Guest Blog: Making Sense of Our World Through Poetry

young poet, schenectady, breathing these words

By Nancy Klepsch.

We, the poets and writers of Breathing These Words, are proud to present to you a collection of our work. The poetry presented below is representative of poets who responded to our community-wide call for entries on topics related to Breathing Lights. Each of us was able to share our voice about a vacant building in his or her own neighborhood.

Michael Lopez, for example, a writer and a staff member of a not-for-profit architectural firm, tells us about 3209-3211 Seventh Avenue. Sandra Rouse, neighbor and community organizer, provides us with a slice of life off of Jackson Alley. jill hanifan, poet, professor and director of the Writing Center at the University at Albany, submitted her neighborhood poems to us, where we learned more about empanadas, and “…strobe-lighting retro tables filled with couples equally long-haired/hip enough for goat meat.” Poet Ginny Folger tells about “The House on Strong Street” in Schenectady, where “This house stood when women at last gained the vote, when they marked their ballots and made their choices.”  Therese L. Broderick in her poem “Dar A Luz” celebrated “…the owners, tenants, landlords, and renters, Who mopped their thresholds clean.”

We also worked with youth from Troy and Schenectady as well as senior citizens from Albany. We had the joy of popping up at the Troy Farmer’s Market and watched in bemusement as a woman said, “You’re writing poetry,” as if it were a crime. As the great Audre Lorde once said, “poetry is not a luxury.” I have a feeling, too, that we are going to rely on poetry more in the next few years.

We poets make sense of our world through our poetry. We write. We share. We dream, and we write some more.  Most times, quite frankly, we are speaking to other poets. But, with this grant, it was different. We were given a voice. A light was shined on our work and we were given a place. For me, “I live in this city so deliberately/ that I found my grace on the corner/ of Sixth and Swift/ three blocks from the river tidal/ and all my dreams ebb and flow/ like a river feeding my city with/ new and deliberate possibilities.”

I hope this work resonates with you, makes you think, care and believe. I want this work to inspire you, and, by the way, have I told about the vacant building on First Street that’s a real keeper? “Home is like art like love is like love.”

 

SAMPLE POEMS FROM ‘BREATHING THESE WORDS’

 

My Yard on Jackson Alley, Troy NY

Sandra Rouse

 

looking out on my back lot

as shadows stretch from west to east

a glimpse of cold sunset

cool yellow sun

low over the Hudson

pitches a slice of lavender

on the breast of snow

unmelted a week now

it was a winter instant

no one around

it was like time forever

and yet

the flash of a moment

it was my spot,

my home place

and yet the world

###

 

Abundance

Michael Lopez

 

Seventh Avenue is flayed,

Its past and present

Exposed

Its future, hidden,

Deep in muscle and fat.

 

Long brick row houses

With doors at each corner

Are clustered here,

Just as they’ve been for a century.

 

They are rectangles, pure, with simple algebraic expressions,

But the builders, as if saddened by

The resulting plainness of this worker housing,

Permitted the merest ornament:

An oculus, a pediment, a bracket.

 

The bay windows at 3209-3211 Seventh Avenue

Are made graceful by woodwork with curving joints

As fine as the growth rings on a clam shell.

 

In 1915, Margaret F. Judge

Would have walked from here

To one of the brick collar factories along the Hudson River

— Searle and Gardner; Wilbur, Campbell, Stephens; Van Zandt, Jacobs & Co. –

All massive, smudged and resolute.

 

Making a shirt collar took 24 steps.

Margaret Judge would have helped cut or stamp or wash or press

The hundreds of collars produced each day by hundreds of women

Who dressed hundreds of white-collar men

Who did not live on Seventh Avenue,

Among the mason, the carpenter, and the boiler maker.

 

In 1955, Margaret Judge no longer lived at 3209-3211.

Those high, stiff collars were relegated to heirloom photographs, and

The factories that made them lurched toward obsolescence.

 

That year, two families, the Roys and the Delleos, lived at 3209-3211:

Donald A. Roy worked at General Electric,

Fred Delleo was a chauffeur, John Delleo was a laborer.

 

In 2005, the entire building and its address,

3209-3211 Seventh Avenue,

Vanished from the city directory.

 

Today, no one is home.

 

The fire department has posted

A square, red sign with a big “X,”

Warning that the building is vacant,

Too dangerous to enter.

 

Next door is

A community garden,

Where people have tended

Broccoli and cabbage and tomatoes,

Defended by a sign posted on the fence

That reads:

“Do not steal our meals!

Gardeners have grown

This produce to feed

Their families.

If you’d like to grow

Your own too, let us know!”

 

3209-3211 is not so much vacant

As it is a blank page, used by

Children who have painted the boards

Covering the windows.

 

One child has drawn

A little frame house,

With smoke billowing

From the chimney.

 

Next to it

Stands a Christmas tree

Jammed with round ornaments,

An oval rug

And presents – over-sized Legos and a giant gift,

Wrapped in striped paper.

 

On a board next to the front door,

Is a painting of

Slim, sinewy

People with no faces.

They are moving, arms raised,

Knees bent.

 

They are dancing,

And will dance

As long as the building stands.

# # #

 

new takeaway

jill hanifan

 

the empanada shop is open early nightfall

blinks and twinkles traffic signals

twinned headlights and ruby tail lights

flashing in the panes of glass

 

strobe-lighting retro tables filled

with couples equally long-haired

hip enough for goatmeat

 

we are waiting at the counter folding

a takeout menu and slipping it

into our huge fiber dyed free trade bag

 

big enough to fit a baby

and a tablet

and still show you your reflection

living in harmony with the earth

# # #

 

august

jill hanifan

 

i

in a flash the city skyline

bleached to an afterimage

 

this is deluge

this is flooding

this is no street but summer steam

 

what’s drenched

is washed and wrung

and pinned to a line

 

 

ii

the corner store door

opening from the street

like a hatch

 

a security camera

pointed at the beer cooler

watches everything

 

i wait in line

hearing angel choirs

tinny stop and start

like rehearsal

 

iii

three crows peck at a bit of meat

from their deliberations

candidates will be chosen

 

iv

bus eighteen delaware

ave to the shop and

save genuflects

at every other stop

like a pilgrim

 

fairy who played jazz from an open window

 

sunset gold horn traffic jamming

on the avenue the city parallel parks

against the curb and from above a soft hello

the door is open

 

the number you played last night is still dancing

up around the streetlights  i thought

i heard the key click

a few bars back

# # #

 

The House on Strong Street

Ginny Folger

 

One hundred years ago

this house was young

fire trucks were pulled by horses

and Barnum & Bailey

rode the circus train to town.

Elephants marched

through unpaved streets,

and twelve thousand escaped

the big tent fire,

while this house stood.

 

Women did not yet have

the right to vote; politics was

the exclusive domain of men

making deals in smoke-filled rooms..

A local woman filled this house with

the sweet aromas of baking bread

and cherry pie, with the plaintive cries

of waking babies, and the giggles

of children playing hide and seek,

while this house watched.

 

In the 1918 pandemic, when Schenectady

was the region’s hardest hit city

this house heard the whispered moans

of a family sickened with the Spanish Flu,

took notice when half of General Electric’s

work force was out sick, listened

to the sobs of the grieving, and

drew close to comfort the remaining.

This house survived.

.

This house stood when women at last gained

the vote, when they marked their ballots

and made their choices.  It shook with the laughter

of parties, smiled as a bride wed her groom,

offered a big comfy chair for the husband who

came home weary after a day building

locomotives at ALCO.  Now ALCO is no more,

but a new enterprise is beginning,

while this house still stands.

 

This house stands weary and worn.

But this house stands.  It watches, it listens,

it breathes.  It breathes with

the purity of light.

and hope of redemption.

This house breathes.

This house watches.

The house survives.

This house still stands.

# # #

 

In this House

Ginny Folger

 

My mother was born in this house, he said.

His eyes inspected it from roof to gardens.

She told me it was in one of the upstairs bedrooms

that she drew her first breath.

 

We’d  heard a ghost story or two about the house,

sometimes wondered  who might have died

within its century old walls. We imagined spectral

footfalls in night noises.

 

Never thought about who might have been born

here.  Didn’t think about a laboring woman

birthing a daughter, who in her turn

bore this son standing outside this house.

.

They moved out when she was sixteen, he said.

She’s  an old woman now, living far away.

He  poses for a picture,

sitting on the front steps, looking outward.

# # #

Onset

Ginny Folger

 

Go ahead now.  Take the sweater out of the closet.

Put your arms through the sleeves.  Admit,  just

to yourself, that you are an old woman now,

your youth and vigor spent.

 

November’s air whispers through the leaky panes

of your old house, makes you shiver, distracts

from what you were thinking.

So many things distract you now.

 

You used to boast that you were the last one

to feel the cold.  You were a furnace

as you slept beside him.  Now the embers

cool, and memory clouds.

 

The frost moon foretells winter’s onset;

you are unprepared for its diminished light.

# # #

 

Sold, Seven Years Before

Ginny Folger

I want to shout where are my peonies?

What the hell have you done

with my peonies

and what has happened

to my Tropicana Rose?

 

my peonies

my roses

my garden

my house

 

why is that ugly furniture

sitting on the front porch?

 

Does a pair of cardinals

still nest in the rhododendron

that grows up against

the back windows ?

# # #

 

Answers

Ginny Folger

 

Can a jar filled with questions float

in an air filled with shadows?

 

What hides inside locked rooms, forbidden

books, this grief of waiting?

 

Am I a strongbox, filled with unchosen obligations?

Is there a secret key?

 

Is what remains unresolved in the heart written

in a foreign language?  Who has hidden my Rosetta Stone?

 

Shall I unearth every pebble?  Or shall the golden key find me

only after I abandon the search?

# # #

 

Summer Pastime

Ginny Folger

 

Two old women sit

on a porch shaded

from the early summer sun,

half dozing, one still in pajamas.

 

Bits of conversation pass

between them. Perennials bloom,

settled into long-fixed patterns:

daisy, veronica, lavender.

 

Clouds move toward them

in invitation or warning.

One, they agree, looks like a fish.

another like a genie.

 

A bird alights on the porch rail.

A gentle breeze ruffles their hair,

smoothes wrinkles from their cheeks

whispers not yet, not yet          

# # #  
Ann’s Things

Ginny Folger

 

Her chintz chair

patterned pillows

damask linens

chalk figurines

crusty paint cans

 

all come arcing down

tossed from the second story

by two young men

she never knew.

 

Strings of colored beads

bags full of old clothes

unwrapped bars of soap

drop like stones

into the open backs

of trucks reading Got Junk?

 

Her other remains

lie quiet without

even the breath

of a whisper

to raise in protest

or warning.

# # #

 

Dar A Luz

~to give birth, to give light

 Therese L. Broderick

 

November summons us to furnish a shrine

In memory of neighbors who once lit our city’s

Stoops, porches, and doorways

Hanging oil lamps or lanterns, garlands or candles.

Dar a luz.

 

For the owners, tenants, landlords, and renters

Who mopped their thresholds clean,

Who daily swept their windblown steps

And rinsed off yellow welcome mats,

I set down this photo—

My great-grandfather’s own shining home.

Dar a luz.

 

Beside it, place a vase arrayed with the stems

And blue blossoms of late-autumn asters;

Then drape it with a necklace, links glistening

With polished crosses, stars, crescents, ovals.

Dar a luz.

 

Now in honor of valiant mothers,

Who among us can spare a glossy cookbook

Or a scrawled recipe for lemon pudding?

On behalf of brave children

Some spinning tops, shimmering marbles?

Dar a luz.

 

Lastly, for the sake of peace: someone provide

A few stark silhouettes—newspaper clippings

Of young men headed to Albany Armory,

From their sidewalks waving farewell

To best friends, cousins, brothers, baby sisters.

Dar a luz.

 

Tonight, windows aglow with brand new batteries

Illuminate our view of Pearl Street,

The beaming port, the valley’s glimmering river.

They magnify our gifts, swelling dim to bright

In time with the waxing, orbiting moon.

Dar a luz.

 

Let us behold—let us stand with—let us stand for

And occupy every fresh reflection, reluciente, reborn.

# # #

 

 

 

Mary’s First Home

Jill Crammond

 

was a milk house

was a dream house

was a cow eating sweet grass,

a red-wing blackbird far off and off-key.

 

Mary hasn’t been home in ages,

has forgotten where the poison ivy creeps,

or where her garden grew.

 

These vines,

these roots,

these crumbling footings.

Coming home is a photograph

is a study in the blues and greens of grief.

 

Is this true for you?

The re-collecting of fragments

as easy as whistling

as unpredictable as where the sound goes.

 

Home. Home. Home.

Say it.

Say it enough.

Say it until your heels ache,

until it is hone.

Is alone.

Gone.

 

Mary says now

she is a house.

She is plaster walls and wood floors,

carpets and quilts,

refrigerator of family photos,

that one night ending

in a hole in the wall.

# # #

 

For Sale by Owner

Jill Crammond

 

By day it poses as a subtle ranch–shuttered, mellow: a perfect child tucked in a church pew.  Joggers barely see the house.  The mailman makes a show of dropping letters in its black box, rushes to his truck, shudders at what he has done, where he’s abandoned his stack of correspondence.  At night the monsters emerge eating café curtains, picking their teeth with slats from white plastic shades.  Arborvitae lock arms, conceal weapons beneath dense canopy. One by one, the cedar shakes belie their Cape Cod charm, hurl weathered squares through our windows. Washing for bed, bits of the house burst through the bathroom mirror.  A glass knob sinks in my eye socket, key inserted. The last person standing thinks quick, turns the skeleton. Security restored.

# # #

 

Sixth Avenue

Nancy Klepsch

 

Even with empty pockets

we own the sky here

kiss it like Hendrix

the tremolo of guitar

All of us can stretch arc

kowtow to the catechism

of this river-scape

bob in its tidal

name waves

call the clouds cousin

round light snatch sunset

For less than 50 cents

Roddy’s Confectionary once

saved my life

For less than $2

Egg rolls & Swedish Red Fish

were my fortune

Light surrounds you

and now even I belong

# # #

 

ANOTHER TROY: THE REMIX

Nancy Klepsch

 

“Look at your building. You are the city.”

– Muriel Rukeyser

Another Troy despised

by the same old pirates

broken brick built broken

backside and despised

 

Is art enough

my six-foot tall broken mirror

Is love enough

Do you know how to love love

my electric back porch

deck eaves and gutter diving down

faster and you with your new face

 

Look at my building and

Rise Let It Rise

from soot smoke and ash

broken glass

homes are like art like love is like love

precious moldings medallions dear

shelter salvaged stone

my poor love

 

Never despise my building to fix

my building to love my

building to make my own

# # #

 

All Buildings Are Equal

Nancy Klepsch

 

All

buildings

are equal

 

Homes are

like art like

love is like love

 

Precious

Moldings

Medallions

dear shelter

 

Salvaged stone

my poor love

 

Do you

know how

to love

love

 

Look at

my

building

 

and rise

Let it rise

 

From soot

smoke and ash

 

Broken glass

Never despise

 

My building to fix

My building to love

My building to make my own

# # #

 

Collar City

Nancy Klepsch

 

Nothing is fixed

Like wool and yarn

we all stretch a bit

Warp wise or weft wise

We are better off outstretched

 

I used to take you on and off

like a shirt collar

until you milled me

at intervals on the selvage

of the cloth

 

It hurts me so to see you like this:

Broken bottles and dreams

boarded up

I used to see you with family

full and prosperous

bragging about the kids and

the cost of private school

 

Nothing is fixed

except of course this river

rise and fall egg and dart

all in one day

altering me in places

where I can still see your stitches

# # #

 

I live in this city: thinking about Thoreau

Nancy Klepsch

(with an emulated line from Thoreau)

I went to the city to live deliberately

to seek shelter with urban souls who

built dreams from broken beams

 

I went to the city to live deliberately

to fall asleep to the sounds of

speeding cars wayward girls and

the click-clack-click of high-heeled ruffians

 

I went to the city to live deliberately

to walk cobble-stone streets

alone and free

buy fruit and veggies consciously

love my neighbors continuously

 

I live in this city so deliberately

that I found my grace on the corner

of Sixth and Swift

three blocks from the river tidal

and all my dreams ebb and flow

like a river feeding my city with

new and deliberate possibilities

# # #