Poetry from the Western States


 

We know you’ll be as moved as we’ve been by the poems our judge, Bonnie Lyons, has chosen from submissions to the Western States poetry contest. From the poignancy of Brenda Bellinger’s “Terminus,” Tricia Knoll’s “Bleached Prayer Flags,” Nan Rush’s “The Sad Women,” and Eileen Malone’s “Sundowning” to the warm comfort of Carol Barrett’s “Esther Takes In a Stray Cat” and Lori Levy’s “Purple Yams,” the poems we feature here all transport us to places we know well, and with wisdom. We travel back in time with Joanne Brown in “Ode to American Communists,” with Jeanie Greensfelder in “Red Cross Baby-Care Class, 1958,” with Catharine Clark-Sayles in “Act 2, Scene 2,” with Cynthia Hoffman in “City Terrace, East Los Angeles, 1952,” and lament the aging of the body in Catherine McGuire’s “The Final Frontier.” But there is ecstasy in Nancy Meyer’s “Undersides,” and in Bonnie Lyons’ two poems, “Dulcinea Tries to Comfort Don Quixote” and “Hineni,” we come not only to “the real / age of romantic love” but also to a place of transcendent acceptance. Enjoy them all.

 

Bellinger

 

Brenda Bellinger

Terminus (a pantoum)
 
Unfinished business gathers dust and waits
Television commercials demand attention
His weak, withered hand reaches for the remote
His eyes close tightly in response to pain

Television commercials demand attention
The swamp cooler drones and telephone rings
His eyes close tightly in response to pain
A social worker will come by with paperwork

The swamp cooler drones and telephone rings
After morphine, I see his muscles relax
A social worker will come by with paperwork
Coughing interrupts the ticking of the clock

After morphine, I see his muscles relax
He watches as I connect his feeding tube
Coughing interrupts the ticking of the clock
Sweat pools in hollows and folds of his skin

He watches as I connect his feeding tube
His weak, withered hand reaches for the remote
Sweat pools in hollows and folds of his skin
Unfinished business gathers dust and waits

 

Knoll

 

Tricia Knoll

Bleached Prayer Flags
 
Today stuttered at faded white cotton prayer flags
over the garden gate. Children’s hands
colored them with fabric pens.
Summer bleached them into ghost messages

to plants growing fine without aphorisms.
Perhaps I saw the faded faces of bees.
Bees of the doorway. Behind the flags, red spires
of amaranth and a wheelbarrow of gourds.

I lived to see the harvest of the seed.
Now I hang a line in my studio. A thin black wire
for small banners from rice paper and glue, snipped photos
from magazines, trimmed words like wood cuts.

They will not fade, nor tease me with Tibetan.
Done with one, hang another with tiny laundry clips.
When prayer goes dry and weathered,
wash and wring out another.

Yes, first the bees. Then smartphone photos of rudbeckia,
pearly everlasting and echinacea, spreading welcome
mats in the front garden. Next gray whales ride
the line with waves, blown surf and silenced sonar.

No forgetting what hung up last week, the week before
when fall dryness came, aging that turns
the skin to leather, tough and scaled
begging for herb creams named for fairies.

When prayers dry up like a leaf
and decide to leave the tree,
a flag of gold dropped
dropped from the memory string.

 

Barrett

 

Carol Barrett

Esther Takes in a Stray Cat
 
Abandoned like you to a fever of sand, I begged
the wind. The wind sent nothing back to mother, mother.
When the sand had done with stinging, it was my name
carried on the wind’s back. Cousin Mordecai took me in.
Empty of sleep, I let go the dead for the mirage of laughter,
a round of bread. Now this, my cousin’s hairbrush
runs the long bone of your spine, taming another
wild mane, lair of gold, downy side up on this old brace
of knees. My mother’s wedding sash played my waist –
the frayed rainbow you bat above the bed.
So I learned the grainy ways of this world,
a woman’s gait, a man’s fixed meter. You too
will learn the palace grounds, and because
you are the Queen’s kitten, not be disallowed.
For I will yet use what I have for a thing of good,
I will bend my purpose. Orphaned strangers
to court, we fathom deeds stranger than this.
I broke the King’s rule, escaped my death,
this to guard a nation’s breath. You who could not
deign your future, dared, alone and scruffy,
confront a Queen. Such an entrance, yes!

So be my Cactus Flower, the joy I wake to
when chamber curtains blow like sand through hands
that once held absence like a stone. Here give chase
to wing, the moth that enters, uninvited, the lamp oil
light of night. When thirst rebounds, lap from a petaled
bowl of hyacinths. Feast days I will slip you a rummy
sliver of pheasant, three morsels of fish, a dab
of the soft brain of a lamb. We will make of loss
a sacred thing, the waiting room of royalty. Cactus Flower,
come be King here, scarved and belled. One hundred
wives will kneel before you, clatter castanets above
your crown. When evening brings their jasmine palms,
hear their moosh, moosh quell the wind. Lift your ringed
tail high and hum. For what does one need to call a place
home, but a name, a slab of stone warm in the sun,
and a stray old cheek for that sweet cactus tongue?

 

Rush

 

Nan Rush

The Sad Women
 
The sad women go to Zesto’s
on a hot summer Sunday
and order plain hamburgers,
double, to go.
They sit and bask
in the air-conditioning
while the burgers cook.

The sad women wait for
their plain burgers and
remember the days when,
with zest, they licked and sucked
the sweat of their lovers
and felt their own sweat
trickle slowly down their sides
in the sticky summer heat.

Entwined with their lovers,
nothing was plain
but their love,
stark, bare,
the light through the windows
unmasking all
on those spicy summer Sundays
when food was the last thing
on their minds.

 

Levy

 

Lori Levy

Purple Yams
 
Our debts are magical: they keep growing and growing
like the beans Jack planted in his mother’s garden.
We, too, look for a castle in the sky,
but instead of a hen who lays golden eggs,
we glimpse the boot of the giant, stamping, crushing.

Another bill unpaid or paid partially or late.
The world shrinks to the size of a coin; my life,
the constant counting of what I have or don’t have.
I inhale scarcity, exhale scarcity.
It settles on my tongue, sharp as complaint.
Whines in my ears. Crawls like an itch along my skin.

So I borrow my son’s Discman and go to bed with a professor—
his voice soothing me, teaching me Mindfulness, Meditation.
Focus on your breath, he says. Observing without judging.
I close my eyes, pay attention to my breathing,
how it carries me away—to Stephanie, my son’s girlfriend.
To her laughter and her long, black hair. My breathing turns to
cocoa: I am sipping the Mexican hot chocolate
she made us one evening, cinnamon-flavored,
cool whip on top. And now I’m biting into
hopia, the Filipino pastries she buys for us,
flaky, filled with yams, purple yams. Ube.
I am savoring the sweetness, mesmerized by that purple,
how it lures me to meadows of iris and lavender; speaks to me
of amethyst. Of emperors in long robes.
Hopia, I murmur. Like a chant, a mantra. Hopia. Hopia.

I open my eyes. My husband lies beside me
in the semi-dark room, a spot of light on the wall
where the nightlight casts its glow.
I see purple in the shadows.

 

Malone

 

Eileen Malone

Sundowning
 
At the heel of every day, lighting in here goes
strange, as do our nursing home attendants
when we point to the bloodbath of a sunset
smashing itself onto our windows

there, there, they say, it’s not the end of the world
it is simply time for the daytime shift to go home
and the night shift to arrive, there is nothing to fear
what you have is a condition called sundown syndrome
swallow this pill, it will calm you

but the sun is bleeding itself to death sucking us
into its collapse, every sunset, every sundown
every end of every day, we swallow the pills
an old patient dies, a new patient arrives
the rest of us fall asleep in our chairs
the sun implodes, draws us closer.

 

Brown

 

Joanne Brown

Ode to American Communists
 
On the sidewalk soapbox in East Flatbush
my mother called out lines from leaflets
by the Young Communist League,
collar 
of her brown woolen coat
buttoned tight 
against the chill.
Some, hurrying home with herring,
sour pickles, sweet cream and strawberries,
stopped to listen as the sky grew dim
and haloed light from street lamps shone.

Workers Unite! And they did for a while
like bright coins in a purse make a dollar.
It had some good in it – at the steel and textile mills,
actors studios, government bureaus.
And there was a family feeling around the table
covered in red-checked oil cloth, set with borscht,
roast chicken, cole slaw, and coffee cake.

They were smart, they’d read Marx’s Manifesto.
They tossed their hot-potato opinions,
each in their own eyes scathingly correct,
but not heard by another for an instant
as their burning fists hit the table and my heart
leaped but could not find cover in its ribbed cage.

They took the Fifth Amendment, did not name names
though their jobs were at stake and there were children
to feed. Small ancillary soldiers, we sat at one end
of the table, eating our kugel in silence.
One of the hard-liners sat opposite me.
I looked in the mirror behind his head.
“Am I blocking your view?” he quipped.
Fifteen and not keen on dialectical materialism,
I’d been wondering if I was pretty.

When the sky grew dim, an army of fireflies arrived.
The boys tore off their pale lime lights
but I saved one in a jar. While the grownups expounded
their righteousness, I watched it light up, do what fireflies do –
warn away a predator, defend its territory, look for a mate.
But it was alone, apart from the others —
and the etching on the glass obscured its shining.

 

Greensfelder

 

Jeanie Greensfelder

Red Cross Baby-Care Class, 1958
 
I pin a diaper on a naked doll and watch other
soon-to-be mothers smiling at their dollies.

The nurse corrects me: You’ll stab your baby.
You must point the pin away from its body.

Husbands stand, smoke, and laugh together.
Mine tells his barefoot and pregnant joke.

I never planned to be here, never wanted kids,
never held an infant. The nurse drones on

about burping, bathing, blanket wrapping,
baby’s floppy head, and why it might cry.

My doll stares at me—I’m back when I was six,
the day I ran to my room, grabbed my doll,

tore her clothes, yelled, yanked arms
and legs out of their sockets, tipped her head,

closing her eyes so she wouldn’t stare at me,
stupid baby with a pee-pee in the middle of her back.

Now, I want to cry.
I point my pin with care.

 

Clark-Sayles

 

Catharine Clark-Sayles

Act 2, Scene 2
 
A poem will not change a diaper.
A poem will not catch a fish.
Having caught it,
a poem will not gut
and clean the fish
nor fry it crisp in oil.

In poems you can die of love
and die of its lack.
To write a poem is an act of love.
To read a poem is an act of love
unless it is an assignment
for eighth-grade English

where Mrs. Baker of the mustache
and jiggling arms
chalks the blackboard
with sentence diagrams
of Juliet’s speech mooning
over the balcony rail

for her Romeo; but somewhere
in that room of restless
fourteen-year-olds
one or two will reach through
the fence of subject/ verb,
the pickets of preposition

to find a few small words
that will fly into their ears
and inhabit with the exotic plumage
of meter and metaphor,
singing feathery songs
of what love might be.

And in the world
of diapers and frying fish
years go by
love comes and is lost
and a poem may stay
to hold it all.

 

Mcguire

 

Catherine McGuire

The Final Frontier
 
It’s hard convincing the control tower
that the mile marker says 60 –
this journey so treacherous
wasn’t rigged to reach 25.
Now the outer hull is dinged and creaky,
the pistons don’t pump like before,
extra oil to replace leaks
seems never to go far enough.
The windshield’s blurry –
smeared and dotted – the speakers crackle and fade.
The grappling hooks are clumsy; some glitch
in the wiring. Thrusters don’t, and landing gear
has lost the shock absorbers – the whole thing rattles
and just barely hangs together.
(And they say 60 is the new 40.)
The crew is still eager, though sleep-starved
and there must be more ahead
if we take it cautiously, protect the main engine,
slap a few patches on the sides…

 

Hoffman

 

Cynthia Hoffman

City Terrace, East Los Angeles, 1952
 
wooden stairs
weather worn
and steep
rise from the ground

beside
the sun baked
swirled stucco wall
high above the cellar

where gold
peaches and apricots
gleam in canning jars
above the dirt floor

the stairs end
at the splintered landing
the screened door open
to the service porch inside

standing in bare feet
on the worn linoleum
forehead mirrored
in sweat and steam

my mother leans
over the washboard
arms deep in a sink
of blue-gray water

her elbows plunge
and rise again like wings
ancient rhythm rubbing white
my father’s work shirts

 
Meyer

 

Nancy Meyer

Undersides
 
You lie under a stand of Queen Anne’s Lace.
Five-foot tall ones, blooms held up to the sky
like candelabras. Look up
at their undersides. Light
pierces each floret, tattoos
your cheek, frilly.
Quiet, hear the bluster of bees.
If the ground is not too lumpy
under your spine, rest long enough
to inhale the astringent stalks
stroke their hairy length.

Maybe a friend lies with you, little
fingers touching along the sides,
palms sensing the first warmth
of the soil in spring.
Play along the rim of a fingernail.
Raise your clasped hands and sing
My Only Sunshine, just sing it
before you feel foolish.

Or tell stories
dizzying over and over
down grassy slopes until
you create a new world. Then
sit up, a happy sick swirl
back when
that sensation was fun.
Before you notice the itch
from the grass or mind
the stains on your shorts.

Lie here long enough
to contemplate why you don’t usually
lie
on the ground
under Queen Anne’s Lace.
Why not,
since you are happy now.
Just imagining it.

 
Lyons

 

Bonnie Lyons

Dulcinea Tries to Comfort Don Quixote
 
Back then,
with my full breasts
lean hips and flat belly,
you loved my body
because it was beautiful.

Now when the downward
pull of gravity and the grave
have taken a little here
added a lot more there,
you can love my body only

because it is my body.
Absurdly unexpected as all
these predictable losses,
we enter the real
age of romantic love.

 

Hineni
 
What I want
is to say Hineni:
The three-in-one Hebrew word
(our verbal trinity)
meaning “Here I am” or
“I am here,”
even “I-here-am.”
The patriarchs’ answer to God’s question:
“Where are you?”
God must know where we are
so the question means
“Are you listening?
Are you present
attending
now and here?”
 
Endless ways of not being here
of being in the past
or the future
or so self-
divided as to be no place
No I.
Then there is no present.
Then the present is empty–or full
only of anxiety or boredom
 
Arriving in Vermont
I saw a sign:
“Moose Crossing”
and wasted days
looking for that awkward-adolescent creature.
Then one evening on the screens
huge pale green moths–lunas!
and smaller violet and lemon ones–
art deco dreams–
No burning bush
but their translucent wings and
cotton candy bodies whispered
“Look at, not for.”
Hineni.

 

Carol Barrett holds doctorates in both clinical psychology and creative writing. She teaches at Union Institute & University and Saybrook University. Her books include Calling in the Bones, which won the Snyder Prize from Ashland Poetry Press. Her poems have appeared in many magazines and anthologies including JAMA, Poetry International, Nimrod, Poetry Northwest, and The Women’s Review of Books. A former NEA Fellowship recipient in Poetry, Barrett lives in Bend, Oregon.
 
Brenda Bellinger writes from a never-quite-empty nest on an old chicken farm in Sonoma County, California. Her story “First Smile won the non-fiction award at the 2009 Mendocino Coast Writers Conference. Bellinger’s writing has appeared in various anthologies as well as in THEMA, Poets & Writers online and the California Writers Club Literary Review. She has been working on a young adult novel and is currently negotiating with her characters over revisions.
 
Joanne Brown carried her passion for writing into an award-winning career in business writing helping corporate clients communicate about their mission, people and offerings. In 2012, she became a certified Amherst Writers & Artists instructor and began leading creative writing workshops in Oakland, California, and Oaxaca, Mexico. She has a Bachelor of Arts degree in English Language and Literature from Boston University, and has studied with poets Kim Addonizio, Ellen Bass, Julie Bruck and Alison Luterman. Brown resides in Oakland, California.
 
Catharine Clark-Sayles is a geriatrician practicing north of San Francisco. She travelled extensively with a military family while she was young then became an Army doctor. When she turned forty she discovered that she had missed her twenties the first time around and reconnected with poetry to find them. She has published two books of poetry with Tebot Bach Press: One Breath in 2008 is poetry drawn from medical training and practice. Lifeboat was published in 2012. She was an artist-in-residence in 2016 at the Chalk Hill Artist Residency. You can find more at www.clarksayles.com.
 
Jeanie Greensfelder is the author of Biting the Apple (Penciled In, 2012) and Marriage and Other Leaps of Faith (Penciled In, 2015). Her poems have been published online at Writer’s Almanac, American Life in Poetry, and the On Being blog; in anthologies: Paris, Etc., Pushing the Envelope: Epistolary Poems, and 30 Years of Corner of the Mouth; and in multiple journals. Poetry awards: Lillian Dean and Spirit First. A retired psychologist, she lives in San Luis Obispo, California and volunteers as a grief counselor at Hospice, SLO. Her poems can be seen at http://jeaniegreensfelder.blogspot.com.
 
Cynthia Hoffman is a daughter of Jewish refugees. Her early childhood years among the immigrant communities of L.A.'s Boyle Heights, are rich memories she draws upon. Happily retired, she participates in a writing group in Orinda, California. where she first shared her writing and found her voice. Hoffman writes poetry and prose, fiction and creative non-fiction. This is her first published poem.
 
Tricia Knoll is an Oregon poet whose work appears in numerous anthologies and journals. Her chapbook Urban Wild features interactions between humans and wildlife in urban habitat. Her new book, Ocean's Laughter is named after Pablo Neruda’s question Do you not also sense danger in the sea’s laughter? Ocean's Laughter combines lyric and eco-poetry to look at change over time in a small town on Oregon's north coast, Manzanita. Knoll gardens, dances, hula hoops, tweets a haiku, and walks a lethargic dog nearly daily. Website: triciaknoll.com Twitter: @triciaknollwind
 
Lori Levy’s poems have appeared in numerous literary journals and anthologies in the U.S., England and Israel. In October, 2013, she was featured in the Aurorean as one of their “Showcase Poets,” and her health-related poems have been published in medical and medical humanities journals, including a hybrid (poetry/prose) piece she co-authored with her father, a physician. She lives with her husband in Los Angeles, but “home” has also been Vermont and Israel. Besides writing, she thoroughly enjoys being a grandmother to her three little grandchildren.
 
Bonnie Lyons retired in May, 2014, with emeritus status from the University of Texas in San Antonio. She finally silenced her inner critic in 1996 and began to write poetry. She has published two full-length books of poetry: In Other Words (Pecan Grove, 2004) and Bedrock(Pecan Grove, 2011) and three chapbooks: Hineni, Meanwhile, and So Far (Finishing Line Press, 2003, 2005, 2014). Her current project is WOW: Wonderful Old Women, a book of interviews with San Antonio women over 80.
 
Eileen Malone's poetry has been published in over 500 literary journals and anthologies, a significant amount of which have earned awards, i.e., three Pushcart nominations. Her award winning collection Letters with Taloned Claws was published by Poets Corner Press (Sacramento) and her book I Should Have Given Them Water was published by Ragged Sky Press (Princeton). She lives in the coastal fog at the edge of the San Francisco Bay Area where she directs the Soul-Making Keats Literary Competition she founded over twenty years ago and still directs today.
 
Catherine McGuire is a writer/artist with a deep interest in nature, human and otherwise. She's had poems published for three decades in publications such as New Verse News, FutureCycle, Portland Lights, Fireweed, and on a bus for Poetry In Motion. She has taught workshops around Oregon. Her chapbook, Palimpsests, was published by Uttered Chaos in 2011 and her first full-length book of poetry, Elegy for the 21st Century, will be published by FutureCycle Press in 2016. She has three self-published chapbooks.
 
Avid cyclist, grandmother of five and End of Life Counselor, Nancy L. Meyer lives in Portola Valley, California. Sitting with a blank page is her greatest thrill and terror. She has been published in Colorado Review, Tupelo Quarterly 3, Bitterzoet, Poet’s Touchstone and Wordland, as well as five anthologies. Meyer has poetry forthcoming in Bitterzoet webzine and Kneel Downe’s Stolen Indie. She was a finalist in the New Orleans Poetry Festival 2016.
 
Nan Rush is a founding member of the Lehigh Valley, Pennsylvania Feminist Writers Guild. She has been published in Rolling Stone, Poets On, Thirteen, Nebo and Torrid Journal, among others. In 2012, her poetry sequence “I Dress in Red” appeared in the memoir anthology Impact, and her poem “Schoolgirl” was published in the Adrienne Rich tribute anthology published by Split Oaks Press. She has completed a fantasy novel and is working on a memoir. You can read her occasional blog, “Culture Spin,” at thenanplan.blogspot.com. Rush recently moved from Seattle to the East Mountains outside Albuquerque.

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6 thoughts on “Poetry from the Western States

  1. Penny Hackett-Evans

    Oh, I really appreciated Act 2, scene2… reaching through the fence of subject and verb. Such a good poem about poetry. Thank you!

  2. Cynthia Leslie-Bole

    Cynthia Hoffman’s piece is so vivid yet understated that it had a stealth impact on me. It wormed its way into my psyche using the vehicle of the image of the mother’s elbows plunging and rising like wings—so beautiful, so real and transcendent at the same time! Thank you for touching me through your poetry, Cynthia.

    1. Shari Nagy

      I loved City Terrace, East Los Angeles, 1952 for its elegance and the way it so perfectly paints a time and place. Ultimately I found it to be quietly moving and very poignant. I look forward to reading more of Cynthia Hoffman’s work!

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