braided riverOur community lost a good man and today was the service to celebrate his life. I was working so I didn’t attend the religious part of the service but I did manage to spend a little time at the reception afterwards. Several people remarked that death after a long illness can be a blessing, and I suppose that it can, but I doubt that makes his loved ones miss him any less.

I looked across the room at the faces of the grieving. In this small town, a man’s family is not just his blood relations, but those he’s fished with, worked alongside, worshipped with. Several generations all gathered around, remembering and reaffirming the bonds they share – eating, telling stories, holding babies… Driving back in the twilight, I watched the sky pink the sea… what words are there?

When I got home, all I could write were the following lines which may turn into a poem, or maybe not…

A man is a boat,
his life, a braided river.

Poets are people who process the world with words. We make sense of our lives through them, receive solace from them. We read poetry to know that we are not alone and we write to assure ourselves of our bonds to the world and to each other.

I’m going to close the wonderful poem “To Hold” by Li-Young Lee. His work in Behind My Eyes is beyond luminous. Treat yourself to this book – not only is his poetry transformative, but the book comes with CD of Lee reading his work, absolutely mesmerizing.

For the next few days, try the following: ask yourself, “What am I grieving?” Our society buries grief, and your pain may be where the secret core of your poetry is.

To Hold

So we’re dust. In the meantime, my wife and I
make the bed. Holding opposite edges of the sheet,
we raise it, billowing, then pull it tight,
measuring by eye as it falls into alignment
between us. We tug, fold, tuck. And if I’m lucky,
she’ll remember a recent dream and tell me.

One day we’ll lie down and not get up.
One day, all we guard will be surrendered.

Until then, we’ll go on learning to recognize
what we love, and what it takes
to tend what isn’t for our having.
So often, fear has led me
to abandon what I know I must relinquish
in time. But for the moment,
I’ll listen to her dream,
and she to mine, our mutual hearing calling
more and more detail into the light
of a joint and fragile keeping.

~by Li-Young Lee

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At the end of the week, I am curiously out of patience – with others, but more painfully with myself. It is as if the wear and tear of rubbing against the world has left me over-sensitized. I find the best recourse is to sequester myself, withdraw from the chatter of the outside world and spend a little time focusing on something physical – like walking or weaving. To try to read or write during this time of impatience is to invite more exasperation. Negative thoughts swirl around in my head, “You’ll never be able to write as well as so-and-so,” or “With all the things you have to do, how can you be spending time reading poetry?”

Better to take a small break and really concentrate on the sensory. Brilliant sun on snow. The long twilight making everything a million shades of blue. Then, I can give my writing the patience it deserves, not expect instant gratification (or a best-seller on Oprah), but rather lean into the idea of writing as one of the ways that I experience the world. I page through my journal and see that I did indeed write a few snippets worth keeping this week. I look through a new book, Rope by Alison Hawthorne Deming, and find wisdom within. Deming closes a poem entitled “The Place of Poetry” with:

Some people use poems as if they were shovels to turn the ground for planting.

In the middle of winter in Alaska, it takes some patience to prepare your world for spring.

For the next few days try the following: When the world is too much with you, take a break and do something physical. Really pay attention to the pull and push of your muscles, the way the light slides across the wood floor, a steller jay on the porch railing.

Alison Hawthorne Deming’s new book Rope is wonderful, especially the long poem “Flight” that closes the collection. Do yourself a favor and add it to your bookshelf.

Please see my “About” page for more information
on my Powell’s bookstore affiliation.

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2010 has begun in my small town with rain on snow. The weather has been relentlessly gloomy, perfect for introspection. My family has undergone some harrowing medical issues recently and these have reminded me that life is not endless. All this adds up to a desire to be more purposeful. Poetry is an art made up of purposeful choices by its very nature. Samuel Taylor Coleridge defined poetry as the “best words in the best order,” not “just any words thrown onto the page in a moment of heightened emotion.”

Can the process of writing poetry be a practice for a way of life? I’m not alone in thinking that it can be; other poets have examined this issue and I hope in the future to bring them into the conversation (either via their work, or in the case of some, in their “electronic” person). Meanwhile, consider what being purposeful in your writing and in your life might mean. Could you choose the way you approach decisions in your life with the same degree of purposefulness as you employ in writing poetry?

For the next few days try the following: Craft the decisions in your life like you would craft a line of poetry – for balance, for beauty, for deeper meaning.

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