It's mid-May almost. I just snipped lily of the valley from the backyard. The fragrance is unmistakably sweet. Something I imagine smelling on a grandma with a hankie. Mother's Day is two more flips of the daily calendar. Many years I shared my birthday with a celebration of my mother for Mother's Day. I was happy to do that.
My mother has been gone from this earth for 12 years. She battled ovarian cancer which is never pretty. Cancer is rarely pretty. Some people beat it. I wish we heard more of that. It seems lately too many people I know are in the throes of it. It taxes the most resilient patient and caregivers.
I remember clearly the first visit my mom and dad and I made to the oncologist who seemed almost flippant. Like this as an everyday thing that he had under control. He did not welcome questions. My mother was rarely demanding, but after a time, she decided to look for another doctor. The second oncologist was very business-like despite my mother's efforts to soften his "style." Six months before she died, we, my father, mother, and I, visited that second cancer doctor who told my mother that there might be one more drug she could try that would give her like 30% chance of living six more months. My mother was done. She wasn't giving up. By this point, it was about quality of life. She'd had numerous allergic reactions, nearly died from chemo drugs, had been through three different rounds plus bouts of radiation, made it 23 months past the first round instead of the 24 months we were hoping for because statistics said she'd live longer if she could make it 24 months--some kind of magic number or guesstimate. She almost NEVER complained. By the time she decided no more chemo, she was four and a half years in. The moment that she told the doctor that she was not going to try this last ditch chemo, he was DONE. That was it. It didn't seem to matter that she was in pain, that we had questions. It felt so heartless. Surely there has to be a happy medium between over-confident and cold. I remember so much about those years, the doctor visits, the good times, and there were many, in between the tough ones. But there was always, always a nearly crippling sense of loss before THE loss that I could not shake.
I recall one day my mother was not her usual inquisitive self on the phone. Later I learned that she had stopped in the middle of the living room near a chair and sobbed in my father's arms. It would have shaken me to the core to see that. I think I'd seem my mother cry three times--at her father's funeral, when her arm got caught somehow in a window, and when my brother left tar in his pants and they went in the dryer. She sat for hours in front of the dryer scraping tar off the drum.
I know people, mostly women, who had mothers who criticized their appearance, who failed to mother them in the most incomprehensible ways, mothers who died young, mothers who were absent physically and emotionally. When I hear their stories, I know I was lucky.
Even now though I struggle for words to say how much she meant to me. She was not perfect, though I often thought she was. Darn near it often seemed. She had an unquenchable curiosity about life and an invincible spirit. She infected and affected people she met with her kindness and positive disposition.
I'll let this poem speak for her absence.
The Cake Knife
scorched in one spot
in my mother’s
cabinets and dark spaces
in the silver chest
my father said
and I use the knife
he hands me
to cut my favorite cake
the one she always made
that does not
taste the same
--first published in YourDailyPoem.com yourdailypoem.com/listpoem.jsp?poem_id=2231
A recent version (2018) below made with one grandmother's square cake pan and my other grandmother's depression glass plate.
I guess it's a question that gets asked often. Why does poetry have such a bad rap?
Earlier this week a salesman came to my house to give me an estimate for replacement windows. I already knew I was ordering, so basically he was chitchatting while writing up the order on his iPad. I learned in course of the conversation that he likes to read. A lot. He likes to read historical fiction, though he didn't quite have a name for it. I mentioned that a woman in my book group likes to read only fiction that she can learn something from--historical fiction would also be her pick. On his way out, we were were still talking about this and that, and he saw my new book in the front hall. He said, "Did you write that?" I said, "Yes, it's poetry." His response, "Oh." I chuckled a a bit about that. The "oh" and the voice- dropping disappointment. He was apologetic, but it was a reminder of poetry's "bad rap."
This week I worked with an eighth-grade student who had to pull together a poetry project. He had to write four original poems, mostly from a formula. Two he chose to write were called "I Feel" poems, one of which began "I feel blessed / and cared for." Much much abstraction. Then he had to copy four poems from books--not write about why he chose them or respond to them or "talk" about them. He had to "design" a "fru-fru" cover (because of course, fru- fru goes with poetry) which consisted of a clipart couch and the title "Poetry on the Couch" derived from the only poem with a spark of creativity, one that we worked on together. That poem personified his living room couch. He was all smiles when he finished that poem. "That was fun." I hope that is what he remembers about poetry. The teacher gave back his project during class the next day; she had read through it while students were taking standardized testing, and she said that she'd love to give it an "A" if he would only take the time to go over the handwritten poems he had chosen in INK instead of pencil. I know my eyebrows raised to the low ceiling in the dining room.
And then I told him just a little bit about the project I did in eighth grade. How I remembered it still. That project was at the other end of the spectrum in terms of requirements and difficulty. I've kept it for over half a century, partly because I'm sure I must have had a meltdown putting it all together.
The project included pages of notes I took during class, definitions of poetic terms including "sentiment" and "caesura," quizzes on poems discussed in class, and an analysis of every poem we discussed in class--at least ten, including "Exposure" by Wilford Owen, Poe's "Ulalume" and "Annabelle Lee," De La Mare's "The Listerner," "Trees" by Joyce Kilmer, and poems by Thomas Hood, Wordsworth, and Frost. Because I tend toward the over-achiever, I included short bios on each poet and "wow"-ed the teacher. Bonus 15 points!
I don't recall it, but I must have chosen William Henry Davies to read in-depth. The last section had to include an explication of ten of the poet's poems. The teacher wrote: Poems could be explicated a little more exactly. Oops! The packet was 56 typewriter-typed pages with handwritten notes throughout.
I'm guessing that some students left Mr. Rochelle's English class thinking and expressing much the same sentiment as the window replacement salesman. I'm not sure why I hung onto the project for so long, the pages now fragile and withered. It was a lot of work, and undoubtedly a bowl of tears, but so was the Civil War project we had to do that included copying down every battle and an outline of all the details about each battle. Nowhere does that exist in my current "saved" files or boxes.
I query myself: What made poetry memorable? I know at that time I had never given even fifteen seconds of consideration to becoming a poet, much less a published one.
What made poetry stick? The teacher. Maybe. The sheer amassing of material? Maybe. The cover that I thought was so clever but my teacher did not "get"? Possibly. I'm sure there was a convergence of many factors that led me down the poetry highway so many years later. Maybe for me it ends up being about "learning something" too, and not so differently from the lovers of historical fiction.
Last Sunday I had a book launch for my latest book, Tapping Roots. A non-poet friend of the hostess approached me to buy a book after the reading. She told me she cried during the reading of at least a couple of the poems. She was extremely complimentary, and she was so surprised at how many ways she connected to the poems themselves. Of course, I was pleased. One specific comment she made was that the poem about my father as he remembered his father forcing him to prove himself a man was told with such "small real estate." I remember my struggles with this poem to do just that--to avoid overtelling, overwriting.
Poetry's magic for me IS in the "real estate." How words mean, how they are structured, how the "property" is painted, how I learn from the process of putting words together and from reading how others do the same. And how that "real estate" is received, how it lives on. I'm not sure I'll make any big inroads in poetry's sour reputation, but . . .
The manning-up poem--
My Father Remembers His Father
Dad is the foreman, supervising work
on the hospital. Before that, Rust Plumbing.
And before that, the mines, black dust living
in the creases in his hands, his eyelids caked,
his lips cussing blackness.
You never did a hard day’s work in your life,
he says when one-by-one my brothers
and I find work in factories or offices.
His handtools idle in the garage--
we are never allowed to touch.
He hounds us--
Nothing but a bunch of sissies.
I am the sissy who delivers papers,
the one who rolls the clay to smooth
the tennis courts behind the high school
so I can hit a couple balls, the one who works
in the pants factory after high school
making sure the line workers have the zippers
and buttons they needed. I am the sissy
who turns over all his weekly pay ‘til I get out.
Behind our house is a grape arbor.
Out back near the alley, a chicken coop.
We raise our own chickens,
make wine from grapes we pick
and crush. More work for us boys.
I am the oldest. Once my father
must have thought that I needed to prove
my manhood. Go out back, he orders.
Catch a chicken. Cut off the head.
Catching isn’t that hard.
I carry it to the stump scarred
with the blade of the axe.
Thump. Thump. My father’s footsteps
on the bricked walk from the house.
I know I need one clean cut.
One swing clear through.
Swing and miss.
For those of you who are unfamiliar, RHINO is an international journal that publishes poetry and flash fiction including translations. We have a long history that stretches more than forty years. We call "home" Chicago, but recently we have a small contingent in the West near LA.
And it's no secret that the way RHINO editors work is a bit unique.
We actually meet eye-to eye! Not just three or four of us, but a whole crash of us. After doing a bit of research, I understand there's another (little-known) name for a congregation of rhinos--a stubbornness. (Check out this list of animal group names by clicking here.) That seems a bit odd, a stubbornness of rhinos, or RHINOs, but maybe it's a fit.
In the two weeks before each meeting, and every day really, editors are reading submissions on the online submission manager. Once a poem (or a group of poems) has had four readers or more and at least ONE of those editors gives the poem a ONE using a three-point ranking system, it is sent to the table for discussion. Any and every poem given a "1" by even one editor gets discussed. That's pretty amazing considering we receive thousands of submissions a year from April to October. Click here to learn more about submissions. And check out our new website while you're there.
Between 10-15 editors on any given week gather around a big table in someone's home. We open our laptops and fire up the iPads to call up the submissions that will be discussed. The poem is read aloud at least once, and then discussion ensues! We try to be somewhat efficient given the volume, but often the six or seven minute timer goes off and the discussion about how well the poem works, how it impacts us as readers, how it fits with what we've published, and what we'd like to publish continues.
Believe it or not, there's not much arguing. We try to keep things friendly. We have editors among us working as teachers, the self-employed, employed in a library, or working out there in the world somewhere, and the retired from a variety of careers. Many of us have MFA's but not all. Most of us write and publish poetry. Quite honestly, we celebrate the differences among us. We need those differences. Some of us lean to the lyrical, some the experimental, and others might be fans of a good narrative. We're always paying attention to language. That's hard to ignore! And craft! I'd have to say that when one reads as many poems in a year as we do, a poem really needs to stand out to make it to the table. Maybe the language just sings. Or there is an adept handling of a topic that outshines many others, for instance, love poems or poems of relationship or family strife--types of poems we see often. Taste naturally also comes into play. And we all want something that moves us!
One of my favorite parts about the discussion is that on first blush one might not be interested in a poem at all. After a convincing argument is made, one can become a convert!
We vote by simple majority. If there are ten of us at the table, it takes six votes for the poem to be accepted.
We're not just one editor making decisions, or even two or three. We're a CRASH of rhinos. Most of us have a "job" we do to make RHINO work in addition to reading--database, website guru, book-shipper, event managers, business manager, publicists, FORUM hosts and RHINO Reads moderators--plus the people who get that publication to the printer every year! We're not always well-oiled. But our intent is there. And the only way this works as Ralph Hamilton, editor-in-chief, will tell you is through mutual respect and concerted acts of kindness in an effort to celebrate a bit of the poetry that comes our way.
In the end, we stubbornly and with deliberation publish poetry, yes. But I've met a lot of wonderful people through my Rhino connection. Publish, poetry, and people. The perfect trifecta.
One of the writing strategies I like to use almost every time I begin a draft is to generate a list of words from another source, from a book of poetry or fiction or from almost anything written that's lying about. Sometimes there's some intentionality and sometimes not. I look for words that aren't in my personal lexicon--not that I don't know them, but I may not think to use them. Then I prop up that list of words in front of me at the computer or on my lap. SOMETIMES a word on that list will generate an entire poem.
I'm always looking for a way in--and about 80% of the time I'd say, my poems spring from a list. There's nothing proprietary about a list of words from another source, but I love how the list pushes me in a new direction or actually becomes the prompt or allows me to use much fresher language than I might otherwise. It eliminates hum-drum, I hope.
I've divined words from poetry books like Break the Habit by Tara Betts and Maggie Smith's Good Bones, and Pattiann Roger's book, Holy Heathen Rhapsody. and even a fiction book, Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451. I still marvel at what gets spit out on the page. I've read through entire books circling words as I read or just found and used a single longer poem. Rarely am I looking for a specific type of word for a specific subject. Rather, the goal is to gather words that do not seem to fit together or the subject, if there is one. The list IS my entry to the draft whether I'm writing about Frida Kahlo, the hospice caregiver bathing my mother, or my brother's childhood clubhouse.
This past week I wrote a draft of a poem currently titled either "Un-dream" or "Upfront." I had been reading through poems in the anthology section of Amorak Huey and Todd Kaneko's new book, Poetry: A Writers' Guide and Anthology.
My list for the poem I was working on this week--"Un-dreaming/Upfront"--was periphery, feistiness, sachet, lustrous, and quaint. Usually, the list is much longer, but the word "sachet" leaped at me, and I needed a poem draft that day to take to my writing critique group. As it turns out, I only used one word from my list, but more often I mayuse six or seven or more of the words from a list of twenty, for example.
Here's an excerpt from the poem which ended up being about a dream and The French Lieutenant's Woman and Diego Rivera and . . .
"all while I pretend to be more the me of me,
daffodils and bunny-shaped sugar cookies with red hots for eyes,
until I remember tucking sachet in with the thigh-high
black stockings and the pink garter belt
so they’ll smell of lavender
next time I tug them out, who knows when,"
Part of me can't imagine not writing this way. I've been doing it so long. One of my mentors, Alice George, used to talk about a poem's "front porch" as the beginning of a poem that got you to where the heat of the poem was, got you to the real poem you wanted to write. You built this elaborate porch but you didn't need it. I think of my strategy, my list, as "the purple door." The entrance. My entrée.
Recently I had a conversation with a non-poet friend who asked me why I write poetry or even read poetry. He had read some of my recent book, Tapping Roots, which was actually the first group of poems I ever pulled together. (I had already prompted him that I appreciated feedback.) This book is about growing up Midwesterner, and in particular, Southern Illinois., about people who have influenced my childhood and adult pilgrimage. If you don't count college, I've lived in thirteen "homes," but the place I still think of as "home" is the town where I was born, Belleville, Illinois--even though I only lived there for the first FIVE years of my life. I've been in the Chicago area for two-thirds of it. If people ask where I'm from, I say "Chicago," because of course in a way that's true. The majority of my adulthood was spent in one suburb or another. There's a certain odd pride in being "from" Chicago, but my heart, corny as that sounds, still belongs to the south of me.
I digress. My friend said he could really identify with so much in my book as he had similar experiences growing up (same generation and similar economic status in the early years), so he could see why this poetry at least affected people. On the other hand, he likes to read fiction that has nothing to do with his life--mysteries with involved plots--far from his daily life and work. The implication was that his choice of fiction did not "work" the same way as my poetry seemed to do. I walked away from this conversation having multiple conversations of my own in my head. The simplest answer to his question is that I write, and particularly poetry, to CONNECT. It seems like such a transparent yet "rings-true" answer. (Yes, I know that there are poets who say they don't care if someone likes what they write.)
At a high school lit fest workshop I led last week, a student asked why I write poetry. I'm pretty sure that telling eighty high schoolers that when I write, I feel a HIGH was not the wisest idea--but I blurted it out without apology. Of course, my response elicited a few giggles and snickers, but I also saw some head-nods. Is it the passion that comes first or the high? Is it the sense of connection when a few others read and like what I write, what any of us write, that propels? Doesn't the author of those mystery novels also connect with his reader, at least with the reader's need to escape or have a vicarious experience?
I guess there are really two acts--the creative one and the connective one. It makes me think about which act drives my writing, any writing--the act of creation or the desire to connect.
Steve Jobs has said, "Creativity is just connecting things. When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn't really do it, they just saw something. It seemed obvious to them after a while. That's because they were able to connect experiences they've had and synthesize new things." I'm pretty sure he didn't write poetry, but his acts of invention were similarly wrapped in a need to connect, conscious or otherwise, and the outcome of his "work" and his "passion" was connection.
I started mulling over other facets of my intentional life. Friendships, teaching, photography, family, emails, FB, blogging, even doctoring or walking, all things I do with more or less relish. In every single instance, connection is the key. I choose passion and connection over isolation and loneliness, and I appreciate that sometimes that happens in the presence of other humans and sometimes in the process of the solitude of writing.
Yesterday I felt like I was part of a BIG DEAL. I participated as a judge for a LitFest held at a far west suburban high school. Evidently, it's been a "thing" for a couple decades. Students from thirteen schools participated. Leading up to this event, I read and commented on 235 poems and then yesterday led two poetry workshops.
At the Fest, students heard the keynote, Simone Elkeles, best-selling author of teen romance novels, speak about writing, her process, writing as career, the general lack of glamour, the need for revision. She had the students with her all the way. After, students had an opportunity to attend two of six workshops in diverse genres--slam poetry, personal essay, descriptive sketch, dramatic scripts, and poetry.
My workshop centered on Found Poetry--centos, cut-ups or remixes, and erasures. Each of the 120 or so students who attended the poetry workshop had a chance to write a cento and an erasure poem. There was little hesitation on their parts to write or share--a marvel in itself to me after so many years in the classroom prodding reluctant learners. I provided a list of lines for composing short centos. And three passages for erasure poem experimentation--a section from Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451, a poem that appeared on Rattle after the death of Stephen Hawking, and a letter from Nelson Mandela to his daughters. My hope was that students would see ways to FRESHEN their writing. I was certainly impressed! How wonderful to have students around me who WANTED to take the risk.
It might seem odd, but the most impressive part of the day was the award ceremony. You might think boring, long, drawn out, but more than 300 students gathered in the auditorium to celebrate each other and WRITING awards. Students CHOSE to attend this LitFest. chose to submit pieces of writing beforehand. Judges read and assigned awards for Honorable Mention, Third, Second, and First Place, and then lastly, the Critic's Choice award. I actually felt quite emotional thinking about the efforts behind this annual event that has taken place for a couple decades, the people who made it happen, and the excitement of individual students when names were announced and celebrated by classmates who cheered them on. My mind spun to sporting events where the cheering can be deafening. How often do we get to see this type of jubilation over WRITING. It's so often such a solitary endeavor, and often unrecognized. While judges read the top winning pieces, there was no audience chatter, no cell phone distraction, and no one exited. The audience was diverse, but the response was uniform--respectful! It seemed like a BIG DEAL!
My favorite conversation of the day was with a young woman, a senior named Mary, who had been to the LitFest four years in a row. She approached me during writing time to ask my opinion about short poems. She was articulate and earnest. She told me that this year she had submitted a shorter poem uncharacteristically, and that she was beginning to think that there was some merit to "less is more." She said at times it was hard to give up passages that just weren't working, hard to let them go--the idea often attributed to Faulkner--“In writing, you must kill all your darlings” and more recently to Stephen King, who evidently wrote, “kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings.” I found myself so moved by her insight (something I'm only now acquired as a more "seasoned" writer, her spirited eyes, and her ease in conversing about something that was clearly a passion. It was not so much that she was asking about "short poems" in the end, but about a writer's ability to discern what's working. I think her analysis of the merit and challenge of drafting and revision required no response from me--I simply nodded vigorously.
As an aside, another young woman, maybe a freshman, approached me and asked what do you do about those lines you've written in a story or a poem that you LOVE, but when you give the manuscript to someone else to read, they don't "get" that one line you think is pivotal. My response was that maybe it's her obligation to look back at it and without overexplaining it, see if she can figure out how to help the reader get there. Such thoughtful people.
As a teacher, it was good to be back in a school which feels like home to me. At the awards ceremony I was pleased to see that in the process of blind judging, I had chosen Mary's poem for third place-----a "short" poem titled "Home."
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By far this erasure below by Austin Kleon received the best response from the high school crowd!
Find Austin here: austinkleon.com/newspaperblackout/
Want to tackle a cento--the uniting of lines from other poets’ writing to form a collaged poem. Here's a list to help you begin.
a dead raccoon (Lauren Gordon)
all its salty tears (Shannan Ballam)
And whatnot (Esther Lee)
check (Sean Howard)
disappear without a trace (Ada Limon)
emptying its anger (Kyle McCord)
honey from my lips (Jeff Whitney)
I am not light. I do not gallop. I'm ash (Donna Vorreyer)
I cut my hair. (Anna Meister)
I mistranslate myself. (Kelly Corinda)
in the morning world (Robin Chapman)
indelible tattoos (Terrance Hayes)
into the river a stone's throw (Lisa Fishman)
it is easy to imagine (Gordon Buchan)
It no longer opens (Katherine Hollander)
it's totally over (Kay Ryan)
of air. (B Soloy)
standing (Ross Gay)
Talk to me. (Christine Swanberg)
the blood on the moon drips (Micah Bateman)
the drowning clutch anything (Emily J. Cousins)
The heart is a cloak (Ralph Hamilton)
the trees (Andrew Haley)
this hole in me (Larry Janowski)
thunder punctuates (Steven Stamatis)
time felt like a kitten (Bill Yarrow)
to panic at any time (Anne Shaw)
to spit or to spirit away its pain (Galway Kinnell)
to the eyes (Angie Macri)
we read the article with a little shake of shock (Matt Mason)
What is missing (Tim Green)
Where the fire enters (Roger Reeves)
wings. They buzz (Thom Caraway)
write like you mean it (David Ulin)
You found me with my head bowed. (Matt Mauch)
Want to try an erasure poem. Here are a couple texts for experimentation!
So I missed all of March. My own kind of madness. Didn't plan on my Florida vacation landing me in the hospital, but I'm hoping to be back on the blog . . .
Recently I was asked to judge the poetry submissions for high school students from 13 schools who will attend a Lit Fest next Friday. Writer-judges from multiple genres received submissions, but the poetry category was flooded with submissions--235 to be exact. I read each poem and commented on each poem! Then I had to narrow down the choices and come up with aCritic's Choice. Ultimately, the two poems I chose could not have been more different--one was about a "coming out" experience layered in language about time zones and and ghosts of memories (so surprising), and the other is an outward-looking poem about Leopold II of Belgium who exploited the people of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, something I knew nothing about. (Leopold's deeds related in the poem sound quite 21st century). One poem uses a narrative style that could be something other than a poem, and the second uses short lines and consistent stanzas and looks more "poem-y." As I read this hefty pack of poems, I kept asking myself what I was looking for, what would make one poem rise above the others. In the end (and partly because of the sheer quantity of poems that I read), I went for impact. What did I remember? What drew me in and made me want to come back for another read.
I've been told, even by a therapist who works with troubled children and teens, that poetry is a "thing." And something he never gave much thought to in the past. I would guess that 40% or more of the poems were written by girls (ostensibly as it was a blind reading) who wrote about the trials and disappointments of relationships. The word DEPRESSION came up in more poems than I would have liked to see. Of course, poetry is a vehicle of emotion, but it was distressing to see just how many students reflected feelings that many adults struggle with their entire lives. There were abused children, neglected children, children of divorce or alcoholics trying to recover already from things that have shaped them in the first dozen years of their lives. Sad. Disconcerting. Yes, troubling.
When I read about and watch and listen to the teens who swarmed D.C. and hear the eloquence and the heart of what they have to say, I have hope. Emily Dickinson wrote: "Hope is the thing with feathers / That perches in the soul." I wonder what else there is if there is not HOPE. These young people post-Parkland, these poets writing from their chests, are the embodiment of HOPE. Their bodies, voices, silence and rage are HOPE. And yet, they have to navigate the same alleyways and secret gardens and plastic-riddled oceans as the rest of us.
Words on paper can bring whole countries and peoples together. If they're not to be meaningless, then we best be studying all signs and kinds of feathered hope. Hope for transformation and light.
I've just started reading Atul Gawande's Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End--the book purchase prompted by a particularly long siege of pain, physical, and its companion, the psycho/emotional whiplash. Pain, mine and others, makes me consider the question of quality of life. I've a couple of friends with whom that conversation happens regularly.
This post today though is prompted by the twelfth anniversary of my mother's death--February 10, 2006. My sister and I had moved into my parents' home for a couple weeks before my mother died to help my father with her care. My father would call out from the other side of the house in the night, "Girls!" and we would come running to their room to help my mother get into the bathroom. I can remember following my sister through the living room running as fast as our middle-aged legs woken from fitful sleep would take us. At one point, we, the three of us, could no longer manage to get her safely out of bed. Rarely was my mother angry with me or anyone else, but she was extremely upset with me after we had to tell her she could not get out of bed anymore and that it was "for her own good." She was someone who never gave up. We had taken from her, or cancer had, the last act of independence. Later that night, I went to her room to check on her, and I'll never forget her tone as she asked me why I was there. Thankfully, those were not the last words we exchanged.
I could talk about my mother endlessly--her joie de vivre, her dignity and courage, her smile, one of the most constant and loving things I've ever known.
My mother wanted to be home to die, and she wanted hospice. Our experience with hospice was not what I would have hoped for and not as much support as I would have thought there would be, but there is one woman whose "work" and compassion is "faith-restoring." Her name is Shelley Solarz. I don't recall what her title was, but if I were to give her one, it would assuredly be savior. Her task was to help my mother bathe, and later to bathe her. Who could have possibly known that what she did for my mother accounted for some of the kindest final acts of my mother's life. She understood the idea of "quality of life" in the face of dying.
I celebrate my mother in my thoughts today, and I celebrate those in my life who make life worth living.
--For Shelly Solarz, the Bather
My mother relished clean.
Her druthers, fresh linens daily—
thread count rising.
She never missed a shower
or a chance to wash a load of clothes.
Likely we were the most laundered
family on Bloomer Drive—pants and shirts
and socks, barely worn, spun with Tide.
Tags snipped. New garments agitated
in the machine before they touched
our skin. Guests’ towels
plucked from the rod--
shower steam barely vaporized.
When cancer pressed in
her fierce independence
fell to the floor with the towel.
Then the Bather came. My mother longed
to climb in the tub to shower.
The Bather made this ritual happen.
My mother let her--
this Bather to the Queen of Sheba.
Too soon the Bather shouldered
bottles of water
to wash my mother’s silvered hair in bed,
to sponge her failing flesh.
I sat on a chair as the sun
elbowed its way into the room
followed the rhythm
of the Bather’s hands. In reverence.
A waft of cherry blossoms in winter.
My mother’s body stiff, absorbed
in holding on.
I witnessed her soften, melt
into Egyptian cotton.
first published in The Blue Heron Review
This week I ran across an interview of Mary Ruefle by Caitlin Youngquist published December 12, 2016, in The Paris Review. The article was titled, Becoming Invisible. www.theparisreview.org/blog/2016/12/12/becoming-invisible-an-interview-with-mary-ruefle/
I was actually fascinated with a number of things said. Ruefle's distinction between poetry and prose was easily spelled out. She says, "My interest in drawing lines between genres and coming up with very clear definitions for these things is very … well, if I’m being frank, I just don’t have enough time left on this earth to spend doing that. So for me, if I write something and it’s lineated, it’s poetry. If it’s not lineated, it’s prose. I read fiction, nonfiction, and poetry and I love them all. I can’t sluice them anymore than I can sluice my love of open fields and deep woods."
It's such an easy distinction, one that I've no doubt many scholars of writing and poetry have spent hours discussing. And aimless endeavor. Possibly. Ruefle's tune is, why bother to spend time "naming." I love the simplicity of it.
What I find more intriguing though is how she talks about her emotional relationship with prose vs. poetry. She feels so nervous, she says, when writing prose, because she KNOWS people will read it. Remarkably, she says, "If I’m writing a poem, it never occurs to me that somebody is going to read it." This she attributes to public vs. private language. It's not a distinction that has ever occurred to me. She states, "It’s different because prose is a public language and poetry is a private language, and every person on the planet who is fortunate enough to be able to speak, speaks in sentences—fragments, too, but often full sentences. The standards for public discourse are very different from poetry."
She goes on to talk about her belief that poems ARE her inner life. When she writes a poem, she's writing for herself, which is how she circles back to the idea of Becoming Invisible, something she says happens as we age (particularly for women). I think it's worth quoting another section of this interview:
Men don’t become invisible in the same way. There’s a difference in power between men and women, and I know I’m using an archaic formula but I do belong to another century. For the longest time, male power was posited in the accumulation of wealth or experience, and experience was something every man could have. And a woman’s power was always posited on physical attractiveness, the ability to have children. So as a man ages, he gains power, and as a woman ages, she loses it, or feels as though she does. If you go back to this paradox, which I understand people may find antiquated, you find there are still shards and shreds of it everywhere.
One of my mentors began the chit-chat pre-class one evening by saying she's decided that she no longer cares about how others perceive her appearance. It's a startling statement at first, especially given the flash and shine that blinds us everywhere we go. I have to agree with Ruefle--poetry is our inner life, or at least my inner life, but unlike Ruefle, putting my poetry out there DOES make me nervous at times. And I do find it is a way NOT to be invisible in one way. Ruefle would have us believe that our inner life is what we become when the body is no more, possibly not in the sense of death but in importance. A kind of eternal life, I guess. Poetry is, poetry reveals, the inner life. Without being personal or revelatory in the sense of telling secrets.
In a prose piece that appeared in Poetry Magazine, Ruefle quotes Lorca: "The poet who embarks on the creation of the poem (as I know by experience), begins with the aimless sensation of a hunter about to embark on a night hunt through the remotest of forests. Unaccountable dread stirs in his heart."
The contrast in thought is striking. Is writing a poem a mere tinkering with and unraveling a bit of our inner life, neither frightening nor wholly public, or is it as Lorca states, the "hunt" that takes us to the "remotest of forests" stirring dread in our hearts.
I think I land somewhere in between. I do have a sense of dread often about the "hunt" that begins a poem, initial dread, but as the poem unspools when I enter the words, the lines, the thinking self, the"younger" more self-conscious self, grows less fearful, and the inner self plops itself down on the page and says, "Here I am." And sometimes I am content in knowing that maybe someone will read it, like it, and maybe not.
More by and about Mary Ruefle:
I taught seventh grade forever, it seems, and when I was allowed, I squeezed in poetry as much as possible. I can recall standing in front of some rather unenthused faces trying to convince them of the wonders of Evelyn Tooley Hunt's poem, "Mama is a Sunrise." It was one of the few poems that appeared in our anthology. In those days, we talked about the strategies of craft, but I wanted so much for them to see the simple delicacy of the choice of each word and line in this poem. As a teacher in a junior high, I did a lot of dancing, trying to infuse students' lukewarm bodies with new energy.
Mama is a Sunrise
When she comes slip-footing through the door,
she kindles us
like lump coal lighted,
and we wake up glowing.
She puts a spark even in Papa's eyes
and turns out all our darkness.
When she comes sweet-talking in the room,
she warms us
like grits and gravy
and we rise up shining.
Even at night-time Mama is a sunrise
that promises tomorrow and tomorrow.
In doing a bit of research, I realize that Hunt, who also wrote as Tao-Li, was famous for writing the poem "Taught Me Purple," the poem which inspired the novel The Color Purple by Alice Walker.
Taught Me Purple
My mother taught me purple
Although she never wore it.
Wash-grey was her circle,
The tenement her orbit.
My mother taught me golden
And held me up to see it,
Above the broken moldings,
Beyond the filthy street.
My mother reached for beauty
And for its lack she died,
Who knew so much of duty
She could not teach me pride.
According to some sources I read, she liked to write about other cultures, and clearly from the use of her pen name, Tao-Li, she took that seriously. I am reminded of the "scandal" in 2015 when Michael Derrick Hudson's poem was published in The Best American Poetry volume under the name Yi-Fen Chou.
I admire Alexie's comments. You may remember that Sherman Alexie was the guest editor, and he defended Hudson's choice. Evidently Hudson had submitted the poem 40 times under his real name and had it rejected numerous times before he submitted under the pen name. Alexie stated that he certainly did not like the subterfuge, but Alexie adds, "Rereading 'The Bees, the Flowers, Jesus, Ancient Tigers, Poseidon, Adam and Eve' with the knowledge of Hudson’s true identity made it no less compelling . . . “most important, it didn’t contain any overt or covert Chinese influences or identity. I hadn’t been fooled by its ‘Chinese-ness’ because it contained nothing that I recognized as being inherently Chinese or Asian.” Alexie is a Native American and he " admitted that he had been “more amenable to the poem because I thought the author was Chinese American”, saying that there are “many examples of white nepotism inside the literary community”, and that he was “also practicing a form of nepotism. I am a brown-skinned poet who gave a better chance to another supposed brown-skinned poet because of our brownness.”"
Evelyn Tooley Hunt was a white poet who took on pen name,, and published under that name, AND who reportedly influenced the writing of Alice Walker's novel, The Color Purple (and subsequently the acclaimed motion picture of the same name) about brown-skinned people. Note: Nowhere did I find a reference to the poem in researching Walker's novel. That info was a part of Hunt's bio.
Clearly, Hunt did not receive the acclaim/attack/flack that Hudson did, but both situations raise some eyebrows. Why did both Hunt and Hudson feel so compelled to write using pen names with a distinctly different cultural origin?
The whole question of nepotism that Alexie mentions intrigues me as well. As an associate editor of the Rhino Poetry journal, it's hard to ignore the name used to submit a group of poems. Sometimes one or more of the editors knows the poet, sometimes, the poet is "famous" by whatever standards one uses, and often an ethnicity is suggested by the name. Is an unbiased reading possible? I leave that for you to answer.
Personal preferences obviously plays= a role in what we read, in what we like, but I don't know how a truly unbiased reading takes place. There's a whole mix of what makes a poem "good" and it's likely more than "good bones," to borrow the title of Maggie Smith Beehler's stellar poem and book. True "blind readings" are hard to do in our information-saturated world.
I do know that I wanted my students to love poetry, to love the bones in Hunt's/Tao-Li's "Mama is a Sunrise," a poem which I can still remember pitching to twelve-year-olds twenty or more years later For sure. And truthfully, my "mama" was a sunrise.
And I do know, as a reader and writer of poetry today, it's often hard to separate the "bones" from the poet.
The Revival Tour
Poet Bloggers 2018
Kelli Russell Agodon-
Donna Vorreyer – https://djvorreyer.wordpress.com
Beth Adams – http://www.cassandrapages.com
Sandra Beasley – http://sbeasley.blogspot.com
Carolee Bennett – https://gooduniversenextdoor.com/
Mary Biddinger – wordcage.blogspot.com/
Andrea Blythe – http://www.andreablythe.com
Dave Bonta – http://vianegativa.us
Jim Brock --
Angela T Carr
Kevin Connor – https://ordinaryaveragethoughts.wordpress.com/
Jared Conti – http://www.theoracularbeard.com
Jenelle D’Alessandro – http://www.borderandgreetme.com
Laura E. Davis – http://www.dearouterspace.com/
Kate Debolt – http://www.katedebolt.net/blog/
Heather Derr-Smith – ferhext.com/
Risa Denenberg – https://risadenenberg.weebly.com/blog
Cynthia Schwartzberg Edlow http://cschwartzbergedlow.blogspot.com
Lou Faber – https://anoldwriter.com
Jeannine Hall Gailey – webbish6.com
Gail Goepfert –In the Mix gailgoepfert..com/blog
Sarah Kain Gutowski – mimsyandoutgrabe.blogspot.com
Erin Hollowell – http://www.beingpoetry.net . T
Crystal Ignatowski – http://somehiatus.tumblr.com/
Charles Jensen – https://charles-jensen.com/kinemapoetics-blog/
Jill McCabe Johnson http://jillmccabejohnson.com/blog-chanson-daventure.html
Collin Kelley http://www.collinkelley.blogspot.com
Anita Olivia Koester https://www.forkandpage.com/
Lakshmi – thiswinterheart.tumblr.com
Courtney LeBlanc – wordperv.com
Lorena P Matejowsky https://nothingbutblueskies.wordpress.com/
Marilyn McCabe O
Ann Michael – www.annemichael.wordpress.com
Amy Miller – http://writers-island.blogspot.com/
James Moore – jameswmoore.wordpress.com
LouAnn Sheperd Muhm – https://louannmuhm.com/
Gill O’Neill – http://poetmom.blogspot.com
Shawnte Orion http://batteredhive.blogspot.com/
Susan Rich – http://thealchemistskitchen.blogspot.com .
Lee Ann Roripaugh https://runningbrush.wordpress.com/
Sarah Russell – https://sarahrussellpoetry.net
Kim Bailey Spradlin – www.kimbaileydeal.net
Bonnie Staiger –https://bonniestaiger.com/
Rosemary Starace https://thresholdview.wordpress.com/
Hannah Stephenson – http://thestorialist.com
Stephanie Lane Sutton
Christine Swint – https://balancedonedge.blog/
Dylan Tweney – http://dylan20.tumblr.com/
Michael Allyn Wells:
Allyson Whipple http://allysonmwhipple.com