Lit Bit Sundays: Installment the Third, First Poems

I did not start off liking poetry.  In fact, I felt it was one of those things one should like, but never did, so outside of the Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot and Shakespeare and Blake and Dickinson we studied in school, I never really read any except Tennyson, but that was only because I was literary child in other ways, and was rather found of a certain orphaned Canadian red-head that I’d have married if she were real.

Oh sure, I wrote poems.  High schooler poems, filled with black souls and depression.  The stuff I’d lock in a bank safety deposit box and pretend never existed if I still had any of it… and no, I’m not going to tell you the bank I keep it at.

But something changed when Mrs. Tidwell gave us poetry packets.  I hated Mrs. Tidwell.  She held class meetings after school hours which I could never attend.  She instilled in me my hatred of Cormac McCarthy and his dropped quotations in All the Pretty Horses.  And then she had us plow through thick packets of poems.

Now, these were not the poems you’d find in most text books.  It was recent stuff, stuff from the 70’s and later, and she wanted us to sit and analyze them for symbolism and structure, just like that, one two three go no prep or theory or discussion.  After a particularly awful one about Snow White and sin, I turned the packet page and read, “The bonsai tree/ in the attractive pot/ could have grown eighty feet tall…

I stopped.  I held my breath.  Those last lines, “the hands you/ love to touch,” punched me in the gut.

I turned the packet page again, and was faced with Barbie Doll.  I had to set my nose and sop up the blood.

And that’s what a poem should do— take liberties with you, abuse its intimacy with you.  It should not be kind or quiet, but more like a hard break-up, or a death in the family, or the feel of riding the tilt-a-whirl just a little too fast, uncertain whether they bolted it together right.  A good poem should be more than any of these things. A good poem should make you stop short.

And the love of Piercy slowly spread out to the other verse I’d read.  I finally felt kin to Dickinson, holding in my bones the knowledge that “If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry.”

Was there ever a poem like that for you?

The Country Dwellers Make Up a Matriarchy

I could become very unpopular with other Pagans by saying this, but let’s face it, I’m already unpopular with other Pagans.  I don’t truck with the notion that Wicca/Witchcraft/Neo-Paganisms are ancient. I do not believe that there’s an unbroken line from the Paleolithic to modern Witchcraft. And maybe I’m overestimating how many Pagan folk believe the myth of the matriarchy; in my thesis work, skepticism abounded.  Material culture: a button reading, “Wicca: Pretending to be an ancient religion since 1957.” Credit where it’s due.

But I’ve also encountered Pagans who see what they want to, a hidden tradition, untouched by time, the refuge of the accused, and a feminist bastion to boot. Invented traditions do that, worm their way in, scattering fig leaves over facts. The Scottish tartan is more ancient than the paleolithic paganisms of Margaret Murray.  What bothers me is not the existence of the myth, but its application.

See, it gets used as a primacy claim.  It gets used as a way to invent a rosy past, in order to create a mythic age people should want to seek return to.  It gets used as a way to trump other faiths in a game of “Nyah-nyah, we were first!”  It gets used as a way to legitimize a thing which needs not be legitimized.  Its existence is justification enough.  Remember Hobsbawm?  I mention him on occasion.  Tell me, who says the ancient is the only authentic?  The Neo-Pagan community represents a living tradition here now, and functions as a legitimate system of meaning-making.  Isn’t that the business of religion?  A means of making meaning?  A means of forming deep connections?

Further, I take issue with the idea of the golden age of the matriarchy.  The idea of ancient global mother-goddess worshipers has been basically debunked, but nowhere does it seem to gain so much traction as in the Pagan community.  There is no evidence, first.  And second, what good does it do to try to invent a better world based on the structures of an imagined past when we can study here now how people work, and labor toward a better world under observations of actual behavior?  Just sayin’.  Real observations and work help more than trying to return to make-believe golden ages.

I’ll leave respectful fact-ordering to scholars like Ronald Hutton, but I want to point out that every tradition has a beginning.  The Catholic Church hasn’t always existed, shrouded in such inventions.  Even offerings to the Lares started at some point.  There is no mythical magical “always been” for any tradition.  They were initiated in a moment, and it was the needs of the human psyche which spurred them.  When we lack a tool, we make one.  Perhaps Paganism is a postmodern answer to a need for ritual.  The issue at hand is its “back story” pulled whole-cloth from bad anthropology and wishful thinking.  Let’s not pretend— we can leave that for LARP games— Neo-Paganism is new.  I see that as a strength.

Lit Bit Sundays: Installment the Second, Public Poetry Strikes Again

I am an imp.  I couldn’t help myself.  I really couldn’t.  The temptation was too great, and the glee too delicious.  I swear, this will become my addiction, and it will be the end of me if I’m not careful.  I dropped poems again.  At the library and up and down Himmarshee Street.  In various hidey-holes and in trees.  Around and about well-trafficked places.  Dotting un-passed-by landmarks.  In the bushes.  All on boxes, in boxes, about boxes.  Some very tiny origami boxes.  All sneaky-like.  All brash and in the open.

Pandora would be proud, save for one small nagging detail: she didn’t open a box.  It was a jar. All these years, we have labored under a mistranslation.  But I don’t think anyone will mind.  Now the question is, knowing Pandora’s tale, who would be curious enough to open such gifts?  Who will be bold enough to see if the box is really empty after all?  Go ahead.  See for yourself.

A night well-spent, if I do say so myself.

So now the question is, when to do it again?  Or better yet, who wants to join me?

Confessional Poetry

If you can stand it, I will tell you a story.  It isn’t a petty story, not a good, not a happy story.  I like to be a happy Story.  But I will tell it because I am cleaning.  Because it feels light to do so.  Because I want you to know you’re not alone.  Because I want to assure myself that I here now am real, to look back and say, “I was real then too,” and remember where I’ve walked.  Because it is difficult to remember something so painful that has melted from your bones.

At my worst, I weighed 103 pounds.

My love of birds has nothing to do with their lightness.  They are foreign-minded things, hateful little shits, and I only care for the corvids and their rasp-throated cawing, except, except… they all have wings.  The sky is theirs, the whole sky in its openness.  I am not the whole sky.  I can only envy it.

I am a ground-bound thing, and today I can think above, keep my head in the clouds, because at my worst I lay in bed all day, weighing 103 pounds with my ribs at angles with my elbows.  There’s a certain strength that can come from walking through fire.  Can come.  It doesn’t always.  You are not alone if it doesn’t get better.

But that’s what small towns can do.  My bottom of the well came of a situation and not a way of whole-being.  It wasn’t because my brain just “worked that way,” but because on the days I did not work—when I had work, which came later—I did not speak.  24, 36, 48 hours in silence in a houseful of nothing in a nowhere place between Sarasota and Fort Myers.

It wasn’t just the loneliness, though I was afraid of that, too.  It was that at 28, I had gone nowhere.  It was that at 28, I was tied to a boy who wanted nothing but to cut ties with the world and live in the middle of nowhere, a hermit’s life, when all I wanted was the buzz thrum bustle of a city at night, diner doors open, laughter in the streets, music wafting from open windows, sewer grates exhaling billows into the January nights, streets slick with wet and cold, worn like a rhinestone belt.  And he was my only pillar in that small place, and then he deployed.

At first, it was just food, and food was about value and control.  It was about joblessness.  See, if I ate less, I could justify my place in a house where I made no money.  If I ate less, at least I’d be controlling something, and giving back the pennies I did not consume.  Everything else was in free fall, with no friends nearby, no work to be had, student loans above my head, and no creative outlets.  If I made myself small, it somehow suited my valuelessness.

It did not end there.

I ate a chocolate.  Chocolate is a fraught thing, all those women fussing over its fat.  Those with eating problems do not eat chocolates.  Thus my justification: see and be seen eating a chocolate, and I am not an anorexic.  Even if it was the only thing I ate that day.  There were some days when it was the only thing I ate.

It did not end there.

There was understructure.

At my worst, I was alone in the house, no money for gas, a fridge full of slowly molding food I did not want to eat, and nothing driving me forward.  So I stayed in bed.  At my worst, three days in a row I stayed in bed.

I lay there, not moving, not wanting to move, three days, without eating, and a glass of water undrunk on the headboard shelf.  Three days without leaving the room.  Three months, three years, three decades in three days, flickering into and out of consciousness.

I woke one time to a small black-furred head nuzzling desperately against my chin.

“Acacia,” I said.  I tried to say.  “I can’t move.”

But she became more insistent, butting my nose with the top of her skull.  I raised my arm for the first time in ages and enveloped her in a hug.  She purred against my chest.

Acacia had not had food for two days.  “If I die,” I rasped, “I won’t mind if you eat me.”  You see, cats will eat their dead owners a full few days before a dog will.  I imagined my cats rummaging through the last of their kibble to find it empty, then nipping at my upper arms, tearing small hunks from my torso.  It as not an unpleasant thought.

But then I wondered, what would happen after?  After all my flesh was gone?  What would they eat?  My neighbors never checked in.  No one called or emailed.  It could be weeks before anyone knew.  My cats would have nothing to eat…

It was this that made me sink down to the bottom on an exhalation, negatively buoyant.  I had stopped feeding my cats.  If I was gone, who would care for them?   Who would scoop their litter?  Who would fill their water bowls?  They would die.

So I got up, peeling myself from the mattress in order to pour them some food.  There was none.  The bag lay tipped over, empty.

In the depths of my delirium, it was such an effort to find my keys.  They were a mystery, far gone, an epic object, lost to the ages.  And if I found them, I would have to start the car, drive out to the store, watch traffic.  Too much effort.  Instead, I left through the front door, and set one foot in front of the other, and walked the three miles to the grocery.  It was easier than driving, I told myself.  It was easier to explain it that way.

So I schlepped twenty pounds of cat food on foot because my depression could find no better way.  When I poured it out in their bowls, Millie and Acacia gorged as if they’d never see food again.

After I fed the felines, I poured myself a bowl of cereal.  The milk was sour, but I ate half of it anyway.  I could only eat half, but I took pride in my accomplishment.

And the days after?  I could always look over the edge into the abyss until I moved to Miami.  Even here, there are days when it haunts me, yawning wide-mouthed and toothless.  Those days are few, but I think of my cats.  I think of those I love.  It’s a candle flame against the night, but at least it’s a light.  At least it’s a light.

To this day, I thank all the creator deities for the presence of black cats, and when one crosses my path, I leave small strips of meat in offering.  Perhaps they will leave me my wings.  Perhaps they will live another day, purring against a needy breast.  But at my worst, I know it did not end there because of small black paws and rumbling ribs.  I know that this crow still looks skyward because there is need in dark places.

Lit Bit Sundays: Installment the First

I’ve been wanting to write more about writing.  Part of this is stems from a healthy dose of self-analysis, but a larger part of this comes of a desire to share my love and passion for words by dissecting them, rolling around in them, and holding up the real gems I’ve come across.  I want to set Sundays aside (it’s somebody’s day of rest, yeah?) to talk craft, analysis, to workshop, and to recommend good stuff.  I want your recommendations, thoughts, and critiques in return.  While the rest of the blog is made of tall tales, memoir, and personal essay— all that stuff that gets composted into creative non-fiction— once a week I want to take out my toy trucks and Transformers and play with you.  Caveat: I get first dibs on the Xena action figures.

Next week, I want to talk poetry, and people’s introductions to it.  After that?  Well, what do you want to talk about?

For Love of Nothing

I would like to break your heart.  You see, I am a nihilist, and I have managed to romanticize nihilism.  It is my greatest comfort: that we are small and assured of our smallness.  That we have none of the answers, that we are making it up as we go along.  How large is the Atlantic?  The Pacific?  Now think: how far is it to Jupiter?  To Bellatrix?  And we matter, somehow?  Are you sure?  I do not believe in love, unless I am in love with everyone, and darling, dear one, I am in love with everyone.  I realized long ago, ever since that fifth-grade play, that the girl with the green streak in her hair has always been the boy who never grew up.  I am my own Wendy, asking myself, “Boy, why are you crying?”  I already know the answer.  My shadow won’t stick.  None of ours will, casting long looks into an empty future, and finding patterns that aren’t really there.  But they’re really pretty.  Peter knew it, too.  Death is an awfully big adventure, he said, and I tell you we are dying every day.  Will you come adventuring with me?  It’s all right.  You can say no, for now.

The Girl Who Hangs Poems from Trees

The secret to doing something strange and silly is to simply act as though it is absolutely normal.  And that is exactly what I did.

“Dude, chill.  It’s OKAY.  I have my SUNFLOWER MUG.  I got this.”

People may stop you, may ask, but not often.  They will look.  Depending on your aims, this is a good thing.  That means they’re paying attention.  Even better, it means you’re paying attention.  Noticing their noticing is important.  Noticing anything is important.

“I am not the empty sky.  I am nothing to be filled.  I am the negative space.  I will hold my own.”

Maybe it was a stupid idea.  42 short poems, scrawled on what amount to sticky-notes, and then lacquered with Mod-Podge.  I just needed a tree to hang them from.  So I went scouting.  On Halloween night of all nights, when I should have been at home, a remembrance ritual waiting, the names of aunts and and uncles and grandparents gone heavy on my tongue.  But this seemed important, too.

“Hope is brittle, but at least it’s warm.  And it’s all I have in my pocket.”

 Himmarshee Street was packed with bodies, all costumed.  I didn’t have to ask “Where’s Waldo?” because there were five of him.  There were sexy angels and sexy devils and a sexy Raggedy Ann.  None of them commented as I crossed the street and began hanging the poems.  No one said anything.

“Every misstep, every fight, every door slam: I did it by the book.  I EARNED this heartbreak.”

Emboldened, I took my time, placing each one where it looked best, filling out the trunk like a Christmas tree with ornaments.  Not a word was spoken.  My compatriot documented each step, snapping photos as I worked, until the work was done.

“While transplanting the pomegranates, I realized I was no longer a transplant myself, but a native of nowhere.”

And since there were no cats, and our task was done, we mice scampered off to play in the dark, drinking down cider, and watching drunk folk dance.

“Honestly, there aren’t any answers.  We’re just making them up as we go.”
We didn’t stay long.  There were other things yet to accomplish.  There were the dead still to honor, and a year’s worth of grief to pour out.

“If you take the whiskey & I take the gin, tomorrow the sun will fear to rise.”

After I got home, slinking up the stairs, I sat back.  Time to move on.  Small things done are in the past.  My poems were out there somewhere, dew-soaked, a-flutter.  But they were off now, living things themselves on an adventure of their own.  Down, then, to the business of ritual.  Persephone would know, I drank a shot of gin in honor of the dead, and a shot of whiskey in honor of the living.