Sunday, September 6, 2020

40 Days, 40 Writes

Before I resumed the chalkboard poems in September, I was engaged in two other projects--one was reading: the Sealey Challenge to read poetry books in August, and one was writing: 40 Days, 40 Writes, designed to immerse you in daily writing practice. These projects overlapped and kept me very busy! And I recommend both!

Writing for 40 days again reminded me that the word "quarantine" refers to a 40-day period, a definition I encountered in various places as we all socially isolated starting in March. Ships had to stay docked for 40 days before passengers and crew could disembark during the Black Plague, though isolation periods for contagion existed long before that particular word came into use. One of the upcoming sessions at 40 Days, 40 Writes will use prompts created by writers during an earlier coronavirus quarantine session.

The new sessions start September 7, Labor Day--the basic session; September 14--a memoir session, and September 21--an alumni session for those who have done an earlier session. Programs are free, but you can donate. I recommend this for those who want to develop a daily writing practice as regular as a daily yoga practice or meditation practice, something you look forward to that also challenges you and helps you create your own rituals and/or insures you make time and space to write. Leader Robin sends little encouraging tips and reminders as you go, answers questions, and solves problems!

Since I have various forms of daily writing practice, I tended to use this as a freewriting opportunity, using the prompt and the suggested amount of time (in minutes that gradually increase) to explore what was on my mind and in my subconscious at the time of writing.

This alternated with times I read the prompt early and then mused on it during my walk to work and back, so the writing might be more rooted and planned by the time I physically wrote it down observing the time period.

Some of my writing came out in poem drafts, and I did notice a gradual readiness for new poems by the end of the 40 days, which may have been reinforced by all the reading during the Sealey Challenge! Of course, now I am writing poems about cryptids for a call for submissions from Jessy Randall, guest editing at Snakeskin! This one is the Kraken, aka Colossal Octopus by Pierre Denys de Montfort.

And now it is raining, though probably not for 40 days and 40 nights...

Saturday, September 5, 2020

Chalkboard Poems

On September 1, I resumed my little chalkboard poem project, a poem a day on an easel-style green chalkboard (stained from paint and pastel crayons) standing beside my front stoop. I did this in June, to bring a little cheer via Facebook and Instagram, and it did! But I knew I needed a rest and other projects to feel freshly inspired, so I did a lot of reading and other kinds of writing over the summer, and now I'm back to the chalkboard at back-to-school time. 

I was feeling a little down yesterday--had visited my folks outdoors, my "down in the dumps" mom who was (yay!) no longer down in the dumps, and came home feeling suspended, meaningless. It's the whole Covid thing, yes, the general isolation, the local worry from an extreme uptick in cases (related to college students returning*), and missing hugging, but I realized this morning that I always get a little nostalgic and sad at back to school time, because I'm not going back to school! And neither are my kids (grown). And neither are a lot of kids now. My heart goes out to all the teachers, students, and parents coping with the wild disruption and worry of school right now. Along with everything else.

The chalkboard poems are another way to structure my day, my month. I rise early, write the poem on the board, often in first light, with the porch light on, take the Instagram photo, email it to myself, and arrange text with image at Facebook. It is cheering my online pals, and I'm glad of that, though not all poems are/will be cheerful. Some will be melancholy, like me, some stark, some with dark humor, and some with bright joy. The whole mix. A little blurry.

I tend toward a haiku-like poem that will fit on the board, some depending heavily upon their titles. I say "haiku-like" because I learned later in life that haiku doesn't really have that 5-7-5 syllabic form we were taught in American grade schools. Nor titles! So mine will often be variations. I tend to write them during the day, or in my head during a walk, adjusting them in chalk, as needed. 

I got new "dustless" chalk over the summer to prepare for this, having used chalk stubs for the June poems. Perhaps these will grow more lush. The days continue to be beautiful. I ignore my indoor chores, though yesterday, guilt drove me indoors long enough to dust the living room surfaces, including my stacks of books and journals ready for the winter hibernation coming all too soon, perhaps with a second lockdown. (I've written that poem already and hope I don't have to use it.)* So there you have it, my first week of back-to-the-chalkboard poems, with pictures and invisibility.

*Not all the students are to blame, of course. Just the ones who congregated hugely in parties as if no one would get sick, and ignoring the rules (the way I ignore my chores, slattern that I am). I'm pleased to see students walking around town now in masks. Thank you! As doom looms, let's be kind to one another.

Monday, August 31, 2020

Sealey Challenge, Day 31

What a month, what a challenge, and what a joy: to read a book of poems a day in August. Here they are! A big thank you to poet Nicole Sealey, who dreamed up this challenge to make sure people made time to read poetry! I'm glad to have made the time, and it was fascinating to see the connections I felt to the poems and poets, and the connections between the poems in the books. 

Today I met again fire, tornado, television, and elegy in Fimbul-Winter, by Debra Allbery (Four Way Books, 2020). Holy moly, do I know how to pick them or what? I put this one on the pile back in the super-hot days, thinking winter images might give me a little relief from the heat. But the weather changed, and it's gorgeous. And now I realized I've ended with Fimbul-Winter, aka Fimbulvetr of Norse mythology, "the harsh winter that precedes the end of the world and puts an end to all life on Earth." Just what we need.*

This was a cold book. It wasn't always winter in the book, but it always felt cold--and mysterious and haunted. "Chronic Town" describes "that icebound city" where:

     In the library, the homeless slept upright
     at long tables, gripping their open books."

Of course, I watched some short training videos at work today on the homeless in the library. I worry about them this winter, if libraries have to close again, or have severely limited hours due to Covid. A Fimbulvetr, indeed.

The post office is under siege but there are still letters in Allbery's poems! Letters to a lost love. "This morning / I drove twelve miles just to mail a letter." And "Sometimes I still address / envelopes to you, I even stamp them, / stand them empty, weightless on my desk." Well, that's a lonely image. It's in the poem "Constellation" (which is a letter, opening, "Dear C--"), where I learned more about Orion:

     I know that Orion means foot-turning wanderer.
     That Rigel, the brilliant star marking his left foot,
     is actually two stars revolving around each other.

I'm going to stand looking up at the sky tonight, for sure.

In "Firelands," I learned again about the mine fire, still burning, that wrecked an Ohio town and met up with two random coincidii: 1) I also have Ohio family connections and 2) I also propped up my window today with a stick of wood, similar to this:

                                                       In summer,
     propping up my bedroom window with a scrap
     of plywood, the heft and heavy rattle of warped glass.

My window is still propped open now, with crickets calling me out to see Rigel

In "After Vermeer," the husband is up on the roof clearing out the gutters in the rain, in a dream, just like my husband, in waking life. And while I read this afternoon, the neighbor girl came out again, wildly singing in the breeze. It's September tomorrow and September in the poem "The Wakeful Bird Sings Darkling," but it's still cold.

     The sun could never find its way
     to our windows; the walls were thick
     as a bunker's, stolid, stone and stone
     and stone.

A bunker is a good place to wait out the end of the world, right? This is the September of 9/11, and she's home in their stone cottage with a sick baby:

     That September morning's iris of sky just as fierce,
     stripped and raw, too close; I shielded the baby
     with my shadow. Then the quiet was tipped
     by the ratchet of a kingfisher plummeting
     from the power lines into the dark mirror
     of our pond.

This baby brings some welcome joy into her life and this book. "Where is our laugh?" he asks. "Where does it live inside us?" And so do "[t]umbleweeds...wild as untethered joy..." But this Fimbul-Winter feels cold throughout, even the fire moments, even the feverish moments, cleaving to its title and theme. I was astonished by the clarity, and a circling back, of this set of lines in Part 4, Death in the Woods, of "In the Pines":

                                          The point

     of the story is to keep her cold mystery,
     keep that circle drawn around her

     higher and higher, a glass wall, keep everyone
     from getting any closer.

*Also, I should maybe now watch Thor: Ragnorok, which is also about this, and to make it a Thor's Day on a Blue Monday, and, of course, a Poetry Someday and the recurring Random Coinciday in the blog. (Wait, does that movie poster say November 3?!** Aauughh!) Tomorrow I resume a previous project: chalkboard poems! The plan is a short poem a day on the green easel chalkboard beside my front stoop, poems posted at Facebook and Instagram, and I'll probably tell you about them sometimes here, too!

**This movie is already out--came out in 2017, like several of the books I read!--but November 3 is looming as the end of the world, alas. Please, please vote, America, and save us all.

Sunday, August 30, 2020

Turn Left Before Morning

Whether on purpose or by accident, I keep reading the right book on the right day, adding to the pile up of random coincidii... Yesterday, I mentioned resting after gardening, with poetry, and today, in Zoom Church, the theme was rest, which I did not do. Instead, I brought up more boxes from the basement, recycled and rearranged, and took (much less) back downstairs in a (much more) waterproof way with (a little bit) more organization. Then I read Turn Left Before Morning, by April Salzano (Rattle, 2016), and wrote in my (new, as in, found in one of the boxes) little notebook, "OMG, this woman can never rest!"

She's the mother of two sons, and her poems show her valiant efforts to be a good mom to both, in a life overtaken by the challenges of her son who has autism. She must be exhausted. She drops us into her life right away, with "Maybe God," the first poem, which begins, "Maybe God is in the broom closet / at my autistic son's elementary school..." We see him in various grades, in diapers, naked running down the hall, with various frustrations and quiet joys. And her joy is there, too, in rare and brief glowing moments. There is so much straight talk in this, grief and annoyance, ambivalence, and love, love, love. 

"I used to love dogs," she says in the poem "Clarabel." "Before kids and autism and bankruptcy and marriage and remarriage," and these troubles go on, until, "I lost something, some fraction of the capacity to love." To love dogs, that is, "to love just one more thing that needed loving." I get it, and it's OK. She's got her hands full, and there are plenty of dog lovers out there, and love to go around.

This poem hit the spot for its title, "Late Summer Sun," and opening reference, I think, to Stevie Smith's "Not Waving but Drowning." Salzano begins:

     I watch the trees outside the special school,
     not waving but standing
     still as any August. I am waiting
     for the wide doors to slide open,
     wheelchairs to be ushered forth
     like carnival rides. I hold tight
     to this latest pearl in a string 
     of promises, little hopes so easy to lose.

Here, in this back-to-school time for many, Salzano has already tried many schools. And I see in her blog, that "the new normal" of Covid is a way of life--the isolation, missing the (old) normal, expected things--that she is already used to.

I was struck by the turn that happens in "And on the Other Hand," the turn toward joy, and how this also matches what Lucia Perillo says about how a poem takes a turn. To quote Perillo again for a moment:

                                                    ...a poem, the tradition of which
     pretty much demands that the reader be told off the bat
     what a muckheap the world is. But then comes the swerve
     where the poet flipflops or digresses
     to come up with something that the muckheap
     will surprise you with.

And, as Salzano turns it, 

     Random fits of so much
     joy your heart tears
     and becomes two.

And then she turns it again, in the nightmarish, "Last Night I Ran Over My Autistic Son," so real I didn't know it was a nightmare. (Also because I know of a poet to whom this happened.) But this is where she "turned left before / morning," thank God. 

And the struggles and heartbreaks and goofy moments and giggling and love were able to go on.

Saturday, August 29, 2020

Oldest Map with the Name America

Today I rose early, before dawn. Once it was light, I gardened--watering, weeding, clipping, collecting cosmos seeds in an envelope--because it was finally cool enough, breezy enough. Then I rested, and read The Oldest Map with the Name America; New and Selected Poems by Lucia Perillo (Random House, 1999). I first started reading her poems in the 1990s, when she lived part of the year in Washington state and part in Southern Illinois, where she taught. This book culls poems from Dangerous Life (1989) and The Body Mutinies (1996), giving many, many new poems in Part 3. The oldest map of the world that names America is a woodcut wall map in 12 panels by Martin Waldseemuller from 1507, where, as Perillo puts it, "the world approximates that shape we call a heart."

I've been surprised by the coincidences in what I've read this month--a few being the recurrence of mosh pits, kimonos, television shows, among them, Star Trek, fire--and how I've been choosing books with America in the title or in the cover image. It's as if I want America to be better, to be saved. "Sometimes I feel history slipping from my body / like a guilty bone," says Perillo, and sometimes I feel that, too.

But let me give you fragments again, the random coincidii, and the glorious search for beauty in "The Revelation" and other poems: "you will find that beauty, a cataclysmic / beauty rising off the face of the burning landscape..." Fire haunts me again as a reader here, and in "La Vie en Rose," with Edith Piaf singing in the background in the car as her family flees a fire on the Jersey Turnpike. And in the beautiful "Ghost Shirt," Perillo juxtaposes a visit to the Museum of Natural History in New York City with the LA Riots in reaction to the acquittal of the officers who beat up Rodney King, and New York's response. Alas, history is still slipping from the body of America like a guilty bone. The "ghost shirt" hangs there as a warning in the museum, and, in history, for Indian warriors who need to take up the fight:

     A quote on the wall from the Paiute messiah
     said Indians who don't believe in the ghost dance

     will grow little, just about a foot high,
     and stay that way. Then some of those
     will be turned into wood and burned in fire

But at the end of the poem, after a fearful subway ride, she makes it safely home. "And the only fires were the tiny flames / of people holding candles, outside the public library." Thanks for that vigil, and that location! But I'm ahead of myself.

Perillo was a park ranger as well as a poet. She'd go up into the mountains to be alone and to listen:

     One reason I went up there was because at sundown
     when the wind climbed the back of the mountains
     along with the spreading violet light,
     you could hear the distinct murmuring that the Indians said
     were the collective voices of the dead.

I've heard that, too, in the wind of my own back yard. And speaking of mountains, another connection--to the purple mountains of the song but also to yesterday's Breathing Between the Lines, though, as Perillo notes, "when you get there, the mountains are never purple."

And in "Palimpsest" (a word I have to look up every single time*), I find again "those seven thousand plastic ducks / shucked loose when their cargo ship broke up at sea," that I'd read about in the news, but forgotten for a while. And "This I commit to memory forever: the command / I closed my eyes and forced myself to swallow like a hook" so she wouldn't forget certain wonderful things. I've done that! But I kept my eyes open that beautiful, breezy summer day--a day like today!--in the yard of my family home with my dog, and I have never forgotten that moment, that day, that dog, Dulcie!

*a piece of writing or art where the original has been erased or obscured by what came after; layers, as of history or nature working in this same way to cover but also possibly reveal what came before....

I love that she likes Edward Hopper paintings, and has a poem about them (so do I!), specifically "the women in Hopper's paintings," and how they are in natural poses, not poses at all like odalisques looking back over their shoulders, just natural women, really "all share the body of his wife, Jo, whom he drew / often with a crumbly rust-colored crayon / called sanguine, I've learned: French for blood."

Oh, I could go on and on with what I love, but I'll stop here, quoting a little bit from "The Sportsmen's Guide," a poem in honor of the birth of her nephew:

     you could even write a poem, the tradition of which
     pretty much demands that the reader be told off the bat
     what a muckheap the world is. But then comes the swerve
     where the poet flipflops or digresses
     to come up with something that the muckheap
     will surprise you with.

I hope so. We need some good surprises. Soon.