The Bigness of Small Poems – # 42 in a Series – Ellen Doré Watson – She Wants Eager

American Poet Ellen Doré Watson (1950 – )


Nightsmell of sweet-aged wood, and curtains
are a breathing. Wet palm of wave gentle-slaps
thighsand. Not like yesterday’s brutal. The ribs
of the room with their generous. Resting places.
I understand where charity comes from but clarity?
(No no-see-ums here in the white float of almost
sleep.) Looking for a word, I’ve stepped into a boat.
I want eager. Pray me. Astonishment. I’m courting
the best of abstractions. It says: Look at the fish.

Ellen Doré Watson (1950 – ) from pray me stay eager Alice James Books, 2018

All in one book of poems –poem after poem for readers (and so key for poets) on how to think differently about abstractions! And how better than to title a number of these poems Field Guide to Abstractions. This title already makes the point: go beyond abstraction to the detail, the image. As American poet Ellen Dore Watson has done in her wonderful poem above from her recent 2018 collection pray me stay eager.

I call her poem wonderful for lots of reasons. First, the way she takes an abstraction like word (gargantuan abstraction) and gives us rich images and then shows us that the word she is targeting is astonishment. Itself a huge abstraction. But already she has placed images provoking astonishment in her almost-sleep room. And then she has her punch-line fun: Astonishment. I’m courting/the best of abstractions. It says: Look at the fish. How she embodies the astonishment in an astonishingly effective way! How she makes it mean something. The astonishment of seeing underwater fish.
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Celebrating Wedding Vows! Two Poems by Crozier and Lane

Canadian poet and novelist Patrick Lane (1939 – )

A poet friend of mine is getting married today. And in a brief text exchange she invited me to remember how I felt the day I took my vows with my wife Somae. A great reminder of that day for me and the grace those vows have brought into my life. Thank you M. And it reminded me of the poems my friend Liz had invited Lorna Crozier and Patrick Lane to write for our wedding. A total shockingly wonderful surprise. One of the deep blessings in my life. Thank you Liz, Lorna and Patrick.

And so in honour of M and J today and to celebrate, as in Lorna’s words, the wisdom and non-wisdom,/ the iron and the sweetness of I do,  I offer these two poems by Patrick and Lorna, poems Somae and I continued to cherish. And I hope that all of my friends and family members who are married can carry Patrick’s words: In your arms there are a thousand stories, a single tale, a whisper./ It begins with the wind in the cedars, your hearts at rest. /Be each other, for surely you are one dance, one wild thing.

Now the poems:


The little we can give each other in this life:
a see-through stone, arbutus skin, a soft
invisible pocket to tuck a hand inside,

or, at most, a note. What is written there
will carry the cold and clarity of water,
water that goes deeper than your fear.

This is the word-water the heart sips from
and when your tongues touch
you’ll taste the good and wet of it,

the wisdom and non-wisdom,
the iron and the sweetness of I do.

Lorna Crozier, unpublished

Canadian Poet, Lorna Crozier (1948 -)


Let there always be the comfort of silence between you,
the consolation of hands in the hour of the candles.
Their songs will find you, the frogs in the arms of the moon,
the far cries of the herons at dawn as they bend to the nest,
and the hummingbird’s wings at the stoop of their fall.
Let there be eagles and owls and the vanishing of quail.
Listen to the beetles as they make their thin music among stones.
In your arms there are a thousand stories, a single tale, a whisper.
It begins with the wind in the cedars, your hearts at rest.
Be each other, for surely you are one dance, one wild thing.
When you cry out, let your song go to the dove who mourns,
to the wren in her hiding, to the mole in his tunnel of grass.
But always let there be the comfort of silence between you,
the consolation of hands in the hour of the candles.

Patrick Lane, unpublished

My Poetry Retreat in Umbria a Week Away! But First: A Poem from Last Year by Tonya Lailey

La Romita School of Art, Terni, Umbria


her soul goes ahead to Umbria
a slow traveller
on horseback
by boat
in turns

sends a note home
after a few days

don’t worry
I’ve prepared a place for you
there’s a hook for your coral necklace
a bedside perch for your notebook
a casement window
open to a line
for drying your clothes

a few things to keep in mind…
one pair of shoes is all you need to cover your feet
cotton breathes best
you’ll want a hat
maybe cecil and wide-brimmed

when she arrives months later
she smells like where she is
sounds in local frequencies
cycles with daylight

but there are small rhythms
to learn

the last ups
and downs
of riding
to shed

Tonya Lailey, 2017, Unpublished, with permission

It begins in almost a week, my sold-out ten day poetry retreat, Poetry en Plein Air – Catching Fire – in Umbria at the La Romita School of Art. I am thrilled to be going back. Poetry and Italy in October, a wonderful combination.

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For Sunday Three God Poems – Akbar, Tsvetaeva, Crozier

American poet Kaveh Akbar
American/Iranian poet Kaveh Akbar

Learning to Pray

              My father moved patiently
cupping his hands beneath his chin,
              kneeling on a janamaz

then pressing his forehead to a circle
              of Karbala clay. Occasionally
he’d glance over at my clumsy mirroring,

       my too-big Packers T-shirt
and pebble-red shorts,
       and smile a little, despite himself.

Bending there with his whole form
         marbled in light, he looked like
a photograph of a famous ghost.

         I ached to be so beautiful.
I hardly knew anything yet—
         not the boiling point of water

or the capital of Iran,
           not the five pillars of Islam
or the Verse of the Sword—

        I knew only that I wanted
to be like him,
        that twilit stripe of father

mesmerizing as the bluewhite Iznik tile
        hanging in our kitchen, worshipped
as the long faultless tongue of God.

Kaveh Akbar (1989 - ) from Calling a Wolf a Wolf, Alice James Books, 2017

Not the Sunday morning I planned! But poetry intervened, thank God! Or maybe the God of SUNDAY intervened as Lorna Crozier might say. Why? Because poem after poem I was reading to start my day made me trip over God!

First, I was reading the vivid new book, Calling A Wolf A Wolf, by Kaveh Akbar, another of the striking new poetic voices in the contemporary poetic world adding to those of Sam Sax, Danez Smith, Warson Shire, Rupi Kaur, Ocean Vuong, Billy-Ray Belcourt and others. Notable to me is that so many of these up and coming writers, who are adding a new vigour to the poetic cannon, are not from mainstream but from cultural minorities.

So often this is where transformative movements happen. Not from the safe center of the mainstream. But at the challenged edges. What a gift these writers are. Thank God for diversity! I, located as I am in the mainstream, am grateful for what I learn from them. For the risks they take!

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With Death Looming, Two Astonishing Poems of Presence – Mandelstam and Stafford

The Russian poet Osip Madelstam (1891-1938)


And I was alive in the blizzard of the blossoming pear,
Myself I stood in the storm of the bird-cherry tree.
It was all leaflife and starshower, unerring, self-shattering power,
And it was all aimed at me.
What is this dire delight flowering fleeing always earth?
What is being? What is truth?
Blossoms rupture and rapture the air,
All hover and hammer,
Time intensified and time intolerable, sweetness raveling rot.
It is now. It is not.

(4 May 1937)

Osip Mandestam, from Stolen Air, selected and translated by Christian Wiman. Ecco Press, 2012

Thanks to a Twitter post by Ilya Kaminsky, the Ukranian/American poet, I was reminded of this poem by the Russian poet Osip Mandelstam a few weeks ago.

Without context, what a singular poem of presence, of isness. A poem of celebration of living, of this miracle earth. With context, simply astonishing. This is the last poem Mandelstam wrote according to his translator Christian Wiman, former editor of Poetry and now a teacher at Yale Divinity School.

Mandelstam wrote his poem in a Siberian prison/work camp for undesirables. He had fallen into disfavor with the Russian regime years before for a poem that mocked Stalin.  Already in ill health before his final imprisonment he died later, in 1938, in a transit camp. As Wiman says in an interview he died for poetry.

I can’t comment on the original poem in Russian but the music in this so-called version by Christian Wiman, former editor of Poetry is so arresting. Especially this line: What is this dire delight flowering fleeing always earth? Doesn’t that just about sum it all up! A line loaded with the yes and no that makes up our reality here on earth.

A man in a work camp, victim of two previous heart attacks and yet he could write a poem this vital. Facing his end. He must have known this. And I think of the American poet William Stafford and his remarkable poetic testament written three days before he died. Lying in his death bed, still paying utter attention to the vital sounds and smells of the world around him.

American poet William Stafford (1914-1993)

You Reading This, Be Ready

Starting here, what do you want to remember?
How sunlight creeps along a shining floor?
What scent of old wood hovers, what softened
sound from outside fills the air?

Will you ever bring a better gift for the world
than the breathing respect that you carry
wherever you go right now? Are you waiting
for time to show you some better thoughts?

When you turn around, starting here, lift this
new glimpse that you found; carry into evening
all that you want from this day. This interval you spent
reading or hearing this, keep it for life –

What can anyone give you greater than now,
starting here, right in this room, when you turn around.

William Stafford from The Way It Is – New and Selected Poems,Graywolf Press 1998.

Stafford wrote this August 26th, 1993 two days before he died at home in Oregon. His third last poem. Famously, he is said to have written a poem a day all his adult life.

To die with that aliveness. What an example. Thank you Osip and Bill.

Tom Crawford – R.I.P. – 1939-May 2018

American poet Tom Crawford and his dog Walt

How to Draw a Better Bird

Resist eloquence. Get mad.
If your bird is the snowy Clark’s Grebe,
if that’s your bird, the one out there
sitting on its eggs in a floating nest – stunning bird,
serene bird – if that’s all you see, then it’s no good.
You might just as well take your iPhone out,
take a picture for Audubon. That’s not a better bird.
Better you try to draw the bird almost gone,
banging its wings against your heart.
Scare us. Make it real, like an eraser big as a house.
What you feel knowing the bird’s clutch
will never hatch. End of a colony.
Gone bird.
Our lives, once a wetland,
drained, is the bird you want to draw.

Tom Crawford from Such a Waste of Stars, CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2017

Six years ago I featured the American poet Tom Crawford in a blog post and then, again, two years ago. In the mean time we had a few email exchanges. And now, when I wish I could email him again it’s too late. Thanks to friends of his who knew Tom and I had connected I heard he had died in late May. Damn.

Tom was a fine poet and today we would likely label him as a fine eco-poet for his love of birds expressed in so many of his poems and his alarm over how so many are disappearing. Eco-poet or just a plain old poet, Tom to my mind deserved a much wider audience. As evidence: the poem above. What a beautifully written call to be a poet of feeling, of heart. Sure, the poem is an instruction to a painter but heck, it could just as aptly an instruction to a poet. A huge wake up. Go beyond mere description:

Better you try to [write] the bird almost gone,

banging its wings against your heart.
Scare us. Make it real, like an eraser big as a house.
What you feel knowing the bird’s clutch
will never hatch. End of a colony.
Gone bird.
Our lives once a wetland,
drained, is the bird you want to [write]. Read More »

Lorna Crozier – Her Mouth to the Lion’s Mouth – Next Week, Her Latest Poetry Collection Arrives

Lorna Crozier’s Latest Poetry Collection Coming Out From Penguin Random House Canada Later This Month


These are the ones who show up at the party, grains of
rapture bagged and tucked up their sleeves, heaven’s
golden mead in flasks in their secret pockets. They’re
everyone’s best nightmare. They sit in the front of the
club, stuff the biggest notes in the G-strings of the
strippers. At the gym they work out beside the bouncer,
lift so much weight they bless him with ambition until he
has to turn his body sideways to walk through doorways
and down the aisles of buses. You see yourself in the
otherworldly shine of their briefcases, in their clever suits
of mirrors. You never catch the colour of their eyes.
Though the clouds bust open, the false ones drive with the
cloth tops down and don’t get wet. They walk on
swimming pools, holding aloft a cocktail the colour of
ichor. They watch over you with the patience of
Styrofoam. What’s your want? they whisper. Only one
word is necessary to call them close—need, need, need.

Lorna Crozier (with permission) from God of Shadows, Penguin Random House Canada, 2018

Oh god! To see you dressed up to score a deal! To see you walk across water (albeit the small water of a swimming pool). To see you: little human (false) god! The one I was for years as a financial analyst and money manager and the ones I walked with. To be gob-smacked by the terrifying simile of the year or years: patience of Styrofoam. Chilling. And the scary word: need, need, need, Sound sister to greed! Oh God, Lorna Crozier you have touched inside a world I know too well.

Here in Canada Crozier needs little introduction. One of our preeminent poets she has been recognized with many accolades including the Governor General’s Award for poetry, the Order of Canada (officer) and most recently, the  2018 George Woodcock Lifetime Achievement Award, claimed to be British Columbia’s most prestigious literary honour.

Inventing the Hawk is the title of one of Lorna Crozier’s earlier books of poetry.  It brings to my mind a way to describe what Crozier does book after after book: she reinvents Lorna Crozier. And one of the ways Crozier has reinvented herself in the past few years is by inventing poem series that create their own momentum and enable her to write fresh poetic fictions again and again: her “Angel of” series, “The Man from” series, her “Soul” series.

And in her new book God of Shadows, her twenty-first full-length poetry collection in forty-two years, she does it again with her “God of” series: prose poems that marry God to the extraordinary ordinary things and states of being that makes up our human world. God embodied into our world! Not set apart! What a trip. God of Noses, God of Sex, God of Arithmetic, God of Contrariness, God of Goodbye, God of the Moon.

Canadian Poet Lorna Crozier. Photo Credit: Angie Abdou

Something Crozier has not needed to reinvent is her wry attention to the world, the way she embraces it in all its detail. This way of her being in the world she so aptly describes in her poem THE LEAST OF THINGS from her 2017 collection What the Soul Doesn’t Want:

My mouth to the lion’s mouth,
my ear to the world’s huge singing.

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When Poetry Arrives – Neruda and Urrea

Chilean poet, Pablo Neruda


And it was at that age . . . poetry arrived
in search of me. I don’t know, I don’t know where
it came from, from winter or a river.
I don’t know how or when,
no, they were not voices, they were not
words, not silence,
but from a street it called me,
from the branches of night,
abruptly from the others,
among raging fires
or returning alone,
there it was, without a face,
and it touched me.
I didn’t know what to say, my mouth
had no way
with names,
my eyes were blind.
Something knocked in my soul,
fever or forgotten wings,
and I made my own way,
that fire,
and I wrote the first, faint line,
faint, without substance, pure
pure wisdom
of someone who knows nothing;
and suddenly I saw
the heavens
and open,
palpitating plantations,
the darkness perforated,
with arrows, fire, and flowers,
the overpowering night, the universe.
And I, tiny being,
drunk with the great starry
likeness, image of
felt myself a pure part
of the abyss.
I wheeled with the stars.
My heart broke loose with the wind.

Pablo Neruda from Neruda – Selected Poems, Houghton Mifflin, 1990

The great Chilean and Nobel-prize-winning poet Pablo Neruda is celebrated as one of the premier poetic voices of the 20th Century.  His love poems and his Odes feel as if they are so well known as if to be, somehow, in the air we breathe. But his poem Poetry is the poem of his that brought him home to me. Made him an easy guest in my house of poetry. His poem, his ambassador. His poem that defines the creative chaos at the heart of poetry, a chaos as large as the universe. A chaos that’s transformed my life.

After reading Mexican-American Luis Urrea’s homage to Neruda’s poem a few weeks ago I could only respond with a poem. Written on the spot and now with some first edits. A risk I take: sandwiched between two outstanding poets! But the truest way I can enter into what is for me the great conversation: the what and how and why of poetry?!

After Urrea, After Neruda
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Ursula K. Le Guin (1929-2018) – Part Two of a Two Part Series

Native American Mortar and Pestle

……something that I think poems do, is observe the world and make it new again.
Kevin Young (Poetry Editor of the New Yorker) from The New Yorker Poetry Podcasts, July 27th, 2018.

The Small Indian Pestle at
the Applegate House

Dense, heavy, fine-grained, dark basalt
worn river-smooth all round, a cylinder
with blunt round ends, a tool: you know it when
you feel the subtle central turn or curve
that shapes it to the hand, was shaped by hands,
year after year after year, by woman’s hands
that held it here, just where it must be held
to fall of its own weight into the shallow bowl
and crush the seeds and rise and fall again
setting the rhythm of the soft, dull song
that worked itself at length into the stone,
so when I picked it up it told me how
to hold and heft it, put my fingers where
those fingers were that softly wore it down
to this fine shape that fits and fills my hand,
this weight that wants to fall and, falling, sing.

Ursula K. Le Guin from Ursula K. Le Guin, Conversations on Writing (with David Naimon), Tin House Books, 2018

Kevin Young’s quote is perfect for this blog post, the second part of a two-part celebration of the poetry of acclaimed science fiction writer Ursula K. Le Guin. The quote so encompasses what Le Guin achieves in her poem above. And so do these lines from a small poem by American poet Greg Orr: Let’s /as Wordsworth said, remove “The dust of Custom” so things shine again, each object arrayed/ in its robe of original light.

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More on Ursula K. Le Guin – Part One of a Two Part Series

At the 2015 Oregon Literary Awards – acclaimed writers and dear friends, Luis Alberto Urrea and Ursula K. Le Guin

In class, she said, “We writers are the raw nerve of the universe. Our job is to go out and feel things for people, then to come back and tell them how it feels to be alive. Because they are numb. Because we have forgotten.” In class, she said, “We have forgotten our rituals. Out tribal practices. There is no more tribe. We don’t know how to tell our elders our dreams around the morning fire. There is no morning fire. We can’t receive insight from the mothers.”

Luis Alberto Urrea, from a tribute to Ursula K. LeGuin from his Website: http:/

On Second Hill

Where on this wild hill alone
a child watched the evening star,
let these bits of ash and bone
rejoin the earth they always were,
the earth that let her sing her love,
the gift that made the giver
here on the lonely hill above
the valley of the river.

Ursula K. Le Guin (1929-2018) from Narrative On-Line, July 29th, 2018 and So Far So Good: Poems 2014–2018, Copper Canyon Press, October, 2018.

What a discovery: this new poem and others of Ursual K. Le Guin published today in Narrative On-Line. Oh, to hear these words written at the end of her life!  Oh, how I hope her bones are on that hill so they rejoin the earth they always were, the gift that made the giver….Oh, how we need her wisdom these fraught days. Oh, how much we all need to come alive!

I have been thinking a lot about  le Guin (life won’t let me forget), the  famed Sci-Fi novelist who died earlier this year. For a link to my January 23rd blog post celebrating her life please click here.
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