Elizabeth Austen, The Girl Who Goes Alone

THE GIRL WHO GOES ALONE, Elizabeth Austen. Floating Bridge Press, 909 NE 43rd St, #205, Seattle, WA 98105, 2010, 40 pages, $12 paper,

I was excavating shelves, looking for a more recent Floating Bridge chapbook—which I know I purchased last year—and I turned up this one. Yes, I read it a long time back, with pleasure, but it hasn’t ever made it onto the blog. So, here we are, another book about a poet, walking.

The Girl Who Goes Alone won the Floating Bridge chapbook award and was Elizabeth Austen’s poetry debut. Since 2010 she has gone on to write several books, including the full-length Every Dress a Decision (2011). She served as Poet Laureate of Washington State from 2014-2016. She is an acclaimed teacher and speaker. Her poems capture the “trance-like tidal pull / of sweat and flesh” (“For Lost Sainthood”), while at the same time eluding any grasp. Dave Meckleburg described The Girl Who Goes Alone as “an excellent feminist manifesto,” that “becomes a guidebook through the wilderness of being human that anyone can use.” Exactly.

In the title poem, warnings abound, “girls outside aren’t safe,” “Girls must be chaperoned”:

Tell someone you’re going into the woods alone
and they’ll fill your ears with every story they’ve ever heard
about trailside cougar attacks, cave-dwelling misogynists
lightning strikes, forest fires, flash floods
and psychopaths with a sixth sense of a woman alone in a tent.

But, this girl? She goes everywhere. (You can hear Austen read this poem at her website.)


In case the river calls me, I carry
two stones. But this is a lie, Virginia.
I have only enough courage to carry on.
These stones are nothing more
than pocketed threats. I am not
anyone I expected to be.
Give me some message, dreamer
or give me back my sleep. Are we here
by grace? Virginia, you knew
the consequence of silence.
This page is the only prayer I know, the line
I follow into darkness. Is there anything
the body, the breakable body
can say or save?

—Elizabeth Austen

Learn more about Austen’s awesomeness at Pictures of Poets,, or her website. Be sure to check out some of her videos!

Digging Deeper

On Friday I drove with a couple of friends to Tieton, near Yakima, Washington, to attend Litfuse: a Poets’ Workshop. While there, I took classes from Samuel Green, Elizabeth Austen, and Ellen Bass — and others — and every class had time built in for opening a notebook and writing. I came home Sunday afternoon, with my head spinning.

Sunday was the blood moon, of course, and having spent the weekend with poets, there was no way I was going to

Lit Explosive Fuse Crackling and Sparking

miss it, no matter how exhausted I was. My youngest daughter refused to go with me. My other daughter still living at home was at work. My husband said, If you find it, sure, give me a call.

I was not going to miss it. I took the dog with me and drove, searching for a place without trees obscuring the eastern horizon. Not easy where we live. I drove down to the Sound, but that didn’t work at all (even though quite a number of people had gathered there). Finally, over the airfield, there it was! Very faint, low to the horizon, not all that big, but definitely in eclipse, pinkish-red. Lovely. I pulled the car over and Pabu and I got out to watch. One other car pulled up: everyone leapt out of the car, a woman took a picture with her cell phone, and they all leapt back into the car and drove away. I called my husband and told him to bring the binoculars. We stood in the parking lot of QFC, near a Jack in the Box, leaning on our car, and watched for an hour. We talked about where we are likely to be in 2033 when this particular combination of Blood Moon and Eclipse take place again. Older daughter got off work and joined us. Husband went home. I watched until the moon was back to its usual, brilliant self. High in the sky and easily visible from our house. No searching required. My 16-year-old’s sort of boyfriend showed up (Do you want to go look at the moon?) and they disappeared into the night.

“Be the sort of person on whom nothing is lost,” Henry James advised a young writer. Sherman Alexie, speaking at Seattle Arts and Lectures this past year, said something on the order of, You can make a poem out of anything — it’s what happens, and what you think about what happened (and then he read a poem about doing laundry).

I remember once being told that you can’t write poems about the moon — it’s been done too often. But at Litfuse, when Ellen Bass brought up how love poems are a little overdone, she then added, But of course we’re going to write love poems! We just have to write really good ones. Elizabeth Austen called it digging deeper.

In my reading this morning, I came across this quote, from novelist Jonathan Franzen: “With every book, you have to dig as deep as possible and reach as far as possible. And if you succeed in producing a reasonably good book, you’re going to have to dig even farther, or else, again it won’t be worth writing. And what that means, in practice, is that you have to become a different person to write the next book. The person you are already wrote the best book you could. There’s no way to move forward without changing yourself.”

For every poem. There is a poem in this material for me about the frustrations of having a 16-year-old daughter, about my husband indulging me even when he thinks I’m cracked, about being a poet, about seeing what we’re given to see. Here I am, shovel in hand…

“Digging” by Seamus Heaney

(For text, click on this link: Digging by Seamus Heaney : The Poetry Foundation.) Seamus Heaney (1939-2013) was an international treasure, a native of Ireland, and a longtime professor at Harvard. His poem, “Digging,” contrasts his own work of writing, with his father’s manual labor. I thought it would be a nice follow-up to Grace Paley’s, “The Poet’s Occasional Alternative.”

My habit–these past four days–has been to 1) post the poem here; then 2) write it out in my notebook; and then, 3) try writing my own poem, using the original as a kind of model. One way to do this is strictly, so if the poet begins with an adjective, you begin with an adjective, then a noun, and so forth. But another way is simply to free associate from the poem’s theme or approach. After rereading “Digging,” a few times, I think I’ll write about my mother’s work and the extent to which it has differed from mine.

If you’re looking for more inspiration, remember Chris Jarmick’s blog, Poetry Is Everything, and notice that he recommends the video prompts by Washington State Poet Laureate, Elizabeth Austen.


Day 19: Poem in your Pocket Day

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Visit to see some possibilities for Poem in your Pocket day. I have heard that Elizabeth Austen, our new Washington State poet laureate  will be at the Mount Lake Terrace library at 2:00 this afternoon. (Go to “Events” to find the listing.)

One of the suggestions is to text a poem to all your contacts. This gave me an idea. I’m combining POETRYisEVERYTHING’s prompt, to write a gripe, with a poetry assignment I once gave my students (the ONE time my college allowed me to teach poetry). This assignment was called a HONKU, cribbed, if I remember correctly, from a New Yorker “Talk of the Town” piece about a wave of protest poems, Haiku’s posted on telephone poles, etc. (My students were inspired to write some pretty amazing ones, and they were required to post at least one in a public place.) So here’s a new one from me.

Well, everyone knows that a Haiku plays with syllables…though it doesn’t have to (in English, so I’m told, we can mess with that). I stuck with the formula of 3 lines of 5, 7, and 5 syllables. The first two lines set up the problem, the final line delivers the protest.

Daughters up all night —
Friends dropping in, shrieks, laughter.
I’m old! I need sleep!

I know, I know, I’m not all that old.

Happy Poem in your Pocket Day.