On the air


Now and again this old print journalist steps into radioland and puts her voice out on the airwaves. I did that very thing this morning when the smoke from a still-uncontrolled fire that has taken most of the town of Paradise clouded our Sacramento skies. Two universities canceled classes because of the foul air (my college did not, and big props to the students who came to my classes anyway; quite a few opted not to).

But I had the lovely experience of being interviewed by Randol White on the “Insight” program this morning about Marie Reynolds’ book of poetry, “Seaworthy.” Randol, who read the book the night before the interview (how many times have I done that very thing?) had good questions and was an engaging presence in the studio. And I got to talk about my friend, the poet, who felt very present with me as I read the title poem into the big mic.

Here’s the link to that interview: http://www.capradio.org/news/insight/2018/11/13/the-journey-behind-publishing-marie-reynolds-book-of-poetry-seaworthy/

Or you can click here and land on it, too.

Me, I’ll listen to myself in a couple of days. While I’m fine talking on the air, listening to my recorded voice is always jarring to us humans. As I told my students in class today, we can’t hear how we sound to others; it’s quite different with our voices rattling around in the echo chamber of our heads. And when we do hear how we sound, it’s always a bit of a shock.

I well remember the student who ran the Sac State radio station when I was the editor of the State Hornet newspaper advising me (who appeared occasionally to talk about campus news) that I “didn’t have a voice for radio.” I took that to heart, but really, I didn’t mind: I was always headed in the direction of print journalism. You got to write more for newspapers and magazines, and, as you can tell, I’m all about the writing.

Still, I think I did Marie proud in advance of the debut of “Seaworthy” this weekend, Saturday, Nov. 17. River Rock Books co-publisher Katie McCleary and I will host the reading/tribute along with Marie’s partner Rose Varesio. It will begin at 1 p.m. at the 916 Ink Imaginarium, 3301 37th Ave, Sacramento, CA 95824 (off Franklin Boulevard between 36th and 37th avenues; parking on both 36th and 37th avenues). Free admission and good snacks. If you’re in the area and available, join us.

Here’s the book’s title poem, the one I read on the air:

for Meredith

           “Some nights,
           dreaming, I step again into the small boat
            that carried us out and watch the bank receding—“
                        —Natasha Trethewey, “Elegy”

My daughter calls to offer me some
sweet words of support. I tell her the days are okay but nights
I wake in fear, practice deep breathing until dreaming
rises like sea water and I sleep. In our first house I
notched proof of her life—a tiny gouge, a pencil line, dates in stair-step
fashion. And in the basement, which I visit again
in dreams, her father builds the boat we climbed into
together. The polished mahogany gunwale, the
lapstrake planks painted white—a small
endeavor, just eight feet from stern to bow—the boat
he finished on a brisk spring day, that
we lifted, carried
across the grassy dunes. Three of us,
bearing all that weight, leaving traces in our wake. We sailed out
further than I ever imagined and
turned to look back, gauge the distance, watch
the changing sky. I tell her I do not think we are alone in this world though the
shore is all we know, the line of cottonwood trees, the sloping bank
quickly receding.

(from “Seaworthy,” by Marie Reynolds © 2018, River Rock Books)

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CA sycamore-Deborah Small

California sycamore/plantanus racemosa, San Diego, from Deborah Small’s Ethnobotany Blog

What the dead don’t know
piles up like crusty sycamore leaves
falling from the enormous tree in the backyard,
nearly a century old now, just a sapling
when Aunt Estelle told the men from the city
to plant the youngster in the backyard—
she didn’t want a big tree in front.
And wouldn’t she be surprised to see
its grand form now, shading her house
and half the yard next door?

Or would she have had her husband George
dig the hole for the new tree back in the ’20s?
Would she have steadied its young trunk
as he shoveled dirt around it? Would they
have taken turns watering it, long before
sprinklers dotted the yard?

Estelle wasn’t my aunt, though she earned
the title by baking cookies for the next-door
neighbor girls, one of whom, now in her 60s,
still lives there. Years after Estelle died and
my husband and I moved in, the girls’ mother,
Becky, cautioned me to care for Estelle’s roses
along the back fence. When the old bushes
gave up the ghost several years later, I worried
about a disappointed Estelle glaring at me from,
I presumed, her heavenly perch. But Becky
assured me that rose bushes, too, have lifetimes,
and Estelle’s had had good long ones.

It helped, somehow.

Now and then I think about all that Estelle
and George have missed since they’ve been gone.
Becky and my husband, too.

On the last warm days of fall, I roll out my yoga mat
under the big sycamore, and, lying in corpse
pose, close my eyes, commune with the spirits.
Like a good reporter, I silently telegraph them
the latest news—as if they don’t know,
as if they’re not standing by, guardians hovering
in the branches, guiding those brittle leaves
to a soft lawn landing, keeping watch over us all
by night.

(In memory of George and Estelle Young, Becky and Bill Christophel, and Clifford Polland, once upon a time all of Santa Ynez Way, Sacramento)

(Thanks to the great New Yorker writer Roger Angell for the first seven words of this poem, which I borrowed with great respect, as an admirer of his incredible skill and that of his mother and stepfather, Katharine Sargeant Angell White and E.B. White. I am indebted to you all.)

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So after I posted a new poem today, I got this from my ace supporter/partner/arbiter of taste:

Not Güd

I did a little quick online research, and apparently WordPress has attached ads to some website/blog posts since 2006. But Dick (aka, arbiter of taste) thinks they’ve only appeared recently on mine. I didn’t realize this when I went to teach my mass media class today and decided to throw my blog up on the big screen to encourage my students to start their own (since only a few had them), and…

Whammo! Ugly ads at the end of the post, like the ones above. Another with disturbing drawings of sagging bellies advertising some kind of weight loss product. (This was only happening if a reader opened the actual blog post, not when the post was viewed from an email.)

“Yipe!” I said, startling a couple of students in the front row. “Ads!”

“You don’t see ads online much?” one of them teased.

“Not on my blog, no,” I said. “That’s gotta stop.”

After class, I went back to my office, opened my email and found the image above from Dick. I sighed. Wrote back. Said I thought if I paid WordPress a fee, the ads would disappear, and I would check into that. I got this message in return:

I will pay their fee.
I will sponsor you.
Your Güd writing should not be cheapened with ads.
—Your Boyfriend

And this is just one reason this man—despite being in pain for more than a month, now healing nicely and driving himself around again—is my major champion. I write a tender poem about my late husband, post it, and this is how he responds—with great lovingkindness.

So, without hesitation, I checked it out on WordPress, learned that I could have ads that made money for me, still didn’t want them, and ponied up a fee, which was not unreasonable, for two whole ad-free years. Later, as I sat in his living room, I asked Dick to check out my blog/website on his computer in his home office.

“Clear!” he hollered back at me.

So my apologies if you’ve had to look at these dumb ads on my posts for a while now. We have Dick Schmidt to thank for pointing out the ugly ads, which are now gone, and for making me look, as he so often does, Güd.

Thank you, Dickie.

Dickie dean redo

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Kintsugi heart


kintsugi heart-Oliver O'Dwyer

Kintsugi heart by Oliver O’Dwyer

Kintsugi: “to join with gold,” the Japanese practice in which broken or damaged pottery
is reassembled and glued back together with gold-powdered lacquer

When they opened your chest,
when a masked surgeon held your stilled heart,
as the team peered into the cavity of you,
could they see the cracks in that huge organ?

And when they cut it open,
how evident were the broken parts?

The aortic valve with its malformed flap,
the final doorway to the body’s main artery,
and the wimpy mitral valve failing to admit
enough oxygen-rich blood into the left ventricle?

In my dreams, when you come,
I ask you, and you peel back the curtain
of your chest to reveal the cage of ribs
sheltering your great heart,

and there it is, loud as tympani,
throbbing strong and sure, trembling with
each downbeat. And as I peer closely,
I see the trail of lacquered gold scars

descending, circling, criss-crossing,
a portrait of your heartbreak, your pain,
the golden joinery making your
broken heart beautiful,

the abiding music of lub-dub, lub dub
(the lub of your mitral valve closing,
the dub of your aortic valve closing),
your expanding and contracting heart doing its job,

echoing your immortal smile.

(for Clifford Polland on the 34th anniversary
of the installation of his artificial aortic valve)

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Happily ever after

Marci and her dad

Marci Selva and her father before the wedding. (Photo/Jan Haag)

There has been so much difficulty in the greater world this past week, not to mention what’s happening to our own little boats bobbing around on turbulent seas. So many of us have had a tough time between fresh losses or reliving old traumas or coping with current difficulties. So it was a bit of a relief to drive north on I-5 two afternoons in a row, out to the wilds of Yolo County where two friends of mine were getting married.

I was invited to read a poem at the wedding of Marci Selva and Matt Quinton. When Marci asked me to do this many months ago, I asked, “Is there a particular poem you’d like me to read?”

“No,” she said. “You can choose one you like. Or,” she paused, “you could write one.” She grinned at me.

Marci, who writes with me when she can in the writing group I host on weekends, knows that dangling a prompt in front of me like that is one I can’t resist. And, I have to admit, I enjoy an assignment for an “occasional” poem—that is, one written for a specific occasion.

Marci by Michelle

Marci Selva (by her sister Michelle Selva Bondietti)

But I’d never been asked to write a wedding poem before—an epithalamium, if you want the poetic term. And, it turns out, it was my second epithalamium of the summer, since I wrote another wedding poem for my niece Lauren Just’s wedding to Gerald Giel. Both had fruit in them, which was a surprise to me—cherries for Lauren and Gerald’s June wedding, and wine grapes for Marci and Matt’s end-of-September wedding. (Much appreciation to my wine consultants/buddies, a fine married couple themselves, Deborah Meltvedt and Rick Kushman, who know from grapes.)

Driving out to Zamora in Yolo County—specifically to the Matchbook Wine Compay, the site of the wedding—for both the rehearsal and the wedding turned out to be just what my tired soul needed. As the signs of civilization receded, once off the highway, and the sight of vast, rolling golden hills came into view, I felt my shoulders relax. The muscles in my face seemed less tense, too. The greater troubles and sorrows of the world I’d been carrying evaporated around two people who’d found each other a bit later in life and were coming together to make a family—Marci, Matt and his two children.

This sweet respite—such a blesséd moment of kindness and love and care—seeped into me and, it seemed, everyone I spoke with at the wedding. It was my great honor and privilege to write and deliver this poem to the bride and groom and their loved ones:


(an epithalamium—wedding poem—for Marci and Matt)

The fruit on the vines is ripening fast;
we find it hard to resist.
We meander into the cornucopia of rows
strung with fragrant pearls of wine to come,
as something in the sweet section
of our brains lights up,
and with no conscious thought,
hand meets grape, grape meets mouth,
bringing all that anticipated pleasure
into our lives.

On these Indian summer days we have
been known to follow open-topped trucks
down the highway, smiling at clusters,
still worshipping the sun, piled high
in the hoppers. We case wineries
to revel in the smell of the crush,
swoon at deepest reds marbling in vats.
We sip and dream of what’s to come.

This is fall ripening, harvest time.
Sugars concentrate; cabernet
and merlot linger longer on the vines,
take their time, become sweeter
every day.

And when the harvest comes,
we are awash in richness.
Look at that, all this plenitude reminds us.
Life really does go on, the reliable cycle
of living things poking through dirt,
winding their way into vines that sprout
fruit that we now savor and drink.

This is us making a life together,
the occasion of love harvested,
solidified in ceremony, another
sweet reminder of blessings
we’d almost forgotten.

Marci rdg vows

Marci reads her vows to Matt at their wedding. (Photo/Rose Carriaga)

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Drug runner


I have now lived six decades on this planet, through the tail end of the years when the evil weed was illegal and being so freaked out by the notion of smoking anything that I went the other direction if I so much as smelled something that seemed to me like marijuana (dirty socks?).

Growing up with parents who smoked for years turned out to be the best advertisement to stay away from cigarettes my sister and I could have had. We celebrated when, one after the other, they quit.

As a grownup, I am still a major square when it comes to alcohol for several reasons, not least that I never acquired the taste for it (nor coffee, for that matter), which makes me a real drag at parties… which is one reason I generally don’t go to them. I feel like an idiot standing around watching tipsy people get tipsier, and I’m not joining in the uproarious fun. Same thing about being around people using marijuana.

But a few days ago, on the advice of a friend, I went to a legal pot dispensary a few miles from my house and bought my first pot product: a 2-ounce jar of CBD pain cream. For $70. Because this, as the kids used to say, is the good shit.

Not for me, though I’m now a big fan of CBD cream, but for my sweetie, who has been hobbled with sciatica for a couple of weeks to the point his only comfortable position has been horizontal. Dick is a 75-year-old who typically has a great deal of get-up-and-go, as my father used to say, though Dick appreciates a good afternoon nap (who doesn’t?). And seeing him literally flattened by this new ailment has been scary and enlightening for us both. We have learned a lot. Quickly.

The good news, though: The CBD cream, smeared on his right leg, has been as effective for Dick as the big bad narcotic the doctor prescribed, which I have also retrieved a few times now from the pharmacy of a major HMO, making me, I suppose, a double drug runner.

This is not generally how I see myself.

Dick was a bit wary at first of what he keeps calling the CDB. He, too, is a teetotaler out of habit more than anything else. “It’s not gonna get me high, is it?” he wanted to know.

This was funny to me because the big bad pain drug was making him more than a little loopy, though he couldn’t see that.

“By smearing it on your skin?” I said, unable to imagine how that might be possible, remembering people taking long tokes of joints so tiny I couldn’t fathom how they didn’t burn their fingers… even with a roach clip. “No, it’s not supposed to.” And it hasn’t.

A couple friends who regularly smoke pot were surprised to hear that Dick wouldn’t consider just lighting up, “the old-fashioned way,” one of them said. “It’s really effective for pain.”

And while I knew that to be true, I assured her that wasn’t gonna happen. People who like to indulge can and should smoke pot or ingest it any way that they want. But Dick and I have no idea how to get high or smoke anything, and we don’t want to learn now if we don’t have to.

Turns out, we don’t have to. To my experienced friend (who, my old-fashioned self says I shouldn’t identify, even though it’s now legal to smoke and inhale) who suggested the CBD cream, I am most grateful, not least because she sent me to a dispensary that, she assured me, was clean and friendly and whose name is Hugs.

I loved that even before I walked in—a place to buy weed with such a welcoming name. Sure, there’s an armed guard when you walk in, and you have to turn over your ID and sign a release before they let you in the store part, but once inside, it was bright and clean, as described, and the young woman behind the counter was most friendly.

I purchased the medium-strength cream, also recommended, and walked out with receipt (cash only!) attached to a clean white bag with no identifying marks. I got in the car smiling and took it to Dick. He had me slather on the first swipes, and its menthol-y smell tingled our nostrils as well as his skin.

“How’s it feel?” I asked as he laid on his good side, me rubbing in the cream.

He smiled. “It tingles.” Bigger smile. “In a good way.”

And in a few minutes Dick’s discomfort was significantly minimized. We both sighed with relief. The CBD cream plus acupuncture plus bodywork from a personal trainer in El Dorado Hills plus regular distant healing treatments by my mom, the holistic nurse—all of it is helping. And we are hugely grateful.

I’ve been through this before, watching significant others in pain, in health crises, and it’s no fun for anyone. I usually feel useless. But in this case, with suggestions for treatments and practitioners from others, we have spent two weeks trying a smorgasbord of options: the western medical drugs and the kind general practitioner at the HMO as well as the alternative pain treatments, including marijuana products. I’m ready to have Dick try the CBD tincture next, the kind without the high-inducing THC, and he’s willing, good sport that he is.

That will mean another trip to Hugs, where I may have to restrain myself from praising their products to the heavens and actually reaching out to an employee for a hug. I don’t think they have those on the menu, though they probably should for grateful people like me.

And when he’s really up and moving around well again, I’m taking Dick there to look around. You never know what might catch his eye.

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Welcome to the club you never wanted to be a member of

(for Christine, in memory of Carolyn Ralston)

We regret to inform you that you
are now a member of the club without
a name, without membership cards
or handshakes or even a commemorative pin,

but there are dues, and you are paying them
moment by moment as your mind hums
with the image of one who has suddenly
left or one who lingered over the long goodbye,

the one who has departed in body, if not
in name, whose smell lingers in the house,
on the bedsheets you changed after
what used to be her was taken away.

And you are left with duties
you never wanted—going home
after a busy work week to clean
out her side of the fridge, where

a wizened half of chicken breast
rests, not to mention a gnawed-on
red bell pepper wearing her teeth marks
because she couldn’t use a knife,

her broken wrist still healing after
surgery. You are left—not a relative,
more than friend but not girlfriend
with the word you two used

to describe yourselves, which defines
the ache in your chest, the emptiness
in your gut, what used to be
the sweetest word you know—


You cannot quit this club;
you have become
a permanent member.

Welcome to the family of man
where everyone has a lifespan
shorter than someone would like,
where, if you are lucky, you will

give and receive love that will
one day turn to grief, a fine and
proper penance for opening
your humble, trusting heart.


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Labor day

4010 jlh rds cottage12x8

Jan and Dick, Lake Crescent, Washington, 2015

(for RDS)

My love, temporarily booted,
his Achilles tendon aching, asks
for help tidying up his tiny courtyard.
On Monday, after a weekend of sloth,
I arrive ready to tug sprigs of privet
that have summered nicely in the happy dirt
as he takes a small trimmer to the delicate
ivy spilling over the wall.

But, despite a good soaking the day before,
some of the stubborn privets refuse to yield.
He tosses me a soft green sit-upon,
and, butt down, I go at the shallow roots
with trowel and elbow grease.

I have learned this before
and practice it again: You can never
extract all the roots, no matter how long
you dig. The best you can do is pull up
the ones near the surface, clip them
and toss them in the pile bound for
the leaf bag, then haul them away.

My old man, as he calls himself,
sneezin’ and wheezin’, now three-quarters
of a century young, sits for a bit,
his big black boot extended, says
he’s grateful for his younger girlfriend.
I look over my shoulder, toss out,
“Where is she then?” as we both laugh
at the old joke.

In 90 minutes the courtyard is tidier,
bereft of stray leaves and privets,
seed pod balls and ivy cuttings bagged.
I heft the haul to the big bin half
a football field away, refusing the puller
he offers. “I need the exercise,” I say,
thinking of the hours my butt will spend
in a chair before a computer, prepping
the new semester’s college classes,
reading student writers’ work.

So I walk, the soft bag bumping one leg,
on a glorious midday under trees still leafy
and green, no outward hint of what’s
to come. I stop, reposition, breathe heavily
as the faces of two beloved poet friends
recently departed flit across my field of vision.

Something in me issues vocal gratitude
for this body, newly 60 this summer,
still moving well, still able to lift and bend
and pull up privets, to rake and scoop and haul,
to labor and love that man in the boot back
in his courtyard, putting the rake away
until the next round of leaves

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goddess of compassion

quan yin

for marie (1951–2018)

after steven died, you would show up
on occasional friday nights

for my creative writing class, the one
you, my favorite local poet, could

have taught, arrive without poem
or pen, saying you just wanted to sit.

and so you did, sometimes with eyes
closed, a meditating quan yin amid

students scribbling in composition
books in the old trailer by the football

stadium less than a mile from your
house. now, almost a decade later,

what i have left are your poems.
i barely sleep; you arrive in dreams,

meet me in the sweet café—also
recently gone—on capitol avenue,

or back in that classroom, your slight
form origami’d into a tiny desk,

your eyes closed, holding the space
for all of us, listening to me lecture,

but i cannot hear myself. i focus on
your plummy eyelids, your chest

rising and falling with soft breath,
the jade beads of your mala

circling your wrist, you who embody
lovingkindness, having left the body

that was no longer serving you.
i whisper your name; your

purple eyelids smile at me.
you, my friend; you, the poem.

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•Marie-9-9-11_retouch jpg

Marie Reynolds

We sailed out
further than I ever imagined and
turned to look back, gauge the distance, watch
the changing sky. I tell her I do not think we are alone in this world though the
shore is all we know, the line of cottonwood trees, the sloping bank
quickly receding.

—from “Seaworthy,” Marie Reynolds

She was in every way seaworthy, up for the voyage. And though the night-boat carried her off early this morning, Marie Reynolds gave the world one exquisite collection of her poems before she went. She made it one of the great priorities of her last months to give the poems that became “Seaworthy” to me.

“If I…,” she said one day to me in May looking at me as we sat in her living room, “I want you to…” and she handed me a small stack of typed poems. “I can’t assemble it into a manuscript. Can you find someone to type it?” she asked.

This indicated a major shift in my dear friend. She was getting thinner every time I saw her, the metastases eating away at her. She’d stopped treatments, this former nurse, because they weren’t working. It was the third time cancer had overtaken her.

“Yes,” I assured her, not saying what I was thinking, that I wasn’t letting her stunning words out of my hands, that I would type up the poems into a manuscript. We had already agreed that I would publish it. Neither did I say that I hoped she would live long enough for me to put her printed book in her hands.

As it happened, she did. Three of her poet friends (Susan Kelly-DeWitt, Susan Flynn and Dennis Hock) wrote blurbs for the cover in a few days. Susan Kelly-DeWitt contributed a beautiful painting for the cover. A magnificent designer, my co-publisher and our superb copy editor at River Rock Books flew into action to design and assemble the book and get it to a printer in a week. Not knowing how much time Marie had left, I had a proof copy made so she could hold it, perhaps read it. In 13 days, I delivered dozens of copies of “Seaworthy,” her first and only poetry collection into her hands as she laid on the sofa in her living room. She smiled, held it to her chest, ran her hands over the soft cover. She let me take a photo of her, so depleted, so happy.

I leaned over, kissed her on the cheek that day in late July, whispered, “I love you,” and she whispered, “Thank you. I love you, too.” I knew this was goodbye.

Bob Stanley, the president of the Sacramento Poetry Center, wanted to do a reading of Marie’s book. Though she couldn’t attend, 27 people who loved Marie came to read poems from “Seaworthy.” Bob shot video of each reader and got it to Marie’s daughter, Meredith, who showed her mom all those readers, saying how grateful they were to Marie—as poet, writing group leader, inspiration to so many.

•Seaworthy Cover

Cover art by Susan Kelly-DeWitt

Then I went on vacation in Canada, expecting to hear while I was gone that Marie had died. But she wasn’t ready to go, despite not eating for weeks. When she finally let go, early this morning, she’d been without food for more than six weeks. She was 67 years old.

We met as part of the Sutterwriters writing groups hosted by Lawrence (Chip) Spann at Sutter hospitals in the early 2000s. Marie was still working as a nurse at Sutter Memorial, but she’d been an English major at Sac State before she became a nurse. She and her husband, Steven Black, were both English majors. They both became nurses. He worked in the ER at Sutter General until he became ill with ALS and died in November 2008.

As Marie cared for Steven at home, she invited a number of us former Sutterwriters to join her in their living room once a month on a Sunday evening. We’d each bring a poem, read it aloud, hear someone else read it aloud as Marie kept time on her iPad. Ten or fifteen minutes to talk over the poem, say what people thought was working well and to offer gentle suggestions, often in the form of questions.

How many times did I hear her say about my flabby drafts, “I wonder if you need these two lines,” or “What would happen if you moved this section?” Sometimes she’d just smile and say quietly, “It’s working.” She was always gentle, always spot-on with her suggestions for me. Her own poems, even in early form, emerged as polished gems, and we sat awestruck by the precision of her language, the elegant construction of her poems. Some of them now appear in “Seaworthy.”

We continued to meet after Steven died, the last time late in 2017. What I would give to sit in that living room one more time with Marie, to hear the iPad’s gentle chime that was the signal to begin reading and end discussion of that piece.

Just a few days ago in the writing groups I host, thinking about Marie’s long goodbye, I wrote a draft of a new poem, which ends (for now) with these two stanzas:

I want to find the wings you helped
me grow, fly to you and whisper,
You’re OK. You’re OK, my dear,
cleared for takeoff, ready to leave

this clump of cells and bones behind,
you who are becoming a poem
without words, stretching beyond breath
and body, resting here in my heart.

I know she’d have something to offer me about this, though I don’t know what. For now, as so many who loved Marie bid her farewell—including her daughter, as well as her new love, and many friends and family members—I will hold onto her words, the last part of the last poem in “Seaworthy,” which I read before a full house at the poetry center 27 days before she died:

What does it take to trust? We are at sea,
you and I, and the soul that rises,
rises like an island between us. Wary
dreamers. At night, we sleep. Moths watch
from the screens. Oars slide without sound
into the water and all through the hours,
the night-boat glides us toward morning.

—From “The Night-Boat,” Marie Reynolds
© 2018 “Seaworthy,” River Rock Books


If you’d like to purchase a copy of “Seaworthy,” send me a message at janishaag@gmail.com.

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