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May 27, 2024


By Blanche Nonken

As a rule, my poetry is sensory at its core. I take sounds and scents, touch and visual input, and pick a theme to repeat or evolve throughout the piece.

The first time I wrote like this, I think I was 11 or 12, not much older. It was published in a local paper called the Brigantine NJ Somethingorother. I can almost remember the poem -- it's part of the image I was trying to save in my head.


I sit at my window and look out at the snow,
white softening the edges
flakes falling down
covering the world with a blanket of purity.

... Blanche Wattenberg

Something like that. There may have been an additional line, and actually I think it was better than what I remember.

A few years later, junior high or high school, I was introduced to the Haiku format (or maybe I read about it in Highlights magazine in the allergist's office.) The template, form, structure, what have you, never struck me as particularly limiting. If anything, the restricted size gave me even more practice at cutting my words down to the absolute essential. The piece previously published here, "Mariel," is unusually long for me, but the nine parts, the imagery and the pacing are all deliberate uses of elements of my religious understandings and life philosophy.

Over time, and most recently, I've learned to use my poetry as a camera. When something special happens, when I see something or experience something I want to remember, I sit quietly, let the words flow, trim and crop, and build a piece that serves as a snapshot for me. I can go back, reread "Hiking Sketch -- Cold Canyon" or "Mariel" or "Striking Distance" or any number of other short pieces, and doing so brings me back to the moment so I can remember everything in all dimensions, not simply a colored image on paper.

The test for me now is to start taking the ordinary moments, and see if I can create snapshots as evocative as those moments which change my life.

pulling slick, pinching
flipping my hands back and forth
fresh pork breakfast links

I am a meatcutter, after all. Raising the common moment to a way of beauty is not out of the question, whether it's scrubbing the dried lamb blood off the cutting boards, feeling the crisp snap of cartilage parting as I cut chicken into its salable parts -- wings, breast halves, thighs, drumsticks, back -- or the ability to wrap an irregularly shaped cut of meat neatly in brown paper, regardless of length, to the point where nothing holds the package shut but the single price label.

"Hold it like this," he said
always pointing the knife away.
I slid the blade between bone and flesh
feeling my way
knife tip taps each bone in turn, separating the greater muscles
Brother Salmon's head gapes at me, no longer feeling his strength
or whatever pride my human sensibilities endow

The day before I watched a great leviathan,
six, seven feet long
working its way up a spawning gate, shimmying a wet-dog shake
refusing to be defeated
today I sliced down
separating cousin or brother's head from its body
"Now push it down as you slide it forward, it has to be fast
or you'll squash the meat."
The crunching of the knife, the sudden stop as it parts the bone
hits the board
no blood, all soft parts removed, just the pink-orange smear of oil
dark smudge from the skin
empty eyes, gaping mouth
pink strips of an empty body
something else no longer there.

This captures more than a "how to" of cutting up a king salmon. This also calls in the memory of our family visit to the Nimbus Hatchery near Sacramento, where I realized how strong the drive to live can be, and how much these animals give off a living energy -- compared to the gutted carcasses with no "being" present any longer, drained of whatever awareness they might have had, nothing more than Things.

If the moment is mundane, then the poem will be boring. If I can live each moment as a poem needing only to be written, then beauty will always be with me.

Article © Blanche Nonken. All rights reserved.
Published on 2007-04-09
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