Category Archives: prompt responses

Writing about writing

This post is a prompt response from yesterday. Of five provided images, the one I responded to was of a piebald horse (not unlike the one above). I quote two poets: Gerard Manley Hopkins and Joyce Kilmer and for your enjoyment include the entirety of the Gerard Manley Hopkins poem, Pied Beauty, at the end.

It helps to know that I am ten years plus into writing a novel in which one of the central characters is Eliza Lucas Pinckney (b. 1722) and that the other three main characters are enslaved Black women.

 

Rhombuses of Light

The morning light is sectioned
mintons and mullions
through the glass, hitting floor and
wall, bending at baseboard.
She often referred to light
as “lozenges.”

It’s the glow we like
especially when April
breezes seep past sills
and chill. But what about the
bend at the baseboard?
An easy compliance.

“Glory be to God for dappled
things,” said the poet.
Rhombuses of light
are not pied or
dappled, but when created
by a window speak
to the relationship between
solidity and light.

She repeats herself. All
those references to clouds!
It’s time to find and replace.
Thunderclouds with slate
grey bottoms, slants of
rain like an etching against
the horizon. Again, Eliza,
really?

Her friend rode a dappled
grey sixteen hands high. How I had
to look all that up, authority running
to cats and dogs and at a stretch to
the way the interior of a barn
smells and how light catches
dust and particles of hay
drifting below the rafters.
How light and gravity inform
a moment.

Imagination as authority,
not a popular position
these days.

Ripples of clouds above
the marsh, liked ruched
silk. Sunlight on creek
shining like pewter. God
in nature. We get it! Eliza
got it.

Gerard Manley Hopkins
got it.

Light will slide up the
wall as day goes on.
Sometimes the miraculous has
a predictable element to it.

All those author interviews
and how they make her
shrink. What’s on HER
bedside table? Did she
even read as a child?

The Case of the Hidden
Staircase.

But it occurs to her now,
more memory than thought,
that reading Gerard Manley
Hopkins as a teenager
opened a previously
undisclosed chamber in
her heart.

You can do that with
language? Light can
bend at baseboard
and be celebrated and in
strange syncopations?
Why does one element
mimicking another thrill
the senses? Light like
water. Sedimentary rock
like ripples of corduroy.
Memory like glass.

As a priest, he told
himself to shut up.
Figures an early hero of
mine would go to such extremes
and for all the wrong
reasons. Virginia Woolf with
rocks in her pockets.

Heroes, heroines, perhaps
best not to have them —
but how else learn how
to write, how not to panic,
how to pick at a scab and
move on?

Just once, she’d like the column
to soberly reveal an author
that didn’t read until she
was seventeen or so. Too busy
mucking about in creeks and
negotiating with terror. Why
sit still?

Music floods the chest.
A good reason for silence,
she thinks, a single window
at a time being enough,
the light passing through
glass from the east,
inching toward the center of the hall.

You mean to tell me
the rhombuses of light float down the wall
and not up as morning progresses?
The unreliability
of observation. What motes?
What barn? Memory like glass.

Eliza’s daughter was about to
turn eleven when he died. Eliza’s
husband. Harriett’s father.
The dates are there for the finding.
July 12, 1758 and August 7, 1758.

What I make of turning
eleven just after the death of
a parent is not what you will
make of the same.

Even Harriett, poor dear,
would have made several
things of a singular devastation.

She had wanted to read
“Pied Beauty” at her father’s
funeral. The altar boy
turned atheist would have
appreciated its point, even
if Longfellow and Poe were
his favored fare.

Her sister overruled the selection.
Longstanding habits
of bullying that can’t even
be attributed to grief.

“I think that I shall
never see a poem as
lovely as a tree,” he
wrote in my autograph
book — remember those? —
“But with his help, I’ve
made a Dee.”

“He fathers-forth whose
beauty is past change.”

Swapping out an altar
in the Catholic Church for the
Kinderhook Creek doesn’t mean
one has no god.
Trout fishing as sacrament.

Harriett was ten about to turn
eleven. I was 24 or 26 and the fact that I can
never remember without adding age-at-death to
one birth year and then subtracting another
birth year speaks to loss.

 

*     *     *

Poetry Fdtn link here.

Riff on old family photo

The prompt for this writing was to imagine someone in shadow.

Aspire as in a form of breath. The earring catches on the collar. The heart flutters fast for no reason. Will the silk rug remain in place, the one that was my mother’s? Will the box of old photos reveal any secrets, or even anything new?

There’s my sister on my father’s shoulders, chewing a finger in nervous gesture in the summer sun. He grips her ankles and wears the relaxed face of a young man in his prime. Out for a picnic. Lulu Brook. On the other side of the state park’s carved sign stands my mother, shoulder canted backward as if to put my face front and center. I am say, five months old. There is a lace bonnet on my head. She wears the face of a young fertile woman in her prime, bringing babies into the world on time, every two years, one more to come.

I lived in the Berkshires for many, many years and then, not far from there in the Connecticut River Valley for a few more. But, I never went to Lulu Brook. It’s somewhere in the Southern Berkshires near the Connecticut border, I think. See? I don’t even know. By the time I lived in Western Mass., ages ten to twenty-one with time outs for school and travel and in three different abodes, there were no family outings to state parks. Suburbia and its demands. Dual careers and those demands. Three kids turning into angry or secretive adolescents and those demands.

And eventually, heart failure. His. The angina was so bad one night that he fell face forward into his dinner plate at Lenny’s Restaurant on Route 20 in New Lebanon, New York. If you lived far enough west in Massachusetts, you crossed the New York state line like others drove a little extra to get to the bigger mall. Somewhat revived on the stretcher rolling out the door, my father quipped, “Don’t order the scallops!” He was funny like that. But no sense of humor would keep his arteries from filling with plaque and seizing. Even surgery only granted him three years more.

But on the summer day of the photo, the year of my birth, when he was twenty-eight and my mother was twenty-four, what could they know of what lay ahead?

One generation earlier, hope skewed much more toward survival, my mother’s father arriving to Ellis Island in his twenties, soon to work the docks in Brooklyn and not long after that, to marry my grandmother, Alice, whose family still lived in County Cork. His name was Albert. They called each other “Al.” It wasn’t until my mother’s younger sister was in grade school and visiting a friend’s house that she realized that not all parents called each other “Al.”

My great-grandmother also came here but returned to Ireland for a while after the death of her young daughter, Mary. Perhaps she wanted the solace of her own mother or maybe she needed the quiet rural landscape of her ancestors instead of the grimy racket of Brooklyn. She was already pregnant with another daughter, who she would also name Mary. I think about the second Mary, conceived before the first Mary’s burial, being born into a clutch of intense grief, expected to bear the name of a little girl already gone into the light.

You wonder how a mother could do that to a child, I don’t care if it was common. Rather than placing honor on new life, it has the stink of a curse. “See New Mary! How much longer will she live than Dead Mary?” All Marys will eventually be Dead Marys, but still. The older sister wasn’t yet dead when the cells of Second Mary began their furious division.

Speaking of furious cell division, my mother might have been pregnant with me in this photo. If not, then it is mere weeks off. Is she smoking? Even with two pairs of eyeglasses on, I can’t quite tell, but probably. It’s the right gesture. It’s the correct hand. It’s the reason I was born teeny and spent the first nine days of my life in an incubator.

Hero of the Week — Navalny

A nugget of rock salt turns Finn momentarily gimp. I kneel. Brush the crystal out from between the pads of his snowy paw. An hour’s walk involves the tugging up and down of a mask, a half dozen street crossings. A light snow doesn’t usually deliver such quiet, but today it does. Nevertheless, my earbuds deliver news.

On Chase Street, I imagine the angels hovering above Navalny’s head when he was in a coma in Berlin. Their toes on fire, wings tinged red. It’s the bold red of passion, to be clear, and not the red of blood or Communism. The specialized poison infiltrated Navalny’s veins, his tissue, and very nearly killed him. Some devious hit man had smeared the toxin on the seams of his underwear.

Trying to kill someone with novachok is the equivalent of a serial murderer leaving a business card next to the corpse. There is no confusion, only harm.

The angels hum. They hover. They transmit messages directly to our hero’s heart, bypassing the brain where caution might reasonably prevail. “Go home,” they chant. “Go home!”

He wakes, our hero. He rises. He sends videos to his followers. The multitude yearning for change, not necessarily for him, but definitely not for the thug in charge. Navalny counsels them to chant: “Putin is a thief! Putin is a thief!” I’m bowled over by the simplicity, the accuracy of the statement. For more than a generation, he, Putin, has ravaged resource-rich Russia for his own gain. A few others. A gang. A criminal operation with known links to the corrupt party in our own country (which is, as they say, another story).

(Or is it, asks Sarah Kendzior? Author, pundit, specialist on the rise of authoritarianism around the globe, she must get tired of saying, “I told you so” (though not quite tired enough for this listener, I’m afraid). The smoke steams out her ears. Being right and ignored will do that to a person.)

Navalny, recall, has already been imprisoned by Putin and now Putin has tried and very nearly succeeded at killing him. What chance does he, Navalny, have? But our hero rises. He crosses the tarmac in Berlin. He goes home.

Not a straight path, as it turns out. The 100’s of protesters gathered at the airport in Moscow, huddling together for warmth, chanting “Putin is a thief,” watch as Navalny’s plane makes a giant U-turn and disappears. A snow plow stuck on the landing strip, the laughable excuse.

But the GRU, the pilots, the boots on the ground cannot stop the protests. They throw Navalny back into prison — a probation violation, the laughable excuse. “Stand tall,” the angels now whisper. As international beings, the angels have followed him home — what does security clearance mean to them? Now their wings flutter teal with shots of yellow. There is something of a springtime butterfly about the feathered appendages. “Stand tall.”

Meanwhile, what celestial beings encourage the protestors? Many brave souls gather in northern cities where the temperature drops to 60 below. We hope the fur around their parka hoods — the Russians love their fur! — keeps the wind chill off their faces. We hope their wool socks never get wet. We hope bellowing, “Putin is a thief!” warms their lungs and the spaces between their bodies.

I wear a down parka. The hood is up, the mask on, though since no one is on the street at the moment, it rides below my nose. Turns out the cloth makes a wonderful chin warmer. The dog and I detour into small snow banks or out onto the street to avoid the strewn salt — brittle crystals the color of rotten teeth. There is nothing of hardship in this morning routine, though a certain fatigue has set in. Waiting for the vaccine, waiting to see children, waiting for good health news, waiting to launch a creation a long time in the making. The return of spring.

It’s a lot of waiting. But it’s not heroic. I’ve got the comfort of my home, the pretty snowy, tree-lined streets to walk. No, it’s a dull throb of forbearance.

Up goes a rear leg again. The dog has stepped on another large grain of salt. He immediately makes his discomfort plain. You gotta love that about dogs: how reflexive and pure their signaling of need! Finn is also the great keeper of the afternoon clock. I know when it is precisely one hour before his dinner time because there he is, sitting next to me on the couch, giving me that eager and pleading look, perhaps even going so far as to lay a paw on my arm. It never works. He never gets his dinner an hour early, and still, he tries.

Navalny goes home. He uses the internet like a Jedi master. The forbearance of a generation has turned into something else — an eager outburst demanding the end of corruption. Enough with the deprivation! Enough with the lies!

Putin walks the halls of power with that uneven almost gimpy gait, that smug expression — is it contempt or is it glee? I doubt the man knows joy. I doubt the man can even begin to calculate the damage he’s done. And yet, with a short man’s insistence that he be noticed, he keeps at it. There are records to be set — he’s a real Tom Brady of potentates.

And meanwhile, in frigid weather, the fur-lined hoods continue to gather to call for change. To decades of denial, to the absolute failure of the common weal, they say, “Enough!” The foggy condensates of their breath concur. “Enough.”

A man willing to die for them is confined to a prison cell. A man willing to die for his country left the safety of Berlin to return to his Mother Country. What is inconvenience, even pandemic-scaled inconvenience, in the face of that? And more to the point, what is despotism in the face of that?

Here’s what else you need to know today. *

* Listened to an episode of The Daily — a NY Times podcast — while walking.

Ms Wheatley and Ms Gorman

This short piece was written to a prompt in an AWA class.

I have come, unwilling, afraid. A sticky heat. An unmooring. A destruction. A pale lady pats my cheek, making bird sounds. “Ooh! Ooh!” She turns to a man, the colors of his jacket, a glaring affront after the dark hold, the grey sea.

“Susanna, no! Be reasonable, my dear.” He clomps along the dock, pats another on the head. “Like her. What about her?”

But Pale Lady kneels. Now my chin is in her hands. I clutch the carpet scrap around my shoulders. It is filthy. Whether she chooses me for good or for ill, is impossible to know.

+ + +

The man with the bag of coins approaches. He knows a buyer when he sees one. “She’s yours for a trifle,” he announces and husband hands over a few bob. It’s likely he, the seller, thought the girl about to die. Any money was better than none. And then Susanna Wheatley, her husband, and the newly purchased girl clambered aboard a carriage to take them the few blocks from the wharf to Boston manse.

The enthusiasm his wife exhibits puzzles John Wheatley until he realizes that the dark-skinned skinny girl looks to be just the age their Sarah was when she died. Seven years old. This girl is missing her front teeth, just as Sarah had been. Their poor, dear Sarah, taken by the pox before even her grown teeth came in. So this vanity purchase — what else to call it? — driven by a grief-soaked nostalgia, would have to be tolerated.

“Mary will teach her Latin,” Susanna gushed on the ride home. Her husband tucked his chin down to dissemble, the enthusiastic plan striking him as pathetic, absurd.

“We shall call her Phillis,” he said. “After the ship.”

A thriving servant. They refused the moniker, ‘slave’ — as if to do so made a difference. She, the slave Phillis, took to words like a duck to water. John Wheatley’s tolerance, a state he expected to be brittle and difficult to maintain, transformed into pride. The little darkie had something of genius about her and how well the white ruffles of her cotton lawn cap framed that Senegambian face! Her teeth grew in. She mastered English and not just Latin, but Greek as well. So proud, so possessive but willing to share were the Wheatleys, that they found a printer on State Street who rolled plates with ink, plates with their Phillis’s words on them and he, the printer, printed them. Poems.

A council was convened. John Hancock, a short man with a bit of bluster (to put it nicely), the Governor, Thomas Hutchinson, Samuel Mather, others — their one purpose to determine the authorship of the folio. Surely, it could not be her? A slave! A collection of precise poems filled with lofty and literary images, language suitable for the illustrious poets of the age.

But, never mind all that for now! After gently, reverently nodding to Toni and Maya in the shadows, let us call forth that skinny black girl with a gift of the tongue — Phillis Wheatley — for she, too, must be on the Capitol steps today, beaming with pride.

Look at how this current orator’s yellow coat glows with promise! See how the red satin head band across her crown and the beads elegantly tucked among her braids, speak to the past that she calls upon us to repair. She, Amanda Gorman, can certainly speak with authority about the ‘belly of the beast’ — just as Phillis could have (but didn’t) lament the belly of the slave trading ship, the Phillis. Imagine being named after the vessel that ruptured and destroyed your former life! Imagine being poked with that perpetual reminder. “Phillis! Oh, Phillis! Come here!” “Phillis! Say it again, more slowly this time.”

If a ‘skinny black girl descended from slaves’ can position herself on the side of hope and mercy, surely we comfortable white people can do the same? Certainly, we must do better than we have done? We’ve all suffered these long-lasting four years, ‘bruised but whole,’ as the young poet says, a twenty-two year old who might as well be descended from Phillis Wheatley, herself. Seek harm to none she, Amanda, sang and: repair the past.

On a day we stumblers of the 21st century thought would never come, at this tattered end of a vulgar destruction that wrecked even the experience of time, let us take the words of the young poet into our hearts! Let us honor her lineage and what she says about the future! And then let us take her words back out onto the streets and continue the fight because as she, the first National Youth Poet Laureate, pointed out in incandescent glory — we are unfinished.

+ + +

* references: Stamped from the Beginning, The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America, by Ibram X. Kendi; The Trials of Phillis Wheatley, America’s First Black Poet and her Encounters with the Founding Fathers, by Henry Louis Gates, Jr.;a history docent in Lexington, Mass. who characterized John Hancock as “an asshole;” as well, of course: the inaugural reading by Amanda Gorman, The Hill We Climb.

** It is not true that Wheatley was published in Boston. No one dared touch her work. She had to go to England to find a printer.

Off the page

First my page, then Helen Macdonald’s.

This paragraph came at the end of a much longer piece about illness and caregiving:

The copper beech branches outside claw at the sky, barren but for a few tattered leaves. But even a tattered leaf speaks to season — one jiggling a little message in the bitter breeze this morning. All I have to do to find redemption — serious, nervous-system, Holy Spirit kind of redemption — is lift my head and look out the window. Blue jays my best teachers. Squirrels and puddles and scarlet holly berries, too.

* Bird sculpture by Maggie Rose.