the poems i love — two by tobi alfier (formally cogswell)

Erected by James MacDonald, Loving Husband 

Come sit here beside me
skin lit, a candle
on alabaster, small gold rings
draw my eyes to your neck
your pulse beating, hands still.

It has always been like
the first time. The first kiss,
first lovemaking, first
child. The children.

Your smile never died,
even as we both grew older,
less able to sway with the wind
of disappointments and sadnesses.

I still see you in your
wedding veil, the one
our daughters also wore, being
both poor in material riches
and also superstitious.

I drink to you in the glass
you loved so well–the sun
piercing reddened shadows
on the wall above your empty chair.

My heart. It will not be long
until we dance again,
eyes bright,
fingers straight and sure.
‘Til we marvel at the golden
blossoms along emerald hills,
and what takes the place of sky.
Save a place for me.
I will not find another.

~ ~ ~

Saturday Evening at Murray’s Bar

The hours advance into the quiet grace of failing light.
Four musicians tune up. Guitar, fiddle, banjo . . .
the same hands that pluck the strings of the mandolin
touch her thigh lightly, as if in secret, the words
of the ballads in a dialect known only to her.

Curtains of rain shadow streetlights. Watermarks of amber
shelter cars, lovers caught outside for a quick smoke,
a shuttered farmhouse far afield, and the ever-present sheepdog,
on call, searching for his last remaining wards, their
presence camouflaged by dark, and the smell of winter.

Gleaming faces, shining eyes crosshatched from shadows
thrown by the fire, amplified by excitement as the first notes
are tentatively played, and pints are lifted. Nowhere to dance,
though high heels and boots alike tap a gauntlet thrown, a dare
to kiss the rhythm of intimacy, the caress of island harmonies.

~ ~ ~

Before we get into the particulars of these two beautiful poems, I’m interested to know about your relationship to Ireland.

I really had no relationship with Ireland per se. I have a relationship to traveling with dear friends, who feel the same way about traveling that I do – we’re not joined at the hip (to quote my dad), and I’ll see you at dinner. In 2010, also known as “The Year of the Volcano”, my friend Trista Tyson found a tour of Ireland that fit in with her rigid deadlines at work. I had gone to lots of writer’s workshops with her (she is a fiction writer), and work conferences with her. We travel great together so I said “can I come?” This was a tour with Men of Worth, a Celtic folk music duo who tour the US and give concerts during the winter, then lead tours to Ireland and Scotland in the summers. I had met them at the Celtic Festival at the Queen Mary in Long Beach, CA one year, they seemed great, and I wanted to go.

Men of Worth tours are very comfortable and jam-packed with things to do during the days. Then most nights James and Donnie gave concerts where they invited everyone in our hotel, everyone in our town . . . everyone was invited. Many nights there were guest musicians or dancers – poem trigger after poem trigger. It was lovely. Even though the volcano in Iceland caused us to stay an extra week (always get trip insurance!), it was wonderful. Learning Ireland through their eyes made me come to have a relationship that I otherwise wouldn’t have had. Some days I feel like I bend toward Ireland, the way a flower bends toward the light. I loved everything about it: our group, drinking a tot of Jameson from a plastic cup on the bus, the towns we stayed at, the beauty of hand-built rock walls sectioning off squares of land. Salmon!

Jeff was not on this first trip with us. Thank God he came home from visiting his grandson in Fort Myers, FL to rescue my son, who was having much difficulty with the fact that “come home RIGHT NOW” doesn’t work when all the flights have been cancelled. My new relationship with Ireland became intertwined with my aching heart for my son, my love and appreciation for Jeff, and I will never go there again without him.

“James MacDonald” was a poem that completely took the wind out of me. I love how it manages to condense the whole lives of the married couple into a poem without sacrificing emotion. The whole thing,  and especially that last stanza, are just heartbreakingly beautiful. Where did this poem come from?

Thank you so much for liking it. One day we stopped for an hour or so at a small graveyard with a lovely old church in the middle. What struck me immediately was that all the headstones said “erected by…” across the bottom. I assume it was whoever paid for the headstone. There were all kinds of relationships depicted – grandparents, spouses, children . . . I had never seen that before ever. Earlier that day, James had asked me if I’d like to read something that night at the concert. Everyone saw me writing whenever we’d stop somewhere. I was actually editing some poems that I’d brought with me. It’s not that I’m antisocial, I’m just so shy that it gave me an opportunity to be part of the group while sitting quietly and kind of eavesdropping. After visiting the churchyard, I had to write it, and that’s what I wanted to read that night. I picked the name “James MacDonald” because that was a combined version of James Keigher and Donnie Macdonald of Men of Worth. It was my nod to them. The rest I made up.

I love the reflection of sunlight as it makes prisms and shadows. I love red wine, so the sun was shining through red on the wall behind the wife’s empty chair. I already knew from the title that she’d died so her chair was empty. I live with numbness in my hands because of my MS so I added the line about “fingers straight and sure.” Of course as we drove we saw the gorgeous green of the fields. The rest? I made up the story of the husband missing his beloved wife. I practiced the poem over and over and over until I could read it without crying.

At dinner that night, James asked if I still wanted to read something. After I knocked over an entire glass of red wine on the white tablecloth, I said yes, I was ready. We were at the Park Hotel in Shannon. We had guest musicians that night. I waited and waited, and finally James called me. I stood up and read it. As well as I will ever read anything in my life. Afterwards, I’ll never forget. The musicians, who’d been singing “she’d done him wrong” Irish ballads said, “We don’t even know what to sing after that.” I think I surprised everyone because somehow I’d gotten this reputation that I was funny. I don’t know how. I am SO not funny; I don’t even know how that happened. I’m pretty sure they thought I was going to read some funny lilting ditty, but that’s not me. I don’t even talk like that!

I always say that my wish when writing is to touch someone. If I can make somebody feel less alone, I did my job. For days after, people I didn’t even know, people who were staying in the hotel and came to the concert, passed me and said they’d liked my poem. It’s a little horrifying when you’re at breakfast in your pajamas, but who’d have ever thought I’d be remembered? And a gentleman on our trip who’d lost his wife a year or two earlier, asked me to email it to him. I’m very proud of this poem because I know it touched people, and the “quiet girl who was always writing” became part of the group. I know it surprised the hell out of Donnie and James and I’m proud of that. What if James had asked me to read, and I stood up and it sucked? That would have been awful. It’s really all of ours. If we hadn’t stopped at that cemetery, this poem would have never been written.

That is a fabulous story, Tobi! Tell me about yourself as a poet. What poets do you love? When do you write? How do you gather inspiration?

Oh God. Sometimes I say I am the human version of James Michener’s “Centennial.”  I’ve been writing since dinosaurs walked the earth. But it was all “Hello Kitty diary crap” until about 2005, when several things happened: 1. My brother passed away unexpectedly and far too soon; 2. I began workshopping, and reading at open mics; and 3. I started an email correspondence with Jeff (Jeff Alfier) through a mutual friend.

When my brother died, people started asking me immediately to write something for his service. I couldn’t. I just couldn’t. It was sudden. It shell-shocked all of us. I think before I even got up to my parent’s house 35 miles away, people had already dropped off a thousand Valium and an equal amount of Ambien. We just did not know what to do. The morning of his memorial, I woke up and I knew what to say. I stood up at the podium, and the first thing I thought, was “where’s the mic?” My favorite, wonderful aunt stood next to me and she just gently put her hand on my back so I would have the courage to speak. When I was done, all I could think of was “where’s the applause?” Well OF COURSE there was not going to be any, but I had so compartmentalized myself that I read as a poet. And I was a poet. I have always said that God, or whoever you believe in, gave me the courage to get up and read by having me practice at open mics.

With workshopping, I wanted to stay on the West Coast when my son was small, and I discovered the Tin House Writer’s Workshop in Portland. I think I went nine out of ten years. I loved it. I loved living the writer’s life for a week, loved the craft talks and lectures, and loved working with brilliant, generous leaders who helped me grow. What I also loved was that poets and fiction writers went at the same time. My friend Trista and I always went a day early so we could spend a zillion dollars at Powells, and then head over to Reed College. I got to know her group. She got to know mine. It was great! I remember sitting at breakfast once with Aimee Bender, Dorothy Allison, Steve Almond…real writers! Somebody asked me to pass them the salt. I was a nobody, and they talked to me!

Once we started San Pedro River Review, it became tough to go to Tin House because it’s in July, and our submission window opens in July. After nine years I think people thought I worked at Reed College anyway, so I haven’t been in a while. This year I’m going to the Catamaran workshop in Pebble Beach and I’m working with Clarence Major. I’m excited because I’m starting to feel as stale as a loaf of unwrapped bread. I need to workshop. Jeff says the ground is level, so even though I have some walking “challenges” I should be able to get around. Jeff is coming as a day auditor. He’s doing everything but the workshop, when I expect he’ll be walking clear to Santa Cruz and taking gorgeous photographs.

God, I’m sorry I’m so boring. Let’s talk about poets I love . . . mostly I read contemporary poets. I’m not very well educated about historical poets or poetry. Except for Yeats’ “When You Are Old,” I’m very happy to stay in the present day. And it’s not like I don’t have a mind of my own, but quite often the poets who excite me are the ones that Jeff is excited about. I still work, so when I get a text from him saying he has a poem he wants to read me when I get home, I can’t wait. Right now he’s reading Gary Copeland Lilley. He reads the poems to me beautifully, and his excitement is my excitement.

No discussion of poetry can start for me without The Triggering Town by Richard Hugo. I am not as familiar with his work as with this book, but of all the books about writing poetry, this is the one I would take to that deserted island if I could only pack two things. I love Naomi Shihab Nye, not just because of her words, but because of the person I think she is. Beckian Fritz Goldberg is a poet who reminds me to write brave. Her book, The Book of Accident is amazing. A little scary and a lot amazing. Kevin Young’s Odes are wonderful. I know from workshopping with him that not only are Odes poems of praise, but Kevin wrote these as a way to deal with the grief of his father’s death. I came home and wrote “Ode to Candy,” just because of my love of candy, no greater reason than that. “Curtains” by Ruth Stone is a poem I love from Second-Hand Coat mostly from hearing Dorianne Laux read it with such feeling and glee. “Mr Tempesta, Mr. Tempesta” she walked around the room proclaiming – as with Jeff, Dorianne’s excitement was my excitement.

With my own mind, The Optimist by Joshua Mehigan. It is a beautiful book of poetry. He uses slant rhyme in some of his poetry in a brilliant way, and his words are gorgeous. Page 204 of “Another Bullshit Night in Suck City” by Nick Flynn is pure poetry. Yes, this is a memoir, but when I feature, I often open with someone else’s work. I open with page 204 often. “The Edge” by Bob Hicok is a poem worth carrying all the time. It is the most heartbreaking and beautiful description of redemption and coming adulthood that I have ever read. The Gathering Light at San Cataldo by Jeff Alfier is my absolute favorite of all Jeff’s zillions of collections. This book of Italy poems was originally published by Kindred Spirit Press. We got permission from Michael Hathaway of Kindred Spirit to reprint it under Blue Horse Press. Jeff and I don’t write the same way (which in my opinion makes us good editors), so I can say that I love this collection, written from the heel of Italy. Every word is beyond beauty.

Now don’t get me started on fiction writers… For years I wrote every morning, from 4:15am to 6:00am. Even on vacation I would get up at 4:15. Even then, I knew that every poem I wrote could be my last, and I’m so grateful when I write another, and then another. Now I write when the words are finally ready to come out. The first time I wrote a poem during daylight hours I was shocked! Now, as I branch out just a tiny bit…jacket blurbs, reviews, guest blogs, interviews, PROSE(!!), I’m often on someone else’s timeline. I think about the work for quite a while before I actually sit and write, but it’s no longer at 4:15 AM. It could be any time.

Inspiration comes in many forms. Eavesdropping is always good for describing people, and making up dramas. Jeff travels more often than I do, and the photographs and texts he sends home often give me a jumping off point. We also have a shared “woodpile,” to quote Brendan Constantine. It mostly consists of darlings we had to kill but aren’t ready to throw away. Again, sometimes just reading through the file jumps me off into poem-land. Sometimes three words of a sentence will do it. I read the poetry I wrote ten years ago and what I write today. Today I definitely write more bars, trains, music and rust than I used to – Jeff’s excitement is my excitement – but I still write the smell of coffee brewing, the sound of waves when the sea turns black, tiny flowers that line the edges of the Natchez Trace . . . I still write about humans. I think my voice is still the same, only the repertoire and (please God) skill level is greater. I am very grateful and thankful for that consistency.

Tobi, one last question. What can you tell me about Murray’s Bar? The atmosphere of that poem just drew me in.

I’m so glad you were drawn in. Odd as this may sound for a poem, Murray’s Bar is a real place, and with the exception of the rain, this poem is completely true. We spent five or six magical, mystical days on the island of Inishbofin, staying at the Doonmore Hotel. Murray’s Bar is part of the hotel which has been managed by the Murray family for three generations. They are not invisible. One day Andrew Murray drove us all over the island, pointing out places we would never learn about from a guidebook. He is a hard-working, lovely man, and a well-known traditional and folk Celtic singer. I watch him on youtube when I get a yearning to be back there. I think we ate lunch there every day. I had soup, bread and a half-pint of Smithwicks, Jeff had fish and chips and a pint of Guinness. Nothing better than pub food with lots of locals and the sun shining off the calm sea outside (they do call themselves a bar; I don’t know the difference between a bar and a pub, but everything magical about every pub you’ve ever read about or seen in a movie was the same at Murray’s Bar).

After our Men of Worth concerts most nights, we would convene in the bar. Often Jeff would be out taking night photos and I’d already be turned in, but Saturday night we joined some friends from our trip in the bar. It was packed – an L-shaped banquette lining two walls with small tables and stools, the burning fireplace with a bucket of coal nearby, and a path to the bar. In one corner, local musicians were already tuning up. They were joined by “our” James and Donnie. Even though it seemed everyone knew everyone else, and the bar was loud with talking and laughter, when the musicians played, all chairs turned to face their way, and visitors and locals alike listened, clapped, sang along—everyone so bright and shiny with pride for the people of their island, for visiting musicians, for the sound of traditional, wonderful ballads.

There was the occasional A cappella, plaintive ballad as the musicians took a short break, or moved around to make room for a new player. Having switched to my nighttime drink of Jameson and Baileys, I didn’t stay as long as others, but I know music was played long into the night. Then seeing our barmaid as our waitress the next morning at breakfast, smiling brightly and so lovely, it brought back all the wonder of the night before. Seeing Andrew at the front desk, looking like he’d had a great 8-hour sleep and knowing he was tending bar just hours ago . . . it continued the joy.

I can’t explain it. I know the islanders don’t have it easy. I know there was a devastating flood in 2014. Andrew showed us the house of a gentleman who was trapped in a wheelchair. Andrew carried him to safety before the house flooded. He told us this just matter-of-fact, not as a hero. The soil is rocky. Sometimes the sea isn’t calm and the wind howls. But at Murray’s Bar, they say, “There are no strangers, only friends you haven’t met yet.” I believe that with all my heart, and I’m pretty sure we’ll be going back there before too many years have passed.