Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Tuesday Poem: From the Witch Series

Sue Cross

took herself out one day,
to the woods she’d been foraging in
for years, went out among the may-apples,
colts foot, burdock, lamb’s quarter,
plants she read , nature’s literature,
expanding her life beyond itself,
nurturing woods, medicinal woods –
learning all its secrets, riding the steady
wheel of the seasons, its comings and goings,
the small predictable bounties.

Woods she’d come to, after quitting nursing,
collecting for teas, elixirs, and tinctures,
taking other peoples’ children
on wild foods walks, collecting
watercress, nettles, ramps,
and in the spring, morels, their tiny
convoluted skulls peeping out among the roots.

I can hear her low voice, its sibilant consonants
and vowel melodies filling the afternoon shade
with the riches all around us, opening our eyes.

Herbalist, house wren,
small, watchful, and full of knowledge,
went out to the woods alone
one day, not long after her divorce,
stood at the edge of the deepest
rock ravine, and threw herself down.

Who knows how long she lay there,
awake and aware, as the raptors
went sliding overhead, how many
nights she watched them turn into stars?

Those of us who saw her
for the hero she was trying so hard to be,
hope new shoots feathered up
around her, unfurling a green caress,
that little birds gathered above her,
to sing her their sweetest songs.

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Tuesday Poem: "Book of Shadows" from the Witch Series

Book of Shadows

Her book. This book,
spanning all the time she’s been allotted.
All of them neatly folded and tucked
between two of its pages –

Father, so long Dad,
so long, his legs, his darkness,
hang(s) out bookmarking gloom.
All of it yellowed by beer,
river water running under the bridge
as he hurled himself down and slipped under.

Mother, hello Mother, saying goodbye,
her phantom breast, its tumor shadowing
a line across her chest. Her kitchen simmering
with delicious mystery, kindnesses from
strange men, her wild waitress friends.

Their separation, the chasms it multiplied --
his family’s disapproval, their withdrawal,
the brittle crackling facts of abandonment.

Catholic school, Sister This, Father That,
their stories about martyrs 
bloodying page after page,
the few teachers who took 
an interest in her, the poetry
she wrote, a string of A pluses 
strung up like prayer flags.

Witches she knew and admired.
Witches she loved and feared.
Animal familiars. Animal tutors and chaperones.
Dogs and cats, foxes, hares, elks, bears, elephants,
her fear of mice. Crows, always crows 
disposing of carrion, gathering 
shiny things, squawking at the moon.

Then the rituals, her intentions
floating away from her,
seeding the future, her hands tying knots
for stability, a candle burning against
the wall, the flash of residual ashes
that let her let go, Loved ones on
moonlit nights, as they hung
from high branches,
twisting on the breeze,
tiny outlines of dollies
bearing messages
to the underworld,
litanies of hope, yearning,
praise and blessed be.
Little parcels weighed down
by rocks underground,
what needed or wanted burying.

Spells for babies wanted by friends, for babies
who had to be given back before birth,
love spells, sweet mingling of cells 
as they decompose, healing 
tokens of friendship and admiration, 
talismans for courage or protection,
planted in tree trunks around her house,
spells chanted over water, over food to
enhance its nourishment, over little heads
while they’re fast asleep, spells to ease the body,
lift it away from pain.

All her optimism and acceptance tucked into
this book’s many leaves, her life a wheel
turned by the earth’s steady compass.

She can feel herself growing lighter,
as the shadows take on weight.
The wildness, the weediness in her,
the roots reaching out from between
its pages, all of it flimsy and fleeting.
The sun moves across each day
in a woman’s life, leaving behind
this dance of dark upon light.
It feels to her like enough.


Friday, February 26, 2016

Tuesday Poem: Another from the Witch Series

History: The Immolations

Imagine fifty thousand
women on fire at once,
illuminating the shifty
landscapes of time.

Fifty thousand queens
on thrones of cord wood
drenched in oil, then set ablaze,
as they gaze at the men who despise them.

Watch their feet blacken, then their legs,
pudenda, bellies, wombs, their breasts
and hearts, their mouths agape, screaming
into silence, arms with match head hands alight,
hands adept at catching babies, making balms,
tinctures, poultices, offering small comforts, spells
for rekindling hope, draughts of blessed forgetting.

Smell their hair burning. Know them
for what they were, and still are: grandmothers,
mothers, wives, daughters, spinsters, lesbians,
midwives, nuns, saints, wise women, healers,
inventors, women who speak up for others,
who have little care for obedience any more.

Take the ash of their sacrifice into yourself.
Understand it as the benediction,
you need right now, to carry on.
Imagine them strung across the horizon, 
brighter than all the stars.

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Tuesday Poem: Another from The Witch Series

               Collage by Romare Bearden
Conjure Woman

She’s got them all teetering on
the tips of her fingers, tiny as mice.
One flip of the wrist and all the men,
who ever tasted her; then turned 
their faces away, and all the men,
who drove them to ruination, 
go flying to who knows 
where, and who cares?

She holds them up in yellow
curtain light, watches them shift
their weight to keep from falling.
Each one of them knows what he’s
done or not done. It’s chilling them
to the bone to see she’s wearing her
haint blue dress. No more feathers,
no Adam and Eve root. That’s how
very much danger they’re in.

Outside, her bottle tree glistens,
as she squeezes them for good measure,
rolls them between her palms, before
laying them out like sardines
in the bottom of her reddest meanest box.

Thursday, January 14, 2016

Tuesday Poem: From The Witch Series


Dolls for stubbornness, their
heads made of smooth river stone.

Dolls for finding water, with
long dowser legs and splintered feet.

Dolls for snagging memories,
in teasel heads and little burr hands.

Nut eyes, leaf wings, bark body, red leaf fire

Dolls bound head to toe with string,
to make a lover cleave and cling.

Dolls sitting in little boats
spiriting nuisance people away.

Dolls full of pins, their
crisscross faces in pain.

A white shell face, wild grass hair, a toadstool bed

Straw dolls with their hair on fire
turning all worry to ash in the wind.

Wrap a doll safe in a mullein leaf, tuck in
milkweed seeds and a child returns from fever.

Nail a doll to a tree and watch grief twist in pain,
go brittle and crumble; each tiny loss a bit of letting go.

Friday, January 1, 2016

Tuesday Poem: A New Year, New Rhythms, New Witch Poem

Mirror Spell

You are a shape-shifter
and a storyteller.

You have spent many nights as crow
or snail or leaf waving in the wind,
for you are changeable and unafraid.

You have been hurt many times, oh, yes,
wrecked and ravaged, and then set free.

Your relatives think you crowd a room,
though you feel yourself tiny and bee-like.

Your heart’s ease sprouts from
the pine needled floor of the forest.

You can conjure love for every being,
whether flesh bound, leaf adorned,
petaled, antennaed or furred.

You carry every kiss, every compliment,
every lightening you ever walked away with,
in a little suitcase behind your eyelids.

Right now, you are long overdue
for a voyage on waves of bliss.

Just write your desires across the sky
in the swiftly moving alphabet of birds.

Monday, December 21, 2015

Tuesday Poem: From the Witch Series



I was the witch of Religion class,
because my hair curtained
my face, when I read aloud,
and when this nun interrupted me
to ask whattt? I didn’t get it,
and I repeated my version of
what, with its softer ending,
back to her three times,
until she turned red and said,
I was saying that word all wrong.

My T’s, back then, were Paterson T’s.
They fell short of the sound on purpose.
They were about a slow fade
which is better than the sudden
death this city was trying to avoid,
and so was I. What with no money
for college, the future was pretty uncertain.

But she insisted I hit those T’s
so hard, every time I got to a what
or a that in the Old Testament,
that I giggled throughout
my passage, which was
sacrilegious on top of ignorant.
That’s when she called me a witch.

So yeah, this felt like Gunsmoke,
and her bullets bounced right off of me, 
because I was a witch, a strega, in fact,
from a big Sicilian neighborhood.
I pictured her shredding her veil
every time she passed a nail, and
wished it so. Then I made myself
disappear for the rest of the year.
I scried into the future and knew
some day at a high school reunion
I would walk right past her,
and her little cowboy swagger,
as if none of us had ever been
afraid of her, as if she were
just a rerun on TV.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Tuesday Poem: Another from The Witch series

                                             Drawing by Rima Staines
Her voice curdled milk, her words hatcheting
the air around us, as we sat, big contemplative
lumps around the TV. She, the antithesis of ennui,
couldn't see the cloud hanging over us.
Forget sympathy. Too many things needed doing, 
shadows and creepings everywhere.

She put hexes on our father, for making too little,
and spending too much at the gin mill,
gave our mother venomous handouts,
drove her ashen with vexation,
cleaned our filthy house,
breathing incantations, rag in hand,
poking around with the vacuum wand,
spraying us all with Windex, and condemnation.

Only the baby was innocent.
To babies she was a smoocher, a laugher,
all goodness and light. At two it was all over;
they turned rogue, like the rest of us.

No candy houses to tempt us into cooperation.
Only vinegar, spitfire, a daily poison mushroom
to toughen body and spirit, a list of standards
that flew like a flag from the rooftop,
and orders barked out by the hour,
with a minute hand’s patience.

If we didn’t jump, she was a stubby cyclone,
doing whatever it was herself, then calling us
names until we wanted to hurt her too,
to startle her into silence, until she threatened
to put her head in the oven unless we let up.

She pushed, and we pushed back, until she went
blind at the sight of us. Then we haunted her
like the ghosts we’d become, howling with
laughter as she went about her rituals, sewing
God knows what into our clothes, as she 
did the mending, stirring the steaming
cauldron, or wielding her broom.

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Tuesday Poem: A Bit Off-kilter: From The Witch Series

Ritual Against Separation

Take one of her leopard
print high heels, and one of his
long seldom worn dress shoes.

Hang them out the bedroom window
on the extra clothesline from the shed,
so they dance in the breeze.

Once a week, pull them up, hand over hand,
so you can stuff more hair into each toe box,
hair you’ve been collecting from his hairbrush,
her hairbrush, stuffing his into her shoe,
hers into his, then lint from each of their
sweaters, and any loose threads you can pull
when you hang their wash on the line.

Each time, lower them down
a little closer to the bushes limning
the house, until you see a swirl of
grass beginning, soon mosses
and feathers too, mingling
with parental flotsam, each shoe
transformed into an aerie house
for tiny eggs that will give birth
to baby birds, all beak and need,
their cries a tenderness, a sun burst,
a glitter cascade, almost unbearable
in the fullness of its gladness.

Watch the parents guard them,
feed them, and teach them
how to fly, their larger bodies
dipping below, and bumping up
the smaller, until the currents catch
them and they glide. Call your
father Carolina Wren, House 
Sparrow, Nuthatch, call your mother his
mate. Tie the ropes in a triple
knot, and hope for the best.

Friday, July 31, 2015

Tuesday Poem: from Firefly, Brightly Burning

Was It A Crow You Saw?

Or a priest as you flew down the highway,
his black cassock waving in the cold air?
And you picked him up, didn’t you,
with his pack and his traveler’s hunch
although you never really slowed down?
You picked him up imagining the possibilities
he carried with him: where he was going
with his young face, his anointed hands.
What hand moves him along?
Is it the same hand that moves you,
that moves the deer to leap
across the highway and be killed?
That gives you the blessing of horses
lying at ease in the chill, haloed by the steam
before winter chases them into the barn?
Ah, but then you catch yourself.
Who said it had to be a hand?
It could just as well be tentacles, or a claw.
It could be an oozing polymer, you haven’t a clue.
And maybe what you saw was a crow after all.
This game you’ve been playing
makes you hungry, doesn’t it?
Too bad his pack is empty;
all that he carried now circling
darkly in your head.

The poems in Firefly, Brightly Burning were written and compiled over many years. When I first put the manuscript together, it seemed like a patchwork of unlike things, perhaps because it contains a number of serial pieces. I tended to see those as discrete from the other work I was doing. Many of the poems come from a fictional, narrative impulse, though certainly not all. The Anna God poems, in particular, were instigated by a photo in the newspaper of a college girl asleep on a couch in a triangle of sunlight. Her name was, yes, you guessed it, Anna God. Some of her poems come from my direct experiences as a teacher at a university, one comes from an incredible newspaper story, and one from reading Lorca. Nevertheless, one's own concerns have a way of sneaking in despite our intentions,  don't they? 

Recently, I read a quote from Melissa Pritchard's book, A Solemn Pleasure: To Imagine, Witness, And Write, that, "art [is] a form of active prayer." That seems true of this book, which moves from frustration with organized religion, and the way it fails women, in particular, to direct glimpses or experiences of the divine that have been there all along.