Saturday, November 6, 2021

Beginner's Mind, Ho Ho Ho

Everything is happy in the sunshine this morning, including the praying mantis who lives in our house now, brought in on a patio plant before the first frost. The invisible woman at the top of the stairs is gone, Halloween making way for Thanksgiving and Christmas, starting with this Ho Ho Ho arrangement in her place: an actual present, already wrapped, with the wrapping paper near at hand when needed, for those who are paying attention. (I do expect a query in December: "Where's the Christmas wrapping paper?")

I am happy, too, having scored a DVD version of "A.M. Yoga with Rodney Yee" in the ongoing library book-movie-music sale!* My old, worn out VHS version finally busted in the old, worn out VHS half of the dual DVD/VHS player, breaking it, too. So this morning I resumed "A.M. Yoga" and feel totally at peace. Rodney was as young as ever, still saying, "For seventeen years, I have started each morning..." as I had, with him, for about seventeen years; I have a lot more white hair now, and he has his same, sweet little Buddha of a pot belly on a sleek, relaxed body...but (is it the distortion of my screen or the trauma of the Trump years?), for the first time, I noticed Rodney's tiny hands.

*and also Tony Bennett's Duets!

The green chalkboard is stored in the basement again, now awaiting use as a Welcome board at my daughter's wedding next spring! But here's a pertinent chalkboard poem from the past:

Body talk: “Resuming yoga
is harder than resuming
poems. Reconsider.”

This is a yoga program for beginners, and I am always a beginner. I could easily resume because it was all so familiar. I encountered my usual challenge areas, where my body doesn't stretch as easily, and it gives me something always to work on., though I'm not sure I'll ever be able to bend completely forward to the floor while sitting cross-legged, nor rise into a perfect cobra arch. But maybe "A.M. Yoga" will help me sustain "beginner's mind" in my various endeavors and adventures.

After "A.M. Yoga," I was energized for morning chores--dusting, sweeping, rearranging, taking vegetable matter out to the compost heap in the "re-purposed" old sandbox now covered with eager ivy, stretching into the compost and beyond, starting to climb the volunteer tulip poplar growing too close to the fence. The DVD version of "A.M. Yoga" has new ads for the Gaiam company, all about sustainable living. While I don't have a completely organic/natural lifestyle, I do have a compost heap!

I love how the wrapping paper colors this year go with my stack of books (which also preceded the invisible woman at the top of the stairs) and my pale turquoise (or is that seafoam green?) ribbon and how the blue tulips from a play I directed also fit in. Arranging doodads in my house is another form of "a.m. yoga" for me sometimes, helping me gather the loose ends of my mind like a small bouquet.

Sunday, October 31, 2021

Ghost Words

Today I put up the last chalkboard poem for the month of October. I've been going outside in my robe or a long sweater over my jammies to write in the mostly dark, but this morning I waited till closer to 7:00 a.m., and I like how there's a rectangle of light in the upper left, almost like a vertical postcard, of morning coming, and a light in the window at the corner/curve house, the house where two big trees came down over the past year or so, and where a widow lives, and now several of the poems tie together in very particular, neighborhood ways.

Because of the dark and the damp, I didn't always see my imperfect erasing. Yesterday, I noticed I was writing an "s" over the ghost of a previous "s." So these tiny poems have been layered over each other. Ghost words.

On Thursday night, I participated in the Patricia Dobler Poetry Award reading! What a (scary) delight! (I always get nervous before poetry readings and plays, no matter how many times I do them!) Jan Beatty hosted the event, and read a poem by Patricia Dobler. This year's winner, Shirley Jones Luke, read her winning poem and others. Denise Duhamel, the judge in my year, introduced me, and I read "Fox Collar," my winning poem, and other mother poems. Then Denise read a set of wonderful poems, including some mother poems. Sarah Williams was our fabulous Zoom stage manager. A lovely event!

I had practiced my poems by reading to my husband and kids, and then sent them off to visit my parents with carry-out dinner. Too nervous to have them all in the Zoom with me, probably especially because of the mother poems, that my mother has already read, so she's OK with them, no worries!! My sister and her husband were able to tune in for part of it while traveling to a family wedding in Wisconsin. Thanks for sobbing, Chrissy! And several loving friends were there, a sweet surprise. Thank you, dears. It has been a joy to share my poems with you all, in the various ways I do, and I am grateful, honored, and awed.

Postcard to the world:
you are beautiful, always,
even in sorrow.

Saturday, October 30, 2021

Familiar/Scary Things

I'm reading Smile, by playwright/poet Sarah Ruhl, subtitled The Story of a Face. I love her plays, was in The Clean House, and would love to direct or be in Dear Elizabeth, her play based on the letters of poets Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell. Smile is about her smile, specifically her experience with Bell's palsy, and I am learning all about when she was on bed rest with twins during the Broadway opening of her first play, In the Next Room, or the vibrator play.

Reading about her discovery of the slip of her smile, I recalled seeing my face in the mirror one early morning and noticing that my eye had fallen down. Did I have a stroke? I wondered. Later in the day, my eye had replaced itself, but still! Did I have a small stroke? A brief, self-healing version of Bell's palsy? Who knows? But it was scary/familiar to read about this in Sarah Ruhl's memoir, making it a Halloweenish Random Coinciday in the blog.

The face-falling incident in my own life occurred around the time my upper eyelid--on that side!--got an itchy, sort of a scaley rash. My doctor did not suggest shingles or Bell's palsy but instead asked if I had put anything on my face lately, and the answer was yes, some sunscreen made for the face, as I had been out in the sun reading. She said other patients had been reporting reactions to sunscreen on the face, and to wear a hat instead, so I've been doing that since, no further problems. But if it was a mild Bell's palsy/shingles, maybe I don't have to schedule the shingles vaccine everyone is telling me to get--mainly because 1) shingles is awful, and 2) it seems to be going around town. Sigh...  I got the flu shot--body wracked by shivers that night--and do not qualify for the Covid booster. (Too young! Don't get to say that very often anymore!) I dread the shingles vaccine because 85% of people get side effects, and how can I fit it into my busy schedule knowing I'll have to set aside 2-3 days to feel icky and not scare people with symptoms. What a blessing if I have already had this and my body cured itself.

Speaking of blessings, this morning I posted the second-to-last chalkboard poem for the month of October. I am hoping it comforts and resonates with my sister-in-law, whose mother died last night, simply and quietly, lying down after dinner. This was both expected and unexpected, but was a gentle and good way for her to go, and her family is feeling peace as well as sorrow. I send vibrations of love and comfort out to all who are sad and suffering right now, all who are grieving, stressed, or worried. It's been raining here, with dark and windy mornings, a true October, with sudden flashes of fiery red and glorious yellow trees through the mist of it all.

Everything has come
to me in its time, asked for
or not, as a blessing.

Saturday, October 23, 2021

Invisible Woman

I was planning to write about my recent closet/paradigm shift dilemma, but then this happened, the Invisible Woman at the top of my stairs. This, in addition to candy and doodads, is how I am celebrating Halloween.

There is a connection. The skirt she wears is a summer skirt, recently moved from my closet to elsewhere (my daughter's closet) to make room for cold-weather clothes in the annual closet shift. The shirt is long-sleeved, so appropriate for the current season (and stuffing with tissue paper), but a man's shirt with buttons on the other side (from my perspective). The boots (in the shadows) will have to be rescued soon for seasonal use.

Here she is at the top of the stairs, like any scary thing. My husband and I still get freaked out by her, any time we exit the bathroom or bedroom. The kids are coming for a visit, and, if they don't read my blog in time, they are in for a surprise. She's right outside their bedrooms, too!

The thing I was realizing is that I haven't fully made the paradigm shift from isolation to...less I will not be prepared for the possible lifting of the state mask mandate in time for the holidays, which is the gossip in the news right now. We were sort of shoved into the isolation paradigm with the "stay at home" order in March 2020, and I got used to all that, even when I went back to work. I don't think I will be able to go into public places without a mask for a longish time... Talk about scary things!

The chalk board poems continue. Perhaps this one fits the Invisible Woman! In fact, my phone often tells me "fingerprint not recognized," and, indeed, my fingerprints seem to be fading away due to years of work with paper and plastic and/or aging. Sometimes the parking garage touch screen rejects me, too. It's weird to be slipping away. One day a man in my workplace asked if my husband was still alive. It gave me pause. (Turns out he had met my husband in another context, alive and well!!) My kids see me as looking younger than my age, but they haven't seen me for a while. Wonder what they will think?

Sunday, October 17, 2021

Seasonal Reading

I'm reading The Ghost Variations, by Kevin Brockmeier, perfect for the season. They're ghost stories in a way, but mainly a kind of speculative fiction--philosophical, psychological, addressing the space-time continuum as something ghosts as well as living humans have to contend with. And might have the power to change. Or not.

Meanwhile, I have decorated my house with dishes of candy everywhere and Halloween doo-dads going up the stairs, getting ready for an October visit from the kids (who will be working remotely from my home; I love their jobs!).

Chalkboard poems continue. Yesterday I saw this on my way to the homecoming parade:

The heron standing
quietly in Sugar Creek

turns to watch the dog
crossing the bridge.

I was crossing another bridge, the one the street and sidewalk take over the creek, and it was a wonderful parallel moment, perhaps like something to be found in The Ghost Variations, the heron as still as a vision until it moved, very, very interested in the dog! This is the same creek and crossing where I saw a Siamese cat in the grass and a fox in the playground. I love my path to and from town!

Just finished Magic Lessons, by Alice Hoffman, my book club book, and returned it to the libary. It is the "prequel" to the famous Practical Magic, which precedes her book just out now. Must get caught up. Magic Lessons takes us back to Salem, Massachusetts, tying in the notorious witch trials and other bits of history. 

Also getting in the mood with spooky movies lying around the house: Donnie Darko, with a time loop of the sort 1) I get lost in and 2) that's like a "ghost variation," and Ghost Town, with Ricky Gervais, which is like The Sixth Sense as a heartwarming comedy.

Sunday, October 10, 2021

Deer Blind

My husband built a deer blind for a friend many years ago, and it needs some repair after years of weather, so the friend can hunt one more season before he sells the land. We went out to see the damage and measure the panels and boards and door that need replacing. Tony measured, and I took notes, and, of course, wrote a tiny poem at the bottom of the page. 

Beside the deer blind,
three abandoned honeycombs,
branch of black walnuts.

It became this morning's chalkboard poem. On down the road is the Parklands Foundation Merwin Preserve, so we walked the woods there, witnessing leaf fall and more black walnuts, the U-shaped tree and the bending tree near the Mackinaw River, and hearing a deer (?) or some large animal (!) clear its throat...!

On the trail, I wrote another tiny poem, having brought clipboard, paper, and pencil along. On the road back, I noted the irony of the road sign: pictorial leaping deer + "next 2 miles." My heart split, sending out the warning, Stay where you are! to the deer in the preserve, and wishing for Bill his last venison sausage. Alas, we did see a small deer dead by the side of the road.

The deer blind needs a new door. We have one sitting in our back yard, leaning against the tool shed, left over from another project. I hope it fits!

Sunday, October 3, 2021

Fairy Lights

We keep two strings of fairy lights up year-round now, in the kitchen. It's a soft and magical light, all that's needed in the evening if we drift in and out of the kitchen for water or ice cream. And exactly what we need on a dark day, to cheer us up and light the way.

We needed this rain. I've begun my small poems again, one a day on the kids' battered chalkboard (easel for painting on the other side), previously stored in the basement, leaning on a fireproof file cabinet. I haven't done this in October before. So far, it's going fine. It's fun, and it makes people happy. 

I stand the chalkboard up in the dirt beside the front stoop under the eaves. I take a little stool out to sit on and write. Then I take a picture. This morning I had to figure out how to turn off the automatic it would still be dark around the edges. (I didn't know how yet on October 1st.) It was easy. Why am I so technology illiterate? I am so competent at many other things.

My parents are visiting my sister in Nebraska, to see her production of A Midsummer Night's Dream. Opening night was a great success. On Saturday, there was no show because it was a game day. Football takes precedence over theatre in Nebraska.

The plan was to walk in the local Women's March on October 2, but it was postponed till next weekend, due to storms predicted by radar, that never came. (Came modified in late afternoon, and gently overnight.) A thousand people showed up in Chicago, where the weather was still fine. Some showed up, chatted, and walked here, as the word had not got out, but most of us will try again next weekend. In the absence of what I had planned, life happened. And it was good.

Wednesday, September 29, 2021

Harvest in Progress

It's late September, harvest in progress. I think I mean that metaphorically as well as literally. These are images of my dad climbing into and out of the red and green harvesting machines. Our neighbor is a farmer, the grandson of the farmer who lived there till he was 101. I say "our," but I haven't lived there for a long time. It was my childhood home.

This past weekend, my husband and I took a trip through the fields, harvest in progress, to Moraine View State Recreation Area to walk the wooded trails. Lots of corn, soybeans at the ready, and the wonderful tall white wind turbines of the windfarms. At the moraine, we walked around a finger of the lake and through a tent camping area with no tent campers; we saw black walnuts hanging from the trees, ginormous orange fungi like smashed pumpkins. It's been a glorious fall so far with summery weather. It was a perfect "self care" weekend after a week of stress.

These days whole scenarios play themselves out in my head. Practical plans line up as excellent mental outlines, then disappear. I wake up at 3:30 a.m., read the new issue of The Sun, want to contact all the writers in it to say how much I enjoyed their work, and set it aside, never doing so. Disrupted sleep patterns are my new way of life; it doesn't stress me out, as I don't resist it. In odd little bunches, I get enough sleep.

Somehow everything gets done. I have to write each thing on a physical weekly calendar, checking it off as I do it. Medical appointments, theatre meetings, deadlines. When I visit my parents, I bring this calendar with me, comparing it to the large wall calendar in their kitchen. I make sure the two calendars match. I add things, I erase things.

These pictures are out of order. In the one just above, he's grabbing the sides of the ladder of the steps to go up. With their arms open, this looks like a gorgeous greeting. Up I go, into the harvesting machine. Hello, hello! What a beautiful blue sky behind it all.

When he came down, my dad said it was sort of scary in the machines. Way up there, very loud. It reminded me of when my son was a toddler, and Gus (still alive!) invited him up into the combine. We almost did it, but I imagined my son up in the cab, the noise beginning, the terror, my son wailing, reaching out for me, unable to exit. I couldn't put any of us through that. Ah, I have a poem about this.

It's almost October. Later in the month, my kids are coming for a visit. I hope they'll be able to spend some time with their grandparents, looking over photo albums; if it's warm enough still, sitting in the yard, gazing over the fields at the windfarm horizon, the setting sun. 

If you look closely, you can see my dad on the steps of the machine.

Friday, September 10, 2021

Alexander's Bridge

The coincidences and connections continue in my reading. I forgot to tell you that, in White Noise, by Don DeLillo, "The time of spiders arrived." Like now, September. The webs are at every entrance and exit to my home, hanging from trees by the compost heap, decorating the front columns that descend otherwise useless from the cantilevered porch roof. Why shouldn't they be homes for spiders?

(I also noted the coincidence of spiders while re-reading and reviewing Marrow of Summer, by Andrea Potos, for Escape Into Life.)

And that is a cantilevered bridge in Alexander's Bridge, by Willa Cather. (Though, I actually read the Dover Thrift edition.) This is a slim novel, as they say, probably a novella. I was interested in Cather's preface from 1922, where she seemed a little embarrassed by the book, as something written before she had found her true material (pioneers, the Great Plains, Nebraska!). To me, it held together quite well and led to an interesting proposition about the "great man," about whom we can't know everything: "The mind that society had come to regard as a powerful and reliable machine, dedicated to its service, may for a long time have been sick within itself and bent upon its own destruction." Naturally, I connected this to Don DeLillo's White Noise characters' theories that Adolf Hitler and Elvis Presley held the seeds of their own destruction within the coincidence of their too close connections with their mothers... Hmmm.

Now I'm inside a Nancy Horan novel while reading outside in the glorious September days, and soon must move on to some Lydia Millett I got through interlibrary loan, realizing the book I found in the library sale is part of a loose trilogy... Reading is a way I am holding everything together in a somewhat stressful time of many, many details. Some sweet news is that I got together with photographer Ken Kashian yesterday to sign copies (in pencil on archival paper) of his latest small art book, in a box, with tiny images and tiny poems (by me!) tucked in pockets that fold up accordion style. Only 14 copies for special collections. Lovely!

Also hmmm: perhaps I am a bit of a spider myself. (Or two fish.)

Monday, September 6, 2021

White Noise

Here's another book I'd been wanting to read and happened to read at exactly the right time for me: White Noise, by Don DeLillo. I read this paperback edition, and will also show the cover provided by Wikipedia, presumably the hard cover edition. It was published in 1985, which shows how behind I am! And yet it fits our times re: consumerism, incessant "waves and radiation," and ongoing dangers from pollutants of various kinds. There is even some mask wearing, re: a "toxic airborne event."

There's also this exchange about a guy seeking danger, which frustrates the guy wishing to avoid death:

     "He's asking for it."

     "That's right. Most of us spend our lives avoiding danger. Who do these people think they are."

     "They ask for it. Let them get it."

This is dangerously close to my own frustration re: the adamantly unvaccinated, and I have definitely heard this attitude voiced around me! "Let them get it," indeed. Alas, they infect others also or instead. I know some who resist the vaccine have legit reasons, and some have been misled but are true believers in what they've been told by non-legit sources. Sigh... But still.

What a gorgeous holiday weekend! I did my reading outside, and today is the Labor Day Parade. The blue sky is mostly lifting my personal blues, despite the simmering frustration and ongoing communal grief. I surprised myself by submitting some poems yesterday. Others are coming out this fall. But everything still feels suspended and slightly unreal to me. It helps to prick my fingers on coneflower seeds, sprinkling some on the earth for next year while tidying the flowerbeds. I leave some up all year for the birds. Next year, it's possible the blackberry lilies and coneflowers and wild violets will take over the universe of my back yard, while lilies of the valley march down into the shared valley between houses. In the meantime, I do hope walking and gardening will undo my crankiness. For now, it's a rare Cranky Doodle Day in the blog and an actually glorious day outdoors!

Saturday, September 4, 2021

The Death of the Heart

The Death of the Heart, by Elizabeth Bowen, turns up on so many recommended lists, and now, finally, I have read it and agree. What was I waiting for? Really, I had looked for it before at the library, and finally it turned up in the library sale, along with others recommended in The Writer's Library, exactly when I needed them. I kept picturing this girl on the cover as Portia, the main character, or my niece, keeping things interesting and personal. Indeed, it's all personal to Portia...but not to the others, until, suddenly, it sort of is. As it must be, I suppose, to avoid the death of the heart.

I also read Waiting for the Parade, a play by John Murrell, that takes place in Alberta, Canada during World War II. A cast of 5 women, 20s to 50s, so a good one to recommend to local theatres. I saw it at Steppenwolf in the 1980s and never forgot Rondi Reed's wonderful performance as Marta, the German woman. 

And now I am waiting for the Labor Day Parade, on Monday. I'll be walking in it as a Democrat, in blue, with a blue mask. Plus, I've been feeling a little blue. It helped to pull a lot of weeds along the fences, and hack away various branches from volunteer maple trees, if I could not pull them up by the roots.

Thursday, September 2, 2021

Big Year

It looks to be a "big year" for birders in our area! Yesterday, as September began its beautiful weather, I took a walk with a friend* through a good set of trails for birds. We saw a serious photographer getting some good shots and keeping us from getting lost! I've been happy with my summer of back yard cardinals, wrens, and goldfinches, awed by the occasional hawk, and involved in the various crow conversations...

And, of course, there were birds in the various books of poetry I read in August! Crows, sandhill cranes, and whooping cranes, as mentioned, but others, too!

*the same friend I saw this movie with, as I recall! (My recall is sort of haphazard, so maybe she told me about it...but I think we saw it together! It was a thing we did sometimes, back in the days of going to movie theatres. I know we saw It's Complicated together, because I remember laughing a lot. Wait, both these movies have Steve Martin in them. Maybe we only went to Steve Martin movies together. This blog entry started out completely differently. Hmm, it has turned into a Random Coinciday in the blog!)

Wednesday, September 1, 2021

Sealey Challenge Accomplished!

What a joy it was to read 31+ books for the Sealey Challenge in August! I feel grateful to have engaged with so many poems and poets, mostly reading outdoors, sometimes curled on the couch. Here is a picture of my stack of books. Not all the spines show, but 1) you get the idea and 2) you saw all the covers here, if you were following along.

Let me know if you'd like me to send you a little bundle of poetry books or chapbooks for next year. Send me an email (email address given on the Contact page above) with your name and address, and I'll put something in the mail for you at some point. We have a whole year! 

It might not be something from this stack, as I've formed connections with some of these, but don't worry, I have other stacks, last year's stack for instance (same picnic table, different stack!), stacks on the coffee table, on the stairs, plus baskets and shelves full of books...  Sigh... 

Another one came yesterday, Took House, by Lauren Camp, and I'll discuss that at Escape Into Life, along with other books by EIL poets that have waited patiently in yet another stack, inside a dresser drawer on the floor of my office. Creative organizational technique, sturdy out-of-the-box "box." And I picked up another in the ongoing library sale, The Clerk's Tale, by Spencer Reece, today. It's almost like an addiction.

Speaking of Escape Into Life, the Labor Day 2021 feature is up today, with poems that have work/labor in them. Go see!

Tuesday, August 31, 2021

And There is Many a Good Thing

I turned to Jon Tribble's book, And There is Many a Good Thing (Salmon Poetry, 2017), not only for its perfect fall-is-coming cover, but also for the positive, optimistic sentiment in its title. The cover image is "The Blue Leaf" by Allison Joseph, poet, Jon's wife, and, alas, now his widow. I have the Irish cover, with the leaf turned sideways, as you can see here. Shown is, presumably, the American cover, which you can also see at Amazon. Either way, a lovely cover, though I prefer mine, probably because it is mine. 

Once again, I read alert to the intersections of this poet's book with my own life, and this book with the others I've read this August for the Sealey Challenge. This book goes to Mexico, like The Death of a Migrant Worker. It has fishing poems, like The Mysteries of Fishing and Flight and Night Angler. It has constellations and whooping cranes, free verse and pantoum, elegy and grief, "and there is many a good thing," like music and food. These things do sustain us, as I hear in the final stanza of the opening poem, "The Divine":

     as the final note possesses Sarah Vaughan, possesses us,
     documents the sound we should define as pain,
     as regret, as love and loss, as human.

And I realized this book contains two of Jon's poems I had included in an anthology some years ago, poems of place and origin, Where We Live: Illinois Poets. Good to meet them again here.

Yesterday, telling you about Men, Women, and Ghosts, I also told you about my dream of a wild, baby pig. Strange and delightful to encounter Tribble's poem titled "Long Stories About Short Pigs." In the first story, a beggar boy takes a wild ride on a metal pig. Then my heart broke when the poem shifted to "the last Vietnamese family / pressed into the metal belly of the cargo / chopper" and made the connection, as many have been doing these last few days, of the exit from Vietnam and the exit from Afghanistan, leaving people behind. More heartbreak in "Banner Days in America," a poem that starts with burning a flag and ends with folding one.

Indeed, for all the delights in this book, heartbreak, injustice, trouble, or irony are right there in the background, perhaps in a restaurant, enjoying Chinese food, while a boy and his grandmother talk about things you'd rather not have to overhear. "A pig is never only a pig," Tribble reminds me, and, alas, "a fairy tale is only a fairy tale." Sometimes there are no happy endings. In "Lucky Life," about the need for riverboat casinos, "[a] few spindly antennas" in small towns are "shaping these lives to All-American mold.

          Huddled about the pixilated fire,
     cartoon promises guarantee That's all,

     folks! with piggish glee, but is it?

Ah, yes, the pig of my childhood. But this is a grown-up book.

I was grateful to see Jon and Allison get married again in "Indiana Marriage," a poem I'd heard them read when they came to my town to read at the library. This time, the Key lime pie made me cry. And the last poem in the book, his "Spirit Currency," a double elegy, for a mentor and a friend, resonated now for Jon: "Wherever we travel, / there is no destination loss has not visited before us."

Monday, August 30, 2021

Men, Women, and Ghosts

This one I chose for its fabulous cover after becoming intrigued by Debora Gregor's In Darwin's Room. The cover art is Vanitas Still Life by Herman Henstenberg. In Men, Women, and Ghosts (Penguin, 2008), I found educated and allusive poems, imaginative, ekphrastic, and persona poems, some clever and funny, some connecting with women in myth and fairy tale so they seem at times to be engaging in a kind of pleasant, modest, self-mythologizing. 

As in "Beauty in Florida," where we see Sleeping Beauty at 15 and 50.

Here at the end of a month full of poetry books, I relaxed again into noticing where I intersect with the poems and where the books intersect with each other. "Her Posthumous Life" is in the voice of Fanny Brawne, someone I once played in a one-act about John Keats. (Wikipedia has a whole section on her "Posthumous controversy"!) Greger's poem ends, referring to a Keats ode,

          To Darkness, it begins,
     and then goes on. Goes on into darkness,
          knowing the weight of earth.

This, of course, connected with the darkness in Goldenrod.

In "Chekhov for Children," the speaker is a stagehand for the play Three Sisters, dressing Olga between scenes, just as I, as an understudy also playing a small role as a maid, dressed Masha backstage at Steppenwolf years ago! You never know when or how reading a poem might cause the past to wash over you.

Or a dream. In "Death Comes to Florida" (which also reminds me of the news, now), an elegy for Donald Justice, Greger's image of Death as a wild boar reminded me of a recent morning dream of a wild baby pig sleeping under a baby blanket on my lap. (What does it mean?!)

Side by side with all the intersecting, I just enjoyed the language, like this couplet from "Missing":

     A water taxi opened the Grand Canal like a book.
     Its pages were green, edges deckled with foam.

And I should mention that it's August in "The Marriage of Orpheus."

Sunday, August 29, 2021

The Death of a Migrant Worker

The Death of a Migrant Worker, by Gil Arzola (Rattle, 2021), is another of the wonderful Rattle Chapbook Prize winners I've been reading this August during the Sealey Challenge. I am so grateful to be learning about so many people's lives through their poems this month. In this book, his father dies in the opening poem, the title poem, and his mother dies or is dying in several thereafter, but his words keep them here a while, alongside his grief. In another kind of memory, another kind of grief, "She sat up in bed / damp as a day in August," in the poem "412 Beechwood Avenue Where I Lived." "After that I was tossed / like eggs over easy."

In "Surviving Storms," I love the wisdom of bending to the wind like beach grass. Even a tree, until it can't, can "give with the wind," as in "The Difference Between Me, a Rock, and a Tree," and, like a poet, "A tree has learned to pay attention." And I love the specificity of what he sees, as in "A Poor Mexican Woman Makes Supper," when he begins: "She measures nothing. She / tosses flour like confetti..."

And I love the coincidental similarity of the title "Not Everything Should Be a Poem" to a title in Maggie Smith's book Goldenrod, from yesterday. Smith's poem, called "Not everything is a poem," sure turns out to be one, a listing of what a mother finds in her son's pockets before the wash! In Arzola's poem, where the title is a sort of warning, he says:

     Some things need no words to be

     Some things matter enough
     by themselves,
     without description.

True. Still, he does a fine job of describing the things he shows us, and evoking the importance of what he'll leave alone.

Saturday, August 28, 2021


Here is another clear-voiced Ohio poet, like Rita Dove (yesterday!) or Mary Oliver, who are among the Ohio poets included in Maggie Smith's intermittent "Ohio Cento," a series of poems in Goldenrod using lines by various Ohio poets to shape new poems. They are beautiful and deep. "Everything is true," says her daughter in the poem "Lacrimae," which means tears. And everything feels true to me in the poems in this book. And how delightful that the title poem takes place "near Peoria," and I am near Peoria! And the goldenrod is near to blooming, as summer ends and fall is looming.

This is the poet of "Good Bones," that poem that comforted us even as it looked reality in the face. Here, I feel her melancholy, her despair at the state of our country, her questioning of what it means to be human right now, "who cringes to say recognition," looking at the mirror in the poem "Walking the Dog." Yes, it's hard to see ourselves when we look at humanity today. In all the ways.

Still, I recognize myself in her poems--"near Peoria," yes, but also "In the Grand Scheme of Things" with wrens chattering in the back yard...which happened while I was reading this morning, the screen door open. I identify with her in "Poor Sheep": "I am transparent and quiet." I recognize the "gray mange" and remember the "wolf" in "Wild." I, too, feel like I am "feeding myself to the hungry future."

There are bones in this book. But this is a book of "the good dark," not the "good bones." In "How Dark the Beginning," she asks:

     We talk so much of light, please
     let me speak on behalf

     of the good dark. Let us
     talk more of how dark

     the beginning of a day is.

Friday, August 27, 2021

Playlist for the Apocalypse

I let myself read this one, Playlist for the Apocalypse, by Rita Dove (Norton, 2021), in the shade, in the breeze, the heat and its heat advisory having lifted, on the patio this morning. Lovely to read a new book by Rita Dove, in her own clear voice, and in the voices of many others--human and cricket, dead or alive, and even the Statue of Liberty, who is "Liberty's pale green maiden, stranded" in "The Sunset Gates." I took few notes, letting the poems and our shared history wash over me. I appreciated the notes at the end, giving context, and alerting me to how the poems in "A Standing Witness" were part of a collaborative song cycle, meant to be sung by mezzo-soprano Susan Graham, but delayed by the pandemic.

The poems in a section called "After Egypt" are about the ghetto in Venice, and "the first use of this word for segregated, and subpar, living quarters." In her notes for the poem "Foundry," she explains, "Ghetto is a derivation of ghet, Venetian dialect for foundry, and refers to the island where foundry slag was dumped before the Jews were forced to move there." Such sad and moving lines:

        ...You think
     as long as we stay where
     you've tossed us, on
     the slag heap of your regard,
     the republic is safe.

And, alas, that attitude is still out there, applied to many groups of people, unwanted by other groups who pretend they are protecting their republic.

That section made me think of Shakespeare, his Merchant of Venice, and Shakespeare turns up in another poem, "Shakespeare Doesn't Care," for writers possibly worried about their literary reputations:

     What does he care
     if we all die tomorrow?
     He lives in his words. You wrestle,
     enraptured, with yours.
     What time does with them
     next, or ever after,
     is someone else's rodeo.

I identified with "Insomnia Etiquette," which begins, "There's a movie on, so I watch it." I actually watch movies to fall asleep to at bedtime, and read a book if I wake in the night (often at 3:33 a.m.) "I will regret / not being able to find / a book to get lost in," she says!

And the "Little Book of Woe" section contains poems that address her multiple sclerosis, something her notes tell us she kept private for a while, so she could handle her illness on her own. I love the poem "Soup," about...soup, just what we want when we're sick!

Thursday, August 26, 2021


Wasn't I reading this last year at this time? Re-reads are OK for the Sealey Challenge! Checking my blog, I realize I was reading Indigo, by Ellen Bass (Copper Canyon, 2020) last April, during lockdown. See the beautiful fish in this tattoo? I'm also reading Russell Banks's Success Stories (Harper & Row, 1986), with the fish cover, and just finished "The Fish," a sort of fable. Once again, everything connects.

Oh, yes, I remember "smashing / the garlic with the flat of steel" from "Sous-Chef," the opening poem, and I'm back to smashing garlic this way myself, having broken two garlic presses over the past year. "You say how much cinnamon / to spice the stew." When I walked into the kitchen this morning, I thought I smelled cinnamon...

Yes, here are the orange and white high heels she shares with her mother. The chickens named Marilyn & Estelle. The bone china. "Another spoonful of crème brûlée, / sweet burnt crust cracking" (which reminds me of a Jeopardy answer-question). And the contemplation of a good and chosen death in the poem "Enough," which ends with "a fish that couldn't wait to be caught."

"Can a tree be lonely?" is a question in a poem about the old dog Zeke. I'm reading indoors this time, in air conditioning, during a heat advisory in the delayed or prolonged dog days of August. In the next poem, it's December. Life goes as quickly as that. 

The poems of the mother, the mother dying, the mother in the vigor of her life before that. I was meant to be re-reading these poems today in a waiting room, but my mother had to cancel her appointment, not feeling well. 

In "Wilderness," a love poem, the lines "Tell them a story, / you are doing to die" remind me of texts in Deathbed Sext, by Christopher Salerno, earlier this month. "Because What We Do Does Not Die" is a wonderful poem where the mother defends and supports her daughter, getting rid of a bad guy forever.

Ah, here is old Zeke again, in "Ode to Zeke." "I'll fry you a fish." And here is the heroic Lynne, who revives a lizard who was drowning in the swimming pool, in "Kiss," which is the kiss of life.

And I do so love the poem "Indigo," that starts with a tattooed man "pushing one of those jogging strollers / with shock absorbers so the baby can keep sleeping" and ends absorbing the shock of death in the strong, clear voice of a grown-up daughter who is wide awake.

Wednesday, August 25, 2021

New Life

New Life, by Dan O'Brien (Hanging Loose Press, 2016) is another example of the right book at the right time. Little did I know when I ordered it while seeking plays to suggest to Heartland Theatre--as O'Brien is also a playwright--how pertinent it would be to the new-current-ongoing situation in Afghanistan. The book is a sequel to War Reporter, and both are about the actual war reporter and Pulitzer-Prize winning photojournalist Paul Watson. O'Brien has written plays based on Watson's reportage and their relationship, and they've pitched scripts to Hollywood together. Their ventures in art as well as Watson's experience in Somalia, Afghanistan, Syria, and Iraq are part of this book, which also hopes for a "new life" away from war and back to family.

"The Poet in Afghanistan" contains the lines, "...The breaking news / from Kabul spooks the poet," and this must still be true, getting new life from the troubled military and civilian exit from Afghanistan now. It contains the brutal reality of danger to interpreters, and a concern for them side by side with the hardened attitude of a longtime reporter:

          ...And anyway
     Najib won't write back. Maybe he's escaped
     to Pakistan? or had his hands hacked off
     for interpreting me. But have no fear,
     partner of mine. We'll find our new story
     elsewhere in the meantime.

This kind of violence pervades the book, along with fear, denial of fear, bravado in the face of fear. People are killed by the side of the road, in their homes or out; they're in danger for driving at night, for talking to the wrong person. They are damaged, physically (grenade, half-open window) and emotionally, and yet they go on, if they don't die. In "The War Reporter Paul Watson Expects to Depart" is this sobering reflection:

          ...We spend so much of our time
     criticizing presidents and generals
     who feed school kids into the mouth of war
     when what we should do is just pause and check
     the courage of our own decisions.

An opera has been made of War Reporter, and in "The War Reporter Paul Watson on the Downward Slope," it's part of Watson's reflection on the death of his brother and the state of his heart and mind:

          ...He'd been on the downward
     slope since the day he was born. And truth is
     I hardly feel a thing! I've felt more grief
     taking pictures of corpses. That opera
     tonight of my life has made me feel more
     than my own brother's death. But that's no shock,
     I guess. Music is peaceful, especially
     all that singing.

You hear the conversational tone here, as well as the agony and lack thereof, all of which switches back and forth throughout the book. Poet and reporter engage in email exchanges, phone conversations, fights over Hollywood pitches; they care about each other, they care about the world, and they want peace amidst "all that singing."

There are personal poems containing the joy of an expected baby, the grief for a dead friend. But there's a lot of the danger and violence and deadly repetition of the conflicts that lead to war. Even the personal, as in "The Poet Confesses," expresses this awareness: "We love war, your mother and I adore / our Shakespearean meltdowns." And history definitely repeats itself, as in "The War Reporter Paul Watson in a Coffee Shop in Aleppo":

     Every revolution has a problem
     with power. Submitting Afghanistan
     as an example: jihadis will come
     with strings attached.

Alas, they are here now. The poem continues, and ends this way:

          ... A young man rises. Your country
     did nothing. Pointing, crying. I wonder
     if he could hit me. Have I betrayed him
     personally? Trying to smooth things over,
     an old man interjects: We do not love
     jihadis. But the more our people die
     the more we learn to love.

Tuesday, August 24, 2021

Where the Wolf

The cover, title, table of contents, and my past reading of the work of Sally Rosen Kindred all led me to expect some fairy tales, revisited, in Where the Wolf (Diode Editions, 2021). And isn't it a fantastic cover?--the illustration by Kelly Louise Judd!

In the very first poem, "First Night," is the first mention of the wolf: "outside, in grass moon-wet with night, / a ghost Wolf guarded the yard." The Wolf is a "Her" and a "ghost" and is a presence throughout the book. Crows and the moon are part of the natural landscape here, as well as being images I found in some of the other books this month, but it was also a delightful surprise to find "witchgrass" again, right after yesterday's adventure with Gluck & Chang! And it is not August here in Kindred's book--more often October or November: "Dear October," "Which Way is November..."

There is a complicated mother-daughter relationship, and in "Wednesday's Child" the daughter is at her mother's bedside for a bittersweet couplet:

     You have forgotten you're sorry
     you had me.

And a truly sweet ending with cake:

     ... You do not want us
     to die now. You want me

     to try it, try it honey,
, it's so sweet.

"The Grief Dress" shows us the beautiful, sad family romance. And in "I Tell What Kind of Girl" is the liberation of telling one's story:

     Through the white door

     she could hear
     the pinched hearts of asphodel--
     and then it opened
     like mercy, like breath,
     when she began to tell.

"Wolf Hour" brings us into the woods and into a timeless hour in numbered sections. Section 2:

     Still you'll walk
     these woods dulled by oaks,
     dusk-muddled, staggering their golds--

     the leaves torn,

     withholding--these woods
     without wolf's throat, her cape, and the wind
     all hinge and pity.

Gorgeous. I love how the sounds and the scatter of words on the page help the wind do its work. In the same poem, the line, "You had a mother once" hurts. "She spoke in the language of wolves // and the moon heard and shut its stone door."

And the poem "Mast Year" taught me what a mast year is, one that contains a bumper crop of fruit or nuts. The internet tells me 2020 was a mast year for acorns. "My mother still knows what a mast year is" though she's forgotten her daughter. Such sadness in this book, such beauty, such resilience. 

And, as it's still August when I emerge from these woods, I find joy in a bumper crop of peaches! Ah, a Fat Tuesday in the blog!

Monday, August 23, 2021

Salvinia Molesta

As I took my book and pen and spiral notebook outside to read and take notes, it reminded me of homework, in a good way, awaking in me some back-to-school spirit. And Salvinia Molesta, by Victoria Chang (University of Georgia Press, 2008) provided some sad lessons in Chinese history inside its amazing poems. And there were crows and other coincidences, too.

"Jiang Qing" is a persona poem with the epigraph: --Mao Zedong's wife committed suicide while under house arrest for crimes related to the Cultural Revolution. In it, she says

     I used to speak so smoothly in pavilions, even
     crows and clouds came down to hear.

Chang's "Ode to Iris Chang" is about "the December 1937 invasion of the Chinese city Nanking by the Japanese army," to quote the book's Notes, and another suicide. This book took me to other parts of the world, to new perspectives on my previous learning.

And I learned what Salvinia molesta is, "[k]nown as the world's worst weed," in that poem's epigraph but looking a lot like an aquatic plant in my town's water feature. Indeed, Wikipedia tells me it can be used to clean water of pollution, and I do think my town's greenery is self-watering and self-cleaning. So, hmm. But that title poem is also about a businessman tried and acquitted of obstruction of justice. 

So I keep learning. And the coincidences continue, words or images found in the other August books: cicadas, honeysuckle, pigs, cows, the moon, gardening, as in "Spring Planting": 

     I am gardening, but my mind is tilling. The crows enter my yard.
     They remind me of ink slabs

     Chinese calligraphers used--not until mixed with water did
     their black ink breathe and broth.

And then, thanks to one of Chang's Notes at the back of the book, I assigned myself a little compare-contrast homework. Chang says her poem "'Ars Poetica as Birdfeeder and Humingbird' is conversing with Louise Gluck's poem 'Witchgrass' in Wild Iris, in particular, her lines: 'I don't need your praise / to survive' and 'I will constitute the field.'" So I pulled out The Wild Iris, possibly my favorite book of poems ever, and re-read it, starting with "Witchgrass" before going back to the beginning. It hits me every time, that last line. And here's the last stanza before it, too:

     I don't need your praise 
     to survive. I was here first,
     before you were here, before
     you ever planted a garden.
     And I'll be here when only the sun and moon
     are left, and the sea, and the wide field.

     I will constitute the field.

And in Chang's poem, "I am not

     a weed, I need your praise to survive.
     The field will consume me.

     The field has chosen sides. The field is
     not hungry for the middling.

     How I hate the field and what it sees, its
     teeth digging out the ochre

     of mediocre....

Ah, the poet's worst fear! Being mediocre. And how wordplay partly disperses it! This and the other ars poetica poems in Salvinia Molesta are bracing, honest, inspiring. It feels good to be schooled so.

And it was frequently August in The Wild Iris.

Sunday, August 22, 2021

The Mysteries of Fishing and Flight

I picked at random the next book in the Sealey Challenge pile and of course it has sandhill cranes in it, to continue the convergence of connections I mentioned yesterday. And dogs, dog days, constellations, and crows. Plus, as the title The Mysteries of Fishing and Flight, by Prize Americana winner Jacqueline K. Powers (The Poetry Press of Press Americana, 2011), plenty of fishing, though often the fishing and flight are metaphorical.

I think this happened last August, too, that I kept finding amazing connections between all the poems, books, poets as I read, as well as the personal connections. Its not that we poets are so unoriginal, it's that we all see the world, we're attentive to some of the same remarkable things, and we remark on them!

I did not find August in a poem here, but I did find bleeding heart and columbine from my own spring garden, and it was almost afternoon as I read Powers's "Saturday Afternoon in the Garden," which also contained weeds. Since I had put off my necessary weeding the day before to read Debora Greger's book, I was glad I'd done early-morning weeding before I began the Powers book. She had seen "two yellow finches" in a poem, and I had seen two yellow finches feeding on the coneflower seedheads.

I was also doing laundry in the background as I read the remarkable "Feng Shui," which begins

     It was a cup of coffee and throw
     in another load of laundry
     kind of morning...

and then moves to the shock of a suicide attempt--"but she was just a teen, they said / just a gesture, they said." I'm so glad and grateful for the survivors of this poem.

I had favorites here, with titles that suggest why: "Honeysuckle," "Swimming Lesson." And I am familiar with chores that go undone, as in "Relativity, Rain Barrels and Lies":

     You say it doesn't matter
     when things get done,

     or even if they don't.

Behind me, as I read on the glider, loomed the volunteer maples that have overtaken the unmended fence... But now I'll just leave you with a great opening stanza from "Just Another Star-Free Night":

     It seems the stars all moved
     to some boxcar town in Kansas--
     corn you can drown in,
     rain like thunder-fall, a giant slide.

There's definitely "corn you can drown in" right now in central Illinois, and it did finally rain a bit yesterday, but I am glad to say my husband and I stood outside as night fell, watching the stars pop out.

Saturday, August 21, 2021

In Darwin's Room

What's happening, as I read In Darwin's Room, by Debora Greger (Penguin Poets, 2012), is the convergence of connections: 1) to the other books I've been reading, and 2) to myself, as has been happening all along, as I engage joyfully with poets and their work in August. When I encounter the phrase "ethereal pig" in Greger's poem in the voice of John Keats--he wants to feed on "the muddied blooms / of English spring!"--I flash on Billy Collins's sudden discovery of the heretofore unknown "constellation of the Pig" in the sky of his poem "Vocation," which also reminds me of the charming constellation poem in Molly Spencer's Hinge, "Portrait of Hometown as Constellation." As the poems and my impressions of them blend, the tenses in which I describe them may mix, so watch out.

The title, In Darwin's Room, made me think this would be a project book, all about Darwin and his journey on the Beagle. It isn't. There are Darwin poems, museum poems, travel poems, personal and far-reaching poems. Birds, bones, gardens, "the oldest shirt in the world," the Dark Ages, the Ice Age, art, classrooms, trees, flora. It's all here. Persona poems, where she speaks in the voice the moon, the wind, a Monet painting, winter, the rain, a rat, her personal self at various ages and stages, and, as mentioned above, Keats.

I connect to specific places referred to in these poems: Nebraska, Michigan, Florida. She lives part of the year in Gainesville, Florida, my childhood home (through kindergarten), and alligators turn up in her poems, which also made a big impression on me way back when. Ah, another connection: "sandhill cranes...who wintered in Florida" in Greger's poem "Musica Mundana." Sandhill cranes were part of my childhood and a recent visit to Kearney, Nebraska, as well as being referenced in Sandra Beasley's Made to Explode! (My head may explode, as they say.) I even lived in England for a year, and Greger goes there in this book and in her actual life, her bio tells me.

Greger's poem "The Later Martyrs" takes that deep dive that, yesterday in the blog, Billy Collins said poems should take (even when he chooses not to). From a childhood incident (broken bottle of ink at school, blood), she moves from innocence to "a Quaker and...a Buddhist monk" who "turn themselves / into flame instead of into prayer, / one in Washington, one in Saigon." That sad, brutal history flares up again.

And I was deeply moved by her "Elegy on the Far Bank," for her father. Stanza one really hit home:

     His taxes done, a garden planned,
     my father didn't want even a night
     in the hospital--then he lay his head back
     and drifted away from the doctor.

By stanza two, as implied here, he's dead, but at least "[f]or the first time in days he slept, / better than he had for years." My father, alive, is sleeping better these days, some days. Like hers, mine hates hospitals. Mine has given up planning and planting his vegetable garden and, I think, thanks to an extension, is still working on his taxes. But the connections keep on coming, with references to Russian olive and cottonwood trees. My brother was just visiting from California, and as we walked the yard at my parents' house we were remarking on where the Russian olive trees once stood. At a recent family gathering in Michigan in June, it was cottonwood season, snowing and drifting everywhere.

And then she takes a walk with her father: "We climbed the Horse Heaven Hills, / my dead father and I." Is he "[l]eft breathless // by his weakened heart?" No. But my father is, sometimes. And it turns out he is reading this blog. Hello, Dad.

Friday, August 20, 2021

Horoscopes for the Dead

Billy Collins is such a relaxing poet. His poems are deft and wise, sometimes sweet, often funny, and I love his meandering imagination. Sometimes they are very deep; he just eases you into those depths, and then you find yourself dug in. In the title poem of Horoscopes for the Dead (Random House, 2012, paperback), the dead is a Pisces (like me), and the poem leaves the superficiality of the newspaper horoscope in an upward thrust at the end.

Ah, that connects somehow (the blue, the upper atmosphere) with the lovely cover image by Eric Sloane, A Republic Seabee (ca. 1940). And I see that even major, bestselling poets revise their work. The opening line in the Pen America version is, "Every morning since you fell down on the face of the earth." In the book, it is, "Every morning since you disappeared for good," adding some mystery and evasion.

But that isn't what I started out to tell you. I was looking for August, for evidence of my own recent, comic theory that August will appear in any poet's book if you look for it. Nope. It's April, not August, but at least a named month (and one starting with "A"!) in "Cemetery Ride," and a copper bicycle appears again (suggesting autobiography), and cows (a coincidence in my reading/writing), and dogs (a coincidence with the Dog Days of August*, so we got there in a meandering way, after all.) "Grave," the very first poem in the book, is about a sweet visit to his parents' "joined grave," and "Cemetery Ride" brings us round to a general appreciation of cemeteries and the dead.

Speaking of revision (digression above), there is actually a poem called "Revision," and it has cows in it! It's about how revision might not be as wise as leaving things as they are, even if its a "swaybacked" cow.

     I was too young then to see
     that she was staring into the great mystery

     just as intently as her sisters,
     her gorgeous, brown and white, philosophic sisters.

(I hope this poem is about exactly what it seems to be: cows, revision, as of poems. Not some reconsideration of a woman poet of the past...meaning we've all been compared to cows again. I am choosing to take it at face value!) (And I should mention that "Drawing You from Memory" is very good but not relaxing, turning sharply at the end and smashing into the hard reality of a troubled relationship. It's not all easy, fun, pleasant poems in Billy Collins's kitchen.)

"My Hero," though, is a fine revision of the fable of the tortoise and the hare. Ah, but it, too, is about letting things be as they are, not having to win the race. "Bread and Butter"--with dogs again, plus the idea of thank-you notes from an earlier poem ("Thank-You Notes")--seems to affirm this in the last two stanzas:

     And now something tells me I should make
     more out of all that, moving down
     and inward where a poem is meant to go.

     But this time I want to leave it be,
     the sea, the stars, the dogs, and the clouds--
     just written down, folded in fours, and handed to my host.

Don't revise too much, don't go too deep. And now I take you to my favorite couplet, a serious question with a funny pun in it:

     Who said I had to always play
     the secretary of the interior?

Yes! That's the perfect phrase for a poet, "secretary of the interior." It's from the poem "Returning the Pencil to Its Tray," and it's like Prospero laying his magic aside at the end of The Tempest to resume his real life before he dies.

*And lest that sound too sad, here are some sweet dogs in Dog Days, with art by Yun Gee Bradley, at Escape Into Life, and some poems with dogs in them, and more dog art, also at EIL.