The Practice of Poetry: Poems as Love

You Never Were

the mother I wanted at the time
I had you. Always I was
swallowing down the longing
rising for the mother
come and gone. The one

whose cool hand nested
in a tangle of my curls. The one
whose hair was blueblack
crow, caught midflight.
Once gravity had settled you

to ground, and I away
from you, I hungered
for the mother whose shovel
shouldered through red clay
to bring up bulbs I’d plant,

still clinging southern soil, in my
midwestern garden. Today it is
the mother who remembers
this I want, even as I hover
over you, my fingers

feathering the dark threads
woven through your grey.
I would cling
to whatever does not change
if I could find it.

(Pauletta Hansel, from Palindrome, Dos Madres Press, 2017)

I wrote my first poem about my mother when I was sixteen. Becky, her sister, had a year earlier fallen into a coma and was not expected to live (although she did, and lived well, for nearly thirty more years.) In my poem, my mother was crying. She was mopping the floor of the daycare center she ran in the converted garage adjacent to our house, and she was crying. I had sat with this image and with my helplessness to soothe her for a year, and then I wrote the poem.

My next poems for my mother came some twenty years later, after I had emerged from a decade-long silence in my writing. These poems, many of which found their way into my first book, Divining, imagined my mother’s childhood growing up in a very rural Eastern Kentucky. I left a thin sheaf of them on the guest bed after a visit home. My mother called me, “Did you know you left some papers?”

“Yes,” I said. “I left them for you.”

It is an overstatement to say I learned to love my mother through writing about her. I already loved her, though it was sometimes an itchy, get this sweater-off-of-me sort of love. Mostly, we loved each other through things. Plants from her garden, leftovers in Cool Whip bowls, thrift store paintings and pottery that I cherished first because she gave them to me.

And the poems, too, were a sort of thing. When I think of them now, I imagine myself rubbing my hand tenderly over the words, careful not to smudge the ink. This girl who became my mother, here on my page! Later I wrote about the young mother who emerged from that girl. Always present, somewhat distant in her constant doing, a door I passed through.

I was shaken to discover that my mother had been hurt by these careful, tender poems of self-discovery. At the time she seemed touched by them. Her mouth had not made its compressed line of disapproval that I learned to watch for. The poems had seemed only to make her a little bashful.

By then, it was too late to ask her why. She was in the dementia unit of a nursing home, and now it was her writing that we, her children, found left for us, dated and numbered, 500+ pages of a sort of memoir in letters from nine years earlier, written first to our dead father—a grief memoir from the year after his death—but deeper in the pile, letters written directly to us.

Love, Larnie I called it, for how she signed her pages, enlisting a group of friends to help me type it all up to present as a gift to my siblings and niece. Too, sections of the memoir began to show up in the poems that I was already beginning to write about my mother’s decline:

IV. from “The Body / Above It”

She can’t remember why she’s there, or where
there is—some days it is the hospital
where she’d not let my father die. The chair
beside his bed became her own—she would
not have him wake alone to dark and those
red blinking lights. Small mercy, I suppose,
that she’s forgotten, now, his death at home.
We cleared their desk and found the words she wrote:
I see him in his chair cocooned in white—
the bedspread I crocheted. It seemed to me
he winked and smiled his little crooked smile.
I caught a wisp of his own scent as he
floated by and thought, no matter his poor
feet don’t work, he won’t need them anymore.

(Pauletta Hansel, from Palindrome, Dos Madres Press, 2017)

It is less of an overstatement to say that I learned—am continuing to learn, even after her death—to love the mother who spiraled through dementia through writing about her. Poetry is first the act of paying attention. And as a caregiver for my mother, I was a connoisseur. I could spot a UTI by the lean of her body in the wheelchair, the need to be lifted to the toilet by her forehead’s scrunch combined with tapping feet. I could enter her world through just a few garbled words of a story, recognizing, for example, when I was not me, but Becky:

My Mother Briefly Reunites With Her Dead Sister Becky in the Body of Me and Tells Us

Life is small,
but it isn’t.
You are so pretty, your hair
worn now like mine.
I love you.

( Pauletta Hansel, from Palindrome, Dos Madres Press, 2017)

or when there was a younger version of me in attendance to whom she had something to say:

from “My Mother Makes Her Amends”

She tells me now, pushing out each word
to make the first full sentences
I’ve heard from her in months,
eyes locked on mine to be sure
I hear her this time:
….

The light from her eyes
blinds me. I feel the rush
of time spooled backwards,
the elemental pull
of infant in her arms. The necessity
of tenderness makes mothers of us all.

( Pauletta Hansel, from Palindrome, Dos Madres Press, 2017)

I was with my mother in her nursing home almost daily, and much of what occurred there showed up on the page. Clearly, writing poems is not the only way to stay present enough to provide good care. But for me, the “practice of poetry”—the attentiveness to detail, the interest in (and acceptance of) both what is there and what lies beneath, the awareness of the self in relationship to the other, the ability to be both in the moment and an observer of that self and other that dwells there—was, at first, the only training I had.

In my imagination of those early poems about my mother, my hand soothes the page in a way that it could not the long-gone girl. Later, as I used my hands, my breath, my body to comfort my mother, I imagined she was both herself and her own lost words:

Self-Portrait as Ellipsis

I live at the cliff edge
of story, the pause
between language
and the hand’s blind reach.
In the photograph
I am the vee of light
between the shadows
two bodies make.
I am the words
you might have said.

(Pauletta Hansel, from Palindrome, Dos Madres Press, 2017)

 

Photograph by Zohreh Zand

Note: this is part of a series of posts about the writing of my most recent book of poems, Palindrome. The book and most of the posts were written before my mother’s death in January 2017. My hope is that they might be of use to others writing about matters feared to be “too personal,” and of interest to caregivers and others concerned with (to quote Robert Gipe’s kind book jacket blurb) “what it means to be partial to someone.”  Other posts in this series currently available include: Too Personal: On Writing about My Mother’s Dementia.

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Cincinnati: A Song of Ourselves

On January 2, 2018 a group of poets braved the bitter cold to perform a choral reading of our poem for the City as the new Cincinnati City Council was sworn in. Photographs of the event will follow, but now, on behalf of Cincinnati’s poets, I offer you:

Cincinnati: A Song of Ourselves

By some calculations,
fifty-two equals one
city, seven hills and
the ever-rivering lines of the Ohio
to bound it.
This city.
One that chose long ago to outgrow itself.
Cut the hill, see the western shadowed buildings
pulsing urgent in the city street pentameter
above a hidden unfinished underground
of metal and glass, arteries, entrails,
all sorts of plumbing, rivers and viaducts,
ad infinitum.

O City, know your poetry –
river, hills, valley in which you shine and sing –
from your smoke and mirrors.
Listen, City, to your song, the poetry gumbo
becoming to its soul made lively,
becoming more.

Voting with your mouth is useful
in the process of the seven hungers,
but in the shadow of heavy tannéd hill-folds,
lines grow longer, queued for a light from the West,
from some reborn magi of the deep pockets.
Each empty stare is a warning, and a way to begin.
Each tattered leaf, a scrap of time
you can never put back on the tree.
Instead of pretending to be colorblind,
open your eyes to the rainbow of color in this city,
like an advent calendar,
a pleasant surprise
hidden behind each window.
Feed the hungry, leave the gleanings,
open doors, embrace the ragged and wealthy and rough hewn
to make a resting place for all
who wish to call us home.
Do not let our smallness hem you in.

“I drag my feet unintentionally / this is to say / I am not a broom
but a city of stars illuminated by strangers,
welcomed by arts and parks and poems and outstretched arms.
The pride of rainbow banners point the way
to a city for all.”

And if all art is political,
we’ve been given a lot to work with.
The OSU/U-M rivalry
can’t begin to rival the Skyline/Gold Star one.
And in the neighborhood murdered by medicine,
giant buildings saunter
where our houses once stood still
and hugged us.

With just enough of the year left to plant daffodils,
winter cold reminds us
that energy is made of ice and glass, too.
And if we breathe, will we stoke the fire, or blow it out?

I am here.
You are here.
We don’t trust each other,
not as lungs go,
but someone was god-like and left us no choice.
(Move thru it, move thru it—that’s the only way out.)
And so, a blessing on us,
a goodnight Tiara shimmering in the dark above
one city,
ours,
spread among hills and vales,
villes and gates, parks and woods and sides
and dales and heights:
May the exquisite tones and turns of our words
wear nothing more than small hills, river-licked;
contain the lands and bodies of water we cross;
form a tight braid to root us in kindness, grace
and joy for all we are,
for all we hope to be.

Composed by Cincinnati Poet Laureate Pauletta Hansel with words by Ellen Austin-Li, Michael Burnham, John Cruze, Ella Davis, Mark Flanigan, Sean M. Foster, Karen George, Richard Hague, Pauletta Hansel, Annie Hinkle, Bucky Ignatius, Theresa Kulbaga, Elese Monet, Rhonda Pettit, Lynn Robbins, Raya Schweitzer, Chuck Stringer, Kelly Thomas, Hilda Weaver, Dick Westheimer, Tyrone Williams and Zohreh Zand.

If Springer School Was a Poem

Springer School is a Cincinnati treasure. For more than 45 years, Springer School and Center has carried out its mission to empower students with learning disabilities to lead successful lives. In November, I got to see the process up close when I wrote poems with Springer’s middle school students.  Using Sara Holbrook’s fabulous teaching poem, “If I Were a Poem” as an example, we talked about the power of poetry to let readers experience the world as the poet did, through images using the five senses. And then, of course, we expressed our own poetic powers on the page (and in some cases, directly onto the computer screen.) The following is a composite of lines from all seven classes I visited:

If We Were Poems

If I were a poem
I would be the clickety-clack
of a speeding steam train
leaving the station.
If I were a poem
I would be a starry night pouring down
on your paper like a jar of fireflies
you are setting free.
If I were a poem
I would be a cake
and when someone blows out my candles
they will become older.
I would be a rack of ribs
and live at Montgomery Inn.
I would be the taste of BeanBoozled®
because you never know
what you’re going to get.
If I were a poem
I would not leave you on a battlefield.
I would show you how
to travel time through time.
If I were a poem
I would be the swirling of the tornado.
I would be a basketball, the swish sound
as the crowd goes wild.
I would be a hawk with a secret poem
for the world to hear.
If I were a poem
I would make everyone laugh.
I would be a computer running my code
as you mindlessly type on my keys.
If I were a poem,
I will make you have chills up your spine
when you dip your feet in the pool.
If I were a poem
I would be the book
you do not want to put down.

Springer School Middle School Students
with Cincinnati Poet Laureate Pauletta Hansel

What would you do if you were a poem?

To read more about my visit to Springer, click here.

This is my last post of the year! If you would like to hear more about what I have been up to, and recharge your own creative juices, check out  Kelly Thomas’ Renew Series, featuring ten writers and others who will share our insights + personal experiences around everything from optimizing your creative practice, productivity hacks, publishing and everything in between. Interviews are with Magdalena Waz, Teri Foltz, Stacy Sims, Michael Winkfield, Andrea Scarpino, Katie Titi, Aimee Nezhukumatahil, Jenny Tosner, Manuel Iris and me! They run through December 20. (Mine will be released on December 18. You can sign up here: (it’s free to join + participate.)

After the beginning of the year, look for a series of blogs about the writing process, many focused on how I wrote my latest book of poems and prose, Palindrome, written in response to my mother’s dementia.

I hope to see you in the New Year!

Pauletta

I am From Artsy Fartsy Saturdays

Where are you from? I have led former Kentucky Poet Laureate George Ella Lyon’s “I am from” writing activity with dozens of groups now, from preschool students to seniors, and I always learn something new. Last month I had the privilege of working with Artsy Fartsy Saturdays, the arts non-profit/ministry Cathy Barney and friends do with neighborhood kids in subsidized housing in Milford. Artsy Fartsy is celebrating 5 years of vibrant creative community by developing a book about their journey, with the assistance of ArtsWave, Dos Madres Press and a whole slew of great volunteers. And, of course, the talented young people themselves. More information can be found here  and here , but first take this sneak peek at Artsy Fartsy’s creative minds at work!

We Are From Artsy Fartsy

I’m from where people
care about how they look
and girls’ hair is always wrapped up.
I am from basketball—I am a forward
who dominates the paint.
I’m from Pike Street.
It smells good and it looks good
and it’s quiet.
I am from the big tree outside.
I heard leaves falling.
I’m from the falling of leaves
and the smell of trees,
from the shining sun on glistening water,
with a turtle walking on dried leaves.
I am from animation and vanilla,
the smell of pumpkin spice latte
and the taste of chocolate chip cookies
dipped in milk.
I’m from touching my stuffed animals
and how soft they are.
I’m from where everyone is active
and the girls are always full of drama.
I am from Idaho.
I am from Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas,
California, Colorado, Connecticut…
I am from no limits.
I am from multiple lifestyles and adventure.
I am from flowers and leaves that blow about,
from the laughs and jokes of my family,
that fall from the family tree.
I am from knowing how to say Thanksgiving
in sign language.
Sometimes I feel sad,
but no matter what,
I can’t wait to see what happens
next in the adventure of life.
I am from Milford, Ohio,
and I love flowers, cats and dogs.
This is where I am from.

The Writers of Artsy Fartsy Saturdays
(with Cincinnati Poet Laureate Pauletta Hansel)

Note: Check out “I am From” poems from across the country and submit your own here!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Writing Among the Trees

What better way to spend the first full day of fall but among the trees! Thanks to everybody who came out to Everbody Let’s Write! at Everybody’s Treehouse, and to Ellen Austin-Li for sharing her lovely poem on her blog, and letting me share it here: House of Trees. Perhaps there will be time for an early spring repeat before my tenure as Cincinnati Poet Laureate ends on April 1, 2018.

Where We Are From: A poem by Art4Artists

Earlier this month I had the opportunity to write with a fine group of artists at Dunham Recreation Center, just about a year after my first visit to the to the center’s afterschool program.  Founded by Arnelle Dowin 2006, Art4Artists is a group of novice, semi-professional and professional women artists who meet regularly to support each other’s creative endeavors and explore new techniques and ideas. For more information and to join Art4Artists, please call the Dunham Center at 513-251-5862. The group is filled with talented practicing and retired art teachers, artists and arts enthusiasts. And some fine writers, too! We used former Kentucky Poet Laureate George Ella Lyon’s prompt, “I am from,” and will be sending our group creation off to her  “I AM FROM project,” which aims to build a quilt, a scroll, a multimedia display, a swell of voices, a collection of poems in celebration of the diversity and beauty of who we are.”

We Are From: Art for Artists, 2017

I am from a blank canvas,
from the typewriter set up
in my mother’s kitchen,
from bright colored fabric and shiny beads,
from the country attic where
obsolete treasures lived,
from the vegetable garden in the summer,
from a hand gliding over big boards,
flour dust flying in the air.
I am from that girl,
the one who called herself
writer, artist, gardener, cook,
from the space she held to grow into.

It is like a trail through my memories,
which shoots straight and sharply
through my town, my life, my thoughts.
I am from struggling children
and a nation divided,
from tall scary people all in black,
in white.
So long ago, it seems familiar.
The streets are filled with too many ghosts.
What a strange journey through time.

I am from a life reinvented,
floating in and out of fog and clarity
and plunging in again,
from a long hard slog to make my way
through scrambled streets with cul-de-sacs,
from a towering blue spruce
that mocks my journey.
I am from many steps,
the ones I tumbled down
grabbing life, reclaiming fears,
pursuing and abandoning perfection.

I am from the nest of peace
I have made of my home,
from the joy of dirt and rocks,
the delight of sun and moon,
from quiet Friends and deep meditation,
from the “see you later, welcome home”
barking of the dogs,
from the sweet shade of the same old trees.

All in all, a pretty good life.
I am here.
Now in my 50s,
my 60s,
my 70s,
80s.
Unreal.

 

By Art4Artists Participants: Sue Brungs, Pat Bruns, Mo Conlan, Carole Douglas, Arnelle Dow, Mary Hennigan, Vivian Kline, Sally Murray, Pat Ostenkamp and Carolyn Stewart with Cincinnati Poet Laureate Pauletta Hansel.
Dunham Recreation Center
August 15, 2017
Composed by Pauletta Hansel

Art for Artists

What’s up next for the Poet Laureate (you may ask)? Everybody Let’s Write at Everybody’s Treehouse in Mt Airy Forest, Ohio’s only wheelchair accessible treehouse, on Saturday September 23 from 10-noon. More info here and on Facebook.

Clark Montessori Takes a (Sonnet) Hike

If you happened to be driving around Hyde Park on April 10, you might have seen a swarm of students with notebooks roaming the streets. That was teacher Andrea Rotter’s Creative Writing Class doing a Cincinnati Walking Sonnet Walk! The poem that follows is composed of lines each of us wrote as we wandered through the neighborhood. We hope this inspires you to write your way through your own or any of Cincinnati’s 52 neighborhoods. Click here to read other examples of Cincinnati Walking Sonnets by other poets. Instructions for composing your own Cincinnati Walking Sonnet can be found here.

Keep an eye out for an announcement for a “Cincinnati Streetcar Sonnet” workshop on some steamy July or August Sunday—an air-conditioned version of the Walking Sonnet, wherein we substitute streetcar stops for blocks to get our eight blocks forward before the “volta” and six blocks back. In the meantime, as Clark students head off on summer break, we hope you enjoy our poem:

Clark to Clark—A Sonnet Walk x 2

I.
Beginning in the east, ending in the west,
us kids are powerwalking through her hood.
We speed past, missing the house for sale,
smell of sweet flowers, musical wind chimes,
plastic bag flying through the air, trash all
the way. Some sidewalks are like people, cracked,
broken and damaged. A drum tempo makes
a heartbeat in the wind when you 180
back the way you came. Ivy creeps closer,
threatening entangled ankles, rosebud trees
rising up against the unknown. April
is the cruelest month, says the man waving
American flags, the white stark against
the parade of blue shining in the light.

II.
Trees without leaves give the leaf blower no
job. Birds chirping a weird birdish sound, cars
driving, children playing and water sprinkling
the blue blob drawn in chalk on the playground
blacktop. Redeemer Preschool, not a kid
in sight, but a dead mouse on the sidewalk.
We’re in Hyde Park, so of course it is Black,
the wind that made me feel powerful too
as if I was the one to change the world.
A nice, neighborly man with sprinklers
to help the heat tells me of poems I don’t
recall. This is me leaving my high school.
Nothing will stop me from wanting to be home.
Wherever I go, this is where I’m from.

Andrea Rotter’s Creative Writing Class
Compiled by Cincinnati Poet Laureate Pauletta Hansel