This time of year

·

This time of year when I go out
Winter is like an inland sea—
Waves half way up the gutter spout
And ripples lapping at the tree.

You’d think the swelling tide of snow
Claimed memory of an ancient shore
And with a melting undertow
Would turn the stone to shells once more.

But only once when I’d come to
Half-wakened from a fitful dream
Did something like a tide slip through
The bedroom window’s broken seam.

The snow seemed finally come for good,
An icy shore beneath my bed,
And yet I think that if I’d stood
I would have stepped on sand instead.

The taste of salt was in the air
And though the frost had licked the hinge
I saw, at midnight, something there—
Sunlight skirting the doorway’s fringe.

I only had to go outside
To see the ocean at my sill—
I only had to—but that tide
Will come again. Someday, I will.

This time of year

February 11, 2013 by me, Patrick Gillespie

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When We Two Parted • George Gordon Lord Byron

Analyzing this poem is a request.

I’ve never been an ardent fan of Byron, even though my great grandfather, one generation removed from the Irish and Scotts, was apparently so moved by poetry and Byron in particular, that he named his son (my grandfather) Byron; and my grandfather, in his turn, named his son (my father) Gordon.

One of the reasons I don’t read more Byron is that I think of him as more of a novelist who happened to be expeditiously good at rhyme and meter, rather than as a poet. That’s absurd, of course, but you will rarely find in Byron the stunning imagery that makes you pause and linger. His imagery is, almost entirely, perfunctory and rudimentary. He uses stock phrases and poeticisms (whatever it takes to keep the narrative moving). You might as well read Jane Eyre if you’re looking for evocative imagery.

What Byron possessed was an unerring sense of phrasing, rhythm and rhyme. He was capable of using phrase and rhyme with a skewering and deadly precision. One never gets the sense that he was at a loss words. He almost never resorts to anything like metrical filler. His lines are (if there was ever a time to use the adjectives) rugged and masculine. There’s no prettiness to his poetry, but the lean, no nonsense, muscularity makes his poetry memorable and powerful. Byron is an object lesson in the sheer power of meter and rhyme, as distinct from the lineated prose of free verse or just plain prose. Great and memorable poetry doesn’t always need the unsurpassed imagery of a Wallace Stevens, Keats or Shakespeare.

When we two parted
In silence and tears,
Half broken-hearted
To sever for years,
Pale grew thy cheek and cold,
Colder thy kiss;
Truly that hour foretold
Sorrow to this.

The dew of the morning
Sunk chill on my brow–
It felt like the warning
Of what I feel now.
Thy vows are all broken,
And light is thy fame:
I hear thy name spoken,
And share in its shame.

They name thee before me,
A knell to mine ear;
A shudder comes o’er me–
Why wert thou so dear?
They know not I knew thee,
Who knew thee too well: —
Long, long shall I rue thee,
Too deeply to tell.

In secret we met–
In silence I grieve,
That thy heart could forget,
Thy spirit deceive.
If I should meet thee
After long years,
How should I greet thee?
With silence and tears.

The Scansion: No really, it gets interesting.

The “scansion” that follows departs from my usual method. Rather than use the standard accent marks, I’ve simply bolded the accented syllables. I thought this better represented what Byron was doing. The poem, as a whole, is accentual, meaning that Byron’s primary concern is with the number of accented syllables per line. The number of unaccented syllables varies from stanza to stanza. Interestingly though, if we go stanza by stanza, then one could call Byron’s verse “accentual syllabic”. (Iambic Pentameter is accentual syllabic meter because boththe number of accents and syllables is regular.) With the exception of the last stanza, Bryon maintains a regular number of accented and unaccented syllables.

The way I divided the feet isn’t cast in stone. There are different ways to do it. When I read the poem, I hear anapests, so that’s the way I scanned it. In this sense, the second foot of the first line |we two parted would be an anapestic foot with a feminine ending. The first foot with the word When would be a headless Iambic Foot, meaning that the first unaccented syllable is missing. So, but for two lines, the underlying accentual/syllabic meter of the poem is an Iambic foot followed by an anapestic foot, as follows:

  • The spiral is a high level metrical symbol. I would have to shoot you if I revealed its meaning.

Some of the anapestic feet are followed by an extra unstressed syllable, so I’m calling those feet anapestic feminine endings – something that doesn’t appear in Iambic Pentameter until Robert Frost (anapestic feminine foot in green):

One could | do worse | than be |a swing|er of birches

None of this is information you really need to know, but some of us enjoy these little niceties. There is one line in which knowing the meter helps us know how Byron probably imagined the poem. Knowing that each stanza is internally consistent and that the first stanza maintains two stressed syllables per line and an anapest, we won’t be tempted to read the third line as follows:

Half brok|enhearted

Or:

Half brok|enhearted

Most modern readers would probably be tempted to read the line in either of these two fashions and move on. The first reading changes the line into an iambic one, with an iambic feminine ending. We can eliminate this reading because it breaks the metrical pattern in the rest of the stanza. The second reading introduces three stressed syllables. We can eliminate that because it breaks the accentual pattern of the stanza. If we honor the pattern set by the rest of the poem, we put the emphasis on half.

Half |broken hearted

This is a very curious emphasis and, if it were to be acted, suggests a wee bit of a sneer. In other words, they weren’t broken-hearted. They were only, half broken-hearted.  As I like to say, a masterfully written metrical poem has two stories to tell – two tales: one in its words; the other in its meter. In this case, the meter is telling us this isn’t just another poem about heart break. There’s a touch of sarcasm, if not contempt and cynicism, that turns the meaning of the rest of the poem flatly on its head. I’ve seen readings of this poem on Youtube that play it straight, as a kind of self-pitying poem by the rejected lover, but when Byron was self-pitying, it was usually heavily seasoned with self-righteousness. The meter hints at something else. Once we learn some of the history behind the poem, we might find the opposite of what we expected.

So… what’s going on?

I’ve got two sources for the story behind this poem. They don’t agree. Sort of. The first thing to know is that the word scandalous is never far from Byron’s name. In Famous Poems and the Little Known Stories Behind Them, Ralph L Woods gets right down to business. He writes:

Admittedly Byron was arrogantly seflish and impulsively generous, aware of his rank and quick to abuse its priviledges. He bore the marks of his dissolute, unstable and spenthrift ancestry, and of a mother who alternated between tantrums and penitential calms. Given the restless age in which he lived, it is not suprising that the brilliant, undisciplined and strikingly handsome poet  with a clubfoot had numerous amours, some of the backstairs kind. [Famous Poems and the Little Known Stories Behind Them p. 21]

By backstairs, Woods is presumably referring to Byron’s alleged affair with his sister. According to Woods, the poem is about Lady Frances Annesley, the wife of James Wedderburn Webster. When Byron first met the newly wedded couple, he remarked that Lady Frances “is very pretty” but that she was already treating her husband with “conjugal contempt” and predicted she would betray him within three years. Woods goes on to write that Byron visited the couple two years later and wrote, initially at least, that he “behaved very well”. Later, though, when writing Lady Melbourne, he confessed that “I have made love [flirted amorously], and it is returned”. The expression “making love” didn’t mean sexual intercourse until early in the 20th century. Before then, it essentially meant flirtation and courtship. Byron also wrote that “he spared her.” “Poor thing–she is either the most artful of artless of her age I ever encountered.” Woods writes that Byron lost interest but that when, several years later, he heard of her affair with the Duke of Wellington, he recalled his former emotions in the, as Woods puts it, “tender yet cynical” poem When We Two Parted.

In another book, though, Byron and the Websters: The Letters and Entangled Lives of the Poet, Sir James Webster and Lady Frances Webster, John Stewart tells a fuller and slightly different story. He begins by quoting a letter Byron wrote on June 10, 1823:

As to yr. chevalier W Wne *** to be sure I learnt from himself all about his [?] surprise — but there is some little doubt of his accuracy. — At least it is very strange that he could never prove so public a voyage of discovery. — She– poor thing — has made a sad affair of it altogether. — I had the meloncholy task of prophesying as much many many years ago in some lines — of which the three or four stanzas only were printed — and of course without names — or allusions — and with a false date — I send you on the concluding stanza — which never was printed with the others. —

Then – fare thee well — Fanny —
Now doubly undone —
To prove false unto many —
As faithless to One —
Thou art past all recalling
Even would I recall —
For the woman once falling
Forever must fall. —

There’s morality and sintiment [sic] — for you in a [?] — but I was very tender hearted in those days. — If you want to know where the lines to which this stanza belongs –are — they are in I know not what volume — but somewhere (for I have no copy) but they begin with

When we two parted
In silence and tears
&c.&c.&c.

So here is a treasure for you in honour of our relationship — rhymes unpublished — and a secret into the bargain — which you wont keep –.

[Byron and the Websters p. 173]

As you can see, the final stanza, never included with the anthologized poem (and probably for the best) keeps the meter and rhyme of the others. With this scathing final stanza, the cynical emphasis on half-broken hearted begins to make more sense, while the line With silence and tears sounds more sarcastic and a little less tragic. There’s undoubtedly some tenderness in the lines, but also contempt. Stewart closes his brief two pages on Byron’s poem with a letter from Miss Frances Williams Wynn in her Diaries of a Lady of Quality (1864):

In England we are apt to exclaim with Byron, in his suppressed lines

Then, fare thee well, Fanny, thus doubly undone,
Thou frail to the many, and false to one.
Thou art past all recalling, e’en would I recall,
For the woman once fallen for ever must fall.

These lines about which frequent enquiry has been made, were given me by Scrope Davies. They originally formed the conclusion of a copy of verses addressed by Lord Byron to Lady Frances W W to whom he was devotedly attached until she threw him over for the Duke of Wellington, then in the full blaze of his Peninsular glory. ‘Byron,’ said Davies, ‘Came one morning to my lodgings in St James Street, in a towering passion, and standing by the fire, broke out, ‘D— all women, and d— that woman in particular.’ He tore from his watch-ribbon a seal she had given him, and dashed it into the grate. As soon as I left the room, I picked it up, and here it is.’ He showed it to me, and allowed me to take an impression of it, which I have still. It was a large seal, representing a ship in full sail, a star in the distance, with the motto, “Si je la perds, je suis perdu.” Two or three days afterwards his Lordship presented himself again with a copy of verses addressed to his fickle fair one, from which Davies with some difficulty induced him to omit the four concluding lines. [Byron and the Websters p. 174]

So, armed with this information, we can conclude that Byron didn’t write this poem in a fit of self-pitying dejection, but self-pitying rage; about a married woman who dared to dump him, not for her husband, but for another cad and aristocrat who was not Byron! Now that takes a very special kind of delusional self-righteousness. That and the fact that Miss Wynn, a quote-unquote “Lady of Quality”, was busily gossiping about the whole affair tells you just about everything you need to know about the era. If I were to sum up the tone of the poem, it would be the hypocritical rage of righteous self-pity. When Byron writes about “tears”, don’t be fooled. It’s one thing for Byron to gad about, but if a woman falls, she falls forever.

Well, maybe I’ve ruined the poem for some, but somehow I think the squalid truth makes it so much better, keener and cutting. When you see youtube videos characterizing the poem as one of “loss and longing”, you know they’ve missed the point. They haven’t read the poem all that carefully. This is the poem lovers write and read to one another when they should have known better but bear a grudge anyway.

Thy vows are all broken,
And light is thy fame:
I hear thy name spoken,
And share in its shame.

For the philandering Byron to write that her “vows are all broken” is the pot calling the kettle black. And what is he crying about?  — Her? — Or is it all about him — that he must “share in its shame”?

They know not I knew thee,
Who knew thee too well: —
Long, long shall I rue thee,
Too deeply to tell.

Does he rue because he longs for her? — because of his loss? — or does he rue that he met her in the first place, and now shares in her shame?

In secret we met–
In silence I grieve,
That thy heart could forget,
Thy spirit deceive.
If I should meet thee
After long years,
How should I greet thee?
With silence and tears.

These last lines, and a line like Thy spirit deceive, are written in anger, not sorrow. The cutting rhymes and driving anapestic meter add to the poem’s succinctness, momentum and memorability in a way that free verse just can’t match, and in way that Byron mastered. (The line Long, long shall I rue thee is a master stroke of metrical gamesmanship. If not for the meter, we might be tempted to read the line Long, long shall I rue thee , but we know that Byron’s means us to only read two strong accents in the  line. Strongly emphasizing the second long, if done right, gives the line a little touch of disdain.) Fortunately, Byron was convinced to leave off the final stanza (the final twist of the knife) and so, to a certain degree, it remains just possible to read the poem as a heartrending expression of loss, longing and sorrow.

Here’s a good video that subtly hints at the petty anger behind the lines:

  • Note: For some reason, there appears to be a WordPress bug that insists on linking to Erlkonig. If you don’t see the right video, click here.

When things turn out badly, after having your affair with another man’s wife or another wife’s man, this is your go to  poem. If you manage to avoid that scandal, then enjoy the poem however you will.

from Up in Vermont on the Last Day of 2011

Sophie Jewett: I Speak your Name

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A Quick Look

19th Century American Women PoetsI’ve been leafing through an anthology of Nineteenth Century American Women Poets. While none of them equal  Emily Dickinson, there are some truly beautiful gems and lovely passages. Perhaps one of my favorite poets is Sophie Jewett. There is something wistful, haunting, otherworldly and almost faery-like about her poetry – like a Midsummer Night’s Dream. She possessed a lightness of touch and, at her best, a haunting ear for the music of language.

The brief introduction offered by the anthology tells a sad childhood.

Her mother, Ellen Ransom Burroughs, died of acute neuralgia of the heart when Sophie was seven. Together with her three silbings, Sophie was awakened from sleep to witness her mother’s death agony, an event whose impress remained with her all her life. Charles Jewett died two years later when Sophie was nine. After his death, the children moved to Buffalo, where they resided with their uncle and grandmother, both of whom died while Jewett was still in her teens.

The Poems of Sophie JewettJewett’s father was apparently aware that his own life was slipping away. In the introduction to the The Poems of Sophie Jewett (cover at right), [Incidentally, this book has long since gone into the public domain. You can download Google’s digital copy, a PDF document, by clicking here.] the unidentified author of the introduction (written in 1910) writes:

Dr. Jewett, feeling life slipping from him while his children were very young, too every care to impress upon them not only high ideals of conduct for their future guidance, but also the value and the beauty of intellectual pursuits, holding up as a model to his little daughters, after she was gone, their lovely and gifted young mother.

This, at least, tells us that her mother and father must have been caring and protective. One last observation, as far as biographical material goes, The Paula Bennet, the editor of the anthology, also makes a point which will be instrumental in understanding I Speak Your Name. She writes that Jewett is a “transitional poet, opening the way for the more self-conscious work that would be the burden and pleasure of modernist lesbian women to produce.”

The Poem

I Speak Your Name (w Portrait)

What it Means

Or I should write, what it might mean. The images and ideas in this poem are, to me, suggestively elusive. Sometimes I look for other interpretations, just so I don’t embarrass myself. Portrait of Sophie JewettOther times I throw caution to the wind. This time, I thought I’d thread the needle. I looked for interpretations, but was determined not read any until I had written my own. I couldn’t find any. So. I’m winging it. If any readers want to offer other interpretations, changes or improvements, please do so.

I speak your name in alien ways,

This first line is why I fell in love with the poem and it’s also the most elusive of any of the lines. It may or may not be autobiographical. But here are some clues. In the introduction to the 1910 edition of her poems, we find the following:

Much inspiration and counsel came to her from her minister, Dr. Walcott Calkins, whose home in Buffalo, and later in Newton, MA, she called her “second home.” She was the constant comrade of his daughter from the time they met as little girls, and their companioning became a lifelong friendship. In the minister’s study, the two children discussed grave mysteries or bent together over books in strange tongues… [Introduction viii-ix]

Then later:

The friends of her girlhood she steadfastly cherished when time brought the separations constraining them “to go diverging ways.” She was little more than twenty when first she journeyed to England and Italy, an experience which gave new incentive to study and filled her beauty-loving soul with new visions. [Introduction ix]

Although I don’t know, I wonder if Jewett isn’t addressing her childhood friend? The introductory material doesn’t give us a name, but Jewett does – Margaret. Is Margaret her childhood friend? One wonders if Jewett wrote this poem overseas? The poem has an epistolatory feel to it if only because she addresses the poem to you who, in the final lines, becomes Maragert.   At it’s most straightforward, Sophie is saying that she is speaking her friend’s name in an alien tongue – perhaps in Italy. I am talking about you, she seems to say, I can’t stop thinking of you.

[To read some of Jewett’s Sonnets.]

But there’s an elusiveness to the line that I can’t shake and there’s a reason (which I’ll get to later in the poem). Alien had another meaning – in the sense of belonging to someone else. This is an older meaning, one that you will find in the Shakespeare Lexicon, but Jewett was an English scholar (a professor of Anglo Saxon), a student of poetry and (one assumes) Shakespeare, and would surely have been familiar with the subtler, if not older, meaning of words.

[Read some praise by a reader of Jewett, check out Imaginative Women: Lesbian Fiction and Real Lez Life]

Imagine that Jewett has fallen in love with (or has always loved) Margaret, but that Margaret doesn’t reciprocate her love, or rather, another woman’s love.  Margaret has given her name (her last name) to a man. Margaret’s name belongs to another. And so Sophie must speak her lover’s name in an alien way. There is a double in this poem.

Sophie Jewett (by Kimberly Coles)…while yet
November smiles from under lashes wet.

The choice of month and season isn’t haphazard, or least I don’t think so. November, in the northern hemisphere (I say that for my reader from Australia), is the onset of winter, of loss, barrenness, darkness and cold. There is always a lonely feel to November, a turning inward – at least to me. But there is not complete loss. November smile. What does Jewett mean by this?

[The eery and beautiful snippet at right is by Kimberly Coles. To see the entire illustration and to read an extract from Jewett’s “The Pearl”, visit her site by clicking on the image or her name. The latter link, to The Pearl, is to Gutenberg.Org.]

My feeling is that November refers to both the time of year and to herself. The image could signify a dreary day in November, where there are nevertheless a few remaining embers from summer – a few late flowers or leaves perhaps. Not all the memories of summer are gone, not all its warmth and youthfulness. And November could be Jewett herself, her lashes wet with tears but smiling at the memory of her friend.

In the November light I see you stand
Who love the fading woods and withered land,
Where Peace may walk, and Death, but not Regret.

I don’t interpret this as meaning that Jewett literally sees her friend. She imagines her friend, much as we might say, nowadays, I can just see her there. These are the woods her friend loved. There is the suggestion that her lover enjoyed and accepted autumn’s endings – its fading woods and withered land. There is no regret. I read Peace as meaning acceptance. Death refers not just to the season, but perhaps to the possibility of a greater love – a love between two women. But there is no regret and Jewitt doesn’t tell us to whom she is referring. There is no regret (perhaps not hers) and none, perhaps, on the part of her lover. These are the qualities of the woods they both love.

The year is slow to alter or forget;
June’s glow and autumn’s tenderness are met,
Across the months by this swift sunlight spanned.
I speak your name.

[LibriVox offers an audio recording of Jewett’s God’s Troubadour, The Story of St. Francis of Assisi.]

The year is slow… Whatever memories she has shared, of friendship or love, keep their warmth and glow even across the months. In referring to autumn’s tenderness, the feeling isn’t of barrenness or desolation, but of acceptance and sorrow – her wet lashes;  mixed with joy – her smile.  Perhaps, if her friend cannot reciprocate Sophie’s love, their friendship survives and continues – an autumn that tenderly closes a summer’s joy.

Because I loved your golden hair, God set
His sea between our eyes.

The meaning of these lines is truly elusive. Why would God set a sea between the friends, perhaps lovers, because Jewett loved her golden hair? In these lines, just for a moment, the surface of the poem is disturbed. Is this an outcry? If we read these lines literally, was Jewett sent overseas, to Italy perhaps? Was her travel a kind of self-exile? – her sapphic love having been forbidden? If her friend, Margaret, was the friend of her childhood, then perhaps ‘God” is a reference to her friend’s father.

Yet one doesn’t get the sense, in reading biographical material, that there was every any disharmony between Sophie Jewett and the Minister, Dr. Walcott Calkins. The 1910 biography does say, however,  that she frequently received much counsel from him.

[Archive.Org offers an audiobook of Armistice.]

Perhaps she discussed her preference for women?  Or perhaps her feelings were obvious? If the subject was ever broached, I can easily imagine the Minister’s kind but stern admonishment that love between women was counter to God’s intentions. The true meaning of these lines may have to remain beyond our reach, but Jewett’s phrase, because I loved your golden hair, carries with it a tender connotation that is hard to misconstrue.

Nude by Helen GotlibPerhaps the meaning of the line is figurative. This would be in keeping with the first line, if we interpret alien as meaning that her friend’s name now belongs to another. If her friend has been married, then it is understood that only God can marry a man and woman and only God can sunder them. Perhaps this is what Jewett means when she states that God has set his sea, the bond of marriage between a man and woman, between the eyes of Jewett and her lover, Margaret. But this doesn’t answer why God would have done this because she loved Margaret’s golden hair. Was Margaret married, if she was, to avoid a scandal? The line remains elusive.

[The image at right is by Helen Gotlib. Check out more of her beatuiful drawings by clicking on the image.]

Perhaps both meanings are at play. One feels, perhaps, a subversive double-meaning to the whole of the poem.

…I may not fret,
For, sure and strong, to meet my soul’s demand,
Comes your soul’s truth, more near than hand in hand;

And perhaps, in these lines, we come to understand November’s smiles in the second line. If the lovers’ relationship was ended prematurely for the sake of societal propriety, then perhaps Margaret did reciprocate Jewett’s love. But Margaret married. This is what was expected at the end of the 19th Century. Perhaps this is what they both accept. (There is no regret.) Jewett does not condemn her for it. And perhaps Margaret, though her name now belongs to another, and though there is “a sea” between them, still confesses her love for Jewett. There is still that smile beneath November’s wet lashes. Both joy and sorrow. The sorrow that their love cannot be enacted, but the joy that a different kind of love continues more near than hand in hand. It is her, Sophie Jewett, that Margaret still loves, this is her soul’s truth. Jewett will not fret. Though their love cannot be consummated, there is another kind of love that binds them. Jewett speaks her lovers name in alien ways, while yet November smiles from under lashes wet.

And low to God, who listens, Margaret,
I speak your name.

She knows. I’ll let these last line speak for themselves.

If Sophie Jewett is new to you;  if you have enjoyed this post, let me know…

Robert Frost & Iambic Dimeter

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Dust of Snow

dust-of-snow

Robert Frost reciting “Dust of Snow”:

[Audio https://poemshape.files.wordpress.com/2009/02/dust-of-snow.mp3%5D

robert-frost-colorIambic: Unstressed syllable followed by a stressed Syllable.
Dimeter: Two Metrical Feet per line.

This lovely little poem is written in two stanzas. The rhyme of each Stanza is called a Cross Rhyme, Interlocking Rhyme, or Alternating Rhyme scheme.

Frost varies the iambic foot with anapestic feet in the first foot of the fourth line, the second foot of the fifth line and in both feet of the final line. The majority of the metrical feet are iambic, however, which is why this poem would be considered Iambic Dimeter.

Anapests are considered a variant foot when found in an Iambic Pattern.

And that’s that.

Dust of Snow - ManuscriptFor more information on any of these terms, visit my post on the basics of scansion.

And, for another poem in Iambic Dimeter, check out my own poem: A February Bat.

The Songbird – A Fable with Poetry

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woodcut-swan-fade-correctedI wasn’t sure whether I would post my fables but many of them include poetry and many of them are all but prose-poems. The poems, or songs, are based on songs from Shakespeare’s plays – the structure and the rhyme scheme. I experimented in the last of the songs, using the older forms of the pronouns. I will print the three poems separately in posts that follow. I didn’t think it would make sense to post them as separate from the fable in which they were created. Page 1 The Songbird (No background) Page 2 The Songbird (No background) Page 3 The Songbird (No background) Page 4 The Songbird (No background) Page 5 The Songbird (No background) Page 6 The Songbird (No background) Page 7 The Songbird (No background)

Opening Book: My Bridge is like a Rainbow Page 34-38

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Page 34 My Bridge is like a Rainbow
Page 35 My Bridge is like a Rainbow

Page 36 My Bridge is like a Rainbow

Page 37 My Bridge is like a Rainbow

Page 38 My Bridge is like a Rainbow

Opening Book: The Evening Coming Page 9

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[This is the first poem from Opening Book, published in 2000. I will be posting every poem in the book over the course of the next several weeks. My tragic flaw is that I am a very poor self-promoter and I have never been all that interested in publishing, fame or fortune. If you like any of these poems send me a note. I’ll send a copy of the book for the price of postage. I love giving readings & try to accept all invites – distance permitting.]

Page 9 The Evening Coming