Upheavals

by Nola Garrett

 Dover Beach

The sea is calm tonight.
The tide is full, the moon lies fair
Upon the straits—on the French coast the light
Gleams and is gone; the cliffs of England stand,
Glimmering and vast, out in the tranquil bay.
Come to the window, sweet is the night air!
….
At their return, up the high strand,
Begin and cease, and then again begin,
With tremulous cadence slow, and bring
The eternal note of sadness in.

Matthew Arnold, 1851

Since the attacks in Paris, I’ve been watching too much television and enduring too many condo repairs and heat failures. None of which are conducive to writing. I’m attempting with this essay to forgive myself for the long silence.

Except for a change of planes, I’ve been to Paris only once for one day during a 2007 14-day summer cruise around the British Isles for me and my last husband’s 25thanniversary. Our side trip to Paris was the last stop before our ship’s final docking. Because of my husband’s left temporal lobe dementia, he had recently taken early retirement, and we had carefully chosen each side trip so that he would not become overwhelmed with its length and complexity. We both knew the full day Paris excursion would stretch his stamina, but thought that because so much of the trip would be bus ride time from the ship to Paris and back that he could rest on the bus. We were wrong.

The bus ride began early that morning with his discovering that he had forgot to bring his camera. I offered to let him use mine, which was the same brand as his though not nearly as hi-tech. Though he had given me that camera as a gift, he refused to use such a lowly piece of machinery. He wouldn’t even look out the bus window as we made the two hour drive from the French coast to the city of light. Thinking he would recover, I let him be. Let him rest. I was amazed how different from England everything in France was from the electric transmission lines to the farm lay outs that were less than 30 miles away.

Our first stop in Paris was a downtown department store, about the size of Pittsburgh’s currently empty Macy’s store, only larger because Paris blocks were at least three times larger than Pittsburgh’s. We had an hour and a half to shop, and I shopped while my husband glumly followed me. When it was time to go back to the bus, I couldn’t remember which door we had come in which is almost always a problem for me because I have no sense of direction. My husband had an excellent directional sense that I trusted, so I was not alarmed. But this time he was even more lost than I. Of course, the French clerks refused to speak English to us or give us directions, which didn’t surprise me, but enraged my husband. I decided to just go outside and circle the huge store until we found the waiting bus; we were the last people to board. And, when we came to our next tour stop at the Eifel Tower, my husband refused to leave the bus for fear of getting lost again and missing the bus. I could see that he was so upset, that to reassure him I stayed with him on the bus. I was able to see a few iron girders and a souvenir stand, not the storied Paris view.

Our next and last stop was a 90 minute, dinner barge trip down the Seine. This time my husband left the bus. We made our way to our assigned seats at one of the tables for 12, arranged along both side of the barge. My husband’s seat was on the aisle at the head of the table facing the river, mine to his right on the side.  Even before the barge left the dock, our tour guide’s loud speaker spiel began, and we were served wine. Because of his medications, my husband refused wine, but somehow wordlessly conveyed how insulted he was to be offered wine. I chose a glass of white wine. Meanwhile, the noise level of multiple table conversations rose to drown out the tour guide’s information. At some point the barge’s photographer snapped our individual portraits. We were served a three course meal, including the best chicken breast that I have ever tasted, but because my husband does not like chicken, he took this as a further French insult. Then, came one of those moments when while dining, an entire room quiets.

My husband arose from his chair to shout, “I hate Paris!”

Quickly, the woman sitting next to me smiled while whispering to me, “Sometimes, I find it more enjoyable to travel alone.”

I looked around. Everyone kept eating and resumed their conversations. I assessed that my husband was safe, that there was nothing further at that moment I could do to help him; so I emotionally stepped aside, and on this last and only day I would ever be in Paris, I chose to enjoy Paris—the colorful houseboats, the huge cathedrals, lovers walking along the river, picnickers, women simply dressed, yet beautiful, and bridges leading over the Seine to a future none of us could ever guess.

A half hour later, the photographer returned to sell us our photos, and with my own money I bought both photographs. My husband’s was that of a horribly frightened and angry man, and mine was of the happiest picture of me that I had ever seen, the author photo I eventually used for my second book of poems—The Pastor’s Wife Considers Pinball.

When we came back to our Florida home, my husband, who had always been forthright about discussing his left temporal dementia, refused to speak of our Paris incident. For the first time he began attempting to hide his dementia, and he refused to go for his yearly dementia assessment with his psycho-neurologist. Gradually, he quit talking with me. Out of fear and frustration, I enrolled in care-giver therapy in the hope that I could learn how to better care for him and for myself which further enraged him. One of the first things I learned in care-giver therapy was the name for what had happened to my husband and ultimately to our marriage that day in Paris—catastrophic reaction—perhaps, also an accurate term to describe what happened in Paris in November of 2015.


 

Now Then

by Nola Garrett

“The FROST performs its secret ministry.”
       from “Frost at Midnight” by Samuel Taylor Coleridge

Now, that this year’s Pittsburgh Pirates’ baseball season is finished, what I most recall are the  joyous moments I experienced watching the games on the Roots Sports channel while I sat here in my condo a few hundred yards across the Allegheny River from PNC Park when a Pirate batter was beginning his swing and I was hearing the exploding fireworks indicating he had hit a home run. Don’t bother reminding me about the electronic time lag inherent in those moments. Though I understand the science, I’m not dealing with physics in its most literal sense. I’m talking about my brief experience of joy. Perhaps, akin to Steven Hawking’s ironic title choice for A Brief History of Time.  What I felt was some sort of metaphysical joy. Did I save time? Will I be able to use that saved time later?

During my life I’ve experienced other joyous time-saving events, some involving much longer time periods. When I was eight years old, I remember the joy I felt while I took the short cut most mornings while walking from home across the lots around Walter Wright’s garden, then hopping on stepping stones across the creek behind the filling station that eventually became the Mill Village Post Office, crossing the street, to the sidewalk, then turning uphill to shudder  under the shadowed rail road bridge, then walking the half block to the Mill Village Grade School, thus getting to the place where I was always most happy sooner.

My first year at what was then Clarion State Teachers’ College, where I was even happier than I had been in grade school or high school, I realized my tuition bill was the same if I took 15 credits or even 21 credits each semester. Every semester after that insight, I gobbled 18 to 20 credits, attended summer school, and graduated in three years. By my lights, I saved an entire year.

During my first marriage, because I discovered I enjoyed being pregnant, I chose to become pregnant with my second child less than a year after the birth of my first child, partly for my own pleasure and partly so the two children could be playmates for each other the way I had been a playmate with my brother, Joel, who was a year younger than I. Maybe, I saved time. Certainly, my labor was hours shorter during my second delivery. And, I succeed in creating two sons whose best friends for many, many years.

While saving time, another part of my joy is the mysterious pleasure that for a rare ambiguous moment I feel the semblance of escaping time which in many ways is how I feel when I dream. I’ve always loved dreaming. Going to bed every night for me is like going to the movies. Over the last several months my health has improved, and I’ve been sleeping more soundly. I’m dreaming more often deep dreams involving my past two husbands, my two sons, my childhood, strange houses I seem to be living in. I’m dreaming new sorts of dreams, non-narrative, grand abstract ideas uniting time, reading, banking, computer technology, flowers, music, cooking, teaching, newspapers, game theory, visual art, and of course, writing. Maybe it’s the new buckwheat-filled pillow I bought that the Japanese suggest will keep my body more aligned? Maybe, now retired, living in the midst of a beautiful, interesting city, at last I’m free to use my saved time.

However, I may have already used my saved time when in the Spring of 1996 I took advantage of an early retirement window from my tenured teaching position at Edinboro University of PA to maintain our marriage when my husband accepted a call to a large Lutheran congregation in Spring Hill, Florida. I used those ten years—I would have been happily teaching at EUP—to learn how to write poetry. What I used or gained, depending how much you value poetry, was the 10,000 hours Malcolm Gladwell says in Outliers one needs to master a high level skill. From a money and time standpoint my husband and the congregation were horrified that I was wasting my time. My poetry publications usually paid little more than a journal copy. Besides, who reads poetry anyway? And, when I volunteered to become a Guardian ad Litem for children who were dependants of the 5th Judicial District Court of Florida, because I felt I could be of help using my writing skills for those children at court; there was yet another frosty reaction until the national Lutheran women’s organization selected foster children and their support system as their theme for that year. Then, while none of them actually came out and apologized, including my husband, at least I was left in peace to practice my writing skills.

If time is money, how I’ve chosen to live a major part of my adult life writing essays, foster children’s court reports, and poetry has resulted in my financial failure. But if time saved spent writing, which for me makes time stand still resulting in joy, I’m still willing to pay that price sometimes with cold cash, sometimes with loneliness, sometimes with tears.


 

Cooking for One, Part 2

by Nola Garrett

Last week, I went grocery shopping at Giant Eagle on S. Braddock Avenue in Pittsburgh with my 90-some-year-old friend, Ginger Carlson, who lives by herself in Wilkinsburg. First, though, we sat on her back porch, watched a black and white cat, splayed flat pretend to stalk a pair of red squirrels who plainly knew a great pretender when they saw one. Our conversation ambled along family matters, church, mutual friends, and which local apples are now in season. Of course, I’m delighted to have fresh Macintosh apples, so I can make apple sauce to freeze in small containers for the oncoming winter. By this time the cat, lying in the dappled sun light was sleeping, so we changed our subject to poetry. Ginger mentioned her favorite Robert Frost poem, “Good-by And Keep Cold,” that I had no memory of ever reading. It wasn’t his usual “Apple Picking,” but it was set in a fall apple orchard. The unlikely title alone pricked my curiosity, but we still had to go grocery shopping, so….

Ginger gamely directed me to her Giant Eagle shopping center where I had never been. First Ginger headed for the State Store for a large bottle of discount Chardonnay, which I stashed in my trunk for her. Aloud, I wished I was buying a bottle of medium sherry for me, but I knew preserving my compromised liver was more important than the brief pleasure of a few forbidden sips. We moved my car to the entrance of the grocery store, and Ginger stowed her cane in the shopping cart she pushed past her Citizens Bank branch to the store pharmacy where the pharmacist greeted her by name and gave her a big hug. At that point I knew I was in Gingerland!

While her prescription was being filled, we both found hygiene items and the Maybelline cosmetics we both use because they are the least expensive. Ginger goes for bright reds and black eyeliner while I shrink back into my usual autumnal colors. However, I’m not a former beauty queen and New York City model. Ginger still carries her royal bearing. By that time Ginger’s medication was ready which resulted in another conversation and another big hug, this time from the pharmacy clerk.

At this point in her life Ginger doesn’t do much scratch cooking, so my shopping with her was an education in how one at her age can still eat well and stay healthy. Ginger, like many of us who live alone, sometimes doesn’t feel like eating much or even at all, especially if we’ve had a hard day of medical events or family worries or loneliness. That’s the reality of living alone, but there’s also an upside: independence. Independence allows one the freedom to eat any time, anything, and our favorite foods. The trick, I think, is to be aware of our bodies’ nutritional needs and intake over the course of a day and of each week. During the last year or so, three of my acquaintances have had serious medical problems with salt; two with sodium levels so low they fainted, and one with thyroid problems from using non-iodized salt.  We have to eat a balanced diet, or we’ll be hauled off to a hospital and/or a nursing home where little freedom exists. Besides, we’d have to live on a schedule with a roommate and a bunch of complaining, old people.  That’s the real specter haunting Giant Eagle’s aisles.

Giant Eagle knows Ginger and me through our Advantage Cards and welcomes us with a huge variety of merchandise and price points. Ginger and I buy quarter pounds of liver pate, half barbeque chickens, single pork chops, single lamb-leg slices, marinated artichokes, store-brand butter, whole grain English muffins, graham crackers, plastic & paper products, Triscuts, loose fruits & vegetables, Greek olives, hot peppers, cut squash chunks, and (God help me!) Stouffer’s frozen mac & cheese. We both keep an eye on our protein intake. Ginger buys an occasional steak. I splurge on a half pint of fresh oysters, sea scallops, and individually frozen fish fillets. We’re both fans of eggs and canned salmon. I often make marinated bean salads with canned beans or black eyed peas that keep well, refrigerated for more than a week, so I don’t have to eat the same thing day after day. And, unlike Ginger I use a gallon of fat-free milk every week that I hope off-sets my fear of a broken hip.

We hit the Deli section last and head for the gourmet cheese counter where again Ginger is greeted by name. The clerk asks Ginger if she likes goat cheese, and Ginger says, “Not so much,” but I chime in with “I do!”

Then, the clerk shows us a 15 inch, half wheel of red-paper wrapped cheese that she says has finely ground potato chips mixed within. Hmmm. I’m curious, and she cuts us generous samples. And, wow! Who knew that potato chips could make such a difference in goat cheese? The addition of the potatoes and salt near the end of the cheese making must absorb enough the goat cheese’s usual sloppy texture to firm it up and smooth the flavor. We both left the counter smiling as we clutched our quarter pounds of Dorthea Goat Potato Chip Cheese.

The next morning, I got out my copy of Robert Frost’s Collected Poems and found “Good-by And Keep Cold” which was included in Frost’s fourth full-length book, New Hampshire, published in 1923. I ended up that morning reading all those poems in that book. What fascinated me was the unity of that book’s theme—paradox in all its manifestations, not only in subject and speaker, but also within each poem’s words and lines.  “Good-by And Keep Cold” begins

This saying goodby on the edge of the dark
And the cold to an orchard so young in the bark
Reminds me of all that can happen to harm
An orchard…

Then, Frost goes on in heroic couplets discussing all the threats both live and weather-related that can befall the young orchard he has recently planted on the far north side hill of his farm as he leaves it to winter. He is of the opinion that an early spring, quick thaw-freeze cycle is a fruit tree’s most dangerous threat, thus he bids his orchard farewell:

I wish I could promise to lie in the night
And think of an orchard’s arboreal plight
When slowly (and nobody comes with a light)
Its heart sinks lower under the sod.
But something has to be left to God.


 

57th High School Class Reunion

by Nola Garrett

Since our 50th reunion we’ve met every year on the east bank of French Creek, not in Waterford, PA where our high school, Fort LeBouef still stands six miles north, but a hundred yards from the intersection of U.S. Route 19 and U.S. Route 6N just across Polick’s Bridge on the site of what used to be Mitchell’s farm machine shed. We are the guests of our classmate Marvin Cross, who has worked hard and prospered well enough, I suspect, to buy out the rest of lock, stock and barrel.  However, you’d never get Marvin to own up to my suspicions. Marvin bought this abandoned farm from the many Mitchells who could never get around to settling the family estate. Too many Mitchells. Too much work to farm, even though these fields hold some of the best soil in the entire state, courtesy of French Creek’s yearly flood deposits on the glacial moraine that make up these hundreds of flat acres, a couple of miles from Mill Village. Marvin tore down the main house, a couple of hired-man houses, other outbuildings, and uses the restored main barn for winter storage for some of his road construction company equipment.  Marvin has planted these fields with soybeans, the most lush bean fields I’ve ever seen, and he’s renovated the machine shed into a summer cabin and picnic space that holds in comfort what’s left of the Class of ’58 and their spouses.

At 2:00 p.m. the second Saturday of August, Marvin’s wife greets us at the door. Marvin provides the beverages, strolls, jokes constantly among us while pouring good quality red wine and soft drinks for those us who can no longer drink alcohol. We pay ten dollars apiece for a simple catered supper delivered at 4:00 p.m., and Marvin patrols, garbage bag in hand gathering our wine glasses, plastic, and paperware. We talk. We use the bathroom a lot. We keep talking, looking at class photos, newspaper obituaries, remembering, wondering what happened….

I’ve attended our 5th, 15th, 20th, and the most recent three reunions. This year for me was different, or rather this year for two reasons I felt different. First, I’m happier and more content than I’ve ever felt in my life. I’ve accepted the reality of my second husband’s divorcing me and embraced living and writing alone here in what has become my condo. And, my classmate and long time friend, Susan Duran Heide, flew from Naples, FL to stay with me for a few days before we drove to our reunion. Susan was our class Valedictorian (I ranked fifth), and she, like me, married a Lutheran pastor. I was the maid of honor in her wedding. She was widowed in her mid thirties, returned to college, earned an English education degree, taught high school English in the Upper St. Clair schools for many years, then returned to Pitt for her doctorate and taught at the University of Wisconsin until she retired to Florida.

Susan and I always have a lot to talk about. This visit was especially warm and talk-filled. It was good to have a buddy while getting dressed to figure out if there is any suitable attire for a 57th high school reunion. Because she still has good legs, she opted for Bermuda shorts. Given my veiny legs, still punctuated with the scars from my recent shingles bout, I wore footless, black leggings under a knee-length, hand-dyed, batik cotton dress that I had bought at last year’s Arts Festival. However, it turned out that there is a suitable women’s uniform for a 57th reunion—long polyester pants topped with a print cotton blouse.

As I chatted with classmates, I kept hearing that Alice Robinson, who had become a registered nurse, was quietly sitting in a far corner, and had recently been diagnosed with stage 4 cancer. Although Alice and I had both attended Mill Village grade school and Fort LeBoeuf high school, I never knew her very well. She was a big-boned girl with dark wavy hair who pretty much kept to herself. I was a small boned, skinny girl with brown straight hair who read a lot. Both of us always wore dresses sewn by our mothers. She lived at the other end of the diagonal of Mill Village’s single square mile from my house. We never seemed to encounter each other in town.

My most vivid memory of Alice happened in Mrs. Clark’s 5th grade class where I was the teacher’s pet, so I was assigned a seat nearly touching Mrs’s Clark’s desk. Alice was assigned a seat in the last row near the coats. One Friday when a weekly spelling test was returned, Mrs. Clark was so angry Alice had misspelled every word that she yanked Alice out of her seat on to the floor, grabbed her legs as if she were a wheelbarrow, pushed Alice, weeping silently, around the entire perimeter of our class room. I was appalled. I was shocked Mrs. Clark could be so mean. Somehow it made it even worse that Alice was wearing a dress. I didn’t know what to do, but I never felt the same about Mrs. Clark again, and I was a little ashamed to be her pet. What I didn’t do was say anything to Alice, something that has drifted in and out of my mind ever since. Sixty-seven years later, I still didn’t know what to say to Alice, but now I knew that if I was ever going to do the right thing for Alice, today would have to be that day.

I gradually made my way through my name-tagged classmates to Alice, who had brought with her a scrap book holding all of our Mill Village grade school class photos from first grade though sixth grade. As soon as I sat down with Alice, she urgently asked me to identify the names of the students in our first grade photo taken on the side steps of our school. I was surprised at myself that I could name almost everyone, except for a couple of boys in the back row, including Johnny Spencer who always had a runny nose that he wiped on his sleeve. Alice was standing beside Johnny.

Alice and I bent puzzling over each of the class photos until we came to Mrs. Clark’s class. At that moment I looked up at Alice and said, “Mrs. Clark was mean to you.”

Alice said, “I could never get math very well in her class.”

Had Alice forgotten that horrible wheelbarrow spelling incident?

Immediately, Alice began telling me about how mean her father had been to her, how he had whipped her with his belt. And, I told Alice how my father had done the same thing to me. And, Alice told me how mean her father had been to her mother, how her mother had attempted to protect her from him and paid the price of also being whipped and beaten by him. And, how sometimes boys threw stones down on her from the railroad bridge, but the stones never hit her and how they would call her father Daddy Long Legs, which Alice commented was because her father was so tall. All the while I was remembering the two Kermeyer girls who lived across the street from me showing me the black and blue marks on their buttocks where their father had beaten them with the stiff-bristled milk brushes used to clean his farm’s milk house. And, Alice was then telling me how her father had kept her from doing her schoolwork and kept her up late on a school night to start painting a bedroom yellow at 9 p.m.

Alice didn’t tell me about her cancer diagnosis. I never did get to tell Alice of my silent shame back in Mrs. Clark’s class, but we did get to talk about how our mothers had saved each of us from our fathers and how thankful we both were that we were blessed with good mothers.

It may be that next year Alice won’t be at the 58th class reunion and/or neither will I, but this year we were held safe in our memories of our hand sewn dresses, and I was shriven.


 

Treachery

by Nola Garrett

     I first learned about treachery when my family moved the 3 miles from our small house and farm on U. S. # 19 to a sixteen room house in Mill Village the summer I turned eight. I don’t exactly remember reading that word, treachery, or hearing the word, treachery, used by my parents, but somehow I knew the word meant some kind of deep betrayal, theft and/or trickery by a blood relative or a spouse.

When we moved to Mill Village, I discovered that Mr. Rowe, who used to be the hired man for a widow, Mrs. Whitaker, who lived on a small farm on Camp Mystic Road, a mile or so from our small house, had moved alone to a cottage at the dead end of our Mill Village street. He had sided his new home with square, green shingles. Mr. Rowe kept busy with a few chickens, odd jobs for neighbors, and his garden so meticulous it reminded me of Mr. McGregor’s garden of Peter Rabbit fame. A few months later I overheard my parents saying that Mrs. Whitaker had moved in with Mr. Rowe, though they weren’t married. Seems that Mrs. Whitaker’s son arrived back home and had fired Mr. Rowe. The son then persuaded her sign over her farm to him with the promise that he’d take care of her for the rest of her life. After the deed was transferred, her son started to make plans to put her to the County Home. Just in the nick of time Mrs. Whitaker escaped, moved in with Mr. Rowe. My parents and the rest of our community seemed to approve of Mr. Rowe and Mrs. Whitaker’s living arrangements, and went on calling them Mr. Rowe and Mrs. Whitaker.

However, around the same time I accompanied my parents to a New Ireland Evangelical United Brethren Church council meeting and overheard their discussion and decision to deny a young married couple’s request for membership because both of them had been divorced.  Both my parents voted with the council’s majority. I was puzzled and almost outraged. If I had been a teenager, I’m sure I would have questioned their judgment, especially on a New Testament basis. What I took from those two approaches to marriage was that divorce was shameful, unforgivable; but somehow “living in sin” was acceptable if the couple was old.

It’s taken me decades to intellectually and emotionally sort through those treacheries.

So, recently when I read a review of Kent Haruf’s Our Souls at Night, I immediately downloaded his novel and read it straight through in a day, partly because the main characters were my age and partly because it began with 70 year old, widowed Addie Moore walking a block to her widower neighbor’s home to say to Louis Waters:

I mean we’re both alone. We’ve been by ourselves for too long. For years. I’m lonely. I think you might be too. I wonder if you would come and sleep in the night with me. And talk.

Frankly, sex was the least of their arrangement.  Foremost was their conversation. And her grandson. And her grandson’s dog. And baseball. A two night camping trip, complete with roasted marshmallows instructions. Mid-western town folk. Addie’s son. And, Kent Haruf’s clean prose, stripped down so far, he eschews quotation marks. Last Saturday, when I read Our Souls at Night, I felt as if I were eight years old reading easily and quickly for the pure joy of moving along through a story. Nothing else mattered, except for Addie and Louis, and treacheries.

Later after I finished reading, I took my bath, slept deeply, dreamlessly.  However, ever since I woke Sunday morning I’ve been thinking about that story. I’ve thought about why 40 years ago after my first divorce from an abuser that I so gladly left behind the stern United Brethren to join the grace-filled Evangelical Lutheran Church of America. I am thankful for my education and my career as an English professor and now as a poet. And, I’ve been thinking about how grateful I am that last June, Pennsylvania’s updated divorce laws kept my second husband from draining my savings and enabled me to keep living here in my downtown Pittsburgh condo. Though I do not share my bed, I do have long time women friends who love to write detailed emails and to talk sometimes hours on the telephone.

Onward.


 

 

Loose Ends

by Nola Garrett

Mid-April, I received my yearly Travelers car insurance bill. It was nearly two hundred dollars higher than it was last year. I’d had no claims or speeding tickets on my 2011 Honda Fit which only I drive. Nothing had changed, I thought, until I phoned my agent who informed me that because my divorce was final: I’m now single. And, that fact means I’m a higher risk driver. I was pissed! Later that day I talked with a recently widowed friend who told me that her insurance company, State Farm, told her the same thing, except that they were raising her rates not only because she was now single, but also (to add insult to injury) because she was a woman! She seemed pretty accepting of that higher rate, said she kept her policy because her late husband had chosen that company. I was amazed.

I called Travelers to see if I raised my deductible, I’d have a lower bill. Turned out the bill would go down…some, but they would mail me a form to sign off on the change. When the form arrived, it was addressed to my ex-husband, and my name was nowhere on the form even though last June I reported the divorce, requested the insurance to be listed under only my name, and this year’s higher bill, indeed, had come in my name. I was even more pissed! I began looking for a new company. Within a half hour I had a quote from Erie Insurance Exchange more than three hundred dollars lower than my last year’s bill, and they didn’t mind in the least that I’m a single old lady. Furthermore, when I added my condo insurance into the mix, I had an additional $173.00 to spend on poetry books.

I calmed down and went back to arranging my new poetry manuscript. Then, the Spring Issue of The Georgia Review and a check arrived for the publication of my recent small poem, “The Pastor’s Wife Considers Her Chops,” the very last pastor’s wife poem I shall ever write. This poem’s fierceness still appalls me, yet I know I needed to write it. I had to honor that persona, who was a better person than I ever was, and who served me well for so many years. She deserved the best I could give her—a tough, witty, tender, ars poetia emerging from the depths of my being. As I read Stephen Corey’s introductory editorial essay to that issue and found an entire paragraph devoted to my other pastor’s wife poems published by The Georgia Review, I wept. A few days later, I discovered Stephen Corey had written a longer essay about those other pastor’s wife poems and posted those poems in The Georgia Review’s Vault web site. Again, I was undone.

Once more, I went back to work on my poetry manuscript, and I was idly thinking I ought to add some epigraphs to help the reader understand something about the three sections this manuscript contains, something that would unify all three parts, including the selected sestinas third section. What kept intruding into my mind was words from the first line of a John Donne poem: “Batter my heart, three-personed God….” I looked up the poem, found it was number XIV of his Holy Sonnets:

Batter my heart, three-personed God; for You
As yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend;
That I may rise and stand, o’erthrow me, and bend
Your force, to break, blow, burn, and make me new.
I, like an usurped town, to another due,
Labor to admit You, but Oh, to no end!
Reason, Your viceroy in me, me should defend,
But is captived, and proves weak or untrue.
Yet dearly I love You, and would be loved fain,
But am betrothed unto Your enemy:
Divorce me, untie or break that knot again,
Take me to You, imprison me, for I,
Except You enthrall me, never shall be free,
Nor ever chaste, except You ravish me.

Perhaps, for modern tastes this entire poem is a little much for a poetry book section epigraph, but what if I broke up the poem, chose just a few lines from Donne’s sonnet to head each section? “The Pastor’s Wife Considers Her Chops” that opens Section II may well deserve Donne’s words: “Divorce me, untie or break that knot again,…” And, Section III, the selected sestinas that brim with my experimentation with that form:

That I may rise and stand, o’erthrow me, and bend
Your force, to break, blow burn, and make me new.

Maybe?

Meanwhile, within the last three weeks, two windows have fallen out of my 50-year-old condo building. The most recent fell from the 15th floor. Orange cones and crime scene-yellow tape now block three sides of my building. Engineers have been called. Seems our building’s double-pane windows, which open out six inches, consist of a fixed-frame inner pane and a removable outer pane, forming a clamshell, bound with finger hinges which allow the two panes to be separated for cleaning. Our finger hinges are failing, and what falls is the outer pane. Tomorrow evening I’m going to attend what I expect to be a very serious condo owners’ meeting. “As yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend….”


 

Oak Groves

by Nola Garret 

Last week mid-March, at my condominium committee meeting, I became aware that more than half the committee members had no way to discuss landscape planting decisions because they had no nouns to identify even the common names of any trees, bushes, or plants.  What they readily admitted was that as they walk though Gateway Park and on our condo’s property what they see is concrete and green stuff.  In the summer some of the green stuff they see that’s not green may be flowers that cost more money.   At the other extreme were two condo committee members who are Master Gardeners (certified by the US Agricultural Extension Service), and they know the common and the botanical names, the hardiness numbers, the light/water needs, and the difference between annuals and perennials of all that green stuff.  And, there I was a vicarious gardener (book shelves filled with gardening books, including Joseph Wood Krutch’s 1976 edition of Herbal) and a poet analyzing the committee’s language crisis while attempting to explain the time line of planting to the seers of green stuff for the Master Gardeners.

During that committee meeting I did what I could by way of translation and interpretation, but what really was needed was Joseph Wood Krutch’s approach as he explains in his Introduction:

Closely regarded, everyone of the individual plants will be found useful, beautiful, or wonderful—and not infrequently all three.  Perhaps the chief charm of the Herbalists (and certainly the one this book would like especially to suggest) is just that they are more likely than the modern scientist to impart a sense of beauty and wonder—both of which the scientist may feel, but considers it no part of his function to communicate.

What I really love about Krutch’s Herbal is that in that wondrous spirit he includes drawings of both weeds and flowers along with tales of trees that are either food sources or poisonous.  It seems as if he thinks of plants as unheard melodies for which there may be many lyrics for each song.

What I think as I walk under the dappled shadows of Gateway Park’s pin oaks is how good it is that pin oaks have no tap roots, otherwise they wouldn’t have been planted here in soil that’s barely three or four feet deep, hauled in to cover the underground parking garages and the four office buildings’ connecting service tunnels that are the pragmatic reason Gateway Park exists.  Otherwise, fifty years later most trees’ deep tap roots would have long ago broken through a host of BMWs and crawled down into Pittsburgh’s rumored fourth river.  Instead what we in downtown Pittsburgh have is an oak grove that’s pruned twice a year so the pin oaks won’t exceed the garage roofs’ weight-bearing limits.  We also have a squirrel habitat, a pigeon hang-out, a sculpture garden, a pedestrian short cut from Penn Avenue to Fort Duquesne Boulevard a backdrop for selfies and wedding party photographs.

And, an oak grove for a local poet to amble through to remember the Welsh folk tune, “The Ash Grove” that she used to sing during Music Assemblies when she attended the Mill Village Grade School, and the same long-lined tune that’s repurposed for several hymns.  Yes, I know that tune is for ash trees rather than oak trees, but in England and Wales ash groves and oak groves are equally magical and/or scared, therefore, suffice for me.  My knowing the names of the trees and of the under story plants and bushes—azaleas, mountain laurel, roses—enlarges and charges the universe of my condo home.

One of my favorite poems, “Names of Horses,” by Donald Hall recounts life as it was lived on his grandparents’ farm when horses were not only the most common mode of transportation, but also the live machines that made the hard work of New England farming possible.  His poem ends

For a hundred and fifty years, in the pasture of dead horses,
roots of pine trees pushed through the pale curves of your ribs,
yellow blossoms flourished above you in autumn, and in winter
frost heaved your bones in the ground—old toilers, soil makers:

O Roger, Mackerel, Riley, Ned, Nellie, Chester, Lady Ghost.

Hall’s list of those proper nouns—the horses’ names—empowers each reader’s imagination, enlarges each reader’s mind, each reader’s soul.


 

When I have Fears

by Nola Garrett

When I have fears that I may cease to be
Before my pen has glean’d my teeming brain,
Before high-piled books, in charact’ry
Hold like rich garners the full-ripen’d grain;
When I behold, upon the night’s starr’d face
Huge cloudy symbols of a high romance,
And think that I may never live to trace
Their shadows, with the magic hand of chance;
And when I feel, fair creature of an hour,
That I shall never look upon thee more,
Never have relish in the faery power
Of unreflecting love!—then on the shore
Of the wide world I stand alone, and think
Till Love and Fame to nothingness do sink.
               —John Keats

Once in a while, we all come upon a poem that is so tight and so right that there’s not much left to say, other than agree with it and explain why. Of course, as an English professor teaching Introduction to Poetry, I sometimes pried out of my students why it was an English sonnet rather than an Italian sonnet, but I’m sure that did more harm than good. Luckily, my prying had no effect upon sonnethood, though years later I still hope my students have forgiven me.

Eventually, I learned to approach this poem by first reading it aloud, then asking “What do you notice about this poem?” and then a half hour of poetry conversation ensued. Some students focused on the “fair creature of an hour,” to discuss it as a tragic love poem. Others talked about the first line, and recounted auto accidents, grandparents’ deaths, near drowning. If they knew anything about Keats’ life, they disclosed his early death from TB, and because Keats died at age 26, an age close to theirs, at that point in our discussion we moved deeper into the poem itself. Though they could imagine why Keats would miss his writing, reading, the night sky, and his girlfriend, what was nearly impossible to understand was Keats’ sonnet’s solution. Mostly, all they had to go on was trust in Keats’ words:

then on the shore
Of the wide world I stand alone, and think
till Love and Fame to nothingness do sink.

That was always acceptable to me, because I knew each one of us who reads this poem would most likely someday come to understand those words within the context of our own lives.

I, too, have had to contemplate those last lines of Keats sonnet for more than two years since I was diagnosed with primary billiary cirrhosis.

Primary billiary cirrhosis is a rare, genetic disease of the liver diagnosed most often in women during their mid-forties or mid-fifties in which the cells that make up the linings of the liver’s bile ducts destroy each other and eventually close off all the bile ducts, leading to liver failure and death unless a liver transplant is available. Given my present age, 74, I would be so far down on the transplant list that I would die before a liver were ever available. And, in some cases even if a transplant takes place, the genetic nature of the disease destroys the transplanted liver. However, a few years ago research liver specialists discovered that thrice daily 300 mg doses of ursolic acid, Ursodiol, can in some cases slow the destruction of the bile ducts, especially if it is administered early enough in the progression of the disease.

These are the questions I’ve been living with for the last two years:

Why has PBC, such a rare disease, pounced upon me so late in my life?

How long have I had PBC?

Is the Ursodiol working well enough to slow down the progression of PBC so I can die of something else?

Meanwhile, I have bought a space for my ashes in First Lutheran Church’s columbarium, and I keep revising (much the same way I revise my poems) my funeral service.

I have published my second book of poetry, and I’m working on my third manuscript of poetry and writing essays.

My husband has divorced me, and now a mortgage company & I own my condo where I still gratefully live.

In many ways Keats’ concluding lines stayed with me as I stood alone thinking through my questions at the high windows of my condo these last two years. Gradually, I came to accept not only my death, but also the end of my husband’s love. Because I never did drink much alcohol, giving up cooking with wine and drinking wine came easy. I found that lemon juice and/or chicken broth were good substitutes for cooking with wine. I learned to allow myself the slightest sip of communion wine, somewhat like Christ’s sipping vinegar while he hung from his cross. Because part of taking Ursodiol is drinking far more water than I have ever drunk on a daily basis, I came to find drinking water at various temperatures seemed to be a pleasant diversion. Besides, another medical recommendation was to drink coffee and to eat lots of citrus. And, because my husband had hated coffee and was indifferent to any citrus other than pulpless orange juice, somehow my drinking coffee and eating lots of oranges and tangerines seemed to congeal the finality of his leaving. Further, I came to accept that the stress of living with a husband who no longer loved me though I loved him may have been what pushed me and my genes past their limits. Like death, divorce has always existed.

During the first year after my husband left, my second book of poems, The Pastor’s Wife Considers Pinball, was published, received national reviews, and went into a second print run. Mike Simms asked me to write these essays. One of my sestinas from my first book was included in OBSESSION: Sestinas in the Twenty-First Century published by the University of New England Press. And, along with several invitations to read, a critical essay was written about my poems for the Mezzo Camin Women Poets Time Line which will be posted within the next few months. This is far more fame than I have ever expected in my wildest dreams, but I’m still just me waiting for my next poem. None of this makes a whit of difference on my Federal Income Tax forms.

What has made a difference to me is the results of several medical tests I’ve had within the last few weeks. Apparently, even though I was so old, my PBC was diagnosed early in its development, and during the two years while I have been taking medication and living alone my liver has not further deteriorated. I may well live to die of something else. Theologically, I suspect this may be wrong: I’ve come think of the cells in my liver bile linings as a game of Pac-Man eating themselves. I’ve just been awarded a single bonus life at 10,000 points, but I believe Blinky, Pinky, Inky, and Clyde are still out there. However, now I’m not afraid to sink to nothingness whenever they arrive.


Re-reading Lady Chatterly’s Lover

by Nola Garrett

And dimly she realized one of the great laws of the human soul: that when the emotional soul receives a wounding shock, which does not kill the body, the soul seems to recover as the body recovers. But this is only appearance. It is really only the mechanism of the re-assumed habit. Slowly, slowly the wound to the soul begins to make itself felt, like a bruise, which only slowly deepens its terrible ache, till it fills all the psyche. And when we think we have recovered and forgotten, it is then that the terrible afer-effects have to be encountered at their worst.

                                    Lady Chatterly’s Lover by D. H. Lawrence

 

I surprised myself recently, after a phone conversation with my long time English major friend, Mary Lou, concerning our mutual love of poetry and literary fiction, when I decided to tackle this door-stop sized, formerly banned novel again. This time, 58 years later, I read it on my Kindle. Last time, I skimmed it for the sex scenes, hoping to understand how on earth one manages to get tab A inserted into slot B. And, if there was a plot beyond the details of seduction, I couldn’t figure that out either. Didn’t even try.

I was shocked to realize how contemporary Lawrence’s post World War I novel is with the experiences of our returning wounded soldiers from the United States’ recent wars. Multi-limb amputations. Post-traumatic Stress Disorder. Long term, medical and therapeutic, home care for the bodies and the souls of both spouses. And, a plot driven by what may happen when the roles of lovers deteriorate into patient and care-giver.

No wonder, I couldn’t understand Lady Chatterly’s Lover that summer of 1956 when I stayed in Painsville, Ohio at my Uncle Jerry’s house and worked as a waitress in his restaurant to earn money for college. I slept on a sleeper sofa in the 8′ by 10′ library that served as a guest room in my uncle’s high-modern architect-designed and furnished house on Euclid Avenue, two blocks west of Jerry & Bert’s 225 seat restaurant. Uncle Jerry, his wife, Alberta, and their daughter, Colleen, four years older than I, ate all their meals at the restaurant, worked at the restaurant all day, and after the dinner rush, came home to change clothes, then adjourned until well past mid-night to the racetrack to bet on the horses. Week days, I worked the 5 to 11 dinner shift. Saturday mornings, I cleaned their house, and then I took the New York Central train back to Erie and home to Mill Village. I returned every Monday afternoon by bus.

Essentially, six days per week that summer, except at work, I lived entirely alone. The only food in that grand house’s refrigerator was a bottle of catsup. The only other food in that house that was not a home was a half filled salt shaker. I signed up for a Painsville Public Library card, and though I was supposed to eat all my meals at the restaurant, I soon bought cereal, milk, bread, butter, and fruit for my breakfast rather than traipse down the street and interrupt my reading. Late afternoons, I ate an early supper with Frances, Jerry & Bert’s 2nd shift head waitress who eventually confided that she and Uncle Jerry were in the midst of a decades long affair. I listened. I read. I learned a lot that summer and also the next summer I worked at Jerry and Bert’s, but nothing, I’m sorry to admit, that helped me to understand Lady Chatterly’s Lover.

Even at age sixteen, I was uncomfortable about the morality of the sex scenes’ adultery. I still am. While the game keeper, Mellors’, lovemaking was titillating, I remain troubled by what I now recognize as his PLAYBOY faux philosophy that all men (and women, perhaps) have a sacrosanct right to good mutual sex. I’m even more uneasy about Mellors’ lack of interest in his daughter by his first wife, his unborn child, and Connie’s pregnancy. I suppose one could make an argument that Mellors, too, was injured morally by his war experience, but Lawrence seems more focused on Mellors’ easy movement though the convolutions of that era’s English class system.

Sometimes while I was rereading Lawrence’s writing, I was nearly drunk on his writing style, his ear for a sentence’s rhythm, his lush, old fashioned word choice—crisis for orgasm or coming—his ability to shift multiple interior narrators with an omnipotent narrator. I’ve always loved Lawrence’s poetry far more than his prose, mostly because he is so skilled at choosing the poetic moment in unlikely places, say from a child’s point of view beneath a grand piano or from a man’s careful encounter with a snake that suddenly leads him to confront himself in the midst of beautifully controlled line breaks. Rereading Lady Chatterly’s Lover drove me back to my bookshelves to Lawrence’s Collected Poems where I rediscovered more poems about people and humanity as a whole than seemed necessary. I preferred his tortoise poems.

I suppose what prompted me to reread Lady Chatterly’s Lover at this point in my life is that in some ways I am now living here in my condo alone, except for the building’s other condo owners and the condo’s employees. I’m still eating breakfast at home, so I don’t have to interrupt my reading.  The difference is that now I understand the mechanics of sex and how to read a literary novel. This time, I wasn’t far into this novel when I surmised I might be living here alone in this condo for some of the same reasons Clifford and Constance Chatterly’s marriage failed, not because I was ever unfaithful, but because I, too, had been unable to successfully bridge the gap between lover and care giver.  I found myself fascinated by the slow, mutual disintegration of Clifford and Connie’s intimacy, even as they both willingly focused on the physical care of all aspects of Clifford’s paralyzed body. In an odd way Clifford was at once too intimate with his wife and not intimate enough, because he refused to speak with her about his emotions concerning his paralysis. I recognized what Lawrence’s narrator was saying about Connie’s care, “He was a hurt thing, and as such Connie stuck to him passionately.” It was that word, “thing,” that made me wince in self recognition. And, it was Clifford’s saying to Connie, “I’m not an invalid!” his eventual angry denial of his paralyzed legs even as he sat in his wheelchair that confirms Connie’s observation in Chapter 5 “that the terrible aftereffects have to be encountered at their worst.” How does one bridge that awful truth? Especially, when health and/or safety are at risk? Some couples manage, but I still don’t know how. I wish I knew.


 

Advent in #7-L

By Nola Garrett

Advent is a penitential season.  It’s a dark time for getting ready, a time for repair.  It’s that last, slow, ungainly month of pregnancy.  Daylight is brief, especially this year in downtown Pittsburgh when it’s been cloud-ridden and drizzly nearly every day.  My immediate family is in such disarray of various sorts that other than attending a Christmas morning church service, I’m spending the day blessedly alone in my condo.  I’ve been assembling a new poetry manuscript and letting myself read kindle novels with little redeeming social or literary worth.  Pretty much, I’m in the midst of doing as little as I can to steel myself for yet another Christmas.  I know all this sounds bleak, but it’s not.

Last Saturday, I visited my son who a few weeks ago has finally chosen to enter a six month residential alcohol rehab facility.  I’m filled with guarded hope.

It’s been more than a year since my last pair of new glasses, and lately I’ve noticed that the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette has been diluting its ink again….  Yesterday, I walked to Visionworks for an eye exam where I was warmly greeted by the young woman technician whom I had worked with last year.  Already, she’d chosen some frames that she thought I might like, and she was right.  But, even more interesting was that the Visionworks folks have a new, eyeball-shaped machine that photographs retinas, which means I didn’t have to deal with the after effects of those eye drops that blur one’s sight for hours afterward.

While I was assembling my manuscript, I discovered/noticed three poems that didn’t fit, but could form the nucleus of another collection.  Perhaps a chapbook?

This morning I measured the height of the first blossom on my red amaryllis: twenty and one half inches.  All this growth and beauty with so little sun!

Later this week or next, I am going to Home Depot to choose pale pink paint for the eight by eight foot walk-in closet that used to be my former husband’s.  I’ve already bought a small oval chandelier to replace the pull chain, porcelain, work light currently lurking in there.  And, I’ve ordered a small, faux oriental rug for the floor.

Lastly, I’ve pulled from the bookshelf my autographed copy of Nancy Willard’s Water Walker to reread one of my all time favorite poems: “A Hardware Store as Proof of the Existence of God.”   As Robert Frost would say, You come, too…

I praise the brightness of hammers pointing east
like the steel woodpeckers of the future,
and dozens of hinges opening brass wings,
and six new rakes shyly fanning their toes,
and bins of hooks glittering into bees,

and a rack of wrenches like the long bones of horses,
and mailboxes sowing rows of silver chapels,
and a company of plungers waiting for God
to claim their thin legs in their big shoes
and put them on and walk away laughing.

In a world not perfect but not bad either
let there be glue, glaze, gum and grabs,
caulk also, and hooks, shackles, cables, slips,
and signs so spare a child may read them,
Men, Women, In, Out, No Parking, Beware the Dog.

In the right hands they can work wonders.

In the midst of so much glorious repair, how could Nancy Willard have left out the transforming power of fresh paint?


 

Job and I

by Nola Garrett

O that my words were written down!
  O that they were inscribed in a book!
O that with an iron pen and with lead
  they were engraved on a rock forever!
For I know that my Redeemer lives,
  and that at the last he will stand upon the earth;
and after my skin has been thus destroyed,
  then in my flesh I shall see God,
whom I shall see on my side,
  and my eyes shall behold, and not another.
                                         Job 19: 23-27a

A couple of weeks ago, a dear poet friend told me her poetry manuscript had just been announced a finalist in a poetry book publication contest.  I’m sure she told me this because she knew I would understand how painful this news was to her.  Over the last quarter century I’ve been a book semi-finalist or finalist 17 times. And, I’ve received hundreds of rejection letters from magazine editors for poem submissions.  We talked a while, and then the next day she emailed me to ask how I’d dealt with so many near misses.  To answer her question all I had to do was look up from my computer screen to the cork board hung near my desk where most all my poetry writing life I have kept a copy of four verses from Job 19.

When I seriously began writing poetry at age 45, all I wanted was to have at least one poem published in a respected magazine or journal.  I expected that I’d get lots of rejections.  That’s when I cut those verses out of my church bulletin and kept them to remind me that longing for publication was nothing new.  I delighted in Job’s wit in foreseeing the invention of the printing press.  However, after only a handful of rejection letters, my first acceptance of three poems from a flaming liberal theological journal, The Other Side, nearly overwhelmed me.  I had to reconsider what Job was trying to tell me.   Perhaps writing poetry was more than publication?  Writing might be a gift I’d been given and a way through my life that held implications I would gradually learn.

That first poetry acceptance came in 1986 while I was living in the Saegertown Lutheran parsonage and sharing an office and an early HP touch screen computer with my husband.  My husband’s sermon and doctoral dissertation writing always trumped my poetry writing when it came to computer time.  Gradually, I began to long for a room of my own with a computer of my own.  That longing was fulfilled a couple of years later when my husband accepted a call to Wesleyville, a suburb of Erie, PA, where I claimed the extra 8×10 foot bedroom overlooking the fenced backyard,  dominated by an immense pin oak centered 15 feet from my window.  My husband moved on to a new computer and a larger office; I inherited the touch screen HP.  I had bookshelves built on two walls, installed a desk made of a green painted door balanced on a pair of 2-drawer file cabinets.  I got his old desk chair, but I did buy a new pink-print recliner for my reading chair.  As a birthday gift, my mother-in-law gave me $25 that I used to buy a second-hand brass, floor lamp that I still treasure.  That’s when I hung my first cork board over my desk and taped Job’s verses on the bottom where among all my poetry contest announcements I could easily find him.

Slowly, my right bottom file drawer began to fill with files of my poems and a paisley printed cloth-bound notebook began to record my poetry rejections and acceptances.   In that cozy, first room-of-my-own office, I wrote a poem titled, “Job, Too,” published in the 1989 Winter issue of The Georgia Review, my first major literary publication.  “Job, Too” is in no way a cozy poem.  It pretty much sums up the book of Job with the phrase, Shit happens, which turned out to be the reason for its publication soon after the Georgia Legislature had passed a law banning the phrase on bumper stickers.  Stanley Linberg, Georgia Review’s editor, even phoned me to warn me that his journal and I might be attacked by his state’s rabid legislators.  Stan Linberg was a wonderful editor, but he greatly overestimated his readership among his local statesmen. However, I found myself going back to reread and to research further the time and the authorship of Job.

In 1990, Harold Bloom and David Rosenberg issued a new translation and a new interpretation of parts of the Hebrew Bible, The Book of J, in which Bloom suggests that the J passages—essentially all the uncanny, deeply human, narrative portrayals of Yahweh—were written by a woman, perhaps the daughter of a priest.  I, along with most of the American scholarly reading public, was fascinated.  Although Bloom never includes the Book of Job in his authorship surmise, Job was written at the same time as the J author was writing circa 950–900 BCE.  What if the J narrative writer also wrote poetry?  Say, the poetry sections of Job which especially in chapter 28 and the last chapters in which Yahweh speaks using so many childbirth metaphors?  What if the J writer never married or was widowed or even divorced?  If so, she would have returned to her priest father’s home.  And, Jewish law would have allowed her to do some kinds of work.  Maybe she was a midwife?  Maybe she had enough time between childbirth patients to write poetry?  Maybe she had a room of her own?

Since I first read Bloom, I’ve moved three times, had three different desks, had four other writing spaces, the last two here in what has become my Pittsburgh condo.  When my husband and I moved from the Florida home we had built after his early retirement, I gave up what at that time I considered to be the very best room of my own that I had ever had for a 36″ white Ikea desk in a corner of our condo’s living room.  I had Ikea bookshelves installed on both sides of the entrance hall that hold less than half the books I had owned in Florida.  My poetry files, now filling two three-drawer Ikea metal cabinets, were in our bedroom.  The condo’s 2nd bedroom became my husband’s office, so he would have somewhere to retreat when he became emotionally overwhelmed.  Everything seemed to be working; I even had a few poetry acceptances.  I was busy rehabing our condo, and I was learning how to live as a Pittsburgher so I could understand how to write Pittsburgh poems.

Then, my husband sued me for divorce, moved out, and left in his office only an ivory slip-covered sofa bed, a two-drawer file cabinet, and a closet filled with tax records and boxes of photographs, mostly of birds hidden in trees and of outtakes from family birthday parties.  For weeks I hoped he might return, and at the same time I dreaded he might return. I was paralyzed. I would walk into what I still felt was my husband’s office, turn around, and go watch another repeat of The Big Bang Theory.  Then, my brother Jerry came for a visit and slept on the sofa bed.  He reported he slept well.

Somehow, my brother’s visit banished my husband’s ghost from that room.  That time when I walked into that room to remove the bed sheets, I decided I would find one thing I could change about the room.  I moved the sofa bed from the east wall and placed it in front of the window.  The first thing I noticed was a perfectly good electrical outlet and a working phone jack on the east wall.  My husband had placed the sofa there.  He had placed his massive desk on the west wall, all the while complaining that the phone jack behind his desk didn’t work, so that he had to go out and buy a long phone cord to snake around the corner into our bedroom so he could have a phone on his desk. Hmmmm?

The next day I moved my desk, office chair, dictionary stand, and computer to the east wall of  my newly claimed office.  I went to Ikea for another smaller white desk for my printer and two simple white floor lamps.  From the hall closet I moved an oriental rug to ground the sleeper sofa, and from what had been my husband’s closet I moved a tall skinny bookcase he had used for sweater storage, but that I now use for writing supplies and unsold copies of my two poetry books.  Months later, I replaced his plain white sheer curtains with ecru lace “bird song” curtains from my favorite mail order catalog: Country Curtains.  Beside the sofa I’ve installed upon a rustic-stick end table a Christmas cactus in a deep green pot.  I’ve gradually added green themed pictures and an antique verdigris copper door plate my son Alfie gave me.  And, above my printer hangs a new white-framed cork board with Job 19 taped on the bottom margin.

A couple of weeks ago, Christian Century accepted for publication one of my new poems, “January 26th: the Anniversary of My Mother’s Death,” wearing this epigraph:

He is green before the sun,
And his branch shooteth forth
In his garden.
Job 8: 16.


Three Houses

by Nola Garrett 

For my birthday last month, my brother, Jerry, and his wife, Lisa, gave me a small acrylic painting they had bought a short walk from their home in Kensington, MD, at my favorite store, The Society for the Prevention of Blindness Thrift Shoppe.  They explained that they chose it because of the huge rough frame painted with a single coat of flat green porch paint which they thought I would hang in my green and white office. I really appreciated their thoughtfulness, but I found myself disliking the subject of the painting, the color of the frame, and even the placement of it within my writing space.

After their visit, I carried the painting into every room of my condo, all the while puzzling why I was resisting this gift. I set the painting near the door of my office, so that every time I passed or entered my office I would see it. Days slipped by. I considered changing out the painting or even keeping the frame empty though I still didn’t know where I would hang it. Gradually, I began to look more closely at the painting and to wonder what the artist, Madigal, saw in that small scene that I couldn’t or didn’t want to see. At first I had quickly rejected the scene because it reminded me of the tropics and of the fifteen years I had recently spent living in Florida before I thankfully returned to my family and my beloved Western Pennsylvania hills and river valleys I see every day from my condo’s windows.

As I began to look more carefully into the painting, I saw a much walked dirt path leading from two house corners on the left and on the right side a high solid blue concrete wall partially covered with red flowers. Next, I wondered about the absence of people. Maybe, the people really were there represented by the path’s foot prints? And, probably there was a third house hidden by the wall covered by what I now recognized was a hemorrhage of red bougainvillea dripping over the wall and onto the path. Of the two pictured houses, the white walled, red tiled roofed one closest to the viewer had a large window, a welcoming lantern style light, and two large clay pots overflowing with flowers. The farther yellow house presented a windowless facade, a shadowed, tan closed door, and an unkempt tiled roof with what appeared to be mildew seeping from under its eaves.

Three houses! Suddenly, I understood my resistance. This was a portrait of loss, of grief, of denial, of coming back too late.

More than eight years ago, my Macedonian daughter-in-law, Natasha and I translated a 1991 book of Macedonian poetry, Radovan Pavlovski’s GOD OF THE MORNING. It was a short book of only 42 poems that we worked through via email and lots of phone calls during a summer I still lived in Palm Harbor, Florida and she lived with my son, Chan, in Pittsburgh. Neither of us had ever translated poetry, but we both had a wonderful time with each other learning how. Natasha chose the order of poems she sent me, based on their linguistic difficulty from easy to complex. The last poem we translated was “Three Houses,” a brief poem neither of us has ever truly understood.
 

Three Houses

The leaf yellowed,
winter whitened,
and I told you
to wait for me;
now the rains pour,
and I’ve returned
with a scrap of gold
for a red apple:
one woman
alone
in three
black houses.

 

Of course, there are a lot of ways to read this poem, one being political since Macedonians always read and argue and live their lives firmly and loudly believing “the personal is political.” Some Macedonians interpret the three houses to be the three states comprising the newly formed nation of Macedonia after the fall of Yugoslavia. Another, more private way to read this poem might be to hear the speaker as a lover or even a son who has returned home too late a year after a death either of a person or of a relationship. I don’t know. I’m not sure I have to or even want to know the meaning of this intense sad poem, but somehow now that I own the gift of Madrigal’s painting I understand some of my resistance to both the painting and the poem.

A few days later I again carried my painting into every room and nook of my condo, this time even into the closets and the bathrooms. Then, I realized there was still a ghost of my husband, who divorced me, in what used to be his bathroom and now has become my guest bath. Part of the reason that bathroom had been his was that it had a stall shower that was safer for him to use than the master bath with a tub/shower. Also, his bathroom had an extra glass shelf that allowed him extra space for his toiletries that he could see and remember more easily. However, now that he has moved out, if that shelf were removed there would be enough room to hang my painting over the guest toilet which has a black seat. What if the huge green frame were black?

My entire life, I’ve repainted lots of things: once a Florida living room, 15 foot high, popcorn, cathedral ceiling that I roller painted light pink before I knew it was considered by experts to be an impossible task. So, my real problem with painting the gift frame, other than defeating the original reason for the gift, was that when it came to painting frames, I had always masked and spray painted them. There was no place here in or out of my condo to carry out spray painting, especially what this frame and painting needed to become—black for grief, black for bringing out the shadows and the mildew and even the black outlines of the welcoming lantern light. Luckily, RiteAid was having a sale on Wet n Wild nail polish, so I bought 4 bottles of black and 4 bottles of clear; and on my dining room table over the next three days with 3 bottles of the clear I sealed the thin coat of green house paint on the raw wood frame and used the black nail polish to give the frame two coats to bring out the shine. With the last bottle of the clear I sealed and shined the thin, green inner frame next to the canvas, emphasizing the lush tropical foliage in the background and of the now symbolic bougainvillea.

One of those days while I waited for my polish/paint to dry I walked up to Market Square to the local Farmer’s Market for my usual purchases of flowers and fresh vegetables. I was surprised to find a beekeeper selling various kinds of honey, including not only the usual clover and wildflower flavors, but also buckwheat honey that is so dark it’s almost black. It’s hard to find, and I adore its deep flavor. I chatted a bit with the beekeeper, and I told him about my experience as a beekeeper decades ago when my husband and I had lived in Saegertown and had won first prize at the Crawford County Fair for our comb honey.

Carrying my produce on my walk back to my condo, I remembered the morning when together we had requeened one of our two hives of gentle Midnite bees. How the small wire cage about the size of three stacked candy bars was delivered to our back door, first thing that morning by the nervous, local postmaster. How an hour later sitting at the picnic table near one of our opened hives, the two of us, dressed in our white, beekeeper overhauls, bent over the small wire cage containing the long slender queen bee walled off with sugar candy from the half dozen smaller worker bees who would eat their way through the wall to free their queen to replenish eventually the entire population of the hive several times over the next three years. While admiring her, I noticed that her wings weren’t clipped, even though I had specified that service in my order and had paid extra. We knew that if one of her wings wasn’t clipped, when she was released inside the hive that she would be able fly away taking with her half of the bees from that hive. With that kind of population loss our hive wouldn’t be able to make enough honey to survive.

I ran inside for a pair of manicure scissors, and my husband and I carefully removed the tiny cork from her end of the cage. I gently grasped her thorax under her wings, but before I could clip one her wings, somehow she flew straight up, circling into the morning sky. We sat there sadly amazed and almost stunned. Gone forever. We knew the waiting open hive was weak, because the present queen was old and that we had just moments ago found her and killed her to ready the hive to receive a new queen. Would the hive make a new queen before we could order and receive a new queen? Would the newly hatched queen be a gentle or fierce hybrid? Would the entire hive of bees up and leave in search of a new queen? We just sat there. Unmoving. And, then the queen returned, landed on my white overhaul arm! My husband cupped his bare hand over her. I slid my hand under his, and this time I was able to grasp her a bit tighter, clip one of her wings, and we placed her back in her candy cage just as my husband replaced the cork.

All those years of working together gone. How could he have forgotten? Three houses. One woman alone. That’s what I was resisting.

I rarely use my condo’s guest bathroom, but now that I’ve hung my refurbished birthday gift in there, I find myself stopping and turning on the light to see how far I’ve come; how somehow everything takes on meaning and reveals its beauty, if one is willing to carefully observe.


 

Small Talk

by Nola Garrett

I’m not good at organized small talk. I dread cocktail parties, church suppers, Christmas parties, big birthday parties, even poets’ wine receptions. I seem never to have anything to say face to face with half drunk strangers wearing name tags. Once at an apartment house cocktail party, I asked the landlord a too obvious question, and he evicted me. I find that my best party gambit is to drink ginger ale, find an empty seat at the farthest edge of the room, settle in, and observe. After a decent interval, I can thank the host and leave.

However, I do enjoy chance meetings and the small passing conversations those situations engender. I find I’m often asked for advice by younger shoppers in grocery stores. I like the tiny bits exchanged during the elevator rides in my condo. Once as I walked past a woman who had just alighted from a downtown bus, she began talking with me as if she were talking with her sister. She was almost as surprised as I was, but as we stood there chatting among her profuse embarrassment, it became evident that she had boarded that bus from Oakland to Downtown for no other reason than simple loneliness. At my suggestion, we adjourned to McDonald’s for ice cream cones, and then went our separate ways.

A week or so ago, I was sitting in the Allegheny Court House around the corner from the hallway outside the judge’s chambers where the judicial mediation for my divorce was being held. For a few minutes I conferred with my attorney, and then she went into the courtroom. I sat there oddly at peace, mostly because I trusted my attorney and because I felt I was nearly finished with this divorce that was not of my choosing. A few minutes later another woman about my age sat down a chair away from me. I smiled. She smiled back. We exchanged first names. Turned out Jan was dealing with a divorce similar to mine, though her divorce was finalized she was still attempting to reclaim monies her husband owed her.

Ten minutes later, my attorney returned, told me the judge had agreed with everything we had presented, and now all we had to do was wait to hear if my husband would accept the judge’s mediation findings. We could both hear from around the corner my husband’s angry disagreements with the judge and even with his own attorney’s advice.

Meanwhile, Jan’s attorney arrived and the two of them conferred. A few minutes later, her attorney went looking for her husband’s attorney. While we waited, my attorney chatted with me and lots of other passing attorneys and court personnel. Jan’s attorney returned, told her that her husband had not yet appeared. Promising to return in a half hour, Jan’s attorney left. Jan and I continued our small talk. As promised, Jan’s attorney returned to explain that her husband apparently would not appear nor would his attorney. Jan prepared to leave, but before she left she removed from her wrist one of her elastic bead bracelets, a green one interspersed with metal beads imprinted with the words, wish and hope, and placed it on my wrist. I had nothing with me other than my poet’s business cards, so I gave her one. We hugged and she left.

More than an hour later while my husband still was arguing with his attorney, my attorney approached his attorney to find out if any progress toward resolution had occurred. Turned out the real sticking point left for him was the escrow account. He demanded it all. The judge wanted the account to be evenly split. If both of us couldn’t come to an agreement, the divorce proceedings would continue for months or even years longer.

I looked down at the bead bracelet Jan had just given me, remembered her ongoing sense of hurt and injustice even though her divorce was finished, and I said to my attorney the small magic words that I have said several other times during my life, words I have never regretted: It’s only money.


 

Vicarious Gardening

by Nola Garrett

Cuttings

Sticks-in-a-drowse droop over sugary loam,
Their intricate stem-fur dries;
But still the delicate slips keep coaxing up water;
The small cells bulge;

One nub of growth
Nudges a sand-crumb loose,
Pokes through a musty sheath
Its pale tendrilous horn.

from Theodore Roethke’s COLLECTED POEMS, 1948

Besides giving up my pinball machine, the hardest part of moving from a four bedroom, custom-built Florida house to a two bedroom Pittsburgh condo was abandoning my garden. That garden pretty much encompassed the entire yard because instead of rolling out the usual Florida lawn sod, I had xeroscaped with stone(s) and wood chips. I kept no indoor plants, but in the yard I had planted lots of citrus trees—including a Meyer lemon—five flowering trees, and kept a volunteer elderberry from which to make jelly or an occasional pie. My usual herb garden was planted along both sides of the front walk. I’d also tucked into a back, single-windowed corner a small waterfall-pond edged with stones and flowers. Tending the yard, as well as the steep, vine-planted back bank down to Lake St. George, the gardens, the pond, the large house, the swimming pool, a small poetry career, an ailing husband; shopping and cooking all the while dealing with my own aging process just got to be too much. I was exhausted. Even though I still loved doing it all, I gave up that beautiful house, its grounds, its lake view, and gardening. I had to save my own life. For a while longer.

Anticipating my drive north to Pittsburgh, out on the pool lanai I clipped a few sprigs from two huge Christmas cacti brooding in a dark corner, that I had moved as sprigs from Erie 15 years earlier. I stuck them in a water glass to root—my only concession to what I envisioned as my future, plantless condo life. When the house sold and the time came to load my car, I wrapped my hairy rooted cactus sprigs in a wet paper towel, put them in a small plastic bag to ride shotgun with me up I-75. And then, at the last minute I also rescued a few flower pots that I’d left at the curb. When I unpacked in Pittsburgh, I firmly pushed the flower pots into the very back of the linen closet, placed my cactus sprigs into another old glass and set it in my north east dinning room window. As far as I was concerned, my Pittsburgh garden was complete.

&&&&&

My first venture into gardening at age eight was the result of a gift of several dozen tulip bulbs from my Great Aunt Et. Aunt Et was short. Aunt Et was so short and agile that she comfortably planted and weeded her vegetable and flower gardens by simply bending at her waist. She loved growing anything, cooking, baking cookies, and talking a mile a minute all the while her false teeth clicked and danced within her smiling mouth. She liked talking to anyone, even me practically eye to eye when my family was always invited for New Year’s dinner in her big red brick house on the east side of Erie, PA. She was also a good listener who somehow figured out that I’d really like to grow flowers though my Dad was of the opinion that his garden was only for growing food to get us through the long hard cold winter in Mill Village 25 miles south of Erie.

Aunt Et may have been small, but she was a powerful talker. Though I wasn’t allowed to waste the ground of Dad’s garden, I was allowed to dig up the lawn out by the driveway. I can still almost feel how tired and sweaty I was that fall Saturday from removing the sod and digging those dozens of six inch holes in which to plant my tulip bulbs that Aunt Et had sent home with my Dad for me. And, I will always remember the spring of ’49 when those tulips arose, bloomed red, yellow, white, purple along with a couple that were striped red and white! I couldn’t bear to pick them. As if they were in some way Aunt Et, I visited them every day until they receded as the lawn’s grass marched back.

The next year my mother planted lupines on both sides of the driveway—her first time for flower gardening—too.

&&&&&

During my first marriage, I lived with my husband on his fallow 100 acre farm. I took up bee keeping and planted a garden of both vegetables and flowers. When for some obscure reason he brought home half a dozen Grey Toulouse geese, I took care of them. After a year or so, I noticed that many of the geese’s eggs were being eaten by the local wildlife. The next spring, I ordered an egg incubator, read the detailed instructions, gathered a dozen goose eggs, and set the incubator in our bedroom.

Thirty two days later, I was awakened before dawn by a weak peep peep. I leapt out of bed, turned on a light, opened the incubator to find that the peep peep was coming from a slightly wobbling intact egg. A few hours later there was a duet of peep peeps from another intact egg. I reread the instructions and was relieved to find my eggs were doing just fine, but I needed to not only keep sprinkling the eggs with water and turning them as I had been doing every day, but also I now needed to briefly immerse each egg twice a day in warm water. Three days later the first gosling pecked its way out of its shell. Over the course of the next day or so, all but three of the rest managed the same feat. However, I had to carefully restrain myself from establishing any eye contact with the goslings or they would imprint on me, and I would be impressed into mother goose service. I knew there was no way on Earth that I could carry out the skills of a mother goose from even the most detailed of instructions. So, each night as the goslings hatched, eyes closed I would put the goslings into my coat pockets, sneak outside to the nests of what had become my setting geese, and push the newest goslings under a goose. Given the fierce protective nature of geese, I had thought that might be an impossible feat; however, it turned out that all those months of my feeding and walking among the flock may have built a trust between us so that they accepted my furtive midwifery. Or maybe the sounds of those peep peep’s each setting goose, too.

Leaving my geese behind when I had to move from my abusive husband’s farm was harder and more painful than my leaving him.

&&&&&

As my Christmas cactus cuttings settled into Pittsburgh’s light, I had lots of friends and family’s first visits, and most brought house warming gifts: bottles of wine, local restaurant gift cards, and plants. I couldn’t bring myself to refuse their well meant gifts, and further after each plant bearer left I couldn’t bring myself to throw away a perfectly good small fern, a tiny red bromeliad, a serviceable succulent, or even the 3 foot palm tree that my brother, Jerry, gave me. I did, though, keep them all herded in my dining room. They were low light plants. How much work could they make?

Meanwhile, I was enjoying Gateway Center’s expertly kept, ever-blooming pink roses and admiring Point State Park’s carefully tended, faux woodland of wild flowers and trees as spring/ summer/fall melted into each other. Mid-winter came, and the palm tree jaundiced, then died. I cleaned out its pot, pushed it into the linen closet with the rescued Florida pots. Another six months passed as I continued to dump enough water on the sill plants to keep them alive.

&&&&&

Sometime after Christmas this year, I began to feel rested, to feel as if in some way I had as a person begun to put down my roots in Pittsburgh. At that point, I inspected those survivors still huddled against the dining room window glass. All of them had grown, even thrived almost out of their cramped quarters. Intending to at least give the water glass dwelling Christmas cactus a real pot, I bought a bag of potting soil. When I went to choose a pot from the linen closet, I realized the cactus needed one of the larger pots, a pot too large for the sill, so I placed it in my office. Though it had already finished its bit of holiday blooming, within a week it sprouted more flower buds, re-bloomed. Who knew Christmas cacti relished computer light? At that point I gave in to my past, bought some fertilizer, another larger bag of soil. I used the rest of the rescued pots for the gift plants, then acquired a big money plant and an even bigger clump of mother-in-law tongue, knowing full well that in spite of their names they were both easy, undemanding souls. I realized I felt better. Maybe it was the extra oxygen the exuberant transplants were generating, or maybe it just felt good on some curious level to become for a few sentient beings the wind and the rain?

&&&&&

Yet, I must admit there was one other gift I received that I almost threw out. Late November, early December last year a condo employee informed me that I had a package marked both fragile and time-sensitive waiting for me. I was puzzled; I hadn’t ordered anything of that sort. When I opened it I discovered that my poet friend, Pat Callan, who lives part time in Florida had sent me an early Christmas gift—a dozen paper narcissi bulbs and a simple unglazed, red pottery bowl. Her gift seemed like too much. Too generous. Too much work for me. I wavered. I took a long walk down by the Allegheny River, looked at its no color water and the gray sky, but I kept walking anyway. I came back to my warm, light-filled condo, looked around in my dining room cabinets where I found a net bag of polished pebbles that I had bought years before from Target just because they were quietly beautiful, and just for the sake of their beauty, at the last minute I had tucked them into a moving box packed with dishes. While the bulbs wouldn’t really have to have soil they would need some sort of support—those pebbles. Still, it all seemed to be too much.

The next morning I finally nestled into the pebble-filled bowl the six bulbs that within the darkness of their dry bag had begun to push out a new complexity of pale sprouts. I poured in a cup of warm water, and carried my new garden into my living room to place it near my reading chair.
______

Memorable Porridges

by Nola Garrett

I have a low pleasure threshold.  I suppose another way to say this would be that I’m easily amused, as if I were living my life as a playful cat.  This winter I’ve especially enjoyed watching falling snow here from the condo’s windows when the air currents surrounding this building caused the flakes to fall up.  I find it intriguing to see how snow transforms Mt. Washington’s cliff side into stacked deckle edge book pages, depicting Pittsburgh’s geological stories.  I’m still savoring my morning walk a week ago from Grant Street down Forbes Avenue when with my every step the snow softly squeaked.  I know that I’m blessed to be retired, so I don’t have to drive every day no matter how snowy the roads become.  Not commuting, too, is a pleasure: another reminder that I’m living a cat’s life, though my years as a tenured English professor gave me great pleasure with only occasional grief.

Beyond the stages of healing, grief, I’ve found, does have its simple pleasures such as learning to live alone.  I’ve slowly transformed my living space into a place cleared of painful reminders and kept what soothes me.  I’ve added an additional desk, a pair of floor lamps, a red velvet back pillow, a down comforter, plants, a plant stand, and lace curtains.  I eat when and what I want to eat—lots of fresh fruit, vegetables, and oatmeal.  The oatmeal has been something of a surprise that’s taken me a long time to understand.

Some of my earliest memories with my brother Joel are watching Mom cook oatmeal for our breakfast.  Joel and I came up with a phrase to describe the emerging tiny steam explosions dotting the boiling oatmeal’s surface, “bubble stankers.”  Though our phrase was faintly naughty, Mom never objected the same way she always would if we said “belly button” which made saying “bubble stankers” all the more delicious.  Further, Mom always cooked oatmeal with raisins just for her and us kids, because Dad refused to eat any breakfast that didn’t consist of at least fried eggs and meat.  Dad weighed 300 pounds; Mom 117.  Gradually, I came to understand that serving oatmeal for breakfast was Mom’s quiet declaration of independence—her version of a low pleasure threshold.  I’ve taken oatmeal a few steps further by adding white raisins, currants, or a selection of Jumbo Mixed raisins and eating it for lunch or even dinner.

Nearly forty years later, I encountered Galway Kinnell’s poem, “Oatmeal” even before he published it in his 1990 book, WHEN ONE HAS LIVED A LONG TIME ALONE.  I immediately elevated “Oatmeal” to my poetry’s Top 10.  It seems to me that though that poem is not his book’s title poem, it is the real heart of that collection.  Kinnell’s “Oatmeal” speaker and John Keats who joins him for a breakfast porridge initially take a less enthusiastic approach to their breakfast cereal:

Keats said I was absolutely right to invite him: due to its glutinous
  texture, gluey lumpishness, hint of slime, and unusual willingness
  to disintegrate, oatmeal must never be eaten alone.

Keats then goes on to explain his composition of “Ode to a Nightingale” and to relate his poem’s lack of unity to eating oatmeal alone.  (Only halfway through reading “Oatmeal” at this point I was laughing so hard I cried.)  Kinnell recounts

[Keats] still wonders about the occasional sense of drift between stanzas,
and the way here and there a line will go into the configuration of a
  Moslem at prayer, then raise itself up and peer about, and then lay
  itself down slightly off the mark, causing the poem to move

  forward with God’s reckless wobble.

After breakfast Keats recited “To Autumn” and then off-handedly gave credit for two of that ode’s most memorable images to a view of an oat field and to eating oatmeal alone.  Lots of poets at that point would rest on their laurels, but not Galway Kinnell.  He takes the poem further, gives a critical jab to Patrick Kavanagh by inviting him to eat oatmeal and presents the poem’s readers another line, a line that has somehow helped me to accept “God’s reckless wobble” and its relationship with my own grief:

Maybe there is no sublime, only the shining of the amnion’s tatters.

Like Galway Kinnell, I’ve come to enjoy eating oatmeal alone, and I’m willing to give him and his poems some of the credit for my easy pleasure.
______

Dyeing

by Nola Garrett

1.
I never saw my grandmother twice
with the same colored hair.
Instead of the world, she traveled the spectrum— 
Tahitian Brown, Romanian Gold, Irish Red—
without even the pretense of reclaiming
tints once hers.
                          I was so embarrassed,
my teenaged self was mortified.

My grandmother after years of misdagnosis
died.  Rather than her liver,
it was her heart after all,
                                        but who could tell?
As for myself, one October afternoon
when earl snow on my unraked leaves
looked like me peering out of my mirror
at an old self, I wasn’t quite ready.  Yet,
my staid self departed on Light Brown # 7.

2.
During my afternoon walk, I may have found
a geode.  Gray, hunched, a little off-center,
it could be opened, perhaps to a scatter of sand
or to an amethyst vault,
                                       or left alone
like both my grandmothers.  Oh, they married,
raised their share of children, but as widows
their lives began.
                             Neither was a Mrs.— 
just Belle and Marie.
                                   Belle for a living
sewed and mended, reused her basting thread,
played church piano, read, bathed at her kitchen sink
with multi-colored soap slivers.
                                                     Marie watched
TV evangelists, favored her richest son, dyed her hair
a different color every month, window shopped daily,
preferred rhinestones and orange.

Disliking dogs, sticky children, and old men
Belle and Marie each slept away
in their small lavender rooms.

I smile.  I whisper back to them
my middle name—Maribel. 

______

Book Review: Written on Water: Writings about the Allegheny River and The Allegheny River: Watershed of the Nation

Written on Water: Writings about the Allegheny River, Edited by Helen Ruggieri & Linda Underhill, Mayapple Press, 2013, $19.95.

The Allegheny River: Watershed of the Nation, Photographs by Jim Schafer, Text by Mike Sajna, The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1992, $90.00.

Reviewed by Nola Garrett

Every morning from my condo’s dining room window, the Allegheny River looks different. Not that the river has escaped its concrete banks nor has the river ceased to flow under Pittsburgh’s three sister bridges, but the river’s surface changes color—brown, green, ice white, patent leather black at night—shines, glowers—rises, falls, freezes, carries craft of myriad sizes including tree trunks; acquires windswept paths during rain, and even appears to flow upriver as far as the 6th Street Bridge when the west wind blows. Also, every morning here near the Allegheny’s confluence into the Ohio, I think about where it has been and that a great deal of its water has been part of French Creek and the rock-filled crick that winds through Mill Village, PA, the small Erie County town where I lived as a child. And, I feel at home.

While I soon learned the geography of where the creeks of my childhood went down stream, what I found most interesting was where they came from. I still remember the summer day I finished 3rd grade, carrying my shoes, slipping on the mossy rocks, wading upstream, crossing back and forth to better footing to find the source of our town’s crick. I was surprised how quickly my crick narrowed and how ordinary the trickle seemed that emerged from a hillside spring not very far from my elementary school. I felt as if I had discovered a wonderful secret. Years later after I graduated from college and owned a car, I drove to a few untended acres owned by the Western Pennsylvania Nature Conservancy near Chautauqua just across the New York State line to the equally ordinary, but mysterious source of French Creek. I remember how quiet I felt.

Frankly, I loved French Creek—still do—and it never crossed my mind that anyone wouldn’t until I until I met my college roommate, Turzah Atwell, who firmly told me she hated French Creek. Turzah was from Franklin, PA, where French Creek joins the Allegheny River. Every spring when the ice went out, French Creek flooded her out of her home. That year’s flood was the cause of Turzah’s catching pneumonia. She told me about how she felt struggling for breath, how filled with fear she might die she was. While Turzah was a good roommate, I did come to understand that Turzah could hold a powerful grudge. That’s when I rethought what I had always found wonderfully exciting about French Creek—its floods. Mill Village sits about fifty feet above the French Creek flood plain we called “the flats,” which during my childhood regularly flooded hundreds of acres of marvelously fertile potato fields. The floods’ wild drama closed roads while leaving ice chunks as large as pickup trucks and doing the good work of depositing silt upon the fields. Maybe that wasn’t the only way to think of French Creek or for that matter the Allegheny River.

I think that encounter with Turzah was when I first glimpsed the power of rivers beyond personal attachment. I’ve been reckoning differently ever since. Rivers course through public health, religion, geology, anthropology, history, politics, economics, engineering, music, poetry and prose. Our rivers belong to us, and at the same time rivers own us body and mind and soul. Here in Western Pennsylvania we have found the Allegheny to be a worthy opponent. We’ve tamed its floods, its meanders and bars with locks, dams, and concrete walls; so that here in Pittsburgh while I’m walking along the sidewalks around The Point, sometimes I feel as if I’m visiting a river zoo.

So, here in this blog—my anti-book—I commend to you, my readers—screen to screen—two books dealing with the Allegheny River in opposite ways.

Written on Water: Writings about the Allegheny River is a new anthology of poetry including a few pieces of creative non-fiction and a bonus CD of songs and poems featuring Pete Seeger, Peter LaFarge, Jerome Rothenberg and the Allegheny Valley Singers. The order of the book moves from the Allegheny River’s source and its early Indian history to Pittsburgh seen from the perspective of contemporary Pittsburgh poets such as Ed Ochester and Julia Spicher Kasdorf. Of course, this book consisting of poetry and songs means personal attachment of all sorts will be explored, but as you read these poems remember the phrase, “the personal is political” and you’ll find more variety of knowledge than you might expect.

I particularly liked this anthology’s second poem by David Budbill spoken from an Indian’s point of view:

SHOTETSU

Shotetsu saw the wind ripple the surface
of a stream as it flowed through a meadow.

He also saw the wrinkles of his own old face
reflected on the surface of the stream.

This brief poem certainly tells us a lot about how viewing a river’s source affects us in timeless and all-inclusive ways. Several pages later, Philip Terman, who teaches at Clarion University, writes a poem titled “River of Many Names” four pages long in five sections that I found equally moving. Here’s a taste from the first section:

We could fish until we grow old,
or simply stare like we were wise
and gather together the experiences
of our many selves.

We could pray in droughts for its rising,
in floods for its holding back.

Near the end of this collection are two poems by Julia Spicher Kasdorf, “Westmoreland” and “The Girl in the Back Seat Returns to Pittsburgh.” Though each of these poems could stand alone, this pair of poems in terms of this anthology need each other. “Westmoreland” ends

…. Was it much worse than any place

we could have grown up? Or like all the Hawthorne they forced
us to read in 11th grade, was Westmoreland County wasted
on us, so young, all we could learn was to hate it.

“The Girl in the Back Seat Returns to Pittsburgh” begins

Now I see the statue at the traffic circle is not
a talk between Satan and some poor lady who
doesn’t know her dress has fallen past her waist.

and then takes us through the Fort Pitt tunnel and over the rivers to Phipps Conservatory and a tour of Pittsburgh ending with this observation:

Amazing to finally see humanity figured
as a careless woman, singing: great to see Earth
as a goaty man, such a relief to find this bald

fact cast in bronze….

These poems are not Huckleberry Finn floating down the Mississippi; these poems speak to us about how it feels to live our lives in the long valley of our river, The Allegheny. Even if you don’t listen to the CD, I think you’ll find this book to be a lovely bargain for a long, long time.

Ninety dollars is a lot to pay for any book, even if it is a gorgeous, well written, beautifully photographed, entertaining coffee table book about everything you ever wanted to know about the Allegheny River, but The Allegheny River: Watershed of the Nation is worth it! Of course, there are other legal ways to read this 1992 book. You could check it out of a library. You could put it on your Christmas list. You could buy it used on amazon.com like I did.

This collection of photographs by Jim Schafer came first. Then Jim found Mike Sajna writing for Pittsburgh Magazine and convinced him to take dozens of research trips up and down the Allegheny River with him to write a series of essays to give words to his pictures so his photographs could find a publisher. Not the way most books get written or published. This book begins in Pittsburgh and ends on a hill in Potter County on the Barnett Brothers potato farm. Turns out this is no ordinary hill. It’s a hill known as “the triple divide…marks the divide between the waters draining west into the Allegheny, Ohio, and Mississippi rivers to the Gulf of Mexico; north along the Genesee River to Lake Ontario and the Gulf of St. Lawrence; and east down Pine Creek to the Susquehana River and the Chesapeake Bay….a single point where, if one spilled a bucket of water, some of the water would flow toward Newfoundland, some toward Norfolk, and the rest toward New Orleans.” Accompanying this marvelous information are two full page color photos of the hill top water and a quarter page photo of the Barnett Brothers potato farm sign. I feel as if I have already gone there, but I know that sometime this coming summer, I’ll drive there to see for myself. That’s the kind of power this book has.

Even though I’ve given away the ending, the rest of the book is just as good. If you’d ever wondered why the first Allegheny River lock in Pittsburgh begins with Lock #2, this is your book. If you’d like to know the details of the 1939 St. Patrick’s Day flood, you need this book. Same thing for the “Barrel Flood” on the same day in 1865. And if you’d like to read about the most horrible thing that has ever happened on the present site of Heinz Field, July 9, 1755, you’ll wonder if it’s the inspiration for the Steelers’ defensive line. And, there’s a long excerpt from Peter Oresick’s poems, Definitions, “After the Deindustrialization of America, My Father Enters Television Repair” as part of a chapter dealing Ford City during the 1980’s and 90’s. Interested in fishing—read this book. Indian Treaties? George Washington? Gypsy Moths effect of the river? Creation myths? Ida Tarbell? Money and Washington politics and the height of Pittsburgh’s bridges? Besides, there are ancient drawings and/or photographs illustrating just about everything else about ourselves and the Allegheny River.
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Condo

by Nola Garrett

It was a Tuesday morning, my favorite day of the week because it’s so ordinary. Not yet dressed, I was eating my breakfast, reading the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette when I noticed a couple of thick cords drop past my corner window. Window washer I thought and returned to another bite of toast, another front page article. A couple pages later, a young man, fully harnessed unto the two cords briefly met my glance, then in seconds soaped and squeegeed my seventh floor window clean. Though I knew my monthly maintenance fee paid for his services, I still felt amazed and grateful I didn’t have to clean that window that otherwise brings me a quiet joy with what property appraisers refer to as a “beneficial view.” Of course, the appraisers are talking property value, while I consider looking out that window or any window soul food.. Doesn’t really matter what I’m looking at, just that it’s framed by a window. The fact of the frame turns the view, any view—a coal heap, a brick wall, a tree branch—into art.

Billy Collins’ two page poem, “Monday” from The Trouble with Poetry addresses window watching from another point of view:

The birds are in their trees,
the toast is in the toaster,
and the poets are at their windows.

and the poets are looking out their windows
maybe with a cigarette, a cup of tea,
and maybe a flannel shirt or bathrobe is involved.

Then his poem becomes a bit darker:

…the poets are at their windows
because it is their job for which
they are paid nothing every Friday afternoon.

But, the poem goes on listing the ordinary views to be seen from windows and the necessity of poets’ to keep looking out windows. Then Collins writes the poem’s turn by proposing what it would be like if poets had no windows but only walls by ending “Monday” thusly:

I mean a cold wall of fieldstones,
the wall of the medieval sonnet,
the original woman’s heart of stone,
the stone caught in the throat of her poet-lover.

Hardly an appraiser’s beneficial view, yet something I found interesting to remember during breakfast.

Just as I laid aside my newspaper’s first section, I noticed the window washer’s dangling ropes had moved to an adjoining window. I turned to the Local News section, and there was a quarter page color photograph of my window washer, identified as Robby Hessmann, washing the windows of my building! I supposed he must have known his photo had been taken, but he might not have known if or when it would be published. And, besides now I could thank him, so I hurried to find my scotch tape, grabbed a marker, circled his pic, wrote “Thank You” above the page mast, and taped it to my window he would next wash.

I didn’t have to wait long until Robby arrived. He grinned in delight and waved a thank you back. He dug into his pants pocket, pulled out his cell phone, and swung back deep into the morning sky.

I froze in fear. What if I had so distracted him that he lost his grip? Fell to his death? It would be my fault. I’d be the woman whose heart was stone.

Robby Hessmann, though, is one cool dude. He swung back twice—took two cell phone photos—smiled another thank you straight at me, then cleaned my window perfectly.

________

Still Cooking

by Nola Garrett

I live in downtown Pittsburgh alone. And, the two questions I’m asked nearly every day are “Where do you grocery shop?” & “What do you eat?” Always in that order. I don’t know if Manhattan or Tampa Bay single residents get these questions often, but I do know that Pittsburghers believe eating, family, and neighborhood are so intertwined that one might starve to death without all three—sort of like a toothless Eskimo widow on an ice floe drifting out to sea. I feel my questioners’ imagined pain, but I’m still eating balanced, home-cooked meals. Probably helps that I’m an introverted writer who loves to cook.

Cooking for one has posed for me an interesting challenge. While I do admit my first couple of weeks alone consisted of bowls of Cheerios and Stouffer’s mac & cheese, both salted with my tears. Restaurants are plentiful downtown, but eating out was too expensive in many, many ways. Parts of my new lone life soon dragged me all over the Pittsburgh area into The Strip District and out past lots of grocery stores. Out of curiosity I stopped in, discovered something new each time: smaller grocery carts, smaller stores, small cans of whole artichoke hearts, fresher spices, Mrs. T’s potato, spinach & feta pierogies, pints of coconut ice cream, ethnic bakeries, lower priced fresh vegetables and fruits, white Stilton with mango and candied ginger, frozen fish filets individually wrapped. I could do that! I could buy a pack of boneless pork chops, put each chop into a sandwich-sized zip bag and freeze it. I also bought Shake ‘n Bake for Pork.

While a chop thaws in cold water, I turn on the oven to 425 F, clean and thick-slice a few fresh veggies—carrots, parsnips, squashes of all sorts, new potatoes, small turnips, egg plants, fennel bulbs, Brussels sprouts, or sweet onions—place them on a foil wrapped pizza pan sprayed with olive oil. I toss the now thawed chop in a baggie with a couple of tablespoons worth of Shake ‘n Bake, then re-spray the veggies, and put the pan in the oven. Twenty minutes later I am eating supper with NBC’s Brian Williams wry humor and his shameless love for all good dogs.

Next, I got hungry for pasta with homemade sauce, but I didn’t want to make a regular big batch of tomato sauce, even though I knew I could freeze it in small batches. Frozen tomato sauce takes a long time to thaw, and it discolors most plastic containers. What I craved was a freshly made small sauce. I happened upon a copy of Real Simple Magazine, featuring quick meals that included a recipe for tomato sauce made from canned whole tomatoes. As I read I realized that I could easily cut the size of that sauce by using only one 14.5 oz. can of tomatoes, but what pot did I own that was small enough and heavy enough to make a good cooked down sauce? None.

That same week Macy’s had a sale on 2 ½ quart Bella enameled cast iron pots. Quickly, I cut from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette a Wow! Pass, walked up to Macy’s, took the escalator to the 6th floor, and that evening I had the best tasting pasta I’ve had in more than 20 years.

All you need is enough olive oil to cover the bottom of your pot, 2 or 3 cloves of garlic roughly chopped then sautéed in the oil, a 14.5 oz can of Giant Eagle tomatoes, drained into the hot garlic oil mixture. Next, you smush the tomatoes with your hands over your sauce pot. (I know it’s messy but it gets the best results—trust me on this one.) After you’ve washed your hands, add a shake of salt and several grinds of black pepper. While you heat your salted pasta water, occasionally stir your slowly simmering sauce. When your pasta is cooked—I like angel hair because it cooks fast, if you use larger sized pasta start it cooking sooner—drain the pasta and stir it into your lovely sauce. Serve it with a generous dollop of part-skim ricotta cheese, a handful of grated Romano, and fresh chopped basil or parsley. If you want a more hearty meal, throw a couple of store-bought frozen meatballs into the sauce a few minutes before you add the pasta.

Since those two transforming meals I’ve expanded my home cooked menus though not my waist. I’ve added fish, both fresh and frozen, quickly sautéed or baked; crab cakes and salmon cakes made from the small canned variety. I’ve found that a pound of lean hamburger browned with taco mix will make me two or three taco salads, because the cooked meat mixture keeps well in the refrigerator for a week. An omelet and a salad is another good meal. In my new Bella pot, I’ve made small lamb stews using a couple of leg of lamb slices, also small batches of chili and soup.

I’ve never been much into desserts, but I’ve found that a few dried apricots or a couple store-bought pizzelles go well with the NBC News. And then there’s that coconut ice cream….

Concerning the question of where I shop: around. I have a car, so really grocery shopping for me is no different than it is for those who ask me that question. They think nothing of driving five or ten miles to grocery shop. Neither do I. I enjoy driving, so I’ve given up the idea of loyal shopping. I shop about every ten days, drive to the Squirrel Hill Giant Eagle, or Water Works Giant Eagle, or the Lawrenceville Shop ‘n Save, or Aldi’s, or The Strip.

If the roads are bad or if I have a basic ingredient emergency, I drive across the Rachel Carson bridge to the North Shore Giant Eagle which is only a mile away. Some hardy residents living in my building walk to that store. Sadly, The Bird’s executives have deemed the North Shore unworthy of small sizes, low fat foods, variety, their fresh baked Tuscan Multi-grain bread that makes such great toast, and their house brand Triple Vanilla ice cream. In fact, almost always that store’s ice cream cases resemble an empty tundra. Maybe that’s where Pittsburgh’s depressed Eskimos launch their ice floes? Also, that’s the only store from which I’ve unwittingly brought home spoiled food: coffee creamer, avocados, and raspberries. That Giant Eagle is the only store in Pittsburgh where I have always encountered shoppers reading labels for calories and fat content. I suspect that if the North Shore executives looked around the immediate neighborhood they would see how close Heinz Lofts, Allegheny General’s hundreds of employees, and the condos looming just across the Three Sister bridges are to that store, and there might be less hue and cry for a downtown grocery store.

I walk to buy my skim milk at the Rite Aid on Penn Ave and bread sticks or French bread near Market Square. During the summer I buy fresh flowers, a few fruits, and veggies at the Square’s Thursday farmer’s market. Though the prices are high, everything is local and very crisp. Apparently, in a few months a downtown high end grocery store near Market Square will emerge where I can easily walk; however, I probably won’t do the bulk of my shopping there. It’s that “high end” label that lets me know there will be variety, but also there still won’t be many grocery bargains to be had near Market Square.

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How Ralph Vaughn Williams Saved My Life

by Nola Garrett

Driving my 2010 orange Honda Fit, I was on my way to the University of Tampa’s inaugural concert of their new pipe organ. I was stopped for the red light at the six lane intersection of Sunset and McMullan Booth Road. I had just slipped in my new CD of Williams “Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallas” and other works written during the years he began collecting English folk songs during the early part of the 20th Century. I was happy, relaxed, and filled with anticipation.

My first brush with Ralph Vaughn Williams’s music was All Saints Sunday, 1973, in Edinboro, Pennsylvania, when I first sang what I gradually came to know as one of his most famous compositions, his hymn tune, “For All the Saints.” That majestic opening, a single deep bass, full reed organ stop, G quarter note, followed by the hymn’s melody and slow walking bass gave me shivers. I felt as if that hymn dragged me up from the violent depths of my first marriage to consider a second life. Each of the eight stanzas began the same way, and each time I found myself shivering. Still do, every time I sing it decades later.

I’ve come to think that deep bass G and that following walking bass may have acted as a sort of sounded dark light or chiaroscuro on my perception. Scientists studying perception say that the brain doesn’t just passively receive but actively reaches out. The mind with its own hopes, according to Frederick Turner in a recent essay, “The Dark Light of Domenic Cretara,” in
seeks confirmation or a check on its view of the world. Sometimes this check leads to the reinforcement of denial or depression; other times it grasps the light or trust. So, the melody would have been my light while the single deep bass G and walking bass would have been and continues to be my shadow that gives form to my light.

Because “For All the Saints” has eight verses and that authoritative, initial bass G, most church organists, including First English Lutheran Church’s cantor, Cynthia A. Pock, Obl. ECST, AAGO, will be quick to tell you, “It’s not an easy hymn to play.” The hymn should be played slowly, and both that initial G and the walking bass are scored for pedal. Truth be told, eight slowly played verses is a very long hymn either to sing or to play. Ralph Vaughn Williams, composer and church organist, certainly understood that strain, for he wrote an alternative four part harmony setting for verses 4,5, 6, and eliminated the pedal walking bass. Often these three verses are sung by the choir, and/or the 8 verses are sung alternately all, men, all, women, all, choir, all, all. Either way, it’s still an endurance test for organists. Nevertheless, on a few special occasions I’ve heard organists, including Cynthia Pock, open the hymn with an elaborate improvisation and/or end the seventh verse with a improvised key-change modulation, adding further majesty (and mystery) to the last verse!

Eventually, I wondered if other Williams compositions would effect me the same way. I sought out his recordings, read the liner notes, researched more details about his life, and his growth as an English composer. None of his other music gave me shivers, but at least I found the word that most writers used when describing much of music he wrote based on his folk song research—mysterious. Another description for shivers. I felt relieved that at least I wasn’t some sort of religious nut.

I read Simon Heffer’s Williams biography published by Northeastern University Press in 2000 and discovered Williams’ beliefs, or perhaps more precise, his doubts concerning Christianity. At the time Williams wrote his hymn tune for William W. How’s text, “For All the Saints,” he also helped revise the 1906 English, all the while forthrightly acknowledging his agnosticism, even refusing to take communion at the church where he served as organist. I respect Ralph Vaughn Williams for his honest doubt which I think may well be another source of the mystery pervading his compositions. Heffer describes his listening impressions of the first English folk-song Williams collected:

…on first hearing the tune, it strikes the listener as though he has known it all his life. It has the strain of heroic melancholy and profound peace that is religiose without being religious…stripped of sentiment and romanticism. It echoes and represents the mysticism that would become a dominant strain in Vaughn Williams character, a substitute for orthodox religion that would increasingly inform his music.

Yes! What a joy it was to find in someone else’s words a description of what you’ve been shivering, feeling, needing to understand. Thank you, Simon Heffer.

So. Just as I settled back into my driver’s seat to the first orchestral measure of “Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis,” I heard/felt a loud, dull bang-quick wham as my car was rear-ended & I closed my eyes & felt my seat belt tighten & felt the back of my head flap back into the padded headrest & next my head whacked left & hurt hard. I opened my eyes, heard Ralph Vaughn Williams’s music still playing, and I turned off the ignition so my car wouldn’t catch fire. I saw that my driver’s side air bag had deployed like a sad balloon. Two teen age boys were opening my car door and saying “I’m sorry!” “I’m sorry.”

I found my purse still sitting beside me. I grabbed it as the two boys and an older man helped me out of my car which I noticed was now pointing toward home. My head didn’t hurt as much, but my calves stung. And, I knew I was alive and walking to the berm. Minutes later the EMTs from the fire station I had passed a half mile back were paying no attention to the teenage boys, but were taking my blood pressure, asking me my age, counting my heart beat. My blood pressure was 130 over 80. “A little high for me,” I told them, though they assured me “It’s damn good.”

Turns out that the two teen age boys—brothers— were driving at least 60 mph the blue Toyota truck that rear ended me. They never looked up until their cell phones flew from their hands into what must have become part of the pile of glass, metal, and plastic someone swept to the roadside. Also, seems that my car was not only rear ended, but also then thrown into a six inch steel pole on the driver’s side and turned around 180 degrees.

In my wallet I found my Florida driver’s licence, owner’s card, insurance card, copied the boy’s info, used my cell to phone my husband to come take me home, answered the police’s questions, thanked the two witnesses who stayed more than a hour to talk with the police. They had been driving separate cars they swerved out of the way of the heedless brothers.

Magically, a tow truck arrived. The driver handed me his card, then wenched my hunched Honda Fit crookedly up as if he were hoisting an very old man onto a hospital bed. I didn’t cry, but I wished I could. My legs still stung, though my opaque hose were intact. It would be more than 3 months before all my many, many bruises disappeared.

A few days later, I drove a rental Kia Soul to the tow yard to remove my personal effects and licence plate from what had now officially been deemed my totaled Honda. The guys at the yard immediately demanded my ID, checked their list, then stepped back, saying “You’re alive? That’s a car in a world of hurt! When we opened the hood we found that the engine mounts had snapped. The engine was sitting loose, sideways in the engine compartment.”

The guys walked me to my car, removed my crumpled licence plate, helped me retrieve most of my stuff. Strangely, I sit in my dead car’s driver’s seat. The keys hang in the ignition. On a whim I push the CD eject button and out slides “Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis.” Though it’s still a mystery to me why my car’s battery powering that CD player gave my music back to me, I relaxed. I felt the same happiness I had felt a few days earlier when I first placed Williams’ CD into that machine.

I am grateful for Honda’s engineering that keeps the passenger compartment secure during almost any accident, which is why I made the two brothers’ insurance company buy me an new orange 2011 Honda Fit. I also believe that because I was so relaxed, Ralph Vaughn Williams saved my life. Twice.

_____

Unsolicited Advice

by Nola Garrett

I like riding Pittsburgh’s T. I especially like riding it on Steelers’ game days late Sunday mornings when the cars are packed with anticipation and good will. I’ve heard Steeler jersey-clad fans welcome opposing jersey-clad fans to Pittsburgh, give them directions, suggest good places to eat, and even wish their team good luck. Makes me feel good about living here. So, last fall I was unprepared for the squat, middle-aged guy wearing a leather-sleeved Steelers’ jacket standing near the car door when he shouted “Don’t you believe in Pittsburgh’s laws?” at two teenage boys wearing Steelers jerseys.

The entire packed car fell silent. One of the boys lifted his beer can, took a defiant sip. The other boy lowered his beer can to his thigh.

“Drinking alcohol on a train car is illegal! Don’t you respect Pittsburgh’s laws?” shouted the middle-aged guy.

The boys turned away from him. The beer sipper clutched his can to his chest.

More Steeler silence ensued, broken by the leather-sleeved guy’s taunt, “Try drinking beer on D. C.’s Metro! Down there, see how quick you get arrested!”

Just then, The T arrived at the Wood Street Station, three stops away from Heinz Field. Neither boy moved.

The doors opened, and the middle-aged guy leaned down to the small speaker phone mounted on the doorway pole. He pushed the green talk button, shouted “There’s two teen age boys drinking beer on this car!”

A couple of new riders squeezed through the door into the car’s ongoing silence. The two boys looked at each other, and as the doors started to close, clutching their beer cans they scrambled out past the middle-aged guy to the platform. The train began moving and so did the Steelers’ fans’ now ordinary, noisy anticipation.

&

I’m just back this hot June Monday morning from buying a half gallon of skim milk at Rite Aid. As I walked home by way of the Gateway T Station that always reminds me of the Paris Louvre’s controversial glass domed Annex, I passed the Faith Gallo Memorial Garden: two concrete, boat shaped planters that have gone untended for more than a year. Faith’s planters were in full bloom with common wild flowers! So, out of my purse I fished my travel scissors to cut myself a bundle of Queen Anne’s lace, Oxford ragwort, and teasel—the Marilyn Monroe of thistles that compliments any bouquet, dried or fresh.

Of course, my theft failed to go unnoticed by three 20 something, tattooed, cigarette smoking, summer-clad women standing nearby.

“Hey, Lady! Them ain’t flowers. Those are weeds!”

“No, they’re flowers,” I righteously responded.

“Lady! Those are weeds!”

“Depends on how you define flowers.”

I kept cutting a few more strands of bright yellow ragwort, then grinning I finished my walk home to a nearby building to arrange in a crystal vase my bouquet.

And, I’m still parsing the irony of one woman’s parting sotto words—“Her elevator doesn’t make it all the way to the top floor.”—here where I dwell on the 7th floor at the cheap end of a 27 storey condominium with a view of Mt. Washington’s spired church and the Allegheny River’s golden bridges, straining to hold us all together here in Pittsburgh.

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Book Review: Landscape with Female Figure

by Nola Garrett

It has been a little more than two months since an underground fire forced Consol Energy to shut down its Blacksville No. 2 deep mine along the Pennsylvania-West Virginia border, and neither the company nor the federal agency in charge of mine safety oversight knows what caused it.

And they may never know.

Don Hopey, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, A-1, May 17, 2013

Andrea Hollander, Landscape with Female Figure: new and selected poems, 1982–2012, Autumn House, 2013, 187 pp.

It’s been seven years since Woman in the Painting, Andrea Hollander Budy’s last book of poems appeared, a generous collection, numbering 90 pages; but since then much has happened in Andrea’s life. Her only child has grown. Her father has died. Her marriage of 35 years has ended in divorce. She has moved from Arkansas to Portland, Oregon.

Such is the stuff of poetry and loss.

There no shortage of stuff written by and about poets’ divorce(s). Consider the short list: John Milton, W. D. Snodgrass’ best seller, Heart’s Needle, Silvia Plath & Ted Hughes—Ariel vs. The Birthday Letters. Last night, I reread Sharon Olds’ Stag’s Leap, her prize-winning collection of poems which are about her divorce after 30 years of marriage. Olds, perhaps wisely for the sake of her children, chose to withhold publication of her collection until ten years had passed, though I just don’t buy Olds’ ongoing crush on her ex, distrust her use of so much arcane language. Though Olds talks about pain, she intellectualizes it. Andrea Hollander’s divorce poems are grittier, more cautious, and contain more of an arc.

I first met Andrea at the 1995 White River Writers Workshop, held at Lyon College, Batesville, Arkansas where she served as Writer-in Residence. And, served is absolutely the right word to describe how she organized the very best workshop I have ever attended. At that time she and her husband, Todd, owned a nearby bed and breakfast, so she decided to treat the workshop participants, she told me, the same way they treated their guests. Everyday against the June, river valley heat, Andrea sensibly wore simple cotton shirtwaist dresses. Not only were the meals well chosen and prepared, but also the faculty, the accommodations, the arrival instructions, the writing assignments, the readings, the computer lab, the daily schedule, the receptions, the quiet time for writing, and even a dance party on the last night. Faculty and writers truly mingled rather than observing the usual caste customs. Most of the poems I wrote there were later published. I met at Andrea’s workshop a half dozen people I still consider to be my friends. And, one evening on my way to dinner, I was nearly overcome with joy by the trills of an acute, gray bird perched on the peak of the dining hall’s entrance roof. It was Andrea’s husband, Todd, who identified for me—a northwestern Pennsylvania native—that song: the very first mocking bird I had ever heard.

The first section of Landscape with Female Figure contains Hollander’s new poems which deal with loss, grief and divorce. The opening poems show the speaker slowly letting herself acknowledge the facts of her failing marriage. The first poem, “Finches or Sparrows,” depicts the fog of war one encounters during the early stages of divorce grief—the memory of her mother’s death—her struggle to attend accurately even the most ordinary events.

Then the wheezing stopped,
the wild, invisible gods released them,
and I saw I had been mistaken: All at once
they dropped, fluttering to the ground,
nothing but leaves, yellow and brown.

As the other poems follow, each one’s syntax less complex, images exploring guilt and doubt, art and reality, until finally “Portrait with Purple Shroud” that ends

When I go back
I’ll sleep on the sun porch.

I was afraid
until I understood I was afraid.

Near the end of the New Poems series, Hollander abandons syntax, departs from her life-long control of tone and focus, writes of what I think is the most painful and difficult moment of divorce that many divorced persons fail to experience, finds the courage to descend back down into the black hole of her word mine, and writes “Question.” A page and three quarters, long lines with no stanza breaks, no punctuation, except for a final question mark. Her poem that tells us what it’s like to know you may never know why your years’ long marriage ended with a divorce is the longest poem that I know of that she has published.

Seems to me, all lovers create within their relationship a private language. Married lovers, too. Their language holds them together, enables them to build a family. Genesis 11 describes Yahweh coming down to watch the Tower of Babel being built, then confusing the workers’ language so the builders could no longer understand each others’ speech, resulting in the abandonment of their work and ultimately their homes, their city, and their lands. While I am not suggesting Yahweh causes divorces, I am suggesting if married couples no longer are able to talk their language with each other, divorce happens. No more to build on there. Why else is the first task of any marriage therapy to reestablish communication? Further, during divorce that loss of language especially for a poet is doubly painful. Paralyzing. A personal and artistic embarrassment. So, when a divorced poet chooses to question the reasons for that loss (many divorced poets never publicly try) what may emerge is the poetry of a changed poet rather than the answer why.

I’m thinking that after Andrea’s divorce organizing a this selected poems might have been a welcome task, not to say that task isn’t an honor for any poet. When compiling a selected, lots of poets disown many of their early poems. However, Andrea Hollander has been even-handed in choosing approximately the same number of poems from each of her three previous collections published under her married name. And, rightly so, because these selected poems portray a poet writing in the same controlled voice, same tone, same point of view, many poems of ekphrasis set in domestic scenes, many poems tenderly revealing the irony within relationships at crucial moments.

There is a striking symmetry within the New poems and the Selected, each set in Hollander’s writing studios. “Dawn” ends the selected series from her first book, House without a Dreamer, containing the wispy

I want to know why
the words I am saying seem to be spoken
by somebody else.

“Writing Studio” is the penultimate poem of the New Poems, ending with this measured, though confident self description:

You are the watcher
at the edge, a gleaner.
After the harvest is over,
you may take what you can,
but only after the crows
are done.

Yes, grittier—back from Andrea Hollander’s descent, now back mining in Portland, Oregon, even though she may never know why. I have a dear friend, Ginger Carlson, 90 years old and still stylishly counting, who recently sent me an email concerning her long past divorce: “Divorce saved my life—is that a bad thing?” I suspect that Ginger and Andrea, if they met, might well make good companions.

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