A Harvest of Words ― Carol Purington     

     by Margaret Chula

 
I first read Carol Purington’s poems in the 1980’s when I was living in Japan. What a surprise to discover a haiku poet living in Colrain, Massachusetts, just a few miles from where I had grown up. On my first visit to Woodslawn Farm, I remember picking Black-eyed Susans along the roadside and presenting them to Carol’s mother, who ushered me to Carol’s bright corner room (formerly the parlor). Now, whenever I visit my family, I drive up to the western hills to spend time with Carol. Larry Kimmel, a tanka poet and editor of Winfred Press, often joins us as we talk about poetry and read our own work to one another. In the summer of 2001, we composed a linked tanka to commemorate our gathering.
 
Cocoon of Coolness
 
Nasturtiums floating
in an earthware bowl
vivid memories
given away this afternoon
by three farm kids who harvest words     cp
 
from noon to dusk
in the room where you spend your life
cocoon of coolness
out in the fields armyworms
bore through the ripening corn     mc
 
over cake and coffee
with cream fresh from the barn
you tell of a tea ceremony
at the window
thrum of a hummingbird     lk
 
the different pitches
of our voices as we read
poems of love and grief
a childhood teddy bear
straddles the iron lung      mc
 
seen in my mirror
insights flash from face to face
that nameless fragrance
garden chimes touched by a breeze
that crossed the continent      cp
 
from the kitchen
the clatter of supper dishes
still so much to say
by the door stone
marsh-mallows fold their blue  lk

 
On Carol’s first day of elementary school, she put her head down on her desk because she had a bad headache. Her teacher sent her home. A spinal tap at the hospital tested positive for the polio virus. Her brother and sister were also positive, but they had no symptoms. Carol was able to move her left hand from her chest to abdomen, but that was all. She spent the next two years in hospitals and rehabilitation centers, breathing with the aid of an iron lung or a chest ventilator.
 
Left by my parents
     in a hospital room
   in isolation
the dark of their going
the dark of my staying
 
Weeks isolated

from those without the virus

My baby brother

learning to take steps

My body learning not to walk
 
 
Carol learned how to read in a rehabilitation center where she used a long stick with an eraser on it, held between her teeth, to turn the pages.
 
empty afternoon….
her teacher says I  must not
divide by 0        cp
   between hopscotch and geometry
   I draw a blank   lk 
 
My childhood room
four-square but with a fifth corner
   no one ever saw—
a crimson carpet waited there
   to fly me to fabulous lands
 
After two years in hospitals, followed by an extended stay at her aunt’s house (which had a generator for emergency power), she was able to return home to her beloved Woodslawn Farm. Carol breathes with the assistance of a chest ventilator; in the corner of her room is a Porta-Lung (a light-weight version of an iron lung), where she sleeps at night.
 
Between thunder
and the world seen again
   by lightning
     the drag of my ventilator
     losing power, losing breath
 
She has control of two fingers on her left hand, which she uses to turn on the switch for her telephone and to access her mouth stick so she can turn pages in a book. Through the advancement of computer technology, Carol is now able to write her books with a voice-activated computer. “Polio changed my life, but it didn’t ruin my life,” she says in Away from Home, a limited edition of prose for family and friends about her first years with polio.
 
Even in the dream

marveling the way

my body floats—

I who cannot move

swim free of gravity
 
Porcelain stopper
from my first bottle of perfume
   apple blossom
     the magic of childhood gone
     before I could use it all
 
 
In the 1980’s and 1990’s, Carol composed hundreds of haiku, inspired by the changing seasons at Woodslawn Farm and stories told to her by family members. She also drew on childhood memories. "Memories have their roots in emotions, but they also grow from the messages our senses bring to us about the outside world and the body’s connections to it. I can still feel the sharp prick of gravel on bare feet made tender by the winter’s confinement in socks and boots, the stickiness of dandelion ice on my fingers after I picked a bouquet for my mother. I remember racing as fast as I could down the little slope from the sand pile to the house, using the momentum gained by the descent to run up the steep back stairway to our kitchen. A glass of cold milk waited for me there, or warm chocolate-bit cookies, or the aroma of something cooked for supper.”
 
She discovered tanka through reading translations of Yosano Akiko’s Tangled Hair as well as original English-language tanka. “Reading these poems was like being splashed all over with a downpour of emotions. I was immediately, joyfully aware that this ancient form could embrace a life’s worth of songs and sorrow, passion and peaceful musing,” she writes in a recent article in Ribbons, the Tanka Society of America Journal.
 
Spring snowstorm
all day I watch
daffodils
disappearing like joy
in a swirl of might-have-beens
 
Reading Carol’s tanka, I am reminded of Japanese poets who transformed personal adversity into poetry. Masaoka Shiki, suffering from debilitating tuberculosis, recorded his every-day observations in haiku and tanka, which he called shasei (sketches of life). Like Shiki in his Stray Notes While Lying on My Back, Carol writes about what she sees from her bedroom window at Woodslawn Farm: hummingbirds at the feeder, fresh-mown hay, cows grazing, snowfall on the mountains. Toward the end of his life and in pain, Shiki wrote: “I feel the pain and see the beauty.” Carol’s love of beauty and nature connect her to the world.
 
The old barn
falling into wild rosebushes—
   I no longer demand
   that the pain be taken away,
     only that beauty grow beside it
 
A pond made by beavers
fished now in the magic of twilight
by a tall heron…
   it is time to go indoors
     but I’m not living in time
 
 
Carol’s poems also bloom from her imagination. In 1997, she shifted away from her own life and went back in time to write a tanka narrative in what she calls a "‘shadow voice." In The Trees Bleed Sweetness, she takes on the persona of a Native American woman from Western Massachusetts and follows her life from childhood to old age.
 
Singing at dawn
because the lightness of green has come back
to the valley –
     and so have we,
     O little yellow bird!
 
Through waterfall spray
salmon flash silver to their mating
     No one near to name
     the wetness on my cheeks
              He has chosen another
 
 
Four years later, she published a second tanka narrative, A Pattern for This Place, which explores the life of a pioneer woman living in Massachusetts two hundred years ago.
 
He returns at dusk,
wild strawberries cupped pink
in his hard palm
   I eat their sweetness one by one
   and we talk about the day
 
Night and day and night
the baby’s cough –
     I have no medicine,
     no old woman to tell me what to do
And the snow deeper every day

 

Carol is one of the most innovative and prolific poets I have the pleasure of knowing. She has published eight collections of poetry and prose. Her haiku and tanka have won prestigious awards, including First, Third and Honorable Mention in the Tanka Society of America’s 2002 International Tanka Contest; Award for Best Book of Linked Verse: A Spill of Apples: Tanrenga and Other Linked (Haiku Society of America, 2004); and a Merit Book Award for Family Farm, Haiku for a Place of Moons (Haiku Society of America, 2000). In 2006 Greenfield Community College awarded her their Distinguished Alumnus Award.

 

In Gathering Peace, her most recent tanka collection, Carol takes us on her life’s journey—beginning with anticipation and hope, expanding her mind in a world narrowed by physical limitations, discovering the joy of writing poetry, acknowledging the pain of having a body unable to satisfy longings, and finally acceptance and peace. “I am a writer because I map my heart and my world with words and I need to see these words on paper. To me this is breathing, not therapy.”
 
What night the crickets
began to measure time?
   I was not listening
dazzled by the weave of firefly
     and falling star
 

 

Books by Carol Purington

 

HAIKU

Family Farm, Haiku for a Place of Moons, Winfred Press, 1999

Woodslawn Farm Haiku for a New England Year, 1989

Braided Rug, Haiku and Variations, co-written with Sally L. Nichols, 1995
 
TANKA
The Trees Bleed Sweetness, Winfred Press, 1997
A Pattern for This Place, Winfred Press, 2001
a spill of apples, tan renga and other linked verse with Larry Kimmel, Winfred Press, 2003
Gathering Peace, Winfred Press, 2007
 
PROSE
Away from Home, Winfred Press, 2005
 

 

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