Notes Toward a Personal Mythology

Wednesday, December 09, 2015

(Answers to Nine Questions from Sandra Simonds’ Book The Sonnets)

1 .  There is a six-week-old infant in my lap.  I haven’t yet woken up from the epidural or from the whole birth experiment experience.  The first few days I don’t even change his diaper—his father does.  I stand to the side.  I look.    

At eight weeks, I become more alert.  I lay the baby on the bed and read him some Frank O’Hara poems.

2.  My son is two, and he calls apartments “compartments.”  I’ve sat alone cross-legged in compartments all over the East and the Midwest, in a posture of repose and tempered anxiety.  I chose at least two of my apartments because they reminded me of tree houses,  one in Philadelphia and one in St. Paul.  Compartments, I mean.  Both were also haunted.  

The last time I had a skylight, though, I was 15 in Heidelberg.  My mother had rented us a two-story compartment in a large converted barn by the Neckar River.  I sat on my bed in a Benetton sweater watching snow swirl above the skylight, thinking something like, “This is (my) life.”  

Once we had lived in a converted garage in the home of my grandmother and grandfather.  My mother was 18.  I was an infant in swaddling clothes.  No one could have imagined where we’d go from there.  

3.  All I see on the mantle are (a) the free Xmas tree boughs from Home Depot; (b) a picture  I bought at Taliesin (Frank Lloyd Wright’s house in Wisconsin); (c) a vase from my carpenter ex-boyfriend; and (d) a framed photo of my glamorous Myrtle Beach grandmother, two children in Catawba College cardigans trailing behind her, thinking thoughts of their own.

(a)    I asked for a wreath and he brought home free Christmas tree branches.
(b)    We didn’t get to tour Taliesin, as we arrived as they were closing.  I was in Wisconsin camping with three Midwesterners who spent the weekend very drunk.  Alarmingly so.  (This is (my) life?)
(c)    He bought the vase at the Walker Arts Center.  That was nice of him.  If slightly impersonal.  No, nice.  I still like it.  (“Why are you so critical?” he said.  “There’s something wrong with you.”)
(d)    “I always hated the beach,” she said.  “So much sand.” 

4.  My core has gone missing, is something you may think in the months after giving birth.  My abdominal muscles have collapsed!  We love you get up. 

5.  My college boyfriend loved the movie Tucker with Jeff Bridges.  He had a shirt he called his Tucker shirt.  He imagined himself into the role of a 1940s entrepreneur who pitted himself against the companies and lost.  It was everything I loved and didn’t love about him.  His inscrutable fascinations.  Tucker?  Yes, Tucker.  

6.  I believe I took one ice-skating lesson.  I remember at some point in middle childhood standing on ice and being told to straighten my spine by imagining a string coming out through the top of my head like a marionette.  A curious image, mixing agency and ... puppetry. 

7.  My lava has gone missing.  Well.  It’s in there somewhere.

8. Here’s a clue:  Thirteen years after “us,” I dream that I am yelling and yelling at you for being married but having a girlfriend. Well, first I am yelling at the girlfriend, but then I revise myself.  I turn to her and say, “Really, women must stick together” and begin yelling at you instead.  Later that morning, I text you to tell you about this dream.  

9.  What have I done to push you away?  What haven’t I done.  

That Was November (A Dispatch)

Wednesday, December 02, 2015

 1 .
Six years ago we came to this same landmark.  The sun shone too brightly in our eyes.  A stranger took our picture.  We’ll never know who.

Two year-olds say things like,

What’s your sister’s name, Daddy?

Where did your grandfather go, Mommy?
(He’s dead.  He died.)
Did he go to Las Vegas?  Do we all go to our Las Vegases?

Look at what I have.  A horn of plenty.  There is plenty here. 

The therapist pauses for a long time.  I’m beginning to think that he, too, is confused.

When I walked out the front door this morning, I found them staring at a spot in the grass.  Last night we thought it was a cricket.  But he leans down and picks something up, a small machine, a black rectangle smaller than our toddler’s hand, wires coming out one side.  It makes a small, steady sound easily mistaken for a cricket noise.  He sets it back down.  

Image of myself walking back into the room at a family gathering, slouching and bouncing a little, like Steve Martin as a Czech brother on Saturday Night Live.  I say in a bold and sing-songy voice,  “I just wrote a poem.  If you want to be impressed.”  A wild and crazy guy.

I have different ideas about what I could achieve during a lunar cycle. 

Let’s just say that all this talking is giving me a headache.  Or let’s just say it’s my own posture, my own fascia, my own uncertain musculature.

November 10th

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

(I'm writing some more dispatches in November.  I won't post all of them, but I will post a few.  Here's one.)

An Education

I've stood in front of the best art in the best museums of the Midwest with my little brother, having driven him there and installed him in front of pieces from a variety of periods in a variety of media, all in the interest of developing his mind.  Contemporary Mexican baroque at the Walker.  Sculpture gardens.  Portrait rooms with eighteenth century courtiers etc.  We stood there, still and taking it in-- face of youth, ridiculous clothes-- and I said to him, "That's you."  When he visited me in New York City, I continued my work, taking him to the Poetry Project for the James Schuyler tribute.  Or, no, it was the Jack Spicer tribute.  The Met for the Temple of Dendur.  (I lived perched on the upper edge of Manhattan the, moping around Inwood Hill Park at dusk for my desultory version of exercise, back when I thought that was safe.)  This is Thai food on the Upper West Side.  This is Central Park.  Ethiopian food.  This is the face you make on the subway.  On one visit, I took him to the Cloisters, and he made me German tart with Italian plums from the market.  In that one convenience store near NYU with the obscure Japanese candy, he ate ice cream with pieces of corn in it.  Cursed me for taking him to a very slow Jim Jarmusch movie.  Like, even more slow than usual.  We peered through a locked gate in Soho at some kind of David Byrne installation.  Listen, I took my role seriously.  In a lavish room at the Frick, again we stood in front of a young nobleman of some kind, huddled there, unable to giggle in such a close atmosphere.  But anyway, that is you. 

The Long Game

Friday, September 11, 2015

by Todd Colby and Joanna Penn Cooper

Fridays are always good for me.
On Fridays I could be a grifter because
people trust me on Fridays. Everything
is always right there on my face, like
the flaky piece of a croissant I ate yesterday.

Long stretches of time get away from me
and then I'm in it again. The golden chain 
of forebears, and me in genie pants on a 
palanquin. It's ok, honestly, it's really ok.

When I woke up and got your message, we
were buying tickets for Paris. It was going to
be April, and I was trying to decide if that 
was too cliche. In dreams, begin dreams.
Still waters turn green in the sun.

Is a beautiful day a luxury? I watched it with
a few others from the cheap seats. The sound
was a little distorted, but it was such a refreshing 
change from my old roost under the mesquite trees.

In the old days, we used to hang out in the flesh. 
This is how I remember it, anyway. Someone is always
leaving or getting taken away, that's my statement
of artistic purpose in a nutshell.

Sustainable Effort

Monday, August 17, 2015

(by Todd Colby and Joanna Penn Cooper)

We all wish to awaken on a day like today
and just smear unguents, which is a fancy way
of saying "smell the coffee."  Wake up, wake up 
whisper-hisses the figure in the corner.  He's there
every morning.  On good days he reminds you of
Keith Richards, but with thicker thighs from pushing
a mower up the hill in the backyard year after year.
Next week I will sleep better and un-ruin my life
because I read about how to do it online.
Hire someone to tie you into a sleeping bag
with Boy Scout knots. I'm always so close to really
being free of almost everything that bothers me.
And then your face is always there.  It's a pleasant face,
but it's always there. Thanks for holding down the fort.

I've been revisiting Rukeyser this morning

Monday, June 29, 2015

Then I Saw What the Calling Was

All the voices of the wood called “Muriel!”
but it was soon solved;    it was nothing, it was not for me.
The words were a little like Mortal and More and Endure
and a word like Real, a sound like Health or Hell.
Then I saw what the calling was    :    it was the road I traveled,
    the clear
time and these colors of orchards, gold behind gold and the full
shadow behind each tree and behind each slope.    Not to me
the calling, but to anyone, and at last I saw    :    where
the road lay through sunlight and many voices and the marvel
orchards, not for me, not for me, not for me.
I came into my clear being;    uncalled, alive, and sure.
Nothing was speaking to me, but I offered and all was well.

And then I arrived at the powerful green hill.

                            --Muriel Rukeyser

April 30th

Thursday, April 30, 2015

Eleven More Poems for Poetry Month

Thought: "71 poems.  One for each year of my life." 

A minute later: "Wait." 

On Sibling Day, I wrote my brother, "Happy Sibling Day.  What should I write a poem about?"  And he wrote, "That time you showed me The Exorcist in Philadelphia." 

When my brother was 12, he visited me in Philadelphia.  I was 28.  We walked around the city, and he picked up every rubber band he saw.  I read to him from Alice's Adventures in Wonderland.  One night a fire alarm went off in the building that was so loud I was frightened, but he slept through it while I went down to the lobby to reset the alarm.  I was wearing the bumblebee boxer shorts I sometimes slept in, and a man about my age gave me a surprised look when he came in the building.  I realized later that all my hair was sticking up.  My brother drew a cartoon of this when I told him about it the next day.  One night we watched The Exorcist, and then he had to stand outside the bathroom door while I peed.  Cats were yowling in the alley.

I don't know what to say about haunting anymore.  I've moved too often and maybe lost the ghosts.  The Haunting of American Literature is a class I once taught.  The return of the repressed.  The sins of the fathers.  This year, we are still there, in the 19th century, having figured nothing out.  Haunted, I guess.  But some word more visceral than that.  Abjection, the grotesque.  But in real life, not literature.

Questions of volition become central at this time.  I'm thinking of toddlers now, and stay-at-home mothering.

"an energetic through-line"

Which of my boyfriends would not sit with their backs to the door and why.   Because of Malcolm X.  Or because that's what you do if you're a warrior type.

An email from "Move Loot":

Half-moon bookcase: $50
Gunmetal Table: $75
High-Society Dining Set: $1800
Butter Bean End Table: $75

Elias says, "Mama has blue eyes, Elias has brown eyes, Dada has brown eyes.  Mama has brown hair, Elias has brown hair, Dada has blackish hair.  Mama has pink eyes, Elias has blue eyes.  Mama has a black pagina."

"Urgent journey toward an important message":  Sometimes reading a poem can make a person feel less alone in her own head, as when I read James Schuyler on the subway in New York.  The brain has an amazing amount of plasticity is what I would tell a depressed person now.  I'll tell it to myself. 


I quit.
The ghost is sleeping.  

April 29th poem

Wednesday, April 29, 2015


April 24th poem

Sunday, April 26, 2015


April Poems

Monday, April 06, 2015

As I have done for the last several years, I'm writing a poem a day in April for NaPoWriMo.  This year, my poems are over at Poetrycrush, along with poems by J. Hope Stein, Lauren Hunter, Bridget Talone, Lina Vitkauskas, and Christine Kanownik.  Happy April!

Come On

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

(For Todd Colby and Jennifer Lazo.)

Mostly a person who walked around with a smile plastered on her face would be assumed to have something wrong with her.  Except maybe Carol Channing.  Even so.

In my town, certain people have obtained orange vests for the purpose of staying safe at intersections when they are begging.  This is cheaper than feeding, clothing, or housing them.  It has the added benefit of making them feel conspicuous.  Some of us are men and some of us are women.  Sometimes we are metal or diamonds.  We are all people.  Hungry and wanting.  The more "cheeky" among us sometimes forget this.

I no longer have favorites.  Desire and delight and fatigue fade in and out like a scrim at a play your mother took you to.  What is being hidden and what revealed is something I could ask myself.  Two things I could ask.    

My small son wakes up and walks to the living room to sit in a box, saying, "All aboard."  Calling after his father in the morning, he says, "Be safe.  Don't be upset."  He stops in the middle of breastfeeding to stick out his hand and say, "Nice to see you." 

A Wolf in Clothing

Tuesday, March 03, 2015

(a collaborative poem with Todd Colby) 

Certain things will cheer you up:
Holding a pencil between your teeth 
to make a sort of grimace, breathing
cool air through your nostrils, or simply
sitting down when everyone around you
is standing up. I've been practicing austerity 
but there are things I might want later
like a knife fight with a Boy Scout
or maybe a simple dinner with someone
named Virna in Uruguay. I'm multitasking 
as I write this, eating crackers and crying a little.
I'm pretty sure this house is haunted. At least
I have that comfort. At least this headless snowman
leaning toward me in early March tells me 
Florida seems like a pretty awesome place to live,
mostly because of NASA.  Florida is so Florida,
but then so is every other place.

Late February

Monday, February 23, 2015

1.  "I shall not pass this way again."  --William Penn

2.  A child in white.  A tug on the foot.

3. Boots in the mud, then a bird call.  Lifesong pull in the chest.

4.   The child places a sticker depicting a cat as a little girl over a puzzle piece depicting a ship.  "The woman is going on the ... ship."

5.  People who are most themselves.  Their excitable hair.  

Two collaborative poems

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

by Joanna Penn Cooper and Todd Colby

Peacock Crossing

We have no photographic evidence of our time together, save that one picture of you looking stunned at the border. You always were so fussy about your papers.

Quest for Consideration 

My quest for consideration began on a damp
bed. I knew from the smell of the room that it was
a Saturday. Sometimes you want a drink first. Other
times you find yourself crawling through it
all stone cold sober. You or I, it's all the same.
Did I ever mention The Rolling Stones in a poem?
Exile on Main Street is a lovely record. One of us is
Mick Jagger to the other's Marianne Faithfull. I mean, 

it's possible Mick has had his heart really broken once or twice,
but you'd never know it from the way he moves his hips. 

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