Love is feathered like a bird

My interest in tattoos began in college when my fellow peers started showing up with various images and/or text etched into their skin. Admittedly some of the tattoos fell into the cool/interesting/quirky category (a typewriter on the back on a calf , a song lyric winding around an ankle or flower blooming over the bicep) and some of them fell into the “what the hell?” category (Chinese characters or anything involving a rose). I began to seriously consider getting my own ink towards the end of my senior year in college, but the road toward my own tattoo had some detours.

Tattoos cost money and I was a student for about 7 1/2 years straight (BA, MA & MFA), so that proved to be a bit of a challenge during my 20’s. The bigger challenge was deciding what tattoo I was going to get and where. As I do with most of my major life decisions, I turned to my younger sister for advice. She produced a detailed rendition of a goldfish, complete with hundreds of scales, that her friend had sketched out for her. We thought it was a cool picture but at the end of the day, we didn’t like it enough to follow through. In the following years I considered the image of sweet peas. These were to commemorate my aunt who passed away from ovarian cancer. They were her favorite flower. Then I thought about the greek muses and the idea of lyric poetry. My favorite response to this idea came from my mother, who when I presented the idea/image to her said, “I think that would make beautiful stationery.” While this didn’t deter my desire to get a tattoo, it did convince me this wasn’t my best idea.

Eventually two things happened to inspire me: my sister got her own tattoo. A music note tucked neatly behind her ear. And I discovered the website The Word Made Flesh. Why it didn’t occur to me to think about “literary” tattoos in the first place I don’t know, but the images on this site made me realize that the only tattoo that made sense for me was something to do with poetry. This focused the whole brainstorming process quite a bit because once I realized a line of poetry was the way to go, there was really only one poet that I could look to: Elizabeth Bishop.

Bishop is my touchstone. She’s the first poet I discovered in college that I really love. I’ve read all her poetry. I’ve read her letters. I’ve read her essays. I’ve looked at her paintings. I read the fictional story based on her love affair with Lota de Macedo Soares. I’ve heard it rumored they might be making a movie based on that book (The More I Owe You) and I’ll be one of the first in line if that happens. If you follow my blog, you know I write about her a lot. I love her.

This is all to say, that when I was thinking about lines of poetry that would be permanently pierced into my skin, it didn’t take long to locate a line from Bishop. The line is chose is from her poem “Three Valentines” and reads “…love is feathered like a bird.” “Three Valentines” is from Bishop’s uncollected poems and it is written in three sections, hence the three valentines. The entire first stanza where this line appears reads:

Love is feathered like a bird/To keep him warm,/To keep him safe from harm,/And by what winds or drafts his nest is stirred/They chill not Love./Warm lives he:/No warmth gives off,/Or none to me.

As for my tattoo, it contains that line of poetry and five birds: one for my husband, one for my sister, one for parents, one for my grandparents and one for my aunt (the one I mentioned above). It begins on my left shoulder, continuing towards the middle of my back. I love it.

Taken about an hour after my appointment.

The actual act of being tattooed isn’t as interesting as the tattoos themselves. I went to a reputable studio here in Indy, Metamorphosis and scheduled an appointment. The appointment wound up coming a few days after my 33rd birthday, and the whole process from start to finish took about 20 minutes. It didn’t hurt that much. The tattoo wasn’t very red or irritated nor was the skin surrounding it. I followed the aftercare instructions and it healed well.

Will I get another one?

Never say never but for now, I am more than happy to have a piece of Miss. Bishop permanently pressed to my left shoulder.



Poetry About Loss

The Academy of American Poets defines the elegy as follows:

The elegy began as an ancient Greek metrical form and is traditionally written in response to the death of a person or group. Though similar in function, the elegy is distinct from the epitaph, ode, and eulogy: the epitaph is very brief; the ode solely exalts; and the eulogy is most often written in formal prose. The elements of a traditional elegy mirror three stages of loss. First, there is a lament, where the speaker expresses grief and sorrow, then praise and admiration of the idealized dead, and finally consolation and solace.  

I’ve never written a formal elegy but I think it is definitely something some of my poems work towards. I began writing poetry, consistently, after the death of my aunt and her death, as a subject, followed me through the rest of my undergraduate coursework and into my graduate studies in Texas. It never occurred to me to sit down and try and write a formal elegy because the ideas for the poems just seem to keep coming and coming. I was in mourning and the writing was how I got through it. It was a long process and I still return to her sometimes, although in later poems it seems to be more of a celebration. 
Weeping Woman, Pablo Picasso 1937

I know that many poets use words to work through loss and difficult times. Confessionalism, which I discovered through the poetry of Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton, emerged from the idea of writing as a coping mechanism. Of course the poems of Plath and Sexton are more than just therapy, but I guess I never really realized how much I used my poetry to process loss until fairly recently. I’ve written about the loss of family, animals, and even bigger losses like Costa Concordia. 

In fact, one of my favorite poems by my favorite poet, Elizabeth Bishop, is about loss. I use this poem as an example of revision in my creative writing class. The poem, “One Art”, shows a tremendous change from the first draft to the final draft, and our textbook, Imaginative Writing by Janet Burroway, includes both drafts, so students can see the journey the poem took. Admittedly, this poem is a villanelle and not necessarily in the traditional form of an elegy, but the list that Bishop crafts in her poem definitely lament and grieve but she does not find solace at the end:

—Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture
 I love) I shan’t have lied. It’s evident 
the art of losing’s not too hard to master 
though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster. 

This particular class enjoyed the poem quite a bit and we had a good discussion about the revision process the poem went through. More about this poem and the revisions it went through can be found in Ellen Bryant Voigt’s excellent book of essays entitled The Flexible Lyric. 

Writing about loss can be problematic in the way that all subjects that a poet returns to over and over again can be problematic. I definitely felt like I was in a rut for a certain period of time, but I also feel like I had to write those poems (successful and unsuccessful) just to work them out of my system. I remember being so relieved after reading some poetry by Anna Akhmatova in a graduate class and being inspired to write my poem “Vigil.” It was felt like the beginning of a departure into something new, and at that point, I was ready. 

Happy National Poetry Month!

April is National Poetry Month and I’m involved in several events though my community college that celebrate the crafting and speaking of the written word. I participated in a panel discussion yesterday about Why Art Matters and the student creative writing group that I advise will be hosting an open mic event in a few weeks.

In the spirit of National Poetry Month and all that we do to celebrate it, I give you my top five favorite poems. These are poems I remember, these are poems I share in my classes and these are poems that are important to me not only because of their language and subject but because they stir up memories.

1. The Fish~ Elizabeth Bishop

I caught a tremendous fish
and held him beside the boat
half out of water, with my hook
fast in a corner of his mouth.
He didn’t fight.
He hadn’t fought at all.
He hung a grunting weight,
battered and venerable
and homely. Here and there
his brown skin hung in strips
like ancient wallpaper,
and its pattern of darker brown
was like wallpaper:
shapes like full-blown roses
stained and lost through age.
He was speckled and barnacles,
fine rosettes of lime,
and infested
with tiny white sea-lice,
and underneath two or three
rags of green weed hung down.
While his gills were breathing in
the terrible oxygen
–the frightening gills,
fresh and crisp with blood,
that can cut so badly–
I thought of the coarse white flesh
packed in like feathers,
the big bones and the little bones,
the dramatic reds and blacks
of his shiny entrails,
and the pink swim-bladder
like a big peony.
I looked into his eyes
which were far larger than mine
but shallower, and yellowed,
the irises backed and packed
with tarnished tinfoil
seen through the lenses
of old scratched isinglass.
They shifted a little, but not
to return my stare.
–It was more like the tipping
of an object toward the light.
I admired his sullen face,
the mechanism of his jaw,
and then I saw
that from his lower lip
–if you could call it a lip
grim, wet, and weaponlike,
hung five old pieces of fish-line,
or four and a wire leader
with the swivel still attached,
with all their five big hooks
grown firmly in his mouth.
A green line, frayed at the end
where he broke it, two heavier lines,
and a fine black thread
still crimped from the strain and snap
when it broke and he got away.
Like medals with their ribbons
frayed and wavering,
a five-haired beard of wisdom
trailing from his aching jaw.
I stared and stared
and victory filled up
the little rented boat,
from the pool of bilge
where oil had spread a rainbow
around the rusted engine
to the bailer rusted orange,
the sun-cracked thwarts,
the oarlocks on their strings,
the gunnels–until everything
was rainbow, rainbow, rainbow!
And I let the fish go. 

This is the first Elizabeth Bishop poem I ever read and it started my love affair with her and her work. If you read my blog at all, you know how much I love her. This poem introduced me to the idea of poetry making the ordinary extraordinary and it also made me realize how important observation and image are to making successful poetry.

2. Those Winter Sundays~Robert Hayden 

Sundays too my father got up early
and put his clothes on in the blueblack cold,
then with cracked hands that ached
from labor in the weekday weather made
banked fires blaze. No one ever thanked him.

I’d wake and hear the cold splintering, breaking.
When the rooms were warm, he’d call,
and slowly I would rise and dress,
fearing the chronic angers of that house,

Speaking indifferently to him,
who had driven out the cold
and polished my good shoes as well.
What did I know, what did I know
of love’s austere and lonely offices?

I love this poem because it reminds me of my father and my grandfather and all the men I’ve met in my life that work hard for their families. It is a sad poem but also a celebratory poem. I think it speaks a truth that many of us can relate to.

3.  A Blessing~James Wright

Just off the highway to Rochester, Minnesota,
Twilight bounds softly forth on the grass.
And the eyes of those two Indian ponies
Darken with kindness.
They have come gladly out of the willows
To welcome my friend and me.
We step over the barbed wire into the pasture
Where they have been grazing all day, alone.
They ripple tensely, they can hardly contain their happiness
That we have come.
They bow shyly as wet swans. They love each other.
There is no loneliness like theirs.
At home once more,
They begin munching the young tufts of spring in the darkness.
I would like to hold the slenderer one in my arms,
For she has walked over to me
And nuzzled my left hand.
She is black and white,
Her mane falls wild on her forehead,
And the light breeze moves me to caress her long ear
That is delicate as the skin over a girl's wrist.
Suddenly I realize
That if I stepped out of my body I would break
Into blossom.

I chose this poem to be read at my wedding, so if that’s isn’t a testament to how much I love it, I don’t know what is. I had horses growing up and I think what attracted me to this poem at first was how perfectly Wright captured their mannerisms. Later, I admired the final lines of the poem and the subtle way in which Wright wrote a poem about love without all the bells and whistles.

4. What the Living Do~Marie Howe


Johnny, the kitchen sink has been clogged for days, some utensil probably fell down there.
And the Drano won't work but smells dangerous, and the crusty dishes have piled up

waiting for the plumber I still haven't called. This is the everyday we spoke of.
It's winter again: the sky's a deep, headstrong blue, and the sunlight pours through

the open living-room windows because the heat's on too high in here and I can't turn it off.
For weeks now, driving, or dropping a bag of groceries in the street, the bag breaking,

I've been thinking: This is what the living do. And yesterday, hurrying along those
wobbly bricks in the Cambridge sidewalk, spilling my coffee down my wrist and sleeve,

I thought it again, and again later, when buying a hairbrush: This is it.
Parking. Slamming the car door shut in the cold. What you called that yearning.

What you finally gave up. We want the spring to come and the winter to pass. We want
whoever to call or not call, a letter, a kiss—we want more and more and then more of it.

But there are moments, walking, when I catch a glimpse of myself in the window glass,
say, the window of the corner video store, and I'm gripped by a cherishing so deep

for my own blowing hair, chapped face, and unbuttoned coat that I'm speechless:
I am living. I remember you.
I am naturally attracted to poets who write about grief. I think it is because I wrote many of my first poems while I was grieving, so Marie Howe’s poetry resonates with me very strongly. If I were to be honest, I would just list her book What the Living Do, because it is one of my favorites.

5. The Floating~ Katrina Vandenberg  

When he was dying, she stayed with him all night,
but one night, restless. she walked around a corner
and found a dim hall full of children's breathing
rising from small white beds. She had drifted into
the flating, the children's hospital boat
being rocked to sleep in the harbor again
the way it was a hundred summers ago.
The horizon of her life had vanished--traffic
lights, students with Chinese food takeout boxes
stories down. Now bustled dresses drooped
over the backs of chairs: now immigrant mothers
in flimsy shifts bent over beds and whispered,
tendrils of their hair escaping their tidy knots,
their feet unsteady on the pitch of breath.
This poem is from Vandenberg’s book Atlas. I love this book and this is my favorite poem from the the collection. It is haunting and beautiful and a little bit like a dream.

The Life and Times of an Unknown Poet…

I finished electronic submissions this past weekend and I just completed hard copy submission packets for everyone else who has yet to give into the ease of submission managers. I’ve completed 50 submissions total and I’ve already received three rejections (electronic submissions can make the rejection process a lot quicker), so I have or will soon have about 47 submissions out in the world.

I’ve encountered something during this round of submissions that I’ve never encountered before: anxiety about sending poems to people I know. The universities where I received my MA and my MFA also house two very well respected literary journals and I’m a little ashamed to admit that I’ve been avoiding sending to them. Actually, as long as I’m being honest, I’ve avoided sending to any places where I know the editors are former peers or mentors. I know this makes no logical sense and it’s not like I fear rejection or criticism (I mean I went to school for poetry for crying out loud) but maybe I do fear it from people I know and respect. This may be oversimplifying it a little bit. I just seem to feel a slight twinge when writing certain addresses on submission envelopes…

I’m reading two different books right now. One is Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections and the other is Elizabeth Bishop and The New Yorker. In a way, it isn’t really fair that I’m reading these two books at the same time. I love Elizabeth Bishop and I’ve read just about every conceivable thing by her or about her. This recent edition from the New Yorker is delightful and where most people would find reading pages of letters tedious, I really enjoy it. I’m never going to get meet Miss. Bishop but I can hear her voice in her letters and her conversation. It’s as close to a dialogue as I’m ever going to get, so I’ll take it.

On the other hand The Corrections is challenging and the verdict is still out whether I’m enjoying the challenge or not. I found the beginning of the book intriguing but odd, but as I move further into the novel I’m having trouble deciding if I’m still intrigued or just annoyed. I know I missed the boat on this book in terms of timeliness. Most of my friends jumped on Franzen’s bandwagon along time ago, but I’m going to finish it and then I’ll comment in full.

The days are lengthening and the sun seems to be making its presence known more and more often. I noticed the tips of some green shoots pushing through the leaf beds. Spring break is just around the corner and I look forward to spending some time working on my chapbook manuscript and working through some new poems that are bumping around in my head.

Last night I didn’t sleep well. This usually happens when I have a lot going on and can’t keep my mind still. When I did finally slip off into sleep, I had dreams of poetry and lines and words. Spring brings rejuvenation in many forms.

The More I Owe You

Among the many tasks I’ve set for myself in this new year to help me reclaim my writing life (I certainly lost track of it in 2010, especially the second half) is to read more. So far, I’ve done a pretty good job. I’m up to date on my New Yorkers, I’m almost caught up to the January issue of Poetry and I’ve read three books since Christmas. The third book I just finished not three minutes ago and I think it’s worth a few words. The book in question is called The More I Owe You by Michael Sledge and I believe I heard about it on NPR several months ago. The book is a fictional account (rooted in real life events) of the life of Elizabeth Bishop and her lover Lota de Macedo Soares.

Elizabeth Bishop was the first poet that I really heard and she is a large part of the reason that I started to write and that I still write. Whenever I feel like my poets have lost the ability to see, I go back to Bishop. I love her and I will greedily consume her in any way that I can.

Reading this novel brought out the poetry nerd in me first. I loved how Sledge started weaving Bishop’s work into her travel narrative almost immediately. For a reader that is intimate with her poetry, it is like a poetic treasure hunt to go through this book and pick up on the allusions and references that eventually became some of Bishop’s most famous poems. At points the prose is achingly beautiful and exact, just like Bishop’s own verse. I was expecting this precision in language, because honestly, I don’t know how you write a book about Elizabeth Bishop without laboring painfully over each word.

What I was not expecting was the exquisite sadness that I encountered in the pages. While I admired and obsessed over Bishop’s poems, I also read her personal letters and interviews. I knew she struggled with family trauma and alcoholism. I knew she wasn’t perfect. I didn’t want her to be. I didn’t need her to be. However, this book puts a spotlight on her loneliness and then amplifies that loneliness by pairing her with a woman, Lota, who is even more lonely and even more desperate for validation then she is.

This is not to undermine their relationship. There is much joy and beauty in this novel as well, but it is always boiling with tension just below the surface. When I read the final scene when Lota overdoses, I felt my heart tighten. These women struggled and clawed and fought to find each other in the world, only to lose sight of what was most important at the very end.

This book also offers glimpses of other relationships that serve as foils for Lota and Elizabeth. The most famous seems to be Robert Lowell who makes one disastrous appearance after another until he leaves Elizabeth once again alone on a street corner in Rio.

It is a love story and a beautiful one at that. There are missteps and betrayal and rage on the part of both women, but they are also brilliant and vibrant and creative. This book makes me long to know them and go walking with them along the beach in Brazil or sit in Lota’s beautiful Samambaia and drink coffee. This will never happen of course, but in his pages, Sledge is able to give a very personal, very beautiful portrayal of a woman who some accused of being closed off or removed. This novel proves that she was anything but.

Friday (If I Could Meet Miss. Bishop…) Musings

Those of you who keep up with daily publications better than I do already know that the July/August issue of Poetry included a “Poets We’ve Known” section at the end of the magazine. I really enjoyed reading about Robert Creely, John Ashberry, and Miroslav through the stories of their friends. My favorite of course was Katha Pollitt’s reminisces of Elizabeth Bishop. It is foolish for me to say this, but I’m going to anyway, I think we could have been friends. This little glance into Bishop’s life made me admire her even more, especially when Pollitt talks about her as teacher and compares her to Bernard Malamud, who was at Harvard at the same time:

“…he saw himself, I think, as I kind of talent scout from God. Maybe he was–but I had friends who took years to recover from one of his verdicts. Bishop had the opposite approach: she seemed to enjoy teaching, and was clearly amused by her students, a typical combination of the bow tied and tie-dyed–young fogies and hippies–but I don’t think it was a calling, part of her identity. She wasn’t concerned to make final judgments or peer into our depths.”

I like this because I feel much the same about my students. While I do think that teaching is a large part of my identity, I’m not really interested in judging my students. This could be because I teach a lot of introductory level courses, but destroying their will to write isn’t what I signed up for.

But Pollitt’s account also makes me envious and I agree when she calls herself foolish for not accepting Bishop’s invitation for a visit to New Haven. While many critics have accused Bishop’s poetry of being cold and detached at times, Pollitt’s story shows just how much she was willing to extend to her students. As Pollitt mentions in the opening, she was one of the few professors who took a class to her home.

This is a neat article about incorporating flowers into cocktails. They’re very romantic and they look like something I could write a poem about. See pictures below:

Tuesday (one week and counting…) Musings

Did I mention I’ve been a terrible failure at blogging this summer? The summer semester has kept me running at a steady clip and on top of that, we’ve decided to start looking for a house. We went out on our first “hunt” last weekend and despite the torrential downpours and a few broken lock boxes, the entire experience proved to be fascinating. I hope as we move into fall I’ll have regular updates.

No, I have not forgotten about poetry. Even though I have yet to sit down and draft several poems that are swirling around in my head, I am comforted by the fact that they’re there, if only in scribbled journal note form. As soon as the semester ends (next week) and I get through the grading (next week) I plan to get several poems on paper.

The rejection letters have begun to roll in. I received three over the past few weeks. Hand written note from one and form letter from the other two.

Here are a whole bunch of poems/quotes I’ve been accumulating over the past month.

She Walks in Beauty, Stanza I

She walks in beauty, like the night
Of cloudless slimes and starry skies;
And all that’s best of dark and bright
Meet in her aspect and her eyes:
Thus mellowed to that tender light
Which heaven to gaudy day denies.

Lord Byron

“Poetry didn’t find me, in the cradle or anywhere near it: I found it. I realized at some point–very late, it’s always seemed–that I needed it, that it served a function for me–or someday would–however unclear that function may have been first. I seemed to have started writing poetry before I read any.” ~ C.K. Williams


I prove theorem and the house expands:
the windows jerk free to hove near the ceiling,
the ceiling floats away with a sigh.

As the walls clear themselves of everything
but the transparency, the scent of carnations
leaves with them. I am out in the open

and above the windows have hinged butterflies,
sunlight glinting where they’ve intersected.
They are going to some point true and unproven.

Rita Dove

Sleeping in the Ceiling

It is so peaceful on the ceiling!
It is the Place de la Concorde.
The little crazy chandelier
is off, the fountain is in the dark.
Not a soul in the park.

Below, where the wallpaper is peeling, the Jardin de Plantes has locked its gates.
Those photographs are animals.
The mighty flowers and foliage rustle;
under the leaves the insects tunnel.

We must go under the wallpaper
to meet the insect-gladiator,
to battle with a net and trident,
and leave the fountain and the square.
But oh, that we could sleep up there…

Elizabeth Bishop

From “Silence”

There is the silence that comes between husband and wife.
There is the silence of those who have failed;
And the vast silence that covers
Broken nations and vanquished leaders.
There is the silence of Lincoln,
Thinking of the poverty of his youth.
And the silence of Napoleon
After Waterloo.
And the silence of Jeanne d’Arc
Saying amid the flames, “Blessed Jesus”–
Revealing in two words all sorrow, all hope.
And there is the silence of age,
Too full of wisdom for the tongue to utter it.
In words intelligible to those who have not lived
The great range of life.

Edgar Lee Masters

A Wedding Poem

Bright faces surround the woman in white,
the man in black, the sweetness of their attention
to each other a shine rising high toward the high ceiling.
The men watch the groom, and the women
the bride, as they speak their candle lit vows,
as if there were something in it for us personally.

Worn by the distances we the already-married
have traveled down the road on which these two
are setting out, we leave the dust of the journey
outside the door of this house where tonight no word
is casual, no posture undignified, and each
becomes again handsome in them, beautiful in them.

Thomas R. Smith

I just noticed while I was typing these out that many contain the word ceiling. Interesting.

Community colleges are deeply unsexy. This fact tends to make even the biggest advocates of these two-year schools — which educate nearly half of U.S. undergraduates — sound defensive, almost a tad whiny. “We don’t have the bands. We don’t have the football teams that everybody wants to boost,” says Stephen Kinslow, president of Texas’ Austin Community College (ACC). “Most people don’t understand community colleges very well at all.” And by “most people,” he means the graduates of fancy four-year schools who get elected and set budget priorities.

I, too, love poetry…

During one of my sessions at Murray for my MFA, I had the pleasure of taking a genre seminar over Marianne Moore and Elizabeth Bishop. I love Bishop. I loved her from the moment I read “At the Fishhouses,” and this seminar reaffirmed my admiration for her. However, I also walked away from this seminar with a new found respect for Marianne Moore. I think that Moore is overlooked or over simplified because of the poems that editors choose to anthologize. Moore was brilliant, sharp, and wonderfully creative. She was also diverse. This afternoon my colleague mentioned how Moore translated La Fontaine, which she is teaching in her World Lit class. We discussed Moore for a bit, the conversation ending when we both mentioned the poem shown below:


I, too, dislike it: there are things that are important beyond
all this fiddle.
Reading it, however, with a perfect contempt for it, one
discovers in
it after all, a place for the genuine.
Hands that can grasp, eyes
that can dilate, hair that can rise
if it must, these things are important not because a

high-sounding interpretation can be put upon them but because
they are
useful. When they become so derivative as to become
the same thing may be said for all of us, that we
do not admire what
we cannot understand: the bat
holding on upside down or in quest of something to

eat, elephants pushing, a wild horse taking a roll, a tireless
wolf under
a tree, the immovable critic twitching his skin like a horse
that feels a flea, the base-
ball fan, the statistician--
nor is it valid
to discriminate against "business documents and

school-books"; all these phenomena are important. One must make
a distinction
however: when dragged into prominence by half poets, the
result is not poetry,
nor till the poets among us can be
"literalists of
the imagination"--above
insolence and triviality and can present

for inspection, "imaginary gardens with real toads in them,"
shall we have
it. In the meantime, if you demand on the one hand,
the raw material of poetry in
all its rawness and
that which is on the other hand
genuine, you are interested in poetry.

The part about the toads is my favorite. I even managed to work it into my preface for my MA.