Saturday, May 12, 2018

Remembering My Mother on Mother's Day With A Poem

Mother's Day is always a difficult holiday for me. As with many people my age, I buried my mother a number of years ago. So this day that celebrates mothers can be tough. 

I find it especially difficult because my mother and I did not have a good relationship for the majority of my life, especially near the end of hers. My mother was never able to show me any kind of love or affection, no matter how much I showered her with, and this was always an open wound in my life. 

I know many other women who have had similar dysfunctional relationships with their mothers, so I know this is not a unique problem. Mother's Day is not the warm and fuzzy holiday for us that it is for women whose mothers are still alive and with whom they have/had close, loving relationships.

I love my mother and miss her terribly even after all these years , but I also longed for her and missed her in much the same way during her actual lifetime. So this post and this poem are for my mother on Mother's Day—and for all the other women out there like me who still long for and miss their mothers, even after their deaths. A complicated woman in a complicated relationship, who, like most mothers , did the best she could, I suspect.


You and Dad were entirely happy here—
you in purple miniskirt, white vest and tights
(you always wore what was already too young
for me), Dad in purple striped pants,
a Kansas State newsboy’s cap
made for a bigger man’s head.
You both held Wildcat flags and megaphones
to cheer the football team who,
like the rest of the college, despised you
middle-aged townies, arranging for their penicillin
and pregnancy tests and selling them
cameras and stereos at deep discount.
But you were happy
in this picture, before they found
oat-cells in your lungs.

After the verdict, he took you to Disneyland,
this man who married you and your five children
when I was fifteen. He took you cross-country
to visit your family, unseen
since your messy divorce.
He took you to St. Louis
and Six Flags Over Texas and to Topeka
for radiation treatments.
I don’t think he ever believed
you could die. Now he’s going
the same way. And none of us
live in that Wildcat town with the man
who earned his “Dad” the hard way
from suspicious kids and nursed
your last days. For me, this new dying
brings back yours, leaving me only this image
of you both cheering for lucky winners.

Published in Heart's Migration (Tia Chucha Press, 2009)

Wednesday, April 4, 2018

Poem for Maya Angelou's birthday and National Poetry Month

Today would have been the 90th birthday of Maya Angelou, the great feminist poet, essayist, memoirist, and activist. As part of my series of poems posted for #NationalPoetryMonth, I thought I'd post one for her. 

This poem was not necessarily inspired by Angelou and her work, though it very well could have been. It shares many qualities with her work, an optimism, a desire to celebrate women, a belief in the triumph of the human spirit. It was, however, created during the immediate aftermath of having to leave, for medical reasons, a longtime career of running a university women's center and working extremely hard to help women empower themselves.

One day during this period of adjustment and grieving, as I wrote in my journal about what I missed most about my work, I reminisced about the extraordinary moments when women I had worked with would finally step up and seize their own power and take charge of their lives and their dreams. This poem came out of those memories.


and pours it over her body,
drenching hair and face,
standing in pools of herself,
dripping excess. She takes up her power
with strong hands and holds it close
to her breasts like an infant, warming it
with her own heat. She draws her power
around her like a hand-loomed shawl,
a cloak to keep the wind out,
pulling it tighter, tugging and patting it
smooth against the winter.
She pulls her power from branches
of dead trees where it has hung so long
neglected that it has changed from white to deep
weathered gold. She wraps her hair
in power like the light of distant stars,
gleaming through the dark emptiness
in and around everything. She lets her power down
into a dank well, down and down,
clanking against stone walls, until
she hears the splash, a little further
to submerge it completely, then draws it
hand over rubbed-raw hand, heavy enough
to make her shoulders and forearms ache
and shudder with strain, pulls it up
overflowing, her power,
and drinks in deep, desperate gulps
out of a lifetime of thirst. She weaves her power
into a web, a cloth, a shroud, and hangs it
across the night where it catches the light of stars
and refracts it into a shining glory,
brighter than the moon
and colder. She holds her power
in her hands at the top of the hill
in the top of the tree where she steps out
onto the air and her wings
of power buoy her to ride the thermals
higher and higher toward the sun,
her new friend.
When she returns,
she folds her power over and over
into a tiny, dense pellet to swallow,
feeling its mass sink to her center
and explode, spreading throughout to transform
her into something elemental,
a star,
a mountain,
a river,
a god.

Published in Heart's Migration (Tia Chucha Press, 2009)

Sunday, April 1, 2018

National Poetry Month Begins on Easter, Passover, and April Fool's Day

April is National Poetry Month, and as usual during this month, I will be posting poems to this blog throughout the month. In 2018, however, the beginning of National Poetry Month is also April Fool's Day, Passover, and Easter, a powerful concoction of influences.

This first poem for National Poetry Month, then, is one that plays with the history of Christianity, Judaism, and the basic concept of the Holy Fool or the fool for God.


Desperation can come from having nothing but God to love.
                                         --Michael Heffernan

Desperation I’ve a long acquaintance with.
Desperation and hope
have been the twin pillars
between which I’ve sailed,
trying to avoid being eaten alive
or sucked in,
aiming at the narrow gate
sometimes called Jesus
who’s run me aground on hope.
Unlike despair, hope’s not a sin
against the Holy Spirit but only
against logic and forty years’ experience
wandering in this hungry desert,
waiting for white wafers of grace
to descend and bring another presence.
If I sound mad, it’s no wonder,
in this shaggy, lice-ridden skin
with blood of locusts on my tongue.
My big mistake was asking
in for company.
Avoid divine guests, I say
now, drowning in painful, terrifying love.
There’s been a mix-up somewhere.
I put in a request for ecstasy,
not passion.

Published in Heart's Migration (Tia Chucha Press, 2009)

Monday, December 4, 2017

As the Holidays Approach--"How To Be Alone in Love"

As the holidays approach, I know many people will find all the loud, happy preparations and boisterous reminders difficult to bear because they will be missing someone they love because of breakups, divorce, family estrangements, deaths, or simply long distances combined with lack of money and/or time to travel. In addition, the holidays can be especially difficult for people who suffer from depression, even when they are surrounded by other people.

So for all too many people, these holidays of togetherness and joyous family get-togethers can be extremely lonely. Some people have told me they have found relief and comfort in one particular poem while at their lowest emotional states (in two cases, suicidal), so I'm posting that poem here today for everyone who's facing some sense of loss or loneliness as we approach Christmas, Chanukah, Kwanzaa, or Yule.

NOTE: If you are depressed or have feelings or thoughts of harming yourself, please seek help. You can always call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.


Hold fast, first.
Continue to give,
even when no one wants
what you offer. The power, the wonder
is in the giving.
Call yourself out of yourself,
shedding old skins.
Stripping bare to organ and bone,
open the heart’s vein
and give your blood. Commit
and continue to commit.
These choices are always yours.
Be love’s fool.
Become God’s.
He will understand.
He too loved immoderately.

Published in Heart's Migration (Tia Chucha Press, 2009)

Friday, November 17, 2017

A Poem for Native American Heritage Month--"Grandmother's Basket"

For Native American Heritage Month, here is a poem about my grandmother, who was so influential in my life, even though she died when I was thirteen. Like a lot of families, mine was torn apart by divorce when I was young, and as great as the loss of my father was, I think the loss of his family, my grandmother and aunt, was even more traumatic. These women had been the strong stable base of my childhood while both parents were chaotic children. Once the divorce occurred, I lost that stability and their wisdom, but never their love. Fortunately, as an adult, I could and did seek out my aunt while she was still alive and rebuilt the family connection. Unfortunately, my grandmother was long gone by then.


I loved Grandmother’s baskets when I was small.
They had intricate patterns and figures
woven into them in brown, black,
yellow, red, and orange.
She had different sizes and shapes,
used them for storage rather than display.
My favorite was in reds and yellows with a black border.
It looked to me as if woven of fire and grasses.

I would climb into cupboards, find one,
and ask why she didn’t keep it out on a tabletop
where everyone who came in could admire it.
“These aren’t the best ones,” she said
as she fingered baskets that looked beautiful to me.
“We used to make them from rivercane,
which makes a better basket and dyes the best,
but they rounded us up in concentration camps
and drove us on a death march to a new land
that didn’t have our old plants like rivercane
so now we use buckbrush and honeysuckle.”
Grandmother shrugged. “You make do.”

I asked her to teach me how to make a basket
like the one I loved with feathers of fire
along its steep sides. She shook her head.
“It’s a lot of hard work.
First, we need black walnut, blood root,
pokeweed, elderberry. Yellow root’s the best yellow,
but blood root will have to do.
They’ve dug all the yellow root
for rich people’s medicines, call it goldenseal.
Got to have our dyestuffs first.
Got to forage for most of them.
It takes lots of trips, out and back,
to get enough to make good colors.”

I knew I could do that and said so.
She laughed. “You’ve got to know what to pick
or dig or gather. It’s like with my medicines.
Can’t just go taking any old weed.”
I pointed out that I was learning from her
about the Cherokee medicine plants. She just shook her head.
“It’s not the same. I grow most of those.
Haven’t taken you out for the wild ones yet
because you’re too little still. Same for dye plants.”

I nagged at her for days, begging her to teach me
so I could have a basket of my own.
I had in mind that amazing fire-flickering basket.
I wanted to make one just like that.
My visit was over without her ever giving in.
I was used to Grandmother’s strength of will.
I knew I would have to try harder next time.

There was no next-time visit.
My mother had always hated her mother-in-law.
Now, she won the battle to keep us away.
Our relationship poured out in letters
until my mother destroyed them,
refused further correspondence.
Years later, Grandmother wrote me—
a letter that slipped past my mother’s scrutiny—
that she was making a basket
one last time for me.
I knew she was very ill,
soon to die.

I don’t know who got the beautiful baskets
when Grandmother died, especially the one
that I loved when I was small.
Her sister and niece who cared for her
in her last illness, I suppose.
That’s fair. My parents had divorced by then,
and my mother allowed no contact
with that family. But
a lumpy, brown-paper-bag-wrapped package
with Grandmother’s shaky, spidery handwriting
arrived for me after her death.
My mother opened it first and laughed.
I stood waiting eagerly to snatch up
the last thing my grandmother would ever give me.
“Look at that,” Mother said with more laughter.
“That ugly old thing’s supposed to be a basket,
I think. She sure lost her knack for that
at the end, didn’t she?”

When I was small and visiting, I knew
Grandmother already had arthritis
in her hands. That’s probably why
she wouldn’t teach me to make baskets—
because she didn’t have the dexterity any longer
to make the kind she once had.
I still have that simple handled basket
of vines (probably honeysuckle).
The whole thing is dyed black.
There are no intricate patterns of flames
or anything else. It’s just solid black.

I can see her plodding out to gather
butternuts for the black dye
and to pull the honeysuckle vines,
stripping off the leaves.
I can see her gnarled hands
painstakingly weaving under and over,
no fancy twills or double-woven sides.
Hard enough to shape
a shallow but sturdy gathering basket
for her long-unseen granddaughter.
All these years later
I have my own herb garden
where many of her medicine plants grow.
When I gather them to dry for teas and poultices,
I use that black vine basket.
I think it will last forever.

Published in Dark Sister (Mammoth Publications,, forthcoming)

Thursday, November 9, 2017

To a Young Native Artist

I had great news yesterday. My next book of poetry, DARK SISTER, which is dear to my heart but languished unsubmitted while I learned how to navigate the new world of commercial mystery fiction and then the bizarre landscape of cancer treatments, will be published in 2018. 

Unfortunately, though, something happened that took the edge off that joy. For the third time in recent months, a gifted Native woman writer who had been achieving wonderful success was attacked from within the Native community over identity issues. Identity is a fraught issue in the Native community, but the crazy thing in each of these cases was that these women are all documented citizens of their respective (and different) nations.
We're all too used to having mainstream American society, especially publishing, tell us Native writers that we're not “Indian enough,” because we don't/won't write in the tropes and stereotypes they expect or think the readers expect from Native writers, because we “don't look Native” to their eyes (not like Iron Eyes Cody's great masquerade), because we live in urban areas rather than on reservations (ignoring the fact that over 70% of Natives live in urban areas—in large part due to US government policies of the mid-20th century). There's a special sting, though, when it comes from our own community.
Success as a Native writer is not a zero-sum game. When one of us achieves success, that opens eyes and doors for more of us. We're surrounded by a mainstream literary community with a few staunch allies, a lot of often destructive ignorance about us, and a surprising number of people with knives out when it comes to us and our writing and needs. We shouldn't be carving up our own and tossing bloody pieces out to appease them. We should be celebrating and lifting up our own writers who attain success and supporting each other as we all work toward greater things for each of us individually and our community as a whole.
A few weeks ago, I wrote this poem and posted it on Facebook, and I think it's relevant to this discussion.

To a Young Native Artist

How many people made love, or just had sex, and survived,
often under bleakest circumstances,
to create your unique spirit and body.
How many women gave birth, suckled,
and nurtured babes in violence and in injury and illness,
hoping for a future they would never see.
Every one of us born is a victory
against colonialism and attempted genocide.
You are the culmination of all those who loved
in the midst of hate. You are the resistance.
You are hope made flesh.
Never let this society dictate what you create.
Your ancestors have given you gifts. Use them.

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

Poems for Dias de los Muertos (Days of the Dead)

Today is the first day of  Dias de los Muertos (Days of the Dead) in Mexico and among Mexican Americans. Contrary to what most Americans seem to think of it, Dias de los Muertos is not a zany, drunken extension of Halloween. It's more of a family party to honor the spirits of deceased loved ones. In Mexico, many families visit the cemeteries where their loved ones are interred to decorate the graves for a party and eat and drink with their dead, who have plates prepared for them, as well. It has more in common with the older American customs around Memorial Day than Halloween.

Much like Samhain, the Celtic feast day that lies forgotten at the roots of America's Halloween, Dias de los Muertos are two days when the veils between the worlds of the living and the dead thin to the point of allowing communion with dead loved ones. Calacas and catrionas, the skeleton figures that are dressed up and posed, often in zany situations called calaveras, are a way of paying respect to Death without fearing or giving Death undue power over the living.

So, in honor of Dias de los Muertos, today and tomorrow, here are two very different poems.


In this time of marigolds and mariposas,
calacas, calaveras, and candles everywhere,
in this time when the veil between the worlds,
living and dead, is stretched thinnest,
watch the souls streaming through the tears,
trailing that unnatural chill of Lord Death’s land.

Here he comes himself, skeleton jester,
with crown and scepter to beg
for the taste of mescal y pan muerto.
Dress him up for photos,
Lord Death just bares his teeth
in an everlasting grin and dances,
loose-limbed and clacking, bone on bone,
holding out his sombrero at the end
as he mimics a hacendado’s formal bow.

Who knew he was such a comedian?
All our legends tell a different story,
scary and grim, not this grinning,
fingerbone-snapping prankster.
Who knew he could be so funny,
prancing around in silly costumes,
telling knock, knock jokes,
juggling sugar skulls,
striking ridiculous poses?

Be generous to that hat he passes
when his performance is finished.
No small change or paper bills.
This bony clown performs for one pay only,
a taste of what we take for granted
every day, a mouthful of mole,
a kiss, a look at the sunlight,
a breath of air like sweet wine,
one heartbeat rubbing up against another.

Once a year,
he comes to remind us
that life is a slapstick farce,
and his skeletal leer
is the ultimate punchline.

Published in Present Magazine

This second poem arose from a challenge given to me by a fellow member of The Latino Writers Collective--to write a passionate love poem for Dias de los Muertos.


This is the altar I’m building
to my calaverada,
that madcap dance of death
my heart tangoed with you.
Boxes stacked and covered with fabric
to make a place of power
to draw you back to me.
A calavera of great artistry
will stand in for you, mimicking life
almost as well as you mimicked love.
I will bake you pan de muerto and rosquete,
still trying to please you,
buy finest bourbon, your favorite,
no mezcal or tequila for you,
place it next to the water, salt, and bread.
Mustn’t forget the mirror and comb
so you can check your hair
of which you were always so vain.
I will slice my fingers cutting
papel picado skulls and hearts,
yellow, orange, pink and white,
and purple for pain,
to decorate the velvet of the altar.

I adorn the ofrenda and myself
with bright, guilt-swallowing marigolds,
chaining them through my hair,
string their petals across the ground
to lead you back. Let me light the copal
and inhale the sweet smoke,
trying to attract you even now,
drawing you to me. Mustn’t cry, though.
“The path back to the living world
must not be made slippery by tears.”
It will all be to no avail.
I can’t fool you or anyone
into thinking I have finally found acceptance.
It’s all too clear I would wrestle
the Lady of the Dead herself
for possession, to wrench you
from peaceful rest in Mictlan
and back into the tempest
that was us.

Published in Present Magazine