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 New Poems from Linda Whittenberg

Linda Whittenberg first connected with Ireland through her beloved Irish grandfather, Will Shannon, with whom she spent her childhood in the Illinois farmland where she was born. As a Unitarian-Universalist minister in the United States, she served congregations in the West before launching her voice as a poet. During Writers’ Week in Listowel, County Kerry, in 2014, she launched her book  Somewhere in Ireland (Black Swan Editions, 2014), which narrates in poetry her narrative of her experiences in the land of her Shannon ancestors. Whittenberg finds herself drawn to this “land of her ancestors” and returns often, almost annually.

Linda Whittenberg launches Somewhere in Ireland, in Wolfe’s Bookstore, Listowel, Co. Kerry 2014

In the recent poems she shares with Trasna, Linda Whittenberg experiences the essence of her late husband in the forms that make his formless presence both real and near. Though she has parted with so many of his belongings, his spirit is innately a part of everything that he touched and every moment that they shared–his hat, the view from the mesa, the tent. He is there, he is not there. She embraces his being and feels his loss with a tenderness that is intense and inspiring. 

 


The Haunting Hat                      

 

Your cowboy hat still sits as you left it

on the hall closet shelf, chin strap tied up

to shape the brim. I reach for a scarf—

there you are.

 

Knowing I liked that hat,

you always wore it to the airport

when you came to pick me up.

There you were—

 

my handsome cowboy, waiting to welcome

me home.

 

The boots I gave to Goodwill, journals

fit nicely in a drawer, wedding ring made

by our Navajo friend resides in my jewelry box.

 

But the question gnaws—

how long do I keep the cowboy hat

with your sweat in the band?

          

 

Start Anywhere                  

 

Take the garage—

piles for Goodwill, the backpack

you wore up and down mountains

forty years, tents where our co-mingled breath

beaded on the interior, all kinds of gadgets

for repairing, installing, maintaining.

 

Chances are good,

no matter where you start, the toolbox

will get you even more than the closet

or dresser or desk. For me it was because

this was the toolbox he brought

to our marriage, a dowry of sorts,

tools to fix most anything.

 

The claw-hammer handle still carries

traces of where he gripped it

building a ramada toward the back

of the yard, a sort of free-standing porch

on a high place for the best view

of moons that rise over the mountains

on cool summer nights.

 

Start anywhere

and you’ll come to this—

how proud he felt, although

he wasn’t one to brag,

snuggling and swinging with his woman,

dogs at our feet,

horses and mules in the paddock,

even an exceptional goat,

glories of love in the moonlit dark.

 

 

Astronomical                      

 

In the midst of tumult, when sleep

is hard to secure, I wake

to step out on flagstone and study

the sky which greets me

with a crescent moon hovering close

to a morning star, a pair so brilliant

and full of hope for a few seconds

I almost forget all I am losing,

even allow a flash of delight.

 

Two astronomical wonders cuddling

so close they appear inseparable,

but I am not dissuaded from my grief,

for I know days ahead a different sky

will display another vision of reality,

a lone star, probably faithful Venus,

less illuminating, yet, still shining,

still doing her part to light up the sky.

 

 

Sangre de Cristo

 

Tender perennial sprouts appear, the clematises out front buds,

apricot leaves uncoil, overhead, migrating birds.

I fill the feeder.

 

My heart beats faster this time of year, plans form,

summer stretches ahead like Route 66, promising

a ride in a convertible.

 

It is an especially fine spring day when you come home

from the doctor and plunk down a packet of papers

in the middle of the round oak kitchen table.

 

The lion paws on that table want to run. This table

where children formed awkward letters

on yellow, blue-lined pads. Oatmeal every morning.

 

That blue packet stared me down, the way two people play

who blinks first. Dr. Jackson that day he first came in the room,

saying, At last, a normal-sized person, for he too was very tall.

 

Today, he must have stuttered through what had to be said.

Did he look directly at you, with the news?

Dear Dr Jackson, it must have broken his heart.

 

I read, but the letters swarm like bees, making it hard

to take in. Why is it always spring when bad news strikes—

both my father and mother, my dear cousin, and now you?

 

We’ll go outside together at sunset. My Love,

the sun going down

will most surely turn the mountains blood-red.

 

 

Since You’ve Been Gone            

 

Remember how we watched the insect-sized

bicyclist cross the vast terrain below

while we stood on the mesa? How strange

it was to realize that little dot was moving?

Then we were captivated by the thought

of him, his thighs aching, heavy breathing,

as he became human. Maybe that’s how it is.

 

I must look closely, for all that was you

could not have disappeared completely.

You were large, a real cowboy in your hat

and boots, and when you were on horseback,

you were grand. Your mind was expansive,

spacious enough to hold nearly all of

Indian territory, the Civil War, WWII,

politics, music, nature, and much poetry.

 

That’s why I set aside reason and squint

to look up close, use a telescope to see far

or I might miss a sign, a hint,

a keyhole glimpse of you in some other form.

There are times when I reach out for you at night

in my restless stirring, and find you there

for the second before I touch the empty sheets.

 

Perhaps, it’s something like

wondering where the rose goes in winter.

How I fret, thinking perhaps my favorites

will not make it, and then, one spring day

I am surprised by the first budding. That’s

a way to think of it—you are not gone,

merely dormant.

 

I will go to the mountain in late summer

to see if the aster seeds we planted

with your ashes have made it into flowering.

I don’t know how far away

heaven is or if there even is one,

but I keep looking.

 

Linda Whittenberg was born in Illinois farm country, small-town America. She knew every person in that little town, and, thus, has come to know people everywhere she goes, hoping to turn the world into a small town. Moving to New Mexico in 1976, she felt she had found her heart’s true home and continued feeling that for more than forty years, even though she left for a time to attend seminary and become a Unitarian Universalist minister. She served congregations in California and Washington State. On retirement, she began writing and has published five books of poems. One, Somewhere in Ireland, Black Swan Editions, 2014, was launched during Writers’ Week in Listowel, County Kerry, Ireland. The Irish link is her Irish grandfather, the father-figure who nurtured her childhood, doing his best to make up for the father she never knew. She has returned to Ireland seven times in ten years and plans at least one more trip next year. After the death of her beloved husband in 2020, she has moved to Denver, Colorado where her three children and their families all live nearby. Her books are available through Amazon.

 

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By Mark Cote

Charlie stood on the sidewalk towards the end of the line. At 55 he looked older than is years having gone almost completely bald in his mid forties. Soon what was left was gray and white, and, coupled with his ever- expanding beer belly one could easily mistake him for a gentleman in is sixties. He would have been there sooner if it hadn’t been for his wife’s nagging him about being late. She had been doing that a lot lately, more so than usual. It began when he walked through the door from work and ended only when he turned out the light and pretended to be asleep, she still nagging in the dark of their bedroom about how he never listened to her anymore. He could hear her in his dreams, which caused him to toss and turn restlessly in the bed, which caused her to nag him even more.

“Next! Come on step up. Death or dying”? “Dying. Death is too final”.

“Door number two then. Move along”. “Next! Death or dying”?

“Not quite sure. Are there any other choices”? “One or the other. Make a decision”.

“Dying then. I need more time to think”. “Door number two then. Move along”. “Next”!

The line continued out the door, down the sidewalk and around the block. They had begun lining up at dawn; appointment cards indicating date and time to appear at the Department of Future Self-Determination. Once a year everyone between the ages of eighteen and fifty had to report and state their preference. Those fifty and older had to report every six months, children were exempt. The agency had been set up in response to the governments outlawing of suicide at the conference for population control held in New York City. An increase in the suicide rate had forced the new legislation in order to create a fee for service structure at the time of earthly departure. Suicide provided a free way out and therefore was frowned upon by the elected elite. Natural death or death by accidental cause remained on the no charge list. So far the results had been as expected; lots of undecided and a few who were ready to embrace the inevitable.

Those who opted to delay were given another appointment card stating date and time to re-appear and sent to door number two, an exit to the street and liberty for another year or six months, depending on their age. Those who chose death were guided down the hall to door number one where they were given a form to fill out and sign away their right to change their mind before entering. The office remained open until the line was gone for the day. At closing the numbers were tallied and filed, names of those who chose death were removed from the roster and the next day’s list printed and placed at the ready for when the doors opened at seven o’clock.

“You’re going to be late Charlie. Don’t forget that when you get back I have a hair appointment at eleven. And I promised the girls that you would take us to lunch at that new diner downtown so make sure to stop and get the car washed. Hurry now or you’ll not get a good place in line and you will be there all day, ruining my plans”!

Wouldn’t want to ruin your plans” Charlie said aloud sarcastically as he backed the car out of the driveway. God forbid she didn’t get her way he snickered, secretly wanting to see the look on her face if indeed he did get stuck there all day, a slight smile curling his lips. At least he wouldn’t have to listen to her until her got home. He had been keeping these appointments since his senior year in high school. They had simply become part of life, not a big deal, more of a nuisance than anything. He had had a few friends from school die tragically, one from colon cancer and the other in a motorcycle accident. Both his parents had passed from natural causes and his siblings were all still alive. The only stories he had heard about folks taking door number one were about strangers from second hand sources. He often wondered if anyone really took the opportunity to check out or if the whole thing was a merely a ruse by the government in order to keep tabs on everyone. Nothing would surprise Charlie.

Lost in thought, Charlie hadn’t really been paying attention. Before he realized it he was three away from the door, close enough to hear the responses to the familiar question.

“Death or dying”?

“Dying please. Still lots to do”.

“Door number two then. Move along”. “Next! Death or dying”?

“Dying please, anniversary next week”. “Door number two then. Move along”. “Next! You now, come along”.

The man was looking at him. Charlie froze, sweat running down his neck. He saw the man’s lips moving but the only sound he could hear was the sound of his wife’s voice.

“Don’t be late Charlie, you’ll ruin my plans”!

“Next” the man repeated, tugging Charlie by the shoulder. “What’ll it be, death or dying”?

Charlie stepped forward, and, looking the man in the eye muttered one word. Back home he knew his wife sat staring at the clock.

Review of Paul Marion’s “Lockdown Letters & Other Poems”

Lockdown Letters & Other Poems

By Paul Marion

Review by Richard Howe

Sixteen months ago life in Lowell proceeded at its typical late winter pace. It was cold and there was a bit of snow but all indications were that 2020 would be a busy year in the local historical and cultural scenes. Mill No. 5 and Western Avenue Studios were both buzzing with activity on Saturdays. The Pollard Memorial Library unveiled its superbly restored Washington at Dorchester Heights painting and on March 7, the Lowell National Historical Park and Lowell Walks launched an eight-month season of 24 walking tours with a downtown walk on Women’s Activism in Lowell.

Then everything shut down. Or locked down.

Paul Marion’s superb new book Lockdown Letters & Other Poems captures that life-interrupted feel of early 2020 by opening with a batch of emails Paul sent in March and April to regular correspondents with the emails edited and reformatted as sonnets. For example, this on March 13 to Fred:

“This emergency feels vastly consequential.
Our nation will be altered in body-and soul when
We-the-people come out the other side of this,
The lucky ones with butts intact, maybe by Fall.
We’ll be at risk until a vaccine is ready. . . “

The pandemic poems are in-the-moment and capture the fear, frustration and uncertainty we all experienced.

But just as life was interrupted by the pandemic, so was this book of poems. Other chapters capture life in Lowell (and vicinity) in all of its variety. There are poems about favorite places, favorite foods, familiar events, family history, sporting memories, journeys to distant places, and much else.

Reading this book now is almost therapeutic. It acknowledges the trauma of the pandemic but reminds us of what life was like before and what it will be like as we emerge from our collective lockdown.

Besides being the co-editor of this website, Paul is a prolific poet, author, and editor. This from his Loom Press biographical page:

Paul Marion (b. 1954) is the author of Union River: Poems and Sketches (2017) and editor of Jack Kerouac’s early writing, Atop an Underwood (1999). His book Mill Power (2014) documents the twentieth-century revival of the iconic factory city where he was born, Lowell, Massachusetts. With Tina Neylon and John Wooding, he edited Atlantic Currents: Connecting Cork and Lowell (2020), featuring writers from Ireland and America. His recent work has appeared in So It Goes, the journal of the Kurt Vonnegut Museum & Library in Indiana; Café Review in Portland, Maine; PoetsReadingtheNews.org, a national online publication; SpoKe Seven, a Boston-based poetry annual; Résonance, a Franco-American journal at UMaine Orono; and Merrimack Valley Magazine. With his wife, Rosemary Noon, he lives on a high hill in Amesbury, Mass., in sight of the seacoast and uplands of New Hampshire and Maine.

Lockdown Letters & Other Poems is available from Loom Press

Boarding School Blues: Chapter 13

Boarding School Blues

By Louise Peloquin

Ch. 13: Reconnecting

The day after the bungled film soirée was special. Blanche’s family was coming to visit. It was late October when leaves lay on the ground in an oriental rug pattern of rust, ochre and yellow.  Blanche was waiting in the parlor she had discovered six weeks before during Sister Gerald’s “welcome tour.” How long would the visit last? Would she be able to leave campus? Would her mother receive a detailed account of her behavior and academic performance? Would something go wrong? Blanche’s thoughts were spinning out of control.

Sitting straight in a spindle chair, she was thinking about what to report to her mother.

  • She thought she had done OK in the algebra quiz.
  • Daily employment consisted in cleaning blackboards, dusting furniture, sweeping and emptying trash while listening to Sister François’s fascinating stories about l’Île d’Orléans.
  • Her bed was hard and she had to hide her transistor. Well, maybe she wouldn’t mention the radio because no one knew about it and she didn’t want it to be confiscated.
  • She had made friends and enjoyed spending recreation outside where she could run to her heart’s content in the woods around the school and … No. No talk about running around because Maman said that a high school student was too old for that. She’d stick to talking about Yvette, Andrea and Cecile, the day hop who had invited her over during Thanksgiving break.
  • French class was easy because she already knew the vocabulary.
  • Latin was interesting, Roman Empire history more so than declensions.
  • Embroidery was challenging and her cross stitches came out crooked every time but she was trying hard. Maman would appreciate the effort.
  • Piano lessons were fun except for practicing scales. She was learning a Bach fugue and had to respect the tempo so Sister Trinity, the music teacher, insisted on using the metronome.
  • Sister Roger’s gym classes were great but she couldn’t get the hula hoop to twirl around her waist for more than five seconds. Maybe that would make Maman laugh?
  • The food wasn’t so good except for the maple butter and the pâté chinois. But she cleaned her plate anyway.

Blanche listed positive things in an effort to control the emotional turbulence inside her. Displaying the extent of her homesickness would not do. Then she heard Maggie’s chirpy voice fill the hall followed by Maman’s “shush” and Sister Gerald’s screechy “Oh bonjour chère Madame Rejean! How nice to see you. Our Blanche is in the parlor. She is a serious student.” Blanche was itching to bolt right out of the room wondering why Sister Gerald had to waste precious time with empty talk. And why did she say “our Blanche”? No way had she become SFA property! She sat there grinding her teeth and clenching her fists knowing that any show of impatience could shorten the visit.

The door opened. Maggie, dressed in a bright yellow jumper, bolted towards her big sister and knocked her out of the seat. As the two girls and the chair hit the floor with a thump and a crack, thoughts of looming punishment dampened Blanche’s excitement. Fortunately, Sister Gerald had missed the scene.

“Oh Blanche I’m so happy to see you! My friend Janet came over and I gave her my doll and she gave me hers because I like hers better but Maman made me give it back. We ate yellow cupcakes with orange icing because Halloween is coming and they were really good. I made a drawing for you. It’s us at the pond and you in your red bathing suit. Maman has it. For lunch today we drank chocolate milk with Hershey’s syrup instead of the powder stuff and it’s really good. I put more syrup in when Maman wasn’t looking but please don’t tell her. Antoine drank half of my milk and I got mad. Blanche whattsamatta? You look sad. Aren’t you glad to see me? I missed you so much that I cried every day for a long long time but now I’m getting used to it but I don’t like it at all! Blanche are you sick?” Marguerite’s chatter was music to Blanche’s ears, music that made her yearn for the time when she wasn’t an SFA boarder. It was the bittersweet feeling of finally having that big slice of fudge cake knowing that it would disappear too soon. She fully grasped the meaning of “having one’s cake and eating it too.” There she was, drinking in every word, realizing that the visit would end and her sister’s winsome blabber would dissipate into thin air.

Out in the entrance hall Sister Gerald finally stopped talking and Maman made her entrance. She was wearing her red plaid Pendleton jacket, a forest green pencil skirt and brown pumps. Her raven hair was coiffed in a French twist and crimson lipstick outlined her ear-to-ear smile. The austere room suddenly felt cosy.

“Blanche ma chérie, we are SO glad to see you!” Maman’s embrace made Blanche release so much tension, she almost slid to the floor. After six weeks of cloistered life she had almost forgotten how good hugs felt. Maman pulled away to take a good look at her daughter dressed in her Scottish kilt.

“Mon dou, you’re very pale mon amour. Are you sleeping well in your private room? How are your courses? Are you enjoying the piano, art and embroidery lessons? Sister Gerald told me how well-behaved and serious you are. You’ve made friends here and you’re pleased with the educational experience. That’s wonderful news which I shall happily transmit to Papa. He had planned on joining us today but is bedridden with one of his serious migraines. Antoine and Byron are watching over him. They all send their love. You have no idea how excited Marguerite was to visit her big sister. She has been talking about it all week. Here is a drawing she made for you. Tape it to your wall to remind you of how much we love you.”

Maman was making the statements, asking the questions and providing the responses while Blanche looked on, relieved that the monologue exempt her from having to divulge her inner thoughts. The truth was she hated boarding school, she didn’t care about its educational opportunities and she wanted to go home. Latin and piano courses were available elsewhere and mastering cross stitch and crewel wasn’t an essential skill. Furthermore, she had toughened up, had gained a bit of self-esteem and didn’t need to be living in a fortress.

Maman was waiting for Blanche to speak up about her first weeks at SFA and continued her appraisal of her daughter’s form while Blanche was deep in her thoughts.

“You seem to be floating in your kilt. Are you eating properly? You have to eat all kinds of foods in order to maintain good health. Your father and I have always insisted on proper nutrition. You’ve never been fussy Blanche; you’re not going to start now are you?”

All the while Marguerite was leaning on her big sister, holding both of her hands and looking at her with tight lips and a wrinkled brow. “Maman, Blanche is sad because she wants to go home and be our big sister again and that’s why she doesn’t eat the food here because your food is better and they don’t have Yum Yum shop cakes and no candy from Windsor Shoppe and maybe her bed isn’t comfy and she can’t sleep.”

Marguerite’s assessment was spot on and made Blanche smile. She picked up her little sister and twirled her around and around as if they were back home in the living room. The girls’ laughs echoed in the parlor and, for a few moments, “carpe diem” reigned. The twirling turned into ring around the rosie with pocket full of posies replaced by “I wanna hold your HAND!” While the sisters sang, as they had so often done in the past, wisps of hair escaped from Blanche’s pony tail and Maggie’s pig tails shed their blue bows. The girls became one as they stepped and hopped in sheer delight. Maman was moved by this show of her daughters’ bond and did nothing to dispel the magic. Blanche stopped to catch her breath despite Maggie’s “encore, encore!”

Maman announced that they had an hour to themselves and suggested going out for an ice cream. Like a prisoner about to be freed, Blanche leapt with joy making her kilt fly high above her bony knees. She felt as if she could soar like the starlings seen outside the study hall window. Today she would eat a double scoop cone.

Quite a few people were lining up at the little roadside stand that afternoon. They all seemed happy to be outside that beautiful October day and eager to enjoy ice cream made in small batches in the adjacent dairy farmer’s kitchen. The atmosphere announced chillier days ahead but the New England sun generously spread its warm rays like it always did, even in the dead of winter. Blanche was dressed exactly as she was for her arrival at SFA but wasn’t worried about sweating, smelling bad or getting dirty. She was waiting to place her order and reciting the list of flavors to her little sister.

“What are you having Blanche? You learned a lot of new things at that big school. What’s the best ice cream? Maman wants me to have a cup because she’s afraid I’ll spill but I want a cone just like you Blanche! What are the flavors again?”

“Chocolate, strawberry, vanilla, chocolate chip, coffee, chocolate swirl, maple walnut, black cherry, frozen pudding and lemon sherbet. All of these look delicious and I think I’ll have a cup because if I get a cone with two scoops, the top one will slide and fall. If I get a cup, the ice cream will turn soupy when it melts and I won’t have to worry about it slipping off. It’ll turn into a kind of frappe in a cup. You can ask Maman for a cone if you want but I’m getting a cup this time. Besides, I can eat it slowly to make it last longer.” Blanche had always had the knack of presenting options in such a way as to follow Maman’s instructions without frustrating her little sister. Maman was right – a  cone in Maggie’s hands would probably end up on the ground. Although she would have preferred a cone, Blanche didn’t hesitate to become the role model again. However, her little sister wasn’t so easily fooled. “You never take cups Blanche! You said cups were for old people or little kids who didn’t know how to lick. Then you taught me how to lick all around the cone so it won’t drip and now I can do it even though Maman does’t believe it. You know I can do it! Remember you let me eat your cone last time we went to Kimball’s? Please tell Maman I want a cone!”

“OK, I’ll tell Maman but I’m going to have a cup with two flavors. So that’ll be a double which is better that a small cone. But it’s your choice kiddo! What flavor do you want anyway?” Blanche was trying to outwit her sister with theatrics.

“I want two flavors too. And I still want a cone! Can I have two flavors in my cone? But I can’t decide which ones.”

The girls were next in line but had not yet made their choice. Maman had had a hard time finding a spot in the parking lot and had just joined them. The patrons behind manifested their impatience and went ahead of the undecided threesome. “Would you like to order for us Blanche chérie? I’d like a small cup of chocolate chip with jimmies please. And you girls, what would you like? Hurry now!”

“I’d like a double cup with black cherry and maple walnut please.” Blanche’s mouth was watering just thinking about sweet juicy cherries and rich crunchy walnuts.

“And you Marguerite?” Blanche used Maggie’s full name as Maman always did and looked down at her with firmness.

“A double cup with strawberry and chocolate swirl and jimmies please.”

Maggie shot a defiant look towards her sister and mother.

“That’s too much. Why don’t you have your usual cup of strawberry? That’ll be plenty. You don’t want a tummy ache do you Marguerite mon amour?” Maman was used to foreseeing the bad as well as the good.

“I can finish hers if she doesn’t Maman. On Saturday night we often have sandwiches so a little more ice cream won’t spoil my dinner and anyway, we’re both hungry. We won’t waste good food.” Blanche winked at her sister.

“C’est bon, very well. Here’s some money Blanche. My my, both of you picked unusual flavor combinations. I don’t know if I would like that. But it’s your taste after all and I’m happy we’re together this afternoon.” In the past, Maman would have tried to persuade her girls to select according to her own preferences but today she was flexible. Blanche understood that her mother was overjoyed to see her. By the time the ice cream arrived, tears rolled down Maman’s face.

“Look Blanche! Maman is crying! She thinks we’ll waste our ice cream and that’s a sin because of the starving children all over the world. Maybe Maman is sad cuz I took a double like you? Oh Maman, please don’t cry. I promise I won’t waste food and get sick.” Maggie broke down as curious onlookers waited to be served.

The three plopped down at the last available picnic table without worrying about the state of its cleanliness. A rounded spoonful of sprinkle-topped chocolate chip made Maman smile and convinced her girls that everything was OK. Maggie followed suit and dug into her double cup. The tears dried as quickly as the ice cream disappeared.

**********

Read Chapter 1: The Announcement

Read Chapter 2: Facing the Inevitable

Read Chapter 3: Readying

Read Chapter 4: Au revoir!

Read Chapter 5: Arrival

Read Chapter 6: Settling In

Read Chapter 7: Beginning to Belong

Read Chapter 8: Quick Showers

Read Chapter 9: Inside & Outside Study Hall

Read Chapter 10: Math Manoeuvres

Read Chapter 11: Cinephiles

Read Chapter 12: Camera, Action, Lights

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