Two for Tuesday: Kate Daniels

Old Abandoned House by sallads on deviantART cc
Old Abandoned House
by sallads (deviantART cc)

                   

“I am
a witness of living storm—
someone who sees shadows” ~ Marina Tsvetaeva, from “On a Red Horse”

Abandoned House Daniel STL FCC
Abandoned House
by danielSTL (FCC)

Crowns

for Philip Levine

Around the time I first read the poetry of Philip Levine,
my teeth were fixed. Two or three hundred bucks
(I’ve forgotten now) purchased a brand new me,
two porcelain crowns. In the dentist’s chair, my midget
canines were filed down to sharp, bright points
hardly larger than the bronzed end of a Bic
pen, then crammed in the black-backed caps
of two hardened, china fakes. No more
covering my mouth to obscure the evidence
of faulty genes. No more tears at images
embezzled from graduation picnics
when Darrell Dodson picked me up and slung me
in the pool, and someone took a picture
of my lips slacking back to reveal my gums
in what appeared to be a scream. No more breezes
winding through the gappy pickets of my ill-grown
teeth and down my throat. No more worrying
some boy would snag his tongue in the zigzagged bulkhead
of my upper row, and bring us both to blood.

I’ll love Levine forever for confessing his own struggles
with orthodontia, his rot-plagued “Depression mouth,”
a dentist called it, his cavities and root canals, his occipital pain,
for his photograph in Antaeus, the summer of ’78,
the stained and crooked slabs parked compellingly
behind his grin. Our teeth connected us before the poetry,
he, from the immigrant onion-eaters and temperate tipplers
of Manischiewtz. I, from a long line of tannin-stained
Irish Catholics who smoked themselves to fragile
states of calcium depletion, and a recent run of Carolina
gritballs, too poor to brush, too ignorant to care their teeth
retired in early middle age. I can see them now, perplexed
before an apple’s crispy rind, frustrated by a succulent, stringy rack
of pork ribs barbequed in the side lot of Earlene Worsham’s
gas station south of town. Levine would have understood my uncles,
enthroned on plastic-covered kitchen chairs patched with tape,
their work boots kicking up mucky clouds of chiggery dirt,
their pick ups parked nearby, shotguns in the rack,
sucking on cheap beers and harsh cigarettes,
their nails starved by nicotine to yellow curls, the car grease
embedded permanently in the creases of their hands.

When I met him, he was such a mensch, massive
in my mind, but in the flesh, something touching
about his shoulders in the worn tweed jacket, something
vulnerable in his feet in an ordinary pair of soiled, white sneakers.
He opened his mouth to laugh, one side rising up
like it does, in that derisive gesture that seems, at first, a sneer,
and I remembered my mother flexing back her lips to remove
delicately, with two stained fingers, just so, a fleck of tobacco
lodged between her teeth, and saw again my father flossing at the table
with the torn off cover of a paper book of matches,
then stubbing out his butt in the yellowed, oily pod of broken yolk
that was hemorrhaging across his breakfast plate.

I can face those images now without the shame
I carried in the days before the poetry of Phil Levine
liberated me. I can look at anything now, because I keep
his picture in my mind and his poems in my pocket.
I can stand my life because I wear the crown he constructed
for people like me — grocery checkers, lube jobbers, truck drivers,
waitresses — all of us crowned with the junkyard diadems
of shattered windshields and rusty chains, old pots
with spit tobacco congealing inside, torn screen doors
and gravestones in the front yard, just five short steps from life to death…

So there is my family with their broken beer bottles
and patched shoes, their mutts chained in a back yard
carved from a stingy pine woods, on cheap land
out near the county dump where the air swells with the perfume
of trash, a circle of them playing poker in a trailer somewhere
in the woods, or razoring the state decal from the windowshield
of a ransacked wreck to transfer to my brother’s car.
Or cleaning fish on the back porch and throwing the guts
to the tick-clogged dogs, or frying venison in a cast-iron pan
and stinking up the house with that heavy smell, showing
the buck’s big balls in a plastic cannister that once held salt.
Or burning tires in a field some autumn, scumming
the sky with a smoky, cursive black they can’t even read
but inhale poisonously again and again.

And there I am, walking along tolerantly now, with Phil Levine,
his poems in my pocket, his good rage gathered in my heart
and I can love them again, the way I did in the years before
I saw what they were and how the world would use them
and accepted the fact they were incapable of change.
We’re in a field I used to love, a redbone coonhound running ahead
her ears dragging the edges of the goldenrod till they are tipped
in pollen, like twin paintbrushes dipped in gilt. And the world
is hunting dogs and country music and unschooled voices
bending vowels and modest kitchen gardens where late tomatoes
are tied up with brownish streamers of old nylon hose.
The vast way your chest expands when the sun gradually sets
in mid-fall in central Virginia. The tobacco barns glimmering
in last light, the chinks darkening now, the slats solidifying at the close of day
and your mind opening up like the pine forest swishing fragrantly overhead
way up in the dark that is coming, but remains, for the moment, beautifully at bay.

                   

Chemainus House by molajen FCC
Chemainus House
by molajen (FCC)

                   

Photo by William Christenberry

Akron, Alabama, circa 1960

This is what it was like to grow up
down there, then. A pretty place
but desolate. The signs that are supposed
to tell you what to do, or be, or buy
are faded to the point of inarticulation.
You surmise people used to talk
about everything you need to know
but have grown silent for some reason.
A black man sat down in a soda shop
to eat a bite, and terrified, it seemed, the patrons.
I was there in that tense silence,
licking my strawberry cone, and it was
just like this picture of kudzu in winter,
the prettiness all covered over
with something growing too fast,
enshrouding the landscape with a sinewy
fabric that lives off the lives of others.
Or this next one of the house and car
in Akron, Alabama. The house is beat-up
and rusty, but habitable. You could live there
fine until something happens – a cross
flaming on the uncut lawn, or your housegirl’s husband
with his foot shot off. That blue car’s
been in the yard forever just waiting
for you to need it, and now you do.
So you head out, past the washer on the porch
and down the walk. You get in and realize
you’re not going anywhere: it’s up on blocks,
overrun by families of mice and birds. Why
did you never notice that before? How stuck here
you are with the blank sky and the fallen fences, the awful
unexplained silences of the South.

                    

Music by The Heavy, “Long Way from Home”

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“Friendship is a sheltering tree” ~ Samuel Coleridge

dawn-by-janson-jones1

“Dawn” by Janson Jones (Floridana Alaskiana)*

“A friend is one to whom one can pour out all the contents of one’s heart, chaff and grain together, knowing that the gentlest of hands will take and sift it, keeping what is worth keeping . . .”

“. . . and, with the breath of kindness, blow the rest away.” ~ Arabian Proverb

gulf-fritilary-by-janson-jones
Gulf Fritilary by Janson Jones

My second semester of teaching at ODU was one of the hardest. Caitlin had died the previous November, and I had managed to finish the Fall semester with my two classes. But going into Spring semester was an endurance test.

I was just trying to survive the fact that my entire life had been turned upside down. I frequently burst into tears, and was more depressed than I ever had been or have been since. The one good thing about that semester was the entrance of a new person into my life: Mari LoNano.

Mari’s (pronounced like Mary) office was right next to mine. We had talked briefly during the Fall term, and then more after Caitlin died, but our friendship really bloomed during the Spring (no pun intended). We began to eat lunch together and to have long conversations about life, death, and survival. By that summer, we had become inseparable, and by the fall semester, when Marty, Mari’s former office mate, moved up in the hierarchy and was given an office to herself, Mari and I became office mates.

It had been a long time since I had had friendship with another woman on a daily basis, and it was something that I really cherished. In fact, I’m not sure that I would have survived that first year after Caitlin if not for Mari.

“Sometimes our light goes out but is blown into flame by another human being. Each of us owes deepest thanks to those who have rekindled this light.” ~ Albert Schweitzer

key-west-sunset
Key West Sunset by Janson Jones

I realized in those first painful months that I was but a shell of my former self. I wasn’t sure about anything, least of all life and my own existence. Mari offered me comfort in so many ways, but probably the most meaningful way in which she became an important part in my life was through our long conversations. Mari told me about the death of her mother years before. It was obviously still very painful for her.

Like me, Mari carried around an immense amount of survivor’s guilt. After caring for her mother during her illness, Mari had not been with her when she died. I could tell that this fact bothered her tremendously. It colored all of her relationships.

We were two lost souls, and we found each other. I have no doubts that fate brought us together.

“Treat people as if they were what they ought to be and you help them to become what they are capable of being.” ~ Goethe

great-blue-heron
Great Blue Heron by Janson Jones

Another important aspect of our friendship was that we were both aspiring poets. Mari had more experience in the craft than I did. At the time, I was still writing mostly from my gut, paying little attention to the actual craft of poetry. We shared our poems, and from her I learned more about line breaks and rhythm than I had ever learned in my undergraduate workshops.

She was also responsible for broadening my horizons into contemporary poets. From her I learned about Bruce Weigl, Christopher Buckley, Molly Peacock, Kate Daniels, and countless other wonderful poets. It was the opening of an important door for me: Writers become better by reading the works of those they admire.

Most of my poetry dealt with grief, while Mari wrote about a wide range of topics: her sister’s horse, her mother, her grandfather, her dogs, nature. I was amazed by her ability to bring to life images and to capture feelings.

We tried to inspire each other into writing more, and we talked about going to poetry retreats some day—something that unfortunately, we never managed to do.

“No love, no friendship, can cross the path of our destiny without leaving some mark on it forever.” ~ Francois Mocuriac

bahia-honda-state-park
Bahia Honda State Park by Janson Jones

We found that another thing that we had in common was that both of our husbands had attended Virginia Tech in the forestry and wildlife program. Ironically, neither of our husbands were working in their fields.

Mari’s husband was working for UPS, and mine was working for the medical school as a radiation safety officer. Luckily for us, Buddy and Paul hit it off, and we started to do things together as couples; going to dinner along with Marty and Jack was always a nice evening out. And the four of us would try new restaurants in the area. Those dinners were great fun.

But mostly, it was Mari and me together. One of our favorite things to do was to eat at the cafeteria near the mall where they had those great rolls and then go shopping. Boy did we shop. For about four straight years, we went shopping at least once a week. Unfortunately, my shopping addiction was my way of dealing with my grief, not a very healthy coping mechanism, especially because of the debt that I incurred.

Mari shopped for a lot of reasons: she loved fashion; she had the money to buy pretty much what she wanted, and I believe that shopping also filled a void for her as well. Regardless, we had some great times finding bargains at T.J. Maxx and Marshalls, two of our favorite stores.

“The worst solitude is to be destitute of sincere friendship.” ~ Sir Francis Bacon

snowy-egret
Snowy Egret by Janson Jones

I ended up at The Chrysler Museum after doing some freelance work, and Mari got a job at a very prominent private school. I have to admit that even though I loved my job at the museum, I was envious of her new teaching position. Our new jobs caused us to see each other less frequently, and then, suddenly, abruptly, our friendship ended.

Mari was going through a very turbulent time in her life, and I was trying to be supportive, but it seems that something came between us. I spent months trying to get Mari to explain to me what had gone wrong, but I never really got an explanation. Finally, hurt and frustrated, I stopped trying.

One of the last times that I saw her before she moved out of the area was purely by accident. We ran into each other at the post office. By that time, she had divorced Buddy, and I was separated from Paul. Our lives were still moving on parallel paths, but they were not intersecting as they once had.

I truly grieved the loss of my friendship with Mari. At first I didn’t realize that I was grieving. It took my therapist pointing it out to me before I acknowledged the obvious. Mari’s exit from my life was a significant loss, so important and integral had she been for years.

“Hold a true friend with both your hands.” ~ Nigerian Proverb

Great Eggfly by Janson Jones
Great Eggfly by Janson Jones

I thought about Mari a great deal over the years. Finally, in 2005 when I was working for the realty company, I did a Google search to try to locate Mari. I found out where she was working, and I e-mailed her and included a poem that I had written about her. It was called “Your Mother’s Pink Sweater.” I had written it in response to a poem that she had written about her mother that I never forgot, “Flying Into the Sun.” The poem was about her mother, and it mentioned a pink sweater that her mother asked for when she was dying.

I was surprised but incredibly happy when Mari wrote back to me. It was as if the years and distance between us had never happened. We started writing and calling each other, and we are still in touch today. We’ve never had the long talk about what went wrong. We’ve been saving it for the day when we live near each other again and can float around in the pool, sipping iced tea together. I’m content with that.

“For believe me, in this world which is ever slipping from under our feet, it is the prerogative of friendship to grow old with one’s friends.” ~ Arthur S. Hardy  

adirondack-chairs-by-lita-liwag
Adirondack Chairs (detail) by L. Liwag

I’m glad that I finally decided to find her. I had been talking about it for years, and Corey kept urging me to do something about it. I suppose I waited because I was terribly afraid of being rejected again, and I just wasn’t sure that I could handle that. Luckily, that is not how things turned out, and I got my best friend back.

When Mari and I were writing together, we used to talk about growing old together, how we would get a house by the sea and two Adirondack chairs. And then we would spend our days growing flowers, watching birds, and reading. It was a wonderful fantasy. I don’t know that our plans will ever come to fruition, but if I had to choose one friend to grow old with together, it would be Mari.

More later. Peace.

*Most of the images in this post are from Janson Jones’s blog, Floridana Alaskiana. I know that Mari loves beautiful photography and nature and would appreciate the beauty of these pictures. To see more of this incredible photography, please visit http://floridana.typepad.com/weblog/.

                                                                                                                         
 

 

Your Mother’s Pink Sweater

 

I have it, you know,

your mother’s pink sweater,

the one she wore

when she ran headlong

into the ocean. I claim it.

 

I stole it from you

when you were distracted

by the boy’s brown skin.

I placed it in a box, beneath unsent words

and misdirected sorrow.

No longer the color of spring peonies.

you would be much pressed

to avouch its heritage.

Stained by too many tears,

(yours, mine),

It little resembles the soft, pink yarn

of youthful memory. Nor do we.

 

Who holds your hands now

when you step into the night?

Do your thoughts fly south

even momentarily?

 

I have your mother’s pink sweater.

Do not ask me to return it.

I have woven its threads into my tapestry.

It cannot be separated without unmaking.

Did you think that I would leave it

untouched for eight years?

 

January 28, 2005