April is National Poetry Month, so I thought I’d share some of my favorite poetry collections by contemporary (mostly southern) poets. All but one of them I call friends (I haven’t met Mary Waters from Little Rock yet, although we have corresponded by email.) and I hope you’ll check them out, purchase a volume or two, and find inspiration in their verses—especially during April, but for always.
Compass of Affection by Scott Cairns
Tender Hooks by Beth Ann Fennelly
Little Wanderer by Jennifer Horne
Sinners Welcome by Mary Karr
Before the Great Troubling by Corey Mesler
Evening Body by Karissa Knox Sorrell
American Happiness by Jacqueline Allen Trimble
Other Stars Waiting by Mary N. Waters
Heaven Was the Moon by Kory Wells
Five Terraces by Ann Fisher-Wirth
Four of these (southern) poets contributed essays to the upcoming anthology I’m editing, So Y’all Think You Can Write: Southern Writers on Writing (University Press of Mississippi 2018): Beth Ann Fennelly, Jennifer Horne, Corey Mesler, and Jacqueline Allen Trimble.
And here’s a link to my one published poem: “The Imperfect Peace” (2008).
I’ll close with a favorite line from Mary Oliver’s poem, “The Summer’s Day”:
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
With your one wild and precious life?
… or even with the month of April?
Have favorite contemporary poets? Please share them and their work with me here or on Facebook.
My friend Jennifer Horne is a poet. She’s published several books of poetry, and also a collection of short stories. She’s also a traveler. The cover of her latest book, Little Wanderer, features a seventeenth century map of Iceland and the Faroe Islands surrounded by a sea of monsters. The image is mystical, like the poet whose latest words wait inside the covers of the book, poised to take the reader on journeys to Greece, Italy, Bucharest, Prague, Amsterdam, England, and back home to less exotic but no less colorful places like Arkansas and Alabama.
My personal favorites were in the section on Greece—probably because I’ve made two trips to Greece—as a convert to Eastern Orthodoxy I was on pilgrimage—and I have such vivid memories that were called to mind by Horne’s poems, especially the section called “Evil Eye.” In Meteora, she shows a woman’s grief over losing someone to a monastic call:
. . . We must sacrifice, you say, for the Lord.
Here I lie, your sacrifice, your lamb—
yet you walk ever higher up that rocky path,
never looking back, eyes set on the company of old men.
And later, in “Greece, I Love You, But You’re Making Me Crazy,” she explores issues of gender in her frustration that only men (and by the way, only male animals) are allowed on Mount Athos:
Still, you haven’t allowed me
Onto Mount Athos
Or almost a thousand years!
Are my female parts
So very frightening?
You say I’m impure
But you throw your trash
out the window.
Horne captures another side of life in Greece in “Letter from an Athenian Wife,” in which a woman bemoans her place: “But Mother, the solitude! My servants have a better life,/meeting to chatter as they fill the water jugs, helping/one another in childbirth and sickness….”
As she turns her pen towards visits to Italy (where my husband and celebrated our fortieth anniversary—a trip all about the beauty of the land, the people, and the food) I loved her “Postscript to Paradise,” in which she takes the reader through her journey as a poet to a place of happiness:
. . . Do I say I’ve weathered the pain,
this ship of mine has reached calm harbor? I will say,
looking out my window at nothing much, I am happy just
to love the world again.
Perhaps my favorite poem in the book for the sheer joy of its rhythm and fun of reading was “Abbastanza.” With a Dr. Seuss-type beating of her pen’s drum, she makes me want to buy that cottage in a village in Italy.
Heading East, Horne takes us to Bucharest with several poems revealing darkness and fear (“Night Watch: Bucharest, Revisited”) which transports the reader from Bucharest back to Little Rock, Arkansas, in 1960. If that connection seems odd, you must get this book and read these poems in sequence to follow her emotional journey. The title poem, “Little Wanderer,” takes us vividly to Prague, as does “Sudek’s Studio.” Again, I loved this because of my own trip to Prague, where I remember with Horne, “walking down to the Old Town,/the Charles Bridge,/ clock tower, town hall….” And then there’s “Musee,” where Horne shows us how viewing nudes can help us feel more comfortable with our own bodies. (I had a similar experience in Italy once.)
Horne brings us back to the States with “Local Honey,” in which she remembers a time in her youth: “I’m always welcome . . ./soon gears shift/and I am twenty,/kissing Sam Fiasca/as we drive down Cantrell Hill/in his 1950-something/brown Ford pick-up….”
She switches gears with her ekphrastic piece, “Talisman,”—after a sculpture by Susan Perry and then gives us another glimpse of her soul in “Sound Over Water.”
It’s difficult to review this book without mentioning each and every poem. What a treasure. And what a joy to read it today, on the day after the presidential election, when my heart needed to take a journey away from all the craziness. Thank you for this gift, Jennifer.
Give yourself a gift—buy this book and enjoy the journeys inside. Or give it as a Christmas gift to someone who loves to travel, or just loves good poetry.
My friend Jennifer Horne recently told me about a wonderful poet who just released her first volume of poetry—American Happiness. Jacqueline Trimble did graduate work at the University of Alabama with Jennifer (another excellent poet who also writes prose) and Jennifer knew I would love her poems. She was right.
Jacqueline opens the book with these sentences in her preface, “How My Mother Taught Me to Write Poems”:
My mother was a foot soldier in the fight for civil rights, had a cross burned on her lawn, drove students to Lanier, a local high school, to integrate it and was sued along with CBS for comments she made on television. She was unafraid, dignified, and determined.
That’s how I would describe her poetry in this powerful book—unafraid, dignified, and determined. Jacqueline was the only black child the first year in her elementary school in Montgomery, Alabama. On her journey to the successful woman she is today, she experienced the dark underbelly of racism in the South and exposes it with brilliant verse in this collection.
But before we get to the section that deals most directly with racial issues, we are hit squarely in the gut and the heart with her reflections on the death of her mother with “The Day After Her Mother Died” and “Things That Are Lost.” These were particularly powerful for me, since I lost my own mother just five months ago. When she says, “I have lost the sound/of my mother’s voice,” I thought immediately about my own mother’s voice, trying to call it back, which I can still do. I even hear it in my own voice at times.
Jacqueline appeals to all our senses with “Church Women” (I can see, hear, and smell this one) and to our sense of place in “The Geography of Passion.” And she builds a world for her readers in “A Woman Tells the History of Her People” before sending us into the darkest parts of that world in the next section of the book, “American Happiness.”
Perhaps the strongest poem in this section is “The Klan Panhandles for Donations at the Intersection of Court Street and the Southern Bypass.” In my naiveté (although I did grow up in Jackson, Mississippi, in the 1950s and ’60s) I could not have imagined this scene in Tuskegee, Alabama. But I did see a cross burning in a front yard in Jackson once, in 1964. My eighth grade boyfriend’s family had moved to Jackson from somewhere up North. I think his father did something to piss off the Klan, but I never understood what it was.
In her title poem for the book, “American Happiness,” Jacqueline juxtaposes the fictional town of Mayberry with the real towns she grew up in. In Mayberry, she says, “folks were never colored/—not even black and white—/but beige, khaki,/a little gray.” The gray fades quickly in her next poem, “How To Survive As a Black Woman Everywhere in America Including the Deep South.”
Jacqueline Allen Trimble is an associate professor of English and chairperson of Languages and Literatures at Alabama State University in Montgomery, Alabama. She is a Cave Canem fellow and the recipient of a 2017 literary arts fellowship from the Alabama State Council on the Arts. American Happiness is her first book. I’m sure it won’t be her last, as we all need to hear more from this brave and gifted writer. As Mark Childress, author of Crazy in Alabama says, “It is cause for celebration that Ms. Trimble is making poetry that is timely and timeless, elegant and brutal, wise and innocent.”
American Happiness is a MUST READ for everyone who grew up in the South, lives in the South, and even for our neighbors in the rest of the country who care about the rights of all people. Of course these issues have been addressed elsewhere, but not with the power of poetry like Jacqueline’s. Write on, Jackie.
This morning I did four loads of laundry while reading a wonderful new book of poetry by Jacqueline Allen Trimble, American Happiness. (Watch for a review soon!) I was so inspired that I stopped and wrote a poem myself. I’m not a “real” poet, but sometimes I like to explore the genre. I hope you enjoy it.
Why I Don’t Hate Doing Laundry
by Susan Cushman
The laundry sorter stands between bedroom
and bath—its four neat containers
keeping our soiled items in order:
Darks. Whites. Perma-press. And
dress shirts to take to the cleaners.
I use a woven basket to transport
one load at a time to the laundry room;
It is the same basket that our first child
played in, almost forty years ago—a
memory captured in a photograph
that fills my heart with love on laundry day.
Even the darks will be sorted before
they enter the shiny front-loading machines—the nicest
ones we have ever had—which came with the house;
Sorting the darks? Isn’t that a bit anal?
Not when you consider that some are heavy
and others are light and need a shorter dry time.
The perma-press wants the lightest touch—only
fifteen minutes in the dryer and then on to
hangers right away, my hands smoothing collars
and shaking out the tiny wrinkles that remain
before they return to my husband’s closet
for another day, another trip, another meeting.
Whites are easy—warm, warm, white I told
our children when they were young;
cold, cold colors for everything else.
And thirty minutes on warm to dry and fluff
before the task of folding—taught to me
by my husband over forty years ago,
when he also showed me how to iron.
Skills he learned in childhood.
I do miss the smell of clothes warmed by the sun
on the clothesline I used as a newly wed;
Like the one my mother used—or sometimes
the maid—when I was young.
And so I often smell the white tee shirts and
warm towels as I pull them from the dryer,
hoping for a memory of those sunshiny days.
So much chaos in the world and sometimes
in our lives today, leaving me screaming
for order—for something I can control—even
if it’s only clothing and household linens.
I tried to control our children but now they
have their own families, their own chaos,
their own laundry. I wonder if they remember
warm warm white and cold cold colors.
I miss writing icons. Yesterday I found this link to a wonderful video that demonstrates the process of writing an icon, and I found myself enthralled as I watched. (The iconographers are Anton and Ekaterina Daineko, a married couple from Minsk, Belarus, who are teaching workshops in the U.S. this summer.) I even got a little teary-eyed. And while I feel strongly that I will never return to this liturgical art form, I will always be thankful for the time I spent learning, practicing and teaching it, because of the greater understanding and appreciation of iconography those years gave me. (If you missed my post about five years ago on why I retired from writing icons, it’s here.)
And so this morning when I went to our icon corner to do my morning prayers, I smiled as I read about the saints who are commemorated in the Orthodox Church today. And especially about this event, which is also commemorated: “The Appearance of the Kazan Icon of the Mother of God.” In 1579 in Kazan, Russia, a terrible fire destroyed part of the city, but spared a nine-year-old girl named Matrona, although her house was burned. The Mother of God appeared to Matrona and directed her where to find a miracle-working icon, buried under a stove, covered in ashes, but wrapped in cloth for protection. The icon was taken to the Annunciation cathedral, where it became known for healing the blind and curing eye diseases. A church was built on the site where it was found, but sadly it was later destroyed by the Bolsheviks during the Russian Revolution.
I found this wonderful poem in the book, Mother of God, Similar to Fire (given to me by friends a few years ago), which contains beautiful icons paired with poems—a form of ekphrastic writing that I enjoy immensely. The icons are written by William Hart McNichols and the poetry is by Mirabai Starr. I don’t have permission to publish her poem in its entirely, so I’ll quote a part of it here:
Our Lady of Kazan
You lived a fully, deeply human life,
And this humanity is what helps us feel connected to you.
This world is yearning for your Mother-Love.
Show our leaders how to guide us
With respect for our dignity and well-being.
Teach us to love one another
With boundless patience
And unbridled joy.
I found these words—and the beautiful icon (which I’ve only shared a detail of here) comforting to offer as a prayer as our nation mourns the loss of more lives to violence on our streets and in our homes.
About a month ago I did a post about my husband’s ancestor, Ralph Spaulding Cushman, whom we discovered through a friend at my mother’s funeral. After that our oldest son, Jonathan, sent his dad a book of poems by Ralph Cushman, the one I referred to in the post, Hilltop Verses and Prayers. Published in MCMXLV (it took us a little while to figure out that meant 1945), the book is out of print, so Bill received a lovely used copy, with the original owner’s name inside: Carol Nan Rester from Albany, Oregon. I think it’s fun to learn the history of a book’s ownership.
I love poetry, and some of my favorite poems have spiritual elements, like those of the Orthodox poet and writer Scott Cairns (whom I’m blogged about several times, especially his Compass of Affection and Idiot Psalms) as well as more ancient poets like Saint Ephraim the Syrian (A Spiritual Psalter) and Saint Nikolai Velimirovic (Prayers by the Lake).
So when my husband received this gift of verse by his ancestor—a Bishop in the Methodist Episcopal Church—I was immediately interested in reading more of his poetry. I started with his introduction, “Concerning Religious Verse.” I love what he says about poetry:
A poet can flash forth a truth in a few lines that would require pages of prose to express…. If it is true, as Shakespeare says, that ‘brevity is the soul of wit,’ then Poetry is crystallized thinking.
I immediately thought of the Psalms when I read this, and how they capture the heart of humanity—in all its sinfulness and its joy and emotional expressions—in verse rather than in prose. I think David (and others who wrote the Psalms) was very close to God. As Cushman says:
It seems evident also that there is a close relationship between poetry and religious experience. I do not mean that all poets are saints…. Emotionally and temperamentally they have the capacity for sainthood…. Religious experience—a growing nearness to God in Christ—tends to express itself in lofty and poetic language. Likewise the use of poetry will help one to cultivate the spiritual life…. Poetry is capable of catching and expressing the deeper emotions and conceptions of the human heart and mind….
I just spent the morning with a friend who is struggling with a form of early onset dementia. We had coffee and talked about birds—the birds she and her husband feed in their yard and often watch with their morning coffee. And then we worked a simple puzzle that revealed pictures of a dozen beautiful birds and tried to guess their names. I regret not having a bird feeder in the little patio outside my office. Last year I had a hummingbird feeder but the hummers didn’t come often and I found it “too much trouble” to keep the feeder clean and filled. After this morning I’m thinking of getting a new bird feeder, which I hope will encourage me to sit still and watch for the beauty of the birds that will hopefully visit me. I am inspired by Cushman’s poem:
I Will Not Hurry
I will not hurry through this day!
Lord, I will listen by the way,
To humming bees and singing birds,
To speaking trees and friendly words;
And for the moments in between
Seek glimpses of Thy great Unseen.
I will not hurry through this day;
I will take time to think and pray;
I will look up into the sky,
Where fleecy clouds and swallows fly;
And somewhere in the day, maybe
I will catch whispers, Lord, from Thee!
After working the puzzle this morning, my friend and I spent an hour playing a game that normally takes about 30 minutes to complete. It blessed me to have to slow down and help her to understand the mechanics of the game and to take time with each move. I hope that the morning will help me remember the wisdom of Cushman’s poetry and the joy of just being with a friend in the presence of a God who loves us.
One of the largest icons at our parish, Saint John Orthodox in Memphis, is of the Feast of Pentecost (at left), which we will celebrate this coming Sunday. Art, poetry, and music are all important aspects of the spiritual world for me, so I’m going to share a bit of art and poetry with you today in anticipation of the feast on Sunday.
Whatever your spiritual tradition, I hope that these images and words will bring peace and joy, which are fruits of the Holy Spirit—the One we celebrate at Pentecost. (To see a slide show of all the icons in the nave at Saint John, click here.)
Note the first poem mentions a “maid,” which refers to the Mother of God. I’ve included an icon of Pentecost in which she is seated with the apostles.
The Icon of Pentecost
At the Church’s birth,
Licked clean by flames of Spirit
Maid and Apostles in horseshoe
Make sweet maternal crib
In whose dark cave
The World, that Old King,
Waits with a swaddling cloth.
Frances Hall Ford
Today we feel the wind beneath our wings
Today the hidden fountain flows and plays
Today the church draws breath at last and sings
As every flame becomes a Tongue of praise.
This is the feast of fire, air, and water
Poured out and breathed and kindled into earth.
The earth herself awakens to her maker
And is translated out of death to birth.
The right words come today in their right order
And every word spells freedom and release
Today the gospel crosses every border
All tongues are loosened by the Prince of Peace
Today the lost are found in His translation.
Whose mother-tongue is Love, in every nation.
I woke up this morning at 5:45 a.m., probably because we left the curtains open with our lovely view of the Mississippi River from our corner room at the Riverside Hilton in New Orleans, and the sky was putting on a light show that culminated with a brilliant sunrise. The beauty of it drew my heart to prayer. To seek God in the morning, which is a common practice in the Orthodox Church, and I’m sure in many other spiritual traditions.
I followed up my morning prayers with a trolley ride down to the French Quarter for beignets at Café Du Monde, and a little bit of browsing a few shops. While waiting for the trolley to return for my trip back to the hotel, the sky put on another light show, which was made even better by the presence of these two ladies in dresses and heels, hats and parasols. It looked like something out of the 1940s… or an Edward Hopper painting. I found myself again drawn to God just because of the sheer beauty of the morning and the scenery.
When I was a teenager, someone gave me this poem, “God in the Morning,” which has stuck with me for several decades. And now it appears again, with the information that it was probably written by a relative of my husband. Here’s how the poem just resurfaced in my life after so many years. It started with a funeral.
Funerals always seem to bring together random—or not so random—gatherings of friends and relatives from several generations. I love the serendipity of some of the connections that are often made at these gatherings. Like this one, which happened on May 24 at my mother’s funeral in Jackson, Mississippi:
My sister-in-law, Cathy Cushman Alexander (from Atlanta), was visiting with Derwood and Regina Boyles (of Jackson), whom she had never met. Derwood and my father were best friends from grade school in Jackson through rooming together at Mississippi State University and all through their adult lives. He and Regina were Mom and Dad’s go-to couple for ball games and other social outings. I love them both dearly. So… at the visitation for Mom’s funeral, they mentioned a poem to Cathy. It’s called “God in the Morning.” The reason they mentioned it was because it was written by Ralph Cushman, and Regina wondered if he was a relative of ours. (We’re still working on the connection, but it’s likely. Here’s some bio info on him.) Cushman was a Bishop in the Methodist Episcopal Church, and wrote many books, including this book of poems, Hilltop Verses and Prayers.
God in the Morning
by Ralph Spaulding Cushman
I met God in the morning
When my day was at its best,
And His presence came like sunrise,
Like a glory in my breast.
All day long the Presence lingered,
All day long He stayed with me,
And we sailed in perfect calmness
O’re a very troubled sea.
Other ships were blown and battered,
Other ships were sore distressed,
But the winds that seemed to drive them
Brought to us a peace and rest.
Then I thought of other mornings,
With a keen remorse of mind,
When I too had loosed the moorings,
With the Presence left behind.
So I think I know the secret,
Learned from many a troubled way:
You must seek Him in the morning
If you want Him through the day!
For hump-day of my birthday week I took a day trip to Oxford (Mississippi) to attend a presentation by two talented women: the poet Ann Fisher-Wirth and the photographer Maude Schuyler Clay. You can read more about “Mississippi: A Collaborative Project” here. The presentation was at the Gammill Gallery at the Center for Southern Studies (Barnard Observatory) where the exhibit will be up for several more weeks.
Ann was a speaker at a writing workshop I attended several years ago, and I’ve enjoyed keeping up with her and her poetry ever since. You can read a post I did after one of her readings here:
I recently purchased a large “coffee table” book of Maude’s work—Mississippi History—and I own several books of Ann’s poetry, so I was excited to see/hear their collaboration. Sadly, the slide projector wasn’t working at the venue, so we couldn’t view Maude’s photos as Ann read her work, but we were able to view the exhibit in the adjacent room after the presentation.
During the Q&A I asked Ann whether she considered her poems in this collection to be ekphrastic (poetry written about a prior text or work of art). I first learned about ekphrastic poem about six years ago at a workshop led by Scott Cairns. His definition at the time was this:
Ekphrastic poetry should give voice to an artifact… making meaning with narrative about something the piece of art might be saying.
Ann said it was more than that, because it wasn’t just a reflection on a piece of art (in this case a photograph) but it was more of a fictional story-telling exercise. For each photograph, she made up characters that could be (but weren’t) in the photograph, or got inside an imaginary viewer’s head and reflected from other points of view. It’s really kind of genre-bending what she and Maude have done together, and I love it. They’re hoping someone will publish the collaboration as a book some day.
Listening to Ann read and looking at Maude’s photographs inspired me to view art in a different way. And yes, maybe I’ll try my hand at a little genre-bending poetry the next time I see something that inspires me—a photograph, a painting, a sketch, a statue, a building. We’re going to Paris in May, so that should provide plenty of opportunities!
So thankful for the chance to get out of the rain (it was only cloudy in Oxford) and enjoy a delicious lunch at Bouré and some shopping on the Square. Found the perfect lightweight raincoat at Neilson’s. It always inspires me just to be in that town so full of literature and art and beauty.
And a little walk down memory lane … I parked right in front of the Tri Delta house, where I was a member 45-46 years ago! I watched a few girls come and go from the house (it was lunch time) and if it had been a Thursday, I might would have dropped in and asked if they still served grill cheese sandwiches and tomato soup on Thursdays! (Or was it Tuesdays?)
Even with the clouds, the campus was showing signs of spring and it was 73 degrees. What a great day.
My post is a day late, and will be short. I recently discovered the poetry of Tomas Transtromer, winner of the 2011 Nobel Prize for Literature. I learned about Transtromer when a quote from his work was shared with me by a poet friend who is contributing an essay to my upcoming anthology, A Second Blooming. Here’s what she shared:
I don’t know if we’re in the beginning or in the final stage.
This is so applicable to all of us who are experiencing new “bloomings” at various stages of our lives. More about Transtromer:
As Jennifer Whiting says in her work, “The Recognition of Faith in the Poetry of Tomas Transtromer,” her goal was to:
explore the theme of faith through three recognitions that repeatedly occur in Transtromer’s poetry: the recognition of the holy unseen as magnetic forces drawing human beings toward them, the recognition of the self as God’s unfolding creation, and the recognition of others and nature as fellow creation — that is, acts of ongoing creation.
Transtromer’s poetry doesn’t seem to be overtly religious, or even spiritual. But his words often speak universally to people who are in diverse places where faith is concerned. I like this one:
Two truths approach each other. One comes from inside, the other from outside, and where they meet we have a chance to catch sight of ourselves. (From “Preludes”)
My spiritual journey—especially over the past fifteen or twenty years—has been informed by psychology and art, and Transtromer’s work is infused with both of these. Want to read more about him? Here’s a good article from The New Yorker, right after he won the Nobel: “Miracle Speech: The Poetry of Tomas Transtromer,” by Teju Cole.