Editor's Note Section
Spring Issue 2021 Volume 1 Issue 2
My friend, Annie Hawkins, once called me a crone. To my face. And laughed when she did it. So I countered with hag, and she threw down harpy. Annie was a professional storyteller and knew full well the importance of the right word in the right place in her tellings. Poetry is the same.
Novelist, poet, scriptwriter, teacher, Julianna Baggott once said in class that we should shout our words into a cave and the one that resonates is the right one. And poet Baron Wormser believes in sonic imagination, which he says is another way to let sound lead you to the best words.
Stephen Dobyns published a book titled Best Words, Best Order in which he explains the mysteries of creating poetry. And Paul Engle claims poetry is boned with ideas….all held together by the delicate, tough skin of words.
I wish Annie was still here to word-toss with me, but she isn’t and I must do the work on my own, as do most writers. It is my hope that in your wanderings through the poems in
൪uartet you will sense the work that went into choosing the best words, the right words. And I hope some of those words inspire you to shout into your own deep cave and then listen for the perfect ring. And I hope you do it again. And again. Until you have a page full of your best words. That’s what we crones do, right?
(crone: an archetypal figure, a Wise Woman, an old woman with magic powers. In some cultures, a woman becomes a crone at age 50 and in others it’s when she enters menopause. In modern thought, a woman becomes a crone when she damned well feels like it.)
My frames are baby blue with rhinestones on the wings.
When I put them on in the eye doctor’s office, everything
comes into focus—the E F P T O Z printed on the chart
in stark relief on white, the wrinkles around the doctor’s
brown eyes when he smiles, my mother’s profile chiseled
like a cameo on a pink shell. People in the waiting room—
a blond boy reading Highlights with his mother, a man
with his name—Ray—on a blue work shirt—with auras
of ultraviolet light around their heads like angels or saints
on the stained-glass windows at church. On the drive home,
the clarity is like a knife—chrome fins on cars, rough bark
on pines, light slanting from windows on houses, stores,
and gas stations, every petal and leaf outlined in gold.
When we get home, Mother says, You look glamorous
in glasses. Maybe I’ll be a movie star like Loretta Young,
slinking down a staircase in high-heels. At bedtime, Mother
tells me to take them off, then kisses my cheek and leaves.
I grope for the glasses on the nightstand and put them on
in the dark. Without them, how will I see my dreams?
After reading Edna St. Vincent Millay’s poems in high school, I wrote sonnets in study hall instead of doing my algebra homework. I discovered the Black Mountain poets and projective verse in college, breaking lines into breath-lengths as I chain-smoked cigarettes. Now I write in open verse most of the time, but I like tinkering with what poet Roger Weingarten refers to as “reincarnated forms,” working within traditional forms like the sestina, pantoum, or villanelle, but tweaking the rules. “Cat’s Eyes” isn’t written in a closed form, but there are echoes of the sonnets I wrote as a girl embedded in the poem—internal rhyme, slant rhyme, and the iambic heartbeat in the opening line.
At Home in Hanoi – August, 2020
By nose we travelers drift
to the kitchen. Tran Mai, roughly
our age, lures us into orbit
around the pho pot, centripetal —
onions, beef bones browned, baked,
bursting with marrow, stock laden
with fresh ginger, Thai basil, hoisin sauce —
a shock of steam, rice noodles
like a rhumba of rattlers poised to slither
into our bowls. We eat, our sighs
a shared language of slurp.
Speak to them, her sons coax.
Tell them. We will translate.
Her words, soft with Asian lilt,
set out a new stew, vintage 1969.
We, former enemies, fall into
her story, quake
as thunderous B-52s raid
her northern village.
Fragments flash like old news reels —
shards of trees, a deluge
of bombs every fifteen minutes.
Napalmed bones snap, marrow flows.
Snaking through mine fields, we
imagine our own pilots, foe
above the clouds. In her grasp,
we Americans face our own
reckoning— blood shed
on enemy soil. Her soil.
Tran’s words expose shame,
my leftovers from the sixties,
years when I took to the streets,
shunned Stars and Stripes.
But now, this soup and this story,
shimmering like marrow bones
primed for the pot, offer a recipe
The first poem that brought me to tears was Bill Holm’s "Wedding Poem for Schele and Phil," a poem that captures the essence of marriage – a hand on the other’s thigh that “carries news from another world that you always thought you inhabited alone.” And isn’t that kind of news the crux of poetry?
Not long after, I awoke with a poem; my life since enriched not only by words but by gifted teachers: Gerry LaFemina, Diane Lockward, Stephen Dunn, BJ Ward.
I draw strength in these times from Wendell Berry’s "The Peace of Wild Things," and inspiration from long walks and foreign travels (pre-COVID.) More dear, however, are friends and fellow poets who read and respond to my work. Precious, indeed.
After Learning to Tie a Boat with a Rolling Hitch
That was the day we argued—
or debated, or discussed—which was better. The Iliad
you said, battle after battle after battle,
one big bloody mess I said, but you liked Achilles
and his love for, who was it, Hector,
no, Patroclus. The Odyssey, I said, clever
Odysseus calling himself
Nobody, remembered all these millennia,
as if any warrior would claim he’s nobody,
as strained by society’s getting and spending
as Emily Dickinson who wasn’t nobody
either but had a mind
to be. Odysseus strapping his men
to the warm gurgling bellies
of sheep, blinding the Cyclops, a creature
my high school friend confused,
by way of ogre, I kid you not, with orgy.
And who doesn’t envy Circe, turning
those men into pigs, revealing
in their physical form their inner natures,
and so you asked me
what Circe could turn me into, what outward form my
inner nature would take. I thought for a minute
until I saw it, Aeolus’ bag of wind, wind
tactile if not exactly visible—don’t
scold me for deflecting your question—oh, western wind
soft as spring clover, a gust, a breeze, or wild
as the wine-dark sea.
Some days I just long to read more poetry, and fortunately, my to-be-read stack of new and not-so-new collections is always high. Last night I read Hope of Stones by Anna Elkins, published last year, and before that I read Obscura by Frank Paino. I always return to Elizabeth Bishop and learn something from her about craft every time. My wife is a visual artist, and I've learned all about color and light from her. My life has been comparatively peripatetic, and every new location has brought me new images. It's the best vocation, I think, the call to be a poet.
And Behind Us, Only Air
Ten days from death, she glows, sitting beside me
on their deck, scarf wrapped around her head.
She’s leaning toward me. I have a cold
so I’m leaning away, afraid to give her
one more thing to fight, and it hurts
that someone seeing this photograph
might think I’m avoiding her. She’s softly
smiling at the photographer—her husband—
on this my last visit to see her. I feel messy,
unfinished; there’s too much of me,
I’m too given over to life, and all that has
been stripped from her. It seems she’s gone
beyond grief. Not yet, though, is she skeletal, quite.
So many poets and poems have been important to me over the course of my life--among them, Herbert, Keats, Whitman, Dickinson, Hopkins, Eliot, Williams, Bishop, Merwin, Snyder, Clifton. Recently, I've been very moved by Vievee Francis, Ada Limón, and Layli Long Soldier. And by these lines from Brenda Hillman's "Poem for a National Forest" in her wonderful new book Extra Hidden Life, Among the Days:
You who don’t understand poetry
Of course you do
Stand in the shadows in a dream
Write from where you are
Write what you want to read
Litany for Jenn
my friend my friend’s daughter a girl someone
going to work wearing new heels putting a key in the lock turning toward
the new day Disney World only miles away my friend
my friend’s daughter someone was watching her had been
watching her for days weeks from behind trees around a corner
in a car chewing a sandwich sucking in smoke blowing it out a cracked
window thinking she was so blonde so tall in heels ready
for work in her suit skirt purse on her arm keys in her hand a girl always
on time five days a week someone looked at her hand on the lock legs in new heels face in
profile and saw an investment a windfall a debt
put paid my friend my friend’s daughter disappeared
off the face of the earth no where no one nothing but a grainy film an empty car
a condo quiet no scuff marks on concrete
nothing but a welcome mat a table set with Christmas candles a closet
neatly arranged color coordinated clothes on the rack
a bedside clock keeping time alarm set for fifteen years of maybe
murdered maybe dogs will find her come spring maybe she was sex trafficked
maybe drug lords have her Colombians Russians maybe she was flown
out of the country to any country in the world a cold place a hot place
maybe she’s in a house around the corner locked away
without keys in a hell that never ends do they
beat her legs face hands what do they feed her do they
feed her does she sleep on hard floor does she sleep in a King’s bed
the bedside clock keeps time fifteen years
we wish her alive we wish her
dead we wish her sitting at our table eating Rice Krispy treats
lasagna chicken and dumplings the Welcome the Home
written in smooth chocolate with a steady hand her name
spelled out in trick candles that spit sparks and fizz
no matter the attempts no one can extinguish the word
that is her
there is no cake
no cursive frosting caught in the corner of her smiling mouth
we cannot eat the words we dream
this is not a prayer don’t ask
for anything that translates toward comfort
there is no language
for my friend
my friend’s daughter
Lucille Clifton’s work is an unending source of wisdom, joy, and inspiration. Her haunting poem "what did she know, when did she know it" confronts complicity. In my PhD studies of violence involving women and girls in poetry, I encountered many victims and survivors. I find myself turning the question inward: What do I know? When did I know it? I saw Jennifer Kessee’s story on the news the night she disappeared, and again, seven years later, her smile and case info on a card stuck to a gas station pump. I reached out and her mother generously shared information with me, some of which appears in this poem. Jennifer has been missing for 15 years.
— Melanie Graham
What happens in this story
This is not the story you think it is, the one about
the girl who touches the spindle and drops to the floor.
This is not the one about the girl sentenced to death
by a looking glass. This is not the one where
the mother is buried under a tree and white birds
peck themselves to death to make the daughter
a dress. This is not the one about blood red shoes
spinning endlessly in the dark forest, still holding
the feet of another victim of longing, who must
continue to suffer to earn grace.
This is the one about a woman in a boat shaped
like the thin seed of a marigold flower, about how she
drops her oars, slipping into the surface of the water,
ruffling the looking glass surface. At the finish
of each stroke the oar lifts up through the water
back into air, a drop of water spinning sunlight
off the blade in a moment of lingering, and the boat
slides, glides. In this story the symbols of longing
are callouses, muscles, sweat, alarm clocks.
In this story, grace is on the water.
One of the poems I most often turn to and return to is Robert Hayden’s “Monet’s Waterlilies” – those first few lines especially, when he talks about “the news from Selma and Saigon” and how when the news is sad, frightening, poisonous, he goes to see “the serene great picture” he loves. Art as refuge, as reminder, as balm – Hayden showed me how art can coexist with the awful news of the world, how poetry can hold both, and how important that juxtaposition is. Important for the reader and for the writer. I first read that poem probably 35 years ago, and it still comes to mind frequently. Most recently I’ve been reading Ada Limón and Natalie Diaz, and going back to Nazim Hikmet, Denise Levertov, and Muriel Rukeyser. All terrific poets of juxtaposition!
Eve F.W. Linn
Ode to the Eye
Honey harvested in King Solomon's time
rows of terra cotta jars
in the desert of Tel Rehov,
city of bees
hives slick with propolis
honest home of the queen
wolf tree in an open field furrowed in green
light spreads to the roof peak
the glass eyes of the cupola
on the barn–– windows burn gold
but there is no fire
fat green buds of peonies
threaded with ants
so heavy they shatter after rain
litter of petals––upturned
silent––blushed and wet.
The poem, originally titled “And It Is Just Everything,” began as a response to an assignment to write about religion. Since I am a non-believer, I turned to the visual world and particular items of meaning. Since I began my creative life as a painter and obsessive observer of detail, this was a practice that I could transfer to writing. Virginia Woolf is the writer who has had the most long lasting and profound effect on my creative life. Her post World War One novel, Mrs. Dalloway, showcases her ability to interweave the lives of her protagonists, not simply through action, but by interior reflection. The line at the beginning of the novel, “...she always had the feeling that it was very, very dangerous to live even one day.” stops me every time. At this moment in our history, I can’t think of more truthful, though chilling statement. Despite the obstacles, we persevere.
I am indebted to Louise Gluck’s Wild Iris, specifically the poem, “Mock Orange,” “How can I rest?/ How can I be content/ when there is still/ that odor in the world?”, the finely textured poems of Linda Bierds where she describes a diverse array of historic figures, creating a life on the page, as in this poem, “Thinking of Red, Marie Curie, 1934” from First Hand. The repetition and associations with the color red, conjure the scientist, dying of radiation sickness, recalling her childhood. “...And those primary years, gathered like cardinals. Although there were no cardinals, of course. But gooseberries…And she climbed red in her pinafore.” I have returned again and again to Bierds’ work, as I’ve written sequences about women artists and writers. Mark Doty’s brilliant book, Still Life with Oysters and Lemon on the Dutch masters always reminds of the strong connection between poetry and painting.
—Eve F.W. Linn
Quarantine Morning Agreement
No newspaper headlines screaming,
no I-pad or I-phone screens, no
anything but seeing the light
creep across your bathrobe
sleeve by the same infinitesimal
degree it blazes trees across
the pond— nearer Holly tree’s
leaves gleam a patent leather
sheen—a heron floats by stately
as an aged queen—and that odd
bird—as if lifted from the ground
by an unseen hand and set upon
a branch with not a wing unfurled—
doesn’t ghost when I step out
onto the deck to get a better look.
No traffic grinding up the miles
into work— can even hear robins
sing underneath honking geese—
I’m a fan of the image, and imagistic poets, and of French philosopher Gaston Bachelard’s theory of “reverie” as means of accessing the primal or original image. By reverie he means that contemplation of nature that allows us to “descend so deeply within ourselves that they rid us of our histories. They liberate us from our name.” Situated in the present, the now, in reverie one is not in the past (memory) or pulled to the imagined trajectory of the future (daydream). We are liberated from our name, from what “we do,” what we have “done,” and what “we will do.” Always alert to an original image, reverie is the space I try to inhabit when I write. Yet, the ease with which I can enter this space is in direct proportion with the time I spend in the vortex of social media, designed to be endlessly self-referential, a meta-loop propelled by the centrifugal force of the most powerful of all addiction— intermittent reinforcement.
I have never been a temporary mother, but there were days
I gave away my skin like wind fluff, fly away, drifting over fields
with no destination, only a thin layer over me, curtain flutter,
window-gauze I could see through. O to be pliable, able to make-
shift, even cast off without care, but left to cover if, in order to
secure, protection is warranted. Not this membrane, fog settling
in like a dew-cloud, suffocating. Maybe this is how depression took
my mother, cloaked her in Saran until she could not even recognize
herself. Before she knew what to do, film over her eyes, throat
& nose blocking out her children, dogs & house, her husband, until
all she could see were the edges, pauses in between, plastic blotting
out full image. Nothing felt clear, stripped of all she had known,
plastic killing her, pretending to keep her safe, pristine & untouched
when instead she became a museum, mother-who-used-to-be, now
mummified under-layer, however visible, supposedly supple, but
smothered & still, wrapped up tight, secure & permanently stored.
I write poems because language is stuck in my mouth. Words come largely from image for me – what I see outside my door or where I move through a place. But language also comes to me through story or song, snatched bits of overheard conversation, sign posts, memories of how people I love talked long ago. Just now, I am reading Lucille Clifton and Jean Valentine as I want their wise instruction. I also love reading young poets’ work to keep me alive and in the moment. One of my favorite weekly pastimes is meeting with a high school poetry club I help advise. I credit poetry for helping me stay sharp-eyed and hopeful about the world we face.
Elizabeth Bishop Invites Me In
Morning run, sweat pearling, sliding
down my face. In the front door of the
old eyebrow house, Elizabeth smiles,
motions, I follow her in. Cool, sparse,
high ceilings, a fan hums. Book lined walls.
She hands me water in a crystal glass. Points
to a chair. I swallow politely, try not to gulp.
We talk about writing. About Key West. I see
dilapidated houses, palms slapping tin roofs,
iguanas feeding on orchids and frangipani. Black
roosters don’t let me sleep. She sees sheer water,
turquoise tarpons, fork tailed frigate birds
soaring silent. The crash of pelicans like pick axes.
Elizabeth tells me she came to Key West
to fish. Silver and iridescent
in blue water. Like Hemingway. The large fish
she caught and let go, five hooks
in its mouth. And poetry. Elizabeth tells me this
is a beautiful place to write.
A year ago at a celebration of her 109th birthday I sat under palm trees in the backyard of Elizabeth Bishop’s Key West house. I had run by this house a hundred times and often stopped to read the commemorative brass plate on the white picket fence. I had always admired her poems and came to love the ones she wrote about this tropical island I had often tried to portray. In her “Florida” Bishop depicts the mangrove roots, the green hummocks, the moonlight “coarse-meshed” and careless, “tanagers embarrassed by their flashiness”, pelicans clowning, even the mosquitoes sing in obbligatos. In “The Fish” she uses surprising words to depict what is not lovely – “venerable and homely”, “shiny entrails,” “swim-bladder like a big peony”, eyes like “old scratched isinglass”. And yet with exquisite detail she takes the reader with her to the island, onto the boat, into a peaceful and serene place.
Warm sun on my face I listened as six scholars and poets spoke of Bishop’s time in Key West and read her words. The next day I imagined this poem.
Kristin Camitta Zimet
mole, skin tag, transplant scar: I slide a washrag
over purple leopard-spots, skin quick to bleed,
slow to scab, jutting scapula and bone harp ribs,
the skeleton that waited, patient in the deep,
under your cushioned hug for six decades:
your body offered up more wholly than in love:
anus, scrotum, groin given me now with more than
a lover’s trust: an infant’s sacrament: I go slow,
not to miss any part: warm the cloth and wring it out
and start again, memorize what has no secrets left
at last, no will to hide: learn you, leak and seep,
as if we had not burrowed each into the other,
every way we could: chafed and shuddered,
grappled, smoothed, huddled, pummeled in :
trembling you beg: lighter, go lighter : soon
you will not even bear the pressure of my eyes
The speed of dark depends on how
deep you settle down, how close
to the ridge that walls your valley,
on your willingness to clamber up
into a basket underneath a red silk
bubble, pull the cord that makes
the gases roar, and hover, tipsy in
the lees of light, lifting a plastic
tumbler of champagne. Let’s slip
up to bed early, loosing our thin
hair across the pillow, cheeks
just a little ashen, lips somewhat
quivery, and sparking, catch
the dusk in frost. Face to face
float, December windows lit.
I’ve always heard poems with melodies attached; at six I invented a notation to record them. My parents would read Robert Browning’s poetry to one another in the firelight. From them I learned that a poem lives out loud, in a specific voice, in the context of caring, and as an act of exchange. Hopkins woke me to the materiality of words, their mouthfeel, rhythms, strengths, and alliances. Mona Van Duyn taught me to ground a poem in practical, local, earthy experience. Rilke showed me that a poem is meant to open spirit.
Making poems carried me through two rounds of lung cancer. Since the death of my husband I am writing my way through grief. Poems by May Sarton, Lisel Mueller, and William Stafford are singing on my refrigerator door.
— Kristin Camitta Zimet
As I read Jessica Goodfellow's poem, I felt my mouth open and her words pour in: I became a vessel for the space of what wants and what is.
— Jane C. Miller
beneath the five-tiered pagoda I sit
listening to the rain on the roof
roof roof roof roof
remembering your five fingers
down my spine
spine spine spine spine
the moon hangs in the sky, an open
parenthesis( which one of memory’s
five parentheses: (the past (the past
that never was (the present (the future
that won’t be, and (the other (O
my heart(( O, Kurosawa’s chiaroscuro)
its four twitching chambers)
which can’t be divided five ways
There is so much chaos in the world. I used to think that poetry was a way of dealing with it. Now I think it’s more accurate to say that poetry is a way of responding to the chaos of living. I suspect I will find the flaw in that reasoning eventually as well, but I remain convinced that there is some kind of relationship between chaos and poetry. The poets whose work I return to again and again include Cole Swensen, Anne Carson, Inger Christensen, Louise Gluck, Charles Wright, and Jane Hirshfield.
The mother/daughter relationship is complicated. This poem by Devon Miller-Duggan is one of the most honest depictions of that relationship I have ever read. I felt every word of it. This poem howls. (And it doesn't hurt that the first line is taken from "A Blessing" by James Wright.
— Linda Blaskey
Let Each Day
Darken with kindness,
ohmyheart, darken toward kindness,
this thing not chambered in my heart.
My mother, my heart, eats, breathes,
dies by fear-dragged inches. She
made me the center-radiance of her life,
without permission, or remission, when I nearly killed her
being born. Nearly killed her being separated.
Would have killed her staying wombed.
She lives, wanting me near, near.
I have none of love-fed patience for this slow going down,
I have none, Old Poet,
no arc of gut-line toward running water,
no greeting, no release, no drunken opening of hearts.
My heart hates my own birthday—
nearer my end, still learning how to birth a good word.
And even on this day, my mother-not-mother
hooking her nails into it every blessing,
kissing my hands even as I pull them from her lips
smoothing white-soft hair back from her eyes.
Nun’s dark habits, women in niqabs—none
can see their hearts. Their hearts
know how to move in dark.
There have been monsters under my heart since I was born.
The ocean, with its salt and crashing, keeps its monsters in darkness,
yet it kills and even its killing is beautiful.
It breathes. Heart, be my unsalted darkness.
I am not kind in light.
I’ve been in love with James Wright’s very famous poem “A Blessing” since I first encountered it in my sophomore poetry class. The professor, Gib Ruark, also a very fine poet, was a good friend of Wright’s, and the Wright (and Heaney) poems he taught were always accompanied with stories about dinners in Italy or Ireland, which seemed magical to me. That poem, though it’s not my favorite poem of Wright’s (that would be “The Journey”), has stayed with me at a cellular level and is one of the few poems my not-good-at-memorizing brain has managed to retain. A couple of years ago, I got a notion in my head to write a sequence using each of the poem’s lines as first lines. Then, next thing I knew, Izaak Walton’s account of John Donne’s death inserted itself into the proceedings and the sequence took a turn toward mortality. About a third of the way in, my mother’s health began to decline steeply and I found the sequence turning again, this time toward her impending death. She died before it was finished, and the last several poems turned into a kind of memorial for her.
Right now, I’m reading Cat Doty’s powerhouse new book, Wonderama. It’s killing me and lifting my heart at the same time. I’m teaching a course called “Poetry as Equipment for Living” in which we’re reading much of Milosz’s Anthology A Book of Luminous Things and doing a lot of free-ish writing using Jessica Jacobs and Nikole Brown’s Write It! for prompts. Beyond that, I’m struggling again with Canvas, but I nearly have Zoom down in this third weird semester, and I’m fighting to write more than I normally do during semesters because I need it to keep going while I try to get myself vaccinated and teach and, and, and. You know.
In periodic attempts at grace, I now and again have held internal conversation with my younger self. The question remains: what to say to 'her' about all the hurts of the past, all the necessary forgiveness. This poem is a compelling touchstone for such exercise—the phrase that brings me up short against my own tears is "My darling": two words riven by a chasm of stanza break.
This poem for me is about how to survive, with hope.
— Wendy Elizabeth Ingersoll
To Myself at Twelve
Here is what you need to know: you will never
get the farm back, though you will dream of it
for decades. In each dream, the farm
will be different: half underwater, or a town
grown up around it, or the barn and arena full
of the detritus of a fairground. In some dreams
the horses are different but still waiting for you.
Always the undone with you, the responsibility
that sent you out in the snow, sleepwalking,
to feed the horses at three a.m. And your sister
following, stopping you, bringing you back
inside the house. She’s the one who, years after
you’ve forgotten how to ride a horse, will have
her own farm. Hard to believe but you won’t love it,
the place too saturated with her husband’s anger—
so like your father’s you will be transported
back to this age and the fear and rage that roots you
to the spot, frozen as winter topsoil. Oh, don’t
worry. You will find easier love and feel it ebb
and flow, perplexed by its oceanic nature,
how it scrapes and reshapes everything.
I am so sorry you won’t know whether to throw
yourself in or retreat to the shore, and so
you will sometimes do one when you should
have done the other. Eventually there will be
marriage—twice—but you will be relieved
to know: no children. You were right
that it is hard enough to raise yourself.
The world with its love affair with money
and prestige will carve away at the spindle
of you until some places are so thin
they barely hold. And when you think
there is little left to mark you
your sister will get cancer and die
between one spring and the next. My
darling. You will hurt like a tree struck
by lightning. The pain and the burning
will find you again and again. Every time,
every single damned time, you will step out
of the blackened trunk, back into this world.
I don’t know how you will do it, I still don’t know,
but there is something in you as bright and hard
as a diamond. Without that we would not both
still be here, standing on either side of the river,
watching each other breathe in the morning light.
I do read whole books of poetry by a single author, but individual poems are what stick with me, lodging in my mind and heart. For years I kept a three-ring binder of poems I’d read in magazines and loved, my own personal anthology. These days it’s a document on my computer. “You Are Who I Love” by Aracelis Girmay, which felt like it was written to me, made me feel seen, offering a hand during the awful years of the 45th president of the U.S. “My Hobby Needed a Hobby” by Dana Roeser, which gave me permission to write about whatever the hell is bothering me, even if it’s somehow impolite to admit in a poem that po-biz can gut you or that you love horses or that you still have crushes after menopause. The best thing about social media is the links to poems I might otherwise miss. Martha Silano’s “When My Brother Texts You Guys Have a Weapon?”, Nomi Stone’s “Waiting for Happiness,” Allison Joseph’s “To Answer Verlaine.” So many poems to love, to re-read for solace, inspiration, and permission.
I’m a sucker for science and this poem is full of terminology, the words comfortably occupying the lines. I found both tension and serenity in the lines, and loved the mix of high and low language. Wilson layers the poem with multi-syllabic nouns and adjectives but ends the poem with six plain one-syllable words— "hope"as its closing word.
—Gail Braune Comorat
Sailor by the Wind
Velella Velella, a cosmopolitan free-floating hydrozoan
They wash up, an iridescent armada,
an unstrung chandelier, and glow
dichroic against silica stars.
Because you cannot count them,
cannot measure the ribbon they make
along the shore, you take one home,
place it on the living room altar,
tolerate the smell of desiccation,
bring it to me this January afternoon
as we huddle under blankets on your deck.
We haven’t sat together for months.
We’ve hovered in driveways,
exchanged food and news. Now,
another wave is coming and I’m afraid
you will drift too far, so we brave
the weather, the masks,
feel our way back to each other.
The cadaver rests, dainty in my hand.
Annular rings like ages of trees,
the sturdy thumb of its sail, dried now
the shade of a skeletal leaf or the vacant
skin of a snake. Not the shock of color,
the bobbing sheet of cobalt swaying
in the sea, plump chitinous sails aimed
westward into wind.
It’s getting dark, and I’ve been
weighing risk in microscopic bits.
I return the husk to you on my open palm.
It hovers on the dehydrated toes
of its tentacles, as if I could make a wish,
blow it loose, a corona of seeds,
populate your yard
with a blue swath of hope.
Poetry is slippery. I let it go once and almost didn’t get it back. But now that I’ve found it again, it sometimes shimmers on my skin like sweat. I cut my teeth writing about trauma, but they are all smoothed down, and now I write about beauty and love so dense that regular words aren’t enough. I think of Plath’s “Love set you going like a fat gold watch” (“Morning Song”), or Adrienne Rich’s “milkman [coming relentless] up the stairs.” It makes my mouth water. I think of “little moons [falling] down like tears from between the pages of the almanac” (Bishop, “Sestina”) and Gwendolyn Brooks’ “damp small pulps with little or with no hair” (“The Mother”).
I believe poetry is the distillation of life, an artistic rendition that winds up being more true than the thing itself. I sit down to my keyboard with a sense of adventure and the recognition of an awesome responsibility. Then, I try to balance narrative and image to form an idea that matches the internal to the external. I’m trying to forge language into something I can hold in the air with as few fingers as possible.
൪uartet Interview: Faith Shearin
Faith Shearin grew up in Kitty Hawk, NC, and has lived since then in a range of places, including a mountain-top cabin in West Virginia, the shores of Cape Cod, and the city of Baltimore. She currently resides in a small college town in western Massachusetts. She has authored seven books of poetry, including her most recent, Lost Language, released this past November from Press 53. Her previous books include: The Owl Question (Utah State University Press,winner of the May Swenson award), Moving the Piano(Stephen F. Austin State University Press), Empty House(Word Press), Telling the Bees(SFA University Press), Orpheus,Turning(Broadkill River Press, winner of the Dogfish Head Poetry Prize), and Darwin's Daughter(SFA University Press). She has received awards from Yaddo, The National Endowment for the Arts, The Barbara Deming Memorial Fund
and The Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown. Her work has been read aloud by Garrison Keill0r on The Writer's Almanac and has appeared in The Autumn House Anthology of Contemporary Poets and "American Life in Poetry", as well as journals such as Alaska Quarterly Review, Poetry East, Ploughshares, North American Review, Southern Review, Cincinnati Review, New Ohio Review, and Comstock Review.
We ൪uartet editors first met Faith in 2015, at her reading in Milton, Delaware, as winner of the Dogfish Head Poetry Prize. Her friendliness and approachability won us over, as well as her beautiful, imaginative and moving poems. Mark Doty wrote of Faith's first book: "What Faith Shearin wishes, wisely, is to be able to love and to see clearly at once." Her ongoing body of work continues to demonstrate the fulfillment of that promise.
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൪:With your very first book, The Owl Question(Utah State University Press, 2001), you hit the ground running, winning the May Swenson Award. You've since published six other books, including your latest, Lost Language, just released by Press 53. How are you so successfully prolific?
FS:I should say first that it took me seven years to publish The Owl Question so I felt the opposite of prolific during my early writing life. Each year I took the manuscript apart, pulled out the weakest poems, and replaced them with new work. And each year I entered the manuscript contests and received a fresh batch of rejection letters, enough to paper all the walls of my bathroom. I wanted very badly to be a writer. I just kept trying. My other books came more easily; I developed a habit of working in notebooks, recording images that seemed to require my attention; I had notebooks devoted to scientific or historic facts or scenes that triggered my imagination; I had notebooks devoted to obsessions and worries. I had ink stains on my bedroom quilt and notebooks spilling out of my cupboards. The notebooks are a serious housekeeping issue. They are everywhere. I have one with a footprint on it in the car and a stained one in my kitchen.
൪: What in your art has changed since The Owl Question—craft, voice, other aspects? Were the changes intentional or inadvertent?
FS: I am told my poems grew shorter and less autobiographical in my later books though my most recent book Lost Language returns, in some ways, to the spiritual and emotional terrain I mined in The Owl Question. I like some of my books better than others; I have favorites. I would like to think that the poems are always growing more muscular or elegant but, in fact, there is a freshness and excitement to my earliest work I have never been able to recapture.
൪: Do you have strict work habits to get so much accomplished, or are you fairly relaxed in your approach?
FS:The answer is both. I work a lot but with low expectations. I write for pleasure, in the morning, letting my pen fill a page with fragmented images and ideas. After some time has passed, I search these notebooks with a highlighter for anything I can harvest. I search the way fishermen search the oceans with their nets. Emily Dickinson described her reason for writing in a letter to Thomas Wentworth Higginson in April of 1862: "I had a terror since September, I could tell to none; and so I sing, as the boy does of the burying ground, because I am afraid." She gets at something important here, namely why she writes poems. I also write because I am afraid. Virginia Woolf wrote "One cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well." She also wrote: "A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write..." I agree that a rich creative life has to be nurtured with good books, and music, and conversation, and walks in the woods, cups of tea with honey, and pie, and humor, and kindness. The childlike, playful self must be invited out to play. I have had fallow periods and periods of fecundity. Some poems fall from the sky like apples or snow; some are miscarried before they ever arrive in the world; Sylvia Plath described them as stillborn, saying: "These poems do not live; it's a sad diagnosis." I think I have strayed from your original question. I write regularly except when I don't. I am often interrupted by money troubles or death or anxiety. I write because I am afraid but if I am too frightened I cannot write at all.
൪: You grew up in Kitty Hawk, NC, a place famously open to the elements and also a place where humans learned to fly. What in that childhood do you think pointed you toward a career as a poet?
FS:I love Kitty Hawk and the barrier islands around it; I love the high winds and shifting dunes and the way the ocean isolates the villagers but also delivers things to them: shipwrecks, shells, sharks. I love that a certain British accent, brought by early settlers, survived intact for hundreds of years among fisherman on the island of Ocracoke. I love the town of Seagull which vanished beneath migrating sand dunes in Corolla and the wild horses which were thrown off Spanish Armadas in the horse latitudes but swam to our shores and survived on sea oats. I love the way each cottage is reflected in the water, so that fish seem to swim through our rooms. I love Portsmouth Island which was once a thriving seaport but is now a ghost village with a silent church and schoolhouse among Pelicans and low scrub Pines. Those islands remind me of poetry -- isolated, pretty, impractical, remote -- though I do not know if they led me to it.
൪: Have there been any particular writers who've served as mentors or models for you?
FS: I have been blessed with mentors. My professor Thomas Lux taught me that a poem should have a title and that it should be about something. He hated pretty poems about nothing; he called these doily poems. Mark Doty taught me that the places where my writing grew tangled, the thorny places, were worth untangling; he taught me that images were more powerful than abstract ideas. Alan Dugan and Stanley Kunitz created the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown; they felt that young writers needed the time and space to work and they needed the companionship of fellow artists and writers. Alan Dugan was still alive when I had my fellowship there and he sat with me in my kitchen, over cups of coffee, my black cat in his lap, swearing regularly, his pen moving over my first manuscript. Dugan and Kunitz gave me the chance to learn how to structure long, empty days and they gave me several important friendships with fellow writers; I have traded writing with two women I met at the Work Center for more than 20 years.
൪: Your poems are skillfully accessible, while at the same time taking the reader to places previously un-accessed. They "fill in the blanks", connect the subconscious with the world, reveal the heart of a matter in a way that reaches out to and includes the reader.
How are your ideas generated—do you search or do they just land? Do you follow your pencil wherever it leads, surprising even yourself, or do you calculate intentionally? Bottom line: do you use a thesaurus?
FS: I come at poems a few ways -- either by unpacking an image or emotion I don't quite understand, or by allowing a story or scientific or historic notion to infect my imagination and (sometimes) serve as a metaphor for something more personal; I also work from photographs or paintings. When I reach the final, editing stage I think about each word carefully, weighing it against some other possibility or against empty space. I have used a thesaurus.
൪: In Telling the Bees(Stephen F. Austin University Press, 2015), each poem, subtly or not, marches with purpose to the next. For example, on page 33, the title poem tells us bees "were loved for the way they made food/that tasted like the village itself: its flowers/and fields and rains and grief"—which leads to the next page, 34, and "Natural Disasters", where "two enemy animals will call a truce, so during a hurricane an owl will share a tree with a mouse," the same as "at funerals and weddings, the aunts who never speak nod politely to one another"—then straight on to page 35, "Coffins": "People were afraid of being buried alive/so they asked that axes and shovels/and trumpets be placed beside them....A few came with a telephone//so the deceased could call relatives/and tell them it was a mistake". Thus we readers carry each poem forward with us to the next, enriching our own experience.
Did you meticulously plan all of this, or did you stand at the top of the stairs and toss the pages into the air to see where they land?
FS: I have carefully ordered manuscripts and I have, as you say, tossed them into the air. I have allowed other people -- my late husband, editors -- to choose the order for me. (I ordered the poems in Telling the Bees myself.) I think the strongest poem should sit at the front of a manuscript and that the first poems should introduce the themes and ideas that will be woven throughout. I believe in letting poems be in conversation with one another though there are obviously many ways to accomplish this.
൪: In your first book, The Owl Question, you write in the poem "Fingerprint of the Voice": "I have lost the language//I used with myself, all those years, in my head." Lost Language, your most recent book, is about grief, a universal subject but one so very difficult, balancing pain with revelation. The voice is strong and courageous. Can you talk about this book a bit?
FS: Lost Language was written more quickly than every other book I have published so far. My husband of 24 years died suddenly, of a heart attack, in November of 2018. I was a wreck and too anxious to write anything coherent but I scribbled each day in my notebooks while delivering death certificates to businesses and talking to Blue Cross Blue Shield and trying to figure out the password to our phone account. I was having trouble eating or sleeping. I mourned, among other things, the loss of the private language my husband and I had shared since we were teenagers. (He had a degree in poetry from Princeton and was a terrific reader and writer.) Eventually, the things I wrote addressed him directly, were a way of forging a relationship with his absence, a way of speaking to him in the language we had always shared. I won a fellowship to Yaddo the September after he died and there, in that famous haunted mansion, with its bats, and fountains, and ghosts of writers, and eerie paintings of deceased children, I opened my notebooks and fashioned poems from the fragments I found there. My room had a fainting couch and I grieved and wrote there, while brewing cups of tea on my desk, and I did not have to cook or clean or run errands; I got sick with a fever in the middle of my stay; a painting dropped from my wall in the night; my computer cord broke and I had to order another; I swam in a swimming pool full of leaves; I went to dinner each night with interesting people and was a terrible conversationalist. The other fellows were gentle with me; one, a composer, Jerome Kitzke, even read my poems for me at a final reading when I found I could not. It was at once the hardest, most harrowing writing assignment I have ever given myself and the simplest, the most straightforward. I had a lot to say to my late husband. I still do.
൪uartet wishes to thank Faith for granting this interview.
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Once, after blueberry picking in a field
I stopped to visit
a widowed friend
who lived in a backroads thicket, the forest
behind her cottage like an oratory
and at twilight, in her garden, she and I began speaking
the language of widows, which is diluvian;
my friend said it took her three years
to understand her husband was gone forever;
she said how weak she became after she knew;
I was reminded of Princess Alexandria
of Bavaria who believed
she had swallowed a grand piano made of glass
which remained inside her, as fragile
as a vanished marriage: gossamer octaves
waiting to shatter; how carefully
that Princess walked for the rest of her life.
From Faith's most recent book, Lost Language, and re-printed by permission of Press53.
Lost Language is available at https://www.press53.com/faith-shearin
*For more information and to order Faith's books, visit the following sites: faithshearin.com; press53.com/faith-shearin; poetryfoundation.org; amazon.com (click on her name for author's page); and https://www.writersalmanac.org/index.html%3Fp=256.html
This interview was conducted via email by ൪uartet editor Wendy Elizabeth Ingersoll.
Lighting Candles to Crack the Dark
In the Time of Great Fires
As I sat down to write this book review, 2021 was a day old and the pandemic continued to take its toll. Two months earlier when I first began to read Alison Luterman’s In the Time of Great Fires, winner of the 2020 Catamaran Prize, I was searching for hope, for some spark that would prod me forward with purpose.
The poems of In the Time of Great Fires grapple with the wounds of the world. They show us how to find light in darkness, how to seize candles we can all light. Here are words that encourage readers to find ways to praise, to hang in there, and to move forward.
Luterman is fully engaged in the news of the world. She guides us through the challenges of these times as she spotlights young and aging women who are bold and flawed, who are full of fire and dying. These are poems not about survival, but about courage. In “Some Girls,” she speaks about those who “have survived slander and abuse,” who “are rising to power with a ferocious mercy.”
There is both fear and challenge in Luterman’s poems. In “I Lived in the Time of Great Fires,” her voice is a touch of reality, a question that asks what we are willing to do to save this world when she says, “but what time comes after this is what I want to know/and who will be around to name it?”
This is the voice of an experienced poet speaking to other women. In “Words We Lacked,” she asks: “How can I explain to young women now/how few words we had for anything?” Her images are evocative and reinforce persistence. They are as diverse as a flamingo-pink dress that’s “old but has survived” and a young woman who has “had to walk by friends lying in their own blood.”
But Luterman is not preaching; her poems invite us in, and even when she allows the rawness of a situation to appear, she finds ways to add humor. In “A Machine Couldn’t Write This Poem,” we can almost laugh at lines like: “So apparently we’re roadkill/on the superhighway of progress” and “Age brings/a taste for irony that softens edges.”
Divided into three sections, the book’s poems are both narrative and lyric, both secular and spiritual. Poems in the first section center on the feeling of helplessness and what can and what cannot be said. It opens with remembrance for an ancestor and continues to relate individual moments with her mother, her friend Carla, and a young Peruvian girl she sees standing beside the railroad tracks who “offered only her steady gaze/which stayed with me.” The girl watches a tourist train pass her by, “watching the tracks diverge.”
Luterman writes without judgment, but in “Forbidden Poem,” one of the rare poems where she places blame, she says: “These are things we’re all thinking, but to say them aloud is out of bounds.” The poem is about the pandemic (“We’re terrified here…”) and ends with: “Who should be struck down? My hand shoots up. I know, I know.” I feel the truth in her words and in the world she describes during this time of “great fires.”
The center of the book is full of hard facts and lamentations. “In the beginning we wept.” “Oh, wail that will not be comforted.” “How many mornings have I struggled/with the voice in my brain/that hisses Give up, you are lost?” The poems here are sometimes painful to read, but Luterman also provides respite in lines that shine when she places us again in the world of young women who carol “hymns in Creole” and “paint everyone’s fingers and toes/the exact iridescence of abalone and new pennies.”
The final section of poems offers affirmations of life. These were the poems I kept returning to as I read and reread this book. Luterman braids her husband’s hair and wonders how it grew so long, saying: “It must have happened while we slept,/as most things do.” As she recounts an argument between her father and uncle in “The Debate,” her closing lines made me think about all of the poems in this collection: “I want the song/half lament, half exultation/to go on and on and on.”
While her poems tackle politics, the isolation of the pandemic, the California fires, gun violence, and climate change, she isn’t crying Uncle. Luterman would much rather ask for change. Her poems don’t serve only as witness; she thrusts herself into the throng, pulling us along with her. She’s not willing to merely pass the torch to the young but would rather we all “set off/running hard behind them.”
— Gail Braune Comorat