For All the Strange Monsters

Perfect weather for strange monsters.

Pink weather for strange monsters.

I’ve just returned from a tangent.

It started like this: mired into a world of my own creation on the page, moving characters around to suit my purpose, giving them something to say, or striking them mute as I see fit, it occurred to me that I could throw a catastrophe at them on the next page. Ha! My beloved characters have no idea what’s coming! They are going to buckle under the devastation. Oh, the ecstasy of destroying someone on the page!

And that’s when the strange sail appears at the horizon. Something I once knew coming back to me across the ocean of memory, a familiar phrase rising from behind the curvature of my own mind. Someone somewhere once referred to my kind as “strange monsters.”

Strange monsters. The moniker floats there at the edge of my planet, a brilliant distraction. Strange monsters, not an insult surely, but an honest affirmation. Where had the phrase come from? Who said it? Go chase it!

So I drop everything for the next hour to ransack my bookshelves and flip through every old anthology I suspect may hold the lexicon of strange monsters.

For all the strange monsters who no longer have the need or habit of explaining themselves to anybody.

Turns out strange monsters are from My Sister, O My Sister, a poem by May Sarton. I remember reading this almost 20 years ago and it knocked me out then. So I thought I would share it now, along with a recording of Sarton herself reading it aloud.

So here it is, for all the other strange monsters out there who’ve spent the past few days swimming around in the deep sea of self expression where households turn to filth and societal expectations have no hold. For all the other strange monsters who, when they look up from the flowing current of their handwritten scrawl see an on-shore world looking back at them with that uncomprehending stare.

For all the strange monsters who no longer have the need or habit of explaining themselves to anybody.

Enjoy!

My Sisters, O My Sisters

Nous qui voulions poser, image ineffaçable
Comme un delta divin nortre main sur le sable*
-Anna de Noailles

Dorothy Wordsworth, dying, did not want to read,
“I am too busy with my own feelings,” she said.

And all women who have wanted to break out
Of the prison of consciousness to sing or shout

Are strange monsters who renounce the treasure
Of their silence for a curious devouring pleasure.

Dickinson, Rossetti, Sappho—they all know it,
Something is lost, strained, unforgiven in the poet.

She abdicates from life or like George Sand
Suffers from the mortality in an immortal hand,

Loves too much, spends a whole life to discover
She was born a good grandmother, not a good lover.

Too powerful for men: Madame de Stael. Too sensitive:
Madame de Sevigne who burdened where she meant to give.

Delicate as that burden was and so supremely lovely,
It was too heavy for her daughter, much too heavy.

Only when she built inward in a fearful isolation
Did any one succeed or learn to fuse emotion

With thought. Only when she renounced did Emily
Begin in the fierce lonely light to learn to be.

Only in the extremity of spirit and the flesh
And in renouncing passion did Sappho come to bless.

Only in the farewells or in old age does sanity
Shine through the crimson stains of their mortality.

And now we who are writing women and strange monsters
Still search our hearts to find the difficult answers,

Still hope that we may learn to lay our hands
More gently and more subtly on the burning sands.

To be through what we make more simply human,
To come to the deep place where poet becomes a woman,

Where nothing has to be renounced or given over
In the pure light that shines out from the lover,

In the pure light that brings forth fruit and flower
And that great sanity, that sun, the feminine power.

—May Sarton

*We who wanted to leave an ineffaceable image/Like a divine delta, our hand on the sand.—Anna-Elisabeth, comtesse de Noailles (1876-1933) French poet and novelist.

How We Live Now

Tonight I can finally see the moon is a yellow boat

capsizing in deep blue

fear is worse when you do not see

the face of those you fear

 

What is the worst thing?

What is beyond the worst thing?

Yesterday my country bombed Syria.

 

Let the sky turn orange

the air tastes of metal

and this is how we live now?

apart from each other

separated by a few feet or a hemisphere

or the wrong name of God.

 

I would like to say to someone

this should not happen. I would like to hold

anyone in my arms right now.

I would like to knock on my neighbor’s door

ask her to come outside with me

I can’t bear it by myself

watching the moon

with all of its passengers

go down

 

-Arlitia Jones 9/25

Wolverine

wolverine

Wolverine

For years, I got it wrong when I said

it was a badger I’d seen on Hatcher Pass road,

squat brown animal that darted for the brush

when it saw our truck–I should’ve known,

badgers don’t dart and anyway

we don’t have badgers in Alaska

(a child formed in the third grade curriculum

told me this) but it was smaller than a bear,

bigger than a spaniel and I swore up and down

the alternative was too rare, too incredible

the sharp claws, the pointed teeth,

nature honed to hunt kill run, dark hump

of it’s back ringed with a lighter nimbus

of guard hairs. A glimpse and it was gone

and in its place the word impossible

I picked up like a wet stone

that dried and dulled in my hand

completely unremarkable

and good for throwing.

–Arlitia Jones

Dec. 1, 2013

A wolverine kit in its cute phase.

A wolverine kit in its cute phase.

A Poem for Black Friday

306_1moon_rise_over_orca_whale_pod

 

Whatever, Moon

 

If only the moon–

give me something anything

a hint of yourself as a grail

or a swan’s egg,

even the petrified face

of someone I miss or mourn–

it would be so easy to write a poem

 

Moon, you’re just being a moon

which makes me nothing more than a woman staring

through dirty glass

at unnamed brightness

this morning after Thanksgiving.

Yesterday, I was so grateful.

 

Today, I’m cold and convinced the world

is ruled by a policy of ice and commerce

 

Why should writing a poem be any easier

than standing in line through the long night

for the discounted holy cup of the xbox? 

 

Whatever, moon.

Go be the moon. Keep your metaphors.

Your silver horn blaring through the trees

doesn’t work anymore. You’re out of the band

 

and according to this black dog under my desk

knocking her white-tipped tail against my leg,

I’m the big drum that booms the call to march.

 

–Arlitia Jones

Nov. 29, 2013

“…anybody else would have got killed.”

"…over rough lonely roads along the mountains…"

“…over rough lonely roads along the mountains…

I love research. I love tangents and arcane facts that lead me far afield of my predetermined story. I love to get lost in the tall dark woods where I can spin around til I don’t know if I’m coming or going. Which way is home? I have no idea but I’ll find my way eventually… when I’m ready. My dog taught me that.

I love old letters, those paper artifacts of our connections to one another, the paper record of our life and times. Tonight, I’m reading the letters of Mother Mary Harris Jones and getting a glimpse into a life of purpose and will.

We glorify the Man of Action as a cultural trope, but we overlook The Little Old Lady of Labor’s Call to Action.

Mother Jones  was a firebrand, all right. She was a prickly burr under the saddle of the tyrant. A righteous hornet with a well-aimed stinger spreading agitation.

I thought I’d share a letter she wrote in 1920 to John H. Walker, President of the Illinois State Federation of Labor.  Keep in mind, she was around 83 years old when she wrote this:

Dear John,

… Things are pretty lively over here, we are doing business. I had a meeting at Princeton, West Va., yesterday the first labor meeting ever held there.

The mine at Bluefield, West Va.

The mine at Bluefield, West Va.

It was only five miles from Bluefield, the head-quarters of the Baldwin Thugs. I must have had six or seven thousand people, there were seven wagon-loads of Baldwin Thugs at the meeting, but John, I licked Hell out of the whole crowd.

I googled images of Baldwin Thugs. This is the first image that came up. One of the security thugs working for the Baldwin-Felts Agency in West Virginia to keep the peace which means to keep the miners from organizing and going on strike.

I googled images of Baldwin Thugs. This is the first image that came up. One of the security thugs working for the Baldwin-Felts Agency in West Virginia to keep the peace which means to keep the miners from organizing and going on strike.

Another image for Baldwin Thug. Thank you, Google.

Another image for Baldwin Thug. Thank you, Google.

While this looks like a picture of two old guys in shorts and white cotton socks going to Punchville, Google assures me this is also a "Baldwin Thug."

While this looks like a picture of two old guys in shorts and white cotton socks going to Punchville, Google assures me this is also a “Baldwin Thug.”

By the time you get to this shot, "Baldwin Thug" kinda loses its sinister reputation. What is that? A cocka-Poo?

By the time you get to this shot, “Baldwin Thug” kinda loses its sinister reputation. What is that? A cocka-Poo?

I put a new life and a new spirit into the wretches, certainly it was taking my life in my hands, because I had to come back thirty-two miles, over rough lonely roads along the mountains, with only one man and he was a lawyer, and the chauffer with me, everyone was afraid they would follow me and murder me, but we bluffed them and took the wrong road.

In case anyone missed Mother's lawyer joke.

In case anyone missed Mother’s lawyer joke.

It was near eleven o’clock when I got into Hinton, but after I crossed the river, I felt safe. I got into Charleston at four o’clock in the morning, had no sleep for twenty-eight hours. I had to go thirty-four miles over that rough road and back the same and then speak for one hour and a half to that tremendous  audience, but John, I sowed the seed anyhow, the voice of labor should not be raised there before, it was just as bad as homestead, but anybody else would have got killed.

She felt safe here.

Hinton, West Virginia–Mother Jones felt safe here.

Give my love to them all at home…

Sincerely yours,

Mother

"I licked Hell out of the whole crowd." --Mother Mary Harris Jones

“I licked Hell out of the whole crowd.” –Mother Mary Harris Jones

When a poet sends you a package…

I got a package in the mail today from one of my favorite poets, Anne Caston. Wild woman of words, you can never predict what treasure Anne has carefully wrapped and taped and marked with your name and address. In the past she’s given me:

a mermaid

a beautiful handmade quilt top

hand dyed fabrics

her book of poems

copies of new poems

hand made soap

cookies

beautiful stationary

jewelry

Before she left Alaska, she gave me a little charm of orange haired theatre woman. I hung it above my bed. A little bright spot on the wall, I think of it as an eccentric stenographer taking down my dreams in short hand.

So today, this was in my package:

Must obey the mug! (Incidentally, I'm on my 3rd cup of coffee!)

Must obey the mug! (Incidentally, I’m on my 3rd cup of coffee!)

The motherfucker mug looks good next to the mermaid, don’t you think?

Anne, if you’re reading this, THANK YOU!!!! I LOVE IT!!!!

And I know exactly what I’m supposed to be doing at all times.

And for the rest of you reading this, if you don’t know Anne’s work, click on the link above for some of her poems. Explore the terrain of  your own heart with her words. But be warned, Anne writes an unflinching truth and rarely provides safeguards in her poetry. That’s what makes her so brilliant.

Sunday Brunch at the Old Country Buffet

BY ANNE CASTON

Madison, Wisconsin, 1996

Here is a genial congregation,
well fed and rosy with health and appetite,
robust children in tow. They have come
and all the generations of them, to be fed,
their old ones too who are eligible now
for a small discount, having lived to a ripe age.
Over the heaped and steaming plates, one by one,
heads bow, eyes close; the blessings are said.
Here there is good will; here peace
on earth, among the leafy greens, among the fruits
of the gardens of America’s heartland. Here is abundance,
here is the promised
land of milk and honey, out of which
a flank of the fatted calf, thick still
on its socket and bone, rises like a benediction
over the loaves of bread and the little fishes, belly-up in butter.

Gift Ideas for the Bad Writer

hemingway cat

Portrait of a Red Flag–no shirt and way too many cats.

The most essential gift for a good writer is a built-in shockproof shit-detector.

–Ernest Hemingway

Since May this year, I have spent some portion of every day writing something. A cracked poem, some loopy dialogue, a journal entry that says over and over and over one word scribbly pencil: Breathe.

(That’s as close as you can get to yoga without actually having to do yoga. Also, licking the wheels of a lawn mower is also the equivalent of downing a shot of wheat grass.)

It’s all writing. And it makes a difference. The act of writing something down on paper has a profound effect on how my brain engages with language for the rest of the day. I don’t care how bad the writing is, you have to write that shit in order to ever have any hope of getting one kernel of beauty in a manuscript later down the road.

Last week I was working on one of my new plays, rewriting pages into the wee hours. I had a deadline looming. I stayed up til 2am writing pages and pages of new dialogue, witty and emotionally deep with tons of story-propelling momentum and cool hurky-derky words. I thought. I woke up the next morning and read over what I’d so painstakingly scribbled the night before:

Garbage, my friends. Not even worthy of the deleted scenes reel. Utter trash. 

I was grateful I hadn’t hit the send button the night before. No one needs to see that.

Hey, bad writing happens. No, that’s not right. Bad writing needs to happen. Now it’s a week later, and suddenly one line of all that nonsense I wrote is rising into the sky and can be seen for miles for what it really was trying to be, even by me, the myopic playwright. One line out of pages and pages of writing. Totally worth it!

And since I’m pulling inspirational quotes about what you need to do to be a writer,  here’s my favorite from Cheryl Strayed, author of Wild:

Writing is hard for every last one of us—straight white men included. Coal mining is harder. Do you think miners stand around all day talking about how hard it is to mine for coal? They do not. They simply dig. You need to do the same. … So write… Not like a girl. Not like a boy. Write like a motherfucker.

5697003328_12fd434ffb_b

Listen to the mug! Go write your garbage.
ps. Dear Santa, I’d like world peace, healthy oceans, a spotted pony and a write like a motherfucker mug for Christmas. xo love, grampus

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