It doesn’t happen very often, but every now and then I read or hear about something and it strikes me immediately as something I must do. This happened to me in October 2020 – I was driving home, watching the road, probably thinking about the next thing I had to do that day and not paying much attention to the radio. I always have it on ABC Classic FM, and this day a song came on that cut through my thoughts and caught my attention. I don’t know why I noticed it – whether it was the music, the singing or the words – but I turned up the volume so I could hear it better.
The lyrics went like this:
Walking by flashlight at six in the morning,
my circle of light on the gravel swinging side to side,
coyote, raccoon, field mouse, sparrow,
each watching from darkness this man with the moon on a leash.
(You can listen to the song here.)
As you can see, the words are pretty simple, but I was spellbound – everything about the song was sublime. I waited for it to finish so I could hear what it was about, as I had an inkling there was a story behind it.
The singer was Dawn Upshaw and the song is part of collection composed by Maria Schneider. The lyrics came from a set of 100 poems by Ted Kooser, a US poet laureate, published in a book called Winter Morning Walks.
Ted tells the story of the poems in the preface to the collection:
‘In the autumn of 1998, during my recovery from surgery and radiation for cancer, I began taking a two-mile walk each morning. I’d been told by my radiation oncologist to stay out of the sun for a year because of skin sensitivity, so I exercised before dawn, hiking the isolated country roads near where I live, sometimes with my wife but most often alone.
During the previous summer, depressed by my illness, preoccupied by the routines of my treatment, and feeling miserably sorry for myself, I’d all but given up on reading and writing. Then, as autumn began to fade and winter came on, my health began to improve. One morning in November, following my walk, I surprised myself by trying my hand at a poem. Soon I was writing every day.
Several years before, my friend Jim Harrison and I had carried on a correspondence in haiku. As a variation on this, I began pasting my morning poems on postcards and sending them to Jim, whose generosity, patience, and good humor are here acknowledged. What follows is a selection of 100 of those postcards.’
The poems are beautiful in their simplicity and brevity, and even more so set to music.
Here are some more from Winter Morning Walks:
Just as a dancer, turning and turning,
may fill the dusty light with the soft swirl
of her flying skirts, our weeping willow —
now old and broken, creaking in the breeze —
turns slowly, slowly in the winter sun,
sweeping the rusty roof of the barn
with the pale blue lacework of her shadow.
All night, in gusty winds,
the house has cupped its hands around
the steady candle of our marriage,
the two of us braided together in sleep,
and burning, yes, but slowly,
giving off just enough light so that one of us,
awakening frightened in darkness,
How important it must be
that I am alive, and walking,
and that I have written
This morning the sun stood
right at the end of the road
and waited for me.
At the time, I hadn’t journaled for months because I don’t have the self-discipline to write in my diary every day – I’m not Helen Garner! I find journaling onerous, as it’s usually 11 p.m. before I sit to do it and trying to remember what happened that day and write it all down is hard. But hearing these songs/poems made me realise I didn’t have to write about my whole day, just capture a moment as Ted had done. By the time I reached home, I’d decided to do just that, and so I began to write a poem a day.
I made 4 rules for my project:
I just had to pick one moment, one detail from the day to write about – it didn’t matter how small or irrelevant it seemed.
The poems had to be at least 4 lines long, even if they were only one word lines. As soon as I had 4 lines, I could stop.
I was not allowed to worry about how trite or silly or pedestrian my words were.
I didn’t have to share them with anyone – they were just for me.
I wrote a poem nearly every day for 4months. Sometimes they were short and barely reached my minimum, but usually they were much longer. Some days, I wrote more than one poem. Other days, I wasn’t done with the thought and the theme continued over the next few days – a serialised poem!
Sometimes I wrote it into my phone at the time, but usually I waited until I was home. Sometimes I wrote by hand; other times straight into my laptop. Some days I did it first thing; other days just before bed.
What I found was that poetry helped my fiction, both directly and indirectly. I plagiarised a few of my own poems in my prose, inserted some of my phrases directly into my novel. My second novel has songs, the lyrics to which were provided by my poems.
Writing poetry helped my writing indirectly, too. It made me more playful in my prose – more experimental, more adventurous, more willing to use different words, try alternative ways of stringing them together, turning sentences on their heads. It also helped with rhythm – I think writers forget prose needs rhythm, too.
I noticed themes that I kept returning to – nature, motherhood, death and grief, my own insignificance in the universe, love. Clearly, these are things that interested, unsettled or comforted me, things I wanted to explore.
Probably the biggest thing writing like this taught me was to notice the small moments and tiny details within each day – the beautiful, the sad, the profound – and I saw how, even in four lines, it’s possible to make a big statement from something little.
Writing these poems led to me to keep a more regular journaling habit. These days, I use the prompt: ‘Today I’m thinking about …’ (thank you, Sarah Sentilles) and I usually write in dot points so it takes five minutes. (Sometimes my response is lengthy if I have something to get off my chest!) It’s kind of a mini-mind dump, in which I empty my head onto the page, clearing it for fiction.
I don’t write poems as often as I’d like now, only when inspiration strikes. Earlier this year, a friend and I shared one a day with each other for about a month. I subscribe to Poem a Day and Paris Review Morning Poetry (although it comes in the evening here), and although I don’t always have time to savour them, sometimes one speaks to me and is inspiration for one of my own.
I’ve become a huge advocate for poetry, clearly, and for playful writing, experimenting, having a place to write where you don’t have to worry about how bad the sentences are or how inane the subject.
Here are a few of my poems I’ve written as part of my Poem a Day series.
My son turns twenty in a couple of days
He wants Lego for his birthday
Just like he did when he was four.
Thank goodness, my heart says.
He’s still my child.
These musings are not just words
but paths to explore,
tunnels to the unknown,
shafts of light in the darkness,
preservations of the past,
escapes from the grey and mundane,
funnels for thoughts,
distillations of dreams.
Each word is a droplet
from yesterday and today,
so tomorrow I might understand who I am.
I read it in one sitting
all 386 pages of the trial transcript
and am reminded
of my anger
of thirty-plus years ago.
Most days, I don’t feel anger or even sadness anymore.
It’s just a memory
cushioned by time,
like a favourite photo,
folded within and held gently.
Most days I just remember a nineteen year old girl with soft hair and hazel eyes
and a gentle manner, like her dad,
but yesterday I was reminded of the day my sister lost her life
And of the man who killed her.
Each evening the sun sings
just to me
a golden tune
through a gap between the leaves
of a mimosa tree
outside my window.
Words ooze from my fingertips
on days of melancholy
But a day where nothing
is hardly worth noting.
Last night a planet eclipsed the stars
our celestial neighbour
named for the god of war.
It breathed and sighed
and my naked eye beheld
a winking jewel in the velvet dome.
A walk alone with my camera at
sunset meant taking my time and
playing with shutter speed and
aperture and ISO and
noticing the threads of a spider’s web and
the way the sun slanted across
the trunk of a Moreton Bay Fig and
the texture of the surface of the lake
without the tugs
of two impatient dogs.
Each word a breadcrumb
Dropped into sentence
Grafted onto back of last
Word, sentence, scene.
Breadcrumbs become trail
Becomes moment of
When story appears
A sprinkling of light from the torch on my head.
The dogs pant as we walk quiet streets still
warm from the day’s sun. Four lights, a voice
calls my name: the neighbours on bikes coming
home from the beach. Across the highway: bigger, newer,
squarer houses, neater gardens, trees garlanded
with lights. A large screen stares into a
vacant room, a woman frowns from a second
floor window. The Norfolk pines are
shadows against the tennis courts
and clubrooms. Even the sea is lit:
blinking red and blue stretches like an arm
from Fremantle to Rottnest. More lights:
flourescent ships wait on the horizon
under a cloudless sky.
The stars hide, unable to compete.
A car growls slowly past.
A man came home from school today,
suddenly taller and darker,
and I want to know where
the little blonde boy
I left at the kindy door
just a few moments ago
I write my life
on water that
ripples and flows
and holds the blood
of arrows and wounds
and the briny tears of grief
of a child and adolescent
I write my life on water
and as it grows and stretches,
changes shape and colour,
the clouds pass and light dances
on my reflection.
Walking after rain
everything washed green
including the soil.
The smell of mint
from leaves and woodchips.
The lake replenished.
I hear my grandmother’s voice,
Good weather for ducks.
The dogs tug at their leads –
time to go home.
The world holds its breath as a tempest brews
and I step away from the refresh button
and sit to read of a long ago trial
of a man who left a pub after a skinful of
beer and before his turn in the 8-ball
tournament so that when they called his name
he’d already gone, driving his car into
the one that carried my sister.
How different it might have been
if he’d waited for his turn instead.
She meets a friend
at a rooftop bar in the city
(She’s generally not cool enough for rooftop bars
or the city.)
They sit between
a table of young doctors
and a table of smokers
and drink French champagne
in the rain.
and talk about writing.
sit on the table
with their glasses
and their peace.
i met with school friends
from 36 years ago.
we journeyed back in time,
i never thought
i’d think of fondly,
but it’s strange how time
If we were gods I could say we met under a star-filled sky
and the constellations danced as we kissed,
transported by our breath and the silken touch
of my lips on yours. I could pretend that our days were
languid and molten, shaped only by us and the
sun on its daily arc of the sky. I could tell stories of
nights drinking nectar while wrapped in sheets of
silk and each other.
But that would be a lie. Because, really, we
met in a smoky bar with beers in our hands,
and you made me laugh and, a few days later,
my heart banged against my ribs when I saw you
waiting in the corridor outside the lecture theatre,
and you asked if I wanted to see a movie,
and we held hands as Hannibal Lecter
ate flesh and every day since then, my heart has
beaten only because you are beside me.
When I was a doctor
we were told to think of
horses before zebras but,
try as I might,
unicorns popped into my head.
I’m alien in this world and
most of the time it doesn’t worry me,
just sometimes when
I wish I had a twin.
I’m nearly 54 and I still
who I am
but I’ll spend the rest of my life
trying to find out.
We wed on this day twenty-six years ago
and our union was legitimised and sanctioned
by a god neither of us believed in
because ancient traditions and rites of passage
and a desire for ceremony and all that
led us to declare our love accompanied by organ and violin and
candles and incense and a priest in sacramental robes
who placed his oil-daubed thumb first on your forehead then on mine
and we joined the long lines of our ancestors
and underneath our feet the soil stirred a little as their bones shifted to make room.
the sound of her voice
made me cry
so familiar, it touched memories
that felt like yesterday
instead of 1986.
yet I alone am moved by the sound of her
singing, laughing, speaking,
there’s no one else who knew her.
I tell a friend I am sad in a message
and share the reason.
it has been read
with no reply.
I want her to mean as much to
someone as she means
someone with whom
I can share her voice
while I cry
here on my pity pot
I will never have.
Don’t worry –
I won’t sit here long.
Just one more
fuck to give
and then I’ll
even if it’s their fault,
I have a choice
to let them win
I’ll stand up
and get going
until the next time
I need to sit
on my little pot
of pity again.
I asked with everything I did not have
No words, just silence
I asked with everything I could not show
Yearning, desire, love
I asked with an ageing body I could not bare
although I still wanted to lie beside you
I could not form the words of my longing,
only stand in the doorway of the room
where you, tired from work, sat at your desk
in the dim light, writing reports
(After reading Sharon Olds, I Cannot Say I Did Not and written during a workshop with Sarah Sentilles)
Two years of wondering
when life will get back to normal again
has turned into wondering
if it ever will
Some days I find it hard to write
No words come
And some days, it’s not the words that are hard
But the courage to share them
Today I bought a
Paws & Claws 100cm Pet Sprinkler Water Splash Pad Dog/Cat Cooling Pond/Outdoor Toy
over the internet
for my daughter’s birthday
at her request.
As I pressed ‘Buy Now’
I kissed my money goodbye
I don’t expect much from a $10.80 toy
plus $12.95 postage
Still there are good things in this world:
the sound of rain on a roof
the gurgle of water in a stream
the warmth of sunlight on skin
the orange sky of sunset
Still there are good things in this world:
that you are here
and we are here
that we can hold each other
lie together each night
and wake side-by-side each morning
Still there are good things in this world:
the humans we created
the love they give
the art they make
the hope they bring
(After reading James Wright, Trying to Pray, and written during workshop with Sarah Sentilles)