Monday, September 18, 2017


A few years ago, my friend Janet Faulk-Gonzales and I wrote a book, Porch Posts, in which we extolled the virtues of porch sitting. Here on The Mountain at Sewanee, Tennessee I often sit on a small front porch and write. Usually, I am a solitary dweller, but this morning I was joined by several spiders, one of which may have been a Wolf Spider, a big hairy thing that is rumored to have a painful bite, and I wasn’t enchanted by the company. In fact, I killed it — without remorse, I might add.

I know that spiders inhabit the pages of many famous writers — the talking spider that makes clicking noises in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets by J. D. Rowling; Charlotte, the spider who talks to a pig in Charlotte’s Web by E. B. White; Shelob, the giant spider in J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, and out of the childhood of most of us whose mothers read us nursery rhymes: the critter that scared Little Miss Muffet when she was trying to eat her breakfast. I have no fondness for any of them. We have spider pest control but as we live in a small wood, our spider population is often abundant, even though the bug man visits monthly and brings in a giant swifter to sweep away nests, eggs, and the persistent spiders.

I console myself that spiders do eat pest insects like the mosquito that abounds in south Louisiana where I live part of the year, but I don’t see as many of them in Teche country as I do in Tennessee. In fact, the pest control workers here publish a list of common Tennessee spiders that might cause you pain. Among them are the brown recluse that gets the worst press of all in the spider kingdom; the black widow with its red hourglass marking; and the wolf spider that I did away with this morning.

Some of these creatures have eight eyes; some, six, but the wolf spider only has a pair of large eyes that were watching me this morning. Did I get any writing done out on the porch after I sent the wolf spider to meet his maker? Not much. But I did look up a poem about spiders by one of my favorite writers, Don Marquis, who wrote: "…I will admit that some/ of the insects do not lead/ noble lives but is every/ man’s hand to be against them? Yours for less justice/ and more charity." This was signed by aArchie the cockroach, Marquis’s major character (along with Mehitabel the alley cat) who appeared in his newspaper column in New York City’s The Evening Sun.

Sorry that this is so abbreviated but I dared not invite the Muse this morning as She usually keeps better company.

Wednesday, September 13, 2017


Next in Line
A definition of “philosophical” I once read is: “exploration of what the game is about.” Another definition describes the word as meaning that local concerns are trivial in the light of more profound truths. As I read Pinyon Publishing’s latest poet, Annette Barnes, who was a former professor of philosophy, these definitions seem to fit her apprehensions of our time on earth.

The lead poem in this volume, “What We Want,” is one that reflects a certain detachment while the poet thinks through issues facing humans “doing what they want,” — issues of power, non-sharing, ruthlessness, war… “like animals on a short leash who/discover the leash is gone and suddenly take off,/thinking freedom’s free”… However, she concludes with a beautiful resolution: “the view from up here swarms with light the way/bees pulse a hive, but you must climb up before/you can hear the souls of the fallen rise.”

Barnes isn’t dispassionate in her observations about ordinary life and attempts to see things from every angle as she explores the “Imperfections of Everyday Life,” bringing the trivial to higher thought as “Boys in red caps and jackets kick/a soccer ball, tread on the daffodils…” To me, this poem exemplifies the carelessness of contemporary living, “the women to her left talk[ing]/through the mid-week matinee, tak[ing] no notice of attempts/to quiet them…” I hear echoes of W.H. Auden in the lines: “Living on a planet whose core of/molten rock erupts infrequently/allows us to be careless.” To some readers, she may seem to be dispassionate in the face of adverse conditions but in the spirit of a true philosopher, her love of wisdom overrides difficult ordinary situations.

Comic relief comes through a wry poem entitled “The Cat,” who “when annoyed/wags her tail/like a spinster’s finger…a Julia Child/about food/spends a night/licking Brie/Learns only what she wants…doesn’t learn to fetch,/carries her weapons concealed.” Another tongue-in-cheek concerns “Religion” in which Barnes explores the number three, writing that because she lived at three three three, “the Trinity appealed to me./Jesus crucified, a perfidy/that hides Judas made reality,/the Virgin birth, anomaly,/the Resurrection, mystery,/three, distant in unity,/what more ask of Divinity?”

One of her poems reminded me of the poet Billy Collins, again comic relief overcoming the objective of profundity. It’s entitled “Topics For A Book Club Discussion (Recommended for ages six and above).” Number 4. within the poem features Humpty Dumpty: “Was Humpty Dumpty/a. a king/b. a cannon/c. an egg./Did Humpty Dumpty merit the attention/of so many of the King’s men?/Discuss how one should allocate emergency/relief resources.” Barnes also offers discussion topics for “Little Miss Muffet,” “Sing a Song of Six Pence,” and “Old King Cole,” in a highly amusing take on nursery rhymes.

Barnes’ end poem, “Elsewhere” exemplifies Robert Frost”s assessment of good poetry: “A poem should begin in delight and end in wisdom.” She writes that “A blackbird sips rain/water from the hydrangea’s saucer, chirping/between sips. Elsewhere lovers pant between/kisses, butterflies sip tortoise tears and runners/reach finish lines. No bombs go off, no one dies."

In eighty pages of poetry Barnes succeeds in creating direct expressions of profound truths, wisdom that flashes like polished gems. Artistry and amusement entwine throughout this volume.

Annette Barnes has also published two books of philosophy, Seeing through Self-Deception and On Interpretation. She lives in England, and Next In Line is her debut book of poetry. From beginning to end, a “glad surprise,” Pinyon!

Available from Pinyon Publishing, 23847 V66 Trail, Montrose, CO 81403.

Monday, September 11, 2017


Huntsville Botanical Garden Center

I’ve walked through many gardens, accompanied by a botanist, and Huntsville (Alabama ) Botanical Garden is among the world-class gardens I’ve seen. A few days ago, we spent the morning in this garden, viewing what the publicists tout as “the blending of traditional botanical garden elements, the aesthetic heritage of our region, the conservation of natural resources, and a thrust into the future.” This sounds like hype, but we viewed beautiful trails like the Mathews Nature Trail featuring the Holmes Trillium Garden, which is the largest Trillium Collection in the U.S.; the Damson Aquatic Garden featuring lotus and water lilies; and the Children’s Garden which contains eight gardens in one, including a wading pool with a Pollywog Bog.

Skipper on Ixora
Of course, I’m always enchanted with butterfly houses within a garden and the 9,000 sq. ft. structure housing 2,000 butterflies during butterfly season (May-September) seemed to be the highlight for children walking (and running) through the House. A waterfall and pond attracted one small three-year old female whose mother was busy trying to deter the child from taking off her shoes and jumping in. My favorite pond was that occupied by yellow-bellied slider turtles, and I felt sympathy for the three-year old who wanted to wade in for a closer look, turtles being critters that I think bring good will messages. A poem I wrote for my oldest daughter when she was five flashed through my mind. It’s entitled “On Being Needed:”

“Any kind of a pet will do,
we found a turtle hiding in tall grass,
coin-sized as a dime store relic
just daring her to take him in;
Yellow-bellied slider turtle
she has an infant sister
but five years passed before she had,
so any kind of pet will do
to guard the inner differences.
She sleeps now, close to his back,
asks me to baby sit
the small something left behind,
not to shriek the way I do at her;
turtles, absolutely; any pet will do.
For graver reasons she believes
he got lost from the race
just to prove that needing
reigns more important than running;
to the swift, a chase,
getting winded to pull in your head,
to the slow…
becoming the cared for.”

Gardens in Tennessee and Alabama that I’ve seen usually highlight sculptures scattered among natural settings — I was privileged to see Chihuly’s glass sculptures in the Cheekwood Gardens near Nashville, Tennessee a few years ago. The Huntsville Garden features the work of George Sherwood, “Wind, Waves, and Light,” an exhibit of kinetic sculptures that show patterns of movement — wind speed and direction, shades of light interacting with their natural settings. The “Turns,” made of the stainless steel Sherwood uses for his creations, shows the dynamic movement of wind in what could have been a static sculpture; and I stood a long time before another piece entitled “Wind Sphere” that caught the wind’s movement in a silver sphere on a day filled with brilliant sunshine. The interplay of light and wind was stirring and captured the idea of “Wind, Waves, and Light” Sherwood employed for his imaginative creations. The exhibit is an artistic event set among botanical displays that is only one and one-half hours’ drive from our home in Sewanee, Tennessee.

"Turns" created by George Sherwood

Sherwood has degrees in Engineering and Art and has exhibited in Rhode Island, Vermont, Massachusetts, Maine, New Hampshire, Wyoming, and many other states in the U.S. He has received several awards for his kinetic sculptures, including the Lillian Heller Curator’s Award, Contemporary Sculpture at Chesterwood Museum, Stockbridge, MA.

Photographs by Victoria I. Sullivan