We had a great evening of poetry at the Wilde Reading series in Columbia, November 8, 2016. I was honored to share the podium with fellow poet, Sally Rosen Kindred. Many thanks go to our host for the evening, Linda Joy Burke as well as her c0-organizers, Laura Shovan and Ann Bracken. And, also thanks to the audience and open mic readers, who turned out on Election Night. We all were looking for some distraction, and what better distraction from politics than poetry?
For those who couldn’t make it, and even for those who did, here are the poems I read.
LET US BE PASSERSBY
Let us be passersby
unrooted in time or place,
moving when and where we choose,
or not moving if we so desire.
Let us act with spontaneity,
decisions made in the moment
without concern for what others may think,
or what our actions may imply.
Let us be fully aware
of all activity and inactivity,
all sounds and sensations,
and know what is outside us.
Let us sit in contemplation
listening only to the rise
and fall of our own breathing,
and know what is inside us.
Let us watch and listen
with passionate dispassion,
gather all we see and hear,
and hold onto nothing.
THE GLASS CUTTER
[Published in The Copperfield Review, Winter 2015]
The meetinghouse was no place for art.
Plain walls and clear glass
were better to focus the mind
on the spirit born in simplicity,
brought forth from the Inner Light,
and spoken in the still, small voice
that need not announce itself
So, too, with daily life.
When he became a man
he was told: pursue a trade,
go into business, take up farming.
Do good, practical work.
The Meeting taught him
that God’s beauty was in all things.
He saw it everywhere—
in blades of grass bent before the wind,
in the colors of the sky throughout the day,
in ripples on the surface of a pond.
All the world was art to him.
So, he became a glass cutter,
beveling simplicity’s stark edge,
etching grace as lines and patterns
into vases, bowls, and glasses,
each refracting spirit and light.
I thought I’d open with those two poems because they touch on topics and themes that I tend to draw on when writing. The first line of the first poem comes from a verse in the Gospel of Thomas, “be passersby,” then mixes in Taoist, Buddhist, and Quaker ideas. I’m not a religious person, but I come from a family in which religion was important, a family with Reorganized Latter Day Saint and Quaker ministers and clergy going back many generations. So, theology is something of a hobby for me. Perhaps these poems are my sermons.
Family history is another source that I draw upon. “The Glasscutter” is from my series of poems about my great-great grandparents, John and Mary Ratcliff. Their story is told through the poems in my chapbook, Shards of Blue. John is the glasscutter in the poem. This poem didn’t make it into the book, but I’ll read a couple from the book tonight. As with the other poems in the series, this poem started with a clear fact—his working as a glasscutter—then built from there based on what I think would have been the context in which he lived, growing up Quaker, family expectations, and so on. And, I’ll have to admit that there’s a bit of me in the poem.
Last comment on sources and inspirations. I’m a geographer by training and temperament. Geographers observe the landscape and seek to understand and explain the patterns of and relationships between what they see. I think it is much the same with poets and poetry.
IN SEARCH OF PAW PAWS
I went in search of paw paws
down a trail in a park
where there was said to be a grove.
I found the trees, but it was too late
in the season. There was no fruit.
So, I sat on some rocks next to the river
and read from a book of Chinese poetry,
the sound of water over granite ledges,
competing with traffic on the interstate
only a half-a-mile away. The afternoon sun
shone through the yellow leaves
of beeches and sycamores.
And I thought of nothing,
but the cool autumn air,
and the sweet taste of paw paws.
I went to Tucson in March 2016 for the Tucson Festival of Books. I brought back this poem:
IN THE SONORAN DESERT
The old tales tell us
we were made from dust,
and to dust we will return.
Perhaps it was water
that God breathed into Adam,
merging heaven and earth.
We come to the desert
for enlightenment and life,
but we are aliens here.
Sixty percent water,
we are prone to dessication.
Dust stalks our lives.
The Tohono O’odham believe
some humans become saguaro,
succulent giants presiding
over this arid world.
I think they are the ones
who learned how
to become like gods.
THE BOOK OF
[Published in Fourth & Sycamore, October, 2016]
I have a book that I no longer believe.
I read it every few years to test the space
between certainty and doubt.
Three copies sit on my shelf.
The oldest, a translation from Wales,
with words I do not know,
carried to Utah, and then
back east along the dissenters’ trail.
I see in it belief, the kind that lasts
even when outward forms become corrupt
and faith in man is lost.
My grandfather wrote his name in one,
though I don’t think he ever read it.
When I was a sinless child,
I could not understand
how he could belong to the Church
and still smoke and drink and chew.
Now I know that life
cannot be read as neatly printed lines.
The copy I prefer to read
is a reprint of the original.
Chapters, no verses; long blocks of text,
with errors, just as it was dictated,
written down, and typeset,
the work of fallible men,
trying to understand God.
Following on the family and family history theme, the next two poems are draw from my grandparents’ lives—my mother’s parents, who lived in Texarkana, Arkansas. I won’t say much about them. Instead, I’ll let the poems give you a sense of their character.
OF COBBLER AND UNIONS
[Published in Deep South Magazine, 2014
She insisted on dinner first—
fried chicken, corn bread, butter beans,
and glasses of cold sweet tea—
and then they could talk about
bringing the union into the pickling plant.
Dinner finished, she served dessert,
and then she and the union organizer,
sat at the kitchen table and made their plans.
They wrote out demands;
discussed strategies between bites
of her peach cobbler.
In her grandmother’s time
she would have had a cook
to prepare dinner and dessert.
In her great-grandmother’s time,
she would have been waited upon
and would not have sat in the kitchen
when visitors came calling.
But, those times were gone.
In her mind she kept a list
of all that had been lost,
determined that she would lose no more.
She was a strong woman,
willing to take on the plant’s bosses,
toughened by years of dealing
with a hard-drinking husband
worn thin by reaching
for any work that paid.
The union rep knew he should not talk
of capital and labor, or the role
of the proletariat in history—
not with her patrician past.
If he wanted to unionize the plant
he would have to listen to her.
And, he knew that he had better
eat a second helping of her cobbler.
He chose his horses with precision;
read the Racing Form every day;
talked to trainers; kept stats on jockeys
in the small notebook
that he kept in his shirt pocket
with his ever-present pack of Winstons.
Recorded his bets, too—
how much he’d won, how much he’d lost.
The track in Shreveport was about as far
as he ever wanted to travel anymore.
The trip was comfortable—
same diner for coffee and donuts
on the drive down from Texarkana;
same diner for coffee and pie on the way home.
Maybe he’d had too much traveling
in those Depression summers
when he worked the harvest
from Texas up to the Dakotas;
or too much uncertainty
when he ran bootleg whiskey.
He was retired now, from the job
handling mail for the railroad—
a union job he could set his watch by,
that brought the certainty and comfort
that eluded him as a younger man.
Maybe routine was what he needed
to maintain some control over life,
and the lure of the bottle that
always threatened to derail him.
She had always wanted to see the world;
to go beyond Arkansas and the East Texas plains—
tourist travel, hotels, sightseeing;
not like trips to Kilgore and Corpus to see family.
She’d traveled some after her daughters left home,
married, had families, made their own ways in the world.
She always thought that after they retired
they could travel together; enjoy
some of the fruits from all those years of labor.
But he didn’t want to go any farther than Shreveport,
and she was afraid to leave him alone.
She chose her horses based on the colors
of the jockeys’ silks. Oh, she knew
how to calculate the odds as well as he.
She listened to his reports from the trainers.
Maybe she just liked the uncertainty,
the element of risk in her method.
Maybe she just liked to hear him say,
as he recorded the results in his book,
Damn, if you don’t win more than me.
I’m going to turn now to my chapbook, Shards of Blue. The poems in this book tell the story of the lives of my great-great grandparents, John and Mary Ratcliff. They were part of a Quaker Abolitionist community that moved to Kansas in 1854 to help ensure that slavery would not be permitted in Kansas. This was the “Bleeding Kansas” period, the prelude to the Civil War. The story carries through the Civil War, in which John was wounded severely, through their divorce in the 1870s due to his infidelity. Most of the poems are in either Mary’s or John’s voice. This first one, though, is Gene, the oldest of their seven sons.
WHEN FREMONT LEFT THE FARM
[Originally published in The Copperfield Review, Winter, 2015]
Gene Ratcliff, 1874
We knew the day would come
when the darkness that troubled Father
would become too much for Mother to bear.
Father had another of his spells,
then, without word, was gone for days.
When he returned, silence hung heavy
as the air before a summer storm.
Tension built like thunderheads over the prairie,
then released in a storm of words
between him and Mother.
John and I took our younger brothers
out to the shelter of the barn.
Fremont fetched his bag;
said it was time to move to town.
I don’t blame Fremont for leaving.
I would’ve left, and John too,
except Mother needed our help on the farm
especially after she told Father to leave.
I see Fremont when I go into town.
He says he doesn’t miss the farm.
I told him it’s calmer now that Father’s gone.
But it’s different, too—
like corn stalks flattened after a storm.
[Originally published in The Copperfield Review, Summer 2011]
What happens now that passion’s gone,
now that love has flown
like summer before the winter wind?
The cornflower sky is lost to winter’s gray;
the cornstalks stand withered in the field,
and even the crows have fled.
Where is the passion you once held
for love, for life… for me?
You are here, but your soul is gone,
left long ago on that battlefield.
I cannot live with your winter and despair;
the lonely days with you;
soundless weeks, followed by sudden gales of anger,
and the terrible hurt that you have caused.
I want summer again,
sunlight and blue skies
and the greening of new fields.
I take from the shelf
the glass you made for me,
hold it to my lips
and take one last sip of emptiness.
As I walk through the door
sunlight breaks the winter clouds
and glints across the sharded floor.
Let’s turn to something lighthearted and fun. Sometimes a poem will come out of something I see in passing.
CHAIR ON THE SIDE OF THE ROAD
[Accepted for publication, Tribe, Winter 2017]
How does a single chair
come to be placed upright
on the side of the highway
next to the concrete barrier
separating the northbound lanes
from the southbound?
Why only one chair?
Why not two, and a table as well?
What if I want to watch
the passing traffic with a friend,
where will she sit?
Where will we set our drinks and hors d’oeuvres?
Bicycling is my other passion. You might say it’s my religion. Here’s a bicycling poem:
BICYCLING UP ILCHESTER HILL, OUT OF THE PATAPSCO VALLEY
We climb Ilchester Hill
to feel quadriceps scream
against the steepness of the grade
and know we are alive.
After that first tenth of a mile
when the hill teases with a level tenth,
and legs groan and plead
against the gradient to come,
we continue to climb
to defy the gods
who conspire to throw us down
with every turn of the crank,
and because we know
that by reaching the top
we will set Sisyphus free.
Ilchester Road is the steepest hill in Howard County. It climbs up from the Patapsco between Elkridge and Ellicott City. The initial gradient is 18% and you can almost feel gravity pulling you back. It levels off a bit, then continues to climb at a 12% grade. [I didn’t mention this at the reading, but the best part of riding up is coming back down. I try to see how fast I can go, but the road has an “S” curve at its steepest section, and there always seems to be traffic these days, so I end up braking in order to make the turn and stay in my lane (I’ve got a poem– still in draft– about ageing and slowing down). Still, I’ve reached 45 mph in the final portion of the descent.]
A few more poems, and then we’ll end.
[Note: I didn’t read “Status of the Garden at the End of October” or “Thoughts While Sitting Along the Lower Potomac” due to lack of time.]
STATUS OF THE GARDEN AT THE END OF OCTOBER
The last carrots pulled and cleaned.
Corn stalks cut and laid aside.
We’ll use them as decorations.
The stunted remains of beans,
tossed into the compost with the weeds.
The okra still grows, flowers drawing
every ounce of warmth from the sun,
pods lengthened in the humidity
that returned earlier in the week.
Most grew too long while I was away.
Only one was tender enough to eat.
There are a few tomatoes
left on the vine. I’ll leave
them to ripen, and if they don’t,
we’ll slice and fry them.
The marigolds are still alive,
and since there are no insects
to repel, we enjoy them
simply for their colors.
Dad, there’s still two months
of autumn left—a few
growing days still ahead.
We have time to prepare for winter
and plan for next year’s crop.
THOUGHTS WHILE SITTING ALONG THE LOWER POTOMAC
[Accepted for publication in Gargoyle, September 2017]
Power is in the wind and waves.
Seen as an eagle circles over the water,
felt when easing a hook out of the mouth
of a fish too small to keep.
Days are measured in bushels,
and in the size of jimmies,
rockfish, and blues,
and the ones that got away.
The only monuments
are stacks of crabpots,
piles of oyster shells;
an old deadrise sunk in a creek.
Marble is reserved for the graves
of watermen when they no longer
go out in boats at dawn.
We may think all that is important
lies upriver, along grand avenues,
in meeting rooms and marbled halls,
but everything flows in this direction;
the lower pulls down the higher,
the way overcomes from below.
The next poem, “To the Least Sparrow on the House Top,” begins with an epigraph, a quote from the Mildred Ratcliff, an early-19th Century Quaker minister, from her Memoranda and Correspondence. Mildred was married to Harrison Ratcliff, my great-great-great-great grandfather’s brother.
TO THE LEAST SPARROW ON THE HOUSE TOP
[Published in Fourth & Sycamore, September 2015]
His goodness is extended to the smallest of the workmanship of his hands;
his gracious care is to the sparrow upon the house-top.
–Mildred Ratcliff, Quaker Minister
Memoranda and Correspondence of Mildred Ratcliff
How often do we stop and look
at the dish we just washed and dried?
Savor the warmth of clothes
fresh from the dryer?
Admire the patterns made
by the vacuum on the carpet?
When pulling weeds, do we notice
the shapes of their leaves,
the thickness and length of their roots?
Do we really look at the grass
before we cut it; the greenness
of each blade, its length, and the way it leans?
Do we see the lines and swirls
of the grain as we cut through a board?
Feel the hardness or softness
as we drive in each nail?
How often do we ignore the sparrow
for the brilliance of a cardinal?
IN MAN MO TEMPLE IN HONG KONG, I PRAY TO THE GOD OF LITERATURE
In Man Mo Temple
I light incense sticks
and place them with care
before the altar:
the first for the heavens,
the second for the earth
and the third for myself,
to bring completeness
And what of the words I write?
Smoke on a white page.