Looking (it) up

By Catherine Keefe.

pretty books

A dinner around my childhood home wasn’t complete with at least one round of this fun conversation:

Me: What does _______ mean?
Fill in the blank with words like inertia, relegate, codicil, potable.

Dad: Look it up.

Me: Can’t you just tell me?

Dad: I could, but then you’d forget.

The family dictionary was a frequent guest at the table.

These days, my students, and truthfully even I mostly, use an online dictionary. It’s swift, easy, and direct. Sometimes though I miss the old bound paper word book. There’s something humbling and exhilarating about holding the heft of Webster’s Twentieth Century Unabridged Dictionary, a volume that weighs in at five pounds and has a spine wider than open palm. When I pull that book down from the shelf to “look it up,” I realize there really is a wealth of words at my fingertips. How few I use. When I look up a word online, I learn one new term, but I can forget that there are thousands more to explore.

inside books

It’s funny, when I finally went off to college, I didn’t realize the simple things I’d miss from. But my dad made sure I wouldn’t forget one of the best habits he taught me.

look it up

My parent’s going-away gift was my own bright red Random House College Dictionary.

Can you learn one new word today?
~Catherine

For more “Looking up” images, check out The August Break, 2015, a community challenge to “Live inside each moment,” by checking #augustbreak2015 on Instagram, Facebook, and Flickr.

 

 

Where to begin?

By Catherine Keefe
January is a new romance, a second date with someone you will fall in love with. It’s you on your best behavior as the very most outstanding human being possible. It’s Brahms’ Op. 22, Num. 8 before the wedding; the predawn temple ball’s call to prayer; the first line of the first page of the first book you ever wrote or read.

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                                                                                          Photo Credit: James Keefe

“Then there was the bad weather.”

Ernest Hemingway’s first line from A Moveable Feast cuts to the quick of great beginnings. He starts in media res, or “in the midst of things,” talking about the weather. His 1921-1926 Paris was so dreary “…the rain and the cold wind would strip the leaves from the trees in the Place Contrescarpe.”  But what makes this simple sentence such a classic book beginning is that it creates an immediate intimacy between the reader and writer with that word “then.” We can almost imagine a “before” without knowing what it was.  And even though Hemingway’s collection of “Paris Sketches” is about his experiences as a writer in the European expatriate community, it’s as much about the golden moments before the unraveling of his first marriage to Hadley.  Weather is both literal and metaphor although it isn’t until we finish the book, and reread the first line that we can make the connection.

As you begin this year and set your intentions for it, will your end – to paraphrase T.S. Eliot’s “Four Quartets –  be found in your beginning?

For writers, each new project is a January. But unlike the calendar which rolls forward ready or not, a writing project can become balky as a skittish pound puppy facing the first open gate. How do you move forward?  The answer is so simple. Where do you wish to end?

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Alhambra, Granada, Spain                                                      Photo Credit: James Keefe

The superlative beginnings – of a novel, memoir, essay, short story, poem, or screenplay – portend a shadow of the end the same way the foyer of a building establishes possibility for its inside architecture or a chef’s amuse bouche introduces first flavors to a restaurant visitor. Surprises can be expected, but organic.

As Richard Goodman clarifies in, “In the Beginning: Creating Dynamic, Meaningful, and Compelling Openings”:

The beginning of your story, essay, or novel carries more weight than any other part of your work.  This is simply beause it is the beginning…Your senses are attuned. Your expectations are high. You are looking intently at what’s there. It’s analogous to seeing a person for the first time.

I often think of writing beginnings much like fishing. Can I catch a reader with one cast? Will the fish follow my bait for a few more feet?  Sometimes when I’m stuck I randomly open some favorite books to remind me what a great beginning can do. Then I write a stumbling forward of dozens or even hundreds of words that do nothing more than become cast-off scaffolding by the final edit. It’s not until I’m amidst the construction that I discover what I most want to say and I feel like the speaker in Samuel Beckett’s Company. “A voice comes to one in the dark.”

Take advantage of the energy of January and its superlative nature as a time to begin something new.

And may all your kisses this year begin a hug,
~Catherine

For more ideas on how to begin your new year check out “Through the open window.”

 

How many words in a world?

“I was reading the dictionary. I thought it was a poem about everything.”

Steven Wright’s quip isn’t too far off from the way this poet thinks. I look at the dictionary, all the words right there at my fingertips. If only they’d arrange themselves to perfection.

photo-48This is the corner of my office where, day by day in July, a new poem literally got hung on the line. Writing a poem a day has been a rigorous creative exercise, but the toil is completely offset by the thrill of sharing space with 8 other poets, discovering their new-to-me voices and fresh perspectives on the world each day.  To honor my fellow July poets, Risa Denenberg, Jennifer Faylor, Janet Ruth Heller, David Koehn, Richard O’Brien, Claudia Rodriguez, Mobi Warren, and Nicholas YB Wong, I created a cento using some of my favorite lines from their July poetry. A cento is a “patchwork” or collage of lines from other poets.

Highlight Reel: Homage For the July Poetry Crew      

Is a poem everything?

What I am trying to say here is my wild wiry hair suddenly has aphasia.
Fire knows no diva can sing god’s linked tongue.
Delta Force of the written word
orange swoon of monarchs

(breathe deep):   the stairway is not
red tulips.

Frogs sing in the pond, purple martins maneuver in squadrons;
orchestra of nerve endings
slows to a steady beat.

If I’m lucky, hummingbirds or deer pass through my yard, and I write a poem.
Two door hinges,
a latch, a handle from the old shed.
God’s voice
rustling toward you.
The way
most of the body is water, yet manages not to seem so.

We knew that being in love 
in saltwater is always a mistake.
The moon blue
shy at first to know you,
frenulum that binds the tongue to the mouth-cave, arresting language.

Circuit—

We hack our way through rough brush, thorns, vines that
strangle the forest—the agony of vaulting the temple wall
only to discover the gods have moved away.

The radio is a comfort–
to be on the same frequency, possibly, as you are.
Words can’t be arrested,
Go at you — rock’ em sock’ em robots.

No doom descends on Michigan.
A dull
Eye translates what
You see.

Break me a sunrise 
in a cup.

In and out of time,
the stars remain the same;
in the marrow of limestone caves,
silent albinos⎯rare blind beetles,
eyeless spiders, lived.

Alarm
the jays clamor
hidden in the pleated grass—
a warrior heart on her sleeve—

Into the air on a dare, the arrow was meant to strike a concrete
Blue whale.

A woman opens a book and finds her mother’s handwriting in the margins,
gets up to sharpen pencils.

Everything is a poem.

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To read more from the July poets, including their bios and links to their author websites, take a leap over to the Tupelo Press 30/30 Project site. It’s a rather remarkable repository of extraordinary poetic lines.

On an entirely unrelated note, yesterday I was surprised by a sudden influx of dragon flies in my garden. Maybe they want their own Sacred Garden tanka?

I wish you some sort of beautiful bewilderment today.
~Catherine

Sacred Garden

Air. Earth. Water. Fire. Find the four elements of nature within life, love, work, garden, and art and you’ll create a sense of balance without boredom, surprise without chaos.

These elements have long been subjects for poets.

The Fire, Air, Earth and Water did contest
Which was the strongest, noblest and the best,

wrote Anne Bradstreet, “the first woman to be recognized as an accomplished New World poet,” in her poem, “Four Elements [Fire, Earth, Air and Water].”

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In the spirit of Sunday as a day of rest, and with an invitation to you, dear reader, to find sacred places within your own garden, patio, or apartment, I give you Day 28 poetry for the 30/30 Project.  I composed four tanka: 5 line poems with  5,7,5,7,7 syllables per line, for a complete 31 syllable poem.

Sacred Garden: Four Tanka
Air
Canyon breathes, trembles
manzanilla olive leaves.
Starlings flush. Startle
golden garden bells. Birthday
gift erupts in temple song.

Earth
Angel’s apple tree
holds his palm imprint above
rootline his hands once
grasped, now both deeply buried —
roots and hands at rest in ground.

angels-apple-tree

Water
Patter on copper
rain chain drips a water chant.
Peace Rose bends toward war
veteran’s gate. I watch him stand
in open storm, hands clutch rain.

Fire
Votives lit on rocks
every night an evening prayer.
Dinosaur bones once
found here, two fossils. We too
press lantern path, watch light rise.

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While I’m happy enough with these poems – written in a day – they’re not finished, in a true poetic sense yet. Complete tanka needs a turn between lines 3 and 4, “a pivotal image, which marks the transition from the examination of an image to the examination of the personal response.” Poems, like gardens, need constant pruning, rearranging, and feeding.  What inspires you?  Why don’t you try your hand at writing tanka today while your feet are resting on a ledge.  You’ll find a complete discussion of the form on the Academy of American Poets website here.

To balance,
~Catherine

p.s. In the spirit of small things, did you know that a donation of $10 to the 30/30 Project as a gesture of support and love for poetry and its publication, is as beautiful as the tiny blossoms on Angel’s apple tree?

May I direct your attention over here?

In the last deep blue February day, I followed my heart’s compass to the true north of another backyard.

true north

Today I spent my creative time on dirtcakes, the literary magazine I founded to “offer space for international writers and artists to illuminate a shared global humanity.”

There’s dirt under my fingernails.  Like any backyard task, it was difficult but satisfying work. What was it? Here’s a hint: I invented a new form of literature!

Maybe you remember “Five Lines to Challenge Chaos” when I dared myself to try each poetic form, “so that by spring, I’ll have a larder of poems that adhere to formal patterns found in nature, the sunflower, for example, or the whorl of a seashell, the number of legs on a spider for instance, or the swoop of an orb found glistening in early morning.”

I failed at that, but succeeded in invention.

The Contributor Voices Chorus is  based on a very old form of poetry – the cento. The cento is a collage, or mashup of lines from other writers, arranged in a fresh way, sort of like taking one flower from every blooming bush in your garden and creating a bouquet that looks nothing like your backyard.

For one sample of a cento, you can read “Wolf Cento” by Simone Muench.

You’ll have to wander over to dirtcakes to see my invention, the all new Contributor Voices Chorus.

It’s also time to give props. One of our readers took the poetic form challenge. In honor of The Simple Life of the Country Man’s Wife’s diligence, I’m linking to her cinquain here. I wonder how her spring larder of poems is looking? How about yours?

Adieu January, when we focused.
Goodbye February, when we explored leading lines.
See you in March when, in honor of the month’s disparate weather days, we play with contrast.

~Catherine

You are a human treasure

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Dear One,
Your compliment, so kind, compels me to remind you how much beauty also lives in you. You, of course, the person,  and you the word, so small in all the language.  “You” can mean the one, or “you” can mean the many. “You” can mean the Angel who I wrote about last May in “Stop this day and night with me.”

Angel returns one morning last week.  I open the oak front door to see him standing on the porch.  He shuffles his feet, looks at the stone, points to the empty dirt in my new yard and wonders if I need help planting.  His eyes are bloodshot, the scent of alcohol sweet in the morning air.  He smiles as he gestures toward the mud.

“Would you like me to put in roses? Fruit trees?”

“Let me check with J,” I say, acting like it hasn’t been months and months since he stopped gardening for me, acting like this newly emaciated body clothed in muddy khaki pants, cinched with a black belt flapping several extra inches at the end, might actually be able  to dig holes and tamp mud any better than my own.  He has a gift, this man who knows exactly how to coax a growing thing to triumph. Should I stand in the way of allowing him to work?

“Can you come next week?”

“Sure, sure.”

I give him J’s number to arrange a day, a time, a price.  Angel calls on Sunday.

“I can’t make it on Monday. I’m in the hospital. For tests. Maybe I can come on Tuesday.”

On Tuesday night Angel calls.

“I have stomach cancer. I have an operation tomorrow. I cannot come and plant your garden. Maybe next week.”

You are a human treasure.

Must I know exactly where I’m going when I compose a leading line?

chester on trail

What if I have no idea how the story ends, or how to compose a view for effect, or how to make any sense of muddy paths leading straight into the fog?

Is it an accident, or part of nature’s wondrous plan that the view when looking up

Light and lattice

offers much more hope and light than the gaze that meets the ground?Two muddy feet

Yet it’s on the ground where the growing things begin. Salt of the earth.  Grounded. It’s the earth we all return to.

When a writer thinks of leading lines, a writer thinks of books, that first taste of a voice which can make a difference in the way a reader sees the world.

I am an invisible man. No, I am not a spook like those who haunted Edgar Allan Poe; nor am I one of your Hollywood-movie ectoplasms. I am a man of substance, of flesh and bone, fiber and liquids – and I might even be said to possess a mind. I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me.

from Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison

There is nothing worse I think, than the feeling of not being seen.

Even among books, some seem small in stature, insignificant when compared to the legacy of others based on copies sold, appearances on syllabi, or inclusion in the conversation among critics.

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Some books, some lives, are at risk of getting lost.  I’d like to highly recommend such a book that might have missed your radar.  Dominque Fabre’s The Waitress Was New, (translated from the French by Jordan Stump) is the perfect little 106 page gem to reacquaint yourself with what  Fabre describes as the, “genuine beauty, genuine dignity of  places or people that have been somehow overlooked.”

Unknown

It’s the story of an entirely undistinguished bartender.  It offers a leading line straight to the very mystery of the beauty of the anonymous life most of us exalt in. It reminds us that we must take the time to tell each other, You are a human treasure. And then, we must live as if we believe it to be true.

With all due respect,
~Catherine

Through the open window…

A coyote yips and howls. I don’t know what time it is, still dark. The Siamese jumps onto the sill, presses her body against the screen, hackles raised.  She emits a low moan. In the distance an owl hoots and the dog rumbles a half-hearted growl. J still sleeps, so I get up to close the window and notice a pinking sky over the mountains.  The cat and dog settle back down, tightly tucking into furry curls against the January chill. But for me, the night is over.

Today, this not-the-first-of-the-year, but this ordinary-Thursday-when-the-holiday-rush-has-finally-faded is my annual Life Visioning day.  It begins when I light a candle against the dawn.

Candle

Actually I begin every day by lighting a candle and spending moments deep in reflection.

What am I grateful for from the previous day?

Gratitude Journal

a little dancing after dinner
candles on the hearth
neighbors who share homegrown oranges

With a smile and fortitude from recalling all that’s good, I next invite my sacred heart space to be bathed by a divine floodlight where I cannot hide, not even from myself.  I think back to the day before, and remember ways I did and didn’t act in alignment with my values and intentions.  Can I repeat what went right? Can I correct the imbalances that caused failure?

I set me intentions for this day, write my to-do list within this womb of new dawn freshness.  Then, I pray. I trace the presence of my family and friends upon my hands, using one index finger I begin at each fingertip recalling a name, a need, until the faces and the names of all those who are close to me are joined in the center of my heart-side palm.

Hands

I leave this meditation time by rejoining the entire human chain with an invocation for peace and love, “For those who will be born today, and those who will die.”  Each month I also add a special intention.  My January focus is, “For those who struggle with addiction or mental illness and for those who care for and try to love them.” I join my hands together, press them to my heart, bow to the sunrise and begin my “real” day.

Oh my goodness, telling you all this was difficult.

I’m an intensely private person by nature. There were years and years and when I didn’t even tell my own husband that I prayed, let alone that I meditated and lit candles in the dark and drew his name upon my palm.

Why change?

Maybe I’ve decided that being myself is something I should do publicly.

Maybe I wrote, be yourself out loud on my to-do list this morning and it’s too early in the year to break promises to myself.

It is, in fact, right in the middle of the month the Backyard Sisters have dedicated to focus and while Susan will tell you how to focus your camera, I am relegated to suggesting ways to focus your writing life.

I learn today that the word focus comes from the Latin focus, meaning “hearth, fireplace.

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focus (n.) 1640s, from L. focus “hearth, fireplace” (also, figuratively, “home, family”), of unknown origin, used in post-classical times for “fire” itself, taken by Kepler (1604) in a mathematical sense for “point of convergence,” perhaps on analogy of the burning point of a lens (the purely optical sense of the word may have existed before Kepler, but it is not recorded). Introduced into English 1650s by Hobbes. Sense transfer to “center of activity or energy” is first recorded 1796.

Inspired by the connectivity to the word focus and home, as nurturing my family ties always rises to the top of any priority list, I reread my last year’s life vision and adjust paragraphs or sections that no longer seem important.  I focus on the lines that have followed me from year to year to year.

Write a book. Write a book. Write a book.

I realize I am. I have. Written the book(s). I just haven’t pushed hard enough for publication.  I cross out the line. Write a book. I revise: Send out book.  We are only in control of our own actions, I realize. And now is the time to act with focus, with fire, with the kind of fierceness you would use to advocate for someone that you love.

With light and love
~Catherine

Précis: (This is a lovely new word I discover today. It means a summary.)
When you sit in peace, quiet self-truth speaks loudly. Pay attention to what you’re trying to tell yourself.

Practice:  
Can you create a vision for your life?  Nothing fancy, just write about the life you want to live.  I live in a house small enough to vacuum in an hour.  Date it.  Remember to include all the elements of nature: Air-spirit.  Fire-ambition.  Water-refreshment.  Earth-body.  Space-mind.  Focus on one action for each element that you can accomplish within the next month or so.  Write that down too.

Play:
Create a scene of dialogue between two characters, one whose inner and outer life is aligned – think Atticus Finch from To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee – and another who projects a false outward image – think Fermina Daza from Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel García Márquez. Now what would happen if they end up in a story together?