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!

The Subjunctive

You know, I bet I could write a better poem called “The Subjunctive”, but at the moment, this is an exercise for NaPoWriMo (and the last!), to take a short poem we like and turn every word/phrase in it on its head. A recent find is Ada Limón’s “The Conditional”, which you can read here. I liked it as soon as I saw it, at least partially because of the grammatical reference, so I went back to it for the exercise. I think my poem is more similar than I thought it would be, even though I did my best to really alter a lot of elements. Ah well. Language, she is the universal beast.

The Subjunctive

Let yesterday tumble in.
Let the sun unfold its tropical bloom.
Let rhubarb bend with reddened youth.
Let the moon glint as a pure blue monocle.
Let the cat’s nose flare valleys.
Let snakes coldly leave no trace.
Let his cap be a velvet planting-pot.
Let me always keep on watching: the squinted
past, trickling like water on rock, always
orbiting, always changing its light.
Let me meet him again and again. Always him.
Let me waste that first forever glancing away
from each other, back to shy back, catching
a butterfly and letting it crawl the cool sea.
Let it be worth something. Let it never be
enough. Let him say he’s done: not I, buried
elsewhere, ignorant with joy.

A Kiss from Far-off Eden

Today’s Miz Quickly prompt is to do sort of a cento of eavesdropped conversation, but since I find it hard to break text out of the conversations themselves (plus the fact that brunch with my family is the narrative equivalent of two freight trains loaded with chemical fertilizer colliding), I decided to just do one of my random-wandering centi, as I am sometimes wont to do. The path just kind of unfolded delicately, and I’m not sure I have any deeper reading, but eh, it kept me occupied.

A Kiss from Far-off Eden

I know that David’s with me here again,
with our shame and bitterness. Skies ever-blue,
our right shoulders red, our wavering hips indigo–
but what does he know about inside and outside?
(I come up to him
in the land of missing pronouns,
and when it starts to get dark,
we hardly speak.)
I’d ask how such wretchedness came to cumber
all mistake. One world that shuts air into
our words. We may have strolled in silence. But
whoever you are, holding me now in hand,
without you here, I’m viciously lonely.
Of all sweet passions, shame is the loveliest:
you are not me, and I am never you,
you with me, on me, in me, and you’re not.

Sources: Vachel Lindsay, “My Lady is Compared to a Young Tree”; Robert Graves, “Not Dead”; Denise Levertov, “In California During the Gulf War”; Traci Brimhall, “Our Bodies Break Light”; Li-Young Lee, “Immigrant Blues”; Galway Kinnell, “The Bear”; Marilyn Chin, “Quiet the Dog, Tether the Pony”; Alberto Blanco (trans. W.S. Merwin), “The Parakeets”; John Logan, “Three Moves”; Trumbull Stickney, “Mnemosyne”; Reginald Shepard, “Drawing from Life”; Li-Young Lee, “Eating Alone”; Walt Whitman, “Whoever You Are, Holding Me Now in Hand”; Aaron Smith, “Boston”; Alfred, Lord Tennyson, “In Praise of Shame”; Philip Lopate, “The Ecstasy”; Marilyn Hacker, “Coda”

New Jersey

Finally, the weekend! Guys: I needed this like you would not believe.

I finished (again) Lunch Poems on my way home, and some O’Hara — along with some Whitman and Sandburg, I guess — influenced the feel of this one. Miz Quickly’s prompt today was to observe Nature, while yesterday’s Poets and Writers was to write a letter to a landscape, which seemed to go hand-in-hand. And while I struggled with the themes all day, I realized that traveling New Jersey almost end to end was a pretty good source, so this is a little paean for the old home state. It’s kind of wonky and rambly, and doesn’t do a tenth of the justice that I’d like to, but then again, it’s only one poem, written to prompts, and it’s late. Be merciful, I beg you!

New Jersey

The length of you electrified, the breadth of you cast-iron,
mouth sunk deep into one city, tail rattled round another,
         what do you think about underneath?
Do you start with a man walking tunnels under the Hudson
to burst out into the Secaucus sunlight, slodging through
         marshwater pierced with telephone poles
whose wires dip parabolic underneath an egret’s wing?
Will he say, this is the arrowhead, flung forward, carved
         scrap of flint dipping its colonial point
into marine history, extending in a perfect line, industrial
revolution and immigrant tale, feathered with one eye
         pointed east into tomorrow’s Atlantic sun?
Who will smell salt air as the cars roam these counties
packed with fine gravel, listen to the mosquitoes buzz
         fear of the finchmouth under viaducts
crazyquilted with graffiti, buckling freight, hollowed like
a careful clay gorge? Are they women with moonscape hair,
         men with block-letter tattoos, children,
muddied and painted, roaming from stone checkerboards
onto your threadbare fields to execute the last crabapple,
         deer stalking the interstate’s shrug
to gnaw a bit of alder shoot? How do they weigh on you,
you who were always slight, the runt, the performer,
         the intense gaze, always warmer than
anyone thought, even with vertebrae all full of steel pins,
your limbs catalogued and the ospreys tagged, your feet
         shod wooden and dipped in Delaware Bay?
When spring comes fierce and yellow, dogwoods hang up
chandeliers in all your roofless parlors, and the cherries
         weep, do you tell them, this is no death,
show them a man walking tracks, a child splattered pink
and black, first tomato bloody in her teeth? Won’t new life
         wrought out of rust and broken glass,
wrung from reeds round empty factories, need a mother too?
What better land than one that sings them its similarity:
         small, wise, proud, wild, radio, radiant!

Epithalamion with Figs

I’m not much of an epithalamion (or epithalamium, if you prefer the Latin) writer, but it was the first thing that occurred to me for this prompt, and dammit, I just couldn’t get it out of my head. (I found out about this fig/wasp thing only a few days ago, probably when I was reading up for the very-similar cicada poem.) Symbiotic relationships that have evolved over millions of years always fascinate me and seem to put our “relationships” in humanity (I use the term loosely as a result) in a poor light. So I figured, Green Partier that I am, it’s Earth Day, I want to write an Earth Day poem for Miz Quickly and NaPoWriMo, I don’t have much time to do it, why not something touching on that conceit? Here, then, are figs, wasps, and wedding vows.

This is a throwaway poem, but I really like the idea behind it. Probably in a month or so, once I’m out of the work-frenzy and production-frenzy, I’ll settle down and write something less clunky to explore the topic.

Epithalamion with Figs

There are certain species of wasp who,
over the course of eighty million years,
have evolved to lay their eggs within figs.
The surrogate wombs close them in dark
with floret cradles, slowly ripening.
Wind comes, rain comes. The sun,
warm in some eons, cool in some others,
stirs them awake. The males mate
and burrow with equal ferocity
like desperate prisoners do, dying content
once they breathe the outside air.
Then the females, weighed down by wings,
scooping fig pollen as they go,
follow their brother-husbands’ tunnels
and take flight. Some will cross worlds
to find a virgin tree, folding back the fruit’s
puckered lip to crawl in, release the young.
How many generations have there been
since they came to this understanding,
the fig and the wasp? To bind together
so many lives– what can two people do
that the nurseries bobbing under
green leaves don’t already make clear?
But of course even the smallest things,
like love, must be cherished.
Split open a fig and see the sleepers
row after row: to know their parable,
to run one thumb over it and be humbled,
is the only vow worth making.

Fire Ecology

Since yesterday was kind of a bust (I passed out at 10:45, ugh!) I’m trying to crack away at some poems and things today, while there is nothing going on. This first one is for the Miz Quickly prompt of the day, to use five song titles as (respectively) the theme, the complication to be hidden, and three bits of text in a piece. After randomizing my iTunes, I ended up with:

Bedouin Soundclash, “Until We Burn in the Sun (The Kids Just Want a Love Song)”
The Postal Service, “This Place is a Prison”
The Magnetic Fields, “World Love”
Joy Simone, “India”
Michael Gray featuring Shelly Poole, “Borderline”

So if you were curious about what’s in my music library, those are reggae-ska, electro-alternative, worldish-alternative, worldish-acoustic, and disco-house, respectively. I’m kind of relieved the first two came up when they did, and that I didn’t have to use them uninterrupted in the poem, although maybe that would have helped clarify my direction. As it is, I just ended up doing a self-destructive love-to-be-escaped  poem type of thing chock full of clichés. But you know what, this is April: I am not particularly interested in writing things that are good, or original, or publishable. This should also be called Spaghetti Month: you throw lines at the wall and see what sticks. (But don’t forget to pull it down before too long, or it gets stuck there forever.)

Fire Ecology

Yes, I said, give me
the gazing-at-gods kind of love
that blinds, I want that,
screw the moth to the flame,
I want to be a grazing comet
wet with white sacrifice
breaking free of atmosphere
to throw itself into the sun,
wide-as-the-world love
crossing sawtoothed sierras
and seas black as India ink,
dissolved by your tongue and
crushed by the tip of your finger,
thinking that love is
the endless oil well, when in fact
all of it has risen from inside me
like kerosene, I have been
a wick of fortunate paper
crackling upward with prayers,
and you with your tongue
and your cage of fingers stand
on the borderline, quiet,
the god climbing out of his bath
indifferent, tall ponderosa pine
refusing to burn.


Spring is teasing us today: the sun is out, the air is crisp, and the temperature is a glorious 40-something. I am waiting for the other shoe to drop, because I suspect winter has one last ace up her sleeve. But as long as there’s snow, I will never mind winter in March. It’s the freezing temperature + wind that undoes me, while snow makes everything okay. Still, once we get past the equinox, I am firmly on the side of more warmth now, please.

We Write Poems wanted an epiphany poem. Obviously I could sit around waiting for one, and then write about it, but I think I’ve used up all my epiphanies for the season, so I turned to past ones. I came back again to a quote from L.A. Story that I like when I’m in a truly foul post-love mood: “Why is it we can never tell the moment that love begins, but we always know when it ends?” Not that I am in such a mood today, but it was as good as anything else I could come up with. I think it’s a small, but important epiphany, and it’s a much nicer one to have after the breakup than before; I’ve been on both sides of the coin, and this is my opinion. Of course, I’m sure we all have a much rougher time getting to that moment now and then.


Love ends in a rearview mirror,
long after the breakup. You might see it flash
violet across the highway when you’re daring
eighty-five up towards Jackson, in a quick
upward motion like a victorious falcon
or the flourishing needle finished
its last loop of thread. You realize it
several minutes later in an empty kitchen,
or digging thistles with your bare hands
out back in the black loam, or maybe
washing shampoo from your hair in the shower.
Then you blame any salt sting on the rivulets
starting at the top of your head
running down through outstretched toes.
There is momentarily a bitter, coffee-no-cream
borrow of taste. And then a warm, wet towel.
A missed phone call from an old friend,
whose fault lines begin to look like the X
of buried treasure. These are the things
we unbox to fill cabinets, and to repopulate
a world grown so tired of noise.