Showing posts from July, 2020

Advice for the Mountains

Craggy stacks rise from the floor around your worn armchair.
They squat atop your desk.
They march across your piano and kitchen table.
They tower in twin peaks beside your bed. 
In the living room a ridge of books runs in that sweet space
between the top of the bookcase and the ceiling with the peeling 
Elevations are always shifting, but generally the peaks are 
     inching higher. 
Some have grown so tall, a few titles are shrouded in clouds. 
A faint trail stretches from one distant end of the range to the 
Take it in short segments. 
Attempting a through-hike in one season is not recommended. 
Your poor eyes wouldn’t make it to the finish. 
Best to start somewhere in the middle. 
Pack enough food and drink for the journey, 
and a dictionary to brush up on your vocabulary. 
You can always burn it, page by page, to warm your hands in a 
Expect plenty of tough climbs. 
(Mountains are rarely flat, after all.) 
Don’t skip the hard parts, lest you miss a sentence that could 
     alter your view. 
Beware of tremors that could trigger an avalanche, 
especially right above you, 
though being buried in books would be a happy way to go. 
Let your progress be a grand slog. 
Stretch often, and be kind to your eyes.
They carry you up and down the slopes, keeping your hike alive.
Trust them when they say they need to rest. 
Don’t count how many pages you turn per day. 
This isn’t a race. Don’t be in a hurry.
Bring along a friend if you want, but give them plenty of space.
Remember extra coffee. Forget your map and compass.
Getting lost out here is fine.

Play Notes: Doggone, but this blog template doesn't like long lines—forgive the strange breaks. Anyway, this playful poem grew out of my obvious affection for books and my inability to read as fast as I would like. The idea came to write an extended an analogy between living among stacks of books waiting to be read and hiking among mountains. I did some Internet browsing related to "mountain hiking advice." That brief bit of research helped me compose the poem. If you were going to compare your reading habits to another activity, what would it be? Could that comparison inspire a poem?


Three thousand miles south
of this place, your mouth opens
wide into the Gulf of Mexico.
But here, at your humble source,
your waters creep north. Your life,
lived in ceaseless rounds
from lake to sea to sky to rain—
has made this much plain:
To get where you must go,
you must sometimes go
somewhere else. The way
forward depends on the lay
of the land. You follow
the givens, what’s necessary
and true, right through
to the end. I can’t see
around the next bend.
But here light ripples
on your quiet face. Young fish
stroke your belly. Warblers sing,
cattails shiver, insect wings offer
hushed applause, all for love
of you. Rest a while longer.
The journey will find you
after the pause.

(At the headwaters of the Mississippi,
Lake Itasca, Minnesota)

Play notes: My recent (and first) visit to the headwaters of the Mississippi River, located on the north end of Minnesota's Lake Itasca, inspired this poem. Such a peaceful, humble beginning for such a mighty river! Poets have often drawn life lessons from their observations of rivers and other bodies of water. Perhaps you could visit one near you, or draw upon memory, to compose such a poem of your own. "River" (above) was originally twice as long; the text meandered all over the place. Don't be surprised if your river poem wants to flood your page too.

Good Trouble

            for Congressman John Robert Lewis (1940-2020),
                after Isaiah 11:1-9

A shoot came out from the stump of slaves
       and a branch from the roots of sharecroppers
The spirit of the divine rested upon him
       the spirit of wisdom and understanding
       the spirit of counsel and might
He did not judge by what his eyes saw
       or decide by what his ears heard

              We Serve Whites Only
              Whites Only Beyond This Point
              Colored Only Served in Rear
              No Dogs, No Negroes, No Mexicans, No Jews

but with righteousness he judged the poor
       and decided with equity for the meek of the earth

              Peace cannot exist where justice is not served

He struck the earth with the rod of his mouth

              Get in good trouble, necessary trouble
              and help redeem this country’s soul
              When you see what is not right
              not fair
              not just
              you have to speak up
              You have to move your feet
              Never be afraid to make some noise

Righteousness was the belt around his waist
       faithfulness was the belt around his loins
and freedom was the robe upon his shoulders
       worn in pulpits and on the streets
       worn at lunch counters not meant for his kind
       worn in forbidden seats on public buses
       worn across the bloody Edmund Pettus Bridge
       worn in beatings, in shackles, in jails
       worn for the March on Washington
       worn straight into the halls of Congress

The wolf shall live with the lamb
       and the leopard shall lie down with the kid

              It’s not enough to just dream
              You get out and push
              And you pull
              And you preach
              And you get men and women
              of goodwill
              to act

The cow and the bear shall graze
       and the lion shall eat straw like the ox

              Create a society at peace with itself
              We all live in the same house

       and a little child shall lead them

              You are the light
              Never let any person or force
              dampen or diminish it

They will not hurt or destroy
       on all this holy mountain

              Release all bitterness
              Hold only love and peace in your heart
              Lay down the burden of hate and division
              It’s too heavy a burden to bear

For the earth will be full of the knowledge of the divine
       as the waters cover the sea

              We have been too quiet for too long
                      This is the time

Play Notes: I felt a tremendous loss when I heard that Representative John Robert Lewis had died last Friday. He was a vital force for good and "the conscience of the Congress" to the very end. One of his favorite biblical passages was Isaiah 11:1-9. To form the core of this poem, written in homage to him, I decided to interweave some of that passage with his own words. In a way, this is yet another "response poem." Have you tried one of your own yet?

On the Cemetery Road

          for Molu Zarpeleh, 2010-2020

This cemetery road has never felt so walked on.
Hundreds of heels, grinding gravel down to dust.
Our trudging behind your hearse is the only sound
beneath the wailing of your mother. They say
that people in your native land still mourn in ways
we white people no longer do. We no longer gather
to wash the body. We no longer build the coffin,
the body’s last house. We no longer carry the body
to the grave, shouldering together what we’ve lost.
We no longer dig with our own shovels the final bed.
We no longer lay the body down in the ground
with our own hands and cover it with a quilt of soil.
We no longer rip our clothes and shred the air
with moans. So, here in this silence, on this road,
it’s the wind in our faces that wails with your mother,
wanting her not to feel so alone. And now a baby, too,
is crying. It must remind her of you, her first, her only
son. Molu. I never met you, but I whisper your name
in rhythm with my steps. Molu. They say your bike
and sandals lay in the soft grass at the edge of a pond.
Molu. They say that’s where they found you, drowned
at the bottom. Molu. They say it was an accident.
They do not say why a smart boy who smiled and danced
through the halls of his school would wade into that water
when he couldn’t swim. Molu. Our loose procession
up this lonely stretch of road will bring you home
to your ancestors. Molu. They are waiting all around
your canopied grave. We don’t have the eyes to see
them but already, marching down this hill, we weep
to feel them, wrapping their arms around this world
of sorrows. Even in death, Molu, you are kind. Forgive
us for not keeping you safe enough. Forgive us
for slowing our steps, for holding back, for holding on.

Play Notes: This poem is based on the funeral procession of 10-year-old Molu Zarpeleh, a Liberian immigrant residing in Brookings, SD. Molu drowned in a pond. As of this writing, his death is still under investigation. Sometimes pouring heartbreak into a poem helps me contain the grief. Perhaps you could write a poem about a recent loss that you (or your community) have suffered.


At your voice on the recording,
a tear plows down
the slope of my cheek.
I hadn’t really been listening
to the message playing,
too distracted by a chore,
until something umbilical
in my blood tuned in
to the tenderness
on the machine,
to the sound that’s been there
since before my life began.
The daughter in me heard
what the rest of me didn’t
and she wept a tear to know you
are still there, but won’t always be.

Play Notes: During this pandemic, it's a great sadness in my life that I can only be with my mother via the phone or FaceTime. Perhaps you, too, are estranged from someone you love. Write them a poem? I read this one to my mother, and we both got teary.


          After Emily Dickinson

Hope is the thing with feathers
perched on nothing, in mid-air —
so black against the glare of sun
it makes me stop and stare —

Now I spot my eye’s mistake —
the bird’s on a sapling’s tip
high above the marshy lake —
feet clamped upon a twig —

The blackbird isn’t still at all
but swaying in the breeze —
he warbles not to keep me warm
but to startle souls from sleep —

You can hear him in the chillest lands —
beside the strangest seas —
his voice is sweetest in the storm —
of deep extremity —

He fluffs his feathers — swells his chest —
displays his badge of fire —
parts his beak and trills his best —
is answered by a choir —

He sings the tune without the words
and never stops — at all—
he’s asking more than crumbs of us—
but who will heed the call?

Play Notes: The inspiration for this poem was a red-winged blackbird that my husband and I noticed, perched at the very top of a sapling. At first, the bird appeared to be perched in mid-air, because we couldn't see the tree's tip. It was a stunning sight. Later, while trying to write about it, I thought of Emily Dickinson's "Hope Is a Thing with Feathers." I decided to play off her poem. Perhaps you could write a poem playing off a famous poem that you like?

Old Friend

After months of quarantine,
heavy heartache and quiet,
the world sucking up
all the air in the house,
I sit down and try to write again.

Outside the door
imagination begs
let me in, let me in.
Of all the loves in my life
I may have loved her longest
and best but all loves change
under the influence of absence.
Intimacy grows into a stranger,
estrangement into kin.

Now she’s out and about
behind her mask but I’m still
in lockdown. I stay
on the surface of words,
keeping my distance,
afraid of turning
the key to admit her.
How to be touched?

I pray she finds
a way to open me,
comes tripping in,
old friend shining through
the skin of what’s new,
and of all that’s been lost
and broken, too.

Play Notes: I've found the pandemic a very difficult time to write sustained projects, like a novel. But I've been drawn to writing poetry. So grateful for the visits of my muse! Perhaps you could write a poem that personifies your muse (or imagination) in some way and describes your efforts to connect with it.

If You Ever Wonder

          A response poem for Gloria Heffernan

I want you to know
in these dark days
when all the world
is utterly changed,
one thing that remains
is how we feel
when anyone opens
the book of Us
to a random page
and finds a truth
they had forgotten.

Nurses and doctors,
meat packers and crop pickers,
journalists and janitors,
clerics and counselors,
bus drivers and truckers,
mail carriers and shelf stockers,
first responders and trash collectors,
scientists and governors and cooks,
every essential worker
eats and drinks
from the book of Us.

Pots and pans clang
from balconies and windows
flung wide from street to sky.
We are the cheering crowd, the book of Us
assembled and bound
together between soft covers
by a strong, supple spine.
Every page is sacred text.
Nobody is not essential.
We are the prayer for our ailing world
and this is the beginning of our shift.

Play notes: A few months ago, the poet Gloria Heffernan sent a poem of gratitude to me and my co-editor Ruby R. Wilson for Poetry of Presence. Ruby and I had never met Gloria, or even communicated. Gloria’s poem, “In Case You Ever Wonder,” floored me. By way of reply, I decided to write a “response poem,” building on Gloria’s own words. You can read the two poems here, side by side. I've since shared this poem through the Gatherings project, a powerful “art-and-poetry based experiment in giving and receiving” that has emerged from the pandemic. You might wish to try writing your own poem in response to another poet's reflections on the pandemic. (You could even write in response to this one!)

I Want to Play

I want to play like the bird
          that plunges from sky into lake
and surfaces with beak dripping
          with fish. I want to play
like ebony and ivory beneath the knobby
          fingers of an old pianist,
home at last after a life in exile.
          I want to play like my toddler son
once did, making friends of monsters,
          tunnels of doors, secret rooms
of walls. I want to play
          like the bumblebee bouncing
over my tingling skin
          without ever stinging.
I want to play like Brandi Chastain
          ripping off her jersey on the soccer field,
baring skin without shame
          for joy. I want to play
like eyes that study the chessboard
          with such care and skill
and still make the wrong move,
          and laugh out loud. I want to play
like the leaves that turn their silver bellies
          up to the wind, inviting rain. I want to play
like the magician whose sleight of hand
          is so practiced, nobody wants to learn
how it’s done. I want to play like words
          cascading down the page
in search of a soft place to land,
          freefall of pleasure.
I want to play as if hard work never taught me
          to forget how.

Play notes: I drafted this poem last month during an online class with Rosemerry Wahtola Trommer, one of the finest poets and kindest people I know. Ruby Wilson and I featured several of her poems in Poetry of Presence, our popular anthology of mindfulness poems. I invite you to follow Rosemerry's prompt: Think of a repeated phrase along the lines of "I want to play," or "I want to sit," or "I want to dream." Then write a poem in which you complete this phrase, line after line, with images. As Rosemerry would say, lower your expectations and just have fun.