Happy Birthday, Colleen J. McElroy

ColleenJMcElroy3Today is Colleen’s birthday. I want to refer you to my History Link article about Colleen, and to her essay in English Matters (Spring 2011) about post-retirement travels. And to share a poem from her latest book, Here I Throw Down My Heart (U of Pittsburgh Press, 2012):

Crossing the Rubicon at Seventy

we do not know the name
of the river that roils
beneath us until we arrive
at its shores — until we give
reason to pass along or stay
there where waters sound
like uncut jewels swirling
in a tide pool — until the little
boats we’ve made fold like kites
in a storm — until we’ve come
to that point where turning mid-
stream is outside reason and staying
lays sour on the tongue — know
you have shaped a raft before
floating with the current toward
another long day’s journey — know
you have yet another reason
to reinvent yourself before
you take the last route home

Mother, May I?

One of the reasons I blog is so that I can share with you what I’ve been reading. And ever since I spent a month (last April) blogging about poetry I love, I have been attracting poetry — people pass along their favorite books, books of poetry just turn up, willy nilly, and poets sign their own books and hand them over to me. It makes me happy to be me.

One of these recent finds is Mother, May I, poems by Bellingham author, C. J. Prince.

C. J. and I had childhoods that do not resemble one another, in the least. No pink ladies or gimlets in my Pentecostal household. No pierced ears. (Severe and shocking haircuts, yes.)

Even so, this journey resonated with me at every step. A friend recently asked me who her audience would be, if she wrote her story. I told her that all any of us can do is to say, “This is what it’s been like for me to be human. What’s it been like for you?”

C. J. has reminded me that our mothers — flawed though they may be — are our first loves. It’s a messy, passionate love, and we all recognize it when we see it. I see it in these poems, from the first memory, to the final parting.

You can find C. J.’s book at Village Books, also on Amazon.

This is the first poem:

WAITING FOR THE RED EYE

Friday nights they forget
“Don’t.”

Don’t is the first word
I remember — a voice from above.
Don’t doesn’t mean anything
if you’re eighteen months old.

Adults on the couch laugh,
sip martinis. I reach
for the giant green olive
with a pimento dot
like a comic book eye.
Mother’s stern look flashes
a warning that might alert father.
I wait, play with wooden blocks.

Mom pulls out a cigarette, Dad flicks a Zippo.
A blue haze circles around me. They drink
and then an empty glass is lowered.
I snatch the shiny green treasure,
suck tart juice, bite into the chilled olive.
Martini juice dribbles to my elbow.

I might be a mermaid…

“I must be a mermaid … I have no fear of depths and a great fear of shallow living.” ― Anaïs Nin

Someone I know recently used that term, “shallow,” to describe a man I adored. Revered. Now long deceased, he won’t care what anyone calls him. True, he never read Nietzsche, or Nin for that matter, but he was a kind man and he always made me feel welcome and listened to. I don’t think you have to be educated in order to have depth.

It’s good, I think, to suspect those around you of having unsounded depths. 

And a good place to look for poems.

Never Enough Poems

I came home from my Litfuse weekend, in Tieton, Washington, with a stack of new poetry books, not to mention my head abuzz with good conversations, workshops, and poems, poems, poems. The featured poet was Ellen Bass, who I have to admit swooning for, but another connection made was with Terry Martin.

Terry’s book, The Light You Findpublished by Blue Begonia Press, is luminous. She captures her childhood, her geographical region, and an ever-widening circle of objects, vistas, and loves, only to set them free on these pages, a gift for a lucky reader.

My Blue Schwinn Hollywood
leans against Ponderosa Pine,
sister’s hula hoop circles a sprinkler.
A green rubber hose coils
like a serpent on wet grass.
(from “Backyard”)

Snakes repeat throughout the poems (“Dry grasses rattle like a snake’s warning”), also barncats and canyons and hawks and tin cups, sage and quail and ditches. But reading and rereading I feel that it isn’t a lost Eden that is being evoked here, but something right on the edge of awareness, waiting to be seen and experienced again. There’s a kind of insomniac’s call throughout the book, an edginess, not dread exactly, despite a “howling loneliness,” but maybe a sense that if you wake, if you walk out onto the front porch, the moon will meet you there.

These poems please me so much, and startle me, too, shaking me out of my reverie. They make me want to move to Yakima and knock on Terry’s door (In “The Dog and I Listen,” a three-line poem: “I chop garlic, dice onions. / Ears lift when wheels crunch gravel. / Your arrival, still my favorite sound.”)

Like the best poems, they make me want to get out my notebook and write. It’s impossible to share a favorite poem from the collection, but here is one of the many that resonated with me, like one of those good, Litfuse conversations:

Reading / Writing Notebook

Like any good teacher,
it both leads and follows.

It softens hard edges,
springs hinges loose.

Unfastens bolts rusted tight.
Sheds light down long corridors.

Announces deafening omissions.
Unfurls rolled flags.

Provides fingerprints,
offers up evidence.

Soothing as sweetgrass,
it tips toward fullness.

Kisses Enough

Beverly as a babyToday is my mother’s 83rd birthday. I will be visiting, and eating cake. (3:00 at The Haven — you’re invited!) The last time I visited, she looked around the room, then back at me, a smug expression on her face, and said, “All the boys here like me.”

Here is an old poem.

Kisses Enough

Pictures of her are always pictures of sisters,
little girls in a row, bangs
cut straight over eyes dark as plums. My mother

with one sister eleven months older, another
in only two years, was never a lone darling
posed on a mother’s knee. Even an infant,

dandled in arms, she’s not with her mother,
but her two oldest sisters,
sisters who named her “Beverly Ann,”

then married out before she found her first word.
Daughters of sisters came back, tossing
more brown ponytails into the jumble

of girls in that house. Giggles slipped
like a magician’s scarves under the bathroom door.
Boys tapped fingers on restless knees. One by one,

sisters married, while my mother waited, for three years
the oldest at home, even her younger sisters
chosen away. Days fell from schoolwork

to housework. She listened nights
for the crunch of his boot on the graveled drive.
When would he come? That Prince

charming enough to climb forsythia vines
to find her, press his knuckle to her window?
She dreamed his touch better than any mother’s.

She dreamed kisses enough.

mom 2015