POEMS

I wrote poems for years without calling them that, without seeing myself as a poet. I stuffed them into drawers. Left them in computer folders. Nobody knew. I hardly knew myself. They didn't matter.

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It began when I wrote some words as a gift to the people of Star Island NH, the temporary community of UUs (Unitarian-Universalists) with whom my sons and I spent a week every summer. I posted those words on a bulletin board there. Back in NYC I got a package in the mail. Someone had spent hours making an art piece from my words. "Unsaid on Star Island" meant enough to him to do that. Interesting.

I still stuffed my scribblings in drawers. Years of working on the Hedgebrook board to foster women writers' voices finally got to me in 2003. I was about to be 70 and no one had heard my voice. I could hear my NY editor T George Harris saying, "Oh just bareass it, Medlock."

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Knowing I had to take my shot, I created Bareass Press and Pagemakered a book of 70 poems, calling it Arias, Riffs & Whispers, Words Written for Voices. (Still not "poems" – you see that?)

My 70th birthday celebration was a coming-out party – five great actors reading from the book – it was terrifying to go bareass, letting people into that so private world.

And it was wonderful. But it wasn't enough to convince me. I was still uneasy when I sent the book to a real poet.

I can say from long acquaintances with writers that most of us, myself included, suffer from imposter syndrome, as in, “I’m doing this writing thing but I’m actually not that good and somebody’s gonna notice that and call me on it. I’m not really a writer.”

There came such a moment, in spades, after a new-found clan member began sending me poems, extraordinary poems, every single day. I researched him and found a history that stretched back half a century, his bona fides including praise from Bukowski and a cohort of other "outlaw" poets – soldiers, cops, seamen, factory workers, cons… Not a twee line among them.

So. Sending him this woman’s Arias, Riffs & Whispers was, as you can imagine, a bit intimidating. This awesome poet and I were now relatives. He might feel obliged to be polite rather than honest. I dreaded his response.

Then an email from him appeared that was not one of his poems. It opened with: “I began reading with all the open mindedness I could muster, and when you find yourself 'mustering' open mindedness, it means you have reservations.”

Uh oh. He dreaded reading the work and possibly hating it. I’m nailed. Not a writer. And then I read:

“What reservations I might have had got swept aside with the first three poems I read, in the Pseudo-bio section -- "Saigon 1960" ... "The Guy from Cap d'Antibes" ... and "Ahfrrikah", which really hit me between the eyes.

“These poems have a gyroscope that keeps them balanced, and the language is limpid. Which is fine and dandy for any sort of writing. But what turns them into poetry, and good poetry, is the way you shape this language into a living moment, carry the reader (this reader, at any rate) directly into what you are describing, and then (and this is the crown jewel), pull the reader beneath the surface into the emotional matrix of the poem, make him one with it.

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“The way I identify a really good poem is that it invades me like Attila the Hun. I become excited, agitated, and my mind starts to race. I feel disoriented, like a pygmy stepping out from under his forest canopy onto a savanna for the first time. Many of the poems I've read so far in Arias have done this to me, and reading three or four in a row that have this effect pretty much wrecks my day!”

At that point I had soaked three Kleenex with tears. And it went on.

“I went from Pseudo-bio to Sisters. I didn't start with Sisters because I dreaded being bombarded with bareass feminism. Imagine my surprise when the poems in Sisters hit me even harder than the poems in Pseudo-bio.

"Christ, I love the pithy, razor-sharp quality of "Miss Ena W's Fan". This quality comes out in a number of the poems, "The Guy from Cap", for instance. I laughed out loud, as I did in a number of other poems. And this is just one end of your broad (no pun intended) perspective and emotional spectrum. You render witches as full-dimensional and vividly human as anything I've ever read. And I have never read anything that better describes drowning than "Sea Sister".

"This all ties in with the way you pull the reader down into the matrix of the poem. What you also do in a number of the poems that I like very much is you handle a situation of tragedy and injustice by making the injustice a backdrop on which you etch the humanity of its victims; you use an injustice that detracts from humanity to enhance and fortify humanity; it's sort of like spinning gold out of straw.

"She Does Not Sing For You" totally captures what an incomplete man (and their numbers are legion) yearns for in a woman, some of which he might be entitled to if it were a reciprocal situation, and the last italicized stanza, "Vain, cold, soulless killer of good men—the bitch will pay", nails the hostility that comes forth when unreasonable demands are not met.

"In "Luisa" you again bring something to life better than I've ever seen it done–the 9-11 tragedy. I found myself inside one of those infernal towers for the first time. What makes this even more impressive is you did not (correct me if I'm wrong) experience that disaster firsthand, no more, I suspect, than you ever drowned.

"And good lord, you can be lethal with laser precision! "Spa" for instance. "Give us your tired, your rich, your/yuppie gringas yearning to/stop hyperventilating,/trying for some reason to be bonier." Shit! Wonderful!

"And "Delusion"—"The trainer of mounted police tells his men/to see rabbits when they must control/an undesirable crowd. When the cop/rides over the hippie hunched small/ over her fallen child's fragility he/does not see a mother and son/he would give his life for at/any other intersection--/he is clearing a street of rabbits." ... ...................................................................

So here I thank the Poet John Bennett for blasting away my imposter syndrome, for punching my admission ticket to the world of real writers.

The poems John mentioned in his letter are hot-linked here, and I’m putting others online expeditiously, because I have things to tell you, places to take you, feelings and thoughts to impart.

May the poems invade you, excite you, agitate you, make your mind race, make you laugh out loud, blow the top of your head off, pull you into the matrix of the poem, and make you one with them.

Because that’s what poems should do. And I am a poet.

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SHARBAT GULA

  • Seaglass eyes in the desert
  • green fear glaring forth
  • above a defiant mouth.
  • Russian bombs have fallen
  • in range of those young eyes,
  • have orphaned her, sent her
  • to walk through snow to the
  • camp where the foreign man
  • asked, “May I take your picture?”...

(The full poem is here.)

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CLERGY

  • Rainey steps back into the spotlight,
  • bright dots of sweat
  • shining on her clear skin.
  • She cues the combo
  • and moves into the mike.
  • The set is half done,
  • Ellington, Loesser and Kahn
  • the elegant fabrics
  • she’s laced in, around and over. ....
  • (Full Clergy on one page here.)

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GOTCHA

  • Clouds pretend to be mountains until
  • they move, revealing their massive joke.
  • Petals fall from the cherry unblemished and
  • play in the wind, as if they were detritus.
  • Lizard says he's rock, chortling as
  • we pass, missing him completely.
  • Water laps benignly then reforms as
  • tsunami, biting off the beach and
  • all the pretty houses.
  • Mountain stands serene in snow
  • and silent, curving symmetry,
  • enhancing views and property values,
  • until she tires of the charade and
  • claims her true volcano self.

    This is the full poem. You can see it on one page, here.

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CARNY MAN

  • He's bested bullies in schoolyards,
  • dodged descending barstools,
  • maneuvered mine fields,
  • lost eleven buddies in the Gulf,
  • heard a hundred women
  • howl the deaths of their men.
  • Decades of evasive action leave him
  • wary that his luck won't last,
  • weary of adrenaline bursts,
  • yearning for tranquility. ... more
  • (Full poem on one page)

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TALKING TO THE BVM

  • Elastic in her veil squeezes her head, the tulle scratches,
  • stockings crawl foreignly over her spindly legs.
  • She hopes that Sister Eulalia will click the cricket soon
  • so she can stand and the garter belt buttons will
  • stop digging into the backs of her bony thighs.
  • She looks up at Our Lady smiling down and asks,
  • "How do women wear these things?"...

(Full poem on one page here)

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THE SOUND

  • We're the Crusader, out of Petersberg,
  • bound for whaling grounds.
  • Creaking, dipping, rolling with the sea's heaves
  • till we enter the still, flat Sound
  • as guests.
  • Will they accept our presence, receive us?
  • We wait, attending their decision. ...
  • (Full poem on one page here)
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NOUVEAU MOSCOW

  • You grew up seeing the pictures—
  • fierce men in fur hats, standing on Lenin's tomb,
  • the Kremlin's fortress wall behind them
  • and before them, marching troops and missiles
  • poised to kill you.
  • .
  • Now stand here, a guest of the new regime,
  • both feet dead center of Red Square, August 2000. ...

    (Full poem on one page)

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THE FOUNTAIN OF YOUTH

Take a look at the fountain in your youth.

You won't need it then

but remember where it is

so you can find your way back.

Bathing suits optional.

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WAY LATE BLOOMER

  • After decades
  • of donkeying,
  • of moving
  • solidly,
  • bearing
  • whatever
  • cargo
  • needed
  • to be moved,
  • the load
  • is lighter,
  • the bearer
  • weaker,
  • the hooves
  • placed
  • far less
  • surely, the
  • old balance
  • not what it
  • once was,
  • y’know. ...
  • (Full poem on one page)

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PRAYER

  • Burrowing, bulging, it—no, they
  • move against her, within her,
  • gnawing nearer to things
  • she cannot live without—
  • organs, bones, synapses,
  • memories, senses, clarity.
  • .
  • "Pray that it's swift."
  • .
  • I do. I sit beside her,
  • praying to these agents of death,
  • Move quickly. Finish what you've started. ...

(Full poem on one page)

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A DEAF EAR

  • I’ve brought books of stories I can read to her.
  • My brother has come with her favorite tenors
  • and a new CD player. There are things we want
  • to tell her, about the new great granddaughter
  • who carries her name, about the fine apartment
  • where we’re moving Dad. We want to tell her
  • how amazed we are by the miracle we’ve found
  • in her accounts, the safety net she’s woven for him
  • with her thrift and savvy. Important things—
  • we think—for us to say, for her to hear, before she goes.
  • Her deaf ear is all she offers, her hearing side
  • deep in the pillow. The nurses gently turn her head
  • back to listening position. Instantly, resolutely, repeatedly,
  • she clamps the good ear down, reclaiming the silence. ...
  • (Full poem on one page)
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BRACKETS & TETHERS

  • She brackets his world,
  • her love, her daily work
  • the uprights that wall away the void,
  • holding in what good remains,
  • keeping him fed clothed cosseted,
  • safe within the bounds she sets
  • as old echoes drown out current voices,
  • familiar doors and furnishings move themselves
  • to confusing, bruising positions,
  • memory invades present time to make
  • her pale, white-rimmed face
  • not that of his freckled, red-haired wife
  • but of some frightening stranger. ...

(Full poem on one page)

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UNSAID ON STAR ISLAND

  • Don't go. Don't take away the lights.
  • I wanted to say...
  • the words are locked in here.
  • I have no voice for them.
  • But I have hand, paper, pen.
  • And what I wanted to tell you is
  • my son is asleep in his room,
  • breathing quietly, singed pink and gold by the sun.
  • smudged with dirt, worn still
  • by the speed of his day on Star. ...
  • .
  • (Full poem on one page)
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SAIGON 1960

  • There's a dead tiger on the sidewalk
  • in front of our neighborhood bar
  • and at the table next to the enormous carcass,
  • a French hunter cursing the missing client
  • who commissioned the kill.
  • We are not in Kansas. ...
  • .
  • (Full poem on one page)
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AHFRRIKAH

  • A tree buds, blooms, leafs, molts, buds
  • in a single week.
  • Say it right – Ahfrrikah.
  • Afternoon sky leaps from blue to black,
  • converting air to down-falling river.
  • Stops. Goes blue again and steams the ground.
  • All in minutes.
  • Ahfrrikah. ...
  • .
  • (Full poem on one page)
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MISS ENA WERTHEIMER'S FAN

  • Ena's burgundy velvet, her sister's white satin
  • welcome the touch. You can see the pulse in
  • their young round arms, shoulders, necks,
  • feel the press of Betty’s wrist at Ena’s waist.
  • One, two, twenty certain strokes and the fan
  • is in Ena’s hand, ready to conceal a foolish whisper.
  • “Mr. Sargent is so handsome.
  • Do you think he’ll stay for dinner?” ...
  • .
  • (Full poem on one page)
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WITCHES

  • Far down the stone passageway, a key turns,
  • a heavy door is pried open and shoved shut
  • as the passageway funnels to our acute ears
  • a woman's scream
  • reeling high over the deep imprecations of our jailors.
  • It is time. They are coming.
  • The uncertainty ceases now,
  • the not knowing when they will end this. ...
  • .
  • (Full poem on one page)
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SEA SISTER

  • She hears the ship splinter and crack.
  • It shudders and is pulled through the seatop
  • out of the known world
  • down into some other, terrifying realm
  • where air cannot fill its sails,
  • where weight and darkness rule. ...
  • .
  • (Full poem on one page)
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SHE DOES NOT SING FOR YOU

  • To Donne who yearned to heare,
  • Yeats who pursued,
  • And Eliot who was right...
  • SHE DOES NOT SING FOR YOU
  • Glittering, curving, unknown
  • to sky, land and flame,
  • she pauses in her confident progress
  • through her realm and circles you curiously. ...
  • .
  • (Full poem on one page)
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LUISA

  • I was looking uptown, the day so clear I could almost see
  • my building there, in the Bronx,
  • way up the A line, and the school.
  • I was saying a prayer that the first day of second grade
  • was going well for Eduardo, when I saw the plane.
  • The sky was always full of planes,
  • but this one, this one was all wrong,
  • not flying where the others did.
  • Help them, Madre de Dios. ...
  • .
  • (Full poem on one page)
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SPA

  • Tecate’s women cross the grounds,
  • smooth warm clay in motion,
  • sculptures down from their pedestals,
  • moving to chambers booked solid for the week.
  • Tecate’s women will soothe away
  • the wrinkles in pale fuzzy skin,
  • unclench muscles wound tight by
  • infighting on the fortieth floor,
  • by alimony battles and Junior's
  • third involuntary drug rehab. ...
  • .
  • (Full poem on one page)
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DELUSIONS

    • He hears a pachink when the child falls.
    • Another for the grandfather. Louder
    • yet for the clean shot at the pumps.
    • His head rings like a neon arcade
    • triumphing the points of his kills
    • as real blood warm pools into
    • living schoolyard grass onto
    • the gas station macadam to
    • swirl with the rainbowed
    • oil spills. It's virtual, man.
    • A game with losers
    • and a winner.
    • .
    • (Full poem on one page)
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    MERWOMAN SEEKS COURTYARD

    • Sabe donde este patio es?
    • The merwoman has come to San Miguel to find it,
    • to rest in the warm shade of this loggia
    • and feel the breeze, hear the birds,
    • to reach out for an orange and peel it,
    • inhaling Valencia. ...

    (Full poem on one page)

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    SPACE/TIME NON-CONTINUUM

    • This cannot be Dunkirk.
    • Dunkirk is where Stukas strafe
    • the beach and water as Tommies
    • wade out to the trawlors and yawls
    • that have come cross channel to take them home.
    • There cannot be changing cabanas
    • and soft drink vendors at Dunkirk.
    • Arbeit Macht Freiis still above the gate
    • as we are urged onward
    • not by SS officers or sondercommandos­—by tour guides. ...
    • .
    • (Full poem on one page)
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    FIGURE AND GROUND

    • Each pane of the old window
    • framed a different crag of the range.
    • On the days when she was there to see them
    • she knew he was somewhere on one or another,
    • too far to see or hear, yet she saw
    • his scarlet parka marking his location
    • sharply against the snow,
    • saw him kicking spiked boot toes into a wall of ice,
    • saw his long legs pistoning him over a crevasse,
    • heard him jangling his gear and tackle, laughing. ...
    • .
    • (Full poem on one page)
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    ODE TO THE GROOM

    • Now let us sing to praise our God
    • for all the manly things,
    • for the laugh that’s bass,
    • for the lofty view,
    • for the headlong juggernaut moves;
    • for taking up large spaces
    • and yearning toward new thrills
    • on the pinnacles of mountains
    • while we favor soft, gold hills. ...

      (Full poem on one page)

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    THE MEANEST MAN IN HORSECREEK VALLEY

    • “If I was that ugly, I’d at least stay home with it.”
    • The child laughs, thinking it’s a joke, but he is glaring
    • at the women passing the porch where the old man
    • and his Yankee granddaughter rock.
    • “The Levelheads, I call em,” he says loudly,
    • so the women have to hear. “Look at em.
    • Heads don’t go up and down when they walk.”
    • .
    • (Full poem on one page)
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    SWEETPEAS & V-MAILS

    • Everyday she writes another one,
    • the flimsy little sheet that folds
    • into itself to make an envelope.
    • What can she find to say when
    • she just wrote to him yesterday?
    • She writes the address that doesn't
    • mean anything, doesn't say where he is
    • ComDesWesPacFor FPO SF Calif
    • .
    • (Full poem on one page)
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    R & R

    • Frantic laughter drowns out fire fights
    • last week next week an hour away by PanAm.
    • Tinny band nasal Suzie Wong attempting
    • Jumpin' Jack Flash. Failing.
    • Hands slide into side slits in red cheong sams
    • knock back mai tais and straight shots
    • pound tables to give the band the beat.
    • It's a gas gas gas. Don't you get it?
    • It's a gas gas gas.
    • .
    • (Full poem on one page)
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    TONANTZIN

    • All right that's enough.
    • Over four centuries of this nonsense
    • is quite quite enough.
    • The black Madonna. Her picture on
    • Cuauhtlatohuc's robe.
    • Roses in December. Castilian roses.
    • Mary, Queen of the Americas. Mary.
    • .
    • Listen and listen closely.
    • .
    • My name is Tonantzin, mother of all the Aztecs.
    • .
    • (Full poem on one page)
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    TWO COFFINS 1968

    • Just days ago the calloused feet,
    • unlike the hands, free of tubes,
    • moved weakly to the echoes
    • of a schottische playing across time.
    • Tonight generations circle the open casket,
    • the lipsticked face letting them know
    • they are no longer orbiting Mama.
    • .
    • (Full poem on one page)
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    MANDELA

    • In his eighth decade he stands here free,
    • emerged from the caged years, from
    • the unintended monastery where reckless
    • fire became the molten gold radiating now
    • in his gaze, his voice, in the hand
    • that holds Graca’s as he turns to
    • leave the room, still guarded by
    • blond Afrikaaners, surrounding
    • him, glaring menace at the eager
    • crowd, pressing against us to
    • clear his way to wherever he wishes
    • to be. ...
    • .
    • (Full poem on one page)
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    A MANDALA FOR SISYPHUS

    • The brilliant lines and
    • shapes take form,
    • grain by bright grain
    • as orange and burgundy
    • robes border the table.
    • Golden hands infinitely
    • precise and certain
    • put down tiny trails
    • the colors of cardinals,
    • jays and cockatoos.
    • .
    • (Full poem on one page)
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    DAMAGE CONTROL

    • The deep white pack eases down the steep warm roof,
    • revealing red metal at the roofline.
    • The pack curls down, far over the eaves,
    • cold trumping gravity to hold there,
    • seemingly unsustained,
    • ending in improbably long tendrils of thin clear ice. ...
    • .
    • (Full poem on one page.)
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    EVERGREEN CODE OF THE WEST

    • Express shots from earth to God
    • bold straight trunks, our branches
    • fragile afterthoughts useful only
    • for briefly collecting snow which
    • we may or may not let fall
    • as you pass among us,
    • if the wind visits,
    • if the temperature rises a degree or two,
    • if the weight begins to annoy.
    • (Full poem on one page.)
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    FEBRUARY AT FIVE

    • Startling late arrival,
    • forgotten in long absence,
    • Sol has sneaked south,
    • ducked beneath the weight of cloud cover,
    • darted through small openings
    • in the thick black trees
    • to paint gold shafts down long dull trunks,
    • to pleat them all light dark light dark,
    • to prance right through wet foggy glass,
    • to point warm fingers at
    • a yellow chair here,
    • three tangerines there,
    • to prod us with a, "Look, how beautiful."

      (On one page)

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    NOUVEAU MOSCOW

    • You grew up seeing the pictures—
    • Fierce men in fur hats, standing on Lenin's tomb,
    • the Kremlin's fortress wall behind them
    • and before them, marching troops, and missiles poised to kill you.
    • Now stand here, a guest of the new regime,
    • both feet dead center of Red Square, August 2000. ...

      (Full poem on one page.)

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    ANIMA

    • The writer stares at paper,
    • moaning for his missing muse.
    • Nothing will appear until She does,
    • whispering the perfect words in his ear.
    • It will be his name on the book, the poem, the story,
    • with no mention of how he happened to hear those words.
    • .
    • (Full poem on one page)
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    MICHELANGELO'S HAND

    • Giancarlo steadies himself with one hand
    • against the fabled ceiling
    • as with the other he gently wipes away
    • the veil of centuries,
    • incense and wax, sneezes and coughs,
    • all that has turned
    • the Master's exuberant palette into elegant gloom.
    • They have been here for months, reversing time,
    • while the world debates the dangers, the proprieties. ...
    • (Full poem on one page.)
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    INTRUDERS

    • Annually the doe brings her fawns
    • to the feasting table that is our garden.
    • We begin as City Folk, charmed at the sightings,
    • become Locals in exasperation that "tall rodents"
    • have once again decimated our roses and our parsley.
    • This year she stepped out of the forest
    • with the smallest offspring ever,
    • one that fit under her when she stood. ...
    • (Full poem on one page.)

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    JOSEPH CAMPBELL'S POCKETS

    • What do you know, Joe,
    • after all that study, all that tracking
    • of humanity’s search for the sacred,
    • for import, for course coordinates?
    • A veritable Harpo of revelations
    • he pulls from a vest pocket “Natural Music”
    • and tells us that Jeffers got it right: ...
    • (Full poem on one page.)
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    PHI

    • The formula for perfection, not created—found
    • by the dissectors, the analyzers—
    • observing, measuring, discovering
    • to their astonishment that the number
    • is everywhere, from the galaxies to our DNA,
    • hidden and visible,
    • in a beautiful face and a fiddlehead fern. ...

      (Full poem, on one page.)