Monday, June 26, 2017


A few nights ago as I watched television, I glanced through the open blinds on the French doors and saw pinpoints of lights glowing near the back porch. Aliens landing? A reflection from the television screen? No, the tiny flashes were fireflies! Memories of summer nights in my childhood flooded my mind. I hadn’t seen “lightning bugs” in years, and I had the impulse to fetch a jar from the kitchen and begin collecting them as I had done when I was a child.

I’m not wrong in supposing that fireflies, like many insects, birds, and plants, have been disappearing from forests, fields, and marshes throughout the world, particularly in humid, warm locales near water. Research shows that fireflies once populated these areas in such numbers that people profited from sponsoring firefly tours. However, pollution, pesticides, logging, and development of waterways have contributed to the demise of these magical beetles that once lit up summer nights. Even light that streams from our homes and streets have taken over the night and disturb the fireflies’ flashing patterns.

I’ll miss the light show of these winged beetles that still takes place in the Great Smokies National Park of Appalachia in late June. We visited there only a few weeks ago but the show wasn’t scheduled during our stay. According to The Week magazine, this particular species of lightning bugs that frequent a hardwood forest in the Smokies are synchronous and blink in unison during their mating ritual… but the ritual ends with their death. Sightseers visit the area in hordes to see the luminescent show. In southeast Asia, tropical fireflies also precisely synchronize their flashing. A few unlighted lightning bugs use only pheromones to signal their mates, but most species use bioluminescence to do their courting.

Those who have poignant memories of lightning bugs flashing in the summer nights of their youth can contribute to their “lastingness” by avoiding the use of pesticides in the yard, by leaving old logs near their homes intact, by not mowing often as the bugs love long grass, and instead of leaving the blinds on doors open at night, close them so the fireflies aren’t confused by human lighting devices and fail to attract mates.

Robert Frost was evidently fascinated with fireflies and wrote a wry verse about “Fireflies in the Garden:”*

“Here come real stars to fill the upper skies,
And here on earth come emulating flies,
That though they never equal stars in size,
(And were they ever really stars at heart?)
Achieve at times a very star-like start.
Only, of course, they can’t sustain the part.”

P.S. If you see fireflies in the night and have an impulse to get a jar and start collecting, don’t forget to let them out the following day.

  • quote from The Poetry Foundation

Monday, June 19, 2017


There's nothing like a Monday morning after a night of insomnia. If I had a “regular” job, I’d be disturbed knowing I would experience a non-productive day. However, even in my retirement jobs, lack of restorative sleep during “night shifts,” gives me pause. I don’t feel comforted knowing that half of us humans have insomnia at some time during a given year. And the fact that 40% of women in the U.S. experience nocturnal awakenings doesn’t lessen my dismay over lack of sleep.

There’s a lot of information about overcoming insomnia circulating in the world of information today, including threats of health problems if the condition persists.  Counting sheep isn’t one of the cures for sleeplessness, but treatment includes use of drugs, ingesting plant potions such as lavender and chamomile, abstaining from alcohol and caffeine but no permanent “fix” has proven useful for insomniacs.

People are often reluctant to talk about their insomnia because a stock answer from good sleepers is: “You must have a bad conscience.” In the soliloquy by Hamlet in Shakespeare’s drama, Hamlet, Prince Hamlet, who laments his mental and moral anguish in the phrase, “To sleep, perchance to dream,” expresses his longing for dreamless sleep but questions whether he’ll find peace even after death. And sometimes when insomniacs long for a night of peaceful sleep, they wonder if they’ll ever achieve that state where dreams and nightmares won’t interrupt tranquil snoozing.

In 2014 I published a volume of poems entitled Night Offices in which I explored the uses and cures for insomnia, famous characters who have suffered from this malady such as W.C. Fields, Groucho Marx, and Thomas Edison, and wrote that “four vigils of the night you wake/with desolation for a pillow,/phantom crucifixions hover:/monsters that pull your soul from sleep/peer over the edge of a ceiling fan…” and commented that no matter where I closed my eyes, “shadows still played on the ceiling, /memories walked in on crutches/long past their curfew,/ a lightship lowered its anchor in the room…”

Well, that bit of serious deliberation about lack of sleep should awaken insomniacs! Actually, at a book sale showcasing all of my poetry books, I ran out of Night Offices because so many insomniac readers appeared. Anyway, the sun is out, predicted rain hasn’t fallen, and here’s hoping you got a good night’s sleep and didn't get up on the wrong side of the bed this morning!

PS: I know the character above appeared in this blog earlier, but she did change the color of her outfit overnight and her suffering posture doesn't indicate that she consumed chocolate this time.

Saturday, June 10, 2017


A few months ago, fires ravaged Gatlinburg, TN and parts of the Great Smoky Mountain National Park, but the little town of Townsend in what natives call the “peaceful side of the park” was spared the destruction. Although we set out for a brief excursion to Maryville, TN, we found more activity in this small town of 500, and the high point was a visit to the Great Smoky Mountain Heritage Center just at the edge of the Park.

Although many of the exhibits in the Heritage Center focused on the history and culture of the Cherokees in this area of the southern Appalachian foothills, I spent a lot of time viewing the displays that depicted the life of mountain folk in the 19th century, particularly those that showed the hardscrabble life of women during that time.

An exhibit featuring the image of a female mountaineer held a card depicting the woman’s typical day, beginning with bringing in wood, building a fire, milking a cow, feeding chickens, then preparing breakfast before the family got up. The display caused me to question an image of myself as an industrious morning person. The word “mountaineer” denoted a strong man or woman individualist descended from Scots/Irish stock whose roots ran deep in the southern Appalachian soil. According to Mountain Home by Wilma Dykeman and Jim Stokely, the word mountaineer morphed into a catchword for a picturesque, inadequate character who divided his time between the homemade dulcimer and the home run distillery…then changed into the word “hillbilly,” that described a cartoon character quick to become involved in a feud, slow to work, and indifferent to progress. Readers can imagine the tension that resulted between the mountaineer and encroaching curious visitors to the region.

A small display devoted to folk medicine toward the end of the Heritage Center’s exhibits showed a picture of a character who typified the medical practices of the late 1800s and early 1900s: the “granny woman.” Since I’ve published several young adult books about a Cajun folk healer, the information about these women interested me. Granny women were active practitioners in poor rural areas of southern Appalachia and gained important status as midwives. They also practiced herbal medicine probably passed on by the Cherokees who had roamed the area.

A granny woman gained most of her authority as a healer because of her expertise in midwifery. Some of her methods for inducing labor seemed to be a bit extreme to me; e.g., she advocated using drinking water with a spoonful of gunpowder (thar she blows!) and making the expectant mother drink tansy tea. Just before labor commenced, she’d put a knife or ax under the birthing bed to cut the pain of the expectant woman’s childbirth.

Although the granny woman was a superstitious character, she possessed abundant common sense and a gentle touch, and experience had given her valuable survival techniques.  She was also industrious and did not charge for her healing services, often using the term “resting” to indicate those times when she sat down to patch clothes or to shake a jar of raw milk until butter formed. Like the Cajun healers (traiteurs) about whom I’ve written, granny women inherited their healing abilities from their parents and were keen observers and shrewd judges of character.

We did spend time photographing wildflowers along the highway toward Cade’s Cove in the Park but turned back when we saw traffic backed up for miles ahead. We were excited to read in The Appalachian Voice about the launching of a reclamation initiative to restore native plants in the Appalachian Headwaters area that have been destroyed by mining. Workers will be employed to collect seeds and grow native plants, as well as beekeepers who will return pollinators to the area. Although this initiative is concentrated in Virginia and West Virginia, any attempt to restore native plants in the Appalachians is an environmental step forward.

Photographs by Victoria I. Sullivan

Purple-flowered Raspberry
Wild Hydrangea

Saturday, June 3, 2017


For years, every Sunday afternoon at 2, o’clock, Gary Entsminger, editor and publisher of Pinyon Publishing, spent several hours on the telephone mentoring his Aunt Jean Zipp in creative writing; later publishing her memoir, Windows: Letters to Ayla, and her poetry in several issues of the Pinyon Review. When Entsminger learned that his Aunt Jean was dying, he continued to encourage her poetry writing, even through the last few weeks of her life, and this month he dedicated Pinyon Review #11 to her, featuring Zipp’s last three poems. This issue of the Review, a journal that celebrates the Arts and Sciences, is a salute to Entsminger’s 94-year old aunt who died in Tucson, Arizona. Jean Zipp had led a multifaceted life as the wife of a serviceman, creating a tactile art gallery for the blind, owning a toy store, working in interior design, and, finally, writing a fascinating memoir. Pinyon Review #11 is a tour de force — by far, the finest issue published by Entsminger and Susan Elliott, artist and co-editor of the Review.

I do not usually tout my own poems that have appeared in the Pinyon Review from time to time,  but I’m especially proud that four of my poems were featured in this handsome issue celebrating Jean Zipp’s life — three lead poems and the end poem written about Zipp’s demise. For the memorial issue, Susan Elliott created a sketch entitled I would like you to keep calling every Sunday at 2, an ink and colored pencil sketch on paper in Zipp’s honor, and Entsminger dedicated a poem entitled "Listening to Liszt and Chopin" to his Aunt Jean, a companion piece for Elliott's sketch.

Pinyon Review #11 showcases a variety of poets and artists, beginning with the cover painting, “By Invitation,” an elegant work of art that gives the reader the impression that he’s looking through a window at a brilliant sunrise or sunset. It was executed by Les Taylor of northern California, a music coach who has found her passion in visual art.

Nine Great Blue Heron images of digital art by Steve Friebert (brother of poet and translator Stuart Friebert ) are scattered throughout this celebratory issue. The first photo of a heron facing a page of poetry looks as if he’s announcing a signal event; in later frames, the great bird (so prevalent in my native Louisiana), is shown fishing and making spectacular liftoffs, then soaring into the beyond.

Friebert’s photographs seem to be a metaphor for Zipp’s take-off into the other world, later emphasized in her poem, “Fine Tuning”:  “If I were to live each day/As if it be my last/I’d have to forfeit custom/Rescind the on and on/Cantata/A petition to Infinity/I sing./ Contingency strikes mocking chords/There is dichotomy/Although they prove me hapless now/I’ll tune them/Presently.”

Robert Lake continues the metaphor in his poem, “Spirit Wings,” then notes that when he finished typing his poem about “A bird/Flying ever so high/Disappears/Within a silver lined cloud,” he observed two doves landing in the persimmon tree outside and thought that Aunt Jean’s spirit was poised to leave the earth. A naturalist, Lake works with glass plate photographic images of Yosemite National Park from the early 20th century.

Many of the poems and photographs focus on the natural world and the ecosystem; e.g. “Solar House Living” by Carla Schwartz “with each new day,/with each new visitor, wonder,/questions,” the voices and images taking readers into sacred places and beyond.

Michael Miller, a poet in western Massachusetts, gives us a brief metaphor of love derived from the natural world in “River:” “Our love is the river/That flows on,/Through darkness, through light,/Over rocks and between them,/Unable to stop.”  Miller has published three volumes of poetry with Pinyon and focuses on brevity of style and understatement in his lyrical phrasings.

Readers are also treated to one of Stuart Friebert’s translations of Elisabeth Schmeidel’s “Mein Clown” (“My Clown”). The translation speaks of the clown as an “escort of my soul…[which] grows quiet too, whenever/love wanders over the graves/pale as a shadow…” Although the poem wasn't intended as a requiem poem for Jean Zipp, it, like many of the poems in Pinyon Review #11, emerges as an expression of the departure of the soul into another realm.

A short story, “Casino Man,” by Neil Harrison, a plethora of notable poets, digital paintings by Jay Friedenberg…this memorial issue for Jean Zipp celebrates her passing with art and song, “singing surrender to a larger life.”

This is a banner issue of Pinyon Review, a tribute to an aging poet who continued to contribute until her passing last month. Pinyon Review #11 is available from Pinyon Publishing 23847 V 66 Trail, Montrose, CO 81403.