Poetry Blog Digest 2019: Week 23

A personal selection of posts from the Poetry Blogging Network and beyond. Although I tend to quote my favorite bits, please do click through and read the whole posts.

This week found poetry bloggers pondering existential themes: being at home, surviving, healing, cultivating acceptance, dealing with digital ghosts, coming to terms with evil, learning from trees, (not) procrastinating, being whole.


No matter the journey. No matter other roads taken. No matter you misplaced the map of your life behind a wheel of grief. No matter you took a multitude of detours.

Because as you look out the plane window, you understand the agency of this place. How it has been etched in your mind over decades of slow accrual through streams you have fished, forests you have hiked, mountains you have climbed, lakes you have swam in, oceans you have sailed.

And how like its great river that flows to the sea, it also flows through you, and you call it by name—home.

Carey Taylor, Return Flight

It seems to me that all the poets I originally gravitated towards, and whose books I bought were ‘northern’. Or, at the least, not metropolitan. When they weren’t self-evidently ‘northern’ they were ‘regional’; they came with distinct voices that could not be described as RP, and would lose something important if they were read in RP…and I guess that what they would lose would be music, rhythm, texture. I’ve shared the idea with other writers that this poetry was somehow more ‘committed’, less inclined to be ironic, more inclined to wear its heart on its sleeve. I know it’s teetering on the edge of a generalising sentimentality, but I’m trying hard to be honest, to nail some kind of felt truth. One of my northern poet friends opined that ‘metropolitan’ poetry was ‘too cool for school’, that it prided itself in its avoidance of a felt emotional engagement. I don’t know if that’s accurate or fair. But something about it resonates enough for me to want to try to pin down that elusive idea of ‘north’ and ‘northernness’.

Let’s start with ‘accent’, and (predictably) with a quotation from Tony Harrison’s ‘Them and Uz’.

“All poetry (even Cockney Keats?) you see 
‘s been dubbed by [ɅS] into RP, 
Received Pronunciation please believe [ɅS] 
your speech is in the hands of the Receivers”

Harrison spoke for tens of thousands of us who, in the 50’s, were harried for our accents in the Grammar Schools we sat scholarships to get into. It goes deeper than accent…which we can train ourselves to change. It springs from lexis, the words themselves, their resonance, their heft and texture. All the Old English, Germanic, Scandinavian words.

John Foggin, Northwords: Bob Beagrie

It took a long time to get here,
sailing, drifting, 
and dreaming, curled,

homesick 
and world-sick,

so much alike,
the young and the old.

Past lives peeled off like skins,
and I turned and tumbled and traveled

only to find myself 
in front of these closed gates.

Claudia Serea, Young/Old

I started counting the months that we’ve been recovering.  We’re mostly recovered in the big house, except for some of the difficult decisions about what comes back in the house from the cottage.  But the cottage needs serious attention, and I am just so tired.

I’m also thinking of a poem I wrote years ago.  I got the title from a powerful essay by Philip Gerard that appears in one of the very first books about how to teach creative non-fiction.  My poem was written years after after Hurricane Wilma (which wreaked devestation in 2 months after Katrina, just after we had finished up our hurricane Katrina clean-up) when I found myself weeping in the car, flooded by post-hurricane despair, even though the clean-up had been done and regular life mostly restored:

What They Don’t Tell You About Hurricanes

You expected the ache in your lazy
muscles, as you hauled debris
to the curb, day after day.

You expected your insurance
agent to treat
you like a lover spurned.

You expected to curse
your bad luck,
but then feel grateful
when you met someone suffering
an even more devastating loss.

You did not expect
that months, even years afterwards
you would find yourself inexplicably
weeping in your car, parked
in a garage that overlooks
an industrial wasteland.

Kristin Berkey-Abbott, Hurricane Season Begins

I spent almost a whole day going to my hematologist down at the Seattle Cancer Care Alliance. My doctor there I have known for fifteen years. The last time we talked it was when we thought I might be dying of liver cancer, and we talked about safe biopsies and chemo and surgery obstacles. This time I brought her my newest book and we discussed my mild anemia (she’s worried about it, but I’m not) and MS drug risks and pain drugs and pain clinic consultations. I sat in the reclining chairs watching the beautiful Puget sound blue by all the people getting chemo and waiting to get chemo. I wound through the blood lab around patients much worse off than me. It gives you perspective, these kinds of visits. The doctor, which was very unusual, gave me a hug at the end of the appointment. It felt like a blessing, a sort of hopeful encouragement. I walked out into the rainy early evening, feeling the ghost of my previous experiences, of the fear of death, and the gratefulness of feeling alive.

Jeannine Hall Gailey, Poems Up at WordGathering, Woodinville Wine Country, and a Day at Seattle Cancer Care Alliance

I walked up to Renshin afterward and said: I have a problem with this idea. There is a similar concept in Byron Katie, that you can’t argue with life because it’s perfect exactly as it is. And it shows up in all kinds of Zen books. It makes a certain kind of sense, and it does help in achieving a certain level of equanimity. But it’s one thing for me to apply that insight to my own life, another thing entirely to tell someone else that.

Ah, but you’re making a big jump there, Renshin said. Who said anything about telling someone else what to do or what to think?

And then she added: Watch out for that first step – it’s a doozy.

I was briefly stunned. She had in fact identified something about the way my particular mind works, and showed it to me in a few seconds of casual conversation. All I could think to do was bow.

Later, as I was leaving, I was sort of backing out the front door of the church while saying goodbye to a few people in the breezeway. And I almost fell over because there was a step down from the door – a tiny little step.

stumbling ::
the gap between the sky
and the ground

D. F. Tweney, Watch out for that first step

So how can I react to these digital ghosts and the griefs they awaken: online reminders of my wedding, or of my mother who has died, or of friendships that evaporated or hopes that didn’t come to pass? The only answer I have is to feel whatever I feel — the sorrow, the wistfulness, the regret — and to thank my heart for its capacity to feel both the bitter and the sweet.

And I can choose to be real, even in digital spaces. Even when what’s real is a hurt or an ache, a memory or a sorrow. Because I think being real with ourselves and one another is what we’re here for in this life. Because I think spiritual life asks our authenticity. Because life is too short for pretense. Because being real comes with its own blessings, its own reward.

Rachel Barenblat, Fragments: digital ghosts, gratitude, and grief

Here is what I want you to know about the silence, still as death and colder: it moved from you to me, see, here in this bonecage gone titanium, this immune system propped by goblin armies:
 
couplets emerge from scar, relentlessly enjambed. This body is a verse form dealing with both loss and love, but choked by anaphylaxis there is no scheme. The poet’s moniker appears at the end.
 
Once I took you all the way in, once I choked. They are peculiar twins, vulnerability and memory: I am made and remade as neural network linking like things, a synesthesia.

JJS, June 4, 2019: Ghazalish, The Flood

John Sibley Williams’ As One Fire Consumes Another presents a familiar world full of burnings carried out on both the grand and intimate scale. I love the way the newspaper-like columns of prose poetry in his work provide a social critique of violence in American culture while working within the boundaries of self, family, and the natural world. The book permeates an apocalyptic tension, but what makes it so great is the way in which his poems envision the kind of fires that not only provide destruction but also illuminate a spark of hope.  And I also interviewed Williams about his book, which will be coming out on NBP podcast soon (seems like most of my poetry reading is focused around my podcasting work these days).  

Andrea Blythe, Culture Consumption: May 2019

There was a rash of gang shootings in Seattle over the last month, and my precious, gentle friend and co-worker recently saw the fresh body of a seventeen-year-old kid shot to death, bleeding out on the sidewalk at the hospital campus she works at. I didn’t realize the extent of her trauma until a recent get-together with my colleagues from my hospital’s other campuses. My co-worker is someone who I would consider a classic “good person,” a warm, kind human being who is probably a little too trusting. Part of her trauma came from the shock of seeing true evil at play. 

I am coming to realize that it’s been been a luxury for me to go through life believing that people are essentially good. We hear about horrible things happening all of the time, but until we come face to face with them, they remain more or less theoretical. We can’t really process that human beings have darkness and savagery within them until we see something like that. And because we don’t see it in other people, it’s very hard to see it in ourselves. And that’s the really dangerous part. In trying to process this local tragedy, I spent the morning listening to a podcast about the much bigger and far more atrocious My Lai massacre. It drove home to me how important it is to not get complacent about our own potential for evil. Believing that humanity is essentially good is dangerous and foolish. We have to face the truth of who we are as human beings and be vigilant, or we will fall to prey to savagery, violence and acts of inhumanity, no matter how “good” we convince ourselves we are. 

Kristen McHenry, Good People, Dark Places

A great deal of thought and planning had gone into the manner of the preservation of Bergen-Belsen. The absence of any of the accommodation huts, the vehicle parks, the workshops, the guards’ quarters, the administrative buildings that had once filled the grim estate and the restitution of the heathland and copses that had gone under their foundations creates a powerfully moving sense of a territory both haunted by the unendurable horrors of the past and yet now salved and dignified by nature. It’s an extraordinary place – an eloquent testimony both to utter destruction and tenacious survival. I shall never forget our quiet, slow day amongst the harebells and the graves.

ARTEFACTS

There is the heaped equality
of spectacles, the comfort
of linked arms –
wire, gold and tortoiseshell,
the white opacity
of the tilted lens.

There is the kicking scramble
of empty shoes, piled
like bean pods, shelled
of movement, scuffed and dusty
from the longest walk
in the world.

There is the hollow clothing,
the empty-handed gloves,
the headless hats and cap,
the hanks of hair, bagged,
sprung teeth in boxes,
stamped and labelled.

Bones we know;
we scrambled up and out
of the millennium
on bones.  These clothes,
these artefacts endure,
undiminished, unconsumed.

Dick Jones, BERGEN-BELSEN

I’ve been thinking about trees because I’m reading Peter Wohlleben’s 2016 book The Hidden Life of Trees. The text reads like a friendly forester inviting readers to learn what he loves about trees and their encounters with us, with the environment (soil, air, sun, water, pollutants, pests, fungi), and with one another. I have to say I remain somewhat skeptical about the scientific veracity of his source material, but I do enjoy his warm enthusiasm for his subjects and his reminders that we humans don’t know even the smallest fraction of what goes on in the planet’s interconnected and unplumbed depths.

Although some critics object to what they see as too much anthropomorphism in Wohllebehn’s book, his use of the analogy of the human and the tree “bodies” makes his information about how trees and forests work easy to grasp.

For science nerds, there are other texts. The Hidden Life of Trees is meant to make the less scientifically-inclined reader more aware of his or her environment, to convince the average human being to consider plant life more consciously.

~

I take many photos of trees; and they appear in my poems pretty regularly, not as main characters but in supporting roles–not symbolic, but actual. Wohllebehn’s book may influence my work somehow…possible inspiration? But then, the trees themselves, especially the oldest ones, are inspiration enough.

Ann E. Michael, Trees

This is a beautiful and gentle book.  It does not claim to be poetry, but it is written by a poet and it begins with a powerful image, comparing the children of a large family to pansies, which “are a persistent breed.  They take to the same soil, year after year.”  If you didn’t read the back of the book it would take you until the third of these finely crafted vignettes to find out what is going on; this is the story of a compassionate woman who needs a babysitter and ends up learning about a sub-culture very different from her own.  The young woman she hires teaches her bit by bit about another way of living, of understanding one’s place in the world.

Young people, who only hear bad stories about different peoples, such as Muslims or unwanted immigrants, should read this book.  So should those who are older and weary of bad news.  The writing is concise, elegant, and honest about the narrator’s mistakes and misunderstandings, as well as about the limits to the relationship.

No, these are not prose poems, but they are close cousins.  I will share it with my poetry group and I expect that they will like it as well as I do.

Ellen Roberts Young, Recommendation: Pansies by Carol Barrett

When we were in our first years of library programming endeavors, people often wondered how we had so many ideas.  For workshops, for panels, for focus topics.  What I didn’t share were the back burners, or the ones that were a little too costly or the effort vs result ratio was poor.  I have suggestions for workshop ideas in my notebook that have been there for 3 or more years that I’m still hoping to make happen down the line. And maybe they’ll happen, or maybe they’ll get pushed out of the way by newer, better ideas.

In my notebook, there is a page full of tiny post-its for art projects, another with writing projects.   Another with anthology projects and other press doings.  Another with crafty things I’d like to make for the shop.  This is all in addition to the half finished things–like unusual creatures, postcards from the blue swallow, the mermaid anthology, swim. They stand like a weight in my other hand while the things I do finish or see to the end balance in the other.  I try not to let them get too out of whack, otherwise I flounder about feeling like I never finish anything I’ve started.  But I remind myself I do.  Just not those particular  things.

Kristy Bowen, on ideas, and too many of them

This also made me remember something that happened in (or to) my writing life many years ago. My daughters were young, I had my first full-time teaching job, and I told a writing friend that I would write…later. I may have said that maybe I wouldn’t ever get back to writing. In any case, I gave the clear impression that despite an MFA in poetry and all my huge writing goals, which my friend knew all about, I was going to put off writing.

She wrote me a letter — old school, sat down and wrote it in long-hand and mailed it to me (of course, that happened more often back then, but we did have email). She said something like this:

No one cares if you write. The world is not going to come and pound on your door and insist that you write. No one will miss it if you don’t write. They won’t even know. Meanwhile, life will unfold. You’ll get older. You’ll get farther and farther from your writing dreams. Eventually you’ll say to your grandchildren, “I used to write.” But your grandchildren won’t especially care either. It makes no difference whether you write or not. EXCEPT TO YOU. A place inside YOU will dry up and never be expressed if you don’t write. YOU will miss it. YOU will care. The only way to keep your writing alive, to keep this important part of yourself alive, is to write.

I probably have this letter somewhere. I should have framed it. I took it seriously (even though it was like that small, inner voice that I so often don’t heed). And I kept writing. Often, I didn’t have much time; I had little kids for a lot of years; I had a teaching career; I had teenagers and a mother who was ill. Nonetheless, I made a little time every day and I wrote. Some days the little bit of time turned into enough time.

And it has mattered. It has mattered to me. Writing has sustained me and saved me and even made things like parenting and teaching richer and more enjoyable. I am glad that I kept writing.

Bethany Reid, Procrastination Kills

A hot day. That’s OK. If I hated the heat I wouldn’t love the Sacramento Valley like I do. I like a hot, dry summer and a cool, wet winter. 

There’s a lot going on. There’s my two on-going poetry reading series. There’s the events I attend as poet laureate, another one tomorrow. I am giving a reading in Sacramento this coming Monday. The homeless shelter where I volunteer as a board member is always active. My church is always active. My wife and I are part of an extended family group that I love very much. And then there’s all the chores that I put off. Never put off for tomorrow the procrastination you can do today.

And I love all those things. But what do I love best? Simply being. I meditate twice a day, write poems, wander around town. There’s a park right across the street from my house. I can watch the light changing against the huge pine trees as the hours pass. There’s an owl – at least one. At night, when it’s cool I like to go out there and listen for the owl. 2 AM, 3 AM, just whenever I happen to wake up. I see what the clouds and the moon are up to. Then I go back to bed.

And you?

James Lee Jobe, Journal Update – 04 June 2019

That Poem You Wrote

             is only half of something unsaid
hold it                next to the mirror
             so that it looks                 whole

do you look whole?      how

             can you tell?

Romana Iorga, That Poem You Wrote

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