Are You Enjoying Spring?

You know it. Especially when the days fill with the flowers of my youth. Not the gasping-against-the-elements little bulb tulips that the hungry deer are waiting for. I like the wild, weedier, more indigenous flowers that blossom maybe from the selfsame plants of my youth, or their offspring. And are fragrant in a way that is missing in so many otherwise beautiful gardens. 

It’s the smells I like. Walking along and unawares, them surprising you. Slightly past now, the season of lilies of the valley, closely followed by lilacs, both of which formed the core of my May Mary bouquets. How pleased I’d be to plunk a bunch of them in front of the ceramic statue in my bedroom. Then the peonies, which I can never see or smell without remembering the ants crawling in and out of the blossoms around my grandmother’s foundation. And my grandmother. Next come the wild bridal wreath spirea…and their sweet, sweet breath.

Which will soon be gone. Because much as I love flowers, it’s their transitoriness that haunts me. Not exactly an original thought, this over-used trope in English poetry, and probably most other poetic traditions. The Bible got there first. Think of the Psalmist singing, the life of mortals is like grass, they flourish like a flower of the field; the wind blows over it and it is gone, and its place remembers it no more (Psalm 103. 15-16). The brief bloom time of the most long-lived flower is, without a doubt, the perfect metaphor for any human life.

So when your dear, dear friend brings you a flowering plant on the same day she is sharing dire medical news, you know this is the season of watching and waiting. You don’t know how it will end, either her life or the necessary poem whose lines are thrumming in your head for months, until the day of her funeral. When saying goodbye, the assembled mourners take their leave and a flower to remember her by. Then you know, and it is not Thy will be done, o Lord

The resulting poem, “When Blooms Are Brief, and Friends, One Fewer,” has been published in the recent (2018) issue of Presence: A Journal of Catholic Poetry. After it was accepted, I asked the editor, Mary Ann Miller, if she thought the poem would be stronger if we removed the last stanza, which embodied the rookie last stanza error, hammering home the point of the poem in one loud summary statement. Yes, she agreed, let’s end on an image. So we did, and the poem is the better for it.

But I still want to shout out the last stanza for Lisa, and for everyone in my life, and everyone in your life, who has died too young.

To stand up on behalf
of the living and dead, bawl no, 
neit, não, nein, yo no tengo. No!

Are the Old Ways Passing?

In many ways, yes. Granted, the problems (might or will- take your pick) always be with us, to paraphrase Jesus, in John’s Gospel. Perennial problems of freedom, justice, equality. Over the centuries, individual cultures approach these universal biggies in the language and images of their particular time and place. Not to belabor the obvious, but cultures change, and ours has changed mightily in my lifetime. 

As I’ve said here previously, I think in categories I learned decades ago, while my mind was eager and impressionable. These categories stuck because they made sense to me at the time (they were certainly better than anything else I’d heard) and because in subsequent reading, I sought out writers who think using similar terminology. A rarer and rarer breed. 

I’m not complaining. Really. If I casually inject a classical allusion into a poem, especially one which, to my mind, works on multiple levels, I must be willing to live without the readers who feel shut out of that poem. It’s a big world with lots of readers and lots of writers. Fine. The only lesson to be drawn is that with the erosion of mythological, historical, Western Civ-type allusions and their ability to blast open huge philosophical and age-old moral quandaries, political poetry has lost a major tool.

Preaching over. Now, a what-on-earth-are-you-talking-about example. My gratitude to Lori Desrosiers, editor of Naugatuck River Review, for recently publishing “Take with a Grain of Salt— cum grano salis.” Lori does an outstanding job curating narrative poems, many of which begin in a moment, of equal narratable and surreal potential. 

For example, on a recent visit, my dear sister-in-law Kathy (wife of Phil Casey of Scuppernongaree fame—Like them on Facebook) asked a simple-on-the-face-of-it question, where did I keep my salt. Since the dedicated salt cellar location in my kitchen had not yet been established, this question set the universe spinning. On a bad day, I’d berate myself, “What kind of an idiot doesn’t know where her salt belongs?” On a good day, I’d quickly pronounce, “Here,” and point to any old vacant spot. But on a truly excellent day, I’d take a mental sidetrip and realize how incredibly interesting and multi-layered a question that was—and how telling that yet another domestic event led to questioning morality in the public sphere. 

Take with a Grain of Salt
    cum grano salis

After frying her morning egg
the Turkish way—rolled cigar-like,
my sister-in-law cleans my counter,

Where do you keep your salt? 
Oh, I answer, stick it anywhere.
My mother kept her salt

next to the cinnamon she’d mix
with sugar for special-day toast,
far in front of the summer salad

paprika. My grandmother kept
hers on the counter, next to the gas
stove where she browned Sunday’s 

pot roast. I don’t know if my great-
grandmother had a special place for salt, 
but according to all accounts, 

she herself was salt of the earth. 
I have one daughter whose salt
never wanders and another whose

salt floats free.  Women in our family
are worth their salt in the kitchen. 
Roman soldiers were paid in salt

from which we get salary, necessary
perks and lucre. None of the above for
Cincinnatus. Our George Washington 

thinks that’s cool. Back to the farm after war. 
No, to power, to dictatorship. No to salt, 
not even to rub in an enemy’s wounds. 

 

Does "A Rose Is a Rose" Ever Bloom?

For June Cotner, who has edited over 30 anthologies of inspirational prose and poetry, the answer is yes. In her latest, Earth’s Blessings: Prayers, Poems and Meditations, published by Viva Press, she chose “pieces that authentically speak to the earth and to the intricate ties that bind us to it.” Three of my poems, “Doxology,” “Go Ahead,” and “Says Mother Earth,” are included, and in the foreword material, June graciously mentions me and several other poets whose work has appeared in her previous anthologies: “we go back for two decades!” How sweet is that!

And how sentimental! William S. Burroughs purportedly said, “In deep sadness, there is no place for sentimentality.” While I’d consider myself deeply sad about climate risks, I must not have hit bottom. I must still be hoping for significant reversals in current trends or for climate change deniers to be vindicated after all. In fact, I’m full-out in favor of bringing sentiment to bear on the topic. 

Haven’t we all had some of our best moments in nature, unbidden? Not an orchestrated moment, but a sudden feeling of intense presence. A surrealness to the real. Awareness of existence extending beyond our petty concerns. These moments, remembered and cherished, can continue to guide us.


Go Ahead

Imagine a baby, mother and father.
Have them sit together on a bench
in dappled sunlight, or lie, playing
on a blanket. Let them hear birdsong.
Let them breathe loamy earth,
the wafting scent of pine.
The day is coming to an end.

Don’t discard the sentimental
image. It won’t hurt you.
It may even cast its lightness
on you. Befriend beauty
and innocence and simplicity. 
We owe it to ourselves; 
we owe it to that baby.

 (from Earth’s Blessings: Prayers, Poems and Meditations)


    

How Much Surprise Can One Poem Deliver?

Epiphany

It was Einstein who said
either nothing is a miracle,
or everything is -
a jagged mountain range,
lilacs in bloom,
a peacock unfurled,
sun on your arm,
the touch of a stranger.

Take your pick: be surprised
by nothing at all,
or by everything that is.

I wrote this poem in one sitting. One existential freaked-out sitting, during which I purposely tried to induce a state of derealization. It was January 1997, and we were flying from JFK airport to Athens, Greece. Not my first trans-Atlantic flight, but potentially my last, given the way my breathing was accelerating and my projectile fantasies were working against me. 

I was surprised, of course, to be going to Greece, surprised to be in a metal can high above the earth, surprised at the way my life was turning out, surprised to feel a blessed fugue state coming on, surprised at the visceral joy of odors and sights recollected, surprised at the strangeness of sharing the experience with a stranger on one side, my husband on the other. 

I was surprised to have this poem immediately accepted by June Cotner for one of her early collections, Bedside Prayers. Surprised to see it reprinted numerous times, in Bless the Day, Serenity Prayers both edited by June Cotner, Simple Joys by SPS Studios, to name a few. Surprised to see it posted and then discussed on other people’s blogs. Surprised to see that the North Carolina state legislature used it as the opening prayer on September 3, 2002. Surprised to see that the poem is sometimes quoted in its entirety on sites without attribution.

Finding myself on the Internet still surprises me. Which is an improvement. It used to shock me. In truth, I have been much more of a consumer than a producer in the lively online poetry world. I am truly grateful for the unparalleled access to so many people’s work and think it’s now time that I contribute more. Of all the surprises mentioned above, this one surprises me most of all.