Last week, I heard Caleb “The Negro Artist” Rainey read several spoken word poems at the ArtHaus Poetry Slam. One of them was in a form whose name I cannot remember, but it sounded intriguing: Begin each line with an important word from the line above. The poem he read had a circular quality, partly because of the content, but also because the form, itself, looped the poem backward as it moved forward, as if it were a thread and each line was a stitch.
I used a line by Wisława Szymborska (italicized) as a seed for this poem. The poem is partly ekphrastic, too, as it is based on a photo.
After a Photo of a House in Syria, or Was it Bosnia? – borrowing a line from Wisława Szymborska
After every war someone has to tidy up —
War being the hammer that smashes things —
Smashes them like that street or this building both bombed,
Bombed into the Stone Age. Smoke rises into a clear, blue sky.
Smoke, thick and black, pours from an apartment building, the
Apartment of a man who sits with his face in his hands
Sits on the curb by his bombed-out house, a
House filled with smoke when the fire consumed his life.
Consumed by this fate, he sits, face in hands, just the top of his head visible. On
Top of the rubble a woman shoves part of a broken wall and heaves it aside. This
Broken woman lifts the limp body of her young son from the rubble. The
Sun shines brightly and smoke pours from an old building. Near the man, an
Old woman and old man lift a slab of concrete from the street into a cart. The
Cart filled with rubble. After resting, they return to their work. After every war someone has to tidy up.
Up above, the smoke hangs like a cloud in the clear, blue sky.
To celebrate National Poetry Month, I’m exploring Amy Ludwig VanDerWater’s terrific book, Poems are Teachers. This poem combines two techniques from the book, “Visit a Place,” p. 48 and “Begin with a Question,” p. 182.
I live near a small, spring-fed creek that still has a population of naturally reproducing brook trout. If you are really careful, you can sneak up on them and spend a delightful hour watching them feed in the current.
Pine Spring Creek
Does it matter that there is a creek that still runs clear,
even here in Iowa where the dead soil from fields that
were once prairies now chokes the life out of streams?
Does it matter that there is a place where I might still
crawl on my belly to the stream’s bank-edge
and peer into a pool whose rocky bottom is
filled with the larvae of insects, not manure from hog lots;
a place where at the end of the riffles rests a flotilla
of brook trout, facing upstream, mouths agape, festooned
in haloed spots, fins fluttering, steady in the current, waiting;
a place to lie down under the late afternoon sun and
a warbler’s song, a place to catch a glimpse of the past
So I was out for a walk through the woods and heard this scratching coming from under a brushy area and, after kneeling and peering under the brambles, found a rufous-sided towhee (first I’ve seen this season) scratching quietly away, which appeals to my sense of wonder about all those small and inconspicuous things.
During National Poetry month I’m exploring Amy Ludwig VanDerWater’s great book, Poems are Teachers, as a source of inspiration. The inspiration for this piece came from p. 117, “Try on a Pattern from Nature.” And, of course, the pattern is this scratching-for-sustenance behavior so characteristic of towhees (and me.)
The towhee knows to scratch under the brush,
under the leaves. Though he is
discreet on this gray day in early spring
under a sky hidden by brambles, by clouds,
when I heard his faint scuffle
I knelt to the damp earth,
placed my elbows on the ground,
and marveled at the sustenance he draws from this
persistent turning, this upending of things
already fallen. I honor his quiet
unearthing of the hidden places.
He finds what he needs to live.
This week geologists came to talk about the Decorah Impact Crater, which got me thinking about change on a geologic timeframe.
This poem was inspired by Amy Ludwig VanDerWater’s, Poems are Teachers, “Try on a Pattern from Nature” p. 117. In this case, the pattern is the big time-frame pattern of geologic time: Create. Destroy. Create. One of my goals is to use April Poetry Month to explore this terrific resource.
he said the meteorite struck during the Mid-Ordovician,
right where we stand now; that
the crater filled with water and
became a brackish pond, or even part of a shallow sea, that
over time it filled with mud; that
it teemed with life, that this mud turned to shale, which then
eroded off the rest of the landscape except
for the crater because something that is already missing
cannot go away; he said that
the fine sediments preserved even soft-bodied creatures well enough that
they could even be named; that
he has examined only one cubic meter of shale; that
95% of the species in the shale no one had ever seen before; that
without this crater an entire world of creatures
would have been lost to time; and
I wonder: what of these lost worlds, and
what of ours, and
why does this make my heart ache so?
There is this family story of my great-grandfather’s death during the Moose Lake, Cloquet, and Duluth Fire of 1918. I have the letters my grandfather’s older brothers wrote to the other brothers describing that day. I’ve often wondered what that day must have been like. Adopting his persona helped me imagine.
I chose to write this prose poem using the persona of my great-grandfather, which was inspired by Amy Ludwig VanDerWater’s, Poems are Teachers, “Adopt another Persona” p. 75. One of my goals is to use April Poetry Month to explore this terrific resource.
Great-Grandfather Tells What Happened
Ralph and the boys found my body up there on the hill and even though he told Sophia that I looked “peaceful” and “only a little burned,” he wrote to Helge, who had shipped out with the AEF early in the fall, that when they found me a couple days after the fire they barely recognized me: “just a spot of white” amongst the destruction. Yes, sir, we knew that fire was out there to the west all morning; reports of flames and smoke kept arriving by telephone, spread through the party line. And then Floodwood, then Arnold burned. Then Woodland, which was us. So when the winds changed and the smoke and embers poured over the hill, Verner and the others took off through the swamp to find safety in the lower ground with the hope that the lake breeze would keep the fire away. But I turned back to open the barn door so the horses could escape. Their frantic neighs and white-eyed fright, oh my, that was too much for me to take. And it didn’t take long before I realized my time was up. The fire jumped the barn and closed off the way downhill. So, I said a prayer for the kids and Sophie. Sometimes things don’t work out the way you’d choose. But by then the only choice left to me was to go up the hill, to outrun the fire, which, as we found out, did not happen. Not even close.
As many days as I can in April, I will be writing a poem to celebrate Poetry Month. This is an ekphrastic poem based on a drawing by Edward Hopper. I drew inspiration from Amy Ludwig VanDerWater’s lovely book, Poems are Teachers. In this case, p. 7 “Let Art Inspire.”
Far below, a man on a deserted sidewalk
scurries quickly, only one, and it’s late,
so late the bar on the corner is locked and dark,
so late the streetlight throws a crisp black
onto each corner. There will be moments like this:
no color, just tone that flattens
into planes of light and darkness.
But there’s another person, too, maybe it’s you
at the open window three floors above peering down,
a silent watcher. Briefly, until he moves from the
light into the dark, you occupy each other’s stories:
for you, he is a man traversing a square of light, a man
whose story is unknown, unknowable;
for him, something more complex: he has simply been seen.
How many times are we seen, even if just briefly?
How many times do we enter
someone else’s story thinking
we are the star of our own? We become
a brief image, maybe even a metaphor.
I took a trip to Cardinal Marsh to check out the ducks and some sandhill cranes, stalking the shore, lifted into the sky. Watching their transition from ground to air caused me to reflect on the seasonal transition and how often transitions, even for the graceful, contain an ungainly moment when The Before and The After tug equally.
Six sandhill cranes stood
near the slough –
just filled with flights of ducks
as winter lurches toward spring –
when wary, watching
each-as-one breaks a short run –
two, three steps – their
thin legs reaching, wings
stroking, necks craning
upward toward the darkening sky.
Powerful wingtips sweep the ground. And
for three slow wingbeats, they are
hanging in the cooling March air,
drawn back toward the Earth,
straining for the sky.
and like me, you might find it necessary sometimes
to lean in and feel the warmth of images struck
against the day’s cold stone, or, when metaphors
sprinkle tinder on your smoldering soul,
you might blow it softly back to flame.
Huddled around a flickering poem, we might find ourselves
warming our faces, shoulders touching, hands outstretched,
our backs turned against the cold. Basking,
we might forget that
poetry cuts, too, like a knife
through the ropes that bind,
like a sword.
I once heard that light takes
tens of thousands of years to travel from
the center of the Sun to its outer edge,
that it is way older than we think, that
beginning with the fusion of
atoms in the core, light reflects
back upon itself and outward,
bouncing off protons
like a hall of mirrors,
until it finally escapes the Sun’s surface
and begins its journey
into dark and empty space –
Yet, one bright shaft,
intercepted by the Moon,
full on this cold February night,
glances toward Earth, then refracts
through a thin layer of crystalline snow
that had fallen silently as evening arrived
and the clouds lifted, so when
I lean to gather a final
load of firewood for the stove,
the empty field is filled with diamonds.
Is this your journey also? So improbable?
So filled with wonder?
This poem came to me this summer as I was in northern Minnesota. A sudden wind came up, one that didn’t bring in a storm or anything dramatic, just a more than momentary breeze that brought with it across the water a sense that this big ol’ world is a living being that, like the trees, experiences life on a different scale than me.
I’ve been playing with this poem since the summer, which seems like a long time ago now that the late January cold has settled in.
On a shore in Minnesota a wind begins to blow;
it rises across the water, then moves on
through the woods in no hurry, but also,
without a pause. Impossible to grasp,
even by the branches of the pine that line the shore,
or by waves, which don’t crash or spray diamonds
across the sky. Nothing dramatic.
Just now. On this shore.
Like the aspen leaves that quake will yellow
this autumn, replaced in the spring by fresh green.
Much change happens quietly, and bit by bit.
Erode. Accrete. Erode.
Like that face you see in the mirror has
a few more lines than you remember;
and that heart? A bit more wary.