Archive for July, 2011

You lie in our bed as if an orchard were over us.

You are what’s fallen from those fatal boughs.

Where will we go when they send us away from here?

David Ferry

from Poetry (July/August 2011)

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 These elegies, these days given

over to rain & geese

in migration — failures I love

to keep as evidence

like the blue dress of grief

kept by my mother & her mother

before her. The story goes,

it was the only thing

they’d wear, lace  fringe all

torn & yellowed. Each wore it soft

with her own sorrow.

They called down the songs of birds

with their sorrow. This legacy

has little to do with History

which, now that I know

its secret, I am free to change.

Roy Seeger

The Boy Whose Hands Were Birds (2008)

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“If Romeo and Juliet had made appointments to meet, in the moonlight-swept orchard, in all the peril and sweetness of conspiracy, and then more often than not failed to meet — one or the other lacking, or afraid, or busy elsewhere — there would have been no romance, no passion, none of the drama for which we remember and celebrate them.

Writing a poem is not so different — it is a kind of possible love affair between something like the heart (that courageous but also shy factory of emotion) and the learned skills of the conscious mind. They make appointments with each other, and keep them, and something begins to happen. Or, they make appointments with each other but are casual and often fail to keep them: count on it, nothing happens.

That part of the psyche that works in concert with consciousness and supplies a necessary part of the poem — the heat of the star as opposed to the shape of the star, let us say — exists in a mysterious, unmapped zone: not unconscious, not subconscious, but cautious. It learns quickly what sort of courtship it is going to be …”

Mary Oliver
A Poetry Handbook (1994)


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I recently made a journey of a thousand miles from Chicago to Denver. Here I am in the West! Colorado is big-sky-beautiful country. I love the light. The light here is extraordinary.

In honor of this momentous change, I wanted to post a poem by Mary Crow, a former poet laureate of the state of Colorado, a poet who pays attention to light — and many other things. In addition to being a poet, Mary Crow is a teacher and translator. Her poem below translates the light.

“The Morning of Morning”

Why let it matter so much?: the morning’s morningness,
early dark modulating into light
and the tall thin spruces jabbing their black outlines at dawn,
light touching the slope’s outcroppings of rock and yellow grass,
as I sit curled under blankets in the world
after the world Descartes shattered,
a monstrous fracture
like the creek’s water surging through broken ice.

A silent wind bounces spruce branches
in that motion that sets molecules vibrating latitude by latitude
to crack the absolute
of feeling, of knowing what I know, of knowing who I am,
while down the road the town wakes to hammer and saw—
a sound that says to some, if you don’t grow you’re dead—
and then farther down the elk and deer gather
at a farmer’s fence for his handout of hay.

Late January: just outside Rocky Mountain National Park:
a high branch of ponderosa offers a rosette
of needles blackgreen and splayed as in a Japanese scroll painting,
which is beautiful if I focus there and not on the sprawl I’m part of
in this rented condo where I don’t want to live since I, too, need
more rooms to haul my coffee to, more bookshelves for books
I haven’t time to read—bird chatter!—I shouldn’t make one more resolution
I can’t keep to spend more time with friends.

But it’s morning and morning’s my time of day
as spring’s my season; more light, I say.
I do regret some things I’ve done and if I could,
I’d do things differently: start sooner, say, look deeper.
One flake of snow drifts down slantwise,
a lovely interruption to my tirade—
as each aspen is to the larger groves of taller firs—
and brings me back to what’s happening here.

Mary Crow
first published in Ploughshares

“A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.”

Lao-Tzu (604-531 BC)


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 As the rain and the snow come down from heaven,

and do not return to it without watering the earth

and making it bud and flourish,

so that it yields seed for the sower and bread for the eater,

so is my word that goes out from my mouth:

it will not return to me empty,

but will accomplish what I desire

and achieve the purpose for which I sent it.

You will go out in joy and be led forth in peace,

the mountains and the hills will burst into song before you,

and all the trees of the field will clap their hands.

Instead of the thornbush will grow the juniper,

and instead of briars the myrtle will grow.

This will be for the LORD’s renown,

for an everlasting sign that will endure forever.

Isaiah 55:10-13

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Signs of Hope

A sermon by Jane Beal on Genesis 24

The Story of Yitzhak & Rivka

blue hydrangea

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Not many weeks ago, I found one of the most admirable collection of poems I’ve ever read: Frank X. Walker’s Buffalo Dance: The Journey of York.  York was a man and a body servant enslaved by William Clark of the William and Clark expedition, and he went with the expedition into the West.  In Buffalo Dance, Frank X. Walker gives York a voice: powerful, rich, knowing. We get to see the journey through York’s eyes, and it it extraordinary.

I have stood where the Lewis and Clark expedition truly began in St. Louis, Missouri and where it ended in Seaside, Oregon, and I was never interested in it until I read this book.

I like the way the poet pays attention to water. Take, for instance, the first four lines of the poem, “Her Current.”

Working upstream against the current

be like courting a stubborn woman.

We spend the whole day trying to make a little distance

an her attitude don’t change a bit.

I like the way he imagines the relationship between York and Sacajawea. I like the way he gradually reveals York’s strength — and how he goes from strength to strength — becoming more of who he is, more of a free man made in the image of God. Or, as the poet puts it in “Black Magic”:  ” I suspect that something bigger / got they hand in this. / Something familiar as the night sky / an more dependable than the ground under our feet.”

Frank X. Walker has done his research and discovered the most beautiful details of the journey, and he brings them evocatively to life in this collection — always with power, always with the power to emotionally move the heart and mind of the reader and to provoke further thought and reflection. Take the poem “Ornithologists.”

We pick up a few things
watching the Indians track an hunt.
They know the calls an movements
a birds and animals
so much so, they can mock anything
in the woods, even deer
and them don’t hardly speak.

The Captains have us all looking an listening
for birds an beasts and was happy as larks
if we could bring something new with wings
back to camp, mostly whole or breathing.

Capt. Lewis would peer into his eyeglass stick for hours
trying to know a bird that caught his eye
and could scratch out on paper exactly how the thing be.
Shape of the head an beak, markings on the feathers,
toes, feet, and all.

It was like the woodpecker or crow an such
just walk up, make itself small
and lay right down on the page.

This poem resonates on many levels. Without apparent judgment, it highlights a problematic dynamic the Captains of the expedition have in relationship to nature  (a dynamic that disappears when native people, York, and Sacajawea move through all of creation like they belong there):  a desire to capture things that should be free, to pin down wings that ought to be in flight.

But in another strange and wondrous way, the poet himself is doing what he is writing about: he is making a bird lay down on the page in this poem so that we see it. He sharpens our vision so that we see more and more things for what they are. Dissecting the dynamics of the past.

The poems about York’s love for his wife, from whom he is separated by the journey and slavery, come to fruition in a closing poem when York at last returns. The first four lines from “A Love Supreme”:

On that first night back

me and her moves like turtles

unraveling the old, the news

an each other.

Walker always keeps it real whenever York speaks, whether the speaking is about love or about pain, as in “Ursa Major.” The opening lines:

When I be my best self, I be all buffalo.
Quiet as a mountain, proud, strong, without fear
able to see the good in everything.

But like most God’s creatures
when I can’t find my own light
or the world try to blow it out
there be a darker York.

That statement is understandable in light of (the darkness of) history.

What I love about this story in poems is that it doesn’t let history have more power than the possibilities of truth made manifest in the imagination. Walker notes: “Clark reported that York died alone and miserable in Tennessee though it is rumored that he returned to the west and lived out his days as a chief among the Crow Indians.” For as Walker says in the final poem, “Birth Day”: “What he knowed as York, died making his life easy / an was born again, the other side a Rock Mountains.”

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