On Activism & Cement Eclipses

©Isaac Cordal

Taylor Brorby

On Activism


Activism, for better or worse, seems to be the buzzword of our time. Climate change, gender issues, political policy, GMOs, education—all are laced with an element of activism. As I sit at my desk, scratch words across the page, or type letters on a computer screen, I spend more time thinking about what it means to be an activist writer in the 21st century.
My own work revolves around hydraulic fracturing and energy. At this time we, as writers, face some of the most pressing matters in humanity’s history–increasing acidification of oceans, transgender issues, economic wage disparities, women’s reproductive rights,  topsoil erosion. The list can, and probably should, go on and on. In my own work, in my desire to speak from a sense of place, peppered with an element of longing, fury, and hope,

I wonder where writers can best serve to help shift the conversation.
Many of us know the work of prominent activists–Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickled and Dimed, Rebecca Solnit’s Men Explain Things to Me, Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring—because their work is crucial in understanding not only the world we have left behind but also the world we live in. Without writers, we wouldn’t be able to see the pitfalls and foibles of our own actions.
In his 1996 book, The Book of Yaak—a lengthy defense of the Yaak Valley in northwest Montana—Rick Bass says, “Sometimes panic would spike up deep within me—electrical charges of fear registering off the scale—and I would want to abandon all art and spend all my time in advocacy. I still believed in art, but art seemed utterly

extravagant in the face of what was happening. If your home were burning, for instance, would you grab a bucket of water to pour on it, or would you step back and write a poem about it?” You, too, might often feel this when snapping open the newspaper or turning on your computer monitor.
Most days I feel the duality that Bass describes, scratching my head and scribbling in my notepad, wondering how best to convey the degradation of my most sacred place: the Badlands of western North Dakota. Over the past eight years of the Bakken oil boom,  the number of reported oil, saltwater, and chemical spills has topped 10,000; housing prices have skyrocketed; the drug trade continues to spread; sex trafficking runs rampant on the prairie; flares roar across the horizon. How do I put pen to paper to speak out against these horrible acts? Maybe the question is this: How do I speak out on behalf of everything I love?


Some days I spend time in bed,done-in by the magnitude of my self-perceived responsibility in writing about this matter, of trying to convey the beauty inherent in native prairie grasses—switchgrass , Indiangrass, or blue gamma—or the long-term shifting of silt, carrying the ancient dust of the Rocky Mountains, settling and forming the striated buttes and bluffs of western North Dakota. Even flora and fauna that I avoid, such as prickly pear cactus or the rattle of the venomous prairie rattlesnake, sneak into my prose. I feel this so deeply because it seems that amid the growing oil boom everything I love is withering and disappearing from my home.
But still I wonder where this writing can rest in our consciousness. So much of our world is divided between liberals and conservatives—


pro -choice and pro-life, large government and small government advocates, organic and GMO food. Where is the conversation that allows us to live in the muck of everyday life?
Activist writing too often lives in the political language of our day. Advocates with a pen create phrases that isolate and reprimand, forcing the reader to easily close the book, never reading another word. This should be recognized as a failure on our parts as writers. As Annie Dillard says, “We should mass half-dressed in long lines like tribesmen and shake gourds at each other, to wake up; instead we watch television and miss the show.”
I try to wake up my neighbors by writing letters-to-the-editor, perhaps our last hope for a democratic state; I travel around the country, speaking at colleges and universities about the perils and pitfalls of fracking; and I 

join  activist organizations that promote a different economic system and way of being in the world. Much of this, though, feels hollow, repetitive, and, well, not very fun.
In her essay, “Winter Solstice at Moab Slough,” Terry Tempest Williams says, “I think of my own stream of desires, how cautious I have become with love. It is a vulnerable enterprise to feel deeply and I may not survive my affections…If I chose not to become attached to nouns–a person, place, or thing—then…when a known landscape is bought, sold, and developed, chained or grazed to a stubble…my heart cannot be broken because I never risked giving it away.” Perhaps that is what I am arguing for in a type of new activist writing—a sense of love.
For many of us, writers included, there is a responsibility to render in words the passions of our daily lives.

We pick the world up like a water-worn stone, turn it over, hold it up to the light, examine it from multiple perspectives, and then ask: How shall I describe this? I believe this is how many activist writers feel as well, only their words can feel entrenched, harsh, and grating. I want a writing that is fresh, is filled with zest and gusto;  a writing that runs towards its subject, rips open the curtains, and lets the sun shine in. Writing should snap open our eyes, crack open our brains to new perspectives. Activist writing should not so much tell us what to think or feel but instead activate our own inner sense of emotions, energize our own ability to be and do good for the world.
In a beautiful essay called “Doing Good Work Together,” William Kittredge writes, “We live in stories. What we are is stories. We do things

 because of what is called character, and our character is formed by the stories we learn to live in. Late in the night we listen to our own breathing in the dark and rework our stories. We do it again the next morning, and all day long, before the looking glass of ourselves, reinventing reasons for our lives. Other than such storytelling there is no reason to things.”
But the story in the wider culture has fallen stale, allowing us to live in a world of particularity—we can choose to only listen to Glenn Beck and Fox News or we can sequester ourselves to The Huffington Post and Derrick Jensen. Activist writers recognize that we largely live in stories that are unworkable. We structure and build our lives around stories that threaten the lives of not only other human beings but also the other creatures of this planet; we export jobs we’d rather not do here to countries that pay lower  

worker wages and relax regulations; we help perpetuate a system that pushes piggish politics by depleting forests, rivers, and oceans. We simply haven’t found a story that allows us to be good.
The root meaning of the word activist comes from the Latin word actus, which means “a doing, a driving force, or an impulse.” Herman Melville knew something about finding the driving force in writing: “To produce a mighty book, you must choose a mighty theme.”
So in the 21st century I would like to propose that we reexamine what it means to be an activist, what it means to find a doing or maybe better yet, an obsession. Something where we, as writers, can apprentice ourselves, fingering our ways through the nooks and crannies of our minds, lunging towards phrases that create a patchwork of meaning for the reader  

and writer. Now perhaps more than ever Wordsworth’s words clang true: The world is too much with us.  And now seems the perfect time to sit, pen in hand, scrawling sentences that have the staying power like Muir’s, Shakespeare’s, Woolf’s, or Emerson’s—sentences that help reactivate our own reasons for writing in a world that seems to be more constricted by corporate greed, individual malaise, 

and political apathy. After all, in the busyness of daily lives, we need  a voice that slips in sideways and reminds us that stories are the bedrock of our minds and foundation to our beings.
As writers, we have a certain responsibility to put out the fire that burns our house. But after sorting and  
sifting through the charred remains, there is still the opportunity for expression, the opportunity to build with adjectives and verbs and nouns a sense of meaning and being in the world. Only after staring at the blank page day after day do we start to dig and find the gift that resides in every bit of verse and prose: The ability to change the way we see.


Isaac Cordal

Cement Eclipses



Taylor Brorby is an award-winning essayist, and poet. His chapbook of poems, Ruin: Elegies from the Bakken is through Red Bird Chapbooks and his forthcoming anthology on fracking, Fracture: Essays, Poems, and Stories on Fracking in America is through Ice Cube Press. He is the Reviews Editor for Orion Magazine.

Isaac Cordal is an installation artist whose project Cement Eclipses tackles issues of social importance. These tiny sculptures of people staged in various dire contexts provide thought and raise questions about what it means to be human today. The selected images were completed as part of a residency at The Arts Student League of New York in November 2015.

Ten Minutes in Balasana & Coastal Presence

Jesse Curran

Ten Minutes in Balasana

I came to hatha yoga to deal with stress and low self-esteem. I can be very sensitive, non-confrontational, and have a propensity toward vulnerability. I don’t like being the center of attention or being watched and I suffer from a negative ego. My own worst critic, I came to yoga to take care of me.

Humility, patience, sincerity,

I came to yoga because my dissertation director reminded me to remind myself that I was tall. My dissertation director is a poet. He taught me to read even the most figurative poetry literally. I took that word at face value. Tall. I needed to stop hunching forward and drawing inward. I needed to stand upright and draw the shoulder blades together. To lift my chest like a proud bird. I needed tadasana.

nonviolence, uprightness, purity,

I found a teacher I trusted. I find her beautiful. Her parents are Turkish and she was born in Germany. She is trilingual and her accent soothes me as she guides the class through the poses.From the first class, I felt safe in her foreignness and at home in her compassionate intelligence and disciplined intensity. I later learned that she was raised with Rumi. His teachings and poetry guided her family’s spiritual compass. I never felt judged in her presence. She is among my deepest reasons for gratitude.

devotion to one’s spiritual teacher,

I trust teachers who help their students feel grounded enough to take risks. I gravitate to teachers who do not criticize so much as take seriously the student’s intention to learn. An intention to learn is one of my strongest qualities.

constancy, self-control,

Yoga asana works viscerally. It works before language or conscious awareness. It works with organs and the in the muscle fibers. Internal, intuitive, integrative, integral. It starts at the level of the cells. It hovers between slowness and stillness. A cessation of speed. A quiet holding. Restoring, remaining, reminding.

freedom from the I-sense, insight

A point of fascination: this coming from body into mind. The literal into the metaphorical. An ongoing exploration into the subtle and interconnected layers of experience. A point of great mystery. Mystery accessed only through breath. Spiritus. The biological enmeshment of spirit.

into the evils of birth,

It gives intellectually. A teaching philosophy grounded in a beginner’s mind being ready to begin. A theory of poetry based on the breath. A sense of beauty that cradles the paradox of strength and surrender. A metaphysics that seeks to yoke the fragments born of fear.

sickness, old age, and death,

What I did not expect it to give me is the ability to consume less. To become less of a consumer. That it would offer a personal intervention into the pressing issues of sustainability. Instead, a producer of contentment. A receiver of rest. A professor of poetry. A teacher of tadasana.

detachment, absence of clinging

One’s relationship to hunger changes. Hunger. Literal. Figural. On one hand, the hunger easily mediated by banana or handful of nuts. On the other, the hunger of insatiable discontentment. The hunger of grasping. Both become tempered. Both are occurrences of body and mind that arise and fall away.

to son, wife, family, and home,

And so, needing less. And when needing, knowing what is needed. An apple. Chick peas and olive oil. Brown rice with vegetables. A pint of ice cream can last for two weeks. Just one or two spoons each evening. To be content with a glass of water. To be content.

an unshakeable equanimity

Hunger is no longer hunger. Appetite is no longer appetite. The letting go spirals: to shopping, to planning, to keeping busy. To bargain hunting and searching for fashion. Desire softens into washable cotton, wearing things into the fading and fraying.

in good fortune or in bad,

To be happy staying at home, waiting for the afternoon sun to enter into the break in the canopy of maples that shade the modest apartment. Less need, less worry. A permission to slow down. The world is only opening.

an unwavering devotion to me

Reexamining productivity. Adrift for too long in the suburban crucible of business and beauty. A world of running marathons and radical diets. How counterintuitive restorative yoga practice seems in a culture that is always working to burn calories. Ten minutes a day in child’s pose might do the same work. Hunger is no longer hunger.

above all things, an intense

Ten minutes in balasana.

love of solitude, distaste

Maybe these things happen to all people as they age. The frantic pace of youth cannot endure. Sneakers replace stilettos. Sweatpants replace fitted jeans. Maybe not. Maybe these choices come naturally to some. They didn’t so much for me. I saw enough television growing up to have been deeply affected. I felt enough competition and was exposed to enough images of manicured beauty. I felt impossibly adrift, and often ugly, amidst a reality that could never sustain me. I grew up on Long Island in the shadow of the world’s most photographed city. A city proud of itself for not sleeping.

for involvement in worldly affairs,

Excellent at putting pressure on myself to maintain excellence. A straight-A student. A winner of awards. Phi Beta Kappa. Summa cum laude. Looking like a Christmas tree on graduation, adorned with a dozen tassels. During graduate school, winning the big prizes in teaching and writing. An ongoing involvement in worldly affairs.

persistence in knowing the Self

Addicted to pleasing others. Addicted to being taken seriously. Addicted to validation. Addicted to recognition. Addicted to excellence.

and an awareness of the goal of knowing—

And now, ten minutes in balasana.

all this is called true knowledge;

Thank Shanti and Shiva for poetry and Italy. For the hippies and a plain natural beauty. Thank Whitman for the aroma of armpits and the body being part of the earth. Thank yoga asana for hunger no longer being hunger.

what differs from it is called ignorance.

The greatest terrors of the Anthropocene echo and manifest in the fears and cravings of my own mind. They are perpetuated by each and every action. The psychological dimensions of sustainability are just opening up. The old questions and values are surfacing again. It’s time for less consuming, to shed the old ignorance. It’s time to save and store energy. It’s time to accept responsibility.

I will teach you what should be known;

It’s time for the wisdom of the Tao and of the Gita. It’s time for a turning. Time to switch the televisions off and to let the smart phones break and remain broken. It’s time to turn away from the media and market. Sing songs for mindfulness and a revival of therapeutic philosophy.

knowing it, you are immortal;

And so, some more time in child’s pose. Legs up against the wall. A backbend as a reminder of release and a headstand to flood the anxious edge with warmth. I’ve learned I can have these things just about anywhere and they don’t have a carbon footprint. Balasana. As much child’s pose as I want. No one is stopping me. It’s here. It’s right now. The supreme reality—right here—within me.

It is the supreme reality,

A craving is no longer a craving. Rather, a resting. A breathing. The conservation

which transcends both being and nonbeing.1

of energy.


1 The italicized passage comes from Chapter 13 of Stephen Mitchell’s translation of The Bhagavad Gita (New York:Harmony Books, 2002).



Jesse Curran holds a PhD in English from Stony Brook University and is an educator, gardener, and yoga instructor. Her poetry and essays have been published in numerous journals including, The Emily Dickinson Journal, The Journal of Sustainability Education, Green Humanities, Blueline, The Fourth River, About Place Journal, Lime Hawk, Spillway, and The Common Ground Review.

Rachel Eastman is a native of Maine, graduating with honors from Maine College of Art, where she worked with Johnnie Winona Ross, Ed Douglas, and Honour Mack. She later attended Vermont Studio Center, working with Wolf Kahn and Lois Dodd, as well as conducting independent studies in Paris, London, and The Barre Center for Buddhist Studies. In recent years, Eastman’s interest in Eastern Philosophy,and Romanticism have begun to merge with perennial influences Joseph Mallord William Turner, Frederic Church, and Mark Rothko as her passion for color and light meet the Maine coastline. Currently maintaining studios from the ocean’s edge in Biddeford, Maine,and from the majestic vista views of Evan’s Notch Chatham, in New Hampshire.

A Look at Cecco d’Ascoli’s Book of Beasts

Professor Diane Murphy

Cecco d’Ascoli’s Book of Beasts

The medieval bestiary, literally a “book of beasts,” is a collection of animal lore that combines observations about the natural world with moral lessons.  Bestiaries form part of a literary tradition that can be traced back to earlier genres such as Aesop’s fables.  The concept that nature provides us with models for ethical behavior was probably transmitted orally, however, through proverbs and stories told to children. In the Middle Ages, the descriptions of fauna, both real and mythical, were often rhymed and accompanied by whimsical illustrations that continue to fascinate audiences of all ages. 

Manuscripts were expensive in the period during which they had to be painstakingly copied by hand. The popularity of bestiaries is attested by the fact that almost every noble family and religious institution in Europe possessed one in their private libraries. With the invention of the printing press in the fifteenth century, books could be mass produced, but they were still considered luxury items.  Even a famous artist like Leonardo da Vinci could afford only a modest collection of approximately forty titles.  The list for his library includes a reference to Cecco d’Ascoli, author of the Acerba, which contains a bestiary section that some scholars believe was used as the source for Da Vinci’s own version. 

Ironically, neither Da Vinci nor anyone else should have owned a copy of the Acerba, which was banned by papal decree when Cecco was burned at the stake as a heretic in 1327.  It seems likely that people in the late Middle Ages, like people today, were attracted by the “off limits” status of the book, which circulated widely in clandestine copies after the author’s death.  Cecco’s reputation as a necromancer who disseminated the secrets of black magic to his students has little to do with the actual contents of the Acerba, but there are indications in the text that the astrologer may have prudently decided to exercise a bit of self-censorship while he was under arrest. 

Some manuscripts of Cecco’s unfinished encyclopedic poem use the title L’Acerba Età, which can be translated as The Bitter Age. In fact, it’s tempting to interpret many of the messages contained in the book as references to the poet’s own state of mind while attempting to complete his work, knowing that time was running out. The samples from the bestiary included here contain poignant lines that evoke the anguish of a man facing an unjust death sentence ordered by the Inquisition. More information about the historical period during which Cecco lived, which was indeed a “bitter age,” can be found in the English translation available as a digital text through Capponi Editore. 


The Phoenix

Love is like the phoenix in this way:
when it feels that its vitality is waning,
it’s born again. Listen to this marvel!
The phoenix, found in eastern deserts,
will beat its wings against the heat
until the motion ignites hot flames.

Then, I tell you, it’s reduced to ashes.
But by means of the moon’s influence,
little by little the phoenix returns to life,
rising from the ashes to its former state.
There’s never more than one in the world,
yet its range expands throughout the East.

In these dark times, anyone facing death
at the hands of deluded, rapacious men
should light desire’s flame in his heart.
As he burns, he’ll sing a righteous song.
Defeating ignorance with fervent faith,
he’ll return to the world via Paradise.



The Tiger

The tiger runs as swiftly as an arrow,
somewhat like its cousin the panther.
It’s always worried about its young.
Hunters use mirrors to cast images
of the cubs, so that the parent tiger,
seeing the likeness, won’t chase them.

Gazing into the mirrors, it believes
that its cubs are safe; then the hunter
flees, quickly getting beyond reach.
When the tiger realizes that it’s been
fooled by shadows, its mind succumbs
to grief and it roars in pain and sorrow.

Thus our enemy the devil deceives us,
using the seductive mirror of illusion
as a trap to strip wisdom from our souls.
How frightening it is to me when I think
of how little time we have on this earth,
and how rapidly our lives can slip away.

The span of a human life flows like water,
and soon we must leave this world behind.

The Crocodile

The crocodile spends the winter in water
and the summer on land, growing rapidly.
Its worst enemy is a type of crested fish.
The upper jaw of the crocodile moves,
while the lower mandible remains still.
Females, in heat, bury eggs in the earth.

Crocodiles never emerge during winter,
but are revived by mild spring weather,
when young plants bolster their strength.
They’ll kill a man as soon as they see him,
but once he dies, the beast begins to cry,
seeming to mourn, with piteous sobbing.

Then, having wept, it chews and devours
the human flesh. If a serpent crawls into
its mouth while the crocodile is sleeping,
it destroys the enemy’s heart and entrails,
not stopping until it dies an agonizing death
that almost seems like an act of vengeance.

Hypocrites and devious men do this.
Their hearts delight in inflicting pain,
while their faces retain a merciful look.
Any little thing seems to make them cry.
They’re untrustworthy and malicious:
watch out, and don’t fall for their traps!




The Oyster

The oyster opens its shell completely
when the moon is full: seeing this,
the crab starts planning its next meal.
It places a stone or a branch inside,
so that the oyster loses its safe cover.
In this way, the crab traps its victim.

Similarly, a man who opens his mouth,
revealing his secrets to a false traitor,
will feel the wound deep in his heart.
Words can be a matter of life and death.
A wise man will always remain silent
in the midst of wicked acquaintances.

If you want to live long, remember:
you’ll never be damned for silence.



The Viper

The female viper is a poisonous snake
that bears her young with great effort
and dies painfully while giving birth.
Once pregnant, she kills her mate
and decapitates him with her teeth,
feeling her heart betrayed by love.

The young snakes are born by tearing
through her side, according to nature,
which rules the instincts of all beasts.
Because they’re full of venom, vipers
sleep in caverns during the cold season:
spring weather brings them out in force.

Their blind eyes can be cured with fennel.
Before engaging in the act of copulation,
the female viper regurgitates her venom;
as soon as her desire has been achieved,
she reabsorbs it and goes on her way,
since poison is essential to their lives.

Some men act this way when they confess,
regurgitating their sins and seeming contrite:
they don’t stop sinning in their hearts, though.
They aren’t truly repentant, even if it seems
they’ve changed, since they always return,
shamefaced, to their previous wicked ways.

*All images courtesy of the British Library, Catalog of Illuminated Manuscripts.


Diane Murphy earned her BA at Brown University and her doctorate at the University of Massachusetts/Amherst in Comparative Literature, with an emphasis on medieval studies.  She is currently a Professor of Humanities at Unity College, where she has taught literature, composition and general education courses since 1997.  For the past ten years, she has conducted research on Cecco d’Ascoli, author of the Acerba, and has recently published a full translation of the poem, available as a digital edition. 

A Field Guide to Other People’s Trees

Margot Anne Kelley

A Field Guide to Other People’s Trees

(An excerpt from the Introduction to the recently published book of the same name)

In 1893, Josiah Wood Hupper built what is now our house on a one-acre plot near the bottom of the St. George peninsula, a broad granite swath bounded by the St. George river to the west and the open Atlantic Ocean to the east.  Our acre is bounded neither by ocean nor river. Instead, to the front it abuts the state highway that runs the length of the peninsula, and to one side a private dirt road runs between our house and our nearest neighbor’s.  The other side and back of our property adjoin the rest of the 40 acre lot from which our acre was extracted and given to Josiah as a gift by his sister. 

By Maine standards, an acre isn’t very big.  Still, the yard is rich with trees and bushes, brambles and ferns.  Over the ten years we’ve lived here, our outdoor emendations have been modest and nearly always utilitarian:  we added extensive vegetable and herb gardens, some bushes to hide the back-up generator and propane tanks, three semi-dwarf apple trees.  Mostly, we take care of the flora of our forerunners—pruning, lopping, trimming, clipping, and thinning are all part of our legacy. 

That we have so much to care for is a testament to both place and predecessors.  To be sure, these trees are not a wood primeval; this land has been lived on and worked for more than two centuries.  And that work would have been hard:  in many places on the peninsula, including some in our yard, the soil is no more than a shallow layer over granite ledge.  And here, as elsewhere in New England, the landscape is crisscrossed with low stone walls that are at least as much a place to put unearthed stones as they are boundary lines.  I’m sure the knee-high walls that edge our yard are just such.  In these stone walls and trees and other landscape features, the history of this peninsula is written as surely as on paper.

It was this realization that got me wondering about the trees in our yard, this sense that they are a thread connecting the people who’ve lived here, a living record of the history of this place.  Since I am far from expert in tree knowledge, I turned to field guides to learn about them.  And those helped, somewhat.  But the images in most field guides are idealized; and Maine doesn’t offer an ideal climate in some ways.  Trees here are often frailer than they would be in more southerly parts of their growing range, leafing later in the spring than they are “supposed to” or growing less quickly.  And real trees, like real people, don’t always look like models.  Gradually, I got better at identifying and admiring the trees in their own right, rather than just as a symbol of human preferences and connections.  But I remain an amateur.  So, a few years ago I asked an arborist to determine the ages of the trees we’d inherited.  I imagined that learning who had chosen each tree would give me greater insight into this place I had grown to love and to think of as home.

I have learned some about these people.  I have also, however, realized how naïve that early notion was:  contrary to what I’d imagined at the outset, we people have played a pretty limited role in planting the trees on this piece of property.  Instead, animals and birds and (of course) the trees themselves have taken point on that task.  Though the trees have offered only oblique insights about our human forebears, they’ve readily taught me what every backyard naturalist comes to know—that the living world is not composed of easily separated parts, that the birds and bugs and bacteria, the plants and people, are intertwined with the trees and with one another, all of us connected in unexpected ways.  Occasionally, I fleetingly glimpse the warp and woof of this place’s web, the rich system we’ve all contributed to creating. 

And in such moments, this acre swells.

Excerpt from “About this Field Guide” in A Field Guide to Other People’s Trees by Margot Anne Kelley (Port Clyde, ME: Fiddlehead Press, 2015).  Copyright © 2015 by Margot Anne Kelley. Reprinted with permission from Fiddlehead Press.

Margot Anne Kelley is an artist and educator. Equally engaged by words and images, she has been a professor for nearly twenty-five years, teaching literature, writing, photography, and aesthetics. She is the author of Local Treasures: Geocaching across America and The Thing about the Wind. She lives in mid-coast Maine, where she is Executive Director of the K2 Family Foundation and is associated with several other nonprofits focused on finding creative approaches to living more sustainably. In her free time, she grows food.



Building on poetry slam tradition @ Unity College

Robin MerrillPoetry Slam @ Unity College
On April 27th, Unity built on their budding poetry slam tradition with a rowdy show of student poetry. Six talented students participated, with Brian Fisher taking first place and the $25 cash prize that was generously donated by a member of the community. Judges came from near and far to hear these poems and score them subjectively, but the poets know that the points are not the point!

The evening opened with a feature reading from slam poet Robin Merrill, who will represent Maine at the National Poetry Slam in Oakland, California in August. Visit her at robinmerrill.com.



Karen MacDonald, "UTTERANCE" 2013;

Alison Hawthorne Deming



Crows are ubiquitous in the Connecticut hills and fields, the landscape of my childhood.  Their feathers shine in sunlight like obsidian.  Over a cornfield, a flock of crows is an elegance.  Gleaning grubs  from a fallow field, it is a society of peasants.  Crows fly with patience, their flapping never belabored.  Sometimes they glide. They make their own clothing, feathers grown from their skin, every keratinous cell of the calamus, every black silk fiber of the vane, made by the crow, made thoughtlessly and without effort.  There is a hollow place in the quill, a space used by veins to supply nutrients while the feather is alive and growing.  But the feathers are dead when the crow wears them, a head dress, wing dress, body dress,

basic black, and bearing the lovely sheen of life.  For forty million years the iridescence of bird feathers has graced the earth.
But it was the sound of crows that I loved as a child.  Ca-aw.  Ca-aw.  The throaty, emphatic call announced their presence.  It rose from cedar trees on the edge of the yard, from that place in the sky just out of sight above the hickory tree or behind the house, it entered the open window of the school bus or the chaotic playground during recess at school.  The caws announced some work to be done, some passage to be flown, some sight to be seen, some news to be shared.  What was it that made them call like that from the air as they passed on their way?  Ca-aw.  The syllable bends slightly

downward at the end, almost like the Doppler effect of a passing train.  It was a sound I knew well and a voice that made me feel the world was right, that some lives beyond my life were going about their business, being with their being, and I felt suddenly larger than my small self.  Even now remembering it, I feel as if I am opening the door and stepping outside into the wonder of things.  Crows were always a surprise and never a menace to me.
My father did not like crows.
  He spent many hours working in his vegetable garden.  It was his solace.  He started corn from seed, germinating Golden Bantam stock in Dixie cups, then transplanting it into hills he had hoed up in the rocky soil.  No sooner

had he tamped the seedlings into the ground, than the crows would fly in to pluck up the tender greens.  I saw him storm out of the house with his shotgun many times to teach them a lesson.  I’m sure he failed.  I was never shocked to see his rage.  I empathized with that feeling of helplessness that riled him, though I did not share his hatred of crows.
A group of crows is called a “murder.”
  It lines up in a festive parade of animal names: flock of sheep, herd of horses, pack of wolves, parliament of owls, cauldron of hawks, bouquet of pheasants, whiteness of swans, murmuration of starlings, gaggle of geese, improbability of shearwaters, newspaper syndicate of gannets, charm of finches, raft of ducks, exaltation of larks, unkindness of ravens.  The poor corvids scored low in the judging.
Murder as a group name for crows goes back at least to the 1400s in England.
  The American Society of Crows and Ravens suggests the origin of the name might be in the folk legend that crows, in their black robes, hold tribunals to judge and punish members of their flock exercising bad behavior.

If found guilty, the crow would be killed by the flock.  This notion, the society claims, may be based on observations that a crow will occasionally kill a dying crow that doesn’t belong in their territory or will feed on a dead crow.  In medieval times, crows scavenged human remains at gravesides, battlefields, and execution sites
Crows are smart.
  Crows use tools.  They adapt to city life.  They rival primates in cognitive ability.  In the wild, New Caledonia crows will use a twig to probe in a tree trunk for grubs.  In captivity, two crows sharing an enclosure learned to retrieve bits of pig heart, their favorite food, from a bucket.  The male chose the hooked wire, which did the job well, so the female took the straight wire and bent it into a hook, using it to lift the small bucket of food from a vertical pipe. She had no other crows to model the behavior, little training with pliable objects, and very limited experience with wire. Such skill at turning a found object into a tool is rare among animals. Chimpanzees presented with a similar task—using a length of pipe

to pass through a hole to retrieve an apple—failed until they were coached.
Since 1990 Japanese crows have been observed using cars to crack walnuts.
  The trees grow beside a street on a university campus.  The bird drop the nut into traffic and when it’s cracked, fly down to retrieve the meat.  Because traffic can be heavy on campus, the retrieval can be challenging.  So the crows have learned to drop the nuts onto crosswalks.  Crows and humans line up and wait on the sidewalk. When the cars stop, the bird hops into the street and safely retrieves the snack.  Crows in California have been seen using the crosswalk technique. The birds have long known how to drop clams onto rocks to break their shells.  But this behavior requires inferential thinking: if I drop this nut here, it will be cracked open by the passing cars.
Crows also demonstrate compassion and companionship.
  Kevin McGowan, working with the Cornell Ornithological Laboratory, has studied crows for over twenty years. The group he has tagged and studied suffered an epidemic of West Nile

virus that killed one-third of the population in 2002; the following year, another third were lost to the virus.  Crows are very social.  They roost in murders that can range from one-hundred individuals to millions.  Crows have twenty-five calls.  The call for distress brings other crows.  Crows develop a complex system of helpers. They will defend unrelated crows.  One crow will wait in a tree watching out for predators while others forage, making a small personal sacrifice for the good of the flock.  Crows in the wild live fifteen to twenty years.  They mate for life.
During the West Nile epidemic, when one crow lost a partner it stayed with the larger family of eight or so birds.
  Widowed adults moved in with their parents.  Even with plenty of open territory in which to go off and mate anew, they chose to stay and care for siblings.  When only two sisters were left, they joined neighbors and helped raise their young.  Researcher Anne Clark reported that the crows that had suffered big losses to their community did not move right away into the opened territory.  It was as if they

didn’t know who owned it anymore or they simply didn’t want to go back to the place of so much dying.  She called it the “haunted house” effect.
During the epidemic, when a crow was sick and dying its mate would sit beside it until the end.
  If the dying bird had no mate, another member of its blended family would perch by its side.  The researchers concluded that no crow dies alone.  Far from being murderers, a flock crows might more aptly be called a caretaking of crows.



“Crow” from Zoologies: On Animals and the Human Spirit by Alison Hawthorne Deming (Minneapolis: Milkweed Editions, 2014).  Copyright © 2014 by Alison Hawthorne Deming. Reprinted with permission from Milkweed Editions. www.milkweed.org.

Alison Hawthorne Deming‘s most recent book is Zoologies: On Animals and the Human Spirit (Milkweed, 2014). She is a 2015 Guggenheim Fellow and Agnese Nelms Haury Chair of Environment and Social Justice at the University of Arizona.  She lives in Tucson and Grand Manan, New Brunswick.