After the Pilgrimage, We Enter the Garden of Earthly Delights


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.

––Christine Swint

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.

The Garden of Earthly Delights by Hieronymus Bosch, housed in the Prado, Madrid

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!

Madrid, Orgullo 2017

The Numinous Pine

The Numinous Pine

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.
New Dream Journal

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.

The Yoga Teacher Guides the Women in Camatkarasana In the Season of Fetal Heartbeat Bills

******

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.

Drawing of a forced amaryllis bulb that I combined with other found objects and words from a deck of archetype oracle cards

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!

Poetry and Pandemic Diaries

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.

Eight-week Writing Goals and Keeping Score

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

for lack

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.
Doodle of Red with diary entry about gardening without gloves and tearing blisters.

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.

April Erasure Poem

April

My enormously generous and gifted friend Georgia Writer [my name for her on this blog], invited me to an actual community poetry workshop and open mic, in person!

This declaration warrants an exclamation point considering I read two new poems as well as an erasure poem that Georgia Writer guided us to write. I got so emotionally charged during the outdoor reading that I grew flustered and tripped over the mic cord on my way back to the seating area.

Of course, I warned everyone that I had retired from teaching this year and have been pretty much in lock down since Thanksgiving. I’ve barely seen my own family members, including my 81-year old mother, who, I’m grateful to say, is very healthy because of an active lifestyle, good fortune, and lots of time outdoors in the garden and on trails.

Georgia Writer is a longtime university librarian, poet, and natural historian, a true polymath. Several years ago, when I visited her university office, it was like entering a cabinet of curiosities: sculptures, drawings, birds’ nests, wasp nests, animal skeletons, plants and plants and plants under lights and in terrariums. Of course, there were towers of books everywhere, and yes, she really does read them all.

In the past, she has bequeathed me older but still completely gorgeous poetry journals. She has also inspired my love of making books by giving me decorative paper scraps from former poetry chapbooks she has hand sewn and designed through her poetry press, La Vita Poetica. I still have the paper she gave me even after sharing the bounty with summer camp kids and my own art projects.

I admire her so much and consider her to be a poetry and art mentor. Her own poetry is some of the most beautiful poetry I’ve read. Although not a strict formalist, Georgia Writer’s craft of poetry is sublime.

The librarians provided packets with post-its sharpies, and pages of old magazines or discarded books–– the one that caught my eye was from a Victorian garden periodical. My packet came with a green sharpie, which struck me as an instance of synchronicity, so I went to town with the green.

G.Writer gave a brief lecture on surrealism and Dada, and then we created a spontaneous exquisite corpse, the only constraint being that half of us began our lines with “Either” and the other half with “Or.” Our collective poem became so beautiful as we uttered our phrases and images into the dome of blue sky above.

A full pink moon rose over the tree line as I drove home.

 

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.

Plant People, Watercolors, and Escape

I’ve learned a bit more about using watercolors from London Drawing Group and their wildly brilliant series, A Feminist’s Guide to Botany.

Also, I’m still riding a wave of inspiration from December 2020 and their web event titled, A Surrealist Saturnalia Solstice.

It was a delightfully pagan evening with automatic writing to paintings by Magritte and Dorothea Tanning. The teaching artists wore horns, which I loved. We took inspiration from Max Ernst’s paintings of plants turning into birds with muscled arms.

Drawing at sunset on a still cool spring evening. Such a balm to immerse myself in fantasy, to tell stories to myself about plant people among the trees, bringing them to life while sipping a Juneshine, listening to Ella Fitzgerald and the birds.

Plant people cavorting at sunset. View from my back porch

A goddess bathes her hands and face in butterfly waves

A goddess of nature bathes her hands and face in butterfly waves

Starting in January of 2021, I joined Daily Sketch, a Zoom drawing class that meets three days a week.

The teaching artist is Meagan Burns, who, in the before times, led art workshops in Mexico and other places around the globe.

My friend discovered these daily sketch classes last year, and her enthusiasm for the experience motivated me to try my hand at watercolor sketches myself.

Meagan is a patient and upbeat instructor. She allows light banter during our warm ups, and after each 20 minute sketch, she gives us time to share our drawings. She asks where we started, what materials we used, and at the end shows us her work and how she approached the subject.

The drawing I posted above is a combination of two references, a photo of two hands opened up like a book, and another of a large butterfly that looked like it was superimposed with a layer of neon pink.

Since my drawing skills are limited at best, I always add an element of imagination to camouflage mistakes I make or to get my ego out of the way.

I love surrealism and the techniques the surrealists used to jettison conditioned thinking about art and to let chance operations and stream of consciousness come to the foreground.

So if I make a mistake with the lines, I go with the mistake and improvise with color or context. Then my imagination takes off and I start musing about scenarios and settings that are based in myth or folklore.

The poet Anne Sexton is known to have experimented with her typing mistakes by keeping them in the poem and allowing them to change the direction of her writing. In this way, I can see how my playing with watercolor sketches influences how I write and the kinds of poems I hope to create in April.