Thursday, December 22, 2016


Every Christmas, I receive a card from the Piney Woods School near Jackson, Mississippi, a country school to which I've been sending a small donation for fifteen or more years. I had never seen the school until this Fall when we made our return trip to New Iberia, Louisiana after spending spring and summer in Sewanee, Tennessee. Before veering off course to see the school, we visited the library in Brandon, Mississippi to research more about the birthplace of my great-grandmother, Dora Runnels Greenlaw, as I'm writing a book of poetry about the "redneck" side of my family entitled Sifting Red Dirt. I was surprised to learn that the Piney Woods Country School was less than an hour's drive from Brandon.

The Piney Woods School, the largest of only four historical African-American schools in the United States, encompasses 2,000 acres in the midst of piney woods south of Jackson and was established in 1909 for children of field hands, some of whom were former slaves. It has also been highly touted as a place for at-risk students who are trained to develop a work ethic by teachers who utilize the disciplines of a "boot camp." Piney Woods School was first used as an institution for blind African-American children, but the blind students were later moved to nearby Jackson, and since its inception as a school for African-American males, the school has become co-educational.

In addition to regular studies, the students work at least ten hours a week on campus with livestock and crops or as teaching assistants and office workers, and 98% of them graduate from the secondary school and pursue college studies. Many of them have degrees from Harvard, the University of the South, Princeton, Amherst College, Smith, University of Chicago, and other outstanding U.S. universities. The concept of work/study reminded me of Booker T. Washington's ideas for Tuskegee Institute (1881). During the early years of this institute in Alabama, students made bricks, built barns, grew their own crops, and learned trades. Of course, today, this university rivals other major U.S. universities in academics, but in its early life, Washington focused on teaching the students how to sustain themselves through agriculture and to develop trade skills that would lift them out of poverty.

When we drove through the Piney Woods campus, it was fall break and almost deserted of students, but we saw enough of the campus buildings, a lovely rock amphitheater, and one of the five lakes edging this instructional farm campus. I was disappointed that administrative offices were closed because I would have enjoyed a tour of the entire acreage. However, I later wrote a poem about Piney Woods School, the last verse of which is included here:


We made the circle,
passed the lake of once-turbulent water,
Mexicans, Caribbeans, Africans
now working a self-sufficient farm,
chores coupled with classes,
my modest check helping bury the past,
soil rich with the blood of slavery
and a shadow rising with the moon
above red mounds...
the darkness of Collective Conscience.

The image above is a photograph of a glass piece created by Karen Bourque, artist, Church Point, Louisiana, to be used as a cover for Sifting Red Dirt.

Saturday, December 17, 2016


I once lived in a dusty, sparsely populated town in West Texas called Electra, a place that had been an oil boom town. Electra, named for a wealthy rancher's daughter, was located at the edge of a ranch originally owned by Daniel Waggoner, expanded to include a half million acres. As my friend, Janis Rice Grogan, says in All of My Life With You, "bars and churches vied for first place as centers of social life" there. My husband and I had moved to this barren place described as "having only a barbed wire fence between it and the North Pole," for his assignment as an engineer with Texaco, and Jan lived across the street from me — my closest friend among a handful in this small town. In her memoir, Jan speaks of the loneliness of this west Texas town and of the hour daily she and I spent together, discussing books. Both of us were not writing much then, but I think that our literary hour every morning probably helped spark a lifelong interest in book writing — for both of us.

While the major part of my writing has been in the realm of poetry, Jan has been working on this narration about her life with Gene Grogan, a petroleum engineer with Cities Service, beginning in Oklahoma and Texas and expanding to cover five continents. For almost sixty years, Jan and I have enjoyed a wonderful friendship, and I've been privy to many chapters of her memoir along the way. In All of My Life With You, Jan relates that the Grogan family moved nineteen times during the duration of her marriage to Gene — from the U.S. to Muscat, with assignments in New York, London, Bogota, Argentina, Nairobi, Aberdeen, and other oilfield sites. She also records Gene's rise in the oil industry from a field petroleum engineer with Cities Service to President of Occidental Oman Oil Company.

With three children in tow, Jan follows her husband to both exotic and dangerous foreign posts, sometimes enduring life in places like Comodoro Rivadavia in southern Argentina where four trees struggled for life in a city of 100,000, and "the wind always blew from the land toward the sea and a few times a year it could reach 150 miles an hour. Normal rainfall was ten inches but in 1963 over forty inches fell, turning the unpaved roads into quagmires..." When Jan left this country to wait for the arrival of her third child in the United States, she relates that she knelt down at the bottom of the airplane's steps and kissed the ground, vowing never to leave the U.S. again. However, she would renege on that vow for almost forty more years, following Gene around the world and to journey's end in Washington, D.C. where she now lives.

This memoir is not just the chronicle of an American woman's odyssey around the world, it's a love story about a successful marriage that prompted me to say at one time, "Gene is the perfect husband," because he was perhaps the most devoted, caring husband I observed during the times I visited the couple. It's also a book about the couple's faith that sustained them during dangerous encounters abroad. Gene was in charge of Occidental's North Sea operation in 1988 when Occidental's oil platform in the North Sea blew up, an incident dubbed the worst oil field accident in the history of the petroleum industry. One hundred sixty-seven men died in that explosion and its aftermath. In a poignant account of the accident, Jan records the visit of the famous oil-well firefighter Red Adair who extinguished the fire still blazing on the remains of Piper Alpha oil platform.

Jan, Diane, Gene, London 1973
All of My Life With You is a fascinating armchair tour of the world told by a courageous woman of faith who followed her husband on a journey that she says exemplifies Robert Frost's "Road Not Taken." Jan writes in a highly accessible style, exposing the reader to the Grogan's diverse religious encounters, as well as political situations. This is an engaging family saga filled with stories about people of differing backgrounds and cultures that inevitably impacted the Grogan family's tolerance and respect for diversity. It's also a tribute to Gene Grogan, "the perfect husband" whom Jan describes as possessing all the attributes of the Eagle Scout that he was: trustworthy, loyal, friendly, brave, reverent, etc. and, she adds, "also intelligent, exuberant and sensitive." During the last years of Gene's life, he suffered from Alzheimers, and his children observed that the disease robbed him of language and memory but his witty and playful personality remained intact.

The elegant eulogy Gene's son Patrick preached at Gene's funeral in December 2013 at St. Alban's in Washington, D.C. is included in All of My Life With You. Also, the moving "Epilogue" featuring part of the service of Compline from a New Zealand Prayer Book, creates a meet conclusion to this eloquent narrative. Family pictures are an added bonus.

Jan Rice Grogan was awarded a Medical Technology degree from the University of Oklahoma and earned a Master of Arts degree from the University of Aberdeen in Scotland.

For armchair travelers and memoir readers, this is a must read.

Friday, December 9, 2016


In the midst of critical downturns lately, I began creating some light verse called The Everyday Journal, poems lighter in content than most of the poetry I write. I also re-acquainted myself with the King of Light Verse, Ogden Nash, beginning with breakfast non-rhymes (in contrast to Nash's penchant for rhyming) and concluding with the second cup of coffee.

I had fun unwinding with light verse, and this morning I re-read a few Nash poems for inspiration. Nash, by the way, began making up his droll rhymes at age six and often crafted his own words when rhyming words didn't suffice for his comical verse. He dropped out of Harvard after one year and went to New York a few years later to sell bonds, but admitted that in two years he sold only one bond to his godmother.

Nash then began writing ads for streetcars and later spent three months working on the editorial staff for The New Yorker. After he married Frances Leonard, his fortunes began to pick up, and he published his first collection of poetry, Hard Lines, which brought him national attention. In his spare time, Nash appeared on radio comedy shows, but he was also respected by the literary crowd who wrote and critiqued more serious poetry. Theatre-goers may remember Nash's lyrics from the Broadway musical, One Touch of Venus.

The verse by Nash that I read this morning is entitled "The Anatomy of Happiness," and was longer than his usual snippets ("Candy is dandy/but liquor is quicker"). The long piece of verse spoke to my condition: "...Miracles don't happen every day,/But here's hoping they may,/Because then everybody would be happy except the people who pride themselves on creating their own happiness who as soon as they see everybody who didn't create their own happiness become happy they would probably grieve over sharing their own heretofore private sublimity,/A condition which I could face with equanimity."

An example of one of my non-rhyming poems from The Everyday Journal regarding the efficacy of chaos:


At lunch, she plays a podcast --
how chaos begets creativity,
"I have a dream," the spontaneous result,
a Civil Rights speech
carefully prepared and thrust aside
as Martin Luther King takes in
his people's heartbreak and struggle
and goes off line,
one of the finest pieces of rhetoric
delivered about the light of freedom,
eloquence born in chaos.

This broadcast plays while I am eating
black-eyed peas and rice,
digesting a poor man's fare
to be in touch with struggle,
rain still falling, puddling the yard.
The day is gray and unsettled enough
to engender creativity
in lieu of reading Trump's Tweets,
which bring up visions of him playing
an old army bugle, flatulent notes rising
on the threat of a massive flash flood.

Saturday, December 3, 2016


Rain falls here in New Iberia early this morning, and I am thankful for the patter of it on the roof. I check the weather forecasts for Sewanee and Gatlinburg, Tennessee, the former where I live part of the year, and the latter having been damaged by forest fires in the Great Smokies. I’m relieved to see reports of rain in Gatlinburg where so many acres of the town and forests have been destroyed.

For four weeks now, I’ve been plagued by bronchitis from the ash in the air because of burning in the sugar cane fields, many times thinking we should travel to our second home at Sewanee where the air would be less polluted. However, a friend who has just returned from Sewanee says that the air there is also polluted with smoke drifting over from the fires in the Smokies. 

Rain is a blessing right now in many parts of the country and I turn to a book of blessings To Bless the Space Between Us, by John O’Donohue for his thoughts about living in a world infused with blessings of both home and landscape. About clean air, he writes: 

Let us bless the invigoration
Of clean, fresh air.
The gentleness of air
That holds and slows the rain,
Lets it fall down…In the name of the air,
The breeze,
And the wind,
May our souls
Stay in rhythm
With eternal

I was fascinated about a story O’Donohue told regarding the power of intention and of blessing people, habitats, happenings… An ongoing experiment took place in an American university in which there is a sealed-off room containing a coin-flipping machine. Day and night the machine flips coins. The results usually show fifty percent heads and fifty percent tails. Near this room there is another one that invites people in. Each person is requested to make an intention — heads or tails? After they make their choice, they are asked to write it down on a page that is placed in a sealed envelope and addressed to the research team. The results showed that if a person wished for heads, the machine ended up flipping up to 75 percent majority of heads and vice versa. The team found that the distance that the power of the intention to influence the outcome held for up to a hundred and fifty mile radius surrounding the room in which the experiment took place. O’Donohue poses the question that if human intention can substantially influence the outcome of a cold, neutral coin-flipping machine, how much more can our human intentions achieve as we relate to one another? He writes: "Goethe says that once the commitment is made, destiny conspires with us to support and realize it."

And as the rain falls, I read the succinct lines of the poet who created this book of gracious invocations: 

Let us bless the humility of water,
always willing to take the shape
Of whatever otherness holds it…Blessed be water,
Our first mother. 

And I add: Blessed be the flow of renewal in the rain and air as they become transformative agents in our anxious world.

Painting by my deceased brother Paul who loved the waters of the Pacific Ocean and the fresh air of northern California.

Tuesday, November 22, 2016


Dog lovers will appreciate the photo of the black lab wearing a bright red jacket, head turned toward some sound in a wood of aspen with yellow leaves, that appears on the cover of Pinyon Review #10. The dog’s name is Garcia, and he’s accustomed to proofing manuscripts with Editor Gary Entsminger and Managing Editor Susan Elizabeth Elliott near Montrose, Colorado. Inside "The Castle," the cabin headquarters of Pinyon Publishing, Garcia turns in early after a day of manuscript reading, climbing mountains, dancing to folk music, chasing wildlife, and helping to cultivate his owners’ large garden. Garcia often signs his name to emails addressed to me, and lets me know if my latest poetry offerings to Pinyon Review pass muster with him. I appreciate the attentions of this beautiful dog even though I’m allergic to animal dander and can only admire him from afar. 

Poetry lovers will love this issue of Pinyon Review as it’s primarily a collection of poetry from numerous award-winning poets. It also contains an exhibit of the painting/art design work of Susan Elliott. Bonus material is a suspenseful vignette by the editors that reminded me of Red Lights, one of Georges Simenon’s short psychological novels.

I usually attempt to single out a few authors to tout in a review, but the excellent work of sixteen poets in this issue begged me not to discriminate, so I finally decided to focus on a single poem that contained five parts entitled "Arizona Ruins" by Lyn Lifshin. It’s an arresting study of the Sinagua Indians, a tribe that disappeared into the cosmos and whose ruins I visited during a stay in Sedona, Arizona in the summer of 2007. Lifshin writes: "No one knows/where they went/from the cliffs/with their/earth jars and sandals/Or if they/cursed the/desert moon/as they wrapped/their dead/babies/in bright cloth/and jewels…"

On a hot summer day when I visited the ruins and became unbearably thirsty, I felt in sync with the poet who wrote: "Now cliff swallows/nest in the mud/where the Sinagua/lived/until water ran out…" I wondered if the tribe died of thirst or moved to a new watering hole, but a guide told us that they simply disappeared, and I remember writing my own poem about ghosts of these native Americans who sometimes lived on lizards and nuts. "The people left/ the debris of their lives here/arrows, dung/And were buried/with the bright/turquoise they loved/sometimes carved/into animals and birds."

I love the clean lines of this poem and the powerful images it invokes of people struggling for survival, making stone jewelry and braiding willow stems in the Arizona desert. I blinked when I read a biography of the author who lays claim to writing over 130 books —that fact is the entire bio, which is as mysterious as the poem about the Sinagua, and I respect the privacy of the creator of such powerful imagery.

From start to finish, readers are held in suspense with Gary and Susan’s "Where Was I? —for Tom Martinez," a story about a man who wandered onto the couple’s property, lost, after sunset, one evening. The man had been harvesting pine nuts in the pinyon-juniper woods and had gotten turned around, and in the vignette Gary offers to drive him back to his car via Government Springs in exchange for half his harvest of pine nuts. Gary writes that since pine nuts from Colorado, Nevada, and New Mexico are almost impossible to buy, except in a Chevron station in Austin, Nevada, he agreed to make the drive while Susan stayed home and fretted about him driving in the dark to Martinez’s home on the rim of a canyon. It’s a good spin about a repeat incident Gary experienced lending a hand to a lost neighbor who claims his wife’s legally blind and he’s legally insane. Gary and Susan have jointly written several books that include Ophelia’s Ghost, Fall of ’33, and Remembering the Parables.

Also in this issue of Pinyon Review is a stunning, blue-green watercolor entitled "Sea Quilt, 24"x36" in which Susan used watercolor, ink, and thread on 140-lb. cold-pressed watercolor paper. She writes: "On quiet winter morning walks when I pause and gaze across snow-covered fields of sagebrush, I sense the ocean in the stillness. The other dimension laps at my ear like the hum of Om." 

Garcia highly recommends Issue #10 of Pinyon Review and donned his red coat especially to attract readers... or perhaps, in honor of Thanksgiving, he wanted to rustle the feathers of the wild turkeys that often come to breakfast at "The Castle." Copies of this issue can be ordered from Pinyon Publishing, 23847 V66 Trail, Montrose, CO 81403.

Monday, November 21, 2016


Saturday, the wind blew in from the north, bringing winter to south Louisiana. I imagined Cajun cooks taking out their black iron pots and thawing shrimp that had been stored in freezers. Gumbo weather, I thought. I dressed and went downtown where the wind had begun to carry the scent of tapas and paella. The annual Spanish Festival in New Iberia had cranked up, and the door to Books Along the Teche was wide open, beckoning food lovers to a signing of The Essential Louisiana Seafood Cookbook by Stanley Dry, master chef of gumbos, étouffées, jambalayas, and courtbouillion. The wintry day seemed to be an ideal time for him to be presenting his newest book for those Louisiana cooks who were dusting off their gumbo pots. 

Dry, a cherished friend who authors a column entitled "Kitchen Gourmet" for Louisiana Life magazine, was a former senior editor for Food & Wine magazine. He authored The Essential Louisiana Cookbook several years ago, and it’s now in its second printing.  A talented chef and writer, his.articles about food, wine, and restaurants have been published in Food & Wine, Travel and Leisure, The New York Times and Boston Magazine, as well as in our regional periodical, Acadiana Profile

Dry’s "Author’s Notes" to his cookbooks reflect his interest in the history of food (he majored in History at ULL in Lafayette, Louisiana) and are tantalizing introductions to equally-tantalizing recipes that range from "Artichoke Hearts, Green Peas & Lump Crabmeat Salad" to "Crawfish Omelet with Penne & Green Peas" and contain ingredients that include fresh, local, and seasonal foods from the waterways and gardens of Acadiana. He offers Louisiana cooks traditional seafood recipes, along with innovative dishes that he tested for two years prior to the publication of The Essential Louisiana Seafood Cookbook.

Recipes in this book were originally published in Louisiana Life magazine, and Dry comments that "all the variations in recipes are…indicative of the free form, improvisational nature of Louisiana cooking. Certainly there are parallels between our food and music. Our food evolved from the hands and minds of cooks, not from books, just as jazz, as well as Cajun and Zydeco music, evolved from the creativity of musicians, not from sheet music. And all of them are still evolving…"

An interesting fact for lovers of crawfish reported by historian Carl A. Brasseaux in the "Author’s Notes:" Crawfish didn’t highlight the Cajuns’ diets early on. Even in the early 20th century, Cajuns only ate crawfish during Lent when they boiled the "mudbugs." Dry reports that 1959 was a banner year for the crustaceans —the year that Breaux Bridge became the "Crawfish Capital of the World," and the Louisiana Legislature began providing funds for research about crawfish farming. Dry says that today "crawfish are found in a dizzying variety of preparations." One of our master chef's  recipes for the mudbug highlights Quinoa, a notable grain on the shelves of natural food stores of the 21st century. The recipe includes crawfish and avocado and is featured in the "Salads and Appetizers" section of 
The Essential Louisiana Seafood Cookbook.

For those who have dusted off their gumbo pots, Dry touts the "Duck, Andouille & Oyster Gumbo" recipe as "fit for a holiday table," and he utilizes south Louisiana ingredients, as well as dried shiitake mushrooms and thyme leaves, to produce a dish that he warns cooks will take time to prepare and involves a number of steps but is worth the effort.

Perhaps next year the Spanish Festival will feature Dry’s "Crawfish Tacos" a recipe that calls for fresh tomatillos, corn tortillas, avocado, and the ubiquitous crustacean. The dish is included in the "Lagniappe" section of The Essential Louisiana Seafood Cookbook and is a more contemporary, international conclusion to the celebration of food in this cookbook.

Although I quickly purchased the book, I can only enjoy the recipes vicariously, for, alas, I am allergic to all shellfish, beginning with adverse reactions to our delicious fare from the waterways when I was in my fifties. However, I can appreciate this consummate chef’s offerings that are enhanced by the wonderful photographs of Eugenia Uhl, a native New Orleanian whose work has been featured in New Orleans Magazine, Southern Accents, Food & WineTravel and Leisure, and other magazines. She has also done work for Brennan’s, Galatoire’s, and Tulane University, along with photography for Commander’s Kitchen and New Orleans Home Cooking.

Congratulations Stan and Eugenia, and bon appetit south Louisiana!  

Tuesday, November 15, 2016


Day before yesterday, at about 4:30 a.m., the light that came through the curtains was so brilliant, we thought the neighbors had left on an outside lamp all night. When we opened the door and followed the light, we found a super moon looming over the house, but by the following night, its brilliance had lessened. It was a cosmological event that occurs every seventy years when the moon comes closest to the earth, but some people regarded the event as an end-of-the-world or end-times omen. The super moon was followed by the staccato sound of acorn rain reverberating on the roof and the scurrying feet of squirrels retrieving nuts for both storage and daily survival. This is the year for both a super moon and a banner crop of acorns from the giant oak in my backyard.  

In one city of the U.S., the mother of a student in a parochial school protested the acorn rain and asked that a grove of oak trees be relocated because some students allergic to nuts were scared that bullies at the school could torment them by pelting them with acorns. Allergy experts were quick to protest that anaphylactic allergy to acorns is highly unlikely and that no one has ever reported a death from acorn allergy. The trees weren’t relocated. I was interested in this report because I’m victim to numerous allergies, including peanuts and other nuts, and the giant oak outside my window is raining thousands of nuts, contrary to last year’s scant crop. 

Like millions of other Americans right now, after the constant media onslaught of news about the election, I retreat to the natural world to center down, as the Quakers say. I dust off my 150th anniversary edition of Walden by Henry Thoreau. In the Foreword by Terry Williams, she writes about Thoreau’s imagination being rooted during the time between the Revolutionary War and the Civil War when America was fighting for its independence while struggling to maintain its unity, the latter being something that became a constant theme with Thoreau…and  remains a theme with us.

Thoreau, of course, had built a cottage in the woods near Walden Pond in Concord, Massachusetts and spent over two years there writing Walden, a chronicle of his life in the natural world, and the work became a classic. I love his statement: “We need to witness our own limits transgressed, and some life pasturing freely where we never wander.” Williams speaks of reading Thoreau to become filled "with a faith that stands up and says that what is essential will endure, even under the weight of greed, even under the mantle of arrogance, because our own resistance to inappropriate uses of power becomes our insistence that moral reform is not only necessary but critical to safeguard the dignity of all life…" Amen.

I know this blog "pastures freely" from acorns and super moons to Thoreau, but perhaps respect for the natural world is a path on which we walk back to the connectedness of humans and our higher nature. As Williams observed, "we find truth beneath the leaf litter of a forest floor. We gently move the leaves aside. On our knees, we bend down, kiss the good earth, and breathe."

Wednesday, November 9, 2016


Early morning here in Teche country is cloudy, one of those somber gray mornings that signals the exodus of fall and the advent of winter (minus the cold temps). If we aren’t careful, we could feel oppressed by the tin color of the sky at 7 a.m. I’m sitting here, looking out at falling oak and pecan leaves and thinking of the winter of my childhood when doomsday talk and arguments at mealtimes were silenced by what I considered to be an inane bit of redirection my father made in the midst of cloudy atmospheres: “Hush now, look at the trees…” We were always puzzled by this cease fire phrase.

The trees in that scenario were tall, cheerful pines right outside the screen porch where we shared meals, and I remember how I looked out at the resinous trees and smelled the sharp, clean scent of pine needles. We’d put down our forks and knives (figuratively speaking), and silence would save the day. Today, I’m in New Iberia, Louisiana where I live near a coulee overhung by water oaks, live oaks, and swamp dogwood and remember my father’s little saying: “Look at the trees.” In retrospect, I figure my father meant for us to observe their wisdom in being silent observers of disagreeable scenes, or, rather, I choose to assign that meaning to his phrase this morning. We’ve had such a long siege of disagreeable political scenes, and psychiatrists have been busy handling victims of stress brought on by the country’s divisiveness for well over a year.

During a session of a self-help course I once took, we were advised to be careful about being a "guy in a diner," a person who often offers opinions just to hear himself talk, and we certainly have had our fill of guys in a diner this past year. However, my father’s words, “look at the trees,” now resound in a room where the television is turned off, and I view the wind ruffling the leaves on my cherished, silent oak and think: It's difficult to be uncivil when you're silent.

Trees peopled my writing when at the age of seven, I wrote my first story that featured a girl who disappeared into a large hole in an oak tree and took up residence. Inside was a room that held furniture similar to the furnishings within the homes of Beatrix Potter’s animals where a table was set for tea. People like Potter and our imminent Louisiana tree hugger, Caroline Dormon (Miss Carrie, now deceased) attributed human and creaturely qualities to trees, but they recognized that their dominant quality was one of being profoundly, wisely silent. The tree in that early story was, for me, a safe place to be. Later, I mutilated a page in my mother's Elbert Hubbard's Scrapbook, scissoring out the phrase: "Silence is a true thing and never betrays" and putting it in a notebook of quotations I liked. 

In A Slow Moving Stream, my most recent book of poetry, I penned a poem about trees inspired by my journey, traveling by car, the length of the Bayou Teche from Port Barre to Morgan City, Louisiana last year. It’s called “The Mind of Trees,” and last week I chose to read it at a poetry reading in Baton Rouge, Louisiana:

“The Mind of Trees”

They were drawn to trees
lining the banks of the Teche,
hanging over the brown water,
wide arms stretched out in welcome.
The live oaks, an enclosure
against a world that had exiled them,
palmetto and Spanish dagger growing close by,
cypress in the swamp becoming their homes.

They liked the sturdiness of lordly oaks
and the water meandering past,
sat under encompassing branches,
eating and drinking.
If the trees could talk, they said,
and made up stories
about what the oaks had heard.

The trees outlasted their language.
No matter who came
the language disappeared into English –
French, Spanish, German, Chitimacha.
English filled the horizon,
the patois of each clan,
buried under oaks, words waiting.

The trees absorbed all of it
and when hurricanes felled them
they were cut into logs,
loggers finding stories in their language
imbedded in the rings,
began to preserve what had been lost.

Word by word, they created
an articulation of arriving,
the sound of memory offering itself
from a distant longing. They heard
what they had been told not to hear—
testimonies for their being there.
And they praised the trees
for finding a way without them.

Photograph by Victoria I. Sullivan appearing in A Slow Moving Stream

Wednesday, November 2, 2016


My mother, Dorothy Greenlaw Marquart, loved books and words. In 1984, I published Their Adventurous Will: Profiles of Memorable Louisiana Women, which includes a preface about my mother’s love of words: “Every month for years, Mother would take one of the three children in our family to Claitor’s Bookstore in Baton Rouge, Louisiana [where I lived for eight years of my childhood] to choose two books for our nightly reading session. She was the first family member to open the books, touching pictures with credulous delight. My mother began to fly in the heavens long before Mary Poppins opened her first umbrella to make her wonderful flights…”

When I was nine, a Methodist minister’s daughter accidentally knocked out most of one front tooth with a croquet mallet while I was visiting my grandparents in Franklinton, Louisiana, and my grandfather pacified me with $25 (a lot of money back in 1944). When I returned to Baton Rouge, my mother promptly took me to Claitor’s Bookstore where I spent the entire day and the entire $25 on books.

At that time, the old Claitor’s was located downtown, not far from the State Capitol, and was a general bookstore with shelves of colorful children’s books; the store didn’t specialize in books pertaining mostly to law, as it does today (in a different location). The day that I spent my $25, Mrs. Otto Claitor looked after me, fed me books she thought I might like, and even gave me lunch while I searched for books to enliven our family’s nighttime reading.

Saturday, while I was waiting to deliver a reading from my latest book of poetry, A Slow Moving Stream, in the Capitol View Room of the Louisiana State Library at the Louisiana Book Festival, not far from the old Claitor’s, that memory of the $25 book day flashed into my mind. It was followed by the wish that the first owners of Claitor’s and my mother were alive to participate in such a wonderful festival of books sponsored by the Louisiana Center for the Book. I also wished that my mother could witness me reading my poems aloud in a room that included four Louisiana poet laureates: Darrell Bourque, Julie Kane, Ava Haymon, and Peter Cooley.

The 2016 Louisiana Book Festival was commemorated by a special art piece created by Kelly Guidry that now hangs in the Louisiana State Library and a prose poem by Darrell Bourque, former Louisiana Poet Laureate, entitled “Words, A Poem” about the “transformative nature of books in culture…” The sculpt piece, made of cedar and mounted on a base metal framework, is an angel with outspread wings nicknamed “Libby,” which is a shortened version of “Librarian.” Darrell’s prose poem, a powerful tribute to words and language, is too long to record here, but I couldn’t resist publishing an excerpt from the end lines: “ language is a flight from one word to another, how sentences are made of those kinds of flying words, how stories are filled with the hum of bees telling us who we are, how to get to China, how to get to Malaysia, how to get to how we got here in the first place in the stories we keep finding inside the words set down inside us before we ever knew we could fly with them and in them.”

In 2004 the American Library Association honored the Louisiana Book Festival with the John Cotton Dana Award, citing the Festival’s “community partnerships, exceptional programs, and extensive media coverage.” In 2006 the Center for the Book in the Library of Congress recognized the Louisiana Book Festival with a 2007 Boorstin Center for the Book award, and I know that more awards will be forthcoming for this 13-year old event. Through recent communications with Jim Davis, Director, Louisiana Center for the Book, I can see why this Festival has achieved the excellence for which it has been recognized.

A special treat for me was an informal afternoon conversation with Rebecca Wells, author of the famous Divine Secrets of the YaYa Sisterhood: A Novel, who was interviewed by my good friend, Dr. Mary Ann Wilson, English professor at ULL. Over 200 writers were featured at the Festival, and it was certainly a “Mary Poppins flying in the heavens” event for me.

As I said, I’m sorry my mother missed it… but perhaps she didn’t. After all, the event was immortalized with a literary angel and a transformative poem that fit on the angel’s wings! And one of the poems I read was about my mother changing forms to become a brilliant cardinal – she must have been aloft Saturday!

Photograph by Darrell Bourque