On the Importance of Keeping (Some) Revision Intact

Sharing this post today with a particular friend in mind, but it might just as well be for all of us…including, of course, me. These are two poems from my book The Sudden Seduction of Gravity, and you’ll notice that the second is a revision of the first. Why did I include both versions in the final edition of the manuscript? Because the thought process behind the revision was itself so important. Both are from the final section of the book “Falling Into Place.” By itself, the first version of the poem might fit better in the Part 3, “Falling Apart,” which is largely comprised of a series of depression-related poems. But I was already far enough along in my process of recovery to realize, almost as soon as I had finished the last line, that it had ended with a lie:


…the space that the mind is terrified to enter is the beginning of all life. It’s the womb of being. —Byron Katie

Close your eyes. Reach out with your toe—take a step.
Feel that nothing is there, and let yourself fall. And fall
and fall. Don’t think of Alice, what she found when
she landed. You might not land. Ever. Keep your eyes
closed and feel the falling. It’s all right. It’s all right.
It’s all right. Darkness is cradling you even as it happens.
It loves you no less than light. It’s no less benevolent.
It’s more. It’s more. It’s more.

I’d spent so much of my life wrapped up in the oddly-comforting blanket of darkness and depression, but had come too far and learned too much not to recognize that it wasn’t true that darkness somehow loves you (me) more than light. And I knew for doggone sure Byron Katie would raise an eyebrow: “Is it true?” No. It’s not. And I launched immediately into the revision, which wound up being a blessing of comfort and learning:

Fall: A Revision

…the space that the mind is terrified to enter is the beginning of all life. It’s the womb of being. —Byron Katie

Close your eyes. Reach out with your toe—take a step.
Feel that nothing is there, and let yourself fall. And fall
and fall. Don’t think of Alice, what she found when
she landed. You might not land. Ever. Keep your eyes
closed and feel the falling. It’s all right. It’s all right.
Darkness is cradling you even as it happens. It loves you
no less than light. It is no less benevolent. Feel the darkness.
Feel the terror. Call it laughter. Call it love. Call it.
You are darkness. You are light. You are falling.
You are terror. You are laughter. You are love. You are
everything you are. Let yourself feel it. Call it love. Call it
you. It is you. Let yourself feel it. Let yourself fall.

I think it’s okay to occasionally let ourselves feel embraced by what seems like darkness. It is, at any rate, rather a fact of my life. Those really bad feelings sometimes still happen. But I fight them less. I don’t quite embrace them–can’t say that, not yet–it’s still a pretty frightening process. But it’s easier, and it’s okay, to let myself feel the terror. It’s much less exhausting. And I am able to get back that much more quickly to knowing it’s part of my being alive…just exactly as much as laughter and love.

I was introduced to Byron Katie’s work only relatively recently, by my husband soon after we met. I was quite interested to learn she was connected to Stephen Mitchell, who had written my favorite translation of the Tao Te Ching. And the following is one of my favorite parts of the Tao, one that I’m sure was an unconscious influence on the final revision of the poem. Isn’t it lovely?

When people see some things as beautiful,
other things become ugly.
When people see some things as good,
other things become bad.

Being and non-being create each other.
Difficult and easy support each other.
Long and short define each other.
High and low depend on each other.
Before and after follow each other.

Therefore the Master
acts without doing anything
and teaches without saying anything.
Things arise and she lets them come;
things disappear and she lets them go.
She has but doesn’t possess,
acts but doesn’t expect.
When her work is done, she forgets it.
That is why it lasts forever.


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On Intimacy, On Gratitude, On Being Afraid

Fear teaches us things, or can. And I’ve been thinking lately that this is the core of what real intimacy is. We tell someone a secret, we care for them when they’re ill, we offer our up our hearts, we trust them to be both tender and strong. It takes giving and receiving, these bonds that tie. And what an honor to be on either end of that.

Much of this thinking has stemmed from caring for someone who was ill and from thinking about those who have cared for me when I was. It has also connected to deep and wonderful conversations with others who have been caregivers, and what a gift is that. (A lovely reason that caregiver support groups  can be so important.) But the things that come into play during critical times are, I think, the same things that come into play in other parts of our more normal and everyday lives. “Intimacy” is a word that touches most often on romance, on love, on the physical, perhaps. But isn’t it all much the same?

Sometimes illness requires that we place ourselves literally into someone else’s hands. Feeding is an intimacy. Bathing is an intimacy.  Expelling waste. Administering medication. But it’s much the same as putting ourselves more metaphorically into the hands of a friend, a sibling, a parent, a lover, a spouse: Here is part of me, tender and afraid. Treat it gently. Be good. Be kind. Implicitly, what is added, is this: I am trusting you.

What an honor. The bond is timeless, its strength, limitless. Sometimes we have to dare ourselves to trust a caregiver. Sometimes we are forced to. But when someone, anyone, says, “I give myself to you,” the gratitude that comes should come from us, not them. That someone did dare to make this offering–or yes, sometimes, that they were forced to–truly: it’s an honor. It’s an opportunity. It’s a gift.

Best, I think, to accept such things, and to return them with an offering of your own. I accept you. I thank you. And I offer you, me. This is who I am. This is what I can do…and will.

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Raising Voices, Celebrating Resilience: Malala Day 2014

Malala Day, July 14th, “is not my day,” says Malala Yousafzai. “It is the day of every girl and every boy. It is a day when we come together to raise our voices, so that those without a voice can be heard.”

I’m proud to be “Raising My Voice” with Full/Crescent Press on a project to benefit the Malala Fund. Called The Furcula Project, we’ve turned my poem, “Anatomy of Birds, Part 1: Furcula” in to a beautifully illustrated broadside.  The poem is dedicated to Malala, and was written for her. It is intended to celebrate the strength and power of resilience all women possess. 100% of profits from posters sold will directly benefit The Malala Fund. Here is the full text of the poem:

Anatomy of Birds, Part 1: Furcula
for Malala Yousafzai

The work of soaring is arduous,
requires more than muscle alone,
requires the delicate architecture
of mostly hollow bone. The fused
and forked clavicle of a bird—
we call it the wishbone—
allows her to bear the rigors of flight,
stretching and then recoiling
with each powerful wingbeat. (Can
you hear it? The fiercely whispered
whoosh slicing air?) Downstroke
and release. Let’s call it resilience,
what pushes the songbird forward,
what propels the hawk! Oh, let’s
remember this living bone can flex!

Originally published in Future Cycle Press‘ “Good Works” anthology, Malala: Poems for Malala Yousafzai, I wanted to keep the poem in circulation, following Future Cycle’s lovely example of putting “Good Works” into the world. We decided to turn it into a broadside, and have created this truly beautiful 11″ x 14″ poster.  Sue Demitriou of Dark Nature Photography contributed the image, and Ali Wade, graphic designer for Full/Crescent Press, helped with the overall broadside design. This has been from the start a project of women helping women. We believe in the power of poetry, that it can be a changing force in the world. We’re proud to support The Malala Fund in their effort “to bring awareness to the social and economic impact of girls’ education and to empower girls to raise their voices, to unlock their potential, and to demand change.”

You can help, too, by ordering your copy here. And we thank you, so much.

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On Spring and Storms and Saturn, and All the Ways We Wake and Rise

Lovely spring storm last night. Woke at 3 a.m. with the thunder and lightning–that wonderful, cozy kind, loud as it is, that helps you trust the earth is being quenched and nourished and that everything is going to be all right. Having been so busy lately promoting Full/Crescent Press’s new Community Reading, “Poetry at Perkins: In Celebration of the Night Sky!” as well as attending lots of spring concert events at our daughter’s school, when I finally fell back to sleep I dreamed I was on tour promoting the show in a high school gymnasium–at a pep rally, no less, huge telescope in the middle of the basketball court floor. I was being helped by a group of boys (men, in the dream) whom I’d gone to elementary school with and remember especially from sixth grade, when one of them sat next to me in home room. The one who was my partner in the dream–partner in charge of promoting the show–was someone who visits my dreams periodically, someone I always thought sweet and special, someone who died in a motorcycle crash at far, far too young an age.

We were walking off stage together, off the basketball court, and I confessed to him that though I was really looking forward to this show and knew all the poetry read would be wonderful, I had never actually looked through a telescope, didn’t really know what the night sky looked like up close that way. He and the other boys all stopped short, surprised, and said, “Well, let’s go back. She’s gotta see!” The room was empty now but for the telescope and the small wooden step ladder that led up to where you could peek through it, and I was terribly afraid we were doing something wrong or would somehow get into trouble. David–his name was David!–put his hand on my shoulder and encouraged me to look through, that it would all be all right.

When David shows up in my dreams, it is nearly always a message that things are all right. He is connected, in my mind, to my grandfather, who I found out some years after high school had worked with him in one of the mills in town. My grandfather, a weaver, had worked there for decades, and it turns out had been fond of him, thought he was a nice boy (as did pretty much everyone I know who knew him), enjoyed working with him. So when I think of Dave, it is always in tandem with Pepe, and thinking or dreaming of Pepe is nearly always being told, gently, that “Better days are coming.” Or that, in fact, they are already here.

When I finally peered into the telescope, I was unprepared for what I saw: a perfect image of Saturn, just as I’d ever seen it in photographs or on television, the perfect image of the ringed planet! Dave smiled, laughed a little, as he put one hand on the back of my shoulder and encouraged me to keep looking. So then I could see all the way into Saturn, that there were people there who looked human, like all of us, except maybe just slightly “off,” like people in a colorized 1950′s sit-com. And then I was just in the scene, part of it all, and Dave and I were together on the top floor of a house, in a small bathroom painted white, standing between the small white porcelain sink and an open window, white cotton curtain billowing slightly with the breeze, first in, gently, and then more strongly out, to where we followed it past the tree branches and yard and down below, where we could see again the big telescope on the basketball court floor and realized together we’d better hurry to get back where we’d been, that they’d be closing the room soon and we had more so much more work to get done from here.

And just as we realized that, my alarm went off, and I was lying in bed alone-and-not-alone, rain still steady outside, Dave still somewhere nearby–somehow, somehow!–and I felt, as I so often do on waking, fully present in both worlds: Dream and Reality, Past and Present, the worlds of Synchronicity and Timelessness and Wonder, where there is no question about how all the pieces of the universe fit so pleasantly together.

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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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