Day: August 8, 2015

Ugly Art by Helen Shanley

When I was ten my art teacher
said the pink and blue ribbons I loved
were not beautiful,
then showed us Mexican olla and said,
“Now that’s beautiful!”
and posters were beautiful.
and vermillion with spring green.

For years I bought ugly art
and wore ugly prints that looked hand made,
and my husband made ugly jewelry
out of copper and bones and dog chains.
I read ugly books
and listened to dissonant music
and used ugly words
and became a real bohemian,

While the beauty I loved
kept wondering where I was
under it all.

“Should I Let the Little Pachucos Swim in my Ocean?” by Helen Shanley

(the woman asked the famed psychiatrist)

The cat at night in Malibu
Makes a soft sound
As he moves along the ground,
Echoes the rumble, the growl and pound
Of the Cat to Cathay—

When the Moon ruffles his fur
In a silver streak down the dark,
She is stirring, subduing,
Stroking her Cat.
How he loves to spring forward, roll back!
How he scratches the rocks near the shore!
How he shakes small lives
With a glitter like knives!

The Moon has tamed and led him;
He glistens at her touch,
But if he followed you, lady,
You wouldn’t like it much.
It would hardly amuse or please you
When you told him to run away,
And, instead of tumbling in the sun
In a pussyfooting way,
He tore the rest of your beach out
And began to toss up your house—

And the Sea-Cat inside you listened
And stopped playing cat-and-mouse—
And it’s you lady,
And all the others
A-drowning in the sea—
Wouldn’t you call that
A great catastrophe?

But the Cat, lady,
The one out there that snarls and hisses,
Turns and turns in your veins,
Boils in your kettle,
Drips from your tap.
You think your conscience bothers you
With “Should I let them swim?”

Lady, the question is grim,
Facing us all.

Lady, better pet the kitty
When it comes near,
Keep the Cat purring,
And don’t admit your fear
Now or next year.

Prayer for a New Poet by Helen Shanley

Make me a poem
A great white poem
words full of rushing
staccato measures
patterns for flying
and movement of grasses—
or round, like the path of the tuning-fork’s sound,
round and liquid and gold.

Give me the voices of wandering people,
let them incense me with vagaried turnings.
Shout me October or moan me November.
Pour me the silence of two other worlds
into a little blue jar.

Note to an Embalmer by Helen Shanley

Do not remove the heart.

Extract the brain through open nostrils,
but leave the paradise within
my heart of hearts.

It is a point
so hot it would burn your fingers.
This pulse-point is the drum of Shiva
calling Shakti
–and when she dances
my heart rises to the doorway
to that small ether which conceals
a Spirit so vast the universe
cannot contain it.

There is a pulse-point
in my heart no perfumes reach.
From here the shadows of God have descended
to form/reform my body.

Draw out the guts.
Fill the great cave with sweeter things.
Do not remove the heart.

My Mother’s Hands by Helen Shanely

Your blue-veined hands
swept all things into light;
a box of apricots, a peeled grape,
a sick dog that had to be chloroformed,
a child to be led down hallways of ideas
up staircases of words
–anything to be fixed,
mended, made out of nothing.
How could you whirl about
when you loved the little things
–lillies of the valley, forget-me-nots?
And, when you lost your memory,
your hands themselves remembered how
to Southern-fry a chicken.

After a world of loss.
your funeral was lovely.
People and roses overwhelmed us both.
I put on a big brown hat,
hid under its dowager roundness,
but could not make something from nothing,
nor put Humpty Dumpty back.

So this is a poem for you, Mother,
whose blue-veined hands
remembered how to do
past your last thought,
whose light still sweeps the world,
whose memory has come to mine, and I

forget you not

Mother’s Fingers by Helen Shanley

Goodness flowed from her fingers;
blossomed in dresses made out of nothing,
in fresh juice over ice (hand-chipped for my fevers),
in home-made noodles and chicken broth
with delicate chicken feet.

The same patient fingers
traced words as she read,
and placed dominoes one by one,
took my dictation, typed poems,
kept a campany’s books,
dusted in all the corners.

Those fingers remembered what the world was like
when they were one year old
and groped for the mother who was not there.
plucked a live goose at eight,
and lifted the weight of the world.
They remembered the satisfaction
of making her own lace collars and cuffs,
her saving money for travel.
They remembered the feel of endless summer
with never a hand to hold.

That must be why, when they found me,
they wouldn’t let go.

Lilacs by Helen Shanley

remember that lilacs enfolded the night
in a soft June kiss,
a never-never land
of love in a candy store.
They floated like clouds of stingless bees
in mesmeric rivers of honey
around your tender face.
There was a sound like water falling
or clusters of little bells
or birds about to sing.

Sometimes I touch that lilac night
when your grave opens,
when dreams take us deep, deep
to love without time, without loss.

Dancing on the Sun by Helen Shanley

The art student called his water-color sketch
“Girl with Leaves,” sold it for lunch money.

Long curls relax over her shoulder.
Her wide white hat’s not drawn, but framed by sunlight;
the shadows all are pools of sun and leaves;
you know she’s firmly seated, but there’s something
airy about her total concentration
on the leaves (in her hands) that should be thrown away.

The artist has painted her just at the moment of freedom
when she’s not caught in anything more than leaves,
emerging fresh from her childhood’s chrysalis, held there
drawn to the leaves, waiting to dry her wings.

Now she’s become the cover of a book
written ten years later. Who wrote the book?
I, or the girl with leaves, or that perfect world
where we both dance forever on the sun?

Bereaved Lady Meditates by Helen Shanley

In the center where nothing pulls her apart
she lets go of chicken-fat indecisions;
like Baudelaire dreaming the smokestacks of Paris
she no longer flinches at her fate.

Through dreams astound with their cryptic knowledge
of details from her daytime world
they keep their own world mostly hidden,
then expect her to know what she cannot know.

Hearing the well water’s bell-like tones
that slow her heart from excited to merry,
she feels its laughter fill her bones;
her skin lies bare to the festive night.

Her brain can learn what her womb has not;
that he in his grave will not return
(and even when alive was not
quite the one she thought he was).

The point remains: he was; she is;
she cannot conjugate the rest,
but hopes to teach herself to want
life that isn’t what she wants.

Featured Poet: Don Thompson

Above watch Don Thompson read his poems that describe the beauty of  Kern County.

For the first featured poet, we honor Don Thompson who has been publishing since the early 1960’s with several books and chapbooks since 2000. He was born in Bakersfield, California, and has lived most of his life in the southern San Joaquin Valley, which provides the setting for most of his poems. Titles of a few of his poetry books reflect the subject matter such as Where We Live, Everything Barren Will Be Blessed, and Local Color. Don and his wife Chris live on her family’s farm near Buttonwillow in the house that has been home to four generations. His book, Back Roads, won the Sunken Garden Poetry Prize for 2008. An LA Times profile, “Planted in the San Joaquin,” remains available online. Much more at his website:


In the following audio interview Portia Choi asks Thompson about how he got started in poetry and what makes Kern County a place that continually inspires Thompson.


Click here to read and listen to the interview where we discuss Thompson’s book length work Local Color.