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November: Life Works

November 17

KnyttingIn an interview with Bill Moyers, Lucille Clifton said, “Poems are about questions, not about answers. We don’t know. We know very little.” I think she’s right. One of my students said that a trustworthy pattern for a poem is question → answer→ deeper question. Though poetry tries to put into semi-comprehensible words the puzzlements of human life, its destructiveness and generosity, its murky confusion and its brilliance, most poems ask questions, sometimes subtly, sometimes right out in the open. They ask with anguish and wonder, “Why?” “Why not?” as they probe the mystery of goodness and evil. This poem questions war and especially war’s deadly habit of claiming religion and even God as allies for their side.

"The genes have to go to war." (Oliver Stone)
"God knytt us and onyd us to hymselfe." (Dame Julian of Norwich)

How, Julian, "shalle alle be wele
and alle maner of thynge
be wele" while war
still lurks in our genes
like moths morosely

Even if we confess ourselves
foxhole atheists
and denounce
those who scream the Name
as war-cry
or curse

and even if we throw away
our holy flak-deflectors—
those steel-cased Bibles
guarding hearts
that beat out rage
and hate—

even then we bear
God into battle
and back home again
on the banner of our flesh—
one cunning strand
of the double helix.

But maybe God goes willingly.

For were she to unknytt
herself from trigger-
happy fingers and grenade-
glad hands
would humankind
and incarnation be

--Mara Faulkner, OSB

Invitation for your writing:

This idea comes from poets Rita Dove and Eva Hooker: Write five questions that "rattle your heart." Then:
--Write a line with a color of two in it.
--Make a one-line statement about a place you loved as a child.
--Write a line describing a broken object, person, or place.
--Finish a line that begins, "I wish. . ."
--Write a line about work or a job.
--Finish a line that begins, "Next year at this time. . ."
Then write a poem in which you answer one of your questions, using as many of these lines as you can, in any order, changing them as the poem requires. If you can and if the poem lets you do it, end with a new question—or a new version of the first one.

November 10

Mara invited us last week to think about how writing poetry can give us an imaginative avenue to understand the experience of a person from another place, time, or culture. The process of exploring, creating and refining a text into a concentrated poem can also give us access to empathy or understanding for members of our own families, people in our inner circle whom we assume we know fully. Like the DNA that links us to one another, our features, talents, preferences, fears and joys, tendencies and reactions can follow a complex and intertwined pattern. There can be moments of surprise that enlighten us to radical differences. There are also moments of great awareness of kinship beyond what we thought or knew; the recognition can be both grounding and liberating, both terrifying and comforting.

Close Encounters

Heeding the yellow light at Warner Road my foot squeezes the brake,Close Encounters
eyes roving left, right, back to the mirror. The red light gives me time
to reach into the marshmallow bag, hand three to each quarrelsome
car-seated voice (Pink! I want a pink!) and to grope for the ones that dropped.
I manage to catch the light changing to green, and swivel again to the seething
Alma School Road before anyone can honk or race an engine at me.

It was then for a second my mother looked out from behind my eyes,
through my eyes – she saw the same intersection riddled with danger
streets steeped in uncongenial movement on the lanes.
I blinked and shook my head, felt the hair on my neck begin to rise.
Suddenly I was driving an enormous station wagon, no seat belts in sight,
four children all elbows tumbling into each other at every turn,
a roiling, bickering mass of juvenile confusion. I want to cry,
Stop that screaming! Do you want me to hit a truck?
That would have been my mother's voice, her threat
I now realize was her fear. I say, Let's use calm voices for the car
and hand back another dose of sugary pillows.

It happened again just before we got to school. I felt my face
reshape itself and we were stern worried women
alone in a car hurtling toward a crash, shepherding kicking lambs
along a high speed chase, and very much afraid.
All the safety features and vigilance quiver
as the mother's eyes rake the road ahead.
What will hit my children? And how hard will they land?
Will it be a tragic accident (news at eleven) or a violent hand,
or the sound of glass tinkling above depression, eyes tightly closed,
arms flung about their heads? Or will there be a cushion of drugs,
or the lostness of vague plans that never quite take shape?

A clammy smell lingers in the air as I park the car in a shady space.
I take a small shaky breath, my face firm again behind my hands.
My children, still secured, bored in their separate safety,
wait for me to come around. I hold tight to the illusion of control,
which has worked better than you'd think for a long, long time.

It's now I can't keep the wheel from bucking in my hands.

       --Karen Lynn Erickson

Invitation for your writing:
Write a paragraph full of concrete details describing a family member who is very like you. How do you resemble one another? Then write another paragraph about a family member who seems very different from you. How is this person unlike you? Compare the two paragraphs, and note if there is any surprising resemblance between the two descriptions, any unforeseen kinship or paradox or new awareness. Write a poem about the surprises and insights arising from family likeness, and from perceptions of individuality within kinship.

November 3

birds in a window

All people deserve the right to speak for themselves - to say, "This is who I am," "These are my experiences," "This is what I believe." Poets exercise bedrock human freedom in every word they write. But not everyone has this basic right. In every age and place, including ours, there are individuals and whole groups whose voices are silenced; their words, when they do speak or write, are suppressed, erased, discounted. Part of the work of poetry is to give a voice to the voiceless, until they can speak for themselves. Speaking in the persona of another person is an act of empathy and imagination that changes the poet in some subtle way. It often rests on the sturdy foundation of research, which is also an essential part of poetry's work.

This poem imagines what a young woman buried alive in the so-called Magdalene laundries in Ireland might have thought, felt, and said, had anyone been listening.

The Magdalenes

Mary Magdalene stood weeping beside the tomb. Even as she wept
she stooped to peer inside, and there she saw two angels.
"Woman," they asked her, "Why are you weeping?"
She answered them, "Because they have taken my Lord away
And I do not know where they have put him." (John 20:11-14)

My name is gone too, stripped away by the sisters
of Our Lady of Charity who tell me Jesus will love me again

only when I am scrubbed as clean as the priests' linen shirts and my belly
is as flat as prison sheets wrung through the mangle.

My scared parents sent me here at the first whiff of sex
and now the great green Connemara world has shrunk

to these high convent walls and this round aluminum tub
where my hands, pale as flounders swimming among the priests'

underwear, will have only each other for comfort when the baby
my body will never get to love is borne away

to Australia or the orphanage. They'll swear she has no father, her mother
is dead, and there's the end of it.

The nun keens Our Lady's rosary—"the Angel of the Lord
declared unto Mary and she conceived of the Holy Ghost. . ."

She's shapeless under her habit but she was young once too,
jolly, maybe, with curves the boys liked. But out of all those girls

one had to go to the convent, every Irish family knows that.
Now she hasn't wit or will and takes a sour joy

in cutting our hair short and ragged and drowning our voices with her prayers.
My face crinkles in the steam, cooks to a pudding,

featureless and red. I imagine smuggling us out,
myself and the baby inside me, in one of those great bags

hidden among the prison uniforms or parish napery, but whose hands
would we tumble into? The priest's, with his dour mouth turned down in a C

like the first word of a curse? Not Christ's, for they have squeezed him so small
he's a stone fit only to be hurled at wayward girls.

In this place only the birds are free. Ah, Jesus,
maybe the skylarks, singing as they rise

on strong brown wings, will carry this Magdalene's name
to the living world.

--Mara Faulkner, OSB
Credit: From Still Birth. Copyright© 2013 by Mara Faulkner. Used with the permission of The Permissions Company, Inc., on behalf of Finishing Line Press,
The Magdalenes.mp3

Invitation for your writing:
Listen to the recording that accompanies this poem. Then take a favorite poem of your own or someone else's; read it out loud and think about the sounds you might add to amplify the silent voices in the poem. If you feel inspired to do so, record the poem with the sounds. Send it as a gift to a friend.

October: How sound works

October 27

In a Certain LightHearing this poem at a reading, our friend, the exquisite soprano Dr. Carolyn Finley, said the poem really "spoke to her," and said she would gladly sing it if I set it to music for her. Though I had set other poets' work for choir or soloist, and had written songs for guitar as a young person (mostly with horrible, predictable lyrics), I had never tried to set a poem of my own. This poem had provided me with an avenue for grief at the death of my grandmother, and it was a poignant challenge to shift from spoken to sung word.

In a certain light

In a certain light if I stretch just right
my ribs crest again, thin cage from Adam
drawn right around my softened heart
cushioned now with the dough of years

Almond crisps, angel cookies
ginger snaps, one by one hugged my tongue
my waist, my hips, thighs, just as I would hug
my grandma as she baked and let me taste

Swelling in the heat they'd soon cool to comfort.
I remember my first swells and worries of new
contours, the first "No" to diet-banished sweets.
My grandma, terse, says, "If God wants you fat,

you'll be fat," impatience vying with love.
There's no fighting with God, the cook's
theology maintains, and there she must be right.
In her high heels and hats her round form was beauty

She danced us all off the floor at the legion hall,
polka, schottische; she danced the way she cooked
and it went on rising, rising. In the soft, chewy center
I always knew she'd love me, plump or thin, as I loved

all the pillowed laughter and fragrance
of her zest, wooden spoon heaped with yeast
and doughnuts frying in the crisp air
After her stroke, her mind at rest elsewhere

Her heart would not stop hugging life.
Her body thinned and sank beneath her ribs
as she slowly passed away. It is my waist now
that is comfort, my chest a warm pillow.

If I stretch just right I feel her round my heart.

--Karen Lynn Erickson
Credit: From Dwellings. Copyright© 2013 by Karen Erickson. Used with the permission of The Permissions Company, Inc., on behalf of Finishing Line Press,
In a Certain Light.mp3


Invitation for your writing:
The French Renaissance poet Pierre de Ronsard advised poets to read their verses aloud, and even better, to sing them out, to test their quality and power. Singers learn to project their sound by using the resonant cavities of mouth and sinuses, and by making the most efficient use of their breath. First read this poem silently, then read a stanza aloud. Read another stanza, but sing it out. What kind of melody are you creating as you read out the lines? Finally, listen to the recording by Dr. Finley and Dr. Turley (mp3 file) from their album, In a Certain Light: Mostly Minnesota Composers, produced with colleague Dr. Kent, and used by permission (available soon on Digital [email protected]/SJU). What do you hear in the poem when a team of professional musicians interpret the text in a musical setting created by the poet? Now choose one of your own poems or write a poem about an experience filled with strong emotion (grief, joy, fear...); read your poem silently, then aloud, then by projecting in a singing tone. Does the act of "voicing" give new insight into your poem and into your experience?

October 20

Poetry helps us hear the music of language. It also helps us hear the eloquence of silence, endangered in our noisy lives and world. The white spaces within and around a poem's words are filled with meaning and emotion. William Stafford's wonderful poem "Sayings of the Blind" alerts us to all we miss because sight dominates the perception of the world for most of us. The poem includes such wit and wisdom as this: "Edison didn't invent much" and "What do they mean when they say night is gloomy?" ( Inspired by Stafford, I tried to imagine what a silent world is like and what sensual wonders I'm missing by depending so much on my ears.

Sayings of the Deaf
(after William Stafford's "Sayings of the Blind")Sayings of the Deaf

Silence has big soft hands that say,
"I want to be your friend."

Even in winter the earth vibrates.
My feet feel the early seeds
Stretching and yawning.

People's mouths move constantly
But their hands
Are dumb as dodos
Long dead.

Pockets are prisons for poetry.

Even in the heaviest gloves
With one hand behind my back
I can say
I love you.

Sometimes the flag says hello.
Sometimes it says goodbye.
Sometimes it's too sad to speak.

Why do hearing folk love mimes
But want to fix me?

Silent jokes are the funniest.

There are two kinds of words:
The splintery kind
Black and spare as trees in winter
And the voluptuous ones
Shaped by warm-blooded hands
And bodies
Swaying in the wind.

--Mara Faulkner, OSB


Invitation for your writing:
Make lists of words that appeal to each of the five (or maybe six) senses. Start at the top of the page and don't stop until you get to the bottom. They can be words you love, words that describe things or people you love, or words/things/people that are distasteful or ugly. Then start anywhere, grabbing words from your lists as you go along. Let the words take you someplace unexpected. You might want to concentrate on a sense that you usually neglect.

October 13

When a poet chooses to write a poem in a pre-existing form, with an expected rhyme scheme, there is a particular pressure on each line, and pressure on the poet to avoid the kind of easy rhymes Mara described last week. When we write in free verse, we are free to improvise, but there is still pressure to make the most of every word, and the form, line length, and repetitions of sounds have to come from within the poem itself. This poem began as a notation, an effort to capture a sound-thought, an experience of listening, and gradually emerged from the block of prose like a carved figure.

Out of the beat

The drummer looks left,
far offstage; wrists supple,
he brushes the skins
clips the cymbal, hangs something
I can't hear in the air.
It seems to me he left out a count
but they all dive in after the solo,
perfectly together,
no bumps on Route 66.

I nod, tap a toe, a finger,Out of the Beat
watch the horn player trace the melody
before escaping on a musical ATV
off-road, off the leash.
I catch a note here and there
like a blaze along a rough-hewn trail.
They track with shoulders down
almost without looking –
I am listening to jazz.

Once or twice I lose myself and
forget I don't know where I am –
muted horn calls to the sax
piano anchors in thin air
a chart that tells them
where to go and who they are
sequentially alone
playing with the beat
toying with it all.

A cool nod recognizes
the applause of the crowd.
It was never about making time --
It's the space between pulse and life,
silence lost and a paradise regained.

--Karen Lynn Erickson
Photo courtesy of Joe Sullivan


Invitation for your writing:
Choose a sensory experience you wish to capture in language, in order to relay it to someone who was not with you at the time. Write a prose paragraph describing the sensations, and then transform the paragraph to free verse. How many words can you remove without losing the evocative power? Where will you create breaks between the lines? Do you find yourself revising your text to create rhyme or to emphasis the pulse of the poem?

October 6

In the olden days, most poetry rhymed, partly because poems were passed from person to person orally, and rhymes made the lines easier to remember. But that wasn't rhyme's only reason for being. Pretty much everyone, from the littlest kids listening to Green Eggs and Ham to rappers and slam poets, delight in the music language creates through rhyme, rhythm, and a host of other appeals to the ear. We love the ring and friction of words alongside each other and the rhythms of lines and sentences. Rhyme and other sound devices are silent partners, helping to make both music and meaning.

Rhyme has gotten a bad name, maybe because we poets too often reach for the expected word combinations rather than the surprising, meaning-making ones. In this week's poem, "How Poetry Comes to Me," although I hope that the letters and syllables echoing off each other help you hear the sounds and silences of the poem, there is only one exact rhyme tying the last two lines together. When you have a word like prayer, it's tempting to reach for an easy rhyme like share, care, or bear. But our minds hydroplane over that slick surface. Prayer and despair do rhyme's double work: even as their meanings pull in seemingly opposite directions, the rhyme tells us that they are closely connected, even inseparable.

"How Poetry Comes to Me"

I go to meet it
At the edge of the light.
--Gary Snyder

Poetry leads me by the handHow Poetry Comes to Me
          to where an old man sits
          clasping one by one the hands of friends
          who've come to mourn his daughter—
          the third of his children laid to rest in this church.

           He won't talk about it, they whisper, worried.

          His stricken, puzzled face,
          his big hands as warm and grained as weathered oak
          say all there is to say: No words can wake my Mary.

Poetry leads me to his garden
          where he kneels
          his crippled hip resting on an overturned bucket.

          He stakes the tomatoes
          lays the onions to dry in the late summer sun
          gathers spent vines for the compost heap
          sweet corn to feed his living children
          the old-fashioned flowers his wife loves—snapdragons, asters—
          and seeds for next year's planting.

          All we hear are crickets, the wind,
          and the sudden plop of plums too ripe to hang on the tree.

Poetry comes mute with compassion
          carrying the bodies of children.
          Knowing it can neither save nor redeem them
          still it refuses to lay them down
          or let me turn away.

Poetry comes to me like prayer—
          the last resort before despair.

          --Mara Faulkner, OSB
Credit: From Still Birth. Copyright© 2013 by Mara Faulkner. Used with the permission of The Permissions Company, Inc., on behalf of Finishing Line Press,


Invitation for your writing:
How does poetry come to you? Free write from this poem’s first line, going wherever that line takes you. Then write a poem on that subject. See if rhymes appear, either at the end of the lines or within the lines. Ask yourself if each rhyme is fresh and if it pulls the two words together, even as they are pulling apart. Then try writing the same poem without the rhymes. Which one is truer to the experience the poem is about?

September: Earth Works

September 29

Poets, like many people, turn to the natural world to find what Wendell Berry calls "the peace of wild things," when "despair for the world grows" in us. That respite is essential, but the real work of poetry calls us to steadfast attention to the many faces of the world, natural and human, in all its vast and terrible and glorious complexity and contradictoriness. A poem that has changed my life as a poet and an inhabitant of this world is "Brief for the Defense" by Jack Gilbert. (I urge you to read this remarkable poem at

These are the lines from that poem that I don't want to forget: "If we deny our happiness, resist our satisfaction,/ we lessen the importance of [suffering people's] deprivation./ We must risk delight." This week's poem and the photo that accompanies it "risk delight," even in a dangerous world.

Dear heart,

There where you lie curled in a thicket of daisiesfawn
having learned the first lessons of life
after love—fear and camouflage—
come out now into the flickering light,
the pungency of clover and wild rose.
Walk lightly through tall prairie grasses,
big and little bluestem,
penstamon and yarrow.

Come out into the open field
where the yellow finch rocks
on a black-eyed susan,
in danger
but singing,

--Mara Faulkner, OSB

Invitation for your writing: Free write about three things that delight you, especially in the midst of fear, sadness, or loss. After a couple of days, read your free write, looking for a line or detail that draws and holds your attention. Begin your poem there, letting your free write and your imagination take you where the poem wants to go.

Photo courtesy of S. Tamra Thomas.

September 22

Nature embodies deep rhythms and cycles that work within us as human creatures, and that can help us see the fullness within the brevity of life. A poem can celebrate the joys and ecstasy of moments when we feel we could live forever, just as it can help us navigate the passing of time and the pangs of mortality, loss and grief.

We go westPrairie

We start at the edge of the old world,
surrounded by portraits and resemblance
and family recipes, and then the plains,
traveling light in the wagon,
friends fast made, fast lost.

We homestead by a river or pond,
and when our tether frays, when the sod houses settle
and the mounds are full, we go on to the Rockies
daunted, chill – if we get over,
it's a lonely triumph.

Some days we crack the shell and see at the center
the golden ring of pride and loss and place.
It seems we can almost grasp it and hold it high,
a far-off bell would surely declare us the winner,
but we go west.

We may see the Pacific at the end,
currents from the south and stroking dunes
and inlets with a surge of surf and strange winds –
we arrive where we will never be
and know we have indeed left home.

--Karen Lynn Erickson

Invitation for your writing: Imagine a poem titled, "We go north (or south or east)." Would that poem lead to something different, simply by changing direction? This poem is inscribed within the North American continent; think about how the geographical setting in which you live might affect the way you imagine the span of life, and play with how you might capture that in a poem.

September 15

burned stumpBecause poetry depends on sensual language, poems can be revolutionary—world changing—in their ability to help us see, hear, touch, smell, and taste the world we live in. And because the Earth and all its inhabitants are in grave danger, this alert sensing and fresh savoring seems like an essential prelude to the determination to confess the damage we're doing to our beloved home and then pool our intelligence and energy to halt and even reverse the damage.

In the fourteenth century, St. Catherine of Sienna wrote, "Cry out the truth as if you had a million voices. It is silence that kills the world." Her world was threatened by religious and civil strife; no one was worried about threats to the natural world. Now, a million voices are crying out, but we humans have a hard time hearing the voices or understanding their message. Poetry tries to give voice the mountains stripped of their trees; the rivers and oceans, choked with pollution and no longer healthy homes for fish or coral reefs. Poets try to put into words the urgent underground voice of drying aquifers and the ancient voice of glaciers, melting into the rising seas, or the whisper of the morning air, in some parts of the world already unbreathable. Poems like this one may help us hear the fading voices of the animals and plants facing extinction.


The Chain Saw Man

is the artist of our age.
He cuts down redwoods as ancient and wrinkled as the world
and rainforests whose slow breathing
fills the lungs of black bears
four thousand miles to the north.
His hungry saw eats
dream birds—scarlet, azure, emerald—
whom no one has ever seen
nor will.
Their tongues cut out they call
like dead poets
from steaming piles of sawdust.
Thirty species a day of bird and mammal,
insect and reptile, flower and herb,
gone even from the compost heap of memory.

Who will come to take their place?

Only the creations of the chain saw man.
Masked, feet braced, muscles bunched to hold
the heavy saw
he makes wooden bears
from the hearts of felled trees.
Clumsy and still, there is in them
no shadow of swift black flanks
grown furry and supple
in northern woods.

He tries to carve birds
but the trees are gone and he can't remember
their glancing flight.

To the artist's bidding only
vultures come.
Hungry for gold
they wait for the carnage of the saw to end
their song the rasp of teeth in wood.

--Mara Faulkner, OSB
Credit: From Still Birth. Copyright© 2013 by Mara Faulkner. Used with the permission of The Permissions Company, Inc., on behalf of Finishing Line Press,

Invitation for your writing
Let random sensual details take you where your rational mind might never think to go. Begin with the line, "In the beginning..." and write a poem that includes all of these words: railroad tracks, orphan, Harley Davidson, blues n the night, car keys, scratch, prairie sage, shriek, velvet

September 8

oak treeSeptember's theme engages the beauty, fragility, power and force of nature, and the ways the earth works with and upon our human understanding. Sometimes it takes a contemplation of the natural world to make sense of an inner reality, to accept something in us we are struggling to accept.

I am probably an oak

I want to be a maple, to spark gasps of marvel
at dazzling crimson aware of near falling
trumpeting color all the same.

But I give shade, drop acorns
for the squirrels to store in their cheeks,
their caches, their forgotten places;

I hold onto my leaves--burnished, earthy
even into the winter wind.
Or I could be sumac, flamboyant and shocking,

Electric, poisonous, dangerous
invasive and unmanageable – Carmen, Liszt
virtuoso and flagrant with many secrets.

But I am probably an oak
a rooted canopy, slowly big
my wealth useful, ordinary, my richness brown

a church choir in solid pews ready to sing each Sunday
rising and sitting and kneeling in a familiar cycle
wide arms relaxed at my sides

no triumphant hurrah at the end of the whirling dance.
I want to be loved just once with a fatal passion
to be a whip, a crack of lightning

not to stand firm, bending only in hurricane,
uprooted by tornado and nothing less
I want the fragile, breathless, beloved filigree

But I am probably an oak.

--Karen Lynn Erickson
Credit: From Dwellings. Copyright© 2013 by Karen Erickson. Used with the permission of The Permissions Company, Inc., on behalf of Finishing Line Press, [Cover image]

Invitation for your writing
Follow the model of this poem, filling in what comes to you from the works of nature: I want to be a(n)..., but I am probably a(n).... How does the mirror of nature help you see your nature?