Stark and Beautiful

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Today I feel grateful for barren winter trees and how they feel like sisters and kindred spirits right now. They look so bare, so stark and lonely. And yet… And yet… What green does spring have in store? I think they are so beautiful, just as they are, but also beautiful because of their promise of spring.

Also, grateful for this poem by Carol Lynn Pearson that has been coming to me a lot the last few days.

My Season
by Carol Lynn Pearson

Seeing the tree
Beneath a baptism of snow,
You may call her barren.
But is it so?
And for all your watchings
On a March night
When the twigs seem dark
And the bark
Feels cold to your hand —
Can you call her fruitless
And so leave?

She smiles,
Calm in the station
Of seasons
And in the ordination
Of sun, and sap, and spring.

As for me?
You turn away,
Impatient with the promises you’ve seen.
But — inside I fill
And pulse and flow
With the urgency of green.

I’ve a season,
Like the tree.
And all your
Faithless doubts
Will not destroy
The rising spring
In me.


Favorite Poem of the Week: Woodchucks by Maxine Kumin

I’ve had the privilege of substitute teaching a beginning creative writing class for one of my professors several times this summer. It’s been a fantastic experience. Such brilliant students. Such great material to teach. Getting paid to talk about one of the things I love most in this world: writing. Yesterday we discussed “Woodchucks” by Maxine Kumin. I’ve read the poem many times, always enjoyed it, but never has it spoken to me and echoed my thoughts as it did this week.


Gassing the woodchucks didn’t turn out right.
The knockout bomb from the Feed and Grain Exchange
was featured as merciful, quick at the bone
and the case we had against them was airtight,
both exits shoehorned shut with puddingstone,
but they had a sub-sub-basement out of range.

Next morning they turned up again, no worse
for the cyanide than we for our cigarettes
and state-store Scotch, all of us up to scratch.
They brought down the marigolds as a matter of course
and then took over the vegetable patch
nipping the broccoli shoots, beheading the carrots.

The food from our mouths, I said, righteously thrilling
to the feel of the .22, the bullets’ neat noses.
I, a lapsed pacifist fallen from grace
puffed with Darwinian pieties for killing,
now drew a bead on the little woodchuck’s face.
He died down in the everbearing roses.

Ten minutes later I dropped the mother.She
flipflopped in the air and fell, her needle teeth
still hooked in a leaf of early Swiss chard.
Another baby next.O one-two-three
the murderer inside me rose up hard,
the hawkeye killer came on stage forthwith.

There’s one chuck left. Old wily fellow, he keeps
me cocked and ready day after day after day.
All night I hunt his humped-up form.I dream
I sight along the barrel in my sleep.
If only they’d all consented to die unseen
gassed underground the quiet Nazi way.

Maxine Kumin


As I’ve read news about the massacre in Aurora, Colorado, I’ve been thinking about human nature. And violence. And our society. My heart is broken. I hurt for the victims and their families. I hurt for the family of the gunman. I hurt for the gunman, for the deep, dark place he had to visit to do something so horrific.

I have seen opinions for and against gun control.

“If the theatre hadn’t been a gun-free zone, someone with a legal gun could have taken him down.”

“If gun control were tighter, someone would have questioned why someone had acquired so much weaponry.”

Here’s my thought:
Do we really have to live in a world where we even contemplate using guns against each other for any reason, a world of such deep antagonism?

I know that sounds very hippy-dippy, very “all you need is love,” but it all just baffles me.

Guns don’t bother me. I grew up with a dad who was a gunsmith, a hunter. I’ve grown up around law enforcement. Guns are not scary to me. What baffles me is that people I know to be kind and compassionate own handguns, expecting they will need to use them to protect themselves or others. People carry concealed handguns into church, just in case. Very good people spend a great deal of time contemplating the killing of another human being, in self-defense, because it seems a given that it will be necessary at some point. Why is violence the answer? Why aren’t we questioning what makes guns necessary, trying to fix that? (Both the NRA team and the GunControl team seem to support the violent status quo in one way or another.)

I am baffled by a society that glorifies violence in Batman movies, gritty violence that should utterly shock and sadden us. We pay big money to recreate it. We ask for it.

Then we are surprised when Aurora happens.

I don’t know the answers. I want to think that humanity is generally good. But I also know that Maxine Kumin was onto something in her poem. Whether it’s gas, or gun, or both, even in confirmed pacifists lies the potential for violence.

And I wish I knew what we could do to make that not so.

Update: This is a start. I am very touched that Christian Bale took the time to visit victims and first responders in Colorado.

Poem of the Week: “To a Daughter Leaving Home” by Linda Pastan

Early yesterday morning, Jeffrey and I woke in dark to take our oldest, our sweet daughter to the airport. We put her on a plane to fly across the country for a prestigious and exciting summer school program being held at Princeton.

As I watched her bobbed hair and her teal cardigan and her white flip-flops move away from us, through the gate, down the concourse, I thought of this poem. I thought of all the little leavings my daughter has done, will continue to do over the next few years until she’s ready to head out our door and into the world on her own. I’m not sure I can handle it, the idea of her leaving for good, but like Linda Pastan, I have pictures of her flying away from me, again and again, stored away in my head and heart. And pictures of her beautiful smile and her comings-home. I keep reminding myself that parenting is the act of learning to let go, that the best homes are made with leaving in mind, that her independence is a sign that I’m doing my job.

To A Daughter Leaving Home

When I taught you
at eight to ride
a bicycle, loping along
beside you
as you wobbled away
on two round wheels,
my own mouth rounding
in surprise when you pulled
ahead down the curved
path of the park,
I kept waiting
for the thud
of your crash as I
sprinted to catch up,
while you grew
smaller, more breakable
with distance,
pumping, pumping
for your life, screaming
with laughter,
the hair flapping
behind you like a
handkerchief waving

by Linda Pastan


Favorite Poem of the Week–“One Art” by Elizabeth Bishop

I’ve always loved Elizabeth Bishop’s poetry, particularly this villanelle. It isn’t a new discovery, just an old favorite. The sense of loss, and then triumph over loss is beautiful. The language is perfect. I want to write a villanelle this good.

One Art
The art of losing isn’t hard to master;
so many things seem filled with the intent
to be lost that their loss is no disaster.

Lose something every day. Accept the fluster
of lost door keys, the hour badly spent.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master.

Then practice losing farther, losing faster:
places, and names, and where it was you meant
to travel. None of these will bring disaster.

I lost my mother’s watch. And look! my last, or
next-to-last, of three loved houses went.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master.

I lost two cities, lovely ones. And, vaster,
some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent.
I miss them, but it wasn’t a disaster.

—Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture
I love) I shan’t have lied. It’s evident
the art of losing’s not too hard to master
though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.


Favorite Poem of the Week: “The Weight of What is Thrown” by Joe Wenderoth

I first heard this poem at a writing workshop given by Diane Glancy in Zion National Park last year. It is beautiful, thought-provoking. It is also tender for me, because this experience is one of the last I shared with my friend and mentor, Helen Keith Beaman, before she died.  I also used the comparison of stones and words in a poem I wrote later that year for Helen, not realizing until I re-read this poem that Wenderoth uses that metaphor also, though in a different way.

I love tenderness with which Wenderoth blends the natural world and the world of language in his descriptions of smooth stones and words. I love the call to attention of how stones and words we use as weapons are made, not born, the invitation to awareness, to taking the time to weigh what we say, what we throw into the world.


The Weight of What Is Thrown

from American Poetry Review Vol. 36 No. 4

Smooth stones have always appealed to me.
River stones, I guess they’re called,
though the best ones come from ocean shoreline
where cliffs are crumbling and tides are rising
and falling
and perfecting what they have broken.
In Maine, for instance,
there are beaches of big smooth stones—
the stones are piled deep
like those plastic balls in a kids’ carnival attraction.
And each night, and each morning,
in comes the weight of the water,
the weight of the ocean,
under which the stones turn on one another
until they are smooth,
until they demonstrate submission to a kind of rule—
we might call it the rule
of the weight of what is thrown.
The stones are smooth like eggs, sometimes,
or like a palette;
whatever shape they are,
they are evidence of the rule,
evidence of the always diminishing shape of origin.
This is what we mean by decorative.

I say like an egg, but what a strange egg.
Think of a creature of bone—entirely of bone.
Such creatures are not born;
such creatures are made.
I suppose it’s appealing to suggest that something other
than human artifice could be a maker.
That is, it’s satisfying to think
that the weight of the ocean
and the weight of meaning
could be in some way connected.
Perhaps we can’t help but to explore that fantasy.

A smooth stone, like a word,
is artificially refined.
Pick it out of its bed
and take it up into your grasp
and it is strange.
Why is it strange?
It is strange because it is so telling—
because, like a corpse, it so plainly confronts us
with its nonsensical independence.
How could the earth be a heap of smooth stones?
How could speech be a heap of words?

But unlike a corpse, it’s appealing
to take a smooth stone to hand.
A smooth stone is a weapon, and,
assuming it’s the right size, an attractive weapon.
It’s a weapon, moreover, that promises a great event.
The event is great because it alludes to
and calls for a certain talent,
a certain potential in its thrower.

A language, at any given moment, is so many words.
It’s one beach, let’s say, along a world-ocean.
I think of the way they named the portions of beach
on D-Day: Juno, Sword, Omaha, Utah, Gold.
Expand that map and you can picture
all the earth’s language-beaches.
Some are so close to one another that they overlap—
others are quite far apart.
No matter how far apart, however,
their differences are superficial.
Each beach is smooth stones,
and the stones have not been born—
they have been made.
Not made like a bicycle, mind you—
not made intentionally
but made by weight,
made by a great thrown force,
thrown by No One, really,
for who-knows-what reason.
Perhaps this is why, when someone hurls words at us
like they are his own,
like the weight of the words is his own weight,
we are so mistrustful, so appalled.

Only the voice of No One
is really moving.