Thursday, August 13, 2009

On a Given Sunday

Newberg, Oregon, February 2009

Nothing extraordinary or epic happens on Sunday afternoons. A small group of students meets in a campus apartment with blue mismatched furniture. We sip hot tea—steeped extra strong—and eat the benefits of my domestic skills. This week a tray of Scottish shortbread serves as our centerpiece on the coffee table with a bowl of almonds. Beside the table sits a stack of poetry, including an anthology titled Very Bad Poetry. We have no philosophical revelations. We pass around the volumes of verse. Pour the tea, stir in sugar and milk. And in that space we meet each other through metaphor and stanza.

Julia snatches up the Very Bad Poetry, and reads an ode to cheese, the elegy of a little blond girl who dies after eating her beefsteak supper, and the utter tragedy of a flopping dead man, who, upon his death, gives a resounding “Plop!”

“That was tragic,” I say.

“Kohleun, read ‘The Shirt’ in a ‘sexy’ voice,” Amberle says as I flip through Jane Kenyon’s collection, Otherwise.

“I don’t think I can do a ‘sexy’ voice without laughing, and I don’t have a ‘sexy’ laugh,” I reply.

“Just do it,” Arianne demands with her legs flung over the arm of a once-puffy chair that could easily fit two average-sized adults in its embrace. Four other voices echo Arianne’s sentiments, and I begin to read (and laugh). As I deepen my voice, we retrace the path of “the shirt” as it caresses a man’s neck and “slides down his side.” Karith and Alicia begin to laugh uncontrollably—one croaks and the other squeaks—both sound like they are hyperventilating as they try to hide flaming faces in each other’s sweatshirts, failing miserably. Meanwhile, Heidi is laughing at Karith, and Julia is straining to maintain a ‘serious’ demeanor, holding a smile down with her hands; but at the closing line, “Lucky shirt,” everyone rocks back in her seat and cheers.

“This is definitely going on Facebook,” Amberle says, turning off her digital camera, which has video capabilities, apparently.

“More! More!” Alicia chants and wipes her eyes.

Julia continues to thumb through Very Bad Poetry. “’Only One Eye’ by Lillian Curtis,” she reads then clears her throat, “I love the gentle girl, But oh! I heaved a sigh, When first she told me she could see Out of only one eye.” Groans and various other ‘verbal responses’ escape our lips.

“The appropriate title, “Arianne asserts, “should be ‘The Two-eyed Idiot.’”

Amberle looks to Arianne and says, “I’ve found the poem of your life!” and hands her Mary Karr’s Sinners Welcome, opened to page thirty-two.

“’Miss Flame, Apartment Bound, as Undiscovered Porn Star’?”


“Read it in a ‘sexy’ voice,” I tease.

And she does.

We learn things about Arianne we had never imagined.

I am on my third cup of tea. Julia runs into the kitchen to put another kettle of water on the hob to boil, and rushes back to recline on the large pillow beside me. While cold rain hits the roof and windows, inside, the heater creates a hum of its own as it floods warmth into the room.

From her corner on the couch, Karith moves her body forward, as if immerging from a secret cavern. She has been cradling Naomi Shihab Nye’s You & Yours for the past fifteen minutes. “I want to read a serious poem. It’s one of my favorites, but first, are there any staunch Bush supporters?”

If there are, no one admits it.

We chuckle a bit when Karith reads from “He Said EYE-RACK”: “On St. Patrick’s Day 2003, President Bush wore a blue tie” But we go silent when she reads:
. . . He said, “We are
against the lawless men who
rule your country, not you.” Tell that
to the mother, the sister, the bride. . .
the librarian careful with her shelves.

“Hmm,” we buzz in our throats, surrounded with books of our own. I straighten a dog-eared corner; Karith closes the book and smoothes its golden cover with her fingers. Alicia twists her wedding ring around its freckled finger. We are all sisters. Some of us are married. We have witnessed our own personal ruinations, though missiles have not exploded our markets and neighborhoods. Heidi, who recently lived in Cairo, leans closer to Karith. Amberle collapses her chin into her hands. And I remember the Palestinian mothers I met in Bethlehem. We chew our almonds quietly.

In this quiet moment, I turn to Ted Kooser and “The Jar of Buttons.” The poem begins like an epic tale on the high sea: “This is a core sample from the floor of the Sea of Mending,” a circle of women that spans generations. I look around the room at friends—some of whom have never met each other before this Sunday—this gathering around tea and shortbread, and I continue reading:
generations of women set forth,
under the sails of gingham curtains,
and, seated side by side
on decks sometimes salted by tears,
made small but important repairs.

After a few more rounds of tea, and we are all more than sufficiently caffeinated and smell of butter and nuttiness, each woman rises to leave. We say our good-byes for the day, maybe even the week, and embrace or kiss air by the cheek.

I stand at the door as rain continues to pour over the eaves, watching my friends walk away, and I squeeze Karith’s shoulder. The almond bowl is almost empty, and the striped fabric napkin, which played the role of tablecloth, is covered in crumbs. I know we have done nothing grand here, nor have we mended shirts or curtains, but we swabbed the decks of other generations with our tea, and rinsed them in the splash of our laughter.

Philosophical Inquiry

I just want to know how
you are doing, my love—
how time, a distant relative,
has sketched your face
in lines and circles,
how you see the world
when your eyes are shut
and you are sleeping,
consciousness only memory,
or how you fill space
with your body, moving
past wholes and halves
of steps towards me,
this moment a justified belief.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

An Ode to Unemployment and Other Magical Things

I've been rejected again,
another letter: "Thank you
for your interest, but
unfortunately, you have not
been selected at this time.
Good luck in future endeavors."
With that they close the letter.

And another note flashes in the inbox
to say my writing doesn't pass the canon
of yet another editor, and I think
to myself, "I'm through with words.
They've never caused me anything
but trouble, and I hate them."
And to engrave my frustration

on the world, I write this poem,
and another and another
in the quiet hours all mine
and no one else's, hours spent
alone with my mind, blooming
unkept, as a garden with no one
to sing to it, or read in its shaded corners.

And the weeds wax thick with color,
but they are only weeds. I am
afraid to plant the seeds of a citrus
or hearty conifer to consume my softened
attempts, turn them to biting spines.
Those you cannot uproot and take along
when acceptance finally sends its memo.


Fill in the “h,” the “u.”
Tack on an “r” here and there.
Of course that’s what they meant
to say. Uh huh. I know
how we were all there when
Christ fed the five thousand
(not including women and children).

A star for the wise men,
angels sent to shepherds, pastors
of the fields. Such light
that shone all around
as they proclaimed, “Peace
on earth, good will toward men”
(that explains a lot).

On that night, a savior came
for whosoever believes. The Son
of God, Son of Man.
Humble carpenter of Nazareth,
poor and not handsome—
like a lamb led to the slaughter is silent
(truly a woman’s son).

(For Kathy, Kendra, and Melanie)

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

In Gaza

Something broke long ago
tender neck, brittle bones,
olive branch in the desert.

And how do we make
repairs to the dead?
Straighten the spine,

push rebar through marrow,
sew ring-ed time and bark?
Do we let the wounds lie, hoping

they will close with the hours?
Only the living form scars
and even those burst


Friday, August 15, 2008

The Meeting

This Poem is a fresh draft, still not completely tweaked, but here it is.

The Meeting
Fredrick William Burton’s “Meeting
on the Turret Stairs,” 1864

I wonder why they close their eyes.
He with lips pressed into the velvet
crease of her elbow
inhales deeply perhaps his last breath
with back hard against the stone
pillar covered head to tip of toe
in steel mesh and hide,
a contrast to the soft dense blue
of her gown and train
of cumbersome folds.

She faces the wall, chin turned down,
arm stretched across the chest of him
who is meant to save her from
war and rape and shame,
she more than image, thicker
than mist, holds him there
and he would fall
forward at any moment
if she were to disappear,
turn to memory or fog.

We have no evidence of tears,
not even a spot on canvas,
the only thing trailing or falling
is her long gold braid crossing
the back of a bodice,
but here he is crying into her arm,
the most intimate of meetings
in the midst of a history that will
forget them, turned to emblem and myth.
We blink and it is gone.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Staining Glass

Listen, child, to the steps
of quiet cries,
liturgy of tight fists,

broken fingers
wearing crushed coal,
glowing ore.

Do you hear the burst
of purple
under amber eyes,

see the breeze of silk scarf,
tied high
around bending neck?

Stained glass, brightened
by warm streams, washes

Colors of what was shattered
draw you into the image
painted a-cross

stone and cement.
Shards in shapes without words—
angles unmeasured, curves untraced.

Yes, they are beautiful
all pieced and polished together.
But this is a broken place.

Feel, child, the song
of the Via Dolorosa,
its starts and steps,

rocks lodged in heels.
Rubies run down temple
from nature’s filigree.

She wanted to follow
each twist of road
each turn of sacred ankle,

but wore the bracelet of warning,
burning opal, stinging sapphire,
precious family heirloom.

Listen, child, to the silence.
Hear flaming prayers flicker.
You will not find her

candle here.
Hear flashing tithes of silver.
Her offering was not accepted.

Hear emeralds sparkle
from plundered cities.
Her riches are not set in alter stone.

Hear the faith of our fathers
sung each week without fail
and wonder

whose voice stains the glass.