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.


                                                                                          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?


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,

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


“Anything can happen.”

I kiss J and a shock of static electricity sparks between our chapped lips.


It is soundless where we sit outside on the patio in the late afternoon, quiet as Ash Wednesday. A blisteringly blue glints overhead.  Faintly at first, the fall decoration cornstalks begin to rustle. Sh-sh-sha-shhh-shhhhhh.

In the distance, I hear an approaching whisper as if ten thousand petticoat ladies in satin dresses swish toward us. One lone leaf at the penthouse level of the backyard sycamore begins to shimmy. Then another and another and another.  In a single elongated moment, the world changes from crackling stillness to a-roaring and a-bending. The Santa Ana winds bellow upon us. The only scent is fear of fire.

I’ve lived in California my whole life, but it wasn’t until I built a hilltop house in Trabuco Canyon, at the mouth of Santiago Peak, that the Santa Ana’s full fury bent me in awe. In one single night, a teak dining table and a ping-pong table slammed against the house walls, narrowly missing sliding glass doors. Reckless gusts flipped chairs off rockers, clattering seats like bones in darkness against rumbling tempered glass. A metal gazing ball tumbled from its garden perch and rolled down the hill, lost forever, a bowling ball flung down the canyon alley.

I stood outside in the midnight din, away from the house and trees, beneath stars so plentiful and clear they seemed an arms reach away. Parched lips stuck on teeth, I smiled and watched eucalyptus bow and dance as if directed by a drunken puppeteer.  Leaves eddied in dervishes about my shins, swirled above my shoulders and neck.  I shrieked until my voice dissolved into the howl.  I stayed outside until dawn, eyes closed against the blow, arms held to the sky just to feel nature’s unbridled power.

Wind is so very much like love. You can feel it, watch its path and effect. But you can’t draw a picture of it, nor capture it with a photograph. It exists only in the rapture of what stands in its way. When it calms once again, ordinary gifts lie scattered in its wake.


How better to spend one night than to stand in wind’s way?
How better to spend one life than to stand in love’s way?


p.s. One of the most legendary literary descriptions of the Santa Ana winds is found in Raymond Chandler‘s short story, “Red Wind.” This post’s title comes from a line in that story:

There was a desert wind blowing that night. It was one of those hot dry Santa Anas that come down through the mountain passes and curl your hair and make your nerves jump and your skin itch. On nights like that, every booze party ends in a fight. Meek little wives feel the edge of the carving knife and study their husband’s necks. Anything can happen.

For a cool scientific explanation of the winds with illustrations, check out “What causes Santa Ana winds” by Paul Duginski.

A shorter version of this post first appeared in The Bucket List issue of Orange Coast magazine. If you live anywhere near Orange County, California and want to include a wild night in the wind on your own bucket list, here are a few prime spots to experience Late Night Theatre of the Wind.

Most raw: Drive to the mouth of Holy Jim Trail just off Trabuco Canyon, a major wind thoroughfare. Unless there’s severe fire danger, travel the 4.5 miles into the canyon on a rutted and rocky dirt road. Face the canyon and roar back. For information, click here.

Tamer: Hunker down – for a day or night – along Trabuco Creek in O’Neill Regional Park. Arroyo Campground sites 31-78 offer the best views of the pristine night sky and the wind wails down the creek bed.

Downright Civilized: Share a margarita, and swap wind and fire stories with long time canyon residents from inside while staring out through the wall of windows at Rose Canyon Cantina & Grill.

Be small. Feel big.

Go outside.
Tonight. After dark.
Lay on your back in the grass.
Open your eyes.
Crickets will sing and maybe, if you’re lucky, an owl will slice your heart open with its call.

The moon will rise.DSC_0556

Look the moon straight in the eye and make a promise. Promise to learn one new thing about this wild world you inhabit.

Discover the name of the first star you see next to the moon. Recognize its distance. Marvel. In all the dark there exists multiple tiny points of light.  Every night. Imagine all the light we miss when we’re not paying attention.

Can you discover the species of owl that lives in the pine. What does it eat? Where does it winter? How will it find water if there’s no rain tomorrow? How do you describe its song?


Write this down. Date it. Do this again tomorrow. And again.

We will want a record of this. For our children. Our grandchildren and their children.

We will want them to know what lived with us one night when we paused to notice a miracle of balance and diversity, of red tailed hawks, of free-tailed bats, of carpenter worm moths at twilight.

Summer will fall to autumn.

This season too will rattle its saber with unprecedented flood and fire. It will tell us that our earth is changing.

If your house flooded or burned, what would you grab as you fled?
If your earth slowly crumbled and flooded and burned away, what would you try to save?

Watch how slowly the moon moves.
See how rocks or silver-toned leaves shimmer in its light.
Open your palms and see how you too shimmer in moonlight.

Remember the scene from Apollo 13, the scene where Tom Hanks, playing astronaut Jim Lovell, sits in his backyard. He holds up his right thumb against the night sky. His thumb completely blots out the moon.

We humans get in our own way of wonder.  Yet this very wonder, at the human scale, is that which can touch us most frequently, most deeply.

When you’re ready, return inside. Spread the moon’s gentle touch to those your hand touch. Tonight. Tomorrow. Learn the wild ways of those you love.

With grass in her hair,

p.s.  I came across an interesting call for submissions today.  The Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment is looking for “new or renewed forms our writing can take.”  If your work reads like “the broken-hearted hallelujah, the witness, the narrative of the moral imagination, the radical imaginary, the indictment or the apologia” you might consider joining your voice with others in essay, fiction, poetry, nonfiction, or academic article. Deadline is Sept. 30. For more information, read the entire To Write as if the Planet Were Dying: A Call To Writers. 

I hate goodbye even when I need it.

When the cousins from St. Louis come for a week in the summer and you jump on the bed every night while the grownups finish long dinners and the parents are so busy you don’t even get in trouble until someone falls and conks her head badly: like that.

Or when your parent’s friends and their children from Sacramento drive down to your house with a 24-pak of Coke, something never allowed in your house, and you and your sisters and your new best friends all drink three sodas in a row after breakfast then careen through the halls scattering rugs too wild to be caught: like that.

Inviting the muse to spend a month is most like what happens when you open your door to a visitor who disrupts the house rules and decorum, seemingly without repercussion. It’s a whirlwind of rambunctious activity. I bump into corners, forget to eat, mutter in bed at 3 a.m. annoying the cat. It’s exhilarating, draining. My fellow July poets claim we’ll “collapse into a hot mess now,” and endure “postpartum blues.”


To create a poem a day is to utterly trust and bend to the whims of the muse so when it’s time so say goodbye I feel a mixture of relief and regret. I look at my bare feet and am surprised to see them on the ground.

Call me superstitious, polite, or crazy, but I never ever want to say goodbye to the muse without inviting a return. So of course, I write a goodbye poem, the final lyric for July.


Sayonara Muse

It’s never really good-bye with us, is it dear?
Even after the fat lady sings, and she always does, you throw your shadow
give good back
pretend to walk away.

You mock me with forever. The quitting kind, I mean.
Later baby, I know your style. Gate’s open.
Soon enough I’ll start cooking up the jambalaya you love.
Don’t slam the screen door on your way back.

Go ahead.
Leave me standing here under the concrete overpass, wailing sax
drowning out the waves at the pier.
The only blue I feel is sky.
It’s really better this way. You’re a beast. Needier than roots.

Go bother some other giver. My tongue’s dry.
Platter’s empty. Bone, I say. Nothing but crackle.
They’re playing your song in another bar.
I’ve got other things to do. Slow dance for instance.
Sway by August candlelight.

Right this minute I’m diving into a quart of Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough
with one cold spoon.

I miss you hardly already.


Tupelo Press 30/30 Project: it’s been swell. Nine new poets are at the starting gate to compose a poem-a-day for August. Best wishes to all of them. I feel your joy. I feel your pain.

August: you’re looking pretty sweet. I’m already in the middle of a giant new project: hosting a Backyard wedding on Sunday. Abundant love and happiness, and the muse too, will arrive if you invite them in. Did you open a window today?

Happy It’s-Still-Summer,

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.


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.

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.

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.

Some of us work, some of us play

umbrellasAnd the tireless poet celebrates you all.
For your Monday morning reading pleasure, Day 29 poem:

Litany to Our Saints of Perpetual Summer
To the umbrella bearers and the striped short wearers:
Play for us.

To the sand ploppers and the watermelon choppers:
Play for us.

To the sleeping babies, squalling babies, toddling babies and nursing babies:
Play for us.

To the squealing toddlers who wear twirly skirts
and the fathers who swoop them out of waves’ way:
Play for us.

To the man dragging his foot in a cast across sand
trailing woman with red feathers stuck in her headband:
Play for us.

To all you straggly-haired feral boys who skim board at dawn and the mongrel who yelps at you:
Play for us.

To the teenage girl in black trunks and the white shirt skipping rocks in the surf
and the boy on a rock in the shadow (yes I see you) rolling weed on your skateboard:
Play for us.

To the tortilla maker, the chocolate chip baker, the spring roll roller and potato chip taker:
Play for us.

To mothers who brush sand off sons’ backs
and little girls squinting eyes against sunscreen spray:
Play for us.

To all the young girls wearing fringe string bikinis and boys in sagged bottoms,
all the hands holding hands, and the waited-for-kisses:
Play for us.

To smash ballers, and crossword scholars;
to football throwers, and volleyball spikers, to frisbee catchers and sand unicyclers;
to the lady in red cowboy hat skipping with a man in green paisley head scarf:
Play for us.

To the anorexic and the morbidly obese and the lifeguards who save us:
Play for us.

To the girl taking a picture of the boy taking a picture of himself at the beach with a girl:
Play for us.

Here’s to beer guts and melon round pink baby bellies
To furry-backed men with Brazilian-waxed babes in gold jellies
To old guys in puka shells and shark-teeth leather leashes
To thongs and board shorts and long skirts fluttering on beaches
To tattoos of stars, tattoos of tears, tattoos of dolphins and cherubs and spears
To tattoos of skulls and tattoos of crosses, to tattoos of names so as to not forget losses

To the blue cooler bearers and the plastic pail pickers
To the haters and the lovers and the daily sun seekers
To the tide pool pluckers and the drooling day nappers
To the rock sculpture builders and the sand castle blasters
To the brown bag lunch packers and the debit card snackers
To the trash bin pickers and the empty can nickers
To shade where you need it and free bathrooms and benches
and to workers cleaning up after us in the sand’s sandy trenches

To the entire communion of summer vacation day souls:
Please, please, play for us.


You’ll find dozens of more delightful poems for July on the Tupelo Press 30/30 Project website where “Litany to Our Saints of Perpetual Summer” first appeared.


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].”


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
Canyon breathes, trembles
manzanilla olive leaves.
Starlings flush. Startle
golden garden bells. Birthday
gift erupts in temple song.

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.


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.

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


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,

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?

Oh my, thank you!

Bee still my heart.


Sorry, I couldn’t resist the pun, I’m so bowled over with gratitude to you dear readers who cheered and cajoled, who read and donated to the 30/30 Tupelo Press Poetry Project this month while I turned poetic cartwheels all over the form manual based on an idea hatched about trying to harness the nature of words by grappling with poetic structure. (You can reread that post, “Five Lines to Challenge Chaos ” here.)

Art happens when we’re attentive.  I photographed this heart-shaped bee swarm on vacation in June at Kalapaki Beach, Kauai and weeks later the image worked its way into my poem, “Self Preservation Techniques the Body Knows By Heart.” (You can read it on the 30/30 Project, Day 10, here.)

Creativity blends the actual with the possible, the real with the dream, all under the wings of infinite tinkering, discipline, and technique.

If you’re the type of reader / writer who likes to experiment, I’ve made it easy for you to begin your own monthlong poetry writing adventure by cataloging the forms I played with this month.  You can find all the poems on the 30/30 Project website.

Incantation (Day 1)
Persona poems (Days 10, 12, 13, 15)
Cut-up (Day 4)
List poem (Day 6)
Concrete poetry (Day 8)
No Word poetry (Day11)
Epistolary form (Days 13 and 19)
Sonnet (Day 15)
An experiment with poetic duende (Day 19)
Cento (Days 16 and 30)
Found lines (Day 20)
Cinquain (Day 21)
Reverse poem (Day 26)
Tanka (Day 28)
Litany (Day 29)
All the other poems are lyrical free verse, including today’s, “Reseeding With Grace,” below.

marbleReseeding With Grace

Three barefoot women alone on Glass Beach wade ankle deep into black ocean
brown paper bags bulge with marbles god it’s cold! in dead of midnight.
Grace insists on ceremony.

Glinting arcs rise by fistful
cat’s eyes, corkscrews, clearies, aggies, onyx, swirlies sail through dark;
three women in silver grace tones harmonize like McGuire Sisters
          Somethin’s gotta give, somethin’s gotta give,
A plop between waves and plip! The arthritic arm has no heat.

Full moon a cliché as silver curls from hand to sea
glassy marbles opaque as eyes turning —
returning here where marble find was proof enough of lucky day
promoted to windowsill status at homes dressed with curtains now
fading and thin as pink daisy aprons hidden behind the pantry door.

God I’m cold! Grace shivers
receding, holds up blue pearl to her eye against moon
whispers under breath
for tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrows ‘s granddaughter
plip! last marble sinks into moon glowing foam.

Waves lap feet submerged in bone cold sand, sinking further and further.
Grace flings up hands to stars,
We lost our marbles!

Three silver women in moonlight clasp each other up against the tide
shimmy shudder silent laughter drowns out the cold,
slowly sinking treasure just now out of reach.


Back story?  A few years ago I spent several months near Glass Beach, WA, a treasure trove of marbles, sea glass and pottery shards. I met some women there who talked about how, at a certain age, they’d reseed the beach with their collected marbles – the most prized find – for the next generation. I often wonder if they ever did. Based on the women’s personalities, I imagine it might have gone down something like this.

If you’d like to make a small contribution on my behalf to the 30/30 Project, there are still a few more days in July.  In the meantime, I’ll keep turning cartwheels while wonderful readers like you help poetry grow and thrive, and small literary presses stay in business.

Hold onto your marbles as long as you need them,
but when it’s time to let go, here’s hoping you find all the grace you need.

With joy and gratitude,

Strange things happen at midnight

“This is thy hour O Soul, thy free flight into the wordless,
Away from books, away from art, the day erased, the lesson
done…”    from “A Clear Midnight” by Walt Whitman

My head has been in perpetual midnight this month. I walked off an airplane and into the terminal leaving my gate-checked carry-on luggage sitting on the tarmac. I accidentally left my cell phone on my car’s back bumper and drove away. I’ve taken Chester out for walks without his leash and set off the smoke alarm when the bread I forgot in the oven burned. For 25 days now my body has been on earth, but my heart and soul have been tuned into the frequency of the poetic muse on the Tupelo Press 30/30 Project.  Sometimes I look at my feet just to see if they’re on the ground, craving the “free flight into the wordless.”


The experience has been weird and wonderful and I heartily recommend a one-month total immersion in whatever you love to do. Your support – by reading and forwarding the poems, by joining the Orange Whistle Secrets Divulged group, by e-mailing to discuss poems, and by donating to Tupelo Press – is deeply appreciated. You have no idea how much a kind word fuels literature.

Just for you, dear readers, I’ve reprised two favorites from the 30/30 Project website.

From Day 20
gullWhat the Gull Heard One July, Main Beach, Laguna   

If I tell you a secret, will you promise not to tell?
Never trust a woman sitting at a table alone without a glass of wine at dinner.
Of course she’s difficult, that’s her schtick. She calls herself a Mensa puzzle.
“What did you expect, hula girls?”

Careful, surf’s rough.
My wife thinks I’m at work today.
That seagull, like your eyes when you wake up before you put your glasses on.

Before I wanted to be an artist I wanted to be a saint.
What did you create this afternoon? Havoc at the very least.
I wonder if the pigs are out. No sharks today.
Only looking, no touching.

I thought the ocean would be bluer.

Mama, can we have our Daddy back?
Living gives you heart trouble.
We have so many issues we should open a newsstand.
I’m a lot like Barbara Streisand except that I don’t sing.
Would you mind if I walk alone for a bit?
This would be a great spot to get married.
Hey, hey, don’t run. You’ll knock people over.

I’m starving. I’m cold.
Hit your mute button.

Things that are worthwhile are sometimes more difficult.
There’s no need to yell.
That wave that knocked you over was God’s way of saying you shouldn’t walk out so far.
It’s nothing like the pictures.
It looks just like the photo!
3.  2.  1.

And from today:


We hear of rain
some years
breeching banks
creating a right flood.
Horses stampede. Fish take up in the basement. Whippoorwill trills all night.
Other times
Cicadas. Flat shimmer. Dust for breakfast.

 Water, so very much like love.

 Saying It’s the season
isn’t enough to end a parch
right where you stand
palms up, head tilted skyward, mouth an open urn.
I see you wait like you are sure
it will rain once again.


You can read all 25 poems at the 30/30 Project.  (Day 22 was written just for one of the Backyard Cousins.) If you’ve been meaning to make a small donation to the press, time’s almost up if you’d like to mark “In Honor of Catherine Keefe.” Come August 1, I’ll be back to my more grounded self and you’ll never hear me ask you for a single thing again.

Long live books and readers and poets who write at midnight. Long live those who support the arts rather than grumble about the decline of fine publishing.

Looking toward dawn,

Weekend Dish: Secrets

dish: The scoop, only bigger
Urban Dictionary


Shhhh. I held up my hand to silence the chattering ladies sitting around a fire in our mountain cabin. It was nearing midnight on a Saturday.


A faint whistle chirped from down the hall. Leaving the group of women, I felt my way in the dark along the wall toward a closed door.


Yes, the sound was definitely coming from inside the bedroom where a troop of seven-year-old Girl Scouts were “camping” heel-to-toe in sleeping bags on the floor.  I slowly pushed the door open, peering in.

“Mrs. Keefe, Mrs. Keefe!” S sobbed. “I’m lost! I’m lost! I need to go to the bathroom but I don’t know where I am.  You said if we get lost to ‘hug a tree’ but there isn’t a tree, so I stayed where I was and blew my whistle!”  She held up a plastic orange whistle on a lanyard. We’d given all the girls a whistle at the beginning of the trip before heading out on the first hike.

Biting my lips to near bleeding to avoid laughing I helped S to the bathroom, turned on a nightlight, and returned to my fellow Girl Scout leaders around the fire to report that at least one little scout had fully learned her safety lesson for the day.

“If you get lost, hug a tree, stay where you are, and blow your whistle.”

This story flashed back brightly yesterday while having a conversation with my friend, D, the kind of friend who will read poetry because I write it and I’m working on this crazy poem-a-day in July project.  D is a brilliant retired high-tech software expert who can speak in acronyms like IT, HRMS, and ISM and know exactly what they mean.

“But I don’t get poetry,” she says. This is a difficult thing for her to admit; she’s really really smart. She’s so smart, in fact, that I’m pretty sure she does “get” poetry, but she doesn’t realize the things she intuitively picks up on are in fact some of the elemental wonders of the genre: poetry’s rhythm, its imagery and word play.

D tells me – in that way of good friends being kind so maybe they’ll lie a tiny bit – that she likes my “One Poet’s Trade” from Day 6.  (You can read it here; scroll down to Day 6.) She shakes her head as if trying to dislodge water from her ear. “But I don’t think I get it.”

“What do you get?” I ask. What I really want to know is which tree she’s hugging. I wonder if she recognizes the repetition of sounds, if she notice the two-line stanza structure, if she notices the ways each first line word and second line word are related to each other.

“Well…I hear some T sounds that are the same and some V sounds are the same. And it’s all a list. The list is in two-word order but I don’t know why.”

I nudge a little. “What if I told you that each first word is a tool of some trade? And what if I told you that each second word is a body part.”

She pauses. Thinks. “Then it goes in order from your head to your feet!”  I nod.

“But what about the end?”  Ah yes, what to make of those last lines? Who is this “you?”

I don’t answer that for her. I invite her to ponder.

And then I have a bright orange whistle of an idea.


For one week only, from July 7 – 14, if you make a $25 donation to the 30/30 Project, “In Honor of Catherine Keefe” I’ll give you all the navigation you need to get out of the woods for  Day 7-14 poems. Message me here as a comment in Backyard Sisters, or find me on Facebook.  You can pretty much ask me anything: the back story behind the poem, how it developed, the language decision-making process, and what I was hoping the poem would invoke in a reader.

In return you can tell me where the poem succeeds or fails for you, dear reader.  As Anne Stevenson once wrote,

The poet needs to reach out to people he or she has not met. That someone will read your poem and say ‘Yes, that is right; I know that, I recognise that.’ I think poetry always has that interior communicable strength.

Here’s to “communicable strength” and divulging secrets. This Backyard Sister is willing to dish.
~ Catherine

p.s. Please note that it takes up to a week for Tupelo Press to notify the poets of donations made in their honor. The minute I hear from the press, I’ll open up to you.