"Home" by South African poet cheryl irene

In the Mandela for President room at the Fowler Museum.
A few weeks ago, I attended a poetry reading at the Burbank Senior Artists Colony. One of the group members, Dolly Brittan, who lived in South Africa for 72 years before moving to California, shared the poem I've transcribed below as part of the group's celebration of women poets. It's about Nelson Mandela, who Dolly referred to reverently as the man of the century.

This poem may have struck me more viscerally than it would have otherwise because I just recently saw the heart-wrenching apartheid-era photographs of Ernest Cole, on display at UCLA's Fowler Museum. 

I would also like to share this poem because I can find it nowhere online, nor any trace of its author, cheryl irene. Dolly typed up the poem from a copy of a South African publication called Starfinder Magazine. She might be one of just a handful of people who have this poem. Now I hope more people will have the chance to read it.

Here it is to honor the 95th birthday of Nelson Mandela, which took place on July 18, 2013.


it is your eyes
bright and ancient
that touch me
so still so alive
your eyes hold the country in them
they carry oceans of shimmering water
they embrace rising tides of timeless yearnings
they hoist relentless forward motion

your eyes paint surprise
translucent sun on land
feeds madiba's harvest

your eyes say you have been gone so long
your eyes say you never left
you wandered worlds within worlds
your eyes stayed behind
always heavy with the last wind
that swept through Capetown
your eyes stayed rooted deep in the soil
holding on to the future that refuses to die

cheryl irene, from South Africa's Starfinder Magazine


Walking the Walk

Péta Lúuma. Chickaluma. Birthplace of the egg incubator and Mesa/Boogie amplifier. Take off point of the first official airmail flight. Former egg capitol of the world. And home to the Petaluma Poetry Walk, which I will be participating in as a reader on Sunday, September 15, 2013.

Now in its 18th year, the Poetry Walk, founded by Sonoma County poet laureate emeritus Geri Digiorno, includes dozens of poets reading at different venues, all walking distance from each other in this historic Gold Rush town. I'm looking forward to meeting my fellow readers and seeing Petaluma with my own eyes.

It's just about an hour's drive from San Francisco. So if you're thinking about a mid-September getaway—forget Paris, forget Rome—plan for Petaluma and the Poetry Walk!


Noir Genius: Weldon Kees and Jorge Luis Borges

Tomorrow, as night descends on Boyle Heights, I'll be reading a few poems by noir genius Weldon Kees (who should be more famous for his poetry rather than his presumed suicide). I'm a mere accessory to this crime. The key suspects are my fellow readers listed below:

What: Noir Genius: Weldon Kees and Jorge Luis Borges
Join Dana Gioia, Robert Mezey, Jamie FitzGerald, Mariano Zaro, and Lou Matthews for a discussion on the genius of Weldon Kees and Jorge Luis Borges.
When: Tuesday, Nov. 1, 7 - 8:30pm
Location: Mariachi Plaza, Mariachi Plaza Gold Line Station (1st / Boyle), near Libros Schmibros Bookshop and Lending Library (I believe this is outdoors so bring a jacket)

Another great opportunity to paint the town noir includes my friend, fiction writer Cheryl Klein, along with some other fantastic writers/performers:

What: Big Noir Open Reading—with Features
When: Sunday, Nov. 6, 3-5 p.m.
Who: Cheryl Klein, Pam Ward, Mike Sonksen
Where: Gemini Manor, 1341 N. Mariposa Ave., Los Angeles, CA 90027

I hope you'll join us at one or both of these events!

For more on Night and the City: L.A. Noir in Poetry, Fiction and Film, see the Los Angeles Poetry Festival brochure.


Insurmountable Challenges

Dreams over the past week have been full of insurmountable challenges. I was at the gym with some glamorous LA ladies. We were in the locker room getting ready to go, but one of the women had left her quadruplet babies behind. I volunteered to take them home with me. But then I had to face the reality--how was I going to manage quadruplets, along with my own baby girl? How was I going to fit all those car seats into my car?



I was on the road overlooking Makapuu, except it was more a walking path than a road, and I found a rock that looked like Buddha on its convex side and was filled with crystal formations on the hollow innerside. Then there was a baby boy who had a frighteningly large wasp on his face--long yellow body with long white wings. The insect on the baby caused me panic, and soon the air was filled with them--wasps like bomber planes zooming around us.


April 17: She Walks in Beauty Reading in Seattle

Please join me this Sunday for a poetry reading I've curated on behalf of Poets & Writers. As a good friend of mine put it: It will be sweet and deep.

Poets & Writers, Barnes & Noble, and Hyperion/Voice celebrate National Poetry Month with a series of readings inspired by the new anthology She Walks in Beauty: A Woman's Journey Through Poems. The Seattle reading features a tremendous lineup with Kathleen Flenniken, Jourdan Imani Keith, Rebecca Loudon, Colleen J. McElroy, and Susan Rich.

April 17, 7 PM Barnes & Noble, 2675 Northeast University Village Street. For information about this and other related readings, visit pw.org/poetrymonth.

About the readers:

Kathleen Flenniken’s first book, Famous, won the Prairie Schooner Book Prize in Poetry and was named a Notable Book by the American Library Association and a finalist for the Washington State Book Award. Her second collection, Plume, has been selected by Linda Bierds for the Pacific Northwest Poetry Series, and will be published by University of Washington Press in Spring 2012. Flenniken teaches poetry with Writers in the Schools, Jack Straw, and other arts agencies, and she is a co-editor of Floating Bridge Press, a poetry press dedicated to Washington State Poets.

Jourdan Keith, a Hedgebrook alumna, is the City of Seattle ’s 2006-2007 Seattle Poet Populist Emeritus. Her awards include the City of Seattle Office of Arts and Cultural Affairs in 2010 for Coyote Autumn and 2004 for the play and solo performance of “The Uterine Files.” An excerpt from her memoir Coyote Autumn is included in the anthology Something to Declare (University of Wisconsin Press). She is the Founder and Director of Urban Wilderness Project, “restoring communities, culture and the environment” by leading storytelling, restoration and wilderness programs rooted in social change.
Rebecca Loudon's most recent collection of poetry is Cadaver Dogs from No Tell Books. She is currently working on Queer Wing-ed, an exploration of the inner life of artist Henry Darger. Queer Wing-ed will be published by Leafe Press in London and the United States. Rebecca is a professional musician and teaches violin lessons to children.

Colleen J. McElroy is a Professor Emeritus at the University of Washington. She was Editor-in-chief of the Seattle Review from 1995-2006. Her most recent collection of poems, Sleeping with the Moon (2007), received a 2008 PEN/Oakland National Literary Award. She is also a writer of creative non-fiction and her latest collections include: A Long Way from St. Louie (travel memoirs), and Over the Lip of the World: Among the Storytellers of Madagascar (finalist in the 2000 PEN USA Research-based Creative Nonfiction category). McElroy is the recipient of the Before Columbus American Book Award, two Fulbright Fellowships, two NEA Fellowships, a DuPont Fellowship, and a Rockefeller Fellowship. Her next collection, Here I Throw Down My Heart, is scheduled to be published by The University of Pittsburgh Press in 2012.

Susan Rich is the author of three collections of poetry, The Alchemist’s Kitchen (2010) a current finalist for ForeWord’s Poetry Book of the Year Award, Cures Include Travel (2006), and The Cartographer’s Tongue (2000) which won the PEN USA Award for Poetry. Her work has appeared in journals such as The Gettysburg Review, Harvard Review, and Poetry International.


Some Thoughts on Reading Poetry

I was so pleased last month when the book group I'm in voted to read its first collection of poems, The Mansion of Happiness by Robin Ekiss. I promised them I'd put together a few tips on how to read poetry, even though the idea of telling someone how to read poetry is a dangerous thing. So, I decided to write simply about how I approach the reading of poetry. And this is what I came up with:

Here are a few thoughts on reading poetry, which come from personal experience. I can't promise these comments will make reading poetry any better for you, but if you're feeling like you don't know where to begin, they might help you find a jumping off point.

1. I like to flip through the book without reading to see the shape of the poems ahead of me. Seeing whether the poems are long or short, dense or spare, evenly structured or scattered across the page helps me to mentally prepare for reading.

2. I also scan the table of contents, looking at how the book is structured (in parts, chapters, if there is a conceptual element to the structure). This also gives me a chance to see if there are any titles that attract me.

3. Poets put thought into what order their poems appear, but it doesn't mean that one has to read the collection as if it were a story - from beginning to end. It can be pleasurable, especially at first, to read at random.

4. I try not to get too hung up on understanding every poem. I know there will be poems that reward me right away and others that seem inaccessible, even troublesome, to deal with. It's okay to move on from the more difficult ones. I know I can always go back to them later when I have a better grasp of the work.

5. I've had the experience many times of reading a poem and not registering a thing. Then, on the second or third read or the next day or the next year, the meaning of the poem makes itself known to me. Our experience as readers is mysterious. For whatever reason (mood, fatigue, ADD), some poems won't open right away. It can take our subconscious mind time to make sense of all the elements. This is one of the keys of reading poetry - to take your time.

6. I have found pleasure in the slowness of reading poetry. Others might find the level of concentration and focus needed to get through a book of poems a drag, but to me the space of a poem is a respite from the mad swirl of everyday life. Each poem is like a spell or a sacrament. Spells work magic, and a sacrament is a means of divine grace.

7. In poetry, feeling, emotion, action and meaning are condensed into precise images, words, sounds, shapes and rhythms. When reading a collection, I let the poems and images pile up in my mind. It's only after a time that they begin to make sense in relation to one another, like constellations in the sky.

8. "...poems are endlessly interpretable. There is always something about them that evades the understanding, and I have tried to remain aware of that, as Paul Valéry has put it, 'The power of verse is derived from an indefinable harmony between what it says and what it is. Indefinable is essential to the definition.'" - Edward Hirsch, from How to Read a Poem and Fall in Love with Poetry