Mid-January Thoughts: Poetry and More

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It’s been a typical weekend in New Orleans for me, and by that I mean I’ve been amazed in all kinds of ways and my heart tugged and torn. A black swan my daughter and I have been watching for months in City Park made its way into the more quiet sanctuary of the sculpture garden a few weeks ago, and on Saturday we saw that it is now nesting. My daughter quietly inched toward the nest marked by a sign and museum barrier placed around the nest for safety, put her finger to her lips and whispered, “Shhh, Mama. We have to be quiet so she can take care of her eggs.”

My daughter was so excited about seeing the mother warming her eggs. Neither of us had ever seen a black swan, or any swan, nesting, but since she’s four and I’m considerably older, I’m not sure for whom the experience was more delightful.

On Sunday, I watched, like many people did, the Atlanta Falcons beat the Seattle Seahawks to earn a trip to the NFC championship game. Saints fans have suffered this year. Tremendously. All season we kept saying it felt like old times, but maybe it was worse because we know the possibility of winning now. The idea, though, of our city hosting the Super Bowl and possibly having the Dirty Birds come into our house to play and win may be tougher to swallow than the entire bounty scandal and season we’d rather forget.

Sickened by the game, I shoed up my daughter for our daily walk through the neighborhood or trip to the park. We opted for a walk. We were barely down the street when we heard what sounded like exceptionally loud hammering on a roof, which is common because our Mid-City neighborhood still has a lot of houses in various stages of abandonment or repair because of Hurricane Katrina. But there wasn’t the rhythm of construction and it kept going for a while. Soon after I heard the onslaught of sirens and saw the ambulances, and my daughter pointed out the fire truck and police cars. We were out in the open, vulnerable, and I needed to get us home, but we had unknowingly walked toward the scene of yet another double shooting that was still unfolding. I tucked my daughter on my side away from the street and we headed home, stopping at her insistence, though, to pick flowers to put on our porch so “everyone who comes by can enjoy them.”

By nightfall, when I’d sat down to write my introduction to the winter issue, I was emotionally spent. After a weekend like that, how could I turn my focus to poetry? How could I not? But I couldn’t, so I put it away till morning when I could be open to the exceptional work in this issue.

Maggie Smith’s fine suite of seven poems paints a narrative of a mother and daughter who live alone in the wilderness while the father is off somewhere, sometime returning. The daughter has a special relationship with a hawk that watches over her, protects her—“They are tethered, an invisible/string between them”—until she is ready to leave the forest where “The ground beneath her feet is a trick/of gold wings [that] at any moment . . . might flutter, then rise all at once” as she enters the world on her own. It’s a series of mysterious, beautifully detailed and touching poems.

Then there’s Thomas Reiter’s tribute to Civil War photographer Mathew Brady, which convinces us to believe that important work, no matter how long suppressed or lost, will survive and reemerge, perhaps in the most surprising of places, perhaps in a greenhouse growing the very type of flowers that inspired the artist in his lifetime. And his poem “In Praise of Lichens” reminds us that in the most unlikely places, this time in the cleaved trunk of a fallen tree, the only thing the world wants is “to teach us earthlings / how to love one another.”

Perhaps that is the case, but love isn’t always the focus of someone’s actions, or maybe it is; maybe it’s the lack of love that shapes some behaviors. Kevin Prufer’s “Alligators” explores man as alligator and matter-of-factly sums up at one point, “. . . an alligator slides backward into its pond the way a ruined man slides into himself.” Prufer, as always, stuns me with his talent. However, it’s his “Cleveland, Ohio” that draws me back again and again. About almost as devastating as another piece bearing the state’s name, Beckett’s Ohio Impromptu, a poignant late-career piece in which the listener in the play can find no relief after the loss of a loved one, Prufer’s “Cleveland, Ohio” opens with “The last thing my father did was lie in bed.” The layers of possible meaning already set for the reader, the speaker weaves in his father’s dying, witnessing someone shoot a barking dog left alone outside, and glimpsing either a mother or child in a hospital bed with tubes running to one or the other—he cannot tell which. His efforts to comfort any of them in their dying and his inability to find peace because he cannot know if the dying are “dreaming or merely emptied” is tempered by the image of “that woman wrapped in tubes [who] holds her child and sings.”

It’s this image of mother and child entwined, singing, that I’ll carry with me. It’s part of how we earthlings and all creatures remember the most important thing is to love one another; that in a world where people shoot lonely dogs on a leash just for being themselves, or the Dirty Birds might get to play the Super Bowl in our house, it’s even more important to cherish those rare sightings of black swans nesting, to leave out flowers for passersby to enjoy.

These are just a few of the very fine works that fill the winter issue. As always, the stories, essays, poetry, and art are outstanding. Our audio gallery this season includes readings from some of our favorite frequent contributors—the fantastic Philip Schultz, Brendan Galvin, and Susan Laughter Meyers — and newcomer to our pages, Deborah Flanagan.

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