Sunday, September 9, 2012

The Sweet Smell of Success: an improbable tale of alien invasions and local heroes

The Sweet Smell of Success

By Rhonda Palmer

Dedicated to the memory of Carl Sagan

“Our loyalties are to the species and the planet.  We speak for Earth. 
Our obligation to survive is owed not just to ourselves
but also to that Cosmos, ancient and vast, from which we spring.”  
Carl Sagan—“Cosmos”

Night lay over the trailer park like a slightly damp wool blanket.  Moonlight and one dim street lamp gave faint outline to two rows of aging trailers and an accompanying herd of pickup trucks.  The silence of the sleeping trailer park was broken only by the occasional shuffling of a scavenging armadillo.

Into this moist stillness there suddenly came a laser beam of stench moving rapidly back and forth over the miles from the river to the faint glow of town several miles away.  One by one the dogs sat up quietly, expectantly.  They sniffed each molecule of stink as it spoke to them directly.  (Attention.  Attention, please.  Prepare for invasion.)

Bubba Henderson’s 14-foot trailer sat crookedly on its 15-foot lot.  Grey-eyed Bubba was sleeping in the recliner in the kitchen, dining room, living room and bedroom. The recliner only reclined these days and Bubba was only truly comfortable in that brown corduroy space.  At thirty-two his life was perfect and surrounded him like an ocean: empty chip bags, heaps of crumpled soda cans, chocolate chip cookie boxes (chunky), fast-food bags, stacks of comic books and pulp Science Fiction novels.  He was a ponderous man, a man with substance, a man with an abdomen.  He wore a tremendous pair of Marvin the Martian Boxer Shorts and a T-shirt that did not cover his girth.  His belly glistened in the moonlight.  Humphrey the dog lay contentedly at his feet.  Humphrey was, like Bubba, of undetermined origins, but in him could be detected hints of bloodhound and bird-dog and a bit of standard poodle.   He was not beautiful to look at but he had Talents and knew his master well.

Humphrey was very interested in these molecules floating through the screen door.  He thought an invasion might prove uncomfortable to Bubba and himself and in a vague way he knew Bubba would be mightily interested in this information.  But how to awaken his sleeping Buddha?  Barking would never work, as Bubba was deaf in one ear and had the other plugged into a dusty TV console.  Bubba liked sleeping to the susurration of a 24-hour Science-Fiction channel. 

And so Humphrey concentrated and released his own concoction of doggy methane, aimed to reach Bubba about nose-high.

Bubba’s eyes flew up and his nostrils flared.  He gagged.

“Doggone gas bag!” he yelled.  “You’ve been eating chicken skins again!”

He threw a full can of Vernor’s ginger ale at the dog, who avoided the attack and continued to stare intently at the man.

Bubba stared back and breathed heavily.  Sudden awakenings did his delicate constitution no good, and he was always hours recovering his poise.  This labored breathing was not helping the process though, as it was filled with something heavy and moist and foul.  He reached for the RC Cola at his side and took a sip, tasting it thoughtfully; letting his prodigious mental powers have free play.  He spoke to Humphrey.

“Not chicken skins entirely, old boy, so sorry.”  Humphrey’s tail thumped twice.  “Not the dump, either.  The carbon content isn’t high enough.  Nor the pig farm over by Mechanicsburg.  This has a distinctly metallic bouquet, with traces of sulphur and something new. . . .”  His voice trailed off as he sipped the warm cola.  Humphrey could hear the faint meshing of gears and the whirr of Bubba’s finely tuned mind.

Slowly the sky began to glow in the north.

They had traveled far across the empty spaces, guided by nothing but the faint photon emissions of a distant gas ball.  The small spaceships held them and kept their speech safe from the vacuum without.  Loose speech was filtered from nutritional air on a regular basis but it did become noisy in that place all the same. 

The captain of the mighty crew was tired of being with his mates and podlings.  He was tired of hints of the hints of treachery he could detect, and he was tired of the same speeches over and over.

“We’re doomed!”  “We shouldn’t have come!”  “Are we almost there?”

He would never have come himself except for the commands of the Head Dreamer, the Grand Poobah of Home World and Keeper of the Sacred Yeast Culture.

“I have found the planet waiting for your arrival.  I have sensed the distant scent of its beauty and now command you to go there, claim it as our own and begin its redemption.  Duty rests upon your nostrils!”

Now he was here with ignorant youngsters and a small ship full of noisome noise but he had his orders and would carry them out or die.  This planet would be won for his people!  Already hints of methane and heavy metals were being detected by his ship’s delicate sensors.  Fortunately there was no hint of intelligence in the reports.  They had sent out discrete packets of sulphur in a pattern that would certainly be picked up and understood by any intelligent creature.  Soon they would start a sequence of prime numbers, but he held out no hope of response.  They had not received a response on any of the other 326 planets they had claimed as their own and had sadly concluded that the universe had conspired to produce only one intelligent species. 

“We land after dinner!”  The communication went out to all on-board.  The ship’s filtering system was stressed by the amount of exuberance released by the crew as they began preparation for the takeover of this small planet; the third from its sun.

Bubba had come to a decision.  He needed to go outside and confer with the Herb Woman in the trailer next door.  She was wise, and while she did not have his vast intelligence, she often knew things.  However visiting her was not a decision arrived at lightly, as he would first need to stand up.   He ate a box of Ding-Dongs to fortify himself and then threw his head forward, then his arms.  The recliner groaned and the trailer shuddered.  His abdomen rolled onto his knees, his knees put forth a mighty effort and straightened only milliseconds before his head hit the floor.  He rose, arms in the air in a sign of victory and he smiled as Humphrey barked congratulations.

“Humphrey, your Bubba-man is out to save the world!”  Bubba began the back and forth motion which ended in his legs moving forward, taking him out the front door and down the steps.  He moved gracefully and did not spill a drop of the RC Cola in his left hand.

The Herb Woman had anticipated him by at least an hour.  She had been sitting at the picnic table dividing their two lots and she watched as he disembarked his trailer.

“Bubba, you stink so bad I can smell you way over here,” she said.  Her pink flowered housedress fluttered around her bony knees and she reached down to pull up a drooping stocking.

“Mrs. Herb Woman, it isn’t me you smell tonight.  There is a different smell tonight.  It has danger in it and a heady sense of importance.  This smell may well portend a vast change in our view of the cosmos.”

“I don’t know about no changes but this smell is bad and don’t mean no good to no one.  Humphrey here is pretty worried, I can tell you.”  And she pointed to the dog, who faced the glow in the north, nose and hackles up.

Bubba respected Humphrey’s opinion.  He respected the Herb Woman’s opinion on occasion.  She had been known to achieve a high intensity Gestalt when under pressure and Bubba had seen enough alien invasions on Channel 27 to convince him that this was the time to listen to his friends.  They could be witnessing a fire in the Ford factory north of town, but he didn’t think so, especially when he saw the ovals of light zipping about overhead.

“What do you think of those?” he asked his neighbor.

“I don’t think they’s no fireworks.  I think they’s up to no good and that we better get some kind of plan worked up and real soon.  The gu’ment sure cant’ help us out, they ain’t enough time,” she said quietly.  “We gots to be helping the gu’ment, this time.”

 The Chief Commander of the Flying Nose began the long preparation for invasion.  Almost as an afterthought he pressed the button that began transmission of prime numbers.  What a waste of good information, he though, but what a mess to clean up with the Grand Poobah if he didn’t follow protocol.  He hated bureaucracy.

Humphrey stood up stiffly, hairs along his back bristling.  His lips curled and one sharp yip came out.  Then he sat down, almost in relief.  Suddenly the scene repeated itself, but he barked twice this time, sharp staccato noises that were repeated by dogs around the trailer park.

“This is information,” said Bubba.

Again the dogs in the area could be heard barking, a triplet of barks.  Humphrey was looking very anxious.  He sat down.  He stood up and barked, five times.  He sat down.  Like a puppet he kept getting pulled up, forced into barking and then released.

“It’s prime numbers,” said Bubba.  “They’re sending the prime numbers through the dogs.  But how are they communicating?”

The Herb Woman wrinkled her nose.  “If you didn’t stink so bad yourself you’d get the picture pretty quick, I’d say.  It’s a smell of some kind, and a demon one.  The dogs get it pretty clear.”

Bubba lifted his face into the breeze coming from the north.  “Yes,” he said.  “It’s sulfur, and coming in rhythmic waves.  Yes.”  He looked at Humphrey, exhaustedly standing and barking out prime numbers up to one hundred.  After 15 minutes the dog collapsed onto his side, tongue out and sides heaving.  Bubba poured some RC Cola into a hubcap and pushed it toward the dog.

“They stink for all the world like any goat,” quoted Bubba, “So hot and rammish does that odor float, that though a man be a mile away, the smell will taint him, trust ye what I say…..”  He looked at the Herb Woman expectantly.

“You’s crazy,” she said.

“It’s Chaucer, woman.  Haven’t you heard of Chaucer?”

“Chaucer, Schmaucer.  I know if we don’t do something might quick, there here space things is gwine to give us some real taint.”  She pulled tiny spectacles out of the pocket of her housedress and placed them carefully on her nose.  “These here specs belonged to my dead husband, Herb.  I allus wears ‘em when I got to think real hard, cause I can’t see when I got ‘em on.”

So the three of them sat for long moments, watching the flying saucers zipping around overhead.  The Herb Woman was rocking back and forth, humming and chewing a wad of tobacco.  Bubba kept sipping on his RC Cola and munching on the piece of beef jerky he kept in his shirt pocket for emergencies.  Humphrey was lying on the ground, eyes open, tongue out.

“Maybe we can beat ‘em at their own game,” said the Herb Woman.

Bubba nodded thoughtfully.  “Their own game,” he said.

The three of them—Bubba, the Herb Woman and the exhausted Humphrey, continued staring at the odd shapes flitting overhead.  Humphrey passed a large amount of gas and then closed his eyes contentedly.

In the only quiet space he could find, the Chief Commander began the immense mental preparations necessary for invasion.  He went through lists of protocol stored in his large memory bank.  He reviewed the last fifteen invasions and the necessary destruction of lower, worthless life forms.  Such destruction had at one time been a source of discomfort to him, but the Grand Poobah had wafted to him a new fragrance, one of the prime directive for spreading intelligence throughout the known universe.

“There will come a time with intelligence and true understanding will fill the worlds even as the sweetness of spring fills our hearts.  Be firm, and waft your firmness to those who serve you so willingly.”

This sweetness filled him completely, as he sat alone in the airtight seal of his locker.

Bubba looked at the Herb Woman then back at the sky.  He took a sip of his RC Cola and then ate a bag of Doritos, slowly, one by one.  He belched a long, loud, steady belch.

“Eructation,” he said.

“Watch your language, young man,” said the Herb Woman.

“Eructation means belching.  That’s what I was doing.  Belching.”

“Well, if you don’t stop belching, and that dog don’t stop it’s everlasting passing of nasty gas, we’ll never get any thinking done round here,” said the Herb Woman. 

This pronouncement caused Bubba’s hand to pause halfway between the Doritos bag and his mouth.  He closed his eyes and replayed scenes from the movies he had seen on the Sci-Fi channel.  A chemical equation balanced itself on the inside of his eyelids.

“Yes,” he said quietly.  “The snake bites its tail.”

“Eureka,” he said with more force, opening his eyes and looking at Humphrey.  The dog sat up expectantly and gazed steadily at his master.

Bubba gazed into the vast sky, where small lights moved briskly overhead.
“Now set the teeth,” he said as he began standing up from the picnic table, “and stretch the nostril wide…”

“What you got planned, fat boy?” asked the Herb Woman.  “Got anything to do with … stink?”

“I knew you would understand immediately,” said Bubba.  “Now Madam, if you would please fix me a pot of your famous beans, I must away to stock the armory, as it were.”  And he began the slow rolling motion that brought him to the door of his trailer.  It was with a sense of gratitude that he began the rummaging of his trailer.  He was grateful for his immense brain, and quick wit.  He was grateful for Humphrey’s nose and presence.  He was grateful for the Herb Woman’s wisdom and beans.  Mostly he was grateful for the store that delivered groceries to his door, and for the small but generous allowance from a distant relative that allowed him this life of meditative pleasure.

“Yes,” he said.  “Sardines, a jar of sauerkraut, two cans of ravioli, three bags of those extra hot cheesy things, some cold hot dogs, chips, salsa. . .” The list continued.  He placed all the items in a lidless cooler and worked his way slowly back out to the picnic talbe.  The Herb woman was waiting patiently with the beans and a six-pack of cheap beer.

“I don’t drink beer,” Bubba said.

“Tonight, you drink all the beer.  You’ll need it.  I’m the Herb Woman and I say so.” said the Herb Woman.

“I bow to your greater wisdom and beauty,” he said, after a moment of reflection.

The lights in the sky had begun descending toward a low hill outside the trailer court.

“The time has come, the time is now…”  Bubba recited solemnly.

He began to eat: slowly, deliberately, but with a grim determination born of the great responsibility now thrust upon him by an uncaring but needy humanity.  For every five bites he took, he gave Humphrey a share, particularly from the box of fried chicken skins he had been keeping in the refrigerator for emergencies.  Both Bubba and Humphrey were now aware that this was the moment for which they had been unwittingly preparing for years.

They saw the movement of bright objects on a dark horizon.  Still they ate, now gulping down hot dogs with only the briefest of chews.  The Herb Woman dished out beans from the greasy skillet where they had been fermenting for several days.

The Chief Commander sent out the redolence of heroism, the sweet smell of success, the mighty winds of obedience and sacrifice.  His troops were now full of the memories their past successes, and with carapaces held high they moved into the field of battle, ready to bring another planet into the perfumed joys of reunion with their own greatness.

Bubba watched the glittering things as they moved toward the trailer park.  There were swarms of them, coming rank upon rank.  They were led by the largest of the creatures.  Bubba waited patiently, he and Humphrey.  “Don’t fire till you see their nose-hairs, Humphrey,” Bubba whispered between gulps of bad beer.  Humphrey whined.  When the creatures were 30 feet from the trailer park, the battle began.

Honestly, Grand Poobah, I don’t understand how it happened.  We were only on the planet for minutes when we were attacked by monsters the like of which you have never smelled!  There were giants, ogres, insane creatures with screams of rage and hatred that killed thousands of my best soldiers before they had time to react!!  I called for retreat as quickly as I could, but my calls were overwhelmed by the waves of violence and anger coming from these hydras, these chimera, these, these…..Earthlings!!!  It was only by the Grace of the Pure Yeast Culture that I was able to save anyone.  We have returned to you, Oh Gentle One, to ask for your healing sweetness, and to warn all future expeditions to never to go to that place again.  Death and destruction live there and the stench of it will remain in my nostrils forever!

Bubba woke with sunshine on his face and a clean breeze blowing.  Humphrey was snuggled up to his leg.  They were both on the ground and the Herb Woman was sitting in a lawn chair next to them with an old red bandanna over her nose.  She pulled it down with a tentative sniff.  Then she smiled broadly, her toothless gums glowing pink in the morning light.

“You did it, big boy,” she said.

“Not so big anymore, I think,” he said, as he gingerly rubbed his abdomen.  “the Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara said, ‘Form is emptiness, emptiness is form.’  I am now empty and my great life work is done.  Perhaps it is time for me to evolve.” 

“Boy, get your big behind up off the dirt get over to my trailer.  I got some good iscuits and gravy and buttermilk ready for your breakfast.”

It was quite a sight, Bubba getting to his feet with the Herb Woman and Humphrey pushing and rolling and pulling.  Finally it was accomplished and they went to the Herb Woman’s trailer and had the victor’s breakfast, although Bubba declined the buttermilk and opted for a can of warm Vernor’s Ginger Ale.

Thus are heroes born, thus do they live; unsung, unknown to those whose lives are dependant upon their quiet actions.  Let us praise them with great praise!”

“We are like the inhabitants of an isolated valley in New Guinea who communicate with societies in neighboring valleys (quite different societies, I might add) by runner and by drum.  When asked how a very advanced society will communicate, they might guess by an extremely rapid runner or by an improbably large drum.  They might not guess a technology beyond their ken.  And yet, all the while, a vast international cable and radio traffic passes over them, around them, and through them.  We will listen for the interstellar drums, but we will miss the interstellar cables.  We are likely to receive our first messages from the drummers of the neighboring galactic valleys—from civilizations only somewhat in our future.   The civilizations vastly more advanced than we, will be, for a long time, remote both in distance and in accessibility.  At a future time of vigorous interstellar radio traffic, the very advanced civilizations may be, for us, still insubstantial legends.”  Carl Sagan –   The Cosmic Connection.

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Our Valley by Philip Levine


We don't see the ocean, not ever, but in July and August 
when the worst heat seems to rise from the hard clay
of this valley, you could be walking through a fig orchard
when suddenly the wind cools and for a moment
you get a whiff of salt, and in that moment you can almost
believe something is waiting beyond the Pacheco Pass,
something massive, irrational, and so powerful even
the mountains that rise east of here have no word for it.

You probably think I'm nuts saying the mountains
have no word for ocean, but if you live here
you begin to believe they know everything.
They maintain that huge silence we think of as divine,
a silence that grows in autumn when snow falls
slowly between the pines and the wind dies
to less than a whisper and you can barely catch
your breath because you're thrilled and terrified.

You have to remember this isn't your land.
It belongs to no one, like the sea you once lived beside
and thought was yours. Remember the small boats
that bobbed out as the waves rode in, and the men
who carved a living from it only to find themselves
carved down to nothing. Now you say this is home,
so go ahead, worship the mountains as they dissolve in dust,
wait on the wind, catch a scent of salt, call it our life.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

The Visitor

The old rebbe lay dying in his narrow bed,
face toward the sky.
High clouds became letters of light,
and thunder sounded on a distant hill.
The family changed his name then,
hoping to fool Death into looking elsewhere,
but the old man traced invisible letters with his breath.

Death came to him then,
not fooled by the name,
not concerned with tears.
Death came to see what the old man
had written in the air.
When he presented himself before the old man,
Death bowed low and respectfully.
"I saw your name in the sky,"
said Death, "and came calling on you,
as anyone would."

Tuesday, August 14, 2012


It never occurred to me that
getting rid of the cocoon meant
getting rid of both form AND substance.
It wasn't so bad losing my spleen, (who needs a spleen?)
or the extra kidney (key word: extra.)
But when I lost control,
and righteous indignation,
my certainty,
my youth---
I wondered if the losses were really necessary.
I wondered---
just how badly did I want those wings?

Sunday, August 12, 2012

The crack in everything

How many dawns have I seen? 
There was one in Tennessee over a bridge and a lake, seen from a canoe.
Another from a fishing pier in the Yucatan: 
so many dawns with water, and scattered sunshine. 
Some with dolphins.

One spring, Don and I spent a night behind the union hall
talking about the world and our hearts 
(mine wayward, his congenitally large)
and Oceans we might see. 

The sun rose that morning with no thunder. 
I didn't kiss him and there was no movement of earth or sky,
only clouds of exhaust from a nearby highway. 

And when he died not long after (oh yes—death and the sunrise)
that morning became the essence of all mornings in this world.
Mornings we sleep through.
Missed moments. 
People we ignore on the street. 
Poems we forget to write. 

So when I stop my car on a busy interstate to watch an eastern light,
You may shake your fists or honk as you will. 
I am learning to pay attention to this very dawn.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

The Gift

Every child slides wet from the womb with a hidden gift,
this sweetling handing you
the dearest of little somethings they bring
for the new parents---
A birthday gift of sorts.

They hold out their need.

They give you their ravenous,
need for everything.

Food, love, warmth, information, toenail clippers,
hair-ribbons, shoe-laces, car insurance--
They need it now.
They need it from you.

This gift is not given lightly.
Do not despise what they give you--
with their untouched fingers,
their curled up arms,
new from a nine-month stint in the cave.
They hold out your salvation.

They hold out to you the only thing
your Lord every really asked you
to give to Him.


Wednesday, July 25, 2012

The Art of Showing Up

Prayer and I have an on again, off again relationship—
There are days or weeks in which the praying
and the thanking and the obligating become perfunctory. 
Up and down I go mouthing meaningless sounds
only to finish in the wrong position
or find myself at the end of a sentence
with no idea of the road ahead.
Just as it seems to be a profound waste of time
there comes a day of light in darkness—
a day of lifting up, a day of slamming down.
A day when the words speak me.

Poetry is like that. 
Days of “interesting” poems,
days of revision, with no new words worth working with. 
Weeks of waiting, with wheels whining in little circles,
going nowhere. 
And then comes a day when something
drops out of my hand like a jewel
and I turn it over and over searching for any flaw.

Sometimes, my Dad said, the most important work
is just showing up.


Sunday, July 22, 2012

Man's reality is his thought...

Let’s pretend that we live in two worlds at the same time.
A simultaneous life—we’re just pretending, you see.
In one world is a lot of smog, dirty water and bad breath.

In the other simultaneous world
love lasts forever, and we all have good skin.
Singing happens as often as eating in this place.

One world: sadness.  One world: joy.
I’m told they exist together in this poem and wind around,
fold through each other like a moebius strip.

What tips the balance? How do we hold the
two worlds in one hand?  I’m thinking
of a fast train moving in two directions
and here’s a golden ticket in my hand. 
The promised land is under my feet.

I go to meet my expectations
who live in a vast and heavily
forested region of Brazil,
where the air is sweet,
and no chain saw has ever been seen. 

Thursday, July 19, 2012

The New Name

The boy shivered, listening to a distant mortar fire.
Around him other children cried softly,
drowsing only in the lightest dreams,
avoiding the deep pools of sleep.
The boy fingered dog-tags under his shirt,
feeling the rough letters and whispering the new name.
This was his nightly prayer,
his rosary, his Greatest Name.
His own small name had lately become
too familiar to the angel of death and so he let it go,
letter by letter,
sound by sound,
along with the memory of his mother's face,
his father's voice,
his right leg.
The man who had worn the name no longer needed it,
indeed, had held it in outstretched hand as he lay
eyes and heart open to the sun, wind, moon and stars.
The boy had taken it gently from his hand,
had traded names with the open man,
had gone back to wait with the other children--
telling them stories of his new name
and the trick he would play on everyone,
on the world,
on death.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

The wisdom of light

Without a doubt, she said, I’ve been true.
True to the night, true to all wild things—
true to my beliefs. 

South of here, in another city, a city
that knows how to keep its secrets,
she might not speak such blatant nonsense.

She would carry wisdom in her belly
like an unborn child and never, never
pretend to be other than a beacon of light.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Surface Tension

Molecules of water are slippery.
They ripple out of my way too quickly to get any foothold and so
I step into the puddle, rather than onto it,
thus muddying shoes and woolen stockings which will need serious drying time.
But I can imagine walking onto the sea,
reaching out to hold hands with Someone
who holds me carefully in His mind and heart.
Someone Who teaches the art of surface tension
and bodies in motion.
I can feel the rubbery give of the water
as we step between waves,
avoiding dolphins rising before us
and ignoring salt spray in our eyes.
Can we do this forever?  I ask, heart full of tremulous joy.
Can we live out here on the waves forever?
Storm clouds appear on a distant horizon.
The hard part isn't walking on water, He says.
The hard part is living on land.
We move toward the beach, and the city and the crowds.
Just don't let go of My hand, He says.
But His voice is already sounding faint and thin.
When I look back He is gone.
Salt spray dries on my skin.  My socks are wet.
The storm comes ashore to fill the hollows with more water.


Saturday, July 14, 2012

What would we do without this metaphor, earth?

There would be nothing to compare ourselves to,
and we would disappear into a black and starry sky
with no eyes,
with nothing at all to witness our arrival,
our departure.

We know we exist because of this ripe and wet metaphor
holding our fetal selves,
telling us we are more than vague traces
of wandering dust and empty space.

We've ignored it in the past,
pretending we were sun, moon and stars.
Time to take our place with the
mountains, motes, ants and beauty
to the right of us,
Beauty to the left of us,

Beauty behind us,

Beauty before us.

Beauty around us.

Friday, July 6, 2012

After the War

All around lie hosts of the dead, mumbling in their dark beds
about missed opportunities and endless meetings.
They gripe with closed eyes and complain
about misunderstandings,
late appointments,
rude taxi drivers.
Their cold, dead fingers grip guns, pens, I-Pads.
Toys lie around them in serried rank.
I pick through these piles for anything
that might be put in my pocket for later investigation.

A cell phone wakes at my feet with the blare of trumpets.


Tuesday, July 3, 2012

My Rumi

Icaros by P. Picasso

In the haphazard way of true anarchists
Rumi travels from heart to heart
without apparent map,
without explainable schema.
Engineers shudder when they hear his name.
He sings law beyond law.
His music lies beyond the ease of breath.

In the comfortably obscure way of true poets
Rumi encourages us to leap
into a stratospheric understanding of flight.
Shams, he said, will teach us about wings.
From him we will learn re-entry and flames.
From him we will learn the delectable arc
of longing,
and return.


Monday, July 2, 2012

For Immigrant Mothers Everywhere

For Immigrant Mothers Everywhere

War-tossed and famine blown
they built the nest where we were grown
and sang us songs of far-off home.

                                                         Rhonda Palmer

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

April 4, 1968

April 4, 1968
“Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that.  Hate cannot drive out hate.  Only love can do that.”       Martin Luther King Jr.

Since that date,
a number of people have urged others
to change, to move mountains,
to grow large eyes in a small world.

These prophetic people
live high above clamor, carnage and strife
yet they claim our pain.
They give instruction on life

and offer words. 
They twitter recycled thoughts into hungry space
and sing old songs
to jolt our fibrillating hearts.

These fading words
are only the event horizon
moving away from a pure center—
a center that knew walking,

waking and evident truth
in a strangely disordered world. 
I feel heaven circle round a Memphis balcony,
waiting for one more angel,

waiting for us to send up one more angel.  
                                          R. Palmer

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

all manner of things shall be well--

The anchoress looks
into high rafters for one bold mouse,
scurrying over the quiet cell
then smiles,
settling into her ceaseless
life of thanksgiving.

Townspeople bring old bread,
moldy cheese, rancid wine.  
With these she makes a daily meal 
but remembers always to leave a crumb 
for the small life overhead.

As a child she ran loose-limbed,
wild with sunshine.
That warmth still encircles, enfolds.  
Now she looks up to see neither mouse
nor rafters but instead golden beings
singing, chanting, shouting praises to an Almighty God.

With a quick pen she writes
all she hears.  All she sees.

Soon, exhausted by seeing, purged by writing,
she collapses on her pile of straw.
Mouse finds its way to her pillow
and together they sleep 'midst the ruins of heaven.

Thursday, February 23, 2012


She laced them tight on your fat feet
and you raced down the empty brick street
with the pilot hat tied tight 'neath your chin
kicking a tin can for the noise, for the din,
for the joy of a boy released from the house
where apron strings were everywhere like
fearful fingers holding wings tight to prevent
freedom, to delay flight.

I hold your shoes today--

You outgrew the need for speeding round
country corners in squared off Indiana.

You engineered bits for rockets that never left
this heavy earth.

You found peace in the ready rounding
of the lawnmower and the strong beat
of steady, friendly hearts.

You lie quietly six feet below my tears
and I hold these little boy shoes.
And feel the joy of freedom---
the way of souls in flight.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012


Right when I thought the light was
brightening, when time was sliding
through my hands like that
prom dress I wore the spring of 1968,
when saying yes came easier than
complaints or criticism,
when life had gotten to the sweet spot
and I was ready to hit one out of the park,

Just then....
...well, you were there.
You saw it happen.

I've got a new normal now.
The sweet spot moved, but hey,
I'm flexible.  Adaptable.  Human.

And I've got a taste for lemonade.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Some Shape of Beauty

Very soon will there be voices calling us all to come home.
We will loiter in tall summer grass,
fireflies in hand, feet bare and streaked with mud,
waiting for the sound of our true names.
We will run away from long shadows leaping behind us
toward some shape of beauty.
We will find ourselves home again.

(This is my love poem to John Keats, that darling boy...)

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

The Hardware store

Today, redemption finds me sitting
on the wooden floor
of my local hardware store,
gazing at useful things.
Helpful people with embroidered name tags walk by, 
pointing the way—
In this sacred place plumbing can be explained.  
Plaster illumined.

Wander the aisles of bins with me and
look at bits of things that don’t make sense.
We needn’t feel worse for our ignorance. 
Someone knows what it's all for.

Possibility and hope hover over each spool of rope,
each box of nails, the rows of tools.
Hearts lift with the thought of a life made new—
a failed and broken life fixed up,
and painted over

so that no one need ever know it was broken.
                                    Rhonda Palmer

Saturday, February 11, 2012

The Unbearable Lightness of Grandmothers

Run with me, jump with me
says the three year old boy.
Spin in a circle and jump.

I totter behind, following
the curl of his hair, the dimpled hand
pointing the way, run this way.

There go a few familiar strands
of the DNA I so proudly carry---
Red hair.  Imagination.

The falling down on the floor and screaming,
I don't claim that bit.  Biting the sister:
not mine.  Never mine.

Jumping high enough to reach
a nearby constellation of stars, yes.
Blazing with a corona of fearless beauty---



for Penny Riddle

"Earth and heaven cannot contain Me; what can alone contain Me is the heart of him that believeth in Me and is faithful to My Cause."  Baha'u'llah

Sacred tobacco rises
in smoky ribbons to the four corners of Mother Earth:

(. . .North. . .South. . .East . .West. . .)

The Creator inhales deeply, searching for worth,
determination, pure heart.  Where can we hide?

From her small house Penny sent clouds of tobacco
in all directions, in all seasons.  Her heart grew large.

This large heart encompassed a cargo of tears,
abandonment, distress.  Dis-ease.

Her large heart pushed less lifeblood with each beat,
but always kept space---
      always kept space----
                    ---for a simple throne in a room filled with roses.

Abandoning the ashes of imperfect, earthly love
she was drawn like clean blue smoke by her Creator

and offered as a prayer of hope to the four corners of our lives:

(. . .Past. . .Present. . .Future.  . . Now. . .)

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

My Haiku came and I wasn't ready

or: Basho covers his face with both hands and sighs...
Seasons are central
to haiku, essential to
to describing the awakened life.
Summer was gloating and fall hovering but
I saw nothing as I stormed
an inner wasteland.

A sky full of birds,
gaggles and ripples of them,
sentences and paragraphs of birds
flew just above my head.
I reached up to touch them.  I heard them
discuss flight patterns.

I walked with blind eyes
while waves of birds stormed my beach,
sent down troops,
and tried to win this war.
The clouds in my mind were stormy and
I pushed them aside.

One shape moved above the birds,
leaving behind a silver contrail of meaning,
a palimpsest for me to scan with my hopeless heart.
"Here there be haiku," it said.

My haiku came and I wasn't ready.

Friday, February 3, 2012

My Library was dukedom large enough.” Wm. Shakespeare

"My Library was dukedom large enough.”  Wm. Shakespeare

Last week the sibs and I went through remnants of a legacy from Mom and Dad.  In two brown paper bags and one battered box was the ephemera of several lives left for us to sort.  We tossed trash that had been carefully treasured over a century, identified some odd pieces of lingering memory, counted the hankies and watch fobs and divided up what we wanted to take home for our own children to wonder over after a funeral feast.

I took the books.  I have them in a suitcase carefully segregating their seeping mustiness from my own precious library.  In these books are the scrawled autographs of school children who became my grandparents.   Grandfather Burr Stephens wrote in a margin of “Macauley’s Life of Samuel Johnson” that he was a junior in high school in 1916.  I can’t imagine any current high school junior even recognizing this book as reading material.  Burr’s spelling lists (folded and tucked into the book for almost 100 years) show that in 1916 he could correctly spell chauffeur and acknowledgement and knew the difference between loose and lose.  Burr went on to marry my grandmother, Marie and they both drank themselves into early graves but here I hold bits of their childhood in a musty suitcase.  In the book Hiawatha is Marie’s name carefully inscribed with a lock of hair tucked between pages.  I see that they read all of Lincoln’s speeches and essays by Charles Lamb.  They studied Shakespeare.

My favorite is a tattered copy of The Indiana Educational Series “First Reader,” published in 1889 by the Indiana School Book Co.  My great-grandmother’s name is written on the frontispiece: Florence Jackson.  Even then she was using the Palmer method with cursive if not yet connected letters.  When her parents and younger sister left for Canada to homestead, eighteen year old Florence was left behind with her new husband.  She grieved the separation for the rest of her life, but here I examine a book she held in her five-year-old hands and imagine her blue eyes widening just a bit as she understands that reading is in her control--that the world is available to her through this small, square device.

The sibs and I received a remarkable inheritance from our forebears: an insatiable love of reading and learning.  The faded pictures; the alcoholism and its sequelae; all those women's handkerchiefs; the watch fobs; the pervasive anxiety--these bits of inheritance we may pass along to our children but we won't brag about it.  The love of reading is better than all manner of stuff.  Stuff gets kept in brown paper bags for grieving relatives to sort.  Reading, learning---now there's the stuff of dreams.

"Books have always a secret influence on the understanding; we cannot with pleasure obliterate ideas: he that reads books of science, through without any fixed desire of improvement, will grow more knowing; he that entertains himself with moral or religious treatises, will imperceptibly advance in goodness; the ideas which are often offered to the mind, will at last find a lucky moment when it is disposed to receive them."  Samuel Johnson. 

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Lying on my back in a lavender field near Gallium

"Night Route to Gallium,"  Duct Tape art by Michigan Artist Pete Warburton

Against a dark and endless sky
the stars that Vincent loosed go by
to spiral through a painted night.
He gave them wings and taught them flight
that we might learn to make reply.

My words aren’t stars, yet stars are nigh—
They spill into this poem I
describe with intimate delight
against a dark and endless sky.

Or chaos, or a thousand sighs
will not reduce the star’s supply.
I’ll watch with Vincent—learn his sight
and fill my canvas with this light
against a dark and endless sky.

(I bought this artwork by Pete Warburton--isn't it amazing?  Duct tape, of all things.  And beauty.)

Saturday, January 28, 2012

a love poem by friend Al Black

Al says:
Carol loves the ocean - I wrote this poem wishing I could take her to the coast for a weekend:


Sometimes we journey to the coast
Wiggle our toes in wet sand
Feel the wind
Wait for the sun to rise
…..and listen
As clumsy waves speak in code
About the sea
And its love sacrifice to the moon

Thursday, January 26, 2012

The roadie

I started down this road early today
cup in hand and warmth in the belly.
Blindness quickly overcame me
but still I walk, oh yes,
I walk like the earth circles the sun—
I walk on.

None to guide me,
only noise and smell—
wind pushing me, rain washing ashes from my feet.
I know your face is in the world.

How will I find you, still as you are and
hidden in tall grasses?  How will I meet you?

I am listening for your little song. 

I am walking to you now.  

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Liberating Auschwitz

Davy, "the Nose" fell apart right when we walked in there.
Him the toughest of all of us and the captain.
I had to slap him a couple of times,
make him think about getting these people some help
and he finally pulled himself together.
Don't tell me it didn't happen.
I was nineteen when I walked into those gates--
the smell made it pretty obvious what had happened.
When those...people...came out of the barracks
looking like walking dead things,
well, I lost my lunch.  Damn near thought one of 'em
might try to eat what I lost, they was that bad off.

Davy could talk some of their language and he was giving them
all our chocolate and rations and coffee.
Told the rest of the platoon we could just go hungry a few days.
Davy made us bathe 'em real gentle, and make 'em
broth and feed the ones as couldn't feed themselves.
By the time the Red Cross got there we had done
what we could.  We didn't give 'em much.
Just some bad food and a bath.

There wasn't enough food, enough love
to fill up the hole that camp made in the world, I tell ya.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Almost Falling

for Catarina,  a planter of trees.
“It is said that the prophet Mohammed exhorted every man, woman and child to
plant at least 1000 trees in their lifetime, and that for this act they would be blessed.”

Every step we take is a sort of falling down,
although we don't actually hit ground
unless we're infants and haven't learnt 
the art of catching ourselves in the process. 
Or we're too old to maintain 
the grace of not falling.  
Or we're on ice, pretending to be 
Nancy Kerrigan and we aren't.  
Then we hit the ice with a bounce and lie still afterwards,
thinking about gravity and soft tissue damage.  

It's not about not falling.  
It's about the almost falling. 
And in the work almost 
lies our hope, our heart, our faith, 
and why we care for those weaker than ourselves,
and why we plant saplings we'll never see grow into trees.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Some Comments on the Manner of Death

(a found poem, from a lecture on Medicolegal Death Investigations.)

People think of death as cooling--
that unclaimed people, fixed or unfixed,
will cease to occur at standard room temperature.

Death is a process of fermentation and care must be taken
that matches not be used indiscriminately.
(most of you will never see this.)

Most of you will never see this
because you are hanging out your wash on the rooftops
while overhead a million small flames spiral in a cobalt sky.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Going home for tea

Footprints mark new snow,
leading many directions—
I walk home for tea.

The skull

Your skull protects gyrated bits of brain
where music and poetry and stars all dance,
in miraculous molecular light shows—
Neural networks lead to last night’s left-overs
and oh, the keys.  And how to drive.
In that beautiful treasure box is the secret
of how your crooked mouth
smiles its tender morning smile. 

This precious bony skull—
a skull any phrenologist would long to touch—
This skull contains infinite connections. 
In the case of cancer and craniotomy
then you lose irretrievable stray items:
the name of your first love. 
                         . . .the word love. . .
and how to keep from crying 
when loving eyes try guiding you
(with a nameless sort of hope)
to this morning’s tender smile.