IN THE MIX
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.
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