Editor's Note Section
Winter Issue 2021 Volume 1 Issue 1
Welcome to the premiere issue of ൪uartet, an online journal of poetry by women
age 50 and over. We hope the work collected here can serve as a medium of
exploration and expression for both permanent and changing dynamics of what it
means to be female in this world as we reach full bloom.
We editors of ൪uartet are four women enjoying what are in many ways our best
years. We met and became friends through the small world of poetry-writing in
the small state of Delaware. What started as occasional online critique exchanges
developed into biannual writing retreats at a family farm on the Eastern Shore of
Maryland. These ten years of gatherings, which we call The Muse, not only have
produced hundreds of poems from the four of us, but recently a compilation titled
Walking the Sunken Boards (Pond Road Press, 2019), in which all the poems were
begun, revised and/or finalized at our retreats. We have had such satisfaction and
just plain fun on this collaboration, and so many other women writers have
expressed pleasure at the idea, that the inspiration budded and blossomed to create
a poetry journal for all women poets our age.
We four vigorously thank our contributors for their work, and our readers, of all
ages and genders, for their interest and support.
Wendy Elizabeth Ingersoll
Mary Jo Balistreri
On the Way to Rochester, Minnesota
Early Sunday, February cold, we begin our drive
to Mayo Clinic. My husband curls up beside me.
A large white pillow cuddles his head.
Fields flash by patched with snow,
trees bare of leaves, a low hung sky.
He’d become so familiar I’d ceased
to see him. Now everything is changed.
We’re together in a way we’ve never been.
He was always the driver, the person in charge,
head of our home. Sick, his role had frayed.
In the quiet there’s an urgency to memorize him:
his old cotton shirt, the faint smell of sun and air,
an ink stain on the pocket,
his hand wrinkled and veined. The gray curls.
But no—they’ve been cut away.
Moving toward uncertainty, my hands clench
the steering wheel, the metal taste of fear in my mouth.
We come with no offerings of frankincense or myrrh,
but only a desperate plea to heal what can be healed
in our long knowing of love.
Deep in the forest, a ladder of sunlight appears
as my eyes open in this place of shelter. After the dark
and restful quiet of meditation, its brilliance startles.
It reminds me of mother’s dying, rising
to a rapturous light she reached for, then falling
back upon her pillow. In that brief moment of pause
the grief of her life became the grief of her death.
Like the summer solstice, that irreversible turn:
longest light turns toward shortest night.
Leaning back against my favorite cedar, I look
around. Everything that was cool and dark glows—
stream, rocks, lichened logs.
The forest’s light reminds me of the last blaze
of fire before the sun drops over the edge.
I’d made this secluded place my sanctuary even before
the coronavirus. Now more than ever, I need
As I walk home through the setting sun’s afterglow,
the forest’s silence tags along. Almost there, I realize
my anxiety has dissipated. A skein of crows winds in and out
between buildings, a flock of egrets
nudged by impending darkness head home to roost.
Poetry was not a part of my life when my youngest grandson died, but my lifelong profession of music could not help me transcend his loss. Healing came through the words of poets—Jane Kenyon, Mary Oliver, Linda Pastan. Their poetry became the bridge from music to the music of words. I still go back to these poets for their simplicity, honesty, and love of the world. Along with Rilke, Levertov, and Hopkins, they are my "go to poets" when I get stuck or forget why I came to poetry in the first place. Right now, I am reading journals, Poetry East, Modern Haiku, and Drifting Sands along with Selected Poems by Hahmoud Darwish. A favorite line that comes back to me time and again, is the last line from the Great Gatsby: “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back endlessly into the past.”
— Mary Jo Balistreri
Ode on the Nine Things I Didn’t Understand
First, the first black kids in Fayetteville High,
who no longer had to be bussed an hour over
the mountains to the colored school. How could
I know anything? Second, black poets’ voices:
thunder out of airlessness. Third, the airlessness
behind the courthouse where the blacks lived.
Fourth, Nikki Giovanni’s hatred of me, not me, but,
you know, white people. Fifth, Gwendolyn Brooks,
and Maya Angelou, their restrained graciousness.
What was underneath. Underneath the two black
men on a stone bridge in Hughie Lee Smith’s painting,
“Home,” I see the dark caverns of arches.
I see one man almost losing a big red ball in the wind,
multicolored streamers flying like joy,
the other’s muscular back turned slightly away,
gaze slightly down, a wariness, something
coming, something (sixth) I would never get, under
blue sky and clouds. I was walking home
from school hugging my stack of books, balanced
and slipping. Walking home through the tunnel
of my youth along the only route I knew
the men animal-wary, somewhere on bridges.
In Little Rock our governor held his ground until
the troops came; this was our state and this was
the cracked sidewalk I walked home from school on,
I was so small I can’t see myself any more, except
for the rumbling of change that was me, always me
changing, the buds of breasts and all. Come to think
of it, I cannot find anything that holds still, except
the photos. And that painting like a monument,
that wary back turned away, high on the massive
stones of the bridge. Seventh, how an arch
can hold up heavy things. How cathedrals depend
on them. How before there was steel there were
stones leaning, one on the next until the central one
at the top. The arch will collapse unless there’s
something to restrain it, like a buttress or a wall.
Then you can run a train through, you can sing
or say poems loudly inside and the sound will push
out the ends, you can stand on top and be sentinel
while all manner of locomotion slides under.
The kids lived behind the courthouse. All manner
of beings were there then, as all things are contingent
(eighth) and the story of me was based
on location, dependent upon location, Whitham Street,
home, where I was walking, that remained
home only a while. Ninth, separation is only a perception
whereas reality is unchanged as stone,
and changing, as if a camera were moving along
the bridge, stealthily, like a drone.
After all these years, I have a pretty strong sense of what’s honest and what’s posturing in a poem. There’s a fine line between language gloriously used and language that’s self-conscious. I look for the glorious. I was nurtured on Hopkins, Rilke, Bishop, and Whitman, and I still turn to them. As for contemporary poets, I read Ellen Bass, Ross Gay, Ada Limon, and many others, but I also read poets I don’t particularly like because I learn things from them as well.
I like to write about trees and birds and flowers, yes I do, even in this terrible time when larger world events are at our throats, literally. I like the small, nearly unseen, beings because they are just themselves, and they are in a way the other part of ourselves. They keep us sane. I am all for sanity these days.
EPITAPH FOR A PAINTER
I shall never now gather the stars
you said I resembled in the living
flesh (quoting some poet). And maybe
I did, then: at seventeen, my callow
green unawareness that you were
falling in love could have lent a touch
of astral distance to the space between us,
those winter afternoons in the studio.
You would recite Esenin and Eluard,
explain Cezanne -- a tide of words
flowing into an unexplored beach--
while on the canvas an archetypal figure
I vaguely resembled would emerge,
violet and brown and yellow, an incarnate
totem, familiar and unknown, my much-
praised face slashed by enigmatic lines, your
famous “wounds” as critics called them.
I didn’t understand, then. And now
those wounds have come, your fame
somewhat has dimmed, but none of it
really matters, you know: those winter
afternoons, the dead poets, the colors, are
what endures. I can bathe forever in the deep,
mysterious blues of your “Night Fishing”,
that summer you worked with Picasso
at Antibes, circles of lamp-lit waters
luring groupers to death. And your
weighty black-greens still hold the fields
of our Lombard days, my naïve years
and the wisdom of your peasant roots.
From my library wall I now look down
at myself through your eyes. We have both
gone outside time, like those distant stars.
D’Annunzio once said that color is the struggle of matter to become light. I equally believe that poetry is the attempt of words to break out from their everyday meaning, and to reveal themselves for what they can be: doors to subterranean connections of feelings and images, triggers of buried experiences, adventures in a terra incognita. And in the end, poetry to me is the pleasure words give. Pleasure in their sound, in their shape, and most of all in the challenge they present: having to use words to say what we do not know how to say with words.
Take the Pearl
Leave the Shell Behind
She keeps a baton at ready, tabled by her chair
to conduct – as if she was - as if she were –
in charge of all the music she hears
while waiting for the Big Crunch
when her universe stops expanding
when she no longer can warm in a beam
of light the size of a piece of toast or
paint the wilderness of stillborn moments
her mind no longer running up and down the chords
of the B minor scale, searching for resolution.
Poetry combines all the things I love best. There’s the way words can tell stories in so many ways. There is the gorgeous feel of them in your mouth – round and jagged, sweet and sour. And the way poems can be thunderstorms lighting up your inner and outer worlds. This Garden of Earthly Delights can be explored endlessly and returned to again and again.
This is a travel poem
Because as it begins, I’m driving.
Two hours ‘til daybreak.
Full moon in the rearview –
Bright coin, blank eye –
Balanced on two spit-shine clouds
That dip and rise – like a check-mark
Bird drawn by the four-year-old boy
Who had feather blonde hair, bad headaches
Who would have been nine this year.
Because as it goes on, I’ve turned
On to Route 9 past the Methodist
Graveyard headed toward the sleepless ocean.
To my right, in the dark,
Is the stone that squares his name, and the two
Numbers that add up to eighteen years.
Because when I finally turn onto the highway,
Venus, the morning star, ghosts beside me.
My lights fading as last night’s neon
Winks out, and Venus whispers
In the voice of my mother and grandmother
That this is a travel poem.
Because although it is hemmed by loss,
The trajectory is plain. Trouble
Stays tangled in the margins. “There’s no way
To stand firm on both feet and slip trouble,”
Homer says. But there’s nowhere to go either.
* In memory of my student, Cory Burton.
One of the many things that keeps me writing poetry is the way poems connect me to the here and now, to my own senses and experiences. What keeps me reading is the transcendence beyond my own experience that those words bring. Reading poems connects me to the senses and experiences in some other writer's world even as it heightens my awareness of my own. This fall, I've been reciting Denise Levertov's poem "The Avowal" over and over to myself, wishing I could live in the effortless and grace-filled way that she calls forth in this poem:
As swimmers dare
to lie face to the sky
and water bears them,
as hawks rest upon air
and air sustains them.
— Anne Colwell
Smoke makes the air true, gruesome,
hangs thick between trees, curdles
noon light to a pink-orange-otherworldly
hue as if doom were visible and not just
a grinding in the solar plexus.
We can taste the pines, the ceanothus,
on our tongues, every incendiary twig
and sap-filled branch that has exploded
into ravenous flame. It's only our blaze
now in the river canyon boiling up but
a north wind is due that will lift fumes
from valley fires, spin them with those
beside the salt bay and bring new weather
to sear our throats. The whole state
is lightning-stunned, lit up and burning —
eucalyptus oils, laurel, black oak, coast
redwood, apricot and prune-plum, garlic
stems, cypress, artichokes charred
in their silver-green leaves, the heavy, staked
grapevines, harvest-laden. All ash
and memory. Mandarins, lemon groves.
It’s a cliché now, but I began writing in 1990 having read, a few years before, Mary Oliver’s poem “Wild Geese,” which someone handed me as a conciliatory measure after we’d had a fight. I wasn’t a writer at the time. The poem moved from one icebox door in Cambridge, MA to another in Stinson Beach, CA, and someone gave me Oliver’s American Primitive for Christmas, which I read, and promptly thought, “Oh, I could do that.” Which is of course not true in any way. But it got me writing, and Oliver’s undeclared at the time history of child abuse, which was evident in the poems, kept me going through my own traumatic amnesia recovery. I can return to Oliver to jumpstart myself when I’m really stalled, but I also turn to Carolyn Forché, Jack Gilbert, Frank X. Gaspar, Sharon Olds, Robert Frost, Robert Hass, Dorianne Laux, and any number of others for inspiration and to continue the conversation poets have had with each other for centuries, which I am so grateful to be a part of.
— Molly Fisk
Eating shredded wheat, I see my brother
on the back of the milk carton. Not
the clearest picture, but here’s his name
beneath. That’s fairly strange because
he’s also sitting at the table next to me
eating Peanut Butter Captain Crunch,
crunching like a slob with his mouth open,
milk dribbling, holding his spoon like a club.
(Grandma worries he’ll never find a wife,
eating like that.) In the picture he looks
to be about fifty-five, eyes half-lidded,
shirtless, reclining in a hot tub in California,
bald and fat, and apparently “Lost.”
If I look closely all I see is dots, like
the Seurat painting we studied in art class.
“It’s okay I guess,” I said to Mrs. Rowe,
“but who cares about random Parisians
in a park, stiff guys in silly hats, and women
with parasols and porch-like derrieres?”
I guess you could say the same for a fifty-five
-year-old fat guy in a hot tub—who cares?
We don’t mind the smell of peanut butter
on our own breath, but it reeks on others,
and he was my first other, the prototype
of everyone who will steal the last slice,
steal my work and claim it for his own,
steal my life. Purple nurple, deadleg, punch
on the nose, and that wet flash of nausea—
smell of pure hate. He taught me hate
and my parents called it love, which is as weird
as a ghost eating breakfast next to you, a ghost
on a milk carton, red dots in blue shadow.
I’ve been largely absent from Poetryland for a couple of years, ensconced in a memoir, though the memoir includes how I began to write poetry, in the 1980s, at a time when I was addicted to shooting pool. After playing straight pool all night in Manhattan, while waiting in a deserted subway station, lines of poetry would float up to me. They weren’t lines of Frost or Eliot or anyone else, so they must have been mine. I’d get home to Brooklyn just before dawn, sit in my tiny kitchen, and write down those lines. The lyric phrases would start to take on the flesh of a narrative, and these would become my first published poems. It’s a strange way to begin a life of writing poetry, but I think something needed to be discharged, or otherwise exhausted, clearing the way for words. I also think I needed the feeling of being the only one awake among millions of sleeping people—giving me a strange and elevated privacy, as though I were standing guard over consciousness, or treading the afterlife—in order to write.
— Diana Goetsch
(Both of Diana Goetsch’s poems in this issue of ൪uartet appear in different form in her chapbook, In America, a Rattle Chapbook Prize selection.)
Meredith Davies Hadaway
Marcescent leaves may be retained indefinitely…
The way we hold on to the dead through
long months of winter. We keep a jacket
and a pair of shoes, a scarf that wears
their scent. An empty envelope slips from
a book. Your name is on it, but you don’t
remember what the letter said.
Torn edge along the top, flattened by the press
of pages, nearly dust, your name
in a familiar looping script. The ink
has blurred into the paper now a waxy sheen.
A vein. A stem. A name—
with no return address.
“My life in poetry began with the narrative poems of my childhood and the Highway Man and has been tapping at my shutters ever since. My own writing carries me deeper into a daily discovery of birds, tides, trees—the watery landscape of Maryland’s Eastern Shore. As far as inspiration, I read Rumi every day for some spiritual caffeine. I turn to Elizabeth Bishop for resonant description, to Lorine Neidecker for floating imagery, and to Jane Hirshfield for lessons in the zen of paradox. And, oh yes, who doesn’t love Mary Oliver?”
— Meredith Davies Hadaway
Luisa A. Igloria
You knew as soon as we climbed
into the mezzanine’s upturned
square of yellow light—
Mostly because a chair had been left there
in the middle of the floor: accoutrement of blond
wood, upright back, the kind that might be hung
by one rung along with others of the same
make on a wall.
Evidence, you said,
of another idea of pioneer. Could this be
a place to let down baggage, allow the head
to tilt toward the trees and their barges
filled with powdered snow?
There are those who cultivate
a certain look as soon as they feel they’ve fled
Their appraisal washes over you
when elevator doors slide open
and you step in.
But you don’t know
how to be that kind of sleek
animal or machine;
where to put
your carved idol face, your brass
inlays, each hand-pressed layer
of mahogany veneer.
In my work, I write about recurring themes: place, displacement, my (our) place in and connection to histories that precede us and that determine experience as well as possibility in the current moment. And for many years now, before I became aware of the term, I’ve been writing ecopoetry— Not merely because of the importance of preserving the natural world which is in precarity from climate change effects, among other things, but because growing up in Baguio City in the Philippines, I was raised with the awareness of the interconnectedness of all forms of life. My identities as an immigrant writer, a woman, a poet of color, have an influence on my writing as well as my pedagogy and art-making. www.luisaigloria.com
— Luisa A. Igloria
Mary Ann Larkin
Each year, the nuns
unfolded the story anew for us,
a holiday cloth they’d hidden away
at the bottom of a drawer.
They showed us
how hard it is to be born,
hung the tale like a star
in those sooty Pittsburgh skies.
In our cavernous schoolroom, smelling
of chalk dust, paste and chocolate milk
the sisters assembled their cast:
the mean king
the humble working man
the acquiescent girl,
and the animals, of course.
The Babe still unborn.
No one yet forsaken.
Rubber boots stood in puddles
in the steamy cloakroom,
as the donkey jolted along,
and the camels unfolded
first one leg then another.
The innkeepers were cruel
but the lambs and the ox made room
in the sweet-smelling straw
that banished all the odors
from our starless classroom.
Though we know many stories now
the nuns were the first to tell us
of betrayal and cruelty
stars and love
the adoration of the flesh
the warm close breath of the dumb.
Though I wrote my first poem as a freshman in high school, I began writing poetry seriously in my thirties after the sorrow of a divorce set free the sorrow I had buried when my mother died. I have been writing regularly ever since--for more than forty years. It's what I do and can't stop doing. Some of my favorite poets are Jack Gilbert, Muriel Rukeyser, Adam Zagajewski, and Wislawa Symborska.
— Mary Ann Larkin
for my father
I remember when we used
to take the telescope out on the Green.
Lots of folks were staring
at the moon back then.
Some men even landed on it --
dug around, played golf,
planted a flag.
One giant leap for humankind.
Later, armed with a cheap mic
and an old cassette recorder,
I would plot my own fantastic voyages.
And me, Spock, Scotty,
and Josie and the Pussycats,
didn’t just settle for the moon.
We zoomed right past Saturn’s rings
columbusing the final frontier.
We are fallen stars
staring up at the sky,
billion year old flecks of light,
mired in gravity,
who spend our whole lives
aching for home.
Well, you’ve made it, Cosmonaut.
Cut the silver cord
and spread your wings.
Take one final bow
and boldly go.
My sister called to say Mom
was seriously considering the feeding tube.
Dad had been in hospital for three days.
The prognosis wasn’t good.
“What’s his fever?” I asked.
“104.7,” she said. “What should we do?”
Dad hadn’t spoken for a week.
Even if he survived this,
he was never really coming back.
During lunch I sent a text:
“Treat 12 more hours.
If no improvement, hospice.”
With those eight words,
I sealed my father’s fate.
I was reminded of that time
I was stuck in traffic
and there was a deer
on the side of the road,
legs mangled and bleeding,
stubbornly clinging to life.
A dapper gray-haired stranger
left his car to do
what needed to be done:
two shots -- head and heart -- pop! pop!
And it was over.
Sometimes an act of mercy
leaves a yawning silence
and a hole in your heart
deeper than time.
can feel like murder --
or is that what
they mean by letting go?
Probably my biggest poetic influences have been song lyrics: Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan, Peter Sinfield (of King Crimson), Michael Timmins (of the Cowboy Junkies.) I also like rap lyrics when they actually have something coherent to say.
I like reading or listening to writers for whom English is not their first language because they transform English in interesting ways. (Examples: Bjork, Gabriel Okara)
I believe in the poetic value of everyday speech. If you listen to people, they say the damndest things. A couple of days ago a little girl yelled in the parking lot, “I’m so bored, I wish a bear would kiss me!” I thought: “That’s going in a poem one day.”
Most poetry I read is either not revised enough or revised to death. You want the proper balance between emotional resonance and technique.
— Franetta McMillian
Alberta of Sandia Unit B, Behavioral Health
I cry myself awake to the florescent bulbs
in the room, Alberta’s booming voice
from the hall—raw, brassy, authentic,
saying don’t you despair.
I am pulled from my bed.
She is a large woman heavy on her feet
preferring the ride of a wheelchair
to the movement of her own brown legs.
Alberta asked for peanut M & M’s.
They settled her, acting
as hands to a clock and breeze to a bird.
I dreamt of revolution to be a step toward peace.
Thought that it would ignite in me, tear me down,
allow me to rebuild--my body tall and reed like,
my mind a platter of beads, a kaleidoscope of God.
Alberta did not need a revolution. She was one
who blazed outside herself, kindled fire in others,
her mouth filled with fierce words and sad pleas,
Help me. I hate it here. Won’t you all fuck off.
Prison is filled with stained toilets and broken showers.
This. Is. Prison.
Medication did not tame her belligerence.
She was the iron ball of a catapult
who would launch herself onto the patio of smokers,
smelling of rancid unwashed people,
interfering with their chatter,
asking for a cigarette, being offered none.
Staff brushed her corn rows out
and washed her house coat
the morning the Marshall and two security guards
came from the State Hospital.
They were unprepared for her size.
She was not able to fit into the back
of the police car. Even thin
she would not have been able to fit into the seat.
She was no criminal. She was a suffering woman
whose rage stole the best of her
and scared other patients into wishing
she would be taken away.
I could spend hours watching Alberta
with a glance from my chair
in front of the staff’s station. We don’t interact.
She is truth without language.
Getting to know her would strip the mystery
I’ve come to dwell in like a detective searching
for a missing woman, a dog leaving muddy
paw prints in a home that is not his,
then disappearing, unnoticed,
back through the doggy door.
Alberta is in me. I too see with the unbroken gaze
of psychosis. I too dialogue with people
no one else sees.
Medication helps. Brings me back
to palm trees and swimming pools,
conversation and chicken, the smell
of barbeque making itself known.
I like washing dishes
and returning to a bed dressed
in flowered sheets, sleeping in dreams
of eating chocolate,
reading mail sent to my home.
Alberta doesn’t know that I am in her.
I am in her like dust in a tornado,
night in a star, ice in a glacier.
Too small to be felt by her heart. Too small
to pull her out of illness.
Staff gives her a chocolate bar
she eats while she waits for the van.
She will live at the State Hospital for at least a year.
I watch her delight over the candy.
Her mouth carves its way into a smile.
I wonder if the moment is as significant to her
as it is to me. I taste her pleasure.
I will go grocery shopping with my boyfriend,
will pick from many chocolate bars, thank God for the quiet
that comes after the revolution where people like Alberta
can storm if they like, blowing fire into rivers,
their revolt safe. The pavement is hot.
I have shoes that prevent me from blistering
as I walk easily to our car.
The Snow Cone Machine is Large
its size forces the family to stand one at a time in the kitchen.
I ask my sister, Emily, why she keeps it. She says the kids
want to remember snow cones with their father in the summer
how the syrup painted their tongue and made their smile bright blue.
There is a magnet of Bob on the refrigerator
his shaved head sitting on a thick neck and strong shoulders
that promised not to buckle under heavy flannel
at least this is how the picture reads.
It is Tuesday at 2 am.
My sister, nephew and niece are wakened by the pounding on the door,
a noise much louder than the traffic they can hear driving past their apartment.
Emily knows it is the police. She knows this just as she knows
there is no butter in the house.
She opens the door to the officer who in turn asks if she is Emily Brown-Smith,
the length of her name steady like an alarm clock when it is time.
Her reply is slow, is yes, is seconds long. “Do you know a Robert J. Smith?”
She does not say yes, but closes her eyes in a pause much longer than a blink.
The officer informs her that he was found dead in his home. The dead final like ice
left on the counter to melt.
Bob had stabbed himself repeatedly and then hung himself. It was said he died slowly.
The noose had worked only in the end. The details mattered
like a monogram on the pocket of a shirt for sale at a secondhand store.
My nephew and niece fold and unfold that single morning
like they do origami swans left on their window sills to fade by the sun.
They are 13 and 11. The chest of drawers they share does not allow them to tuck
the weight of their father in beside the sweaters.
They wear him to Thanksgiving dinner. It is obvious. They can not lift their chin,
nor are they asked to.
Come summer, there will be snow cones again. This is what they talk about.
Writing is breath. I wrote as a kid, illustrating stories of Batman and Robin getting the bad guy. Writing is Freeing. Worries don’t follow me into the zone. I am largely an intuitive writer with my writing coming from some source I don’t understand. People’s comments about my writing teach me much about my writing. A couple of my favorite poets include Norman Dubie and Beckian Fritz Goldberg. Norman Dubie’s poetry I don’t understand but his use of language is startling and brilliant. Beckian’s The Book of Accident is an amazing post-apocalyptic collection with lines that a critic pulled out which describe desire like a “live rat sewed up inside us.” Exciting!
— Kristina Morgan
The Night Clerk of Almeria During the Evacuation
In the half-empty hourglass of midsummer
she kneels to the grasshopper,
to its wings smeared with rain and laced
with pollen, flabbergasted
by the collaboration of heat and air.
The woman sees the wolf moon sonata
she will compose. Inspects the insect’s legs
investigating the way string music
derives from its body, how the head
shines like a streetlamp in a small city.
This will become the core of her
debut composition: a note offered
to the orchestra conductor; the patrons
applauding like so many pairs of wings—
I Never Tired of Talking About the Dress
which was designed by the neighborhood tailor,
Alhaji, who became friend, became lover
of my black coffee and fragmented conversation
in French; of the width, the cut, the strength
of the wraparound sash of The Most
Rapturous fit—soft tint of a Saharan sky—
of the dress. Photographed here against
a sandstone wall. Against the past, against the body
I live in now, there lives this promise:
the West African wedding wrap
sequestered in the back of the closet.
The cloth now spiritual, sized extra small,
with seams hand-sewn by elongated fingers.
Who was the girl locked inside the alchemical stitch—
about to create such a symphonic mess of it.
I need to continually surprise myself and I seek poets that give me permission to go beyond my self-imposed limitations. My go-to poet of the moment, actually, the last four years is Terrance Hayes. To keep him company I read Aracelis Girmay and Kelli Russell Agodon. When I reach back into the poets that nurtured me as a younger writer I visit Elizabeth Bishop, Denise Levertov, and Adrienne Rich. From these latter poets I did my best to learn precision, music, and the essential core of an ethical lyric. I hope I'm still learning, still finding new mentors on the bookshelves and in the ether of the worldwide web.
— Susan Rich
I knew on first reading that I wanted Jan Beatty's poem for my editor’s choice. First, because the ending surprised me in that open mouth, breathtaking way. And secondly, because it is emblematic of everything I wish this journal to be—women helping women.
— Linda Blaskey
To the Woman at the Laramie Airport
Coming off a prop plane from Denver,
3rd flight of the day, I hit Laramie at 10:30
and it’s pretty shutdown. Woozy, I'm fumbling
with luggage and the bolted metal gate at car rental,
a woman next to me in a heavy brown coat
the color of West. She’s close,
head tilted and blue eyes tired like mine.
Do you need help? she says.
Yeah, I say, it says to write down
my credit card number and slide it
under the gate. Where I come from,
that’s a really bad idea.
Oh, it’s fine, she says, that’s how they
do it here—it’s safe.
Really? I say, but don’t believe her.
I do it all the time, I live here, she says,
where are you going?
Coming on to midnight, I look hard
at this stranger, tell her I’m on my way
to a residency up at Brush Creek.
Oh, how wonderful, she says, seems
like she means it, her voice high with excitement.
She was happy for me.
She told me the way to the rental lot,
I thanked her and washed my face.
Still, I got lost in the dark, and when I
reached Lot G7, she was standing in
my spot. I’m thinking stalker, Single
White Female. She’s going to rip my throat
with my own keys, stuff my body in the trunk.
I told you the wrong place
for the car, she said.
Oh thanks, I said.
She helped me with my bags,
Have a great residency, she said—
thanks, really—thanks, I said.
So tired I couldn’t figure out the car—
they told me to get 4 wheel drive for
the back roads and the snow.
So when I took the airport exit,
she pulled out ahead about 20 yards,
blinked her headlights, her arm out
the driver’s window a 90-degree pivot
and turned right onto Snowy Ridge Road
towards Laramie—I turned left.
I beeped and waved.
She didn’t have to do it.
Two women at night in the night
of the world. She saw me with no bearings,
she saw me afraid, she stepped up and
loved a stranger. She didn’t have to
do any of it.
Poetry has always been a rope for me. I hold on to see what life it leads to, to keep me connected to something unknown yet vital. It steadies me and yanks me around—it slacks, and I fall back into myself. It pulls like an intense, unseen force into a fog.
Molly Fisk raises the “clenched fist” of all women whose creativity has been lost or ignored. I love how she gives them and us our rightful place in art.
— Jane C. Miller
All's Well That Ends
My friend who found the life of the spirit in her 60s
and now is 82 likes to say Nothing matters, all is well,
which makes us both smile. Shakespeare seemed to think
the end eventually would even out the means if not
completely justify it. Whoever Shakespeare really was:
Marlowe, Francis Bacon, some gentlewoman of means
and a great eye for human foible but whose name,
of course, remains unknown, one more silver-sided fish
in the vast sea of women artists called Anonymous. I bow.
I bow and raise my clenched fist at the same time, fully
against the curtailment, corralling, theft from, stifling,
paralysis, distracting, and abasement of the fair sex.
That the slanted light in glimmers and faint music emerged
at all is the miracle, from laundry soap and candle wax,
chickens boiling on a stove all day for stock, keeping the fire
hot enough, having chopped wood, and it's summer, and how
many babies? Tell me your theory again, oh you whose meals
arrive on a plate, whose clothes are folded clean in drawers
that art is a luxury and not the bright blood coursing, fox-fleet,
down our thighs, through our every vein.
Katherine Gekker's poem begins with sound and continues to work sound and build with sound. The white space is dream-like and encouraged me to read the lines with consideration. Each time I read the sections, I discovered something new. I wanted to linger in the music and language of Katherine’s words.
— Gail Braune Comorat
Egg / Lion / Stone
1. Near the Tiber
Noise echoes off stone walls, cobblestones.
Wakes me. Wakes hooded crows.
in the passage too narrow for last night’s taxi,
a man in blue coveralls tunes a scooter’s motor,
its four strokes out of time –
a cacophony of muddied articulation.
I dreamed I speak German, order a hard-boiled egg –
Ein dur Ei, bitte.
My dream scrambled food / languages / music.
Confused French dur – hard – with German’s dur –
a major musical key.
Language and I are on vacation.
2. The Beginning,
Even when I was a mere egg,
words and notes vibrated around me.
Dozens of rhythms, languages rippled.
Of these, music was the greatest.
You coddled me.
And then you stopped –
3. Palatine Hill
Stone lions keep watch beneath umbrella trees.
A cracked blue shell leaks yellow yolk onto travertine steps.
Above, a coloratura song thrush sings –
Don’t my eggs taste sweeter than those of your cackling hen?
Do lions eat song thrush eggs?
Romulus saw twelve birds on Palatine Hill.
Western music has twelve major keys.
Twelve tones compose the chromatic scale.
Eggs are sold by the dozen.
Twelve months equal a year.
Some quantum gravity theories posit eleven dimensions.
Maybe 12 = 11.
Couchant stone lions recline on plinths.
What is it that turns us to stone?
A. Milne's "King John was not a good man" – this line rattles around in my ear and brain, as it has since I was a child. I was always so relieved when he got a "big, red India-rubber ball!" (in all caps!) at the end of the poem.
Right now I'm reading The River Twice by Kathleen Graber, Ledger by Jane Hirschfield, and I'm just starting to reread Anne Carson's "The Glass Essay," and Claudia Rankine's Citizen. I like poets and poems that work at many levels: meaning, language, images, sound, form. Those that challenge me.
Poets I return to often: Rilke, Emily Dickinson, Elizabeth Bishop, Wisłava Szymborska, Lucille Clifton, Ellen Bass, Marie Howe, Mark Doty.
I've changed my name (my last name) three times in my life (only sometimes voluntarily). So Diana Goetsch’s poem really speaks to me: about choosing exactly who one is/who one wants to be— and choosing with exuberance! I also love and value the access the poem offers its readers to one of our age's most enlightened and profound societal changes. — Wendy Elizabeth Ingersoll
Call her silly if you want
for what she loves: not the white
chocolate mocha she orders, not the girl
asking her name, then writing it
on the cup and passing it to the barista,
not the barista, who later shouts,
“Victoria!” That is what she loves.
She loves getting up from our table
and strutting across Starbucks
in slingback heels and low cut blouse,
displaying hard-won cleavage
in a push-up bra. But most of all she
loves the name she has given herself,
requested of her and said out loud,
like a butler announcing a debutante
at the entrance to the ball.
Victoria is 61 and a grandfather.
Her wife hates her breasts, hates
her risking her career and pension
to be doing this, which is also
what I’m doing, though I never had
a wife or family. And while I too
like my name, I have no need to
photograph it, which is what Victoria,
who has taken out her iPhone, is now
doing, and posting it to Instagram,
the tall paper cup with her name on it.
൪uartet Interview: Joan Colby
Joan Colby is the author of 25 volumes of poetry, most recently The Kingdom of Birds (August 2020, The Poetry Box Press) and The Salt Widow, a memoir (August 2020, FutureCycle Press). She has published widely in journals such as Poetry, Atlanta Review, Broadkill Review, Gargoyle, Pinon, Little Patuxent Review, Spillway, Midwestern Gothic and others. Her numerous awards include the 2013 FutureCycle Poetry Book Prize for Joan Colby: Selected Poems, and Glass Lyre Press’ 2015 Kithara Illinois Arts Council. Colby’s poems have been featured on Ver(se) Daily and one is among the winners of the 2016 Atlanta Review International Poetry Contest.
An accomplished equestrienne, Colby served as editor of the Illinois Racing News for over 30 years, a monthly publication for the Illinois Thoroughbred Breeders and Owners Foundation, published by Midwest Outdoors LLC. She lives with assorted animals on a small horse farm in Northern Illinois. She is senior book editor for FutureCycle Press and associate editor of Kentucky Review and Good Works Review.
൪: In such a long writing career, what led you to pursue poetry?
JC: I have written poetry since I was a child. My father read to me from Shakespeare when I was a young child and from the poems of Lord Byron and Shelley. So I grew up loving poetry.
൪: About your father in “Little Big Horn” (Joyriding to Nightfall), you write: “He gave me horses and poetry,/How to be observant and obstructive/With a grimly quiet resistance.” In The Kingdom of Birds in “Hawks in the Morning,” you write: “To watch them circle/Is to find pleasure/As we ought in art, seeking not to/Understand but to experience.” Talk about the role of observation in your life.
JC: One must be an observer to write anything. Close observation is necessary to understand the natural world. Observation, not just of things that matter, but of nuances – the feelings that people express, intimations.
൪: In poems from your more recent books, there were echoes of Robert Frost in “Farming” (Dead Horses), Wallace Stevens in “Clio Invents her Textbook” (Ah Clio) and James Wright in “Fox River” (Properties of Matter.) Would you talk about poets who have influenced your style and what you have learned from them?
JC: Many poets have influenced me. The short stories of Flannery O’Connor showed me another way to reckon with the world. And to use what one might think of as brutality to find honesty in existence.
I’ve sought all my life to be perfectly honest in my poetry.
൪: Nature is clearly a dominant focus of your work stemming from your life as a horsewoman living on a farm in rural Illinois – where the natural world is an everyday inspiration. Please describe how that relationship took root, what it means to you, and how it may have changed over the years.
JC: I love the natural world and animals – that has been a significant issue in my life always.
൪: Certain words, among them – lilies, crosses, beauty, gloves, calligraphy – provide a connection between poems and books. They elicit a flash of recognition and surprise because you use them each time in unusual ways. For example, in The Kingdom of Birds, you write in “Hawks”: “How beautifully/The raptors cruise November skies/Like crosses dipped in blood.” Please talk about how this approach can foster an emotional connection with readers, and how to avoid turning it into a crutch.
JC: Many of the symbolic words that I use are rooted in my unbelieving Catholic upbringing (my devout mother). My science-minded father refuted mysticism and anchored my thoughts in reality which led to me being a realist who values logic above all things.
൪: You have described writing poems like taking dictation. Does that include beginning and ending lines? Which come to you first? How do you know you have reached the end of a poem?
JC: I never so much plan a poem as receive it. The important poems that I have written have come to me often in waves, one after another, and are not constructed but simply written down. I never know what a poem is going to tell me. The point of writing poems is to find out what they reveal.
൪: From ekphrastic and list poems to narratives and villanelles, you cover a lot of poetic forms in your books. A chicken and egg question, how do you choose these forms? Why are they important to pursue?
JC: Of course, sometimes I have written poems for my own amusement. Like the poems in Broke, which explored the various meanings of the word, and written in a hospital after an accident. Or the poems in Elements, which focused on various elements that allowed a certain amount of punning and word play.
൪: In a reading, you said Ah Clio was a 50-year effort. In that chapbook, you turn the goddess of memory into an emblem and observer of history and women in it. What did you learn from Clio as your muse? What is your advice to people who find an obsession and want to see it through?
JC: I have always loved history and thus attracted Clio as my avatar. Every so often, she would visit me with a poem, and I Iearned from what she told me in the poems. I learned that history is not to be trusted, and that Clio is simply the recorder. My advice: follow your obsessions if you so desire to.
൪: One of the hallmarks of your poetry is its fluidity in moving between subjects, time and state. One thing becomes another, becomes another. Often what begins as small becomes large and many lived or vice versa. For example in “Blackflies” (Joyriding to Nightfall), you move those pests past foxhound and fisherman with his creel: in an aside, name larger more news-worthy beasts, then remind us: “But it’s the pests/Small and voracious we learn to dread./In a marriage…” How intentional or organic are these moves?
JC: Metaphor describes the way I think. It always has. The move you refer to in “Blackflies” is organic. It’s never intentional – these leaps just occur.
൪: Your vivid descriptions and compelling verbs enliven themes of loneliness, history, myth, love, family and memory. Talk about craft – how verbs, similes, metaphors, anaphora – move the familiar into discovery for the reader.
JC: Craft is essential to good poetry. Strengthening verbs is more important than use of adjectives. Honest expression is crucial. My advice -- Don’t search the thesaurus for unusual words. Write in your own tone. Don’t be pretentious. Write about what is important to you.
൪: You lace your poems with scientific language that makes long distance connections to what may be known. In “Properties of Matter” that shares the book’s title: “We are vases of minerals,/Maps overridden with nerves.” In The Kingdom of Birds, that analysis has turned inward. In “Eulogy for Birds,” you declare:”I am a clatter/Dangling from nervestrings/Like thin-paned chimes/Telling a blown story.” Has your use of such information become more personal in recent work?
JC: A friend of mine described my mind as a vacuum cleaner – which is true. I gather up the detritus of everything I read or hear or see, and I store it. My work has moved, in one sense, from the personal as a young woman, to the more impersonal - except for the oncoming work which memorializes my grief for my husband.
൪: Dead Horses is a natural extension of your lifelong work with, and love of horses. Your newest collection, The Kingdom of Birds, brings avian focus to our world. Why this book, why now?
JC: My poet friend David Spicer said to me, “You have enough bird poems to make a book.” That was the origin of The Kingdom of Birds. I have always loved watching birds. I feed them, photograph them. In ways, I feel bird-like.
൪: Please tell us about your memoir in progress and when we can look forward to reading it next year?
The memoir in progress is The Salt Widow, a memoir of grief. It will come out from FutureCycle Press this fall due to the heroic efforts of Diane Kistner of FutureCycle Press.
- - -
Joan Colby was suffering from terminal cancer at the time that this interview was conducted. She regrets its brevity. She would have liked to respond at much greater length but she was not able to do so. Joan passed away August 18, 2020.
A Revenant of Birds
angle of wings
division of tailfeathers.
identifies birds by form,
the measures they paste upon air
like grace notes. Intervals
between where they were
and are now.
The birds subtract themselves
from a grey expanse, transformed
to jittery leaves on a winter oak.
Their plainsong matters,
composes the morning.
The birds rest insisting
several kinds of silence
encompass a harmony beyond the world’s
blue scales, prefiguring
a calligraphy of the higher kingdom.
— from The Kingdom of Birds
View poetry by Joan Colby at www.joancolby.com. Her books are available for purchase through her publishers or through Amazon.
This interview was conducted via email by ൪uartet editor, Jane C. Miller
Lessons in Soothing Savagery
I Will Say Beauty
TriQuarterly Press (2003)
As the coronavirus continues its rampage, I find myself rejecting high-stakes drama for stories where I can nest more comfortably with less challenge. I want a world where beauty is not marred by uncertainty and death.
I turned to Carol Frost’s poetry collection, I Will Say Beauty because I hunger for such consolation that 2020 decidedly did not provide. My desire, it turns out, is the very issue Frost addresses. And not in the way I expected.
In side-by-side preamble poems, Frost shows her intention to move us into new territory. In “Winter Without Snow,” her wish for “a white field/like a fresh beginning” becomes a metaphor for the blank page on which she alters form and perception.
Her shift to the right-hand margin in “Wet Spring Day,” forces a sea-change in how this and subsequent poems look and feel. Her lines on a spar flow fluid as left-moving surf to “...the sun-drenched southern reaches/of thought, off charts...”
Though “we could nearly lose ourselves” in such bliss, she has much larger aims, joining her purpose with artists past who claim creativity as a beatitude nature affords, if we look closely enough.
With language elegant and sensual, avid and languorous, Frost imbeds us in kayak, field, in bird. In her words, we become both window and landscape to explore the nature of ardor, greed, compassion, and loss. And though she takes as her book’s title an affirmation of beauty in pain and want, her poems both express and question it.
Her lungs fill with the flight of a small seabird, yet in “Driftwood,” she becomes “Bird not bird” in flux with currents and asks, “Have I lied to myself about art?”
Nature supplies the reckoning. Its soothing savagery describes our own. In Frost’s words, a body in the jaws of a white shark becomes no less beautiful than a star-gazer lily. For where time is both passion and predator, beauty is not the absence of flaws or risk, but the presence of scars and our ability to bear them.
And bare them she does. A taut bow is a heart string a hunter waits to pluck. Conch, eel, deer face our greed. In “Rays,” Frost uses the ghazal form to superimpose the “I” on this creature and acknowledge our culpability for its pain. “The body has a season and hungers,” she reasons in “Whelks.”
Animals understand better their body’s stages. A dying rabbit in “Reap” that “wears illness/like a dirty coat” moves into the underbrush, “smoothed by the soft greys, as if with compassion.” He anticipates his death with an acceptance we can only imagine.
In Frost’s telling, animals don’t share the burden of mind that questions all things. That is our privilege and pain. Animals do not magnify every moment. They live them, and though we cannot change who we are, we can be changed by how we experience the world and find in its dark mystery, the fullness of beauty in our lives.
Such epiphanies cannot be planned. “Only in forgetting map and compass...” she tells us in “Foxes” can we experience discovery and insight. From that letting go comes “A strange glory, a sense of moment, so lovely/and intense.../and then it changed,//as we are changed.” (“Hem of Sunlight”) And if in those moments we see what or who is not there, she says, “there’s beauty in small lies” (“Apiary IX”) and comfort.
Through these lessons in how to live, Frost takes us out of ourselves and returns us changed by our encounters. I Will Say Beauty offers an enduring testament to the power of art to convey our search for meaning and to not despair, even as a modern-day plague threatens us. Amid time’s winded clamor, grace steels its wings and out of darkness her silken words hold us spellbound by their tough, elegant beauty.
— Jane C. Miller