Friday, September 28, 2007


Do you ever read a poem and then, while you're appreciating its resonance, realize that it's not quite hitting the spot—for you? Do you ever want to reply?

A couple of years I had this reaction and wrote a poem. Yesterday, I read a beautiful poem on the Poetry Daily website, "The Continuous Life" by Mark Strand, and I had the same experience.

Here, for what it's worth, is the draft I came up with.

After the Blackberry Season

In the purple light of dusk, where children hide
under lilacs long gone to seed
and watch the grown men and women
on the porch, or in the yellow kitchen, slowly
surrender themselves to the end of the day,
the sound of ice in a glass of tea or gin
and maybe guitars on someone's radio.
Teach your children that lives
wind long, and as much as you don't want to leave
the house, the yard, as much as you've grown to love home,
some days are too short for chores, that the sun will set
a little later each evening and then a little earlier,
that this darkness is only
one of many small leaps and leanings
until night comes finally. Let the mop and the broom
rest in their corner. The cooking and cleaning can wait
at least for this just now, when a rustle of leaves
means it might be time to come in, when conversation
hums with the pleasure of settling still
and watching the shadows deepen
until they can't be seen anymore
and the stars, and the stars

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

A trip to the Japanese Garden

Yesterday, I was fortunate enough to go on a guided tour of the Japanese garden in the Arboretum. It wasn't so much about what I tend to think of as gardening (soil, water, and light requirements), but more about the history Japanese gardens, the convergence of Shinto and Zen philosophies. Fascinating.

During the tour, we learned that the elements of a Japanese garden are supposed to teach you and remind you how to live your life. Here is what we found out about the elements and the qualities that they signify.

Bamboo: Long-lived, flexible, and hollow (an empty heart)
Rocks: Persistent
Pine: Evergreen (not fleeting) and patient
Japanese Maple: Graceful
Moss: Primitive, rootless (not too attached), and able to survive wherever the wind blows it.

These are the ways you need to live to live a long life.

My question: Which plant signifies a sense of humor?

Photos by Traci Tabordon. Thanks, Traci!

Monday, September 24, 2007

Memorizing Frank

Did you try memorizing the poem by Edna St. Vincent Millay?

I found it to be the easiest of the three poems so far, maybe because the voice is more contemporary. Or maybe because I was so taken by the use of "prank" as a verb in the first line.

What I'm finding difficult: retaining my memory of the previous weeks' poems. They seem to slip away as soon as I start a new one.

This week's poem is by Frank O'Hara, chosen especially for its last three lines. You can find more work by Frank O'Hara at


Have you forgotten what we were like then

when we were still first rate
and the day came fat with an apple in its mouth

it's no use worrying about Time
but we did have a few tricks up our sleeves
and turned some sharp corners

the whole pasture looked like our meal
we didn't need speedometers
we could manage cocktails out of ice and water

I wouldn't want to be faster
or greener than now if you were with me O you
were the best of all my days

—Frank O'Hara

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Sound on the sofa

It has taken three computers (one of which no longer has sound) and two microphones, but I've added a few readings to

Only four so far, and the files are huge. Seriously: After you click the link, feel free to go get a cup of coffee. The recordings are—let's just say they are clearly not professional. But it's an experiment. I hope to learn more and get better.

Someone had suggested creating podcasts, but I decided that I wasn't quite there yet. Maybe when I get a better idea of what a podcast is. That would help.

Now I need to get back to work on my sonnet, which needs a lot of work.

Thursday, September 20, 2007


My daughter has an assignment to find song lyrics that describe who she is, so we are now listening to as much of her iPod as will fit in one evening. The assignment reminded me of a poem that I wrote for her years ago. I read it to her tonight.

A Love Poem

She, my soliloquy,
anomaly, chips at packed earth
with a dull trowel discovered
in the emerald surf of unclipped grass
that has swallowed her ankles.
She is three and harbors visions
of princesses in the forest,
gowns resplendent with jewels,
fingers gladdened
by dime-store finery.
She would live in a tree,
bathe in the rain
and eat apples with honey.
She would knock down leaves
to carpet the drab duff,
then pirouette past the peeling limbs,
the ripening fruit,
the other princess trees.
Royalty knows its desires
and she shuns the queens' lapis lazuli,
digs instead for marbles
the color of tropical frogs,
for sharks under the garden.
We can find them, she says,
if we go far enough.
An ocean swells beneath the hellebore,
a sea of shimmering silver and green
for my glimmery fish,
my under-the-surface girl.

"A Love Poem" previously appeared in Pontoon Number One.

Two, two, two thoughts in one

Recently, a couple of weblogs from Kelli aka Leonardo and Jeannine Hall Gailey have been discussing the concept of persona and persona poems and are poems necessarily assumed to be autobiographical so that if you write outside your own exact experience you are somehow lying. That probably reveals my own bias in this conversation.

Where did this assumption come from in poetry? I'd bet that people did not think that Coleridge was an ancient mariner. Did it start with the confessional poetry? Did people come to think of poems as a literal metaphor into the soul as well as a literal one?

This led me to think of that divide between poetry and fiction. When you read a novel—even if it's in the first person—you don't assume that it's absolutely autobiographical (or, you don't unless the author is marketing it as a memoir). Example: I've been reading Everything Is Illuminated, by Jonathan Safran Foer. And even though the "hero," as he is referred to by the narrator, is named "Jonathan Safran Foer," I do not assume that this novel is autobiographical. Tiny parts, maybe larger parts—but no, not in its entirety. That is not fiction.

This idea of persona poetry also brought to mind an earlier conversation on Bemsha Swing about reading styles, and the question of prose readers being more interesting to hear than some poetry readers. (The complaint in that debate being primarily that readers of poetry tend to flatten the tone in an effort to remove inflection so that the words will stand on their own—and that's my interpretation of it and not everyone reads that way anyway.)

These two thoughts jammed up inside my head, and I realized that prose readers, when they are reading fiction, have characters! They have personas all over the place, and so they can read in the voice of that character, that persona. Hello inflection, tone, emotion—all that good stuff.

And perhaps every poem has a persona, has a character—maybe the poet, maybe partly the poet, maybe someone else entirely—and getting to know the poem really well is getting to know that character, and then the reading out loud is a way to share that person, and maybe a really good way to share the poem.

Just a thought.

P.S. I will not suggest memorizing "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner" next week. Promise.

Monday, September 17, 2007

Poem for this week, from Edna

Did you try the Donne poem? I found it hard--not because of the language, but because I was intimidated by the length and so I kind of put it off.

Yet, it's always fun to be able to say, "Saucy, pedantic wench." How often do you get to do that?

As promised, here is a poem by Edna St. Vincent Millay. I first became acquainted with this poem through the Rising Tides anthology, when I fell in love with the line "Your laughter pelts my skin with small delicious blows."

(Note: The lines in this poem are sometimes very long, and the blogger UI is not so great at line breaks and indentation, so please excuse whatever weirdness.)


Not for these lovely blooms that prank your chambers did I come. Indeed,

I could have loved you better in the dark;
That is to say, in rooms less bright with roses, rooms more casual, less aware
Of History in the wings about to enter with benevolent air
On ponderous tiptoe, at the cue, "Proceed."
Not that I like the ash-trays over-crowded and the place in a mess,
Or the monastic cubicle too unctuously austere and stark,
But partly that these formal garlands for our Eighth Street Aphrodite are a bit too Greek,
And partly that to make the poor walls rich with our unaided loveliness
Would have been more chic.
Yet here I am, having told you of my quarrel with the taxi-driver over a line of Milton, and you laugh; and you are you, none other.
Your laughter pelts my skin with small delicious blows.
But I am perverse: I wish you had not scrubbed—with pumice, I suppose—
The tobacco stains from your beautiful fingers. And I wish I did not feel like your mother.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Fall poems on the sofa

It's been that kind of a day.

Just for fun

Everything in this poem really happened:

The Vegetarian

A man with red hair said
Coney Island. Birthday. Every year.
I heard Rollercoaster, shook my head


(No thank you)

and stayed in the dark party
of dancers, lithe and splendid bodies
crowding the SoHo studio.
I watched the choreographer cook,
forgot about the guy on the subway going south.

I saw him again
when dinner was served.
It was great, he said.

I hadn't tasted meat in years,
but I ate chicken.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Three by Roberta Spear

This morning I was reading A Sweetness Rising, the volume of new and selected poems by Roberta Spear, and I reached the section of poetry taken from The Pilgrim Among Us. It's her third book, and I hadn't read it before.

I was especially touched by this poem:

In the Moon

There are lots of men in the moon,
my son claims, and they all
have dirty feet. Sometimes they march
and the light swells.
Sometimes they lie down
and their mud-caked soles
nearly touch the earth like his
as he races toward the clear
winter sky where earlier
the moon rose between two palms.

On a night even colder than this,
she must have been listening
for those soiled boots
moving slowly in her direction.
Anna Akhmatova barely breathed each time
the wind slapped the shutters.
Resting her arms on the crude
wooden table, she pulled
each piece of shell
from the egg she held in her fingers.
"It's like peeling the moon,"
she said. She had brought
this, the first egg of their winter,
to the house of her friends
who watched in silence
as she sliced into thirds
the white, the yolk bruised,
like a sun gone out,
then pushed the plate
in their direction.

A single egg all winter—
life being what it was
fifty years before my son's birth.
We must still learn to share
what was never ours.
Whether that rubbery light
which bends to our fancy
or the third translucent slice
of cucumber he sneaks
from the salad. Or the smaller
half-moons of his nails
as he yawns and slips his hand
into mine and we finally
walk side by side,
the dark ring of his lips
making a night all its own.

The moonlight is as helpless
as those who tried to gather it
for warmth, like something
you could live by if you had to.
And when those men came down
from there and kicked in
the door to that small room
where the three sat
kicked over the table and chairs,
the bits of shell scattered,
like a dream, and could
never be found again.

In his dreams, he calls out
though he does not wake
or know me. I think
of the crows he heckled today,
the black knives of their wings
cutting the air above us.
Of children's fists thrown up
in play, like stones
at the promise of heaven.
And of that pile
left to darken and crumble,
suddenly let loose so that
the leaves cross the light and
in falling back to earth,
step toward him.
I think of my own fears
and my love which is greater,
and how I will tell them
as I tell the others
they must take off their shoes
before they enter.

— Roberta Spear

And here, inspired, by Peter's post of a nest poem, is a nest poem by Roberta Spear, again from The Pilgrim Among Us:

The Nest

The mockingbird throws open
her wings, and storms off
into the night. Soon
stars fill her empty nest.
The others come to look:
one to snitch a tuft of milkweed,
another to inspect the ragged seams.
Lastly, some stranger
in a black shirt, red cravat,
a mobster by daylight,
claims this hideout for himself
and his honey, the phoebe,
for the sweetness of night
has stunned them both.

Is it possible, all that
spit and polish come to nothing?
Or to those who never knew us,
never felt the ache of mud
and grass, these walls
through which we too will enter,
brushing the last fingers of air?
Already, my daughter
blows bubbles at me, flushes
and stares off at the light
spilling over the edges.

When she leaves, I'll lift
the windows and let them in—
the sparrow will rest on my pillow,
the wind will fill my favorite dress.
Even the mockingbird will
pluck the mold and dust
from her feathers, and study
the mirror where I lift my child
to meet herself, and we laugh
at that other nest, shining,
filled with its endless rooms.

— Roberta Spear

And then, because A Sweetness Rising includes poems from all Roberta Spear's books, I went back and found this poem:

A Nest for Everyone

The possum with four crazed paws
and a mouthful of broken teeth
is too old to brave the highway
again for a chase that blurs
into flight. The cold morning sun
grazes the husks of November,
the shoulders of workers crouched
between vines They lower
their knives, the bronzed
leaves fall to the mud, and
the fluttering stops for a moment.
Then a wave of crows ascends
from a furrow, each bearing in
its beak a token of the season—
a flailing worm, a wisp of straw,
the strip of an old sleeve
that once bound an arm or
a shattered brow and still has
the fiery stain to show for it.

Last night, this side of a steamy,
blackened window, my children
wanted to believe that there
must be a nest for everyone.
As my son struck a match, the soft
wick of the candle flared into
a prayer for our survival.
It is the dead of winter and
vines are fluted with darkness,
wired to wooden stakes. It will
take all eight candles to cast
the light of their small faces
on the glass. And many more
than that to warm all the cupped
hands waiting not far beyond.

This month, the man who holds
the deed to this gnarly orchard and
that parcel of sleeping grass
is moving slower. Hours pass,
the rows of numbers won't bear fruit.
He leans back on his chair and
stares up at the empty sky of
his kitchen ceiling. Whatever
fluttered into the fields will
go back the way it came:
birds, leaves, the endless
bleating of the neighbor's bull,
even the workers themselves
quickly dividing limb from sky,
and the stars that will rise soon
over this valley. They will all
go back to the schemes of earth
and air, like those wild nests
left vacant in winter, embracing
the light, letting some of it go.

— Roberta Spear

Monday, September 10, 2007


One of the things I enjoy on the Virtual World: Peter's details about the fabulous dinners that he and Dean make and serve. They always sound perfectly leisurely and scrumptious.

Yesterday morning, I rode my bike over to the neighborhood farmers' market, and later we had a big Sunday dinner for six: salad made of shaved fennel, mushrooms and parmesan with lemon juice, olive oil, and black pepper, then bell pepper ravioli from the farmers' market in a sauce made of garlic, olives, sun-dried tomatoes, and basil, with a dash of cream, and then halibut with a lemon and caper sauce, baby bok choy, and mashed potatoes. Just add water, wine, and much laughter—a nice way to end the weekend and start the week.

In that spirit, I've added a few food poems to the sofa.

Memorizing Donne

Did you try memorizing Blake's "The Tiger"? How did it go?

I found myself struggling a bit with the repetition—dare and dread, especially. But I learned a lot more about the poem through the process.

This week, I'd like to try "The Sun Rising," by John Donne. With apologies to Mr. Donne, please excuse the lack of indentation. I tried inserting nonbreaking spaces, but they've all been stripped out. To see the correct indentation, check out the Poetry Foundation website.

The Sun Rising

Busy old fool, unruly sun,
Why dost thou thus,
Through windows, and through curtains call on us?
Must to thy motions lovers' seasons run?
Saucy pedantic wretch, go chide
Late school boys and sour prentices,
Go tell court huntsmen that the king will ride,
Call country ants to harvest offices,
Love, all alike, no season knows nor clime,
Nor hours, days, months, which are the rags of time.

Thy beams, so reverend and strong
Why shouldst thou think?
I could eclipse and cloud them with a wink,
But that I would not lose her sight so long;
If her eyes have not blinded thine,
Look, and tomorrow late, tell me,
Whether both th' Indias of spice and mine
Be where thou leftst them, or lie here with me.
Ask for those kings whom thou saw'st yesterday,
And thou shalt hear, All here in one bed lay.

She's all states, and all princes, I,
Nothing else is.
Princes do but play us; compared to this,
All honor's mimic, all wealth alchemy.
Thou, sun, art half as happy as we,
In that the world's contracted thus.
Thine age asks ease, and since thy duties be
To warm the world, that's done in warming us.
Shine here to us, and thou art everywhere;
This bed thy center is, these walls, thy sphere.

—John Donne

(Next week, it will be time for some Edna.)

Sunday, September 9, 2007

Sports + Art (not at the same time)

It's football season, and yesterday we went to the Husky-Bronco (Boise) game. It was very hot up in the stands, and the Huskies won.

Then we hopped a bus up the hill, took a break, and hit the art opening scene.

Our first stop was Ballard, where we saw some beautiful life drawings and then wandered around the new Old Ballard, with a stop at O.K. O.K. and some sofa testing (yes—sofa!) at the new Skarbos.

Then we went to Art/Not Terminal to see black and white photographs by Kim Hood. Pictures from all seven continents, including some eerie images of Antarctica. Visit his website—and if you're in Seattle, stop by and see the show.

Now, it's back to poetry.

Wednesday, September 5, 2007

Oh, Mighty Tieton

In the most recent PoetsWest special announcements message, I saw this:

POETS OF WASHINGTON, UNITE! Tieton Arts & Humanities announces LitFuse 2007: A Poet's Workshop. This 2-day workshop to be held November 3-4 in Tieton, WA (15 minutes west of Yakima), features hands-on letterpress printing opportunities, Susan Rich (winner of the PEN/USA Poetry Award and Peace Corps Writers' Award, among others), Kathleen Flenniken (winner of the Prairie Schooner Book award), a special narrated screening of Voices in Wartime, which looks at the experience of war through poetry, walking meditation, open mike reading, Cody Walker & Paul Nelson's astonishing teaching, and a murder of your fellow poets itching to channel the MUSE. All in a hilltop rural setting guaranteed to inspire. Check it out at to register, or email for more information.

I was downright giddy—a poetry workshop in Tieton?

My mom grew up in Tieton, which is about 12 miles west of Yakima, and my grandfather was born there. I've been traveling across the mountains to visit my grandparents there since I was about six months old.

That direction I mentioned the other day is all about Tieton!

I promptly sent in my check. I am so excited!

In the meantime, here is a Tieton poem:

Over the Umptanum

Always the dawn wind rustles the largeness
awake and fidgets in the chimes.

Dry hills dust an old woman’s blood
the way sap sweetens apples,
gray barns house the devils of starlings
and barbwire blends in the hardpan.
Rusty steel laces the desert tight as water
the years it didn’t come.

She has learned the deeper needs of thirst,
sent roots in search of sustenance
and watched the gruff limbs of apples
grow up around her
through seasons of frost
and blood-orange harvest moon.
She has stayed here,
steady as the skins a snake will shed each summer.

The road sidles toward Naches,
slides through the valley
and up over the Umptanum.
Ridges sweep, sharp against the sky.
She feels the wide light on her shoulders,
smells sagebrush when she closes her eyes.

Reprinted from Weathered Steps.

Back to school

Two of my kids and my husband are all going back to school today. Even though I'm not, I continue to enjoy the rhythm of September. It's a good time to start new endeavors.

To that end, I'd like to kick off a monthly exercise program (poetry, as opposed to situps).

September's exercise:

Take one poem that you've been wrestling with and try writing it as a sonnet. If you feel that you need more than 14 lines, try turning it into multiple sonnets (maybe even linking them).

I'll start with the poem that I posted the other day. If I can pull it off, I'll post the sonnet version toward the end of the month (it will probably take me that long).

Monday, September 3, 2007

Memorize this!

Seattle has a program called Seattle Reads (formerly known as If All of Seattle Read the Same Book) I wondered what would happen if everyone memorized the same poem (not just read, but memorized).

Why not try it? One poem a week for a year—just to see what you think.

To start: William Blake's "The Tiger" (and if you have suggestions for other poems to memorize, let me know).

The Tiger

Tiger, tiger, burning bright
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?

In what distant deeps or skies
Burnt the fire of thine eyes?
On what wings dare he aspire?
What the hand dare seize the fire?

And what shoulder and what art
Could twist the sinews of thy heart?
And when thy heart began to beat,
What dread hand and what dread feet?

What the hammer? what the chain?
In what furnace was thy brain?
What the anvil? What dread grasp
Dare its deadly terrors clasp?

When the stars threw down their spears,
And water'd heaven with their tears,
Did He smile His work to see?
Did He who made the lamb make thee?

Tiger, tiger, burning bright
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Dare frame thy fearful symmetry?

—William Blake

Home from the ocean

Days away from e-mail, within the sound of the surf. Hiking through the woods, walking along the sand, browsing through the bookstore, just enough writing, tons of time with family—what a way to end the summer!

Now I have Labor Day to work on getting the kids ready for school, getting poems ready for the annual September send-off, and maybe (finally) clipping back those rampant roses.

In the meantime, I've added a few more poems to the sofa.