In person

Imagine it: gathering again, with other human beings, engaged in listening, in art, in entertainment. You know–all that stuff we once took for granted, pre-pandemic and back when virtual events were mostly either experimental or TV shows.

In recent years, I have not been participating in many poetry readings; attending them still, yes–when possible, when life has not intervened too much–but not actively looking for reading venues, not the way I did in previous decades when I was learning how to present my work publicly. Lately, even when I’ve attended readings with open mics, I often choose not to sign up to read. I need to get home to grade papers or go to bed.

This situation has led to a gap in my reading-poetry practice. True, I teach; I am accustomed to speaking in front of a group of near-strangers, and that is a kind of public-speaking skill. There’s a distinct difference between being the authority and being the author, however. I found myself trying to explain this difference to a friend of mine last evening as we drove home from: MY FIRST IN-PERSON POETRY READING IN AGES!

[An aside here to express boundless thanks to Jenny Hill and Dan Waber of the Wunderbarn in East Greenville PA, who asked me to lead off their Just about an Hour and a Half Variety Hour for the 2021 season–quite an honor!]

I had some preparation, however, because local friends-in-poetry had invited me to read for a video that will stream on April 27th from the Facebook page of Bethlehem PA’s venue The Ice House. That was a new experience for me, though strange: I had to stay in one place without walking and fidgeting while reading to a very kind person behind a camera and another kind person connected to me by a microphone and earphones–in an otherwise empty performance space. O, Brave New World…

The reading at the Wunderbarn commenced the following evening, so the practice in front of the camera helped by giving me the opportunity to organize both my poems and my thoughts. I would not say that putting together a reading is exciting, but it offers some of the quiet challenges of a puzzle or word game. The act of reading in person to an audience changes those challenges to one of performance. It has been a pleasant task to expend energy thinking about poetry; I’ve been attending readings and craft talks remotely all month. And the performance space at Wunderbarn is sweetly rural. We were seated outdoors, and as dusk came on the human voices were accompanied by ducks and frogs. As so many of my poems feature the natural world, that felt fitting.

Friends in the audience, an added boon. That fact encouraged me to read two or three newer poems that I’ve not read out loud before and not to feel too awkward about possibly stumbling through my own lines. Also, though the grounds were muddy and the air rather cool, the rain held off. If I were the sort of person who believed in omens, I would say this event bodes well. Instead, I lift up my voice in gratitude.

a view toward spring–in person

Emergent

emergent (adj.) late 14c., “rising from what surrounds it, coming into view,” from Latin emergentem (nominative emergens), present participle of emergere “to rise out or up” (see emerge).

etymologyonline: etymonline.com

~

Spring equinox.

Very soon–perhaps days from now–the vernal ephemerals will appear. The vernal ephemerals are early spring flowers that thrive low to earth before the trees leaf out: spring beauties, dogtooth violet, squirrel corn, bloodroot, hepatica, and others that look delicate but are, in fact, tough little survivors who have found their ecological niche in the cool days and weak sunlight just post-equinox. We could consider their resilience an inspiration.

Vernal ephemerals sounds to me like a term for sprites, will o’ the wisps, or angels, but it’s a scientific term. I learned it from Tom Wessels (here’s one of his videos on coevolution https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hCAvBmY7ZgA),* but I have been fascinated by these plants for decades. I have always been the sort of person who walked around with my head either facing the clouds or scanning the earth beneath my feet. Hence, a reason so much of my poetry uses images from nature even when I am not writing about the garden, the meadow, the woods, the sea. My clumsiness a byproduct of my peculiar need to observe the natural environment.

Anyway, hepatica is about as close to a sprite as any blossom I know of.

They aren’t common where I now live. Here, the vernal ephemerals I see most often are trout lily, bloodroot, spring beauty, violets, coltsfoot, trillium. Probably a few others that I’m forgetting because the ephemerals haven’t popped up yet. Still far too cold and a bit dry after a month of snow cover. The emergent greens in my gardens consist mainly of winter weeds, and I’m happy even to see those. Because: green.

“Just a little green like the color when the spring is born” says a line in Joni Mitchell’s song. The green things rise up or out of what surrounds them, coming into view.

I have been keeping under the standing snow, leaf litter, and dross for three months, processing (as the jargon terms it) my father’s death and a new manuscript and a backlog of poem drafts and covid-19 with its attendant disruptions, limitations, and opportunities. But the snow has subsided from all but a few gullies on the north sides of hills; iris reticulata and snowdrops are in bloom, along with the winter-blooming witch hazel. There’s work to do in the garden. Poems to revise. National Poetry Month ahead (April!). It’s the 25th year for this literary celebration.

Time for me, like the skunks and the skunk cabbage and the little ephemerals, to rise out of my surroundings. And take up this blog again? It’s a start. A little green shoot emerging in the chilly sunlight. Hello.

* Thanks to Dave Bonta for the video recommendation

Events in the world

Tough week in many ways, for many of us in the world. I am posting just this poem, written five or six years ago, which is part of a new manuscript.

~

Late May

The events of the world
enter my house via cable lines
and satellite.

Family fabric frays,
children fledge. I free a robin
tangled in fence wire,

harvest spinach,
prepare a meal no one
stays home to eat.

After dinner, during
that spell between
afternoon and twilight

I watch the meadow—
two deer, thirty yards apart
in the tall weeds.

One drops a fawn, a swift birth
and the creature is on its feet
in less than two minutes.

They wander into woods
as the second doe delivers,
christens yarrow and milkweed.

I stand at my window. I say,
to hell with the events
of the world.

agriculture clouds countryside crop

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

 

Wild places

I’ve been reading Robert Macfarlane’s book The Wild Places slowly, chapter by chapter and pausing between, enjoying his sentences immensely and feeling quite the milquetoast in comparison with an author who climbs snowy peaks by moonlight and sleeps outdoors, like John Muir, in scooped-gravel beds in seaside cliffs. I do not require luxury, but I get chilly easily and my hips and back are seldom forgiving when I sleep on the ground.

Still–I might put up with a considerable amount of misery to see the stars or the northern lights above Stornoway on a clear night (admittedly, a clear night is rare up there). And not by cruise ship. Given current circumstances, however, I am not going anywhere, which gets a bit tedious. Macfarlane’s last few chapters begin to focus on specific ways to view and consider wildness–finding wildness closer to home, in the flora and fauna and earth, rocks, topography even of regions that are tamed, farmed, suburban. One’s backyard walk might reveal wildness, though in miniature.

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terrarium-sized wildness cultivating human-made cinderblock

There lies inspiration; I can do that–walk in my yard. Look for wildness. Indeed, I have often proceeded that way, slowly and quietly looking about, creeping low to see the small things, overturning old logs, crouching beside vernal pools and driveway puddles, listening for rustlings in the hedge, noting hawk- or vulture-shaped shadows on the path and raising my eyes to find the birds in flight. What are these things but wild? Just because I am familiar with them, I tend to forget their inherent wildness.

~

I took a walk in and through the meadow, which has  not yet grown tall with grasses and milkweed and solidago. I took notice of the perennials starting to emerge. Also of the quantity and variety of nutsedge-like plants.  I had not realized there are so many kinds. Amid the low-lying, pale purple violets, the milkweed and eupatorium shoots are emerging. And I found golden ragwort in the field–never had seen it before.

packera aurea

packera aurea, golden ragwort

This time of year, the does give birth; I have found fawns lying still among the grasses before and ambled the field perimeter slowly in hopes of such an encounter again. So far, not yet. But yesterday morning, a doe grazed along the edge of the tractor path, her spindly, spotted newborn scampering around her legs. So I know the wild ones are present and going on about their usual spring business.

Of course, the avian realm of wildness gets active in April and May. We found an eastern kingbird nest perched on the flat of a canoe paddle that rests on rafters in winter, under our outbuilding. Discovering the nest meant we had to put off our intended initial canoe float in May.

Recently I learned about bumblebee nests, too, and found an abandoned one under an oak tree in the hedgerow while I was looking at jack-in-the-pulpit, mayapples, fungi, and solomon’s seal. Thrashers, ovenbirds, numerous sparrows, and a noisily-protesting red squirrel raked about under wild black raspberry canes.

ann e michael

waiting for mama

There with the native plants, and aggressively overtaking the undergrowth, are amer honeysucke, asiatic rose, barberries, wintercreeper, japanese knotweed, mugwort, ragweed, burdock, thistle, garlic mustard, and whole hosts of plantains and creeper vines. One part of me abhors them. But I admire their tenacity and their ability to adapt to new circumstances. They’ll probably be thriving long after humankind has departed the planet.

As, perhaps, will the whitetail deer–a century ago, become scarce in the wilderness, considered almost “hunted out”–they managed to recover their numbers through adaptation to suburbia, where they are now “pests.” They graze on front lawns, nibble at ornamentals, gobble the leaves and bark of decorative trees, and gather at street-side puddles to drink, leaving heart-shaped prints in the mud and grass. But on my walk yesterday, I observed a doe lying amid the brambles; and she observed me. With the eyes of the wild, darkly liquid, meeting my gaze with her own. I did not move. Nor did she. I made no sound. We watched one another until, with a fluid motion and almost soundlessly, she leapt to her feet, twisted in the air, and fled in an instant. A brief rustle of trampled branches in her wake.

 

Reading poems

In the midst of a pandemic, we have poetry. Pragmatists ought to be listened to, and scientists as well; and poets? Let us not ignore them. It is April, National Poetry Month, and poets offer readers much in the way of reflection, consolation, compassion, entertainment, satire, humor, joy, grief, and the shared experience of being human. All things that are of use at any time, but especially when times are uncertain.

 

Last April, I challenged myself to write a poem a day and posted the drafts on this blog. That turned out to be a useful experience, but I feel no need to repeat it. This year, I want to post about some new(ish) books of poetry. Not critiques or book reviews, just what the poems evoke for this particular reader.

~

First up– Lynn Levin‘s The Minor Virtues, 2020, Ragged Sky Press. The cover’s appropriate to the month: a lovely image of dogwood blossoms. And I have to admit that what drew me into the book is the charming mundanity of the first few poem titles, in which the speaker is tying shoelaces or buying marked-down produce. Most of the poems in the first section begin with a gerund phrase and place the reader in a present-progressive act of doing something. The poems here feel so grounded in reality (quite a few are sonnets), often humorous–grabbing the wrong wineglass at a banquet, trying to think about nothing–that I immediately settled in to the pages.levin_tmv_cover

The topics, or the reflective closures, move toward seriousness at times; her poem “Dilaudid” shook me awake and left me in admiration for a number of reasons (some of them personal resonance–but). Levin’s humor tends to be intellectual–wordplay, allusions, wry asides–and I revel in that sort of thing. Her approach to craft also works for me, because she’s usually subtle going about form or rhyme schemes, so I enjoy the poem for what it says and means and then enjoy it again for how it’s structured and inventive.

I mean, that’s one way I read poems. There are other ways. Some books carry me pell mell through word-urgency or the writer’s rage or passion and some build lyrical intertwining networks of imagery and some make their own rules and some stagger me with their innovation. And I may have to be in the right mood to read a collection.

I was in the right mood to read Levin’s book. It was a good way to begin National Poetry Month in the midst of stay-at-home mandates, taking me gently through a “normal life” and reminding me of all that is surprising there, the riddles and the unexpected, the minor virtues and the actions we take as we practice them. Whether or not we think of them as virtues.

 

April blossoms

Easter and Passover are late in April this year, which rather complicates the semester breaks of the university; the weather remains unsettled, and at present (6:30 pm, Eastern Time), I look out my north-facing window at bright evening light, lengthening shadows, and the narcissus and shadblow trees in bloom.

I have some visiting to do and may not be posting for a day or so–but will manage to do so if I can; and I will endeavor to at least compose one (I can at best promise one) poem per day even if I don’t get to this blog to post it.

[Note: This is more a reminder to myself than to my readers, who I’m sure have more  significant things to do than to keep track of whether I am holding to my discipline for National Poetry Month.]

IMG_6022

Aesthetic Potential

In her yard stood a large quince
which was her favorite flower, she said
though she admitted the bushes
ill-shaped and far too thorny,
the blossoms, though early, unscented
and often sparse or inward-facing,
simple in form, not good for cutting.
The fruits sour, useful only in jelly
which she never bothers putting up
anymore, the branches susceptible to rust.
It looks both forlorn and nasty all winter.
I like its tenacity, she told me, but also
its tenderness. For no other shrub
bears buds with such multi-colored
promise, that might open into anything—
sweet, complex, showy. Though it
doesn’t deliver, April’s bees indulge.

photo by Ann E. Michael

Anticipation

February’s coming to a close, and the forecast indicates a chance of snow soon–but the gardener feels stirrings of approaching spring.

Time to buy seeds, order supplies, plan the garden. Time to mow the meadow before the ground-nesting birds get started on their spring dwellings. Last night the temperatures went well below freezing, but the winterhazel has bloomed. Snowdrops push up from leaf litter: a glimmer of white petals still held close to the stem. Waiting for a string of warm days to open up for the early pollinators.

flowers plant spring macro

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com 

Indeed, the days lengthen at last. Next week marks Spring Break for my college, and with a little more flexible time available, I hope to pin down my garden plans. Each year, I try to incorporate something innovative in the small patch of (mostly) vegetables. This year, I’m tempted to try short-season artichokes.

Thinking about the garden energizes me, gets my creative side jumping. It’s partly the anticipation–will this plant emerge, grow, thrive, fruit? Will voles and insects and viruses attack it? Will the weather cooperate? For example, I’m glad I did not plant potatoes last year–the weather was too wet. Should I take a chance on potatoes this year? (Oh, those tender new spuds lifted from the warm soil in August…)

And tomatoes! So many varieties from which to choose.

IMG_1753

Bounty (our own, in 2015)

 

Anticipation feels different from expectation, though the two are related. For me, at least, the connotation of the first is more open-ended. Anything can happen, though let’s hope what happens is good. Expectation seems more results-oriented. I am not a results-oriented gardener; I like surprises, I appreciate the education I get even from failures.

Come to think of it, I could describe myself that way as a writer or poet, too: not results-oriented, more intrigued by the things I learn when I work at the writing.

Even when the results do not pan out, even when I finally must give up on a poem that is not working, I learn a great deal about where and why a particular approach fails. This is why writing requires practice, patience, and time to analyze and reflect on what those “results” tell the writer.

Do what works, then push the envelope.

Hmmmm…artichokes in Pennsylvania….

artichoke beautiful bloom blooming

artichoke in bloom : Pexels.com

 

Today’s eft

muscariSometimes, winter feels long. When the weather fails to provide chances to get into the garden, I feel “antsy.” Something in my operating scheme malfunctions, and I lose focus–even my writing process suffers. I keep thinking of how my mother tells me she likes to get her hands in the earth, dig in the crumbly soil, plant things; and she has never been much of a gardener in the classic sense. Not the way my mother-in-law was: a perfectionist, an expert, a person who liked to plan a symphony of colors and leaf shapes, a progression of bloom times.

My mother just needs to get her hands dirty.

~

Today, the weather turned unseasonably warm, a brief window on a weekend that permitted me my garden escape. So I found myself thinking of these two Beloveds while I dug in the dirt, sowed some carrot and beet seeds, and evaluated the progress of the early lettuce. When I work in the garden, my mind wanders, then empties. It’s good for my writing and good for my soul. I suppose there’s merit in it for my physical body as well, as long as I remember not to overdo things and put out my back! Then, too, I am accompanied by these two women, so many gardening memories and instruction, so much that I’ve learned in the process of growing vegetables and plants.

~

Some of my friends consider me an expert in the garden, but I am merely modestly educated, mostly in the School of Experience. Expertise? I considered enrolling in the Master Gardener certification program; but frankly, I prefer to garden with beginner’s mind. I love what experts have to teach me and, being bookwormish by nature, I learn a great deal by reading books by experts.

Mostly, though, I learn from the garden–or from the hedgerow, the woodlot, the fields, the meadow, the wetlands. I’ve discovered that sometimes, the experts’ methods are not replicable in my yard; but a series of trial-and-error experiments of my own may produce the desired result. I have learned to let go of some of my “desired outcomes,” because the plant world and the weather control my stewardship of the soil more than anything I can attempt to do.

Letting go…well, that is the Zen of landscaping and raising vegetables and putting in a perennial bed. Also there is the constant, tedious maintenance–the tending and nurturing–that requires discipline. The discipline can be mindful, and it can also foster empty mind.

~

And there is, awaiting at every moment, discovery.

Today’s discovery in the garden was an eft. This one was hiding, next to an earthworm (which it resembles when its feet are tucked close), under a slab of slate I’d left out near the strawberry patch.

newt-eft2

Hello! And may you shortly find a body of water in which to live out your amphibian days. And may no predator consume you before you mate and create further newts. And may this fine, warm-soiled spring provide us all many opportunities to dig in the soil and get our hands dirty.

~

[This newt is a salamander in the subfamily Pleurodelinae, and the wiki commons info for the photo, which I have altered slightly, is here].

 

Blooms, books, buddies

I headed southward on a recent trip to visit a friend and to see if I could find spring, since my Pennsylvania valley has been extensively clobbered by late-winter/early spring snow storms. In southeastern North Carolina, the air was cool but the plants were blooming. Spring at last! May it head northward soon.

springblooms

~

On my travels, I took along Grant Clauser‘s collection The Magician’s Handbook. One of my best-beloveds has been learning sleight-of-hand and card tricks lately, and as a result I found it especially fun to “get” Clauser’s references to trick names and magicians’ moves in these poems. The poems demonstrate Clauser’s sense of humor, balanced with insights about contemporary life and a good use of metaphor, sound (nice alliteration in particular), and poignancy that never teeters into sentiment.

I thought my hostess in North Carolina would enjoy The Magician’s Handbook; she randomly read a few pages and liked the book so much that I gave it to her.

~MH poems

Poetry collections are terrific gifts for poet friends, of course; but it is particularly rewarding to introduce a friend to a poet’s work. I would not have discovered half of the writers whose work I love if it had not been for friends and fellow writers’ recommendations, although various public libraries and many a bookstore browsing session have been places of discovery, as well.

I like to read poems while traveling. On the one hand, it proves difficult to keep from being distracted by crowds, announcements, and departure times–which can make it hard to focus on the challenges a poem presents to its readers. On the other hand, poems tend to be brief enough that the inevitable interruptions do not completely disrupt the flow or content of the page; for that reason, I tend to struggle to read fiction while traveling. The brevity lends itself to gesture, so I can pick up on mood and tone and the sound of the poem (in my head–I don’t read aloud in airport terminal lounges). Later, when I am home again, I re-read the poems. That gives me a different perspective on the work.

So…I guess I will have to purchase another copy of The Magician’s Handbook for my re-reading pleasure. Meanwhile, my friend in North Carolina has something to read as a start to National Poetry Month, which is April!

Hey, that’s what friends are for! [And many thanks to BJG for her hospitality, Southern and South Jersey style.]

Gardening in April

Spring seems serious at the moment. Bumble bees already busy at the barely-open pear blossoms. Hyacinths and daffodils everywhere, and muscari and the redbud opening up. Time to spend more hours in the dirt!

The past two years, I have made the vegetable garden less crowded; the children are grown and I do not want to can, freeze, or give away tons of vegetables the two of us cannot consume. I’ve decided to offer a larger portion of the garden to bees and butterflies by adding more flowers to the mix. Also, I have added wood mulch paths. Shredded wood mulch provides a good environment for salamanders, toads, useful insects, and other “minor fauna” (see my book–The Minor Fauna). This year, while tooling around in the soil doing preparation for plantings, I’ve been thrilled to find toads and salamanders–as well as isopods, (pillbugs, sowbugs and woodlice) and, of course, several varieties of worms.

I’ve been in the garden and taken a woodsy walk; every politician and world leader ought to stop whatever they are doing and take long, quiet walks in nature and long, deep breaths and then do some thinking before they make any more decisions. They might want to read some Wendell Berry, too.

Works for me.
~
Berry was only 30 years old when he wrote these poems (and also “The Peace of Wild Things,” which many people tell me is their favorite poem). He has labored on his thinking in the decades since, and remains a poet worth reading.

muscari

April Woods: Morning

Birth of color
out of night and the ground.

Luminous the gatherings
of bloodroot

newly risen, green leaf
white flower

in the sun, the dark
grown absent.

~~

To My Children, Fearing for Them

Terrors are to come. The earth
is poisoned with narrow lives.
I think of you. What you will

live through, or perish by, eats
at my heart. What have I done? I
need better answers than there are

to the pain of coming to see
what was done in blindness,
loving what I cannot save. Nor,

your eyes turning toward me,
can I wish your lives unmade
though the pain of them is on me.