New Poems Up at Bellingham Review and Pontoon

I’m honored to have two poems published this month! “Amanda Bubble Crafts a New Creation Story” appears in Issue 71 of Bellingham Review; my thanks to former Editor-in-Chief Brenda Miller, current Editor-in-Chief Suzanne Paola Antonetta, former Managing Editor Ellie A. Rogers, and current Managing Editor Louis McLaughlin for including my poem. When you visit, please check out the gorgeous essay “He Worked as an Electrician. He Enjoyed Television. (His Obituary Was Plain.)” by Spokane poet Maya Jewell Zeller!

In addition, my poem “What Was Good about Going to Church” has been selected for this year’s issue of Pontoon, the journal of poems by Washington-state poets who submitted chapbook manuscripts to Floating Bridge Press. My thanks to everyone on the editorial committee at FBP! For the first time, Pontoon is now online, allowing wider access to readers. Here’s my poem, and here’s the first page of the Table of Contents (be sure to click through all four pages to read the whole issue). I hope you enjoy!

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Gratitude for Words of Encouragement

Joannie Stangeland’s latest collection of poetry (Ravenna Press, 2014)

Many, many thanks to Seattle poet, editor, and winemaker Joannie Stangeland for her write-up of Impossible Lessons as her Saturday Poetry Pick yesterday! Her lovely words are here.

In a wonderful coincidence, I’ve been reading her new book, In Both Hands. The poems there are haunting, replete with precise images of beauty and loss. I’m falling in love with, and going to school on, these incredible poems.

Be sure to read another recent post of Joannie’s, in which she describes her current writing projects.

Words and Images Artfully Paired by Caitlin Thomson

Caitlin Thomson's WORD & IMAGE Tumblr, June 20, 2013

Caitlin Thomson’s WORD & IMAGE Tumblr, June 20, 2013

Caitlin Thomson, whom you may remember from last winter’s Blog Hop project, is doing many lovely things. Among them, she’s curating a  Tumblr site called Poem & Image that pairs short passages from poems with eye-catching images. She explains her approach, and her goal of helping to make poetry more accessible to non-poetry readers, in her new blog post titled “Poetry, Popularity, and Image.” 

Last week, Caitlin did me the honor of choosing a passage from my poem “Ten Great Gifts for the Woman Who Has Nothing” to present with a luminous seascape image. Thank you, Caitlin, for your thoughtful work with my, and everyone else’s, words.

Mythology On, and Off, My Bookshelf, Part 1

Did you ever see the magnificent film Rivers and Tides, about the work of Scottish land artist Andy Goldsworthy? I’m smitten by it, and by Goldsworthy’s work, in which he uses whatever natural materials come to hand (sticks, leaves, rocks, icicles, dandelions) to improvise sculptures that erode sooner or later–and sometimes very soon, in the case of, say, floating leaf-snake shapes that uncoil and flow downstream, or icicle sculptures that collapse when the winter sun reaches them. As you can imagine, I dig the frequency of leaves in his work.  Goldsworthy curls them, tears them, layers them, stacks them, weaves them, fastens them, arranges optical illusions with them. Leaves are one of his primary materials for creating.

Now, picture me falling deeper into smittenness with this film when Goldsworthy mentions offhand the existence of a “tree alphabet”–yes, an alphabet based on the names of trees–in ancient Britain. Google offered me no leads; this was 2004. But earlier this year, while browsing in a used bookstore, I found a copy of English poet Robert Graves’s 1948 doorstop The White Goddess:  A Historical Grammar of Poetic Myth, which is all about trees, ancient alphabets associated with them, and their symbolic and mythological significances. Dear Readers, I swooned.

It took me over three months to meander all the way down Graves’s many-branched trail through the mythological and linguistic thickets of Western Europe and the Middle East. His examples span the Paleolithic period to English Romanticism, with extended, interwoven analyses of ancient Egyptian, Classical Greek, Old Gaelic, and Medieval troubadour texts, songs, and artifacts. Graves’s deft movement from culture to culture and period to period makes his pace feel dizzying, in spite of the book’s length at 500-odd pages. And though I frequently sensed that his rapid jumps elided possible problems with logic or evidence, his comparative approach kept me fascinated. Never before had I guessed that Isis was worshiped in France, or that the Welsh god Bran was Saturn transplanted. Or that Jesus was the most recent specimen in a vast forest of ancient kings whose bodies were sacrificed and eaten, then resurrected and transmuted to a divine status. Or that the primal figure of the White Goddess of the Sea lurks just behind every patriarchal deity worshiped in the West for the past three and a half millenia. OR that the role of the Irish ollave and Welsh bard was originally not just to entertain royalty with their poems, but to preserve–and conceal–the sacred alphabet of the trees, protecting it from invading cultures whose own magic alphabets and powerful deities threatened to obliterate local peoples’ languages, histories, and beliefs.

The White Goddess has been through many editions and reprints since its original publication in 1948 (my own copy is from 1997), and though it is difficult going and frequently flawed, I can see why its appeal persists. As I understand it, this book helped launch the idea current in theology, cultural anthropology, and popular feminism that prior to the ascendancy of patriarchal religions in the Middle East and Europe, the Goddess was worshiped for her power over birth, maturation, and death; growth, fruition, and harvest; dawn, day, and dark. These motifs saturate myth and literature, of course, even to the point of being cliches. But it’s fascinating to read that before they were symbols, they were attributes and manifestations of a triadic Goddess whose own linguistic code was embedded in trees.

Appetizer for Thought: Myths as Vestigial Visions

This past year, American Poetry Review has been running a series of interesting essays by poet Doreen Gildroy titled “Poetry and Mysticism.” I’ve been enjoying the series, and I’m particularly struck by an idea Gildroy includes in the third installment, in the May/June 2011 issue, which I’ve finally had a chance to read.

In this segment, Gildroy addresses, among other subjects, the idea that myths are vestigial visions:  stories created to preserve some glimmers of a revelation, a moment of seeing and expanded understanding. Gildroy asserts that the storyteller seeks out not just the story, but more importantly the storytelling state.  The story is a by-product, and thus potentially useful as a sign of the storyteller’s vision–a map of a visionary experience. She quotes painter Robert Henri, author of The Art Spirit:  “If one could but recall his vision by some sort of sign. It was in this hope that the arts were invented.”

What a bold and tantalizing theory! Robert Henri’s assertion that the arts in general were invented to preserve experiences of transcendence goes even further than Doreen Gildroy’s linking of mythological narratives to such experiences. I wonder whether these ideas are echoed by scholars in related fields (mythology, cultural anthropology, depth-psychology, archaeology, etc.). Have any of you run across these ideas before? I’m curious to see what else may be out there along these lines.

Here’s what I mean by “Poetry at the Intersection of Mythology …”

Have you seen Werner Herzog’s film Cave of Forgotten Dreams?  Petroglyphs in the American Southwest?  Stone circles in Great Britain?  These sights fascinate me, propelling my imagination into the past, driving me to speculate about the individuals and cultures who left their artistic and ceremonial marks on the planet long ago.  I’m especially interested in possible transition points–a culture’s breakthroughs, crises, turning points–and the art that may reflect  these moments.  Although pegging “Meaning” to the artistic remains of ancient times is fraught with interpretive pitfalls, I am nevertheless drawn to try.  Thus my poetry engages things past and Paleo:  myths of origin, defunct deities, legends of encounters with animals and gods, and how humans have traced their stories of these encounters using pigment, branch, and stone.

One angle of vision into the past is, for me, food.  What and how do we eat, and more importantly, what meanings do we attach to growing, cooking, eating?  As I amend my own family’s diet to incorporate the local and the healthful, I am driven to consider what others eat, and ate, to survive, and what systems of symbolism arose to account for our choices–and what cultural values are revealed in that process.  As I grapple with my own reluctance to handle and prepare meat, I consider our human origins as carnivores and the ethical implications of living at the top of the food chain.  As I share the delights and frustrations of vegetable-gardening with my five year old, I reflect on the rituals of agricultural peoples present and past.

These experiences find their way into many of the poems I write.  For about seven years, now, I’ve been compiling my poems into a book-length manuscript provisionally titled “About the Food Chain, and Other Pointed Questions for the Deity.”  So far, this manuscript has failed to find print, either by winning a first-book or a chapbook competition (though one variant of it did make it to the Finalist level of Tupelo Press’s Snowbound Chapbook Award in 2007).  That seems to be just as well, however, since the poems keep coming, and the compilation keeps morphing in unexpectedly interesting directions.  Thanks for keeping me company as I continue writing my way through these obsessions.

And more, soon, about the “Hiking” part.