Saturday, September 24, 2016


Most of the time when a person suffers from pulled muscles or a back out of alignment — the signs of aging — she’s inevitably given a tube of balm along with a treatment by a physical therapist or a chiropractor, perhaps a massage specialist. The tube is a receptacle of magic bullets reputed to stem the tide of pain and aging.

Yesterday, after four or five days of treatments, including the tube of balm, for an unrelenting attack to my back and leg, I went out on the front porch and applied my personal brand of balm: watching birds splashing in a freshly-filled bird bath under the towering hemlock in my yard. Hidden away in the understory were several species that flew in for a bath and directed my attention away from ailments — nuthatches, tufted titmice, a Carolina wren, and, finally, the premier birds of my notice: both male and female cardinals. Absent from the line-up were my favorite crow friends who’ve made only sporadic appearances on the Mountain this year.

The smaller perch birds stayed busy pushing each other out of the bath while the cardinals looked on in disdain and never entered the water, but they managed to make themselves heard by their “cheer, cheer” voices from a thicket near the drive. As I watched, the cardinals would swoop out of their lair and land near the bird bath but avoided disturbing the perch birds, just as the perch birds avoided these aggressive red beauties that are confident of their territory near a tangle of blackberry bushes.

I’ve written many poems about birds — crows, cardinals, sparrows, and hawks. The hawk was a powerful figure clinging to a telephone wire on my drive to work in Lafayette, Louisiana every day for years. It hovered over the sugarcane fields, waiting for a chance to swoop down on field mice. The hawk also appeared as the totem for a character in Martin Finds His Totem, my young adult book about a boy traiteur in Cajun country. On my daily drive, the mornings that the hawk wasn’t clinging to the wire, I often felt a bit anxious, as if the day lacked a solidness I couldn’t explain.

I’m not the type of bird watcher who has a bird list, so I guess I wouldn’t be bold enough to declare myself an official bird watcher, but I’m an appreciative watcher. Birds are spiritual symbols for me — symbols of comfort, peace, freedom, and joy, especially when the body has failed to behave as it should — or maybe shouldn’t — at age 81. If I’d written a poem instead of this blog today, it would’ve been entitled “Bird Balm.”

Here’s one of my very early, descriptive bird poems that I finally published in The Holy Present and Farda. It’s entitled “Unfinished Song”:

“Twisted fingers of trees,
filagrees of ruin,
taunt the false spring.
Robins and grackles
rally for season to commence
and sparrows twit further on,
perfect intervals before the resurrection.

They mock wire-sitting blackbirds
besting a wind that trembles
like memory rustling in stunted cane.
Farther in the woods
the sun streams through
labyrinths of branches.
Vultures circle wax myrtle.

Starlings arrange themselves in waiting,
faking the downstroke,
chorus witness to a new beginning.
Sometime before dark, near water,
hawks glide overhead, sent off course
to circumvent an anxious season —
the unfinished lark.”

Photograph by Victoria I. Sullivan


Saturday, September 17, 2016


Years ago when I worked in Personnel and edited a news bulletin for Knapp Hall, the home of Louisiana Agricultural Extension Service, Marjorie Arbour, Editor of Agricultural Publications, LSU, read my informal, interoffice news sheet and invited me to audit her Ag Journalism Course 150. The class was a graduate course for Ag Extension workers, but she slipped me into the class. For the concluding exam, I was called upon to give my first oral book review as an example of a special interest feature story.  I chose to review It's Easy To Increase Your Vocabulary by William Morris. This past week, I re-read the review and enjoyed a few laughs, especially while perusing the part of the review in a chapter concerning specialized language entitled “Grandfather’s Political Slang.”

At that time (the 1950’s), Morris stated that the “relatively mild epithets exchanged by candidates for public office in recent campaigns contrasted sharply with the brash, colorful, and occasionally libelous language of campaigns in the 19th century…” Ha! Fast forward another two-hundred years, and it appears that we’ve recovered our “brash…libelous language;” e.g., Morris’s description of a “buncombe artist”: “a specialist in deceit, especially dealing with hifalutin’ promises he has no intention of keeping,” or “cock and bull story,” which is “a fanciful, rambling yarn.” And here’s one that we hope will become a reality: “hoist by his own petard,” a figurative expression meaning “to destroy by one’s own trickery or inventiveness.”

A word Morris introduced to his readers, coined by Lewis Carroll, author of Alice in Wonderland, was one that could be included in the political slang section: “snarky.” Snarky falls “between sneering and snide” in meaning and could easily describe several of today’s political candidates. Then there’s “tell it to the marines,” which means “tell your preposterous story to someone gullible enough to believe it.” Or how about “tinker’s dam,” which refers to “something utterly without value.” Not to mention “whipping boy,” who is “a person punished for the mistakes made by someone else.”

The list of specialized words was long, and I leave it to the reader to apply the words to whomever they wish, since I’m not in the habit of writing political columns and am more inured to writing book reviews, travelogues, agricultural treatises, etc. My review of Easy To Increase Your Vocabulary brought in a “Red Apple,” or the equivalent of an A+, and was hardly a propitious reference for the hard news story, but it was a fun exercise explaining the trade vocabularies of cowboys, politicians, baseball players, and circus clowns (the latter reminiscent of the politicians’ vocabularies).

One more phrase Morris described that may belong in the political realm is “crocodile tears.” It seems that crocodile tears originated in Greek and Egyptian folklore. The legend is that the great lizard, the crocodile, attracted its victims by loud moaning and then shed tears while it devoured them. And with that description and, in the word of H. L. Mencken, American humorist and critic, I’ll put a “kibosh” to this diatribe about words that are created to fit special needs in a colloquial paradise.

Friday, September 16, 2016


Last evening about dusk, I went into the dining room of our home in Sewanee, Tennessee and noticed that despite the shadowy room, three glass pieces by Karen Bourque of Church Point, Louisiana, hanging in the windows overlooking the woods, had captured the last light of the day. Two of the pieces, “Lotus,” and “Ibis and Crow” had been created as commissioned art for my personal collection, but the third one entitled “Beneath the Surface,” was one I had asked Karen to create for a book cover and seemed to embrace the room, and the woods viewed through the windows, in a soft light. (In the photo above, it's the glass piece on the left side of the screen.)

Karen explains that her glass piece, “Beneath the Surface,” is a “message of new beginnings and happiness.” The stone used to represent the wild ranunculus (yellow flowers) in the piece is prehinite, “a stone that illuminates the path forward to spiritual growth through attunement to divine energy,” according to Karen. Prehinite is also used by stone healers as a stone of vision “used to access higher levels of awareness.”

Karen relates all of the above and more in a special afterword to my book of poetry, A Slow Moving Stream, from which I’m scheduled to read next month as one of the selected, featured poets at the Louisiana Book Festival in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. The oak tree in the glass piece is the most dominant feature, and Karen says that the oak, a protector and stabilizer, is ever present in Louisiana Acadian iconography. The stark image aptly represents a poem entitled “The Mind of Trees” included in A Slow Moving Stream.

Karen, who worked in the field of medical technology for years, began creating glass art as a hobby, but soon achieved a professional level of success with her work, both as a glass artist and as a writer of sensitive texts that describe the glass pieces. Her biggest admirer is husband, Darrell Bourque, former Poet Laureate of Louisiana and Louisiana Writer of the Year, whose latest poems, paired  with the paintings of Bill Gingles, are contained in Where I Waited, published by Yellow Flag Press.

Karen has created covers for four of my books of poetry, as well as a book of essays: A Strand of Beads, A Lonely Grandmother, Street Sketches, Porch Posts, and the latest volume of poetry, A Slow Moving Stream. Several of the books have included either an introductory description of Karen's glass piece, or an afterword describing the work on the cover especially written by her.

I loved the afterword about “Beneath the Surface,” in which Karen says: “Spring, either as time measure or as metaphor, marks that time when the soul awakens inside the crossing of a water barrier, that time when unconscious mind and conscious mind surface and co-exist in the balance of renewed beginnings.”

I also have five additional glass pieces hanging in the dining room of my home in New Iberia, Louisiana. The pieces remind me that although many glass artists require special lighting or running water to showcase their work, Karen’s creations require neither of these elements and illuminate a room with natural light that helps the viewer to “grasp higher, more abstract concepts and facilitates inter-dimensional communication.”

Yesterday’s encounter with Karen’s glass images inspired me with enough light to anticipate “new beginnings and happiness,” and I’m most grateful for her artistic gifts. The one poem I’ve written lately, which will appear in the fall/winter issue of The Pinyon Review published by Gary Entsminger in Montrose, Colorado, will have to suffice to inspire Karen to create a glass piece entitled “Pandora’s Legacy” that I hope to acquire next year.