Follow Gary as he shares poetry from Mainers of all backgrounds.
Follow Gary as his shares poetry from Mainers of all backgrounds. The poems will be released monthly in Notes from an Open Book, the MHC’s e-newsletter, and collected below.
April – Zainab Almatwari
“April is National Poetry Month, and we celebrate it with a poem from Zainab Almatwari. Zainab came to Maine from Basrah, Iraq and is a sophomore at Westbrook High School. This poem was first published in the Telling Room’s 2017 anthology, Sparks. On April 10, Zainab will be reading at the State Theater as a part of the Telling Room’s Show & Tell: A Literary Spectacular.”
The Transform Plate Between LA and Sacramento
1. Transform Plate
Mrs. Fernald taught us in our Earth Science class
that there are three different kinds of plate tectonics
The transform plate, or the transform fault, is one of the three
That plate is between LA and Sacramento
Where two lands move apart
and the result is a new land
That is what happened to me
2. A Rock and A Hammer
The big rock that was in my way between Iraq and the U.S.
was my grandma
The hardest thing was leaving her behind.
She was the rock
but she was also the hammer
She said:”I trust you. You can do it. Just go.”
3. A Small Fox
I used to be a small fox
I always had that sneaky part of me
that sneaks into the serious one
that part that told me to leave my goals
and do whatever I like to do
but after a while
that building a better life
does not happen by doing whatever I like to do
but by everything I want to do
I can do it like a lion
and go right for what I want
I expect from myself to draw the roads that I want to walk on
all the cars, even the O2 that I breathe
I expect from myself to see, hear, touch, feel, and smell
I feel the reflection of myself as I can touch it
My new self gave me the pen to draw a street
that connects London, LA, Tokyo, and New York
In my fox self
I thought those cities weren’t mine
I thought each city was for its people only
My fox self was like a city in Antarctica
No name, no people, no feelings
My parents pictured me as the recycling of their hopes
but with the goals of a mind independent and trusted
They saw me as the finder not the searcher of their lost moments
but I expect from myself more than people do
High dreams but I believe and I know
that I am going to reach the top
even if I am short
6. The transformation
I left the small fox in my backpack
She was the dictionary of my life
She was my Google Translate and my bad words
She was the hand that touched me through the continents
7. Altitude 39,000 Feet
I came with a heavy mind
full of dreams
goals and thoughts
I thought about the Latin numbers
the Greek government
the top of a triangle
the pictures of the tracks
the scary swarms of bees
I tried not to think about anything
while I was thinking about everything
Everything was pretty important for me
8. The Lion
I love my lion self
even if I close my eyes and walk in the main street
even if I say no while everyone says yes
even if I tell my sister “Don’t talk to me for ten minutes!”
but I come back and give her my favorite highlighter
I love myself
I love me as a lion
March – Joseph Coleman
“Our March 2018 poem takes us onto the ice, to the smelt shacks. Author Joseph Coleman is from Augusta, and divides his time between Maine and New York. This poem is from his first book of poems 45 degrees North Latitude. His poetry can be found on his website, where you can hear this poem read by actor Jeff Daniels.”
The frost-heaved road lined
with cord on cord of wood
weaved down to River Bend Smelt-
Camps. The office had a roaring fire;
sixty dollars to fish the tide
in a little tin smelt shack.
An old man held out two packets
of bait; sea-worms sprinkled with seaweed
rolled loosely in wet mud-
stained paper towels.
“The key”, hacked a toothless woman
hunched in a corner, taking deep drags
off a Doral Gold, “is to cut the bait
into tiny pieces; change
the bait when the bait turns white;
change the bait, that’s the key!”
Ignoring her, the old man said,
“Start with two turns up from
the bottom and stagger the lines.
Try one six feet below the ice.
Did you bring a knife to cut the bait?”
“The key is to change the bait”,
the old fish hag cackled.
“Change the bait,change the bait!”
echoed from her corner as we made
our way out onto the ice.
A row of twelve smelt shacks,
with steep peaked tin roofs
and walls of torn black tarpaper,
followed the natural
bend of the river.
At the base of each shack,
hay bales, cut in the golden salt
marshes of late summer,
rotted into relentless mood
shifts of the ice. Pulsing
inside each shack, rusted iron
wood stoves crackled hot
with dry white pine and beech.
Each side of the floor had a trough
of open water, emerald-green
water, like the brackish
water off Porters Landing
in summer – diving deep into
cold black, arching spines
to a sun-shafted surface….
Hung above each trough, a row
of six strings and sharp hooks
wrapped neatly around wooden pegs.
I cut the bait.
Not your dignified earthworms
used for catching brook trout
in the excited waters of early spring,
but filthy mud-worms
from the flats,
with hundreds of squirming legs.
The rusty knife the old man
lent me tore them into small
chunks, squirting blood everywhere.
I baited the tiny hooks,
staggering each one
with different turns
on the pegs.
Drunk men down the way yelled
“Smelts! Smelts on! Smelts on!
they’re runnin’ boys! They’re runnin’!”
followed by hoots and yelps….
but there were no smelts running,
there was no action, there was nothing
but deep booms and moans
from under an aching ice,
bruised ice heaving
from a rising tide,
anxious ice from a nervous
breakup of a tilting earth.
February – Spindleworks poets
“February’s poem, a Valentine poem, is a group poem by the poets at Spindleworks, a wonderful community of artists at the Spindleworks workshop and gallery in Brunswick. This poem is from their book ‘Spindleworks Journey’.”
Draw an apartment house
and paint it blue and white.
Give it yellow shutters,
open them and see better.
See the flowers growing.
We give you a yellow parrot
with a green beak singing “Beak! Beak!”
Feel happy with it
and cuddly and warm.
We give you ginger tea
with a little bit of milk.
We give you the Rockettes,
the singing dancers.
We send you to Hawaii
and have you take it easy.
Go swimming with hula dancers,
dance with a mermaid
and wear a straw dress.
Get married! Get married to your honey.
If your honey won’t marry,
go to Hollywood, be a singer,
a singer like Texas Red or Johnny Cash.
We give you a red rose.
January – Karin Spitfire
“Karin Spitfire is a poet, dancer, and book artist in Belfast. She currently runs a letterpress studio at Steel House in Rockland. This poem is printed, with permission, from 3 Nations Anthology: Native, Canadian & New England Writers, edited by Valerie Lawson and published by Resolute Bear Press in Robbinston.”
I tried to lie on the crumbly
red granite of Passamaquoddy Bay
to listen, to join the great flowing
currents, rip tides, whirlpools,
to embrace the St. Croix,
Cobscook, reversing falls
lean into the curves thru Sipayik,
longed to paddle the grand lakes,
around Motahkomikuk, Spedneck,
undo the arbitrary lines
But the pink granite of Penobscot Bay,
the resonant slow thunk
pulled me back to the high rounded nubs
leapfrogging across it, Schoodic,
Cadillac, Megunticook, my hips
molding more easily around the
archipelago protecting the Passagassawaukeag,
Naskeag and Brooklin, my blade
recognizing the Upper West Branch rills,
Chesuncook, and the long flow
out to Isle au Haut.
December – Mike Hicks
“In the early 1990s I spent two years co facilitating, with Julie Johnson, a weekly drop-in writing group at the Preble Street Resource Center in Portland. We published a book of writing from that group, called ‘Words from the curbs,’ and this poem is from that book.”
When Billy turned five and started school
the teacher asked “What do you want to be when you grow up?”
and these are the things that Billy didn’t say:
I want to be a junky and a dope addict.
I want to get married too young and
beat my children and my wife.
I want to sell my body to perverts
in the park for twenty bucks or crack cocaine.
I want to live on welfare, food stamps,
and be a burden to my fellow man.
I want to beg for quarters
so I can buy some beer.
I want to sleep under bridges
and have young punks call me a bum.
I want to stay in shelters
and slowly go insane.
I want to drink cheap wine
and puke and piss my pants.
I want to eat in dumpsters and soup kitchens
and smoke cigarettes that I find.
I want to be called lazy
and be shunned by so-called gentlemen.
I want to smell of unwashed skin
and grow to hate my fellow man.
I want someone to kill me
for the things that I’ve become.
I want to be called a loser,
a vagrant and a bum.
The things that Billy did say
are irrelevent, because he’s dead,
killed by the hero of the town.
Mike Hicks is a poet and artist, now living in the Pacific Northwest.
November- Terry Grasse
Uncle Sam! Uncle Sam!
Do you know who I am?
I’m one of your veteran sons.
You sent us to a war
in Vietnam, a war that
could never be won.
Uncle Sam! Uncle Sam!
Do you know what I need?
I’m home from the war
but my wounds still bleed.
Uncle Sam! Uncle Sam!
I’d be better off dead.
The battles are over,
but rage on in my head.
Uncle Sam! Uncle Sam!
Do you know, do you know
who I am?
Terry Grasse is a visual artist, poet, and a veteran of the Vietnam War. He lives in Lisbon Falls, Maine.
October- Robert Gibbons
“Robert Gibbons is a widely published poet, currently living in Waterville. For twelve years he lived and wrote in Portland where one critic wrote that he was “in the process of sacralizing Portland, lodging it in the imagination of readers, as Williams did for Paterson, Cavafy for Alexandria, Joyce for Dublin.” This poem is taken from his collection “Animated Landscape”, published in 2016 by BlazeVox”
“Moose was Whale Once,” Said Old John Neptune
In this way
I’ve been out to sea
the past couple of months
recording imagined travels across
Atlantic, Aegean, Mediterranean, Pacific,
& Adriatic waters, ports as diverse as Heraklion,
Nantucket, Okinawa, Venice, & Boston.
Hard to fathom
the years-long whaling
voyages Ishmael alludes to,
or the five-long years father
spent his youth on military transport.
No, hard as Hell to fathom that.
When I do
it’s the difference
in the scent of distant
ocean, & smell of air above
earth comes strangely to mind.
The longing there. In the distinction.
So it comes as a surprise here
near the end of the Logbook that
Thoreau steps in as a guide back home.
In his posthumous publication, The Maine Woods,
he records a trip up to Old Town, meeting the Penobscot
Governor, eighty-nine-year-old, Old John Neptune,
who recalled when moose were much larger than
in Thoreau’s time, that in fact, according to legend
down near the Merrimack a whale swam in,
& as the tide went out, stranded, the whale
stood up & walked on land, “Moose was
whale once,” said Old John Neptune.
Were I to identify with that
it’s again the distinction of the scent
of the air in the distant sea, for whale
& sailor alike, & air above land for moose
& his trek from the Merrimack, which I’ve trekked
along, & his migration all the way up to the forests of Maine.
I take a deep breath, where both earth and sea air circulate,
give thanks to Thoreau for recording that story,
& guiding me back to Port.
September- Mihku Paul
“Mihku is a Maliseet writer and visual artist who grew up on the Penobscot River. This poem is from ‘Look Twice: The Waponaki in Image and Verse’- a one-woman mixed media installation she mounted at the Abbe Museum in 2009. The poem is also included in her book ‘20th Century PowWow Playground.’ A StoneCoast MFA, she lives in the Portland area.”
The Water Road
All journeys begin here, Madawamkeetook, home,
beside the good river, rocky at its mouth.
Stone shards, bone stratum
buried deep, our ancient cenotaph,
Old Meductic Fort, traceless memorial.
on the shores of Wolastoq.
Now St. John.
The naming taken, baptized in ink and parchment.
They say he knew water transformation;
it gives life.
A thousand years and more, we paddled
the Old Meductic Trail; the water road.
Nomads, they called us,
citing “most ancient evidence” of our passage;
“the solid rocks have been furrowed
by the moccasins of the native tribes.”
A signpost, our chalcedony flesh.
Blue veins you call Nature’s highway,
the map flowing inside our bodies,
the Thoroughfare; Chepneticook lakes to
Mattawamkeag and onward to the Penobscot,
where a girl became a woman.
Her body craves the past.
Its water seeking the cool flow, ancestral memory,
where tributaries meet, flooding
undernourished roots that cling to her edges,
eroded year by year with forgetting.
Remember Meductic and the Water Road.
Birch bark, chert and bone melded with riverbank clay,
merging in the rippling shallows where canoes slide,
silent, among water lilies and pickerel grass.
August- Ekhlas Ahmed
“Ekhlas Ahmed came to Portland from Darfur at the age of 12. She attended Casco Bay High School and the University of Southern Maine. She now teaches at Casco Bay High School while working on a master’s degree. This poem is from a longer series of poems about her journey.”
It’s quiet in Darfur. It’s not the silence of peace, but it’s the silence of death.
My homes that once carried histories of generations are now burned ashes on the
ground waiting for the wind to blow them to their final destination.
My mothers that were once leaders of their communities are now used as war
My sisters that once had chances to be future leaders are now afraid to see the sun.
So I speak for them.
I speak for the thousand mothers who have been speaking forever but there is no-one
I speak for the thousand girls who want to speak but don’t have a voice.
I speak for the thousand children of Darfur because they can only speak in silence.
I speak so they can be heard.
Because I feel their pain.
When I was a little girl I used to cry
but only in silence
never showing my parents my tears
not even my siblings, or peers
because they told us if you showed people your tears, it meant you were afraid
it meant you were weak, it meant you were powerless
Yes I was young, but I knew I wasn’t weak, and I knew I wasn’t powerless
I had and still have a weapon
A voice that once it’s heard, demands attention
A voice that doesn’t only speak, but repeats
So I will speak so they can be heard.
July- Sharif Elmusa
“When Naomi Shihab Nye gave a reading in Augusta in April, she was asked who her current favorite Arabic poet was. Her answer, immediately, was Sharif Elmusa – a poet originally from Palestine, but now from Arrowsic, Maine. Sharif has twice read at Gulf of Maine Books for our ‘Hummus and Poetry’ evenings. He says that I am turning him into a Maine nature poet, and this poem is from a ‘poetry walk’ I lead at Beech Hill Preserve in Rockport.”
As I walked up the path
of Beech Hill Preserve
I kept thinking of the snail of Issa
climbing Mount Fuji,
till a sharp stone warned my left foot
Don’t step on me, else you will trip.
As far as the eye could roam the land
was many shades of green
flecked with red and yellow, white and blue,
was countless kinds of trees and shrubs,
pine and oak, spruce and maple,
raspberries, blueberries and honeysuckle;
with their mouths pressed to the ground,
they blossomed and multiplied,
without gadgets, despite the pompous popish names,
Populus grandidentata, Pinus strobus, Quercus prinus.
Lichen is the language of granite,
said the guide.
Only the trunks of trees
seem to grasp this tongue.
This is why I was overjoyed
to hear the whispers of the little wood-lily
I am in full bloom,
therefore I am,
or the fog that crowned our walk
and veiled the lake and mountains
declare, as if it were an oracle
After I lift,
and I lift when I please,
don’t think what you SEE
is what you see.
The future stirs where the chipmunk hides
in the secrets it hoards.
Sharif S. Elmusa
First published here and in Mizna: Prose, Poetry and Art Exploring Arab America, vol 17.2.2016
June- Kifah Abdulla
Kifah Abdulla is a poet and artist living in Portland, Maine. Originally from Iraq, he served in the Iran-Iraq war and was a prisoner of war for over eight years. This poem comes from that experience. It is reprinted with permission from his book of poems: Dead Still Dream.
I dreamt of a small window
Through it flows clean air
Looking over a blue sky
White clouds travel through it
Flocks of birds pass by like air
I dreamt of a small window
The size of my hand
Overlooking a sea
My eyes travel in it
Into distant waves of blue
The yellow sun comes
Awakening the morning
And the night comes, inlaid with light
A window into which the snow whispers
Suspend in it, the moon and the rain
Into it flow the colors of autumn
And in spring, the fragrant buds
A small window, in which I count
My mornings and my evenings
Nesting in it are my memories
I cultivate in it lush dreams
I dreamt of a small window
The size of my hand
I look from it to see my sweetheart
When she comes from afar
She waves to me
That she is coming soon,
Carrying between the folds of her heart
A small window overlooking
Onto the rest of a new age
I dreamt in a place where
My one and only dream was,
And all that I wished for
Was to have a small window
The size of my hand
May- Ellen Flewelling Holt
“This is the first poem in the first anthology of poems I helped put together from Spindleworks in Brunswick. We published that collection in 1991. I really was trying to learn what it was like for an adult not to be able to read, and Ellen (who has passed away since the book came out) helped me to really feel it.”
I would like to learn to read.
I know one thing I can’t do. Read.
It’s hard for me when I can’t read.
What would I do if I got lost?
I wouldn’t know where I am.
I wouldn’t know what street I was on.
That’s what I want. I want to learn
so I can read signs.
If I could read, I would know
what the signs say.
I could read a newspaper.
Read a book, read the Bible.
Read a cookbook, recipes in a cookbook.
I could put the right things in the recipe.
Tell what size my clothes are.
What size shoes I wanted.
Maybe if I wanted a teddy bear
I could find out how much it costs
or if I wanted a record
or a blouse.
I could find out when the movies are.
I could do that
if I could read.
Ellen Flewelling Holt
from Spindleworks Journey,
edited by Gary Lawless, published by Spindleworks, 1991