Violins and Apple Trees

Yesterday I attended a conference sponsored by the League of Vermont Writers. First in the line up was a presentation by Barbara Dozetos on the different channels of social media (facebook, twitter, google plus, tumblr, etc.) and why writers need to pay attention to social media. Lesson learned; I will be on facebook soon. This was followed by a talk by poet J.C. Ellefson, Professor of English and Poet in Residence at Champlain College. After lunch, we had the honor of listening to former governor Madeleine Kunin discuss and compare the lives of politicians and writers. Her third book, The New Feminist Agenda: Defining the Next Revolution for Women, Work, and Family, is a must read for anyone interested in learning about fair “family leave insurance” in order to care for your newborn, your sick or disabled dependent, or an elderly parent.

It is Ellefson‘s exercise at yesterday’s conference that leads me to today’s poem. That, and this morning’s reading of the first few poems in New American Poets, edited by Jack Myers & Roger Weingarten. The idea was inspired by the former event, the form by the latter.

Violins and Apple Trees

So I’m in this workshop and the guy poet,
(there’s always a guy poet leading
a group of women) he says, “I’m going to
take you to dream land,” and I know
he doesn’t know nothing about my dream
land where the lobsters are black
with shaggy fur and where a goat’s
face turns into a baby’s face and back
to a goat’s face then dies in my arms.
But hey, I’m open to almost anything,
so I close my eyes to go to dream land
at the white table-clothed round table
at the edge of a group of white table-clothed
round tables in the Double Tree Hotel
conference room. Music begins to play.
I open my eyes to peek and the poet guy’s
actually playing the violin, softlike. That’s when
my daughter at age ten pops into my head
and I see her running down the driveway
and climbing the apple tree. I know
she’s slammed the door to the house,
I hear it after she is already in the tree –
the slam juxtaposed with the image of her
cradled in those gnarled branches –
I see her sitting there and I hear her heart slow
to a thumpy tap thumpy tap thumpy tap
right when the music picks up: the guy poet
has turned his violin into a fiddle.
Now, when those who have the need to share
do so at sharing time, they say they went
to Ireland or back to the Civil War
when the music picked up, but I see,
right at this moment when her heart slows
and the bow bounces lighter and quicker
off the strings, I see my 10 year old daughter
look out across the field at something moving.
My eyes dart to the moving figure and back again
to the girl in the apple tree, and I see she’s watching
herself as a grown woman walk across the thigh-high
grass, heading for herself. She, the grown daughter,
is straight shouldered in a soft green flannel shirt,
she is blue-jeaned, and she is walking real easy
but solid-like. I don’t know what happens to the music
at this point, I think it has ended, but for a few more
seconds I watch my 10-year old daughter
get down from the tree, walk back to the house,
and hear her close the door with a little click.


The above poem is written with apologies to Jim Ellefson. It is not his fault that he is a guy poet and mostly women attend these Saturday conferences, but that is the nature of the beast at this point, at least in Vermont. The important fact is, Ellefson did take me on a dream journey with his music AND provided the context for the poem, which to me makes the poem multi-dimensional and much more interesting than just conveying the dream itself. After the music exercise, Ellefson discussed how we can take images, dreams, and experiences and transcribe them on paper. He used Robert Olen Butler’s From Where You Dream as a leaping point. In the introduction to this book, Janet Burroway explains that Butler, both actor and lecturer, uses the “Stanislavsky Method” that leads him to teach, “In place of the body, it is the imagination that must be a strong and supple instrument, ready to lead the reader through moment-by-moment sensual experience. And it is in the realm of the unconscious rather than that of technique or intellect that the writer seeks fictional truth” (p. 2).

How does this translate to writing fiction and poetry? In Ellefson’s workshop, he had us first act out skits then transcribe these sensual experiences using dialogue, intonation, gestures, physical appearance, setting, positioning of characters, and timing, to name a few of the elements. When I wrote the first drafts of the poem above, I jotted down the ideas that popped into my head while Ellefson played the violin. Then I tried to work them in a poem. Trying to work something in to a poem is a big mistake. My lines were stiff and too confining. I knew what I was writing was too contrived and pretty crappy (maybe they still are, but they are better than what first appeared, believe me).

Frustrated, I put everything aside and picked up the book, New American Poets, that I just purchased at Ebenezer Books. Whenever I’m stymied by my writing, I read. It always, always, allows the subconscious to take over in regards to my own work. I relax and as I relax I find myself suddenly jotting things down. I always read with a notebook and pen at hand. So it was when I read the first two poems of my new anthology, “Deuce: 12:23 a.m.” by Barbara Anderson (read this poem), and “Man In A Window” by Ralph Angel (read this poem). Even though I had been trying to write today’s poem from the body as Ellefson instructed, it was these two poems that allowed me to do so, that blew open the structure to allow the poem. I backed up and began at the beginning of the poem with the setting that allows the narrator’s voice to come through in the personal dreamscape. I allowed myself to express what I was feeling. With that came, low-and-behold, dialogue, intonation, gestures, physical appearance, setting, positioning of characters and timing. Thank you Ellefson, Butler, Anderson, and Angel.

RELATED LINKS (Poems, Places, Books, Videos, Events, etc.):
Demonstration of Creative Process by Robert Olen Butler
Madeleine Kunin
Aboriginal Art and Culture Center– 100% Aboriginal owned and operated
Dreamtime Chart from the site above


And Even Now…

It has been over a month since I have posted, but that doesn’t mean I haven’t been working on what became this post. As always, several circumstances converged for the creation of today’s poem, “And Even Now, Lightning Flashes in Mid-December.”  One contributing factor was a discussion on Christmas Day about the Vermont Poet Laureates: Robert Frost, Galway Kinnell, Louise Gluck, Ellen Bryant Voight, Grace Paley, Ruth Stone, and Sydney Lea. The second factor was the discovery of the cento, a poem that is created through the use of other poets’ lines. The third piece was the horrible incident at Sandy Hook Elementary School. This shook me to my core.

How do you process something like this? I did not have words for it. So I took the words of others, specifically the seven Vermont Poet Laureates. I decided to read a book (or two short ones) by each poet, noting which lines resonated in some vague way to what I wanted to express. I then went back through the books, typed up each line that I had chosen, and organized them by author, assigning a different color to each one. This resulted in twelve pages of single lines. From there, I began to group lines together and thus began the poem. After four weeks, I have just finished the first draft that I post here today. The title is a line from Ruth Stone’s poem, “And So Forth,” found in her book In the Dark.

Due to the poem being so long (ten sections and eight pages in it’s totality), below I only have the beginning lines of sections 1, 2, 4, 9, and 10. Sections 3, 5, 6, 7, and 8 are included in their entirety. To read the complete poem, you can click here. To see which lines belong to which poet, click here. And to see additional lines I had chosen but that did not make it into this version, click here. They could make up another poem (or several).

And Even Now, Lightning Flashes In Mid-December
A Cento Poem in Ten Parts
What can I tell you that you don’t know
of this slipping shadow – this eclipse
won’t let go    I am alone,
remote body, trembling with the rush
into the raven-black cave of self…

Perhaps he’s only become quite shy.

It was the smell of that time, that neighborhood.
I’d never paid a lot of mind: the merest nod, a vague hello
in that vanished abode now far apart,
in the pre-trembling of a house that falls,
a certain disheveled neighbor…

Your personality like moth wings, shredding itself
that at once kept you burning low and hid you,
and the long shaft of darkness shaped as you
would be afraid if we should comprehend

but no one ever heard you make the claim.

There’s a lot yet that isn’t understood –

but the last choice is still the same.

But the last choice is still the same.

This morning    a man –
in a secret wood, as the countryside lay stunned –
killed my gift, exposed
us with the sting of memory
the oath sworn between earth and water, flesh and spirit, broken –
suddenly there suddenly gone.
But weren’t the early gifts a promise
I held in my hands? …

One doesn’t notice wings when they’re at rest.
Snow    birds    the sun         caught –
lifting through the sky, their voices
shuddering across the black sky and vanishing,
never again would birds’ song be the same.

A flock of birds leaving the side of the mountain:
again, again, again, frail wings beat as they hover.
Does it matter where the birds go? Does it even matter?
They leave here, that’s the point.

Not a bird in sight, not a sound.

The last blackbird lights up his gold wings: farewell.

And she who is born
of so much warmth and light,
her tenderness gathers them up
by countless silken ties of love and thought
and run[s] in little skips.

A child’s kisses, rise –

and kissed her from head to toe     The other one my son

were days so very few

and did I say enough to you?

Even this haunted room,
watery shapes in the shadows of the room,
almost the whisper of your voice.

I would alchemize the ashes of your cradle back into wood.

Bring out the stars, bring out the flowers.
In your dreams the hours begin to sing,
impatient for sunrise,
and if our getting up to start the day
had stood still for us in the middle of heaven
that blows apart the mightiest of stars,
you can imagine my breath stopped    then.

Who cares but for the future of the bud
and the blossoms glittering in the sky?

As above: the last scattered stars
expend their bloom in vain.

The night isn’t dark, the world is dark,
and there is always more than should be said
as if clinging could save us. I think
this absence has a smell,
and what I pity in you is something human
like the shoes left behind.
Casket of the snow:
I’ve seen it breaking open.
I walk out from myself –
I think, do you hear me now?
I cannot touch your life, much less can save,
so the past is not a scar but a wound:
and Time which is nature as well will be a poor healer no matter.

I had only wanted to love.

Politicians rattling swords
or worse: deliberate, someone’s “agenda”
is just a male version of dressing up.

Of our ancestors, it says nothing.

“Now all together, fellows
let’s give them a chorus they won’t forget!”

as the women and children who
will surely be in the way
clung to the male’s plumage, which turned
history, with its moral,
often convenient…

that goodwill and hope may count for nothing
for the future.

What do they care?

Once we gave the matter little thought
with faint headshakings, no more wise
till it ended here:
it has come to this.
There’s nothing but injustice to be had.

The quiet authority of culture,
the witness tree…

What dream would be mine? That life go on,
the loving’s made to hold each other like
all bodies, one body, one light.

No more than dream, of course, I know.



There’s not a whole lot to say about a cento. First appearing somewhere between the 3rd or 4th centuries, a “cento” is a poem that is made of lines from other poems. The name is derived from Latin meaning “patchwork” and it is considered a type of collage poem. The poetry of both Homer and Virgil contain centos. A true cento, such as “And Even Now, Lightning Flashes in Mid-December” has no original lines. In using others’ lines, I did, however, take liberty with punctuation and capitalization to make the poem read a bit smoother. Still, it is a collage poem and meant to feel as such, echoing the complexities of all of the issues surrounding our societal woes with guns, not just at Sandy Hook, but across the nation where people are murdered or hurt every day by them.

Poems from the following books were used to compose the lines of the cento, And Even Now, Lightning Flashes in Mid-December”:

Robert Frost: A Boy’s Will and A Witness Tree
Galway Kinnell: The Book of Nightmares
Ellen Bryant Voight: Kyrie and Messenger, New Poems
Louise Gluck: Meadowlands
Grace Paley: Fidelity
Ruth Stone: In the Dark
Sydney Lea: Young of the Year

My next cento challenge is to take only 14 – or 7 – lines from all of those pages I chose to write a poem on the same topic.

RELATED LINKS (Poems, Places, Books, Videos, Events, etc.):
Vermont State Poet Laureate
Poetry As Survival by Gregory Orr – a must-read book for coping with trauma through poetry