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


Eurydice Safe

I didn’t want to come back. I loved him, yes. But after the wedding,
the wine and figs, the merging of our flesh, he wanted to show me

off to the forests and fields. Thirsty for his notes, they loved
him, too. (Olive leaves trembled when they heard the harp. Grasses

hissed with pleasure.) I begged him not to take me too far
into the glade. Marriage, after all, was new to me. (And those talking trees

and blades!) I wanted to go home. My beloved paused, the wind
breathed in. All of nature waited for the braided chord. That’s when I said

No more! and ran across the meadow, tipsy and confused, just as dusk
had slithered in the shade. My bare feet, unused to such

terrain, throbbed. I thought I knew the way, but I stumbled
and was lost. My dress hem ripped and stars began their chatter overhead.

You know what happened next. Let’s fast-forward to the grave and what
I felt when I went under, viper’s poison turning into heady brew.

It wasn’t what he told you: I was no hostage. The darkness gathered
and released me. With each step downward to the Styx, confusion waned—

I no longer worried that I’d lose him to the fawning crowds
whose devotion to his melodies I could not match. I wouldn’t have to

bear those taut adagios, each pluck of the string making me
(just like those trees) ache and bend for more, a slave to utter harmony.

–Christine Hemp

Sas Colby: detail of “SAFE,” mixed media collage

Poems and Ponderings


Kiefer cropped2


I squeeze myself into time. It’s tight
like a little coat or a skin I’m much too big for.
I do it, though, for spaciousness – for the light

I bring with me. Her eyes at first blink with tears,
her pupils wide, and in them I can see the door
of history: the tree she springs from—the sheer

audacity of that branch growing beyond her womb
into memory, blood, and bone. Before
I raise my hand I cannot help but see a tomb

as well; it’s why I’m here: That gyre
of time. Prepositions cannot explain or
place the “where” or “when” of that fire

who sent me. It’s all a gift, and what I bring
has no relation to “being good,” that poor
imitation of love. Horns, halos, or even wings

are not my story, though there are those who
try to make it so: Me on the immaculate floor
holding a white lily I am said to carry through

the corridors of temples, ancient paintings.
But she sees beyond all that. At her core
she’s at home within her flesh, sustaining

calm when the spark ignites. She holds her belly,
opens her mouth.  I tell  her something more
about the seed, the fruit. All she does is stare at me.

In our brief exchange, I taste her fear,
but she does not flinch. “Yes,” she says. (Lord--
how much joy and sorrow can a  human bear?)

                                                                             –Christine Hemp

image: Anselm Kiefer 

“Book With Wings”
Lead, tin, and steel
74 3/4 x 208 5/8 x 43 3/8 inches





Poems and Ponderings

AT THE NILE’S END, A New Year’s Blessing

Helping Change the Bandageby Christine Hemp

        My husband unclipped the halter tie, and I backed Buddy out of the horse trailer into the damp, cold, December night. We heard a high-pitched whinny from inside the horse hospital. When the vet opened the giant door, the light from the cavernous room made us all blink. Buddy perked up his ears.

        Just hours before, I’d been out riding with a friend.  Buddy, my little gray Arabian who moves like a Mazda Miata (and has a personality to match), nosed too close to my friend’s horse’s tail. One swift kick and a happy pre-Christmas trail ride had turned into a grave emergency. I called my husband, asking him to bring the trailer, while my friend and I assessed the two gashes on Buddy’s bloody foreleg. “We’d better get a vet to look at that one,” she said, pointing to Buddy’s shaky knee, and within the hour my husband had arrived with the trailer and we were headed toward help.

        The young veterinarian opened the door wider, and invited me to walk my horse to the open space where she could inspect his leg. Buddy was completely obliging, but he wanted to face the horse in the nearby stall, a handsome, chestnut gelding with a beautiful white blaze on his face. Closer inspection revealed a ghoulish, three-foot zipper of fresh stitches S-curving along the horse’s flank. He stood still, eyes wide, as if in shock.

        “What happened to him?” I asked as the vet kneeled to examine my horse’s small wounds.

        “It’s already been all over the news….” she paused, as if searching for words.  “He was struck by a semi-truck on Route 3.”  The huge room fell silent except for the hum of the antiseptic lights and the breathing of the two horses.

        “But Cash is the lucky one. His three pasture mates were killed.” She daubed Buddy’s knee with gauze soaked in betadine, the iodine color mixing with the red-pink already staining his white leg.

        Every horse owner is haunted by such images. Just the thought of horses running blind along a highway is enough to give any of us nightmares.  I’ve caught my share of loose horses (a couple of them my own) and usually it turns out okay. But this was the worst I’ve heard. Not only that, we later learned that vandals had cut the pasture fence. Apparently Cash had been calling out for his friends all evening. Until Buddy arrived. 

         “Well, I don’t like the looks of this,” the vet said as her slender, expert fingers separated the flaps of skin on the knee wound. A rush of heat and adrenalin coursed through my limbs and I felt slightly dizzy.

        “What do you mean?” I said, one hand on Buddy’s lead rope, the other reaching for my husband’s arm.

        “Well, with a wound like this –” she pointed first to the long laceration above the knee. “It’s not a big deal, even though it looks worse. We can stitch this up. But here—.” She squeezed around the small gash on the knee, “the blow may have punctured the joint sac. If that’s the case….it’s …” she cleared her throat, “potentially very serious.”  She lifted her finger to show us the fluid that had come out of the wound. “See? If this is synovial fluid, it should be more viscous. It might already be infected. If so, it’s a tricky business.”

        “You mean it couldn’t heal?” My voice became thin like a piece of straw. “Are you saying we’d have to put him down?” A cold chill came over my body and I began to shake.

        “Well, it’s just so hard for these to heal if it’s inside the joint,” she said. “But we don’t know yet. And we have to make sure there are no bone shards in there as well.”

        My husband put his arm around me and the room seemed to swim. Suddenly the chestnut horse’s nightmare and my own were tethered together. Cash had lost his friends and I now was, in an instant, contemplating the possibility of losing mine.

        Buddy, who is usually quite inquisitive and busy (he puts his nose into pockets and even fetches my hat), calmly lifted his foreleg. All the while, Cash watched us intently, always keeping Buddy in his sights.

        “Cash sure has quieted down since Buddy got here,” the vet said as she took x-ray pictures of Buddy’s knee. I smoothed my hand along Buddy’s neck. I remembered how Buddy had helped me to quiet down five years ago when I staggered through an illness.

        “Well. No bones shattered!” The doc looked over at us and smiled. “So now the best thing is to pump him with antibiotics and get a head start on anything that might be happening in there.”

        The evening unfolded in a blur while she gave Buddy a sedative, applied a tourniquet, and injected antibiotics into the whole knee area as well as into the joint itself. “We’ll know more tomorrow when I get the white blood cell count in Buddy’s knee,”  she said. “And we can also insert some dye when we  take another x-ray to see if the sac has been compromised. We’ll watch for swelling, too. But he’ll have to stay here at least one night.”

        Buddy has never been good with stalls. Before I was lucky enough to have him as my own, he’d developed the habit of “weaving” whenever he felt trapped (especially in stalls), swaying back and forth like an autistic child.  He seldom did it anymore, but I couldn’t possibly think of him alone in this strange place.

        Cash offered a quiet nicker. His intelligent eyes took in every move we made. Cash! I thought. Cash would be here. Though the inside stalls were reserved for horses who needed intravenous medications, the vet agreed we could put Buddy next to Cash. As my husband and I left, they were breathing through the small windows between the walls, whispering things only horses know.

        When I arrived the next morning, Buddy whinnied a hello, but not with desperation. He was calm and his eyes did not show any distress.  Cash, too, seemed relaxed, as if they had both unburdened their stories during the night.

        The vet had to delay our tests to tend to another emergency, so I set up my fold-out chair in Buddy’s stall and spent the day playing my wooden flute quietly to the two horses whose lives had intersected unexpectedly in the night. Then, to calm myself as much as the horses, I read them some poems from the 14th C. Sufi mystic, Hafiz:

We are at
The Nile’s end.
We are carrying particles
From every continent, creature and age.

It has been raining on the plains
Of our vision for millions of years
And our senses are so muddy compared to yours—dear God,

But I only hear these words from You
Where we are all trying to embrace
The Clear Sky-Ocean,

“Dear one, come.
My dear ones,

        The trajectories of all of our lives, animals included, are a mystery to us. Who we meet. Why one moment we are riding on a trail or grazing in a peaceful pasture and the next moment we find ourselves in veterinary hospital stall.Buddy in the Stall!

        As I read aloud the poems of a mystic who seemed to understand these things, the horses snoozed, and I was suddenly awash in  peace. At least for that moment. I still didn’t know if Buddy’s knee was doomed. Nor did I know how Cash would survive – emotionally, though he was patched up physically. But there I was alone—at the Nile’s end—with two injured horses and it seemed as if all three of us were in the right place.

        Every now and then Buddy would lean over the pages of Hafiz and push them with his nose. Then he’d pick up my flannel flute case and wave it in the air and drop it into my lap. Then he’d go sniff the little window between him and Cash, as if to tell him all was going to be okay.

        And it was. Buddy and Cash spent another night together at the hospital, but the next day Buddy’s tests revealed that the joint sac had not been punctured at all, and that the lacerations would heal faster with the injected antibiotics. He wasn’t even lame, just proud of his magenta bandage.

        As we were finishing Buddy’s final examination, Cash’s owner, a middle-aged man in a jean jacket, arrived to haul him away. I could do nothing more than squeeze his hand an extra beat longer after shaking it. His eyes held mine and he said, “Thank you.” He tipped his head toward Buddy. “Also, for your horse.” His two sons loaded up the handsome chestnut who was headed for an equine rehab center so he wouldn’t have to return to an empty pasture. (“Please, my dear ones, come…”) Neither Cash nor Buddy was alarmed at the parting, as if they had settled the business they had between them.

        To have experienced this meeting and leave-taking was to perceive yet another bandwidth in this inexplicable world. Yes, there is the bandwidth of crisis, fact, and diagnosis – the news that pumps adrenaline into our veins and narrows our field of vision. And then there is the News of the Universe, where connections like invisible radar waves intersect and heal and move among all of us creatures who share this planet. This Universe exists simultaneously with semi-trucks barreling down a highway and metal horseshoes striking another horse’s knee.

        When Buddy was loaded back into the trailer, we headed north across Hood Canal to our windblown home on the Straits, and I wondered if the whole purpose of the weekend was for Buddy to be there for Cash and Cash for Buddy.     

      As we rolled into town, Christmas lights flickered on the houses, and I knew I’d already received the only present I could have asked for. I’d also been fortunate to sit quietly by a manger in a stall with  two creatures who know more about the other kind of News than I do. When Buddy pranced out of the trailer and into his meadow, the stars were glittering like broken glass.



Buddy Red Frisbee Cropped


Poems and Ponderings