Editor's Note Section
Spring Issue 2022 Volume 2 Issue 2
Writing poems about writing poems / is like rolling bales of hay in Texas. / Nothing but the horizon to stop you.
Those are the first three lines of Ruth Stone’s poem “Always on the Train.” She was a master of observation.
When Stone was in her 90s she told author Elizabeth Gilbert (Eat, Pray, Love) that when working in the fields of Virginia as a young girl she could feel a poem coming. “It was like a thunderous train of air and it would come barreling down at her over the landscape,” said Gilbert in her TED talk.
Later in the same poem, Stone wrote: What is so innocent as grazing cattle? / If you think about it, it turns into words. She is telling us not to just glance at something but to deeply study it. Think about it and it will reveal the poem.
In a workshop a few years ago, the teacher sent all of us outside with instructions to find something that caught our eye; to study that subject, really look at it and then begin to write down what we saw. He was telling us what Stone was telling us in her poem. Look at something, write what you see and prepare to receive the poem.
Consider the lines from Carol Frost’s poem “To Kill a Deer,” Into the changes of autumn brush / the doe walked, and the hide, head and ears were the tinsel browns. / They made her. The poem begins with a description of a beautiful creature. We are captivated and due to Frost’s observant eye we want to follow the poem to where it leads us, which is to the manner of the animal’s death.
Or the opening lines of Gerry LaFemina’s “After Reading Rexroth I Step Outside,” Low moon tonight and nearly full. / See how it illuminates the alien bodies of mushrooms / colonizing the weedy lawn. And then a few lines later in the poem, their fibrous necks lifting up their heads so they seem to look / in wonder.
LaFemina’s poem starts as a hunt for morels but ends with finding something totally unexpected and shocking. It was the study of the mushrooms that led him to the poem’s end.
Observe. Write the details of what you see. Receive the poem.
My wish for all of us is that we ride that thundering train right to the end of the line, writing down what we see along the way.
What I’m reading: All of It Singing by Linda Gregg; Ubasute by Aaron Caycedo-Kimura; In the Next Galaxy by Ruth Stone.
First Day at the Center
for the Study of War
Across the wide room, someone—
a man—says the impact of war
falls heaviest on women,
on wives of men who are
drinking themselves to sleep.
Mine is not the only sharp
intake of breath. And daughters.
Behind me, a woman’s voice, “But
we shine the armor, admire
the fine postures in the parade.”
And keep the body of suffering
buried. The tally of our own
breakage blank. Quick tears
thicken my throat. None of that
helped my father much.
After I retired from teaching, one of my consolations became the summer writing workshops at Boston’s William Joiner Center for the Study of War and Social Consequences. I wanted help
writing about my father’s war and its shadow, and found that—thunderclap!—from the first day,
from other daughters of veterans, from veterans of more recent wars, from visiting Vietnamese writers. When Fred Marchant, an especially helpful mentor, grinned at us all as he thought about
the pleasure of a new draft, I thought about my own slow, persistent approach to writing. I was
there not only to begin holding in some calm the pain and damage of my father’s war; I was there to honor the search for help from others. To keep writing my way around the corner, into a new
We Wore Dresses
We wore them everywhere. Learned the lay of the land
in them. They reigned in our closets.
Every day to school we wore them. On the tricky bars,
stifling the urge to hang from the natural
bend of our knees.
Scenting starch and cotton, we learned division in them.
In sashes and wide hems, diagramed sentences,
our legs crossed stony tight because of them—
down the dead-end streets
where prepositional phrases and adverbs belonged.
In dresses we were careful, won few scars or bruises,
collected even fewer tales of swift licks, shattered bones.
No scrabbling to the rescue in a dress,
or scorching to home base.
We played jacks with bouquets of skirt bunched
in the V of our legs.
Simple dresses covered complex bodies, dresses
with puffed sleeves, gathered skirts, pleats like Japanese fans.
We were gardens of angel trumpets, fuchsia, inverted tulips.
Lithe teenage bodies in baby dolls, twirly skirts, sheaths.
They lavished us with long, elegant versions
for balls and proms—
satin and glitter, chiffon and shine.
How exquisite we felt—our throats bared and blushed;
the way, with our fingertips, we lifted the skirts like ladies.
How disarmed we were,
our soft flesh belted,
an orchid stuck near our made-up faces, perfumed
and pinned carelessly close to our hearts.
In many ways “We Wore Dresses,” reflects my “boomer” background and illustrates why I didn’t
begin writing until mid-life. I didn’t have the opportunity to go to college earlier, but after marriage when my last child, one of five, began kindergarten, I began. I graduated the year my oldest enrolled at the same university. “We Wore Dresses” is the introductory poem of the manuscript I am
My admiration of good poetry and metaphor was awakened in a first writing class when I was introduced to Elizabeth Bishop and her poem “First Death in Nova Scotia” with “little cousin Arthur” and his coffin being “a little frosted cake.” I also admired Sylvia Plath and, in addition to her apt metaphor usage, learned about the personal poem which struck an early and lasting chord.
Besides writing about my own life’s experiences, my children and grandchildren are where I find my best inspiration. I have recently discovered Frannie Lindsey, Faith Shearin, Ada Limón, and I especially like Barbara Crooker. From her, I’m also discovering new ways to bring visual art into the personal poem.
Linda Hillman Chayes
Before memory becomes a puzzle, I need to sift through the
mementos on my bulletin board, each photo layered.
Bored, I peel photo layered on photo until here—you
two latched to my side like lichen to a tree.
I liken a tree to a young mother in a navy polka-dotted dress.
Some islands have rifted from continents though they may share a plate.
I should have taught you two to put your plates in the sink.
There are countless things I never expected.
One never counts on losing track of memory
or having to teach what you were never taught.
My mother taught that we are all barrier islands.
My daughter now wears my polka-dotted dress.
I wear my age like a dress that no longer fits
and stand on shifting plates that fit together like puzzles.
Writing this poem was a playful, joyful experience which is not the case with every poem. After reading Jericho Brown’s book The Tradition, I was inspired to try the form he invented, the Duplex.
He describes it as a combination of sonnet, ghazal and the blues. The rules of repetition made the poem a type of word puzzle. The images of the islands rifting from continents and the photos on a bulletin board gave me visual metaphors for these “puzzles.” The Duplex allows for both repetition
as well as huge leaps from one end-stopped line to the next. It allowed me to travel across three generations and from kitchen plates to geological plates in fourteen lines.
“You Two” is one of my many poems exploring the complexities of forging an identity in
relationship to family over the generations. As I age, memory has also emerged as a thread in my poems. When I am not writing poetry, I work as a psychoanalyst. The theme of reconciling past and present infuses my work in therapy as well as my poetry.
I have always been drawn to finding the message behind the message, to accessing what is unknown
or at least not conscious. Often the revelations are emotionally powerful and freeing. Both poetry
and psychoanalysis take me to these places, and I feel incredibly lucky to have these two venues for expression and creativity in my life.
Thank you to ൪uartet for requesting these reflections.
—Linda Hillman Chayes
At the Royal Theater matinee
the J from JAWS hung from the marquee
like a hook all that summer.
The balconies were corded off.
The chandelier had only three lit bulbs.
We pawed popcorn in our lip-glossed mouths.
The spider-haired, blazered manager would lean
on the ripped, wall-papered walls
to listen to our screams.
We got to know the lines
and shouted with Roy Scheider,
“GET OUT OF THE WATER!”
As the stream of film flitted
over our shoulders, we understood
fear was the blue horizon, everything ahead.
On the Cape, my long-legged daughter,
just the age I was that summer,
dives through the waves to get farther out.
The whistle blows, the black shark flag is raised.
I never thought how the earth itself might change.
Now sharks swim across what used to be
a too cold shelf of blue, following
an amorphous, yearning group of seals,
who love the thinning shore, who colonize their doom.
At least once a day, the shark horn blows.
Heated by memory, I scream to my daughter
“GET OUT OF THE WATER!”
She slinks up from farther and underneath
and glistens in the Wellfleet sun,
flipping her wet hair back, rolling her eyes.
After the movie, on humid Bloomfield Avenue
the girls and I would walk together,
hoping to see someone who would see us,
like an incarnation, really.
Now, my daughter has turned to flesh.
She can’t believe my predatory fears
as she has not yet practiced them.
She lies, belly-up, shining wet in the August sun;
she has become part of the food chain,
and I am now all the mad men in their small boat,
watching for the beast to surface off the shore
as she rolls her dazzling eyes.
The driving force in my poetry is my tendency to connect what seem like disparate moments. I am especially interested in how early experiences affect our vision of the present. We all have a bias because of memory. I continue to revisit the work of Elizabeth Bishop because she is so precise and because her early life and the places of her early life inhabit her poems in the present.
“JAWS” is a good example of this. I began to recall that crummy theater and the teenage thrill of being scared by something that could never get you……and I connected it to our recent trips to the beach in Cape Cod and how that small summer moment in the movie theater informed my feeling about the moment and my own child.
I have seen JAWS dozens of times, but it was only in light of the present moment at the beach that I remembered the theater. Secondly, as with all poems, I spent a lot of time hashing it out, drafting on paper and doing multiple drafts, playing with forms, and sometimes re-writing completely. I rarely use the computer first.
HOW MOTHER SAW IT
My first day back at work the baby crawled
across the room–the first of many firsts I failed to see
But only you can show her how to live she said
though later over dry martinis when I quit my job
confided even a bad day at home beats a good one in the office.
On another matter buy the clothes in any size
was her advice when I grew fat and don't begrudge yourself
yet after slimming love the new you! how she praised me
as if I had accomplished something grand.
Now nobody will say the like again and mean it
nor remark the time has come to change your life
when I waste an entire day vacuuming the stairs.
I live in the world as a writer. I write to capture emotion, share experience, and discover truth. Until
I have found the right words, I do not fully know what I believe.
In a non-linear path through life, I have worked in many forms: memoir, journalism, essay, institutional communications, fiction, sermons, poetry. I have loved poetry since before I could
spell, intrigued by its musical power to signify more than the words on the page. Poems reflect the world, but also create worlds, and are space ships for aspiration.
I learned to love poetry from my mother, who found solace and inspiration in the many verses she knew by memory and often recited them aloud. Since her death last year, I have been writing poems for and about her, in a mourning process that lets me stay close to my mother while helping me find
a way to let her go.
Midlife: Letter to a Daughter
In the Interior, I used pantyhose to make coffee:
in the absence of things you improvise.
Like when we were young
and made ourselves women in shadows, or a swan.
Now in the winter, I conjure la mujer del campo,
the day with the revivalists
who fanned me with elephant leaves:
I was never so anything.
So hot, which made me frigid, like the memory of sex
30 years later: loss in its game.
I borrow a line from a poet I'm sure she wrote:
The soul is making its rounds, opening doors to let
the truths/lies out like moths that turn to gold.
Tonight, helicopters overhead look for a kidnapped girl
who was sleeping in the back of a car
when it was taken. The chattering like aunts.
I miss my mother washing my hair, bleaching it like bloody towels,
teasing out the knots with a thin comb, humming
with what she would never amount to. Oh, if you
need anything I’m here, while I can, like a defining feature.
* The Interior refers to the more rural land of Panama. La mujer del campo translates to the country woman. In my family, she is an ancestor family members would conjure as someone of strength, mystery, and great intuition, which is humorous since my mother and her mother and so on also
came from the countryside. This abducted girl was found safe the next morning.
Early on, I loved poetry. I remember hearing some of Blake and Wordsworth in school and at home, read from nursery books that were fashionable at the time. My mother also read poetry in Spanish
to me. A terrible singer, she, however, could make writing in both English and Spanish come alive with the intonation of her voice animated by her theatrical gestures, probably partly a result of
being the eldest child living on a remote cattle ranch in Panama. I quickly noticed how well
language captured what she/I felt.
As I switched schools throughout my life and dealt with prejudice, I frequently slipped into myself. I would try to rise out of the silence; however, I was often rebuked or labeled for something that felt
to be more about my identity––female, an immigrant’s daughter––than anything else. I was stumbling upon that intersectionality where the personal and public collide. I turned to books to understand it and to writing. When I spoke about writing or produced it, suddenly, people listened.
As my daughter comes into young adulthood, I reflect back to the work that meant a lot to me at 19. A few works are Jamaica Kincaid’s “Girl,” Adrienne Rich’s “Song,” Carolyn Forché’s “The Morning Baking,” Lorna Dee Cervantes’s “Emplumada,” and Pessoa’s “It is Night. It’s Very Dark. In a House Faraway.” I see, now, how I was teaching myself that I could be strong in the world. A lot of strength
comes from women holding each other up.
COMMUNITY BULLETIN BOARD: 10 Comments 1 share
If anyone sees a yellow love bird
flying. PLEASE IM me
or try to grab her.
She’s not an outside bird.
I’m afraid she’ll freeze.
Put your fingers against her chest -
under her legs. She will climb on them.
There’s a small chance.
keep an eye out,
it’s my daughter’s bird.
It was an accident.
Now more than ever, I believe words count, words comfort and words are our salvation.
I’ve been lucky enough to spend my entire adult life as a writer and a teacher of writing. I’ve had a career in newspaper and magazine journalism and published a non-fiction book, a variety of short stories and poetry. But it’s been the poetry I keep returning to as comfort and to satisfy my
obsession with imagery and words.
These past two years I’ve kept in touch with old friends, but the lockdown has prevented me from making new connections in the new community to which I’ve moved. I found myself reading and commenting on social media community bulletin boards to get a feeling for what my unmet neighbors are worried about, happy about and looking for. Their honesty, humor and in some cases, cries for help, inspired this poem and others I hope to include in a poetry collection.
As for my literary influences, so many poets are my favorite, but I’m a sucker for a prose poem and adore the work Pulitzer-Prize winner (and fellow New Hampshire resident) Charles Simic. His are word photographs which don’t so such much tell a story, but rather capture seemingly random
images and feelings, much like the hazy recollections of dreams.
My poetry is also influenced by novelists, especially Toni Morrison, and Alice Hoffman, whose
latest, The Book of Magic, I just finished. These novelists are masters of imagery and paint sentences which resonate through time and through me.
The final time my lover and I
met at the station before
departing on different trains,
I stopped to buy
the color of his eyes,
from a woman who sat
on a wooden stool behind
the counter, reading.
She placed the book
next to the register
where it lay
splayed open like
a bird in flight,
then took the bundle from me,
that delicate blue,
cut green stems
I am drawn to narrative poetry—Phillip Levine’s “The Simple Truth,” Gary Soto’s “Oranges” –
perhaps because my primary genre is non-fiction. Poetry is a new form that I am grateful to have found later in life. I find the writing of prose and poetry go hand in hand. “Blue” is a poem I worked on over a long period of time, coming back to every few months, relishing in the process of each
word appearing, guided by an image in my mind, and the painful feeling of love’s loss. While writing it, I came across the poem “Iris” by David St John, and was transported through the eye of the iris. Recently I read the poem “Blue” by Carl Phillips, which is a powerful, beautiful poem that I’ve added to a small pile of poems I keep on my desk, close at hand. Poetry books currently in that pile
include, Fast Animal by Tim Seibles, and Alabanza by Martín Espada.
Gravity is a force.
Rocks fall off the mountain
without effort, without intention.
I nearly failed geology class in college
because I had fallen so hard into love
with a handsome asshole on a motorcycle.
We rode by stone quarries where layers of rock laughed
at our short liaison and bore witness to the past, like churches
in Sicily whose current layers were built over mosques, over centuries.
Grief is a gritty tiramisu of soil and healed over histories. New
eruptions, like pimples and volcanoes, build with heat
and remembrance over old fissures, embers and ash.
Misshapen piles of snapshots, sleepless miles, and
crumpled Kleenex, these layers of losses hurt
more, echo and seep into canyons beneath.
This morning, on the sidewalk, I tripped
and fell onto my face, bruising it,
breaking my glasses. At once,
the too many jacketsontherack,
piles of envelopes,
to stand up
and limp forward
I have been a language person for most of my life. Initially, it was other languages – French, then Spanish, and a bit of Khmer. Pretty quickly, I shifted toward educational anthropology and applied linguistics. My early career focused on teaching English to speakers of other languages and then teaching teachers who want to teach people who arrive in the US needing to add English to their repertoires. Much of this work was with Cambodian families in Philadelphia. Always, I found myself interested in more than the language itself – language policies in schools, linguistic ideologies and identities, multilingual and multicultural intersections. The sounds and words were intrinsically
much more than the sum of their parts. And then I had an artistic turn in my work that led to engagement with Theatre of the Oppressed (see Skilton, 2021), a one-woman show in the
Philadelphia Fringe Fest, and a deep dive into creative nonfiction. I was no longer satisfied with documenting and analyzing what could be seen and heard. I wanted and needed to attempt to
capture what was felt and imagined.
Becoming a poet didn’t happen overnight, but it surprised and delighted me when it happened. I
have been teaching new teachers how to teach poetry writing for a long time (and writing poetry along with them that only my students ever saw or heard). Reading poetry has been a central part of my spiritual practice for the past 20 years and I regularly return to a few poems I’ve memorized – on the subway, in the middle of a sleepless night, while swimming laps, or during unprogrammed
Quaker meeting. This central set of poems were written by Denise Levertov (“The Avowal”), Rumi (“The Guesthouse”), Mary Oliver (“Mindful”), Kenneth Boulding (“There Is a Spirit Which I Feel”). One key line I return to over and over is Mary Oliver’s final one in “Mindful”: “how can you
help // but grow wise / with such teachings / as these – /the untrimmable light // of the world, / the ocean’s shine, / the prayers that are made / out of grass?” Ada Limón is a poet I return to as often as possible. (You must read her if you haven’t already). Currently, I’m reading an amazing collection called I Was a Bell by M. Soledad Caballero as part of my final semester in the MFA Program in Creative Writing at Arcadia University. It is wonderfully full of both pain and love (as well as bittersweet stories of learning English as a new language in a new country).
Skilton, E. (2021). Being, seeing, and hearing White: When theater arts interrogate and make visible the power of the elephant in the room. In D. Warriner & E. Miller (Eds). Extending applied
linguistics for social impact: Cross-disciplinary collaborations in diverse spaces of public
“He has a right to live though he's
Ill, ill, ill, ill-shaped.”
—Shonen Knife, “Bear Up Bison”
It’s too early for bikes,
but here I am pedaling North
towards a rails-to-trails path
that terminates at a wire bison.
A man who says he loves me
bikes, so now I bike.
Last week, I learned to switch
gears on a hill—
to switch gears on a hill
during a Pandemic, a late-
life skill which makes me
clicking from first to fifth
as the death toll mounts.
Muscle up, glide down. Weeds
wave inside the wire bison,
a thing (street art?) that exists
for no discernable reason,
and yet we aim for it,
our bike wheels moving against
the hot resistant wind,
because by now we know no day
is ever human-shaped.
We have to force our way in.
I began "Push" as a way to mark the joyful experience of re-learning to ride a bike, but the poem surprised me--as poems can do--by ending with a meditation on defiant aging: if you can't find a
place for yourself, make a place for yourself. As the poem's epigraph suggests, "Push" was also
inspired by the all-female Japanese punk band Shonen Knife. Shonen Knife never broke into the mainstream, but they've been around since 1981 and they're still touring, "forcing their way in" and making their own loud and unusual music.
Erin Newton Wells
Melisma, with Samba
Past the beginning of the year and partway
to the loosening of sky—
one could say almost warm—someone sings
as she walks in the street
for no reason except it is daylight, nothing
in her way, and no one
tells her not to sing real words loud enough
to hear this far
on my porch, not as I would do embarrassed
and meek, a soft hum
so as not to bother others, but something red
in her words the color
of a dress the last time she danced the samba,
a frill on the side, how the frill
sambas out when she smooths it into honey,
how she holds a word until it
ripples in a river down the street, bare trees
consider they might bud
and bloom, and I consider how to keep this
red gold honey in the shoulders
moving with it, everything a river, I consider
I would like to be a river.
Early morning is when the best writing happens for me, whether searching for something new or continuing what is underway. The house is quiet, the mind refreshed by sleep. Before I begin, I often think about what might catch and hold my attention through the day if I were reading the work of another poet. Would I want to return to it for what inspires me in the sound, flow, and content of
the words? At least for a time does it become a part of me? A poem begins as a private thing, but ultimately it needs to reach out to others to give it the fullness of its life.
There are so many frustrating, seemingly hopeless things to think about now. As a writer I must face them. But I also feel an obligation to find words that help to lift above them, not to make light of
but to give strength. I always keep other poets near, and the ones I turn to most often do exactly
this. They confront the hard subjects yet leave me refreshed and inspired by the very strength of
their unusual use of images and words. Poets currently on hand are Carolyn Forché, Louise Glück, Claudia Emerson, Jorie Graham, Ada Limón, Robin Coste Lewis, Mary Szybist, Brenda Hillman, Lucie Brock-Broido, and, of course, Elizabeth Bishop. And so many more. I am always adding new ones and rediscovering ones from the past. Their words have life. They nourish me. I would like to write words that do this for others.
—Erin Newton Wells
Babka said that laundry was like snow
thawing and falling from the roof
the same way sodden towels tumbled down
the chute to land with muffled thuds.
Underclothes followed, a dusting of flurries.
Five, I helped by searching bedrooms,
finding Dad’s and Dedko’s grimy work socks,
plain blouses Mom wore as a bookkeeper
which fluttered to the basement like trapped doves.
Is that everything? The metal duct amplified
the rasp of her voice weakened by asthma.
In that brick-and-mortar cellar she breathed
a miasma of bleach while soaking my brother’s
soiled diapers; treated grease stains with lye soap,
scrubbed them out on her washboard.
She filled her Maytag washer from a hose,
added scalding water she’d boiled. The agitator
splashed suds. She lifted sopping terrycloth
heavy as pelts and fed it through the wringer.
The window of block glass, blue and wavy,
dripped with steam as if melting.
Did she imagine—that morning—
sinking through spring-softened ice, fighting
to catch her breath, knowing she’d left
her inhaler upstairs?
I am grateful for my liberal arts education that led to my eventually earning a Ph.D., for I read broadly and learned to appreciate the echoes of centuries-old literature in poetry created by
Adrienne Rich, Denise Levertov, Sylvia Plath, C.P. Cavafy and many others. I still return
consistently to poems by John Keats and the studies of his life cut short by the disease of
tuberculosis; his story remains relevant to our times. I often revisit the poems of Ira Sadoff which
are rooted in personal memory and flower with delicate lyricism that's remarkable to me. I admire Eavan Boland for her poetry emphasizing "ordinary life" as a "powerful lens" capable of merging the private and public. I am fortunate to chair a local writers group, and each member's submissions and publications inspire me, as do the poems and books, published or as yet unpublished, of my network of friends.
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.
• Amy Gottlieb’s poem is one of observation. We see both the gauze of the dream and then the unadorned facts. The dream is the doorway, the facts are the gift.
Dreamwork with Basho
My father appears in a dream and says no one else in the family will die, not for a long time.
I tell this to my dream teacher and he whispers instructions.
Begin with a true story.
I give a book talk in the synagogue where my parents were married. The custodian unlocks the sanctuary for me. I stand in the center aisle, summon my young parents holding hands under the wedding canopy, my father stepping on the glass, but I’m alone in the dark.
I have reached the moment when my own life has outpaced my parents’ love story.
Shut off the radio. Walk inside the dream.
In the dream my father is young because he never got old.
Tell another true story.
We’re at a cousin’s wedding. I’m just shy of fourteen, and shy. Hair down to my waist, parted in the middle like a curtain. I wear a long gauzy dress with a burgundy velvet belt. My first slow dance
with my father. Is this the little girl I carried …
Forget the song. The song is a distraction.
The song is the song. Long Island Jewish wedding, 1972. This is not a fiction. My father’s hand on my back. I don’t know the steps. His words: be nonchalant. The song ends. The dance is over. My father kisses me on the head.
I return to the table and watch my parents cha-cha. My mother’s hair is frothed into curls. She wears
a gray velvet dress, high collar, bracelet sleeves. She smiles. A waiter brings over a tray of tiny
chocolate cakes. My father drives us home, parks in the driveway, collapses behind the wheel.
Do not look away.
My mother’s curls loosen to her shoulders.
She doesn’t take off the dress until the funeral.
Turn off the radio. What do you see?
My grown sons perched on the edge of love stories yet to unfold.
Now remove the sentiment. What do you see?
Their muscled arms softened by the glow of a lantern
Nasturtium leaves shivering in the night breeze
full moon ascending
wine quenched, radio silent
dreams open and close
This poem evolved at the Community of Writers (virtual) conference, in which participants and faculty share a new poem each morning for seven consecutive days. In the middle of the week I had
no idea what to write for the following day's workshop, so I sat on my terrace after midnight and began experimenting with the haibun form, which juxtaposes prose and haiku. The poem came as a surprise, as it was the first time I wrote directly about the night my father died of a sudden heart attack.
As a fiction writer and poet, I toggle between genres, each one inspiring the other. My debut novel
The Beautiful Possible was influenced by Song of Songs and Tagore's Gitanjali. I am currently
relishing A God at the Door by Tishani Doshi, Postcolonial Love Poem by Natalie Diaz, and
Victoria Chang's hybrid work, Dear Memory. I always return to lodestar poets: Keats, Rilke, Lorca, Szymborska, Bishop, Merwin, Gregg, Gilbert, Amichai, Glück, and the Japanese masters who
remind me of the essential practice of paying attention. These lines from Phillis Levin's poem "Born
for the Snow" are particularly resonant:
We were born to be blessed, to be torn into being
Alive, to be weary and open and lost,
As the weight of the planet spins us into light.
• "In the dream that takes me," begins Anne Myles’ powerful poem, and it's the author's masterful language of ambiguity that takes me—a reader in mid-life, mid-pandemic, mid-profound societal and cultural shifting— into the burning "holiness and horror," the "going on" of survival.
—Wendy Elizabeth Ingersoll
Motel Stop: Driving Cross-Country After Leaving My Career
In the dream that takes me, an old friend
is determined to set fire to herself;
she won’t say why, but she must do it.
Her face is steady, remote as an icon.
They look to me, the others there,
but I don’t say anything at all.
The room is full of holiness and horror.
I picture her flesh melting, blackening,
her limbs and head toppling over
into a pile of char. Soon, soon
she will strike the match, but I know
I can’t watch it and survive.
She looks at me, forgiving everything
I sense she reads in my mind:
that she must do this, and I must save myself.
So I face her straight and bow to her
deeply with my palms together,
then rest my right hand upon my heart.
I wake, heart pounding, and go outside;
it’s sometime past midnight, in midsummer.
Floodlights crackle in the darkness.
I stand by myself in fear and wonder—
the woman who is burning
and the woman who goes on.
The dream that inspired this poem was real, and took place at a Days Inn off Route 80 in Ohio; as I recall, I grasped the significance of it pretty quickly. The only major change I made was making the self-immolating figure female rather than male as it was originally, to highlight that it represents a version of myself. What is not evident in the text is that the dream is also a reflection on poetic vocation. I left a tenured position as a university literature professor to commit myself to creative writing, and had the dream while driving back to Iowa after my first MFA residency in Vermont, during which time my retirement had taken official effect. This was the most radical decision of my life, undertaken with a kind of burning urgency after the deaths of my parents and the trauma of
2016 and after. The dream still resonates for me; it feels like a zero-point for the journey I’ve been on since then, and a touchstone for thinking about what was – and still is – at stake in sacrificing an identity I had relied upon for decades. It allowed me to feel the full terror of that sacrifice while reaffirming its necessity.
Crafting successful poems out of dreams is hard, and I learned a lot as I revised this one at two different stages. Early feedback encouraged me not to over-interpret the dream within the poem; it was when I was first guided to consider Robert Lowell’s oft-quoted dictum that a poem is an event,
not the record of an event – still less the analysis of one. Reading the poetry of Jean Valentine subsequently, I saw how a dream can stand on its own, resonating in suggestiveness and mystery.
That was so liberating and permission-giving! But later, I found that I needed to add more framing back, although determining how best to do so was still a process. The dream’s violence seemed gratuitous without a sense of what’s at stake for the speaker, and I felt the poem requires her
uncanny self-recognition upon waking, along with the liminal space in which she finds herself – the middle of the night, the middle of the country, the middle of her life. The stanza form was the final element to take shape. It may be a long while before I write another dream poem, but when I do I’ll
be carrying all these reflections with me.
• I keep coming back to Thomas’s poem, its intimate and vast—break and beat—that speaks in creatures
and in us the same claim in different tongues. In this temporal world, a reminder of what sustains us.
—Jane C. Miller
Pulse of My Heart
Because at 2 a.m. my heart rattles its cage,
the chills begin and I pile on blankets.
I am breathing in, I am breathing out
the way I was taught. Because I remember
my father’s first heart attack, my mother
withdrawing afterwards like a dog
that’s been kicked, waiting for the next
siren to pierce the night, wondering
if the warm man snoring beside her
would still be breathing at dawn.
And it did happen again
like some stories of stopped hearts.
The hummingbird’s heart
beats ten times a second, and once
an iridescent darter perched
so long at the feeder,
chest heaving, I knew
it was dying.
Because when my mother was pregnant
with me, she found her father dead
of a heart attack in the kitchen. Every
day a neighbor gave me bottles, bathed
and rocked me. Because I must have
absorbed her grief, imprinted by
the absence of her smell and touch,
in early photos I am rarely smiling.
Because I carry my own twisted grief,
the deaths of three lovers, the youngest outrun
at thirty by seizures, surgery and cancer’s return.
She asked me to take her deep in the woods
and leave her. Like an animal. Like an elder
laid out on an ice floe.
The octopus has three hearts, one
stops beating when she swims, so
she crawls. After laying and tending
her eggs, death comes
Because the jaws of dementia
swallowed my mother, I scour
the house for my grocery list, later
find it in a drawer I never use.
We laugh, my beloved and I, still
a chill signals blankets and blood
pressure check. Because later in bed
I reach for mi amada,
a chuisle mo chroi, habibti
until the pulse of my heart
The blue whale’s heart, the size
of a small car, beats once every ten seconds.
After death it sustains millions of creatures
for decades. This is my body,
take of it and eat.
I wrote this poem last winter as we all wrestled with fear about the pandemic. In the midst of experiencing some unrelated health issues, my fears grew. I decided to mix images of hearts in my family history with the hearts of other creatures as a way to confront my mortality. I enjoy reading poems by Aimee Nezhukumatathil in which I learn something about the natural world. Other poets
I admire who write about memory, desire, the body, and mortality are Ellen Bass, Ada Limón, Dorianne Laux, Lucille Clifton, Jericho Brown, and Ellen Bryant Voigt.
൪uartet Interview: Adrienne Su
Adrienne Su was born in Atlanta in 1967, has received degrees from Harvard and the University of Virginia, and has been awarded residencies at Yaddo and MacDowell, as well as an NEA fellowship.. Her poems have appeared in Best American Poetry, Poetry Daily, Asian-American Poetry: The Next Generation. She teaches at Dickinson College and is the author of five volumes volumes of poetry: Middle Kingdom (Alice James Books, 1997), Sanctuary (Manic D Press, 2006), Having None of It (Manic D Press, 2009), Living Quarters (Manic D Press, 2015), Peach State (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2021).
൪: Adrienne, in your poems you utilize such diverse topics as food, language/words, girlhood/womanhood, to serve as vehicles to explore your family's immigration to the United States from China before your birth. In particular many of your poems address finding a home in this country in which you were born, while simultaneously being homesick for a place in which you have never lived. "Illumination" (Middle Kingdom) beautifully illustrates not only this particular in-between state, but the in-between state of being 16 years old, when you "knew that if things had happened differently, / I could disappear among them..." Did you start writing about assimilation at a young age, or as an adult looking back? Tell us a bit about your journey.
AS: Thank you for reading with care all the way back to my first book! It wasn’t until college that I gained the vocabulary and perspective to start writing about race and assimilation. In childhood, as one of few Asian Americans in the community, I was at once keenly aware of racial difference and completely helpless to talk or write about it. I was about eleven when my father took his first trip back to his native China in over thirty years – a dramatic journey, but one whose significance I didn’t understand. In college, I took courses on Chinese language, history, and thought, mainly out of a desire to fill the gaps in my Eurocentric secondary education. I knew I wanted to be a writer and kept meaning to take English courses, but one Chinese language course leads to another, and meanwhile, I was drawn to other previously unavailable subjects, including the study of religion, most memorably, a course called “The Sacred Geography of Traditional China.” Imagining China had always been a part of my consciousness; to imbue actual places on a map with sanctity was irresistible to the poet in me. The trade-off is that I had little formal education in literature in English. I wish I could have gone to college twice.
The moment described in “Illumination” was, as I remember it, an ars poetica moment, but in the context of Middle Kingdom, the poem and therefore the episode become layered with other meanings, including the racial inability to “disappear among” the other kids. Maybe this is one of the reasons poems are seldom true to “what really happened.”
൪: At first glance, many of your poems appear free in form, and there is often a lovely casual tone, as if the speaker is sharing confidences with a friend. On second reading the reader perceives not only skillful formal aspects, but frequent and subtle rhyme—interior and end-rhyme, true and off-rhyme. There is magic in how you use these tools to explore "in-between-ness." For example, in "The Jews of Kaifeng" (Peach State), you use end rhymes such as matzah/Buddha and Center/forever. Did you have a sonnet in mind from the first draft, or did that underpinning come forward later in the revision process? And I'm also wondering what is your process for choosing rhyme - do you use a rhyming dictionary or does rhyme just spring from your brain as you write?
AS: I appreciate your attention to those rhymes and off-rhymes. I had no idea “The Jews of Kaifeng” was going to be a sonnet. Its first couple of drafts were long and rambling. Rarely do I know ahead what form a poem is going to take, even when it ends up in a received form as tight as the sonnet. But the more practice I get with forms, the more readily I can see them emerging.
The rhyming dictionary is my place of last resort. If my brain refuses to produce the word with the desired meaning and sound, I go to the thesaurus; the nuances of meaning laid bare in the thesaurus often generate associated words, one of which might have the right sound. But if the thesaurus fails, I’ll use the rhyming dictionary in the hope that it will jog something. Still, it’s often a meandering search, since I have such an affection for off-rhyme, and rhyming dictionaries seldom provide off-rhymes.
Of course, the overall hope is that in the end, the line sounds as if it were naturally occurring, and not labored, despite the labor it required.
൪: Many of your poems contain low-key and clever humor and irony. For example, in "1978" (Middle Kingdom), the speaker looks back on her youth: "we crunch ice cubes and jeer the veins / in a mother's calves. We don't mean / to be mean, but...we know / we'll soon be swollen and blue / and white ourselves, so now's / the time." The poem reveals sorrow behind its jaunty tone, heartbreak inherent to that confusing time of life, taking the reader to unexpected places. How did you choose to use humor to write about serious subjects?
AS: If I set out to be funny, I will fail. I think writing comedy requires a whole other brand of imagination. But when writing about serious subjects, the occasional funny thing crops up. Maybe it’s easier to be funny when the mood is somber because no one is expecting it. Some of the most deeply felt laughter occurs at funerals. I don’t plan it; I think junctures arise in a poem where some kind of relief is needed, and the moment of levity presents itself. Ideally, as well-deployed humor does, it simultaneously heightens the serious feeling.
൪: You display a great talent for astonishing endings—I was again and again stunned by them. The poem "The End of Meat" (Peach State) is an example: a reference to a Chinese cookbook begins "many thoughtful and educated people, citing health, the environment, or / the rights of animals, have given it up" but concludes "I try to view the end as a beginning, / a place where you reset your point of reference...and build from the erasure, as if leaving one country for good, then reaching / another." Are these poetic destinations unexpected by you as well, or do you start with an idea and work backwards—in other words, in your writing do you build stairs or do you let yourself fall down them?
AS: Thank you for all of this generous reading. I love the stair metaphor. The answer is the second: to reach the end of a poem, I have to let myself “fall down them.” It’s hard to do; life is full of situations over which you have to exert control. And I do have long stretches of silence, during which it’s easy to think I’ll never finish another poem – more likely, end up at the bottom of a staircase with bumps and bruises. But as long as I keep putting words on paper, I’ve found that eventually, the “poetic destination” comes into sight.
Everything That Can Be Eaten
“The general principle seems to be that the Chinese eat everything that can be eaten while the Americans throw away everything that can be thrown away.”
— Buwei Yang Chao, How to Cook and Eat in Chinese
Thus my peripatetic starving-artist years passed without hunger.
The always-unpopular chicken thighs and pork shoulder,
combined with an untranslated pantry and daily effort,
made me richer, though unemployed, than an assistant professor.
Tofu, ruined for most by baking, quadrupled the meat in stir-fries.
No. 9 thin spaghetti could be lo mein, otherwise found in undersized
pouches under “Ethnic.” Peeled broccoli stems, cut on the diagonal,
had the crispness of water chestnuts, minus the can. Picked animal
bones could be simmered into broth; to discard them was a crime.
Yesterday’s rice, fried with frozen peas, an egg, and yesterday’s ham,
made lunchtime new. Ugly leaves could hide in pot stickers,
on whose beauty many held forth, with none left over.
Scallion whites would not be privileged over greens. Rice bowls
had to be emptied. Thus my freedom - provided I made semi-annual
trips to gather basics, from whatever Asian grocery could be found.
In some towns the shop would be Mexican; each helped the other out.
In any case I could never get everything. Items were regional,
names slightly off. Neither I nor the owner nor the food being local,
no one could explain. I’m reticent anyway in these contexts,
speaking too little of what might be the wrong language,
knowing only the look and taste of the finished dish,
not what to call it. But I kept going back, wish list
in hand, never thinking of starvation, only of creativity:
that which I wanted to make, and that which had made me.
originally published in Prairie Schooner
"Everything That Can Be Eaten" is from Adrienne's most recent book, Peach State, and is reprinted with permission.
Peach State (2021) is available from University of Pittsburgh Press, ISBN 13: 978-0-8229-6656-2
Peach State has been chosen for the 2022 "Books All Georgians Should Read" list by the Georgia Center for the Book at DCPL,
one of only two poetry books chosen.
൪uartet wishes to thank Adrienne for her time and generosity in granting this interview, conducted via email by ൪uartet editor Wendy E. Ingersoll.
The Curator’s Notes
Robin Rosen Chang
Mingling the personal and myth, Robin Rosen Chang’s debut collection brings a vast and intimate perspective on what it means to be daughter, mother, lover, caretaker, friend.
In poems that ask how you survive / this perishing world (“Great Green Macaw”), the poet examines how we shape-shift as we age, how we distill our memories, how we face loss and our own limits.
In her preface poem, “My Mother Was Water,” the poet learns early to hide from parental discord: a pebble between them, she becomes a fish …to camouflage myself in mud and rocks.
As an adult, she considers in “Lore,” what she inherits: I knew I was a mistake. She cannot escape this knowledge any more than Eve the garden, a parallel the poet uses effectively to challenge assumptions of responsibility and guilt, though she makes clear by “Motherless, Eve” and “After Eden,” their burdens and legacy are not the same.
In lyrical poems both sensual and tender, the poet turns a forgiving lens on the past, and rewards us with experience made tactile by a curator’s gifts: light telescoping from a dome, pears, a sweater, the aurora borealis, coquinas, swaddling sheets.
From a place where love is a sound / of closed clamshells, (“Disobedient Tongue”), she offers in “Aubade to My Husband,” an affirmation, quietly / nudging / apart your lips. The poet in the preface poem who wondered / about land—how hospitable it might be, welcomes the loam—sand, silt and clay—” in “Salve” as communion with life’s grit and enriching promise. This collection delivers an abundance of both.
—Jane C. Miller
Robin Rosen Chang received the 2022 Independent Press Award Distinguished Favorites in Poetry for The Curator's Notes.