this is not a list

It is list time of year. Shopping lists, baking lists, grocery lists, book lists (currently, best of 2019; soon, most-anticipated of 2020). Add to it the end of a decade, and I—.

This is not a list.

This is in praise of constellations.

Constellation: from the Latin: con- a word forming element meaning “together, with”; and stellare “to shine.” Meaning “a collection of stars.” Meaning “a group or cluster of related things.”

Before standardized calendars and maps, we (humans) used constellations to determine when to plant and (to an extent) when to harvest. We used them for navigation. They were points of reference as the world spun and tilted, and time rolled on.

But the stars in a constellation only look like they’ve joined together to make a shape. They only appear to be close to each other—in fact, they are often several thousand light years away from one another.

In this, they are contrary in nature to lists. Praise be.

Instead of lists, I am in favor of constellations—those lights that appear to gather together across gaps, those harbingers of seasons, those guides, those shapes if you squint hard enough.

While it’s natural and human to mark endings and beginnings—of years, of decades—and to say something summary about them, I am in favor of things not-quite-gathering in an apparent cluster of shine: the books or passages of books that gave us light; the friends and family; the camping (or other) trips and memorable meals; the works of art; the long-held dreams finally come true; the perfectly poached egg; the nagging obsessions; the ditch flowers; the scraps of language or thought gathering other scraps of language or thought unto themselves; the saplings of hope and sensing when to plant them; the griefs; the ideas that led us along on our way somewhere (who ever really knows where?); the true norths, still there, always there, when we look back over our shoulders.

My constellation(s) will be different than yours, and yours, and also yours. My constellation needn’t matter to you, nor yours, to me. I could tell you about my constellation this year, but why should I? You have a perfectly good constellation of your own.

It’s enough to have them, these unlikely not-quite-gatherings that somehow give light and points of reference to a year. To know that light-years of darkness stretch between one shining thing and the shining thing that appears to be next to it (but isn’t, actually). To, as Praxilla did in ancient verse and in Michael Longley’s poem about her, “set [your] groceries alongside the sun and moon.”

Squint hard enough, it’ll make a shape. Call it a year, call it a decade, call it an optical illusion—but one that hung in the sky for you. It’s enough. No list needed.

the rolling year in equal parts*

Aztec calendar, which apparently did not actually end in 2012, wikimedia

Aztec calendar, wikimedia

*That’s a line from Ovid’s “The Rape of Propserine” (A.D. Melville, trans.) perhaps better known as the story of Persephone and Demeter, the ancient myth that explains, amongst other things, the turning of the year, the seasons, the existence of bleak winter.

November. For me, and for others I know, it’s a fraught month. Partly it’s the season and weather: If it’s not already winter where you live, winter’s coming. Not to mention the fact that it starts getting dark really early this time of year. Partly it’s the history of this month in my life (and for some others I know, in theirs) — what past Novembers have held. The year turns, and we turn with it.

Today I was thinking about how comforting it is to turn through the year with poetry, about the poems I always pull out and revisit at certain times of year. As the school year begins, I’m always thinking of “The Tortoise Survives the Fire” even though the poem takes place in January — because this mama-tortoise has just survived the summer, and those bouncing backpacks at the end of the poem. There’s “All Hallows” by Louise Gluck in October, “Feathers, Sister, Falling” by Sally Rosen Kindred for November, and “Minnesota Thanksgiving” by John Berryman (yes, he really did just say, “Yippee!”). So  many poems for the first snow (which I no longer experience first-hand, but which I pull out when my old homes wake covered in snow): Anne Sexton, Billy Collins, Thomas Hardy“For the Time Being” by Auden on the day after Christmas (“Well, so that is that. / Now we must dismantle the tree…”). For epiphany, Eliot’s “Journey of the Magi.” And not a poem, but a passage from Yeats’ Dubliners (the last five sentences especially) which has helped me through many a March (yes, March, the snowiest month in the upper midwest). When the rains begin (again, I’m still in the Midwestern spring in my poetry cycle — must update to California seasons soon), “The Antiphon” by Denise Levertov (which I can’t find the text of online). In the summer, William Carlos Williams and his plums. Others that I’m sure I’m forgetting.

(Yes, like this one that I’m just now adding after remembering it — it’s good for end of semester time).

These poems help me mark time. They help me reflect — what was going on the last time I lived with this poem? What have I learned / done / lost / forgotten since then? They help me refocus on the now: this season, this moment, this plum.

But I’m talking too much. Sorry. What I really wanted to share is a poem by Charles Wright, “A Short History of the Shadow.” I saw this poem for the first time only today, but it broke me open and it will be one of my November poems each year, I’m sure.

Do you have poems you return to as the year rolls? If yes, I would really love it if you’d share them in comments.

I won’t be posting for the rest of this week — I’ll be baking and boiling and mashing and saucing and candy-ing and basting and stuffing and (oh yeah, eating) and doing crosswords and hanging with family and going for long, slow walks in November. Oh, and I almost forgot!: celebrating 15 years with my sweetie on Thanksgiving Day itself.

I hope you have a wonderful Thanksgiving, and thanks for reading. May the year roll gently for you.

sunday words: then at dawn

…A hard time we had of it.
At the end we preferred to travel all night,
Sleeping in snatches,
With the voices singing in our ears, saying
That this was all folly.

      Then at dawn we came down to a temperate valley…

For anyone on a journey. For anyone battling the singing voices (Spiteful Gillian is the lead soprano). From T.S. Eliot’s poem “The Journey of the Magi”; whole poem here. Blessed Epiphany to those who celebrate it, and good journeying to all of you.

a letter from the world

public domain

public domain

Dear Miss Emily D.,

OMG I almost missed your birthday! Well, I didn’t almost miss it, as I woke up this morning thinking of it, but then, well, remember that thing you said about “keep me from what they call households”? Yeah, well, I actually ended up with one of those (households, that is) so… well, never mind.

But anyway, for your birthday, I thought I’d write you a letter. From the world. That never wrote to you. Well, I guess I’m just one small voice in the world. But I think I speak for all of us when I say: about that Immortality you were so obsessed with? Yeah, you achieved it! Your collected poems is, like, 2.5 inches thick. Your house is a museum (and so is Susie‘s by the way). Your archive is online, which means, well, it’s hard to explain but let’s just say it’s available to anyone with an internet connection, which is, well, never mind.

Like I was saying, every high school student in the country learns your poem about “Because I could not stop for Death — / he kindly stopped for me –“ and if they’re lucky a few more besides. And, I don’t know how you’re going to feel about this but there’s this old TV show called Gilligan’s Island and most of your poems can actually be sung to the tune of the Gilligan’s Island theme song! It goes kind of: da da da da da da da da da da da da da daaaa. Well, never mind.

But people have devoted entire careers to you! They look at everything: your letters, your family, your little books (they call them fascicles), the evolution of your handwriting, pin holes in the corners of your manuscripts (don’t be mad; Susie put them there when she was trying to organize your work for publication), the shape and inclination of your dashes. In fact, there’s even an artist that has designed and made quilts from your different dashes and markings. I know, right!?

Where was I? Oh, yeah, I wanted to tell you that the bees are hanging in there. They’re still at it despite some not-so-minor setbacks. But don’t worry, a MacArthur genius is looking into the issue so that, when future generations of readers come across the word “bee” in your work, they’ll know what you were thinking.

Also, you may have heard a rumor about my son saying something like his mom is a world-famous poet, in fact his mom’s name is Emily Dickinson? I just want to tell you that I had nothing to do with that.

Back to the households and all that bread you baked — I’ve always wanted to ask you: did you learn anything from all that baking? I mean, was it edifying in any way now that you look back on it lo these many years later? Just wondering.

Oh and back to the dashes, we have these really cool things now called hashtags. They’re kind of hard to explain. We use them in what we call the Twitterverse (like a universe, kind of, but for really short attention spans. Well not really a universe. But, never mind.). A hashtag is a filter for directing short bursts of communication, but also kind of an abbreviation for telling a reader what to think of when you say something else. I say all this, but actually I don’t know for sure what a hashtag is, I just think you might’ve liked them.

I’m kind of embarrassed to admit this, but I have a shirt with your likeness on it, and sometimes I even wear it. #poetcrush

But seriously, Emily (do you mind if I call you Emily?), I really do want to say thank you. For being born and for doing all your work. For showing up at your desk and keeping at it. And especially for the hour of lead, and the certain slant of light, for splitting the lark and for that thing you said about “Parting is all we know of heaven, / And all we need of hell.” And for feeling a funeral in your brain, and for the days when the birds come back, yes, definitely for those. For telling the truth but telling it slant. Also, thanks for keeping the sabbath at home sometimes; that really relieves a lot of guilt for me.

So, in closing, happy birthday! And thanks for being there for me. I mean, basically, you’re my oldest friend besides Jane, but you were right in the mix there with us! I’ll never forget your face looking at me from the cover of your Selected Poems and Letters. The way your eyes kind of said, I’m Nobody! Who are you? / Are you — Nobody — too? It’s like you knew or something!

In closing let me just add,

We waited while She passed —
It was a narrow time —
Too jostled were Our Souls to speak
At length the notice came.

Which, if it sounds familiar, is something you once wrote, and I just have to say, we still wait as She passes, it’s still a narrow time and our souls, yes, jostled. But now we know just a little more about what to say, or how to say it, thanks to you.

Keeping fast hold of hands! — forever your,


the most wonderful time of the year

I'm considering making a dartboard out of this image.

I’m considering making a dartboard out of this image.

Reader, do you know this song?

In case you don’t, it’s a song about the “hap-happiest season of all” (don’t you just want to punch him?). That’s right: the holiday season. My dear friend, Mrs. Kwood, and I have a running joke on this song. We’re apt to leave a sung rendition of it on each other’s voicemails, or text a snippet of lyrics. This song has become a bit of comic relief for me when the holiday preparations are getting me down.

And I’ve been thinking a lot about holiday preparations, and how they can sometimes get me down. I’ve been thinking of the long list of extra things that need doing: shopping, wrapping, Christmas cards, baking, cooking, decorating. And of the wee ones’ holiday concerts and parties at school. I’ve been thinking of all the heaped up excitement and expectation that I feel I’m on the hook to satisfy.

I remind myself that the lists and tasks and expectations are not what the holidays are all about. I know this, and yet, somehow finding that balance of a holiday that’s sufficiently special vs. my energy and stress levels — it’s never easy to find.

This year I’m trying to be extra-aware and more careful about how much I commit to during the holidays. I’m trying to choose the most important and least intense traditions to keep. The church I grew up in celebrates the season of joyful waiting called Advent. Although my faith is infinitely more complicated than it used to be, I’m trying to sink deep into that joyful waiting. Every night at dinner we light a candle and say a prayer especially focused on waiting.

Another peaceful, easy tradition: each year we pull out the Christmas books — a beautiful collection of stories my parents have given us over the years. The kids love reading and looking through them. My favorite of these books is A Christmas Memory by Truman Capote. I have my own ritual of reading through The Penguin Book of Carols, which helps me channel the ancient sense of peace and awe the holidays inspire.

As for other preparations, I think I’ll limit the baking to three must-have favorites: windmill cookies, sugar cookies, and chocolate covered toffee. We’re not traveling this year, which makes logistics and budget much easier (but heartache much harder!). We’ve never been huge gifters: one big thing from Santa, a book and something “needed” (socks, underwear) from Mom and Dad; and stockings that always contain a toothbrush, an orange, and a dollar, amongst other, smaller treasures. We always do a hot dog roast for Christmas dinner because, by then, who’s not exhausted?

And, as always, I’m reminding myself that healthy food and enough sleep are important for managing stress and energy levels.

Meanwhile, when I feel my stress levels rising, it helps to belt it out: It’s the mooooost wonderful tiiiiiimme of the yearrrrrrr!” Or call Mrs. Kwood to commiserate (reason #548 why we need friends). Or just sit down and put my feet up with a hot cup of tea and a book of poems.

What strategies to do you have for staying peaceful and sane during the holidays? I hope they’re serving you well.

friday roundup: the perfect date, we’re all beginners, and “List of First Lines”

Sputter, gasp. Here we are on Friday’s shore. This week, there was a birthday at the Wee, Small house. The celebrated one really loves to celebrate. He had elaborate plans, and many menu requests. I had to draw the line somewhere, so I chose to draw it right after Boston cream pie, and right before miniature cucumber and cream cheese sandwiches in all different shapes. “Cookie cutters, Mom!” said he. I’m not sure when making a birthday cake became a Herculean task, but I think it was somewhere between Child 2 and Child 3. At any rate, it was a wonderful (and delicious) birthday. On to the roundup:

the perfect date  A couple weeks ago, Husband and I went on the perfect date. We started at the Goodwill store in one of the nearby fancy peninsula towns (our own, dear Peninsula Town is not nearly so fancy). If you go to the Goodwill store in a fancy peninsula town, you can get designer clothing dirt cheap. I didn’t actually buy anything this time around, but it was fun to browse, especially because the store’s background music was square out of the 1970s (summer breeze, makes me feel fine, blowin’ through the jasmine in my miiiiiiiiiiinnnnd). Next stop was the used book store (um, maybe I should’ve titled this “the second-hand date”) with a whole wall devoted to poetry. Of course, at a used bookstore you usually only find the rock stars and then a volume of poems by Jewel (seriously, every used book store I’ve ever entered has had a volume of poems by Jewel for sale). I was able to pick up a couple of essays I’ve been wanting — Denise Levertov’s and Adrienne Rich’s. I’ll be sure to share any jewels I find as I read through them. In the meantime, if you want a quick primer on the importance of line, go read Marie Gauthier’s post on the poetry of e-cards. I found it both hilarious and instructive.

we’re all beginners  Drew Myron has a post this week (or was it last week already? time flies) about reasons to attend a writing workshop. My very favorite one is #1 We’re All Beginners. Drew says: “Even if you’ve written a dozen novels and hundreds of poems, you start over each time you write.” The freedom of starting over every time we write is a wonderful thing. It deflates all the pressure of feeling like we must sit down with a blank page and write a masterpiece. And it also allows us to break free from what we’ve written in the past and try something new. Thanks to Drew for this reminder.

List of First Lines  Speaking of starting over, I’ve returned to this poem over and over again since I first read it in The Best American Poetry 2006. The poet, Megan Gannon, shared her process in the Contributor’s Notes: She was having a hard time writing anything. Every line seemed a false start. She stuck with it, pledging to write as many incomplete lines as it took to come up with a draft. As she wrote, she realized the incomplete lines themselves were becoming a poem. Pretty cool. Another reminder that, whatever we’re working on — a poem, a painting, miniature cucumber and cream cheese sandwiches in all different shapes — the effort is worth something. Here’s the poem:


List of First Lines

when winter sits as if

when a wrist gives

when you pour two saucersful for

when the sifter sticks

when the window

when drifts

when fenced in, staked down, full of forgetting, bent and kissed

when, if, then


when spoons tarnish

when the moon removes

when, whose

when winter isn’t it — more drift, almost ash,

when half the calving’s risked for fuller hands

when kindling’s stacked, a pack pyramid — first fourteen, then thirteen inside

when itching rends a loose stitch, a stray

when the wash creaks in a cold key on the line

when to burn

when to cut what won’t brown, tie to ends, haul and hold

when water seals stone to sediment, stem to picture turns

when the kettle seethes a stream on warming hands

when the birds

when rooms split light like a bent tin

when the cabinet’s stacked, still damp or dripping, isn’t it evening

when seed scatters, buckshot-strewn, through, or threw with, this

when shadows, parceled out from edge to edge

when by the bed the loose green is gotten

when skin

when burns raw red instead of, still

when lying quiet

when told to turn

when sighing through a reed of barbed trees, try

(originally published in Third Coast)


Well reader, we’re off to the swim team olympics, and then we’re going on a field trip that I’ll tell you all about real soon. Happy Friday, happy weekend, and thanks for reading!