BLIND CONTOUR DRAWING
breast baby blanket unblinking
you on one side our daughter
on the other an attentiveness
of hummingbird to trumpet
vine her greedy honeysuckle
suckling your greedy flickering
eyes as you drew us drew us
to you without ever looking away
from me one continuous line
breast baby breast blanket blessing
Somewhere under that bass boat is where her
Garden grew, beds thick with thyme, cat-tongues
Of catmint, and pansies there for nothing
But deep pleasure from their velvet faces.
Gran says to me, “You value that tap water.”
Dawns, she’d plod to the pump, then haul water
Downhill, past the cemetery where her
Confederate dead lay buried, where her
Father and his father and his father’s
Father were baptized in the bend of Lost Creek,
Going in dry sinners, some of them coming
Up wet ones. They held lanterns, had moon and
Moonshine to light their paths. Gran says, “Now that
Indoor plumbing certainly surprised.” No more
Crescent-moon houses, no more rattlers
Coiled deep in kudzu, no more chiggers at her
Ankles along with her woolens. Over
That first ridge of pin oak and sycamore,
(Thirty feet underwater now), a sailboat scuds.
Its bright silks billow. Gran says, “Don’t
Hold your breath waiting on the government.”
She’s glad for the taps that turn cold to hot,
For the double sink, for the zinc stove, for
Electric cords knotted as ginseng roots.
Near nightfall, Gran pulls the lamp cord, says,
“Let there be light.” She says grace over fish, yet
What of floodlights that fill the dammed-up
Valley, what of drowned graves, lost creeks; what
Of churches (all of them Baptist now,
Converted by total immersion), what of
Tobacco barns and toolsheds
Sunk at the bottom of the man-made lake—
Gone with foundries, with memories
Of ax handle and plow tongue, wood plane and
Tobacco spike, soldier and Grandfather,
Garden and rosebush by the front gate—
And the front gate. I want to ask Gran, “What’s
The right phrase for forgive and not forget?”
Is it Eminent Domain? Rosemary
For Remembrance? Rue’s massed there in dirt
By her doorway, as out of place as that bleached-
Bone diurnal moon, clenched in the early
Afternoon haze hanging over the shore
Of Lake Barkley, knuckling under to the sun.
HERE LIES PAMELA
Flat on my back in grass—child’s bed,
Matelassé quilt —white roses, clipped,
Wait in wet newsprint beside me
(Scent of them infusing the want
Ads, the black hems of obituaries);
Your old hat covers my face.
This would be the best day for it:
Sunlight, sieved through straw,
Then spun to gold through windows
In the weave, prisms my eyelashes;
Pruning’s done, and in grass I’m
Languid, lying down alone as I
Have been over and over; once
Again I wish over me the earth
Would gently fold her fingers,
Would cover me in the basket
Of her hand, as I’ve held a firefly
At last light, a cold peridot lantern.
Halo of straw crowning my head,
Gold band cinching my finger,
Ring of your ashes round the garden.
Willingly, I’d be Persephone, gone
Into the nether land, grass bent
For a time to silhouette where
I was or wasn’t. Wrapped in words,
These roses, blossoms I scythed
For you, would wait, abandoned.
You come to me in a dream that’s a wash of grey over pen and ink lines (Koh-
I-Noor ones you loved to draw); you’re wearing your pearl-grey suit because
grey suits you; your hair curls like smoke, the way it did when you smoked,
you ask, Pamela, do you see me? I haven’t been this thin in years! You’re flat
black construction paper; silhouetted against the garden, a man twirling a cane
in a Kara Walker landscape; you tell me you’re perspective, you’re negative
space, you’re an old negative in an envelope of deckle-edged photos; the dark
triangles that will hold them in an album are scattered before you like so many
Escher birds; they will scatter and wing to the four corners of what has become
my earth, your berth. You’re insubstantial as ash at the end of a cigarette, still
suggesting a shape before it falls or before it’s tamped out in a tray; you’re
the rectangular box that holds your ashes, the starbursts of your bones; you’re
the alphabet of ash I scatter and then tamp into the garden; you have become
no more and no less than you wanted—H, E, P—you have become a man
of letters that you’ll never write; you have been swallowed by the shade
of the gingko and its fans, you have become caught in the dreadlocks of the
willow, in the needles of the pine and the thread of the garden spider as she
begins to spin her orb; you leave behind only a memory of your words—your
alphabets, your calligraphy—as I spill some more of your ashes around the
mulch-black bed of iris, faint furrows of day lilies, haloes around the trellis
twined with roses; these are the lines I imagine that I’ve penned and inked
as I walk widdershins in the garden, against the rotation of the seasons,
countering the clocks; as I dress in your black sweatshirt, in your black ball
cap; as I carry your shears, your scythe, your ashes, as I scatter more of you
north to south, south to north, right to left, left to right— till I am left to write.
To You, Whom It May Concern:
It’s raining (all the words for weather, how they gather); and I’m fretting about what I’ve left out—the gardening fork and the spade and the rake—as I sit here with a cup of coffee and an iron skillet I’ve had almost all my life, curled like an ammonite in my favorite kitchen chair, here at the old oak table, here in my midlife body with its familiar Tin Man creaks; the same ache in my hands as when we’d write for hours at this same table, how you’d rub the moons and boats till they sailed free in my wrists. And I think of the cups you gave me—this is one of them, its transferred flowers so like my hydrangeas which you called water flowers, their litmus blues and pinks—and I wonder whether this rain will savage or salvage their hangdog heads; how it was you who told me coffee grounds change their colors, and I think again of how you’d lower your head as you counted the iambs, tapping on your acid-washed thighs. Oh, Joe, unlike me you didn’t miss a beat.
Now that I’ve had a second cup of coffee (which is also joe, which might be a reason I’ve always liked that name), and I have screwed up so many things, including my caffeinated courage, I’ll do what I haven’t done in decades—I’ll send you a letter. I have never been able to write about you, but I can write to you, Joe, and I can’t help it now, words are dripping like water in the buckets we set out during storms in that leaky upstairs flat. And even though I’m thinking of all the reasons I shouldn’t be writing to you, all the things I have to tend to, I think maybe today I ought to recall the things you and I didn’t attend to, by the river, looking for arrowheads, before you lit out for school and how you promised you’d be back before it rained in hell. (Only you could pun on Milton; you’d read everything).
The world may be, as you once insisted, a magnet, and the sky, as I put it, dark as cast iron, and the rain that you showed me the trees by the river call down might flatten the corn (tassels blonde as you were) and the cornflowers (blue as you said my eyes were). And I truly have more sense than to stand out in the rain, waiting for Satan to start beating his wife; I was raised better, but I don’t care, something is pulling at me, and I want to be at the river’s edge, and I’m here in the kitchen wearing a pink and blue apron and imagining the Ohio as rain dimples the water.
And I think like the farmers and their Almanac say, we need this rain that’s drumming the roof (your fingers, drumming your thighs), because everything here’s been drier than the rooster tails your old Chevelle sent flying, as you pulled away, waving out the window, glasses glinting in the sun, and me shading my eyes against all that brightness and wondering what heat Florida has that Kentucky doesn’t. I remember the night before, how you’d counted the freckles on my nose; how the humidity and the ferric flecks in my blood drew me to you all the more, how the turntable played Rust Never Sleeps, and how we didn’t either, as we engaged in what the Baptists among us might call carnal and what you’d call total immersion.
And I’m thinking of all the letters that I wrote you, as you immersed yourself in poetry, and where they might be. Did you save them? Did you burn them? I know you read them, because I have your answers, and I have your theory of poetry—like the rake and the spade and the gardening fork, I have spread them out before me—the best part is what’s left out (to display, to hide), and I think of how we’d call poetry hide and see; and I don’t think we saw, dear, what was right in front of us, plain as the freckled nose on my face or the rattlesnake under the chokeberry; I think of what’s lying ahead of me and I think of what I’ve left on and under the earth. I think the best part of being with you, Joe, is coiled inside of me like the centrifugal force in that rattler, and I think that’s truly what I’ll leave out till I light out myself.
Once a year or so I can’t sleep; I think of the dead rising up incorruptible, and I kick off the quilts and reread Hart Crane, who was your favorite, and I surprise myself all over again with how familiar the dead become.
I want to stay here, on this earth, Joe, and I don’t believe in dying for love. That’s for the Greeks, not for the likes of me. I’m thinking of Narcissus, swallowed up by water, and of Persephone, swallowed up by earth and coming back, and that’s how grief is, dear one, it comes back. Even though I have an iron backbone, I think of rusting, sometimes; I think of water dark as coffee and the undertow of the river, and I waver.
Sometimes yours truly,
Talking About Poesis, Making Shape, and Breaking Boundaries
(Interviewer: Brittany Clar Poetry Editor, SPACES)
Brittany: Thank you so much for sharing your work and agreeing to speak with me! One thing that stood out to me when reading your work is your play with line breaks and word choice in general. I love the way you allow the reader an opportunity to slow down and digest everything on the page (see: enjambment – “Have been over and over; once/ Again I wish over me the earth/ Would gently fold her fingers”) and really take in the layers of meaning (see: word choice/ repetition – especially in “Widdershins”). Can you walk us through these stylistic choices?
Pamela: One of the reasons that I both adore and agonize over poetry is found in its root, poiesis, which means to make, to shape. In a poem there are endless opportunities for such shaping: sculpting air into music (to accrete/add to); carving stanza from—or perhaps into—white space, to winnow, to inscribe; to deploy word, line, stanza into a collage of pleasing patterns, to arrange and rearrange.
One of the aspects that most pleases me about lineation is how it causes the reader’s autonomic processes to change as she takes in a poem. Pulse and respiration are affected by rhyme, meter, and line length. There’s a distinct difference in the pause of a line ending in punctuation or the kinetics of a line that’s enjambed. I love enjambment, as it really plays up the tension between the unit of the line, which is breath, and the unit of the sentence, which is sense. This tug-of-war can give a poem its peculiar syntax and cause surprises for both writer and reader. (I like the examples you’ve chosen; they seem to be instances when I’ve been less than a failure at lineation. I’ve never been able to answer whether I break the line or compose it).
Brittany: I like what you say about lineation and how it causes the autonomic process to change as one moves through the poem. So many of your poems seem to bring about breaths at sporadic times. “Blind Contour Drawing,” however, forces me to read it in one breath, which I find interesting. Can you talk a bit about the inspiration behind this poem?
Pamela: My husband was a visual artist; “Blind Contour Drawing” is an ekphrastic poem based on a sketch he made of our daughter and me very shortly after her birth. In blind contour, the artist draws a portrait, often a self-portrait, without looking at the page, capturing an image in a single line. I wanted the poem to have that same type of shape as the sketch did. It’s a very personal, very happy poem. Thanks for asking about its shape.
Brittany: Well, I love poems that break boundaries! Speaking of boundary-breaking, “To You, Whom It May Concern” really sticks out for me. Can you discuss your creative process with this piece?
Pamela: “To You, Whom It May Concern” is an epistolary poem. I wanted to have a conversation with a friend who died nearly a quarter of a century ago, so I decided to write him a letter. In the year before this poem’s genesis, I’d put together a book-length series of elegies in more conventional forms. I wanted to address the elegiac in a different way; hence, epistle. The conventions of salutation, closure, and postscript were followed really closely, and then I abandoned these conventions.
Brittany: Do you plan to write any more pieces like this, or was this a one-and-only?
Pamela: My next pen pal is St. Paul. He’s a more cumbersome correspondent because he’s written so many letters, models of logic and argument. The speaker/correspondent in that poem disagrees with some of his basic tenets; she believes it’s better to burn than to marry.
Brittany: What are some of your artistic influences? I notice a mention of Kara Walker in one poem….
Pamela: As a student of history and literature I was fascinated with ekphrasis, the way in which language arts intertwine with the visual arts, long before I began to write poems myself. Much of my work is about art or artists. I like to think there’s a conversation between poem and painting, sculpture, quilt.
I do love Kara Walker. Her silhouettes work with black on white, as do words on the page or on the screen. They’re paper-based, as are books. I love the cameo-carved precision of her silhouettes, their shapeliness (more poiesis), and their ephemerality.
My other favorite artists can—and do—fill a gallery. Carrie Ann Baade is a marvelous contemporary painter. One of her images graces the cover of my first chapbook, A Walk Through the Memory Palace. I also love Chagall, Toulouse-Lautrec, Hopper—color, line, light. Perhaps my favorite artist is Matisse. He was a working artist until the end of his very long life. I didn’t start writing poetry seriously until I was almost 48, so Matisse gives me hope.
Brittany: I’m curious, considering your background in literature and history, if you could choose one person (past or present) to perform a reading of your poems, who would you choose?
Pamela: Sometimes I write poems in two parts and need a male voice to chime in. All my friends would expect me to pick John Cusack. All of my friends would be correct.
Pamela Johnson Parker returns to western Kentucky, as do the swallows to Capistrano, from points both west (Colorado) and east (Virginia). Her first chapbook, A Walk Through the Memory Palace, won the inaugural Qarrtsiluni Prize. A second chapbook, Other Four-Letter Words, is available from Finishing Line Press. Parker’s poems, essays, and fiction have appeared in Poets and Artists, Six Sentences, Anti-, New Madrid, Pebble Lake Review, Holly Rose Review, Ocho: Mipoesis, Switcheroo, Mipoesis, Oranges and Sardines, Blue Fifth Review, Thirty-First Bird Review, The Other Journal, Qarrtsiluni, Parable Press, Alligator Juniper, and Iron Horse Literary Review, as well as the anthologies Poets on Painting and Best New Poets 2011, judged by D.A. Powell.