“The Sap-Rich Glory”: The Poetry of Guest Judge Ann Fisher-Wirth
Many of Ann’s exquisite poems concern loss and grief; they have been described as possessing “moral gravity” and an “abundance of compassion.” Consider her poem “Prayer,” included in The Bones of Winter Birds, which opens with a heart-warming memory of a Christmas when her five children were small enough to feel the wonder of the holidays. They’d asked to sleep by the tree. Remembering “the beloved tumble of arms/ and legs,” the speaker recalls that when she first learned about war, she couldn’t fathom the cruelty of men in war, for instance: “That a man could choose to tear a baby / from its mother’s arms.” We readers can immediately think of specific scenes from earlier wars, although we needn’t recall distant times in history. As the poem subtly references in closing: “But so we see it now, each day.”
Ann is a poet whose lyric attentiveness extends outward in ripples of empathy, from family to the environment, and from there to the world with all its struggles to survive, its wars, its small and real hopes. One short example is a poem from her forthcoming book, “The day lays down”:
first summer heat as we drive
beyond Clarksdale through the Delta
past cotton silos, Baptist graveyards,
little swamps with floating trash,
sometimes an egret. We turn on one-lane roads
leading past alfalfa fields
and a yellow cropduster gassing up,
getting ready to spray poison.1
The scene creates a nearly bucolic sketch of the rural South—cotton silos, graveyards, egrets—in details that indicate not only lives of hard work, past and present, but also that which poisons and pollutes them. As it concludes, we realize that at its heart, this poem encompasses an act of compassionate witness. Here is a poet who can see both beauty and its ruin. As she remarks in a poem from which I’ve drawn my title, “Nearly April”: “the sap-rich glory does not stop for grief.”
As reviewer Wendy Taylor Carlisle puts it, Ann Fisher-Wirth’s work is “a wonder, providing as it does sadness entwined with… hope.” And wisdom, for it gives us the means to witness and not despair, a way of thinking through grief in order to feel the bright life of spring return.
I invite you to check out more of her poetry, whether online or in her poetry collections. For now, however, please scroll down and enjoy the exciting and moving poetry she has chosen to feature in this beautiful winter issue of Persimmon Tree.
1 “The day lays down” was first published in Dispatches from the Poetry Wars: POETICS FOR THE MORE-THAN-HUMAN WORLD: An Anthology of Poetry and Commentary, ed. Mary Newell, Bernard Quetchenbach, and Sarah Nolan (Spuyten Duyvil Press, 2020).
Introduction to Poets of the Central States
What an arc these sixteen poems describe. My first thought as Guest Editor for this issue of Persimmon Tree was to make selections based on some pre-existing theme. But as I read the hundreds of submissions and made my final choices, what struck me was their diversity. Short poems, longer poems; narrative poems, lyrics, experimental poems—together they create a rich array of voices and formal possibilities.
As I have arranged the issue, it begins with two poems that celebrate the power of language, of poetry itself. Next come several narrative poems which evoke pleasurable or difficult personal histories connected with the rural past, song, food, sex. There follow a cluster of poems about the body: the aging human body, the fiercely inhumane body politic, the beautiful, damaged body of the earth—and then a liturgy, a prayer. And the issue ends with several poems about different varieties of love, whether in the past, present, or future; whether full of ambivalence, joy or grief; love that blossoms and endures past death.
Thank you to everyone who submitted work for this competition. As we move toward winter, please enjoy this wonderful collection of poems from the Central States. It has been a pleasure to put it together.
I collect images scattered like just-sprung mushrooms:
deer in velvet the fierce falcon
that spits out the heads of songbirds
visions of my beloved wound in sheets
as if for burial at sea the high winds
that pulled the power rug out so the clocks bleed red
night smothering with its vague quilt
covering clarity that always returns to the morning
with the soft syllables of the loons.
The images run like skinny wild horses wanting feeding,
dangerous with devil-may-care desperation, searching
for a place to rest with no need for vigilance;
so I rope, herd, corral, stand warily
behind a buzzing fence, listen to them bucking
with high-kicking friction like dissonant tunes
begging to be strung into harmony.
Their wayward power drags me
into something hidden, something
I never knew was there.
Blue-lined paper. Six or seven
with my poetry at sixteen.
Words—stirred by Ferlinghetti,
Brautigan and ee cummings—
poured out, running onto the pages.
Fingers in a boy’s hair,
the crucifixion of humiliation.
I had discovered a secret passage
out. Behind the door of a
black and white marbled cover.
But my mother hovered
in the doorway, always,
always asking to read.
That request crawled darkly
over the pages.
I had the chore of burning trash.
Stoking a fire hot enough
to torch corrugated boxes,
melt plastic bottles, flare open
pages, blue-lined, dense with ink.
The poems rose into spirit,
heat, and smoke. I was relieved
to have hidden them so well.
Sometimes now I find traces
in a bar of soap or drop of rain,
an old bathing suit, Yardley perfume,
cropped grass. Once in a while
comes a decades-gone phrase:
Eggs for Sale
Seems that nailed-up sign might still be there
till the cows come home, till kingdom comes
Faded hand-printing on a weathered board
a long wavy arrow pointing, faintly red
I’ve passed it all my life on this two-lane road
followed it sometimes to the chicken farm
Sandy and bumpy, a straight line cut into the heart
of sorghum fields, green, child-tall and russet-topped
Left home as soon as I could, but I visit sometimes
All just memories now, fresh-laid eggs from fluffy hens
speckled and strutting, clucking, life-happy
the rooster king of more than daybreak
On a whim I make a U-turn, follow that old sign
knowing there’s hardly anything left there to see
Just the empty brick house and time-battled shed
where they used to roost, cooped up and safe
As quiet here now as cellar steps, not one single trace
of the selling stand where the straw-hatted woman
with cross-hatched cheeks sold us the eggs and bragged
on her flock, called each of them by name
Saying goodbye this morning, the folks said I’ve changed
I said of course but you still recognize me
coming back is hard, so much happens in between
with only words to use, and so much left out
Back on the highway, my sandy tire tracks disappear
like those used-to-be’s in our caravan of change
Worth trying to remember in the still places we go
where we might find a white feather, a cracked shell
I loved you easiest from the back seat,
driving home after Starlight Opera,
your suit coat, scratchy as your whiskers,
sideways over me, my legs tucked in to fit,
pretending sleep as streetlights passed
and the moon kept pace, as you whistled
show tunes the whole way home.
I wanted words as years went on,
but learned to recognize your pride
in how a dimple deepened,
happiness in how your chin tucked in,
the way you rocked a little on your heels.
Your love I learned from whistled songs.
You’d serenade our mother as you drove:
“Daisy, Daisy, Give me your answer true…”
Now you are a blue jay feather in the grass,
the wind chime in the weeping cherry tree.
I see you in a gladiola’s bright orange blossom spike,
in my own old body bending forward
with a seedling and a trowel.
If I asked a medium to conjure you,
I would know it was really you
if there were no words,
only her surprised eyes,
and her puckered lips
warbling a love song
from a Broadway show
she didn’t even know.
Some enchanted evening
if you came through,
every note from you
would find its way to true,
like the open longing
from a slide guitar,
like the bending weeping
of a singing saw.
We Are Some Sad-ass Bad Cooks in My Family
We are some sad-ass bad cooks in my family.
The circle of writers shares sacred recipes
from ancestors we are here to explore.
My people left home because there was no food.
The circle of writers shares sacred recipes,
but all I call up is the back of a box.
My people left home because there was no food,
hoping the new world held fuller pantries.
But all I call up is the back of a box
of barley my mom used to make her soup.
Hoping the new world held fuller pantries,
we stirred pots over a hot plate in the back room.
Of barley my mom used to make her soup
along with scraps that lasted the week.
We stirred pots over a hot plate in the back room.
Specks of onion, chunks of celery, bits of carrot
along with scraps that lasted the week.
We added canned tomatoes and bouillon,
specks of onion, chunks of celery, bits of carrot.
Hearty vegetable barley soup supposes there is meat.
We added canned tomatoes and bouillon
so that the broth always tasted like beef at least.
(Hearty vegetable barley soup supposes there is meat.)
We are some bad-ass sad cooks in my family.
LP Records, mixed media, by Suvan Geer
Looking for It
There’s so much I can’t remember. Names and facts
have a parlous impermanence in my brain.
When I mislaid the blue sweater I got at J. Jill
on sale, 60% off, that loss demolished me.
Who secures something so perfect
then releases it? I stomped around for days
in my friend’s apartment saying,
what a fool I am and it must be somewhere.
But it was gone like my sex appeal. And why
shouldn’t my mind be misplaced like that?
I’m sure I was evil as Palpatine, although
I don’t remember why and maybe I never knew,
enmeshed as I was in my princess-in-distress myth
and trying to make something tender
of the best bits of my life. Eventually, my friend
found the sweater under a cushion in his sofa
but nothing brings back the name (oh what was it)
of that crazy, sexy, drunk Lithuanian poet.
This Aging Body
My body a footprint
will step out one day
become mud after a storm
its dark moist mouth
its lovely grammar of acceptance.
Until then I remove my broken shoes
kiss them goodbye
leave them to their own resources
into weeds and rough branches
to a place I remember
from before I was born
where an evening grosbeak
waits. I will not leave her behind.
This river blue-black.
The heron almost the river’s color.
I think about diving into the muddy
low tide with him
search for fish with him
my body all powder down
my bill a harpoon
but herons are cautious
and I agree it is best
I remain on the white cushion
of the pontoon
the sky in flames
of cerise and neon
one thin long cloud
my body trying to learn
its own constraints, its miracles.
the first hundred days
in the first hundred days the bees were relieved
to be told they were no longer in danger
of becoming extinct & that when they did
the drone pollinators would already be
booted-up & running & we were relieved to learn
only the violent felons would be deported
that is only the violent felons with brown skin
the others could stay & when they
revised violent felons to violent criminals
then to criminals & then defined criminals
to mean anyone entering the U.S. without papers
we went along further instructed that entered means mothers
risking rape & death to flee a fire
laid and lit with our own gasoline & also means children
walking across a desert without water just to be
with those mothers but when they did that
no one noticed because they did it in fine print & the big print
continued to say only criminals would be deported
& we watched while janitors & teachers & mothers & babies
got sent away & the news got so bad
it stopped feeling different but was just the news
& the rare joy of a day without some large-scale disaster & then
the days without some large-scale disaster
began to seem kind of pallid & dull
so we watched miniseries serving up expository torture
& spandrel sex like the news
our understanding sneaking up by degrees a hood
of soft microfleece still being a hood
& even we who need not worry about being deported
or shot when we run out for milk
even we feel something now encircling our throats
something silken & long & shit
shit shit shit what was that safe word again
After 10,000 years, no Susquehannocks could be found in Ricketts Glen.
unlike those places whose dusted sunlight floats over pale faces of plaster saints,
where hard heels on tile floors make hollow piercing echoes,
where breath is slow and the prayerful sit silent with folded hands,
this place will plunge you down twenty-two sun enshrined roars and trickles
this place will give you damp moss covering slick grey shale,
this place will echo against you as you stand beneath wet stone.
Delicate are its ferocious crescendos.
Fierce is its whisper, this place was once sacred
A tree uprooted in the wood,
presents a mandala, a tangle of rock, root, and soil
flat and facing you.
The canopy concedes no loss,
colludes with a bright blue sky,
conceals the missing flickered leaves.
The brilliant water still
dances over the escarpment between plateau
still beats against tossed boulders,
still breaks into atomized invisibility,
still fills and flows silently out of you.
Liturgical Mass (Hidden Valley)
after Kasey Jueds, “Litany (Paulownia)” [THE THICKET]
If not for the river, the road (yet)
If not for the road, the cabin (built)
If not for the cabin, gathering (family)
If not for the gathering (warm, with smoke)
If not for smoke rising from dry fir
no heat for the living (let the dead alone)
Let alone the dead who keep rising (warm)
Let alone their intention still warm (toward the living)
Till dead, the living keep rising, falling (if not
for smoke rising, smoke drifting)
If not for the drift filling the valley (hiding the hills)
If not for fires burning firs on the mountain
If not for the mountain wanting to worship
The worship of firs soughing in wind (wanting only
to sing birds to their rest)
At rest in the cabin (at rest on the road)
No rest for the smoke (or the flames racing near)
Flames racing nearer, intent on the living
(intent on the dead)
Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I will fear no evil: for thou [art] with me; thy rod and thy staff
they comfort me. Psalm 23:4
Yea, I walk. Yeah,
the valley. Yea, the valley. Yeah,
the shadow of death. Yea.
I’ve heard it all
before, try to take comfort
where I find it. Even
from you, who, like every good god
designs shady a place for comfort
to hide, be found, chase
the light around
like an animal with sharp
and useless teeth, bitter
with irony and how I try
to argue an enemy
into being a being
I don’t believe to be. Infinite,
my desire, elusive
your key. How you persist
LP Records, mixed media, by Suvan Geer
Write Me A Poem About Love, You Say
Save your breath. You must be kidding. Let’s call it quits.
today was sunny, unusually warm for late October.
We hiked along a portion of the Ice Age Trail, the landscape
well into outline – the bur oaks spiky and bare,
their witches’ fingers splayed this Hallowe’en,
milkweed pods opened, silk tassels lost on the wind,
a few lean seeds left on prairie grasses, one lemon-yellow
butterfly. We climbed part-way up an overlook, rested
on a wooden bench, talked about what our last days
might look like, what each of us might need from the other
at the end. It was on the way back down that you stopped
to look at the oak leaves, on branches and underfoot,
remarked that there were so many in one spot, examined
them, pointing out differences between black oak and white,
bur and pin, leaves serrated or smooth, pointed or round.
Everlasting, you might have murmured, enduring, I might
have answered. Something like love. Will this do?
To a Grandchild Not Conceived
How easy to fear what is unknown,
like looking into fog on the highway,
how it moves as ancestors do in dreams,
taking off their clothes as they go,
leaving their dresses and pants
and sensible shoes along the roadside.
We drive past with our windows up,
moving too fast to see their faces.
I want to give you their abalone buttons,
that you might bind up what is loose,
and that you will bare what is
inside your heart. I want to give you
their pockets, warm from their hands,
linty and close, that you might always
feel safe. And I would give you
their shoes, in case you get lost.
After six months of abstinence
those six ruby arils
must have burst against her tongue–
bright as remembrance
and as brief, a sweetness
barely slaking a deep thirst,
a bitter longing for home.
Frida Kahlo’s The Love Embrace of the Universe, 1949
A triangle of connection,
nested Babushka dolls,
worlds to clasp: sun, moon, music,
art, words, dance, forests, lakes, loves—
never-ending realms within realms
to layer, seam, embroider our lives,
smother pain and fear,
purl us safe in intricate webs.
If only we can remember
the ways we are embraced:
the fervid green of soft moss,
violin, harp, and cello’s liquid lilt,
pierce of lilac and lily-of-the-valley,
how water cradles us silky-thick.
Our first date—the tenor of your voice
as you sang to me—blue notes
tickling the plush dark.
The Red Thread
to meet regardless of time, place, or circumstance.
The thread may stretch or tangle but will never break.
I felt it, even when you were in the ICU, then the vent-trach unit,
then other hospitals and rehabs, that there was an invisible cord
binding us over the miles of icy roads, the units closed to visitors
because of the virus. The thread was stretched thin, almost to breaking.
Now death has tangled it past unraveling. A thicket of knots, a path
that’s impossible to follow, an impenetrable maze of thorns. But
my finger, like a phantom limb, still feels the tug, the tension.
Someday, I will follow the pull, and let it lead me back to you.
(These are from an unpublished manuscript called Liège about the years 1968-1971, when I lived in Belgium right out of college with my first husband.)
We traveled around by bus,
a smattering of wives or girlfriends
with the team, and the women asked me
if I knew how to make fries, and why,
since I was married, I didn’t have kids.
Sometimes the ground was frozen
but the team played anyway, and the wives
and girlfriends huddled in a nearby bar
or stamped back and forth along the field,
shouting Allez les gars, hands and faces
numb, breath steam rising. Sometimes,
as I leaned against the bus window
gazing idly at the rainy highways,
the soot-slicked hilly towns
and pollard trees, the guys’ voices
soared in a song I loved, Etoile de neige…
Star of the snow, my loving heart
is caught in the trap of your large eyes.
I go on a voyage. Until my return,
I give my word, ah yes, I give my word…
But it doesn’t translate, the lilt,
the overcast skies, the big grimy athletes
and the song they sang
as the bus lurched through Belgium.
Guessing at Distances
What makes me think of the wide field near Senj,
the sea winds lashing the apricot trees
the first night we camped by the ocean? —A sign,
Kampplatz, pointed down the road, but when we drove
away from town, there was nobody there, no Kampplatz.
Then freezing rain and gale-force winds; all night I woke
to sponge the tent out and flip like a fish, warming belly,
then back, against the long shanks of my husband.
Once, I dreamed of bells, bronze goat-bells. The leaves
were becoming green, then, and tender, next morning when
we drove through clear wet light in the mountains of Dalmatia
to the sixteen lakes we’d heard of, Plitvice Jezera,
spilling down the gorge to fill the valley,
each lake because of stone or soil or weed a different jewelling.
Water was opal, turquoise, jade, or lavender with rushes, near-jet
beneath the fir trees, then sapphire, amethyst: shadowy.
One lake was ringed with snowbells, bending water-laden
and so fragile. We walked in sun or shade beside the snowbells,
our boots seeped through with melt; we gathered bits of moss
and guessed at distances: How far have we come from this and this?
That world is gone, that marriage gone—and the hermit
who ran out gabbling, who waved his arms amazed to see us
because we’d taken the wrong turn at Senj
and drove five hours up an empty rutted goat-track
through dust, through sunlight, lost, off the map, not knowing
what we’d done, not knowing if we’d ever
find Plitvice Jezera…
how far have I come from that mountain, that springtime?