Friday, June 29, 2012

Off the Beaten Track: Poetry in Prague

Paul Deblinger
By Paul Deblinger

Our guest today is Paul Deblinger. He is an American writer who, in addition to poetry, also creates comedy and encaustic paintings. He has lived in the Czech Republic and has traveled widely in Europe.

One of the first things I learned on my adventure in Prague is that the word "ano" means yes. You have to listen very carefully--even though Czechs accent the first syllable, it still sounds like "no."

At first I wondered why everyone was so negative--I heard “no,” after “no” as the answer to the most obvious questions. Then, I learned what “ano“ meant. I had to listen carefully. This influenced my writing, my thinking and my daily life as an ex-pat. Listen, listen, think!

I arrived in Prague in June 2003, to take part in a four-week creative writing program sponsored by Western Michigan University. I was 51...and was one year removed from a minor heart attack that left me with severe much so...that after one year I could basically leave my home only for work. Panic attacks in grocery stores, farmers' markets, restaurants, had driven me back home.

Then I found myself scanning writer's web pages and ran across an ad for the Prague program. To make a long story short....somehow though the fog of anxiety I signed up for the Prague program, quit my job, and packed for a four-week stint away from my couch and my home.

Prague Castle. Photo by DC Pelka
Arriving in Prague, a city I had visited once before in 1991, I was assigned a room in a rather official-looking building (turns out it was Gestapo headquarters during WWII) that was now a dormitory for foreign students. It was a warren-like building with long halls that made you want to drop breadcrumbs to find your way back to your room. I often felt myself wandering in endless circles, passing the same door many times. Like my new-found expertise in listening, I needed to force myself to remember the most mundane details.

I was up early the first morning in Prague. I had arrived on a Friday and classes didn't start until Monday. In the early morning light, Prague looked handsome and inviting. As a hilly, river city Prague has unusual, wonderful urban light, light that has been twisted and turned down narrow streets for a thousand years, has bounced off facades of almost every imaginable type of architecture rolling across the many green parts of the city.

After just a few blocks I noticed something about my body: I could breathe. After my heart attack each breath seemed labored as if it was a signal for bad things to come. The mysterious weight of anxiety had removed itself from my chest and I felt as light and free as...well, I couldn't even remember.
Prague Jewish Quarter. Photo by Beth Green

I continued my walk through Prague, crossing the Vltava River, entering Josefov, the old Jewish Quarter. When I say old, I mean old--the Old-New Synagogue dates to the 12th century. The graves in the Old Jewish Cemetery are piled 12 deep and the grave of Rabbi Lowe, the 15th century mystic who gave the Jewish community its mythical superman, the Golem, is packed with folded-up prayers from moderns Jews asking for eternal favors.
On the wall of the Pinchas Synagogue are the inscribed names of Czech Jews murdered by the Nazis during the Holocaust. I scanned the wall for names, searching for Deblinger, the way I would search for my name in a phone book in a distant city. To my astonishment my name was on the wall: Yitchak (my Hebrew name) Deblinger from Prague, one of the 80,000 names crammed on the walls of the 600-year-old synagogue.

When I was a kid I imagined there was a me in every country of the world. I could sit for hours and daydream about the "me" in Ghana, France, Japan, Burma. Now I was confronted with a "me" who lived before me and had perished in a horrible way.

As the poetry seminars began I already had a plethora of things to write about....breathing this newly liberating Czech air, discovering “me” from a different era, the wonderful light in this old city. And to compound these visions, my teacher for the first two weeks, Barbara Cully, a writing professor from Arizona, introduced me to lyric poetry, specifically, the motets of the 20th century Italian poet Eugenio Montale:

You know this. I must lose you again and cannot

I am like an old wound every moment,

every cry re-opens, even the salt spray

rising from the piers darkening the Spring

at Sottoripa.

Montale had written the motets, short lyrical poems in a lover's voice addressing a mysterious love interest, in the 30s. They are replete with images from Dante, the Italian Renaissance and even the satiric barbs of T.S. Eliot.

By the time I had encountered Montale (and the lovely motets of Barbara Cully) I had noticed the countdown clock ticking. I would only be in Prague...25 more days, 20 more days, 18 more days. It was a looming sentence.
Prague Old Town Square. Photo by DC Pelka

Then the ignition of an idea. What if I beat the rap...stayed beyond my four-week term. What would happen?

Well, for one thing, my marriage was unlikely to survive, said my wife. And there were many other things to consider, or were there?

I happened to mention to the director of the program my quest for temporary lodging in Prague, and he said he would be sub-letting his family's flat for the 9-month academic term. Voila! Or, perhaps, "Zde!" in Czech.

Deal done.

The transformation started....from foreign full-time ex-pat.

Due to the four-week poetry workshops I had amassed dozens of new poems or at least partially written ones, and the program itself gave me a kick in the pants to writing: poems, short stories, essays.

Of course, life doesn't stop because you decide to, at least temporarily, reside in a foreign place: marriage must be dealt with, parents get sick, money starts trickling away, then cascading and your new ex-pat life begins to be fully-formed. A new city and culture and language, new friends, new lovers, new problems: source material for a sheath of poems, a memoir, stories, films or as someone once wrote: "Life is what happens when you're making other plans."

But my heart, which had momentarily failed me, and my writing, which had been on an extended furlough returned: new strong beats, a new voice...a new way of looking at the world...the Old World, at that.

Blood-Red Moon

by Paul Deblinger

On the overnight train to Prague we argue
about the color of the moon.
At the stop at Auschwitz
the moon slips between two buildings on the platform
Photo by Ricardo Wang
and exposes its metaphoric blood-red hue.

Standing in the corridor,
head and neck out the window I call
you to come look at the moon.
You sit twisted, pretzel-like in the compartment,
hand holding a cigarette out the window.

It’s not blood-red, it’s amber, you say—the color of the little ring
you bought in the market in Krakow, the amber stone,
a dome nestled in a swirl of silver.
You hold the ring up to the moon.
Blood-red, I say.

The train pulls out from the station,
passes just meters from the Birkenau killing
fields. The blood-red moon hovers over the camp,
half-lopped off by the earth’s shadow. People
really live here, you ask?

Yet we ride these rails of horror from Prague
to Krakow and back for a hedonistic weekend
while history-jabbing body punches
sway me to numbness.

In the old Jewish Quarter in Krakow I imagined an ancestor,
perhaps a great-grandfather, traveling from Eastern Galicia
for business, for pleasure, or maybe to meet a mistress of his own
to toast the moon with Polish vodka. With the thrill of earthly
pleasures coursing through his veins, he momentarily forgets
the daily miseries, can’t even comprehend the racial future.

And I can’t comprehend my aching
bones; my mundane pain clouding history. In the train’s
cozy compartment I turn to you for comfort
and touch. You don’t touch.
You don’t comfort. I stare again
at the blood-red moon, trying to find
a way to navigate this tortured history around your skin.

The smoke from your cigarette plumes
up and out the window. We stare at each other
with hollow, uncertain eyes. The blood-red moon
rises above the plain.

Icy Days

by Paul Deblinger

This morning, the purple-turning
pink smoke drifts,
gathers across rooftops,
crystallizes the abstract
expression grafted to the panes.

Later, walking to Sinku tears flow again.
In the kavarna I try to talk Czech
but it comes out French. Wine
Photo by Eva McDermott
finally loosens my tongue.

Owl-earred knit hats,
puffy marshmallow coats,
hands jammed way down
in pockets, people stiffly exit the tram.

I’m at ease with high pressure
days, flat smoke, leaden skies sending
icy tears down all the Czech faces.

What in the World
by Paul Deblinger

When I was a kid
I thought there was another me
In every country in the world.
I dreamt about the me in France,
In China, Ghana and Ceylon.
Tonight walking down the narrow
Cobbled streets, I saw you gliding
Down the hill, bouncing, laughing,
With a curly-haired boy half my age.

I followed you down the hill,
Photo by LifeInMegapixels
As you headed into the cinema,
Curly-haired boy in tow.

I ducked into the casino next door,
Tried my luck at 21, lost
Each hand.

Dashed back to the cinema,
Just as the doors flung open
To you and the curly-haired boy.

With the bright city lights smacking you
In the face, I could clearly see it wasn’t you.

And it wasn’t me
Or even the other me
Walking down the cobbled slope
Wondering what in the world
I was doing there thinking of you.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

A Sample of Poetry

Patricia is cruising the Greek Islands this week. Her friend Lenny Lianne shares some of her poetry. 

Lenny is the author of three books of poetry and is an independent researcher. She holds a MFA in Creative Writing (Poetry) from George Mason University, a MA in Women’s Studies from George Washington University and a BA in History from George Mason University.

She’s given workshops and poetry readings on both coasts of the U.S. When not traveling to exotic places around the world, she and her husband live in Arizona. She blogs about poetry at Passport to Poetry




When the short-tailed song thrush
    repeats its series of notes
two or three times, she thinks
    it must be her mother’s spirit
telling her again to remember
    she is loved, always.

The cordial linnet’s call
    seems like another prompt.
Even the wheezy song of the siskin
    suggests her mother’s last words
that love will locate her if only
    she believes in its abundance.

In time the girl forgets the feel
    of her mother’s hands holding her
close, but the whispered words
    hover, delicate as dust motes,
or return, like the past itself,
    to circle through certain instants.
In between, the future of her story
    is forever present.

            from The Gospel According to the Seven Dwarfs
            San Francisco Bay Press, 2010


Irises by Vincent van Gogh
Outside the asylum, an overgrown garden
borders a courtyard where, my first week here,
I notice a surfeit of irises and set up my easel
to paint near a plain, unperturbed fountain.

From discrete distances, the other patients
watch as I work; they don’t disturb me.
Later when I walk through the arched hallways
of the hospital, I hear their howls and ravings.

I think I have done well to come here as I am
starting to discard my dread.  Others too
vouch they hear voices and strange sounds
during their attacks.  And that lessens the horror.

On canvas, I paint fragile petals, lapis blues
to indigo.  I try to capture each peculiar pivot
and bend of every head, even the one white
blossom almost on the edge of other frantic,
and frail, flowers

            from Frenzy of Color, Reverie of Line
             San Francisco Bay Press, 2010

            late December, 1601 on the Susan Constant, Godspeed and the Discovery

We could almost taste the gold,
all of us so hungry for easy riches,
even the ambitious English gentlemen,
mostly upper crust subsequent sons
with no landed inheritance.

This was the whispered promise,
still immanent and fresh,
that we were headed for a land,
lavish in gold and silver, translucent
pearls and fruit, all bountiful
and ready for picking.

Even for the six carpenters, the mason,
two bricklayers, the blacksmith,
the tailor, drummer and barber,
for all the laborers and the four boys,
the past was a place of fog and smoke
and tomorrow, a wilderness of riches,
where even the air would be sweeter.

This vision clung to us
the way the long horizon held
onto the sky.  Daily we looked out,
past the scud and slap of the water,
and waited for the land of wealth
to present itself like a new bride.

ScriptWorks Press, 2008

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

The Spell of the Yukon, and Other Adventures

By Beth Green

In poetry, as well as novels, I look for verse that takes me to another place; for a lyrical transportation to another time.

It’s no wonder then, that one of the poets whose writing has echoed in my thoughts the most is Canadian Robert W. Service.

Robert W. Service
A contemporary of American novelist Jack London (White Fang, The Call of the Wild―also great adventure tales), Service wrote the poems that made him famous about the Gold Rush of the late 1800s. Originally Scottish, Service was an adventurer from a young age. He traveled and worked at various jobs in North America, eventually landing work as a banker in the wild north. His poetry―he actually preferred to call it “verse”―is often compared to (or dismissed as) similar to Rudyard Kipling’s in tone, audience and meter.

But the thing that captures me most about Service’s many poems about the Yukon is his sense of adventure. Consider the opening to “A Rolling Stone,” published in 1912.

There's sunshine in the heart of me,
My blood sings in the breeze; 
The mountains are a part of me,
I'm fellow to the trees.
My golden youth I'm squandering, 
Sun-libertine am I; 
A-wandering, a-wandering
Until the day I die.

Service’s poems also brought the world a cast of characters―sometimes desperate―who acted out the dance of life in sub-zero conditions. One of his first famous poems, “The Cremation of Sam McGee,” (1907) tells the story of the death of a gold miner:

Now Sam McGee was from Tennessee, where the cotton blooms and blows.
Why he left his home in the South to roam 'round the Pole, God only knows.
He was always cold, but the land of gold seemed to hold him like a spell;
Though he'd often say in his homely way that he'd "sooner live in hell".

Southeast Alaska. Photo by Beth Green

Having lived in Alaska, I feel that his poetry also illustrates the beauty of North America―particularly Alaska, British Columbia and the Yukon―better than any other writer I’ve read. My favorite example of this is his epic “The Spell of the Yukon,” published in 1907.

The Spell of the Yukon

I wanted the gold, and I sought it;
   I scrabbled and mucked like a slave.
Was it famine or scurvy―I fought it;
   I hurled my youth into a grave.
I wanted the gold, and I got it―
   Came out with a fortune last fall,― 
Yet somehow life’s not what I thought it,
   And somehow the gold isn’t all.
A glacier. Photo by Beth Green
No! There’s the land. (Have you seen it?)
   It’s the cussedest land that I know,
From the big, dizzy mountains that screen it
   To the deep, deathlike valleys below.
Some say God was tired when He made it;
   Some say it’s a fine land to shun;
Maybe; but there’s some as would trade it
   For no land on earth―and I’m one.

You come to get rich (damned good reason);
   You feel like an exile at first;
You hate it like hell for a season,
   And then you are worse than the worst.
It grips you like some kinds of sinning;
   It twists you from foe to a friend;
It seems it’s been since the beginning;
   It seems it will be to the end.
I’ve stood in some mighty-mouthed hollow
   That’s plumb-full of hush to the brim;
I’ve watched the big, husky sun wallow
   In crimson and gold, and grow dim,
Till the moon set the pearly peaks gleaming,
   And the stars tumbled out, neck and crop;
And I’ve thought that I surely was dreaming,
   With the peace o’ the world piled on top.
The summer―no sweeter was ever;
   The sunshiny woods all athrill;
The grayling aleap in the river,
   The bighorn asleep on the hill.
The strong life that never knows harness;
   The wilds where the caribou call;
The freshness, the freedom, the farness―
   O God! how I’m stuck on it all.
The winter! the brightness that blinds you,
   The white land locked tight as a drum,
The cold fear that follows and finds you,
   The silence that bludgeons you dumb.
The snows that are older than history,
   The woods where the weird shadows slant;
The stillness, the moonlight, the mystery,
   I’ve bade ’em good-by―but I can’t.

Mountains above Juneau, AK.
There’s a land where the mountains are nameless,
   And the rivers all run God knows where;
There are lives that are erring and aimless,
   And deaths that just hang by a hair;
There are hardships that nobody reckons;
   There are valleys unpeopled and still;
There’s a land―oh, it beckons and beckons,
   And I want to go back―and I will.

They’re making my money diminish;
   I’m sick of the taste of champagne.
Thank God! when I’m skinned to a finish
   I’ll pike to the Yukon again.
I’ll fight―and you bet it’s no sham-fight;
   It’s hell!―but I’ve been there before;
And it’s better than this by a damsite―
   So me for the Yukon once more.
There’s gold, and it’s haunting and haunting;
   It’s luring me on as of old;
Yet it isn’t the gold that I’m wanting
   So much as just finding the gold.
It’s the great, big, broad land ’way up yonder,
   It’s the forests where silence has lease;
It’s the beauty that thrills me with wonder,
   It’s the stillness that fills me with peace. 

Southeast Alaska

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Squashed Mosquito Poetry

By Alli Sinclair

I first “met” Alys Titchener through a mutual friend when my daughter was very ill. Through the kindness of her heart, Alys wrote a beautiful poem and sent a blessed crystal to help in my daughter’s healing process. You can read the story here. The poem sits in a frame next to my daughter’s bed and even now, six years later, it still brings tears to my eyes. I hope one day Alys and I will meet in person so I can give her a massive hug and thank her for the kindness and love she showed people who were (once) complete strangers.

Alys is the author of the poetry blog Squashed Mosquito;
( sharing poetry that traverses the landscapes
of her emotions and spirit. Alys is a freelance writer, with a commitment to
writing from the heart of direct experience. She can also be read on The Yoga
Lunchbox at


I am here, I am in this moment
life's little pause
suspend me
in this place
now and forever
only to move on
life's little joys
bought by me
at a price


you speak of truth

you speak of truth
like someone had written it
on the back of your hand

I wish I could draw the galaxy there
so you would know truth
is not a set of words

but the space between
every cell and star
as they rest



it is an escape
like a drowning ocean
and it is a new world
  born into colour
it is resisted
  and harboured
  and dulled to a froth
  of noise
it is pocketed by nature
in between raindrops
and clearly invisible
next to valleys
  or mountain tops
and sometimes it is
from the still wind
  or a falling leaf


I hear the mother's heartbeat

I hear the mother's heartbeat
it is the background noise of every life
and with us always

I hear the mother's heartbeat
it is the birth space, the lush embrace
the fecund warm breath

I hear the mother's heartbeat
it is ochre, it is sunset,
it is marigold, desert, Uluru, the red planet

I hear the mother's heartbeat
the tribal drums, the call to hunt
the prey offering itself, the knowing
the acknowledging, the sacrifice

I hear the mother's heartbeat
her serenity, her surrender, her dignity,
her grace

I hear the mother's heartbeat
when her own death is felt
before she dies

I hear the mother's heartbeat
she is the still point in every night sky
she is the nowhere to go
she is the ceasing fluctuations of mind

she is quiet ... she is quiet
she is ever more
she is ever-present

her love is her death
her fragile opening
her tender watering

her love is her body
her home in darkness
her fingers touching the almost in her life

her love is the offering
offering her best
back to heaven

the pre-born said she would
depart before she arrived

now she is the mother's heartbeat
it is the mother that holds you and me

she is that background
that pushes us back into life


Upside down

this new heaven
bumpy and accelerated
white frothy isobars
changing like my moods
this new ocean grey and calm
or moody, what sits beneath
is above and
I forgot to let the ladder fall
land hovers
waiting for gravity
to adjust



I turned up full
of sleeping butterflies
and one took flight
and another
and another
deep in my belly

the birds are flying
in my mind
and they have lost
the vast sonic space to navigate
the vast sonic space to hear

the whale that kept me company
can't come up for air
and her calf
and her calf
lost her milk in a stormy
rocky bay

I am the poles shifting
true north
true south
they don't exist like they once did
something broke
something spoke

I am the prickling rain clouds
I am the new dark moon
I am the moment before dawn
where rainbows don't exist
where rainbows don't exist


the whole person

I am not ever a known
(that's a whole lot of exploring
and exposing to agitate) and
while some visibility might suit me
it really is a distraction
to seek to be known

I am not even a known
my ideas are not clever
my words not particularly
special, though a sentiment
climbs out the basement
and someone somewhere claims;
  hey, that's my shadow!

I am not ever a known
even when a seed of me
can be harvested in your life
like a random affirmation
of good timing
even then when you think you
know me, it is only because it is you
  you see

I am not even a known
my quality and form are shaped
like yours, two eyes, a nose
a mouth, words of an English
sound between two lips like any
and it is only because a blue print
'worked like magic' that an alien
can appear not so dissimilar

I am not ever a known
and you would injure me
if you said you knew me
  inside out
because then I would have to substitute
that into my being
wearing an idea that I thought sounded pleasing



in a boundary, in a border
in crossing a time zone
in stamping a passport
there is nothing left to call
mine, nothing left

in a flag on top of a mountain
in a gold medal ceremony
in a race to the moon
there is nothing left to call
home, nothing left

in a spinning top, in a rotating globe
in an aurora blue sky, in a fireworks parade
in a heavenly constellation moving, in a line on your palm
there is nothing left to say
in words, nothing left

as above, so below
so within, as with out
here and now, as in every where and when
there is nothing left
to say, there is nothing