The Innisfree Poetry Journal
by Remembering Ann Knox
It is said that writers' private lives don't matter; only the work matters, especially with regard to writers like Philip Larkin whose private lives are said to have been something less than splendid. Our dear friend Ann Knox, however, was a writer for whom the life and the work were one. Ann's poems live in the natural world she loved, steeped in its colors, sounds, and shapes, and they incorporate human relations as one more element of the canvas, reminding us that we too are in and of nature and that the way we relate to one another, in family relationship or in friendship, is very much a part of the ebb and flow of the pleasure and grief and death of this world. "To Get Lost" is an example of her work in this vein:
To Get Lost
If you go into the woods expecting
them to find you, they probably will,
but if you want not to be found, become
a wilderness, hold still as a lichened boulder
or let kudzu take you in as it did
the abandoned cabin in the draw. Tendrils
slithered up walls until no one remembered
a house was there—hand-hewn chestnut logs,
cracked windows, green light in an empty room
where cabbage roses peel like continents from a map.
Once you are gone, after a brief wondering,
they become accustomed to your absence and skirt
the vines tenting the hollow. Safe now
to inhabit your secret place, you learn
the floor's tilt, the shadows' daily path,
you befriend the black-snake that goes forth
into daylight and returns shining, warmed by sun.
When voices draw near and pass by—
lovers' low talk, a quarrel—you listen,
not to words, but to your own silent question:
Do I wait for footsteps to approach my door,
for a click of the latch, for someone to come?
Ann was one of the most admirable and amazing people I've ever known—strong, self-sufficient, empathic, as open-minded as a curious child, an eager participant in deeply honest conversation.
Ann's poems appeared in many journals, including Poetry, Green Mountains Review, and Alaska Quarterly. She published a book of short stories, "Late Summer Break," and three full-length collections of poetry, "Stonecrop," "Staying is Nowhere," and finally, just this past April, "Breathing In," from which she was reading in Berkeley Springs when she was felled by a stroke at the age of 85 on May 10, 2011.
A gifted teacher as well as writer, Ann taught at the Writer's Center in Bethesda, the University of the District of Columbia, Johns Hopkins University, and the Antioch Writers' Workshop. She also served as editor of Antietam Review for 18 years.
As a Foreign Service wife, Ann spent twenty years overseas in such embassy postings as Moscow, London, and Karachi. She was the mother of six children, including Joanna who, as a young girl, died in an accident in 1965. Ann's extraordinary series of poems for Joanna includes this one:
There is no grace in this still landscape,
no generous ferocity of birth or gentling here
where twisted candles of cypress pierce
white sky, where light corrodes and wire-
thin shadows underlie squat stone.
I cannot see her face, but her hair slides
through the brush, a brief brown current
that curves as a stream curves over a log.
Her clothes on the floor hold the shape
of running, and on the wall her drawing—
a riderless horse, mane flying—stretches
in wide strides across the empty paper.
Nothing moves on this gradual gray road
edged with dusty mullein, glare flattens
the jut that gives rock-ledges sheer
and boulders substance. My fist holds the sun.
Light cannot free shadow nor stones
claim their mass, no wind breaks the field's
surface, no poppies stain the wheat again until
my hand opens to the pain of losing pain.
More Poems by Ann Knox
The horizon of far mountains blues
to a distant edge, comely but irregular,
one range over-lapping, weaving
with the next and each rank fainter.
Then another strand, thin as an ink
drawing—a Dutch landscape seen
across water, but for three windmills,
the town barely a swell on the horizon.
And akin but not quite congruent,
a braided river crosses and re-crosses
a wide valley, its twisting current
combing eel-grass in slow green waves.
It's not a round exactly, nothing as precise,
nothing as orderly, but echoes of each
strand plait with bird song, wind-
hush, heartbeat and the body's thrum.
So this is what it looks like, the place we live,
so much green—woods, hayfield, pastures—
a curving river but straight lines jar the eye,
fences, four-square barns, houses.
A cow path meanders over open land flowing
with the hill's slope unlike the road that slashes
across flats, severs the ridge and follows
a grid line that denies earth's swell and hollow.
And there, the edge of land, beach and shore
break in ever smaller fractals, and beyond
the green shallows darken to blue and indigo,
no lines imposed, but for the man-built jetty
that cuts the sweep of the current's littoral flow,
yet the sea stirs, shifting to its own rhythms:
laws of gravity, wind, wave-action, and the tide's
restless change. Nothing we control.
How Things Work
I like to know how things work, see
how one part connects with another, how
force applied changes what it contacts.
One winter night I filled a can and set it
on the porch, by morning the seams
had split and I learned water expands.
When I twist the handle, a wheel
turns slatted gears and blades
shave my pencil to a perfect point.
I miss the clock's circling hand, the shadow's
slow creep around the dial. This off or on
allows no flow, no gradual arrival
as when evening brightens, pink to rose
and for a moment holds before the long draw
toward dark, as when the key I hit lifted
a shaft, a backward G, that righted itself
by pressing ribbon on onion skin; and so
I wrote that farewell letter on my Remington.
For the First Time
For the first time a ray of sun catches
the half-peeled orange on the kitchen table
as the dog clicks across the floor,
her tail fresh-matted with burrs.
Here in my armchair, wearing red sweater,
red slippers, I think this is happening
now, for the first time: the clock ticks this
tick; the one before has already gone.
I push a stray hair from my face,
skin brushes skin but I'm uncertain
if my hand or my cheek registers
the slight, almost not, touch.
Peach, eider, petal, the silk slip
I wore under my wedding dress,
the first time was not silk but denim,
and fingers, not mine, touching, searching.
That was long ago, it's better to take in
the bleat of the trash truck backing, to note
the linger of last night's curry and the fly
on the window sill smoothing its wings.
All this is happening now and is essential
to what happens next, so pay attention,
you won't change anything but you'll see
the world as new, strange and ordinary.
Through the kitchen window fogged by steam
pines dim in mist, the marsh and sea beyond
dissolve to nothing and I know unseen stars
inhabit the day but appear to the eye only
from a well so deep all ambient light is lost.
What a small circle lies within our compass
but the mind stretches to where a gull strains to lift
oil-heavy wings, where a woman gives
dry suck to her child and a village smolders.
What can I do with happenings I never saw,
images lifted from a screen and made mine?
I never breathed the stench of rotting bodies
or watched a cow struggle in a flood's down rush,
the farmer helpless on the bank. No I am here,
where the curtains stir, troubled by an in-breath
of rock roses. I turn to fill a blue bowl with cherries
and wipe mist from the window. Fog still blanks
the sea's curve where an unseen tanker crosses
the edge. The helmsman, intent on the radar screen, barely
hears the foghorn bleat through nothingness where the captain,
the crew, the ship's cat and all the rest of us,
will one day disappear.
It's a leather change purse void of coin,
a silo awaiting harvest, the cup
that hangs on a twig by the spring.
I say emptiness yet my mind fills
the cup with cold water. It's not
an edgeless idea I want, I want a story.
Give me a pen, a page and I'll give you
an abandoned farm house, a rocking chair
left on the porch to sway with the wind.
But that's not emptiness, it's me
tossing words, telling a tale, trying
to catch what exists but has no shape.
A flick at the eye's edge
and it's gone.
It was probably nothing,
but no, it was
grass blade bent by an ant,
some slight thing.
The absence hovers
as a wisp in empty sky
that mass together rising
in bodiless hills.
Lint under a bed draws
dust to itself and if
we let be a glint of sun
on blue iris or a word
or flute note, something
will take shape
and might matter, might
Keep to the Simple
The clean line of a garden spade satisfies
the eye or a T-square or the hump-backed curve
of a glacial drumlin rising from the marsh.
Out of the syncopated roil of piano and drum
a single reed-note escapes up
and up, clean, solitary as a coyote call.
A ruined abbey's stone bones (walls
destroyed by zeal, healed by lichen)
stand stark and lovely in a green field.
But people are not simple, the hermit aches
for company, a mother's pride is tainted by envy
of her daughter's new body, new grace,
and happenings are layered. You meet a lover
and are late to pick up your child. In the hurry,
you drop your purse and take a wrong turn.
But then, a single moment can hold—a crow
balances on the wind, space fills the valley
and sudden silence opens around you.
Reading the Tao te Ching at Eighty
I'd heard of it of course, but had never entered
and like the lone watcher in an old scroll
looking up-stream to the narrows, I am awed.
Mist fills the emptiness between mountains
and the churn of many streams braid
from the great basin beyond where they say
the land opens into wide green stillness.
It's late now to push past the rapids,
and I'm not sure that hinterland is where I want
or need to go. Odd that need and want
still tangle at my mind's edge; I expected
age to clarify uncertainty. Years ticked by,
tasks were finished, children gone, now what?
The Tao says nothing needs doing.
I'll pause here on this moss bank and watch
the water's ever-changing swirl, the hiss and suck.
No need for names, plans, questions. I am eighty,
sun warms my back, the river slides on.
The Tao, Ragged & Common as a Stone
Yes, yes, I know, a single drop of rain
shuddering on a fern leaf is a path
to understanding the universe.
But there's company coming.
I haven't dusted the living room,
and the chocolate mousse is not yet made.
I'd like to stop and watch
the drop collect, its silver tremor,
the sudden letting go. But
the kitchen clock ticks on, the radio
blares—bombings, traffic, a Yankee win.
I crack an egg on the bowl's rim and let
the white slide from the ragged half-shells.
I set aside the yolk with its red speck of life
and drop the broken bits into the compost crock.
The Opening of the Tao te Ching
The Tao that can be told is not the Eternal Tao.
The name that can be named is not the Eternal.
As a girl I'd lie in the meadow doing nothing,
wanting nothing, watching clouds gather,
shift, melt into blue, and sensed a beyond.
Then I learned: mare's tails, thunderheads,
mackerel sky and imagined the wisp, the swish,
or rippled blue of fish lined in the market
Later, cirrus, cumulus, stratus
opened another way to look at the sky. But
the Tao isn't about clouds or fish or meteorology.
I read it to find something, but what? Something
that keeps pulling away, changing the way mist
streams up the mountain flank, melts and is gone.
Enough. I close the book, open the door,
and step out into the morning—cold, clear,
with spruce standing dark against empty blue.
What I Like about the Tao te Ching
Book of the Way, the title translates—assured
as a green mile-sign on the interstate. But the Tao
supplies no maps, gives out no mantras,
requires no action but to look, to see.
I like that, paying heed to what's here—
the hollow pressed in grass where a deer lay,
the in-curve of a scallop shell, the empty bowl
an old woman by the Metro holds in her lap.
I doubt I can follow the Tao. Old habits
of judgment, hoarding, wanting to end uncertainty,
these don't fall away, but gather howling
against the edgeless threat of an uncharted road.
I line on the window sill a fox skull,
compass, stone axe-head from a Utah canyon,
beach pebbles, dim now, uninteresting.
Each object fits my palm close as a tight-
fleshed Baldwin apple that grew by the marsh
where I used to walk the tide-line collecting
cork floats, shells, a roll of twine.
My brother found crab traps, a barrel,
but I passed by what I couldn't carry.
Later big things accrued—cars, houses, family.
I tried to keep them contained, the garden tidy,
but hollyhocks grew wild, children spread
into trees and meadows, storm-waves broke
over the seawall salting the ground.
Though this cabin is spare, I still like
hand-sized things, but have learned there's nothing
simple about fissures in a skull, nothing slight
about a tool's curve or compass needle's swing.
A child drops her doll down the stairwell
listening for the satisfying thump, she lets
sand sift through her fingers, feels the weight
of the cat in her arms
and becomes familiar
with an unseen force. Then she learns the word
gravity, learns it holds her ground-bound,
holds the ocean in place
and this new knowing
tilts her world, changing how she reads a raindrop
fattening on the window. She still waits for the sudden
but now dart and startle
have a named cause and a new strangeness opens—
the draw of thing to thing that reaches beyond
moon and sun and can bend the light of stars.
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