About Writing, Poems, rumination

Insects, Metaphors, Sonnets

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In the wild, bright colors warn of danger,
shout “stay away,” and warn of a nasty sting,
the consequences of touching a stranger.
A neon yellow frond, a cobalt ring,
the spangles and the spikes I wore as a girl–
I sometimes miss those garish hues of youth:
ornate parades, the glint of carnival,
the ways in which my body told the truth.
Emerging from long darkness, and long work,
I fade to camouflage in middle age:
my common wings match the oak’s dull bark–
a sturdy brown and a powdery dust of sage.
Sometimes I miss the way I caught your eye,
but also, these dull wings are how I fly.

*

The last time I blogged about an insect, it was in 2010, when I was at the Vermont Studio Center and encountered a dobsonfly. Let me tell you, it’s a fly worth blogging about. But also, that post remains my most viewed post EVER. I contemplated that popularity (and other things) in a 2012 post.

We discovered this yellow caterpillar yesterday morning on the closet door opposite the front door, and were wowed by its vividness. A friend & university colleague of mine (also a great friend and colleague of insects, I’m 100% sure she’d approve of the characterization) helped me identify it. It’s got a fabulous name — more fabulous, I’d say, than even dobsonfly. Ready?

This handsome specimen is the definite tussock moth caterpillar. Orgyia definita if you enjoy the Latin.

Tussock is certainly a great word, but it’s “definite” that slays me.

Reading about the definite tussock moth, and being struck by how it starts out so bright and glowy as a caterpillar and ends up sort of nondescript and plain as a moth, and thinking about conversations with a friend recently about the traditions (and subversions) of the sonnet and on the cusp of another semester teaching creative writing and so therefore (and always) thinking a lot about metaphors — I wrote the above poem.

Encountering and then learning a little about the moth kindled these thoughts about being younger versus being older — paying attention to the world, being awake to it and interested in what it has to offer. It was the visual detail of the moth, contrasted with the visual detail of the caterpillar, that made me want to further compare their qualities, comparison being both at the core of metaphor AND a common sonnet convention.

I daydream about how I might, some day, with my distinguished, insect-loving colleague, teach a class about insects, metaphors, observation, comparison.

The poem doesn’t have a title yet. I might have called it Orgyia definita (I do enjoy the Latin) but decided I shouldn’t name the specific species that inspired me because (please feel free to enjoy this detail like I enjoy Latin) the adult female definite tussock moth IS WINGLESS. Which temporarily wrecked my metaphor, but then I realized that this poem’s metaphors, while they came from this specific, actual place, are not consigned there forever. The poem has already … taken a step away from its origins. Like the moth, it has undergone transformation into … the next thing. Lucky for me, there are plenty of girl moths who grow up to be lady moths that have wings. (There are of course, other “solutions” to this “problem.” I’ll enjoy figuring it all out.)

For now, though, a new poem draft, just hatched, and some thoughts at the beginning of a new semester.

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Something Good

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Something Good

          Nothing comes from nothing
Nothing ever could
                    –Richard Rodgers

In the untended and ordinary roadside dirt
by the mailbox post, a long stem grew
and today nearing the end of August,
past the last of the blueberries
I’d wanted to pick more of but missed—
come see—a nodding tiger lily, vivid
and shocking in between the green shadows,
the kind of flower one normally plans for
in a carefully arranged garden bed,
a choreography of colors and timing and height
meant to reveal a human’s artful eye and hands,
or, at least credit a handful of bulbs hastily tucked in
before the first frost, forgotten until April
when they start to bust through—not exactly
a surprise, but a gift left hidden,
a long-game plan for delight.

This unplanned delight troubles me
when I slow and stop to check for mail—
its garish, hothouse orange, deep brown speckles,
the pistil, the stamen with its lolling filaments
unsettle me. By what procreative voodoo
did it come to be here, pressing the cheeks
of its petals to the humid air? To me?

What does it say to a life well-tuned
for building happiness from blueprints,
but less prepared for this small flame,
this heart blown suddenly open?

Years ago, you pruned the few blue hydrangea
next to our small house and they didn’t return,
and kept on not returning, and we missed them sorely
and joked gently from time to time of our ineptitude—
how we know almost none of the things we thought
one ought to understand as caretakers
of something so large as a house and acres:
pruning, plumbing, the meaning of a sound
from the basement, from a wall.

And yet this summer, they bloomed,
bounding back unannounced, long-lost friends
full of forgiveness—bygones gone by,
the loving amnesia.

Which is how I find myself
humming that old tune, wondering
if maybe you or I did something good or right,
on purpose or not, buried a little landmine
of that goodness and wandered off.

Maybe there are plans so old and well-laid,
or rough prayers made so many lifetimes ago
we just don’t remember; maybe we were offered a mercy
in that forgetfulness until today, until now,
when such an ancient wish flourishes
like magic as it’s granted.

 

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It’s 2019!

Really. And it’s already February 2019, even though January 2019 felt like it was 2 months long. I did a new-poem-a-day grind in January, which is maybe part of what made it feel extra sloggy. Also plenty of snow-shoveling.

I’m just here to say “hi” by way of some updates!

This week, my villanelle, “Aquarium,” from my very first chapbook, A Thirst That’s Partly Mine (Slapering Hol, 2008), is featured in Ted Kooser’s “American Life in Poetry” column.

Last month, my poem, “Putting the Flowers Out,” was published in Atticus Review. It includes the phrase, “piss-ridden,” which I think is a poetry first for me!

I’ve got a couple of readings coming up later this spring, and am anticipating the publication of a new chapbook, called Song and Scar, from No Chair Press. Stay tuned for more info on that as I get it!

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Crackle and Plow

               for my beloved librarians, and for Stephen King

It’s a thick tome, nearly six-hundred pages,
hardcover, new enough still that the boards
haven’t bent or softened at the corners.
The protective film crackles each time
I open or close it, or shift in my chair
as I plow through the thing, and both of those verbs—
crackle and plow—take me chest-deep
into primal happiness. Crackle
takes me back to the treasure-houses
that were my first childhood libraries,
the shelves adazzle with the spines
of plastic-covered books I could choose
and bring home; the sober ritual
at the circulation desk; writing my name
on each date-stamped card drawn
from the manila paper slots
pasted to the books’ back covers;
then home with my hoard. Or just reading
in the library itself, where nobody would
ask why I was so quietask wasn’t I tired of reading
ask shouldn’t I go outside and get some fresh air?
and everything was pretty quiet except for that crackle,
or the whispers of turning pages.

Plow for the way some novels,
like this new Stephen King in my fat old lap
can still pull me through, breakneck, me reading
as if eating for the first time in a week or
as if the book were a bridge disintegrating
beneath my feet as I sprinted across it.
Glad to know it can still happen, this urgency,
this alien-abduction loss of an afternoon,
this utter transportation. Halfway through,
I notice an odd gap between pages
of the briefly closed book, so I flip forward
to pages I haven’t read yet to find
a single wooden toothpick, which might
gross me out but instead brings to mind
my father, dead several years now,
my father of the martini olives and dental work,
my father of the classic wooden toothpick
who very well could have, inadvertently,
lost one of his many in pages like these.

My father, who first got me going on Stephen King,
who was my Stephen King reading companion
through times when our differences
were outpacing our similarities;
when our tastes and values were diverging,
as they do, as they must. It’s him I think of today,
open to this splinter of a surprise—and, more,
I’m reawakening to the magic of circulation
the books moving like blood through a body,
passed like vital sustenance from hand to hand to hand,
all those good hands I take briefly in my own
in this pause before plowing forward again.

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Earthrise, Fifty Years Later

In December of 1968, a particularly difficult year in the U.S. and elsewhere, NASA’s Apollo 8 mission offered a moment of hope and beauty. Launched on December 21, the mission achieved many important “firsts” critical to achieving the moon landing, which would eventually happen halfway through 1969 — first (manned) launch from the Kennedy Space Center, first crewed flight of the behemoth Saturn V rocket, first humans past high Earth orbit, first humans to the moon, around the moon, back from the moon, first live TV images of the lunar surface.

But it was one of the first still color photographs taken by a human (Bill Anders) from deep space that became a provocative and enduring symbol of the beauty and fragility of our blue planet. It came to be known as “Earthrise,” and it was taken on December 24, 1968.

Here’s a poem from my collection, “Moon Shot,” inspired by the taking of this photograph:

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            Apollo 8

Sometimes the best-laid mission plan,
tidy and typed in carbon triplicate
will miss something, even
with the laser-vision of all those eyes.

Sometimes, the mission itself
shifts as it unfolds,
as you’re breathless in the thrill
of hitting goals no one had thought
to set down on paper.

For instance
if you’re prepping
to be the first guys to fly out to the moon—
not land on it, just everything but
you’ll have studied your lunar maps,
the photographs snapped
by the machines sent in advance
who knew only to obey the crude code
with which they were programmed.

And NASA will have outfitted you
with all the best cameras and lenses they could find
and a list – such a list – of targets
to capture in color and black and white:
rilles, craters, debris fields, potential landing sites,
boulders, valleys, constellations.

But your exhaustive and specific list
will omit one simple thing,
and you won’t realize it until,
on the third lunar orbit,
freshly trimmed from an ellipse to a circle,
and “heads up” for the first time, you see

the earth
rising, improbably, fantastically,
from beneath the moon’s horizon.

You’re so well-trained
that your initial impulse
is to stick to mission, stick
to ticking off that list
everybody agreed on
back there on the ground

but the earth

the earth is coming up
over the moon
rising
like the moon
like the sun
like

like nothing you have a metaphor for
and you are so well-trained

that you can still reach just past
the mission-bound edges of that training
and snap the color photographs
not on the checklist,
the photographs no one knew
would need to be taken –

the now-ubiquitous whole earth,
blue and borderless and feathered
with clouds,

dangling in the void

our precariousness
our us-ness
no longer an abstraction.

Who knows what lunar ravine,
what highlands or nameless maria
lost their place in the queue
so that everything we knew
could shift into new focus,
so we could be remade, albeit briefly,
by just a glance at this first true likeness
of ourselves?

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The Truth

—Rose Mallinger, 97, killed last week in the Pittsburgh synagogue massacre, was incorrectly labeled a “Holocaust survivor” in a viral meme, which included a photograph of a woman who was also not her

Did Rose survive The Holocaust?
Did she escape from Germany
or Poland? Did she have to flee,
Haunted by loved ones that she lost?

She’s old enough, she looks the part,
she fleshes out the grieving meme,
but no, not so, at last it seems
that version of her falls apart.

The photograph’s not even Rose,
whose true and sweet and storied face
reminds me how a life of grace
can light what darkness tries to drown.

What is the truth? What is the lie?
How will grief and beauty travel?
How will what’s good start to unravel?
The simple facts won’t be denied:

Rose went to temple for shabbat
and then, in violence was lost.
Did she survive the holocaust?
She did not. She did not.