Previous Entries

The first year of Caution" Poetry at Work is now available for download as a PDF! In order to let people use these poems and prompts in classes, reading groups and more we've created the Caution: Poetry at Work workbook which can be downloaded and used by anyone interested in exploring the vital work of poetry. So please, download the workbook and work through the writing prompts alone, with friends, or with total strangers! We'd love to hear how you use this or what you think of it so please let us know on our Facebook group. Thank-you! If you use this workbook please make sure to cite it:

Erickson, Karen and Mara Faulkner, OSB. Caution: Poetry at Work workbook. 2017, PDF

February 2020

Are You Afraid of Poetry?

By Larry Schug

Are you intimidated by poems? Do you shy away from poetry because you think you can’t understand it? You’re not alone. I am a published poet who sells his books mostly at places like craft fairs, art fairs and chance encounters. I talk with many folks, some of who pick up one of my books and read page after page right there in front of me. I see their facial expressions change with each turning of a page and realize they are getting something from my words—a great feeling for me. On the other hand, I encounter some people who will pick up a book and flip through it like they are shuffling cards, put the book down and walk away. It seems just the unique form of a poem on a page is enough to give them the heebie-jeebies, even without reading a word. All I can say is each to their own, whatever floats your boat. Heck, I don’t like every work of art I encounter, either. There is nothing wrong with that. It would be a pretty dull world if we all liked the same things.

I’ve found that sometimes I need an alternative way to “reel in” the people described in the paragraph above, so I read a prose poem to them. What is a prose poem, you may ask. As the name implies, it’s a hybrid of prose and poetry written in paragraph form, a form we encounter every day if we read the newspaper, magazines or blogs. Some might find that form less intimidating because of its familiarity. Yet, a prose poem is still a poem. It can contain rhyme, meter, metaphor, assonance and consonance—all that good stuff you find in a poem. Here’s an example from a prose poem

called “Connection” I wrote after cutting firewood and finding that the tree had grown around a garden tool long ago.

“There were sparks and smoke when the screaming chainsaw cut through the hoe’s aluminum handle, but nothing like the lightning illuminating the space between life and death for an instant, long enough to show the woodcutter that the past hovers all around us, how even strangers’ lives connect in the heartwood of old trees.”

A person could change this to a more poetic shape merely by using line breaks.

There were sparks and smoke
When the screaming chainsaw
Cut through the hoe’s aluminum handle,
But nothing like the lightning illuminating
The space between life and death for an instant,
Long enough to show the woodcutter
That the past hovers all around us,
How even strangers’ lives connect
In the heartwood of old trees.

Give a prose poem a try. Who knows where it might lead you.

November 11

"Based on the classic poem, “Twas the Night Before Christmas”

Today’s poem comes from the Halloween Poetry Contest hosted by the Writing Center and Pseudonym, the creative writing club. Students across campus submitted spooky poems, along with a few flash fiction pieces. We’re pleased to present the winner – Genna Brakob – here on the Writing Center’s Poetry at Work Blog. Also look for Genna’s poem in Pseudonym’s literary magazine, Surfaced - to be published this spring.

Based on the classic poem, “‘Twas the Night Before Christmas,” this poem is a wonderful blend of holidays. In addition, it references our lives here at CSB/SJU and some of the campus ghost stories we love. Enjoy!

Twas the Night Before Christmas Valentine's Day

Twas the eve of All Hallows and here at St. Ben’s,
Not a creature was stirring, from Gorecki to Centen.
The students were all huddled asleep in their beds
While visions of alcohol danced in their heads.

And I, in my PJ’s, all filled up with chocolate,
Had just drifted off when I woke in a cold sweat.
Outside of my window, I heard a low moaning,
So I leaped from my bed to see what could be groaning.

Away to the window, I flew in a flash,
I pulled up the shade and leaned over the sash—
The silvering streetlights, so shining and bright,
Could hardly bring light to that dark, starless night,

But there, to my eyes there appeared a phantasm,
Glowing and whitish just like ectoplasm.
Its face was so gaunt, and its pallor so like platinum;
I knew in a moment it must be a phantom.

Slow like a cat stalking, it drifted right towards me,
Floating through air like a ship on the calm sea.
And as I watched it, a shivering thrill
Of panic shot straight up my spine like a chill.

Its clothes billowed behind it just like a white sheet,
And as it approached, I began to retreat.
I pulled back from the window, but as I withdrew,
It came up to the glass and then passed right on through!

It was dressed in a robe with a tunic and hood
And I recalled the garment as by me it stood,
For often on campus had I seen its twin
Worn by a congenial Benedictine.

The smile on its face and the familiar habit
Put me in mind of a jolly old abbot.
And though his pale flesh was a little decayed,
I began to suspect that I need not be afraid.

He spoke not a word, but reached into his pocket,
One eye rolling back in its withered eye socket.
Despite myself, while I was waiting, I shook—
But then from the pocket, he pulled out a book.

He offered out in a chill, haunting gesture,
This book that had been in his spectral vesture.
I took it on impulse, feeling wholly surreal,
And to my surprise, it felt solid and real.

I looked down at the title and near lost my mind—
It was a book that for weeks I’d been trying to find!
I’d searched in the libraries at both of our schools—
And now here it was, given to me by a ghoul!

I looked back up at him intending to say,
“Thank you,” but by then he was fading away.
But I heard him exclaim as he died out of sight,
“Happy reading to all, and to all a good night!”

~ Genna Brakob

Write your own: Write a Halloween poem of your own. Or, if the season is too late, try your hand at a Thanksgiving or Christmas poem.

April 12

backpacking in the mountains

As we move into spring, many students have begun thinking about travel, either studying abroad or traveling in the summer with friends and family. While some are excited by the prospect of living somewhere new, others are a bit hesitant. Spring is a time of growth, and traveling or studying abroad allows us to grow in our perspectives, friendships, and experiences. Whether you are traveling far from home, or just out of state, try to enjoy spending time somewhere new.

Traveling to new and exciting places often elicits a creative streak within. Many people document their journeys with journals, others with pictures, and some with poems. In the spirit of travel, here is a poem that evokes the feeling of adventure.

Through the Glen

The earth resounds of silenced songs
Old stories etched in stone,
Moss gathers on forgotten ruins,
Follow me on home.

Along those blissful rolling greens
The cry of tribesmen sound,
And echo on the craggy moors,
Follow me on home.

And for the weary visitor
A beaten path he roams.
It speaks to him through roots and weeds,
Follow me on home.

Through thistle glades and murky woods
The Highland chant resounds.
Imploring rueful traveler,
Follow me on home.

-Post and poem by Holly Ossanna, CSB 2020

Write your own: Write a poem about your experience with travel, or about somewhere you have always wanted to go. Or let your imagination run wild and write about how you would imagine traveling somewhere from a novel or a movie.

March 15

Musings on Music and Poetry jazz concert

Spring semester is in full swing and things are getting busy at the CSB/SJU Writing Centers. Even as our lives get more and more full of work and activities, we must not forget to relax once and a while and enjoy the little things in life. One of those things that I particularly enjoy is music. Music can inspire great emotions and temporarily relieve the stress of daily life.

This poem tries to encompass that feeling of music and the almost magical nature of sound as it seemingly appears from nowhere. The poem has three stanzas all reflecting a different feeling that a person experiences from listening to music and after it is gone.

The note sings
As if appearing from nowhere
Sudden yet not harsh.
As if
You became aware of something
That was always there
Just beyond your perception.

The song fades
As fast as it came
Returning once again to the ether.
You know
No matter how hard you try
You cannot let it go
For you now understand that true bliss.

Memory remains
Constantly haunting your thoughts
Of a paradise once lost.
That which is missing
Can still be found
The sound you love lives once again.

Write your own: Create you own poem about something that you love to do or be around. Let your writing be a way to increase your calm and decrease your stress throughout the day.

-blog post and poem by Anna Norris, CSB 2019

Previous Entries

February 12

"At the touch of love, everyone becomes a poet" --Plato

Valentine's Day is often remembered as a day full of romance and sentiments; however, the holiday originally began as the Roman festival Lupercalia, a pagan fertility festival. It wasn't until the 5th century that Pope Gelasius dedicated the day to St. Valentine, to honor his martyrdom in 250 AD. Consequently, the act of exchanging cards and gifts was not popularized until the 13th century and became the tradition we know today.

Modern Valentine's Day patrons use this day to celebrate their love. In honor of the holiday, the CSB/SJU Pseudonym student writing club paired with the Writing Center for a "Crappy Valentine's Poetry" contest. Students were encouraged to submit their sappiest poems for a chance to be published in Pseudonym's Surfaced magazine. Many topics dealt with food-related humor, while others took their love for electronics to another level. Here is one of the submissions:

Cheesy Love Poem Valentine's Day
My one true love is a great delight
A comfort in times most trying.
I call you up for another late night
Then wait at my window, spying.

The doorbell rings and you come in
Your wonderful smell on the air.
A glorious, curvy, Italian
That's classic and beyond compare.

Your stay is too brief for my liking
So, I treasure your leftovers with glee.
Every time I see you its striking
For you, I would pay any fee.

Even though you may be unhealthy
I find that I cannot reject.
My pizza with cheese oh so melty
With pepperoni and olives bedecked.

In honor of Valentine's Day, try writing your own crappy love poem! You could begin with the sentiment: roses are red, violets are blue... or go even a step further and say: My love is like a...

Post and poem by Holly Ossanna, 2020

January 29

A Sense of Place in the Avon Hills

You may have heard the term "sense of place." What exactly does this mean and how does it apply to poetry?

First of all, perhaps we should decide what we mean by "place." Is place simply a geographic location or does it imply something more? Does it include the inhabitants, both human and non-human of a place? Does it include natural and man-made objects, such as rocks, rivers and lakes, soil, houses, shopping malls and highways? Does it include human activity in a location such as farming or mining or types of commerce? Is "sense of place" a feeling, positive or negative? Is place inside you as well as outside?

Let's take a look at some of these many questions through the lens of a local event taking place at Saint John's University on February 10th: The Avon Hills Conference. The day consists of classes, seminars, speakers and exhibits focused on human and non-human activity in the Avon Hills. Everything from poetry to rain barrels, honey bees to pond scum is on the agenda.

The conference will provide plenty of food for thought and one way to process this information is to write about it, specifically through poetry. I think poetry provides a means to explore our thoughts, feelings and ideas regarding this catalog of information at a deeper level. Is there a metaphor for living a successful life in "no till gardening" or integrating Dakota values into our treatment of the land we live on?

I can envision poems written about a local bee keeper or the emerald ash borer. How about a poem written about the way you feel when you have to leave your home in the Avon Hills daily to commute to your job in the city or the way you feel when you return home? Even if you don't live in the Avon Hills, do your feelings change when you visit the region as you explore the Saint John’'s Bible exhibit, the pottery located at Saint John's, or attend a concert at the Benedicta Arts Center? How does a walk in the woods, a canoe trip down the Sauk River, helping in the harvest and processing of tree sap and making maple syrup enrich your life? A person could simply google "poetry of place" and find a lifetime's worth of great poetry about the subject of place from poets such as Wendell Berry or Jimmy Santiago Baca. Better yet, explore the poetry of Joyce Sutphen (raised in St. Joseph) or Edith Rylander (Grey Eagle) or Joe Paddock (Litchfield).

Why not write your own? Write for your own benefit and for the benefit of those that follow. I realize this short essay is full of questions and few answers. It's up to you to explore your own thoughts and provide the answers. Put poetry to work for you!

Dairy Farmers
"Even on the day I die," he told me,
"The cows must be milked on time.
You hear me?
Even on the day I die."

Yesterday's sunrise brought golden light
Through the spider-webbed barn window,
The light embraced him,
Hay dust sparkled like gold dust
Around his bent shoulders.

He sat on this stool yesterday,
Its seat worn smooth long before him
By his father's wool pants.
This stool, where I sit,
My head pressed against a Holstein's side.

I remember daddy saying that
When a child,
I sat on his lap while he milked,
Like a kitten,
I licked fresh milk from his fingers, son.

Larry Schug

November 30

NaNoWriMo at Work

Image courtesy of National Novel Writing Month

NaNoWriMo at CSBSJUAlthough this a poetry blog, the flip side of the creative writing coin is fiction. This month, the Writing Center organized three on-campus events to support and encourage students interested in being part of NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month). During the month of November, participants across America attempt to write a 50,000-word novel. This year, several students took their first stabs at writing and editing novels! They wrote tens of thousands of words in addition to all their writing for classes.

The piece below is an excerpt from the first chapter of a yet untitled novel that received substantial edits during the NaNoWriMo haul. The storyline follows two characters on opposite sides of a civil war in a fantasy archipelago kingdom.

      The crowd's muttering made Castin pause a moment, still smiling.
      "How will we accomplish such a feat? How can a king be removed? By the people, my friends! By you and I and all Prince Albian's loyal subjects!" Castin threw his arms wide, as if to encompass all of Paith. "I have taken it upon myself to organize this resistance, along with Ettore Maynard and Barchett Endroe." He gestured to the steward, then the blond man on his right. "With Ettore's knowledge of government, Barchett's grasp of military design, and my drive, we will give Albian the comfort of justice. We will take our kingdom back. We will put a king worthy of the title on the throne! But – and this is the best part, my friends – once we have cleansed the Palace, we will set up a governance for ourselves! The king/heir system has failed. With Brecc removed, we can create a better, more equal reign. Never again will heir islands be treated as lesser. Never again will we be forced to pay higher tax! Our imaginations are the only limitation to what good we can work for this Forty Island Kingdom!"
      Castin shook his fists into the sky and laughed, wild and triumphant. His eyes shone with the vision he had painted for them.
      "If you will commit to justice, then join me, join the Prince's Army," Castin cried above the villagers, his words rising to the gray-washed sky. "Be at the gates of Unik on the isle Sythr in a week's time. There, history will begin!" With that, Castin stepped down from the well. The villagers rushed to greeting him, shouting, laughing, pounding his back.
      Baen watched Castin's easy smile. He watched the man who had been a stranger an hour ago laugh and jostle with the people. His costly clothes were dirtied against mud-stained, weatherworn homespun and neither he nor the villagers noticed. Baen grinned.
      War was brooding, its righteous tip aimed at the King.

--By Hannah Baumgardt, CSB 2020

Invitation for your Writing:
Finish the following story in either poetry or prose: It was less than a second, maybe half a second, but it changed everything.

November 9

Why Write a Poem?

Since the beginnings of human society we've had a need for someone in the tribe to be the documenter, the recorder, the person that tells the stories of what got us where we are. The poet is that person. The assertion that if we cat reading a bookforget the past we are doomed to repeat our mistakes has much validity. This applies to personal or family history as well as the big picture of societal history Poetry is a powerful voice with which to bear witness.

People are complicated creatures. We see, we hear, we feel. We get angry, we laugh, we cry, we get bored. We get lonely and frustrated and sometimes, so filled with awe and wonder we are about to explode. There are positive and negative ways to express our feelings. Poetry, music, dance and art are among the positive. Then again, there are people who express themselves with racist epithets or picking fights, being bullies or worse. Poetry is one of the positive ways to express the range of emotions we humans possess, even the negative emotions, without causing harm to ourselves or anyone else.

As human beings, we all have personal reasons, to perhaps, express ourselves with an occasional poem. At times we have a need for catharsis, a need to unburden ourselves. Poetry can also be a tool for healing ourselves or others after times of trauma. We all react to both internal and external stimuli, for example, poems written by soldiers at war, or poems written after the 911 attacks. Perhaps we've just seen the most glorious sunset of our lives or heard the words "I love you" and we can't contain our reaction to what life places before us.

Poetry can also be a meditative experience. It helps us think on another level. Sometimes we need to write a poem out of curiosity. Words can be the ship that takes us on a journey of exploration. Poetry is a way to solve what puzzles us.

Write a poem for the sake of art. A poet is just as much an artist as a painter, a sculpture or a musician. A poet's medium, written and spoken word, is created with an audience's or another person's consciousness as the canvas, the stage, the bock of stone that is sculpted.

A poet is an entertainer. Famous American writer (and former Saint John's faculty member), J.F. Powers, once told me a writer is nothing but an entertainer. If you don't entertain, who will read what you write? Author Bea Lake in "Mutant Message From Forever" says "entertainment is meant to cheer the weary, soothe the frustrated, comfort the distressed." If you're an entertainer, try entertaining with a poem!

Poetry is fun! What better reason to write a poem could there be?

We need to communicate with each other. There are times when we see something, hear something or feel something and we just want to tell someone else about it, when one human being needs to communicate with another. Try a poem. Like wondering if the proverbial tree falling in the forest really fell if nobody noticed it, a poem needs a reader or listener. Find that person.

What are your reasons to write a poem? Find them and give poetry a try. If you need an audience, want to improve your poetic ability or just talk about what you've written, bring your poems to the Writing Centers on either campus. There are creative writers on our staff and we don't care if you're taking a creative writing class or not, though we'd love to hear from Creative Writing students. We're interested in writers and writing of all kinds. Share your work with us. We're people just like you and we'd love to hear what you have to say.

Stories From Tierra Amarilla

An old man and his old black dog sit in the sun,
the wind deflected by a crumbling adobe wall,
rusty hinges barely supporting
a paint-chipped blue door that never opens.
The old abuelo's drooping head
is full of stories he's told himself all his life,
half made up in his mind, though all of them true.
He tells these stories to his deaf, white-whiskered dog
or any passerby that stops to share the sun.
If you stopped, he would tell all those stories to you,
and you would feel obliged to carry them with you,
not as stones in your pocket,
but as poems written on dragonfly wings.

— Larry Schug, Writing Center volunteer tutor

October 26

As the weather is getting chilly, the Writing Center is getting very excited about Halloween! Take a look at the skeleton and bats hanging out at the Alcuin Library location.

Originally a pagan tradition intended to ward off evil spirits by obscuring children's faces, Halloween has become a secular holiday filled with cute kids in costumes, candy, scares, and parties. More often than not, Halloween offers a chance of becoming something you are not and to enjoy time with your friends. This poem tries to encompass all aspects of the holiday-including a dark and creepy undertone. To show the lighter side of the season, an end rhyme on the second and fourth lines of each stanza is included. Also, having the syllables of each line match up with the corresponding one on the next stanza helps add consistency and flow.

Spooky Scary Skeletons
--By Anna Norris, CSB 2019

Spooky scary skeletons
Knocking at your door
You better give them candy
Before they ruin your floor

Jack-o-lanterns all alight
Ghosts hung in the yard
Halls all full of cobwebs
With witches standing guard

Masks with hidden faces
Of figures that you fear
Do not let them scare you
As they draw ever near

It's now time to party
Brains and blood tonight
Do not forget your garlic cloves
The vamps all tend to bite

Create your own:
Write your own seasonally-inspired poem about Halloween and or fall in general. Experiment with a rhyme scheme to see if that adds or detracts from the overall effect.

October 12

The CSB/SJU Writing Center will be creating entries for Poetry at Work this year. The twenty undergraduate tutors are excited to share this project with you!

College is a time of expression, where students are encouraged to think creatively and find themselves through their passions. Likewise, blackout poetry focuses on pushing creative boundaries and forces author to improvise by limiting their voice in the poem and relying on found language. The author must have a certain amount of trust with the page, allowing the given words to guide their poetic voice. There is a similar level of trust when it comes to college. Students must rely on their surroundings in order to navigate a new way of life.

On August 31, the Writing Center held its first formal event to introduce students to the new writing center space in the renovated Alcuin Library at Saint John's. The tutors collaborated with library staff to host the event. Molly Ewing helped us set up a station for composing blackout poetry and provided some discarded volumes from the library. This fun exercise encouraged students to play with different writing styles. In blackout poetry, individuals choose a page from a book and create a poem by blacking out words on the page until the remaining words form a poem. Below are some examples that students submitted from the event.

Blackout Poem

Poem by Brie Baumert.

Blackout Poem

Poem by Holly Ossanna.

Blackout Poem

Writing Center Student Employees.

September: Transitions

September 21

As I prepare this posting, our world is facing violence, war, distrust, and tensions that erupt in the worst behavior that human beings carry within them. The poem I share this week does not address or solve any of those urgent problems; it is a poem about making time to write, even in the midst of so much need. There are wonderful models of poets whose writing grapples with the most challenging issues of our time, whose advocacy comes through their poetry. Their work seems unquestionably worthwhile to me, and I doubt that anyone would question the time they devote to their writing. When a poem comes from a more personal landscape, as this one does, or captures a moment of joy, or expresses something unrelated to politics or social justice or human drama, it can seem optional, unnecessary, and making time to write can be hard to justify. But writing poetry can nourish and enlighten us in the personal sphere, helping us prepare to meet the needs of the world more courageously and fully. Writing can help especially when it brings to the surface expectations or assumptions that operate subconsciously. Writing this poem helped me see an ideal of motherhood I had internalized, without being aware of it, a constant measure of my inevitable failure. Devoting time to the poem made the sense of failure worse in a way (I was even further from the ideal described here because I took time to write), but working through the poem helped me realize that not writing the poem would not bring me much closer to the ideal. Being a perfect whatever is always out of reach. Releasing myself from this expectation was a necessary step in my maturity as a parent, and learning to make time for what sustained me amidst the flurry of tasks was extremely important.

Writing and cookingThe Good Mother's Reward

In the time it takes to write this poem
I could have opened the new packs of diapers,
stacked them neatly, strategically.
I could have folded all that laundry, too --
shirts, socks, training pants, onesies, tights, booties, hats.
I could have made it all ready for the frenzied morning grab.

I could have prepared a dinner of
freshly cooked vegetables packed with vitamins
bits of cheese cut in the shape of their names
fruit arranged in a smiley face and
sandwiches cut into triangles (not squares)
and even a cookie as a special treat.

I could have baked the cookies --
the house after daycare would have smelled
the way my grandmother's did,
dessert still warm on a gently perspiring plate
glass of milk confident, proud beside it,
two percent or maybe even whole.

I could have pressed my apron for the baking --
I know I could have found it crumpled in a drawer
and washed and ironed it, starched and crisp.
I could have added a ruffle, too, assuming I could find
my sewing machine, still in a box in the basement.
I could have made room among the cartons and the chaos.

I could have followed the seductive trail of motherhood
back to its subterranean storage where the perfect mother waits.
I see her sigh at me now, fold her plump arms over her ample waist
and then, just before the word from the sponsor,
she smiles that beatific all-forgiving smile
and rumples my hair with a slightly floury hand.

My own hand signals the ultimate laborsaving device to print
as I race to the freezer to see what's for dinner.
Pizza and guilt, and a poem as my just desserts.
      -- Karen Lynn Erickson

Invitation for your writing:
Think about your own strategies for making time to write, knowing that what works for others may not work for you. If you wish that you wrote more, experiment with different writing schedules, locations, goals and strategies to share work and receive support from other writers. If the quandary of the ideal expressed in this poem resonated with you, consider whether an ideal may be helping and/or hindering your work. Draft a poem or lyrical prose passage where you explore the ideals against which you measure success - as the perfect writer, friend, student, athlete, daughter, brother, employee, partner, citizen…. What aspects of the ideal draw you forward, giving you strength and inspiring further effort? Is there any part of the image that needs to be updated, refined or retired?

September 7

EclipseToday we celebrate the transition of "Caution: Poetry at Work." This year it will be the creation of Kyhl Lyndgaard and the tutors who make up the Writing Centers at Saint Ben's and Saint John's. Karen Erickson and I are delighted that Kyhl and his tutors will give the new light of their creativity to this site, devoted to the good work of reading and writing poetry. We're also pleased that they asked each of us to write one last poem to inaugurate the second year.

Speaking of transitions, some of you may have been lucky enough to witness the total eclipse of the sun on August 21, 2017. An eclipse is a spectacular transition from light to darkness and back to light, as the moon follows its leisurely orbit between Earth and sun. The moon's shadow gradually blocks out the sun's light until even a cloudless day turns into a moonless, starless night. As the moon continues in its path, oblivious of the awestruck watchers on Earth, light and warmth gradually reappear, as if it were the first day of creation.

In truth, this transition from light to darkness to light happens every evening and every morning without fail. But it might take an eclipse to make us notice this ordinary miracle and learn to love both day and night, darkness and light. In Salzburg, Austria, a total eclipse happened in 1999. When the light returned, instead of hearing a Mozart tune there in Mozart's birthplace, the visitors heard Louis Armstrong singing "What a Wonderful World" in praise of "the bright blessed day [and] the dark sacred night."

All transitions are, at least at the beginning, movement from light to the darkness of the unknown, untried - birth, the first month of college, new parenthood, the beginning of a new job, the transition from vigorous health to fragility. My poem this week celebrates "the dazzling darkness" life asks us to embrace.

In the Dazzling Dark

There is in God--some say--
A deep but dazzling darkness. . . .
                --Henry Vaughan

In the deep but dazzling darkness
swim big-eyed fish in ocean caves no light has ever reached.

And all the shy animals at home only in darkness:
bats asleep in caves during the day, floating silently alive at night,
guided by unerring radar,
black panthers with green eyes;

And owls calling "Who? Who?" Listening, gazing into the dark, we ask the questions
that sleep during the day but rise up on strong wings at night: "Who am I?" "Who is my
neighbor?" "Who, oh who, are you my God?"

In dark Earth the roots of ancient sequoias secretly reach out and clasp the long-
fingered roots of neighboring trees, sharing food, helping each other stay alive through
drought and fire, steadying the ground they need to grow.

In the glare of endless day, stars, dreams, and fireflies flicker out and fade.
They're at home only in the velvet black of night.

So too the parts of each of us that find shelter in darkness-
fears, dreams, hopes, sorrows, gladness too fragile and shy to bear the light of day.
Only in the dark do we know ourselves, purely and without distraction.

In the pulsing darkness of the hive, bees are making honey and the wax for Easter
candles that need chapel darkness to glow,
as imagination glows in the dark hives of our brains.

In the darkness of our mother's womb God knits each of us into an intricate pattern,
then knits us into herself. For nine months babies, their eyes sealed shut, navigate by
touch, smell, and sound in that blood-rich darkness before they swim toward light
and all its blooming wonders

The deep but dazzling darkness of God is a womb in whose shelter lives all that was, is,
and still might be-
deep space where God is creating new worlds, new wonders.
The future, the moment after this one, intensely alive but still and always in shadow.

In the deep but dazzling darkness of God is the ocean of faith, the darkest virtue,
where we trade certainty for possibility.

When we dare go into our undiscovered selves
our roots grow toward each other, entwining, feeding, supporting, like ancient trees.
And we grow together toward God, who at every moment, is growing deep
underground toward us, leading us to unfathomable reaches of justice, mercy, and joy.

      --Mara Faulkner, OSB

Invitation for your writing:
Think of a time when you made an abrupt transition from light to darkness (such as entering a bat cave) or from darkness to light (such as waking up to a bright light shining in your eyes.) Try to describe the experience. With sight all but useless, did your other senses take up the work of sensing? As you write, see if this experience becomes a metaphor for transitions in feelings, thoughts, or insights.

May: Working it out

May 25

preservesDuring a visit to a retirement community's memory care unit, I met an elderly resident who periodically recited a prayer. This seemed to have a calming effect; though her recitation had no connection with our conversation, each time she said the familiar words, she seemed to relax. With its sounds, form and function, poetry can indeed bring comfort. Creating a poem can bring the deep and sustaining pleasure of capturing an experience or intimating a revelation.  In this poem, the harvest figure is preparing for winter, where scarcity replaces plenty, trying to store up what will soon be gone, just as a poem can capture a fleeting moment. Whether it is in digging into the soil, or planting lovely blooms, or clearing the brush, or putting up jars for the winter, the work of poetry can please us and challenge us, calm us and keep us on our toes.

Bringing In

Everything else waits
while I gather herbs and plant new bulbs,
pull carrots and onions from the chill ground,
spread straw with cracked hands
over garlic in the raised beds.

The kitchen floor is littered
with bits of leaves and trails of fallen dirt.
An impatient elbow shoves dishes aside
to make space to wash and bundle the parsley and thyme.
Work lies restless, untended on my desk
and laundry mounds its way toward crisis -
But this is harvest time.

I have come to love the snap
of the wind saying the end is near,
the aches in knee joints put to the test
eager soon to rest until next year,
the tables spread with the tangible fruits of a season's growth,
even the massive compost heaps of empty or frost-stopped vines
richly clinging to the last clods of crumbling soil,
vines pulled from the earth in the
unrepentant wisdom of an autumnal soul.
I hang high the rakes and tempered blades,
scour rods and trowels, bent and nicked
from hard use among glacial stones.

Inside I savor the smell of drying lemon balm,
the plump feel of freezer corn and beans,
the tang of tomatoes simmering in all the sun
of so many summer noons.
That sun seeps into the kitchen walls
and rests in all the hidden summer corners
where colanders and barbecue tongs lie still.
That sun is now ground into my finger creases
like the garlic and basil I've crushed and spread.
The dark nights lengthen but harvest fills my cup.
In every warm place I have
I am harboring the sun.

-- Karen Lynn Erickson

From Dwellings. © 2013 by Karen Erickson. Used with the permission of The Permissions Company, Inc., on behalf of Finishing Line Press,

Invitation for your writing:
Thank you for reading and writing with us this year. Look back over the poems that spoke to you and your own writings from the year. We hope you see a rich array of soul-nourishing words that will keep you company and lend you courage, joy, understanding, and tolerance for the mystery and unpredictability of human experience. Do you see themes or images or phrases that recur?

In the coming months, we plan to gather these entries into a form more easily downloaded, in parts or in whole, for use by individuals or groups. We will post a final message to our Facebook page when it is ready. It has been a marvelous adventure sharing this web experiment with you!

May 18

quiltMartin Luther is supposed to have said, "If I knew the world would end tomorrow, I'd plant apple trees today." That bold statement pays homage to humankind's stubborn refusal to abandon hope. We continue to bear and raise children, teach them lessons for their future and the future of the Earth, plant trees whose fruit we may never taste. Martin Luther is also describing poetry, though he may not have realized it. There are certainly some moments in our personal and communal lives that feel like the end of the world, and then poets can only bear witness to tragedy. But poetry can help us resist the seductive voice of despair. We can write poems of difficult hope, facing oppression and suffering, and finding within ourselves and our communities the seedlings of resistance, kindness, and delight. I tried to do that in "Patches."


This is the day that the Lord has made.
Let us rejoice and be happy today.

Happiness is a crazy quilt stitched every day
from scraps too good to throw away.
We've learned from our mothers' mothers how and why.

They knew we need the warmth of color on long cold nights
whether we lie together or alone.

Not that they thought about it much. No hard-working woman spent her days sewing.
That was for the evening after the cows were milked, the dishes done up,
the bread set to rise, when, by the light of the kerosene lamp
her children did their homework at the table
or someone played an old tune on the harmonica.
Only then did she pull out her needle and patches.

Crazy quilts were made to last, the stitches
tight and even, the fabric sound, the colors still cheerful
though muted by wear and washing and drying in the sun.

So too the quilt of happiness. You end every day piecing together bright scraps-
               the day's first laughter
               the wren weaving her nest of twigs and grass in the end of the clothesline pole
               friendship remembered, sturdy, made of rough cloth.

But as fast as you can set in a new patch, happiness is undone-
                unstitched by the little hands of a child slave
                by loved hands twisted by disease, now rigid and cold
                by hands throwing bombs at peace treaties made and rent in a day
                                the edges frayed by exploding bodies.

Yet this is the day that the Lord has made. Let us rejoice and be happy today.

The choice, my friends, is wrenching but plain:
                surrender to the bitter cold
                or in worn and faithful hands
                take up our needles and patches again.
                                                                                                --Mara Faulkner, OSB

Invitation for your writing:
Try writing a poem of difficult hope.  Here are a few suggestions:
                Create within the poem a place and time of respite.
                Dare to record delight, beauty, kindness, resistance.
                Look for humor and share it. Invite your readers to laugh.
                Show the world in all its vast and glorious and terrible diversity.
                Imagine alternatives to what is and must not be.

May 11

Last week we explored the ways cultures and communities interact in the same time and space. This week we consider how characteristics, skills, loves and hatreds can span generations. This poem tells the story of a surprising shared activity that helped me see something across four generations, though I will never know precisely what the activity meant to those who came before nor to those who follow.


You have to get it at the root dandelion seeds
my grandpa always said
as he dug into his perfect grass
If you just pull the top it comes right back
He'd hold the forked spade sure and easy in his palm
putter eyeing the birdie cup
a divining rod seeking the source of all
He'd spy a weed and the tool would
furrow past lush blades of succulent green 
down between the spiked leaves that dared invade
and sever the thing just beneath the surface of the ground
Ah, you see? That one won't be back
The small town dentist of immigrant stock
made another clean extraction and
looked with pride at nature purified

Sometime after my grandpa died my lawyer dad
who cut and mended with words, not tools
began to hunt for weeds in his hitherto untended yard 
A friend watching him one day puzzled over
his sudden love of unbroken turf
I told her about his sire, vigilant
against the yellow blooms and spreading leaves
Did he feel the thrust of an ancient seed?
Or reach an understanding with the stoic Nordic son
who really did walk ten miles in the snow each day
to go to school? Which root did he find
when he sighted down the slightly rusting blade?

I too bought a dandelion fork
one of the first things when I had a yard and kids and cares
I try to keep the prickles down but they love to gather buds of pure gold
and present them to me with anxious pride, breathe the seeds into the wind
I leave a portion of the yard for them 
not just because of the ache in my lower back
and the fatigue of stooping low
but to leave some roots unbroken  
and work for my children's chosen tools

                                -- Karen Lynn Erickson

Invitation for your writing:
Think of an object that came to you from a parent, grandparent, or ancestor, or of a skill or characteristic that you share with one of them. Write a poem where you pass the object back and forth, telling one another what it means, or where you describe the recognition you feel at a tone of voice, a tilt of the head, a way of laughing, an ability that you share.

May 4

Hands clapsedPoetry can give us an avenue for entering imaginatively into what we know and don't know, about ourselves, about others. Some of our knowing and not knowing reveals itself horizontally through community groups that jostle one another, sharing space willingly or resentfully, perhaps most productively when we are seeking common ground. What we see in ourselves can be mirrored in people very like us, and very different from us. A few years ago, I wrote a poem called "Boarders," describing the feeling of being crowded out of my home by the refugees clamoring at the door.  It ends with these lines:

                                Do I want to come inside this crowded
                                Needy place
                                Or run to where no bodies touch
                                And isolation waits
                                Armed  sterile   bright?

Since I wrote that poem, the world and I have changed. I've spent the last four years volunteering one morning a week as an English language tutor for adult immigrants. And though more people arrive in our classes and in our country every day, seeking refuge, the world and my heart now seem spacious enough to give all of them a home. In Writing to Change the World, Mary Pipher says, "Everything really interesting happens at borders. Borders teem with life, color, and complexity." One of those borders is the one between cultures and languages.  Sometimes poets write beyond the end of a poem they thought was finished.  That's what I did, and here's the new poem, called not "Boarders" but "Borders."


In the crowded classroom at Discovery School
waves of language rise up in a tangle of tongues-
English is the lingua franca in this little world
its devilish inconsistencies
embellished with laughter and pantomime.
Here in this haven
as we toss questions back and forth over the borders-
                Are you scared of death?
                Will wars ever end?
                How can we raise good children?
rumors and terrors fade
and friendships flourish.

The students come day after day
walking as tall and straight as queens and princes
or bent under old wounds or burdens they can't lay down-
                A sister dead of starvation in south Sudan
                A brother shot before her child-eyes in Mogadishu.

I've learned only one word in Somali- nur, hill, with a river of
trills at the end.
Every day we climb the hill of language, my students and I,
celebrating small successes with high fives, 2 thumbs up, or a pat on the back.
Sometimes we're nourished for the climb with a feast of sambusas or kababs.
One day we'll reach the top
and though we all know that our classroom isn't Heaven
we can almost see it from there--
the world as God dreams it
drenched in the dew of kindness
green with hope for peace.

"See you next Tuesday," I say.
"Inshallah," they reply.
"God willing," I agree.
         --Mara Faulkner, OSB

Invitation for your writing :  Write beyond the end of a poem you thought was finished (or at least abandoned some time in the past.)  Or try writing between the lines of one of your poems.  See if what appears between the lines is the real poem or part of the original.

April: The Work of Art

April 27

As we learn to open up to the challenges, complexities, traumas and unbearable pain of the world, and to the beauty, truth, and insights sometimes found within them, we need to develop ways of remaining open as well, sustaining attention, maintaining energy and life. For some, disciplines of exercise, prayer, meditation, reading, or community work make this possible. For others, music, humor, cooking or dance provides outlets that keep the spirit from fleeing, from flinching at the task of really seeing. This poem describes an experience walking a labyrinth, an ancient practice that challenges visually and physically the notion that the real work is to get somewhere, rather than simply to be present and aware.


Walking the labyrinth, small puzzles unlock.


All the way in I tread upon tomorrow's tasks,
disrupt a clamor of what to do, controversies
dog each step, and I know what I should say,
what I should have said. I gauge how far I have walked,
how far I have yet to go, wondering if I am doing this right.

And then the center suddenly spreads.
The fumbling nail finally opens the clasp,
the locket rests in satin for the night
small fears nestle among the links.
Thumb becomes clever, measures the fit
of the shoe, one small length from tip to toe.
The pointer rises in a gesture of speech
but no argument, just the third line of a long-
forgotten poem tumbling onto a smooth tongue.

Measured steps enclose, and skirt
and seamlessly collide. Behind me,
the large puzzles stand arms lifted to the sun,
to the moon, to inner light, uninvolved
and unconcerned with small solutions,
sentinels marking the unlocked heart
and the insoluble path.

     -- Karen Lynn Erickson

From Dwellings. © 2013 by Karen Erickson. Used with the permission of The Permissions Company, Inc., on behalf of Finishing Line Press,
Image by David Paul Lange, OSB, used by permission of the artist.

Invitation for your writing:
Make a list of activities, practices, or disciplines that help keep you present, open, and nourished on the path. Then look at your calendar or schedule - do you have time set aside for the activities that keep you whole, "uninvolved and unconcerned with small solutions"? Write a poem as invitation to your heart to keep aware, with a promise to provide the sustenance needed for the journey.

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?

April 6

Mary Oliver's often repeated advice to writers is: "Pay attention. Be Amazed. Write about it." Pay attention to what? Not just to new purple crocuses and plum blossoms, but also to the poet's self-body, mind, heart, spirit. A recent news article about older people gathering to read and write poetry asks the question, "Can Poetry Keep You Young?" This poem, in which I pay attention to a host of new aches, pains, and discomforts that may accompany aging, answers, "Maybe, as long as we keep on being amazed and telling about it."

The Better Half hand and walking stick
(for my friends at fifty)

Everything hurts these days.
They call it arthritis, sinus trouble, allergies
prescribe pills, sprays, salves.

But the body knows better.
I think it is trying to grow back
into the good ground.

The hair
rides the slightest hint
of moisture in the air
coiling and uncoiling
around the furrowed brain.

The ears lean into the wind
pulling in distant thunder.
The drums throb, vibrate
are sometimes struck dumb by what they've heard.

Water in every joint
swells and roils
a sea listening to a moon.

The lips and teeth sense storms
way out in the West
and want to set up an electric chirping
with the sparrows in the lilac hedge.

The eyes
nests that scratch and burn
lose themselves in leaves.

The arms ache.

The heart pushes wildly against the ribs
a caged Canadian honker
frantic for flight.

What will happen next?
Is this how death begins
this gradual remembering of the dust

Or is it the golden-age marriage
of mind and mud?

None of us knows
but the gnarly toes
Grip the earth

and the tongue
sings and sings
through its pain.

        --Mara Faulkner, OSB

Invitation for your writing:
What would you like to say to your friends at twenty, eighty, thirty, seventy, forty? Write a poem offering the advice or wisdom you are learning from your life. If you go deep into your own story, you will find yourself face to face with people who have been there, too, or who might be teetering on the edge.

March: The Work of Translation

March 30

For this fifth Thursday, we again invite you to post on our Facebook page your thoughts on translations of all kinds, or to share a translation of your own ( If the original poem or image or text is in the public domain, you can include it, or simply add a reference or link so readers can track it down. We look forward to reading your posts!

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 Bible manuscript

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, 2015 book

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.

March 9

I had the life-changing opportunity to study for an academic year in France twice, once at age 20, and again at 25. The first year gave me academic French - quite correct, mostly understandable, and not too heavily accented, but I sounded a little like a textbook most of the time. The second year gave me a chance to know children, meet for lunch with the mother of a friend, discuss and debate with colleagues of all ages, and I learned to live in French. I wrote this poem trying to express why learning another language was so empowering, and yet at the same time deeply humbling. I learned, from everything I now could say and hear, how much I still could not put into words.

Langues étrangères scrabble tiles

Langues étrangères
je veux toutes les apprendre
je veux les faire défiler comme des rois
     les promener comme des enfants
          les dresser dans ma bouche
               comme des caniches
"Dis ça!" - Je le dirais

En fait, je n'en ai qu'une
Une langue encore si étrangère bien que
     j'y travaille depuis longtemps déjà
je joue encore en prononçant ces mots
ça fait si drôle de les entendre sur ma langue!
Je sors des phrases et je m'amuse à vous
     les lancer comme des ballons
          un jeu dans l'air
J'oublie que pour vous ce ne sont que des mots
     que vous entendez depuis toujours sans jeu
          et sans problème, on dit, c'est sérieux
ces mots peuvent vous blesser, vous renseigner,
     vous ennuyer et après tout
il me faut passer par eux pour dire
quand il m'arrive à aimer que moi, enfin,
     j'aime enfin, je t'aime beaucoup ou même
          je t'aime tout court
Comment le dire? sans jeu et sans problème?
Il faut encore une nouvelle langue

Langues étrangères
je veux toutes les entendre comme j'entends la mienne
je veux les faire fondre sur ma langue jusqu'à ce qu'elles
     s'y confondent
et puis une seule me suffirait
et je saurai tout dire

Karen Lynn Erickson

[Quick translation]

Foreign Languages

Foreign languages
I want to learn them all
I want to parade them like kings
     take them for a walk like children
          school them in my mouth
               like trained poodles.
"Say this!" - I would say it.

In fact, I have just one of them
a language still so foreign even though
     I've been working on it for a long, long time
I still play around pronouncing these words
It's so weird to hear them on my tongue!
I take out sentences and for fun throw them
     to you like toy balls
          a game in the air
I forget that for you these are just words
     that you have heard forever with no game
          and with no problem, as they say, it's serious
these words can hurt you, inform you,
     bother you, and after all
I have to go through them to say
When it happens that I love that I, well,
     I finally love, I like you a lot or even
          I just plain love you
How to say it? With no game or problem?
I need another new language

Foreign languages
I want to understand them all as I hear my own
I want to melt them on my tongue until they
     are mixed up together
and then a single one would be enough for me
and I would know how to say everything.

Invitation for your writing:
Take a poem you love (your own or someone else's) in one language and translate it (from one language into another, or modernize a work in an older style, or change the historical context or setting and recast the poem, or change from rhymed form to free verse, or free verse to rhymed form). When does the play of translation/adaptation obstruct the emotional sense of the poem, and when does the play bring you closer to the depth of meanings in the original?

March 2

Every poem is a translation in a way. Poets take the random, chaotic, mysterious, contradictory, clashing stuff of human life and turn it into words, lines, and stanzas that on the page look shapely and full of meaning. But every poet will tell you, with chagrin, that something is always lost in the translation from experience to words, no matter how eloquent and musical. Yet, we keep trying.

Poetry also performs other acts of translation, maybe because we want so badly to tell each other what we've seen, heard, and touched and watch their eyes light up with understanding. We translate poetry from one language to another and poetry to prose or prose to poetry. Poets also try to make the leap from one artistic form to another, to help us hear, for instance, the joyful, wordless rhythms and riffs of jazz or see a Joe O'Connell sculpture from an odd angle. That's what I have tried to do in this week's poem.

Unbecoming: A Look at "Eve in Baroque"
Joe O'Connell, Marble, 1990

Emerging from the softly shining marble that was once the communion railing in a monastery of Benedictine women, Eve balances the unbitten apple on a plump and polished knee. Her marble skin glows faintest pink as if washed by earliest light or lit by a secret she's holding inside. She has a teenager's face, hair cut in junior-high bangs in front and wild as sea waves in back, and half-closed, dreaming eyes. She takes for granted the snake curled blissfully around her, sharing her warmth, her shape. Eve and the snake know each other, and are not afraid.

It's taken my hands Eve
more than fifty years to unlearn
one indelible summer lesson.

This I remember: three little tow-head girls
wandering in the dusty pasture between our house and the woods
breathing in the pleasant heat
the sharp sweet smells of clover and of manure dying in the sun.
We found a treasure
a burnished curve in the dust
a silky rope
mysterious and delightful to hand and eye.
We picked it up and ran
to where my father worked in the field.

Almost blind, his hands
grown huge with the effort of seeing,
he held it close to his one good eye.
A silky rope? The snake's eye
open in death
caught his.

Thinking to protect his little girls he flung it far
across the summer pasture
a coppery arc shining in the sun.
In its place grew a stale terror
as twisted as the tale of Eve
and the snake-
the first unmaking
the breaking
of communion.

I've touched snake skins since then
dry and papery as words
and followed snake trails through poems
but my hands are lonely for the silk
of scales placed just so
and my body
like Eve's
imagines its sinuous

--Mara Faulkner, OSB

From Still Birth, Copyright © 2013 Mara Faulkner. Used with permission of The Permissions Company, Inc., on behalf of Finishing Line Press,

Invitation for your writing:
Choose a piece of visual art that attracts you-a painting, photograph, sculpture, building, piece of furniture. Sit with it for a while, just looking at it, or, if possible, touching it. Simply describe your sense impressions as clearly and concretely as you can. Then see if your description itself is a poem, or if a poem emerges from it.

February: Poetry: Work or Gift?

February 23

This poem came to me as I was listening to a sermon in a church during the Christian season of Lent. I promise I was truly listening to the sermon, until I got distracted by the image of stones calling out, and by the work of precursors and prophets, and how their voices must sound exactly like stones.

The Grief Hosanna Saint John the Baptist

The stones are shouting --
           Are you listening?
     The stones are shouting out --
                Why are we silent?
          From beneath the strewn palms they cry out
                     as we withhold the blessing of Hosanna.

The Praise that does not stop death
     rises from the bedrock, from the earth
          crying blessing, asking us to prepare the way.
     We know what is at stake,
               where this Hosanna will lead --

I see someone arriving
     someone I do not understand
                     Hosanna in the highest
          who will bring change to me and mine
                          Blessed is the one who is coming

Weeping over Jerusalem, hosanna flutters in my heart
     Denying as the dawn breaks, hosanna rises in my throat
          Looking to grieve where life is not found,
                hosanna rolls the stone away

-- Karen Lynn Erickson

Invitation for your writing:

If you have had "gift poems," did the form come before the words and images, or did words and images arrive first, with the form emerging through your work, or did they come together? To play with form, take two (or more) images or concepts that seem dissimilar, and combine them in a title. Experiment with formats, giving one concept/voice in italics and the other in boldface, or one in capitals and the other in lower case, or one to the left and the other to the right, or one inside boxes and the other in circles, or one in the middle of the page and the other(s) all around it in the margins. How does the form of the poem constrain your writing? Is that constraint inviting or liberating in any surprising ways?

February 16

embersBut sometimes poems do come as gifts, unexpected and unearned. We see the lines on the page and can barely remember having written them. To receive the gift, we have to "listen with the ear of the heart," as Benedictines are fond of saying, and be humble and brave enough to follow where the poem is leading. This poem is one of a very few gift poems I have received.


                            Things I Didn't Know I Loved

"I know all this has been said a thousand times before and will be said after me."
--Nazim Hikmet, writing in exile after 13 years in prison

I didn't know I loved
the wrangle of phones and human voices, rough, insistent
until I entered this silence and closed the door. I didn't know I loved
this silence until the hooked voices reached for me. I didn't know I loved
didn't really know I loved the treeless prairies until green bars grew up
between my eyes, the airy sunset, and the moon. Didn't know I loved
the thorny green thicket of my self
contrary and bear-haunted, until I took the straight smooth road
and found it strewn with death. I didn't know I loved
black bears lumbering through my dream toward my sister
whom I didn't know I loved
even though I've lost her now in the blind thicket and she
doesn't love me any more. I didn't know I loved
my mother until her rose-heart burst and bled
red petals into her chest, didn't know I loved
the garden of her flesh. And you, my God
under her ashes so silent and so cold, I didn't know I loved
you until you woke every morning in my little stove
so lowly in your prison house of wood and flesh and fire
so eager and so needful of my hands. I didn't know I loved
my hands-clumsy, tender-until they stirred the fire and found
                                                                                                                      these words.

          --Mara Faulkner, OSB

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

Invitation for your writing:

How do these ideas of work poems and gift poems play out in your writing? Do poems sometimes come to you from out of the blue? What sustains you when you have to work with that inspiration to make a poem? To find out, take a line, image, or idea for a poem that comes as a gift; then work with it to see what it wants to become. Follow author Doug Woods' advice to writers: "Start. Finish. Edit."

February 9

This is also a work poem, drafted in a workshop on how to write in the bits of time that are sometimes all we have for writing (such as moments spent waiting in the car for someone we're driving somewhere -- have a mobile poetry bag ready!). The poem captures exactly how I sometimes feel about a poem that simply won't be cultivated or fixed or finished, even through hard work and numerous drafts.

Weeding the Raspberry Patch

At the start I gently part the stalks to pull offending grasses gardening
and visiting bee balm out by their roots; I break each dead cane
with a knowing snap, lay weeds and old growth carefully to the side.

Midway through it galls and I begin to yank whole clumps,
green and hollow alike, stopping only to eat the few tender berries
that somehow managed to ripen in the thicket of my neglect.

By the end, sweaty and sore and knowing I'll regret it in the morning,
I take out the garden shears and begin to wrench and hack in a frenzy
of frustration. I swear if my mower had gas, I'd level the whole patch.

Prairie intrusion temporarily subdued, I wrestle refuse into compost bags,
survey my folly - to think I get things at the root, to crowd and then to mow,
but sweet red still tips my tongue as nature breathes, Yield.

     Karen Lynn Erickson

Invitation for your writing:

Make a list of things you want and need to do, and "weed" it as if it were a garden. Which things are weeds (intrusions?), and which are intentional priorities? Are any of the "weeds" invasive to the point they are endangering the others? Are you giving the things that feed you enough space, air, attention? Transform the list into a poem, maybe in a conversation format where the weeds and the intended plants can tangle up again.

February 2

No question about it - poetry is work, sometimes hard work. A person who knows said that the ratio of gift poems to work poems is one to ninety-nine. If we wait around for inspiration to hit, and poems to fall from the skies, we'll probably write one poem every ninety-nine years. So, I urge myself and you to follow Gloria Anzaldúa's admonition in "A Letter to 3 rd World Women Writers":

Forget the room of your own--write in the kitchen, lock yourself in the bathroom. Write on the bus or the welfare line, on the job or during meals; between waking and sleeping. . . . While you wash the floor or clothes listen to the words chanting in your body.

This is a work poem, written as a finger exercise with my students. It's built from scraps - a line from poet Adrienne Rich and a random cluster of words.

in those years, people will say, we lost track wheat
of the river there where it wound
through the yellow wheat,
its brother, the breath of the west wind
strumming its moist song,
now in these dry times
as rare as Indian silk
or a reggae beat
among the polka-loving Russians
of North Dakota.
Oh why did we do it?
The answer as hard to find
as needles in straw
as willows in the parched river bottoms
as meadowlarks, remembered
but never heard except in stories
the very old tell the young.
"Beautiful," they say, "their song. . . ."
These voices, too, fading
like the tracks of a wild creature
now extinct
on blowing sand.
--Mara Faulkner, OSB
The opening line is from "In Those Years" by Adrienne Rich.

Invitation for your writing:

Borrow a line from a poem you admire. Then ask a friend to give you a list of words, preferably random and concrete. Write your own poem with the borrowed line as a beginning. Let the words take you someplace new. If you get stuck, borrow another line or two, being sure to give credit to the poet.

January: Emotion Work

January 26

lostdictionaryThis poem began by questions, and the answers surprised me. Certain answers to the title question seemed obviously preferable, as normative and unequivocal; healthy people, integrated people, fully realized people would answer the question in a certain way. The poem invited a tangling with expectation that was as deeply troubling as it was comforting, as challenging as it was liberating.

I'm not sure if this poem is finished or not, but I offer it as a signpost or a way station along a path where "finished" may not be the most relevant concern.


Are you lost?

Are you lost, lost and wanting to be found?
Can I help you find your way?

I am lost, but have travelled far to get there
and can be lost a little longer
Strangeness, my familiar, knows me well by now.

Are you found, found and wanting to be lost?
Can I help you lose your way?

I am indeed so deeply found
I am lost in my familiar self, so ensnared
by who I am that strangeness knows me not.

Acquainted now with unfollowable pain
and unquenchable communion,
we tread the space between fervor and forgiveness.

We know that grief needs the well of being found
      so it does not spill over and drown us –

and the humility of being lost
      to make us whole as it makes us hollow.

-- Karen Lynn Erickson

Invitation for your writing:

Write a poem that is nothing but a series of questions, and try to refrain from answering any of them too quickly. Or ask yourself if there are any quandaries or emotions, like anger, pain, fear, insecurity, expectation of difficulty, in your life or in the life of someone close to you that are so familiar they carry on almost unchecked, unnoticed. Ask questions and allow the answers to surprise you: Are you lost? Have you taken up residence? Write a poem to describe the familiar experience as if you are sensing it for the first time, to make it strange, and perhaps to let it go.

January 19

A character in one of John Updike's novels says, "We've lost whole octaves of feeling." I think that the octaves we've lost might be the quiet emotions that flow from simple, ordinary events and experiences. Those quiet emotions and the events they accompany make up most of our lives, but they easily get drowned out. Here, too, poetry has important work to do. With its ability to see beauty shining through plain and even dirty surfaces, it can help the poet and readers feel the quiet delight and thankfulness in even the most mundane of tasks, such as planting seeds and pulling weeds.

Summer #1 common ground

"It must be therapy for you,"
the visitor says,
eyeing my garden clothes
ragged, filthy, and 10 years out of date.
She keeps her distance
suspecting that I smell
or fearing I'll touch her with hands
that won’t be clean till Thanksgiving.

What would that word mean
to the poplar shimmering silvergreen
and pushing little rootlets through the asphalt of the driveway
or the maples scattering their seed?

Did creating every fruitbearing plant cure God
of some primordial angst?

I see my mother up early every morning for 60 summers
small and weathered at the far end
of 200-foot rows of tomatoes and cucs.
Not therapy but darn hard work
to feed her family and surround with flowers
a ramshackle life.

I think of the seeds still underground
and their sweet, precise names—
     Detroit Dark Reds
     Scarlet Nantes
     Straight Eights.
Soon the birds and I will vie for the berries.
Before long I'll eat green beans
savory with onions
each flavor distinct and sharp.
And then I'll carry russets and red Norlands home
in the basket of my hands.

Wishing I could say that gardening is nothing
but life itself
eating and being eaten
feeding and being fed
I only wave and smile
and bend to my weed-friendly rows
as the cage of my ribs swings wide.

-- Mara Faulkner, OSB

Invitation for your writing:
Make a list of the things you do every day or regularly, the more ordinary the better—changing diapers, grading papers, peeling vegetables, changing the oil in the car, emptying the kitty litter, harvesting sugar beets, mucking out the barn. Describe one of them in all its spectacular plainness.

January 12

If foods can enfold us in memory, so too can a song or a fragrance or sensation bring back to our conscious mind whole layers of experience. Returning to a place can be wistful or painful if it reminds us of loss -- we might feel it is too soon; returning to a place we have not seen since a time of loss can also help us see, help us accept the process of grief and healing.

Revisiting St. Martin-in-the-Fields revisiting

So this is what closure feels like – a mild
lengthening of clipped phrases and a lingering,
solid and full of grief, over memories and places
I had to skate over quickly before.

Closure is not release – it is a cadence resolved,
a weight anchoring the end of something no longer
left hanging, no suspense, no airy wondering,
no habit of pain, no self rich with suffering.

Closure is the signal clicked off. Closure is
the floor swept clean of all the remains of the party,
the confetti and the broken heel and the water stain
on the table, the gift wrap torn in festive frenzy
and the cigarette burn on the prized piano.

Closure is the door latching after a long walk on the beach,
the cleaning of the shells, the setting them in a bowl
where they invariably look less lovely
than you thought they would,
dried, unpolished, washed clean of debris.
We come to an arrangement,
a done thing, a habit soon quite silent, indifferent, like bones.

Closure is not life and it is not death. It is an attitude toward
the endlessly moving tide that flings up shells for us to find,
and pocket, and clean, and then forget. Closure feels like loss
when it settles on the heart, but it is rather a solid presence,
a window opened so the bee can escape.

We did not know she was there
when we closed it just as the storm was breaking.

Karen Lynn Erickson
From Dwellings. Copyright © 2013 by Karen Erickson. Used with permission of The Permissions Company, Inc., on behalf of Finishing Line Press,

Invitation for your writing:
Choose a strong emotion like grief and experiment with the puzzle of absence and presence. In what ways is your chosen strong emotion well represented by things that are there, present, taking up space, even blocking passage, in the way? In what ways is absence a better category to express the experience?

January 5

"Hi, how are you?" become what you are then let go
"Fine, and you?"
* * *
"I'm so sorry for your loss."
"Yeah, it’s been rough."

Many of our daily conversations follow this pattern, but not because we're uninterested in each other's lives or unwilling to talk about what's under the surface. Many times we can't do it because our feelings are too raw, too muddled, too contradictory; they frighten us with their bald honesty. Poetry, with its love of honest emotion, dislike for platitudes, and trust of ambiguity, leads us into the depths and lets us emerge with words that answer the question, "How are you, really?" This poem helped me answer that question after my brother's sudden death.

Baked Beans: A Word from the Dead

How I long for a voice to break
            the long silence,
            a country strange and vast without sustenance.
A word in dream or vision to say, "I'm safe home. I'm happy.
      I'm myself and more, the person you knew and loved
            and didn't know."
Day and night I'm listening
            but not a word
            my brother as silent in death
            as he was in life
            when his mother and sisters waited months or years
            for a letter or a call
            as he trudged West, shedding possessions and people.
Just at the end he turned and flashed a smile,
            and then was gone.
Though he's in that new place where distance disappears
            in the twinkling of an eye, or so they say,
            he is as silent as God
            withholding comfort
            in the conspiracy of death.

But then from the friendly darkness of my recipe box
            I hear his voice, laughing, defiant—sandwiched between beets
            and broccoli bake
            his instructions for baked beans, sent just before he died:
             "I use pinto beans but I suppose great northern would
            work too. I just don't trust anything that is white.
            (Does that make me racist?)
            Mix in two tablespoons of mustard (make this stone ground
            not that yellow crap that people put on hot dogs.)
            Bake at 250 for 9 hours."

These are earthy words.
            Like dreams and visions they tell me only what I know:
            In a kitchen smelling of onions and molasses
            feed each other food cooked slowly while you laugh and talk
            and do good work.

It isn't much.

People have lived on less.

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

Invitation for your writing: Answer the question, "How are you, really?" Keep answering new versions of the question until you get to the true answer—the one that eases your heart.

December: Works for an occasion

December 29

As we approach the first of January, for some a time of new beginnings, of renewal shared in community, we invite you to share on our Facebook page your favorite poetry websites, competitions, writings, strategies, or puzzles ( We look forward to reading your posts!

December 22

roadMara and I have the good fortune of having friends and colleagues who write funny poems to commemorate events, in a mild poetic roast that makes the target feel known and loved. This poem began as an attempt to respond with humor to the fatigue some of my neighbors expressed at a long period of obstructed driving, as trunk lines were laid in to provide city water and sewer to what had been farmland. Under the lightness emerged a poignant expression of longing for a smooth way home.

Prayer to the Spirit of the Road
           On the occasion of the installation of city services

This is a prayer to the spirit of the open road.
Not the open road leading west, off to mountains
and rocky, lawless adventure.
The spirit of that road hoots and hollers,
cajoles and, when you least expect it,
bucks off on its bronco and leaves you
staring at its dust, as if it had all been a mirage.

Not to the spirit of the open freeway either,
guardian angel spirits hovering over those who drive
too fast, changing lanes and making time,
taking risks and turning long, flat curves into cliff edges.
The spirits of that open road fret and murmur,
willing us to want safety rather than speed.

No, this is a prayer to the spirit of the road that leads us home,
the road at the end of our driveway,
that sends us off each day and holds the very moment
of our return. This is the road that harbors our mailbox
and ties us to a place in this world where people
can address us, knowing they will find us.
This spirit makes no noise at all but smooths our going out
and our return. It wants our road open.

Spirit of the homeward road, comfort those in the last months
of water pipes and sewer pipes and gutters and curbs
and all the heavy machinery that for a time
have made you their nest, raising their young asphalt
on our doorsteps, like house finches nesting
in the hanging planter, forcing us to skulk in
at the side door until the little ones fledge.

Give strength to those who must yet a little while
       raise their thresholds,
drive slowly through ruts and past stakes and over
       the earth piles
that for a time have disguised you.
Remind us that somewhere
above the trench and beneath the cloud of noise
you are there.

-- Karen Lynn Erickson

Invitation for your writing:
The coming weeks provide a wealth of occasions in many traditions for celebration: religious observance, the new year for some calendars, family gatherings and cultural celebrations of identity. Choose an event and a recipient; see what happens when you set out to write a poem for the occasion, funny or tender or both, and then give it to the person who was in your mind as you wrote it!

December 15

Sometimes the partner that calls a poem into being is anything but silent. She or he is a live person asking us to write a poem for a specific occasion. (Think of the poems written and recited at presidential inaugurations.) These occasional poems can feel like drudgery—an assignment given by a stern teacher with a hard deadline. Worse yet, you're going to have to go public with your poem. It usually isn't what you wanted to be writing, but you said yes....

The real work, then, is to go deep and do what students have to do most of the time: turn this dreaded assignment into something you want and need to say by asking the poet's, the writer's questions: "So what?" "Who cares?" "What's at stake for writer and readers?"

I wrote "Illuminations" for the inauguration of CSB President Mary Dana Hinton. While I was delighted to be part of this wonderful occasion, I had all the resistances I just described. The theme President Hinton chose for her inauguration was "Become Illuminated," and that phrase became another silent partner. This is a selection from that occasional poem.

For President Mary Dana Hinton

Be flamboyant—
Like a thousand luminaries lighting the path to Christmas illuminations

Like the sun condensed in a winter greenhouse hip-deep in snow
where a riot of lettuce and spinach, peas and kale convinces us it's spring
and like the questing students, in love with the Earth,
who dreamed and dared and did it

Like the supernova of a star long dead
scattering potent light across eons of time and space
to reach us here, this night.

Like the sheer, brilliant fact of existence
and steadfast resistance to all that would snuff out life. . .

Burn through thickets of fear and doubt—
Like kind-hearted people, not showy, often nameless
but warm enough to save a life as hands reach out for hands to hold—
it doesn't matter whose. . .

Burn like peacemakers whose ardent love and courage
quench even the flames of war

Or like God's reckless love and unquenchable mercy
kindling flames in and among us
until we all shine like sparks in stubble.

Like luminaries past and present, make of yourself a light
And then let your light shine.

-- Mara Faulkner, OSB

Invitation for your writing:
Write a partner poem. First, find a willing partner. One of you write the first couple of lines. Then pass it on to your partner without saying what you had in mind for the theme or direction. Don't plan out the poem ahead of time! Poet #2 adds a couple of lines and passes it back. (Sometimes it helps to stop in the middle of a line or thought.) Pass the poem back and forth until one of you decides that it's finished. Then, if possible, get together and read the poem out loud, or do it on-line. Change it in big or small ways, cutting, rearranging, adding, etc. Give it a title, and read it out loud again. Give it as a gift to a couple of people who might be heartened or delighted or challenged by it.

December 8

Poets have lots of secret partners. We couldn't do our work without them. We've described some of them in past weeks—the music of language, the shapely power of forms, and, of Aftercourse, the world itself with its insistent pleas for our attention. One silent partner is death. Some of the world's greatest poetry is called to the surface by death's patient, shadowy presence in every life, as poets rage, weep, console, accept. Poetry might pay tribute to a loved one or try to untangle and reconcile a troubled relationship. It might be about our own impending death when we face a serious illness or even when we're perfectly well but suddenly aware of our mortality. We often hear that young people take crazy risks because they think they'll never die. It might be true that a lucky few haven't come face to face with death; but by the time they're teenagers, many have lost friends or family members to sickness, accidents, suicide, or violence. In some neighborhoods and cities, here and around the world, young people like my student Hawo watch as government soldiers gun down her brother. Hawo wrote these lines in her "Childhood Memory Poem":
       I remember the killer living and smiling.
       I remember one naked face.
Like love, death draws to itself a swarm of clichés and truisms, usually in a sincere effort to give comfort. Poetry's work is to put into words the ways in which every death is the same and every death is different and to honor but not smooth out the entanglement of death and life. I wrote this poem shortly after my friend's partner died; I'm simply telling the story as he told it to me.

For Ozzie and Stephen

He could walk through the house and garage dry-eyed
even though the grand piano, its lid open hopefully
was silent
and the bench was still raised
to fit his long legs;
even though half-read books lay on his night stand
with flower bookmarks
to show the page where he had to stop reading;
and even though his camera’s bright eye was shuttered
and his garden tools—hoes, trowels, clippers—
were clean and ready for Spring planting
and his bicycle oiled and shining
eager for long rides in the countryside.

Each left only a bruise as he passed by
and a dull ache.

Then, after the guests had left,
he carried a bucket of funeral food and spent flowers
to the compost pile.
He turned up the compost with the old spading fork
as Stephen had showed him.

All alone, except for memories,
He held the bucket close and wept,
as the smells rose up—of death and decay
and the brown warmth of new earth, forming itself
from scraps of life.

-- Mara Faulkner, OSB

Invitation for your writing:
What objects, gestures, or habits—the more ordinary, the better—would bring back to the life of poetry a lost relationship or a person who has died? If you like, call your poem "After" or "Before."

December 1

Poems composed for a special occasion are not always "sharable" to those outside the circumstances of the writing. Sometimes, though, an occasional poem captures something that has potential to go beyond the situation. I wrote this poem for my son, who had decided on his birthday to purchase a digital piano for his tiny Manhattan apartment (with headphones, of course). I started out simply wanting to wish him a happy day, and by the end, realized there was something about the two images of beads and keys I would perhaps like to explore further one day. This is the poem for the occasion, used with permission of my son, to whom the poem now belongs.

A tiny birthday poem

Birthdays thread charms on a chain
each one speaking the language of its now:
womb by favorite chair in the library,
lullaby by the vendor’s morning banter,
pastrami piled high on Saturday pancakes
and after-school zucchini bread.

It is all one and unimaginable in its strangeness,
one bead knowing nothing of the other
except that they stroke the same wrist.
It will have been a known unknowing,
a knocking against a depth of time
that stories long to tell.

Add this bead to the string –
a table readying itself for a keyboard,
88 keys enfolding primers and progress
and meeting of hands and minds
and a space to keep safe all the wild fragments
that make us wholly who we are.

-- Karen Lynn Erickson

Invitation for your writing:
Choose an occasion within your family's traditions or from the calendar of your culture. Generate a list of objects, sounds, smells, memories, images, thoughts that you associate with that occasion. Write each one on a different slip of paper or card, and spread them out before you. Move them around, looking for connections of sense, texture, taste, emotional resonance, or any other organizing theme, then re-organize them by color or size or chronology, or any other category you see emerging. Then write a poem incorporating the pieces that fit whatever threads you discovered as you improvised.

November: Life Works

November 24

This poem ponders the relationship between dreams and life, between the stories we tell about ourselves and our deepest truths. How do we narrate, revise, retell and talk over our life-work, our essence? Poetry can give a slanted entry to other modes of consciousness, to reminders of the untamed portions of our stories.

Hide and Seek

       palimpsest: a manuscript or piece of writing material on which the
       original writing has been effaced to make room for later writing but of
       which traces remain. (Oxford Dictionary)

We inscribe our day on the palimpsest Manuscript page
of last night's dream;
the scratching of the day-pen crowds out
the murmur of night voices
that whisper inscrutable things.

If we could remember,
our lives would be changed utterly
but we dip the pen instead
and mark the page.
This is life, we write, what I write with my hand

And so we are not what we dream
but neither are we entirely what we seem
as we follow the slow progress
of our pen on the vellum of our skin
our day, our year.

We write a story on the palimpsest
of the shaved-down hide of our dreams.
Sometimes I see I am leaving too much behind
too much unsaid, my deep self scratched down
and covered over by someone else's text.

--Karen Lynn Erickson

Invitation for your writing:
Leaving a blank space under every line, write or type a lyric description of a dream or memory or imagined experience. Free-write for 10 minutes -- just write without planning or editing what you are writing; simply try to capture the image without worrying about accuracy or consistency. Next, in the spaces between the lines, revise the description with a more logical, consistent, "reality-based" version. Which elements do you retain? Which do you replace or revise? Is there anything "more real" about the dreamscape version, in terms of insight or perception?

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 hand How 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 daisies fawn
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 west Prairie

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?