Monthly Archives: March 2014

Lotus Compass Points

Lotus Compass Points


Some times you have to go
deep enough in so
there’s no way
before a sense
of real direction


Orange sun sets through gap in clouds
in the midst of a spring snow flurry

does nothing know its place?
or I have forgotten nothing

has its place here


Mist rises from trees
ghosts of foliage
longing for last summer
Sometimes I feel a ghost

in myself a burning off
that I mistake for rising
It clouds the moon
between us


Navigating mountain fog road
I slow to the speed of the visible

The sun only a white rumor
all wild empty air just out of reach

Descent brings clarity
a painted line, the next curve ahead

truths higher than any
enveloped peak

excerpts from an anniversary poem

Note: As the earth rotated through another vernal equinox, my wife Mary and I celebrated the 25th anniversary of a day in Boston when I served her a poem called “Invitation.” We count that day as the beginning of our relationship, and as a day even more noteworthy than our wedding day, on the autumn equinox seven and a half years later. What follows are excerpts from a poem marking the occasion last week. // JSS

Memos for the Next Twenty-Five Years


Your red dress and leather jacket in Brookline.
You rented a room from a family named Antler.

This should have been a message to me:
animals would gather on us like moss.

I communed with a skunk around a garbage can
in a dead silent, achingly cold early morning walk

away from your apartment. One sunrise we awoke
on a cold spring porch to find two squirrels,

One laying upon the other calmly,
looking at us from a limb on porch level.

[from] 3.

If our love was a street sign, William
Christenberry would have stolen it.


“You take care of your family
and I’ll take care of mine.”

This was the first time we were recognized
as what we were becoming.

In the middle of the spring night,
visiting the horse in the barn

Beneath a thousand hovering swallows



A mile walk to Bull Street
with ten bags of groceries.


The dog at the daycare fence knew you
so you took him home.


Cardamom husks. Emptiness.



Everything fell with the towers
but us. Everyone in love

Must have felt that.


We suddenly find ourselves
with a view of ancient gods.

Why are we so at home
under these foreign skies?

We suddenly find ourselves
again. Spring expands to summer.

People bring you stories
and you show them the stories’ faces.


Outside is the cat with the human face.
And others. Inside, another face:

Sophia’s. And I am home, with you
and her and the animal kingdom.


So much joy, so little work.
But I can hear the clock ticking

to find a safe haven as surely
as I can hear the second heart

beating inside you.


We moved from magnolias
to snow and road salt.

I wore suits to work. I dreamed
our daughter’s name.

I held your hand in wonder
as the doctor unwound

the cord that had stopped Aurora
from rising; free, she blustered forth.

But held still in Granny’s arms,
both dozing in their own direction,

In late summer light.


[from] 19.

That most rich May!



Wandering the desert of our basement
even the camel-backed cricket
finds its oasis.


Back in a big old house
in a small old town.

The proportions of anxiety
slowly shrink back to the size

of stray cats. Surrounded
by tombstones and gypsies

we are calm, and
play returns.


Our old soul companion has fallen.


Music is filling the house
flowing out from the windows

The moon clambers over
an abandoned building to listen with me.

Our dogs spread out in the backyard
below like quarter notes across

a hilly composition.



Family Riddle Night…

Family Riddle Night


Okay, so the family is reading The Hobbit aloud, and  a few nights ago we read the famous fifth chapter, “Riddles in the Dark,” in which Bilbo Baggins and Gollum engage in a riddle game.

Tonight, my six year old son started writing riddles and asking us to answer them. They were pretty good, the girls got into it, and before long we were all doing it.

Here is my contribution to the family riddle night…

What has no legs but is always walking
no mouth to speak of but always talking
arms has none but ever reaching
knows no thing but always teaching
with no eyes it still perceives
cannot stay but never leaves
visits banks but owns no coins
has no trunk but branches joins
carries much but bears no weight
transparent early, opaque late
immune to reason, love or hate
fear or pity, day or hour
stop it and it shares it power
appease it and it pays no heed
draws no breath, knows no need
yet earth’s largest body feeds?
On the way to giving all
at its most free when it falls


I am sure you can guess the answer.

End of the Day

End of the Day


By the end of every day I want to leave nothing unsaid
who knows when the next time to say it will be?

If it is tomorrow so much the better
I want to kiss my son’s head carry my daughters

as they sleep from our bed to theirs
though it is not as easy as it was a few years ago

and touch foreheads with each dawn
before light burns our silent words away


Hollow-boned bird on the twig of this moment
knowing that twig is not home but all there is

to perch on I want to catch up with my own
lightness full of all that wings will cover

or carry with a piece of the end of the day
to add to the nest which will be good enough

when I alight at dawn and for the dusk
I will one day wordlessly drift down to

To An Old Tune

To An Old Tune


Always a surprise to hear your voice
and realize you are still with me

I must persist in you and grow less quiet
now and then like a song that comes to mind

or maybe like the years hum a little louder
without recognition above the level of crickets

distant trains garbage trucks or maybe you have
loved me this long and I’m still surprised by that

[readings] Thank you, Li Ho (and Edward Scott)

Thank you, Li Ho: [Reading 3/8/2014 at Allen Chapel AME Church in Staunton VA as part of “Rhythmic Time Between the Lines”]

Today I spent a few hours just a few blocks from my house, in a part of the world that was almost entirely foreign to me, and by bringing in a piece of work that was equally foreign I believe I helped contribute to something meaningful. Or maybe I should say that I believe that Chinese poet Li Ho (b.790) contributed–but I brought that guy with me, after all…

I was invited to participate as a member of the local writers group in a fundraiser to celebrate 21 years of the Allen Chapel AME Choir. Also there to read or perform in this small brick church said to be the oldest church established by people of color west of the Blue Ridge mountains were a handful of other poets, dancers, singers, students, and even a talented mime.

After a couple of dancers and a few poets whose work seemed pretty in tune with the occasion and the religious nature of the setting, I introduced the congregation to my old friend Li Ho. I talked about Chinese poets of the 8th and 9th centuries and how many of the things they wrote about–mountains, snow, sky–were important elements of our lives in this town. I then read the prose poem “On Translating Poetry from the Chinese” and after that read my recent translations of poems by Li Ho and Li Po.

I can tell you that in a AME church setting, people behave like they are in church. That means if they hear something they like, you know it before you’re done reading that line.

“Mm-hm,” someone says quietly. “Uh yeah!” says another voice, a little louder.

I wasn’t reading poems about God, I wasn’t giving an uproarious rendition of a Nikki Giovanni poem, I was not preaching to the choir (no pun intended)—I was bringing to this room some words and ideas that were utterly foreign to those in attendance. And they immediately got it. And I believe the reason they got it was because they were open to it and they were actively listening. That’s what they came there to do every weekend, and that’s what they were doing now–listening and responding, line by line, it seemed, to the words of a man born in 790 CE, and another born in 701 CE. For the poet born in 1965, the enthusiastic applause for each of the three poems I read was not just polite–it was part of the celebration. It was a celebration of being there, and being alive, and listening.


Later, in his closing remarks, the church’s pastor Rev. Dr. Edward Scott was speaking quietly and personally about a recent tragedy that rocked this church community, that being the death of his daughter just a few weeks ago. He was talking about suffering, the intense suffering of the dying, the grieving of the survivors, and how upon his return from Raleigh he did not at first wish to return to church, or see or talk to anyone; but how he put on his tie and shirt and shiny shoes and came to church today to listen. “And today,” he suddenly boomed in a style which I am sure was quite familiar to his congregation, “I heard tell of a TOAD on the MOON!”

He intuitively had grasped that ancient symbol, that distant watcher, as a way to connect us in that meeting hall to a Malaysia Airlines plane crash that had just happened that day–how beneath that moon was more suffering that must be met, more survivors in far-away places that must come home to grieve and be supported by their communities.  He instinctively grasped the moon as elemental to identifying with missing and missed loved ones, just as Li Po and Li Ho did in their time. He found his own grief instructive, channeling it through twelve lines of verse written twelve hundred years ago and everything else he’d seen and heard that hour, into a vision of a shared world.

Suddenly I didn’t feel like my contribution to this celebration was quite so foreign, after all.  And for that I can thank two Chinese poets I have never met, and one newly-met pastor of an America I’m still discovering.


Early March, Above Freezing, Light Snow

Early March, Above Freezing, Light Snow


Five mourning doves gather on close branches.
But the sky in the trees is too miserable for mourning.

Even the earth will not accept the night’s snow
which sits in clumps on the ground like oil on water.

It highlights fallen trees on the mountain slope
showing all the directions down can take you.

Between the shed and a crack in the clouds
two bluejays mate in a flurry on a fallen ladder.




At night when my heart sets out to find you
my weakness follows clumsily waving a lamp
behind me casting shadows making still things
seem to move and moving things
impossible to identify: I don’t spend much time
with my weakness but it finds me easily enough
I don’t talk much about it or even look at it
straight on though when it speaks its volumes
increase when it is seen it is familiar
I know I cannot shake this thing which is not a thing
but like the part of our bodies we cannot see
When I see that part through others it wears my face