Editor's Note Section
Summer Issue 2021 Volume 1 Issue 3
In college, we played a game that required us to list five albums we’d need if stranded on a desert island. Now, even as the pandemic begins to ease, I wonder which five poems I might choose to keep me company on that island.
When I turned to writing poetry years ago, I studied a range of poets. As I read their poems, I saw the importance of imagery and brevity. I saw, to paraphrase Eamon Grennan, how my heart could be carried off by the right words.
In “Detail,” Grennan employs vivid description, but he also couples two words to depict a sparrowhawk’s attack on a robin: terminal surprise. I admire the concision of that phrase, the way it perfectly describes the moment, the way the words catch in my throat whenever I read them aloud.
I love the luxurious long lines of Marie Howe’s “What the Living Do,” the way her poem opens with the simple address to her brother: Johnny, the kitchen sink has been clogged for days…I understand the ache in Kim Addonizio’s “What Do Women Want?”and I can visualize those Guerra brothers slinging pigs from the truck. The two poems are so different, yet each speaks to me through the use of evocative images.
These three poems are reminders about being human, about seeing beyond the periphery. Their lines have served as balm for the isolation I’ve felt this past year. The poems are necessities that I would pack for my island. As for my final two poems, they continue to change daily. That’s the beauty of reading poetry—new favorites are waiting to be discovered. I hope you’ll find a few of your own in this issue of ൪uartet.
—Gail Braune Comorat
Deidra Greenleaf Allan
Home to Roost
In memory of my daughter
They’re back now, returned like carrier pigeons
pecking at their cage after a brief journey
into the world. I’d sent them off to you,
all the things I was happy to shed—
soup pots and suitcases, andirons and comforters,
holiday ornaments, silk orchids in their pots—
being at the age when possessions have wearied
into burdens—things to give or throw away.
Now they’re piled high in my living room
like tide wrack that life’s inexorable currents
have deposited—unwanted, unasked for—
on this flooded shore of sorrow.
I first discovered poetry in the rhyming ballads of childhood and composed my first poem at the age of 8 about a “frog who went a courting.” (Who knew about plagiarism then?) Words and sounds have been part of my life ever since, as has been my effort to understand, through the process of writing, life’s blunt blows and precious caresses. Inspiration has come from many diverse sources: T.S. Eliot, Lucille Clifton, Jack Gilbert, Galway Kinnell, Cesar Vallejo, Charles Simic, and so many others. The poem, “Home to Roost,” is one of several that I wrote following the sudden death of my 40-year-old daughter. Facing the impossibility of writing about her death directly, I found myself focusing on objects that I associated with her or my grief. With the tremendous void a loved one’s passing leaves in your life, it is ironic that we are left with having to manage the myriad objects they leave behind—clothes, jewelry, kitchenware, books, furniture. At the time of this poem, I was still unable to think about dispersing them, and so they sat, like a silent doppelganger of my daughter, in a huge patient pile in my living room.
—Deidra Greenleaf Allan
The Fruit of the Tree
“When the woman saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food
and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom,
she took some and ate it. She also gave some to her husband,
who was with her, and he ate it.”
To be clear, I was not hungry,
not in the way that you think.
Yes, the fruit was ripe and red and enticing,
but for all that, it wasn’t the fruit--
it was the knowledge.
Every trip through the garden, encountering
fantastical animals and abundant vegetation, I’d say,
“This is Breeze Floater,” only to be told, “No,
that is a fern,” or “Ah, a Tree Eater,” and hear,
“I named it woodchuck.” To walk
through my own world and not name it
was more than I could bear.
So when the snake said
“Knowledge,” the fruit was in my mouth
before he hissed another word. In that moment,
I knew it all--every living thing, every story.
The first sin wasn’t disobedience,
it was envy. Or superciliousness, depending
on which gender you want to blame.
My struggle with sin was not in taking the fruit--
it was in sharing knowledge with him
because for two seconds
I was the first to know.
I’ve always turned to writing to make sense of my world; however, for nearly 30 years, I spent much more time helping students write than doing it myself. Now that poetry has found me once again, I find Billy Collins’ poem “The Function of Poetry” resonating with me:
And that’s when I realized
that the function of poetry is to remind me
that there is much more to life
than what I am usually doing
when I’m not reading or writing poetry.
Besides Collins, some of my favorite poets to teach and read over the years have included William Shakespeare, Robert Browning, Ted Kooser, James Wright, and Amy Lowell.
In the Parking Lot After a Few Margaritas
Do you believe in redemption I do but maybe not tonight even though
I want to even though the woman’s perfume hangs on my scarf hangs on
my arm where she kissed me and called me an angel which I am not I
saw what I saw her man pulling her by the hair her man shoving her against
the car which broke her fall her purse on the pavement Do you believe
in innocence the purse with a delicate strap the purse with silver spangles
and she so very drunk and he so very angry three baby daddies he hisses at
me three baby daddies and she threw food at me and why do I even bother
taking her out I take her towards my car ask if there is a friend we can
call she tells me her first baby was at seventeen her hair is long and dark
nice clothes beautiful makeup he revs his car and races off shouts Spanish
swears which I have not learned in my Duolingo course I tell her please get
in the car we will go somewhere safe her crying her bracelets clattering
as she clasps her cell phone Do you believe in sanctuary she speaks rapid
Spanish the tears blend into words and then he is back leaning into my car
saying how sorry he is declares me a good person which I am doubting
but I talk about love and working things out and they both agree he holds
her purse in his hands in the open window the spangles flash he says
it is cold out here baby let’s go home now
I have always been motivated towards the poem that carries a narrative, not necessarily a linear one, but a narrative of connection that moves us to ponder our actions or inactions. Most of the time, for me, these moments occur between the animal world and my stumbling upon some place where our trajectories meet. A fox that I almost hit. A skunk that was not so lucky, that I laid out in death, although I was not its killer, and carried to a gentle stream where it could rest. I love poetry that carries us beyond our borders, be it Joy Harjo or Charles Simic or Terrance Hayes. I want to be present in the crossing of boundaries, to the moment where we must place hope that we cannot really believe in, where we see a future that did not happen but that was so enticingly real. Where we wandered in some other soul, if just for a moment.
Lisa Creech Bledsoe
Parkinson's And I Are At An Impasse But I Have One Idea
1. I listened to 8 Dogs 8 Banjos on repeat.
It's a 40 minute drive into town so I listened
to it twelve times, best part of my goddam day.
Steve Martin said banjo mighta helped Nixon
& it's working for me so long as it's daylight.
I recommend it for anything incurable,
progressive, neurological, & degenerative.
2. Later we'll talk about later.
To combat the dread, rigidity, and akinesia
on good days I use my own combination of herb,
whiskey, and witch doctors to self-medicate
which suits my natural proclivities
and uninsured status.
3. Fight dirty.
Recently my real meetings with Parkinson's
happen at night. Illegal smokers where the opposing
crew has loaded their gloves with plaster
and you're about to go down in the worst way.
News crews haven't gotten word, never mind the law
and they've known for years. Suck it up
roll under the ropes and prep for damage.
Smokin' Joe told it straight. You'll get your
brain shook, money took, and your name
in the undertaker's book.
4. It's not about the boxing.
Paraquat, trichloroethylene, carbon disulfide, etc.
Agent Orange, mono-agriculture, degreasing, lead,
dry-cleaning, shoe polish, carpet cleaner, you get
the picture. It's been in the Kool-Aid all this time.
A Brita filter is not going to help this.
5. Hard loving, hard times.
I haven't quit. Hell I've only started.
I know a hard woman who said Well you're going to end up
in a wheelchair, you'll fall and fall and worse.
You'll aspirate, get pneumonia, die sucking for air.
This scared woman rents space in my head and I hug her
once in a while and do my best not to listen
to her shitty prophecies.
I say Tell me what you need in the whole wide world.
I play her some fucking banjo music.
Hell I've only started.
My diagnosis isn't a secret, but I don't talk about it, and I haven't figured out yet just why. Parkinson's is so much more than the simple sketch I had in mind before my diagnosis: more than shaking, more than old people. Right now, for me, it means I'm often walking at a tilt, holding on to walls, trees, whatever's in reach. It means most of the muscles on my left side are contracted, hard, most of the day. My hand and leg sometimes move without my permission, then when I need them to move, they might freeze. Because my left side is impaired, I type with difficulty, and drag my foot when walking. The whole thing is infuriating, painful, scary.
But what the hell. I bought a dobro and I'm learning to play it. I work. I keep bees, forage for wild foods on my mountain, and talk to crows. I'll do it all until I can't.
—Lisa Creech Bledsoe
The Province of Mothers
The Uighur mother sits with her preschooler
in front of the camera, in front of the world.
For two years, she resisted re-education,
continued to be who she was.
Although her captors forced “thank you” from her lips
after the beatings, the electric shock,
She did not allow that thank you
to penetrate her heart.
Here, next to her, her child,
finally. The reporter asks the child,
“For two years, you didn’t see your mom?”
and it is this that breaks her--
not the residual pain
she still feels in her limbs,
not the memory of heart racing
as she tried to comply,
ward off the rage of her captors.
Her tears break free
doing her best to hold onto the mask,
but this girl knows her mother
and though the mother is soundless,
face forward, her daughter turns
(as daughters do)
“Don’t cry mommy.
I told you not to show your tears.”
This is how genocide works,
children removed from their mothers,
the thrum of their language erased from their ears--
the Carlisle School forcing English, the cross,
cutting the hair of Arapaho boys.
Lying down beside sleepless children,
on floors, on mats, on cots, on beds,
we mothers hold our tears, hold theirs,
do what must be done.
Our voices whisper to sleepy children:
I am using our language
to tell you the stories of my parents
to sing you the lullaby my mother sang me
to pray to the God I ask to protect you
to teach you the names of the long-dead before you.
I think of the mothers
at Texas border camps,
Border Patrol doing their best
to comply with the ugly letter of the law,
asking these mothers to sign away rights
so their children can live with their sponsors,
out of this camp, away from the virus.
These mothers, approached without translators, lawyers,
knowing if their children are ripped from them now,
there will be no hiding the tears.
Those tears would threaten a torrent
that could stop their voices in throats
might wash away their history.
No, they say, stonefaced,
holding the tears,
holding children closer.
This camp, this squalor,
this hell you’ve created:
this the province of mothers.
In late 2019, I left a grueling job that took everything from me. As I was leaving, I made a list of the things I owed myself. Bringing writing back into my life was one of those things. I'm happy to say that 2020, with its many difficulties and heartbreaks, did deliver on that promise I made to myself.
My first and lasting poetry loves are Sharon Olds, Lucille Clifton, Mary Oliver, Adrienne Rich and Pablo Neruda. They each taught me something I needed to know about language and agency. Most recently, I have been reading Stacy Nigliazzo's Scissored Moon and Aimee Nezhukumatathil's Oceanic, both of which seem apt in this time of health and environmental crisis.
His clues like koans, Alex hosting Jeopardy might answer:
The roses at Brooklyn’s Botanical. The tulips at Versailles….
I am wandering the channels. Truth is, the question is the answer
that you value. The logic of a shape, for example. For example,
the champion who’s good at math values algorithm in question
answering. The Fibonacci Sequence. He values the arrangement.
For me, it’s like a question answering the grass—or dancing
in a masterpiece of lilies, rippling underneath the painter’s bridge.
Truth is, what you get is where you start. I think of Wordsworth.
I take a stab. What’s joy? I ask.
The first time I read “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud” I must have been in Pittsburgh, at Carnegie Mellon, taking a seminar in the “Romantic Revolution.” At that time, I was more infatuated with the sacred “savage places” that informed the landscape of Coleridge’s "Kubla Khan” and the demon forces that inhabited “Christabel." If only I could have conjured then “the bliss of solitude,” at one with daffodils. If only now I could practice practice practice the awareness the Buddha taught, holding up a flower. How to simply and hopelessly delight in the essential nature of things, like Wordsworth’s narrator who sheds his loneliness lying on a couch and vacantly recalling dancing daffodils along the bay? Question-answering was a natural structure for the poem—and yet I do believe that too much thinking is my trouble (We murder to dissect, “The Tables Turned”). Do I contradict myself?
Sally Rosen Kindred
The Dark Page
to Denis at fourteen
When you were four, the teacher
handed you a gray model
of the brain. It was smooth
and cold like a dead galaxy, seamed
from a factory’s mold. Where
had she found it? Who had decided
it should be made? She lifted it down
from the bright shelf, like God.
She was tall like God. She bent
to you in this room where I’d left
your tender head, touching you
at the door from the wool coat
that warmed the blood
inside my skin, laced lonely
to the walls of my body. I left you
here: your second mother, I’d first gathered
your small weight years before
in a green lobby, a distant city. Your hair
soft on my cheek: I was not
the first to leave you, though I feared
I’d be the first leaving you’d
remember, gone three hours
so you could feel the air cool around you,
feel your fingers thrill
in puddles of blue paint, and hear
your own spine ring when you’d lift
a heavy book. On the dark page a girl
called to you from inside a wolf.
Later you‘d stand in the corner, turning
the storm of strange plastic, the gray
matter of a another’s fear
in your hand. When you were four
you dreamed your birthmother
came to your bed in her moon-veil and you
weren’t there. No, I dreamed
you woke and told me this,
but you never did. Long mornings
when you missed me the teacher said
Write her a letter. And you kneeled
on the rug and told her pen Dear Mama
I was sad and held the brain.
You did not pretend it was mine
but I dreamed you did. I came back for you.
Now that’s all I want you to hold
in your head. I came back.
I’m both a poet and the daughter of a poet, and that’s no accident. My mother read me poems early on, I think because they’d helped her survive. I remember how her reading Theodore Roethke’s “The Meadow Mouse” aloud—“his feet like small leaves,” “the whole body of him trembling”—opened a door inside me. The way the music of language and image could recognize grief and awe, embody it, make it something one of us could give the other, something to hold in my hands and mouth!
That handing-over of Roethke’s words made a background hum as I wrote “The Dark Page.” A poem is not exactly a plastic brain in the hand, but I like to think that some gifts my son received when he was small will do for him what poems have done for me. “Worm, be with me,” Roethke wrote in “The Lost Son”:“This is my hard time.” I love poems for what they let us give each other, and what they let us hold in the dark.
—Sally Rosen Kindred
J. I. Kleinberg
The word dangles in front of my eyes
unprompted, a shiny earring: Ornament.
Here again, the thing seen, the decoration
grabs my attention: the feather not the bird;
the cloud not the storm; the sound
not the story. What neuronal misfire
produced this word, ornament, with its heart
a command: name. Is this the work
of our brief tenure, this naming?
To chip away at the mystery, to reveal
the gemstone in the matrix: the light in flight,
the see in beseech, the reluctant yes in goodbyes.
My poetry is driven by two parallel but mostly unconnected daily practices: one a combination of reading and writing, the other a slow slog through magazines to build found poems. The reading is eclectic. On my current pile of eight books, three ask why: Why Poetry by Matthew Zapruder, Why Horses by Anita K. Boyle, and Why Does the World Exist by Jim Holt. I read, write, and assemble found poems each morning before my mind gets too cluttered with the day. Occasionally, at the intersection of these practices, something both lexical and visual happens: words show up uninvited and then blow apart to display their unintended components. Thus, “Ornament.”
I. Overheard Conversations
Couple at the next table on a blind date,
the high-pitched screech of chair legs on tile
when he stands to leave. Mother and daughter
in a dressing room, the mother saying
You could cover your arm fat with a shawl.
Teenage girl at my gynecologist’s office,
her muffled sobs through the thin wall.
II. Physical Markings
Dimples, those adorable genetic defects.
Grandmother puckering a newborn’s
toes to check for lucky stars on his feet.
Some people wait their whole lives
to learn from lovers they’re harboring
birthmarks on intimate parts. Some never
find out what it’s like to be seen.
Dawn/dusk. Myth/faith. Love/lust.
Yesterday the two of you were picking
crabs on the back deck. Today, post-stroke,
his brain has liquified,the doctors said.
You picture juice, pulverized fruit and kale,
sloshing within the walls of a travelmug.
Minute/year. Grief/relief. Here/not here.
Each section of this poem is a demi-sonnet, a seven-line form I devised. The series is from my manuscript in progress, Taxonomies, which will be my third book of demi-sonnets. There are only two rules: a demi-sonnet must be seven lines and must end with a full or slant rhyme. I like the challenge of the form, as it forces me to distill an idea or story to its essence. I have long admired Rae Armentrout for her mastery of brevity. More recently, I have admired Terrance Hayes for his fresh take on the sonnet (American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin) and Victoria Chang for her brilliant approach to the book-length series (Obit).
I’m going to miss the trees
the most, she tells me. On the sand,
in our anti-gravity chairs. We float
toward and away from each other.
She’s let her hair grow grey, working
its way from root to shoulders.
Last year she turned fifty. Cleaned out
her closet. Donated everything. Including
her fuck-me spiked heels. Purged anything
sensual. Off the shoulder sweaters. Spandex
skirts. Anything that snugged the curves.
She has runner’s legs. Marathons. Stamina
for the distance. But still envies
the muscles in my calves. Dancer’s legs.
I tell her I once performed forty-two relevés
on point shoes. Won the competition at the studio.
Nothing is as it seems beneath the tulle
and the sequined bodice. I chose to pad my toes
with lamb’s wool. Rejected the synthetic pad. Wanted
nothing manufactured or artificial. Wanted to feel the softness
on my toes as I manipulated them into steel toed
shoes two sizes too small. Soft pink ribbons
up the ankles. After the barre work, after the floorwork,
after the forty-two relevés, the lamb’s wool was crusted
with blood. Sacrificial lamb.
Lamb for slaughter. She tells me she lost
one toenail at a time in Greece. Running
the same marathon path naked boys ran
She looks out onto an alley. Bougainvillea
emerging from the cracks in the rocks. From the cracks
in the bricks. There is a name for the emergence
of stems and flowers and vines from stone. But
she has forgotten it.
A mustached man serenaded her
with a Klezmer tune on his clarinet. Lured her in
to his restaurant with a song. They shared
the same cigarette. Fire passed between them.
He promised to meet her at the finish line.
With an Effes beer from Turkey, a lit cigarette.
But today, she tells me she will miss the trees the most.
She imagines herself erased. Just gone.
She is a shroud of open weave mesh and light.
Sitting in a wicker rocker. Listening to her daughter
play Moonlight Sonata. Beethoven on an autumn
afternoon. She imagines Beethoven sawing the legs
off his piano. Hearing the vibrations through floorboards.
I thrive as a poet both in solitude and in community. The pandemic era actually enabled me to connect with writing communities, via Zoom, all over the globe. I feel most alive as a writer when I am working in community or in collaboration. Currently, I am in a year-long project entitled "Coming of Age" out of Lexington, KY. There are thirty women over the age of 60 in this project, and we meet in small groups twice a month and in full large group once a month. We also have weekly Open Mic sessions where we share our evolving work. We've become a wonderfully supportive writer's circle and plan to continue meeting as a small group even after the year concludes.
I return to favorite poets all the time, for inspiration and for a reminder to take risks in my writing. Currently, I am reading Kim Addonizio's Tell Me, after taking an online workshop from Kim. I'm also reading Harvest Time by Martin Willits Jr., who I was recently in a Master Class with out of Carnegie Center in Lexington. The phrase I return to constantly is actually out of Peter Shaffer's Equus: "Only you can shrink your own life." This is a perpetual reminder to me to stretch, to dare, to risk -- to refuse to settle for a small or shrunken life. Professor Arthur Athanason introduced me to Equus when I was a sophomore at Michigan State University, and the entire play has been a touchstone for me in both my personal and writing life. I also read Tennessee Williams over and over, as I believe his plays contain some of the most poetic, genuine language I have ever encountered. Mostly, I read everything I can to stretch myself as a writer and as a human being.
Sarah Dickenson Snyder
I have started laying out my clothes for the day
on the just-made bed: jeans, t-shirt, sweater,
underwear, and the warm socks, two commas
on top of the comforter. I’m amused,
this channeling of my middle school self:
that perfect gray V-neck sweater, the plaid skirt,
and white knee socks.
But a meeting with you, God,
I’m not sure what I’d wear, not sure I would forgive you—
I’m thinking of genocides, how many there’ve been;
and these past four years and this last endless one—
too many taken, how much of me
was built on joy and has collapsed. I doubt
I’ll show up—it was in a cathedral, right?
Why such a big house and so much light?
I like to memorize poems that I love, learn them ‘by heart’ (I also love this cliché because it feels so true, that the words reside somewhere in the most tender, the most essential part to me). I write poetry because I am compelled, have been since I knew there was a form of writing with line breaks. I think that need comes from how beautiful the world is and the reality that I will leave it. Death has always been a close partner to life for me; I’m sure it’s why I am hospice volunteer. Lucille Clifton’s poem “Blessing the Boats” is about blessing boats of course, but it has always been a poem to me blessing those whom we love who have died. It swims in me, gives me solace as well as gives me inspiration to become a better writer: may the tide/that is entering even now/carry you out/beyond the face of fear and may you in your innocence/sail through this to that. How perfect to focus life and death into this and that. Lucille Clifton, Eavan Boland, Ellen Bass, Marie Howe, Monica Sok, Gwendolyn Brooks, Kay Ryan and many others inspire me with their words on a page and inside of me.
—Sarah Dickenson Snyder
Mother Hums Mazzy Star
Long after the hotel stay, mother keeps humming
that song from the bar, the slow one with slurred
words that I doubt she ever knew. Humming
just the melody and not the whole song, a loose
refrain that’s around her now like scenery out of focus.
It’s a song popular with my college crowd
and nothing she should know, unlike what it means
when a man at the bar with stained pits
suggests a game in his room upstairs
and his two oil-men friends agree,
like it’s a trip to the World’s Fair. The laughs
are too reedy in the ride up to his room,
which looks like our double but smells bad.
Mother is more unsteady than drunk—there’s
a quiver that I know in her TV-styled voice
calling for music and dancing, while that one
sloshes alcohol in plastic cups. I find I can refuse.
I won’t be sent for ice. I won’t be dealt-in.
And no one grabs my middle; I don’t dance.
I wait out the first round of this fun, with the men
hooting like it’s just pastime, this fumble,
yank and pin on someone you’ll never see again.
I take her back. I lead her to our room, carrying
her open shoes frayed around the buckles.
I can’t be reached by what she’s saying
when I tuck her in. I can’t become her is all
I’m thinking, even though I do know the words:
Fade into you. I know the song I was born into.
Currently, I am taken with Kevin Young’s poetry and his poem, “Hive." In this short poem, Young recognizes the impossibility of reclamation—the honey bees’ exile, the gods that “look away as always”—but he still imagines a deliverance where we arrive “buzzing, unstung.” I love the courage of the poet to both witness and to see beyond or at least see alternatively. Kevin Young describes “Hive” as a kind of winged benediction—a song that summons suffering but does not succumb. As a poetic endeavor, this resonates with me. On a much smaller scale, I am trying to approach this quality in “Mother Hums Mazzy Star” by depicting a painful familial relationship and incident that both traps and releases the speaker.
From the first reading, Jean Harper’s poem commanded my attention. I returned to it again and again, marveling at her skill in weaving together several disparate stories in such a compassionate manner. I love that she tells us what she doesn’t know, how she mixes those statements among facts. And I care deeply about the birds and the children others failed to notice.
—Gail Braune Comorat
In the Mojave Desert, the Ivanpah solar generator, and birds are burning –
song birds and birds of prey. Doves and swallows, larks and kestrels.
Large birds after small birds after insects lured by the heat from the sun
the light that feeds the hundreds of thousands of mirrors of Ivanpah.
I remember the girl who lived down the road from us, three miles down.
This was the 70’s. Sometimes the girl got on the bus when it stopped for her.
Sometimes she stood by the house, her father at her side.
The bus paused, the father shook his head, the school bus moved on.
The mirrors at Ivanpah follow the sun, solar heat to boilers to steam
for power for electricity for our streetlights and washing machines and Keurigs
Dysons, TVs, Xboxes, HPs, LGs, Playstations, Smart speakers, clocks.
Maybe her mother was like our mother, I don’t know.
Ivanpah is four times larger than Central Park.
Bigger than two thousand football fields.
The air over Ivanpah is as hot as the atmosphere of Venus.
Birds feeding over Ivanpah burst into flame, thousands of birds.
Our mother wouldn’t let us bathe more than once a week.
We didn’t learn ordinary hygiene.
You know: how to cut your toenails, clean out your ears,
comb your hair, that you really ought to wash your hair.
We were those kids. The ones that stink, the ones with the weird families,
the ones that slink down hallways, quiet enough to go unnoticed.
Someone noticed the dying birds, someone launched a study.
Someone sent out soft-mouthed dogs to retrieve the dead lost birds.
The dogs brought back the bodies of birds pillowed on their tongues.
Someone must have noticed the little kids with clotted greasy hair,
the unwashed clothes, how hard they worked to go unnoticed.
Someone must have noticed the girl at the bus stop,
how every year she just got thinner.
A death is not exactly a death. A death is a detection.
Someone logged the birds by species –
∞ Mourning Doves
∞ Horned Larks
∞ Tree Swallows
∞ Barn Swallows
∞ Cliff Swallows
∞ American House Finches
∞ Brewer’s blackbirds
∞ the Western Meadowlark
∞ American Kestrels
My mother used to stand in the back yard glaring at the sky.
Whenever a plane flew low overhead she would make
of her hands imaginary guns and shoot.
Someone logged each bird by cause of death –
∞ Singed feathers
∞ Melted feathers
∞ Wings burnt off
Some birds had burst into flame midair
When we were in high school, the girl who lived down
the road hanged herself in the barn behind her house.
For years the neighbors had heard her screaming.
I don’t know the rest of the story.
In early spring of the year my father died, I saw Ivanpah
from 40,000 feet up. I was flying east to bury my father
next to my mother. She had been dead for seventeen years.
The plane passed above the burning mirrors, round as platters.
Even so far up, they were unmistakable, wide as the palm of my hand.
I knew I wouldn’t see them, but I looked anyway –
I looked for the birds.
I looked for the dogs.
I looked for someone taking notes.
I am drawn to poems that open up stories of ordinary cruelty and loss, the kinds of things that happen to us, or near us, that we sometimes don’t register until it’s too late—too late to change anything, too late to intervene, too late to even say I’m sorry. I live in the rural Midwest, farm country, where on the surface of things, life seems slow and safe, boring even. But strange and unforgettable things happen here, both true and imagined, and it is these things I find creeping into my poetry.
Lately, I’ve also been thinking of the poems written about men and boys in farm country, the ones who have drowned in the wheat and corn of collapsing silos. T.R. Hummer’s “Where You Go When She Sleeps,” Andrew Grace’s “For the Silo Boys,” and “Drowning in Wheat” by John Kinsella. Beautiful and terrible poems. These poems make me think of the poems that also need to be written about women and girls in farm country, and where they drown, and where they go, and where they’ve been.
I connected immediately with Roxanne Henderson’s poem, its humor and danger, its vivid anthropomorphism and surprise turns. My father enchanted our childhood with tales of his growing up on a farm: in particular how he rose early each morning to milk cows and collect eggs before school (though I'm pretty sure he didn't participate in any calving procedures). Like my father, and like many of us as we grow older, this writer is a wonderful story teller.
—Wendy Elizabeth Ingersoll
From the covered corral our neighbor
Alice calls – come watch the year’s first
calf arrive. The heifer lows, her gut a
giant ball. The other pregnant girls
in the near pasture sidle over, peer
through fence slats and moo a chorus
of support. The laboring cow staggers
confused in pain and tries to look
around her round side to where two
small hooves protrude.
This goes on a while then Alice says
it’s taking too long she’ll have to help.
She reaches her arm inside the cow
gets all four hooves out, takes down
a long chain with a leather hoop on
one end, nooses this around the hooves.
She leans back pulling steady and
the calf, furred and fully formed slides
out in a bloody sluice. Alice says
with some contempt, a male. Whey fed
veal instead of five years’ milk. That
won’t build a herd.
You, my husband, say you’re glad you
didn’t have to help like that. I know
you mean the day our son skidded
into the world. Your job was just to
snip the cord. Again Alice reaches deep
inside the cow and checks for afterbirth.
At last we watch the unself-conscious
placentophagia of the mother, lapping
up what was just inside her womb.
Or me, do that, I say. Why do they eat it?
Alice shrugs. Instinct. Maybe so it
won’t attract coyotes.
All those years ago you said it felt like
silk. Someone told us we should bury it
in the yard for luck but it got whisked
away so fast that we forgot. Our son
grown now and cruising into his long
middle age with no memory of a day
that stays acute for us. For me it lingers
as a muscle memory, being all at once
empty of the separate life inside. The calf
wobbles to his feet, a tiny drunk in search
of drink. His blood-whiskered mother
leans in to roughly tongue his wet hide
into spikey cowlicks.
I am drawn again and again to the poem, “Love Calls Us to the Things of this World” by Richard Wilbur. It holds many things I love: laundry dancing on a clothesline; the first moment of the day when we wake from a night’s sleep, reborn and innocent; and the darker moment when “The soul shrinks / From all that it is about to remember…” I have written poetry all my life and most of the time been “too busy” to pursue publication. In an otherwise cursed pandemic has come the blessing of more time and strangely, less fear.
I admire the charged languor of Linera Lucas’ poem, how aptly its pacing and cinematic shifts increase the tension of the moment where innocence becomes knowledge and awareness carries risk.
—Jane C. Miller
1958, I am nine
At the afternoon pool party it’s just wives and children, daddies at work, mothers drinking,
kids swarming the pool. Still wet, towel dragging, I walk over to our neighbor Roz sunning
on a mesh recliner, apart from the other mothers, a drink with a red cherry on the metal table.
I feel safe around her even though my mother has something in her voice when she mentions
Roz, not just that Roz reads only cookbooks and listens to Elvis. But there is a thread between
adult and child. I am reeled in, stand, drip, drape the damp towel around my neck, comfortable
with this one grownup who shakes her hair out, says to me, now listen, I love my girls
(her two daughters are my friends) I love ’em—she rolls on one hip to look at me.
The air is different because a grownup is going to dish some grownup stuff. I love my girls,
but, she takes off her shades, her eyes are dark, her voice low in her throat, but if I had it to do
over I’d never have kids, ’cuz it changes your life in ways you can’t know.
She rolls back and puts on her shades, takes her glass, sucks the cherry on its stem, crunches
down, drinks. The warm air is all mine. I have stood and I have heard, because here’s what you
need to know— I don’t own even one doll that is a baby, I never, ever play mommy, and I don’t
talk about it. Roz hands me her drink. I take the glass, holding it in both hands as I walk
to the bar, put down the glass, lift the heavy white pitcher, fill the glass, but not too full
because I don’t want to spill. I twist the lid from the maraschino cherry jar,
use the little two-pronged fork, place a cherry in Roz’s drink.
Then I carry it back to her and put the drink on the metal table.
Roz nods at me as if we have always had this kind of close.
I rely on Dorianne Laux, Ada Limón, and Linda Pastan. Dorianne Laux’s If This is Paradise asks me “Why see the wheel in the rock?” I reply that it is my right to feel the joy of the visible world, fresh and terrible and ours to interpret. In Ada Limon’s Ancestors “I’ve come from the lacing pattern of leaves” I recognize that we come from soil, not just our human ancestors. And Linda Pastan’s The Last Uncle is heartbreakingly true now that I am the last who remembers with my “torn scraps/of history, alone/on the mapless shore,” because I am the survivor of my family, the survivor of my marriages, the survivor of my choices. Poetry has always been there for me, ever since I could hold the pencil and make my marks.
It was the metaphor of the fraying hammock in Julia Wendell’s poem that led me to select it for my editor’s choice, how we fill it with our lives—the hard, bone-breaking decisions we make in times of necessity and times of compassion; the longings for what can no longer be; the wish for a better world. When a poem like this says "pay attention" then we must.
— Linda Blaskey
Strung up in an adjacent stall
I slept in it for a week of foal watch,
waiting for the new one to be born.
She finally arrived,
all waxy-slick with amnion—
but with a crooked hind
that had broken and set itself
in unexpected ways in utero.
When I tugged it straight
it popped back skewed like a slinky.
The seal-black foal was stamped
with a Sonador blaze and a bad leg.
I called her Helen of Troy
because she was so beautiful to me
despite her disarray. Despite the fact
even God makes mistakes.
I put my fingers through her tufty mane,
breathed her in,
and tried to make it right
in the only way a mother knows.
nosed out longing,
and I stoned her to death with barbiturate.
A horse must be able to run.
A little dingy and frayed,
the hammock floats between two oaks now
in a new southern yard I call The Park
for all its gnarled branches.
Pulled to it like a tide
to a Libra moon,
it engulfs me with the lightness
of old age, when
nothing's so important it can’t wait for a while—
ghosts and heroines at sea, babies
lost to me now,
a misshapen world
re-born in the next
where horses do not have to run to endure.
I feel my poems first, before there are words, as though I have a big lump in my gut that needs to come out and find expression. My hammock is half empty, but the next poem provides a few more swings. I am an outside person, but I long for my desk. I need to be working on the next poem. Wordsworth, Collins, Oliver, Spires are four I keep close by.
When Color and Language Met
by Antoinette Brim-Bell
Poetry is my primary language.
I found it first in a poem by Langston Hughes and then again in the mouth of Gwendolyn Brooks. Its fluid silken maneuver of tongue, teeth, and lips - the slight salivation of tone with words so rounded and robust, the speaker slows into a savory space or into a stuttered staccato stop - just short of the tongue stubbed on sound.
Perhaps my love for language preceded my discovery of Hughes and Brooks. Maybe it began at my eggshell white desk with the expanded edition of the Merriam-Webster dictionary and my mother’s mandated assignment to learn five new words each day. Her admonition was to write them again
and again, until I could spell and use in a sentence each word from aardvark to zygote. Maybe Hughes and Brooks showed me a purpose for this language not needed on the playground and too grown for my elementary school classroom. This thing called poetry could take words and fit them together to create a beautifully complicated whole, much like the watches whose backs I jimmied off to reveal the labyrinth of near-microscopic gears in an intricate winding movement and balance.
From my mouth to my own ear, language became more fluid than pink ballet shoes sweeping across the parquet floor and more elevating than any relevé. No Madame beating time with her wooden staff on the floor, I became my own timbre and time. I became all the autonomy a girl of eight could fully fathom.
I had the words knocked out of me -
on a day just like today, when Hartford traffic is a bustle of traffic lights, belated blinkers, pedestrians, crossing against lights, ambling on quickly in run-over tennis shoes or stabbing the sidewalk with stilettoed black pumps or half dragging along toddlers quick-stepping to keep pace with parents hurrying to meet babysitters. On a day like today, a driver can look away for just a moment and hit a poet with such force that a lifetime of language is flung from her.
I awoke into a near soundless, muted, and muffled world with no language to ask how I arrived there. I walked around, then through time -- skirting between veiled space, a filmed fabric untethered but, somehow suspended, sectioning the air into iridescent faceted light and shadow of fractured segmented reality. Could shade and shimmer be true reality as each moment we step in between the present and an uncertain future while we sidestep a potholed past?
Color becomes object in a tossed brain. Toast becomes brown. Splenda packets are just yellow, and all cars become red. When sound returns, it is indistinct, rapturous, and each sound is greedy for attention. Each sound no longer laid atop the other, easily teased apart by the brain’s fingers examined and noted with interest. Sounds are melded into an alchemy of molten singe in the ear.
The rehab exercises call up the bile from my gut.
It’s the light coming from behind the yellow-green summer leaves from the clutch of trees that shade the parked cars in the hospital parking lot. It is their gentle shining shimmers that catch and calm me. It’s their libretto written on the wind that I swallow down hard. It holds my stomach like a swaddling cloth. I spend weeks sitting in the car to focus on leaves pirouetting on branches. Weeks of trees leafing, and laying down synapses and sap in whispers of resolute composure, coaxing me to turn the key and drive home.
The thick smell of oil-based printing ink wafting into ambient jazz eases concussive migraines.
It’s the smear of Supergraphic Black nearing a well of Midnight Blue and the roller sound of stiff ink working its way into rich satin on the plexiglass palette. It’s the resistant crank of the rolling press squeezing ink into paper, the suspense of paper peeled back from plate, the haunt of the ghost prints set aside. It’s the melody of dissonance mixed with the immersion of color and light that becomes the language of those whose language has been shaken loose from them. It’s the language of photos turned laser-lifted with gum arabic and pigmented into a rending of a patinaed Bethlehem Steel poignant in its ruin. It’s the image of garlic bulbs printed in sepia that become rooted bones reminiscent of ancestral time.
And, just when I thought words would forever fail me — language and color met on lined paper to hand me a denim sky.
Bethlehem Steel Under a Rusted Sky A Study in Leaves
The above images are mentioned in Antoinette's essay. Their creation helped her regain the language she lost.
Copper Canyon Press, 2020
"I like cutting the cucumber, the knife slicing the darkness
into almost-transparent moons, each
with its own thin rim of night."
With these delicious opening lines, Ellen Bass plunges us into meaty material in her latest book, Indigo. By the time she's chopped a "tomato bright as a parrot" and "peaches like burning clouds" my appetite is whetted—and then: "the chopping block is solid. My blade sharp.” Bass brings to this book the ingredients of women's lives, but with a knife.
In probing the minutiae that make up such a life, she employs a variety of approaches, all in the context of the very fact of being alive—in this universe and in this moment. She announces early her motivating focus: "We spoke, then, about Beauty and Loss, / the great themes of poetry” ("Bringing Flowers to Salinas Valley State Prison"). Again and again, she juxtaposes beauty and loss, pulling us in, bringing us along with her. Her tools are many. She uses anecdote as anchor for her musings: "this little hat of life, how will I bear / to take it off...yellow cloche with the yellow veil / I wore the Easter I turned thirteen...on the boardwalk in Atlantic City" ("Enough"). Her humor is low-key and adept: "pale pink chops / with their arc of rib and ribbon of fat lie innocently / on the white bone china we bought at Macy's / where my wife asked the salesclerk what kind of bones / the dishes were made from" ("Ode to the Pork Chop").
She confronts both fear—"Death woke me each morning / with its bird impersonation" ("Roses")—and longing—"I believe stars / burn in the blank day sky. / I believe the earth rushes through space / though I can't feel the slightest breeze" ("The Long Recovery").In reflections such as "The Orange-and-White High-Heeled Shoes" she praises the joy and beauty of nature: "Who will remember how we slid into them / like girls diving into a cedar-tinged lake, like bees // entering the trumpet of a flower, like birds disappearing / into the green, green leaves of summer?"
And in the title and penultimate poem "Indigo" Bass addresses regret, with a narrative of a tough conversation between mother and daughter about assisted suicide, concluding with the daughter's stunning question: "OK, but when's the cutoff? That's what I need to know.”
Always, and despite the injuries inherent to our lives, the subject and theme she returns to again and again is love—the pain and loss of it, the confusion and hurt of it, the joy and knowing-one's-place-in-the-world of it. Any kind of love counts—for a mother, a daughter, a partner—indeed, for any other being in this universe—but in particular for a wife. She considers all aspects of having a wife, from the daily mundanity of watching her read: "her messy hair / finally beginning to gray" ("I look over and there she is") to the enduring distance despite closeness: "even touch itself cannot mean the same to both of us, / even in this small country of our bed, / even in this language with only two native speakers” ("The Small Country").
Ultimately Indigo is a book of praise poems: praise of love and praise of life. As she concludes in "Any Common Desolation," counseling and consoling us all: "You may have to break / your heart, but it isn't nothing / to know even one moment alive.”
—Wendy Elizabeth Ingersoll