Thursday, September 30, 2010

BONE BIRDS, MUSCLE BIRDS

So, as I write this, Tom is somewhere in the sky between Baghdad and Kuwait, starting his long journey home for a short two weeks of much-needed R&R. I plan on spending the bulk of that time lounging with him at the spa, wandering through Denver, celebrating his birthday, and catching up.

For now, I'm sitting across from a stack of papers and stories (about, oh, four inches high) waiting to be graded. If I'm going to take next week off, I've got hours and hours of tedious work ahead of me, much like Tom, who can only travel one mile at a time.

I started thinking about my Advanced Writing independent study student this semester, with whom I've been meeting each Wednesday morning at a coffee shop just seven blocks from my house (a perfect little morning walk). For two hours, we discuss her assigned readings from texts by Richard Hugo, Ursula LeGuin, Constance Hale, Jerome Stern, and the occasional Natalie Goldberg. I listen as she reads her writing assignments aloud, more often than not noticing areas to focus on before I do, and tolerating my chants of "again!" after each piece.

This week, we focused on the sound of words in both poetry and prose, but we mainly focused on Roethke's poetry-- a subject inspired by Richard Hugo's fourth chapter from Triggering Town called "Stray Thoughts on Roethke and Teaching." (When we move further from prose into poetry, I'm busting out the big, fun guns like Steven Dobyns and Robert Pinsky.) We studied three poems from a collection of Roethke's work and noted how each piece moved up and down the scales of vowels and consonants, according to mood, to produce dynamic tones and evocative emotional responses. (Seriously. Read these poems aloud: "Orchids", "Child on Top of a Greenhouse", and "Cuttings (later)". Tell me it isn't singing for people who can't sing.) We also discussed Hugo's (and Roethke's) philosophy on not focusing too hard on publication or making a poem what it might not be. I am a particular fan of adding one of Hugo's rules to every exercise: "The poem must be meaningless" (Triggering Town, 30). By concentrating on the words (and all the "little things") the bigger picture comes together naturally, somewhere in our periphery, where we might not notice it at all until the piece is as complete as we want it.

Finally, we ended our session with an exercise I came up with after reading Ursula LeGuin's short chapter from Searoad titled "Foam Women, Rain Women" (a piece I recently assigned to my Intro to Lit class for rhetorical analysis as a short story, which went over much better than I expected). I asked for two nouns. Then we put the word "women" after each of them. Then we wrote a poem or short scene using that line as a title. Ten minutes. Even though LeGuin's "Foam Women, Rain Women" is more about how water comes in as many forms as women seem to, I wanted to play with the limits of a good title, the words for what they are: just words. My student chose the nouns: "drum" and "kettle". And off we went to write our versions of "Drum Women, Kettle Women".

My student's poem was worth revising this week; my poem was crap. However, later on that day, I tried again. This time, I chose "bone" and "muscle" for my nouns, and I decided to push a little further away from LeGuin by using "birds" instead of "women". The format is still entirely hers. But, as I sit here avoiding my papers-to-be-graded, hoping Tom will make it to Germany and eventually the states safely, I realize I can barely collect my thoughts well enough to come up with an exercise, let alone a format of my own. I feel as if I've been rushing around these past few weeks, filling in the blanks, everywhere, and I'll continue to do so for the next two(ish) days.

Here she be. Thanks for reading!

BONE BIRDS, MUSCLE BIRDS


Bone birds are so white they’re colorless,

self-starved, ugly, limbs held together with ribbons

of skin like tape, they’ll crack your binoculars.

Sometimes there’s a dead one on the sidewalk,

run over, no blood trail. Bone birds just snap

like bubble wrap and they’re gone, icy beaks cracked

wide open, wings drawn up like sails.


Muscle birds live for the silvery bath water

beneath the laundry line outside and swell like sponges,

absorbing, sucking, voices sweetened by sugar water,

honey, crumbs from last night’s spongecake thrown out

then resurrected. Muscle birds are mostly blue or violet but

my dad’s dad saw a red one on Christmas once,

nestled into a pine tree and glowing like a lantern.



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