Who among us doesn’t have a favorite poem, or two or three or more, to get us through vexing times — admittedly, what most of us Islanders are experiencing right now? Or so it seemed this past sunny Sunday as I sat in the West Tisbury library for the biannual poetry reading, in the company of poets Donald Nitchie, Jill Jupen, and Linda Guilford. Before festivities began, Donald and Jill discussed a political poem recently published in the New Yorker, and whether this feat was pulled off successfully. Donald thought not. Jill said she’d written a political poem herself recently, but it hadn’t struck her as one of her finer efforts.
And then West Tisbury poet laureate Emma Young called the gathering of 20-plus people together. (“Not a big turnout,” said Donald with a shake of his head. I whispered back, “A poetry reading on the first sunshiney day we’ve had in a week? The room is packed!”)
Emma read a few short poems of her own, starting with “Boats,” which included the line, “Grateful for boats and the creation of the getaway”; another titled “Ugh”: “Wanting to white out slug tracks of fear … clammy fingers gripping … a destination unclear.” She added with a laugh, “That was Saturday,” meaning she’d tossed it off the day before. Her poem “Dinner” served up the line, “Oh God! Another day goes by and you haven’t done what you set out to do”; “Rare Eclipse” included, “In these few hours the snow occults my day,” and she finished up with a flip, fun work called “The Eyelash Wish.”
Jill Jupen read next, with this poignant last stanza from a poem titled “Tom Hiddleston with Paint on His Face,” decoding the poet’s reaction to coming across a poster of the man: “I still feel the secret of you /of you and me /Come inside and we’ll talk about Shakespeare and /Tennessee Williams. We still /have much in common / Gabardine versus wool. I’ll ask that you have all manuscripts /sent to me. Really? /Loki, the Norse God of Mischief? /You are a prize. Shine yourself /Here, I’ll wash the paint /from your face. Make us a cup /of Earl Grey. The mugs, /a thrift shop find, commemorating /a royal wedding /bound to soon go wrong.”
Next up was our wunderkind Oak Bluffs library program director, Nate Luce, who read from a book edited by Jerome Rothenberg, “Technicians of the Sacred,” with such lines as this from a Bantu poet: “I’m still carving a bamboo stick, I’m still thinking about it”; and from Tibet: “… a man blown from a flower in space — the hair of a tortoise …”; finally, from the poetry of Latin American mystical poet Maria Sabina: “Saint woman, spirit woman, a woman of clarity, a woman of the day … Southern Cross woman says I am the little woman of the sacred fountain … I am a book of woman, says my book of prayers.”
Lenny Hall read from his work “The Poet’s Cauldron”: “The porridge of emotions, spells and potions, prophetic words, my conjured stew …”; and from “The Omen,”
“Sea apparitions of tomorrow … Around the edges … when I looked in the middle, all I could see were the edges …”
Meanwhile, as poets recited, sunlight spilled through the windows looking out over the rear guard of giant white dancing figures in the Field Gallery. A perfect backdrop.
Adam Bailey took a chair and said with a chuckle, “Today, rather than read my own stuff, I’m going to do covers.” He confided that the past year had thumped him with health problems, and he’d found, as so many of us do, inspiration and succor in poetry. He recited full-length poems from Rainer Maria Rilke’s “Book of Hours,” David White’s “The Well of Grief,” Derek Walcott’s “Love After Love,” and Mary Oliver’s always annealing “Wild Geese.”
Adam said, “She’s a good poet for those of us who’ve grown up with a Puritan ethic.” He repeated the lines, “You do not have to be good /you do not have to walk on your knees /for a hundred miles repenting /you only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves.” Finally, he turned to e.e. cummings: “I thank You God for most this amazing /day: for the leaping greenly spirits of trees /and a blue dream of sky; and for everything /which is natural which is infinite which is yes!”
Library assistant Maureen Hall shared, “It’s not a club they talk about /handing that child into your arms … “ and a poem about polio: “The nuns said my mother would never walk again /My grandmother standing up to the nuns, telling her child to walk …”
Linda Guilford read her moving poem “The Dream”: “Give us the outer lands/ windswept and wild /like our depths /the sandy path /the blue heron /rising from marsh /all call our name /Osprey will leave /wildflowers fade /Yet, we will be here /when dear forest /between ocean and bay /sculpted and bent /is shrouded with snow /outside our window /the lighthouse dreams in circles /the deep above /the deep below /the sea may change all that is /all that was /nothing will touch /our sojourner soul.”
Nan Byrne read from her timely poem “Spring,” including “The earth settled on bloody sheets, like doubt, all the pretty flowers … I mention the frequency of ether to bother my mother … She rubs my knuckles, her precious gems in need of shining …”
Donald Ritchie shared “In the Garden,” about a visit to his mother in a nursing home: “All moving to the same inevitable austerity of fall … and a certain New Yorker subscription which everyone seems to think of as theirs … instead of posture and balance, the fear of falling … let’s talk about something more cheerful, I say, like the election, and we laugh.”
The delightful hour concluded with Barbara Emerson’s lyrical musings on another recent cultural event, “What’s Written Within,” a dance at Sally Cohn’s performance space off a bumpy Edgartown road. The work, titled “Down the Rabbit’s Hole and Back,” reads, “Inside we are greeted to a cathedral to dance … meditative hum fills my mind … existential bliss … post-applause, we walk in dark tucked in the woods this cold April night …” And from a recent night at the Vineyard Playhouse, she composed these lines: “Stage bright, audience dark … time warped, wrapped in new creation …. raking leaves … winter survivors … timeless connection, winter gone, warm May day.”