L.L. Barkat

L.L. Barkat is Managing Editor of Tweetspeak Poetry, a site committed to helping people experience a whole life through the power of writing, reading, and just plain living. She is the author of six books, including the award-winning Rumors of Water: Thoughts on Creativity & Writing.

Taking the Crisis Out, Letting a Person Be

And that is why I thought to begin in the middle.

I wonder which I am,” she tendered.

I tendered back, “Which do you want to be?”

She is in a middle place, having already lived something to this point (in her case, perhaps the life of a writer). But she is not sure what she has lived, and her question is very much a middle question: here I am, having begun, but where do I fit and where do I prefer to end?

My question, in return, is also a middle question. It assumes she has some experience, some basis from which to process the question, and it asks her to decide on an ending she still has the power to choose.

Middle places can be unsettling. I wrote a whole novella I now look upon as a “middle” book. I wrote it at the same time I was fiddling with beginnings. And, oddly enough, I started the novella with the words, “The End.”

The End is a logical place to begin when you are middling. I asked a dear friend once — a person whose life I did not comprehend at the time — “How are you?” She was standing in the hallway with her spouse, and her face was tight and sad. “Fair to middling,” she said. What a fascinating phrase, and I wish I had been more understanding, regarding the end she must have been considering.

It is the rare person, I think, who is comfortable with another person’s middling. We are taught to celebrate the excitement of beginnings. To a lesser degree, we are taught to handle the nature of endings (though, in our culture, we probably more often skip the opportunity for closure by eclipsing our experience and simply choosing a new, distracting beginning).

I was angered the other day when my father sent me a book about some woman whose life he clearly admires (she is apparently a kind of missionary). At first, I had paged through the text with mild interest. Not my kind of book, but it didn’t matter. I was pleased he had thought of me, had taken the time to pack the book and send it along, until I saw the inscription, which included: “You have lived inside yourself long enough. [Insert his solution here.]”

I threw the book away.

My father does not really listen to, nor seek to understand me, though at some level we surely love each other. I can’t even imagine what he had in mind by saying what he said, especially since he lives at a distance and does not see the life that is mine day to day. I have learned that to ask is to invite more non-listening—good as his intentions to communicate seem to be. I will live without knowing precisely his meaning.

Midlife crisis once seemed to be myth, to me. Then I entered midlife. In midlife we have some basis from which to process any number of questions—from relational to professional to lifestyle and so on. We made beginnings in the past, which we are now living with, and maybe we start to ask, “I wonder which I am?” Which spouse, standing in the hallway. Which word person (writer or recreational word-play). Which parent, which friend, which gardener. And which do I want to be.

Of course this is simplification—of the concepts of beginnings and middles and ends. Life is not that easy to break down and categorize, and even our beginnings and middles and ends have myriad subsections of…beginnings and middles and ends. Still, I find it useful to consider the concept of middling.

If my father is right in any way, that would be okay. If I have lived inside myself, if I have stood emotionally plastered to the wall, saying to passersby, “Fair to middling. Fair to middling,” (while I created some space I needed), that would be okay.

What is not okay to me anymore is: “insert his solution here.” Call it a choice with a certain end in mind. Call it a bid to “middle” in peace and not be compelled to live in crisis because of someone else’s view. Call it an undeniable need to be.

To begin this piece of writing in the middle was (and is) to affirm that the middle is an important place to exist for a while. It does not mean we leave each other uncaringly alone. It might mean gently asking questions that don’t contain our proposed answers for each other, regardless of how right our answers ultimately may prove. Silence could be in order. While we let the other person be, and come to be.

Technology: We Come for the Sugar (and the Cat)

The body, the body, the body. Pralines. Walking the dog. Falling! The illustrator sits in her chair. She touches the cat.

This is why we come back. Relatively invisible technology, like invisible pheromones, leads us to the possibility of intimate connection. Leads us to the praline in the mouth. Lands us on the ground, our wrists bent to concrete. We touch. We find we are real.

It is true we can become lost, narrowed in our senses, but we are following the pheromones, which have taught us about possibility.

Technology’s pheromones are not a straight line (if pheromones ever are). At the poetry site I manage, we run writing workshops. This past autumn we ran a workshop called The Writing Life. That is not where I first “met” Elizabeth, but it is where Elizabeth met something deep in herself and turned that back to me with River Street pralines, delivered to my doorstep on Friday.

Now I am wanting to go to Savannah, to walk through River Street’s candy shop doors. I am wanting to understand pralines—how the cream and the sugar and nuts can be so intimately yet simply joined, to create this exquisite experience that melts in my mouth.

When Wendy MacNaughton fell in love with Caroline Paul, she joined her in the same living space, just in time for the cat to go missing. The cat went missing at a terrible juncture; Caroline crashed an experimental plane she was piloting and landed back home with a shattered ankle and a need for deep comfort. There had to be a way to parse the experiences of both intense love and loss. Eventually, Caroline wrote, and Wendy illustrated, a book about the multi-level experience.

In a Design Observer interview, Wendy describes what it’s like to be an illustrator. “It is your hand and it is your brain,” the interviewer reminds Wendy she once said. The interviewer wants to know more. Wendy reveals that she almost physically wraps her “line of sight around an object” as if she’s sculpting it with her thoughts. These invisible thoughts then travel down her arm and into her hand. Thought is, then, something like touch.

The illustrator touched the cat through the act of moving her own body, after feeling the shape of thoughts and, indeed, of a real cat that had found a space in her mind. She touched these thoughts to the page, creating a new physical reality.

On Monday, Elizabeth mentioned via Facebook that she had contracted a serious case of writer’s block. I commented on her status update, giving her my most sage writer’s-block-miracle-cure advice: go for a walk. She did.

It was dark when Elizabeth fell to the ground. I was not there. The dogs were there. I do not know what kind of dogs, just as I do not know the ratio of ingredients, nor the secrets of combination, in the pralines. Maybe nothing is really a straight line. Maybe everything retains some level of mystery for us. Though it was no mystery to Elizabeth now—falling at night, hitting the ground, becoming bruised, twisting her wrists to the point of sprain… this was pain incarnate. A thought in Elizabeth’s mind, about writer’s block, shared over relatively invisible technology, made contact with my mind. I relayed a thought in response. She acted.

When I received the DM from Elizabeth, saying, “From bad to worse,” explaining the fall (and now the injury of the very hands that needed to be producing the elusive writing), I had a physical reaction, a muscular contraction of the self in sorrow. It was as if I myself had sent Elizabeth careening to the concrete. Had I not? The line seemed terribly straight.

Facebook, email, blogs, Twitter. We say they are shallow. We say they are not real. Surely, there is some truth to that, some discomfort, some challenge and possible loss, in existing in the flatness. And yet.

The illustrator sits in the chair. She touches the cat.

The Unbearable Lightness of Not Being

Someone altered physics when we weren’t looking. And now there is no pushback.

“The glass is exerting equal force on me,” says my daughter, as she pushes a glass, embedded with a rising cobalt spiral, across the countertop. Of course, the glass is no match for her. But it has made its presence known to her fingertips, and perhaps she has been made stronger in imperceptible ways.

Did you know that when there was no wind, the trees suffered? Cause of suffering: a lack of stress wood. There was no pushing from the wind, and thus no pushback from inside the trees. Reaction wood never formed, because the wind never exerted mechanical force. The trees were made weaker in perceptible ways, including a refusal to grow asymmetrically.  This happened at Biosphere 2, an Earth systems science research facility.

I think we fear the strength of asymmetry. Maybe this is why we let someone alter physics. And now there is no pushback. We grow lighter.

When the astronauts came home, their bones were emptied. Osteoporosis made these strong men weak-boned. Cause of emptiness: zero gravity. Bone cell formation depends on the chance for pushback. Without weight to encourage the pushback, the bones suffer demineralization. Calcium drifts away. Even the blood suffers calcium loss. For this reason, astronauts have been likened to bed-ridden patients, who are gradually, and quite literally, being emptied by progressive bone loss.

The side of my house is stucco—so rough to the touch. I have recently made it a point to put my hands to it, after taking a morning walk. This morning, the wind was gentle and the smells of fall were under my feet. I treaded the softness of bronzed and broken pine needles at the corner of Eldridge, then shuffled through piles of leaves out in front of the A-line Tudor. All of my senses were met with equal force by the visions and textures and fragrances of the day. When I got back home, I put my hands to the stucco and let it exert its equal force on me. I put my cheek to its coldness and stayed very still. The crows cawed, weighty.

On Tuesday, the poetry site I manage featured the art of Kasia Puciata. Kasia lived with Down syndrome. Her art displays a unique vision of the world, and her words are intriguing—so intriguing that we made a “found poem” from them. “Why are you staring at the computer screen, not me?” she asked. We put that in the poem, along with her question, “Where do you dream?”

Dreams are weighty, asymmetrical. But we must give them something to work with, something that will exert equal force upon us, give our souls a chance to push back. Kasia’s question confronts us. We have been growing lighter, staring at screens that do not exert equal force upon our senses. We have been steeped in zero gravity, away from the weighty call of the crow. “Why,” she says, “are you staring at the computer screen, not me?” The crow echoes her question, “Why?” and so does the stucco on the side of my house. The pine needles, broken and bronzed at the corner of Eldridge are asking, “Why?” and “Where do you dream?”

It is time to re-alter our daily physics and restore our gravity, by exercising our senses and sitting down with our daughters, our sons, our Kasias, our own souls—to find a place to dream that saves us… from the unbearable lightness of not being.

 

Technology: Finding Our Way Back from the Flatness

 

The phone rings. I do not answer. It is an alert without nuance.

“I called three times and no one picked up,” someone admonishes.

“And three times I was not in the mood to talk,” I think, but do not say.

Another ignored caller tells me over tea, “You should get Caller ID.”

I should go to Alaska.

It is said that before the white man came and trading towns sprang up and offered cheap food in cans or boxes, a Native could travel across the icy landscape in search of food and not get lost. Disorienting to the untrained eye, the landscape would swallow a novice in no time, but to the eye that understood nuance of shape and shadow, the endless white posed no extra danger. A Native could find his way.

My inbox is Alaska. My Facebook alerts: Alaska, Alaska, Alaska.

After the white man came—and the food in cans and boxes—the Natives grew numb to the landscape’s nuance. It was a matter of being out of practice, of forgetting (or not “needing”) to travel the land. It did not take long for established baselines to get lost and reference points to be erased. Even a Native who had once known how to plunge into the vast terrain, to go “there” and back, was now at risk. His world became narrower, though perhaps he did not understand it that way; such was the supposed freedom and allure of the trading post shelf. To the Native, Alaska became my inbox. It became the red alert on Facebook. Every icy plateau became equal, a source of potential tension or isolation. Nothing could be ignored, nor paid deep attention. That is the paradox of flatness.

Recently, I went to visit Cape Cod. I am not a GPS user, but I tried the technology out, because my traveling companion had a GPS handy and because I am not a native of the region.

“Turn left onto Cape Cod Rails Trail,” said the GPS. I looked for a road sign but did not see one.

“In 1,000 feet, turn left onto Cape Cod Rails Trail.” I could not parse 1,000 feet. I looked for the sign. “Turn left in 100 feet.”

“Turn right onto…” Apparently, I had missed the turn, and the GPS was finding me a new way. I drove in a circle, or maybe a zigzag. I ended up eventually hearing the same, “Turn left onto Cape Cod Rails Trail.” Each command was without nuance. Each held the same importance and the same emptiness. I may as well have been in Alaska, the icy landscape receding without signage or landmark. My traveling companion noted about the GPS, “Everything’s the same level. You can’t tell when something’s an urgent command.” It was true, and a real source of frustration. I could feel the tension rising in my body. Finally, I found the sign I was being told to look for; I think I’d been ignoring it because of my internal signals about landscape. But now, I dutifully followed the command and turned my hulking Volvo onto a narrow grassy lane that seemed to lose itself towards distant marshes. The dissonance—large car hugged by small trail—stirred my senses in an eerie fashion. I felt displaced, disoriented. I stared into the merging blues and greens and browns. Then I laughed. “I think this is a bike trail.”

The GPS, without nuance, had not understood my companion’s accidental switchover to bike route directions and was senselessly suggesting a pastoral foray for the Volvo. I backed the car out and started searching for our relative position to the sun. We were needing to go south, and I know something about navigating by the day’s light.

If you leave the flat dimensions of your computer screen and spend a year out doors (just 15 minutes a day), I can promise you’ll learn something about light—the way it leaves and comes far earlier than you’ve been fooled to know by electric bulbs and alarm clocks, the way it can lead you across a perplexing terrain. You will learn to trust your body, to read the nuances of a landscape, to realize when it is time to respond or time to drift away. The light will teach you about depth of life, as will the breezes that whisper the pines. The birds will teach you; they do not sing spring in the same way they sing fall. You will know the difference between peace and danger and will relearn what a true alert is—and is not. I can almost guarantee you’ll experience a physical recalculating. You may find yourself refusing to answer the phone. If I call, and you don’t pick up, I will wish you well and understand that maybe you are finding your way.

photo by: bulliver

Saving Picasso

This is why I did it, Donna: the bees are dying.

She is five years old and I do what every parent is expected to do. I register my child for kindergarten. But I am wanting a half-day option, so I visit the school to see if I can work some magic in my daughter’s favor. I’m willing to pick her up at the half-day point. It will be no extra work on their part.

Scientists think they have pinpointed the problem: neonicotinoids. This is why the bees are dying.

I am greeted at the office door by the tall, young principal whose name I cannot remember now. His skin is pale, his hair an even light brown. I remember his smile. The kind that says, “You and I will come to terms.” But they will not be my terms. “All parents have these difficulties separating, Mrs. Barkat. You need to give your child to us and trust us.” It has the ring of truth to it. I will go observe the classrooms, one of which my daughter will end up in just two months from this moment.

It was not just the bees, Donna. Truth be told, it was my friend who I just met a few short years ago. Her father once found her playing, instead of cleaning her room like she’d been told to do. She was five years old and deep in play-thought. She did not hear her father enter the room. He spanked her, and in her surprise and confusion she wet herself. She began to cry. He spanked her again for crying. She learned, Donna. She learned.

The classroom is orderly and clean. The children have learned to keep it so. It is the model setting, and the principal is beaming as he introduces me to the teacher. The wall is hung with a long string of identical apples. Each apple holds a child’s name.

They say that some bees will engage in suicidal risk rather than bring disease back to the hive. The disease they are dying from is because of the neonicotinoids. Not directly, though. It’s complicated.

At age two, my daughter can write all her letters and is already creating little “books” that are incomprehensible to anyone but her. At age three, she will surely learn to read. She doesn’t. Not at three. Or four. Or five. Not until age seven—“late” by many people’s standards. She spends her time on things that interest her, like making a web out of the dining room—string to chair rung to table leg to thermostat to chair rung to chair rung to chair rung. She hangs everything she can possibly find onto the tangle of string. A white teddy bear, bouncing on air. Red yarn. Blue plastic hangers. What a mess. This is what happens when I get lost in thought, cook dinner for an hour and trust that my daughter is at predictable play.

It was my friend, yes. Or it was the bees. It might have been Picasso.

Five years before my daughter was born, I visited the Picasso museum in France. I tried to take my daughter there a few years ago, but it was closed for renovations. The French are always doing this to me. I think it is their scheme to make me return every decade, so I can find one set of doors reopened only to find another set newly closed. Picasso was closed. I could have cried. I wanted to show my girl the incredible range of Picasso’s work. The black period surprised me most. No one had ever showed me Picasso’s black period.

Neonicotinoids are a class of chemicals found in agricultural pesticides. We use it to narrow the possibilities of what can live where. It has spiraled outwards into the environment, where even small amounts of it can weaken the immune systems of the bees. The bees are dying, Donna. And with this death will come the death of honey and almonds and pears and plums. I don’t know if the apples are at risk.

When I see all the five- and six-year-olds raising their hands, waiting quietly for their teacher to come and check their lower-case letter ‘l’s, I know I have come to terms. It is late June. The children have spent the first year of their education here in this room. They are writing the lower-case letter l over and over again on their worksheets. Filling the pages with single files of the body of a stick figure without arms or legs, head or eyes or mouth. At age five, my daughter is drawing aerial views, figures half on half off the page, dimensions. I call her my little Picasso.

My friend is nearly fifty now. In many ways, she is just coming into her own. Characters are appearing in her writing, bursting out from hidden places. Yesterday it was circus clowns. Playful things deep in the psyche seem to be gradually dancing into view.

My daughter Sara is a sophomore in high school. I came to terms when she was five and I canceled her registration with the school. For years she has been home educated. For years, my house has been filling up with her artwork. She is currently in a distance-learning school. It was something I did to transition her to something schoolish before college. She is “behind” right now. Ten lessons in English, eight in Chemistry and History, a few in Spanish. Ashley from student services wants to talk to me this week because of “future concerns.” I am not sure what to tell Ashley. My daughter’s grades are mostly As, but she goes at her own pace. She prefers to go deep instead of wide; it slows her down. And there is the matter of her exams, which she never excels at because she refuses to study. “I’ll remember what’s important to me,” she says. “If I don’t remember it, that’s because I didn’t care.”

There are some who care about the bees, Donna. They are suggesting that we introduce Russian bees into our colonies to recreate diversity. If my friend were the one doing the introducing, the bees might be wearing babushkas and dancing the mazurka. My daughter would laugh and dance at the magic of it, I’m almost sure.

 

 

photo by: wildxplorer

The Creative Life: Risking for Love

“My biggest regret is that I didn’t,” she tweeted. We were talking about home education. She wanted to know why and how I home educated my children. (I am not quite finished yet.) I don’t write much on this, because it feels very personal. And I can’t point to any outstanding achievements of my children as compared to other children, so I don’t feel like an expert to whom anyone would want to look. But she wanted to know. So this is for Donna, who asked.

 

What is the writer’s, or any artist’s, obligation to those who ask them to create?
We are not obliged.
And yet, as I’ve said elsewhere, I write to love.

Who is that love for?
For those who ask, outright, or with their very lives. Their job, lost. Their selves, searched-for. Their surprising gifts, tentatively found.

Why am I suddenly thinking of the Native American two-spirits? I learned about this recently. It layered upon other concepts I’ve developed over the years, regarding the ways of certain tribes—those who let their children participate in the naming process when they come of age. In a similar vein, tribes who recognize the existence of two-spirit people actually let their members choose a gender, from the inside\out rather than from the outside in (this practice, I understand, all but disappeared when foreign cultures made their mark). Two-spirit people were respected for honoring what they found inside themselves, for bringing it outward, and then for playing a critical go-between role in the tribe, as they were understood to speak two languages (and could therefore mediate between men and women in sensitive, effective ways). Then? The result of them honoring themselves was to receive honor in the tribe.

I write to love.

So I open my heart tenderly and say to Donna, it was a risk. After all, I unschooled more than I classically schooled. This means, in non-educator talk, that I let my children do a great deal of choosing. From the inside/out, rather than from the outside/in.

Oh, I had my ways. I brought out the Hebrew, Greek, Latin, and Spanish books, and I spent time teaching my little ones the sounds, the calligraphy, the sense. We had fun. For a while.

But the day my kids said no more, I let them drop these in favor of Old English and JavaScript. My eldest daughter recently pored over C.G. Jung’s The Red Book, for hours on end.

Donna, did you know that Jung was a master calligrapher and artist? He was.

What was the risk?

It might not be what you are thinking. You might not be thinking what I think you are. So let me go with the standard, I overheard not so long ago, when someone was telling someone else about my children. “Oh, they march to the beat of their own drummer, but one can always hope.”

Hope what?

This is the risk. Children might choose to be different than we are. They might choose to be different than somebody out there thinks they should be. The risk is to our ego, the carefully packaged entity that, in part, exerts its pressure on our children, not for the sake of helping them become who they really are, but for the sake of our own desires which may even press them to live a life we had wished for ourselves.

I don’t always get respect, Donna, for how I have educated my children. It is true, you know. They march to the beat of their own drummers.

Hours are spent in writing fiction, cooking scones, crafting intricate wire sculptures, building card houses, coding websites, reading Harry Potter, photographing fence posts or a red-haired girl. Oh, and, perhaps deliciously, in playing the bongo drums to anything with a beat—Lady Gaga, Karmin, Efecto Pasillo.

Once, I wrote about a young friend who has plans to live off the grid in South America. I don’t know what I would do if my children chose that, Donna. I want them near.

Home educating is not for everyone, and people home educate in different ways. I am going to assume that one home educating family I knew, who humiliated their son over and over again when I was in their presence (and who beat him into submission when I was not) might be creating a person capable of Sandy Hook. I also know, from you yourself, that the public school situation you found your children in was demoralizing and produced a tremendous amount of anger and wasted years.

Everything is a risk, is it not?

But I’ve chosen my own particular brand of risk, because, in the end, my Native genes must be rising to the top. I want my children to choose their lives, their learning, as much as possible, from the inside out. If it is a process filled with honoring—like the two-spirit people—I have great hope. Wherever they live, they
could be near.

Give and Take: The Paradoxical Function of Art

“I like it when you explain what I’m seeing.”

I had sent a video clip to a colleague—of a performance artist interacting with a warehoused sculpture, a giant suspension if you will, of metallic cones, that could both touch and not touch the floor (touch it with their shadows, but never touch it with their tips, as they hung from the ceiling). My colleague had responded to the clip by telling me she particularly liked segment 1:40-1:49. I had liked those parts too—the artist’s back up against the wall, the almost involuntary climb, and the persistent reach-kick towards a single motionless cone to initiate the slightest movement: it mesmerized. Almost as much as the ensuing bit, in which the performer, surrounded by more suspended cones, kneeled and focused his energies quietly, steadily, on one patch of floor, pressing his hopes into it like a longing god shaping dreams, his very breath now creating something imagined where only a moment ago nothing seemed to exist.

This is what I told my colleague: maybe we liked these parts of the video for their persistence, their hope, and the way, surprisingly, a performance artist interacting with suspended cones and the floor over which they dangled and shadowed, could tell us about ourselves and our work to “create the world that ought to be” through poetry.

It has been my peculiar experience as a poet to explain to people what they are seeing, albeit through what can feel like an added layer of obscurity. Take this poem, for instance, also based on recorded motion and the interplay of actors with what is a kind of sculpture. (If you have seen the film Hero, you understand that the huge swaths of fabric which appear throughout—now suspended, now draped, now falling—are sculptures that the actors perform with, to explain to you what you have seen somewhere and did not know how to express.) In any case, the poem:

Watching Hero

The sheet was red
and silken.

It lay between us,
and the man
and the woman
he took to bed.

Some things,
says Young,
must be made
opaque
to be seen.

I am still
satisfied
that I showed
the screen
to my children;
hidden elbows, knees,
pointing the way
to intimate
distress.

Upon reading such a poem, you might feel you have both more and less of an explanation for something you yourself have experienced—maybe on a subway somewhere, or at Yellowstone Park, or around a holiday table when you felt you were looking at the day as if through glass. You were, as it went, both inside and outside the experience. You were enlightened and confused, both.

This is one function, perhaps, of great art and the work of people like me who seem, at first blush, to explain it. From one hand something is given, while the other hand takes something away, causing you to reach, to ask, to climb the wall (your back against it) and initiate the slightest movement, or send you to the floor to press your hopes into it, to form, if you could, something, where only moments before nothing seemed to exist.

Writing the Number of Meaning

Let us begin with the lima beans. Ten maybe.

Does it matter?

I ask this question several times in The Novelist. And it is a good one, if I say so myself.

Ten lima beans is a nice, round number, not too big, not too small. Their quantity might have significance, or it might not. Middling numbers are like that.

I don’t remember if it was ten. It was probably more. How many times did I sit at my grandmother’s white linen-clothed table as child? My grandmother, with the double-D breasts she kept kempt in the kitchen, the dining room, under the morning sun while she combed her lake for invading water plants—but, when she came from the shower, she let their paleness bob and swing as she toweled them with a quick, strong hand, and I watched but did not watch.

“Come in, Liebchen,” she would say, while skinny dipping in the lake, her breasts floating and drifting like white lilies, barely tethered, which must have tempted the little fishes. I sat on the big, sand-colored rock and said “no thank you.” How many times? I cannot remember. Does it matter?

What if the rock had been purple? Someone might care. The way my friend Megan cared when she noted the repetition of purple, plum, amethyst in my story. Purple is the color of closeness, so The Tale of Genji tells us. If I had been sitting on a purple rock, while saying no to my grandmother, it might mean something. Or it might not. Repetition is key, isn’t it? We can’t hope to write meaning with a single occurrence of purple, unless it is set against something else. And this something else should have been repeated, so we would understand the meaning of a purple stain or a purple rock on hands, or in hands, or under hands that had always otherwise held something white or sand-colored. So perhaps quantity matters.

Take one, for instance. The one time I said no to my stepbrother when he wanted to play “the game” that, if I painted it now in terms of purple mulberries and a white dress, you might understand implicitly—you might, as it were, watch without watching, as I sat in his lap on the floor in that shadowy attic room. For we have already discussed the color purple, have we not? I am not dropping it in here without a history, hoping you’ll make your way. As for the number of no’s, the one time says I have a certain resilience, a decisiveness, even in the face of someone bigger and stronger. Compare the one to the ten.

It could have been ten lima beans or it could have been twenty-seven or maybe a hundred and four. I never counted. That is the measure of comfortable love—those numbers we cannot remember, because we were too busy smiling at our grandmother as she picked through the buttery pile of mixed vegetables, yet again, to extricate that which we were not game to eat and she was happy to make her own, for she did not mind lima beans and she loved our smile.

Let us find our way to the end with the cherry trees. Two. Planted in my front garden bed, ready to come into bloom for the first time this summer. I should tell you about the way my grandmother cared for her own cherry trees. She owned a sweet yellow, a weeping purple, a tall tart. I remember how she labored over these trees, spraying them, pruning them, surrounding them with protective nets to keep away the birds. How brave she was to harvest from the tall tart one, ladder against it, her breasts jammed behind denim overalls, now pressed to the rungs as she reached to pluck and pluck again, until her basket was teeming. I ate my fill. And every year she made me a cherry pie on my birthday. That’s how I remember it, whether or not it’s true.

So this summer, when a hired man pulled out my cherry trees while I was away for a weekend reunion, it might not be surprising that I shook and seethed when I found the two saplings dying in a pile of unnamed weeds beside my driveway. I did not know, at first, that the two were there. I did not see what I had already seen until I encountered the emptied garden bed at the top of the hill.

Does it matter that I suddenly thought of my grandmother’s cherry pies, and that I wanted one right then and there, almost as much as I wanted the trees themselves to have been left intact? Just one would do. My grandmother’s pies were the deepest red.  Almost purple, if you closed your eyes and reached back to your birthday, to remember.

photo by:

Higgins Writes the Poetry of the Gods

“Caduceus? Oh, that’s the snake thing,” says my older daughter.

This is not the answer I am seeking just at the moment, as I’m looking for my copy of Sorina Higgins’s poetry book—the one with the blue sky and Hermes, set against a white cover.

My fourteen-year-old goes on, interrupted at intervals by my twelve-year-old.

Caduceus is the staff. It’s held by Hermes. He’s the messenger to the gods. The girls talk over one another with all manner of information, save the information I need at the moment: the location of the book.

No matter. It’s a fertile conversation, and I’m set to wondering how many people know their mythology like these kids do. Raised on Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson and the Olympians, they’re walking encyclopedias of facts about the gods—from heel-wings to mischief-doings.

I wonder vaguely how Sorina Higgins was raised. While some of us were sleeping through the Odyssey, had she already begun to wear the wings of either the caduceus or its bearer?

The staff, often mistakenly interchanged with the medical symbol of a single snake with no wings, has two snakes intertwined, crested with wings. Hermes himself also wears wings near the ankles. Has anyone ever wondered how all these inadequate feathers did the job? Neither the span on the staff nor the span on Hermes’ winged heels seem fit to bear a being of that weight. It is a miracle that Hermes ever rises.

Higgins will face the same issue, and she recognizes it from the outset…

My little heel-wings are not made of feathers:
they are made of tongues…

They whisper I am, I say, making me
play all the characters this writer writes…

and in the end, their clamor just might run me mad.

Maybe she will never get off the ground and will simply be a writer run mad, all the while holding that staff with its dual realities, entwined, entwining. The pressure, suggests the poet in a hike poem called “Croagh Patrick,” can be overwhelming:

The enormous pressure of empty space behind
nearly broke my little mind. I panted to hold the panic back.

Making her way towards the sky, or trying to, she is all too conscious of her groundedness. Says Higgins, “Between annihilation and me/a crumble of granite, pebbles stacked by a laughing titan/sloping up into exclusion, complete and indifferent.” We sense the tension, the terror of the question, even as she seems impossibly grounded: what if levitation was eventually possible? Would the wings hold? Would we find inclusion, a joining with the divine or something larger than ourselves? Maybe, maybe not. And so “the soul takes each step and knows each strain.”

Higgins, like those two snakes on the staff, will demonstrate a duality throughout her collection. Entwining themes and images of fate/not-fate, space/bridging or filling, eternity/finiteness, the form of her poetry itself is a statement about these opposites that somehow co-exist in our experience and consciousness. She works with classic forms like the sestina and the sonnet on the one hand; yet, on the other hand, she breaks form, thus bringing to light the struggle of opposites through the very structure of her work.

An accessible example is found in the sestina “The Curse of Co-Inherence,” where Higgins pushes the teleutons (repeating end words) to both inhabit and trespass coherence. Vanity becomes veins becomes vain becomes veined. Similarly, in the sonnet “Idol-Making,” she breaks form at the end of the poem by cutting the thirteenth line in half and shifting it downward, creating space and the illusion/reality of a fifteen line poem which is technically still fourteen lines.

Ultimately, it is this kind of form- and mind-play that a potential reader must enjoy in order to appreciate this complex collection, where Higgins’ “kitchen [is] a game of chess,” as is her approach to poetry and to some very deep questions about existence and our place in it.

Even so, I’m fairly confident that my sestina and sonnet writing older daughter, raised on Riordan’s gods, will find something to love here again and again (a collection like this will benefit from many readings); but then, she also likes the Odyssey, so if you slept through it, just don’t mention it to her, or to Higgins.

 

 

photo by: takomabibelot

How I Am Not Learning French in Eight Weeks or Less

By Sunday, I am undone.

Managing a rapidly-growing poetry blog, working five Facebook pages and three Twitter pages, serving an audience of over 22,000 writers, poets, and insurance adjusters is energizing, but when the week ends, it’s over; I deeply experience the metaphor underlying that well-worn phrase: I can’t think straight.

The first order of business to deal with my bent frame of mind is, of course, a bath. I take my time. I lock the door. I do not bring my computer with me—and not just because of the electricity-conducting nature of bathwater (with or without the bubbles). I need to be alone.

This need for solitude is often surprising to those who know me. After all, I appear to be an extrovert—outgoing, talkative, and rivaling the best of them when it comes to the characteristic New York talk-with-your-hands citizens. Yet, come Sunday, the introvert truth is apparent: I need my space and (I love this metaphor too) I need to unwind.

Sinking into the water, in a quiet room, the process begins. A hundred Facebook updates and comments, a hundred more strings of tweets float away, and my arms begin to move freely. I think of nothing. It is the ideal setup for what comes next: French.

I bought a three hundred page book of Malherbe’s French poetry. I thought it would have English translations. I was about 1/300ths correct in this assumption. There is a page directly before the one that says, “Poésies de François Malherbe.” On this page, I recognize the words public domain and the disclaimer that this valuable book might have missing or blurred pages, poor pictures, errant marks.

It’s okay, this imperfection situation; I wouldn’t know anyway if a poem about Henri lapsed suddenly into one about le frère de Louis XIII, due to that minor point about the translations also being… missing.

All in all, it is the perfect arrangement for a Sunday. After my bath, I take up a notebook, a thin-line Sharpie, and my Malherbe. I understand very little of the French, but I begin to copy words…

Il ne faut qu’avec le visage
L’on tire les mains au pinceau
Tu les montres dans ton ouvrage,
Et le caches dans le tableau *

My brain registers… not much, and this is Sunday serendipity. I feel more of my work-heavy self delightfully lighten as my pen makes its curvy, flowing marks across the page. I soak in the sounds and happen to notice the rhymes. I smile because I can’t help but remember avec from fifth-grade French class and dans and mains. Then I smile again at the internal rhyme playing in lines 2 and 3. (Those clever French, to make poeming so simple through the structure of their language.)

My grandmother was French, and sometimes when I was a child I would hear her either sing or swear in French. I learned nothing but the lilt and the intrigue. I have not made much linguistic progress since then; nevertheless, I rather like the feel of it all. And, I might point out, it is important to absorb the lilt and intrigue of the French language, lest one ultimately speak it a little wrapped-too-tight.

It will probably take me ten more years of Sundays to understand what my grandmother sang and swore, and what I’ve been copying for so long from Malherbe and others to come. Maybe in a decade I will, belatedly, surge with political passion or faint from shock or love. One cannot predict what ten years of after-bath French will do to a person.

If I had a need to actually learn French, if it was pivotal to secure my solitude or decipher the bath faucets, I might attempt to accelerate my progress. As it goes, I’m perfectly happy that I’m not learning my heritage Français in eight weeks or less.

 

*Translation:

Your hands should not, together with the face,
be drawn with the brush
You reveal them in your work
And hide them in the painting

 

Opening Your Life to Purple-Bottled Dreams

Two years ago I sat on a bare window seat at an inn in Pittsburgh. The air was dry, the day light, as sun reflected off deep, deep snow outside. On this morning, my last at the inn, the owners had gone and I was left with the tawny-haired dog who was keen on shedding. My New-York-black attire was in constant jeopardy as I had earlier roamed the old Victorian with my camera, taking shots of antique irons, a spinning wheel, purple bottles, an out-of-tune piano (How did I know it was out of tune? I had sneaked a little time with it of course.)

Photo by flickr user Evil Erin.

My amateur photo session finished, I was at the window with a book about poetry-writing. The wooden seat beneath me was worn and heavily grained, and this reminded me of a photographer friend who takes a lot of pictures of woodwork. I mused that she would have taken better shots than I did, since I was not a photographer in any significant sense.

What surprised me was not this moment, of knowing I wasn’t photographer, of admitting it almost fondly in my ponderings, and silently admiring my friend. Rather, my surprise came when I opened the poetry-writing book.

“Did you think it would be easy?” the author asked, meaning, did I think that being a poet was a simple thing. The answer? Yes, I had. But suddenly, and forcefully, I understood my error.

“I am not a poet,” I said to the room, and the dog shifted a little on the braided rug near the fireplace.

Truth be told, I was not really making my statement to the room. I was dropping it into a timeline that I now recognize. I was experiencing these audible words as a turning point, or at least the offer of a turning point.

As it goes, I accepted the deal.

How long did it take to come to that point? Decades perhaps? Could I trace my poetic life back along many moments and claim a series of markers? If I wanted to make a memoir of it, I suppose I could.

But that day is when the ship began to turn, in a way I could actually feel, and I needn’t write the memoir (at least not now). On that day I took action, determining to buy more books on poetry and read more books on poets and criticism. When I returned to New York (and after I got the dog hair off my black sweater), I also began writing poetry in earnest. I opened myself to possibilities I could not even yet imagine. The imagining was not the important thing; it was the opening that counted. I had already published a book of poetry with International Arts Movement, but this was different. It was a looking forward, potentially to an entire life of poetry ahead— an odd pursuit, it seemed, considering the odds of how little renown and financial support it might lend; yet, as a professional writer, I had to consider these odds, because a person only has so much time to give, and a person must have a livelihood (though not renown, and that is probably a good thing).

Unexpected outcomes followed. That sounds so business-like! And yet that is exactly what it should sound like, because poetry is now, in significant ways, my business. It is my business in the reading and the writing of it. It is my business in the acquisition of it, for a small press I started just a year after my recognizable turning point. It is my business on Facebook, where I am happily gathering an audience for poetry. And it is my business for a daily-poetry subscription, which takes a great deal of delightful work and which I must charge a small annual fee for ($2.99), to cover my costs.

It remains to be seen if I can actually live off of poetry as a business. Few have done it. Many entities that sponsor poetry are, themselves, sponsored by grants and donations. I feel unusual, focusing on a business model instead of a non-profit model. I wonder if people will think my efforts are counter to the very spirit of poetry.

Still. Once a ship begins to turn, it is exciting to stand on her and look to far-away waters, open to where you might travel—to lands of coconut trees, and jingle-shell beaches, or groves of oranges and new-ripe peaches, or even back to an old inn in Pittsburgh, to pick up some purple-bottled poetry for the uncharted days to come.

Give It a Year

“A stunt book,” the reviewer called Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, because Barbara Kingsolver had dedicated a year of her life to organic vegetables, and she had subsequently written about it.

I wasn’t sure if the reviewer was trying to put Kingsolver down, but his words raised a good question: why devote a year to a stunt? Wasn’t there something inherently suspect about that? Might it not be a waste of time? What if a person’s motives were, I don’t know, stunty or something? Could a person who would do something like that be trusted?

Still, when I later came across a different year-challenge in Jim Merkel’s book Radical Simplicity, I decided to ignore the evaluation of Kingsolver’s experiment. I decided to do my own stunt, which involved nothing more than a yard, a red sled, and a cup of tea. (Okay, and zebra wasps, guerilla mosquitoes, architect spiders, and blueberry bushes whose leaves turn brilliant crimson in Fall).

Photo by Maggie Stein.

Merkel had challenged his readers to spend a year outdoors– just an hour a day,in the same natural space. We nature-stunters were supposed to try to learn about a patch of ground about 20 x 20 feet. Learn its flora and fauna, and try not to eat anything poisonous along the way.

I was tired of my indoor patch of ground, tired of a certain emptiness that had been haunting me, and tired of life feeling amorphous. So I planted my stake (or, more accurately, my kids’ plastic sled) in the ivy under my single backyard pine tree and hoped for something.

What I got cannot really be put into words (although, technically I did put some of it into words in two different books—one a poetry book and the other a spiritual memoir). Still, how does one capture a true epiphany of the sort I had during that year? How does one plumb the depths of daily solitude and what it bestows? Can it really be communicated, the discovery that a year is an invitation to return to yourself and your deepest thoughts? It goes without saying that even the annoying mosquito bites cannot be fully communicated. We are talking about raw experience, and that has an elusive quality all its own.

The year went by, as years do, day-by-day and month-by-month, until it was gone. I got rained on. I watched a peach night sky. Pine needles used my teacup as a heliport. A single feather drifted down one day, white against the backdrop of the moss-dark pine tree. It was like the gleaming detail one might find in a film. It said everything without words. It said this was no stunt, and I was loved, and I was learning to love. It said a year is always an invitation, and don’t wait for Jim Merkel to ask you.

Since then I’ve done more time. One year for a visual art pilgrimage. A year exploring dance. Twelve months for tea and now twelve for music and bread. It doesn’t matter anymore what the reviewers say. Give it a year? I’m in.

Stealing Norton: Do You Work at Your Art?

It starts after dinner, when I share a poem called, “One Art.” I began reading poems after dinner when my husband’s job changed, and he started working late, and we felt the loss of him at our table.

“The art of losing isn’t hard to master,” says Elizabeth Bishop’s poem. The statement is so stark. Is she really serious? Can she be that immune as to continue, “so many things seem filled with the intent / to be lost that their loss is no disaster”?

Photo by Kelly Sauer.

The poem is a villanelle. It repeats certain lines in a set pattern. At intervals, we hear the assertion again, “The art of losing isn’t hard to master.” Losing. Isn’t hard to master. No disaster.

Is it the promise of such poetry that tempts my daughter Sara to steal away with my new Norton Anthology, The Making of a Poem? What does she hear that convinces her it is worth reading about forms like sonnets, pantoums, villanelles, sestinas. These words sound intimidating to me, and like too much work to tackle.

The next day she asks, “Do you want to hear my villanelle?” I do not know what a villanelle is, though I remember once quoting Lauren Winner, who said she stopped blogging because she’d rather learn the art of something like, say, the villanelle.

“Sure.” I want to hear my girl’s villanelle.

Over the next few days, the conversation repeats itself in a fairly predictable pattern. “Do you want to hear my sonnet? Do you want to hear my pantoum? Do you want to hear my sestina?”

“Sure.”

I am astonished by all of it, especially the sestina. Thirty-nine lines, six end-words that must repeat in a changing pattern throughout the entire poem. I take Sara’s poem and compare it to what I see in the book. It really is a sestina. Not a flawless one, by any means, but a sestina nonetheless. My girl is a middle-schooler, and she is working harder than I am at the art of poetry.

When we possess a little natural talent for writing, we might be tempted to coast along. Why try to master these things called words? Isn’t writing an art? Doesn’t that mean we can just let things pour out as they will? I know a lot of writers who don’t work very hard, thinking this is no disaster. They set down the first thing that comes to mind, and they want that to be the end of it. I have sometimes been this kind of writer, especially when it comes to poetry.

My girl is a middle-schooler. I am not. She is working hard at poetry. I am not. So I steal away and work to change the situation.

I write about Pittsburgh, and the snow melting on Penn Avenue. I write about a booted print of water, near the head of a crow (I do not know how this head came to be lost from its body, but I write of it anyway). “I wonder if this man wants water,” I write of an accordion player, who is sharing a tune at the street market. There is an ocean and a ship, and a “Heinz red neon sign / drifting ’midst lost tune of accordion on Avenue / fading, fading like the light of morning over water.” I work very hard. It isn’t flawless, but it is a beginning.

“Do you want to hear my sestina?” I ask Sara.

“Sure,” she says.

 

An excerpt from Rumors of Water: Thoughts on Creativity & Writing.

Ghost in the Appliances

I have never been one to like guns. My stepfather displayed his rifles on the living room wall (which frightened me), and I watched my mother pull a trigger once (the shotgun kick-back threw her to the ground). We ate deer all winter, claimed by buckshot; I couldn’t look when the deer lay silently in the back of the baby-blue pickup truck.

Despite my feelings about firearms, I am just now thinking of buying a pistol. Because, today, my stove unilaterally changed its clock to military time. I don’t remember this option in the user’s manual. (Just what, I ask, must a stove be planning, to take such measures?)

Is the microwave in on it?

This week I have been dealing with clogged drains, a leaky ceiling, and even a flat tire on the way to the library. Thankfully, I have a Volvo, and, like the stove, it has a way with language. “Tire needs air now!” it silently observed, with a huge exclamation point above the message.

Sure enough, the Volvo was being forthright. The front tire did need air. I could see a nail with a little piece of my neighbor’s roof still attached to it, slowly causing the car to communicate in exclamation points. I paid the service station down the street to remove the nail, with a gun-like implement, and patch up the tire. This calmed the Volvo considerably, and it has gone back to talking about the weather. (“It is 50 degrees today.”)

I suppose I am overreacting just a little bit, but I can’t help thinking that the stove has less honorable intentions than the car. I wonder if it is considering vengeance for the unjust treatment of its former kitchen companion — the old sink we left under the hemlocks. After all, we thought that location would simply be a temporary shelter. We thought we’d surely sell the Depression-era appliance at a good price, to a peaceful home.

The sink is (or was) white. It is made of iron and has a built-in washer board. The drain is filled with pine needles that are morphing into mud. Where the faucets used to be, there are two holes. Sometimes I imagine a woman’s hands turning the long-gone faucets. I imagine her washing a piece of meat from an animal somebody may have shot. She turns and smiles. “Can’t you see?” she seems to be asking.

I am not sure what she wants me to notice. Is it the ease with which she turns the straight handles? The way she doesn’t have to worry that her sink will communicate with her, beyond a squeak in the left faucet? Does she want me to know that her husband shot the animal, and brought it home in a vehicle that only spoke in tail-pipe smoke signals?

She turns back to the sink, and I feel at a loss. I want to ask her, should I buy a pistol? Should I be afraid of the world I live in? Or should I just go to the basement, reset the kitchen fuse, and hope that the stove will surrender to Eastern Standard Time — without a fight.

Writing in a Cabbage Place

Today I am feeling the pressure of cabbage. Really, cabbage. The opaque vegetable  reminds me of a fat baby-faced candle you keep peeling back, only to find it has no wick, just a ruffly heart that, at the last, clings to a core of root flesh and holds nothing but air.

It is not particularly in the nature of cabbage to pressure people who have too much to do and too much on their minds. Cabbages are rather humble things, yielding to knives for the sake of coleslaw and to peasant hands for a laying open to receive stuffings of onions, rice and ground beef.

The other day I met a man who knows about stuffed cabbage. He and his wife like to eat it. They also like to eat pierogies. I ate both as a child, because these foods were part of my stepfather’s Eastern European heritage. I still like the pierogies and have recently taken to buying them, but I never learned to like the glumpkis, which is what my stepfather called the stuffed cabbage, or maybe just what my mother called them because that’s what she thought he had told her.

I don’t know what the man I met called them. The word he used also began with a “g,” but it was different. I admit I was lost in my own memories and so didn’t pay close enough attention to the sound, or ask for the spelling. I was busy recalling how I had been forced to eat them, and now I’m remembering just part of why I resisted.

After all, we also dubbed these rolled packages pigs-in-a-blanket. There is no pork in the cabbage (at least there wasn’t in ours). It’s just the way the stuffed rolls look when you lay them side by side in a long glass dish: little pigs in blankets that, once baked, turn to wilted translucence, absorbing the red sauce on their backs, to finally reveal a pulse of gelatinous rice and fat innards. In contrast, I always preferred pierogies— dough half moons fried in butter, their coverings browned to a crisp, their hearts of potato and cheese kept secret, until I chose to reveal them with the pointed application of knife and fork.

Like I said before, it is not particularly in the nature of cabbage to pressure people. But I’m feeling the push, because I have a theory about something I call writing-in-place, and I want to show that is not just an idle idea but a real technique that actually works. Enter the cabbage.

At my bedside is the new print issue of Englewood Review of Books. The winning painting for their food-art contest is on the cover. It is a beautiful, artful rendering of… cabbage. The artist took a top-down view, which shows how cabbage is a fist that keeps losing its sense of holding on, as the outer leaves gradually yield to gravity and lay themselves down to sun and dew and a painter’s keen eye. In this way, a painter can capture not just the ruffles and the layers and the variance in tone, but also the very veins that thread through leaves and somehow seem to be part of the opening process.

As fate would have it, I am on the cover with the cabbage. In delicate sea-green print, I am noted to be the subject of an interview on play and prophecy in poetry. There are a few other names on the cover too, but mine is closest to the cabbage.

I remember the day I first saw the cover. “I’m on the cover with cabbage,” I observed in a Facebook status update. It amused me to say this, but now I know it has become a somewhat more serious issue. For the reality of the placement has invited me to prove my writing-in-place theory, on a day when I am overwhelmed and cannot think of a single thing to write about. Me, beside the cabbage, is a challenge to tell the world that the writer is never at a loss— nor the dancer, the painter, the musician, nor maybe even the scientist or the mathematician.

Because, somehow, rooted in place, even in place with a lowly cabbage, we have everything we need to get to the heart of things, to open the hand of time— to reveal our past and maybe to shape our unsure future.

Ten Acre Dream

“We want to live off the grid,” she tells me.

I hadn’t known she was married, that she had eloped three years ago. She and her husband live in a small apartment and have access to a garden. They grow potatoes, chard, and zucchini by the bushels. They are researching, planning, figuring. I watch her talk about their hope like it is already reality, but the conversation feels like a dream.

My grandmother could have done it, lived off the grid. She farmed ten acres of suburban land single-handedly. The zinnias alone, not necessarily a requirement for off-the-grid living, would have impressed you with their bright abundance. They were wheels and wheels of yellow, pink, magenta, red, orange . . . colors like a dream (the kind in which you promise someone you’ll skip rope eternally in exchange for lollipops and orange soda, until you’re too old to remember you don’t like lollipops anymore).

Unlike the demands of the dream, my grandmother required nothing in exchange for the privilege of admiring her zinnias. I touched their petals, stared at the way they overlapped like huge velvety fish scales.

The zinnias were one thing; the berries, fruit trees, and vegetables were another. Once, I ate so many mulberries I stained myself and my dress purple. My mother was angry, as the story has it, but for me it was a child’s dream. Berries upon berries upon berries, until I could eat (and stain) no more.

The whole ten acres was rather like that. If the world markets had crashed and the supermarket shelves gone empty, I could have survived off the grid at my grandmother’s house. Strawberries, blueberries, cherries, plums (both yellow and purple), lettuces, string beans, cucumbers, and an acre of corn. (Once, she even offered me turtle soup, because she’d caught and cooked a snapper from the L-shaped lake that lay on the west side of her property. I didn’t eat it.) What we couldn’t finish eating fresh, for the sheer abundance of it, we could find later, lining the shelves on the way down the slate and concrete basement stairs. I have never since tasted three-quarter-inch fat sweet pickles that were anything like her signature canned (glassed?) goods.

“Where could you live off the grid?” I ask my married-three-years-now friend. Somewhere in South America, she tells me. Farming.

I laugh.

Not at her, but at the thought of me trying to do the same — live off the grid. Granted, last winter I single-handedly fed an unplanned lunch to a group of twenty snow-stranded parishioners. I found two sugar pumpkins left over from a harvest festival sponsored by the church. I peeled and chopped them (a real pioneer woman’s job), borrowed an onion from the lady next door, found some canned corn and salt and pepper and nutmeg in the cabinet (who knew these things existed above the sink before that day?), and put everything together in a surprising soup. People seemed impressed that I’d made something out of nothing, just when they thought they’d have to go hungry while waiting for the storm to abate.

The truth is every year I plant cucumbers, tomatoes, zucchini, and other promising vegetables. I dig, prune, water, wait. Nothing much happens. I must be the only woman alive to reap a single zucchini from six plants. I put this year’s bumper crop in a sauce, since it was too small to stand on its own. In fact, my daughter asked me what it was, being that its size didn’t betray its vegetable identity.

Right now I should be planting winter rye and red clover — cover crops, to build the soil for next year’s vegetable dreams. But I know it doesn’t really matter. Come next fall, I will be looking at my gardens that pretended all summer, until they wilted into fall.

If I could find the farmerly-grandmother gene I seem to have misplaced, I might be able to move to South America and live off the grid with my friend and her husband. I could impress people with pumpkin soup made from the flesh of my own sugar pumpkins. I could harvest onions and corn. We’d have strawberries for breakfast, or plums. I could quote Willliam Carlos Williams and pretend to apologize for eating the plums someone had set aside for himself in the fridge (though perhaps there would be no fridge if we lived off the grid).

You should not be alarmed at my wishes for another reality, or the thought that you might knock on my door and find I’ve eloped with my zucchini plants to South America. Unlike my grandmother, I couldn’t feed a single person for a day with my agricultural skills. Unless dreams themselves could feed.

photo by:

Pittsburgh

Snow has fallen on Penn Avenue,
as golden morning, fallen, melting
and I walk past Heinz dead sign
pouring wishes red by ruffled bird
head cut near booted print of water
gathered on these winter shoes.

Morning meets our faces, lights our shoes
traipsing past chrysanthemums on Avenue;
I wonder if this smiling man wants water
even as he fingers tunes, accordion melting
Pittsburgh into Italy like blue crow bird
balancing on wires, pointing like a sign

to better days or worse days, unsign
my heart in city’s morning, under shoes
like memories of Italy if I were crow bird
coming faster than a ship to Avenue,
bringing back a tune for you, melting
from the sun, off my wings like water

and you like red accordion, under water
moved with motion slow, muffled sign
of lilting love trembled fingers melting,
lay your undulating heart like shoes
skirting ice, skirting mud on Avenue
tipping toes to sky tapping like a bird

against a building, aged, flocked with bird
and bird and bird, flicking winged water
at a golden sun, over market on the Avenue,
daring with their beaks a silver studded sign
directing cars to park like spotted shoes
that walked the day, trod your memory melting

like reflections on the glass, Pittsburgh melting
old against the morning like a crow black bird
in final flight, mocking if he could your tap of shoes
that crack and split the concrete, splash the water
of my heart, poured out like Heinz red neon sign
drifting ‘midst lost tune of accordion on Avenue

fading, fading like the light of morning over water
dreaming, dreaming for the surety of one last sign
clapping, clapping like a shoe or bird on melting Avenue.

The Art of Drinking Tea

On the third of July, I sat on my back porch with a cup of English Breakfast. I was there to write an essay about the Fourth of July. As is often my way, I look to the things around me to inform my writing path at any particular moment. It makes my life simpler to write synergistically (if you do not want to become part of my essays, you should probably leave the room, or the porch, when I begin putting words to paper).

In any case, for that patriotic day, I was searching for something just right. Nothing too controversially free-wheeling, nothing too hard-line nationalistic. Simply something to celebrate without making any big political statements.

This, of course, is the problem with letting your surroundings determine your writing path. I had brought a cup of English Breakfast to the porch. As I sat to collect my thoughts, I could not escape the irony. Why hadn’t I brought mint? Must it be English Breakfast for the Fourth of July?

One thing led to another and before I knew it I was also considering the imported orange tropical flowers in my herb garden, Benjamin Franklin’s technically “immigrant” status, and the diverse mix of people I had photographed at an evening fireworks show the night before. From a don’t-rock-the-boat standpoint, my morning writing got completely out of hand all because of the English Breakfast.

Tea can be like that. I say I drink it as a daily ritual to comfort me. But in the next moment, I say it is filled with anti-oxidants, it reduces your risk of getting cancer. Green tea helps you lose weight. Red tea helps you sleep. Tea from Granada reminds you of how you walked cobblestone streets, and bought three kinds of tea and powdered saffron in the open square. Kombucha will boost your immune system. Japanese bancha will show you listened to a Mr. Scott Calgaro’s preferences and decided to try them on, to good effect (this is the third box you have bought for yourself, organic).

That is important. The organic part. And the Fair Trade part, too. You feel a twinge of guilt wondering about the Granada tea. Who picked the oranges and dried meaty peels into little curls that smell so fragrant amidst grey-green pearls of dried leaves and petals of lavender? Who, in fact, grew and picked the lavender, too?

I say I drink my tea as a daily ritual to comfort me, and it is true. Also true are the health benefits, the Granada memories, the social connection element, and the fact that I prefer Fair Trade tea but do not always drink it because I can’t (and don’t want to) follow the path of every leaf and petal. How can it all be true? This is a source of recurring argument in my home. I say I did this or that, for that or this reason. I say five things that all seem different, and they are all true. It is like trying to wrap one’s head around the stories of ancient peoples. It is like trying to read Genesis and Darwin and come out unscathed, not once rocking the boat of truth.

When I was a little girl, I lived in a difficult family. My stepfather hid the car keys from my mother. He took the knobs off all the lamps and appliances so we couldn’t use “his” electricity. Once, he choked my sister until she turned beet red. My mother threatened him with a knife, and today, I still have a sister with whom I can drink regular old Lipton. I have long since moved on from that brand, but my gentle mother still requires it when she comes to my house for a visit. She takes it with a bit of milk and hesitates when I offer her the evaporated cane juice sugar. How can it be real if it isn’t white like the milk?

A long time ago, my mother gave me the ritual of tea. It was a comfort, like the poetry she read to me each day before the school bus came. She taught me to drink black tea with a little milk and two teaspoons of sugar. Somewhere along the line she stopped using sugar, so I did too. Today I sometimes add honey. Mostly I let the flavor of the tea stand alone, except when I add milk to something like an Earl Grey, which surely benefits from the adding. My mother is diabetic now, maybe because she started using sugar again and eating donuts alongside her tea; so, when she comes she uses just a half a teaspoon of the evaporated cane or, if she has remembered to bring it along, she uses a sugar substitute.

Today I am drinking Kombucha. I am drinking it because I feel the need for comfort, and I didn’t want to eat chocolate without the companionship of tea. I am also drinking it because my throat feels mildly sore. Kombucha is good when you are sick. So is elderberry syrup, but I put a tea bag in my fat white mug and poured steaming water over it instead. This was more artful than taking the elderberry syrup. Besides, I knew I was going to write about tea, or something altogether different.

But here is the end of the matter, or perhaps the beginning. I am drinking Kombucha tea for five different reasons. All true.

Return to Sloansville

I close my eyes,
blot out one hundred
and fifty shale driveways
pickup trucks, Ford
pintos, trailers barely
tied to this ground
by wires, gas lines
cable TV.

I can still see
dirt road, Queen
Anne’s Lace, goldenrod
blue chicory,
field mice nesting
under leaning timothy
and the apple orchard
rooted beyond tall firs

where a woman
in navy sweat pants and
red Budweiser t-shirt
is just now hanging laundry
to drift upon the wind,
sing with ghosts
of spring white
blossoms, honeybees.


Poem reprinted from InsideOut: Poems, by L.L. Barkat (International Arts Movement, 2009).

Women of the House

We three moved to the city–
I liked golden shag rug, clean white

walls, square bedroom to myself
that shut out sounds of a new place
and trouble I found in line after gym
(she kept nudging, named me
Vanilla, so I stared hard, whispered,
“Chocolate bar!” and was called
on a different kind of carpet,
not golden, not soft).

Just when I learned my times tables
we went back; the house and our things
were gone (I remember no talk of it)

Photo: Kelly Langner Sauer

and we lived in a trailer, its linoleum
golden brown—meantime, they topped
soot-covered stones with plywood,

Photo: Kelly Langner Sauer

raised studs, put sheetrock in place
(after Scribner and Sons, men with
tattoos and nipple rings ran wires,
smashed cigarette butts into mom’s

used-to-be pink petunia garden).
All the while they were spackling,
cementing, whitewashing walls,
sister had begun collecting the mail

Photo: Kelly Langner Sauer

for a couple who lived half mile up our
straight dirt road. Bills, letters, ivory-
backed bird book with the prettiest
cardinals, jays, sparrows– a guide–
until someone found the whole
stash under her bed. Didn’t anybody

understand then that she and I
had, each in our own way, simply
been grasping for words.

Photo: Kelly Langner Sauer

Poem by L.L. Barkat, author of InsideOut: poems. Photographs by Kelly Langner Sauer.

Verse

Photographs by Claire Burge

What is poetry,
she asked…

fetching it to me…

with full hands.

How could I
answer the woman?
I do not know what
it is any more than
she…

I guess it must
be marks on tender
skin…

bearers of sin…

cool cups of rain
and bottles of tears…

collected on midnight
trains…

from the eyes
of old men, old women
and infants traveling
to God knows where…

it hangs and is lifted
from our hair…

goes onward and
onward speaking
itself…

tripping us
as we debark
chewing-gum-mottled
metal stairs.


Photographer Claire Burge is a photographer, entrepreneur, poet and writer in training who lives in the countryside of Ireland but calls South Africa home. You can find her at www.claireburge.com.

L.L. Barkat is a staff writer for this magazine.


Verse
Reprinted from InsideOut:poems
, published by International Arts Movement.

By L.L. Barkat

What is poetry,
she asked, fetching
it to me with full
hands. How could I
answer the woman?
I do not know what
it is any more than
she. I guess it must
be marks on tender
skin, bearers of sin,
cool cups of rain
and bottles of tears
collected on midnight
trains from the eyes
of old men, old women
and infants traveling
to God knows where,
it hangs and is lifted
from our hair
goes onward and
onward speaking
itself, tripping us
as we debark
chewing-gum-mottled
metal stairs.

Good Art: Born Inside or Out?

I walked into the classroom. No books on the shelves. Linoleum floor, cracked. No area rugs. Crayons, paper, glue, scissors, blocks? Nope. Well, at least there were desks and a blackboard.

The principal was cheery when I asked about curriculum. “This!” she said, sweeping her arm towards the window and the river beyond. Then she smiled like she’d given me the biggest gift an administrator could give a new teacher who would welcome 30 kids to an empty classroom in just a few short days.

Looking outside, the river seemed far off. Our view was enviable, in its way, but we wouldn’t be skipping down to muddy shores anytime soon. For all intents and purposes, the river was not going to replace my need for pencils and math books.

That year was one of the worst years I spent, in any profession. The school’s philosophy was that children are endlessly creative and could make the curriculum, direct their learning. Everything depended on what was inside the kids. But each day felt like a monumental struggle, as the gaping external environment sat waiting for us to magically fill it with creative products and responses.

Six years later, I entered a different classroom-not as the teacher, but as a parent. Books lined shelves. Bright red paper apples were strung along walls, inscribed with children’s names in black marker. Plastic stackable containers held math manipulatives, blocks, paints, scissors, and paper. Children sat in neat circles around oblong tables. Before each child was a sheet of paper with the letter “l” in bold, followed by blank lines. It was the end of the year, the alphabet taught long ago. But kids were carefully copying the letter and raising their hands to wait for the teacher to check their work.

Photo: Markus Rödder

Photo: Markus Rödder

Here, it didn’t seem to matter what was inside the kids. Their external environment-the room-was filled with colorful things and teacher-directed products and responses. It was quiet and orderly and, suddenly, terribly stifling. I couldn’t wait to leave.

Two rooms. One where everything depended on what was inside the kids, and the other where everything seemed focused on what was outside the kids.

Where was the room that saw the necessity for both-where inside and out were purposely, inextricably linked?

This is not just a classroom question. It is an artistic question.

One of my current roles is to help people write poetry. I begin with them where they are, and that’s exciting. Some fledgling poets come with image stacked upon image and form upon form (usually a kind of rhyme scheme). These poets rely on externals. Indeed, they are not so far off – except perhaps in particular points of skill – from certain published poets whose work does everything “right” but lacks an emotional center.

Others come bursting with emotion, spilled verse after verse in abstract language. I know the poets are sad or happy or confused or in love, because they tell me in so many words. However, if I were to line their poems up on the apple wall you might not discern the difference, except that each is stenciled with a distinct name.

Before I go any further, let me be very clear. This is not a criticism of beginning poets. I absolutely love the enthusiasm, efforts and warmth, the beautiful relationships I form with people who offer their words to me. Furthermore, I struggle with the same issues, especially when I’m trying to write poetry that is a first-try at a fresh life theme.

So that you’ll believe me, let me share a poem I composed as part of a new endeavor to write about my childhood loss of three homes to fire. Losing three homes in any fashion is hard; losing them to fire is a deeply emotional reality. This was my first try at putting it into poetry:

“After the Fire”
 

Come with me to chicory
lacedfoundation, gutted,
wheresit the stones,
burned and blackened,
like memories obscure
they stole away. I will take
 

your hand, lead youup
the thistled hill at back, where
stood three lilacs purpling
in rising mist. We can lean
and lift, cart soot-dust rocks
to nearby field, let greening
 

timothy lick them clean in
rain and wind. I will search
for new pine, iron nails, glass
to set in place. Such trifles
will notraise lost reveries
to life,but they can trace
 

my love, erect as grace.

While nice things are beginning to happen structurally-things having to do with momentum and subtleties in rhyme (“blackened” and “back,” “greening” and “clean”), there is little I can salvage from this poem. My favorite lines are “I will search/for new pine, iron nails, glass/to set in place.” I also like the “lilacs purpling,” as well as the thistles, chicory, and timothy.

Yet the poem isn’t quite what I hoped it would be.

What’s happening here? Most likely, I’m still lacking on two points: inside and out. What is inside me regarding the fire losses is buried too deep and perhaps afraid to assert itself more clearly with emotional power, much like the children tentatively raising their hands in that orderly, predictable classroom. So I’ve relied on abstract language (e.g., love and grace) to attempt an emotional expression. Unfortunately, the externals I bring to the poem do not make up for the emotional lack. The blackened stones could be in anybody’s poem. They are as undefined as the empty classroom that overlooked the river from a great distance. How could they possibly elicit a deep emotional response in me, or you?

My troubles in writing on this childhood theme will only be addressed with a two-fold solution: attend to both inside and out, through time and repeated attempts. Someday I hope to come back with a fire poem that will take a person’s breath away. But before I do, I’m going to have to feel more and sense more. Maybe I will need to visit a burned building or spend time free-writing to unearth the finer details of my lost homes and how I feel about their disappearance. There is hope, I believe, since not long after writing this poem I remembered how my sister and I got in trouble for feeding a fire-scorched container of Nestle Quik to our niece. This is a much more interesting image than blackened stones. And getting in touch with the fear and anger of the adults who punished us for the feeding-session might be a better entrance to the past.

In any case, are the troubles I’m experiencing confined to the poet? I don’t think so. It’s my belief that musicians, painters, dancers, even classroom teachers whose work lacks power might try a similar approach: cultivate both inside and out, then let the two ignite, embrace.


L.L. Barkat cherishes the lines of others who are making their poetic way. Visit her sometime at Seedlings in Stone, and join in the poetry celebrations she hosts at High Calling Blogs. Here’s a poem from her current collection InsideOut, published by International Arts Movement…

“Incident”
 

Dava Sobel
envied her friend,
who had somehow
got hold of moon dust-
about a tablespoon or
so, from an astro lover boy.
 

It could have been bottled
for posterity, sprinkled in
the garden or put in biscuits
to feed the five thousand,
if only
the woman had not
swallowed the whole
damn dose of it.
 

I kid you not, she claimed
it for her own and now
she is one with the moon.

The Perverse Monstrosity of Our Beautiful Art

It was the suckiest letter I ever received.

One friend pored over the words and responded, “It reads vindictive. How could someone speak this way about your beautiful writing? I feel like I’ve been punched in the gut and can hardly breathe.” Another said, “Throw that away and never look at it again.”

The reactions were strong, and I admit that if I hadn’t been around the block a few times, I might have taken the letter to heart-maybe cried all day or used the sheet for target practice, and certainly not chosen to share about the sucky-letter-in-question.

So why am I here now? And why did I tell my 12-year-old daughter about those unfriendly words? Too, why am I seriously considering framing the feedback, or at least stuffing it into an envelope to be found posthumously in my journals?

Here’s my three-word answer: Marschall, Johansson, Gehry.

As luck or the Divine would have it, I taught a children’s art class the day I received the-suckiest-letter-ever. There’s nothing extraordinary about that except I’d chosen to focus on the story of Ken Marschall. Marschall is a gifted artist whose facility with realism has earned him a solid career as a film matte painter. He’s also a Titanic aficionado and has produced countless meticulously-detailed pieces, commissioned both privately and commercially.

But Marschall’s first attempt to enter an art show was rejected when the committee said his Titanic painting was “not art” because it was “too realistic.” Soon after, a gentleman who had seen the rejected piece recognized Marschall’s talent and commissioned a new work. This was the beginning of a long and lettered artistic life, and today he is the world’s leading Titanic artist.

Was the focus on Marschal’s story a kind of serendipity for me? Maybe. I had spent the morning reminding children to embrace their gifts regardless of criticism and rejection; good work often finds audience, just like Marschall’s did, and I wanted to inspire the kids with a message of resilience.

Over the next week, my own message repeated itself through various unexpected means. Listening to an interview with Scarlett Johansson, I was struck by her observation that artists have to live with criticism. It’s pars for the course. Good work doesn’t just find audience; it also finds anti-audience.

Take architect Frank Gehry, for instance. A few days after the Johansson interview, I was treated to someone’s remote-control roulette spin: a documentary on Gehry’s journey and achievements. Like many artists, Gehry has his moments of doubt and creative mishaps, but as a successful architect he also demonstrates remarkable resilience and accomplishment.

Still, some critics have made it their mission to save the world from the likes of Gehry by being “honest” about his work. Such honesty has been expressed through words likeugly,monstrosity, andperverse.

This is not to say his critics are never right, which is what makes the whole process a tricky matter. Harsh criticism can hurt and disillusion, because it sometimes includes insight about our needs for growth. And this is why I discussed the sucky-letter with my 12-year-old daughter. She and I have been having conversations that go something like this…

“My writing isso bad.”

“Well, it does have certain weaknesses, but that’s not the whole story. Listen, Sara, it’s important to be realistic in two directions. You need to be realistic about your weak points, but you also need to be realistic about your strong points. A lot of your writing is incredibly beautiful-better than a great deal of adult writing I’ve seen. You need to remember that.”

It’s essential for my sensitive daughter to develop this kind of clear-mindedness if she’s going to face the criticism she’ll eventually encounter as a talented artist. By sharing about the letter, I was introducing her to the way of the artist’s world; I was also demonstrating the very resilience I hope she’ll develop over time.

In the end, the problem with extreme criticism is that it doesn’t tell the whole story. Or maybe it almost does, but in an unexpected fashion. Thinking on Gehry, I concluded that one reason he draws such intense criticism is because he’s done an excellent job of honing his vision and craft. People who don’t like Gehry’s brand of architecture are going to have an extra-strong reaction to his work; it’s just sogood in a way they despise.

My daughter and I discussed this too, on a sunny day, driving through a peaceful residential neighborhood. Then she surprised me by bringing up the matter of the sucky-letter. “Hey, I think that person actually gave you a big compliment.”

Perhaps.

That’s why I’m seriously considered framing my critic’s words. Or folding them up and deliciously licking an envelope. Now, if only I actually kept a journal . . .

Eyewitness News

I walk through Times Square. Red, blue, purple, yellow flash and wink. Faces blur. Lights pulse: on, off, on, off. Someone sings a pop song I don’t recognize, revving up those passing by. Times Square. Me, passing through.

Breathing sultry air, I witness the moment: on, off, on, off. I feel my arms in motion, my feet hitting the pavement. Buildings rise, old, connecting me to a past I cannot really touch. Billboards change rapid-fire and signs rotate. In just a few short minutes I witness Mary Poppins, Bubba Gump, race cars speeding.

In the midst of this are offers to come and go – somewhere, but I’m not sure of destinations. The bus stop. Theater tickets starting at $31.50. A giant beer bottle rising up golden, then disappearing.

“I will write as soon as I get to New York,” said Father Byles. I saw his words, bigger than life, white against amber, just an hour ago in the exhibit for Titanic. I will write as soon as never came. Still, the words are hanging somewhere near Times Square, in a dark hall where you can touch a piece of sunken ship, buy a fragment of coal that powered black and white promise (virtually unsinkable! they said). My daughter reached into the touch case – a fragile child’s hand traced remains of wreckage. We passed on the coal purchase, refusing to buy tragedy.

Mary Poppins floats skyward, clinging to her black umbrella. I watch her go and wish for my own umbrella against time. And a red dress. I could use a red dress, singing past tragedy.