Category Archives: prompt responses

Offspring: a poem, a lament

Speaking of offspring, here’s a lament written during the summer writing retreat.* I can’t remember what the prompt was — maybe something about emptying your mind?


Golden rod tug slightly in a breeze. Higher up, the rustle of maples. And everywhere: insects. Bees and flies and stinging pests. How sweet it’d be to merely lament the season coming to a close and not the earth herself melting, collapsing, churning, with the Ring of Fire activating quakes up and down the coasts on either side of the Pacific. Which one will open up under Brentwood, Pasadena, Korea Town, and Studio City and gobble up great edifices of society not to mention, people: Brother, Son? I could never have been the mother who said, ‘No. Do not go.’ And even if I had been, he’d not have listened which is how it should be, but still — a bigger worry added to the usual worries.

And then there’s the plains of Nebraska, the river banks along the Mississippi, the lower reaches of Missouri — should so much land be under water?

And how can the potential destruction of, say, one American Western city compare to all of Greenland’s ice melting, Paris and London frying under a merciless sun? Or colony collapse, the bees giving up the ghost, along with whole caveloads of bats, unable to fight the poisonous fight any longer, tongues and nails, slab and tourniquet. What place, then after?

When we look at the data, we also look away, preferring to note how a grasshopper landing not five feet away says something about summer ending and the memory of other summers ending — times when bikes, hoses, pools, bare feet were the signifiers. Our poor brood when little watched nature show after nature show offering up news of habitat decline and species extinction and people wonder why millennials are anxious?

We wonder why the young refuse heirlooms of any kind, but especially have no interest in the Rosenthal china, the Royal Doulton, the Strawberry Wedgewood. ‘Will we have a home or air?’ they wonder — the inability to afford the former a trifling but inescapable concern compared to the latter.

‘We have ten years,’ they keep saying, trying and failing to sound the alarm. ‘Ten years’ means something different to the young than it does to my aging ears. Gone are the days when insects present as cute and annoying pests. Not when closer scrutiny might reveal how numbered their days are. How connected they are to everything else.

Even if we all rowed in the same direction, what a monumental challenge! But with lies the prevalent currency and corporations granted all ascendancy, we first have to clean house and by then — I’m sorry, the thought is there — mightn’t it be too late?

How many monarchs migrated to the milkweeds, those perennials standing proud and erect, proper in their heliotropic course, casting lozenge-shaped shadows, offering praise to sun and nourishment to caterpillars? How many? Less than last year? A tenth of the year before?

It’s easy to shrug at the extinction of some two-toed sloth or a miniature lizard with nocturnal habits literally never seeing the light of day, but what about ALL of the passerines? Polar bears and reindeer? What about us? If we’d cared more about the two-toed sloth all those years ago, would we be better situated today — able to enter the “Wild Kingdom” programming, sponsored by Mutual of Omaha and hosted by some hokey and corny know-nothing, instead of learning about floating islands of plastic the size of Delaware and about Colorado burning for half a season?

 

* It turns out that the response to the prompt mentioned yesterday became a chapter in the book (working title: •Blood and Indigo•). That means I’m precluded from ‘publishing’ here (seriously, with 100 hits a day?) What would happen if I ‘published’ it, left it up for ten days, and then tagged it private? SShhh

Sharon Olds poem, published in Atlantic Magazine.

Sentinel trees

Oooh boy, am I in for a treat with the novel, “The Overstory,” by Richard Powers! Abandoned another piece of fiction in order to begin. Since that disqualifies me from airing any opinion about said abandoned book: My Lips are Sealed (but maybe I don’t like farce all that much?)

“The Overstory” is already blowing the top of my head off, in much the way that “Lincoln in the Bardo” did. Grace, Mo, Alden, Maureen, and Deb have all led me to it.

One of the prompts at the AWA writing retreat in August came from the opening page. I think you’ll swoon to read the lines, too:

The tree is saying things, in words before words.
It says: Sun and water are questions endlessly worth answering.

When I find what I wrote, I’ll post it, even though as I recall it was a bit opaque. In the meantime, scroll down for a response to another prompt that mentions the 250+ year old copper beech that dwells next door.

I’ve probably photographed this tree more than any other feature of our built or natural landscape. It towers over the houses with a reach nothing short of spectacular. The trunk, muscular and sturdy, mediates between sky and earth, while beneath the soil? A downward fractalling mirror of the canopy, unseen and necessary.

A story I’m submitting to literary magazines describes it. My son featured it in a third grade project.

My neighbors steward the being with utmost care: cables strung for support, twice annual feedings.

Can you imagine all that this beech has witnessed? The household secrets, the stirring of war and war again, the native people who may have honored it and perhaps also drank at the spring which once (supposedly) offered cool respite nearby. People with pox, barn fires (our house and its charred beams), orphans and the enslaved, tavern owners and farmers (the Bartletts at the corner).

The Jacksons who built the house in the 1700’s witnessed the early, young days of the tree’s life. Maybe it was the tree that inspired one owner to bequeath the house to an illegitimate daughter. Such things were not done!

Ghosts have been noted. A smithy and a soldier hanging in a closet. Not here but next door.

This little untitled poem by me mentions the tree.

She flipped the french toast,
vanilla fumed, and twisted to
a morning made of thread
and diary, made of weeds along the
road — dandelion and chickweed —
and a sun that glared
hot mystery
through the copper beech.

This time of year leafery,
cotillion, cockswaddle, and
steak. We could be made
of spores and engineered
lumber, but find ache
and patchwork inside instead.

How his back moves
down the road. She, off
with the dog down another.
Was there no plan to map
the distances, to cloud
handshakes and rollovers
with sleep or with taking
out the trash?

And how about Yellow?
Primroses flat, then yarrow, regal.
Soon the pansies made of
sugar and sunlight bought by
the flat will land while the dog pulls
away, scents of cow dung
and denim rot irresistible.

She left the dowels at the store.
The quilt unhung for another
week. Made of forgetfulness,
inclined toward suspense, turning away
not gathering up, and a scold
or two.

If only the oceans lingered
near the driveway, instead
of maple tree detritus
and scum bubbles of tar.

Meanwhile, an unintended consequence of a rheumatologist’s advice last week to “be active like you were ten years ago,” led to bravado in the garden and a back with more pain than I’ve ever experienced. Chiropractor at three. PT beginning within the week. K even stayed home today because yesterday I could barely get up the stairs or into bed. I’m much better now.

In other news: it looks like I have enough people for my first writing class. I’m so excited!

What do you think of my name: “Page by Page?” It’s a little bit like Annie Lamont’s “Bird by Bird,” but not critically enough to foreclose my usage.

 

 

Bref Double and a Break

Not that I want to but I need to float off for a bit from here. Please come back! I’ll likely continue to post on Instagram, but less often. It’s time to FOCUS.

I’ll leave you with two responses to a prompt from the retreat, both using a poetic structure listed below. I paid attention to the rhyme scheme, you’ll see, but not the line lengths.

Bref Double, One

The mist rolls, sheer scalloped grace.
Curls floating past trees
echoing the canopy’s curve,
hurrying somewhere I want to go.

The hills rise sturdy and silent.
Clouds come and go and leave no trace.
Mountains like a tolerant mother meeting
a toddler’s antics, squatting low

to grin and meet him, where he is, face
to face, nose to nose, abiding
in connection, eschewing haste.
Such moments seem more than we deserve.

Sturdy love. Isn’t it a disgrace
to reject what’s here, adopt strictures,
go quiet and lose our heart, our verve?

Bref Double, Two

Tardiva points, a flurry
of misdirection, while clouds
creep and float, aligned with
the mountains. Purpose.

Or is it conspiracy? Ridges hold blue,
their stillness a contrast to sliding
mist, while gauze clouds above
wander, roll, tell secrets unheard of

by us. Crickets act as jury
to the crime of vacancy
while low-lying lichen, furry
almost, in ruffled patterns, gifts

the eye. Yellowed leaves, the color of curry
hint at how soon the season’ll leave us bereft.

Lament to a prompt

If you’re up for a lament without much by way of sentence structure, here’s my response to a prompt in class this morning (using a bunch of song/nursery rhyme fragments/Catholic echos). I may come back tomorrow and add the text but for now here’s the video. It runs 6:45 minutes. Sorry about the hair that kept bothering my lower lip.

Montreal Grey — prompt exercise

Yesterday’s prompt: write about a character who’s just received really good or really bad news looking out a window. Describe what the characters sees, feels, and thinks WITHOUT giving away the substance of the news.

Prompt-responses are raw and a recently written prompt even more so. I say that, not to ask for kid glove responses, but to help myself take a deep breath and GO. Even though this is prose and not cloth, Jude has laid out a path for me – in the way she openly shares her creative ventures long before she knows what they’re about. Thank you Jude. And to Grace too, who just lays it down. And to K.O. and the Amherst Writing Method, where everything is treated as fiction. And P.S. — typing his up I see lots of places to edit, so I’m a little torn about this.

I include a written version and a recorded one. The video is almost six minutes.

 

MONTREAL GREY
If Benjamin Moore doesn’t yet have a chip labeled ‘Montreal Grey’ they ought to. The sky is dull. The tops of buildings visible out our 20th floor window are grey. Even though it’s May, it looks as though it might snow any minute. Visits in November and visits in May – hardly distinguishable.

Pebbles on the rooves below, charcoal, ladders hooking up and over the edge, shiny aluminum. One tall building – a construction site across the way – is wrapped in blue. The tarps billow in the wind coming up the St. Lawrence – or does the wind go down the river, shooting off the Laurentians, hurrying toward the Atlantic? I don’t know.

Traffic below is small, offering chips of light – red, white – inconsequential dots of luminescence in the grey city canyons.

Our room has a balcony, a boxy utilitarian space closed in on two sides, making it seem more a place for a furnace or stacks of orange cones than an aerie for out of town guests. Sliders, presumably locked. The husband asleep. A breakfast buffet waiting – tired scrambled eggs, decent bacon (but only because, truly, it’s difficult to ruin bacon), and the serviceable pyramids of four ounce yogurt containers.

I’m not hungry. I wish I was still asleep, not ruminating on last night’s bombshell revelations. How stupid have I been, exactly? How distracted? At what point does reliance on another’s well-being morph into neglect?

I’m gonna be 100% certain about one thing for the rest of our visit – these sliders will stay shut. No hand of mine will tug the glass to the side, no foot step out onto the fake grass flooring, no ribs will lean against the cement railing (can anything solid and cement really be called ‘a railing’), no head of mine – after all, it’s the only one I’ve got, will lean out and look down, making some calculus of despair.

Pajamas and blood splatted below would hardly be visible for 20 floors up.

And the problem, of course, is not the calculus, but the impulse.

From where I lean against the cool glass of the snuggly closed door, I can see three tall yellow cranes, looming in stillness, poised for work like predatory beings so efficient at killing and consumption, they need no musculature. Every year, it’s this way. Every year, crossing over the Ile de Soeur, we start up the count of cranes. It’s always been a good way to counter the near constant annoyance of driving down University Ave. At every intersection:  polite drivers! Polite pedestrians! Rule following motorists, conditioned to deferral, and not, as one from Boston is, to aggression, politely wait for all the rule-following pedestrians to cross. It means waiting for one pass of the light after another – an eternity for four cars to make a right turn.

“Oh look!” I might say in lieu of a frothy stream of curses, “another hotel restoration. Didn’t that used to be called ‘The Delta’?”

Soon the cranes will start their swiveling industry. The cars and pedestrians will thicken – getting to work, getting to school. Soon husband will wake and we’ll choose between eggs and grapefruit wedges, yogurt and oatmeal. Bacon is pretty much a given.

Dinner had started off well enough. A Scotch egg ordered, the pub atmosphere offering a humming embrace, the bar warmly lit, French being spoken, men with top knots mixing cocktails, the anticipation of a really good meal, having been there before.

Champagne might have been mentioned and then kiboshed. Where is Tavern on the Green relative to the grid of grey below? I’m pretty sure due west, but I’m not reliable when it comes to directions.

One direction is clear: a body tipped up and over a cement railing 20 stories up means DOWN.

What do the desperate do when they rue their choice ten stories into their flailing descent? It must happen all the time.

The glass is cool against my forehead. Husband stirs. His disappointment will meet mine but not amplify it. He’s wonderful that way. Grounded. Reliable.

I won’t amplify either, I swear silently, even though I often speak for the two of us, sometimes for the entire small group that is our family. How did a refugee from a tribe of high-volume argument makers end up with so much silence at the dinner table? Such a biological disinclination to verbalize!

(Good thing I can play Scrabble against the computer now on a back lit screen! To suggest a round in our house is to see three guys run for cover).

I will not amplify. I will experiment, instead, with a quietude that is as a-characteristic as it is, well, quiet.

Besides, there’s a lot to do in the next 48 hours, bombshell or no bombshell.

Turning away, I click on the news, deeming it nearly time for breakfast anyhow. For fun, I land on a Quebec station, thinking perhaps I’d understand a phrase or two. I’ve done this before and nothing has happened in the interim that might dictate a different result. I’ll catch a number here or there – that’s about it.

Outside, a big gust of wind makes the blue building wrapper puff and fwop like a giant bird struggling to take off. It, and not the drone of French, wakes Mark up.

“What was that?” he asks.

“Tarps,” I say. One word. A single syllable, no less. Does my response telegraph despair? I’m guessing so, in which case experimenting with non-verbal responses may be trickier than I think. So I say, “Come on buster. Get in the shower. I’m hungry.”

I’m not hungry, but the familiar patter soothes and food never hurts. Canadian bacon is a thing, you know.

Florida – Every Ash Wednesday from now til Death

This empathic piece of fiction was written in class this morning, the day following the school shooting in Parkland, Florida. For the prompt, we were to select a postcard and I picked the one pictured above. I hope the recording isn’t too slow to load. I use video from my phone because to convert an iPhone audio requires a laborious trip through iTunes and a widget on WordPress which would cost me $13/month (?!!!). This time, I’ve written out the prompt-response as well. Virtually everything written here is made up and the fact that my imagined scene happens in a wintry clime ought to drive home that fact. That I can so easily render a scene like this speaks to the abysmal failure of our government to control guns.

 

Every Ash Wednesday from Now Til Death

Heather’s face made the front page. The ash mark more strike than dot, a face crunched in grief. A lost child. A lost child. Another headline. More bodies to count.

Bodies. Children. The teacher who dies saving a teenager or two. Even the sight, crisis over, of high school students filing out of the building with their hands up crushes the spirit.

This is who we are. This is it. Automatic rifles for everyone! Anyone! A soul-less party paralyzed by the Almighty NRA dollar. Let’s pray.

No really. Let’s pray. The profusion of lilies along the altar and lining the steps up to the altar sweeten the air to a sickening degree. The lovely trumpet shapes, the silky pure white, no defense against the death rot sure to come. To the petals, which will shrivel and brown in decline, to the child in the casket, who will shrivel and brown, and to the priest, and to each and everyone of us sitting there.

The priest comes out without his usual sturdy authority, climbing the lectern in a weary resistance. What shall he preach? That God has ways we know not? That He takes the good ones early? That faith will restore even them that despair.

Tilly and Glenda sit in front of me. They didn’t know Drew very well. I, not at all. The fact that I am separated by four or more degrees might make me feel an intruder were it not for the fact that the wreckage rained down by a hail of automatic bullets hit all of us, hit our entire high school body. While some, like Drew’s poor parents, pay a bigger and everlasting price, not a single parent of a child at the high school and not a single high school student emerged unscathed.

The priest clears his throat. Whimpers can be heard and choked sobs from up front.

“It is easy,” he says, “to have faith when the sun is shining. When the tidings are glad, how smooth the extension of our hands, one to the other. When our tables sag with bounty, it’s no challenge to acknowledge the bounty of Our Lord. But in times of darkness, when every message is soaked in tears or blood or both, that is when we are tested. That is when our faith must rise up and meet God’s mercy.”

I fought his every word, even as I was swept up in the intended goodness. It occurs to me that I cannot pinpoint when I stopped believing in God — or at least, in anything but a very remote Supreme Being, one that governs how molecules spin and bounce but has no message or care for any of us individually. How could believing in a God who lets senseless violence of this repetitive magnitude happen offer comfort?

We grieve for Drew. All the soccer games he will not play, the girls he will not tease or tempt, the glories of the flesh essentially unmet, the challenge of growing up, never to be confronted. Holidays for his family, ever after a nightmare. And, no doubt, there will be two excruciating anniversaries a year — the fixed one, February 14, Valentine’s Day, and the roving one, every Ash Wednesday from now ’til death.

What should Drew’s mother give up for Lent? What a hideous idea! Will she become a mother on the Grief Circuit, trying to effect political change? She might want to look at the blank page of Sandy Hook parents’ results before undertaking such a public and exhausting route.

Some parents will close their doors and lock them from the inside. Others will testify before Congress. Still others will go on as before, but hollowed out, a gutted replica of the life they were leading on Fat Tuesday. None of them will ever be the same.

The upstretched arms. The drape of satin embroidered with the old Catholic symbols. When did Drew last receive Communion, I wonder, and why on earth would it matter? Was it a source of contention in the household — one of many conflicts which will, in replay, seem so utterly inconsequential?

Is there any of us who can love our children so hard and so deeply that at this lily-sickened moment, there are no regrets?

Of course not. And anyone who suggests as much, I guarantee you will not be a parent, or at least, not a parent of teenagers.

By all counts, Drew was a good kid. Sam didn’t know him well — different circles and so on. But it was apparently only the usual and forgivable delinquencies — alcohol at parties (but never when driving), a little reefer now and then, a lot of enthusiasm for the school prank, and the usual amounts of contempt for certain teachers. He would’ve gone to college. Studied engineering or biological data collection. He would’ve fallen in love — perhaps for the second time, I don’t know. He’d have hunted for work, recycled, called Congress, made spaghetti. All the acts of a life gone dark.

“Christ be with you.”

“And also with you.”

I’m too far back to hear the words clearly. Murmurs only. Drew’s mother crosses herself, returns to her pew. Husband waiting for her. A non-believer.

Tilly turns and whispers to me, “It’s almost enough to make me consider going to Mass again.”

I mouth the words, “I know,” but I don’t know. Nothing can immunize against this loss. Nothing can fill the void it cracks open.

I’m surprised how many young people (friends of Drew’s) are receiving Communion. I would’ve thought they’d have fallen away already — the way each generation speeds up the progress of the former. In our generation, you went through the motions until college, where you went to Mass exactly once, never to return. Don’t kids these days refuse sooner? Maybe at the same time their recently Bar Mitzvahed friends stop going to temple?

We file out to crisp air and a pewter sky. People mill about, unsure how to be, unwilling yet to leave the group. But I don’t want to be standing awkwardly by when Drew’s parents emerge, so I head to my car, boot heels clunking on the cleared sidewalk in some sort of reassuring percussion — I’m alive. I’m alive. My sons are alive. Alive.