Claes Oldenburg1992  Lithograph  Soft Saxophone detail

Debussy called it that
aquatic instrument.
Here on the very edge

of a continent, the Pacific
pulls down the sun, and
I hear one reed singing.

Brass keys walk the curve
like a wave, and the moaning
makes me want to come

to you, blow across the
states to find those notes
spilling from your horn.

So sue me. What do I know?
Just that a wild riff came
spiraling through the cord

of my green phone,
and for a moment I heard
the Atlantic scale of you.

–Christine Hemp (originally appeared in The Maine Times)
Image: Claes Oldenburg “Soft Sax” (detail) 1992 Lithograph

Poems and Ponderings

POEM OF THE WEEK: The Animal Handler

Full Moon Bud Sept 7

The Animal Handler

At night when the animal handler takes off his clothes
he smells of lions’ fur and zebra breath.
He washes his hands and the water curves
around them like the tails of the horses who canter
round and round the ring for him every day.
He can still feel the paw of the panda who dances
with chairs and tables as if he were born to balance.
The animals know that one gesture, one word,
can free them from the chaos of movement without form.

When he is alone in the dark, the animal handler
whispers, waiting to hear a hoofbeat.
She stamps and he wakes. He calls to her.
His eyes are shadows, blades of grass.
He watches her hocks, the swish of her yellow mane,
the arc of everything coming. His flanks shine.
Now he is moving with the waves of her tail and withers.
The wind whirls around the curtains.
He wants her to leap through his rings of fire.
But he stops.

The plaintive call of the elephant dam. The bear’s low rumble.
Softly he strokes the shapely ear; he kisses the eyelid,
and pulls on his clothes. Panthers and tapirs are calling him                                                   out of his bed.  The whites of their eyes are like moons in the night.

–Christine Hemp

Image: photograph by Christine Hemp

Poems and Ponderings





















Even in the dampened folds of my handkerchief
the cutting took hold,
its tendrils clinging to the cotton cloth.
My pocket breathed.

Though I left the forest the way I’d come,
things had changed: salmon berries dripped
their pinky-orange beyond the bush;
rhododendrons bloomed so white I had to look away.

My leg brushed a fern,
I recognized the whisper I thought I had
forgotten long ago.
Fir needles sang beneath my feet.

Cedar bark and fungus scent followed me
down the path to home.
I knew mosquitoes watched me leave.
Inside my shirt the cutting moved.

I planted the shoot in a clay pot and left it
in my living room; I shut the door behind me.
After several days I woke to the song of the thrush
and I could hear the ticking

Of flickers’ beaks against the wood. Strange smells
seeped out from under the door. Skunk cabbage and scat.
Little beards of moss were pushing through the keyhole.
I began to hear the rain.

–Christine Hemp

originally published in Explorations,
University of Alaska Southeast 
IMAGE: photograph by Christine Hemp

So it’s Labor Day weekend. The swallows’ departure and the arrival of the flying red ants tell us that summer is over. New lunchboxes, a set of Crayolas, and tight shoes replace inner tubes, tree camps, and bicycles. This week’s poem is for all children (young and old) who hate to leave summer behind…


Poems and Ponderings

POEM OF THE WEEK: Contraries


Ohlke Detail


Yesterday, for instance, on the lake
we saw two otters slip out and wrestle on the rocks.
Their slick joy carried the August day. Until
someone pointed. A merganser spun

through the reeds, flapping madly at the air,
unable to lift and leave its pain behind.
Riding out this evening, the sunset
molten clay, the lake dented

with waves, I thought, How can ecstasy
and sorrow stand side-by-side in my heart? Love
and fear hot as evening clouds. The spillway
holds them both. Why this boundary

of flesh? We landed on an island. Green lichen
fuzzed the rocks. We ate June berries and John said,
“It’s a pome!!” as he dropped one in his mouth. I nodded
“yes!” thinking he’d said “poem.” “A fruit –

but not a fruit,” he said and smacked his lips.
The world shifted again.
Ojibways call them Spirit Trees, the pines that grow
straight out of rock. Bad luck to cut one down.

They thrive on air and barren ground, yet stretch
their arms across the water, blessing everyone
who passes. We brushed up next to one, then
toppled in the boat, and roared across the choppy lake.

A rainbow hugged the islands and I prayed
that I would get to grow and not be felled
by storms or someone’s careless hand, that I could be
a pine making its living out of stone.

–Christine Hemp

Image: Katie Ohlke, Detail: Day Trip from Artists Camp


Poems and Ponderings


Stay Back



Just like that truck on the exit ramp, I see
the S-curve too late and my load inside begins
to shift: A slumber party of fresh pears falling
over themselves in the dark, their ambrosial scent
the first hint of ruin. It’s not the pedal
but momentum that pitches me up and over
the guardrail. The bay below rises like a Baptism.
All those pears in concert roll forward and the whole
rig aches between the fruit’s amber blushing
and the whitecaps chanting. Who’s to say
what timeless words are spoken in that instant
between “Yes!” and “Oh no”? Perched in such
a silent space an ocean opens up. I plunge
into the drink, pear juice dripping into salt.

                                                  –Christine Hemp

originally published in Taos Journal of Poetry and Art                                     Image: Christine Hemp


Poems and Ponderings

POEM OF THE WEEK: The Garden at Escazu

gaugin snake blog







We drink whiskey in bed, the sheets
wet and blowzy as the red hibiscus
growing through the broken window.
The tides move under us and egrets lift
from the palms. The jungle colors
soak our skin. You reach into your bag
and your hand grazes a snake
hiding in a shirt. Its head bumps
your wrist and you recoil when it slides
past our damp and knotted bed.
You grab a shoe, and slam it
over and over, crushing the diamond
head on the tiles. Macaws fly low,
their call an omen. Back and forth
the striped body keeps on
writhing. All the things we thought
we’d need lie scattered on the floor.

–Christine Hemp

Image: Detail, Self Portrait
Paul Gauguin
oil on wood
overall: 79.2 x 51.3 cm (31 3/16 x 20 3/16 in.)

Poems and Ponderings



This past weekend I attended a high school reunion, an adventure in time and space. Some of the people I’d actually known since kindergarten. In addition to our joys, we tacitly acknowledged our own trips to the Underworld, the hidden places that inform our disparate lives. Bodies may change (including my own), but our heart connections remained intact. We really didn’t need to express this connection in words; a huge long embrace often said it all. This week’s poem is for all my classmates from long ago.


I have found my way down.
Feverish, muddled, I dig
deep through loam and stone.
I jam my bleeding fingers
behind stuck rocks,
my nose dirty, the darkness close.

Burrowing deeper I feel
the earth breathing, her flesh
old pebbles, algae, rotted trunk.
Inside her I can breathe.
Rise and fall, rise and fall.
Even the hands of moles move with her.

Secret springs pulse to the beat
of blood and lung. I press
against the damp cool dark,
far from glare and sounds
of feet and talk.

My eyes grow larger now, burning
wide as miners’ lamps. From every
crack and cleft a tiny rivulet
of sand spills in my path.
It’s deeper

down from here on in: to find
that hidden root, a living course,
the buried seam that joins all things.

–Christine Hemp

Image: Jackson Pollock
Mural, 1943
95 5/8 x 237 3/4 in.
University of Iowa Museum of Art


Poems and Ponderings




My curiosity wasn’t made of satin, you know –
hanging from my limbs like some ball gown.

It was small, I swear, like a handkerchief
in my pocket. But now it’s different –

I’m known for it, forbidden to be
anybody’s treasure, always pinned to that

flutter of dark wings. I’m all washed up
on everybody’s shore. How would you feel

standing here holding a rusted key,
a beached mermaid who’s lost her scales?

My deed’s been done. I live alone now
unlocked, undressed, undone.

Each birdsong, each pounding wave, cries
“You did it! You did it! You did it!”

Oh, that cedar smelled divine, the hinges
glittered. I was sure I heard the honey

voice of a man in there. The latch was easy.
I mean, really: Where would you be without hope?

–Christine Hemp

image: pen box once owned by Christine Turner, Hemp’s great-grandmother

Poems and Ponderings

POEM OF THE WEEK: An Abstract Art


When the painter Kandinsky lay in hospital, aching
from some mysterious complaint, he wept

to think about the surgeon’s knife, about being
wheeled into a room without intersecting circles

and squares in the cool blues that he loved, the altered
shapes in which he lived. Nurses cooed and patted

his shoulder, but he was not assuaged. His cry
spattered off the pale green walls and smeared

the yellow corridors, stopped those who heard
its pitch and timbre, its truth if not the implication.

“You do not understand!” he moaned, and the words
like a jazz refrain traveled up the vents and out

the windows, through the operating room, behind
the laundry door. “I have no skin! I have no

skin!” Throwing off the nurses, he clutched
himself, as if his arms could wrap his torso in the layer

of gauze he needed to face those unknown places.
What they didn’t see was that he knew his own

condition: Outside his picture plane – without
a brush and palette knife – he lay naked and alone.

Arcs and lines could not stay the bleeding edges,
random forms conspiring to erase him from creation.

–Christine Hemp

Image: Wassily Kandinsky, Watercolor after Painting with White Border (Moscow), 1915. Watercolor, India ink, and pencil on paper, 5 1/16 x 13 1/4 in. 


Poems and Ponderings





My body feels fine
with your body
Your fine body feels
with my body
A full-bodied feeling
to feel one
Another (finally)
my body in yours
Yours in mine bodily
oh the fineness in
My body and your body

–Christine Hemp

Image: Anne Hirondelle: Detail “Re:Coil XVII” graphite on layered tracing paper, 2011


Poems and Ponderings