The Center for Poetry opened in the fall of 2007 to encourage the reading, writing, and discussion of poetry and to create an awareness of the place and power of poetry in our everyday lives. We think about this in a number of ways, including through readings, shows, community outreach, and workshops. We are at work building a poetry community at MSU and in the greater Lansing area.
Acting director Laurie Hollinger on her choice for this week’s poem: “In observance of Veterans Day, I sought out poems by those who served. Here is a poem by Jenny Linn Loveland. Born in Tokyo, Japan, and raised in an Air Force family, Loveland grew up in Fairfield, CA near Travis Air Force Base. Commissioned at UC-Berkeley (1975), she was among the first women allowed to enter ROTC, and she is a retired Air Force Lt. Colonel and a Gulf War Veteran. Having raised two children, she lives in Williamsburg, Virginia, where she teaches, paints, writes, and conducts writing seminars for veterans affiliated with The Armed Services Arts Partnership and Hunter Holmes McGuire Veterans Medical Center. She belongs to The Poetry Society of Virginia, The Hampton Roads Veterans Writers Group, and writers’ groups in Richmond. She is working on a collection of poems and short stories about family, service, recovery, and joy.”
for veterans of
Iraq and Afghanistan
whenever I see a yard
not fenced in, freshly trimmed, I notice the fire-red
hydrant, talons out stretched all directions
whenever I hear sprinklers
tick and pulse, the stop-start whir of scythes
bicycling against tall grass mowed
I taste lush green shadows the hoses
left, breathe the newly sliced grass, filaments
rising, the dandelion manes shorn, and the summer’s flotsam
malingering behind the wheel
to scalding air-soaked deserts, molten
carpets of tar and dark odors where F-16’s
metal blades blasting night, shift orange
flicking Bedouin shadows,
whenever I see a yard unfenced,
I clench, keep to the wheel and drive
through worry, past
the tread marks, past
grit and sweat, past
the neighbors sipping beer.
First published in The Art of War, the War on the Rocks’ online defense journal, December 18, 2015, then in A Common Bond: A Veterans Chapbook, 2016.
A review by RCAH Center for Poetry founding director Anita Skeen
On Thursday evening, October 10, 2019, as I was on my way to teach in the annual Fall Writing Festival at Ghost Ranch in Abiquiu, NM, I stopped in Oklahoma City to visit with poet Jane Taylor, a longtime friend and fellow Ghost Ranch teacher, and to attend the opening reception for a project she had been working on for some time with visual artist Jane Wheeler. Jane 2 Jane, these two women called their work together. This project grew out of their desire to explore their separate art forms and to see what they might discover hidden around them in their neighborhoods. Jane Taylor explains: “The seeds and source material for this collaboration could have been any authentic neighborhood through which we drive, and perhaps, fail to look deeply. We chose to focus on the streets that make up Commonwealth Urban Farm because of its diversity, farm aesthetic, and food-sustaining routines, plus the swarm of love in yards and alley ways.” The project came to be called Defining Commonality: a Handmade Dictionary.
The opening, with a wonderful reception that included wine, varieties of fruits and pastries, and the actual art works themselves, was held at Full Circle Books, a labyrinth of an independent bookstore in Oklahoma City known for hosting readings and exhibits. When Jane (T.) said to me early in the evening, “I hope someone besides you and my family comes,” I laughed for two reasons, the first being that all of us who are artists and poets are always fearful that we will be the only ones at our reading or exhibition, and secondly because Jane and Jane are widely known throughout the Oklahoma City area for their remarkable creative talents and commitment to what Jane (T.) calls, “our communal eco-heart.” Jane (T.) and I arrived early at the bookstore to be sure that things would be ready to go at 7:30 when the exhibit opened.
Here I should stop and say what the exhibit consisted of, which were Jane (T.)’s poems and Jane (W.)’s photographs. Jane (W.) wrote in her photographer’s statement, “When photographing, I strive to slow down and notice, being open and receptive without bias. What appears may be order in an unordered place. It may be seemingly incongruent bits which together yield unexpected delights. It may be well-worn beauty. It isn’t, however, the eye-popping images which are traditionally defined as beautiful.”
I know that Jane and Jane pondered the many ways this exhibit could be mounted. Should they hang the photos and poems together, side by side, on a wall? Should the photographs be framed? What about the poetry? Should the works be placed on a table? Should they all be collected in a book? If so, what size?
What we found as we wandered through the exhibit and pondered the works was a true collaboration. Jane (T.) had, over a period of time, collected old hardbound dictionaries and removed their innards, cutting out all the pages and leaving only boards and spine. When Jane (T.), a former reference librarian, gave her opening remarks at the gathering, she said that, as she held the box cutter in her hand and disemboweled the books, she was sure she would end up in Library Jail somewhere. Then, as you will see from the photos here, she placed the poem on the left-hand side of the book and the photo on the right side. Thus, you saw a book and an artwork at the same time. I purchased one of these creations. The cover stated it was An American Heritage dic-tion-ary of THE ENGLISH LANGUAGE, black with gold lettering, and when opened, this poem faced you on the left hand side:
From Middle English: to fix, be firm
Let them know us by our structures
Mounds, rakes, bales, chips, pruning.
Driving by, may they look with fertile mind.
Frame us close or wide.
Hum along to our hoop music.
Hear us fiddle in the February wind.
On the right side of the page was a photograph of the hoop house at Commonwealth Farms, a grey winter sky spilling out overhead, the hoop house almost translucent in the winter light, a look through the open doorway into lettuce or some other bright green crop, tree trunks and sticks, and plywood and metal strewn around outside. It was, as Jane (W.) wrote, “well-worn beauty.” Poem and photo were mounted in the boards with transparent photo corners, the kind that those of you my age will remember from the family albums we stored in or drawers or closets. The poem and photo rose when the binding was opened, came off the page, unhindered by trappings.
Exhibited throughout the bookstore were fifteen of these artistic collaborations. Six were sold that first night, and all the chairs that had been set up were filled, with folks left standing by the strawberries and cantaloupe sampling them as Jane and Jane each spoke a few words about their collaboration before we, the audience, were free to wander to the fireplace mantel, library table, or wherever the dictionaries had been placed. Jane (T.) read two poems and had two friends each read one of the poems. I wanted more. More poems. I wanted to hear all of the poems, and in Jane’s voice, before I wandered through the collection to see photo and poem. Because the exhibit was crowded with people (yes, Jane, others besides your family did come!) it was hard to spend much time with each individual art work. But after the talk and reception were over, chairs were folded, and leftover delicacies divided up and sent home, the dictionaries remained in place for patrons of Full Circle to view for a while in the future.
As a writer who values and actively tries to collaborate, I was so impressed with what Jane and Jane had done. I would encourage all of you who read this, regardless of your art form, to think of collaborating with another artist on a project. “The idea of collaborating with a poet had been simmering in my mind,” wrote Jane Wheeler, “before Jane Taylor and I started talking about the idea…. As I began to explore with the camera and the collaboration with Jane, I found that she saw things in the images that I didn’t see. And through her poetry she defined the melding of our media and highlighted how the minutia of a place is part of the bond we have with nature.” Finally, in the conclusion to her artist’s statement, Jane Taylor offered us this: “The life cycles on which we depend were always at the heart of my poems. For that life-affirming energy, and the music/light of Jane’s photos, I am grateful and happy to offer this work.”
Center for Poetry intern, Jayla Harris-Hardy chose this week’s poem. Here’s what she had to say: “This obviously isn’t a very upbeat poem, but I think it’s necessary right now considering the current racial climate of the university. Official emails have been sent out to the students about “possible” incidents of racial bias, some specifically targeted towards black students. As a black person with a decent amount of common sense and an understanding of some people’s worst prejudices, I saw these incidents as threats against the safety of many of the people of color at the university. These incidents don’t seem to be taken as seriously by those in charge, which of course angered a lot of already angry students. I think the student body, and more specifically, the students of color need to stand unified in these and future events in order to hold each other up and keep everyone afloat in dangerous tides. It’s difficult being a person of color, and I think our readers can see a glimpse of that in the poem, and how it’s also still something to celebrate.”
What Shall I Tell My Children Who Are Black (Reflections of an African-American Mother)
What shall I tell my children who are black
Of what it means to be a captive in this dark
What shall I tell my dear one, fruit of my
Of how beautiful they are when everywhere they
They are faced with abhorrence of everything
that is black.
Villains are black with black hearts.
A black cow gives no milk. A black hen lays no
Bad news comes bordered in black, black is
And evil is black and devils’ food is black…
What shall I tell my dear ones raised in a
A place where white has been made to represent
All that is good and pure and fine and decent.
Where clouds are white, and dolls, and heaven
Surely is a white, white place with angels
Robed in white, and cotton candy and ice cream
and milk and ruffled Sunday dresses
And dream houses and long sleek cadillacs
And angel’s food is white…all, all…white.
What can I say therefore, when my child
Comes home in tears because a playmate
Has called him black, big lipped, flatnosed
and nappy headed? What will he think
When I dry his tears and whisper, “Yes,
But no less beautiful and dear.”
How shall I lift up his head, get him to
His shoulders, look his adversaries in the
Confident of the knowledge of his worth,
Serene under his sable skin and proud of his
What can I do to give him strength
That he may come through life’s adversities
As a whole human being unwarped and human in a
Of biased laws and inhuman practices, that he
Survive. And survive he must! For who knows?
Perhaps this black child here bears the genius
To discover the cure for…Cancer
Or to chart the course for exploration of the
So, he must survive for the good of all
He must and will survive.
I have drunk deeply of late from the
Of my black culture, sat at the knee and
From Mother Africa, discovered the truth of my
The truth, so often obscured and omitted.
And I find I have much to say to my black
I will lift up their heads in proud blackness
With the story of their fathers and their
Fathers. And I shall take them into a way back
of Kings and Queens who ruled the Nile,
And measured the stars and discovered the
Laws of mathematics. Upon whose backs have
The wealth of continents. I will tell him
This and more. And his heritage shall be his
And his armor; will make him strong enough to
Any battle he may face. And since this story
Often obscured, I must sacrifice to find it
For my children, even as I sacrificed to feed,
Clothe and shelter them. So this I will do for
If I love them. None will do it for me.
I must find the truth of heritage for myself
And pass it on to them. In years to come I
Because I have armed them with the truth, my
Center for Poetry intern Charlotte Krause chose this week’s poem. Here’s what she had to say: “I chose this poem because I think it is a super fun and iconic poem for fall and especially Halloween. Shakespeare plays a huge part in how we think about witches today, and I think that this specific poem from Macbeth is just so fun. It’s full of spooky imagery that’s perfect for the season.”
Song of the Witches: “Double, double toil and trouble”
Double, double toil and trouble;
Fire burn and caldron bubble.
Fillet of a fenny snake,
In the caldron boil and bake;
Eye of newt and toe of frog,
Wool of bat and tongue of dog,
Adder’s fork and blind-worm’s sting,
Lizard’s leg and howlet’s wing,
For a charm of powerful trouble,
Like a hell-broth boil and bubble.
Double, double toil and trouble;
Fire burn and caldron bubble.
Cool it with a baboon’s blood,
Then the charm is firm and good.
Macbeth: IV.i 10-19; 35-38
Source: The Random House Book of Poetry
for Children (1983)
Center for Poetry intern, Kaylee McCarthy, chose this week’s poem. Here’s what she had to say about it: “Tess Gallagher’s voice is luminous as she explores agency and choice. Through lush imagery and ambiguous perspective, she conveys the surreal quality of being in stasis in a changing world. ‘Willingly’ shifts effortlessly between dreaming and waking, painting a scene of light and rebirth.”
When I get up he has been long at work, his brush limber against the house. Seeing him on his ladder under the eaves, I look back on myself asleep in the dream I could not carry awake. Sleep inside a house that is being painted, whole lifetimes now only the familiar cast of morning light over the prayer plant. This “not remembering” is something new of where you have been.
What was settled or unsettled in sleep stays there. But your house under this steady arm is leaving itself and you see this gradual surface of new light covering your sleep has the greater power. You think now you felt brush strokes or the space between them, a motion bearing down on you—accumulation of stars, each night of them arranging over the roofs of entire cities.
His careful strokes whiten the web, the swirl of woodgrain blotted out like a breath stopped at the heart. Nothing has changed you say, faithlessly. But something has cleansed you past recognition. When you stand near his ladder looking up he does not acknowledge you, and as from daylight in a dream you see your house has passed from you into the blessed hands of others.
This is ownership, you think, arriving in the heady afterlife of paint smell. A deep opening goes on in you. Some paint has dropped onto your shoulder as though light concealed an unsuspected weight. You think it has fallen through you. You think you have agreed to this, what has been done with your life, willingly.
Center for Poetry intern, Jillian Bowe, chose this week’s poem. Here’s what she had to say about it: “Olivia Gatwood is an unapologetic force bringing light to all the glory and frustration of being a girl. Her re-contextualization of the words “teen girl” in this piece, paired with her grace in captivating a stage, serves as a fresh reminder to those who minimize the validity of these girls and their lives that we are all, in some way, more “teen girl” than we think.”
Now is the time of year when bees
and eccentric. They fly fast and in cramped
loop-de-loops, dive-bomb clusters of conversants
in the bright, late-September out-of-doors.
I have found their dried husks in my clothes.
are dervishes because they are dying,
one last sting, a warm place to squeeze
a drop of venom or of honey.
After the stroke we thought would be her last
my grandmother came back, reared back and slapped
nurse across the face. Then she stood up,
walked outside, and lay down in the snow.
Two years later there is no other way
to say, we are waiting. She is silent, light
as an empty hive, and she is breathing.
you better free your mind
before they illegalize thought
there’s a war going on
the first casualty was truth
and it’s inside you
the universe is counting on our
that faith is more powerful than fear
and in that the shifting moment
we’ll all remember why we’re here
in a world where you’re
assassinated for having a dream
and the rich spend 9 billion a year to control our ideas
and visions are televised so things aren’t what they seem
we gotta believe
in a world where
there’s room enough for everyone
cause reality is made up of
7 billion thoughts
who made up their minds
of what’s real and what’s not
so I stopped believing
in false idols of war
greed and hate
is not worth my faith
my mind’s dedicated
my soul is devoted
and love is God
and God is truth
and truth is you
and you are me
and I am everything
and everything is nothing
and nothing is the birthplace of creation
and transformation is possible
and you are proof
we were born right now
for a reason
we can be whatever
we give ourselves the power to be
and right now we need
give what you most deeply desire
every moment you are choosing to live
or you are waiting
why would a flower hesitate to
now is the only moment
rain drop let go
become the ocean
possibility is as wide
as the space
to hold it