Once A Poet

I’m stunned.

After a – hell, I don’t know-  like a ten-year hiatus from writing poems, I actually wrote poetry today. It felt awkward at first, and insubstantial – like flexing the phantom tendons and imaginary bones of a hand that had long since been amputated. They were ghost poems.

Do they actually exist?

Here’s one (unedited, I might add. And not particularly good.)

STUMP POEM
The last remnants of stubbled skin
cling brutally to the side.
Grey torso –
grey flesh –
In the glare of the sun,
the memory of shade.
 
 

As I said, not particularly good, but it felt good. To write it I mean. And I didn’t start today with the intention of writing poetry. I wrote poetry because I was at a meeting.

A business meeting.

For work.

One of the best perks of working for an arts organization is that, every once in a while, you get to hang out with a bunch of artists. As many of you know, I work for an organization called Compas, which, among other things, schedules artist residencies and intensives in schools around the state of Minnesota. My colleagues are storytellers, poets, potters, accordion players, puppeteers, rappers, drummers, dancers, painters, actors, singers, spoken-word artists, and every other kind of art practitioner that I can’t even think of.

And they are wicked cool.

Anyway, we don’t get to see one another all that often, so I really look forward to our yearly business meeting as my one chance to say hi, drink coffee, gossip, swap stories and revel in the fact that I get to be associated with these folks.

We met out at Dodge Nature Center on an astonishingly beautiful morning. I parked far away on purpose just to give myself the opportunity to walk the trails and experience a moment of thick green and birdsong and bugsong and still ponds and damp, quiet breathing. We met in the education building, right next to the barns.

And after sitting in a meeting listening to the abysmal state of arts education in our state-

(did you know, for example, that there are districts that have removed all music instruction, from elementary to high school?)

(did you know that there are districts whose ENTIRE ARTISTIC CURRICULUM centers on a couple artist residencies?)

(did you know that there are districts who do not integrate the arts into their curriculum, despite the fact that the business world is desperate to find creative people who can think spatially and in interdisciplinary modes?)

But that was neither here nor there. In any case, when it was time for the break-out sessions, I was so filled with rage over the short-sightedness and mean-spiritedness when it comes to the arts, that I just couldn’t go to the grant writing workshop.

Instead I went to the nature poetry workshop. With Diego Vasquez – a terrific poet, a great teacher and a hell of a nice guy. He took us outside and charged us with writing poems. Short poems. About the things that surrounded us – dead things, living things. Things that move. Things that do not move. So, on this absolutely beautiful day, I wandered around and wrote short poems. And it felt REALLY good.

Like I-need-to-keep-doing-this-or-I-might-die good.

Here are some of my efforts, along with pictures of the things that inspired them. And I’m thinking that I shall have to continue writing poetry with my amputated poet muscles. I think I shall continue to write my phantoms – my inklings of the writer that I used to be. Because I kinda need to.

And perhaps I’ll post them on this blog.

Here are the poems:

PLOW POEM
 
Two seats
one horse.
 
Am I a tool
or a metaphor?
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
SHED POEM
Whitewashed slats let in the breeze.
A hail-knocked tin roof. 
A dark, windy, hiding-place.
 
 

SIGN POEM
All my life, I 
looked
for 
sign.
 
“THIS WAY!”
it said,
tilting towards the ground.
 
 
SILO POEM
 
I once had a dream that I drowned
under a crush of ripe grain.
 
The silo’s roof is a geometric bite 
on a pale blue sky.
 
I hold my breath and shiver.
 
 

 
 
 
 
 
 
TURTLE POEM 
 
(for Leo)
 
Come
closer.
 
My mossy shell.
My bright eye.
 
Come
closer.
 
My spiked tail.
My waiting mouth.
 
Come
closer.
 
I’m in the mood for a snack.
And fingers are delicious.
 
 
 
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In Which Billy Collins Says All The Things I’m Thinking. Again.

So, my kids are at camp this week, and I’m not getting nearly as much done as I need to be getting done, but that’s the way things tend to go alas (in my defense, we were getting our stairs carpeted on Monday which really shot the day, work-wise).

Anyway, my two younger children are at Camp Kici Yapi, where they spend the day singing songs and making crafts and getting dirtier than seems humanly possible – as if all the dirt from all the children across the face of the earth and across time, as landed on my children. Or that my children now contain the dirt of all possible children, both born and unborn, from the beginning of time until the end. But, each day, as they recount in excruciating detail what happened in each discrete second starting with the moment they left, I am filled with nostalgia bordering on grief. The camp they go to is the same camp that I went to at the age of six, then seven, then eight. We sang the same silly songs, made the same stupid crafts, and gave our counselors the same odd nicknames: Midnight, Crash Dummy, Flip.

Today, Leo is going to be making a lanyard. “I’m not telling you who it’s for,” he says with a sly smile, and then devolves into a fit of giggles, and then runs away.

A lanyard! I made one myself, of course. And so did you, I expect. And so did Billy Collins, and his poem, “The Lanyard”, nails this experience nine ways from Sunday, which is why I’m posting it here. Thanks, Mr. Collins! You made me cry. Again.

The Lanyard – Billy Collins

The other day I was ricocheting slowly
off the blue walls of this room,
moving as if underwater from typewriter to piano,
from bookshelf to an envelope lying on the floor,
when I found myself in the L section of the dictionary
where my eyes fell upon the word lanyard.

No cookie nibbled by a French novelist
could send one into the past more suddenly—
a past where I sat at a workbench at a camp
by a deep Adirondack lake
learning how to braid long thin plastic strips
into a lanyard, a gift for my mother.

I had never seen anyone use a lanyard
or wear one, if that’s what you did with them,
but that did not keep me from crossing
strand over strand again and again
until I had made a boxy
red and white lanyard for my mother.

She gave me life and milk from her breasts,
and I gave her a lanyard.
She nursed me in many a sick room,
lifted spoons of medicine to my lips,
laid cold face-cloths on my forehead,
and then led me out into the airy light

and taught me to walk and swim,
and I, in turn, presented her with a lanyard.
Here are thousands of meals, she said,
and here is clothing and a good education.
And here is your lanyard, I replied,
which I made with a little help from a counselor.

Here is a breathing body and a beating heart,
strong legs, bones and teeth,
and two clear eyes to read the world, she whispered,
and here, I said, is the lanyard I made at camp.
And here, I wish to say to her now,
is a smaller gift—not the worn truth

that you can never repay your mother,
but the rueful admission that when she took
the two-tone lanyard from my hand,
I was as sure as a boy could be
that this useless, worthless thing I wove
out of boredom would be enough to make us even.

Included in the FORTHCOMING book (OCT 2005), The Trouble with Poetry. Purchase from Amazon (here).