Erasure Poems and the Pandemic

Wuthering 111
a found tarot reading

you seek the garden
a place where
the wind will inform you
you are acquainted with
a tempest of passion
Wuthering 111

My trip to the library in April for an outdoor community poetry workshop has continued to inspire me.

As many evenings as possible, I get out my work bag full of scraps of text from the librarian’s packet, and I begin to search for poems.

While I skim the text, I also allow my feelings to make themselves known, and lately what comes to the surface is worry about what some people close to my heart are going through, especially as we are nearing the end of the pandemic.

I also feel the strain of resistance. Four years of resisting the tyrant, starting with the Women’s March in 2017 and the activism I engaged in through demonstrations and letter writing. My body has aches and pains all over from holding stress.

I make collage art and found poems with watercolors and Mod Podge. My little chapbooks are therapeutic for processing my journey through this tunnel of time.

Foxes, Archetypes, and Escape

Lately I’ve been thinking about foxes. While walking my dog Red through the neighborhood, we saw (or smelled from Red’s point of view) a fox sunning itself in the middle of the street with a carefree attitude. It lifted its hind leg to scratch an ear as we approached. The mail carrier driving by said he sees that fox and others regularly in different parts of the neighborhood.

A large tract of farmland adjacent to our suburban street was sold a few years ago. A sizable woodland was plowed over and turned into another subdivision, so many of the animals that used to live there have had to migrate. In the last week or so I’ve encountered, wild turkeys, coyotes, Canada geese, mallard ducks, and now, this fox.

My good friend, probably the one friend who has helped me the most to get through this pandemic in a creative and soulful way, taught a few of us how to draw a fox, and as usual, I combined my drawing with words and images inspired from archetype decks.

Fox as shapeshifter, shaman, an elusive, cunning, trickster
A more traditional fox combined with the archetype “Myth”

In western folktales, the fox is often depicted as the villain who violates the hen house, or else the concept is applied to women as “foxy ladies” in songs.

I’ve read a bit about the Japanese tales of the kitsune, and a while back I wrote this poem below that incorporates one of kitsune stories. It doesn’t feel like a finished piece to me, and I’ve since poached lines from it to include in other poems, but it does speak to a certain desire I’ve always had to journey on my own, to enter the wilderness of the world as a solo entity without protection from the structures of society.

The Fox Wife Leaves Her Husband a Note On the Kitchen Table

How to explain this need to flee our home.
She might have entered the half-moons of my fingernails
Or could it be that, when I unzipped my human sheath
To find her in my body, she had always lived here.
When the dog bared its teeth and growled
You laughed it off, but she, the one inside me,
Stopped eating. Sleepless, she stares
At the silhouette of pine branches under the moonlight,
blue-black fan of needles on the hard snow.
I've asked her not to leave, this fox inside me,
but once a dog bites, it doesn’t forget the taste of blood. I’ve left milk and rice for you and the boy.
Remember to make a paste of his meat before you feed him.
One night, I might return, if the vixen in me desires.

What I Need Is More Yoga

Tree in tree pose

Tree in tree pose

When I woke up yesterday morning the light in the room was still dim. The closed door, stained dark walnut, looked like an open portal, a deep black tunnel.

At the end of yoga class yesterday afternoon, when our teacher said to allow the mind to go into the deeper states of consciousness, this ink black portal, a door made of shadows, opened before me once again.

Corpse pose is a preparation for death, not a moment to fear, but rather a letting go. I slide into the velvety, warm blackness, this state of consciousness where poetry is born.

Keeping the Camino Alive

On a physical level, the best outcome of my pilgrimage is that after 22 years I have been able to go off anti-depressants. 

I don’t mean to judge anyone who takes SSRIs, not at all. We are all trying to figure out what our lives mean and how best to live.  

It wasn’t the Camino alone that helped me ween myself off them. I also had the help of a mind-body therapist who continues to offer suggestions for passing through anxiety and panic, the two main symptoms of the depression I have experienced off and on since childhood. 

If the medications work, then take them. But after more than two decades on various SSRIs, I had fluctuating blood pressure and strange head rushes that led to near fainting, symptoms that have now disappeared since I went off the medication. 

I attribute my peace of mind to the days and days of spending six to eight hours outdoors, walking and meditating. Even though the heat in Georgia can be unbearable, I continue to walk.

Each day is a new challenge in maintaining a balance of body, mind, and spirit. I’m tottering on a fragile tightrope of sanity, but walking and writing continue to be my medicine. 

   
    
    
    
   
Yesterday’s hike:

About 8 or 9 miles, from Burnt Hickory Road to Dallas Highway at Kennesaw Battlefield Park, then on to the visitor’s center and back to Burnt Hickory.

Creatures I noticed:

Dragonflies, ants, butterflies, various birds, including two giant vultures, a wee toad, about the size of my thumb pad, a chipmunk, many squirrels.

I stood still and listened to the cicadas in the trees and the grasshoppers in the tall grass. There was very little breeze, and the trees were still and silent, their leaves dry and weary from the heat. The noise from the highway and the passing trains at times overpowered the silence of the woods.  

It was a heavy, humid trek. I encouraged myself to keep walking by remembering the way I felt toward the end of my walks on the Camino–with sore feet and tired legs, I still managed to make it up those steep inclines. You can do this, I told myself. 

AWP Recap

I’m one of the 10,000 plus who descended upon Seattle and the Washington State Convention Center for AWP, the Association of Writers and Writing Programs. And here I am back at home, thank God, but in bed with a terrible cold.

The best part of going to Seattle was seeing my friends and getting to explore a new city with them. It’s ironic that the majority of folks I spoke to at the conference are writer friends who live in Atlanta, people I could see almost any time, except for two who now live in Colorado and Tennessee, respectively.

Coming home with a cold has clouded my view of the whole event. What stands out about the conference are the rows of very similar tables and booths at the book fair, the very similar journals that publish very similar poems, the masses of writers churning up the four levels of escalators, lines for the the public bathrooms, and all those hands touching the railings. I must have touched the wrong railing.

But wait. I AM letting the cold spoil my memories. There was the very pleasant experience of meeting the editor of Pilgrimage, a beautiful magazine from Colorado State. And then there was the sip of Wild Turkey at the excellent Birmingham Poetry Review table. District Lit represented, without the backup budget of a university to foot the bill, as did Sundog Lit.

I had a nice chat with the managing editor of the New England Review, a fellow Middlebury alumna (I’m from the Language Schools, not quite as Midd as the four-year undergrads).

And I got to meet for the second time the wonderful and talented Anya Silver, who signed my copy of her latest collection, I Watched You Disappear. More on this moving and powerful book in another post.

Of the hundreds of panels and readings I only attended two, but they were both superb. One was a panel of poets whose work is included in the anthology of devotional poetry, Before the Door of God, which is now on my to-read list. Mary Szybist read a poem about her mother that had everyone weeping. I was looking forward to hearing her since I had recently read her book Incarnadine, winner of the 2013 National Book Award in poetry. She read like an angel, as if she were transmitting the voice of Mary herself.

The other panel I attended was a moving tribute to poet, essayist, and literary entrepreneur Kurt Brown. His wife, poet Laure-Anne Bosselaar, read one of Kurt Brown’s final poems, a short lyric about his last kiss that he never gave her, that is still inside of him. We were all wiping our eyes.

I was in Seattle only two and a half days, not even enough time to adjust to the time change between the Pacific Northwest and Atlanta. So I am grateful for the chance to have run around the city with my friends, to have seen Pike Place Market, and to get to know a few new journals. I don’t know if I will attend the conference next year, though. I might prefer a writers’ festival of no more than a few hundred. Maybe a retreat is more what I need.

Spirit Hawk

A hawk lifts from the pines and flies toward me across the lake.

It lands on the grassy slope next to where I’m sitting on a blanket.

The hawk grows in size, becoming bigger than I am.

Its eye dominates my field of vision.

I ask the hawk a question about how I should proceed,

and in answer it flies away, back toward the pines.

I try to follow it, but as I reach the middle of the lake,

the hawk dissolves into the sunlight.

HawkMy drawing of the hawk from my visualization.

Day four, five-minute mindful writing, a small stone for Writing Our Way Home. 

New Year’s Eve Mindfulness

Pale sunlight through the Norfolk pine at the window casts dappled shadows on the woven rug.

Red and Duffy spar in this arena, wisps of dog hair flying from their coats in the shafts of light.

Duffy yelps like a quacking duck, either from exertion or joy.

Red takes a fold of the carpet in his teeth and tugs.

They rest a moment, shoring up energy like warriors from an episode of Dragonball Z. And then the games begin again.

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Banana Muffins

Tomorrow a double batch of banana muffins will bake themselves into existence. And then they will be devoured. And they will never know what they have been or where they have gone. Poor little muffins.

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Sylvia Plath Biography

Halfway through Bitter Fame, a Life of Sylvia Plath by Anne Stevenson, I can say that although she does not paint as sympathetic a portrait of Plath as does Alexander in Rough Magic, she does get to the inner struggles Plath experienced that led to her poetic apotheosis in a more acute way.

Alexander had access to Sylvia’s mother while writing his biography, but he was writing blindly, because Ted Hughes did not allow him to view Sylvia’s letters or journals.

Hughes’s sister, Olwyn Hughes, worked with Stevenson and allowed her to quote extensively from Plath’s journals and letters.

Plath’s letters to her mother, as one might expect, give an optimistic report of Plath’s active social life and hard work at Smith and later at Cambridge, while her journal entries show she had an active, healthy sex life that unfortunately plagued her.

Part of Plath’s problem lay in her inability to reconcile her “swing from violent vampire to virtuous nun,” as Anne Stevenson writes (28).

The controversy around Plath’s life and death centers around her relationship with Ted Hughes. Obviously, she had an artistic temperament and was ambitious to the extreme. At the same time she was conformist and wanted to raise a family like her mother did.

Even though I was born three decades after Plath, I understand her ambivalence about motherhood, art, sexuality, and a career.

But her angst and passion led her to explore or flirt with death. She was too impatient to find out what lay beyond the moon at night.

Of course the shock of losing Hughes would have brought about a despair she couldn’t find a way to exit, but reading her Ariel poems, one realizes she was in the throes of a Dionysian fury that went beyond Hughes.

In the end, casting the blame for her death on Hughes means nothing. There are only the poems, which are as grand and sharp as polished steel.

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Joy Harjo

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I had the good fortune to attend both a reading and a workshop given by poet, musician, and writer Joy Harjo.

She came to the 41st annual Agnes Scott Writers Festival as a poetry judge, and she chose my work as the winning poem.

In the Agnes Scott theater, Harjo enchanted the audience with her poems, her children’s story, excerpts from her newly launched memoir, and Polynesian songs she sang and played on a ukelele.

Although the reading was joyous and celebratory, there was an undercurrent of mourning, because Joy Harjo had dedicated the night to her poet mentor and friend, Adrienne Rich.

The next day the poetry finalists met with Ms. Harjo to talk about our poems. She asked us to share what we thought were areas where we could strengthen our work, and she offered suggestions for revisions.

She admitted to the group that she was very much saddened by the passing of Adrienne Rich, and that the previous night’s dedication to her beloved mentor had taken a good deal of emotional energy.

She encouraged us to accept that death is real and that young poets should not succumb to the allure of suicide, as many poets and artists have done in decades past.

Of course, I am not a younger poet. I am a newly public writer who is not young. But some of the other finalists were in undergraduate writing programs, and a few of their poems were quite melancholy. It was good for all of us to hear Harjo’s wise words.