Returning home from a profound journey over the sea, I watch as the clouds below either recede or come closer as my plane either rises or falls. And, here, back on the Peninsula, spring is everywhere. I step back into my life, into my home — left empty these two weeks — with a lot on my mind, and my heart ready for Easter’s resurrection.
What do we believe about life and death? How much takes faith? And how much of what we see in the details of our lives can reassure us?
Meanwhile, two days of clam tides have filled our grocery stores, cafes and B&Bs with locals, family and friends from afar — everyone is out on the sands being rewarded by nature’s bounty. On the beach and the bay people are in clumps, talking, with nets full of shellfish hanging from their belts. The glorious weather has been a boon. We made it through another winter and into a stunning April, the month set forth to celebrate poetry.
I’ve had a life-long relationship with words — perhaps my most successful relationship. We’re in pretty good shape, words and I. Not that they always do I what I want, but we have an agreement: I try my very best to get words properly organized, and I count on them to try to do their job of delivering meaning.
After sharing my writing about Jim’s death (see last week’s Chinook Observer), one of his hospice workers said, “Your words just seem to flow. I can’t get my words to do that.” She spoke about words as if they were simple syrup or frosting one spreads on a layer cake; as if word-makers were pastry chefs plying their sweet alchemy. Words are sticky tricky little devils that, yes, can be very sweet but can also turn sour.
Unfortunately we’re in an era when words seem to be tossed around by some folks as if they were playthings. Some individuals spew them out randomly and think they can be taken back just as easily: “Oh, that was just a ‘slip of the tongue.’”
Whether for speaking, journalism, or poetry, words are one of our best tools for communication (though music, as a universal language, ranks up there too). I’m of the opinion that words, whether they soothingly wrap around us like down comforters or cut like knives, are tangible objects in the world. They carry import, they’re weighty, and — especially if they are printed — they can go on and have lives of their own long past the indifference or demise of their authors.
April, the month of poetry, is almost over — I have just this one last week to talk about an aspect of words that is near and dear to my heart. Though poetry can’t always be comforting, the very best poetry speaks the truth. In his poem “The Waste Land,” one of our greatest poets of the last century, T.S. Eliot, wrote:
April is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.
Why is April cruel? Because after “winter kept us warm, covering earth in forgetful snow,” spring wakes us up again to the beautiful sorrows of life; and the cycle begins anew (https://tinyurl.com/y7mqx4au).
Rewards for writers
But who would have it any other way? The cycle of the seasons reflects the cycles in our own lives: births and deaths; the constant changes in a day, a month, a year. We’re reminded not to take anything for granted — even a colossus like the stone cathedral of Notre Dame, something that has stood for centuries, can be suddenly brought to its knees. We can lose Damian, a beloved father and friend, a talented colleague, in a shocking turn of events.
Though… wait, can words also counter those whims of fate in some small way? Can words both record those shocking lightning strikes of change and reassure us as well? Maybe.
Even this humble newspaper, made of words, stands as a bulwark against the shifts of time. In the archives, our pages record the history of our little corner of the world from the smallest details — “An allegedly disorderly female was reported in Seaview at 9:33 p.m.” — to the grandest sweep of history, “Will the orcas survive?”
Some of us sweating and toiling on the floor of the word-factory even get rewarded from time to time. This year’s Pulitzer prize winners have just been announced. Richard Powers has won for fiction with his brilliant novel “Overstory” (W.W. Norton and Company): a multi-faceted weaving of human characters with the life of trees. And poet Forrest Gander was honored for his collection called “Be With” (New Directions), described as “elegies that grapple with the sudden loss, and the difficulties of expressing grief and yearning for the departed.” (A book I will certainly need.)
Poetry, when wielded skillfully, has the ability to capture life in exquisite detail, like the line from Gander’s poem Ruined Tunnel, “Bats opening like orchids,” or from his Stepping Out of Light — “Fog swaddles the trunks and so delineates, from a vast of green, the silhouette of each pine on the slope.” Sometimes poetry has the ability to lift us up, keep our boats afloat as they drift on stormy seas.
Local poets present
Just in time to celebrate poetry month, Tony Pfannenstiel has put together for your enjoyment and edification, “An Afternoon with Peninsula Poets,” Sunday, April 28, from 3 to 5 p.m. at the Peninsula Performing Arts Center (504 Pacific Ave. North in Long Beach). Featured poets are Pamella Saige Gibson, Tony, and yours truly. George Coleman will provide guitar accompaniment.
Tony has been writing poetry since age ten and in 2012 published an anthology of West Coast poetry called “Fault Lines.” For five years he was the poetry coordinator for Portland’s Multnomah County library. As Tony says, “poems are for people and should be accessible to their minds and hearts. I’m retired and find that in my older years poetry provides a great deal of promise and solace.”
Pamella, primarily a painter who holds an MFA, writes that “unfortunately due to poor planning I must still make and sell art to make a living. However I’ve also been writing since the mid ‘70s and have published poetry in a whole list of obscure places people never read.” She has recently finished a chapbook called “Making Art” which, as she says, “in a semi-humorous autobiographical vein speaks to the truth of making art — neither easy nor glamorous. The center piece ‘Ode To My Muse’ details the terror of waiting for her to show up!”
As for my work… well, just come and see. Open mic will begin at 3 p.m. — so if you’re a closet poet, be brave and bring a poem to share. (Call 503-720-6786 for more information.) Or if you like to hear poetry, come join us. Or if you’ve never been to a poetry reading, come see what it’s all about. Or if you think you hate poetry, let us change your mind. In summary, poetry is for everyone, especially during poetry month!