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Writers Hands VI, Josephine Dickinson, Fitzgerald Theater, St. Paul, Minnesota, April 2007, photo © 2007 by QuoinMonkey. All rights reserved.

Writers Hands VI, Josephine Dickinson, Fitzgerald Theater, St. Paul, Minnesota, April 2007, all photos © 2007 by QuoinMonkey. All rights reserved.



Josephine Dickinson read her poetry at the Fitzgerald Theater last April, sharing the stage with her mentor, Galway Kinnell. She met Galway at a poetry reading at Morden Tower in Northumberland. She was drawn to his smile. They exchanged poems.

The first thing I saw was this lighted person. And then the smile. It’s an extraordinary smile; I don’t know of a smile that goes any wider. I think it’s related to the light. The smile and this light were combined.

Kinnell was so taken with her work, he introduced her to his editor at Houghton Mifflin. And that’s how they came to be on stage together in St. Paul, Minnesota in early Spring 2007.

After the reading, I bought Galway’s 11th book, Strong Is Your Hold. My friend Teri, a local writer and regular red Ravine reader, bought Silence Fell, Josephine’s 3rd. We stood in line and waited for the writers to sign their books.

When I wrote Ode to Galway Kinnell (We Are Not The Poem), Teri commented (Comment 6) that it was Josephine who inspired her most; she emailed two poems to me that night:


I remember more about Josephine (from that night) than Galway. How she was deaf, but became a music teacher. How she married that man that was so much older…wasn’t he about 90? How she wore the gloves and hat. How when we went up to have our books signed, she looked at us with deep gratitude. How her pace was so solid and grounded. That she was a sheep farmer. How her poetry made us all hold our breath.

Writers Hands VII - Trio, Fitzgerald Theater, St. Paul, Minnesota, April 2007, photo © 2007 by QuoinMonkey. All rights reserved.

The 45 poems in Silence Fell are set on Scarberry Hill, a sheep farm near Alston in northern England. When she moved there over 12 years ago, the Oxford educated poet, deaf from meningitis and childhood illnesses contracted at age 6, was in her 40’s. She fell in love with Douglas Dickinson, a local farmer with grown grandchildren, widowed and in his 80’s.

Josephine considered Douglas her muse. He still is. He died in 2004 at aged 92; she wrote Silence Fell. The book is divided into calendar months, starting with March, the beginning of a shepherd’s year. She still calls Scarberry Hill home and regularly visits the pool on the South Tyne which received Douglas Dickinson’s ashes.



December (Christmas Box)


We go feed the lambs. The wether
we were fattening for slaughter
is not there. I go look for him.
He lies apart. I stroke his head.
He stumbles to his feet. I drive
him to where the other lambs stand
and eat. He won’t look at the food,
stood with his back to them. He has
a look of profound disgust in
his eyes. We bathe the ewe’s feet. I
splash my eye. It stings. Snow swims in
shoals. We bury the lamb, go home.
We baptize him with a trickle
of water I coaxed from the stream
in a bucket. Stretched out and cold.
On the Horse Pasture, eyes open.
In the top far corner, on a
marshy piece of ground. Between the
stream and a marshy piece of ground.
With a crock of gold at each ear.
A rainbow hat to make a crock
of gold at each ear. A magic
dress for shepherding in the snow.
Gloves, striped green and blue. A velvet
and gold satin scarf. A magic
box of swords, a survival tool.
He lies apart. I stroke his head.


-from Silence Fell, poems by Josephine Dickinson, Houghton Mifflin Company, 2007



Where Were You When I Came In from the Evening Milking?


Where were you when I came in from the evening
milking?
Your chair sat empty by the fire, its cushion hollow,
And each room in the house was empty also.
Where were you?

You were not in any of the house’s rooms.
I looked carefully in each one.
And the window view each looked out upon was empty.
Where were you?

The mossy garden path stepped empty round
the corners of the house.
Thyme, ramsons, rosemary leapt in the breeze.
Where were you?

I thought I glimpsed you once in your cap, slowly
shuffling on,
face down, intent on the cobbles.
You did not see me — the light shone through and you
were gone.
Where were you?

I stood outside the house and looked in where a star
shone
from the west straight into the mirror.
I thought for a second you were standing there.
It was not you, it was the setting sun.


-from Silence Fell, poems by Josephine Dickinson, Houghton Mifflin Company, 2007



-posted on red Ravine, Wednesday, January, 9th, 2008

Read more about Josephine Dickinson in The Cumberland News article, Deafness gives poet the power of flight, 1/9/6 Josephine Dickinson

Listen to the whole Talking Volumes presentation at: MPR – Talking Volumes with Keri Miller: Two Poets Share the Stage – Galway Kinnell & Josephine Dickinson at the Fitzgerald Theater, St. Paul, Minnesota, April 12th, 2007.

Some research is from the Talking Volumes interview and excerpt, Kindred Spirits, by Sarah T. Williams (handed out the night of the reading). The full article ran in the Minneapolis StarTribune arts+entertainment section, April 2007.

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Curtains At The Fitzgerald, during MPR's Talking Volumes with Keri Miller, and Guests Galway Kinnell and Josephine Dickinson, April 2007,photo © 2007 by QuoinMonkey. All rights reserved.   

Curtains At The Fitzgerald, night of Galway Kinnell, Fitzgerald Theater, St. Paul, Minnesota, April 2007, photo © 2007 by QuoinMonkey. All rights reserved.


I pulled a Galway Kinnell book off the shelf last night while Liz was completing her take home final. We sat on the couch in dim midnight light, pecking at slippery keys. (One IBM. One Dell.) Breaking rhythm, I stopped to strum the pages of Strong Is Your Hold. The papery smell cut the air, and fused to April’s last memory:  Galway Kinnell, the color red, the Fitzgerald.

I had paged through Bones while doing research a few nights before. Galway jumped right off Natalie’s page. In the chapter, We Are Not the Poem, she writes about keeping your work fresh, and talks about seeing Galway in Ann Arbor, Michigan, when she barely knew who he was. He read his poetry; his poetry sang.

Fast forward 6 years later, to Santa Fe, New Mexico. He raced through every line. They were dead for him.

Natalie goes on to write about losing the danger in your words. About risk taking. It doesn’t matter if you’re not a poet. She is talking about writing:


It is important to remember we are not the poem. … The power is always in the act of writing. Come back to that again and again and again. Don’t get caught in the admiration for your poems. … Write good poems and let go of them. Publish them, read them, go on writing.

I remember Galway Kinnell when his wonderful Book Of Nightmares first came out. It was a Thursday afternoon in Ann Arbor. I’d never heard of him, much less could I pronounce his name. He sang those poems; they were new and exciting for him and a great accomplishment. Six years later I heard him read again at St. John’s in Santa Fe, New Mexico. He’d read that book so much in those six years that he was sick of it. He ran through the poems, put down the book, and said, “Where’s the party?” There was nothing dangerous for him in them anymore. The air was no longer electric.

It is very painful to become frozen with your poems….We constantly need new insights, visions. We don’t exist in any solid form. There is no permanent truth you can corner in a poem that will satisfy you forever. Don’t identify too strongly with your work. Stay fluid behind those black and white words. They are not you. They were a great moment going through you. A moment you were awake enough to write down and capture.

   -Natalie Goldberg, We Are Not The Poem, from Writing Down The Bones

Even the best writers sour, and spin their wheels. Don’t get attached to the work. Keep your writing fresh. Blogging is good for non-attachment. A fast-paced medium, it is here, it is gone. You don’t have time to get attached. You keep current. You keep practicing.

Back at the Fitz with my writing friend, velvet curtains to the front, circular stairs behind, I remember when Galway read. Strong Is Your Hold seemed new and fresh for him. Insomniac and Sex vibrated across the room. And in his poem for Jane Kenyon, How Could She Not, you could hear the pain in his voice. Passion and grief.


Hands Of Galway Kinnell, Chap. 5, Vol. 2, Fitzgerald Theater, St. Paul, Minnesota, April 2007, photo © 2007 by QuoinMonkey. All rights reserved

Hands of Galway Kinnell, Chap. 5, Vol. 2, on stage with Josephine Dickinson (l), and MPR’s Keri Miller (r), at the Fitzgerald Theater, St. Paul, Minnesota, April 2007, photo © 2007 by QuoinMonkey. All rights reserved.


The first time I heard Ode and Elegy was at a silent writing retreat in Taos, Fall 2006. Natalie read it out loud to us, each word blazing through the silence, “Wake up!” The second time was in the Log Cabin at Mabel Dodge in the December retreat. The careful attention to detail caught me clutching my throat. The poet sees in a certain way, hide-and seek between heart and mind.


Hide-and-Seek 1933

Once when we were playing
hide-and-seek and it was time
to go home, the rest gave up
on the game before it was done
and forgot I was still hiding.
I remained hidden as a matter
of honor until the moon rose.

  –from Strong Is Your Hold, Poems, by Galway Kinnell, Houghton Mifflin Company, 2006

I have come to love poetry for its beauty and starkness. Few words. Everything pared down to the bones. Chewy. Bare. Raw. I try not to hold on too tightly. We are not the poem. Don’t judge. Let pit-stained words soak through the pores. Let go.

Or clutch if you want to. But if you have to hold that tight, bolt from every cell like the hawk. Leave no jay feather unturned. No tamarack untapped.



Writers Hands, Chap. V, Vol. 1, Galway Kinnell, at the Fitzgerald Theater, St. Paul, Minnesota, April 2007, photo © 2007 by QuoinMonkey. All rights reserved.  

Writer’s Hands, Chap. 5, Vol. 1,
Galway Kinnell, at the Fitzgerald,
St. Paul, Minnesota, April, 2007,
photo © 2007 by QuoinMonkey.
All rights reserved.




Ode and Elegy

A thud. Shrieks. Frantic
wingbeats like a round
of soft applause.
The hawk jumps on top
of the jay knocked to the grass,
presses his wings to the ground,
digs his claws into the jay’s
back, strikes the neck
over and over, scattering
blue feathers. Then,
as easily as a green wave
in heavy seas lifts a small boat
and throws it upside down,
still afloat but keel up, so
the hawk flips the jay,
then tears at his throat.

A blue wing wrests itself free, flaps
like a flag saying i will fight you!
The hawk stuffs the wing
back down into place and
clamps it there with one foot.
Now jay and hawk stare
at each other beak to beak,
as close as Jesus and Judas at their kiss.
The hawk strikes, the jay struggles
to strike back, but his neck breaks, his eyes
shrink into beads of taxidermists’ glass.
The cere above the hawk’s beak
flushes hard yellow from exertion.

As a grape harvester trampling out
the last juices of grape, so the hawk
treads the jay’s body up and down
and down and up. He places
a foot on the throat and a foot
on the belly, flaps his wings
repositions his feet, flaps again.

He pushes off, clutching transversely
the body of the jay, which is like a coffin
made in the shape and color of the dead.

Much as in la decollage a l’americaine
of the Lafayette Escadrille, when
the pilots would gain speed only yards
above the tarmac, then haul back
on the joystick, putting their planes
into nearly vertical ascent, just so
the sharp-shinned hawk, carrying
his blue load glinting in the sunlight
low to the ground, now suddenly
climbs steeply and soars over the tops
of the Norway spruce and the tamarack.

   –from Strong Is Your Hold, Poems, by Galway Kinnell, Houghton Mifflin Company, 2006


-posted on red Ravine, Wednesday, December 12th, 2007

Listen to the whole Talking Volumes presentation at: MPR – Talking Volumes with Keri Miller: Two Poets Share the Stage – Galway Kinnell & Josephine Dickinson at the Fitzgerald Theater, St. Paul, Minnesota, April 12th, 2007

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