My Mother Told Me

I have written many poems about my father. For several reasons that I won’t get into now, that is easier for me to do than to write poems about my mother. Oh, the Power of the Mother! I include three short poems below as glimpses into my mother, or perhaps they could be considered more as false starts in writing about her.

My Mother Told Me
when she was young, wild
roses grew in Iowa ditches
that tornadoes jump, the same
ditches where at age 12,
in blue jeans and sweat,
I hid in four-foot grass,
accompanied by bugs
in iridescent cloaks, where dust-
clouds settled after cars passed,
and where I could smell
the ocean in an endless sky.

All My Mother’s Babies
had eyes that shone black,
specks of light flickering
from under black tufts of fluff,
so she couldn’t help but stare
when my baby was born
with eyes green like the sea,
and a halo of fuzzy peach.

My Mother Sees Things
that aren’t there. This has always been.
She saw things long before her mother
returned from the grave after forty years
to join her for dinner. My mother knows
a woman is pregnant before the woman
herself knows. She calls the exact minute
I walk in the door from a 3,000-mile trip.
It is the difficulty in seeing what is in front
of her that has always perplexed me.

This winter, I have been going through the open Yale lectures by Langdon Hammer on Modern Poetry on you-tube. It’s a bit slow going but a good way to pass the time while I hand card my sheep’s wool on a cold winter night.

The last lecture I listened to was on the Imagist movement in the first two decades of the 20th century, which was the beginning of “Modern Poetry” and when poets such as, Robert Frost, Ezra Pound, Amy Lowell, T.S. Eliot, William Carlos Williams, Langston Hughes and Hilda Doolittle (H.D.) were beginning to publish. Their poems moved away from the use of rhetoric and the subjects found in poetry pre-1900, and moved towards the goal of distilling the poem down to its essence, moved towards a radical compression, and moved towards conversion from the prosaic to the essential.

It was in this context that Ezra Pound wrote one of the most famous short poems in American poetry:

In a Station of the Metro
The apparition of these faces in the crowd;
Petals on a wet, black bough.

My poems above are not image-poems as this one of Pound’s, but they are rooted in image, surely thanks to Pound and his contemporaries. What does image do for a writer and reader? Pound explained that the literary image is not “a memory of a prior reality, a reflection, but is rather something more like a new experience itself – not an imitation of a thing, but itself a kind of thing.” This experience (creating an image on paper) is in and of itself an event. The decisions made for the representation – Pound would say presentation – of the image create a different experience than the original experience. I cannot be in the past, recreate the past, or even convey the past. I can only convey these images that in this time, place, and context create and convey new meaning.

In an image, multiple elements occur simultaneously, giving an “instantaneity” or the suddenness of a multi-faceted experience.  This is what painting, photography, sculpture and other visual art do for us. Again, Pound: “An image is that which presents an intellectual and emotional complex in an instant of time.” The reader adds additional components to an image’s “complex” by bringing his or her own experiences to it.

“In a Station of the Metro” started out as a 30-line poem. By “cutting through rhetorical ornament” Pound was able to get to a sort of truth – but a truth that is somewhat ambiguous for the reader. Due to its extreme compression, there must be implications involved. What is implied from the images of faces in a crowd juxtaposed to petals on a wet black bough? What is implied by ditches full of thorny roses? (This was of course, pre-pesticide use, the pesticides obliterating them. And I took out the phrase “I was safe” that I had included with the description of sitting in the ditch. Too explanatory). What is implied by eyes green like the sea? What is implied by a mother returning from the grave to join you for dinner?

To unfold an image, diction and syntax must be carefully, carefully chosen so that the image presents the “complex instantaneously.” It is the presentation that “gives that sense of sudden liberation; that sense of freedom from time limits and space limits; that sense of sudden growth, which we experience in the presence of the greatest works of art.” (Pound, “A Few Don’ts by an Imagist,” Poetry 1913).

It’s absurd to think of my little poems as great works of art, and I don’t. They are simply personal explorations. And yet, they could be paths leading somewhere new.  A series of images, direct and efficient, may be the best avenue for understanding my mother, for understanding myself.

RELATED LINKS (Poems, Places, Books, Videos, Events, and Other Resources):
On “In a Station of the Metro” by Mark Doty – an essay
Hilda Doolittle – H.D.
Wild Roses – state flower of Iowa
Dominant and Recessive Genes
Clairvoyance Tests – According to one of these, I’m in the normal sense range – see what you are.


My Dog Barks and All is Lost

2014 has oozed in. For me, the new year has not been a festive pop, a fresh face, or a blank slate to begin anew. The new year transition has been more like a hangover (that I didn’t have; it’s hard to party when the mood is oozy), more like a stalled rather than idling engine, more like the undercoating below the sheen of a final coat of paint. But that’s the way it goes sometimes, and without it there would be no good times; it would just be one continuous boring state of evenness.

Here is a poem.

My Dog Barks and All is Lost

Suppose it is the pencil
I pick up today
(an old one with the yellow-orange
paint chipping on each ridge
of hexagonal comfort,
a cap eraser worn
into a clay-like lump
of pink softness streaked
with the grey of gritty work,
a dull instead of sharpened
point to rub instead of scratch
words into shape)…suppose it is
a pencil that sways thoughts
to concretize into specific words
that then appear upon the page.
And just like that suppose
my dog barks and all is lost,
the pencil’s power undone
by a deer or rabbit or merely
the shadow of an owl
ready to retire, the sun
not yet quite up, the heaters
clicking and pounding now
as water fills the pipes,
darkness and silence
just two more illusions
with which I must contend.


“A poem depends on its detail…”

This is a line from Ellen Bryant Voigt‘s poem, “The Last Class,” which she wrote after teaching her last undergraduate class at MIT. See below for links to the poem (both text and audio).

How does one go about deciding which details to include or omit from a poem? Restraint and extravagance have always been a quintessential issue in writing poetry. The first draft of my poem above did not have all those details of the pencil, and I’m still not sure all of those details should be in there. Shouldn’t I get right to the point of the dog barking the poet from concentration? With the pencil details, there’s a long “entrance ramp” into the poem. After all, everyone knows what a pencil looks like! (The “entrance ramp” analogy was introduced to me in 2010 by fellow Stonecoaster, Karrie Waarala, and it has helped me countless times).

Stephen Dunn, in an interview at Frostburg State University in 2002, spoke about restraint and extravagance (see below for link to the interview). “The kind of judgment that we exercise comes down to the difficult simplicity of knowing what to put in and what to leave out. It’s always a compromise between original intent and the language we find ourselves using. The balance you refer to is dependent on so many things…”

I considered using more restraint and shortening my entrance ramp into the poem above, but without the long drawn-out pencil description, the poem is too quick to get to the dog. The details of the pencil serve multiple functions. The first is insight into the narrator of the poem whose pencils are well-used and comfortable. This is someone who writes a lot and to whom writing brings comfort, yet it also shows that the poet may doubt his/her abilities – what if it isn’t the poet but the pencil that holds the creative powers! Secondly, the details of the pencil are a micro-study in descriptive writing. How do you describe a seemingly normal pencil? Sight (colors), feel (chipped paint, hexagonal), sound (rub instead of scratch) convey the importance of the pencil in the narrator’s life. The third function of the pencil description is the contrast it provides with the vague words at the end of the poem: darkness and silence. Just as with the illusion of the pencil creating the poem on its own, darkness and silence are an illusion. Perhaps this is a depressing ending. Perhaps it isn’t if we know there is always light and sound somewhere or at some time in our lives.

Now, what does the dog have to do with any of it? Do we need to know what type of dog, what it looks like, or where it is outside? No. To put in those details would create a different poem. In this poem, the dog is a transition snapping the poet out of the reverie about the pencil and is a catalyst for the consideration of deeper things than a pencil such as darkness and silence.

But to only talk of the illusion of darkness and silence would not give us much since we best communicate ideas and concepts through images.  “Details…anchor feelings that are more implied than stated,” Baron Wormser explains in the chapter, Details, in his book, Teaching the Art of Poetry, The Moves. “Detail,” Wormser explains, “is credibility.”

RELATED LINKS (Poems, Places, Books, Videos, Events, and Other Resources):
The history of the pencil from Studio 602: Exploring Creativity in Music and The Arts
“The Last Class” – poem by Ellen Bryant Voigt. Click the title link to hear Voigt read her poem. Click here to see the poem.
Poet of Restraint and Extravagance: A Conversation with Stephen Dunn
Tiger Face – a poem by Stephen Dunn, mentioned in the interview above. Also found in Dunn’s book, What Goes On