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Joseph Powell: THE SLOW SUBTRACTION: A.L.S.

THE SLOW SUBTRACTION: A.L.S., Joseph Powell. MoonPath Press, P.O. Box 445, Tillamook, OR 27142, 2019, 80 pages, $16, paper, http://MoonPathPress.com.

The Slow Subtraction is a collection of love poems. Difficult content, yes, addressing the diminishment visited upon a beloved with a chronic illness, but love poems, no less.

We never think of coughing
as a blessing
until we can’t cough. (“Ironies”)

Practical realities, the minutiae of care-giving, but also the gift of close attention: “A studious winter light magnifies the afternoon” (“Yakima Canyon in Winter”). Or consider these lines:

the carnelian arrowhead found in the garden,
the painted floral plate she bought in Greece,
the cinnabar snuffbottle (“Ringing”)

According to his biographical note, Joseph Powell now lives on a small farm outside Ellensburg, gardening, fly-fishing, and scrounging, “hunting mushrooms and agates, picking berries,” after thirty years teaching in the English department at Central Washington University for thirty years. Lucky students, to have had the grace of such attention to the trajectory of details, beauty and danger, in every life.

I wanted to give you “At Adrianne’s House on Patmos” (“The lemon trees curl inward / and the warmth is a soft net over us”), but I think it has to be this one:

Faith

She has passed through the heavy doors of grace.
Its spareness a kind of amplitude.
Small things wash away like bathwater.
Even the choking for air after a bad swallow
has lost its wild-eyed reflex
as if she’s stroking the leopard beside her
until breath comes back.

Her faith is in the rightness of demise,
in the mind’s transformative evolution,
the feel of the enlarged pulse
in the sway of events, the way pettiness
is candleflicker against the passing night,
the divinity of sleep on cool afternoons.

She has taken the sacrament of faith
like a host into her failing body.
It enlightens the spiral of fragments
in memory’s house—dust in small sunlit rooms.
Love is the old dog asleep at the door.

—Joseph Powell, The Slow Substractions: A.L.S.

I read (or reread) this book while sitting in the ER beside my husband’s bed (he is fine now). I was going to begin this post with something like “I don’t recommend…,” but it was actually the perfect setting.

Life is always going on all around us. The ten thousand things. When we are caught up in the drama of it, stopping to notice those details is a great help.

Joseph Powell has published 6 books of poetry. You can read more about him, and his poem “The Snake,” also from this book, at https://moonpathpress.com/JosephPowell.htm. See his poem (and hear him read) “Upside Down and Flying” at https://www.terrain.org/2019/poetry/joseph-powell/.

Patricia Fargnoli (1937-2021)

WINTER, Patricia Fargnoli. Hobblebush Books, Brookline, NH, 2013, 88 pages, $18, paper, https://www.hobblebush.com.

When MoonPath’s Lana Hechtman Ayres told me Patricia Fargnoli had been her teacher and mentor, I went looking for her. Winter, the sixth volume in the Hobblebush Granite State Poetry Series, was the first to arrive, and is now on sale for $9 at Hobblebush Books (use this link: https://www.hobblebush.com/product-page/winter).

I have fallen hard for this book, and this poet. In “The Horse,” she begins:

I let the horse into my apartment,
pushed back chairs,
shoved the rattan chest
up against the tall bookcases…

Horses abound in this book. What’s not to love?

In addition to any other praise I might dish out, it’s a perfect book to read on a cold and rainy January day. Yes, New Hampshire, snow, but it works its spell here in the Pacific Northwest, too: “[I] found a sad music in the fork of an ash tree, / a music made of wind and the tuning forks of stars” (“Glosa”). As Meg Kearney tells us on the back cover, Fargnoli has “listened deeply to the silence of winter.”

Many of the poems in Winter are about dreams. A line from “Beginning of Winter—A Sijo Sequence”: “Last night in the dream I was hungry, but there was no food.” Or the ending of “Letter to my Double”:

Your dreams tell you what you want:
a man’s arms around your body, a safe place near water,
a bus that arrives on time to carry you home.

She captures the mundane, that daily seemingly ordinary life that we all find ourselves up against, while lifting it above the ordinary. Home, here, is not just the physical place where you lie down at night. The following poem, too, is about an actual place (Ireland, which made me choose it), but it transports us into a dreamscape:

Galway

            after Tranströmer’s “Track”

Thousands of crows flew through the Irish dusk
toward the copse of dark plane trees not far from here,
between the university and the famous river,

as when memories wing in from your past
with their loud continuous cawing
and then move beyond you, you don’t know where.

Or as when someone dies and her spirit rises
to join the others who are leaving the world’s sadness
to find a resting place in the quiet night branches beyond you.

The crows streamed past the high clerestory windows.
Dusk. The small wood they entered. The silver river.

—Patricia Fargnoli (from Winter)

Notice how the crows are actual, but spur memories that “wing in from your past / with their loud continuous cawing.” Sorry, but I just want to gush on and on. I’ve been thinking (a lot) about how one gets the evanescent, the transcendent into one’s poems, and Fargnoli offers a master class.

When I was working on The Pear Tree, I often thought of something Priscilla Long says in her chapter, “Art and Elegy,” in Dancing with the Muse in Old Age:

“Is it too obvious to say that one advantage of growing old is to remain alive to the beauty and suffering of the world? To make an elegy is to express that beauty and that suffering.” —Priscilla Long

The elegy, the courage to elegize, is a strength of Fargnoli’s Winter.

To learn more about Patricia Fargnoli, visit her page at Hobblebush Books (“Read Sample” offers a PDF of the opening pages of Winter, including the informative table of contents and the first few poems). When I Googled her name I found several video recordings of “Winter’s Grace,” perhaps her best-known poem (which you can also find at https://www.writersalmanac.org/index.html%3Fp=11037.html). Simply gorgeous.

Happy Solstice

Greetings & Gratitude would be a good subtitle for this post.

It’s been one of those years — I’m thinking of the news headlines, but also the loss of people dear to me. The last of my mother’s brothers died this summer, and a shocking number of my older cousins slipped away throughout 2023.

In the writing world, we lost several notables, including Linda Pastan and Louise Gluck. Locally, we lost the Edmonds poet John Wright. And, as I learned only last week, my poetry teacher, MFA advisor, and long-time mentor, Colleen McElroy died on December 12, 2023.

Perhaps that’s why I keep bumping into these lines from Wendell Berry:

To Know the Dark

To go in the dark with a light is to know the light.

To know the dark, go dark. Go without sight,

and find that the dark, too, blooms and sings,

and is traveled by dark feet and dark wings.

        –Wendell Berry

In such times, when one doesn’t naturally dwell on gratitude, there is all the more reason to lean into it.

And, yes, I have had lots to be grateful for in 2023. Husband in good health. Daughters thriving, each in her own merry way. Spring brought a terrific road trip to see Yellowstone National Park (a first for me, westerner though I am), which included (in addition to lots and lots of driving) a stop in Spokane to see Bruce’s family. In August, my husband and daughters accompanied me to my family reunion in Doty, Washington, where I saw all my siblings, my mother’s two remaining sisters, plus many cousins, nieces, and nephews. With the aforementioned daughters I also went to Disneyland (for “Spooky Disney” in October, my girls’ choice for a trip to celebrate turning 30). On every trip I managed to reconnect with old friends, and a couple new ones, too.

And, there’s the writing thing.

Besides numerous writing retreats and junkets with fun-loving poets, I am SO so grateful for my new book The Pear Tree: elegy for a farm, and to Lana Hechtman Ayers, the Albiso Award, and MoonPath Press.

I am grateful to have had a front-row seat to watch my friend Carla Shafer play her part in the 2023 Jack Straw cohort.

I took two classes in 2023, one being a repeat of the Summer Intensive (prose-writing) with Seattle writer and teacher Priscilla Long (I wrote a new story out of my ancestral-stories vein, and ginned out two new essays). The second class (which I audited) was taught at the University of Buffalo by Dickinson scholar Cristanne Miller on Emily Dickinson’s letters (a new edition of which, edited by Miller and Domnahl Mitchell, will be published by Harvard UP Spring 2024).

I kept up my practice of writing a poem every week this year, and I’m grateful for a whole bunch of 2023 publications. If you can bear with me, here’s the list:

Two of my poems were included in Purr and Yowl, the delightful new anthology of poetry about cats, edited by Rose Alley Press’s David D. Horowitz, and published by World Enough Writers (https://worldenoughwriters.com).

I have a poem in vol. 16 of Delmarva Review, which arrived in the mail only last week.

My poem, “Faith & Doubt,” was a semi-finalist for the Crab Creek Review Poetry Prize, and will appear in the forthcoming issue of Crab Creek Review. 

The amazing Cirque: A Literary Journal for the North Pacific Rim published my poem, “In the Beginning.”

Some of these I’ve mentioned before, poems published earlier this year by the following (journals and on-line venues to put on your send-out list):

Descant; Naugatuck River Review: a Journal of Narrative Poetry that Sings; Braided Way; Escape Into Life; Hare’s Paw; Hole in the Head Review; The Dewdrop; Clackamas Literary Review; The Freshwater Review; Compass Rose Literary Journal; and Catamaran. (See my CV for clickable links to many of these.)

Oh, and I can’t forget my poem in the splendid anthology I Sing the Salmon Home, edited by Rena Priest and published by Empty Bowl.

Other than poems:

In 2023, my short story, “Wheels of the Bus,” was published at The Fictional Cafe, May 15, 2023. (It was a strange, experimental thing for me, not like any other story I’ve written, but there it is.)

And, in addition to another April full of appreciative blog posts about poetry books, I had two reviews published in other venues: Tele Aadsen’s What Water Holds, at Raven Chronicles, and Sati Mookherjee’s Ways of Being at EIL (links are to my blog posts).

And…and…and…in addition to working with individual poets this year, I continued to facilitate a writing group (originally composed of EvCC outlaw writers), and taught a poetry class. I hope to do more of the same in 2024.

What else? In my old family newsletters, I always gave an update on our animals, so, briefly, our Tibetan Terrier, Pabu, is now 15, sleeping a lot, but still with us. This year we lost our last “family” cat, Mr. Richie Stubbz, a beautiful huge tuxedo cat who had been living with our youngest daughter. (She has now adopted two kittens, Esteban and Simon.)

Which prompts me to offer you a poem by my friend, poet Joannie Stangeland. The opening lines are what we’re all waiting for.

The Cat’s Poem

Waiting for snow to write the branches, grass, mud into a poem.

The day stays as gray as the cat who appeared last night.

The cat as gray as a ghost hunched on our front porch.

More fluff and purr than body, waiting to make our house his home.

A place left bare after our cat died.

The night was cold and colder.

Snugged close to the storm door — still, he stayed.

This gray cat with collar, tags, a name and numbers.

Maybe Lenny was lost or missing? The cat’s poem, I am here and I don’t know where.

My son texted the owners, who were out of town.

Could we take him to their house, let him in? and we did.

How strange the cat choosing our house and strange the staying.

This morning, I check the porch, hoping, knowing it’s wrong.

— Joannie Stangeland, Purr and Yowl (p. 186)

To all of you who have graced and lightened (and lit up!) my work and my days in 2023, thank you.

a view of Glen Cove during our November writers’ retreat

 

Debra Elisa: YOU CAN CALL IT BEAUTIFUL

YOU CAN CALL IT BEAUTIFUL, Debra Elisa. MoonPath Press, PO Box 445, Tillamook, OR 97141, 2023, 107 pages, $17.99 paper, http://MoonPathPress.com.

I’m enthralled by this book of poems by Oregon poet Debra Elisa. My first impression was that her poems made a good contrast to mine, choreographed differently, her language distinct and pocked with color. But as I read more deeply, I began to see how our subjects and themes overlap: childhood songs, mothers and grandmothers, kitchens, birds, dogs, backyard gardens.

We also—if I can extend my interests beyond my new book—share a fascination with Emily Dickinson, as this cover blurb written by Allen Braden makes clear, calling Debra’s style “as idiosyncratic as Emily Dickinson’s with poems flaunting ‘breath and tiptoe glory and Clover.’”

And so much more, poems about social justice, poems about peace. Consider these lines:

You write often of    Trees   Dogs   Birds
she says       and I feel disappointed      because I wish

her to tell me       You challenge us to consider justice
and love in all sorts of ways.

(“Dear Friend”)

In short, this is an eclectic, surprising collection of poems.

What makes You Can Call It Beautiful a coherent collection (too) is the way Debra weaves her themes throughout, and unites all of it with her gift for sound and color. In “On the Way to Khajuraho” we encounter “Saris of aubergine    azure    black ayayas,” ending with “Ginger    and     Sunrise // charging again / this peregrine Land.” Having traveled so little myself, I’m both in awe of Debra, and grateful for her generous, joyful evocations.

Ekphrastic poetry—poetry about art—is another thread. This poem, quoted in full, evokes the cover art. At the same time it demonstrates the motif of elegy that twines all the way through the book:

Boy on Bicycle

            after Graciela Rodo Boulanger’s
            Le vainqueur (The Winner), etching, 1968

One painting
on the living room wall
the boy pedals
grin and play
pastel blues
celadon
was gift to you
then left
to me

when I asked
for this delight to hang
in my own home.

The others—charcoal
and sketch    a single brushstroke
acrylic eyes    another crimson
your creations
beginnings and conversation
we continue.

Your portrait—slight smile
glance to camera—
set on my desk
another on a kitchen shelf.

You left us early

and some stories
you believed
were never
true.

—Debra Elisa

Debra’s book is available from MoonPath Press, from https://bookshop.org, and from your local independent bookseller. You can read another poem by Debra at MoonPath on her author page, and you can read her blog, here: https://www.l-i-t.org/author/debelisa/