Carey Taylor’s The Lure of Impermanence

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I always admire poets who paint a vivid, compelling picture of a setting or situation that seems, on its surface, to be “about” one thing– but through the smallest inflections and details, suggests something deeper.  Carey Taylor is one of these poets, and her new collection The Lure of Impermanence is full of poems like this.

In “Pomology,” we have only one line to anchor us in the unmentioned story– “morphine drips”– while the rest of the poem gives us a tender portrait of the speaker’s father’s passionate knowledge of a certain kind of apple. He is telling the nurse, in detail, about the apples’ “low disease susceptibility,/ how they are foolproof really,/ reliable, well balanced,/ and sweet,” while his wife lies in a hospital bed. He has just asked the nurse “how long before his wife can go home,” and the unanswered question hangs in the space between the lines of the poem, telling us all we need to know.

Impermanence– what is brief, mortal, transient, uncertain– is like that. Tricky in its hidden obviousness. There at the end of a life, a sentence, a moment, anything really. Expected– and yet always wholly unexpected.

“Arrivals and Departures” is a lament of the world continuing, cruelly, after the death of a loved one. The poem accuses “the cottonwoods in the ravine” of continuing to blossom right in the face of a friend’s quiet grief. Outrageously, “the ferry in the harbor moaned/arrivals and departures,” a loud reminder of what is both ever-changing and constant. Yet there are also markers of mortality that don’t hurt– “hope on a stem/ in the name of trillium and iris.”

This double-possibility, this tension, is the thread weaving this collection together. The poem of lament stands beside the poem of celebration and gratitude. The natural and the man-made world are full of reminders of impermanence, and they are both luminous and terrible. These are strong poems, rich in color and imagery, peopled with both the familiar– the faces of neighbors, tea kettles, socks– as well as the mysterious: gemstones, airborne observatories, earthquakes.

I loved this book for the way it offers language for holding the confusion of life’s experiences together in cupped hands, not trying to explain or deny, but not giving in to despair either.

I met Carey last summer when we both read at the Lents Farmer’s Market here in Portland, and we read together again this past January. She’s a talented reader, full of warmth and humor, and it’s wonderful to hear these poems aloud. You can hear her read from The Lure of Impermanence this Saturday at the Inland Poetry Festival in Washington, and follow her here for more of her writing and events.

 

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Slow Summer Reading: A Review of Relief Journal

Summer went by quickly for me this year.

With a wiggly baby and active preschooler, I spent a lot of time running back and forth from the park to swim class, back home for the baby’s nap, and out again for another fun summer activity from our bucket list.

By day’s end I was tired, but I’d try to squeeze in a few minutes of reading before falling asleep. Reading has been a huge part of summer for me since I was a kid, and I’m continuing that tradition with my own children. We all participated in our library’s summer reading program. While my kids and I tore through almost 100 picture books, it took me all summer to finish my small stack of non-fiction books.

I felt energized by all of this activity, and engaged in my reading, and I also had to consciously create time to slow down– to plan days with nothing on the schedule, put away all screens for a few days here and there, go barefoot in the backyard grass and dirt with my preschooler, and just sit on the back porch with my husband after the kids’ bedtime.

So I was grateful when the most recent issue of Relief Journal landed on my porch, smack in the middle of a heat wave in the middle of July. It had been a while since I’d made the time to sit down with this or any other print journal and just enjoy reading new work from a range of writers. I really loved this issue (spring 2018) and I wanted to share my reflections on some of my favorite pieces.

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Susanna Childress’s essay “Age Appropriate” absolutely floored me. I’ve shared it with a number of friends and I continue to think about not just its content, but the way in which Childress weaves together political commentary, personal narrative, and even a bit of nature writing, all with a poet’s ear for rhythm and eye for image.

She writes about the challenge of talking about difficult subjects with her young son. How should she tell him about the loss of babies who would have been his younger siblings? How does she explain police brutality, and the shooting of black parishioners during a bible study, and why his black friend’s mom has to have completely different conversations with her son about playing outside? In some ways, there is no “age appropriate” language for the territories of grief and injustice. Childress does a breathtaking job of taking the reader with her through a maze of questions– her own and her son’s– that ultimately have no easy answer.

I admired the clarity and directness of Chris Anderson’s poems “Transfigurations” and “You Never Know,” which tackle mystery in different but complimentary ways. What really happens to the bread and the wine in communion? How do we comprehend the paradox of Christ? What happens when we die? I liked how conversational these poems were, how apparently simple because of ordinary syntax, ordinary diction. This is the kind of poetry that really get to me, the kind that is able to say something essential yet utterly new, in language that feels as worn and familiar as a kitchen cutting board.

I love Marjorie Stelmach’s work, and her poem “Salt” in this issue is no exception, with its cascade of vivid imagery and precise sound spilling into sudden revelations like, “Somedays, it feels right to be weathered,” and “I know/ I’ve taken safety for granted, as if it were earned.” In “Vinegar,” she writes about Christ’s death on the cross and the mystery of faith as reflections of our own reality– we are spiritual and physical beings, needing both the concrete goodness of earth and confirmation that this isn’t all we are. I love how this poem begins with “If it’s true,” which seems to me is the ongoing dialogue of faith.

Then there’s Laura Arciniega’s strange speculative world in “The Shell,” which made me deeply uncomfortable in a good way. A mother is baking bread for her young son, and later a young couple visits the family, and they walk on the beach. It’s a seemingly simple story. But there is something different about the mother, the bread, the son, and the beach. The father tells the son a story: “Far away, there is a place where the day passes so slowly that a hen knows she’s about to lay an egg before she lays it…” We learn that in this world, a lifetime takes only a few weeks. To me, this story is about the strange weight and flexibility of time, which is so relevant to me in this phase of early motherhood.

There are many, many other poems, essays, stories, and even a comic diary in this issue that challenged me and got me thinking. If you haven’t yet picked up a copy of Relief, this issue would be a wonderful introduction.

Overall, I was left with deep gratitude when I finished this issue. It took some time– a month and a half!– to read and absorb each piece in here. Yes, part of that is because I’m the mother of two small children. And another part is that this is a carefully, lovingly crafted journal, filled with work that does not shy away from the full range of human experience. I read and thoroughly enjoyed each piece in this issue, and that’s something I don’t often experience in a literary journal.

I felt impressed by the work of this work, the generosity of time and effort the writers poured into these essays and poems, so that I as a reader could be changed. I felt impressed by the work of the students at Taylor University who put this journal together under the leadership of editor Dan Bowman, a fellow SPU MFA alum.

It was an encouragement to me as a writer to continue my own work, and a reminder that good writing takes time, in the making and in the receiving. In the end, it is so worth it.

 

Marjorie Stelmach’s “After” in Image Journal

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Here’s my latest short introduction for Image Journal‘s Poetry Friday column. Marjorie Stelmach’s poem “After” is a tender and nuanced meditation on grief.

I love this weekly showcase of beautiful poems from the Image archives, and I especially love the challenge of writing the briefest of reflections on a poem. It’s getting me back into the habit of close, sustained reading that I cultivated during graduate school. Writing these intros on deadline is like making mini-annotations. I’m grateful for the invitation into the worlds of these poems.

Read Stelmach’s poem at Image Journal.

Claudia Emerson: Second Bearing, 1919

This is the most recent poem to make me catch my breath, it’s so real. Part of it is that it is a story recounted and recounted, and yet never worn out. Something in that line “I have asked him to tell it.”

Part of it is this idea of a second bearing, beyond expectation, an almost supernatural hope. There’s a peach tree in my own life like this, 60 years old and counting, nearly hollowed by lightning– and still bearing fruit. There’s a poem I’ve tried to write for many years about this tree.

There’s the strange innocence and resilience of the tree. The doom inside of sweetness, mortality. It seems to tell the story of the world– fallen humanity, our poor stewardship of the earth– and there’s also something human about the peach itself: sweetness and death, mixed. It’s the strangest poem.

 

Second Bearing, 1919
      for my father

by Claudia Emerson

I have asked him to tell it– how
he heard the curing barn took hours

to burn, the logs thick, accustomed
to heat– how, even when it was clear all

was lost, the barn and the tobacco
fields within it, they threw water

instead on the nearby peach tree,
intent on saving something, sure,

though, the heat had killed it, the bark
charred black. But in late fall, the tree

broke into bloom, perhaps having
misunderstood the fire to be

some brief, backward winter. Blossoms
whitened, opened. Peaches appeared

against the season– an answer,
an argument. Word carried. People

claimed the fruit was sweeter for being
out of time. They rode miles to see it.

He remembers by grandfather
saying, his mouth full, this is

a sign, and the one my father
was given to eat– the down the same,

soft as any other, inside
the color of cream, juice clear

as water, but wait, wait; he holds
his cupped hand up as though for me

to see again there is no seed,
to pit to come to– that it is

infertile, and endless somehow.

-from Late Wife, LSU Press, 2005

I Am Malala

In the wake of the terrifying news about 200 kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls, I’m reflecting on education and freedom.

I’m a teacher and a writer. I have two degrees, and I co-own a small business with my husband. I can choose to have children, vote, go to college– or not. I am a woman who drives and shops and takes public transportation alone, and while I’m careful to lock doors and tell others when I go on solitary walks, I’m rarely afraid for my safety.

This was not the case for Malala Yousafzai, a Pakistani woman shot by the Taliban in October 2012 while riding  a school bus filled with children. Her crime? A desire for an education for herself and every girl in her home valley of Swat, and the courage to speak out in a dangerous time.

I just got through reading her 2013 book I Am Malala, which is one of the most joyful, compassionate, honest autobiographies I’ve read. When she writes about her “second life”– the life she says God gave her when she survived the attack– Malala inspires me to live my own life in the service of love and freedom.

She inspires me to keep studying and learning, so that I can be a good teacher for my students, many of whom are Saudi women who have come to the US for better opportunities. She inspires me to write, speak, and stand up for women fighting oppression in my own community and in the global community. Most of all, she inspires me to live close to God, who is with us even in the midst of our anger and heartbreak for these missing girls. I am joining with her and everyone else in praying for their safe return.

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piled up braids

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It has been one year since I graduated from the MFA program at Seattle Pacific University. I’m remembering waking up early to write before class, at a table beneath a big window in my upstairs room. I’m remembering the snow that surprised us toward the end of the week, hushing everything under a thick white blanket.  I’m remembering the winter we spent hauling all 1,000+ pages of Sigrid Undset’s trilogy around with us. Set in medieval Norway, Kristin Lavransdatter is a darkly beautiful epic, built on the inner lives of a knot of characters whose flaws bind them painfully to each other. A few of us loved the book, including me.

The last week of the residency, Rachel and I both showed up for breakfast wearing “Kristin braids,” hair piled up and pinned so the wind wouldn’t knock it loose. I have short hair again, but at the residency it was long. This style used to be my remedy for melancholy– waking up to a gray day, after fitful sleep or a late-night deadline. Piling my hair on the top of my head in braids, I felt suddenly taller, fancier. Even in jeans, even under an umbrella.

When I married, my hair wasn’t quite to my shoulders, but with enough pins and flowers, who could tell?

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on truth and storytelling

I recently watched The Stories We Tell, Sarah Polley’s documentary of a family secret.  I found it fascinating. It’s a cinematic exploration of one of the most complicated, controversial issues in literary nonfiction. Whose truth is the truth? What truth can be harvested from the blurred terrain between fiction and nonfiction?

Polley turns the camera on her siblings, her father, and family friends, in search of the truth about her real birth father. But the truth is more complicated than the result of a paternity test. It is woven with deeper questions about identity and family, the individual and the community, authorship and storytelling.

Turning these ideas over in my mind, I was drawn to a short radio spot on a recent documentary that explores similar themes: Steve Lickteig’s Open Secret.

“What if everything you thought you knew about yourself was a lie?” Lickteig asks. “And everyone knew the truth except you?”

As a teen in a small town, Lickteig learns that the woman he thought was his older sister Joni was in fact his birth mother, and the woman he called Mom was actually his grandmother. Though he’s the main character in the story concerned, he’s the last to know.

What is it I find so compelling about Lickteig’s story, and Polley’s story? As a kid, I was equally fascinated by The Truman Show, for the way it seemed to capture, in fiction, something emotionally true about real life. I think we all hope, at an unconscious level, that one day something will explain what it is we’ve been missing. Perhaps growing up is about losing faith in the fantasy that wholeness can be found in a set of circumstances.

Lickteig’s and Polley’s stories are about family, and finding resolution. Through art, they describe their journey through pain and loss to forgiveness, healing, and understanding.

What if everything you thought you knew about yourself was a lie? This may seem like a stretch, but I think my personal fascination with this question has always been tied to faith. I see its persistence in my thoughts as a gift of restlessness, God leading me back to Him, like Herbert’s pulley.

Though the particulars are different, and the result worlds apart, there’s something in these stories that feels of a piece with the emotions I felt in conversion. There’s a paradigm shift that happens when we begin to conceive of ourselves in a new way. I began to look through new eyes at all I thought I knew about myself– the interests, preferences, accomplishments, and habits I thought made up my identity. Before, I used to hear language about “surrendering the self” and think only of loss. Instead, I’ve experienced an ever-deepening, widening freedom through serving God and knowing Jesus. It’s a path that has no end, that continues to show me more of myself in Christ and Christ in me. The more I let go of, the more I have to give.

I’m still fascinated by stories like these, and the relationship between story and identity. What about you?

like a tinsmith’s scoop

Yesterday we lost a great poet. Nobel winner Seamus Heaney died in his native Ireland at the age of 74. He was still writing, and I thought we had many more years of masterful work from him ahead.

Heaney’s poems have had a huge impact on me as both a poet and a reader, and I suspect they will continue to teach me for years to come. His pleasure in language, its textures and sounds, teaches me to approach poetry-making like a craftsman. In poems, he is a woodworker with plane in hand, smoothing natural speech into something luminous and somehow more real. A blacksmith pounding rhythm into cold material.

I spent this morning in the turning fall light in the garden, rereading one of my favorite books of his, the series North. Tonight we read the book’s first poem aloud after dinner, marveling at its necklace of matched sounds. It remains one of my favorites of all. It’s the first part of “Mossbawn: Two Poems in Dedication,” written for his mother Mary.

 

I. Sunlight

 

There was a sunlit absence.
The helmeted pump in the yard
heated its iron,
water honeyed

in the slung bucket
and the sun stood
like a griddle cooling
against the wall

of each long afternoon.
So, her hands scuffled
over the bakeboard,
the reddening stove

sent its plaque of heat
against her where she stood
in a floury apron
by the window.

Now she dusts the board
with a goose’s wing,
now sits, broad-lapped,
with whitened nails

and measling shins:
here is a space
again, the scone rising
to the tick of two clocks.

And here is love
like a tinsmith’s scoop
sunk past its gleam
in the meal-bin.

 

With the sound of that scoop in our ears, its muted bite into coarse grain, we muse out loud. Yes, love is like that: sunk into the work of life. With our hands full of struggle, slowness, pieces and fragments, we make our lives. Over time and with the blessing of years, the making becomes inextricable from our loving, our being loved.

Here is love like a tinsmith’s scoop, in this poem as in so many of Heaney’s poems. Inextricable.