Category Archives: Poetry

Why doesn’t everyone read poetry?

9th Annual Brigid Poetry Festival

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Brigiddoll

It is time once again to pull out your journals, those scraps of paper and backs of envelopes where you have jotted down verse throughout the year—you know you have—and offer it up to the Goddess Brigid, patron saint of Ireland. Brigid loves poetry, excels at smithcraft, is an accomplished healer, and midwife, and in my experience also appreciates a fine whiskey on her Feast Day.

Which is tomorrow. Or as I prefer to think of it, the entire weekend.

This Silent Poetry Festival has been going on since 2006, and has become a wonderful, international event, with people posting poems in honor of Brigid on their blogs, Facebook, Twitters, Tumblrs, and other such devices.

If you would like to join in, here’s what to do:

  1. Post a poem either on your blog or on our Facebook page. (Yes, I know it says 2011 but just ignore that, Facebook won’t let me change it.)
  2. Share your link either here in the comments section or on that aforementioned page.
  3. Take some time in the coming week to dim the lights, pour your favorite libation, and read some of the poetry offered up to Brigid.
  4. Sleep deeply, wake refreshed.

That’s it! Extra credit for posting children’s poems, photos of gatherings to read poetry aloud, and other mirth to celebrate the return of the light. Please help spread the word, so others may partake as well. (And if anyone can help me credit the photo above I would appreciate it.)

Here is a poem I have been inspired by lately. It is a prayer of Ludwig van Beethoven, after he realized that his deafness was incurable.

Beethoven’s Prayer

Oh God give me strength to be victorious
over myself, for nothing may chain me to
this life. O guide my spirit, O raise me
from these dark depths, that my soul,
transported through Your wisdom, may
fearlessly struggle upward in fiery flight.
For You alone understand and can inspire me.
—Ludwig van Beethoven

May the light return for all of us this year.

Three Times a Wood Passes for Rain

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That is the line I woke up with a few weeks ago. Three times a wood passes for rain. It gripped me and I rushed to write it down before it vanished. As I wrote, there spilled out from behind it a whole dream that was just as poetic and mysterious. In the final scene, I am sitting on the lawn of my parent’s house, next to my mother’s casket.

I think about the dream a lot, but only now do I have the first idea what that opening line means. And that is because I went to Jenya’s memorial on Sunday.

drive up from seattle to vancouver

Jenya Bohr was an aikido buddy of mine, but our deeper bond came from his role as high school teacher to my son Bowen and nephew Alex. Jenya helped Bowen graduate when he only wanted to take junior college classes. And he helped Alex graduate by putting up with way more than he should have. But being an effective teacher to Alex meant propping him up, being in turns cajoling and reassuring, overlooking his massive academic failures, and constantly believing in the good he had inside him. Jenya excelled at that.

This Samhain was the third anniversary of Alex’s death, and I managed to get through it without too much extra heartache. But on Sunday I found myself crying with several of Alex’s old teachers at the memorial, not just for Jenya but for Alex. One teacher told me she’d had a dream the night before Jenya died that she went to visit and he was dead, smiling with his eyes wide open. Her immediate thought was, “I have to tell Alex!” which woke her up, because she remembered Alex is already dead and therefore Jenya must be, too.

Alex’s death flipped a switch in me. I grew up with a highly developed instinct for managing unpredictable behavior. Being the family harmonizer, the “responsible one,” became second nature to me, so I recreated my starring role early on by marrying a borderline personality and having kids young. I had enough energy for all of that, then Alex joined us and it all got turned up to eleven, all the time.

While raising three children, then four with Alex, then five the next year as his sister Rose came to live with us too, I clung to aikido like a mast in a storm. It was what I did to find my center, and to breathe and move from there in relation to others, even multiple attackers. Aikido absolutely got me through those years, re-patterning me so that I no longer tolerated anyone who kept trying to knock me off-center, unless it was an actual teenager under my care. And once the teenagers started moving out there was no more organizing principle for the marriage, so it too went away.

There is the normal pace of healing when we change the habits of a lifetime, and then there is the turbo-charged version. Alex’s death brought me to an unbearable rawness, as I faced once and for all the limits of my power and responsibility. I began setting new standards for relationships of all kinds, and held to them no matter the consequences. Internally, I ruthlessly weeded out old emotional patterns that kept me off-center, losing 35 pounds in the process. As a result, I am happier and healthier now than I have ever been. 

In my dream, there is an implication that after the third time something changes. The woods do not pass for rain. What is seen is fully revealed. There is also a vein of premonition through the dream, as my mother’s advancing Alzheimer’s registers in that stark final image. May her current quality of life continue for a long time.

Three years have passed since Alex’s death, since the turbo-charged period of change began that led me to this place. Yet it is never a far walk back to the grief, despair and loneliness that his death also ushered in. Jenya’s memorial reminded me of this fact. I walked through those woods again, and came out the other side. And today it is raining for the first time all season.

Poetry, Inauguration, Land

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I’ve been sitting here watching President Obama’s second inauguration today, thinking about politics and ritual, about society and culture, and how even powerful, hard-won change can still seem, and maybe is, fragile.

Our country’s story in my lifetime has so often been written by violence. And every day that big story is not about tragedy but about the peaceful transfer of power, of a participatory democracy and civil society, I feel so moved I am riveted to the scene. So be it.

8th Annual Brigid Poetry Festival

This seems like a good time to start the ball rolling for the Brigid Poetry Festival, an outpouring of verse in honor of the Goddess Brigid, Patron Saint of Ireland. Already people are starting to post on the Poetry Festival’s Facebook Page that I have been curating for the past two years. I think this year’s silent poetry reading could be even larger and more inclusive than the last.

Here are two poems about the spirits of this land and the spirit of this country. The first is part of the ancient Navajo Mountain Chant, a nine-day ceremony of healing for individuals and blessing the whole tribe. It was witnessed and translated in 1884 by Irish immigrant Washington Matthews, who had served as a surgeon in the Civil War.

Twelfth Song of the Thunder

The voice that beautifies the land!
The voice above,
The voice of the thunder
Within the dark cloud
Again and again it sounds,
The voice that beautifies the land.

The voice that beautifies the land!
The voice below,
The voice of the grasshopper
Among the plants
Again and again it sounds,
The voice that beautifies the land.

Praise Song for the Day

The poet Elizabeth Alexander wrote this for Barack Obama’s first inaugural ceremony in January, 2009. I think it deserves to be read again today. All praise is due to love.

Each day we go about our business,
walking past each other, catching each other’s
eyes or not, about to speak or speaking.

All about us is noise. All about us is
noise and bramble, thorn and din, each
one of our ancestors on our tongues.

Someone is stitching up a hem, darning
a hole in a uniform, patching a tire,
repairing the things in need of repair.

Someone is trying to make music somewhere,
with a pair of wooden spoons on an oil drum,
with cello, boom box, harmonica, voice.

A woman and her son wait for the bus.
A farmer considers the changing sky.
A teacher says, Take out your pencils. Begin.

We encounter each other in words, words
spiny or smooth, whispered or declaimed,
words to consider, reconsider.

We cross dirt roads and highways that mark
the will of some one and then others, who said
I need to see what’s on the other side.

I know there’s something better down the road.
We need to find a place where we are safe.
We walk into that which we cannot yet see.

Say it plain: that many have died for this day.
Sing the names of the dead who brought us here,
who laid the train tracks, raised the bridges,

picked the cotton and the lettuce, built
brick by brick the glittering edifices
they would then keep clean and work inside of.

Praise song for struggle, praise song for the day.
Praise song for every hand-lettered sign,
the figuring-it-out at kitchen tables.

Some live by love thy neighbor as thyself,
others by first do no harm or take no more
than you need. What if the mightiest word is love?

Love beyond marital, filial, national,
love that casts a widening pool of light,
love with no need to pre-empt grievance.

In today’s sharp sparkle, this winter air,
any thing can be made, any sentence begun.
On the brink, on the brim, on the cusp,

praise song for walking forward in that light.

Richard Thompson the Many-Skilled

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Last winter I had the great pleasure of seeing Richard Thompson again in concert. He is one of my favorite musicians and it had been a few years since I saw him last, so I was really happy to have heard about the show in time to get tickets.

What made it Richard Thompson photo by Joe Putrockeven more special is that I brought along two friends who had never heard him play before. These two men are fans of all the great guitarists of our era, but they’d never considered Richard Thompson to be among them. To them, he was a fringe name in a field of much more important players. But I raved about his playing and they (mostly) trust my judgment, so off we went.

All it took was the opening song for both of them to change their minds completely. Thompson was in fine form, electrifying from the first notes, and as the last chord faded one friend leaned over and said, “Too bad he’s having an off night.”

Later, my other friend said that it ws the best live show he’d ever seen. He was raised in a musical family and has been going to concerts since he was a boy, so at first I didn’t know whether he was being serious. But he went on, describing the many things that Richard Thompson does brilliantly: his virtuosic guitar work, with traditional ballads, obscure dance music forms, and hard-driving rock; his songwriting, which spans every emotional tone and genre with biting lyrics and beautiful melodies; his voice, which is completely distinctive and suits his songs perfectly; and most especially, his dynamic stage presence as a performer.

As he rattled off his list, I thought of the story of the Celtic God Lugh. Lugh led the Tuatha De Danaan to victory in the Second Battle of Magh Tuireadh, and is the father of Cúchulainn, the great Irish hero. But my favorite story is of how he gained entry to the court of Tara before the battle.

Lugh knocked at the door and was challenged by the doorkeeper, who asked him what service he had to offer the king. Lugh declares that he is a skilled wright, to which the doorkeeeper replies that the king already has one of those.

In a highly ritualized exchange, Lugh then goes down the list of things he excels at: he is a smith, a champion, a swordsman, a harpist, a hero, a poet and historian, a sorcer, a craftsman. Every time, the doorkeeper refuses him entry because the king already has someone who excels at each skill.

Finally, Lugh asks if the king has one person who does all of those things. The doorkeeper has to admit that there is no one in Tara who is a master of all skills, and he opens the door for Lugh.

As a society, we cope uneasily with the fact that gifts and talents are not evenly distributed among the population. It is relatively easy to admire those who excel at just one or two things, because we understand where they fit in the social fabric. Among musicians, Jeff Beck is a great guitarist; Yo-Yo Ma is a virtuoso cellist; Leonard Cohen is a great songwriter; Bruce Springsteen is a great performer.

We find it harder to accept those who have developed multiple talents into finely-honed skills, because the combination is so rare. Someone like Richard Thompson, who excels at so many things, may find it hard to achieve the recognition he deserves, because he is not just one thing.

Or at least, that is how I make sense of the fact that Richard Thompson is not more well-known. Being a Son of Lugh is not the easy road to recognition. Incidentally, to my friend’s list of things that Thompson excels at, I would add his gift for bringing myth to life. Fairport Convention was, after all, instrumental in popularizing Celtic folk songs like the Ballad of Tam Lin, reviving them with an electric sound.

You can hear that vein of bringing new life to old material in Thompson’s playing even now. That is, if you have heard him play live. And if you haven’t, what on earth are you waiting for?

R.I.P. Adrienne Rich

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When I read the news today that the poet Adrienne Rich had died, I immediately thought back to my early days at UC Santa Cruz. I majored in Women’s Studies (now Feminist Studies) when the department and the major were still very young. Staffing and funding were precarious, office space was cramped, and the faculty brilliant. Much of our coursework was offered through other departments, where sympathetic professors taught classes that qualified for Women’s Studies credit. Thus was I able in 1983 to take Priscilla Shaw’s Literature course on two great American poets, Emily Dickenson and Adrienne Rich.

I am grateful for this introduction to Adrienne Rich’s poetry, because without it I would not have understood her extraordinary command of form and meter, nor would I have been so deeply moved by the eloquence and emotional impact of her language. Looking at the books of hers I still have on my shelf, even the titles ring of a grander vision: The Dream of a Common Language, Of Woman Born, A Wild Patience Has Taken Me This Far.

The volumes of poetry are still marked up with pencil, the pages dog-eared where I found my favorites in Ms. Shaw’s class. Reading the poems again, I am struck by just how formative Rich’s imagery has been on a generation of feminist and Pagan writers. Rich critiqued but also celebrated woman’s connection to nature, and her analysis of power and oppression is echoed in the more recent writings of many far less capable champions of identity politics.

As an undergrad I worked at the old Saturn Café on Mission St., where Adrienne Rich was a frequent customer. My friend Paula knew her well and I could have introduced myself several times, but I was always too intimidated to approach her. I kept her books long after I graduated though, and considered closely whatever she published. Here are three favorite poems, in honor of her passing. Reading these, can you see the ley lines toward a hundred other, lesser poems?

 

POWER

Living     in the earth-deposits     of our history

Today a backhoe divulged     out of a crumbling flank of earth
one bottle     amber     perfect     a hundred-year-old
cure for fever     or melancholy     a tonic
for living on this earth     in the winters of this climate

Today I was reading about Marie Curie:
she must have known she suffered     from radiation sickness
her body bombarded for years     by the element
she had purified
It seems she denied to the end
the source of the cataracts on her eyes
the cracked and suppurating skin     of her finger-ends
till she could no longer hold     a test-tube or a pencil

She died     a famous woman     denying
her wounds
denying
her wounds     came     from the same source as her power

1974

 

XI

Every peak is a crater. This is the law of volcanoes,
making them eternally and visibly female.
No height without depth, without a burning core,
though our straw soles shred on the hardened lava.
I want to travel with you to every sacred mountain
smoking within like the sibyl stooped over her tripod,
I want to reach for your hand as we scale the path,
to feel your arteries glowing in my clasp,
never failing to note the small, jewel-like flower
unfamiliar to us, nameless till we rename her,
that clings to the slowly altering rock—
that detail outside ourselves that brings us to ourselves,
was here before us, knew we would come, and sees beyond us.

from 21 Love Poems, 1974–1976

 

And a last one, made most poignant by the thought of another dead poet on the other side of the mirror. Rest well.

I Dream I’m the Death of Orpheus

I am walking rapidly through striations of light and dark thrown under
an arcade.

I am a woman in the prime of life, with certain powers
and those powers severely limited
by authorities whose faces I rarely see.
I am a woman in the prime of life
driving her dead poet in a black Rolls-Royce
through a landscape of twilight and thorns.
A woman with a certain mission
which if obeyed to the letter will leave her intact.
A woman with the nerves of a panther
a woman with contacts among Hell’s Angels
a woman feeling the fullness of her powers
at the precise moment when she must not use them
a woman sworn to lucidity
who sees through the mayhem, the smoky fires
of these underground streets
her dead poet learning to walk backward against the wind
on the wrong side of the mirror

1971

Brigid Poetry Festival, Year Seven

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How did that happen? How has it been seven years since we started doing a Silent Poetry Reading for the Goddess Brigid (patron of poets, healers and midwives) on our blogs?

The answer to this question is generally uninteresting to anyone save the questioner, so I will spare you my thoughts about the passage of time, etc. Suffice to say that it is time to celebrate the return of the light, and the Feast of St. Brigid, with offerings of poetry. For anyone just tuning in, the festival has a Facebook page where anyone can post their poem. It is a lovely way to spend the afternoon, scrolling through all the postings and immersing yourself in the beauty of language.

If you are not on Facebook, feel free to post a poem below in the comments, as I will link to this post on Facebook so people can find your poem. And to start the ball rolling, here is a poem of mine I just found this morning and can’t believe I haven’t posted before now. It is an invocation of the ancestors that I did one year at Samhain, broom in hand. Very effective! Use with caution.

Ancestor Invocation

Broom on the moor,
Broom on the floor
The ancestors wait
We open the door

Inside and out
Behind and about
Dust of the ancients,
We call you out!

Out of the past,
out of the ash
Out from the ceiling,
Floor and sash

We trace the sacred steps of old
We stand upon the year’s threshold

Now join us in this dance tonight
As darkness gives to us our sight

Of teeming life in hidden deeps
Come! Be our candle while all else sleeps.

Anne Hill
Samhain, 1999

Poems for the Return of the Light

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I have two poems to offer this year: an invocation by Leonard Cohen, and an elegy by Rumi. Both of these I read at my nephew’s funeral last Fall. Both I think deserve wider reading. So here they are, in honor of Brigid, the poet’s muse. May the light return to us all.

Holy is your name, holy is your work, holy are the days that return to you. Holy are the years that you uncover. Holy are the hands that are raised to you, and the weeping that is wept to you. Holy is the fire between your will and ours, in which we are refined. Holy is that which is unredeemed, covered with your patience. Holy are the souls lost in your unnaming. Holy, and shining with a great light, is every living thing, established in this world and covered with time, until your name is praised forever.

Leonard Cohen
Book of Mercy

Autumn Rose Elegy

You’ve gone to the secret world.
Which way is it? You broke the cage

and flew. You heard the drum that
calls you home. You left this hu-

miliating shelf, this disorienting
desert where we’re given wrong

directions. What use now a crown?
You’ve become the sun. No need for

a belt: you’ve slipped out of your
waist! I have heard that near the

end you were eyes looking at soul.
No looking now. You live inside

the soul. You’re the strange autumn
rose that led the winter wind in

by withering. You’re rain soaking
everywhere from cloud to ground. No

bother of talking. Flowing silence
and sweet sleep beside the Friend.

Rumi
The Glance

6th Annual Brigid Poetry Festival

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It is that time of year again, when bloggers around the world post a favorite poem in honor of Brigid, the Irish goddess and patron saint of smithcraft, poetry, and healing. Brigid’s feast day is February 1st, so between now and then is the perfect time to publish a poem to celebrate.

Last year many great poems were published all over the web. This year, I have set up a Community Facebook Page to help people easily view each other’s poems and to share them around as much as possible. If you post a poem on your blog, please share the link on the community page so we can all go there and read it. If you don’t have a blog or website of your own, go ahead and post your poem in its entirety to the community page.

I haven’t quite decided which poem to post, so I have a week ahead of me to wander through books of poetry. May you enjoy the same pursuit, and by February 1st may the web be overflowing with poetic offerings!

A New Poem for Brigid

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This poem may not be finished—I have spent the evening taking it apart and putting it back together, and still have some tinkering to do around the edges. But what fun to have a new poem to share for Brigid! And to be writing poetry again. The stress of the past few years must be easing up. May it be so.

Fresh Powder

My mistake was thinking
I had been down this slope
before. A night spent traversing
the ridge, looking for tracks as phantom
traces of moonlight and tree shadow guided
me first to one route then another, a faint
smoothness to the land here, hints of
familiar curves waiting there,
around the bend. But
no sure match, memory
promising what the moment
did not contain. Backtracking,
confidence giving way to doubt,
the lift and heave through hip-deep
powder, a strained ascent for another run.
Then, dawning wonder: I had not been here
before. Never these woven flanks of land, never
this finely-tuned air warming to dampness in
my nostrils. I pause to listen, fingers
flexed like dowsing rods sweeping
across the mountain. Minutes
pass, possibly days.
From behind me an owl flies
low, disappearing into the shadows ahead
and my feet follow, maneuvering rise and swale
with harnessed speed. The boughs overhead give out a soft
cry, and a rustle of downy feathers, sinew and silk. Such unearthly
beauty this night, the heavens keeping watch, and so many miles before we both can sleep.

Anne Hill
Feb 1, 2010

5th Annual Brigid Poetry Festival

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I had to go back to this post to find the earliest reference (Reya’s original blog post is lost in the mists) to the now Jan28moonannual Silent Poetry Reading in honor of Brigid (Saint or Goddess, as you prefer). And while the first invitation was for a single day’s blogging event, watching the misty full moon tonight got me thinking of a favorite line from a poem that I want to offer, so I will simply declare that this year’s event has begun!

Life is hard enough; why shouldn’t we take all the full moon weekend leading up to February 2nd to celebrate this patroness of the arts and healing, and read her a poem or two?

For those of you with dormant blogs (ahem, Oak and Pandora!), now would be a great time to dust them off and offer up a poem. And for those of you who are more web-savvy (I’m looking at you, Yvonne and Cat), perhaps there is a way to aggregate everyone’s contributions, so that it is easier to have a glass of wine on Brigid’s feast day and browse through all the great poems.

Update: Yvonne has set up a system: if you post a poem this weekend, go to delicious.com and enter your post url with the tag brighid2010. (Or get a geeky friend to do it for you; it’s not super intuitive.) If you just want to read all the poetry, search for the brighid2010 tag at delicious and all our posts will show up together. Magic!

This is a poem I wrote back in 1990. I remembered it because the last line came back to me tonight, and I still really like it. Here it is.

The Basket
(after John Berryman)

What should I do, evenings, cobwebs
swaying in the rafters and three finely
printed invitations nailed to the

message board? (they quote Neruda, say
Bring the Children, or Softball at the
Reception) But marriage? Why flower

the hair or slip new diamonds through ears,
when the chapels are emptying: vessels
thrown with relief into rivers, small

silver placed in the notches of trees and
bells over arms of sky? The bride’s demure
look is not modesty but ambivalence—notice

the primrose which holds her gaze as he
leads her out of the valley. The day I
ate caviar from your navel and we pulled

each other through the brush to gather
the sweetest berries, I thought you were
a finely feathered basket, serpent-coiled

and watertight. We have been each others’
alibis, laughing as the caterers filled our
plates, saying we were too young to know

better, with the happy couple making the
evil eye behind our backs. Now, three-fingered,
I sit nights mending coil, sedge soaking

in the dish pan. I will make them one with
blue feathers, tell them marriage is not bells
but the basket, and we its constant gleaners.