New Moon, New Nightmare

Recently, I was sitting outside with my neighbors, Rhonda and Rachel. We were enjoying infused vodka and joking about the frisky birds and bees, weaving around our drinks like drunken teenagers. Spring had sprung. Rhonda reminded us that the new moon was that night, which meant it was time to release the past.

I remembered a yoga teacher telling me the same thing, the week before, and figured that, if two people had mentioned it, I’d give it a go. I looked up at the pale, blue sky and thought that I’d like to let go of neediness. My neediness isn’t particularly blatant. I like spending long stretches of time alone, and I need my independence. I can take care of myself. But, for the last year, I have been wanting stronger relationships with people who, put simply, are just not willing to play. I finished my vodka and hoped the new moon would take care of the rest.

That night, I had one of those long, multi-faceted dreams that seem to last through morning. I dreamed, vaguely, about a family member who recently dropped me from her life; friends in the recent past, and from a million years ago, whose behavior left me confused and hurt. I’ve always found it interesting that every time I silently declare a shift, my subconscious delivers backlash in the tone of “Oh, you mean this pain?”

Oh, you mean this pain

Also, once I start thinking about a topic, it shows up everywhere. Lately, I keep hearing conversations about aging, which is not unusual, I realize; this is America. My peers are mostly 40-somethings, and from what I’ve seen so far, women tend to fall into two camps regarding growing older. The first group can’t stop whining about it, and the rest of us just want to be happy.

Is that assessment completely fair, though? When I first saw my wedding photos (I got married when I was 42) the thought popped into my head that I would have looked better in that dress ten years ago. However, I also remembered that I did not want to get married ten years ago. If I had done so, I would have gotten the photos back and noticed the look of anxiety and defeat on my taut, symmetrical face. And really, what’s the point in that? Still, society’s unreasonable demands find their way into our heads and ask us to cling and need what is already gone.

It’s easy to recognize large shifts in life: going away to college, beginning a new career, getting married. Many times, though, the little shifts are more profound. Below, I’ve included Tony Hoagland’s “Beauty” and Louise Glück’s “Here Are My Black Clothes.” Both poems deal with leaving behind what no longer serves.

If you know a poem that deals with moving forward (or have written one) please share with us in the comments below! Also, tell me if you have a good new moon story!

Beauty

When the medication she was taking
caused tiny vessels in her face to break,
leaving faint but permanent blue stitches in her cheeks,
my sister said she knew she would
never be beautiful again.

After all those years
of watching her reflection in the mirror,
sucking in her stomach and standing straight,
she said it was a relief,
being done with beauty,

but I could see her pause inside that moment
as the knowledge spread across her face
with a fine distress, sucking
the peach out of her lips,
making her cute nose seem, for the first time,
a little knobby.

I’m probably the only one in the whole world
who actually remembers the year in high school
she perfected the art
of being a dumb blond,

spending recess on the breezeway by the physics lab,
tossing her hair and laughing that canary trill
which was her specialty,

while some football player named Johnny
with a pained expression in his eyes
wrapped his thick finger over and over again
in the bedspring of one of those pale curls.

Or how she spent the next decade of her life
auditioning a series of tall men,
looking for just one with the kind
of attention span she could count on.

Then one day her time of prettiness
was over, done, finito,
and all those other beautiful women
in the magazines and on the streets
just kept on being beautiful
everywhere you looked,

walking in that kind of elegant, disinterested trance
in which you sense they always seem to have one hand
touching the secret place
that keeps their beauty safe,
inhaling and exhaling the perfume of it—

It was spring. Season when the young
buttercups and daisies climb up on the
mulched bodies of their forebears
to wave their flags in the parade.

My sister just stood still for thirty seconds,
amazed by what was happening,
then shrugged and tossed her shaggy head
as if she was throwing something out,

something she had carried a long ways,
but had no use for anymore,
now that it had no use for her.
That, too, was beautiful.

Tony Hoagland, “Beauty” from Donkey Gospel. Graywolf Press, St. Paul, Minnesota, http://www.graywolfpress.org.

Here Are My Black Clothes

I think now it is better to love no one
than to love you. Here are my black clothes,
the tired nightgowns and robes fraying
in many places. Why should they hang useless
as though I were going naked? You liked me well enough
in black; I make you a gift of these objects.
You will want to touch them with your mouth, run
your fingers through the thin
tender underthings and I
will not need them in my new life.

Louise Glück “Here Are My Black Clothes” From The House on Marshland The Ecco Press 1975

Photo Credit: Kelley Hudlow

Well, It Used to Be: Thoughts on Evolving Perspectives

In autumn of 1987, I was twelve years old, had just gotten my braces off, and had entered the horrifying world of junior high. I won’t discuss, here, all the ways our culture disempowers women and enables men’s bad behavior, all the while giving young people absolutely no clue how to understand adulthood (unless it involves marketable rebellion). I will say, though, I was told that I had to be pretty, which I was, even though I never saw it. Men did, though, and I was often reminded that, because I was pretty and had big breasts, their behavior (which included stalking, threatening, groping, exposing themselves, masturbating at me, and calling out vulgarities) was just a burden pretty girls had to bear. Once, when I was fourteen, I was at my friend’s house and her grandfather hit on me. I felt scared and embarrassed, but he had no qualms with doing it in front of everyone. His parents laughed it off with an “Oh Grandpa!” reply. People were right; that burden was mine to bear: alone.

However, on September 28, 1987, Star Trek: The Next Generation premiered, and my twelve-year-old self was transfixed by Lt. Tasha Yar, Security Chief. I watched her bark orders and flip big men as if they were rag dolls. I loved how she stood up straight and strong on the bridge, not folded into herself as women are often taught to stand, as to show that we are diminutive and never in the way of men. Lt. Yar had grown up orphaned and alone and had experienced constant threat of rape gangs. I don’t know whether or not the men who harassed me had also intended to rape me, but I always felt on edge around them and physically threatened on my walk home from school.

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Last autumn, I decided that my next book of poems will all be about Star Trek: The Next Generation. I have been having so much fun writing new poems about characters and episodes, and I have also been “watching around” the series on Netflix. The latter is nothing unusual for me. In fact, I often spend my weekday lunch breaks watching part of an episode. However, since I’m writing the book, I thought I’d revisit season one, which I never do. Season one was not the most well-written of the series. Nevertheless, I started with “Skin of Evil,” the episode where Tasha Yar dies. I’m not ashamed to admit that, after thirty years, I still got a little teary eyed at her funeral. (Side note: Tasha bleeds like a Kandinsky painting.)

 

Next, I watched the first episode of Season one. Here are my general observations:

  1. Damn, Troi’s dress was short. When she sits down, it looks like she’s wearing a shirt and underwear to work. Don’t get me wrong; she’s got a rockin’ shape. She just looked more comfortable, in later episodes, when she got to wear pants.
  2. God, I love Picard.
  3. God, I love Q. Have you heard the theory that Q is really Picard’s shadow side?
  4. Worf eventually grew into his growl. Love him.
  5. Awww…young, bright-eyed Riker!

What really struck me, though, was realizing that I have been remembering Tasha Yar very differently, all these years. As a kid in the 80s, I had viewed her as strong and in charge. I realized after re-watching the series premiere, however, that even though she throws people around and defends the crew, she’s really whiney about it. She cries, or is near tears, several times during the episode. She also flies off the handle and orates a desperate speech, despite the captain’s direct order to stop and the presence of trigger-happy militants. I’ll be honest, if I were the captain, I would not feel comfortable with her in charge of security. Picard acts fatherly and gentle with her, which at the time, I thought was sweet of him. Perhaps teaching college for the past eighteen years has hardened me a bit because I can tell you that, if I had been the captain, I would have told her to get her shit together. For heaven’s sake, one of her tearful outbursts gets her literally frozen solid, which in turn, makes Troi cry, too.

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Well, it was 1987, and Tasha Yar was still stronger than most females on television. Also, I’m sure my twelve-year-old lens made Tasha’s mood swings appear not as melodramatic as I see them today. I guess I have been remembering Yar more like Gwendoline Christie’s Brienne of Tarth in Game of Thrones, who is strong, tough, committed, smart, and loyal. She’s allowed feelings, but as a protector, she controls them and performs her duties first.

I think that our cultural view of strength is shifting, slowly. In the 90s, I admired Special Agent Scully’s strength, intelligence, and rationality, and although I did fall for the whole potential Scully/Mulder romance, I also wanted her just to find someone who treated her right.

Scully had to bottle her emotions, most of the time. In “Never Again,” she goes on a date with a man who tries to kill her that night. When she returns from the hospital, Mulder slut-shames her. Funny, I don’t remember Mulder having to pay, even when he slept with other women.

Dana Scully GIF - Find & Share on GIPHY

I can’t even bear to watch the currently airing eleventh season of The X-Files. It’s too rapey. I’m tired of Scully being the object of dark, misogynist sci-fi. I love her too much.

Recently, I saw Black Panther, which I highly recommend. One of the many reasons that I liked it so much was because the strong women characters needed no explanation. As much as I adored Wonder Woman, at this point, I find it tiresome when scenes revolve around witty banter that explain how strange and humorous it is that a woman is strong. Also, actual women cannot be strong like Wonder Woman because we are just regular mortals.

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In Black Panther, the women found strength through discipline, wisdom, and intelligence. Some women were more physically strong; others were more intellectual. The old women exuded confidence from experience that married the head with the heart. Women’s strength in Black Panther is obvious and presented as accepted fact.

Oh, and their armor makes sense.

Screenshot 2018-03-05 14.15.39

Although Wonder Woman’s costume is skimpy in both Wonder Woman and Justice League, notice how her sister Amazons get dressed in Justice League. At least Wonder Woman’s costume protected her internal organs (although not much else).

 

What does any of this have to do with a poetry blog? Well, for this month’s post, I want to think about poetry that explores a shift in perspective. A few months ago, I wrote about Carolyn Kizer’s poem, “Bitch,” that describes an interaction between a woman and her ex, and the change in dynamics. Here are three poems that discuss shifting or evolving perspectives. If you, dear reader, can remember any poems with a similar theme, I encourage you to post them in the comments below. The three I’ve chosen to include, here, all recall parent/child relations, but you may find poems that embody different themes.

Photographs Of My Father

On my walls there are three
photographs of my father.
In one he is a young recruit
standing at ease,
third from the left
with his platoon.
In another he has rank
on his cap—a formal
pose in a studio,
intended for his mother.
In the last, a blowup
from my mother’s wallet
taken by a machine
in a foreign port, he is
a melancholy petty officer
in navy blues. Hazy
like a ghost sighting,
creased form her handling,
it is my favorite.

These are the survivors
from a day of fury.  One morning
in my childhood, on his way
out to sea, he had sat
alone in the living room,
and without hurry, with care,
cut himself out of our family.

Book after book.
I watched him work
from my room, knowing
his actions were prelude
or aftermath to family strife.
My mother in the kitchen
holding her coffee cup
with both hands, also waited.

On the floor
my father’s image lay
like peelings from an apple.
In his hands the scissors glinted
at the eye and snapped
like a live thing.

Nothing more. Just picture albums
shameful as a vandalized church,
never seen by me again. And years
after his death, my need to find
his face revealed in innocence,
unguarded, as I never knew it.
This vulnerable young man, this face
that fills me with grief and longing.
I am trying to believe in this boy.

by Judith Ortiz Cofer
from Reaching for the Mainland & Selected New Poems
Bilingual Press/Editorial Bilingue, 1995

 

Macaroni & Cheese

One day you may be asked, “How
was it that God brought forth
being

out of nothing?” Then, “IS
there no difference between them—
nothing, and being?” Outside

a strange slow snow, and a big
black bird hunched
over something in the road. The sky

will be a pale

reflection of itself,
like a woman making dreamy circles
at the center of a dish with a cloth.

Love. Hunger. Other alchemies.
You may be asked, “What

Are my eyes made of? Can
Santa’s reindeer be burned by fire? In
heaven, does Jesus eat?”
In the oven, something breathing. Rising. Melting.
Shifting
Shape and sweetening
in the heat. Now

You can see that the bird in the street
is wrestling something bloody

out of a carcass, trying
to expose its heart. You

put the dish beside the cloth, and say,
“Darling, I don’t know.”

by Laura Kasischke
from Gardening in the Dark
Copper Canyon Press, 2004

 

You can hear Li-Young Lee read this next poem: https://vimeo.com/36988030

The Gift

To pull the metal splinter from my palm
my father recited a story in a low voice.
I watched his lovely face and not the blade.
Before the story ended, he’d removed
the iron sliver I thought I’d die from.

I can’t remember the tale,
but hear his voice still, a well
of dark water, a prayer.
And I recall his hands,
two measures of tenderness
he laid against my face,
the flames of discipline
he raised above my head.

Had you entered that afternoon
you would have thought you saw a man
planting something in a boy’s palm,
a silver tear, a tiny flame.
Had you followed that boy
you would have arrived here,
where I bend over my wife’s right hand.

Look how I shave her thumbnail down
so carefully she feels no pain.
Watch as I lift the splinter out.
I was seven when my father
took my hand like this,
and I did not hold that shard
between my fingers and think,
Metal that will bury me,
christen it Little Assassin,
Ore Going Deep for My Heart.
And I did not lift up my wound and cry,
Death visited here!
I did what a child does
when he’s given something to keep.
I kissed my father.

by Li-Young Lee
from Rose
BOA Editions, Ltd., 1986

Church of Sister Nun

“Church of Sister Nun” is the last poem in Sister Nun (which, if you are new to this blog, is a book of poems from the voice of a former Buddhist nun). I spent the majority of summer, in 2011, writing the book and really had no idea how I’d end it. I knew she had to leave the earthly narrative, but I was not ready to let her go. I also had it in mind that she would have lived a long time. I decided that I would continue with the surrealist nature of the book and let her live for 215 years. In the last poem, I give her a second coming.

Throughout her first physical incarnation, she joins and leaves a convent, but in leaving, she takes a bit of the convent with her. She changes her name to “Sister,” and she keeps her head shaved; however, she also explores the Earth’s core and outer space, and she writes a self help book. Although she often thinks of convent, either to compare or to interpret the present, she never finds religion nor cares to. Therefore, the title of the poem, “Church of Sister Nun,” already indicates that someone, or a group of people, have overtaken her narrative. The first stanza contradicts the title’s implication that she may have started her own church (or has condoned one in her name) and also declares that she has returned to Earth centuries after her death:

In life, Sister always
thought of church as an
unlucky place. The jewel
toned glass, impressing
a false sun. There’s incense,
she remembers that, lit
everywhere like perfumed
bugs, sliding down the stick.
Now, centuries after her death,
she’s back.

The second stanza declares that Sister had lived for 215 years and that, although she was heavy with grief, she was free:

After the span of her Earthly
life, 215 years, she had finally
seen it all. The melodrama
of her broken, old heart.
An impractical paperweight
holding down nothing at all.

For the next stanza, bear with me; I’m about to discuss Britney Spears, gender expectations, and the fine line between pain and freedom. Years ago, as you probably remember, Britney Spears, exhausted by the paparazzi, shaved her head in a hair salon and then took an umbrella to the windshield of a photographer’s car. I can’t speak to her deeper mental state, but I recall seeing the image of a bald Britney, umbrella in attack-mode, and thinking, “Good for her.” She shaved her beautiful, long hair, a symbol of feminine sexuality that kept her rich and working but also hounded and mocked for the better part of her adolescence and young adulthood. Truth be told, I was a fan of Britney after the umbrella incident and was disappointed that the media reduced the scenario to “crazy” (not that that’s any surprise).

Spears is thirty-six now, and like many, has taken more control of her image through selfies on Instagram; however, she is back to promoting that image of sexy seductress. I get it. Sex sells, and the images she posts couldn’t be more stilted, but I can’t help but miss the day she lost her locks and went on the offense.

Screenshot 2018-02-02 22.01.55

For the poem, I pictured the future to be about as hollow as the present, and although Sister Nun’s experience with fame is not as aggressively felt as Britney’s, the paparazzi’s presence burdens Sister in her golden years. The faux intimacy of their proximity foreshadows the remaining narrative after her death: “And/at her age, followers behind her/every step with their future cameras.”

In stanza three, Sister Nun again is objectified, although this time more tenderly. There is also a reference to the commodification of Sister Nun’s image:

Sometime in her 90’s she had caught
the eye of a young, male sculptor
(whom she later outlived) and spent
all his mornings creating versions of
her from clay, glass, silk, even trees.
All his lovers were bald. You see,
to hope that someone has reached
the tower and sees you, the village,
and the hills beyond the sea is worth
even more than an original Sister Nun
fetish.

In the first part of the final stanza, the speaker reveals that the worship of Sister Nun was for nought, as she also did not understand the mysteries of the universe. With this understanding, she slips away “from camp,” indicating that she has a small following in future times:

But the truth is, Sister never knew a thing.
And one night, she slipped away
from camp. The boys slept in piles,
clutching the air. The girls, curled
into the Earth, reminded Sister of
something from a long time ago.

The final lines of the poem juxtapose dark and light imagines and are rooted in nature. Sister has just left the group, and the speaker implies that she will leave her body once more:

Black sky and happy, pulsating
stars as she reached, at last, the
tamal tree, jasmine opening
the night.

In a previous blog post, “Pagans and Buddhists and Christians, O My!” I discuss the religion that I grew up in and followed until my late 20s (Self-Realization Fellowship). In church, I remember hearing stories about Krishna, who voluntarily left his body under a tamal tree. (The Mahabharata tells a different version, claiming that a hunter, named Jara, mistook a sleeping Krishna for a deer and fatally wounded him with an arrow.) The tamal tree is said to have a dark, blue bark that resembles Krishna’s skin. In the last couple lines of “Church of Sister Nun,” I wanted to allude to the story of Krishna, giving up his body under the tamal tree, and to imply that Sister would soon do the same.

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I also wanted to end the poem with a sensuous image, and I chose the scent of jasmine because certain varieties will only blossom at night. In the beginning of Sister’s journey, she is grieving and alone. Although it’s arguable that her loneliness remains through the end, it is out of the darkness of her heartbreak that Sister Nun connects with her true self and finds an enlightenment that grants her meaning, depth, and adventure.

 

Church of Sister Nun

In life, Sister always
thought of church as an
unlucky place. The jewel
toned glass, impressing
a false sun. There’s incense,
she remembers that, lit
everywhere like perfumed
bugs, sliding down the stick.
Now, centuries after her death,
she’s back.

After the span of her Earthly
life, 215 years, she had finally
seen it all. The melodrama
of her broken, old heart.
An impractical paperweight
holding down nothing at all. And
at her age, followers behind her
every step with their future cameras.

Sometime in her 90’s she had caught
the eye of a young, male sculptor
(whom she later outlived) and spent
all his mornings creating versions of
her from clay, glass, silk, even trees.
All his lovers were bald. You see,
to hope that someone has reached
the tower and sees you, the village,
and the hills beyond the sea is worth
even more than an original Sister Nun
fetish.

But the truth is, Sister never knew a thing.
And one night, she slipped away
from camp. The boys slept in piles,
clutching the air. The girls, curled
into the Earth, reminded Sister of
something from a long time ago.
Black sky and happy, pulsating
stars as she reached, at last, the
tamal tree, jasmine opening
the night.

Photo Credit: https://visualwilderness.com/quick-tips/choosing-a-location-to-photograph-aurora-borealis

Everybody Must Get Stoned

My first introduction to Medusa came in the form of that ludicrous 70s show, Land of the Lost, where Uncle Jack saves his boneheaded niece from the vain monster by holding up a mirror, which causes Medusa to turn herself into stone. In Ovid’s Metamorphosis, she dies when Perseus beheads her. He then gives the head to Minerva (Athena in Greek). As an afterthought, in Ovid’s version, the reader learns about Medusa’s past. Here’s where it becomes difficult to chalk her up as just another Gorgon: Medusa used to be a hot-looking human with gorgeous hair. All the men used to fight over her. Then, along comes Neptune (Poseidon in Greek) with his male-god privilege, and rapes her in Minerva’s temple. In true blame-the-victim form, Minerva punishes Medusa by turning her into a mortal Gorgon and changing her beautiful hair into snakes, to add insult to injury.

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The Huntington Garden Sculpture in San Marino, CA

In “Medusa’s Slumber Party,” I wanted to portray her as a multi-dimensional person, not just as a monster in her final moments with Perseus. The first stanza begins with the notion that the snakes were metaphor before they were literal:

I had always known
the snakes, long before
the incident in the temple. Long
before the sailors dropped their nets
wrong when they saw her on
the rocks, hair a foamy wave.

This first stanza also gives background to the myth of Medusa. In the second stanza, the reader can imagine Medusa’s childhood as average. I wanted to humanize her history by setting it in modern times, while keeping the myth in tact:

We were childhood friends. Slept
together under a makeshift tent in
her parents’ den, waking each other,
turn by turn, with nightmares and
mumblings. The blankets, pitched
high around our small bodies, glowed
in the morning, converting the dark
cloth red. She burrowed deeper.

In this stanza, although the dramatic situation is innocent, darkness (literal and figurative) permeates the room. The speaker and Medusa suffer from nightmares and restlessness. The light turns the dark blanket red, a color that foreshadows her future bloody death. Medusa turns away from the light and burrows deeper into the literal darkness of the “makeshift tent.”

By the third stanza, Medusa is living as a Gorgon; however, Medusa’s feelings are mixed. She feels the snakes as “a rush, the heavy / crown on her head” but also as “absolute aloneness.” Medusa is different from the other Gorgons, not just because of the snakes, but because she is mortal.

The speaker finds her “After the curse…/ aging in a garden, the snakes for all / to see. Her toga looser than before and / the curve of her collar bone.” Medusa appears weaker and vulnerable. Still, the speaker feels for her and manages “to kiss her mouth before a snake” nips her ear. If the reader is to take the snakes as both literal and figurative, it may be inferred that Medusa cannot let the speaker close to her, even though she seems to appreciate her visit: “I left as she waved / to me from the shade of an oak tree. It smelled like rain.”

The last stanza takes the reader into the future, and continues to keep the narrative modern, with a cocktail party as the setting:

Even decades later, at the awkward
cocktail party where Athena flashed us
the head, tastelessly tacked to her
shield, I stayed fleshy. My blood,
a hot spring, a peaceful grin on my
face. Her limp snakes, informing my
darkness. Teaching me
to let in the light.

Here, Athena is humanized, although the presentation does not flatter: she is awkward and reckless, whipping out Medusa’s head, knowing that it could turn people to stone. Nevertheless, this thoughtless act does not affect the speaker. One gets the sense that her understanding of Medusa renders her immune to the dark powers of Gorgons (or at least of this particular one). The speaker knew about Medusa’s darkness, as a child, and also visits her in the garden, post-curse, without incident. Despite her intimacy with Medusa, it is the speaker’s awareness of Medusa’s tendency to turn toward the dark that teaches the speaker “to let in the light.”

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Halloween 2009: pipe cleaners and googly eyes

This poem first appeared in the Kerf, Fall 2012.

 

Medusa’s Slumber Party

I had always known
the snakes, long before
the incident in the temple. Long
before the sailors dropped their nets
wrong when they saw her on
the rocks, hair a foamy wave.

We were childhood friends. Slept
together under a makeshift tent in
her parents’ den, waking each other,
turn by turn, with nightmares and
mumblings. The blankets, pitched
high around our small bodies, glowed
in the morning, converting the dark
cloth red. She burrowed deeper.

It was a rush, the heavy
crown on her head, the buzz of her
absolute aloneness.

After the curse, I found her
aging in a garden, the snakes for all
to see. Her toga looser than before and
the curve of her collar bone. I managed
to kiss her mouth before a snake
nipped my ear. I left as she waved
to me from the shade of an oak tree.
It smelled like rain.

Even decades later, at the awkward
cocktail party where Athena flashed us
the head, tastelessly tacked to her
shield, I stayed fleshy. My blood,
a hot spring, a peaceful grin on my
face. Her limp snakes, informing my
darkness. Teaching me
to let in the light.

 

Featured Image Photo Credit: Ignasi Monreal

 

 

 

Season’s Beatings, Dadaists, and the Poetry of Donald Rumsfeld

Ah, the holiday season. For some, it is a religious time. Others just like coziness and Christmas carols. For the rest of us, it is a time for worming through trenches, praying to Krampus we won’t set off some gnarly childhood-memory landmine. (That’s me dressed as Krampus in the photo, by the way. Tomorrow, my wife [who is infinitely patient with  my costume-lifestyle] will dress as St. Nicholas, and we will deliver licorice and pretzel sticks [from Krampus] and chocolate [from Santa] to our little three-year-old neighbor. I think it’s important to take stressful holidays by the horns [pun intended] and turn them into something that doesn’t make a switch and cage seem par for the course.)

DSCF6697

Last year, this time, I was at the beginning of what I now refer to as my “year of the mixed bag.” On the one hand, by the end of 2016, Voldemort had finally collected enough unicorn blood to take power and make America gross again. On the other hand, I was planning what was to be a beautiful and happy wedding in the following month. 2017 began in the best way possible: I married my now wife, and the memory of that day, and the fact of our marriage, has provided a backdrop for the year, one that has kept me from ever feeling too dark for too long. On the other hand (there are too many hands in this narrative) I lost a dear family member to mental illness and watched as friends, old and new, either moved far away or changed so drastically that I could no longer recognize them. (Or was I the one who changed? I can’t tell sometimes. Either way, friendship’s fault lines cracked once more.) Work went smoothly…or horribly. My sweet 18-year-old cat died. 2016 has definitely been a good candidate for a sad country music song.

As for Christmas, I think that the commercialized version of it comes at a bad time. I am a mixture of extrovert and introvert, but the latter definitely takes over in winter. It seems as though shopping and making merry are activities better left to spring. In winter, I like to take quiet walks and notice how the branches hold hands across the skyline without leaves to keep it private. Most plant life is either dead or asleep, and I like the silence of the outdoors.

I recently bought my first house. Each spring, I am still surprised to see what types of flowers and vegetation pop up. In winter, though, I am left to find clues about what might have been and what will be. My house is warm, and there’s something in the crockpot. The spices develop and the vegetables soften. I’m not sure what I’ll find in myself during winter, but I know that it won’t quite be ready until spring.

I have always loved the last line of Joy Harjo’s poem “The Path to the Milky Way Leads Through Los Angeles”: “But like crow I collect the shine of anything beautiful I can find.” This month, I want to talk about found poetry and offer a writing prompt. If you, too, are experiencing the affects of “the mixed bag,” perhaps you can write a found poem where you pick out the jewels from a conversation you overheard, from a math textbook, from a fashion magazine, or any other source, really. If you do write a found poem, I hope that you share it in the comments below! In the meantime, here’s a brief lesson on the found poem. Hope you enjoy!

But first, let’s start with…

The Dada Movement

The Dada Movement arose in the early 20th century and philosophized that logic and reason had lead to world war and believed that the only response to such chaos was anarchy and irrationality. Also, Dadaists were none too fond of the bourgeoisie, whom they believed were responsible for society’s rigid imposition on art and society. Dadaists fought against rigidity by producing “anti-art,” flipping the bird to aesthetics, meaning, and morality. Dada art’s meaning was to express meaninglessness. They wanted to offend and to destroy tradition (which is understandable if you’ve ever studied the horrors of World War I).

Meanwhile, many believe that “found poetry” stems from the Dada Movement. It’s easy to see why. Below, Dadaist Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain is a good example of one of his “readymades.” (Yes, it’s a urinal.)

marcel-duchamp-fountain1.jpg

L.H.O.O.Q. (below) is another version of Duchamp’s readymades, which was created from a cheap postcard of the Mona Lisa that Duchamp doctored by drawing on a mustache. The name of the piece is a pun: the letters sound like “Elle a chad au cul,” which, in French, means “She has a hot ass.”

duchamp.jpg

Found Poetry

Found Poetry is a form that is what it sounds like. The poet finds “poetry lines” from unexpected places such as textbooks, advertisements, news headlines, and conversations overheard. The poet may decide to take the lines verbatim, and distinguish them with line and stanza breaks, or may pick and choose parts of the “found poem” and heavily edit it.

My hope is that you, dear readers, write a found poem this December and post it in the comments below! Until then, please enjoy the found poems of D.H. Rumsfeld (that’s not something you hear everyday, is it?) from Hart Seely’s wonderful book, Pieces of Intelligence. Seely’s found poetry comes from Rumsfeld’s briefings and media interviews, and reveals an existential brilliance that I bet you’ve never thought to associate with our former secretary of defense.

Happy winter, everyone, and be nice to yourselves!

The Unknown

As we know,
There are known knowns.
There are things we know we know.
We also know
There are known unknowns.
That is to say
We know there are some things
We do not know.
But there are also unknown unknowns,
The ones we don’t know
We don’t know.

—Feb. 12, 2002, Department of Defense news briefing

A Confession

Once in a while,
I’m standing here, doing something.
And I think,
“What in the world am I doing here?”
It’s a big surprise.

—May 16, 2001, interview with the New York Times

Happenings

You’re going to be told lots of things.
You get told things every day that don’t happen.
It doesn’t seem to bother people, they don’t—
It’s printed in the press.
The world thinks all these things happen.
They never happened.
Everyone’s so eager to get the story
Before in fact the story’s there
That the world is constantly being fed
Things that haven’t happened.
All I can tell you is,
It hasn’t happened.
It’s going to happen.

—Feb. 28, 2003, Department of Defense briefing

The Digital Revolution

Oh my goodness gracious,
What you can buy off the Internet
In terms of overhead photography!
A trained ape can know an awful lot
Of what is going on in this world,
Just by punching on his mouse
For a relatively modest cost!

—June 9, 2001, following European trip

The Situation

Things will not be necessarily continuous.
The fact that they are something other than perfectly continuous
Ought not to be characterized as a pause.
There will be some things that people will see.
There will be some things that people won’t see.
And life goes on.

—Oct. 12, 2001, Department of Defense news briefing

On NATO

You may think it’s something
I ought to know,
But I happen not to.
That’s life.

(July 9, 2003)

On Reporters

If you do something,
Somebody’s not going
To agree with it.
That’s life.

(Feb. 19, 2003)

On the Budget

If you do anything,
Someone’s not going
To like it and
That’s life.

(May 7, 2002)

On Leaks

Look bumpy? Sure.
But you pick up
And go on.
That’s life.

(May 17, 2002)

On Democracy

People elected
Those people to office.
That’s what they think, and
That’s life.

(Feb. 20, 2003)

On Criticism

It makes it complicated.
Sometimes, it makes
It difficult.
That’s life.

(Sept. 11, 2003)

The First Woman

My parents are from the snowy, muggy midwest, but I grew up in sunny California and was so unaware of prolonged gloomy weather that I did not understand what “Seasonal Affective Disorder” meant until I moved to Ireland in my 20s. But my earliest travel memories are of road trips to the desert, my dad driving our crayon-blue Datsun. Some weekends, we’d drive from Glendale, California to see the Cabazon dinosaur structures (pictured above) and then to Banning for date shakes. (My parents used to be into health food desserts.) I think it was my mother who loved the desert so much. Whenever I think of our trips, I remember these three images: my pretty, young mother, approaching me while sipping a date shake and wearing 70s-style macrame sandals and a Bodhi Tree t-shirt; a view from inside the T-Rex head; and across the pink desert, among the palm trees—the dinosaurs of Cabazon.

Photo Family trip
My parents and I on a road trip, circa ’79.

In my mid-twenties, I began Northern Arizona University’s MA program in Flagstaff. The town is 7,000 feet above sea level, so the weather and terrain are much different than Cabazon. There are forests of ponderosa pines and aspens that turn gold in autumn, and the whole town is covered in powdery white snow for several months of the year. However, the sun still shines on  most days, which was a welcomed sight for this California girl. One of the most beautiful natural scenes I’ve ever witnessed is snowflakes glistening through sunlight, all the trees, bejeweled. I often walked in the woods when it snowed. The whole world went silent under white blankets. Every now and then, I’d hear a muffled crash and turn to see a pine tree unburden itself of top-heavy snow drifts. I have never felt more wonderfully alone than I did in the desert.

As you drive south from Flagstaff, you pass through central Arizona, where pine trees and snow turn to shrubs and red mountains. Further still, shrubs give way to tall cacti that always looked friendly to me, as though they’re waving toward the passing cars with their arm-like branches.

Even in the parts of Arizona where it does not snow, there is a quietness to nature, probably because most animals and insects hideout during the day, as do many humans. Also, the dry heat makes you more aware of your body, and in that way, it can focus the mind. I often hiked alone back then. Unlike in the deep south, where insects and frogs sing a happy heralding, the utter silence of the desert made me feel like the only person in the world, a feeling that has always comforted me. Even desert rocks feel different to me. In the south, rocks are highways for every bug, reptile, and amphibian; but in the desert, rocks invite you to sit and to be alone with them, and you are.

As I wrote Sister Nun, I found many desert images popping up in my stanzas. I lived (collectively) in Flagstaff for only four years and have (collectively) spent thirteen years in the south, but the feeling of the desert has never left me. While the south’s nature is teeming with loud and aromatic life, the desert feels like the very beginning of life, quiet and red and prehistoric.

In “Sister Nun Faces a Sidewinder,” the first few lines set a tone of loneliness, enhanced by the mention of a chain motel, which has always seemed to me the perfect setting for any lonely story: “Sister would say that she had lived / a lonely life, if pressed now in / this chain motel parking lot.” In the next line, “Scales bright as her own / bald head” likens Sister to part of nature herself as well as reminds the reader of her appearance. (When she leaves the Buddhist convent, earlier in the book, she keeps her head shaved.) The next few lines give the reader further description of the setting: “The cacti, fuzzy and / soft from a distance, wave / at the cars, taking them / for suns.” The cacti’s appearance from a distance is much different than its sharpness up close, and the cars’ appearance from a distance confuses the cacti, who see the glare on metal as passing suns. This image provides contrast and foreshadows later imagery that pertains to the brightness of early creation.

In the next stanza, the speaker qualifies Sister’s loneliness: “If she said she was only alone / when she asked to be, that, too, / would be true.” Although Sister is lonely, she often chooses to be alone. In the next line, however, she must put aside human concerns of loneliness and remain completely present in the face of potential danger: “but today she faces / a sidewinder, and she stills / like red rock.” The last line again reflects the low desert setting.

I separated the next section of the poem with a set of asterisks. Although stanzas themselves are a pause in language (and often a shift in topic) using asterisks helps the reader know that there is a rather large shift ahead. In this case, the poem shifts from Sister Nun in contemporary times to the creation of women during the Mesozoic Era. I wanted to invent a creation myth that reflects Sister’s loneliness and offers a hereditary loneliness that links all women. In my creation myth, the first woman was created toward the end of the reign of dinosaurs:

“Here’s a little known fact: Women
were created by accident. As
dinosaurs lay dying, giving up
on their offspring, lightning
struck a stone, and a giant
woman appeared. Her physical sight
was slight at first, and she hopped
around lava and ducked
from Pterodactyls on
gut alone.”

I liked the idea of the first woman appearing by accident as opposed to the structured Biblical creation myth: a male god intentionally creates a woman from part of a man and then prescribes her a subservient role. In my myth, the first woman emerges from a natural, assertive act: “lightning / struck a stone, and a giant / woman appeared.” I remember eating at a restaurant in Phoenix and watching fat strobes of lightning smack the sand outside. I wanted the woman to exist from electricity’s force. Yet, when she first materializes “Her physical sight / was slight at first.” As with most beginnings (including Sister Nun’s own travels) the first woman had to find her footing with little experience and few defenses. Although the dinosaurs “laying dying,” unable to care for their children, there is still threat: “she hopped / around lava and ducked / from Pterodactyls on / gut alone.”

The first woman feels a maternal urge and nurses “baby Brontos when / their mothers passed. Held their / long necks gently across her lap.” As she finds connection with the world around her, she must also watch it deteriorate: “But soon, the comets made them / so sad that they lifted their big, baby / legs into tar pits, and positioned themselves / to the sun.” I’m not sure if the scientific community has determined certainly why the dinosaurs went extinct, but for my poem, I wanted to reference different schools of thought that the reader may remember learning in class. One theory I’ve heard is that Earth was hit by a meteor. I also read that some dinosaurs died because they got stuck in tar pits. I wanted to play with that latter idea by having the young Brontos (I know, the Brontosaurus never existed) intentionally entering the tar pits, knowing that the end for all the dinosaurs is near. They position themselves to the sun to see the last beauty the world has to offer them.

In the last stanza of this poem, there is, again, a contrast between beginnings and endings: “The woman painted her body with wet / sand and opened her eyes for / the first time as she sank into the salty Earth, and / waited.” As an act of mourning, she paints her body and lets herself sink into the Earth as the dinosaurs allowed themselves to sink into tar pits. At the same time that she surrenders to grief, her eyes open for the first time. The last word “waited” implies that she does not find death but will rise again when she is stronger. Since she opens her eyes before she sinks, one might assume that she will be wiser upon return.

The last stanza provides a frame to the first narrative about Sister’s encounter with the sidewinder and connects her situation with the first woman’s: “Sister has learned to wait.”  The snake “finally returns to / her cold nest” and “Sister thinks of the / woman she left this morning, wrapped / in sky, blue sheets, her naked body / heated in the dark room.” First, the snake’s threat is softened when the reader learns that she is protecting her nest, which also echoes the first woman’s attempt to protect the young Brontos. There is contrast in language and imagery between the cold nest and the hot desert. The image of the hotel room that Sister leaves behind (along with the woman) is cold and dark. When I was living in the desert, the dark, air conditioned interior of my home, or hotel rooms I stayed in, felt like caves. The motor of the air conditioner both numbs loneliness and exaggerates it. But when you step outside—you can barely see at first—the sun is so bright. The whole sky is against you. Little by little, you can feel the air around you. You spot an animal diving under a rock for shelter. You cannot leave your cave in the desert without feeling that you are on some kind of quest.

In contrast to Sister’s intense and frightening moment with a venomous snake in the harsh sun, I gave the woman Sister leaves in the hotel room darkness and quiet. She is “wrapped in sky, blue sheets” but is in a “dark room,” and she has “the / look of our first mother” (again referring to the first woman in the creation myth) both “loving and / astonished.” The first woman has become “mother,” a far more personal description, and there is a sense of inheritance: with love comes pain.

 

Sister Nun Faces A Sidewinder 

Sister would say that she had lived
a lonely life, if pressed now in
this chain motel parking lot.
Scales as bright as her own
bald head. The cacti, fuzzy and
soft from a distance, wave
at the cars, taking them
for suns.

If she said she was only alone
when she asked to be, that, too,
would be true, but today she faces
a sidewinder, and she stills
like red rock.

* * *

Here’s a little known fact: Women
were created by accident. As
dinosaurs lay dying, giving up
on their offspring, lightning
struck a stone, and a giant
woman appeared. Her physical sight
was slight at first, and she hopped
around lava and ducked
from Pterodactyls on
gut alone.

She nursed baby Brontos when
their mothers passed. Held their
long necks gently across her
lap. But soon, the comets made them
so sad that they lifted their big, baby
legs into tar pits, and positioned themselves
to the sun.

The woman painted her body with wet
sand and opened her eyes for
the first time as she sank
into the salty Earth, and
waited.

* * *

Sister has learned to wait.
And as the snake finally returns to
her cold nest, Sister thinks of the
woman she left this morning, wrapped
in sky, blue sheets, her naked body
heated in the dark room, and with the
look of our first mother, loving and
astonished.

Sister Wolf

Sister Nun is a character who suffers, as most people do, from the pain of duality. Sequestering herself from the world does not heal her broken heart; rather, living in the convent exasperates it. She must strike out, dramatically, in order to hunt for the connection she craves. It is by leaving seclusion that Sister finds connection with herself, and in doing so, reconciles her inner diversities. She longs for others but often prefers to be alone. She wants to understand the universe but enjoys mystery. She loves both men and women. Later in the book, we learn that she is also a werewolf.

Sister Nun often uses the surreal as a lens through which to understand life’s realities differently. In the case of “Werewolf,” the reader can immediately understand Sister’s duality, on one level. Werewolves are usually portrayed as humans who can (or are cursed to) turn into wolves or wolf-type creatures. Many tales portray werewolves as tortured: they turn into grizzly beasts against their will and become conscious again only after it’s too late, their wild instincts already satiated. However, I wanted Sister Nun to accept this transformation, especially since she is in the process of finding peace with her dualities.

In the first stanza, the speaker reveals a dark incident from Sister’s past. She becomes a werewolf after someone “pierced her back with dirty / claws, infecting her with the urge.” There is an idea of transference, that someone else’s “dirty claws” can change another person’s future. However, “Sister Nun does not mind that / she’s a werewolf. It doesn’t / bother her” to think of how she became one. At the end of this stanza, the speaker vaguely refers to the affect of the “infection” as “the / urge.”

In the next stanza, “Dogs bark at the night, prepare / for Sister’s visit.” It is unclear for what they need to prepare, but when Sister arrives, she “gnaws their / bones, humps the women, and makes everyone laugh.” In this stanza, I contrast the images that could be taken as aggression (“gnaws their / bones, humps the women”) with the fact that she “makes everyone laugh.” Everyone is included in the good time, and although the previous two images are wild in nature, the dogs and she are having fun.

The final stanza deals with Sister’s interaction with humans. The first few lines contrast her easy, natural relationship with other canines with the violent and fearful reaction she receives from other humans: “But not everybody likes Sister / Wolf.” Here, part of Sister’s name even changes from “Nun,” a distinctly human calling, to “Wolf.” Although it’s still capitalized, the name change reveals the shift from her connection to canines to her conflict with humans. These humans “grab their / rifles or, in a pinch, chuck / silver bangles at her and / shriek.” The beginning of these lines sound aggressive: they are willing to shoot Sister Wolf, but the narrative quickly devolves as their reactions become rather silly. The silver bangles refer, of course, to the myth that you can kill a werewolf with a silver bullet. However, they are throwing jewelry and shrieking, in what sounds like a pitiful attempt to keep her at bay.

Sister’s reaction is a mixture of aggression and pleasure; she “growls” and “laughs.” One gets the sense that her aggression is playful and that she is not afraid of the humans’ attempts to end her. In the morning, she “wakes nude / and adorned until the next / bald moon pulls / her like a riptide.” Rather than the traumatic wake up call that most werewolves experience in folklore, I wanted Sister’s “day after” to feel like waking from a dream where she felt beautiful and happy. The “bald moon” both refers to the moon’s fullness and references Sister’s head. (Sister had joined a Buddhist convent but kept her head shaved, even after she had left.)

The final lines “pulls her / like a riptide,” in one sense, shows that she is not completely autonomous. She is still pulled in by nature, but when she is part of nature, she also finds freedom.

“Werewolf”

Werewolf

Sister Nun does not mind that
she’s a werewolf. It doesn’t
bother her to think of the night
he pierced her back with dirty
claws, infecting her with the
urge.

Dogs bark at the night, prepare
for Sister’s visit. She gnaws their
bones, humps the women, and makes
everyone laugh.

But not everybody likes Sister
Wolf. The humans grab their
rifles or, in a pinch, chuck
silver bangles at her and
shriek. Sister growls,
laughs, and wakes nude
and adorned until the next
bald moon pulls her like a
riptide.

Photo Credit: Christian Hughes
http://www.christianhouge.no/Shadow-Within