Welcome to this Writers on Writing series, where authors share how they do what they do: Find inspiration, create drafts, make choices on how – and what – to add, subtract, revise. In this series, each author will offer insights into her creative process that we hope will inspire your own.
Ghost Whispers and the VoiceCatcher journal
by Tricia Knoll
At the age of 65 it seems odd to say I’m a new poet. I’ve recorded poems in my head since the age of 16. In the last three years, I have gotten much more serious about my process, but the inspiration – a couple of words or an image – always seems to come on like some whisper in the wind. I’m new in the sense of how much I’m learning, how much I’m loving the learning, and how much more I want to do.
“Tree Ghosts” appeared in the Fall 2012 issue of VoiceCatcher: a journal of women’s voices & visions:
Ancient winds caressed the kin corpse hoisted to the tree platform, offered to return where the sky bowl claims meteor showers and haloed moon. This morning a tossed-off plastic bag sticks high in a red oak, a tug-of-war chuffing kite, snagged in purgatory fettered to wood with roots, as unholy as it gets. What if I cat climbed, stuffed this tree ghost with weights unfit for pockets mother’s apron strings key to the blue house the twenty-five-cent milk tooth Ares and Scorpio wedding ring letters from the man I left the coarse black braid hacked off before her hair fell out and begged for breeze to blast that bag into my hoarding hands.
However tethered the tree ghost is in this poem, its images are securely tied down in my memory. Crossing the footbridge over the river in Ashland, Oregon while hurrying to see a play, I noticed the bare branches of trees hanging over the creek. One snared a plastic bag, ripped and cast-off trash that looked like it was going to stay there a long, long time.
Still hurrying, I remembered a friend with a house in Sisters telling me that just down the road from their cabin was an old native burial ground where corpses were mounted high in the tree platforms, a veneration of the dead.
I traveled the psychic distance between those two tree captives in several leaps. First, I saw the precious secretness of where we put treasures for safekeeping. Then sometimes chance, fate or luck deposits our cast offs elsewhere. I used a tree as a repository – like a child returning the acorn to the oak – out of my trust in the sanctity of rooted things.
The contents of the bag are mine – not valuable enough for safety deposit, but too rich with memory to recycle, destroy or toss in the trash. A very small church outside Truchas, New Mexico has a side room where people have offered up, for prayer and gratitude, remnants of healings and wounds – candles, dozens of crutches, infant shoes, casts cut from limbs – and one long shank of black braided hair in a place of honor on an altar. I can’t forget that braid or the story-building curiosity it spawned in me. At the time I guessed it must have come from a hair cutting, possibly a precious letting-go ritual, before chemotherapy. There are other possibilities.
I had help with this poem. The help of poets is a kind of fondle-stone, or what I also call a pocket rock, that we hold onto from the trip to some beautiful place we want to remember. “Tree Ghosts” was workshopped at a Colrain Manuscript Conference in Truchas. At that time its breath had mostly to do with trash caught in our brainwaves, our trees, our neglect of natural places. The reference to the tree burial was there, but not the specifics of my first wedding ring or my daughter’s tooth in my jewelry box. I spent several hours under an intense New Mexico full moon asking myself what was inside that hoarding bag dangling in the tree.
The editors at VoiceCatcher also recommended some changes. I eliminated three lines that were mere rants on wind-blown garbage. A suggested change of one word refined the list of my unfits for pockets, strengthening the emotional content. Having written this poem hasn’t allowed me to let go of any of these weights – and I’m not done with the shank of black, braided hair, that unknown. I’m grateful to VoiceCatcher’s editors for this opportunity.
Meanwhile, whispers keep coming. I carry tiny soft notebooks with me to write them down when they come. Fondlestones. Four Flames. The UnMoon. My Weary Sister. I’m not sure what experiences will bud forth from them – but I am grateful to trust that poems will.
Tricia Knoll is a Portland, Oregon poet. Retired after teaching high school English for one decade and doing communications work for the City of Portland for several more, she focuses on her gardens, tai chi, writing poetry, haiku and letters to the editor. Recent publications include New Verse News, Flycatcher, Elohi Gadugi Journal and Street Roots.