A Coat of Many Colors: Writing a Cento

(Part 1 of 3)

   “A poem isn’t made out of ideas; a poem is made out of  lines”                                                                                                                             Karen Brennan

                                                                                                 * * *

On a recent Saturday, hanging out for the rainy weekend with my almost-13-year-old niece, Laney, I was feeling uneasy about letting her continue to binge-watch episodes of The Closer all day (okay, I’d started it). So I proposed we take a break and do something creative together, like write poems.

Laney wasn’t super-enthusiastic at first. But after I explained that what I had in mind was that we write centos (“which are poems made like a collage is made, out of lines from other poets’ poems—you don’t have to come up with a single line of your own!”), she got interested enough to at least humor me, and clicked off Kyra Sedgewick.

I pulled together a stack of poetry anthologies, single-poet collections and back issues of poetry journals, and we set to work at the kitchen table, with the aim of quickly scanning poems from a variety of sources and poets, picking out lines from poems that caught our attention, and copying the lines separately until we had a total of 15 lines. An important part of the process is to not begin with a theme, and to resist the temptation to actively develop one along the way (by scanning for a line that seem to go with the one just chosen, for instance). This can be the most challenging part: to keep subverting the impulse to consciously control meaning-making in choosing material, so as to let the unconscious keep doing the choosing.

As it turned out, Laney was better at this than I was, reading and jotting so quickly that I wondered if she was just writing down random lines without any particular attention to them (she wasn’t), while I kept having to discard lines that I knew I’d chosen thematically.

Once we each had our 15 lines (a somewhat arbitrary number which mostly represents a generally-agreed-on minimum of lines needed to make a successful cento), we cut our pages into strips, one for each line, and started playing with the order of the lines, reassembling them with the aim, now, of creating a satisfying sequence. The challenge was to use all the lines, without making any changes to any of them.

“But there’s a line that doesn’t go at all!” Laney said when she had completed her cento, “Can I leave it out?”

“Use it as your title!” I suggested, and she did.

Here’s Laney’s poem:


Or Things I Did Not Do or Say (a cento)

One dark night
at the golden shore of hope
My temptation is quiet.
Glorious the thunders roar

Although I do not hope.
What a treat to hear thy word.
Faith is a fine invention.
Faith in the religion of love is different.
A quality of loss.

These leaves that redden in the fall.
My whole life has led me here.
Redeem the time, redeem the dream.
So runs my dream; but what am I?
                         Laney U. (age 12 and 10 months), 9/15/19



I find Laney’s poem to be a stunning example of the way the cento-writing process can invite a deep dive into the unconscious, accessing dimensions of our psyches that may even transcend our current stage of development, and maybe even our current lifetime. 

When we had each read our centos aloud to each other, I asked Laney, “So does your poem express something that feels true for you, inside?”

“Yes,” she said without hesitation. “Now can we pick up Veronica and you can take us to the mall?”


The poet

Coming up next: more on the subject of the cento, with instructions and examples from other poets. Meanwhile, mine:


Cento for September

Moonlit winter clouds the color of the desperation of wolves.
Dawn came with an element of Xanax

and I can still see you
where I have lost you here.

The way gouged trees grow around wires
The self is a suffering form. It is.

and prolonging everything my lungs, this persistent heart.
One way to live a life is to spend each moment asking

the purpose of having a body at all ,
How your soul loves.

I am done trying to make sense.
Let’s be giddy, maybe. Time lights a little fire.

Orchids are gushing out from the faucets
of my favorite chapel in the church of language

I am a faint light doused in the clamor
What eludes me has dearly become myself.


August 26, 2019


                                The mind approaches what the heart holds back

arrived as sleep gave way to waking,
as though the state I was slipping from

wanted to have its say,
& send me into the day with it.

—So what does that mean?
the mind wanted to know

while the heart held the words in its liquid hold,
sipping the mystery.

And the mind saw this, listening
as it does slightly more 

to the heart, and was content
to carry the phrase for now,
instead of further interrogate.

                            Meaning and mystery–
How to suffer the weave of these—

Outside, a cedar shudders in the sea air,
stills. In the water below,

lots of fishrisings.
The leaps, the rings.

A gull flies upstream like it’s late
for a meeting. Morning mist

thins a little, dispensing a warmlight

                The mind approaches the heart’s green tomb …

 —So what do I do with that?


                                 Take it to phthalo blue





August 16, 2019

Then some thoughts that were like an exclusion of thinking, though still made of thoughts’ thoughty stuff.

These threaded through the sprucelands, unspooled across sand, invisibly festooning the estuary with their gel-and-dissove, as with spirit orbs.

& though made of thoughts’ thoughty stuff, to make an effort to think them was to whisk them away instead, as with grabbing a bubble or a handful of mist.

As though they were made of thoughts’ thoughty stuff but not its fixed forms and noise. Word-like, but not quite words: what the exclusion was.

Hovered there (here) where saltwater meets and absorbs the sweet.

So these thoughts are how silence thinks? I half questioned, half-declared.

At which “annoints” came to mind, as though answering a better question than the one I could think to ask.





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Age of Consent


Tensile light of the sagelands linking longing
with thankfulness.

Such a long spell this spring without language to enter through.

As though the language itself was still

injured by the winter words, and had gone
numb and mum.

Then a word, then a slight tumbling
sound as though within a lock.

In The Age of Consent, on an Australian sea island
James Mason and Helen Mirren frolic in Technicolor.

It’s 1969, age of hectic sophistication and naiveté.

I am watching, but my mind is still busy with
listening, which it is in love with.

Look! says the word, impatient with my preoccupation
this day with entelechy, day

so effulgent with being
unfurling and freshly-hatched. 


                                                                  –DCH, 8/5/19

After Long Silence,

recommencing here by way of a maybe-series on silence.

Beginning with Yeat’s poem, After Long Silence, which title has been persistently replaying itself my mind for several days.

I had not remembered the poem itself, so looked it up.



                 Speech after long silence; it is right,
                 All other lovers being estranged or dead,
                 Unfriendly lamplight hid under its shade,
                 The curtains drawn upon unfriendly night,
                 That we descant and yet again descant
                 Upon the supreme theme of Art and Song:
                 Bodily decrepitude is wisdom; young
                 We loved each other and were ignorant.







(the following is a repeat of a post published on my mental health blog, Mental Health Matters. Click on the link to find archived posts on that site).


“How’s business?” someone asked me at a party recently.

I responded with my standard (and true) answer: that I’m happy in my work, and happy that I get to do it. Then came the joking next question, “So I guess there must be at least as many crazy people around these parts as there are in the city?”

It was a version of the reference to “crazy people” in connection with the work I do that I have heard more times than I can count, and yet it takes me off guard every time, since “crazy” is not a way I think of anyone I see or have seen in my therapy practice. It’s as if someone were to ask me, “Are there as many two-headed green space aliens around these parts as there are in the city?” To which my answer would be easy: “I wouldn’t know— I’ve never seen any.” 

drawing by “Turnabliss” @ drawception.com

The fact is, the term “crazy” says more about the fear and judgement of those who use it than it says about anyone it is used to describe. Think about it: when you have described yourself or someone else as being “crazy,” haven’t you used it as a term of scorn, a shorthand way to judge, write off, and distance yourself from someone you see as not being able to cope as you think they should, or whose behaviors annoy you, or who seems eccentric in a way you fear?

Which is not to say that there are not people who don’t suffer terribly and persistently from disabling, disorienting, mental or emotional conditions (conditions which are usually treated with medication and case-management anyway, and not counseling). But to call people with severe and persistent mental illness “crazy” is to replace our compassion and curiosity with an all-purpose, scornful write-off label that only contributes to the stigma and isolation that they live with everyday, adding insult to injury, very literally.

Far from being either “crazy” (whatever that means) or being two-headed green space aliens, the people who go to therapy are just like you and me: humans grappling with the ordinary and sometimes extraordinary challenges of being human. Some are dealing with mental illness, which (like any other illness) takes a lot of energy and patience and skill to cope with on a daily basis. Some, faced with a difficult decision, life transition, or loss to navigate, use counseling to create a space in which to hear themselves think and feel themselves feel, the better to figure out for themselves what to do. And the purpose of counseling is to hold that space– a space for people to have a conversation with their own wisdom and emotions, not to get advice, have their problems solved by someone else, or be told how they “should” feel (our friends and families are happy to do that for free, right?)

Over the past several decades of my own adult life, I have personally seen a therapist on 4 different occasions at least, and each therapist I consulted was invaluable in helping me identify and effectively navigate the particular challenges I was working with at the time. One helped me see the need to develop more self-compassion, and taught me practices to cultivate it which I use and teach to this day. One helped my husband and me endure the challenges of parenting teens more effectively (and I hope more gracefully). Another offered me the kinds of questions to ask myself that made it possible for me to more clearly evaluate and take action on a difficult workplace situation. And one offered simply the anchor of her calm, reassuring, confident, listening presence that I needed to get myself through a scary episode of depression, until it lifted.

Could I cope with these myself without counseling? Of course— I was coping, just like everyone alive is coping: coping is what keeps us alive. The problem for most of us isn’t located in a failure of “coping,” it’s that “coping” alone reduces our experience of living to strategies focused on avoiding pain, at the expense of feeling fully and exuberantly alive. So when people come to therapy, it’s rarely about not being able to cope; it’s about being tired of paying the price of “just coping,” and wanting to also feel more fully (and joyously) alive.

Which makes me think, as I write this, that maybe that is actually a good definition of “crazy:” “being fully alive.” If that makes me crazy, I’ll take it. I’d be crazy not to.