13 ways of looking at a black cat crossing your path…

A list poem, of sorts, inspired by Wallace Stevens “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird,” shared this week on Ethical ELA. The Open Write challenge: “To look outside ourselves to the larger world. Craft a poem about it…the larger world is many different things to people, and in many cases, it’s America.”

Everything hinges on interpretation. There are infinite ways of looking.

It just so happened that this week marked my return to campus in preparation for student cohorts transitioning back to the building. Driving along the familiar back road for the first time in what seemed like ages, car piled with stuff, brain churning with things to do and how to do them, trapped in a constant state of COVID suspension, in a fog very like the one rising from the ground, smoky swirls lending a seasonal eerie-ness to beguiling red-gold trees against an obscured sky, what to my wondering eyes should appear but the sudden darting of a black cat from the woods just ahead on the right. Neatly across the ditch bank it sailed, mission-like, directly across the road in front of me…

13 Ways of Looking at a Black Cat Crossing Your Path in the Time of COVID-19 While Driving to School to Teach Online Near Halloween of Election Year 2020

I.
Unexpected poetry in motion from the russet woods, long, lithe feline fluidity rippling low along the golden ditch bank, ebony mercury flowing across the gray asphalt, a thing of beauty, a joy forever or at least until…
II.
Still alive. I didn’t hit it.
III.
Spawn of inexplicable, maniacal laughter
(nowhere near the Joaquin Phoenix level)
IV.
The omen of—misfortune? As in—Google crashing?—no Wi-Fi?—more lost instruction?—a forgotten mask? —one more directive on what to do or not to do with data, disinfectant, distance?
V.
Will I even make it to school today?
VI.
Will students (onscreen)?
VII.
Spirit of the season, shape-shifter running to and fro on the Earth, demon on the loose, witch’s familiar, unholy harbinger …
VIII.
This election. Heaven help us.
IX.
Misrepresentation and slaughter of God’s creatures.
X.
Curiosity. Where are you running to, little black cat? From where? From what—or whom? Do people other than scientists know that your fur holds secrets to disease resistance? Can the mystery be unlocked, decoded?
Pandemics of rats and bats.
What if healing sprung from cats.

Poetic justice.
XI.
Portal of memory… I had a little black cat, once. She had no tail and no one else wanted her. The last left in a box of kittens a guy at college was giving away. Brought her home, named her after a magic cat who was exceedingly wise, in a book I read as a child. Couldn’t take her with me when I married and moved into an apartment so I gave her to my dad. He bought turkey from the deli, tore it into small bites, and fed her on the countertop.
She wasn’t magical. Just full of ever-purring love.
XII.
The great portender, seeming to be what you are not… all I know is you are poetry in motion. Run on, blithe spirit. Run on, long, lithe spirit-lifter, ebony mercury flowing… how glad I am our paths crossed.
Fear not. We bring one another no harm.
XIV.
I skipped #13. Too unlucky.

*******

Note on IX: For centuries, beginning in medieval times, superstition and associations with evil led to widespread killing of black cats. Many shelters today will not allow black cats to be adopted near Halloween for fear of their being used as decorations and mistreated, tortured, sacrificed, or abandoned. Just one way of looking at those lines.

With thanks to Ethical ELA for inviting many ways of looking and to the fine folks celebrating Poetry Friday, especially Jama Rattigan for hosting the Roundup. Jama’s blog, An Eclectic Feast of Food, Fiction, Folderol and Chewy Culinary Verse is a mind-bogglingly gorgeous work of art. I don’t know how she does it!

Thanks also to Keats, Shelley, Stevens, and Patricia A. McKillip. I haven’t forgotten you, Moriah.

Lead Photo: Ralph Daily. CC-BY

The passing

This week I’m participating in a five-day poetry Open Write at Ethical ELA. Day One’s writing invitation, “Bodies in Motion,” was sparked by the importance of sports to so many student athletes who haven’t been able to participate—when it may be the only reason they come to school. Many feel most at home with a team, on a field, writes host Sarah J. Donovan, needing to “move their bodies to feel joy, to feel normal, to feel self.” Instead they’re confined to screens and “plexiglass cubicles.” For the Open Write we crafted poems about our own athletic experiences, or those of family members, or even about what we used to be able to do but can’t anymore.

I’ve never been athletic, not ever, in the whole of my life.

My husband, however, was.

Through him I know the vital and abiding value of sports for a young person…

Here’s a scene I witnessed recently at home.

The Passing

She comes out of his study carrying it
in her four-year-old arms
and his face is transformed, glowing
as if a passing cloud has uncovered the sun.
He leans forward in the recliner as she
drops it, kicks it, sets it spinning
—Oh, no, he says, this one’s not for kicking,
it’s for dribbling, just as the ball stops
at his feet. He reaches down, lifts it
with the easy grace of the boy on the court,
hands perfectly placed on the worn brown surface
in split-second calculation of the shot
so many times to the roar of the school crowd
so many hours with friends, his own and then
his son’s, still outscoring them all, red-faced,
heart pounding, dripping with sweat, radiant
—and at twelve, all alone on the pavement
facing the hoop his mother installed
 in the backyard of the new house
after his father died, every thump echoing
Daddy, Daddy, Daddy.
The game in the blood, the same DNA
that just last year left him with a heart full
of metal and grafts, too winded to walk
more than short distances, having to stop
to catch his breath, deflated
—it needs some air. Do you have a pump,
he asks his son, sitting there on the sofa,
eyes riveted to the screen emitting
continuous squeaks of rubber soles
against hardwood.
—Yeah, Dad. I’ve got one and the needle, too.
His father leans in to the little girl at his knee,
his battered heart in his hands:
—Would you like to have it?
She nods, grinning, reaching, her arms, her hands
almost too small to manage the old brown sphere
rolling from one to the other like a whole world
passing.

*******

with thanks to Ethical ELA for the monthly poetry Open Writes and Two Writing Teachers for fostering a vital and abiding love of writing in students— and teachers.
Revise on.

Photo: Marcus Balcher. CC BY-SA

Dancing ghosts

A poem inspired by a neighbor’s decorations

I happened to glimpse them, in a ring
Holding hands, a curious thing
In the darkness, dancing there
Diaphanous beings, light as air
Small faces in gossamer veiling
Wispy arms fluttering, flailing
Maybe in mischief, maybe in glee
Luminous little spirits set free
…hallowed revenants of you and me,
The children that we used to be.

*******

Just a little offering (shades of October? A bit of Octo-plasm?) for Poetry Friday.
Special thanks to Janice Scully at Salt City Verse for hosting the Roundup.

Of stifling, stories, and stars

What stifles you?

This question appeared today on Sharing Our Stories: Magic in a Blog.

The first thing the word stifle conjures for me is heat—stifling southern summer afternoons, air turning to bathwater.

Hard to breathe.

Which makes me think of COVID-19.

And masks.

It’s hard to breathe with a mask, if you have to expend much energy, if you have to talk very much… I know, because I wear one when I’m out and about.

In thinking of masks, I come to another layer…

Filters.

There to help protect. To keep harmful stuff out.

Or in. Depending.

Masks may be somewhat stifling.

Filters aren’t stifling at all.

It’s the lack of filters I find stifling, out there in the daily atmosphere, the zeitgeist of our times. Words of fire, of ash, of acid rain, meant to destroy…when their creative power could be harnessed instead to edify, to transform, to transcend. To honor. To heal. The poets know it…

I can only be vigilant with my own filtering. With what I let into my own mind, heart, and soul. With what I let flow in return… recognizing that

Fear stifles creativity
Inner critics stifle courage
Loudness stifles contemplation
Turmoil stifles contentment
Excuses stifle commitment
Regret stifles today—and tomorrow

—I’d like to continue the acrostic with a sort of reversal using each letter of “stifle” and “filters” on every line but I am tired now. Tiredness stifles the brain.

Humanity is stifling. As in, one’s own. Today an education colleague and I joked that we were done with Earth, having had enough of not-knowing, of virtual realities of teaching, of the inability to move forward with life in general and the tolls taken on us all in so many ways. We kidded about going to live on the Space Station. Even now, recalling, I am “slipping the surly bonds of Earth,” as WWII fighter-pilot-poet John Gillespie Magee wrote, to circumnavigate our planet every ninety-two minutes, seeing fifteen sunrises and sunsets in one day, like the astronauts do. To be among the stars…

Which evokes another favorite quote, this one from Muriel Rukeyser:

“The universe is made of stories, not of atoms.”

And so I slip away from the cosmos, down through our protective atmosphere, back to my own country, to my home, my family, my little spot carved out here in the kitchen, to the waiting keyboard, feeling again the heaviness of humanity.

For us all.

For our very atoms, for the stories we live and breathe.

I reach for the words and it’s a little like reaching for the stars. Not those beyond but their remnants within; as scientists say, we humans are made of stardust.

Well then.

Seems we should be about filtering light.

I’ve enjoyed the open community of writers over at Sharing Our Stories: Magic in a Blog. If you write (or want to write) just for the magic of it, consider this your invitation to join.

The quivering

Inspired by an afternoon walk with my son.
Weary of discussing the world and its problems, we lapsed into quiet commiseration…
then, nearing end of the road, this sound, this airy, magical, musical quivering…

At the end of my road, over the street
Where expanse of sky and fallow field meet
I walk on in silence, until hearing
The faintest vibration upon nearing

—a quickening

Made by a thousand—a million—small things
Choir of minuscule cantors with wings
Singing their song in darkness, unbidden
Deep among long tangled grasses, hidden

—a quavering

Trilling celestial, ethereal sound
Otherworldly pulse of the Earth, unbound
Cadence of our own burgeoning story
Life playing out in wild morning glory

—a quivering
—a shivering

At the end of my road, over the street
Where sky and field and infinity meet.

*******

with gratitude for the poetic gathering on Poetry Fridays
and to Bridget Magee for hosting today’s Roundup.

Old red barn

Old red barn
testament to ingenuity
the rust in your coat
counterintuitively
preserving against decay

Still standing today
on your windswept plain
amid long amber grasses
continually bowing
their homage

Like sun-cast gold at your feet
despite encroaching shadows
ever-shifting with clouds
under the benevolent blue
striated sky

A skeleton tree
veils your face
attempting to conceal
the emptiness behind
your window-eyes

You’ve no weathervane
pointing heavenward
with its rooster of betrayal
—can you hear geese calling
fly on fly on fly on

Old red barn
vignette of yesterday
rustic testimony never reduced
—I will not think of you
as desolate

*******

With special thanks to Margaret Simon for the prompt in “This Photo Wants to be a Poem,” her journalist friend Jan Risher for sharing the photo of the old barn, and to Tabatha Yeatts at The Opposite of Indifference for hosting today’s Poetry Friday Round-Up.

Grace

The kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these. – Matthew 19:14

For Spiritual Journey Thursday. A double etheree.

Now
I wake,
now I rise,
wiping the sleep
from my sleepy eyes.
Time to eat, time to pray.
Thank you, Lord, for this new day
to live, to learn, to love, to play.
In Your kingdom, where I have a place,
remember Your little child saying grace.


Remember all Your children, needing grace
when we’ve forgotten to seek Your face.
Draw us back to that holy place
in a child’s believing heart.
O Lord, in the morning
cast us not away—
help us, we pray—
You are great,
You are
good.

Create in me a clean heart, O God; and renew a right spirit within me. Cast me not away from thy presence; and take not thy holy spirit from me. Restore unto me the joy of thy salvation… Psalm 51: 10-12

Give ear to my words, O Lord, consider my meditation. Hearken unto the voice of my cry, my King, and my God: for unto thee will I pray. My voice shalt thou hear in the morning, O Lord; in the morning will I direct my prayer unto thee, and will look up.
-Psalm 5:1-3

*******
For more Spiritual Journey offerings, visit Reflections on the Teche – with gratitude to Margaret Simon for hosting.

A cup of light

In his poem “Tuesday, June 4th, 1991,” poet Billy Collins writes of an ordinary day that would be forgotten if not for sitting “empty-headed at the typewriter with a cup of coffee, light and sweet.”

He begins to record his feelings, his thoughts, his surroundings. His mind travels through history. He captures images, real and imagined, in his stanzas “as unalterably as they are seated in their chairs in the ontological rooms of the world.”

Ontology. The study of being. Certainly this is what writers, what poets, do. I’ve said I write to know that I have lived… recording people, places, images, emotions, ideas, pulling back layers of meaning, discovering connecting threads. Attempting to capture or recreate bits of my existence, whether it is or once was tangible, or just a fleeting, ethereal breath of a thing in the mind… yet still being.

Collins ends his poem with an image of the goddess Eos, or Aurora, slipping out of bed (as his own wife had, prior to his waking and sitting down to write this poem):

But tomorrow, dawn will come the way I picture her,

barefoot and disheveled, standing outside my window
in one of the fragile cotton dresses of the poor.
She will look in at me with her thin arms extended,
offering a handful of birdsong and a small cup of light.

As I sit here, now, at dawn, empty-headed at my laptop with a cup of coffee, feeling that I have nothing to offer today, Collins’ final lines whisper in my mind. They do not demand, or bang on the door, or tug. They do not pierce; they just stand, waiting, whispering. Aurora rises from the sound, from the mist, and I see her looking in at me, too. In the grayness there’s a flutter of her plain gown, of her long hair. I see those thin arms, one hand holding the birdsong and releasing it. I hear it, airy and new and alive again, as it is every morning.

And that small cup of light she’s offering.

I can almost see her earnest face, her pleading gray eyes: I brought it for you. It is yours. Please take it.

And I think, the day is new. What gifts will it bring? Unexpected little treasures that I don’t want to miss, just waiting… and what cup of light might I offer the day in return?

There’s only one thing to do. I know it as sure as I am sitting here.

I hold out my hand.

Aurora smiles.

Photo: “Cupping the Light.”  CaitlinatorCC BY 2.0

Lines of remembering

Fatherhood

I would write this as a letter but there is no point
as you would not receive it, would not read it, would not respond,
so I write it as verse instead because I want to talk to you

and because poetry, like love, transcends.

It’s dark and gloomy today, steady rain
tossing itself against the windows, not at all
the crisp, bright day it was, that fall
eighteen years ago.


The weather’s playing havoc with my Internet connection
but then, so few things are connecting anymore
as they should, in these dark and gloomy times

you can’t imagine, even though you lived your own.

One of my favorite stories about you: Little boy,
running hard as you could down the old dirt road,
bursting into the house, “Mother! Mother! I just heard on
Grandma’s radio—President Roosevelt is dead!”

She couldn’t believe it, could she, but soon enough,
everyone was wondering: What will happen to
our country now? Who will lead us out of war?
Is it ever going to end?
Is there life beyond?

If you were here, would you recognize our country now?
Eighteen years have come and gone (I think you’d love a GPS
and texting, so much better than e-mail you’d just learned to use)
in the interim of our lifetimes, this last one, an accordion of implosion.

Did I ever tell you I once had a dream
that you and I were standing on a ridge looking out
over a barren land, as if an apocalypse had occurred,
leaving us as the only living things
?

You tried to explain but I couldn’t make out the words,
couldn’t understand, but I knew that you knew why and I wasn’t

afraid, mostly just surprised and curious, looking over that desert wasteland
—I ponder now: Is now what I was seeing then?

Although you aren’t here anymore to say, to lead by example
of unfailing duty, to give insight and wisdom, and perhaps courage

I do wonder if you ever thought of yourself as courageous, despite
your saying that a smart man would have gotten further in life.

No one is smart all the time and how I long to hear
what you have to say, now more than ever, never mind that
I am grown and my children are grown, for I find myself yearning,
returning, to the arrow of the compass that you were.


If I could write the letter, I’d say I miss you, you’ve missed so much,
the boys are well, you’d be so proud. I’d say I took
a corner of your protective cloak and wrapped it
over them for as long as I could, the way you did for me.


If I was granted a wish for changing one thing
in the past, it would be for more carefree times
like the day you raced me on the beach when I was little
and I knew you let me win.


We only did it that once, you running between me and the tide,
your shadow hopping over shells and disintegrating sand castles,
dipping in small hollows, until you swept me up into your young arms,
laughing there with blue eyes, blue sea, in the sunlight.


Yes, that’s what I’d wish, the freedom, the light, the salt, the joy,
the time to play, for it was rare and I doubt if you’d even recall
these moments that stay with me like an old photograph,
fading, becoming fragile, curling up at the edges.

But I still hold on, gently, feeling the pulse of memory
while seeking silences where I can sort
the images and collate them in some semblance of order

when I need it most, and when you seem most near.

These lines won’t bring you back and I don’t wish it, I just trust that
my words, beating like memory, like the waves on the shore,
will ripple on into infinity to the place where our circles coincide,
where you still guide, running between me and the tide.

*******

Just a draft, on the anniversary of Daddy’s passing, September 25th.
Shared for Poetry Friday with thanks to Jone Rush MacCulloch for the invitation to “bring poetry goodness to the world today.”

Photo: Fatherhood. Giuseppe MiloCC-BY

Wolf at the door

A friend sent me this photo after my recent pareidolia poem to a face in a cloud – pareidolia being the misperception of a stimulus as some familiar object, pattern, or meaning. It’s a normal phenomenon. The human brain’s visual system has a specialized mechanism for face recognition: the fusiform face area. We see, we interpret, we strive to make meaning, in more ways than we ever realize…

So: Do you see the wolf in this wood panel?

Imagine, then, seeing it in your house as a small child, every time you enter your bedroom… seems there could be a lesson here about our worst monsters existing only in our minds, but today the wolf has demanded a poem.

Far be it from me to argue…

Don’t really feel like playing
Not sure I should be saying
In case it hears me
Because it skeers me
That wolf beside my door.
Don’t want to go to bed
If a hundred times it’s said
It’s waiting in the dark there
To snarl and bite and bark there
That wolf beside my door.
What will it do as I go past?
Even if I try it super fast?
No one else knows why
I sit in the floor and cry
Except the wolf beside my door.
Please, I want to say,
Won’t you just go away?
If you will let me rest
I’ll do my very best
Oh Wolf—give me my door!
I hear his wild laughter
Ringing ever after
“Tell me, then, what for?
You’re not a child any more,”
Said the wolf who’s at my door.

With thanks to my friend for the photo and the idea, and to Two Writing Teachers for providing a word-playground for a Slice of Life to run and be free.