I confess that while I’m spending a lot less time playing computer solitaire, I’m spending a lot more time (too much) reading news headlines. And I’ve been writing a poem a day (or a draft of a poem), starting on January 20. I’m still at it, and yesterday was day 50. What? Only halfway through? It wasn’t my best effort–but driving out of the parking lot after work I got the line “Billy Collins says it’s like / The Yellow Rose of Texas” and I went with it.

Earlier in the week, this poem was gifted to me–yes, at 2:30 in the morning.

Waking at 2:30 a.m. I Think of Her

Say what you want, pat platitudes
about a better business climate,
fat cats padding pockets.
Tick. Tick. Feel
the pendulum swing,
tick, take it back
to trust lost at Love Canal,
back to the Cuyahoga burning,
moth wings mutating,
matching soot-darkened bark.
Tick. Steamroller in reverse.
The plants are factories—
what will grow from that?

The catch of the day floats,
silver bellies slack on the surface,
dead eyes skyward.
Tock. I wake in this night
and think of Erin Brokovich,
the movie and the real one
sleuthing stacks of evidence,
the real water a poison then
long before a spark struck in Flint.
Tick. Tock. Tell us
to punch a clock. Say what you want
about the state of the state,
but don’t drink the water,
don’t drink the rain.

 

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Yesterday, my son, daughter, and daughter-in-law took me for our second annual cross-country ski trip, driving up to Snoqualmie Pass and over to Hyak on the east side of the summit. (This is important, because it was raining on the west side.) A gray day, sometimes snowing, a little misty drizzle, and a whole lot of quiet. Plus fun—laughter and a few tumbles. Last year, we’d heard about some picnic tables just around the bend from where we’d stopped, and this year I was determined to find them—so determined that we skied at least half again as far. I felt good, although in the back of my mind I wondered about the trip back.

As I was working on the rhythm of the kick and glide and the poles, I started to think about that perfect moment rowing crew, when the boat is set, and everyone is in sync, every oar entering the water at the same time, everyone moving as one organism, how it is a blessed moment. I felt the same way while I was skiing—often awkwardly, but every once in a while, I would really feel the glide, feel the right muscles kicking in, my arms helping instead of flailing. For a moment. A blessing. And then another long stretch of trying to get it again—meanwhile, enjoying the snow and the trees, the general emptiness of the trail, the long ice-covered lake, stumps sticking up from the snow.

Then I thought about writing, how the flow—or getting into the zone—is the sweet spot, and one I don’t get to often, maybe less than when I’m on cross-country skis. But maybe if I keep writing, the 12-mile equivalent, I’ll have moments of flow, moments where I’m writing outside of time, outside of everything else, and it’s just the pen and me moving forward across the page. And I don’t have to worry about making it back to the car.

When do you feel flow in your writing and in your living?

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I confess that these days I’ve been thinking about Christian Wiman’s poem “We Lived,” especially the stanza

I mean
to be mean

because that’s how I’ve been feeling—angry and afraid. In between phone calls to congressional offices I was writing snarky prose poems—with a jackal, a badger, a wolverine. It was therapeutic, cathartic—but it was all on the negative side of the equation.

Anger, as a kind of energy, has its place. It can do good things. But I’ve also been thinking about something Chad Sweeney said during a class at LiTFUSE—that just the act of working on a poem puts good energy into the world.

Walking along the creek near where I work, I realized that while I was putting good energy into the world while I was also whittling it away.

I had read Jamaica Baldwin’s fierce, powerful poem “Call Me By My Name.” To me, this poem is anger in a good way.

I had read about Kaveh Akbar tweeting poems by poets who come from the seven countries listed in the ban. To me, that is putting positive energy into the world.

I was thinking about another kind of mean, the arithmetic mean, where it’s between the extreme.

For now, I’ve abandoned those prose poems, and I’m trying to balance the bad with the good. This isn’t to say that it’s going to be all sweetness and light. It isn’t. Just an absence of snark.

And last night, I had the pleasure of hearing Ross Gay read poems and essayettes (or delights!) and talk about joy as a practice and poetry as an act of radical joy, or was it a radical act of joy? I’ll take either and both.

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Last week I said that I wasn’t going to feature a book each week, but over at Better View of the Moon, Karen Craigo is writing thoughtfully about a book every day, so I figure I ought to be able to share one brief poetry pick.

I have been haunted by and wanting to read Jay Deshpande’s Love the Stranger ever since I encountered his gorgeous and devastating poem “Bewilderment” on Poetry Daily. No spoiler alerts here; you’ll have to read the poem.

What stays with me from the book as a whole are the images and the way that push against the expected without pushing me away, the way they thread through the poems and through the book.

For example, in “Apologia Pro Vita Sua” we first encounter “At evening, chin back and the neck / like a skyscraper, we give up smoke–a colony / of ghost-howl.” Then we come to “with desire / propped like a water tower in the corner” and “It seems I am always running ahead of my needing, / looking out from a higher window of the body”, the poem having already moved from a rooftop with a lover into a field with a brother (“I am beginning to see how I am that field”) and moving from “I am resting my head against the part of myself / I am willing to put down” to “Tonight I will sleep like a just man, / a good man, a man who has hurt others / in order to lay his head down.”

“Prairie Song with Jack Palance” begins “Enough times now I’ve dropped the blade of love” and pulls that energy through the “thumb scrambling moon”, “the holstered butt of midnight. / Little rivulets through red clay forming / a continent of blood” and “this cliff of squint.”

And the other image that most persistently stuck in my head comes from “Reports of the Dream You’re Not Likely to Recover From”: “the braided violets only seen in sleep.”

The book’s repeated references to knives and villages give it a prophetic, ritual, out-of-time feeling, as does the sequence of Chet Baker poems in the middle, while Deshpande’s poems about his brother open into a tender intimacy.

I leave you with the last four lines of “Amor Fati”:

I know what song brings every one of us
here, it goes: refrain, refrain, refrain.
But we will never have enough
of being wrong about the other, not once.

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coat hanger with red circle and slashAnd not in a good way.

When I was younger, I had a pin, a coat hanger with a red slash through it.

The possible repeal of the Affordable Care Act is bad enough, but Speaker Paul Ryan’s strategy to defund Planned Parenthood took me back to those not-good-old days.

And then I thought about the women in Aristophanes’ play—not a ploy I would usually recommend, but I it made me think again about power and how we use it. Being a poet, I wrote.

Consider All the Consequences

Dear Rep Ryan, when you speak
from your arctic heart you do not
talk for me, your plan to ice pick apart
our care, start your war on women,
war on the poor, defund and leave
undone the work begun, skate back
to the past’s shadow alleys, option
often a dead end. I love kids, but keep
your laws off their bodies or we could go
all Lysistrata on you, seize
the day and freeze you out, not
an empty threat, it’s sensible—
sex makes babies and abstinence
will not grow the heart fonder
(ponder men of America marching
to your door) and if you slash
the right to choose before or after,
I can send you my wire hangers.

It gets more complicated—in a good way—because two Republican senators, Susan Collins and Lisa Murkowski, as of Thursday had not committed to supporting the bill if it included that provision, which could be great news for people who don’t want a repeal (or who don’t want a repeal without a replacement already in place).

I’m taking no chances, though, and I’m going to send my wire hangers to Speaker Ryan and cabinet nominee Price. Are you in?

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