Our son Nick, an ocean rescue lifeguard in Nags Head, NC, was vaccinated in May but this month came down with breakthrough covid, and quarantined with his gf, also a lifeguard and vaccinated and sick, at the beach. They’re okay now, back in town. He said they hunkered down indoors, ordered out, played video games, and only ventured outside one night late for a walk. Sentimental dad goes….
In our masks we hold hands bare feet splashed in the sand still warm all these hours after sunset.
The 8th of our 10 days sequestered. Our first outside but late.
Whenever the hospitals normalize and the masks come off
it will be this squish of sand, the sea wash, that wagging finger of moonlight tracking our solitary stroll…
If we are among the lucky and why not? Or wherever you may be, I know I’ll say but still, there was that night
when we both were feeling better that pinned it all.
Buddy splashing in the creek behind our house turns up an arrowhead stubby quartz chipped to fit a twig pierce a buck’s tawny hide.
There that maw in the hillside where some ancestor mined for gold. Rusted wire in the woods where sheep grazed in the day.
I went home to say goodbye to my brother who lay dying in our late parents’ bedroom couldn’t take it had to go outside and poking around in the back field where we’d raised chickens once kicked up a rotten bucket a corroded canister what’s this?
So here I am at ten this July day swatting shuttlecocks with him taking turns churning the salt and ice packed peaches and cream until our father dips a finger licks the custard spits disgusted. The can had leaked. See him set himself to hurl the whole kit and caboodle over the back fence. (Mama opens a bag of Oreos.)
Well, here the moment lay weed sewn and half buried in the red earth even that hand crank that had chafed my knuckles on its side.
In Virginia sometimes to stretch our legs we wander Civil War battlefields visualize for instance how close the farm boys crouched facing off like carnival ducks at Cold Harbor. Once in a while you’ll see an old man in earphones divining the lawn with his wand in search of a minie ball a button some more than storied proof of one episode on this or that ageless acre.
And the night Mama died. She’d been in coma for weeks at the nursing home in Fork Union built on the farm where she was born. I left there in tears before dawn stopped short in the parking lot by a herd of cows chewing cud among the cars a film overlay made of now and then as if they’d wandered up from childhood to low her on.
Buddy cocks his head to wonder why I linger in the ankle deep stream with this little shard of quartz. He doesn’t care that we live in a lap dissolve, flies in amber that is only sugar melting.
The point at which receding parallel lines seen in linear perspective seem to meet.
An article on a new book of photography in this morning’s Washington Post sent me down this rabbit hole! Here’s the article.
Woke from restless sleep at a north-facing window, the gibbous moon’s light bathing the curtain of woods at the edge of our yard in that monochrome relief I so love – daytime’s Technicolor bled to noir shadow – surprised by a constellation of fireflies flashing and flickering there like Christmas lights strung across the trees or the stars themselves shaken down. The surprise was not that there were fireflies out there, but that there were so many!
This past covid year we have lived at home, have dreamed of travel, have become so bored with the sameness of our rooms and routines. Funny, how the night before our dream comes true, a vacation flight to California(!), this 3 am interlude shocks me awake to a delightful pageant — frankly worthy of Yosemite — occurring all summer every evening right in my proverbial (and actual) backyard!
I sit up in my bed at the window, hugging a pillow, enraptured by a silent spectacle that blips streaks and fizzes at varying heights across the moonlit forest backdrop, my sleepy head imagining a flashlight ballet, though each of these winged insects winks not in synch but in competition with his mates, their twinkling display one of Nature’s finer than strictly necessary embellishments, certainly one of its most brilliant expressions of a yearning all living things – and that means me too – plead across our brief lives, a controlled ignition in their loins intermittent, briefly dazzling (dangerous too as it exposes the firefly to predators), the whole moonlit woods decorated with urgent flares that blink one appeal (supplication) at great expense across a summer night – fuck me, please! Fuck me! Fuck me please! (Visual equivalent of the cicada hordes’ relentless droning symphony.) If I am to leave any mark, if my line is to continue, please find me worthy: Let me get a leg over, please! We haven’t long! On this moonlit summer night, perhaps our last, won’t you find me worthy, please?
Fireflies or lightning bugs – what we called them as kids?
Drove five hours out to see my friend Rondalyn at her creekside home in Morgantown this week, came home and went right back out the next day to do some woodworking with my friend Ken at his riverside retreat in Verona. Conflated the trips in this revery at the brink of retirement from my career at VCU:
On the cusp of summer driving to see friends out in the mountains:
The pencil thin road traces a cleavage of hills like a reclining body’s contours, so you
roll down the window reach out and tickle the breeze with your fingers.
These are ages old ranges comfy as sofas the plush deciduous carpet running right across their peaks.
Old friends, too. I don’t need my GPS to find them though the highway climbs to rutted trails along serpentine streams.
They greet me with hugs and dogs the whole visit like those fairy tales where the wandering and lost
find a hermit and his hermitage and a way of living that invites a raft of questions about what you do and why.
We sit in rockers out back shoulders round faces creased sipping whiskey.
Our babble and the stream’s worrying the puzzle of worn rock at our feet as twilight deepens.
The last time I saw my friend Sarah Knorr was a month before covid shut everything down. We met at my favorite bakery Sub Rosa on Church Hill, sitting side by side on a bench along the wall, sipping tea and nibbling a cinnamon roll. Through the bakery’s tall picture windows, we watched a horse-drawn funeral cortege round the traffic circle just outside, both of us smiling at this augury, the kind of correspondence poets live for. Sarah had recently stopped chemo. She said her flaming red hair was beginning to sprout again, but as always in public she wore a wide straw hat, movie star sunglasses, and a Kate Hepburn scarf around her neck. She asked, as usual, about my writing. She never mentioned, ever, her own.
This time last year we were all in covid lockdown, and Sarah lay dying in Verona, in the house my dear friend her husband Ken built atop a river bluff amidst trees alive with birdsong. He nursed her for months as her body failed, no visitors allowed because covid, then in mid-July she died, not of the virus but of the cancer she had danced with for so long (Sarah hated it when people used verbs like “battle” or “wrestle” or “fight” to describe the cancer experience. She corrected one friend with, “This is not a fight. It is a dance, and when the music stops I will sit down.”)
A few weeks later, Ken and Sarah’s estimable sisters Anne and Ginger invited me to look through three boxes of Sarah’s writings, and in those boxes I discovered pages and pages of poems, a few from as far back as high school, others written as recently as 2017, some published in literary journals. I’d known Sarah and Ken for twenty years, she had acted as a fierce and inspiring champion of my writing, and yet for reasons I don’t understand she never mentioned her own work. I knew her as a relentless advocate for people with disabilities, the person who could figure out funding, housing, or caregiving for the weakest among us, tirelessly untangling the state’s byzantine social safety net case by tedious case. Those were the things she talked about when she wasn’t praising some bit of writing I’d shared. Never her own writing ever.
As I sorted through her boxes, and the poems piled up on my desk, it quickly became clear what had to be done. Sarah was not a hobbyist or Sunday poet. She was a hard-working, steady, and focused artist. Her poems are tightly wrought and physically acute. They typically strike flint-like on sharply drawn images of quotidian life, sparking evocative links to myth, symbol and mystery. They reward close reading and re-reading, both individually and in correspondence with each other. They deserve an audience.
So I decided to collect them. It took nearly a year of mostly weekend effort, since I was teaching covid-inflected courses at VCU, but over time a sequence of 80 poems came together. As you might imagine, there were varied versions of many of these poems. I made the best decisions I could about which might be the final versions, winnowing as I went along. Some of the poems had been published in literary journals, so they were easy to figure out. Others were crossed over with edits, so I did the best I could. In no case did I alter a word or even a comma. This book is Sarah’s.
In reading the collection you will see, as I did, that Sarah was an accomplished lyric poet. Her voice, her cadence, and her vision clearly and consistently speak from poem to poem. The best lyric poems, through some magic trick, make personal experience universal. Sarah’s achieve that high bar.
One way to measure originality in an artist is to clock their influences. Many of Sarah’s poems work as compact parables, drawing insight from nature, as Mary Oliver’s do. Some draw from her childhood ranging over the family farm on horseback, attentive to rural lessons as Wendell Berry’s do. That said, no one but Sarah could have composed these poems. Her intimate acquaintance with cancer (she suffered surgery and radiation in her 20s, and lived with the expectation of recurrence) taught her how tentative and precious life is. Yet the poems don’t mope; they praise each moment of lived existence with a fierce, terse insistence.
In closing, I’d like to thank Ken, Anne and Ginger for sharing Sarah’s work and letting me take a shot at collecting her poems. Thanks go to Sarah’s lifelong friend Adele Castillo, who found a painting (by the local artist Carol Baron) of Sarah’s spirit animal the heron for the cover. And to my visual artist son Stephen for cover design. One last thing, proceeds from sales of Sarah’s book will go to one of her many charities. I’m so glad to be able to share this collection with you all. Here’s where you can get it, in paperback or e-version. Enjoy!
April is both National Poetry Month and Occupational Therapy month, so as an OT professor who is also a poet, would like to share with you my reading of a poem from my collection Yearnful Raves that speaks to what it means to do and teach a caring profession. (Please forgive the scruffy covid hair!)