The Refinery: pamela sayers

~dusting this thing off~  Oh, hey, Internet. How’s it hanging?

So maybe I took slightly more of an absence than I intended, but I do think it was one that I needed. There’s been an undue amount of stress, agita, drama, and other synonyms for the same complex of blah floating around, as you are probably aware from my constant griping on here. As much fun as the April challenge was, it was a great relief to just shut off a little bit for ten days. But I can’t keep away from you guys for long, so here we go again. As I said in my last post, I’m going to be focusing less on drafts on here (while I focus on revising them/working on a couple of nutty ideas offline), and doing more musings, readings, promptings, etc. I hope to take a page from Margo in this regard, whose blog is always a good indicator of the blogosphere’s pulse. If you don’t know her blog, do go visit! But for now, the triumphant return of the Refinery!

Bust the Horizon” by Pamela K. Sayers

First, my apologies again to Pamela for the delay in getting this up: her email got lost in the shuffle when it first came in, and then April was running before I found out, and then I had the nerve to take off for ten days. So this post is two months overdue, basically. And Pamela lives in the shadow of a (currently-erupting, I believe) Mexican volcano, so she has it tough enough. But aside from that, her life has the kind of arc I dream about my own taking (up and moving to another country, living as an expat, teaching English and taking it easy – except when there is a volcano erupting), and her work has a characteristic lushness to it that reflects that trajectory. So, bear that in mind as we launch into her poem today:

Cul-de-sac moon of a mother’s love
shines on the silent sun, counting pearls in
beauty’s duration.

Sun shines soul’s abundance
as the moon swallows riverbanks,
spilling into night.

Fingers touch, healing wounds, scars lift
from vision, smiles form peace,
faces reveal skylines —
bust the horizon.

Aerial seas float paper boats;
alabaster winters wave-kiss
pages – unfound embedded,
this child’s life.

Where alchemist fire melds spiritual
metal, pride-heart dies silver
on desert sand, or a carousel
riding on godbent tranquillity
suspended forever in wishes from stars.

There is no sorry in visual sensation, no
wrong walkways through rootless trees,
Mother’s cul-de-sac yields begotten;
dance hope fades in willowed song.

Appropriate for Mother’s Day tomorrow, don’t you think? Let’s have a deeper look.
– I think the overall sticking point I have with the poem is the articulation of some of the concepts and feelings. While I believe I understand the premise of the poem, its evolution and the necessity for its being, I’m getting tripped up repeatedly by some of the ways images and ideas are expressed. For example, the second-to-last stanza: there are some wonderful notions in there, like fire acting as an alchemist or the starry sky as a carousel (of fortune, perhaps, with those wishes?). But the verb “melds” confuses me a bit, the hyphenated “pride-heart” doesn’t really sing to me, and I’m not sure how something rides on godbent tranquility. I’m not in the habit of re-writing in Refineries, but here’s a general note that I think will serve Pamela well: take each stanza and separate out each image into its own piece. Write as its own complete sentence or phrase that is completely straightforward outside the context of the poem. Link them all back together — which, yes, will result in a much longer piece — and then start picking out pieces, trying to reduce phrases to synonymous words, etc.
– Similarly, and yet not at all the same, is the intention of the poem. The poem opens with a dense and cryptic image, the “cul-de-sac moon”, which immediately demands the reader’s scrutiny. (Note: consider carefully whether you want to open with such a mystic image.) But I’m not sure what I’m supposed to take away from that description. It may be Pamela’s desire to let the reader interpret it as s/he will, but given the clear maternal tone of the rest of the poem (unless I am misreading it entirely), she seems to want us to go in a particular direction. “Cul-de-sac” makes me think of being trapped, a limitation of perception; I’m not sure it fits with the poem’s idea. It could be a purely visual image: maybe along the lines of, A mother’s love scoops sunlight / into its cul-de-sac, or something, creating a firmer idea of refuge and physical shape. (I know, I just said I wouldn’t re-write. Poets are liars.) There are other moments the intention seems to get a bit muddled in the poem: going back to the second-to-last stanza, that dying on desert sand. Or, the last two lines of the poem, which I find very hard to interpret. Choose your words carefully, and before not putting one in, or excising one, make absolutely sure the poem doesn’t need it.
– I don’t want to prattle away the dreamlike quality of the poem, which is sometimes reason enough to write a poem. But if your poem doesn’t demand the feel of a dream — if the poem itself is the dream — you must take pains to lead your reader. That free-form imagination is a wonderful excuse to get all these feelings and visions out in almost any shape, but to share it with us, we need to be awed without being confused. Of course, every poem should make it easy, at least possible, for the reader to get into it; dream poems just require a particular effort. Remember that we are not inside your head with you, and we may not understand all of the things keyed in your mind by this or that image/feeling. It’s better to spell things out and have it click in the reader’s mind. You want them to go, “oh, wow!” rather than “that’s interesting, but what?”

But aside from that:
– I love some of the sounds happening in this poem. Particularly in the second stanza, with that relentless sibilance, there are moments when certain consonants echo around the poem like ripples in a lake. And even though there are words whose choice I would dispute for semantic reasons, like meld, they are beautifully lyrical. I do think that at certain points (like the second stanza, again), a bit of rhythm through unstressed syllables to break up the heavy beats of each word would serve the poem well. But overall, Pamela has picked these verbs and nouns and adjectives like ripe fruit, and they have a significant weight in the poem. It demands a slow, steady reading.
– And the theme is a complex one, at least, as far as I can tell. We often think of poems as a pithy, terse method to pick apart the most sweeping of ideas, but that’s often not the case. Instead, what the best short poems do is examine a seemingly insignificant aspect of a broad topic, like motherhood, and outline it completely, until by the end the reader understands how that one facet stands as a microcosm for the whole. Of course, other poems go deep and explanatory, and are much longer; that’s fine too. But with this one, I feel as though Pamela is trying to cover every aspect of mother’s love in all its forms, and also trying to keep it as tightly metaphorical as possible. My advice would be: don’t be afraid to expand such a rich topic! Or, if you want to keep it tight and metaphorical (which I prefer, from both sides of a poem), zoom in on one element — that “scars lift” makes me think of a healing mother — and use the metaphor of the moon and/or the sun to demonstrate the wide sweep of that interpretation, how it applies universally to a mother’s identity.
– To go back to some of those images I picked out before, even though I may question the reason behind using some of them, the beauty of them flies hard and fast: the paper boats, the rootless trees, etc. If the poem can find a justification for them to be in there, I hope that they’ll stay; they give the poem its feel, which is a terrible thing to sacrifice. (It is not, however, a terrible thing to mitigate if necessary when the trade-off is creating an entryway for the reader.) I can’t speak to the inspiration for the poem, but I suspect that there is a great deal of honesty in Pamela’s choice of metaphors here. Perhaps they really did come in a dream, since it certainly feels like they did. And they seem unadulterated, kept whole and undistilled, which shows a faith in the reader’s ability to accept, swallow, digest, and be nourished by them.

A couple more things:
– I’m not wild about the title. I think it’s that “bust” jumping out at me, when the poem is so smooth and weighty. If the title is to be a line from the poem, I think there are better ones.
– The first two lines of the last stanza, in concept, are probably my favorite part; a nice moral to round out the poem.
– …though I do feel they could be worded a bit better.
– The metaphor of simple, human things becoming celestial is a good one. Chase it! Hunt it down and make it work in the poem, even if you have to use a net and night-vision goggles.
– I do worry that there were actually a couple of words missed entirely in the poem. I recommend re-reading and making sure they didn’t fall by the wayside by accident (rather than on purpose).

Thanks again to Pamela for providing the sacred cow for us to, I don’t know, make steaks out of. It’s been a while since I’ve done one of these, so I hope the Refinery hasn’t lost its sharp-but-meant-to-be-helpful edge. And for those of you who are in April withdrawal and need a prompt, here’s one:

Write about a personal relationship using a celestial metaphor: heavenly bodies, space, weather, etc. Don’t make it about two specific people, but make the interaction they have specific. Have the poem be six stanzas long, each no more than five lines; in the fifth and sixth stanzas, the reader should begin to see how this metaphorical interaction represents the whole relationship. Include the words “skyline”, “suspended”, and “paper”.

Happy writings!

Little Kanawha River

I will say this: one of the finest compliments I’ve gotten on my work is when people say it has music in it, and sound that works. Being intensely interested in language, of course this is one of my primary concerns when writing, though the importance of curious imagery regularly competes with musicality. I don’t do persona poems easily, and even the voice that is “my own”, or at least the in-the-poem version of me, regularly gets a lot of his traits deleted. (But I don’t mind being an impersonal “me” so much; I sometimes feel it allows the reader get into the poem without being so objective that I engage in complete ego-deletion.) Nor am I a particularly issues- and message-based poet, like so much of the slam scene. I do feel like I’m paying a lot more attention to these issues than I used to, especially since the workshop began. My lines are getting shorter, my playing with internal rhymes in free verse has gotten more frequent, and I’m appreciating more and more the value of a delectable image stuck like a pin into a mass of papery stuff.

Anyway, I hope that kind of attention is clear. Sometimes I do let it fall by the wayside, but when it makes its way whole into the poems, those tend to be the pieces I feel proudest of. Poets and Writers had an interesting experiment that generated this one: pick a random spot on a map and write a poem about daybreak in that location, inventing details if necessary. Some of the long- long-time readers may recall when I took a road trip back in August 2009 with my then-boyfriend. I ended up landing near the Little Kanawha River in West Virginia; we had traveled along the full-size one, and in the afternoon, but this poem is pretty directly about that experience. Or at least, just the nature part of it, which I imagine would be like this. I left out the old mining infrastructure, the churches, the little downtowns interspersed with surprisingly modern rancher houses, the absolutely terrifying mountain roads, the power lines and deer carcasses and produce stands. That’ll be another poem; this one is just a very, very slow meditation.

I think the last full sentence of this poem might be one of my favorite things I’ve ever written.

Little Kanawha River

Nothing green is hurried,
whether the beech tree
crinkling summer leaves, or
each drink of mountain streams
married to the sudden bend
tacked with fog and rippling
dark from the coal seam.
But nothing green is hurried,
rivers older than mountains
least of all. Crows call
the fountain springs at dawn,
we are pleased to hear,
water is cello music
to two sleepless boys who
half-blind pull trousers on,
it’s creeping close to the ear–
but none of this is hurried.
We are heading east
past the charm of the falls
waiting for the sun’s burst
over canyon walls, the road
worn and warm and moss-crazed.
The stars must conquer
mountains, too. And always
they do; it just takes longer,
here. The land waits for light
with its walker to draw near,
meanwhile the days grow green,
everything moving through
unbanished green, our talk
tired and ready to turn
to love colored that grey
that is green slowly won,
last seen in ageless country,
always half-done– never hurried.


And so, the season of Christmas comes to its end. I always liked that there’s a feast day called “Epiphany”, even if I don’t practice it in any particular way; I often wait until today to make resolutions as well. (Not all of them, though: I find myself setting goals all year long.) The first week is still holiday time, and if you party hard on New Year’s Eve, the absolute last thing you feel like doing the day after is hitting the gym to start working on that killer bod you’re definitely going to get this year. Give it a week, then start, I say.

DVerse is asking for poems about peace, and I couldn’t really think of any particular topic to write about. So this is just a small musing about that principle I keep dragging out from time to time: you have to love the entire world, good and bad, to get through it and reach enlightenment. The good things you love are the ones you seek to keep; the bad things require love to care enough to change them. That’s how I want to get through the world, but twenty-odd years and I’m still trying to get there.


It took me a long time to love the spiderweb
strung with diamonds in the morning window
and even longer
for the winter that carves the breath and
the rains that creep rivers over their banks;

and I am still trying to love the swallowed
snake of disease and the threatening men
cracking their knuckles in the dark;
I meditate over sharp-edged
mathematics and the bullet flowering with blood;

someday there will be room in my heart
for everything; that will be the small
nirvana that comes
murmuring green and gold to lead the way
through a world that’s grown complete.


Like the rest of the country, I was in a food coma for the last eighteen hours…

Unlike the rest of the country, I am dutifully avoiding all shopping today. Instead, it is a slow and relaxing period of catch-up (NaNo! poems!), studies (GRE), walks to see friends at coffeeshops (beautiful day for walking, too), and munching on leftovers. We had the usual turkey-potato-stuffing-pie standards, but there was also carrot souffle and broccoli salad and Korean rice balls and licorice allsorts. And Stir-Up Sunday is coming soon, so I must gather my pudding-making accoutrements tomorrow, I suppose…

Samuel Peralta, over at dVerse, asked for an acrostic poem about being thankful. I’m feeling pretty all-inclusive and listy today, so here is a little scrap of exuberance. My philosophy: you cannot survive the world unless you love the world, and you cannot love the world until you accept all the bits of the world, to enjoy or to improve.


Everything in moderation: the hour after twilight all
violet petals and carded wool, the grinning roofs on
European cathedrals, the serpentine New York train
rattling windows with its rush and its many-mouthed
yawn, the egg hatching in a child’s trembling hand,
the still-blinding corona behind a total eclipse like a
halo of lunar condensation, the pools of spilled black
ink in holy calligraphy that spells every whispered
name of night-time, the blueberry first plucked then
gripped then popped between two teeth– everything

is blessed, is holier, is a linchpin, is offering, is wise, is
summoning its moment, is putting its best foot forward–

blessed are: the grasses on the roadside who tangle
legs and ankles with their stalks, blessed the young
evening rimmed with frost, blessed the smell of the
sea, blessed the knowledge of when to begin and to
stop short, blessed the jigsaw world, the trembling
ecstasy in thread, in wind, in call, in cry, blessed the
dying seconds, blessed this, blessed that, blessed us.


Credit for the title is duly owed Tessa, after we went through lots of other options, most of which were silly. (“Sometimes I am Covered in Lava” was out there at one point.) So, thanks to her!

I’ve been feeling a little bit down in the dumps with the poetic life lately. It is unbelievably tough to find a writing group in New York that doesn’t cost money, revolve around slam and performance poetry (or both), and is reasonably close/frequent enough to warrant a shot. A crop of rejections came in today, and it’s just frustrating to think that you can’t improve because you don’t have anyone to share live critique with (the Internet can only help so far), but you can’t get access to the live critique because you’re not good enough. The Catch-22 plateau of poetic advancement. So, if anyone has some advice on breaking past this, I’d be much obliged. Of course, I suppose I could always just start my own, but that comes with its own bugbears.

Donna suggested a line from Andrea Witzke Slot as a jumping off point: “Blame me, but I will open the curtains.” (The other option was to truncate an old poem and see how it changed.) Somehow I stumbled across Diane Lockward’s post about list poems and the blazon form featuring Cecilia Woloch as well, which led to another poem by her. So the themes and stylings of these three poems, “Terra Incognita”, “Blazon”, and “Fireflies”, all formed a confluence in this one. This is as domestic and cutesy as I think I will ever get, you guys.

(after a line by Andrea Witzke Slot)

Forgive me, but on the first day of Snow
I will throw the curtains wide at some blessed hour
to wash the room clean. And I will survey
all the transformations of a winter morning:
the bedspread becoming a hummock of fog
flattened onto the fields, stacks of books with titles
blanched by pale light until they are nothing more
than ruined towers. And the wicker furniture
rimed with grey sea salt. And you
protesting from under the warm covers,
so used to the different blindness of the long nights,
you, like some spirit of the hills denied his slow
hibernation. And blink the milk from your eyes.
And hear me sing come out come out
wherever you are
to the surprising cardinals.
And this is the part of loving me that must be
endured, though for such cold and quiet triumph
I make no apologies.

New York Love Spell #1

This is just a simple one that issued out of the absolutely fantastic sunset we’re having. I wish the Fellow were here pointing to it right now, since I’m sure he would. But I’m stuck at work, so I’ll just have to imagine that we’re sharing the romantic moment. This might also be an offering for the We Write Poems prompt to write an unconventional love poem without using the word “love”. I think all my love poems are at least trying to be unconventional, and I try not to use the word “love” if I can help it in a poem anyway… since that’s probably a plurality of what I write, I’ll probably have another before the week’s up.

New York Love Spell #1

The better angels
come from the ground up: they are the ones whose
mouths are still lingering in your mouth and sharing
the sidewalk’s patterned slush,

whose crooked fingers
point to that unfinished roof where a Merlot sun is
standing in the eyelet, winking, before
blowing out its candle,

whose wings are
hidden beneath leather jackets, trailing violet smoke
and air, held solid, but bubbled through like
an old window with laughter,

whose beards are soft,
who steam from cracks in cement, who are all-enfolding,
whose only want is to offer those pieces of night
always stepping in.

Chelsea, Chelsea

During the lunch break for the Chancellors’ Talks today, I stopped by my apartment, dropped stuff off, and ran to the bank. It’s astonishing how sometimes you can just be in an inspired mood at one moment, and you have to take hold of those moments immediately. So, the day was just full of good weather, good vibes, and lots of random images in the five-minute walk each way, and I had to jot down as much as I could before the next talk began. This is a very rough draft of that. I really like some of these images (especially that spinach pie, and that Impala; was so proud to pick out “butternut” as the proper color); now I need to work on the frame.

In other news, I’m still keeping up with the submissions challenge. Fifteen down? Sixteen? I don’t even know at this point, but I’m running out of poems to send…

Chelsea, Chelsea

The city writes its Saturday rules of attraction in
neighborhoods where even the names crave a lover’s

Today is full of sex magic: October blessing us with
fat coins of light, heavy with unexpected heat;
an ancient greaser blaring “I Put a Spell on You”
from the windows of his butternut ’61 Impala;
this jogger’s bare shoulder blades peeking from his shirt,
breathed brass and perfect and peppered with
small black moles.

Everyone scuffs the rubbish in the gutters and
breathes marijuana smoke from the first-floor apartments.
Pedestrians weave through traffic with their eyes and
their arms open wide to the world’s passing.
And I let an aphrodisiac street-fair spinach pie slowly
spread its book open on my tongue, undoing itself
leaf by leaf.

These are the things which keep our bodies moving
within this body that is the city; this is what syncopates
our tumbling hearts.