Sedona Lit is a series by Dr. Elizabeth Oakes, an award winning poet and former Shakespeare professor. A Sedonian of three years, she will highlight the literature, written or performed, of Sedona, past and present.
By Elizabeth Oakes
(March 8, 2016)
In this column, the second one in a series of poems about Sedona, Christine Swanberg and Shaeri Richards express the essence of Sedona in two forms – the sonnet, that began in England, and the haiku, which began in Japan. Both arose in approximately the same time: the sixteenth century. What is ancient is new again; what is foreign is local.
Sedona calls us when it’s ready and when we are. Christine Swanberg visited Sedona in the 1980s and always planned to return, which she and her husband Jeff did last summer for a week. World travelers, they never consider themselves tourists, as their aim is to “get inside the energy of certain places.” While here, Christine read at the August Pumphouse Poetry and Prose Project, garnering a cover story, with Jim Bishop, the other reader, in Kudos. Christine’s home base is in the heartland – Rockford, Illinois, where she and Jeff keep a sanctuary for birds, bees, butterflies, and other living creatures.
Christine has a thirty-five year resume as a writer, teacher, musician, poet, and speaker. She is widely published, with seven volumes of poetry, one of which is available on Amazon. In addition, the national journal Poets Market interviewed her in 2008. The poem below has already been published in the Chiron Review.
Christine writes mainly in free verse, as most poets have for the last century and a half. However, her contribution today is three related sonnets, a form in iambic pentameter (basically ten syllables to a line) with a rhyme scheme of abab (with a being the first line, b the second, a the third, and b the fourth, etc.) cdcd efef gg. She, like some others, is rediscovering the pleasure of rhyme and meter. “I was surprised to find that I simply enjoy the challenge of sonnet form,” she says. As poets must do, she lets the poem take her where it wants to go.
Beginning with Walt Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass” in 1850 and gathering steam in the Imagist movement of the early twentieth century, when Ezra Pound declared that poets must “make it new,” free verse has held sway. Free verse is, of course, just that – there is no deliberate rhyme or meter. Instead, it is much like the language we use every day, with the line length subject to the poet’s discretion. It emphasizes figurative instead of patterned language.
It is extremely difficult to write a sonnet and make it sound like natural speech, as Christine does. As anyone who has tried knows, sonnets can sound overly formal, even archaic. but Christine’s does not. Her solution: “I try not to sound stilted or pompous by avoiding too many end stopped rhymes, wrapping them around into the next line instead.” She also enjoys the form in that the last two lines, a couplet, pull the poem together.
A poem, Christine says, “can do many things simultaneously. I like complicated poems that are also very accessible and not obtuse.” I think you’ll find “What Sedona Says: A Sonnet Triptych” fits that description:
A rainbow slivers over Cathedral Rock
here, in Sedona, where molecules spin,
buzz up your spine, tingle your scalp, and knock
at the portal of your third eye. Within
each breath you take upon this vortex,
the meditations amidst red towers
cleanse and sharpen your cerebral cortex.
Then you might decide to pass the hours
communing with the great benevolence.
And if the ghost of Edward Abbey flies
as a vulture, or if you have the sense
that a restless spirit from Jerome cries
in the lightning of an afternoon monsoon,
breathe in, be one with each sacred ruin:
With each sacred ruin and cave dwelling,
with each red spiral and divine design,
with each hovering rock and cloud swelling,
with every desolate abandoned mine,
with every crystal, misguided or not,
with every hummingbird and mountain quail,
with the rattlesnake tied neatly in a knot
behind the cactus, and the wind’s wail
over spires, through never ending canyons,
along green rivers winding, and sage brush
rippling by its side, sweet smell of pinyons
high upon the great red rocks, the green, lush
surprise near the rim of clouds, then the sun
like a thousand painted ponies on the run.
Like a thousand painted ponies, sunset
thundered through the ever changing sky.
The wind, rocks, spirits and the rain all met
that night just beneath the moon’s cat eye.
Here is what the wind said: Keep moving.
The great red rocks shouted: There’s always more.
And the dime store psychic said: Keep grooving.
And the rain whispered: Don’t close the store.
They call to the secret shaman that lives
within your heart, the one who remembers
the soul of every living thing, who gives
the earth its sacred space, who numbers
herself among the little lizard, desert doves,
among every creature that she loves.
That Christine felt the energy of Sedona in her short time here is clear. She catalogs its treasures with rhyme and reason! (For more information, google Christine Swanberg poet.)
Filmmaker, author, speaker, hypnotherapist, musician, actress, poet, improv artist: I’m talking about one person – Shaeri Richards! Before moving to Sedona in 1992, she wrote, directed, edited, narrated, and/or produced (more than one of these terms apply to all three of the following) a PBS documentary that aired nationally, several award winning radio documentaries, and an award winning short film. She also wrote an award winning self help book, Dancing with Your Dragon: The Art of Loving Your Unlovable Self. (The words “award winning” tend to pop up a lot when writing about Shaeri!)
Since then, in Sedona, she has continued as a performer. An accomplished trap set drummer, she opened for many different acts, such as Sha Na Na, in Northern Arizona. A current member of the popular ZenProv Comedy troupe, she also teaches improv on a regular basis. I know for a fact she can write and belt out a song, as she did this past December at Red Earth Theatre’s This Earth We Call Home program. Her paean to Mother Earth was both rocking and funny!
“If my life were a painting, I would have to describe it as mixed media,” she says. True! As one can see from the above, she is skilled in performing. However, there is an introspective side to Shaeri as well, as can be seen in her love of the haiku. “The simplicity intrigues me,” she says, “offering so much for so little.”
The haiku moved from sixteenth century Japan to America in the early part of the twentieth century, when Imagist poets, such as Amy Lowell, adapted it for English. Then, it was picked up mid-century by the Beats, among them Jack Kerouac, with Gary Snyder, who won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry, a second generation adherent. Traditionally, the form has to do with nature, so it’s not surprising that Snyder, an eco-conscious poet heavily influenced by Buddhism, would find it congenial.
Haiku looks easy – three lines, five syllables in the first, seven in the second, and five in the third. However, it’s definitely not, as each word is a distillation of meaning. Ezra Pound, who has arguably the most famous haiku in English (called that even though it doesn’t follow the syllable count), worked for a year and a half and culled the three lines from thirty lines for “In a Station of the Metro.” The haiku is meant to be read on various levels. Although it looks narrative and linear, each word unfolds its meaning as it connects with the other words.
“I take a lot of pictures of Sedona, and I often write haiku about the pictures,” Shaeri says. Here is one:
Red Rocks kissed by light.
At sunrise and sunset born.
To further immerse herself in the esthetic behind the haiku, Shaeri took a Zen painting class, after which she and her husband Jerry Hartleben wrote, produced, and directed Moving from Emptiness: The Life and Art of a Zen Dude. She just finished as guest artist at the Movin’ On Gallery at Hillside and now has her artwork at the Village Gallery in the Village of Oak Creek.
It really is one world now, and it’s even one time, as we have access to those who came before us. Our eclectic world is powered by the centuries. Thanks to Christine and Shaeri for sharing their words, and thanks to all the poets from time immemorial.