November 30, 2019

Odd & Ends & Giblets



Remember when a blog post would just be a round-up of whatever one happened to be experiencing at the moment? I miss those "everything and the kitchen sink" posts. They're a big part of why I still feel so close to a cohort of poets who came up together, posting to blogs en route to their first and second books, in the mid-2000s. So here are the odds, the ends, and (as a nod to the holiday) the giblets. 

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Mayor Bowser has forged a truce with the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities in regards to the Art Bank. But it remains to be seen if the newly minted "Creative Affairs Office" will try to take up what has traditionally been DCCAH responsibilities, and DC is approaching the end of 2019 with still no poet laureate. That makes me sad. 

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Our Thanksgiving break started off with a drive as far as Savannah, stopping off with my husband's old friends--a photographer and a plant designer who does work for Mashama Bailey. We had good food at The Grey Market, the chef's new lunch-counter spot, which serves okra-tomato stew and hand-bottled Bloody Marys. We bought a pack of Benton's bacon to fix in Jacksonville, and a bag of Sea Island red peas for a January 1 hoppin' John.


Our week on Amelia Island has been quiet. A long walk by the sea, during which we found four perfectly whole sand dollars. A day trip to see Jacksonville's museums, the MOCA collection and the Cummer, which had a special exhibition of Tiffany glass. Thanksgiving with four generations of Taylors. A trip to Fernandina Beach, which included taking a chance on a junk shop that turned out to have a treasure trove of stuff--including unopened packs of Garbage Pail Kids cards, circa 1987, complete with the stick of gum inside. We sat down to the bar of Peppers and ordered a round of mezcal just in time to see UVA beat VA Tech in a reasonably epic football game. Then we walked down to the water and watched the pelicans feed off the scraps cast off by fisherman, cleaning their day's catch. 

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This is the most intense academic fall of my past five years, which is saying something: I've taught in five different spaces in the past three months. But the method behind that madness is always being open to new modes, new audiences. The dark horse that turned out to be a delight was a four-week online course for 24 Pearl Street, which drew on my growing interest in "Essaying in Unconventional Forms"; they use a Blogger platform not unlike this one. The quality of the student work and the ability to organize my time caused me to turn around and immediately pitch a class for the new year. This one will be "Mapping Your Memoir from Start to Finish," and it'll run for eight weeks rather than four. The details are here. I'm really excited about it.

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I need a new official author photo. I'm not wearing an engagement or wedding ring in the one that gets used now, taken in 2011, which Milly West was kind enough to grant permission for me to use in tandem with publishing Count the Waves in 2015. I hadn't met my future husband yet; you can't tell by looking at the photo, but I can. I'm ready for a photo that shows off the silver streak in my hair. 

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Will we ever go somewhere "on vacation" that isn't tied to a residency or a conference? That's a legitimate question for a two-artist household with no kids. I'm used to working, even when the ostensible mission is to relax, and on a family trip like this one that transforms into cooking dinners for all. So far I've made a pearled couscous pilaf, several salads, fruit curry, and posole verde with tons of green pepper, savoy cabbage, and cilantro, plus a side of black beans with radish greens. My prep generates far too many bowls to be cleaned, a glut of mise en place, but I'm soothed by the process of chopping and sorting. Fortunately my in-laws seem to enjoy the results, and they're patient when a pot of broth unexpectedly takes an extra twenty minutes to come to a boil. In anticipation of making posole, we packed a can of hominy from home, but I'd forgotten just how many ingredients there were to be assembled. My husband saved the day when he found tomatillos at a local supermarket. 

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My friend Leslie Holt makes amazing art centered on disability, and she just opened an online shop to support her "Neuro Blooms" project. Check it out here. 



A few years back, I met someone whose profession involved maximizing impact across social media platforms. He'd taken a particular interest in poets and so when I introduced myself, he immediately observed, familiar with my handles--oh, yeah, you're a "burst" person. Apparently that refers to my tendency to post to Twitter seven times in one day, but then go quiet for two weeks; or the way that I post long, substantive posts to this blog of unique content, but I only post them once a month. I suspect that's one of the patterns where return on investment is lowest, but it's what feels right (or at least necessary) for now. 

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John Churchill has passed away. He was my first boss, and he seemed eternally youthful. Not the most auspicious "how I got my first job story," but: I turned up to my spring 2002 Phi Beta Kappa induction at the University of Virginia an hour late, because the clocks had spring forward that morning. John, the newly minted Secretary of national headquarters, was making the rounds to every chapter in the country to lead ceremonies in person. I was so apoplectic with apology that I offered to volunteer time to PBK in the coming year, when I'd be back at home and attending graduate school at American University. I knew they'd just begun offering a poetry award, and I thought they might need help running it. 

That turned into an internship, which became the job of Awards Administrator--not just the poetry award, soon defunct, but book awards for writing about humanities, sciences, and literary criticism; a fellowship in philosophy; a scholarship in Greek studies. When John's executive assistant was on maternity leave, I sat at her desk. When the PBK Senate met, I took elaborate meeting minutes that were later, he told me, entirely too editorial for public use (though greatly entertaining on initial read). He modeled a genuine love for the liberal arts that was inspiring, and he made sure The American Scholar got the funding it needed. He was a gentle soul with a big laugh. Nonprofits are odd, often highly stratified places to work, where the shadow of fundraising needs looms constantly. Later, I'd look back and realize that creating a humane environment, under those circumstances, was no small feat. 

My MFA program's literary journalism class required an extensive interview-turned-profile. I asked John to sit and talk with me, which he did, his Arkansas drawl unfurling over a Bass ale that he nursed for two hours. My questions were...boring, polite, perhaps overly mindful that he was my boss. I wish I could re-do that interview. I'd ask about traveling to Oxford. I'd ask how to make great pickled okra. 

*




In Fernandina Beach, we took a place on a junk shop that turned out to have box after box of sealed collectible cards from the 1980s and 1990s. I couldn't resist a pack of Garbage Pail Kids. I carefully pried open the wax packet, originally priced at 25 cents, complete with stick of gum. They are just as beautifully horrible as I remembered. 



October 31, 2019

World Series Champions


My Dad and I have been going to baseball games together for a long time. Long enough that my early memories are of driving up to Baltimore, parking on the other side of the train tracks and walking to Camden Yards, and coming back to find the pennies we'd left smushed by the passing trains. I saw three Ripkens on the field at once. I was there when Cal tied Lou Gehrig's streak of playing in 2,130 games straight. 

When the Nationals first came around in 2005, I didn't know how to calibrate my loyalties. They won me over one game at a time--even the ones they lost. My husband and I watched forlorn in a Memphis bar, surrounded by cheering Redbird fans, as the Cardinals took Game 5 of the 2012 NLDS.

In 2015, when we moved to Southwest, going to a game became a quick walk over to the stadium. Baseball became embedded in the texture of getting to know our new neighborhood. Sometimes I headed over for just a few sunny innings, and sometimes I settled in for the long haul on a breezy night. Ryan Zimmerman! Denard Span! Gio Gonz├ílez! Wilson Ramos! Even Jason Werth, who wears the beard of an artisanal soap-maker! Max Scherzer seemed to ignite us. I'd never seen so many strikeouts. The day my husband took his friend to see a game, Max pitched a no-hitter. 

All of this is to say: I love baseball. I love baseball for the very specific place it holds in the otherwise relentless life of someone who is not very good at slowing down or relaxing. I love the indulgence of getting a beer and french fries with barbecue sauce. I love the talking with my dad or the not-talking. I love singing "Take Me Out to the Ballgame." I love that Anthony Rendon sits on our liquor shelf in a garden-gnome incarnation. I love the season seats we've had for some years now in Section 314, and their view of the field. I love that we're a dorky city with a (slightly) dorky team that runs the presidents midway through the fourth inning. When I think of moving, it's one of the utterly irreplaceable things that has kept me in DC. 




When my dad surprised me with the news that he'd been able to snag tickets for Game 3 of the National League Championship, I didn't know what say other than "Yes yes yes thank you yes." We raised our rally towels high. And when Zimmerman, our guy since 2005 (and in many ways, before that, since he's of UVA and Virginia-Beach born), hit a home run in his first at-bat of the World Series, the first home run for any National in the Series, it felt (for the briefest of moments) like all was right and just in the universe. 

Watching Games 3, 4, and 5 from the road was agonizing--I was in Mississippi, my dad was in Hawaii. One loss, we could handle; two we got nervous. Then having to pull Scherzer took the wind out of us. But Game 6 fanned a spark of hope. Not knowing whether we'd win or lose, I shared this poem with my students at American University last night~

BASEBALL

for John Limon

The game of baseball is not a metaphor   
and I know it’s not really life.   
The chalky green diamond, the lovely   
dusty brown lanes I see from airplanes   
multiplying around the cities   
are only neat playing fields.   
Their structure is not the frame   
of history carved out of forest,   
that is not what I see on my ascent.

And down in the stadium,
the veteran catcher guiding the young   
pitcher through the innings, the line   
of concentration between them,   
that delicate filament is not   
like the way you are helping me,   
only it reminds me when I strain   
for analogies, the way a rookie strains   
for perfection, and the veteran,   
in his wisdom, seems to promise it,   
it glows from his upheld glove,

and the man in front of me
in the grandstand, drinking banana   
daiquiris from a thermos,
continuing through a whole dinner
to the aromatic cigar even as our team
is shut out, nearly hitless, he is
not like the farmer that Auden speaks   
of in Breughel’s Icarus,
or the four inevitable woman-hating   
drunkards, yelling, hugging
each other and moving up and down   
continuously for more beer

and the young wife trying to understand   
what a full count could be
to please her husband happy in   
his old dreams, or the little boy
in the Yankees cap already nodding   
off to sleep against his father,
program and popcorn memories   
sliding into the future,
and the old woman from Lincoln, Maine,   
screaming at the Yankee slugger   
with wounded knees to break his leg

this is not a microcosm,   
not even a slice of life

and the terrible slumps,
when the greatest hitter mysteriously   
goes hitless for weeks, or
the pitcher’s stuff is all junk
who threw like a magician all last month,   
or the days when our guys look
like Sennett cops, slipping, bumping   
each other, then suddenly, the play
that wasn’t humanly possible, the Kid   
we know isn’t ready for the big leagues,   
leaps into the air to catch a ball
that should have gone downtown,   
and coming off the field is hugged   
and bottom-slapped by the sudden   
sorcerers, the winning team

the question of what makes a man   
slump when his form, his eye,
his power aren’t to blame, this isn’t   
like the bad luck that hounds us,   
and his frustration in the games   
not like our deep rage
for disappointing ourselves

the ball park is an artifact,
manicured, safe, “scene in an Easter egg,”   
and the order of the ball game,   
the firm structure with the mystery   
of accidents always contained,   
not the wild field we wander in,   
where I’m trying to recite the rules,   
to repeat the statistics of the game,
and the wind keeps carrying my words away.

~Gail Mazur

In class, we discussed apophasis, the ancient rhetorical technique with which Mazur convinces us of the very thing she's denying: "this is not a microcosm, / not even a slice of life...." But it is, of course. Right down to the slumps and those left stranded on base. I walked out of Kerwin Hall just as the first pitch of Game 7 was being thrown, and I drove home as fast as I could, listening anxiously on the radio as the Astros homered. We reheated the Ethiopian take-out that I'd gotten on campus and settled in.

My team won. We won a series no one expected us to win, a series that one that no one even expected us to be in, and we won in an incredible & improbable four games on the road. We won after a May low of being 19-31, 12 games below .500. We stayed in the fight, and we baby sharked our way through our embarrassment, and we hustled the bases, and we danced--yes, even Stephen Strasburg--and here we are. And dammit it, that's a slice of the life I'm here for. What a beautiful game. 




October 16, 2019

Echoes


One month exactly after losing our cat, Whisky, I had a good if tiring Tuesday that culminated in leading the MFA poetry workshop at American University. Many folks were absent--it's that time of the semester--so we let out a little early, which meant that I spontaneously offered to pick up dinner from 2Amys, which meant that my car found itself crawling along Macomb Street right as the services from Washington Hebrew Congregation let out.

I didn't want to process what I could see in front of me. Squirrel? Must be a squirrel. But a woman coming in the opposite direction stopped her car in the road and hopped out. Bless her for breaking the spell. "This is someone's kitty," she said, scooping up the gray cat and moving it to the sidewalk. She had what might have been a young son in the passenger seat, wide-eyed, so after that she kept going. 

At the next intersection, I flagged down a police officer and asked him to go check. I told him the cat might still be alive, and he nodded noncommittally. After I parked I walked back, wondering, and of course there the creature was alone, still and untended, as passersby from the services streamed past along the pavement. 

So I knocked on doors. And I rang bells. And I crossed the street, back and forth, looking for someone--anyone--who might answer and know this cat. I couldn't bear the thought of someone emerging the next morning to find the cat there or, worse, animal control coming by and taking the body before anyone knew what had happened. 

Eventually, a woman come to the door of the smallest house, the one the cat had been closest to, the one that had a small bowl for kibble on the front step. This was my third try and I was about to give up. Apparently her ringer had never sounded inside, but she'd spotted the lavender of my dress. The moment I even began to speak, she knew. She cried, "Dusty!" The cat had been with her for twenty years. 

Her grief is her grief, and it's not mine to display here. But I was grateful to be there with her, in the moment, to help as we took care of things; to feel the cat's light heft in my hands as it was curled into a bed bought not that long ago.

Because this is what humans do, I still went and got the damn pizza, the roasted peppers and anchovies, the rapini. In the moment I had no appetite, but I knew that I would later. I was glad no one asked about my red, swollen eyes. 

The next night was another class at American University. I wanted to choose something that dealt with grief, but not of an articulated sort. Undergraduates are just finding their way to naming what makes them feel the way they feel--and you have to be careful not to force it on them. So I reached for this beautiful if puzzling (for some) poem from Kaveh Akbar, "Orchids Are Sprouting From the Floorboards"~

Orchids Are Sprouting From the Floorboards




Orchids are sprouting from the floorboards.

Orchids are gushing out from the faucets.

The cat mews orchids from his mouth.

His whiskers are also orchids.

The grass is sprouting orchids.

It is becoming mostly orchids.

The trees are filled with orchids.

The tire swing is twirling with orchids.

The sunlight on the wet cement is a white orchid.

The car tires leave a trail of orchids.

A bouquet of orchids lifts from its tailpipe.

Teenagers are texting each other pictures

of orchids on their phones, which are also orchids.

Old men in orchid pennyloafers

furiously trade orchids.

Mothers fill bottles with warm orchids

to feed their infants, who are orchids themselves.

Their coos are a kind of orchid.

The clouds are all orchids.

They are raining orchids.

The walls are all orchids,

the teapot is an orchid,

the blank easel is an orchid

and this cold is an orchid. Oh,

Lydia, we miss you terribly.



~Kaveh Akbar


I often use this poem to talk about contemporary poetry's value on parallel structure, anaphora, and excess. The reaction tends to be polarized--some readers love it, others really resist it. In particular I always enjoy the telescoping of those penultimate lines, as the poem's "camera" seems to zoom in on a particular room and a particular speaker (one with a cold). I was delighted that this time the students found their way organically to thinking of how funerals are often the cause for a profusion of flowers. 

Since I didn't want to create an utterly morose atmosphere, I found another way to think about excess: Neko Atsume, the Japanese mobile game of cat collecting. There's a calming quality to cats en masse, even though on another level it's creepy; this resonates with anyone who has been to an island where the feral cat population has surged. I offered a few screenshots toying with the game's premise and outcomes. 







...goofy, for sure, but poetry thrives alongside goofy. I was mostly trying not to cry.

September 08, 2019

Pretty Girl, Goodnight



When we adopted, her name was explained has having been a change from "Whizzer." Courtesy her first owner, who had passed away, leaving a nine-year old cat who no one in the family was willing to adopt. The folks at the Montgomery County shelter figured "Whizzer" was an unnecessarily alarm-inducing name, so they changed it to "Whisky."

The name Whisky appealed to me. A quirky polydactyl cat temporarily housed in a vegan warehouse (the shelter had made her anxious) appealed to me. Her photo appealed to me. All these things appealed to my sister, too; independent of anything she found the same cat advertised on Craigslist and wrote me, I think this is your cat. Fortunately my husband agreed, and we had finally moved to a place whose lease allowed a pet. We drove up to Rockville to meet her, this great big Muppet-cat, and the first time I leaned down to look her in the eyes she tapped me nose-to-nose. 

From the get-go of bringing her home, she had some medical issues. I'm too exhausted to go into them, except to say that we fought hard. And I've always said to her, since then, hunkered down at eye level: Thank you for staying with us. 

Turned out, I needed a cat. I needed company for 2 AM stints of writing or editing. I needed the slow blink, the trill of curiosity, and the oddly conversational vocalizations we shared as I broke the catnip treats in half so she could smell their contents. I needed to watch her discover my husband's gentleness and humor. I needed to know that this household we've created was so filled with love that it could shelter a creature. 

I say "creature" intentionally--I've never enjoyed the metaphor of a pet as a child. We didn't meet Whisky until she'd already had a full, mysterious life that included loss of someone she'd probably loved. We chose her. She chose to stay. 

I have traveled so much in these past four years: to Florida, to Mississippi, to Cyprus, to Kansas, to Cork, and so on through dozens of 2-3 day overnights. During that time, the simplest check-in with my husband took the form of a texted snapshot of Whisky. He took such good care of her; they had their own rituals. She'd be lounging in the sun, or nibbling, or staring at the camera with a gaze at once penetrating and slightly dismissive. That image told me that all was well. 

When the two of us traveled together and made our way across the parking lot, lugging luggage, I'd turn to him and ask, Where's my kitty? 

Waiting for you, he'd always answer, and that gave me great joy. 

She was an exceptionally handsome cat. Everyone thinks such about the cat they love. But she was a tortoiseshell with 22 toes and a fox-like face. 

My sense that Whisky's time with us was drawing short came on about two weeks ago. One night, she settled onto second and third row of pillows behind my head--a favorite spot--first facing toward our closets and then, as she often did, methodically rotating and resettling so she could watch me sleep. She reached a paw out toward me, as she often did, but settled it on my forehead instead of the part in my hair.

The feeling of her cool, cupped paw-palm was at once soothing and unsettling. The only other times she had done that, I've been in tears. Why was she comforting me now? The next night she jolted awake at 5 AM and was inconsolable, wanting the underside of her chin to be stroked again and again, pressing her jaw and cheeks into to my touch. Something had shifted. (Her body, as it turned out, was failing in every way--digestion, metabolism, joints. No point in detail, but it was utter.)

She held on until my husband came home from August at an art colony in Vermont. We had this quiet week together that included familiar rituals. She sat between us on the couch as we watched evening television. She wolfed down some chicken pate. Her energy surged long enough to hunt a few spiders.  Friends came, my family came, and she had as gentle an exit as anyone could ask. Tomorrow we'll take her body down to Marshall, Virginia, where the country vets will care for her one last time. I'm so grateful to my cousin Kathy and everyone on staff there. 

That first morning when, for whatever reason, I knew, I set aside everything on my to-do list to read Doris Lessing's On Cats. I'd bought the book at Whistlestop Bookshop while in Pennsylvania for a reading at Dickinson College. The bookstore had an in-house cat, a much needed sighting after a particularly intense stretch of travel. 

Lessing is of an older generation. There's lots in the book (an aggregate of three essays) that is worthy of skepticism in this contemporary age--everything from the language toward other cultures to the attitude toward spaying and population control. But I found myself deeply soothed by two things, which I'll share here. 

One was the unmistakable takeaway that when a household is meant to have cats, it is in designed into the very architecture of the space. A particular cat will come and go, sometimes heartbreakingly, but your attitude toward those events has to respect the loss while protecting the architecture. In other--do it right, as best you can, so that you have the energy to do it again. I've really clung to that principle in these past few days, centering Whisky's passage instead of my grief. Though I'll admit that I pounded a pillow and howled about two hours ago, once I was alone in the apartment. 

The other comfort was these paragraphs, quoted from the end of Lessing's book:

What a luxury a cat is, the moments of shocking and startling pleasure in a day, the feel of the beast, the soft sleekness under your palm, the warmth when you wake on a cold night, the grace and charm even in a quite ordinary workaday puss. Cat walks across your room, and in that lonely stalk you see leopard or even panther, and it turns its head to acknowledge you and the yellow blaze of those eyes tells you what an exotic visitor you have here, in this household friend, the cat who purrs as you stroke, or rub his chin, or scratch his head.
...
When you sit close to a cat you know well, and put your hand on him, trying to adjust to the rhythms of his life, so different from yours, sometimes he will lift his head and greet you with a soft sound different from all his other sounds, acknowledging that he knows you are trying to enter his existence...He likes it when we sit quietly together. It is not an easy thing, though. No good sitting down by him when I am rushed, or thinking about what I should be doing in the house or garden or of what I should write. Long ago, when he was a kitten, I learned that this was a cat who demanded your full attention, for he knew when my mind wandered, and it was no use stroking him mechanically, let alone taking up a book to read. The moment I was no longer with him, completely thinking of him, then he walked off. When I sit down to be with him, it means slowing myself down, getting rid of the fret and urgency. When I do this--and he must be in the right mood, too, not in pain or restless--then he subtly lets me know he understands I am trying to reach him, reach cat, essence of cat, finding the best of him. Human and cat, we try to transcend what separates us. 

Rest well, pretty girl. You've earned it. Thank you for staying with us. 

August 19, 2019

August, August



I wasn't expecting this to be the type of summer that got one big end-of-season post, but here we are. Even if one experiences a temporarily happy moment these days, coming to social media--and a shared news cycle--tells us that things are very much awry in the world, and in particular in the United States. How do we use these spaces we've created? For affirmation? For protest? For the quotidian? We struggle, in the moment, whether we should use them at all. Sometimes it is all we can do to shut up, and to take in the changing colors of the water around us. 




This was a small-scale summer, which I needed after beginning the year in Ireland. I traveled to Tampa for teaching; my husband and I did an overnight getaway to Charlottesville, stopping off to visit Virginia Center for Creative Arts in tandem; and I just returned from running a few seminars in Delaware, as part of the Lewes Creative Writers' Conference. Otherwise I stayed very much anchored to home.




I've been working to forge my own connection with the Wharf, a rather shiny and megalomaniacal new complex mere blocks from where we live. The Wharf brings a lot of commercial energy to the neighborhood, but that's not the same as calibrating to the neighborhood's needs or price point. I'm slowly figuring out the best spot to sip a cup of coffee during a meeting (Velo), or to sip a single fancy cocktail while alternating between reading and taking in the view (12 Stories), the best $10 lunch (Grazie Grazie), and the place to snag a free chair right by the water (I'm not telling you). Officina's market has good deals on house-made sausages, and big loaves of fresh sourdough and ciabatta. We cooked a meal using filet from the fish market--posole verde with cod--and that's the start of something, even if I did add so many spicy chili peppers that our guests hiccuped. 


An incredibly talented poet happened to be temporarily in the neighborhood, too, and that proved to be another anchoring joy of the summer. We had hijinks, as one should. 



Many of my worries about what might happen in going to Ireland did not come true--they were phantoms, nothing more--but one did come true: Whisky, our beloved cat, lost weight. She is not a cat who could afford to lose weight. (Look at those jutting hip bones in the photo below. Good lord.) She missed us, despite three superb cat-sitters. I've been trying to bring her back from the brink one bite of food at a time, which entails many pets. 


I've been planting things. That is partially a literal observation--I've redone all the succulents inside the house, and I've flipped many of the patio containers that get challenged by the brightest of suns and the strongest of winds and, on the 9th floor, a lack of natural pollinators. They are hanging in thanks to daily watering. 


The planting has been going on figuratively, too. I am leaving the summer with a nonfiction manuscript of lyric essays in hand, as the wheels turn on the next poetry collection. The fall is teeming with teaching responsibilities. For the University of Tampa: thee nonfiction students, two in their thesis semester. For places outside the academy: a three-session arc at Politics and Prose (poetry), and a four-week online class for 24 Pearl Street (nonfiction). For American University: my usual undergraduate session of Writers in Print / in Person, and teaching the graduate poetry workshop--a classroom space I first entered as an MFA student, 17 years ago. Bringing some apartment life into my campus office felt like a good idea, so I got a baby-Groot inspired holder for one of our air plants. 


As I was working on this post, I found out that a friend died. He'd been ill for a couple of months, an inexplicable interruption to a vibrant (and much loved) life down in Mississippi. If there was a cool thing going on in town, Ron would be there. That was how you knew it was where you wanted to be. His generosity came so easy to him, so natural--"Got U a chair if U wants," says an old text message, "I'm to right of stage"--and though I'm tempted, once again this summer, to fall into silence out of grief...I know he wants us out here doing the things. All the things. Live a life that makes people miss you when you're gone.  

May 21, 2019

Trips, Journeys, Voyages - More from Cork



I've been back from Ireland for almost a month. There have been so many welcomes back--buying coneflowers and basil to plant on the balcony, cooking spicy dinners, a few long phone conversations, petting the kitty x 10, sifting through my books on their shelves, watching the American University MFA students give their graduating readings, even a bottle of Maker's Mark (cask strength!) as an unexpected gesture of Southern-Foodways-inspired generosity. There is good to being home. 


Yet Ireland is still echoing through my head; so many shades of gray, blue, and green.


Venturing to the seashore in Garyvoe, and up to the edge of the cliff all in Ballycotton, with my student on an overcast day--before we took shelter at the Jameson's distillery.


The countryside is dotted by yellow gorse, beautiful but thorny (and invasive). Another student showed me that the crushed flowers smell uncannily like coconut.


When my parents came to visit, we braved the roads in their rented car to Clonakilty and beyond to see the stones of Drombeg. We pulled up to a silent, misty field.




A small bit of signage helped us understand what we were seeing: the circle of seventeen stones oriented toward the midwinter solstice's setting sun, with a center where an urn with cremated bones had been recovered, dated to somewhere between 153 BC and 127 AD. Nearby, the remains of two small huts, plus a hearth and trough where water would have been heated by dropping in stones heated by fire. 


A friend drove me to Kinsale by way of several small towns, including a stop at the ruins of Timoleague Abbey. The weather was comically rainy--great gusts pushing us as we traipsed through the soaked courtyards. 





By the time we got to Kinsale, the weather (and the water) was a crystalline blue. We circled the edges of the Charles Fort.



A few weeks later, my husband and I caught the bus to Kinsale, going into the fort for an hour to explore before venturing further out to the water's edge.






From the Scilly Walk back to downtown, you can see the remains of the older James Fort--occupied by Spanish forces during the 1601 siege--on the far shore. 


One of my students took us to her family's place by the shore, just outside the town of Castletownbere in the Beara Peninsula. The forecast had predicted two straight days of rain. The fates were kind and the weather cold, but clear. I come from a family of seashell-hunters and it felt right that for the first time in Ireland, I found them here.





The schedule was simply: stop for whatever beckons before the sun sets. That began with a walk along sea cliffs. My student knew the right gate to open.










We made what should have been a quick stop to see the (purported) shrine to the children of Lir, only to be gently waylaid by a pack of horses that had gotten loose.





Ireland's only cable car runs to Dursey Island. The door is secured with a latch. Emergency supplies consist of a two-way radio and a bottle of holy water.






Making our way back for the night, we saw a sign for a ring fort--a place even my student had not yet visited--and decided to check it out. Wherever there's a green ladder, you have permission to go. Just don't bother the sheep.




A new day, a new gate to open--this time to see a stone with an ogham inscription, a primitive form of Irish writing. 




Our host wanted to show us Gleninchaquin lake and the Uragh stone circle, which crossed us into County Kerry. We got to the stone circle and found it overtaken by sun-lazy sheep. Slowly, surely, we negotiated with the locals for a closer look.











A week later, when another poet offered to take us anywhere we wanted to go by car, I said: "I'd like to see castles." And castles he did provide: three in one day, with a bonus spotting of a sheela-na-gig when we stopped off in the walled town of Fethard. The enclosure of Fethard probably dates to the 14th century. These female figures, with their exaggerated sexuality, date from well before that--appropriated and re-mounted into the walls. In 1990, when one disappeared from the town, the tabloid headline read "Rude Nude Stolen."





Kilkenny had the castle I'd heard about, and it probably pained my Tipperary-born host to be so set on seeing it. He patiently endured my misguided pursuits of cream ale on draft and hurling tchotchkes, steering me instead towards a a perfectly good tavern whose owner, Alice Kyteker, was convicted of witchcraft  in 1324 after her husbands kept dying. Fortunately, she escaped to England before she could be burned.



The Cahir castle was the best, the surprise of the day--a beautifully preserved example of 13th-15th century defensive design. The rooms inside were stark, with stairs of varying heights designed to trip up invaders. 







The portcullis is the only one in Ireland still fully operational. You've probably seen it come snapping down in a movie. A few days earlier, shooting had wrapped on scenes for The Green Knight, a retelling of the Sir Gawain myth due out in 2020. 


We knew we wanted to try taking the train, and Fota Wildlife Park was an easy twenty-minute ride from the city centre. I was stunned by the extent to which the animals can roam free, and the size and the healthiness of their populations.



From there, we went on to Cobh. Don't bother, a few told us, but there's something special about this hilly, slightly dingy port city that has been a jumping-off point for so much history.  We had a pint at Connie Doolan's and heard the story of how the owner had acquired the bar, after the previous owner had won it in a contest run by Guinness. I found myself in the seat frequented by "mailbag baby" Millvina Dean, who for years had been the last living survivor of the sinking of the Titanic.



My student suggested one last road trip, on the heels of our last mentoring session at Alchemy Coffee. Gougane Barra sounded modest enough--a church in a valley--but the actual site of where Saint Finnbarr took shelter, before going on to become the first Bishop of Cork, was unexpectedly moving. This lake marks the source of the river Lee. 




We took one of the forest walks. Except it turned out to not be an official "forest walk" at all, but straight-up hike through private farmland--the part where we climbed a ladder should have been our tip-off. Soon the church was just a dot far below.


My first poetry teacher, Rose MacMurray, titled her book Trips, Journeys, Voyages. These are snapshots from the trips, a day or two at a time. The journey took me from D.C. to Cork and back, and it's a journey that (with any grace of luck) I'll be making again. The last time I felt this strongly about a place was Mississippi, and I wouldn't mind if they both turn out to be lifelong affiliations. The voyage is a larger one, of trying to figure out the writer I can be in this world. No map, but with the good fortune of the wind at my back, and these memories still fresh in my heart.