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Showing posts from August, 2020

Ghost


They say the story’s too strange to believe.
No way it can be true. But aren’t we born for this—
to make room for impossibilities? To live at
the porous border between known and unknown,
where ghosts and spirits may gather and speak?
Aren’t we like grandmothers holding open the door
for mysteries, those breathless children running in
from the yard to cool themselves in the shade
of our breasts? We catch the door behind them
before it bangs shut, ease it back into place between
ourselves and infinity, the light and shadows
of other worlds passing through the wire screen.


Play notes: I've had too many strange experiences and heard too many stories not to believe in forms of energy we call "ghost" or "spirit" or "ancestor." How about you?

Your Turn


I believe in
        neighborly potlucks and pots of coffee
        trees (especially old ones)
        bicycles and flowers and porches
        boats and balloons and birds—
              anything that floats or flies
        the air we breathe without thinking
        sanctuaries and solitude
        the delight of digging potatoes
        the necessity of pulling weeds
        wide open sky, ever changing
        gentle rains on wild grasses
        deep snow in the high country
        wandering in the wilderness
              to find ourselves again
        fires on the hearth
     
I believe in
        the blessing of this hard, precious day
        the uncertain ground we walk upon
        the promise of children
        the faithfulness of friends
        the kindness of strangers
        love that doesn’t cling
        the wisdom of letting good things be
        our responsibility to step over the line
              of what’s nice
              for the sake of what’s right
        every poem and story and song
        whatever it takes to crack us open
              to question
              to dream
              to build

I believe in
        the smallness of what I know
        the value of what you know
        the vastness of what we can know together
        the existence of what we can’t know at all

I believe in
        you


Play notes: If you subscribe to Staying Power, you might recognize that this poem began as an essay. One subscriber mentioned to me that my prose sounded very poetic, so I decided to play around with it, crossing genres. I thank her for that nudge. I also thank my teenage son Nathan, who offered suggestions that improved my late drafts. Now, as the poem title says, it's your turn. If you'd like, write a poem about what you believe in.


Old Teacher


                        for R.L.

Her envelope arrives by postal miracle,
addressed in Alzheimer hieroglyphs.
Inside the card are five scrawled lines
of nonsense, the ink smudged by her skin,
sent from the prison of her disease.
I can’t begin to say what they mean.
Yet her signature at the end is letter-perfect,
unchanged as basic rules of grammar,
small victory won over her runaway brain.

I abandon my keyboard, take up a pen and paper,
negotiate a truce between my hand and the page.
I don’t mean to condescend.
I print for her with care, as if a child again.


Play Notes: R.L. was one of my elementary school teachers who nurtured my early writing instincts. An itty-bitty woman with a soft raspy voice, she could nevertheless command a class's attention. I adored her. We stayed in touch over the years until she was afflicted, much too young, by Alzheimer's. It eventually claimed her life. This poem is about the last communication we shared.


In Line at the Grocery Store, 6PM


I miss
the tenderness,
the man
ahead
of me
whispers
to his cart,
or to the
perilous
air—
perhaps
even
to me,
standing
six feet
back,
in tears
behind
my mask.


Play Notes: This poem grew out of something I witnessed while standing in line at a corner market more than 20 years ago. I just placed it in a pandemic setting. The grocery store, by the way, is a great place to shop for poetic inspiration, even during a pandemic. If you must buy your groceries in person, watch for a "good deal" from your muse on your next trip.

So Your Teacher Made You Hate Poetry


Stand up straight, she said, then stared,
waiting for you to recite by heart an old sonnet
or ode you couldn’t follow. Poetry’s meant 
for someone smart, you told yourself, mumbling
memorized words that sounded like hooey,
or secret code. Every time you stumbled,
she made you start again from the top.

Why can’t poets just say what they mean?
you thought, pausing for breath between stanzas.
And just like that you forgot the next word.
Every trace of chalk, erased from the blackboard
of your miserable mind. Back you went to that awful
first line. Enough, she said at last with a smirk,
red pen scribbling in her green gradebook.

Why do I have to read this stuff? you wanted
to shout, but clamped your mouth shut,
and locked your voice down, and never read
another poem in your life, by choice anyhow,
until now—when finally you’ve begun
to see it’s never too late to learn to love
what somebody else once taught you to hate.


Play Notes: So many people have told me stories over the years about how they learned to dislike poetry when they were forced to recite it in school. This poem is for all of them! But as the last two lines reveal, the poem is about more than poetry. You might try to write a poem in which the significance of the text changes, or takes on an added dimension, at the very end. This sort of thing is common in poems, especially in "wisdom" or "didactic" poetry.


The Mistake


Power sees it and punishes.
Mercy sees it and forgives.
Fear sees it and pretends it doesn’t.
Anger sees it and doesn’t forget.
Wisdom sees it and seeks to change.
Shame sees it and piles on.
Compassion sees it and understands.
Apathy sees it and doesn’t care.
Friendship may see it before it happens.
Love sees it and loves anyway.
Vanity never looks.


Play Notes: I dashed off this poem after a recent mistake that I regretted very much. By the time I finished, I was feeling better. If you're burdened by a mistake or regret, try playing with it on paper and see if a poem arises.



The Back Pew


The worn back pew has emptied fast,
the one where you and your friends always sat.
You’re the last to go. You’ve made your peace
with losing your place. You know you’re due.
Your bones are brittle, your heart is tired,
your nose has grown long as a liar’s, your ears
are big and deaf as lettuce leaves. Years ago
you struck a deal with death: till your turn
came, you’d do your best to love the rest
and keep them safe. But now death’s gone
and taken your son before you. It gets you
thinking it’s true, that thing nobody wants
to say: that every blessed soul under heaven
spends every day on the same hard bench.


Play Notes: My immediate inspiration for this poem was a message received from an elder friend who had just suffered the death of his son. But lingering in the background are all who experience loss. Nobody is immune. We're all mortal, and to pretend that we're not does nobody any favors. Perhaps you could try to write a poem in which you express, or wrestle with, your own sense of mortality.