Sometimes, all I have to do is pay attention and ideas for poems present themselves to me.
It was Thursday, and I wanted Chopin. I wanted my favorite Polish potato vodka, and I expressed this to my friend, Mercedes. She reminded me that there was a liquor store in Tarrytown, where conveniently, I would be having lunch with another friend. Proximity bonus!
I strolled in and began to scan the shelves. A tall, handsome man asked if I needed help. I recognized his accent immediately, and I did what I always do whenever I hear English enhanced by a lovely accent… I relaxed. He spoke German. I just knew it.
“Yes, please,“ I said smiling, “I’m looking for Chopin vodka.”
“Ah, yes, the potato vodka,” he answered, “Let me see.”
At first, neither of us recognized the bottle. We were used to seeing it with the composer’s portrait on it, but this one simply had the label, and it was bright pink.
“I think this is for breast cancer awareness,” he said.
“Perfect! I’ll take it,” I said, and then I had to ask, “Where are you from? Your accent is beautiful.”
“Austria,” he said, and it was his turn to smile.
I knew it! From there, we talked about the challenges of speaking German, the beauty of Europe, the necessity for affordable health care, and how increased immigration is posing challenges for the continent. He wasn’t afraid to talk politics. Talk. Not argue. I really miss this about Europeans. When we were in Germany, talking politics was a natural part of the cultural fabric. Here in the States, it still seems like we either dance around anything controversial or we yell at each other. No happy medium. No civil discourse. Personally, I am curious about other people’s views, and I wish to discuss topics respectfully. My friend Wolfgang understood this.
In Austria, he was in the military as a border guard, and he interacted a little with Polish soldiers. He told me this was in the days of the wall, so things were “different then because of communism,” but he “learned a little Polish and it was a decent salary.” He also told me that he had his degree in Psychology, which he thought was essential to service in the military. “People think it’s about carrying a big gun and impressing people,” he said, “but it’s not. It’s about understanding human behavior.” Lastly, he expressed that he didn’t like what he was hearing from Trump’s mouth. “I’ve heard talk like this before,” he said, “and it’s no good.”
Wolf and I have had different life experiences, but there we were in the liquor store, talking about things that concerned us, learning from and listening to each other. This is my point. It can be done.
But back to my story of finding magic poetry.
I went from the liquor store to meet Loretta for lunch.
I’ve written about my friend in earlier posts. She is a fellow poet, a therapist, and co-owner of one of my favorite coffee shops in this area, Muddy Water Cafe. She and I have met several times to share our poems and give each other feedback. She has offered Muddy’s as a venue for Born in Snow gigs and Calyx and Parlance workshops. In January, she and I worked together with our friend, Heather Reid, to host a political salon. Loretta is a bright light, a sparkle face. Everyone who meets her sees her generous spirit, and I am grateful for her friendship.
For lunch that day, we talked like poets do, considering topics for poems that serve us better as we get older, and discussing punctuation as both function and visual design within a poem.
“I think I’m done writing about personal relationships. I want to write about bigger things,” she said. I agreed and added that nature kept coming up as the most compelling topic for me. I wanted to write about what nature means to me without sounding flowery or preachy. She also wanted to focus on the environment and human rights. We talked about how tricky it can be to fuse poetry and socio-political topics, how some poets can get pin-holed, and their work can get stuck in a moment in time, losing the sense of the universal.
Then, we transitioned to the practical, business side of writing. Loretta mentioned that she has a friend who is a well-connected literary agent, and that once I had completed my book, she’d introduce us. My stomach did cartwheels as she spoke. Again, I felt grateful for my friend’s giving nature, but I also felt the weight of making this thing I’ve been doing for the past few years, this writing a novel, real. Deep breath, in and out, in and out…
It was motivating to talk with my friend like this. It was a perfect lunch.
As a third sign post in my quest for new poetry, my story skips ahead to that Saturday, when Benjamin and I drove up to the New York Wolf Conservation Center. We have wanted to visit the wolves for some time, and there was finally a break in the weather. I was so excited!
The center has four ambassador wolves that the public is allowed to see- Alawa, Zephyr, Nikai, and Atka. The first three are litter mates (Alawa is the only female), and they are a mix of gray wolf species. Atka is an Arctic gray wolf and the eldest in the group. There are also twenty grey and red wolves that are part of the Species Survival Plan program. While the ambassadors will remain in captivity, the other wolves will hopefully be released and reintroduced into their natural habitats. Hopefully.
The educational program began with instructor Alex giving an overview of the center and teaching the humans about how important it is not to demonize wolves. He asked the children if they really thought the wolf in Red Riding Hood would dress in grandmother’s clothes and try to eat her. They responded with a resounding “No!”
After the slide presentation, we stepped outside and howled to “let the wolves know we were coming.” They did not howl back. Nevertheless, we hiked up the little hill to the ambassador’s enclosure, and when I saw them, I wanted to stay with them all day. I wanted to be with them under the stars. I wanted to hear them howl on their own. Beautiful as an adjective does not even come close to describing the wolves. They were rhythmic, graceful, and dignified.
What struck me most was how they moved along the fence line. Alawa took the lead, pacing, keeping her eyes fixed on the humans who were admiring her. She glided back and forth along that chain link, and Zephyr followed. He was so in sync with her that he anticipated when she was about to turn, and he turned, just a slight second before her. This went on and on, this back and forth, this music. Meanwhile, Nikai leapt three feet into the air, from a stand still position!
I had never seen canine behavior quite like this. I knew they were hungry, waiting for the treats that came as part of the presentation for the humans, but it looked like they were dancing. Something about this movement made me teary. I wanted to open the gate and let them out. I wanted them safe inside. I know how wolves have been treated. I know about ignorant, idiot humans hunting them for sport, but standing there, I chose to be grateful for places like the NYWCC, grateful for humans who give a damn about predators.
Still there was that fence…and something about the slow amble of Atka, the eldest wolf, outside of his Arctic element, pawing at the last of the snow in his enclosure…
So I thought about borders and a Wislawa Zymborska poem called ‘Psalm’ came to me. It begins:
Oh, the leaky boundaries of man-made states!
How many clouds float past them with impunity;
how much desert sand shifts from one land to another; how many mountain pebbles tumble onto foreign soil in provocative leaps!
I thought about Wolfgang and his gate with Polish soldiers…
And a poem of my own, or maybe a song, started in my brain…
A poem to honor those wolves and wolves everywhere, perhaps noting a connection with a man also named Wolf and dedicated to a poet named Loretta.
Yes, somewhere in there was a poem or a song, and I will write it into my journal until it jumps like a canine at a fence trying to get out. Alleluia.