{poetry friday & p7: villanelle}

February already. What a long, strange trip its been in 2017. Each day I wake and… function. And feel such empathy for those who have to function in public, especially teachers, who have to shine and smile…but how?

Those were the thoughts with which I greeted the second month of the Poetry Sisters’ annual Year in Poetry challenge. This month is Kelly’s choice, and she compelled us to write a villanelle on the subject of brevity/shortness. Now, we’ve revisited the villanelle repeatedly, and it’s actually one of my favorite forms. But, having finished a revision the penultimate week of January, I found myself floundering and the spatter of acidic ink on all of those “orders” – from Hater-in-Chief and the Confederate Cabinet – ate my creativity for lunch. This annoyed me. I am a child of the 80’s who wrote bad poetry all the time in response to the tyranny of shoulder pads. I could do this.

The trick, it turned out, was volume, the same thing that worked in my tween years. I wrote TONS of awful villanelle, a form which easily lends itself to overstating a point. Sneer poetry? Is not nice. And I am so GOOD at it. I screeded, blaming everyone for everything. I showed no love at all. I recently started embroidering thistles, and they were enough to make me write about weeds, thorns, and bleeding (It’s a Glasgow thing. Nemo me impune lacessit, and all that. It worked for me. Don’t judge).

Eventually, after many awful poems marinated in sarcasm and mean wit, I realized that my biggest fears about brief time these days were about myself… and what I feared I didn’t have time for anymore, and was wasting time doing, et voilà. A poem I could live with.

(And then, as ALWAYS happens, when I get something I can work with, something ELSE springs fully formed from the forehead of Zeus, with words I didn’t know I wanted to say which answer my original question of “how” – however, since that poem is wildly off-topic of our theme, I’ll share it later.)

If you’d like to check out themed villanelles from people who probably didn’t have to write ten run-up poems, and who can follow a theme without getting lost in their own heads (!), do see Kelly’s poem, on self-care which has to be a topical first; Tricia’s offering, Liz, in just under the wire; Sara’s “all too brief” rhymes and Laura’s, whose timely tweet to the gang, showing the poem in progress, put the spurs to us! (We’ll wave to Andi from our repeating lines, and see her next time.)

And for more poetry from poets who wrote and write during daily drudgery as well as intense moments of antipathy, don’t miss Poetry Friday, which today is hosted by Penny Parker Klosterman at A Penny & Her Jots.

The bad moon has risen, orange and malignant from the smoke in the air, as the garbage fire roars. Affix your breath mask and center yourself. You’ve got this. Go.

{poetry seven: the cloister ekphrastic}

This month, Andi had the most amazing images for us to share of a site in her home state, the Glencairn Cloister, family home of Mildred and Raymond Pitcairn. If you want to take a digital stroll there, you can look at the front of the church that the cloister adjoins. As to what a cloister is:

During medieval times cloisters served as a quiet place for religious contemplation, and cloister arcades were often carved with symbolic sculptures to encourage mindful meditation. In planning Glencairn’s cloister, Pitcairn, a member of the Bryn Athyn New Church congregation (Swedenborgian Christian), continued this tradition. The visual focal point of the space is a series of symbolic bird capitals surmounting the columns that form the inner arcade. According to E. Bruce Glenn, author of Glencairn: The Story of a Home, in New Church tradition birds are used as spiritual symbols of “those ideals of the mind that lift us above worldly concerns as the flight of a bird draws our eyes from the earth.”

There are birds and arches and courtyards and benches carved with animals, and they’re full of meaning. It’s lovely, and I really want to go there in person someday.

There’s a tiny bench carved with a sheep and a lamb – representing family – that especially spoke to me. In this Sturm und Drang world in which we live right now, a tiny bench, where we’re forced to sit close and look at each other seems… ideal. When I was teaching, I was fond of the “Nose-to-nose, knee-to-knee” approach. With fifth graders, who seem to boil up into quick conflict that fades nearly as quickly, it was a surefire way to force my grudging grumps into proximity with each other. If you’re sitting facing someone, it’s harder to lie to them – and to yourself – about what happened to your friendship. It’s also harder to avoid each other. It’s harder to interrupt someone who is right there (well, usually). It’s easier to listen (mostly). One on one, knee-to-knee, the problems we face could take the first steps toward healing, if we could just listen. Reason. Together.


House Your Heart

your head (my heart)
comprised of stone:
you (willful) push
and I (alone) retreat
and leave you to your phase –
our glacial war goes on for days.

my spirit (weak)
(my flesh) unnerved
I, at the table, bargain served,
but you (the victor) call the tune…
I cede the floor.
you dance (your doom).

don’t build your house (your heart)
of stone. foundations firm are fine;
but iron forged from chill confines
(of earth) do not then grow,
Or change. rebirth erupts from soil.
from honest sod. disruptive dirt!

the breath of God breathes in
(and seeds. and life. and health)
the wind blows through and tides
that ebb become renewed.
contrive some wriggle-room to find
within the walls. (within the mind)

so hearts (still beating)
won’t anneal and iron wills
won’t meld to steel.
let distance, love,
(begin) to heal.

your head (my heart)
a maze of cracks
gray loneliness is our new black
life’s tepid soup no tears can season…
come, knee-to-knee, sit.
Let us reason.

More poetry abounds; the Seven Sisters celebrate another twelve months of poet-ing with forms of all kinds: Kelly, sharing a poulet-appointed, puffed-up perfection; Sara, who also found the same bench appealing; Liz, whose poem has itself a beautifully cathedral-like tone; Tricia, venturing aloft — and into love poems; Laura, hallowing the artistry of stone. Thanks, Andi, for the inspiration!

This concludes 2016’s Seven Sisters Poetry… next year should be interesting!

More poetry, hosted by Words for Wee Ones, in praise of community.

{poetry friday: at the arraignment}

At the Arraignment

by Debra Spencer

The courtroom walls are bare and the prisoner wears
a plastic bracelet, like in a hospital. Jesus stands beside him.
The bailiff hands the prisoner a clipboard and he puts his
thumbprint on the sheet of white paper. The judge asks,

What is your monthly income? A hundred dollars.
How do you support yourself? As a carpenter, odd jobs.
Where are you living? My friend’s garage.
What sort of vehicle do you drive? I take the bus.
How do you plead? Not guilty. The judge sets bail
and a date for the prisoner’s trial, calls for the interpreter
so he may speak to the next prisoners.
In a good month I eat, the third one tells him.
In a bad month I break the law.

The judge sighs. The prisoners
are led back to jail with a clink of chains.
Jesus goes with them. More prisoners
are brought before the judge.

Jesus returns and leans against the wall near us,
gazing around the courtroom. The interpreter reads a book.
The bailiff, weighed down by his gun, stands
with arms folded, alert and watchful.
We are only spectators, careful to speak
in low voices. We are so many. If we make a sound,
the bailiff turns toward us, looking stern.

The judge sets bail and dates for other trials,
bringing his gavel down like a little axe.
Jesus turns to us. If you won’t help them, he says
then do this for me. Dress in silks and jewels,
and then go naked. Be stoic, and then be prodigal.
Lead exemplary lives, then go down into prison
and be bound in chains. Which of us has never broken a law?
I died for you — a desperate extravagance, even for me.
If you can’t be merciful, at least be bold.

The judge gets up to leave.

The stern bailiff cries, All rise.

And so today, dear ones: if you can’t be merciful, at least, be bold. More poetry at Jama’s.

{p7 – ekphrastic on l’arlequin}

the poetry seven

The OED explains that the “arlequin,” is, a. A character in Italian comedy, subsequently in French light comedy; in English pantomime a mute character supposed to be invisible to the clown and pantaloon; …he usually wears particoloured bespangled tights and a visor… (In reference to quot. 1590, it may be noticed that the arlecchino is said, in Italian Dictionaries, to have originally represented the simple and facetious Bergamese man-servant. Cf. the stage Irishman.). Meant to be many amusing things – the arlequin is part of the fun, a figure to be made fun of, and a “funny” racial minority – Irish, if one is English, or, if one is Italian, Bergamo (a province in the state of Venice), a people ridiculed as clownish in manners and dialect by, among other famous folk, Shakespeare in 12th Night. Clowns. Based on real people.

Image from page 135 of "Masques et bouffons; comédie italienne" (1862)

The image to the left here dates from 1862, and was printed on the program for a theater troupe. So amusing, those eyes. Those exaggerated eyes remind me of blackface, actually. Punch, the viciously violent, wife-killing puppet from the Punch & Judy Victorian plays – started out as a harlequin called Pulcinella – with those same exaggerated eyes, the emphasized nose, and those hilarious murderous tendencies. Hah-hah, he’s subhuman, that Punch. Hah-hah, what a clown. The French sculptor responsible for this 1879 image, Charles René de Paul de Saint-Marceaux, recreated it in myriad forms – clay, bronze, marble, small, large, plain, painted. The arlequin is an eternal figure of fun, after all.

Which helps me understand that humor – and all things – change over time.


As I looked at this image Kelly chose for us this month, I did some freewriting, and produced words like romance (because my mind is ever with the Harlequins, I guess) smirk, insouciance, cheek, hidden, obscure, veil, misunderstood, concealed, suppressed – and a few more in that vein. I found that I was reacting mostly to his mask… apparently because, Mask = Somehow Not Good. Additionally, here’s this dude standing, arms crossed, stance wide, looking down – maybe in that down-then-up eye-flick thing that people do once they’ve looked you over and found you wanting. Flick. Dismissed.


Ugh on two fronts, really. I mean, REALLY, Tanita? All this angst? I keep rolling my eyes at myself for reading SO MUCH into a piece of artwork, but – well, ekphrasis by definition means description – and I’m describing, I guess, how this artwork makes me feel at first blush – granted, against the backdrop of everything else going on in the world that’s getting into my “feels.” Look at him, standing there. I’m ready to laugh with the joke. Resigned, equally, to being the joke. I’m uncomfortable, yes… but could he be, too?

Digging deeper past our first flinch responses is what creates a higher consciousness in the human animal than in the average mammal. I know I had to think deeper than my first response – often – when I was teaching. So, this poem goes out to all my clowns, all my little smirkers, and fast-talkers, the cocky little turkeys who drove me nuts with their attention-seeking — dragging the attention of the class from the lesson and onto them with their constant caprices and blethering. Did you derail the lesson because you couldn’t understand, and were afraid to ask…?

Come, be brave, my lads, my ladies. Take off the mask.


Imperfect paste, insouciance, affixing scorn to sneering mask
And closing minds to fresher things – for it ASSUMES and does not ASK.

Assumption traps the imprecise, beguiles wit to buffoonery
It builds a faith in rank surmise and makes “an ass” a guarantee.

Incorrigible, too cute to care that laughter only lasts so long
Consider that the spotlight’s gaze may soon become your siren song —

Ask, knock, and seek – old-fashioned tasks – find facts the proven way
Don’t stand and smirk and “guesstimate” – and lead yourself astray.


You’ll not want to miss the rest of the gang who could make it this week. We wave and blow kisses to Andi, under her pile of blankets this week, but Sara starts us off with wondering what this guy’s up to. Laura’s pretty sure she already knows. Liz remembers him as that one guy in high school. Despite a busy week, Tricia sneaked in there, too. And Kelly – who saw the trickster first – is the cherry on top, even though she’s still working on her poem.

Poetry Friday’s roundup is hosted today by Violet Nesdoly.

{poetry friday: a primate’s smile is an act of aggression}


Not like that. Not so big, you look like you’re at your grandbaby’s birthday party.

Not like that, like there’s some secret you’ve been told.

No, not like that, not like you’re guilty by association.

No, not like that – not like you’re not grateful to be here.

No, not like you’re resentful to be sitting on the floor, being fed scraps from the table.

No, not like that – don’t bare your teeth.

Like this, not like that. Not like that! NO! Never like that.

Smile. Because we told you to.

Smile. Because you should be smiling. Because the world has changed since the Harlem Renaissance. Because you shouldn’t be any less relieved, any less happy than we’ve told you to be.



We Wear the Mask

by Paul Dunbar

We wear the mask that grins and lies,
It hides our cheeks and shades our eyes,—
This debt we pay to human guile;
With torn and bleeding hearts we smile,
        And mouth with myriad subtleties.

Why should the world be over-wise,
In counting all our tears and sighs?
Nay, let them only see us, while
         We wear the mask.

We smile, but, O great Christ, our cries
To thee from tortured souls arise.
We sing, but oh the clay is vile
Beneath our feet, and long the mile;
But let the world dream otherwise,
         We wear the mask!

Photo “Vergessen” courtesy of Rubina V., Flickr Creative Commons, September 2011.

Poetry Friday today is hosted by Karen Edmisten, a woman with a lovely smile and a plethora of poetry at her disposal. I won’t wish you happy Friday; you don’t have to smile.

{poetry friday: level up}

Hat tip to Janni Lee Simmer for the reminder that some days need an anthem.

Level Up

by Vienna Teng

so come out.
you have been waiting long enough.
you’re done with all the talk talk talk with nothing on the table.
it’s time to come on out.
there will be no sign from above.
you’ll only hear the knock knock knock of your own heart as signal.

if you are afraid, come out.
if you are awake, come out.
come out and level up.

begin again.
dynamite the dam on the flow.
your body feels the tock tock tock of time as it hammers.
lord we are all cinders
from a fire burning long ago,
but here it is the knock knock knock of your own heart that matters.

if you are afraid, come forth.
if you are alone, come forth now.
everybody here has loved and lost,
so level up and love again.

call it any name you need.
call it your 2.0, your rebirth, whatever –
so long as you can feel it all,
so long as all your doors are flung wide.
call it your day #1 in the rest of forever.

if you are afraid, give more.
if you are alive, give more now.
everybody here has seams and scars.
so what. level up.

let your faith die.
bring your wonder.
yes, you are only one.
no, it is not enough
but if you lift your eyes, I am your brother.
and this is all we need.
and this is where we start.
this is the day we greet.
this is the day, no other.

Your spirit cannot be a hedge against disaster – but it can get you up and moving again, after.

{p7: ekphrastic on wonder exhibit}


Today’s images are taken from Jennifer Angus’ show, “In The Midnight Garden” from the Wonder exhibit at the Renwick Gallery in Washington DC, courtesy of photographing poetry sister Sara Lewis Holmes.

I both love and kind of dread our ekphrastic months with the Poetry Sisters. We all have such eclectic tastes, artwork is so subjective, and I’m never sure quite what I think of a sculpture or image until I’m writing about it – which has been kind of an adventure. Lately, though, as I’ve been working to finish a book manuscript and kind of feeling the chill of the winds of change in the country lately, it’s been a struggle to stay on the …er, sunny side, as it were. I’m not actively depressed, but I have pretty much got the gallows humor going on, and …yeah. So, when Sara brought us pictures of a room full of bugs I… Hm. I looked at it. In a way, with its cochineal-washed walls, the exhibit space is gorgeous. The insects themselves are so beautiful, but then I got entangled in the details… details like, the bugs are DEAD. Sure, they were wonderful (perhaps wonder-full?) when alive, but they’re now simply rank on rank of dead bugs, or dead chitinous outer skeletons of bugs, ordered, empty, husks which should have been alive.


And can you believe it, of all the ideas I had? That one stuck.

Somehow, seeing that and the tiny drawers – which reminded me so much of the old card catalogues – made me think of emotions, or how we deal, or don’t deal with them… How, when they’re not alive within us, they become useless, dead things that we just …shuffle around in drawers? I don’t know. I would apologize AGAIN for being the weirdo in the room, but by now we all know this is apparently just who I am.

Asi es la vida.


Because there is no remedy for woe
And lacking physic, panacea, cure,
We package it, with labels, just to show
How fine we are. We can – we will! – endure.
Because life has no cure, save for the grave
(And deathless, sunless, half-life not our aim – )
What can’t be changed, we archive. We, the brave
Recorded, classed, but empty all the same.
Systemized sleight-of-hand is what we use
To keep what matters indexed deep inside.
Chameleons playing shell-games, we excuse
Our hollow places. (Grief? Undignified.)

Why, when this world would gut us, should we leave
Our undefended hearts upon our sleeves?

This, the month when summer school classes are ending, school is resuming, and the last frantic scramble of this and that is taking place, we didn’t all make today’s poetry date, but we’ll see them next month. Meanwhile, don’t miss Liz, Sara, Andi & Tricia’s contributions – which include a video and artist interview – for today.

Additional Poetry Friday contributions are hosted today at A Teaching Life.