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[with 3 poems by Joan Barasovska]

What is the perfect ripeness of Touch-Me-Not to pop its pods into my hand? How will the little brown kernels taste? How far would they fly if I didn’t catch them?

These questions I ask of myself, but I also ask them for the thirteen curious women who have enlisted me as their nature guide. Together we chew the little seeds – like untoasted sunflower. Together we are curious about everything. This tiny pale bloom with the three-lobed lip, how is it related to bright scarlet three-lobed Cardinal flower, gigantic by comparison? The white-striped red-lined caterpillar, what will its moth look like? Every one of these ferns, vines, sedges, mints, asters along the trail we’re walking, what is their family, who are their cousins, how did they get these odd names?

Maybe I’m too curious. Most of the other hikers have left me behind as we near trail’s end. It’s hard to pass even one speck of lilac among the Meadow Beauties and Dog Fennel. Hello, what’s this? A year ago near here I discovered a first (for me), a single plant, blue flowers with improbable arching stamens and pistil like dainty tusks. I thought it was extirpated when the farmer sprayed herbicide along his electric fence line last Spring. I have to kneel to examine this one small survivor. A single flower. Lamiaceae, Mint family – well, mints do make lots of seeds.

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Carrying Clare

Mystery conceived in passion
spreads a tent inside my body,
scoops out space
I’d blithely claimed as mine.

I grow heavy with her campsite
and the gear we’ve taken on.
After work each day I buy
a secret chocolate éclair
and eat it at Nelson’s Bakery,
where I’ll soon show off my baby.

Her father grants me
naming rights if it’s a girl.
On a cold day at the beach,
jacket straining to span my belly,
with one booted foot I trace
her name in giant letters
in wet sand: CLARE.

I pray this hidden daughter,
now assembling all she’ll require,
will live to be my better self,
take chances I could never take.
I pray for a safe birth.
I pray to be the mother she will need.

Her father and I wait for March.
He says she could easily be a boy,
but our daughter’s eyes, not yet open,
greedily seek mine.

Joan Barasovska
from Carrying Clare, Main Street Rag Publishing, Charlotte NC, © 2022

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Joan Barasovska’s Carrying Clare is a memoir in verse about the life of a family with a child who is critically and chronically ill. Will the baby live? Will the little girl’s illness rob her of childhood’s joy? How will a new baby brother shoulder his way into this picture? And most of all where does it arise, this deep well of strength in the mother who must watch her child fade and perhaps fail? Strength for the hours waiting outside surgical operating rooms, for the administering of medications and IV’s at home, for the nights bereft of hope? Where does it come from, the strength of such unrelenting love?

I ask myself one more question. What strength must it have taken to gather these poems across the decades of struggle they convey, to look them squarely in the eye and relive each moment once more, and then to share them?

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Strength

Ten-day-old Clare wails on an X-ray table,
her tiny ovaries protected, but she’s naked
on metal, flailing under strange light.
I sit rigid against the wall.

No one ever called me strong.
Fragile, even frail, a waif
without endurance. Not strong.
People have had to rescue me.

My baby’s body is red from screaming,
her back arched, skull uncradled.
I croon to her, my breasts leak for her,
but in her agony I can’t yet save her.

The technician finishes at last.
I dress and swaddle Clare,
give her my breast,
sate her with my power.

Joan Barasovska
from Carrying Clare, Main Street Rag Publishing, Charlotte NC, © 2022

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January Walk

Winter claims the day.
It hikes the road,
roams the fallow fields.
It lifts and stirs the air.

The horses I pass eat hay
and miss sweet grass.
Under a heavy coat
my heart beats hot.

I think of the baby tossing
in my daughter’s womb.
He floats in a weatherless world
while I lean into cold wind.

The horses stand side-by-side,
breath streaming hot in one fog.
The baby stirs in tight orbit,
waiting for March.

Joan Barasovska
from Carrying Clare, Main Street Rag Publishing, Charlotte NC, © 2022

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Thank You to Dee Neil and the Ladies Elkin Valley Trail Association for inviting me to be your naturalist for a morning. Walking out from Isaacs’ Trail Head on the Mountains-to-Sea trail for a couple of hours, we lost count of the number of wild flowers, ferns, vines, sedges, mosses, and other plants we discovered. And one boldly decorated caterpillar capped the day.

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2016-05-08a Doughton Park Tree

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[with 3 poems by J. S. Absher]

Building bridges. Maybe as a metaphor the phrase is not quite as worn down, rusty, and liable to drop chunks of concrete as the old Elkin bridge that carried US 21 high above the Yadkin River and railroad tracks. Built in 1931, stretching 1509 feet, named for Hugh G. Chatham, even after it was condemned by DOT in 2008 we still couldn’t bring ourselves to call in the demolition crews for that old bridge until 2010. Spanning a treacherous gulf. Lowering barriers between two rival communities. Safe passage, a more elevated view of life, making connections. Grand old metaphor.

The bridge we built today, though, is not a metaphor. It’s a 50-foot aluminum frame that will span a creek near the Mitchell River to extend the Mountains-to-Sea trail a few more miles. Mike, the engineer, showed us how to lay out the dozens of struts and braces and then we were on them like chicks on a Junebug. We put it together in three sections inside the big Surry County maintenance building at Fisher River Park; later we’ll move it into place, bolt the last connectors, and add planking. Amazing to see pallets of unrecognizable metal pieces becoming a structure.

Some of these volunteers today were born with a torque wrench in their fist but some are like me, tinkering all day with my Erector Set when I was 10. Sweating even with the giant fan blowing, pinching our fingers, joking. I still can’t get the smell of Anti-Seize out from under my fingernails. Someday soon will I hike across that bridge with my grandkids and say, “Hey, that’s one of my bolts!?” Moving out into a new world. Grand old metaphor.

September, 2022, all that’s left of the old Chatham Bridge on the Surry County side is a pleasant pedestrian garden with a long stairway from Gwyn Avenue down to Main Street. And, near the former base of one of those mighty pylons, the Angry Troll Brewery.

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The Day

The little room’s only window looked out
towards the ridgetop, the Dunkard church in the curve
of the two-lane, and, just beyond, the graveyard.

The morning sun sidled in past the partly
closed slats and resolved into rays and flecks
burning in the light – dust motes, I know,

and likely knew then, too, but still I watched
entranced one morning after our breakfast.
On this day I’d have otherwise forgotten,

probably my grannies were in the kitchen –
Emma with arms stretched out to read who’d died
(she’d be in the Dunkard cemetery soon),

half-crippled Sallie stringing the green beans
(years of suffering and strokes lay just ahead) —
while I stood quietly in the little room

watching the random sparkles in the sunbeam,
worlds I could move with a single breath
of poem or prayer, but could not control.

J. S. Absher
from Skating Rough Ground, © 2022 J. S. Absher, Kelsay Books, American Fork, UT

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worlds I could move with a single breath / of poem or prayer, but could not control

I have often been moved by Stan Absher’s poetry. Not moved as by a shiver of emotion or a momentary ah ha at his thesis or his craft. Rather I’ve felt myeself shifted into a different awareness, a new plane of being. Translocated. Enlightened. Despite the deep bedrock of conviction in all his work, despite the scholarship and the epiphany, he writes as if he is still searching, searching for truth. A spiritual seeker. So he may claim, but I consider Stan Absher a spiritual finder. I can’t help believing as I read these poems that he has encountered and grasped the numinous, wrestled with God as did Jacob.

Worlds he can move but not control? Perhaps that is the secret Stan conveys and which I would do well to take into my own heart. The seeking itself is intrinsic to the desideratum. The bridge. The poems in Skating Rough Ground cover such a lot of ground. Family history, Christian history, art history, and every topic and observation is put to diligent good work unfolding the petals of the human flower. Stan is in perfect control of his art, which makes even more believable his message that our condition enfolds a great mystery.

One other remark: even though Stan mentions Wittgenstein and his book includes sixteen erudite endnotes, his poems are never high-flown or inaccessible. He is not looking down on us mortals from the heights; he is right here among us. And he is not above a little poke in the ribs or the murmur of a wry joke. These poems are companionable companions – pick up the book and come along on the journey.

[additional information on works by J. S. Absher . . . ]

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The Conversation of Matter

I could hear things talk. When something was lost,
I stood in the room, asked it to show itself.
Sometimes it spoke an image in the mind – a drawer
++++ to search, a cherry
++++ bureau to look under.

Those who have spent their lives mastering tools
and techniques can hear their material speak,
David crying naked out of Carrara marble
++++ to be rescued from
++++ Agostino’s botched start.

But things usually speak by resisting –
weight too heavy to lift, edge too sharp to hold,
a moving part that grinds and heats and breaks, a poem’s
++++ application of
++++ friction to language –

slow it! stoke it hotter than Gehenna!
salt its path with grit!
keep it from slip-sliding
away on its own melt! flick sawdust into the eye
++++ to make it dilate!
++++ Without friction – so said

Wittgenstein, older and word-worn – language
does not work. If it wears skates on rough ground, it
takes a tumble. Even prayer needs resistance – a stick
++++ crosswise in the throat
++++ garbling words like a sob.

How hard to admit we love the world – how
hard it ought to be – yet its unrequiting
beauty resists abandonment: Show yourself, come out
++++ of hiding, come out
++++ of quarantine, and live.

J. S. Absher
from Skating Rough Ground, © 2022 J. S. Absher, Kelsay Books, American Fork, UT

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The Creator Praises Birds

Vent and crissum,
lores and crest and comb: I
made them all – the

nares, nape, those
horny bill plates – I in
feathered trochees

made them: peacock,
sparrow, tufted titmouse,
flitting jenny

filled with joy of
beaking worm, of strut and
glide, of piping

double on their
syrinx. Praise how flock and
murmuration

call out warning,
call to fly or roost or
call for pleasure:

See me! Hear me!
Pur-ty! Pur-ty! Pur-ty!
Cheer up! Pibbity!

Praise the brave-heart
tender fledgling, wobbly
winging over

houses, over
pavement, risking all to
climb the air by

beating wind I
too created, rising
heavenward in joy.

J. S. Absher
from Skating Rough Ground, © 2022 J. S. Absher, Kelsay Books, American Fork, UT

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[with poems by Donald Hall and Charles Martin]

Have you ever imagined, while walking a well-worn woodland trail, simply stepping off into the forest? What if you moved just ten feet, twenty, into the trees? Would you be standing on a spot untouched by human feet for years? Decades? Forever?

I considered this years ago when I led, with my son Josh as co-leader, a little crew of Boy Scouts on a 10-day canoe trek in the Boundary Waters Wilderness of northern Minnesota. We camped each night on the shore of different lake. Some mornings (sunrise 0400) while they still slept I walked away from the water into the trackless forest. Did the last human rest on this lichen crusted boulder more than a hundred years ago, a French voyageur taking a break from trapping? A thousand years ago, a young Anishinaabe scout hunting meat for his village? Ten thousand years ago?

Now Josh spends every day it’s not raining trekking the Blue Ridge & foothills as a surveyor. When did a human foot last jump this creek or climb this unforgiving steepness? This corner marked by a chestnut ten feet in girth – today Josh must discover the remnant of its stump. How long must the earth rest from the tread of human feet before all sign of our passage is erased? How far is it from here to the middle of nowhere?

Last Saturday I joined a trail crew to maintain a little section of the Mountains-to-Sea trail near Elkin. The MST is a work in progress – departing Elkin hiking east, you follow Rte 268 most of the way to Pilot Mountain. Our day’s assignment was an orphan – 1 ½ miles of footpath leading away from the road and on through the woods with no trailhead or connectors. Probably no one had walked this way since it was last maintained in 2020.

Everywhere a little sun penetrates the undergrowth thrives: Goldenrod, Burnweed, Wingstem, Boneset, all manner of grasses native and exotic – summer asters up to eight feet tall, especially through the Duke Energy right-of-way beneath power lines. Add obstructions from grapevine, Smilax, fallen trees and in one single year the trail had become impenetrable, almost disappearing except for the white circular MST blazes on the trees.

In a few more years it might have lead to the middle of nowhere. Which is how you get to the middle of everywhere. Which is the trail I want to walk.

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Surface

The surveyor climbs a stonewall into woods
scribbled with ferns, saplings, and dead oaktrees

where weltering lines trope themselves into stacks
of vegetation. He sees an ash forced around a rock

with roots that clutch on granite like a fist
grasping a paperweight. He stares at hemlocks

rising among three-hundred-year-old sugarmaples
that hoist a green archive of crowns: kingdom

of fecund death and pitiless survival. He observes
how birch knocked down by wind and popple chewed

by beaver twist over and under each other, branches
abrasive when new-fallen, turning mossy and damp

as they erase themselves into humus, becoming
polyseeded earth that loosens with lively pokeholes

of creatures that watch him back: possum, otter,
fox. Here the surveyor tries making his mark:

He slashes a young oak; he constructs a stone
cairn at a conceptual right-angle; he stamps

his name and the day’s date onto metal tacked
to a stake. His text established, he departs

the life-and-death woods, where cellular life keeps
pressing upward from underground offices to read

sun and study slogans of dirt: “Never consider
a surface except as the extension of a volume.”

Donald Hall

from Poems for a Small Planet: Contemporary American Nature Poetry. Edited by Robert Pack & Jay Parini, A Bread Loaf Anthology, © 1993, Middlebury College Press.

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Both of today’s poems are from Poems for a Small Planet, edited by Robert Pack & Jay Parini. This next one by Charles Martin stuck to my soul like beggar lice – I’ve imagined myself stuck in a dry spell for the past several weeks. I can’t resist the epigraph by Randall Jarrell, one of North Carolina’s most luminous poets. While waiting for lightning to strike I’ll learn to endure the rain running off my chin.

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Reflections after a Dry Spell

++++ A good poet is someone who manages, in a
++++ lifetime of standing out in thunderstorms, to be
++++ struck by lightning five or six times.
++++ — Randall Jarrell

And the one that took this literally
Is the one that you still sometimes see
In the park, running from tree to tree

On likely days, out to stand under
The right one this time – until the thunder
Rebukes him for yet another blunder. . . .

But the one who knew it was nothing more
(That flash of lightning) than a metaphor,
And said as much, as he went out the door –

Of that one, if you’re lucky, you just may find
The unzapped verse or two he left behind
On the confusion between World and Mind.

Charles Martin

from Poems for a Small Planet: Contemporary American Nature Poetry. Edited by Robert Pack & Jay Parini, A Bread Loaf Anthology, © 1993, Middlebury College Press.

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[My immense gratitude to the Elkin Valley Trails Association for imagining, creating, maintaining, and improving the Mountains-to-Sea Trail from Stone Mountain State Park to Elkin and onward east through Surry County, North Carolina. And for inviting this lunkhead with a shovel to join in.]

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2016-10-17a Doughton Park Tree

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[with poems by Ryan Wilson and A. R. Ammons]

I didn’t intend to count birds when I set out Tuesday morning. Just a nice weekly hike to Carter Falls and back, a weekday’s solitude – I’m not sure I intended anything more than cooling my brain and heating my muscles. Tamping down the trail maintenance we completed last Saturday. Following the season’s advance into winter.

But then a heron flew out from under the footbridge as I crossed Grassy Creek. Whoever coined the phrase a force of nature was probably in the presence of a Great Blue Heron. Up close they are mute and fearsome. Flying they arouse precognitive awe. When Linda and I encounter one feeding we address it by its nickname: “Hello, Spike.” When one passes overhead we think, “Pterodactyl.” Great Blue demands that one notice.

After gasping at the heron’s sudden flight, I began noticing birds. If they had been calling and singing during the preceding mile my striding deliberation had shut them out. Now they were continuous and various. Counting, I recede and the birds advance.

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Below are two favorite poems which I return to regularly. They strike me as creating a continuum – the advance of a life toward discovering its meaning, the advance of a life toward its end. I read these and I recede into the lines, but as I read them I expand into my self.

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At Carter Falls trailhead a Black Vulture perched overlooking; I scanned up past the parking area and saw the roadkill possum the vulture was waiting to ripen. At the Powerhouse (the riverstone foundation, all that’s left of the old generating plant) a Kingfisher daggered up the river and disappeared above the spray. I pulled an index card and a pen out of my pack. Here’s what I came home with:

Great Blue Heron / Belted Kingfisher / Northern Flicker / Red-Bellied Woodpecker / Black Vulture / Turkey Vulture / Carolina Wren / Carolina Chickadee / Tufted Titmouse / Golden-Crowned Kinglet / Eastern Phoebe / White-Breasted Nuthatch / Blue Jay / Eastern Bluebird / Cedar Waxwing / Pileated Woodpecker / Red-Shouldered Hawk / Chipping Sparrow / Northern Mockingbird / American Crow / Common Raven

And since I wasn’t carrying binoculars I’ll just include the numerous chippers and chirpers in the thickets as LGB’s (little gray birds, also sometimes known as LBJ’s, little brown jobs).

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Face It

A silence, bodied like wing-beaten air,
Perturbs your face sometimes when parties end
And, half-drunk, you stand looking at some star
That flickers like a coin wished doen a weill,
Or when you hear a voice behind you whisper
Your name, and turn around, and no one’s there.
You’re in it the, once more, the stranger’s house
Perched in the mountain woods, the rot-sweet smell
Of fall, the maples’ millions, tongues of fire,
And there, whirl harrowing the gap, squint-far,
Than unidentified fleck, approaching and
Receding at once, rapt in the wind’s spell –
Pulse, throb, winged dark thar haunts the clean light’s glare –
That thin that you’re becoming, that your are.

Ryan Wilson
from The Best American Poetry 2018, first published in The New Criterion

Ryan Wilson was born in Griffin, Georgia and resides in Maryland. Of this poem he writes, “Face It was written in West Virginia at a mountaintop cabin belonging to my great friend, Ernest Suarez. During a break near dusk, I stepped out onto the porch, from which one can see more than fifty miles on a clear day. I was tantalized by a hawk hovering in the western gap, how it seemed to approach and to recede at once on the wind, never near enough for me to identify its species, or even its genus.”

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Finishing Up

I wonder if I know enough to know what it’s really like
to have been here: have I seen sights enough to give
seeing over: the clouds, I’ve waited with white
October clouds like these this afternoon often before and

taken them in, but white clouds shade other white
ones gray, had I noticed that: and though I’ve
followed the leaves of many falls, have I spent time with
the wire vines left when frost’s red dyes strip the leaves

away: is more missing that was never enough: I’m sure
many of love’s kinds absolve and heal, but were they passing
rapids or welling stirs: I suppose I haven’t done and seen
enough yet to go, and anyway, it may be way on on the way

before one picks up the track of the sufficient, the
world-round reach, spirit deep, easing and all, not just mind
answering itself but mind and things apprehended at once
as one, all giving all way, not a scrap or question holding back.

A. R. Ammons
from The Best American Poetry 2018, first published in Poetry

Archie Ammons was born outside Whiteville, NC in 1926, attended college in Wake Forest, NC, and taught at Cornell for over 34 years. He was guest editor of The Best American Poetry 1994. He died February 25, 2001. A two-volume set of his collected poems was published by W. W. Norton in 2017.

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2014-07-13 Doughton Park Tree

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