On retreat

Movement Saloner Lisa Bowden goes on a writing retreat, April 10-18th, 2008,

Thanks to the Tucson-Pima Arts Council for a travel grant that supported this opportunity, and to my host and teacher Jane Miller.

I carried movement salon with me to Berkeley on retreat—that sensation of relaxed awareness that comes during improvisation and how it brings you to an edge inside where it is easier to trust the unknown, where there’s no flinching response to it. That’s how I rolled for 8 days. Sometimes I’d crawl up into a chinese maple right outside the entryway to the house, sit down and write, attending 49% to what was going on around me and 51% to what going on inside. Here are some words I set down from the tree:

art prowls pleasure’s distance
the enemy inside, time’s foul bending

chinese maple leaf, an amber star relaxed

shimmer dapple crotch—
a palm to sit in

* *

The flat blue hour

brain folds, slides back onto itself
hay for the thought bin

memory—a beach with no stars—waits
rolled out like dice on a crap table

or tight like a bath of tea:
ceylon, jasmine, peony, puer

no desire, no reaching
hollow waiting, have it

* *

The first three days I was asked to relax and not write a poem (notes, lists, obervations were okay), to unwind my wired-for-work body and intellect. I was to go deep and find words, or let language find me. Since I was in the Berkeley hills, I walked miles of neighborhood every morning, after tea, then later a bath, sometimes yoga. Emptied out through my feet on the sidewalk, on the yoga mat, body in the bath, the yard, in the notebook.

What was found there?

love cavern
crevass of sorrow
sweet taste


Once I began to write “poems,” themes, tones, and a repeating palette of phrases emerged. I look back across that body of work, with some aesthetic distance, and see more clearly what is potentially there. Here are samples of some of those drafts, all works in progress.

Assignment one: write a poem that asks a startling question.

The Vintner

Can you ride this day ass backward into tomorrow?

10,000 pistolas ripped at their roots
return to the soil—

frenzy’s amigo and other one-night guests
make glass notes
of each other’s hair

twelve elves take pills
riding slow gin, solo, duo, trio

but it’s not working

barren lucky baroness
engines comb
your hand-picked hills,
mock her square jaw

how much longer will your madness?


Intention, motive, voice emerge out of the process of writing.

Assignment two: write a poem about a place I have never seen.

The Book of Questions

The mother lay dying in a hospital room overlooking a river where people sail. It’s Indian summer. Her hand is held carefully not to tear soft papery skin. At 4am she will die. Forty-two years earlier 10,000 students all over the nation demonstrated for Freedom and she gave birth for the fifth time.


Have you ever seen:

—a plum pit stop peristalsis?

—the church my parents were married in, or tendernesses between them?

—underground roots of a 100 year old eucalyptis tree and how far they reach?

—a place where 100 people lay dying at once?

—all the rooms across the globe in which people lay dying?

(have they been lit? square? white? full of lovers singing questions?)

Have you seen—

—a tent on foreign soil where a stranger lay dying?

(was there aid? did the stranger have the eyes of a mother or a lover? were their feet carefully rubbed so not to tear papery skin?)

Have you seen—

—strangers in tents on foreign soil lay dying that don’t have the eyes of a mother or lover? were there handmaidens who did not bruise, to carefully touch unconscious shoulders?


Assignment three: write a poem in black and white.

Tea delivered on a tight-rope made of sand

the mother used to go
to the beach to let out whatever she couldn’t let out at home
limbs spilling onto hard-packed sand dangling over aluminum armrests
waves licking her feet


Tea of not leaving

Mother was left alone the night her father died. Daughter told her she’d come over if she wanted her to. Mother said no, then okay. She was revealing of a part of herself—vulnerable, soft. Daughter hung up the phone, but couldn’t leave the kitchen, leave her father, or say outloud what had happened. She doesn’t remember what happened next. Silent fear—white blinding quiet cruel. She left mother alone the night her father died.


Tea of leaving

There are pictures of sisters with grandmother during her final days. Black hole of bided time, familiar air in the hour before the end—black awkward silence. When she died, granddaugher flew across the country. Father couldn’t understand the grand gesture for death.


Tea of Memory, an Index

age nine, the world ending in dreams— black

the perch at the top of the stairs she couldn’t move from— white

the mother and grandmother watching Johnny Carson on TV downstairs— black

the color of the sandals worn by the girls next door— white

the color of mother in summer — black

the color of absence —white

being left at auntie’s house—black

the piggybank full of pennies in the little purse —black

the color of remorse for whacking the cousin with Down’s in the head with little purse— white

the color of the question “why” —white

the color of feeling lost in a house full of my people—black

the color of hiding —white

the color of getting home late —black

the grandmother’s disgust at the number of presents —white

the color of shame and how long it lasts —black

the lack of ability to right oneself after getting off a swing or falling on ice —white

the question where “courage” comes from—white

the confusion that comes from silence in the presence of shame —white

the cruelty of indifference—black

of unconsciousness —black

the pain of remembering unconsciousness —white

the pain of remembering your own unconscious cruelty to others—black

to yourself—white

loss of memory —black

the color of wondering if your own weight crushes others —white

of feeling invisible —black

of mark-making —black

standing by marks made —black

standing by marks made on others —white

color of the ability to forgive —black

of regret —white

of the mother near death, luminous —white

her stories without children in them —black

the color of the man at the beach she wanted —black

the color of letting go —black

of blindness —white

of unwinding —black


The artist should float freely through a poem.

One Response

  1. So glad I had the leisure to read these today. The potency of each thought is brought to bear on the page. Instinctively satisfying and super wonderful.

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