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Language, Literature, Learning & Life.

Pages Rustle: Featured Poet Jeanetta Calhoun Mish

Each week through April and into May, I'll be featuring a new poem, my thoughts on the work, and a conversation with the poet. I hope you'll enjoy and come back again for the next installation!

This week's poem: "Conviction" from:

Work is Love Made Visible

by Jeanetta Calhoun Mish

West End Press



To the topmost branch of the cedar tree
that has lost most of its limbs to one storm or another
the mockingbird has returned.
He swings with delight on the supple branch
as it bends and sways in the gusty March wind.
He chortles his song and everyone else's
and answers my out-of-tune whistle with glee.
Does he not notice that each year his favorite tree
stands more bare and scarred, that it
weeps great rivers of fragrant resin and groans
and creaks at the slightest spring breeze or
is this his reason for returning, that
the tree could not survive the winter without
the conviction that the mockingbird would return
to sing of regeneration to newly forming branches
and to bring gladness where once there was only despair.


Most of us are familiar with the mockingbird, that jack-of-all-songs in the garden and fields, which is why he works well as a metaphor in this poem. "Conviction" is a poem that comes late in the book, a book filled with people: mothers, sisters, brothers, but mostly the women of the family who have been the keepers of the family stories, the ones who put down roots, whose work is made visible through plates delivered to customers at diner tables, through gardens filled with tomatoes, through handmade garments. So, it's a bit of a surprise to come across the bird and this broken tree, and a poem that seems to be a fairly straightforward and descriptive.

It's a lovely poem about what endures, how much we measure by what we've lost and perhaps more importantly, how too often we see the world not for the possibilities inherent but defined only by what is missing. I like how this poem slyly addresses the cyclical nature of the family, showing how grief and loss ebb and flow, how the losses in the family appear more evident, more damaging, to those who stand between generations, and especially so to those who are the storytellers and who chronicle the family's history.

The mockingbird, who we're never sure if he's chortling with us, or at us, acts to reframe the brokenness of the world into possibility. Even if the tree (and then by extension, the family) has lost branches, suffered trauma, and continues to suffer because of those losses, there's still the hope for future generations, continued growth, and a renewal come spring. And of course, the bird could be wrong, too. Too many branches might break; the tree could at last succumb to the weather, to the storms that have battered it. But this is how we go on, the new springs from the old which falls away, in turn. Perhaps, the mockingbird in this poem might just be that “thing with feathers,” hope for the future embodied and all of our songs remembered and sung back to us.


Q & A with Poet Jeanetta Calhoun Mish

Q: Tell us a little bit about the photos that punctuate the book. Did you use the photos as writing prompts?

Jeanetta Calhoun Mish: Well, not exactly. Most of the poems in the book were already written when I discovered in my granny's album the photo-postcard of my great-great grandmother and the handwritten note on the back of it that closes the poem, "This is where I feed the hungry." I knew some of Grandma Mary Ellen's story, about how she'd lost her husband and
sons to a mysterious poisoning, but I did not know what happened to her after that. That poignant line, scribbled in pencil on the back of the photo, made me want to find out more about her, and then the poem happened around her story. Only after writing this poem in response to the picture did I realize that many of the poems I'd been writing could be attached to family photographs and movies. It may be that I had carried the images I saw in photo albums and during holiday movie nights in my head so long they became poems. My mother was astonished when I began asking for very specific photographs that I had not seen in years, but remembered clearly. I asked for the photos after I wrote the poems, though, so they weren't prompts in the usual sense, with the exception of "A Woman's Inheritance," which was a revision of a poem I'd been trying to write for a long time but that had resisted my efforts until I found the photos of my Aunt Polly as Rosie the Riveter and of the mysterious woman holding a baby in a christening gown. Both photos are directly referenced in the poem.

Q: There is an earlier poem in the book, "My Sister's Sacrifice." How do you see these two poems working together?

Jeanetta Calhoun Mish: This is one of the poems for which I requested a photo that my mother didn't remember having until she looked through her album. I recalled visual images of actual events that seemed to be reenactments of what turned out to be a perfect recollection of the photograph. It's as if my memories of the many, many, "last times" I saw my sister, as she was leaving, had become crystallized in my mind in the form of the remembered photo. The palimpsest imagery of "real memory" and "memory of photo" is very difficult to explain! However, discussing the poem's memory/imagery is actually less difficult than discussing its emotional genesis, even though my sister has recently returned to the family. For me, this poem is an act of forgiveness and an attempt to reach across a great emotional divide. It wasn't until I received your reading of "Conviction," in preparation for this interview, that I could see the connection between the two. I wrote "Conviction" for my husband who is figured as the (actual) mockingbird in the (actual) tree in our back yard. It is he who patiently taught me how to love with trust again, and through the poem "My Sister's Sacrifice" I attempted to refract what I had learned through his love and his patience with me into my relationship with my sister. I want to thank you again, Amy, as I did in our correspondence, for your sensitive and thoughtful reading of "Conviction," which has shown me connections I didn't consciously realize were there.

Q: There's a sense in this poem of the essentialness of returning again to home. Do you see yourself, too, as the bird who comes back home to retell and thus preserve the family through poetry?

Jeanetta Calhoun Mish: I came home driven by a profound land and sky homesickness, so strong it had physical components. I wonder if birds have a similar feeling when migrating back to their nesting grounds from winter roosts? Much of my family had moved, so the overwhelming ache for home I felt was truly about place, not about family. Perhaps can we call it, in reference to the literary, "sense of place" dysphoria? I left Wewoka, Oklahoma as soon as I graduated from high school; like I was "shot out of a cannon" as they say around here. Like lots of other small-town kids (Dorothy, are you listening?), I was hungry to see the
world and to have what I was sure were exciting new experiences unavailable at home. About twenty-five years later, I accepted the visceral fact I could not physically separate myself from Oklahoma any longer. I needed the lightning storms, the tornadoes, the exquisite cornflower blue sky, the spring dominated by purple (red buds, henbit), the purifying late-summer heat, the unrelenting wind. I also admitted to myself that it was against my raising to complain about my state's shortcomings from a distance and not do anything positive to
help. I came back in 2003 and I continue to put my shoulder to the wheel in many different venues to do what I can with my capabilities to help make Oklahoma the best place it can be, culturally, socially and educationally. Of course, realizing "you can't go home" and/or "going home" both have powerful emotional and metaphorical associations that are deeply tied to ideas of family and origins, so to make the choice to come home also meant, for me, to take up my family obligation as "the writer," which includes "the family history keeper," "the poet," and "the one who writes our obituaries."


Three More Poems to Note:

"Falling Stars"

"Story Teller"

"For Michael"

Poet's Biography:

Jeanetta Calhoun Mish is a native Oklahoman returned home after twenty years to study for her PhD in American Literature and to grow good tomatoes. Her poetry collection, Work Is Love Made Visible, was published by West End Press (in distribution partnership with the University of New Mexico Press) in March 2009. She lives in Norman, Oklahoma, with her husband, an engineering professor; they have a combined family of three sons, all between the ages of 17 and 19. Her mother and grandmother live just down the road.

She has participated in poetry readings and workshops for more than 20 years, including repeat performances as a founding member of the Woody Guthrie Poets at the Woody Guthrie Free Folk Festival in Okemah, Oklahoma. Other venues include Telluride Institute’s Native American Writers Program; The Taos Poetry Circus Invitational Reading; Red Dirt Book Festival; Scissortail Creative Writing Festival, C.W. Post Poetry Center at LIU; New York State Writers Institute Community Voices Series and Readings Against the End of the World, both in Albany, NY; and The Knitting Factory in New York City.

Jeanetta’s chapbook, Tongue Tied Woman, won the Edda Poetry Chapbook Competition for Women in 2002. She has published poetry recently in LABOR: Studies in Working Class History of the Americas, Oklahoma Today, Poetry Bay, and in “Walt’s Corner” of the The Long-Islander. Mish’s creative non-fiction essay, “This Oklahoma We Call Home,” appeared in the Fall/Winter 2008 issue of Crosstimbers. Anthology publications include poems in Returning the Gift and The Colour of Resistance. Jeanetta gives workshops in schools and libraries for both the Oklahoma Arts Council’s Teaching Artists’ Program and the Oklahoma Humanities Council’s Poetry Out Loud! Program.

For more information, visit http://www.tonguetiedwoman.com/.


Purchase information: University of New Mexico Press and elsewhere on the web.


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