“A” is for “Anxiety” (also “Abecedarius”*)

To start with, a story by Pema Chödrön, from her book, Taking the Leap. IMG_2895She writes:

A few years ago, I was overwhelmed by deep anxiety, a fundamental, intense anxiety with no storyline attached. I felt very vulnerable, very afraid and raw. While I sat and breathed with it, relaxed into it, stayed with it, the terror did not abate. It was unrelenting after many days, and I didn’t know what to do.

I went to see my teacher Dzigar Kongtrül, and he said, “Oh, I know that place.” That was reassuring. He told me about times in his life when he had been caught in the same way. He said it had been an important part of his journey and had been a great teacher for him. Then he did something that shifted how I practice. He asked me to describe what I was experiencing. He asked me where I felt it. He asked me if it hurt physically and if it was hot or cold. He asked me to describe the quality of the sensation, as precisely as I could. This detailed exploration continued for a while, and then he brightened up and said “Ani Pema, that’s the Dakini’s Bliss. That’s a high-level of spiritual bliss.” I almost fell out of my chair. I thought, “Wow, this is great!” And I couldn’t wait to feel that intensity again. And do you know what happened? When I eagerly sat down to practice, of course, since the resistance was gone, so was the anxiety.

I now know that at a nonverbal level the aversion to my experience had been very strong. I had been making the sensation bad. Basically, I just wanted it to go away. But when my teacher said “Dakini’s bliss,” it completely changed the way I looked at it. So that’s what I learned: take an interest in your pain and your fear. Move closer, lean in, get curious; even for a moment, experience the feelings without labels, beyond being good or bad. Welcome them. Invite them. Do anything that helps melt the resistance.download

(For the final  paragraph of the excerpt, click here: https://www.facebook.com/notes/pema-chodron/dakinis-bliss/386161346427/)


Re-reading this excerpt today I found myself rethinking anxiety— in fact, it didn’t feel like so much a “rethinking” as a sort of busting out of the constraints of old thinking by a by way of the question that occurred to me: What would it mean to think that it is not the “energy of anxiety” I am experiencing when I am in its throes, I wondered, but the “anxiety of energy“?

What if, that is, the feeling of “anxiety” is none other than the body’s natural discomfort with that dimension of our life-force that is in fact too big for the body to contain? And isn’t that in turn part of the condition of being fully alive: to have to grapple with not

kanji for “Qi”

only the amount of life-force (prana, qi) sufficient for the basic functions of our own, individual bodies’ lives, but also to somehow manage all of the additional life-force needed to participate in life-giving activity (which might be defined as all that is generative, nurturing, protective, reparative, attentive, and more): with that abundance, that excess of life-force that cannot in fact be contained, because it’s not meant to be, not being meant for our individual lives’ basic functioning alone.

And the moment that thought-question arrived, I literally felt the truth of it; it was as though my anxiety itself had been yearning to be heard, instead of pathologized (newsflash: we mental health practitioners get away with a boatload of judgements, disguised as “diagnoses”). And I felt the anxiety pause in a kind of relief-of-recognition—the energy itself felt no less intense, but it was as though all the zippy, chaotic motion of its electrons had shifted from a kind of screechy dissonance into a kind of busy hum.

Which hum, I recognized, is exactly the feeling I have when that energy is actually plugged into something: when I am hiking, or painting, or writing (in fact I feel that hum now, as I write this piece, and it was not the same feeling before I started it), or singing*, or listening with deep attention to another heart.

And speaking of running: the concept of the “anxiety of energy” in turn changes the way I  think about what it means to engage in activities that help with discharging the excess. Because while there’s all kinds of encouragement  to “conserve” and to “refresh” our energy so we can keep it and even have more, somehow the “discharge of the excess” kinds of activities tend to get pathologized, I think because that’s where “anxiety” gets into the mix. Take my friend S., for instance. S., also a psychotherapist, is someone I think of as having been gifted/burdened with a tremendous amount of life-force, and who depends on a lot of daily running not only to discharge the excess but to smooth out her energy, as well as to work out whatever mental and emotion content it might be engaging at the moment. Which in fact makes it possible to actually bring that particular quality of calm, intense presence she has to fully being with others, without the restless “static” created by her own energetic excess. And I love the way she patiently and persistently resists the pathologizing she is regularly subjected to (which I guess comes with the territory of being a psychotherapist and having lots of psychotherapist friends!). One of her protests involves pointing out that the build-up itself simply exists as a given, that it could be discharged in a lot less productive ways, and that in fact things do get worked out and through in the process, which would not happen if the energy were forced to stay trapped in the body’s static container. In S’s case, it seems to me that her dependence on running becomes a non-problem when it is understood to be the “anxiety of energy” (in the sense of the “restlessness of the excess”) that is being managed, and not the other way around.  (side note: Susannah writes a wonderful, if very sporadic, blog— not about running but aptly-otherwise titled Run It Down )

About a year ago, an extended period of turmoil left me with a little hand tremor. The tremor having persisted long after other stress-related symptoms had abated, I asked my doctor about it recently, since while it’s not that noticeable or bothersome, I wanted to make sure it wasn’t a symptom of some problem. She asked me several questions, including “Does is stop when your hand grasps or engages something?” I had noticed, in fact, that it does exactly that (for instance, there is no tremor at all as type these words). She told me that I had what is called “Essential Tremor,” sometimes brought on by stress, sometimes by genetics, and that while it wasn’t likely to disappear, it was not a problem to solve if it was not a problem to me, especially since the treatments can cause way worse problems than the condition itself.

And so his morning, in light of the reconsideration of anxiety that I’ve described, and in gratitude for that dimension of our life-force that is, by its nature, too much to simply contain, I found myself feeling a new kind of appreciative affection for my tremor. It’s just the tremor of my essence, I thought, as I reached for my cup of tea.





*A note on the “Abecedarius” in the title of this post: an abecedarius is a poem in which the lines or stanzas begin with the letters of the alphabet in regular order.

The poem, Ars Poetica? (not itself an abecedarius) by Czeslaw Milosz begins, I have always aspired to a more spacious form  / that would be free from the claims of poetry or prose /   and would let us understand each other without exposing   / the author or reader to sublime agonies.  

Me too, in this blog and in general. So, as a way of creating a sort of organizing principle for a blog which is intentionally spacious in its form, this post begins a series which, abecedarius-like, will follow the alphabet with respect to titles an topics.

Next: “‘B’ is for ‘Books & Blogs’ (favorites of 2019)”


For the New Year

(in honor of Yevgeny Yevtuchenko, 1932-2017) download

I’ve lived so many lives
inside this one
and none that I know of
the result of resolutions or setting goals!
Lives so much more interesting
than any I could have willed myself,
goals being by nature constrained
by limitations of vision, and the ego’s need
to self-validate (aka to self-improve).
So today, New Years Day 2020, I am grateful
to remember how much I love
the way, all my life, pure curiosity
combined with inchoate longing
has led to one thing after another—
and the adventures that way has made!
I hear you asking:
But then where do vision and goals come in?
Oh, forgive me if I answer
a better question than that one is,
for I speak from within its sea,
inside the tsunami of Mystery where I’m
swimming with memories, images–
schoo1024px-Anthias_on_reefls of them: vivid fish
flashing and darting their erratic unison.
Their bubbles tickle my eyelids.
Kelp sways in kelp forests.
I welcome all and every experience!
Wonder and gratitude, so much gratitude
outpouring from so much awe!
Still, my limitations annoy me:
it is dismaying
to me not to speak Russian, nor to be fluent in Portuguese.
I want to speak Arabic with ease
in Amman
instead of just well enough
to buy الدجاج والقهوة
and to get myself into trouble.
I want to walk across a continent and home,
to move through space without ceasing
(though at my age, preferably on well-marked trails).
I want poetry that pleases
and unsettles me both,
and if the practice
of poetry haunts and exhausts me
without surcease
so what? I am already thus anyway.
I’m in love with the poets from Ammons to Zweig,
especially today with Yevgeny,
with whom I share the same birthday,
and who wrote I admire your beauty
on the flyleaf of my copy of Almost To The End.
Also with Galway, who once called me for advice.
I love to write in the long dark of winter mornings,then snIMG_2508owshoe far up the canyon
until it’s time for wine.
I love to listen to anger until it melts into mourning,
and for knowing’s dissolve back into the awe of unknowing.
For the ways that softens things—
I cook like I dance, and I dance
like I’m putting out a fire,
but in no hurry to succeed.
In June I love the tune and taste
of fresh peas shelled into a bowl.
And when I sing,
merging the body and mind with the breath,
I love how the Anxiety disappears for awhile,
into the Music of the Spheres,
orbital resonance of celestial bodies
and its inaudible harmonies, the kind of bliss
accessible only by listening,
and then by letting go.

–Donna Henderson, 1/1/2020


* * *


* Note: this poem was both inspired and specifically scaffolded by Yevgeny Yevtuchenko’s poem, Prologue. “Interlogue” was a word I thought I’d made up, needing a word for a commentary that comes in the middle of a story, versus at the beginning (prologue) or end (epilogue) . But a Google search finds that at least one other blogger (http://insurrbution.blogspot.com/2012/10/enter-interlogue.html) has done the same, so it’s already a word, hooray!

(and for a more prosaic take on the subject of New Year’s resolutions, see my January, 2019 post on Mental Health Matters)


“Shapes on the Move Making Time with Eternity”

(A Versay* on A. R. Ammons’s book-length poem, Garbage.)


“To the bacteria, tumblebugs, scavengers, wordsmiths
                                                –the transfigurers, restorers.”
                                                  (epigraph to Garbage: A Poem)


The poem [1]  holds a tension between order and wildness; holds
our attention (a-tension); if order in matter then wildness in

form or vice-versa, otherwise (orderly matter and orderly form)
it’s boring (That’s why sestinas are boring, Chase said, […] the sestina

a flight plan with too little […] deviance, too much time
[to get where it’s going] [2]; likewise (wild content, disorderly

form) there is nothing to enter, no center to hold and the poem
flies apart by centrifugal force (Moving or tending to move

away from a center [see the O.E.D.] [3] ) along with its interest,
the poem all fleeing no seeking, no centripetal counter (force directed

toward the center of rotation which acts upon a body in circular
motion [4] ); by “center” I mean here the unification of elements

by the tension that holds them, without which no anchor no texture
depth; order and wildness then, pattern and chaos: the nature of

matter, the matter of unity, the poem a comprehension, enactment
of union, one which contains and dissolves its containment;

of the nature of matter in motion and stasis, change and stability
itself stable only in change, stasis dwelling in motion (Oh

here my brand-new fake nails are overshooting the keys
I have to backspace to fix things, the t coming down as a 6,

k arriving as I, the text going down by a kind of spiraling motion);
in Garbage the flow of one thing into the next enacts this nature

of nature, ours and the rest (as if these natures were separate);
Get back to the environment where you belong! I once barked

at a chipmunk “who” had (“which” had?) ventured onto the
asphalt of the wayside on 101; we’d pulled off to take the glossy

signposted vista in; the chipmunk surprised me rushing out
from the grasses attracted I guess by our crumbs, all jerky and

sudden in stillness and motion both– and undistant,
distinctly undistant the chipmunk was, unlike the vista of sea

sloshing up on the “glittering coastline” of the view of Big Sur,
and Garbage itself  is “about” this by way of  the matter of motion,

shapes on the move [5], the poem a continuous
motion of hitch and flow, the fixed only

fixed in its mutable nature: the poem
which is about the pre-socratic idea of the

dispositional axis from stone to wind, wind
to stone [6] not flying apart, neither

is it contained, its movement in couplets and cadenced speech,
the body hitching / itself up on the way [7]

by its pauses and stresses, sometimes jerky
and choppy: ditches? rain, a self?, a self?, being

here?, where?, where’s here?, splits slices,
slits; quick cut, [8], chipmunk


on the pavement its movements all commas
(these sometimes serve music specifically– listen to

sober little organic, meaningful pictures [9] ),
semi-colons and colons –a dash here and there–

each section a single continuous sentence, an arc
of magnetic thought, motion itself its emotion

and unity, each colon a little gate: enjambment
a fulcrum, assisting the tipping and shifting of shapes

one into another, abetting momentum– lists also
assisting the flood and flow: I need time and verve

to find out, now, about medicare/medicaid,
national osteoporosis week, gadabout tours,

hearing loss, homesharing programs, and choosing
good nutrition! for starters! [10];

the lists best of all, facts of action: actions actions,
actions, human or atomic: these actions cut

curves out in space, spiral up or in, turn and
turn back, stall, whirl: these are the motions [11]


action and reaction of driving ahead, of going
slow, of walking the line, the tightrope, here

the narratives of motion that tell the story
the figures into facticity: let’s

study the motions, are they slovenly, choppy,
attenuating, high, meandering, wasteful: we

need nothing more […] [12] except for
the period at the end of each section, a little rest.



Oh that’s right: there’s a chipmunk in Garbage too
(though not, KB dear reader, in the sections I sent you;

but that’s all for the better, providing an excuse
for transcribing its pleasures, excerpting this section

about the stray cat whose irregular visits keep the prey items//
puzzled [13]   […] […])

well, there’s one chipmunk you won’t see
streaking around here anymore, plunging into

cement holes by the back steps or into ground
holes by the hydrangea or scrambling into the

crack under the middle post of the garage:
because (this is late the same day) I just saw

tabby walking away with him in his mouth: not
a white longhair, not abyssinian, not a

calico, not chat, but tabby, putting the
chipmunk down by the daylilies, hardly yet having

their days, on the back hedge and then in
thrusting gulps downing chippy:

it is the law of the jungle we have learned so
much from: but some would say the purpose of

living is to serve others or rule them, or to
write music, and some would say that being alive

is like being dead, but I would say that the
purpose though it might not always– or but

seldom– come through is still being alive: I’m
a little shook up about the chipmunk: the other

day just before sunset , I watched him for
several minutes as he sat near the steps […] [14]

–see how this section’s all motion and tension,
the narrative composed by its pulses lists spirals,

sequences, stresses, assonance, consonance
making a music, thought spiraling outward from

concrete (one could say from the asphalt)  –the chipmunk
the tabby, the thrusting gulps–   to the purpose of

life in the space of a stanza break; thought
fact and action all tensile with charge, the same;

charge of the nature of change itself, thought itself
tensile magnificent rangy and bumptious in how

it occurs and flows (versus the passionless stasis
with which it is too often, in tranquility, recollected,

repackaged, re-represented): associative digressions
McConkey labels these in his essay “Rereading Ammons’s

Long Poems,” [15]  wherein he begins by describing
his judgements, his long-held annoyance at Ammons’s

abstractions;  for years, McConkey writes
(couplets and line-breaks mine:)


the book length poems resembled the notebooks  poets
sometimes keep which give us an insight into what

goes on in their minds as they are searching for the ideas
and images that, once discovered, will burst

into creative song. I wanted to hear those songs
without being privy to the process that created them.

Probably , McConkey goes on, the prejudice I brought
to my reading is shared by others who think of the ideal

poem as a concentrated expression that manages–
through the author’s selection and ordering of its images,

through those sounds that become soundings–
to imply so much more than its apparent

subject permits that it expands in the reader’s mind,
becoming, paradoxically or not, an expression of what is

beyond the ability of language to convey  [16]
How Platonic, McConkey, this presumed ideal!:

sounds that become soundings assume depth’s
absence from surfaces; surface and motion for scouting

a drilling site, and language a mean drill at that,
capable only of pointing the way (one way: down);

language a mere map to the buried treasure, not
the adventure (the point) itself: rich, full of depth

–all the depth in the universe– in its surface tensions
and motion; like my friend for whom the hike to the foot

of a mountain we planned to climb (or cave we were
bent on spelunking) was nothing

more than a means to the climb itself or to the cave:
if there’d been a plane he’d have taken it– he hated

the hiking part; while for me the hike was the part I most loved,
the mountain simply an object  to aim it toward: in Nepal,

at our 15,000 foot basecamp, at the foot of the glacier
I was altitude-sick but replete, he was just getting started–

Annapurna range, 1970

–as I was just getting started on this idea of digression,
associative and otherwise, before I swerved awhile into

the Hindu Kush, the idea of digression itself (my right
middle finger’s acrylic spike just invented “dogression”

before I corrected it, a digression I rather like) presumes
a departure from some norm of chronology, logic,

ideal to which the text should conform: like Garbage
(in the manner of Hejinian’s My Life, [17]   but with

surfaced connections, associative, yes, but digressing
from nothing real) is chronology, logic itself being

made as it goes along, abstractions congealing their way
to concretions; tabbies/ chipmunks appear, disappear

into gullets, disintegrate  and expand into thought a continuous
tensile flow (which post-[Ammons’s]-mortem McConkey

begins to see, by way of his own looping back around,
re-reading Ammons while writing his essay-on:

This essay, writes further on, like Archie’s long poems,
is a contemplative process, and what I didn’t realize until

this moment […] is that the major abstractions in Archie’s work
[…] serve […] its meditation on a number of interrelated

matters, the question of meaning and meaninglessness
being the central strand. [18] Well maybe it is and maybe it

isn’t the central strand, meaning and meaninglessness,
but McConkey seems to have gotten somewhere

by the end of his essay, and got there precisely by Ammons’s means:
revisiting, spiraling, thinking his way over a surface through);

neither conforming to, nor dogressing (did it again–
digressing) from some pre-existing ideal, as though

the pre-shapely Platonic ideal and not the real action of
shapes on the move [19] were true,

heart and meat of the matter of matter in Garbage being
the ways motion matters, and by motion itself dissolves.

–Donna Henderson



A note on the “versay:” (*) this is the name I have given to the hybrid verse-essay form I maybe-invented, the intent of which is to explore the workings of a particular poem or poetic strategy/structure, or a poet’s work in general, by exploring its workings by way of the work’s own poetic means. To investigate verse from the inside-out, that is, instead of the more conventional, analytic-prosaic approach of outside-in. 

Works Cited

1. Ammons, A.R. Garbage. New York: W. W. Norton, 1993.417I-RY2cpL._SX330_BO1,204,203,200_

2. Twichell, Chase. “The Topiary Rooster: On Structure, Form and Metaphor. Unpublished manuscript presented at Centrum Summer Writers’ Conference,  2002. p. 3

3. The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary. Oxford University Press, 1993. 362.

4. Ibid.

5. Ammons, p. 43, line 8

6. Ammons, p 20, lines 2-3

7. Ammons, p.43. line 22

8. Ammons, p. 45, lines18-20

9. Ammons, p. 13, line 9

10. Ammons, p. 4, lines 16-20

11. Ammons, p. 54, lines 15-16

12. Ammons, p. 55, lines 1-7

13. Ammons, p. 58, lines 12-13

14. Ammons, p. 58, lines 3-22 & p.59, lines 1-2

15. McConkey, James, “Rereading Ammons’ Long Poems.” In: Considering the Radiance: Essays on the Poetry of A.R. Ammons. Eds. David Burak and Roger Gilbert. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2005. pp 281-293.

16. McConkey, p.282

17. Hejinian, Lynn, My Life. Los Angeles: Green Integer Press, 1980

18. McConkey, p. 288.

19. Ammons, p. 43, line 8








A Coat of Many Colors, Part 3

(Completing a 3-part series on the cento poetic form. To read the previous posts, click on Part 1 and Part 2)


How to Write A Cento:

Choose a single text –an anthology of poems or a single issue of a poetry magazine, for instance– or set of texts. A non-traditional array of potential text material could also include newpapers, magazines, cookbooks, textbooks, etc.– it doesn’t all have to be poetry. 

Set the dial of your attention to be alert to lines or line fragments which catch your notice for any reason. The art of this phase of the process is to read quickly enough not to get involved in a given text– in the elaboration of meaning or development of narrative– but simply to scan for lines to which you respond to in some way. Remember that a line  is not a sentence, and it is lines you are looking for. In fact, it is critical to the process of composition that your collection include a lot of lines that end and/or begin mid-sentence, since these are where the potent and surprising combinations are generated: one line adhering to another line (that is, unless you deliberately set out to compose your cento from lines that are also sentences; if so, have at it). As with the following set of three lines from three different poems, in a recent cento by Susannah Castle : 

                          Are we not bound together by our ends: and when

                         a woman in black dress and gray apron spreads mayonnaise

                         Run like hell my dear

Write down your lines as you scan, making sure to also note the source of each one, for future reference/credit, if you want to include it. While it doesn’t violate copyright law not to cite the line’s origin, since a cento is a kind of collage, many poets (myself included) like to acknowledge our sources. (For an example of a relaxedly non-academic way to do this, see Nicole Sealey’s Cento for the Night I Said “I Love You” ). 

How many lines are enough? While there is no agreed-upon minimum, the 14 lines of the sonnet can be a useful minimum-number target. Or take up the challenge to write a 100-line cento, per the tradition and name (cento is Latin and Italian for “one hundred”)…or anything in between. 

If you are working on a computer, simply type up your lines on a page (keeping them each distinct to start with), ideally in the order in which you gathered them. If you are working by hand, type or write each line on a separate card or slip of paper, so that you can work physically with the arrangement of the lines.

After you’ve collected the number of lines you’ve decided on, take a good look at what you have by way of this first, random arrangement of lines. In what way does this first arrangement stand alone? What does it seems to be saying? Is there a different order of lines which begins to suggest itself?

Once you have thoroughly read yourself into what’s there in the original sequence, begin working with composition, mixing and matching the lines in any arrangement you like. At this point it will become important to consciously resist the impulse to control the focus or meaning, and to remain curious—to remain, that is, in an intuitive mode rather than an analytical one. Allow the lines to continue to work associatively. This will allow a more interesting coherence to emerge. In this first draft stage, I have repeatedly found it useful to find a way to use every line I chose, no matter how much one or another may not seem to fit, since it is often by way of this struggle that the most surprisingly rich associations are forged…and you can always revise it later.

Once your arrangement seems satisfying to you, you may want to leave well enough alone, or to revise it by adding, subtracting repeating, and/or further rearranging lines. Or you might use your cento as a point of departure for a different poem of your own. This could involve anything from simply changing punctuation and verb tenses, to a complete overwriting of the original, using the structure of your cento as a kind of scaffolding for more directly personal material (For an example of how I did this, see In The Great Basin)

Summer Lake, OR, February 2018



…and with that, it’s time to get thee [me] to the monastery for a few days’ retreat.   IMG_2269

* * *

           (Next: “‘Shapes on the Move Making Time with Eternity’: a versay.”)




A Coat of Many Colors, Part 2

[continuing on the subject of the cento poem, so if you haven’t read it already, see Part 1]


First, some theme music:







“Coat of Many Colors” sung by Emmilou Harris



My own interest in the cento began in 2006, reading an article in The New York Times, in which poet (and avid cento writer) David Lehman explained the cento form (as far as we know; there is some murkiness to the history) as

                     a collage-poem composed of lines lifted from other sources—often, though not always, from great poets of the past. In Latin the word cento means ‘patchwork,’ and the verse form resembles a quilt of discrete lines stitched together to make a whole […]. The ancient Greeks assembled centos in homage to Homer, the Romans in homage to Virgil.

It’s been said that in Roman times, the word cento referred even more specifically to the cloaks of Roman soldiers, repaired when torn in battle with patches cut from the cloaks of fallen compatriots, resulting sometimes in cloaks which had become nothing but a patchwork of bits of scavenged cloth, as in the “Coat of Many Colors” song (a song written by Dolly Parton, by the way, but I love the way Emmylou Harris sings it).

Applied to the writing of poems, “Writing a cento,” Lehman says,

may be a kind of extension of the act of reading, a way
to prolong the pleasure. What makes the cento so appealing
a poetic form […] is the opportunity to revel in quotations
and yoke them strategically for a variety of effects beginning
with surprise and humor and ending sometimes in clarity and vision.*

More juicily, another poet (and friend) Anita Sullivan observed recently (in correspondence responding to Part 1 of this series) that the cento-assembling process amounts to

 a sort of re-glomming of language fragments, in an almost micro-biological sense —
strips of algae slime moving towards one another in a dance of similarity-attraction
like the Doctrine of Signatures)



Below is another example (in addition to Laney’s cento in Part 1 of this series) of the power of this method to invite inspiration, in the cento composed by my friend Judy Talbott, using a single anthology of contemporary poems by women. In her sixties at the time, it was also the first poem of  any sort that Judy had ever written.

Love Alone

The church follows me home like a habit.
How ancient your questions:
Where are all of the lost beatitudes?
Why can’t the homeless build nests like the swallow?
Sworn to vigilance, who can begrudge the hours when,
coxcombed by moonlight, you ate of it, and wept?
Praise that good, even misidentified, mislabeled, misguided
can be wrought;
That we can find that which can save us,
Complete with ironed sheets, old sins, and pewter candlesticks
And straw and salt and hay.
I know how to put things off. To do without. To say no thanks, I’ve had enough.
Mercy rains at all latitudes, at each contested parallel;
The randomness of a birdcage laboring to be a real room although it is full of holes,
Stars blowing around like snow. Some fall to the earth.
If I could fill my heart with anything…
Burnished silk, rough tweed, ribbed wool, burgundy, gray-brown, deep blue,
Pass your hands over winter wheat heading up, lay them flat against the
rough bark of an ash tree.
Love alone is credible.

                                     –Judy Talbott, 10/31/08
                                   (reprinted here with the author’s permission)

This poem continues to move and astonish me, on its stand-alone merits. As a first poem ever, it is especially stunning. And since Judy had been a close friend for twenty-five years when she composed this poem, I know how deeply and authentically it speaks to and explore’s the poet’s own major themes and most persistent concerns. Yet the poem was written entirely by way of the essential method of the cento: Judy simply began, without any preconceived notions as to what she was going to write “about,” to read through the poems in the anthology for lines that caught her attention, and to jot those down until she felt she had enough lines to work with (in Judy’s case, the sometimes-advised minimum of fourteen). Then she began to work with the order intuitively, and by way of this process achieved a collage poem which, while made entirely out of lines generated by others, is yet entirely hers: deeply personal and true.

To me, Judy’s poem demonstrates what I would suggest are some of the major principles and features of the cento’s method and purpose (which it shares with other imitative and collage-like methods for generating poems):

1) We don’t need to consciously identify our concerns and themes in order to write about them; the fact is, we can’t not write about them. What we care about will emerge in our writing with or without our conscious intention. By not trying to express what we already think or know, we have the opportunity to discover what we don’t know yet about what is most important to us.

2) Judy’s poem surprised her at first by how much it didn’t sound like what she thought a poem should sound like. Yet it sounded to both her ear and mine completely authentic in its diction, since it was made of speech that could have been her own. Which of course is what a true poem is made of: not of the language associated with preconceived notions of  “poetry” but of our own, authentic speech…speech that we may first recognize in others,’ by way of its immediate resonance for us.

3) When we don’t try to apply (or are temporarily prevented from applying) habitual ways of organizing a poem, it is possible for an organic and much more solid and interesting structure to emerge.

Texture, coherence, and freedom of movement: they’re all there in Judy’s cento, as a result of building the poem line by line.

Enough with the examples; if you are interested in more, there are many other contemporary centos out there to find, including Nicole Sealy’s 100 line Cento for the Night I Said I Love You, which is a personal favorite.

photo by Rachel Eliza Griffiths


Next (and last on this topic, as I am eager to move on to a new series, so stay with me here!): How to Write a Cento: the basic instructions

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