thing connected, interconnected, and we sense ourselves as spokes of the wheel or sometimes the never-ceasing motion of its rim that grinds along the path that is our life. As daylight diminishes it grows harder to hold onto our imagining of that wheel, its endless turning, that path it pursues still stretching on beyond the horizon. Harder to hold onto hope that the path’s end is indeterminate and out of sight.

Yes, it grows harder in these years of death’s overwhelming harvest to push aside imagining our own death. Too many deaths, COVID and otherwise, to pay attention; too many deaths to ignore a single one. In a few minutes I’ll set this page aside when my son arrives. He’ll leave Amelia here while the rest of the family attends their next-door neighbor’s funeral. A sudden death – our friend M was not old or ill. A shock to the fragile wall we build around our own mortality. Linda and I find ourselves tallying all the deaths that have touched us this month. The man who fixes our cars. A friend’s best friend. Names and faces more than we ever expect, doesn’t it seem? Death hunches at our shoulder, sometimes intrusive, sometimes silently lingering, sometimes perched like a moth that’s invisible until it flies into our face.

Tonight at midnight we will celebrate the Newborn Year but perhaps with even more enthusiasm we’ll celebrate a moment’s permission to ignore its haggard, dissipated forebear. The Old Year dies in winter darkness; death, the ultimate consuming dark. But notice – twelve days enfold the span of solstice to new year’s morning. The Ghost of Christmas Present senescent and dying yet retains some presence within us. Twelve days already lengthening, light seeping in even before the old year succumbs. Perhaps endings and beginnings are false markings along the ever-flowing course. Perhaps encircled by death it is possible, vital even, to engage with life. Perhaps death itself is not darkness but enfolding light.

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White Owl Flies Into and Out of the Field

Coming down out of the freezing sky
with its depths of light,
like an angel, or a Buddha with wings,
it was beautiful, and accurate,
striking the snow and whatever was there
with a force that left the imprint
of the tips of its wings — five feet apart —
and the grabbing thrust of its feet,
and the indentation of what had been running
through the white valleys of the snow —
and then it rose, gracefully,
and flew back to the frozen marshes
to lurk there, like a little lighthouse,
in the blue shadows —
so I thought:
maybe death isn’t darkness, after all,
but so much light wrapping itself around us —

as soft as feathers —
that we are instantly weary of looking, and looking,
and shut our eyes, not without amazement,
and let ourselves be carried,
as through the translucence of mica,
to the river that is without the least dapple or shadow,
that is nothing but light — scalding, aortal light —
in which we are washed and washed
out of our bones.

Mary Oliver  — 1935-2019
this poem first appeared in The New Yorker, January 2, 1989


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I Wonder if I Will Miss the Moss

I wonder if I will miss the moss
after I fly off as much as I miss it now
just thinking about leaving.

There were stones of many colors.
There were sticks holding both
lichen and moss.
There were red gates with old
hand-forged hardware.
There were fields of dry grass
smelling of first rain
then of new mud. There was mud,
and there was the walking,
all the beautiful walking,
and it alone filled me –
the smells, the scratchy grass heads.
All the sleeping under bushes,
once waking to vultures above, peering down
with their bent heads they way they do,
caricatures of interest and curiosity.
Once too a lizard.
Once too a kangaroo rat.
Once too a rat.
They did not say I belonged to them,
but I did.

Whenever the experiment on and of
my life begins to draw to a close
I’ll go back to the place that held me
and be held. It’s O.K. I think
I did what I could. I think
I sang some, I think I held my hand out.

Jane Mead — 1958-2019
this poem first appeared in The New Yorker, September 20, 2021

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Mary Oliver was a guide to the intersection between human life and the natural world; her voice affirms the expression of person in nature in person and affirms that no voice can fully express that oneness. Jane Mead, who for years was Poet-in-Residence at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, NC, expected poetry to move people to preserve the earth; at the end of her life she was a guide to the landscape and ecology of dying.

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Doughton Park Tree 2021-10-23

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