June 2011

This entry is part 10 of 93 in the series Morning Porch Poems: Summer 2011


[see earlier “Three Improvisations” from the Spring Morning Porch series]


Hail raining down on lake water means I have hurt you.

Translation: The burn that makes no noise,
the scarlet inflorescence of the skin.
The moon’s neon sign reads smolder. Why
do you think you hear fire sirens in the valley?
But you don’t move, you stay.


And the leaf was no longer a leaf but a trellis of itself.

Translation: Coming back from a walk
in the woods he spoke of a ribbon of floating green;
of how, going closer, he saw the near-invisible
spider silk, its tether to the canopy. Say lace,
say beautiful flayed skin.


Light is always liminal.

Translation: Spittlebug striped cinnabar and clove,
frothy beard caught in the hollows. Nearby
is beebalm, nearby is sage. Such overdrawn
tenderness we cannot help. We finger each
slick bubble, think we hear the tiny pop.


In response to an entry from the Morning Porch.

This entry is part 5 of 20 in the series Highgate Cemetery Poems


In Loving Memory

The stone idols of our ancestors
lie face-down across the graves
they were made to watch over.
Lips worn whistle-thin
by the corrosive breath of engines
seek relief in the soil, where perhaps
the live wires of nematodes
might revive them, or ivy cover them
with feathers that actually move.

Only a few feet down the crowd awaits,
growing more anonymous by the year.
Perhaps they can reach those winter trees
through dissolution, like stalactites.
They shape the darkness
in their own image: a mask of dirt,
a vessel, a full breast.

Fiona Robyn and Kaspalita on the waterfront at Aberystwyth, Wales
Fiona Robyn and Kaspalita on the waterfront at Aberystwyth, Wales

Brew yourself a nice cuppa and join Fiona Robyn, Kaspalita and me for a conversation about writing, religion, spirituality, science, small stones and more. We met on May 7 in Aberystwyth, Wales; Fiona and Kaspa subsequetly tied the knot on June 18th, and starting on July 1 they will again curate a month-long river of stones, with contributions from around the world.

Fiona Robyn is a novelist, a blogger, a therapist, and a creativity coach. She is very fond of Earl Grey tea and homemade cake. Kaspalita is a Pure Land Buddhist priest, a sometime blogger and is still learning to play the ukulele. Together they are on a mission, they say, to help people connect with the world through writing. In addition to the river of stones (see the aggregator blog) they also host the Writing Our Way Home forum and run e-courses on writing, spirituality and connecting to the world. Fiona has even written an e-book, available as a free download, called How to Write Your Way Home.

Podcast feed | Subscribe in iTunes

Theme music: “Le grand sequoia,” by Innvivo (Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike licence).

This entry is part 8 of 93 in the series Morning Porch Poems: Summer 2011


“Before they call, I will answer.” ~ Isaiah 65: 24

Close to midnight, and it’s raining again.
This hushed: no noisy exchange of crows,
no yellow-billed bickering of cuckoos.

All day I merely counted out, did inventory:
cups of strong coffee, clink of silverware; bread
and butter, pink and white circles of radish

on the dinner plates. Now the rain’s
a flickering curtain, blue-green outside
window glass. On my desk, an old prayer card

where a heart crimson as a globe of fruit
is ringed by thorns, gold-leafed in flame.
Imagine if I took it in my hands,

laid it on the sill or hung it from a branch.
Imagine a ripe fig washed clean by rain,
glistening for the hand that chooses it.


In response to an entry from the Morning Porch.


The small tree known as sassafras (Sassafras albidum) was once one of the most prized plants of North America. In 1565, Francis Drake returned to England with a cargo hold full of sassafras roots, and set off something of a craze for sassafras tea, or saloop. By the next century it had become a major export item, almost equal in value to tobacco. Europeans accepted the claims of most eastern Native American tribes about its effectiveness as an all-purpose medicine and tonic, and that combined with its wonderful taste and aroma — Thoreau called it “the fragrance of lemons and a thousand spices” — eventually guaranteed its place as the root in root beer. John Lawson, an early explorer of the southern Appalachians, wrote in 1709, “Sassafras was a straight, neat little tree… treasured by the Indians for its aromatic roots, from which, when pounded, a potion can be brewed to refresh or cure, according to his needs.”

Early colonists consumed a lot of beer, and it probably didn’t take long before someone got the bright idea of adding sassafras roots to the mix of herbs and spices typically added for flavor and medicinal effect. It might seem strange to think of beer as a health drink, but for many centuries, it was far safer to drink than most available sources of fresh water, being first subjected to a prolonged boil and then made alcoholic. Weak beers were consumed in roughly the same quantities as Americans today drink Coke or Pepsi, but with less serious health risks, since the sugar was all turned into alcohol.

The modern herbalist Stephen Harrod Buhner (Sacred and Herbal Healing Beers, Brewers Publications, 1998) has this to say about brewing with sassafras:

Sassafras was the original herb used in all “root” beers. They were all originally alcoholic, and along with a few other medicinal beers — primarily spruce beers — were considered “diet” drinks, that is, beers with medicinal actions intended for digestion, blood tonic action and antiscorbutic properties. The original “root” beers contained sassafras, wintergreen flavorings (usually from birch sap), and cloves or oil of cloves. Though Rafinesque notes [in 1829] the use of leaves and buds, the root bark is usually used, both traditionally and in contemporary herbal practice.

“Beer” was used loosely to refer to a variety of lightly alcoholic drinks made with whatever sugar was on hand; both the recipes Buhner offers, for example, use molasses instead of malted grain, as does this one I found in The National Farmer’s and Housekeepers Cyclopedia from 1888:

Root Beer.—To make Ottawa root beer, take one ounce each of sassafras, allspice, yellow dock, and wintergreen, half an ounce each of wild cherry bark and coriander, a quarter of an ounce of hops, and three quarts of molasses. Pour boiling water on the ingredients, and let them stand twenty-four hours. Filter the liquor, and add half a pint of yeast, and it will be ready for use in twenty-four hours.

I was excited to see the mention of wild cherry bark — something I had considered using in my own brewing, but hadn’t found any actual mention of until now. I have brewed with all the other substances mentioned, though not all at the same time. (I wasn’t terribly thrilled with the flavor of yellow dock in beer.) But I’m more of a purist than Buhner: I do insist upon using malted grain (or malt extract) as the primary source of sugar, though I will use molasses or honey as adjuncts, in small quantities.

And I feel the early colonists probably made their root beers, spruce beers, and other healthful brews with malt, too, whenever they could. From an early date, many larger farmhouses had their own brewing operations, and taverns brewed beer in every town and village, first with malts imported from Europe, but quite soon from locally grown grain. A 1685 report from William Penn suggests that malt was substituted for molasses as soon as real brewing became practical:

Our Drink has been Beer and Punch, made of Rum and Water: Our Beer was mostly made of Molosses, which well boyld, with Sassafras or Pine infused into it, makes very tollerable drink; but now they make Mault, and Mault Drink begins to be common, especially at the Ordinaries and the Houses of the more substantial People.

In 1750, the Swedish botanist Peter Kalm, interviewing a nonagenarian for his book Travels in North America, learned that the early Swedish colonists of what is now eastern Pennsylvania, Delaware and New Jersey had been “plentifully provided with wheat, rye, barley and oats. The Swedes, at that time, brewed all their beer of malt made of barley, and likewise made good strong beer.” And of sassafras specifically, he wrote, “Some people peel the root, and boil the peel with the beer which they may be brewing, because they believe it wholesome.” He adds: “The peel is put into brandy, either while it is distilling or after it is made.” Nor was ordinary tea neglected: “An old Swede remembered that his mother cured many people of the dropsy by a decoction of the root of sassafras in water drunk every morning.”

Kalm also mentions the preservative and antiseptic properties of sassafras, which must’ve played a role in its popularity as a brewing ingredient as well (hops were far from the only herb understood to help keep beer from going “off”):

Several of the Swedes wash and scour the vessels in which they intend to keep cider, beer or brandy with water in which sassafras root or its peel has been boiled, which they think renders all those liquors more wholesome. Some people have their bedposts made of sassafras wood to repel the bed bugs, for its strong scent, it is said, prevents vermin from settling in them. … In Pennsylvania some people put chips of sassafras into their chests where they keep woolen stuffs, in order to expel the moths which commonly settle in them in summer.

A slightly later (and much more famous) botanist-traveler, William Bartram, mentioned a very different root beer formula from the standard recipe, which makes me wonder how many other sassafras-based concoctions might have been made at one time. Writing about a southern Appalachian plant now known as Bignonia capreolata or crossvine, he wrote, “The country people of Carolina chop these vines to pieces, together with china brier [i.e. Smilax pseudochina] and sassafras roots, and boil them in their beer in the spring, for diet drink, in order to attenuate and purify the blood and juices.”

Lo how the mighty have fallen. Safrole, the active compound in sassafras, has been banned by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration since 1976 as a supposed carcinogen, and as a consequence sassafras may no longer be prescribed by herbalists, though commercial brewers and root beer manufacturers may still use a safrole-free extract. For the homebrewer willing to ignore the FDA’s finding — which even the very conservative Peterson Field Guide to Medicinal Plants and Herbs of Eastern and Central North America rejects as absurd — it’s a matter of locating a thick stand of sassafras on some dry ridgetop and getting permission from the landowner to dig a few roots. The tree grows like a weed, and with its distinctive leaves it’s impossible to mistake for anything else. How will you be able to tell if a given root is sassafras, and not from a neighboring tree? Just scratch and sniff. If it has “the fragrance of lemons and a thousand spices,” you’ve hit pay dirt.

UPDATE (19 Nov. 2014): For a recipe, see Sassafras-Black Birch Beer.

This entry is part 7 of 93 in the series Morning Porch Poems: Summer 2011


The pressure of a wheel turning on soft gravel,
a window sliding open. What sound is made

when something slips away and the hand closes
and opens on nothing but cool air in its wake?

The man stirs in the dark and sees the fog
caught in the treetops, the water beyond

just beginning to catch the light as it rises.
He’s restless, or he’s preoccupied with worry.

It begins to rain but he takes his bike
out of the garage, thinking he might follow

the distant chirping of quarry trucks to their source.
It’s early, and even the dog won’t go. Too early

for the dog; it won’t go, but watches him
pedal away in the rain to try to trace the sounds

that roused him, back to their source— not birdsong
though a restless wingbeat rises in the air, and the light

begins to catch at the edges of water. It passes
like fog through the treetops, through his hair;

it passes like a hand closing and opening. That’s
the heart missing what it wants to hold fast.

Look out the window— flicker of narrow
tires on the road; rain, soft earth, loose stones.


In response to an entry from the Morning Porch.

This entry is part 6 of 93 in the series Morning Porch Poems: Summer 2011


Perhaps because I know how salt
is paired with flame and flame’s a welt

that licks the skin with thorn and bone,
I’ve always loved what knows to fold

the piquant tendril in the sweet—
ginger with anise, torn basil with lemon,

the iron bite of bitter gourds lingering
long after summer berries have left

their juice and stain on fingers, lips.
Reptile-skinned melons blush orange

like daylilies at their core, and the moon’s
poor copper in exchange. Once, I spooned

a tincture of jasmine flowers and my mouth
transformed into an old cathedral

against whose rose-veined marble walls
sheets of candle smoke lifted, swirled.

Once, I slipped thin slices of the carambola
on my love’s tongue, so he could understand

how some stars burn greener in their
passing. Shake the purple rind of the grenadilla,

the yellow globe of the maracuyá— the audible pulse,
the ticking seeds: exquisite sweet, waiting to explode.


In response to an entry from the Morning Porch.

This entry is part 4 of 20 in the series Highgate Cemetery Poems


Her faithful pet

for RR

How does one lay out a dog for burial?
Do it wrong and its ghost will circle
endlessly, unable to lie down.


Live dogs aren’t permitted in the cemetery.
We look for their stone snouts among the angels.


Has anyone considered that dogs may not want us
with them in heaven?
That we would frighten the wolves?


A cemetery is the last refuge of invisible friends.
Here’s someone with a map to celebrity gravesites.


Trees at Highgate need not fear the lifted hind leg.
They go wild, permitted
every extravagance except death.


I write these notes six weeks later
in a silence greater than any in all London,
sitting in the darkness,
trusting my faithful pen to find the way.

This entry is part 5 of 93 in the series Morning Porch Poems: Summer 2011


We drive through neighborhoods to look
at houses leafed in dusk-light, noting which
have corbeled windows and which

have shutters turning to the river,
where the sky has tinted the waters mauve
and wading birds touch the current

lighter than a skimming lure.
Is there a walk edged with green,
leading to a door of beveled glass?

Is there a span of yard
where old leaves on the evening
primroses graze the fluttery

new leaves on the witch hazel?
No one lists these other views:
the curl of chrome around

the refrigerator handle, the tiny
speckled orbs of orange scattered
across kitchen tile. I look

for your image reflected from
the shiny green side of a toaster,
listen for the future echo of footsteps

dancing up from the wooden floor.


In response to an entry from the Morning Porch.