Thursday, July 10, 2008

The OWL-poets take flight with a new teacher. Sadly, founder and well-loved teacher, Brent will be leaving the Bay Area to take a wonderful new job (the new job is the good news).

But the members of the Older Writers Laboratory will continue on without him and with a new teacher-- Mary DeNardo, who will take over leading the group in August.

They are currently meeting at the On-Lok Senior Center on 30th Street. And we hope they'll be able to return to the library after our renovated Meeting Room is ready and open for business.

Older Writers Laboratory

Fall Poetry Anthology 2006

San Francisco Public Library
Bernal Heights

Table of Contents

Preface 2
A Collaborative Poem 3
Georgia Baebler 4
Betty Johnson 8
Elizabeth Larson 11
Teresa Laxamana 14
Toshi Washizu 15
Carol Kerner 18
Mimi Mueller 21
George Wynn 24
Ellen Sharbach 27
Frances Hoeffel 30
Joyce Futa 32
Catherine Blair 35
Ted Herzberg 38
Annette Cabot 39
Bree LeMaire 43
Yvonne Cannon 45
Ruth Hughes 48
Ellen Frank 51
Writing Exercises 56

For nearly two years, I have had the great fortune of teaching the Older Writers Laboratory in Bernal Heights in San Francisco. During this time, I have come to understand the immense value of helping more poems exist in the world. To be a good poet, I must be a good teacher—I must be willing to be dispossessed of my own language. A word can only be given if it can be suspended from its source. The letters that land on the page are only the shadows of an encounter with poetry—a poem is something that happens to you when you walk around in the world. If you are lucky, and if you pay attention, you notice it. If you are generous, you take what you have written back into the world with you, so that the landscape under your feet might also change.

Brent Armendinger
November 2006

My Hometown Is in the Shadow
of Round Mountains

A Collaborative Poem

I was one of three girls who knew others
grew up in Cal up in sixty C triangle
My city was an ugly place of bad pedicures
I was content I grew up on the shores
of a lake, it passes through memory
as quick as a bipolar thought. The harsh
gray cement city.

I grew up in James Michael Curly’s Boston.
He seemed like a great politician. At night
I could go over and watch Mr. Peterson
wash milk bottles in washtubs downtown.
Earlier than tracks there were woods, the creek
and canyon, the field where the girls stood
clapping. What did they think?

I can see the scar on her wrist.
My parents were bears. Poetry.
Small rules. Straight rod nob
Johnny. I love that school
and ran through shortcuts
in fields to get there.

I grew up in Trenton full of candlelight.

Where did you get that bowl?
You should honor it, worship it,
take it to the hospital
The foreigner won’t know the difference,
he’s just a laborer
Try making a sketch
Leave your trunk by the front entrance
that bucket where the dictionary belongs

Interview with Ellen Frank, February 24, 2006

I Iive in Bernal Heights with my daughter, son-in-law and two grandsons. I moved there from assisted living in April 2005. I am 90 years old

I painted many water color paintings of animals at a senior center. I chose to paint animals because I felt bad for the wolves. They were sort of pushed aside for people’s cattle; the wolves killed the cattle. But, the wolves were here first.

When I was growing up I loved the cows and pigs and horses on my father’s farm in southern Wisconsin. I used to try and milk the cows faster than the men. We used to squirt the milk from the cows, and cats used to sit in the alleyway, and they would lap up the milk…In the evening or late afternoon I used go down to the woods and bring the cows home. They knew me. When I would call them, they would start walking home. Each had a name. Some of them had their own stanchions that they would go to when they went in the barn. It’s a thing they put their heads through, and then they pulled the top that held them there. To me it seemed sort of not very nice to be caught by their necks. But, they were used to it. That was on them until they were let out to the pasture to get their drink.

Cats…we had at least two mother cats and they would have babies a couple times a year.

I used to make toy/stuffed animals, but I haven’t done it recently. I loaned my patterns to a young woman. She moved to the Philippines, and she took my pattern with her.

Yes, I was strong. Back on the farm, we used to separate the milk to get the cream. That’s what they sold. And they fed the skim milk to the young calves and to the pigs. As I child, I used to lift these heavy buckets of milk and put them in the separator. I worked like a man.

Later, I went to work in Madison, Wisconsin, the nearest big city, and did housework for about five years… I remember my cousin would give me a dime at lunchtime. I would go to the store and buy some luncheon meat, enough for the two boys and myself and my cousin’s husband.

I worked in the state hospital as an assistant/attendant. I told the head nurse that hired me: I don’t think I can work here because I feel like I faint when I go in a hospital. She said: “Do me a favor and just try it.” I tried it, liked it very much. I think I was in my early twenties.

My first job as a draftsman was in Manitowoc, Wisconsin, at the shipyards. WWII had started in 1941. They had an ad…I liked it very much. After, I realized that it was work that I always wanted to do. I liked working with men rather than women…The things they talked about. It was easier to be around men, I think, than women. [I was the only woman working in that setting] to begin with. Eventually there were more women drafting than men. They found out we could do the work. We liked it so much that we probably didn’t waste as much time as the men did…I went to Pearl Harbor with my husband, after it was attacked. …I think we had one alert after I got there... They had black shades on the windows, so, if you needed to, you could close out the light.

In Manitowoc, Wisconsin, when I was doing drafting for the ship building company, we built submarines. They launched the first submarine sideways. Instead of headfirst. And I remember all the ships and boats on the lake blowing their whistles when the submarine went down sideways and came back up. All the submarines had fish names I never heard of.

The drafting I did was mostly electronics and wiring. So, the engineers made a rough sketch and we made a nice drawing out of it. Then I got to be a checker and scheduled the checks.

I found out how people are prejudiced…I remember when we went to Manitowoc, the people [who lived] there really looked down us, the outsiders that came in to work at the shipyards. “These people coming into our town,“ they said. And we said: “It’s our town now.”

[My husband] was a very careful worker. He made little tiny things like pliers and tools that worked, and he taught himself to be a watchmaker…I don’t think there was a thing that broke that he couldn’t fix.

My daughter came to the poetry meeting where I read my own piece. She didn’t think I would have nerve to do it…[I] surprised her…She said: I should talk to my son and tell him that I did it, he wouldn’t believe it either.

My husband and I used to go beachcombing. We lived in Redwood City then. We found everything on the beach but a body and a gun. We found those big Japanese fishing floats with the big glass balls. Now, they’re out in our back yard…To think that they floated all the way from Japan…

We found anything people dropped…We found a lot of coins in the sand, especially after a windstorm. Like, people were lying in the sand and coins fell out of their pockets…We had 35 watches at one time…My husband was a watchmaker, he fixed them. We had a lot of watches.

And shells, yes. We found abalone shells…Beautiful things.

[What I like about San Francisco] is the way they have the fruit spread outside of the stores. I think that’s so like a book, like a story...It is something sort of traditional…I think of all the trouble that they have to go through to put it in at night and out in the morning.

In the small town where I lived, my mother and I used to pick blackberries and then take them into the grocery story that we shopped at. Now when my family goes to Philo, California, we pick some and make jam out of the berries.

Gardens…that was one of my favorite things, to get up early in the morning and go out. Maybe set the clock for the time to go out in my garden. I could get my hands in the dirt…[I planted] vegetables, carrots. One of my neighbors, she just was crazy about the carrots. They were huge…I like flowers, but I think I’m more practical. I want something you can eat.

[I grew] beans. I had one kind of beans. They were beautiful, huge beans. They were on a pole. I bet they were pole beans…I guess my neighbor thought [I was a successful gardener.] [I kept them fed.] Yes, with carrots, especially.

When I was in high school I used to like to write little stories. What I like best about Brent’s writing class is hearing other people read their stories and their poems.

I don’t think I look ahead…I try to be in the present…I don’t go for that “good old days” stuff. Some of them at the [senior] center talk about the good old days. You could buy ice cream cones for a dime or a nickel or whatever. But, to get the dime, it was that much harder, too.

My poor mother used to wash clothes on a wash board…We were on the farm with those big old, heavy overalls.

My mother and I both helped milk the cows. After she fell and broke her wrist, they bought a milking machine…You know, they didn’t do it before [the accident.] When she couldn’t help any more, then they got the machine to replace her.

My aunt made this quilt. I put it together. They call that piecing, putting the pieces together. I did all the stitching…I put the backing on it. I made one or two myself.

I don’t like the war. That is so useless for people to not get along with one another; so useless.

My youngest grandson made this. It’s so cute. [A little diorama.] It shows mountains on the moon. I think they are spacemen…He gives me toys like I’m a child…I like them.

* * * * *
Synopsis by Ellen Frank
Dimensions of Love

I could say, “I’ll love you ‘til the end of time.”
but I’m not sure what time is.
I only know that now it’s mine to occupy.

After time passes, can there be after, after?
Can there be tenses or pretenses
in the event time comes to an untimely end?

Were I to say, “I’ll love you ‘til the end of time.”
you probably wouldn’t buy it anyway,
though I could just say, “I love you.”
I’m pretty sure you’d fall for that,
given its gravity.

So, let me state, flatly, that
I love you in two dimensions,
and, deeply in a third,
and until our time runs out,
continuously in a fourth,
and, to the tune of vibrating strings,
we add imperceptible dimensions to our love,
our own unifying theory.


We are not the first arrivals.
Others, boys, most likely,
have carved initials,
messages, in dead skin.
Etched blubber reveals
who loved whom and when.
The humpback, soundless,
silenced, lies nearly still,
save when a wave undulates
the slumped gray lifeless hull.

Should we rely on block letters
incised in hide to tell your story?
We thought you larger than life.
It was you, after all, who
informed us of your struggle,
singing such haunting song,
filling the small room with your body,
your being, your enormous presence,
now gone.

for Veronica May 28, 1942 – July 5, 2006

Unwritten Poem

With the right words, I might have told him,
he had a reverence for words, what it meant to me
when he took the child I was out under the stars
beneath the city’s incandescent competition,
explained, the light we saw had happened
many billion years ago, no way to know
by evidence of eyes, if such stars there were,
were there still.

Now, the same age he was when he died,
I speak another language, derived from him,
a member of the working class, who preferred
nuanced words, like infinite and metaphysical,
with all their possibilities, or precise words,
like apodictic, its meaning indisputable.

This scuffed-up suitcase,
laden with blank pages,
scrapes the ground,
eyes cast down,


Blackie says his sister has been making decisions for him
since 1956.
That is why he has such trouble making decisions himself.
When asked: “Why don’t you stay here? We’ll help you”,
He says his sister will be mad if he doesn’t follow
her directives.
“But what about your independence?” we ask.
”You’ve been on your own for so long.
In San Francisco you have the freedom to travel about at will.
Petaluma is so far away. It takes two buses to get to
the home.” He tells us that there is a little bus
in Petaluma , or so his sister says.
But we are sure that they won’t let him out of the home to wander around.
They will be afraid that he will have yet another fall.
We are very worried and concerned that he will be unhappy.
We want to know if he has visited the home.
What does he know about it?
He tells us that his sister has investigated it
and declared it fine.
His mind is made up, made up for him, it seems.
The deed takes place
and we go there to visit him in the home.
His cane is gone and he is in a wheelchair
He seems dispirited and drained of energy.
We think they have given him something to numb him.
He is distracted, listening for the summons to lunch.
The crabby man who shares his room tells us to stay out of his side of the closet.
So this is how it turns out
for a strapping former Merchant Marine.
This is the beginning of the end.

Postscript: William Black passed away two years ago, at the age of 85. He is missed.

Fernando Reverses His Digits

This morning at 6:15 I was awakened
By an agitated voice on my machine;
The pastry delivery had been messed up,
And Fernando was all discombobulated;
What had been delivered was all wrong,
And not at all what he had ordered.
So he was calling from the Embarcadero,
In a panic to remedy this situation.
How horrifying to be expecting the eclair,
Only to be confronted by the creampuff!
And what about the croissants?
Almond should surpass in quantity the chocolate.
¡Qué desastre! Everything is topsy-turvy!
The only problem is that in his haste
To right the awful wrong,
Fernando had reversed his digits.
I, pastryless and prostrate,
Had been having an awful dream, anyway,
So was not half as aggravated as I could be.
I informed Fernando of his boo-boo,
Urging him to quickly dial the proper number;
In the bud to nip this nightmare,
And restore peace to pastry-land.
Afterward I felt heroic;
I had done my good deed for the day-
And so early in the morning.


I love the dishes, and I wonder where she got them;
She tells me they are mine, and I am surprised;
I don’t remember ever buying them;
I would put them away for her, but I don’t know where.
I would cook, too, but the salt and sugar are so similar,
It’s hard to tell them apart; I mix them up;
I wish I could remember how to cook,
But I am afraid I‘ll set the curtains on fire again;
I must write myself a note this afternoon,
Reminding me not to go out at 3 in the morning;
The policeman might scold me
if he has to bring me home again;
I must remember that my son’s name is Eric-
Not Gunnar- that was my husband, but he’s gone now;
I must try not to resent this new person in my son’s life;
I must be mindful that newlyweds aren’t interested in cinnamon toast;
Therefore I must refrain from popping open the bedroom door to offer it;
So many things to remember, it gives me a headache;
I asked her to teach me how to sew;
She says I once made coats and suits and dresses,
But I don’t remember doing that;
I will put this glass on my pillow;
These are the broken pieces of my ballerina;
I want so much to be independent,
I don’t want to be baby-sat;
They say I must not dart in front of cars; do I do that?
I guess if they say it it’s true; they wouldn’t lie to me.


I can find quiet in my brain
This human brain encased in the skull
Quiet? Sometimes I think not
I think maybe soundless
In spite of all the brain activity
Like the universe - perpetual, endless
Your brain can be quiet or noisy
Whatever you choose

Arsenal of Insults

Always bragging conceitedly
Dwindling ego - flattened ghoulishly
Harping idiot - jaded klutz
Laughing midget - nagging, obstinate
Pastor quaking under veil
Wrinkled x-rayed yellow zenia
Pictures of the Floating World

The official start of cherry blossom season was declared earlier in the week. On March 31, the day I arrived in Japan, Tokyo was in full bloom, white, pink and a mass of people.

In a spring gale
white clouds, swaying over our heads,
fall upon our shoulders
and black wet sidewalks.
People gather under the trees,
talk over sake of their days.
For centuries, like their ancestors
they view this brief season of flowering
as if forgetting themselves.
They know blossoms like their own families.
Pale flowers, awake through the night,
die in the morning rain—
a soft dropping of colored petals.

Marooned in the colony of kinfolk,
overpolite, overmodest, haughty and gracious,
I am treated to their wild fish,
and spring mountain greens—
bamboo shoots, mustard flowers, coltsfoots.
A member of the clan has fallen ill;
another suffers from depression;
another missing.
Our blood runs deep like instinct,
binds us like dirty secrets.
They all call on me with their woes
as if I were a medium who could revive spirits.
I only live on the edge—
the picture frame of their world.

I have yet to set foot on Mt. Fuji,
the tallest in my hometown.
If my people’s sorrow would ease,
I would climb the sacred mountain,
struggle with other pilgrims up a steep path
through round, thorny bushes
and smooth treeless slopes
to the weathered shrine above the clouds.
If our lives were less like Rashomon,
I would drift away with the narrow waves of a stream
to the distant spring sea.
Come next week, perchance
I would watch the quiet sun play
on the young green and tender red
of burgeoning branches.

Before dawn everyday
my sister’s husband prays for his grandchild
and goes to work at the fish market.
On the day of my departure
he gently knocks on my door,
hugs my slumberous body—
a Western custom he’s acquired—
and whispers “genkidene
(you take care).”

From my train
the mountains and rivers of my childhood
run in the thick morning mist—
a smudged scroll painting.

I returned to San Francisco three weeks later. On this brilliant day, after weeks of rain, the city stood still, the sun dusting gold over the western sky. Beyond the edge of the ocean my old home floated.
For Hana
Born Ten Days Early

So many Doors to open
from the warm comfy bath inside
to Everything outside—
Mommy’s Sweet Milk,
Orange Ball of Morning,
White Rocking Basket, Soft Pink Blanket,
Smiling Eyeglasses and Prickly Beard,
Rosebuds smelling like Mommy’s Face,
Wet Doggie Nose, Chirping Flyers, Waters
from Sky,
Red Siren, Blue Wails,
Cuddly Lullabies,
Shushed Quiet and Cold Empty Dark,
Yellow Moon, Brother and Sister Stars,
Glowing Creatures from the Universe
Calling to me,
Making Funny Faces,
Opening their Hearts.


Two birds
Flying in tandem
Cross the sky
Wings beating counterpoint.
Teacher and student
Learn together.
The journey transcends the destination.

January Afternoon

Below zero beyond the double-pane picture window
I lie on the floor watching dust motes flying
In the narrow band of sunlight streaming
Through a gap in the fiberglass draperies
Closed to keep the furniture from fading.

Rolling onto my back I feel the burning
Weight of the sun
Glowing red through my eyelids.
The room is cold. Icicles as tall as my father
Hang from the roof halfway to the snowy yard.

I see Daddy encased in ice
Dangling from the edge of the roof from the tips
Of his heavy black work shoes
Brown eyes iced over and staring.
I gasp and snap awake.

Mom stands at the ironing board, hissing steam
From heavy cotton. “Days of Our Lives”
Drones from the corner’s plastic and glass box.
The room is cold but I am wearing flannel-lined
Denims and matching plaid shirt.

My braids are frayed from rubbing the woolen carpet.
Down the hall in the playroom I can hear my brothers
Fighting, playing a war heroes’ game.
I have a cough, scratchy throat and earaches
Otherwise I’d be there with them.

Mom sprinkles another wrinkled sleeve and presses it flat.
Behind the bars of the playpen, surrounded
by stuffed toy animals
Baby sister slumbers, wearing a pink-as-her-cheeks
blanket sleeper,
Our mother’s round belly pushes out the front of her blouse.
The new baby will be born in May.

I roll onto my side swiping my hand
across a warm patch of gray nubs
Sending sparkling dust motes spiraling up the sunbeam.
Outside the icy glitter and pale blue sky goes dark,
snuffing out my fun.
“Another storm,” Mom says, and sighs. “I hope your father
Gets home before it starts.”
It’s only three o’clock, no chance.

He’ll drive with snowflakes dancing against the windshield
Like my lovely dust motes, lit golden by headlights.
Soon my brothers, winded and bruised, cruise in clamoring
For a snack, waking the baby from her nap. Mom takes them
To the kitchen while I lie boneless with fever.


At first
each time she passes the crib
she looks
for the feather-lift of blanket,
the schnuffled reassurance
that this fragile miracle

But soon
the timer rings,
a neighbor knocks to chat
and see the first smile.
Then steps
and roller skates,
and the world.

Until the telephone call
that catches her breath
and sets her once again,
at the bedside of the universe.

Take A Word

"Take a word"
says the writer
"and follow it into the wood."

There is nothing to be afraid of"
we tell the child
in the dark room.

"Don't talk to strangers"
"Come right home"
"I'll always be here".

But the only words
that will survive the dark tangled path
"I love you."


The melody curves on the air
honey-thick and rich
as the fiddle's finish.

"That's a special violin"
my husband says -
"Not a Strad -
the lower registers are too warm -
perhaps Amati . . . "

Thirty years of living together
and never before a whisper
of knowledge so attuned.

It is ten years now
since his final breaths
took into silence
the knowledge and harmonies
I will never hear.

The amber notes
curl again in the expectant air,
behind them hanging
the long silence
against which all music lives.

Young Man (1940)

My father’s stories of the Soviet Union were magnificent. Dostoevsky’s unbalanced world stepped outside the pages of literature into our living room. The immense snow covered forests of Archangelsk where the wind burns your face and the cold goes through your chest like a vicious body check by a rugged N.H.L hockey player. Father was wearing a hooded sheepskin coat, four sweaters, his face covered by two scarves the morning he dug an ax into his thumb instead of the giant tree .”I got the award: Great Worker of the Soviet People for being a bookkeeper. I was a lousy lumberjack in the labor camp.” He shoots his thumb under my nose. “I still can’t bend it,” he says dejectedly, as I stare at the white lined scar. “Lousy doctor didn’t sew it up right,” he laments and adds “idiota,” in Polish.
“I was hiding in the cellar the day it happened. Mother told the half drunk, half mad foreman who had pounded incessantly on the door that I was suffering from a bad flu to which he responded, “He’s got five minutes to be out in the woods with his axe, or else!”
In the real world it’s that “or else” that really tests a man’s mettle.


Ay caramba when he did the rhumba
they didn’t call him Picante por nada
he’d shake his altar boy booty salsa deliciously
and all the girls in black seamed stockings
including me would shriek
some would really freak
do wild things
with their underthings

Yesterday I asked the priest
why did HIV take away
my brother from me?
the priest coughed,
said he felt ill and excused himself
the church seems to be out of season
every time I’m searching for a reason
for the loss of confirmation boy eyes
What If

Skip back to 1939
august sunrise over Krakow
children eating tangerines
mothers needlepointing
before black cats burrow
deep into the shrapnel ground
“Der Tod ist ein Meister aus Deutschland”
dass hat der dichter Paul Celan gesagt
death is a master from Germany
so said the poet Paul Celan
no sound of September blitzkrieg
no stars and stripes for me
ich bin George Mark Wynn
I would have been
Jerzy Bronislaw Weinreb
the harp of time
has it’s own euphonic history
the dead sleep
and the living die in the past
and eat chocolate
and hear no calming music
only crave for the grave

The Sound

It is a familiar sound to Americans
The French have a different sound,
like a wah ,wah, wah, always in the distance.
I loved old French
movies .They had that sound.
It was romantic then.
Now when it is heard and one lives
in a retirement center, it means
Hold on, we are coming.

My neighbor was carried out
of our building by the
men who ride in that sound.
They are kind when they
come here in an emergency.

Thursday night, they whispered in the hall.
They turned the corner outside
my apartment. Josefa was in a coma
no need for radio transmission.
There is a shadow in and on our building now.
We are in grief.
We know we may need the sound one day.
Josefa my good neighbor died yesterday.
Make me brave and grateful
to see the sun and hear the sound.

The Boys in Tin Cans

They were young.
Just out of high school.
Courage their middle name.
The destroyer was known as the Tin Can.
Thin metal for the hull to increase speed
and carry armament.
It could be found in Oceans.
It guarded and escorted Cruisers
and Battleships with thick hulls.
The boys listened for enemy submarines.
They became accustomed to ka-boom,
a depth charge targeting a submarine.

A floating post office for the Fleet.
The blanket of comfort was mail from home.
Young men with binoculars
Learning the difference
Between a whale and a submarine.
That was life aboard a destroyer.
When the boys heard pocketa-pocketa
they had no time for fear.
Their youth protected them.
It was 1943 many years ago.

Some lucky boys, now men, survived.
Loved with all their hearts, married
and had families.
One I know.
A generous man.
He walks. He belongs to this universe.
He can read “Tin Can Soldiers,”
a quarterly journal, when
his memory needs help.

The High School Ring

Michael called and he
found her high school ring.
I want it, I replied.
I put it on a gold chain and I wear it
around my aging neck
for comfort and memories.
I pat it often to feel her spirit

Harrison High, we watched it being built.
She could have graduated with Honors
if she had not cut so many classes.
She told me this as we
waited for her friends the day of graduation.
" Sarah, that’s just what I wanted to hear!"
We laughed, we had come
through another battle,
friends forever.

I remember my report card, a map with columns of mostly S'sthreading their vertical marks on the card I was to return--signed--by my parents, a code holding mein a straight line of ordinary children.Now, my daughter looks at me as I study her share--almost thesame component of S's, denying a gift we had wrappedin secret before going to sleep.Her face has the shadow of nineteen hundred and seventy two years of history plus seven. She holds timeunder her eyes, around the laugh that seldom breaks loosefrom worry.She shows me a patch of E's I pass over as though she achieved nothing. We work on the clock. She confuses the minute hand with the hour. At bedtime, the last kiss separates us to the solitude of knowing we have disappointed each other.

In a little while
someone will say your name…

There is a poem – Portrait of a Lady – written 1917 or so
I had read it so long ago
And yet while I am reading it now
Poor old Eliot, what does he know?
Why does the poem linger?
He must have been a young man once
(But youth is cruel)

I have saved this afternoon
for you.
Elizabeth, Joyce, George, Yvonne,
Georgia, Catherine, Toshi… Brent, there is a list

Sometimes we are twelve
different voices speaking
each to each.

as though there is nothing but silence
It is late afternoon

A restless
desire mounts again
to remember … to be remembered

While we are here
Talking Backward

If I could tell you, I would let you know
what I didn’t say long ago.

When we are young, we bump around
and things go tumbling to the ground.

The rooms go tumbling through my mind,
slow and freeze and realign

the smallest scene, the quickest glance,
the halting words, the silent dance.

I could not know, I would not see
that how I was would follow me.

I owe you something close to truth,
although I know you knew enough.

I let long silence speak for me.
You let long silence speak for me.

It was cruel to be so kind.
You were heavy to leave behind.
Visit to a Co-Worker

We worked with him
sometimes scourge of the day
sometimes sweet funny man
we all were like boats bobbing in weather
sun fog or storms under fluorescent lights

We fought over paper
listened in tedium to each other’s rants
opened up at times in personal pain
and closed again for business as usual

The door was closed to his hospital room
we heard his voice unfamiliar unreal
pleading to be unrestrained
I couldn’t acknowledge what I heard
but Lois wept - she knew right away

We went back to our moorings
our desks in our offices
unfamiliar unreal
the sea swelled inside us
as we pictured Jeff in the storm of dying
behind a closed door.

Meditation on W.C.W.

so much depends

a red wheel

glazed with rain

beside the white

(William Carlos Williams)

eyes widen
to see

the simple not more
the clear
yet more

clean edges of image
in pristine

before the eyes blink
before the mind thinks
and follows

Texas Trilogy
A Lawn Chair’s Journey
from Denton to Forestburg

distance: 39.2 mi [ about 49 mins ]
[give or take 50 years]


How Far Is It ?

April Morning North Texas

Cold gray porch chair
Sends a chill through hip to neck
Ripe green of grass and trees
Sky already a light gray
Leading up to stratas of fat dark gray clouds
I grew up close to here-
Green of April and
My mother’s gray metal chair

The lawn furniture now looks over
Green pasture
Big black cows
Electric fence to
Keep the cows out
Or keep me in

Feel a closeness to the past here
Almost believe I could turn around and enter
A different house fifty years ago

Open that door as a girl in brown braids
Look at the dark red hair
Momma at the sink

Alice’s yellow head bent over the comics
My father’s profile sharp under short black hair
Waiting for his egg cooked just so

I walk in wary
Ready to blend into the linoleum at loud words

Already know the look of this by noon
The greens dusted over and the heat
Sun right overhead

At home the wasps would busy
Build gray-brown nests in my playhouse
I felt a visitor then
As now
Visitor without a map of that close family
Joined in loud words


How Long Now?

December Afternoon North Texas

“Momma beat hell out of baby girl “
A gentle reprimand
The cat hit the wall
The wall hit the cat
No more kitty Tennessee
He sat with me on the piano bench
Wore his scarf cape with dignity
I practiced Christmas carols
The songbook cover Rudolph
The red nosed reindeer

‘Stay in here-don”t go near your father when he’s this way”
Locked in the bedroom
I paced bedrooms
For years
Hit the wall and back

Was I locked in
Or out
Alice fought with Daddy
I paced rooms
“He’s going out soon-you can come out in half an hour”

Three lessons from the journey
Friends last longer than lovers
Pacers live longer than fighters
Lawn furniture lasts longer than families


Are We There Yet?
April Morning North Texas

Does time stand alone
In place
From place
If I braid my hair
Grab the right map
Can I turn around and catch the past
By surprise
Is memory composed of colors
Or of emotion
Green and gray
Love and anger
A family joined and fierce
Under a changeless
North Texas sky
Take Care, Beware.
Dancing and bouncing children announcing this jubilee.
Omniscient Peralta, quiet residents
until whistles and doorbells.
Beware haunting ghosts, funny criminals approaching.
Inside stumbling, hesitating, knobs daily lifeless now jutting at them,
Visions unfold tiny stars, ricocheting pucks,
Yipping, whimpering, like xylophones.
Outside knitting the Avenue nimbly, linens covering them, minks with zippers.
On their never-ending mission.
Giving families frolic or ennui.
For My Grandchildren
To the Young - From the Old

A weighty thought to ponder - Someday in the faraway
You will be old
What to say to mitigate the pain?
Have no regrets for a life fulfilled
Reaching the farthest limits of thy mind
Reflective of every hour, find thy Passion.
Not Morbidly - only Intelligently, Insightfully

Seek love pure and friendship sincere, like a golden crown
Cuddle your loved ones, your treasures, never let them go.
Be kind to all. Never hurt a soul.
Gentle and compassionate as you want them to be to you.
Forever to be remembered
YOU are the OTHER who is confronting you.

“Listen with the third ear,” said psychologist Reik
Absorb, Reflect, Intuit!
Don’t put off. Nobody knows his Destiny.
Hang in, don’t give way, persevere and focus.
Ignorance is not bliss, contrary to the commonplace nonsense.
Momentary bliss is exactly what it is.
With dedicated, devoted introspection,
Find your potential - never let it go.
Be not beguiled by Fame or Fortune’s temptation
Nor be discouraged by flattery’s opposite - rejection.
Take not the easy path - Striving begets the greater reward.

Be Righteous, not self-righteous
Forever the philosopher, onlooker on life’s foibles.
Take care of thy health, little is possible without it.
The worst is not the infirmity that puts you in a wheelchair
Rather the wheelchair of the Mind
If still alert, still capable of imagination, invention - Persist.
Overcome! Overcome.
Let not the Will be consumed, master it, make it thy Servant.
Worth repetition - Don’t put off. Nobody knows his Destiny.

Prepare courageously as adversity will come
Assuredly, as the moon goes ‘round the sun.
Let disappointment, even sorrow
Strengthen thy sinew and marrow.
All the more to joyfully bask on a sunlit day.

If the verse sounds preachy - I wish an old geezer had told me this
When I was young, occasionally remiss.

P.S.: As a wise young man only four years old, holding my hand, protecting me from falling down steep stairs, said, “Anything can happen in this world, Gran’ma.”

A Paean to Poesy

I want the most beautiful, inspirational words to grace a poem
It should speak intimately, splendorously
Not merely poetic splendor but thoughts and values to remember.
Insights about life, about coping
Feet planted firmly on ground
Not patches of dust floating round and round
Meaningless, occupying precious space

Obeying certain minimum rules like gravity’s
Inexorable command.
Spare platitudes, and mundanity, even if poetically expressed
Luring us, ensnaring, beckoning
Existence’s ugliness to forget

Rather to face misfortune and find a way to reach Nirvana.
Speak to us honestly in language clear
Conceal not the certainty of oblivion
Regale us not with the sway of non-existent heaven
That is the way of religion’s deception -
To disguise mortality with faux expectation.

The whole of all-inclusive Poesy is to inspire
Man to examine his inexorable faith - in all its harsh reality
The ultimate equality we all share
Sweet, innocent progeny destined for the same shore.
The boatsman’s course unswayed,
Inexorable fate pre-determined.

Only fools can propose a happy ending
To the enduring inevitable
Pretending may suffice for some,
I cannot pretend to be that fool
Even though the cost may be my sanity…
A nursing home isn’t pretty and no amount of “poetic” writing
Can make it otherwise.
Death of loved ones lingers forever - nothing can change that.

If poetry is beautiful words on every subject
Count me out
For it is merely shamefully conceited
Boastful, devoid of sincerity
Distinguishing oneself from ordinariness
Embracing self-esteem, narcissism
Elevating conceit to ultimate spheres
Poesy refuses to trivialize
Or uplift the spirits, or make beautiful what is not
Then poetry becomes deception
Skirting cruelty, perception.
Hollywood endings falsifying this cruel world.
If that is poetry, count me out

Better to write like the bard: “Slings of outrageous fortune”
Than make the darkest happenings into something mystical
Truth and guidance we need to seek, to cope
If Poetry cannot handle this, better turn to essays
Poetic expression should be special and beautiful,
Not for Beauty’s Sake.

Truth and beauty, beauty and Truth - someone once said
How irking it is to hear sighs and ‘wows’ as everyman’s
Essai (Montaigne’s word for try) emerges as somehow
a gift from up high.
The verse-maker’s ego is not the aim
Massaging the ego leads to sloth and shame.

Poesy, the all-encompassing term, is destined for a few.
Magnificent, the light of the crescent moon
Hinting of the coming full moon, Lighting up the Midnight sky
Poesy is the striving, sometimes unattainable
If it eludes our grasp then keep on trying if you have the will
Be not boastful or full of oneself
Resounding with “I’m a poet”
Rather - humbly say: I’m trying to be a poet.
Don’t ignore meter and cadence for, like music, it has rules.
If thus ignored, then everyone can say “I’m a poet” - so there.

Write from the heart - that’s what it’s about.
Illness, sadness, loneliness, depression
Alongside fleeting moments of joy, contentment
The birth of a baby, quickly becoming child, teen, woman
The compassion of everyone’s final-ness.
Your inner voice resonates to another’s inner -

Like inseparable Lovers.
Poeticizing natures beauty ad infinitum - is not the urgent need
Rather dark clouds, foreboding, agonizing, threatening
Shedding a little light on the human plight.

Getting Ready to Write

Phase I – Clear the field

Weed, consider a rototill
Take papers off my bed
Pay bills
Read the Datebook section of the Chron
Read emails
Answer emails; turn down offers for Cialis and Viagra
Pluck my eyebrows
Make whole wheat toast with blueberry jam as
a little sweet to help concentration
Watch for hummingbirds
Look for the hawk
Get out the bird book to see
what type of hawk I might see
Think about lunch, Campbell’s or a tuna salad,
Consider an upcoming editing class and
an appointment to get my hair cut
Think about cleaning the closet, rearrange my shoes
Think about packing up the wine glasses
to give to Lou

Phase II – Pre-writing preparation
Write in my journal,
Agonize about creativity.
No abstract visualization, messy metaphors.
Think about how hard it is to jump
into intangible thinking
Tell my husband I’m getting ready to write.
Put on my pink writing hat.
Read a book about writing and
jot down inspirational tidbits
Get a cup of tea,
Check for the hawk.
Write this poem

Phase III – Actual Writing
Check on the hawk. I believe it’s a red tail hawk.
Review my plot outline. Figure out where I am.
Has Clarissa told the detective
about the molestation yet?
Review notes from Fred the policeman.
Open 3 ring binder.
Take hold of the invisible hand of faith, hold on tight.
Walk to the cliff and jump!

Telling Atomic TimeI saw my first Atomic Clock at Bunny’s. She mostly stays in bed from complications, orders plastic cows, greeting cards and clocks from online catalogs. She pressed the glow bar to show me how the face turns fluorescent green. In the wee hours her clock picks up a satellite radio signal from the world-famous lab in Boulder that monitors time down to the split nanosecond, makes the adjustmentto time zones and daylight savings.I logged on the minute I got home, selected onecomplete with indoor-outdoor temperature LEDs. If sun hits the deck, the temperature remote heats up to 95; it’s more accurate in fog. When they saw my clock, two of my friends’ husbands each bought one. "Men!" their wives said. My husband did not say "Women!"
The Families Had Discussed Leaving but hiring a taxi was unaffordablefor the 95-year-old the two in wheelchairsthe many childrenwho were warnedto leave and should have been gonethe families had discussed leavingbut they were poor and travelwas dangerousthe roads bombarded with missiles that struck the pickup filled with refugeesthe red cross on the ambulance roof a target for the rocketthe families had discussed leavingand they had movedto a deserted house dug into earth on the edge of a ridgewith water piped from a neighbora table set with bread and cheesecrushed and suffocatedby sand and brickswhere they’d thought they’d be safe —after a NY Times article by Sabrina Tavernise July 31, 2006Surfing A Word A Day (except on weekends), last week offered words based on fish names: ´gud·geon, a small fresh-water fish, often used as bait, that also means a gullible person; and ´rem·ora, fish whose dorsal fins resemble large suction disks with which they attach themselves to sea-turtles and giant mantas, also meaning drag, hindrance. Writing in bed, or doing the crosswords, my ballpoint pen fades out. My friend Bruce recommended Fisher’s Space Pen. I ordered it online. No remora, that!It writes when you’re underwater, upside-down, flat on your back, in Arctic conditions, heat, grease. Even NASA uses it for astronauts. They write while they float.

Not Quite White

This poem was generated by an actual event that occurred in my home around the holidays of 2005

You’re not quite white
You don’t really look like a Black person
There is some other race mixed up in there
You are not quite white

I inhaled and held a deep breath
My mind skipped a thought
I remembered manners
Good manners prevail
In situations such as this

In my very own home
Sitting at my dining room table
A first time visitor to my home accusingly said, she thought
My physical features did not represent those of a Black

Look at the color of your skin
It’s more yellow … almost white not Black
Biting back an angry response
I turned my thoughts inward
I remembered earlier times
Feeling like I needed to make up a reason to justify
Why I was not enough…

I sat back in my chair and listened to the beat of my heart
In my mind I was thrashing her about the room
I thought yet did not speak

Wake up you’re insulting me
You are disrespecting my hospitality
I wondered to myself, How would Martin Luther King
Respond to these comments

What would one of my favorite, radical poets of the ‘70s,
Pat Parker, a bitter sweet chocolate complexioned woman
Say in response to accusations of not looking Black

Why is your skin so light in color
You must have some other race in there
If so why do you think you are Black

Because I am an immigrant
I experience discrimination just like you
Yes, but with your blond, Nordic good looks, you can escape
Racial slurs, disappear into the crowd of other whites

Why do you call yourself Black?
I thought not speaking, not again
An un-uttered scream coursed through my mind
Still she left thinking
You are just not quite white.

February in Squaw Valley

I. Ice sickles drip
From roof tops
Olympic Village
Squaw Valley
Stands in the shadow

II. Fresh snow covers
The ground
No bear
Only Rabbit, Fox, Raccoon, and Deer tracks
Mark the path

III. Squaw Valley
Rippling creek below our feet
Cold clear water
Rushes over the rocks
The cottage stands silent

IV. Bone chilling
Water rolls over
Our creek
Trees of fir
And ever green
Hold the silence
Bears remain in slumber

V. Trees
Fox tracks
The landscape

VI. Icicles longer than a foot
Hold the roof apart
From the ground

VII. Wood fire crackling
A black beetle
Clings to the inner window screen
Open Door Music

Growth always changes
objects that seem permanent
Andy Goldsworthy, Artist

A fluke of the wind
transformed our door keys

that hang like sentinels
high on a hook

They suddenly moved
in the pulse of sea air

It rushed through our house
on its eastward route

Striking each other
the keys became chimes

Has anyone written
a dance for keys?

In awe, I savored
their tinkly tones

thrilled to be
their audience of one

When the wind dropped
the keys shed their new role

Their solo over
and premiere done

they resumed without protest
their old, mute vigil
Witness: A Nightmare

A familiar young woman
snaps an order

A thick, black dog looms
a fierce breed, a pit bull

He seizes my right hand
in his powerful jaw

My breath lurches, mind collapses,
thoughts scatter like wild ducks

Dropping my eyes,
tears erupt

A voice inside warns:
surrender: don’t resist

The ebony animal steps into shadow
I match his pace, trembling, forced to follow

“How could you do that to me?”
The woman accuses

Her face flushes red,
eyes heavy with tears

My body tenses, I strive to keep calm,
keep from triggering further attack

Long I look at her, she looking back
Two women wait, hold sorrow’s shared root

New tears spring,
grow into mirrors

Our old grief, unearthed lets go
a shattered sarcophagus

Rainclouds above break from dark knots,
torn shafts of sunlight spill from their core

The beast drops his grip
turns from me, dissolves

The young woman softens,
melts into mist

My right hand presses my heart,
covered by my left

Alone, I breathe
bend to touch the earth
Grandmother Beings

You who offer safety before we know of danger
You who hold us close

Old spirits, dear
Your granddaughter is glad

Gifted with her own daughter’s children
Two granddaughters, your great-granddaughters

Hold us now as we open to your wisdom
The knowing right for this time of our lives

Help us shed confusion
Guide us away from doubt

Let forgiveness be our path
Kindness and joy our guides

Be with me, old generous ones,
As I join our young at harvest

Family us with your love and trust
And scatter your blessings upon us

Some Writing Exercises

Mute Childhood Poem: With a partner, tell a story about your childhood without either of you speaking. The partner will take notes on paper. Using these notes, the partner will write a poem, each line beginning “I don’t know”

Color Poem:
For each of the following prompts, create a line
the name of a color that you like
other words that look like this word
something you saw recently that was this color
a sound that was happening
imagine how it looked from 5 miles away
imagine who was looking
imagine how it looked 50 years ago
imagine how it looks to someone in an airplane
something in the airplane that is also that color
something that is not usually that color but one time it was

Piggy Bank Composition: Designate a piggy bank or a small box with a slot in the top as a receptacle for a poem or a story that you want to write. It might help to label it with a makeshift title. When you get the urge, write a phrase or even a word on a scrap of paper and drop it into the slot. In the spirit of not throwing anything away, use all of the scraps to write your poem or story. You may choose to break them up but don’t omit anything. If you repeated something, do that in your piece of writing too. If you happen to have more than one different poems or stories floating about in your brain, you might want to do this exercise with several piggy banks.

Hiding Places Poem: Write down 5 objects from a place where you went to hide as a child. Now, write 5 lines about a place where you go to hide now, using those objects. If you can, turn those objects into verbs. Write down 5 actions that happen in the place where you go to hide now. Then, write 5 lines about the place where you hid as a child, using these actions. If you can turn those actions into objects.

Unusual Artifacts: Take a walk, ideally outside your house, and collect 10 unusual abandoned objects. Pretend that you have found them in a suitcase or backpack that someone is taking on a trip. Write a poem about how all these things belong together.

Altered Keys: Alter the keyboard of your computer or typewriter so that there are some letters you cannot use. If you are feeling aggressive, you can actually remove the keys! A more docile approach is to put stickers or colored tape over certain keys and not to allow yourself to use them. Decide on one subject to write about and try to do so using this limitation.

Letter from a Stranger: Take a photograph from a recent newspaper and pretend that the person in that photograph has written a letter to a person, perhaps yourself, in a poem or story you have already begun. Integrate fragments of this letter into your original piece of writing.

Jigsaw Poem: Find an old jigsaw puzzle at home or for cheap at a thrift store. Write one word on the back of each piece that corresponds to color, shape, action, or memory. Assemble the puzzle (image side-up) on a piece of wax paper or tin foil. Tape a flat piece of cardboard on top of the image side and carefully flip it over to expose the words. Write a poem or a story, trying to maintain as much of the assembly of these words as possible.

Thanks to everyone
who makes the Older Writers Laboratory possible:
Lisa Dunseth and the Bernal Heights Branch
of the San Francisco Public Library,
The Friends of the Library,
the Bernal Heights Neighborhood Center,
and the wonderful writers who share their words with electricity, beauty, and courage:

Annette Cabot, Betty Johnson, Beth Krackov, Bree LeMaire, Carol Kerner, Carolyn Welsham, Catherine Blair, Elizabeth Larson, Ellen Frank, Ellen Sharbach, Frances Hoeffel, George Wynn, Georgia Baebler, Joyce Futa, Lorrie Bunker-Boquist, Margie, Mimi Mueller, Ruth Hughes, Susan Kitazaqwa, Ted Herzberg, Teresa Laxamana, Toshi Washizu, and Yvonne Cannon.

If you would like to join us in our literary experiments,
please contact Brent Armendinger:
765 Capp Street
San Francisco, CA 94110

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