William Woolfitt, at the online blog, "Speaking of Marvels," interviewed me about Almost Entirely. When you have a chance, check out the other great interviews there. spkofmarvels.wordpress.com
The poems in Almost Entirely’s final section (“Like Light Through the Branches”) consider the power oplace. I live in urban Baltimore for part of the year. When not there, I live in rural, western Massachusetts. This back and forth is as natural to me as breathing.
My family, since I was very young, oscillated between urban grids, suburban cul-de-sacs and the wild lands of New England, Colorado and California. I am equally in love with city streets and woodland trails. But I love water most of all. Here are two poems from the final section.
Rat trap row houses glitter in the setting sun.
We are alive! Hauling our heavy loads
home from the hard work of body and of mind.
The weak roses among the bricks on Clement Street
are cared for in the gravel bed at the alley’s edge.
A purple flamingo and the smaller pink one
nest in a cactus pot, wings clattering
in the harbor’s wind.
The working hulks at the dock’s edge
open their monumental arms
to unload steel boxes filled with junk and cars.
From high in the lifeboat, a stevedore
plays his bag pipes as the sun goes down
and the evening fills with Amazing Grace,
lighting us, every single one.
Our Lake Is Heart-Shaped
Our lake is heart-shaped and pulsing with lilies, wings and frogs.
When deep into big weather, it froths and tumbles the shoreline rocks,
all the fine tree roots exposed.
Our lake is a teardrop filling from deep springs.
While resting on its surface with sail or paddle,
I am brought beyond my landedness.
Not until diving under can I know its pillowed, dull-moss light: a soft
birthplace of souls where a body is seen at last for what it is:
awash in the eye of God.
Over the past month, I have been offering samples of poems from my new poetry collection. Tuesday is the big day for the release of Almost Entirely.
“One Hundred Footsteps,” the third section of Almost Entirely, presents excerpts from my 2010-11 artist book collaboration with Baltimore artist, Katherine Kavanaugh. We were working independently on projects with similar tones and gestures, though the work did not stem from similar subject matter. Neither poem nor image are illustrative of each other; rather, they evolved from parallel contemplative moods. We decided to combine 50 letterpress-printed poems with 50 collaged images, collected into five volumes of 20 pieces each. The project’s title evokes our shared love of exploration as well as the Japanese anthology of 100 poems that I discovered while traveling in Japan.
Here are five of the 11 poems that appear in the new book.
We are likely to be surprised
by those who dwell in the other world,
pushing on the paper screen,
a tender membrane. We miss the impression
of their voices and their hands.
Pink petals fallen.
In the gutter, in the iron grate, suspended.
A dark river below
will float these fragile boats. When the breeze unmoors
them from their rest place: a flutter and then gone.
To be born in winter,
to be ice-crunched and hearth-fired, to wish
for land above the tree line.
In the flesh: a dream of sleeping music.
In the bones: a template for cloud breath.
The God of Lost Causes
might laugh at the effort and, too,
the effect of these letters
falling from my hand. Funny: how their curves
and squiggles look like lips and wrinkles as they land.
The release date (Nov. 14) for my latest poetry collection, Almost Entirely, is almost here, I have been sharing a bit of the book. Poems are grouped in four sections: When the Wing Gives Way, Something for Us to Stand On, One Hundred Footsteps, and Like Light Through the Branches.
Here the link to a poem from the second section: “Something For Us To Stand On.” Poems in this section dwell in puzzlement and joy while reflecting on human affairs.
The poem, “Urine of Cows Fed on Mango Leaves” is inspired by a 2015 exhibition at Baltimore’s The Walters Art Museum (Pearls on a String: Artists, Patrons and Poets at the Great Islamic Courts). Off to the edge of one small gallery, an amazing case featured the raw pigments used to create so many of the vivid illuminated images featured in the exhibition. One of the stunning piles was a bright, rich yellow with a tag that said Indian Yellow is made from the urine of cows fed on mango leaves.
I am puzzled and delighted by human inventiveness. Many of our creations are dangerous, many are wondrous. How, I imagined, did that Indian Yellow actually come into being? This poem is my imagining:
Urine of Cows Fed on Mango Leaves
Imagine the discovery. Food being scarce, a herder
gathered the shiny leaves that had fallen
from the single courtyard tree and threw them down
among the hooves.
The beasts were glad for it, something other than
scraping for the few tufts left in the dust where
they were staked. And they gorged and chewed,
chewed and grunted throughout the night.
The next day, the herder—or maybe his children
passing time among the flies — stepped back
when the first rump arched, letting loose its stream.
And the second and third. Great pools of sunshine
graced the sand and muck. Someone used a stick
to stir the stuff, someone else scooped it up and
spread it on a leather scrap, just to fool with it, just to
see what it would become. When the Minister
of Painted Books came to collect his milk, he pinched
a bit between his finger and his thumb. He gasped
as if the clouded heavens opened for the lighted one.
The herder and his family became famous in the town.
Priests and artists came for more from miles around.
They planted two more trees and purchased three more cows.
As the release date (Nov. 14) for my latest poetry collection, Almost Entirely, approaches, I’d like to share a sense of the book and its arcs. Poems are grouped in four sections: When the Wing Gives Way, Something for Us to Stand On, One Hundred Footsteps, and Like Light Through the Branches. Each week until the book's release, I will post another poem.
Poems in “When the Wing Gives Way,” the first section of Almost Entirely, represent a “coming-out” for me. Many poems in this section are expressions of faith and doubt. These themes may have always informed my poems, but never as overtly as they do here. This one, “The Wind of God…” takes as its title a line from the Book of Genesis (1:2).
I am always wondering which pronoun to use when referring to God. It is sometimes “he” or “she” or “they” or even “It.” Until recently, God was for me an “It,” a limitless, anonymous (but upper case) expanse that incorporates everything. I am coming lately into an awareness of a personal, less abstract, relation with God. Here is the poem:
The Wind of God…
…moved over the face of the waters. And after reading this,
the awareness that, more than once,
God has turned my head in the right direction,
yet I haven’t seen the gesture for what it is.
The world charges and is charged with a white-hot flame.
I might turn away, but each morning my head is turned for me
toward a crow’s flight, squirrel passage, or a person
with whom I share an ever-present reaching toward.
I let myself be turned sometimes. Sometimes
I get into my car and drive away.
Today I picture God’s hand cupped atop my head --
a quiet turning and then receding.
We are ‘fine’ with each other. This god has all the time in the world.
The title for my newest collection of poetry (due out from Paraclete Press on November 14, 2017) comes from a poem (“Testament”) by my first favorite poet, Hayden Carruth.
I fell for Carruth’s poetry 30 years ago while sitting on the floor at a local bookstore, pouring over the shelves, looking for poems that would “give me a feeling.” When I read the long lines of his book, Tell Me Again How the White Heron Rises and Flies Across the Nacreous River at Twilight Toward the Distant Islands (1989), I admired the movement of his mind, his mysterious but down-to-earth images. I didn’t know a lot about poetry and said to myself: “I want to write like he does.” And I literally reproduced his poems in syntax and lineation—my nouns where his were, my verbs where his lived.
I read his “Testament” many years later. At 86, while contemplating his life and reinvigorating the previously stale idea of life as hourglass, he remarks: “I am almost entirely love, now.” That just grabbed me. It was not envy of him for seeing himself as made almost entirely of love. Such an affirmation! An aspiration! No, I was 100% puzzled and seduced by “almost entirely.” How could it be? Entire—as in complete, and almost—as in partial. Those two in endless orbit. My poems, never quite finished, finished by readers I never get to meet. My life, winding down, and filled with people and places I love, but also distant. My relationship with God—ever present and ever elusive.
Here is the opening poem from Almost Entirely:
Carruth, my first loved poet, said
in his “Testament”: Now I am
almost entirely love. He
imagined his ego’s heaviness
sifting through the hourglass’s narrowness
and settling on a gathering
cone of love below.
He didn’t know, then --
that when I lift his book from the shelf,
the love he has become spills
like galaxies in my hands.
This is beautiful! At Red Emma’s Bookstore Coffeehouse in Baltimore (their website says—among other things—that they are a “grassroots answer to the collapse of civic infrastructure”).
When I stepped up to order my falafel, I was offered the opportunity to add a soup, sandwich, coffee, tea or soda to my bill. Then a button from the basket was added to the “board.” That’s my “soup button” on the board. It seemed lonely to me all there by itself. And I wondered if I had been played for a fool. By the time I finished my lunch, others had added a sandwich and soda. I watched someone ask for the sandwich button and a BLT was delivered—no questions asked. No funny looks, no checking IRS income tax returns. Fantastic, really. When I recounted this later to some friends, the skeptics wondered if enterprising types took advantage of the altruistic basket. We decided it didn’t matter. As Pope Francis reminds us: Who are we to judge.
I shall make a practice of seeing people as they are. Flannery O’Connor said—rightly so—that it takes reciprocity and risk. Reminds me of a hymn we sing: “Take me, take me as I am.” To take others, to be taken as is, entails danger of upsetting all apple carts.
If I adopt these ideas in my relationships with others, communication might be better. Taking others as they are, where they are, means letting go of judgments and my controlling images of what I need them to be or to do for my own comfort.
But how does this work with abhorrent people and behaviors? White supremacists. All haters. Trigger-happy world leaders. If I work to see them with my heart [until the 1400’s the word ‘vision’ referred exclusively to sight with the mind’s eye—prophetic, mystical revelation or contemplation], I can blend empathy for their anger with a sense of their woundedness, while not condoning the cruelty they demonstrate by their church bombs or hate speech. And what might happen if this manner of seeing becomes mutual?
When I bother to quiet my own insistent voice and visions, to ask with authentic interest about another’s state of mind, or to ask the other to do so for me—will tensions de-escalate? We might be able to till in a new garden where insight flourishes alongside the thorns. Yet, tribe against tribe seems to be our forever fate. It all begins with me.
Inspired by the recent Commonweal article “Seeing is Believing” by Cassandra Nelson.
My partner is undergoing chemotherapy for an aggressive breast cancer. I still come up short of breath when saying those words. And I am reluctant to bring this part of my personal life into this blog. Yet, every bone and nerve in my body says that--to be an honest writer--I need to be there 100% with my whole being. Avoiding my daily and hourly participation in her diagnosis and care would be a sham.
Nausea, fatigue and moodiness are our roommates. We live with contradictory partners: hope and poison. Where does stamina come from? What about grace? Pure will. Steel thread, Steel cable. Girder. Thin strand again.
Our survivor friend finds her power as researcher. My partner ignores all scientific reports, medical journals and pilots her small ship by attending to what is in front of her each hour. Each day. Each minute of each hour of each day.
I am the chart reader, forecast receiver. I catalogue everything but do not share unless asked. Forever processing—a feeble microchip. Calculating, relaying, paraphrasing, converting to plain speech the most convoluted and contradicting.
No, I am the ballast. Below decks. Storm-tossed and coming back to center again and again.
Today I started to prepare for my fall semester classes. I browsed a file of images I’ve collected over the years, hoping to find a few to use in my critical thinking class (with first semester college students).
I was simultaneously thinking about my latest project (THE BEAUTY PROJECT), a collection of ideas about beauty from people of all walks of life and from all cultural traditions. And, then I found these two images and I thought: “Are either of these beautiful?” “How might we talk about each of them or about them together as a diptych?”
They were taken at the time of the 2015 uprising in Baltimore after the death of Freddie Gray and in 2016 during a Black Lives Matter protest in Baton Rouge.
It was, as artist Makato Fujimura proposes, “a generative moment,” a moment when a still, small urging arises from who knows where—exactly—but from somewhere nonetheless, a moment that asked for something from me and that received my longings. It is a risky moment to talk about publically. Because the idea of beauty is problematic—it points us to relativism, to distasteful and damaging impulses as well as to deep connectivity and caring. Fujimura links generative thinking and attention to beauty to something he calls “Culture Care,” a care for the world and all its sources of beauty and strife, a call to make culture inhabitable.
Culture Care ultimately results in a generative cultural environment:
open to questions of meaning, reaching beyond mere survival, inspiring
people to meaningful action, and leading toward wholeness and harmony.
It produces thriving cross-generational community. To make culture
inhabitable, to make it a place of nurture for creativity, we must all choose
to give away beauty gratuitously. “Gratuitous” can be a negative word, as in
“gratuitous violence,” but here I am using it to speak of intentionality, and
even forcefulness, which, as we will see in later chapters, is necessary in
our deeply fragmented culture. I will also be looking at how the reality of
beauty can help integrate such fragmentation.
And so, I propose my question again: “Are either of these images beautiful?” If you are inspired to comment here, please also consider adding your name to the growing, world-wide list of BEAUTY PROJECT contributors. You can do that here on this blog-page. Please rest assured that I will never share our e-mail address with any third party. It will be used only by me to send you quarterly updates.
Jennifer Wallace is a poet, photographer and teacher living in Baltimore and western Massachusetts. Paraclete Press published her new book of poems, Almost Entirely, in November 2017.