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: 

 

Holding Joanna

 

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

 

Fugue

 

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.



Air View


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.

 

 

Unseen

 

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.

 

 

Emptiness

 

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.

 

 

Taking Shape

 

A flick at the eye's edge

and it's gone.

It was probably nothing,

but no, it was

something—a moth,

bird-shadow,

grass blade bent by an ant,

some slight thing.

 

The absence hovers

gathering silence

as a wisp in empty sky

gathers droplets

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

change everything.

 

 

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.



Small Things

 

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.

 

 

Beyond Gravity

 

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

silver down-streak

 

                                    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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