Archive for June, 2009

These are big game bees. When I’m after something
sweet I want to make the most of it. Thousands of
miles from Nepal, I’m on the level
summer deck behind my house. It’s happy hour. I’m
wearing nasturtium colors, oleander
perfume, powder. Seductive as a flower, I study
the wings on my wine glass. I am
haloed with bees and beatitudes.

Nine hunters of honey in Nepal, Mani Lal their head.
This afternoon I’d gladly join them. I know
how to cling to the cliffside, avert my eyes from the
dizzying drop. I can pray. Here and now, I reap
the harvest from years of religious
modesty, countenance serene as a china plate. Draped
in a veil of drones, queens and workers,
I am high on experience in the attic apartments where

wasps and urban yellowjackets swarm under the eaves
every spring. Imaginary beekeeper,
I will not be checked by the actual, will hold onto
my friend wrote more surely than Sylvia Plath.
Step, step, bamboo! Setting my foot on the fiber
latter like Jacob’s dream angels, ascending,
descending. These lights of euphoria visit me rarely
now that I’m older than Mani Lal.

The honeybees I choose–Apis laboriorsa, the world’s
largest– must create a legend to equal
the story of Ambrose: a swarm from the brood comb
settled on my mouth as I lay in my cradle, the omen
propitious. It was raining honey.
Here lies the honey-tongued Hillsboro poet! What if
the bees make me suffer at times. I tweeze
the stingers from arms and legs, keeping my eyes on

Mani Lal, lips chanting my mantras. He carries a
bamboo basket lined with wild goatskin.
I would take my skin from the coat my father bought.
Her milk recovered my life from the foxglove of
formula. Here is her snapshot in the family album.

Madeline DeFrees
Imaginary Ancestors (1990)

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“I love rhythms, the body movement implicit in poetry, explicit in sports–I am drawn to athletes, dancers, drummers, jazz musicians, who transcend misery and frustration and symbolize for us something joyous, ordered, and possible in life.” Lillian Morrison

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Yesterday, I went to a doctor’s appointment, picked up a children’s magazine called “Highlights” (from August 2008), and read the following poem:

“Burning Bright”

A mermaid’s tears
have silver fish in them,
a tiger’s,
yellow stars.
Mine have spikes
and spokes of bikes
and yours
have blue guitars.

Lillian Morrison

The poem was illustrated with a mermaid weeping silver tears that turned into fish and disappeared into the ocean waves around her.

I liked this poem, and I thought that it needn’t necessarily be a poem exclusively or even necessarily for children. Who, afterall, is speaking in this poem? What is the emotion of it? It seems, really, to be a poem about a difficult relationship between a girl and a boy … or a man and a woman.

The imagery is gendered … the connotations of some words (“tears,” “spikes,” “blue”) suggest sadness and difficulty … and the mermaid seems to be weeping by the water while the tiger is on the land looking at the stars: the two are separated by their environments and orientations. The mermaid looks deeper into the sea while the tiger looks higher into the sky.

The juxtaposition of “mermaid” with “tiger” and “mine” with “yours” in the parallel lines suggests a relationship between “mermaid” and “mine,” as if the speaker sees herself as a mermaid. Likewise the juxtaposition suggests a relationship between “tiger” and “yours,” as if the speaker identifies her friend with the tiger. The implications of this are complex when the we consider the mermaid-speaker has “bikes” reflected in her eyes.

The bicycle imagery conveys a most complex problem. A mermaid cannot ride a bike, and yet, like Ariel in the “Little Mermaid” (a Disney film developed from the famous fairy-tale preserved by Hans Christian Andersen), she seems to want to learn how. To do so, she would have to transform or be transformed, thereby losing something (her natural ability to navigate underwater) and gaining something (a new ability to walk on land and, more importantly, ride the bicycle that has captured her attention).

The bicycle imagery also suggests a desire for movement and freedom, perhaps escape from her circumstances or maybe a means to keep up with her tiger, who is stronger and faster and more able to navigate earthly terrain.

There are signs of hope in the untold story behind this lyric. “Silver fish” are pictures of life and provision and maybe even poetry itself. “Guitars” are musical instruments that can accompany songs, songs that, like poetry, emerge from the deep well of creativity within every human soul. Why are guitars reflected in the “your” eyes?

Perhaps “you,” the tiger the mermaid loves, are a musician who wants to play the guitar … for many reasons … maybe even for “me,” the mermaid. How beautiful! Mermaids are legendary for their voices, for singing and for saving sailors lost at sea. Here, the desire to play the guitar, to become a guitarist, suggests these two creatures who are so different might be connected by the power of music.

Of course, there is another interpretive possibility: if the mermaid is looking at the tiger and the tiger is looking at the mermaid at the moment in which this poem occurs, then it is the mermaid playing the “blue guitar” and the tiger riding the “bikes.” That is why the guitar is reflected in the tiger’s eyes and the bikes in the mermaid’s eyes. So she is sad in that case, and he is about to ride away.

These contrasting interpretations remind me of the poet Robert Frost’s last lines in his most famous poem: “Two paths diverged in a dark wood, and I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference.” Are these lines an optimistic conclusion? Many read them that way, but they could also have the opposite meaning, a profoundly negative meaning. Both possibilities are contained within the same words.

The same is true for our poem, “Burning Bright.” This short lyric could be about a difficult relationship that will resolve in a beautiful way that brings music and poetry and life to the mermaid and the tiger … or not. The interpretive path chosen by the reader will make all the difference.

(Postscript: The title of this poem clearly alludes to “Tyger, tyger, burning bright” by William Blake. It is interesting to read this little poem in the light of that longer one! Lillian Morrison’s poem also alludes to common phrases in the English language: “her eyes burned with tears,” “the stars burn in the sky.” Both phrases pertain to the opening lines of this poem. Finally, burning can connote passion, pain, and/or purification, and fire can have both destructive and life-giving force.)

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For I can snore like a bullhorn
or play loud music
or sit up talking with any reasonably sober Irishman
and Fergus will only sink deeper
into his dreamless sleep, which goes by all in one flash,
but let there be that heavy breathing
or a stifled come-cry anywhere in the house
and he will wrench himself awake
and make for it on the run — as now, we lie together,
after making love, quiet, touching along the length of our bodies,
familiar touch of the long married,
and he appears — in his baseball pajamas, it happens,
the neck opening so small
he has to screw them on, which one they may make him wonder
about the mental capacity of baseball players —
and flops down between us and hugs us and snuggles himself to sleep,
his face gleaming with satisfaction at being this very child.
In the half darkness we look at each other
and smile and touch arms across his little, startlingly muscled body —
this one home habit of memory propels to the ground of his making,
sleeper only the mortal sounds can sing awake,
this blessing love gives again into our arms.

Galway Kinnell
Selected Poems (1983)

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Jane’s new collection of poetry, MADE IN THE IMAGE, is now available from Lulu Press!! Here is what three readers have to say in praise of the poems in this book:

“Jane Beal has the gift of tongues. She speaks in many voices: with the whispered wish for water in the wasteland; the yearnings of Yeats; the ecstasy of St Teresa; the chaste eroticism of the Song of Songs. She speaks in many voices but always with the One Voice that conveys the unity of meaning through the poet’s polyphony.”

~ Joseph Pearce, author of Divining Divinity (www.staustinreview.com)

“Jane Beal takes you on exquisite journeys to the mountains of love just as poignantly as trips taken to the underground of human behavior. She is a modern day psalmist.

~ Yolanda Calderon-Horn, author of Step Out of Weeping Shoes (lopsidepress.com/gallery)

“These poems move from the painful terrain of women’s mistreatment through the ages and all over the world to an ecstatic vision of 
humanity as made in God’s image. Beal’s poetry bears witness to suffering from a compassionate and devotional place. As she says in “Psalm”: ‘All my longings lie open before You.’ As a reader, my longings are laid open by her work.”

~ Marie-Elizabeth Mali, editor of The Book of the Villanelle (www.floweringlotus.com)

You are invited to preview the book at MADE IN THE IMAGE at Lulu Press!

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Songbirds live
in the old cathedral,
caged birds bought at the street market
and freed as a kind of offering.
Now doves and finches and parakeets
nest in the crooks of the nave’s highest arches,
roosting on the impossibly high
sills of stained-glass windows,
looking down into the valley of the altar
as if from cliffs.

Twice a day, you’ll hear them singing:
at dawn
when the blue light
of angels’ wings
and the yellow light of halos
flood into their nests to wake them;
and during the mass
when the organ fills
the valley below with thunder.
these birds love thunder,
never having seen a drop of rain.
They love it when the people below stand up
and sing. They fly
in mad little loops
from window to window,
from the tops of arches
down toward the candles in the tombs,
making the sign of the cross.

If you look up during mass
to the world’s light falling
to the arms of saints,
you can see birds flying
true blue columns of incense
as if it were simple wood smoke
rising from a cabin’s chimney
in a remote and hushed forest.

Richard Jones
The Blessing: New and Selected Poems 

Commentary:   I’m writing a new collection of poems, sonnets actually, all about birds. It’s called “The Bird-watcher’s Diary.” My mother, Barbara Holthuis, is illustrating it with pencil sketches of many different kinds of birds. We are planning a website to go along with it which will encourage young readers to develop the skills of observation and to apply those skills to bird-watching in the natural world.

Because of this work, I am very aware of birds and bird-watchers everywhere I go. I’ve had interesting conversations with other bird-watchers, like Lorrie yesterday and Ann a few days ago, both of whom maintain huge birdfeeders in their backyards throughout the year. Illinois is full of birdwatchers who often become bird caretakers as well.

So it was wonderful to discover Richard Jones’s poem “Cathedral” last night and realize that he was not only a fellow poet, but a fellow bird-watcher!  If I knew where his sanctuary was, I think I would try to go there to see these doves and finches and parakeets he mentions. His poem reminds me of the psalm says, “Even sparrows find a home, and swallows find a nest for themselves. There they hatch their young near your altars, O LORD …”

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i thank You God for most this amazing
day:for the leaping greenly spirits of trees
and a blue true dream of sky; and for everything
which is natural which is infinite which is yes

(i who have died am alive again today,
and this is the sun’s birthday; this is the birth
day of life and of love and wings: and of the gay
great happening illimitably earth)

how should tasting touching hearing seeing
breathing any–lifted from the no
of all nothing–human merely being
doubt unimaginable You?

(now the ears of my ears awake and
now the eyes of my eyes are opened)

e.e. cummings

Commentary: I love this poem.  The last two lines sound somewhat like a paraphrase of Pauline thought … but the whole poem makes me think about how e.e. cummings let all of his senses awaken to the natural world. All of us can be that awake.

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