“All I have is a voice…”

By Catherine Keefe
Up until 1963, when home movies were silent and telephone answering phones didn’t exist, the only way to know your own voice was to hear the sound you made in your head. And then one day right before Christmas my father brought home a small silver box encased in black leather. It’s a tape recorder! He invited me to sing into a microphone.

I have a little dreidel, I made it out of clay…

I sang with my whole heart and soul.  The family sat around the living room waiting to hear how well the new gadget worked. Rewind. Play. Rustle, rustle. Oh dreidel, dreidel, dreidel… I was certain the new toy was broken because the sound was wincingly loud and distorted and much too big for the living room.  All the laughing it caused made the paneled walls vibrate. What was that?

“Stop!” I stood up and shouted. “Stop it now!” In my head I sounded like a choir girl. In reality I made a reverberation like a cross between a goat bleat and toad croaking with swollen adenoids under a mossy river in spring thaw.

rocks

Demosthenes spoke with pebbles in his mouth. I tried that once.

The first time I saw my poetry in print, I hated it too.

i am…

i think.

i’m not really sure.

are you?

It was ten years after the tape recorder incident and my small poem, “i am” was published in the high school literary journal, not a small feat for an underclassman.  I’ve spared you the last stanza.  I’d submitted five poems to the journal and was surprised the editors picked this example of Descartes redux, even though at the time I’d not yet heard of cogito ergo sum.  I thought the poem was too simple then, and when I finally met Descartes’ work in college, I wondered how he got so famous arguing for what I’d already intuited. i am. i think. I dropped the ellipses and began calling my poetry philosophical.

Today I was invited to read my poetry aloud at the upcoming Association of Writers and Writing Programs conference in Seattle at the end of February. I’m thrilled and terrified, though I probably shouldn’t admit to either. The event is a gathering of more than 12,000 writers, editors and book lovers and though I’ve read my writing aloud before audiences of one, of dozens, and hundreds, I’m still unused to my voice in public. I relate completely when poet Sarah Kay says in her TED talk, “My self-confidence can be measured out in teaspoons.”

But there’s something worse than hearing my voice and seeing my words in print. Silence.

“All I have is a voice / to undo the folded lie” wrote W.H. Auden in his poem “September 1, 1939.” It was one poet’s response to the outbreak of World War II.

What’s the distance between silence and sound? There are 30 decibels between pure silence and a library whisper. Decibels are sound units based on what the human ear can hear. The sound of typical conversation reaches 60 decibels.

I imagine that each decibel is one step in an average 10-step staircase. I know I can climb three stories. I whisper. I know I can climb six stories and speak aloud even if it leaves me breathless.

My students, this first week of the new semester, wanted to talk about voice too.  After they asked a variety of questions about assignment word count and final exams and if it was fine to miss class for the Coachella Music Festival, it was my turn to ask a question.

“What do you want from me?”
Silence. That kind where you hear sniffles and shoe scuffs and the lawnmower outside three blocks away.

Then somewhere between a library whisper and full conversation volume, one girl spoke out.  “Can you help me find my voice?”  

Like frogs slowing waking up to sing in the night rain, voices rising upon flights of stairs, a chorus began murmuring, “Yes, that’s what I want too. I want to sound like me.”

“Me too,” I say. “We’re all in this together.”

~Catherine

from “September 1, 1939” by W.H. Auden

All I have is a voice
To undo the folded lie
The romantic lie in the brain
Of the sensual man-in-the-street
And the lie of Authority
Whose buildings grope the sky:
There is no such thing as the State
And no one exists alone;
Hunger allows no choice
To the citizen or the police;
We must love one another or die. –

You can read Auden’s complete poem here: “September 1, 1939.”

The way to a friend’s heart

Today’s post comes courtesy of Theresa, the eldest Backyard Sister. Her story of a dinner party gone awry might be partially my fault.  I’m the one who compiled the family cookbook. Did I get the recipe wrong? ~ Catherine

Miracles HappenBy Theresa Lower
January brings the hope of new beginnings. M and I resolve to perfect the art of entertaining this year. We vow to plan ahead, no more last minute preparations or improvisational meals. We’re going to be relaxed and ready when our guests arrive. And so, we decide to have a dinner party to practice, not our usual impromptu get-together, but a real grown-up evening of food and conversation, music and appetizers. Nothing too fancy, but a meal with a plan and recipes, real recipes followed to the letter, an evening to remember.

The milestones and holidays in our family have a signature dish that identifies the event as special, and many of these beloved recipes have been transcribed and compiled into a family cookbook by Catherine. We turn to this cookbook for the perfect winter meal. What better Winter-in-Des Moines offering to our friends than the Christmas Eve Chili I’ve eaten at my parent’s house for years? I’ve never made it, but how hard can it be?

Party day arrives. M and I move through most of the items on our to-do list when we begin to cook about 4:00; the guests will arrive at 7:00.  We tell ourselves we’ll easily be ready on time, probably spend the last hour relaxing with our feet up. After all we just have to mix everything together and stir occasionally. M, who bought the groceries the day before, asks if the ingredients will fit into the pot. “Sure,” I say and pull four pounds of stew meat and three pounds of pork tenderloin out of the refrigerator.

Undaunted, I review the recipe. Seven pounds of meat, yes! Onions and garlic sizzle on the stove. hovers over the pot. “Are you sure this is all going to fit?”  I feel a small twinge of doubt, break my resolve to follow the recipe, and decide to use only three quarters of the stew meat and half the pork. The pot is full. I eye the clock and the seven cans of beans and chopped tomato on the counter and begin to feel desperate.

We get out the crockpot and a frying pan, put half the meat in the frying pan and the beans and tomato mixture into the crockpot. valiantly stirs both kettles of meat. After the last can of beans is emptied into the crockpot, I review the ingredients again. Now, I worry in earnest. The beans and tomato form a congealed mass, even with the liquid from the chopped tomatoes. I can’t imagine how I’ll be able to mix in the meat. I search the recipe for liquid – water, broth, tomato sauce? No liquid, but I’m confident, I’m following a recipe with years of tradition behind it.

We add the meat to the beans in the crockpot and stir, hoping it will be transformed into the blend of succulent meat and savory beans I remember. Instead it begins to scorch. We dump all the ingredients back into the original pot. They barely fit, but at least we can control the heat.  “We’ll have to stir frequently,” I say.

I wish I could tell you that we defied the recipe and added liquid. No, we stubbornly clung to the belief that the recipe was right, even when faced with mounting evidence that it was not. The mixture continued to cook only on the bottom, and because of its density, as the heat rose, so did the chili, heaving itself up and forming small blow holes that hissed when we tried to stir it with a feeble wooden spoon. I began to think of it as the Monster on the Stove. And sadly, that it remained.

Instead of developing a rich broth as it simmered, the chili got thicker and thicker as the beans broke down. When it was finally served, we presented a heavy lump of meat with an occasional bean.

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Our friends were gracious. They bravely chewed and enthusiastically declared the meal delicious. We laughed and shared stories and mostly finished our servings of Christmas Eve Chili. All politely refused a second portion, claiming it was so hearty they couldn’t possibly eat more.

I’m humbled, both by the generosity of friendship and my own foolishness in refusing to trust my instincts.  As for putting our feet up and relaxing before the guests arrived, at 6:15pm I was trying to re-hang a kitchen cabinet door that had somehow fallen off and was vacuuming. Next time we practice the art of entertaining, we’ll use a recipe we know and make it the day before.

I still have to ask Mom and Dad to tell me the secret to the family chili. Then maybe Catherine can edit the family cookbook.

Want to come over for dinner soon?
~Theresa

Begin again

By Catherine Keefe
When Weather Underground Lake Tahoe, and the cabin rental agency, and the Squaw Valley ski report, and the friends who live here, and the drought watchers say, “there’s no snow,” I believe them all with the conviction of a woman who packs boots with slippery soles and thin socks for an alpine January vacation with plans of biking and hiking instead of skiing.

I expect no browning snow patches covering the bike path, no puddles melting into ice on the driveway, no leftover frozen white piles hiding the hiking trail.  I imagine dirt and dust and brown pine needle paths still edging the bluest lake in America but no, I definitely don’t imagine snow.

Let me tell you something. There’s no snow like you think there’s no love sometimes, like you want the thrill of skiing the big bowls but the coverage is so light you stay off the mountain so you don’t scratch your new skis and tell everyone there’s no snow, it’s no good. But it is there.

Look – Just now as you come around a corner and catch a glimpse of peaks and those endless pines that aren’t too proud to reach all day, there it is. Snow! Just like love.

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It might not be new and it surely isn’t making the news, but there’s pure white evidence that you simply forgot how it fell, silent one night at Christmas time which, truth be told wasn’t even a month ago.

There really is snow because it really is winter and even if it’s not showy and causing road closures or lost hikers or skidding trucks or epic skiing conditions it’s there, a little off the beaten path, a drift in the shadows. It shines under the moon and sparkles in the sun.

There’s less than usual, but when hasn’t that been true about something like your perception of the presence of hope or goodness?  So here I am, entirely unprepared clothes wise and shoe wise and activity planning but I couldn’t care less. Why?  Because it’s winter and there’s snow in the mountains and no one acknowledges it is there. Do you see it?

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Once again, I’m delighted, as a child who first discovers snow and now I’m even more apt to believe what Mark Twain wrote in Roughing It:

Three months of camp life on Lake Tahoe would restore an Egyptian mummy to his pristine vigor, and give him an appetite like an alligator. I do not mean the oldest and driest mummies, of course, but the fresher ones. The air up there in the clouds is very pure and fine, bracing and delicious. And why shouldn’t it be?—it is the same the angels breathe.

In this month of beginnings, under the influence of angels, I once again am allowed the opportunity to let go, especially of expectations.  How blissful to discover I have everything I need after all:
a fireplace.
a match
a husband of 33 years
a contemporary book of poetry written by a woman who lives here
a notebook
a pen

With cold feet,
Catherine

p.s. One of my travel pleasures is picking up a book written by a local author.  If you ever travel to Lake Tahoe, I highly recommend regional poet Judy Tretheway’s book Rubicon Ramblings.

Here’s one of my favorites:

What is Enough?

Tell me how it happens,
magnificent one,
who stretches
into the golden light above the creek. Tell me how you can stand
so full
when under you flows
a rush of water and foam,
rock and debris. The very water that feeds you
washes away
the earth from your roots.
You grab onto the big boulders
while the soil
full of your food travels on. Every other tree I can see
greets the earth with a full embrace.
Your tether is tenuous,
yet it must be enough.What is enough
in this swiftly flowing world?How much security beneath our feet
do we really need
while we reach for our place
in the sun?

 

That awkward phase

photo-67By Catherine Keefe
Oh, the late 1980s. Neon ruled; hair was big, and bib ski overalls were still in fashion.

While it’s easy to observe fashion’s fluctuations it’s a little more difficult to discern how the adult phases of life slowly meander bearing unexpected gifts and challenges.  One thing that surprises me at this mother-of-young-adult-children phase is how difficult it is to make new friends.

I do have a deep connection to many wonderful women. But I’m often reminded how impermanent relationships are. This friend followed her husband’s job to Davenport, Iowa. That friend is eyeing a move to Phoenix when she retires to be closer to her grandchildren.  And so I begin a plunge into the inevitable awkward phase of trying to build new friendships. As if the universe listens to me, the following e-mail arrived from a woman I barely know.

Hi Gals,
I’m starting something new this year. It’s a salon (ala Dorothy Parker’s soirees at the Algonquin Hotel in New York), and I’m calling it “The Interestings.”

Did the woman who sent this, a former Broadway actress, current screenwriter and almost novelist, know she had me with the Dorothy Parker reference? It’s forever been my dream to start or belong to a salon like the Algonquin Round Table, a daily gathering of poets, writers and critics that convened in NYC from June 1919 until 1929, a group that “strongly influenced young writers like Fitzgerald and Hemingway” and where “Harold Ross, legendary editor and friend of The Round Table, created The New Yorker” according to the hotel’s website.

I immediately imagined a group of smart women, part writing group, part literary critique and visionaries who might support my desire to turn the abstract concepts I glean from literature into concrete action to affect social change.  Would we begin a new magazine or a Writer’s House? Start a movement?

I wondered what connection there was between us and the novel the group took its name from. In The Interestingsby Meg Wolitzer one character famously blurts, “Specialness — everyone wants it. Most people aren’t talented. So what are they supposed to do — kill themselves?”

Last night’s inaugural agenda was to create vision boards, something I was a little snarky about. “I feel like Oprah will show up any moment,” I said not long after I walked in and eyed the leaning stacks of magazines, scissors and glue sticks. The circle laughed, a little uneasily and I made a mental note to be more open-minded and close-mouthed.  I wondered what Dorothy Parker would have made of our earnestness.  Quit talking about what you want to do and just do it.

But there I was and so I sat around a table with 8 other women snipping pictures and words from travel brochures, Yoga Journal, Bloomingdale’s catalogs, and a beauty salon’s stash of titles like O: The Oprah Magazine, InStyle, and bon appétit. I felt like a little Brownie Girl Scout at Craft Afternoon as we diligently put ruffled cut edges around camels in Saudi Arabia or a front porch weeping wisteria blossoms and I wondered if I was destined to wander alone through the end of my life unable to fit in with a group of nice women.

What didn’t we talk about? Our jobs. Our children. Our relationship to the hostess. We were untethered to any identity other than what made us smile for our future.

Finally, like kindergartners as Star of the Week, we held up our vision boards. “An open-mouthed shark bursting through the ocean’s surface represents a desire to attack new projects,” one woman said. The next woman pointed to a small photo of hundreds of lanterns floating on a river.  “Not that we’ll get to the Loi Kratong festival this year, but this reminds me to spend more time with my daughter who will go to college next year.”

There was a murmur of low sighs. Oh. Mhmm. A recognition of that awkward phase when who we were, who we are and who we want to be eddy in the rapids. Last night I heard enough dreams to light a million candles and enough desire to share those dreams even at the risk of seeming hopelessly earnest and decidedly unliterary and I think how no amount of talent or literature can save a person or sustain forever a circle of friends.

As we walked together into the full moon night, each of us clutching one cardboard idea of a life, the relentless Santa Ana winds battered our newly envisioned futures so we had to protect them tightly against our bodies. We agreed to meet in a month, to talk about and write poetry. Who knows what will happen? Our called-out promises were blown away under watchful stars.  

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With more white space than most,
~Catherine

p.s. You can read one idea on how to create a vision board version here, but I highly recommend instead, gathering a group you don’t know well. Make small talk as you release your rational brain and sift through images to see what makes you sigh or your heart quicken.  We all agreed there were more surprises than deliberate compositions and for that we were grateful.

Gifts

Chester and I set out on the trail this morning, a day that is cold enough for a sweatshirt, but not scarf or gloves. The December California sun is bright, yet low in the sky. It’s a beacon, a headlamp I walk toward with sure strides even though its light blinds.

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Go toward the light, I say aloud and giggle because I’m so serious and so kidding at the same time.  I’ve been praying hard – for my students, so many of whom write so eloquently about being sad or lost; for my friends who’ve lost loved ones and face a new kind of emptiness this season; and for those strangers I might touch with my writing or teaching in ways I won’t ever know.

Maybe it’s the light, or the drawing near end of the year, but I feel a taunting melancholy and longing for something I can’t quite put my finger on.  I wonder how to hold the fullness of this day and season, how to share this expansive blue, the thrilling sound of twittering bushtits hidden in the scrub oaks that raise a grand chorus as we pass. What am I supposed to do with all this beauty I ask the sky.

Chester thinks I’m speaking to him, turns his head, cocks his ears, then crashes through the sage to chase a roadrunner. Right, I think. You’re simply one anonymous creature among the myriad in the canyon today.There’s nothing to do but be here.

The trail winds past a row of California pepper trees with weeping branches laden with reddish pink Christmas berries.  As I walk past the grove, a little too close, one slender green wispy branch slides its gentle finger from my cheek to my neck and I feel I’ve been caressed as if by a mother, touched by nature as if to say what am I supposed to do with all this beauty here? Goosebumps rise on my arms.

I laugh again, accept the touch, accept the sky, the birdsong, the quiet crunch of loose dried mud under my shoes and Chester’s soft nudge against my thigh when I call him toward the homeward path.

Isn’t this what the season is about: not only giving gifts, but openly receiving? I think, if we are attentive, we can fill the quiet spaces with appreciation and acknowledgement of all the gifts we’ve experienced this year. The unexpected visit. Daisies left on the front porch. Goulash dinner and homemade bread for no reason other than longtime friendship. Tilt your head skyward and be attentive. You might feel the caress of gratitude from others upon our cheek at the most unexpected moment.

~Catherine

The Weekend Dish-Christmas Quiz

You know that golden moment we dream each holiday will hold? The one where we’ll pause for one beat, inhale the scent of cinnamon and cloves, look around in candle glow at the family gathered around, listen to laughter and stories, and say this, yes this is what Christmas spirit feels like.
079I know this feeling is something that doesn’t come in a box from the mall and yet, like a hamster on a wheel, at some moment in December I find myself wandering from shop to shop wondering what the people I care most about want or need.

It was after one of these seemingly futile ramblings that I developed the Christmas quiz, a short fill-in-the blank opportunity for the entire family to reflect on gifts of the year while also offering glimpses into what might be treasured under the tree.  I tried to cover multiple topics – learning opportunities, gifts of time, ways to have fun, needed or desired things, ways to make memories and guidance on how to make another feel loved.  These lists guide me, not only as a shopping list, but as a way of discovering how to spend special time together in the coming year.

      The Christmas Quiz

I only wish I could learn to…
I wish I had time to…
A long-term fun goal for me is…
If I had one whole week off I would…
The best Christmas present you ever gave me was…
If I could have one new item of technology it would be…
If I could have one new item of clothing it would be…
If I could have one new toy it would be…
If I could have one new item of self-care it would be…
If I could have one new thing for the house it would be…
My favorite date this year was…
I would feel very loved if you…

My family teased me at first and wondered why we couldn’t just exchange lists like “normal people.” But after the first year, we looked forward to taking a moment to really reflect, not only on the many things that we dream of, but the many ways we do gift each other in ordinary time.

I wish I’d saved these lists from year to year. If I had it to do all over again, I would.  I recently discovered those dated December, 2004 and I’m amused and amazed at how these quizzes offer a snapshot and time capsule.  What was important once, still threads through the things we like best.

When my son was 17, he wrote that he felt very loved when “you keep providing me with food.” My daughter treasured Disneyland trips as her favorite date, and J wished he could “learn to play the piano.” Funny thing is, nine years later, I still show my son love by cooking when he’s home, still know that my daughter’s favorite dates are to the Magic Kingdom, still remember the year I gave J piano lessons because he plays the piano – quite well – all the time now.

You want to know one more funny thing? In 2004 I wrote, “If I could have one new toy it would be an art easel.”

This year, I again asked for an art easel, thinking it was some random new tangent, me wanting a space to create images as well as word play. I’d entirely forgotten my previous desire, but they say if you write something down, set a desire as your intention, that eventually it will work its way into being.

Some times repeat gifts – of time, love, and attention – are perfectly fine. In 2004, my daughter wrote, “I would feel very loved if you do the same things you always do.” So I guess once again I’ll pull out the Christmas quiz. Want to join me this year?

~Catherine

O Come, All Ye Fearful

This may sound like a story of faith, but mostly it’s about mistrust and fear.  Not the kind of fear big enough to scream over, more the slow-moving variety that makes me squeeze my soul and lips tight like the clasp on a granny’s purse until I don’t recognize me anymore.

To the beginning, 16 days before Christmas.

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I pull into my driveway.  It’s raining. Night. No one is home.  No light is on.

I have a trunk load of groceries.  Four and a half minutes separate my ranking as either good mom or bad.  I lose if I’m late to pick up my daughter from ballet class across town.

A rustling on the wall that divides my home from my neighbor’s startles me as I open the trunk.

“Hey!” says a young man, jumping out of the shadows.  He hops over the wall and drops two feet from my toes.

“Hey,” he repeats as if maybe I didn’t hear him, see him, already have time to wonder what he’s doing materializing from the storm like this at 8:30 at night. He talks fast.

“I’m not looking for charity, see, I’m just trying to make a better life for myself, see, all’s I’ve got to do is sell magazines, get to 15,000 points and I’ve earned my way, see, I only need 300 more points and your neighbor, Ron, he just asked me in for cinnamon rolls and bought a magazine and all I need is 300 more points and I’ve earned my way do you want to buy some magazines?  Say, is that McDonald’s in there?   Something sure smells good for dinner.  Did you go to McDonald’s?”

He pauses for air, flashes big, clean white teeth at me.

I lean in, trying to smell cinnamon on his breath.  I search for crumbs or icing smudges on his lips.  He’s dressed in a well-knit sweater, navy blue pants, heavy boots.  He has that wide, wide smile.

I turn away.  Walk up the steps to the porch, to the shelter.  It’s still dark. He follows.

I never buy anything from doorway solicitors I prepare to tell him.  I already have six subscriptions to magazines I don’t read.  They were bought from my children as school fund-raisers.

The children.  It’s a good thing they’re not here to see their mother so foolish as to lead a man who jumped out of the night onto the porch. I pause, keys clutched in my hand, ready to use as a weapon.

“Sure, I’ll help you out,” I say.

This startles both of us.

He smiles again.  I see no cinnamon streaks.  I look into his deep brown eyes and catch a straight gaze.

“Here, let me just give you $20,” I say, glancing down at my purse.  I am not following those eyes into any sort of trust.

“Oh no ma’am,” he says, shaking his head.  “They won’t let us take money.  No cash.  You have to buy a magazine subscription.  You can pay by check.  Boy, that food smells good.”

I blink.  I’ve already leapt off my cliff of prudence, talking to this man alone on the porch in the dark and now I’m feeling guilty because I’m not giving him my dinner and I don’t want to give him a check.  There’s a lot of information on a check.  My name.  Phone number.  Address.  Signature.

My credit information was stolen once.  Some lady was charging up jewelry at JC Penney and televisions and calling herself me.  I didn’t find out until I went to buy a new house and discovered my credit report was marred with dozens of delinquent accounts for tens of thousands of dollars.  The police traced the theft to a ring of credit pirates working at a car dealership where I’d written a check as down payment.  It took two years to clear my name.

No, I can’t give this stranger a check. Tomorrow I’ll start to be a more trusting person.

“Let me see what magazines you’ve got,” I say, surprising us both again.  He replies with that wide smile, all teeth.  I wonder if it’s the good fortune of not being turned away, or the thrill of having duped me.

I open the front door and turn on the porch light.  We stand like moths, hovering in the circle of light, not in, not out.

“I am really late now,” I say, flipping through a phone book size listing of magazines and prices all written in tiny script. I say I’m in a hurry because I have to pick up my daughter and then he asks where she is and I imagine he’s gauging how long I’ll be gone so he can steal all the presents piled under the tree.

“Man, your neighbor, Ron sure is nice.  Man, those cinnamon rolls were sure good,” he says rubbing his navy blue sweater with his big hand.  Grinning.  Again, I lean closer trying to smell cinnamon.  I size him up.  Me versus him.  I’m not sure who would win.

I try to pretend he’s the Messiah and I’m the old innkeeper who would like to invite him in this time to prove that 2,000 years have brought changes, that my faith is bigger than my fear. I can’t do it.  I tell myself it’s because I don’t have time.  What I don’t have is faith in strangers.

I order Catholic Digest, partly because it’s the cheapest magazine, but mostly it’s my personal challenge to God. You’ve given me faith to trust a stranger now don’t let me down.

I get a yellow receipt.  The stranger gets my signature, address, phone number, bank account.

I lock the door, leave the porch light on and roar out the driveway, windshield wipers flapping.  I slow to wave goodbye to this stranger, to get one more good look at him.  He’s gone.  Not in my yard.  Not on the porch next door.  Not across the street.

I think about calling Ron and asking him about those cinnamon rolls. I think about calling the police. I veto any action that involves telling a soul how foolish I was.

My bank statement shows the check cashed on December 24.

I wait.

Then one ordinary day, Baby Jesus arrives in my mailbox disguised as a magazine. Tucked between bulky campaign literature and my new Crate & Barrel catalog is the January issue of Catholic Digest.  I don’t think I’ve made a mistake with this selection because it has a nativity scene on the front even though the cover says January. The lasting gift.  I see this as a private joke and chuckle.

“What’s so funny?” my daughter and son wonder, pawing through the pile of mail.

I tell them how I was just thinking that the world is mostly a beautiful place and they better remember that always.

Two days later, the February and March issues arrive together.  I suppose that too is some sort of private joke.  Make no mistake now, they seem to say, you are caught up on promises made by strangers.

I suppose that means it’s my move again.

treeWith an eye toward the light of the season,
~Catherine

p.s. This story, in a slightly different version, first appeared in Los Angeles Times Magazine, Dec. 3, 2000.

Pomegranates, Poetry, and Play

I was invited on a field trip.  My Backyard Sisters post, “Pomegranates, Poetry, and Play” shows up today over on the Minerva Rising Literary Journal blog. Minerva Rising’s mission is, “to celebrate the creativity and wisdom in every woman.” I’m honored to be included among the fine group of writers and artists represented there.DSCN3482
I was asked to guest blog because one of my poems, “Early Warning,” appeared in the Minerva Rising’s June 2013 edition titled “Rebellion.” When I submitted the poem – a dark piece dedicated to women in history who suffered years of domestic abuse until they finally murdered their husbands- I wrote:

When I think of rebellion from a Minerva Rising perspective, I think of June Jordan‘s poem, “In My Own Quietly Explosive Here.” Women silenced sometimes feel as if we are “dying underground,” yet we discover strength when “circles hold us together.” We find wings when we tell our stories and listen to one another.

My poem was a challenge to us all not to judge, nor to ignore, unsettling behavior. Today’s post is much lighter in tone than the poem, yet it also is related to a type of rebellion. It tells the story of a front porch encounter with a group of neighbor girls playing Bigger and Better. Here’s an excerpt:

Maybe it’s the poet in me, or maybe I spy the pomegranate perched on my porch next to the pumpkin and find the perfect metaphor for why bigger isn’t always better. Pumpkins and pomegranates both ripen at this time of year with their fiery oranges and red in defiance of the coming brown and deadness. But they couldn’t be more different.

You can read the entire post on the Minerva Rising Literary Journal blog here. I’d be remiss not to mention the influence of Joan Houlihan‘s The Us upon my musing.  I was in the middle of that unique and haunting poetry book when interrupted by the neighbor girls. I doubt it’s an accident that my mind went to questioning the value of bigger over better while hypnotized by what is described on the back cover as:

The Us, Joan Houlihan’s mesmerizing new book, is a sequence of poems spoken in the collective voice of nomadic hunter-gatherers. Incompatible with a stronger, more developed culture (“thems”), the us must live outside civilization in order to be free and fully alive.

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The Us is stunning.

If you’re inspired to “be free and fully alive,” through prose,  you might appreciate these recent posts of mine.

“Anything Can Happen”
“Be small. Feel big.”
“What do you bring to the table?”

May the goblins you meet tonight scare you just enough to keep the porch light on, but not enough to ruin your evening with nightmares.

~Boo!
Catherine

p.s. You can read Darrel Lorenzo Wellingtons’ fine review of “Directed by Desire: The Collected Poems of June Jordan,” here. Jordan, whose spirit inspired my poem “Early Warning,” was the author of  “political verse, protest poetry, folk poetry, love poetry, scenic poetry, surrealist and associative poetry, light and humorous verse, spoken word poetry and even a few sonnets.” The collection, published by Copper Canyon Press in 2007, is big:  649 pages. Rebellion indeed.
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Life Version 1.new

Composing Self: The title of a class I teach this semester. The work of a life.

I can’t tell you about the struggle between silence and witness that rumbles between my ribs this September.  Do I better serve the world with words or actions?  The gaps in my journal suggest I’m favoring the work of hands not head, behaving more like a silent tree than a writer, a physical manifestation rather than a noetic one.

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I sit alone with my mother-in-law in the hospital.  Between the wracking coughs of a deeply settled pneumonia, she tells me about a childhood friend who taught her to make Greek pastry and dance. “I used to love to dance,” she tells me. We stare out the window at impossibly glaring blue.  Will I dance enough?

An e-mail arrives inviting me to participate again in the Big Orange Book Festival. I find my journal entry written after last year’s event where I created and presented a mash-up of lines from dirtcakes, the literary and art journal I publish.

It’s 3:55 p.m. and I stand outside on the top of the cement steps leading to the library. I’m here to read to a crowd and there are two people waiting. One is my student trying to “get in my good graces,” the other is my niece being supportive. Muzak fills the piazza, a barefoot boy in a green shirt splashes in the fountain, a small red train on rubber wheels weaves in and out of the piazza with one mother and one girl sitting in the back car.  The conductor toots the horn and the small boy playing in the fountain giggles and waves and I pause and I wave because there’s nothing else to do.

The breeze, slight in the 94 degree afternoon with no shade, is enough to blow across the microphone meaning I must speak above the wind, above the water falling from the fountain, above the train tooting, the children laughing.

I shout out into the nothingness and even if I wasn’t a writer the metaphor for this moment as a physical manifestation of the void into which a small journal of arts and letters launches is apparent.

No one pays attention, except perhaps the man in the orange shirt with the white name tag. I can’t read his name from his distance at the bottom of the stairs but he nods, smiles encouragingly which of course he must do because he is working this literary festival.

I ditch my opening, the bit about this being the last day of summer, the question about viewing the space shuttle Endeavor on its last journey through the sky, the query about anyone knowing that today, this day, is the UN International Day of Peace.

Ten minutes I’ve promised. Ten minutes I’ll give.  The wind distorts my voice and I begin.

“This is the poem I fought.”

I’ve been fighting for this poem, this journal, this desire to rattle the status quo and inspire someone to join me, many someones  to join me, in meeting humanity in letters and poems and stories and action.

My student never looks at me. He types on his computer. My niece looks around the piazza, up in the sky as a low plane buzzes overhead, at the train, now on its third loop (toot-toot) through the piazza.

I stand a little taller.
I raise my voice.
I don’t give a damn.

“Now that she can read nothing can undo her.”

“green stagnant mother becomes a library. just bear down and bear down again.”

What the hell does it take for one woman with a global vision to make an impact? What do the laws of physics say about matter never being created nor destroyed. Surely these words land somewhere. I believe in these words, this dirtcakes project. I power through sections 1, 2 and 3 and 4,

“What the Night Maid draws when she can’t dream at night.”

I am the night maid. I created that line from my own dream of reaching readers. It hovers in the gloaming, just out of reach, a refrigerator light in a dark kitchen.

“shut the goddamn icebox.”

Today feels like an empty plate, an empty vision, a wasting of the kind that creates bloated bellies and I wonder why this ever felt so important to me.

I skip section 10 and most of 11 except this line which is exactly what I would make up on the spot if it wasn’t already in black and white in my hand:

“Imagine…me, an ordinary woman full of air, rocking and blowing into twilight.”

Rocking and blowing air and dreams and questions and frustration building into a sort of dignity coupled with the indignity of speaking to no one, but two.  I hope my words travel as (toot-toot) the train loops, the wind blows across the microphone, the little boy in the fountain stops splashing and waves at me his smile full of teeth white teeth. Will he remember any of this?

I read from section 12.

“I’m willing to hope now. Convince me.”
“turn around, say crazy trains, man, [say] crazy

I read and wonder how the poem knew it would end like this.

I decline the invitation to participate this year and wonder if I’m losing my ambition or composing a new self.  I wonder how you ever know if you danced enough. Will we spend  enough time marveling at the impossibly beautiful ordinary days?

photo

With face turned toward the blue,
~ Catherine

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