the blood already running there

Today’s PAD challenge: take a favorite poem, change its title, and then write a poem in response to the new title.

[Source poem: A Poem for Painters by John Wieners]

A Drink for Dabblers

To start, there is no defense.

My kitchen contains no wild
fruit, no
flapping of guardian
wings, no cherished chants,

yet, when petitioned
to brew up a blessing,
I leave the drawbridge down,

so eager my fire
to be more than a brown shadow
lining a wall within the ruins
of other people’s memories.

I serve you this tea,
knowing the thirst, leaving

what will last
up to your hands and their restless
roaming. My pitcher pours
its psalms upon palms
no longer outstretched
by the time the ale foams
its promises along
the cracks of your gloves.

– pld

[Some poems are like “Greensleeves” — they become the song that slides without a second thought out of one’s fingertips during sound checks, at unattended pianos, and within collabs and improvs. I’ve riffed on “A Poem for Painters” before, and if you peeked at yesterday’s handwritten drafts, you’ll have noticed that I’d started out by picking yet another fight with Shakespeare Sonnet 116…]

one from the weekend

I did see Friday’s PAD prompt before catching my flight to New Orleans: it was “Friday.” I flirted with a number of possibilities over the following twenty-odd hours, but I eventually sketched out the start of this early Saturday morning (I habitually fade away to bed before the rest of the Saz-Erac household. While it doesn’t always translate into my rising before the others the next day, I woke up eager to write about a statue I’d seen the previous afternoon…):


Five days of the week, and sometimes six,
Stanley is at his desk before sunrise.
Four days of the week, and sometimes five,
he’s still crunching numbers
after the sun disappears

but Friday night, no matter who tries
to chain him to their columns of demands,
Stanley leaves the office before sundown

and as the candles glow
and the wine wakens his tongue,
shining psalms unfurl from Stanley’s shoulderblades,
floating him into his day of rest.


bagatelle night

The PAD prompt for day 13 was “hobby.” Here’s my effort (a bit over a half-hour in a gmail window; kick-started primarily by Martha Rhodes’s April 10 “Poet’s Pick” for the Poetry Daily e-letter (a rondelet by Anon that began “I never meant…”)):

Calligrapher’s Rondelet

The letter f
defies finesse. Out of my pen,
each letter f
looks like a mashed-up treble clef.
I had not dreamt, when I began,
how I’d draw again and again
this letter f.


[I’ve still half a mind to call it “Calligrapher’s Rondeloop,” but perhaps I’ll reserve that for a grander (and/or more grandiose) take on the topic (some other night).]

counting past ten in various languages

Today’s is a long ‘un, thanks to the prompt (“memory”) coinciding with me waking up way too early for my taste (especially after indulging in two post-midnight visits to the museum — my thanks to Mary for drawing my attention to the prompts). It wasn’t until at least fifteen minutes later that I realized, “Oh, it’s April 9. Maybe last night’s freaky bubble tea isn’t to blame…”

From Poem A Day Drafts
Click images to enlarge ’em

Missing Characters

This morning, I woke up muttering, “Ba,”
after a nightmare about practicing Chinese.
“Ba” is half of the word for “Daddy.”
Mine would have been sixty-eight today.
His ashes are still in my closet. Mom’s too.
She died last year, the week before Easter,
and glad as I am that they didn’t live
to witness the economy’s current throes
(the anxiety would have finished them off
even more unpleasantly than the cancers did),
my body keeps reminding me that grief
doesn’t have to make sense. That it can be
larger than love or loyalty, no matter
how much the mind resigns itself, makes peace
with what our family failed to be —
a peace I must repair again and again
at every funeral I attend where the kids
remember being loved for who they actually are,
or when I stop by China Dragon and
can manage only “shay shay” in Mandarin
when I pick up my quart of General Tso’s chicken.
Last spring, as I emptied out my mother’s house,
I e-mailed my brother list after list
of things I wanted to make sure he
was okay with me hauling out to the curb,
but I also told him if I came across
the notebooks from those futile years
of Chinese sessions with Mom, I would reach
for a match and the gallon jug of gasoline
without waiting for him to write back.

For someone notorious as a brainy kid,
I’ve turned out to be a late bloomer:
it wasn’t until college that I finally grasped
how musical intervals worked, in spite
of violin lessons since I was seven.
I didn’t cook much of anything
until my marriage, and only now
am I getting the hang of prepositions
in French, a language I did business in
for over two years. So I think it’s okay
for me to hope the next time I study Chinese,
more of it will stick, like good rice
and stupid jokes and the occasional memory
that doesn’t make me flinch or squirm.
Much of what Mom had never thrown away
was of the “Oh dear God, what NOW?” variety —
herbal pellets predating my brother’s birth
(I used them to line a box of his documents),
a fossilized pastry purloined from the clinic,
coffee from a 1990s flight to Japan —
but I also found the sewing journal
I now store next to my father’s dissertation
and while I didn’t save Dad’s old pajamas —
the ones I’d donned to read aloud to my brother
when he was small enough to be scared
at Dad being in the hospital — one of the times
Mom laughed at me without disdain or despair,
even though she then had to re-wash the pajamas
before she could take them to Dad — you see
how there’s too much to keep as it is?
I snipped out a square of the faded cotton
and taped it into the steno pad
I’d swiped from one of Mom’s many stashes
to note down all the things I was throwing away.

– pld

Process postscript: I made a boatload of tweaks as I typed the poem into the comment box, and that was with multiple interruptions, so there will likely be a raft more to be made once I’m in the mood to revise this some more. In the meantime, I expect (hope!) to be Away From Keyboard until Monday night, so here’s wishing you a happy festival of your choice (and/or festivity and/or general frolicking) as the week wends toward its end. 🙂

Dishing the Dirt (PAD, day 7)

Now that I think about it, that would have been a great (and way more work-safe) theme to explore for today’s PAD prompt, which was to write about something “clean” or something “dirty.”

But, well, this is what showed up instead. Today’s effort was typed directly into a gmail message box (I e-mail my digital drafts to myself, both for backup and as a diary of sorts — knowing I can go back to an earlier incarnation of a piece frees me up to take risks with it, since I have the older version a few clicks away if it turns out I’ve headed into the wrong direction or slaughtered the wrong darling); I wasn’t quite expecting it to become as long as it did (or to veer into the directions it ended up taking), which is another reason I started it online rather than on paper. Total time since sitting down has been about an hour (with some business correspondence and research mixed in); total thinking time before that was across maybe ninety minutes (got a late start this morning, and looked up the prompt only after skimming the NYT and WSJ and some online research for a fic-in-progress. I made three or four changes between the version on gmail and the version posted at PAD (including the title and adding a new final line), and two more edits between PAD and here (ETA: and at least one more since posting):

Behind Closed Doors

Pain has a way of trumping prudishness
so when I long aloud for an axe
to hack out the Gordian gnarl
of masking tape and mistletoe
encased within my skull

and Mary Jo then tells me
about coffee enemas,
I go buy the kit and a tiny foil bag
of a fair-trade blend, and I test
the brew with my tongue and then
I take it all to my bathroom
and lock the door even though
I live with no one but a cactus
who thrives on the dregs of my lattes.

I’m not surprised that it works.
It’s almost like sex: so ridiculous
and so messy it belongs nowhere near
the sanitized chat of the water cooler,
but Mary Jo’s a friend of many years,
one with whom I can be blunt
about the commandments I break
and the breaking of them, especially
the ones about what comes in and out
of my mouth. If there exists a hell
beyond migraines and menstruation,
I’ll be consigned to it not for murder
or other majestic mayhem, but
for gossip and petty tyrannies
and lies to cover my ass. Sometimes
I dream of scrubbing out my brain:
the regrets and their residue
take up so much space, and
not a thousand stale breadcrumbs
will erase them, though I stand
on the banks of the Harpeth every fall,
casting my white-bread sins into its current
and silently begging God to make it easier
for me to be good, to keep my nose clean
no matter who might be coming next through the door.

– pld

writing farther, writing faster…

Today’s PAD prompt is “something missing.” I may yet write about socks and/or holidays, but for now, what you get from a cold and cranky Peg is Elizabeth Bishop and Thomas Wyatt too much on the brain:

From Poem A Day Drafts

Without Leave

Screw the art of losing. The things that don’t stay gone
cast the longest shadows and spawn the cruelest dreams —
now I see you, now I don’t. What manner of fun
merits such easy prey? I pray you and your schemes
to cease this hide and seek with what you say I own:
unhappy is the hound who once possessed a bone.

– pld

Holy Day 5, Bat-poet!

I think my response to today’s Poetic Asides post ended up as #479. The prompt was “landmark”; I snuck a peek at it before church, and even jotted down some ideas while in my pew…

From Poem A Day Drafts

…and, two Word documents and eight attempts at a title later, this is what it’s gonna be for the night:

Here We Go ‘Round the 440 Loop

The spires of the Batman Building to my left
tell me that I’ve once again gone astray,
auto-piloting my car to Green Hills
instead of the museum at which I was supposed
to meet you ten minutes from now. It’s hard
not to feel like a joke when this happens: if I
were a cartoon, I’d be Charlie Brown’s foot
connecting yet again with nothing but air
and mockery. And yet I don’t mind
making my girlfriend laugh when I explain
the photos she wants to see of the plum tree
three blocks north will be stuck on my phone
until I reload the BlueTooth software
that’s on the CD I happened to file
somewhere other than where I looked last night.
There’s no diploma from Superheroine U.
shining from my walls, and yet I can’t help
feeling I should be able to help myself
from and over this kind of stupid —
to hurdle the rote and routine in a single bound
and hurl myself headlong into any darkness,
trusting my heightened senses to haul me through
and restore what I can to a story we can bear.

– pld

PAD day 3: “The Problem with Easter” (+ notes on process)

It’s not a trend that will continue, but the comment counts at Poetic Asides have been lower each day as I get around to posting there: on day 1, my comment was somewhere in the 860s; yesterday it was in the 300s; and today I’m in the 180s.

Mind, if I was smart and patient, I’d wait until later in the day (or even a day or two) to post these, since I invariably find small improvements to make a few hours later. However, I think part of what’s uncorked my March-dormant mojo (more on that at my own blog, in a bit) is making a point of making this a less-pressure exercise: because I’m acknowledging online that these are day-of drafts, and because I’m letting myself be okay with spending not too much time on them before moving on (I’m allocating to myself just thirty minutes on them, with the option to indulge in more only if the spirit so moves), and because the prompts (and, today, the title) are set by someone else, the “must make this as good as everything everyone’s read before by me” demon has slunk back to its swamp for the time being.

The downside, of course, is that posting them online disqualifies them from most paying markets, so to get more circulation for them, I’ll have to get serious at some point about compiling a manuscript (something that stopped being a near-future goal several years ago). However, saying even that is definitely putting the hansom ahead of the horses – let’s first see how many more of the challenges I manage to rise to.

Here’s today’s effort (already with two edits since the initial posting). The prompt was to title a poem with “The Problem with _______” and then write it:

The Problem with Easter

Five years ago, Vera mourned aloud,
“How hard can it be to find a hot cross bun?”
She’d scoured the local supermarkets, and
the only ones she’d found resembled
spongy cardboard with shriveled raisins.
The bakeries here require advance orders,
plus they charge more than she wanted to pay.
“Story of our lives,” Milton said. “You’d think
we’d know by now that what’s worth wanting
is going to cost more than what’s easy to get.”
Most of the time, I think of myself
as a pretty smart cookie, but this morning
as I pushed open the door to Marché,
I suddenly remembered my father’s birthday
is just six days away. This year
he would have become sixty-eight. Such days
were not a big deal in my family, nor
were any other holidays, and I doubt
he ever tasted a hot cross bun during his life,
and I doubt even more that he truly believed
in eternal life, deathbed conversion be damned.
It gave my aunt comfort, but it made my mom mad
enough to complain, “Too much Bible!”
as I tried to arrange a service to serve
the memory of who he’d wanted to be.
Mom never forgave me for wasting good money
on the pointlessness of a funeral. Two Sundays
before she died, she made me promise
I wouldn’t run obituaries or accept memorials –
vows I knew I would break as I made them.
When I was a girl, I adored the antique tales
of love and truth transcending all odds:
The hero doesn’t stab to death the dragon
housing the heart of his cursed true love.
The beauty twines her arms around the beast.
The harp avenges the silenced sister. I still
believe in a “happy ever after” of sorts, but one
that is stained and crumpled and patched
with the scraps of ill-colored sails. My altar
is the table at which we gather round
to knead today’s bread so that it may rise,
the only multiplication my fingers can clasp.

Part of how Mary and I became blog-friends years ago was our mutual interest in the nitty-gritty of making stuff, and it seems to interest some of my other readers as well, so here’s the DVD extra on how this poem got to its current state:

–> I peeked at the prompt first thing this morning after checking my e-mail and scanned some of the comments already posted. (This was useful, as it instantly eliminated some of the options I might have otherwise considered.) Pondered variations such as “the problem with love,” “the problem with holidays,” “the problem with babies,” “the problem with kittens,” “the problem with manga,” etc., as I drove the dog to Miss Kitty’s (a local groomer — I don’t know what Abby rolled in two days ago, but it was foul, and some of it hardened in her fur, and there’s a point where it just becomes more prudent to let the pros deal with it).

–> Took a wrong exit on my way to something else, and realized I’d forgotten a bunch of other things at home, and my body was giving me some strong “need protein NOW” signals, so I decided to stop at Marche for breakfast.

–> Noticed a sign on one of the windows listing a couple of April dates, which unexpectedly jolted me into thinking, “Oh, April 9 is in just a few days.”

–> Ordered a latte and corned beef hash, scanned a newspaper, and then opened my planner to organize my thoughts:

From things that make me happy

[Click the image to view it up close.]

–> Realized where the poem was heading. Took out my laptop and started a Word document.

–> Typed through the latte and hash. Wasn’t done when the waiter brought the check, so I ordered a slice of chocolate-blood orange strata and kept going.

–> Finished the poem halfway through the strata (as the waiter warned, it was really rich, so it made for slow eating. Marché tends to be impossibly crowded during weekends, so it was startling to be able to linger there this morning — there was only one other table occupied when I first arrived). Started a “welcome back, mojo!” post for my personal blog.

For what it’s worth, the poem is more autobiography than not: “Vera” is a stand-in for a relative who did in fact lament the difficulty of finding hot cross buns some years ago (something I remembered recently, because my favorite bakery is offering them via special order this year. Said bakery is Jewish-owned — there’s a mezuzah at the entrance, and everything in the cases is dairy kosher, as far as I can tell — so yeah, the fact that I can get both hamentaschen and hot cross buns there is probably a poem I might write some other time). “Milton” is one of my alter egos. Everything after “Most of the time” is direct from life — and while I didn’t cast it in these specific words before breakfast today, it’s stuff that’s simmered within various levels of my consciousness for the better part of a decade — and, at times over the past month, boiling back into a furious boil, since I’ve had to relive it parts of it while organizing my parents’ papers for the estate tax returns.

Which is a long way of saying, sometimes what a prompt does is to kick a poem up out of the depths that had mined and tumbled it from a long ways back. (And that is a half-heated metaphor to cook into poetry some other day, so that’s enough from me here, for now.)