Sailing by Ravens

Holly with Fox, to whom the book is dedicated (Photo by Isolde Pierce

A month or so ago I was fortunate to be able to have lunch with an old friend, poet Holly J. Hughes. I have mentioned her on this blog before, as she is one of the authors of The Pen and Bell (with Brenda Miller). And, as if catching Holly between a thousand other calls for her attention wasn’t accomplishment enough, she gave me a copy of her new poetry book, Sailing by Ravens, published by University of Alaska Press (2014).

“Read the poems in order,” Holly told me as we parted. But I always read poetry books in order, gobbling them up (in fact) like novels–not short stories or novellas, by the way, novels, because the best books of poetry have just as much emotional content. Not easy, not on the surface like a more conventional narrative, but there nonetheless.

Sailing by Ravens did not disappoint. I knew from reading her earlier chapbook, Boxing the Compass (Floating Bridge, 2007), that learning to navigate rough seas would be interwoven here with the trickier navigation of a marriage and its end. But in Sailing, the metaphor of navigation is extended. Holly spent 30 summers working in (on?) the waters of Alaska (I’m quoting a review by Tim McNulty), “fishing, skippering a sailing schooner, and working as a ship’s naturalist. Her poems shimmer with authenticity.”  The poems about human relationships shimmer with authenticity, too. And all of the poems benefit from Holly’s willingness to carefully observe her world (and read about it), no matter how painful, or how beautiful. The prose poem, “Navigating the Body,” had an epigraph that sent me scurrying for a pen (“No land in human topography is less explored than love” -Jose Ortega y Gasset) and then took me into unexpected territory:

Navigating the Body

Our bodies an accumulation of coordinates, paths not taken, streets pulled up short, lonely alleys, dead ends. In the dark I reach out, find crows’ crooked feet, scrim of scars–proud flesh–read each scar, remember its time and place, its bright spurt of blood. These are the landscapes we think we know. These are the landscapes we’ll never know. In the dark, we make our way, mapping and remapping the continents each night. Like Scheherazade we keep doing this; like Scheherazade, this is how we stay alive. 

Confession: I’ve read this book three times. The first time through, the forms (sestina, villanelle, ghazal and others) as well as some of the subjects (Mercator, Flavia Gioia, John Harrison are only three) were lost on me. But as I read and absorbed the notes, and reread the poems, the book seemed to have a trapdoor in its floor that dropped me down into another level (into water? over my head?). It was only then that I began to appreciate the encyclopedic knowledge that I was being offered, in addition to the poetics, “Isinglass darkened, but not enough to shield our Eyes, / rays of Sun Fractal, spatterpaint retinas, Shutter stutters.” (Just two lines from “The Forestaff 1587.” Such sounds!) So, not just argot, then, but shovel-loads of sound and sense detail, “scooped, shovel by shimmering shovel, into the fish hold” (“What She Can’t Say”).

True, it takes a while to process such a treasure. But the trip is well worth it–and I’m pleased to heartily recommend this book.

Go to  to find more information about Holly J. Hughes (and links to reviews), and to Verse Daily to find another of her poems.

Color OUTSIDE the lines

color outside the linesFor my artist date a few weeks ago, I signed up for a 2-hour art class at ArtSpot in Edmonds. I had no idea what to expect, but it was advertised as an Artist’s Way function, and it seemed to fit the bill.

There were only a few students, and I was there early. The teacher swept me into the back room and asked what brought me. I told her about The Artist’s Way and about my on-going love of art and art-making, all the aborted projects at home, my drawing classes in college (from which I withdrew, every time). “What’s up with that?” she asked, not really paying attention (or so it seemed), and busily laying out her materials.

I told her my mother’s story about me as a little girl, watching my older brother color in a coloring book and refusing to take part until I was able to color perfectly, inside the lines. “Oh!” My teacher’s face lit up. “You must color OUTSIDE the lines!”

We worked with gelli plates to create our art, something entirely new for me, by the way. It was a little like finger-painting, just playing with several layers of acrylic paints and patterns, applying each one in a more or less systematic way to a block or a small piece of canvas (I did both). When we were finished with the gelli’s, our instructor wanted us to write I AM ENOUGH on the finished product. On my first project, I instead wrote COLOR OUTSIDE THE LINES. On my blue one, I wrote (in paint, very sloppy) “I am enough,” but I later covered it up and tried to turn the projeangelct into an angel, like one I’d seen in the studio. (Copying was encouraged.)

I wasn’t entirely pleased with how these turned out (that darned perfectionism!), but my teacher said it didn’t matter. “This is about process, not product. Do it again! Have fun!”

And I did have fun.


Madeleine L’Engle
“I have advice for people who want to write. I don’t care whether they’re 5 or 500. There are three things that are important: First, if you want to write, you need to keep an honest, unpublishable journal that nobody reads, nobody but you. Where you just put down what you think about life, what you think about things, what you think is fair and what you think is unfair. And second, you need to read. You can’t be a writer if you’re not a reader. It’s the great writers who teach us how to write. The third thing is to write. Just write a little bit every day. Even if it’s for only half an hour – write, write, write.” ―Madeleine L’Engle


Some recent gifts. There should be a butterfly paperweight here, too, but it is temporarily in the wrong room. (Thank you, Carey!)

My birthday has rolled around again, almost, and I’m treating myself to a weekend retreat, a retreat that includes wine and chocolate (thanks, Kathy!). The retreat center is near my mother’s home, and I’ll be able to visit. My family is planning dinner for Sunday evening, when I get home, to celebrate my birthday.

It sounds perfect, and yet it has been hard to be faithful to this retreat. The friend I am traveling with called the other day and said, “You’re off the hook. You do not have to go if you don’t want to.” I had been showing a surprising lack of enthusiasm, and probably deserved to be dumped. But The Artist’s Way saved the day. Isn’t this the extended artist’s date I’ve been denying myself? Aren’t I supposed to do this? I insisted that I am, really — somewhere, buried inside — excited, and that I want to go. “Okay,” my dear, brilliant friend said, “but no work. You are going to relax.” This comment resulted in 24 hours of arguing with myself about how I have to work every day. My better angels won — I’m taking my journal and novel and book of (someone else’s) poetry. No manuscript.

Next kerfuffle: I learned yesterday that my mother has another UTI. Texting with my sister, I felt a flurry of guilt. Maybe I should cancel my plans to attend the retreat and just visit my mother instead. Wouldn’t that be relaxing enough? And doesn’t my mother need me?

I recalled, then, that my students used to make similar excuses (a gift, of sorts, to remember): “My brother is having surgery,” a young woman once told me, “so i’m going to miss a few days of classes.” Wait, I wanted to ask her, are you doing the surgery? (And what are you doing taking my composition class, if you’re already a qualified surgeon, for crying out loud?!)

This morning, another test: one of my daughters turns up sick. I knew last night that she had a sore throat, but now her tonsils are all gnarly and white and — as she has a concert on Monday — I decided she had to go to the doctor. (No strep; nothing contagious, in fact. Rest and fluids. Concert may still work out.) She wanted a driver to get to the doctor, and I was happy (happy enough) to give up my morning plans (it’s always nice to be needed, or so I tell myself). But this kid is 21 years old! She doesn’t need me to cancel my retreat! She has a father! She will be fine! (And I’m not that kind of doctor, as my students might be tempted to tell me.)

So this is what I’m thinking now. All of my stuff — gifts. So glad I have these three girls. So glad I have a husband and mother and writing career, too. So glad we have health insurance. So glad my mom has a great ARPN who visits her at her home and runs tests and catches things like UTI’s. So glad I get to take a teeny tiny break from my writing career.

So glad I get to go on this two-night retreat.

All gifts. Nothing to be stressed about.

Keeping a Notebook

I am an aficionado of notebooks. In addition to my big Lee-Valley Everyman’s Journal, which I write in at home, every morning, I carry around a smaller notebook that fits in whatever bag I’m using. I like leather-bound, smaller notebooks that fit in a purse; but lately I’ve been using plain old composition books, a stack of which I bought last year for $1 each.

These smaller notebooks are for poems, ostensibly — I started the practice back in my “one bad poem” phase (which lasted for 5 years) — but I also scribble character sketches and quotes and reminders in them. I write down reading recommendations, and I write down scraps from books I’m reading (Someone by Alice McDermott; The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Steig Larsson [again]).

Here’s an unattributed quote that found its way in just the other day:


List items: Send Mary Oliver poem to Therese; Xarelto lawsuit?; Kristin Neff, on-line guided meditations; pachad, yirah — two kinds of fear (courtesy Tara Mohr); big new (?) ferryboat Tokitae, not usually on this run; call K.M.; find Kahlil Gibran‘s poem, “Your Children Are Not Your Children”; write a blog post about C.D.’s “Lick Your Rats” discussion (lecture?).

Since the first of the year, I have been attempting to write 200 words a day on my new novel (vs. the old one which is at the editing stage) and I’ve filled up this occasional notebook pretty fast. I’m just about to retire it, so I thought I’d go through it to see what I’d left undone. And then I thought I’d share it with you.

It’s good to be portable. What’s your notebook?