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With the Sun [by Mary Gilliland]

Want more shade? Want more sun? A plant demonstrates its answers—via height or sturdiness or angle of inclination. About the spring ephemerals, though, there’s no need to worry the question. They emerge when trees are bare of leaves.

The thing about bulbs: they are easy to plant and, when conditions Poetsnarcissus copy optimize for new growth—the slant of sunlight in the spring, its rains—their green shoots rise, “conspiring with the sun,” then bloom year after year—and multiply. Descendants of my mother-in-law’s handful of Narcissus poeticus, the poet’s narcissus aka pheasant’s eye, number in the thousands all over not only our land but friends’ gardens all over town. 

In September and October after a day of contact-intensive teaching, I would spend an hour or two planting yet more bulbs, recovering some of the energy expended on one-to-ones with college students. Gardening helped me keep faith with poetry until in my late thirties I heard about places that give writers residencies. Were the poems penned in my tired off hours worth pursuing? Seems so. The Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown invited me for 7 months. I put my job on the line. I had to skip my annual Cornell ritual of enlarging John Keats’ “To Autumn” on the copier at the fall equinox and taping his poem to my office door for the season.

Once the ephemerals have bloomed and their foliage finishes doing its thing, their above-ground parts disappear. You can walk over the spot and never know that, below ground, life has stored its feast of chlorophyll until next year’s spring thaw. They sleep in summer and through the winter—the snowdrops, corydalis, virginia bluebells, daffodils….

Was Provincetown a dormancy for me or an emergence from? I think the latter. My dormancy as a poet was self-induced (family and ethnic background prolonged the tendency). My long off-season at FAWC reset my priorities for when to work, and how, and why.

On campus the following autumn, a former student spotted me on the quad. How was I, where had I been? Did I know that when students from my creative writing seminar saw each other, they’d sometimes nod meaningfully, lean in, and intone (he was leering now, loving the rhythm): “And sometimes like a gleaner thou dost keep/steady thy laden head…”? Apparently my ecstasy in class about enjambement was forgotten. No matter. They remembered Keats’ words.

Gooseberries 1Yesterday I stood up from weeding the gooseberry patch and paid attention to a long-term hunch: that I’d been fastening my kneepads upside down. I tried them the other way, cushiony part over kneecap, thin part below. Squat-kneeling again, the back of my knee was no longer working the velcro loose as it bent. This sort of thing also happens writing a poem. There, too, it can take several years to realize your hunch. The hours don’t count. I don’t count the hours.

My new collection, by a poet who did made her way back to Ithaca, will zoom launch via Odyssey Bookstore on November 9 at 7 PM.
                                                                                                        —MG, 26 October 2022

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Radio

I left it
on when I
left the house
for the pleasure
of coming back
ten hours later
to the greatness
of Teddy Wilson
"After You've Gone"
on the piano
in the corner
of the bedroom
as I enter
in the dark


from New and Selected Poems by David Lehman

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