on being empty

Sun in an Empty Room, Hopper.

Sun in an Empty Room, Hopper.

Today is Monday. Everyone is at school. I don’t have to go anywhere until it’s time to pick up children. It’s the perfect day for poetry.

And yet I’m feeling empty. Empty of words, empty of ideas, empty of imagination.

Having just made a big push getting my manuscript in shape (again), yes, I have the Poetry Dummies.

When I’m feeling Empty and Poetry Dumb, there are three things I do:

  1. Read
  2. Write anyway
  3. Seek comfort in the words of other writers about their times of emptiness

Such words came to me yesterday via The Writers Chronicle. Here is W. S. Merwin:

“Whenever I finished a poem, all my life, or have come to the end of it, and thought I had to let it go, I didn’t know what else to do. I think, ‘Well, that’s the best I can do. I may never write another poem.’ I don’t know that I’ll be able to write another poem.”

W. S. Merwin, former poet laureate, who began publishing in 1952 and who has published steadily ever since. Whose bibliography on the Poetry Foundation website lists 30 books of poetry, 8 of prose, 25 of translations. Amongst other works.

So, I guess is W. S. Merwin feels empty of poetry from time to time, it’s okay if we do, too.

Write on.


holed up

Hello, Reader.

To the extent that a mother of three whose writing desk is within reach of the kitchen counter (to the left) and the kitchen table (to the right) can be holed up, I have been holed up.

I’ve been reading — Roethke. Roethke is so good to hole up with, with all his muck and soil, his roots and clumps, stems and tendrils, loam and tamping. His “moonless black.” His “kingdom of stinks and sighs.”

And I’ve been revising my manuscript, trying to make every word in every line of every poem sing. Trying to make the order sing. Trying to make the book a poem in and of itself, and singing.

It sits now in a sturdy little pile on the corner of my desk. I can’t say there won’t be more revisions over time. But I can say that I believe in this sturdy little pile of poems.

And also that I am tired of them.

And that I may have forgotten how to write any more poems, but I’m not going to worry about that right now.

I’m going to leave the sturdy pile alone for a bit. I’m going to read more Roethke (“Love, love, a lily’s my care”). I’m going to send some poems off into the world and remember that there are many seasons of a writer’s life: the muck and the lily, the holing up and the letting go.

May all your seasons bear their fruit at one time or another.


a word for the year

painting info here

“Klostergang” (cloister walk) painting info here

Hello, Reader. If you’re just coming back from the holidays, me too. Today was the kids’ first day back, and I spent a delicious day at the library doing research for a poem on ants, then wrote a poem about nightshade. As a po-friend said: That sounds perfectly normal.

Long time readers may recall that each year I choose a word for the year. Or, the way it actually works is a word chooses me.

I learned this practice from poet, essayist, artist, and life coach Molly Fisk. If you want to learn more about it, she writes about it in this article (but swears those are not her feet).

I like this practice for several reasons. First, it’s much gentler than resolutions which always seem to tend toward the punitive. At least in my little world. Second, it has a focusing effect. The word, once it has chosen you, will come nipping at your heels, or encircling you from behind, or appearing gently before your eyes at various moments. It will remind you of itself and its wisdom for your life. Another thing I love is that all your past words kind of stay with you. A year ends, but it’s not like your word for that year then abandons you. My words for the last three years — persist, tend, NO — they are still my steadfast companions as the year turns again.

This year the word that chose me is cloister.

To quote the Beach Boys: Help me, Rhonda.

I’ve tried rejecting words in the past but it never works, so, dear cloister, I accept you.

cloister: n. 1. a covered and typically colonnaded passage round an open court in a convent, monastery, college, or cathedral; 2. a convent or monastery –> (the cloister) monastic life. v. 1. seclude or shut up in a convent or monastery.

Although it’s tempting, I’m not going to run off and seclude myself in a convent. I’m going to remember that this word is from Latin claustrum “place shut in; enclosure; bar, bolt, means of shutting in” — and make for myself the time and seclusion that writing requires.

I’m going to think about the phrase “often colonnaded” (colonnade: a row of evenly spaced columns) which speaks to me of intention and planfulness.

I’m going to let the fact that cloisters were built around a courtyard — open space, light, air, sky — remind me that even in seclusion there must be room to move, breathe, play, watch the clouds go by.

I will live with cloister, fail to live with it, try again, fail better, rinse and repeat. It will stay with me, but gently.

Happy New Year to you!


friday roundup: make sure you’re breathing edition

photo credit (and more awkward family photos) here

Now that’s more like it! (photo credit and more awkward family photos here)

Hello, Reader. Please take a moment right now to make sure you are still breathing. Because sometimes we forget to breathe at this time of year, right? I just checked, and while I might not have been breathing just before I checked I’m definitely breathing now. It’s good to check.

Now on to the roundup:

fantasy holiday letter  This week, I actually wrote a draft — two drafts — but I’ve also been writing a fantasy holiday letter in my head. At the most wonderful time of the year, I sometimes have to laugh at our custom of sending out glossy photos and good news bulletins. I think the world would be a better place if we all told the truth:

Dear Everyone,

The children are pretty average. They often argue over stupid things and forget to take out their laundry. I’d include a photo but I’m not up to the effort of making sure everyone has clean — let alone color-coordinated — clothes on all at the same time. I keep writing my poems and sometimes even send some out to lit mags. Usually, they get rejected. In other news, I am sick to death of allergy, orthodontist, pediatrician, urology, sports doctor, radiology, rheumatology, and sundry other appointments. As for D., no promotion this year. In fact, the job he moved us here for disappeared last spring. Luckily he found another one fairly quickly, and only occasionally does he have to travel to Malaysia, which doesn’t make me nervous at all #theplane. In this joyous and wonderful time of year, I often think of the last recorded transmission from the Edmund Fitzgerald: “We are holding our own.” Love,


Seriously, though, no complaints here. We are some of the luckiest people on the planet. It’s just the rebel in me that’s tired of reading glossy-mag versions of life in holiday letters. I offer you this one for comic relief.

“and the task reveals itself”  Last night I finished the novel Out Stealing Horses by Per Petterson. Which I loved. For so many reasons — the writing, the story (or, in some ways, the lack thereof), the gut-punch ending. Here is a passage that reminded me of how it feels to write poetry:

“… I close my eyes every time I have to do something practical apart from the daily chores everyone has, and then I picture how my father would have done it or how he actually did do it while I was watching him, and then I copy that until I fall into the proper rhythm, and the task reveals itself and grows visible, and that’s what I have done for as long as I can remember, as if the secret lies in how the body behaves towards the task at hand, in a certain balance when you start, like hitting the board in a long jump and the early calculation of how much you need, or how little, and the mechanism that is always there in every kind of job; first one thing and then the other, in a context that is buried in each piece of work, in fact as if what you are going to do already exists in its finished form… .”

Although my father is not a poet, bless him, I think of all I’ve learned by observing and trying out the gestures of other poets. And I think of how it feels when a poem is really coming into the world — “the task reveals itself and grows visible” — and how the body is somehow, mysteriously a part of that. Yes.

“God suspected…”  Here is a poem that took off the top of my head this morning, and that I really think you should go read if you haven’t already.

Holy smokes.

I love that god is not omniscient in this poem, that “he had to make sure.” I love how it plays with the Christian sacred text of the creation story, and how the poet grabs onto that phrase (and word) from it: “this was good.” Oh, and all that amazing sensory detail. When I grow up, I want to write a poem this… well,… good.

Hope everyone has or is having a wonderful holiday season. Thanks for reading.

friday roundup: open letter to November edition

oak tree (wikimedia)

oak tree (wikimedia)

Dear November,

We used to be friends. Remember — how I loved your scraped and silvered beauty? You and your bare trees, your lonely moons. Orion low in the sky. That hush just before winter clicks into place.

I mean, I even chose you for my wedding day and, November, you delivered! I recall with such tenderness and gratitude your sun on that day, your warmth, which I took as a good omen even though you quickly turned to ice and snow. That is not a metaphor.

Then, you may recall, we had some rough years together. I won’t go into the details; you know them. Suffice it to say that our friendship cooled somewhat, or at least became complicated.

And this year — really, November? I’ve pretty much had it with your sore throats and sinus infections, your cars needing brake work, clinic visits, pharmacy wait times, and all your extra days off school. Not to mention your long nights which come earlier and earlier each day. And the other day, remember when I finally cried out to you (this was, you’ll recall, after waiting forever at the pharmacy to find out they only had a two-day supply of the second antibiotic, and I’d have to go back the next day for the rest): “That’s it, November! The only way you redeem yourself is if a book of poems shows up on my doorstep, like, now!”

And you… well, wow, you delivered (again). But did you have to include that author bio? — the one where the poet won a bazillion awards and on top of being a poet is a PhD psychologist in private practice and “lives in [redacted] with her husband and their three young children” — and from the looks of the author photo, all this by the time she was about twelve years old? Sheesh.

But if you think for a minute any of this can get me down you’re absolutely right you don’t know me at all. Besides the fact that mine are the problems of the privileged — this is forever in my mind — I have my defenses against you, November.

I have tea. With honey.

I have po-friends. Enough said.

And I have Mary Ruefle, who has an amazing mind and writes things like:

“I used to think I wrote because there was something I wanted to say. Then I thought, ‘I will continue to write because I have not yet said what I want to say’; but I know now I continue to write because I have not yet heard what I have been listening to.”


“(Words) are a bridge that, paradoxically, breaks isolation and loneliness without eradicating it.”


“I would rather wonder than know.”

and who writes an entire essay on two Emilys and an Anne (this Emily, and this Emily, and this Anne). All in this book.

And I have Gaston Bachelard who spends two pages on a door that is not quite open and not quite closed. TWO PAGES on a door left ajar. I adore that man.

And I have all my November Poems. Such as,

this one, and

this one, and

this one, and

this one, which (sorry – you’ll have to crane your neck or print it), November, I really think should be more readily available to us, but since I’m grateful for the experience of pulling down my mom’s hardbound Complete Poems of Robert Frost, and paging through until I found it, I’ll give you a pass.

And November, I know you think you have me up against the ropes now with two more clinic visits this afternoon and Thanksgiving around the corner and all that cooking. But I thumb my nose at you because my mom and dad are coming. So there.

Lastly, this: I am a sucker for beauty. Which is why, November, even though I’m really annoyed with you this year (not even ONE full week of school all month!!??) and even though our shared past is a bit of a hard road, thank you for the beautiful gold-upon-gold of the ginkgos that line my street. And for teaching me all you have taught me about keeping at it, and scraped/silvered beauty, and the peace of night coming early.


friday roundup: on metaphor, reverse dictionary, and “everything of the stillness”


It was fun for a while…

Friday and I’m completely out of my rhythm. Something about summer vacation. I’ve decided I’m in the Secretary of State chapter of motherhood. In which I am primarily engaged in settling disputes amongst and between warring nations. Bringing to bear the power of diplomatic language. Suggesting compromise. Compromise from the Latin com- “with, together” + promise “‘The ground sense is “declaration made about the future, about some act to be done or not done.'” (etymonline). Alas.

Since the last roundup, there has been one heated debate over whether or not North Korea could ever host the Olympics (you can’t make this stuff up); one badminton set purchased and discovered to be too big for the Wee, Small Yard; one former midwesterner who never would’ve imagined a badminton set too big for a yard or a yard too small for badminton; four swim practices; one collection of poems read during swim practices; three trips to the library; one door closed to the general din in the back of the house (this just now occurring); one trip to the beach; two waves catching one 8yo by surprise; one very sad and sandy 8yo; one hasty departure; and one trip back over the mountains at rush hour. Alas. Onward:

on metaphor  I have not done a lot of reading this week, but when I’ve had a few minutes I’ve been reading Stephen Dobyns craft essay “Metaphor and the Authenticating Act of Memory” (from this book). Dobyns puts all figurative language in the metaphor bucket — simile, allegory, analogy too — and while I would like to split hairs on this point, his thoughts are equally applicable to all forms of figurative language.

He argues that if a poem is meant to recreate an experience for the reader, the figurative language of the poem must serve to 1. heighten emotion and 2. involve the reader more deeply in the poem. This is accomplished when the figurative language both provides an easily discoverable context and introduces mystery.

He uses this example from W.S. Merwin’s Asian Figures:

like a house where the witch
has just stopped dancing.”

We know what quiet means. We have to think a little bit about the particular quality of quiet after “the witch has just stopped dancing.” This touch of mystery involves both sides of our brain, and increases our investment, as reader, in the poem.

There is more to read and learn about metaphor (and many other craft topics) in Dobyns’ book Best Words, Best Order which probably every other poet in the world has already read, but not me.

reverse dictionary  Sometimes it is a small thing, a slender slice of time, just a few lines jotted down, that convinces us we are living the writing life. When time is scarce for my usual writing practice, I try to do very small things that don’t take much time. One thing I do is choose a few words and write a “reverse dictionary” for those words (which is also good practice in creating metaphors). Examples:

  • The wandering of a throat. How breath becomes enemy. (thirst)
  • Meaning ‘from the very beginning.’ Meaning ‘there was a spectacular fire and I melted but survived.’ (mineral)
  • Somehow meaning ‘two.’ Somehow meaning ‘pedal faster, let me steer, look at the same view I’m looking at.’ (tandem)

If you need a 30 second to 3 minute writing exercise, I recommend it.

“everything of the stillness”  The collection of poems I read this week at swim practice was The Darker Fall by Rick Barot. Even sitting in the bleachers with my sun hat on, even with the background noise and the wind, the coaches hollering “Onnnnes, ready go! Twooooos, ready go! Threeeees, ready go!” I was broken open by so many of these poems. A particular favorite is the second part of the poem “Blue Hours” which I cannot find online but share with you here:


from “Blue Hours” by Rick Barot

II. Exile

All day I have made words
which fix my life
to the rhythm of
this day. I know
this hour’s satisfactions:

tea coloring the water
in a cup, and birds, kindled,
as if of one mind,
shuddering out of the trees,
then gone. The sun

falls below the familiar
line of roofs, and I
wait for someone who knows
I wait. Yet why
the old terror, the one

Seferis knew, sickened
with sensibility
as he stood on the ship
and watched the light
die over Sounion,

the cliffs still gold
while the hills turned blue?
He discovered himself
in the moment, and heard
the voices of others,

distant but calling.
Here, houselights blink on,
the breeze empties
of warmth. And more often
I catch myself

in these moments
when the light is scarcely
alive above the roofs
and I lean on the doorframe,
remember the small

fires of everything gone.
I know longer know who
I’m waiting for. I ask
everything of the stillness,
I wait for everyone.


I am in awe of the figurative language of this poem, as well as with the linebreaks, which often serve to suspend meaning, and/or to let it slip a bit as the poem continues.

And now… the blue hour of dawn is long gone here and I must away. I wish you happy Friday and a wonderful weekend. Thanks for reading.

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.