For example

Still mulling about how language changes and whether or not I agree with Emerson:

“Language is fossil poetry. As the limestone of the continent consists of infinite masses of the shells of animalcules, so language is made up of images, or tropes, which now, in their secondary use, have long ceased to remind us of their poetic origin.”

Ralph Waldo Emerson

Well, maybe not the tropes’ poetic origin but the words’ cultural origin. Their social origins, because language is inherent in human culture–we must communicate to survive. And if that means language includes words with violent origins or male hierarchical origins or race supremacist origins or nationalistic origins, the words cannot so easily be erased. We use them as they are, regardless of their nasty backgrounds, tropes and metaphors and all. An accretion of meanings alters the words as cultures evolve and change.

That doesn’t mean we should not critique or examine our words.

In a decade or two, terms change. Jargon, technology, politics, culture all exert forces on how we say what we mean. Here’s an example from my own experience as a creative writer. I wrote a poem in 1983 (published in a journal I cannot at the moment recall), a poem about yearning, in which the speaker observes a male-bodied person who dresses as a female. In 1983, the most respectful word to use for such a person was “transvestite.” Hence the title I chose for the poem: “Transvestite on the Long Island Ferry, July.”

Perhaps the person in the poem was not transvestite but transgender (though that was very rare in 1983)–or “gender-fluid.” In my poem, the observer/speaker uses the pronoun “she.” The observer can only speculate and does so on the speaker’s terms. Without the word transvestite in the title, the poem could be more generally understood–as, say, an older speaker watching a young female.

As the writer of this poem, I’m not going to revise its terminology; but I might change the title if I were ever publish it in a collection (this poem, nearly 40 years past its composition, has not appeared in any of my books). Given that, here it is–with a change in title and nothing else. What do readers think?

~~

On the Long Island Ferry, July
 
She leans against the deck rail,
  her red dress an amaryllis
    in a khaki sea.
 
I notice she is unfamiliar with the problem
  of holding a dress down over her backside
    while keeping the wide white sunhat in place—
 
and what to do with the matching bag?
  That kind of awkwardness
    marks her as an amateur.
 
I think, she wants womanliness
  like in the movies—
    La Dolce Vita, maybe—
 
she hasn’t learned, yet, about women.
  I could laugh at her impression,
    but I understand her longing.
 
She stays at the rail, struggling to enjoy flirtation,
  the barfly wind pestering her relentlessly,
    Hey honey, wanna go out?
 
Boozy breezes disarrange her hair,
  grab at her panties,
    try steering her to a quiet corner.
 
But she stays put. I sympathize with her need
  to drink in the restless waters of the Sound,
    feeling new in her body: bright, swirling, real.
 
I watch her from Bridgeport to Long Island
  with a kind of envy, unable to recall
    the last time I longed for anything so completely.
 
 

~~

Naming names

A friend sent me the link to this NY Times article and asked my response as a gardener and as a writer who teaches writing. She wondered whether the flower-name Mexican hat (a type of coneflower) is racist, and if a flower resembled a beret and were called French hat, would that be racist?

“This Moth’s Name Is a Slur. Scientists Won’t Use It Anymore.”
https://www.nytimes.com/2021/07/09/science/gypsy-moth-romani-entomological-society.html?referringSource=articleShare

She has given me much to think about. I suppose people ought to use the botanical name to identify such things, but most people aren’t going to refer to gypsy moths as Lymantria dispar. Though if you look at the botanical names, those too bear some consideration as Eurocentric or white supremacist, given their inherent background: so many plants are named for their (colonizing) European “discoverers” or have names that mean “ugly” or “stinky” or, in the case of Lymantria dispar, “ill-suited and unlike.”

The reason Mexican hat (or French hat, for that matter) might be considered racist is that they are inherently stereotypes. Mexico is a huge and diverse place, and not everyone there wears a sombrero any more than all French people wear berets. I suppose we could call them sombrero flowers. That would be naming them by what they resemble. And we could call Dutchman’s Breeches pantaloons flowers. That’s a whole lotta name-changing going on, and the likelihood that everyone will take to the new names? That, only time will tell.

As to gypsy moths, the name was dubbed in a derogatory way–as in, “We don’t want those traveling gypsies around (and that’s what these moths are like).” So, it is a slur. A verbal aggression against Romani people who were already tagged with a name someone else gave them (the etymology of the name is here: gypsy).

Hypothetically, we could continue to call the moths gypsy moths; but when we use the term, we can tell our children (for example) it used to be considered a bad thing to be a gypsy, but the Romani people aren’t bad and neither are the moths–the moths are just being moths and doing what moths do. It’s people who brought them to a place the moths could end up being so destructive that we now have to kill them or discourage them from breeding here. [BTW, it was the white European people who colonized the American continent who brought the moths here.]

Yes, that’s complicated. Most people don’t want to go to the bother of subtle explanations. So sometimes a name change is actually simpler. People complain about “politically-correct language” and changing English into something it shouldn’t be…it can be difficult to keep track of.

But because English is a living language, I expect and generally accept changes to the language as there are changes in our living culture. Am I always happy about “verbing a noun” or use of the words “impactful” and “relatable” or mixing up “lie” and “lay”? Um, no. Does the speed of change make my job more difficult? Why, YES! But if a person makes me aware of sensitivity in language, such as stereotyping, I respect that. It makes me reflect on language and culture.

The beauty of the world in which we reside. Here’s Ratiba columnifer (the flower formerly known as Mexican hat).

https://www.highcountrygardens.com

Reading not writing

But the next best thing to writing is reading. Or maybe it’s the other way around; if I had not loved reading, I would never have started writing.

Stacked beside the bed:

A Book of Psalms (Stephen Mitchell)

The Book of Joy (Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Dalai Lama XIV, Douglas Abrams)

The Book (Keith Houston)

The Darker Fall (Rick Barot)

Theory of the Lyric (Jonathan Culler)

Shifting the Silence (Etel Adnan)

Noise (Kahneman, Sibony, & Sunstein)

Haiku 2021 anthology from Moonstone Arts Center

I love how the first three books all have BOOK in their titles. The Adnan and the Mitchell are re-reads that settle my soul while keeping my mind active and inquisitive. The Book of Joy has been surprisingly helpful to me so far (I am reading it a bit at a time while other things are going on).

Anyway, I can garden. We have had plentiful rain and now I have plentiful beans, basil, zucchini, carrots; numerous tomatoes cluster under leaves, so whenever they ripen we’ll have more splendid organic tasty produce. I will continue to pull out the crabgrass, wild mustard, pigweed, smartweed, etc. Culling, cultivating, collecting sunlight through my vegetables and through my skin (yes, I wear sunscreen–and a hat)…there are worse things in life than an inability to compose poems. And I can read, thank heaven. Reading poetry, and reading about poetry, provides plenty of joy.

One of the practices of joy mentioned in the Dalai Lama’s & Desmond Tutu’s book is gratitude. Fortunately, that practice has never been difficult for me.

under clouds /heat rises from soil /beans grow plump


The right words

Due to mini-strokes and constriction of the blood flow in her brain, my mother has developed the same form of cognitive decline that my mother-in-law had: vascular dementia. In both cases, aphasia ravaged their speech as their conditions worsened. My partner’s stepmother also had aphasia due to stroke, so I have now witnessed the condition up close among three women who had very different backgrounds and personalities. As aphasia presents most noticeably as a loss of verbal expression (talk about being at a loss for words!), the condition fascinates me (a person who loves words).

And devastates me. My mother had never been “good at words” the way my father was, but she was a compassionate listener and often could find the right things to say when my glib and witty friends and family members could not. I recall many times when she would ask to talk to me alone and express something she’d been keeping to herself and reflecting upon, waiting until she could “say it the right way.” Now, she can say almost nothing “the right way.” Rain becomes snow; snow becomes green; hat becomes clark; tomato becomes red; table becomes place…and even these are unreliable substitutes, likely to change from one conversation to the next. The pronoun she has vanished from her lexicon. Her vocabulary is little better than a five-year-old’s, and she inadvertently invents words that are essentially meaningless while trying to convey meaning.

She can still read, a little, and slowly. A few months ago, I gave her a book by Eloise Klein Healy, Another Phase. Healy, a well-known poet, was stricken with Wernicke’s aphasia and–with a devoted speech therapist’s help–regained the ability to compose poetry again, though the work she now produces reflects her profoundly-changed expressive abilities. My mother was pleased that she could read the book and that Healy could make poems even with aphasia. And Mom understood the poems–had memorized a few image-lines that she liked. This stunned me–memory’s often wrecked by vascular dementia, or so we are led to believe. But my mother has a good memory. She merely has extremely limited verbal expressiveness–an inability to locate the right word, and a loss of numeracy and literacy. Alas, the result means she cannot make her ideas and thoughts known to others. Isolating.

The pandemic lockdowns at her assisted living campus, my father’s death after 62 years of marriage, her gradual hearing loss, her inability to drive or go shopping–all of these led to further isolation. And isolation, of course, worsens the dementia.

Now that the lockdowns have been lifted, my family members are spending as much time as we can visiting her. One Best Beloved drove her to the church she has been attending by Zoom, now that in-person services have resumed. This past holiday weekend, I picked her up at her apartment and drove her back to my house. Due to my dad’s ill health and the pandemic, it has been over two years since she was here; but for 25 years, she and my father drove here many, many times. It was heartwarming to watch her as she relished returning to a familiar and much-loved place, which also happen to be my house and yard.

She kept saying, “This is so good. This is so, so good!” We’d arranged a mini-gathering for lunch, and there was tasty food and lively conversation all around her. She doesn’t seem to feel frustrated at not being able to join in the dinner chat; I think she was glad just to listen. After awhile, her vocabulary even expanded a bit. She said, “This is fun!” and “This is so great!” in addition to repeating how the day was so good. The joy was palpable.

(I am reading about joy just now, as it happens–a book by Douglas Abrams, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, and the Dalai Lama called The Book of Joy. More on that another time, perhaps.)

After lunch, some dessert, and a brief nap, my beloved mom admitted it was probably time for her to return to her apartment. I drove her home, and the ride back was full of comfort and ease and quiet companionship such as I haven’t felt with my mother during the past couple of difficult years, though it’s been there my whole life. I was helping her out of the car when she said, “That was wonderful. Let’s do that again!” Two sentences in perfect grammar, and a boost in vocabulary from good to wonderful.

“Only connect.” I don’t think E.M. Forster was referring to aphasia or to isolation in Howard’s End, but the phrase suits today’s post. Human connection matters. Indeed, it’s wonderful.

The berries

It is my custom to pick blackberries in the heat of the day. Perhaps I relish discomfort: the heat, the muggy late-June or early July weather, the thorny canes interspersed with other thorny canes and exuberant vines, poison ivy among these. I always end up scratched, sweaty, sunburned, and itchy; but I end up with blackberries.

Picking at midday means I encounter fewer mosquitoes, for one thing. And in midday I am likely to be the only berry-gatherer in the thickets. Everyone seems to love blackberries and mulberries—which ripen about a week earlier, so these berry seasons overlap. Everyone! Birds, squirrels, deer, foxes, groundhogs, raccoons, possums, bears…

Blackberry fruiting gives way to blueberries, and blueberries to wineberries and elderberries, so that bellies get filled and seeds get dispersed all over the place. I hear rustlings in the hedgerows and at the edge of the woods at night, so yes, I would rather loot my fruit when only “mad dogs and Englishmen” are outside.

Tonight, we’ll have berry cobbler.

I’m still not writing very much new work, but blackberry picking brought to mind this poem from quite some time ago. The poem’s speaker is hiking, not berrying, but I thought of it just the same.

~

Bear & Cloudburst


Blue Ridge, 4200 feet:
we start our ascent, sweet
cicely going fast to seed

trailside goldenrod in bloom.
Bees hover and hum,
we walk one by one by one by one

summer-heat left behind
smothered in pipe vine.
Track and blaze. Trail climbs

through laurel—twisted, dry
from two years’ drought, sky
overcast, color of thin whey

but the ranger doubts rain,
has hoped too long, in vain.
As we file by, he waves.

Further up. Dense shrubs
thickets of berries slubbed
like raw silk, leaves daubed

with stippled insect eggs
or lichen, fungus, swags
of spider webbing, sacs and bags

and butterflies, brute gnats
undeterred by repellent. We swat
stobs, are scratched. The scat

along trailside I recognize as bear
but say nothing, though a fear
threads my ribs tightly where

instinct thumps. Our feet tramp
soil, each step sounds the tamp
of soles ascending; camp’s

four hundred meters’ altitude
below. Skeletal crane-fly skewed
dry in a web. We walk through                       

woods, a clearing up ahead
when a pungency attests
to recent presence, and Alice says

“There’s a funny smell.”
Her voice seems oddly small.
We summon our collective will,

engage in loud conversation.
Bears aren’t known for discussion,
are likely to flee in disgust. Then,

thunder. Air, though thin,
grows humid. Under the din
the tree-line begins

to go, our path exposed
as a blade of lightning explodes
ahead, just to the north.

Pick up the pace. Slouch
back to the undergrowth, the touch
of brambles like a scutch

on skin. We scuff the leaves
in the musky, bracing odor, pleased
to be off-summit, our speed

faster than before and louder
as we plunge downhill and wonder
where the bear has wandered

and if it’s found shelter.
We’ve half a mile to weather
in the rain. I slip. I’d rather

climb into some outcropped sweep
hidden beneath a sweetgum tree,
nuzzle the berry-breathed bear, and sleep.




			

In which I regress

I was a child who liked mud puddles. Well, mud, generally–but splashing through mud puddles was an especial pleasure. Barefooted in mid-summer at the beach or in the yard; booted other times of year, because I knew better than to wreck my shoes.

Water sends me back. I’m somewhere between the ages of 3 and 11. I am in one of my happy places. A puddle. A puddle in the rain, perhaps.

Of course people, as early humans existing in the marvelous and dangerous world, would infer that water is holy.

~

~

I felt water’s holiness when I was a child. Though perhaps that was a memory of the baptismal font, with me in my father’s grateful embrace.

Constricted

I am forcing myself to write despite my sense that the flow, such as it is, has narrowed. I’m keenly aware that there’s a lot of material beyond the blockage and opening the floodgates may be as unmanageable as the “dry period” is unrewarding. Funny thing about balance. Keeping the seesaw level–no easy task. And as my peers and I progress toward aging, the constriction metaphor applies all too well. Many people I know now walk around with plastic or metal tubes inserted in their interiors to keep vital organs ‘flowing.’ My mother’s brain operates through constricted blood vessels, and now she can barely produce an understandable sentence. My lower back’s accumulating calcium deposits that have narrowed the path my spinal cord takes as it does its daily, necessary work.

Sometimes the flow of anything gets constricted. In our bodies. In the earth’s rivers. In our cities and houses: clogging and backups, plumbing and traffic. We implant stents, dig culverts, widen highways, remove the blockage–once we have determined where it is. There’s the challenge. Where is the rub that keeps us from our dreams? (Hamlet couldn’t figure it out, either).

Normally, I read at least a book a week; lately, just magazine articles, or no reading at all. Very strange for me–and I wonder whether my lack of motivation for reading and my current “dry spell” hinge on sorrow. My workplace has been busy lately, lots of scheduling, many meetings and decisions, not much time for personal reflection. It becomes natural, easy, to do the work of routine and ignore the kind of creative effort that grief requires. In my case, there’s also speculative grief: I know my mother’s dying little by little. We who love her spend as much time as we can with her, lifting our own spirits whenever our visits or gifts of chocolate and flowers and dinners out make her happy. What does she love? Fresh strawberries, for example. I bring them from my garden. She savors them. My day is made.

But I come home sad.

vessels, unconstricted

~

I wrote to a friend recently:

My writing practice has suffered a bit during pandemic but feels also as though underlying changes are in process. Just not much by way of results yet.
Somewhat surprised that my father’s death has affected my practice. Or perhaps it is my mother’s aphasia, frailty, and impending death that’s at work here. Or maybe just the stress of trying to maintain my job and relationships with colleagues and students under pandemic protocols, which has not been easy.
My brain’s been stuffed with things like learning new technology and teaching practices, and that leaves less room for wandering and interconnections and daydreaming. And then I have less energy for the creative work, as well. The garden’s been good, though. I’m not discontented, just feeling the currents of interweaving changes.

~
I suppose those interweaving changes may be a bit knotted, if they are threads, or partially dammed, if they are streams. Maybe why that’s the case does not matter much. What matters more is how to proceed when it seems nothing’s forthcoming–patience, force, ritual, practice, or…change.

You can judge your age by the amount of pain you feel when you come in contact with a new idea.

Pearl S. Buck

Wry words from Ms. Buck. Meanwhile, where are those new ideas? Maybe I just don’t feel up to unblocking the flow just yet. A little apprehensive about the pain.

Memento mori

I think I am an amateur naturalist. Maybe my own poetry isn’t so much nature poetry or ecopoetry as it is naturalist poetry. By that I do not mean naturalism as literary criticism defines it–a “movement” belonging to the 19th century. Sean Carroll’s concept of poetic naturalism isn’t quite what I mean, either; Carroll’s approach is more philosophical, though it does get closer to my personal concept. I guess I just mean poetry written by a naturalist.

Such musings arise as I have been reading Bernd Heinrich’s book Life Everlasting: The Animal Way of Death, which offers a naturalist’s low-down on what corporeal death means in terms of the Earth’s environmental cycles; he views every death as a life or as multiple lives–for, in the animal world (which is, after all, our world), a corpse hosts multitudes of new beginnings. It’s simply recycling, the work of millennia. And sometimes the work of Nicrophorus beetles and other “undertakers.” Okay, maybe not a book to every reader’s taste, but fascinating biology. After having read quite a few books on hospice care and human dying, I can now appreciate the amazing biological processes at work in “natural” deaths that work to improve soil, remove waste, feed numerous animals and plants, and regulate the cycle of life. If we want to get ourselves back to the garden, we need to make ourselves more aware of these valuable cleanup crew creatures.

Poets strain experience through words; sometimes we write from the filtered outcome, sometimes we explore the dross that gets caught in the sieve.

A Best Beloved expressed dismay as the news of a friend’s cancer diagnosis coincided with a few recent worries and bereavements: “Everyone’s getting older and falling apart!” But really, what are our options? Die young and leave a good-looking corpse? Live to 100 and die while sleeping? Probably something on the continuum between those poles. Most humans think about, or endeavor not to think about, their deaths and the deaths of those they love. Grief and death are among the Big Themes of poetry, often hovering in the background of a poem that initially appears to be about something else (i.e. Emily Dickinson Emily Dickinson Emily Dickinson 😀 …). Poets strain experience through words; sometimes we write from the filtered outcome, sometimes we explore the dross that gets caught in the sieve. All of it is life.

“Remember we must die” need not be a call to religious fervor or to pessimistic existentialism. It is merely a fact that we ignore at our peril; for if we remember death is ahead, we can attune ourselves more closely to the lives we do have–and those others with whom we are in relationships. For whether you know it or not, your body has a relationship to Earth and all of its beings. Even, perhaps, the carrion beetle, not to mention billions of microbes and your best friend’s mother.

When I write about death (and I do), I find the tone of the poem depends a great deal on which words or images I use: the clear flow, or the leavings in the sieve. Different purposes, of course. Sometimes the poem wanders in sorrow, sometimes there’s clarity or a lifting of grief. It depends on the perspective (sometimes the speaker of the poem isn’t me), and on where the poem itself decides to go, particularly as I revise. Many readers believe that poems only ever arise from the writer’s experience, but poems are works of the imagination. And they are sometimes informed, or re-formed, by experience or insight that comes later in the writing process.

My own grief? That’s private. I may not decide ever to communicate how that feels. However, having sensed sorrow in my bones and gut and in the empty places in my community of loved ones, I can write about being in the moment of bereavement and the many moments afterwards when the losses make us ache. I like to imagine that memento mori keeps me alert to life. Even when I feel sad.

Hatching day

After three cloudy, seasonable days–with no rain (we are in a drought)–the temperatures here got up to around 80° F and the cicadas emerged. I took a long walk around campus to observe the hatch.

Judging by the divots in the mulch around the trees, skunks, squirrels, raccoons, and other omnivores had a feast last night. But enough fourth-instar nymphs made it up the trees that I quickly lost count of how many exoskeletons clung abandoned to the bark of pines, maples, rowans, and assorted campus-landscape trees. There were also pale, newly-emergent cicadas–not yet imagoes–most of which were drying out their wings and bodies in the breeze. A few were still in the haemolymph stage (teneral adult stage), which is fascinating. Their wings are still furled, as they haven’t yet inflated with whatever fluid circulates through their systems, and the insects look particularly weird.

Brood X hatches mostly south of us, though this county is right on the border. Definitely seeing more of them this year than I have for many years past.

Magicicada are justly famous for their loudness. There were not many full-fledged adult bugs on campus at noon today; but when I return (on Friday or, perhaps, Tuesday), I expect the place will be buzzing. The students are not here to make the place buzz–I’ll be happy to hear the cicadas.

Teneral adult magicicada. Photo by Shannon Kirby.

I feel as though a haiku might be needed here. Can anyone supply one? I’d be grateful…