Tag Archives: poetry

Long Road Home

Southern Idaho. Endless alkali desert like bands of old paint dug out of the garage and scraped on the land with a putty knife. Hours in the car listening to a single radio station from Pocatello. Crop prices. Country and southern rock. High school football. 

Finally, the big red shoulders of the Teton mountains rise up out of a ruff of quaking aspen. They are the guardians at the gates of my sense of what home is. Guardians of stories, of love, adventure and of loss. I’m going to lay my hands on this place one last time while my father is still alive. 

***

Dad was the chaplain at the VA hospital in Sheridan, Wyoming. He also did circuit preaching and would drive long distances to hold services in Shell, Ten Sleep, Story and other tiny towns in northern Wyoming. 

Once he drove out to Story to conduct a funeral for a rancher who had died in an accident. Before the service, the man’s wife came up to him carrying a pair of cowboy boots and asked him if she could put them on her dead husband.  When my father asked her why, she said where he is going, he will need them. The look in her eye told him that she wasn’t looking for a laugh or sympathy, just some neighborly assistance.  The request was unadorned — like asking to cash a check at the bank. 

I remember the Northern lights glowing over the Bighorn mountains like a great phosphorescent sea creature. And tight rows of veterans in gray hospital uniforms — men with what was then called shell shock — rolling reel mowers across the parade ground at Fort Sheridan. 

***

The funeral home where they turned my father’s body back into dust is now a Portland brew pub. I had a beer there on his birthday. Listening to the whirr of traffic outside, I remembered his wry smile — he would have enjoyed the irony. Dad didn’t drink. Driving home, the tire slap on the pavement reminded me of the hundred thousand miles we traveled in his 1957 Volkswagen bus. Along roads where all of our stories —  stories that hold us all together and remind us of who we are, collect and scatter like cottonwood seeds.

Kids Write Poetry

One day recently my friends Steve and Cathy asked me if I would teach their grandsons, ages nine and eleven, some basics about writing poetry. They were being homeschooled by their mom during the Covid-19 epidemic — so I created some lessons. I sent them out in the morning and we met over Zoom at the end of the day to discuss the lesson and read people’s poems out loud. It went so well, I thought I would make the lessons available to others as a workbook. Kids Write Poetry – A Workbook for Young Poets is my way of serving the community during a difficult time.

Here is the first lesson as an example:

Lesson 1:

Poems are built from pieces: words and lines are the two basic building blocks. The goal of the first exercise is to make one line poems that tell a story. A story can be suggestive and not necessarily have a beginning, middle and end. One-line poems can sketch an idea. Sometimes the sketch-style poems are the most interesting ones. Here are some examples of one-line poems from one of the masters, the Greek poet Yannis Ritsos:

      I erase the shadow completely with this gold pencil. 

      The night always behind my pages. That’s why my letters shine so brightly.

      Your clothes, thrown on the chair, still smell of the sea.

      To speak constantly about wrong things is like being wrong. 

Notice how his lines do not always make sense in the conventional way. Poems are interesting when they put things together in new ways. Don’t worry about it making sense or not. Your brain will always make its own sense of things anyway. We are meaning making creatures. The best poems can often be read or interpreted in multiple ways. Also notice how his lines are built from interesting physical objects combined with actions that are unexpected. You don’t expect, when reading about clothes on a chair to have them smell like the sea! How cool is that! 

First assignment: write ten one line poems in the style of Yannis Ritsos. You can use physical objects from your own life as a starting place, or just start from imagination, which is as real as anything in the so-called real world anyway. Don’t worry about making sense!!  Write a few where they seem to make very little sense, even if they are just a list of things. Also, make it fun. You write for your own enjoyment and for strangers. 

So for example, I am looking at my very messy desk right now. Here are some things I see and some other things they bring to mind:

      Two used containers of ant bait. A family portrait. 

     Piles of stuff everywhere. I wish I could staple my life back together.

Good luck!

You can download it here: Kids Write Poetry – A Workbook for Young Poets. 

 

Tulips

A crèche of
red hooded
muscle berries
nodding,
unfolding like kings–
Gaspar and Balthasar,
flanked by Christmas
candles, mirror-doubled
and swelling
to show off
their black
speckled hearts
like the dots in
the red rolls of caps
in the pistols
we fired under
the porch of our
house in Wyoming.
Our ears rang
for hours and the
smell of smoke
stuck to our clothes.

Fathers and Sons

She took my hand
Placed in it a skipping stone

Taken in a swallow
It burns, this life

Makes a stigmata
Of needful things

Sows cheatgrass
In the deepest swale

Turns sons
Against fathers

As if driving elk
Before the wind

Presence of Absence

(After Herman Melville)

It appalls me in some dim and random way.
In nature it enhances beauty, as in pearls or gardenias.
In people, it offers power over others.
In monuments of death, it implies sympathy and light.
In brides, innocence and purity.
In the elderly, a benign benevolence.
To the old Iriquois, it meant the deep winter sacrifice of a sacred dog.
Roman Catholics see in it the Passion of our Lord.
In the vision of St. John, it meant shining robes for the redeemed.

Yet inside this color is a panic in the blood.
Remove some of the kinder associations and combine it
with a terrible object and it magnifies that terror
with a ghastly mildness and a pale dread.
To the shark, the polar bear, the squalls of the Southern ocean
it adds a supernatural and a nameless terror.

The tall pale man of the Eastern European forests
gives the wanderer as much inner darkness as the milk foamed sea
gives the sailor. A young colt in a sleepy Vermont valley
will stamp and snort at a shaken bear skin. Though the colt has
no memories of past violence, it carries an instinctive,
an inherent knowledge of the demonism of the world.

Mystic signs carry these ancestral hints, so to me they must
exist somewhere. Is there a dumb blankness of annihilation
in the distant stars? Or a colorless atheism from which we shrink?
Nature paints the world in a sexual riot of color.
While the paintbrush is colorless, look at its source
long enough and you will receive a blindness that removes
both the world’s beauty and the terror of seeing it.

Book Review: Soft Science by Franny Choi

I was prepared to hate it / well, hate is a strong word /
let’s just say give it wings and let it sail past the bridge
/ but it doesn’t suck / it doesn’t pretend to get on its knees
and make the rafters sing / it is a red owl on a bicycle with hungry eyes /

“Who isn’t bruised around the edges, peaches poured
into the truck bed, receipts faded to white?”

it sends out science mannikins to shout about being nervous in secret /
it collaborates with machines to make rain squalls / it argues for
a better kind of blindness / it warns others about dreaming in stairwells
and at crime scenes / it is a crime scene painted in butterscotch broth /

“The cop speaks and I call a plum into is his mouth
and it doesn’t shut him up.

The cop kneels in the grass below my friends, my friends
crowned with August and Salt. My marigold my wave.”

tendrils and tips and sprockets combine to give it firm plant awareness /
“cyborg means man made” I didn’t know / it is like new sounds added
to frost in the stubble by the road / in a Wyoming winter snow drifts
come and go like grainy herds of buffalo / this book is like those herds
mated with seigniorage — the profit made from the minting of coins /
ducats in the pillow / francs thrown into the Seine / everything costs
what you are willing to throw away / this book is completely free
in that sense / it is madly lyrical / and worth your time.

Note: this review is for the Rumpus Poetry Book Club. Soft Science
is forthcoming from Alice James books.

Storm Over Houston

Storm Over Houston was first published by Clementine Unbound.

A shadow props up the gutted barn
where we spent the night.
To be keen all the time–not to swerve,
ten minutes out of every hour,
is enough most days.

A man with boulders in his soul,
a dock trying to hold onto
it’s string of boat horses,
a bone-drenched woman
with praise for a God
who was as stealthy as a barn cat.

Out on the highway
no sound now,
as if someone
had picked them all up
from a skiff with a pruning hook
and put them in a sack.

The Last Circus

Note: Barnam and Bailey announced today that they are closing their circus after more than one hundred years of touring and performing

I am five years old
sitting in wiggly anticipation
under the circus bigtop
Barnum and Bailey
has come to Sheridan, Wyoming

The crowd is a hot smear
of Saturday afternoon faces
The room smells of animal dung
and buttered popcorn.

I have the surprisingly intimate feeling
of being let in on a secret —
there is a world where the rules
are suspended, where people fly
and elephants walk on their hind legs
where women wear spangled
skin-tight suits and swing on swing sets
the size of tall buildings

where people are sawn in half
and then reassembled
where the polar axis shifts
and time runs in a bright circle
with a man standing on its back with a whip!

Alt-Oz

In Alt-Oz, the Tin Man gives Dorothy the stink eye.
The Scarecrow has no desire to hop down
from his perch and follow her on the road
to the Emerald city and an uncertain destiny.

Things are okay in the forest.
Witches and flying monkeys
will only bother you if you stir things up.

Dorothy, without companions,
is forced into selling real estate
in the poorer neighborhoods on
the north end of Oz.

She dyes the ruby slippers black
to attract less attention
and settles down with one
of the taller munchkins.
She never goes home.

Except at night in her dreams,
when she rides the hurricane
back to Kansas, looks around,
and is stuck in that moment,
the moment of indecision
–go or stay–
for the rest of her life.

She wakes each morning,
puts out the cat, makes coffee
and watches the flying monkeys heading south,
on their way to disembowel
a few unlucky munchkins.
Troublemakers, no doubt.

August

fiery moon sets
deer in the garden.

a goldfinch in the fountain
shakes off water like a labrador

Gardenia

When the sky
opens beneath you

and you do not fall,
you hesitate to tell others.

What can you say?

The faint scent of gardenia
in the still air before nightfall.

Garden Bridge

Ivy grows up through the boards
of the garden bridge.

A rabbit runs across the bridge
and stops in front of me.

We stare at each other,
waiting to see who will move first.

The next morning I am not there
and the rabbit doesn’t stop.

Tickets to See Bob Dylan

Distant
pale Ginsberg
beacon

shaggy haired
owl
chant to us

of sweet
Melinda
in Juarez

and gravity
and negativity
and give us

a reason
to howl too
tonight

Black Iris VI

  “Nobody sees a flower, really…we haven’t time – and to see takes time,
like to have a friend takes time.”

— Georgia O’Keefe

I wasn’t looking for a friend,
here in this rich man’s private garden
thrown open to the masses for a few days,
and yet I found you.

Cousin to the sea of black irises
that grew behind the white clapboard
victorian era army house where I grew up,
the ones that swayed in the wind
like drunken sailors at a beach party.

Bolder than the fire dancers on Oahu,
hairy and loose-lipped like Elvis,
long-stemmed, thick-rooted,
they all competed for attention.
How could anyone not see them?

I guess the same way
we don’t see friends
for years and years
until we run into them
at a garden party.

Thoughts on Being a Warrior Writer and a Motherfucker

The author Cheryl Strayed says in a recent essay you must be a “warrior and a motherfucker” when it comes to being brave and resilient in your writing. I don’t believe this is enough. You must become a mental strip artist, an artisan for the broken, a pub singer of the damned, a babysitter of lost ideas, a window cleaner in a shit storm, a pole dancer in a literary hurricane, a taxi driver for the faintest of whims, a rambler through cemeteries, a curdler of fermented ideas, a rodeo clown at a funeral and a parade street sweeper of bullshit.

A writer must be able to ask the question: if in Alexandria in 275 BC, a 180 foot long gold-plated phallus was paraded through the streets of the city, flanked by elephants, a giraffe, a rhinoceros and decorated with ribbons and a gold star (according to Athenaeus,) where did they put the damned star?

Handmade Book

Assembling a poem letter by letter in lead type to print on handmade paper is an act of sexual reproduction. Each letter comes from a worn wooden tray,a snippet of the tribe’s DNA code, facile in the hand, expectant.

Words reassemble themselves, replicating their ancient legacy,
ready to construct a new being. The hive mind provides the creative spark. Old stories recombine, sprout new green feathers and take wing.

You can feel the deep joy of nature in it. A happy parent now steps aside knowing the power and the limits of his role.

 

Walking In the Rain with Robert Frost

(First published by Red River Review)

I read you first for sound,
For basalt cliffs dripping in the rain,
For lines like seasoned chunks of oak crackling
In winter’s wood stove,
For glaciers scouring down to stone
And pecker-fretted apple trees
Dropping Gravensteins with a thump
That ring your poems round.

I read you a second time for fruit,
For tragedy fermented with time and wonder.
Drawn from spider webs and rime ice
And the breath of horses and the shoes of children.
Your poems are like golden muscat grapes
Bursting with tangy juice and bitter seeds to ponder.

I read you a final time for breath.
When my own is made halting by this splintered season
And I am lost enough to pull my own ladder road in behind me.
You breathed deeply of life and drank from its deepest sorrows.
You remind me there is oxygen enough
On life’s widest sunlit prairies and in its darkest crevices.

The Revenant

An ox makes a place to sleep in the straw.
Winter stretches its ice blanket over the barn.
A killer whale pulls one end northward towards Kigiktaq.

Morning, before sunrise, gulls where there were only blue sticks.
The sea makes a heaving shudder, lifting a rogue wave to look around.

The river ebbs, exposing the bones of an old hunter. Observant. Revenant.
A few stones shine like old moons.

Open Plains

In the mountains of Nepal I once saw a water buffalo being killed for food by a man using the blunt end of an ax.

The buffalo did not run and did not go down. It just stood there taking blows to the head. Like it knew something I didn’t.

The region I was in practices Tibetan Buddhism. Buddhism says there is only a vivid emptiness. It may be visited, but is unaffected by our day to day actions, like a buffalo that never goes down.

Here’s to You

May the skin of you ass never cover a banjo!

–Welch toast