{#npm’17: even now, when i have come so far}

I was nine the summer I met a new girl whose mother had died of a drug overdose. Everyone, of course, felt terrible for her, and I was matched by the adults in our lives as someone “suitable” to anchor a going-on-fifth-grade girl adrift with a father she’d never lived with, his new family, and a box of Barry Manilow cassette tapes, all she had left of her mother. We didn’t have much to say to each other, at first, this girl and I, but then she showed me her treasures- a small gold necklace with a maybe real diamond chip, a compact of silly blue eyeshadow, and a shoebox full of cassete tapes. We listened to them – she, remembering her mother, and me, finding a whole different world from the hymns and religious songs I knew at home. We listened to those cassettes until we worried they would wear out. So, “Lyn” made me my own set, and made herself another set. And when the golden voice spiked out, we weren’t just two awkward fifth graders, but something better. Something bigger.

Sonoma County 90

Coming to Barry Manilow’s swoopy vocals and sentimental piano ballads before I had the cynical armor of adolescence means I listened and wept real tears to heart-tuggers like “Even Now” and “All the Time” and imagined myriad lives not my own, where people were hurting and enduring, putting away youthful loves and going on – in some cases bitterly, in others, joyously. It was… like reading novels, seriously. I imagined life stories for Lola the Showgirl and Mandy. (Why, yes. Yes. I was a weird kid. I know. I also wrote narrative bubbles in the Sears catalogue. Dialogue practice or weirdness? You Make the Call.)

In time – by junior high, really – there were boy bands and cooler music to be aware of, like Prince. I …quietly pretended to know who George Michael and Boy George was. (And thought Boy G was a girl. FOR YEARS you guys. I was completely clueless: he wore makeup, right? Ergo, girl, right? Oyyyy.) I forsook my first love, and moved on. After all, Choir Nerds like Huey Lewis and the News, right? Vocals. Four-part-harmony, and all that jazz. Every once in a while, we’d arrange a Manilow song for a talent show – what other song lent itself to a soft-shoe routine AND a whistle but “Can’t Smile Without You?” In my dramatic, emo moments, nothing would do but for me to rewind “Could This Be the Magic” over and over and over and over. And of course, every high school choral group worth its salt had to butcher “I Write the Songs.” (!)

In college, my menopausal boss had all of the Manilow on Broadway CDs and the fact that I could sing some of his songs endeared me to her — more than unfairly, I’ll admit, but she was in a cranky, awful place in her life, apt to shriek at her student workers and weep a lot — so I took all the sweetening of her temperament that I could get. Even once I was married, I kept my old cassette tape, though I had nothing to play it on… I knew all the words to all the songs, and at odd times, the lyrics would come back to me — when I was sad and regretful, mostly, but better times, too. I remember belting out One Voice with strangers and friends in Glasgow and tearing up because we were in an auditorium full of people who also sang — Glaswegians are crazy good at knowing all the words to sentimental songs. We sang so loudly we lost our voices – and it was glorious.

When Mr. Manilow came out earlier this month, I felt an upwelling of love for an old friend. In my heart, I hugged him, and promised him that the nine-year-old superfan I was could never be disappointed in someone who taught the world to sing in the darkness. I wrote him a haiku, because… well, because. Because I still know all the words to all the songs, and before I had armor, he broke and re-mended my childish heart.

& every1 will sing

notes under the door
shine a light in through the cracks —
believe in your song

{#npm’17: p7, talking back to Rilke}

It’s the first Friday of National Poetry Month, which means a doubly special poetry challenge, participated in by Kelly, Sara, Liz calling in from the road; Laura, and Tricia (Andi is sitting this one out) as part of the Poetry Seven’s Year in Poetry challenge. This month, Sara chose a poem by Rilke for us to respond to directly –

You, darkness, of whom I am born—

I love you more than the flame
that limits the world
to the circle it illumines
and excludes all the rest.

But the dark embraces everything
shapes and shadows, creatures and me,
people, nations—just as they are.

It lets me imagine
a great presence stirring beside me

I believe in the night.

—Rainer Maria Rilke, The Book of Hours, translated by Anita Barrows and Joanna Macy

Stirling Holy Rood Church T 13

We all read this poem a few times, and then a few more, and then decided what to do with it. I tried to write a line-to-line response first, which didn’t work at all. Then I tried to write a kind of …Big Picture Thought about how the poem made me feel. Also didn’t work. As I was trying to work through my daily poem challenges for National Poetry Month, I begin to get a little worried… Rilke, with his usual straightforwardness, was not striking any sparks with me.

And then, I started thinking about sparks… little spangles of light, illumination. And the opposite of said. Sparks don’t actually let us do anything but see that there’s contrast. They don’t help us see anything but the light itself, and what is it, really?

This is a dude who likes the dark. I respect that about him. Few people actually do. Oh, we think we love the dark, the stars. We quote “When I Heard The Learn’d Astronomer,” and gaze up wistfully. But, where most of us live is so much light pollution we don’t actually have dark. I have become acquainted with the night, because I briefly lived way out in the country, in Glasgow. Our neighbors were sheep. It was flippin’ dark out on those country lanes. It was …kind of amazing. And, I knew I was walking right next to spiders. I had to decide how much I was going to let that bother me.

In the end, I decided that I agreed with ‘ol Rainer, because I like the dark, but I also want to like the dark. Being who I am, the literal girlchild who has thought a great deal about the word “black” as reflected in theology and hymnody, darkness is going to mean a little something different to me — and I could see that reflected in the seven’s poetry, as we wrote on our shared Google document. I may be the only one who likes the dark, but I won’t hold that against anyone. I have walked a different (spider-adjacent) road, and I tend to have to reject the experience that “most” people have with darkness – because I am not most people.

Took me long enough to figure that out.

“the absence of color”

from darkness thou art formed & dust thou art
first secreted within thy mother’s womb
deep shadows, holding fast creation’s start
to secret hopes in dreamer’s sleep entombed

(blackness is sin, a moody study’s brown
and white holds light, a purity renown
a Presence stirs, beneath the surface bright
foul fiend, forfend, or wisdom’s erudite?)

before the light can drown thy timid sheen
enlightening with fact that still deceives
hold to thine task: believe what is not seen
and be ye blesséd by the unperceived.

Poetry Friday is hosted today by Irene Lantham at her blog, LIVE YOUR POEM. Check it out, for more!

{#npm’17: for sarah}

Mexico City 162

…who tweeted the other day that the most insidious thought she has whilst writing is, “you’re not very good at this.”

writing exercise

no one does it ‘better’
no one does it right
success begins with failure
triumphing over blight.

insidious, the whisper
that tells you otherwise.
deft treachery, these lying brains
sow doubts, and criticize…

but there is no one “better”
there’s no such thing as “right”
there’s only bum firmly in chair,
and you, art’s acolyte.



{#npm’17: the truth}

I’ve rewritten this something like six times, and I see I’m getting in my own way. Again. But, trying to focus a poem on the truth specifically is harder than I thought… There’s an old saying, “A lie will go round the world while truth is pulling its boots on.” C. H. Spurgeon, Gems from Spurgeon (1859). And it’s kind of …worrying, while at the same time, dead on. Just look at social media for five minutes. How many times do people say celebrities are dead… and people think so for months afterward, while the people are still alive? Let’s not even mention politics. Lies happens, over and over again, in the infectious game of telephone that is rumor, and reverberate far out beyond where they began.

And yet: the truth is still there, where it needs to be, when anyone checks.

the Truth is rising
stomping into combat boots
door slams as Lie sprints
shirttails flying, shoes untied —
Unhurried, Truth’s standing, still.

{#npm’17: a sartorial i’m sorry}

Stirling 219

The other day, I read that two strong proponents of the “pull your pants up” doctrine are Rupert Murdoch personality Bill O’Reilly and former television star Bill Cosby. Neither are praiseworthy men for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is because they have made running their mouths a virtue when they should have been running their lives in a manner befitting the privilege they own. No surprise that they share similar views.

However, I, too, though, was raised to believe the doctrine they preached, that of respectability: if you just pull up your pants and look nice and conform to the standard that majority culture has set for you, oh young brown person, All Will Be Well. But, that’s not true. On so, so, so many levels… not true.

Not true – not safe – and communicable – this is a lie that infects like a disease. Tidy, upright behavior doesn’t save lives. Instead, it shifts responsibility for racism from racists, by asking the people being harmed to change. It’s a false security, since believing you’re safe when you’re not always means you’re in more danger. It’s never worked permanently, with everyone, so it doesn’t work. And it asks people to not be who they were created to be. And yet, it persists, getting passed on from parents to children – which is where I got mine.

So, I offer today’s poem in apology to my students throughout the years, with whom I shared what I knew, which was the politics of respectability. I will never tell another student to dress for the life that they wish.* Dress how you will. Live as you should.

Apology, ©2017

Once, I believed and on this point enthused —
That tidy living kept you off the news.
A tidy desk evoked a tidy mind;
Shirts tucked in at the waist looked more benign.
A backwards cap – or sideways! – signaled vice,
Like fishnets, cleavage, short-shorts, fuzzy dice…
(As if correctness covered shaming’s face
“Match purse to shoes, and no one sees your race!”)
Truth: belted trousers will not save a life
Sloppy couture indulged in, once or twice
Will never lead a white child to their grave
It’s not the pants, or how the kid behaves…

To students whom I begged to change their look
And match their outfits with their dream bankbook
I wronged you all: forgive me, if you can.
I’m just now learning clothes don’t make the man.

RANDOM ERRATA: Should my theme of the month have been lies? It seems my poetry finds me there more often than exploring the truth. Obsessed with the dark side, I am. Hmmm. Maybe I’ll find a lighter truth tomorrow.

I KNOW. Some of you are teachers and have AUGHT TO SAY about that clothing statement. Come at me. Get it off your chest, you’ll feel better. Mind, I’ll still have my opinion, but you’ll have shared yours.

{#npm’17: classroom visit}

“I’m fairly tolerant.” “I don’t see color.” “I’m pretty broad-minded.” “I’m the decider.” Because, if you have to say it, it’s likely not true, the previous four statements sound pretty off to me… and yet, they were said by well-intentioned people, and meant to be statements of purest truth.

During my last classroom visit, the teacher in charge made a slightly odd statement, perhaps meant to provoke the students into response. It was a deeply, deeply discomfiting statement, one which began with the statement, “I consider myself a liberal human being…” and ended with the statement that was something like but I didn’t realize black people did yoga. Unfortunately, I thought it was said in jest, and burst out laughing – only to realize no one had joined me. I could only attempt to salvage the moment and talk more in depth about the assumptions people make about people of other abilities, cultures, gender expressions, ethnicities, etc., in our country and in our world that lead to the confusions we share as human beings. It was …a moment.


I don’t see color –
(i’m better than that.) Unseen,
the people waited:
Unacknowledged, their voices.
Unheard, this story’s flip side.

the space between lines
that’s where you’ll find the story
& in the margins
(if you can’t see me, am i
your imaginary friend?)

Somoka is a form where both sides of the poem talk back to each other – and it’s supposed to form a love story. This time, it’s a missed connection…

{#npm’17: “this isn’t who we are”}

I hate the phrase, after a national tragedy, an horrible political faux pas, or in the face of people behaving badly in public spaces – at those times, I especially hate the phrase, “this isn’t who we are.” I know that people say it to distance themselves from something, but it makes as much sense as looking at a doughy abdomen or hammertoes and saying, “this isn’t who my body is.” Um, yes… Yes, it is. Your spare tire and crooked toes are a part of the whole, and even the bits of us that we don’t like are still… us.

So, how do we divorce ourselves from the truth of ourselves? We don’t. We own up, and we do better. That’s really the only option open to us, isn’t it? If we’re to be true to ourselves?

“you may experience feelings of momentary discomfort”

“This is not who we are,” good souls profess.
“This brief discomfort heralds changing views.”
The dream, America, is dispossessed.

And politicians wallow in the mess
Eyes rolling wild, while looking for their cues —
“This is not who we are.” Good souls profess

To understand the needs of the oppressed,
Who are not newly pressured, but eschew
The “dream America.” We, dispossessed.

“Just rhetoric and chatter,” pundits stress.
“A bigot’s dreams could never here come true.”
This IS. Not who we are? Good souls, profess!

Resist. Support, with dogged faithfulness
Those who, with courage march. We must push through
the dream and wake. Our country, in distress.

Distracted by your grieving? Reassess
The help you gave when this did not touch you…
This. Is. Not. Who. We. Are. Good souls, protect
The dreamer, wakening, and dispossessed.

Oakland 56

In case you can’t read it:
“All Putin got was a lap dog; this guy got a Lab!”

{#npm’17: *tap, tap* is this thing on?}

It’s National Poetry Month! And April Fool’s Day. As I looked in complete bewilderment at the Google GNOME, I completely misplaced one of these bits of information… and yes, I was probably the only one who took that seriously and muttered, “What!?”

But, never mind. It’s late afternoon, and my brain has FINALLY caught up. It’s National Poetry Month, and for the past few years, I’ve been doing haiku – but I did that in December, with the theme of healing. I am going to continue to present poetry, but I think instead of sticking with one form, I am going to stick with a poetic theme: truth. Does that just mean things that are true, like facts? Or home truths? Conventional wisdom (or, is that always true)? Or…?

I don’t know yet. But, we’ll find out.


            By Edna St. Vincent Millay

To what purpose, April, do you return again?
Beauty is not enough.
You can no longer quiet me with the redness
Of little leaves opening stickily.
I know what I know.
The sun is hot on my neck as I observe
The spikes of the crocus.
The smell of the earth is good.
It is apparent that there is no death.
But what does that signify?
Not only under ground are the brains of men
Eaten by maggots.
Life in itself
Is nothing,
An empty cup, a flight of uncarpeted stairs.
It is not enough that yearly, down this hill,
Comes like an idiot, babbling and strewing flowers.

Birch Aquarium 17

Beauty is not enough, no… but here’s some anyway.

{pf: poetry 7 revisits the ekphrastic}

Bateu a saudade... faz um 31!!!

Wow. It’s March. That happened fast.

This month, I steered the challenge for the Poetry Sisters gathering, selecting a 2008 photograph taken in Porteirinha, Brazil by Flickr user Ana_Cota. The young lady – incidentally named Jessica – is balancing on her bike to reach a telephone, if you can’t see clearly beneath the weather hood. Pay phones are now nonexistent in many places, thus the picture’s title – bateu a saudade – feel the nostalgia!

Nostalgia was a good thematic jumping off place for me. The super-saturated color aspect makes the image look dated – Technicolor Kodachrome. The super-intensity of the brightness created disjointedness internally – and I felt like this needed blank verse, or another poetic form that wasn’t so formally bordered. I don’t know that I’m finished with what I came up with, but…

while you were out

static on a line
undefeated by dial tone
(can you hear me now?)
the ‘Busy’ signal stutters
The number you have reached has…

…disconnected, the past
is a foreign country. Still,
A man is not dead
while his name is still spoken
Gone, but always Going Home.

one thin dime’s distance
separates the here & now
we stretch, though time eludes our grasp
always calling back a world that is Going.

Once upon a time, the paint on this building was fresh, not flaking, the walk not caked with red dust. Once-upon-a-time Jessica, balanced on her bike, is likely in high school now, a this childish moment caught here and gone… like people, and things like public phones, childhood homes, and landmarks. Feel the nostalgia now?

“A man is not dead while his name is still spoken,” is a line from Sir Terry Pratchett, as is the phrase “always Going Home.” Both are from his book GOING POSTAL. Sir Terry passed away in March of 2015, and, as his books still carry his voice, including the last one, which I am still too sad to read, he will never be gone.

On a less melancholic note, don’t miss the ekphrastic poems of the rest of our crew. Laura – enjoying the quirk of Iceland on a well deserved holiday just now – pulls this off beautifully. Kelly went the Lewis Carroll route here. We mourn the loss of Superman’s changing room with Tricia, find a short and sweet poem about growingalso about standing tall from Sara, and Andi is waving from the sidelines this month.

Poetry Friday this week is hosted by Heidi Mordhorst’s Juicy Little Universe where the celebration for poet Billy Collins rolls on!

{poetry friday: all is well}

So, this atmospheric river has unleashed a series of storms which have culminated in the flood of the century — apparently my home state hasn’t been this wet since 1863 or something around then. I don’t mind the rain, and apparently didn’t even notice a tropical storm that got named, (to be fair, that was an event on the Southern end of the state, not the Northern) but I couldn’t miss Sunday night’s wild wind. They rattled this solid old house in sixty mile-an-hour gusts, and we didn’t sleep well – waking every few minutes as a new gust rattled the deck, the corrugated siding on the porch roof, and our nerves.

At first light, we broke the cardinal rule of family communications and actually texted each other before ten a.m., checking in to see if everyone in our various homes was in one piece. Well, my siblings all had stories, of course; we communicate solely through stories, at a certain age, interrupting each other with breathless details. My parents, though, had gone on with their day, and I got a note from my mother – the next Monday night – that said, “we’re fine, not even floating.” My father’s note was even funnier and more succinct: All is well.

My father only recently breached the twentieth century by getting an email account of his own. He doesn’t like to type. Or write. Or, like, communicate. And, “all is well” in his mind means that possibly the aviary roof blew off, the cockatiels are all escaped, the pug’s under the shed, and a tree fell. “All is well” means, “I’m not dead, don’t bother me.” Ah, parents.

Today’s political poem is dedicated to my friend Elaine, whose writing at Political Verses was my first introduction to turning every form into something with deeper meaning. She has a new book out for kids that has nothing to do with this, but she’s on my mind today.

lies for children

all is well, he said
(he meant, “none of your concern.”)
nothing more calming
or less informative than
half-truths reserved for children.

the House that we built
We, the People, meaning “all”
sways in these high tides
swamped by tsunamis of lies
tell me true: will we get well?

Poetry Friday is hosted today at Karen Edmisten’s shockingly cleverly named blog.