Wednesday, May 29, 2013


Waiting for crumbs to drop
A few weeks ago while we sat on the patio at Rembrandt’s Café in Chattanooga, Tennessee eating a late lunch, two grackles joined us – bold birds that settled on tables and ate from plates holding half-eaten rolls and other baked goods like blueberry muffins and crème-filled pastries.
Now, I’m in a minority of people who like ravens, blackbirds, crows, and grackles because most people regard them as public nuisances. I got my first glimpse of grackles in Texas en route to Mexico when I awakened one morning to the sound of loud screeching noises that some bird enthusiasts describe as “rusty hinges squeaking.” I ran outside and sighted a gaggle of these iridescent birds a friend identified as boat tail grackles. When we passed into interior Mexico, I searched for them, finding wonderful specimens on the grounds of a small motel in Victoria, Mexico. To me, the sound of grackles squeaking was a comforting noise like friendly voices in unknown territory.
For seven years, I got my “satisfied” sighting grackles in Austin, Texas where I traveled to serve on the Board of Trustees of the Episcopal Seminary of the Southwest – they paraded on the grounds of the Holiday Inn Express in large numbers, and most guests complained about their harsh cries. While there, I read several newspaper articles denouncing boat tail grackles as public nuisances. Later, I learned that these grackles nest in southwestern Louisiana, but I’ve never sighted one around my home in bayou country.
The birds I welcomed to my table the other day were common grackles who were trying to steal food from other birds, and I learned that they often snatch food from the beak of another bird, rushing forward to grab a morsel, quickly pecking it into digestible pieces. Research reveals that “anting” is a curious practice of the common grackle in which the bird rubs captured insects on its feathers to apply the liquid from the squashed bug (formic acid). To attract a mate? To polish the iridescent sheen of their coat?
Most outdoor diners who dislike grackles don’t know that large groups of them are known as “plagues,” a term with which they’d promptly agree. Farmers also have low regard for grackles because the birds are fond of grain and flock in large numbers to gather significant quantities of this crop.
Still, I threw my roll to a large grackle as I left the café, and he squeaked his appreciation for my charitable act. And as if I don’t have enough crow, blackbird, and raven poems, I went home to write “Grackles at Lunch:”
Grackle above flag

pause, dip their dark bills
into hard rolls left on our plates,

rolling yellow button eyes
at our wastefulness,

but we feed the poor,
an old injunction,

although those at other tables
ignore these commissions,

call the foragers thieves,
not beggars –

bad raps for sociable creatures
who remind me of Iran’s khalag birds,

strutting waiters in black aprons
clearing tables of nahn crumbs,

leaving behind empty Tuborg bottles
and wadded paper napkins,

imitating the notes of nightingales
and casting shadows like hawk-nosed Shahs

on a blue mosaic –
the fallen kingdoms of Persia.

Saturday, May 25, 2013


If you’re sitting in a doctor’s waiting room, the wait becomes more bearable when strangers strike up a conversation with you. If you live in a small town in Tennessee, you’re more likely to get into some serious talking in a doctor’s office than you would if you lived in a large city in the East. Last week, I scheduled three lab tests on three different days in Monteagle, Tennessee and spent a lot of my week sitting on uncomfortable chairs waiting for my name to be called so I could undergo what I call “Dachau experiments.” However, I was entertained in several waiting rooms by native Tennesseans talking about their favorite subject: the weather.
In one doctor’s office, I had just settled in my chair when a woman asked me if I spelled my name with one “n” or two. She had heard the nurse call my name and figured out an entrée into a parley with me. She was a naturally garrulous woman, probably in her early 70’s, who had a list of ailments and troubles as long as one of my sermons, but she delivered them cheerfully, then turned to the subject of weather.
Blackberry flowers
“We’re fixing to have a blackberry winter,” she said. “The blackberry bushes in my backyard are blooming.”
“Never heard of it,” I told her. “Seems like we’ve had enough winter up here already.”
“It’s a cold snap that happens in late spring when blackberries are blooming,” she said. “But you got to be careful if you go blackberry picking because the snakes is out. I seen four king snakes and two copperheads already.”
“Then you won’t see me doing any picking,” I told her. “We just call blackberry winters ‘freak cold snaps’ back home in Louisiana. “The weather there is pretty hospitable right now – it’s summer in Cajun country.”
“Well, up here we have blackberry winters, locust winters, redbud winters, and dogwood winters. Old folks didn’t have calendars like we do and they just relied on nature to tell them things. We had a dogwood winter in early May last winter, right about the time the dogwood started blooming. Farmers know it isn’t a good idea to plant until after those dogwoods bloom.”
Dogwood flowers
“Never heard of any of these winters. Of course, we only have about two months of real winter down where I live – December and January. Maybe February.”
“We got another name for a cold spell in the spring,” she interrupted. “It’s called Linsey-Woolsey Britches Winter – it means that when the cold spell finishes, you can put away your long johns ” (as if I wore them).
I forgot about this conversation until I checked the temperature gauge on the front porch yesterday morning and saw that temps had dipped to 59 degrees. The high for the day was 67 degrees. When I checked the weather report online, I read that the low temperature predicted for last night was 46 degrees, and when I got up 7 a.m., the temp was 56 degrees!  These temps couldn’t be called wintry, but the weather is certainly brisk this morning. My new friend had been right on the money!
I didn’t tell this new friend that two months ago I wrote a poem entitled “Too Much Gray in the Day,” a wry bit of verse about returning to the gray weather of Sewanee in still-cold March. She seemed fairly acclimated to the somber winters here on The Mountain and even welcomed a blackberry winter.
The poem will be published in a new book of poetry I’m working on during this blackberry winter:

Seventy years passed
before I figured out weather matters.
I had to move away from humid air
caught in the branches of old oaks
overhanging rusty bayou water,
climb 2,000 feet to find another home
where the dry air of the Cumberland
and ice in March
convinced me weather matters
in the sum mood of things;

a perpetual gray mist
can stupefy, cause you to slip
backwards into a metaphysical trance,
court oblivion or to consider
the end of the world,
hurl yourself over a barren cliff;

fall into the chasm of depression
just because the snow won’t melt,
and the March sun is white light;
the energy you thought was stored up
for a long winter’s day
is topped out, disappeared into
an eternity of wind,
telephone wires humming with frost,
snow in the bird bath.

I put on socks, turn up the volume
of Mozart’s Sonatas in A and D,
hoping the musical vibrations,
even at low volume,
will cause a seasonal change,
make the thermometer rise.

Using a long wooden spoon
I stir a pot of lentil soup,
making a grandmother kitchen,
steaming up the double glass windows,
consider calling everyone I know
back home on the bayou
where a south wind
blows over the slow-moving stream,
a perfect arrangement of essential warmth,
good to think about
when you’re too far from the equator,
too old to consider ice skating
or a cruise to Alaska,
or to appreciate the melancholy clouds
drifting across the wintry sun…
a bristling wolf pacing outside.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013


Literary journals have been around for a long time; the oldest being the North American Review, and the oldest continuous one being the Yale Review.  Here at Sewanee, literati take pride in the Sewanee Review which was established in 1892.  Today there are the “ezines,” or online journals, which include prestigious publications like Evergreen Review, Story South, Unlikely Stories, and numerous other journals online that are eyed askance by the print publications but which contain arresting stories, poems, and articles.

A newcomer on the literary journal scene is one that I’ve mentioned in previous blogs – the Pinyon Review, a journal published in Montrose, Colorado by Editor Gary Lee Entsminger and Managing Editor, Susan Elliott.  The May issue of this journal just arrived in my post office box yesterday, and like any poet hungry for publication, I searched for my poem “In Memory of Mint,” which is included in the journal.

As I’m a Louisiana native and also live in what I call "misty, moisty Sewanee" part of the year, my eyes were drawn to the cover photograph of a spring blizzard by Rob Walton that was more reminiscent of foggy mornings in both locales and of the 19th century Louisiana artist, Drysdale, and his famous misty landscapes.

Poetry comprises a large part of the Pinyon Review, and among the well-known poets featured is Dabney Stuart, whom Gary describes as a “master of the English language and highly acclaimed poet,” the author of 17 volumes of poetry, most recently Pinyon Publishing’s Greenbrier Forest.  Three of Stuart’s poems are included, but the minimalist poem, “Times’s Body” particularly resonated with me:

The skybell
with neither clapper nor dome

Air draws
words into its passing,
nothing in some other
guise, time’s

Snow fills the bell,
gathers into its tolling,


Stuart’s collection of poems for young readers that inspire wonder about the animal world was published by Pinyon in 2010 in a volume entitled Open the Gates and included enchanting paintings of porpoises, lemurs, doves, water buffalos, and other animals rendered by Susan Elliott.

Gary and Susan treat us to the first chapter of the Fall of ’33, “Turtle,” in this issue of the journal, alluding to “something happened that changed everything,” a chapter which should titillate readers to order the book and discover the happening that changed everything in a family in the Virginia Blue Ridge Mountains during a train ride west – a story that includes Indian and mystical ancestry in Virginia, dating back to Shakespeare’s time and even earlier.

Julia K. Walton, a newcomer to the journal, wows readers with her textile artwork, incorporating repurposed fabrics.  Walton creates patchwork, appliqués, collages, rag rugs, and acrylic paintings, drawing her ideas from nature and colors natural to the environment.  Her set of Nine Green Britain and 1 Austerity Britain of flags comprising patchwork quilts with cotton and cotton mix textiles is an arresting picture among three “Fire Horse Textiles” photographs in Pinyon Review #3.

Another art chapter entitled “Watercolor Baskets” by Mary Moran Miller presents interesting colors and forms in baskets made of heavy watercolor paper.  The paper is painted, cut into strips for weaving, and made into baskets.  I was attracted to “Harlo, 2011,” a basket 18”x4”x2” in different shades of blue and formed in a conical shape, an interesting vessel that Miller describes as “holding my ideas.” 

A friend and academician laughed aloud when she read Richard Cecil’s poem entitled “Faculty Annual Report”:

Honors: None Grants and Awards: Zero.
Course Development: Taught the same way
as always for exactly the same pay.
Conferences—attended/session leader: No.
Professional Activities.  Trudged through snow
to school in January, through rain in May.
Publications (novels, stories, essays):
Poems in small journals (see below).
Volunteer Activities: None.
When I did work, I didn’t work for free;
in unpaid time, I loafed or else had fun.
Service in the University:
Attended pointless meetings of committees.
Attended pointless meetings of committees.

These are just a few of the contributions in the third issue of Pinyon Review, another significant collection of literature and artwork published in a small cabin in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado -- a journal of “diverse styles and techniques,” as publisher Gary Entsminger describes the latest edition of his literary publication that celebrates the arts and sciences.

Friday, May 17, 2013


If there is such a phenomenon as a post-modern troubadour, poet Darrell Bourque, former poet laureate of Louisiana from Churchpoint, Louisiana, is that man. In his latest work, Megan's Guitar and Other Poems from Acadie, his lyrics sing about the Acadie that is, as a friend who attended his reading yesterday said, "his history." A writer unafraid to be called a poet of place, Darrell weaves the culture of south Louisiana, its ancestral and present-day characters,its artists like Acadie's own Elemore Morgan, its rituals and landscape into a tapestry of rich textures.
The introduction to Megan's Guitar is written by Barry Ancelet, Granger and Debaillon Endowed Professor of Francophone Studies at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, whose alter ego Jean Arceneaux is a poet, playwright, songwriter and storyteller. Ancelet explains that Megan's Guitar was born in his living room when Darrell viewed a sewn silk art piece depicting a woman playing a guitar by Megan Barra. Darrell often uses the ekphrastic technique in his poetry – viewing art to inspire a poetic response – and was moved by the beautiful silk art piece that provides the cover and title of his latest book of poetry to research his Acadian past and explore in sonnet form, the vision and struggles of his ancestors.
Megan's Guitar is divided into three sections, Acadie Tropicale, poems about postmodern Acadia; Megan's Guitar, a section telling how song is "catalyst and clarifier" of history; and Acadie du nord, the northern Acadian experience.
In the section, Megan's Guitar, Darrell writes in the title poem that "Songs are in fingers as they are/in heart and brain and belly and feet…" and his sonnet reflects those songs in his own fingers, heart, brain, belly, and feet, moving felicitously like a medieval troubadour "inside this trembling world of ours." Although the section is short, it resounds with the chords of Darrell's personal history as a descendant of the migrating Acadians who survived the Grand Derangement. However, in "Vanitas," he writes about an experience common to all of us: "We are always slinking, always wedded/to everything before and after us, even as every rage/inside us is without consent quelled and put to bed."
I had read "Before the Sparrows Awakened" in the section entitled Acadie Tropicale, but it is a poem that resonates again and again with me and illuminates one of the cultural rituals that took place in Darrell's childhood: "Before daylight we were awakened by the voices/of my aunts in my mother's kitchen./As soon as my father and my uncles left for work,/they appeared like gauzy apparitions/and shadowed our backdoor. The sky outside was but a dimly lighted sheet/and the sparrows were still drowsing lazily/in the upper branches of the trees./These birds were rhymes for who we were/in our beds; still, but being awakened/slowly by the voices and the perfume creeping/into the woodwork as water plumped/the dark, rich grounds in the little blue pot/stirring inside another pot on the stove./The anxious thoughts these women carried inside,/they put out on the table/along with whatever was left from yesterday:/sweet dough pie or fig cakes,/gateau sirop or des Oreilles de cochon./On this fare they would break fast/and whatever gleamed in their lives or in lives/close by, they lighted the room with./This hour was something they had taken as theirs,/and it was their job to start the day."  The imagery in this poem is energetic and picturesque and illustrates how Darrell often pays tribute to his generous and self-effacing kinspeople in his songs about Acadie without making declarative statements about those two familial qualities.
Many of the poems in Acadie du Nord feature Joseph Broussard, dit Beausoleil, who was the leader of the first group of Acadians to arrive in New Orleans in 1765. He also led resistance fighters against the British in Nova Scotia from their deportation to his departure for Santo Domingue. He arrived in the Attakapas area of south Louisiana in 1765 and was among three designated leaders of the Acadians. Notes about the poems featuring Beausoleil are included in the concluding section of Megan's Guitar and represent the intensive research that Darrell did before writing his wonderful sonnets.
The lonely figure of Evangeline appears in Darrell's sonnet entitled "Evangeline Speaks," and he captures the poignancy of lost love in lines about her faithfulness to a man whom she "may or may not have held dear …but I was never what they were, never a mother,/never even married…never with the women who foraged for medicinal teas/to save a spouse in a wild land no one knew, or nursed a child, never smothered/by want or dread….I was always covered by right image and right sound, measured neatly in what others wanted to believe."
Darrell, a personal friend who remains my mentor in poetry, has written a masterpiece in Megan's Guitar, and I was sorry I wasn't at his reading yesterday at ULL when he sang his songs to take those of us who have Acadian lineage back to our origins – and to transport those who were not of Acadian ancestry into further exploration and appreciation of a rich and magnificent history and culture. He has accomplished in each illuminating sonnet the two components which Robert Frost once touted as indicative of good poetry: wisdom and delight.
P.S. The stunning photograph of Darrell by John Slaughter in the end pages is a portrait that captures Darrell's strength of character and poetic sensibilities. In the photograph he looks like a French imperator! Bravo, Darrell – the victory is yours!

Thursday, May 16, 2013


Main House, Andalusia
The gravel and red clay road just off Highway 441 North in Milledgeville, Georgia leads uphill to a white frame house with a spacious screened front porch, its red roof gleaming in the May sunlight. The home, known as the "Main House," is the major residence in the complex that incorporates a smaller farm home, cow barn, equipment shed, calf barn, a water tower, an aging pump house, and a horse stable. It’s the former home of one of my favorite writers, Flannery O'Connor, and is the place where most of her work was completed before her life was shortened by the onset of lupus. The agricultural setting of a dairy farm provided the retreat necessary for O'Connor to depict what she called the "Christ haunted Protestant South" in her arresting fiction that made her one of the most important American writers of the 20th century.

Home of farm workers
at Andalusia
We toured the 19th century home, peering into O'Connor's downstairs bedroom/study that held a single bed, covered with a simple blue and white bedspread, set only a few feet away from a desk that held a manual typewriter, flanked by a straight-backed chair sans cushions of any kind. It was a stark room, a setting where O'Connor wrote her novels, short stories, essays, and letters from nine until noon every morning of her writing life. In the afternoons, she tended peafowl – at one time, she had fifty of them – and painted (even her self-portrait), sometimes entertaining people who would drop in to see her.
As we walked around the grounds that included a small pond, a peacock aviary, and a few nature trails, we thought about the mysterious, often violent fiction, that had emerged from the quiet landscape and connected with the words in O'Connor's essay, "The Fiction Writer and His Country:" "When we talk about the writer's country we are liable to forget that no matter what particular country it is, it is inside as well as outside him. Art requires a delicate adjustment of the outer and inner worlds in such a way that, without changing their nature, they can be seen through each other. To know oneself is to know one's region. It is also to know the world, and it is also, paradoxically, a form of exile from that world…"
Diane next to red dirt road
beside Andalusia
As I walked through the grounds, I passed a completely dilapidated garage that seemed strangely incongruous with the well-kept landscape, a large pile of broken wood that mocked the romanticism I had attributed to the scene of a southern writer who had once said people didn't understand her writing about the people and region that surrounded her farm. O'Connor also said her Christian affiliation centered on redemption and what she saw in the world in relation to that redemption, adding that her Christian beliefs freed her to observe and affected her writing "primarily by guaranteeing her respect for mystery."
If you haven’t sampled the work of Flannery O'Connor, you might enjoy the short story collection, A Good Man Is Hard to Find (1955) which includes a bizarre baptism in "The River," a one-legged woman's encounter with a Bible salesman in "Good Country People," and other discomfiting stories that bear out her words, "In order to recognize a freak, you have to have a conception of the whole man."
Main house, side view of Andalusia
We had been to deepest south Florida prior to the O'Connor visit, and after sojourning in an environ of Fort Lauderdale and being hustled like most tourists, for me, the visit to O'Connor country seemed to be an occasion of  a "blind sow finding an acorn," to descend to a "countrynism" that might have come out of the mouth of a character in one of O'Connor's stories.

In the small gift shop of the old farmstead, I bought a volume that included all of O'Connor's books, short stories, essays, and letters, published by the Library of America, and began reading it aloud to my friend, Vickie, while traveling home to Sewanee, Tennessee, arriving back on The Mountain after being transported by O'Connor's "The Train."
Photographs by Victoria I. Sullivan

Monday, May 13, 2013


One of the perks of my association with Pinyon Publishing is that I sometimes form a friendship with a fellow poet, via e-mail, and the poet and I make a spiritual connection through reading each other's work.  One of those incidents of serendipity has been through my recent correspondence with Michael Miller, a very fine poet who lives in Amherst, Massachusetts.

Michael and I share a fondness for the New England poet Robert Francis, "a man who owned freedom and leisure," as I described him in a former poem – a poet who subsisted on a pittance for years before being recognized as an important New England poet.

I reviewed Michael Miller's newest book of poetry, Into This World, published by Pinyon Publishing, a few weeks ago, and before I traveled to Florida recently, Miller referred me to another of his works, The Singing Inside, a beautiful book of poetry set by hand in 14 pt. Perpetua, a font designed by Eric Gill.  The text was printed letterpress on a Heidelberg Original Cylinder press, and the cover was printed by hand on a 10x15 Chandler and Price platen press.  Artwork was printed from wood engravings by Frank C. Eckmair, and the book was designed and printed by Birch Brook Press.

I describe these exterior qualities because I seldom see such beautiful, hand-printed books of poetry.  The Singing Inside accurately defines the poetry inside – the singing inside of a man who pays tribute to his wife and their journey together as they mature in married love, passionately and honestly.  There are so many fine poems in the volume that I wouldn't strike out even one as unfit for the theme of married love, from its inception as a passionate love affair to the present decade of their aging.  Miller sings about the latter stage of married love: "Our house is singing as it sinks/A gradual decline with choruses/We can hear beyond the floorboards/Cracking, the old beams creaking,/The stone foundation shifting as if/It were looking for a place to escape./How we resist our body's aging!/Resentful of our brittle bones,/Our muscles slackening as if asleep,/Come, let's open all the windows/And sing to the warblers, the wrens."

I was also impressed by the cogent feelings expressed in two exquisite love poems reminiscent of the Persian poet Rumi, on facing pages, XIX and XX, the latter defining a love that has been plumbed and kept intact: "We have delved into the anatomy/Of each other's darkness,/Of each other's light,/Uncovering a grave,/Unveiling a hidden sun./We have explored without a caution,/Reconnoitering each other's heart,/Refusing to believe there is/Nothing left to discover."

Although Miller speaks of "maple leaves reddening and curling at their edges," he recognizes that mature love takes "decades of struggle/And ease to arrive at this/Three-foot wall built with/Smooth and rough stones/Where the countries of lichen grow,/And we sit upon it looking out/With the joined perfection of hands."

These poems are true and powerful – no frills, each word crafted with precision, each poem condensed into tight, concrete imagery and rendered in passionate phrasing.  I read this volume while vacationing in Weston, Florida, a city of wonderful light and felt a synchronicity of environment and the wonderful clarity and light in The Singing Inside.

Thursday, May 2, 2013


I've always loved the drive from Sewanee into the valley of Cowan and on to our grocery destination in Winchester, Tennessee. A few days ago while making that drive, a friend and I were wowed at the sight of a hillside covered with bright yellow flowers – a sea of shimmering plants that we later identified as Rapeseed. Of course, I didn't like the sound of the plant's name but was glad we photographed it for a blog as it was a sight worth recording.
When I researched Rapeseed, I was surprised to find the Brits think it's a plant that scars their landscape since they prefer more natural green hills. However, they've been inundated by Japanese tourists who began flocking to the windows of a train passing through the UK to view the brilliant yellow plants and later exclaimed that the sight brightened the typical rainy, gray landscape of the British countryside. Actually, the Brits have been using the plant's oil for lubricating engines since the 19th century, and they plan to increase their tours of Rapeseed fields from 20 to 70 this year.
Rapeseed could cause hay fever, but there's no conclusive evidence that it does and no reason for anyone to defame it in this manner. The crop is being utilized for animal feed, as well as for vegetable oil. The Chinese make oil cakes of the plant and use it for fertilizer. Farmers in the U.S. grow two crops of Rapeseed – one for industrial uses that has a high content of erucic acid, and another edible crop with low content of erucic acid that is used for the popular salad dressing, Canola oil.
I’m glad that someone gave one of Rapeseed's cultivars a new name – Canola, and I was moved to write a wry snippet about the flowering hillside I saw on our trip to the valley this past week:


cascades on the hill near Cowan,
carrying the name of a ravaged past,


Brilliant as the April sun,
a phalanx of plants emerges,

having endured hard frosts,
a season of strong wind,

now glints with yellow light
soon pressed into oil for leafy salads,
lubricant for machinery.

Used, used,
everything radiant to the eye

used for anything
pickled, cooked, sauced,

preserved before natural decadence,
the pain it cannot escape

in fraught territory.

Seeds of the yellow lake
have survived since 5,000 B.C.,

twenty million hectares
waving in fields today,

hillside plants slain,
joining poor relations:

cabbage and mustard,
their ancestors, too early.

And humans, abashed,
blushing at the plant's sobriquet,

have finally given it
a less despoiled name,

a lyrical one that sounds
as if they won't really ravage the plant

before allowing it a timely end…

Photograph by Victoria Sullivan.