Reading: Pattiann Rogers

34th Annual UND Writers Conference:
"Art & Science"
March 28, 2003

© 2003 Pattiann Rogers and the University of North Dakota

[Video of this reading is also available.]

[Please note, unless otherwise noted, poetry is presented with published line breaks:
for proper spacing and formatting, please consult printed source.]

Moderator...sustain the Conference, we're asking you at become part of the part of the history of doing that and to contribute or consider contributing 35 dollars for 35 years. If you want to contribute more, we would gladly accept it. If you want to cons- uhh cont- cont- contribute less, we would gladly consider that as a wonderful contribution also. So, please, whatever you can give would be greatly welcome, and you can make the contribution right outside the door around the corner out there, thank you.

Kim Donehower: Good evening. I'm Kim Donehower from the English department and tonight I have the pleasure of introducing Pattiann Rogers to you. I think the reason that Jim McKenzie asked me to do this introduction is because he not only introduced me to her poetry, but got to see my reaction when I first read one of her poems. Pattiann Rogers has an incredible ability in her poetry to explore the intersections of science, nature, religion, and the erotic. And, the poem in question is called "The Hummingbird: A Seduction," and I would put the emphasis in that one on that one on the erotic. It's an interesting poem to read in your boss's office at four o'clock on a Tuesday afternoon, but it was remarkable. And it lead me to very quickly read as, as many of her poems as I could. Her poetry has received acclaim from both scientists and poets which I think is a, is a really unusual and wonderful combination and all kinds of awards and prizes including at least four Pushcart Prizes. Her books include Song of the World Becoming, that's her new and collective poems, The Dream of the Marsh Wren, Fire Keepers, Splitting and Binding, Geocentric, and many, many other works. And I know that you will very much enjoy this reading tonight, and if she reads "The Hummingbird" poem when she's done, turn and look at the reaction on the face of the person next to you. I think uh, think that could be very interesting. So please welcome Pattiann Rogers.

[Audience applause]

Pattiann Rogers: Ok, I don't know how long I'm going to stand behind here, because I can't only ask you if you can hear me I have to ask if you can see me.


You know some voice waving up from the, behind the podium.

Thank you for coming out this evening, on this Friday evening in the cold and kind of windy and chilly out there. I'm going to read probably twelve poems, maybe. And I guess we'll have some questions afterwards if somebody would like to ask something. A friend of mine told me that he was listening to a radio station in Canada, and somebody connected with that radio stations had the theory that Americans will give an opinion on anything. Whether they've ever, you know have any knowledge of the issue at all they will always give an opinion. And so he was been going around the United States asking, crazy things like, "do you think Toronto should add a submarine to their to their navy?" [Audience laughs] Things like that.

And, he gets opinions from peo- [Rogers laughs] from people. Anyway, I'm kind of, you know I answer any question. [Audience laughs] Just about. Or you will get some response let me say that. I'm gonna start off here. For some reason the first poem I never know exactly what that should be. So, but, I'm going to start off with a poem that's kind of a spring poem because its about birth. And, we know that this kind of what spring hap what happens in the spring everything is growing and being born and coming up anew. And the title of this poem is "Opus From Space." It really began, you know poems come from lots of different places, but one of the origins of this poem was a little couplet some of you may know it.

Where did you come from baby dear?

Out of the everywhere, into the here.

And then I have to add that we have our first two grandchildren . Our first was born in September, and the second in January so we have two grandsons, now, so this poem is kind of for them too, I guess, cause I've been through two pregnancies and two births and two little new babies, within the last six months.

All right, "OPUS FROM SPACE"

Almost everything I know is glad
to be born—not only the desert orangetip,
on the twist flower or tansy, shaking
birth moisture from its wings, but also the naked
warbler nestling, head wavering towards sky,
and the honey possum, the pigmy possum,
blind hairless thimbles of forward,
press and part.

Almost everything I've seen pushes
toward the place of that state as if there were
no knowing any other—the violent crack
and seed-propelling shot of the witch hazel pod,
the philosophy implicit in the inside out
seed-thrust of the wood sorrel. All hairy
salt cedar seeds are single-minded
in their grasping of wind and spinning
for luck toward birth by water.

And I'm fairly shocked to consider
all the bludgeonings and batterings going on
continually, the head-rammings, wing-furors,
and beak-crackings fighting for release
inside gelatinous shells, leather shells,
calcium shells or rough, horny shells. Legs
and shoulders, knees and elbows flail likewise
against their womb walls everywhere, in pine
forest niches, seepage banks, and boggy
prairies, among savannah grasses, on woven
mats and perfumed linen sheets.

Mad, zealots, every one, even before
beginning they are dark dust-congealings
of pure frenzy to come into light.

Almost everything I know rages to be born,
the obsession founding itself explicitly
in the coming bone harps and ladders,
the heart-thrusts, vessels and voices
of all those speeding with clear and total
fury toward this singular honor.


It's a lot of work to get born you know.

[Audience laughs]

Everybody's working at it, and yet they say the doctor delivered the baby

[Audience laughs]

Oh, that's the one that gets me.

And I said to somebody, or one time I was reading that poem and it dawned on me that there was not a word in English, for the work, that the thing coming is doing. Cuz we always say it's being born, and yet it's working its way here too and we don't really have a word for that. Do we?

Anybody know? I mean, know? Birthing birthing? That's not really it either is it? The the action of the thing that's coming. The creature that's come oh. Anyway, somebody from uh, I think it was Poland, came up to me after that I said that once and said their was a word in Polish for that. But that doesn't help, too much if you're writing in English.

You know I, if you were, how many of you were at the panel that we did at noon today? Oh, dear. Well then you have to hear things repeated. I'm gonna write a poem, I mean write a poem? I'm I'm gonna read a poem that again came out of the vision that was given to me in an astronomy class that I had, a whole semester. Five hours of credit. It was an hour lecture everyday of the school week and a very impressed me to no end. And poems have come from that risen out of that class and this is one of them.


The cat has the chance to make the sunlight
Beautiful, to stop at it and turn it immediately
Into black fur and motion, to take it
As shifting branch and brown feather
Into the back of the brain forever.

The cardinal has flown the sun in red
Through the oak forest to the lawn.
The finch has caught it in yellow.
And taken it among the thorns. By the spider
It has been bound tightly and tied
Into an eight-stringed knot.

The sun has been intercepted and in its one
Basic state and changed to a million varieties
Of green stick and tassel. It has been broken
Into pieces by glass rings, by mist
Over the river. It's heat
Has been given the board fence for body,
The desert rock for fact. On winter hills
It has been laid down in white like a martyr.

This afternoon, we could spread gold scarves
Clear across the field and say in truth,
"Sun, you are silk."

Imagine the sun totally isolated,
Its brightness shot in continuous streaks straight out
into the black, never arrested,
Never once being made light.

Someone should take note
Of how this earth has saved the sun from oblivion.


Here's a poem that I think complements that one in some sense because, it has another vision in it about the earth and and th- and space and stuff. And, also, this is, this is a poem that we're, I tried to do something every once in a while and that is prove the existence of a higher being.

The title of this poem is: "IN ADDITION TO FAITH, HOPE, AND CHARITY"

I'm sure there's a god
in favor of drums. Consider
their pervasiveness—the thump,
thump and slide of waves
on a stretched hide of beach,
the rising beat and slap
of their crests against shore
baffles, the rapping of otters
cracking mollusks with stones,
woodpeckers beak-banging, the beaver's
whack of his tail-paddle, the ape
playing the bam of his own chest,
the million tickering rolls
of rain off the flat-leaves
and razor-rims of the forest.

And we know the noise
of our own inventions—snare and kettle,
bongo, conga, big bass, toy tin,
timbals, tambourine, tom-tom.

But the heart must be the most
pervasive drum of all. Imagine
hearing all together every tinny
snare of every heartbeat
in every jumping mouse and harvest
mouse, sagebrush vole and least
shrew living across the prairie;
and add to that cacophony the individual
staccato tickings inside all gnatcatchers,
kingbirds, kestrels, rock doves, pine
warblers crossing, crisscrossing
each other in the sky, the sound
of their beatings overlapping
with the singular hammerings
of the hearts of cougar, coyote,
weasel, badger, pronghorn, the ponderous
bass of the black bear; and on deserts too,
all the knackings, the flutterings
inside wart snakes, whiptails, racers
and sidewinders, earless lizards, cactus
owls; plus the clamors undersea, slow
booming in the breasts of beluga
and bowhead, uniform rappings
in a passing school of cod or bib,
the thidderings of bat rays and needlefish.

Imagine the earth carrying this continuous
din, this multifarious festival of pulsing
thuds, stutters and drummings, wheeling
on and on across the universe.

This must be proof of a power existing
somewhere definitely in favor
of such a racket.


I guess that proves something. Whatever. Uhuh thankyou. [Rogers laughs]

I got two claps out of that.

[Audience applause]

Oh, oh, [Rogers laughs]

Yeah, I thrive on applause.

[Audience laughs]

It makes me go home and write more poems.

[Audience applause]

[Rogers laughs]

Oh, thank you, thank you.

Oh, oh, boy, I'm going to have to work.

I'm going to read some poems about stars now, which I've always been interested in astronomy and and the night sky, and so I'm going to read some of those and it is it's been seeming more and more important to me, to see them. To see the night sky undimmed by human made light. Now, I'm thinking that here you probably have a good chance to do that. How many of you live, actually, live in a place when the skies are clear and there's no moon, you can go out and see the night sky full of all the stars? See you're very, very lucky. I was talking to an audience recently about this and and a woman from Los Angeles said, told me that she asked her young daughter how many stars she thought there were. And, her daughter answered, three.


So, I don't know if that's funny or sad, but I could certainly understand it. And, the last time that I had an opportunity to see the stars that way, I was just blown. I had forgotten. I had really forgotten they, them, that, how overwhelming that is to see that black sky so black and deep and covered with stars. And, our ancestors had that that experience available to them. Every night practically you know when the skies were clear and everything. And so we so rarely see it and it's always been a source of inspiration, if not inspiration a goad to contemplation of our selves and where we are and whatever the cosmology. The night sky filled with stars is always been something that has struck people with wonder. So, and, and then I read, and, and I'm going to get to the poem here in a minute, [Rogers laughs] hopefully, anyway, then I read that Van Gogh said in a letter to his brother, Theo. Here's what he said, I have I have a terrible need, dare I say the word of religion. Then I go out at night and paint the stars. And, and we have his beautiful painting "Starry Night." Praise all to that. So anyway, here go my, here go my star poems. And then when I get through with these three, then I'm going to read a poem. It's not "The Hummingbird," but, it's, you we're leading up to that.

[Audience laughs]

That's why you have to stick around. Cuz you got-

The first one I'm going to read is called "The Stars Beneath My Feet," because why would I write that?

Everybody knows, right? We think the stars are up there, but they're below the earth, too. You know the earth is floating and so we, we think we are looking up at stars, but they're all around us; they're surrounding us, and they're down below; they are a [unclear] and that's really, really hard to conceive. But it's the truth. All right.


Not the burrowing star-nosed
mole or the earth roots of the star-
thistle or the yellow star flowers
of star grass, not the fallen webs
and empty egg sacs of star-bellied
spiders, not blood stars or winged
sea stars tight on their tidal rock
bottoms, and I don't mean either
the lighted star-tips of the lantern
fish and anglerfish drifting
miles deep at the ocean's end
of their forever good night.

I mean those actual stars filling
the skies directly below me with ignited
hubs and knotted assemblies combusting
into the waves of their own momentum,
the same stars in kind as the ones
above—gaseous blue clusters of clouds
expelling hot superstellars, fusing
galaxy upon galaxy of old histories
and reverberations. Those stars.

Were the earth made of glass,
any of us could look down now and see
them speeding away deeper into their vast
eras of math and glory existing immediately
beneath us where we stand suspended.

Even while marsh rains slowly
fill the hoofprints of passing
deer, even while flocks of lark
and longspur fly across the evening
with accordion motions of fracture
and union, even while you, fragranced
with sleep, draw me close or send me out,
stars and myriads of stars possess
their places, surrounding us as if
their facts bore us upward from below,
sheltered us in matrices of invisible
canopies above, as if they graced us
with a balance manifest in their far
numbers extending away equally
on our right and on our left.
They are the designated ancestors
of our eyes created in the lasting
moments of their own dead light.
They keep us on all sides bound safe
within their spheres and apart
from that great dire and naught
existing beyond the measurable
edges of their established dominions.

That was kind of a long sentence wasn't it?

[Rogers laughs]

[Audience laughs]

[Audience applause]

Maybe this is what Mr. Disch was talking about the dread, the universe dread, if you were here at noon. But, I've learned a new term, cuz I say here "existing beyond the measureable edges of their established dominions," because I learned a new term the
"cosmic horizon." Is there an astronomer in here tonight? [Pause] Oh, good, I can tell you anything you don't know.

[Audience laughs]

I'm always afraid somebody's going to say, "no, you got that wrong"

The "cosmic horizon" is that point beyond which we can't see because light beyond that line has not had time to reach the earth yet.


Well, for whatever that's worth, then.

[Audience laughs]

This next poem, This next poem I'm going to read, is another star poem. And this is called "Alpha and Omega." And, and this one is about the fact that the star lights, you kno-, I know you guys know this stuff, [LAUGHTER ROGERS], I'm tell- tellin' you anyway, that the the star light is shining all the time, even in the daylight. During the day, but why can't we see it during the day? [Pause] All right. I heard sun being said. Cuz' because the sun is so bright, we can't see the stars that doesn't mean they're not up there and that they're shining just like they do at night. But we can't really, can't see them. We really have it there dimmed by the sun. So this is kind of about that.


Three black birds tear at carrion
in the ditch, and all the light
of the stars is there too, present
in their calls, embodied in their ebony
beaks, taken into the cold wells
of their eyes, steady on the torn
strings of rotten meat in the weeds.

Starlight pierces the sea
currents and crests, touching scuds
and krill and noble sand amphipods.
It moves so steadily it is stationary
through the swill of seaweed, the fleshy
shells of purple jellyfish.

And all the light from star masses,
from constellations and clusters,
surrounds the old man walking
with his stick at night tapping the damp.
The light from those sources
exist in his beginning, interwoven
with his earliest recollections—
phrase of cradle and breath, event
of balance and reach.

Light from the stars is always
Here, even with the daytime sun,
among cattle on coastal plains
and the egrets riding on their backs,
shining on the sky-side of clouds
and straight the fog of clouds,
between white fox and white hare,
between each crystal latch to crystal
in snow. It illuminates turreted
spires and onion domes of foreign
cities, enters the stone mouths
and grimaces of saints and gargoyles,
touches the mossy roofs of weathered
barns, insect-tunneled eaves and the barbs
of owls, and all sides of each trunk
and shadow-blossom of bee trees
and willow banks, filling orchards
and aisles of almonds and plums.

The starlight comes, in union
and multiple, as weightless
as the anticipation of the barest
rain, as the slightest suggestion
of the familiar voice sounding
in the distance. It is as common,
as fulsome as the air of the mellow
time with no wind. The light
of the stars encompasses everything,
even until and beyond the last cold
passing of the last cinder-bone
and minim of the vanished earth.


Ok, one more, one more star poem and then, there's gonna be a [Pause]

Middle of the night [Pause]

Well, I don't know what you call it

VISITATION poem which somebody just asked me to read before, before this reading tonight and told me that when he read that to his significant other, she said, I think I better sleep with you tonight, or I want to sleep with you tonight.

This is the last star poem.


I'm surrounded by stars. They cover me
completely like an invisible silk veil
full of sequins. They touch me, one by one,
everywhere—hands, shoulders, lips,
ankle hollows, thigh reclusions.

Particular in their presence, like rain,
they come also in streams, in storms.
Careening, they define more precisely
than wind. They enter, cheekbone,
breastbone, spine, skull, moving out
and in and out, through like threads,
like weightless grains of beads
in their orbits and rotations,
their ritual passages.

They are the luminescence of blood
and circuit the body. They are showers
of fire filling the dark, myriad spaces
of porous bone. What can be nearer
to flesh than light?

And I swallow stars. I eat stars.
I breathe stars. I survive on stars.
They sound precisely, humming in my nose,
in my throat, on my tongue. Stars, stars.

They are above me suspended, drifting,
caught in the loom of the elm, similarly enmeshed
in my hair. They are below me straight down
in the deep. I am immersed in stars. I swim
through stars, their swells and currents.
I walk on stars. They are less,
they are more, even than water
even than earth.

They come with immediacy. They are as bound
to me as history. No knife, no death
can part us.


[Audience applause]

So go out and watch the stars. And you know what, you don't have, you know, I get so tired of going out and into the outdoors, and then I have to learn this, and I have to learn that, and I have to know this name, and I have to know that, and I have to look at the stars and I have to know the constell—you don't have to know anything you don't have to do- you just just go out and look at them. You don't have to be able to identify Orion or Venus or anything. Just, of course, Venus is not a star you know.

[Audience laughs]

So, but anyway, I mean, just enjoy it. Don't worry about having to learn stuff. Ok.

Now this this poem is ver- pretty difficult to read, because it's embarrassing!

[Audience laughs]

But, but that I was asked to read it, so I'm going to read. And I just keep thinking why did I write this in the first person?

[Audience laughs]


Ok, ok.

This. I made that man behind this poem. The title of this poem is


And the title comes from an opera by Humperdinck "Hänsel and Gretel" do you know that song? Kay, cuz this kind of makes it a little easier to read.

When at night I go to sleep
14 angels watch
Watch do keep


Suppose all of you came in the dark,
each one, up to my bed while I was sleeping;
Suppose one of you took my hand
without waking me and touched my fingers,
moved your lips the length of each one, down
into the crotch with your tongue and up again,
slowly sucking the nipple of each knuckle
with your eyes closed;

Suppose two of you were at my head, the breath
of one in my ear like a bird/moth thuddering
at a silk screen; the other fully engaged, mouth
tasting of sweetmeats and liquors,
Kissing my mouth;

Suppose another drew the covers
down to my feet, slipped the loops
from the buttons, spread my gown,
ministering mouth again around the dark
of each breast, pulling and puckering
in the way that water in a stir
pulls and puckers a fallen
bellflower into itself;

Two at my shoulders to ease
the gown away, taking it down
past my waist and hips, over my ankles
to the end of the bed; one of you
is made to adore the belly; one of you
is obsessed with dampness; at my bent
knees now, another watching, at my parted
thighs another; and one to oversee
the separation and one to guard the joining
and one to equal my trembling and
one to protect my moaning;

And at dawn, if everything were put
in place again, closing, sealing, my legs
together, straight, the quilt folded
and tucked to my chin; if all of you
stepped back, away, into your places,
into the translucence of glass
at the window, into the ground breezes
swelling the limber grasses, into the river
of insect rubbings below the field and the light
expanding the empty spaces of the elm, back
into the rising black of the hawk deepening
the shallow sky, and we all woke then
so much happier than before, well,
there wouldn't be anything
wrong in that, would there?

[Audience applause]

All right, I don't think I better follow that with "The Hummingbird." It might be too much. We'll go onto some others and come back to "The Hummingbird."

You know, I was talking today at noon about what's meaningful to me about science is the story they're telling. And all the scientists kind of working together in a community to investigate in our physical surroundings and putting together and modifying the story about [Pause] our origins and the processes of life, and everything in the earth coming into being and then gradually disappearing. Not only the earth, but the universe too... stars being born and stars living through a cycle and then fading away. And because you know, we're all made from the dust of dead stars. [Pause] Ok, everybody knew that.

[Audience laughs]

And, and I had a friend who's little daughter came home from preschool and said, "Patti, you know what we're made of? We're made of the stars." [Rogers laughs] So, they're teaching that in preschool now.

[Audience laughs]

Anyway, this poem, you know, science is also telling us something about time, which seems important to us. And, so this is a poem about that, and, and I have to tell you a funny story about this poem. It's called "WATCHING THE ANCESTRAL PRAYERS OF VENERABLE OTHERS." And you know I live in Colorado, so we're on Mountain Time. And one morning, the phone rang about 7 o'clock in the morning. And I said hello, and this kind of an eastern sounding voice said hello, and I knew this was somebody on the east coast, who didn't know where he was calling. And thought it was 9 o'clock everywhere in the world probably that's the way they think on the east coast.

[Audience laughs]

[Rogers laughs]

Whatever is happening is not happening anywhere if it's not New York City. Anyway, so he said, we [like]- I thought he said he worked for a magazine called Trade Cycle, Trade Circle. And, he wanted to know he wanted permission to reprint this poem. So I thought is this something to do with the stock market? You know, trade Trade Circle? And, I thought well that would be good, if people on the Wall Street are starting to read poetry.

[Audience laughs]

[Rogers laughs]

So, I said, ok, you know cuz poe, I mean we try to give our poems away. You don't have to ask, just print it. Anyway, so, he said he would fax the form to me. So when the form came in, it wa- the tit- the name of the magazine was not Trade Circle it was TRIcycle.

[Audience laughs]

You know what that, how- who- knows what that magazine is? What is it? Yeah, it's a Buddhist magazine. So, I was a little disappointed actually cuz, maybe, you know maybe poetry had actually reached the, the stockbrokers. But no, ok.


Lena Higgins, 92, breastless,
blind, chewing her gums by the window,
is old, but the Great Comet of 1843

is much older than that. Dry land
tortoises with their elephantine
feet are often very old, but giant

sequoias of the western Sierras
are generations older than that.
The first prayer rattle, made

on the savannah of seeds and bones
strung together, is old, but the first
winged cockroach to appear on earth

is hundreds of millions of years
older than that.

Every time I read that I think, why that can't be true, cockroaches that old! But it's true, I'll keep lookin' it up and it's tr-. [Pause] Winged-cockroaches. Hundreds of millions of years older than that.

A flowering plant
fossil or a mollusk fossil in limy

shale is old. Stony meteorites buried
beneath polar ice are older than that,
and death itself is very, very

ancient, but life is certainly older
than death. Shadows and silhouettes
created by primordial sea storms

erupting in crests high above
one another occurred eons ago,
but the sun and its flaring eruptions

existed long before they did. Light
from the most distant known quasar
seen at this moment tonight is old

(should light be said to exist
in time), but the moment witnessed
just previous is older than that.

The compact, pea-drop power
of the initial, beginning nothing
is surely oldest, but then the intention,

with its integrity, must have come
before and thus is obviously
older than that. Amen.

[Audience applause]

Actually my husband gave me that parenthesis, "should light be said to exist in time," and every time I read that I like, I like it because I think where does it exist if it doesn't exist in the time? That's how, how attached we are to the notion of time. Ok. Let's see here. [ROGERS CHECKS HER WATCH AND TALKS TO HERSELF] oh, I don't want to read that. well, I guess I'll read this one, I have down here. Does, does somebody have a poem they'd like me to read? [Pause] I'm taking requests. [Pause]

"THE PIECES OF HEAVEN"? Ok. I can read that.

This is about my, my [Pause], my take on the big bang. [PAUSE, ROGERS LOOKS FOR THE POEM]

All right.

This is this is my version of the Big Bang.


You know what the Big Bang is? Because I read this poem once and introduced it that way, and then some woman after the reading came up and said I really liked your poem about the atom bomb.

[Audience laughs]

It's NOT THAT Big Bang.

It makes you wonder some. [Pause]


No one alone could detail that falling—the immediate
sharpening and blunting of particle and plane,
The loosening, the congealing of axis
And field, the simultaneous opening and closing
Composing of first hardening of moment when heaven first broke
From wholeness into infinity.

No one alone could follow that falling
The falling of all those pieces gusting in tattered
Layers of mirage like night rain over a rocky hill,
Pieces cartwheeling like the red-banded leg
Of the locust, rolling like elk antlers dropping
After winter, spiraling slowly like a fossil of squid
Twisting to the bottom of the sea, pieces lying toppled
Like bison knees on a prairie, like trees of fern
In a primevel forest.

And no one could remember the rising
Of all those pieces in that moment, pieces shining
Like cottonwood dust floating wing-side up
Across the bottomland, rising like a woman easily
Lifting to meet her love, like the breasting,
The disappearing surge and scattering crest of fire
Or sea blown against rock, bannered like the quills
Of lionfish and their sway, like the whippling stripe
Of the canebrake rattler under leaves.

Who can envision all of heaven trembling
With the everlasting motion of its own shattering
Into the piece called honor and the piece
Called terror and the piece called death and the piece
Tracing the piece called compassion all the way back
To its source in that initial crimp of potential particle
Becoming the inside and outside called matter in space?

And no one alone can describe entirely
This single piece of heaven partially naming its own falling
Or the guesswork forming the piece
That is heaven's original breaking, the imagined
Piece that is its new and eventual union.


[Audience applause]

Did, how many of you saw the movie or the film that was on today, playing today? Called the Powers of Ten? But you want say what it was about? Somebody want to talk about it? You know, well, there's also a book if you want to get a book of it. You know it starts out with a man lying on a blanket next to Lake Michigan. And he is starts with his hand, is that where it starts or does it start out in...I've never seen the movie. I only have the book. Does it start with his hand, and does it go in first or out?


Oh, it goes out. OK. So, by powers of ten the film moves up and out and out so you see him smaller and smaller, and then you see that he's by Lake Michigan then you see the, the North American continent then back, back, back, back until you see the whole earth and then on back and on back and on back. And on out into space [Pause] for as far as you can see. You know I told about, about, oh well, the pale blue dot thing of the earth so its kind of that you go way out. Then you come in and go down into his hand, into the cell, into the genes, into the molecules, into the atoms as far as you can go that way.

So, it's an interesting- the book is interesting enough, although I've never seen the film. So this is a poem kind of [Pause] well, it's about that but it's about something else too.


And, then I'm going to read "THE HUMMINGBIRD."

Whether looking down through
a pond surface past the ground mossy
tavern of twigs into floating nest
and through the membrane of a single
translucent egg globule, down
into the drama and complex carnival
of that jelly mote, it's lipids,
ashes and crystal inclusions,
through its loops and plots
and domestications, past bound
messages gates stringy messengers,
past storms, sparks, signs and orbits,
on down toward the tense purple
nebula of chaos at its core;

or whether watching far out over
the flat grasses and gullies, skimming
the plains past low opuntia, hidden
beeflies, jumping mice, the burrows
of dogs and deer and all that multitude,
right up to the first rising red rock
range and past that the next sheer
evergreen plateau and on and beyond
to the ultimate highest blue snow
of the peaks with names past them
to the ragged ridge of sinking moon
and behind that into the easy black
where the eyes seem suddenly turned
hard and fast on themselves;

whether distance or depth either way,
it's evident there are fields and fields
and fields of plenty, more and more
space than is needed, ample space
for any kind of sin to be laid down,
disassembled, swallowed away, lost,
absorbed, forgotten, transformed,
if one should only ask
for such a favor.


[Audience applause]

I can- I kind of had that thought driving across Montana with my son once, and I said, "if you ever need any space, here's you c- you know there's a p- place to come and find it. And, o-o-often we do need space, whether it's to lay down the sin or [Pause] or anything else we n- nee- we ha- its nice to know that space is there. And, we have all this [ROGERS POINTS UP TO THE SKY], oh well forget it.


Do you have hummingbirds that come here?

[Inaudible audience response]

And, how many of, do you have hummingbird feeders?

[Inaudible audience response]

So you watch 'em.

Does anybody ever seen hummingbird [Pause] courting its mate? The male? 'Cuz the male the ones that do the courting, you know.

In fact I was visiting my son and [ROGERS LAUGHS QUIETLY AS SHE TALKS] there was there were geese on the lake [Pause] near his house and, and one we'd been watching these three geese had been there all this time, and I know it's one male goose gander with two females. And in came six other geese and so they fought all day long. The males fought. The females were just trying to eat and get away from everything. But the males were there fighting.

Anyway, the male, has anybody ever seen the male hummingbird court a female? [Inaudible audience response]

Ok. You want to tell u- what did you see?

[Inaudible audience response]

Oh, yeah. [Pause] Yeah. [Inaudible audience response]

Oh, yeah. [Inaudible audience response]

Oh good, I learned something. Well the one I'm talking about is the one that, what they do is they try to find a female who's sitting still for a minute. And so get her attention, and then, they, display in front of her and the courtship is what you described. They fly up and then they drop, but not all the way to the ground. This is all done in mid-air. And, then fly up again and then drop. And, as I say, this, this is successful as we know in getting a little cooperation from the female, because we continue to have baby hummingbirds. So, that, this poem was based on that and it's also written because it just seemed like a wonderful thing to be a female, because males are doing so much. They're going to so much trouble, just to try to get a little cooperation from the females. For if all these courtships, stompings and snortings and fightings and, so.


If I were a female hummingbird perched still
And quiet on an upper myrtle branch
In the spring afternoon and if you were a male
Alone in the whole heavens before me, having parted
Yourself, for me, from cedar top and honeysuckle stem
And earth down, your body hovering in midair
Far away from jewelweed, thistle, and bee balm;

And if I watched how you fell, plummeting before me,
And how you rose again and fell, with such mastery
That I believed for a moment you were the sky
And the red-marked bird diving inside your circumference
Was just the physical revelation of the light's
Most perfect desire;

And if I saw your sweeping and sucking
Performance of swirling egg and semen in the air,
The weaving, twisting vision of red petal
And nectar and soaring rump, the rush of your wing
In its grand confusion of arcing and splitting
Created completely out of nothing just for me,

Then when you came down to me, I would call you
My own spinning bloom of ruby sage, my funneling
Storm of sunlit sperm and pollen, my only breathless
Piece of scarlet sky, and I would bless the base
Of each of your feathers and touch the tine
Of string muscles binding your wings and taste
The odor of your glistening oils and hunt
The honey in your crimson flare
And I would take you and take you and take you
Deep into any kind of nest you ever wanted.

[Audience applause]

Did you look at the person next to you?

[Audience laughs]

[Inaudible audience response]

YOU DID? [Rogers laughs]

That's not who you were supposed to have next to- next to you. Where is she?

I was going to read, let's see a couple of other poems. And then, then, if you have as I say any questions, or anything you'd like to express or [Pause], while we're all here. I wanted to read this poem "JUSTIFICATION OF THE HORNED LIZARD," because Allison mentioned the horned lizard in her reading and, you know the Suri had the little story about the horned lizard carrying the wood on his back and then the ants get on him and he falls down and they say poor horned lizard, poor horned lizard. So, do you know what a horned lizard is? Cuz sometimes it's called a horny toad, but it's not a toad, it's a lizard. And it's just a little [Pause], you know little ugly thing and, and, does anybody know how it, defends itself?

[Inaudible audience response]

Yes, what?

AUDIENCE RESPONSE: It squirts blood out of its eyes

[Rogers laughs]

That's right. It squirts blood out of its eyes. Whatever it fears, and, I've never seen this. Have you seen this?

[Inaudible audience response]

You have?

[Inaudible audience response]

Where are you from?

[Inaudible audience response]

Oh, you se- , os- ok, they have horned lizards?

Because, it's you know its kind of a desert creature. I didn't see it, but on the front of the Smithsonian, they had a pictu- the Smithsonian magazine they had a picture of it. You know a still photograph and you could see the blood droplets flying out of its eyes. So, this is a poem about the horned lizard.


I don't know why the horned lizard wants to live.
It's so ugly—short prickly horns and scowling
Eyes, lipless smile forced forever by bone,
Hideous scaly hollow where its nose should be.

I don't know what the horned lizard has to live for,
Skittering over the sun-irritated sand, scraping
The hot dusty brambles. It never sees anything but gravel
And grit, thorns and stickery insects, the towering
Creosote bush, the ocotillo and its whiplike
Branches, the severe edges of the Spanish dagger.
Even shade is either barren rock or barb.

The horned lizard will never know
A lush thing in its life. It will never see the flower
Of the water-filled lobelia bent over a clear
Shallow creek. It will never know moss floating
In waves in the current by the bank or the blue-blown
Fronds of the water clover. It will never have a smooth
Glistening belly of white like the bullfrog or a dew-heavy
Trill like the mating toad. It will never slip easily
Through mud like the skink or squat in the dank humus
At the bottom of a decaying forest in daytime.
It will never be free of dust. The only drink it will ever know
Is in the body of a bug.

And the horned lizard possesses nothing noble—
Embarrassing tail, warty hide covered with sharp dirty
Scales. No touch to its body, even from its own kind,
Could ever be delicate or caressing.

I don't know why the horned lizard wants to live.
Yet threatened, it burrows frantically into the sand
With a surprisingly determined fury of forehead, limbs
And ribs. Pursued, it even fights for itself, almost rising up,
Posturing on its bowed legs, propelling blood out of its eyes
In tight straight streams shot directly at the source
Of its possible extinction. It fights for itself,
Almost rising up, as if the performance of that act,
The posture, the propulsion of the blood itself,
Were justification enough and the only reason needed.


[Audience applause]

You know Allison mentioned Gary Paul Nabhan, a friend of, a mutual friend we have and living in the Senoran Desert, and he likes this poem 'cuz 'cuz he knows all bout a horned lizards and, so he told me once that, when he was a little boy, he used to go out and catch baby horned lizards. They're about that big. And he would put one on his tongue in his mouth, and then he would go in the house and go up to his mother and open his mouth. And so.


[Audience laughs]

And I've had two boys. I'd thought that sounds just like 'em.

[Audience laughs]

And, but, he was in the audience when I when I read this poem once and I told that story. And so he came up to me afterward and he opened his mouth, and he'd drawn a little horned lizard and had it on his tongue.

[Rogers laughs]

[Audience laughs]

It sounds like him. And then he says to me, you know you got that story wrong. He said, I actually was 25 when I did that.

[Rogers laughs]

[Audience laughs]

That sounds like him too. Ok. I'm going to finish up here with one last poem. And this, this is a poem, you know most poems of mine anyway, I think its true of most poets, start out you don't know where they're gonna go. You know you have maybe an image. You know the poem about, "something is older than that." Hearing that phrase, "older than that," just stuck in my mind for some reason. So that was part of the origin of that poem that I didn't know what was going to happen with it, or where it was goin' to go. And this poem titled "THE GREATEST GRANDEUR" really started with asking myself questions, and a lot of my poems start that way. And I thought what is the most glorious gift that we are given? And, I didn't know what, where, you know I didn't know whether it'd turn out to be a poem, or where it would go or anything. But it, but it went somewhere I had not expected and that's the most fun about writing poetry. And, my daughter-in-law 'n son asked for me to read THIS poem at their wedding. And, I know other people had "THE HUMMINGBIRD" poem read. And I thought, why would they want me to read this poem for? But, I, it finally dawned on me why. Why they wanted this one read at their wedding.


It's not a love poem so don't get, like the greatest thing we're given is sex or something. No, it's not that. Ok.


Some say it's in the reptilian dance
of the purple-tongued sand goanna,
for there the magnificent translation
of tenacity into bone and grace occurs.

And some declare it to be an expansive
desert—solid rust-orange rock
like dusk captured on earth in stone—
simply for the perfect contrast it provides
to the blue-grey ridge of rain
in the distant hills.

Some claim the harmonics of shifting
electron rings to be most rare and some
the complex motion of seven sandpipers
bisecting the arcs and pitches
of come and retreat over the mounting

Others, for grandeur, choose the terror
of lightning peals on prairies or the tall
collapsing cathedrals of stormy seas,
because there they feel dwarfed
and appropriately helpless; others select
the serenity of that ceiling/cellar
of stars they see at night on placid lakes,
because there they feel assured
and universally magnanimous.

But it is the dark emptiness contained
in every next moment that seems to me
the most singularly glorious gift,
that void which one is free to fill
with processions of men bearing burning
cedar knots or with parades of blue horses,
belled and ribboned and stepping sideways,
with tumbling white-faced mimes or companies
of black-robed choristers; to fill simply
with hammered silver teapots or kiln-dried
crockery, tangerine and almond custards,
polonaises, polkas, whittling sticks, wailing
walls; that space large enough to hold all
invented blasphemies and pieties, 10,000
definitions of god and more, never fully
filled, never.

Thank you very much.

[Audience Applause]

Thank you. Thank you.

I'm not standing up here, so you have to keep clapping.

[Audience laughs]

But thank you very much. It was very generous of you. Does anybody want to ask a question or, say anything, or complain, or, I can, I can do anything if anybo-. Ok,

[Inaudible audience response]


[Inaudible audience response]

Prose or Poetry?

[Inaudible audience response]


[Inaudible audience response]

[Rogers laughs]

Well, you know, I, I, I, the point of that quote to me is, because people have a lot of people have a lot of trouble with poetry. They want it to do what typical prose does, to give them information of some kind or, to, to tell a story. And there are poems that tell stories. They're, a long narrative. The kinds of things we, you know, communicate to one another with language, but poetry doesn't do the things that typically prose does. And, one of the things that is ess- very important element of poetry is music. It ha- it has to have a cadence or rhythm of some sort. And, the succinctness of it emphasizes that music. All language has a kind of a music to it, but when you compress the language, you can hear that music better. And, that's why poetry ideally the best poetry is saying the most in the fewest words, typically. I mean you can't give a definition of poetry, but typically, that's right. So, so, that quote to me, me- saying that, poetry is to prose as dancing is to w- walking is because dancing is rhythmic and moving and it doesn't get you anywhere. You know music isn't walking towards a goal somewhere. Music is for fun. And, it's full of, of, strangeness. And, a use of the body its musical and its rhythmic. SO, that's kind of what I take out of that. Now, there's always that area where you have very, very fine s- passages of prose that also become like poetry in that way that is very, very musical. So, I don't know if that's the way you were defining music, I mean dancing in that, in that little quote I gave, but it's the way I was defining dancing.

[Inaudible audience response]

Umhuh. Umhuh.

I think so. You know, I think there are long passages in Flannery O'Connor that are very musical. Same with William Faulkner and, and, you know others that I could name that are that that also, but usually it's a paragraph or two. And then you move back into a slow, into a more expansive kind of language and dialogue and stuff. You know, it's like everything, with art, it's hard to define, so ok.

That's that's that's a good question.

But that's somebody said you need that you'll often with poetry, you need to be attentive with your ear more than attentive with your intellect, meaning even if you're looking at it on the page, you should be reading it or, you know, chanting it kind of to yourself or reading it to somebody else. And that's something we lost, when we got books. You know poetry used to be recited, typically, and wasn't written down. So you know we kind of lost that habit of you ... experiencing poetry that way. All right. And you know, I do tell some audiences, when you're hearing a reading, especially like mine tonight, and you weren't familiar with all the poems. It's hard to follow exactly what's going on, but it doesn't matter, just listen to it. And, don't worry about that. And if you get hung up on one image and you missed the next two, you know you don't have to worry about that. 'Cuz you don't get through listening to a piece of music and then feel like you had to intellectualize it. You know you just enjoy it.

Ok. Other the, other questions? I want another question. Ok.

[Inaudible audience response]


[Inaudible audience response]

You know I think it would depend on the individual, 'cuz they're people. I heard of poet talking that said couldn't write anywhere but in New York City. And he wants the windows open. You know he needs all that bustle and noise and people walking by and catching the language of people walking by. So I think it, it just depends on the individual. And all poets that I know of have slightly different habits for writing, where they write. I know one poet that only writes at a writer's colonies, you know where she can, they have thesem Yaddo and MacDowell, and you go there and they put you in a little cabin and they feed you and you write. To me that would have been death. I mean if somebody put me in a cabin and shut the door and said WRITE. You know, it woul- I thou- I always thought it was Rumpelstiltskin when they put her in the said spin this straw into gold you know. So, but, some people it does work for them. You know to be there, but I like to be in my house and, my own house, and, and, you know I work a while then I go and put clothes in the washing machine and go back and work some more, then, I start dinner or something you know. I like to work that way.

[Inaudible audience response]

Very rarely, but that's just me you know. [Pause] You know, you know any other discipline, human discipline, you can watch somebody doing it. If it, if there trying to learn to play a violin or they're learning ballet or they're learning basketball, you can watch trying to do it. When I was in Houston they were trying to raise money for the arts so they put some dancers in the department store windows, and they were doing things you know. What would you do with a writer? Well you put in there, and you s- [Audience laughs] you know, 'cuz they're, well, you know you spend been a lot of time looking out the window. And, sin-, you know, write a word or two and there's nothing to watch and that makes it hard. You know to lo- I mean to even a painter you can watch, you can watch him do something. You know and when before my husband retired, he would come home and what'd you do today.

[Rogers laughs]

Well, I sat here in this chair for a long time.

[Audience laughs]

And, and poety- poetry is especially, you know you go to one of these writer's colonies, which I never been to but somebody was telling this funny story cuz they usually the writer's kind of gather together for dinner. And, so, they wr- they had all gathered and this novelist was kind of bragging, well, I wrote 30 pages today on my novel. And, asked the poet, asked the poet what he did, well, I spent all morning trying to decide to put this comma in this one line. And I put it in. Then I spent all afternoon thinking about taking it out. And I took it out. [Rogers laughs]

[Audience laughs]

So, even with poets and compared to prose writers, you, you just work in usually pretty slowly. And, and you know you kind of develop your own habits about. William Stafford always got up very early in the morning. So that nobody else in the house was up. And that's when he did his writing. And then he tells the story about one of his daughters feeling sorry for him being alone in the morning. So, for about three weeks she got up and sat with him. [Rogers laughs], which kind of spoiled his plan, but, the... you know he waited until that was over and she, she quit on her own accord. But, and then some people are night people. Work at night. So there all different ways. So, who is it that always wanted an apple on the desk where he was working? And, somebody else wants a whole cup full of sharpened pencils.


But you have to have to be careful that you don't delay yourself. I gotta get my sharpened pencils. Then I gotta get my apple. And then I have to, you know, that can happen. Because it's pretty scarey. You know its' pretty scarey to... once you write something and you're happy with it. You don't know if it will ever ever ever be another poem. You never know. So, you're looking at blank computer screen or your looking at a blank piece of paper. The subconscious wants to say, "Oh, I can- I can't deal with this right now. I have something else to do. It causes, it can be you know it can be daunting. But, get something down. And then you, then you have something to look at and work with and. Not then, quite so daunting. Then there's another funny story about a writer before computers. And he always went up in his office and wrote his wife is usually downstairs doing things. And she heard him say, "God Dammit!" And, and, and, she sai- she ss- she heard him march across the room and he raised the window and he threw his typewriter out. Out the upstairs window. And, then he came downstairs and he went out and picked up the typewriter you know, and she saw, you know he's going to come back in some more, fix the typewriter, went back upstairs went over to the window and threw it out again.


[Audience laughs]

[Rogers laughs]

So, you know you can you get pretty frustrated. You- I don't know does all that make sense?

[Inaudible audience response]

I don't write outside, but I guess some people do. It's um, not. OK, anything else? OK, well, thanks a lot again for coming ....[Rogers voice fades away as she moves from the microphone]

[Transcription by Laura Cory, reviewed by Dr. Crystal Alberts 18 December 2009.]


Contact Information

Crystal Alberts

Associate Professor of English

Director, UND Writers Conference

276 Centennial Drive
110 Merrifield Hall, Stop 7209
Grand Forks, ND 58202