Wednesday, May 18, 2011


The deepest drum

For some time now I've wanted to talk about Work Is Love Made Visible, a book of poems by Jeanetta Calhoun Mish (West End Press, 2009). These are poems of raw spare power and tenderness, deeply rooted in the earth and in all of us who live and work on the earth.

One of the essential tasks of a poet, particularly in the times in which we live right now, is to break through the deadened nerveless language and thought and perception constantly scattered over the daily landscape by the machines of corporate and military bureaucracy. To remake and renew the ways we talk with each other, and the things we say. This is one of the things I found Mish doing again and again in her poems.

From the poem "collateral damage":

look. a small boy is picking up a stone, but it
is a stone made for throwing, not for skipping
he has forgotten how to play
he hurls the stone toward hidden enemies
and wipes away the water in his eye

see. this young woman should be
blossoming but hunger and fatigue have
nipped her budding
she is dirty, her feet blistered from
the miles between bombs and borders
who will light a candle for her
if she withers here in this bare soil

here in the devastated city,
the flower vendor has left the street corner
having no one to lean on, the fresh flowers sign
is swaying madly in the wind

What does it mean to live on the earth? What does it mean to feel the abiding pulse and rhythm of a time and a place? One of the reasons for staying in contact with the living earth around us, of which we are ourselves a living part, is so that we understand that our actions have consequences. As real as the cycles of seed and fallow, rain and drought, our actions will return and meet us, if we know how to pay attention.

gazing skyward, i scan for small metal trail markers
nailed into trees above snowline.
taking moment of silence, i contemplate the reckoning
that snowline is at least twenty feet above my head
and remember that the soaring arches of cathedrals
were designed to imitate the heavens

i place my foot firmly on the well-worn trail
and adjust my body's angle to the slope
my bended knee genuflects toward a white lupine
my meditation centers on all creation
i take my first step. all journeys begin this way.

my song of praise tunes itself to the wind organ
piping along the black edge where basalt meets blue sky
a child's laughter sounds a trumpet
the wind in the pines is the bone whistle's call
my footsteps in scree are a turtle shell rattle,
my heart the deepest drum.

(From the poem "program of worship: mount shasta wilderness sanctuary".)

Placed through the book are several photographs of Mish's family members in years past, richly evocative of the small towns in Oklahoma, and other places, where her family comes from. The poet's great-grandmother sitting on the ground with two young children in her lap, and an older boy, the poet's grandfather, standing nearby in the doorway of their plain wood house: Odell, Marshall County, Oklahoma, ca. 1918. The poet's mother and brother, standing together wearing overalls and hardhats, Seminole, Oklahoma, 1979. The poet's great-great-grandmother, in waitress uniform, standing in front of the Busy Bee Cafe, ca. 1938.

From the poem "Body Snatcher":

I walked by the mirror yesterday and gasped in recognition.
When did your face grow onto mine?
I imagine myself a Body Snatcher,
slowly forming into you in black and white hysteria,
each new line and gray hair sucking a moment of life out of the original.
I am both pleased and frightened by the transformation.
You are still so beautiful yet who will I be if I become you?
I fought so hard to avoid this inevitability.

When I was a child
there were two photographs I always confused,
one is black and white the other color, but otherwise
they seem to be of the same dark-haired big-eyed dreamer child.

Tell me again, momma
which one was me and which you?

Poems that search and probe, catching a story on the prairie breeze, reading signs in the blue line of the horizon. An epic is not just a story of warriors and kings, not just the fable of the idling gods on Olympus. To hold the soil in your hands; to wake up and go to work at 6 in the morning; to sing to a child in the softness of evening; to stand together shaking the gates of the temples of finance and industry, stubborn in our humanity; these also are the cloth of epic, the thread and weave of poetry.

In most of her pictures
my sister is standing by the door
because she's always leaving.
Sometimes she doesn't come back for a while [...]

[...] There are sightings,
as if she were a u.f.o.
She's been caught in Killeen,
married to a soldier,
found in Granger Falls,
waitressing at Denny's,
spotted in Odessa,
dancing at the Wild Cherry.
But mostly she returns
to where we grew up,
a mean withered blight of a town
where she can hide
in the homes of friends
who I never knew and
my mother finds trashy.

To appreciate my sister's sacrifice
it is necessary to understand
that where she goes is not the question;
the question is why she goes
and despite appearances to the contrary
I care why she goes because she goes in my stead.

(From the poem "My Sister's Sacrifice".)

Jeanetta Calhoun Mish edited Ain't Nobody That Can Sing Like Me: New Oklahoma Writing, a wonderful anthology of poetry and prose, published in 2010 by Mongrel Empire Press, of which Mish is the publisher. It includes the work of 78 writers and two visual artists who lived in Oklahoma at the time the anthology was compiled and published. The title is taken from a Woody Guthrie song. Lots of great writing in the collection. I recommend it. (After going to the above link, scroll down a little to the entry for the anthology.) The press has published other fine writing too -- go and check it out.

I'll finish here with lines from another of the poems in Mish's book Work Is Love Made Visible. The light over the land in the oncoming dusk, the call of the open road ahead, the tilt and pause in the quiet face of a friend sitting across the table, the vast maps of memory that stay with us like a wind: who among us, if we still have any life in our hearts, does not know and feel these things. Among the many reasons to read poems is the chance of recognition, of finding something of oneself. I found pieces of myself, like bright weeds springing up along the roadside, in the poems of Jeanetta Mish.

i look like a roadmap, he says,
intending, i suppose, to deflect
any unrealistic expectations of
the power of passing time on
a face i haven't touched in years
but he is forgetting
how i love a road trip
sometimes screaming down the freeway
at 2 am, the bass thumping in the speakers
like the pounding of my heart [...]

[...] i like to slide into
a roadhouse on the county line
have a beer, some barbecue and
a slowdance to the blues
then unfold my beloved roadmap
run my finger along a chosen course
imagine all the s-turns and heaves
glory in the forgotten lanes
and remember that the end
of one journey is the
beginning of another

(From the poem "mapping desire".)

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