Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Tanka Prose

Clouds

I would build a cloudy House
For my thoughts to live in,
When for earth too fancy-loose,
And too low for Heaven. [1]

Elizabeth Barrett Browning

If I didn't know better, Elizabeth, I'd say you were haunting me. It all may have started just down the street from a school I attended—at the St. Marylebone Parish Church, where you and your dear Robert secretly married (though I was ignorant of that fact until only recently). I passed by a few hundred times as a youth, never stepping foot inside. Then five years later, and more than an ocean away, I came to live in a college dormitory building that to this day faces a world-renowned library dedicated to you and Robert. So close to you again, yet I continued to be deaf to your presence.

How the decades have turned to vapor. Now, I find myself back in London, roaming the streets as if lured from place to place by your hand, soft and warm. Yesterday, to the National Portrait Gallery and its famous likenesses of the two of you. And this afternoon to this church at Marylebone Road. As soon as I slip in, I notice the plain, dark door labeled "The Browning Room." Ah! It's locked, but I hope you'll give me credit for vigorously rattling the knob. At least I manage to snap a photograph of the heart of the church—from pews to pulpit and grand ceiling—generating stares from a handful of workers before I dash back out.
some have said

cameras steal souls . . .

with this one shot

all I wish to capture
is the splendor within

In search of another wispy trace of you, I next make my way down a section of the High Street and onto quiet blocks known for their opulent, historical residences and medical establishments. My silent gasp as I eventually come upon that famous address where you spent the last eight years of your life before you eloped. Etched quite simply, near ground level, into the building's stone facade: "Elizabeth Barrett Browning . . . Lived in a house on this site." I imagine you, fragile in constitution but your pen bold and strong, crafting your words in a way thought somewhat uncharacteristic for a woman of your time.
a sign 

at 50 Wimpole Street,
once the home 

of a beloved poet: 

The Heart Hospital

Finally, I wind my way through an overly crowded commercial district to Trafalgar Square and then to Westminster Abbey with its numerous pointed arches and sky-piercing Gothic spires. Here, your husband lies buried in the company of other notables, though far away from your own resting place at The English Cemetery in Florence, Italy. I bid adieu to you and yours, Elizabeth . . . but surely only for now.
evensong—
a hush of humanity 

as the sun 

slowly lowers itself

to a choral introit

_______________

Author's Notes:

[1] From "The House of Clouds," lines 1–4, by Elizabeth Barrett Browning (1841). The first-published version (in Athenaeum) is used here; in subsequently published versions, the punctuation is different.

The wording soft and warm is from "Sonnets from the Portuguese 24," line 3 ("In this close hand of Love, now soft and warm"), by Elizabeth Barrett Browning (1850).
The St. Marylebone Parish Church, which has been associated with a great deal of history, was established "sometime after 1086" (per the church's website). The basic structure of the present-day parish church was completed in 1817. Various well-known individuals have attended the church, including Charles Dickens and his son. The Brownings were married there in 1846.
A round commemorative plaque (first installed in 1899), too small and located too high for the narrator to read in person, is affixed to the building at 50 Wimpole Street. Its interesting wording: "Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Poetess, Afterwards Wife of Robert Browning, Lived Here, 1838–1846."
The poet's Georgian Wimpole Street house, which she shared with Barrett family members, was likely torn down in 1935 (sources vary on the date). Curiously, the current structure at that location is associated with a major heart center.
Elizabeth was a semi-invalid for much of her life, apparently suffering from a collection of maladies (the exact set of illnesses is open to debate). Also, it is said she was prescribed opiates, to which she became addicted.
Coincidentally (unknown to the author until she had completed this story), a legend exists that the ghost of Elizabeth haunts the Armstrong Browning Library in Waco, Texas. Also refer to the tanka prose piece "All Things Browning," Haibun Today, 11:1.
_______________
Haibun Today, Vol. 11, No. 2, June 2017
Update: As if I didn't already have enough unexpected Browning and Barrett  "connections" (that I never before paid attention to) . . . A few weeks ago, I was cleaning out old purses and in one of them found a small flyer about a cruiseline's shore excursion we went on roughly 20 years ago. It was for Greenwood Great House, a Barrett family residence in Jamaica. 

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Tanka Prose

All Things Browning

God's in His heaven—All's right with the world! [1] 
Robert Browning

"Would you also like to see the balcony on the third floor?" a library attendant asks me. "We keep the door locked, but I can open it for you. The view is lovely."

For two years as a college student, I lived across the street from this lavish Italian Renaissance-style building. Yet until now, decades later, I'd never actually explored inside these walls, nor outside them either. I'd only attended a ceremony or two—in then out, no time for more. Today, Pippa, the bronze statue surrounded by greenery at the front of the long, manicured lawn, comes to life for me . . . drawing me in.

As I step gently through a network of grand rooms in the Armstrong Browning Library (which is both research center and museum), I have trouble deciding where to fix my gaze. Greeting me first: rich-wood paneling, towering marble columns, ornate ceilings, a polished tile floor with a brass-inlaid border. The tranquil countenance of a young man seated at the front desk. Then book after antique book lining shelf after shelf. A multitude of stained-glass windows, sunlit and vivid, almost all of them illustrating poems by Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett Browning. Personal furniture. Busts and other sculptures, miscellaneous works of era-appropriate art. And several Browning portraits, with faces that seem to stare pensively at me.

can an artist

capture on canvas

the essence

of a master of words?

this son they called Pen

Many delicate pieces of memorabilia gracefully rest in glass cases. (Not to mention that the library also maintains a vast-and-growing collection of letters and manuscripts.) I realize I could study every trinket and silver spoon, every brooch and snippet of lace, for more time than I have—as well as lose myself in the notes that accompany them. A small traveling tea set, with basket, particularly captures my attention. The story goes that the set belonged to a Mrs. Jean Sherwood, an American art critic, who used it to share tea with a stranger one day while on a train journey in Italy. During their conversation, Mrs. Sherwood remarked that in America Elizabeth Barrett Browning was considered to be the greatest woman poet. The stranger responded, "She was my wife."

this wisp of hair

held tight in the embrace

of a locket . . .

how certain small things

don't harden with age

her inkstand

made of fine porcelain . . .

a chorus
 
of syllables
spilling onto paper

even leaves
 
from the laurel wreath

on his casket

saved, arranged in a frame . . .

still a cascade of life

How do I love thee? Let me count the ways [. . .]

I shall but love thee better after death. [2]          
Elizabeth Barrett Browning 

_______________________

Author's Notes:

[1] From "Pippa's Song," lines 7-8, in Pippa Passes, a dramatic poem/play by Robert Browning (1841).

[2] From "Sonnets from the Portuguese 43," first and last lines, by Elizabeth Barrett Browning (1850).

Inspiration and information for "All Things Browning" came primarily from an in-person visit to The Armstrong Browning Library at Baylor University, Waco, Texas; the library's website and the librarian/curator of books and printed materials also served as resources. The facility, which opened in 1951, "houses the world's largest collection of Browning material and other fine collections of rare 19th-century books, manuscripts, and works of art" (as stated on the website).

The life-size statue of Pippa, presented to the library in 1957, was sculpted by Waldine Tauch.

Sculptor/painter Robert Wiedeman Barrett Browning, or "Pen," was the Browning poets' only child. Several portraits he painted of his parents are displayed at the library.

Elizabeth (1806-1861) is buried at the English Cemetery, Florence, Italy, while Robert (1812-1889) is buried in Poets' Corner in London's Westminster Abbey.

On a personal note, the author was surprised to discover, not long ago, an additional Browning "connection." Not only did she live as a student across the street from the Armstrong Browning Library, but she also attended a middle school barely more than steps from London's St. Marylebone Parish Church, where the Brownings married in 1846.
_______________________

Haibun Today, Vol. 11, No. 1, March 2017


Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Announcement: Haibun Today, Dec. 2017, Now Online

The December issue of Haibun Today has been released. I hope you enjoy the collection of voices in the tanka prose section, where poets write about distant Morocco, East Prussia, an old house on Chediston Street, "a turn never before taken," an unforgettable hike, wild ancestral tribes, speeding words, "things fragile and unneeded," a cherished carrot cake recipe, paintings by Renoir and Whistler coming to life, remembering a sister, "visions of Mother," and more.


Friday, December 1, 2017

Roses removed

roses removed,
rock garden replaced
with asphalt . . .
who are these people
living in our old house?

Ribbons, Spring/Summer 2017


Here I am again. I didn't drop off the face of the earth!

P.S. This tanka is about the house we used to live in, in England, when I was 10–15. Walked down the street it's on when we visited last year.

Thursday, September 7, 2017

Near the dunes

near the dunes 
search-and-rescue shifts 
to 'recovery' . . . 
how can a life 
vanish so completely?

GUSTS 25, Spring 2017

While my niece was staying here with her family in August 2015, she learned of a good friend's swimming accident. The other two in the group survived. 


Sunday, August 20, 2017

Tanka Sequence

Shared paths
 
dusty tracks
crisscross the asphalt ...
what creatures
walk these paths at night
where I walk by day
 
a robin
by this woodland trail ...
nestled in grasses
then gone in a flash
before my camera click
 
yellow jackets
swarm on the same blooms
I want to touch—
if we ignore each other
can we really coexist
 
bones, teeth, tusks
of Columbian mammoths
excavated
from this very ground
beneath my human feet
 
    —the Waco [Texas] Mammoth National Monument

Earth: Our Common Ground (anthology, Skylark Publishing), 2017

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Tanka Prose

No room at the inn

We're among the first to arrive this afternoon at the local drug store, our haven from this storm of storms. Bedecked in our "emergency" ponchos (mine with Mickey Mouse on the back), we tromp in, rain beads sliding off onto the floor. A short while later, a lady bursts in by herself, animated, rattled. She briefly describes, to anyone and everyone, her harrowing experience on a nearby flooded road: "I asked myself, did I want to be one of those people they show on TV who has to be rescued?" She immediately answers her own question, "No!"     

Others trickle in little by little. A soft-spoken woman relays to us how her grown son, who tried to drive into town to pick her up, did have to be saved from the waters, his car lost to them. And a thin man who must be nearly seven feet tall commands attention. "This is the fifth time in the past year, the fifth time, I've been flooded out of my place." I begin to feel as if I'm part of a classic Christie whodunit—disparate guests gathered here, unable to leave, all roads out, both big and small, impassable. 

It's amazing how we manage to whittle away the hours, alternately cruising the aisles, curling up in cold faux-leather chairs in the pharmacy waiting area, and stepping outside to check out the scene: the lights, the clouds, the rescue boats carried on trailers. From time to time, one of the store workers shows us updated radar maps on his smart phone. (We have no smart phone ourselves, and our shared old-style phone has run out of juice.) My husband keeps talking about finding a clean room for the night. That is, until someone new bolts in and announces there are no more rooms to be had in this town—even if we could get to one.

see-through case
with travel toothbrush
and tube of paste—
life's essentials
for a dollar or two 

While it makes no sense to us, the store shuts down at its usual time, 10 p.m, forcing all of us to move to our vehicles in the near-packed parking lot. Just before then, a line forms in front of the women's restroom. I feel possibly more concerned about having to suddenly relieve myself at 2 or 3 in the morning than I do about threats of tornadoes not so very far away. Even the employees station themselves outside, one of them leaning against the building, guzzling wine from a bottle half concealed in a brown paper bag.

Sometime after midnight, through the window of her large black Cadillac SUV parked next to us, a woman we'd chatted with bids us kind farewell as though we are longtime friends. She has decided to try her luck at leaving, hoping a road or two have reopened since the earlier police warning—but she does live a little closer than we do. Over the course of the night, three more rounds of rain, even a little hail, beat down on us, the last starting at approximately 3:45 a.m. My husband manages to snooze through the heaviest of it; not so me, however.

Come 5:30 or so, the lot is only a third full. (Did others know something we didn't?) I'm oddly glad to still see the white pickup truck two spaces over. A flicker of brightness, I assume from a cigarette lighter, lets me know there's life inside. A short while later, the occupant hops out and disappears round to the back of the building. I believe I know what he's about to do there.

the shelter
of our Kia Soul
this storm-drenched night
with other travelers
we share the restless sky

Atlas Poetica, Summer 2017

__________________________________

For part one to this story, read "Deluge." 


Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Tanka Prose

Singing Pines

In the center of the quiet road, a small tangle of thin cable, barely visible against the tarry surface. I determine that it's a pair of earbuds, one badly cracked, partially flattened. Who would have worn these? Who would have needed them when the sounds of nature—these woods, this sky—are all around? I resume my brisk pace, dismissing my own questions.

Moments later, the world opens up, flings itself at me with whistles, warbles, caws, chatter. With flapping sounds, scampers, whish-whooshes, crackles, and thuds, from the forest floor to the tops of the tallest pines. Everything amplified. I find music even in the human-made: distant buzzes and hums of lawn equipment, the repetitive clanking of construction a mile or so away. From then on, each time I walk along that stretch of road, the same magic, the same amplification. Days pass, weeks pass; remarkably, the earbuds stray only a foot or two from their original location.

the rattle
of threadbare branches
evolves
into an aria
of unfurling leaves

as if someone
suddenly cranked up
the bass . . .
from a pond's reedy edge
the breeding calls of bullfrogs

My husband joins me on today's walk. This time, when I see the little puddle of cable, I make an impromptu decision—to gently kick it off to the edge of the asphalt, out of the way. I notice that the damaged bud is finally missing altogether. But as we pass by again, on our second lap, I recall that a crew will soon be out to mow down the tall, wild grasses. I kick the former listening device back, ever so slightly, into the road. My husband appears baffled by my behavior, why I would want to protect such a battered, useless thing. He doesn't seem to realize that, when it comes to certain matters of importance, I need reminders.

_______________

Contemporary HaibunJuly 2017, vol 13 no 2