I’ve long been fascinated by the Canadian painter and writer, Emily Carr. Who wouldn’t admire a woman who went off – in 1898 – by herself – to stay in aboriginal villages in British Columbia? She was a daring Modernist artist, Canada’s answer to Georgia O’Keefe. At the same time, she was a staunch environmentalist before most people knew the word or understood the concept.
Today, Aji Magazine (pronounced Ah-hee) published a poem of mine about this amazing artist in their “Emerald Issue”. http://ajimagazine.com
Brushed: Emily Carr
No one asked her to come. She just came. To Cumshewa, To Haida Gwaii. To The Islands of the People. A leather satchel, wrinkled like an old woman’s nose, stuffed with tubes of pthalo blue, camel hair brushes, old rags. A dented frying pan, blackened by beans, hung onto the slope of her horse’s back like a metal tail.
She was there to paint the hidden woods and waters, to sweep the mines of aqua and marine. Her arrival stirred the native sons, who narrowed their eyes and hid behind the virgin firs at her first approach. But the elders knew sacred when they saw it and praised the transparent quiet of the stranger’s step.
At night she bedded down alone on the forest floor letting the wolves speak to her, fauve to fauve. By day, with hurried strokes, she copied the beryl pond, the turquoise lakes, the blue-green domes. Before the loggers slashed, before soapsuds curdled streams, she stashed emeralds onto canvas, none too soon.
I’m just back from Montreal where I participated in the launch of My Island, My City, a collection of new work from forty different writers, sponsored by Montreal’s own Lawn Chair Soirée and edited by Jan Jorgensen. I was delighted to have my poem Skatingto China included in this anthology.
If you don’t know Montreal (one of my favorite cities in the world!) you might like a bit of an explanation.
The quick facts are:
1)Montreal is really an island in the huge Saint Lawrence River.
2) Jacques Cartier arrived in the area around 1538 (think about that for a minute!).
3) He was certain that China lay beyond the rapids blocking his further passage. The area south of the city became known as Lachine (China) and still bears that name.
4). Eventually, around 1821, they built a canal to bypass the rapids.
5). You can bike, walk or rollerblade along this now refurbished canal path.
6). It’s really fun to skate to China.
Skating to China
It’s not that hard, even for an old lady with bunions and a bad knee. Bring water. Start at the Vieux Port and just keep going. A few kilometers or so. It’s mostly flat, except for a few dips below the highways. If you’re too chicken to fly downhill, take off your blades and waddle under the Décarie in your SmartWools alone. Cyclists, with their lime green jerseys, will buzz past you like flies. But pay no attention to speed. Put your skates back on again and continue Notice how a city, too, takes its time. Getting rooted, decaying, rising again. See here the graffiti, the crumbling walls, the edge of Montreal unfurling. Then the greenery, the new and tidy condos, the canal reborn. All along, the wild smell of the sea will follow you, floating on the Saint Lawrence like the feather of a gull. There will be wind and boats and birds and all things marvelous, which you might have temporarily forgotten even existed, but now you remember, and you’ll want to hold them inside you, even as you leave them behind. When you arrive in LaChine, remember why it’s called LaChine. Turn around. Skate home
The Alaska Writer Laureate, Peggy Shumaker, provided the poem prompt for the spring issue of Willawaw. The prompt was Parenthood, Unplanned. I’m honored that two of my poems, Edelweiss, and Nest, appear in this issue.
Mother was always the oldest of mothers. The gray chignon, the lace-up Oxfords, the little metal cart she pushed back and forth to the Blue Goose Market because she never learned to drive. The other mothers kept their hair short, so practical for playing tennis, riding in convertibles, quick showers after a swim.
Mother, as the oldest of mothers, was a bath person. The hard-milled soaps, imported from France, the shrimp-colored girdle dropped onto the tile floor. Sometimes she’d let me sit, as a little girl, on the edge of the tub, and I’d stare at the flat crepes of her breasts, the two or three hairs growing on her shins like thistle. Did I come from that body? I would ask. Yes, she would say, you were a bloom in the desert.
Mother was always the oldest of mothers. Not frail exactly, but the old country was in her bones.Something slightly brittle. Given to fretting: wet socks, drafts, sniffles, prunes. Frugal, too, she was, because there had been a war. She knew people who had eaten shoe leather, put sawdust in their bread. She could not bear to watch me toss a half-eaten apple into the trash. So much waste in America, she would scoff.
Mother, as the oldest of mothers, didn’t like surprises. The questionable report card, the note from the teacher. It was best to prepare her. She had already suffered the ultimate shock, the one that turned her auburn hair the color of ash. Once she told me how she thought the doctor had been joking. But then you appeared, she said, the edelweiss in my winter.
She was the grandmother, after all, so she had little choice. But they were a handful, those two brothers, sullen as sin, given to the surreptitious pinch, the bully stare.
She had brought them home from out West, two little disruptions to her cozy retirement. One was eight, with scrawny limbs like a toddler.The other was six, with cheeks pale as chalk.
Their mother was long gone. Some said a half-way house, she was messed up, that girl. Others thought Las Vegas, a so-called ranch, the legal kind with doctors.
The grandmother said little, except, perhaps, a prayer under her breath. Neighbors whispered that she, herself, had once been a nun, or a yogini. Who else would have such patience?
She must have known that nothing would change overnight. Doors would still be kicked in from time to time, rocks thrown. The kitten would be tortured, its paws bound with rubber bands.
First came Cleanliness, a nightly bath, the banishment of lice. Godliness would have to wait while she cured the scarlet scabs of impetigo and taught them how to wash their necks.
For afternoon snacks, she insisted on apples, cut into fourths, or whole-wheat cookies that tasted like dust, but she was not above a little bag of M&M’s for chores well done.
That first summer, she pointed out Venus rising in the evening sky, The Pleiades falling above their heads, the velvet bats flapping around the street lamps, the natural rhythms.
All her efforts. They won’t make any difference to those kids, said the neighbors.
In the spring,she took them to see the nest, waking the boys each day at dawn, showing them how to focus the field glasses on the wisps of straw,the fragile eggs.
One morning two little birds, barely feathered, cracked through the shells. The boys watched as the mother bird chewed the worms herself before dropping them into the gaping baby mouths.
In time the boys would understand about hunger and nests and the natural order of things. For now, all she could give them was the safety of the morning meadow, and the future hope of flight.
The Compassion Anthology is a beautiful collection of writing about disasters, refugees, loss. I find it both uplifting and inspiring. I’m honored to have one of my poems included in the latest edition. Please read below:
Where did the tortoise go when the winds blew? Did he pull his scaly head inside his shell and ride it out?
Where did the tortoise go when the rains came? Did he get plunged down the ravine like a life-less stone?
When the dock sank, when the church lost its roof, when the porch of the market was sucked into the salt pond…
Where was the tortoise?
Did he dig down into the earth itself, his mouth bloated with mud, his small heart nesting against the roots of the baobab? Afterwards, no one thought about him. Not at first. Not when there were men stunned and peeing their khaki shorts, women wandering in circles, twisting their hair, unable to speak. Not even later when folks began making their way through the jungle of downed wires, splintered shutters, hijacked hulls. Now and then coming upon surprises.
A toy bear, soggy, but recognizable. A wedding dress, its lace intact. A bottle of Heineken, unbroken.
But where was the tortoise?
No one knew. No one cared.
And then, in time, everyone lining up like dung beetles, seeking water, signals, familiar faces, those chalky packets of Red Cross food, ever-welcome, even so. And little by little, a carapace of the old life emerged from the rubble, and the tortoise emerged too.
He was last seen crawling along the Coral Bay Road, his house on his back. Slow as usual, but undeterred.
You might also like to check out the CHARTER FOR COMPASSION with which this anthology is affiliated. This is a document which urges the peoples and religions of the world to embrace the core value of compassion, inspired by Karen Armstrong, the writer and religious scholar.http://www/charterforcompassion.org It is available in thirty languages and embraces forty-five countries around the world.
Stone Bridge Press focuses on Asian-themed literature. I am delighted that my piece entitled "Uni!" was selected for the February 2017 Stone Bridge Café website.
Urchin, anyone? Check it out here: http://stonebridge.com/…og/stone-bridge-cafe-uni
or Read it here:
The old lady waved to me as I backpacked through her seaside village on my way around Shikoku. She was clearly happy about something she had spotted off the end of the rough wooden pier.
“Look over here! There’s uni!” she said, pointing below the surface of the water.
The Seto Sea gently slapped the shore. The water was the color of green tea, with a splash of cerulean. I glanced down, but I saw nothing. She pointed again.
“You eat uni?” she asked, looking into my foreign eyes.
“I don’t know,” I said, “I’ve never tried it.”
As a walking pilgrim, I was mostly eating in the dining halls of the Buddhist temples where I slept. There was never sea urchin on the menu. I supplemented the temple food with cheap udon, veggies, and plenty of Shikoku’s ubiquitous citrus fruit.
I knew that fresh uni was a beloved Japanese food, a creature prized for its privates – not the roe but the testes…which were reportedly as soft as what? Sweet butter, lemon custard, a baby’s thumb?
“Ah, just wait, chotto matte,” said the old woman as she looked around on the dock for a spear.
I gathered that she was about to procure us some urchin.
Perhaps she was offering me this delicacy as a form of o-settai, the special gift which Shikoku people bestow on walking pilgrims. I had already met hundreds of residents bearing o-settai, as I made my way along the circular 1200-kilometer route starting at Tokushima. They had come running after me with their blessings and their small presents: hand-crocheted Kleenex holders, ball point pens, hard candies, hard-boiled eggs, oranges, freshly made omigiri.
And now, today, I was being gifted with an opportunity to taste sea urchin.
My Japanese was hesitant, but my palate was willing. I suddenly remembered an expression from a Japanese textbook. Waku waku shiteiru. I’m excited, I told the old woman. I hoped she could sense my gratitude.
I watched as she creaked to her knees, and then leaned over the water. At her age – she had told me she was almost eighty – her agility was remarkable. I understood that her fisherman husband must have died long ago, leaving her all alone in the little house by the sea.
I started to puff up at the thought of my good fortune. A chance meeting with someone who was kind enough to offer me a Japanese luxury. That’s the kind of thing that happens to real adventurers, I gloated to myself. In the moment, I completely forgot about my goal of being a humble o-henro on a spiritual quest.
The old lady stabbed once and missed. Then stabbed again and whooped like a schoolgirl.
She raised the spear out of the water and showed off the carapaced globe, symmetrically radial and as spiky as a garden teasel.
To arrive at the meaty jewel, she covered her hands in thick rubbery-fabric gloves, and worked slowly, but deftly, like a heart surgeon.
A lone spine brushed her bare forearm and sliced a thin crimson trough in her skin. She stopped the bleeding with the edge of her apron and kept on working to pull apart the exoskeleton and expose the living treasure.
“Mo sugu. Pretty soon,” she said, pulling off her gloves and rushing into her house.
She returned with soy sauce and a plate. A single plate. Heavy stoneware with a dull finish, chipped on the side.
She placed the naked flesh in the center and bathed it in shoyu.
“Now you can see how we Japanese eat uni,” she said.
After a quick itadakimasu, she swallowed, before my very eyes,
I wrote this poem after reading about a Houston man living in a flooded public housing project who was able to save his family piano.
When the river rose, and water came knocking like a stranger, the family got out, somehow, to higher ground, leaving behind the second-hand furniture, the neatly folded clothes, the new toy elephant, and hardest of all, the old piano. Well-loved, but missing its pedals, obtained for a song, a while back, from the local church, where the pastor wanted to see it find a good home. Now the spinet would be orphaned once again, abandoned to flood.
As they were leaving, the man raised a wet fist to the storm, and cursed the housing project built too close. And he counted his children, by head and number. Four, four. Thank God, there were still four.
And then the rains stopped. And the man and his brood returned home, to the place where the windows were now shattered from the wind, and the bedding and walls were plastered with frog-green scum.
But the old piano had stood its ground, up to its knees in brown liquid, its guts still dry. And the man, shaken, but safe, sat down to play, his feet keeping time on the soggy floor, the linoleum squishing. And all around him the air was damp, stenched, sweaty as an armpit.
And the man released music, like a dove, into the sky, and it flew out the broken window and circled above the swallowed city, and the bayous, and it cleansed the muddy places of his heart. And two children clapped, and two children cried, and the man kept playing because he could.
Parks and Points is an interesting site. They celebrate nature and the out-of-doors, especially our state and national parks. I am delighted to be included in their 2017 Poetry Series with my poem about Asseateague Island National Seashore (the place with the wild ponies)
At night we hear them.
Not a stampede, exactly, but a rush of hooves.
Determined, breathy, equine. Loud.
Noisy enough to jolt our slumber.
The grandson, a city child, not yet nine years old, squeezes my hand and whispers,
Will they eat the tent?
No, I say, explaining that the wild horses don’t care for the taste of 70 denier nylon.
We talk about the two roans we saw today, off in the dunes.
They were swatting flies with their tails and quibbling over the sparse grass.
Now we lie in the dark and listen to the waves rolling against the shore, slapping,
retreating, rolling again.
Where do the ponies sleep? the grandson asks.
For this I have no answer. Maybe the rangers know.
The wind picks up, flutters the guy-lines of the tent, flaps our towels against the post.
The smell of fresh dung rides the island breeze.
The boy moves his sleeping bag closer to mine.
We lie awake for a little while, the two of us alone on this sliver of sand,
this shelter for the untamed,
splintered between ocean and dust.
BioStories.com is a great place for reading memoirs and recollections.
My piece, The Wild Cherry Tree, appears in Volume 7. Number 1. It was also subsequently reprinted in a BioStories anthology, published in 2018.
Read it below:
Mother hated that tree. The messy wild cherries that fell over our bluestone patio, the undisciplined way that the thin branches spread out like unkempt hair, the crookedness of the limbs.
should just chop it down,” she’d say every spring, when yellow-white tentacles
of blossoms appeared, then gave way to small, pea-sized fruit.
it’s beautiful,” I’d say.
have other trees,” Mother would insist.
the 1950’s. We were living at the time in a historic valley in New Jersey,
settled by Dutch colonists in the 17th
century, rapidly becoming suburban. Our yard was full of mature maples and
oaks, a solid hickory, a couple of weeping willows down by the shallow drainage
brook that bordered our property.
August, when the small reddish-purple cherries ripened, Mother would repeat her
year,” she’d say. “We’re going to get rid of that monstrosity.”
liked order. Precision. Cleanliness. Everything that the Prunus
Serotia was not.
wild cherries fell, the air around the tree would smell slightly sour and
fermented, like a child’s lunch bag left behind in a school locker.
we eat the cherries?” I once asked.
course not,” said Mother, “They’re barely fit for birds. It’s a totally useless
that hard to believe. The cherries looked perfectly delicious. Besides,wasn’t
Mother always talking about how people back in Europe, starving during World
War II, had eaten shoe leather and bread made from cellulose? Animal carcasses?
odd that she considered wild cherries to have no value.
Mother had her firm opinions. I knew better than to try to sway her mind. She
could give the impression of being steely or cold, but underneath, she was
sensitive and emotional, largely ruled by melancholy, not meanness.
a child, I knew that she struggled with inner ghosts. She was estranged from
her far-away family of origin, with its traditional codes of honor and shame.
Clearly something had happened, maybe during her childhood. There was the uncle
whose name she refused to say, the distant cousin whose letters she destroyed.
her marriage seem to bring her happiness. Although she tried hard to be a
century American homemaker, collecting recipes from Good
Housekeeping, decorating the house for Christmas, her heart
clearly wasn’t in it.
don’t belong here,” she’d say.
where was here? In suburban America? In the comfortable house with the cherry
tree? In the big double bed she shared with my father, although she never spoke
of loving him.
weren’t for you kids,” she would say, but she would never finish the sentence.
lost one of us. One of her children. A little boy, my baby brother. I vaguely
remembered his tiny coffin, fitted with brass handles like two half moons and a
smooth satin pillow. Perhaps, because of that loss, she held a personal
grudge against the wild cherry tree, so prolific and careless with its bounty.
Mother would always forget about chopping down the tree by the time autumn came
around and the leaves had turned a lovely, benign shade of yellow. With the
arrival of cold weather and the diminishing light, she would no longer go
outside. Like a bear, she would hibernate within the thick walls of the house.
the other hand, loved the outdoors in all kinds of weather, even in the
grayness of a late winter afternoon. Out in the fresh air, I could breathe
freely and sing silly songs and make snow angels and lie on by back looking up
at bare branches creaking in the wind.
summertime, I remember climbing up that wild cherry tree with a cloth bag slung
over my shoulder. The pink bag was supposed to hold ballet shoes, toes shoes
actually, the kind with small tufts of rabbit fur inside. A delicate,
girly-girly bag, it was. But I preferred using it as a mountaineer’s back pack.
I’d twist the bag around, depending on how I needed to maneuver as I climbed.
Inside the bag would be a few books, maybe some colored pencils, a sketchpad,
and contraband candy such as Necco Wafersor a Bonomo Turkish Taffy. About
half-way up the tree, maybe ten feet or so, after scraping my knee against the
coarse bark a couple of times, I’d stop and settle into a sort of seat that my
older brother had helped me fashion out of hemp lashed between two limbs.
morning long, I’d keep my nose in the silence of The
Betsy-Tacy Stories, but I’d be serenaded by chickadees and warblers.
They’d grab the purplish fruit and fly off. Sunlight would dapple the oblong
leaves. I’d run my fingers along their fine, serrated edges. The cherry tree
was my own cathedral, my sanctuary. Solid, tall, sheltering. Like a protective
Mother, burdened with grief and memories, really know where I was? I don’t
think so. Back in those days, most kids in small towns were largely
unsupervised. When I wasn’t with friends or at summer camp, I left the house
after breakfast and showed up at lunch time. I’d take long bike rides by
myself, sometimes stopping at the candy store for fresh supplies of
forbidden sweets. Sometimes I’d walk along the brook that bordered our
property. But I always made time to sit in the tree, invisible to the rest of the
day our town blew a whistle at the fire station at twelve noon sharp. The siren
would crank up and the German Shepherd who belonged to the neighbors on the
other side of the creek would start to howl. That’s how I knew to get down from
the tree and show up at the lunch table, wiping the traces of Necco
Wafers and wild cherries off my lips. By then I had discovered,
through my own experimentation, that the fruit of the Prunus
Serotia was perfectly edible.
night, the year I was eleven, a particularly heavy summer storm blew through
our valley. When I woke up in the morning, Mother began talking about storm
damage. She had been worried about the brook overflowing and heading towards
our house, but now the rain had stopped. I ran outside to explore.
immediately, I saw what was left of my tree.
had sliced the graceful wild cherry down the middle, leaving a black slash in
its wake, like the old movie character,
limbs had fallen onto lower limbs. Branches had flown off, torpedo-like, across
the lawn, and ripe cherries had bombed the patio, like small red grenades.
rushing back in, breathless.
you didn’t tell me about the tree!” I said. “The wild cherry tree!”
accomplished what I had meant to do years ago.”
feel myself on the verge of tears, but I didn’t want Mother to see me crying. I
ran back outside and stared in shock at the destruction.
those days our family had a book called Life’s Picture History
of World War II. Black and white photographs of Normandy
beaches. Dunkirk. The London Blitz. I sometimes would take down that book and
leaf through it. Mother usually discouraged me from staring too long at the
wreckage of war.
a horrible time,” she’d say.
knew, even as an eleven year old, that a tree struck by lightning was not in
the same league as the bombing of Dresden. I knew that I shouldn’t be crying
over a tree. A wild cherry tree was not a human being. The loss of one tree was
not the same as the loss of a baby or the devastation of an entire city.
I wiped my tears and went down to the brook to calm myself down.
couple of men with chainsaws arrived later that day. They clumped around in
their heavy work boots and discussed the best way to clean up the heap of
ripped greenery and split bark. Then they started cutting until only a stump
Mother and I never talked about
the tree. Eventually she planted herbs where the cherry tree had stood, and the
smell of mint and tarragon and rosemary seemed to give her pleasure, but it was
hard to tell for sure.
I‘m fortunate to have old friends, who have known me through the different stages of my life. I examine one of those cherished friendships in a poem entitled “The Lakeside Diner” which appears in January 2017 issue of Poetry Breakfast. Check it out at:http://poetrybreakfast.com or read it below:
The Lakeside Diner
The LakeSide Diner, homemade donuts, no lake,
just a pond, slick and thick as the Navy Bean soup
offered as a lunch special with a half grilled cheese on the side.
We greet each other in the parking lot, admire the October
foliage just turning yellow like an old wedding dress,
a few fallen leaves slippery under our sensible shoes.
We take a seat by the window, two old and good friends
meeting in a strange town, equidistant from our current homes,
hungry for news and reassurance that the other still
breathes and lives and reads, but not as much as she used to.
Once, decades past, we watched our little boys
placing gumdrops on the roof of a gingerbread house,
racing toy trucks to the sofa, while we, then as now, and for years in between,
talked about sacred and quiet things.
Today we order scrambled eggs, no butter, tea,
each weighing private matters of digestion,
trying not to stare too long at the other’s face growing wiser by the minutes,
preferring at times to look out at the mallards gliding along
the surface of the scummy water
carrying on as if there will be no water, no ice, no need to fly south.