My maternal grandmother, Mernie Daisy Lewis, wrote the first poems I remember hearing. They were epics that today serve as a record of her family history. Because she acknowledged and affirmed my creative efforts, she was the most important influence on my early life. I am certain that my interest in poetry began with her.
I was born in Walla Walla, Washington in 1943, and moved to the country outside of Empire, California in 1955. As a child, I always lived on farms and enjoyed exploring nature, riding horses, and playing with my cats, guinea pigs, chickens, ducks, and geese.
It was a natural for me to pursue a career where I could learn more about nature and its processes, then communicate these wonders to others as a teacher. My college studies began at Modesto Junior College (MJC) where my passion for studying biology was piqued by Dr. Nathan Cohen’s enthusiasm for understanding the workings of living things. I credit him for sending me on a path of life-long learning in biology, as well as an interest in the Galapagos Islands.
I began my teaching career as the first woman scientist hired by MJC. During my 33-year tenure I taught biology, marine biology, human physiology, and tropical ecology field courses. I led many field trips throughout California and Central America, believing that if people could just get to know their environment, they would cherish it as I did.
In 1970 I was active in bringing about the first Earth Day Celebration to MJC to raise consciousness in the community about our local and global ecosystems. I also helped to bring other community colloquia to the campus on such topics as “The Other California,” “Origins,” and “Feminism.”
It was my college dream to double major in English and Biology. The time involved to accomplish laboratory classes in physics, chemistry and biology, combined with English literature requiring as many as 16 novels plus 4-5 papers in each class proved to be overwhelming, so I put my English literature and poetry on the back burner. That all changed in the spring of 2001, when I retired from teaching and was able to turn my attention to the writing of poetry. MJC instructors and poets Lillian Vallee and Sam Pierstorff have been wonderful mentors and critical in the development of my poetry.
I began a second career as a volunteer scientist working to augment elementary classroom science programs on behalf of the Great Valley Museum of Natural History and San Joaquin County Office of Education. I wrote a science standards-based curriculum to study vernal pools and grassland ecosystems entitled Trekking the Trail of the Tiger Salamander and co-authored another curriculum entitled Trekking the Tuolumne River with Margaret Conquest-Gonzalez from the Great Valley Museum.
While volunteering at Salida Elementary School I have been involved in creating an outdoor classroom at Big Bend along the Tuolumne River through which students are meeting science standards by learning about the ecology of the Tuolumne River, participating in restoration of the riparian forest at Big Bend, and writing poetry as a part of the River of Words project begun by former poet laureate, Robert Haas. This work has helped me realize the truth of Garrison Keillor’s words, “Nothing you ever do for a child is wasted.”
Close observation, learned as a scientist, has been a helpful skill in creating my poetry. I write mostly about natural subjects, including characteristics of people, but sometimes feel compelled to use poetry as a vehicle to comment on disturbing current events.
Besides Lillian and Sam, my favorite poets are Pablo Neruda, Mary Oliver, Billy Collins, Ted Kooser and Stanley Kunitz. I am a member of the Ina Coolbrith Circle in Orinda, California and the Poets of the San Joaquin chapter of the California Federation of Chaparral Poets. I have published one chap book, Loose Energy: Poems About People, and individual poems in Quercus Review, Song of the San Joaquin, Rattlesnake Press, Poets Corner, and The Gatherings 8 Anthology of the Ina Coolbrith Circle. I live in Modesto with my husband, Dr. Richard Anderson, also a biologist.
In Stockton, California, cool Delta breezes
ruffle leaves of young sycamore trees
tethered to long poles, anchored to Earth.
But, darkness has fallen on Fallujah.
Moisture collects on the horizon,
puffs of visible vapor float toward me…gently.
Rocket propelled grenades blow
through Iraqi villages like hot desert sand.
Scrub jays, down from their perches,
probe soil searching for caches of acorns, pecans, almonds.
In Kirkuk, weeping women shrouded in black
search through wreckage of their homes.
Black cat crouches in vines of jasmine,
yellow eyes staring with wary look.
In Najaf young soldiers with bloodshot eyes
behind cement barriers, scrutinize traffic.
The stillness of this central California morning
is broken by the chatter of sorority girls walking to class,
backpacks swinging like pendulums.
In Baghdad a man is beheaded.
Published in the Quercus Review, Number Five, 2005
As a child, I remember Celilo Falls,
a break in the path of the Columbia River
where mountains of water crash over rock plateaus,
cascades deep into black basaltic canyons.
I marvel at the sight of Tribal Elders perched
on ancestral wooden platforms encircled with stick rails,
hanging precariously over roiling pools of restless wild salmon.
Coho, Chinook, Chum, Sockeye and Steelhead trout
dressed in red reproductive colors
with fierce hooked jaws, determined expressions,
snared in mid-air by nets thrust into the chaotic froth.
As an adult, I see only a remnant of Celilo Falls
now stilled by progress, rebar, yards of cement.
Tamed water stirs the whine of turbines,
provides power for our insatiable desires.
Drowned ancestral platforms lie buried in quiet water,
no longer provide aerial views of thunderous water
teeming with an endless stock of wild fish.
Instead, precious few salmon train into cement stairwells,
directed toward hatcheries, replacements
of ancient spawning grounds.
Tribal Elders, estranged from ancestral platforms,
fish from boats with long nets and sell fish, at a price.
IN SEARCH OF THE MOUNTAIN GORILLA
For Elizabeth Garland, a University of Chicago Anthropology doctoral student, who went to Uganda in March 1999 to study the effect of wildlife tourism on local people.
Black giants of upland Ugandan mists,
silver-backed males with sharp canines,
bare chests, brow ridges and sagittal crests,
guard females, babies and subordinate males.
Active at daybreak, groups wander and forage
on leaves, fruits and buds of bamboo.
Shy and quite mobile, the mountain gorillas
retreat to the jungle for mid-afternoon nap.
She didn’t see the mountain gorillas,
perhaps because they had seen her.
Black spirits of upland Rwandan mists,
wild-eyed males with grenades,
bare chests, red ribbons and bootless,
wield guns and machetes avenging the tribe.
Active at daybreak they wander and plunder,
killing, raping and burning the camps.
Hostile and mobile, these mountain guerrillas
retreat to the forest for counting their loot.
She didn’t see the mountain guerrillas,
only because they had not seen her.
Published in The Gathering 8: The Ina Coolbrith Circle Poetry Anthology 2005.
CHINOOK AND CHILDREN
On a cold foggy November morning
gurgling sounds of Stanislaus River water
bubble past Knights Ferry. Silvery silence is broken
as children arrive in two yellow bug-eyed coaches,
excited, animated but never cold.
I watch in amusement as kids fall out
from their metal boxes like lumps of chocolate,
scamper down the bank like squirrels
searching for acorns, when one screams
Eeeewwwww, there is a dead fish. Gross!
Delighted children seize a stick, poke the eye that can't see,
cautiously peer into the slightly open hooked jaw,
flip the now flaccid tail that once provided powerful leaps
against strong currents like deer vaulting over brush.
Suddenly you get the sense this Chinook salmon
is the center of the universe; millions of bacteria
convert the decaying carcass into a slimy smelly mass,
recycled into food for others.
Ernest Hemmingway would have delighted in such a catch,
but this lifeless form is destined for detritus,
the bottom of the food chain,
where we all find ourselves eventually,
even the children.
Dolce far Niente
(THE SWEETNESS OF DOING NOTHING)
sit by a window on a rainy day
watch Red-tailed hawks soar
observe Yellow-billed Magpies defend their nests
see Swallowtail butterflies extend their tongues
experience night sounds along the river
hear sweet Mockingbird music at dusk
feel cool evening Delta breeze
smell familiar odor of cooked tomatoes
gaze into dancing yellow-gold campfire
squeeze mud between your toes
taste saltiness of happy tears
embrace the softness of innocence
listen to children at play, musing of elders
touch each other with kindness
breathe in deeply, exhale slowly
be still and see what happens
For Anne Marie
Like puncture vine seeds
speckled brown, spiny-backed,
undulating storm spiders
ride the harmonics
of a tropical breeze.
Throwing, running, cutting,
Throwing running cutting,
glands crafting a geometry of delicate threads,
interconnecting communities of silk
made visible by back lighting, or soft mist.
Tethered to grass, leaf, twig, balcony,
crouched centrally in their silvery plane,
imitating dead leaves,
directing yellow mammary-like bumps
toward the light: Gasteracantha await prey.
Suddenly, dashed like Hawaii
during hurricane winds of Hele ulu ulu,
a mower severs all connections,
casting them adrift clinging to silken balloons
riding upward pulses of wild warm air.
Snagged on a shrub by delicate filaments,
anchored arachnids begin again;
Throwing, running, cutting,
Throwing, running, cutting ,
A delicate geometry of thread.
First Prize, Ina Coolbrith Circle Annual Contest 2004, Poems About Nature
Published in Song of The San Joaquin Anthology Vol. XVIII, 2005
Rosettes of slender silversword
curve upward, capture sunlight as it creeps
over the crater wall of Haleakala, the House of the Sun,
holding it like Maui, until darkness.
Nestled precariously on aeolian landscape
like spiny urchins bathed in waves of thin tropical air,
fragile roots push through rough red rock
anchor parabolic leaves, succulence made silver
by finely woven hairs drawing warmth to the core.
For twenty years or more these plants contain their exuberance.
With summer’s light most continue waiting,
a few bolt a phallic spear six feet upward,
multiple heads of small sunflowers dangle,
fringed with petals of tiny tubular rays,
radiant chorus of royal purple, golden yellow.
Flowering complete, withered stocks
stand surrounded by collapsed leaves,
hold onto dried brown flower heads
drop seed into harsh lava rock.
Published Rattlesnake Review 7, September, 2005
La Casa Neruda
Your house is like air floating on the hillside
at the top of a narrow steep road: La Sebastiana of Valparaíso,
full of light and colored glass of azul, verde, blanca.
A dark brown ammonite awaits your words,
written in green from the cloud chair,
nestled in the corner where you could admire the sea.
A carousel horse poses in the room
warmed by coals cradled in the fireplace shaped like an egg.
Your wooden desk remains surrounded by friends
including Walt Whitman, your "father" in poetry.
A cast-off blue porcelain sink never carried water,
only your admiration while writing in the den.
Stairs wind from floor to floor,
like the ascensors of Valparaíso but require no ticket.
Moist marine air swirls through many windows
caressing your senses, crisp and delightful.
Your bed, covered with squares of fabric held together with string,
rests below an African story board
displaying an Arabian folk tale in bright yellow.
Brass rings in the headboard carry your carousel of dreams,
bringing forth other dreams while you slumbered.
Colorful stone mosaics grace your wall and garden;
a red Venezuelan bird is motionless,
still suspended from the lamp over your table
where you drank Chilean wines from green glasses.
I arrive in a damp gray fog draping your garden.
I leave in brilliant sunlight, pouring through colored glass,
spilling over me.
Honorable Mention, Ina Coolbrith Circle Annual Contest, 2004, Poems About Journeys