Poetry: keeping the channel open

For VerseLove on Ethical ELA this week, host Margaret Simon shared this quote from dancer Martha Graham (on The Marginalian):

“There is a vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all of time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and it will be lost. The world will not have it. It is not your business to determine how good it is nor how valuable nor how it compares with other expressions. It is your business to keep it yours clearly and directly, to keep the channel open. You do not even have to believe in yourself or your work. You have to keep yourself open and aware of the urges that motivate you. Keep the channel open.”

Margaret invited poet-participants to free-write for ten minutes and “just flow.” She shared a poem she composed in her Notes app while walking, along with this encouragement to keep going: “Mary Oliver says ‘You do not have to be good’ in her poem ‘Wild Geese’…accept what comes and be open to it. We all have an energy inside us waiting to be released in some creative way… Forget the rules today and flow, flow, flow.”

In keeping the channel open…here is where my mind went first.

Gifts from the Limbic Sea

Before it is quite morning
the otherworld of dreams
begins to recede
the hippocampus
swimming in its own sea
of memory
is unable to hold onto
the waving grasses
ever how beautiful
or important these
may be 

Try, I tell my twin seahorses
before I am quite awake
I would tighten
the ethereal reins
but I know I am
only dreaming

my hands cannot grasp
anything solid
images dissolve into foam
all I can feel
is a gentle current
ebbing away

or maybe 
that strange and bright
otherworld remains
and I am what transitions
from there to here
borne away on 
mystical tides 
back to reality

and so I rise 
in the darkness
before it is quite morning
to find my journal

and write
before the hippocampus
shakes off 
the remaining residue

it’s not much
this grasping
but I do it
because
these last particles
of dream-dust
preserved on the page
mean something

and they 
are mine

Hippocampus coronal sections. DanielsabinaszCC BY-SA 4.0

‘Hippocampus’ by The Black Apple. Halogen GalleryCC BY-SA 2.0

Found story-poem

On Ethical ELA this week, host Dave Wooley invited VerseLove participants to compose blackout poems: “Find a piece of writing that you want to use as a source, grab a black sharpie and start redacting. The words that are left will be your poem.”

Basically, a blackout is a found poem, with chosen words and phrases remaining in original order. Examples can be found here: How-To Blackout Poetry.

Great! I thought. This will be easy.

It was not.

The problem: First thing that came to mind was a new poem that completely awes me…

Amy Nemecek, The Language of the Birds, 2022.

I started blacking out lines and stopped, because a thing happened.

I just couldn’t reduce this stunning poem. It felt like…desecration.

Instead, I lifted a few words out that especially sang to me. They brought with them their own images, forming something new and other.

Thus was my “found-story haiku” born (not sure if that’s even a thing… I guess it is now):

History of Ideas

from firelight, a spark
illumination flaring
then dying in dust

from the river, song
improvisational joy
free and beckoning

from the silhouette
of trees against starlit sky
infinite longing

from the heart crying
against its impermanence
a reliquary

from calloused fingers
a hieroglyph on a wall
before papyrus

from the weightless bones
a shell of structure is formed
the embryo stirs

out of the static
spark, song, longing are harnessed
the fragile thing lives

For the record: I finished blacking to reveal the words I pulled, although this in itself is not a blackout poem.

It is my seed-bed of ideas.

Science poem: Existential Dance

For Monday’s VerseLove on Ethical ELA, host Brittany Saulnier extended this invitation: “Today, write a poem inspired by science and perhaps, whimsy…The challenge is to ensure the reader can simultaneously glimpse the scientific concept you were inspired by and a universal truth.”

As always, my thoughts turn to nature. It is always teaching; are we heeding its lessons? Nature’s messages don’t come on words but from its own rhythms and coding. I write much of birds. It is said that they are they last living dinosaurs. Maybe even now they are the impetus, in their always-inspirational way, for my digging deep to see what I might find…

Existential Dance

sea and earth
earth and sea
complicated
choreography

streams of movement
building higher
freeform deposits
wetter, drier

life rising, falling
layer on layer
it’s all timing, timing,
the dragon-slayer

everything alive
to remain, must eat
until nothing remains
but remains under feet 

strata with volumes 
lined on a shelf
stories kept secret
unto itself

sea and earth
earth and sea
consolidated
choreography

streams of movement
releasing the store
freeform deposits
washing ashore

when miners come
millennia later
scratching their heads
no translator

for what they’re seeing
drawn from the earth
looking for phosphate
to be stunned by girth

of ancient teeth
from a creature long gone
scientific name:

Megalodon

(meaning “big tooth”)
—what great irony
this turns out to be
last laugh of earth and sea

monster-shark teeth
unearthed in a way
with a side effect:
workers’ tooth decay

everything alive
to remain, must eat
until nothing remains
but remnants…of teeth

sea and earth
earth and sea
conspiratorial
choreography

Carcharocles Megalodon Tooth. 5.4 inches long, 4.4 inches wide.
Excavated from Lee Creek Mine, Aurora, North Carolina, USA.
Public domain.

My grandparents lived on the outskirts of tiny Aurora, North Carolina, home to the largest phosphate mining and chemical plant in the world (miningtechnology.com archive). In the 1970s, prior to the establishment of the Aurora Fossil Museum, “rejects” or unwanted gravel material from mines were scattered on the many dirt roads around the area. As a child I walked in these rejects along the old dirt road by my grandparents’ home, finding bits of coral skeleton, shark’s teeth, possibly some Megalodon teeth, and fossilized eardrums and vertebrae of log-extinct creatures. Now visitors can dig through this material in the fossil pits at the Museum, which will host its annual Fossil Festival May 26-29.

The April 2023 edition of Our State Magazine contains an article by Katie Schanze about Aurora and its fossils: the area “produces the most prolific fossil record of Miocene (2.3 million to 5.3 million years ago) and Pliocene (5.3 million to 2.6 million years ago) marine life on the Atlantic coast.”

It was by chance that I stumbled across references elsewhere stating that one of the detrimental effects of phosphate mining is tooth decay from prolonged exposure to fumes of chemicals used in the process. What irony, I thought, tooth decay caused by mining something used as fertilizer to grow food, while simultaneously finding preserved teeth of one of the mightiest sea predators ever to have lived…which likely went extinct due to loss of food.

*******

with thanks to Brittany Saulnier for the poetic inspiration on Ethical ELA
and to Two Writing Teachers for the Tuesday Slice of Life Story Challenge
and Our State: Celebrating North Carolina, Vol. 90, No. 11

For my finch followers: returning thanks

Dear Delivery People:

Thank you
for respecting
my taped-up signs
that say stay away 
from the front porch
it’s a bird sanctuary again
the house finches nested early
on the door wreath I left for them
Mama laid four tiny eggs in blue cold
mohawked nestlings hatched in a snowfall
by mid-March I thought the fledglings
had all flown, for there was no more
happy chatter-song at the door 
and when I checked I found
two perfectly beautiful
fledglings dead
in the nest

how 
why
what
happened
here

I placed them together 
in a deep pile of dry leaves 
at wood’s edge because birds
do not bury their dead
they are creatures
of the air

I tore down
the death-nest
and my taped-up signs

and read online
that birds grieve
the death of
their young

the next day
blades of green grass
appeared on the wreath
where the nest had been

the day after that, more
grass and flowered strands

scientists say that only
the mother finch builds
the nest but I am here
to tell you that the father
worked just as hard

in tandem they flew
with string and fluff
in their beaks
chattering their
architectural plans

in five days,
recreating 
what was lost

and now
in the most
exquisitely-lined nest
I’ve ever seen

there are new blue eggs

exactly
two

so thank you,
Delivery People
for reading my
freshly-taped signs

this
is a sacred
little space
where miracles
of nature
take place

*******
with thanks to b.c. randall for today’s VerseLove invitation on Ethical ELA:

“Write today’s  poem for someone else: the boy who bags your groceries, the neighbor who walks by your front window every day, that colleague or friend who has been on your mind. Craft the poem  to be left for another to unwrap (a gift that we all need).”

Haibun poem: Breath

On the first day of National Poetry Month, Glenda Funk kicks off VerseLove at Ethical ELA with haibun poetry writing:

“Haibun originated in Japan and combines prose and haiku. Haibun can feature many genre forms, including narrative, biography, diary, essay, prose poem, travel journal, etc. The prose section comes first and is followed by the haiku, which an article on Poets.org describes as ‘a whispery and insightful postscript’

Compose a poem juxtaposing ideas about rest with the haibun form…I’ve noticed the economy of words in the haibun and believe this is achieved by omitting as many being verbs (and dare I say adjectives) as possible.”

I have never written haibun before.

I do not know why the image of the child struggling to breathe in the night came to mind, but she did.

More on that after the verse…

Breath

Night takes the stage like a magician bent on harm, draping the child in her bed with a velvet cape intended to suffocate. Ghost-hands press theme music from her lungs, just pipes and whistles, an accordion straining, straining to get enough air in and out. Carnival music distortion, chorusing with the machine at the bedside rattling and spewing steam. It doesn’t help. The child craves release. Air. Sleep. PleasePlease…she wriggles against the ghost-hands, piling her pillows, drawing her knees to her chest underneath her, not knowing this is how she slept as a baby. Not knowing she’s a victim of in-betweenness, planted in a time before widespread use of inhalers and eras beyond physicians prescribing the remedy (for adults, anyway) of smoking jimsonweed. Nightshade. The magician’s sleight of hand, again. In the fog-filled room, moisture trickling down the walls, she’s akin to the bald cypress in the bog, relying on knees to —stabilize? —to breathe? She does not know that even trees rest at night (measure the droop of their branches; see it restored at morning). Like trees repatriating nutrients before winter, turning their fragile leaves loose, she knows she has one hope for staving off ruination. Her knees. In this pocket, the ghost-hands lose their grip; the magician is undone. The velvet cape slips away. 

Sleep repairs the brain
but there would be no breathing
at all, without trees

#Repost @_sunkissed_gal_ ・・・
The trees are our lungs, the rivers our circulation, the air our breath, and the earth our body. — Deepak Chopra.
Sterling College. CC BY 2.0.

—I was the child, suffering with asthma.

Wall on the writing: a scrambled idiom poem

On the last day of Ethical ELA’s Open Write, host Denise Hill offered this invitation:

“Take a metaphor or idiom and reverse it or twist it up in any which way you choose – mumbo jumbo jam it!

Then write from the ‘sense’ the new phrase makes. It may be total nonsense. That’s perfectly fine! It may provide a ‘feeling’ or strike a memory chord or a fantasy chord with you in some way that inspires your poem today. Just go with it!”

Here is what came of my scrambling the writing on the wall

The Wall on the Writing

In prehistory
cave-dwellers
dipped their fingers
into animal fat
charcoal
their own earwax

then dirt and ash

to paint their stories
on the walls
by flickering torchlight

over time
many caves
collapsed

to be reabsorbed
by the earth

In the course 
of human migration
the region of the caves
became a fortified city
with iron gates
and great stone walls

one of which
was constructed
over the buried caves

It is said that at this wall
the great orators
gave their mighty speeches
humble petitioners
made their prayers
poets composed their epics
chroniclers penned histories
and storytellers
found their words

I do not know
if the wall 
or the legends
are real

but I do know
that when I
hit a writing block
that I cannot
go over
around
or through
if I dig
deep
deeper
deeper still
within

I will find
the words

just human DNA
finding its way
with story
waiting 
deep
deeper
deeper still
beneath the wall
on the writing

Stone Wall. jcubic. CC BY-SA 2.0.

with thanks to Denise Hill and the Ethical ELA Open Write community

and Two Writing Teachers for the monthlong Slice of Life Story Challenge

for story really is

in our DNA

Vagabond

a memoir poem

Driving along 
a deserted road
in a deluge
in the dark
my hands gripping 
the steering wheel
for dear life

I see him
in the headlights
there, ahead
on the right

standing, bent,
in the sheeting rain
thumb held out

—how can I
not stop?

Rain beats
the car roof
like a drum
as he flings open
the door and
slides into the
passenger seat.

“Thanks,” he says.

He’s wearing 
layers of clothes

a sodden cap
over straw-like hair

sporting
a scraggly beard.

“Sure,” I say.
“Where are you going?”

He looks at me
for a peculiar moment:
“The better question is
where are YOU going?”

His eyes
(maybe it’s just my 
overactive imagination)
are silvery
in the darkness.

“H-h-home,” I stammer.

“Then I’ll ride as far
as you’re able to
take me,”
says the stranger.
“How old are you,
anyway?”

What does it matter?
“Eighteen,” I say.

“You mean
that you have lived
to be eighteen
and no one
has told you
not to pick up
strangers?”

I blink.

“It’s raining…it’s
such a bad night…”
I start

but as I speak
I can hear
Grandma’s voice
reading a favorite 
book to me
when I was small
(Never Talk to Strangers!)
and what 
she always says
at our parting:
Take care of your
precious self…

he finishes:
“It could be
an even worse night.
You don’t know
what some people
might do.
There are a lot
mean people
in the world.
It isn’t safe
for you to
stop alone
like this.
If you let me off at
the next intersection,
it will be enough.”

I blink.

I drive on
to the next 
intersection,
a well-lit place
where he opens
the door:

“Thanks for
the ride.
But don’t 
pick up 
any more
strangers,”
he admonishes.

The lights change
a horn blares
I’m only dimly aware
for watching
open-mouthed
as the vagabond
absconds
into the
rain-cloaked
night.

I blink.

Now I see him
now I don’t

as I take
the last turn
for home.

Lonely Highway. Colby Stopa.  CC BY 2.0.

*******

with thanks to Katrina Morrison for the invitation to write a “Seeing the stranger” poem on Day Four of the Ethical ELA OpenWrite

and to Two Writing Teachers for the monthlong Slice of Life Story Challenge

and to the vagabond hitchhiker
whose advice I have heeded
ever since


Taking stock: my pile of good things

*******

With thanks to Stef Boutelier for the “pile-poem” form and Canva template on Day Two of Ethical ELA’s Open Write.

Thanks also to Two Writing Teachers for the monthlong Slice of Life Story Challenge.

Life IS a challenge. The greatest. For writing inspiration, Stef quotes author Rainbow Rowell:

So, what if, instead of thinking about solving our whole life, you just think about adding additional good things. One at a time. Just let your pile of good things grow. 

What might your “pile of good things” be?

Sleep experiment poem

This is not what you think.

The poem you’re about to read is not about a sleep experiment.

It is an experiment in writing a poem about sleep, using Artificial Intelligence (AI).

On Day One of Ethical ELA’s OpenWrite, host Stef Boutelier invited participants to try AI for creating or modifying a poem, stating that “AI is here to stay. We might as well learn alongside and make sure our humanity isn’t disposed of too quickly.”

She shared these sites with the directive to “explore ways you might use, learn, or negate AI within the lens of poetry”:

So, as a test of AI vs. human creativity, I used the poem generator to write a villanelle.

My topic was sleep (I am coveting it in the throes of getting over a lengthy cold, going into week three) and as I was prompted to choose two characters, who better than Somnus and his son Morpheus, gods of sleep?

Confession: I did alter a few of the rhyming words but that is all…

Without further ado, the experiment results:

Somnus’s Torment: The Villanelle of the Sleep

Somnus couldn’t stop thinking about the sleep
It was just so elusive and desired
But he could never forget the sheep

That morning, Somnus was shocked by the upkeep
He found himself feeling rather wired
Somnus couldn’t stop thinking about the sleep

Later, he realized that the sleep was deep
He thought the situation had become rather uninspired
But he could never forget the sheep

Morpheus tried to distract him with a leap.
Said his mind had become too misfired
Somnus couldn’t stop thinking about the sleep

Somnus took action like a veep
The sleep was becoming required
But he could never forget the sheep

Somnus’s demise was cheap
His mind became dangerously tired
Somnus couldn’t stop thinking about the sleep
But he could never forget the sheep

And there you have it.

Give me “Do not go gentle into that good night” any day.

This is not to say that AI can’t inspire or help with learning form and composition. In fact, its greatest offering might be a lesson in the power of revision.

And while it can actually generate some alarmingly wonderful things, I don’t think AI can ever out-poet the human mind.

I shall have to write my own villanelle now…but I won’t be using AI.

Has it ever seen or heard the birds? Has it ever smelled cut grass or felt the heartbeat of a living creature? Can it experience anything?

No.

Here’s to using the senses and the soul to capture the experience of being alive. Is this not the whole purpose of writing?

Meanwhile, sleep is still calling me…

*******

with thanks to Stef Boutelier on Ethical ELA
and to Two Writing Teachers for the monthlong Slice of Life Story Challenge

A president, a poem

Today on Ethical ELA’s Open Write, Stacey Joy invites participants to lift a line of poetry and use it in creating a Golden Shovel poem.

I was thinking about it being President’s Day, so I went in search of poems written by our presidents. This led me to Jimmy Carter, the first U.S. President to publish a book of poetry in his lifetime. He is our longest-living president; at age 98, he has just entered hospice care. I have lifted a line from his verse.

“To hear the same whale’s song” – Jimmy Carter, “Life on a Killer Submarine,” Always a Reckoning and Other Poems

Homeward Hymn

when my life draws to
its close I imagine the last thing I hear
will be cicadas rattling high in the
green oaks as I pass, fervently calling, calling the way, same
lost and found returning sound of whale’s 
pulsating destination song

If Whales Could Fly. Christopher.MichelCC BY 2.0.