In my plantophile investigations, I became mildly obsessed with plants from the mint family. Most are what gardeners call “deer resistant,” meaning they don’t appeal to ravaging herds of deer who can mow down your garden in the blink of an eyeball. Doing research for the poem, I discovered that in botany, bisexual flowers are referred to as “perfect.” How nice!
The poem’s title is “The Mint Family,” but the editors chose another line as their graphic headline. Published December 28, 2020.
THE MINT FAMILY
Upright, with bisexual (or perfect) flowers, open
for business to bees. Aromatherapeutic against
memory’s dead hand. Other uses: teas, salads, salves
for stings. A shield for other greens against rapacious deer.
A shared geometry: stems near-perfect squares
in cross-section. Called Lamiaceae now, meaning deadnettle,
meaning not-a-nettle. Or possibly to nettle without sting,
like jolts of memory that don’t make one shrink.
Their long-dead name was Labiatae, as in labial.
Lipped, moist, impressionable. Easily stung,
yet they overrun gardens in bee balms, spearmints,
and sages. Re-member: no family’s perfect.
Some harp on the dead’s mistakes instead
of their memories, but The Mints come close
to perfect, modeling refreshment and courage,
their flowers unafraid of stings, open to all the bees.
I start every day (after coffee) by walking my dogs in a woodsy park near my house. The park is wedged between two well-traveled roads, and the noise of traffic can overwhelm the quieter sounds of small birds. Still, it’s a refuge for wildlife in the area, and I often see deer on my walks.
A poet friend who was also a pig farmer used to call deer “rats with hooves.” He was at war with them over certain crops he grew to supplement the pig income.
Deer have acclimated quite well to living in proximity to humans, well enough to be deemed a nuisance or worse by farmers, gardeners, and motorists. And, the deer have acclimated well enough to see us humans as harmless, or even as food dispensers. A mistake on both sides of the relationship, in my view.
This poem, originally published in Sweet Lit, was prompted by one of my morning walks. Click the play icon for an audio version.
Ones & ZeROES
The doe’s belly ripples, then a placental hoof or knee pokes her skin from inside out. She watches me watch her,
browsing for a hand held out with treats, whatever’s tender or nearby. Re-programmed for curiosity toward humans,
she’s unremembered fear. A new machine can write a terabyte of data every day on five hundred trillion molecules
of DNA. That memory will last ten thousand years. Soon, the deer may see my dog, who never catches them,
as one more harmless thing. Is that the sort of bit she passes down to offspring? Her new fawn rests, wet and dazed, between
deep shade and sun. Such tender prey. Let the dogs run.
My brain, like everyone’s, has its ruts. One of the mostly deeply ingrained of these is iambic pentameter: da-DUM da-DUM da- DUM da-DUM da-DUM. Free verse (poetry without meter or a given form) doesn’t come very naturally to me.
Habits aren’t bad, but experimenting with new patterns is, IMHO, good for the brain. To break out of my habitual poetry patterns, I sometimes mimic other poems to start one of these experiments.
When I read the very fine “Portrait of Reality in Fragments” by George Alexander, I was entranced with the pattern he used and also with the conversation in his poem between the self and a younger version of the self. I was eager to try writing a fragment poem with bits of memory juxtaposed, and the result is “Marriage Fragments.”
Originally published by the remarkable journal The Sunlight Press. The editors publish poetry, fiction, essays, and visual art. If you’re an artist or writer looking for a place to publish your work, I recommend them.
I wanted to love him
like my fifteen-year-old self:
lips unsplit, nose unbroken,
face without a mark
on it, my tongue tasting
Seneca thought luck happened
when preparation met opportunity.
I’d like to think it was the plums’ sweetness
that prepared me
to taste the bitterness,
In this marriage, my mother’s skin was,
assuredly, my own:
craving, drenched with knowing
touch and never enough touch
and never enough.
Rivers froze where I grew up,
and spring shattered them.
He liked to say
he un-bitched me.
Maybe so, or maybe fish
leapt from the river as sleet.
His father took him fishing
on Ozark rivers under
yellow honeysuckle. I wouldn’t
recognize those rivers, only
his hands, circling
a canoe paddle and his sex.
He asked me to marry him
the first time we had sex,
asked so easily, as if it was
his habit. I waited
him out. My river, his spring,
Some of my brother James’ ashes are in a box on the top of a bookcase in my house. The ashes of a full-grown human being are heavy, enough to fill a half-gallon jug.
His daughters and I released some of his ashes on the beach at Tybee Island two months after his death, on a cold day when the wind was sweeping up sand. His ashes mingled with the sand and the salt wind.
We have vague plans for the ashes in the box, maybe to take them to the mountains he loved and scatter some there. I’ve already scattered some in my garden. James, like me, had an affinity for the plant world.
This poem was originally published in Atticus Review , along with the image above.
Bananas love ashes in summer.
Time to spread some in the yard.
The fireplace grate is empty.
It’s easy to put things off. Even fire.
No one was diligent like my brother,
who sifted broken shells for hours
looking for shark’s teeth. Once, he held
his hand out with a shattered sand dollar
to show me little bones inside.
His other hand flew up and fluttered—
he said the bones were white doves, the peace
that passes understanding. He believed
in omens and Jesus and that one thing
could also be another. Time to feed
plants? At the first thunderclap.
The grate is empty, the urn is full.
His ashes scatter under the banana trees.
Rain dissolves fine particles, but not
the shards that passed on through.
I’ve denied shame exists, but that’s wrong. And one thing that makes me feel deeply ashamed is being wrong. Just imagine how I felt when at 21, I found out I was adopted! I’d been wrong about quite a few things.
Here’s a poem that touches on the experience of shame, published in February, 2020 by the wonderfully daily poetry journal SWWIM. It’s an honor to be included in their river of poems.
The publication of a new book by an author you love is a wonderful thing, perhaps especially when that author is no longer in this world Last month, a posthumous collection of Laura Hershey’s poetry and prose was published by The Unsung Masters Series, a project of Pleiades Press, Gulf Coast Journal, and Copper Nickel Journal.
Hershey passed away after a sudden illness in November of 2010; this came as a shock to her many friends and followers, including me. I’d met Laura when she organized a WOM-PO event at the 2010 AWP conference in Denver. About 30 women attended the lunch, exchanging news about recent books and publications.
I’d become familiar with Laura’s work through the WOM-PO listserv, and deeply admired her incisive intellect and her writing on personal and political facets of living as a disabled woman, and I was anxious to speak with her about her work. At the time, I was working on a chapbook of poems about my experience with hepatitis C and stigma. After some conversation, we embarked on an exchange of poems via email for mutual feedback.
Laura and her long-time partner Robin Stephens had recently adopted a teenage girl, and many of her poems in our brief exchange centered on her new daughter. As an adoptee raised in a fucked-up home, I had a bad taste in my mouth about adoption in general. Laura’s poems were a palate cleanser for me. I had no idea that an adoptive parent could focus, as she and Robin did, on learning all they could about who their daughter was, understanding her daughter as an individual, and acting for the benefit of their child.
The Unsung Masters Series project is an important one, but Laura Hershey was hardly unsung in the many communities she touched with her poetry, prose, and activism. For a sampling of her international influence, check out her website, which continues to live on after her death.
She put her considerable energies to work for both the theory and practice of LGBTQ and disability rights. In addition to her prolific writing, she worked with ADAPT, Not Dead Yet, and other disability rights activist groups. Among other issues, she advocated for universal design — a world that is ready-made for all of us — because, as she asked, “what could be more universal than having a body?”
One of Laura’s poems, “You Get Proud by Practicing,” was set to music and also became a rallying cry for many people with disabilities. It’s included in this important book. Here’s an excerpt:
You Get Proud by Practicing by Laura Hershey
If you are not proud
For who you are, for what you say, for how you look;
If every time you stop
To think of yourself, you do not see yourself glowing
With golden light; do not, therefore, give up on yourself.
You can get proud.
You do not need
A better body, a purer spirit, or a Ph.D.
To be proud.
You do not need
A lot of money, a handsome boyfriend, or a nice car.
You do not need
To be able to walk, or see, or hear,
Or use big, complicated words,
Or do any of those things that you just can’t do
To be proud. A caseworker
Cannot make you proud,
Or a doctor.
You only need more practice.
You get proud by practicing.
Poets Resist began in 2017 in response to . . . well, you can guess.
It’s a current events poetry project of Glass: a Journal of Poetry, which seeks “poetry that enacts the artistic and creative purity of glass.”
My poem, “Suspect,” appears there today. The poem confronts a few aspects of racism: assumptions, rationalizations, and inaction. The speaker of the poem both is and is not me; perhaps that’s one way racism inhabits even well-intentioned white people.
The poem begins like this:
As many activists have noted, it’s well past time for white people to be reaching out to other white people to confront racism. I’m interested in thoughts that anyone might have about this, or about the poem, which can be read in its entirety here.