POETRY MONDAY: February 6, 2017

Betty Lies

No, she doesn’t. It’s pronounced Lees, in case you wondered, and she’s one of the most truthful poets I know. Full disclosure: I’ve known and admired Betty Lies as a poet, educator and colleague for many years and in fact even blurbed one of her books, The Day After I Drowned (Cherry Grove Collections, 2010). I had the occasion to re-read it recently, and it resonated more strongly than ever. This is what poetry does for us – one of the many things it
does. For me, right now, having suffered a painful loss, her poems were as good as a grief support group.

But first, a bit about her. Betty Bonham Lies has taught English and creative writing for many years, working with students of all ages, from kindergarten to adults. She was named a Distinguished Teaching Artist by the New Jersey State Council on the Arts, and was twice awarded the NJ Governor’s Award in Arts Education. She is a Dodge Poet for the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation. Her other books include two additional volumes of poetry, The Blue Laws and Padiddle; as well as three books of prose, including Earth’s Daughters: Stories of Women in Classical Mythology. A fourth volume of poems, The Cliff’s Edge, is forthcoming from Aldrich Press. Her poems have also been widely published and anthologized.

Since I can’t plagiarize myself, and until you discover her book for yourselves, here’s some of what I said after first reading The Day After I Drowned:

              “In these emotionally open, clean-lined, image-laden poems, Betty Lies
               tells us how ‘cutting a coat of darkness’ after her first husband’s illness
               and death, she’ has been years on the road to calm.’ The music of ‘Ode
               to Joy’ surfaces periodically here as dreaming and memory help her to
              live through profound loss. Among the strongest poems in the collection
              are those that look directly into the face of death. Not much magical
              thinking here, just unflinching honesty ….”

The three poems that follow are all from this moving and beautiful book.

                                           Irene Willis
                                           Poetry Editor


Cento of Loss

Late afternoon on the street:
a mirage, a moon of white

journeying downward or upward,
the important sun at his back.

And the sky stacked against me:
everything was in the air,

stars burning out and falling
like seagulls in the wake of a ship.

In the long fatherless hours
what stillness over house and garden,

my footsteps like water, hollow.
I count the holes they leave. Yes,

things have come to that.
I stand trembling,

a little mist of fallen starlight:
in the terrible hours of the window,

the dark blood in my body stunned
and unaware. Not anything like sleep:

the same bewildered face of a child
who senses first responsibility,

how to stand up, knowing
we must lose what we love.

Since then it has not stopped raining,
all the flowers going inward,

cornflowers and Queen Anne’s lace,
the wind, in its greatest power, whirls,

chunks of land at mid-sea disappear.
Come back, come back!

In the cave of my ruins,
only the candle flames.

It’s never done,
this work of burial.


What the Fortune Cookie Said

Something good will arrive by mail
when you are least expecting it—
a jewel, a map, two rings of gold,
a letter from someone you have lost.

When you are least expecting it,
something you thought could never come true:
a letter from someone you have lost,
like a bell tolling the Ode to Joy,

something you thought could never come true.
And your heart will swell and start to sing
like a bell tolling the Ode to Joy
beyond the limits of earth and sky.

Your heart will swell and start to sing
a tune that soars above things of this world:
beyond the limits of earth and sky,
you’ll start to live in your life again.

Your tune will soar above things of this world
—a jewel, a map, two rings of gold.
You might start to live in your life again
if something good could arrive by mail.


Sometimes in your sleep

you sigh and slip into a silence empty as a breath,
and then I know you’ve gone into the room

that lies so far from me I cannot even guess
what colors light its walls, what shadows crawl

across the floor. Your absence spreads
along the headboard of the bed where we lie

side by side, as if we equally inhabited this life
we’ve shared for forty years. But each of us

lives in a different place, our front rooms always
open to the other, sometimes darker spaces—

Those long hallways, doors beyond doors,
the last one opening upon . . . .

Some things frighten me, a box
from which plagues have escaped,

a stone pushed back to show a vacant tomb,
a house without you in it.

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