Poem-A-Day 2021, Day 10: Angele Ellis

Last year I was one of the judges for the Poetry Super Highway Annual Poetry Contest, and this was one of the poems that the judges all deemed excellent. (It won 3rd place from among nearly a thousand poems.) After the contest was over, I asked Rick Lupert, who runs PSH, if I could learn the names of the poets who’d written a handful of the poems I read while judging. He obliged, and I contacted them, and some have agreed to let me post their work on my blog this year. Angele Ellis is one of those gracious and talented poets. She is also, like me, of Lebanese descent, and has written about her roots. I highly recommend this wonderful poem of hers.

Today’s offering, “Scenes from Frozen River,” speaks to me for several reasons, even beyond the vivid imagery and poignant depth of feeling. I love the consistency of the form, the evenness on the page despite the emotional maelstrom of the content. I love that the speaker seems to have a multi-ethnic ancestry: I myself am both Arab and Native American (each from a different parent) and don’t often encounter anything that or any person who embodies or acknowledges both.

There’s not much else I can say about this poem that it can’t do on its own, and far better than I, so I’ll just leave it here for you to enjoy.

Scenes from Frozen River

(1) Often Rebuked, Yet Always Back Returning

to this burdened snowscape, this land pressed
flat by a lake effect sky. The deep blue bays
of Ontario ripple and swell, an ocean
drawing in. Tides, shrieking gulls, shells.

Twenty years ago, pulling up to a cousin’s
winterized cottage in Chaumont—Shah-moan,
for the French nobleman who claimed it—
her mother warned: Don’t be shocked if she’s strange.

O God of our childhood. She was bloated and strung out
on pain pills—shaking and keening over her best friend,
killed in that so-called one-car accident two years before.
Broken—broken through a frosted wall of glass

the fabled good looks of Yasmina,
my father’s far relation. On that other side—
unknown beauty whose tear-stained mouth embraced
her steering wheel at the terminus of white tracks.

My aunt: She wouldn’t have wanted to live after that.

(2) Often Rebuked, Yet Always Back Returning

to this burdened snowscape, this land where
a hard-bitten movie heroine craves a doublewide,
bad enough to smuggle illegals on thin ice
over the invisible border slicing the Mohawk rez.

I know her plowed-field misery. And the other,
her accomplice: black hair and pillowed cheeks. 
The young face of my Mohawk cousins, before
we started gambling, every goddamn day.

I know that plywood shelf crowned with Regal,
these dead drifts deeper than crevasses,
those thrift stores stalked by marked-down bosses.
This land slapped flat by a husband’s hand.

On film, beached hope is salvaged. The ravaged
woman goes to jail. Her Mohawk friend tends
their children in the showroom trailer, gleaming
whale tamed by its female Jonah. Swallowed

whole into darkness, I no longer care how it ends.

3) Often Rebuked, Yet Always Back Returning

to this burdened snowscape, this land, in a van
far removed from the rattling paneled station wagons
of our pasts. Upholstered plush muffles gossip
as we glide, cresting the scenic route. There’s

no place like home! cries a cousin, half-amazed.
We finger landmarks from her tinted windows.
Almost a pleasure trip, this funeral: what’s left
to the middle-aged. Another death, yet we go on

like the Donner Party, sucking marrow from dry bones.
Does it matter who remains among the living? 
This land pressed flat in our broken View-Master.
Bovine doublewides grazing the old farms. Lusting

for nothing, we laugh to break the stitches in our sides.

Copyright Angele Ellis. First published in Yew Journal.

***

Angele Ellis’s haiku appeared on a theater marquee after winning Pittsburgh’s Filmmakers’ G-20 Haiku Contest. Her poetry, fiction, essays, and reviews have been published in seventy journals and seventeen anthologies. She is author of Arab on Radar (Six Gallery), whose poems about her family heritage and political activism won a fellowship from the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts, Spared (A Main Street Rag Editor’s Choice Chapbook), and Under the Kaufmann’s Clock (Six Gallery), a fiction/poetry hybrid inspired by her adopted city of Pittsburgh, with photographs by Rebecca Clever. For more information on Angele and her work, click here.

Poem-A-Day 2021, Day 9: Mike Alexander

How often have you wandered outside of your office or some all-day appointment with a lunch bag and sat down on a concrete ledge or park bench to sit and eat, alone perhaps, trying to imagine yourself in nature even though this iteration of it was only some boring hedges and a few trees next to a glass and steel building full of people who didn’t know each other, not really, next to a parking lot that smelled of heat and exhaust next to a street that was loud?

Mike Alexander, another mainstay of Houston’s poetry scene, reminds me of this in his poem “Holy Places of the World,” which I love.

And now I want to tell you another story, a lunch downtown story. Half my son’s life ago (literally — he was seven), I took him to the medical center for an all-day appointment. For those who have never seen the Texas Medical Center (the largest in the world, if I’m not mistaken), it is many city blocks populated by very large buildings and decently sized sidewalks. There’s a light rail that goes along the street and a lot of both car and pedestrian traffic. There aren’t really any green spaces between the buildings themselves — only parking garages and more buildings — and not even any piazzas to speak of, but a few of the buildings do have stone or cement steps leading up to their front doors.

On his lunch break, I took my son and our lunch boxes down the street to one of these cement staircases leading up to another official-looking building. We were outdoors, at least. It was a pleasant spring day, about this time of year. I knew my son had, at that time, a phobia of the wide-open sky, but since there were so many tall buildings, it didn’t seem like the sky would be much of a problem today. Plus he had a hoodie, and wearing a hood or a hat was always a good antidote to that particular phobia. As we walked along the sidewalk, and he plastered himself to my side and wanted me to walk with my arm around him and my hand covering his head, it became clear his dislike of tall buildings was not just about architecture.

Over lunch he articulated something new about his phobia to me.

“The problem, I think,” he said around a mouthful of ham sandwich, “is the word skyscraper. I don’t like that word.”

“Oh, that’s interesting,” I said. “What about the word bothers you?”

“Well, are the buildings going to poke holes in the sky? Because I know that behind the sky is space, and I really don’t want that falling on me.”

He was afraid the skyscrapers would scrape tears across the sky, and then the enormous infinity of space (another thing that terrified him — and OMG why wouldn’t it??) would come hurtling at his head.

Fortunately, this was a really helpful and logical explanation, and I’m pleased to say that with a fair amount of loving support from his family and school, he has overcome his phobia.

He still wears hoodies, though. (Just like nearly every other teenager we know.)

A city park, the sky and space beyond it, even a cement staircase in front of a nondescript building downtown in a huge city — these can all be holy places in the world.

 

HOLY PLACES OF THE WORLD

You take lunch outside the bank.
It’s not the hanging gardens of Babylon,
but at least it’s out of the sun.
A chlorine sting washes the sculpture
garden, emerges from pre-fab waterfall.

You get used to the smell, the no smell,
the no taste to the egg-salad sandwich
you make yourself chew. You swallow
artificial air. Watch the long shadows crawl
from one end of the hour to the other.

Do you wish yourself elsewhere?
An architect worked late into the night
to give this corner an anchoring holiness.
In a poster outside the travel agency, a woman
walks a suntanned Mecca, nearly naked.

Wading into a postcard of the Aegean, snorkeling
the great coral reef? Ruins of unnatural blue
shimmer in your vision. Okay,
so it’s not the wailing wall.
Can’t you at least pretend to pray?

***

Mike Alexander came to Houston in 1996.
Everything here is so extraordinary, it’s hard to define the ordinary. Nevertheless, he contemplates the quotidian every day.

Poem-A-Day 2021, Day 8: Kimberly Hall

I encountered Kimberly Hall and her poem “Autumn Maples with Poem Slips” at a reading of ekphrastic poetry hosted by the Friendswood Public Library. Her poem had earned some recognition and with good reason!

I’m such a fan of ekphrastic poetry, or poetry written in response to other artwork. It’s one of my favorite styles to write in, like being in artistic conversation with someone else who might otherwise be inaccessible to me. For example, Kimberly Hall’s poem here responds to a beautiful screen by Tosa Mitsuoki, c. 1675. You can view the inspiring artwork, and learn more about its history, here.

Autumn Maples with Poem Slips

Times like these,
time seems to pass       slowly
and then
            all at once

Is it time travel
if I watch this moment
                        suspended
while the rest of the world keeps turning?

A screen
separates us, a sliding screen
            or a door, or a window
and the hands of the clock
.                                          outside
cannot meet
the hands of the people
           within

Times like these,
moments pass
differently – they pass
                        sometimes like running water,
and other times like
            treacle syrup –
but most times
like they
do not
pass
at
all

How do you measure a moment –
in seconds? the span of a feeling? a poem?
the time it takes one maple leaf
.                                                        to fall
.             to the ground?

We watch the seasons change,
the cherries      blossom and the maple leaves
                                                                                  fall,
and we know that the world has turned
but we do not feel it –
and all things bright and beautiful are fleeting,
we know this,
but still the world seems
            still

Times like these,
the world moves and does not –
and we move and do not –

but the poems –

the poems flutter in the wind,
whispering, like leaves,
like the sound of a brush
on paper, or the
secret scratch of pencil lead
.               inside a borrowed book, or the
slide     of a pen
as it      settles
            behind your ear –

whispering, like the slide of fingers through your hair –

whispering, like the voices of the world beyond the screen,
beyond the door, beyond the window,
and the rasp of pen on paper sounds like
.                                                         your own voice,
                         whispering back

Times like these, it can seem like
the world has come to a stop –
like we, too, are            suspended        here,
a moment within a moment,
a maple leaf, always
.             falling, never
.                                           touching
                         the
             ground

and yet –
here we are,
trying to leave our own
.               poems
tied to our own
.             maple branches –
trying to leave beauty in the world
.                             even as that beauty fades –
trying to catch a moment
in our hands as proof that we have
reached beyond the screen
and
       touched
                   the
                        world

Here we are –

             – fluttering from our own branches –

.                                                      – and here we will remain.

***

Kimberly Hall is a writer and graduate student at the University of Houston- Clear Lake. Her work has been featured in two ekphrastic poetry anthologies, Do You See the Way the Light (2019) and Still the Waves Beat (2020). When not writing or studying for exams, Kimberly can be found stress-baking, playing the violin, and trying to pet every cat she meets. She can be contacted at kdotcdothdot@gmail.com.

Poem-A-Day 2021, Day 7: Melissa Huckabay

Tonight’s poem comes from my friend Melissa Huckabay.

There are so many things I miss from before the pandemic, but chief among these is Saturday morning writing dates at Panera. This tradition started at least a decade ago with my friend Sarah Warburton, and this practice expanded to include more people who came for a period of time before moving on to other things. Now it’s all done remotely, sprinting together and checking in with each other online. Although we no longer live in the same state, Sarah is still one of the most frequent Saturday morning writers. Melissa is one of those friends who joined the Panera group, and she soon became a real mainstay of the experience.

After the pandemic was well underway, Melissa moved away to attend a graduate program, but we still write together remotely now and then. I miss many things about life before covid, but definitely getting together in person on Saturday mornings is high on the list. We’ll get back there.

Thinking about life before all of this sometimes puts me in a nostalgic mood, but I also know that life after covid is managed can be just as good, even though it will be different. And all of this reminds me of one of Melissa’s poems, shared here tonight.

What Safety Felt Like at Eight Years Old

A row of pictures hung on my grandparents’ wall.
The owl with plaintive eyes watching,
a little girl holding a flower over her head,
the worn plaque with the Serenity Prayer
and an Irish Benediction.

At breakfast I would study the pictures, one at a time,
a tiny army of benevolent reassurances
that cast the room in a golden glow.

My grandmother made biscuits with honey,
and the sweet warmth trickled down my throat
softly, like the footfalls of a deer
or the morning song of the doves
that gathered on the backyard fence.

Light streamed in from the glass patio doors
while pale, yellow lamps added
their steady gleam from the den.

In the quiet, hearing only doves
and the clink of forks at the kitchen table,

I sat and watched the pictures, knowing me,
a regiment of protection against the outside.

***

Melissa Huckabay is a poet and multi-genre writer whose work has appeared in Defunkt Magazine, The Remembered Arts Journal, and The Inkling. Her short fiction won the 2019 Spider’s Web Flash Fiction Prize from Spider Road Press, and her short plays have been produced at several stages in Houston. A former high school teacher, Melissa is a first-year MFA candidate in poetry at Texas State University.

Poem-A-Day 2021, Day 6: Sandi Stromberg

Sandi Stromberg, a well-known and much-loved Houston-based poet, often generously shares her work with Sappho’s Torque in April. Today I’m featuring her poem “Silence as Matter” in part because over the last year I’ve come to both appreciate and be wary of silence.

Sometimes it bothers me. It reminds me of a time before I had children, when I did not yet understand the value of quiet or quietude. Now when my house — a house which shelters teenagers — is silent, I feel sometimes a slight disconnection, an understanding that they are gaining independence from me in some ways. I know this is appropriate, but within all of this is also a recognition that at some point my children will grow up and leave home, and a premonition that I will probably go back to finding the quiet unsettling or empty once again.

And sometimes I crave the quiet, which can and often is soothing. I like the calm.

But silence, after all, is more than quietness. It has its own weight, its own gravity. Its own heaviness and drama.

I hope you will enjoy Sandi’s poem as much as I do.

Silence as Matter

            reflections on John Cage’s musical composition

“Four minutes, thirty-three seconds” doesn’t start

until the pianist places

a watch he can watch

two hands above the keyboard

            the audience waiting, waiting

the silence, elongated

three movements with no movement

            except the clock’s hands

            the audience coughs, shifts, throats

            are cleared

                        time passes

in utter emptiness,

anything can now take place

Cage says

but do I believe him     for me, a bare room

            is an empty room

a barren mind a curse

sometimes I awaken to a vacuum

            a sweeping hollowness

                        silence gaping like an abyss

            no meaning  to be found

is he saying this is how a poem might happen 

            soundless music in the poet’s mind

            contemplation of time and space

                        emptied then filled

could I have such faith

to have confidence in white space

to load silence

***

Sandi Stromberg has been nominated twice for a Pushcart Prize as well as for a 2020 Best of the Net. Her poetry currently appears or is upcoming in The Ocotillo Review, San Pedro River Review, The Ekphrastic Review, Visual Verse, Still the Waves Beat, Texas Poetry Calendar 2021, Purifying Wind, Snapdragon, and Brabant Cultureel (The Netherlands). As the editor of two poetry anthologies, she has been honored to feature the work of other poets.

Poem-A-Day 2021, Day 5: John Donne

Not gonna lie, John Donne might be the unlikely alpha male hero of a Renaissance romance novel.

And if I may be nerdily bold, I love a lot of his work.

If you’d like to read an interesting analysis of Donne’s poem “The Sun Rising,” click here. If you’d just like to read the poem, here you go:

The Sun Rising

Busy old fool, unruly sun,
               Why dost thou thus,
Through windows, and through curtains call on us?
Must to thy motions lovers’ seasons run?
               Saucy pedantic wretch, go chide
               Late school boys and sour prentices,
         Go tell court huntsmen that the king will ride,
         Call country ants to harvest offices,
Love, all alike, no season knows nor clime,
Nor hours, days, months, which are the rags of time.

               Thy beams, so reverend and strong
               Why shouldst thou think?
I could eclipse and cloud them with a wink,
But that I would not lose her sight so long;
               If her eyes have not blinded thine,
               Look, and tomorrow late, tell me,
         Whether both th’ Indias of spice and mine
         Be where thou leftst them, or lie here with me.
Ask for those kings whom thou saw’st yesterday,
And thou shalt hear, All here in one bed lay.

               She’s all states, and all princes, I,
               Nothing else is.
Princes do but play us; compared to this,
All honor’s mimic, all wealth alchemy.
               Thou, sun, art half as happy as we,
               In that the world’s contracted thus.
         Thine age asks ease, and since thy duties be
         To warm the world, that’s done in warming us.
Shine here to us, and thou art everywhere;
This bed thy center is, these walls, thy sphere.

***

John Donne (22 January 1572 – 31 March 1631) was an English poet and cleric in the Church of England. He is considered the pre-eminent representative of the metaphysical poets. His works are noted for their strong, sensual style and include sonnets, love poems, religious poems, Latin translations, epigrams, elegies, songs, satires and sermons. His poetry is noted for its vibrancy of language and inventiveness of metaphor, especially compared to that of his contemporaries.

 

Poem-A-Day 2021, Day 4: Laurinda Lind

I hope you’re having a lovely Sunday, and if you’re celebrating Easter today, that it’s wonderful. I actually don’t want or need to say too much about today’s poem, “Year One” by Laurinda Lind, because it speaks beautifully and poignantly for itself.

Year One

On Easter morning I fed
my seventeen-year-old son’s
funeral cake to the yard crows.
We heard they were starving,
in this spring that came
and then uncame,
the same way my son and
reportedly Jesus did.

New snow smothered the green grass
and the crocuses, and iced
the backdoor steps
and ate down into cracked concrete.
The stones someone hauled here
a century and a half ago
lay flat and still under the slush.
He is gone and I can’t help it.

The crows watched, or didn’t,
from all our trees. The branches
went black with them,
the sky was full but waiting.
He is so brilliantly gone.
Spring is alive, over and over.
It just can’t be alive enough.

“Year One” first was previously published in Paterson Literary Review.

***

Laurinda Lind quarantines in New York’s North Country, near Canada. Some publications are in Atlanta Review, The Cortland Review, New American Writing, Smokelong Quarterly, Spillway, and Stand; also in anthologies Visiting Bob: Poems Inspired by the Life and Work of Bob Dylan (New Rivers), What I Hear When Not Listening: Best of The Poetry Shack & Fiction (Sonic Boom), and Civilization in Crisis (FootHills). She is a Keats-Shelley Prize winner; Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net nominee; and finalist in Patricia Dobler Award, Please See MeDappled Things, Poetry Super Highway, and Joy Bale Boon Poetry Prize contests.

Poem-A-Day 2021, Day 3: Paige Poe

I think we’re cultivating a theme here, aren’t we? It feels like our zeitgeist has embraced an added layer, one that is never guaranteed but must be claimed through active choice. Renewal after loss, rebirth after trauma, clawing our way back from horror, finding peace and maybe even solutions when you emerge from the season of teeth and judgment. (And thanks to Bucky Rea for that memorable phrase which I have been referencing since college and will probably continue to refer to for another twenty-five years, at least, because human condition.)

This soothing poem from Paige Poe feels right for today.

Simple Measures for Desperate Times

When the world sullies your soul,
Gather the grass stained knees, sweaty half-moons
Down to the river Lethe and scrub
Until the swirling waters erase your pain.

Find an open field. Stretch out your heart strings.
Pin up the soaking, ragged edges and watch them
Billow with each heavy breath, drying
In the morning glow,
under a cornflower sky.

Your worries will rise with the butterflies
And recycle someday as rain, falling into
Your curiously outstretched palms.

As you fold, tucking arms under body, sleeve to sleeve,
Try not to think about the horror beyond
The chore’s horizon, the circle of pain
That brought you, kneeling, to the river’s lip.

Repeat as often as needed.

This poem was originally published in eleven40seven spring 2018.

***

Paige Poe is a feminist poet, wordsmith, and movement teacher based out of Houston. She graduated from Texas Christian University in 2018 with a degree in theatre and English, and her work has been published in Vamp Cat Magazine, eleven40seven, Texas’ Best Emerging Poets of 2017, and Brave Voices Magazine. Currently, Paige works as a freelance ghostwriter and editor. She also teaches yoga and creative movement, and her physical practice deeply inspires her art.  You can find her at paigegpoe.com and on Instagram as paige_outofmybook.

Poem-A-Day 2021, Day 2: Mechtild of Madgeburg

I have often wondered about the link between historical figures who experienced divine or supernatural visions and modern figures who suffer from various types of mental illness. Whether people then and people now are describing the same kinds of occurrences with different vernacular, influenced by the contemporary intellectual tools they have at their disposal.

No idea, and I’m not going to pass judgment on it either way. But it is interesting to think about, I think.

This poem seems appropriate for all those who are observing Good Friday today.

I cannot dance, O Lord,
unless You lead me.
If You wish me to leap joyfully,
let me see You dance and sing —

Then I will leap into Love —
and from Love into Knowledge,
and from Knowledge into the Harvest,
that sweetest Fruit beyond human sense.

There I will stay with You, whirling.

***

Peter Paul Metz: Mechthild von Magdeburg, Fantasieporträt am Chorgestühl der Pfarrkirche Merazhofen (Leutkirch im Allgäu), 1896

Mechtild of Madgeburg (ca. 1207-1282, Germany) was born into a wealthy family and at age twelve said that she saw “all things in God, and God in all things.” In her early twenties, she entered the Beguines sisterhood and led a life of simplicity, service, and prayer. Over a fourteen-year period, she received ongoing mystical visions and the divine instruction to record these experiences. Mechtild’s love poetry has been compared to that of the Sufi poets of the Middle East and the bhakti poets of India. (Biographical information respectfully quoted from Mala of the Heart, edited by Ravi Nahwani and Kate Vogt.)

Poem-A-Day 2021: Day 1, Mary Oliver

Welcome back to National Poetry Month! Tonight I will be hosting the inaugural poetry reading of a new series entitled The Mutable Hour, by Mutabilis Press. We have an amazing line-up of poets who will be reading tonight, and if you’d like to attend this virtual event, let me know ASAP. It’s on Zoom and I can hook you up with the link if you give me your email address. The second reading will be April 29th, in case you can’t make it tonight.

Here on Sappho’s Torque, I like to feature a different poem each day every April in celebration of the wide and marvelous world of poetry. We’re kicking things off this year with one from Mary Oliver, which serves as an excellent reminder to me — and maybe also to you — that there is beauty and happiness in the world, and when it knocks on your door, you should let it in and give it a comfortable place to sit, and when you have the chance to create it for someone else, then by all means, do so. I especially love Oliver’s last sentence.

Don’t Hesitate

If you suddenly and unexpectedly feel joy,
don’t hesitate. Give in to it. There are plenty
of lives and whole towns destroyed or about
to be. We are not wise, and not very often
kind. And much can never be redeemed.
Still, life has some possibility left. Perhaps this
is its way of fighting back, that sometimes
something happens better than all the riches
or power in the world. It could be anything,
but very likely you notice it in the instant
when love begins. Anyway, that’s often the
case. Anyway, whatever it is, don’t be afraid
of its plenty. Joy is not made to be a crumb.

Mary Jane Oliver (September 10, 1935 – January 17, 2019) was an American poet who won the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize. Her work is inspired by nature, rather than the human world, stemming from her lifelong passion for solitary walks in the wild. It is characterized by a sincere wonderment at the impact of natural imagery, conveyed in unadorned language. In 2007 she was declared to be the country’s best-selling poet. (This biographical information is quoted from Wikipedia.)

If you’d like to see the Poem-A-Day lists from previous years, click on the following and then follow the crumbs to each day in April of each year. 

April 2020 — https://sapphostorque.com/2020/04/01/poem-a-day-me-but-also-all-of-us/

April 2019 — https://sapphostorque.com/2019/04/01/poem-a-day-2019-mary-oliver/

April 2018 — https://sapphostorque.com/2018/04/01/poem-a-day-robin-reagler/

April 2017 — https://sapphostorque.com/2017/04/01/poem-a-day-paula-billups/

April 2016 — https://sapphostorque.com/2016/04/01/national-poetry-month-day-1/

April 2015 — https://sapphostorque.com/2015/04/01/women-writers-wednesday-4115/

April 2014 — https://sapphostorque.com/2014/04/01/in-honor-of-national-poetry-month-this-year/

If you’d like this Poem-A-Day delivered right to your inbox for this whole month (and all the other wonderfulness on this blog the rest of the time), subscribe.  🙂