On the Move: Ships, Fringes, Fog, Song

 The Ghost Ship

A.E. Stallings 

She plies an inland sea.  Dull
With rust, scarred by a jagged reef.
In Cyrillic, on her hull
Is lettered, Grief.

The dim stars do not signify;
No sonar with its eerie ping
Sounds the depths; she travels by

At her heart is a stopped clock.
In her wake, the hours drag.
There is no port where she can dock,
She flies no flag,

Has no allegiance to a state,
No registry, no harbor berth,
Nowhere to discharge her freight
Upon the earth.


Last week a couple of friends and I went to Aspen where US poet laureate, Juan Felipe Herraras, performed his work.  Herraras' poems don't quite appeal to me, but the man himself entirely won me over.  Although he's an Iowa grad, he's hardly sporting an academic hat; I think he might be our first US laureate whose work arises from the 'spoken word' tradition. On stage, he seems to embrace the role of the elder, has a bit of a medicine man vibe, and comes off refreshingly authentic. He is a well chosen guardian, representing, as it were, one tent, one genre, one school, or one kind of constellation in the great big poetry sky.  He is particularly suited to the role as spokesperson now, given the present discourse and public debates on peoples in migration. 

He spoke movingly about his experience of immigration, migration, displacement, poetry.  He spoke eloquently about voice and what it means to the displaced.

I have begun in recent years to believe that at the heart of the poetry impulse is a kind of displacement-engagement-estrangement-arrangement. An introversional intro verse-inal universal  curse of a gift, as it were.  Say it fast three times, conjure up a real toad, an imaginary garden, and may all your maladies and griefs spill from a different place on the tongue.

Poetry, we are told, makes nothing happen.

Occasionally I wonder why it is I am so drawn to the homeless, the displaced, the orphaned, the ex pat.  Other times, it's no wonder at all.

We have made our home on the fringe of what might be called a migrant town-- a small agricultural oasis here in the high desert, with, yes, a river running through it.  Down the road: a traffic light, a post office, auto shop, a couple diners, a brewery, distillery, medical marijuana dispensary,  biker bar, library,  liquor store, grocery store, a couple boutiques, an art gallery, two gas stations, a laundromat.  Further out, a host of assorted wineries surround the town.  Although the economy -- and the soil--  is poor, sprawled out across East Orchard Mesa and throughout Palisade are miles on miles of peach trees and grapevines.  In  summer, the winds, which travel up and through De Beque Canyon, cool considerably the hot night air, creating a sweetness of peach, a good hard cider,  a crisp, deep grape.  

 It is winter, and the migrants are few in number.

 I've on occasion been invited to teach the arts to migrant children in town.   Even the youngest of these kids are usually bilingual, yet most hardly raise their voices above a whisper.   The contrast is striking should one step into the public school classroom, where in general, we can't get the kids to shut up.   Immigration, migration, displacement, voice. Perhaps voice is so powerful, it terrifies us all.   

From here on the edge of a cliff, nestled against the mesa, I watch an endless parade of wildlife come and go.  The fox, the quail, the juncos, and scrub jays, the deer, the rabbit, coyote, crow, hawk, and owl. At this time of year, many of these critters have migrated a short way from the higher elevations.

In constant movement as well: the skies, the weather, the atmosphere.  Fog slips in and out of these  rough rocks up through the mountains and into the heavens, and most of the time, no footsteps are left behind.  Countless little flurries of snow, far below the timberline, find themselves drifting through these canyons, gullies, ditches, and other nameless secret places.  Rainbows appear, and vanish. 

Even in the stillness and silence of winter,  everything, it seems, is on the move.

We think ourselves a settled people.  We put down roots.  We are creatures of agriculture and settlement ! But like everything else in this world, we are always on the move.

Immigration, migration, displacement, poetry.

The refugee.

In an article which appeared last week in The TLS, (see link below), poet Alicia Stallings,  reporting from the port of Piraeus, says,

To be a refugee is to leave with only what you can carry. You can carry your crippled father, you can carry your baby, you can carry the spirits of home. You can carry a tune. 

We are told one does not get the news from poetry, but getting the news from a poet, particularly this poet, helps us a bit, perhaps, in navigating the unsettling waters of our own helplessness: 

Stallings: TLS  

The Lion, The Loon and the Lamb

Last year a writer friend invited me speak at a service for the local Unitarians.   

The pagan in me was intrigued. 

It seems each month they invite a guest to deliver a speech on a particular topic --   from an extended list of virtues.   They call this presentation a sermon.  And yes, one stands behind a podium on a Sunday morning, flanked by a chorus, a minister, burning candles, the works.  

It had been many years since I had attended church, and the very idea of delivering a sermon, (on the subject of Dignity, no less), had set my impostor syndrome on alert.  This was a venue in which I couldn't just blithely dispense with the podium, or the the microphone, for that matter.  I knew there would be one.  A microphone, that is.  But it was the word sermon that had really set me on edge.  I'd certainly delivered sermons in my life, but those were ...spontaneous effusions, generally regretted.  

In the end I decided I was incapable of writing a sermon, but I was capable of explication,  deconstruction, free association, and sharing bits and pieces of poems and strange or unusual insights into the subject at hand, from a variety of sources.  In other words, rambling.  And it turned out to be a delightful experience; these folks were intelligent, curious, and a wonderful sense of humor was in evidence among them.               

This year they've invited me back, and have asked me to speak about Courage.  What follows is the essence of the text I'll deliver on a cold winter morning at the end of the month.  


Lions, Loons, and Lambs


What on earth have I to say of courage...

Has my own courage ever really been tested..

If a courage falls in the forest ... 

In her poem called Courage, Anne Sexton writes:

It is in the small things we see it.
The child's first step,
as awesome as an earthquake.
The first time you rode a bike,
wallowing up the sidewalk.
The first spanking when your heart
went on a journey all alone.
When they called you crybaby
or poor or fatty or crazy
and made you into an alien,
you drank their acid
and concealed it.

if you faced the death of bombs and bullets
you did not do it with a banner,
you did it with only a hat to
cover your heart.
You did not fondle the weakness inside you
though it was there.
Your courage was a small coal
that you kept swallowing.
If your buddy saved you
and died himself in so doing,
then his courage was not courage,
it was love; love as simple as shaving soap.

if you have endured a great despair,
then you did it alone,
getting a transfusion from the fire,
picking the scabs off your heart,
then wringing it out like a sock.
Next, my kinsman, you powdered your sorrow,
you gave it a back rub
and then you covered it with a blanket
and after it had slept a while
it woke to the wings of the roses
and was transformed.

when you face old age and its natural conclusion
your courage will still be shown in the little ways,
each spring will be a sword you'll sharpen,
those you love will live in a fever of love,
and you'll bargain with the calendar
and at the last moment
when death opens the back door
you'll put on your carpet slippers
and stride out.

The root of the word courage is cor - the Latin word for heart.  Take heart, we say.  Have courage, we mean.  The word is distantly related to the word, cardiac, of the heart. In one of its earliest forms, the word meant: "To speak one's mind by telling all one's heart." 

Today, this understanding persists when we refer to someone very brave as having a lot of heart

The American Heritage Dictionary is quick to point out, however,  this notion is obsolete.  Not archaic: Obsolete.  It defines courage as:  the quality of mind or spirit that enables a person to face difficulty, danger, or pain, without fear.  

Mark Twain tells us: courage is not the absence of fear, but rather the resistance to fear.  

Ambrose Redmoon goes a step further: Courage, he tells us,  is not the absence of fear, but rather the judgment that something else is more important than one's fear. 

Emily Dickinson said, If your nerve deny you, go above your nerve.  

Ernest Hemingway famously defined courage as grace under pressure.  

From Churchill we get: Courage is what it takes to stand up and speak; courage is also what it takes to sit down and listen.  

Maya Angelou tells us:  Courage is the most important of all the virtues, because without it, you can't practice any of the other virtues consistently.  

Nietzsche lists the four virtues as such: courage, insight, sympathy, and solitude.  He said, "The great epochs of our life are the occasions when we gain the courage to re-baptize our evil qualities as our best qualities."

Of course we know that the word courage is at the heart of the words encourage, and discourage. 

The Greeks counted courage, or fortitide, among the four cardinal virtues, along with prudence, justice, and temperance.

Plato believed courage to be a sort of perseverance through all emotions, whether suffering, fear, or despair -- and to keep under control one's desires, and pleasures. 

Courage is discussed a good deal by Aristotle, who describes its vice of shortage to be cowardice and its vice of excess to be recklessness.  

 It is said that Aristotle is responsible for the modern, perhaps prevalent idea that courage is a matter of risking life and limb, ideally, in battle. 

Salman Rushdie, in an article in the NYT entitled Whither Moral Courage, explains:

WE find it easier to admire physical bravery than moral courage — the courage of the life of the mind, or of public figures. A man in a cowboy hat vaults a fence to help Boston bomb victims while others flee the scene: we salute his bravery, as we do that of servicemen and women returning from the battlefront, or men and women struggling to overcome debilitating illnesses or injuries.
We no longer easily agree on what it means to be good, or principled, or brave. When political leaders do take courageous steps — there are as many who doubt as approve. Political courage, nowadays, is almost always ambiguous.

In one of the most famous poems in the English language, Rudyard Kipling catalogs the many ways of mustering courage -- by way of maintaining the stiff upper lip.  The poem is called


If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too;
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or being lied about, don't deal in lies,
Or being hated, don't give way to hating,
And yet don't look too good, nor talk too wise:
If you can dream - and not make dreams your master,
If you can think - and not make thoughts your aim;
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same;
If you can bear to hear the truth you've spoken
Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,
And stoop and build 'em up with worn-out tools:
If you can make one heap of all your winnings
And risk it all on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings
And never breathe a word about your loss;
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the Will which says to them: "Hold on!"
If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
Or walk with kings - nor lose the common touch,
If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,
If all men count with you, but none too much;
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds' worth of distance run,
Yours is the Earth and everything that's in it, 
And - which is more - you'll be a Man, my son!

In Catholicism, courage is one of the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit.  Thomas Aquinas considers courage a virtue through the Christian virtue of mercy.  Like Plato, Aquinas’ courage is about endurance and perseverance, with less emphasis on bravery in battle.

The Tao te Ching states that courage is derived from love, and explains: "One of courage, with audacity, will die. One of courage, but gentle, spares death. From these two kinds of courage arise harm and benefit."

Courage and Patience appear as the first two of ten characteristics of dharma in the Hindu Manusmrti, along with  forgiveness, tolerance, honesty, physical restraint, cleanliness, perceptiveness, knowledge, truthfulness, and control of anger.

Islamic beliefs also present courage and self-control as twin virtues when facing the Devil and in some cases Jihad;  many believe this because of the courage (through peace and patience) the Prophets maintained toward those who counted them as enemies.

In his work A Treatise of Human Nature, David Hume notes hat courage and joy have positive effects on the soul.

Tolkien identified courageousness as doing the right thing even in the face of certain defeat, specifically without promise of reward or salvation.  He explains: 

It is the strength of the northern mythological imagination that it faced this problem, put the monsters in the centre, gave them victory but no honor, and found a potent and terrible solution in naked will and courage. 'As a working theory absolutely impregnable.' So potent is it, said Tolkien, ‘that while the southern imagination has faded... into literary ornament, the northern has power, as it were, to revive its spirit even in our own times. It can work, as it did even with the Vikings, without gods: martial heroism as its own reward.  

The animal most often associated with courage is the lion.  

The lion has traditionally been a symbol for courage, strength, bravery and royalty. Its body has been used in mythological creatures,  most notably when composing the body of the sphinx. The lion was depicted on tribe banners at the time when Moses took the Israelites out of Egypt. When the animal is carved on statues they are commonly found guarding palaces, bridges, temples and tombs.

The lion is one of the favorite symbols of leadership, warriors and emperors.  Perceived as a leader on earth as well as the spiritual realms, kings and emperors have long included the lion on their coat of arms to symbolize supreme strength. 

The most notable lion of Ancient Greek mythology was the Nemean lion, taken down by Heracles, who thereafter bore the pelt as a magic cloak.  This lion is said to be the constellation of Leo,  and also serves as the primary sign of the Zodiac.  

The famed Greek story teller Aesop utilized the lion's symbolism of power and strength in The Lion and the Mouse and the Lion's Share. 

CS Lewis chose the Lion to represent the Christ figure in his allegorical tales of Narnia.

In Frank Baum's book, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, the wizard prescribes a potion, (interpreted by some as a snort of gin), to inspire the Cowardly Lion's courage.  Alcohol has traditionally been referred to as liquid courage.  In the movie, of course, he is given a badge.   

The major arcana of the Tarot symbolizes Courage with an image of a woman taming a ferocious lion. 


What do I know of courage ..

I suppose I know, or at least I suspect that however we might define or recognize courage, and whatever our leanings, affiliations, or prejudices, and no matter the time in which we are living,  it is something very important to us all.  

I'd like to close this morning with a poem by Louise Bogan called 

The Dream

O God, in the dream the terrible horse began
To paw at the air, and make for me with his blows,
Fear kept for thirty-five years poured through his mane,
And retribution equally old, or nearly, breathed through his nose.

Coward complete, I lay and wept on the ground
When some strong creature appeared, and leapt for the rein.
Another woman, as I lay half in a swound
Leapt in the air, and clutched at the leather and chain.

Give him, she said, something of yours as a charm.
Throw him, she said, some poor thing you alone claim.
No, no, I cried, he hates me; he is out for harm,
And whether I yield or not, it is all the same.

But, like a lion in a legend, when I flung the glove
Pulled from my sweating, my cold right hand;
The terrible beast, that no one may understand,

Came to my side, and put down his head in love. 


Some Recent Publications:

Western Weird, an Anthology of Western State College, ed., Mark Todd:


- Able Muse Review:


- The Hopkins Reviewi:


-The New Criterion:


- Lighten Up Online:


- Think Journal: 


Best American Poetry:



The Lam's Tough on a Goil: The Ways and Works of Paula Tatarunis

In a world spilling over with poetry readings, conferences, prizes, MFA programs, national, state, local, and even regional laureates, Facebook, Twitter,  Instagram -- amid astonishing levels of networking and hustling and self-promotion, one could easily get the impression that the world of poetry is crawling with folks who secretly want to be rock stars.  It may be a little more complicated than that.  I've long suspected many working poets, myself included, are not just hungry for recognition, (or immortality,) but are engaged in a life-long struggle with our own natural tendencies toward introspection and solitude.  Well, I might be projecting.  At any rate, in the case of Paula Tatarunis, that inner conflict was laid to rest one day when she suddenly announced to her husband, who the hell am I to call myself a poet ?  

Who the hell was she, indeed.  

Ye Watchers, And

Paula Tatarrunis

Spectators, spectacle, no different
from any arena. Money and blood --
the literal, the metaphor -- will flow
between the shot clock and the dancing girls,
but now we wait and watch as Advent drains,
unnoticed, down the red and green hillsides
toward court and Christmas. Oh say can you see ?

We look. The armies gather, good and bad,
the nouveaux Manichees, gnostic as hell-
and-heaven, locked in death-grip and in scape-
goatery without ransom or rebirth,
just numbers in a stall. A good time ? Dial.

Our fingers freeze. December, the North End,
blue noses and blue teeth clamped to each ear.
Watch, damn you, listen, look, it's Advent, pre-
game, countdown to the show, our spectacles
are fogging over with desire. For what ?
We wish we knew. This twilight doesn't gleam
for me or thee, but overhead where God
(in ages past) hung helpless, now there hangs
the Jumbotron, panoptical, shilling
whatever -- fish, flesh, flash -- its roving eyes
devour on our behalf. (Behold ! Be whole !)

But look -- no, look ! -- it's you and you and you
elect in that big eye, all four facets !
I watch it watching you as you watch back,
its temporary apple; a flush of joy
crimsons your cheeks, your smile illuminates,
astonishes: how beautiful you are,
all of you, guests of the big screen, worthy,
if only for a moment, to be seen
just as you are, embraced, and then released.



New work of mine appears in the January issue of The New Criterion:

Nor what we mean

And I was asked to contribute a few poems to Life and Legends, guest-edited by Jennifer Reeser:

Life and Legends


Some Publications

This month I am the featured poet in the current issue of Able Muse, with several new poems and a lengthy interview with David Mason:  

A handful of my poems also appear at Hampden Sydney Poetry Review:

And some reproduced work of mine appears in Sage Green Journal:


Inspiration does exist but it must find you working.   



What hath night to do with sleep ?
                         - Milton




Gary Snyder

Local poets Art Goodtimes, Aaron Abeyta, Ellen Metrick, and yrs truly, surround poor Gary Snyder.  

The Great Mother

Not all those who pass 
in front of the Great Mother’s chair 
get past with only a stare, 
some she looks at their hands 
to see what sort of savages they were.

- Gary Snyder

A thousand years ago today yesterday tomorrow.


If someone asks
say I am still alive
autumn wind. 

Always a bridesmaid ...

Two years back-to-back:

A new poem of mine was chosen as a finalist for this year's Rattle Poetry Prize:
Rattle Announcement


No Tobacco

No tobacco,
no weed,
no meat,
no soda --

goin' yoga.


Penelope Lively

"In the frozen stone of the cathedrals of Europe there co-exist the Apostles, Christ and Mary, lambs, fish, gryphons, dragons, sea-serpents and the faces of men with leaves for hair.  I approve of that liberality of mind."  -- Penelope Lively


When Poets Gather

When poets gather in the wood,  no stage, no schmooze, no selling of books...

photos Laurie James and Alan Wartes


What a different result one gets by changing the metaphor!
 George Eliot