Friday, June 15, 2012

An Imagined Life Worth Living

Maureen Hurley

          (after Jack Gilbert's "Summer at Blue Creek, 
                       North Carolina")
—Maureen Hurley, Oakland, CA

There was no hot water at my grandmother's
cabin in the wilds of West Marin
though it was the only home we ever had.
After my grandfather died, we clung to each other.
The neighbors were absentee city folk.
We were alone in our bee-loud glade on the hill.
Come Saturday night bath time, she'd fill
the big oval copper pan from the indoor tap,
gravity fed from the artesian spring he'd hand-dug,
and she'd lift and slide the coalscut onto the hob,
its charred wooden handles curled like the fists
of an anxious child awaiting punishment or delight.
I'd run my hand along the green enameled ankles
and ornate curved legs of the kerosene stove
as I lay half under the glass gallon jug that gurgled
and spluttered, glugged and belched like a cozy beast.
I loved watching twin blue flames lick and rasp
the copper, combusting into fiery dragon's blood.
I anticipated the momentary slide into warmth
where she'd scrub a week's worth of grit
and hard play from my skin, never imagining
that her loneliness would bathe my psyche
until I emerged from the baptism of bath to live
her dream of an imagined life worth living.


—Maureen Hurley

There was an old pruning saw
I favored that folded in two
with a wingnut hinge
curved handle and blade
two crescent moons
that hung from a rusty nail
on the wall of the back porch
of my grandmother's house.

The saw curved like a comma
and I could pull down hard
on it with my 12-year-old arms
and cut the slender branches
that threatened to pull me
from the back of my horse.

No one else to do it for me
I made do as best I could.
Like the time the Toby's Feedstore
driver delivered a ton of hay but
dumped it at the bottom of the hill
because he couldn't be bothered stacking it
assuming there was a man about the house
to take care of such ordinary things.

I was faced with hefting hay bales
a tenth of a mile up to the old barn
and the sky spitting, rain was coming.
No matter that it took me most of the summer
babysitting to earn enough money
to buy that ton of shining oat hay
for my old glue factory rescue horse.

I wailed, wiped my nose on my sleeve,
jabbed rusty hayhooks into a bale
and frogmarched it to the barn.
Then another, and another.
It was hard work for a child.
It was the only way I knew how
and I was never going to make it
before the rains came.


—Maureen Hurley

My grandmother’s hands
were torn and speckled with pigment:
fair northern flesh burned by the fierce California sun.
A rebellious knotted vein rose up like a stone.
Souvenir from a strand of barbed wire
strung to keep the deer out of the garden.

Her freckles were an archipelago of islands
adrift on a moon-milk sea.
They were Brendan voyagers in curraghs
headed for the New World
with a warrior phalanx of shields
raised up against a common enemy, the sun.
But they failed to protect her children—
when the melanoma set sail for that country
from which nothing ever returns.

I remember her wide spatulate fingers
that rubbed floursack sheets against the washboard,
that mended jeans, made dresses for first day of school,
and how I was ashamed they were not store-bought.
I remember the way she weeded the gardens,
dug up the praties, stacked wood for coming winter.

From her, I learned the survival of hands.
No caresses were needed because her love
was as fierce as the sun that burned her skin
as she labored in the garden or at the clothesline.
She kept us safe, and provided when no one else would.
As she knelt to pray in the Sunday pew,
the sun shone on that knotted vein
and it was so beautiful—the scarring and the freckles,
a skin painting of faith and tenderness.


    (after a translation from the Ohlone)
—Maureen Hurley

I dreamed you were a sliver
of light glinting on the curve of the sea.
On the machair, the rabbits
cleansed their scalloped sand porches
while amid the lambs, the hares stood sentinel.
I dreamed of you dreaming me
on the granite dome of Dun I,
... at the center of the island
between a rowan and an oak
in a crevice at the well of age,
the falcon's eye, a distant sun
dancing on the edge of the world.


—Maureen Hurley

When I was a child at Venice Beach,
floating in the calm sea beyond the surf,
out of nowhere, rogue waves rose up
like translucent jade knives, formed crests
against the throat of the deep summer sky.

Out of my depth, I swam to greet them.
That was the drill if an Outsider appeared—
Swim to meet the wave before it broke you.
Dive through the crest to avoid its force.
Swim and dive, swim and dive. Deflect the blow.

Rise and fall, rise and fall. Far from land,
I watched the blond shore grow ever distant.
The waves played me—like the father I never had—
tossing me up to the roof of the sky. In terror,
I waited for the right wave to bring me in.

But I grew numb, the sea sapped my strength,
I was too far from shore for lifeguards to see.
When would my crazy mother—sleeping it off—
stone-deaf to my brother's wails, realize I was gone?
I was a child alone in a vast sea. Breathe. Breathe.

Out of nowhere I heard my grandmother's voice:
"Always count the waves," she said. "Find the set."
9, 11, 12—I counted, but couldn't find the pattern.
Then, on the horizon of a wave, the fin of a dolphin.
A break in the set. He looked me in the eye. "Now!"

We caught the 13th wave toward the safety of shore.
I lay facedown in the sand, too tired to be amazed,
or say "Bye." Who'd believe a child's tale, anyway?
I said nothing about the waves and the sea that day.
It was my secret—a matter of survival, at best.

—Maureen Hurley
            —The foundation of every state
                  is the education of its youth.

First, do not be offended if I don't remember your names.
My children are as varied as the voices of the wind.
Do not assume that because I don't call you by name,
that I do not know you. For I remember all of you,
the poems you write & all your faces shining
with the first faltering words of hope.
Do not rage against the wind or lack of memory
as if the sun had risen prematurely at daybreak
painted with rosy yearning, only to find the clouds
had forgotten how to properly mourn the tragedies
of a world drowning in the vagaries of the heart.
For once I stood alone with the voices of the wind,
my own song hanging at the end of its chord,
like Edvard Munch's silent scream echoing off the canvas,
a nocturne of loneliness, an etude seeking rebirth
before I called it poetry, before it called for me.
Sleep returns lost memory in minute increments
of time swaddled in the supplication of blue solace
unburdened by prayer or the length of the road
set adrift in the traceless grasses' slow current.
To love words requires only the longevity of a mind
that is part redwood, & part bristlecone pine
& a threshold for a mouth that is part estuary,
& part river to address the worded islands of the world.
Remember to write of what is visible and seen;
pay homage to the slender names rooted in oak,
lichen & moss, reed & bracken fern, lupine wolf & moon.
Treat your poems like long lost kith and kin.
Then, someday when you can forgive their waywardness
they will be Diogenes' lanterns on dark, restless nights.


Our thanks to Maureen Hurley for today's poetry! Mo will be reading at the Sacramento Poetry Center this coming Monday, June 18, with Chris Olander. Scroll down on the blue board at the right of this column and click on the link to hear Mo read to her poetry students, and while you're there, click on the photo for more about Rattlechapper Chris.

Poet & artist, Maureen Hurley has won many grants, awards and fellowships including 8 California Arts Council grants and two KQED SPARK artist grants; she holds a MA in Creative Writing, but owes a thesis on her MFA at SFSU. As an artist in residence, she teaches Bay Area kids poetry & art through California Poets in the Schools and Young Audiences. She grew up in the wilds of West Marin and currently lives in Oakland near Lake Merritt. 

Speaking of Bay Area poetry, the latest issue of Ginosko is now available at


Today's LittleNip:

The thing to remember about fathers is... they're men. A girl has to keep it in mind: They are dragon-seekers, bent on improbable rescues. Scratch any father, you find someone chock-full of qualms and romantic terrors, believing change is a threat, like your first shoes with heels on, like your first bicycle... 

—Phyllis McGinley



Chris Olander
—Photo by Maureen Hurley