Wednesday, November 24, 2010


[Published in The Copperfield Review, Winter 2012]


John Ratcliffe, Marshall County, Kansas, 1876, after his wife, Mary, has left him.

Sunlight glints across the sharded floor…
blue light, and he knows
it was the glass he gave her.

He reflects upon another day…

They rode on borrowed horses,
leaving Wheeling at the first blue light of dawn
while others still slept.
Into the ancient hills they rode
to West Alexander
and a chapel where they would wed.
Just the two of them,
no family, no friends,
no queries from the Meeting,
no concerns over their beliefs,
or perhaps lack thereof.
Just the two of them,
and the preacher and wife to make it legal.

Side by side they rode
under that November sky
clear and blue as her eyes;
blue as her gingham dress
and the ribbon (a gift from his mother)
holding back her dark hair.
Through familiar meadows
where they walked,
gathering plants for her collection,
and minerals to color glass,
the cobalt that he used
for the two glasses in his bag.

He remembered the day they met—
the things they talked of:
plants and rocks, sand and glass,
the designs of nature,
the creation of beauty in the artist’s hands.
He thought of walks in the mountains,
sharing their dreams—
she, to be a surgeon and scientist;
he, an artist, shaping glass and stone—
dreams left far behind in Wheeling.

Sunlight glints across the sharded floor,
he takes the other glass from the shelf
and remembers the end of that other day—

Down the ancient mountains,
their new life beginning,
they rode on borrowed horses
under blue November skies.
In a familiar meadow,
at a spring, clear water flowing
they stopped. In his saddlebag
two blue glasses,
blown and cut by hand;
together they filled them from the spring,
and drank to the dreams they would share.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

U.S. 1 Corridor Poems

Five poems in this collection are situated along the US 1 corridor in Howard County, Maryland and vicinity. These poems are: "Jessup," "The Tire Swing," "Patuxent Story," "Route 1 Bridge," and "Visiting Day." My interest in the Route 1 corridor between Baltimore and Washington is both professional and literary. From a geographical standpoint (I am a geographer by training and profession), the US 1 corridor in Howard County contrasts with the rest of the county. Much of the industrial and warehousing activities in the county are located in the corridor because of easy access to I-95, BWI Airport, and the port of Baltimore. Because of the emphasis on commercial and industrial zoning and development, residential properties tend to be of lower value. Howard County is one of the wealtiest counties in the United States, but the wealth and high average household income of the county masks low incomes, poverty, and households ekeing out a living. That side of life in Howard County can be found along the US 1 corridor. It is here that we find most, if not all, of the remaining trailer parks in the county; individuals and families living in motels; homeless living in tents on the margins of industrial parks. Geographers tend to focus on differences between places, regions, and landscapes; the contrast between the US 1 corridor and the remainder of the county intrigues me.

My literary interest in the corridor began with a desire to write an essay about Jessup for a newsletter focusing on urban geography. With easy access to I-95, Baltimore, and Washington, Jessup has become the locus of warehousing, industrial, and wholesaling activity in the Baltimore-Washington corridor. There is a large wholesale produce and seafood center, and a large concentration of warehousing and light industry. Because of this activity, Jessup is also a transportation center, with large numbers of trucks carrying goods into and out of the area. Much of the activity that occurs in Jessup once occurred in Baltimore; the activities of the port and the central city are now located in the suburbs. Jessup is an apt example of how the economic base of many central cities has shifted to the suburbs. As I drafted my essay, though, I struggled with capturing the sights, the smells (spices, diesel fumes), and the gritty character of Jessup. Academic-style writing just couldn't capture the feelings I wanted to convey. Poetry worked, and the poem "Jessup" resulted. I published "Jessup" in 2006 in You Are Here: The Journal of Creative Geography.

Since that time, I've looked for other topics drawn from the corridor. My more recent poems, "The Tire Swing," "Patuxent Story," "Route 1 Bridge," and "Visiting Day," are the result of ideas and observations that I've had in mind or drafted on paper for some time now. "The Tire Swing" focuses on the residents of a small trailer park that was sold by the land owners to developers. The residents, who owned their trailers, but only rented the lots on which they stood, were forced out. They attempted to buy the property and remain on the land, but the lure of profit and the neighboring community's opposition to trailer parks, led to the closing of the trailer park. It is a good example of suburban gentrification, analogous to what we see happening in the inner cities.

"Patuxent Story" can be read as a poem about any unwanted group of people, pushed from one jurisdiction to another. I purposely left it somewhat vague as to who the "they" are in the poem. The people I had in mind, though, are the prostitutes who work the area along US 1 and around the race track in the Laurel area. Three counties come together here-- Anne Arundel, Howard, and Prince George's. The cheap motels are in Howard; the race track in Anne Arundel; the bars in Anne Arundel and Prince George's. This side of life is largely unknown to most of the local residents, but if you read the crime reports in the local paper, you realize that the police in the various jurisdictions push the prostitutes (and their clientele) from one county to another. It seems to be an endless cycle of movement, not unlike an eddy in a river. The Patuxent River flows through this area, forming the boundary between the various counties; it seemed like an apt analogy of life flowing onward, but this cohort of people trapped, unable to flow freely.

"Route 1 Bridge" began developing about the same time as "Patuxent Story," and focuses on the homeless men who live under the bridge that crosses the Patuxent between Howard and Prince George's Counties. These men can be seen from time to time along Route 1, outside the diners and bars in Laurel. Their precarious existence is made more so when the Washington Sewer and Sanitation Commission opens the gates on the dam upriver after heavy rains to release excess water from the reservoir. The level of the Patuxent rises substantially, flooding out the men's sleeping areas under the bridge.

"Visiting Day" describes the scene I would see when bicycling along Brock Bridge Road past the penitentiary in Jessup. Every Saturday morning, women and children would be standing outside the gate, lined up waiting for entry to the facility to visit with husbands, boyfriends, fathers. One morning, as I bicycled past, a young girl sat watching me, and I couldn't help but wonder what she thought-- her father in prison and me free to ride past. The scene has stuck with me for quite some time.

I will continue to look for topics and develop poems describing life in the US 1 corridor. Please feel free to comment.

Saturday, October 30, 2010


[Published in the Loch Raven Review, Fall 2012]


Outside the fence,
women and children stand
below the tower,
the bored guard watching
the Saturday morning routine.
Mothers, wives, girlfriends
stand silent and stoic,
arms crossed, waiting.
Children talk and play
with their Saturday morning friends,
filling the time until the gate opens,
waiting, as they wait each Saturday
for their time to visit
sons, husbands, boyfriends, fathers,
to sit at a visitor’s room table,
hold hands, hug, talk,
just like the rest of us
at the end of each day,
after work and school,
around the dinner table.

Outside the fence
women wait and children play,
all doing their time
as they do each Saturday
under the gaze of the guard,
waiting for the gate to open,
this scene a repeat of last weekend's
and the weekend before that...

At the end of the line
a young girl sits,
back to the fence,
head in hands,
watching traffic pass.

Sunday, October 24, 2010


[Published in Symmetry Pebbles, issue #4]


They flow, county to county,
pushed by tides of indignation,
slowed by pools of indifference,
unseen, unnoticed, unknown by most
(who would be appalled if they knew),
but they are there,
at the bars near the track,
on the corners near the cheap motels,
in the parking lot behind the diner.

They flow, county to county,
in a jurisdictional eddy,
Anne Arundel, Howard, Prince George’s,
pushed by the police from one to the other,
one to the other,
one to the other
in a slow, continual cycle.

Do we care to know who they are?
Or, what they want?
They flow in a different channel,
dead ended,
caught like so much debris behind a strainer,
eddied, swirling, stopped,
watching as the Patuxent flows freely to the Bay.

Sunday, October 10, 2010


[Published in the Loch Raven Review, Fall 2012]


The tire swing hangs straight,
rope unbent by play,
time unmarked
by a daydreamer’s lazy pendulum;
grass grown into the bare patch
where feet once scraped
and pushed off for speed.

The children are gone,
to other trailer parks,
acres of double-wides in the sun
clean, suburbanized, orderly,
and out of the way;
to cramped apartments
stacked atop one another;
or to motels along Route 1
where they play among the tires
of parked cars and diesel trucks,
feet scraping across an asphalt lot.

Among the trees and the weeds,
all that remains:
an old washer,
toys that fell from a box—
forgotten and unnoticed—
empty concrete pads
where trailers stood,
cinder blocks holding up only air.

When the tree is cut down
to make way for a four bedroom home
and a manicured lawn
with its ornamental tree,
the tire will swing again,
for just a moment,
before plunging to ground.

Thursday, September 30, 2010


[Published in Do Not Look At The Sun, "Postcards from Paris," Issue #5 (Spring 2011]


In the gallery,
(although surrounded by others),
I think of you.

I wish you were here
to tell me just how much you love
the colors of the boats on the shore,
their rich reds and greens and blues,
and why you sense sadness in the painting.

Tell me,
would you be on one of the boats sailing away?
Or, would you be standing with me on the shore?

Sunday, May 16, 2010


I am waves moving through the sea
breaking predictably upon the shore,
breaking against the days that mark my tides,
that chart my landfalls and my reaches,
but leave only sand.

Just once, I want to race to sea,
to recede and not return,
to break the cycle of the tides,
to ebb and flow when I please.

In these heliocentric days
of rising and setting
and rising again,
I want to flow
to the dark side of the moon.

Sunday, April 18, 2010


[Published in Poetry Quarterly, Spring 2012]


The congregants were rocking
in the spirit of the Lord
in the Abundant Life Chapel.

The Holy Ghost thudded out on the bass;
the Spirit thumped its saving grace,
out to the sidewalk
for all who have ears to hear.

And this poor sinner, passing by,
stopped, and was cleansed
in the sound waves of Glory,

before continuing down the road
to the meetinghouse
where the Quakers sat in worship,
silence slipping out to the street.

And the Spirit was there, too,
walking quietly in the morning Light.


[Published in Three Line Poetry]


Mourning dove, do you notice me
as you alight upon the patio?
I wonder, who is in whose space?

Monday, February 15, 2010


[Published in The Beatnik, March 26, 2011, on-line at]


Dead roses lie on the table,
still bundled as they came from the store,
for want of water, they withered.

Saturday, January 16, 2010


Each line contains the fortune contained within a fortune cookie, added as I, or others who contribute, open a cookie and obtain the fortune inside. I plan to add to the list over the course of the year.  Will it be a list of random fortunes?  Or, will there be some sense of pattern and order?

You have an important new business development shaping up.
You will be traveling and coming into a fortune.
Culture and customs of China attract you.
Culture and customs of China attract you.
It is a nice day.
It only gets better when you get better.
Work hard and you will become more wealthy.
All your hard work will soon pay off.
You're heading in the right direction.
You are original and creative.
The night life is for you.
You should be able to undertake and complete anything.
Every friend joys in your success.
Your happiness is intertwined with your outlook on life.
You have a potential urge and the ability for accomplishment.
You should be able to undertake and complete anything.
You have a potential urge and the ability for accomplishment.
Don't let friends impose on you, work calmly and silently.
Have a beautiful day.
There is a true and sincere friendship between you both.
You are independent politically.
A cheerful letter or message is on its way to you.
You will enjoy good health.
People find it difficult to resist your persuasive manner.
You will have many friends when you need them.
You have a potential urge and the ability for accomplishment.

You may attend a party where strange customs prevail.
You will have a fine capacity for the enjoyment of life.
You will have many friends when you need them.
The will of the people is the best law.
You are careful and systematic in your business arrangements.
You have an active mind and a keen imagination.
You are demonstrative with those you love.
You will have a fine capacity for the enjoyment of life.
You will have a fine capacity for the enjoyment of life.
Happy life is just in front of you.
You will be fortunate in everything.
You are never selfish with your advice or your help.
Now is the time to try something new.
You are one of the people who "goes places in life."
You are heading in the right direction.
You are one of the people who "goes places in life."
Soon, you will receive some pleasant news.
Your present plans are going to succeed.
You have an ability to sense and know higher truth.
Find release from your cares, have a good time.
You are going to have some new clothes.
Your home is a pleasant place from which you draw happiness.
Friends long absent are coming back to you.
You like participating in competitive sports.
From now on your kindness will lead you to success.
You lead a useful life no matter what riches are coming to you.
Watch your relations with others carefully, be reserved.
You will be showered with good luck.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Something old, something new...

... something borrowed, something blue.  This wedding rhyme has been running through my mind over the past month.  Not because I plan to get married (already am), but because I'm trying to write another installment in The Skimino Cycle.  The poem that I am working on ("struggling with" might be more appropriate) focuses on the marriage of John Ratcliffe and Mary Townsend, my great-great-grandparents, and the subjects of the largest group of poems in The Skimino Cycle.  John and Mary were married in 1848, in West Alexander, PA.  My effort hasn't yielded any useful lines, but the research process has been quite interesting. 

I've been trying to build the poem around the two glasses that I've imagined John made as wedding gifts.  These glasses feature in earlier poems, one of which Mary breaks before leaving John (in "The Glass"); the other that John leaves by her bedside when he visits her just before her death (in "She Will Not Thirst Again").  John was a glass cutter in Wheeling, before they moved to Kansas.  When visiting with a distant cousin of my father's, she showed us a blue glass that, according to the family story, had been passed along to her father (my great-grandfather's brother), and was apparently made by John.  This is the glass that I decided was left by John on the table beside Mary's bed.  The two glasses will be the "something[s] new" in the poem on which I'm working.

So, I got to wondering what the lines in the rhyme refer to.  "Something old" is meant to convey continuity with the bride's family and past.  "Something new" represents good luck and a bright future in married life.  "Something borrowed" should come from happily married woman, lending the good fortune she's experienced to the bride-to-be.  And, "something blue" symbolizes purity, faithfulness, and loyalty.  What was interesting to me was that up until the late-1800s most brides wore blue, and not white.  This bit of information is critical to the development of the poem, and points to the need for research and understanding the people and period about which one writes.  I don't know that I intially thought I would mention anything about Mary's dress, but knowing now that brides wore blue in the mid-1800s saved me from making an erroneous reference to a white dress.  And, the meaning of the rhyme now gives me a framework around which to "build" the poem.  New glasses, made by the groom, perhaps working on the glasses after his shift is done, blowing the glass himself, and the cutting the grooves and designs.  Traveling to the chapel in a borrowed wagon.  Mary wearing a blue gingham dress; John in white shirt and black trousers, a black, broadbrimmed, Quaker style hat.  Mary, her hair tied back with a blue ribbon; John, blue ribbons around his sleeves.  I haven't figured out what the "something old" will be-- perhaps something old from her Uncle Thomas Townsend (a noted, and somewhat eccentric, doctor and amateur botanist and geologist in Wheeling).

Development of the poem required researching other questions.  John and Mary lived in Wheeling, but married in West Alexander, PA, which is about 10 miles to the east.  Why West Alexander?  I don't know exactly why, but West Alexander was where couples went in the 1830s and 1840s to get married quickly-- when they were eloping, whatever the reason.  This is intriguing to me, and I've envisioned that John, raised in a mixed Quaker/Disciples of Christ household, and Mary, perhaps a lapsed Quaker, decided that they didn't want to be married under the care of any Quaker Meeting and didn't want to be married in a Disciples of Christ chapel.  Of course, there could have been other reasons, but we won't go there without any sort of evidence.  I've claimed poetic license and imagined many things in the Skimino Cycle poems, but never imagined scandal where none existed.  Another question:  how do you make blue glass?  Cobalt would have been used in the 1840s; now I can imagine John, or maybe John and Mary, gathering rocks from which to obtain cobalt.  Traipsing around the mountains east of Wheeling collecting geological and botanical specimens was one of the things Thomas Townsend was known for; perhaps Mary accompanied him.  One imagined scene of mine has John in the mountains looking for minerals to color glass when he runs into Mary collecting plants or rocks.  And, of course, because John was a glass cutter, I have had to learn what glass cutters did, and how they carried out their work, which required a deft, artisan's hand when etching and cutting glass.

Much to learn; much to imagine-- but all necessary to constructing a poem that captures the essence of John and Mary and places them in the proper context.  And, in the end, I've added "something new" to my stockpile of esoteric knowledge that makes writing fun.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010


[Published in The Little Patuxent Review, Spring 2010]


I killed a centipede today.
I don’t know why, but there I was,
sitting at the bottom of the basement stairs
waiting for the iron to heat.
I had just put on my socks
when it walked across the bookshelf.
God only knows where it was going.

I watched it for a moment,
then perhaps some primal instinct
that abhors bugs in houses
took over and led me
to grab it with a tissue, crush it,
and flush it down the toilet.

Do centipedes believe in fate?
Are they Calvinist or Arminian?
Is there a centipede family somewhere
wondering what became of their father, son, uncle,
unquestioningly accepting his loss
as the impetuous act of a callous god?
Or, explaining that their vengeful god
punished him for his sins?
Or, are they shaking their heads and saying
that he knew the risks yet chose to go
and now he’s gone and life continues?

I do not believe in fate,
or a vengeful god.
I chose to kill the centipede,
and now I am diminished.

Monday, January 4, 2010


[Published in The Beatnik, March 26, 2011, on-line at]


Age pares away the fruit of life,
to the heart,
to the kernel of spirit,
to be sown anew in the second spring.

The parts once thought tastiest
now lie discarded,
no longer digestible;
they do the soul no good.

The seed,
though hard and once thought bitter,
now is prized,
for it contains new life.

Sunday, January 3, 2010


[Published in The Beatnik, March 26, 2011, on-line at]


Sitting in the brown rocking chair
next to the window in my bedroom
waiting for the afternoon sun to stream in again,
I read Li Po.

Cold wind gusts outside,
whips round the eaves,
rattles the front door.

Outside the window, a shutter flaps against the house—
the same shutter I thought would fall off last year.

The afternoon sun streams through the window.
Some day I’ll have to fix that shutter.

Friday, January 1, 2010

A New Year's Day Poetic E-Parlor Game

This morning, I posted a New Year's Day haiku as my status on my Facebook page. My sister, Amy Ratcliffe, commented with a haiku of her own, which set off a series of haiku, modified haiku, and one tanka. I've posted the series here. My contributions are in regular font; Amy's italicized.

White snow on green grass;
Clouds obscure the dawning sun--
A New Year begins.

A gentle rain falls
Washing the slate of time clean--
A New Year begins.

Clouds part; sun lights way.
I resolve to not resolve--
A New Year begins.

Though cleansed by soft rain,
The landscape beyond my door
Has not been transformed.

A New Year begins,
And I must see with new eyes
The view I desire.

A New Year begins
With sun and clouds in one place;
In the other, a soft rain.
Our thoughts flow as rivers; words
Are the landscape that connects.

Winter's icy winds
Are prelude to Summer's warmth--
Verse, our playful Spring.