Sunday, December 30, 2018

What It Says

what it says (the letter the poem the look)

gold (the ink the rhyme the edge of the book)

how the hand (holds it touches it forgets after a while)

why the sender (wanted longed for smiled did not smile)

then the painter (with paper with brush)

and still that letter (a swirl a hush)

and the other letter (all that way just for this)

and the moment (a serif a stamp a miss)


What does it mean? Yes.
May 2019 reveal the meanings you seek.

Thursday, December 20, 2018

There's So Much There There...

Another end-of-the-year walk along a path that is familiar in spring and summer (familiar, though always surprising), but which is now silent (no red-winged blackbirds calling from the cattails and treetops) until the sun touches the tops of distant trees and the Canada geese decide to honk themselves up into the sky to meet the warmth. Open water is becoming scarce; a thin layer of ice crinkles the surface of the pond. The orioles' nest is gone; with no ongoing maintenance, one of these windstorms brought it down.

I play the "there" game as I walk: There's where I saw the migrating palm warbler. There's where the snapping turtle crossed the impoundment. There's where I watched a dragonfly emerge from its larval skin. There's where the watersnake likes to sun on early summer mornings. There's the spot on the trail where a patch of sunlight might attract ebony jewelwings.

And on and on. It is a luxury to have a "there" place, a place one knows so well one could write a place-ography of it. There is loss, too—a favorite tree (or several) taken by a hurricane, a favorite view destroyed by new power lines. But I keep returning. I keep expanding the "there" list.

In this season of solstice, remember: Light is returning, slowly but surely, as this old world makes its way around that old star. Keep adding to your "there" list. Onward we go.

Sunday, December 9, 2018

Poem in Blue and Gold

I last walked this path when the dogwood was in bloom. May. And now it's December; a thin layer of ice has formed around the edges of the lake, beneath the dogwoods that overhang the water to soak in all the extra light in spring.

Spring and almost-winter. A single path connects the two, leads forth from each, circles back. Just one line in the visual poem of the woods, a poem that is revised with each storm. Legions of trees—old oaks, mostly, have fallen. Small piles of fresh sawdust on the edge of the path still mark the most recent blowdowns. Many of the still-upright trees are shredded by pileated woodpeckers; some of these trees will not survive the next storm.

It can be too much metaphor, so I try to walk without thinking figuratively. The bald eagle looking for a perch above open water; the three swans slow to awaken on a cold morning; the kingfisher with its clicking call; an occasional songbird determined to overwinter here—I try to see and I try to name what is. But each oak leaf beneath my feet (whose parent tree may or may not still be standing) brings me back to the metaphor of the path. And not comparing, but superimposing the images of time, almost-winter and spring.

how we know
the names of what will be—
poem in blue and gold

Sunday, December 2, 2018

A Distant River, A Hook

John, if you're reading this, this is for you. 💕

There is nothing more noble, more brave, more poignantly human than to strive to bring order to the chaos of existence. This is what artists do. "Order" may be fourteen lines long, as in a sonnet; six inches square or 11' x 3' on a piece of paper or cardboard; musical notes that wait for knowing hands to pluck the strings in a certain way...

...or that order might be words set free into a dimly-lit room, over the refuse of dinner, between friends. A river of words, punctuated by laughter and immediate revision and twinkling eyes.

Interwoven stories of people real and imagined (and both) hiding, emerging from hiding, seeking freedom, free...

Stories of where we are from and what we have endured and where we are going. Stories wherein we laugh at the "what we have endured" part, although the laughter is bittersweet, and we wonder if the endurance was worth it, was it enough, did we really endure or did we hide behind the appearance of having endured.

Does a fish in a tank know it is in a tank? Does a fish in a river know it is in a river?

Do we?

Saturday, December 1, 2018


Just two months short of two years that I've been experimenting with collage as a portal to poetry, or as a companion to poetry, or as inspiration for poetry...Obviously, the experiment continues, if I don't even know how to characterize the experiment itself.

Today, then, the process described in ekphrastic haiku...


rice paper
finding true love in what
he leaves behind


learning each time
what the brush can hold


gold paint
if you know how to see it


how little we know
torn scraps
of one another's lives

Sunday, November 18, 2018

Denoted, denoting...

This is the week when I begin to actively transition my English Composition I students into English Composition II readiness, with a review and deeper discussion of all the "word stuff" we've been working with so far. "Denotation" and "connotation" seem to be new worlds to many of these students. The idea that a word or phrase can mean more than it means seems to mystify them.

Meanwhile, in Literary Masterpieces I, we'll have another Medieval riddle poem to wonder over—one with no known solution, but which may get us looking in our minds' eyes toward the night sky. One which might transport us and our daring steeds across the perilous sea and back, safely, gesund.

And there are research papers to grade, and annotated bibliography drafts to edit, and all sorts of word stuff like that. Onward we go!

Sunday, November 11, 2018

Workshop, Laughter

Yesterday I facilitated a workshop in which we used collage as a way into poetry or other forms of creative writing (such as memoir). Most of the collages we created used at least a little text, around which colors and forms and textures suggested further meaning.

I have given numerous workshops in the past, always focusing on some aspect of poetry: haiku and other short forms; line breaks; figurative language; the haiku aesthetic...I can't recall how many different topics I've offered as workshops. What I can remember is the quiet, as a prompt was presented and then ten minutes or so of quiet, individual writing happened. Quiet, then a little sharing and feedback, then another prompt followed by more quiet...and thus the hours passed.

Yesterday's collage workshop was not quiet. Exchanging ideas and materials; telling stories; laughing—especially laughing. A workshop filled with laughter! What a revelation. There was a layer of art at table-top level, on top of which were layers of laughter.

What a glorious morning! Thank you, everyone who attended. Thank you, everyone who laughed!

Sunday, October 28, 2018

Winter Takes Hold

I have nothing against opulence. I love silk scarves, nice clothes (though I eventually spill tea or splatter tomato sauce on everything), an excess of life's accessories stuffed into closets and corners. The trick with any system—capitalism, socialism, trade-and-barter, utopianism—is to ensure that outward opulence is a projection of —not substitute for — the soul and psyche of individuals in that society. Has this ideal ever been achieved?

We seem to be a long way from this today, the dawn following another mass murder fueled by hate, an opulence of metal and bullets and blood that is, alas, closer to the projection of our broken souls and gaunt psyches. It is easy to walk down Madison Avenue in Manhattan and blame the mass-marketed, sterile opulence of the window displays for everything that is wrong in ourselves.

Well-dressed mannequins watch as winter takes hold; well-dressed mannequins watch as we lose hold.

Monday, October 8, 2018

Shadow Ways

Things seem to go from worse to I-can't-believe-this-has-gotten worse. Still, one can walk out-of-range of any electronic or print media and find at least a moment of respite. Beauty abounds, despite the human propensity to destroy what is beautiful. The natural world continues to amaze, and artists continue to provide inspiration.

Each of us must remember to allow some time for shadows, for the quiet time out of the sun or spotlight or screen or glare of anything glare-y. It's not "going dark," but taking time to look within, or aside, or down. A time to see patterns, juxtapositions, opposites, alternatives. Beauty in unexpected places. Reason to take another step or half-step forward.

Onward we go.


river view—
returning to my
shadow ways

Sunday, August 19, 2018

Sense of Self: What We Name, We Are

Bindweed. Creeper vine. Bittersweet. An August bounty of weeds. Some cool morning, I'll be in the little patch of garden trying to tear out the vines. The vines will win.

I will come away with even more metaphors for how a garden is life. More metaphors for one's sense of self, one's exploration of identity, one's reasons for persisting.

The vines, the semi-wild perennials, the sweet-scented rose. Too much sun and too much rain, both.

All building up to that killing frost...

Now she's lost her wits, you'd say, talking about frost on a summer day.

And you'd be right!

Sunday, July 29, 2018

Sense of Self (3)

How are the pieces put together—that's one way to look at the concept of "self."

Where do the pieces come from—that may be the more instructive question, especially from the point of view of an artist or poet.

Another challenge is to remember to ask about what isn't there, which means realizing there's a missing piece (or two or a thousand) before one is even close to completing the puzzle. And of course, a lost piece (a piece of loss) is still a piece of the puzzle of self.

I have recently read a couple biographies that struggle with this very thing, the pieces that go into the making of the person, the "life lessons" that shaped (or warped) the person's world view, the way loss factored in, the pieces that the person fought to keep despite all odds...It is overwhelming when one thinks of a biographer snooping around, picking out what seem to be the significant pieces.

And why always pieces? Is any part of us whole? Ever? No? Maybe in the way that a collage is whole, or a quilt?

Collage as autobiography...

Saturday, July 14, 2018

Sense of Self: The Keeper of...

Last month was "depth of being" month here on the ol' blog. This month, I'm transitioning into "sense of self." The book I'm reading has me thinking of what goes into the making of one's sense of self, and how that includes all that is lost along the way. Loss as part of the creative process—that's the paradox I'm seeing as I read the memoir of a famous novelist who took a non-fiction detour to explore her family.

It is one thing to keep what one has—that is challenge enough, trying to hold onto love, sanity, friendships, purpose, temper, plus all the many tangible items one hopes never to lose. But to be a keeper of what has been lost—ah, that's the stuff of poetry and art. Of course, one thinks of Elizabeth Bishop's poem "One Art" here (please google it and read it if you aren't familiar with it). But for an avid reader such as myself, it's massive to think back over the past dozen or so books I've read and realize, they are all about the "art" of losing. Louise Erdrich said about stories that they are about change and "learning to hold on to what's important" as change happens.

And by change, we mean loss. Even what seems like a gain—a positive change—is accompanied by the sudden onslaught of the fear of loss.

Continued anon!

Saturday, June 23, 2018

Depth of Being, part 5

alone in the dark
each of us —
dancer at rest

Far from home, my m.o. is to visit the homes of others who are long gone. Homes that once had an occupant of historic standing, and are therefore now sacred ground of some sort, worthy of pilgrimage. A place where ideas were fleshed out into acts or visual or verbal representations; a place where depth of being was explored and given some sort of outward manifestation that was then shared with others.

Yesterday it was the home of sculptor Daniel Chester French, whose most famous work is the sitting Lincoln in Washington, D.C.'s Lincoln Memorial. You may also know the Minuteman on Concord's North Bridge. Or the statue of John Harvard on the grounds of the college that bears his name.

What depths of being did I perceive as I observed the smaller-scale models of French's works? Complexity of character that could focus on a goal larger than the sum of the complexities, rather than being derailed by those contradictions, complexities, and even hypocrisies. I mean, Lincoln. One can almost feel, looking from that clenched fist to the open hand and back, the internal struggles, the contradictions at internal civil war. The Lincoln in the Lincoln Memorial brings onlookers to stunned silence (onlookers who come from all over the world); the smaller models in French's studio are also capable of bringing one to tears, as my husband and I can attest. It was on this smaller scale that I was able to begin to contemplate the depth of being that French had made visible, the conscious struggle of a human being of the best way to be both human being and leader of a nation at war with itself. Compassion: to suffer with.

Saturday, June 16, 2018

Depth of Being, part 4: Complexity vs. Hypocrisy

Many of us live somewhere around the nexus of complexity and hypocrisy, consistent in our inconsistencies, predictably unpredictable.

Complexity is the product of intelligence and curiosity, a worldview that life is there to be explored. People who strive to learn something new every day are complex creatures, understanding that change is inevitable but mourning what must be lost.

Hypocrisy demands thoughtlessness, a base and utter surrender to the whims of the emotions of the moment. A worldview so narrow that it filters out all capacity for imagination, curiosity, compassion. Remember the etymology of "compassion"—to suffer with. I don't suffer, says the hypocrite; suffering is something you need to do. Suffering is for losers, one can almost imagine a hypocrite declaring, right before unleashing a tirade of poor, poor persecuted me...

Many of us encompass both complexity and hypocrisy in our day-to-day choices, encounters, decisions, articulations. To really understand one another—to decide who is friend and who is foe—requires a study of one another's worldview. Is one alive to explore the possibilities that tantalizingly brush up against the outer regions of our consciousness, urging us to expand that consciousness? Or is one constantly narrowing, narrowing that field of understanding down to a solid, reeking little nugget of cognitive excrement, mistaking the waste for gold?

Complexity leaves something creative, generative, useful in its wake.

Hypocrisy loves collateral damage, period.

Sunday, June 10, 2018

Depth of Being, part 3: A Poetic Interlude

wished it to
   rain this morning

was best to
   rain this morning

wished it to
    hold the paint brush

was best to
    hold the paint brush

wished it to
     catch the light

was best to
     catch the light

wished it to
      recognize footsteps

was best to
      recognize footsteps

wished it to
       hear that particular voice

was best to
       hear that particular voice

Thursday, June 7, 2018

Depth of Being, part 2

At the Whitney Museum of Modern American Art yesterday, I was moved by the Grant Wood landscapes. He was able, through his paintings and pencil/charcoal drawings, to explore how a wide open space can be utterly, crushingly claustrophobic—antithetical, in fact, to the existence of the individual. And this was no depiction of the aftermath of cataclysm; this was an ahead-of-its-time understanding on the part of Wood of what psychology would come to realize as the depths to which the human psyche is vulnerable. Loneliness, hopelessness, a life without love, all forced to sublimate into an American-dream-ice-cream-social kind of hellscape, neatly arranged into fertile fields and trim houses. That touch of gothic in Wood's work isn't accidental.

In the explosion of Modern art in the early 20th century, it's easy to see how a "regional" artist such as Grant Wood or Andrew Wyeth was shrugged off as sentimental, shallow, old-fashioned. In the literary world, a similar critical reception dogged Robert Frost. Understanding of these depictions of depth of being comes slowly; it is so easy to miss or dismiss a depiction of our own tortured nature when that depiction is disguised as our everyday life. I just watched the movie version of Edith Wharton's brilliant The Age of Innocence; Martin Scorsese, the director, reportedly called this movie "the most violent" movie he ever made. That violence—violence that comes from without, in the hegemony of social construct, and violence that comes from within, as one attempts to warp oneself into what the social construct demands—is exactly what Grant Wood was able to capture.

How easily we—each one of us, each individual—is subsumed, broken, lost. How easily. Art's purpose is to remind us of this, to encourage us to maybe salvage something of ourselves while we still can. It's a salvage operation, people. And time's running out.

Monday, June 4, 2018

Depth of Being

In my excitement at amassing a stack of books to read over the summer, I bought what I thought was a novel about three couples. It turned out to be a book of non-fiction written by a casual acquaintance of the couples, an outsider unrelated to them. I gave it about a dozen pages before I resolved to do something I rarely do: return the book to get my money back.

It's too bad. These three couples, with their marital woes, broken dreams, and wasted lives, would have made for a sad and lovely story. As non-fiction, however, they were whiners who were destined never to be the adult in the room. I can't take three hundred pages of that, not when summer reading time is so precious and coveted.

This has me thinking about art and truth, and truth vs. fact—concepts I brush up against regularly in my literature classes. In my own work, I utilize some of the techniques of fiction while crafting poems that (I hope) get at the truth of human relationships and the meaning of life. I am always aware of the depth of being that can be inferred through one's imagination, and then evoked in a carefully-constructed poem. I see this depth of being in paintings, as well. Beauty is part of it, certainly, as is empathy, but it's something more, which is why I've taken to calling it "depth of being." It's a seemingly-impossible balance of truth and fact that is the artistic equivalent to creating life out of inanimate paint/canvas or ink/paper.

More about "depth of being" in future posts...

Friday, March 30, 2018

So Little Gold...

As Robert Frost reminds us, "Nature's first green is gold, / Her hardest hue to hold." That "first green" isn't quite visible yet here in New Jersey, after a month of one nor'easter after another, but today was a definite leap forward into spring: 50 degrees and rainy this morning, with birds singing as if to make up for lost time. The first few tentative blooms of round-leaf hepatica have appeared in the woods, although our nights are still cold.

Metaphorical gold is in short supply these days. Bad news—or worse, absurd news—reigns supreme, as it has almost since I began this blog over a year ago. Politics has sullied everything these past 400+ days. I retreat into literature and art to escape the public spectacle of a president so craven and inane, but then I read of John Steinbeck being attacked for writing about the conditions of farm workers in California in the 1930s, and then I watch Ken Burns's series on the Vietnam War, and realize, it was ever thus.

Nothing gold can stay. Gold is not an illusion, but it is also not a permanent part of reality. Spring will remind us of this; a few golden early summer days will remind us again; and of course the creativity and love we can foster in our personal lives will offer glimpses of what is truly worthy, truly of value. There are many golden moments in my classroom, as well.

Create some gold of your own today, and treasure it.

Sunday, March 25, 2018

Museum-Inspired Thoughts

I spent the day at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, and as always, those hours in an art museum have stayed with me, coloring my mood, inspiring me to see shapes and curves and edges and surfaces and textures and space in new ways (new to me, of course). I was conscious this time of the layers of artistic possibilities at this huge museum: it is a wondrous place in which to take photos, with some areas full of light and some poorly-lit and challenging. There's the art, of course, but also the people, the shadows, the architecture. And there is poetry everywhere: imagining the discourse between works of art, or focusing in on a seemingly small detail of a larger work, or trying to evoke the thrill of wandering through the maze of galleries.

I was looking for the "found collage" created by the windows overlooking the European sculpture gallery. I had seen in the past how the morning light pouring through the glass ceiling of this gallery creates interesting patterns in these windows. How fun would it be to try to create an actual collage inspired by these reflections?

The museum—its walls, doorways, architectural embellishments, ceilings, light—is itself a work of art. It's easy to forget to see, when there's so much to see.

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Spring Break Collage Fest

As I make a collage, I begin to think about time. A collage contains all tenses: past, present, future, and all the variations (think: If it were possible, I would someday have regretted not having met you). The way I try to figure out which piece of paper gets glued down first, next, next. I regret occasionally that something new should be placed beneath the edge of something already there. With a potential metaphor like that, you see why I think of these as a form of poetry.

As I make a collage, I think about time. A collage contains all tenses: past, present, future, and all the variations (think: Someday I may regret remembering not having met you). I look through a tray of torn scraps, looking for just the right one to inspire or continue the work-in-progress. I tear little squares of paper into smaller squares. I wonder how much paint to add at the end.

The end is the beginning.

And then the collage exists, where a few moment before there had been no collage. And yet, all I did was assemble bits and pieces of things that were in the vicinity. And discard other bits, other pieces.

Another collage waits its turn.

Friday, March 16, 2018

Approaching Vibrancy: Exhibit at Morris Arts

Approaching Vibrancy at Morris Arts

Last night was the opening of the exhibit Approaching Vibrancy at Morris Arts. Many of the artists were there, and I felt a little out of place (but I'm a poet, after all), but I enjoyed myself and learned a lot. Artists—at least the ones at the opening—are a very gregarious lot! I was happy to be a wallflower and watch.

This exhibit is up through August; you can see it Monday-Friday. The link at the top of this page gets you to the details. If you are in the Morristown area, please stop in and let Morris Arts know how vital they are to the community.

Friday, March 9, 2018

...whole story...

This story tells

about a
and then

and of course
a journey
but the path

a memory
that proved
to be false

every story
has at least

and water
there must be
crossing water

or just
an ordinary day

someone singing

Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Approaching Vibrancy at the Gallery at 14 Maple, Morristown, NJ

Two of my collages will be included in the Approaching Vibrancy exhibit at the Gallery at 14 Maple in Morristown, New Jersey. The open is Thursday evening, March 15, from 6:00-8:00. I am so excited about this!

I have learned so much in the past year, filling notebooks with small collages as a way to work out some poetic ideas (first with the Lavinia poems, then with the "ancient songs of us" poems). I'm still working on elements such as balance—but aren't we all? I have found collage artists whose work I admire, and I am trying to learn from them.

This little collage here is not one of the pieces in the exhibit, but it's one of my favorites. Hope to see friends at the opening! Hope to make new friends, too, and learn from the inspiring artwork.

Saturday, February 17, 2018

beautiful the dead

beautiful the dead

this is what memory does best

anointing ordinary days
into something royal and rare

royal and rare but ours once

all sundrenched and purple

and of course it is a lie
but not a lie

once memory
gets ahold of it and

and what is the past anyway
but a journey that no one


--jel 2-17-18