Saturday, July 18, 2009

She dealt her pretty words like Blades

I'm working on some poems that relate to tarot imagery, specifically the suit of swords, and was struck by this Dickinson poem I just rediscovered for myself: 

She dealt her pretty words like Blades --
How glittering they shone -- 
And every One unbared a Nerve
Or wantoned with a Bone --  

She never deemed -- she hurt -- 
That -- is not Steel's Affair --
A vulgar grimace in the Flesh -- 
How ill the Creatures bear -- 

To Ache is human -- not polite -- 
The Film upon the eye 
Mortality's old Custom -- 
Just locking up -- to Die.

Lots of different ways of reading the poem, of course, but
I'm thinking about poetry as a blade, the words that cut
and slice, get to the bones of the matter, the painful
heart of things we often don't wish to see.  

She also articulates, in this poem, the essential duality of 
the sword as symbol, that it is both a weapon and a tool. 
An instrument of pain, but also a metaphor for analysis, 
the cutting necessary to see.

"She never deemed--she hurt--/That--is not Steel's 
affair--," swords are intellect, air, they are not useful
in the world of feelings, you don't use a sword, either
literally or metaphorically, if you're afraid you might
hurt someone. Something you have to put aside 
when you put on the costume of the queen of swords.

She seems to sympathize, if we read the poem with 
an ironic tone, with those hurt by word-blades; 
society, she suggests, has no tolerance for those 
who hurt and own their hurts in public. Better, 
in this society of swords, to lock ourselves up 
(in a real or imagined coffin?) and "die."

So interesting, too, though it has nothing to do 
with the poem, in which she uses the word
"blades" instead of "swords," how the word 
word is buried in the word sword.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Jim Harrison

Since I'm at a writer's retreat primarily to work on a new collection of poems, I've also been reading poetry as well.  Just finished Jim Harrison's In Search of Small Gods (Copper Canyon, 2009).  It's not a perfect book, but perfection is not what one looks for from Harrison. 
Sometimes it feels more like prose than poetry--there are quite a few very long prose poems in the book that I felt got more of their energy from prose than from poetry.  Too, sometimes he wanders very far afield and one loses a sense of where the poem is, as if he started with one thought then was interrupted and decided to go with the interruption.  It's always interesting, but some of the pieces feel like they could have done with another level of revisioning.  

Having said that, I LOVE this book.  There are some real gems in the midst of the prose stuff, and a gruff and tender and soul-searching, nature loving spirit underneath it all.  Here's an excerpt from the first poem, "I Believe":

I believe in steep drop-offs, the thunderstorm across the lake
in 1949, cold winds, empty swimming pools,
the overgrown path to the creek, raw garlic,
used tires, taverns, saloons, bars, gallons of red wine,
abandoned farmhouses, stunted lilac groves,
gravel roads that end, brush piles, thickets . . . .

What I love about Harrison is that he never takes himself too seriously, and he is generous and unpolitical about what he loves.  Too often 'nature poets' bore us with their serious and often sterile separation of nature from the wilds of the human spirit.  Not so Harrison, who loves used tires as well as thunderstorms, wounded things like stunted lilac groves as well as things that are not so good for the environment (used tires) or the spirit (gallons of red wine).  I love the ending to this poem as well; in typical Harrison fashion he reminds us of how he fits in with all this--nature is never just nature without us in it:

. . . the fluttering unknown gods that I nearly see
from the left corner of my blind eye, struggling
to stay alive in a world that grinds them underfoot.

Also see 'The Quarter" here, one of my very favorite poems from the book:

Emily Dickinson

I recently visited Emily Dickinson's home in Amherst as well as her grave, and have been rereading her work.  Aside from the very real chill I got, deep in my bones, at being in the place where she was born and died and spent much of her life, I was stunned to actually experience something of what her gardens would have been like.  I have always loved her poetry, but I hadn't realized how much of a gardener she was, and how much of her understanding of poetry and indeed the world outside of poetry was dominated by the flora and fauna of her gardens.   Rereading her poems I see flowers and insects and epiphanies based on flowers and insects everywhere!  And her excitement about the smallest member of her garden is infectious! Who cannot read 10 of her poems in a row and not start using exclamation marks!  I do not think I have ever read another poet who brings such intensity and ecstasy to flowers.  I just finished a book called Emily Dickinson's Gardens: A celebration of a poet and a gardener (Marta McDowell) that I highly recommend for those interested both in her poetry and her gardens.  There is enough information in this book, along with a nice selection of poems, for you to reconstruct an Emily Dickinson garden.

I also forked out over $100 for the Franklin The Poems of Emily Dickinson: Variorum Edition, which contains all the variants of her poems, those she herself made as well as those later editors made.  It is endlessly fascinating to see how the change of just a word or two can transform the meanings of a line or indeed an entire poem.

Yesterday I visited the incredible Bridge of Flowers in Shelbourne Falls, MA.  It is a bridge across a river that has been planted with flowers for almost 80 years.  I will post photos later.  I was deeply moved, in an odd way, by this bridge, which is kept up by volunteers, and which is astonishingly beautiful, with over 500 kinds of flowers on it, and which is simply there, a gorgeous shock of color and richness spanning the distance between two towns.  It costs nothing to cross it, though donations are welcome. When I think of all the dark things our race is capable of, it's hopeful to find this little bridge of flowers, like a poem of brightness, an Emily Dickinson poem, maybe, a poem of love to the world of flowers.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009


Osprey nest from the Atchafalaya Basin. These are huge nests that can survive the kinds of winds most houses in Louisiana cannot. There's a juvenile in the nest who apparently can't yet fly. The mother tried to lure us away whenever we got close by flying over the water and dragging her foot as if she were hurt. Osprey are widespread over the world and are also known as sea hawks. They eat primarily fish, and usually nest in a very high tree (or telephone pole . . . . ). We saw this osprey nest in summer 2009, but we also saw the same nest, same parent birds the last time we visited. My friend Greg (google him: Greg Guirard) usually takes me to see this nest everytime we visit.

I've spent so much time at the Atchafalya, and have hardly written any poems about it although I've written quite a lot in Swamp Songs. Maybe a book of poems focused on that area would be a good project for me now. Starting with osprey.

Thursday, July 2, 2009


My first serious romance as a young girl was with a guy named Loren (Chip) Kerr.  He was the only person I "went steady" with in high school, and we were also engaged for a short period when we both started college.  We grew apart, broke up, got back together, broke up again, and I have not seen him for over 30 years.  My mother would keep me up to date with him, though, as she sometimes saw him in the grocery store near her in New Orleans.  Once he was with two young children, his.  He had married, she said.  He was still doing roofing work, she said.  He looked good, she said.  Still had nice legs, she said.  

The last time I visited my mother we drove down West End Blvd where he used to live with his grandmother in a big Victorian home.  The house had been destroyed in Katrina and a new, smaller bungalow stood in its place.  I remembered the nights I'd throw pebbles at his window on the third floor for him to come out--we didn't want to wake his grandmother.  No more third story now.  A few blocks down on the same street, another house I'd lived in myself a few years later during my twenties,  also destroyed, gone.  

For some reason this morning I was thinking about Chip and googled him, wondering what he was doing after all these years.  The only thing I could find was a post from  his father September 15, 2005 saying that he was missing after Katrina.  Nothing else after that.  There was no email address or other contact information.

I remember him as a strong, darkly handsome guy with lots of spirit who took on ambitious projects:  rebuilding engines, working in the hot hot Louisiana sun on roofs with his uncle.  He helped me pick out my first car, a used Triumph, and when it threw a rod a week later he towed it to his grandmother's house, worked for months to save the money I'd spent to buy it, and finally  gave it to me, telling me he'd found a buyer for it.  It was much later that I got it out of him that the money was actually his. 

He was quiet and somehow not of this world despite his work with the physical world.  He attended the U.S. Naval Academy, but hated the authoritarianism of it, and left after a year.  He kept a photo of me in his hat, he said, but the seniors would ask to look at the photo and would say things like you think she's waiting for you?  Ha!  Chip was the first man I ever loved, the first man I ever slept with, the first I ever allowed to touch me.  It is disturbing to think he might have died in Katrina.  

I hope someone has found him.  

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

The Sage of Cups

The Sage or King of Cups in a tarot deck is an ambivalent figure, always hiding something.  He usually represents someone in Art or Law.  It is said that he is uncomfortable in his own suit--a water suit--because at base his soul is fiery.  But though he's become a master of the suit of cups, he is always pretending.  He could be a figure that has repressed his own dreams in order to succeed in the world materially.  He's very good at what he does:  advising others, healing disputes, directing others.  He is the consummate diplomat, a respected leader, although he also has a fiery temper that sometimes surfaces. 

I like to think of the Sage of Cups, which is what this figure is called in the World Spirit tarot deck,  as an artist who has taken on a larger role that involves administration--a poet who has become the Poet Laureate, a writer who directs the NEA (or serves as an MFA program head!), an artist who runs a press or nonprofit.  Maybe he's a teacher, a literary translator, an editor of an anthology:  the idea is that the essential, inner directed work of the writer or artist is turned outward to help others.

I understand the ambivalence of this figure only too well.  I am in love with the compassion he shows to others, his generosity, his willingness to share what he has learned.  But I fear his own creative fire has been reduced to a pilot light that burns, but not brightly enough to sustain the fire he needs to for his own spirit.  The image of the Sage of Cups invites us to think about the balance of fire and water we might need to find in our own lives.