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Posts Tagged ‘NC Poets’

[with two poems by Julie Suk]

Silence does not exist for me. I’ve had my tinnitus mapped by an audiologist: four different frequencies in each ear, one or two dominant (louder!). One tone (on the left) is pitched so low that the only time I’ve heard it was before sunrise in Shining Rock Wilderness (near Mt. Pisgah) – no wind, no birdsong, no people, no machines. The other tones are high pitched, constant whining needles of sound, minor chords that never resolve.

I’ve heard that some people are driven insane by tinnitus. Perhaps you’d better be extra vigilant when you’re around me. Somehow, though, I’ve been blessed with the gift of mostly ignoring it, not caring. I can’t remember a life before I heard this daily continuous ringing screech. Where did it come from? All that target practice earning Marksmanship Merit Badge in Boy Scouts? All those lawns mowed as a kid? All those Grateful Dead and J. Geils Band concerts?

Intrusive noise. Which of us in 2021 doesn’t suffer from such? Thank you, iPhone, for telling me my screen time increased 23% last week. Add to that I’m a terrible meditator. If I try to empty my mind what immediately creeps in to fill the vacuum is regret and guilt for every screwup I’ve ever committed in my entire life. What works better for me is poetry. Feet flat on floor. Deep breaths, in and out. Open the book. Read a page. Stare unfocused into space. What tinnitus?

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At first I’m tempted to apologize for introducing Julie Suk with an essay that endeavors to wring a smile, but no, the light touch is not inappropriate. The poems in Astonished to Wake, Julie Suk’s sixth book published in 2016 when she was 92, are often about loss and all of them are about her own impermanence – they are solemn but they are never grim. The poems are simply perfectly human.

We all share one thing on this earth – our own mortality. Admitting that, we may be open to discover that we share much more: grief that we must live through and live beyond; loves that are no longer present but which still warm us like the dying fire’s embers; moments of joy, however brief.

As I sit down for a couple of hours to re-read this book in its entirety I become thoughtful, reflective, connected, grave, but not sad. And the only ringing I hear is Julie’s words.

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Migrations

A stretto of rain on the windowpane,
a swirl of bees caught in the creek’s overflow,
the yard going under.

Remember how replete our lives once were,
brimming over, the future a muted thunder
drawing us close.

Hold me, hold me

meaning I was fearful the same as you.

Drowning in sweet addictions,
we paused in a childlike daze –

no way to foresee
how and when we’d be swept away,

our bones washed up long after –
perhaps a fragment carved into a flute,

breath,
once again, floating through the wilderness.

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Between Lives

And what if it’s true that the life we’ve lived
flashes by at the moment of death?

Not even for an instant would I want repeated
the boring drone of guilt,
nor the shabby aftermaths of desire.

The black tunnel lit with epiphanies
would be my take –

sighs of contentment, laughter, a wild calling out –

and at the end,
a brief flaring of the one we’d hoped to become
escorting us into the light.

Julie Suk, from Astonished to Wake, © 2016 Jacar Press

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Julie Suk (born Julie Madison Gaillard; 1924) is a prize-winning American poet and writer from Charlotte, North Carolina. She is the author of six volumes of poetry – The Medicine Woman (St. Andrews Press, 1980), Heartwood (Briarpatch Press, 1991), The Angel of Obsession (The University of Arkansas Press, 1992), The Dark Takes Aim (Autumn House Press, 2003), Lie Down With Me (Autumn House Press, 2011), and Astonished To Wake (Jacar Press, 2016), and co-editor of Bear Crossings: an Anthology of North American Poets. She is included in The Autumn House Anthology of Contemporary American Poetry. Her poems have appeared in many literary journals including The Georgia Review, Great River Review, The Laurel Review, Ploughshares, Poetry, Shenandoah, and TriQuarterly.

[Bio from Wikipedia]

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[with poems by Dannye Romine Powell]

When we lower her pack from the tree where it has swung all night like a bell mocking the bear, the skunk, she opens it and screams: a fairy crown atop her sweatshirt and socks, a perfect round nest and four perfect hairless mouse pups like squirming blind grubs. We peer in awe, shepherds at the manger.

Mother mouse has hidden herself, not in the pack with her babies. We lift the nest intact, hide it in a bush beside the tree, nestle leaves around. Mother will sniff out her precious ones, reclaim her treasure. But we have other lambs to tend.

We eat, stow gear, shoulder our packs, face the trail, and consider: the pack was in the tree just one night; the nest is woven from meadow grass where we slept; the mother who climbed – how many trips up and back? – was heavy with her brood.

Miles before us, a new year before us – how heavy will each day’s burdens become before night brings rest?

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A new book by Dannye Romine Powell arrived in the mail this week: In the Sunroom with Raymond Carver from Press 53 in Winston-Salem. I meant to read one or two poems this morning but I have read them all. A central persona that weaves through the collection is Longing: she visits rooms in old houses, unfolds memories into the light, shares the pain that others might lock in closets. Grief shared conceives within us hope to rekindle joy. Sharing grief, sharing joy, we become more human.

 

 

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The Secret

Light glazes the near-empty streets
as I drive. Beside me, my grown son asks
if a secret I thought I’d kept buried
is true. A secret
that can still catch fire.
We stop on red. A bird flies
by the windshield. My father’s words:
Easier to stand on the ground
and tell the truth than climb a tree
and tell a lie. Now, I think. Tell him.
I stare at my son’s profile,
straight nose, thick lashes.
I remember, at about his age,
how a family secret fell
into my lap, unbidden.
That secret still ransacks a past
I thought I knew, rearranging its bricks,
exposing rot and cracks,
changing the locks on trust.

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In the Night, the Wind in the Leaves

swirled and rustled
out our open window as if
for the first time,
as if we never were,
the earth newborn, sweet.

And what of us – asleep
on the too-soft bed
in the old mountain house?

Gone.

Also our children.
the ones who lived, the ones who died
before they grew whole. All night

the breeze swirled and rustled
through the leaves as if it played
a secret game, swirling
and rustling all night

as if we never were.

from In the Sunroom with Raymond Carver, Dannye Romine Powell, © 2020 Press 53

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Dannye Romine Powell has won fellowships in poetry from the NEA, the North Carolina Arts Council, and Yaddo. Her poems have appeared over the years in The Paris Review, Poetry, Ploughshares, The Southern Review, Harvard Review Online, Beloit, 32 Poems, and many others. She is also the author of Parting the Curtains: Interviews with Southern Writers. For many years, she was the book editor of the Charlotte Observer. In 2020 she won the Randall Jarrell Poetry Competition for her poem “Argument.”

 

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Wilderness Advent
(Pisgah Stranger)
Lyrics: Bill Griffin . . . . . . . . . . Music: David L. McCollum

 

Elkin Community Chorus 58th Annual Concert
December 2nd, 2018 – First Baptist Church, Elkin, North Carolina

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This year (2020) would have been the 60th annual concert of the Elkin Community Chorus. The ensemble draws singers from towns and counties across northwest NC, rehearses for seven weeks, and gives two free concerts to the public on the 2nd Sunday in Advent. Linda and I have sung with the group for more than 30 years. We miss it. We’re listening to our stack of recordings from previous years and holding onto the hope that we’ll all be vaccinated and singing together again next fall.

David McCollum has been one of the group’s directors for more than 20 years. Several years back he asked me to write a Christmas poem for which he would compose the music. ECC debuted Wilderness Advent in 2018. Thank you, David, thank you Amy Johnson and Amy Tayloe for your accompaniment, thank you Tonya Smith, co-director, and thanks to the 90 or more of our neighbors whose voices make the waiting, the yearning, the anticipation of Christmas a sacrament.

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Wilderness Advent
(Pisgah Stranger)

A stranger here, I sleep beneath the slash of stars,
The Pisgah forest deep and friendless.
I close myself to love, my heart requires the dark;
Can night within this cove be endless?

Come, you’ve slept too long
And love grows dim.
Awaken to a song – Can it be Him?

Is it madness or a dream that seems to whisper here?
The murmur of a stream or singing?
It chants, a still small voice, I’ve nothing now to fear
For tidings of great joy it’s bringing.

Come, you’ve slept too long
And love grows dim.
Awaken to a song and welcome Him!

And now the music swells as every fir and spruce
Unloose their boughs to tell the story:
May all God’s creatures wake, hearts quickened by the truth,
Invited to partake of mercy.

Come, we’ve slept so long
That love grows dim.
Awaken that our song may worship Him.

Come sing it with the wind and all the Pisgah throng:
The Child reclines within the manger!
With owl and bear and deer my soul’s reborn in song
For none of us is here a stranger.

Come, you’ve slept too long;
If love grows dim
Awaken to a song for it is Him!

Waken . . . welcome . . . worship . . . it is Him!

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MERRY CHRISTMAS!

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Forest Bathing Trail, Grassy Creek off Mountains-to-Sea Trail

[with poems by Lucinda Trew and Jane Craven]

Last week I took a walk in the woods with my oldest friend Bill (distanced by 2-meter dog leash). We were forest bathing (shinrin yoku): phones off, listening to Grassy Creek accompany our rustic trail, smelling leafmold, fungus, pines, going nowhere and getting there; reflecting on the moment, simmering in our conjoined past which stretches all the way back to our grandfathers who worked together on the same railroad 60 years ago.

Every trail, though, has a way of turning. Almost back to our cars, Bill happened to ask, “What are you going to do with your stuff before you die?” Us old guys, especially old poets, think about dying. Good story fodder. Let me tell you the one about . . . . Just not usually as concrete as what will become of our earthly matter when no one wants it any more.

Stoff: German, translates as substance. Two synonyms for Oxygen are Sauerstoff and Atemluft, the first meaning acid substance (early chemists’ misconception that all acids must contain oxygen) and the second meaning air for breathing. We humans can live about 3 minutes without oxygen before our brains lose neurons and our substance begins to degrade, but oxygen is pure poison to many microorganisms and tricky to deal with even for our own mammal cells (or why else would anti-oxidants be such a big deal?).

Stuff is pretty frangible. Are the moment’s mental occupations or the day’s consuming concerns any more tangible? Bill shared with me a photo of his granddad Enoch Blackley in his engineer’s gear from the 30’s, outline of pocket watch visible through the denim of his overalls. I have one very similar of my granddaddy Peewee Griffin. The bit of stuff comprising those old prints, grains of silver on paper, is mere milligrams of matter; the cubic volume of memory those images reveal is larger than many lives.

My Stoff – carbon, nitrogen, phosporus – will feed the trees. May I leave behind the tempo of my walk, the sound of laughter, honest tears of compassion, a couple of good poems. Maybe that’ll do.

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These two poems are from Kakalak 2020, the annual anthology of Carolina poets, by writers whom I don’t know and hadn’t read before. Lucinda Trew’s Of Stars fills me with wonder, all the universe in a crow-eye seed, somewhere within the secrets of universe wanting to be spilled out. Jane Craven’s Speaking of the World does just that, the image of a small flower expanding to hold the pain and contradictions of the most intimate relationships.

Metaphor is the tool that communicates the mysteries which swirl around us and within us, the inexplicable spark of our synapses, the spin of our electrons. Some things can’t be spoken, only sung.

Forest Bathing Trail, Grassy Creek off Mountains-to-Sea Trail

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Of Stars
If you wish to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first invent the universe. – Carl Sagan

The conjuring orchard man
holds hemispheres in sturdy hands
cupping chaos and creation
presenting apple halves
for inspection
and the revelation

of stars
a crop circle enigma etched
within sweet flesh
five symmetrical rays cradling
crow-eye seeds
small enough to spit
vast enough to hold eternity –
the very dust and stuff

of stars
carbon, nitrogen, oxygen
phosphorus – the breath and wingbeat
of birds who rise from reeds and nest

the rush and thrum
of boys who scrabble up bark, swagger
wave applewood swords

the sway and silhouette
of branches, girls dancing
longing for the moon

of pulse and surge
of cities, song, engines
prayer

the earthen realm
of roots and worm, turnips
and bones

the axial turn
of tides and shells
molecular chains

and of apples
twisted exquisitely, evenly
in half
spilling stars
and seeds and secrets
of the universe

Lucinda Trew, Kakalak 2020, Main Street Rag Publishing Company

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Forest Bathing Trail, Grassy Creek off Mountains-to-Sea Trail

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Speaking of the World

Pinprick faces open in a violet fever behind my house – swathes
of mazus flowering downhill. A cultivar

from the Himalayas, it’s bred to survive scarcity and climate extremes.

In your world, the doctors have gone, left your body

a prescribed burn, lightly
elevated in a rented hospital bed, handfuls of pills labeled for days.

The trees, to a one, freeze beneath a milky lichen – and you who sleep

year round with open windows are speaking of the world –
of the last deer you saw weaving through balsam, of the bear

who bent double the birdfeeder, wild turkeys and their long-
neck chicks, a lone slavering coyote crossing the yard.

Grief, you say
three times,
each a dry leaf
papering
from your lips.

I left you in the boreal world, rushed back to my own life.
And I admit this with unnatural ease, like there’s no shame

in turning toward the sun, in enduring.

Jane Craven, Kakalak 2020, Main Street Rag Publishing Company

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Lucinda Trew: http://trewwords.com/about/
Jane Craven: https://www.janecraven.com/bio

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2020-11-03b Doughton Park Tree

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[with poems by Joan Barasovska and Kathy Ackerman]

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

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

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

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

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

There is no nothing. It’s all everything.

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

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

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Cranefly Orchid, Tipularia discolor

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Her Breath

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

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

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

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

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

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

Joan Barasovsaka, Kakalak 2020, Main Street Rag Publishing Company

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

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Misnomer
for Goliath, my father

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kathy Ackerman, Kakalak 2020, Main Street Rag Publishing Company

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

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2019-02-09 Doughton Park Tree

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[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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[with three poems by Glenis Redmond]

She wanted you to have this to remember her by. Callie’s niece hands me a simple paper gift bag, pink with a heart, like you’d give your sweetie on Valentine’s. It’s heavy. I lift the thick book from inside carefully because the front cover has already fallen away. Onionskin leaves are curling. A Holy Bible.

During my forty years as a small town family doctor my patients occasionally gave me little gifts and mementos. The tomatoes and squash and sacks of Brushy Mountain apples I shared with the staff then took the rest home, but the knickknacks piled up on my desk and bookshelves. Handcrafts and little painted figurines, usually of an old time doctor. Inspirational plaques. Paperweights and ornaments. Bric-a-brac.

I retired September, 2020. What to do with all this stuff? If it’s flat I file it in a scrapbook: crayon drawings kids made while they waited, photos, thank-you’s (and a few angry letters – I saved those, too). The most interesting, which I remove from its frame, is the February 20, 1927 Honorable Discharge from the Army of Ellis, who died November 20, 2005, age 100. His niece thought I should have it.

Callie’s niece enclosed a sweet card with the well-read Bible. It sat under my desk at the office in its pink bag for years and now it’s nudging my right foot under my desk at home. All my shelves are packed, stacked, stratified. Most of that other bric-a-brac, after girding my loins, I threw away. How do you throw out a Bible? I certainly don’t need another one – I’m not going to try to count all the versions and editions on my shelf (and there are eleven Bibles in an app on my iPhone). Callie’s Bible doesn’t include any inscription, not even her name, no family births and deaths recorded, nothing personal. Except that from Genesis to Revelation there are small x’s penciled along the beginning of each chapter, maybe to mark how far she’d read that day. And the pencil is still there, stuck between the pages.

Is it even possible to throw away a Bible? Not today. Back under the desk you go.

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I’ve just read Glenis Redmond’s book, What My Hand Say (Press 53, 2016). Its eighty-some poems seem like a lifetime’s work, a generation’s, a civilization’s. She picks, plows, pushes and pulls memory, history, lore, wisdom until they glow with heat, danger, pain, joy. She doesn’t hold back. To read these poems is to walk in the dust with the little black girl from Fountain Inn, South Carolina. To read these is to have a grandmother who teaches you hard, hard lessons. To read is to open your heart to the suffering we all share as humans but also to be welcomed into the circle that offers each of us human family, community, inspiration, love.

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From What My Hand Say, Glenis Redmond, Press 53 © 2016

Benediction

We took back roads cutting cross-country
traveling from one small road to another
snaking from Moonville to Mauldin.
My big brother Willie and I rode
while the blue Duster began stuttering a dubious rattle,
sputtering to a stop on a small rural track of road called Conastee,
a quarter-mile stretch riddled with seven steeples,
each pointing a path to God:
First Baptist, Church of God, Deliverance of God,
United Methodist, Reedy River Presbyterian,
Conastee fellowship Hall and McBee United Methodist.
Sure we were cloaked in the protection of the Lord
as we knocked on the first door we saw,
a sweet grandma-looking lady
opening her door like a smile
granting us a Samaritan’s Act
by letting us use her phone.
Her words spilling over us like gospel,
we heed even today.
Hurry, night’s about to fall. You two
are not safe around here.

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Bruised
For Middlesex County Academy in New Brunswick, NJ – Alternative School
and Damon House – Alcohol & Drug Treatment Facility

They banter back and forth like boys do:
You charcoal, son. you so black you purple.
I tell them, hol’up in defense of my mahogany skin
and the boy they’re putting down. I say,
You know that they say? In cue as if we rehearsed it,
we both chime, the darker the berry, the sweeter the juice.
We flash twin smiles. There’s a moment when the air
gets less complicated in the room. The space is large enough
for me to ask, why y’all hate on each other so hard?

Oh, he? He my boy. See, that’s how we show love.
They crush so hard I want to weep –
I’m so tired of everybody being gangsta hard,
but they are being real. I know ‘cause I got three brothers
and growin up I never saw them show love,
except in that one on one – man on man dunk in you face.
Call you ignant ten times a day kind of way.
Their talk swags like their walk.
I follow the conversation as it dips and drags.
We end up talking about how we were punished as kids.

I lead with, I’m from the South and y’all don’t know
nothin about a switch – havin to go ‘round back
fetch your own hickory, the same stick use to beat you.
I say these words and I still feel the sting of the switch.
See welts raising into an angry language of graffiti on my skin.
One says, don’t bring back no skinny one neither.
I shake my head in solidarity – the blood we’ve spilled makes us kin.
Another boy says, what about those belts?
I hear my mama’s beating cadence,
a belt whip with every word, I-told-you-not-to . . .

Another says, extension cord.
I’m brought fully awake, ‘cause
I don’t know nothing ‘bout that kind of whippin.
We only heard of Cedric down the street gettin beat like that.
Then, we did not know the word, Abuse,
or the phrase Child Protective Services.
We just said his mama was MEAN.

Jicante, another says, I say huh? Rice.
You kneel on raw rice for hours.
We walk down alleys; I listen as they go deeper
into the shadows farther than I have ever been,
but we don’t skip a beat. We laugh –
joke about our beatings and nobody mentions
the pain, but it’s all understood – we are all battered.
We bump up against each other’s wounds before we brainstorm.
I pick up the marker and they bicker blue versus red.
I read between the gang signs. It is not lost on me,
that when these colors mingle, they make purple.
I muse in my mind how violence for them still continues.
I come back to the poem, that we are here to write;
the ones that saved my life. I know this detour we took
down old roads is a place we had to go,
places where we have been loved so hard it hurts,
so hard we are still bruised.
We bear our scars,
then we pick our pens
and write.

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My First Poetry Teacher
for Carrie McCray

Teach like the congregation
at Bethlehem Baptist Church yells Preach
and she did. Said, Poets look back.
Mine the memory.
Find the journey work taking.
Don’t dismiss the coal.
Go down the dark shaft.
Go down into the danger.
Go down into the lives lost.
Plummet. Clear the smoke.
Wipe your eyes and the grime.
Write.
Polish the rock
that made the past
till all facets
come to light
shine

 

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[author bio from Press 53]

Glenis Redmond travels nationally and internationally reading and teaching poetry so much that she has earned the title, Road Warrior Poet. She has posts as the Poet-in-Residence at The Peace Center for the Performing Arts in Greenville, South Carolina, and also at the State Theatre in New Brunswick, New Jersey. During February 2016, at the request of U.S. State Department for their Speaker’s Bureau, Glenis traveled to Muscat, Oman, to teach a series of poetry workshops and perform poetry for Black History Month.

In 2014-16, Glenis served as the Mentor Poet for the National Student Poet’s Program to prepare students to read at the Library of Congress, the Department of Education, and for First Lady Michelle Obama at The White House. Glenis is a Cave Canem Fellow, a North Carolina Literary Fellowship Recipient, and a Kennedy Center Teaching Artist. She also helped create the first Writer-in-Residence at the Carl Sandburg Home National Historic Site in Flat Rock, North Carolina.

Glenis believes that poetry is a healer, and she can be found in the trenches across the world applying pressure to those in need, one poem at a time.

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2016-10-17b Doughton Park Tree

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Appalachian Trail near Clingman’s Dome, 2003

[with two poems by Kathryn Stripling Byer]

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Summer has skimmed the high ridge like a chimney swift, rarely perching for long. Now on September mornings you can see your breath. First frost certainly won’t dally. Above 6,000 feet you wonder, Where is the South in Southern Appalachians?

And what about these bleached spines and gnarled knucklebones? This phalanx of snags that palisades the highest elevations against the green upon green below? The balsam wooly adelgid arrived on Clingman’s Dome in 1957. By the 1980’s the tiny insect invader from Europe, order Hemiptera, had destroyed more than 90% of the Fraser Fir in Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

This year, though, the Park Service has declared a tenuous truce. Some of those dead snags are forty years old but younger trees spared by the adelgid have matured and are making fertile cones. The very oldest trees, with thicker bark, also seem less susceptible. The insects are still around but you have to hunt for them, whereas during the earliest infestations biologists described the branches covered in wooly bugs as if they had been “whitewashed.”

What is the fulcrum of this new equilibrium? Perhaps the adelgid found easy pickings among whole communities weakened for decades by acid deposition, bad air. Coal-burning power plants up the Appalachian ridge to Canada have added scrubbers. The red spruce that had stopped growing in the ‘80’s are laying on new rings of cambrium. Leave a patch of ground alone long enough and it will grow into what it is meant to be.

Or will it? Depends on what you mean by leave alone. The fir that survive are a little more resistant to the insect, a little more acid tolerant. But what happens as their subalpine microclimate becomes less like Canada and more like Atlanta? Scrubbers remove the nitrogen and sulfur that oxidize to form acids but when you burn carbon you get carbon dioxide. Can’t scrub that out. How many degrees of warming can Fraser fir tolerate? Go higher, it gets cooler. Here in the Park you can’t go any higher than Clingman’s Dome.

Mountain Angelica, Angelica triquinata (Apiaceae - parsley family)

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Last week I shared two poems from Kathryn Stripling Byer’s first book (1986). The two poems that follow here are from her final book, Trawling the Silences, published in 2019 two years after her death.

Kay Byer takes me into wild places and she brings me home. She names the earth, just naming a thing is a prayer, and she leaves nameless the mysteries that mist from her verses into my soul. She has left this earth, and she has left this earth to me to hold close for the days I will remain. Notice. Learn. Cherish. Tell it.

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Three for My Trail Guide
for Jim

1.

Ascent

Before I can catch
my breath you right away
start to identify

Wild Ginger,
Mayapple,
Bloodroot.

I’m dizzy with switchbacks
I see rising into
the hardwoods you hail

Sarvis,
Sycamore,
Tulip Tree.

Trillium sweeps down
the hillside like angel wings
come to rest creekside.

You chanting hepatica,
stonecrop, anemone,
we climb until

we reach the summit,
where underfoot
some stubborn lichen

you can’t name
has already claimed
the best view.

2.

Star Grass

You name it
and there it is
at the edge
of the outcropping
over the Gorge.

Not to worry,
I placate the ravens
that harry us,
we won’t be lingering
long in your aerie.

See? Even now we are
striding away
into star grass,
its small spikes of clear
recognizable light.

3.

Galax

Squatting behind bushes,
I smell it nearby, neither bear scat

nor carrion vine, to which naturalists
liken its scent, but the breath

of an old woman lowering herself
to her chamber pot, sighing

as I heard her sigh while I tried
not to listen. Hoisting my backpack

I leave her behind in the underbrush,
glad to be back on the trail

with you, sidestepping tree stump
and blowdown, splashing through

creek bed, striding from switch back
to switch back toward sky we see,

step by step, open its window,
when, almost to summit, I stop.

Breathing hard. The scent
of her following me.

Kathryn Stripling Byer, from Trawling the Silences (Jacar Press, 2019)

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Silvery Glade Fern, Deparia acrostichoides (Dryopteridaceae - Wood Fern Family)

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Trawling the Silences

This end-of-March day, I’d rather watch hawks surf the
thermals than contemplate what lies ahead.
Or behind in its wake. In the few hours left, let me keep
my doubts shut, my windows wide open, their sheer curtains
billowing. It’s March, after all, having come in
a lamb and departing a lioness, stalking my back yard,

leaving her paw prints alongside the patient ephemerals
rising again out of leaf litter. Squirrel corn. Spring beauty.
The first rue anemone. Today I would rather
read field guides, repeating the whimsical names
of our nice-dwelling mussels about to be wiped out by backhoes
and bulldozers. Pimpleback, Snuffbucket. Monkeyface
Pearlymussel. Don’t let their names be forgotten,
I’d pray if I prayed, though just naming a thing is a prayer,

wrote Simone Weil, turning her face to the almighty
silences. The silences. Where would we be
without them, what were we, what will we be, oh to be,
and again be, that damn linking verb. I’d rather be tracking
my lioness up to the rim of that mountain top,
I’d rather let be and let go. Let the anemone
cling, the hawks soar, the lioness squander another day
trying to find what she’s looking for. Give her another day,
I ask the Almighty. Give the birds one more day
scolding the rapscallion squirrels stealing birdseed.
I rest my case, carapace, my own little voice trawling
the silences, the bully wind boasting its presence in present-tense,
no linking verb to shut down the show. Let
my lioness lounge in the sally grass. Licking her paws.

Kathryn Stripling Byer, from Trawling the Silences (Jacar Press, 2019)

 

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Spruce-Fir forests covered vast areas of the Southeast when glaciers reached their southernmost extent 18,000 years ago. As the glaciers retreated north the Spruce-Fir communities also retreated to higher elevations and now remain only along the highest peaks and ridges above 4,000 feet elevation, mostly higher. Clingman’s Dome at 6643 feet is the highest point in Great Smoky Mountains National Park and indeed along the entire Appalachian Trail. Its impressive swath of Spruce-Fir is also home to the rare Jordan’s Red-Cheeked salamander (Plethodon jordani) found only in the Park. The naturally acid soil and severe climate limit biodiversity compared to lower elevations, but other distinctive high elevation species include mountain ash (Rose family), mountain wood sorrel, mountain asters, glade fern. After sixty years the Fraser Fir seem to be surviving the balsam wooly adelgid invasion, air pollution, acid rain; it remains to be seen how long they will remain in the face of advancing climate change.

from SNAKE DEN RIDGE, A BESTIARY, illustration by Linda French Griffin

from SNAKE DEN RIDGE, A BESTIARY, illustration by Linda French Griffin

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Photos by Bill Griffin from Southern Appalachian Naturalist Certification Program; Southern Appalachian Ecology, September 2020, Great Smokies Institute at Tremont; instructors Jeremy Lloyd and Elizabeth Davis.

 

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IMG_1609

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[with two poems by Kathryn Stripling Byer]

Hepatica: its flowers spring up in March before its new leaves. Quick! Before arching limbs furl their green sails and hijack the wind of sunlight, quickly make your tiny seeds from last year’s photons! New leaves will have all summer and fall to glean what the canopy misses.

When Linda and I discover the first hepatica blooming along Elkin Creek each spring we take heart. The world is not such a grim and wintry place. One morning last April we counted 50 individual plants along a mile of trail. Such bounty! How they thrive! How our hearts do!

A few weeks ago I walked one mile of nature trail at Chimneys picnic area in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. At the end of September hepatica leaves are glossy, taut, ready to overwinter. As I strolled the cove, deep cathedral of old growth hardwoods, I estimated within 5,280 feet I saw 50,000 individual hepatica plants.

Sharp-lobed Hepatica, Hepatica acutiloba, Ranunculaceae, buttercup family

Life wants more of itself. Life wants to fill every niche. How many generations, how many hundred, did it take to create this mountain cove topography? Mossed, leafy, pits and mounds left by an ancient giant fallen. The light gap its falling created. Explosion of variety in the margins. Trunks of all sizes and ages in the understory, massive individuals creating the canopy. I didn’t know a black cherry, a silverbell, ever got this big!

Leave a patch of ground alone long enough and it will grow into what it is meant to be. Mountain flanks and shoulders for protection, rain upon rain, limestone subsoil for minerals – the old growth cove hardwood community shelters biodiversity approaching a tropical rainforest. These few sections in the Smokies that the loggers never reached are still revealing new species. Life wants more.

And to what purpose? What is it good for? I could probably list a few dozen reasons the undisturbed and unmanipulated forest is good for me and good for you. But how about this – the thousands of reasons it is simply good for itself.

Black Cherry, a BIG one, Prunus serotina, Rosaceae, rose family

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Kathryn Stripling Byer (1944-2017) was North Carolina Poet Laureate from 2005-2009 and the first woman to hold that position. She and her family lived in the mountains of western NC (she taught and was poet-in-residence at Western Carolina University); her grace and generosity reached throughout the southeast and beyond. She was teacher and mentor but, even more, she encouraged and celebrated the creative spirit wherever and in whomever it was found. Even me. Thinking of her today brings me joy.

I have gone back to Kay’s first book for these two poems. The Girl in the Midst of the Harvest was her debut collection (Texas Tech Press, 1986) and was re-issued by Press 53 (Winston-Salem, NC) in 2013.

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The Backwoods

Great-grandmother carried the cadence of Genesis.
Girl cousins up late at family reunions,
we made her an Indian, although her forebears
were Irish. Before her lay darkness, the empty fields
barren as desert until she came forward,
the sweat on her high cheekbones gleaming like eyes
we imagined surrounding her, bob-cat and red fox,
the last of the sleek, singing wolves. Every evening
she shouldered her how and walked home
through the tasselling corn. The Good Lord only knows
what bare feet stalked the backwoods in those days,
what waited behind every woodpile! She brought forth
a daughter with black hair that never curled.
Shy as a fieldmouse, that girl fell in love
with a man scything hay in the twilight. They kissed
twice. A moment she stood in her white dress
and smiled back at us, then she grew fat and sighed
in the kitchen. Four daughter she bore,
and the three who survived scarlet fever
wove grass in their brown hair and danced every night
with the fireflies. They galloped on wild horse
bareback until they got married and gave birth
to us, Southern Belles who could sit in a parlor
all evening and never complain. We could faint
in a handsome man’s arms. We could charm a
a stone wall. But we never forgot the back door,
how to disappear into the darkness, our crinolines rustling
like cornstalks between our legs. We told
this story so well, we inherit its black earth
where women hoe all night, inscrutable as Indians.

Pale jewelweed, Impatiens pallida, Balsaminaceae, touch-me-not family

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Frost

“Shake the cold from our hands,” you call, running ahead
of me onto the frozen grass. Look, in the garden
your father wrests vines from a tripod of bamboo stakes.
Okra’s grown weary with mourning another year
gone and just yesterday, Darling,
they wore yellow buds in their hair. Like you

twisting a puny chrysanthemum into your tangles
and galloping off on a broomstick. Down Caney Fork
scarecrows come hobbling like old soldiers
leaving their cornfields. They’ll sit by the river
and talk about what the crows told them: a hard winter
coming. Those windy crows, all they keep saying
is cold, cold, and when I see clouds swept
like ice down the creek, I believe them
too easily. Why must the maple leaves rattle

Remember me, as if someday
I’ll forget there were thousands came
falling the morning I felt for the first time you
shiver inside me, no fish as I thought you would be
but a mouse in its burrow? Now you sit in sand
and make birthday cakes, blowing out candles
that aren’t there. I blow on my hands
like an old woman taking no heed of a child
who believes time can be shaken from her like water.

poems by Kathryn Stripling Byer
from The Girl in the Midst of the Harvest, Press 53, © 2013 Kathryn Stripling Byer
first published by Texas Tech Press, January 15, 1986

 

Mountain bugbane, Cimicifuga americana, Ranunculaceae, buttercup family

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Mountain Cove plant communities occur in sheltered areas with abundant rainfall in mid- to lower-elevation areas of the Southern Appalachians. Especially the Rich Cove Forest subset, with less acidic and more rich mineral soils, is home to a huge diversity of tree species, flowering plants and ferns, insects, reptiles and amphibians. Original (old growth) forests will have massive individual trees hundreds of years old mixed with trees of all ages where a giant has fallen and allowed sunlight to reach the forest floor. There are a number of these areas where loggers never reached in GSMNP, such as Chimneys and near Cades Cove.

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All photos by Bill Griffin from Southern Appalachian Naturalist Certification Program; Southern Appalachian Ecology, September 2020, Great Smokies Institute at Tremont; instructors Jeremy Lloyd and Elizabeth Davis.

 

 

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[with two poems by Debra Kaufman]

Deep shade, red spruce, heavy moss – the trail switches up, cuts back, winds steadily higher. We can smell the transition, conifer tang, slow decomposition. We can feel it on our faces, in our pores, sweat cooling, wraith of mist blown up the ridge to envelope us. And we feel it somewhere deeper.

Something changes, so gradual we sense it before we know it. Daylight creeps through, one tree with toothed sun-colored leaves, then two; smell of spring and sweet flowering even at the end of autumn; witch hobble and pale mountain asters give way to dwarf goldenrod. Look, here are beech drops, flowers faded, seeds set, never green, their skinny bodies and appendages like effigies set among the trees they parasitize. We stop and breathe. Again, deeper. This is beech gap.

Leave a patch of ground alone long enough and it will grow into what it is meant to be. Its personality is in its community. Why does this beech gap persist? Its elders, Fagus grandifolia, stunted and twisted in communion with mountain maple, wood ferns, sedges – why not fir and spruce intruding? Elevation, precipitation, mountain aspect, soil pH? Centuries-old seed repository in the duff? Visitation by warblers, jays, and small mast-seeking mammals? Protection by allelopathic residues? Protection by mountain spirits?

All of these may define but don’t explain. It is the community that becomes itself: shallow spreading roots and pervasive mycelia, leaf and frond, sporangium and ovule, every one essential to the personality of place.

And you and I? We may choose how tall we stand. We choose which way we face, whether we learn from our elders, teach our children. We rest here for a few minutes and commune with this other. The silence of a ridge-crest glade: fragile or resilient? Retreat or restoration? Will we descend from the mountain and bring this peace, this purpose, into our own communities?

Beech drops, Epifagus virginiana, Orobanchaceae (Broomrape family)

 

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These two poems by Debra Kaufman speak to me of reverence and restlessness, of longing for community and the fear of isolation. Are we welcome on this earth and will we welcome others? Will we create more than we destroy?

As described on the cover of her book, God Shattered, Kaufman discovers how personal disillusionment can be a guide to finding the godly within ourselves. These poems lead us to contemplate and understand our place in this fragile world.

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Great White
An angel is nothing but a shark well-governed.
– Herman Melville, Moby Dick

Everyone carries a shadow.
The less it is embodied in the conscious self,
the blacker and denser it is.

Does a savage self always lurk
just below the surface,
on the hunt, no matter

our good intentions? Is our higher
nature ready to do battle against the dark,
harpoon at the ready?

If, as the Buddha says, there is no I,
does awareness reside
between empty spaces?

I understand so little.
But I can see Aleppo is rubble,
its people scattered;

anyone who listens can hear the cries
of girls being shuttled into brothels,
can imagine comforting someone suffering

here or half the world away.
How do we stop what is sacred
from being ravaged,

witness life out of balance yet not despair?
There must be ways
toward doing what is right.

Why else, as Job asked, would
light be given to a man
whose way is hidden?

The great white shark
is nearly extinct. It can sense
a beating heart over a mile a way.

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Welcome

You, one of seven billion born
helpless, nearly hairless,

one more chimp-cousin
in our midst:

Will you be swaddled,
neglected, anointed,

will you breathe air
that smells like rain?

Which foods will sustain you,
upon what ground

will you walk? What storm,
fires, floods will sweep

over you, what languages
will you learn, what

dances, what prayers?
Here is my hope for you,

little stranger: may you feel
beholden to this wondrous planet,

may you take your hungry,
humble place in it,

may you dedicate your life
to making it a world worth

revering, holding, passing on.

poems by Debra Kaufman from God Shattered, Jacar Press, © 2019

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Debra Kaufman grew up in the Midwest but has lived in North Carolina for thirty years. She has published three poetry chapbooks and four full length poetry collections: God Shattered, Delicate Thefts, The Next Moment, and A Certain Light.

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The Beech Gap is a rare subtype of Northern Hardwood Forest, found scattered in small patches surrounded by Fraser Fir and Red Spruce in Great Smoky Mountains National Park and elsewhere at the highest elevations of the Southern Appalachians. The Beech, mixed with small numbers of Buckeye, Birch, and Maple species, are stunted by the cold climate and high winds, with an open understory but relatively rich herb layer. Some patches in the Smokies are fenced to prevent destruction by invasive non-native wild pigs. Why this seemingly stable climax plant community remains stable and is not overtaken by Spruce-Fir remains a mystery.

 

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All photos by Bill Griffin from Southern Appalachian Naturalist Certification Program on Southern Appalachian Ecology, September 2020, Great Smokies Institute at Tremont; instructors Jeremy Lloyd and Elizabeth Davis.

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