Alice Walker’s poem “Janie Crawford”

In honor of Women’s History Month, which begins Thurs Mar 1, I am posting Alice Walker’s poem “Janie Crawford” which has always been one of my favorite poems.


Janie Crawford


i love the way Janie Crawford


left her husbands   the one who wanted

to change her into a mule

and the other who tried to interest her

in being a queen

a woman unless she submits is neither a mule

nor a queen

though like a mule she may suffer

and like a queen pace

the floor


Alice Walker


A key element that I look for in any poetry – narrative or otherwise – is accessibility. This does not mean that the best poetry is that which is immediately transparent in all areas, but that the best poetry (to me) is that which offers some kind of immediate access; something – whether beautiful sound, captivating imagery or clear, incisive meaning – that allows me to enter into at least the foyer of the poem’s dwelling or structure. Just as not all buildings are designed and built in exactly the same way, neither are all poems. Because not all poems are built alike, this level of accessibility will vary greatly from poem to poem. Some poems, such as those of Eliot, Bishop, or Moore, are large complex structures – mansions, if you will – containing a seemingly unlimited number of rooms and floors and nooks and crannies. The first time I heard T.S. Eliot’s poem “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” read aloud (by one of my high school English teachers) I immediately felt the greatness of the poem, felt as if I had entered into the foyer of a large and masterly-built structure. I did not understand the poem – i.e., I would not have been able to explain what the poem meant or was about – but I was enough taken – or taken in – by the poem that I knew I wanted to remain inside it in the hopes of someday touring and understanding the poem in its entirety.

If, in a “mansion” poem, I am moved to look “inward” – to stay inside the poem in order to learn more about the inner workings of the poem, the poem’s architecture in all its rich complexity – then, in a “cottage” poem, I am drawn outward because of the poem’s plainness (with respect to syntax and diction) and immediate accessibility of meaning. When I read “Janie Crawford,” I am struck both by the plain inward “structure” of the poem but also by the outward view that this poem provides me as a reader – a magnificent view into the world of the poem. Not that there is anything magnificent about the subjugation of women but that there is something magnificent (to me) about being able to see so immediately into this world as it is represented in the poem. Of course, just because the language and syntax are plain, doesn’t mean there aren’t structural elements – or furnishings – which I can admire. The space after the first line of the poem is a clever and effective way of setting up readers for something positive – we are given space here to wander off in one direction only to be pulled back immediately with the unexpectedness of the second line. The line breaks also are effective and add interesting meaning to the poem, as with the next line in which the words “the one who wanted” are placed in such a way as to suggest “the one who lacked” in addition to the straight-forward meaning of the one who desired.


Submitted by Lisa Dordal





Robert Hayden’s poem “Frederick Douglass”

The poem below—“Frederick Douglass” by Robert Hayden—is one of my all-time favorite poems. I love the passion, the directness, the emphasis on physicality, the confident assurance that someday things will be different—not if but when. I love the way Hayden brings concepts like freedom and liberty down from the abstract into the flesh and blood world. The poem is not about freedom in general but about this freedom, this liberty—a freedom and liberty that are clearly present in the world. But, as the poem beautifully articulates, it is not available to everyone (the poem was written during the Civil Rights Era of the 1960s). I love the weariness of the word “Oh.” I love the description of freedom and liberty being beautiful but also terrible (depending on what we choose to do with our freedom and liberty).


Thank you, Robert Hayden, for your exquisite poem!


Frederick Douglass


When it is finally ours, this freedom, this liberty, this beautiful

and terrible thing, needful to man as air,

usable as earth; when it belongs at last to all,

when it is truly instinct, brain matter, diastole, systole,

reflex action; when it is finally won; when it is more

than the gaudy mumbo jumbo of politicians:

this man, this Douglass, this former slave, this Negro

beaten to his knees, exiled, visioning a world

where none is lonely, none hunted, alien,

this man, superb in love and logic, this man

shall be remembered. Oh, not with statues’ rhetoric,

not with legends and poems and wreaths of bronze alone,

but with the lives grown out of his life, the lives

fleshing his dream of the beautiful, needful thing.


– Robert Hayden (1966)



In Memory of “Amanat”

For this month, I am posting a poem in honor and in memory of the woman who was raped and tortured on a bus in New Delhi, India on the night of December 16th, 2012. She was a 23-year-old physiotherapy student who was returning home with a friend after seeing the film Life of Pi. She was referred to in the media as Amanat which is the Urdu word for treasure.




The hyena kills the zebra,

then the orangutan.


The tiger kills the hyena.

And the boy survives.


Pi is an irrational number.

And a woman boards a bus.


If horses could draw,

they would draw one god


in the shape of a horse.

Oxen would draw many,


each with a body like their own.

And the bus is not really a bus.


The relationship

between the width of a circle


and its circumference

continues infinitely without


repeating. And Pi is a boy

who just wants to love


God. If dark matter could draw,

it would not draw itself.


The human intestine

is approximately five feet long.


Only five percent of hers

would remain. They would be called


joyriders. The instrument used was

metal. The instrument used


was flesh. And the woman,

it was said, died peacefully.


First published in CALYX, Fall/Winter 2015



10 Reasons to Pre-order Mosaic of the Dark!

As we enter the holiday season, here are 10 reasons to pre-order Mosaic of the Dark, my first full-length book of poetry!

  • It’s a beautiful book. Really. But don’t just take my word for it. My mother-in-law, Sherry Samuels, says so too. She would know—she’s a former English teacher. 😊
  • It received a starred review in Kirkus! Click here to read the full review.
  • It’s better for the publisher to pre-order. Don’t you want to do your part to help small, independent poetry presses thrive???
  • The more copies I sell during the pre-order phase, the slightly less broke I will be after my book tour. Chicago, Austin, Pittsburgh, Knoxville, San Francisco, New York, here I come!
  • The more copies I sell, the more exposure my sister-in-law, Jill Samuels, will get for her beautiful artwork.
  • For any order placed by 12/31/17, a portion of the proceeds will go to the Tennessee Equality Project to support the good work they do on behalf of LGBTQ folks in TN. The Tennessee legislature spends a lot of time thinking up ways to marginalize us. Think how much good you can do by buying my book!
  • If I reach my target number by Dec 31, I am going to treat myself to a six-pack of blackberry La Croix.
  • The book will not be released until January but if you want to order the book to give as a gift before then, let me know (by Dec 15th) and I can send a nice card to the recipient. Hey, it’s something.
  • It’s the right thing to do. Trust me. 🙂
  • Have I mentioned how much I love La Croix???

To order, click here!


Hauntings by Lisa Dordal

I’ve been thinking a lot about death lately, in part because of a recent, unexpected death in my spouse’s family. In part, because the days are getting shorter. And, in part, because we are approaching that time of year when, in some cultures, the “veil” between the dead and the living is thought to be at its thinnest.

I don’t know what happens to us when we die or where our loved ones go but I do know that sometimes, as a poet, I feel “haunted” by people who are no longer living. Sometimes I feel haunted by historical figures–people from the past who I suddenly want to learn more about. In my poem “Even Houseflies,” for example, I reference Pliny the Elder who was a 1st century Roman Historian and Otzi the Iceman whose 5,000-year-old body was found in the Alps over two decades ago.

Other times I am haunted by family members–by my mother, in particular. My mother died in 2001, largely from the effects of alcoholism, and just when I think I’ve written the last poem about her, another one comes along. Although many of my mother poems emerge from a place of pain and loss, I consider these hauntings to be a wonderful gift; a way for me to connect, through my writing, with one of my dearest ancestors.

I am sharing two poems below: “Last Poem about My Mother” (which is definitely not the last poem about my mother) and “Even Houseflies” which references both kinds of hauntings–the personal kind and the historical kind.


Last Poem about My Mother


This is my mother

watching her heart–


dark, liquid motion

on the screen beside her.


How she called it

beautiful. This is


please and thank you,

and softens the wounds


of strangers. This is a body’s

last words; what is left


after fire. This is cavities

in the bones of a bird


that make flight possible,

and flits unseen


through every gesture and word.

This is my mother


and a way out of my mother;

a place I can say


that I left.



Even Houseflies


The day they entered our house

I did not know that their brains,


if separated from the body,

would resemble a single grain of sugar.


Or that liquid is their only intake,

requiring them to moisten anything solid


with their own saliva. Their lives,

an array of endless regurgitations.


And who’s to say, after I’d killed

the last one–nine, maybe ten in all–


and resumed my reading,

only to be stopped by the words:


Even houseflies must have their angels–

that it wasn’t the angels themselves


who sent me to learn how they live.

Who’s to say this wasn’t the gesture


of some lively god pressing a small coin

into my heart. Like my mother


who won’t stay dead, her eyes

fixing into mine like she knows


I’m her best chance. Or like Otzi

who keeps coming back–as shaman


or shepherd–in a cloak of woven grass;

the ease with which he walks


on hilly terrain. Or Pliny,

studious and brave, drawing a bath


too close to Pompeii. Who’s to say

these aren’t the gestures of gods. Active


during the day, but at night they rest

in the corners of rooms, where their eyes–


their thousands and thousands of eyes–

make a mosaic of the dark.



Both of these poems were first published in Connotations Press, 2017

Finding Beauty in the World

A couple of weeks ago, one of my students from last year made an appointment to see me. I assumed it was because she needed a recommendation letter. Although I am always happy to write letters for my students, I was pleasantly surprised to learn that this student did not want anything from me. She just wanted to say hello and catch-up. During our conversation, she told me she has been feeling overwhelmed lately by various world events and the current state of political discourse in our country–but that she has been so thankful to have poetry in her life. She spoke passionately about how poetry has been helping her to feel grounded in the midst of so much worldly turmoil.

I, too, have been overwhelmed by what has been going on in the world lately. And I, too, have been very thankful for poetry. I cannot remember a time in my life when I have felt such a visceral need for literature–for the transcendent power of a poem or a work of fiction. I have been reading much more fiction and poetry lately–not to escape what’s going on in the world but to satisfy my growing hunger for meaning, for transcendence, for beauty.

One of my favorite poets–Traci Brimhall–recently had a poem published on To me, her poem speaks so well to this desire for beauty in the world. Here is the link:

Until next month,

Lisa D.

Introduction by Lisa Dordal

Hello! My name is Lisa Dordal. I am a Nashville-based poet and teacher and I was recently invited by Peg Duthie to join this group as a monthly blogger. It took me a long time to realize I was a poet so I thought I would spend this first post talking a little about my journey as a poet.


I grew up in Hyde Park, a neighborhood on the South Side of Chicago, as the youngest of four. Our house was full of books and there was a strong emphasis on academics–particularly on math and science. The message I received growing up was that logic and empiricism were superior to feelings and personal experience. I did not excel at either math or science, so I spent a good portion of my childhood and early adulthood feeling inadequate academically–as well as denying the importance of my feelings. I wrote some poetry in high school and college but then nothing for many years. It simply didn’t occur to me that poetry was something I should be taking seriously. Having been told my whole life that there was only one legitimate way to acquire knowledge–one dominant and correct orientation for wisdom–I spent years feeling out of sync in terms of my ability to learn about and experience the world.


After I graduated from college in 1986, I worked at a variety of support-level jobs. Then in 2001–at the age of 37–I decided to go to divinity school. I had been a Religious Studies major in college and had also briefly pursued a master’s degree in feminist theology in my late 20’s. I never felt called to enter the ministry; I only felt called to go to divinity school. During divinity school, I was drawn to studying the Bible. I wanted to learn as much as possible about this text–or texts–in which women appeared to play such a minor role. I wanted to somehow crack open the stories so that I could hear a fuller story. During my last year of divinity school, I began to write poems in which I creatively re-imagined certain key stories in which women appear only peripherally. My point was to give these women a kind of voice–or at least my version of a voice–that had long been denied to them.


The same year that I graduated from divinity school (2005), my partner, Laurie, spotted an announcement on the Vanderbilt webpage for a weekly poetry workshop that was going to be starting that fall and that would be open to anyone from the Nashville community. She forwarded the announcement to me with a message saying I might want to consider signing up. It turns out that signing up for this workshop was the beginning of a whole new journey. Several years later–and many poetry workshops later–I applied and was accepted to Vanderbilt’s M.F.A. program in Creative Writing. And there I was–at the age of 45–a full-time graduate student.


Prior to enrolling in that first poetry workshop back in 2005, the only poetry I had been exposed to was whatever poetry had been assigned to me in my high school English classes or in the one literature class I had taken in college. Poetry, quite frankly, scared me. On the one hand, I was scared by how little of it I understood and, on the other hand, I was scared by how removed it seemed to be from the more “serious” pursuits of, say, science and math. Through my classes at Vanderbilt, I was introduced to a wide range of poets, and it was in the process of finally reading lots of poetry that I began to feel a sense of homeness inside of me–a sense of deep contentment as, finally, I was able to feed the deep hunger I had for knowing the world in the way that I needed to know the world.

This is what had been missing from my life for so long: the kind of radical, visceral, feeling-based immersion into the world that, for me, would come from reading and writing poetry. By immersing myself into poetry–by lowering myself into it–I am, at the same time, being lowered into the world, past and present, in a wonderfully embodied way. When I read poetry, I feel physically affected by it. Something happens inside of me.


Sometimes when I read a poem, it feels as if I am entering a room, a room in which every word has been loved into being; other times it feels as if I am walking along a wooded trail–as if each line of text is a path I must follow, must gladly follow. When I experience poetry as a kind of walking, I am aware of how much reading it slows me down. Poetry is sometimes described as language in which every word matters–take away one word and you take away the poem. When I enter the world of a poem, I am entering a world in which every word must be paid attention to. Slow, meditative attention. This slowing-down effect is particularly helpful to me at those times when I am feeling depressed or just generally overwhelmed by the events of the world around me. Reading the work of some of my favorite poets, slowly and meditatively one word a time draws me back to my center, to the present-ness of the moment. The French philosopher Simone Weil once said that absolute attention is prayer. The act of reading poetry is a way of paying absolute attention and, thus, for me, a kind of prayer.


Too, when I read poetry, I know that I am not alone. I know that my life is bound up with the lives of others in this strange and wonderful and too often profoundly painful narrative of life. And when I write poetry, I know that I am not alone–that, in the process of writing, I am being led towards something bigger and deeper than my life alone. And it is in this feeling of transcendence–this feeling of connection to the larger web of creation and the web of human history in particular–that I feel a sense of deep, deep joy.


So, that’s the slightly condensed version of my journey. And now I’d like to share one of my poems that was recently published in Ninth Letter. I won’t always be sharing my own work on this blog–there’s plenty of poems from other poets I’d like to share here–but I figured this poem sort of relates to my journey of becoming a poet. Here’s the link:

Until next month,

Lisa D.