Ekphrastic poem: Ripe Tomatoes

with thanks to Katrina Morrison, host of Ethical ELA’s Tuesday Open Write. Katrina writes: “The worlds of art and poetry meet in the ekphrastic poem. Whether you are viewing an original work in a museum or viewing it virtually, describing it through poetry is the definition of ekphrastic poetry.” Poet Ada Limón shares this reflection in The Slowdown podcast 780: “One of the things I love about art is how we bring ourselves to whatever it is we are experiencing. Whether we want to or not, we see ourselves in the film, the poem, the painting, the song.”

I write of the artwork that came to mind first; I was not the first to see myself in it…

Ripe Tomatoes

Long ago
your father
gave me a card
with a painting
of a woman
in a long white chemise
holding a basket
of ripe tomatoes
in her thin arms

her body is curved
toward the child
at her feet

an overall-clad boy
with a mass
of sunlit curls
atop his head
bent in eating
a tomato
straight from the vine

your father said
the painting
so reminded him
of you
and me

your curls
were black
of course
instead of gold
and I was never 
a gardener

yet I can smell
the tangy greenness
of tomato plants
as the summer sun
beats down
over the rolling hills
and old barns
and tall yellowing grasses
rippling in the wind

could be a scene
from around
the bend

even now

I feel the 
warm tomato skins
under my hand

as I think
of the abundance
I have been given

—take, eat,
my summer child
of the bounty 
of the vine
so deeply rooted
so long ago

and know

love never ceases
to preserve
transcend

and grow

“Ripe Tomatoes.” Robert Duncan.

Man and dog

On my drive to work
at the stop sign
where the grassy green field
borders the rail-fence pasture
where two horses graze
beside the goat pen
where fat little
brown-and-white goats
rest atop their knees
beside the still waters
of the glassy pond
with rising mist

I see a man
walking his old, old dog
(its body is black
but its face as white
as snow)

as I pass
they walk and walk
in the autumn-chill
of another new day
against a backdrop
of brilliant red-orange-gold
and moody sky

the dog’s amber eyes gleam
as it it chugs along
despite weary bones

somehow
this continuity
this reliability
this faithfulness
every morning
is a tonic
to my soul

a shot of goodness
an understanding
that in the far, quiet reaches
something is right
so right
with the world

Cornfield Man. h.koppdelaneyCC BY-ND 2.0.

Cotton tales

Cotton in the fields
reminds me of Granddaddy,
his recollections…

farm community
in friendly competition
out picking all day

he would pick the most,
winning proud recognition
when his load was weighed

the landowners then
permitted his returning
after the harvest

to strip the remnants
for himself, gleaning enough
to buy shotgun shells

Cotton fields abound this season in eastern Virginia and North Carolina

Modern cotton bales, waiting to be ginned

Harvested cotton field, with remaining bits my grandfather would gather to afford his shotgun shells. He called this “scripping.” When listening to his stories, I could envision him in his youth, strong and determined, never complaining of the laboriousness. His words only radiated nostalgic warmth and pride that he was able. Eventually, he said, the boll weevil forced out cotton and tobacco replaced it as the community’s cash crop. In the Depression, Granddaddy was a sharecropper; my father was born in a tenant farmer house. Eventually my grandfather “couldn’t make a go of it” and would find work in the shipyard three hours away, staying in a boarding house all week and returning to his family on weekends…for ten years, until the oldest children graduated from high school and he moved the family. Farming remained his love, however, for the remainder of his days. After retiring, he and Grandma moved back home where he planted glorious vegetable gardens, one of my own most-loved memories.

September = scuppernongs

I write about them every September: scuppernong grapes.

A dear lady in my church picks them from an old, old vine that belonged to her mother-in-law. She brings the grapes to me, knowing how I love them.

It’s not just the divine sweetness. That’s only part.

In these thick, green-gold husks are memories as rich and sweet as the fruit itself.

I pop a scuppernong in my mouth, whole, splitting the thick skin against my teeth. Inside the hull lies a cool primordial pulp, a velvety experience…

It is the taste of my childhood, of my grandfather, whose vines grew lush and thick by the ditch bank of his country home. It is the taste of belonging, love, sacrifice, survival. Of wars won, losses mourned, marriages that endured. It is the taste of reward. Of dirt roads, tin roofs, earth as black as night, crops in the fields, glittering with morning dew. Of dense forests, timbered yet returning denser, again and again, still retaining their secrets, bearing silent witness to generations rising and falling. It is the taste of seasons, centuries, epochs in their turning.

I grow older, savoring my children’s children, the sweetest thing I have ever known.

September. The month of my grandfather’s birth and my father’s death. The month of scuppernongs, ever a reminder of my Carolina roots and my heavenly home.

The way of it

On the first required workday
before school begins
I drive the familiar backroads
once again

dew-drenched pastures
and old weatherboard barns
defy time
they are
their own world

then to my delight
a patch of tangled sunflowers
on the right
must have been growing here
all summer
I didn’t know
I think of Van Gogh
walking the rustic village
of Arles

up ahead, the pond
I scan it quickly
for the great blue heron
and there it is
at water’s edge
nearest the road
big and gray-blue
like a watercolor rendition
so perfect a pose

I feel light
like these are signs
that all will go well
with the work
lying before me

peace becomes strength
in my spirit
in my bones

on the second workday
I see it all again
even the heron

I can always face
the day ahead
whenever I see
the heron

I am so light
I could soar

then on the third day
without warning
orange signs on white gates
say the road is closed

I must detour

no passing the pond
no seeing heron
standing with elegiac grace
in the still water

although I know
it’s there

so on I fly
day after day
going out of my way
to get to where
I need to be

for now at least
I have the sunflowers

Vincent would say
it’s enough

keep painting the day
and the required work
beautiful
around the barriers
until they are gone

that is
the way of it

Coming home; the pond is just ahead but I can’t see it

Solitary existence: the hummingbirds

Hummingbirds lead a solitary existence.

I saw one hummingbird out back last week, darting about the pines. It turned in my direction, tiny pale-bellied fairy-creature suspended in midair, as if to acknowledge my presence across the yard before zipping away. I wondered if it was making some kind of request. The next day I bought a feeder and hung it outside my kitchen window; within moments, a tiny female landed to sip my homemade nectar.

The next day another female arrived. I watched the two of them competing for turns at the feeder. All day they chase each other away, each still managing to land and feed for the few seconds it takes to sate a creature so tiny. One tentative male finally showed up today, his ruby throat resplendent in the sunlight. I haven’t managed to get a photo of him yet. I hope he’ll return, despite these territorial females.

There’s a lot I didn’t know about hummingbirds. They’re curious. They watch me through the window as I’m watching them. I read that they’re highly intelligent; they learn to recognize the person who feeds them and may even remind this person if their sugar water is running low. They are not social, not flock birds. When they migrate to Mexico in the fall, they go it alone. Why does this pull so terribly on my heartstrings? I cannot shake the image in my mind of this tiniest of birds flying so far by itself.

They do not think of themselves as fragile. They are not lonesome.

It’s what they do. They lead a solitary existence.

With that, the hummingbird memory stirs.

Summer, long ago. Riding in Grandma’s rocket-red Ford Galaxie 500 along the dusty dirt road to her sister’s house. The Galaxie doesn’t have power steering or air-conditioning so the windows are down and Grandma has a Kleenex stuffed into her cleavage to catch the trickling sweat. Fortunately Aunt Elizabeth only lives about a mile away, in a little bungalow house with square tapered columns, off to itself by cornfields and groves of hardwoods. There’s a path in the grass of her yard where her old maroon car (I think it was maroon, either a Ford or a Chevy, I can’t recall exactly) is parked by the weathered outbuilding. Grandma and I park behind it and walk in the shade of the trees to Aunt Elizabeth’s back porch.

Everything is old. The porch floorboards, the screen door that squawks on opening and closing, the tiny, cramped kitchen, the worn linoleum revealing a slightly swayed floor, the living room with braided rugs…it’s a dark house, faintly musty. The smell of Time hangs in the air, unmoved even by the square electric floor fan humming on high speed. Aunt Elizabeth is pleased to see me. She opens her arms to give me a hug and kiss. Her pale cheek, faintly mottled with reddish freckles, is cool. She’s two years older than my grandmother. She asks how my Daddy is, says she sure does miss him, oh, she used to enjoy having him over to eat…

Aunt Elizabeth doesn’t have children. Not any that lived. When I first asked about it, Grandma told me of her sister’s two premature, stillborn babies. Tiny things, said Grandma; she was there when it happened. She held them, grieved for them. Aunt Elizabeth was married to Granddaddy’s youngest brother, who died before I was born. He suffered from some kind of condition doctors could never figure out. Without any warning, he’d lose consciousness and collapse. It happened numerous times until the day he had a spell and couldn’t be revived.

So my great-aunt, in her sixties, lives here alone, way out in the country where, in the 1970s, people still don’t have telephones; they drive to each others’ houses to visit and catch up on news. It is good that a few of her eight siblings live close by, that grown nieces and nephews make a point to come by to see her when they can. Aunt Elizabeth gardens, cans her vegetables and preserves in glass jars for storing on her kitchen shelves, drives to town, tends to herself, is completely independent, yet it seems a solitary existence to me. As she chats with Grandma I wonder if she’s lonesome, if she still misses her husband, gone for so long, and if she’s sad about having no children or grandchildren of her own. She hands some bubblegum out to me and I know she got it because she knew I was coming.

When our visit is over, we all walk out on the porch — that’s what you do, in the country. You walk out and wave until your visitor drives out of sight. Unwritten etiquette. Everyone does it. Same for throwing your hand up to any other car you pass on the road.

But Grandma and I don’t leave yet, because of the hummingbirds.

They’re everywhere.

Aunt Elizabeth has strung up several red and yellow plastic feeders around her porch. At every one is a horde of the tiny birds, dipping in and out. The air vibrates from the rapid fanning of their wings; I feel the circulation, a coolness against the heavy summer humidity.

I am awed. I have never seen anything so magical before. I can’t even count how many hummingbirds.

The sisters, in their delight, laugh like young children.

—It comes back to me, watching the few contentious hummingbirds outside my window almost half a century later. I didn’t know how rare a thing it was, then, the communal gathering of hummingbirds. I remember my great-aunt, not with pity. I hear the musical sound of her laughter and the humming of all those tiny wings there on her porch….knowing that in the long enduring of life’s losses and trials come moments of pure enchantment and abundant richness.

I shall need more feeders.

*******

with thanks to Two Writing Teachers for the weekly Slice of Life story-writing invitation

Eternal summer: memoir poem

with thanks to Jennifer Guyor Jowett for the Open Write invitation on Ethical ELA today: “Share your summertimes with us, whether it’s within the memories of your childhood or the place you are in right now. Take us there. Include sensory details to evoke the spirit of your summer.”

I have written lot about my childhood summers. Today I try a bit of reframing and recapturing the magic…

*******

Eternal Summer Reigns

Daughter of Eve from the far land of Spare Oom where eternal summer reigns around the bright city of War Drobe, how would it be if you came and had tea with me?

—Mr. Tumnus to Lucy, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe

I live it every day of my life, summer.

By some great magic I am still a child
returning to my grandparents’ house
so deep in the country some people say
it’s at the end of the Earth

for me, ever the beginning

a place of woods, holding their secrets close
a place of enchantment, outside of Time
a place of belonging, of sacrifice

where ghosts of the past live again
in Grandma’s stories

there’s her Papa, tending bees
never getting stung
her Mama, picking cotton
and dipping snuff

her brothers and sisters
(eight in all)
playing softball
or piling in the goat-cart
to be pulled by a white mule
named Jenny

there’s my grandfather and his brother
courting my grandmother and her sister
gathering at friends’ houses
singing and make taffy

my father, being born
in a tenant farmer’s house
—Cotton-Top, they call him,
for the color of his hair
when he is a toddler

babies born into the family
some stillborn
(Daddy’s voice…Would have been
so interesting to see
what my double first cousins
would have looked like
if they’d lived)

—I live them every day,
the stories.

I am the stories.

Every day I am a child
unpacking my suitcase
for the summer
welcoming the ghosts
walking the old dirt road
eventually covered with gravel
from phosphate mining rejects

bits of ancient history
crunch beneath my feet:
shark’s teeth, some tiny and sharp,
some as big as my small palm;
coral skeleton, white chunks
embossed with lacy flower designs;
whale eardrums, curiously curved fossils
—with these, whales heard
their own stories, too
now, they are 
part of mine

and above all, above all
from the surrounding woods, bending near
keeping their secrets close
the crescendo and decrescendo
of cicadas

the true song of summer
and the sun
and living
and dying

and returning.

By some great magic I am still a child
still listening, still living summer every day
and forever
in that sound.

My grandmother in the summer of 1959, years before my birth. This is the setting of my idyllic childhood summers to come, beginning a decade and a half later. I would stay for a couple of weeks each year and never wanted to leave. Grandma fostered my love of reading, writing, and story. She drove me to the tiny county library at the beginning of my summer visits and helped me haul out the armloads of books I selected. She saved magazines, Mini Pages, and National Enquirers all year long for me.

We walked the old cemetery in the clearing diagonally across from where she sits in this photo and the graveyard of the church around the bend, where her parents are buried. As we read the stones, the blazing sun casting our shadows across them, Grandma told me the stories.

The fossils in the gravel of the poem were real. I found handfuls of them in the road here when I was a child.

Cicadas are an ancient symbol of immortality and resurrection. I write of them often because of their connection to this place. Their loud, rattling chorus was ever-present in the background of my childhood summers; the sound remains one of the most comforting on Earth to me. It’s a call of the sun, love, belonging, and home. There’s a myth about the goddess of the dawn, Aurora, asking Jupiter to grant immortality to her lover, which he did, only the goddess forgot to ask Jupiter to also grant her man eternal youth. Her beloved continued aging until Aurora finally turned him into a cicada. If you look closely at depictions of Aurora, you will see the cicada. Why tell this story here? This morning, before the dawn, before the cicadas woke to sing, I saw Jupiter shining high beside the moon. Then I sat down to write to this prompt of summer celebration, reliving halcyon childhood moments with my grandparents at their home, a place where my generational roots run deep in the earth, where my father grew up…an old, far place in the east, named Aurora.

For me, ever the beginning. Eternal summer reigns.

*******

thanks also to Two Writing Teachers for providing a place to share our stories – for we ARE our stories

Horses on the fly

Sunny summer morning
driving home with groceries
along the winding backroads
past forests, clearings,
smatterings of houses

at the crossroads
where the tobacco field
gives way to pastures and pond
two horses, trotting
side-by-side

not uncommon, horses
being ridden
along these
country byways

except that these
are unsaddled
unbridled

riderless

in the left lane
headed toward us

moving in sync
at a lively pace
tossing their manes

faces covered
with fly masks

Look! cries my husband
who’s driving
immediately
slowing down
to a near stop

— no one’s with those horses!
And their eyes are covered
—they can’t see!

They can see,
I tell him
even though I know
next to nothing
about fly masks
and equine husbandry

I just know
by the certainty
of their movements
and their canter
that they can see

they are not blindfolded
to be led out of
a burning barn

but they’re here
on the road,
unattended

and drivers
who might be coming
from either direction
are unaware

and people drive
too fast
on these
winding backroads

how, how,
I wonder,
did they get loose

these magnificent beasts
that someone
surely values
and loves

—should we call 911?
—what can they do?
—remember, we did that once

when we saw the mule
strolling up the street
in our neighborhood
—yeah but the farmer
figured it out and got to it
before it got to the highway
—should we get out and…
—and what? Try to hold ’em?
They don’t know us.
We don’t know them.

We don’t know
how to handle horses…

by now, the carefree pair
on its merry jaunt
has passed us

and I can only hope
the owners have realized
and are on the way
or that someone who lives
in the nearby houses
knows to whom they belong

or that these creatures
will use their intuitive
horse sense
to go home

I cannot think
the thousand terrible things
crowding my brain

images of beautiful beings
taking newfound liberty
headlong, headstrong
toward what they cannot know
and others
who do not see

Photo: IMG_2703. thatsavagegirl. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

We didn’t hear any news of something terrible happening to the horses; living in a small community, we would have. I am pretty sure that, a few days later, I saw these same two horses, still fly-masked, safe in the fenced pasture beside that same tobacco field where we saw them on the loose. The initial feeling of awe mixed with horror is hard to shake, however. The image of these two riderless, fly-masked horses is now an indelible one in my mind for potential harm, needless loss and destruction, and feeling utterly helpless in the face of it.