Tag Archives: Poetry

Black History Month: Tyehimba Jess

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If one had to name a quintessential poet for Black History Month, Tyehimba Jess would be an excellent choice. Winner of the Pulitzer Prize for his poetry collection Olio, black history is the heart and soul of his poetry. History is alive and personal for him, both a limiting and a transcendent force, depending on how one responds to it. And his poems are a powerful exalting and at the same time brutally honest force. For a perfect example of this, check out this multi-genre tour-de-force, too long for this blog space, but seriously worth your time.

And then there’s this interview with Jess on NPR. How many interviewees reply to questions with spontaneous poetry? This is evidence that Jess lives the historical black experience, his heart is in the impact of that history on the moment at hand. His message is wholly with him.

The title Olio refers to minstrel shows, a performance art which, according to Jess, “was based upon making caricatures of African Americans for the edification of mostly white audiences.” The black and sometimes blackface performers who were always “unidentified.” He wanted to discover who they’ve were, their names, their stories. After all, he says, “Characters have depth. They have multiple dimensions, right? A caricature, you only show one side of a person. They’re oafish. Or they’re silly. Or they’re dumb, etcetera. A character, you see multiple sides of their humanity.”

The book, then, is an effort to “humanize” these performers, present their real characters, to fill in the erasures perpetrated by the horror of slavery and racism. Among those he discovered, said interviewer Dan Wanschura, were people “like Blind Tom Wiggins, a 19th century pianist who, Jess says, earned his master a million dollars through his musical talent. And the McKoy twins, Millie and Christine, who were conjoined – people who Jess had never heard of before he began his research.”
“So Jess tells the story of the McKoy twins in a series of poems – how they were rented out by their owner to traveling shows around the country, how they were kidnapped and shipped to England for a while, and how, once emancipated, they earned enough money performing to buy the land where they and their family had been slaves.” What an amazing and redemptive story!

The book shows us that these people were in fact empowered by their performances and attained freedom that would otherwise been impossible. And Jess’ book gives them at last a place to perform as real, whole, human characters, speaking directly to our hearts. Another interesting note: there are also foldout pages, some with perforations in his book, which serve as a kind of physical representation of how the history can be transformed through art. One page, for example, lists reasons for lynching, and the other side of the page shows us their stories in poems that cancel out the reasons for lynching.

As Jess says, “We ride the wake of each other’s rhythm, beating our hearts’ syncopated tempo with music all our own with our mouths seeped in the glow of hand-me-down courage, drenched in spiritual a cappellas, flowing soul from bone through skin. We pay debts from broken chattel to circus stars. We sing straight from this nation’s barbed wired heart.” An answer to a question, an eloquent synopsis of how history can be deconstructed. And reconstructed on an entirely new, liberating template.

Jess’ previous collection was leadbellly, focused on the great bluesman, some of whose songs my brother used to sing, and in his wake, I also played (on guitar), singing them just to myself. From that collection, this poem:

leadbelly’s lessons

By Tyehimba Jess

mr. haney owned
shreveport ’s general store
where a dollar a week
bought my 12 year old frame’s
lift and lunge of barrel and crate
across a sawdust floor.
still, he wanted more.

the guitar refused to get naked
with haney. he would fumble
up the seams of its hidden croon;
hook, clasp and bodice of each tune
mangled down to a stunted strum. so,

he’d quit. he’d hoist bourbon
and order me to hoist song,
the velvet locomotive of marrow deep hum
i’d tote up from the swollen center of guitar,
its catch and slide caught between palms
and cradled ‘cross louisiana starlight.

his bottle and scowl grew louder
with each reel and jump that i played
while getting paid to show the way
of undressing music from its wooden clothes.

but it was like coaxin’ stone
to bathe in sky. he never let his flesh
wallow in the blue floatin’ ‘round his earth,
so he buried himself deeper in his own dirt.
he’d think on the hurt a white man can do
without second thought—he’d slur
nigger, someday i’m gonna kill you.
and stagger home.

it was there, alone,
in the dark, darkness of me
that i first learned the ways
of pure white envy.
and thank you, mr. haney,
for teaching me…

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Filed under African American poets, Civil Rights, Human Rights, Poetry, Poets

Amazed and Honored to be Nominated for a Pushcart by Orchards Poetry


In an amazing surprise, I discovered my poem “To a Birch Tree” has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize by Orchards Poetry, Karen Kelsay’s gorgeous poetry online zine which features (though not exclusively) formal poetry. What an honor to be selected among such a formidable group of fine poets!

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Filed under Awards, Poetry, Publications, Siham Karami poems, Siham Karami poetry

Remembering Extraordinary Poet Dick Allen

Ordinarily, I would begin such a subject with a basic introduction and offer a poem or two of theirs. But Dick Allen, former Poet Laureate of Connecticut and major American poet, had his own quiet but enduring impact on me, much like the way he touched and enlightened so many others. I’ve read a number of tributes on the site which is both a community and a publication to which he had contributed much, Verse-Virtual, and their stories reflect my own experience.

The site encourages those interested in joining or contributing to Verse-Virtual to email the author of any poems one happens to like, and so on December 19, I emailed Mr. Allen, who responded with great appreciation and grace, sending me a link to an essay he published in the form of a letter to his grandson, Lincoln. I was quite moved by it, and wrote back to tell him that and shared a few photos I had taken (my new obsession) — he expressed appreciation of them in another reply dated December 25, also expressing his religious feelings (I had shared mine, a pro-ecumenical sentiment which he also expressed), and wished me happy holidays. I replied on December 25 at around 1:30am sending holiday wishes but also expressing how highly I regarded him as a human being after our brief exchanges. I wish I could print it all out; he truly brings out he best in others. He wrote that lovely encouraging and full-of-life email on the 24th. I hope he got to read my reply in which I sent more photos, I think better ones. On December 25th, according to his daughter, he suffered a heart attack, and on the 26th, Dick Allen, an incomparable man and poet, passed as he had lived, peacefully in his own unique way, where peace entered and filled the room, as indeed he brightened and uplifted the hearts of so many, including myself. I only knew of his death from the Verse-Virtual site, discovering the new issue dedicated to him. One so often reads about poets and admires their work, but to have a poet of his stature read my email so carefully and respond to each point I made with such grace, sharing personal details like that of a childhood friend and his enduring influence, and his appreciation of reflections I offered on my own life and how his poem affected me — all this has an impact that no biography can convey.

So I think of him as an extraordinarily good man, exuding a rare decency and thoughtfulness that descriptions cannot capture really. And he lived, as those emails bear witness, life fully and with great buoyancy up until the very last breath. My heart goes out to his wife and family, and indeed to all those whose lives he touched. It is a great loss; I feel it with only a brief email exchange. Yet also he left that peace, that uplift, that buoyancy of spirit behind. And his poetry. What a fine and enduring legacy.

One of those who shared wonderful memories of Allen on her exuberant blog is Caryn Mirriam Goldberg, 2009-13 Kansas Poet Laureate, who also has excellent links to his poetry and more. She took this picture of him, a tall man whom she described as “tree-like”, in front of the oldest beech tree in Pennsylvania, where they shared a memorable moment just feeling the presence of the tree as a being. Yes, a moment of being, a private transformative moment that feels like what happened to me. Extraordinary soul!

With so many poems, any choice would be insufficient, yet… in a way any would also be sufficient. So…

Here’s one published in the Superstition Review that captures his spirit:

The Puzzling Beauty of the Here and Now.

The puzzling beauty of the here and now
affected him strangely,
like names for Chinese watercolor brushes:
Smoky Cloud, Keeps The Best Point,
Crane Neck, Giraffe Neck, Red Pine, White Goose,
and a certain rise of the Merritt Parkway
when all you can see ahead of you
is the sky going on. How puzzling
that “stone breaks open the stone in stones,”
and “peaks link up with peaks that dominate peaks,”
as Shin Tao Chi Shon—sung wrote
in his beautiful painting one morning
while waiting for a friend to come across the mountain
to stay only an hour
after an arduous trip of three days and two nights,
and it would be two days and three nights back. They had tea,
a heron stood in the lake that stretched before them.
There was the even-spaced ringing of a bell. . . .
How puzzling to come across such stories
in a book that’s lain around the house for years,
or on a message board tucked far down inside the Internet
on an out-of-way Website you can only reach
by drifting through meadows. . . . Once there,
he also found links to The Cherry Orchard,
a little Sarabande by Bach,
and into one of those sunlight and brocade interiors
beloved by Dutch painters. Jigsaw puzzles.
Word games. Mazes. Detective stories.
Crossword puzzles. Anagrams. Hidden Things.
Pin the Tail on the Donkey. Where’s the donkey?
The video game search across the universe.
Puzzles made from bent nails. The puzzle of Atlantis.
Who was Jack the Ripper? Where’s the lost gold?
When shall I be found? “The Here and Now-
that sounds like a Bed and Breakfast place,” said a friend,
“or the name of a minor rock group,
the kind that begins and ends playing high school proms
and in town hall gazebos.” Enigma.
Quandary. Toss of the dice.
Riddle. Conundrum. Charade. “How beautiful
for spacious skies,
for amber waves of grain”
always went through his head as he crisscrossed America
east to west, driving the Interstates. “. . . for purple mountain majesties
above the fruited plain,”
although he’d never actually seen a purple mountain
but once, in New York City,
he saw a sculpture of a purple cow.
It had its head down
and was munching on the kind of green cellophane grass
you find in Easter baskets and in baseball stadiums.
“. . . America, America.” Picture a house in Kansas or Oklahoma
with an infinite number of doors that lead to rooms
that lead to other doors. Each door is a sideways lightswitch
illuminating what’s inside each further room. You’re searching,
but every time you think you’ve found the answer
another door opens. . . . We built this city.
Come here, Watson, I need you. . . . If the soul
is a pattern of information, no wonder
there are complex souls and simple souls,
but why does every soul weigh precisely 21 grams
as it flies into the air beyond the body’s death?
“You don’t know what’s happening here, do you, Mr. Jones?”
He opened another door,
and there was a field of sunflowers. It was September,
two days from 9/11. He opened another
and there was no Iraq War, no Abu Ghraib prison.
He opened a third
and there was a New Mexico pueblo,
a black and white rainvase on a window ledge,
sand and the noonday sun. . . . Dimension after dimension,
life after life, each separate and the same,
folds in a Chinese fan,
Fingerprints. Footprints.Revolver in the gutter.
A letter hidden in a secret drawer.
The broken pearl necklace. DNA.
The Case of the Chinese Boxes that was never solved.
. . . . They spoke maybe two dozen words before they parted,
which have not come down to us,
but he liked to think Harry Belafonte echoed them
in Sylvie: “Bring me little water, Sylvie, Sylvie,
Bring me little water out.
Bring me little water, Sylvie,
Every little once in a while”
and the lost amphimacer of the Here and Now,
the puzzlement of it,
and the heron, the lake, and the bell.

———-
And another amazing rich poem:

If You Get There Before I Do

Air out the linens, unlatch the shutters on the eastern side,
and maybe find that deck of Bicycle cards
lost near the sofa. Or maybe walk around
and look out the back windows first.
I hear the view’s magnificent: old silent pines
leading down to the lakeside, layer upon layer
of magnificent light. Should you be hungry,
I’m sorry but there’s no Chinese takeout,
only a General Store. You passed it coming in,
but you probably didn’t notice its one weary gas pump
along with all those Esso cans from decades ago.
If you’re somewhat confused, think Vermont,
that state where people are folded into the mountains
like berries in batter. . . . What I’d like when I get there
is a few hundred years to sit around and concentrate
on one thing at a time. I’d start with radiators
and work my way up to Meister Eckhart,
or why do so few people turn their lives around, so many
take small steps into what they never do,
the first weeks, the first lessons,
until they choose something other,
beginning and beginning their lives,
so never knowing what it’s like to risk
last minute failure. . . .I’d save blue for last. Klein blue,
or the blue of Crater Lake on an early June morning.
That would take decades. . . .Don’t forget
to sway the fence gate back and forth a few times
just for its creaky sound. When you swing in the tire swing
make sure your socks are off. You’ve forgotten, I expect,
the feeling of feet brushing the tops of sunflowers:
In Vermont, I once met a ski bum on a summer break
who had followed the snows for seven years and planned
on at least seven more. We’re here for the enjoyment of it, he said,
to salaam into joy. . . .I expect you’ll find
Bibles scattered everywhere, or Talmuds, or Qur’ans,
as well as little snippets of gospel music, chants,
old Advent calendars with their paper doors still open.
You might pay them some heed. Don’t be alarmed
when what’s familiar starts fading, as gradually
you lose your bearings,
your body seems to turn opaque and then transparent,
until finally it’s invisible—what old age rehearses us for
and vacations in the limbo of the Middle West.
Take it easy, take it slow. When you think I’m on my way,
the long middle passage done,
fill the pantry with cereal, curry, and blue and white boxes of macaroni, place the
checkerboard set, or chess if you insist,
out on the flat-topped stump beneath the porch’s shadow,
pour some lemonade into the tallest glass you can find in the cupboard,
then drum your fingers, practice lifting your eyebrows,
until you tell them all—the skeptics, the bigots, blind neighbors,
those damn-with-faint-praise critics on their hobbyhorses—
that I’m allowed,
and if there’s a place for me that love has kept protected,
I’ll be coming, I’ll be coming too.

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Must See! Hobo Camp Review with 3 of My Poems


The newest issue of Hobo Camp Review, a publication that truly expresses my heart, the whole idea of a hobo camp, is live now with three of my poems. These are three of my personal favorites — 2 prosepoems and a Sestina — that at the same time fit the theme not only of “ghost stories” but of a hobo Camp itself. Some fantastic poetry on the site, including a poem on “Dia de Los Muertos” and many other ghost stories/ poems — don’t miss it! And a huge thanks to editor James Duncan for putting together a fantastic issue and setting up the perfect camp for vagabond spirits.

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Filed under Poetry, Siham Karami poems, Siham Karami poetry

Mary Cornish’s “Numbers” Brightens a Bad Day

In case there were any gaps left to the many arguments on behalf of poetry, some claiming it has utility of various sorts, not the least of which ought to be uplifting one’s sour mood, I submit this poem by Mary Cornish, who started out as a children’s book illustrator until her hand could no longer draw, at which point, later in life, she began writing poetry. This succeeded, at least with me, in changing my mood, which is saying a lot, plus I was attracted to the title since I love Numbers, but not so much for their utility as for their qualities outside of the box.

Numbers

I like the generosity of numbers.
The way, for example,
they are willing to count
anything or anyone:
two pickles, one door to the room,
eight dancers dressed as swans.

I like the domesticity of addition–
add two cups of milk and stir–
the sense of plenty: six plums
on the ground, three more
falling from the tree.

And multiplication’s school
of fish times fish,
whose silver bodies breed
beneath the shadow
of a boat.

Even subtraction is never loss,
just addition somewhere else:
five sparrows take away two,
the two in someone else’s
garden now.

There’s an amplitude to long division,
as it opens Chinese take-out
box by paper box,
inside every folded cookie
a new fortune.

And I never fail to be surprised
by the gift of an odd remainder,
footloose at the end:
forty-seven divided by eleven equals four,
with three remaining.

Three boys beyond their mothers’ call,
two Italians off to the sea,
one sock that isn’t anywhere you look.

By Mary Cornish

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Poems2Go: An Unusual Way to Publish, with One of My Poems

Poems2Go is more a project, one could say, than a publication in the usual sense, although it is that too. From their About page:

Poems2go is a poetry project created by Christine Jones and supported by a grant from the Witter Bynner Foundation, to bring more poetry to more people to more places. Inspired by the book Poem In Your Pocket introduced by Kay Ryan, poems2go offers poetry to take with you, tuck in your pocket, your wallet, or to share.

You can check here for places to find the poems printed on 4 X 6″ loose-leaf paper to take home, literally 2 go. Or you can check out the featured poems on their website. Where you can also find my poem “The Scrimshaw Man,” a pantoum. As well as the other poems, a wonderful collection of them I’m proud to be among. While there, check below my poem for my statement on why poetry matters.

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Filed under Formal Poetry, Poetry, Poetry in forms, Publications, Siham Karami poems

Okla Elliott 1977-2017: Gone Too Soon

On March 19, 2017, the young and very accomplished poet Okla Elliott passed away unexpectedly in his sleep. He was also a novelist, fiction writer, translator, translator, and teacher, in academia and beyond. I discovered his poetry from Subtropics, where I read the first poem below.

The Patience of the Land Mine 
        

Weeds grow over rusty death

in a field no crops

but many flowers

will populate. The land mine dreams

the sweetness of a child’s foot

or a dog’s paw to depress

its small detonator, dreams

the echoing boom

and the wet bloom of meat and bone.

It dreams its dream for years, decades,

does nothing but dream,

and never grows tired.

But I only experienced his considerateness firsthand when I published a review in the same issue of Tupelo Quarterly Review as he did, after which we became Facebook friends. It seemed as if I merely blinked, maybe twice, and he was gone. What a loss! This article gives an idea of how much he is missed and his legacy, as well as another of his fine poems.

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Allison Joseph: Taking on Both Racism and Sexism

International Women’s Day this year, galvanized by the misogyny of President Trump, showed the world a powerful presentation of the importance of women and their essential contributions, calling for both recognition and justice in so many ways.

At the same time, just last month, the shortest month of the year, was Black History Month, for which I barely found enough time to do a few posts, despite that even a 31-day month would not be sufficient time to do bring up a tenth of the poets we need to hear about. One important poet being Allison Joseph.

Allison Joseph’s poetry addresses both concerns: that of racism and its insidious dehumanization of people of color, and civil rights, and that of women’s rights and the fight to be respected and given their due. Here are two strong poems demonstrating what a strong voice she is indeed on both issues.

SUNDOWN GHAZAL

By Allison Joseph

A sundown town was a town, city or neighborhood that was purposely all-white. The term came from signs that were allegedly posted stating that people of color had to leave the town by sundown. They are also sometimes known as “sunset towns” or “gray towns.” The highest proportion of confirmed sundown towns were in the state of Illinois — Wikipedia

Don’t show your face in a sundown town,
or forget your race in a sundown town.

What ancient shame flushes my cheeks?
Reminded of my place in a sundown town.

“How’d you get so good-looking?” said with a wink.
Old white man loves my grace in a sundown town.

Lost in a neighborhood where dogs snap chains,
my body’s a dark space in a sundown town.

Shotguns, gun racks, Dixie stickers, rusted trucks.
Should I stray, armed with mace, in a sundown town?

Crimes thrive in black, white, every grade between.
Are you just another case in a sundown town?

Kink of your hair, curl of your lip,
be careful who you embrace in a sundown town.

State police, city cops, small-town hired hands.
All give chase in a sundown town.

Burned houses, riddled with junk and meth.
Hatred creeps its petty pace in a sundown town.

Black father, white mother, coffee-colored daughter.
What can love erase in a sundown town?

Rivers, tires, bodies—a confluence that cannot hide.
Hard not to leave a trace in a sundown town.

And here, first published on the PBS website:

Kitchen

By Allison Joseph

I remember this as her kitchen,
the one room in our house where no one
questioned my mother’s authority—
her cast iron pots bubbling over
on the stove, cracked tea cups
in the sink. How I hated
the difficult oven always hanging
off its hinges, so loose a clothes hanger
rigged it shut, gas range whose flames
leapt beneath fingers when I turned
its knobs too quickly, floor tile
that never came clean no matter
how much dirt I swept from its
cracks. This was her domain—
kitchen for frying fish
and stewing chicken, for rice
and peas, plantains and yams,
for grease and hot sauce and seasoned salt.
Only she could make that faulty
oven door stay, only she could master
the fickle flames of the rangetop,
only she could make those worn dishes
and chipped plates fill a table
with food so rich and hot
my father could not complain.
And though I am her daughter, this house
no longer hers, her body deep in holy ground,
I know she’d want me to save all this—
decades of platters and saucers, plates,
glasses—every chipped cup, tarnished fork.

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Etheridge Knight: Power Voice (1931-1991)

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Sometimes it seems like I’m overusing the words “power” and “powerful” in reference to poetry and poets; perhaps even more so with African-American/ African poetry. Etheridge Knight’s name doesn’t come up too much these days, but it should. His poetry resonates, especially now with a president who doesn’t respect the first amendment, who wants to establish Fox News and Breitbart news as State TV, in whose wake heinous hate crimes are experiencing a revival against people of color, gays, Jews, Muslims, people of Indian descent, anyone who looks Foreign, Non-WASP, non-straight, Other. Knight’s work is a powerful voice for all people who have experienced oppression; his work is daringly universal and forthright, and deserves a place among the top tier poets.

His poetry is also characterized by its depth of understanding, as evidenced here:

A Wasp Woman Visits a Black Junkie in Prison

By Etheridge Knight

After explanations and regulations, he
Walked warily in.
Black hair covered his chin, subscribing to
Villainous ideal.
“This can not be real,” he thought, “this is a
Classical mistake;
This is a cake baked with embarrassing icing;
Somebody’s got
Likely as not, a big fat tongue in cheek!
What have I to do
With a prim and proper-blooded lady?”
Christ in deed has risen
When a Junkie in prison visits with a Wasp woman.

“Hold your stupid face, man,
Learn a little grace, man; drop a notch the sacred shield.
She might have good reason,
Like: ‘I was in prison and ye visited me not,’ or—some such.
So sweep clear
Anachronistic fear, fight the fog,
And use no hot words.”

After the seating
And the greeting, they fished for a denominator,
Common or uncommon;
And could only summon up the fact that both were human.
“Be at ease, man!
Try to please, man!—the lady is as lost as you:
‘You got children, Ma’am?’” he said aloud.

The thrust broke the dam, and their lines wiggled in the water.
She offered no pills
To cure his many ills, no compact sermons, but small
And funny talk:
“My baby began to walk… simply cannot keep his room clean…”
Her chatter sparked no resurrection and truly
No shackles were shaken
But after she had taken her leave, he walked softly,
And for hours used no hot words.

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Remembering Monica Hand

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Monica Hand’s powerful and unique voice will be an enduring one through her poetry. In her own words: “My best poems express ideas concerned with civil rights and the human condition and do that in a way that the energy of the poem is felt in the gut, the heart, the throat and the head.” Sadly, she passed on December 15, 2016, unexpectedly and much too soon. She had published her first poetry collection in 2012, nina and Me. She was already an award-winning poet, despite having begun her writing career relatively late, and had almost immediately been recognized as an important voice, having discovered, through study and travel, much information about the African Diaspora, those displaced from their homes by the slave trade. Her poems deal with and recognize that, honoring those who had been treated with such dishonor, and raising the painfully real awareness of that history and its need for honest dissemination.

Wounding Corpus

By Monica Hand

This body – its muscles and its bones
its sagging milk glands no use as fare,
slightly curved back and arthritic knees
no good for carrying. Lost vessel.
Here resides asylum & dangerous
thoughts, capillaries of grief & greed
equally measured. A load like skin,
just like the mammoth’s, I cannot keep
myself cool. This body walks inside
bodies of wounding diction, a fit
inarticulate in its meaning.
To disappear, these unstable bones
rustle across continents, crippled,
a senile beast stuffed into a box.

And here is an ekphrastic poem, one that finds in this iconic painting a greater truth that goes to the heart of justice, a place where art, beauty, and transcendence itself can be applied to the human condition. To, as the poet herself put it, “heal traumas of the heart and the spirit” and to “resist injustices.” Now we are becoming painfully aware of how much we need her voice, still living in her words.

Water Lilies

By Monica Hand

—after Monet

I watch the light change its many colors.
Here, from my little boat on a little pond,

sky, clouds, algae, weeping willow without
edges, no horizon just changing light.

The mutable landscape floats round leaves.
To hold light in a frame is for the bourgeoisie.

Who would try to possess the water’s surface?
Who would flatten prisms of changing light?

Today I’m green. Tomorrow I may be white.
It’s all the same. Light is more than one color.

Black is an invention of man. Colors change,
close up and from the bottom of the pond.

Day-by-day, night-by-night, I see
my visions shift in the light, ever-changing

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