Roadside Attraction

Strangled Roses

(Edgar Allan Poe’s mother, Eliza, and his wife, Virginia Clemm Poe, both died of tuberculosis and at the same young age of 24.  At Virginia’s death and upon the realization he had no image of her, Edgar commissioned an artist to paint her corpse.)


“How grace does guide your hand, Mr. Frye—

To limn her back to life, the chestnut hair,

the sacred lily whiteness.”


His voice flaps in the lamp-dark,

a moth roused from a fold of brocade.


Has he no heart for the dead, for me,

Sissy, whose chin he has horribly let sink,


when in time he always tilted it

to set my eyes on even plane with his,


stooping at bedside to read my poem

as if to loosen me from iron breath:

“Love will heal these weakened lungs…” 

But the verses failed in mid-air,

too faint for the brazen dark. 


He wiped my scarlet mouth,

pleading as if he were the child

who once buried curls

in his mother’s sodden breast.

Tonight I fear he is not Eddy,

pacing like a beast, his rough hands

draping my shoulders in a marble pose,

bloodstains in the sheets like strangled roses.


God, do not let him stroke me to half-life,

the flat crepuscular light a mask on my face,

gravid eyeballs aching under lids,

fingers that once brushed his noble cheek

now wrested into my lap.


He means to keep me safe in the gilt frame,

to encrypt the undersound of heaving lungs:

his mother wrack’d in a maze

of blackened blood he cannot flee,

the smothering candle-smoke wavering

like his own vaporous small shadow.


“Make haste, Mr. Frye, before dawn breaks—

Seal the lowered gaze, the ivory neck—

Embalm with paint her beauty,

let her frozen mouth ring for joy!”

(Published in Edgar Allan Poe Review, Autumn 2013)


Spanish Moss in Cypress

Leaf aloft and spirit of leaf:

bird notes thread the trees with the gold-tinted

breeze taking off to set the woods aflame

while the swamp lies sleeping in cypress dark,

the knobs like gnomes assembled to keep the spell

so none can wake the frogs and set them glugging.

Down to the mudflats crawling with mud crabs

and fiddlers waving their same languid claws for eons

as it was in Grendel’s day, coming up out of the fen.

Borne by the tide to range the sea plains, pelicans skim

the breaking swells; the sky bends low in a silver streaming

reach to the edge where the last leaf floats and falters.

(from Hungry Foxes)

Mary Rowlandson’s Removes

“When others are sleeping, mine eyes are weeping.”

In the beginning she was called often  

to relate scenes of blood and flame

from the Tenth of February,

with the goodwives crying to hear her tell

of her dead child turned under barren dirt

and left alone on a hill as she was led away—

and how she marked with scripture each remove:

the camp of snow and fever, the swamp of sinking,

the ground where Praying Tom dangled white fingers,

the begging from fire to fire for any niche against

the frozen black void she read as inscrutable love,

for her mind, forged on Calvin, would not bend


though sometimes, in the starved light before day

she would hear the child pleading for water,

pleading from just over the ridge,

and she would cry out, her wits unlashed

as stars withdrew their nets,

but her legs failed her, snared by sleep.

(What mercy, she would later say,

to quell her madcap flight and fiery fate.)


This telling of her inmost trial she came to fix in print,

could hardly believe it was she herself there in the tent

slabbering over a horse’s foot snatched from a child

or swearing in the face of pagan taunts–how is it

she secretly craves that state even now as others sleep,

a manic flame to burn the ordered words,

the syntax that gives shape to every scream..

Guan Ju (the Seahawk’s Cry)









How to know His name

on a bleached day in the water fields

when I’m hungry from the long hike

and there’s nothing but the graveyard of snags

and rushes. I look for the sparrow coining notes

in the grass, for his mere eye as reward for my work

of trudging on in the haze, but he remains hidden,

like ospreys crying in some other sky, coupling

on a dead branch high above the marsh,

the lord then wheeling away,

his mate left shuddering in the cloud.

A Taste of Poetry

Taste of Poetry Poster Oct 26 2013

I’ll be reading with poet Wendell Hawken (Spinal Sequence, Mother Tongue) at the Shenandoah Arts Council on October 26  in Winchester, Virginia. It’s the fourth annual Taste of Poetry reception and reading featuring delicious words and home-backed seasonal pies. The event starts at 7:00 p.m. and is sponsored by the Sow’s Ear Poetry Review, the Shenandoah Arts Council and the Virginia Commission for the Arts.

Here’s a poem I’ll be reading, from Hungry Foxes:


What will he do now in bigger wind,

bigger than the dragon flame that zapped

his friend across the sands, collapsing the world

in the millionth war, burnt men shambling

in the orange flare—he steers his kite

across the sea doing hoochie glides, knowing

the lure of muscle, the taunt that corners blind forces,

the power of his control bar.  He’s lost sight of land,

lost guilt in his death slide, the wind lofting him

high above the giant, gray and grim and starved.

He rises like memory canceling itself, freeing itself

for the purity of height, his canopy its own small sky

to hoist him heavenward, away from his brain

that knows and keeps count of every costly flinch,

(his M-16 stalled when his fingers shook like girls)—

No heartbreak here. The wind is all for now.







The Poet as Orb Weaver

Photo by Wayne Rhodes

Mark Sprinkle ( is a gifted painter and the Senior Fellow of Arts and Humanities at the BioLogos Foundation, an organization that “explores, promotes, and celebrates the integration of science and Christian faith.” He and I had an intriguing conversation about our experiences with orb weaver spiders, and he asked to post on his blog an article about my lecture at the University of Virginia-Wise that would include his own (shudder!) close encounters with these spiders.

…While many scientists find the intricate web of internal mechanisms and external influences to be not only fascinating but beautiful, those who have not spent years studying biology and ecology are just as likely to see natural systems as depicted by science as no more than “red in tooth and claw,” an affront to the Biblical affirmation that God created a good earth, though now marred by sin. How do we begin to sort out these issues of conflicting images of evolution? A starting place may be comparing two perspectives on another highly ambivalent natural system and symbol—a fairly common “garden variety” spider and its web.

In April of this year, poet Suzanne Rhodes gave a presentation at the University of Virginia—Wise likening the craft of poetry to the way the family of spiders known as “orb weavers” spin their webs. One of the three largest families of spiders, the Aranedae makes what might be considered the archetypical form of web, with circular bands of sticky prey-catching silk organized around and supported by a structure of radial strands. But just as interesting (and instructive) to Rhodes as the basic form of the web was the process by which it was made and—at the end of the day—unmade.

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Old Friend’s Passing Leaves Unfamiliar Void

[From 2001-2003 I was a weekly columnist for the Kingsport-Times News in Tennessee. This is a piece I wrote after losing my beloved friend, a dog named Heidi.]

It was not the gift I wanted, that someone would stand stroking the shaggy face as the drug did its work and the brown eyes closed for the last time. But it was my niece Jenny’s gift, nonetheless, to spare me the grief of watching my dog Heidi “go to sleep.”

Normally I eschew euphemisms as dishonest but this one I gladly swallowed. There is simply no way to comprehend death, not in men nor beasts. That my dog was old and crippled and panted with pain, that it was an act of kindness to put her down does not touch on the fact that she is entirely gone from the world, a small, unextraordinary but beloved presence. She will never park herself near my chair again or poke her nose in the neighbor’s shrub or bark with delicious hatred at the two yip-yappers on the corner. She will not fill up a room with an old dog smell (my daughter used to call her a mildewed rug) or foil my cleverness by meticulously eating all the food surrounding her arthritis pill.

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Ocean Calendar

Who decides today what sea things come ashore?

I have witnessed olive shell, starfish, and sea anenome days. Today was clear jellyfish day, with the small, diamond-bright blobs strewn like mirrors along the sand. Another was horseshoe crab day. The beach was a junkyard of their helmets, and I stooped to examine one still wet from the wave that had delivered it downside up. The creature—-part of whose scientific name is limulus, which aptly means “odd”—-was still alive, but barely. More spider than crab, it weakly waved an appendage or two from the jumble of legs at its center, and I turned it over out of respect for its being and its dying..

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Bird in Net

To watch birds being banded is, for me, to step inside an extraordinary space I recognize as being both an artist’s studio and a scientist’s lab occupied by God the Creator. The recognition is a bit like the sacred glimpse we get in reading Proverbs 8:22-30, seeing the Creator joyfully at work. I’ve observed bird banding twice: once at Steele Creek Park in Bristol, Tennessee several years ago, and again in May, 2010, at Seashore State Park in Virginia Beach, Virginia. The first experience led to my poem, “Banding,” a white-heat composition that left me too excited to sleep, for it was one of those rare occasions when the rod you throw down turns into a snake, and you encounter a power that feels miraculous. Indeed, writing this poem became an act of worship.

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