As we held hands in a circle at the start of our ElderSparks session, I asked the participants to reflect on their individual life journeys that had brought them to this time and place. Here, where all their paths converged, I asked them to also imagine the presence of their most cherished traveling companions. The week before, two women grew despondent as they talked about the road ahead. This guided meditation felt like a needed antidote.

Afterwards, I read Jane Gentry’s poem, “Washing Sheets in July,” as another example of poetry’s lyric power:

Thin clouds work the sheet of sky —

jays cry, flat and starchy.

Against the white garage,

hollyhocks flicker.

The sheets, wet, adhesive

as I hang them, smell

of soap and bee-filled air.

[space]

Flags of order in the palpable sun,

how they snap in the new breeze!

Watching them balloon on the line,

I swell with an old satisfaction:

I beat them clean in the Euphrates.

Poems half-conceived drift off —                                                                               

unwritten essays muddle, fade.

The white sheets crack in the wind,

fat bellies of sails,

sweet as round stomachs of children.

[space]

Tonight they’ll carry me to sleep

in joy, in peace,

muscles unknotting, tired eyes clearing

in the dark under their lids.

The sheets, fragrant as summer,

carry me into realms of cleanliness

deep dreams of order.

[space]

The poem reminded E~ of a time just after the war when she was newly married and a mother. It was a dream fulfilled. Hanging clean, wet sheets on a line to dry was like being in heaven. (Take that Maytag!) She knew exactly what the poet meant.

Given our serious approach to poetry the last few weeks, I thought some levity might be in order. (ElderSparks is, after all, about creative play.) Taking the fettuccine-like paper strips from Noodle Talk, I held them near my mouth and tried to demonstrate the myriad ways we interact with words. “Sometimes we whisper them softly,” I said, tossing the strips gently into the air. I was expecting them to float lazily down to the table but instead, they landed with a thud in clumps. (Thereby illustrating how words don’t always come out as intended.) “Other times, we’re at a loss for them,” I continued, pretending to search among the strips for a specific one. “And on occasion, our words get twisted beyond recognition,” I added, doing exactly that to a paper noodle.

I asked one of our regulars, who has stroke-induced aphasia, if he could help us better understand his impediment by using the paper strips to depict his inner process. Little by little, he succeeded in explaining that he’s unable to emit the words he knows are correct — something somewhere interrupts a sequence that is automatic and instantaneous for everyone else. I’m told he’s made tremendous progress since his stroke, but clearly there is still more work to do.

Between sessions, I grew concerned that the word sheets we had been relying on to assemble poems, offered too many choices and might therefore be confusing. As an alternative, I created a deck of cards, each containing a single word, which we could use for Poet’s Poker. Everyone began with a five-card hand: the goal was to come up with an evocative phrase or sentence — 3, 4, or 5 words long — by either arranging the cards they had been dealt, or replacing unwanted ones in successive rounds.

(Click on image to enlarge.)

(We never did get around to the subtler forms of scoring, much less betting.)

We played several hands. With a little guidance and editorial input from me, the results were encouraging. E~ had success with her very first hand — “I love air going through trees.” (Careful readers will note that she cheated by adding an extra word — which was ruled ok by the house.) Other winners included:

From soft I building bodies.

Wild wind rain rivers — life!

White bird face says beauty.

J~, a former journalist who did well with our previous poetry exercises, seemed stumped by this one. He was perfectly content with his initial hand: “when/clear/gives/your/large,” and saw no reason to replace any cards. “What feeling or image do these words evoke?” I asked. “To me, they don’t say anything.” I good-naturedly pretended to be his editor at the paper, reviewing a first draft. It took some pushing, but he finally relented and came up with this: “Bright clear summer night.” We all agreed it was an improvement.

My favorite hand though was this:

This heart becomes lonely held.

to which L~ also gave her seal of approval: “This is poetry!”

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