I found I had more on my worry list than could fit into the days I have before I travel. And so I have delayed my trip and am spending a few vacation days at home instead. However I spend it, hopefully two weeks away from work will be enough time to clear my head of the huge chunk that work occupies, and perhaps, think a bit about what’s next. I expect to retire at 70, now 18 months away. Of course, if I’m well enough (so far, so good on that front), I won’t really leave work I’ve loved for the past 40 years completely behind me, just cut my work hours down to suit my schedule, instead of the other way around. I’ll transition my primary allegiance from nurse practitioner to poet.
I will travel next week to the Jersey shore, as I do every year, to spend delicious, relaxing time with family. As a new citizen of the Pacific NW, I have learned to feel at home with a different coast and ocean than the one I grew up with. But a year without gazing at the Atlantic from a familiar spot on the Eastern seaboard would be devastating for me.
And during the stay-cation portion, I look forward to several poetry-related tasks: a book review for The Rumpus; reading a manuscript for my press; feedback on poems from a friend.
And hopefully, some revision work on my current manuscript. Right now I have about 60 poems I am working with, and I have some tickling ideas about how to strengthen these poems. Something I haven’t done much before is using space on the page differently than same-old left-margin stanzas. I’m having no luck placing these poems, perhaps they are not “quite there” as one journal put it. But more and more, I think they just need to be read as a collection, in conversation with one another. They are also the most personal poems I have written.
The burden of submission-and-rejection is too much for me right now. So I may publish more of them here in my blog.
I couldn’t have reached this place without kinship
couldn’t have been born without my mother
or my father, for that matter, or become who I am
without my brother or the sister who died at her birth
eight years before mine, now an archetype
much grander than I can ever become
without so much as a whimper.
Or the cousin my aunt gave away (not exactly thoughtlessly)
without knowing the effect
it would have on her in-wedlock children
two born before
and one after
the affair. Or for that matter, the effect of her untimely death
on all of us, god forbid what happened to her daughters in foster care.
And to peripheral me who was ignorant
of the born-dead girl and the give-away boy.
As sordidly do I blemish others—
lost custody of my own son, letting go mournfully
like any mother
so much so that most of my story
are the pieces I did not know.
Why my son: He is really not a part of this blog, but I will be seeing him soon, so he is much on my mind.
About summer sun: She is shining in Sequim and all over the Pacific NW, and it’s hilarious that after barely a month, people who have lived here much longer than I have are complaining about the heat, when it’s 80 degrees and the rest of the country is sweltering and burning. I am bathing in light and warmth and a little sad because the days are already getting shorter.
What I mourn: All the same things. And a few new ones, it seems, every week.
My news: I’m getting a new kitty, named Bosie (after Oscar Wilde’s lover- who was kind of a jerk). I’m fond of the name so probably won’t change it, despite my already-cat named Bo. I’ve considered variations: Boise, Boychick, Oh-boy. Making strategic plans to avoid cat fights.
What I’m reading: an advance review copy of “The Final Voicemails” (Max Ritvo) and “Birds of the Pacific Northwest”.
What I’m writing: I’m working on a new poetry manuscript titled “why I hate to cry”. I’m also dusting off a novel and made a commitment to attend a workshop next spring to work on it.
What I’m submitting: Poems to impossible journals- so I can reach 100 rejections before the end of the year.
A poem this blog reminds me of even though it is summer:
Mean distance from the sun, mid-winter, Northern hemisphere I lie fallow in my seventh decade: 91 million miles from an imploding fireball beheld as light that raced eight minutes to reach my eyes and has mercifully allowed me the miracle of another breakfast. (Two shiny eggs smothered in salsa atop a tortilla; pined for in preparation; fleeting as an orgasm.) I sit at a table three thousand miles from the Florida coast: a knife, a fork grasped firmly in two hands and cut myself into pieces small enough for a child to swallow. Nothing is simple. Not our distance from the sun nor my distance from my son. from "Mean Distance From the Sun" (Aldrich Press, 2013)
I spent the past 6 days going to a morning poetry workshop at the Port Townsend Writers Conference with a group of 12 poets, led by Ilya Kaminsky. If you are a poet and you’ve never met, or work-shopped with Ilya, I urge you to do so if you can. He is the most generous, funny, creative and insightful of the many wonderful poets I have work-shopped with at PTWC (and elsewhere) over the past 10 years, each of them delightful in their own way. How Ilya stands out is for his process, his ability to converse with poetry, his teaching savvy, his inventiveness in overcoming any barriers to getting the poem written. And his generosity, especially. He spent his lunch hours holding in-depth individual conferences with each of us.
I’ve been in a “poetry cloud” for the past week, and need to return to earth. Return to hospice visits, clinic work, volunteering, and the general decline of civilization. Spending time with poets this week reminds me that there is kindness, generosity, and creativity in this world, and that our work does matter.
here are some small 3-liners from a workshop exercise
The only difference between sex and death is sex. Gather materials: seaweed from a mermaid's hair corn husks from a pig's mouth A small problem: getting from nowhere to here Poem, I love you but why work my ass so hard when what I long for is a soft landing my life is the size of a small cabin in the woods composed of decades I only remember riding my bike in the rain, along empty streets preparing for the grief to come As if I came to the Pacific ocean having known nothing of water but rivers We used to have so many suns but every time a species goes extinct another one burns out I watched you crumble your body unsteady and compressed your enlarging spleen and those cigarettes
I’ve been slowly and painfully reading Claudia Castro Luna’s stunningly beautiful book, Killing Marias (Two Sylvias Press, 2017), in which she celebrates in elegiac poems the “disappeared women” of Juarez, Mexico. Of course, these stories portray the same conditions that women in Central America continue to confront, conditions in no small part fostered by US policies. The added insult however, is that now families are being torn apart at US borders.
This morning I looked for my copy of To Bedlam and Part Way Back, Anne Sexton’s first book of poems, published in the early 60’s, which reflects on her first psychiatric hospitalization, an event that separated her from her young daughter. I didn’t find the book, not surprising, having moved so many times since it was placed in my hands by a friend who saw the suicide in me, back in the seventies, while I was trying to make sense of having lost contact with my son. I had already swallowed Plath’s The Bell Jar whole, and was identifying more with feeling like I was crazy, less with how power and abuse were shaping my life, and just on the verge of reading/writing poems myself. I held on to the Sexton book at least long enough to remember these lines:
I could not get you back except for weekends.
My son was kidnapped by his father when he was four; afterwards, the legal sham of a custody war dragged on for over a year. I don’t speak about losing custody of my son often or easily; the experience was too awful and left me with unremitting feelings of shame and helplessness. I identified with Sexton when I read those lines, my own poetic line for my relationship with my son was briefly, in summers.
And I think I know something of how the mothers feel, the ones whose children were snatched from their arms as they showed up seeking asylum at US borders. I can imagine how terrified these children must be, taken from parental arms. The idea that some of these mothers (and yes, fathers too) were deported without their children, that others will possibly never be united, is so unbearable. It’s been difficult to look at how close to home this has hit me. I speak for myself when I say such trauma leaves a lifelong imprint, one that never fully resolves; even as I pray for mother/child reunions and empathetic welcoming of immigrants seeking asylum.
The whole year my son was seven, when it was time to say goodbye, we both tried not to cry. “Goodbye, I’ll never see you again,” is all he said every time he went back to his dad.
Twenty Years of Dead
—for Jon (1956-1993)
There’s not a lot of love that isn’t brutal, but we
had our East Village dives that didn’t open for Sunday
liquid-brunch until 1 pm and Monday nights at the G&L
community center where all the boys were cruising and
you hung out with me anyway, and
your pâté, your miraculous leg of lamb, your
hundred layers of filo, and
your ten plagues, the infusions that didn’t kill
the germ that killed you, and how
after I met your parents, and
after I found the shoebox of postcards of martyred Saints
and slush pile of short stories you wrote in college,
I read your journals.
I should never have read your journals.
Your love was hilarious
and full of grand gestures and
caution tossed, and
Christ how we could talk smart and fast like 2 Jews do,
I could meet up with you after an AA meeting, count
on you to say good god girl, you need a drink, because
you knew you were going to die and you could say
things so brainsick as after I die, I want you to burn
my body in the street and eat my flesh.
My day is permeated with a vague sort of sadness, making it difficult to want to post a Sunday blog. What to do with sadness? With the sense that needed words will not come or won’t be enough? Only the pull of being a part of the Poetry Bloggers Revival Tour, and Dave Bonta’s generous weekly postings of a digest of poets’ blogs, has given me the impetus (and by this I mean grace) to push into it.
Yesterday was “Poets in the Park” day at Anderson Park in Redmond, Washington. I’ve attended this event for the past 3 or so years, and it’s always a sunny day full of poets, music, running into new and familiar faces, and ice cream. I appreciate the enormous effort that goes into planning and pulling off this event, and grateful to live in a community where poetry is celebrated.
I was totally captivated during the presentation by our state Poet Laureate, Claudia Castro Luna, whose heartbreaking reading sent me searching for tissue. She framed her topic around children, reading poems about her own children, reminding us that we each harbor a child within, then reading from her book, Killing Marias (Two Sylvias Press, 2017), in which each poem is addressed to a woman named Maria who has disappeared or been murdered in Juarez, Mexico. While she read about other children and women in other places and other times, it was impossible to not feel a connection between her words and the despair surrounding the wrenching separation of children from their parents being perpetrated by our government in the present moment.
I crossed the water there and back on the ferry, usually a joyful part of travel, instead I found myself thinking about isolation and being cut off from the metaphoric mainland. Words often fail me when I am sad, but this morning I am grateful for the abundance of political poetry, truly great poetry, that is being written and published today. I think of these poems by Castro-Luna, but also of Terrance Hayes’ Sonnets, and so, so many others. So many poets trying to raise a house together. So grateful to be a small part of that.
At the publication of Empty Clip, this is how Emilia Phillips, introduced it on her twitter feed:
This is my “book of fears”
It is true there is much fear in these poems–molestation, animal murder, hotel fights, campus shooters, prior tenant on the lam, suicide, self-inflicted gunshot wounds, and on and on, poem after poem of frightful situations and the poet’s responses captured in pristine time capsules. So stomach up, because the rewards here are large. Phillips has developed, in this book, the uncanny ability to put the reader right into the scene of the poem, through exposing meticulous authentic details accompanied by pinpoint emotional responses. You feel these poems as much as read them.
While reading, I highlighted a number of phrases–way too many to share here– that struck me as prophetic. A warning. What can happen. What does happen. What has happened. What might happen again at any moment.
Lie down, said the grass to the sky. the same stiff casualness of someone pretending they’re not on guard another girl in the class said, “Girls get raped all the time here I don’t know why this time was so special.” back when I was looking down the barrel of days of grief how the bullet grooved clean into the skin below her clavicle. A button hole a baby’s mouth.
So yes, there is pain, distress, frightful memories. You already know about that, even if you haven’t been as close to the barrel of a gun as Phillips has. This happened. Face it with me. Feel it with me. And so, make it bearable or at least help me to resist.
But. Then. There is the lyricism– the translation of facts into emotions into lyrics, a skill Phillips is expert at. This is the balm of language that demonstrates how horrifying experiences can be digested, how poetic sense can be made of of terror.
I watched instead the tree in your parents’ yard sway,turning out its leaves like wrists in the way we say water is blue, although it has no color it knows me like tomorrow does. that a need lives in lack’s because. We will never forgive one another for being human
But it is clear in these pages that we do forgive one another for being human because there is no choice if we wish to live. “Empty Clip” discharges the “Hollow Point” of life, by looking twice, by using a “Split Screen”. These are the section titles of the book warning us that there is always a bullet with our name on it and we must push forward anyway.
The lore on the Olympic Peninsula is that Summer starts on July 4th. It seems uncannily true. We have all day sun pretty consistently from the 4th through some time in September. Until then, during what we call Spring, we have amazing arrays of cloudy days, drizzle, and rolling fog. We’ll still have fog roll in on many summer mornings, which is why I post the rare gorgeous sunrises when they are offered, if I’m awake around 5 AM, which I usually am.
And, like the R.L. Stevenson poem,
In summer, quite the other way, I have to go to bed by day.
I’m from the East Coast, most people I meet out here aren’t surprised to learn that about me. But like many others, I’ve learned to love the Pacific Northwest. I may even have become a PNW poet.
When I'm not thinking about you, I learn the names of trees I've learned to tell the fir from the yew; the silver from the red cedar. At sunrise, there is a thin glint of light northeastward where I await Mt Baker's frozen specter careening over Discovery Bay. The lamps of Port Townsend blink; strands of fog hang over fields. Peckish deer nibble dandelions. I spare my lawn for their graze. The squirrels, miniature and rust-bellied, easily reach the hanging bird seed. I don't try to learn bird calls, they come to feed and that's enough. There are rumors of big cats. I've seen two elk— one stared through me as if she knew my secrets, the other, roadkill. You once told me my poems are too grim and I should try my hand at something more pastoral. I've seen powdered snow on Cedars, and I've grown passably fond of rain. Everyday, the clouds amaze.