Saturday, August 29, 2009

The Star in the Fig.

I have been canning this summer. If you know me at all, you know this is a new practice for me. My mother made elderberry preserves for years when I was a child, as we lived in a townhouse development that backed up to open meadows where elderberries grew wild in the hedgerows. Her jars were the small ones with the quilted glass that made the dark-purple jam refract like a jewel.

I, too, find myself in debt to a volunteer plant. Last summer, I complained and ranted about my weed tree and its seemingly-endless fig drop. I believe I may have even compared the rotting, fetid fruits on my patio to the deposits my dogs sometimes leave there when they forget themselves and the more-than-adequate area provided them for such activities by the yard.

This summer, however, I have made a study of my Brown Turkey Fig tree, also known as a Texas Everlasting. It has three harvests per year and produces a fruit that is mottled green and wine-colored when ripe, rather than deep purple as with the Black Mission figs. Its jam is a most lovely amber color, full of tiny seeds, and my favorite part of the canning process is scooping the stuff into the jars that make them look like pints of smoky quartz. I am an object person, after all, much more than a cook or a consumer of jam. And, so, these little quilted jars are destined for Christmas boxes and wrappings come December.

The true irony is that I find myself suddenly vigilant about my harvest and thus in a constant battle with the finches, the jays, and the squirrels to make sure I don't lose many ripe fruits to their nibbles and pecks. This morning, I found this particular exhibit left by one of my house finches, I think, and it reminded me of a line from one of my poems...

"Under the sweet logia air, he writes it into his book of measures, and the fruit opens into a star." (from "The Baluster and the Pomegranate Flower," In Defense of Objects, 2009)

It's almost enough to make one wonder whether animals possess aesthetic sense. In any case, another lovely object.

Friday, August 7, 2009

In Memoriam.

Yesterday, when I collected the mail from the porch, I found the envelope with Barbara’s book of poems. I was thrilled. Barbara and I both arrived in the small mountain town of Prescott, Arizona, in 2000; I came for a job and a man, she came there with her husband to retire. We met through the local college where I was teaching and where the community group for publishing poets and fiction writers initially met. The group eventually ended up getting together at her house, which had a stunning view of the red sandstone formations, the chino grasslands, and the snow-capped mountains to the north. Arizona landscape changes color the way fabric does that's been dipped in a dye wash—quickly and in liquid waves. Her yard's backdrop was like watching cinema natura.

It was also the cleanest, sparest space I've ever loved being in. Her great room area (really the living and dining rooms and kitchen all under one cathedral-ceiling space) was generally white and absolutely without knick-knack. Her room's color was in the art and the blue leather sofa and the long wall of glass that opened into the northern view. I am not usually given to rooms devoid of objects, nor can I imagine getting my house to the point that there aren't some stacks of papers and random...thingeys...laying around. But I loved being at Barbara's. She always had a fresh carton of half-and-half in the fridge for the just-brewed, afternoon coffee, and she always had a plate of some cookie or another on the table where we huddled to read and mark each other's pages. It was a comfort to be there, among friends and cats and words.

When I opened her book on Wednesday—in true Barbara style, she titled it Pinch Me—out fell two engraved cards. One was devastating in its simplicity: her name followed by her dates, November 10, 1950-June 27, 2009. The other invited me to her memorial brunch next weekend. We hadn't been in touch since my move to California, although I thank her by name on the acknowledgments page of my poetry book, the one I first held in my hands just days before her death. I wish she would have known that I was grateful for her guidance. I suppose I was guilty of thinking she could beat anything—any disease—any recurrence—time itself. That was not to be. She had fought cancer a couple times and won. Or, at least, bought herself some space to be herself in. I am glad for the reprieve, as I met and got to know her in those hard-won years, and she got to do the thing she always wanted: be a full-time writer, publish a book of her poems.

The first thing I did after opening the package yesterday (sent me by her husband, by the way) was to read her poems through, from start to finish. She did not shirk the grim muse. Her voice is fierce—yet warm, and even reverent—at the end, in the end, and it’s no wonder that I’m still hearing it in my ear. The second thing I did was to go to my shelves and pull out several books by various poets that I had lent her a while back, so I could read the post-it notes she had stuck on their covers for me—her response to the work. I left them in place, all of them, because that was the effect that Barbara’s words had on a person. They rang true enough to want to hold on to them:

Linda, I think this is awful poetry. I didn’t feel anything but irritated and sometimes wondered if C.L. played a random game with her dictionary to select her next word. And if I read one more poem with the word ‘canoodle’ in it, I think I’ll lose it. At least her poems weren’t espaliered across the page—that would have been pure torture! Barbara

Linda, I liked these poems—was especially taken with those on p. 5 and p. 11. Her work is agonizingly tweaked and polished. Barbara

Linda, There’s a good essay by Peter Campion in here, as well as a damning review of Wright’s Cooling Time ! ? Barbara

These are the three notes I came across on a quick scan of my shelves yesterday. What I know is that there are more of her notes stuck to more of my books and that I will come across them haphazardly some future afternoon when I’m looking for something to read, and I will open a book to find Barbara’s words staring back at me from a little square of yellow or orange. I am looking forward to those meetings.

The sound of my unused life
is delight darkly.

RIP Barbara.