of course I went down
trembling, trembling, trembling so
the moon on water
of course I went down
of course I went down
trembling, trembling, trembling so
the moon on water
there is a small moment
© by Kathleen Dunbar
there is a small moment
when the still air
touches the bird’s breast
and nothing else exists for her
than being alive
to the invisible warmth
that is the breath
and sunwarmed stone
all that is alive has
risen to meet her
in the crystal
animal of the air
next to her
on her high branch
she—who is made
allows the wind
when it begins to stir
to touch her soft body
invisible voice lives
and she begins
to feel called
to return the vitalness
in the poured
silver of her song
there is nothing
her joy when the wind
moves into her
and her exquisite
of the taking
of her singing body
this is the reason
she was given a voice
Dogs Don’t Care
by Kathleen Dunbar
Dogs as a whole
don’t care what they look like
(except perhaps for poodles).
Let yourself find that dignity
that creatures know
—let the sense of you being you
in the moment
just as you are
become a little fuller.
Your body will thank you
(it already knows how
and will be glad you listened).
Your heart will
The miracle is You—
sometimes with fleas,
alive and here.
Don’t let the thoughts
that compare and criticize you
be the only show in town.
They never took into account
the mystery that is you.
Be as dog, or horse,
howl wildly, run, snort
play and growl
taste and smell
sing and dance
and most of all be here.
The body that you were given
Your heart is waiting for you
to love yourself.
You are amazing.
© Kathleen Dunbar 2020
by Kathleen Dunbar
At the heart of your experience is You.
And though your Essence may not be weighed,
is not palpable or seen,
that Mystery makes you all the more Sacred.
Seek for yourself, and love the seeking.
Hold what is unholdable.
Feel more than you think you can bear.
Work and play
and do the dishes and pray and sing.
The empty hole at the center of the shaman’s stone
tells you everything you need to know.
Everything you do
points you home.
© Kathleen Dunbar 2020
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
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
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
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
When the earth formed
molten iron sank to its center
to make the core
and drew with it
most of the precious metals.
Gold abides with iron.
There are some veins
and pockets of metals,
also lens-shaped thickenings
and domes in the dark
that lay closer to the surface, however.
The animals don’t care about them
in the same way that people do—
the animals walk above them, swim,
fly, even dig a little at the roots—
they are the trebles
to the bass clef below—
of the song of the earth.
for quite other reasons.
1.8 billion years ago
is the kind of time I can’t really comprehend
except as a puny fact.
My heart, on the other hand,
once upon a time
to begin the story—
in waters fresh and salt
a special mud was laid down . . .
. . . in that time the water
was over-bitter with much iron
and little oxygen
In it the first simple creatures swam.
For their feast and mead
they took the warmth of the sun
and made bargain with the world
to spit out from their simple meal
a gift of oxygen into the waters.
The sun was hot
and their feast great
and so they paid well for it.
Clinging, swooning youths they were
sinking in embrace,
the elemental lovers:
the molecules of the oxygen and the iron joined
and lay down together in the mud beneath waves
which prayed over them
and laid long smooth sheets over the honeymoon bed.
The sheets frothed and laced
and the song was the old one of the pairing of things,
the kind where the two lovers
now joined in their attraction
make some thing at last
under the weight of time and pressure
that is the gift of the pairing,
that is of them
and beyond them.
It was well done
and so, in this case,
and thickly scrambled in their thinking
go digging up the earth
and shaping it
to kill other people—
they dig up an old and venerable tale
an alchemical marriage
and use it to stop hearts.
is mined from simple earths
grown in the dark
then shaped for death
so that the interfering explosion of the refined parts
made bloody rags of the young man
my father taught to read.
He was so young he could only grow a bit of beard
and no mustache.
Once upon a time . . .
he spoke to my father with wonder
of the idea of indoor plumbing,
of his trip across the sea,
and especially of his sweetheart with hair so red
that he lay awake at night
electric with the knowledge
that she had chosen him
and him alone.
My father helped him to write love letters,
to put some poetry to his words
upon paper that would last longer than the boy,
for in a moment
that was with you
all of your days
you saw what in earth would be a field ploughed
to accept seed
was instead flesh
interrupted from its firm rhythms,
its flow and pulse,
churned and planted instead
with the metal that made death.
The boy’s mouth spoke blood.
He looked at you
and you saw his life fall away
from his love’s hair of flaming maples
of ropes of honey fire
on the burning end of a log.
As the light in his eyes dimmed
he sank into your own eyes
as into the water’s deeps
heavy with the weight of unbearable mystery
into your molten core,
and the log burned there
his sweetheart’s flaming hair
that he longed to bury his face in once again
and never would.
You kept hearing his words
and you could not stop him speaking
all of your days.
you stepped silent as the grave
behind an enemy guard,
pulled your knife
across his soft throat.
The blood was wet and sticky.
You looked out
over the acres of moonlit trees
whose beauty filled your eyes
even as the enemy soldier
slumped against you
with his full weight
as a lover does.
You cleaned your knife later.
You were all somebody’s children once.
Back in camp
you corrected the map
showing the dangerous places,
in the pattern of the land,
who filled the buildings
where lay the encampments,
sleeping and on watch
the sergeants and boys,
you hugged your rifle,
always one hand touching
or else the strap pressing against your chest,
holding the gun’s reassuring weight.
What is this world
where such sensations are small comfort against
the absolute nakedness of flesh
where bullets can pull their fingers through?
You smoked Pall Malls from home
shook a second cigarette from the pack
and forced a smile
for another boy who needed both.
One of the last smiles he would be given
was a gift from you.
A shell found him the next day.
There was not much left,
and for a long time when you smiled
at some brightness or humor
you felt your mouth
and saw him calm with what you had given
and the futility and the human despair of it.
The dead boy was there again
and your mouth was full of ash.
Long before I was born
and long after
in the middle of the night you saw the boys
you soldiered with and cared for,
most I didn’t know about.
You continued to see them
until the end of your days
even unto the morning of your own death,
those boys who lived behind your eyes
in your old heart
repaired and failing,
Your face before and after the war
was different entire,
brave in both photos—
the first like the surface of water, still,
expectant of the coming storm,
but untroubled, smooth.
In the one after
you stood on a Belgian street—
beneath your helmet
was a pool bottomless,
alive in spite of itself,
this time the stillness carrying dark water
full of the dead.
Oh, the pain that families carry—
that I carry
in telling this story
about my father
and every other father
the dead ones
whose children were unborn
the live ones
know only the part of their fathers
that the shells did not rupture
the cathedrals of their hearts
with fallen walls
and blackened timbers
the faces of the angels dark with soot
this one’s wing missing
Jesus with his hand raised
but the stone of his body
made dust from his belly down
the blue and ruby windows
Afterwards when people speak
it is often that they name it The War
no matter which insanity
the civilized world
has collapsed into.
Whenever we went camping
the car carried
my complicated family
composed of treasures and trash
ore and tailings
wonders and junk.
The car carried us
on long summer vacations
filled with adventure
and screaming fights.
We’d leave at dawn
because my father was a morning person
who barked orders and could not understand
how he could “boss 300 men at the factory
and not you two women.”
We two women
did not follow orders.
My mother rolled her eyes and said,
(His Swiss mother named him
after the president
who waged the war to end all wars).
And when we did get out of the house
in the burnt umber station wagon
the sun not too far up
somehow, something was always left behind.
My parents always remembered what they’d forgot
about five miles down the road
at the first stoplight—
I had the spot marked—
“Oh! the coffee pot
(Always the really vital equipment).
Sometimes mom, sometimes dad
made the confession,
there would be an almost erupting fight
halted by a bond
I didn’t understand until years later.
Dad would say
“It’s bad luck to go back,
we’ll go to the hardware store and get one,”
and mom would say
“Yeah, sweetheart, let’s do that,
Because one day
a long time ago
somebody my father loved
and that is where the shell found him.
All those boys gone
my father carrying them
my father gone now
and I carrying them all
even the ones he never spoke of.
I know people
children’s children’s children
with the stone and wood
of their grandfather’s churches
temples and mosques
groves and standing stones
erupted and silent
in rubble on their heart’s floor
all those boys
Let us learn to dig up love.
Pierce our hearts
with that prime old element
made from iron,
© Kathleen Dunbar
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.
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
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
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
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,
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.
Much less worse than some things
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.
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!”
They are very young.
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
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
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.
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
not so much about
health, wealth, love
(the usual culprits)
but really about the more extravagant stuff—
the attempt to keep
in the messiness,
© Kathleen Dunbar
Photo by Kathleen Dunbar
Hey Folks, Here’s the lyrics, and you can LISTEN along by
clicking the link, which is: Accordion Song
Words by Kathleen Dunbar
Music by Kathleen Dunbar and Gawain Matthews
when we meet I hold the candle
when we part put out the flame
far from home I’m bought and sold
kisses bitter, love the name
when you ask I do not answer
words you speak I do not know
keep me in the cage you fashioned
say you’ll never let me go
lai dai dai-ee-dai
lai dai dai-ee-dai
love I wear a little dress of gold and red
how sweet and wise I lead you to my bed
laugh and dance, how deep the sin
spell is cast—we both fall in
I’m your bird, oh-ho you bid me sing
‘pon the cage I beat my wings
sky your blue eyes, close and cool
crumbs of love like broken jewels
midnight’s hush, how cold the wind
turn the key—the dark pours in
at the window—don’t ask why
drop your hands and let me fly
© by Kathleen Dunbar and Gawain Mathews
Photos By Kathleen Dunbar
Listen to “Accordion Song” from my CD The Storm in Our Head on Bandcamp or find it on my website, kathleendunbarmusic.com