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.
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.
First, there is the necessary quiet of close grass, of fallen rodent, belly up in the path of your wanting. This morning, all you loved disappeared, ghosts you’ve kept in your palms, the tip of your tongue. Now you stoop to the wide paths reckless others have shoe-ed into the mud. Above the flooded salt quarry, a woman hugs her knees. She will not waver in the hour you walk the wide lake, peering one-eyed for heron through your lens. Then, nothing, until you are back at the beginning, the water of a blue reservoir you had long forgotten spilling out of a pipe at your feet, water so quiet, you think, this is why the birds rush in. A heron hugs the lakeshore; a heron balances on the gray curves of a tree fallen so many years ago that it floats upon the water’s light. Long-necked, short-necked, the heron wait for the sun. Their feathers are the light hairs of moss the wind tassels. Why do you wait at the edge of the water, the camera heavy in your cold hands, waiting for cloud, for sun, for the stretch of wing, the long dangling feet of departure? A quick moment and the heron sheds a bit of itself, just one color the camera opens its eye for, then shuts: a blue shade gripping the half-cave of a tree that keeps trying to bury itself. Soon you will drive home. Soon you will cook, sit by a fire, prop your camera at the table’s edge to see what you have taken.
Of course, no one else was walking in the downpour that afternoon at Lands End, so my shame was all my own. Only later could I see the humor in it, the slapstick quality of a suicidal woman diverted from the deed by her golden fancy pants’ dysfunction, but at the time it was a terrible humiliation from which I had to flee. Returned to my room at the bed & breakfast, which was cold and unwelcoming, I went on living.
from Put Off My SackCloth: Essays by Award-winning Author, Annie Dawid
The Humble Essayist Press (and I) are pleased to announce our most recent publication: a collection of essays by Annie Dawid, novelist, essayist, playwright, and poet. Put Off My SackCloth is Annie’s fifth book. A previous Colorado Voices Author, Annie has been the recipient of multiple awards including The International Rubery Book Award, The Dana Award, and the New Millennium Award for short fiction. Her previous books have been published by Litchfield Review Press, Carnegie Mellon University Press, and Cane Hill Press.
In Dawid’s essay, “Babysitter Goes to War,” the eighteen-year-old in glittering braces, who cares for Dawid’s young son, pronounces that he will go to Iraq to prove that he has “what it takes to be a man.”
“How will you be of use to the world as another casualty?” Dawid asks him.
It is this simple question that Dawid confronts throughout this collection of essays, whether that casualty be a babysitter, a stranger, a loved one or Dawid faltering in the 20th century maelstrom of war and drugs and depression and modern-day massacre that can and does annihilate the very youngest of our school children. Into this mosaic of memory Dawid takes us, holding out for us yet another chip of painted light to finger under the estranged sun.
Like the question, this collection could be a simple journey: once there was a sad girl from a sad family with a sad life. And one night she stood on a twelfth-floor balcony, holding her child in her arms.
But there is nothing simple here in this essay collection crafted by a writer, scholar, professor, journalist, daughter of a holocaust survivor, a modern woman who finds in the reckonings of T.S. Eliot’s “Wasteland” her own fragments that she will gather against her ruins, “harvesting bits of self,” as she describes it, “scattered like meteorites everywhere.”
Dawid’s essays bear witness to her searing, unflinching honesty and keen eye for detail, the precision and lyricism of her prose, the sophistication of her ability to “tell a yarn.” As Jill Christman, author of Darkroom: A Family Exposure, asks, “How have I lived so long in this world without reading Annie Dawid’s essays?”
Find out more about Annie Dawid, her splendid collection of essay, Put Off My Sackcloth, and The Humble Essayist Press here.
Doing the month long NaPoWriMo poetry prompts with my poet friend Marty McGovern. If you’re a poet and aren’t doin’ it, try it. It’s fun and you never know what you are going to end up with.
Here’s my stab for Day Five, using Stanley Kunitz’s poem, End of Summer, for my prompt, using the same first letters in each line (okay, I cheated in the last line) and following loosely the line length. (okay, I cheated there too!) (oh, and I didn’t rhyme . . . whoops!)
The Sandhill Cranes of San Luis Valley
A half-thermal of air and a left off Highway 160 arrested the cold of glacial farm fields we passed, shaken by a year of such frost
we will not forget. We stand in a rutted drive amid winter refuse and ditches, unready to be awoke, to go glittering beneath the half-fences, the dark of our cameras we uncap
blown with such light we had forgot. A crane flies out of a wind block of marsh, then wave after wave of rose-tipped cranes plow the winter sky, the cold we’ve owned.
Already what we prayed for craters us into unimaginable spring: a volcano’s old mouth, we dared to enter, enflamed by cranes, thousands in old potato fields, and leaping.
I think what I’m going to do is each week share more about these books from each of my fellow finalists.
More about Foreward Review:Do you know about this contest, Book Writers? If you publish a book this year, then enter next year!
This is the 23rd annual Foreword INDIES Book of the Year Awards.As part of its mission to discover, review, and share the best books from university and independent publishers, Foreword Magazine, Inc. hosts an annual awards program each year. Finalists represent the best books published in 2020. After more than 2,000 individual titles spread across 55 genres were submitted for consideration, the Finalists were determined by Foreword’s editorial team. Winners will be decided by an expert team of booksellers and librarians—representing Foreword’s trade readership—from across the country.
The complete list of Finalists for this year’s contest can be found at:
From their Press Release: “The pandemic did not slow down the quality of great books coming from the independent publishing community in 2020. The Finalist selection process this year was one of the hardest our team encountered due to the vast number of excellent submissions,” said Victoria Sutherland, publisher.
“While in typical years, the judging process involves our team gathering and discussing books in real time, this year, we had to read separately, take notes, and converge to discuss the entrants after we’d all taken a turn with them on our own. While at first the change was nerve-wracking, we were delighted to discover that we’re as much in agreement when the process takes place across miles and weeks as we are when we’re sitting face-to-face,” says Managing Editor, Michelle Anne Schingler. “We’re as confident as ever that these Finalists reflect the best of the books that we’ve had the privilege of seeing.”
Since 1998, Foreword Reviews has provided trade book reviews of the best titles from independent presses. Its FOLIO award-winning design and editorial content makes the magazine a favorite among librarians, booksellers, and readers—an excellent resource when it comes to purchasing books. Foreword INDIES and the fee-for-review Clarion service complement our online content and print magazine, helping to showcase independent presses and their authors.
You know what they say: if you ain’t in it, you ain’t gonna win it!
I finally got down to see the Sandhill Crane migration through Monte Vista and the San Luis Valley. Watching and hearing hundreds of cranes rush past in great waves overhead reminded me of the swans in William Butler Yeats’ beautiful poem, The Wild Swans at Coole, which “scatter wheeling in great broken rings/Upon their clamorous wings.” And I feel too the sadness of this passing year. For how many of us has all changed?
The Wild Swans at Coole
The trees are in their autumn beauty, The woodland paths are dry, Under the October twilight the water Mirrors a still sky; Upon the brimming water among the stones Are nine-and-fifty swans.
The nineteenth autumn has come upon me Since I first made my count; I saw, before I had well finished, All suddenly mount And scatter wheeling in great broken rings Upon their clamorous wings.
I have looked upon those brilliant creatures, And now my heart is sore. All’s changed since I, hearing at twilight, The first time on this shore, The bell-beat of their wings above my head, Trod with a lighter tread.
Unwearied still, lover by lover, They paddle in the cold Companionable streams or climb the air; Their hearts have not grown old; Passion or conquest, wander where they will, Attend upon them still.
But now they drift on the still water, Mysterious, beautiful; Among what rushes will they build, By what lake’s edge or pool Delight men’s eyes when I awake some day To find they have flown away?
In a month, one year ago, I started this piece: I was at 9600 feet. I was in the shadow of a mountain named Nipple. I was in a little square of sunshine, one log spooling fire in the cabin’s woodstove.
And I had woken in dread of the last night’s numbered dead: perhaps a dozen then, an interactive online chart informs me now, nothing near the surreal numbers of this year since.
Feeling useless, feeling uncertain, I surrounded myself with the old friends of my youth. That day, I chose James Wright’s This Journey, a book of poetry published posthumously in 1982 after Wright succumbed to cancer of the tongue.
I will confess it: I am a wordy poet, especially in the last ten years of writing creative nonfiction. I find myself wandering between poetry and prose: when do lines becomes sentences in an essay? And sentences lines of a poem?
In James Wright’s shining poems, I was hoping to find out how simplicity could bare order out of chaos, how poetry could fire the smallest image.
A few weeks later, my husband handed me handed me a biography of James Wright’s life.
In 1972, Wright saw a yellow spider stepping through its dusty web. Five years later, Wright describes that image in a letter to his poet-son Franz Wright:
[The web] positively sagged with dust. And as I watched, a slim, brilliantly yellow spider stepped out of her doorway in the center of the web. In all that dust, she was amazing: she was totally untouched by the smallest spec, as though she had just gone inside and taken a shower.
In creative nonfiction, we talk about digging down for the verticality of the story and how that verticality or inner truth so often translates itself through metaphor. And we find those metaphors firmly and beautifully presented in the sentences of prose. Wright’s spider is beautifully described in his letter. I would have been happy to write that description.
But in Wright’s poem, “The Journey,” (do read it! It’s a beauty) the spider appears in the third stanza—utterly transformed from the spider of the letter and utterly embedded in a line of poetry, not a sentence. Now the spider’s yellow hue is the “golden hair of daylight along her shoulders” and the dust of the web have become whole “cemeteries.” The “deep image” runs rampant. Ruins surround her now and the plainspeak of “had just gone inside” has been crafted into a metaphor that enlarges the image of the spider, almost as if Wright has wrought her divine: “She had stepped inside the earth, to bathe herself.” Poetry asks for the world new and this is what Wright has given us.
In the concluding stanza of “The Journey,” Wright alchemizes the scene of the spider in its web with the essence of himself, with the essence of us, the readers:
The secret Of this journey is to let the wind Blow its dust all over your body, To let it go on blowing, to step lightly, lightly All the way through your ruins, and not to lose Any sleep over the dead, who surely Will bury their own, don’t worry.
The journey of the spider through the “doorway” of her web has become the human journey into the spiritual world.
But go deeper, look at the micro changes of the letter to this poem and you realize that these transformations did not happen in the “fell swoop” of some muse’s divine intervention, as we’d like to think, at least, as I’d certainly like to think. Instead, Wright is an excavator, taking pickaxe and pen many times, many years to his poems, whittling phrase and word from revision to revision, honing prose to poetry, sentence to line.
From one revision of “The Journey” to the next, he changes “your bones” to “your body,” lengthens the line, “To let it go on blowing,” with the additional phrasing and repetition of “to step lightly, lightly,” which creates cadence in sound and personification in image. He changes the original wording of “the ruins” in the poem to “your ruins,” seemingly a nondescript change, until we realize that he once more implicates the reader, us, subsuming the spider as he gives the spider over to the human heart and its slow ravages.
The small revisions Wright makes in his poems, that seem so undeserving of our attention, so often portend an avalanche of meaning. At one time, “The Journey” closed this way: “All the way through your ruins, and not to care.” And then Wright changes “not to care” to “not to lose,” and expands this moment in the poem:
All the way through your ruins, and not to lose Any sleep over the dead, who surely Will bury their own, don’t worry.
Surely, just simple words added. Just words for any sentence. But as Blunk points out, these changes adlib Jesus’s admonition in the Gospel of Luke where Jesus tells a man to follow him and the man says, “Lord let me go bury my father” and Jesus replies, “ Let the dead bury their own.” Wright, then, characteristically, follows this Biblical allusion with his ever-present colloquial nod to the plainspoken midwestern reader, “don’t worry.”
Nuance, allusion, metaphor, personification, the stepping out of prose into poetry: a little dusty spider a poet chanced upon during a walk turned into poetry writ large. And a little journey, once upon a time on a cold dark day, turned into a little bit of light.
Update from me: just mailed in my contract to Finishing Line Press for my upcoming chapbook, Flying Beneath the Dog Star: Poems from a Pandemic, inspired by, who else, James Wright and another favorite poet, Stanley Kunitz.
I am thinking of the hand I found in Indiana, epicenter of this naturalist soul-to-be. I was ten, younger, when I found the hand, laid it to rest in what I called the “dead box” we found in an ancient trunk in the loft of that massive red barn on the hillside where I watched cattle slain and ponies bred.
I was walking the fence line. It was summer. Dry weeds crumpled to dust along the foot and cow paths. And then I saw it. The hand on the ground. A perfect bone of a hand. A fairy hand.
Fifty-one years I have kept the dead box and the hand and everything else I have found. Years and years, in writing workshops, I have handed out each object to a stranger, never wondering why I trusted these beautiful things from the world past with people I did not know. But always there is this giving back and forth — those who share my awe silent over the changed deserts of their linoleum desks. I am always astounded how poetry starts anywhere and takes you everywhere.
Bird’s nest so perfect so round woven of mane and tail hair from my childhood ponies. Owl pellet and yellow mouse teeth and white bird claw and, oh, the mollusk shell open-mouthed where a petrified snail curled inside. And all the pale shells of blue and speckled dust I’ve lost and that Indiana flint with yellow crystal I found near the creek I barely remember now except a bulldozer tore that day its red dirt. And here the chrysalis from my father’s pond attached to a twig since I was the girl I will never be again– what I swing and tremble until it lives.
Poet Patricia Dubrava, in her blog, Holding the Light, posted a wonderful poem and poetry prompt and that’s what got me going! Hearing the Canadas.
My poetry chapbook, Flying Beneath the Dog Star: Poems from a Pandemic, will be published this spring by Finishing Line press. Just received the contract. More as I know it.