When All Is Cold and Ice, and We Are Winter Weary

The fall book tour was good, it was very good, and on its heels came a flight to New York City, and after that pneumonia, and on pneumonia’s heels came Christmas, and after that the polar vortex and after that, well, here we are in the midst of a new vortex–yes? Such is life.

I am posting this poem as placeholder, to keep the blog here current. I am in the midst of new poems, a  new book, and new submissions, but for now, I offer this, “A Thousand Rumis,” and the blue-white sparkle of sunlight on snow. It’s from my last book, page 29, and remember you can still buy that here or, if you must, here. And it would be just lovely of you to review it here.

A Thousand Rumis 

The blue-white sparkle of sunlight
on snow—it’s like that. Too much
to take in, too achingly beautiful.
Like starlight: sharp. You shield your eyes
against what is most wonderful
hide from what hurts. It all hurts.

Better to be blind, and deaf
and dumb to it all. No hands
no face, no way to love.

Still, stumps and wounds, weary
you would take in more than
a thousand Rumis could sing in chorus
need to protect yourself from the wonder
of so much beauty in this lost world.

I’m sorry, and sorry, and sorry
for what you must bear, and still
there is this: you must.  



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The Southern Book Tour, Part 2: Alabama the Beautiful

Alabama, I owe you an apology; I’d honestly forgotten how beautiful you are.

I’d had Mississippi on my mind for so long, the flat landscape, the delta, and the so much that had happened there that I’d managed to steel myself toward, returning. I was so well prepared for all of that.

But, oh! Alabama! The mountains! The color! The winding roads!

I was lost and not lost both, when I hit the city. Had found a Hampton Inn in Mountain Brook (“Mountain Brook!” I’d thought. “I forgot about lovely Mountain Brook–sure, I’ll stay there!”) and took an exit that led me onto Highland Avenue, and then missed some turns but it didn’t matter because there I was in my old neighborhood–gasp!–oh! So beautiful! THAT building is new–geez, it’s HUGE! There’s the Western Supermarket–the Western, I used to walk to it! And the bookstore? Now a gym. And the apartment, our first apartment…there it was, and I had my hand over my mouth the whole time I was driving, other hand gripping the wheel way too tightly, laughing out loud, crying too, not quite believing so much was exactly the same, exactly, and I would have stopped to take a picture but there were cars behind me and there was no way to stop, and I didn’t need a picture anyway because I already have that picture at home in a photo album, been in that album more than twenty years and there would not be one thing different in the photo, not one, it’s the same exactly. And up the hill and up, and around more twists and turns, all through Highland Avenue, over into Mountain Brook, you can’t read a roadside ANYwhere in Mountain Brook, we used to drive all through here, we dreamed about where we might move next, how much would it cost to live here, doesn’t this whole place look like the swiss alps, honestly, if people knew Alabama looked like this, everyone would be here, everyone would, Alabama must not want people to know how beautiful Alabama is, we could stay here forever, couldn’t we?

And on and on. Time dissipated completely, a false and flimsy veil, I was as much in the past as I was in the present, as much in a dream as I was in reality–I realized and remembered how many dreams I’ve had all these years of driving up and down the sides of that mountain, why were we always driving all those neighborhoods? Just because we could, maybe, and because we were always saying, “We could live here, can you imagine living here, look how hard it would be to drive in the winter when it’s icy, is this too far from school, could you still ride your bike, what could we plant in the yard, would we have a yard, look at the view…” The world so literally lay at our fingertips. All that talking about all the things we could do. So many things we did do. So many things we didn’t–and that was okay, because it was part of the decisions we made, part of the life we hammered out piece by piece.

I was as unprepared for encountering all those happy, beautiful memories as I had been prepared for the bad ones earlier, in Mississippi. It was a complete and utter shock to my system.

It was getting late, it was getting dark, I was tired, I really was lost now and couldn’t find my way back to the hotel, my blood sugar was crashing, I wasn’t laughing anymore and was trying not to cry. I summoned up everything I had in me, everything, to figure my way carefully and safely back to the hotel, called the desk clerk (who agreed it was impossible to read a roadsign in the city–they’re all carved wood signs, small and square, not a one of the more ubiquitous and practical reflective green and white ones), got some food, got to the hotel at last, got more food, got unloaded, got to my room, and, now found, lost it entirely.

Oh, Alabama. You really were, and you really are, so beautiful. You seem, yourself, young and full of promise. You seem, yourself, undiscovered.

I wanted to be there a week, two weeks, a month, I knew I could live there again–in a second, if circumstances somehow made it so–but I only had one day, and when I drove out of the city the next day, still thought all the way through driving north, all the way through every part of beautiful Alabama that she is a wonder, she is. All of what she is.

Beautiful, beautiful Alabama.

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The Southern Book Tour, Part One: Mississippi Redux

I will admit to having made my plans for this recent trip with great trepidation; I didn’t  know if it would be a very good idea to revisit my former home or a very bad one. But I did know this: good people had invited me, and they did so with warmth and affection. That was the constant thread through this whole trip. Good people. Warmth. Love.

I lived in Mississippi from 1994 until 2001. Part-time at first: my then-husband had accepted a job there and was working full-time while I had pledged to finish “one last degree” in Bowling Green, Ohio. We moved together from Birmingham to Ridgeland, Mississippi, after I finished my MA in English at UAB, and when the MFA program started in the fall, I went up north to study and came home on every school break. When I finished the program, we moved out to Yazoo County and stayed there together until both our marriage and our home–almost simultaneously–blew apart. We were still calling it a “trial separation” when the tornado hit. The storm nearly killed him; a few months earlier, I’d tried to kill myself.

What would it be like to go back? What would I say to people I’d known, lived with, worked with? Who would I see? Where would I, could I go?

I was there, of course, to read from my book, The Sudden Seduction of Gravity, at Holmes Community College, both the Ridgeland Campus in suburban Jackson where I’d briefly taught part-time while on school breaks, and the Goodman Campus, where I later taught full-time for five years with some of the most gifted students I’d ever had and some of the kindest colleagues. And the Mississippi Poetry Society had invited me to read from the book as well as talking about Writing As a Healing Process. I knew the trip would be, in large part, my own healing process. I hoped it would be helpful to others. I think it was both.

I met and talked with so many people who had survived their own illnesses, their own losses. People who had survived fires, floods, hurricanes, and yes, tornadoes, too. People who’d suffered every kind of illness or who were care-givers themselves.

There’s relief, real relief, in knowing others have been through what you have–in knowing you’re just not alone. There’s relief in knowing it’s okay to talk about things. It’s a GOOD thing to acknowledge pain, a GOOD thing to grieve, a GOOD thing to mourn. Sometimes what we mourn is only our own innocence, the person we were–or think we were–before our loss. That makes room, I think, to celebrate the person we can become.

And isn’t that marvelous?

Whatever’s behind us, there’s so much more ahead. That’s not a cliche. It’s life.

It’s hard to see, of course, in our darkest hours, and that’s why I believe writing, speaking, and touring as someone who has survived so much is important. I do believe that writing about our experiences, creating anything artful from it, has at least the potential to make us stronger. It is helpful and healing to our bodies, telling our stories, in and of itself, even in a private journal we show to no one. But to shape and nurture what we create, to truly make something artful, we can find ourselves taking control over something we’d previously felt no control over. It helps. And we can help others who aren’t able to process in quite the same way, or who haven’t yet learned to.

I used to dread change. That was fear, and sometimes there’s reason to be scared. But I believe it’s true that “people we have not yet met will depend on us in ways/we cannot fathom.” Sometimes it’s just one person who needs us, one person whom we help. Sometimes WE are the person. And that’s everything.

It was good to meet new people on this trip. It was very good to see old friends. It was good to weave both those things into a mesh of new experiences. We are constantly creating our own lives.

And, truly, that is marvelous!

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On Life, Its Own Waxing and Waning, and Love Songs We Can Sing to Ourselves

I sit here writing this in Nashville, Tennessee, hidden away in my sister’s house, flopped on the guest room bed with her little dog, a bichon, beside me. (Every now and then, he sighs.) The house is almost t0o wonderful, loaded with artful distractions; vintage ceramic figurines, painted switchplates, little bits of stained glass. It fits the theme and mantra of my life right now: beauty in small things. The whole house, it seems, is color and light.

The drive down was lovely and, mostly, relaxing. I drove through cities instead of around them. Cincinnati is beautiful. Louisville is a collage of cluttered-up interesting stuff, has a kitschy feel as you drive on through. And then rural Kentucky opens up to where everything feels open, familiar, free;  I’ve driven I-65 South through KY/TN so many times before. It’s a wonderful area, hills and valleys, beautiful scenery, signs of Americana everywhere (Kentucky Bourbon Trail, Lost River Cave, the Corvette Museum…). As the sun set and the sky grew darker, I suddenly realized I was driving straight into the crescent moon–there it was right in front of me, low and huge, until, as such things always do, it started to seem a metaphor.

I’ve written so many moon poems, mostly love poems to my husband, and nearly always, he is the full moon, I am the crescent.

Driving into the crescent, I was my own guiding light, maybe. Or I was driving straight into myself.  Something.

I wrote this haiku (slightly tweaked now, from when I tweeted it late last night):

The moon is always
full: crescent holds her shadow,
dark embraces light.

That’s a bit of a metaphor itself and has been for a while. Sometimes, with the crescent moon, we see only the smallest sliver of light: so pretty! So hopeful! Sometimes, so wan.  A little sad. But she’s never alone up there. The full, whole moon is there. I do like to think of it as an embrace–it’s the reason for all these love poems. It’s a romantic notion that’s lovely for Michael and I, but it’s also one that’s hopeful. If we wait long enough, if we hang on, the light comes full and round eventually. It was never not there. It was holding us all that time.

The full moon and the crescent? They’re not two different things. They’re one. We don’t need anyone else to make the moon romantic. We can embrace ourselves, whisper in our own ear that everything will be all right. Uh-huh.

We can sing ourselves a lullaby–why not? We know best what comforts us most. And we can provide it.

Isn’t that nice?

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On Bukowski, Cockroaches, and Finding the Beauty of Ugly Things

I’ve just had a most delightful publication in a most delightful blog: Bukowski on Wry. They posted a call for erasure poems, and I sent one in.

I used “cockroach” from  Bukowski’s Love Is a Dog from Hell and imagined it likely the cockroach himself would have a pretty wry response, pulling his words from the poem. Erasure poems are wonderful, and I have one in my book–it’s called “The Night Sky: A Found Poem” and is from NPR science writer Adam Frank’s essay “Where Is Now? The Paradox of the Present.”

I made the connection this morning that my very first published poem was also about a cockroach.  It was published in the Summer 1994 issue (Vol. 7, No. 1) of Parting Gifts, edited and published by Robert Bixby.  I used to talk about it in my creative writing workshops to prove the point that you really can write about anything…and also that even ugly things have their own kind of beauty, if you’re eye and your mind are trained to see things that way. That’s a very taoist concept, I think, an important life lesson and credo to live by.

And I love that Bukowski on Wry followed up my poem with this post, a lovely cockroach quote by the man himself.

At any rate, I thought it would be fun to reprint that first published poem here:

I Told My Mother in a Postcard

I told my mother
in a postcard
that Florida alligators
were really cockroaches.
The ones we saw in the campground
were well fed
but not quite domesticated,
long as a cigarette,
black and thin,
antennae like wire
At a friend’s house,
we saw another kind,
tiny ones
that climbed out of the toaster
when we pushed the bread down.
We ate cereal
the rest of the trip,
made it clear
they don’t have cockroaches
where we come from.
Once we got over the shock
of them,
we found another kind,
rich dark brown,
like lacquered walnut,
racing in the moonlight
and sometimes
lifting off the ground
to fly.

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Ekphrastic Poetry, the Wisdom of Children, and Peace Within

My most recent favorite poem, an ekphrastic, was written by an Ohio elementary school student. Leslie Shimko was in third grade when she wrote “If I Were the Sun” for Wick Poetry Center’s Speak Peace project, in response to five-year-old Truong Moc Kim Giao’s drawing “Children’s Wishes.”

Shimko writes in the second stanza that, if she were the sun:

I would float in thin air
and sit up there,
feeling as bright and beautiful
as I am.Isn’t that last line lovely? First person, present tense, declarative.

“And when the day was done,” the poem continues, “I’d settle down to earth,/make myself orange and big,/and bring peace to all.”

It’s a terrific poem written in response to an important project, but it’s the second stanza I love so crazy much–the peace within that it radiates. Surely that’s where peace starts–within. What a beautiful thing, to be able to proclaim yourself bright and beautiful. What a powerful phrase, “I am.”

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On Mississippi, Malala, and Poets Working to Bring Peace to the World

Plans for my upcoming southern-route book tour continue to develop, and I couldn’t be more pleased.

As you see here, I will be reading for the Holmes Community College Arts & Letters lecture program on Tuesday, October 15. This will be at their Ridgeland campus, just outside Jackson, Mississippi. They have now invited me to speak at their Goodman campus as well, so I will be in Goodman Monday, October 15th.

I’m delighted to be back in Goodman, where I taught full-time after receiving my MFA in 1996. During my first year of teaching there, I had a group of students in my creative writing class who were, truly, the most gifted students I ever worked with. My relationship with them was special, and I continue to be in touch with them today. I had excellent colleagues and was blessed to share an office with Steve Deaton, a poet, songwriter, and wonderful musician. Steve was and is a gift in my life, and I look forward to seeing all these folks and more in what is now just a few weeks’ time.

I will be doing two presentations as well for the Mississippi Poetry Society‘s fall mini-festival at Belhaven University on Saturday, October 12th. I will be reading from The Sudden Seduction of Gravity during one presentation, and discussing Writing as a Healing Process in the other. I plan to talk at least in part during that presentation about the new anthology I’m so proud to be a part of, Future Cycle Press‘ “Good Works” anthology Malala: Poems for Malala Yousafzai. This important work is intended to bring awareness and proceeds to the Malala Fund and will be released on October 9, the first anniversary of Malala’s shooting. It’s amazing what she has accomplished in that time, and amazing to me how this book has come together from first conception immediately after news spread world wide of her shooting by the Taliban, to the call for poems inspired by Malala, to the organization and now publication of the actual book itself. Future Cycle does amazing Kindle editions of their books, and a free Kindle edition of the anthology will be available during the month of October. You can register for a free print copy of the anthology here on Goodreads. I’m so proud to have my poem “Anatomy of Birds, Part 1: Furcula” included in the anthology. It is the second of two poems so far published from my current manuscript-in-progress Not All the Bones of Birds Are Hollow.

Poetry really can do its bit to heal the world. I’m proud to have been part of the Wick Poetry Center‘s Speak Peace project, which has recently concluded its three-year tour. Speak Peace “featured original poems written by American children, veterans, and established poets in response to Vietnamese children’s paintings on peace and war.” I was a moving and inspiring project to be part of, and indeed a life-altering project for many who participated in the combined reading and gallery events from it’s initial opening in Kent all the way through its tour. I expect to talk a bit about both projects in Jackson, and I look forward to seeing people there.

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On Sending Love into the World, Knowing the World Is What We Make It

Headed to bed tonight feeling pretty worn out and sad. Today, September 10th, has been World Suicide Prevention Day 2013, a day which seems to me very important and which I’ve attempted to commemorate in my own way here and here. It seems an important and potentially empowering day, but posts and tweets–and there have been many among mental health awareness groups and surviving friends and family members–still seemed lost among all the other news and trending topics of the day.

That’s okay, in its way, as life, after all, goes on. It can, it does, it should.

My own life has blossomed in ways I could never have imagined, and that’s a lovely thing. I still have dark days and always will, but I am stronger and healthier than I have been in the past, and I have a strong support system of friends, family, and doctors who understand in new and important ways  all of the health issues I’ve dealt with through my life.

I’m surrounded, too, by a creative community where most of my friends, the people I spend time with regularly, are poets. Lively, creative, loving, passionate people who understand intimately what it is to go to dark places. That people understand, have experienced it themselves, talk and write and perform about it is huge–there are far too many people unable to acknowledge, understand, and find support for what they’re feeling. I’m blessed with an abundance of creative people all around me who recognize the gift and burden of feeling the full weight of the world.

I wanted today to be an empowering one, but, in the end, it’s also a sad one. In my exhaustion, I feel myself tapping into what I’m sure so many are feeling: loss.

The first person I knew who died by suicide was named Rob. I worked with him close to thirty years ago when I was still signpainting down in Florida. He was a few years younger than I was, about 19, and I can see him so clearly! Longish light brown hair, freckles, a killer smile, friendly, funny, and incredibly talented. He was so good looking and so good natured, the guy you look forward to seeing at work every day. In the few days before he hung himself, his mood was different. It was obvious he was depressed though I had no idea to what extent. Our boss told me later that Rob had told him he needed to take some time off, that he had suffered from debilitating depression in years past and that he recognized he was back in a serious place and needed help. The boss encouraged him to do what he needed to take care of himself.

We were devastated to hear the news of Rob’s death. We attended the funeral together, and the boss was most devastated of all, barely able to control his sobbing. Rob’s family, I remember, were kind, loving,and gracious through what must surely have been their own incredible levels of shock and grief. They knew Rob was sick, appreciated that he was loved, and channeled their energy into welcoming, tending to, and thanking those of us who came to celebrate their dear one’s life. In short, they honored him, and us, and themselves, by navigating us all through that exceptional funeral service.

I will always think of Rob as a gift in my life. I will always think of him sweetly. I will always hope for more awareness, more research, more kindness in the world, more compassion. I will continue to work toward kindness and compassion myself, to send that into the world knowing that the world is what we make it.

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12 Ways to Stop a Suicide

When your tongue shivers up the curve of her breast,
toward her nipple, when your tongue reaches the tip
of her nipple and you want to take it in, take it in,
and love her.

When she turns away from you in her sleep, pull her back,
so she knows when evil dogs and whirlwinds chase her
in her dreams, calm is coming, behind the evil dogs and
whirlwinds—calm ahead, by the lake and under the moon.

When you read out loud, stroking her hair as she rests,
her head just under your collarbone, whisper each word
carefully, each word a strand of hair that could not make
a story true were it out of place.

When you love her, love her, for all her sadness and shame,
her sorrow, her secrets, her shadow-lives and shallow-loves,
the faults that are and never were, the guilt that gathers like
grains of mist until, too heavy, they fall as rain, rain, rain…
love her for the rain.

Don’t be frightened when she cries or when she laughs
or when you realize, finally, that they’re the same thing.
Remember that the little death is orgasm, la petite morte,
and that is what we hope for—it’s what we come from,
it’s what we’d like to have, tonight.

Don’t be so surprised when she comes, wide open, ready
to tell you everything, ready to tell you anything, ready
to love you, ready to like you, ready to marry you…it’s
being ready that it’s about, and you are there. Sometimes,
sometimes, you are incidental.

Don’t be disappointed because, sometimes, you are everything
you think you are—everything she needs and everything she
wants and everything she will cling to. This is when you
tell yourself you cannot run away.

Don’t be afraid of standing strong; it allows her time to
gather strength. And once she has risen, show the sun your
teeth and tongue, laugh out loud with praise and joy, and
then cry, let out your fear, your pain, your sorrow, your
relief. Now is the time for your release.

Remember that when you need her you give her reason
to live. If you take care of everything, nothing is left for her
to do, nothing is left for her to be. She will need more
than your needs, but it is a place to start, a sacred space
for both of you.

Remember that she loves to dance, and let her. See how
the spotlight shines when she sways to Muddy blues. Sit back
and watch. Think, “She is beautiful, she is mine.” Then take her
hand when the music changes. Dance with her, and don’t let go.

Remember that kisses are sweet, that fingertips set fires,
that the palm of your hand is a gentle place with memories
all its own. Be mindful; know that this moment, every moment,
is over as soon as it has begun.

Remember that she will need to be told this again and
again and again: that spring follows winter every year;
that bulbs, dormant, sprout before we recollect they are there;
that people we have not yet met will depend on us in ways
we cannot fathom. Tell her, again and again and again, that
she is a necessary part of the world unfolding.

from my chapbook The Guilt That Gathers, Pudding House Press, 2009


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The Fall Tour!

I have two new featured presentations now confirmed for a southern-route book tour this October. I will be appearing at the Mississippi Poetry Society Fall Mini-Festival on Saturday, October, 12th. The Festival will be held at Belhaven University in Jackson, MS. According to MPS president Jeanne Kelly, “The mini-festival is a one-day affair with morning devoted to a program and the afternoon to announcing winners in our fall contest as well as special awards.” (If you’re interested in submitting to the contest, guidelines can be found here, and please note you do not have to be a member to enter. Submissions must be postmarked no later than September 16th.)  

I’m also delighted to be appearing at the Holmes Community College Ridgeland Campus on Tuesday, October 15th, where I’ll be joining a creative writing class in the afternoon and doing a public reading that evening.

More details to come. Plans for the tour are still ongoing, and I look forward to including Birmingham, Atlanta, and Nashville on this tour. If you’re interested in having me read at your venue or in your area, please contact me at paulajlambert@gmail.com.

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