Ann Spiers, Back Cut

BACK CUT, Ann Spiers. Black Heron Press, PO Box 614, Anacortes, WA 98221, 2021, 88 pages, $16 paper, www.blackheronpress.com.

I had dropped by Edmonds Bookshop to quickly pick up Sharon Hashimoto’s book of poems, when this slim volume (too) caught my eye. The cover is black, but has darker blocks set into the background. The title, in white letters, is partly cut away.

On the back cover, testimonials from poets we’ve already heard from this month: Kevin Miller (“a love story weathered and brined in the wilds of the Washington coast”); Sharon Hashimoto (“mastery of such unspoken, yet tender emotions”). Inside, more testimonials. And the poet’s introduction:

In felling a tree, the initial deep undercut is wedge shaped. This cut determines the direction of the fall. Opposite and higher than the initial cut is the back cut, the first of the felling cuts. The labor varies with tree, axe or saw, and with the crew’s strength and smarts.

Having grown up not far from the wild Washington coast, I found familiar voices in this cycle of love poems. The husband and wife (whose voices alternate) scrape a living from the shore and the trees. They escape fires. The wife plays piano. The husband—a veteran of WWII—drinks. They make a life.

It’s difficult to excerpt this book (you sort of have to read the whole thing). But here’s a sample:

Husband—
Putting Up For Winter

The glut
we net smelt out
of the wave’s long running
eagles snag silver scattering
crazy

salmon
so plentiful
their splishes racket up
stream    bear smell hot at every
trail turn

so thick
huckleberry
milked from the stem plunk plunk
in our buckets     fresh scat purple
with fruit

so much
we cannot stop
bigger loads just one more
woodstove glowing into the night
horse clams

—Ann Spiers

Some of poems are in numbered parts. All are spare, no punctuation, no ands or buts — all those little “stage directions” such as yet, then, next, “I thought,” and so on that I find in my poems — anything unnecessary stripped away, life itself, stark, shining. The subject matter reminded me of my family, and these voices, hard-bitten, “briny,” took me back. I came away from it wanting to write, which is one of the reasons I value doing all this reading of poetry books every April.

Ann Spiers is poet laureate of Vashon Island, has several art-chapbooks, and teaches poetry writing. You can learn more about her (and you should!) at http://annspiers.com.

Christmas Stories

I was just over at Salt and saw that they have three poems by Lucille Clifton — a one-of-a-kind human being and poet I was privileged to hear in person a few times.  Salt had a Christmas poem by Billy Collins last week (also worth a visit), and in this week’s offering, keeping faith with the season, Clifton’s poems, “mary’s dream,” “a song of mary,” and “john,” i.e. John the Baptizer.

This past Sunday I attended my childhood church and there, too, the message was drawn from one of those leading-up-to Christmas passages in the book of Luke. I have to set the stage here a bit, if you’re to follow where I’m going (which is, my apologies, not quite clear even to me). The couple who now pastor the church are in their 80s. My parents would have loved them. This ministry is a definite calling for the Bakers, and it came quite late in life. So when “Sister Baker” (as we say) talked in her sermon about the angel Gabriel visiting Zechariah, to tell him his wife Elizabeth, “well stricken in years,” would bear a child, a precursor to Christ — well, she had a personal response.

Zechariah tried to tell Gabriel it just couldn’t happen. We’re too old, he said. So he had to be struck mute. As Sister Baker said, when God has a plan, if you can’t get on board, he may ask you to get out of the way. Then — this was her personal response — she added, “I sure hope Gabriel doesn’t show up and tell me I have to have a baby, at my age.” Everyone laughed.

I’m not quite sure where I’m going with this, except for the last two days I’ve been wondering how I can work this anecdote into a poem. It’s easier to imagine a challenge for the fiction writers in my group:

Write a scene in which a character attends a church service and hears a message that makes him or her uncomfortable.

I hadn’t been too sure about this trip, but the church service itself didn’t make me at all uncomfortable. My brother and sister and their spouses were there (my brother said at lunch that he was surprised the church didn’t fall down); also one my of aunts (age 86), and about a dozen of my cousins from all over Southwest Washington. Lots of music. I did a complete flashback to my childhood and wept. Much has changed (the drums and guitars up front), and I knew only two of the people in their small congregation. But there was a time for personal testimony, and an altar call at the end — both could have been scripted from a service when I was seven.

I’ve been rereading Gaston Bachelard’s The Poetics of Space, and this morning I underlined this line:

“our emotion is perhaps nothing but an expression of a poetry that was lost” (p. 6).

That’s kind of the space my thoughts are hovering over.

Here’s one of the poems from Salt:

mary’s dream

winged women was saying
“full of grace” and like.
was light beyond sun and words
of a name and a blessing.
winged women to only i.
i joined them, whispering
yes.

–Lucille Clifton

Mostly, I’ve been wondering what’s calling me right now — what’s completely unexpected and calling me — and how to say “yes” to it.

Happy Birthday, Mom

I was up at 5:30 this morning, fretting about the political scene, finally getting out of bed and stumbling to my writing desk.

I finished the review I’ve been trying to write for months, revised a poem, and queried one more agent, regarding my mystery novel. I was typing today’s date, 10.8.20, when I remembered that today is my mother’s birthday. Or, as we say when someone has passed, today is the anniversary of her birth.

Since Mom’s death, on October 12, 2018, I’ve written a lot of poems that seem to be about her. Even this week, writing about two great blue herons on a dock, I was drawing from the memory of a walk I took after visiting Mom at her skilled-nursing facility. The poem felt shot-through with her presence.

Mom and I had a lot of differences. Setting up her apartment after she moved from the farmhouse, I would set out her knick knacks and pictures so they were asymmetrical. I like triangles, staggered lines, angles. She would come behind me and straighten everything to be evenly balanced and straight across.

Mom was proud of  me, I think, but she didn’t understand my choice to become educated and we could never talk about it. She thought being a teacher was a good thing. But I had overdone it, getting a Ph.D. in literature. It seemed like a waste of money to her that we were saving for our daughters’ higher education. “College has ruined your mind,” she said to me once.

We were at opposite ends of the political spectrum. Or it felt as though we were. So were the rest of my family of origin. (My daughters think this is hilarious: “You’re like their black sheep.”) It was God’s grace that I was able to set aside those differences during the years of caring for Mom in her decline.

But we shared things, too. We both loved mystery novels. I was a little more hard-boiled about it, but I was perfectly happy to spend evenings with her watching the light-hearted mystery-comedies that she loved: Monk, and Murder, She Wrote. After her stroke in 2014 she was no longer able to follow a television program and I brought home her DVDs. I never watched them. Watching the shows with her was the whole point.

It means a lot to me that I was able to read a chapter of my murder mystery to her before her death. Did she take it in? I’m not sure. (“That woman!” she said.)

Here’s a poem from a 2018 notebook that I recently stumbled across. I had forgotten that I wrote it:

Pilgrimage

After her death
I would wake
in the night,
my heart tender
as a bruise,
the night room purple
in moonlight wavering
like the surface of
a pond. The room
was a pond,
or a chalice, water
like satin, familiar
as thirst or hunger.
What communion
was this, where there was
no sorrow now
and no more longing?
I had reached the end
of the journey I made
with my mother,
the quest of her final
ten years, the quest
of my whole life
in company with her,
ushered to a close.
Waking, I drank
from that cup.
I ate the bread.
I waited for the benediction
to bless me as I walked on.

Happy birthday, Mom.

Jed Myers

Photograph copyrighted by Rosanne Olson

WATCHING THE PERSEIDS, Jed Myers. Sacramento Poetry Center Press, 1719 25th St., Sacramento CA, 95816, 84 pages, $15 paper, http://www.sacramentopoetrycenter.com/.

Speaking of independent bookstores, I purchased Watching the Perseids at BookTree in Kirkland, Washington, after attending a workshop and reading given by no other than Jed Myers himself. The poems are about Myers’s father, but they are also about memory and families and music and baseball and our desire to revisit the ineffable past.

Here is the title poem:

Watching the Perseids

The broadcast’s breaking up in static–
solar flares, snow, ozone
fluctuations, I don’t know.

Should I care? I can still play the message
my phone captures one year back–
No Time for Love“–he sings

the refrain in that same boyish tone
I’d heard come out of him over a steak,
or climbing the bleachers to our seats,

my hand in his, before
a night game at Connie Mack. Even
on his way out in the cold in the dawn

to catch the train, singing whatever
he said–his brisk See ya lat-er!
down the steps. See ya to-night!

Singing the tireless dance of his life–
he left no time in it for the quiet
closeness of watching the Perseids

or the river from its banks, the fire’s
sparks disappearing into the dark….
Not until it was near the time

for hospice, to never again know
where he was. Those last hours on his own
bed, I’d lie beside him and we’d sing

whatever old tune came into either
one of our heads. Quiet.
Like watching the tide.

Now, his music is drowning
in surf-sound. My brain’s magic
receiver is shorting out. Or is it

the train I hear, him on it, still
singing, voice going remote
in the clatter and hiss? Has he lifted

the ticket out of his coat pocket,
handed it over to the conductor,
and sat back, softly sounding out

Lullaby of Birdland? I can wonder,
try to hear his voice in the white noise
between my ears, while he travels

like the seasoned commuter he was
to that city past the meteors, out
past the planets, in the stars.