Saturday, April 30, 2011

St. Dymphna, keep our heads on straight...

Though I’m not Catholic, I can probably thank my 11th-grade total immersion in Catholic doctrine by the nuns of Notre Dame Academy for Girls in Omaha for my obsession with saints. I’m fascinated with how sainted individuals, especially women, might have seen their own lives, as opposed to the romantic re-writing of history that seems to come with canonization.

Dymphna, according to legend, was the 13th-century daughter of an Irish pagan chieftain. She converted to Christianity at the age of 10 or 11, shortly before her mother died. Her father, crazy with “grief” (I’m biting my tongue here), tried to bed his daughter because she looked so much like his late wife. Dymphna and a priest, Gerebernus, fled, taking refuge in a chapel. Alas, her father found them, had his minions kill the priest, and chopped off his own daughter’s head for disobeying.

I always feel a wee bit closer to St. Dymphna, patron saint of the mentally ill, at the end of the semester, when my own mental health is in desperate need of a blessing. So on this last day of National Poetry Month, here’s my petition to the determined Irish lass. (For more info on the sile na gigh mentioned in the poem, see


            patron of the mentally ill

In fitful dreams I find you shivering
in rowan and ferns along the Blackwater
river, wreathed in St. John’s wort
& anointed with yellow-rattle,
half-starved and wrapped in a celtar
cinched at the waist with an oak rosary,
humming strains of your mother’s brief
lullaby. But your father was a chieftain
and knew the magic, found you anyway.
Grief or madness drove him to finger
your small bones for signs of her
in the curve of your emerging breasts,
the winged cup of your pelvis, your
silky down, and you a fugitive
child with courage enough to keep locked
that garden gate, though he found you
again, sealed the gate forever. Forsaken
daughter, in my own trembling delusion
I am your Síle na Gigh, we offer up
a novena to our Mother and for nine days
I give you this blessing too—my stone lap
cushioned with heather & moss, pillow
for your bruised and worried brow.


Friday, April 22, 2011

"Mala," an April holidays poem

It’s Easter weekend on the Row, and I’ve just come off of three days straight of 40 productive, rewarding, but exhausting back-to-back student conferences over literary research papers. By Thursday, Day 3, I was doing a lot of thinking about death and resurrection, believe me. I’ve also been thinking about the American commercialization of Easter – coordinated outfit/handbag shopping, forced childhood scavenging for outdoor-contaminated candy, mutant egg-laying bunnies, and a lust for patent leather shoes. The fact that so many people live comfortably with the bizarre commingling of a high holy day and a shopping holiday is a testament to our flexibility, I guess.

There are loads of other commemorative days being celebrated in April, too, like Hindu Ramayana, traditional Chinese Qingming, Jewish Pesach, Baha’i Ridvan, Theravadin Buddhist new year, Earth Day, Cosmonaut’s Day, and probably many more. And, it’s National Poetry Month, for Pete’s sake! So here’s another poem, this one long. I wanted to see if I could (1) write a poem that sounded like a “universalist” chant; (2) write it in 9-line stanzas to represent the multiples of 9 beads commonly found in Buddhist malas, Islamic tasbih, and other kinds of prayer beads, and (3) incorporate John Lennon’s mantra, “Love is all you need.”

Happy holidays, whichever ones you observe…


In the beginning
was the breath
inspiration exhalation illumination.
It was and was not, stirring
pale light, salt, clay
in a deep cauldron of stars
pitched to one side
spilling gaseous invocations
into thin air—

ohm mane padme hum
ohm namah shivaya
our father our mother
Saturnian retrograde yin yang
nameless spirit unified heart and mind
mitakuye oyasin tanzih tashbih
St. Jude thin ray of hope
grandfather grandmother
Jahveh I Am That I Am

and the breath shaped its perfect
full mouth around the Word
formed us from three elements
set us down in the fourth, fire of the Word,
let us play and burn for ten-thousand years
making oblations in the fire
tears wine sperm tears blood
let us tease spark from vein
and hold it against our skin

until cinders worked their way beneath our nailbeds
until flame licked the bone
until spark curled up in the belly
until the only heat was in the belly
until the air was cool and dry
until the ground went cold
until we understood flame and ash
until we sat naked and shivering
until the rain fell.

Pools formed in indentations
footprints of wandering gods
and on the slick surface of the water
we saw ourselves, clumsy, too fat or thin,
aching and wounded
we saw each other only in that rippled mirror
eyes cast down and fixed
on an image of our own bluing upturned hands
so delicate so hypnotic that we

would not cross the water with a poultice
would not set the bone
would not speak the Word
and darkness fell.    In the blackness
silhouettes against a pocked moon
we pushed and pulled the muck
into mountains snowcapped and treacherous
until fenced in, we came to adore
the dark and silvered mirrors

distorted images of bent knees, sloping backs,
small breasts, muscled thighs.
We formed our small trembling mouths
into awkward shapes
stood half-erect with heads tilted
filled our lungs with air
filled the air with only hoarse wavering
grunts and hisses
could not fit our mouths around the Word.

The earth, this pool, is the cracked mirror
in which we are still caught as
ten thousand planets heat and cool
ten thousand stars blink to life
scatter, explode in the watery night
while we shiver, naked,
dim shadows against a cave wall, mouthing
the Word that would release us
the Word we clamp behind our teeth.

In the dark, in the cold
in crags or on sudden plateaus we strike
blindly at rocks, dig at the root
but always make our way back to the water
back to our selves
rippled and silver in brief glints of fog or moon
broken when the breath moves the Word
across the surface of the water
where we lean in, locked in a long gaze.

And sometimes we hear it,
the perfect Word skimming the water, pushing up
along rock faces, drifting into gaps with a sigh
a beautiful sad tremolo
that clashes in dissonant chords
with cries from across
a distant mirrored pool
brackish now, encircled in a white salt ring,
our temporary crust of light.

ohm mane padme hum
ohm namah shivaya
our father our mother
Saturnian retrograde yin yang
nameless spirit unified heart and mind
mitakuye oyasin tanzih tashbih
St. Jude thin ray of hope
grandfather grandmother
Jahveh I Am That I Am

make my jaws unclench
make my fists uncurl
make my heart split open like a ripe plum
make my arms reach out over the water
make my eyes look up from this illusion
make my silver blood pour out over the ground
make my lungs fill to bursting, my mouth round,
help me make the sound, the only prayer, the Word—


Saturday, April 16, 2011

Wine, song, poetry and...gee-tar.

April is National Poetry Month. It’s also International Guitar Month--no kidding. And since the Nickorettes (an acoustic trio my two friends and I are putting together) are playing for our friend’s daughter’s wedding today, and since I’ve been scheming a summer poetry project, my head is a’whirl with verse & song. So I offer up this little poem. It’s the result of two things that had been floating around in my head back then: (1) Christopher Dewdney’s amazing list poem, “Grid Erectile” (see him read it in an excerpt from the incredible 1983 beat-poets video, Poetry in Motion, at; (2) a concert I’d been to, where the then 20-something Kaki King (before this bit on Letterman did something only one or two people in my entire life have been able to do: left me speechless. So the poem is for Dewdney, who gave me reasons without argument, and for King, who stunned me into silence…

            The world has become
                  a spectacle of absence,
                  a radiant inventory.
                                    Christopher Dewdney

Because your pinafore is an alder guitar body shaped like a woman
Because your ringlets are shining rows of phosphor bronze
Because your hands are pale long-legged spiders dancing
Because your wrist bends back like the curl of a garden snail
Because your voice is small and high like a chipping sparrow
Because you call up Earth’s low hum and it echoes in my ribs
Because you can disappear at will in a fog of sound or silence
Because you weave blue & silver chords into sheer electric fabric
Because your vibrato is a flame that trips nerves along my spine
Because you find a labyrinth of bright rooms in a glass bottleneck
Because you trick harmonics and women’s fists unfurl, breath slows
Because old men cry and children stop fidgeting
Because ash settles lightly in the hearts of jealous men
Because these notes are elemental, a baptism
Because you are hollow, a conduit radiating multitonal effusion
Because when you stop there is only absence
Because 5000 people are fed, soothed, rocked to sleep
Because this is the sound a weeping fig must make
Because there was stillness and expectation and now this
Because somewhere in the desert tremors have begun underground
Because water bubbles up from hairline cracks in baked clay
Because yucca flowers open to nocturnal white moths
Because I can only breathe, swallow, blink, wait

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Facebook Loves Me, It Loves Me Not...

Facebook (Crackbook, as some of my more addicted friends call it) isn’t just for kids anymore. According to a 2009 report on, from January to July of 2009 alone—6 short months—the number of users 55 and over grew by 513.7%. Some of us aren’t just FB friends with our kids; we’re on-line friends with our grandkids, too.

Check out TIME’s 2009 article about why FB is for old folks:,9171,1879169,00.html

Here’s my own handy-dandy list of reasons why I both HATE & LOVE Facebook…

Love: I’ve reconnected with friends from school I’d lost track of over the years. Some of them I hadn’t heard from since elementary school (back in the days when we shivered on the stoop, barefoot in a driving blizzard, with nothing but old flour sacks for coats, waiting for the covered-wagon school bus).

Hate: FB made me remember WHY I’d lost track of some folks over the years, and I’m sure they’re now thinking the same thing about me.

Love: I take guilty voyeuristic pleasure in knowing what folks are up to—their travels, their treks down to the river or up Spirit Mound, new recipes they’ve tried, events they’re hosting/attending/promoting, bathrooms they're remodeling, the ingenious way they got black shoe polish out of a beige linen dress. It’s like "Hints from Heloise", Hell’s Kitchen, Wild Kingdom, and National Geographic mixed together and chopped into tiny, tasty bits.

Hate: I love you, but unless you're my son or daughter, I don’t want to know—ever—when your period starts, when you go back on your psych meds, when you have ANY kind of cramps, what pain killers you’re taking for those cramps, when you’re throwing up, the color of the freakish discharge from your nose, or what nasty, gross, or evil thing you did to your girl/boyfriend for breakup revenge. And I don’t think I’m alone here. I don’t think your other 3472 BFF’s want to know, either. Before you post something on FB, how about you take a moment to imagine yourself on stage, standing at the mic, in a cozy theatre that seats…say…a million people (if you count how much of your FB stuff has leaked/seeped out into the ether in spite of your “privacy” settings). Would you announce to those people, face-to-face, eyeball-to-eyeball, that thing you’re about to post on FB? Really? Call me a puritan (you’d be the first), but I believe some things ARE too personal for FB.

Love: I love seeing pictures of people I haven’t seen for ages. This can sometimes make me believe I’m aging gracefully and still have that plucky Pippi Longstocking impishness.

Hate: Seeing pictures of other old friends can send me into a nosedive of hopeless surrender, where I dig through the pantry for Little Debbie Crème Pies and marshmallow sauce and take to my La-Z-Girl; Ray will find me days later with a marshmallow mustache, wrapped in a fuzzy blankie, rocking, and humming “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.”

Love: I love that I can eavesdrop on the lives of my family & friends, and instantly share in their joys, celebrations, and accomplishments.

Hate: There’s already a syndrome called “Facebook Depression” (,0,4742055.story) that afflicts folks (mostly kids) who spend too much time on FB. They develop depression or anxiety—sometimes severe—as a result of comparing their lives to the lives of others. I know people my age who've left FB because they're sick of hearing about other people's "perfect" lives. Seriously?!? You think these people with the "perfect" lives aren't posting selectively? (FB is, after all, the ultimate personal marketing tool.) Anyway, no matter what you see on FB, here's the real deal: Everyone’s life is hard.

Hate: that FB is the narcissist’s playground, where one can chronicle every gritty detail of one’s daily life.

Love: that FB is the narcissist’s playground, where one can chronicle every gritty detail of one’s daily life.