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Caution: Poetry at Work

March: The Work of Translation

March 23

This poem tries to capture a visual experience that was profoundly linked to my writing self. I wonder sometimes if it would have been an essay if I had had more time to write then and there, or if it would have been a photograph, had photographing been allowed at that time in that place.

In the glass case with the Gutenberg Biblemanuscript

A misty trudge through long-ago familiar streets leads me toward
the graduate library, briefcase bristling with slips and note cards,
references seeking fulfillment in my reading of their books --
a quest to reunite far-flung citations with their mother text
through my scholarly eyes. Will they cry aloud at the reunion,
relish the close embrace as I tuck the card into the spine,
before I photocopy the fragment to ingest further at my leisure?
Will there be a violence of good-bye, as citation slip follows
not the volume to the stacks but the spineless copied ghost, a scrap
I may or may not use in the great puzzle of my newly forming book?

I stop a moment before the Beinecke, remembering how this court was once
one of the favorite places in my world -- white, grey, cream -- smooth granite
and alabaster city glowing in morning sun, sighing in evening pearls
while the carillon played, now quenched by drizzle but still smugly holding
all potential to ignite the mind and strengthen the soul's firmament.
I enter its hushed expanse and find again the Gutenberg Bible, spread nobly
in its double self, proud to be one of the first of what I have known as books,
one of the last to remain complete after nearly 600 years,
glassed in from alien breath and the oily hands that might grasp or turn
or marvel through touch at the bold type and hand-flourished margins.

This I cannot snap in my work as modern scribe;
I can only look at its open face and drink it in, complete and utterly saved.
My eyes tire of the black figures motionless after their birth in moveable type;
I yearn to turn a page and see what's next.
I look up and see my reflection in the glass, first my face
on the near pane of the case, then my entire bust in the far side.
I am in the case with the Gutenberg Bible and thrill to see myself there.
A smile turns my indistinct self into a Vermeer woman
arrested for just a moment in her daily tasks, pitcher, basket,
briefcase laden with a woman's work, stopped to see art created,
stopped to see self in art, to smile that inward knowing softening
that recognizes the complete in a fragment and the impossibility
of seeing the complete except in fragment after fragment.

Someone else will turn this Bible's page, wearing white gloves
and key jingling at their appointed side, turn it not to Sarah's laughter
or Jacob's wrestling as I itch to do, but to the prescribed academic
liturgical moment, to dose the public with proud pages,
portions measured religiously, reverently, within the hush of hard stone.
It is time for me to go, but I linger before this case holding
my image as reader of a first completed book.
For I too am moving type across a sea of virtual vellum
wresting words from their bindings and setting them in the glass case
of my monograph, in awe before the august CONTROL - P - PRINT.

               --Karen Lynn Erickson

Invitation for your writing:
Think about your own images of published books, or public sharing of texts, and the material and immaterial elements of your writing. If you generally type, try writing longhand. If you generally read your poems silently, try reading them aloud. If you compose poems orally, experiment with different ways to record your work. If you've never memorized one of your poems, learn one by heart and recite it, perhaps while looking at your image reflected in some polished surface. If anything is holding you back from sharing your work, set yourself on a path to transcend all the limits you can, and imaginatively include yourself in the version of authorship that will help you do what you need to do.

March 16

A student once gave me a little blue cardboard box she bought from a street vendor in Nepal. It's about two inches by four inches and holds loose pieces of rough handmade paper. At the time, I was hopelessly busy, without the stillness and solitude that brings poetry to the surface. But in brief moments between classes or in earliest morning when dream scenes still filled my head, I "kept faith with my writing self," as Tillie Olsen puts it, by writing an image, an overheard sentence, a strange word or phrase ("crockpot ideas") on those 2 x 4 sheets of paper, hoping that they would somehow turn themselves into poetry there in the fertile darkness. Well, that didn't happen, but when my life slowed down I took a look at what had accumulated and found scraps I could translate into poems. I guess that's pretty much what poets do all the time. Here's one of those translations.

Fall, 2015book

If pages are leaves then books
are trees swaying in the wind
where kids in treehouses dream
and wonder rises in them
like sap.

Tree-books need someone
to rake up the fallen leaves
of red and gold and brown
and save them in the bag of the mind
to stack against the foundation
warming us during the long winter
just ahead.

Even the dour weatherman
used to predicting drought
and disaster
calls this is the most beautiful October
he can remember-
clear days and nights with moons
heavy and deep orange on the horizon.
Two eclipses-the moon, the setting sun.
Every day we think this beauty has to end.
And then the maples' embers
glow red in the morning fog.
There is, so far, no final eclipse.

Don't leave us
yellow lindens
wine-dark oaks.
Friends, my brother
this Earth
golden and gone.

    --Mara Faulkner, OSB

Invitation for your writing:
Find a little receptacle for scraps of poetry. Anything small will do-a little box like mine, a notebook small enough to fit in your pocket, your cell phone. Collect every day for a while. Then, without expecting anything dramatic, take out the scraps and see if you and they can do the work of translating the randomness of life into a poem.

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