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T. Clear: A House, Undone

A HOUSE, UNDONE, T. Clear. MoonPath Press, PO Box 445, Tillamook, OR 97141, 2022, 86 pages, $16.00 paper, http://MoonPathPress.com.

What a pleasure to read this book this morning!

“Pleasure” seems a less than adequate word as the topics of some of these poems drift far from the pleasurable. Unexpected deaths, lawsuits, houses slipping from foundations. Bird nests, dismantled. A beloved’s clothes trundled off to Good Will. Squalor of a homeless camp. Even so, in every poem we find the glitter of well-chosen words. The trajectory of the poems pulls a life together, lining up events like laundry on a clothesline: “ice brittled in every empty pocket.”

Kelli Russell Agodon, from the back cover: “A House, Undone becomes the beautiful architecture for poetry, where we live in a house of words on ‘a bed littered with leaves, / starlight for a roof.’” And Jed Meyers: “These poems turn personal loss and uprootedness into a highly contagious empathy for those whose dwellings we couldn’t call houses.”

I’m amazed by how the poet makes everything fit here. It’s biography (three sections: childhood, marriage, after) but settling in alongside the biography are two poems written in Ireland, a poem about cheese (“Autobiography of Cheese”!), beekeeping poems. I had to go back and reread just to figure out how Clear does that, and so convincingly. Maybe it’s the way house/home is always lurking around the lines: “a stone cottage hunkers / in decay, vulnerable to stars”; “let me be small enough to enter a honeyed hive / …fold myself, shoulder to shoulder, / into the sweet company of their cluster.”

I’d love to share a dozen poems, but I’ll settle for the first poem in the collection, which opens the door and invites us in:

Life Sentence

I live in a house of scant beginnings,
of rupture and leakage,

splinter and rot. A wire
dangles to nowhere, something

cut mid-sentence, a thought
that will never complete itself.

A house of raveling sweaters
and unpainted stairwells.

Crack in the glass, hemless curtain,
the last bit of aluminum foil

flattened and folded one more time.
Awaiting the phone call, the letter,

a knock at the window,
crow at the door—

here lie all my unfinished cadenzas,
my abrupted couplets.

—T. Clear

I always read the acknowledgments–“Gratitude,” here–and was so tickled to find a tribute to Professor Nelson Bentley:

…under whose tutelage I learned that one can be a poet and live a perfectly ordinary life. (Although “ordinary” is a slippery word, open to myriad interpretations.) His generous spirit, his sense of humor, and his inclusive community of poets profoundly shaped how my next forty years of “poeting” would play out.

A House, Undone shares that generous spirit. It won MoonPath’s 2021 Sally Albiso award, and you can read more about it here.

Priscilla Long: HOLY MAGIC

For our last book of my National Poetry Month jamboree, I reread Priscilla Long’s Holy Magic (MoonPath Press, 2020) and was once again astonished by its interplay of light and language, science and art, artists and song. If you don’t already have this book on your shelf, you should find a copy immediately. It’s a tutorial in how to live …and write. And though suffused with color and light, it isn’t afraid of the dark: death marches through these poems with its equal-opportunity scythe (Trayvon Martin, Matisse, Otis Redding, the poet’s sister, old friends, old loves, even a young T. Rex). Comprising seven sections and 56 poems, Holy Magic is … well, magic. I loved spending time in this book again, and delighted especially in soundplay that bumps and grinds and burns its way through every page:

Fire is cookery, crockery,
Celtic cauldrons worked
in iron or gold—smoke
of sacrificial fat.

(from “Ode to Fire”)

Holy Magic is arranged by the color wheel, and so artists are invited in, not just their art—as it strikes me this morning, but their bodies—as in lines from this short poem dedicated to Meret Oppenheimer:

Kisses rot under logs.
Lost purple thrills
perfume purloined shadows

(from “What Can Happen”)

Priscilla is one of my oldest friends, and of course I contacted her and asked a few questions. She responded with a treatise on how to gather poems and turn them into books. I am happy to share all her largesse here. (For more along this vein, see her brilliant, short book Minding the Muse.) I started the email exchange by asking how books are made; she went straight to the poems themselves:

First comes one poem and then another and then another and then one book and then another and then another. I’ve composed 667 poems so far, the first in the 1970s. I keep the poems in three-ring binders, latest version only, in chronological order, with the date of composition (not dates of revision) at the bottom, along with any publication data. This is a resource base essential to my process of shaping a book.

I had written many dozens of poems and seen many published in journals before my first book, Crossing Over: Poems was published by The University of New Mexico Press. The shape of that book was strongly influenced by the press’s mission to publish poetry having to do with the West. I’ve lived in the West for almost forty years but grew up on a farm on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, so have many poems having nothing to do with the West. I put all the poems “of the West” in a file folder and went from there.

My second book, Holy Magic won the Sally Albiso Poetry Book award from MoonPath Press. This book is organized by the color wheel. I’m entranced with colors, their histories and lexicons and power to influence our moods and being. Often I work a theme in both poetry and prose, and this is the case with the color poems in Holy Magic. Thus I have poems titled “Blues Factory” and “The Blue Distance” and “Otis Redding” and also a prose piece titled “Blue Note.” As usual I already had some of the poems and also composed many new poems to fit into the wheel.

The third book, which I’ve just completed and started circulating, is titled Somewhere / Nowhere / Here: Cartographies of Home. For the first time, I had the title first, a capacious title, I think. Again I went into my old poems to seek ones that fit (and were not published in a previous book) and also wrote new poems. It has been a tremendously enjoyable project.

Completed before the pandemic, many of the poems in Holy Magic resonate with the last year’s solitude, from which we are only now emerging (I haven’t been inside a room with Priscilla for 14 months!). This poem, for one instance:

Tasks of Solitude

I am working out the vocabulary of my silence. —Muriel Rukeyser 

To learn the dawn-purpled dark,
winter’s ruby light rinsing
rugs and books. To hone obedience
to cats: cat-blinks, cat-lappings.
To keen the silvery moon
hung on a dark throat.

To unlock the door:
to enter the room of blue jugs.
To pour darkness from the coffeepot,
to learn the edges of darkness:
doorjamb, floorboard, candleflame,
the wavering edge where desire
thickens and vanishes like smoke.

—Priscilla Long

But, lest you think she works in isolation, this:

Poetry happens as part of a community, beginning with the community of all poets, living and long gone. My friend Bethany Reid (of this blog) and I have worked together on poetry ever since we met in the poet Colleen McElroy’s workshop in 1989 in the MFA program at the University of Washington. In the past year we have undertaken the project of alternately finding a model poem to scrutinize and learn from. We then each compose a poem and we workshop them at a weekly meeting (on Zoom).

I have my monthly workshop, brilliant perceptive writers and visual artists that I cannot do without. We have been meeting for thirty years.

I am a teacher of writing, including poetry, but I take a class from time to time, mostly at Hugo House. I like classes that involve generating new poems: I’m about to take another from the fine poet and teacher Deborah Woodard. During the Holy Magic process I took a class from Sierra Nelson on writing color poems—a great class!

Reading a poem at one or another of the open mics around town (now around Zoom) is an essential piece of bringing a poem up.

My final question was to ask how she knows when a book is finished. How do you stop fidgeting with it, and send it into the world?

How do I tell a when book of poems is thoroughly cooked? After it is what I call “quote done” I read over the whole thing every morning. This can go on for months. Most mornings I find something to tweak. When several days go by with nothing to tweak, it might be done. Then there’s the process of having one or two poets read the whole thing. Their ideas are important and invariably prompt further tweaks.

Now I am in the floundering-about stage of shaping another book. What are my themes and concerns? Animals? The environment? Our beloved, broken country?

One more short poem to whet the appetite:

Consider the Red Pear

So what good are your scribblings? —H.D.

Beauty. The red pear
Cézanne painted among jade
and wood. Or Miró’s orange
sun rising in Red Sun. Or H.D.’s
charred apple tree blooming
in the bombed ruin of London.
The poet’s pale petals drift
down our long years. Art endures.
The stylus, the palette,
the pen, the quill endure. 
In my backyard, a stone
Buddha laughs.

—Priscilla Long

To learn more about Priscilla, visit her “about” page at her website, which includes this interview with Seattle book-goddess Nancy Pearl.

To purchase Priscilla’s books, or any books you have encountered on your journey with me this past month:

Raúl Sánchez: ALL OUR BROWN-SKINNED ANGELS

I first met Raúl Sánchez in 2017 at Book Tree in Kirkland, where I heard him read his poems. He is a gracious presence, the sort of person who makes you feel visible, as though he is graced by your presence, rather than the other way around. He is the poet laureate of Redmond, Washington, and his book, All Our Brown-Skinned Angels (MoonPath Press, 2012) was nominated for the 2013 Washington State Book Award in Poetry. To learn more about him, visit his website or go to Pictures of Poets.

This morning, as I reread his poems, I remembered that brief meeting. I tried to put into words, for myself, why he had made such an impression. Maybe it was only his welcoming manner, maybe only that I went away from that reading feeling encouraged about my own work. In this short poem, for instance, he might be speaking to all the brown-skinned angels, but he is also speaking to other poets:

Breath

At day’s end we try to remain bright
speak colorfully, for words
are like the clothes we wear—
we wear them on our tongues

He is a poet of witness and he invites us to see the world through his eyes, and through the eyes of the people he writes about: minimum wage workers, the brown-skinned boy arrested for looking “like the guy they were after,” the Mestizo, the migrant and Milagro – miracle, the free American.

This is the first poem in the book (following this quote from Blaise Pascal: “The last thing one discovers in composing a work is what to put first”):

Gravity

A woman next to me asks
are you writing a poem?
Scribbles I say
from all the places
I left behind:
family mysteries
incidents come to mind
toilet paper ripping beyond the notches
social arts delivered on snack trays
my father’s business
Uncle Parcel’s tips challenged
revenge’s mastery
philosphers’ teachings
unfamiliar sand tricks
seventy-five degrees longitude
being submerged in holy rivers
anointed paramahamsas
above the self, my self
not for herself, itself
half empty whiskey glasses
translated stories five degrees below
the tropic of cancer
scorching sand illuminated
reflecting sunglasses
empty whiskey glasses
no faith in things unknown
findable frequencies of facts
the world a glass full of rain
the world a plane
landing on a tiny runway
the world at my feet
held down by gravity

—Raúl Sánchez

At the beginning of the second section – dos – of the book, Raúl quotes Gabriel García Márquez: “It’s much more important to write than to be written about.” This strikes me as a key not just to his poetics, but to his way of being. It was a privilege to spend time with him again today.

James Bertolino

RAVENOUS BLISS: NEW & SELECTED LOVE POEMS, James Bertolino. MoonPath Press, PO Box 1808, Kingston, WA 98346, 2014, 140 pages, $18 paper, http://moonpathpress.com/.

What a lovely way to spend my afternoon! In this new & selected potpourri of love poems from the inestimable northwest treasure, James Bertolino, you encounter images that make you want to pour a glass of red and call your beloved inside. In “Origami Prayer,” for instance: “The whisper / of the delicate paper / folds her fingers // springs her East / to a bird // the wings of which / trip bright / gardens / in my heart.” In these poems, limbs become bowls of fruit and relationships move forward “over the frets / of a guitar.” You never know what’s going to happen, and then it does.

With cover art by Bertolino’s wife, Anita K. Boyle (also a fine poet), Ravenous Bliss is a book to own, and makes a swell Valentine’s Day gift.

Like Quartz

If I said I love her the way
I love rutilated quartz,
would she understand?

My love for lizards
and my love for her are not
the same, but what I feel

for nested fledglings, and
the brown and yellow salamander
with its wide grin, is mixed

with my love. The blue
wildflowers high in the dry
California hills remind me

that she is gentle, yet hardy.
Could she believe me if I claimed
my love is the lightning of

the aquatic garter snake
when it moves its single dorsal stripe
across a pond? I think of power

rising through her
from the earth to touch me,
and shriek with joy

like the Steller’s Jay.