Tuesday, August 29, 2017


Bayou Teche flooding bananas trees in yard near
Port Barre, Louisiana

I find it difficult to write this blog because here I sit, high and dry on The Mountain at Sewanee, Tennessee while people in New Iberia, Louisiana, my real home, are watching a heavy rain falling, apprehensive about threats of flooding and tornados. I felt proud when I read news stories about the “Cajun Navy” getting into their trucks and pulling their Jo boats and pirogues behind, rushing to help Houston victims of Hurricane Harvey. I also felt humble, remembering that in the lives of Cajuns, no one is left out, an ethic that embraces family and strangers.

I remember Hurricane Andrew and the devastation it caused; how we foolishly sat out the storm when the wind played with the house as if it were an accordion and venerable oaks in New Iberia parks and along city streets fell, roofs were blown away, and we suffered power outage for three weeks. The sun shone the day following the hurricane, and when I went outdoors to survey the damage, I discovered that a tall pine in the front yard had fallen a few feet away from my bedroom window, and the yard was strewn with branches from the tree-lined street. Within hours, a member of the Cajun Army had entered the yard — my neighbor across the way, armed with a chainsaw, sliced into the felled tree, cut it into movable pieces, carried it away, and waved goodbye without speaking a word. He proceeded to Darby Lane, a few blocks away and began clearing the lane so that vehicles could get through to the highway. No one had summoned him.

Later, another neighbor and his son came over and, without a word, picked up branches and began raking my yard. Both acts were performed in silent determination.The man with a chainsaw bore the Cajun name of Olivier; the man who raked the yard was named Viator (once Villatores, a name of Spanish derivation). Both of those men bore the names of early settlers of New Iberia. They represented a gregarious culture that has assimilated French, Spanish, African-Americans, Brits, Germans, Irish… a unique culture that has a strong work ethic and joie de vivre unlike any other diverse group in the U.S.

Cajuns know a lot about hurricanes and floods, and they’re undaunted by water — even those in the Cajun Navy whose boats broke down in Houston and people tried to steal their stalled boats… even though they have been shot at if they were unable to pick up everyone in their Jo boats. I’m not surprised at their tenacity and courage. (I understand that a Gator Squad has also been organized in Houston because alligators seeking higher ground have begun frequenting Houstonians’ yards).

In 2016, I wrote a book of poetry about Bayou Teche entitled A Slow Moving Stream* that documented stories of early Cajun survival in Teche country. I include the last verse of one poem about the flood of 1927 that embodies the spirit of early settlers whose descendants are probably members of the present-day Cajun Navy:

“…The land returned to a muddy geography
into which they climbed
marveling at the ease of light,
declaring they’d never go back to Pisiguit
even if a rocking tide caused the land to tilt
and the sky became an ocean.
What had been green would be green again.”


*I will lecture and read from this book about the Bayou Teche to the Louisiana Literature class taught by Dr. Mary Ann Wilson, professor of English at University of Louisiana, Lafayette, in November when I return to Louisiana.

Monday, August 14, 2017


Tower built by CCC, Cheaha State Park, AL

Fog hangs at 2400 ft. in Cheaha State Park, Delta, AL, and I awaken to the call of a crow walking around in the parking lot. Later, we breakfast in a dining hall with huge plate glass windows overlooking hues of green in the valley below that are dotted with dark lakes. Cheaha is a word variation of the Creek Indian word "chaha," which some Creeks called high places; other Creeks interpreted "cheaha" as a word meaning sleeping giant. Old rocks in the park are 500-600 years old, quartz deposits that formed a mountain that is the highest point (2700 ft) in Alabama.

From Bald Rock boardwalk,
Cheaha State Park, AL
We walked the Bald Rock Trail, a boardwalk now accessible to handicapped hikers, built through a pine-oak-hickory forest where the dominant trees are chestnut oak and Virginia pine. The area once housed ancient tribes who lived under rock shelters at the base of the mountain. At the end of the trail, we stopped at an overlook with a 150-year-old Virginia pine beside it that looked like a Japanese bonsai tree. Along the trail, beautiful forests of lime green-colored lichen shone through the fog as we passed through a burned out area where pokeweed grew abundantly. In the spring, flame azaleas and oak leaf hydrangea bloom near the board walk, and warblers form the largest species of bird life in the forest. In the fall, red tailed hawks and peregrine falcons swoop over the landscape. I hobbled along the trail with the aid of a cane, glad for the diversion that postponed a decision about fixing a knee that affected my mobility.

One of the attractions in Cheaha State Park is a small CCC museum and tower, a site that needed more work inside regarding the history of the tower, perhaps a video and instructive books to purchase. I had seen an excellent presentation of the CCC work in the Roosevelt State Park in Georgia and expected the same in Alabama. My father worked with the CCC during the early 1930s, and I don’t know why this program was ever abandoned. Projects like these might siphon off some of the anger now prevalent in young men throughout the world. Young men built wonderful highways, bridges, trails, lodges, and cabins and used their energies to make towers from the “stone of their grievances; the stone of their hope” I wrote in a poem. I think of them toiling away for $30 a month, $25 of which was sent home to help sustain families, many of the men enjoying three square meals daily for the first time in their lives and sleeping on beds they constructed themselves. From the CCC, my father went on to work with the Louisiana Highway Dept. and became a civil engineer. The CCC organization formed the springboard for many vocations for young men, and they left us a legacy of state parks, solid reminders of the Roosevelts’ vision for preserving the natural beauties of America, making them accessible to all of us.

Virginia Pine at end of Bald Rock Boardwalk,
Cheaha State Park, AL

I wish I could say the experience cured my physical disability but it did not; however, the foray into the natural world did lift my spirits. For years I’ve wanted to visit all the CCC buildings in state parks and write about them in a book entitled Stone of Hope or Ebenezer (which means stone of hope, because the CCC created so many of the parks from native rock). Perhaps my next book… 

We went into Anniston, Alabama, a short ride away, and spent two hours in the McClellan Theatre watching Smokey Joe’s Cafe, a musical by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller who were reputed to “pack more into a plot in three minutes than William Faulkner in a hundred pages.” The retrospective rocked with talented performers who sang, danced, and interacted with an audience who appreciated oldies like “Loving You,” “Stand By Me,” “Yakety Yak,” “Fools Fall in Love” — 38 numbers performed by CAST (Community Actors' Studio Theater). I know this sounds like hyperbole, but the singers and dancers in this theatrical performance could rival any Broadway shows I’ve seen. I wasn’t too surprised at the excellence of the musical as I knew the famous Alabama Shakespeare Festival had been founded in Anniston before it was moved to Montgomery, Alabama. Anniston has always staged first class theatre, and CAST also features free performances for children in this southern city.

Back at Cheaha, I learned that hearty hikers can begin the Pinhoti Trail, the southern connection in the Appalachian Trail that extends from Alabama to Maine, 2504 miles of hiking that would take a real stepper about seven months to complete — a challenge that this hobbler will never take up!

Photographs by Victoria I. Sullivan

Wednesday, August 9, 2017


Whatever I may say about Whatever You May Say has been aptly said by a variety of poetry reviewers including Wendy Barker, a John Ciardi Poetry Prize winner, and Steven Weinberg, a Nobel laureate in Physics, but I add my voice to those illustrious reviewers in praise of Kurt Heinzelman’s newest book of poems, Whatever You May Say, published by Pinyon Publishing.

The forms of poetry in this volume lead the reader into metaphysical adventures and beyond catalogs of description, exposing the existential within everyday life, as well as musings about the Self. The poems remind me of an article in the New Yorker I just finished reading entitled “The Defense of Poetry: Can A Poem Change Your Life?” by Louis Menand. In that article, the last two lines echo what I thought when I closed Heinzelman’s book: “I understand that the reason people write poems is the reason people write. They have something to say.”

Eight sections of wit, wisdom, and playful lyrics comprise a collection of “something to say” that will delight readers with the poet’s explorations into the Unconscious, as well as rich, dramatic meditations about Emily Dickinson’s views on the flat light in winter and the way “shadows hold their breath…”

I have lived in El Paso, Graham, and Electra, Texas and spent two weeks at Alpine, Texas writing Texas haiku and was drawn to Heinzelman’s “Lone Star Haiku” section. Simple haikus in which Heinzelman merely recites the names of Texas towns I’ve visited resonated with me: “Boerne. Bandera/Seguin. Sugarland/Flower Mound/ Gruene,” and as the former spouse of a petroleum engineer, this one brought up memories of west Texas oil fields: “Old donkeys pump/a subtle field/sandhill cranes are grazing.” And this wry, dash-laden haiku entitled “Emily Dickinson in the Hill Country:” “Roadrunners—skip/Armadillos—hop/Jackrabbits — cower.” Heinzelman also covers more terrain familiar to me in “Hill Country:” country of hard scrabble,/scrub brush—outcrop/chafed by drouth…landscape/like an angry throat/hunting for milk…” He captures Texas landscapes like a transplant that has succumbed to the beauty of broad expanses of the Lone Star State, and as an admirer of Texas landscape and culture, I delighted in this section of Whatever You May Say.

A sad memorial to Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 shot down over the Ukraine, an act that was backed by Russian separatists, is entitled “Bodies Fallen in Fields of Sunflowers,” an intense and harrowing poem that embodies Menand’s idea that a poem changes its readers. The poem moves readers with its history of beautiful flowers that “once in full bloom/their faces stop turning/to follow the sun…three millennia before Christ/America’s native people/cultivated these flowers of the sun…” The poem reminded me of a good friend who planted a field of these tall, bright-faced flowers, and we enjoyed fresh faces until she grew tired of weeding and watering and they passed on, the memory of them refreshed by Heinzelman’s tribute.

Whatever Heinzelman has to say will perhaps touch and change readers’ lives with lyrics about a broad range of subjects from spare haiku to musings about the mysterious world of the unconscious and questions about God. For those who aspire to write poetry, Whatever You May Say is a vivid lesson in the various forms and feelings that can be expressed and come alive through the art of poetry.

Arresting cover art for this volume, “Horse in Stone,” by Steve Friebert and designed by Susan Entsminger, is reminiscent of the lines: “a wall of /scored lime-/stone pointing north” in “The Early Texas Spring,” one of the poems that indicates Heinzelman’s “transplantation.” For those interested in the botany of Texas: “Thickets of stickweed/or witchgrass/or whatever we/call it here,/done with over-/running Bermuda/and rye, now close/around lacy fronds/of wild carrot,/choking stands of/stiff bull thistle…”

A native of Wisconsin now living in Austin who teaches Poetry and Poetics at the University of Texas, Kurt Heinzelman co-founded two literary journals: The Poetry Miscellany and Bat City Review and served as editor-in-chief of Texas Studies in Literature and Language.

Available from Pinyon Publishing, 23847 V66 Trail, Montrose, CO 81403. Again, bravo Gary and Susan. It's a blue ribbon special!

Wednesday, August 2, 2017



A beetle resembling a roach upended, his feet in the heavy air, lies near part of a speckled moth wing — porch tokens, beside withering flowers. Driftwood fencing the herb garden has become drier. Crickets protest 80-degree temps, singing the same chorus. Empty yard chairs face the bleached fence slats. We’re all looking for invisible streams, a flowing landscape. Gulls fly over, bringing news of the coast where thunder rolls in, promising afternoon rain. Equable tempers ride the wind, the heavens busy making water for a disinherited earth. I look up and see a calendar written on the moon’s face; fall unfolding in a sky dark and drained of heat.

I wrote this a few days ago in the middle of a hot day, and then rain obliged us, bringing in a spell of cool air. The heavens also showered corn patches along the road to Cowan, Tennessee, and even flooded our struggling herb garden at the back door, which perked up the mint, rosemary, thyme, chives… Like amateur farmers, we seem to watch the weather more often than we did in Louisiana. I suppose it’s because we find so many fresh vegetables and fruit at markets on The Mountain and have eaten them aplenty this summer, especially corn and peaches, huge home-grown tomatoes and cucumbers. Many days we drive into the Valley just to look at and buy a few ears of corn and a carton of peaches at the vegetable and fruit market on the highway leading to Winchester. 

I sometimes long for the city so I can get a shot of “culture,” but I think more about the pastoral aspects of life on The Mountain than I did ten years ago. We pass a sign advertising a chicken farm for sale and tell friends we’re going to buy it, but the notion soon passes. Pulling weeds in the small herb garden by the back door is about as much farm activity as we can muster. And we’re sorta’ turned off when we read about the nine billion chickens that are killed each year in the U.S. The unfortunate poultry are raised in warehouses with 20,000 other chickens, and half of them are fed feed with arsenic in it because this concoction is reputed to foster growth. Some of us remember the spacious chicken yards of our grandparents where chickens roamed freely and weren’t fed anything to promote abnormal growth. Anyway, chicken farms? No way!

I do read and think about agriculture a lot; thus the interest in weather, I reread my favorite essayist, E.B. White, who divided his year between bustling New York City and a getaway place in Maine. His description of late summer is worth a few “words worth:” 

“Summer, languishing but not really sick, receives her visitors with a certain deliberateness -a pretty girl who knows she doesn’t need to stay in bed. The yellow squash illuminates the aging vine…and zinnias stand as firm and quiet as old valorous deeds…the farmer picks up the first pullet egg, a brown and perfect jewel in the grass; …[This is] the day a car stops and a man gets out and tacks up a poster advertising the county fair…” (from The New Yorker, September 3, 1949, p. 17.)

Last night we attended a dinner featuring “radical hospitality” in the cottage of summer interns at St.Mary’s Convent We met guests from different locales in the South, including Louisiana, a fund development director from Boston, and a physical therapist from Chicago, and during dinner, the thought occurred to me that we sometimes had no need to search out a shot of culture in nearby cities as it was right there at the table among congenial young people who had migrated to The Mountain and liked the good life here. 

Photograph by Victoria Sullivan

Tuesday, August 1, 2017


We often overlook what’s in our landscape when serendipity is right under our nose. Today I discovered a garden my botanist friend, Vickie, had told me about that she passes on her walks for exercise four or five times a week: the Shakespeare Garden here on the campus of the University of the South at Sewanee, Tennessee.

I'd never heard of a Shakespeare Garden and was surprised by the number of them that are cultivated on campuses of universities and in public parks and gardens throughout the U.S. As a poet and an advocate of poetry, I decided to visit the garden sponsored by the local garden club, a small haven that provides a place to sit on a rock bench and contemplate some of the words of the English bard who’s reputed to have loved gardening.

The photographs in this blog are only snaps of a few plants in the Shakespeare Garden on Tennessee Avenue that are well tended and carry out the theme of some of Shakespeare’s plays. Space in a blog permits inclusion of only a few of those plants that inspired the gardeners, but I was drawn to many of the herb plantings since herbs seem to be among the plants that deer don’t feast on here on The Mountain…and, I might add, we have a straggly garden at our back door.

Interest in creating Shakespeare gardens was revived in the United Kingdom in 1852 and spread to the U.S., but plants that Shakespeare mentioned in his many plays were included in medieval herbal manuals. Plants in the Sewanee garden include marjoram and thyme and indicate the bard’s love of herbs; however, the entry to the garden features a cultivated climbing rose that he lauded in Romeo and Juliet: “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet…” (Romeo and Juliet, Act 2, Scene 2.)

For those visitors to the garden on the University of the South campus who aren’t familiar with Shakespeare’s flower citations, placards with brief quotations and identifications of the plays that mention the particular plants have been placed at the base of plantings.

At 9 a.m. before the summer heat sets in, a visit to the small garden is a meet way to begin a day, and here’s hoping more garden lovers will discover the Shakespeare Garden at Sewanee and spread the word about the poetry of small “literary gardens.”

Photographs by Victoria Sullivan.