Elle `Ecrit `A Pied

by Elizabeth Kirschner

We all know of Plein Air and here in Kittery Point, ME, one sees painters at work in the summer with easels planted by the sea, Chauncy Creek, in the Rachel Carson Woods, in fields and by salt water marshes. Less visible are its poets of which I am one. Roughly translated, elle e`ecrit a pied means she writes on foot, which I’ve done for years—at first in a lost landscape in the Berkshires, now by the sea each morn, sometimes with pen and notebook in hand, other times composing in my open consciousness using what I call “ten-fold awareness.”

First plante des pied, or plant the foot like a dancer would, then push off on the seaside path. This morning I took in the faintest of rainbows wreathed round a quietly radiant sun, clouds looking like chimeras or Chinese dragons, a wayside apple planted like an ornament on a dead branch. The tracings are everywhere—my dog noses for bouquets of scent, I nose for scent messages in this ancient, elemental, beautifully ruined environs. I, too, am in ruins, author of my own poetic despair to which I am prone, out of which I rise when words start rehearsing in the rehearsal hall in my mind, my aging but still evermore engaging mind.

I walk like a thoroughbred, the training in iambic thought long and rigorous. Nonetheless the pacings are perfect, the rhythms start rolling in the way the waves seem to think before they thud. How deep that thud and deeper still, the thud of the poem. It may begin within the lit imagination, the legendary quest for the right word to arrive while my gaze turns to purple lily pads in the pond or the roughage of milkweed seed caught like tufts of silk in black and gold sand.

I am not by nature a nature poet. I would need a far saner sensibility for that, a refinement I can’t master as madness does and will descend to master me, but never, ever while elle `ecrit `a pied or in the sanctuary in the sunroom that faces the water that is my study. My literary being is somehow sanctified and that sanctity has been my salvation many times over.

I am only one of a handful of poets here in Kittery Point, but there are all those sightings others have of me staring out into miraculous space, pen and notebook in hand while dawn smolders on the horizon. I even have fingerless gloves and our nearly Artic winters do not stop me. I begin and end each day with my epic walks, consider them my matins and vesper prayers.  Poem are blessings. I gather mine slowly, let them grow into private Bibles, some hellish, others paradisiacal, but always and forever more a critical and profoundly redemptive act.

A Commentary

by John Samuel Tieman

I read the other day about the famous duel between Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr, the duel in which Hamilton was mortally wounded and Burr politically ruined.

This tragedy is a bit of a mystery.   No one can say why, at some point, they didn’t withdraw from the duel.   But I have a good guess.

They lacked the humility.

Humility is associated with religious values.   It is generally thought to be a private concern.   But humility has cross-over value.   It is a virtue that is in service to others, because humility is the essence of dialogue.   And politics without dialogue is mere tyranny.

A humble dialogue presumes a simple skill.   Listening.   That simple skill, however, has some demanding habits.   The habit of validating the concerns of others.   The habit of suspending one’s own bias.   The habit of recognizing the full humanity of another.   All these have serious implications for civic discourse.

True humility is liberating, because it allows citizens to understand their role within the larger community.   In this sense, humility is the quintessential civic virtue.

Civic humility begins in a question.   Is public discourse better served by my silence?

Sometimes the answer is yes, sometimes no.   But history is not lacking for instances wherein the community, religious and secular, would have been better served by more silence and less chutzpah.

The Catholic Church would be better-off if most bishops had listened to victims of sexual abuse, if bishops had let the justice system do its work.

Iraq would be better-off if Pres. Bush had listened to, well, the world.

Humility might have given our country some insight into the history and culture of Vietnam.

And, yes, Hamilton and Burr might have had many more years of public service if they practiced a bit of humility.

Civic humility is a virtue in service to the local level as well.   Aldermen, for example, would be better served by listening to the poor rather than dictating to them.

It is worth taking a moment to note what humility is not.   Humility is not a neurosis that leaves one immobile.   Humility is not self-loathing.   Nor does humility imply that people devalue their insight, lucidity or expertise.   Above all else, humility is not a disguised version of pride.   Thomas Jefferson didn’t invent democracy.   He listened to great philosophers, then took-up his pen.

It is worth repeating that humility is not self-effacement.   For example, the G. I. Bill transformed the nation, and this veteran, for one, is glad people spoke forcefully in favor of it.   I am equally grateful to the people who listened.

As music is defined by sound and silence, so too is dialogue made-up of respectful speech and humble listening.   And I mourn for the loss, these days, of this respect, this humility.

With the exception of the Watergate crisis, I cannot recall a time when the divisions in our country were so rigid and acrimonious.   Everybody has the answer, and nobody has the answer.   Bishops tell parishioners to sit-down and shut-up, and parishioners tell bishops to sit-down and shut-up.   The poor live on one side of town, and the rich on the other.   CEO vs. union.   The US vs. the UN.   Rural vs. urban.   Does anyone doubt that, during the next election, there will be vicious attack ads that mislead the public?

Where’s the humility?

A republic is defined by its dynamic dialogue.   Such a dialogue presumes the give-and-take of loyal opposition.   To put it differently, we are a great nation because we have the freedom of speech.   But that’s only the first half of the equation.   When we are at our best, when we are at our most democratic, we are a great nation because we have the humility to listen.

And when we think of the leaders we love, when we ponder a Lincoln or a Washington, don’t we love them more for their humility than their army?

Keepsake, Keep Safe, My Keeper

by Elizabeth Kirschner

Poets are the slaves of silence, a sluttish silence that wants it all—forfeit of heart, mind, body, soul—as barter for germinating words, words that come out of a long hibernation during which their roots roost, nest. Keep an ear pressed to ground, one poet taught me and hence I have learned to listen to earth—a fallen earth, a Sisyphean earth, a gorgeous half-devoured earth whose ruins are the poet’s riches.

Gutted and glutted by silence, I court it morning, noon and night, my around the lock love affair that dizzies me as much now as it did back when I was young, so very young that any kind of seduction was heady for me and I longed for it, craved it, begged it to be my addiction.

The poetic word is a drug for me—silence slurs into speech till poems build themselves like pyramids, foundations laid by the concrete, thus giving language weighty girth. Out of this earthy girth there rises song, but hidden in all that soaring beauty is sarcophagus, creation as cremation, a petit mal and a labor pain at once.

Prisoners then, poets are prisoners, each line a ball and chain, the mind a kind of concentration camp where we are the kept, the guarded, thrust voluntarily into solitary confinement which is, at times, a solitary hell. In the hole, is what it’s called in jail, one is isolated from all others, put away as a threat to mankind. Or, perhaps, it can be seen as Alice’s rabbit hole, a tumble into Wonderland where poets become gifted illusionists pulling doves out of nothingness.

When all is said and done, when the work of a day becomes as hard as the work of a lifetime, I’m left with both fruit and decay which is what each poem harvests. May I always be a wayward woman, lover of wayward poems, giving it all away for free in the name of free verse where everything must be earned, where, if I’m lucky enough, a poem or two might become a keepsake kept safe by my Muse, my keeper.

I Have My Own Song For It

by Katrina Vandenberg

If you feel you’re still “finding your voice,” consider what Seamus Heaney says about his discovery of his own when he wrote the poem “Digging.” In his essay “Feeling Into Words,” he writes of it, “I had done more than make an arrangement of words; I felt that I had let down a shaft into real life”

“I wrote it down years ago; yet perhaps I should say that I dug it up, because I have come to realize that it was laid down in me years before that, even. The pen / spade analogy was the simple heart of the matter and that was simply a matter of almost proverbial common sense. On the road to and from school, people used to ask you what class you were in and how many slaps you’d got that day and invariably they ended up with an exhortation to keep studying because ‘learning’s easily carried’ and ‘the pen’s lighter than the spade.’ And the poem does no more than allow that bud of wisdom to exfoliate, although the significant point in this context is that at the time I was writing I was not aware of the proverbial structure in the back of my mind.”

I want to emphasize something Heaney says when he concludes this, which is “I don’t think any subject matter has particular virtue in itself — this is interesting as an example of what we call ‘finding a voice.’” Heaney says:

“Finding a voice means that you can get your own feeling into your own words and that your words have the feel of you about them; and I believe that it may not even be a metaphor, for a poetic voice is probably very intimately connected with the poet’s natural voice, the voice that he hears as the ideal speaker of the lines he is making up.”

How does a beginning writer hear the voice inside himself, or herself? Heaney says you hear it coming from someone else and wish it was your voice — he names poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins as ones he wished he had written. But he also names the voices he heard around him so often as a child, they got inside him, sayings like the one I mentioned above, and lists of towns in the weather forecast on the BBC, and lists of saints and phrases in the catechism of the Catholic church. He wasn’t conscious of them at the time, but he can still recall them easily and with delight.

What sounds have stayed inside you? What are some lists you can still recall with ease?

James Wright says something similar in a letter he wrote near the end of his life, to Robert Bly, about the uneasy peace he had made with growing up in Martin’s Ferry:

“If you ask a southern Ohioan where another person has disappeared to, and he doesn’t know, then as like as not he’ll answer — not “I don’t know”; but “Oh, he went to shit and the hogs eat him.” I don’t know where that fusion of the violently physical and the exquisitely witty comes from, but in a strange way I think it is beautiful, and it has been ringing somewhere in my head all my life. I suppose what I’m saying is that a person — like your young poets — should not be afraid to pour into his poetry all the phrases and sayings and rhythms that in truth mean the most to him, the sounds that he can hear outside of himself — because if he listens, he’ll hear them inside of himself, too. Everybody surely hears some kind of song inside of himself. How amazing if he could only be brave enough to sing it out loud.”

I think of that quote every time I read his poem:

Beautiful Ohio

Those old Winnebago men

Knew what they were singing.

All summer long and all alone,

I had found a way

To sit on a railroad tie

Above the sewer main.

It spilled a shining waterfall out of a pipe

Somebody had gouged through the slanted earth.

Sixteen thousand five hundred more or less people

In Martins Ferry, my home, my native country,

Quickened the river

With the speed of light.

And the light caught there

The solid speed of their lives

In the instant of that waterfall.

I know what we call it

Most of the time.

But I have my own song for it,

And sometimes, even today,

I call it beauty.

Instructions For My Funeral

by John Samuel Tieman

First, remember it’s not my funeral.   It’s yours.   I won’t hear the music.   I won’t hear the prayers.   I won’t hear the cries or the laughs.   I won’t be of much use.   So indulge yourself.   I only have a few requests.

Do my funeral like I did my life: don’t be cheap but don’t be wasteful.   A good funeral is like a good wine.   The best is rarely the most expensive one on the list.

I want the wake.   I want the Mass Of The Resurrection.   I want the graveside service.   And I want this not for me but for you.   There is much wisdom in the Roman Catholic tradition, much consolation, much hope.   You will need each of these.   Take solace in the thought that such services have comforted folks for centuries.

Have me embalmed or have me burned.   That’s up to you.   I won’t complain either way.

At times like this, heed the women in our family, for they have a rich inner life.   Funerals are about the inner life.   The priest should craft his sermon from the words of these women.   Listen my wise wife, my fierce sister, my rock-solid nieces.   They can trace the contours of the soul.

Let my brother, in so many ways my father, and my nephew, in so many ways my little brother, lead my pall bearers, for the strength of the men in my family is in the courage they find when bearing the heaviest sorrow.

Have a Jew read the “Kaddish” in Hebrew and in English.   It’s short, so it will be OK.   All my life, I’ve lived around Jews; all my life, I’ve had friends who were Jews.   Like the Mass of the Resurrection, the “Kaddish” is a song of praise.   Funerals need a bit of praise that isn’t forced.   Likewise, all my life I’ve had friends who were Black; all my teaching career I’ve had students who were black.   As I can’t imagine my life without their voice, so I can’t imagine my funeral without someone Black reading a psalm.

If poets want to read verse, make it short.   And good.   For reasons that elude me, funerals seem to attract long and bad poetry.

Indulge yourself emotionally.   Feel the finality.   There’s not much I learned in life, but this much I know: there are no correct emotions.   Sadness.   Anger.   Gratitude.   Regret.   Laughter.   Melancholy.   A good joke.   A snicker.   There’s room for all that and more at my funeral.

Go to the graveside.   Look in the hole.   When my body is lowered, throw a handful of dirt on the casket.   This is the needful bit for the very reason that you just can’t make it easy.

Put on a good feed.   People need a good meal after a good burial.   And if someone wants seconds or thirds, or if someone even drinks a bit too much, this is not the day for being judgmental.

Be kind to my memory, but don’t be false.   In my youth, I drank too much, did drugs, womanized.   In a war of questionable morality, I killed a boy.   I traveled the world in order to run from my troubles.   I spurned the love and kindness of people who truly cared for me.   There is much I regretted, and much more I simply learned to live with.   I know it, and so does anyone who knows me.   But I got better with age.   So say that I tried my best to love, that I taught a few kids to read and write, that I spent much of my teaching career helping the poor and the immigran, that I was a good and faithful husband, a good friend, a pretty good writer, that I created a few works of art.   If nothing else, say that I made a few people laugh.   So let the truth also bear its kindness.

On the other hand, I hope someone will exaggerate at least one story about me.   Something about my life lends itself to exaggeration.

In any case, regard what I say about my funeral.   Or don’t.   I won’t know.

A Paradise of Shifting Traumas

by Elizabeth Kirschner

I stole the title for this piece from Ira Sadoff, a title I came across long ago and faithfully recorded in what I call my Nickel Notebooks. These are old composition books in which I record poems by other poets, their musings and reflections and thereby remain in training as the apprenticeship for the poet is a long one and for me, at least, it is a lifelong quest, a lifeline I hope will extend beyond me.

The poem, then, as a paradise of shifting traumas bears truth as it arrived way before the word trauma became the be all and end all word of my generation. Trauma is real, this much I know, it has force and passion as did my mother’s violence, my father’s, too. The penetration and perpetration of ever multiplying violations was their particular genius, their gift and I was schooled in it—desecrated, wasted, I was beat into being till I became insane by learning how to go away, very far away. Somehow in the midst of all this wild violence, the horrific deified me. I was clearly a child of God and this was my salvation as I was thrust onto the crux of creation. Their gift translated into my gift and much like a nun, I took the holy vow to live by, through, with the almighty word.

I pound words into the poem as though each were a piano key. I run scales up, run scales down, trying beyond my powers to hit the right note. There’s a violence behind that power that can be either catastrophic or self-annihilating. Just as I did as a child, I go away in order to make way for the poem’s dramatic and sometimes traumatic birth. Think of muse as predatory, the words nearly suicidal, craft the only bridle to rein in stampeding words, lines, stanzas.

Craft as crisis—that’s a hunk of thought. Yet time and time again, the sense of barely surviving the poem persists. Still and absolutely entering the poetic realm is a Dantesque paradise. I think I always want a little hell in my heaven and a little heaven in my hell. Poetry does that for me. Not just writing it, but glory of glories, in reading it. I wonder—is the poem as it detonates, resonates, sparks, flares—a celebration of crisis? Think of the tension between the bow and the arrow, the poem and its audience. In the end we’re still hunters and gatherers and that’s what we do when we write poems, read poems.

I want to be hammered home by the poem, seduced by truce. A paradise of shifting traumas then is what the poem does as it shape shifts into a critical creation. Each of us is, by and large, a critical creation and I was crushed into creating mine. It took, as does the poem, a fierce ferocity, willingness to be in a living hell until it gives way to a living paradise.

As a woman, as a writer, I keep one foot in each—dancing feet, poetic feet—the iamb the pump, the heartbeat, and mine kicks as it ticks as did my son before he was born. When I pushed him into the Eden of my existence, muse became midwife and spirit guide in the mystical passageways of life inside the poem and outside the poem and o how I love my beautiful Baudelarian hell and my equally beautiful blue Neruda heaven.

Seventeen Warnings For The Dysfunctional School District

1) Be afraid if many reports, which sound important, are read by few and taken seriously by fewer.

2)  Be afraid if a critique is thought to substantiate the inadequacy of the person voicing the observation.

3)  When fundamental problems are reported, be afraid if the usual solution is to humiliate the person making the assessment.

4)  Be afraid if job threats are common, if folks are required to feel lucky to work.

5)  Be afraid if important decisions are only made at the highest levels.

6)  Be afraid if the latest educational craze trumps twenty years of experience.

7)  Be afraid if supplies, even textbooks, are tightly controlled, while millions are spent on worthless programs and workshops.

8)   Be afraid if anger is never an appropriate response, if the only correct emotion is cheerful compliance.

9)  Be afraid if the enforcement of the discipline code varies from day to day.

10)  Be afraid if professional development sessions are invariably inane.

11) Be afraid if certification trumps qualification.

12) Be afraid if genuine dialogue is always lateral but never vertical.

13)  Be afraid if a bad idea tends to stay in motion until acted upon by a bad idea.

14)   Be afraid if you make a distinction between keeping your job and teaching.

15)   Be afraid if evaluations are not about evaluating, if they are about intimidating.

16)  When forced to choose, be afraid if it is better to be viewed as compliant rather than competent.

17)  Be afraid if posting this list could get you into trouble.

John Samuel Tieman, Ph. D.

Joseph Legaspi’s Imago: poems

by Katrina Vandenberg

In Imago, a finely-realized first collection of poems, Manhattan-based Joseph Legaspi looks back through the gates of adulthood at an Eden-like childhood in the Philippines. But these free-verse narratives are not simple, sugar-coated, or — for all their use of the word “I” — self-centered; their delicate surfaces give way to reveal a world that is primal and visceral. Legaspi wrestles with severing and connecting, violence and love, and his place between homelands and among family members living and dead.

The title poem, which opens the book, is representative of many of the poems that follow. Like all the poems in the first three of the book’s four sections, this one takes place in the Philippines — the final section is set in the United States — and begins, “As soon as we became men / my brother and I wore skirts.” It’s one of three poems about the ritual circumcision of the twelve-year-old speaker and his brother. It’s also one of Legaspi’s many poems about violent but necessary loss.

In the world of the barrio, neighbor children gather to witness a sow being bred to a boar, “her wail as much a part of us as the morning air” (“The Sow”). Legaspi describes blood trickling into a bowl as the speaker’s uncle teaches him to kill chickens (“Killing a Chicken”); boys stomp on a bat until it is dead, for sport (“Bat Hunting”). Suffering and violence are part of life, but life is ultimately good; the brothers’ circumcision, though painful, allows the boys, by week’s end, to “possess the potential” of their father (“The Circumcision”), and “like monarchs . . . enter / the gardens of [their] lives” (“Imago”).

And while suffering is expected, it happens within the comfort of an extended family and community. In the poem “Imago,” as the speaker and his brother wear skirts, their mother boils guava leaves. Soon she will “bathe [his] penis with the warm broth” and wrap it in gauze. The speaker will consider the other boys who will sit on such stools, the other grandmothers and mothers who will soothe them. In another poem, the speaker remembers how his grandmother was once nearly killed by a soldier, as he calculates how much she still owes on her cemetery plot (“My Grandmother, in Increments”). And in what may be the book’s most joyous moment, the young brothers buy the family’s daily bread (“The Bringers of Bread”): “we bask in the clean scent / of newly baked pan de sal, providers that we are. / We press the brown bags to our hunter’s / breasts and let the warmth seep between our ribs.” But the poems in Imago, while memory-oriented, never end with the self. Even a poem like “Poem for My Navel” is not navel-gazing as much as it contemplates on the speaker’s connection to and separation from family and homeland.

Legaspi is a former student of Sharon Olds, and his poems share her direct tone, her frankness about the body, and her interest in family relationships. Legaspi’s diction and occasional bent towards surrealism, though, remind me of Pablo Neruda, another poet in exile. Neruda is present in Legaspi’s affectionate ode to his father, “The Socks” (“Dear socks, don’t lead me astray,” he writes), and in the collection’s final poem, “Sleep,” which contains otherworldly phrases like “Skeletons rattle their bones beneath the earth” and “The roosters roar, laying their eggs.”

The poem “Sleep” comes just after the book’s final section, in which the family emigrates from the Philippines to America, “the land cut like a massive slab / of steak” (“Departure: July 30, 1984). Here, seven adults squeeze in a two-bedroom apartment, severed from the life they know. Memories (and poems) of the homeland take on a haunting, dreamlike quality, and the new country is surreal as well. The book ends as it begins, with Legaspi’s speaker finding his place among his family, this time his dead ancestors, far away: “Others follow: grandmother, aunts, cousins, uncles, grandfather. / I wait for the secrets of the dead to drip out of their mouths, / I wait to ride the fiery, galloping horses.”

Joseph O. Legaspi
CavanKerry Press, 2007
83 pp.


by John Samuel Tieman

So the army lets me out a few days early to register for college.   I should have been in till February, but they send me home from Vietnam on 7 December 1970.   I have to enroll right away.   Until then, I’m still on active duty, a member of the 4th Infantry Division.   But from the moment I’m enrolled, I’m a civilian.

So on the 8th, a Tuesday, I went to enroll at the junior college.

What I remember is walking out of the registrar’s office, sitting beneath a tree, looking out over the campus — somebody’s throwing a frisbee — and being overwhelmed with a simple thought.   I’m alive.

I was twenty years old.

December 7

It occurs to me that, thirty-nine years ago, at about this very hour, I returned home to St. Louis from Vietnam.   I always remember it because it’s Pearl Harbor Day.

One day a rocket flew right over our hooch.   The next day we were down on the coast, checking out of the Nam.   The day after that, I was in Ft. Lewis.   That day after that, I was taking the first hot bath — or for that matter shower, or hot anything — I had taken in six months.

Thirty-nine years.   Thirty-nine years.   I feel so sad that life is so short, and so grateful that it is so beautiful.

To My Student, The Catholic Kid Who Asks About “The Spiritual Method”

by John Samuel Tieman

I, too, went to bed amidst the howling of the autumn wind and
awoke early the next morning amid the chanting of the priests
Matsuo Basho

My Young Friend,

After almost sixty years, I have learned so little in life that I’m not sure if I can impart anything except sure methods for garnering angst.

Today I play catch-up. That’s my method just now. Catch-up. I run through the morning so that I can run through the afternoon so I can get to bed early tonight.

It makes no difference where I start prayer or how I pray. It matters that I start and that I pray. Except for the view, I find little difference between praying the “Hail Mary” in the St. Louis Cathedral before a statue of The Virgin, or praying the “Hail Mary” in The Golden Pagoda in Kyoto before a statue of Kuan Yin. I do like the mosaics in St. Louis.

Focus helps. It helps when I do a rosary or a litany or make love to my wife or make

sacred lyrics on my harp of paper. Yet focus is vastly overestimated. Better to pray the prayer of the prematurely senile. Draw circles in the dust. Let Jesus stretched out on the couch. Imagine the Buddha doing The Times crossword.

I like to meditate upon the “Nicene Creed”: in truth, I find it strangely vague.

You want method? Here’s method. Doubt everything. In the end, you will be left with a faith born of vast questions. Keep the questions. Let go of the exhaustion. Find comforte in never getting a burning bush. Miracles are for the uninitiated.

What is best in life is the question. An answer is a rescheduling of confusion.

In other words, method is good place to start. Indeed, method is truly central. But once you’re done with the center, nowhere is good place to go.

Don’t get me wrong, I listen to the great saints. Aquinas. Gandhi. MLK. Teresa of Avila. But marvel at Blessed Bert of Belleville, Illinois, our patron saint of wisdom dinners with fried catfish, hush puppies. And the Venerable Sally of Sedalia, Missouri, our patron saint of late night Friday friends then sleeping in on Saturday. Bert and Sally have no answer. They’re only method is wonder.


Dr. T.

Nancy Pagh’s No Sweeter Fat

A Book Review by John Samuel Tieman and Phoebe Ann Cirio

Literature teachers are often want to say that anything can be made the subject of poetry.   And this is the collection that proves that point.   From diets to seafood to the treadmill, Nancy Pagh’s No Sweeter Fat makes the reader laugh, cry and reflect, often in the same poem.

Concerning style, Pagh often evokes Walt Whitman.   Perhaps she most purposely resembles Whitman, and his spiritual heir Allen Ginsberg, in her poem “A Gold’s Gym In Bellingham, Washington”, a poem that explicitly harkens to “A California Supermarket” in Howl.   As she works-out in her gym, she imagines Whitman “puzzling over the MP3 players”, while “Allen’s glasses didn’t hide his tears when he came out / from the men’s locker room alone.”   But Pagh’s poetry is more than simply an homage to the roots of much contemporary American poetry.   From her treadmill — “While I ambled along on my cyclical highway, / ambled along in my fat-lady sweatpants, / ambled along in my slow-rolling gait” — Pagh carves out her own America, one filled with “faded U. S. Navy tank tops”, “George Bush’s latest war on t. v.”, juice bars and suburbs.

These poems are womanly.   In theme, these are poems of the earth, the sea, the body, poems grounded in food, in sexual longing, in keen observations of the way people sweat, eat, and bathe.

Like Whitman and Ginsberg, Nancy Pagh celebrates the body.   Her celebrating is welcome in these times of gastric bypass surgery.   Her poem “G.B.S.” is about her sister’s gastric bypass undergone to transform her from three-hundred-sixty pounds to a size six.   The procedure puts the two of them on different paths.   Pagh’s poetry shows us the complexity of her relationship with her fat female body, and so helps us with our own relationship with our bodies.   She questions the ideal of beauty, the cost of which is often alienation from our bodies.

Pagh is not alienated from her body.   She does not sugar-coat life in a fat body.   Early in the book, her poem “Fat Lady’s Bath” is full of anger and self-hatred.   “You will never see the fat lady in her bath, / never know your casual barb / of pig, cow, hippo whale/ struck hard and fast, transforming / her—even now, even years later / and all grown up, in her bath.”   “Fat Girl Haiku” evokes the hurt of rejection and the humiliation of getting the hippo Valentine, and the way her family hides Pagh in the photographs so her size does not show.

But Pagh does not want pity.   She wants understanding.   What emerges from these poems is a candid woman spurned because of her size and longing for human connection.   She expresses her humanity poignantly.   Whitman said, “I celebrate myself, / And what I assume you shall assume, / For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.”   Nancy Pagh celebrates herself with all of the pain, regret and sorrow of years of taunts.   Yet every atom of her belongs as good to us.

Pagh, Nancy. No Sweeter Fat. Autumn House Press, 2007.

The Art of Loneliness is The Heart of Poetry

by Elizabeth Kirschner

At first I wrote: the art of loneliness is the art of poetry. Then art became heart. I am a solo singer hoping to be a singular singer in a silent choir. Rilke once wrote that a marriage was about two solitudes bordering each other. I once thought that of my own marriage until I realized it was a long training in recognizing my aloneness. And so it was but no longer. Now I am a solitude bordering—just what? Absence? Nothingness? The incredible, edible light pouring across the water into the sunroom that is my study?

Aloneness has been central to my art. The part of being apart has always plagued me and o how slight the difference is between solitude and loneliness. I once thought solitude sacred, loneliness not, but they are fused, Siamese twins sharing one heart. And one must go it alone to get to the heart part of art. I dare that loneliness, tempt loneliness, nurse it and milk it at once.

And suddenly in all that terrific and terrible loneliness, a word appears. Not just a word, but the word. A migratory word. One bound to bind with others because it carries poetry’s hint of music. This is what I can say: I write classical poetry in vers libre, always in vers libre out of my classical and sometimes colossal loneliness. The loneliness is integral—as the sun slowly sinks, my loneliness rises as does my voice. No voice without loneliness—this much I am sure of. In the guts of my aloneness is the cry of silence. Poets must love silence and silence must love them. Solitude, loneliness incubate the beautiful silences that precede and follow the poem. It takes miles of silence, a ton of silence to bridge into the beginnings, middles, ends.

Aloneness, then, is a practice, a discipline. So is poetry. The light moves and the light moves me. Loneliness is my daisy chain: I love you, I love you not, but poetry, the big ah of poetry is the big ah of love: full, earthy, God-given. As I sit here alone in my house, I see eel grass, I see ladders, I see dock. In that eel grass is the dream of the statuesque heron who is my muse. And the ladders scaffold poems. And the dock is all about voyage and return which is at the heart of the art of writing for me. Poetry, then, is silence’s signature and I birth that silence out of solitude in the august autumn of my evening years. In Keatsian light and shade. In the voice that is in the crux and void of creation and in, always within and in my miraculous, merciless loneliness.