Progressive poem is here

So, April has had a number of firsts for me, beyond “first pandemic.”

It’s the first time I’ve attempted to write a poem a day for National Poetry Month. My first plunge into Poetry Fridays.

And this is the first time I’ve participated in a Progressive Poem.

Our poem was born on the first day of April, with the first poet writing two lines. The next poet chose one of those lines and left two more for the subsequent poet to choose from … and so the poem grew in stature and whimsical beauty as it rolled all the way down to me on Day 29.

Here’s how it was up ’til now:

Sweet violets shimmy, daffodils sway
along the wiregrass path to the lake.
I carry a rucksack of tasty cakes
and a banjo passed down from my gram.

I follow the tracks of deer and raccoon
and echo the call of a wandering loon.
A whispering breeze joins in our song
and night melts into a rose gold dawn.

Deep into nature’s embrace, I fold.
Promise of spring helps shake the cold.
Hints of sun lightly dapple the trees
calling out the sleepy bees.

Leaf-litter crackles…I pause. Twig snaps.
I gasp! Shudder! Breathe out. Relax…
as a whitetail doe comes into view.
She shifts and spotted fawns debut.

We freeze. My green eyes and her brown
Meet and lock. Time slows down.
I scatter the cakes, backing away
Safely exiting this strange ballet.

I continue the path that winds down to the lake.
Missing my breakfast for beauty’s sake.
But wait, what’s that delicious smell?
Something familiar, I know so well.

It’s a campfire. I follow my nose. I see
a circle of friends waving at me.
I free up my banjo, quicken my pace

And here were my two choices for the next line:

Option 1: Find a place to sit and gaze into space
Option 2: Find a place to sit and unlatch my banjo case

And I gotta choose it, because it’s just so musical (pun intended):

(are you ready?)

(really ready??)

Option 1: Find a place to sit and gaze into space (!)

So here we have it:

Sweet violets shimmy, daffodils sway
along the wiregrass path to the lake.
I carry a rucksack of tasty cakes
and a banjo passed down from my gram.

I follow the tracks of deer and raccoon
and echo the call of a wandering loon.
A whispering breeze joins in our song
and night melts into a rose gold dawn.

Deep into nature’s embrace, I fold.
Promise of spring helps shake the cold.
Hints of sun lightly dapple the trees
calling out the sleepy bees.

Leaf-litter crackles…I pause. Twig snaps.
I gasp! Shudder! Breathe out. Relax…
as a whitetail doe comes into view.
She shifts and spotted fawns debut.

We freeze. My green eyes and her brown
Meet and lock. Time slows down.
I scatter the cakes, backing away
Safely exiting this strange ballet.

I continue the path that winds down to the lake.
Missing my breakfast for beauty’s sake.
But wait, what’s that delicious smell?
Something familiar, I know so well.

It’s a campfire. I follow my nose. I see
a circle of friends waving at me.
I free up my banjo, quicken my pace
Find a place to sit and gaze into space.

—Now what?

Apparently I have to compose two lines.

I then hand the poem to the thirtieth and last poet in the line of succession, Michelle Kogan.

Dear Michelle … I leave my two lines to you for your choosing. The chosen line will, however, be hanging out there by its lonely self at the end of all these lovely quatrains. What if you add your own line after mine and we end as a couplet? You can also have the distinction of titling our collective masterpiece! Such choices!

Here’s what I’ve got:

Option 1: Then my fingers pick out the old, old tune

Option 2: Then together we sing, and the song is our story

Thank you, poet-friends, for this alluring, ambling April adventure. It’s an honor to have walked this path in your company.

Here’s the progression of the poem:

1 Donna Smith at Mainely Write
2 Irene Latham at Live Your Poem
3 Jone MacCulloch, deowriter
Liz Steinglass
Buffy Silverman
6 Kay McGriff at https://kaymcgriff.edublogs.org/
7 Catherine Flynn at Reading to the Core
8 Tara Smith at Going to Walden
9 Carol Varsalona at Beyond Literacy Link
10 Matt Forrest Esenwine at Radio, Rhythm, and Rhyme

11 Janet Fagel, hosted at Reflections on the Teche
12 Linda Mitchell at A Word Edgewise
13 Kat Apel at Kat Whiskers
14 Margaret at Reflections on the Teche
15 Leigh Anne Eck at A Day in the Life
16 Linda Baie at Teacher Dance
17 Heidi Mordhorst at My Juicy Little Universe
18 Mary Lee Hahn at A Year of Reading
19 Tabatha at Opposite of Indifference
20 Rose Cappelli at Imagine the Possibilities
21 Janice Scully at Salt City Verse
22 Julieanne Harmatz at To Read, To Write, To Be
23 Ruth, thereisnosuchthingasagodforsakentown.blogspot.com
24 Christie Wyman at Wondering and Wandering

25 Amy at The Poem Farm
26 Dani Burtsfield at Doing the Work That Matters
27 Robyn Hood Black at Life on the Deckle Edge

28 Jessica Bigi at Mainely Write
29 Fran Haley at lit bits and pieces
30 Michelle Kogan

Ode to the wind

It’s an ill wind that blows no good.

Those words have been lurking, brooding, around the perimeter of my mind this long, strange, separated spring.

Even on the brightest days, the wind remains a peculiar Presence in my otherwise quiet corner of the world. This is not normal behavior. I cannot decide if its constant moaning represents mourning for the dead and those yet to die of COVID-19, grief for the state of the world at large, or if it’s a harbinger of bleak times ahead for human existence. The earth lives on, arrayed in spring splendor, while the life and livelihood of people has frozen. Time stands still. For how long, we don’t really know: what time frame is there for outlasting a deadly microorganism? Seems the wind knows … on and on it blows, perhaps not ill in itself, but certainly as a soundscape to a ravaging illness. Somewhere in the sound is a sense of statues, cracking, crumbling, turning to dust, being swept clean away.

So it seems to me, anyway. Sometimes.

Haunting, daunting, taunting, flaunting … I cannot decide which. Perhaps all.

Then, the trees.

Last week, while composing my “I Am From” poem, I decided to choose a representative tree. I meant to write of bald cypress, for I love them, I identify with them, they are a symbol of my southern heritage. I even love the sound of the name. Cypress. But almost instantaneously a vision crowded out any other tree: the little pine sapling that grew to a towering height in the backyard of my childhood home. When I left at twenty, it was a majestic presence, a sole monarch holding dominion over the ditch-adjoined, chain-link backyards of the neighborhood. Hardly an enchanted kingdom, but don’t try to convince my pine of that. It would be my representative tree. Reaching ever-skyward, grown wide with long, heavy, green-needled boughs undulating like ocean waves. Whispering, whispering, always whispering …

Today I read this tweet by Robert Macfarlane:

Word of the day: “susurrate”—to whisper, murmur, esp. of noise produced by numerous individual sources of sound (bees humming, leaves rustling, etc.) Compare to “psithurism,” its similarly sibilant sense-sibling, meaning the whispering of wind in trees (from Ancient Greek).

—That’s how the universe works. Messages of perception. Then sometimes supplying the exact right word (the universe is a writer).

Pining
Sighing
Inner crying
Truths revealing
Hidden healing
Unknown to me
Regal tree
I listen listen to your whisper whisper
Susurrus secrets, ceaseless, swirling
Mystery messages written by the wind

There’s something being said, for sure. If only I spoke pine. Or wind.

Pines, by the way, represent survival, longevity, protection (think “shelter”). Sometimes the pine is called the tree of life. Perhaps there’s a promise in this psithurism.

But you, Wind, remember—you’re ill if you don’t bring something good.

The whispering pines in my backyard now.

Shamrock haiku

solitary sprig
determined to survive, blooms
reaching for the light

without eyes to see
knowing without sapience
light is existence

reach, little shamrock
through darkest of days, sparking
my own hope-flower

I, too, keep reaching
for the light I know is there
even when unseen

I am from poem

How have I lived to be this old without attempting an “I Am From” poem?

A rectification …

I am from sharp pencils
from Ivory soap and Duke’s mayonnaise
I am from the secret vault under the concrete back steps
(cool, cobwebby, smelling of ghosts)
I am from gardenias
from towering Eastern pines
heavy boughs whispering
waving to me like a vertical green sea
I’m from storytelling and dogs
from Columbus and Ruby
I’m from Reader’s Digest and gospel music
From “You’re the oldest, set the example”
and “take care of your precious self”
I’m from Jesus Loves Me, red-letter Bibles, put your offering in the plate
I’m from the riverside and the shipyard
from collards with hot pepper vinegar and carrot cake from scratch
From my father’s crew-cut ever since his head was pierced
by a friend’s cleats in a childhood game of deer and dog,
from three translucent pink moles on Grandma’s chin.
In trunks and in closeted boxes my grandmother’s painstaking albums
rest atop layers of loose photos, paper strata of many eras.
I am etched deep in this phosphorite, the living reliquary
of all the stories.

Earth song of life: cicadas

My love for the sound of cicadas is a recurring motif in my writing.

It stems from childhood summers spent with my grandparents in the country, the most idyllic days of my existence.

In thinking of Earth Day, my first inclination is to write on In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground; for out of it wast thou taken: for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.

That verse, Genesis 3:19 in the King James, conjures images from At Home: A Short History of Private Life. Here’s Bill Bryson’s observations of country churchyards in England where churches seem to be sinking into the ground: Think about it. A country parish like this has an average of 250 people in it, which translates into roughly a thousand adults deaths per century, plus a few thousand more poor souls who didn’t make it to maturity. Multiply that by the number of centuries that the church has been here and you can see that what you have here is not eighty or a hundred burials but probably something more on the order of, say, twenty thousand … that’s a lot of mass, needless to say. It’s why the ground has risen three feet.

In other words … we are the earth.

Times being the pandemic they are, death surrounds us. April 22 also marks the anniversary of the sudden passing of my husband’s father at the age of fifty-four. My husband was just twelve.

But I do not wish to turn Earth Day into a death knell.

I write about cicadas today because they lie in the earth and emerge—some after seventeen years—to sing their song of life.

In the thick woods and byways of North Carolina, from May through September, it’s a deafening cacophony; but as beauty is in the eye of the beholder, so there is beauty in the ear of the listener.

In honor of Earth Day, a “found poem,” of sorts, from a former blog post I wrote, entitled Cicada Rhythms:

The song of cicadas
calls to me
from long ago
from sultry summers
in the country
where narrow dirt roads
keep an ominous forest
from encroaching
on rustic homeplaces
from tiny cemeteries
where baby after baby
is buried
under white monuments
adorned with lambs
at the old church
just around the bend.
The song is of the ages
of the rising and falling
of generations
all of us coming and going
in our time
a song reverberating
from oaks, pines,
cypresses
across canals
teeming with frogs
and turtles
to white-tailed deer
standing along the fields
at dusk.
It is the bright song
of the sun
of hope
of continuity.
It is the dark song
of the night
oddly comforting—
something out in the blackness
is vibrant, alive
maybe keeping watch
while children
drift off to sleep.
It is the sound
of safety
of stability
of belonging.
Calling, calling
the crescendo mirrors
the rhythm of life
brimming with promise
echoing eternity.
When I hear it
I am a child again
no matter
how many summers
have come and gone.
Every spring as I mark
another year of existence
I listen
for the first rattle.
You’re back! my heart sings.
Ah, but we were here all along
they might say
if cicadas had words.
There’s a lot of living
and loving
yet to do.
You have today.
Carry on.

The cicada isn’t exactly a beetle, but a “true bug.”
They symbolize renewal, rebirth, transformation, change.
They can disappear for many years to return en masse.
Their buzzing call is made by the males, who begin singing soon after emergence.

A child is a poem

I recently encountered acrostic analogies, thanks to my friend and endless source of inspiration, Margaret Simon. The basic idea is to find your word and then compose analogies on each line, related to the acrostic word.

The word Child came to me pretty quickly:

Courage is to character as
Hope is to heart as
Imagination is to idea as
Love is to life as
Discovery is to delight

It takes courage to be a child. So much is unknown; there’s so much to learn. I think of my granddaughter, age four, sighing heavily at the end of a long, pre-pandemic day. When my daughter-in-law asked what was the matter, my granddaughter said, with utter bone-weariness: “It’s hard to be a kid.” I think of how natural hope is to children. They hope for summer, for pizza and candy, for snow enough to build a snowman, for specific toys, for special things, for being with special people. Hope seems hardwired into children, as does delight. I originally had “dazzling” in place of delight, thinking how discovery causes a child’s face to light up, sometimes drawing a vocal Ooohhhhhhh and a smile. Dazzling seemed temporary, though. Not sustainable. Delight feels more permanent, a better fit with imagination and a synonym for joy, just as intrinsic as hope to children.

Revisiting this Child acrostic today has me thinking that a child is a poem.

A miracle, how you came to be
You were not, but now you are
Materializing in ways I could not foresee
Stardust forming its own new star
Your own direction you’ll go
Your own rhythm and rhyme you’ll make
In all your wanderlust, just know
That whatever path you take
I’m part of you, you’re part of me

Life interwoven, yours and mine
Images of each other we’ll always be
Written in every line.

Read it as if it is referencing a child—doesn’t matter if it’s a child of your own, any one that you’ve loved or taught, one you’ve happened to encounter, or possibly the child you used to be.

Then read it as if it’s addressing a poem. Certainly one you’ve written. Maybe even one you’ve read.

Tell me a child is not a poem.

Or, at the very least, poetry in motion.

Bocelli: Amazing grace

Last night a concert by tenor Andrea Bocelli was televised. He wanted to offer a message of hope to the world; his own country has been ravaged by COVID-19. And so he was recorded with only an organist on Easter Sunday in the Duomo di Milan, resplendent and empty … when he walked outside, alone, to sing “Amazing Grace” on the cathedral porch, the screen displayed the empty streets of major cities around the world.

Listening, watching, I thought this is one of the most abiding images of our time.

A golden shovel today, in honor of Bocelli, his gift, the wounded world-in-waiting, the healing power of music, prayer, and hope:

How amazing
this lone figure of grace
standing on the church steps singing of how
prayer and hope turn bitter times sweet

while in the deserted streets his angel-voice is the
only sound.

Photo: Andrea Bocelli. laurentius87. CC BY-SA. Edited with Cartoona Sketch.

The bottle

Today I have a literal “found poem.” Meaning not one derived from another’s work but as in finding it while going through folders from previous school years and unearthing poetry I’d modeled for students on writing around an object. I remember taking three objects with special meaning to me so the kids could choose which I’d write about.

They chose the bottle.

Which I found after my grandfather’s death, visiting the farm where he was born. It was the second and last time I walked this piece of land. The first time, my grandfather, grown old and frail, walked with me. Ten acres of fields bordered by trees is all that remains, but he showed me where the house once stood, and the barns, and the henhouse … all gone without a trace now.

Except for some long-buried treasures.

In the old days, farm families had a trash pile. What wasn’t burned away with fire, or washed away by ages of wind and weather, or destroyed by perpetual tractors and harrows, might be swallowed by the earth until the earth is ready to give it back.

I wasn’t expecting such a gift the day I walked alone, mourning my grandfather.

So, I told the students, as I prepared to draft, when you write about an object you might also consider the feeling the object triggers in you. For me, with this bottle, it’s wonder. I want to incorporate a sense of wonder in this poem.

And so I wrote for them, and they enjoyed making artistic suggestions (they wanted it to rhyme):

Granddaddy is gone
And I walk his old farm
How he loved this place
This wide-open space
Nothing now to see
Where barns and house used to be
Just an empty field
After harvest’s yield
Cold breeze blows
Through my heart, it goes
When I spot in a bit of grass
Sunlight glistening on—glass?
I momentarily forget my hurt
As I dig it from the dirt
—a bottle, imagine that
No telling how long it sat
Buried deep in this ground
As the as the years circled round
Whose hand touched it last
In that long ago past?
Clear glass, heavy, yet small
Cracked but unbroken, all in all
What unseen secrets must it hold
This bottle of stories untold

It holds untold stories, all right. I’ve not determined exactly what tincture this old bottle actually held. The faintest embossed image of a root, almost worn away, remains on the front. A health tonic, likely. I know my grandfather had a sister who died of diphtheria at age three, in 1907. I doubt the bottle is that old but I have visions of my great-grandmother nursing her ailing children and tossing that empty bottle onto the trash heap…

Sparking me to attempt a didactic cinquain:

Bottle
Antiquated, weather-worn
Eroding, cracking, enduring
Poured out for healing
Elixir

Or maybe a double reversed etheree:

Empty of that for which you were fashioned
vessel of life-blood for veins long ceased
drawn from roots to nourish my own
cold glass clasped in hands now still

spooned in mouths now silent
elixir fully
poured out, consumed
every drop

gone
cast off
forgotten
swallowed by earth
kept year after year
without ceremony
lying silent, eroding
enduring seasons, weathering
cracking but enduring, determined
to remain clear with your story obscured.

—oh, little bottle.

How I wish you could speak.

Redemption nonet

One of my favorite themes in literature—in life—is redemption.

Life’s a complicated adventure. Things happen. We respond to them. Each of us is an individual, complex universe of tangled history, experience, emotion, psyche, and DNA. We make choices and our choices make us … and our story. As Shakespeare would say, “Thereby hangs a tale.”

Since I read The Goldfinch in February, while homebound with snow and a broken foot (which seems an eon ago, now) I’ve thought about how certain choices reveal true character more than others. For all the breathtaking artistry of the author’s craftsmanship, in all the moments I paused to reread passages to absorb more of their glory as the story swept me away, one little, shining nugget wedged itself in my heart deeper than anything else. Perhaps it is strange, I don’t know, and I will try not to be a spoiler here … suffice it to say that the main character, suffering from trauma, descends into self-destructive behavior as a means of coping. As he attempts to escape his circumstances, he takes a little dog with him rather than see it neglected. It’s not his dog and he’s actually embarrassed by its “girlishness” (it’s a Maltese) but his appalled distaste over the treatment of the animal and the conditions in which he first found it motivate him to make a rescue at risk to himself. This I found strikingly heroic. A revelation of the character’s inner wiring working at its best. Redeeming.

Then of course there’s the loving character of the little dog itself and I am quite, quite sure that I would have found that just as poignant if I had not had a little dog curled up in my lap as I read the novel.

I have been wanting to capture these sensations, somehow, ever since. Suddenly, today, it gels. Maybe it’s because the sun dawned so bright this morning on our troubled, changed world as it wobbles on. Maybe because this brightness mingles with a searing sense of grief and apprehension about the days to come. About how much of life as we know it will be lost. Destroyed. I’ve been writing an abnormal amount of poetry so maybe images are standing out with sharper edges and taking clearer form than usual.

At any rate, this is my first attempt at a nonet, inspired by that act of rescue in The Goldfinch. Maybe it’s about wishing for rescue. Or redefining it. Sometimes, in saving another, one is often saving oneself …

Redemption may be life’s greatest theme
a sign that all hope is not lost
overcoming brokenness
in the effort to save
another creature
not capable
of saving
itself.
=Love.

Social distance of trees

One of the best books I’ve read in recent years is The Overstory, Richard Powers’ novel of the American chestnut blight that wiped out almost all of those beautiful trees by the end of the 1930s. Powers wraps stories of people’s lives around that core like concentric rings. The novel won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction on April 15, 2019, a year ago yesterday. Author Robert Macfarlane’s enthusiastic praise of the book led me to read it and to plunge deep into the secretive, endlessly fascinating world of trees. They communicate with one another. They have memory. Maybe they are whispering their secrets to us … This week Macfarlane shared an article on Twitter about the social distance practice of some trees, the phenomenon known as crown or canopy shyness, their treetops (“overstory”) not touching in order to survive in the competition for resources like sunlight. That was the clarion call to me: Write something. About trees and how they do this. But what? How? Then I stumbled across a different article about the Fibonacci sequence of trees, oaks in particular: as their branches grow, five branches to two spirals, a pattern is formed. Could I combine these ideas, somehow?

Doesn’t poetry always make a way?

A Fibonacci poem on the social distance practices of trees:

Trees
keep
distance:
crown shyness,
their overstory,
shared but not touching each other.

Photo: Old oak. Dave Parker. CC BY.