Thursday, July 22, 2010

The Real Vermont: Poems That Bare the Stones

We've slipped past mid-week, rattled by rain so often that "global climate change" seems an understatement. I don't know whether the July totals will reflect the way the storms have splashed and battered lately -- the big purple bush of flowers on the back deck droops from "overwatering" and this morning's sunny walk in town turned out to be a wet shirt hike. I've planted a fresh crop of radishes and almost cleaned out the spinach from the vegetable patch; the cucumber vines are threatening to engulf the house, thriving on all the moisture.

Yesterday, sitting at the back of the room of Advanced Placement teachers for a presentation by poet and poetry teacher Alice B. Fogel, I was caught by her phrasing: "Poems come from stories -- things that happen in your life." Even more intriguing was this declaration, which continued a point from the introduction given by Tim Averill: "One of the main purposes of my book Strange Terrain is to bring back an allowance for mystery." Good -- I knew there was some connection in my rain-soaked brain between poetry and mysteries. That will do for trying to wring it out, today.

Fogel actually lives across the line in Acworth, New Hampshire, but teaches often in Vermont. I like this opening stanza of "Disturbance" from her collection Be That Empty:
I will be the rock, igneous, fast to the place
where the river rips around it
if these blurted waves are its song
Another regional poet whose work pokes up stones out of the current to seize my attention is Tim Mayo of Brattleboro, Vermont, whose collection The Kingdom of Possibilities is published by Mayapple Press. Browsing the pages last night, I found this in "The Frog and the Snake":
When I was young I came to a garden pool
and watched a snake swallow a frog.

I have mediated long on this
not wishing to leap to the freedom
of just any conclusion as the frog
must have wanted to do,
how I saw death's
turbulence reach out touching many around me:
teachers and a woman who pretended to be
my mother, and then not long after the snake
swallowed its prey, my own mother also died.
From the stories of his life, Mayo names some of the shadows that trouble his meditative poems. His language includes much of Zen, and of koans.

Also from Mayapple Press ("is a small literary press [in Michigan!] founded in 1978 by poet and editor Judith Kerman. We focus on literature not often celebrated by either the mainstream or the avant-garde. This includes poetry which is both challenging and accessible; women’s writing; the rustbelt/rural culture that stretches from the Hudson Valley to the Great Lakes; the recent immigrant experience; poetry in translation; science fiction poetry") comes a new book by Geof Hewitt, Vermont's leading facilitator of poetry slams and a long-time favorite teacher among both teens and their school staffs. Hewitt seizes the opportunity in THE PERFECT HEART to lay out work in mostly decades, working from 1965 to now. This provides a great survey of how his forms and topics have changed -- and in the most recent, new poems, a window into the fun he has with slam poetry and its practice. I giggled at a poem called "I'm Back" in which he claims to have participated at the latest "Chick Slam" wearing glasses, a wig, and flaunting a pot-belly, ready to sail forward -- "To cast our wishes upon the earth, / To put out each desire like a picnic."

And I groaned at the quick glimpses of loss that he allows, like the teachers' conference room suddenly shaken by a phone call conveying the death of someone's son:
Yet you should try coming up with some words
that haven't been said,
some conglomeration of syllables
perhaps with grunts and strange inflection

that haven't been uttered in shock
countless times each day across the world
the marble settled at the center of the spin,
words tumbling out in search of new order.
Last but not least in this sequence of the real Vermont with its stories and mystery is the amazing presence of poetry in the JetBlue terminal at the Burlington airport. I'm borrowing a photo that was taken by Elizabeth Billings and Andrea Wasserman, to show how the words are woven into the wall. They are poetry by Cora Vail Brooks. I have a slightly battered copy of her 1979 volume A COW IS A WOMAN (Acorn Press), from which I offer now the finale of "Irreverence":
I want to tell you
while I have the choice
I would fold a length of stillness
to make these words

I would unhinge a moon
to set it loose
in the black drafty universe
a darkness that would mingle
us back to itself

I would loosen the questions themselves
from the lost throats of birds
You can tell there's more rain coming today, because none of the songbirds are letting loose outside my window. But the crickets persist in their chant, which will lead us from summer rains toward autumn torrents. Coming soon: the meteor shower of the Perseids, our August night-time guest that binds the hills, the humans, and the newly chilled night air.

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