Unexpected poem

with thanks to Araceli, Deanna, and Michelle at #verselove on Ethical ELA today, for the invitation to write about someone who’s influenced your life, incorporating sensory details. My first inclination is to write of my grandparents – as I often do – but today, my aunt came to mind. I expect she’d be so surprised.

I am.

This one’s for her.

On Day Twenty-Two of National Poetry Month

A Poem for Earnie 

I didn’t expect to write of you today
but here I am, remembering
of all things, the tape recorder
your ready, set, go!
the click of your finger pressing play
and singing for all we were worth,
you, my little sister and me:
Wherever you go,
wherever you may wander in your life
Surely you know
I always want to be there…

one of us flubbing the words
all of us cracking up
you saying, I’ll rewind
let’s try it again

I think of your laughter
wild, free, contagious
your raucous humor
trailing you like an ermine robe
rich, resplendent, priceless
cloaking loneliness
I may not have perceived

The only one of my mother’s sisters
never to marry or have children
which didn’t keep you from giving advice
pressing Mama’s buttons
like no one else on Earth
yet she went and named her youngest daughter
after you

Then there were the wigs on
the featureless disembodied heads
sitting on your dresser
you could pick whatever 1970s hair you wanted
each day
how cool was that?

I can’t recall a thing you ever cooked
only that you loved eating
Mama said you were picky
you didn’t look it
Mama said that’s why you weren’t married
so picky that you didn’t get got

I wondered why you never really left home
living with Grannie most of your life
you’d break away for an apartment once or twice
but would always go back
like you needed to be
within the borders
of her shadow

Perhaps it will surprise you
that I recall the ceramics class you took
and the Pepto Bismol pink statuette
of Hotei, the Laughing Buddha
god of happiness and contentment
that you made for me
his hands thrown high to the heavens
Rub his big belly for good luck
each day,
you said
and I could hear the pleasure in your voice
only much later did I flip him over
to find your inscription of love
on the bottom of his pedestal

Funny how the dress you wore to my wedding
was Pepto Bismol pink
I am glad I asked you to be my wedding director
at Mama’s prodding
I remember the books you ran out to buy
to do the job well
for me

Of course there’s Jenny…
a love of your life
Siamese as picky as yourself
who’d curl in my lap
purring
That’s rare,
you’d say

Jenny who lived twelve years
who died in the fire
when you woke in the middle of the night
choking on the smoke
phone in your bedroom
hot to the touch
calling 9-1-1 for the first time
because it was
a brand-new thing
I don’t know how you roused
Grannie and Papa G in the other room
nor how any of you climbed out of the windows
onto the roof
into the freezing midnight air
and safety
as the firemen arrived
but you did it

in my mind, Mama’s voice:
It took three firemen to hold her
from going back in
for Jenny.
They found her
the next day
under Earnie’s window.

I hear your anguished sobs
even now
in those wee hours when you
arrived at our house to stay
reeking of smoke
so that the fur coat you wore
would have to be destroyed

I remember the clothes
you bought for my first baby
in bright, beautiful colors,
expensive
so lovingly chosen

You didn’t live to see my youngest
never knew of his gift for music
how you’d have loved it
I can see you right now,
tape recorder in hand

As the disease took your lungs
and reached its insidious fingers
into your brain
I recall the peculiar shine in your hollowed eyes
against the yellowing of your face

when you asked:
Are you still writing?
Have you published anything yet?

Yes and no, Earnie.
I am still writing, yes.
Long, long after we laid you to rest
in your pink dress
(Grannie had your nails painted to match)
and this isn’t really published
but it’s for you
I didn’t expect to be writing of you today
or singing Olivia Newton-John all of a sudden
after all these years,
but here I am
and here you are,
wherever I may wander
in my life
snatches of song, rolling laughter
here in my morning
here in my night.

Summertime poem

with thanks to Abigail, Betsy, and Soshi for the invitation to write on this topic for #verselove at Ethical ELA today (who’s not longing for summer right now?!).

Here’s why summer has such a special pull for me.

For Day Nineteen of National Poetry Month

Summer Second

Sunny afternoon
blue sky
bit of breeze
faint sound of a radio
from a neighbor’s yard
I can’t discern the song
it just sends me into 
reverie
for a second
conjuring
hot sand
under my bare feet
Coppertone in my nose
salt on my tongue
If everybody had an ocean
across the USA
then everybody’d be surfin’
like Californ-i-ay…

snatches of conversation
cresting and dipping
on the breeze
mighty waves of memory
crashing on the shore
my father’s big black sandals
flip-flopping to the old navy-blue Ford
the battered brown Samsonite
suitcase in his hand
the ride is so long
so long
the city gives way
to pastures, meadows
horses
fields
that go on and on, forever
plowed furrows running
like long crazy legs
to keep up 
with the Ford
as we zoom past
until at last
the lonesome highway
comes to a fork
on the left,
the tiny church
where my ancestors
sleep under stones
we veer to the right
turning 
onto the dirt road
my heart beats faster
Daddy drives slower
stirring clouds of dust
and I am already
grabbing the door handle
as Granddaddy’s lush garden 
comes into view
with just a glimpse of 
Grandma’s white angel birdbath
circled by orange marigolds
through the laundry 
lazily flapping
on the clothesline
and there they are, 
walking across
the green, green grass
and I am out of the Ford
before it’s hardly stopped
and in their arms
in the blinding sun
as the forest stands tall
all around
with its cool
dark mysteries
where the rattling cicadas
crescendo
vibrating on and on and on
through my soul
I can’t discern the song
it just carries me
through eternity
in this one
bright second

“Wire structure” poem

with thanks to Jennifer Jowett on #verslove at Ethical ELA today. Jennifer used the idea of wire structures and blind contour drawing to inspire today’s invitation to compose: “Today, trust the pathway of your words. Find a starting point and let the words take you where they want. You might find yourself meandering, stopping here and there to absorb, or moving quickly until you reach a finish. You might play with extensive enjambment to keep the eye moving continuously. Or you might try something else entirely. Your journey is yours to explore.”

Just this week, the opening line of this poem came to me. As did the last. I wrote them down so I could figure out what to do with them…then came today’s prompt. I dedicate this “wire structure poem” to children…young and grown…your interpretation is your own.

For Day Eighteen of National Poetry Month

Double Helix, Pulled Apart

separated
by walls we didn’t make

shattered
by hearts we didn’t break

scattered
by paths we didn’t take

yet eternally connected

by blood we cannot take
away

by cords we cannot break
away

by history we cannot make
aright

scattered

shattered

separated 

perhaps united in silent ache
today
that love will find
a way

Photo: Peter Alfred Hess. CC BY

Title poem

with thanks to Dr. Stefani Boutelier on Ethical ELA’s #VerseLove today. She writes of the way a title can change the interpretation of a poem, or how it might add layers of metaphor: “I invite you to write a poem where the title helps identify its content, theme, or purpose. The topic and form are up to you–the focus today is on the title.”

I will share my poem’s title at the end.

For Day Fifteen of National Poetry Month

The stories
of time before my time
I lived them
through your telling
felt them through
your pounding heart
breathed them
with your young lungs
until I wanted to run
coughing from
the reek of smoke
the acrid taste of ash
and I think of
how you spent your years
giving yourself
to others
despite the ghosts
that surely clung
as smoke clings to clothing
and as I enter the doorway
I can hardly breathe
for the cloying scent of flowers
and there you are on the table
ready and waiting
in your little box
conveniently resting
in a little white tote
I dare not trust the handles
I just wrap my arms around you
and carry you against my heart
like I did my babies
only there’s no car seat needed now

still, I must keep you safe
in your new lightness
so I strap the seatbelt across us both
pondering the measure of a man
larger than life
so reduced

but I’ve got you, I’ve got you
cradled close
see now, I’m driving you home
sun and shadows flickering
over us like old newsreels
of liberation

******

Title: What Remains

Dedicated to my father-in-law, a World War II veteran.

His birthday is next week.

Take and taken poem

with thanks to Andy Schoenborn for the invitation to write on “what we have taken and what has been taken from us” in today’s #VerseLove on Ethical ELA – a reflective poem using the words take and taken.

A double etheree, on Day Thirteen of National Poetry Month

New
morning
brimming with
yet unwritten
possibility
asking nothing of me
only offering itself
for the things I shall make of it
once the ribbon of light releases
this present day; what shall I take of it?

This present day, what I shall take of it?
Maybe just isolated fragments
to hold in pockets of silence
little treasures worth saving
moments of loving like
the ones yesterday
has not taken
away from
you and
me.

I didn’t know I loved poem

with thanks to Barb Edler who posted the prompt for #VerseLove on Ethical ELA: “Consider the challenges you’ve overcome, the celebrations you can rejoice, the way you may miss something that you never realized you missed”…as inspiration for a “things I didn”t know I loved” poem.

When I returned to college later in life, after having had a family, I was asked to write an essay on “My Most Memorable Teacher.” I’d never thought about this before and was unprepared to write on the teacher who came immediately to mind…but I did write.

I had to.

On Day Nine of National Poetry Month, I give it to you in poem form.

For Mrs. Cooley

You terrified me, you know
looming large
an immovable mountain
in pearls and heels
casting your dark shadow
over my fourth-grade days

The topography of your years
etched deep on your face
your eagle eyes
piercing my very existence

The fear and trembling
of math drills—
Dear Lord
save me
from subtraction!—
I look up 
and there it is 
in your expression:
You can’t squeeze blood
from a turnip

I did not know
that many years later
when I’d be asked to write
of my most memorable teacher
that you’d spring to mind
clear as day
overshadowing all others

and that what I’d recall
is how you read 
Charlotte’s Web to the class

I did not know
I could love a spider so

and then how you read us
Old Yeller

My God my God
I almost died with 
that dog

I did not know
that you were the one
who made me love reading
for there is a difference
in being able to 
and it being the air you breathe

I could not believe
how worried you were
when I fell on the playground that day
how you cradled my distorted left arm
all the way to the office 
and waited with me
‘til Daddy came

I never dreamed
you’d come see me at home
when I had to stay in bed
propped with pillows
ice bag on my cast

I saw you
and the tears came—
I am missing the last two weeks of school
I won’t pass the fourth grade

I did not know you could CHUCKLE
that your sharp blue eyes
could go so soft
and watery
and I never heard that phrase before:
flying colors
you pass with flying colors

Would you believe
I am a teacher now
it isn’t what I planned
but here I am

I never knew until Daddy told me
years ago
that you’d passed
how much I’d long
to see you again
to ask you a thousand things
maybe even to laugh

but more than anything
to thank you
with all my heart

so I do that now
in hopes that you
and Charlotte
and Old Yeller
know that
my love
lives on

Photo: Girl reading. Pedro Ribeiro Simðes. CC BY – reminds me of young me

*******

Thanks also to Tabatha Yeatts for hosting the Poetry Friday Roundup

Mirror poem: A small cup of light

Yesterday on Ethical ELA, host Kim Johnson invited poets to write mirror poems: “Find a poet whose work inspires you and write a mirror poem of your own by taking a root from a poet’s work and allowing it to breathe life into your own inspired creation.  This may be in the form of a borrowed line, a repeating line, a section or stanza, or an entire poem…”

There are a couple of breathtaking lines I love at the end of Billy Collins’ poem, “Tuesday, June 4th, 1991” – he is writing about dawn coming and “offering a handful of birdsong and a small cup of light.”

For Day Eight of National Poetry Month, here’s my mirror of those last five words, in the form of a pantoum:

To My Granddaughter, Age 5
(with love from Franna)

a small cup of light
scooped from ocean waves
my sparkling little love
dancing through my days

scooped from ocean waves
my giggling water sprite
dancing though my days
now such a sleepy sight

my giggling water sprite
goodnight, goodnight
now such a sleepy sight
to me you are, you are

goodnight, goodnight
my sparkling little love
to me you are, you are
a small cup of light

*******

Special thanks to Kim for sharing my poem “Listen,” which she mirrored so beautifully. See both poems and the process here: Ethical ELA VerseLove 7/30: Mirror Poems.

Abundance acrostic

The acrostic is an ancient poetic form, appearing in Scripture and as prayers in medieval literature. On Day Five of National Poetry Month, I use it to announce a family celebration…with a little wordplay…

Although I planned to resume writing of Easter’s
Bounty in the nest on the front door wreath,
Unprecedented number of little blue eggs—five!—
Now, instead, I ask you to picture my family
Doing a bun dance over the holiday,
At least in our hearts, at this
New-life announcement on
Cookies and a special T-shirt:
Expecting! —Exponential Easter joy!

First, the finch eggs in the nest on the front door.
The fifth egg appeared this morning.
We usually get three or four. Abundance!

Now for the cookies:
My daughter-in-law and granddaughter made them
to announce the special news to my husband and me
over Easter weekend
…aBUNdance!

My granddaughter’s face was radiant,
delivering those cookies at our family dinner.
In this photo she is crying on first hearing the news.
She threw herself into my son’s arms.
The desire of her little heart, granted; abundant joy.

—A-bun-dance, indeed!

Magnolia

Next-to-the last day of March. Early morning. Still dark. Chilly.

I sit at my laptop, sipping coffee, catching up on my Slice of Life blog comments. The neighborhood rooster across the street crows for all he’s worth.

My husband comes into the kitchen: “Is she up yet?” he whispers.

He means our granddaughter. She spent the night. We stayed up way late watching Frozen II (again). We watched her dancing to the ending credits soundtrack, performing her own astoundingly artistic interpretation, cheeks pink, blue eyes glowing…followed by punchy laughter before the crashing.

“Not yet,” I whisper back. He retreats to his study to work on sermons.

Shortly, though, she here she comes, a gift of the dawn, Aurora’s child, barefoot in a blue flannel gown, cloaked in long, disheveled hair, ethereal smile of joy illuminating the semi-dark kitchen. Favorite lines of a Billy Collins poem come to life:

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.

My radiant dawn-child climbs into my lap. I let her read my post about Dennis the dachshund and his toy moose. At five, she reads with exactly the right inflection in exactly the right places, decoding beyootiful without batting an eye.

“That rascally Dennis!” She laughs aloud.

My husband returns, his own face alight at sight of her. “There she is!” he exclaims. “I’ve been waiting for you, Sugar Magnolia.”

He sings the opening line of the Grateful Dead song:

Sugar Magnolia blossom’s blooming

Just so happens that our granddaughter’s middle name is Magnolia. A nod to her Louisiana heritage. A native tree here in North Carolina, too.

I think how, less than two years ago, my husband was dead, until EMS and CPR brought him back. I think of all he’d have missed…

What matters is that we’re here together now, today, in this moment. The Grateful Alive.

Sugar Magnolia, in one of Grandpa’s hats

When we are dressed for the day, she asks: “Can I pick out your earrings? And your necklace?”

“Certainly.”

She picks the magnolia. She and my son gave it to me for my birthday last year.

She hands me the necklace, watches me clasp it, smiles with satisfaction.

She will look in at me with her thin arms extended,
offering a handful of birdsong and a small cup of light

Just beyond the bedroom door, from the windows in the foyer, birdsong.

The finches.

I waited for them all of March, in vain. Then, here at the very end, within the space of these last twenty-four hours, a nearly-complete nest rests on my front door wreath. More on this tomorrow, when I write with the Spiritual Journey gathering on the first Thursday in April…for now all that needs to be said is that the finches always come to my door, every year except this last one. They vanished without warning, without a trace, during COVID-19. Now they’re back, making their home in the wreath.

The magnolia wreath.

Front door wreath and nest-in-progress

Magnolias, magnolias, everywhere…

They are tougher than they look. The oldest flowering plants on Earth. A symbol of love, longevity, perseverance, endurance.

It’s that word that captures me: Endurance.

It is the end of March.

We’ve endured the COVID pandemic for a whole year.

We’ve endured the reinvention of life as we knew it, school as we knew it, teaching as we knew it.

My family has endured distance, isolation, individual private battles…and we all get our second round of vaccinations over these next two days.

My husband has endured. He is alive.

My granddaughter has endured. She is the light of our days.

The finches have endured. They have returned to resume nesting.

This is my last post for the Slice of Life Story Challenge; for thirty-one consecutive days, I’ve endured. My writing has endured.

I wrote a lot of memoir in the Challenge, for memories endure. I wrote of a walled garden and roots and the need to get out of the comfort zone; I did that with some of my writing. I think now of my magnolia metaphor and look back at its deep roots in my childhood. Southern heritage. My grandmothers, steel magnolias (although they wouldn’t have thought it of themselves). Women who endured wars, deprivation, unspeakable losses. The stand over the landscape of my life like the old magnolia trees near their homes, their churches. They were the encompassing, protective shadows against the burning sun and sweltering heat, the solid coolness of the earth under my feet, where lie the curious, fuzzy seedpods of my existence, my remembering, my gratitude, my faith. From these branches waft the eternal fragrance of sacrificial love and forgiveness; nothing on God’s Earth smells as sweet.

One final curious image—it persists, so I have to figure out if and how it will fit here: When I was very small, I spent a lot of time with Grandma, Daddy’s mother. She and Granddaddy lived nearby in city apartments until he retired and they moved back home to the country when I was six. In this scene, I am around four, I think:

I am waiting in the hall for Grandma. She’s turning the lights out; we are getting ready to go. She calls my name from another room. I call back: “I am here.” My voice keeps bouncing, off the walls, off the stairs going down, down, down, into the darkness; we have to go through it before we can get to the door and the sidewalks and the sunlight outside.

“Grandma!” I cry. More bouncing voice, hollow, strange.

She’s there in an instant. “What’s the matter?”

“What is that sound?”

Oh, honey, that’s just your echo.”

She calls out, “Hello”…her voice bounces, just like mine.

“Echoooo…” I call. Echooo-ooo-ooo, says the shadow of my voice, rolling down the stairwell.

And I am no longer scared, because now I know.

What does this have to do with magnolias?

Only that we are on our way to the park, where she would offer me bread to feed the ducks, which would come to eat from my hands, from my little extended arms…and where the magnolias still grow in abundance. The memory is a cup of light I carry with me, just as the echo of her voice remains, just as I find myself echoing her, for we are always echoes of the ones we love most. As blood circulates in our veins, so do remembered light and beloved voices, long past shadows and silence. These are things that endure.

Grandma’s homeplace was named for the dawn, by the way. She’s literally Aurora’s child.

But tomorrow dawn will come the way I picture her

“Stand right there, honey. Let me get your picture by that tree,” I tell my granddaughter, on our first trip to the park.

It’s a different park. A different tree.

But still, and always, a magnolia.

Our Sugar Magnolia, by “her” tree.

*******

With abiding gratitude to the community at Two Writing Teachers during the annual Slice of Life Story Challenge, which concludes today. It was a joy to write alongside you every day in the month of March. Thank you for every cup of light you offered; I will savor the echo of your voices for many days to come.

In the night

A “backwards poem,” to be read like Hebrew or Arabic, from right to left:

start a with wake I

voice your hearing
name my calling

remember I before
are you
here longer no 

are you
gone long

still but
somehow
near so

or perhaps try it frontwards, left to right:

I wake with a start

hearing your voice
calling my name

before I remember 
you are no longer here

you are
long gone

but still
somehow
so near

*******

many thanks to Katrina Morison for the backwards poetry” inspiration during
the March Open Write at Ethical ELA

Image: Pillow. Playingwithbrushes. CC-BY

The annual Slice of Life Story Challenge with Two Writing Teachers is underway,
meaning that I am posting every day in the month of March.

This marks my fifth consecutive year.