{this afternoon needs a poem}

“The Swimming Lesson”

by Mary Oliver

Feeling the icy kick, the endless waves
Reaching around my life, I moved my arms
And coughed, and in the end saw land.

Somebody, I suppose,
Remembering the medieval maxim,
Had tossed me in,
Had wanted me to learn to swim,

Not knowing that none of us, who ever came back
From that long lonely fall and frenzied rising,
Ever learned anything at all
About swimming, but only
How to put off, one by one,
Dreams and pity, love and grace, –
How to survive in any place.


This poem is especially poignant, seeing as my father, when I was five, threw me into a swimming pool with apparently the honest belief that it would teach me how to swim. I learned terror. I learned the feel of water in my lungs. I learned the relief of rescue, from a kindly woman who lifted me as high as she could reach.

I did not learn to swim that day.

{sorrow is not my name}

—after Gwendolyn Brooks

No matter the pull toward brink. No
matter the florid, deep sleep awaits.
There is a time for everything. Look,
just this morning a vulture
nodded his red, grizzled head at me,
and I looked at him, admiring
the sickle of his beak.
Then the wind kicked up, and,
after arranging that good suit of feathers
he up and took off.
Just like that. And to boot,
there are, on this planet alone, something like two
million naturally occurring sweet things,
some with names so generous as to kick
the steel from my knees: agave, persimmon,
stick ball, the purple okra I bought for two bucks
at the market. Think of that. The long night,
the skeleton in the mirror, the man behind me
on the bus taking notes, yeah, yeah.
But look; my niece is running through a field
calling my name. My neighbor sings like an angel
and at the end of my block is a basketball court.
I remember. My color’s green. I’m spring.

—for Walter Aikens

Netherlands 2018 1136

-from Bringing the Shovel Down. Copyright © 2011 by Ross Gay.

{“to the young, who want to die”}

Sit down. Inhale. Exhale.
The gun will wait. The lake will wait.
The tall gall in the small seductive vial
will wait will wait:
will wait a week: will wait through April.
You do not have to die this certain day.
Death will abide, will pamper your postponement.
I assure you death will wait. Death has
a lot of time. Death can
attend to you tomorrow. Or next week. Death is
just down the street; is most obliging neighbor;
can meet you any moment.

You need not die today.
Stay here–through pout or pain or peskyness.
Stay here. See what the news is going to be tomorrow.

Graves grow no green that you can use.
Remember, green’s your color. You are Spring.

Greenock 38

– Gwendolyn Brooks

{pf: p7 marches in with masks}

On the four weeks and five days before the Equinox, my plum tree gave to me… a surprising number of blooms, which I tried vainly to tell it to hang onto until temps got above the thirties at night and the wind slowed from 30 mph gusts.

It did not listen.

This honestly should be no surprise; the starlings did not listen when I explained to them last year that a nest over the front door was not really the most advantageous spot, the little cat from the house behind us does not listen when I beg him or her not to sleep on top of the plant in the walkway — the ladybug horde that has moved in does not listen when I gently try to entice them with the advantages of the great outdoors. I don’t know why I expected anything different from my tree. Spring comes whether it is pouring or dry, whether I think it is way early or no, whether it is convenient to the sinuses or not (it is NOT. Ever). And so, it is coming, a dive-bombing bird of prey, screaming across the sky, with talons extended, and with no brakes. Um, welcome Spring.

For reasons made clear in the previous paragraph (just call me Dolly Dramatica), this month’s poetry challenge was a good match for my particular brain. Mask poems are poems in which the reader slips into the soul of an inanimate object or an animal, and looks out through its eyes, answering questions of what it sees, what it thinks, or how it reacts to what’s going on around it – or with the poet. What does a snowflake want to say about itself, before it’s gone? A pair of gloves, a cell phone, a turtle? The poet takes the opportunity to embody another – an excellent excuse to pretend – and to consider a question in a voice that isn’t quite one’s own.

Because Laura initiated our challenge this month, I set myself the additional challenge of writing a poem that might suit a child. Laura is very good at consistently using our challenges to write poems for children and teachers, who are her readers, so however successfully/unsuccessfully, I’ve tried to take an animal-and-upbeat page from her book today. I’d say it was unsuccessfully, but hey – I was mindful not to be depressive, at least! I call that PROGRESS.

You might wonder if you’ve ever met a black phoebe. They’re a variant of flycatcher, and they’re they hardest darned things to photograph, ever. They’re tiny, smaller than a sparrow – more finch-sized, really, and ALWAYS moving, flicking their tail, abruptly leaping up or diving, and zipping all over, deeply unconcerned with what you’d like them to do – much like all of my other backyard neighbors.

Peachtree 244

a plum tree sings of phoebe

Black phoebe sits and sings near me
Concerned with only my gnat pests
He could care less that I’m a tree
With Damson blossom buds as guests.
Just bugs for him. His whistled call
Says mostly that it’s “time to eat!”
My branches reach for Sunlight’s fall.
(My leaves are waiting ’til there’s heat.)

My human comes to fuss at me
And gently touch a blossom guest.
She worries there’s no guarantee
That frost won’t make my branches stressed.
But phoebe flits, and doesn’t know
If flies tomorrow he will find –
“But look,” he tweets, “the lily grows!”
(Birds worry less than people-kind.)

Black phoebe, dining on the fly
Nabs lacewing here, a moth elsewhere –
Aerial antics amplify
The birdkind version of a prayer
To Spring. To flight, to frigid wind
As blossoms shimmy in the breeze –
Sing, even if the world should end
Use beauty’s balm your mind to ease.


There are more masks hiding and revealing all sorts of things amongst the poetry sibs this month. Laura’s enlightening us, while Sara’s sharing treasures. Liz is in the kitchen, while Rebecca is using windows as eyes. Tricia was gluing the last bits of her mask together as she also leapt a tall building in a single bound, while Kelly and Andi have hung up their masks for today, so we’ll see them next time.

Poetry Friday is graciously hosted today @TeacherDance. Thank you, Linda B!

Ah, friends, I’ve heard it in the chillest land (which is where it feels like most of us live just now) -/ And on the strangest Sea (also what we live in now on the West Coast, despite this bright blue picture on a briefly dry afternoon)-/ Yet – never – in Extremity,/ It asked a crumb – of me.

Miss Emily reminds us that no matter where we are, we must listen for it… Singing, I mean. Get out and listen to things with feathers this weekend. And if you can’t hear the hope, sing it aloud for someone else. Tough times for many of us just now, but holding each other up, we’re going to make it. Keep singing.

Peachtree 243

{this day needs a poem}

It Has Come to My Attention

It has come to my attention
that people like me
are not generally welcome in fairy tales.

It’s the talking birds that do it.
The minute a sparrow shows up to pipe a direful warning
it’s all over
down at the first hurdle
done

The body in the fifty-fathom well
will have to wait
the old woman turned into a hare
the murdered mother in the juniper tree
as I whip out my Sibley guide and look for the entry
with the fieldmark labeled capable of human speech.

For this crime
I have been accused of a failure of wonder
of having chained up my inner child and sent her
to work in the salt mines.

But the truth
(if you really want to know)
is that I have read too many fairy tales
and lives a bit too long
to be surprised by anything that happens in
the cottages of lonely woodcutters.

I can even venture a guess
to why the bear speaks with the voice of a maiden
(my heart goes out to her)
and why, when the animal has saved your life
you will be required to make a harp out of its bones.

These are old familiar mysteries
as love is an old familiar mystery
the dwarf’s name
the contents of the enchanted walnut
the thing which stands behind the mill.
Fairy tales are human things
which we have chewed over
since before we could eat solid food.

But a bird!
A bird that talks!
This is outside my experience
this un-parrot-like fluency.
I have so many questions –
Where did you learn?
and How do you make the P’s and B’s and M’s with that stiff beak?

and most important,
Are there more like you out there?

– forward from Toad Words And Other Stories by T. Kingfisher

{pf: poetry sisters “in the style of”}

Welcome, February, that shortest month, which is crammed with celebrations of African Americans, romance, presidents, and, oddly, pie. And cherries – though I am afraid the blossoms will this year be somewhat delayed. Nevertheless, we celebrate – and please join us in welcoming scientist and fellow word nerd, Rebecca Holmes as she joins the poet-ing this month.


The first time I read Marilyn Nelson’s “Minor Miracle” I thought to myself that this was her “Incident” poem. “Incident,” by Countee Cullen, is a short, and unemotional rendering of a small child’s trip to Baltimore, and the emotional stab at the end is not worse than the first, but somehow more painful for the lack of bleeding. In Nelson’s poem, the unemotional accounting persists and allows the reader space to take in both the offense and the conclusion from the same distance. It is a small moment, writ large emotionally. Our task this month was to write a poem “in the style of” Marilyn Nelson’s work, and identify and acknowledge a minor miracle of our own.

Part of the fun this month was our return to collaborative poetry. One of the gifts of writing in a group is observing processes, asking questions, and helping to illuminate the areas in which we are struggling. Oh, and yeah: we struggled. As always. Many of us wanted to grapple with a much bigger topic and make more of a compelling statement, but Nelson’s genius is in crystallizing little moments. So, we step back, dug a little deeper, and tried again.


Poetry’s very brevity makes writing about the nuances of mental states much more accessible, and Marilyn Nelson’s unemotional style helps me to center the reader in my mental space – an infinitesimal speck in a suddenly too-big world, at a loss both individual and commonly held. We have all of us, at one time or another, been lost and found:

Oban to Glasgow 18

lost and found

Which reminds me of another road
four ribbons of sun-bright black unspooling and I,
On some needful errand, motored on, serene,
toward erasure:
The highway my wheels touched, at once
the same as all other roads, both known and
wildly unfamiliar. I slowed, crept, edged
toward its rigid graveled margins, blinking
eyes gone wide and stinging,
                    Lost is a path with criss-crossing tracks.
                        Lost is a tall tree in a quiet clearing,
                            And ten thousand acres of green.
A road, going somewhere,
An exit, and a faded service station.
Big trucks and diesel, hard-faced men in trucker hats
And a neutral beige efficiency car,
lost in the middle of too close to be too far gone.
Embarrassment tangled my fingers as I sought my phone –
No coverage in my area, no money for a map.
Pride swallowed, I called my Compass. Collect.
Static on the payphone line, as I recited
The words to shape the world: my street, my city, my state.
Landmarks affixed in the jumble of my universe.
  With help, it doesn’t take long to rewind the world.
    Heard over my heartbeat, words of direction
      A moment of grace, and the panic receded.
Finding the onramp took more time than the call:
Get back on the highway, pass two more exits, take the third.
Inaudible breath, and the world regains focus.
                    Found is a mesa set over a valley.
                        Found is a boulder, feet kissed by the surf
                            A place to climb out of the sea.


The Poetry Sisters Write: Brace for a rough landing with Liz, discover a mystery poem from Tricia, visit Andi, whose poem has both claws and skitter; read Sara’s poem, which made us wince; see Laura’s poem, which reveals our inadequacies, and enjoy Kelly’s poem, written in the throes of aunt-ing.

Wait, there’s more! Poetry Friday today is at Tabatha Yeatts’ blog, The Opposite of Indifference. Happy February – happy weekend, and happy poetry. Stay warm and dry!

{pf: on her gifts}

Cheers again for Mary Oliver, whose memory will always bless, and whose life was something to celebrate, and whose death is encouraging a whole bunch of new people in my Twitter timeline to read less frequently quoted examples of her poetry.


Something profoundly lovely is the intimate and personal connection that poet Mary Oliver made with the world. I was talking to a friend, who met the poet in person, and mentioned the respectful and gentle manner in which she listened as my friend related how a poem of Mary Oliver’s reminded her of a loved one who had died. Mary Oliver probably heard that sort of thing a great many times, but her active listening, which is reflected in her work, somehow helped to both share and diffuse the sting of grief.

Her poetry helps me listen – to myself, and to the world. Next to my journal and my Bible, beside The Chair Of Comfy Awesomeness is a thick collection of Oliver poems. And, on those frequent days when the heart is bowed or silent, and the exigencies of rigorous – or any – religious thought escape me, I read a handful of poems, and walk through wilds where the Divine is less inexplicable, and the simplicity gathers a focus which is clear-eyed and joyful, and I can once again draw breath, and consider the lilies – and then, the hummingbirds. This, too, is a gift.

WHISTLING SWANS

Do you bow your head when you pray or do you look

up into that blue space?
Take your choice, prayer fly from all directions.
And don’t worry about what language you use,
God no doubt understands them all.
Even when the swans are flying north and making
such a ruckus of noise, God is surely listening,

and understanding.
Rumi said, There is no proof of the soul.
But isn’t the return of spring and how it
springs up in our hearts a pretty good hint?
Yes, I know God’s silence never breaks, but is

that really a problem?
there are thousands of voices, after all.
And furthermore, don’t you imagine (I just suggest it)
that the swans know about as much as we do about

the whole business?
So listen to them and watch them, singing as they fly.
Take from it what you can.

Martinez 62

THE GIFT

Be still, my soul, and steadfast.
Earth and heaven both are still watching
though time is draining from the clock
and your walk, that was confident and quick,
has become slow.

So, be slow if you must, but let
the heart still play its true part.
Love still as once you loved, deeply
and without patience. Let God and the world
know you are grateful.
That the gift has been given.


~ both poems from FELICITY, by Mary Oliver ©2017, Penguin Books

Poetry Friday is hosted at Miss Rumphius’ house today, where there are doubtless numerous other people celebrating the gift that is the life and work of Mary Oliver. Whether you are snowed in, or leapfrogging puddles in this boundless wintry weather, may your weekend be touched by a breath of the Divine, and a touch of the untamed world which reminds you that you do, in fact, have only this one wild and precious life.

Pax.

{to begin with, the sweet grass}

3.
The witchery of living
is my whole conversation
with you, my darlings.
All I can tell you is what I know.

Look and look again.
This world is not just a little thrill for the eyes.

It’s more than bones.
It’s more than the delicate wrist with its personal pulse.
It’s more than the beating of the single heart.
It’s praising.
It’s giving until giving feels like receiving.
You have a life – just imagine that!
You have this day, and maybe another, and maybe
still another.

4.

Someday I am going to ask my friend Paulus,
the dancer, the potter,
to make me a begging bowl
which I believe
my soul needs.

And if I come to you,
to the door of your comfortable house
with unwashed clothes and unclean fingernails
will you put something into it?

I would like to take this chance.

I would like to give you this chance.

7.
What I loved in the beginning, I think, was mostly myself.

Never mind that I had to, since somebody had to.

That was many years ago.

Since then I have gone out from my confinements,

though with difficulty.

I mean the ones that thought to rule my heart.

I cast them out, I put them on the mush pile.

They will be nourishment somehow (everything is nourishment

somehow or another).

And I have become the child of the clouds, and of hope.

I have become the friend of the enemy, whoever that is.

I have become older and, in cherishing what I have learned,

I have become younger.

And what do I risk to tell you this, which is all I know?

Love yourself. Then forget it. Then, love the world.

Angels

You might see an angel anytime
and anywhere. Of course you have
to open your eyes to a kind of
second level, but it’s not really
hard. The whole business of
what’s reality and what isn’t has
never been solved and probably
never will be. So I don’t care to
be too definite about anything.
I have a lot of edges called Perhaps
and almost nothing you can call
Certainty. For myself, but not
for other people. That’s a place
you just can’t get into, not
entirely anyway, other people’s
heads.

I’ll just leave you with this.
I don’t care how many angels can
dance on the head of a pin. It’s
enough to know that for some people
they exist, and that they dance.

Rest in power, Mary Oliver, whose gifts will still reverberate.

{the miraculous is relative}

“The miraculous is not extraordinary, but the common mode of existence. It is our daily bread. Whoever really has considered the lilies of the field or the birds of the air, and pondered the improbability of their existence in this warm world within the cold and empty stellar distances, will hardly balk at the turning of water into wine – which was, after all, a very small miracle. We forget the greater and still continuing miracle by which water (with soil and sunlight) is turned into grapes.”

{pf 2019: p7 jumps in}

welcome to another poetry friday!


We ended the year pretty quietly here, with an unexpected, but well-enjoyed little break. I’m glad to be back and participating in another year (YEAR ELEVEN!) of writing with Tricia Stohr-Hunt, Liz Garton Scanlon, Laura Purdie Salas, Andromeda Jazmon, Sara Lewis Holmes, and Kelly Ramsdell Siegel, and occasionally John Lewis. (Do I want to call him Little John, because he is Sara’s little brother, and having our own Little John makes us sound like a Robin Hood girl gang? Yes. Yes, I do. Will I restrain myself? …er, maybe?)

Our January poem is the ekphrastic, chosen by the one and only Tricia who gently prodded us out of holiday hibernation with a clarion call of “are we doing something for January or naw?” The ekphrastic is one of my favorite poetic forms for its combination of imagery and imagination. Examine an image, be inspired, and create a poem: what could be easier? (Wait, why are you laughing?)

The images we used come courtesy of Tricia via Bon à Tirer Prints & Monotypes: From the Center Street Studio Archives on view February 22 through May 11, 2018, in the Joel & Lila Harnett Museum of Art, at the University of Richmond in Virginia. I chose an image by the American artist Janine Wong called Color Equation 2. I dearly wish that I could see this in person. That’s the only potential drawback to the ekphrastic. Ah, well.

This image is a single impression print embellished with etching; aquatint, which is a copper plate etched with nitric acid; chine collé, which is a technique imported from China which uses a tissue-thin paper cut to the size of the printing plate and a larger, thicker support paper below to create a neat background effect; and hand-sewing on paper. Aside from learning a great deal about printing just from studying up on this piece, I examined it for other details and associations it could spark. The clustered circles reminded me of connections – first, between the artist and Paul Klee, or between mentors and learners, or parents and children… even families in a family tree. It reminded me of outlines and flowcharts. Of, weirdly, biology — something about this is kind of floral. (Eggs? Seeds? Puddles? Cells? DNA clusters?) It also made me think of Tech Boy, because it made me think of snooker. Billiards. Pool.

One very memorable day, Tech Boy pool sharked an entire group of relatives. It wasn’t a fun game, but a grim one, where various parties challenged him to play, in an attitude of “you’re not as good as you think you are.” After he methodically wiped the table with them, one after the other, we went home. It was a Pyrrhic victory, and he hasn’t played pool with them – or publicly, that I know of – again. And he used to be good – very, very good. Good enough to bet on.

In 2017, the number one star of the ranked trick shot world (yes, this is apparently a Thing?) was a man ESPN called “The Gentleman.” (He could join our girl gang. I’m just saying.) William “The Gentleman” DeYonker has perfectly recreated and invented thousands of trick shots with a singular focus that he says comes from seeing the table in his head in three dimensions. This is not the way the “neurotypical” thinker sees the world. The Gentleman sees a trick in the abstract, and instead of having to practice it endlessly, he …just does it. That ball will need to go there to make this ball do that to get these balls to go there. The geometry proofs run in his head: click, tap, spin, rebound. The Gentleman’s mother loves to see him play, and is his personal sponsor, and cheerleader. The lines between them are strong; she is with him, all the way.

Snooker in the UK is televised …and is about as interesting to me as watching golf (which is also televised in Scotland, go figure). But, things pick up when the commentators stops analyzing the players and follow the ball. The sports channels project possible paths the ball will travel over the green baize, forecasting a series of perfect angles for perfect outcomes. In today’s image, the lines the artist stitched in between and through the circles bring to mind possible paths for a ricocheting poeple. Tap, bump, spin, dunk.

There are lines between us — lines that tell us what connects us, strings that pull taut and outline a path, maps to show us how to claim the treasure of our best selves. As we trace those lines between ourselves and those we claim, may we be authentic – neurodivergent, maybe, weird, perhaps, but honest – following our course, action and reaction, cause and effect, straight and true.


Poetry Friday is hosted today at the blog of poet Sylvia Vardell. Please don’t forget to seek out the work of the other Poetry Sisters participating today – Laura, Tricia, Kelly, Sara, and Liz.

Additional Poetry News:

* The National Poetry Month poster contest for high school students is on!

* It’s a great year for poetry everywhere – tons more is in the public domain.

*I got a giggle out of this poetry written by people waiting for SF Muni buses. (Dad drove for them when I was wee.)

*NPR’s poetry recommendations for 2019.

*Leonard Cohen’s last poems released by his publisher – to a rather blunt review that says it’s for fans only. Which would be many of us.

*Officially, U.S. poet laureate Tracy K. Smith’s podcast began this past fall, but as of this month, The Slowdown is on public radio stations! A perfect replacement for other poetry programs on public radio you may have missed. (Also, anyone want to buy a bookstore? As long as we’re replacing things, we need somewhere to put all those new poetry books, right?)