Shifting Cultivation

how can I help it if this is the place
where we left in checkered shirts
the stump of the tree
joyful then at the thought of entrusting it to the earth
an ancient crown

we imagined it would drip narcissus in crystals
a whole colony of blossoms
splashed against its foot
a pelt of moss
that exhaled bell-shaped violets
they’d turn their heads
in perennial welcome

it is not forest anymore
but field
stalks lean together
pressing forwards
an almost-ripe army
but still we cocoon the stump with our bodies
fingers curled like talons in the dirt
mid-august heat lolls on skin
summoning blisters
but still

there should be reaping and sowing
the see-saw cadence of machinery
there is only thirst
and rustle of movement in grass
the shadow of the hour shortening
across chapped lips


All the Way From Washington

egg me on
the black sour blood
of crushed berries
on my face and hands
seeping in swarms
a broken carapace

our disorders are the same
it almost satiates me
to be yoked to identical undertows
common denominator
of a bloodline

once I accidentally picked up the phone
you called me nancy
I had to concentrate
on crackling fragments
between words
reality a scrawl
on backs of envelopes

you went on
about maslow’s hierarchy of needs
in a line that crimped
and then unraveled

how senseless
to resist the only thing that binds
the whirring of an extractor fan
internal now as ribs
sea green tablets
the same ones
all these years




he remembers the day you brought the camera home
it was a bulky thing, a friendly mammoth
I like to imagine your face behind it was smiling
though you never enter the frame

there are fifteen children at the party
seven of them yours
in colorful hats
you circle serpentine with the cords wrapped
on your wrist
sweating under the weight of the machine
but you bear it
because these are your children, seven of them
and they glow with rosy energy
the way the sun does just before it
vanishes in a golden streak

there is no sound but I hear jimmy dorsey
muted trumpets and a walking bass line
though I know almost nothing about you I imagine you
danced often
uniting limbs in singular purpose

then the woman’s voice sneaks in
and you are legs and arms, skin
made up of cells in constant motion

there is nothing still about you

you are as fast and sprawling as the city
the tumbling whirring parts of a portable radio

but I cannot name even one thing you loved
though you are the last remnant of a lineage
as untranslatable as a foreign alphabet
as necessary


only months ago I learned
that there was no rupture or report
as I had envisioned ever since the day years ago when
I found out it wasn’t the war
or cancer of the bone
as I had always been told
but slow asphyxiation
a word too cold for you by half

you weren’t the one who taught him to sing, but

you must have known that day the light
would go out of his eyes
as he sat cross-legged on the blue and white quilt

we can only find it now on that magnetic strip
the film you labored for
then shadow-puppet it on the walls
as gracefully as jellyfish might move
as delicate

I know the craving for destruction
the fascination of a welt
the withering of the spine of the mind
until it curls in one long whip
like the dried peel of an apple
I wish I could have met you

W.S. Merwin

This week I want to share a poem by W.S. Merwin called “Green Fields”.

What interests me most about Merwin’s poetry is the way it reflects his philosophy and spirituality.  As a younger poet, his poems were metrical, muscular and restrained.  After becoming enamored with Buddhism, he began to experiment with metrical irregularity and indirect narration, casting off punctuation altogether. His poems took on a much freer quality, even becoming dream-like.  They are suggestions more than anything else, lucid landscapes full of meaning.

Merwin, whose interests in deep ecology are evident in his writing, now lives in Hawaii, cultivating rare palm trees.  Read more of his poetry here.

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Finding Poetry in Lyrics

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about the intersection of poetry and music. As I rework the songs for my next recording project, I’m hoping to find the common ground between the two, writing lyrics that break from the predictable and embrace the infinite possibilities of poetry.  The last few months I’ve been so impressed by the originality and freshness of Fiona Apple and Conor Oberst’s lyrics.  These two artists continually remind me of the importance of rule-breaking and freshness in lyric writing.

“My ills are articulate/my woes are granular/The ants weigh more than the elephants/Nothing, nothing is manageable” Apple sings on “Left Alone”. These images are striking, unusual, and eloquent.  To me, they far surpasses the standard lines that are a product of formulaic songwriting.

Here are two of my favorites.  Listen for the way these words blur the lines between popular music and poetry.


On Ruth Stone and Being Chased by a Poem


This week I read for the first time the work of Ruth Stone, an American poet who wrote poems of extraordinary honesty and insight for nearly nine decades.  In the above video, Stone, age 93, recites several poems by memory, including “The Talking Fish”, one of my favorites.

Stone’s works exhibit a simplicity of diction that allows for an emotional immediacy and directness, a subtle tenderness that impacts the reader in a visceral way.  Her poetry is also marked by a unique musicality.  In this reading, she even sings one poem, “I Have Three Daughters”.

Even more notable to me, however, is the patience Stone shows in her writing, a willingness to slow her gaze enough to capture the poetic in each object, in each interaction.  This skill is one I strive to develop in both poetry and in life.

Stone often spoke of poems as things received, parts of the universe that she had to catch lest the lines slip away.  Elizabeth Gilbert elaborates on this:

As [Stone] was growing up in rural Virginia, she would be out, working in the fields and she would feel and hear a poem coming at her from over the landscape. It was like a thunderous train of air and it would come barreling down at her over the landscape. And when she felt it coming…cause it would shake the earth under her feet, she knew she had only one thing to do at that point. That was to, in her words, “run like hell” to the house as she would be chased by this poem.  The whole deal was that she had to get to a piece of paper fast enough so that when it thundered through her, she could collect it and grab it on the page. Other times she wouldn’t be fast enough, so she would be running and running, and she wouldn’t get to the house, and the poem would barrel through her and she would miss it, and it would “continue on across the landscape looking for another poet.”

(Listen to Gilbert on her encounter with Stone here.)

My professor remarked today that sometimes he likes to imagine the poems he writes are ones Stone didn’t get to quickly enough or somehow missed, ones that then found him instead.  Isn’t that a lovely idea?