The Battle

The Battle

Here is a free verse style poem I wrote when I was sixteen years old. Here also is a photo of me, teenage Kathleen in my favorite forest green fedora hat.

At the bottom of this article you will also see a photo of the poem printed in the first literary journal ever created in my high school. I couldn’t believe there had never been a literary journal, so I created one! I called the journal Methinks. The cover illustration of the first edition portrayed a cartoon man with a large nose sitting on a stone with his chin on his fist—my version of Rodin’s The Thinker.

I made myself the Editor and I gave my friends the jobs of Secretary, Treasurer, and “Staff.” I figured those positions would look good on our resumes when we graduated and went off to college or began looking for jobs. I solicited poems from all my friends—many of us were the weird literary types, and this journal was a way for us to shine.

I was told by the principal’s office that I needed to supply money for the paper and the mimeograph ink. For those of you not in the know, the mimeograph is an ancient technology which rendered damp pages of copy laboriously turned by hand from a drum. The fresh pages needed to be handled carefully or the ink would smudge, a lavender variety of ink redolent of a chemical perfume known to school kids in the seventies. I promptly organized a bake sale on the town square which paid for two editions of ink and paper.

My favorite high school English teacher was Mr. Toth. As an adult, I’d searched in vain for him for many years, but back east Robert Toth is a common name—there were 40 Robert Toths in the phone book in Ohio alone, and I wasn’t sure he even lived there anymore. In more recent years I looked him up on the computer, but he wasn’t a person who put himself on Facebook or had a web page. His whereabouts remained a mystery to me.

Out of the blue, one day a few years ago Mr. Toth found me on the internet! He’d been cleaning out boxes and found some papers I’d given him as a teen. He decided to search me out. He googled Kathleen Dunbar and was lead to my music website. He knew he’d found me. He emailed me and we were soon speaking on the phone.

How strange to be asked to call him by his first name, Robert. He told me that when he was in bookstores, he’d look around to see if there was a poetry book by me—he was sure that I would become a famous poet! How very, very moving it was to hear how this man had held dear my gifts for all these years!

It was a delight to be speaking with him at last! I had always wanted to thank him for the worlds he’d opened up to me, and now I did. One was a world of literature. He knew enough about writing to help me on my path as a budding writer. Another was a world of human relationship in which a sane adult encouraged a creative young person, and importantly, as all great teachers do, in this process and without making a big deal about it (which my teen self wouldn’t have liked) he helped me to value my vision and myself. In our phone conversation I told him about the very toxic and dysfunctional home I gladly left every morning to lose myself in classes at high school. (High school was no picnic either, but it was better to be in the DMZ than the active combat zone). He was totally surprised to hear my home life had been difficult as I’d never told anyone that at the time.

Soon after our conversation I I received a thick envelope in the mail from Mr. Toth (I still can’t think of him as Robert) which contained the literary journal Methinks I’d created as well as some poems and reports. One of the poems I put in Methinks is the one below. The first person I’d showed the poem to, along with some other writing, was Mr. Toth, with a note that said, “I don’t know if you want to read these. They aren’t that interesting . . . but here they are.” He’d read this note aloud to me in our initial phone conversation, and chuckled. He told me when he read the poem all those years ago, that at first he found it hard to believe a sixteen year old in a small country town had written it. It crossed his mind that I’d stolen it from somewhere, but he knew me well and trusted that the work must be my own. He turned his astonishment into mentoring me as a writer. What I took from that mentoring was a belief and confidence in my own gifts, and a better ability to bear the difficulties at home and later to navigate the world of my adult life. Mr. Toth had believed in me. To be believed in is profound medicine, which continues to act as both vitalizing tonic and healing agent. Mr. Toth was one of those teachers whose support not only made life bearable, but worthwhile. There was a place, at last, for Kathleen.

I had begun at the age of three by making poems that rhymed. When I was fourteen I received a copy of Laurence Ferlinghetti’s A Coney Island of the Mind. That book set me upon the path of free verse. I still write poetry in free verse form, but I came full circle and returned to rhymes as my singer-songwriter self in the creation of my original songs: You can find my americana music at kathleendunbar.com and my ambient/world music in which I “create” a language at bluelilah.com

Many good hearted souls have helped me believe in my ability to write. This is the story of one of them. Thank you, Mr. Toth, for being part of a foundation of aliveness for me, for seeing my poetry as a doorway to a life of creation, and helping usher me through it.

Here, then, is young Kathleen’s poem.

The Battle

Arrows of white light flung
from afar from the bow of the might orb,
darted between the tender, green
leaves, and fell, broken shafts, upon
the forest floor. So quickly did those
piercèd arrows fly that one could
not perceive their movement, but
saw only the brilliance of their
fiery flight, whence the earth,
steaming before their furious flame,
bore them in her dark side, a wounded
warrior.
Roaming among those arrows,
I did not smell the rage of battle,
nor did I feel the sting of fiery arms.
The mist of combat was not choking,
but moist and wet, and soothed
the heat of battle that the barrage
of arrows brought.
I sat, and, amid this raging
battle, I slept.

© Kathleen Dunbar, age 16

Out West

when Mrs. Graham came out to California
bearing the maiden name I never knew
she looked out of the train window
into the flat stretches of Nebraska
and saw a man on a horse with a hat
“There‘s The Cowboy” she said to herself
and to me, years later,
“I was thrilled.”

© Kathleen Dunbar

Photos by Kathleen Dunbar

 

Japanese Tea Garden

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Japanese Tea Garden

I spent many years going to the
Japanese Tea Garden in
Golden Gate Park, writing poetry
and observing people. Over the
years I wrote down some of the
interesting things I heard people
saying—the quotes in the poem
are what people actually said!

The girl says, “I need sugar.”
Her mother in a loud voice says,
“You don’t need sugar. You want sugar.
You need air and water and food.”
“And sleep,” a smaller girl says,
a little sister.
“Yeah, you need sleep.”
I watch the furrow of the brows
in this family
from larger woman to smaller girl,
a field of worry.
I say to myself,
“You need love.”

Parents in the tea garden, to children:
“You can’t make too many wishes at once.”
“You don’t want to play in old water. It’s yucky.”
About the fortune cookies:
“There’s a little story inside.”

As a child I was frequently in trouble
for playing in water,
yucky and clean.
I immediately want to make “too many wishes.”
In fact I have begun long ago,
am always in the midst of them,
they are as familiar as prayer beads.

Two middle aged ladies are served
tea and cookies.
Their eyes light up!
The plump lady
leans conspiratorially into her friend’s shoulder.
“If you break it, all the calories fall out!”
They laugh out loud
having lived enough life
to let their laughter be heard.
Her friend smiles.
I like them.
They are two reasons to get older.

A couple pauses as they cross the stone bridge
deep in conversation,
then they stand in front of the shrine that rises
in orange and black above the plain garden of stones.
She is even more in earnest
contemplating the wooden tower to the gods.
Who doesn’t try to make sense of it all?
She says, “You remember the tomato?
She married the tomato’s older brother.
He was a brilliant physicist.
He really lost it and became a monk.”

A little family at the tea garden
sitting on the “front row” –
just above the pool –
throwing wish pennies in
the father says to the son,
“Do you want to be superman?”
The son says,
“Nah,
that’s not a job.”

Now the Russian boy sings happily
in a thick accent,
“Oh, we had bad luck!”
a far away country melody
as they fish his sister’s purse out of the goldfish pond.
His aunt climbed right over the counter
and perched on the base to the awning pole,
leaned over the waters
and pulled it out.
No one fussed in that family.
An accident.
Much less worse than some things
that happened
back in the old country.
The father patiently squeezes the water out of everything.

A woman is saying to a man
next to me:
“I gave you a hot bath
when we lived on Taylor Street.
Where the spirit lived.
After that party.
I came home and made you a hot bath.
I poured you a glass of beer
and the spirit made it shatter.
All those beautiful glasses that they don’t make anymore.”

A small wriggly boy
leans far over the counter
and says excitedly,
“You can corral fish, you know.”
A fish cowboy in the Japanese Tea Garden.
His mother moves his teacup away
just in time.
“Tell me about it,” she says.
I sigh.

A student with glasses
and an impossibly long orange scarf
says to her friend,
“I’ll go home and make some pudding
and have that soup and do my notes.
I’ll put some more chili in that soup!”
That simple.
They are very young.
They leave.
The stools emptied of them
fill with an old couple.
He waits for her to sit
before he does
as he has unnumbered times,
a habit of kindness.
They look out at the pond
and she says,
“It’s going to be our anniversary.
What are you going to give us for our anniversary?”
“I don’t know.
It’s going to be forty-eight years.”
They eat the cookies
and drink the tea
and say not one word more.

A woman to her child,
“My fortune says
‘If your desires are not extravagant
they will be granted.’”
Her little girl has pink socks
with sparkles
and stars
and frilly lace.
Her mother has sensible shoes.

Man to child, “You like adventures?
I like adventures too.”
For a moment
they are the same age.

My heart has filled up
like the pools
with all that these people
are seeing and saying
and wishing
and feeling.

Why do I ache so much?
I have frequently been known to make too many wishes,
throwing them ahead of me
into the extravagant mess of life,
the clear and the yucky waters.

I have been naked without love.
And I have been loved—am loved,
so that when my beloved
hears my yelped ouch
as I grate my tender fingertip
along with the carrots
he calls out from the steamy bathroom,
“Are you okay?”
and I know
that I have already
won the Lotto.

Before I go back home
I see another one of us:
That child is going to make a wish.
There is the wish-posture!
Everything in her being is expectant.
There is the holding of the breath,
the choosing—which side of the bridge
to throw the penny from,
which pool more lucky?
I know the upraised urge and launch
as the sudden metal bone of the wish
goes splashing into the pool,
the pause after – it’s done.
Seriousness,
then the smiling.
The moment after
the world is different:
it is wished in.
Will it come true?
We are all already nibbled on by the fishes.
She walks away looking back,
ripening a little.

We throw ourselves
ahead of ourselves
all the time,
our hearts sing a song
beyond us
not so much about
health, wealth, love
(the usual culprits)
but really about the more extravagant stuff—

the attempt to keep
being here
in the messiness,
the yucky
clear
magnificent
stumbling
miracle.

© Kathleen Dunbar

Photo by Kathleen Dunbar

You Would

A-You Would 05-14-14
you would 

I would like to write
a fabulous poem
that described heart-thirst
in a way where
I’d become famous after I died
and while I was alive
I’d be interviewed
and, well, closer in time
my friends would
ooh and ah over the poem
and congratulate me
for saying such things
and tell me how it touched them
and more intimately
you would . . .
you would what?

when I offered this poem to you
all the poems I’ve ever written would ignite at once
the words blacken and melt
and the papers curl
they would clothe me in their smoke
rushing and delirious as freed souls
and finally leave me naked
at the temple
the primal one where
the god and goddess join their hips
in the motion that shakes even the stars
the reaching, falling
brief white stars
and you would . . .
you would what?

after all that hoopla
I’d find you standing
wide-shouldered and warm
on the place where
the at-last burned and broken engines
of my wishes
sleep among the roots of the earth
and a poem is the way
you look at me
and you would be looking at me
and you would . . .
you would what?

you would love me enough
to invite me home
to the place I’ve been looking for
all of my life

© Kathleen Dunbar

Photos by Kathleen Dunbar

Here’s a love song from my first CD — the song is called Round and Round and you can hear it right now on Bandcamp or www.kathleendunbarmusic.com

A-You Would 05-14-13

I Want To Tell You That You Are Okay

A-I Want To Tell You 04-16-13

I want to tell you
that you are okay

I want to be
the flower for you
the small diamond water
of the fountain
with the mossy stones
the clear song of the bird
that breaks your heart
enough
so that you begin
to remember
it’s okay to be alive

I know how hard it is
I have the scars, too
from the jagged monster
who chews its children
and leaves them
tense-boned and
half-alive
the monster of breaking
who fills small bodies
with knowledge so unspeakable
that the most golden of bells
can make no sound

but my love
if you keep hope
behind the wall
it is no good
no good
you have to walk out
into the open now
though every sinew
curdles
for bone and will
have done their work
they have brought you
here
but they are
useless creatures
when confronted
with kindness

what was given to you
long ago–
the sad old spasm
of protection–
with that you
can never know honey
you can never truly
deeply
laugh

oh, those old wars
they are over and gone
instead
my warm hand is here
and I’ll tell you
over and over
with the eloquent language
of my fingers
my breath
my eyes that have seen
death and lived
I will tell you gladly
that we are home at last
alive most deeply
in our own dignity

though the hired warrior
has kept you walking
let him lay down
in the garden’s earth now
and sumptuously rot
kindly let him come apart in
worm and root
till his hollowness
has healed into
the soft den of an animal

you have always been
the untarnishable gold bell
and the crazy wild heart of its
star-made clapper
and it is time, my love
for you to
ring

© Kathleen Dunbar

Photos by Kathleen Dunbar

Please also explore a song of connection and love in this crazy life, from my first CD, “Finally Home,” called Round and Round on Bandcamp, or at www.kathleendunbarmusic.com

A-I Want To Tell You 04-16-13

A Little Bit Of Yum

A-A Little Bit Of Yum 03-26-13

a little bit of yum

a little bit of yum
a crumb
a crunch, a bite
and then we’re done.
tidbit, morsel, taste, a drop
a soupçon, nosh
and then we’ll stop.

ambrosia, nectar, we adore
if only just . . .
one mouthful more!

a delectable, a relished heat
to finish off that spicy treat
the midnight hankering for flavor
the craving for the thing we savor
chocolate rapture, rich delight
upon the palette erudite
we nibble, lead by inward urge
oh just this once
no harm to splurge!
the dazed give-in
to appetite.

the moment best
when we can let
the nectar linger,
longing met. . .
it’s not the taste
though that does please
it’s the yearning of
the heart for ease—
and scary! to admit the ache
much easier to reach for—
cake!

we’re vulnerable when we believe
that we could let ourselves
receive
the sustenance to mend our hurt—
that kindness is our just dessert
and hunger is a thing to show, so
take the meal,
and eat it—slow—
in the savoring
the heart will know. . .

. . . the honey, goody, nibble of
the sweet we really want
is love.

© Kathleen Dunbar

Photo by Kathleen Dunbar

Here’s a little bit of music yum, my song We All Love You on Bandcamp and at my website www.kathleendunbarmusic.com

What Kind of Person Would Beat You With A Bible?

A-Red Cow 2 of 2 Red Bible Story

Yes, I am writing a Western, in my own fashion. Here is a glimpse into some of the beginnings of our hero, Nate.

What kind of person would beat you with a bible? Nate never really understood, he just somehow lived through the wretched and frequent ordeal.

The bible was one with a red cover that had started out as the hide of a cow that lived the life a cow lives, born of a mother like all creatures, growing in the dark from the egg of a black Corriente of venerable stock and the seed of a skinny but tough bull who mounted her the morning a storm was coming. The storm would bring a tornado with it and the bull would die caught up in a twist of wind that did not yield to his horns and hooves and scrubrange attitude. But the sky was yet blue while he eyed the cow in a clearing that afforded him a bit of running room for his approach. She had been chewing her cud in the shade of a rock that was weathered into the shape of a giant tit. Both felt the shift in the weather as an unease in the tough muscles beneath their hides, but this only served to hasten the bull’s purpose, as if he knew he had only one last chance to set more of his progeny to roaming upon the desert hardpan. The pre-storm morning was unusually still and clear, the charged air acting like a glass of magnifying power so that the distant range loomed large and close, the striations of the rock heaved up in ancient frozen waves as he met the cow with the spurting force of creation an hour before his demise. Above the trysting site a cactus bulged with thorn. A small hummingbird sat distinct on its bent and thorny arm and sent a fussy high pitched tip-tip in the direction of the amorous pair.

The bull and the cow were wild, that is untouched by men, and living out a plain life in a dry stretch of country not unlike that of their forebears on another continent who were plenty used by men, long ago gone for Spanish dinners and leatherwork. This cow and bull had been part of old Spanish-Mex stock whose hardscrabble owner had fallen on bad times: a lack of heirs and a wife who had gone off with a passing stranger. The stranger arrived asking for a drink of water in a coat of fancy stitching with two shining conchos to clasp it shut. He had handsome legs, a large mustache, and a big red horse with room on its back for a second rider. Both he and the horse were flashy enough to promise a bit of excitement and both sturdy enough to bear away the plump and bored wife. She left her husband late that night. He felt her move in the bed and reached out to pat her rump which she deftly moved away from his hand. Her last words to him were that she had to use the privy, and farted on him as she slid from the covers as if to prove it. The next day he was alone in the house fingering the brim of the hat he had worn since they’d been married. The spell that had held him to that place was broken. He was gone by afternoon, riding away in a different direction from the tracks of his wife and her new lover, and his puny herd were left to a freedom which perhaps they didn’t perceive in their beeve-brains. They bred and ate and roamed wild along the years till the parents of the bible-destined cow met on the morning of the tornado. The two creatures had paired and parted, and the impregnated cow stood in the lee of the tit-rock and watched across the range as the bull spun into a gray funnel of wind and was gone.

The calf came in the spring, and when grown was rounded up with her mother by a man whose brand was a sideways S and a bar with a hatch. He favored a Mexican saddle with a high cantle because his lower back was apt to hurt—the cantle offered some ease to an injury he’d sustained in a bar brawl landing backwards hard against the knee of a whore who later that night gave him balm for his trouble in the form of cheap whiskey and a free screw.

The man felt fortunate to increase his herd with some wild stock. Later he seared his brand into the flesh of the young calf, who screamed her bovine misery, stood, and scrambled back to her mother. At the end of the season, along with the rest of the herd she had joined, she was shipped on a rattling train bound for Chicago. There she became dinner for a loud young newspaperman and his fiancée at a stylish restaurant. Her hide, which lasted much longer than her flesh, was sold to a bookbinder. He dyed the leather red and fashioned it into the cover of a bible which he placed temptingly in his shop window. There it caught the eye of one Adabelle Cornelia Pettypool.

Adabelle had read a bible her whole life, and the meanings she made out of it and out of life took the shine off her natural prettiness, and invested her with a flat low grade fury. What she never fully allowed herself to comprehend was that the fury she felt was towards her own father. Lonely for his wife who had died of a sudden heart complaint, he turned to his daughter to supply his need. There was a way her mind had split so that she could know that thing and not know it in the same moment, and it left her looking for evil in everyone but him, whom she idealized. To make matters more confusing for her, her father was a minister, mixed up thoroughly in a Methodist sect bound to rescue people out of a darkness that meanwhile he created at his whim in his own home.

Whatever illusions Adabelle may have had about comforting her father, as he put it, ended when she found herself pregnant. Desperate, she rid herself of the child with the help of a doctor she’d met accompanying her father on his ministrations to the local brothel. There were complications, and poor Ada nearly died. Her father gave out that she’d had a bad case of the grippe, but the working ladies at Alviva’s Parlor House dropped a few words to some patrons they had in common with the minister, though their ministrations were of a different order. Word spread and the parishioners soon knew the truth and stopped coming to Sunday service. Her father told Adabelle to pack their belongings.

On the day of their departure she rose early and opened her father’s collection box as it stood among suitcases and bundles on a table with the remains of their last Chicago breakfast. She looked him in the eye and said, “I am doing this one thing for myself.” He looked out the window and began to hum loudly Elvina Hall’s popular new hymn, Jesus Paid It All. Adabelle took only the money she needed and left briskly for the bookseller with the red bible in his window display. It was a thing she’d been yearning after for weeks, and which she had fixed upon during her terrible illness. Her reasons for buying it were not clear to her, except that it was something of her own, which she could hold in her hand and that was not tainted with her family. At the time that seemed enough. The red bible was one of Adabelle’s choice possessions, and she kept it close to her own person on the long journey south, until it landed with all the power her arm could give upon a small boy’s body.

Her father’s public excuse for their move, which he shared with any person who would listen to him on trains, stages, and in cheap hotel restaurants, was that he had been called in a vision to save Whites, Mexicans, Indians, cowboys, gunslingers, fallen women and other numerous recreants in the wild cattle town of Abilene, Kansas. With a knowing look he’d lean in towards his audience at this point, saying in a deep voice that the word “Abilene” had appeared to him in a dream upon a burning map. In his private moments he was relieved to have gotten out of Chicago before things turned ugly. He happened to see the name of the Kansas cowtown in a newspaper close on the heels of some threats from a burly former-parishioner who’d just come around the corner from Alviva’s Parlor House. He prayed that he might ride the current tide of do-gooding into heaven. Whether he arrived at that final destination or was held to account for what he’d done to his daughter and shown the door to the lower quarters, no one could say for sure. His preaching frenzy did not bring in many sheep. He was not a popular man in a town given to excess of every sort and soon took a perhaps-not-so-stray bullet from a bar fight that had spilled over onto the street. He lived long enough to look down with wonder as the stuff of his life leaked out of him, reddening his hands. He was dead before the doctor and his daughter arrived along with curious onlookers. Among the crowd was Nate’s father, in Abilene from his ranch in Texas on a cattle drive. He cast his eye upon Adabelle, perhaps in much the same way the bull had spotted the cow, wanting to set more of his progeny walking on the Texas range. Ada appeared likely. Nate’s father seemed to collect pretty women in need of help, scooping them up and depositing them in his big ranch home, then disappearing for months at a time on business. His first three wives had died and he missed them all in a distant and romantic sort of way. And so he met and rescued Adabelle from the debris of the minister’s life and made her his fourth wife with the blessing of a Baptist preacher in a church that stood handily on the way out of town.

Nate’s father was charming; an older man but fit and active and his ranch business provided a good income. Adabelle was hopeful for the first time in her life. His sons by his first and second wives were grown and gone, and Nate, the child of his third, and Indian wife, was young; in need, he said, of more brothers and sisters. Nate’s father, in his bull way, wanted a big family like the one he’d grown up in and Adabelle aimed to make a family different than her own. But it turned out that the sad fiasco with her father had injured her, and she could not bear a child. This sapped the juices from her prettiness and left her dry and brittle of temperament, turning to the red bible more than ever. Nate’s father was at home less and less, and Nate and the ranch hands came to know Adabelle as the dour and vindictive woman who had no Christian spirit—at least nothing in the last part of the red book she bought in Chicago had Christ laying into a small child for simply having the brown face of his mother and his tribe (Christ probably being pretty brown himself), although the first part of the story had the old desert god laying into plenty of people with apparent satisfaction. And so it was that Nate’s stepmother felt a deep release in beating the boy, leaving welts on his back and a scar on his cheek where the small diamond of the ring her faraway husband gave her cut the boy in the fury she unleashed because she could have no child of her own and must raise this one, product of her husband and his dead tribal woman. Where she might have found a larger life, she could not see it because no kind soul had ever shown her how to have a bigger perspective. She dried up in the smallest of possible worlds—inside a broken, shrunk, unloved and unloving heart. Being of an active nature, she was given to expressing the terrible electric current of her feelings, rather than wasting quietly away. The bible—the object itself, not the philosophy therein—was her weapon against more grief than she could inwardly bear: she took to beating Nate.

And so the cow, dead and taken into parts, had become the unwitting cover that bound together the words of a deity Nate never got to have a feeling for. Adabelle’s blows rained down hard upon his small boy’s body, unrelenting, and with a venom increasing as did her stepson’s unwillingness to bend to her or to her religion. Such was Nate’s life when his father was away from home, which was most of the time. Bruised and lonely, he thought longingly of his own brown-faced mother who had died while he was a babe. And his feelings towards the red bible were, “What a waste of a good cow.”
© Kathleen Dunbar

Here’s a poem set to music, another western-with-a-twist, on my new CD The Storm in Our Head. It’s called “Snake Charmer.” Find it on Bandcamp or on my website, www.kathleendunbarmusic.com

Photos by Kathleen Dunbar

A-Red Cow 1 of 2 Red Bible Story