The Barns of Childhood; Object in a Museum; Super Honey Cures All Wounds
By: Robin Axworthy
The Barns of Childhood
To my father
They are empty carcasses,
slats missing, siding
lost in winter storms,
inside bars of sun,
striped dark. Hearts
emptied, they still sing
ghosts of cows,
sun and sky.
The dairyman is gone,
his sons fled to cities,
leaving the milk-house
empty. The last rooster
was put into the pot
long ago, the lace curtains
his wife hung
have been folded
and bagged, sold
to some antique store —
and the times you
and I pulled up
to the barn in your truck,
where you unpacked
the black doctor’s bag,
and I went for water
hot enough to burn
while you and the farmer stood
talking over the stanchioned Holstein
sharp-backed with pain,
have all blown away
leaving only bits
of bone and button
scattered and gone.
Object in a Museum
after Bather Putting Up Her Hair, Aristide Maillol,
This young woman
with her innocent thighs,
horse sturdy ankles,
arms lifted to pin up her hair
stands facing us. The light
reflects off oxidizing bronze
fingers her shoulders,
edges raised armpits,
slides over knee,
points curving arrow of pubis,
strokes aching sweep of waist,
lips the secret portal of her umbilical
wound, leaves her face shadowed.
Subject, object, licked
by eyes and light,
she looks aside,
as if removing herself,
as if to say — Go ahead,
look — here I am,
owing us nothing in return.
Super Honey Cures All Wounds
after a headline in Weekly World News
Can it heal this one?
The one that sleeps curled up beside me
in the bed where you used to be, that winds
around you in the chair because you can’t
lie down any more? Can it soften the burning
in my chest when you stop to suck in air
after you walk up the two steps into the house?
Can it sterilize the fear that has sliced out
our tongues, that silenced us, lest we say
what we will not say. Can its stickiness
hold you here longer, or can its gold
light the darkness all around me? Tell me,
please, can it keep the stench of death
from your flesh when your heart finally stops,
or make the grave
Robin Steere Axworthy is a native Californian. She has been writing since childhood in the interstices among growing up, marriage, child rearing, teaching, dancing, reading, and etc. She now lives in Southern California and is busy writing poetry most days. She finds that the physical world interrogates her and writes to investigate the questions it poses.
"I have written as long as I can remember. From babyhood, both of my parents filled us with words and music: children’s rhymes, songs, poetry, stories. Perhaps because I’m a kinetic-visual learner, I gravitated to poetry: first others’, later my own,. We moved a great deal — Grants Pass, Denmark, Santa Barbara, Boston, Petaluma — and I came of age during the decades of the 60s and 70s, which were full of upheaval. I suspect writing was my way of organizing this constantly changing world; it releases, connects, and stabilizes me. In my 50s, I returned to school to earn an MA in English from California State University Fullerton; my thesis was a YA novella. Thereafter, I was fortunate enough to find the door into our local thriving, supportive poetry community. Since retiring from teaching in 2016, I’ve had more time to devote to learning the craft of writing poetry. I have been published in various anthologies from Southern California small presses, including most recently Dark Ink (Moontide Press) and Selfish Work: Incandescent Mind 3 (Sadie Girl Press). I am currently working with Finishing Line Press to bring out a chapbook.
1. Barns of Childhood: My father was a large animal veterinarian. This poem was occasioned by seeing the deteriorating empty barns of Marin and Sonoma counties in California, which sheltered thriving dairy farms when he was practicing there. So the poem is in response to the loss of that way of life (I am from the last generation in which large numbers of children grew up around animals and farms), my father’s death, and the loss of the barns and farmhouses themselves, since I am moved by the casual beauty of functional architecture. 2. Object in a Museum: I was in the Santa Barbara Art Museum one day and came across this sculpture. I was struck by what I sensed as a contradiction: she was wholly exposed and naked, but also self-contained and invulnerable - an object, but also subject. I wondered about how much the sculptor knew of her real self. The poem was my response. 3. Super Honey Cures All Wounds: This is from a prompt from Eric Morago, poet and publisher of Moontide Press, to write a poem in response to one headline from Weekly World News. I was flummoxed — I’m not a big popular culture kind of person — but then this title jumped out at me. I wish it were true."
Interview with the Poet:
Cathexis Northwest Press:
How long have you been writing poetry?
Robin Steere Axworthy:
Really for as long as I can remember. I’ve always made up songs to sing to myself. But in 5th grade, after my teacher did poetry unit, he collected the poems we wrote, and then published them in a book. I remember the feeling of discovery and power that writing a poem about my favorite activity gave me. I’ve continued writing ever since, both on my own initiative and in poetry classes in undergraduate and my master’s program. Currently, I’m taking local workshops on a steady basis, and am thankful to have that option for building community and skills.
Can you remember the first poem that made you fall in love with poetry?
I don’t remember a particular one but I think the ones I read and reread were the narrative poems in Louis Untermeyer’s The Golden Treasury of Poetry, like Nash’s “The Tale of Custard the Dragon” and Alfred Noyes “The Highwayman.” I also loved “You Are Old Father William” and “Twas Brillig…” from Alice Through the Looking Glass. At some point, my mother bought the Caedmeon recordings of Dylan Thomas and e e cummings. I used to listen to them over and over and over, absorbing their music, imagery, and deep sense without realizing how profound an experience that was. I just knew I loved them.
Who are your favorite poets? Any specific poems?
That’s a hard one. As I said, my first influences were story poems and folksongs, and I still love those, including Homer, Tennyson, and Spencer. Shakespeare, of course, especially the plays. Alexander Pope is incredible, using poetry to make arguments. I love almost everything of Dickinson’s and Whitman’s. A recent favorite is Gwendolyn Brookes’ “We Real Cool.” I read and return to Frost, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Richard Wilbur, and Theodore Roethke for their mastery of poetic language and form, and the way they use it to dig down under the particulars of concrete scenes to reveal something else beyond. These days, one of my poetry idols is Ted Koozer; his “The Old People” is a favorite. Two others are Maggie Smith and Mary Oliver (I have “The Journey” taped to my wall). I love Garcia Lorca and wish I knew enough Spanish to read him in his own language. Basically, poets whose work starts in close observation, reaching for difficult truths, but whose mastery is such that it disappears, so that the poem is accessible to almost anyone. Thanks for asking this question. I can see a through line here that I hadn’t seen before.
Can you share for us a little bit about your writing process? Any specific rituals that get you in the zone?
While I do write to prompts when I’m in workshops and enjoy doing that because it takes me out of my usual grooves, most of my poems start when I’m doing something else, especially a repetitive physical activity: most often walking, but also washing dishes, hanging up laundry, watering plants, or just sitting and looking at something, when my mind is free to start spinning that particular fiber. Research and brainstorming are also useful, especially if I’m responding to a prompt.
How do you decide on the form for your poems? Do you start writing with a form in mind, or do you let the poem tell you what it will look like?
I’ve done both but mostly the latter. I love form, but I’m not good enough at it yet to use it regularly. Sometimes I start a poem and can tell it would make a good American sonnet (I haven’t mastered any other kind yet without straining them) or might fit a loose ballad structure. I often end up working with couplets or triplets. The music of the poem just comes with it, but I struggle with line endings and editing down to just what needs to be in the poem (as you can probably tell from my answers).
Any advice for poets who have yet to find their voice?
I think it’s very difficult to hear and value our own voices. Almost every poet I know struggles with this. So I can only offer the standard advice, which I find useful and try to hang on to: read a lot of poetry; write every day, even if it’s not poetry; and do your best to trust your own instincts. I can’t write like anyone else. What I see and what the way I frame my observations is mine, so it’s all I can do. I wish I could write like other people, but for all of us, that’s impossible if we’re being as truthful as we can be. Lastly — workshop and read in open mikes. It’s important to get that feedback. And I try to take as my benchmark something like: if my poems are useful to even a few people, then it’s worth my while to keep at it.
What is your editing process like?
Chaotic and fumbling. I still feel like I don’t know what I’m doing, and I often get lost in the trees instead of mapping the forest. I’m much more instinctual in my writing and editing than analytic, though I can certainly analyze others’ work. But as I work at it, participate in critiques, and get expert feedback from generous experienced poets in the Long Beach/North Orange Country area, I find my instincts and perceptions about what needs to be done developing. Some strategies I use — most of which I’ve transferred from other kinds of writing to poetry — include : reading my work aloud; memorizing poems; printing a poem out and cutting it up to reassemble it; brainstorming (mind webs) or free writing; and drawing and graphing. When I’m having trouble with a specific word, I really like going not only to online thesauri but to the old Roget’s Thesaurus, which is organized by concept, since browsing through a whole chunk of words related in sense to what I’m searching for often opens new possibilities.
When do you know a poem is finished?
I remember listening to a poet on NPR once, who said he is still working on his poems as he rides the train to meet his editor. Probably Kooser. So I’m not sure poems are ever completely done, but I put them in my “Done/Archived” folder when I feel like they’re working well, others feel they’re working well, and I’ve done as much as I can given my current skills. Sometimes I just put a poem aside as something I can’t seem to manage yet. I just finished one that had been sitting for three years — I was thinking about the issue the poem is centered on one day and rolling around suggestions from three people I respect, when the changes I needed to make just kind of fell into place, so it’s mostly finished for now. In another two years? I don’t know.