On Finding The Inner Light of Images: From Prose to Poetry

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.

“Get inspired,” he said.

The biography by Jonathan Blunk, James Wright: A Life in Poetry, gave me a snippet of  Wright’s revision process for his poetry.  And perhaps an answer to my questions.  

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.

cabi in snow
a cabin in snow

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.

Hand (or On Finding the Prompts of Poetry)

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.

Snow-Flakes

A poem for a snowy morning by Henry Wadsworth-Longfellow

Out of the bosom of the Air,
Out of the cloud-folds of her garments shaken,
Over the woodlands brown and bare,
      Over the harvest-fields forsaken,
            Silent, and soft, and slow
            Descends the snow.

Even as our cloudy fancies take
      Suddenly shape in some divine expression,
Even as the troubled heart doth make
      In the white countenance confession,
            The troubled sky reveals
            The grief it feels.

This is the poem of the air,
      Slowly in silent syllables recorded;
This is the secret of despair,
      Long in its cloudy bosom hoarded,
            Now whispered and revealed
            To wood and field.

At the River

for my mother 1929-2020

Already the moon pales, half-cast above fields, shifting, done.

The darkness that comes speaks, weaves half-words

of the timorous blown cottonwoods, conducts quiet bird sound,

the long sad cry of wind,

Of suburban dogs, of geese tilting toward silver water.

I stand half in it, in the half-light of barns,

Of remembered porches, half-voices of my mother and father,

speaking to me still

Writing a Poem Against the “Lone Struggle”: The Gatherings Project

One of the surprises, soul-saving surprises, of this pandemic has been the creativity and generosity of care shown by so many, including the artists and writers of this world. The Gatherings Project is the brainstorm of artist Lynda Lowe: 56 boxes painted by professional artists and then sent out into the world to see what gifts they would gather. The boxes have now been sold and the profits donated to arts funding organization/s with well-established relief funds for creatives. Here’s the story of one box.

A few weeks ago at the Arvada Center, my friend Trine Bumiller handed me a cardboard shipping box tucked into a ragged shopping bag. Inside that box was a beautiful gold-painted wooden box with an orchid (erotic, as Trine described it) by the painter Fred Lisaius

Box painted by Fred Lisaius

And inside that golden box was Trine’s delicate rendering of a pine tree, inspired, I think, by her current gallery exhibit in Alaska, In Memoriam

Trine Bumiller piece

And a poem by the poet Todd Davis about his mother in a memory care unit.

News from Mulligan Hollow for My Mother in a Memory Care Unit in Waukesha, Wisconsin by Todd Davis

And I could add anything I wanted to continue this cycle of receiving and giving during this isolation of a pandemic. And so I did from the poems and photos I’ve been taking during this pandemic. Here, the swallows I watch along the old gravel pits by the South Platte River.

my contribution: To the Swallow This Spring at the Nest Box

There’s something truly beautiful about artist and writers collaborating to bring some solace and support in a time of sadness for so many. See all the Gatherings beautiful boxes. And go to the Arvada Center to see the inspiring Pink Progressions: Collaborations exhibit of paintings, poetry, sculpture, installations, videos, and performance celebrating the 100th anniversary of the passing of the 19th amendment.


Write On, Colorado

You can read my poem , Waking after Eighteen Hundred Dead, by clicking on this image.

The Colorado Sun is asking all of you, anyone with the capacity and the willingness to commit your thoughts to print, to share your observations of the many aspects of this remarkable period. We’ll publish select pieces periodically — an ongoing time capsule of sorts — as we confront the challenges ahead of us.

Email your work to kevin@coloradosun.com.

Include your name, address, phone number and a photo. They ask you limit submissions to 1,000 words.

NaPoWriMo Triolet: Late Snow on an Easter Morning

Late Snow on an Easter Morning

I am learning the solitude of black tea citrus rinds and licorice roots,
rosy finch, nuthatch and house wren quibbling at the copper feeder I hung just a day ago
before the late frost air drifted through.
I am learning the solitude of black tea citrus rinds and licorice roots,
so I dry dishes at the sink, forget the days’ count since the last pink moon.
The wood stove burns and unquiet sparrows gather in the gathering snow.
I am learning the solitude of black tea citrus rinds and licorice roots,
rosy finch, nuthatch, and house wren quibbling at the copper feeder I hung just a day ago.

http://www.napowrimo.net/

The Poetry of Prose in Creative Nonfiction

Snow in Trees

Finished reading James Agee’s “A Death in the Family.” Been thinking a lot about the “poetry of prose” in creative nonfiction these days.   Not just the lyrical beauty of prose, though it’s hard not to get stuck in a brilliant passage like this, “fiction” as it may be, from Agee as he describes the evening noises of a neighborhood settling down toward sleep, the fathers after dinner hosing down the summer yards:

Meantime from low in the dark, just outside the swaying horizons of the hoses, conveying always grass in the damp of dew and its strong green-black smear of smell, the regular yet spaced noises of the crickets, each a sweet cold silver noise three-noted, like the slipping each time of three matched links of a small chain.

Look at that little piece of figurative language, those links of a silver chain slipping.  Just look and listen.   In a piece I did for Essay Daily on the lyric impulse, about a student who wouldn’t look at her own bricks strewed throughout her essay on building a house, I quoted from the philologist Max Mueller, who said, “man, as he develops his conceptions of immaterial things, must perforce express them in terms of material things because his language lags behind his needs.” What I understood then was that figurative language becomes the vehicle for greater precision of expression; exactitude grows through metaphor, not necessarily through narrative.

I still believe it. Leonard sent me to a stunning essay published in the New York Times, I’m Going to Die. I May as Well Be Cheerful About It, by Mary PipherMy mom is almost 91 and she wants to die, which she tells me every time I see her, so I think a lot about death now.

At the end Pipher’s essay, Pipher suddenly turns to the image of snow, what becomes the profound metaphor of her piece: “All of my life I have loved snow.” She then describes a beautiful memory of her and her family safely ensconced in their home while a Nebraska blizzard raged outside. That memory becomes a spiritual experience, snow outward and inward until death becomes a whiteout.  There is the great precision, the greater exactitude of metaphor:

Snow falls inside and outside of me. It settles my brain and calms my body.

I hope death feels like watching the snow grow thicker and thicker. Doctors call dying of a morphine overdose being “snowed.” I would not mind that at all. I would like to disappear in a whiteout.

As I tried to tell that student of mine so long ago who wouldn’t pick up the gift of the bricks she had given herself for even a moment,  sometimes we have to hold the thing our heart sends us, though unbidden, though not always understood, and let it just be for a little while, filled with mystery and some other kind of better truth.

#writerat9600ft

My newest book, Slow Arrow: Unearthing the Frail Children from Saddle Road Press, available through Amazon, Barnes & Nobles, Powell’s Books, and Indie Bound.

PINKPROGRESSION IN DENVER

A Collaboration of Writers and Artists : the PINKPROGRESSION in Denver

Just over three years ago, a sea of women in protest of the rhetoric and actions that permeated the 2016 election donned their pink pussy hats. They marched arm in arm with citizens of all genders and races in a breathtaking show of solidarity against the walls of misogyny and racism.  This historical march ignited artists and writers across the country to continue the movement in exhibits that showcase “human rights, equality, gender identity, and inclusivity.” 

Well, the PINKPROGRESSION is here, now, in Denver. It honors the fourth anniversary of the Womxn’s March and the centennial anniversary of Women’s Suffrage.  A week ago, Poet Carol Guerreo-Murphy and I, through google docs of all things, put in the last line breaks and the last fusion of images in our series of collaborative poems, Two Women Poets of (Certain) Age: Letters of (  ).

We’ll join over twenty fabulous Colorado artists, poets, and writers in the Poetry + art reading and book launch at theMcNichols 3rd floor gallery, March 14th from 1-3p.m. as part of the PINKPROGRESSION:COALESCE exhibit. The reading will be followed by a writing workshop, A Letter to My Mother, presented by Eriko Tsogo from 3-4 p.m. The book will accompany all 2020 exhibits.  

I know as we wove our poems together, through a surprisingly creative technology, that Carol and I thought about our daughters and our daughters’ daughters and their sons. My friend Monica Fuglei’s little girl, topped in the  pink pussy hat that Monica knitted for her, reminds me of the world of beauty and creativity and acceptance that we can’t just want, but demand for them. I am looking forward to seeing the worlds and visions my fellow artists and writers created in their collaborations.  I hope you will join us.

The PINKPROGRESSION:COALESCE exhibit continues through April at the McNichols Civic Center. PINKPROGRESSION: COLLABORATIONS exhibit, a fusion of narratives and mixed media  opens at the Arvada Center in June through August.  These exhibits include collaborative art exhibits, artist talks, workshops, readings, and book launches. Go to Pink Progression for all the details.