Today in the mail came news that the Redwood Coast Review is ceasing publication.
The newspaper accepted the poem below in 2006. “Rock Dove” was the fifth of my poems to make it into print. The kind letter from the editor, Stephen Kessler, encouraged me to treat writing as a craft, something to value, appreciate and improve. Since then, 72 additional poems have appeared in other journals with more, I hope, to follow.
Kessler rejected four more of my poems and then I submitted an essay that surprised him. It was a collage-like meditation on how childhood visits to the Library of Congress instilled in me a love of words. He and his staff carefully retained the shape of the piece which had blank space to conjure the cool hallways of the marble and granite building.
In the eight subsequent years, Kessler accepted five essays–one of which I withdrew–and he rejected two. He communicated by postal mail, writing letters detailing what worked and what didn’t, typed neatly in black and white. Through our correspondences, I learned to embrace my ability to see parts and the whole and not to be confused by this. I saw that prose and poetry are one corridor, like a road that changes from dirt to macadam to asphalt. With strong feet and the right shoes, I can traverse the different surfaces. Kessler encouraged me in translation when I discovered a little book of Blas de Otero’s poems in the Cleveland Park Library book sale room and heard in the pages the voice of an old friend I never knew. In a phone call, when I expressed feeling daunted by the task of moving Otero’s poem from Spanish to English, Kessler reminded me how fortunate we are to be able to do the work. I remember standing in the living room window holding the receiver to my ear, looking out at the finches in the bird bath and thinking, “I can at least try.”
When Kessler came to read in Sacramento in 2010, he asked the Poetry Center to include me. It was my third public reading and where I found out I like (okay, love!) to perform, to make people laugh and provide an opportunity for them to feel.
Without “Rock Dove” …who knows?
Recalling these experiences is a gesture of thanks to Stephen Kessler who has been an extraordinary editor for me, and a gesture of farewell to RCR which I looked forward to unfolding then reading accompanied by a cup of coffee or tea.
If you’re reading this and have worked long and hard on a poem, essay or story and wonder whether to send it out, do. “Rock Dove” went through several revisions over the course of four years before I stuck it in a stamped envelope addressed to RCR.
I’m a lucky person. “Rock Dove” came out of nowhere, I only had to open my palms to catch the words as they fell from the cloudy sky and string them in a glistening order. The poem’s story is not autobiographical. It’s not even a dream. It came to me when I was much younger, living in a beat-down town of oil derricks, farms too large to walk across and dry river beds where birds landed in desperation. I met generous, wise people who thrived in the bleakness like blue chicory. I moved away from that place with true promises to remain friends with those with whom I’d exchanged poems; I took “Rock Dove” with me.
At a small bookstore in the new town I picked up a free newspaper called Redwood Coast Review. The mix of poetry, translation, essays and news appealed to me and I sent the poem to the editor. The newspaper accepted the poem below in 2006….
The undersides of birds tell stories
sweeps of wings won’t reveal. See them,
soft vessels of heart and blood above
where you rest on your back in the hammock
beneath the walnut tree. Remember
holding a pigeon when you were small.
White mites crawled among gray feathers
as you stroked the bird with first and second
fingers together, digits forming a paddle
dipping into the dark lake of the bird’s breast,
holding with your other hand its heart, beating
faster than your own, sluggish with afternoon
heat, sweat dripping down the backs
of your knees as you looked around the field
behind the leased cottage for someone
to take the bird and save it.
You saw into the bird’s red eye,
the wrinkled membrane of its lid
closed, and opened. You ran back
to the white house with the slapping
screen door, the bird held in front of you
gently as a tray of china, to find a shoe box
and a jar lid of water. The ground feels
rougher when you’re running barefoot
across a field to the fence-line of a summer house
bearing a life in need of saving.