Poet of the Week Archive: August, 2005
August 1 - 7, 2005: Emily Herring Wilson
photo by Tom Wilson
I believe I've known Emily Herring Wilson's poems all my life. I feel about them the way I feel about her: I don't remember a time when I didn't know her, or them. They are the poems of health and exuberance, of giving birth and raising children, of the joy and wonder and certain disappointment of this best of all possible worlds, and of losing out, eventually, to death and the inexorable human heartbeat of time. But despite any hardship, any loss, Wilson's poems remind me, her devoted reader, that people remain in place, and quite often, in one piece. She brings me honest comfort, is never false to the simple loves of all our lives: wintersweet against the snow, blue bicycles flashing, light bending in the wheat, double rainbows, and the surprise of children to find the world come back every morning. Her poems keep it going. -- Heather Ross Miller
Heather Ross Miller, with more than a dozen books of poetry and fiction, is Distinguished Professor Emerita at Washington and Lee University. She lives in Albemarle. Her most recent collection of poems is Gypsy With Baby (Hammond, LA: Louisiana Literature Press, 2005).
Down Zion's Alley
Down Zion's Alley, off First Street,
Shacks rub their crippled backs
Against the white man's fence.
When it rains, the floods wash trash
All the way to his dreams.
He sits up in bed, calls out,
"Something's dead in the alley."
And turns out the light.
The sun sucks up the night,
Leaving the shacks bare, clean,
The fenced yards full of their seeds.
Balancing on Stones
Perhaps the light bending
in the wheat
or the pale undersides of
filled up the old silences
We found our way easy,
across small streams,
walking in field daisies,
Then we came to the place
no human talk
makes sound without pushing
beyond the limits
to where pain lies, dark
as the creek banks,
pushing from a darker source,
washing upon us,
adrift, frightened, quick,
balancing on stones.
To Fly without Hurry
"Migrating birds passing lightships and lighthouses, or crossing the face of the moon, have been observed to fly without hurry, or evidence of straining to attain high speed."
"The Migration of Birds," Circular 15, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
Waking, we have gained an hour. What shall we do with it?
Where shall we go? Stay at home, don't answer the door.
Last night's moon threaded the hydrangea blossoms.
Let them dry paper - thin in tomorrow's sun.
The ghost at the foot of the bed, ask for her blessing.
The smoke that went up the chimney, let it go, and open a window
For the room to breathe. Oh, a little of this, a little of that, a nap,
A cup of tea, all appointments missed. Say farewell to the ladybug,
Welcome the doe to the meadow. Tonight we'll reach for the Big Dipper
And drink ourselves to sleep, counting the beat of wings.
Green Thing (2001)
Finding the right words has made poets of survivors, inching down stairwells
where every step is the difference between life and death; and no one speaks
except in whispers, as if someone at the top is listening and will strike again.
They will never fear anything else except the memory, and they will count steps
for the rest of their lives, when even stepping into an ordinary morning a leaf
will seem a miracle, and a double rainbow after a predicted storm tracked
on the weather channel will inspire a sudden "Look!" and then, "My God!"
Late at night we hear a ringing
and we throw off the covers and race to the phone, and it goes
dead. Hello, hello, hello. Are you there? I miss you. I will love you always.
I will tend the pot you left on your window sill, that little green thing, every
leaf precarious, keep it going, keep it going. Don't die, I say, don't die. A poem.
Emily Herring Wilson studied writing with Randall Jarrell at Woman's College (present - day UNC - G) and later with A.R. Ammons at Wake Forest University. Among her earliest supporters were Sam Ragan, who published her first poem in the Southern Pines, N.C. newspaper, The Pilot, and Fred Chappell, who reviewed her books. She began publishing individual poems in small literary journals and in 1972 Drummer Press, in Winston - Salem, her hometown, published her first book, Down Zion's Alley. In 1975 she joined Betty Leighton and Isabel Zuber to found Jackpine Press, with A.R. Ammons as senior adviser. Jackpine brought out Emily's second collection, Balancing on Stones. Ms. Wilson continued to publish individual poems and chapbooks occasionally, and in 2001 St. Andrews Press published To Fly without Hurry. She was a participant in the state's first Poetry in the Schools programs in the 1960s and has organized many readings, workshops, and conferences. She has taught writing at Salem College, Wake Forest University, Cornell University, Reynolda House Museum of American Art, and in North Carolina community colleges. In the past two decades she has published nonfiction books of women's history, but she continues to write poems.
August 8-14, 2005: Keith Flynn
Keith Flynn is what Kris Kristofferson once called Johnny Cash - "a walking contradiction." Here is a country boy from western North Carolina whose poetic influences are just as often European as American, a poet who can write a poem for David Allen Coe and another one for Claude Monet, give a poem a title as earthy as "Granny Grunt" or as intellectual as "The Fatigue Of Post-Modern Irony." These contradictions are reconciled in Keith's art, and it is this synthesis that makes his poetry so striking. Distinctions of high and low culture are overwhelmed by the poet's ability to take everything he comes in contact with and make it art. In Louis Simpson's poem "American Poetry," Simpson states: "Whatever it is, it must have/ A stomach that can digest/ Rubber, coal, uranium, moons, poems." There is no better description that I know of to describe Keith's poetry. -- Ron Rash
Ron Rash teaches English and Appalachian Studies at Western Carolina University, in Cullowhee. His fiction has won the 1987 General Electric Younger Writers Award, the 1996 Sherwood Anderson Prize, and the 2004 O. Henry Short Story Prize. In 1994 he received a poetry fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts. He is the author of seven books -- most recently Saints at the River(2004).
The Violinist In Her Window
After the sake and plum wine,
After the breaded tenderloin
And walk along the Charles River,
Beneath museums of industry
And restored mill town chimneys
And paddling yuppies with their
Fiberglass sculls, we allowed
Rhetorical discussions of elongated
Vowels, the sushi crumbling onto
The rice paper's pink pagodas
And my mind was lifted from
Its stirrups. I saw the violinist
At her window in Waltham,
Naked from behind, and defenseless
Against the sky, save for her face
Ecstatically laying on the heel
Of her wooden puppet, gut strings
Ringing tumult and triangulation,
As the player's clay cheeks flattened
And flinched, her floss flogging
The angry air. In a toss, the house
And its window were dispossessed,
Her long blonde hair casting a shadow,
Like a dove crossing over from another
Flood, wiggling with its own life.
She and I became an immense minority,
Like Achilles face to face with Priam,
Poured down into his bowl of mercy,
And the violinist turned in time to catch
The cabaret girls on the storefront,
Like night swallows dipping into their
Neon Apache dances. It is always easier
To be someone else, to feel pity by
Careful observance of a human face,
But the violinist in her window
Was too far away; so I stood in that
Braid of time with my bandaged soul,
Staring at a fishbowl of gardenias
Atop the delicately scented curly maple
Tables, and imagined the wood smell
Her temples made, my senses colonized
By all the unexplored sensations,
Life's unrolling series of limbic
Miscalculations. The violinist
Suddenly stopped sawing, paused
To look down upon the city's skin
And consider which key to choose
In her antediluvian drift, beneath
The heavy ice floe of thought,
Her fingers on the window
Like shadows of birds, the river
A silver ribbon catching the fish
That curled into parenthesis.
Her strings began to glow as they
Were traversed again, their present
The only way the past has to be
Delivered, contending by geological
Consent, not allowing the light
To wash over them, but changing
To light in the wash, at one
With her worry and its hurried
Intervals, knowing that wherever
The light is touched,
Everywhere touches back.
The Piano Lesson
Down the long shaft of cool concrete
The student advances his vanilla mind.
Before him the hulking machine sleeps
Beneath an immense red mirror occupied
By molecules bouncing one into the other
Like goldfish. Sensing him the dark wood
Huffs and the silver streamers swim into
Position. The teacher readies her ruler,
The cookie on her lips balancing a cigarette.
The test, during which smoke parallels
The baton, beats upon the young man's fingers
Until the pyramid metronome looms above him
Like a skyscraper clock. His red-haired mentor
Puffs and bellows beside him, gripping her ruler
Like a joystick, cologne and nicotine seeping
In equal measure down the pendulum of her spine.
The tadpole notes scramble on clotheslines like
Beads in an abacus, The count, the count, upon
His toes, his tectonic knuckles holding fast to
The ivory teeth of the great mahogany dragon,
Heaving and breathing its tarred and terrible
Arpeggios. The student wedges his escape on
One side of his brain, opposite the hiss of red
Seamed lips. On his test score, one eye lost to
The tempest, fills with pity and drips.
Hitler's Yacht In America
Here again, in praise of shadows,
Sharpened by desire's dependable cycles.
Less certain that the night will end,
Can we bear the coming cold wind's
Sanctuary, fearing love because it is blind;
Or its blind spot become a beacon
Of desperation, renewing the shadow
As it grows? Solitude is a paradox,
Forced or unforced, like nudity with its
Uniform armor, made into pornography
By those most familiar with its prisons.
Lately America says nothing about the size
Of her ideas; DC has its head down,
Pressed upon by snipers firing from the
Trunks of cars, and there are no paddleboats
Slapping down the Potomac beneath cherry
Trees weeping white blossoms, only timeless
Incantations of glory that worry war forward.
Every pain has a story, and little subjectivity.
Memories of haywire systems muddle human
Endurance in the middle of everywhere.
Turning upon these spoked changes
In a court of birds, the bug has no case.
Due process is lost in the cowboy way.
Never think of a leader as a tree
Whose shade you can rest in, or
Equate your worth to the State
In the context of sweat equity.
The voter's tarantella is a swirl of buyer's remorse,
Too much Pluribus and not enough Unum, and the
Music begins where faith and reason leave off,
Not omerta or duende, rising in their spotted coffins,
Or the viola oblongata of the mind
In transitory conjecture, but coddled
With personalities sprinkled in the mix and moral
Authority becomes a baton passed betwixt
Temporary ships adrift in a sea of loathing, following
A shadow government broken from its mooring.
When Hitler's yacht was brought to America
There were those inclined to break it apart
And sell the splinters to curiosity-seekers,
Moribund or morbid, to feel the countertop
Where Eva Braun's bare tush had shifted
While the Fuhrer lashed himself, literal
And figurative, to the airtight mast.
Others wanted to let loose the rope and let
It drift out to the deep, out of view, left
To the natural destructive elements where
Fate's hand waves the wand and no indiscriminate
Slaughter is ever detected on the media's halcyon radar.
The Secret War Of Art
(for Robert West)
We will never be ready for it
When it comes. My first gig
I sat on the front pew
At the funeral of a man
I barely knew, the details
Are vague as the sun, his face,
What can I say, mother paid me
25 bucks to sing Amazing Grace.
The secret war of art, more flames.
Falling in love with cool mountain
Music, America's periodic flirtation
With bluegrass has stirred Ralph
Stanley from his death march
And he sang to us what lay
Ahead, in broken tones, his voice
Full of rock clefts and
Sheer cliff shimmy holes,
The dead lift spared over
For another year. The aesthetics
Of improvisation cannot be
Practiced. Before is over
And performance is now.
There is no blueprint or
Mirror, no body clock to
Measure the centrifugal
Force and uncertain ratios
Of Art. It cannot be eaten
Or taxed, this mad culpable
Need to see an audience sweat,
Like Miles struggling to regain
His voice as his embouchure
Atrophied, or Chet, with his teeth
Beaten out, or Beethoven molding
Notes as the wind tunnel closed
Around him. Finding your own
Story is like trying to change a tire
Underwater, a stubbed-toe sort of cry,
An emergency, like being forced
At gunpoint to compose the melody
Of your life. We need to put everything
In, singing or making love, like Art
Tatum played piano, hard, fast, and
Unusual, with all virtuosity pushed
Into the reckless transitions from
Bridge to chorus, scorched earth
Harmonies and family secrets,
Mutability, the constant consolation.
Art is tropism, flattening the artificial
Paradise and cannot help itself, holding
Onto the air and whispering remedies,
With Death perched at the dining table
And the walls contending that you are
Utterly alone, but the fire, suspended
In its iron box, pretends otherwise,
Hissing signs and signifiers, the secret
War of Art, contradicting the dead steel
Case and the grave's rectangle, the sons
Bearing the weight of their mystic cargo.
On its rim the black heirs lurk and say
How stately the dead look, with perfect
Composure and chin placed just so,
Invisible symphonies sorted out and
Dignified as a camel, ready to face
Whatever comes next, so the motionless
Artist, eager to know, lies and waits.
Some men sing as they leave
This earth, ringing their hosannahs,
Others, blown inward by listening,
Slip into the sky's quiet knot,
Claiming never to have heard a thing.
Keith Flynn is the author of three collections of poetry: The Talking Drum (1991), The Book of Monsters(1994), and The Lost Sea (Iris Press, 2000). From1987 to 1998, he was lyricist and lead singer for the nationally acclaimed rock band The Crystal Zoo, which produced three albums: "Swimming Through Lake Eerie" (1992), "Pouch" (1996), and the spoken-word and music compilation, "Nervous Splendor" (Animal Records, 2003). His poetry has appeared in many journals and anthologies, including The Colorado Review, The Cuirt Journal(Ireland), Word and Witness: 100 Years of North Carolina Poetry, Poetry Wales, Rattle, The Southern Poetry Review, Shenandoah, and Crazyhorse. He has been awarded the Sandburg Prize for poetry, the ASCAP Emerging Songwriter Prize, the Paumanok Poetry Award and has received numerous Pushcart nominations. Flynn is the founder and managing editor ofThe Asheville Poetry Review. He has two books forthcoming: a collection of poems entitled The Golden Ratio (Iris Press, 2006) and a collection of essays, The Rhythm Method, Razzmatazz and Memory: How To Make Your Poetry Swing (Writer's Digest Books, 2007).
August 15-21, 2005: Pat Riviere-Seel
I first met Pat Riviere-Seel when she entered the low residency MFA program at Queens University, in Charlotte. It was the program's first year, first semester. How lucky we were to have her. As I got to know Pat's poems, I knew this was a voice to be reckoned with. Her poems were both sensuous and sensual, poems that both talk and sing. And always there is that moment in each poem when whatever happens next could be both life-giver and destroyer.
One of the things I admire most about her poems is her deftness with language that is both fearless and elegant. Hers is a world where contradiction thrives. It is a world of loss and yet a world that finds great joy and satisfaction in the moment. Riviere-Seel moves easily between subjects as distant and mystical as the constellation Ursa Major and as mundane as the chore of hanging a ceiling fan. Her poems often take us into risky places -- scenes of illicit love, places where nature reveals itself in all its beauty and its potential terror: where trees close their fingers into fists; where humans coil ready to sink . . . fangs into kindness.
Her cleverness with language is revealed time and time again. What an honor to have had Pat Riviere-Seel as a student at Queens. What a double honor when, soon after her graduation, she returned to read from her impressive first book, No Turning Back Now. - Cathy Smith Bowers
Cathy Smith Bowers is the author of three books of poems: The Love That Ended Yesterday in Texas (Texas Tech University Press, 1992); Traveling In Time of Danger(Iris Press, 1999); and A Book of Minutes (Iris Press, 2004). She teaches in the low-residency MFA program at Queens University of Charlotte and lives in Tryon.
Sometimes at dusk you walk
across the forest's edge, driven
by your need for food. I love
the graceful way you sway
your massive size along the ridge.
How would it feel to run
my hands through your coarse fur?
Stroke your face, so like mine,
yet lacking guile? The sky was still
streaked pink the day you lumbered down
straight toward the house. I stood
electrified by your bold move. Great
paws tumbled garden stones
in search of grubs. You sniffed, rejected
shrubs, preferring tender lilac leaves.
Closer, ever closer, with deliberate gait
you moved until you drew beside me,
your face no further from my own
than a shy lover at the door.
A pane of glass, wooden blinds
between us. You heaved your body
within my reach, each pungent breath
a sigh. I seemed to feel your warmth.
Like a savage newly saved
in fearless ecstasy I blazed.
You wove through nodding ferns,
and back again to where I stood
silent as evening prayer. Without
acknowledgement, you swung around,
stepped down into the yard and turned.
As if expecting something more,
you glanced back. My eyes met yours.
Satisfied, you disappeared into the dark.
Nights I search the northern sky
for your bright beauty twice transformed,
safe now with your son,
forever efflorescent light.
Morning Run Through Oakwood
Everything has changed but the Krispy Kreme -
Thirty years on the same corner. The houses gleam
with fresh coats of high rent and gunmetal gray.
The house I once rented has shed its aquamarine.
Now a sedentary sable, its Oak Grove accents blend among the Maize,
Supreme and Bradley greens; the Farewell blues.
I too have cleaned up my act, traded cigarettes
for running shoes. Scared straight when Len Bias died,
I've stayed drug-free.
Harvey gave up his garden,
moved in with his lover. No one noticed
until the Holiday Home Tour.
About time, was all the neighborhood matriarch said.
She'll outlive us all, except maybe the Civil War era oaks -
no one left to verify their longevity.
Seymour couldn't save himself - cashed in his life insurance -
bought another six months, someone else's miracle cure.
George didn't marry Carole. I did marry Steve and survived
four years in New Jersey, another country.
Now it's a new century
and the smell of melted sugar pulls me through the streets
in pink-gray dawn. Housecats on front porches
stretch and yawn. A full moon clings to the western sky
and Crepe Myrtles spread their roots beneath buckling sidewalks,
their billowing canopies hovering
above cracked concrete. I find my second wind, sprint
toward the white, red and green neon.
Careful not to break my mother's back, I fall
in love all over again.
You'll always be the man I think I see
standing by the subway tracks
just long enough for me to wonder
could I dash down the stairs, shout
your name, catch you there, before
the doors slide shut. I watched you
wait for me in restaurant bars. I loved
the way you sat, straight and square -
composed like a calm and patient man.
I made bets with myself on just how long
before you spotted me. Near the end
you seemed to sense me there outside
the opened door. We left drinks,
dinners barely touched. Like orchids
we lived on air. Our breath silvered
windows, disappeared like ghosts.
All night we tended our exotic garden,
our own bruised lives suspended
until morning when we left lush rows
of rented sheets, picked our separate ways
blind and betrayed by sundrunk dawn.
In the Kitchen
From where I sit I see the paring knife,
your hand peeling a Winesap.
I watch a seamless spiral fall,
the measured way you carve red peel,
how it curls, drops away. You hum
some song I've heard but cannot name,
your contentment self-contained.
I wonder if you even know I watch,
amazed how casually you use
hands that pull me close.
I hate to see you with a knife,
it makes me think
how easily you could cut
the heart right out of me.
At the Dock
Before sunset, just before
the orange ball falls
from the trees' leafy arms,
just as the last day-trippers, bronzed,
blistered and sun-soaked, motor
into the dock and tie up, a man drives
a blue sedan down to the boat ramp,
stops dead center at the top
as if waiting for a friend to come in.
Hoisting his substantial bulk
up from the driver's seat, he stands
gazing into the water as if reading
oil slicks. Cranky kids hop from boat
to dock and back again. No one's
making small talk and even the sun
seems ready to go home. We're all trying
to ignore the blue-jeaned linebacker
in his shiny, snakeskin cowboy boots.
He pulls out a pack of smokes, matches,
lights a Marlboro, draws in deep,
and blows the smoke out easy.
Flicking the half-smoked cigarette,
he turns, ambles around the car,
and pushes hard on the trunk
like he's blocking a tackle.
The car creeps down the ramp,
picks up speed and noses into the water.
The man slaps his hands together twice.
Water covers the roof, bubbles hiccup
from the surface and no one speaks,
No one stirs. He wheels around,
heads back from whence he came,
two-inch heels clicking over the crest of asphalt.
Maybe he saunters home and sits alone, smoking
in the dark, ignoring calls from a former lover -
Or maybe he's smugly thinking how he fixed
that clunker that never would run right.
Maybe he answers the phone, says
sure, baby, you can have the car.
Pat Riviere-Seel's first collection of poems, No Turning Back Now (from which the first four poems presented here are drawn) was published last year and nominated for a Pushcart Prize by Finishing Line Press. Her poems have appeared in numerous literary journals, including Main Street Rag, which published "At the Dock" in 2003. She is the president of the North Carolina Poetry Society and serves on the board of the Poetry Council of North Carolina. A former journalist, she teaches poetry writing through UNC-Asheville's Great Smokies Writing Program and the College for Seniors at UNC-A. She is a native of Shelby and holds and an MFA in Creative Writing from Queens University of Charlotte and a BA from North Carolina State University. She lives in Asheville with her husband, two cats, and dog.
A Note from Pat Riviere-Seel about the North Carolina Poetry Society:
The North Carolina Poetry Society is a nonprofit organization funded through membership dues ($25 per year/ $10 student rate) and contributions. Members receive a newsletter three times a year; a copy of Pinesong, a book of award-winning poems; and free entry in NCPS contests. We welcome new members.
NCPS is like a big extended family of poets and friends of poetry. Our mission is to promote the reading, writing, and enjoyment of poetry, and we're constantly looking for new ways to better serve the poetry community -- through educational programs, workshops, mentoring of student poets, contests, publications, opportunities for readings, and partnerships with other writers' organizations. Like many of our members, I came to the Poetry Society through a poet friend. When I walked into my first meeting at the Weymouth Center for the Arts and Humanities in Southern Pines, it felt like coming home. It's the people who love poetry and generously share that love who make the Poetry Society a vital organization. We have the distinction of being an all-volunteer organization, and have been since six poets began NCPS, in 1932. We've grown to more than 250 members who hold three meetings and the Sam Ragan Poetry Festival at Weymouth Center each year. We also sponsor annual meetings in the east, west, and central areas of the state. Our programs feature accomplished poets, such as our own state poet laureate, who was the featured poet two years ago at the Poetry Society's first "Mountain Gathering." Programs may also include workshops, craft talks, panel discussions, and readings. We also offer plenty of time for open mike. All meetings are free and open to the public, so join us! For more information, visit our website: www.sleepycreek.org/poetry
August 22-28, 2005: Peter Makuck
photo by Sherryl Janosko
Crossing the Causeway Bridge into Atlantic Beach and looking down, you might spot Peter Makuck in his Boston Whaler, fishing the sand bars and tidal flats or simply taking friends out for a swim. Makuck and his wife Phyllis live just a little further down on Bogue Banks, where they have made their home for the past nine years. Poet, essayist, and fiction writer, Makuck has edited the renowned Tar River Poetry for nearly all the 30 years that he has taught at East Carolina University, in Greenville. He is the author of five books of poetry and two collections of short stories. His new book of poems, Off Season in the Promised Land, will be published by BOA Editions in October, 2005.
In Makuck's poetry, physical know-how and literary thought are not separate but happily joined, as in “Tight,” his poem about repairing a chair and remembering a carpentry trick of his father's. Makuck is a learned man, with degrees in French and American literature. His talk is full of humor and graceful erudition. In his poetry--and perhaps a key to what makes it so true and convincing--lies an important connection to the natural and work-a-day worlds. Whether he is watching the ocean and listening to “its drunken repetitions” or sitting in a chair stroking a favorite cat purring “her one mantra,” Makuck offers us a powerful lyric sense of the things of the world and how they might speak to us. --John Balaban
John Balaban is the author of eleven books of poetry and prose, including four volumes that together have won The Academy of American Poets' Lamont prize, a National Poetry Series Selection, and two nominations for the National Book Award. His Locusts at the Edge of Summer: New and Selected Poems won the 1998 William Carlos Williams Award from the Poetry Society of America. In 2003, he was awarded a John Simon Guggenheim Fellowship. Mr. Balaban is Poet-in-Residence and Professor of English at North Carolina State University in Raleigh. In Spring, 2006, Copper Canyon Press will publish his new book of poems, entitled Path, Crooked Path.
All day the ocean's been burning
a cold blue that matches my mother's willowware,
the few cracked cups that I've kept.
And because there's a mood on the water
I've come along a path through the dunes
to listen to the ocean's drunken repetitions--