Three years ago, my daughter and son-in-law gave me a special Christmas gift: a new camera. Since that day, I’ve been haunting rivers, woods, and fields for birds in a new journey, one beautiful way to look up and see the world new. Now, thanks to Green Briar Review, I can share my first cover photo of a Heron in Winter.
I’ve been waiting for this. Right at the moment when we all went into lockdown at the start of the pandemic and my mother would begin a series of emergency room visits that led finally in just a few months to the hospice, my book, slow arrow: unearthing the frail children, came out. My mother never got to read it. It was one of the saddest times in my life. The book went on to win a bronze medal in essay for the independent publishers book award, a prize that put me next to lia purpura, who won the gold medal and is one of my favorite essayists. I was thankful to do this interview, which brought me back to my mother and those trips we made across teller county. I can still hear my mother, Ohio native of beautiful red and orange trees, complaining in fall: “What, another yellow leaf?” This is an interview about the journey of one book and the love for a mother.
So another prompt-inspired poem, this one from an April 2021 National Poetry Prompt at NaPoWriMO:
“Go to the Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows and choose a word to work with.” I chose “onism”: awareness of how little of the world you’ll experience, which seemed apropos for that past year’s solitude. And then I thought about imagination and memory and went places I never expected, certainly one of the joys of writing poetry.
Octopus on a Sea Dock
It floated out from a sea bucket into the silver spilt water of the sea dock we’d come to visit, so quiet at our feet that the fishermen nearby were oblivious, their fishing poles . . .
Hey, Come Zoom with Me! On Thursday, October 21st, starting at 7:00 p.m. (mountain time), I’ll read from Flying Beneath the Dog Star: Poems from a Pandemic along with short story writer Claire Boyles, who will read from her new book of linked short stories, Site Fidelity. Register below in advance to get the Zoom Link! Many thanks to the Loveland Poet Laureate Program for sponsoring this reading.
I found this butterfly along Redtail Lake in the Rabbitbrush. It reminded me of a poem I wrote a long while ago on my own small family’s migration. Believe it or not, it won the 2011 Writers Digest Non-rhyming poetry competition, my thousand dollar poem … a poem I treasure, regardless.
At Monterey Aquarium, we watched mackerel school where light refracted the world over our heads— sky, people, that brooding mimetic moon—bent
impossibly over the silver minions, their shifting music we couldn’t hear, their long silent rhythm, form shifting into formlessness, the way you do now,
your face flushed with the boy’s mouth until I can barely touch you as I once did, my loneliness no longer allowed to break like water against the frail vessel of you.
There is no justification in this, as in the way starlings leave the long darkness of our fall, buoyed in the lifting wings of each other beneath the stars’ compass,
our yellow cottonwood speaking the language of wind between us and this leaving until their shadow that finally is the fall breaks over us. So long now, since I touched
the braille of your skin, the late moon keening her vowels through that early window. Human frailty, I think, loving that naming of you without the tongue, your body —
shadow light shadow —
already breaking across my hands into nothing that stays.
I wrote the poems for Flying Beneath the Dog Star: Poems from a pandemic during National Poetry Month during such a terrible time and found such peace in my search for some kind of faith in a shaken world where my only “knowns” were a cabin porch, a spill of morning sun, and a nuthatch at the feeder. And I wrote it in honor of my sister. And then it was picked up by Finishing Line Press as a semi-finalist for FLP’s 2020 Open Chapbook competition.
“…and then, I have nature and art and poetry, and if that is not enough, what is enough?” ― Vincent Willem van Gogh
To the Swallow This Spring at the Nest Box
I own nothing of you nor this leaf that shivers into a half-bud above the phlox and blue flax that burrow with me into this old winter grass. Yet how much I yearn for your blue-struck wing like an arrow over a sun- struck river, as if it were some prayer to fit between my strange and lonely palm, so hollow its feathers, so frail I could breathe through them, so iridescent the sky you harbor down that whoever hammered this wood together did so in such hurry, in such love, that even the nails were left unflattened. And now your nestling waits at this world someone cored into the box for it to see: a little knot of light, a song to dip and break against.
All this year, I’ve been thinking about how to write about grief. Kafka said, “Everything you love, you will eventually lose.” So it seems exactly right that just moments ago the grief counselor called from the hospice where my mother died. Checking in on me. Their last call–Sunday the first year anniversary of my mother’s death.
My mother prepared me for her death for many years—it was the thing she wanted. But I did not realize how grief entwines with regret entwines with guilt each time we are at the cusp of sleep, faithless and alone. The writer Bruce Ballenger says about writing grief, “ Add a sentence that says ‘I was devastated.’ Most of the time this falls flat because it states the obvious. . . perhaps writers should trust that a situation that calls for sentiment can express it most strongly by withholding feeling.”
All I could think of was the “devastated.”
I thought to go back to my writing, what has always sustained me, but I didn’t know what to say, how to say it. Steve Harvey, creator of The Humble Essayist, says that as writers “what happened may matter to us but it is lost on us if we do not transform it into art.” Yet how do we shape raw grief into art, into something outside the grieving body, an artifact to be softened, hardened, handled, polished?
The summer my mother died, my daughters and son-in-law went hiking in the San Juan mountains to an alpine lake with the young son of one of my oldest friends. My son-in-law loves nothing more than to talk dares, though at thirty, he is long past the expectation that anyone would take him up on one. But, of course, the just-twenty-something in response to a ridiculous dare tore off his clothes, climbed a boulder, and then cannonballed into the air before disappearing into the still freezing waters of an alpine lake no one could even see.
“Did you at least check to see how deep the water was?” my friend later asked her son.
I had always thought of the braided essay as the way to “luck” into the deep image, into deep meaning, that poet’s way of totally giving in to the powerful prayer of language. It’s a cannonball, I thought, a leap into the unchartered, a faith that we will sink into the unknown and then pop out again, blue sky and air in mouthfuls.
Brenda Miller, best known for her braided essays, says that “at some point-some crucial point-we need to shift our allegiance from experience itself, to the artifact we’re making of that experience on the page. To do so, we mustn’t find courage; we must, instead, become keenly interested in metaphor, image, syntax, and structure: all the stuff that comprises form.”
I had never fully believed that the braided essay gives the writer courage to write what they think they cannot write. Or that it is the way to move out of the freewriting of grief into something of beauty, grace, purpose. That is until I found this one sentence in my journal and so begins my own cannonball:
My mother came from a family of floaters. “Your grandmother could float in a pond on her back for hours and sleep,” my mother would tell me the childhood summers I floated with her in the green pond behind the Ohio farm house . . . A year now and I am looking for metaphor everywhere.
My beautiful visiting bee this morning reminded me of this poem I wrote last spring. It will be part of my chapbook, Flying Beneath the Dog Star: Poems from a Pandemic, to be published this January by Finishing Line Press.
The hummingbird mistakes me for a flower: something half-wan and camouflaged in a wild iris shirt. The aspens riddle my slant of sun like snakes of shade. Far off, past the pines, a meadowlark trills from the draw where, yesterday, I found bear scat fresh, flies swarming it. I walked, clapping my hands at the dark of woods until they hurt. Now the air stirs. A hummingbird zips past the porch, circles, hovers, a tiny god at my face. I am all blossom and sepal, sweet petal and wing dust. And at my feet, a tiny bee crawls for the first time.