Tonight, cumulus clouds mound
in rubble heaps above the inlet
The gods have ruined
their city, their shining
halls and avenues of mist
all silent and deserted
In a hundred years from now
it will be hearsay
these same gods
ever composed a song
or planted fragrant gardens.
will be gone, in our place we will
have left folded schematics
for locks and graveyards
filled with black lung
Then, in a thousand years from now
cumulus clouds will re-open
billowing white chrysanthemums
extinct beauty sailing out from myth
–Arlitia Jones, April 7, 2017
We love Tomahawks,
said General McCaffey,
but they aren’t effective
if you’re trying to crater
while the news clip shows
a Tomahawk busting
down the sky
to get at it’s target
He went on: The Air Force
has some amazing weapons
for cratering an airstrip
But tonight we’re using Tomahawks–
on this first night of war
our generals speak of love.
–Arlitia Jones, April 6, 2017
Though we have shattered our throats with rage
our words bounce like rocks against armored walls
when you call dead children
somebody else’s responsibility
nothing means anything
and we choke on babble
our mouths fill with disgust
revulsion, despair and it means nothing
Then today, I found a new fear
holding up the palace of grief,
if they have already taken our outrage
what’s next but our wonder and awe
yesterday, turning from the wound of the world
for a moment I saw a lynx in the woods
pale as smoke padding across pocked snow.
She was gray and brown, let me bear witness,
her ears were tufted. Quiet awareness among the trees.
She was not tremendous. Or fantastic.
Nothing terrific about her, and she’s never said
really really nice things about anyone.
She was a surprise encounter
on painful day and I almost forgot to mention her.
–Arlitia Jones, April 5, 2017
No gray spin today
only the whitened skin
of children sprawled in death
There are people whose job
it is to pull bodies from rubble
There are people whose job
it is to stand at the edges
of this place on earth
their faces, hearts and fists,
the borders closed. No refuge.
People whose job it is
to improve and restock chemical weapons
went to work today.
–Arlitia Jones, April 4, 2017
When his nurse enters his room
he does not turn to her
but remains steadfast
as any dying man can be
witnessing a revelation
only he can see
“What has happened, Herr Kafka?”
when he does not answer
she re-smooths the fever
against his skull, bringing him back
to his tremors, to his bed
while beyond the window frame
something brilliant shatters
and drops silent as snow
out of a broken sky that reveals
nothing more than average weather
for the rest of his life.
Ulcerations in his throat
have consumed his speech
weeks prior and still the healthy
converse through their memories of him
avoiding the future
Something happened in this room
but the nurse does not catch on
and shuts the drapes so he will rest.
After he is dead, the last things to go,
scraps of paper on his bedside table
how he tried to tell them
the sentence in his own handwriting
There was a bird in the room.
April 2, 1017
Learn more about One Poem. One Planet.
THE FIRST MIRACLE OF THE DAY
The sandhill crane enters
the race at daybreak, declaring
she would be president of the day
with her promise of flight
and her lopsided laugh through that window
I forgot to close and latch last night.
The demos is up at dawn
and demands to be reckoned with
chickadees are into the pollen,
the birch crowds surround the house
to shout their green slogans
Now! Now! Now!
All right, already, I’m up
putting away my fraught dream
of a black-haired woman
carrying her child to safety—already forgetting
who the woman was, what safety offered—all I’m left
is the weight of the child and the drone
of the mother’s voice singing one word
over and over against the child’s temple
but now the word is gone
and the child has no name.
If these magpies would shut up,
job job job
and the light is hurting my eyes
Yes, Sun, I am aware
and awake and registered
in this world that did not crumble in the night
despite the plastic catastrophe of yesterday
Even the deaf can hear
the distant thunder of the unlocked
rivers rumbling in their march to join the sea
Even the blind can see
the tangerine light
velveting every surface
with un-temperate warmth
Even the dead understand
the gossip of contemporary worms budging downward
to the anthracitic rooms of ancient worms
the earth is untightening
making space for more of us
The Elect will know who they are
soon enough for already the first miracle of the day
travels ding-toed and nose down
along our dirt road, the collie named Hola!
leading Erma, my eighty-year-old neighbor
toward a brightening mountain in the East
From behind she looks like a waterfall
her waist a vigorous coursing, supple and clear,
her free hand a flower floating at her side
The sandhill croaks one last time
from on high amongst her rally of clouds
but Erma’s eyes are poor
so when she looks up
she spills into blue
— Arlitia Jones, April 30, 2016
Today’s profile begins with a triggered memory about the first time I ever had a poem published. While I don’t remember the poem, I remember my third grade teacher–or was it fourth?–announcing my name to the class as one of that years’ poets in Pencils Full of Stars.
Oh, I was thrilled!
She asked if I wanted to read it out loud to the class.
Then I was mortified.
Every year, the Anchorage School District published a book of the students’ poems. I haven’t thought about that little slim volume in years. I do still have my contributor’s copy somewhere. I need to go back and find that first little poem. I bet it was about trees.
I started wondering last night who had started the Pencils Full of Stars so I went on line looking for my first poetry editor. Her name was Bell Benton.
In 1969, teacher and poet Bell Benton conceived the idea for Pencils Full of Stars, a collection of poetry by young writers.
“One day I said to my first graders: ‘You write such beautiful thoughts, your pencils must have stars in them!’ They laughed with delight, and one little boy held up his pencil and said, ‘Look! My pencil’s full of stars!’ I hugged him and said, ‘You’ve just named our poetry book!’ And Pencils Full of Stars was born,” said Bell Benton.
Written by elementary children across the Anchorage School District, in Anchorage, Alaska, the collection was compiled and published following each academic year. For the next 29 years, Benton guided the pencils, discovered the stars, and kept Pencils Full of Stars alive through its yearly publications.
Bell Benton passed away in 1998, after which the Eta Chapter of Delta Kappa Gamma International, a society of women educators, set up the Bell Benton Memorial Poetry Award. The Award works to honor excellence in poetic expression and honor Bell Benton, founder of Pencils Full of Stars.
I never met Benton. I wish I had. I’d like to tell her that she made a huge difference in my life. I knew I wanted to be writer from the moment I learned to read and Benton encouraged me in that dream and today I am a published poet and playwright.
I wonder how many other writers she helped foster and start on their way?
Growing up in Anchorage since the 70s, I’ve heard the name Laura Wright many times. More than that, I saw her handiwork everywhere in the beautiful parkas worn by Alaskans and visitors who were lucky enough to own one. While I could recognize her distinctive parkas, it dawned on me this week I had no idea who Laura Wright was. Was she even a real person? Or was she a name only, an invented persona to lend authenticity to a downtown vendor?
She’s real all right! And what a life!
Laura Wright is a world famous parka maker. She opened her own shop in downtown Anchorage on Fifth Avenue, Laura Wright’s Alaskan Parkys, selling her beautiful creations. I walked by her windows many times as a young woman, stopping to marvel at the colorful fabrics and ribbons that went into these beautiful coats.
Wright designed and patented Laura Wright Alaska Parkys, an original
winter parka incorporating traditional Alaska Native designs. Her parkas won numerous awards including Best Costume in a Miss Universe Pageant. Her parkas also caught the eyes of several celebrities. Notable clients included Elvis Presley, Willie Nelson, Ricky Nelson, Shirley Jones and Burl Ives.
Wright was born in Candle, Alaska in 1926. She passed away in 1996 at the age of 87. The following is taken from her obituary posted in the Fairbanks Daily News Miner (I especially love the part about the sharpshooting!):
Wright moved to Haycock. In 1926 she marred John Albert Hagberg. The couple operated a gold mine and raised their six children, eventually moving to Fairbanks so the children could attend high school.
After John Hagberg died in 1948, she married Dallas A. Wright in 1951. In 1971, they moved to Anchorage to open their downtown parka shop. Dallas Wright died in 1981.
As a member of the World War II Tundra Army in Alaska’s Territorial Guard, Wright proved to be a sharp shooter: During a training drill she hit the bull’s-eye 49 out of 50 times. She also delivered the U.S. mail by dog team, delivered babies, conducted funerals, and was involved in community activities. The Alaska Federation of Natives named her “Most Outstanding Living Eskimo,” and she was listed in Who’s Who of American Women in 1967. She also was nominated for the Alaska Mother of the Year award in 1968.
Wright was described by a family friend, the Rev. William Warren, as living a life that was “more unbelievable than a novel.”
“She had a compassion for placing others’ needs before her own,” her family said. “Her cheerful heart and home were always open. She was an inspiration to all who knew her.”
The success of Wright’s parkas and sewing enterprise was due to her attention to detail. To me, each parka looks like a masterpiece. The people inside her parkas are toasty and happy, even on the coldest days–these are people that long for winter bluster and flurries so they have a reason to don their parka.
I’m thinking right now of a distant friend of mine who had a Laura Wright Women’s Winter Parka in turquoise, with gold embroidered ribbon and a white fox ruff. The coat came below her knees. The fabric sort of glittered and rippled like the waters of Kenai Lake on a sunny day. My friend looked like an extraordinary work of art–an extraordinary work of art that lived and breathed and walked around our town doing ordinary things like carrying groceries in from the car or checking the mail.
That’s the thing about these parkas. They are magnificent. If you owned one, you might be tempted to pack it away and save it for dress occasion or to pass down to your descendants. But they are meant to be part of everyday life when the weather turns cold.
In 1985, Sheila Ezelle, Wright’s granddaughter bought the sewing shop, still calling it Laura Wright’s Alaskan Parkys, and moved it one block over onto Anchorage’s 4th Avenue. Ezelle continues in the family tradition of quality workmanship using the same patterns her grandmother created to make parkas with a distinctly Alaska aesthetic– warm, durable, and so beautiful everyone wants one.
Mary Antisarlook, given the name Changunak at birth, was born in 1870 to an Inupiaq mother and a Russian father on Alaska’s Seward Peninsula. By the 1900s, she earned the nickname Sinrock Mary, Queen of the Reindeer, and was known as such for the rest of her life.
Mary grew up in St. Michael, Alaska, at the mouth of the Yukon River. She married an Inupiaq man in 1889 and the couple moved to Cape Nome. Mary served as an interpreter aboard the US Revenue Cutter Bear which transported reindeer from Siberia to Alaska. Mary’s husband, Charley Antisarlook started a reindeer herd with a few of these animals at a place called Sinrock. The couple adopted several children and worked the herd together.
Alaska is known for our tough women–none of them tougher than Ramona Barnes. She served 20 years in state government, becoming the longest-serving woman in the Alaska State Legislature. Nicknamed “Rambona” by an editorial cartoonist, she had a reputation for being gritty, hard-as-nails and absolutely committed to her state.