This weekend, I responded to an e-mail from my instructor for the upcoming workshop I’m enrolled in at the University of Iowa Summer Writing Festival. He asked enrollees to send him a selection of not more than 10 poems a month before the workshop so he can start getting a sense of our work.
Articulating a sense, or voice, of my work has been a problem from the start. I write as I am motivated and voice is one of the things I never think about. I leave it to others to define me as a writer.
When I’m backed into a corner I struggle until I find some of my writing that I am, at the moment, comfortable with. In this case, with a lot of help from my “in-house” editor, I selected the following poems. They span from 1995-2012 and are the ones that seem to get the most public attention and response.
As is my practice, I noted the year the event or notion for the poem originated giving it time and place orientation. The year(s) I drafted the poem is in parenthesis. I did not include backstories or narratives that go with several of the poems.
Although I’ve posted most of these and their backstories earlier, I’m doing it again. My question to you: Can you ascertain this writer’s personality from these poems?
Child of the Desert
Dry brush crisscross desiccated
saguaro ribs bound with twisted
fibers to weathered poles. Specks
of shade in a solar sea cast
their patterned light over an infant
sleeping in a hammock gently
rocked by grandmother sitting docile
in her cobbled chair, beside a
castoff table draped with checkered
oilcloth, its tear tucked under an
AM radio playing faux native
music from an Anglo world
across the desert, fifty miles away.
Museum of Indian Arts & Culture
Santa Fe, NM, 2007 (2008)
Eagle Feathers and Rainbow
for Imogene Washington Bowen,
Upper Skagit Tribe (1935-2007)
Looking at you now, Imogene*, in your
cradle of lasting years, I see you in
our picture on the steps of Rockport School,
two rooms at the foot of your family’s
sacred mountain by the river of your
tribe, so many years ago. You are
the pumpkin-faced first grader wearing
a simple wash-dress in the first row,
so sober under your freshly combed hair
and new barrette, Imogene. I’m a second-
grader behind you, all frowns and ears sticking
out, my hair slicked-down. I loved your name,
Imogene . . . Imogene. You see,
I still sing it. In minutes now, elders
will carry you away, to lower you
into an earthly bed under boughs of
cedar and snow on your sacred
mountain. As darkness hovers, Imogene,
your spirit will rise, an eagle passing
through a rainbow above the river.
North Cascades, WA
*Pronounced with a long ‘I’.
Evensong for Margaret
On a Sunday evening in the cruelest month
while the vicar preaches his lesson praying for rain,
Margaret, unknown and unnoticed,
lay bound for eternity beneath a ghostly elm,
its skeleton reaching the sky among cairns and nameless slabs
in the shadows of a West Yorkshire moor,
steps from dark and dank St. Michael-All Angels.
Shielded by boulder-dyke and fractured shale,
broken rocks in ragged form
encircle her simple marker
with fragments from a quarry on the heath’s far side.
A shaft of light pierces the nimbus sky,
its heavenly aura turns to gold
breaking the cold and
casting its halo over Margaret
embraced in the stony care of her native heath.
for Frank Tom, circa 1875-1949, American
Native ferryman on Skagit River, circa 1915-1945
Stout and strong, a man of few words,
he waves a log truck on, holds another back.
He knows when the ferry is loaded
for a river running high, a river running low.
Hand-over-hand, he turns a windlass,
winching bridle cable shackled to line
sweeping upward to a travelling carriage
riding a skyline between spar-trees on either shore.
He anchors the windlass, hurries to the
bankside apron arm, climbs onto its
counterbalance, grips the top rail,
forcing his weight downward, leveraging
the fulcrum lifting the apron. He kicks
a bail over the end, secures it to the deck,
scans the current for swirling debris.
In a bracing stance at the ferry’s stern,
he drives his pike into the gravelly
shallows, pushing out from the calm
of a log boom lea into ricocheting current.
Overhead, the carriage rattles,
jerking forward with each roll of
the current. The skyline vibrates, sings
as spar-tree guys shimmy and strain.
The ferryman unchains the windlass,
presses hard on the brake pedal,
slowly unspools the cable, widening
the vessel’s angle, reducing its speed.
Here’s My Two Cents
Looking down as usual,
counting cracks in the sidewalk,
walking to my car.
In grass at the edge,
was a penny, heads down,
propped against the trim.
I stoop over,
pick it up,
turn it over,
rub it clean,
glance at the date.
is a newer one.
now only good for sales tax.
It cost one point
two-three cents to make.
No more pennies from heaven,
just dirty old dollar bills!
for Mark Harris, 1893-1918
A cloudless sky,
a day filled with spring,
a day to remember those
who lay in common ground,
Fallen without honor,
unseen by us,
whose flags they bore.
As volleys resound in sharp salute
and banners dip to a trumpet’s call,
it is our day to remember
the plaques that cling to crumbling walls,
and plead as we pass by:
Tell them of us and say,
for your tomorrow,
we gave our today.
Never Been in a Canoe
Marcus hollers over a deafening river.
“We’re goin’ widout-chuh.”
“Hurry up, chicken shit,” Frank yells!
Marcus, fourteen, staggers
to keep his footing in the canoe bow,
leans on the pole he thrust into shallows
until it bends, holding the canoe in place.
Frank, thirteen, in the stern,
teeters in a wobbly balance,
pushes his pole downward
to steady the cedar shell.
I wade into water slapping
my knees. Grab the gunnel.
I’m almost nine, never been in a canoe.
“’Not chicken shit,” I whimper.
I glance at the river—
an uprooted cottonwood is diving,
rolling in the current,
coming right at us.
I look down. Shiver.
“It’s not yours! You
dragged it out of the brush.”
“Damn it, chicken shit.
Upper Skagit River, WA
for Vachel Lindsay (1879-1931)
Through prairie fields,
along river paths,
the road was his home.
From the Gulf to Chicago,
New York to Santa Fe,
for bread, he tramped.
Before senators, the president,
farmers and scholars, the
homeless on the street, he sang
his rhymes of butterflies, cornfields,
children’s verse, and justice.
In his American voice,
his Midwestern speech,
wandered . . .
this prairie troubadour.
The sun rises in Seville,
echoes Lorca’s daybreak,
dances in orange parterres,
glints Faith’s smile
into barrio shadows,
the sultan’s chair,
and filigreed portico.
Little bees collect
honey on bitter orange
golden dew on
and bittersweet preserves
on breakfast toast
of Oxford dons.
I look away and rest
my eyes on gold,
ochre, and snowy white.
from the “telly.”
Her sensuous notes
infuse me with
“Love is a bird,”
bitter oranges are sweet
when the tune is played
upon a blue guitar.
This River Sings
for my brother Jim (1937-2009)
Snow, avalanche, and scree;
creeks, ponds, and seeps,
collect in reverberating rush,
cascade in mountain pools,
eddies glazed undercurrents.
Mosquitoes and deerflies,
survive winter’s minus.
Spring, tempered and wet,
its creeks quicken and swirl.
Tawny duff and flecks of sun
conceal newly dropped fawns.
Eagle, salmon, and raven
sing this river’s song—
sing as it flows—
This river sings as it
sprays cool mist,
splashes rocks with
Cottonwoods rustle in tenor,
maples in baritone,
as softly this river sings
through mist and fog.
Softly, its spirits sing
of a mountain’s ashes
rising in evening drafts.
Wild and free, this river sings.
Upper Skagit River, WA