The Ghosts of Pompeii

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Skeletons,
wizened mummies,
burnished bodies preserved in peat—
these earthly objects do not undo us,
disturbing though they may be.

But the ghosts of Pompeii,
those plaster casts of stranded souls,
we are not equipped for visions like that.

The man who thought to fill those voids
had no idea what he might bring forth.
He must fallen to his knees
when he saw the first one,
prized from its grave in the ash.
Hollowed eyes and gaping mouths,
out-stretched arms and locked calf muscles.
Cadaveric spasm, they call it,
the body rigid in an instant,
claimed by searing heat.

Over a hundred were pulled out,
men, women and children,
a twisted dog on a chain,
all caught between this life and the next
in a gap too quick to measure.

That is why we are hushed
at the sight of them,
as if we are seeing
something we shouldn’t:
people whose lives were ended
before they had time to die.

Hermit Crabs

hermit crabs exchange properties

Consummate recyclers,
hermit crabs nab empty sea shells
to use as mobile homes,
switching to roomier quarters
after each molt.

It’s not easy finding another house
that fits. You need friends, quite a few,
all with the same problem.

They come together,
as if for a barn-raising,
the biggest crab in front,
the next biggest behind him,
until a chain is formed,
the smallest tenant bringing up the rear.

Properly queued, they start trading up,
creeping out of their old shells
and into the castoff in front of them–
the leader, obliged, looks elsewhere.

If you live in the neighborhood of hermit crabs
and haven’t seen this event,
get closer, find the time.
Save your wild self.

Sighted or Blind

Sighted or blind,
we dream of the same world.
Maybe not lightning
or rainbows, or sunsets,
but surely the booming thunder,
the smell of rain drops on a dusty road,
a hot pool of sun on the breakfast table.
Not the green curl of an ocean wave,
but the creamy hollow of a seashell.
Not a dog running on the beach,
but the joy in its bark.
Not a beautiful face,
but the lip’s tender journey
across it: temple, cheek, mouth,
skin not observed but explored, by inches,
in the stasis of an afternoon.

They have nightmares too, the blind,
more often than the rest of us,
scenes of falling, of losing their way,
of guide dogs gone missing.
They wake with a start
and hurdle into another darkness,
but this one with sheets,
a bedside table,
the jingle of dog tags
coming to the rescue.

I Only Want To Say

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To the finches that dart
among the bare branches of the plum tree,
ravaging the pale pink blossoms
for the nectar inside them;
to the trio of deer
that move across my lawn at night,
and with their silent muzzles
nip the tender buds from my agapanthus;
to the honey bees coated
with golden pollen
from surfing the dahlia flowers,
I only want to say:
I am sorry for how much we’ve taken.
You are blameless, beautiful,
so good at being alive.

Mortals

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Late afternoon.
The two of us sitting on a sun-warmed rock,
my back against your chest,
your arms around my waist,
waves spilling over the sand,
bits of shell and glistening stones,
two white gulls sailing past,
a fishing boat in the distance.
Each piece of the day
suspended, exalted.

I remember it still,
thirty-eight years later,
an instant of happiness
eclipsing all else,
as if love is born in a rush,
new each time,
altering the world,
then sending us back
to live like the mortals we are.

Notes From A Burned-Out Book Mom

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I recently wrote a post called “Tough Love—A Few Words on Rejection” in which I compared submitting manuscripts to raising children. There is the pride we feel, the apprehension, the shared pain, the lengths we go to in our abiding love.

But that’s just the beginning. Once our children find homes—whether through our efforts or a publisher’s—we must function as literary soccer moms: organizing the launch, attending the readings, trolling for reviews, reaching out to libraries and local bookstores, paying for incidentals. And don’t even get me started on the time spent creating what is referred to as an author platform. I’m not certain what this is, but it seems to involve thousands of social media followers as well as marketing expertise, previous sales, a robust readership and throngs of industry contacts.

Remember when publishers arranged and paid for everything? Me neither. But it must have been something to be a writer in the 50s, when authors like Truman Capote, John Steinbeck, E.B. White and Kurt Vonnegut were wined and dined and generally treated like royalty. Of course they were unarguably gifted, but even lesser known talents could depend on their publishers to procure an audience and offer fair compensation for the hard work of writing.

Book promotion is never finished, I’ve been assured, and who would disagree that books, especially sidelined genres like literary fiction, don’t fly off the shelves and doubtless benefit from regular cheerleading. Unfortunately, it takes a certain type of personality—optimistic, buoyant, outgoing—to succeed at marketing, and most writers are not comfortable in that arena. I know I’m not. I get clammy just posting a story link on my Facebook author page, afraid that readers are tired of hearing from me, or worse, not listening at all.

I’ll admit it: I’m weary of the circuit. I’ve written one novel, two story collections and a book of nature essays, and while I don’t begrudge the years I’ve spent on their welfare, I’m ready for some time to myself. You can find my four children on Amazon, in paperback or digital form, just a keystroke away from ownership (the same technology that has devalued our work has made it instantly available). My books have not changed the world, but they do represent my greatest effort. I think we earn our lives by giving the world whatever gifts we have, regardless of how they’re received.

I spent my childhood looking at bugs, trees, clouds, stars, frogs. I want to go there again. I want to break away from the tyranny of this computer and collect fall leaves, make a miniature diorama, hunt for fossils. My books are leading quiet lives of their own and can carry on without me; indeed I’ve not been much help to them. Maybe, freed of my worry and angst, they will make their own connections, surprise me yet. In any case, they could never disappoint me.

We have an abundance of book clubs and writing groups. Maybe there should be support groups for weary book parents. Comrades, you are not alone.

 

Photo credit: Thomas Hawk via Foter.com / CC BY-NC

When Living Isn’t Enough

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Thomas Mann wrote that a writer is somebody for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people. Could there be a better definition? While others use words to communicate, writers understand that words hold greater magic, that when pieced together in just the right combination, words give us passage into our deepest selves. We write to discover what we know. We write to set ourselves free.

I often think of words as blackbirds wheeling above a wire. I know I can coax them down; I’ve done it before. I know they will settle into a tidy line, and that this line, while not perfect, will at least be coherent. As I am no Shakespeare, this process will take an absurd amount of time, and some of the birds will have to be shifted around many times. Eventually I’ll recognize that I have exhausted my potential, which is when I stop and click save. One more idea wrested into words, one more swipe at the great mystery. Tom Stoppard wrote: “I don’t think writers are sacred, but words are. They deserve respect. If you get the right ones in the right order, you can nudge the world a little.”

Others might pity writers, might call it tyranny, this compulsion to hunt down the meaning of our experiences. Why isn’t living enough for us? I don’t know. I need to write about that.

How peaceful it must be to be done with each day when the day is done. All this sifting and sieving, this endless analyzing—I can’t say I’m any happier for the effort I’ve expended (nor a penny richer, but that’s another blog). And many times I wind up with nothing. Words are tools and sometimes they come up short, sometimes they fail me. Or I fail them.

Scant recognition. Slight compensation. Dubious value. Impossible odds.

Life is short. Mine will be over long before I’ve learned how to live it. You’d think I’d just stop this mad chase. Go play. Have fun.

Maybe I will. After.

 

 

Photo credit: derekbruff via Foter.com / CC BY-NC