Poetry: Making Use of Classical Mythology

Pandora-1879 Dante Gabriel Rossetti [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Pandora, 1879. Dante Gabriel Rossetti [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Classical mythology continues to fascinate us. It never seems to lose its relevance.

So many poems make use of classical mythology, it’s hard to choose examples. And, of course, the ancients themselves often wrote about their myths in poems.

One contemporary poet whose use of myth I very much admire is A.E. Stallings. She’s an American classics scholar who now lives in Athens, Greece. One of her poems centered on ancient Greek mythology is “Actaeon.” Her sonnet “Fairy Tale Logic,” which refers to more modern myths, is one of my favorites, but she’s written many, many fine poems.

Myths often explore the relationship between the individual and the larger community. And, they are often modulated to better fit changing times. The myth of Pandora, for example, is one that’s undergone changes.

Originally, the myth’s story was that Zeus gave a jar (later called a box) to Pandora and told her it was full of gifts for the humans she loved. But Zeus was lying — in fact, the jar was full of demons. Over the years, Pandora changed from a woman who’d been fooled by the ruler of the gods to a woman who was stigmatized because her nosy, disobedient nature compelled her to open a box she knew was dangerous.

Back in 2004, I was diagnosed with hepatitis C, and the stigma surrounding the disease soon became apparent to me. Ultimately, I wrote a lot of poems about this, many in the form of conversations between the stigmatized individual and the virus, and between the individual and the community. The poems, including the sonnet below, were published in an audio chapbook, Virus Conversations, which streams for free on Bandcamp and other platforms.

Elegy for Pandora

Because you are like me — a woman scorned,

defined by your mistakes, a woman whose

mistakes hurt others, whose otherness has turned

her speechless — you know the story’s other side:

God made the jar. He filled it. Then, he lied:

It’s full of gifts for all mankind. Good news!

And you, in innocence, believed. You pried

it open. A host of miseries unfurled

before you slammed it shut with Hope inside,

a doughy, unarmed caterpillar curled

beneath the lip. Pandora, my body is what

I opened. Disease is what I spread. I shut

my mouth and chew on hope. It’s not about

to grow its wings. I cannot spit it out.

Poetry: Imagining Conception

Newborn baby. Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash

As an adoptee who never met her mother, it may be easier for me to imagine my conception than it is for others — because I have no predetermined story to go on.

But imagining conception of any kind can be a fertile beginning (pun intended) for a poem. Think, for example, of the poems that imagine the conception of the world, or of a piece of fabulous music, or a metaphorical conception, even poems that imagine the beginning of other poems.

Beginnings are powerful, whether they are the beginning of the day or the beginning of night, the beginning of a marriage, or the beginning of old age. But imagining the beginning of something you know well is, perhaps, even more powerful. Imagining such a beginning makes you the co-creator of the something.

The poem below was originally published in Paper Nautilus.

Perfection is what we have to deal with

I see them coming together beside the palmetto thicket at the river,

my father hurrying from the sugar refinery, and my mother

from anywhere but school, tripping over Virginia creeper,

but keeping to the path, knowing what she wants,

although her word for it — love — won’t come close

to describing the brambles setting barbs on her shins,

her caught breath, her matted hair, the sweat between their skins,

the moss that chokes her when he turns away,

the brief secret of her belly swelling,

the not again, for heaven’s sakes hissing of teachers and neighbors,

her move to a distant cousin’s home where the taste

of sweet tea turns bitter on her tongue, or how she pushes me

out of her body with all her tiny might, right into this world

of loss, this universe of no mistakes.

New poems up at Mezzo Cammin

Mezzo Cammin Summer 2018

I’m honored to have two poems in the Summer 2018 issue of Mezzo Cammin: an online journal of formalist poetry by women, edited by the amazing Kim Bridgford. This is my seventh appearance in the journal — the first was in 2007, when poets were still skeptical about online publication, if you can imagine that! Now, the most influential journals in the world publish online.

poetry by the sea

Kim Bridgford is a brilliant, incisive poet in addition to being a visionary publisher and conference organizer. For poets with the time and means to attend poetry conferences, Poetry by the Sea, hosted in a lovely New England coastal town, seems perfect! It’s a thoroughly inclusive conference featuring readings and craft panels. In 2018, the keynote speaker was Rita Dove.

Of the two poems of mine published in this issue, one is about my feet, and the other is about girlfriends. Here’s the foot poem – check out Mezzo Cammin for “Girlfriends,” and all the other fabulous poems in this issue.

Defective Mirror Image 

I hate to say that one of you
has disappointed me. In lieu

of that, I’ll say you’re different.
One perfect, one discontent

as hell. To think, I bragged on both
of you, and decked you out in hosts

of toe rings, fancy shoes and polish.
You’ve stuck together in your smallish

way, resorting to irony.
My left foot won’t embarrass me.

But this right one—she isn’t right at all.
Bunion, hammer toe, odd ball.

Poetry and Dream-Work

Poetry and Dream-work

A hand in front of an airplane window holding a piece of paper with words. Photo by Sebastián León Pradoon Unsplash

Charlotte Bronte, the author of Jane Eyre and other classic novels, had a method for getting unstuck in her writing. When she’d struggled during the day to write that next line, next scene, next bit of dialogue, she put herself to sleep wishing for direction from a dream.

It worked for her. In a big way.

I love vivid dreams, the kind that come in color, the kind you recall, the kind you try to slip back into if you wake too soon, the kind you write about.

For thousands of years, people have been interpreting dreams. Most of the time, I don’t feel qualified to do that. But the dream that inspired the poem below seemed to be a message about voice, and control of voice.

I’m still not sure exactly what that message might have been, but at least I got a poem out of it, a pantoum. The poem was originally published in Rogue Agent, a journal that publishes poetry that’s rooted in the body. The editor, Jill Khoury, is a fine poet herself. If you write poems about bodily experience, and you are looking to get them published, try Rogue Agent!

Unedited
— for Mary Rowlandson

I pull out my own tongue,
having no trouble grasping it.
I tear it out gradually,
and when it comes loose, I fling it on the quilt,

having no trouble grasping
I must live now without a tongue.
When it comes loose and I fling it,
perfectly mauve, sleek as a fish,

I wonder: what can I swallow without a tongue?
It’s smaller than I’d imagined,
and I try swallowing without it
only to discover I’ve grown another already,

smaller than I imagined,
perhaps under the first all along.
If only to uncover another,
I pull out my own tongue.

Poetry in Form: Sonnet

Poetry in Form: Sonnet

“Close-up of a fountain pen writing in a notebook” by Aaron Burden on Unsplash
Sonnets are the very first poetic form many people learn about. The two traditional forms of the sonnet are the Shakespearean (think Shakespeare) and the Petrarchan (think — you guessed it — Petrarch). Both are 14 lines long and include a “volta,” or turn, in the argument or imagery of the poem occuring around line 9, and both are traditionally written in iambic pentameter.

Poetic forms usually rely on repetition. The repetition can be of lines or words in specific patterns, or of a metrical pattern or a rhyme pattern. Like language, though, poetic forms are constantly evolving.

Once the sonnet form was established, poets started stretching it to fit their taste. The twentieth century saw much variation on the sonnet form, but that variation has been going on for centuries. Poets employ varied rhyme schemes, or no rhyme schemes, or change the traditional number of lines, as in the curtal sonnet. Sometimes these are called “nonce sonnets,” nonce meaning a one-off. Of course, once a one-off is created, poets may imitate it.

Two of my favorite contemporary practitioners of the sonnet are Deborah Warren and Natasha Trethewey. The sonnet below, originally published in Mezzo Cammin: an online journal of formalist poetry by women, is my attempt at a Shakespearean sonnet.

Seven-Card Elegy

My father taught me how to play the hand

he dealt. I had to memorize each card

that fell face-up, obey his stern command

to take advantage of the chumps who didn’t guard

against their tells: the finger on the chin

that meant the player filled a Swiss-cheese straight,

the blink that meant a bluff. I learned to win

and lose without expression, to lay in wait.

When Pops had nothing left to teach, he lost

his patience, grew disgusted when I bet

on clearly losing cards, or when I tossed

a winner out. I taught myself to get

up from the table — to play the card of tough

indifference. Then indifference paid enough.

Poetry Inspired by Nature

Poetry Inspired by Nature

Cypress trees rising from the Ichetucknee River. Photo credit: Michele Leavitt

Nature has always inspired poetry, from early Chinese dynasties, around the globe to Ancient Greek epic poets and early Arabic poets.

In Western literature, the Romantics brought nature poetry to prominence in the early nineteenth century with poems like Shelley’s “Ode to the West Wind,” Keats’ “Ode to a Nightingale,” and Wordsworth’s “I wandered lonely as a cloud. . .”

Nature continues to inspire poets in the 21st century. One of my favorite contemporary anthologies of nature poetry is Black Nature: Four Centuries of African American Nature Poetryedited by Camille Dungy.

I’m fortunate to have two dogs who get me out into the North Florida woods almost every morning, and before they came into my life, there were other dogs who got me out into the woods in other parts of the country. Here’s a poem inspired by a northern New England forest, originally published here.

From the Hemlock Trenches

Dear hemlocks, I sit writing your names

on paper soon to be sent back to the pulp mills.

Last night’s condensation froze. The element

 

of ice and the element of morning sun

meet in your needles’ interstices,

where the invasives will feed.

 

I sit writing the dream out

of ice, asking if I may go

with it, back into the air.

 

The forest has changed, meaning it has changed me.

In trenches between the oldest trees,

vernal pools collect the liminal beings.

 

Do not stir the broth, I hear, and then

the jay call, song sparrow notes,

staccato pileated tapping, all

 

rehearsed, rehearsed, rehearsed.

None of us can do without practice.

We come to the oldest grief each spring:

 

some have not survived. Sacrifice equals

the hope it will release, plus

the weight of carnage.

 

I sit writing the dream

of sugar flowing up the tale of light.

At every pool, one of us is drinking.

Poetry and Old Wives’ Tales

Poetry and Old Wives’ Tales

“Black and white shot of two old women carrying bags in Zaragoza” by Rubén Bagüés on Unsplash

The term “old wives’ tales” is meant to be derogatory, like so many phrases that make mention of women. I’m reclaiming it right this minute. I’m old, and I’m a wife. And I tell tales.

Some folk wisdom, once disparaged as old wives’ tales, is turning out to be true. Also, the trees can speak, you know.

Old wives’ tales can be the subjects of poems, like this very cool list poem by Safia Elhillo.

And, they make good prompts if you’ve temporarily run out of ideas for new poems.

Photo by Presian Nedyalkov on Unsplash
One old wives’ tale that I heard as a child was that dragonflies (or flying needles as they were sometimes called) would sew up the mouths of naughty, mouthy little girls. That would have been the little me, who makes an appearance in this poem, originally published in the Fall 2017 issue of Paper Nautilus.

Bad Seed

At the market, I can’t resist

the orchid sellers, or any hothouse beauty,

although I know the flowers

and their little open mouths

won’t last. Conditions in the outside world

don’t often favor anything so delicate.

Ask the dragonflies: did they invent

the stories told to evil, orphaned children?

Or tell us how the iridescent spike

between a pair of gauzy wings

can sew a naughty mouth right shut?

The orphan-master tells me

Your mother was a slut.

I run crying to the river,

where dragonflies pause

on bulrushes, a half-sunk oar, a kneecap.

Each wears sapphire, tourmaline, and wings

as intricate as Shetland lace.

I point to my lips, in case they can fix

the threads about to come unstitched.

Poetry for Grief

Poetry for Grief

Photo by Mike Labrum on Unsplash

One form for expressing grief in poetry is the elegy. It started in the Classical period of Western history as a form using a metrical pattern called elegiac couplets: the first of two lines in dactylic hexameter and the second line in dactylic pentameter. The subject, originally, was not necessarily grief. To see an example, check out elegiac couplets in English by  John Donne .

Today, poets write poems they call elegies that do not follow any formal pattern. Formalists, of course, might say those poems are not elegies at all.

In deep grief, the arc of writing or reading a poem can be a way to come up for air. That is what I was looking for in this poem, originally published in Eclectica magazine.

Elegy for Christina

When you were seven, I took you out too far
into Ogeechee’s deep, seducing current
and swimming back, your bird-claw fingers choked
my neck. I stooped to prayer: 
please, God, no stupid
accident. We reached the riverbank. I laughed

as if there’d been no danger, so you could
keep on swimming. For years, you kept to the shoreline,
and grew to be the girl we thought would make
it, the one whose gentleness
we praised, the one whose un-

polluted urine her sisters brought
to their probation officers, the one
we thought immune from stupid accidents.
Some days, grief keeps me looking inward,
even when I hear the cranes’ migration,

and I dive back twenty years to swim the river
and hold you in the current, to stop
your transformation into a woman
overdosing, choking on her vomit.
It’s only now I can admit

we reached the riverbank so many years ago
as easily as windblown chaff
because we were the chaff.

The husk you left behind has burned and sent its smoke
into the atmosphere. Trumpets call me to look up.
I don’t expect the angels. Sandhill cranes
arrow over pine barrens toward the open prairie, lifted
on prevailing winds, following the one way clear to them.

Poetry in Form: Sestina

Poetry in Form: Sestina

Leaves of the same size and shape arranged together. Photo by Erol Ahmedon Unsplash
All formal poetry employs some form of repetition. Human beings have an natural affinity for repetition. Our world, of course, repeats the cycle of the seasons and the cycle of sunrise and sunset. The first sound we ever hear is our mother’s heart beating in a predictable, repetitive rhythm. We like to hear the same songs and stories over and over again.

Maybe it’s my affinity for repetition that leads me to make the same mistakes over and over again!

Sestinas don’t have to repeat a rhythm or meter or rhyme scheme. They only need to repeat the same end-words in six stanzas of six lines each, and then include the six end words in a three-line envoi at the end of the poem. It sounds easier than adhering to a strict meter and rhyme pattern, but I agree with a poet-friend who said “the sestina is the road to insanity.” Try it at your peril.

Here’s one that was published earlier this year in StirringThe repeated words are killing, understand, might, case, keep, and manage. You can give yourself more flexibility with this form if you choose words that have more than one meaning. The sestina form seemed to fit my subject: scientific experiments which seek to create a reproducible result. This issue of Stirring was edited by Caseyrenee Lopez.

Destructive Sampling

We do it in 10×10 meter plots, killing
the hemlocks to understand
what loss and succession might
look like, in case
the wooly adelgid keeps
advancing north. Will we manage

the loss the way we manage
these plots, in incremements — killing
slowly, girdling tree trunks to keep
the sap from rising up? Will we understand
what makes each tree’s case
unique? One girdled hemlock might

die over winter, another might
hang on for years, or even manage
grim survival. They run on tree-time, a case
of willingness to wait. Killing
them slowly may help us understand
which life forms will keep

rising up as the hemlocks keep
dying. But how might
we predict any outcome? Under one stand
of hemlocks, we manage
insect collection with pitfall traps and a killing/
preserving solution encased

in plastic. To monitor cases
of deer-browse impact, we keep
exclosures so the deer won’t kill
the regrowth. We create scenarios: we might
lose the south, the north, but manage
the east, the west, as we understand

them now, or seasons as we understand
them. Should someone make the case
that time’s advance prohibits managing
the future, that we can’t keep
up with change? That it’s silly to insist we might
keep the old growth safe, once the killing

insects manage to come north? What might
keep us safe when the world changes? Or help us understand
experiments’ results, in case we keep on killing?


Did I mention my partner is an ecologist? This poem is part of a long argument we’ve had over the years about whether or not science (or any discipline) can predict the future. Relationships, like nature, can be rich fodder for poetry.