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Caution: Poetry at Work

April: The Work of Art

April 20

birdSome photographers say that their camera lens and the frame it creates helps them look at parts of the world they might otherwise shy away from. A poem can do the same. But even with the framing and filters the poem provides, steady, unflinching attention is dangerous to our comfort, our preconceived ideas, and maybe even to our happiness. Having seen, we can't unsee what the poem's gaze sets before our eyes. That's as true for the poet as for the readers. "The Watchers" asks what will happen to me, the poet, if I let the poem's images and logic take me where they want me to go. This poem is a struggle between turning a blind eye and seeing. It asks but doesn't answer a pressing question.

The Watchers
(for Angeline Dufner)

"I looked out the window and saw a sparrow and I became the sparrow." (John Keats)

The watchers rarely stick around
to warn us of the dangers.
Keats for one, made light with looking,
flew away at age twenty-five.

I know a woman who looks at birds.
Standing empty and alert as a shadow
she's seen what others live a lifetime
and never see:

A tree of land-locked warblers
on a foggy morning

blue herons setting air-filled bones
gently on hollow trees

pileated woodpeckers, shy as pterodactyls,
their great shadows flowing across the snow
just at sunset

and a sparrow
impaled on a long thorn
eaten alive by shrikes.

I'm watching closely to learn
the costs of her looking.

Will her cat begin to watch her
with narrow yellow eyes?

Will she follow the birds' migrations
her car, green as willow, flying down the freeway
and never be seen again?

Marooned and homesick in her classroom
will she mournfully teach "Ode to a Nightingale"?

Or will she die with the black and white bobolinks
whose numbers dwindle year by year?

I need to know
because I've watched too.
This boy-man Tom, for instance,
his schizophrenic mind, his blackbird eyes
his hands curled and shaking
without a swaying branch to still them.

He's flown all his life against windows and walls
and lights now only long enough to ask me
"Where do you get your peace?"
What will happen to me
if I watch him with the poet's intense gaze

when even a sidelong glance is enough
to carry me on long migrations away
from peace? And even if I could
choose blindness

what would keep my traitor hands
from reaching out, their feathery nerves
ready to catch on a face
the lightest sinking
into grief?

         --Mara Faulkner, OSB

Invitation for your writing:
What are you afraid to pay attention to, whether in your life, the lives of those you love, or the life of the world around you? In a safe place where no one else will see it, write about that fear as truthfully as you can. Set it aside for a while. When you take it out and look at it again, see if there is in the midst of the fear a shining moment of courage that would help your readers and you.

April 13

microphoneWriting a poem can help us focus our attention on habitual patterns that are invisible much of the time. How can we take what seems like the unavoidable architecture of reality (but which is actually a personal or social construction), and challenge all the assumptions, stereotypes and expectations that give it power? What are the patterns of exclusion, the habits of value that affect our actions and reactions without our even realizing it? This poem allowed me to wrestle with the repeated silencing that was part of the chilly climate for women in academia some twenty-five years ago. A male colleague liked to quote to me Samuel Johnson, who compared women at the pulpit with a dog walking on its hind legs (surprising they can do it at all, not surprising that it’s not done well). I offer this poem to anyone who has felt resistance or faced impediments in their efforts to voice their thoughts, to relate their experience, to influence their environment, to change the world for the better.

      Dancing with Bears

I reach down into that "she" in grief,
torn from the softer one they like --
the funny one, the mom, the good soul
set aside and in a harsher light
strident, primordial and dismissed
like so much static on the line.
You know she just can't follow
Insufficiency rests heavy on my chest
and I can't breathe
not a word, not a whimper
I am that she again.

They roll their eyes just a quiver,
they sigh and shake their heads;
You see what diversity brings us.
I feel for a long moment the steady
comradery they had and no longer have,
the singleness of purpose and the confidence
that truth began with them, moved with their eyes
and rested on their liquid tongues,
their hands moved in a predetermined sweep.
My hands, trained to applaud, to applaud,
tremble in my lap, my eyes fit to gaze and perhaps to weep.
That was as it should be.

But the dancing bear grunts onto stage
and sways towards the pulpit
insight staunched in the bitter earthy smell
of matted fur, nose twitching towards the thing
I might say that they could hear.

I grasp the lectern, glance down at my notes;
they clear their throats and cross their arms.
I take them on and tell them that I think.
I interrupt their wild rejections and drive my words
deep under their skin and between their hairy arms.
They scratch and writhe, wait out my turn
and then go back to dancing among themselves.
She really doesn't follow, you know;
That's what comes from diversity --
No more excellence, no more clarity.

How can I tell them that for once we all agree?
That all we share is a mumbled wail from bipedal snuffling shapes,
seeking the honey and finding only an empty comb.

            -- Karen Lynn Erickson

Invitation for your writing:
Reflect on situations where you felt silenced, where you knew it would be difficult for others to hear you or take your message seriously. I chose to take a spot at a lectern, because speaking in public 30 years ago often happened in that venue. With the social media at our disposal now, speaking up and speaking out can take many forms. Write a version of this poem where the speaker chooses another venue - is the outcome more positive? Then think of a time you found it difficult to listen to someone else. How might you listen in a radically different way, welcoming voices that do not initially make sense to you? Can poetry be a productive avenue to share even clashing views?

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