If You Fall

 

If You Fall

Rest all the way down
through the bottom of the pond
and its gravel nibbled by the fishes.
Go past to where
the moist soil rests like leavened bread
upon the crockery of the bedrock earth.
Beneath the plates of ancient seas and poured volcanoes
put yourself away
into the lower cupboards of time and gravity
until you feel the pulled pulse of all your atoms
begin to agree with the atomic signatures of all things.

The rabbit comes out of her hole,
no one’s dinner
at the moment;
this evening the sky a deepening blue
held in the rabbit’s eye—
her nose a delight of twitches
for the tender grasses
and the medley of the toothwort
and plantain.
The twin white starflowers of the mayapple
nod beneath their umbrella leaves
and release sweetness
into the rising evening wind.
Rabbit sits upon
the cushions of moss
plumped by an earlier rain;
the air is washed;
no toothed thing is about
that would end a rabbit’s dinner for good—
for her at this moment
there is just a noseful of delight
while her ears are listening.

We are always waiting for death
in some form
and hoping to eat our dinner in peace.
The rabbit cleans her face with her paw,
ladylike and nibbling grasses in between.

Go down below the dreaming, aching brevity of humans,
begin to feel the agreement among all things
that those prayers given at the center core’s throb
are holy.
Everything else knows this—
we are the only ones
who fret whether or not
to give our prayers
or how to give them,
worry if they are enough
or turn them off
like a switch
as if that could be done anyway.
Look how the young rabbit prays
while nibbling;
the elderly rabbit
a bit threadbare and lean
but alert and intelligent
offers a different prayer,
more brief, as the fox arrives.

Does it turn out okay?
The way is full of holes.
Your old shoes never fit well anyway
and it hurts to stumble.
My dear, you’ve done the best you could
given all the odds.

The prayer of that which is all-the-way down
returns upward to you.
If you fall
you will meet it.
You might as well let yourself be loved.

© Kathleen Dunbar

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