Spring Plowing

Although April is almost over, it doesn’t look or feel like it’s even begun yet here in northern Vermont. One sure sign it’s April, though, is Mary Jane Dickerson’s annual poetry workshop at the Jericho library. This year’s theme, History and the Poetic Imagination, has led to a variety of poetry from the 15 participants, who will have the opportunity to share their new work this evening at the Deborah Rawson library in Underhill at 6:30. I’ll be reading the poem I’ve written for it, which I include as today’s post.

POEM:
Spring Plowing

With the girls grown and he, too, gone,
she stood at the edge of the fallow field,

behind the two horses—Fetch and Freya—
looking toward their flanks. She clucked

and the team began their work, white fetlock
feathers swishing like snow in storms

finished for the season, sweeping the grass
still brittle and brown as under the single blade

plow the earth roiled, rolled up and under itself
in constant undulation of revelation

and concealment. She trod in the six-inch trench
they cut, knowing the first pass must be straight

to set the pattern for following rows, and locked
her calloused hands on the wooden handles

trying to control the jump of the blade
should it hit rock or start to veer off course.

She cooed the horses’ names, felt the sureness
of this one thing. At the end of the first furrow,

she threw the blade to its side and let the team
continue a few yards before calling: Haw!

Come round Fetch! Come round Freya girl!
and stopped them at the edge of the second pass.

She sat down then, out of shape from winter’s
indoor work. She’d been proud, once, of the farm,

of him, even of herself, but now the sharp
edge of the plow lying a few feet away,
the black rump of Fetch, and Freya’s
champagne mane, and their waiting
for a simple command, humbled her.
She studied Fetch, and snorted herself.
She had more in common with the horse–
a temper and a restlessness–than she’d ever
had with her own husband. Fetch stamped.

She stood up and put the horses in motion. She wanted
the beautiful tension of tugs between horses and plow,

plow and arms and her whole self, a balance she’d watched
him patiently create over the years as he learned

how to orchestrate the crude instrument, the creatures.
She knew what sweet rhythm could rise from this labor.

Her ankles twisted in the ruts behind the horses’ sure
plod. By the end of the second row, sweat shone

on the team’s backs and she set them up for the third
furrow before resting them, wiped her sleeve along

her own forehead. What good was it all now?
Was she wasting her time? She could leave,
follow the girls and live comfortably with one
or the other. They’d have her, probably would
be relieved if she gave up depending on rain
and sun, the cold wet mornings, wind in February,
August dust. She narrowed her eyes at the team;
they had a long way to go, and there was life
in her yet. She would make it. She’d shown the girls

how to do it, hadn’t she? She had plenty of time, years even.
Forecast for the week was good. Fetch! Freya! Come up!

ELEMENT:
Feedback

Feedback isn’t exactly an element of poetry, but it’s an important aspect of writing poetry. A tricky aspect at that. I workshopped the above poem with a small group of poets when we split in to two groups at Mary Jane’s workshop mentioned above. I also showed it to my good friend and accomplished writer and artist Nancy Hayden from The Farm Between. It was especially important to get her feedback as she has actually plowed with horses. I also received feedback from Mary Jane in a one:one conference and from another poet-friend, Patricia Fontaine.

It’s good to get feedback from 1. people you trust and respect; 2. people who know something about the topic you’re writing; 3. people who are well-versed in writing themselves, especially in the genre in which you write.

That doesn’t mean that getting feedback is easy. My heart races when I ask someone to read my poem for the first time, and I have to try hard not to get defensive when they question a decision I’ve made about the poem. But by choosing people carefully to critique my work – not people who are going to think everything I write is great – I create much better poetry.

One of the best persons I’ve received feedback from is Neil Shepard. It’s not because Neil loves everything I write. It’s because Neil takes what I write seriously and puts in a lot of thought about what I’ve written. In his feedback, he references other poems and texts for me to check out and analyzes what I’m doing even though I might not even know I’m doing it.

Getting feedback can be hard, but giving feedback can be difficult, too. There’s a way to do it so the person will listen and a way to do it so the person becomes angry and defensive and doesn’t take your advice, no matter how good it is. Two bits of feedback advice that I try to remember is 1. the writing workshop purpose is to keep the writer writing; 2. there isn’t such a thing as a bad poem, only poems that aren’t finished yet. Okay. Some poems might be a looooonnnngggg way from being finished, but chances are if the person took the time to write it down and share, there’s a nugget of something to shape into a gem.

Sometimes I share a poem when it isn’t ready to share. It’s not a good thing to do. Just because I’ve written down something on paper doesn’t make it worthy of someone else’s time. Share your poetry when you can’t take it any further by yourself and when you’re distant enough from it so that you can stand to have someone suggest changes.

Most of the poems in this blog are quick-writes and early drafts that I have subsequently changed through revision and feedback. Once I’ve emotionally distanced myself sufficiently from the initial creation, it can be fun to go back and see what I can do with it, armed with ideas and suggestions from the supportive critics that I know and trust.

RELATED LINKS (Poems, Places, Books, Videos, Events, and Other Resources):

These aren't draft horses but cute (and old) Shetland ponies. Taken on the Shetland Islands, Scotland, 2013.

These aren’t draft horses but cute (and old) Shetland ponies. Taken on the Shetland Islands, Scotland, 2013.

Fetch – Irish Mythology 

Freya – Norse Goddess 

 

 

 

 

 

St. Valentine’s Day

What else can I say? It’s been a long, cold winter.

POEM:
St. Valentine’s Day, 2015
— or, Eighteen Below and Falling

So cold for so long,
the air itself is brittle—
if you walk out the door,
you risk cracking it,
causing it to sprinkle
in tinkling shards at your feet.
The wind is busy, buffing
the world, you’d think,
to a high-gloss sheen at least.
But no, the interminable sky-wall
has a thick matte finish.
Nothing shiny or spectacular
hangs in the air. The weatherman
confirms it, announcing,
“Filtered sunlight prevails.”
Even Eros has donned
parka and mukluks.

ELEMENT:
Civilizations Converge in Modern Poetry

Eros in parka and mukluks.

Eros in parka and mukluks.

RELATED LINKS (Poems, Places, Books, Videos, Events, and Other Resources):
Eros
Mukluks and other Arctic Clothing
Sorry, but this sums up the coming couple of weeks. Not bad if you live west of the great plains.

 

Let the Boys Eat First

I’ve been thinking about women lately. In particular I’ve been thinking about the young women kidnapped in Nigeria by Boko Haram who are still missing, sold off and given away to men and living, if they are living, under the worst conditions imaginable. And I’m thinking about the Republican women in the House of Representatives who the other day voted together on the abortion bill to send their male counterparts a clear message. One group with absolutely no power and control. Another with much power and control – still not as much as their male counterparts due to numbers, but enough to make a real difference in the lives of millions of women. (If in fact that’s what this is about…). If you look at the sex ratio of men to women across the world, it looks at first glance that there are many more women. But in looking further at the breakdown of the age groups, you see a very different picture. See for yourself by clicking the titles in the Related Links section below.

“Let the Boys Eat First”

My mother’s question
today is “How are Tam’s
sons?” My sister prompts,
“She has no sons.
Only daughters.”
“No sons?” A pause
as she tries to first
believe then comprehend,
but shadows consume her.
Most days she’s in the past
with her four brothers,
or her four boys.
How could a home
exist with only daughters?
Who would eat first,
who last?

Element:
Poet Highlight: Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz, 1651 – 1695

You may not know the poet Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz. I didn’t. When I went looking for a woman to highlight in this section, I was thinking of Muriel Rukeyser, Alice Walker, Maxine Kumin, or someone newer to the scene such as Camille Rankine or Ana Bozicevic. Then I came across this badass nun who lived in Mexico in the 1600’s and her poetry including the poem, “You Foolish Men.” She is sometimes referred to as The Tenth Muse. Which way to the nearest convent?

Juana Ines was born about 1651 as the illegitimate daughter of a Spanish man and her Creole mother. The guy split shortly after her birth. Fortunately for Juana, her mother’s father owned an estate outside of Mexico City and they went to live with him. At the hacienda, she learned to read by sneaking books from her grandfather’s library into the chapel on the property to peruse on her own in privacy. She could read (and write, some sources say) at age 3 and by her early teens had mastered Greek and was teaching Latin to younger children before moving on to learn the Aztec language Nahuatl.

When her grandfather died, she was sent to live with an aunt in Mexico City. She knew the score there and asked permission of her family to disguise herself as a man so that she could continue her education. Permission denied, she went underground to continue her studies, doing so in private. Soon she became a lady in waiting in the colonel viceroy’s court and was put under the tutelage of Vicereine Leonor Carreto, who was one of the viceroys’ wives. Ole Leonor must have done a pretty good job. When Juana was 17, the viceroy called in a panel of experts – theologians, jurists, philosophers, and poets – to ask her questions and pose problems to her that she had to answer without preparation. She astounded everyone. Later, her scientific interest and knowledge led to discussions with Isaac Newton. Or maybe we should say that Newton had the privilege of having discussions with her.

Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz. Photo from https://storify.com/khawkins1988/sor-juana-ines-de-la-cruz

Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz. Click here for photo credit.

Juana was a looker, too, and turned down several marriage proposals. In 1669 she entered the convent “to have no fixed occupation which might curtail my freedom to study.” Fortunately, the viceroy who had tested her in front of the panel and his tutor wife became her patrons and helped her amass a large collection of books (about 4000) at the convent where she spent her time reading and writing.

Juana died of the plague, which she had contracted after helping fellow sisters with the disease at the convent. Her writings, library, and musical and scientific instruments were confiscated by the church who didn’t look very favorably on her work. According to one source, her writings were saved by the vicereine. Fortunately, Vicereine Leonor Carreto must have been some kind of woman herself.

RELATED LINKS (Poems, Places, Books, Videos, Events, and Other Resources):
Sex Ratio for World Population (2011)
Sex Ratio Under 15
Sex Ratio for 15 – 64 years
Sex Ratio for 65 and older