Editor's Note Section
Fall Issue 2021 Volume 1 Issue 4
Poets can make a home anywhere. Look inside. When I do, Robert Hayden’s father warms the room where Emily Dickinson ghosts the air like breath, my body the train station where Courtney Kampa leaves a mother screaming, her child kidnapped. Who hasn’t stood with Jane Kenyon at dusk?
As readers, we are all introverts, an audience of one crowded with the desires and actions others express. In doing so, we also internalize the obsessions and history writers draw from. Theodore Roethke’s family operated a florist’s greenhouse in Saginaw, Michigan. Charles Baxter saw Roethke’s love of nature as its by-product: “...in much of his manic, exuberant poetry, he seemed to incorporate that greenhouse within himself, inside his own body.”
Basho carried wonder within him. In a haibun translated by Franz Wright, Basho wrote: “Wherever I travel, wherever I happen to find myself, I am not from there.” How much of that feeling enthralls us, the ability to see with the eyes of a stranger the places we inhabit.
Poets that make the known new stay with us. In her poem "Elegy in an Orchard," Danusha Laméris writes of poet Larry Levis: “Even his absence / is a kind of beauty. Let me be a guardian / of such absence, make a small altar of it / in the center of my chest.” Whether poems soothe or challenge us, they expand our view beyond ourselves and open for us a window into wider understanding that can influence our lives and work.
The poems we choose for ൪uartet are ones we cannot shake, the select that resonate, that confound, uplift. I am grateful for their company. We hope they find a home in you too.
—Jane C. Miller
What I’m reading:
frank: sonnets by Diane Seuss and POSTCOLONIAL LOVE POEM by Natalie Diaz.
You gave me jazz and Joe Jackson, your tight kobo boots for a season, purple letters in your bewildering hand and a postcard of night walking with tall wings to the edge of a cliff when I was ten. Before I hit thirty, you said as you took my hand, I’ll either be a saint or crazy. But what a lie: you never took my hand, you were too angry all the time. I tried to force you out, but your smell kept coming into my mouth. I tried to tie you down, but you were every woman on the streets in Paris. I don't know what you chose in the end. Something easy slipped on, pillows pushed away like boulders when the air got too heavy? My sister, my sister, without skin or bones, who is to say that it is better to live than to die? Who is to say that it is better to die than to live?
My sister Mimosa is on the phone. She is pulling on the line, a spring-loaded plastic cord that looks like the inside of Charlie Brown's bubbles when he feels lonely. She tugs on the cord to drag me into the underworld, a place that reminds us of the Brazil that she loved so much. I don’t want to join her, not even sure why, even if I live, warmed by the spring light on the tiles, still a little for her. So I turn a deaf ear and resist, hurting her as she tries to draw me into this foreign land that seems just so dark, and we are like the Queen of Hearts, cut in two, half black-half white, she, me, upside down or right side up, who can tell. The conversation ends eight days later, in light-stone silence. Over there: her bed, a white line between her lips. I hope she is loved by the Gods now.
Women in fairy tales all look the same when they wake up. My sister, all surface foam, has landed on the beach. A Marlboro Light in her hand, she is tanned and graceful. When she plays Loneliness in Paris, I don’t hear it and only see her smile and hands painted by Leonardo. Show yourself when I touch this toxic mass of pins with my fingertips; when I speak in your voice, I see a sign in the broken glass at my feet. Over the years, I have added lines, the rings on a tree trunk that separate us. I still see your scaly figure in the picture you thought was missing. I would give so much to be in your river again. There is a wide page-margin between us and night walks on, ever so gently.
I would have given anything to hold back your gesture, starve this restless fever in you. Here you are again in this vast nowhere, stiff and mute like a pine. Your death was so awkward and wide-shaped that you are at best half my sister now. Can't you see my patience, as I imagine and wait for a different ending for you? There are few words to describe the stillness, your pallor in my lines, when nothing is visible. I want to catch that part of you that has always slipped through my nets and, scared as I am of seeing you resurface, I will keep looking for you in exile. I listen in the conches where you hide, I pour wax into water to read your face but you left your wedding ring in an ashtray at Orly airport a long time ago and life still wants me.
I write as a translator and going back and forth between French and English has been a constant for the last twenty years. I love English. I love the fluidity and the colour of the language, and its playfulness. I am in a space where the two languages co-exist, even though I operate mainly in English in my everyday life. I push against it, but it tends to dominate my writing, even though it hasn’t eaten my French yet. So the two languages are in productive conflict with each other, I am caught between two beautiful fires and the interference from both feeds into my poetry.
"Language is translation", says Hisham Matar. Each word we use stands for something but can never be that thing. It’s always an effort to navigate around linguistic traps and tongue-twisters. There are words I avoid using in my poems as I might stumble when reading in public. But a language that goes straight to the heart of things doesn’t exist, and there is no such thing as a perfect translation, anyway.
I try to put reality and fiction into a dialogue and engage with the borderline areas between facts and writing. A poem can start with a simple phrase I have heard or read. I take lots of notes and write drafts long hand. I read the lines aloud then type them until I am satisfied with the coherence of the poem-which is never! Lavinia Greenlaw calls poetry “unsettled language arranged so that its less obvious aspects, such as its music, come to the fore.” The music, shape and texture of words inform my poems. I think that translation has encouraged me to focus more closely on language and its construction. All the time, I hope that the reader will activate the poem and treat it as an experience, rather than as an object, and that our imaginations will eventually meet half-way.
I am currently rereading an anthology of poems by Claudia Rankine, Denise Riley and Maggie Nelson. I find their “massive, weighty (…) compact body” (Claudia Rankine) of work and distinctive voices daunting and really stimulating. My poem, written in a mixture of French and English initially, is based on my sister, who killed herself in 1989.
his shadow passed over me
wingspan five feet maybe more
stopped in traffic
released steering wheel looked
over my shoulder his slate grey body
long beak elegant neck curved
against overcast sky
once when my tea leaves were read
a bird circling the bottom of my cup
promised renewal transformation
was he a messenger protector shaman
or as Michael Collins once wrote
an omen-bird…caught between earth and skies…
I park the car stand
on edge of darkening woods
inhale advancing mist listen
for the heron’s stark call reach
as if to touch
the powdery down on his chest
The musicality of Southern speech patterns had a major influence on me. My earliest memories are of family members playing instruments, singing, or quoting Yeats, Wordsworth and other poets. I was encouraged from an early age to make up songs, and paint. Poetry ties words, music and visuals together into an art form that I find satisfying.
There are many poets that I love, but one poem always comes to mind when I’m asked for a favorite. The last few lines in “The Rhodora” by Ralph Waldo Emerson says “…beauty is its own excuse for being / why thou wert there O rival of the rose / I never thought to ask; I never knew / but in my simple ignorance suppose / the selfsame power that brought me there brought you.” In this poem, a simple flower in the woods is meaningful whether anyone sees it or not. I think this is the true spirit of creativity. Create for the sake of creating. Create to better understand your life. Create to bring a thing of beauty to the world, even if the world never sees it.
D. Walsh Gilbert
Kingfisher by the Waterside
—Vincent van Gogh (Netherlands) 1886
She lifts from a blade of sawgrass in the marsh,
and the point of her beak spears a silver minnow.
Like the surprise ending of a whodunit,
the fish never sees it coming.
This bird’s a blue-green shaft of lightning, wings
tucked into a silent arrow. Ah, little fish—
this is how I want to die—
not knowing what hit me.
From the shoreline, I await the bird’s return,
sketch her pitch through lily pads until
she retreats into her nesting tunnel.
What taught the kingfisher her diving
skills? When did she first plunge? How
many times did she risk drowning
before rebounding from the deep with a full
beak, all the wriggling quieted, water dripping
from her stubby tailfeathers as she ascends,
nourished, with one more day to live?
I wake each morning looking for inspirational artwork which can take me to other time zones and faraway places. I'm currently collecting my writing travels into an all-ekphrastic poetry journey through the world of fish and into the atmosphere of birds. “That’s the place to get to—nowhere. One wants to wander away from the world’s somewhere, into our own nowhere” (D.H. Lawrence). My favorite poet is Emily Dickinson whose poetry has taught me that going nowhere can bring a woman everywhere. We all owe that pilgrimage to ourselves no matter what our circumstances. Thank you for coming along.
—D. Walsh Gilbert
On Finding Monarch Caterpillars in September*
And whatever love a parent
feels stealing bread for a starving
child, I have it as I dig by
the flimsy light of my bargain
headlamp, having driven miles for the last
of the chain-store milkweed, which will
feed these ravenous young in their striped
skins, who are no metaphor, who stand for
themselves only, though in my ecological
worry, my long-range fright, I am surely
standing for something as I shovel the dark.
*In their multi-generational migration pattern, the endangered monarch butterfly bears its fourth generation in September and October. Rather than dying after two to six weeks as the earlier generations do, this generation migrates to warmer climates like California and Mexico, living six to eight months before starting the process again.
For several decades I’ve been writing through grief over first, global warming; then, climate change; later, climate crisis; and now, climate emergency. A line that has stayed with me is Adrienne Rich’s “There must be those among whom we can sit down and weep and still be counted as warriors.” I felt a thrill of recognition when the editors of the new collection about climate crisis, All We Can Save (edited by Ayana Elizabeth Johnson and Katharine K. Wilkinson) mentioned Rich’s line as a guiding mantra.
Partnering with the resilience of the other creatures with whom we share the planet is a choice I find myself making whenever I can, and I believe those of us who have grown up with the erasures of modernity are only beginning to know these “other nations” of beings. It’s painful to realize that our species is causing the decline and extinction of so many others. I try to make poems in which the lives of other animals matter.
[to sit] / [against]
Let me pause again, let my eyes follow others to see where they land. This one,
this one here. He stared and stared, and my eyes followed his eyes to see where
they landed, his lips licking his mouth. I followed with my own eyes, mouth
dry in the fire slurped air. The colors of others popping into view, the things
they showed, popping into my sight. How the color blazed my eyes, how
enticing, how I wanted those colors, their colors, so like but not mine, how
they blazed and filled my eyes, my throat dry, thirsty. Such thirst. I had
forgotten about color, forgotten about the promise of reaching for that color,
for wanting that color. Their color. Dizzy with it. The wanting.
Once there was a girl who remembered the taste of river.
When I was a girl, I created my own language. By which I mean literally - my own words, my own phrases. Gibberish to anyone but me. I imagine that girl as one who understood the power of language from the start. Refusing language that did not fit in her body, her mouth.
Poetry, for me, is about dialogue/conversation/argument. First, with the girl in me who knows what language can do and is always striving to find her own language and her own way with it.
Also, with the self [selves], with the spiritual, with others, with other poets. All poets are influenced by poets we love, by our teachers, by the world, by our spiritual practices [even when those whose practice is to not have a practice]. When I write, I am [mostly] conscious of these conversations, which can also be [usually are] argument. Engaged in my ongoing arguments with Dante, Milton, Blake. Engaged in my ongoing conversation with Hildegard, Porete, Dickinson. Engaged in my ongoing dialogues with Jean Valentine, Linda Gregg, Alice Notley, Linda Elkin, Joan Larkin, Louise Glück, Yanyi, Kasey Jueds, Karla Van Vliet, Ilya Kaminsky. Engaged in finding new conversations with poets like Victoria Chang, Danez Smith, Don Mee Choi, Terrance Hayes, Donika Kelly, Kerrin McCadden, Monica Sok, Alison Rollins, Amy Nezhukumatathil.
I am a dreamwork practitioner and teacher: poetry and dream, for me, exist and bloom from the same place and share a language. A language and lexicon crafted and offered to be curated for/by me. I love discovering this in other poets, in other dreamers.
Scanning for the Dippers
Hunched in the passenger seat, you beg me
to start the car: I can be a no-show.
You want home, your unmade bed. In the building
behind us, directors, auditions—your monologue wobbly,
stalling out. My hands clench the steering wheel.
I utter words like character, professionalism. Your eyebrows
purse. The silence after the chau gong clangs.
I quiet my breath. Maybe the stars know
if my sermon is grounded, but do they imagine our vacuity,
our limited orbit? I stare at my fingers, filter
memory, scan for maps, charts, a text
to furnish a clue, a sliver of reassurance. Nothing.
Then you are ten. We are boarding the King Cobra,
its slick loops, high canyons, riders
standing, arms loose. Miles of open air
above all the other coasters. I won’t let you
bolt from the queue when nerves chew at your stomach.
You blanch as we ratchet our way up the long
first climb, your fear a skitter in my chest—
with each new lunge, diaphragms constrict.
When we wrestle free of harnesses, the thrill of coils
and cliffs, you lobby to ride again, ricochet
back into line. You could have crumpled. Or sidestepped
my hug. You could have been struck dumb.
It could have been disastrous. The coaster might have
spiraled off the rails, or this morning’s director
might have blasted you instead of serving up
honey and roses. I wish for a planisphere to plot
my point in the universe, or an updated list from Leviticus,
laws to observe and live by. Maybe some mothers
grasp the prophets in ancient Hebrew. Maybe some
see dippers in the cold night sky without straining.
Across the center console of this vehicle, as unmoved
as our positions, I recall that fevered
summer when you turned five, discovered mortality,
couldn’t sleep for crying. I finally told you
death is a billion Roman Candles soaring
into space; you watch them explode, their impossible colors—
you the sizzling particles, limitless, ravishing.
I teach Modern Poetry and British literature 1900-present; these cultural influences undoubtedly fuel my poetry’s immersion in image, nature, and the music of language. Besides these historical influences, I am most drawn to the poetry of Mark Jarman, Jack Gilbert, and Mary Oliver, each for different reasons. I love Mary Oliver’s call to notice nature for its own sake and Mark Jarman’s meditations and contemplative storytelling. I return again and again to Jack Gilbert’s The Great Fires and the challenge of knowing that he poses in his poems, exemplified by the lines, “We find out the heart only by dismantling what / the heart knows. By redefining the morning, / we find a morning that comes just after darkness” (“Tear It Down”). Like “Scanning for the Dippers,” published here, my poems often explore living in uncertainty, in mystery.
Merna Dyer Skinner
I PRETEND I’M A LONG-DISTANCE JUMPER
Visiting child of the other woman / barefoot / I bound
through the four-room house / of my father’s first wife—
sprint from front to back / shove wide
the splintered screen door / catapulting myself
off the rail-less porch / into summer’s muggy air
the very moment / falling from the Sycamore tree / a brown blur
outpaces my landing / my naked foot / slips easily
into the nest’s severed top / before the swarm breaches—
a thousand stings / pierce my flesh / meant perhaps
for my mother
Charles Simic once said in a New Yorker podcast (and I’m paraphrasing): some poems are as carefully considered as a well-executed crime; others arrive in a flash. For me, this poem arrived almost whole, during a moment when I was thinking about the curious convergence, or timing, of moments in one’s life. The same applies to my becoming an “accidental poet” at age 63, when, after a terrible hiking accident, I decided to take my first poetry class, once casts came off and I could walk again. For over 30 years, in my professional life as a communications consultant, I’ve helped thousands of people acquire skills to interact well with others, and the confidence to speak with conviction. Through poetry, I’ve now discovered my own voice, and with the guidance of wonderful poets and teachers, I continue to hone my skills. My two adult sons remain my greatest champions of my new journey.
—Merna Dyer Skinner
Biking Through The Stone Age
Swiping sunscreen on
their soft necks and faces,
a strap check of their bike
hard-hats, my grandgirls
ask, again, about the before
times: Were there helmets,
Bin Bin, when you were a kid?
A proper grandmother might
offer nostalgia or longing:
No, those were simpler times,
kids not pampered or protected.
But none of us prize proper, all
three filled with sass and badass,
biking along the canal, frog spotting,
heading to soft ice-cream with twists
Later, hands sticky, tongues working
to tidy their cones, the girls serve up
silence for my free-range fable:
Summer days after lunch I’d bike to the pool--
who’d heard of seat belts or helmets?
---my tender brain laid bare as a
pumpkin to car tires, sun-splashed
hours swimming and diving, no SPF
to shield us, this Scots-Irish skin crisped
nearly to the bone, burst burns on
my shoulders rubbed raw as I slept.
Nights before the fireflies lit, we kids
chased the DDT truck, danced in
the smoky, gray billows blown from the
back, mouths open to swallow its secret--
how the poison cloud could keep us
safe from mosquitos and malaria.
Rinsing sugar from their mouths
with their BPA-free water bottles,
the girls signal they’ll say my
unsaid: Sounds awful--dangerous,
primitive, like the Stone Age.
We wheel our way home, pedaling
past my Paleolithic Era and into
their future--the Plastiocene Age,
their beloved polar bears
drifting toward extinction,
floods rolling past the fires.
Poetry dotted the syllabi throughout my college teaching career; likewise, I dabbled in verse writing during that time, with long, inactive stretches. It wasn’t until three to five years back that writing poetry became my daily work, passion and struggle.
Oh, the stack of poetry in my writing room is a few feet high and eclectic, y’know—Kate Bauer, Sonia Sanchez, Yeats, Auden, the work of poet friends. Rita Dove’s collected works is currently my night stand sentry. My favorites, and the poets I yearn for and return to, are Anne Sexton, Margaret Atwood, and Mary Oliver. I love Sharon Olds, whose obsessions, brilliance of detail and range of knowledge always astound me. Most recently, her arias and odes speak to me. Running throughout all of her poetry is the radical physicality of the body—in birth, sex, and death—an intimacy of being that I admire. I also visit Shakespeare’s sonnets several times a year so that the fusion of formal verse and image/idea might wiggle back under my skin.
What keeps me writing is the call to honor life and death and the whole shebang. Poetry allows me to crystallize memory and to celebrate peak as well as quotidian experience. Poetry is my blessing on being.
I was a feral child. I know what you are thinking, how you are bracing yourself for the kind of story that can wound when heard in the chambers of a mother’s heart named for ears. But all stories are more than their sadness, and when you are feral, you do not have to brush your hair, you may leave
it unruly, and wild. You may take coffee with milk outside to the yard, where the morning sun falls warm on your neck, even though the neighbors will see you looking like an unmade bed, and drink
in two of those things while paying no mind to the other. Your sleeping clothes can become your waking ones, and in them, you can walk to the ocean, sink your toes into sand still cool from the unwatched nighttime, chase the morning shorebirds darting where they wish. No one will say you should not. Later, you can make sandwiches for every meal, pitifully uncut as when—you feel the wound at the very thought of it—no mother is involved.
But when you feel the jam, wet and cold and distant on your cheek, and strain to reach it with your tongue, you make a silly face, you make a funny noise. You laugh. You see that the uncut sandwich is not sad at all, the uncut sandwich is a game, though you have cut legions of them into shapes
believing otherwise, believing that this is what good mothers do. And when, in the long light of late afternoon—with no dinner to get on the table, no babies to be bathed and bedded—you grow
restless, you can run away. You can pedal longer and farther and faster than would have been
allowed, bathed in golden rays that, having traveled far, stoop low to meet your gaze, like an auntie come to visit. And all the while, your mother the wind will touch your deeply lined face and smooth your wild silver hair, reminding you in whispers that your story will always be more than its sadness.
Even if we are fortunate enough to arrive at midlife, no one arrives unwounded. From its title, this poem speaks of paradoxes and conflicting truths, of the many versions of ourselves, of old narratives alongside new perspectives, of our quest to remain open-hearted even though we have been broken-hearted.
As a student (and rule-following oldest child!), I found comfort in the steadfast rules of good grammar, the reliability of meter and stanza, the integrity of a complete and well-constructed sentence. I think this is why prose poetry—with its recalcitrant, devil-may-care attitude, its blatant disregard of form and meter and structure—both challenges and seduces me. “Unwounded” was born of an ordinary day I spent alone at the shore. The day evoked a felt sense of the curiosity and freedom of youth, and the form allowed me to tell it in the way I experience it in midlife: in fragmented thoughts that can make up complete ideas, incorporating old wisdom and new perspectives, in both solitude and communion with all those who came before.
Man without shadow
inspired by Excursion into Philosophy by Edward Hopper
At noon on the piazza he remembers
a table beneath a canopy the feel of fire between his fingers—
view of a fountain, a redhead with freckled calves
once he tossed a coin with nails the color of embers,
wishing for love— she is like smoke
he craves surrendering through an open window—
polenta, anchovies, figs, an offering,
a bottle of Barolo prayer from an empty temple
sunlight at his feet shadow burns to ash.
Having enjoyed a long career in marketing and corporate communications, I am now experiencing the joy of dedicating more time to my own creative writing projects. My curiosity and sense of discovery are fed by reading and by connections with poetry communities both locally and across the country. Most treasured is the community of women poets who inspire with their gifts of language, resilience, and wisdom.
Like most of us, I come back to those poets whose work invites me to experience more with each reading—Emily Dickinson, Mary Oliver, Dorianne Laux, Kelli Russell Agodon, Ada Limón, Richard Blanco, and Ted Kooser. Recently I have enjoyed Susan Rich’s The Cartographer’s Tongue and her treatment of identity and borders. This line from her poem “Wendy in the ‘90s” captures the exquisite nature of storytelling for me: And then like the pilot resisting / the runway home, she’d hold her breath / and offer up this / pleasure—the telling / of the journey out alone.
— Dawn Terpstra
I PROMISE HER OKRA IN AUGUST
I visit a friend and take food:
French lentil soup rich with carrot coins
and threads of silken spinach,
cornbread that welcomes the melting yellow butter
as a ginger cat seeks sunbeams on a cool spring morn.
Salad greens freshly picked from my organic garden,
and radishes, triple washed, the red and white roots trimmed.
Flowers to grace the table where she may sit for a moment,
sip some soup, pick at cornbread and salad.
She is polite, grateful, though the cancer gnaws away
at her and drugs numb any appetite for food. She can’t
use cannabis to stimulate hunger, all her hunger magnetizes
to more life. She asks about the garden. Her face becomes
wistful, then she asks if I have planted okra.
I tell her about the heirloom red okra seeds nestled
among rows of spinach past its prime, with new onions.
I promise her okra in August though we both know
how slim her chances are of making it to August,
slender as her shadow already slipping through worlds,
sliding right between life and gone.
I have been a rural dweller and organic gardener for almost fifty years, and the poem that I hear always in my deepest, cellular being is Yeats’ “The Lake Isle of Innisfree.” This 131-year-old poem is a mantra for me, especially in times of such global sorrow as we are living through now. Its monastic simplicity of meter, rhyme, unobtrusive alliteration, and message beat evenly and steadily in my blood. However, I am also urbane and unsentimental, and to satisfy that part of me I am currently enjoying the work of the N.Y. poet and professor, Susana H. Case, who never puts herself in the center of an emotional universe, but instead observes from the edges and creates painterly film noir scenes or bathes small, unromantic lives in compassionate, poetic balm. At the time I am writing this, I am serving as a first reader for a poetry competition and getting to experience a wide range of work, learning so much about what makes a strong collection, and being surprised by poetry I thought I would be predisposed not to like so much. There is a whole world of work out there to bring delight and deep thought to the readers of poetry.
Tori Grant Welhouse
In the drive-thru at Starbucks,
at the barista's shovel of a hand,
I scrabble for more change.
The looping of moment,
flat sky overcast with farewell, tunnel
of overhang, smell of peat in the air.
I feel disconnected from my limbs,
this disruption of sense receptors
a derangement of grief.
“Mom,” says my son, gently, unlike
himself, saving rebellion for another day.
His younger sister leans her cheek
against my arm, unsure what else
to do, trying to provoke a small sun
on my skin. I see myself stricken
in the whites of their eyes. The barista
gives me a look of long-suffering. Oh, I say,
aware suddenly of the loose coins in my palm.
A fit of shoulder-shaking
overtakes me. Dumbness. Numbness.
Sorrow a ringing lantern in the fading light.
My children wonder if I laugh or cry.
I wonder at the day’s absurdity,
giggling a kind of hysteria.
The disaster of laughter
gives my son and daughter
hope that I will become myself again.
That I will somehow know
what to do, how to behave
at the funeral of a sister.
I started writing poetry in college, inspired by the writing of Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton and Erica Jong. I wanted what they accomplished on the page in my life — the language, the self-expression, the free-wheeling emotions — and find myself most drawn to poetry of moment. An Erica Jong quote especially resonates with me, “If a woman wants to be a poet, she must dwell in the house of the tomato.” I am currently reading Grim Honey by Jessica Barksdale.
—Tori Grant Welhouse
All Editor's Choice poems from Winter Issue 2021 through Spring Issue 2022 will automatically be entered in our single-poem contest. Winner to be announced in Summer Issue 2022.
I chose Lin Benedek’s poem because she so deftly illustrates how poems happen; how we have to open ourselves to receive what is given. And how could I, an “okay poet,” not select this poem when the author, at the very end, invokes “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird” by Wallace Stevens?
Musings of an Okay Poet of the Twenty-First Century
Lady and the Tramp introduced me to love.
My love is three weeks older, four inches taller.
I admit I am a bit like Glinda. I discovered boys
before they discovered me.
How to make guests feel comfortable in your poem: Give them something to pluck.
My literary companions: the Jabberwocky, some rough beast, dappled things, little red feet of the pigeons.
Dreams are common property, someone said.
And something resembling sorrow.
One friend sends me peacocks; another, butterflies.
And here is my pantheon of old boyfriends, gods all.
See how the scars define me.
Stars can’t be all bad. Nor flowers, trees, birds and bees. And anyway,
most of us are mutts.
Turn on the radio and never turn it off. Listen with eyes that hear,
hands that breathe, taste that deciphers smell.
Meanwhile, another rattlesnake dream, empty and holy. And
an experience which shall remain nameless. To the poet in me,
hereinafter called the artist: What shall I write about today?
Culinary banquet? Prurient debauch? Pastoral tableau? Nautical
voyage? Surefire tearjerker? Unfettered joy?
Moonday through Aphrodite Day:
Coax the inchoate from its cloak of invisibility.
Did someone else say this, or did I?
Fall poem: fall in line, fall of man, fall asleep, fall in love
Be free. Be strong. Be Beautiful. (Buzz words on FM 98.1)
Eros and Thanatos?
I was always a character actor, just born with the looks of Little Red Riding Hood, said Paul
Newman. I had a brush with greatness as a waitress at Viva Zapata in Westport, Connecticut, when
I showed Paul Newman the way to the men’s room. The sky was cornflower blue and cloudless, like his eyes, no hint of artifice.
O, rueful moon! I have reached my dew point. Japanese scientists have created a mutant mouse that does not fear cats. But can they make a man with no enemies? There’s always the endearing curve of the duck’s head in profile, the duck’s back, his sense of comedy. The dog keeping time with his
tongue and tail. And a 1500 year old Byzantine church with a well-preserved mosaic floor and
images of lions, foxes, fish and peacock.
Does it hurt when the leaves begin to turn?
Notes for a poem with sparrows: Light Plight Bright Height Might Flight
To be continued. The blackbirds whistling, or just after.
This poem was inspired by beloved teacher Marvin Bell, who advocated for keeping a poetry scroll, a running document recording daily writing in progress. Most often I write a stand-alone poem. This one brings together disparate pieces—from different writing sessions—guilty by association, accessories to the act of meaning-making. Our brains like to synthesize and we find connections in the oddest of ways.
Here I make homage to so many of my influences. Lady and the Tramp, The Wizard of Oz, Wallace Stevens’ “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird” and poets I read in school, things I heard on the radio, dreams, bits of conversation, chance meetings, rhyming words, nature, love.
One of my favorite things about poetry is that there’s room for everything. We get to choose what to keep, towards the end of creating satisfying work. But in the writing process our raw material is life itself, no subject too high or too low. I find that intoxicating.
Boyer’s “Zwischenraum” brings such tender reflection on the strange space we occupy in this pandemic. Her poem bears witness to the emptiness we carry and the yearning for love and support we once took for granted
—Jane C. Miller
German word for intervals or space between things.
The taped lines on the floor of the grocery’s checkout lanes
are a year old now. We are still polite, distancing.
I swam at the rec center today. Three of us were allowed
thirty minutes in the cavernous space. The other woman
backstroked, flicking her hands up crisply while the man
dropped his arms like shovels.
The volume of warm air was still. The volume of water
I’ve grown accustomed to vacancy, sky
where the maple came down; absence heavy as the empty chair;
the pause of an ellipsis. I need to tell you something…
When a jigsaw piece is lost it’s hard to see anything but that void.
Summer nights in Tennessee the insect lady can identify species
of lightning bugs by the intervals between their flashes
and can locate where you call home if you say they’re fireflies.
There’s a place in the Smoky Mountains where fireflies blink
in unison. The forest twinkles everywhere at once, goes black,
then the starry lights again search out each other in the dark.
I’m missing something deep, something nearly tribal
that’s in the way Greeks clasp shoulders, grapevine
slowly, then faster, beaming in each other’s sweaty faces;
how in dark theaters we become one animal breathing.
Back when Janice told us about her brain cancer we could cluster
tight around her. Faithful and faithless, we all bent forward
reaching to touch her or rest a hand on one nearer.
We were fireflies crowded in a mason jar, glowing like a lantern.
I write best when I am working within the framework of a larger poetry project such as a book or chapbook built around my current obsession. “Zwischenraum” was recently written for a collection based on foreign words with no direct English translation. Finding interesting words like this one has been a source of delight and offers me a fresh way to speak about coming to terms with who I’ve become, which, as the pandemic emphasizes, is one of the elderly.
Perhaps poetry is the expression of thoughts and feelings in uncommon language. As a child I was riveted by that image of the pail in Robert Louis Stevenson’s “Escape at Bedtime”—The Dog, and the Plough, and the Hunter, and all, / And the star of the sailor, and Mars, / These shone in the sky, and the pail by the wall / Would be half full of water and stars.“ A pail half full of stars!
My husband and I moved four years ago from our home in Michigan, where we had lived for forty years, to live in northeastern Ohio, near our oldest son. The pandemic actually rescued me from loneliness as I could continue to meet with my familiar writing critique groups because they were all using Zoom. I have been exceptionally fortunate to find Lit Youngstown, to participate in their fall festival, and through their director, find a fellow poet in Ohio to share work with weekly. She and I now lead an online course called Reading Contemporary Poets for Lit Cleveland with the goal of opening conversations about contemporary poetry, encouraging the reading of poetry, particularly for those who may resist poetry books. Lately I have found my inspiration comes from the poets we read for that workshop, which has included Ada Limón, Ross Gay, Pattiann Rogers, Louise Glück, and Li-Young Lee.
It was Foley’s use of caesura in this one-sentence poem that made me choose “The River.” Through metaphor, she shows how loss holds and moves us “amid the strong current.” This is what losing a spouse feels like: the constant submerging and surfacing of emotion. The breaks that the caesura provide are calming, allow us to take a breath in the midst of turbulence, just as the river itself provided comfort to the family.
—Gail Braune Comorat
We each that summer didn’t just dip in like birds’ wingtips skimming the surface, but more than birds, more even than Pegasus—we immersed like otters, to feel the buoyancy of life on earth in us, of time taking us—re-making us through its waves lapping over us, its liquid propulsion and flow—showing how we are the particles of us, of our bodies, my children and me needing healing, after the loss of father and husband—our bodies allowing the river—and how we’d step-stone amid the strong current—pushing and wading, our thighs working overtime, to where the old covered bridge shadowed the river’s depths, where we’d float on deep water, as surface water lapped us, staring up
at the dark underside of the bridge that preceded all of us and would certainly continue after—arcing over us like a riverine cathedral—soothed by its cool shadows, floating at ease before
rejoining the current—wind racing wavelets over us, so we bobbed like boats in choppy waters, till our legs finally lifted us from the shallow edges, escaping the sweeping-away to some beckoning
sea—we’d leave the river for solid ground, until heat or grief recalled us, time and time again.
I wrote the prose poem “The River” last spring after re-reading D.H. Lawrence’s Women in Love. Lawrence’s modernist novel explores water imagery extensively and sparked a memory of when I lived on the banks of the Connecticut River, during a time of loss and transformation, after the death of my husband, and while raising our three children. I’d also been reading Frank Gaspar’s work, the masterful prose-like poems of Late Rapturous. I love the wide flow of Gaspar’s work, its all-encompassing nature.
I started writing late in life, at age 45, after a lifetime raising children and studying literature. For me, the discovery of poetry was like hitting an oil field, a rich vein of creativity from some hidden place. So exciting, and more satisfying than my previous existence in academia. I now have seven poetry books published, with a new volume due out next year from Salmon Poetry. Writing continues to take center stage in my life; a way to see where I am, to predict where I’m going, to understand more clearly where I’ve been.
൪uartet Interview: Barbara Crooker
Barbara Crooker is the author of Radiance, which won the 2005 Word Press First Book competition and was a finalist for the 2006 Paterson Poetry Prize; Line Dance, which came out from Word Press in 2008 and won the 2009 Paterson Award for Literary Excellence; More (C&R Press, 2010);
Gold (Cascade Books, 2013); Small Rain (Virtual Artists Collective, 2014); Selected Poems, (FutureCycle Press, 2015); Les Fauves (C&R Press, 2017); The Book of Kells (Cascade Books, 2018, winner of the Best Poetry Book 2018 from Poetry by the Sea); and Some Glad Morning (Pitt Poetry Series, University of Pittsburgh Press, 2019), which was longlisted for the Julie Suk Award.
Her poems have appeared in magazines such as The Sun, The Christian
Science Monitor, Smartish Pace, The Beloit Poetry Journal, Nimrod, Good Poems for Hard Times (Viking Penguin), and Boomer Girls (University of Iowa Press). Her poetry has been read on the BBC, the ABC (Australian Broadcasting Company), by Garrison Keillor on The Writer's Almanac, by US Poet Laureate Tracy K. Smith on The Slowdown podcast, and in Ted Kooser's column, American Life in Poetry.
൪: What does poetry bring to your life? Why should we all be reading more poetry?
BC: Especially right now, with all our devices, it seems that it’s all too easy to sleepwalk through our “one wild and precious life” (Mary Oliver). Poetry brings us back to our senses, makes us more fully alive, teaches us to pay attention. If the poetry that you’ve been reading has bored or mystified you, you’re just reading the wrong writers (for you); keep searching until you find poetry that speaks to you, then read more of it.
൪: In a Tinderbox Poetry Journal conversation with Marjorie Stelmach, Marjorie says, Your poems lick and savor the world. Even when you write about loss, you question how you’ve deserved this life / I’ve been given. A pile of sorrows, yes, but joy / enough to unbalance the equations. (“Some October,” Radiance). Given the changes you saw in 2020, how will you continue to savor this world?
BC: This is a difficult question for me right now, as I lost the love of my life in April, after six months of not being able to see him (except for March, when I took care of him in our home) because of Covid. And all the other things I lost—I had a new book that came out in November 2019 (Some Glad Morning, Pitt Poetry Series) with readings scheduled all over the country—poof, they vanished, and I don’t know if poetry readings with live audiences will return. I’d stopped writing, pretty much, in August 2020, when he had rotator cuff surgery, and I had to take over doing a lot of things around the house plus the driving. During Covid confinement, we would look at each other and say, “This isn’t so bad. As long as we have each other, we can survive this.” But now, I’m not sure. . . .
൪: We’re so sorry for your loss, Barbara, and hope you’ll soon be writing again. Did he have a favorite poem of yours?
BC: “Why I Love Being Married to a Chemist” (from Les Fauves). I “interviewed him” a few years before I was able to write it (sometimes, the way into a poem isn’t immediately obvious), so once I got going, I had all these notes to fall back on.
൪: How did you choose the title, Some Glad Morning? Did your poems change in any way as you wrote this book?
BC: The way I put a book together is like assembling a giant jigsaw puzzle rather than writing new poems in order to make a complete collection. So the poems were already written, and I chose the title to reflect what I thought was the main theme; i.e. joy, in spite of sorrow. Many of the poems were elegies, but I didn’t want it to be a gloomy book, and this gospel song, which is often sung at funerals, is focused on glory.
I think my writing, like everyone else’s, has been changed by this year of confinement and isolation, plus abject horror at the divisions in our country, the virus-deniers, the events of January 6th—you can’t help but be influenced by this and write about it, even if you’re primarily a lyrical writer (as I think of myself).
൪: Your “Quarantine Villanelle” was one of the winners for Garrison Keillor’s pandemic poems contest. You’ve written form poems in some of your newer collections—abecedarians in Les Fauves and glosa poems in The Book of Kells. There’s even a gigan in The Book of Kells. Why/when did you turn to form and do you enjoy writing in form? And please explain a gigan!
BC: I’ve always dabbled in form; in fact, I coined the term “semi-formalist” in a symposium I was part of to use for those of us who aren’t neo-formalists, but who turn to form from time to time. I try to let the poem lead the way (i.e. some poems just want to be sonnets), but in both Les Fauves and The Book of Kells, I gave myself “assignments.” For Les Fauves, I wanted to get wild and crazy in words the way the painters did with their colors, and for some reason, that made me turn to form (some are embedded abecedarians, one is a double-helix, and then some rhyme, which I don’t usually do). For The Book of Kells, I wanted to have an assignment beyond exploring the Book of Kells itself, and I’d been drawn to the glosa, which is one tough form. I decided, after the first glosa, that I needed to use Irish writers for the quatrain, expanding the challenge.
A gigan is an invented form by Ruth Kocher, who named it after her favorite monster in Godzilla (!); here are the rules: 1) The poem is 16 lines. 2) The lines are broken into couplet, tercet, couplet, couplet, couplet, tercet, couplet. 3) Line one is repeated as line eleven. 4) Line six is repeated as line twelve. 5) Ideally, the closing couplet should put a twist on the poem. I’m not sure, at this point, how closely I followed the rules; if I didn’t, let’s call it a “nonce.” I feel that writing in form flexes your poetic muscles, and that every poem I’ve done in form has enhanced, perhaps in ways I can’t articulate, my (usual) free verse.
൪: You say you’re a self-educated poet. At this age, many of us have become second-career poets who don’t want to go back to school to get an MFA. How do we educate ourselves about contemporary poetry? How do we learn to become better poets without going after that degree?
BC: When I started writing, I was busy raising my family, and distance MFAs didn’t exist, so getting one wasn’t a possibility. I think it would have been lovely to study poetry intensively, to work with a mentor, to have formed friendships with classmates, but . . . .
I like to say I went to the school of 3000 books; I once counted them up when I was trying to interest a library in my poetry collection. Anyone can be self-educated, especially now, with Amazon and the internet. You just have to be disciplined. Besides buying books of writers I love (and/or admire—not always the same thing), I read each journal or collection twice, once for pleasure and once to take notes.
Plus, there are so many good books out there, ones with prompts, ones about form. How to Write a Form Poem (disclaimer: I’m in it) (T.S. Poetry Press) is a good one. You can join craft/critique groups online and, I imagine, on Zoom. If you’re interested in a particular writer, say, Gerard Manley Hopkins, there are terrific critical books you can peruse. Another great way to learn about craft is to start writing reviews, analyzing how and why certain poems/poets speak to you, how and why a book is organized, etc.
൪: Many of your poems are ekphrastic, but you go beyond describing the artwork: Someone is standing in the field, knee deep in poppies. / It could be you, before the diagnosis. (“For Judy, Whose Husband is Undergoing Surgery,” More). How do you make that leap from a painting to what’s really at stake? Do you remember writing your first poem about a favorite painting? What does a good ekphrastic poem need?
BC: I’m not sure I remember my first ekphrastic poem; this is a field I’ve been laboring in for a long, long time. But you’ve hit on what’s key, for me, in writing about painting, which is that you have to make that leap from mere description to actual poetry, what’s really at stake. How to do this is a mystery; my only advice is that I keep pushing and pushing until it actually happens. Or I abandon the poem. It needs to be more than a poem about a painting; it needs to be a poem having a conversation with the painting, one that invites the reader in as well.
൪: In “Willow Ware,” (Gold), you say, I was the kind of girl who played alone, / had tea parties under hedges…my mother would let me use / the child-sized blue willow china. What role does memory have in your poems? How close do you stay to facts?
BC: I wish my memory was better, so that I could use it more in my work. Writing poetry isn’t the same as newspaper reporting, though, so I might alter the memory to stay truer to the emotional template of the poem, or I might possibly change something to enhance the sounds in a line. I try and let the poem lead the way, to be honest in terms of the poem, rather than to insist on the facts of “real life.”
൪: You’ve said that you like poems that end with a click. How does one go about finding that click? How do you know it’s the right click for that poem?
BC: It’s actually Yeats who said a poem should click at the end like a well-made box. There are other ways of ending a poem, of course, but those are the ones that I find most satisfying. I’m trying to write the kinds of poems I like to read. But how do you know when a poem is done? Ah, there’s the question! Paul Valéry said a poem is never finished, merely abandoned, and that’s probably the best answer I can give, too.
൪: So many of your poems concern the natural world, but they also manage to invoke the sensual and the spiritual: The amaryllis bulb, dumb as dirt…a bud / that swells, bells / full-sailed, full-bellied…their Hallelujah chorus, / sing carols in the thin cold air, / and our mouths say O and O and O. (“Nativity,” Small Rain). How do you manage to bring them all together?
BC: I don’t think I do any of these things consciously; rather, I’m always trying to be aware of the sensual AND the spiritual when I write. All of these things go into the shaker, swirl around, and then I hope that, when I pour them out, a poem actually emerges.
One further thing to mention is that I might not start to see these strands clearly until, oh, say, the twenty-fifth revision. I keep working and working a poem looking for clarity, for themes, for sound patterns, for rhythm—all those balls you need to keep juggling to let mediocre drafts turn into finished poems.
൪: In an interview with Mike Geffner, you say, To make art, you need contrast, shadow and light. How do you keep the balance between shadow and light? Are there some poems where light refuses to shine?
BC: Absolutely. I have a number of poems about my first daughter, who died shortly before birth, and they are very dark poems indeed. If I’m ever able to write about my beloved again (right now, I’m in a space that is wordless), I doubt that there will be much light shining there, either.
൪: In “It’s May,” (Some Glad Morning) you bring together praise for the world and what is at stake for the future: Why aren’t we on our knees? Why aren’t we / picketing with placards and day lilies,
demanding / an end to GMOs, a reduction in carbon emissions / and the use of fossil fuels? How does a poet write about beauty and also remain a realist about the current state of affairs?
BC: I love to let the poem have the last word; I don’t think I can say it any better than I did in the poem you just quoted.
and everything we’ve been waiting for opens.
The iris wave their flags, every shade of the rainbow,
and the peonies have unclenched their fists: pompoms
of snowdrift, cherry, carmine; almost too much
to bear. Because the rest of the news is bleak:
arctic ice melting, CO2 at an all-time high,
the Middle East’s a mess, and here, where we’ve
got it all, the Great Divide widens. Somewhere,
there’s a nasty little virus about to go airborne. . . .
But it’s May in the garden, and we’re restored
to Eden. The evening primroses unfold
their four-petaled skirts, ruffled flounces around
the edge of the bed, and the lupines’ spires
sway in the breeze. An Oriental poppy is about
to stamp its orange exclamation mark. And
when they’re done, roses and lilies, then pink
coneflowers, black-eyed Susans, Russian sage.
Why aren’t we on our knees? Why aren’t we
picketing with placards and day lilies, demanding
an end to GMOs, a reduction in carbon emissions
and the use of fossil fuels?
So simple: subsidize sun and wind, not oil and corn.
Is it impossible to plant change? What are we here for,
if not inflorescence? Let’s praise everything, even chiggers,
ticks, and stinkbugs. Let’s sink our feet in the grass,
and bend in the wind.
"It's May" is from Barbara’s most recent book, Some Glad Morning, and re-printed by her permission.
Some Glad Morning, by Barbara Crooker, University of Pittsburgh Press, 2019,ISBN 978-0-82296-592-3, $17.00
൪uartet wishes to thank Barbara for her time and generosity in granting this interview, conducted via email by ൪uartet editor Gail Braune Comorat.
Destiny O. Birdsong
Tin House, 2020
“Reading Negotiations is like grabbing a piece of metal so cold it feels like fire in your palm….a collection that is equal parts pain and power.”
--Josh Cook, Porter Square Books
“Birdsong debuts with an extraordinary string of immaculate, brutal narratives about systemic violence and racism, and their repercussions for Black American women.”
--Maya C. Popa, Publisher’s Weekly
Ariadne Awakens: Instructions for the Labyrinth
Paycock Press, 2021
“This is beautiful, glistening work that keeps resisting our predictions, as in “Answering Machine”: “What I called to tell you can’t be told.” While she (Laura Costas) refuses to relax into settled patterns she gives us luminous shards of possibility as in her “Dream of a song whose lyrics consist entirely of the word Yes.” In poem after poem I kept finding myself voicing a grateful “Yes.”
--Lee Upton, author of Visitations::Stories
Layli Long Soldier
Graywolf Press, 2017
“Writing in a variety of forms and with ferocious precision, Long Soldier uses the grit between the definitions of words in her language and in English….You do not slip into this book on silken bolts of easy beauty, but scratch yourself raw on language disassembled into glittering shards….Magnificent.”
—John Freeman, Los Angeles Times
The Fisher Queen: New & Selected Poems
Salmon Poetry, 2021
“These poems explore the multiple exiles of living in a woman’s body; traversing boundaries of region, nation, and class; and confronting human violations of the natural world. Moving between the quotidian and the mythic, Kirkpatrick’s multi-voiced lyrics constitute a powerful quest.
A younger woman would not have fought these battles, endured, reflected, returned and reclaimed as Kirkpatrick has done. Her poems create a path and a lamp for those women poets who come after her.”