Editor's Note Section
Fall Issue 2023 Volume 3 Issue 3
When I looked into the bowl on my kitchen counter the other day, there was a banana in its birthday suit with a few age spots, but beside it, the shock of a jalapeno pepper, wrinkled and soft. A metaphor for my husband and me? A disconcerting thought. I banished the pepper to the fridge as if that could stall decay, a kitchen cryonics I peered at for a few days, then threw away.
There’s always a bit of what we fear in what we see, but looked at another way, that green pepper still carried the seeds of heat in its decline. We poets have at our disposal such power in that turn; what’s inside—wishes, longing, regret, rage, enriching the whole. This is especially true for those of us who have lived more years than we have left.
For Stanley Kunitz …the crickets trilling / underfoot as if about / to burst from their crusty shells enact the joy and wonder we feel that will outlast us (“Touch Me”).
But we are here now. And here it is again, Rosmarie Waldrop declares, the craving for happiness that night induces (“Aging”).
Morning also renews. For Czeslaw Milosz: I felt a door opening in me and I entered / the clarity of early morning (“Late Ripeness”).
Whatever the hours, we take what they give and hold on. For Kevin Carey, those are:
the markers of a life,
the small worthwhile pieces
that rattle around in my pockets
waiting to be set somewhere in stone.
(“Set in Stone”)
In this issue of Quartet, our contributors share their “worthwhile pieces,” poems that surprise and enrich us.
—Jane C. Miller
What I’m reading now: The Blood of San Gennaro by Scott Harney, The Body Wars by Jan Beatty, Bloodwarm by Taylor Byas.
൪uartet has gone to three issues a year beginning with the January 2023 issue.
Please see the revised submission periods on the Submissions page.
Hearting the Wall
That morning’s theater of overhead clouds
in red dawn was auspicious for a project
and I was there with you under the oaks to build a wall.
The shady edge along the house,
needed protection for a young garden—
already thin blades of camassia just showing,
the blue-gray of dicentra seedlings lifting the leaf litter.
Stones from our fields sat near-by, polished by last night’s rain—
schist, glittering with minerals, the salt and pepper of granite,
basalt which had flowed here as lave
before mastodons browsed our Tualatin hills.
We worked together, our bodies silvering with sweat
and worked some more. I helped like an artist’s muse.
You knew how to stagger the joints with alternate sizes
and narrow the width toward the top—amazing that anything
as awkward as rock could fit together so snug.
I filled the gaps with smaller stones to give our wall
what builders of rock walls have named its heart.
Half-dusk and we called it a day, not finished but already knowing
we had pinned something down. That night, rain pounded on our roof
like a thousand people clapping.
For twenty-seven years, my husband and I farmed a rich piece of the Tualatin Valley in Oregon and most of what I write about is connected in some way to the landscape—the physical challenges, perseverance and solitude required when working land and always the magnificence of the natural world. We now live close to family in upstate New York, but the wall I describe in this poem is as solid to me now as the day the last stone was put into place.
There were intermittent attempts to write over the years but when my husband was diagnosed with terminal cancer I needed to find a way to describe the impact this had on the two of us and our farming life. This led to a book of poetry, Each Leaf Singing (MoonPath Press, 2021). An MFA helped me find several writing communities on both coasts which have pushed me to continue to challenge myself. Like farming, writing is a solitary experience, made more gratifying with encouragement.
Many of the poets whose work I return to, such as Ted Kooser, Larry Levis and Ross Gay, are engaged with the natural world or had some background in agriculture. The landscape for all of them is more than a rhetorical device. It is a way into their story. No doubt I am among a multitude completely captivated the first time they read Mary Oliver’s poem, “Wild Geese.” How could anyone, looking up at that V of bodies in the wide open above their head, not be glad for the world announcing their place in the family of things? Oliver’s advice in “Sometimes” to “Pay attention. / Be astonished. / Tell about it” is good encouragement for writers in any genre.
In our father’s greenhouse, the scent
of marigolds, we sat transplanting with Felicia,
from the Research Farm, who came
at rush times to help. Her eyes reached me
before her story, heard years on:
how in Poland she had been raped again, again
by German soldiers; how she had wanted
to become a nun, but felt too defiled.
Transplanting, unaware, we sensed
only a glad shyness, her care for the fine,
fragile roots of infant flowers. Now,
decades later, one April week we each
recall Felicia. Sal hears her contractor
speaking to the plumber in Polish. Nan reads
reports of the Russians in Ukraine.
And in my neighbor’s hoop house, as I pick
the crisp green fragrant leaves of young
spinach, I see in my worn hands
hers. Our three lives, our separate
timings of sprout and blossom—Felicia
finds us. We say her name.
I love the way a single poem can be like a fruiting body for a whole mycorrhizal web of questions and influences.
When Jan Hutchinson, in one of her daily prompts for the month of April, suggested writing about three of something, I arrived at an early three-ness in my life: the three sisters of whom I am eldest. As it unfolded, the poem found its way to something in our ongoing conversation.
When I discovered the odd coincidence of all of us thinking about Felicia, a Polish refugee, I thought of poet Martha Collins, who encourages us to explore the ways war or sexism or racism have been felt in our own lives. (For example, in many of her own poems Martha has explored her “white” family’s participation in deeply-ingrained conventional racism.) I have never been a soldier on active duty—but my life has been full of the shadow of war, its impact on my family, other families, refugees. So much need in our world—not directly connected to war—goes unmet because of war’s terrible appetite.
In the years since I knew Felicia, so much has happened. I wish I could speak with her now, adult to adult. As I grow older, I feel vividly how a poem, or a grouping of poems, can be a conversation among chapters in a poet’s life, stitching together several selves. I’m so grateful to watch that in the work of poet friends; grateful for that stitching in my own.
On the 33rd Anniversary of my Mother’s Death
A rabbit crossed my lawn last night.
Its footprints like two ghosts—
one set following the other.
Branches snap under wet snow,
their pistol shots resound,
sending crow clouds into flight.
Winter lace brightens mountain peaks,
whitens hemlock and pine.
Christmas card perfect, you might say.
The plum pudding, your recipe, lacked
its ginger kick this year. You looked
over my shoulder, said, don’t cheat
with dried spices! Always direct,
contradictory: Xmas, a hot beach—
such opposites, your favorite occasions.
We braved the North Sea, you never
learned to swim— lips blue
with shivers after twenty minutes.
Stoic, just like your father— a frequent
comment though I grew into an even split.
Today I walked Tadpole Pond—
its sway-backed bridge dipped into water’s
cracked glassine. Mallards studded
the dark mirror, heads submerged, raised
butts like Bishops’ miters. You would
have enjoyed the view, pulled out
a pack of twenty, leaned on the rail.
Chemistry was one of my best subjects. I came to poetry late in life after reading Sylvia Plath’s poem “Ariel.” Initially curious about the influence of a poet’s life on their creative content, I soon focused solely on their work. I was fairly isolated, living on a small farm when I had an insight that sentences were much like chemical equations, but words, as in “the cauldron of morning,” can imply more than one meaning! That’s when I began to write.
My work tends to be sparse and imagist though this particular poem is longer. I’ve painted since childhood so I understand a creative need that demands satisfaction—often a poem will inspire a series of paintings, but rarely the reverse.
The role of cigarettes and their consequences are recurring themes in my family poems. I’ve been working toward a rapprochement in this mother-daughter piece. Our birthdays occur two days apart in March, linked but dissimilar celebrations. The poem addresses my own fragility, invokes my mother’s personality and ends with a reminder that even physicians may have no impact on their loved one’s choices.
Susana H. Case
The Other Couple
The insurance-broker husband, the face-
lifted wife—with whom we share
a guide and driver—don’t like us,
say it’s nothing personal, but
can we please not eat dinner
near them. When we’re at the bar,
they look around, see us, and leave.
Perhaps it’s my tattoo. I dream
that the very large husband falls off
a long boat into the Chao Phraya
and I don’t do anything to save him
from drowning. I wear superhero
spandex and make a choice.
I don’t like rejection.
In daylight, I say, Good morning,
a pity you left last night—
the view of the river
was unforgettable. It’s how I do things—
my smile that means I don’t know
how to fix this, so I will just float by,
like the river, flood their house
and drown their children,
when the opportunity rises,
as it will, along with the water.
I suppose one can characterize at least a part of my poetic practice as “confessional-adjacent,” since I mine my own experience for poems (though I also mine artifacts from archives which have no direct connection to my life). Because “confessional” is a word that has fallen into disfavor, I hesitate to use it. But the poets I currently read tend to also make use of material from their daily lives. I am strongly interested in poets who examine various forms of power inequity and who tell stories.
I’ll give some of the context for writing “The Other Couple.” I was on a month-long trip to Indochina with my spouse. To help with expenses, we shared a guide and driver with another couple whom we did not previously know. We were put together by the travel company. Though the month was unforgettable in many wonderful ways, the relationship with the other couple did not work out. It was clear we were getting on their nerves.
My feelings were hurt, largely because I have been fortunate not to experience very much social rejection in my lifetime. Instead of confrontation, I dealt with my feelings by writing this poem. The other solution we’ve found, in adjusting to the experience, has been humor. The other couple will probably be part of our lives for a while, as we tell jokes about them, until we find something else filled with irony with which to amuse ourselves.
In the poem, I allow my id to run amok. I want to be clear that in my “real” life, I would never do what I imagine doing in my poem.
—Susana H. Case
Pippa Brush Chappell
Torre de Bélem
watching the tide the sky
wives children in the arms of their fathers
creak of timber smell of salt and tar and fish
come back to me volte para mim
women newly with child facing death
his theirs her own
stay away from the edge you'll go over
now there is only the view from here
to the edge of the world
and the relentless thud of my own heart's longing
come back come back come back
watching the weather the horizon the ocean
come back to me from the edge of the world
come back to me a borda do mundo
wind pours in salt in my waiting eyes
your breath catches in my silent throat
new-carved stone rough from the mason's chisel
Bélem birth of our Lord place of beginnings
tower of your going
resurrect yourself come back to me
you are not dead volte you will come back
three days three years three lifetimes
I will wait here eyes on the edge of the world
I could not be yours eu não vou pertencer a mais ninguém
but I will be no one else's
I write both fiction and poetry, although poems are few and far between for me. When I do turn to poetry, I always start with many more words than I end up with: the writing process is mostly editing, cutting, taking out a word here and a word there. The challenge for me is always about trying to make each poem say as much as it can as economically as it can. And place matters: writing poetry in the chaos of family life is too difficult for me, and I find that the silence and space provided by my residencies at Stiwdio Maelor are always so fruitful. Fiction, I can write at home. Poetry requires another space entirely.
Recently, I’ve been revisiting Vikram Seth’s All You Who Sleep Tonight, with its tight rhymes and aching sadness. The final couplet of his poem ‘Soon’ has stayed with me since I first read it, nearly thirty years ago: “Love me when I am dead / And do not let me die.” It is so beautifully simple, yet so utterly devastating. But I also love Carol Ann Duffy’s rich and insightful work, as well as her delicious humour. Her short poem ‘Mrs Icarus’ is just brilliant.
This poem was written at Stiwdio Maelor following a visit to Lisbon. The sixteenth-century Torre de Bélem, on the banks of the Tagus, was the place at which explorers embarked on their perilous voyages. The sense of history there was almost overwhelming, and I sat for a long time wondering what it would have been like to see someone you love sailing towards an uncertain horizon, not knowing whether you would ever see them again – or whether they might, literally, fall off the edge of the world. What would that feel like?
—Pippa Brush Chappell
Blooms Gripped in a Fist
A child’s voice in a documentary long ago,
the narrator asking, as he’ll ask multiple
kids, “What’s it like to be old?”
This boy sits in a small chair, kicking his heels
against the chair leg. Dark hair, dark
eyes that have witnessed. “It’s loose skin.”
Others offer up other answers like a bunch
of blooms gripped in a fist—black-eyed Susans,
bluebells and delphinium, liatris, daffs.
“It’s when you forget a lot.” Or this, seen:
“You walk more slowly.” Or: “You’ve lived through
many wars and many times.” I look down
at my arm, how the skin on the lower part
of my right bicep is wrinkled and ruckled
like the sand along a shore, water gone.
Do I drink my eight to ten glasses a day?
At the park, along the river, I keep up my pace
with a dog—our third one. I know years,
presidents, and wars. Some of our friends, all
of our parents, are no longer walking the earth.
What is it to be old? Another says, cloudy eyes.
The children do not seem afraid. This one says
how his grandmother taught him to make repairs,
to thread a needle and sew a button on a shirt..
They make a few distinctions between what’s seen
and what’s not. A bent back, loose skin, gray
hair, but “my grandfather knows a lot of words.”
To rise each day, living, and breathing.
The children have seen enough; now they dance away,
out of the studio into the bright air.
I’m a big fan of memorizing poetry. I think it’s great ear training if you want to be a poet, or a writer of any kind. Memorizing also allows you to possess a poem, or maybe “inhabit” a poem sounds better, less materialistic. All to the end of teaching you qualities about the poem that are not immediately perceived but come out after much rereading. I once had an old blue Plymouth Valiant station wagon with an unreliable radio. On long distance drives it was helpful to be able to recite poems—to keep me awake, the way as a child I used to sing with my siblings in the car to keep my father awake at the wheel. And I had a wonderful teacher at the University of Washington, poet and scholar Richard Blessing. He walked into class reciting poems and that impressed me so much, I vowed that someday I would do just that. Some poems I have had to memorize and others I learned by heart through teaching them, like Robert Hayden’s wonderful “Those Winter Sundays” or “Traveling Through the Dark” by William Stafford. Others I learned by heart: Wallace Stevens’ “Sunday Morning” and “A Postcard from the Volcano,” Emily Dickinson’s “A narrow Fellow in the Grass,” & “After great pain, a formal feeling comes.” Frost’s “Directive.” Many more. These stay with me like lodestars, like talismans. Studying opening lines, like this from “A Postcard from the Volcano” teaches me technique: how to entice a reader, how to build mystery, how to add tension. “Children picking up our bones / Will never know that these were once / As quick as foxes on the hill.” Wow! What an opening! How did the poet do that? We read—and memorize—to find out.
Returning Home After Two Days with Evelyn
I still feel her mittened hand in mine,
and hear her admonish, as we cross the big street,
Watch out, we don’t want to hit the cars—
an alternate world view I’d never thought of,
a sphere she welcomes me into.
How, when I ask for fun,
Why does the sun go down?, she has a ready answer,
Grandma, because it’s tired,
for which she has ready empathy,
exhausted daily by her growing.
Her intuitive understanding of mortality,
as we form snowballs we name and toss
into the icy river I can’t help seeing as the Ganges;
how she pulls icicles from the beachside cliff,
licks them, like the sweetest lollipop.
Her world of waving at every passing stranger,
and their waving back at us,
serious expressions replaced
with beaming, untired suns,
as is mine, all the time I’m with her.
I’m inspired by spending time with my grandchildren, seeing the world from their perspective, learning from them. They slow me down, remind me to pause, to look, to take in the sunlight on a lake, the sound of a passing truck, to remind me to smell the leaves of a peony, not just the petals.
Once, when very little, Evelyn thought the garbage man was Santa, waved and called him that. He waved back at us and then “Ho Ho Hoed” away, down the road. So, she transforms the world, and it in turn transforms itself. Recently, after watching the British Coronation on TV, she saw a lady outside whose sparkling hair, she thought, made her look like the Queen. We told the lady, who brightened up. I’m sure we made her day! It made me think about how we can all coronate ourselves, a kind of self-blessing.
I’m now compiling a chapbook of grandmother poems. When my children were little, I wasn’t yet writing poetry (I started when I was forty-five, now have ten books published, with more on the way), but I wish I could have transformed into poetry some of the experiences of watching my children grow. Instead, here I am as a grandmother, with a second chance.
After the deluge,
a glaze of aromata: ghosts of sewage haunted
the streets; earthworms that had migrated
to the top of slip-and-slide lawns
curled into sun-dried, decaying disks;
the shells of apple snails collected,
half-crushed and empty of their occupants,
on the brackish banks of the Little River,
where the nests of spiny softshell turtles
had been pounded into yolky shards. Mold
had already started to whisker, bearding the deck.
So many musky missives a flash flood leaves
behind that even while we worried about incursions
of water into underground gas pipes and stalled cars
piled up on highways and an airport that remained
closed, the dogs knew to flop over on their backs,
ears spread out like leaves, eyes rolling in deep
communication, wriggling with the urgency needed
to grind those dispatches into their blood terrain.
No ideas but in things. My first mentor, the late poet and memoirist Deborah Digges, recited this William Carlos Williams quote whenever our lazy undergraduate poems became grandiose and abstract, which was every workshop session, of course. When I was attempting to write this poem, about the historic 25-inch rainfall that flooded Fort Lauderdale in a single day not too long ago, this lesson popped into my head. How to describe the hypothetical—the climate crisis—made factual? Name things. Not just big ones, like cars being swept away. Those were pictures you could get from the media. I heard Deborah, who introduced me to what were then called “agrarian” or “rural” poets (and who would now be called eco-poets) like Wendell Berry, tell me to include the minutiae. Look at the turtle nest on the local beach, she said in my head, and see how the eggs were smashed by the hard-driving rain that wouldn’t let up. She directed my eyes: Note how many worms washed from the earth onto the street and never made it back underground. Deborah was only 59 when she died, reportedly by suicide. As I approach that age, I find myself re-reading her poems, from her earliest to her posthumously published ones. Her perception always seemed beyond her years. I wonder what wisdom she would have granted us had she survived.
With opening line from Rebecca Black
Let me live without lessons.
I’ll burn the schoolhouse down.
What school could house what you
tried to teach me with your fists?
Nights your fists reached me the moon
hid behind clouds in horror.
I hid, like lightning in clouds.
You sensed pressure building.
Animals can sense catastrophe building,
Know to run before the tidal wave breaks.
You broke all of your knowledge on me
That last evening of your freedom.
Let me live without freedom.
I burned your schoolhouse down.
“Knowledge Duplex” sprang out of community. A few years ago, a friend and I started a poetry book club. We had met in a poetry workshop, but realized in our writing lives, we both wanted to read and study major poets. We invited a few poets to join us and started a monthly poetry book club. We’ve studied Dianne Seuss, Kevin Young, Nikki Giovanni, Chris Abani, Marianne Moore, Wallace Stevens, Martha Collins, Ilya Kaminsky, C.D. Wright and others. As a few members left and others came in, we realized we had not all read deeply of each other's work. We set aside one gathering to do just that.
This is how I came to a line by book club member and now friend, writer Rebecca Black: “Let me live without lessons.” I found the line liberating and thrilling, and knew that I wanted to use it in a duplex, with its back and forth rhythm. Aren’t we all often being taught, being told? How maddening it is sometimes, how oppressive. Sometimes I long to live without lessons, without freedom, to burn the schoolhouse down.
Eve F. W. Linn
Stieglitz Recalls An Argument, New York City, Summer 1918
after Alfred Stieglitz
I'm sure it was Japanese,
that kimono, a peace offering
after an argument, just crossed over
your breasts like wings or maybe
just the pattern of flying cranes
said to be auspicious.
As you lounged, you odalisque,
I remember the pale oval
of your face brushed with brows
your unbound hair
trailed down your arms––
those wild mustangs of your girlhood
your clavicles, your neck urgent
taut with muscles
you did not want me
so I sat in the straight chair
watched steel going up
beam upon beam girder to girder
your hands almost serene
“Stieglitz Recalls An Argument, New York City, Summer 1918” is one of an ongoing series of poems about women artists. I am drawn to write these lyric biographies as a way of finding out more about these women and their lives. In my MFA program I was introduced to the ekphrastic genre and found it to be one of my favorite ways of writing, as it incorporated my earlier background as a visual artist. The poet, Linda Bierds, was a great influence, as she manages to capture the lives of a range of historical figures in indelible images. Her poem, “Thinking of Red,” about Marie Curie is one of my favorite examples of how every element contributes to the whole.
In this poem, the photograph was taken by Stieglitz as one of many hundreds of images he made of his wife, Georgia O’Keeffe, before they lived apart. I particularly like this image because it shows O’Keeffe before she became famous, as a young woman, in an intimate pose, but still directly confronting the viewer. She is already a commanding presence. I took liberties with the backstory, because the portrait itself is silent. I expanded the narrative and introduced an element of tension— was there an argument or not?
—Eve F. W. Linn
stands for Christ whom Lula sought all her life, she who sat with back as upright as a pew, who recited Bible verses as if she were their author, who in her widowhood went to the auction house
with her tobacco bales, stood with fingers crossed and closed her eyes in long blinks, praying the
same prayer she prayed always: Help me do this, Lord. Help me.
equals the unknown that must be solved for. What then is the meaning of life, of a life, of her
life, her childhood spent not behind a desk or running through fields of flowers but working off
her illegitimacy in a boardinghouse?
marks the spot where she is buried. I Find a Grave, stare at the stone as if I stood again on that
fertile ground, in the dry grass that bristles, in the drench of heat, cicadas so loud you don’t hear
the passing cars or the twitter of birds in pines. Here lies a stop on the journey stretching from
the beginning of humankind to my own life. All of the variables. If she and he hadn’t—at that moment—then the birth of my grandmother—she, married—and my mother—who survived her mother’s uncertainty and was nevertheless taken care of and grew into someone who did want to
be a mother—and if she and my father hadn’t chosen that particular point in time––This
unknown plus that unknown begets another unknown.
is the name of a generation, of my generation. The world labeled us all—in our 20s—apathetic.
They said we were unknowable. Or not worth knowing. One dictionary states bluntly: “typically perceived to be disaffected and directionless.” We were held up against the revered Greatest Generation and the Baby Boomers handed much to fight for and rebel against. We are the grandchildren and children of gold and silver forebears, and we are tin in comparison.
signifies Death. Crossbones. Arms crossed over breasts. Cartoon characters died with Xs over their eyes, and we laughed. When both parents die, you are no one’s daughter anymore. Your feet
walk on towards destiny, towards the day someone wonders where your soul has gone and what
your life signified. They will seek to solve for the unknown that was you.
is the letter Lula signed her marriage license with, a shaky, ill-formed X at that as if no one had
ever asked anything of her before. X was the only letter she knew, and, proud or stubborn or
scared, she never asked a soul to teach her the rest, to show her how to put them together so that
she could read on paper the words memorized in her mind, the ones that slipped off her tongue
when she told and retold stories, the ones on the thin, whispery pages of the family Bible she
would hold, heavy, in her lap; words she could have used to write letters across the miles to
where her daughter lived: Dear Maggie, We are all fine here. It will be time to harvest soon.
How are you and the children? I wish you could see my ferns and flowers. When we pull up in
the yard after church, it looks like the whole porch is blooming. It’s a sight. Write soon. Love,
Although I never heard that my great-grandmother was an unhappy woman, I ache when I think of her going through life without being able to read. I have loved language and books since my mother read to me as a child, and when she lay dying last year, seemingly unaware of what was going on around her, the hospice nurses assured us that she still heard us, and so I read to her—poetry and the first chapters of a novel she had loved as a child.
There is so much I want to know about the past, about the lives that have led to my own—and so much of it will never be known. As I grow older and as I accept—reluctantly—having lost both my parents in the last four years, my poems have become “visits” with family I never got the chance to know, or knew but perhaps not well enough before they were gone. I visit, both to know them better and to give them voices, imaginary as those voices may be.
I read poetry as I have read everything in my life—with reckless abandon. Discovery of one poet leads to another. A few of the poets I read to understand craft while also seeking beauty and wisdom are Adrienne Rich, Jane Kenyon, Natasha Tretheway, Michael Longley, and Ted Kooser.
I am fortunate to share my days and nights with a painter. Richard has taught me to see in different ways than ones that come naturally to me. I cherish our talks about creativity—its rewards and frustrations—and how our explorations are different and yet the same. As Leonardo da Vinci said, “Painting is poetry that is seen rather than felt, and poetry is painting that is felt rather than seen.”
You Drive but You Can’t See
The brain is locked in total darkness—Anthony Doerr
A pool of shade, and I’m blinded.
The retinal screen
goes gray, the photoreceptors
are silent. The world
the mind believes in
imagines a deer
leaping into the edge.
Hold onto your seat.
A curve at sixty miles
per hour. No brake time.
Only a held breath—
an act of faith?
will see us
back to the light.
I am always looking for literature that goes beyond the human drama, taking me out of myself into a place of wider perspective, calming my anxieties about our current troubles and giving me hope for the future. Two books of poetry on my current shelf are Dawn Chorus by Alice Pettway, and Dear Specimen by W.J. Herbert. They do that trick for me. The quote in “You Drive but You Cannot See” is from Doerr’s novel All the Light We Cannot See, one of my favorites for its historical context and gorgeous language. A number of years ago I developed wet macular degeneration and despite excellent medical care the possibility of partial blindness exists to the point where reading might become impossible. To mine this situation for poetry, I’ve done lots of research on eye anatomy, but this poem comes out of the experience of driving back roads in the Pacific Northwest on the way to and from trailheads. Those panicked moments travelling between light and darkness seem like a microversion of the possibilities I face.
Driving to Chemo, Early Morning
at a flock of snowy egrets,
flying in the bluest sky.
They line up
like a knotted string of pearls,
strewn across my windshield.
Vagrants, like me,
they were blown off course,
traveling a long distance
to find themselves here,
only the glass dividing us.
We've met this way
for months now.
As I drive from the mountain
to the sea,
they journey from silty tidal flats
to tall mangrove trees.
The sky is my church
and they are my familiar friends,
my prayer beads,
my congregation in white.
in the face of uncertainty.
I came to poetry in fits and starts. I toyed with the idea of being a 'poet' but never seemed to have/make time for a disciplined practice. I fantasized that I would actually have the time and inclination to do so with retirement in 2020 from my County of Hawaii job. But it took a second breast cancer diagnosis in 2022 and a simultaneous, serendipitous posting about Molly Fisk's Poem-a-Day group on Facebook for me to get serious. I have been writing with them online for a little over a year now and I truly believe it saved me. What a lovely, talented and supportive assemblage of human beings! I seem to respond well to prompts, I like the idea of 'solving a puzzle,' so to speak, and being accountable to the group. It has helped me immensely, both in shaping my voice and writing consistently.
I have lived on both coasts and the Midwest, currently from Volcano, Hawaii. I have been an artist's model, a modern dancer, a massage therapist, waitress, house cleaner, census taker, and honorably discharged Air Force veteran. So I guess I have a lot of raw material! This poem came from my recent breast cancer battle. I would say that Mary Oliver brought me to poetry as a young adult. But every day I read someone else's work that catches in my throat and makes me sit very still, eyes closed. And every day I get to wake up and be a poet. What a blessing.
—Shaun R. Pankoski
When my body no longer contained his
I made a point of taking him out to the sandy spit
where I walked days he was becoming somebody.
I won’t say when god was making him—mouth,
eyes, limbs, heart—because I can now admit
I don’t believe, the way I can now admit this:
I didn’t recognize myself after his body left my body.
At the spot where the Sound wraps around
the point—where loose logs, deadheads, culls
once washed up from the old Pope & Russell
sawmill—there’s now a fancy inn, condos. I missed
the flutter, even his sharp ankles, or was it a fist,
between my ribs. A thousand iridescent mussel
shells, split open, soft bodies pilfered by gulls.
Like many women I put writing on the back burner while raising children and working full time. My writing hiatus lasted twenty years and, as odd as it may sound, I was inspired to return to poetry after seeing the movie Julie & Julia. Instead of tackling a Julia Child recipe every day for a year and blogging about it as Julie did in the film, I wrote a poem a week for two years and shared it on a blog. At the same time I started attending a local writer’s workshop where I became part of a community of other writers.
While writing is largely a solitary endeavor I have found that the company of other writers is a necessary ingredient in my writing life. Together, we workshop our poems, cheer acceptances and encourage each other when the rejections inevitably arrive. Since rekindling my writing life I’ve had work in many wonderful journals and published two full-length poetry collections both after the age of sixty.
My poem, “Missing,” is a postpartum reflection thirty years after the birth of my first child. Sometimes the passage of time allows us to write about something that went unsaid and unacknowledged for decades.
Kristin Camitta Zimet
PRACTICE DOES NOT MAKE PERFECT
Nobody tells you, or it won’t sink in—grief gets
stuck. Not like training wheels that come off,
finally, when the hands that steady you let go,
and you are done with gravity, with picking
gravel from your knees, and you can fly, standing
on the pedals, both hands in the air. You’re more
kin to the black lab pushing sore hips to hinge,
circling on the bed that’s getting harder, flopping
to a new position. Never quite closing her eyes.
And yet at 70, you have to learn to do it, grieve,
like practicing your great-grandmother’s tongue.
It’s part of your inheritance, but so unnatural,
you can’t imagine fluency, although you find
sometimes you’re praying in it, this time let me
settle, let me roll forward. Is this your voice,
grunts and whimpers in the back of the throat?
Alphabet unfamiliar, root words unknowable.
The verbs wrong, too many tenses for the past.
What can you do but growl the syllables until
they sort of start to have a resonance, a meaning
builds, you give up but almost begin to guess.
What can you do but brush at your torn pants,
straighten the bent handlebars, maybe weave
a playing card into the back spokes so for ten
seconds, twenty, your bike revs the runway,
is a jet? What can you do but gather yourself
to make room this time, each time the dog thuds
down and sighs nearly to sleep against your knees?
On certain evenings my mother and father, each with a book, would sit on facing love seats before the unlit fireplace. Poetry was the fire. My mother often chose Robert Browning’s soliloquies; my father liked Elizabeth Barret Browning’s love sonnets. They would take turns reading aloud, smiling, sighing, letting words sink in.
This was an anomaly. We did not talk about feelings in my house; we talked about ideas and achievements. My mother did not say, “I love you”; she taped approving words to the foot of my bed. As a child, then, this sharing of poems was the most intimate act I witnessed.
From it I understood that poetry was both manly and womanly. It was a grownup thing. More than beautiful, it mattered. You came back to it and leaned on it. Poetry was connective, and it filled out what was hiding in plain sight. Poems, like people, had layers—what they said, what they revealed without saying, what they brought into being. I saw that as a poet I too might own the complex and unsayable. And I might be heard.
I began to write at age six. Passion was not seemly in my family, but it was the native condition of the poets I loved and followed. I still vibrate with Roethke, his urgency, This urge, wrestle, resurrection of dry sticks, / lopped limbs struggling to put down life…(“Cuttings”), and his embrace of the imperfect and ambiguous, Light takes the tree, but who can tell us how? (“The Waking”). I still share with Hopkins how passion struggles with discipline and how we revel in the living texture of language. And I hope, with every poem I write, people will sit down together and read it aloud.
—Kristin Camitta Zimet
Walking, I pick up a stone
and burnish its flanks with a bit of old flannel.
It’s dense and heavy, smooth
as a tusk, with the vague shape
of an elephant — here a trunk, here an ear.
How will the wild gold swath
of dry grasslands suffer
the silence of trumpets gone to ground,
weeping that echoes
when the herds are dust?
I was walking on a beach in Baja California, picking up stones that appealed to me. I was about to return to our campsite when one more stone called Me! Me! Out of the corner of my eye I caught a glimpse of its smooth surface and dusky green color. California serpentine. My hands were full, but I managed to add it to the pile I carried. I didn’t look at it closely until later, when I noticed that different faces of the stone took the shapes of different views of an elephant’s head — ear, trunk, eye. I love elephants. Some time later, in a workshop with Dorianne Laux, following a prompt to write about an object using “Acorn” by Phillis Levin as a model, I started this poem. The early drafts had way more story and description that got weeded out. The resulting poem is vastly different from the model, but “Acorn” is what gave me the start.
I had the opportunity to study with Ellen Bass for years, when she was holding class for a group of us in her home. I’ve also taken part in many workshops with Marie Howe, Dorianne Laux, and Joseph Millar, all of whose work I love and turn to often, along with that of Sharon Olds, Ross Gay, Jane Hirshfield, Wendell Berry, Ada Limón, and Jack Gilbert.
I believe in the value of learning poems by heart. Some of the ones I hold inside are “Failing and Flying” (Jack Gilbert), “Kindness” (Naomi Shihab Nye), “The Peace of Wild Things” (Wendell Berry), “Love after Love” (Derek Walcott), “Those Winter Sundays” (Robert Hayden), and “Beach Roses” (Mark Doty). I love Marie Howe’s “Singularity,” but haven’t felt brave enough to try learning that one by heart. Maybe someday.
All Editor's Choice poems from Summer Issue 2022 through Fall Issue 2023 will automatically be entered in our single-poem contest. Winner to be announced in Winter Issue 2024.
~ ~ ~
• In "Examination," Christine Butterworth-McDermott offers a clinic in close-looking; with facts buoyed by sensory detail, she bears witness to what can be felt and still be unknown.
—Jane C. Miller
In the exam room, there’s a picture
of a Japanese garden and an easy chair.
I sit, draped only in a crisp paper gown.
Earlier today I read that chickadees see
more colors than human beings. This empty
garden needs a chickadee. The coldness
of the room keeps the machine
from overheating. This machine can see
inside my body down to the less-than-pinprick
lump, becoming god-knows-what on a head
of a pin, or the underside of my right breast.
Tell me, invisible bird, can you flit in
to see that egg shape I cannot feel
with my fingertips? Will you sing to me
if you do? In this moment, I do not own
my own body’s wings. The paper crackles.
The nurse says, raise your arm, scoot
toward the machine. Let your breast perch
on this edge. Hold your breath. Just a moment.
Until the picture is done. I cannot hear anything
beyond mechanical whirring. Not even
my own heart beating. Surrender is a three-syllable
word like chickadee. I try to imagine the warmth
of gardens. The flutter of paper fans, the small
twitter of a bird, the thumping between
my ribcage. Lay your right breast
on the platform. Lay it down, specimen
on glass. Lay it down until there is only
stillness without hum.
I often use facts from the natural world to discuss difficult situations in life since they provide excellent metaphors for human experience. I deeply admire the poets Aimee Nezhukumatathil and Ada Limón, who are able to do this so skillfully. I experimented extensively with metaphors centered on poisonous plants and healing herbs for my last book, The Spellbook of Fruit and Flowers.
This poem began when I discovered that chickadees have extra color receptors which allow them to see ultraviolet light. Scientists believe that the sensitivity to that spectrum beyond visible light helps them to survive. Shortly after learning this, I had to have a follow-up for an abnormal mammogram. As every woman who’s had one knows, a mammogram can be awkward and uncomfortable, requiring an odd dance with the x-ray machine as it crushes the breast to get a picture of the fatty tissue within. Dreading the process, I longed to be outdoors instead and thought of flowers, sunlight, and birds. As the technician told me to hold my breath for the x-ray, I suddenly remembered the chickadee and how its vision, like the x-ray, detects things the human eye can’t.
I was deeply worried, so I tried to calm myself with meditative breathing, a technique I learned from Dan Harris’ Ten Percent Happier app. I reminded myself that the smallest details in life matter, especially “the thumping between my ribcage,” and that every emotion passes, including fear. The struggle was to surrender control until I could see the entire picture. What was in my breast turned out to be a cyst—but I know other women have felt this panic, and I felt an obligation to say, “Yes, I’ve been scared, too. Listen, let me tell you about the chickadee.”
• Why I love this poem: because it has pain and yet hope, fear and yet hope, reality and yet hope.
—Wendy Elizabeth Ingersoll
Letter to Whom I Might Have Been
When your sister returns
home to your parents
her life a fractured bone, her children
scattering through the house:
teach them to become
not a quarrel, but flight,
disappearing in feathers, air, sun.
In a decade she'll be dead and her children
will limp through life. You
will flee around the world
beyond homes, through men,
an open-ended ticket in hand,
till you circle back home
where your brother has begun
his slow drowning
in a bottle, the worm
his mascot and witness to the night
he will disappear.
You can't change your sister's coming car accident.
But maybe you can change your brothers' direction.
Hold his hand. Teach him
to shutter his wings against his body,
to let wind and rain
scatter across his bowed head,
swaying with the gusts
so he will stand, eventually,
until the air is gentle again.
You know how to do this.
You learned how flight sometimes means
standing still and bracing yourself,
waiting for gentleness and kindness
until moonlight welcomes you
home, together, into a flock of stars.
Poetry, for me, is a tool for survival. I read it to share others’ emotions and lives and to know I am not alone in my own human experiences. I hope other people gain those same things from my poetry. I write to work through my emotions and life. Also, I believe poetry is the soul of the culture/language it was written in, and I hope my poetry represents that.
This poem is from a book I’ve been writing for about five years on grief. (The book is complete, but I’m still organizing it.) The poem is about the deaths of my sister and brother and how those deaths resonated in my family. It’s a letter to my much younger self, before those deaths.
• “Might” is a poem of comfort with its message that we are not alone in musings of this event that shadows the aging process. Parrish’s poem dwells not only in the possibility of falling but also in the understanding communion with another living creature.
Anne Leigh Parrish
In the store held by fluorescent light and a squeaky cart
I thought I might fall
Hip down first, then shoulder
Then my mad, wild head
I’d like to lie on the scarred tile while folks
Rush and run
Someone’s jacket a pillow
All eyes on me
Should I struggle to rise I would be denied
Begged to lie still
In the raftered ceiling
Roosts a trapped bird
Worn from seeking a way out
Its beady eye might meet my bleary one
As if to say, See how it is to fly no more
My poem “Might” plays on the word itself, “might” as a possibility and “might” as power, in this case, power that is fleeting or lost. The other day I noticed a bird in the rafters of my local home improvement store and wondered how it felt, finding its way in but not back out. Then only a few weeks later, I saw another bird in the same situation in my favorite grocery store. It probably has a good source of food and water, I thought, but doesn’t it feel odd being trapped in this new, artificial human environment? The question of kinship, of similarity and shared fate is something I explore often in my poetry and this idea presented itself clearly. While I’m not what I consider to be old, I’m surely no longer young, and I could take a tumble one of these days, pushing my cart up the pasta aisle. Would the bird look down on me in such a situation and feel something like compassion? Or would it observe me with the same flat view it takes in everything else we strange creatures do? In any case, I feel sure it would want to communicate something to me, not necessarily kind or even witty, only that it, too, in that moment might recognize our shared circumstance.
Endless thanks for including me in ൪uartet.
—Anne Leigh Parrish
• Each repetition of “Denise” in this poem broke my heart a little. Although the story is told through gossip and observation, Lisa Zerkle gives us room to imagine how vulnerable a girl might feel from so much attention. And she gives us hope with Mrs. Polly, the kind of woman every girl needs at that tender age.
—Gail Braune Comorat
The boys muttered her name under their breath punctuated with heh-hehs.
The boys put heavy emphasis on the second syllable. Da-NEECE.
After she walked past, Eric cracked Da-NICE. The boys punched each other and laughed.
Denise had long, dark lashes and a quick smile.
Denise lived in an apartment with her mom.
Ginger said her big sister said Denise was easy.
Tonya said Coach Armstrong was always extra sweet to Denise if you know what I mean.
The boys were all short.
The boys combed their hair straight down over their eyes, eyes squinting out under the fringes.
Denise wore designer jeans. Gloria Vanderbilt gleamed from her back pocket.
Denise wore Dr. Pepper Lip Smackers, the tube tucked in the coin pocket under the gold-
Denise wore a bra, the white strap evidence spied through the fabric on the back of her shirt.
Denise had her ears pierced, silver crescent moon on one lobe, silver star on the other.
Denise already had braces.
Denise already had boobs, ping-pong-ball size, said the boys.
Tracy said she heard Denise frenched Eric last Saturday.
Shari said she heard Denise let Eric feel her up.
Mrs. Polly told Mrs. Brooks Denise was precocious.
Mrs. Polly told Denise she could ask her for supplies.
At recess, Mrs. Polly told us to stop gossiping like a bunch of old biddy hens.
We whispered stories about kissing with braces, that the metal would lock you together
We wondered what the difference was between making out and making love.
We watched the boys watch Denise.
We watched Denise.
“Denise,” among other poems in my manuscript-in-progress, arose in response to reading Girlhood, the remarkable memoir by Melissa Febos. That book examines the enormous pressure society puts on girls as they come of age, a pressure many are ill-equipped to handle. Reflecting on memories of that time in my own life provided the grist for this poem.
Other reading that informs my practice includes following a poet’s work across their career to appreciate how their art evolves. Most recently this includes returning to Gabrielle Calvocoressi’s The Last Time I Saw Amelia Earhart, Apocalyptic Swing, and Rocket Fantastic.
Guest Essay: Fleda Brown
The following essay is reprinted from Fleda Brown’s bi-weekly blog My Wobbly Bicycle. In it she muses on how the space we occupy might influence the space our poems live in.
Brown is professor emerita at the University of Delaware, and past member of the faculty at Rainer Writing Workshop (Pacific Lutheran University, Tacoma, WA). She was Delaware’s Poet Laureate from 2001 to 2007, and is the author of ten poetry collections, two memoirs, and a collection of essays. In addition, essays from My Wobbly Bicycle were collected in a print edition titled My Wobbly Bicycle: Meditations on Cancer and the Creative Life (2016, Mission Point Press).
If you would like to sign up for her blog, email her at email@example.com
or at firstname.lastname@example.org.
I’ve been thinking about how the shapes we live in change us. Including the shapes poems live in. Last Saturday I taught a 3-hour Zoom workshop on this. We looked at some poems, then we looked at them again, changed into different forms: couplets, prose poems, ragged lines, etc. “I didn’t realize how much the meaning of the poem is altered by its shape,” one student said.
I’ve also been thinking about this because in a month or so, we’ll be moving to what I fondly call our elder- commune, the “Residential Club” at the far end of our huge building. We’ll be selling our 2000 sq ft condo with the soaring ceilings, storing much of our furniture and books, and camping out in a tiny little apartment for maybe as much as a year until a good-sized two bedroom one comes open.
I am obsessed with spaces and arrangements, with both poems and apartments. I wake up trying to fit more furniture into the space we’ll have. To make matters worse, we’re not entirely sure which unit we’ll get! We have one reserved, but we could get a slightly better one. I incessantly see apartments in my mind’s eye! They float there, shapeshifting, merging. And where will we put X? Can we get along without Y?
Poems, I tend to write short and tight and expand afterward. I like the feeling of pressure in the poem. Think Hopkins. Think Dickinson. There I am, in the small bedroom I shared with my sister for a number of years. The dresser had three middle drawers. The top one, I put a cardboard divider down the middle. Did I really put a piece of tape down the middle of the room to show whose side was whose? If I didn’t, I thought about it. So many reasons I like things contained, small (think my beloved Prius, now owned by my grandson). You could psychoanalyze me all day. I ordered a set of three jewelry holders that can fit in the bathroom cabinet we’ll take with us. “You’re having so much fun,” Jerry said, watching me arrange earrings.
I guess I should be sad, leaving this glorious space. But honestly, I am feeling good about giving up a lot of stuff. It feels heavy, owning things. The time when I moved from the house I’d spent so much energy improving into an apartment, I did feel pain, for sure, a pain all tangled up with the pain of the divorce. But once I got settled, there was a lightness. I didn’t need very much after all.
But the question remains, how does the shape people and poems live in change them? Is it the same poem, or person, if it’s in a different container? Or, really is there any such thing as a container, or are the outer walls simply a manifestation of the inner?
My astrological container. Cancer. Self-protective as a crab. Check. Highly sensitive to my environment. Check. Weaving seamlessly between emotional and material realms. Probably. Domestically oriented. Check. Love to create cozy, safe spaces that serve as their personal sanctuaries, then spend lots of time in them. Check. Care deeply about their families and are quick to adopt caregiver roles. Check.
Poems in general: their very nature is contained, self-protective. Otherwise, wouldn’t they decide to be short stories, novels? They pretty much explore inwardly, downwardly, like a microscope. When they sprawl, there is a breathlessness involved. Take Ginsburg, take C.D. Wright, take A.R. Ammons, etc. There’s a sense of transgressing, of emotional risk. It feels that way to me.
Poem as electron microscope—a stream of electrons is accelerated toward the specimen. This stream is confined and focused using metal apertures and magnetic lenses into a thin, focused, monochromatic beam. Key words: confined, focused. That’s how you see what can’t be seen on the surface.
Poems and lives are rubber-bands. They seem to adjust to what’s spoken deeply, under the words, under the actions.
I’ll keep reporting on this as our space shrinks. Maybe my voice will get very small.
The Hooded Merganser Cure
Even before I opened my eyes this morning,
there was the hooded merganser. I don’t know why.
Then I saw it, its snow white collapsible crest.
Then Ollie scooched up from his nest at the bottom of the bed
and the merganser flew off. The scrim between
inside and outside is delicate.
The hooded merganser is sometimes called a frog duck
because of its long guttural call that can be heard
a half mile away. That’s what I read but have
never heard. They are the only ducks that eat mostly fish.
Think of what my mind has built now:
the hood, the snow, the frog, the call, the fish.
I forgot Ollie. He hasn’t forgotten me. He plays with my nose.
Don’t you love the name hooded merganser?
My mind sorted through to find a word
that would start my day happily. That would stand for
the strangeness, for the web that stretches from
there to here, gathering its objects.
Even the mouth, bless it, kissing the streamlined sounds.
Yesterday I was sad, but today I fluff the hood
and go on into whatever range is still left for me.
൪uartet wishes to thank Fleda Brown for her generosity in granting permission to reprint My Wobbly Bicycle, 239. Her poem "The Hooded Merganser Cure" makes its premier appearance in this issue 0f ൪uartet.
The Hill We Climb
Viking Books, 2021
They don't come very often, these moments of incandescence where the welter of pain and suffering
gives way to hope. Maybe even joy...
That is the power of poetry. And that is the power we collectively witnessed ... on January 20, 2021.
The day Amanda Gorman. profoundly presenting her fullest, most radiant self, rose to the micro-
phone and the Moment . . . giving us the gift of "The Hill We Climb."
—excerpts from the foreword by Oprah Winfrey
a more perfect Union
Teri Ellen Cross Davis
Mad Creek Books, an Imprint of
the Ohio State University Press, 2021
ISBN: 978-0-8142-5778-4 (paperback)
ISBN: 978-0-8142-8089-8 (ebook)
“‘I have become an ordering of the unpredictable,’ Teri Ellen Cross Davis writes in the poem ‘The Goddess of Blood,’ and she could be describing her own work: unpredictable in the best sense, ordering chaos as the best poetry must do. This is an important collection, full of anger and tenderness and a sure command of language.”