Sarah Browning is Co-founder and Executive Director of Split This Rock: Poetry of Provocation and Witness and the author of Whiskey in the Garden of Eden, her first poetry collection. Sarah studied poetry with the masters–mostly by reading their work and exploring the techniques they used in her own work. Sarah, a big fan of the short poem (under 15 lines), led us in a workshop where we read work by Lucille Clifton and then wrote our own short poems riffing on the ideas of lamenting the loss of something dear in our lives or talking about the birth of something–longing, love, and careers were all favorites. As one who tends to work in narrative forms, I really enjoyed writing very short poems and found the condensed poems both challenging and powerful. Sarah chose Lucille Clifton’s poem “the birth of language” as one of her models.
the birth of language
and adam rose
fearful in the garden
for the grass
his fingers plucked
without a tongue
to name the taste
shimmering in his mouth
did they draw blood
the blades did it become
his early lunge
did his astonishment
did he shudder
did he whisper
Grace Cavalieri, host of The Poet and the Poem, playwright,poet, and author of the memoir Life Upon the Wicked Stage, took us on a journey through life’s charged memories during the Mariposa Retreat. Grace worked with the theme of fathers in poetry and used Stanley Kunitz’s haunting poem “Self Portrait” as her entree into the past. She talked about the importance of psychological action in a poem and how both action and reaction create a spiral effect drawing the reader deeper into the poem’s world. Robert Lowell’s pome “Father’s Bedroom” reveals the deceased father’s character through the objects he has left behind–“…blue dots on the curtains, a blue kimono, Chinese sandals with plush blue straps.” So much can be gleaned about a person’s life from the objects they leave behind.
After we all read those powerful poems, Grace led us in a brief mediation which wound us back in time to an event or a memory we had about our fathers. All of us accessed potent memories and worked to use either objects or psychological action to explore those memories in a poem. For some, it was an emotional experience, and Grace seemed satisfied with that response and encouraged us to explore the feelings that surfaced. Her firm belief in the power of poetry to frame life’s experiences held all of us in a safe cocoon where we could write and share our work.
Here is “Self Portrait” by Stanley Kunitz
My mother never forgave my father for killing himself,
especially at such an awkward time in a public park,
that spring I was waiting to be born.
She locked his name in her deepest cabinet
and would not let him out, though i could hear him thumping.
When I came down from the attic
with the pastel portrait in my hand of a long-lipped stranger
with a brave mustache and brown level eyes,
she ripped it into shreds without a single word and slapped me hard.
In my sixty-fourth year I can still feel my cheek burning.
What memories are calling to you? Try using either a short poem like Lucille Clifton or objects from the past to talk about one of your parents. Enjoy the challenge!