Goldenrod back east

Goldenrod

Goldenrod – it’s familiar to anyone who lives in the East, where it blooms late summer when the hayfields go brown. Today, it’s just starting to bloom in North Florida.

When I moved back to New England in summer, 2011 after a few years out west, goldenrod was one of the many elements of the Eastern landscape that were achingly familiar to me. As summer turned to autumn, I wrote a crown of sonnets, which became the title poem of a collection.

Back East

 

I.

Out West, I heard the phrase back East in tones

expressing every angle, every shade

reflected in the family prism: warm

red longing for the hearth, the reflex back

to what’s familiar, followed by obtuse

refusals, diluted yellow wistfulness,

or upright judgment paired with violet

nostalgia, straight-out breaks from what was done,

acute resentment toward the say-so

of parents pairing culture with discipline,

sustenance with table manners, shelter

with chores, and who say nothing valuable,

or even earnest, who impress their threats

on us: You leave, you can’t come home again.

 

II.

Whoever said you can’t come home again

was wrong. I’ve slipped in place back East like one

more river stone. Surfacing, a beaver

dog-paddles, torso flat and long.

She curls her spine and dives. Her broad tail smoothes

the tannic stream behind her like a mother’s

hand soothes passage. Midsummer: fields

of milkweed nod, pink before they pod;

The Monarchs reconnoiter, back again

to feed and mate and scout out homes for eggs.

The farm pond’s little boatmen dip their insect

oars and skim along, enough to make

the water glint. The osprey dives then rises,

gold clutched in his claws, the gold that swam

too near the line between the air and water.

 

III.

Too near the line between the air and water,

low clouds bluff and plump, collaging shades

of bruise and white and gray. Then rain sheets.

Before I know it, goldenrod tassels

yellow, brimming over green, the arc

of time as I recall it – thrumming summers

interrupted by synaptic longings

back to chilling snows. The twilit meadow

blurs its colors as if on purpose, as age

blurs imperfections, my image in the mirror

less well-defined than ever, less intriguing.

Gauzy threads of cirrus, backlit by

a gibbous moon, form gaps, framing now

and then a star, once I spot the first.

 

IV.

And then, like stars, once I spot the first

collect of ash leaves yellowing, I see

the turning everywhere, the sumac pinnates

tipped with orange, sugar maple palmates

edged with red — familiar, slow crescendo

toward October. Downhill, merlins flap

around a long-dead tree, then perch to spy

on kingbirds. Even with such names, they’re barred

from what’s between us – the briefly living – and

our fiery, dying sun. The Mourning Cloaks

feast on windfall apples, rotting sweet

and brown, as winds blow from the South, unsettled,

caressing us like volatile parents.

All night, their thunders wake us; rains lull us.

V.

All night, the thunder wakes us; rain lulls us

back to sleep. Repeat. The morning forest

drips crystals, leaf tips drenched and sparkling,

this bright illusion glossing ironies

of evergreens that brown and die like all

of us back east. The leaf-mold footpath sponges

underfoot, instant karmic mushrooms

reincarnate up through amber needles.

The crickets start their songs at noon as if

to cram time full: their manic chirps

resound like nextweeknextweeknextweek; they

predict the killing shards, the silver frosts.

Each funeral, a funeral for all

of us. Winter waits, the parents know.

 

VI.

The winter waits, a parent knowing we’ll

come home. October vapors silk above

the stream, miming ghosts and veils. The forest

floor, a wreck of branches after storms,

mocks our broken family trees. The row

of maples, cicatrized by sugaring,

stands witness roadside: nothing sweet is gleaned

without some cost.  Escape, impossible,

from autumn’s litany: fertility

brings loss, precedes decay.  November smacks

of fractals, stripped to spines and ribs and scars.

The last leaves spiral down in yellow, buff,

and ochre-red; winds lift them up to spin

like dervishes collecting spirits of the dead.

 

 

VII.

Like dervishes in flight from spirits of the dead,

we spin from South to North, from East to West,

a nomad race of animals condemned

to thinking we can torque the angles of

perspective, paint with undiscovered colors.

Our range is vast but finite: infrared

to ultraviolet, and zero to

three- sixty. The gold-tipped chrysalides have split,

the milkweed pods have split; a hundred seeds,

each with its hundred threads of silk, have left

or stayed.  Downhill, the long dead tree still stands;

a raptor lands like ash, and shifts her feet.

She turns her head in profile toward the wind,

the west we make our wishes on back east.

Creative Self-Care

You know you’ve hit rock bottom as a creative person if you start cleaning the bathroom during  time you’ve set aside to work on something that matters to you.

I’ve taken many “staycation” writing retreats – time off from the day-job to stay home to work on writing projects.  But, I often get distracted by my yard, my dogs, or even the ring-around-the-toilet. I love my home, and can rarely think of a place I’d rather be, but this week, for the first time in my life, I’m leaving all of my responsibilities behind. I’m off to Cedar Key, Florida for four days of writing.

Why haven’t I done this before? I’m cheap. That’s the answer that comes to mind first. Why spend money on a foreign location when I have a perfectly good home? Or maybe I thought I wasn’t worth it. But I am, and so is my writing.

In this, as in many things, I’ve been inspired by HipChick and sister writer Sandra Lambert, who’s been taking these retreats for herself for years in Cedar Key and elsewhere. I invited myself (bad manners) to join her this time. We’ll both be leaving  our beloved spouses, dogs, yards, and houses behind for efficiency condo units.on the Gulf.

innercriticcomic

The critical little fear-monger devil inside my head stamps its little feet. The serene, sensible angel that’s also in there says Relax, Michele. You’ll only be 65 miles from home, and it’s the off-season.

 

Op-Ed in Gainesville Sun

cemetery
Pleasant Plain Cemetery, where three of the lynching victims are buried – photo credit, Gainesville Sun

Day of Remembrance Needed for Lynching Victims

Last March, I attended a talk by Patricia Hilliard-Nunn at the Matheson History Museum about the August 19, 1916, lynchings in an oak grove near the center of Newberry. I learned that a black man, Boisy Long, was accused of stealing hogs, and was blamed for shooting two white men in the dispute.

Long was ultimately arrested, tried and executed, but in the lawless search preceding his arrest, angry mobs of infuriated white people captured six other black people — four men and two women. The whites shot one of these men, James Dennis, and strung up the five other people by the neck in that oak grove. The Rev. Josh Baskins, Bert Dennis, Mary Dennis, Andrew McHenry and Stella Long died by hanging.

Hilliard-Nunn maintained a calm, open-hearted demeanor as she shared one devastating fact after another about this lynching in particular, and lynchings in general. She included historical data on the incidence of lynchings nationwide, and the fact that Florida had the highest per capita rate of lynchings in the country prior to 1949. She shared historical photographs of Newberry, including one of a large group of whites — men, women and children — standing over the bodies of the black victims.

What made me start to cry? Maybe it was the sheer accumulation of horror. Maybe it was the two black children sitting toward the front of the room with their father, who would live with these facts now, who might worry that this atrocity could happen again, who might worry they or their families would be victims, too.

Maybe it was the old white couple sitting next to them, who had to live with these facts now, too, who might also worry that this atrocity could happen again, who might worry they would be a part of it.

Maybe I was crying for my white ancestors, who may have cheered this 1916 lynching on, or who may have stood by, appalled.

Read the full article at http://www.gainesville.com/opinion/20160810/michele-leavitt-day-of-remembrance-needed-for-lynching-victims 

Publishing with Kindle Singles

kindle singlesUntil December of 2015, I’d never heard of Kindle Singles even though I’m a regular consumer of e-books from Amazon. Six months later, I’m a Kindle Singles author.

If the format is new to you, too, Amazon’s tag line for the Kindle Singles genre might help: “Compelling Ideas Expressed at Their Natural Length.” As a format, it’s been called a vibrant new genre, and credited with saving long-form journalism. Although some literary critics have described the Singles platform as operating “much like a traditional publishing house,” I’m experiencing it as a hybrid between self-publishing and traditional publishing. That’s not a bad thing.

My Kindle Singles memoir, Walk Away, was published on July 6th. It’s almost one month old, and so far, so good. With over 100 sales plus another 100 Kindle Unlimited readers, it’s off to a good start, especially if I compare it with my last book, a poetry collection published by a small press. And Walk Away gets the benefit of Amazon’s marketing experience as well as the benefit of being promoted via Amazon’s email lists and targeted advertising to its existing customers.

Kindle Singles editors, like editors at traditional publishing houses, solicit work and review submissions for publication. After an essay of mine was published in Guernica last fall, an editor contacted me. I sent her a 30K word manuscript, and we had some back and forth communication about revisions. From there, the manuscript went to a copy writer, and then to a cover designer. Everyone I worked with was professional and pleasant, and also (compared to me) quite young.

When the manuscript was ready, I uploaded it to KDP (Kindle Direct Publishing), and Amazon promoted it from there. This is where the self-publishing piece comes in — KDP is Amazon’s self-publishing arm. What that means for me, as an author, is that I have the ultimate control over the book. I can re-publish it as a hard cover book. I can, with some limitations, un-publish it. It also means that the book could be stigmatized as self-published, although the class line between traditional publishing and self-publishing seems to become more blurry by the day.

From my initial contact with the editor, it took about 6 months for the manuscript to be published. Would I do it again? I’m already working on another 30K word story, and I hope Kindle Singles will pick up. It’s about my last major case, when I represented a woman who survived being shot in the head with a Boston Police detective’s gun.

 

Kitten Sack

rooming houseKitten Sack

Originally published February 2, 2013 at Hippocampus, now a part of my Kindle Singles memoir, WALK AWAY.

Our rooming house hovered over an abandoned storefront, a second-floor dimension not everyone could touch or see. Sometimes police officers stood at the bottom of the oak staircase and shouted up names of people who were wanted, but the officers must have questioned the stability of the staircase or the substance of the second floor, because they never came up those stairs. They shouted, and no one responded to them, except to yell meaningless obscenities. But on Sundays, old Jehovah’s Witnesses ladies climbed the stairs in their pumps and stockings, because the invisible was real enough to them. They knocked on doors, looking for tenants who were desperate enough to accept Jesus as a personal savior, and we hid in our rooms, terrified.

One day, our landlady woke at two in the afternoon to a sack of kittens. The door to her two-and-a-half rooms had been left unlocked in the night, and someone had left a crisp brown grocery sack beside her bed. She’d stepped upon a corner of the sack as she got up, and when the sole of her foot felt the warmth of wriggling flesh beneath the brown paper, she screamed. Those of us who were awake when she screamed rushed from our rooms to hers, keen for a new drama to distract us. The betrayals of the previous night that had finally put us all to bed, angry and cussing, were dim trails back to darkness in the afternoon haze. Awake, we became anxious for the revelry to ramp up again, and it began that day with this sack of kittens.

Who toted those kittens up the stairs? No one knew, though we all wondered if it might have been one of us. Memories were often hazy, so arguments often broke out over what had really happened in regard to an incident. The kittens, though, were a warm, soft miracle, so, rather than argument, there was speculation about whether the kittens had been found like that, swarming, nearly blind in a paper sack, or if they had been collected from an alleyway and placed in the sack for easy transport. The landlady, who never left the rooming house, sent Billy to the store for her red port wine and for a half-pint of milk, too, and then she took a seat in the wing chair beside her bed, as her tenants settled to the floor. No one had yet touched the kittens, and the landlady forbade us to, as they might have fleas, so talk turned to speculations about what had happened the previous night, and from there to remorse, and from there to promises that whatever had happened would certainly never happen again.

When Billy returned, the landlady poured the half-pint of milk into an ashtray and set it on the floor beside the sack. Some of the kittens continued to doze contentedly, snuggled against each other like rags, but others began to mew and fuss. Could the kittens get out of the sack by themselves? No one knew, but soon two of the kittens became boisterous, stepping on their sleeping siblings, trying to claw their way up the high walls of the paper sack. They were too light, only a few ounces of nearly newborn flesh and fur, to collapse the sturdy paper of the sack, but the scent of milk enticed them. We urged the two brave kittens on, creating names for them — Spook for the gray tabby and Scat for the money cat — and soon small bets for cigarettes and beers were being placed about who would get out first.

“Look,” cried the landlady from her seat. “Spook is going to make it!” The little gray tabby had learned to leap, and kept jumping against the side of the bag, rocking it a bit so that the tipping seemed inevitable. “He’s tough,” one of us declared. “A survivor,” said another. “Not some candy-ass,” said a third.

The sleeping kittens were dismissed by all of us as losers, and soon Spook had indeed tipped the bag enough to crawl over the edge, topple to the floor, and make his way to the solace of the milk. And all of us praised him as one of our own, lifting our bottles and plastic cups in tribute to him as he lapped at the milk, harking back to memories of our own cleverness in escaping some dead-end job or unsuitable spouse or misbehaving child and finding freedom, and we praised Scat in turn when he, too, escaped from the sack, as a survivor, a winner. The other kittens were forgotten as the afternoon darkened into evening, and someone, maybe me, kicked the sack under the landlady’s bed during a squabble that broke out over stolen cigarettes during the business of finding solace from our unworthiness in the rooming house that hovered over an abandoned storefront, a second-floor dimension not everyone could touch or see.