A little bit of heaven on Earth.
Photo by SEA.

If you’ve been following my blog for the past few years, you know that I’ve been on a journey of rediscovery—rediscovery of my Azorean Portuguese roots and heritage.

I’ve now been back to the island archipelago of my ancestors three times since my first return in 2018.

That first visit was under the auspices of a writing retreat offered by DISQUIET International, an organization that tries to link and foster relationships between Luso-American and Portuguese writers.

This journey has turned out to be more than just a heritage tour, for I’ve made many friends and discovered family I didn’t know I had there. And because I worked in nature conservation for so many years, I couldn’t help falling in love with the islands and their beauty and majesty, but also their fragility.

My own poetry and non-fiction have long been about a few essential themes: a longing for home and an appreciation and concern for the natural world. In the Azores, I’ve come to find a beautiful combination of both.

In addition to that longing (the Portuguese have a word for it, saudade, which I’ve defined elsewhere as a longing for lost things) is the feeling that I’ve found a home there, which I hope to fully realize in the not too distant future.

And my concern for the natural world there—in the face of future impacts of climate change on small island communities like the Azores—as well as the last remaining endemic species, is also deepening my relationship to the islands.

I’ve been exploring my love affair with the Azores in two works-in-progress (although, frankly, it’s showing up in just about everything I write these days): a research-driven memoir of my ancestry and heritage on the islands and a long poem that explores some of the same territory.

Recently, Gávea-Brown, a bilingual journal of Portuguese-American language and studies from Brown University, published an excerpt from my poem, which I’ve been calling “Azorean Suite,” in the original English and in a translation by the Azorean American poet José Francisco Costa.

It’s been an amazing journey thus far and I hope to return to the islands as soon as possible. Meanwhile, here is a section from my “Azorean Suite.”

From “Azorean Suite”

“Is the island a cloud or is the cloud and island?” ~Nemésio

The sea surrounds, is ever-present

            endless, the sea surrounds

                        and sea sounds swirl and sway

humid torpor of temperament

            fog enshrouds

                        clouds caught on peaks

wrapping the mountain

            a helmet of white, gray, ash

                        the ever-present volcanoes

threat of fire and destruction

            threat of sea-wind and wave

                        thread of saudade woven

into the fabric of all life

            on the islands—

                        saudades for the land

enshrouds the land

            enshrouds the islanders

                        surrounded by sea.

                        #

São Miguel, island of my ancestors

            who settled here in the original waves

                        1450s or earlier, as far as I can tell,

from the Alentejo, they came,

            encouraged or escaping

                        I know not—

São Miguel, the green island,

            jewel in the bracelet of archipelago,

                        formed by two volcanoes

reaching for each other

            a chain of eruptions enclosing

                        the space between them

populated, like that chain, scattered

            by wind and sea, until 1906,

                        when my great-grandparents left

for America—scattered across the sea.

                        #

My return, over a century later,

            fills me with mixed emotions—

                        have I come “home” or simply returned

to reclaim a lost heritage

            something denied to me

                        by my grandfather’s willingness

to forget the past, to relinquish

            the “saudades de terra”

                        so much a part of the Azorean character—

the phrase can mean “longing for the land”

            or “I miss the earth”

                        which seems so necessary now

with the threat of climate change

            added to the island condition—

                        sea-surge from hurricane Lorenzo overflowing

onto the low-lying streets at sea’s edge

            saltwater burning the wine grapes

                        flooding the edge of the villages

how high will the sea rise in the next century

            how will the islanders survive

                        what becomes of saudades de terra

when the land is swallowed by sea?

and here is José Francisco Costa’s translation into Portuguese:

Excerto de Suite Açoriana

 “A ilha é a nuvem ou a nuvem a ilha?” ~Nemésio   

O mar é um cerco, é contínua presença

            infinita, o mar é um cerco      

                        e os sons do mar rodopiam e arrastam-se

húmido torpor do ser

            nevoeiro mortalha

                        nuvens presas nos cimos

envolvendo a montanha

            um capacete de branca, parda, cinza

                        a inescapável presença dos vulcões

ameaça de fogo e destruição

            ameaça de vento e vaga de mar

                        fio de saudade urdido

no tecido da vida inteira

            nas ilhas –

                        saudades da terra

mortalha da terra

            mortalha de ilhéus

                        por mar cercados.

                        #

São Miguel, ilha dos meus antepassados

            que aqui fizeram morada nas ondas originais

                        1450 ou antes, tanto quanto sei,

do Alentejo, vieram,

             incentivados ou fugidos

                        Eu não sei—

São Miguel, a ilha verde,

            jóia no bracelete do arquipélago

                        nascida de dois vulcões

no encalce um do outro

            corrente de erupções estreitando

                        o espaço entre eles

povoado, como a tal corrente, espalhado

            por vento e mar, até 1906, 

                        quando os meus bisavós partiram

no encalce da América – espalhados em toda a largura do mar.

                        #

O meu regresso, mais de um século depois,

            enche-me de um contraste de emoções –  

                        terei regressado a “casa” ou só voltei

para reclamar uma herança perdida

            algo que me foi negado

                        pela vontade de meu avô

de esquecer o passado, renunciar

            às “saudades de terra”

                        parte tão importante do ser Açoriano —

a frase tanto significa “estar ansioso pela terra”

            como “a terra faz-me falta”

                        o que hoje parece ser tão necessário

com a ameaça das alterações climáticas

            a somar à condição de ser ilha —

                   gigantescas marés provocadas pelo furacão Lorenzo inundando

as ruas baixas à beira do mar

            água salgada queimando as vinhas

                        cobrindo os limites das freguesias

até onde subirá o mar no próximo século

            como irão sobreviver os ilhéus

                        o que resta de saudades de terra

quando a terra é engolida pelo mar?

—Scott Edward Anderson (translation into Portuguese by José Francisco Costa)

This excerpt, from a long poem-in-progress, originally appeared in Gávea-Brown—A Bilingual Journal of Portuguese-American Letters and Studies

(I want to thank Onésimo Teotónio Almeida and Jennifer Currier for publishing my poem, and José Francisco Costa for his translation.)

Poet Serena Fox has been an attending physician in the Intensive Care Units of the Mount Sinai Beth Israel Hospital in NYC for the past 10 years. She works night shifts exclusively.

Since the increase in volume and acuity of respiratory failure related to COVID 19 this past month, the ICU beds have been increased 4-5 times usual, and she reports, they we are usually running full. 

Fox worked in a major trauma unit in Washington, DC, until 2007, and launched her career in medicine in the emergency room of New York City’s Bellevue Hospital during the height of the HIV AIDS epidemic. Fox’s experiences there formed the background of poems in her book, Night Shift (Turning Point Books, 2009).

Her poems seem relevant to our historical moment and, with a lot of conversation about the need for ventilators, one poem from her book seems to strike a chord. “All That Separates” is a phrase that is usually associated with the Bible, as in “your iniquities have made a separation between you and your God (Isaiah 59:1-2). In some cases, a ventilator is all that separates a patient from their god.

However, the initial reliance on ventilators to treat patients with Covid-19 has been challenged or at least reconsidered, as moving quickly to ventilation may complicate already existing conditions, further compromising a patient’s health.

And, apparently, intubation and mechanical ventilation may lead to pneumonia because of the invasive nature of their application. A recent study at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago found a promising alternative whereby patients are placed face down on their beds and treated with heated, humidified oxygen for up to sixteen hours.  

Here is Serena Fox’s poem, “All That Separates”:

What about respirators?

I can paralyze you with

an index finger, as effortlessly

as I brush your eyelashes,

making sure you’re down.

I set breaths per minute,

by pressing digits in a square.

Another plunge of my finger

slides you beyond consciousness

and memory. I hope sedation

lets you dream, gloriously

and elusively, beyond pain,

so we can turn you, change

the dressings, where your sternum

is no longer intact. A few

millimeters, all that separates

us, phalanx from pectoral flap,

you from me. A thickness worth

pause. More so, if a finger can

change outcome with the number of

your breath.

—Serena Fox from Night Shift (Turning Point Books, 2009) Used by permission of the author.

Natalie Eilbert.
Photo by Mark Koranda

Recently, a public figure—I won’t name any names—asked why we couldn’t just treat the Covid-19 coronavirus with antibiotics, complaining: “the germ (sic) has gotten so brilliant that the antibiotic can’t keep up with it.”

Now, it’s possible this person— despite his self-proclaimed high-IQ—skipped Biology in high school, for it is in that class that most people learn that antibiotics target bacteria, not viruses.

It’s in this class that students also learn the difference between bacteria and viruses. Bacteria are single-celled organisms, essentially living things that can thrive in a variety of environments. Viruses, on the other hand, require a living host, such as a people, plants, or animals to survive.

With that Biology lesson out of the way, this week’s poem is “Bacterium” by Natalie Eilbert. Eilbert, the author of the remarkable Indictus (Noemi Press, 2018), as well as Swan Feast (Bloof Books, 2015), teaches at the University of Wisconsin–Madison.

She is working on her third poetry collection, “Mediastinum,” and is also studying to become a science journalist. (I note her reference to Ideonella sakaiensis, the bacterium which secretes an enzyme that breaks down plastic, specifically PET (polyethylene terephthalate), in lines 11-12.)

“Bacterium” is a captivating poem, which I first came across in Poetry Magazine. What initially struck me about this poem is its form that I couldn’t quite put my finger on—it has elements of both the pantoum and the villanelle, with its repetition of lines, rhymes, and slant rhymes.

So, I asked the poet and she wrote that the poem is written in “a very loose palindromic form inspired by Natasha Trethewey’s poem, ‘Myth,’ which is, in my mind, a perfect poem that has haunted me since 2007.” In Eilbert’s version, she established “a stable of sentences and then reverse(d) their order.”

And then there is her almost playful exploration of etymology, which helps get at the true meaning of words, such as “graft,” “grifter,” and “to graft,” and, perhaps more importantly, “mother” and “mentor.”

I also love the way Eilbert uses verbs in this poem, often morphing them into their gerund form. “I am very, very conscious of how verbs operate in my poems,” Eilbert wrote to me. “I am fascinated by critiques of writing that point to prioritizing active over passive voice. Sometimes we need the passive voice. It is how I encountered so much of the nurturing in my life.”

For example, Eilbert thinks about the difference between “My mother braids my hair” and “My hair was braided,” saying, “The second one breaks my heart; the first is not an accurate narrative for the neglected child. Mothers and mentors have always been complicated in my life. I wanted to create something of the simulacrum of nurturing but one that is absent of love.”

Here is Natalie Eilbert’s “Bacterium,”
   

In the last segment, I tried sufficiency. They moved

my femur and a single woman braiding her hair fell

from me. I tried to warn you, this desert editorializes.

A scorpion lifts its tail, braids more active than braiding,

it hisses. I, of all people, get it. In the mornings we wake

to the kind of life we want until we turn our heads east.

The night fills without us but I warned you, I was full

already. A banana inside me blasted open a door,

my thoughts at the threshold of such a door blank. Love

transacts, a figure in the distance crowded with window.

An enzyme eats plastic, but which kind? Synthetic polymer

or the ways you tried to keep me? This is the last segment.

My mother

draws a circle around time and this is an intercourse. My mentor

draws a circle around time and this is an intercourse. I shake

out of bed. Humans continue the first line of their suicide letter.

An enzyme invents us, we invent enzymes. The plastic we make,

we must eat it. Draw a circle around time. We designed us

in simple utterances. The political term graft means political

corruption. The grifter never had an I. In the burn unit, they

place tilapia skins over human scar tissue, the killed form on top

of afflicted form, also a graft. Also a graft of afflicted form,

the killed form on top, they place tilapia skins over human scar

tissue. In the burn unit, I never had a grifter, corruption

means political, graft the political term. In simple utterances

we designed us. Time draws a circle, we must eat it. We make

the plastic, enzymes invent we, us invents an enzyme to continue

the first line of a suicide letter. Out of bed I shake with intercourse.

Time draws a circle around my mentor. Time draws a circle around

my mother.

This is the last segment. The ways you tried to keep me? Synthetic

polymer, but which kind? An enzyme eats plastic, crowded window,

a figure in the distance transacts love. At the threshold of such

a blank door, my thoughts open a door. A banana blasted inside me.

Already I was full but I warned you, the night fills without us.

We turn our heads until we want the kind of life in the mornings

we wake to. I get, of all people, it. It hisses. A scorpion, more active

than braiding, braids its tail, lifts the editorialized desert. You tried

to warn me from me. Her hair fell braiding a single woman. My femur

was moved. They tried sufficiency in the last segment.

Source: Poetry (May 2019)

You can read more about Natalie Eilbert on her website: natalie-eilbert.com and you can order her books there or through the links above.


Aria Aber
Photograph by Nadine Aber

“Afghan-American relations are really complicated and intense,” the poet Aria Aber said in an interview with Poetry magazine’s editorial staff. “The fact that, politically, there is still so much history and still so many things that are going on that we don’t know about, just seems very fertile to me creatively.”

Born and raised in Germany to Afghan refugee parents, Aber writes in English, her third language, and her debut collection, Hard Damage, won the Prairie Schooner Award and was published last year by the University of Nebraska Press.

I want to share Aber’s poem, “The Mother of All Balms,” in part because I love the play on words and sounds and slant rhymes she deploys in an otherwise somber poem, which reminds me a bit of how Elizabeth Bishop used similar strategies in a number of her poems on serious subjects.

“The Mother of All Balms” is, of course, a play on the name of the US-made weapon of mass destruction that was dubbed the “Mother of All Bombs,” and which was dropped over the Nangarhar Province of her parents’ native homeland, Afghanistan, in April 2017.

“English being my third language, I often mishear or mispronounce things,” Aber told Poetry, where the poem originally appeared. “And I am very interested in how that source of humiliation can also be a source of creativity.”

Meditating on the proximity of sound in which “bomb” and “balm” reside, Aber was reminded that in many religions and spiritual traditions “creation” and “destruction” often derive from the same source.

“But the balm is not necessarily something that creates,” says Aber. “It only restores and preserves something that is already there but broken.”

Here is Aria Aber’s “The Mother of All Balms”

Morning she comes, mother of all balms.

Only the news reporter says it wrong:

but aren’t you strung: little ping

and doesn’t memory embalm

                           your most-hurt city:

those yellow creeks                                of your rickety holm

where your mater: your salve:

left all her selves behind

so she could surrender to a lifetime

of Septembering: what she members most:

yellow grapes and celeries

and visiting her father’s glove

a balm, to be by absence so enclaved:

your mender

a follower, devoted

to what she cannot see. O air miles,

how can it be real?

How uncertain you should

be             if it existed, if there are no photos left

of her playing

on her childhood lawn—

burned are all the documents, or eaten—

this ink,

like memory,

an ancient unguent,

enshrining what cannot be held

of what went missing—the dog, her hat of hay,

one brother.                              She was in prism,

your mother says—and that’s how you will write her,

atoning her, just in fluorite a figurine caught

to fracture                                  her stolen years,

                                                        her brother,

all her once-upon-a-chimes.

Source: Poetry (September 2019)

Here is Aria Aber reading her poem, “The Mother of All Balms”

You can learn more about Aria Aber on her website: ariaaber.com.

A few years ago, a remarkable thing happened to poet Maggie Smith.

Portrait of Maggie Smith by Devon Albeit Photography
Maggie Smith (Devon Albeit Photography)

As she tells it in a note for the website Women’s Voices for Change, “I tend to labor over poems for weeks, months, even years, revising many, many times, working in different documents and comparing versions.”

This new poem, however, she wrote “in about half an hour in a Starbucks, scrawling it in green ink on a legal pad. I deleted only one word between the first draft and the second (final) draft.”

You’ve likely read this poem—the poem, “Good Bones,” went viral shortly after it was published in Waxwing in June 2016. It appeared the same week of the mass shooting at Pulse Nightclub in Orlando, Florida, and the murder of MP Jo Cox in the UK, when people were struggling to make sense of what was happening in the world.

When a reader posted a screenshot of the poem on Twitter, it was soon picked up by others, retweeted and reposted, and then celebrities got hold of it and started circulating it to their large groups of followers. In short, the poem went viral.

I’m sharing “Good Bones” here in part because it has something we could all use these days: a desire to “believe in the ultimate goodness of the world for the sake of one’s children,” as a reviewer wrote in the Washington Post.

Now, I know this poem is kind of a signature poem of Ms. Smith’s, like Elizabeth Bishop’s “One Art.” (“It’s my ‘Freebird,’” she said in an interview, referring to the ubiquitous Lynyrd Skynyrd song request.)

And she’s probably tired of it being the one Maggie Smith poem so many people know (and she has many others that are fine poems in their own right, so you should check them out: Maggie Smith).

Like “One Art,” however, there’s a reason this poem is so popular: it’s a solid poem that speaks directly to people.

“I wrote the poem in 2015,” Smith says, “and clearly I’d been thinking about what it means to raise children in fraught times: What do we tell them? What do tell ourselves? I continue to grapple with these questions, as a mother and as a poet.”

Maggie Smith is the author of a book of short inspirational prose pieces, Keep Moving (Simon & Schuster, 2020), which originated from her Twitter account @maggiesmithpoet, the eponymous Good Bones (Tupelo Press, 2017), as well as The Well Speaks of Its Own Poison (Tupelo Press, 2015) and Lamp of the Body (Red Hen Press, 2005).

Here is Maggie Smith’s poem “Good Bones”:

Life is short, though I keep this from my children.

Life is short, and I’ve shortened mine

in a thousand delicious, ill-advised ways,

a thousand deliciously ill-advised ways

I’ll keep from my children. The world is at least

fifty percent terrible, and that’s a conservative

estimate, though I keep this from my children.

For every bird there is a stone thrown at a bird.

For every loved child, a child broken, bagged,

sunk in a lake. Life is short and the world

is at least half terrible, and for every kind

stranger, there is one who would break you,

though I keep this from my children. I am trying

to sell them the world. Any decent realtor,

walking you through a real shithole, chirps on

about good bones: This place could be beautiful,

right? You could make this place beautiful.


“Good Bones” is from Good Bones, published by Tupelo Press, copyright © 2017 by Maggie Smith. Used with permission of the author. First published in Waxwing Magazine.

For more on National Poetry Month, go to: poets.org/national-poetry-month

Bust of Sophia de Mello Breyner Andresen from Miradouro Sophia de Mello, Lisboa.
(Photo by SEA)

Today, 25 April, marks the 45th Anniversary of Portugal’s “Carnation Revolution,” when a military coup toppled the fascist, authoritarian government, leading to a period of freedom and democracy after 48 years. 

In addition to ridding the country of the “Estado Novo” regime, the revolution of 25 April 1974, led to the end of Portuguese colonization and its attendant wars in Africa. Decolonization began shortly after the Carnation Revolution and, by the end of 1975, the former colonies of Angola, Cape Verde, São Tomé, and Mozambique gained independence.

Dubbed the Carnation Revolution because the flowers were offered to military personnel by civilians on the streets of Lisbon as a symbol of the peaceful transition of power, an action initiative by activist Celeste Caeiro. The coup itself was apparently triggered by a Portuguese song featured in the 1974 “Eurovision” song contest—the same contest that launched the Swedish band ABBA, which won that year with “Waterloo.”

Portugal’s entry, a fairly innocuous love-ballad called “E depois do adeus” (“And after the farewell”) by Paulo de Carvalho, was used to signal the rebels, who launched the coup when it was broadcast by a Lisbon radio station at 22:50 on 24 April. A second song, “Grândola Vila Morena” by Zeca Afonso, announced when the coup leaders had seized control. A 2000 film by Maria de Madeiros, Capitães de Abril, dramatizes the story.

Sophia de Mello Breyner Andresen (1919-2004) is one of the most important Portuguese poets of the 20th century and, in 1999, became the first Portuguese woman to receive the Camões Prize, the most prestigious award in Portuguese literature. 

In 2014, ten years after her death—and on the 40th anniversary of the Carnation Revolution—Andresen’s remains were transferred to the Panteão Nacional, in the Church of Santa Engrácia, only the second Portuguese woman to receive this honor. (The other was fado singer Amália Rodrigues.)

“Poetry is my understanding of the universe,” Andresen once said. “My way of relating to things, my participation in reality, my encounter with voices and images.” 

Her poem, “25 de Abril,” is the most famous poem of the Carnation Revolution, simple and elegant in its observation of the morning when the country emerged from “the night and the silence” of almost fifty years of authoritarian rule.

Here is Sophia de Mello Breyner Andresen’s “25 de Abril” in the original Portuguese and in my English translation:

“25 de Abril”

Esta é a madrugada que eu esperava
O dia inicial inteiro e limpo
Onde emergimos da noite e do silêncio
E livres habitamos a substância do tempo

—-

“25th of April”

This is the dawn I expected—

the first day, whole and clean,

where we emerge from the night and the silence.

And free, we inhabit the substance of time

(Translation by Scott Edward Anderson)


I first learned about the work of Camonghne Felix through Brooklyn Poets, where she was “Poet of the Week” in July 2015, and in Poetry Magazine around the same time. I was struck by her ability to weave together pop culture with the political in an illuminating and entertaining way.

Perhaps her most well-known poem, “Tonya Harding’s Fur Coats”—which I wanted to share, but its unusual formatting would be butchered by Gmail and WordPress—is a perfect example of this element of her work: social commentary that reaches beyond its pop-culture references to speak truth to the universal. (“The thing about being poor      is that you spend your days pointing,” is how the poem opens. You can read it here.)

In an interview on the website Empire Coven, Felix explains that for her, “what makes poetry and poets so special is that we create a world with imagination where we introduce new content, new ways of thinking, and new frameworks of thought. I am so curious to know what this world would like if there were a bunch of poets running it.”

Felix works as political strategist—she was most recently communications director for Amara Enyia’s Chicago mayoral campaign—and has an MA in Arts Politics from NYU and an MFA from Bard College. Her first book, Build Yourself a Boat, comes out later this month from Haymarket Books. You can order it here.

She has a favorite quote that stays with her—literally, as she told the interviewer from Empire Coven, as it is tattooed on her thigh—from a poem by the great Gwendolyn Brooks: “Say that the river turns and turn the river.”

As Felix explains, “Brooks spoke a lot about the intrinsic power of black womanhood and black femininity. When she wrote, ‘say that the river turns and turn the river,’ she really wrote it as a love letter to women and girls of color. It was a reminder that the world is not a great place, but we have a natural power and ability to transcend those bad things and make the world a better place.”

For Felix, it’s a reminder “that when I’m frustrated or something seems like its not working out, all I have to do is change something about the way I’m thinking or going through the world. That will change the way that I’m experiencing the world.”

In the poem I want to share today, the speaker of the poem seems to be addressing a lover who has been caught fooling around with another woman and the other woman, who has reached out to her through social media to try to explain herself, as if that would provide some comfort. Or perhaps, she meant to make the speaker uncomfortable.

Anyone who has known betrayal can relate, yet as Felix told me, part of what she’s trying to do “is working through the unique ways that black women experience heartbreak and trying to give black femme heartbreak space to live outside of the overall tragedy of race and gender.”

Here is Camonghne Felix’s poem,

“Aziza Gifts Me a New Pair of Pants and Saves Me from a Kind of Dysmorphia”

you turned me into the enigma of
your sleep and I could no longer

get to you, your dream girl novaed
into soluble wins, a Mustang expensive
and out of reach. I want nothing from

her, no information, no explanation,
yet, in my Facebook inbox, she talks
of chemistry, a perceived lack thereof

how she peppers you with the music
of your fantasies, lets you into
the strobe light, her body a

body of swan songs. I can’t help but
do the comparative math work, really
analyze the friction —

on a scale of one to fuck you I am 
obviously prettier, more compelling
better dressed, better situated for

the fixed follicle of long term care. She knows
the coke life, the nightlife, the way to shake
a man down to his flimsy desires

his petty pull to the things that will
kill him slow, his tongue a rat, a
hangnail at the edge of his mouth.

still, I know that perfection
is a matter of impulse and still
there is no one too perfect to feel

worthless. I cannot be bothered with
the multiple failures of my skin. Aziza says,
but, you are so beautiful

and yet, nothing fits. I am hungry
to return to the monster I know.
In my new room, there are no mirrors —

I am confounded with how ugly I feel
how thirsty I am to be something
ductile and pliable, calling out to the

back hand of the lover I know. We are
a bus ride apart and in the olive glow
of a high midnight, he texts me with

strangled, desperate remorse:

I want off this carousel
I need my girl, my life back
You are my only caboose

The only north star I know
My one way trip to something
Larger than my obnoxious instincts

Something larger than my
complicated, calculated need to be
Bigger than you.

—Camonghne Felix. This poem originally appeared in  PEN Poetry Series from PEN America. Used by permission of the author.

Alice Pettway reading at Sacramento Poetry Center,
18 March 2019. Photo by SEA

Last month, I read with Alice Pettway at the Sacramento Poetry Center. Alice came all the way from Shanghai, where she lives with her husband, and read from her new book, Moth, which has just been published by the fabulous Salmon Poetry of County Clare, Ireland, and from her first book, The Time of Hunger / O Tempo de Chuva.

Pettway and her husband have been on quite a journey, first with the Peace Corps and now with various work situations, that has taken them from Mozambique to Bogotá and now to China.

Perhaps because of this itinerant existence in countries far-flung from her native Texas, Pettway seems to be perpetually longing for home in one way or another. In her work, she seems to be always returning as much as she is leaving, while the “tug of the familiar” and the familial is always calling her.

As she wrote in a 2010 “Letter” from her Peace Corps post in Mozambique, “We are falling in love with our new home, but missing our old one.” (My latest, Dwelling, is also about the longing for home and about how we need to protect this Earth, our island home, so we were a good pairing.)

“When we think of home, we might think of a place, a smell, a tradition,” Pettway wrote to me in an email about her poem, “Burial,” which I share below. “Those memories pull us constantly back toward our past, but they also sometimes force us out into the world to discover different ways of being. When our new and old selves eventually find themselves squeezed into the same space again, an emotional reckoning is unavoidable.”

Her eye for detail and resonant images, along with a deceptively simple, direct language characterizes Pettway’s work. I am delighted to share her work with you here.

Here is “Burial” by Alice Pettway:

Burial

I changed shoes for the burial.
The earth, soft from rain,
was hungry for the black stems
of my funeral heels.
 
It was hungry for you too,
waiting only for lurid turf
to give way to reality,
a hole gouged in a field.
 
The funeral director looked
away; your brothers
pulled black plastic ground,
took up shovels.
 
I grasped a handle too—bent
my woman’s body into pivot
of muscle and dirt until the throb
of earth on wood faded, until soil
landed on soil as softly as snow
on snow, until there was no hole.
The men stood silent. Burial
is no more a man’s task
than birth is.

—Alice Pettway, from Moth (Salmon Press, 2019). Used by permission of the author and publisher. You can read more about Alice Pettway here.

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The iconic 18th Century Portas da Cidade (City Gates) in Ponta Delgada, São Miguel. (Photo by Scott Edward Anderson)

Some of you know that I’ve been on a journey the past few years to uncover and explore my familial roots on the island of São Miguel in the Azores, the nine-island archipelago in the Atlantic Ocean between Portugal and the United States.

Last summer, I had a residency on the island with Disquiet International, named for the enigmatic book of prose written by the great Portuguese poet, Fernando Pessoa. The residency in Ponta Delgada took place only 3.7 km from the freguesia (municipal parish) where two of my maternal great-grandparents emigrated in 1906.

Through Disquiet, I was also introduced to poet Lara Gularte, herself of Azorean American ancestry. Her relatives were from Faial, Pico, and Flores, three more of the nine islands in the Azores. Gularte was born in California and grew up in what was then an area of fruit farms known as the Santa Clara Valley (now more famously known as Silicon Valley).

Last month, Lara graciously invited me to read in the series she runs in the Sierra Foothills east of Sacramento, near where she now lives. Along with her husband, Brian—and some good local wine—we spent a wonderful evening discussing our Azorean heritage, poetry, and the dilemma of being generations removed from the places of our origins.

Gularte, who worked for many years as a public servant, finally traveled back to the Azores in 2008—the first of her family to return in four generations. “Before I explored these islands, they were only an abstraction,” Lara told the Portuguese American Journal in June 2018. “I had seen photos and post cards, but nothing prepared me for the natural beauty and complexity of the landscape.”

Her first collection, Kissing the Bee, was published by The Bitter Oleander Press in 2018. Many of the poems in her book speak to what she found on the Azores and the deepening connection which that brought about with her family roots in California’s fertile central valley.

“I was a resident poet at Footpaths to Creativity Center and Artist/Writer Residency on Flores Island in the Azores where this poem was written,” Lara says. “Flores is the island from where my grandfather was born before he emigrated as a young boy to the U.S. He was a stowaway on a ship and disembarked in New Bedford, Mass. He then worked in the cranberry bogs for a few years before traveling to California where he met my grandmother.”

Here is Lara Gularte’s poem, “Flores Island”:

 

FLORES ISLAND

The place at the beginning       

 

A whale rises up in her mind

turning her thoughts gray.

 

In port, the ferry of return.

She searches for her grandfather

to discover the shape of his emigration

and finds the plank’s gone, rotted.

At the mercy of rough water and high winds,

he rowed, sinews pulling his dory,

pulling his bones to breaking.

 

She scans the distance,

says his name out loud, Antonio Henriques,

waits to hear a voice, see a face.

She searches for all the prisoners

of thick mists, others who look like her,

whose foreign tongues speak music to her soul.

 

Beyond the wake of a rogue wave,

currents and tides ride

on the back of a gray whale.

 

She sees through the vapor

boats whose nets gather the sky and let go.

Fog falls,

bearing dazed souls back to their home place.

She falls with them.

 

—Lara Gularte, from Kissing the Bee (The Bitter Oleander Press, 2018). Used by permission of the author.

 

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Me and Harry. Photo by Lyn Groome.

Harry Groome is a writer and conservationist. When I first met him 20 years ago, Harry was also a board member of The Nature Conservancy.

I came to Philadelphia from Alaska, where I lived and worked with the Conservancy, to interview for a role with the organization’s Pennsylvania chapter.

Harry had recently retired as chairman of a large health care-pharmaceutical-consumer products company. In that meeting, I learned we shared three passions in addition to conservation: fly-fishing, ice hockey, and writing.

Harry told me he’d always wanted to be a writer, but he put writing aside when he took a job with the company where he spent his entire career. Upon retirement, he took it up again, writing short stories, getting an MFA from Vermont College, and eventually writing four novels.

But Harry’s most famous piece of writing—for which I once informed him he had more readers than Stephen King—was his “Letter to Hal.” Hal is his first grandson and the letter explained why Harry was giving Hal’s inheritance away to The Nature Conservancy. You can see a short film the Conservancy made of the letter here. (But get your tissues out—you’ll need ‘em!)

A few years later, when I was offered a month-long residency at the Millay Colony and took a sabbatical from the Conservancy to pursue it, Harry said to me, “Someday you’re going to have to choose. You can’t do both—you can’t be both a successful writer and a successful executive.”

Me being who I am, I said, “No, I can do both,” and proceeded to try to prove it for the next decade and a half. (I never liked being told what I could and couldn’t do.)

I made a pretty good run of it, too, but over the past nine months since I left my last “corporate” job with EY, I’ve been on a different journey. I started writing again, in earnest, and with a passion that I thought I’d lost. Poetry, as always, but also, increasingly prose—essays and memoir.

During this time, I’ve done some consulting, and even looked at some longer-term executive positions, but I haven’t found a role that gets me excited enough to go back into full-time work in such a capacity. I’ve lost interest in climbing a corporate ladder and playing in other people’s sandboxes.

Then something my wife Samantha said to me struck a nerve: “You’re happiest when you’re writing.” It’s true. And, while I did a fair amount of writing all during my working life over the past 30 years, including launching and writing my blog The Green Skeptic for a decade and publishing two books, over 100 poems, and a bunch of essays and reviews, I never fully committed myself to being a writer—not fully. There was always a part of me that wanted to be “successful” in work outside of writing—really, what I wanted was to be in charge, to run the show. (And I guess part of me still wanted to prove Harry wrong.)

But lately, and by this, I mean within the past couple of months, I’ve been thinking perhaps Harry and Samantha were right. And the universe seems to be sending me messages to this effect as well: First, in January a publisher wrote to me saying she wanted to bring out my book, Dwelling: an ecopoem, which I wrote on that long-ago residency at Millay. The book will be published this Fall. (Not a coincidence, I believe.)

Second, an idea I’d been working on—to trace the story of part of my family’s roots in Portugal’s Azores—started to take off. I landed a residency on São Miguel island for part of the upcoming summer, just a few miles down the road from the village where my great-grandparents came from and where that part of my family lived since at least the 1600s. I ran a book idea past my agent and now I’m working up a proposal and sample chapter, so she can try to sell the book later this Spring.

This is just to say that, now, some 16 years after Harry gave me that advice, I’m ready to make the leap and commit myself fully to being a writer. And, I’ve also started to think that perhaps it’s through my writing—and not by being an executive—that I can best contribute to the community now that I’m a “free agent.” Perhaps I don’t have to lead an organization to help them reach their goals.

With that in mind, I’m looking for ways to help organizations working on climate change, biodiversity conservation, and the sustainable use of our natural resources that allow me to keep up my focus on my writing. This could include working on major gift development, storytelling, or strategic projects for which organizations need expertise they don’t have in-house. I’m also looking to contribute to publications that have a need for my expertise in conservation, energy, and the environment. Reach out to me at greenskeptic[at]gmail[dot]com if you have any leads.

So, perhaps Harry was right, and it’s taken all this time for the writer in me to rise to the surface enough from the life-stream to get used to the air—to emerge and make the choice evident. Here is my poem, “Surfacing,” from Dwelling: an ecopoem:

 

Surfacing

 

“If this were the beginning of a poem, he would have called the thing he felt inside him the silence of snow.” Orhan Pamuk

 

The sound of the stream as it fills and flows

—under a full moon and stars—with melting snow.

 

The sound of your breathing as it fills and furls

in early winter air beneath the pines.

 

Say that the flow of a stream is surfacing a langscape,

surfacing the stream: shushing shushing susurrus

 

within you responding—

 

The way a crow responds to another,

as it dreams of road kill over the ridge.

 

The way deer browse for succulent shoots

or a dream of deer, hooving under surface.

 

Say that air flows around objects as a stream around rock,

surfacing the stream: leaves plastering color to surface

 

of a half-submerged stone—

 

—Scott Edward Anderson

(“Surfacing” first appeared The Wayfarer and is part of my sequence Dwelling: an ecopoem, which will be published in the Fall or 2018 by Shanti Arts.)


Postscript: Not long after I drafted this week’s mailing I got an email in response to my post of Ross Gay’s Philadelphia poem from Harry Groome himself—another sign—and we got together for coffee last week, where his lovely wife Lyn took the photo that accompanies this post on my blog.