Archive for the ‘Previously Unpublished’ Category

This is a picture of my sister Josie and her late husband Edison. The poem-elfing that follows is a private one, written and posted as a thank-you to my other sister, Mary K.  With Josie’s and Mary K.’s permission, I’m sharing it with you.


A little background before you read the poem. Until late 2016 Josie and Edison lived in Ecuador with their two young girls. Then Edison was diagnosed with an aggressive brain tumor, glioblastoma (the same cancer Senator John McCain is fighting). In early 2017 the family came back to the States for treatment.


My mother had recently passed away and her house sold, so there was no “home base” for Josie and her girls to stay while Edison was in the hospital. They lived with different family members—his, hers—and generous friends. They changed houses often, depending on the logistics of the next day, sometimes nightly. (The street names mentioned in the poem are some of those homes.)


Every day of the seven- month ordeal, Josie drove and drove, dropping the girls off at school, heading up to Baltimore where Edison was in the hospital or rehab. She drove an old Mountaineer my sister Mary K loaned her. The car was almost thirty years old, had bad shocks (you’ll see the pun) and needed bricks behind the tires to stay in park. Still, it got Josie where she needed to go, and became, as you’ll see, her in-between home.


During the course of his brave fight, Edison lost the ability to speak, write, and walk. He passed away peacefully on July 8, 2018.

It was tragic. That’s what we all said. It’s so sad. It’s such a terrible situation. Pat phrases, necessary because the suffering of this man and his family was overwhelming to consider. Remembering that, I’m reminded of a story my sister Wizzie likes to tell of a co-worker who always said, in response to almost everything, “It’s so hard.” If someone was discussing their weekend and mentioned in passing that the tennis courts were crowded, this co-worker would say, “I know, it’s so hard.” The deli was out of root beer? The forecast rain? In-box full? “I know, it’s so hard.”


Her colleagues soon realized her pat phrase said more about what she was going through than what was being said. And that’s the thing about pat phrases. They allow us to gloss over suffering. They can keep us from hearing. They can prevent us from seeing.


Poetry is a counterpoint to that. Poetry breaks through pat responses. Poetry allows us to see a particular person, a particular situation, a particular emotion. That’s one reason I love Josie’s poem. It’s a look behind the curtain. As much as I thought I was aware of what she was going through, I wasn’t. This poem gives fresh insight. Reading the poem, I can see that she was, in spite of all the support that surrounded her, fundamentally alone in her suffering.


When Josie returned Mary K.’s car last week, she taped her poem to the front windshield.



So here’s the poem, in three overlapping pictures:

My home in-between. There’s a lot going on there.


I’m going to lighten the mood here a little and say that I myself am partial to in-between places, to any place I can pause before moving forward—a parked car, a hallway, the crook of a tree—and as long as we’re going back to childhood, Halfway Down the Stairs, as A.A. Milne says in his poem of the same name:


Halfway down the stairs

Is a stair

Where I sit.

There isn’t any

Other stair

Quite like


I’m not at the bottom,

I’m not at the top;

So this is the stair


I always



Halfway up the stairs

Isn’t up,

And isn’t down.

It isn’t in the nursery,

It isn’t in the town.

And all sorts of funny thoughts

Run round my head:

“It isn’t really


It’s somewhere else



Okay, pause ended, hit play. Back to It’s so hard.

“Oh Mountaineer,” Josie writes at the end, and I hear Walt Whitman’s “Pioneers! O Pioneers!” Whitman’s poem has a different spirit, not elegiac as here, but hopeful, forward-looking, a celebration of the pioneers’ bravery and fortitude.


I’m going to post it here for Josie, for her girls, for anyone who suddenly finds herself a pioneer, for those who are forced—unlike Whitman’s pioneers—to explore new territory when all they really want is to stay put in their old homes, the homes they love best.




COME my tan-faced children,

Follow well in order, get your weapons ready,

Have you your pistols? have you your sharp-edged axes?

Pioneers! O pioneers!


For we cannot tarry here,

We must march my darlings, we must bear the brunt of danger,

We the youthful sinewy races, all the rest on us depend,

Pioneers! O pioneers!


O you youths, Western youths,

So impatient, full of action, full of manly pride and friendship,

Plain I see you Western youths, see you tramping with the fore-


Pioneers! O pioneers!


Have the elder races halted?

Do they droop and end their lesson, wearied over there beyond

the seas?

We take up the task eternal, and the burden and the lesson,

Pioneers! O pioneers!


All the past we leave behind,

We debouch upon a newer mightier world, varied world,

Fresh and strong the world we seize, world of labor and the march,

Pioneers! O pioneers!


We detachments steady throwing,

Down the edges, through the passes, up the mountains steep,

Conquering, holding, daring, venturing as we go the unknown ways,

Pioneers! O pioneers!


We primeval forests felling,

We the rivers stemming, vexing we and piercing deep the mines


We the surface broad surveying, we the virgin soil upheaving,

Pioneers! O pioneers!




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More home poems from ESL students

Kyoto, Japan


Yesterday I posted Vladimir of Lviv’s imitation poem of Carl Sandburg’s “Chicago.”  (Vladimir is a student in my sister Ceci’s ESL conversation class. All the students were asked to write a poem about home using Sandburg’s poem as a model.)


Today I’ll highlight excerpts from a few more student works. I wish I could include everyone’s, because all the writers, those featured here and those who aren’t, amaze me.  After fourth or fifth grade, writing poetry is an unfamiliar, challenging and potentially embarrassing activity for most people, but writing poetry in another language is more difficult still.  Kudos to all!


Sumiyo C. writes of Kyoto:


Come and show me another city with historical treasures, so precious and

protected the enemy could not drop a bomb on them,

Here is a place where people live in harmony with the beautiful nature of the four seasons.

Grand as the Heian-jingu, tranquil as the Ryoanji rock garden,

traditional as the Gion-festival


She closes the poem with this lovely testament to her city’s endurance:


Once a prosperous capital, center of culture, now carrying on their

practice to the next generation, creating meticulous craftwork,

pursuing achievement.


Restoring instead of destroying, caring, valuing, respecting, proud to be

keeping tradition, delicate beauty, craftsmanship.


“Restoring/Restoring instead of destroying” is an artful little phrase that I’m enjoying/enjoying.







Myongjin A. of Kyongjoo, South Korea begins her piece with the opposition of crumbling antiquities and present vitality:


Ancient city, still alive

Buddha’s energy coming from the giant tombs

Relics and legends

Beauty of thousands time

City of the Shilla Dynasty

Calm, quiet, shy, powerful, smart

Still alive.

Amanda L. of Brazil wrote of her new home, Chicago:


Buildings scratching the sky, catching the wind

Cold, intimidating, yet magical

City of enchantment.


From now on, every time I’m in Chicago I’ll think of the buildings “scratching the sky, catching the wind.”  Even someone whose native language is English would be proud to have written those lines.


Natalia V. of Belarus also wrote of her new hometown:


My heart beats quickly

Seeing young people in love.

Such a tender image!  Does anyone hear South Pacific’s “Hello, Young Lovers” in the background?  I get a sense of Natalia remembering something beautiful from her own past as she watches new love in her new country.


M.K. of Seuol, South Korea employed alliteration to describe her home city:


Splendid, sparkling, small space

City of Super-duper energy






Finally, Esther C. of Korea writes this pithy and powerful portrait of her home country:


Divided land,

Barbed wires, land mines

Guns, tanks

Brothers against brothers

Families ripped apart

Hating, distrusting

Yet hoping for peace

My country, dreaming of unification


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With all the blahblahblah about Chinese mothers and the ensuing defense of western ones, perhaps it’s time for a dose of multiculturalism that goes down easier.  I’m posting poems, previously unpublished, written not only by novice poets, but by novice poets writing in a non-native language.  How amazing is that!  It’s akin to me writing a duet for the tuba and cowbell or attempting to sew draperies.

My sister Ceci has been teaching ESL (English as a Second Language) for 15 years, and this fall for the first time introduced a poetry unit to her conversation class.  Her class is diverse in every way:  hailing from Japan, South Korea, Russia, Brazil and other points around the globe, they range in age from 19 to 78.  They worship in synagogues, Buddhist temples, churches, mosques, and nowhere at all; they work as mothers, small business owners, babysitters and wait staff; some have high school degrees and others PhD’s.  She asked each of them to write an imitation of Carl Sandburg’s “Chicago.” Here’s Ceci’s description of the project:

No matter where we currently live, we all yearn for a place that nourishes our inner spirits, excites our senses, feels comfortable, and challenges our minds.  The ESL students at the Patty Turner Center have found such a place in their Conversation Class.   The classroom becomes home to many who are so far from the land of their birth. Friendships have been made and borders do not exist. And yet the heart tugs for the memories, the attachments, and the pride in one’s native country. This newsletter contains Imitation Poems that my students wrote about that special place in their hearts after reading and studying Carl Sandburg’s famous American poem,“Chicago.”  For many students, this was the first poem ever read in English and for all it was the first attempt to write a poem in their non-native language. They felt Sandburg’s pride in Chicago through the power of his words. And I hope you feel their pride in the places they call home through their words in English.

I applaud their efforts and congratulate them on challenging their minds and thank them for sharing that place that nourishes their spirit, excites their senses and feels comfortable.

Here’s the poem Ceci’s students imitated.  (Link here for a video of old photographs of Chicago accompanying Carl Sandburg reading the poem.)


by Carl Sandburg

HOG Butcher for the World,
Tool Maker, Stacker of Wheat,
Player with Railroads and the Nation’s Freight Handler;
Stormy, husky, brawling,
City of the Big Shoulders

They tell me you are wicked and I believe them, for I have seen your painted women under

the gas lamps luring the farm boys.
And they tell me you are crooked and I answer: Yes, it
is true I have seen the gunman kill and go free to kill again.
And they tell me you are brutal and my reply is: On the
faces of women and children I have seen the marks of wanton hunger.
And having answered so I turn once more to those who sneer at this my city, and I give them back the sneer and say to them:
Come and show me another city with lifted head singing so proud to be alive and coarse and strong and cunning.
Flinging magnetic curses amid the toil of piling job on job, here is a tall bold slugger set vivid against the little soft cities;

Fierce as a dog with tongue lapping for action, cunning as a savage pitted against the wilderness,
Building, breaking, rebuilding,
Under the smoke, dust all over his mouth, laughing with white teeth,
Under the terrible burden of destiny laughing as a young man laughs,
Laughing even as an ignorant fighter laughs who has never lost a battle,
Bragging and laughing that under his wrist is the pulse.
and under his ribs the heart of the people,
Laughing the stormy, husky, brawling laughter of
Youth, half-naked, sweating, proud to be Hog
Butcher, Tool Maker, Stacker of Wheat, Player with
Railroads and Freight Handler to the Nation.

And now here’s one of the imitations, the only one I’ll post in its entirety.  This one’s by Vladimir K. of Lviv, Ukraine.


Unforgettable views

Architectural monuments, museum-town

Coming true dreams and every street a legend

Magic power, aura of the Middle Ages and Renaissance

City of Sleeping Lions

They tell me you are ancient and crowded and I believe them, for I have seen cars that could not pass through narrow paved streets.

And they tell me you are crooked and I answer, yes, it is true I have seen a policeman take a bribe and let a killer go free.

And having answered so I turn once more to those who sneer at this my city, and I give them back the sneer and say to them:

Come and show me another city with lifted head breathing magic power of the Carpathian air and its legendary gray stones of Middle Aged walls so proud

To be alive and standing strong after many battles, invasions, fires, and floods.

Every time, fierce as a dog with tongue lapping for action,

Shoveling, rebuilding with new attractiveness

Wrecking, planning, building, breaking, and rebuilding again

Since the founding of the legendary streets of old times, it’s a piece of Earth that your soul seeks.

Smiling and welcoming to new visitors

Proud to have unforgettable views, architectural monuments, museum-town, coming true dreams and every street a legend, magic power, aura of the Middle Ages and Renaissance

Vladimir’s poem is an interesting contrast to Sandburg’s.  Sandburg’s Chicago is brand-new and building itself from the ground up, a young man bursting with muscle and plans.  Vladimir’s Lviv is ancient and battle-worn but still working it, not giving up, more like a man with too much energy to retire.

I’m not sure what “Carpathian air” is, but I want to breathe it.  Vladimir, thanks for sharing your love of your hometown with everyone.

Tomorrow I’ll post excerpts from a select few of the other poems.  But to everyone in Ceci’s class, a hearty congratulations!  Felicitanciones! Omedetou! Herzlichen Glückünsch! Chucka hehyo! Salem!  Your poems were a delight to read.

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A pause in the elf-ing of established poets to showcase the writing of aspiring ones. Each semester the students in my 7th grade creative writing class compete in a poetry imitation contest.  Students are given a poem to memorize, recite, and then to imitate. Local book critic Megan Shaffer (catch her blog at http://nightlightrevue.wordpress.com/) judges the contest.  Below are the 1st and 2nd place winners.  Congratulations, Ursula and Catherine!


The Gentleness of Nature

in imitation of “The Peace of Wild Things”

When grief for my grandma grows in me

and I cannot think or sleep without my body shivering

in fear of losing someone again,

I go and sit where my grandma

rests under frosted grass, where the flowers once bloomed.

I come into the gentleness of nature

who takes me in with welcoming

arms.  I come into the presence of the shimmering water

where we used to sit,

and I feel the hyacinths springing to life

around me.  For a time,

I rest in the hands of God and am free.

–Ursula  (first place)




A Forgotten Word

in imitation of “To a Daughter Leaving Home”

I forgot to tell you

at twelve that love

would find you, so I chased

behind you

as you later left me

at sixteen,

my heart sinking

in anguish as you jumped

into the red BMW of

another teenaged boy,

and I kept waiting

for you to

come back home as I

wished you would,

while you became

different, someone else

with time,

laughing, laughing

at the boy, longing

to be loved, wishing

you had listened

to me,

your despair trailing

behind you like

a lost dream.

—Catherine (second place)




(Here are links to the original poems.  Reading them you can see what a wonderful job these girls did with their imitations.)



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