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  • Writer's picturePenny Harter

Pandemic poems digest 6/12/20 - 5/18/20

Updated: Aug 15, 2020

[6/12/20]: I have always loved whale songs. Today's poem, written last night, led me back to them. I'm glad to be writing new work again. Hope you enjoy. Whale Song Somewhere in an indigo ocean

a mother whale is singing love

into her newborn calf.

I swim into the video, glimpse two

ghostly figures gliding through deep

sea shadows. Her haunting cadences

wash over me, ethereal song rising

and falling in arcs that echo the flow

of slow-moving underwater waves.

I want the universe to sing like this whale.

Perhaps these creatures came here from

another galaxy, a planet made of water,

bringing with them songs of home passed

down through generations, melodies we

almost remember that call us to follow.

This ocean is twilight. The mother and

child—twin planets orbiting a single star,

and we are their moons.

© 2020 Penny Harter


Here is the poem I posted two days ago [6/10/20]:

I didn't write a new poem yesterday, as I was busy revising. I didn't know whether I'd write today, but then, remembering another marsh ride yesterday afternoon, this poem came to lead me where it needed to go. White Ibis White ibis, lit by summer sun, solitary bird out in the green sea of salt meadow, the stalks of your tall red legs rise above the grasses while the curve of your long red beak swings back and forth, probing below the mud for tiny crabs, fish, insects. Across the road, your mate shepherds three brown fledglings. Fiercely defending them from a black bird that swoops down to light nearby, she opens her wings and runs at it, scaring it off. I remember that kind of love. Yesterday my grand-dog, a sweet Golden, died of cancer. That may be why I've stopped today to be with you, white ibis, needing your pure grace. Grace shines all around us, even in the face of loss, of fear, of memories that flow like the brackish streams rippling through this marsh. Grace all around us even in sorrow, which today I give to this wind that just now arrives with its cleansing salt spray from the bay— a blessing for us both, white ibis, and beyond. (c) 2020 Penny Harter

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ [6/6/20]

Preparing to write today's poem, for some reason I fastened on the word "bittersweet." One common meaning is that every sweetness, literal or metaphorical, can leave a bitter or sad aftertaste. These days, I prefer the opposite, not to be left with bitterness. I have more than once let a single word lead me into poem. Here's today's result (and I know the "strawberry moon" was last night. I began this poem last night, but that moon is still shining). Bittersweet Every word is a container—a canoe heading out on any waters, someone paddling it from shore after filling it with whatever’s at hand. My canoe today is heaped with rhubarb tempered with strawberries, like the slices of strawberry-rhubarb pie my first husband and I used to get for ourselves and our kids at that little fast-food joint on Route 22— each warm slice served in its cardboard wedge, sweet flavor flirting with the bitter. Break a word in half it still contains multitudes— whoever first coupled these two words saw that sweet must pull bitter through the rapids, help it skirt sharp submerged rocks, never letting bitter take the lead. Strawberry moon tonight for those who can see or for those who will know that it’s there, even through the storm clouds. Look for it! © 2020 Penny Harter



Didn't begin to write yesterday's poem until just before bedtime. Finished it this morning.

Two-Day Diary

mid-morning heat—

humidity already

a mask

late afternoon

a heavy rain cleanses

the dense air

steam rises

from hot pavement—

sirens somewhere

sudden thunder—

distant rumbles echo

in its wake

just a minor accident—

spilling beans from

a torn bag

supper again—

knife, fork, plate

and TV


memories of childhood flicker

at the edge of sleep

midnight waking—

I try to reenter my

lingering dream

eyes closed—

another landscape opens

inside me

clearing night—

even through the roof


hazy morning—

stirring daily collagen

into my tea

like waves

these days arriving

on our shore

© 2020 Penny Harter

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ As has been the case recently, I didn't find today's poem until this evening, so some who are following my posts won't see it until tomorrow morning. I had no idea what I would write for today until I remembered that if we slow down and open our perception, any object, any encounter can be revelation. So . . . [6/2/20]

Just Grapefruit Carefully, I place half a grapefruit into the small white bowl that fits it perfectly, use the brown-handled serrated knife to cut around the rim, separate the sections. The first bite is neither sweet nor bitter, but I drag a drop or two of honey around the top, love how it glazes each pink piece, then seeps between dividing membranes. Pale seeds pop up from their snug burial in the center hole, and when I’m finished, I squeeze sticky juice from the spent rind and drink it down. Each grapefruit is an offering, its bright flesh startling my fasting tongue. When bitterness spills from the morning news, I temper it with grapefruit, savor hidden gifts as I slice it open, free each glistening segment, and enter honeyed grapefruit time. © 2020 Penny Harter

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ [6/1/20]

After so much computer time today, I took a break in front of television. Bad idea! After that, I needed some peace. I love the salt marshes and hope you enjoy the ride. A Kind of Silence Come to this marsh-grass meadow, stretching out to where the bay shimmers. Bright green grasses, purple patches, ripple like waves in the cool breeze. Silhouetted against the distant sky, a black ibis dips its head below the grass horizon, pops it up again, and red-winged blackbirds flit from reed to reed. Hidden bird-songs echo from the roadside thickets, salt air blows through the open windows, and random tidal pools shine with reflected sky. Stop here a while, lean your head back and listen to the silence. Cumulus clouds drift overhead. You can almost float up and out of yourself to rest on one, like the littlest angel from your childhood picture-book, serenely sitting on her own cloud, her face tenderly gazing down at you. © 2020 Penny Harter

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ [5/31/20] Just this, for today: Docking This morning two astronauts docked

with the space station. Far above Earth’s

blessings, released from our current crises,

they are safely sheltered.

Down here, we are adrift, can’t seem to find

the way to our dock just yet.

Remember that poster on the classroom wall—

the one with the arrow pointing to a small blue

dot, its adjacent text stating, You are Here?

Remember the immeasurable distance surrounding

that lonely planet? We need to discover how to dock,

need to see that poster again, remind ourselves that

We are Here. We are Here. We are all Here.

(c) 2020 Penny Harter



Tonight’s offering, a poem gleaned during today’s drive out into the weathering world. Lost and Found If you get lost on winding country roads, driving between miles of wild blueberries, of laurel on the verge of spilling its shining groves of pink and white beneath the neon green of just born leaves, you may be startled by a dark animal ahead, a turkey vulture wise enough to strut into the roadside undergrowth as your car creeps near, then return to its purpose after you pass—a flattened snake gray on the pavement, the river of its body open and drying in the sun, its spirit having shed its wounded scales and slithered free. And now a deer is crossing in the distance, just beside an oak trunk on the left that the sun has painted with a brilliant slash. You slow down to peer into the dappled woods, but see no deer—though it may still be there hidden among dense thickets. You think this is the middle of nowhere, feel lost in the meanders your spirit has led you on, yet found in the sudden revelations of these seldom observed lives beyond your own. © 2020 Penny Harter

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ [5/29/20] Fog Shrouded Today was hot and humid here in southern New Jersey, the air hinting of possible thunderstorms pre-dawn. I’m reminded of the opening words of an old English madrigal from the 1200s, one I enjoyed singing in an a-cappella madrigal group years ago. Sumer Is icumen in — Summer is coming in lhu-de ing cuc-cu — Loud sing cuckoo Somehow we must be able to sing summer in these hard days, even when so much of the world is aflame with violence, consumed with grief. in the distance a child cries—smoke on the wind It’s hard to find a song inside us when we grieve, or when our fists want to clench in anger. Sirens blare from the television in the living room, screams echo, car horns blare. I’ve never heard a cuckoo sing. But a year ago May when I woke to a foggy morning— fog shrouded— this morning’s robin sings inside me (c) 2020 Penny Harter

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ [5/28/20]

Here is this afternoon's poem. I tried several other beginnings, other subjects, but none worked, so I deleted them---and then found this:

An Afternoon for Tea This is an afternoon for tea— rich red of strawberry hibiscus deepening in a brown ceramic cup. I delight in dunking my teabag up and down, lowering my face into the rising steam’s sweet scent. On today’s escape from shelter I ride through a graveyard, some stones so old their dates are half-eroded. A light rain begins to fall, darkening the pebbled road, nurturing the newly springing grass between the plots. Years ago at my mother’s memorial gathering, my toddler granddaughter perched on someone’s marker, singing. I hadn’t thought of that for years, but some roads take us back, even when they wind through greening trees. Home again, an afternoon for tea, hands clasped around the cup’s kind warmth— blessed comfort sheltered from the rain. (c) 2020 Penny Harter

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ [5/27/20]

I’ve been reading about how trees are all interconnected by sharing chemical messages through their roots, and how flowers and trees have their own shared language. I think of Basho’s “go to the pine to learn of the pine.” From all that, this: Symbiosis We should answer the greening oak

that calls us to sit down and lean

against its trunk, seeking wisdom.

We should witness lilacs bursting

into bloom, follow waves of sweetness

they send out to call the bees.

Becoming oak, becoming lilac bush,

we join the greater family of those who

speak tree, those who can blossom.

© 2020 Penny Harter

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ [5/26/20]

Happy afternoon! One of my poems from years ago begins with the line ‘How many lives have I left behind . . .”, a question we often ask ourselves as we look back across the years, or even across the recent weeks since we began living in this strange new virus-ravaged world. Thinking about what to write today, I found myself revisiting years of Memorial Day weekend camping trips with my first husband and two young children. Also, thanks to Rosemerry Wahtola Trommer for further inspiration from her post earlier today, “A Bouquet From the Utah Border”, a sequence beautifully capturing moments of her recent camping there.

Here are a few random glimpses from long ago days of family camping in Franconia Notch, New Hampshire, and Shady Knoll campsite in Brewster, Cape Cod. How Many Lives one campsite

much like another—yet

ours will call to us waddling under the edge

of the kitchen tent, a skunk

comes to sit on my foot all night downpour—

someone’s cat mewing

at the tent flap afternoon sun—

a three-legged dog

paddles in the pond fresh bluefish

sizzles in the cast-iron pan—

bones in the leaves twilight walk—

bats dip and glide

over the shore night wind rustles

through the pine boughs—

rock-a-bye baby

© 2020 Penny Harter

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ [5/25/20]

Another haibun for this morning's offering. Strange, sometimes, the places a dream labyrinth leads us. Hopefully, we end up where the dream-maker wants us to go. The Language of Dreams I’m in some city in the Pacific Northwest, walking on the sidewalk with my late husband Bill. We stop in front of a bookstore, one I remember visiting during some earlier trip. Of course we enter, and he begins to look for collections of Japanese poetry. Almost immediately he squats in front of a shelf of old leather-bound books—clearly classical anthologies or venerable books of criticism. Since I know he will want them, I ask how we’ll get them home on the plane. He says he’ll at least look at them, takes the first one from the shelf, and reverently opens its almost crumbling cover. too much baggage

for this journey, I drop

pieces along the way

I have been wanting to weed my collection of poetry, wondering what I was thinking to bring so many books from my past lives into this new one—new, though now eleven years old already. Yesterday I contemplated my bookshelves in the living room and couldn’t even see the lower titles because boxes of food and paper goods are stacked in front of them, emergency supplies for the long corona virus lockdown I’d anticipated, stocking up.

tornado shelter—

just the minimum required

to survive

When I first started getting published, I remember walking down a long corridor of floor-to-ceiling bookshelves in the university library and feeling as if I were standing in the middle of a city street framed by skyscrapers. I saw how insignificant my puny contributions were, wondered whether anyone would ever read my work. Years later, that feeling persisted in the closing haiku I wrote for the title haibun in my chapbook At the Zendo:

signing my name

in the book I wrote, my pen

runs out of ink.

Yet perhaps last night's dream was affirming that the word endures, no matter the writer or language, and can reach across any distance to remind us that we are not alone.

© 2020 Penny Harter

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ [5/24/20]

Good morning! Hope you are well and are having a good weekend. Here in South Jersey today will be mostly cloudy and cool. I enjoy Tom Clausen's daily postings of his own gorgeous photographs with paired quotations. I was inspired to write in response to the words he posted yesterday, and it becomes this morning's offering. Thanks, Tom! <3


Acceptance is a Small Quiet Room

Cheryl Strayed

Years ago, a wise friend asked me,

When will you learn there is no enemy?

But I was too young to understand his

question, could not begin to answer it.

Now I sit in this small room—not one

in some wooded cabin, some getaway

planted by a lake where I gently rock on

the porch and watch waterlilies opening

their yellow buds under a rain-gray sky,

but here in my shelter, safe from a battle

that rages outside, listening to a hard rain

cleanse the pollen-laden air.

When will you learn there is no enemy?

I think my friend, much older than I was

then, yet younger than I am now, was

forced to find the answer when his heart

began to falter, beating ragged in his breast;

learned that we must enter the small room of

self and sit there until our spirit quiets, until

we accept what is and turn away from fear.

(c) 2020 Penny Harter

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ [5/23/20]

Good morning. Today's poem didn't wait until tonight to find me. I had searched Black Elk for inspiration yesterday, found this quotation, but couldn't write to it then, so wrote a different one. I think this poem wrote itself in my dreams last night and found me this morning. Have a happy day! The Religion of Birds Birds make their nests in circles, for theirs is the same religion as ours. Black Elk A nest is a small circle, a sturdy room woven to keep warm the eggs that hopefully will hatch to birth small feathered ones with gaping beaks. I think of the sky-blue broken pieces of a robin’s egg I picked up from the lawn some years ago, fragments from a hatchling who had fledged. This spring flocks of robins are everywhere, flitting across the road, congregating on the grass beneath the oaks, their dawn and evening songs the lilting prayers they raise because they must. And what of our nests, the wombs and amniotic sacs that cradle us until we break out into air? What songs rise within us once we’ve left— songs we must give voice to even on mornings we are tone-deaf, or evenings when we despair? Are our beaks open, trusting nurture, seeking love? We must look to the sky, believe in whatever spirit animates the robins’ melodies—and find our own. (c) 2020 Penny Harter

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ [5/22/20]

Finally, today's / tonight's poem. I thought I'd have to skip today, but then a Rilke quote reached me. Night Thoughts All the soarings of my mind begin in my blood. Rainer Maria Rilke Toward dawn last night, my left ear on the pillow caught the slow beating of my heart, a calm, persistent whooshing in my skull. I shifted my position to lessen it a bit but still that steady rhythm kept me awake, tuned to the organ that began its work long months before my birth. Night thoughts, some call these visitations that find us in the dark— memories stored in the heart’s brain cells, each cell holding its own. I should listen unafraid to this companion who keeps me living while it can. Whether curled around another whom I love, or pulling close the covers for their warmth, I honor the bloodlines that have brought me here, this faithful heart that lets me fall asleep again, wake again, stretch to greet the morning, breathe deeply, and rise. (c) 2020 Penny Harter

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ [5/21/20]

Today's poem is a short haiku sequence. It was a beautiful day again, cool in the morning, hot afternoon sun with a brisk wind. Hope it was nice where you were, too. I'm hoping for a family porch picnic at my daughter's house sometime soon. It will be better than a Zoom meeting, for sure. Here's the sequence: Porch Picnic potato salad—

I stir memories of grandmother

into her secret dressing porch picnic—

figuring out how to mime

a needed hug

moving the wicker

rocker into shade—

first summer day

again last night

the dream promising

all will be well

(c) 2020 Penny Harter


[5/20/20] When out for a ride, my late husband Bill Higginson and I used to sometimes enter a state we called "seeing", when everything seemed almost luminous as we rode through the landscape. On a short drive today, I was "seeing" again. So, this poem...

Smoke on the Wind The blinking neon sign along the highway

that warns "Smoke May be Visible" seems

alien, a sign left over from some previous

universe of frequent pollution.

Yet this afternoon, car windows closed,

soon I encounter it—an acrid haze which

finds its way through the cracks to sting

my eyes, irritate my throat.

Despite the smoke, it has been a gorgeous

drive, chill gusts of wind whipping the treetops,

puffy white clouds scudding in a sky so blue

I’d almost forgotten it could clear this way.

Sometimes, driving through a well-known area,

I shift my perception of the usual to view the

landscape scrolling by as if it were a place I’ve

never been, where every tree shines newborn.

This lockdown time, we should safely venture

out to practice seeing, escape the confines of

the familiar, and rinse our vision with gratitude

as we witness the unfolding of each day. (c) 2020 Penny Harter

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ [5/19/20]

Finally, today's poem arrives, another haibun inspired by the empty coffee cup, left over from this morning, still sitting by my computer. Today’s Menu Preparing the cup of coffee that leads off my day—one of just two cups, the second only half-decaf—has become a ritual. I observe each step of making it as if someone else’s hands were spooning the honey into the bottom of the white mug with a blue crab on it, placing the paper K-cup into the Keurig machine, pressing first the green heat button, then the blue one for cup size. Thankfully, I can still hear the thin stream of water trickling into the cup, clearly see the cream swirl into the dark contents as I tilt my wrist to pour it, and savor the hearty flavor of my first sip.

Sometimes this is enough. I don’t really want food most mornings. Meals have become too routine during these repetitive days—especially breakfast. Will it be eggs and gluten-free toast, or eggs on gluten-free toast? Should I butter the toast or not? Do I want to bother with oatmeal? Cold cereal gets soggy. Pancakes—well, that’s more work, although I do enjoy adding a cup of frozen blueberries and stirring the batter to indigo.

remember all the hungry

children, Nana said—forcing

bite after bite

When my late husband and I visited my mother in her mid-eighties, each morning we would join her in the kitchen and ask how she was. As she padded around in robe and slippers, squeezing fresh orange juice and making the required Wheatena for my dad,

her answer was always the same: As good as can be expected.

I remind myself of that as I embrace my morning. Write about what you know, they tell us. But some of these mornings I know less and less, and this is one of them. I take my coffee, move to sit by the window, and sip by sip contemplate the dawning sky, waiting.

stuffing my freezer—what is it

I am hoarding? (c) 2020 Penny Harter

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ [5/18/20]

I almost didn't find today's poem, but then, late afternoon, I sat down to read some Rilke, and the poem found me. So instead of today's poem, here is this evening's poem. A Song Before Sleep I would like to sing someone to sleep Ranier Maria Rilke, from “To Say Before Sleep” I think it will be a song without words, or perhaps a song in a language I invent, a gently babbling stream. If I can open the mouth of my heart, my hope chest of memory, perhaps a chant I learned by heart and sang at evensong in some lost monastic life will find voice and rise to comfort both myself and you. I may merely hum, voice vibrating deep in my chest as I follow the thread of a familiar melody I can’t quite recall— maybe the one I hummed years ago to my infant grandson while holding a nebulizer over his nose and mouth and rocking us both until he hummed back. If my song does find words, may they be words that cradle you as you drift through the twilight door that swings between day and dark; may they be balm to your spirit, soothing you as if you were a child again, your head on my shoulder. And may your breathing time to mine as you find the deep room of sleep and stay there although the wind moans in the eaves, blowing night rain against your windows. And even when thunder knocks hard at your dreams, know that it, too, is simply raising its own wordless song (c) 2020 Penny Harter


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