Celebrating National Poetry Month by Elizabeth Cunningham

Elizabeth Cunningham headshot jpegOne of my morning practices is Lectio Divina, divine reading. Instead of reading scriptures, I read poems. The practice calls on me to be alert and contemplative. Recently, I have been reading The Shambhala Anthology of Women’s Spiritual Poetry, an extraordinarily diverse selection of poems from 2300 BCE to the late 20th century. I won’t be quoting from the collection, but I do recommend it to FAR readers as a sample of our literary, religious and feminist legacy.

Writing has always been one of the more accessible forms of expression for women. You don’t need expensive paints or canvas, clay or stone. To complete your work, you don’t need access to a theatre or an orchestra. Just a scrap of paper, a writing implement, a stolen moment, and, yes, the opportunity to be literate, not easily come by in many times and places for women or men. If you are literate, the act of writing itself does not require even Virginia Woolf’s much-to-be-desired room of one’s own. Jane Austen is said to have written at the dining room table surrounded by the chaos of family life.

River Warbler in full song by Alan Dalton

River Warbler in full song by Alan Dalton

I practice writing poetry for a number of reasons. Several years ago, I scrapped my prose journal, because I could no longer stand to listen to myself go on about my life. If I had something to say, I wanted to distill it to its essence. The best thing about the practice is not the poems, most of which will never see the light of day, but the change in perception. I see poems everywhere as I go about my daily life. Birds, light, wind, plants, water, dreams—and sometimes even fellow humans—touch me at another level, regardless of what I manage to get down in words. Reading poems affects me just as much. In celebration of National Poetry Month I’d like to share a couple of my favorites by my late friends Patricia Monaghan and Johanne Renbeck. (See two earlier FAR posts). I hope you will enjoy and explore their work further.

from Mary: A Life in Verse by Patricia Monaghan

Mary Describes the Angel to Elizabeth

Imagine the look of a man
who will never be a husband:
he has a special thinness,
a resistance to being fed.
He roused in me such freedom!

And when he moved, it was
with the fresh angularity
of adolescence, even though
he was old, old, his skin
sheer as glass, fragile.

He roused in me such fire!
And oh, yes, I was willing.
I told him, “I will.” I did not
mean, “I will do this thing.”
I meant, “I will it. I will it.”

From Open the Door to Yearning by Johanne Renbeck

Old Ladies Are Dying

Old ladies are dying, laying
heads of thin hair down on
tables and floors, leaving rooms
littered with lifetimes, leaving
unironed clothes, spindly plants,
torn slacks next to a sewing
machine, leaving newspapers yet to be
read, a magazine open mid-story, a
stovetop unwiped, a puzzle undone, a
disconsolate cat hissing under the bed.
Old ladies are dying, slumping
spines into chairs, leaving
days strewn with lost names and
lost thoughts and lost spatulas, leaving
panic, leaving misery about immobility,
inability, jars that couldn’t be opened,
drawers that wouldn’t slide shut.
Old ladies are dying, leaving
gray wrinkling children to
weep, to rage, to heap disgust.
Old ladies are dying, taking
lifetimes of breathing and heartbeats,
taking lithe limbs, the wink of a man,
babies that laughed, swims in the sea,
work that succeeded, songs that excelled.
Old ladies are leaving.
They are taking their joys, and
leaving the rest behind. 


Last night I came into possession of
my entire skeleton.  I thought I’d take it
into my studio and use the parts to make
art, but my husband said he didn’t like the
idea of taking it apart.  He favored burying it
intact.  Folded up there on the dirt, the
skeleton looked so skinny, the bones were
brown and cracked.  With some pleasure, I thought it a
wonder that I’d done as well as I had.

Today, I walked up Breezy Hill, hearing the water
of its brook breaking over rocks next to me, and
up at the next cascade, and the next, sound layered on
sound.  Every bare tree rang with bird song; layers of
song flowed in waves across the hill.  Little feathered
balls of twig bone poured huge songs out to the empty
spaces, filled the hollow places with intent.
Without them, we are lost.

It’s the song of birds that makes it possible to haul bones out of earth,
to string them with sinew, to mold muscle and flesh once again.
It is bird song, bird song alone.

From Sanctuary by Patricia Monaghan


Invitatory: Lauds

That boreen that circles the big turlough,
its bramble hedges reckless with growth:

I want to walk there in the pale dawn
in spring, deep in the shadow of the hill.

to hear the soft sound of countless birds
awakening from downy sleep and of rivulets

bubbling toward the sea and of small dark-furred
hunters on their secret paths. No wind disturbs

the grass, all is still; deep dust muffles even
my footsteps; time halts; stars dim into pearl.

I want to be walking forever, always on the way
towards a kitchen garden planted with sweet peas

and marrows, with herbs and plums and roses,
I want to be forever almost there, about to arrive,

not quite at the cottage door, I want the scent
of fresh bread to offer me its yeasty promises,

I want never to arrive, never to break out of darkness
into the yellow half-circle of light from the kitchen door,

always to have one foot lifted into the next step,
always to have one arm lifted in greeting.


The poems are reprinted with the permission of Patricia Monaghan’s and Johanne Renbeck’s literary executors, Michael McDermott and Robert Renbeck, respectively.  “Mary Describes the Angel to Elizabeth” is from Mary: A Life in Verse by Patricia Monaghan, Loveland, Ohio: Dos Madres Press, 2014.  “Invitatory: Lauds” is from Sanctuary by Patricia Monaghan, Cliffs of Moher, County Clare, Ireland: Salmon Press, 2013.  It is reprinted by kind permission of Salmon Press. “Old Ladies are Dying” and “Resurrection” are from Open the Door to Yearning by Johanne Renbeck, Staatsburg, New York: Meridian ArtWords, 2014. All proceeds from the latter are donated to arts organizations.


Elizabeth Cunningham is best known as the author of The Maeve Chronicles, a series of award-winning novels featuring a feisty Celtic Magdalen, now also available as audiobooks. She recently published her third collection of poems, So Ecstasy Can Find You. Her first mystery novel Murder at the Rummage Sale is forthcoming from Imagination Fury Arts in August, 2016. A counselor in private practice, Elizabeth is also a fellow emeritus of Black Earth Institute.

Categories: Art, General, Poetry

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29 replies

  1. I am currently writing a poem a day as part of a group poetry project in Australia. I frequently write about momentary experiences, mythology, gods of different hues. I hardly write in my diary any more, but the poem a day project keeps me alert. I did this once before in 2009 when I had a grant to live in India for four months. I wrote a poem a day, but did not do it publicly which is a new challenge. Many of the poems I wrote went into my book Cow (2011) published by Spinifex Press. I agree with you that writing a poem a day and reading poetry daily creates a different perceptual environment.


  2. Thank you Xochitl for making the post look beautiful and for finding the perfect pictures of singing birds!


  3. I came across this poem by Georgia O’Keeffe (1887-1986) recently — yes, as an artist, we’ve all seen her flowers, but here she is talking about them with a surprising insight —

    “Nobody sees a flower really —
    it is so small — we haven’t time,
    and to see takes time,
    like to have a friend takes time.”

    ~ Georgia O’Keeffe


  4. Wonderful post, Elizabeth. Had to grin as a I read your reasoning about switching from prose to poetry in your journal–“I could no longer stand to listen to myself go on about my life.” One of my colleagues (also a dear friend) writes haiku daily. I like the way its three-line, seventeen syllable divided in a 5, 7, 5 line structure distills experience to a kernel. You’ve encouraged me to take up my pen again and write poetry. Thank you.


    • So glad you are taking up your pen for poetry. A friend of mine writes haiku about dreams. I have been trying that lately with some interesting results. Sometimes I write tanka which allows me two more seven syllable lines. To distill the essence of a long rambling dream is a pleasurable challenge.


  5. A wonderful post and reminder of the deep power of poetry. It’s amazing to me how everyday words take on such resonance and so many layers of meaning when they are part of a poem rather than simple conversation. I find Emily Dickinson’s ability to distill essence into few words truly transformative, so here are some of her words …

    “Hope” is the thing with feathers
    That perches in the soul
    And sings the tune without the words
    And never stops at all


  6. This is a delight Elizabeth. So often I say or think: “Imagine!” What if I put that into poetry? Never did it before…better try before I get much older!


  7. In my second year of high school the English teacher gave us an assignment to write a haiku. He used mine as an example, writing it on the blackboard for all to see as a very shy me slunk down into my seat. But that was when I became a poetry lifer. I have filled volumes that occupy every corner of my house and life. Recently my 16 year old grand-daughter has begun writing poetry as well and we have collaborated on some. We read our poetry to each other over the phone. She has begun filling her first volume. And another life of poetry has begun.


  8. I read FAR posts first thing in the morning, right after I feed my cats. Thanks for giving me a brighter Sunday morning.

    I have always yearned to write a good sonnet. I’ve tried, but I have yet to get there. Instead I write doggerel on the Ogden Nash/Dr. Seuss model, i.e., stretched lines, false rhymes, and filled with puns.


  9. Gulp. Beautiful post, am still reeling a bit from all of it- but as my friend Jackie says, “It’s not odd, it’s God.” Writing can be everything you say, it is rebellion against the status quo.

    Yesterday I finished a poetry book from a women’s writing project in Afghanistan (I’ll add link below)..For these Afghani women, writing becomes a quiet revolution. In an environment where, as one woman writes, “I have seen many girls in my country who think men can read their mines, so they never dare to dream for something they want.” (Zainab), writing becomes the cultivation of the voice, the nurturing of individual identity, an act of will:

    “If I fail to tell my stories of struggle
    I will lose myself.”

    -Hila from “Washing the Dust from Our Hearts: Poetry and prose from Writers of the Afghan Women’s Writing Project” available from Amazon here:http://www.amazon.com/Washing-Dust-Our-Hearts-Writing/dp/0991386167


  10. Inspiring idea, Elizabeth, to let go of the old prose journal and write poetry. I’ll give it a try! Just finished reading your novel, Bright Dark Madonna (Monkfish, 2009) and loved how you wove poetry/chants/songs into the telling of that story.


  11. What an absolutely marvelous post! What a grand idea, reading poetry to start the day! I think I will begin this practice as well. Your posts always give me much to think about, Elizabeth. Thank you, and blessed be.


  12. Thank you for the beautiful post, and for sharing such beautiful poetry with us!


  13. Blessing to both of you, dear Elizabeth and Maeve. It was so good to read patricia’s words again. She stays close with me.


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