Introducing Heather H. Thomas
It is a treat for me to introduce the guest Poetry Editor for the international issue: award-winning poet, teacher, and critic Heather H. Thomas. I’ve known her for over two decades, long admired her innovative poetry and her scholarship on the contemporary feminist long poem, and in the last decade, have been delighted that she shared with me some of the wonderful creative writing exercises she has developed for workshops she regularly teaches all over the world as Emerita Professor and freelance educator. Heather has seven collections of poetry, most recently Vortex Street (FutureCycle, 2018) and three chapbooks, including the exquisite, limited edition The Fray (collected in revised form in Vortex Street). Heather’s poetry is attuned to issues of gender, and explores the way one’s personal history is marked by economic and socio-political conditions of the past. Heather has been called a visionary poet, but she is also alert to the world we live in and the forces that are affecting us today. In her own words, Vortex Street “imagines the world as a series of vortices connected through air and water, starting with my own riverside street and extending to Newtown, Connecticut; Tanta, Egypt; Tel Aviv; Sarajevo; Istanbul and elsewhere. As a phenomenon of fluid dynamics, a vortex street disregards boundaries we think we have in place to protect us. In these poems, private and public urgencies travel through time and converge in a space that is borne, accepted, and reimagined.”
I invite you to check out Heather’s own poetry further, and now to enjoy the poetry from around the world, which she has selected for this issue of Persimmon Tree.
Destiny of Speech: Heather H. Thomas Introduces the International Poets
“Poetry is one of the destinies of speech,” wrote Gaston Bachelard. “One would say that the poetic image, in its newness, opens a future to language.”
Each poem here inscribes its own destiny of speech. The poet’s search for an image “in its newness” opens “a future to language” that is both her own and the reader’s, with each term – future and language – under question. Our concept of future is in radical spin because of climate crisis, technology, unstable world democracies, and more. Our futures as women over sixty are uncertain in the space of aging and mortality. In the translation-space of poems composed in one language and translated into another, language itself is unstable.
Lucky for us these conditions offer the gift of possibility, in Dickinsonian terms. With these poems, we “dwell in Possibility –/ a fairer House than Prose – ” Even as the poem, language, and we ourselves undergo a seismic shift that Virginia Woolf called “the shock of being,” this shock offers the discovery of new possibilities.
Our poetic materials and acts of writing become more vital, even more “a necessity of life”; as the late American poet C.D. Wright said: “It is a function of poetry to locate those zones inside us that would be free, and declare them so.” Thus, we explore, interrogate, survive, thrive – we create what it means to be a woman in late season practicing poetry now. The poems in this folio from Argentina, Australia, Canada, Denmark, England, Israel, England, Poland, Russia, Singapore, and Switzerland confirm, as Wallace Stevens wrote, “that the whole world is material for poetry” and that “the purpose of poetry is to make life complete in itself.”
I am grateful for the opportunity to have read the work of each poet who submitted. Culling a limited number of winners was challenging. I enjoyed entering the stanzas – the rooms – of voices. I looked for poems with a language of encounter and an experience of something transformative delivered through diction and form. Poem-rooms take up little space and yet, walking out of them, I was often changed. As I worked, the poems began talking to each other. They met at intersections on a word-world map crossing cultures in a space that felt fecund.
Clear images and a direct prose style in the opening poem, “A Late Visit” by Australian poet Sue Lockwood, enact the speaker’s awareness of diminishment: the ancestral blood in her veins is only “a watered-down forbearance.” The tone of home in Danish poet Marianne Larsen’s “dwelling,” a series of meditative couplets driven by repetends, takes a surprising turn that calls attention to the poem’s making and to our lives as possibility that can change with a word.
Russian-born Irina Mashinski considers how memory can carry and sustain one homely image of nature through a lifetime across countries and cultures, even as the future, now threatened by climate crisis, shrinks before us. “Ghazal: displaced person,” by England’s Marion Leeper energizes this ancient couplet form with the tension between a woman’s longing for home and her long-running adjustment to displacement, waiting for “grey skies to clear.”
Encounters with extremities of terror and war transform daily life and long-term memory in the work of Israeli poet Diti Ronen and Argentine poet Patricia Díaz Bialet. Ronen’s poem “In Which the House Readies Itself for Battle” enacts the threat of war and its tragic toll as part of daily life in the Middle East. Díaz Bialet’s haunting metaphors of an underground dance evoke the horror of 30,000 people disappeared during the Dirty War, and that war’s lasting mark on the Argentine psyche. Both poems deal with the insidious ways in which war distorts and traumatizes.
By contrast, English poet Wendy Klein imagines a sweet sojourn with a street violinist in Siena; the poem’s musical tercets evoke “every echo, every trill,” lost in a “newness” that transforms the speaker and brings to her the imagined company of two young girls. Convictions of imagination and desire also energize Polish poet Krystyna Lenkowska’s “Guilin,” a place where a Chinese princess will sacrifice her silk and pearls but never the “the poem on the rock / engraved in calligraphy.”
As the seasoned woman’s life depends on her resilience, so the metaphor of a swift-flying hawk-moth drives Canadian poet Margaret Hollingsworth’s “The Wife Retired,” whose speaker turns the table on her husband’s dare to divorce. Narrative and portraiture evoke the loss of memory and health in “Visiting Rosita” by Althea Romeo Mark, a West Indies-born resident of Switzerland. The speaker visits her friend in a home for the aged, where the once-vital and multilingual Rosita, “lover of lingos” and salsa, falls into a “babel of accents” and lives in a “sanitized” room “bare of her history.”
Audrey Chin of Singapore begins a seemingly light-hearted dialogue with two children in “A refugee, settled, out on the pier,” but the speaker’s lies of reassurance to them stir waves of her own still-painful memories of her refugee experience. Dialogue, likewise, drives Israeli poet Karen Alkalay-Gut’s “Wardrobe.” Advised to discard her vintage clothes in order to stay in style, the speaker hears the clothes defend themselves as evidence of a life well lived.
Our folio closes with a transformative enactment of old age and death, Canadian poet Susan Wismer’s “Old poet became.” Her dramatic monologue and striking images of the departing poet as “unseen hand / hand of the weaver, a blue / strand of wool / in the rug at your feet” reminds me of American poet Muriel Rukeyser’s declaration that the poem is “made by the hand of the poet.”
That hand may be mortal, but O, what it discovers through writing poems. May you enjoy the poems published here and also be inspired by these closing stanzas of Polish Nobel laureate Wislawa Szymborska’s “The Joy of Writing”:
where I rule absolutely on fate?
A time I bind with chains of signs?
An existence become endless at my bidding?
The joy of writing.
The power of preserving.
Revenge of a mortal hand.
Sue Lockwood, Australia
A Late Visit
A gnarled pear in blossom shades the rumps of horses.
My antecedents lived near, and this was the road they walked.
I have their blood, a watered-down forbearance,
but nothing I do can invoke them
or wrench them from their work.
Marianne Larsen, Denmark
here I think my own quiet thoughts
move my quiet hands to my quiet face
one quiet hour after another
and think of quiet people full of quiet thoughts
about quiet people who live in quiet houses
and have quiet hands that quietly move
to quiet faces
one quiet hour after another
or I live in a noisy house
and move my noisy hands
to my noisy face
Irina Mashinski, Russia
It’s Here Again
as then, at my grandparents’.
I would open my eyes
to the gray Sunday morning
to the Soviet cheerful radio mantra
–Orange sun, orange skies–
I am six, I am nine, I am twelve.
The twig freezing in the Moscow mist
pokes the glass
and small veter wind moves it lightly –
just to check on it.
Can’t believe: it is still
with me – the two bends and the smooth shiny nod,
a fork on the left side – Lot’s wife who’d glanced ahead –
still wet from morning Jersey drizzle, pokes the window.
Waters are rising
my island is smaller and smaller, and I hear, far away
in the fields – a freight train
sounds like the future
it’s just returned from
Vetka, Vetochka (dim) – branch, twig
Veter – wind (Russian)
Photo by J.S. Watts
Marion Leeper, England
Ghazal: displaced person
a tin-roofed shed. They said grey skies would clear.
Shoulders itching with tweed: the coat I had to wear
to keep me warm until the grey skies clear.
They offered me a gift: stuffed toy with glass-eyed stare
told me to hug it: the grey skies would clear.
Once there was fruit in outstretched hand, kisses to spare:
my home a place where skies are always clear.
Sweets gone from empty box: gone, people I held dear,
weeds shade the garden where my life ran clear.
Your new home grows around you, year by year.
You wait, still, Marion, for grey skies to clear.
Diti Ronen, Israel
In Which the House Readies Itself for Battle
Its walls have widened and thickened
to protect its occupants.
It rises up from its lair
takes a breath
hermetically seals the windows
and through fictitious crenels
loads the senses
to protect its borders.
One by one it gathers
together with bottled water
and canned food.
It doesn’t give up. It isn’t scared.
Does not hesitate or shirk.
No one will get away.
It dons a layer of steel
mumbling words of prayer
to ensure salvation.
If a bomb falls on the house right now
the house will protect those inside it.
No one will get away. We will all be there,
you will find us among the fractured ruins
clutching each other
our internal organs shattered
our faces pulverized and very protected.
[Translated by Joanna Chen]
Patricia Díaz Bialet, Argentina
They’re dancing with the dead
They dance with the invisible ones
Their anguish is unsaid
They dance alone
We beg a gram of mercy in the chaos
Drag our humanity inside a pit
Stoke the fiery stoves
Ignore our mothers’ orders to come back early
Spy on the love affair surely to come
Or on the traffic of dunes in succeeding summers
We sit on the carpet once we have gone too far
The bar is a lamentable routine
The staircase recedes before the affection
Wrapped in blue vapor we spin
The armchairs howl deserted in the morning
All the others
The ones who are not here
Dance at our side their drizzle of tortured animals
From the music room even the falling
particles of mold are held captive
Viamonte y Suipacha, Buenos Aires, 1971
Wendy Klein, England
Let it be Siena in May
dwarfed by Gothic towers.
Let there be unseasonal rain, thunder
beating down around my ears, the crackle
of lightning, the snap
of umbrellas that cluster like mushrooms
in the plaza. Let there be an old man
with a violin and a flourish,
taking charge of the narthex where pilgrims
once huddled. Let him be observed by two
small girls in identical
flowered pinafores, suspended
for a moment in music, stilled and rapt,
all eyes and silence.
Let me, like them, hear every note,
every echo, every trill; be lost in its newness,
as if I had never
heard music before; not adrift in galleries
where antiquity stifles my breath,
and only one staircase
leads to the exit.
Krystyna Lenkowska, Poland
at the Peak of Lonely Beauty
the princess prays to Buddha
for a good harvest
and the prompt return of the prince
from the Concubines’ House
in return she will sacrifice
her pearl necklace
and new silk kimono
she will not sacrifice the karst
view of the city
and its sharp osmanthus smell
nor the poem on the rock
engraved in calligraphy
which certifies this.
Margaret Hollingsworth, Canada
The Wife Retired
give up agency
accede to people’s whims,
it’s easier than arguing.
senescent cells kick in
good for lying, good
for pollinating, good
for catching flies on
I cast myself adrift
camp out in crevices
seek to erase
the watermark as
to set my husband free
cast off his dare.
I’m leaving him.
Althea Romeo Mark, West Indies/Switzerland
Has her tongue lost its sense of taste? Is she never hungry?
I remember when she had hips,
remember when she danced and
partied long after my head and tired limbs
had sent me to bed.
I wondered how she, ten years older,
found the staying power.
Rosita sits surrounded by visitors.
Her bare arms, pale, blue-veined,
soak up the summer sun
she has willed herself to reach.
Rosita, a former teacher, lover of lingos,
and still multi-lingual, links faces to spoken tongue
as we stroll along the conversation road,
but the strain of it brings on a blend of
German, English, Portuguese, French, Spanish.
Soon the visit, with its babel of accents, is draining.
The battery of mind slows; the forgetting begins.
I return Rosita to the room she is confined to,
that sanitized space, free of lived-in-odors,
bare of her history, empty of familiar furniture
and salsa music, once her companion when alone.
The generic hotel for the old and unwell
is airless in the summer heat.
I ask Rosita the names of recent guests
to jot them in the visitors’ notebook
but names have disappeared with departed faces.
Bidding her goodbye, I head to the lift,
turn left and left and left again,
my reminder of the maze followed to her room
How do occupants find their way
in the endless bending of corridors?
I see them wandering around,
lost in time and space.
Audrey Chin, Singapore
A refugee, settled, out on the pier
immensely ginormouse – he says
it’s the sea – I tell them
the sea – they echo
where fishes live – I say
lots of fishes – she agrees
lemme see – he says, pushing
and then – I don’t see no fish
how he is
they’re underneath – I explain
adding –in the deep
she asks – and will Goldie be happy there?
and god forgive me
I say – yes
I say – she’ll have lots of friends
he asks – as many as in playgroup?
adding – a gazillion?
even if he doesn’t know
10 from 20
and I say – yes
and I pray he’ll never stick his head down there
to count the difference
and I pray she’ll never dip her finger in and lick the salt
goldfish can’t swim in
living or dead
and I pray – god, let’s be done with
before my memories
wash up in waves I can’t stop
as in those first months I carried them
seasick towards the horizon
as she tilts the fishbowl over
and they say – bye bye
and tell me
– it’s goldfish heaven
– down there
Karen Alkalay-Gut, Israel
than an older woman
in outmoded clothes,
the style advisor said.
And I went home
to attack my closet
to throw away
every vintage coat
I’ve ever worn.
But they lined up
How can we be erased?
We are your history
The only proof
you wore such fashions
pranced and twirled
in such moments
Whether we are useful or not
we’re the best of you
all of us together
all of your selves
Susan Wismer, Canada
Old poet became
dropped leaves, wanting
winter’s light touch
on her knots
on the bends of her branches.
when they called to her
come now, come to the table
at night the stars weep light, I am
footprints of camel
a desert, unseen hand
hand of the weaver, a blue
strand of wool
in the rug at your feet.
Heather H. Thomas
We’re in the dining room of her assisted living.
She’s lost her story but found this one.
In port or moving? She reads my incredulous face.
Time, history, and now, place: vanished.
Soon gravity will be defied, if she can avoid
falling. Forget it, she says. Let’s move on.
The woman who stood her ground
and pushed to the front of the line.
Fit my fits to the wall, my face to the corner.
I floated along the ceiling seam
that sealed the past, floated far out in space,
into dark matter, beyond everything
under her control, yet still not free,
no matter how much I disappointed her,
how much my confidence waned
when she was not there to rebel against.
I have no recall on that, Mom says.
She self-propels into someone else’s room.
Where am I? The aides take her
on another tour. I just moved here, she says.
It’s been four years. Now she’s floating
in a boat with Tom Hanks and Sally Field.
I’m a lily in lake mud, at once fruit and flower.
At the sight of me she startles and beams.
What’s that? she asks.
I’m carrying a red duffle.
For the boat?
And I hear myself saying
your clean laundry, thinking it is.
Book of Hours
I live for the last minute.
The covers flip back.
A glance already late is staggering.
Then I stand before the gingko,
my phone pointing up at shook-gold limbs
flashing a thousand tiny fans.
The screen goes black.
This is why gratitude is never late:
Night takes the leaves,
bare-ruined by the cold,
yet stripped limbs, straight-skyed and silent,
hold still their reach.
My returning feet step gingerly
on a galaxy of pale, fallen stars.