News We Need in the Darkest Time of Year – 12/19/2010

News We Need in the Darkest Time of Year: “The Search is on for rare Sierra red fox” (San Francisco Chronicle, Monday, December 13, 2010) and other Good News About the Earth as poets are brought into play for the question of what this news means to us.

I am Reynard,

I am Zorro,

I am Kitsunami, I am the red fox. Wise men respect my council. 
You, too, can learn from my kin. That’s Brian “Fox” Ellis, “Song of the Red Fox,” and this is Professor Barbara Mossberg, on The Poetry Slow Down, with Producer Sara Hughes at our KRXA 540AM Studios. So what is the red fox doing on our poetry hour where we slow down to get the news we need? It’s the darkest time of year, cold, wet, slushy, at least for most of us here in our listening community; the headlines are harsh on our spirits! Wars, corruption at home and abroad, violence, negligence about our babies, our rivers and bays. Poisoning ourself. That news. And do you remember Woody Allen’s joke in “Annie Hall” where his aunts are complaining about a restaurant? The food is so terrible, one says, and the other says, yes, and the portions are so small! That’s the “news,” both terrible and abbreviated these days to sound bites, literally being downsized. Yet our perception of the “news” shapes our connection to our world, our sense of what needs to be done, what can be done; if the news is never new, always a tedious and demoralizing succession of bad news, disappointments in humanity, we can feel apathetic. So the other morning, beginning the darkest time of the year with news old-school, I open the old-school newspaper, The San Fransisco Chronicle, and the front page story, above the fold, the right hand column, is “Search is on for rare Sierra red fox, with the subheading, 2 more sightings prompt scientists to look for clan.” The story is by Kelly Zito. “Federal scientists [by the way, thank you John Muir for piloting the role of scientist in federal policy, thank you Wordsworth and Milton and Shakespeare and Homer, forgive me listeners, but I’m just sayin] . . . federal scientists revealed this month that they detected two more of the foxes in September in the same region, the only known specimens outside of a tiny clan in the Mount Lassen area. . . there’s a fairly robust population. . . . that’s what got us hugely excited when we got these results.” Really? A red fox sighted earlier this summer now has a few companions. Front page! Federal scientists hugely excited! The story goes on, “the fox, once plentiful across California’s snow-capped mountains, hasn’t been seen in the southern Sierra Nevada in decades. . . decimated by hunting in the early part of the last century. . . . among the most elusive and least understood mammals in the United States, biologists say.” Well, and so: front page news, and back page, a headline clear across the whole paper, five columns, half inch font: Search is on for clan of rare foxes after 2 more seen.” OK, so this does seem to be “news,” unlike so much of what else we read (“Taliban bomb, mideast storms, tax cuts, tough loss, serial killer”). But what does this news mean to us? Why should we care that a few red foxes, so ancient, appear to have survived the equally ancient desire of human beings to . . . catch them—do you remember the nursery rhyme game, a hunting we will go, a hunting we will go, we’ll catch a fox and put ‘im in a box, and never let him go. I just remembered that. Fox in our human imagination, our racial memory. What is a fox doing in the front page news of our times? Think of the expression, to be foxy . . .hmm, and, to be called a foxy lady, I’d like that, wouldn’t you? If you were a plump middle aged woman, I mean . . . to be foxy is to be –let’s look it up . . . a burrowing canine mammal . . .long pointed muzzle and long bushy tail, noted for its cunning. The fur of the fox. Other definitions, 3. A sly, crafty person. 1. To trick, outwit, to make drunk, intoxicate. To stain, as in timber, with a reddish color. To make sour, as in beer, fermenting. To repair or mend, as shoes, with new uppers. To become drunk, to become sour, to become reddish in color. Foxy, of or like a fox, crafty. Defective, impaired, improperly fermented. Denoting a wild flavor found in wine made from some American grapes. Hmm, first, these seem contradictory definitions–repair, defective, ferment, positive, sour, not– we seem to be all sixes and sevens about this fox, and besides, this is not what I imagined went into being called foxy on my better days. All these definitions are pretty interesting, an archeology of attitudes and experiences about the fox that make their way into our language and way of understanding. So, the fox is categorized by federal biologists as the “most elusive and least understood” of mammals . . . and yet our definitions of fox, foxed, foxy, imply a vital knowledge of the fox, of its intelligence, yes, its ability to figure things out, almost like Ullyses I’m thinking, wily, resourceful, tricky, clever, “crafty,” sly, discovering the un-obvious solution or path—goal-oriented—if you ever said to my mom, I’ll try, she’d say, don’t try, succeed! The fox would succeed! How otherwise did it get this rep to have the word mean this essential creative ability? And this kind of distrust . . . grudging respect? I also thought it was interesting that it is a word we use for transformation, both in catalytic processes such as making wine, one of our most ancient human occupations, but when things go downhill in the process, and for repair on the other hand, making things better . . . we could have used other words, we could say, it’s elephanted, it’s spidered, it’s salmoned, it’s turkeyed, yet we say it’s foxed; we have direct and immediate and graphic knowledge of this creature, somehow; foxiness is in our human imaginations . . . I began to think about what the poets—you knew—YOU knew—where we were going on this—what the poets have had to say about foxes, in figuring out this mystery for us today, Poetry Slow Down, the front-page news of possibility that the red fox, once so prevalent, may not be extinct, may be making a comeback so that two or three are front page news . . . so they must be valued as important to us, even as they are considered to be so elusive, not understood. It appears foxes have been long on our minds. Let’s see what the poets say, and what we may learn, how to interpret this kind of news, that they may yet be alive and well and living perhaps not in Paris but on some snow-capped peak . . . is this the news we need, in today’s times? What is at stake in the sighting of a red fox? What does a red fox mean to us? Poets, what speak you? Well, I began to summon in my mind a list and you are doing the same right now, let’s see, there’s, well of course Jemima Puddleduck and Aesop’s The Fox and the Grapes and —and then the poets start to weigh in, whoa, Poetry Slow Down, we’re in luck, great poets—winners of prizes and city, state, and national laureates, beloved authors, have their say, their poetic way with the fox, urban African American Lucille Clifton, city-girl Marianne Moore, eco-Buddhist Gary Snyder, grounded Wendell Berry, translator, editor, teacher, poet Robert Bly, iconic nineteenth century poets John Greenleaf Whittier, Rudyard Kipling, Emily Dickinson—what? Yes; Carl Sandburg, a city guy, Chicago, civic culture, right out there with a poem called “Wilderness” that fathers Bly and Synder, and there’s grandfather Henry David Thoreau, and elegiac native voices, voices close to the fox, journalists, and W.B. Yeats, Antoine St. Exupery’s The Little Prince, for our pilot listeners, Al Addig Al-Raddi from Khartoum, Isaiah Berlin, Socrates, Margaret Atwood, Robert Haas, Barbara Kingsolver, joyous manifestos, and I contribute a poem I wrote—who knew how or why?—on the red fox, too . . . . Dr. B., you forgot Blake! I know, I know, as it turns out, the elusive and not understood red fox has on our minds long as the red fox tail—and so has its hunt. Across age and gender, race and time, cultural experience, are there common truths and understandings in this “news” of poetry to provide a lens into the meaning of the headline news for us in these darkest days of the year? Hark! Thank you for joining “the hunt,” and write me at


The page is Emily Dickinson’s stage, backstage, theater open 24/7. Dickinson dresses up, dons costume, makes herself up, for the role as immortal poet. And so she sets the stage for the drama of her life: how to convert being a nobody to celebrity Nobody–suspense, acts, gestures, stage whispers, asides, climax. If it’s drama, it must mean she is the star, the lead, a hero! Well played, Emily. Lights! Mic! Mount the proscenium. Action! You bow? We bow to you, O Queen.

Imagine you and me, I do: and Emily Dickinson did:

Me–come! My dazzled face

In such a shining place!

Me–hear! My foreign Ear

The sounds of Welcome–there!
. . .

My holiday, shall be

That They remember me–

My Paradise–the fame

That They–pronounce my name—(Johnson, P. 431)

That’s the Turtles, imagining me and you, happy together, and that’s Emily Dickinson, imagining us: we’re a vision of hers—a shy “nobody” but imagining coming to us here, the sounds of welcome, as we remember her and pronounce her name on our show today. This is Professor Barbara Mossberg, imagining me and you at our shining place, The Poetry Slow Down, KRXA 540AM, and maybe we’re a vision of Paul Simon–slow down, you move too fast. We’re slowing down to celebrate lives, that’s the vision, and on the subject of birthdays and how we live, Emily Dickinson said, “lest any doubt that we are glad that they are born today.” This is the birthday week of Emily Dickinson, December 10, there’s no doubt about being glad she was born, so we’ll take this up in our third annual Dickinson celebration show, celebrating the phenomenon that someone so many years ago, alone in her room, unknown, unasked, unwanted, picked up a pen and wrote a poem, poem after poem, night after night, creating a scene over her identity, and in the captivating process, made an immortal life, and changed mine, and perhaps yours, because she lived and wrote. As we celebrate birthdays of “glorious luminaries” William Blake and Joyce Cary (and his invention Gulley Jimson), Walt Whitman claims his due on principle (celebrations and songs: count him in). Unrecognized fully (or at all) in their own lives in their time, they create their own immortal fates, by persisting in visions of what they are, their voices singing in our lives, and trusting us to hear. In their artful lives, we hear expressed the universal conviction in each person of something precious and vital to contribute to our world. Hear hear!

c Barbara Mossberg 2010


BLITHE SPIRITS: Hail to thee, blithe spirit– that’s Shelley, to the skylark, and I’m Professor Mossberg, hailing you, inviting the skylark in you to join me in our Poetry Slow Down, and we’ll find out more about the man who outs the flying-ness in us, whatever is airborne in our spirits, transcending earthly sorrow. Our show today reports on the role of poetry in the life and death of my mother, Ann R. Clarke, whose last breaths were taken to my improvised soundtrack of poets she loved and poems I wrote to find a way to help her and me in this journey to the next stage of her (and my) life. We hear from Edgar Allen Poe, Alfred, Lord Tennyson, Galway Kinnell, D.H. Lawrence, Dylan Thomas, Pablo Neruda, e.e. cummings, William Carlos Williams, Mary Oliver, and others. I read my poems “What Do You Bring Your Mother Who Goes to Garage Sales? (The answer is: Nothing)” about my mother’s legacy of spirit to me as a poet, and two poems I wrote that were part of our last conversation, “Fat Lady Flying,” and “If You Promise To Let Me Write This Down I Promise I Will Buy You an Icecream (“we embrace, and we fly through the air barefoot knowing everything there is to know”). Thoreau’s assertion that our too-busy and hurried lives and useful knowledge prevent the ignorance essential for growth (and living) is taken seriously as an insight into the nature of poetry, how it functions as an agency of such “ignorance” which allows new seeing and wakefulness, creativity, and creation itself. David Grossman’s ideas on how creative writing functions to engage the “sphinx lying at the entrance to each of us” are discussed as central to how poetry serves to illuminate our common fates and create community of the heart we need to live. On this note, I thank listeners writing me at and sending poems of solace and support. Listeners on California’s Central Coast are invited to two events for Emily Dickinson’s birthday: my dramatic reading of Dickinson’s life and letters December 9, at the Pacific Grove Library (with home-made gingerbread I am baking from Dickinson’s recipe); and my lecture on Dickinson as Drama Queen at the Cherry Center for the Arts (Carmel) December 10. Next week’s Poetry Slow Down, December 12, is the annual birthday tribute to Emily Dickinson: think presence. She knew we would be celebrating her. Send in your favorite poem and any dedications. Thank you to this remarkable listening community for which I feel blessed: doing the recent shows with you at my mother’s bedside in her last weeks and hours made dramatic poetry’s intrinsic role in our lives.

From Fat Lady Flying

In Memoriam Ann R. Clarke

June 13, 1920-November 24, 2010

With your sentence of death

Which you share with frogs and the heron in the marsh

And the stars, and you see them soar and float,

Radiate and sing out in darkness,

Consider: they soar and float,

Radiate and sing out in darkness.

You have seen elephants and hippos swim,

Glide over river bottom, sail through currents,

You’ve seen the orangutan swing through trees.

So you know the largeness of grace.

What I’m asking you, don’t look around,

It’s you I mean. How? Not by hoist, not a case of heft, or heave,

Cranked by harness, this is not physics of motion.

I’m not sure but my guess is to breathe.

There’s a way of holding breath And it has to do with your eyes in this line,

Imagining the happiness of being weightless,

The buoyancy of a fat lady flying

Who doesn’t even try, it comes when she laughs

And takes in the world, its splinters and pebbles,

Its cries and sagging truths, it’s such a relief

The world exhales and she just rises.

That’s you, how I see you,

See you flying, in these lines,

Your lungs butterflies.

Wind flows over and through you,

And what you hear now is your own voice,

Its awed silence, rising over the world.

c Barbara Mossberg 2010