Negotiations with a Volcano by Naomi Shihab Nye

•November 25, 2014 • 5 Comments

I woke up this morning in tears, the wisps of a dream leaving me softly. Disoriented, I had trouble deciphering where I was, in the dark. I thought I was back again in a deep pit where no one can hear me for miles and miles, and for a few seconds was filled with terror—not for being alone, but for being back. Then I began to wake up, my lungs expanding. I realise it’s a memory I have of things that didn’t happen—or maybe it did, sometime, somewhere, in another life.

It’s leftover grief, I tell myself. Leftover sadness. The kind that arrives at your door unannounced, saying, have you forgotten? It’s because my days have been good for as long as I can remember it. Difficult, but good, and I treasure that. Life has been both kind and not kind, and honestly, is there any other way to live? For this moment, at least.

Two years I’ve been putting myself back together, and lately I feel like I am finally figuring some things out. Mostly I am learning not to venture too far ahead, because things change. Mostly I am learning that I will always be vulnerable. Mostly I am learning I can’t shield myself from everything, as much as I want to. That it is painful, but I need to be open if I want to spend the rest of my days creating. Mostly I am learning that there are people I can love who can grow with me, and there are people I can leave whom I’ve outgrown. Mostly I am learning what it means to be here, and to stay here.

How have I been living: most days I wake up around six. Two hours later I am at my desk writing. I come up for air every now and then. In the evening I write some more, and when sleep comes, I let it take me.

Sometimes I approach writing and living as I would an altar, the way I was taught when I was a child and still find value in kneeling inside a church. Perhaps this is how I pray: I put my pen to paper, and wrestle with the words and the world on the page. I put my pen to paper, and think: this is just to say, this is just to say.

Negotiations with a Volcano
Naomi Shihab Nye

We will call you “Agua” like the rivers and cool jugs.
We will persuade the clouds to nestle around your neck
so you may sleep late.
We would be happy if you slept forever.
We will tend the slopes we plant, singing the songs
our grandfathers taught us before we inherited their fear.
We will try not to argue among ourselves.
When the widow demands extra flour, we will provide it,
remembering the smell of incense on the day of our Lord.

Please think of us as we are, tiny, with skins that burn easily.
Please notice how we have watered the shrubs around our houses
and transplanted the peppers into neat tin cans.
Forgive any anger we feel toward the earth,
when the rains do not come, or they come too much,
and swallow our corn.
It is not easy to be this small and live in your shadow.

Often while we are eating our evening meal
you cross our rooms like a thief,
touching first the radio and then the loom.
Later our dreams begin catching fire around the edges,
they burn like paper, we wake with our hands full of ash.

How can we live like this?
We need to wake and find our shelves intact,
our children slumbering in their quilts.
We need dreams the shape of lakes,
with mornings in them thick as fish.
Shade us while we cast and hook—
but nothing else, nothing else.

This is from Words Under Words: Selected Poems by Naomi Shihab Nye, published by Far Corner Books, 1995.

The Gift by N. Scott Momaday

•September 12, 2014 • 9 Comments

As it is with friends who haven’t spoken for awhile, we shuffle our feet before we hug. Sometimes we hug for hours.

How are you? And this time I really mean it. I have found myself before at fault for using it by way of hello, but these days I am really asking because I want to know: Are you happy? Loved?

I have learned how to be funny with people who have always seen me sad, and to be sad, and comfortably I might add, with those who always thought that I don’t hurt for very long. If I am lucky, and on some days I am, these people are the same.

What changed, is the crux of a conversation I’ve had a few hours ago. I said, I think it was time. A bit of distance, maybe.

I have been exploring language differently. It’s enough to spur me forward. Does that make sense?

The Gift
N. Scott Momaday

For Bobby Jack Nelson

Older, more generous,
We give each other hope.
The gift is ominous:
Enough praise, enough rope.

This is from The Norton Anthology of Poetry (Shorter Fourth Edition), edited by Margaret Ferguson, Mary Jo Salter, and Jon Stallworthy, published by W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1997.

from Eurydice by H.D.

•September 11, 2014 • Leave a Comment

We turn several words over and over these past few days, measuring their weight. Honor versus respect. What is demanded versus what is earned. What is poetry for, I ask myself, if not to closely examine what we mean by what we say, and how we say it. You think language is economy. I imagine crossing the seas, sitting by the feet of people who understand that words are more than the attempt to open the mouth.

To reject the familiar myth: does it free you, or does it burden you?

We leave each other flowers. One blooms, the other wounds.

from Eurydice


At least I have the flowers of myself,
and my thoughts, no god
can take that;
I have the fervour of myself for a presence
and my own spirit for light;

and my spirit with its loss
knows this;
though small against the black,
small against the formless rocks,
hell must break before I am lost;

before I am lost,
hell must open like a red rose
for the dead to pass.

This is from Selected Poems by H.D., edited by Louis L. Martz, published by New Directions, 1982.

Sometimes by Mary Oliver

•September 10, 2014 • 1 Comment

A mantra for my life: Endure. Just that, an axis I could revolve around. As if the order of everything depends on my ability to dig in, and, on my chance that I buckle (I have weak knees), to stay there and get to know the earth.

It’s not just the one of course, but you know this: the words you pull out in the dark.

These days though: less is more. And yet more is more.

Maybe it’s time to think: Yield. Maybe it’s time to say: Surrender.

Mary Oliver


Something came up
out of the dark.
It wasn’t anything I had ever seen before.
It wasn’t an animal
or a flower,
unless it was both.

Something came up out of the water,
a head the size of a cat
but muddy and without ears.
I don’t know what God is.
I don’t know what death is.

But I believe they have between them
some fervent and necessary arrangement.


melancholy leaves me breathless…


Water from the heavens! Electricity from the source!
Both of them mad to create something!

The lighting brighter than any flower.
The thunder without a drowsy bone in its body.


Instructions for living a life:
Pay attention.
Be astonished.
Tell about it.

Two or three times in my life I discovered love.
Each time it seemed to solve everything.
Each time it solved a great many things
but not everything.
Yet left me as grateful as if it had indeed, and
thoroughly, solved everything.


God, rest in my heart
and fortify me,
take away my hunger for answers,
let the hours play upon my body

like the hands of my beloved.
Let the cathead appear again—
the smallest of your mysteries,
some wild cousin of my own blood probably—
some cousin of my own wild blood probably,
in the black dinner-bowl of the pond.


Death waits for me, I know it, around
one corner or another.
This doesn’t amuse me.
Neither does it frighten me.

After the rain, I went back into the field of sunflowers.
It was cool, and I was anything but drowsy.
I walked slowly, and listened

to the crazy roots, in the drenched earth, laughing and growing.

This is from Red Bird by Mary Oliver, published by Beacon Press, 2008.

Generation by Rae Armantrout

•September 4, 2014 • 1 Comment

A creation story from my childhood: in which a bird pecks at a bamboo so hard that it splits in half, and out comes a man called Malakas (Strong) and a woman called Maganda (Beautiful). Here is an illustration. The story varies now from island to island where I live, but the fact about the bird is constant.

Chopin at two in the morning: Prelude No. 4 in E Minor, Op. 28. It’s stopped raining. My fingers graze the yellow flowers beneath my window as I turn back to my desk and write. These past two years have been difficult. I keep thinking of the time I’ve wasted. I was the undergrowth—always underneath taller trees, always wanting.

How much do we rely on the crumbs we left behind to tell us who and where we are?

There was a child who forgot to be a child because the years have been spent plotting ways to escape the story and find an ending. Possessing neither strength nor beauty, there is only a hunger to eat away at history and what has been.

There is only a story after there is a story to tell, yes?

Do we create endings, or beginnings? The music changes to Shostakovich’s The Gadfly, Opus 97. The dog sleeps near my feet, and I could almost say that I am happy.

To find your trail devoured by birds—isn’t that freeing, too?

Of course you can’t go back.

Rae Armantrout

We know the story.

She turns
back to find her trail
devoured by birds.

The years: the

This is from Veil: New and Selected Poems by Rae Armantrout, published by Wesleyan University Press, 2001.

The Fish by Elizabeth Bishop

•September 3, 2014 • Leave a Comment


“…it worries me not writing, and yet it seems right and sensible to wait. But will inspiration come when I call it? No peace in this world for the poet! Poor poets!”

— Robert Lowell to Elizabeth Bishop, in a letter dated 20 May 1948

How many times have I demonised my despair? How many times have I considered myself an Other? I think of the power of the gaze: your lover’s, your father’s, your Muse’s.

When I talk to friends about repetition in writing, Gertrude Stein has always been my go-to girl. She’s magnificent with it, the way she experiments with language, how she demands that I unlearn everything I know about reading, and start from scratch. But here is a secret: I want to say Bishop. It’s always been at the tip of my tongue, and yet I curl around her name in a protective embrace. What she means to me is beyond speech. Perhaps.

What does it mean to be caught, to be powerless? What does it mean to not put up a fight? To know that your own tremendousness is no match against the surprise, the unknown?

The fish is a poem.

The Fish
Elizabeth Bishop

I caught a tremendous fish
and held him beside the boat
half out of water, with my hook
fast in a corner of his mouth.
He didn’t fight.
He hadn’t fought at all.
He hung a grunting weight,
battered and venerable
and homely. Here and there
his brown skin hung in strips
like ancient wallpaper,
and its pattern of darker brown
was like wallpaper:
shapes like full-blown roses
stained and lost through age.
He was speckled with barnacles,
fine rosettes of lime,
and infested
with tiny white sea-lice,
and underneath two or three
rags of green weed hung down.
While his gills were breathing in
the terrible oxygen
—the frightening gills,
fresh and crisp with blood,
that can cut so badly—
I thought of the coarse white flesh
packed in like feathers,
the big bones and the little bones,
the dramatic reds and blacks
of his shiny entrails,
and the pink swim-bladder
like a big peony.
I looked into his eyes
which were far larger than mine
but shallower, and yellowed,
the irises backed and packed
with tarnished tinfoil
seen through the lenses
of old scratched isinglass.
They shifted a little, but not
to return my stare.
—It was more like the tipping
of an object toward the light.
I admired his sullen face,
the mechanism of his jaw,
and then I saw
that from his lower lip
—if you could call it a lip—
grim, wet, and weaponlike,
hung five old pieces of fish-line,
or four and a wire leader
with the swivel still attached,
with all their five big hooks
grown firmly in his mouth.
A green line, frayed at the end
where he broke it, two heavier lines,
and a fine black thread
still crimped from the strain and snap
when it broke and he got away.
Like medals with their ribbons
frayed and wavering,
a five-haired beard of wisdom
trailing from his aching jaw.
I stared and stared
and victory filled up
the little rented boat,
from the pool of bilge
where oil had spread a rainbow
around the rusted engine
to the bailer rusted orange,
the sun-cracked thwarts,
the oarlocks on their strings,
the gunnels—until everything
was rainbow, rainbow, rainbow!
And I let the fish go.

This is from Poems by Elizabeth Bishop, published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011.

All Girls Should Have a Poem by Richard Brautigan

•September 2, 2014 • Leave a Comment

Sifting through a notebook of letters I’m supposed to send to a friend. It’s more than a year overdue in the mail, and yet it remains on my desk, a steady presence, as if afraid to leave this house. At almost two hundred pages it’s almost a book. It’s heavy in my hands.

Ianthe writes about her father: “I needed a safe place to explore my feelings about him without having to explain anything to anyone.” I hold the hardback copy of You Can’t Catch Death, and it feels strangely light. As if upon putting words on the page, she has freed her burden.

There are no actual pages I can turn in this place. Just a series of clicks until it gets me where I need to go. Until it lets me say what I need to say. I turn my palms up, carrying nothing. My fingers take turns tapping letter after letter after letter, saying everything.

All Girls Should Have a Poem
Richard Brautigan

For Valerie

All girls should have a poem
written for them even if
we have to turn this God-damn world
upside down to do it.

New Mexico
March 16, 1969

This is from Rommel Drives On Deep Into Egypt by Richard Brautigan, published by Delacorte, 1979.


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