Last week I challenged myself to come up with ten first lines of a sonnet, which traditionally contains fourteen lines of ten syllables and five beats each.
And so I did do a bit of writing this week– I made this challenge public to nudge myself and maybe others to stop thinking about writing or not writing and to simply write. My inner Yoda prodded me to get my creative mind back in gear.
Not all of the lines below contain ten syllables, and probably not even one of them is iambic pentameter, but if anyone would like to use one of these to write their own poem, I leave it to you to revise and make it suit your purposes.
For more inspiration, as well as a reminder that you can forget prosody and meter, I suggest you check out “Notes on Walking Poetry” by Dave Bonta, who says, “To hell with the metrical foot. Free your verse and your mind will follow… at a walker’s pace.”
Ten Eleven First Lines
Some of these are found texts that I pieced together, others come from old diary entries.
O love! O chaos! O wind in the trees!
The instability of honey bees
I snatched a snippet of joy on the fly
A harsh light seeking some pallid shape
I opened my eyes to a blur of leaves
A ghost in the barely breathing silence
Walking through a cloud–droplets beaded my black wool
Today, I painted a tropical bird
I cried in the parking lot, my friend as witness
A family of deer stepped along a creek bed
Thunder shook the rain loose and then it cleared
If you decide to use one of these lines above, please let me know! Feel free to share in the comments section, or leave one of your own lines here and we can write a collaborative poem. If you drop me a line, I’ll respond in kind.
Ayurvedic medicine extols the benefits of absorbing the prana of open bodies of water. Not that I needed a nudge to swim and soak in mineral hot springs!
My husband and I have been going to Colorado for their hot springs for ten years now, although we missed going these last three year because of Covid.
There’s a lap pool filled with mineral water in the town we visited, and we walked there every day from the rental apartment. We swam laps and soaked in the “heart spring,” the source of the different pools that comes directly from the earth at 105 degrees.
The springs were once the traditional lands of the Ute Indians, who used to winter there. They understood very well the benefits of the spring water. Knowing they were forced from their land is present for me, and I often think of how different our world would be if the White settlers had tried to learn from the people who were there before them.
We also visited another hot springs that’s higher in the Rockies than the pools in town. It’s a rustic place situated at about 7,000 feet in a dip of the mountain chain on a dirt road.
The owners have built pools of different temperatures with rocks and boulders so that the cold river water can blend with the steaming hot springs that bubbles from the earth at 124 degrees.
My favorite way of experiencing the springs was to swim for 15 minutes in the cold water, which felt like it was maybe 65 or 70 degrees (people were saying it was 60 degrees, but I don’t think I’d have been able to swim that long in such cold water). After my cold water dip, I’d go to the 106 degree water and soak up to my neck like a Japanese snow monkey.
But the most healing practice I experienced there was Watsu massage. Watsu therapy combines the pressure point massage of Japanese shiatsu with submersion in 95 degree water. The water, close to body temperature, feels like bathing in silky air.
My therapist was a young woman who had studied Watsu in Hawaii. She explained her process while we were sitting in the lovely, open-air private pool surrounded with a stone wall. She worked with me in the beginning to practice blowing bubbles out my mouth while using a nose plug.
She explained that water represented the element of emotions, and asked me if I had any traumas or emotional upheavals I wanted to express, and as I told her the story of my recent depression, she tapped my forehead, ribs, and sternum. She then asked me to repeat a healing affirmation based on the story I told her.
Afterwards, she put floats on my legs and worked with me while holding me in her arms, face up. She created a powerful feeling of trust in me that allowed me to close my eyes and completely let go of any holding patterns in my body. Instructing me me to breathe through my heart space, she moved my body like a frayed rope through the warm water.
When I was completely loose and relaxed, we started the submersion part. She intuited how long she could keep me underwater without my needing to struggle. The feeling of retaining the breath and then taking in big gulps of fresh air through my mouth made me feel like a newborn.
I’m so grateful to Nechole for her healing touch and her wise words. Watsu helped me forget about my thinking self for an hour.
When I went back for a second session she asked me if I had learned anything from our first time in the water, and I said, “Well, I wanted to write about it, but I just didn’t have the energy.”
She asked me if I had seen any spiders recently, and I said, yes, I had found one in the bathtub. She said that writing is the medicine of spiders because they spin webs, and that maybe I should heed the sign. She also told me about Aunt Ninny, the nagging voice inside all of us that holds us back from creating or expressing ourselves.
I saw a spider yesterday on my bed, and I wrapped it in tissue and let it go in the bushes. Aunt Ninny is having her iced tea on the front porch, and I’m on the back porch, writing a wee bit, making my way back to wholeness.
Even though my house is surrounded by trees, it’s still in the suburbs. For some reason, folks around here feel the need to use gas-powered blowers to clear their driveways, which often prevents me from enjoying the morning on my back porch.
Mornings are hot and humid in metro Atlanta. I can tolerate the heat until about ten o’clock, but after that, it’s uncomfortable unless you remain absolutely still and are under a ceiling fan.
Just two hours north, however, the temperature drops a good ten degrees. My sisters and I sat on a cabin porch in rocking chairs and observed woodpeckers, tree climbers, black-eyed Susans and blossoming rhododendrons. For much of the time, I was in a meditative state of rest, rocking and breathing in the sweet air.
There’s a two-mile path around the lake that my lovely teenage niece, my sisters, and I walked a few times.
My youngest sister, a journalist and nature lover, was keen to find mushrooms, and she did! She spied a handful of bright, saffron-colored chanterelles, although she gave me a little fright the way she scrambled down a hillside to photograph them.
She pointed out a kingfisher, a pileated woodpecker, and a score of other plants.
My middle sister is a mystic, an adept meditation practitioner in the tradition of Parmahansa Yogananda, an artist, and a raw food enthusiast. She prepared a delicious vegan lunch and dinner for me every day we were there, a true gift for me as I recover from depression.
My mom and her husband traveled from their home about thirty minutes away, and they hiked with us to Ana Ruby Falls. My mother is about to turn 83, and she set the pace for us up the mountain. She’s in better hiking shape than I am!
The cool air from the falls, under a canopy of poplars, hickory, oaks, and rhododendron, was a healing balm. My sisters and I realized after being there that three days was not enough time.
The bee balm I planted this past April is in full bloom, and the bees are take greedy delight in it. The flowers are right next to a stone retaining wall, and when it’s shady, I love to sit there and watch the multitudes gyrating among the blossoms. It’s meditative and restorative as outside time suspends and I enter the bees’ eternal present.
There have been cataclysmic disruptions in the U.S. that have shaken many of us, if not most of us, to our core. It’s been hard to grapple with the demise of women’s reproductive and bodily rights as I also am healing from depression.
One of my sisters, a journalist, went to observe a protest in Atlanta, but I do not have energy to participate in these demonstrations. I’ve got to focus on restoring my nervous system, and gardening is one way I’ve been able to do that.
My backyard is completely wooded with no grass, just oak and hickory saplings trying to reach through the canopy of eighty-year old tulip poplars.
We lost a giant post oak in our front yard in a lightning storm about twelve years ago, which opened up a small patch of sunlight, and there I’ve cultivated a variety of plants, all perennials.
There are three blueberry bushes that yield a fair amount of fruit, which I leave for the birds. The cardinals, jays, and wrens feast among the branches in June.
I planted a brown turkey fig a few years ago that still doesn’t produce much fruit, but I do love looking at the sunlight filtering through its broad, fat leaves.
Yesterday it was a bit cooler in the morning than it has been, so I spent a few hours pulling up my nemesis, an invasive species called chamber bitter. If you see a patch of this weed, yank it up immediately! It’s also called gripe weed, a another good name for my garden nemesis.
Chamber bitter is almost impossible to control without herbicide, and I have used a tiny bit of a homemade concoction of salt, soap, and vinegar on a few spots. Mostly, though, I pull the weeds up by the roots, venting my rage and grief as I go.
I’m including this poem below to show how gardening and time outdoors works its way into my poems. My life is fairly boring if watched from the outside––it’s the small observations that accumulate and fuse with a certain feeling that end up becoming poems.
Eve Clears Her Garden
Spring forced no life from the apple tree so we took it down, dragging crown and trunk to the yard for the boys to chop into logs. Then the soil–taproots thick as wrists, severed with pickax and machete, rocks and clay loosened with tines of hoe and pitchfork. Leaves, sheaves of them bleaching under this year’s brown ones, peeled away. Worms slid through sleek mud as blade tips carved nearby. From a tide of mulch, pale as a sprig of thyme, a snake flashed its stripes like a dart, and I dropped the spade.
There is flawless blue where the tree once reached. Verbena and asters now pink the hill instead of old geometries, those leafless branches. A sphinx moth, some kind of flying serpent, takes wary sips from milkweed, then phlox, then flies in my direction, as if to reach the pith of me and my temptation. The urge is to coax seedlings into vines, to answer the call of minstrel goldfinch, to open my heart’s hive and free the bees that seem to buzz between each breath, each rib.
(Republished here from my poetry collection, Swimming This, with FutureCycle Press, 2015)
Diary entry, Madrid, International Pride Weekend, 2017
Tourist lunch at three o’clock on the terrace, but I’m not alone—a Russian to my right speaks to me in Spanish–Rusia es un infierno, allá a no se puede ser gay. He tells me of sinister ears that listen for echoes of forbidden love, their switchblades ready to shiv a body. But all of this is far away. Today, we pilgrims dine on scallops in their shells, watercress salad, and peach gazpacho as the sky parades across the Gran Vía, an awning of cobalt blue over buildings white as wedding cake, cornices creamy as flan. Love’s on all the billboards and gold armored Super Woman straddles the bus stop, so much iridescence, I forget my fractured foot. We mambo through rainbows laced along the Retiro and two-step into the Garden of Earthly Delights, where swallows burst through pink eggshells and Adam plops down as though stupefied on the grass. God, dressed in red velvet robes, stares at us as he holds Eve’s wrist and takes her pulse. We shed our clothes— drag queens expose their statuesque torsos, and I reveal my pale potbelly, my breasts like empty soup bowls. Here, shame has drifted out to sea in a soap bubble. Naked together, we are whippoorwills circling fountains frothing with limonada, sangría, tinto de verano. We are owls with pineapples on our heads, symbolizing nothing, fizzing with delight.
In honor of Pride Month, I’m posting this poem that I wrote a few years ago after returning from my second camino in Spain.
The poem is based on real life events in Madrid, and also the painting by Hieronymus Bosch, a tryptic that encompasses heaven, hell, and earthly paradise.
If I can ever get myself to focus and complete this project, the plan is to place this poem at the end of my manuscript about the camino. It’s shaping up to be a nice size for a chapbook, about 28 pages of poems written in the epistolary style and consisting of letters, messages, notes, and diary entries.
I love the poems in this manuscript, and I really need to finish the project and bring it to fruition. It’s more fun to keep making new poems, but it’s not fair to the work to keep it squirreled away in drawers and on my laptop.
I hope you like this poem. It’s central message is to live with delight and for shame to “drift out to sea in a soap bubble.”
Be proud of your way of loving. No one can tell you how or who to love. And know that if you’re reading this poem and identify as LGBTQIA, which is probably most of the entire world, I am sending you love through this poem!
Look here, the tree says. There is a path, a road Winding toward a cabin Deep in a shadowy forest. Finding the glowing pine Is not enough. I need to travel Down the winding road To the decrepit cabin Full of cobwebs, broken boards. Even deeper, I need to go, Below the foundation, Down to the level of packed dirt, Down to the damp, dark place Where memories sleep in fits, Pushing like roots in the soil.
I’ve kept a log of my dreams for years and years, ever since I was a teenager, but lately my nightly visions have slipped away from my conscious mind.
As is my custom, I keep a notebook next to my bed where each night I write, “I want to remember my dreams tonight,” or something to that effect.
If no dream is in my mind when I wake, I write, “No dream tonight.” I have a long list of many nights in a row with not even a fragment to hold.
I’m wondering if my inner dream maker is feeling neglected, because I have had several vivid images come to me in dream form during the last year, but I haven’t really paid them any mind.
So now I’m breathing life into the dreams (at least I hope), by drawing and writing about them. This particular dream came to me in the winter, before my mother-in-law died.
I have a recurring image that includes this cabin in the above drawing, and often this place is *Katherine’s cottage* in the dream.
In life, every summer we used to go to her house in the countryside of West Stockbridge, Mass. It was tucked into a sort of tree-lined grotto at the end of a circular gravel drive, a short distance away from a brook.
But this dream cabin always appears as a secret place my husband and I had forgotten about. It sometimes shows up as *Katherine’s first cottage* where she has been living far away in the deep forest, like a fairytale witch.
I don’t like to over analyze my dreams, but it does give me a sense of wholeness when I invite the dream images into my art. I’ll leave it to the reader to decide what the cabin would mean if it were your dream, or the tree, as well.
I wrote this poem in 2019 after the Georgia State Assembly passed a law that would criminalize all abortions after a so-called fetal heartbeat was detected in an ultrasound.
Camatkarasana, roughly translated as Wild Thing, is a sort of one armed backbend that one of my yoga teacher enjoys guiding us toward.
She has a unique way of describing what is going on inside the body and how to harness that energy toward achieving greater strength in the pose. It’s a difficult pose to achieve and requires strength, flexibility, and confidence, but once you do achieve the pose, the body becomes flooded with energy.
My heart is very heavy with sadness for women now that the leaked draft opinion to overturn Roe v. Wade has been published. We ARE wild things, strong and capable of determining what happens to our own bodies. I’m filled with fury that forces in our society want to take this right away from us.
In his book about the Buddhist concept of impermanence, the late Thich Nhat Hanh tells a story about how his mother was pregnant before him but lost that pregnancy. He asks, “Am I that same baby, or am I someone different?”
In keeping with the Buddhist concept of impermanence, he reasons that he is the same but also different, just like a bulb that blossoms, and then withers, and then blossoms again the following year.
Thich Nhaht Hanh’s teachings are not so different from the story of a Chicago abortion rights organizer and NGO administrator who told her twin seven-year-old boys that she had had an abortion before being pregnant with them. They interpreted the story in their own way by saying, ”Mommy was pregnant before us and then she made herself unpregnant so that we could be born.”
The activist’s words resonated with me, as she explained that the abortion she had when she was not ready to have a child made it possible for her to give birth to her twin sons. Is it really anyone else’s business what choices she needed to make? I’m beyond exhausted that we are still having to explain ourselves to men and to justify the decisions we make for our own physical and mental wellbeing.
My heart is heavy that I live in a society that does not value women in equal measure as it does men. I’m a poet, not an activist, and my nervous system is not prepared right now to take to the streets. But I will support everyone who does!
Although I haven’t been posting them on his blog, I have written several new poems during the last two years, some of them directly about the pandemic.
I think most poems sort of slip their meanings into the reader’s mind without plainly stating their focus, but this one that I’m sharing is my recollections of the pandemic as they occurred.
Last year at this time I took a Zoom writing workshop with poet Tina Mozelle Braziel, which was all about recording our experiences of the pandemic. She stressed the importance of relating our experiences as a way to express our collective impressions of this upheaval in our lives.
Everyone who has lived through the pandemic has their own story to tell, and I hope to read others’ impressions as we emerge from our covid cocoons.
We Tried to Name Our Sorrows Until We Learned This Is What the Living Feel
We were all in it together, we went it alone.
We attended funerals, weddings, bar mitzvahs
concerts, conferences, basketball games,
still ignorant of the aspirated particles in our midst.
We washed our hands to the Happy Birthday song
until we didn’t know the two red crab claws
creeping from our rolled up sleeves.
We doom-scrolled Twitter for signs of relief.
@Honeycomb said, Smear cow udder ointment,
wear cotton gloves to bed to ease torn cuticles.
We scoured surfaces with lye, sprayed germ killer, isopropyl alcohol,
witch hazel, essential oils.
We tried to ignore the sick feeling when we flushed toxins into water streams.
We opened windows and turned on fans.
We wore bandanas, gaiters, balaclavas, repurposed bras
over our mouths and noses.
We dreamed of surgical masks and dining in public
rooms with barefaced others.
We dreamed of dark passages, of driving into oncoming traffic.
We became survivalists, conspiracy theorists, kooks.
We followed directions–one way for pasta aisle, another for bakery.
Flour and yeast disappeared off shelves. Frozen pizzas,
beans, toilet paper–only two per household allowed.
When meat and chicken thinned out, the tyrant ordered
factory workers back on the job, no hazard pay, crammed
together breathing the same tainted air among the carcasses.
We watched the numbers ticking up state by state.
We were told it would disappear by Easter.
We were told it’s just a little flu.
We were told to ingest bleach and hydroxychloroquin.
We were told it came from a pangolin sold in a wet market.
We were told it was someone else’s fault.
We were told to blame the liberals, the Chinese, the Antifascists,
the scientists, the doctors, the governors of states.
We were told to stay at home.
We were told to open things up.
We parked our cars in bread lines at stadiums until we ran out of gas.
We donated to food pantries, gave out twenty-dollar bills
to people holding cardboard signs.
We spotted folks cash for Uber rides, helped family pay rent.
We made mushroom soup and discovered adaptogens.
We boosted our immune systems.
We stopped hearing cars and trucks whining above the canopy of birds.
We saw satellite photos of smog clearing over Beijing, Tokyo, Mexico City.
We saw Dolphins swimming in the turquoise canals of Venice.
We crooned ballads of gratitude on balconies at sunset.
We danced to Despacito on rooftops in the fresh air, planted
tomatoes and basil in pots.
We remembered the before times, the Himalayan salt caves
with mediums and the angels they channeled,
with zero gravity chairs, meditations
moon circles with candles, the bay leaves and crystals we buried,
rituals we continued in solitude.
We protested in the streets and declared Black Lives Matter.
We lost friendships. We stayed in touch. We cut ties.
We lost our elders, our beloveds.
We drew ourselves into storyboards that chronicled our inner journeys.
We consorted with the lions, gators, and dodos of our imagination.
We read tarot, runes, oracle cards, the stars.
We cut out silhouettes of acrobats and jugglers in gold paper.
We ate popcorn for dinner in the dark on the back porch.
We drank cheap wine from Trader Joe’s.
We scrounged around for cannabis brownies in places
where it wasn’t legal to consume.
We forgot what days and months were.
We lived inside a shaft of light.
We lived inside a leaf floating to ground.
We lived inside a wilted amaryllis blossom turned the color of a bruise.
* * *
“Wild Thing” or “Reading the Newspaper” by L. Kleysteuber, used with permission of the artist.
It’s the first day of September and back-to-school season. Even though I retired from teaching, I’m filled with that back-to-school determination to make a fresh start with my writing practice and to take my art making more seriously.
It’s also Virgo season, a time for ordering my little universe of precarious stacks of books heaped all over my writing/yoga/study/art room.
On her blog Write More, Be Less Careful, poet and writing professor Nancy Reddy is starting an eight-week program (free!) to help writers like me accomplish and produce more.
Our task for this week is to set quantifiable and qualifiable goals.
Here are mine:
Write for twenty minutes a day every day in the mornings, BEFORE I do the NYT Spelling Bee because I’m too obsessive to stop before I reach *genius* level, which can take over an hour unless I cheat, which I sometimes do.
Read poetry and poetry-related articles every day, rather than newspapers and magazines. As William Carlos Williams says in his poem “Asphodel, that greeny flower,”
It is difficult
to get the news from poems
yet men die miserably every day
of what is found there.
Commit to writing one blog post a week. This practice will keep me accountable, even if no one else reads what I write, and since I truly enjoy writing, it’s not a chore but rather a delight.
you seek the garden a place where the wind will inform you you are acquainted with a tempest of passion
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.