Thursday, March 29, 2012


What Kind of Times Are These

There's a place between two stands of trees where the grass grows uphill
and the old revolutionary road breaks off into shadows
near a meeting-house abandoned by the persecuted
who disappeared into those shadows.

I've walked there picking mushrooms at the edge of dread, but don't be fooled
this isn't a Russian poem, this is not somewhere else but here,
our country moving closer to its own truth and dread,
its own ways of making people disappear.

I won't tell you where the place is, the dark mesh of the woods
meeting the unmarked strip of light—
ghost-ridden crossroads, leafmold paradise:
I know already who wants to buy it, sell it, make it disappear.

And I won't tell you where it is, so why do I tell you
anything? Because you still listen, because in times like these
to have you listen at all, it's necessary
to talk about trees.
“What Kind of Times Are These”. © 2002, 1995 by Adrienne Rich, from The Fact of a Doorframe: Selected Poems 1950-2001 by Adrienne Rich. Used by permission of the author and W.W. Norton, Inc.



Relections on Place was the title of the event Monday night at the Sylva Public Library, celebrating the installation of Western Carolina University's new chancellor, David Belcher.  Jerry Wolfe, Ron Rash, and I presented our stories and poems for an appreciative audience, one containing several good friends I've not seen in a long while, including Gayle Woody, Nancy DeSain, Joyce and Allen Moore--and a few facebook friends I'd not met in the flesh!  I closed my reading with this poem, first published in Warren Wilson College's Heartstone.   The quote from Adrienne Rich I have carried with me for years seems even more appropriate now, as we face the prospect of forgetting so much of our history, including our connection to the land.  Adrienne Rich died two days ago, leaving behind a poetic and feminist legacy that has nourished many of our lives.

                            Last Light      

The tests I need to pass are prescribed by the spirits
of place    who understand travel but not amnesia.
      from “This Is My Third and Last Address to You” --Adrienne Rich

Almost the age when memory falters,
I fear being made to count backward
by seven’s, to answer to date, year, and
Presidents, as if  those numbers and names
matter more in the end  than this place
where I stand at the same kitchen window,
observing the same pines set swaying by wind,
reaching upward as I’ll reach, come morning,
my arms to the ceiling, breathing the dark out
of  body and spirit, exhaling that  old dream 
of nothingness: laying my head down to sleep.

Now Rocky Face Ridge catches fire
in the last light and, though I can’t hear it
from where I stand, Cullowhee Creek tumbles into
the Tuckaseegee, always unscrolling beneath me
the names I already know.  Snowbird.
Buzzards Roost.  Weyahutta.  Oconaluftee.

.                        3.

I don’t know how long names can last 
if there’s no one to care where they live. 
What I saw on the hairpin curve down from
the Chimney Tops, white as snow, I’ve not forgotten.
Phacelia.  And how, on the trail leading
up to the summit of Suncota Ridge,
I saw sauntering toward me a young woman
I could have sworn was the reincarnation of
every spring wildflower ever named anywhere.  


Closer she comes to me each April,
as if she means more than I have a lifetime
to know.  Roundabout her, her white Easter dress 
whispers every thing I want  to keep living
here in this valley that cups the last swallow of light,
every name I must reach to remember or else
lose them, hillside by hillside, to darkness. 


Tuesday, March 27, 2012

JERRY WOLFE: Stories Keep Us Connected

Jerry Wolfe

Listening last night to Cherokee story-teller Jerry Wolfe,  I was taken back to my childhood love of animal stories and my love of language itself.  Maybe that's one reason I have always responded so profoundly to Native American stories and songs, especially those by N. Scott Momaday, himself of Cherokee descent.   Below is one of my Language Matters columns written while I was Poet Laureate.  I think Mr. Wolfe would like this book, In the Bear's House.  Bear was roaming around Mr. Wolfe's stories last night, along with Mouse, Rabbit, and Eagle.   Like their human counterparts, they were on hand to welcome WCU's new Chancellor and his wife, David and Susan Belcher.

Chancellor David Belcher and his wife Susan

Child’s Play 
By Kathryn Stripling Byer 

Soon school will be over for the year. Students will leave their classrooms and bound out 
into a summer day, feeling free, at least for a little while. But free to do what? These days 
our children’s lives are so filled with activities that they’ve hardly time to sit and feel the 
expanse of summer around them, that magical time I remember opening up like a day 
dream. And daydreaming is what has been on my mind lately. We think of it as wasting 
time, but for most of us, especially the young, it is nothing less than making time. Making 
time for our own mind play. And play has everything to do with language. 

Native American writer N. Scott Momaday, whose mother was Cherokee, has imagined a 
dialogue between Bear and Yahweh, entitled In the Bear’s House. In it, Bear asks 
Yahweh, “Language. How did it happen? How did language begin?” Yahweh answers, 
“Oh, the children made it one day. Poor Man, he had been trying so hard to talk, for such 
a long time. Then the children went out and played together. At the end of the day they 
had possession of language.” 

Yahweh tells Bear that the children came home, saying to their parents, “This is what you 
have been trying to say.” 

To which Bear replies, “Language is child’s play.” 

Yahweh affirms, “There you have it.” 

Summer used to be the time for child’s play, when simply being alone with one’s 
thoughts was perfectly acceptable. No homework, no basketball practice, no school 
meetings. I could read as long as I wanted in the afternoons, then go roaming to my 
favorite field and watch the light moving across the land that lay like an open book before 

Those days are long gone. We have become more and more urbanized, our lives busier 
and busier. But perhaps we should try now and then to get back into the spirit of those 
days. As a columnist in The New York Times recently noted, “With battalions of 
therapists, tutors and coaches we have now commandeered most aspects of our children's 
existence. What has become of their fantasy lives?” 

Summer reading programs offer one way to encourage children to begin exploring the 
world of their imaginations as well as the world around them. Silence helps. No 
television, no computer games, no ipods plugged into young ears. 

A writer once speculated that the great attraction of creative writing courses is that they 
allow students the quiet time that the world inside and outside the classroom does not. 
Students yearn to become acquainted with their inner lives through poetry and stories, 
having had so little opportunity to do so otherwise. 

The Australian aborigines speak of the Dreamtime, a sacred time before clock time 
began, a time when all was being created. We need our own Dreamtime. It is where we 
dream our best dreams, feel the power of our own inner poetry calling to us. For me, it is 
always summertime. Sand spurs. Bare feet. Time on my hands, not heavy but ripe and 
promising as a book read by an open window. And outside a world to be daydreamed into 
existence, day after day.

N Scott Momaday's parents:  His father was Kiowa, his mother Cherokee.
N Scott Momaday, poet, novelist, and memoirist, Pulitzer Prize Winner, and one of my all-time favorite authors.