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