Tuesday, January 17, 2017

AFTER THE INVOCATION

I love the title of Pinyon Publishing's newest book of poetry, After the Invocation, the word "invocation" summoning immediate interest in a collection covering locations of author John Miller's life: Hawai'i, central Ohio, and a retirement community in Virginia. Although the imminent poet, Dabney Stuart, masterfully reviewed Miller's poetry on the back cover of this new volume, and his review covers the range of Miller's voice, I feel compelled to add a few notes about those poems that invoked a response and invited me to read further.

Among the more nostalgic pieces, I was drawn to "High School Graduation Photos," a wry poem about the posturing of teenagers when it's time to take what we once called "the school picture." Today, of course, teenagers use a more sophisticated camera embedded in their ubiquitous cell phones for "selfies" and aren't as attentive to the staged school photographs, but I can readily relate to Miller's description of that occasion when "white bloused, coated, tied,/dressed for our proofs to choose among, we chose,/not knowing if such preference would last,/what black and white shades best implied/our selfhood, or what features froze us/into our high school pasts." And most of us who have entered old age shudder to think of being frozen into that adolescent stage of our lives with all its angst, self-consciousness and pre-occupation... and, I might add, lack of wisdom.

As a former fishing enthusiast, I appreciated "Elegy For An Ebbing Upland Stream," the active language in this one engendering old memories of "floating the river," fly fishing with my former husband. This poem rivals any writing I've read about fishing, including the meditative pieces in Compleat Angler by Izaak Walton "...A ganglion of branches, with dead grass/dead gray-brown on it, stirs above the last/few inches of that pool, no more a test/of angling in the wilderness...my long baton-switch whipped a lure on course/to land beyond the logjam, where a trout/might slash the surface faster than a thought..." As fishermen say about a fish with sufficient flesh, this poem is "a keeper."

As I recently completed a collection of poetry entitled Sifting Red Dirt that focuses on family portraits and events, including one about my Greenlaw forebears, "Genealogy" especially interested me. Miller's droll voice appears again as he examines the "paper trail to the ancestors/we think we deserve?..." (in my poem about tracing ancestry, I refer to that attitude of deserving as "remember you're a...") Miller concludes this poem that is infused with the "time-honored means of social climbing" with the caveat: "Why try to cultivate a family tree/when we're like Whitman's leaves of grass?" As the reader can discern, Miller's voice borders on acrimonious, but he explains the complexities of life in ironic verse forms that adjure the reader's amusement.

Another poem featuring Mormon visitors who often visited Miller's family,"... [asking] for a few minutes of our time,/that they might save us/for eternity..." again showcases Miller's sense of irony and his skilled use of it in portraying a young boy's exposure to the elders' conversation about sin and punishment, "...those self-chosen Saints, their low voices/trailing off into the darkness/along with my unease/and stolen innocence."

Classical myths, important characters in American history, childhood experiences, and the homeless in our country's cities — Miller offers us a panoply of poetic experiences in a seasoned voice that reflects delightful wit and empathetic nuances of the inner life — humor and elegance are gently entwined.

John Miller grew up in Hawai'i, received graduate degrees at Stanford, and taught at Denison University. His work has appeared in numerous poetry journals and in three books of poetry, In Passing, Second War in Hawai'i, and In and Out of Their Elements, as well as two chapbooks.

Saturday, January 14, 2017

WHERE BAYOUS FUSELIER AND TECHE MEET

This week, a writer friend from Florida arrived after delivering boxes containing journals covering her lifetime to the archives of Sophie Newcomb in New Orleans, Louisiana and wanted to revisit a few sights in Teche country she'd missed after she left here eighteen years ago. We took her to one of our favorite places for lunch at the Little Big Cup and to NuNu Art & Culture Collective in Arnaudville, Louisiana. The latter center was conceived by native-born George Marks, an artist and sculptor, who returned to his roots in this small Cajun community twelve years ago. Marks, who helped revive a dying community and who has made a home for displaced artists after Hurricane Katrina, recently received the Jillian Johnson Award for Entrepreneurship in the Creative Economy and is credited with spearheading a cultural and economic rebirth in Arnaudville. He was recently highlighted in an article by Walter Pierce in ABiz, an alternative newspaper featuring news and analysis on commerce in South Louisiana.

When we arrived at NuNu's, we were greeted by a member of the quilting circle working in one of the rooms of the Art and Culture Collective, and she postponed returning to her sewing until she had pointed out a few of the artists' creations — paintings, jewelry, wood carvings, soaps, textiles, books
by Louisiana writers and other pieces of artistic work. My writer friend, Jo Ann Lordahl, was attracted to a huge painting by Marks, and we had our picture taken beside his work shown in this blog.


We spent an hour in the Collective, and I enjoyed talking with Debbie Richard, a retired speech teacher who hangs out in NuNu's and is a "closet writer." I'd seen a sign that read Prairie des Femmes, or Prairie of the Women, as I entered the art center and was intrigued by Debbie's description of a triangular prairie between Bayou Fuselier and the headwaters of Bayou Vermilion. She said that it was a place to which women had fled from storms, hurricanes, war, and other disasters and that there were stories about this unincorporated community with which she wasn't familiar.

When I returned home, I did a bit of research and found that a woman named Ashlee Michot lives near Prairie des Femmes and has written two books about the area, Journals and Portraits of A Place. She has also published several books about Louisiana yard shrines and Marian grottos. Many days she spends time in the countryside around Point Blue where she says she first heard French spoken. A retired school teacher, she photographs rural scenes, writes music, works with medicinal herbs and does amateur archaeology in fields around her home. I was told that my friend, the poet Darrell Bourque, knows Ashlee, and I intend to learn more about her and any stories she has heard about Prairie des Femmes when we meet with the Bourques in February.

As usual, I enjoyed touring a South Louisiana habitat as much as the tourist, and after eating some Cajun fare on the deck of The Little Big Cup, we walked through Tom's Fiddle & Bow Shop where owner Tom Pierce often has bluegrass jam sessions. We denied having any musical ability, although I have a yen to learn how to play the banjo, and we escaped before Pierce could sign us up for fiddle lessons.

A growing number of Cajun and Creole artists, poets, musicians, and chefs have set up shop in Arnaudville, some of whom have built homes in this haven that almost died out in the 1980's, but which is now recognized by Gaye Hamilton, manager of Louisiana Cultural Districts of the Louisiana Department of Culture, Recreation and Tourism, as a town where "placemaking has been done right."
 

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

THE GIFT



from Sea Quilt by Susan Elliott

During this last cold spell, I received a late Christmas gift from chilly Colorado, home of Pinyon Publishing, the company that published the mystery Chant of Death that I co-authored with Isabel Anders and many of my poems in Pinyon Review. Publishers Gary Entsminger and Susan Elliott sent me a packet of note cards with an illustration Susan rendered — one of a square from Susan's "Sea Quilt," a picture done with watercolor, ink, and thread on 140-lb cold-pressed watercolor paper. The blues in this watercolor express Susan's thoughts of "sensing the ocean in the stillness of snow-covered fields of sagebrush./...The other dimension laps at my ears like the hum of Om."

Susan always writes a long Christmas letter to accompany the gift she and Gary send, and on a cold day here, I visualized her "sitting in my new favorite chair — Mom's Danish rocking chair padded with a Navajo blanket from Dad. Facing the kitchen (aka the apothecary, center of daily dances with the vegetable kingdom) — to my left the wood stove is not lit because the cabin is still warm from last night's fire; to my right, on the counter, sit sprouts (garlic and broccoli) greening and steel-cut oats soaking for oat milk..."

Susan and Gary are vegetarians and eat lots of legumes and vegetables, the latter which they grow on the Uncompahgre Plateau where they live. Many times when one of them e-mails me, they're making tomatillo sauce from home-grown tomatillos. In the Christmas letter, Susan quoted from Thoreau: "Though I do not believe that a plant will spring up where no seed has been, I have great faith in a seed. Convince me that you have a seed there, and I am prepared to expect wonders."

We sent this couple pecans from Cane River Pecan Company, which Susan was sampling as the "sky lights up here in pinks and cloudy blues to the west and rising yellows to the east." She says she researched the pecans indigenous to the Mississippi River basin and thinks that they may be "a Centennial variety that was developed in the 1850's by Antoine, a black slave. That variety is believed to have initiated the commercial popularization of the nuts now claimed to be the most popular nut in the U.S. (after the peanut)." Susan also discovered that Indians in Texas considered the pecan tree to be a manifestation of the Great Spirit.

Susan Elliott
When I think of Susan, I think of the word "manifest" because she's always manifesting food, music, art, poems, and good spirits in her life on the Plateau. Susan and Gary are Renaissance people, and their interests are many and varied. Both of them compose, play, and record music, mainly on the guitar and banjo; both are authors and editors. They grow a large vegetable garden every year, are avid believers in sustainability and are stalwart hikers. Susan has a Ph.D. in Botany and rendered the illustrations for Why Water Plants Don't Drown by Victoria Sullivan, published by Pinyon a few years ago. She also sews, bakes a good bread, and is an accomplished herbalist. Some of our Christmas gifts have included exotic seasonings that she mixed and tied in packets for family and friends.

At the end of Susan's Christmas letter, she told us to look out the window for the first birds of the year: Mountain Chick-a-dee, Steller's Jay, and Dark-eyed Junco, which we can't see here in swamp country but can imagine perching on the window sill of her cabin (a residence to which they refer as "The Castle").  A woman who seems to be prepared and enthusiastic for any experience, Susan ended the annual letter with a new year greeting: "We're on our way." And here in south Louisiana, following a frosty week-end, today's 70-degree weather bodes better for "our way."