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The Benefits of Paying Attention

I decided to spend the month of August browsing through, reading, and writing about Emily Dickinson because I knew that doing so would have huge benefits. And it wasn’t simply the benefit of getting reacquainted with Emily that I was after, though it was a major consideration.

I knew that spending a few minutes a day in this way would be like hitting my own re-set button–a way of paying close attention to the things that Emily Dickinson herself paid close attention to–

Quirky word choices
Colors & Birds & Flowers
Abrupt and unusual sentencing patterns
A fresh look at the play of light and what it might do in poetry

And of course some things that I don’t know yet that I don’t know.

Watching the eclipse with two of my daughters and my husband yesterday, at our local grade school, I was struck with the knowledge that this, too, was a poetic endeavor. We were not a racially diverse group, though the grade school generally is, we were different in configuration and (I suspect) in our political views. But for an hour we all watched the sky. Another family had eclipse glasses (lame of me not to have them, I know) and happily shared them (what a difference!). All across America–given our coast to coast solar phenomenon–people were doing the same, staring at the sky.  Here in Snohomish County, Washington, we had an eclipse of only 92%, and it was surprising that so little sun could keep everything alight. But it did get a little like dusk. And the temperature dropped. Its main effect was on us, those of us watching–letting down our own guard, feeling wonderstruck and grateful to have witnessed it.

That’s what I do when I study Emily Dickinson’s poems and fragments. Not every line is a wonder (such is the effect of fame, Nietzsche’s note about his lost umbrella becomes as important as his books). But I keep looking. The attention, itself, begins to feed into the spectacle. I let down my own guard, and I let something, someone else all the way in.

I’m told that the next total solar eclipse to be visible in the continental United States will be in seven years, April 8, 2024. But poetry, that’s available every day.

My God – He sees thee – 
Shine thy best –
Fling up thy Balls of Gold
Till every Cubit play with thee
And every Crescent hold –
Elate the Acre at his feet –
Upon his Atom swim –
Oh Sun – but just a Second’s right
In thy long Race with him!

-Emily Dickinson (J1178)

Earth Day

mv spokane

Yesterday I took the two-hour trip to see my mother. It was a sparkling blue day and the ferry crossing was blue, blue, and blue.

It was Earth Day, and we all might continue celebrating by reading something about Science and our besieged planet, or by checking to see if there’s a March for Science coming up in your hometown.

You might write a poem. Here’s an old one by Amy Clampitt:

GRADUAL CLEARING

Late in the day the fog
wrung itself out like a sponge
in glades of rain,
sieving the half-invisible
cove with speartips;
then, in a lifting
of wisps and scarves, of smoke-rings
from about the islands, disclosing
what had been wavering
fishnet plissé as a smoothness
of peau-de-soie or just-ironed
percale, with a tatting
of foam out where the rocks are,
the sheened no-color of it,
the bandings of platinum
and magnesium suffusing,
minute by minute, with clandestine
rose and violet, with opaline
nuance of milkweed, a texture
not to be spoken of above a whisper,
began, all along the horizon,
gradually to unseal,
like the lip of a cave
or of a cavernous,
single, pearl-
engendering seashell.

Amy Clampitt  (1920-1994)

Postcard Poetry Month

CAM01030When I Met My Muse

I glanced at her and took my glasses
off — they were still singing. They buzzed
like a locust on the coffee table and then
ceased. Her voice belled forth, and the
sunlight bent. I felt the ceiling arch, and
knew that nails up there took a new grip
on whatever they touched. “I am your own
way of looking at things,” she said. “When
you allow me to live with you, every
glance at the world around you will be
a sort of salvation.” And I took her hand.

William Stafford

August is Postcard Poetry month. I hadn’t taken part in the last few years (August is always so busy!), but this year I decided to rejoin, and I’m so glad I did. The idea is to write a new, original poem, on the back of a postcard, and send it to someone on the address list. Each day, someone sends a postcard poem to you. The postcard images are the inspiration…but the received poems and postcards start to mix in, too.

I prepared by collecting short poems that I loved, by other poets, and thinking about what it was that that made me love them. I decided that it has to do with the way a short poem quickly captures an image, and then makes something more of it, something symbolic and surprising. In this poem (above) by William Stafford, you don’t expect the glasses to sing or buzz, but while you’re distracted by that, here comes a new voice, “belled forth,” and the awakening is so keenly drawn that even the nails in the ceiling insist on a role in it.

This awakening, it strikes me, is what all poetry is really about. Be awake. See the world with new eyes. Be saved by what you see.

The poem itself is a pair of glasses. And then there’s the legerdemain — the magic — of the seeing with/without them at the same instant.

image from wikimedia.org

Crossing Over

I have been singing the praises of Priscilla Long’s The Writer’s Portable Mentor for some time. But have I mentioned that I’ve been a fan of Priscilla’s poetry for…about 30 years? A popular writing teacher in Seattle (I’ve taken two of her classes), Priscilla is perhaps better known as an essayist; among her accomplishments, she authored the wonderful Science Frictions blog at The American Scholar from 2011-2013. But now, at long last, we have a book of poetry.

In her first poetry collection, Crossing Over (University of New Mexico Press, 2015), Long once again demonstrates her intense love of language. I have read most of these poems before, some of them, many times. There is a dark and desperate beauty here. A number of the poems deal with death, especially untimely death. Bridges are a literal and symbolic presence, and are interwoven with authors (some named, some alluded to or quoted) whose fictions and poems are bridges into otherwise obscure or unknown worlds. War raises its ugly head, and trash glitters amid the (always precisely named) weeds. But what strikes me most, in seeing these poems together, in this setting, is the playfulness of the language. Lines are littered with vowel rhymes and alliteration. Words repeat and ping off one another line to line and poem to poem, section to section.

Here is the first poem, which sets off a volley of sounds (and themes):

SISTER GHOST

Your beauty stuns, but
it’s static, photographic.
Your stories stir the dust,
stick to the broom.
Your drawings dream
your fine-stitched quilt.
Your death — your gift
of stones to us. No blame.
Suicides are deranged
with despair. Oh Susanne.
Were there a bridge back to you,
I would take it anywhere.

The next poem, “Queen of the Cut,” is a tribute to a Washington State bridge (the first of several), but seems as though it could be part of a diptych with the first poem, its images mirroring back toward “Sister Ghost”: “Night-gem, sun-brooch, sky-jewel,” “girl-queen,” “smoke-daughter.”

The back cover copy suggests — spot on — that these poems beg to be read aloud. And even a quick sampling of lines proves it true: “Derelict brick,” “Bluebells ding the dipthongs,” “Shall I tuck a notebook / into your rucksack, your rum cake?” But I hope no one will miss the dark undercurrent of these poems, themes of fire and smoke and ash that pull and threaten to pull us under.

To read a 2011 Authornomics interview with Priscilla, click on the link. Her website is http://www.priscillalong.com/.