Everything Has Two Handles

Over the years, in my quest to keep learning more about the craft of writing, I seem to have subscribed to a number of self-helpery blogs. Usually I delete the notifications without reading. Occasionally I take the time to unsubscribe. This morning, this title caught my eye and I clicked on it and read all the way through.

Beautiful and timely.

I’ve been writing a story that attempts to address the Greek idea of aporia — so this paragraph was important:

Everything is an opportunity for excellence. The now famous passage from Marcus Aurelius is that the impediment to action advances action, that what stands in the way becomes the way. But do you know what he was talking about specifically? He was talking about difficult people! He was saying that difficult people are an opportunity to practice excellence and virtue–be it forgiveness or patience or cheerfulness. And so it goes for all the things that are not in our control in life. So when I find myself in situations big and small, positive or negative, I try to see each of them as an opportunity for me to be the best I’m capable of being in that moment. It doesn’t matter who we are, where we are, we can always do this.

-Ryan Holiday

I could quote from almost all 14 points, but I especially needed to hear, “You don’t have to have an opinion about everything.” (A choice one of my daughters is making, for instance.) Here’s the link:


To Be of Use

My heartfelt thanks to all of you who listened to my radio interview and emailed or called. David Gilmour has to get at least half the credit, and Steve Nebel, sound engineer. I love it that you loved it.

And my apologies for being so absent this past month. I had good intentions — definitely meant to review a poetry book once a week in August — and instead let myself be swept up in a number of deadlines to be met (or slightly overshot…), one of which is still hovering.

But here’s what I want to focus on this morning.

Tuesday mornings for the past five years — or many Tuesday mornings, Fall, Spring, and Summer — I have been volunteering at my church, pulling weeds and pruning or whatever my “boss,” Fran, tells me to do. I’ve learned a lot about gardening from Fran, and though we didn’t often stand around talking, I got to know her through her work. Her plaid workshirt, her short gray cap of curls, her ready smile on seeing me. “Ah! You’re finally here!” Her incredible assortment of power tools.

Then, a couple weeks ago, Fran died.

I cannot tell you how shocked I was. Yes, she was almost 85, but we have numerous active members at our church who are in their 90s. I was expecting Fran to be one of those. She died on a Sunday afternoon, a few days before her birthday, while working in her backyard.

In addition to being in charge of the church landscaping, Fran worked behind the scenes in almost every aspect of church life. I set aside the work for any excuse, and never put in more than my 90 minutes or 2 hours weekly (and felt virtuous about it), but for her the work was a calling, and a joy.

Marge Piercy

Ever since hearing the news of Fran’s death, I have been thinking of this poem, which someone gave me in my first year of teaching — it was on various office walls almost my entire career. I’m pleased to say that, after I sent the poem to him, my pastor read it at Fran’s memorial.

It’s my privilege this morning to share this poem with you. (See the poem at Poetry Foundation for the correct formatting.)

To Be of Use

The people I love best
jump into work head first
without dallying in the shallows
and swim off with sure strokes almost out of sight.
They seem to become natives of that element,
the black sleek heads of seals
bouncing like half-submerged balls.

I love people who harness themselves, an ox to a heavy cart,
who pull like water buffalo, with massive patience,
who strain in the mud and muck to pull things forward,
who do what has to be done, again and again.

I want to be with people who submerge
in the task, who go into the fields to harvest
and work in a row and pass the bags along,
who are not parlor generals and field deserters
but move in a common rhythm
when the food must come in or the fire put out.

The work of the world is common as mud.
Botched, it smears the hands, crumbles to dust.
But the thing worth doing well done
has a shape that satisfies, clean and evident.
Greek amphoras for wine or oil,
Hopi vases that held corn, are put in museums
but you know they were made to be used.
The pitcher cries for water to carry,
and a person for work that is real.

From Circles in the Water (1982, Knopf)

RadioTacoma 101.9

This evening (August 17, 2023) at 8 p.m. PST, thanks to Radio Tacoma 101.9, and to Steve Nebel, you can hear me, reading my poems and in conversation with Sound Poetry host David Gilmour.

No idea what our two hours together will be condensed to, so I’m eager to hear it, too.

If you can’t listen this evening, it will be archived on their website:


and https://radiotacoma.org/sound-poetry-archive-2023

You can donate to this wonderful program, too (see the archives for Sound Poetry for interviews/readings with Robert Michael Pyle, Michael Daley, T. Clear, Koon Woon, and many other northwest treasures).

And be sure to drop me a line, comment here, or you can email me at bethany.alchemy@gmail.com.


NOTE: I have updated the link to the archive so it will take you to the 2023 file. 

Rena Priest, “Sublime, Subliminal”

SUBLIME, SUBLIMINAL, Rena Priest, Floating Bridge Press, 909 NE 43rd Street, #205, Seattle, Washington, 98105, 2018, 48 pages, $10, paper, www.floatingbridgepress.org.

This August I am once again not doing the #SealeyChallenge. I gave some thought to it—reading a poetry book a day for the month of August, then simply posting a picture to Instagram—but…I get so much out of my April poetry-book marathon that I can’t imagine not sharing a longer reflection. The April project always ends up trashing any other plans for the month, and it always ends up being worth it.

I think what I’m trying to say here is that if you feel led to read a poetry book a day, and reflect on what you find, I HIGHLY encourage you to do so.

Today, because it was left over from my April book stack, I decided to read Rena Priest’s Sublime, Subliminal, which was a finalist for the 2018 Floating Bridge Chapbook competition.

I always love Rena’s poems. She was our Washington Poet Laureate for two years, 2021-2023, and, among so much else as part of her heart-filled service to the poetry community, edited the brilliant I Sing the Salmon Home.

The fifteen poems in Sublime, Subliminal are not straight-forward, easily understood poems. They challenged me. When I let myself drop fully into the project, they also delighted me. Opening lines such as, “Your kiss is backlit pixilation” (“Canadian Tuxedo”); “The bookshelf is a psychic vortex” (“The Final Word”); or this sentence, “In the darkness of the cupboard, / the inner life of the water glass / is not empty” (“Inner Life of the Water Glass”) pushed me to see and think differently.

When I reached the acknowledgments page I was tickled—and not altogether surprised—to discover that the poems were inspired by Jim Simmerman’s “20 Little Poetry Projects.” Years ago, when my children were young and I was a new not-yet-tenured college teacher, I came across this exercise in The Practice of Poetry (edited by Robin Behn and Chase Twichell), and it worked so well for me that I stopped using it after a few poems. It felt like cheating! Rena Priest, so much smarter, put together a whole book.

The poems are longish, but you have to see at least one. I chose this poem because it’s sexy and unexpected, and has an opening conceit that blows my mind. The poems, the book over all, has an opaqueness that makes me think of my professor who used to say, “It’s a poem! Stop making sense!”

Indistinct Features

Your face is a movie screen.
There are two matinees
and three features every day.
Your smile incites the Theremin
to which I react with acumen.
You were one thing. Now another;
tasted like sugar, now like butter.
Mr. Tom Savini, Sultan of Splatter,
Godfather of Gore,
the orchestra can see you
around that corner, behind that door,
cooking up some violence.
The violins are going crazy
and I will react with the antonym
of acumen when you come to slay me;
But the angels will sing a chromatic hymn
when your demons come for you,
to do you like Mercutio,
find you a grave man tomorrow.
“YOLO,” the kids will say,
“There’s something about an open grave
that makes me amorous—libidinous—
downright horndog AF.”
Gotta replace a life with a life.
Gotta get in the pudding club.
I’ll give you the sweet pearl
of my sympathy, swathed
in the nacre of my spiritual oyster,
mounted in a shining ring.
Poke a hole in the curtain between
the living and the dead. Now
it’s a peep show for your soul.
If you peek, you’ll see the day
where we all go back to analog.
Colloids and emulsions on reels
instead of coitus and emotions in files.
Tomaten auf den Augen Haben.
Images flicker
24 times per second across your face.
I can’t keep hold of your features.
There’s a feather
where your mouth is supposed to be.
It flutters when you say,
“Oh come on baby—
don’t look at me that way?”

—Rena Priest

If you are interested in trying out Simmerman’s Twenty Little Poetry Projects, you can find it on-line. Or you could buy a copy of The Practice of Poetry, which is packed with detailed poetry prompts. Many many used copies available.