Monday, February 01, 2010

Writing in Soap

Muir Woods

—Michael Estabrook, Acton, MA

250 feet up
the massive crown
of one of the oldest redwoods
in the park bristling proudly
in the midday sun.

Up on the Hillside Trail
barely visible among the gangly saplings
and shrubs stands a buck, antlers agape,
completely unflapped
by us trekking noisily along below.

The trail is so steep in spots
that one misstep and you’d
go crashing down
into the stream far below.

Stretching up from alongside the trail
the famous 225-foot-tall “walk-through” tree
crashed to the ground
back in December 1971,
the forest growing in filling in
the shadowless space all around.

There hasn’t been a major fire here
in 200 years although
giant redwoods survive them just fine
due to their thick impenetrable bark hides,
leaving behind blackened fire caves
in their trunks as reminders
of their tenacity, resilience, and eternity.

But for me the most awesome aspect
of this ethereal experience
is simply walking along behind my wife,
following along in her precious wake
mesmerized as always
by the motion of her movements
moving with perfect perfection
especially accentuated today
by the mystical majesty of these ancient woods
improved by the mere pristine presence
of the most beautiful woman ever
to grace its trails.


This week in NorCal poetry:

(for a more complete listing, go to

•••Monday (2/1), 7:30 PM: Sacramento Poetry Center presents Lori Ostlund and Robin Ekiss, two Bay Area writers with new books from the University of Georgia Press joining forces for a fiction and poetry reading. Red velvet cake for all! [See last Friday’s post for bios.]

•••Wednesday (2/3), 6 PM:
Bob Stanley hosts a new series: First Wednesday poetry at the Central Library in Sacramento, featuring some of the poets from the 2001 Sacramento Anthology, including Annie Menebroker, James DenBoer, Joyce Odam and more! Central Library, 828 I St., Room 209, second floor. Free.

•••Thurs. (2/4), 7-9 PM: Outta the Blue Poetry Series premieres with Molly Fisk and Bob Stanley at Roseville Arts Blue Line Gallery, 405 Vernon St., Ste. 100, Roseville. $5 members and students; $15 nonmembers, or sign up for Roseville Arts membership. Future readings will include Bill Gainer and Michelle Johnson (4/8); Kate Asche and Tim Kahl (8/26), Kathleen Lynch, Roger Groghan and Moira Magneson (10/21). Info: or 916-783-4117.
[See the "Ticket" section of last Friday's Sacramento Bee for a nice article about Molly Fisk and this new reading series.]

•••Sunday (2/7), 5 PM: Wendy Barker will read from her new book, Nothing Between Us: The Berkeley Years, at the Avid Reader, 617 2nd St., Davis. Nothing Between Us is an exceptional work: a novel in prose poetry about an interracial relationship in Berkeley in the sixties. It’s the story of an affair between a young white married high school teacher and one of her African-American colleagues. Wendy, who earned her doctorate on the poetry of Emily Dickinson at U.C. Davis, is now an English professor and poet-in-residence at the University of Texas at San Antonio. She has four poetry collections and several prose works, chapbooks, and translations, as well as, with Sandra Gilbert, a book of essays on Ruth Stone.

•••Sunday (2/7), 4 PM: The Essential Leaves of Grass: The Poetry of Walt Whitman featuring readers Shawn Aveningo, Richard Hansen, Susan Kelly-DeWitt, Danielle Metzinger, Sage Reagan, Stuart L. Canton, James Lee Jobe, Cynthia Linville, Rebecca Morrison, Bob Stanley at The Book Collector, 1008 24th St., Sacramento. Free. Info: or 530-750-3514.


—Michael Estabrook

Looking through the pictures
in her old college yearbook:
a clutch of students bent over their books
in the library;
heads close together
in crowded conversation in the cafeteria,
a clutter of trays, glasses, and books
strewn across the tables;
a couple of pretty co-eds smiling
in the sun in the quad;
an serious art student sketching a typical scene;
another asleep on the lawn, soaking in the sun;
a long-haired guy with sideburns
and round Beatles glasses smoking;
an empty dorm room, clothes on the bed and floor;
girls in mini-skirts scurrying through
a crowded corridor;
finally a shot from atop a building
overlooking the central quad—

What! I suddenly notice for the first time ever,
could this be, off in a corner
on a bench beneath a tree—
my girlfriend entangled with some other guy,
his arm around her and they are kissing.

Really? Can that truly be her
in this dim photo—my girlfriend?
in this carefree love scene in springtime,
in a sunny quad at her school
with some other guy?
Can this be my very own beauty?

We had been dating since high school,
but had agreed to meet other people in college,
maybe even date them if we found someone
we liked well enough. Fortunately
(for me anyway) that never happened.
She said it never happened anyway,
but how can you ever know for sure
what goes on at another school miles away?

Yes my beautiful girl claimed she remained mine,
true and loyal, devoted to only me,
throughout all her college years
at that other school.
We had so many hopes and plans for the future.

Is this really her (I strain my eyes to see)—
it can’t be! her cheating on me,
hugging and kissing
some other strange shadowy guy
on a bench beneath a tree.


—Michael Estabrook

Her father didn’t want her to marry me
(can’t blame him for that).
I was from the poor side of town
had nothing special to offer
this beautiful, intelligent young lady
and my father had recently died.
No, I cannot blame him for that.
If I had been her father
I would have felt exactly the same way.

“I don’t want you going
to the same college,” he said.
I had to comply with his demand,
but found a school
only 4 miles from her school
so I could visit her every weekend
simply by taking the train.

Even though she listened to her father
and tried to date other boys,
she did not like it much
and stayed with me anyway,
permitting me to date her every week,
write her letters and call her on the phone.

In the end my girlfriend’s father
did not get his way
and she married this poor boy anyway,
but no man could love her any more than I do.
I think he knew that too.


—Michael Estabrook

“Oh, I need eggs, eggs
are on my list.”
“You need a back-up peanut butter.”
“No, you don’t need a baguette,
they’re too fattening.”
“I don’t see any chicken wings.
I’ll have to ask behind the deli counter.”
“What about this new energy drink,”
she’s holding it up for me to see.

I’m watching her, watching her carefully,
lovingly, as I’m pushing
the shopping cart along behind her.
And I’m wondering when this happened?
When did she make the transition
from my beautiful, sexy, sweet, bright,
vivacious young co-ed who had the boys
dropping in their tracks, to this mature,
seasoned, knowledgeable grocery shopper,
wife, mother, grandmother,
matriarch of the family.
When did this happen?
It happened so damned fast too,
I missed the moment completely.


—Michael Estabrook

I see her across the room at the party,
charismatic, a pure vision of beauty,
young, alive, laughing with her girlfriends,
when suddenly she comes over to dance with me, me!
I’m stunned, spellbound and speechless.

I watch her on the football field,
marching poised and proud
in her green and white Drill Team uniform,
white gloves and hat to match,
and I want to hold her close and sure and tight
and never let her go.

I see her acting in the Senior Class Play,
moving confidently down to center stage
her clear sweet voice carrying all the way
to the back of the auditorium and beyond,
and I long to kiss her and hold her hand.

I watch for her coming out of class
with her girlfriends so I can hold her books
and when the teachers aren’t round, her hand,
and walk her to class, so proud she is mine,
making sure the other guys know it too.

I see her and hear her singing
in the Junior Miss pageant, off-key at first,
but continuing loud and pure and sure of herself
and I want to make her my girl forever
until the end of time.

I watch her, mesmerized, as she walks,
smiling, seriously, slowly down the aisle
on her father’s arm and I’m eager to begin
my life with her,
so eager to begin my life.

Yes, I see a lifetime when I look into her eyes,
an entire lifetime in Patti’s eyes.


Today's LittleNip: (And you think YOU have obstacles...)

Tollas Tibor, a poet who spent several years in solitary confinement during the most repressive phases of the Hungarian communist regime, says that in the Visegrád jail, where hundreds of intellectuals were imprisoned, the inmates kept themselves occupied for more than a year by devising a poetry translation contest. First, they had to decide on the poem to translate. It took months to pass the nominations around from cell to cell, and several more months of ingenious secret messages before the votes were tallied. Finally it was agreed that Walt Whitman's "O Captain! My Captain!" was to be the poem to translate into Hungarian, partly because it was the one that most of the prisoners could recall from memory in the original English. Now began the serious work: everyone sat down to make his own version of the poem. Since no paper or writing tool was available, Tollas spread a film of soap on the soles of his shoe, and carved the letters into it with a toothpick. When a line was learned by heart, he covered his shoe with a new coating of soap. As the various stanzas were written, they were memorized by the translator and passed on to the next cell. After a while, a dozen versions of the poem were circulating in the jail, and each was evaluated and voted on by all the inmates. After the Whitman translation was adjudicated, the prisoners went on to tackle a poem by Schiller.

—Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

(from Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, HarperPerennial, 1990, courtesy of D.R. Wagner)