Archive for the ‘poetry’ Category

A taonga returns home

Honi Tuwhare PoemThis week, when I fly to New Zealand on a family visit, I will have with me a small sheet of drawing paper. In a top corner is a drawing of a bird flying over a hill, with a delicate watercolor wash. The rest of the sheet contains a tiny poem, hand-written in beautiful calligraphy, and signed by the poet/artist, Hone Tuwhare.

The manuscript is one my treasured possessions. I have pangs of regret about parting with it, but know I am doing the right thing. In New Zealand Tuwhare’s work is considered a taonga, a treasure. He was the first Māori poet writing in English to win widespread acclaim. His best-known book, “No Ordinary Sun.” first published in 1964, was reprinted ten times over the next thirty years, becoming one of the most widely read individual collections of poetry in New Zealand history. The title poem is a response to French nuclear testing in the Pacific. Many more collections followed. His work has a conversational tone and incorporates both Māori and biblical rhythms; the subjects range from the political to the personal and often powerfully evoke the beauties of nature. He won several New Zealand book awards, and was poet laureate of New Zealand in 1999–2000. He died in 2008, at the age of 85.

No Ordinary Sun cover

Cover of the 1998 edition of “No Ordinary Sun”

The Māori concept of taonga also includes the story that goes along with the item. My little manuscript was a gift from Jean McCormack Tuwhare, Hone’s ex-wife. She and my mother-in-law were friends. On a visit to New Zealand in 2000, I spent a delightful afternoon with Jean at Mother’s house discussing poetry and literature. Mother had shown Jean my first poetry collection, “A Place Called Home,” and later suggested I send her a copy. Enclosed in Jean’s thank-you letter for the book was the Tuwhare manuscript. Unfortunately the letter is lost, but as I recall, Jean wrote that Hone (with whom she was still close friends) liked to practice calligraphy and had given her several of these small pieces to dispose of as she wished. She thought I might appreciate having one.

[Update 6/2/1016: While in New Zealand, I learned from Rob Tuwhare, Hone and Jean’s son, that Jean herself did the calligraphy, and Hone signed her work.]

I am of an age when I need to make decisions about my stuff. Knowing that the manuscript could easily get overlooked among our mountains of paper and art works, I sought professional help. I told Malcolm Moncrief-Spittle of Renaissance Books (New Zealand) , who deals in rare and out-of-print books, that I thought my taonga should be returned to New Zealand. Which university or cultural institution in New Zealand already houses a collection of Tuwhare material and would be a suitable recipient? I asked. He recommended the Hocken Library at the University of Otago in Dunedin.

Staff at the Hocken Library responded to my query with enthusiasm. We’ve arranged a meeting on May 9, when I will hand over the carefully packaged manuscript. I know it will be a happy/sad occasion.

All a poet can do is warn

All a poet can do today is warn.
–Wilfred Owen

Cream plastic transistor radio close to my ear, I sat by the window of our London bedsitter, hearing familiar words set to brand new music: the premiere of Benjamin Britten’s “War Requiem”. The May 30, 1962 performance was part of a festival to mark the consecration of St Michaels Cathedral in Coventry, a new modern building set alongside the bombed-out ruins of the old.

 I had a personal interest in the cathedral, since one of my assignments for my New Zealand newspaper had been to interview the glass engraver John Hutton, one of the many eminent artists whose work graced the new building.

 I was also caught up in the prevailing excitement about the completion of this significant architectural and spiritual project. Contained within the walls of the new cathedral was the idea of reconciliation, that it would be a place that would, in the words of the cathedral website, play a part in

Healing the Wounds of History
Learning to Live with Difference and to Celebrate Diversity
Building a Culture of Peace

But mostly my interest was in the poetry of this new musical work. I had been introduced to the poems of Wilfred Owen in high school. A soldier who died on the battlefield in the last week of the first World War, he wrote searing indictments of that war’s ravages. To me as a student, it was a revelation that poetry could be used to express such pain and anger.

 I already had some familiarity with Britten’s music, but I was blown away by the “War Requiem”, which interweaves Owen’s poems with the traditional Latin of the requiem mass. I was brought to tears by Britten’s handling of Owen’s poem of reconciliation, “Strange Meeting,” in the concluding section of the work. In the poem, Owen imagines two dead soldiers, one English, one German, who meet each other

Down some profound dull tunnel, long since scooped
Through granites which titanic wars had groined

 They share life stories:

                        Whatever hope is yours,
Was my life also; I went hunting wild
After the wildest beauty in the world

I mean the truth untold,
The pity of war, the pity war distilled

I am the enemy you killed, my friend.

 The poem ends with the line Let us sleep now … which Britten repeats and extends in a hypnotically murmuring lullaby.

 I have listen to the “War Requiem” many times since that memorable evening in London. It still brings me to tears.

 

cd coverA 1963 audio CD of the War Requiem, featuring the soloists for whom it was written, Peter Pears, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, and Galina Vishnevskaya, is available on Amazon.

 The Poetry Foundation website has a good selection of Wilfred Owen’s poems.

Cycles of life

This week’s post is reprinted from the Arts & Entertainment section of the May 29 Palo Alto Weekly. Henri and I are very excited about our upcoming reading.

Cycles of life

Two poets return to Palo Alto for shared reading

by Elizabeth Schwyzer / Palo Alto Weekly

 

Henri and Maureen

Poets and friends Henri Bensussen, left, and Maureen Eppstein will read their work in Palo Alto on Friday, June 5, at Waverley Writers. Photo by Tony Eppstein.

“My friend’s body is a brown leaf,” writes Maureen Eppstein in “Going Dark,” a poem from her recent chapbook, “Earthward.”

” … the fierce flame of her will/refuses surrender./ It’s not death’s darkness she resists/but the loss of a self transfixed/by what is beautiful.”

That same enthrallment with life she witnesses in her dying friend is evident throughout Eppstein’s collection of 26 poems. Beguilingly simple, founded in close observations of nature, these poems unfurl to reveal the writer’s keen sensitivity, sense of humor and clear acknowledgment that every life ends with death.

On Friday, June 5, the former Palo Alto resident and Stanford University employee will return to town to read from her new collection. She’ll be joined by fellow poet Henri Bensussen, also formerly of Stanford. Both longtime attendees of Palo Alto’s hallowed Waverley Writers — a free, monthly poetry reading founded in 1981 — Eppstein and Bensussen separately retired to Mendocino County, where they’re each active in the writing community. Their Palo Alto visit marks more than 15 years since their departures — Bensussen and her partner left the region in 1999, Eppstein and her husband in 2000 — yet both are well-remembered by area poets.

Janice Dabney, who shared a writing group with Bensussen and Eppstein and worked alongside Eppstein both on the Waverley Writers Steering Committee and at Stanford, spoke of both writers as “very good people” and recalled not just Eppstein’s poetry but also her humanity.

“She was very supportive of me being a gay person,” Dabney recalled. “She made a point of putting her money where her mouth is, which is a good summary of Maureen: She’s not a person who sits idle and spouts philosophies; she gets out there and acts and makes the world a better place.”

Those on the Mendocino Coast speak in equally glowing terms about both women and their work. Norma Watkins, secretary of the Mendocino Coast Writers Conference and creative-writing instructor at Mendocino College Fort Bragg campus, explained of Bensussen, “Henri was my student in the past and writes this delightfully quirky prose and poetry. She has a very odd and wonderful imagination so that when you begin reading one of her poems, you never know where it’s going to go.”

Director of the Mendocino Coast Writers Conference, Karen Lewis, said of Eppstein, “You can tell from her work that she has a daily, connected presence in nature. Her nature metaphors are especially remarkable.”

Lewis also described a new project of Eppstein’s: a collection of short essays based on her youth in New Zealand and her immigration to the United Kingdom. Those essays can be found at maureen-eppstein.com.

Bensussen, too, mines her own past for material. In “Chimney Rock,” a poem from her new and first chapbook, “Earning Colors,” birds of prey serve as metaphors for partnership and a departure point for a meditation on separation and divorce:

“Peregrine falcons nest in a hollow/under the cliff’s rim. They mate/for life, unlike us or elephant seals.”

Later, she shows herself, standing alone as birds swoop overhead:

“Vultures hunt the dead, veer close/when they notice me. I stare them off. Pose — /Still Life: Woman in Love, Once.”

Both Bensussen’s “Earning Colors” and Eppstein’s “Earthward” are published by Finishing Line Press, a small publisher based in Georgetown, Kentucky. Bensussen explained that she entered the manuscript in a poetry contest with Finishing Line, and though she did not win, they offered to publish the chapbook anyway.

As for the collection’s title, “When you send in a poetry manuscript, it has to have a thread or theme,” she explained. “I realized I had quite a number of poems centered around the idea of color.”

Like Eppstein, Bensussen has a deep connection to nature, one fostered by her studies in biology and many years of birding and gardening. Upon moving to Mendocino, she explained, “I became immersed in the natural history of the area, and also fascinated by how people interact. Often, someone says something and it sends me off on a poetic journey.”

“Earning Colors” is full of evidence of such journeys. Friends’ stories and strangers’ cast-off comments pepper the collection, giving the sense of a writer moving through a crowded room, picking up on snippets of conversation. In “Blood Test,” it’s an “overly friendly” nurse whose question about the origins of Bensussen’s name sends the writer into reflections on “disruptive history,/as tubes fill with dark pulses of my life.”

Life and death draw close in both Bensussen and Eppstein’s work.

“Earthward,” Eppstein’s third poetry chapbook, is “really about the cycles of life and death,” she explained. “It’s centered around the poem ‘Going Dark,’ which was written for a friend in New Zealand as a memorial. She suffered from multiple sclerosis for 40 years, gradually losing more and more of her use of her limbs. Toward the end of her life, we would have conversations about how she was afraid of losing the self that could be moved.”

The self that can be moved is on full display throughout “Earthward,” and the scenes that move the poet are often those drawn from nature. In “Osprey with Fish,” Eppstein writes with simple power of three lives: the bird, the fish and the woman who watches their flight:

 

Undercarriage of leg and talon
joins two bodies similar
in sleekness,

twinned
as life and death conjoin
in a continuum

of nourishment.
Huge wings slow over forest,
a fading cry.

 

“Earning Colors” and “Earthward” are available at Books Inc., Town & Country Village, Palo Alto, and online at finishinglinepress.com.

 

What: A reading by poets Maureen Eppstein and Henri Bensussen
Where: Waverley Writers, Palo Alto Friends Meeting House, 957 Colorado Ave.
When: Friday, June 5, 7:30 p.m.
Cost: Free
Info: Go to tinyurl.com/l4lvwgh or call 650-424-9877.

The Language of Plants

Forest Scene

Photo by Tony Eppstein

 

Have you ever wondered whether trees talk to each other about what’s going on in the forest? Can they show compassion or motherly love? Do they team up to ward off an attack?

Recent research has shown that plants communicate using an electrochemical “language.” Taking a break from exploring my old black filing cabinet, I’d like to share a poem about this discovery. It’s from my new collection, Earthward, available from Finishing Line Press.

 

The Language of Plants

We who move about are at a loss.
We do not know what words to use
for speech that has no metaphor
in the human tongue.
We have ways to speak of learning,
words for memory, decision-making words.
We speak of synapses of neurons in our brains,
name the organs that receive our senses—
ears, eyes and noses, taste buds, fingertips—
words all based on human forms.

The standing-still ones
message their pheromones into the air:
Aphid invasion. Deploy toxin defenses.
Send for the predator wasp to counter-attack.

Roots zing with electrochemical charge
as through their internet—
a mycorrhizal tangle of yellow threads—
they share resources with their kin,
and even with neighbors of other ilk:
Fir borrows summer sugar from birch,
pays it back in the time of barren twigs.

We need new definitions to embrace
the beings who feed on light
not in some alien galaxy
but close at hand:
Does intelligence mean to have a brain
or problem-solve?

New ways of standing in a bean patch
or a forest grove
in awe and wild surmise at all
this human brain can not yet comprehend.

 

Old age has its advantages

Lady Mary Wortley Montagu

I’m taking a break this week from tales of my youthful travels to share a poem I wrote as homework in a Stanford Online class: 10 Pre-Modern Women Poets, taught by Eavan Boland. This week we studied “Saturday: The Smallpox” by Lady Mary Wortley Montagu. Written in 1747 in the voice of Flavia, a young beauty whose face is disfigured by the disease, the poem is a sad satire on the priorities of that era’s fashionable society. Our assignment was to write a poem using the heroic couplet form in which “Saturday: The Smallpox” was written.

Lady Mary, who was herself afflicted with smallpox, was a pioneer in vaccination for this dreaded disease. I find it particularly discouraging that 267 years later, people are still arguing about the value of vaccination against measles, a disease that nearly killed my father when he was a child.

However, my poem isn’t about the ravages of disease, but rather the emphasis on fashion still rampant today. It was a lot of fun to write.

A Grandmother Responds to Flavia

Advancing age has this one recompense,
That I can clothe myself with common sense.
Invisible already to the young,
I’m from the prison of convention sprung,
At last to dress as I have lately dressed,
I don’t wear heels; I’ve never seen the point
Of teetering at risk to ankle joint.
My fingernails are bare of chip-prone paint,
My hair goes where it wills, without restraint.
When grayness first revealed itself, I bought
Some dye, but soon discovered what I thought
Was beauty was instead a bathroom mess,
Despite my brave attempts at carefulness.
For lack of make-up, blame my allergies,
My nose rubbed naked every time I sneeze.
For lack of lipstick, blame Ms Magazine,
Which in the Seventies proclaimed with spleen
That face paint was an INEQUALITY;
If men don’t have to do it, why should we?
So now my silver hair surrounds a face
Where age’s wrinkles have an honored place.
I am content with plainness; jeans and boots
Shall walk me earthward to my simple roots.

 

Going Dark

In 1966, my friend Diana Neutze developed multiple sclerosis (MS). She was not yet thirty years old.

I first met Diana about ten years before this, when we shared English Lit. classes as freshmen at Canterbury University in Christchurch, New Zealand. During school breaks we worked as kitchen hands at the same remote fishing camp. I was part of her wedding, and she of mine. We lived next-door to each other as young marrieds, and shared survival tips as penniless expatriate mothers of small children in London. Even after I moved to California and she returned to New Zealand, we stayed in touch as best we could.

Diana Neutze

Diana Neutze in her garden.

For decades Diana’s illness came and went. She learned to live with it, devising ingenious stratagems for making sure she stayed mobile and independent. Whenever possible, she refused medications. All she had left, she said, was her mind, and her ability to find joy in music and the beauty of her garden. Painkillers took that clarity of mind from her, and this she could not allow. Right up until the end she was writing and publishing poetry. (I reviewed a recent book in these pages) I introduced her, via email, to a quadriplegic friend who got her started with voice recognition software. When she could no longer edit using one finger on a keyboard, or see to read, she dictated edits to a carer.

Diana and I traded poems and, as her body slowly but inexorably closed down, thoughts about death. She was in my mind when Gallery Bookshop in Mendocino invited local poets to respond to Wendell Berry’s poem “Going Dark” at a 2012 Winter Solstice event. I sent the poem to Diana, and included it in my new chapbook, Earthward. When I spoke to Diana via Skype in April 2013, three days before she died, she accepted my promise to dedicate Earthward, to her memory. At her request, my poem, “Going Dark,” was read at her funeral. Here it is:

Going Dark

To go in the dark with a light is to know the light.

To know the dark, go dark. Go without sight,

and find that the dark, too, blooms and sings,

and is traveled by dark feet and dark wings.

— Wendell Berry

My friend’s body is a brown leaf,

shriveled and curled inward.

Pain is a constant, yet

the fierce flame of her will

refuses surrender.

 

It’s not death’s darkness she resists

but the loss of a self transfixed

by what is beautiful:

a Bach air, the light

through her walnut tree.

 

This dark she speaks of

has no scent of earth,

no draft from unseen wings,

no sudden rustle in the undergrowth.

 

What can I say to her, and to myself,

this season of gathering in

our lives against the rainy dark,

against the ancient fear

that light will not return?

 

Just this: a dry leaf

fallen to ground disintegrates,

becomes the food that nourishes

all that sweetly blooms and sings.

 

My chapbook Earthward is available from Finishing Line Press. The direct link is: https://finishinglinepress.com/product_info.php?cPath=4&products_id=2129

Some of Diana Neutze’s poems can be read on her blog site, Living With Multiple Sclerosis.

 

My new poetry collection

Earthward cover

Cover image by Tony Eppstein

I am excited to announce that Finishing Line Press is now taking pre-publication orders  for my new poetry collection, Earthward. It can be ordered now and will be printed and shipped in October. You can order online from the publisher at https://finishinglinepress.com/product_info.php?cPath=4&products_id=2129

The cost is $14 plus $2.99 shipping. The publisher bases the size of the print run on how many pre-publication orders they receive, so I hope you’ll consider adding to my tally. Please feel free to suggest this book to others you think might be interested too.

The poems in Earthward explore the cyclical patterns of life. Here is a sample poem:

Osprey With Fish

Undercarriage of leg and talon

joins two bodies similar

in sleekness,

twinned

as life and death conjoin

in a continuum

of nourishment.

Huge wings slow over forest,

a fading cry.

 

I’ve been honored to receive reviews from poets I admire:

With a naturalist’s eye for the precise and sensuous image and a writer’s care for the precise and sensuous word, Maureen Eppstein plants our human griefs into this book, roots them, and invites them to quicken into new life.

—Jane Hirshfield, author of Come, Thief

What captivates me about Earthward is the way Maureen Eppstein transforms ordinary landscapes into miraculous acts of affirmation. Turning compost becomes an opportunity to ponder death and resurrection, braiding garlic reminds us of the “pleasure taken in braiding the hair of the beloved”.  This is poetry of quiet lyrical depth, that reconnects us with land and spirit. Earthward invites us to stand deeply rooted in each moment, “in awe and wild surmise at all this human brain can not yet comprehend.”

—Devreaux Baker, author of Red Willow People

 In Earthward, Maureen Eppstein unites what would break us with what will bring us back to life. The wild ones, like us, must eat, and so kill.  Lost sisters are mourned by proxy.  Some things we love are transplanted and transplanted again, surviving and sometimes thriving. The tenacity Eppstein describes is the foundation of our lives.  There are those who say that to write about the extraordinary one must look lovingly at the ordinary.  Eppstein knows where, and how, to look.

—Camille T. Dungy, author of Smith Blue

Here’s a brief bio:

Maureen Eppstein is the author of two previous poetry collection: Rogue Wave at Glass Beach (2009) and Quickening (2007), both published by March Street Press. Quickening was also first runner-up in the 2007 Finishing Line Press/ New Women’s Voices competition. She has been a finalist in several other book contests. Her poetry has appeared in numerous journals and anthologies, including Poecology, Calyx, Basalt, Written River, Sand Hill Review, and Aesthetica 2014,  and has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Crossing the boundary between the arts and the sciences, her poems have been included in a textbook on computer graphics and geometric modeling and used in a university-level geology course.

A Little House for Poetry

Maureen's poetry houseThe idea came from an article in the Sept.-Oct. 2013 issue of Poets & Writers Magazine  about a project to erect small installations, called poetry boxes, in public places. Their purpose, according to the artist, is to “connect people to landscape by combining poetry, visual art, and nature observation.”

I decided to design a poetry box for myself. A simple little house, with just a touch of decoration: a carved spiral to symbolize the continuity of life, and a line of chevrons to signify water. I have no skill at woodwork, but my husband Tony does, and he readily agreed to take my plan and build it.

 Here it is, mounted on the  6” x 6” gatepost of my fenced vegetable garden. The laminated text is thumbtacked to the back of the box, so that I can change it whenever I want to. For its debut, I placed an empty seed packet on the floor of the house and pinned up a few lines from my poem “Winter Greens,” which is published in my collection Rogue Wave at Glass Beach.

 

This is the gesture of hope:

to remember the taste of fresh-cut salad greens

and act on it.

 

This is the act of reconciliation:

muscle rhythm of shovel and wheelbarrow,

load upon load to fill the planting box.

 

This is the sound of faith:

a rake tamping down soil over new plantings—

snap peas, bok choi, lettuces—

tines on the diagonal, first one direction

then crisscrossed down the line.

 

Canticle for the Winter Solstice

I plan to read this poem at tonight’s Solstice event at Gallery Bookshop in Mendocino. Obviously it was written in a year other than 2013. We’ve had no rain all month, and none in the extended forecast, so face the likelihood of a drought year. I think of this piece as a kind of prayer.

 

Canticle for the Winter Solstice

 

I honor the rain that plummets from a leaden sky

on this day when the dying sun returns to life.

I honor the wet earth where fungi lift

the smells and secrets of their darkness

into forms potent with wildness

and fallen leaves grow slimy with decay.

 

I honor the sudden green suffusing

the face of the sun-scorched hill,

like the blush of knowledge in a woman’s face

after her first coupling.

 

I honor the flame of candle and hearth

that draws to itself the breaths

of all whose lives have sometime crossed,

mingles and transmutes them into warmth

and sends them out into the rain

where they caress the tender growing tips of trees.

 

Texts

Searoad, a story collection by Ursula K. LeGuin, has a permanent place on my bedside table. It’s there because every now and then I need to reread a certain story. A very short story, less than three pages, it is titled “Texts,” and tells of an older woman who, bombarded by messages and calls to action, retreats to the coastal Oregon village of Klatsand for a month-long winter break. As she walks on the deserted beach, she notices that the waves have left messages in the lines of foam, messages she can almost decipher. The laciness of the foam leads her to speculate that crochet work and lace might also be legible. In a handmade lace collar she reads a message that seems directed to her: “my soul must go, my soul must go … sister, sister, light the light.” There the story ends, with the woman not knowing “what she was to do, or how she was to do it.”

I think of this oddly moving little story every time I walk on Ten Mile Beach, as I did last Sunday. The receding waves left undulating lines of bubbles, iridescent in the hazy sunlight, that popped to form patterns of foam. Scattered across the beach were strands of bull kelp, dried into coils and loops that lay like a cursive script on the sand.

Yesterday, when the wind was brisk and the sea streaked with white caps, I remembered an interview I did for the Mendocino Art Center magazine. It was part of a series I wrote on artists who helped found the art center in the 1960s. By the time I met Jim Bertram in the early 2000s, he was senile and nonverbal, so I had to rely on material in the art center archives for information about his background and artistic vision. Nevertheless, Jim and I spent a wonderful afternoon together. I think a poem I wrote at the time sums it up:

MESSAGES

For JB

 “Line expresses the inner thought. It is a narrative of what we really want to tell each other but somehow can’t seem to verbalize.”

– Jim Bertram

 These bright spring days, when the wind

scribbles its white calligraphy

on a wash of aquamarine,

I think of the artist in his studio

upstairs of a weathered storefront

overlooking Mendocino Bay.

Sheet after curling sheet he showed me, canvas

after canvas, covered with calligraphic forms

that could have been words, but were not.

 

In our shared silence I understood his drift:

how sometimes what matters most is inarticulate:

like the line of spray from a lifting wave,

the hand of an old man painting messages of love.

 

On my way downstairs from Jim’s studio, I fell in love with one of his paintings, which now has a place of honor in my house. I smile when I read its message.

Bertram painting

Jim Bertram: Untitled, acrylic on canvas. Eppstein collection

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