Margo Berdeshevsky, for AS THE LAND LISTENS :
This is—the long distance call. I’ve been listening all my life. Days of death throes for love or democracy, not only in America, but worldwide. Dire intentions and cruelties of the powerful, globally. In America, some grand new voices, many of them, women, demanding life. After the end… after the beginning… But these have been dire days. And the land is listening as I am. Justice world-wide, gagged, and the enraged, entitled patriarchy, that hurtful animal convinced of its own right to power. I was gagged as a little girl, so many were. But I am a woman and a poet with a voice alive in the first century of the end of this civilization, in a long distance call. Too many reasons to mourn. But we are gathering. Singing between vines of truths and blood-rose thorns and mold. Women are gathering—until winds carry from soul to soul and the hurricanes of lies die. Here is one poem I had to dare to write: “AS THE LAND LISTENS.” Thank you, “Plume,” for giving space for its voice. Listen.
Lloyd Schwartz on God Hour:
“God Hour” came into being under sad circumstances. One of my dear friends, Eric Lundquist, was also one of my most unlikely friends. He was younger than me, a runner, and a devotee of Sri Chinmoy, “an Indian spiritual leader who taught meditation” (Wikipedia). Eric was also bi-polar, which he kept under control with a complex cocktail of drugs to calm his mania and anti-depressants. He was a dear soul, a good soul. We met swimming at a Y and our friendship was largely cemented by our mutual love for American popular music, especially the Beatles. We would spend hours just listening to music and sharing a lunch or a dinner.
His spiritual calling was really tested when he was diagnosed with a fast-acting series of cancers. When he could no longer go out or even have visitors, we would talk on the phone. He would ask his friends to read back to him things he had written about his own experience with meditation. This poem is to a large extent a paring down, a shaping and a dramatization, of what I would read back to Eric on the phone when he was too weak to even speak. I read parts of it at Eric’s funeral.
Frannie Lindsay on Golgotha:
There is a point at which the body, distracted by dying, does away with decorum and takes up the private and unabashed project of getting ready. The warranty on homeostasis expires. Emotions grow distilled, their expression childlike. Gestures and utterances become at once meaningless and alarmingly poignant. And loved ones receive their summonses.
My husband died of cancer in mid-June. He had lived with his illness, generatively and with stunning zest, for five years. As spring edged into summer, his body began its precipitous but timely surrender.
Anyone who sits with a beloved as death draws close will probably, like it or not, admit that this bearing witness can be traumatic. But if one takes a deep enough breath and stands in the right doorway, the flesh being abandoned is (oh dangerous word!) holy.
No one forgets sharing in this presence-becoming-absence. Ultimately, one does not wish to. As Philip’s death approached, I assumed the mantle, however inadvertently, keeping watch. I got worn out. I didn’t want to do anything else.
Dore Kiesselbach on Clean Water Act:
My subjects tend to percolate up through the years; I rarely sit down and start writing after something poetic happens to me. But the composition of “Clean Water Act” was different. My good friend Bobby and I had just done something that came naturally to him (watery Louisianan) but that I hadn’t managed in more than fifteen years in my beloved, adopted home city of Minneapolis: swim in a local stream. It had been thrillingly-sensual and unexpectedly-cathartic with complex aesthetic and associative overtones. That such a place/moment could exist at the heart of a major metropolitan region was part of the pleasure. As soon as I got home, I started trying to fix the event in words. My aim was never other than to represent what I’d seen and felt with as few “thoughts” and literary intrusions as possible. Though it would take some time to finish, the core of the piece was completed that evening. The work was a reflection but also its own wonderful experience. What a day!
Frannie Lindsay on Receiving the Host:
When does the dying body need no more nutrients? The maintenance of the heartbeat and blood flow, the work of the kidneys, the exchange of oxygen for carbon dioxide, the reflexes’ blinks and twitches: how few calories can support these? How many, as death takes life’s place, impose a cruel demand?
Philip’s palate had been that of an epicure. The kitchen cupboards containing his cooking implements and ingredients resembled museums displays. He devoted an entire bookcase to cookbooks.
When his swallowing grew faulty, when he was no longer conscious enough to chew, when his vitals asserted their lonely vigor, the “meals” brought in to him bore less similarity to their predecessors—the coq au vin, even the delicate soup made from its leftovers—and more likeness to improvised sacraments, given and received infrequently.
Feeding became administering; morphine claimed what had once been food’s domain. Away went the oatmeal, ice cream; the Ensure, and the Ovaltine that had made it even remotely appealing. My husband’s began his effortless drifting. His heart, kidneys, lungs, and reflexes took longer rests from their labors. We measured, as needed, each .75 ml syringe of the clear pink drug.
G.C. Waldrep on The Authentic Galleries:
At a recent reading one of my friends noted that the words “map” and “wound” repeat again and again in my poems. And I said Yes: it felt right to say yes. Map and wound, wound and map.
I had been ill for a long time, and then I was not ill, but still diminished—in body, and perhaps (I think) in spirit, from the ordeal. I had gone to a promontory in Bald Eagle State Forest, not far from where I live, to do some freewriting as part of a prompt I had given my students. (My policy is never to ask students to do something I’m not willing to do.) I settled into a not especially visible place and watched a Mennonite family swing through on the dusty path. I must have dozed off a bit, because when I paid attention again there was a young man slouched near the trailhead, with what I thought was a black dog sleeping obediently at his feet.
It wasn’t a black dog. It was a black backpack, and inside the backpack, among other things, was a gun.
I sat very still for a long time, as the dusk deepened. Another young man arrived, tarried, left. Then the first young man left also, with his backpack and its contents. Somewhat later, I left.
Hopkins on his Dublin deathbed: was he trying to convince himself, against all material evidence to the contrary, in his final hours? Or was he merely stating fact, in affirmation?
The poem takes its title from a stray phrase of Tomas Tranströmer’s (in Robin Fulton’s translation). “Welcome to the authentic galleries,” Tranströmer’s poem declares. What are they? Where we are privileged to see the things that are real. And where are they? —Here they are
Martha Collins on Because What Else Could I Do:
This selection is taken from a sequence of fifty-five untitled short poems, almost all of them addressed to my husband during the six months following his unexpected death in 2016. I wrote them for him, for his abiding presence—and of course I wrote them for myself. At the time, I had no intention of publishing them. But Because What Else Could I Do will in fact appear in the Pitt Poetry Series in September 2019.
Margo Taft Stever on Dolls:
Some of my poems emerge over decades, sometimes over forty years, but I have written others in one sitting with no revisions. Most of my poems fall in between the extremes, and and “Dolls,” which is included in my chapbook, Ghost Moose (Kattywompus Pres, 2019). My latter childhood was spent as one of fifteen children and step-children, an amalgam of three families. I was an avowed tom-boy, but I always thought that I would have liked to spend more time with dolls. For instance, I yearned for a carrying case for my imaginary doll’s clothes. “Dolls,” is about the doll that I would have most liked to own, a poem that finds cholera in water rather than in miasma. It is a poem of witness for all things, animate and inanimate, and the necessity we share in caring for the entirety.
Julie Bruck on My Shame:
This poem was an almost instant response to Campbell McGrath’s, “My Sadness,” from a back-issue of The New Yorker. I admired the way his poem personified one emotion, and the possibilities that raised. At the time, shame was one of several through-lines in the collection I was finishing. It’s not a feeling we hear from much. It’s a wily one, and clearly not something I’m done with. Meanwhile, my thanks to Mr. McGrath!
Much has been said about San Francisco’s “homelessness problem,” and especially those unhoused individuals with mental illness. I’ve lived in the same San Francisco neighborhood for more than 20 years, and have seen the same people spiral way, way down, in both body and mind. Their rights are protected, which sometimes means they need to be unconscious to be hospitalized.A local gas station attendant once told me that she couldn’t call police to help a man lying face down by the gas pumps because he was technically on the city sidewalk, and hence, not trespassing. Do I know what to make of any of this? I do not.
Susan Rich on Extreme Close Up:
I teach film studies classes and identifying the different camera shots is one thing I always emphasize. The extreme close up shot focuses (frequently, not always) on the details of a person’s face. The shot is used to express deep emotion, often timed at a dramatic moment in the narrative. Writers also use different kinds of camera angles — a sense of where the image lives in connection with the reader. This poem also borrows from the work of Terrance Hayes in his collection, To My Past and Future Assassin, which I adore. Finally, perhaps there is a bit of Rilke underneath the poem as a kind of guiding angel.
Daniel Bourne on The Old Thoughts:
I have often “looked” at memory as an ekphrastic enterprise, the way something from the past emerges in my mind not just as an image, but one that pushes me into interpretation and distillation. What does it mean now? What did it mean then? What does this little insect in amber from when I was six years old have to do with that petroglyph found on some wall during my college years? Although I am not a darkroom photographer, still, I know something about the process of development, the washing of the negative in chemicals and then the apparition of the image. It’s like Lazarus from the tomb. In Polish, the verb “wywolać is used to mean to develop images and to call forth someone—to conjure up spirits.
But this is a poem about Illinois, a deep map involving my own emergences, departures, and returns. In writing this poem, images of image-making (and finding) just kept popping up—photography, cave-paintings, the small town cathedrals of water tower and grain elevator, the visually-gorgeous remains of the trunks and tendrils of the prehistoric swamp that once occupied the surface of the earth, but which now can only be seen on the ceiling of a coal mine located a few miles north of where my sister lives on Illinois Route 1. Ironically, a combination of fossil fuel economics and the instability of the mine caused its closure, so that I’ve never seen the ceiling for myself. But I have read about it and seen photographs of it, and so it too has come to be written on the walls of my brain.
But the urge to write this poem came from not just wanting to re-see my past, but also catch myself in the act of looking. I know that it might come across as self-indulgent, but in the opening two sections of “The Old Thoughts” I even make reference to the title poem of my first book, The Household Gods, which started out, “In everybody’s house there is a window / no one has ever looked out of…” In that first book I was consumed with the death of my father from colon cancer at the age of 54, and in this current poem I felt that I could not write about my mother’s death many years later without the imagery of the present tangled up with the imagery of the past— as inextricably as my love for them.
There is also a line in the poem I do not quite know what to make of. In my description of chowders (community harvest festivals that popped up in southeastern Illinois in the early 20th century and a few of which still remain today) I am channeling several family stories, including the miraculous visitation of a biplane to the skies above Wynoose. It was heady stuff. As a kid myself decades later in the ‘60s, to hear an airplane in the sky would involve everyone in the house rushing out into the yards to look up, their hands shielding the sun from their eyes almost in salute. But, then, in the midst of these old stories, to hear about your own uncles performing in black face… What to make of this racism, born out of isolation from the rest of world, yet also chilling in its casualness? But I spoke no protest when I first heard the story, and I make no comment upon it in this poem. But my life isn’t done yet, and there is still time for new words about the old.