SpeakEasy 15: Poems and Prayers for the New Year took place on Sunday, January 18, 2015, at the Mount Baker Theatre in front of an attentive audience of more than a hundred. The text of each poem was projected on the front wall so that listeners could read along.
At the request of both poets and audience members, and with the permission of the poets (who retain all copyright) we offer here the text of the poems in the order in which they were read. Links to the poets’ websites and books are provided where available.
SpeakEasy extends special thanks to the Mount Baker Theatre and to J.P. Falcon Grady, who provided musical accompaniment.
prayer for the day
open my ears to hear an unspeaking heart
allow me to bring spaciousness and grace to the room that I offer
may my sitting down give welcome to the weary
my rising up be with purpose
cause wisdom to temper all my speaking
let generosity flow through my outstretched hands
make my feet eager to approach in kindness
let me smooth the worn pathway
and clear away the mist
to reveal the hidden flower
permit me to carry into the day
the fragrance of blessing
Earth rotates, cities trace circles,
orbit Sun, white Moon turns round,
electrons circle a nucleus.
Babies bury parents in rich soil,
bugs and bacteria do their work,
grass grows, brown cow pie.
Solar System loops galaxy’s center,
round trip to the grocery store,
recycle bottles, bicycle wheels.
Spring warms edge of a sphere,
reinvent economic, art, politic,
spin Latin tango, twirl like disco.
I wish you to be my
And shelter me when I’m gone.
You’re standing here now,
Needles and boughs whispering evening songs.
I wish you to be my
Drinking in dew by my grave.
I wish you to be my
Humorous tree, your tickling roots causing waves
Of laughter of spirit, and comfort in death,
A partner to guide my way through
That magic transition from life to what’s left
When this rental agreement comes due.
I wish you to be my
Partner who’s free
To marry my consciousness now.
I wish you to be
My atoms reborn in your boughs.
Wheel of the Wise
“We, the People” is Our “Gift”
of community Greatness!
A potlatch of shared love
to benefit each individual
An Elder’s timeless message
“I” thinks, “me” special…
undoubtedly, muy importante
The future is in “my” hands!
Technology will help “my” success
“Me first,” a neophyte crows
Usually, just when older
do we begin to realize
bicycle wheels are Us
Going “forward” or “reverse”
What we put in, is what we
Early Morning Ablutions
I come awake at 7
to the sounds of arguing.
Don is standing outside
his sister’s room,
She screeches in response.
From his crib,
Jeffy begins to cry,
fitfully, at first,
Gary grabs his coat
“You must do something
with these children.
I’m late for work.”
I get out of bed,
“Will you kids
in my head.
My bladder is screaming.
I stumble to the bathroom,
sidle up to the sink,
stare into the mirror
at my bloodshot eyes.
I close them,
take three deep breaths.
My body begins to relax.
My head clears.
My heart calms.
Now I can go
to the children.
Now I can put
my arms around them,
Now I can treat them,
and the rest of the world,
Cloistered with schizophrenia is not easy.
We read your eyes
and when the voices speak,
we keep silent. With deep love
we tend you our ailing monk.
Best are our quiet mornings
sitting on the deck
drinking coffee, overlooking
the forest and gardens.
But when your eyes dilate,
your vestments pile on the floor
and chants become dissonant
there is confusion and isolation.
While our speech remains lucid,
we pray, prostrate, beg
Jesus, Buddha, Guru, anyone
Please make love easier.
What is Good?
A found poem in Vasily Grossman’s Russian novel Life and Fate
Is there a common
the same for all people,
all conditions of life?
Is this concept true
Christians and Jews?
Are Muslims excluded?
to all animals, trees, and mosses—
as Buddha claimed?
Or is my good
How much blood has been spilt
in the name of good?
Is yesterday’s good
today’s vice; yesterday’s evil
a greater evil
than evil itself?
Is good eternal
Has the sacred kernel
Wind bluster breeze
Trying to fit into my skin is never easy when my bones are retracting.
Some days, I pull shrink wrap around my body
And paint it black.
It lets little light in, but no light out.
I am the mirror, the reflector, the asker.
I am the unknown.
Who are you, little bird, small fledgling, happy owl?
Where did you come from,
And why do you feel so lost to me?
Where did you go?
I want to be big. I want to fill space,
I want to Be Known.
Bring the light home
Pull up from the shadows of my heartbeat
Into grateful hands, peaceful head.
My head is rarely peaceful;
Filled with swirling thoughts and second-guessings and how can I make sense
Of this big mind in this small small body,
This big heart in this tiny, unfathomable chest?
Ripping off shrink wrap is a process.
Takes courage and love and time.
I am learning
To be big in the world
Not just in my head.
I am learning to trust my heart
I am learning to fit into my body.
Lightness, bring my heart back
Held and comfortably new
I am learning myself
Every day, every way
Always relearning the world.
My mother and I sneak away
on the first hot day of summer
and walk to the end of the dock.
We stretch, count and dive.
Rising from the deep, I break the surface,
and before I open my eyes
I turn my face toward her breath.
We swim out to the center,
letting the water lap at our lips,
She tips back and straightens out,
dividing herself into islands:
toes, nut-brown and flecked with polish,
belly, round, suit bunching, wrinkled floral print,
and her face, rosy and weathered,
the first I ever saw.
I want to climb aboard this body and float through the rest of my days.
I will kick and paddle, she will steer with her toes
and I will ride astride her middle,
gazing at her face.
Poem for Leelah
The world did not deserve you.
You, crying over a body, name, home that did not fit
You with wide eyes
You with words that tear at my soul.
You wrote the world a suicide note,
confident in your decision,
aching for change:
“My death needs to mean something.”
There was a point in time when I would have called you, quietly,
a coward for dying:
You could have pushed through, and made change for the better.
You’d have been another success story,
of battles fought and won against fucked-up society.
The world does not work like that.
Your battles fought are too much for one girl to bear,
too much for one little girl my age
whose hand I want to hold tightly and never let go.
“My death needs to mean something.”
I am in no position to call you a coward,
and you are anything but.
But you are wrong.
Even in death, your mother misgenders you,
mourns the loss of a son she never had,
refuses to realize her own complicity.
There will be no peace in death.
How can you rest buried in the wrong clothes
under the wrong name?
You do not control your story now.
I am wishing right now I could have known you,
held you, stolen you away from your family and into my arms.
We were seventeen together,
a girl and a not-girl (that’s me)
battle-weary and fucked-up and raging at the world.
I see myself in you.
I’m picturing hands clasped tight,
running away from your demons
in combat boots and glass heels
your dress trailing behind us,
our bodies not quite right but okay,
“My death needs to mean something.”
And it does.
Your life and death will not be in vain.
You, selfless, beautiful, brave beyond measure,
You with honest words and soul that splinters,
you hide in parts of me,
between ribs and under clicking ankle joints.
You’re in every trans kid with fists bloody from hitting a world that keeps hitting back,
every girl with a body that doesn’t fit,
everyone with a beating heart who reads your words
and sees you for the girl you are.
This is for Leelah.
This is a battle we will not give up.
Your death cannot be in vain.
David M. Laws
May your feet find a path that your life is thirsting for,
May your heart keep you on the true way when your head is lost.
May you always have music you love in your ears,
May your song sound pleasant when it passes your lips.
May your knees and hips never need replacing,
May your whining always serve a good purpose.
May your body odor never overpower your charm,
May your nose hairs never outgrow your nostrils.
May your excess body fat be carried away at night
and land on your worst enemy’s butt and thighs.
May your skin stay soft and supple forever.
May your bunions mystically disappear.
May your eyes never tell you lies,
And may your lies always tell the truth.
To the New Year
On a line from Robert Olen Butler
Sharp your air with cold. Wring your day dry.
Sweep of dirt, clot of sky.
Frost the path. Swirl ice glistening.
Wood ducks. Mallards. Snow geese.
You give life; you take life.
Immense and primal, your private worlds—
hidden, minuscule, only the dog picks up the scent.
Still we follow your cues.
Still we seek more.
Rain. Blue-black sky. Whitecapped lake.
Dull weight of clouds; sodden, sauced ground.
Thaw your pond open.
I understand I should not write
of beauty these days
for all the obvious reasons
and my own friend dead these five months now
and I’m not over
not nearly over
any of it.
But I can’t help it, am powerless to stop
noticing the bug on my bathroom wall
is a miniature dragonfly,
iridescent blue counties
occupying the paper map of each wing.
Driving to the park-and-ride
I took a deep breath of May morning
and smelled summer coming
and the remains of Walt Whitman
in the scent of fresh-laid asphalt.
And today I am not afraid of death
because everything in this world is
even the coal-black asphalt
even the crows that dive and scream
at the confused young hawk soaring too near their nest
at the edge of the trailer park.
Yes, the trailer park too,
its magenta rhododendrons more brilliant than aluminum
its t.v. antennas writing the Chinese character for happiness
fifteen times against the sky.
And me, as I stood unaccountably still
in the graveled park-and-ride lot,
head back, watching a gull breaststroke the universe,
watching the chalky stream it shat
transform into gorgeous sunlit spangles
and did not even think of moving.
“Unaccountable” appears in No Sweeter Fat (Autumn House Press)
A New Cloth
We clasp the stained cloth of our past,
probe bullet holes, trace a bloodied hem.
What if we could rip the stitches
from this flawed fabric and begin anew?
What if we formed a circle, took up our needles
and sewed a new pattern for the future?
What if we wove one white flag for all nations
shaped from the same simple fabric?
What if this tapestry could blanket the landscape,
smooth each sharp edge, hush each hard word?
Pick sage fresh at dawn,
still damp from dew.
Dry it flat in sun,
gray spray spreading like moth wings,
purple buds bulged, clouds above
gathering for their own ceremony.
Meditate until evening.
Focus on why your life needs smudging.
Include lies to friends,
lovers betrayed, tossed away.
Hope for no storm, enough time.
Crush each stem with both hands.
Pile the mounded bits chest-high.
Put your heart into it.
Strike steel with flint; make wild sparks
skip like lightning to the gray,
bring sage alive with fire. Pray smoke
curls in swirls so thick it cleanses even you.
Close eyes, breathe deep. Dream
of redemption. As night arrives,
forgive yourself, weep.
“Smudging” first appeared in Loyalties : Whatcom Writes! 2013 anthology of stories and poems (Borderline Press); republished by Thick With Conviction, 2013
Message to All the People of Our World
The earth seems abstract,
a blue and green sphere.
I speak to the third planet all the time,
sitting in women’s circles,
wishing her well, asking her forgiveness.
It is the people I do not know,
those who hear my night whisper.
If our hands touch
can I read your palms?
I want to look into your eyes
and have you see mine.
There in that sacred space
there with our eyes embraced,
there, palm to palm,
our auras intertwined,
we find peace.
We will make you just like us.
You will see, once you can have
all our things, see through our eyes,
your world, and how it could be
We will teach your children
to speak and think the way we do,
not in the dark old ways
of your father’s father’s father. New,
We will sell you cell phones,
the Internet, TV comedies and soaps,
not the wailing songs, the poetry
of a thousand years of hopes,
We will excise the old beliefs
that rot the flesh about your heart,
the ancient laws that lead you
down the narrow road apart
We will make you little more than memories,
easily forgotten, lost in progress
gone from every hope of preservation
into our urgent needful madness
So close your eyes and don’t resist,
it will not hurt when everything you love is gone.
No need for looking back, remembering the loss.
Look ahead, where all is said and done.
Susan J. Erickson
For the Women Who Row Eight to a Boat
After Edward Hirsch
Today I want to say something heroic
for the women who row eight to a boat
becoming one body that skims
atop the water with strokes synchronized
to the call of the coxswain who steers
their hearts and muscles toward the goal.
They could be a long-legged pond strider
or a fish flying over the surface of the water
or a brace of birds headed toward an atoll.
In this sport no substitute spells a winded
teammate, no time out is taken to bandage
blistered hands or rub a burning back muscle.
Only when the race is over can a rower
let mercy intervene. That is why I say:
The body is a buoyant vessel whose only anchor
is love. We are rowing towards a lagoon
where the water is pure enough to drink
and where someone we love will bandage
our hands and rub aromatic lotions on our
skin. There is a coxswain who wants for us
what we say we want most in the world.
We have to tell our bodies, our spirits,
that courage is something to practice.
The root of the word courage is cor, Latin
for heart. We are on the crew and the fist
of our heart must propel us through dangerous water
as we row toward that lagoon.
AMEN VA SALAMATI
on finding Amanda’s message New Year’s morning
That which is begun with omens and high sun
above our touch but not our aspirations,
tinged with redemptive promise
Of some all-consuming love
not-yet-visible behind the mountain,
beckoning from the west,
A high vibrant proclamation
of divine intent like flocks of pigeons
luminous in raking light of late-afternoon
Like rising sparks—
bright bits of fire shot skyward
from spontaneous combustion of the spirit—
ignited by a secret joy.
Reflections After Watching a Star-of-Bethlehem Flower for Twenty Minutes and Feeling Like I’d Been the One Being Watched, Unfolding
Sometimes I think if we really used our senses,
that all the roads and all the
libraries, offices, the schools, stores, & sidewalks
would just become this huge forest of people
standing struck dumb in awe,
caught in the moment (the sound, the light, )
mouths hanging open,
eyes wet with wonder.
If we start today, here
without the paralysis of linear thought
and just feel what our senses bring us,
see how each gift is a whole universe in itself,
is enough for a complete life,
is shaped so the next gift fits into it,
and the next into that,
with enough room still to cradle us as we fall into
the grace of connection —
well, we’ll either be lunatics
or maybe we’ll just walk one step at a time,
the empty bowls in our tender hands
“Reflections After Watching…” appears in The Next True Story of My Life by Lois Holub (Rain Crow Press 2014)
pilgrim, poet, prophet
i’d like to think
i have something to say
or, at least, somewhere to go
i’d like to think
a lot of things
about one’s worldly significance
especially related to me
another aging person
fearing an empty end
keep your head above water
don’t follow the crowd
it all makes sense
but you forget too soon
you’ll get your turn
i’d tell you to get ready
but there’s really no way
breath after breath
step follows step
dust again dust
and i’ll soon be no more
I wish for you the light
of beeswax candles, and
real fire, no gas, the scent
as important as the heat.
My raincoat still smells
not of rain but of a savory
campfire, of the peanut
butter and jelly sandwiches
I squished into my pockets.
I want for you the pleasure
of waking up and not listening
to the news, but eating English
muffins with jam, that the
toaster burnt just a little.
The crumbs can be brushed away,
our dog can clean the scraps.
There is so little to do
afterwards, and so much.
Please have the joy
of silence in the afternoon,
of reading through one book
and then another, of not
thinking about dinner,
those dishes in the sink.
The cobwebs that stretch
between the light fixtures.
I hope there is comfort for
you in the hour before sleep,
that the sounds the house
makes around you, lulls you
into the care of light.
I dream we stumble toward the river
through a tangle of blackberry brambles, thorns
scratching our arms, to stand on the dock in the dark.
Below us water churns as hundreds of spawning Sockeye
swim up the night River, their flesh gone flushed and ragged. Persistent,
they shed generous layers of their own lives in pursuit of the future.
Listen, the salmon are singing.
Beguiled by contradiction,
uncertain of purpose,
I begin again.
Disregarding old dogmas
of deception, I discover
a carpet of roses,
pause, in mid-orbit,
upon a pathway
where smiles await me.
I move cautiously,
allow my imagination
At the edge, where patterns
end in uncertainty,
Here, on this pilgrimage,
I circle my heart’s core,
explore the edges
of my mind’s circuitry,
parse my experience,
seek to find,
in this universe
of white noise,
a brief shelter
My Little Daughter Told Me
My little daughter told me,
The earth is a ball
And we live on the top
And we don’t know what we’re doing.
I used to put my faith in marches, in bodies on the line.
But I’m losing that beat, that shuffle and clomp.
I need poetic feet.
Will wrote in the plague years.
Sudden fevers were deadly in a day.
Hamlet’s dire vision, “a foul and pestilent congregation of vapors.”
A dear companion now a grinning skull. Theaters closed.
But before the end—and it will come—the doors reopen and then the readiness is all.
Poets are ready.
Poets part the fogs of war.
“Country destroyed, mountains and rivers remain… “
[Du Fu—9th century]
“Someone had blundered…”
[Charge of the Light Brigade, Tennyson, Crimean War]
“How easy it is to make a ghost…”
[How to Kill, Keith Douglas, WWII]
“to comfort him with words / in an awkward music / of stress and care….”
[Two Stories Down, Brian Turner, Iraq]
“because here, Bullet, / here is where the world ends, every time.”
[Here, Bullet, Brian Turner, Iraq]
Poets seize the wettest day.
Georgia wanted to write a xylophone.
She waited for years. Until
unreasonable, unseasonable climate-changing rain
surfed her streets, runneling, plinking,
floods warning of more floods to come,
and she got her chance.
Here we are on top of the ball, strident and bewildered.
Poets find the wisdom of our confusion, the silence of our cacophony.
They write it down.
Mary Elizabeth Gillilan
A Meditation on Sticks
“It is like God gives you a stick,” Dachen said, as if he were inside my mind. “You can use it to build a house or kill your neighbor, to take his house. You can burn it and use the charcoal for a purpose, or you can give it to a friend, so that he can use the stick to help him walk, or build—whatever.”
Bungee bundled sticks stacked by size behind the shed
Overwhelmed my mouth pursed—exhaling the cold
northeaster stings the raw tips of my ears, an ache
pumps pain to my wrists, I put the last stack down.
I toss my work gloves to the ground, and curse my losses
my dog and my friend died the same September week
the same loneliness follows me every day—plays tag
with hope, and still these damn sticks must be stacked.
December gets cold sometimes, drags me around like
a cat drags its half dead prey, the sun lays low on the horizon
I rub my hands together, well at least the work is done,
and haven’t I said that before?
I carry the Christmas tree from the living room to the shed,
“Your future,” I say to the dead noble fir, “just an ax cut away.”
The cold makes me tremble, and foxed by grief
I go back into the house to await the midnight bells.
Under a sky swollen with moon, a great horned owl
alights on my stack of bungeed sticks. Yellow owl eyes
assay my work, and his great owl head bobbles while winds
ruff his noble tufts, my eyes lock with his. Choose he advises.
The owl flies. Midnight bells cut through the night.
I walk to my stacks of evenly piled wood, and from the first bundle
I take the smallest stick, and with a prayer for the New Year
lay it in the fireplace and set it ablaze.
epigraph is from Tibet, A Writer’s Journal by Mary Elizabeth Gillilan
The World is Continued, After All
On the afternoon that we discover
That the Apocalypse has changed into ellipse
We will learn to fall in love with it.
A flock of starlings will fly across the horizon as in cursive,
And we will realize that we don’t know this new language.
We’ll try words out on each other,
Find new assignations for our vowels.
You will call a bird Adagio,
And I will name grass
But there will be holes in this,
What to name bombed out buildings,
Or bodies felled like trees?
As in the transitive: cut down.
And somehow, this helps us.
We will be standing in a house
And realize what we miss:
The cough of those faucets
As if now they could finally breathe,
All that time past, filled with water.
A fisherman will row a boat across a lake
And sudden anger will rise in us,
Because it is a scene from before,
And we thought before was all finished.
That night when we line up our lawn chairs
To watch the fires burning in the hills,
There will be none.
One of us will weep.
The other will want to.
We will stop sleeping in our clothes.
The first of us to be naked will feel ashamed of our skin
Which is alive, persistent, and mostly unmarked.
When we understand that the Apocalypse has changed
We will look for seeds among the ragged char,
Our sandaled feet blackening,
We will think of water,
And things to be done.
We will move our bodies out of this moment
Slipping again into future moments as icebergs calving,
Knowing when we do
That the sound of geese is erased,
The brush of June wind across the jaw is gone,
The whisper of death at our shoulder,
Making us drown in our own living
Takes its leave.
All that, gone.
One of us cries.
We both look for seeds.
i pray for the new year
i pray that no one dies because of religion
i pray that no one dies because of the lack of religion
i pray for compassion for all beliefs
i pray for compassion for all humans
i pray for compassion for all living beings
i pray for compassion for all non-living things
i pray that all connections hold compassion
i ask forgiveness for all acts without compassion in the past