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Still working

August 26, 2012

Thanks to Claudia at the dVerse Poets Pub, I have been introduced to the art of Dutch painter Borg de Nobel, who seems like someone I would get along with splendidly: a self-proclaimed gypsy who lives on a sailboat outside Amsterdam; a traveler, reader, writer, and gardener, as well as artist. If I ever get back to the Netherlands or Hungary, I’ll have to invite her to join me for a beer.

In the meantime, this week’s Poetics prompt was to write a piece inspired by one of Borg’s paintings. I went with her choice for the prompt, “Working Still” (shown below), but you should check out some of pieces other dVerse poets chose to write about, plus my favorite work from the collection on her blog, “Stuff & Matter.” Thanks, Claudia and Borg, for getting the pen back in my hand this week.

Working Still by Borg de Nobel / used with permission /

Working Still by Borg de Nobel / used with permission /

working still working
as ursa major hangs overhead
ready to catch
me the little dipper
still perched on
four wobbly scratched legs
Windsor spindles irritating
sore lumbar muscles
I hunch over thinly lined paper
fingers cramped around the
favored rollerball pen
wishing I were suspended
glowing against
country-black sky
preparing to pour
down, down
into great bear’s
soft dense underfur
ride smoothly
through night’s remaining hours
disappear toward dawn

—Julie Laing


Playing with words

July 29, 2012

I missed the last Logophilia challenge at the dVerse Poets Pub and didn’t want to have to pass on this one. But this submission may seem the antithesis of this week’s Poetics challenge: Write a poem incorporating a foreign language; blending in highly specialized vocabulary or jargon; or crafting your diction in a way that creates an aesthetic. I didn’t find a place for foreign words here, and although fly fishing has its own jargon, it seemed to bog down on the piece. What I ended up with instead was the opposite, stripping most of the terminology from it. But hopefully this first draft has an aesthetic pleasing enough that I won’t be booted from the group; poets are so strict about these things. 😉

What I hope to achieve is a piece that can be looked at from several angles, revolving around the word “fly.” The first sense is of course the fishing fly, designed to fool a trout into thinking a pointed hook is a tasty insect. The definition most likely to come to most people’s minds when they hear the word “fly”—that of floating or soaring through the air—is only implied here. Less subtle is the sexuality in the piece: the Urban Dictionary lists these synonyms for “fly”: cool, fresh, hot, sexy, dope, sick, badass, and so on.

Which leads to this first attempt. So where do I take it from here? Does it need the jargon worked in? Should I expand it to play with the nearly two dozen other definitions of “fly” listed in Webster’s? I’d love to hear your thoughts.


wet or dry
I intrigue you
catch your eye
pull you to the
head of your run
you watch
I float serenely
dance past
even disappear
only to silently
drop back into view
just within reach
you sense a trick
but can’t turn away
tension building
you circle smoothly
unable to resist
you take the bait and
swallow me whole

Noontime cafe

July 22, 2012

This week, the dVerse Poets Pub released a fabulous group reading of Schiller’s “Song of the Bell.” I didn’t have time to participate, but I was up for the Poetics challenge it prompted: Observe someone or something and describe what you see. Thanks, Claudia!

Noontime Cafe

It’s a sold out house
every chair holding a diner
every table heavy with mounded potatoes
dripping silent golden yolk and
noisy bacon grease

The line grows outward from
the battered canoe paddle
balanced on its pommel
Please wait to be seated

And they do

Fidgety shuffle up concrete sidewalk
close in on loosely hung screen doors
add to the compact room’s heat
already outpacing rising mercury
at the back of the queue

Oval plates are wiped clean
with sourdough’s last crust
chairs scraped back
patched mesh pushed open
wood frame banging closed rhythmically

Yet lacquered pine tables sit idling
napkins crumpled against mugs
holding dregs of hotplate-burned decaf
water still kissing acrylic brims
sweating faster than the line cook

Thick-browed, Busboy enters stage left
Black-and-white do-rag at his hairline
brightly striped rasta crown
seemingly hiding snaking dreads
more likely unruly, short-cropped curls

One trip removes stainless and paper
the next plastic and ceramic
Before heavy-lashed eyes
lazily find those eager
to break their fast at noon

Pale rags finally
wipe the slate clean for
table number three
Next-In-Line releases sighs of longing
Please wait to be seated

Busboy saunters cramped paths
blue diamond patch winking
halfway between knee and small ass
Clear cups slink in after black mugs
shining flatware trails limp linens

Spellbound, the audience watches
Busboy’s endless performance
Straighten chairs
align salt pepper sugar
turn to the sun-faded door

I expect him to bow
entering footsteps on
darkly stained wood floorboards
sound like applause

Weathering the weather

July 8, 2012

Like many parts of the country, the date in the box of the calendar and the weather through the box of the window have not matched up in recent weeks. Our town had its wettest June ever recorded, leaving locals to bemoan drowning gardens while neighboring counties have been battling heat, wind, and fire.

It’s made for an interesting start to the summer sailing season. Everyone lucked out a couple of weekends ago with clear skies and steady winds for a fast race down the lake, with all boats tucked into slips before thunderheads started to march over the islands and lightning reached longingly for tall masts. We chose to skip what promised to be a wavy night and head inland for a dry, grounded bed. But first, we had to pass through the storm.

Hwy 28

We drive.
Narrow country highway
new asphalt uniform in its blackness
carries us smoothly through
pollen-heavy cheatgrass
merging into swaths of alfalfa
aching to be cut
Florescent yellow blossoms
of canola’s blanket
seem to glow in the darkening day

We drive.
Painfully white thunderheads
collide, pile up
like a multicar accident
and I can’t look away
They block skin-burning sun
filling the wide gap between rough mountains
with puffs of nature’s finest cotton
but then gray as though doused
with dirty dishwater

Still we drive.
No shoulder, no lines
only black asphalt below
now charcoal clouds above
a crisp line through summer’s fields
a square-edged shelf overhead
The clean cut through the sky
begins to bleed toward us
until the road curves
and we see the wall

We drive
toward white nothing
No mountains, no fields
no clouds, no road
only whiteness
like a studio backdrop
waiting for its digital image
The director films our scene:
two lovers, an old truck
a stretch of highway behind them

And ahead?
Forest frightening in its density
ocean view as our route drops
toward diamond-bright sand
manmade metropolis
all concrete, glass, sharp corners
or country road
leading to an aging stucco-walled hotel
bouncy brass beds
soothing hot waters thick with minerals

Suddenly, headlights.
My hand grips your knee
as two hazy round balls
burst through the barrier
Then we slam into the wall
Momentary silence
deafening in its loudness
is defeated by rain
beating its red-roof rhythm
so rapid I could never dance to it

You slow
windshield wipers frantic
yet still it comes
harder, faster, louder
then harder still
Balls of ice
first pinheads
but in seconds, dimes
flat buttons of hail
slap the cracked windshield

We stop.
Narrow, shoulderless highway
erased by roaring cascades of storm
drowning thunder’s cries to be heard
Orange hazard lights
ease the isolating loneliness
break through in occasional flashes
as though channeling lightning
that must be overhead
but come no closer

No one moves.
Cars sit paralyzed
waiting, hoping, perhaps praying
it will all pass
Hail pits itself against metal
and I turn, concerned
But you simply grin
pat the dashboard
as though thanking a loyal dog
lean across and kiss me

We sit
watch the water fall

This poem was written for the dVerse Poets Pub Poetics challenge. The challenge: Write a poem that uses the weather metaphorically to express an emotion or feeling. Thanks, Stu!


July 1, 2012

Brian Miller offered up an intriguing challenge for this week’s Poetics at the dVerse Poet’s Pub: buttons. I thought through several possible takes on buttons–intercom and accordion buttons, buttoned lips, the buttons telemarketers push when they bombard me with unwanted calls during the workday and, even worse, leisure hours. But I kept returning to actual buttons: the flat, round “hardware” crucial to most items of clothing and found in every mother’s sewing box.

My mother is a fiber artist, creating quilts with fabric and thread that are more akin to paintings than bed linens. But when my sister and I were kids, her art was more of a craft as she sewed skirts, dresses, blouses, and other clothes for us as quickly as we tore through them and outgrew them. Buttons were ubiquitous in her sewing room, including jars of old ones that we would take out and sort through when we were very young, just another way to while away a rainy afternoon.

Now that I am older, I wonder about the stories behind the old buttons in my mother’s jars and those stashed in corners of antique shops and junk stores throughout the country. This poem imagines just a few of those stories.

Fastening Memories
She reaches for the Mason jar
to pull the shiny glass
from amid dusty knickknacks
books of others’ adventures
tarnished picture frames

The lid untwists easily
threads smooth from use
She tips the contents
onto a purple pillow
faded, lumpy
gold threads dull with age

Clicking softly
against glass, one another
buttons pour from the squat pint
piling in a sparkling mound
a child would treasure

But she is no child
Wrinkled hands set thick glass
between bone-thin thighs
Fingers cramped by time
extract one, two, three
returning buttons to the jar
a panhandler collecting gemstones
the archeologist archiving history

This chipped button
torn from short, white gloves
that one pearly still
signifying childhood’s end
Green buttons covered by mother
to match bright young eyes
blue ones dyed then spotted
stained from spilled champagne

Flat olive discs
mingle with rounded brass
eagles grasping anchors
holding on for life
just as Fred did
through war’s storm

Pearl-white hearts
bought for baptism day
Perfect brown balls
that fastened first shoes
Knots and swirls, knobs and lace
twisted by nimble fingers
in Thailand and Morocco
collected as souvenirs
but never worn

Black, brown, blue, gray
four holes, two, ribbed, smooth
leftovers from jackets and dresses
shirts, shorts, pants
everyday garments long forgotten
despite evening hours with needle and thread

She carefully refills the jar
tucking memories behind glass
as she does every day
as she will until
memory also is long gone

I reach for the Mason jar
to pull the cloudy glass
from amid dusty knickknacks
books of others’ adventures tales
tarnished picture frames

The lid untwists haltingly
threads rusty without use
I tip the contents
onto a wood counter
scratched, sticky
gold trim dull with age

Clicking softly
against glass, one another
buttons pour from the squat pint
piling in a sparkling mound
I will treasure
without knowing why

It’s the Little Things

June 10, 2012

I’m not sure this is more than a snippet of a poem, but it certainly feels like a snippet of me. Past decisions that came with relative ease included giving up meat and moving to a new country. So why am I constantly indecisive about what to wear, watch, drink, and so on? These few lines don’t address the why, but perhaps they will form the core of a future poem that does.

So why am I posting this now? One of the few things I find more difficult than deciding which movie to see is sharing poems in early forms. So this is my little attempt at bravery for the day. And who knows? Maybe you will have a response that helps me shape this into a fuller poem. Share away.

Little Things
baffled by menus
stumped by 12 screens
wasting energy
before open refrigerator doors
fondling cotton
nylon, polyester, blends
grateful for a single row of shoes

to stay or go
leaving man’s concrete towers
for nature’s snowlined crags
familiar asphalt
for foreign cobbles
long-tolerated pain
for everything unknown
all somehow easier choices

This poem was written for the dVerse Poets Pub Poetics challenge. The challenge: Write a poem that deals with choice. Thanks, Brian, for getting me thinking.

Golden Goose

June 3, 2012

Yesterday’s Poetics challenge at the dVerse Poets Pub was to write about work. Despite the list of suggestions kindly offered by Stuart, this one stumped me until I woke this morning thinking in the simplest terms about my job. It evolved into this piece based on my prior evening, which I spent in the company of two little girls who haven’t yet found a passion for reading. I’m hoping to have a hand in changing that.

Golden Goose

We crowd into the small bed
squirming poking squealing
until elbows soften inward
feet shoulders hands align
my head stops banging
the bunk above

The youngest only chooses
so the eldest peels back pages
tongue sliding smoothly over
boy brother tree
tripping across bid hungry smiled
tangled by splendid
unhindered by commas

Eyelids creeping lower
mouth yawning wide
she asks me to take over
listens avidly as I unwind
snarls of sentences
my voice refusing to snag on
tightly scurried behold

It’s my job, I tell them
when asked why I
with no daughters
read so well
Neither believes my passion for
this chore drill bore

But all day, every day
I knead words
roll out sentences
mold paragraphs
sprinkle commas
spread on adjectives

They slip into sleep
tales of readers
whispered in ears
doctors actors preachers
lawyers biologists teachers
people their dreams
perhaps not just
another bedtime story

Eyes on the Prize

May 27, 2012

When I was in school, the county fair was a summer fixture on the family calendar. Sure, my sister and I rode a few rides, and we went to hear the evening music, which in those days (I feel so old using that phrase) were part of your entry fee, unlike today’s overpriced concerts that seem separate from the fair. We even talked my parents into the annual funnel cake–although never tooth-rotting cotton candy and candied apples. But most of the hours we spent at the fair were in the barnlike exhibition buildings. My mom always volunteered to sit in the cavernous spaces, greeting visitors and ensuring the “do not touch” rule was observed. And she–and later my sister and I–always had entries: quilts and crafts, paintings and jewelry, collections and food.

Every summer, my sister and I added more ribbons to mass dangling from bookshelf brackets: blue up front, with red and then white stashed at the back of the line. The occasional rosette-topped special award would be hung separately, collecting dust in a place of honor. I’m not sure where any of those ribbons are now, but I still have–and use–the battered copy of the Ball Blue Book: The Guide to Home Canning and Freezing I won for one year’s entry of preserves.

Opening Day

Peek through an open doorway
The little girl thinks museum
surprised flimsy metal walls
concrete floor and rickety steps
lead to juried collections
If older she would think science lab
neat lines of jars
contents embalmed in colorful liquid
closer to specimens than art

The curator/lab technician turns
Quick; don’t look!
She knows from gray curls
and flowered apron
this woman will call her dearie
take her hand
force a slow, guided tour

Strapped sandals slap concrete
scurry down rows
eager to return to straw-lined pens
fuzzy noses and arched ears
frying dough and sticky fruit
twirling lights and teenage screams
Oh to walk among them
bright strip of color
pinned to green jumper
Red? even blue?
Perhaps topped with a rose
so big Ferris wheel riders could spot it

Slow to search shelves
Small fingers tap small jars
tagged and classified
contents red and purple and peach
then my name
my jam
my prize!
Snatch the blue ribbon
slip through jean-clad legs
unfurl, wave with pride

This poem was written for the dVerse Poets Pub Poetics challenge. The challenge: Write a fun fair poem. Thanks, Claudia!

If I Had a Boat

May 20, 2012

I readily admit it—I’m a bad artist. I easily let life get in the way of my art. This is my excuse for the lack of activity on this blog. But the good news is that a stagnant site has prompted me to think about what I want to achieve by sharing my work here. Thanks to this blog, I’ve been connected with an incredible international network of talented poets who gently yet thoroughly rip apart pieces I am struggling to finish. That group gives me the freedom to post raw, fresh-from-the-pen poems here—a prospect that ranges from scary to numbing depending on my frame of mind. But on the best of days my frame of mind tells me that working to create art rather than waiting for it to spontaneously appear is exactly what I need.

So that’s the latest phase of the JulieBook. Fortunately, poet friends again come to my rescue by offering ideas, challenges, and prompts that encourage me to explore major keys and minor variations. Some might be insipid, others overwrought, but the new motto is “Words will flow.”

Here’s the first attempt, written for the dVerse Poets Pub Poetics challenge:

If I Had a Boat
The twitch master rises
knowing races start
long before launch
Brown Dog is prepared
visualizing his course
He pauses only to gulp food
that keeps crankiness
and distraction at bay
wishing his human
would offer pizza and beer
but willing to settle for kibble
if it means arriving first in the yard

Rigged for release
Brown Dog hovers
staring at his future
He jockeys for position
eager to take the lead
hoping his stupid human
won’t drive him off the line

No air horn here
Door creaks
clasp snaps
and he crosses over at full speed
heading for the mark
seeking clean air

He tacks to port
Shiny object
or strategic course change?
His line pulls flat and taunt
as he beats upwind
to lay the line

Back on starboard
he comes in too tight
squashing momentum
before accelerating downwind
ears full

Heeled over
he rounds the pin
and trims his sails
for his final run
tail high as he crosses an invisible line

Clearly his race is run

He eases to cruising speed
grabbing a final loop
leisurely sniffing out the best wind
before heading to port
course set for home

The challenge: Pick a craft, trade, job and to think about the specific verbs (or really any words) associated with the craft…. Then, write about something completely different, incorporating, if you can, some of those specific strong technical verbs.


Falling back [poem: Mountain Standard Time]

December 16, 2011

For some reason, I struggle more with the fall time change since moving to Montana than I ever have in other places. I think it’s because we’re on the cusp of a time zone and far enough north that time seems to move more quickly as the days shorten and darkness hits us on both ends. So when that time change comes, I think a bit of the hibernation instinct kicks in.

Yes, winter here is a time for fresh powder turns, long shuffles through quiet woods, and beer slushies around bonfires, but it’s also the time of hunkering indoors, with dinner parties and toasty woodstoves. This piece tells how I felt about the extra hour this year. I’ll be giving it a debut reading Thursday, Dec. 22, at The Cottage Inn, so come indoors and cozy up to the fireplace with a cool brew in hand.

Mountain Standard Time

Time has changed
setting my morning back
on its heels, leaving space
into which an impossible gift
one more hour
can wedge between rising
and nightfall

Time. More Time
So plea the overwhelmed
cry the underprepared
Now it sneaks in, cruelly avoiding
all missions
demanding: Savor me
Don’t reset ignorant clocks
Eat sweetbread and pears as planned
Move through chores and meals and routines as
though nothing has changed
certainly not Time

But late sun
threatens to reveal myth
cuts across stubbled fields
with a glow only encountered when
air frosts breath
Against crackling amber
blank sky looks white until I
face powdered-sugar ridges
perched above caramel tamaracks
flowing sweetly through
green-black lodgepole pines

Hands refuse
to still, unwilling to
waste this golden hour
but then relax, let every minute
slip through gloved
fingers with no regrets

—Julie Laing