book coverThis week, I’ve had the dual pleasures of reading Sailing by Ravens, by Holly Hughes, and The Pen and the Bell, by Hughes and Brenda Miller–the first, a woman’s journey on the ocean and in life; the second, a map for living and writing, steps be taken slowly, deliberately, with attention.

Sailing by Ravens explores navigation–across oceans and life, through the heart’s calms and storms. The precision of charting pairs with Holly’s precise language. And it’s a physical book–the language moves. Consider this, from “The Navigational Fix”:

I spread the divider’s metal legs,

measure degrees in seconds, minutes, hours,
gauge speed made good, prick one small foot,

drag its lead twin in an arc, an easy pivot.

Holly takes us with her, places us there on the deck. I felt the boat, I felt the fish, I felt the quite some evenings–I even felt fish-smelly and cold. In all the concrete details, these poems voyage through metaphor–the maps, the knots, the rough seas moving from time together to growing older, growing apart. A witnessing, a sadness–and yet a celebration, a joy to read again.

Here is one of the prose poems from the book:


As in the line that runs between a tug and its tow, its thrumming pull. The lines of the schooner that made you swoon. Spiderweb, its taut, rain-beaded strands. Empty hammock, nail paring, cantaloupe rind. As in narrative arc. I want to be flexible, at least in theory. You never imagined yourself a rigid person. As in spiderweb, unstringing. As in bright arc of rind as it sails out the galley window. As in wake made by the schooner, leaving.

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book coverThis week’s poetry pick is Melissa Kwasny’s The Nine Senses, from Milkweed Editions. I was lucky enough to hear her read and to take a class with her at LiTFUSE, and her insights about voice and our relationship with the world around us reverberate in these pages. Deeply reflective, these poems examine closely the nature and our place in it–that relationship. They question intentions, require accountability. They balance between mysticism and the concrete, a reminder that the world of our senses provides a pathway to that other world. The images are precise. From “Clairvoyance (Sunlight)”:

“A name that enters, disturbs the field as the first butterfly might. Mourning Cloak with its velvet tippet, its golden hem.”

And from “The Book of Spells”:

“The wind, a mix of linen and salt.”

I felt breathless when I finished reading “Leaf”:

“Everything betrays you with its promise. So what is the answer? Oak leaf splayed like the wake of a ship. Your route: straight through the middle.”

The voices shift–who is the speaker, who is the listener? The fluid movement of the prose poem allows those shifts to flow seamlessly between juxtapositions.

Many of the poems address illness and healing, of pain and cure, as in “Attar”:

“Everyone has a need for transcendence. William Carols Williams knew nothing of what it takes for a woman to stand naked in her own house. Cancer in her bones, dancing to Roy Orbison. Now, I won’t ever be cured, Irene told the thing girls. It’s in the nature of the disease.”

Then we enjoy the excitement and comfort in recurrence, as in “Clairvoyance (Your Word),” and “Clairvoyance (Little Evening)” or in “Talk to the Golden Birches,” “Talk to the Water Dipper,” “Talk to the Milkweed Pod,” and “Talk to the Great Suffering.”

This is a book of meditation–not as a way to leave the world, but a way to enter it in all its perspectives. For me, this is a book of spells.

For a start, read all of “Clairvoyance (Sunlight).”

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Last weekend at LiTFUSE, Terry Martin handed me a copy of Ashley Capps’s book Mistaking the Sea for Green Fields, from The University of Akron Press. I flipped open to a page, read

Everywhere, the ghost
wigs of dandelions,
everywhere the green
toothache of early spring.

and thought, I have to get this book.

The voice of many of these poems is quietly matter-of-fact, while the images are both lovely and desolate or even violent. And the poems have a deep empathy while at the same time cutting no one any slack.

Consider the beginning of “God Bless Our Crop-Dusted Wedding Cake”:

When my mother lifted her shirt
to show the sunken grave of her breast,
the fresh tarantula tattoo she’d chosen

over reconstruction, I shuddered at first.
The last bad joke she’d play on her body–
chest half-spider, fanged, half-planetary

one red nipple circling like Jupiter’s
perpetual storm–and I but spectator
to so much bad weather. Like summer

1967, when she roped me to the pier,
when I was ten and she was drunk in her bikini
and wanted to watch the hurricane come in.

Or this, from “Shane Says”:

Shane says he used to breed pit bulls back in the woods off his yard–
thirty dogs, thirty lengths of three-foot chain.

All they wanted to do was bite each other.

And there were plenty of people who wanted them that way.

One night, he heard a racket like the Gates of Hell.
Blue lights everywhere, knew he’d been found out.

For another example, here is the first poem in the book:

Hymn for Two Choirs

Best apple I ever had was three o’clock
in the morning, somewhere outside
San Francisco, beach camping, stars holding
the sky together like sutures. I was thinking
how I was going to get old and ask myself
why did I only live for one thing;
at the same time I didn’t know how to change.
I thought I felt like my neighbor’s huge dog–
every day stuffed into a small man’s green T-shirt
and chained to a stake in a hard of incongruous
white tulips. Here and there, a red bird, a train.
Way down the beach other tents glowed orange.
I heard a stranger call my name
and another stranger, laughing, answered.

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Last weekend was LiTFUSE–a fabulous three days of poets and poetry in Tieton, Washington. Plus a chance to see my aunt and uncle, a quick visit to the horses, a trip to see my grandmother’s old house. And poetry in the air–everywhere.

Last year, three days after LiTFUSE, I was laid off. People have asked if I’ve written about my “time between jobs”–what one person called my “fluid time.” Given the recent round of RIFs, it seems time to share my experience.

First, it was devastating. It felt like a death–but having been widowed in 1993, I knew that it was not a death. It was a huge loss, but nowhere near a death. By the second day, it felt like a divorce. I’ve never been divorced, but I imagine it might feel like that. On the other hand, this was not the love of my life. It was a job.

My family was amazing. “Now you’ll have time to write!” they said. I did write, starting with my resume. And filling out paperwork–a lot of paperwork.

Gradually, I was able to walk through the neighborhood in the afternoon–in broad daylight–and not feel like a total loser. I went to the gym every day. I wrote on the bus. I did not unpack my boxes (I still have boxes to unpack). I attended the induction ceremony when my son joined the Marines. I searched the job aggregation sites (like and I spent a lot of time on LinkedIn (it turns out that LinkedIn is important, and you need to have a lot of connections, and they need to be people you actually know). I also read novels and looked for cover art for In Both Hands, and read through four proofs. I thought about what I wanted to do next, what I wanted in my next job, what my next career might be. I made a list of all the places I applied (this was useful).

But I still carried a lot of fear–especially as that last list grew longer. What if I couldn’t find a job? What if no one would hire me? And I realized that I am a person who gets up and goes to work–it wasn’t so much the specific job, it was the doing, having that place to be, that way to contribute.

I started my new job in March, at a place where I get to use my skills and also learn a lot of new things.

Many people helped me through my transition, my fluid time. You know who you are–and I am so thankful for all that you did. People helped me with that resume, people met me for coffee, people sent job leads my way, accepted my invitations to connect on LinkedIn. I learned a lot about how to look for a job during the 21st century–but the biggest thing I learned? Generosity. Now it’s my turn to help.

I feel terrible for the people who are losing their jobs. Uncertainty is exhausting–even if it’s good for developing new neural networks, it’s tiring. But I also feel hope. And I am here for you.

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You’ve heard that one should never judge a book by its cover. One also should never judge a book by its size.

This past week, I read the chapbook 40 Watts, by C.D. Wright, beautifully produced by Octopus Books. Stark with no words to hide behind, its spare language speaks in tension with its specific, harrowing images. It is disjointed the way grief is disjointed, the way memory comes back in fragments. And at the same time, it is a refusal–to lose, to surrender completely to the way a loss sits on one’s shoulder (like that chicken).

Here is one poem:

Day-Old Widow Poem

He smiles as if but is not breathing
a moment ago he was in his chair
reading she was lighting the fire
she thought she heard a book
drop to the floor he didn’t answer
in an instant she sensed it
a tangible space across an opening
she could neither enter nor fill
as if his eye hit upon a passage
elegant and cruel and true

(The hen is in “Poem With A Girl Almost Fifteen.”)

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