It’s January; Let’s Think About Gardening












Last summer’s garden; for contrast with the last post, and so you can feel my particular pain as I await a weekend Nor’easter. At least the gardens will get an extra blanket for next week’s deep freeze. As it is now they’re mostly covered with ice. My particular favorite is the salmon poppy (above.) And didn’t the roses put on quite a show last year? I’m so desperate to garden that I cut four African violet leaves and set them to root in a planter on my mantel; they look very perky and determined. I’ve compiled a little syllabus of gardening books to get those of you through who are in the same boat. But, don’t forget, there are always seed catalogues and daydreaming.

Gardening Books to Get You Through

Unknown Slow Flowers by Debra Prinzig

Unknown The Layered Garden by David L Culp

51XTeDP6iQL._AA160_Ghosts in the Garden by Beth Kephart

UnknownThe Living Landscape by Dick Darke and Doug Tallamy

Unknown The Flower Farmer by Lynn Byczynski

Unknown Hellebores by C. Colston Burrell and Judith Knott Tyler

Unknown Gertrude Jekyll and the Country House Garden by Judith B. Tankard

Unknown The Wild Garden by William Robinson

Unknown Sissinghurst; Vita Sackville-West and the Creation of a Garden by Vita Sackville-West and Sarah Raven

The Sun That Doesn’t Warm
















In my four decades of New England winters I have learned one thing- the only cure for cabin fever is to get outside. I’m not talking a mad dash from car to steamy-windowed local cafe with its comforting sounds of milk frothing. I mean an honest-to-goodness, bundled up, embracing the elements walk, a nature walk in single degree temperatures with wind, a walk that will numb your face but warm up the rest of you. Call it exercise (your body does get an extra workout just trying to keep warm) call it communing with nature. I call it the last resort. After a string of cloudy, morose days of half-hearted walks, this morning dawned brilliantly sunny and, as if that wasn’t enough, sparkly! The trees looked as though they’d been set upon with glitter. Each branch was furred with good-sized ice crystals and the sun wasn’t melting anything soon. I took my camera out and tried to capture some of the dazzle. I’m a point and shoot kind of photographer, any cool angles are the result of my own contortions in the quest for the perfect photo. I bent, squatted, leaned, fell (not so gracefully) and skidded around on back and  stomach. After an hour of truly communing with snow and ice my face and fingers were numb, my hat missing, my lungs maybe damaged from crystallization, but I’d made some crazy looking snow angels and my cabin fever was gone.

Writing Prompt Snobbery

Unknown Egyptian Hieroglyphs

I admit, I’m a writing prompt snob. I don’t know how many ‘prompt a day’ type books I have bought (no names mentioned) that sit on the shelf after I flip through and discard such suggestions as ‘write a poem about your first day of kindergarten’ or begin a poem with ‘haste makes waste’. Really? With a cliche? Poetry prompts consisting of a phrase: ‘bucket list’, ‘fall leaves’, ‘all I ever wanted’ (go!) leave me cold. I’d rather begin with the Egyptian hieroglyphs above; actually I have done that. Or this:gbswac4oyoz9i1jmfyzw

The caption described this photo as the aftermath of a wax museum fire (go!); now that’s more like it. Or this:311632.tif

A class of blind children at New York’s American Museum of Natural History in 1926. I love how the children are exploring and caressing the animals, maybe unaware of the ferocious poses of their taxidermy.

Besides odd photos and hieroglyphs, I love to use technical manuals: a clockmaker’s guide, pipe fitter’s manual; and terms like civil twilight and nature permanence; I found the latter, with definition, in one of my files, but was not able to find a reference for it again. I used it anyway. Maybe I made it up, all the better. I intended to give this prompt, which can also be found on the Found Poetry Review site, I’m really loving their prompts page. I took that particular prompt, a six page list of phrases most often encountered by beginning readers, and pasted it into a word document. Because it was originally in PDF, many of the phrases got mashed together, creating some pretty cool juxtapositions. My strategy was a combination of erasure and free association. I jumped around between the six pages and came up with a sparse two-page poem that may contain a few of the original phrases. The prompt lured a poem from my subconscious, a poem which may not have been written otherwise, certainly not in that format. It was the generative process at its best; and that’s what a great prompt can do. Amen.

I recently stumbled upon a list of phobias. The list seems pretty comprehensive to me. Who knew there were people afraid of plants: botanophobia or gaiety: cherophobia. I took a few, somewhat related phobias, then branched out into compulsions, which resulted in the following poem. Check out the phobia list and pick a few for your own poem.

I’ll be leading some unsuspecting workshop participants through writing exercises like these at my Found Poetry Project workshop in early June. There are still spaces available; the workshop won’t be just a sit-in-your-chair-and-write affair, we’ll be wandering, eavesdropping, free associating all over the place and, finally, using a little Mod Podge because it’s Squam after all. Here’s my phobia poem:

You Are Not Grass

The last wild passenger pigeon was called

‘Buttons’ because the mother of the boy who shot it,

stuffed the bird and sewed black buttons for eyes.

People with Ekbom Syndrome imagine

they’re infested with mites.

It’s possible the entire Buttons family

developed Ekbom,

an aspect of which is Folie à Deux

(madness between two) where another person

living with the sufferer develops symptoms—

as in an actual infestation.

All wild things have kleptophobia:

the fear of being stolen, as well

as cleithrophobia: the fear of being trapped.

I did, after the divorce and my mother began dating—

fear of being adopted by a man

wearing slacks and brown saddle shoes, (automaton

ophobia?) who winked at me and promised to return

my mother at a decent hour. Whose accent

was Midwestern, who pronounced his R’s

so long they became words in their own right,

words at the ends of words; his R’s

like grappling hooks, like a crocodile-

purse with yellow eyes.

Why is the fear of being trapped a clinical phobia,

while the compulsion to slit and stuff a thing

not listed in the DSM?

Nature permanence is the healthy acceptance

that you are not grass but human, beneficial

if you suffer from hylophobia, fear of trees,

not so helpful if you have Cotard delusion

and know you’re not only human, but a corpse.

Related to Cotard is xenomelia: the feeling

that one’s limbs don’t belong to the body,

chirophobia: fear of hands, and worse apotemnophilia,

where a person disowns the limbs,

yearns to live life as an amputee: la liberte de l’auto

(freedom from self).

Why the insistence that an animal

have black buttons, yellow marbles, key holes

for eyes? that its entrails be replaced

with horsehair and rags? that the peppery dots

swarming the blanket aren’t mites? What are the chances

that a man who flashes his teeth when he talks

doesn’t bite? To fear is animal.

To create out of fear must be human—

slits to let the mites out, stuffing

the last wild passenger pigeon

because it’s the last, tweezing steel shot

like beautiful beadwork out of its breast. Phantom limbs

when real hands become too dangerous.

Ekphrasis and Technology


Pemaquid Point Lighthouse Webcam January 4, 6:30 a.m.

Ekphrasis: a literary description of or commentary on a visual work of art.

Origin of EKPHRASIS: Greek ekphrasis, literally, description, from ekphrazein to recount, describe, from ex- out + phrazein to point out, explain. First Known Use: 1715 (Merriam-Webster)

I believe there’s another blog post about ekphrasis kicking around here somewhere. Most of my ekphrastic poems begin with vintage photos, or Andrew Wyeth paintings. I think poets love ekphrasis because it gives us a starting point (a not blank page, not blank canvas)  and many poets naturally respond to image. Photos and paintings are more closely related to poetry than any of the other art forms, they’re literally snapshots, encapsulated scenes, flashes of image and insight; just like poems.  There’s a certain mystery in a photo: what’s happening outside the frame, what happened just before the photo was taken, just after, and what’s the story in the scene itself, not just the literal story but the metaphorical one. Lately I’ve been kind of addicted to the Pemaquid Point Lighthouse webcam at Pemaquid Point in Maine. I’ve visited many times so when I look at the still image ‘refreshed every five minutes’ I can imagine the landscape, the topography, and how it feels to sit on the lawn pretending I live there. So, the poem I wrote about this experience, ‘Webcam’ is a kind of contemporary angle on the ekphrastic poem. What’s funny is that the still webcam image became a kind of painting, a piece of art, when viewed metaphorically. The other day around dusk, the camera caught the lighthouse beacon in full flare. It looked like the entire top of the lighthouse was on fire (I’m feeling a little breathless just remembering it).

The challenge: consider a piece of technology as you would a painting, this could be purely a visual output of a technological device, like a webcam image or a google street view image, it could be the device itself. I heard the other day that a hospital in Boston has one of its new high-tech operating rooms viewable online. I guess the point is to see the classic lines, the artfulness and the story, all things inherent in Art, within the technological- that thing we often deride as soulless.


the image will automatically refresh every five minutes


At 5 am Pemaquid Point Lighthouse may be dark,

the webcam image a black square, but I know

the ocean’s right there, if I could hear it,

260 miles distant, beating against the striations

of iconic rock. I’m not sure why the light goes dark,

if it’s on a timer like the webcam and their syncopation’s off.

On other days at 5 am the light, as they say, is a beacon;

casts its bluish haze over the ground, as they say,

sweeping, but which looks to me like an ultrasound,

the light in its center a fetus.

With each refresh day advances. I usually miss

that moment dawn because it happens in the interval

and I suspect the webcam’s five minutes is closer to ten.

The sky is dark, the sky is light.

There’s the rough outcrop, the whitewashed lighthouse

anchored in rock but tipped toward the silver, viscous ocean.

In one frame the scene is nature’s, then there’s a man,

standing on the yellow grass, looking up

for no reason. He stays that way five minutes,

more or less.


Pemaquid Point Lighthouse Webcam January 5, 7:57 a.m.

On the 2015 Bookshelf


Some books on my 2015 bookshelf; I’ll list by genre and say a few words about each. Not all are new or even newish. They’re recent discoveries or books I’ve wanted to read and plan to tackle in 2015. Reviews may result!


Unknown-3 The Loft by Marlen Haushofer.  A couple posts ago I briefly reviewed some of my 2014 reads, among them Haushofer’s The Wall. I’m still thinking about it. Haushofer writes isolated women coming to terms with their circumstances; past and present. In The Loft, a sixties housewife begins to receive pages from her old diaries in the mail. After finishing the housework for the day, she retreats to the loft to read the pages and then burns them. Sounds simple and I’m sure the simplicity will be a big part of its genius.

Unknown-4This House is Haunted by John Boyne. Written in the style of a classic nineteenth-century ghost story. Set in 1867 in Britain, the storyline involves a grand hall, a governess, unsupervised children. I’ve never read anything by John Boyne but this sounds promising.

Unknown-5 Dora Bruder by Patrick Modiano. The French Modiano won the Nobel Prize in 2014. It’s unclear from reviews if this is a novel or piece of investigative non fiction. It’s the story of a girl gone missing in early 1940s Germany, who later appeared on a list of Jews deported to Auschwitz. One of the mysteries is why she ran away from the family hiding her.

Unknown The Green Road by Anne Enright. I loved Enright’s The Gathering, don’t know why it received such mixed reviews. This one is set in Ireland and covers 30 years in the life of a family from County Clare, specifically the matriarch.

Unknown-6 The Country Girls Trilogy by Edna O’Brien. Lingering in Ireland for a moment; two Irish country girls take the big city (Dublin) by storm. Love, Passion and heartbreak ensue.

Unknown-1 A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra. Set in a rural village in Chechnya, an eight-year-old is left orphaned and homeless when Russian soldiers abduct her father and set fire to her house. She and an older neighbor make their way to an abandoned hospital, seeking help from a doctor who still treats the wounded. The novel takes place over five days, during which the lives and the futures of the three become intertwined.


Unknown-2Maid as Muse by Aife Murray. The story of the relationships between Emily Dickinson and her servants; and how those servants made it possible for Dickinson to become the iconic poet we know. FYI: After Dickinson died, in her 60’s, it was the Irish servants who carried her coffin from the Dickinson homestead, through the fields (now a neighborhood) behind the house to the cemetery where she rests beside her parents and sister Lavinia.

Unknown-7 Gracefully Insane by Alex Beam. Biography of the mental asylum McLean Hospital, from 1817 to the present. The history of the institution and some of its illustrious guests, as well as the romanticism of ‘madness’ in the nineteenth century as opposed to the stigma of mental illness today make this worth the read.

Unknown-8 Merry Hall by Beverly Nichols. And now for something completely different…. Written after WWII, Merry Hall and the two books in the series that follow fall into that category of witty British garden writing. It’s a very narrow genre, and I love it! This first book in the series recounts Nichols’ adventures buying a Georgian country house with five acres. Both the garden and the house are in a bit of a shambles but that’s exactly what Nichols wants. He also inherits a stodgy gardener and some interesting neighbors. I’ll be reading the whole series.


Unknown Blood Lyrics by Katie Ford. Ford’s writing can be a little pretentious for me at times, a little blue blood, but that doesn’t mean I won’t find something to like.

“I lie still, play dead, am delivered decree:
our daughter weighs seven hundred dimes,
paperclips, teaspoons of sugar,
this child of grams”

Unknown Once in the West by Christian Wiman. I love Wiman’s essays, both My Bright Abyss and Ambition and Survival: Becoming a Poet are phenomenal.

“Memories mercies
mostly aren’t
but there were
I swear
veined with grace”

Unknown-1 Trances of the Blast by Mary Ruefle. I love Ruefle’s poetry and essays. Also check out her essay collection Madness, Rack and Honey. As you can see, the lines below are completely different from the other poets.

“I think the tree is very much turned on
I can feel its sticky sap rising in my eyes
Its sticky sap is in my eyes
I do not think the tree wishes it were dead
I think the baby is very much turned on
Look baby a birdie in the tree
Say bye-bye birdie now go out and get a job
My job is writing poems and reading them to a cloud”

Unknown-2 The Poem She Didn’t Write and Other Poems by Olena Kalytiak Davis. Bawdy, brash, honest, sharp and super smart. Davis loves the contradictions inherent in language, she exposes the weaknesses in language, slyly mocks the poetry establishment, turns the reader into her muse, lover, herself; and always writes the poems she wants to write. If you think all poetry is tame and academic and have never read a sex scene in a poem, check out Davis.

when she stopped

began in winter and, like everything else, at first, just waited for spring
in spring noticed there were lilac branches, but no desire,
no need to talk to any angel, to say: sky, dooryard, _______,
when summer arrived there was more, but not much
nothing really worth noting
and then it was winter again—nothing had changed: sky, dooryard, ________, white,
frozen was the lake and the lagoon, some froze the ocean
(now you erase that) (you cross that out)
and so on and so forth . . .”