My Wobbly Bicycle

My Wobbly Bicycle, 139

Posted by on Aug 2, 2017 in Featured | 2 comments

download-1I moderated a panel this week at the Rainier Writing Workshop, the low-residency MFA program where I teach. Five of us prepared our thoughts on what writers can offer in this emergency political situation. Oliver de la Paz listed some practical things. This is from my notes.


  1. Write a love letter to local organizers. Tell them how much you appreciate what they’re doing.
  2. Help fundraise as an artist. Donate your art for some event.
  3. Offer to contribute your writing; read a poem at a local event or rally, for example.
  4. Connect organizers to writers who speak to what they’re trying to do. Send them poems, links to fiction and nonfiction. It might bolster their spirits, to know that others have had the same thoughts.
  5. Work with public organizations to help them craft their statements to read as clearly, coherently, and invitingly as possible.
  6. Write press releases, offer to help with other public writing. This is not about you, but about community. Build relationships, long-term.
  7. Lead writing workshops.


I’m particularly inspired by the concern with community in this list. Of course, language itself is community. It exists only in relation. So—and now I’m thinking out loud—our concern with language, with getting the language right, is a sacred endeavor.



Words have concrete etymologies; they arrive out of the earth. When we say we’re lugging a boulder uphill, we’re harking back to a Swedish word that means “to pull a person’s hair,” to move something heavily or slowly, or, from Scottish, “earflap,” or “handle of a pitcher.” The verb comes from objects we can see and touch.


Words have an attachment to the earth. Meaning, it’s crucial to understand what we’re saying, the implications of our word choices. It’s imperative to own our words, the concrete truth of them. If we want to talk about political truth, that’s where we start, by being clear about what words mean. Belief? Democracy? Socialism? Elite? Not what I kind of guess these might mean, but what is their heritage, where do they get their tone, their muscle?


I haven’t written many blog posts lately. Truth is, I haven’t had anything to say that I felt you’d be interested in hearing. Life has gone on, Jerry has had two surgeries—back and hip—this winter and spring, has been in almost intolerable pain, but is at last slowly mending. My father had his 99th birthday and has had pneumonia twice. It’s been all concrete in my life: tying Jerry’s shoes for him, helping him pull on his socks, cutting my father’s fingernails and toenails.



I was telling the students in my class yesterday that when the poem wants to float into the conceptual stratosphere, it is necessary to pull it down into the gut, find out where its energy comes from. It surely doesn’t come from the clouds—it comes from some maybe almost imperceptible nagging emotion that, when opened up, may turn out to be a volcano.


And it isn’t only a personal volcano. I don’t own my emotions. My name isn’t written on them. They’re simply emotions, the kind we all have. And if I want what I write to matter, I’m going to have to send down a scope to find their molten core.


So, in the interest of keeping community, of offering what I can, I send this post.


My Wobbly Bicycle, 138

Posted by on Jun 13, 2017 in Featured | 0 comments

I wanted to send you this in the form that just came out in a British magazine called  Urthona: Buddhism and the Arts,  But it’s  a print journal, not online. It was beautifully laid out.  I couldn’t make the pdf file show up here. So here is my copy. Sokuzan and I will continue this conversation at some point. It’s a bit longer than my usual posts, but I thought you might be interested.


Zen and the Poet’s Mind 

Fleda Brown and Sokuzan

A poet and a Zen priest sit down together in March 2015 in Traverse City, Michigan.

Fleda: Socrates said that poems don’t come from wisdom but from “a kind of instinct or inspiration, such as you find in seers and prophets who deliver all their sublime messages without knowing in the least what they mean.”

What is sublimity, then? Don’t ask. It’s sublime. Well, we do ask.  “Poetry is what gets lost in translation,” says Robert Frost. And of course there’s Emily Dickinson, who knows it’s a poem if “I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off.”

images-1There’s a long tradition of describing the visionary in terms of the visionary. After all, who can argue? Or, we could turn 180 degrees and get out our electron microscopes. At the subatomic level, everything is comprised of waves of possibility.  Consciousness is the agent that collapses these waves into a material world.

Still, all this tells us nothing, really, about the creative process. Like most poets, most of the time I just stay with the work, stand out in the field and hope lightning strikes.  On the other hand, I’m a long-time meditator. I spend a lot of time watching what my mind does. What does the mind “do” when it “creates?”  There is a vast Buddhist literature, over 2500 years of studying the nature of consciousness. I’ve barely touched the surface of it, only enough to be awed. I turn to my teacher, Sokuzan, a Zen priest who’s read and studied widely in Buddhist texts.

Sokuzan:   How can we know the source of anything? The causes and conditions that arise in any given moment are so vast that it is beyond bringing anything into a conceptual framework.  We might, instead, look at the actual open, feeling dimension, where the walls of the mind have become transparent or have even vanished.  The creative power of this world in which we appear as apparently separated beings is constantly throwing forth expanding energy.  If we grasp at our self-centeredness or other-centeredness, if we emphasize this polarity, then creative power coming through us as a flower springs from the ground or a leaf from a tree may be possible, but unlikely.

Amazingly enough, awareness-consciousness that has been fixated on a self and an other can become free from that through the constant, steady, and insistent attention to what arises.  This does not mean that we attach ideas, concepts, interpretations to what arises.  It means that we just observe.  Just see the equality, differentiation, texture, and apparent “thing-ness” of what arises, and do nothing with it at all.  This is called “meditation.”

Of course, I’m fairly biased, having practiced meditation for over forty years.   Doing the sitting practice of meditation involves simplifying one’s situation to the extent that one holds very still and just observes what continues to arise unsummoned.

F:  “If we try to emphasize that polarity,” you say, then it would be “unlikely” that the creative source can flow through us. What does that look like, emphasizing the polarity?

S: Emphasizing the polarity is when we insist on or push for a particular result. Effort is necessary, of course, in order to move a brush or type a line. Just the same, the pulse of energy cannot be summoned as you call a waiter. There needs to be a spaciousness for the dancing to appear. As you said, “waiting in an open field” waiting for lightning, for true words. Getting into the field is hard work, an effort we can’t fake. To the artist, the subjective feeling of this space may be fearful. Just so, a flashing in the sky of the mind can be a sign that the muse is near.

F:  Yes, I’m afraid of the spaciousness, and the moment when I have to act, put something down on the page. I stay anxious. Essentially, I don’t know what I’m doing. Additionally, I have what Harold Bloom called “the anxiety of influence.” I find myself moving into new territory. I want to go there, and the only way I can is to shed influences, yet if I don’t carry my predecessors with me in some way, my work is going to be bereft of their richness. Damned if I do and damned if I don’t.

Jane Hirshfield, whose essays in Nine Gates: Entering the Mind of Poetry are the clearest and most comprehensive of any I know on Buddhism and poetry, says that a work is “original not because it is new in subject matter or technique but because it has the uniqueness that moistens and flares in all embodied being.”

Maybe we’re talking about “voice” when we say “uniqueness.” Coming through me, my unique body-mind.  But then earlier you said there’s no way to locate a particular source, to bring creativity into a conceptual framework.  So then, what can Buddhist thought add to illuminate what makes the top of our heads feel as if they’re coming off when we’re in the presence of a good poem?

S:  There’s a saying in Zen that everything you see is a flower; everything you think is the moment.  It is possible to actually see the way we bring things together out of this dense fabric of particles to make something.  We make a wagon.  We make a building.  When we’re writing poetry, or painting, or drawing, we’re sorting through odds and ends to find something.  And eventually we begin to feel a value coming out of the combination of particles and the way they resonate.

images-4The way Bach put things together was just so astonishing.   This is genius; this is so rarely come across.  Like modernism, like postmodernism, it’s taking what’s been made and breaking it down into something even further.  Perhaps you’ve heard of the ruined piano when people deliberately use things that are discordant and try to understand , rather than doing the classical or modern way of putting things together.  We may try to write bad poetry or make bad art deliberately to find out what it is that really fuels or feeds or supports the kind of harmony or beauty that is so rich and so undiscoverable.

F: You sometimes go to New York to teach classes called “Opening The Eye Mind.”  You have a very specific way of using art to help students go deeper into creative seeing. Would you explain how this works?

download-2S: I’ve been teaching this class for probably 20 years. It came out of my experience as a student at the Art Institute of Chicago in the early ‘60s, trying to understand what art was about. I sat down in front of a portrait of Sylvette David by Picasso. I sat in front of this one because it had a bench in front of it.  Picasso was very disturbing to me. I I would look and say to myself, why? Why? Why is this in this museum? Why is this worth millions of dollars? My sitting down and doing that started me, you could say, on a journey of looking very closely at things.

I developed some exercises to help students separate the thinking process from the visual consciousness so that we could actually see with the raw and rough edges of visual perception itself.  For instance, I would say “Put your eye right on the central portion. It might be an object in the center of a painting, whether it’s representational or not—that is, say, a book on a table.  I’d say look right at that book on the table, but at the same time, in your awareness, just register everything that’s blue.  Or just register everything that is triangular.  Or just register everything that is circular.  The amazing thing is that the thinking mind tends to step aside to allow the visual awareness to find those concepts in their visual form.

You begin to see the entirety or the overall balance of the situation.  Or the lack of balance.  You can actually see that this painting doesn’t really work .  On the other hand, if it’s really extremely well orchestrated, we get this amazing feeling of seeing solid-earth-feet-on-the-ground reality and head-in-the-clouds.  My teacher, Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, talked about connecting heaven and earth.

F: Okay, that’s visual art, and it’s easier for me to see that.  How would such an exercise might work with, say, a poem.

S: I’ve practiced reading something aloud and listening to the shape of the words. I read it so much that I don’t know what it means any more.  And then, when you don’t know what it means, you’re starting to feel the underlying shape of the language.  You find the sound. How many words have double “o’s” in them?  The word look. Or book.  They rhyme, but there’s also something else there, something about the visual quality of two little circles, when we read it.  It’s all important.

F: Gerard Manly Hopkins calls this “instress” and “inscape,” the dynamic pushing and pulling of sound and form. Everything “enacts” itself, pulling inward to make a self and recognizing the thrust of energy coming in at it from the outside “selves.”   The actual “product” is a dance.

S:  To understand how language works, I tried writing things backward, forward, taking some words out and putting other words in arbitrarily, doing automatic writing.  And then I would read a translation of Rimbaud, or Pablo Neruda — it’s actually more enjoyable for me to read someone who could do this well rather than (laughs) continue to write my own stuff that’s somewhat lame.

F: Every poet that I know and admire begins work by reading somebody else’s poems, somebody who’s good.  Striking out to get the pitch — you want to get the pitch.

There are exercises to help writers get loose from the critic-mind, and the editor-mind, to help them to at least temporarily ignore those so they can work from something fresh.  We often use the word spontaneous. Of course even that word is defined by its opposite, rationality.

S:  Finding spontaneity, or the “beginner’s mind” is more about a willingness to let go of reference points.  One of the main ones that needs to be let go of is me, me, me, me.  At the same time there’s a desire to create, there’s also the desire to be a creator.  And that seems to get in the way. Because there’s an identity—”I’m the person who’s able to make this”—we tend to get a merchandising mentality around our art.

download-3Philip Guston, the New York School painter, would go into his studio and paint and paint. He would come in the next day and see what damage he had done (laughs). From the point of view of his own personal ego, you could say, it was like a train wreck. But from the point of view of his creation, it was like someone else had done it. He could see that he had to put in all of this work in order for something to really flower or blossom.

We can’t leave out the rough edges of our own personal style.  We can’t set aside even the narcissism.  It has to be somehow acknowledged.  We have to get our noses rubbed in it. We have to be, as Trungpa would say, genuine.  This can be really difficult because there are areas of our ego, our mind, our narcissism, that we just don’t want in there.  We want to keep that out.  Amazingly enough, that’s the very area that seems necessary to acknowledge.  Otherwise there’s a part missing.

F: So, how does a person be genuine?

S: As you know, I’m very biased in this area. I feel it’s necessary to sit down and see the disingenuous qualities arising.  See how we want to avoid distasteful stuff: memories, things, conditioning, arising out of beginningless time, showing up at the moment as this particular matrix of body, speech, mind, mentation, emotions.

To be able to watch that which continues to move gives us something like a cinemascope.  That seeing can be somewhat confusing, but if we do it enough, we eventually begin to see that which is seeing.  We begin to acknowledge the self-centeredness, or, you could say, the mistaken identity, the feeling that we are somebody.

F: Aren’t we? Aren’t we somebody? All my work, I’m pretty sure, is through a somebody and about somebodies.

S: We are, and we aren’t.  And that’s why it’s so difficult because self-centeredness wants to know.  Is there a somebody or not?  This is the duality that we get hooked on.  Life and death, up and down, success and failure.

From a no-reference point, the only self-centeredness is just an incredible appreciation of everything that is arising.  And a feeling of not being separate. Everywhere you look, you see your face. Of course you don’t see your face, but what you look at looks like it’s looking at you, like it’s not separate from you. I think this happens in people who are dedicated to a particular form of art.  There’s a feeling of — as is sometimes said, “participation mystique” —a coming together that makes total sense and is completely mysterious at the same time.  It gives us a sense of exuberance and upliftedness and a sense of sanity about everything.  In the midst of the craziness.

F: Would you say because you’ve spent so many years studying, practicing, and teaching, that what you’re doing now is a very rapid recombination and creative pouring out?  When I write a number of mediocre or bad poems, then suddenly a good one almost magically appears, it seems there has been a recombination below the level of awareness, and that the elements knew how to come together, once I quit pulling so hard on them.

S: That’s a way of saying it.  Allowing things to flourish and come forth.  Self-centeredness doesn’t like space because that means we don’t know.  It’s a feeling of no longer needing, out of hope or fear, to separate oneself from anything that occurs.  If there’s defensiveness or aggression that comes out every now and then, we just watch that—we don’t necessarily negate it. So you could apply that to creativity. Having been a poet for a long time, you would probably recognize that there are times when you find that things are coming to you that are completely unacceptable, but yet you know that you need to ride that boat. . .

F: I tell my students, go on and write those bad poems. The accumulation is the most likely path to something that works because you’ve spent all that time slogging and feeling hopeless and miserable. . .

S: You’ve exercised it. I’ve told the young monks at our temple that if you don’t find a way to generously and sympathetically work with your own negativity and stop fighting with yourself and just have a willingness to be genuine and be a mess if that’s what’s happening, then you’re not going to have very good luck working with other people’s craziness or confusion.

F:  There are so many poems about death and misery and divorce and suffering of all kinds because that’s often where the intensity is.  Most of us who’ve been reading poems for a while recognize when a poem is basically a diary by an ego that just has to deal with this material right now.  It seems—I think this is what you’re saying—that the diary-stuff has to be acknowledged so that the genuine work can come through. There’s been a space created by seeing it without hanging on to it and without pushing it away.

S: You begin working with the raw feeling, and you see how incredibly alive you are and how vibrant everything  is. You might be in a really desperate situation, and you look over and see the leaves on a plant, and they’re so beautiful—the curve around the edge of the leaf, and the serrations in the leaf, and maybe the way one leaf is broken—and this can be in the middle of being lost in a woods where you have no more food — I mean, I’m kind of painting a romantic picture here …
F: What you’re painting is a poem. That’s the way it works.

S: That’s the way it works.  Seeing that it is all a dance in which the dancers are completely separate matrices of passion, aggression, ignorance, seeing, hearing, tasting, telling, touching, smelling, movement and so on. And they come together, and the coming together is an expression of a hidden mutuality.  I don’t like the word “one-ness” — I like to say not-separate. It’s like fingers on a hand: they’re completely separate, but the first finger doesn’t have to make sure the second finger or the thumb knows what’s going on.  They just work in concert, and they orchestrate.

Whatever your discipline, whatever your field is, one of the most important things you can remember is repetition.  Because fundamentally, you cannot repeat anything.  If you try to repeat a poem, a painting, a drawing, it’s always going to be slightly different.  If you do it enough, you start to see the contrast.  In any intensely fabricated piece, the light starts to shine through the interstices.  But you have to do a lot of repetition to see it.

F: But some people have genuine talent, and other people don’t.

S: If you’re living in a really genuine way, you can usually find out what you’re to do.  I spent a lot of time writing and found out that I couldn’t write.  I probably could’ve—I spent a couple of years writing every day—but it would have been such a difficult uphill climb. And the same thing with painting.  I got so good at seeing, I could see how really great, say, Picasso was.  How really great Robert Motherwell or Philip Guston were. How astonishing they were.  And also reading poets—Ginsberg, Creeley, Rimbaud, Neruda, Jim Harrison. . . .

Repetition may not produce good poetry.  It may not produce good painting, but it will help you see more clearly what it is you really need to do.  And it may not be writing.

images-3If I walk out of here and walk down the road, I don’t think of myself as a meditation teacher.  I think of myself as just an old man walking down the road.  There’s not much happening there as far as any identity.  It doesn’t mean that I’ve gotten rid of anything, I just see that it’s unreal.  It’s just not real.  So, therefore, we can actually celebrate our life and our being-ness and our mutuality together, doing something like this—talking together—it’s very dance-like.



Jane Hirshfield, Nine Gates: Entering the Mind of Poetry, NY: HarperPerenniel, 1997, 34.


 Sokuzan, who was a student of Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche in the 1970s, completed the Vajradhatu Seminary in Boulder, Colorado, in 1980. In 1990, he became a student of Kobun Chino Roshi, a Zen meditation master from Japan, and received lay ordination from Kobun’s brother, the late Hojosama Keibun Otagawa. Sokuzan received full ordination as a priest in the Soto Zen lineage in 2007 and Dharma transmission in March, 2013, from Kuzan Shoho Michael Newhall, Abbot of Jikoji in Los Gatos, California.


Fleda Brown’s [no relation to Sokuzan] Selected and New Poems is just out from the University of Nebraska Press in 2017.  She has published nine collections of poems, a collection of essays, and a memoir, Driving With Dvorak, (University of Nebraska Press, 2010). She is professor emerita at the University of Delaware, and past poet laureate of Delaware. She now lives in Traverse City, Michigan, and is on the faculty of the Rainier Writing Workshop, a low-residency MFA program in Tacoma, Washington. She is Sokuzan’s student. 








My Wobbly Bicycle, 137

Posted by on May 12, 2017 in Featured | 16 comments

images-4I’ve realized, I think, what’s the matter, why everything I write these days feels flat and useless, why I no longer have anything to say, why when I come up with a perfect phrase, I’m even not much excited. I think it’s primarily because of my New & Selected. I wonder if anyone else has felt this way. You gather all these poems, a lifetime of them, your best, the ones that seem to have miraculously worked, you look at them together and you say, “Who wrote those?” Because the time of writing is when you were most lost, most not-in-charge of deep river that runs through you.


images-2And then, too, reviews. It is so wonderful to get reviews! Especially good ones. But I have a habit of going blank inside when someone is praising me. It isn’t false modesty. Maybe I’m afraid of it, afraid to take it too seriously and get lost, outside the ragged self that makes poems. So when I read wonderful things about my work, I think, “I can never do that again. They all were miracles. Those poems occurred in some way I can never replicate.”


I feel better just seeing that. I have been agonizing over the crummy little poems I’ve written lately. All washed up. Done. The swamp of creative mind drained. Self-consciousness has at last shut down the factory.


images-5When I began writing, there was something about the (imagined) obscurity of living in Arkansas that was energizing to me. I was the only writer in the world. Or one of the few. Then we moved to Delaware. I found it harder to write with (imagined) brilliant poets all around me, even if I didn’t know them all.  I did the work, but it felt weightier, somehow. Now what? Michigan, another (imagined) frontier. I like that. But still, I have apparently constructed my own weight to contend with: years of my own poems. Sigh.


Then, too, life has not been easy lately. I am the chief go-to person for my 99-year-old father. Jerry’s back is not okay, although he’s not in as much pain as pre-surgery. I am tired. The chemo and radiation did a number on my energy level. Then too, friends have cancer, friends are dying, family problems crop up. This is the way it goes. Age is like a downhill snowball. It accumulates sticks, stones, dead 5351315970_64f9ac79ab_bleaves. It is never as white as we’d wanted.


I’ve been reading a lot, since I can’t seem to write diddly-squat. Besides novels and poems, I’ve been reading about the mystical tradition in Christianity (Julian of Norwich, Hildegard of Bingen, plus moderns like Thomas Keating and Cynthia Bourgault. In the car I’m listening to a lecture series on the history of the mystical tradition in Islam, Sufism, Judaism, Christianity, etc. (Why do they ignore the Buddhists, who have the richest of all histories there?) I’m thinking eventually this reading will bear some sort of fruit, but if it doesn’t, I’ll still have the pleasure of deeper clarity, a wide perspective on the meditation practice I’ve been doing for about 30 years now.


Well, at least I wrote this, didn’t I?

My Wobbly Bicycle, 136

Posted by on Apr 14, 2017 in Featured | 13 comments

imagesJerry and I have been sick for a week. Not the flu—we were tested for that—but some bug that seems to be slowly responding to antibiotics. I haven’t felt this bad since, dare I say it, chemo. Wracked with discomfort: not nausea, but fever, aching and world-class coughing. I cancelled a poetry reading and a book club event. I cancelled everything. My father—who as you know lives just across our huge lawn—calls every night to check on me and let me know what he’s going to need as soon as I’m better (!)


images-1The cough medicine with codine leaves me in a lovely haze, but of course I can’t write a darn thing in that condition. Except maybe this post. So I read. My greatest comfort is Jacqueline Winspear’s mysteries. Soon I will have read them all, unfortunately. Winspear is a contemporary Brit who now lives in California. Her protagonist, Maisie Dobbs, is a smart, principled, woman who’s pulled herself up by her bootstraps to now run her Private Investigator and Psychologist agency. The stories are set in WWI, between the Wars, and the beginning of WWII. Maisie has been a nurse, lost her first love to the war and then later lost another, her husband, to a plane crash. She’s a complex figure. There’s something comforting to me about these stories. I think it’s partly the more formal manners, the graciousness. But also, with Winspear, you feel she’s in control, you’re in good hands.


I keep several books going at the same time. I’m slowly reading Inside Vasubandu’s Yogachara by Ben Connelly. Vasubandu was a fourth century Buddhist monk and scholar who founded the Yogachara school of Buddhism. You’d have to be deep into this material to want to read this one. I have to read it slowly and put it down often.


imgresI just finished reading Robert Fanning’s (Central Michigan University) new book of poems, Our Sudden Museum. I’ll be talking about his book on Interlochen Public Radio’s “Michigan Writers on the Air” show. It’s such a pleasure for me to run across a book of poems, like this one, that I love. I feel like the discoverer.


Not that I’m not writing anything, but in the last few months, the poems have seemed slight. My energy for them—or maybe it’s confidence—seems to be at low ebb. It could be the complicated effect (I’ve felt it before) of having a new book just out. There’s a certain expanse of my brain necessary for new work to actually want to show up. When that space is absorbed with reading/promoting old work, I can’t write. It’s not good for a writer to be this public. At least for some of us. We thrive in the dark crevices, like mold. Nonetheless, I am giving the new book a great deal of attention and readings. It’s a big book and deserves it. I’ll just gird my loins and do it. You can check my “Events” page to see where I’ll be.


Or, maybe it’s Trump. Maybe it’s conditions. Maybe I’m discouraged, shell-shocked. Or, maybe I don’t have it in me to come at life with brightness and originality any more. That fear is built into the life of a writer. We can write our hearts out, but we can’t say when what we write is going to be good. We can’t control that. Some poets burn through their early lyric impulse. Some turn to less lyric poems. Some quit writing poetry. But some—well, here’s Czeslaw Milosz in “Late Ripeness”:


imgres-1“Not soon, as late as the approach of my ninetieth year, I felt a door opening in me and I entered the clarity of early morning.”


What a glorious thought.


Another view is that maybe it doesn’t matter, that the unknown is far greater than what we know. Longfellow, in his poem “Nature,” compares the old to a child who must “leave his broken playthings on the floor” and go to bed:


So Nature deals with us, and takes away
Our playthings one by one, and by the hand
Leads us to rest so gently, that we go
Scarce knowing if we wish to go or stay,
Being too full of sleep to understand
How far the unknown transcends the what we know


Jerry reminds me that I have said the same thing many times, that I’ll never write anything good again. This time, confronted with so many of my past poems in one volume, I think, “Who wrote all those? Surely not me.”











My Wobbly Bicycle, 135

Posted by on Mar 15, 2017 in Featured | 3 comments

Launching The Woods Are On Fire: New & Selected Poems tomorrow!  Today I offer you the tiniest poem in the book, from No Need of Sympathy (BOA 2013). I want to thank BOA for giving permission for me to use 20 poems from a collection that hadn’t been out all that long. That can cut into their sales, so I urge you to have a look at that book, also.

This poem was one of a series of short poems I wrote in response to sculptures by the artist Bill Allen.  The poems and pieces were part of an exhibit at the Dennos Museum in Traverse City.  I wanted short poems so a person could stand there and read them on the wall.



Worms can replace parts.

They can re-start themselves

if they’re cut apart. And

the slime they leave behind

glues the earth together.

They have no eyes.

Imagine scrunching alone

through life, armless,

legless, and blind

yet so convinced

of your usefulness that it

makes some kind of sense.


images-2Oh, all right. I’ll give you two for the price of one. This is also from No Need of Sympathy. The PBS News Hour used to—before they gave up with the sheer numbers—have a period of silence at the end of the show when they put on screen the name and photo of each person killed in Iraq, Afghanistan, etc. I wrote this after watching that became almost more than I could bear. I think of the great World War I poets, Rupert Brooke, Wilfred Owen, and Siegfried Sassoon. “Anthem for Doomed Youth” is a poem by Owen.  I think of the young recruit, just wanting to get out of his small town. He’s so young, it seems as if he’s playing dress-up, going off to war.



imgresHere, In Silence, Are Eight More



Night after night the photos of dead soldiers

go by on the News Hour like playing-cards while we drink


our wine, though we stop for that length of time, of course,

out of reverence, but it’s not enough. The well of


how-not-enough-it-is is bottomless, deeper than TV. Even

if you track back through the Comcast cable, back to


the electrical impulses, you’re not even close to what to do.

Not even if you end up on Main Street in Salisaw, Oklahoma,


and follow the 19-year-old into the storefront full of

uniforms, crisp, medallioned, follow not his vanity


but his hope, his longing for order, for the squared shoulders

of order, his wish for the vast plains of the world


to unroll at eye-level, so he can walk out into the particulars,

the screaming, the blood. Owen, Brooke, Sassoon: what


anthem for the doomed youth this time? His death rests

like a quarter in the pocket, a sure thing. Its arrival


is a few missing lines I fill in, wrongly, because

the mind does that: I have him watching in slow motion,


with love and pity, the flowers beginning to bloom

on his shirt, the sky closing like a book. Sadly, then,


he disappears entirely into my mind, his last breath

easing between my words. There was a book in his childhood.


No, mine. Ducks cross the road, a mother duck leads them

through traffic to the pond. The pages flip so that


the ducks seem to move. They slide into the pond

with the satisfaction of making it through the human


confusion. Our soldier floats like a duck. Like a night-flight

casket. In the photo his eyes, straight-forward, being all


they can be, float on the surface of a pool of uncatalogued

genetic material. One snapshot in time, his eyes were


like that, his mouth. He can’t remember. He never was

like that. He was playing dress-up, then, hoping to make it true,


and did, so true no one could get in a word, in protest.






My Wobbly Bicycle, 134

Posted by on Mar 8, 2017 in Featured | 8 comments

I went to Fayetteville, Arkansas, for my fortieth high school reunion thinking surely, after all these years, a lot of poems would come to me. But I only got a few. You never know. They’re all in Reunion. I could give you one of those here, but I picked a different one from that book because I thought it might give momentary comfort in these frightening times.


imgres-1What I’m looking for in a poem has shifted these days. Every poem is political—I could talk about that at length!—but some carry with them an awareness of particular ways of seeing that help us, or at least help us recognize a companion spirit at a particular time. In this case, a mouse.






I admire the way mouse dashes across the top bracket

of the blinds while we’re reading in bed. I admire the tiny whip


of its tail at the exact second my husband tries to grab it.

I admire the way it disappears into our house and shreds various


elements. I admire the way it selects the secret corridors

behind cupboards and drawers, the way it remains on the reverse


side of our lives. The mouse is what I think of when I think of

a poem, or of music, going straight for the goods, around


the barrier of our thoughts. It leaves droppings, pretending to be

not entirely substantial, falling apart a little here and there.


Clearly, it has evolved perfect attention to detail. I wish it would

concentrate on the morning news, pass the dreadfulness out


in little pellets. Yesterday I found a nest of toilet paper and

thought I’d like to climb onto that frayed little cloud. I would like


to become the disciple of that mouse and sing “Wooly Bully”

in a tiny little voice in the middle of the night while the dangerous


political machines are all asleep. I would like to have a tail

for an antenna. But, I thought, also, how it must be to live alone


among the canyons of cabinets, to pay that price, to look foolish

and trembling in daylight. Who would willingly choose to be


the small persistent difficulty? So I put out a spoonful of peanut butter

for the mouse, and the morning felt more decent, the government


more fair. I put on my jeans and black shirt, trying not to make

mistakes yet, because it seemed like a miracle that anyone tries at all.

I looked hard for a photo of a trillium with blood-red markings, because there was one in a poem in the collection. I found one on line and wrote to the photographer, Susan Farmer, to ask permission to use it. I sent her $100, but I think she would have given it to me free. She seemed pretty happy to have it as a book cover. I thought it was perfect.

I’ve been using these posts to go back through the collections included in The Woods Are On Fire: New & Selected Poems, before the book launch next week, Thursday, March 16, from 5-7 at The Corner Loft in Traverse City.    I hope you’ll come, if you’re within range. I’ll read, Becky Somsel will play the harp (not at the same time!), and we’ll have refreshments. I’m looking forward to a great party!

My Wobbly Bicycle, 131

Posted by on Feb 15, 2017 in Featured | 8 comments

Here’s Part II of my romp through past books, toward the launch of The Woods Are On Fire: New & Selected Poems, on March 16th.


searchSince my first book was obviously a lucky fluke (this is how my mind works), I would never get a press to take another.  I sent my second manuscript, Do Not Peel the Birches, back to Purdue University Press (if they liked me once….), but the book didn’t win their contest that year. Alas, woe was me, it was confirmed. I was a flash in the pan. The next year, 1993, I sent my manuscript to several other presses as well, but Gerald Stern, Purdue’s final judge that year, picked mine as winner of their newly established Verna Emery Prize, which was book publication.


Not only that, he came to visit me and helped me revise several poems.  “Be wilder here!” he’d say. Geez, wilder.  I made several poems a lot better because he said that. I tried to let my mind drift outward, or inward, beyond the poem. What else? What else could be there? I was learning to do consciously what had only happened occasionally and unconsciously before, that is to dig beneath the narrative for the rumbling deep levels.


“Do Not Peel the Birches” was the sign my grandfather nailed on the birch tree outside the cottage. I’d only recently begun coming back to the cottage every summer. So little was changed! I was obsessed with seeing, with seeing what was, with my imaginings of what was, of re-living, re-seeing.


images-2In this poem, my aunt Cleone was still alive. Her beloved husband was dead. My marriage was falling apart. We were alone—and lonely—up there at the cottage, swimming:


Night Swimming


We are without our men, hers dead

ten years, mine far away, the water

glassy warm. My old aunt already stands

half in. All I see is the white half,

her small old breasts like bells,

almost nice as a girl’s. Then we hardly

feel the water, a drag on the nipples,

a brush on the crotch, like making love

blind, only the knives of light

from the opposite shore, the shudders

of our swimming breaking it up.

We let the water get next to us

and into the quick of losses we don’t

have to talk about. We swim out

to where the dock goes blank,

and we are stranded, abandoned good flesh

in a black of glimmering. We each fit

our skin exactly. After a while

we come out of the water slick as eels,

still swimming, straight-backed,

breasts out, up to the porch,

illuminate, sexy as hell, inspired.